Tick. Tick. Tick.
Rory screamed as the second hand finally shifted the clock over to five. At the sound of her command, I threw our cake shop ‘open’ sign to ‘closed,’ and locked the door before facing her as we began to squeal in unison.
The vacation my sister and I had been planning, saving, and dreaming of for years had officially begun.
Only the drive into Seattle was all that remained until our long-awaited flight to the United Kingdom.
My phone dinged in my pocket. I didn’t even need to look at the message to know that our ride had arrived.
“We really should’ve just scheduled a ride-share. I dread listening to Mom list off all of the ways she’s worried we might die on this trip.”
Rory laughed and shook her head in agreement as she turned to walk into the back kitchen of our small, but mighty, bakery.
“I know, but it’s quite a drive into Seattle. Just ignore her. She and dad live in a bubble. A trip into Seattle is a stretch for them. They’re just afraid of the unknown.”
I flipped off the lights in our front room and followed Rory into the kitchen. Truth was, we weren’t much better than our parents. This would be the first trip outside of the country for both of us, but at least we were aware of our naivety and were doing our best to change it.
“Are we sure everything is ready to go?”
Rory smiled and lifted her trusty checklist. “Absolutely. Kenneth will deliver the three cakes we have going out for weddings tomorrow, and our next job isn’t booked until a week after we get back. I’ve updated our social media with a notice about our break, and our answering machine is set and ready to, as well. I also have an autoresponder set up for the company email. Everything is going to be fine. It’s cakes, Olivia. We’re not surgeons. It’s okay for us to take some time off from this place.”
I nodded, doing my best to convince myself that it was true. “Dad sure didn’t take much time off when he owned this place.”
Rory’s eyes grew wide in what I knew was a sign of her disapproval. “And is that the example you want to follow? Dad allowed himself to get so locked into this place that I have incredibly limited memories of him actually being around when we were growing up. I have no desire for us to run this place the way he did. I want to live while I’m young.”
While logically I agreed with her, I couldn’t shake the guilt I felt at closing down the shop for an entire month. It wasn’t customary for any businesses that I knew of to close for such a long period of time, but seeing as none of our employees could actually do any of the baking, leaving it open while we were away simply wasn’t an option.
Rory stepped into my line of vision and gripped my shoulders before leaning her forehead in close to mine.
“Your thoughts are basically screaming at me. Let me emphasize this again, Liv. We run a bakery. We’re not doing heart surgery. It’s okay if we take some time off. We haven’t taken a single day of vacation since we took over for Dad four years ago. It’s time.”
“I know. But once we are back, we have got to start working on hiring some additional bakers.”
“Agreed.” She gestured to the back door. “Now, let’s get out of here.
* * *
Somewhere Outside of Edinburgh, Scotland
One Day Later
The roundabout sped closer as we climbed our way up the hill. Jetlagged, lost, and driving a vehicle I honestly had no business driving, my anxiety continued to grow with each passing minute.
“Rory, which exit do I take?” I glanced out of the corner of my eye to see her frantically fiddling with the map we’d picked up at a gas station on the outskirts of Edinburgh.
“Umm…I’m thinking the second one?”
I pushed the blinker down toward left, as I gripped the steering wheel tightly with my right hand and reached for the gear shift with my left.
“You’re thinking the second?”
She scrunched up her nose nervously as she answered me. “Yeah…I mean, I think so. You should look at this map, Olivia. There are so many tiny roads that I’m having a really hard time navigating it.”
“Okay, the second exit it is then.”
I cautiously entered the roundabout, shifted gears in a way that lurched the car uncomfortably forward, and with absolutely zero confidence took the left exit that steered us onto a one lane road. For the past few hours, we’d remained on larger, multi-lane roads that led away from Edinburgh, but now, I’d just steered us onto a road so narrow I found it difficult to believe it was actually meant to be driven on.
“What am I supposed to do when we meet up with another vehicle? This road is barely big enough for us.”
Rory leaned forward in her seat in what I could only assume was an attempt to see further into the distance. “Is this entire damned country on a curve?”
I nodded, as I gripped the wheel more tightly. “It does seem that way. Look.” I nodded ahead of us. “There’s a road marker. Are we going in the right direction?”
A few seconds ticked by as Rory wrestled with the map once more. “Yes! Thank God. It doesn’t look like we are all that far now. I think you’ll just follow this road until the next intersection where you’ll turn right. Then the hotel should just be straight down that next road.”
“Great. I just need to figure out what to do now.” I gestured ahead of us to where a car was barreling toward us.
On instinct, I shifted downward and slowed our speed, only relaxing when I noticed the approaching car pull off into the smallest of round shoulders on the other side of the road.
“So, whoever reaches a pull-off first, pulls off so the other person can pass?” Rory asked the question as I hesitantly sped by the now-stopped vehicle.
“I guess so.” I exhaled shakily as my breathing began to return to normal. “Tomorrow before we leave the hotel, I think we should ask the front desk if there’s another car rental close. I’m a nervous wreck driving this thing. I don’t think I can do it for the next month.”
Nothing was safe about our current travel situation. Not only had we both been up for well past twenty-four hours, but this was only my second time to ever drive a manual transmission vehicle, and I was doing so while driving on the other side of the car, on the other side of the road.
“I agree. I can’t believe the rental place gave up the automatic car we’d reserved just because we were a few hours late. It’s not like we could do anything about the flight delay. Are you okay? Do you want me to drive?”
I chuckled and shook my head. “Have you driven a stick shift even once?”
“I’m alright. Like you said, we’re close.”
“Yeah, we are! Look! I think that’s Loch Lomond.”
As we rounded yet another endless curve, the road ahead of us opened up to the landscape I’d spent the last several years dreaming of. As I stared ahead at the water, the rolling hills, and our castle-like hotel in the distance, all of my jetlag and frustration over our vehicle melted away.
“I have a good feeling about this trip, Rory. I’m not sure I’m ever going to want to come home. Maybe we should just put the bakery up for sale.”
Isle of Skye, Scotland
“Are ye quite certain ’tis not rotten, lad? It neither looks nor smells appetizing.”
Paton didn’t mean to dash Davy’s spirit—he knew the young lad meant well—but he truly didn’t know if he could get himself to eat a single bite of the mystery meat that lay in front of him.
“Aye, sir. I butchered the animal myself only this afternoon. I’ve already eaten some, and I feel fine for it. Mayhap it willna taste as bad to ye as it looks.”
Paton raised his left brow as he cast a look in his brother, Bram’s, direction. He also seemed in no hurry to dig into their dinner.
“And what was yer own opinion when ye tasted it, Davy? Did ye enjoy it?”
The young man ducked his head and sighed. “No, sir. ’Tis rubbish, but I truly doona think ’twill make ye ill. I’m sorry I’m such a rotten cook.”
Paton sighed and pushed the food away before standing to pat the boy on the shoulder. “’Tis alright, lad. There was no reason for me to expect ye to know how to cook. ’Tis only our most urgent need, and I thought we would see if ye were suited for it.”
Davy stepped back from him, panic in his eyes. “Please doona send me home. I canna go home. Not ever.”
Davy had been here for more than a month, and Paton still hadn’t the slightest clue as to what had happened to the young boy to cause him to flee his home. Not that it mattered. Not to him. Each man was entitled to his own past. He certainly had one, and he never wished to speak of it either.
“Doona worry. I dinna mean that ye were no longer under my employ. I only meant that we will find work that suits ye better, aye?”
Davy opened his mouth to speak, but before he was able to utter a word, a loud banging at the front door of the castle caused them all to shift their attention toward the noise.
“Davy, go and see to whoever is at the door. Tell them that unless a catastrophe has occurred in the village that needs my attention, they are not welcome in this home until morning.”
Paton returned to his seat across from Bram who was already halfway slumped over in his seat. If he kept up his pace of drinking—and he almost always did—he would be passed out before the sun had fully set.
What had happened to the brother he’d once known? The responsible, funny, hard-working man who’d always sworn he would never end up like their father? How had things fallen so drastically apart in the years he’d been away? Both of his parents dead, their land perilously close to falling into the hands of their neighboring laird, his brother the useless drunk who let it all happen—he could make sense of none of it. And just like Davy, his brother had no interest in explaining any of it to him.
Instead, Paton had been forced to pick up the pieces of their broken home in the midst of the greatest grief and pain of his life. All alone. With no one to talk to, and no one to help him. He still wondered if he’d made a mistake by not leaping to his death the day the faeries finally let him go. God, how he’d wanted to.
Pushing the dark thoughts away, he stirred at the sound of Davy re-entering the room.
“I tried to send the lady away, but she insisted the laird would see her. She says her name is Miren.”
Paton’s breath came short at the sound of her name. What would the lass look like after all these years? Still lovely, he was sure of it. But, what of him? He knew just how different he looked now—what time and his years with the faeries had done to him. She’d loved him as a boy—she wouldn’t recognized him as a man.
“She’s married now.” Bram’s words slurred as he spoke. “I doona know if I told ye before—to one of the most vile men I’ve ever met.”
Of course, she was married. He expected nothing less, but it made his stomach churn for him to think of her with someone not worthy of her.
“Davy, help Bram to his bedchamber. I will go and greet Miren.”
“I doona need help…”
Paton ignored his brother, Bram’s voice trailing as he stepped out of the dining hall to face his former lover.
The woman awaiting him looked nothing like the image he held in his mind. It was Miren, to be sure, but she seemed smaller, her shoulders slumped over, and her entire frame pulled in in a way that made it appear as if she perpetually held her breath. The mixture of sadness and rage in her eyes made his chest hurt.
“I already told the lad before. I need to speak with the laird. No one else will do.”
At least she hadn’t lost the ability to speak up for herself.
“Aye, I know what ye told him, Miren. I am the laird.”
Miren gave one shake of her head, before continuing.
“Nay, ye are no more laird than I am. I’ve known the Buchanans my entire life. Doona ye think I would know who the laird is here? I need to speak with Bram this instant. My husband will be needing me back home shortly. He is verra badly injured, and I shouldna be away from him for long.”
She doesn’t know. She doesn’t recognize me. The thought coursed through Paton’s mind as he continued to look Miren over. He’d suspected she wouldn’t know him, but the realization still wounded some prideful place inside him.
“Bram is no longer laird. He hasna been since the day he deeded all of the land over to me three moons ago. ’Tis me, Miren. Paton.”
Miren took one unsteady step back, and she reached her hand back to lean into the wall behind her as Paton watched her face pale.
“Paton? I…I thought ye must be dead. When no one heard from ye after yer parents died, I thought…we all assumed.”
Paton frowned as a familiar sense of anguish tore through him. It was a sensation as familiar to him as breathing now. All that the faeries had taken from him was endless.
“Aye. I am sure that ye did. I was unaware of my parents’ demise. I was unaware of much until I arrived here.”
Paton barely had time to open his arms as Miren pushed herself away from the wall and propelled herself toward him, wrapping her arms around him in the tightest embrace he could remember.
How long had it been since he’d been hugged? Since he’d been touched at all?
Years, for certain.
Tears sprang up in his eyes as he held Miren against him. He could feel her sobbing, too.
“Ach, Miren. Please doona cry, lass.”
She released her grip on him and stepped away just enough to shove him hard against the chest.
“I’ve been so angry at ye. For years now, all I’ve done is curse yer name. I knew ye dinna have a choice when he left with those other men so many years ago, but when ye dinna come back to bury yer Ma, I couldna understand it. I couldna forgive ye for it. I’m so glad that ye dinna know.”
“I’m not. I will never forgive myself for not being here.”
“Ach.” Miren reached over to squeeze his hand. “I know that ye wish ye had known. I only meant that ye not knowing means that there was a reason ye were not here, and that I can forgive ye. Ye look…well, ye doona look the same, Paton.”
Paton wondered just which part of him she meant. Was it that his long locks were now cropped shorter than most men he knew? Or the fact that all of his boyish features were now hardened and coarse from his time in a different realm? Could she see the torture in his eyes, the ghosts of all he’d been through?
“Aye, lass, I know.”
Miren sighed and nodded, as if she understood.
“Time hasna been easy on either of us.”
Afraid she might ask him more questions, Paton tried to direct the conversation back to the reason for Miren’s visit.
“Ye said before that yer husband is injured. Is that why ye’ve come? Do ye need help?”
“Aye. I need work. My husband’s horse finally told him what he thought of him and shattered his leg. He canna work. He willna be able to for some time, and we must pay rent and keep food on the table.”
“Can ye cook, lass?”
He asked the question with more enthusiasm than he intended, but his stomach continued to growl from his lack of supper.
“Aye, o’course I can.”
“I shall pay ye well to do that, if ye are willing?”
Miren smiled, and he thought he saw her straighten up, just a bit. “Aye. I would love to. May I begin tomorrow?”
Paton nodded. “Aye. I shall bring a horse and cart down into the village tomorrow so we can load it with supplies for the kitchen and see ye back here.”
“Perfect.” Miren gave him a nod and turned to leave before twisting her head to speak to him once more. “Paton, I meant to ask ye earlier, why are ye back now? Did the old laird finally let ye go?”
Paton’s teeth clenched together. He’d not spoken a word of anything that had happened since his return. “In a way. He’s dead, lass. All who lived on the Isle of Eight Lairds are dead. That is the most I shall ever speak about it. Please doona ask me about anything that happened before tonight ever again.”
Miren’s face paled even more, but she said nothing else as she turned her back to him and left, leaving him gripped by the grief he felt each time the lifeless bodies of all those he’d so loved on the isle flashed before his eyes.
Loch Lomond, Scotland
“Don’t do it, Rory. I promise you’ll regret it.”
Ignoring me, she kicked off her shoes, threw her arms up over her head and stretched as she yawned, and then yanked back the covers on her bed and crawled inside.
“And I promise you, that I won’t. I’m exhausted. And I’m a better sleeper than you. I pretty much guarantee you that if I go to sleep right now, I’ll be able to sleep until morning.”
I glared at her, more jealous than really upset. “It’s only 6 p.m.”
She smiled at me as she snuggled deeper into the bed. “I know. That means I’ll get at least a whole twelve hours and wake up totally adjusted to the time change. I’ll be rested and ready to go.”
I frowned and reached for my coat before muttering the words, “lucky bitch” under my breath on my way back out of our hotel room.
Rory was right. I wasn’t nearly as good of a sleeper as she was, and even though I wanted to go to sleep, I knew if I did, I would be awake at midnight and my circadian rhythm would be ruined for a few days more.
I had to stay up until at least ten, which meant I had to find some way to entertain myself for the next few hours.
I was too tired to be really hungry but seeing as our hotel wasn’t close to anything else, I figured my best bet to pass some time was to try and get a table at the hotel restaurant. As I approached to see only one table in the small round room occupied, I knew it wouldn’t be a problem.
After approaching the host, I was quickly ushered to a two-person table directly next to the restaurant’s other diners. It felt strange that they wouldn’t have spaced us out to give the couple more privacy, but I said nothing as the man pulled out my chair and placed a menu down in front of me.
“We serve simple, native food, lass. We source everything that we can from local farmers, and the rest we get from organic, sustainable sources. If ye are a guest of the hotel, everything will be billed to yer room. Someone will be along shortly to take yer order. I hope ye enjoy yer meal.”
With a curt nod, the man left, and I hesitantly began to look over the menu as I tried to ignore the stares of the couple next to me. After only a few seconds, the woman spoke. “I would recommend the soup if ye want something light. Jerry got the fish supper, and he enjoyed it.”
I lifted my head and looked over at the woman to offer a smile. “Thank ye. I appreciate the recommendation. I didn’t mean to intrude on your evening. I don’t know why they sat me so close to you when there’s plenty of other empty tables.”
The old woman waved a dismissive hand. “Nonsense, lass. I, for one, enjoy company, and I’m sure Jerry is glad for it too, for it means he will have to talk less if I have someone else to talk to. That is, if ye are the talking sort. If ye wish to eat yer meal in peace, I o’course understand that, as well.”
“Oh, I’m a talker, too. Feel free to talk away. I’m trying to keep myself awake for a few hours anyway, so I welcome the conversation. My sister and I only arrived today, and we are more than a little jetlagged. She’s already given up and gone to bed.”
For the first time, the old man, Jerry, spoke. “I canna say that I blame her. ’Tis a long journey from the States. Where abouts are ye from?”
“Washington state, not too far from Seattle. What about you two, are you from the area?”
The woman—I still didn’t know her name—answered. “We are a few hours out on the other side of Edinburgh, so no, we doona live close to here. We just wanted to get away for a long weekend together”
“Well, I haven’t had the chance to see much of it yet, but it seems like a beautiful place to do just that.”
“Ach, it is.” She paused and nodded toward the waiter so I would turn to look at him as he approached.
“Does anything strike yer fancy, lass?”
I nodded and ordered the soup per the old woman’s suggestion. When the waiter left, I turned back toward the woman in question.
“I’m sorry. I don’t think I ever caught your name. I’m Olivia, Liv, for short.”
The woman nodded almost as if she already knew that, although I didn’t remember introducing myself earlier.
“My name is Morna, dear. Now, tell me more about this trip ye and yer sister are on. Where are ye headed next?”
“I believe we are headed to the Isle of Mull next. We are supposed to catch the ferry over tomorrow afternoon.”
Morna scrunched up her nose and shook her head. “I’m afraid ye will have to change yer plans, lass. All ferries to and from Mull have been suspended until further notice. Last I heard, they thought it would be weeks before they were running again.”
My eyes widened in surprise. I’d received a confirmation email from the inn we were set to check in to only this morning.
“Really? Wouldn’t the hotel have notified me if I wasn’t going to be able to make it over there?”
Morna shrugged. “I doona know about that, but I can assure ye, that ye willna be getting to the isle. All the ferry operators have gone on strike. Where are ye supposed to go after Mull?”
“Um…” I racked my brain for the mental itinerary I should’ve known by heart for as many times as I’d gone over it with Rory. “I think after Mull we were headed to the Isle of Skye, but our reservation there isn’t for another four nights.”
“Best ye call them in the morning and see if ye can check in early. Likely, if they doona have room for ye, they will suggest somewhere else on the isle ye can stay.”
Morna must have taken in the exasperated expression on my face for it didn’t take long for her to continue. “Doona worry though, lass. There is much to see on Skye, even if ye just spend a day or two driving around and taking in the beauty of it. Ye must drive through the Quaraing. ’Tis splendor to behold, I assure ye. And do promise that ye will take yer time when doing so. Stop when ye feel like it, wander the land with abandon. If ye do get lost, ye’ll find yer way back eventually.”
I smiled as the waiter reapproached, a steaming bowl of hot soup extended out in front of him.
“I don’t know about that. We had a hard enough time making our way here. If we just let ourselves explore willy nilly, I’m not sure we will find our way back.”
She dismissed me with a wave of her hand. “Nonsense, ’tis part of the joy of travel.”
She stood suddenly, bringing the conversation to an abrupt end.
“I can tell by the look in Jerry’s eye, he’s long past ready for bed. Best we be off for the night. ’Twas lovely to meet ye, lass. I hope ye enjoy every minute of yer time in Scotland. And doona forget what I said about Skye. Allow yerself to explore it a bit. Ye’ve no excuse not to now that ye have several extra days ye dinna plan on having there.”
Jerry gave me a polite nod and a smile, and with that, the old couple left me alone to my soup. It was delicious, but I couldn’t enjoy it. All I could think about was how nothing seemed to be going according to plan on the trip we’d spent months meticulously planning. First, the rental car. Now, we would have to reroute an entire portion of the trip. The whole thing made me uneasy, as if some sort of bad ju-ju hung over the trip.
I shook my head to push to the thought and feeling away. It was nonsense, of course. Just coincidences and nothing more. I was beyond the point of tired, and everything just felt more stressful than it otherwise would have.
The rest of the trip would progress just splendidly.
I just knew it.