Fighting for a Highland Heart (Preview)
East of Widow’s Bay,
Tara Bright lifted her face to the sea spray and gasped with delight. Her hands clasped the rail of the rising and plunging ship, and the brisk wind whipped her long, light brown hair out of its braid and wrapped it luxuriantly about her. Colour rose in her cheeks as she faced the wind. She felt better than she ever had in her life.
“Oh, father, this is wonderful!” she called back over her shoulder. Her accent was an odd one, not immediately recognisable. There was a hint of her parent’s Irish accent, more than a hint of Yorkshire, where she had done most of her growing up and all of her schooling, and an undercurrent of something harder to pin down.
Behind her, her father was moving across the deck toward her. He smiled to himself as he did so, pleased that his feisty, impetuous daughter was approaching her upcoming marriage with such relish and enthusiasm. It was a match made for business advantage, not for love, and well did he know how such arrangements were often met with horror by their participants. But no fear showed in his daughter’s stance; as she stood at the rail, her head raised, her back straight, and the snap of excitement and anticipation plain to see in her sparkling, dark eyes.
“Yes, it is, isn’t it?” he said. He was a solid, respectable-looking Irishman and his accent was pure Dublin Irish; there was no trace of the Yorkshire where he had lived and worked for the last fifteen years.
“I am so glad you are happy, my dear,” he went on. “I feared that this might not be congenial to you, but I see that you are more than a match for the challenge.”
Her laugh was carefree and bold, a beautiful sound amid the creak of timbers and sails and the swoosh of the waves.
“Of course I am, father!” She laughed. “You raised me to be a brave and competent young woman, and it is not likely that I should be intimidated by this marriage. Anyway, Ranald Carlisle is a handsome, intelligent, well-educated and wealthy young man. What more could a woman want?”
It was her father’s turn to laugh.
“I am assured that he is indeed handsome and strong, and fine athlete and fighter,” he replied, “though I have never actually seen the fellow, you understand. And, of course, Edinburgh is one of the best universities, and one of the oldest, so his education cannot be doubted. I have only words in his father’s hand to attest to this, but if a man can be judged by his handwriting, then Ranald Carlisle’s father is, at least, a very sound man. And as the father, so the son, as is often said.”
She was looking thoughtfully out over the horizon as he spoke. They had been sailing north up the coast for two days. In another day they would make port, and then a journey by road would take them to Balmore, Lord Carlisle’s estate. There, they would meet the suitor and his father, and, assuming all was well, Tara and Ranald would be married then and there at Balmore. Then Tara’s father and Ranald’s father would be family, and they would enter into a long-lasting and mutually beneficial trading relationship.
Tara’s father was a sheep-breeder and a wool-merchant, and he owned a significant amount of the wool production and supply infrastructure in Yorkshire. With his overseas contacts, he could both supply sheep to fill Lord Carlisle’s lands, and then take, process, and distribute the final product. In the 20 years since the end of the rebellion in the Highlands of Scotland, wool production had become a big part of the economy. Tara’s father expected that the long-term trading relationship secured by his daughter’s marriage would make both him and Lord Carlisle very, very rich men.
The ship pitched and rolled into another wave. Tara pointed out over the grey water, north, and east, away from the land which lay to their left.
“See there, father,” she called to him over the rising wind. “There’s rain there, or I’ve learned nothing on this voyage!”
He looked where she pointed. Sure enough, a bank of dense black cloud had piled itself up across the horizon. From this vantage point, they could see the whole length of it. It looked, thought Tara’s father uncomfortably, as big as an English county, and it was approaching fast. Even as they watched, the sea’s mood seemed to change, the waves becoming less choppy and erratic, more prolonged and slow. The troughs between the waves appeared to deepen, and Tara and her father could hear the sound of the wind, which was blowing the storm directly toward them. It sounded like a thousand deep voices, all roaring in angry unison. The first drops of rain began to fall.
Around them, the mood on the ship changed. They could hear the mate bellowing orders and the crew running about the deck, lashing things down with ropes and pulling in the bigger sails. They moved quickly and efficiently, but Tara’s father thought there was a masked air of panic to their actions. Tara seemed unaware of this. She looked toward the broken shore of the land which lay not far off to the west. The captain was hurrying toward them.
“Mr Bright, Miss Bright,” said the captain, acknowledging Tara and then speaking to her father. “I fear I must ask ye both tae take yersels away below decks tae yer cabin. As ye no doubt see, there’s a storm blowing up out o’ the northeast. These unexpected gales are not unheard o’ on this part o’ the coast, but this is a big one, and I didn’t predict it. They can be fierce.”
The captain, a small, sun-burnt man with a black beard and one blind eye, stared out fixedly from the rail, first at the approaching cloud bank and then at the land.
“I wouldn’t be so concerned, ye see,” he went on, “but for the fact that there is a nasty band o’ reef between us and the shore here. Ye see those breakers?”
Tara and her father were both paying close attention to him now. There was nothing feigned about the concern in the captain’s voice. They looked where he was pointing and saw a long, nearly unbroken stretch of churning white water.
“Yonder is the reef,” said the captain. “The white water is caused by a long line o’ deadly sharp rocks which sit just below the line o’ the water there. There’s no way through them that I know, and it’s damned bad luck – begging yer pardon, miss – for us tae have been caught by the storm here tae the side o’ them. I plan tae get us as far away from them as I can before that storm hits us. Port Anderson isn’t all that far away and if we can get within spitting distance o’ that then perhaps we can put in there until it passes…”
The mate shouted to the captain, and there was an unmistakable note of urgency in his tone.
The Captain turned and hurried over to where the mate was standing, looking at him anxiously,
“Excuse me, but if ye would oblige me by taking yersels below…”
“Of course, captain,” said Tara, and, taking her father’s arm, the two of them walked carefully across the pitching deck toward the hatch which would take them down to their small cabin.
They were not the only passengers. There was a priest, Father Callahan, who was travelling to Aberdeen, and two middle-aged ladies who were going to the same destination. There was also a dark, ill-favoured looking fellow with a greasy, pencil-thin moustache who went by the name of Mr Jones.
Mr Jones, it was rumoured, had a cargo onboard of great value, and was going to Aberdeen to sell it. Most of these people were already below decks, but Mr Jones was walking leisurely toward the hatch. He saw Tara and went so far as to give her a lecherous wink. Tara gritted her teeth and ignored him. Mr Jones gave off the unpleasant impression of being a man whose principles would quickly give way to his pleasures. He had made no secret of his attraction to her and took every opportunity to show it. She would not give him the satisfaction of reacting to his provocation.
In the cabin, the pitching and tossing of the boat became frighteningly evident. Tara and her father sat side-by-side on her bunk, not saying much. The rain hammered on the timbers of the ship outside, and the deep boom that reverberated throughout the ship every time a wave smashed up against the side of it was frightening.
A sudden rending crash and thud made them both glance up. Tara stood and moved to look out of the little round window. She found herself staring down through the pounding rain into what seemed like an immense black chasm of water, immeasurably deep and profoundly terrifying. One hand found the back of a chair which was bolted to the floor next to the window, the other steadied her against the wooden wall. The ship was plummeting down into the chasm.
Then the view changed, and they were being borne up again. Cresting the next wave, she caught a glimpse of the skyline looking toward the land. Far away, it seemed that she could see daylight on the green earth, but overhead the sky was black. There was something white near at hand, but she could not make it out. Then a blinding flash of lightning cut the air and lit up the whole view in terrifying detail. It was the reef. Not far away at all from where she looked out, the dark water was churned to a boiling froth. She could see cruel, jagged rocks like merciless teeth among the waves.
“Father, look! We are being driven onto the reef!”
He leapt from the bunk and crossed the short distance in two strides.
“Good God…” he breathed in fear, and his hand found Tara’s shoulder. They could hear shouting and running feet overhead.
At that moment, there was a hammering on the door, and it was pushed open. The second mate stood in the doorway, drenched to the skin, his hair plastered across his forehead and his eyes wide.
“Captain says, dress warm and get on deck as quick as ye can, please!” he shouted, before dashing off to the next cabin to deliver the same message. Tara met her father’s eyes, and the two of them immediately moved to follow the order. They had brought plenty of warm clothing, which they pulled on as best they could in the rolling and tossing of the cabin. When they were done, they linked arms and hurried out of the cabin and to the deck.
The scene was one of mayhem. A torn and tattered sail lay across the deck, wrapped up with ropes and splintered pieces of wood. As Tara’s eyes made sense of the scene, she realised that it was the remains of one of the smaller masts. The wind had sheared the whole thing off and felled it like a tree, and now it lay smashed across the deck, hindering the passage of the sailors who were trying to haul the ship’s small boat across the deck and launch it into the seething waves. This, she realised, was the noise they had heard from the cabin below. Was it possible to navigate while missing a mast? She did not know.
The rain was blinding, and the ship pitched wildly. The howl of the wind was so loud that the captain, yelling orders, could not make himself heard. Tara glanced at her father. He was white with fear, and the other passengers were no better. The priest was praying, his hands raised to the sky in a passionate plea. Mr Jones was trying to look nonchalant and failing. The two middle-aged ladies were holding onto each other and weeping. Tara let go of her father’s arm and moved to the landward side of the ship. She looked over the side.
Leaning over the rail, she had a quick impression of churning white water and jagged rocks, and then the ship connected with the reef with a tooth-rattling thud and a stomach-clenching scream of breaking timber. A voice wailed, “she’s struck!” and at the same moment, Tara was flung into the air by the impact. The ship gave a massive lurch, dropping back down, hooked on the rocks like a fish on a line.
The deck rose to meet her, and Tara landed with a bang which knocked the wind clean out of her and left her head reeling. She lay stunned for a moment before the freezing rain lashing her face shocked her back into consciousness. Where was her father? She pulled herself up into a sitting position and found that she was leaning against the ship’s rail. The deck rose up above her at a crazy angle. Dark figures rushed about, but she could not make anyone out. Her head swam, and her chest hurt. Where was he?
Tara was just about to stand and call out when the deck to her right cracked under the weight of the battering waves. The whole brig – masts, deck, and the heavy wooden hull – snapped into two pieces like a child’s toy. Tara watched, frozen in horror, as the entire front portion of the ship crashed away into the sea and was swallowed up by the dark water. She looked around desperately, but there was nobody nearby and nothing to hold of except the rail. She grabbed for that, but before she could make firm her grip, the angry sea picked up what remained of the ship and flung it with mighty force back down onto the reef.
For what seemed like a very long time, all was blackness and rushing water. There was no up, no down, no light, no air. In a distant, uncaring way, Tara wondered if she was dead. But when she bobbed to the surface again, she found that she was not, and the cold, salty, damp air rushing into her lungs stung her to awareness. She choked and coughed, flailing her arms and retching up seawater. There was something solid and rough under her hands. The lightning flashed again, and she saw what it was – wet wood, hoary and barnacled. She was clinging to a curved section of the hull of the boat, smashed free and floating. The barnacles, built up over its years at sea, cut her hands and knees as she hauled herself up on all fours to rest on the wreckage.
She looked around, gasping. The view was not encouraging. Wreckage and broken timbers floated and bobbed in the rolling water, and her stinging eyes could not make out any other human form. She was alone.
Tara thought she must have lost consciousness for a time. Thunder boomed, and slowly she realised that it was getting lighter. Not much, and not quickly, but it was definitely getting lighter, and the rain was easing off, too. She was shivering with the cold. Behind her, the churning reef was growing further away; in a moment of panic, she thought she was being swept out to sea, but no – she was drifting toward the land. Peering through the gloom, she saw a bright strip of beach ahead, bounded by high cliffs which stretched away unbroken on either side. It occurred to her that if she were washed up to the cliffs, she would undoubtedly be smashed against them and killed, and even if not, she would hardly be able to climb up. The beach was her only hope of survival.
The thought of her father flashed into her mind. Pushing down the grief and horror which threatened to rise up and choke her, she focused on the now. Manoeuvring herself to the edge of the barnacled raft, she slipped off the side. Her soaked clothes weighed her down, but she did not give up. Clinging with her arms and using the wood as a float, she kicked her legs out behind her. The current was working in her favour, and all she had to do was aim and kick. With a little bit of luck, she would make it onto the sandbar.
Tara had always been a strong swimmer, but this was her biggest challenge yet. Into her mind came the words of a governess, who had been full of advice which might have seemed strange to a young girl not as adventurous as Tara. The lesson had been about falling into cold water.
“It’s the shock that will kill you, the shock and the cold. Give into these things, and you will not be able to swim. Control your breath, that’s the first thing. If you can control your breath, you can get control of your body and swim for shore.”
The memory flooded into her brain with all the vividness of a fever, but she took the advice. As the cold seawater soaked greedily into her clothes, she forced herself to breathe slowly and deeply, filling her lungs with the same deliberate attention as aiming for the beach and kicking, and trying not to think of her father, who lay behind her, probably, in the cold water. He could not swim. He had been at all athletic and would not stand a chance. No! Don’t think of it! She pushed the thought back down.
Breathe. Aim. Kick. she thought. Breathe. Aim. Kick. And that was all. Like a prayer, she repeated these three words over and over again in her head. When the sun, at last, broke through the clouds she saw not a narrow sandbar, but a broad, long, curving beach, creating a deep natural inlet between the high cliffs. She kicked and kicked until satisfied she had escaped the current which threatened to smash her up against the merciless cliffs. Then, aware that the tide would pull her in, she used the last of her strength to haul herself onto her floating piece of wreckage. Rolling over, she lay down on her back. The cloud-tattered blue sky swam and turned above her. She glanced out over the water, hoping for a glimpse of her father, of anyone, but she could see no one and nothing. The beach ahead looked empty of life. Even if she reached it, what would she do? She wondered to herself what hope there was. Looking out at the water, she thought of her dear father, but in her heart had little hope for him. The thought of her future swam around her. A moment ago, she had been happy and prosperous, sailing toward a bright future. Now she had no idea what would become of her. She would be friendless and alone, in a hostile country.
The waves pulled her toward the unknown shore.
“Callan, I know ye do not feel well disposed toward the girl, but for the love o’ heaven will ye not at least try tae show a pleasant countenance tae her? For my sake? For yer mother’s sake? Well do ye know the efforts that we have put into this, and how important it is for our two clans, MacPhersons and Grants, tae bind ourselves by marriage. Just… och, man, will ye not at least try tae charm the lassie? I know ye could if ye only tried.”
Callan MacPherson looked up into his father’s earnest eyes and sighed inwardly. He had been stubborn, sullen, and impolite, and he knew it. When eighteen-year-old Flora, Iain Grant’s pretty eldest daughter, had tried to engage him in conversation over the dinner table, all eyes were turned on them.
“So,” her eyes had sparkled with hopeful anticipation, “my father tells me that ye are very interested in the smith’s trade, and have even made yer own sword?” Her eyes fluttered at the potential innuendo which hung around the word ‘sword’. “I’d like tae see it if I might?”
Callan had risen from his place with all the dignity he could muster.
“Yer pardon, miss, but I must visit the privy.”
The slight was so evident that he regretted it immediately. He had made his own sword and was very proud of it. He had learned the skill from the castle smith, old Donal McGraw, who had come to live with the MacPhersons in the years following the agreement of the truce. He liked Donal because the old man did not treat him like a princeling, or an heir, or anything other than an interested lad. Callan, an intelligent, practical, physical young man, had no taste for the polite political games which his role as heir to the clan obliged him to participate in.
And so, Flora Grant’s request to see the sword he had forged for himself touched a sore spot. He viewed his journey through learning the smithing skill from old Donal as a deeply personal thing, and the thought of using it as a playing piece in this ridiculous game of courtship for the sake of alliance appalled him. In truth, he had needed to visit the privy, but there was no need to use that to get out of the conversation in such a blunt way. He was just no good at this.
Callan, stood in the corridor, facing his father, who had followed and cornered him as he exited from the privy. In his mid-forties, Murdo MacPherson was still a big, powerful man, though his hair was streaked with grey and his face was lined with the cares that came with twenty years of managing his clan’s affairs. Callan had inherited his father’s build and stood almost as tall as the older man. The boy knew that if he drew himself up to his full height, he could have towered over his father, whose shoulders were now a little stooped, but he did not wish to do so. Instead, he bowed his head and said what he knew he needed to say.
“Och, I’m sorry, father, I’m just no good at this kind o’ thing, and the question caught me off guard. I’m sorry. I’ll try harder, and I’ll show her the blade if she wishes it.”
Sheepishly, he added, “I did truly need tae visit the privy…”
His father put his head back and laughed loudly, then swung a brawny arm around his son’s broad shoulders.
“Aye, I ken that this kind o’ thing does not appeal tae ye,” Murdo added kindly, as father and son walked back up the corridor to the dining room. “Tae tell the truth it has only come tae me through long practice. When I was your age, it was all swords, scouting, fighting, and risk, and much as I wouldn’t have us back at war, there were times when that was an easier and more honest task than the diplomatic dancing we must do so much o’ these days.”
“But come on, son, let’s away back in and do our best, eh? She’s a bonnie wee lassie! Give her a smile and talk tae her about yer smithing, there’s a good lad.”
Heat and the smells of rich food hit them as they swung the door to the dining room open and re-entered together. Callan smiled at everyone. His mother, Emily, looked strained and worried. His tall, red-haired twin sister Alice sat on his mother’s right-hand side, and she looked as if she was trying not to laugh. Iain Grant, Flora’s father, sat with a face like thunder, gripping his knife as if he fancied taking a chunk out of Callan with it rather than eating his dinner. Poor, pretty, young Flora Grant looked hurt.
Callan made an effort. He smiled around at everyone and took his seat beside Flora. Flora’s two younger sisters whispered behind their hands and giggled together. Murdo murmured something in Emily’s ear as he took his place beside her, and she nodded, looking relieved. Iain Grant continued to glare at Callan, who ignored everyone and focused his attention on Flora.
“I do beg yer pardon, mistress,” he spoke gallantly, and loud enough for everyone to hear. “Ye were asking a question about my smithing, I believe?” Her eyes lit up like the sun breaking through a cloud.
The meal passed slowly for Callan, and, hard as he worked to attend to the eager young lady beside him, he simply could not muster a romantic interest in her. She was, no doubt, an attractive, personable young woman. There was nothing wrong with her that he could pin down, but there was just no spark. She was too eager, too keen to please him. She hung on his every word and wriggled like a praised puppy every time he asked her a question in return. Really, he thought, she was not much more than a child, dressed up in the clothes of an adult and set to play a part. Well, it was a part he was able to play, too, but he could not muster any enthusiasm for it. He felt like a fraud, and by the time he had come to the end of the meal, he felt exhausted.
A sudden storm had blown up outside, and the servants rushed to close shutters and add more wood to the fire as the wind boomed and howled in the chimney. Iain Grant relaxed a little after seeing Callan’s efforts to make up for the slight to his daughter, struck up a conversation with Emily and Murdo about the weather. It was rare, he told them, but not unheard of for a summer storm to blow up so quickly, though nobody in his household had predicted this one.
“And a rare thing that is, too,” he said, “for there are many here in the castle and down in the town who watch the weather all day long. Fishermen and sailors who hae been on the sea all their lives. Nobody kens the sea and the weather as they do, but every now and then a storm blows up that even they don’t see coming. Woe betide any o’ my folk out caught out on the water in that storm, or anybody else for that matter!”
“Is that likely?” asked Emily. Her native English accent, which had hardly lessened despite the twenty years of living in the Highlands, rang oddly in the hall full of rich Scottish brogues.
“Oh, aye,” Iain warmed to his subject. “There’s a busy sea route not far from our wee bay here. The ships travel back and forth all year from the Queensferry at Edinburgh, north tae Aberdeen and even further afield. It’s July now, and there will be busy traffic back and forth at this time. It would be a dark day for any who were caught near the bay in such a storm.”
Callan was interested. “Why would it be worse here than anywhere else?” he asked. It was not Iain, but Flora who answered this time.
“Because o’ the reef,” she spoke in a sombre voice very different from her girlish tones of a moment ago.
“The reef?” asked Callan.
“Aye, not far from the bay there is a jagged reef o’ sharp rocks that cut up the water. Even on a calm day, ye can see the white water over the rocks if ye stand on the cliffs and look out tae the sea. Any ship that got caught in a hard easterly would be blown onto those rocks. Many have lost their lives there, so many that the folk hae named it Widow’s Bay, for the many widows have been made by the reef. Well is it named.”
Iain Grant frowned at his daughter, and her dark words and melancholy tone cast a chill over the group. Emily shivered.
Callan’s twin sister Alice spoke for the first time. Her voice was bright and hearty as if she tried to fill in for Flora’s lapse.
“That’s rare bad luck! If it were not for that reef, ye would have a valuable little bay there, and could develop it into a trading port.”
“Ah,” said Iain, “but it has been a rare defence over the years, too. No ship may pass the bay tae attack the castle here. There is a way through, but we keep it secret. Also, the reef makes the bay calm, and the fisherfolk o’ the village does well in the deepwater there. No, we wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Thunder boomed outside.
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