This is a Coupling/Monarch of the Glen Fan Fiction.

Denver Zend is a character of my own creation. All other characters and their respective worlds I do not own.

The Dinner Party

Chapter 1

What the **** Are Haricots Verts?

7:15 pm Saturday Evening

Susan & Steve's Flat

Susan Walker, polished career woman by day, amateur culinary whiz nights and weekends popped a tray of fingerling potatoes dusted generously with salt, pepper and paprika, glistening with a thick, rich sheen of olive oil, onto the oven rack beside a roasting leg of lamb. In a mere twenty minutes—she'd set the egg-shaped kitchen timer with the horrendously loud tick and sharp ring as a precautionary backup measure—the petite starchy vegetables would be crisped to perfection, the meat ready to rest on the teakwood cutting board.

This task completed, Susan commenced searching the small flat for her—what was he really? The term boyfriend seemed at once juvenile and past its prime but significant other, though Steve Taylor had steadily become a very significant part of Susan's life, felt too ambiguous. And fiancé—since as of yet no ring was involved—a bit presumptuous, if not a down-right relationship jinx.

Thoughts of the dinner party planned for that evening replacing her beau-naming contemplations, she called after him, "Steve? You did tell the lads to be here round eight, didn't you?" Turning the corner she found him in their bedroom posturing before a full-length mirror. "Steve? What are you doing?"

"One of my calves," he twisted his frame to better see his reflection, the bright color of his plaid boxers looking garish against the pale, virtually hairless skin of his legs, "is bigger than the other." Not posing boastfully but, rather, engaged in a full-fledged scrutiny of his lower limbs, he implored of Susan, "Look," he flexed and released both calf muscles in turns, "the right one's larger than the left!"

"Right, listen," said Susan, ignoring his concerns, "What time did you tell the lads to come round?"

"What time?"

"Yes. Did you say eight? I hope you told them eight."

Steve shrugged, "Yeah, sure," he hesitated, turning his back to wipe the nervous sweat forming on his brow and upper lip with a limp sock destined for the laundry hamper, "yup, that's what I told them." Donning a pair of khakis, he tucked in his oxford blue shirt and timidly added, his face still hidden from view, "I think."

Susan took a deep breath and when she spoke her tone, one she reserved only for when she sought an immediate truth took on a matronly, school marmish quality, "Steve Taylor, what do you mean you think? This is crucial! Focus, will you! What time did you actually tell them?"

"Eightish?"

"Eightish!?"

"Well I don't know."

"You don't know? How could you not know?"

"What about my calves, Susan," Steve insisted, his voice rising in pitch as he hitched up his pant legs, "What do you think about my calves? There's that to consider right now!"

"Oh bugger off about your calves, Steve!"

"Well I can't remember exactly what time I said."

"What do you mean you can't remember exactly? It was just this past Thursday, Steve."

"Yes, two whole days ago, Susan. And at the time, you were yelling at me."

"Me? Yelling? Oh don't be ridiculous! I was not!"

"You were."

"Come off it, Steve." Susan headed back to the kitchen.

"Fine then," Steve followed behind her, "you were screaming. Screaming on and on about those bloody beans."

"What? Steve, I was not screaming on and on about those bloody…look I was excited, okay?"

"Excited or not," he complained, "you were screaming so loud, had to keep my mobile an arm's distance away from my ear."

"Screaming so loud? No, dear I was shouting. There's a distinct difference between screaming and shouting. Thursday I was excited. Very excited and my voice reflected it. I was attempting to shout above the mobbed market fray! Push past the seasoned crowd of crunchy granolas in their staid, colorless hemp frocks all wielding their straw baskets like police armor, their reusable cloth sacks pinned beneath their unshaven armpits. You want to hear screaming, Steve? Because this here, this is screaming!!"

"Susan, really, you've lost it. All of this fuss over some blasted French string beans?" Steve tossed the basket of freshly trimmed beans which lay in wait on the counter.

Grabbing hold of the basket, Susan clutched it to her breast, codling the thin, crisp strands of bright green veg like they were a delicate newborn.

"Fuss? Yes, I'm willing to make a fuss over what I'd consider to be one of nature's finest foods." Susan brushed from her eyes a few long strands of hair which had strayed from the clip securing her shoulder-length blonde mane off her face while she cooked. "Picture it Steve, will you," she splayed her hands out before her, "The first crop of haricots verts had just reached the farmer's market. My contact informed me pronto. Rushed all the way down to the market during my elevenses, I did. Bustled my way through to the front of the queue and then hand-picked each and every tender, slender stringless bean. Had them carefully packaged and then, still excited about my purchase, called you directly from the square."

"Your shouting at me made me temporarily deaf! It was difficult to catch all the details!"

"Invite the lads to a dinner party for eight o'clock Saturday night. I'll ring the ladies. That was too much information for you to process, was it? And I thought Jane's latest suitor was a little dim."

****Meeting Jane's Latest Suitor****

At the Bar One Evening Recently …

Steve Taylor: Talk about London fog! I couldn't see more than two feet in front of me this morning. Was pushed right along with the crowd, if can you believe it. Absolutely unreal! Though I'll tell you one thing, being groped at 7am isn't exactly the worst experience in the world! Course I don't know to whom the nimble fingers belonged, but when one's that skilled at copping a feel, who am I to judge?

Jane's Latest Suitor: Was able to avoid all that, me.

Susan Walker: Were you? Do tell.

JLS: Well there's Jane, isn't there? I listened to her.

SW: Did you?

JLS: Aye. That's what you should've done, mate.

ST: What? Listened to Jane's radio report?

JLS: Yes. Conditions are congested on the High Street, she said. Seek an alternate route. So I did.

ST: Excuse me but how was that to help? I was on foot.

JLS: Oh, me as well—morning jog.

SW: I'm sorry, I know you and Jane have just met, but you do know what she does for a living yea?

JLS: Sure. Air traffic reporter, she is. Responsible job, that. A bit fiddly too, I imagine. Atmosphere's finicky, isn't it? Invisible, one might say. Storms keep bottlenecking, merging in and out, narrowing round bends, bumper to bumper and all that. See? Have already learned the lingo, me. Must be hard work keeping track of the whole lot.

ST: Yes, you see that's air traffic reporter, mate.

JLS: Right.

ST: She reports the traffic from the air.

JLS: What, you mean like motor vehicle traffic?

ST: Yes.

JLS: On the motorways?

ST: Yes.

JLS: From the air?

ST: Yup, in a helicopter.

JLS: Does she? Sure you haven't got that the wrong way round? That she reports the actual air traffic from the motorways? Air currents, storms and what not?

SW: We're quite sure, yes.

JLS: Blimey! That'd explain it then, wouldn't it?

SW: What's that?

JLS: Why she keeps referring to the sky as the world's biggest car park. I mean everyone knows that's the M25.

****Back to the Dinner Party…****

7:30 pm

Waiting…

Susan paced the kitchen. "There's absolutely nothing worse than when guests arrive late!"

"Isn't there? I'm guessing not in your opinion, but on the other hand, Susan arriving extremely early is clearly just as annoying."

"Not helping, Steve."

"But Susan," Steve's voice softened as he began rubbing her tense shoulders, "look at the time, will you? It's only half seven. Everyone will show by eight. You'll see."

"Well when you're right, Steve, you're right. Thanks. I needed to hear that."

Pleased at how he'd handled—and defused, the situation Steve smugly asked, "Feeling better now? More in control, are you?"

"Yes." Relaxed by the impromptu message, Susan smiled and they kissed.

"Good. Now let's get some perspective here shall we? It's only a dinner party." Steve knew the minute he'd spoken the words what a huge mistake he'd made, a mistake reflected in and proven by Susan's re-tensed shoulders and pretty green eyes widened to the size of saucers.

The constant tick-tick, tick-tick, tick-tick of the kitchen timer echoed in his ears like a bomb and bore into his brain, scrambling his thoughts. He was just seconds away from an inevitable firestorm, a verbal explosion of the worst kind. His mind carried him off to an imagined place where he, Captain Canteenman clad in tinfoil suit, Clingfilm cape and oven mitt-gloved hands sailed through the air, his imperfectly-matched calves propelling him smoothly forward in a curved course enabling him to successfully pitch the obnoxious timer clear off the shelf and into the dust bin. Crisis averted.

Then reality, and Susan's scolding, accusatory voice brought him soundly round.

"It's only a dinner party? It's only a dinner party, you said? Steve, have you any idea how much thought goes into preparing for a dinner party? Have you? And this one in particular! Once those beans hit that boiling water to blanch for precisely 3 minutes, all I can say is all arses had better be planted in their chairs because dinner will most definitely, unequivocally be served!"

"Susan? Dear," reaching out, Steve attempted to calm her again but she pulled away, "now I'm only asking, love."

"What?"

"If throwing dinner parties causes you so much angst, why bother hosting them?"

"Because, Steve," a frustrated Susan fumed, "they're fun, damn it!"

As if on cue, and perhaps even serving as inanimate referees and peace keepers indicating 'this round's up', the kitchen buzzer sounded followed by the repetitive ringing of the doorbell.

"That'll be Jeff," said Steve, stepping into the safety of the hallway which led directly to the front door.

"Oh yes," quipped Susan, "can always count on him to be early."

"Uh-huh," Steve whispered, "and looks like I've been saved by more than one bell."

"What?"

"Nothing, dear just saying I hope the evening goes well."

"So," catching sight of his multi-colored reflection in a stained glass panel beside the front door, Jeff Murdock took a stab at smoothing down his wild, screwdriver-zapped-in-an-electrical-outlet, untamed hair, "is he here yet?"

"Who's that? Patrick?"

"No, no. I don't mean Maitland. Just left him at the pub chatting up a lass. No, I meant the guest of honor."

"I'm sorry, who?"

"Harry."

"Harry?"

"Yeah, Harry. Is he here yet?" Jeff craned his neck to see down the hall into the flat.

"Sorry, still not following you, Jeff."

"Mmm, smells great in here." By force of habit Jeff walked straight into the kitchen, "Hiya, Susan."

"Jeff." Susan gave both men a warning glare.

Trapping Steve on the threshold between kitchen and hallway, Jeff whispered, "You know, the special guest for her dinner party, the guy you said Susan went on and on about last Thursday. Harry. 'Arry Colbert. (Pronounced kohl-bair) I'm assuming he's French, no?"

"No, Jeff."

"No? Oh. So he's French Canadian, eh?"

"No, Jeff," Susan interjected, "once again you've gotten the wrong end of the stick. There is no Harry Colbert."

"Ah, a no show? Sally's going to be disappointed then."

"Why should Sally be disappointed?"

"Well, right after Steve invited me to your dinner party I bumped into Sally and she'd just gotten off the phone with you. When I mentioned Harry Colbert she said she didn't know anything about him."

"As I've said, there is no him. I was referring to haricots verts," stated Susan impatiently, "anyway, why would it matter?"

"Because she said you did mention you were having some sort of a surprise for dinner. So she believes the surprise is for her. She thinks you're fixing her up with a suave, debonair Frenchman."

"Oh for pity sake, I don't believe it! Surprise indeed!"

"See! See! That right there," Steve demanded, "What was that? Were you screaming or shouting just then?"

"She was definitely quasi-shouting."

"Thank you, Jeff," Susan huffed, "now out of the kitchen the pair of you."

"Quasi-shouting," Steve continued their conversation in the living room where the furniture had been pushed aside to allow space for a rectangular center table and chairs.

"Aye don't you know your S-levels, Steve? No worries. A bit of yelp help's what you need, mate. And lucky for you I can teach screech. I'm an expert at Squawk Talk."

"You're an expert at what?"

"Squawk Talk, detecting whether a woman is screaming or shouting at you. It can be tricky. Sometimes the decibels are nearly the same." Steve looked at him skeptically. "Honest. Here, I'll lay it all out for you. It's a two-step process."

"Oh now this I've got to hear. Go on."

"First you must determine the root of the outburst or what I like to call the Real Peal. Screaming is anger-motivated while shouting is motivated by excitement, enthusiasm or disbelief. You have to listen to their words, Steve and take into consideration the context. Then, to figure out the degree to which she's pleased or displeased with you, you place it on the Wail Scale."

Steve studied his friend, "In some parallel universe you must have earned your Ph.D. in the Study of Nil. All right, with you so far. You mentioned a Wail Scale?"

"Yes. Say you're in bed with a woman."

"Okay, so you're not taking this example from personal experience then, hmm?"

"Don't be a prat, Steve!"

"Sorry mate, continue."

"Okay so you're in bed and the woman calls out your name, that's full-on shouting. It tilts the scale! Bursts your eardrums! But it's a good thing, isn't it? She's giving an appreciative shout out to you and your boys. Now let's say she's just found your stash of porn paraphernalia and she calls out your name. Still splits your eardrums, but more likely than not she's just plain screaming at you. It's anger-based."

"Right, Jeff."

"Course one can be adaptable and find pleasure in both extremes—as I have."

"Have you? How's that now?"

"Simple. If it weren't for women getting angry with me and therefore screaming at me, they'd hardly ever speak to me at all. Anyway, cheers," Jeff handed a bottle of wine to Steve but Susan, having wandered into the living room, her arms full of several serving pieces and utensils intercepted the exchange and busied herself placing bottle and servers on a sideboard.

Steve pointed to a crinkly plastic bag Jeff was still holding, "And what is that, might I ask?"

"What? You want to know what this is, do you?"

"Yes. Is it?"

"Yes, Steve, yes it is," Jeff enthused, "It is! It's it!"

"It's it?"

"Yes!"

"May I open it?"

"Sure. I've already given her the ol' once over. Do as I did, Steve. Cup her in both hands. Feel how evenly she's distributed. How her curves seem to mold right to your hands. All hard body, she is but the middle—it's the sweetest soft spot I've ever come across and easily reachable by both thumbs!"

"Bloody Hell, she's magnificent, Jeff! And her seal hasn't even been broken yet."

"Nah, best to keep her protected until just before her first foray into any unknown realms."

"Right, I mean think of her performance potential, 'eh?"

"Think about our performance potential now, Steve! She's the key to unlocking our performance potential. It'll be performance potential like none we've ever had, known or experienced! It'll be earth shattering!"

"Explosive!"

"Unequaled!"

"Oi! What the hell are you two going on about," Susan insisted.

"Quick Steve, don't think about it, quasi-scream or quasi-shout?"

"It was, um a quasi-scream?"

"Yes! That's right, Steve! You've detected the mid-level anger in her voice! Good on you, mate!"

"Thank you, Jeff," Steve grinned. He turned to Susan, "Here sweetheart, look it's the new wHEE wireless game controller!"

"A game controller, that's what you've gone all gaga over, a stupid game controller?"

"What? Would you rather it to have been porn?"

"Or a porno accessory," Jeff added.

"Look," Steve thrust the controller at Susan, "She's wireless Susan! Wi-re-less!!"

"Oh, please! And you've the nerve to call the brouhaha over my stringless beans silly?"

"Stringless beans? Oh, well there's no way that stringless beans can compare with…"

"Crotchless knickers," Jeff interjected.

"What," yelled both Susan and Steve, "Jeff, please!"

"Sorry," he laughed sheepishly, "entirely different conversation. Carry on."

"You can not compare," Steve continued, "the merits of a wireless controller with that of stringless bloody beans! Even you, Susan Walker, must see there's no contest there! And by the way my dear," Steve called after her as she left the room, "this is how one properly screams!"

"Right," replied Susan, "well you've now just screamed your way onto the sofa for the night. Are you happy, Steve? Because I've got all the wireless controllers I need to keep me happy—and shouting!"

7:45 pm

First Arrivals

"Bonjour, Patrick!"

"Hiya, Sal don't you look smashing this evening."

"Merci, you're looking quite dapper yourself." A flattered Sally Harper paid her cab fare and adjusted the pale aqua sequined beret she was wearing set casually askew, "I see you're flying solo tonight. What? Had no date to bring along?"

"Well none appropriately suited for this evening, no."

"Och, how tres terrible, you are! You make choosing a date sound as cavalier as choosing a tie from your vast collection."

"No never," Patrick Maitland gravely rebuked, "Choosing the right tie is a serious undertaking, Sally. One must never jest about tie choice."

"Oh, well, excusez-moi!"

"No problem. And where's your plus one, hmm?"

"Ah, Patrick, mon frère, the night's still young!"

"Okay," Patrick hesitated, "not sure I know what that's supposed to mean but in any case, may I escort you to the Walker-Taylor residence, Ms. Harper?"

"Well only if you deem me worthy enough to be seen with you, Monsieur Maitland."

"Quite! In the world of men's neckwear, Sal you're a white, silk bowtie!"

8:15 pm

Getting Down to the Wire

Steve entered the kitchen to find a very calm Susan grinding a peppermill over a bowl of greens. He closed the door behind him. "Susan? Everything's under control in here, yea?"

"Yes, of course, Steve. Why wouldn't it be?"

"Don't know. Regarding before...are we calling a truce, you and I?"

"Yes, yes. And are you taking care of our guests? It's always proper for one host to stay and mingle while the other pops round behind the scenes."

"I can safely report all angles are covered."

"Are they," asked Susan suspiciously, "Why?"

"Patrick's poured the wine."

"No doubt he's also attempted to educate the minions on the subtle differences separating Beaujolais from Cabernet Sauvignon. I think he, at times, fancies himself a sommelier."

"Yes, well, let me put it this way. Sally, who incidentally brought a box of brie cheese and a loaf of French bread along with her customary bottle of wine, was quite amused! And where Patrick lost the others, Jeff captured interest by telling us a fascinating story about fishing for lobsters in the Thames."

"What?"

"Yup, apparently he doesn't use a net!"

"A net, doesn't he mean a trap? Are there even lobsters in the river Thames? Nope, nope, forget it," she shook her head vigorously, "don't want to know the answer to that. But tell me, how's Jane's date? What's-his-name? Houston? Or Tucson is it?"

"Denver."

"Ah yes, knew it was one of those big city names from across the pond."

"It seems his last name's Zend. And get this, said we can call him Denz."

"Did he?" Susan chuckled, "So he's Jane's dense Denz."

"Uh-huh."

"He's getting along all right with everyone then?"

"Fell right in with Jeff. They've made plans to go river fishing with Harry Colbert."

"You're kidding? And speaking of, has Sally stopped looking in all the rooms for the illusive Frenchman? I thought I even heard her opening all the cupboards in the loo."

"Disappointed but still holding out hope, I think. Course she hasn't said a word."

"No, she won't, either. But you wait. It'll all come spilling out soon as dessert's served and she's still sitting alone. Accusations will fly!"

"Well I'll do my best to help you smooth things over with her. But really it's Jeff who's to blame! With misunderstandings it's nearly always Jeff who's to blame!"

"Right okay," Susan wiped her hands on her apron, "I've finished dressing the salad and have dropped the beans into the boiling water. I just need a few more minutes here and then dinner is…" The doorbell rings. "Oh crikey! Who could that be? Did you invite anyone else, Steve?"

"No. Did you?"

"No, no of course I didn't! I don't know if I've enough haricots verts to go around! And it's a small leg of lamb! And what if one of them is a vegetarian?"

"Um you know there's a pair standing on our doorstep, do you?"

"Yes, stands to reason there are two Steve, yes. It's the law of probabilities or something!"

"Well you could always serve some of what Jane brought. Though she's only a suit-vegan, surely the dish is vegetarian."

"She's a suit-vegan?"

"Yea she's a vegetarian only when suitable."

"Clever. Anyhow, have you seen the crap," Susan snapped her fingers, fumbling for the right word, "I meant the crock, the crock Jane brought?"

"Yes," Steve lifted a misshapen earthenware container, "supposed to be macaroni cheese, this. She made it herself, mind and is quite proud of it."

"Which do you mean the crockery or the cookery?"

"Both? Apparently macaroni cheese is Denz's favorite dish."

"Is it? But hers is decidedly grey!"

"The crockery or the cookery," Steve repeated, laughing, "I don't believe Jane eats dairy cheese."

"What other kind is there?"

"Don't know, soy maybe? Susan what's happened to you? Not a second ago you were as cool as a cuke."

"Cool as a cuke? Who says that? Cool as a cuke." The doorbell rings again. "Bollocks! Bollocks! Bollocks! My perfectly timed schedule's gone to pot! Think Susan, think!"

"Won't someone please get the door," cried a flushed Sally, stumbling into the hallway and breathing quite heavily.

"I'm getting it Sal," Steve assured her from the kitchen.

"Oh no, my beans," exclaimed Susan, "they've been boiling for an extra thirty seconds! I must plunge them into the ice water bath to stop the cooking process and preserve their color! I must concentrate! No distractions! I need to be alone with my haricots verts! Go get the door! Now, Steve!"

"Steve," Sally's disembodied voice called out urgently again, "shall I get the door? I've spent way too much time stretching my smile muscles already!"

"No, Sal, I've got it," Steve yelled a second time through the closed kitchen door, "Bloody hell," he said to himself, "I bet she thinks that's Harry." He turned his attention back to Susan. "Get hold of yourself, Susan. Just look at you. You don't even know who's out there. It could be a Hoover salesman for all we know."

"At half past eight at night?"

"Right, no. I s'pose not. Who knows, maybe it is Harry," he joked.

"Then send him off packing with Sal."

Steve snuck out of the kitchen, nearly bumping into Sally.

"Why's the kitchen door closed," Sally inquired.

"So that no one disturbs Susan while she's putting the finishing touches on the meal."

"Right, yes, right," said Sally, shaking her head as if understanding some unspoken secret. "The grand reveal, 'eh?"

"Are you all right, Sal?"

"Oui! Oui! Why don't you go and get the door, Steve."

Curiosity getting the better of Steve he did just that, while an equally curious Sally crept over to the closed kitchen door and put an ear to its white painted surface.

"Oh my blessed haricots verts," Susan spoke tenderly to the veg, "you've come through for me, haven't you? Beautifully stalk straight and tall, smooth, dark and unblemished. Look at you waiting there all bathed, primped and ready, keeping our little secret mum. The minute your sweet, lemon-scented essence is breathed in and your slightly salty skin is touched by patient, expectant lips. Complete nirvana."

"I'm here," said a breathless Sally, bursting into the kitchen, "Let me at him! Where's Harry?"

"What? Sally? What are you doing?"

Misinterpreting what she'd overheard and finding only Susan in the kitchen, Sally screamed, "Nothing." She took a quick, very obvious squint behind the door and beneath the table, then exclaimed, "The front door," and ran in the opposite direction.

Susan's prediction being spot on, Steve could certainly see two shadowy shapes through the frosted glass partitions of the front door. But the question still remained. Who the devil were they?