Shrouded Isle, Scotland:
"Mom! Mom, wake up!"
I lifted my head as my eldest’s finger jabbed me in the ribs three times in rapid succession. Teen must maintain minimum touching to avoid icky mommy cooties, no doubt. Despite lack of sleep, my inner monologue continued to function well. The dim night-light from the hall glowed bright enough to reveal Jessie standing beside the bed.
“What?” I rubbed my dry, gritty eyes and winced at the soreness. Late yesterday evening, we arrived at the summer cottage after a grueling drive and a vomit-inducing ferry trip. When the bags still weren’t unpacked by eleven, I opted to go to bed and deal with it tomorrow. Hello, tomorrow.
As I swung my legs over to sit up, Jessie stepped back. Her gaze alternated between me and the bedroom the girls shared next to mine. Jessie hugged her chest and fidgeted in that gawky, yet attractive way only fifteen-year-old girls can.
I shook my head. “What do you mean she’s gone?” I squinted at the clock, but I had neglected to reset it to the correct time. A glance out the window revealed the star-filled sky. “Jess! It’s the middle of the night! What the—” I said, barely checking myself before I blurted out a profanity. “Did you check the couch? She probably snuck out to read and fell asleep.” I glanced at my pillow with longing.
Jessie’s nails bit into my forearm and drove the sleep from my mind. My cool, unconcerned teen looked panicked. “I saw a boy take Tate into the woods. We gotta go now or we’ll lose her!” she cried.
Fear drew an icy finger down my spine. Jessie tugged at me. Her eyes opened wide, large, like an anime character’s.
“Tate? Tate, honey, where are you?” I received no answer. I shoved my feet into wellies and threw on my green, corduroy jacket I’d left on a chair. Jessie dragged me toward the door, but suspicious, I pulled free. “What exactly did you see? And I swear, if this is some kind of prank, you and your sister cooked up—”
Jessie ran to the living room. “Come on!”
I followed, glanced at the girls’ empty beds in the next room as I passed, then turned up the gas lamp, and blinked owlishly.
“I heard shuffling noises. I looked up and the window was open wide.”
I drew close and squeezed her shoulder. “We left the window open, honey.”
“Not wide open, Mom. We left it cracked this much.” She held up her hands, showing a four-inch gap between them. “I went to lower it and saw a little boy dragging Tate into the woods. Tate was moving slowly, like she was sleepwalking.”
I opened the front door and switched on the porch light. The girls’ room was on the right side of the small house. I rushed around the corner in time to see a bluish light illuminate two figures, one in a nightgown and the other so much into the shadows that I couldn’t make out any detail. They disappeared into the foliage. I knew the ruffled, pink pajamas. They were Tate’s favorite. What was she thinking? She turned ten this spring and knew better than to wander off with a stranger.
Despite wanting to rush after her, I paused. Bad idea to go into a forest, especially in the dark, Becca. I remembered seeing a large flashlight on top of the refrigerator. Ignoring my warning, I raced back into the kitchen and rose on tiptoe to reach the light, so I could follow.
Jessie gripped my arm. “I’m coming too,” she pleaded.
“Jess, if I hurry, I should be able to get her before I get completely turned around. I need you to stay here and call nine-nine-nine, in case I can’t find her.” Jessie opened her mouth ready to protest. Before she could speak, I added, “My cell is in my purse on the table.” Then I remembered the friendly local we’d met when we first arrived. “Better yet, call Mr. McNeil from the grocery. His number is in my contacts, and he’s sure to know who best to call.”
Jessie rushed to the table for the phone.
Yelling Tate’s name, I ran into the night and dashed toward the forest, thanking God the boy hadn’t taken her to the ocean side of the cottage and carried my baby away in a boat. The forest felt too quiet as I dodged around an enormous oak. I ran until my boot heel caught on a root and made me stumble on the uneven ground. Frantic, I swung the light back and forth searching for my youngest. How could they have gotten so far ahead of me?
“Tate!” I called.
Scuffing my feet and tearing at bushes, I hoped to mark my path so we could find our way back or at least be found. The branch on a log snagged my clothes, and I fell to my knees.
Come on, Becca. Stop panicking. I stood, flipping off the flashlight. After listening for a few seconds, I heard rustling ahead to the north. Once more, though much dimmer, the blue light flickered ahead. I was afraid to switch on my light because it dimmed the indistinct blue. The eerie glow grew fainter. I kept calling and blundered forward, crying out as the light vanished.
“Tate!” I screamed, pausing to turn on the light. I spun, lighting up the dark earth around me. My baby’s gone. I realized my mistake after making one full circle. I’d forgotten which direction I was going and where I’d come from. My heart beat a tattoo on my ribs, and I fought the primal urge to run—to find her. Find her now! But ingrained knowledge stilled my feet. I had to stop. I’d only injure myself rushing around in the dark, and I couldn’t risk it. My girls needed me. Sinking to the ground, I rested my back against a tree. My breath came in gasps. I didn’t want to just sit here, but when lost in the woods, the best thing you could do was stay put—and I was very lost. I choked back a sob, hoping in the silence, I would hear them. No telling how long I would be stranded in the forest and, when the searchers arrived, they would call my name, so I turned off the flashlight, conserving the battery. My head spun and I took deep breaths, trying not to hyperventilate. I forced myself to close my eyes and stop searching the night for the bobbing blue light that had long since vanished.
I didn’t know how much time passed when I heard a twig snap. If it was an animal, I doubted I was in any danger, but I turned on the light, all the same, blinking as my pupils adjusted. Could Tate have gotten away? Was she making her way back to me? I shined the light into the darkness toward the noise. A hand brushed aside a large tree limb, revealing a dark-haired man in a kilt holding my daughter. As he stepped forward, he released the limb and it sprang back into place and quivered.
“Could you not shine that in my eyes?” he called out, squinting.
I kept the torch on but pointed it toward the ground as I struggled to my feet.
Glassy-eyed, Tate yawned. “Mama?”
I held out my arms. “Sweetie.”
One moment, the man stood yards away—the next, the stranger deposited my daughter into my embrace then retreated. I gasped, hugging her close. The flashlight bobbed as I juggled it and Tate. I focused the light ahead. Starlight gleamed off the shoulder-length, wavy, black hair of a man paused in motion. I panned the light down, revealing a broad back clad in a white tunic. The hem of a green and blue kilt swung against his legs. He glanced over his shoulder at me and squinted once more. A look of surprise crossed his face.
As he stared, he turned and took a step closer. “It canna be,” he whispered, as his harsh, stern features softened in wonder. He regarded me for a moment then frowned and shook his head.
“What were you doing with my daughter?” I demanded.
His lip curled. “Saving her from a worse fate than having a neglectful mum.”
“She was sleeping! Someone took her from her bedroom. Was it you?” I sputtered. Jessie said it was a little boy, but maybe she was mistaken.
He ignored my question. “I would thank you kindly to leave my forest,” he said, his countenance stern and his green eyes narrowing. A thick lock of raven-colored hair hung down, almost covering his left eye. His expression warmed when he looked at Tate, but his voice remained gruff. Before he turned and disappeared, he added, “And dinna come back.”
Tate mewled like a kitten, very unlike her usual bawl.
“Hey, wait! Where are you going?” I yelled. I cast my light in his direction, but only saw him for a moment before the forest swallowed him. I couldn’t believe he’d left us alone. I patted Tate. “Someone will find us. Try not to worry.” She nuzzled my neck and sobbed. Ahead, an orange light flickered. “What in the world—”
I recognized a blaze in the distance and used the flashlight to weave around trees and over bushes to the edge of the forest. When I stepped out, I heard a cry. Jessie ran to me, nearly bowling me over.
“Mrs. Shaw? Are you and the wee one all right?” Mr. McNeil, the grocer, called from the fire pit.
The man bore a striking resemblance to the ranger who traveled with a dwarf and an elf in that fantasy movie the girls loved. His tangled, dark hair fell an inch short of brushing his shoulders. I decided he must be one of those men who could grow a beard practically overnight because he looked as if a couple of days had passed without a razor touching his ruggedly handsome face. As he drew closer, I saw he wore unlaced hiking boots, creased jeans, and a white sleeveless undershirt which revealed tanned, toned arms.
“We’re fine, Mr. McNeil. Thank you so much for coming.”
Tate was getting heavy, so I put her down and led the two girls back to the house. Mr. McNeil followed us inside.
Tate’s tears subsided, and she calmed enough to release my hand and sit on the couch.
My eyes brimmed with grateful tears. “Lighting the fire was a brilliant idea.”
“I canna take the credit for that. By the time I arrived, your oldest had all the lights on and the pit burning.”
As I looked at Jessie, I started, newly aware that she was almost my height. She ducked her head. “I saw the marshmallows on the table and remembered. I thought it could guide you home. Mr. McNeil was taking so long. I know you don’t like me to light even a candle without supervision, but I had to do something.”
Though she rolled her eyes at my protectiveness, I knew she wasn’t as sanguine as she wanted to appear.
I tugged her close for a side hug. “It’s okay, honey. I forget how mature you are.”
“How did you find Tate, Mom?”
“I didn’t. A man found her—maybe one of our neighbors.” Though he was annoyingly abrupt, I didn’t really think the stranger took Tate. Why would he bring her back to me if he had?
Jessie took Tate’s hand and whispered in her ear as she draped a quilt from the back of the sofa around her.
Mr. McNeil touched my shoulder in concern. “You sure you’re okay, ma’am? Was a long time to be out in the woods.”
As he followed me to the foyer, I assured him I was fine. “Do you have any idea who the stranger was?” I described the man in the kilt.
“Aye. Best you avoid that one.”
I asked why but he just shook his head.
The door stuck a bit as I pulled it open. “Stay inside, girls. I’m just going to walk Mr. McNeil out,” I said, motioning for them to remain there.
We stepped out onto the porch. Embarrassed and now feeling a bit like Chicken Little, I turned to him. “I’m not a survivalist, but I can manage being outdoors for twenty minutes,” I said then chuckled.
Mr. McNeil ran a hand through his hair, tousling the locks, and tried to smother a yawn. I regretted inconveniencing him because, after all, we were strangers, and now I repaid his kindness by practically shoving him out the door. So relieved that Tate and I came back safe and sound, I’d had forgotten my manners. “Would you like to come back inside for a glass of water or a beer?”
One side of his mouth quirked up. His eyes shone with something I might have identified as attraction, but I was too tired to be sure and was definitely not up to addressing it tonight if it was.
Before he could respond, I said, “Then again, it looks like Jess woke you up—and I’m sure you must be missing your bed and needing to rise soon.”
His grin grew broader and his eyes met mine then traveled southward.
“To wake up early…to get the shop ready…” I fumbled for words, trying to balance my feelings of gratitude with this sudden unease I now felt.
“A bit too early for alcohol, but maybe tea would be nice, non-caffeinated.”
His gaze focused on my bare legs. Shocked silent by the obvious interest and maybe misunderstood invitation, I tugged at my jacket, wishing it was longer. At least it covered enough so that my threadbare nightie didn’t reveal what hadn’t been seen by any male since my husband’s death.
The sky transformed from black to a dark, steel blue. Was I in the woods longer than I thought? “Wow—actually, maybe another time would be better,” I said, striving for graciousness. As I accompanied him to the path which led to town, I remembered what Jessie had told me about a little boy and the barely visible figure I saw. “We need to call the police. Jessie saw a little boy lead Tate into the forest.”
Mr. McNeil shook his head. “Your daughter told me, but I’m sure her eyes were playing tricks on her. No one on the island would allow a child out at this time.” He stopped so abruptly that I almost ran into him. “Did you see anyone?”
“I thought I did, but now I’m not sure,” I answered.
“Lack of sleep can do that. Good night. You get some rest. You dinna want to send the constable on a wild goose chase.” He waved as he straddled his motorcycle then revved the engine and motored away.
Inside, I found Jessie sitting beside Tate on the bed in their bedroom. Tate’s eyes were at half-mast.
Jessie patted her cheek to wake her and shivered. “Brrr! Mom, she’s so cold.”
So happy to find her, I didn’t think to worry that something may be wrong with Tate. “She might be in shock.” I held the back of my hand to her forehead. She didn’t feel clammy. “Are you okay, sweetie?”
Despite the warm summer weather, when I took her hand in mine, it was icy.
Tate yawned. “I’m fine, Mommy. Just very tired.”
I surreptitiously checked her pulse. It was strong and, if anything, slow. She didn’t appear to have any of the signs of shock, except cold skin. She was pale, but only a tad more than usual. I tilted her chin and examined her face. Her pupils weren’t dilated, and her breathing seemed normal.
“This night calls for some cocoa. What do you think?”
A ghost of a smile tipped the corners of Jessie’s lips as she nodded, but Tate didn’t answer.
After patting Tate’s back, I told the girls I’d return and went to the kitchen. A few minutes of searching divulged a saucepan. Then I gathered the ingredients I had purchased and made hot chocolate. I coaxed Tate into drinking half a mug. Jessie, of course, finished hers and wanted seconds. I tried to question Tate as she sipped, but she merely yawned at my queries. When it was apparent that she would drink no more, I led her to bed and tucked her in.
“Now, no more visiting the forest alone, Tate Elizabeth,” I said, my voice stern.
She nodded and sighed then curled up in a ball with one hand tucked beneath the pillow and the other fisted against her chin. After a visit to the bathroom, Jessie also turned in. She allowed me to tuck her in, which gave away how upset she was.
“Jessie, when you woke up and looked out the window—are you sure you saw a boy?”
“I thought I did, Mom, but it was pretty dark. I asked Tate about it when you walked Mr. McNeil out. She doesn’t remember a little boy at all. I didn’t make it up, Mom. I really did think I saw him—but I guess I didn’t.”
“I don’t think you were lying, sweetie. I thought I saw something too. I guess we were both just over-tired.” I kissed her forehead, eliciting a groan, and said good night.
Once I crawled into bed, I reflected on the event. Jessie and I must have imagined the other figure leading Tate away from the cottage. Maybe she sleep-walked off on her own. I thought again of the man in the woods. Funny how, despite his gruffness and unwelcoming way, when he placed Tate in my arms, I realized he didn’t scare me. Though terrified on Tate’s account, I knew he wasn’t the trigger. Despite the feminist and experienced hiker in me chafing at the way he dismissed me, I felt surprisingly at ease with him.
Settled into bed, the girls’ window tightly shut, I thought back on our first day here. The people we had met on the island so far were curious, yet kind. When we rode here on the ferry, I hadn’t had the correct change. The ferry operator told me not to fret. I could pay what I owed when next I needed to go to the mainland. The only way on or off the island was by boat. Mindful of the prickly plants that lined the path, we walked to the sole village there called, appropriately enough, Thistle. Our first stop upon arriving had been the grocer. The note on the window read “Be Back Soon” in a rushed scrawl. The shop door had been unlocked. We hesitantly entered and gathered our supplies. Before we finished, Mr. McNeil, the owner, returned out of breath. He apologized several times with an adorable grin. I thought him very handsome with his just-shaved look, even the small nick at the dimple in his cheek charmed me. When he turned his head, his hair swept the top of his ears. I guess sleep flattened the curls since it appeared longer when he came to help find Tate. I admired his square jaw line, heavy-brows, and wide forehead. Strong features, I had mused. He explained his aunt called, complaining of palpitations, but couldn’t find her heart pills, so he ran up the road to find them for her.
Smiling, I remembered his comment. “I’m thinking they’re naught but sugar pills. She’s healthy as a horse, but to hear it from her, she has one foot in the grave and one foot on a banana peel. She’s Doc’s best customer, and God forbid he send her home without a concoction of some sort.” His Scottish burr, melodic to my ears, had tap danced the chords on my long-forgotten libido. He had bustled about to find what we couldn’t and tallied up our bill in record time. Recognizing our American accent, he had helped sack our items, though I assured him I was quite capable.
“Your trolley was chockablock with groceries for a weekend visit,” he noted. I explained that we were staying at the cottage for the summer. He smiled and nodded. “Aye, you must be the Shaw family. Mrs. Grant sent word of it.”
He gave me his phone number and insisted I call if I needed anything. We didn’t have a car and had planned to walk, but the charming Mr. McNeil insisted that his nephew—a pimply, sullen lad with a scraggly beard—give us a ride. My acceptance was one of great appreciation. I had been tired and more than ready to arrive at the rented cottage. The landlady had informed us there were bicycles in the shed for our use, and a small bus made rounds a few times a day to pick up passengers around the island. I think she said it made about a half dozen stops, including a few places in the village, a couple around the countryside, and one at the pier. I looked forward to exploring the quaint village.
When we arrived, the cottage was cleaned and neat. All items we could possibly need were readily available. While inspecting the contents of the medicine cabinet, I had dropped a travel-size tube of toothpaste. When I crouched to pick it up, I found an old-fashioned straight razor that had dropped between the toilet and the sink. The blade was badly rusted, but the ivory handle was carved with beautiful patterns. I could just make out the initial “G” on it. I wondered how such a thing found its way into the hiding place and to whom it belonged. Why would an elderly lady have such a thing? She hadn’t lived there in a while and, when she did, she lived alone for a long, long time. I knew a local friend of hers still cleaned and stock the place with a few necessities, like toilet paper, bread, and milk.
Thoughts danced through my head and I gave up trying to sleep. My e-reader in hand, feeling like a decadent Roman, I sprawled on the thread-bare chaise in the bedroom’s alcove and sipped the dredges of my cocoa. Though the romance was written by one of my favorite authors, I remained distracted. Who was the raven-haired man in the kilt?