Authors: Charlena Miller
WHAT LIES BETWEEN
by Charlena Miller
This is a work of fiction. The characters and events are either products of the imagination of the author or are used fictitiously.
What Lies Between. Copyright © 2015 by Charlena Miller.
All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America.
Published by Red Bicycle Press, Portland, Oregon.
Cover art and design: Darryl Brown
Jacket photograph: Kyle Pfeiffer
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To Robert Keahey
for all the things that didn’t get said . . .
“I have woven a parachute
out of everything broken,
my scars are my shield: and I jump,
daylight or dark into any country . . .”
The letter fell from my hand, drifting, floating, finding its way to the ground, and taking my father with it. Noises around me retreated, grew muffled, the reverent mercy of shock. The quiet turned my ears inward and I could hear every sound in my body. A heart wasn’t supposed to truly break, yet I heard the crack of a jagged piece splitting off, the roar as it fell, cutting open whatever emotion it struck. Feelings piled thick in my throat. This couldn’t be right. Gerard would only be in his fifties now, too young to die. I had been sure we would see each other again . . .
Five days later
Glancing at the time on my phone, I was surprised I’d been curled up on the floor of the library aisle for nearly an hour. Images of the Isle of Skye had caught hold of me with its alien-looking landscape studded with brooding mountains and bizarrely-shaped rock formations looming next to wind-shorn cliffs. Other photos in the travel book revealed a more languid side with hills of purple heather, white cottages, and flocks of sheep sauntering down the middle of a road or grazing in green meadows crisscrossed by stone walls.
This island off the west coast of Scotland held no resemblance to my urban, landlocked world in the middle of Oklahoma. I couldn’t argue the island’s beauty, but the images in those photos were as foreign and unknown to me as Gerard, my biological father, and just as mysterious. What did his odd choice of a final resting place mean? Why on the Isle of Skye instead of near the home on Scotland’s mainland where he’d grown up? My father’s life harbored secrets—I had been one of them. No matter what I found, I couldn’t resist the chance the letter offered to uncover lost pieces of my past and of the father and family I never knew.
“Why all these books on Scotland? Are you going on vacation?” the librarian asked, as she slid my books over the invisible scanner.
“No, but I
“Are you moving over there?”
When I hesitated, she held up the book about the Isle of Skye. “Is this where you’re going?”
She was more than a little interested Why not open up? I did want to tell someone what was happening and who better than a stranger? Most of my friends these days were work connections—
I’d requested a leave of absence from my job two days after I got the letter; I had to at least go to Scotland and check all this out. My boss, Leland, nearly had an aneurysm and threw out an ultimatum: get up to speed on Jason Marks’s account and launch his organics division, or be fired. He’d lost patience with my tactics to avoid being assigned to Jason’s business. But Jason’s ethical breaches weren’t my only issue. At a conference I’d rejected his drunken come-ons, and Jason hadn’t taken “no” well. He didn’t understand how to lose, or call a draw, and demanded Leland put me on his account—which would force me to spend more time with him than I would have to myself in any given week.
This inheritance Gerard left me felt like an eleventh-hour save. After talking to the estate attorney and thinking about it for another couple of days, I handed in my notice this morning. Leland cut me loose right then. Not a big surprise. If you “left him,” as he characterized anyone’s resignation, you were disowned and blackballed to the extent of his reach. I admit that unnerved me—he had a wide network and had countless favors stashed away. My new life in Scotland had to work out.
Reining in my worries about the future, I managed a confident smile. “I inherited a small estate in the Highlands.” My words sounded calm and sure, as if I had a clue what I was talking about. “I’m moving over to manage it and hope to be there by August. I only have a few weeks to get ready to go.”
Her eyes took on a dreamy look as she sat down on the stool behind her. “Sounds amazing. Does it have a castle? When I go to Scotland someday, I will tour every single castle.” A rapturous look lit up her face.
I turned the questions back to her. “What got you so interested in Scotland?
“I had a thing once with this guy in college. He was from Stirling, which is kind of in the center of the country. The way he described Scotland made it sound like heaven, and his gorgeous accent didn’t hurt. I knew I had to travel there someday, and I started reading up on it. Being a librarian makes it easy to pacify the information junkie in me. Now I know exactly where I want to go and what I want to see.”
“There’s no castle on the estate, I’m afraid, only a country house. A modest place by Scotland’s standards, I’m told.”
Disappointment flickered across her face. “That’s okay. A country house sounds nice. What does the place looks like?”
Feeling a bit embarrassed that I was uprooting my whole life on such little information, I mumbled, “Funny to say, but I haven’t seen a photo, couldn’t find one, either.” I plunged on before she could ply me with more questions. “The whole thing is a big question mark. I don’t know how it will work out, but I have to go. I would always wonder if I didn’t.”
“Of course, I wouldn’t think twice. You’ll love it. And I’m not kidding about the accents. You will die! All those men in kilts . . .” She fixed her eyes on mine. “You are one lucky woman.”
“I’m not sure I would say that.” I shrugged and then relaxed my shoulders in an effort to ease the tension that kept finding its way into my body. I couldn’t dwell on the challenges ahead. Needed to take long, slow breaths . . . and let them out just as slowly. Always forgot that part. “I have to figure out how to run the place profitably, and quick. That’s what these books are for. I have years of stuff to learn in only a few weeks.”
Her brow furrowed. “What do you need to know?” She gave a beckoning tilt of her head; I leaned closer to glean whatever classified secret it seemed she was about to share. “I
a librarian. Research is my crack. And it’s Scotland. Seriously? Meeting me wasn’t an accident.” Her eyes brightened. “I’m Kami, by the way.” She stuck out her hand.
I laughed and met her hand with a hearty shake. Expert help would be great. “Nice to meet you. I’m Ellie. And I’ll warn you, I have a long list.”
“Give me everything you’ve got. This is my playground.”
“Okay, here goes. I need to know about tourism in the Highlands, fly fishing, management of country guesthouses, and Highland farms.” I tapped the cover of the Isle of Skye book. “I’d also like to learn the history and stories about these mountains, the Black Cuillin. Oh, and something about driving on the left.” I glanced at her name tag, my brain suffering short-term memory lapses since the letter had arrived. “Thanks, Kami. I appreciate it.”
Kami stopped jotting notes and wrinkled her nose. “That’s just unnatural, driving on the left. That and haggis. I bet you’ll have to serve it to guests. Haggis is the national dish—a waste of perfectly good oatmeal, if you ask me.” She shook her head and grimaced like she’d tasted sour milk. “Almost as bad is that they seem to like deep fried food as much as people around here. Not me, though. Scotland can keep their deep-fried Mars bars for themselves.” ” Her disgust faded to a thoughtful expression. “I suppose the castles and men in kilts make up for it, although I think they tend to be on the short side—the men, not the castles—and you’re kind of tall.” She scanned my features, then beamed a wide smile. “If you can wait a few minutes, I’ll see what I can turn up.”
Twenty minutes later, Kami slapped an armful of books and magazines onto the stack I had found myself and handed me a list of references and additional books she’d ordered from other branches—a far better job than I had done on my own. Kami’s energy and curiosity were just what I needed.
Kami gave me a shy grin. “Jot down your email address if you don’t mind, and I’ll send you anything else I think of. I’m sure you’ll be crazy busy, but I’d love to hear what Scotland is really like if you wouldn’t mind sending me an email once you get settled.”
“Not at all. That’s the least I can do for all your help.” Help was something I needed to accept more often than I usually did, which was never. Saving this inheritance would take a miracle, and I would have to push myself out of my comfort zone. Gerard had borrowed several hundred thousand British pounds to fund the renovation of the family home into a guesthouse and the land into a working farm and fly fishing destination. It was enough debt in American dollars to give me a rash of second thoughts and nearly send me running back to Leland and Jason. Now that Gerard was gone, I would have loads of business and financial requirements to meet by the start of the next tourism season or the investors would take possession.
Since I didn’t believe in miracles, I would have to do what I’d always done: figure out a way to survive no matter what this . . . adventure, that’s what I would call it . . . threw at me.
My quick research indicated that surviving could mean standing for hours in icy rivers trying to catch fish (and casting without putting someone’s eye out), stuffing a sheep’s organs into its stomach and serving it up to guests crazy enough to order it, or herding cattle whose hair was longer than mine through cold, boggy glens.
And then I faced my father’s requirement that I scatter his ashes near the Black Cuillin. I released a heavy sigh as I glanced down at the cover of the travel book. The Cuillins, crowned by a spiny ridge of razor-sharp peaks framed in mist, looked like they had sprung from an ancient god’s nightmare. A foolish wanderer who ventured too close would disappear in one quick swallow deep into their gloomy bowels, never to be seen again.
Moving to Scotland and attempting to claim my inheritance would either be the best decision I’d ever made—or the worst.
Eight weeks later
Windshield wipers slapped at the heavy rain, the sound melding with the roar of the heater’s fan and the thick, low clouds to act as a powerful sedative, dulling the adrenaline high I’d ridden for the past week. Although early morning in Scotland, it was still the middle of the night on my Oklahoma body clock and I’d been awake for more than thirty-six hours.
Drained from lack of sleep and jet lag, I was relieved that Calum Devlin, the Scottish solicitor handling my father’s estate, was the quiet type, even though I enjoyed listening to him talk. Calum’s accent reminded me of my father’s Scottish lilt—although it was much more pronounced than Gerard’s, which must have grown faint as a result of living nearly two decades in the States by the time I met him. I hadn’t liked the words Gerard had spoken to me in what turned out to be our only time together but I’d been drawn to the trace of my Scottish heritage embedded in the sound.
Calum switched on the car radio. I turned to the window, smoothing my wavy mass of travel-weary hair and pulling it out of my face into a ponytail. I would just close my eyes for a few minutes . . .
Bright sunlight streamed through the window, blinding my half-open eyes. Blinking the weight of sleep away, I caught glimpses of a landscape nothing like the gently rolling patchwork of farmland that had been visible when I’d drifted off somewhere north of Edinburgh. Hills rose nearly straight up from the sides of the road, making the compact car feel like a toy zooming along a child’s track made up of only the curvy parts. My body had pasted itself to the seat, but I managed to turn my head and flash Calum an appreciative smile. Having no interest in driving on the left before it proved necessary, I had jumped at his offer to pick me up at Edinburgh airport and chauffeur me to the Highlands.