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Authors: Alison Roberts

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Like work.

Within the first few days of that amazing step into a relationship, Green Watch was dispatched to a hiker who had fallen and broken her leg badly in hilly, difficult terrain. A mountain search and rescue team had
located the woman but they had no doctor available and needed assistance.

The flight had taken them over Loch Ness.

‘Watch out for the monster,' Joe said with a chuckle. ‘She's down there somewhere.'

‘I see her.' Julia grinned. ‘Look, Mac—three o'clock.'

He looked and laughed. ‘That's the concrete version beside the museum.'

‘You should take Jules to see it,' Joe suggested. ‘On your next day off.'

‘I might just do that.' The tone was offhand. The look Julia received was anything but. ‘How far are we from target, Joe?'

‘Be there in five.'

The searchers had abseiled into the base of a narrow gully but it was too dangerous to winch into from the helicopter because of the trees and overhanging rock ledges. Thanks to the bird's-eye view, they found an area beside a stream less than a kilometre away. Not big enough to land safely but Joe could get close enough to make it possible to throw the gear out and for Mac and Julia to jump and then run, crouched low enough to keep them safe from the still whirling blades of the chopper.

The adrenaline rush of the dangerous manoeuvre was familiar enough. The fact that Mac caught her hand to keep her running in the crouched position was nothing new either.

It just felt new.

Knowing he cared about her safety on a personal as well as a professional level. The way she had wished he
did that day when she had been about to disengage from the safety of the winch line and climb inside that dangling train carriage.

A dream come true.

A fairy-tale.

And that was why it was OK not to tell Mac why this could never be more than a temporary fling. Because it
was
a fairy-tale and reality could destroy it. Like the best tales, this had a beginning and it would have an end. That the end wouldn't be that they lived happily ever after was something Julia was quite prepared to ignore because if she didn't, that would spoil the middle.

She was living in the middle. And loving it.

The fractured femur of the middle-aged female patient in the gully was easy enough to deal with. She needed pain relief and a traction splint to pull the bones into alignment and reduce both the pain level and the amount of internal bleeding. She needed oxygen and fluids to replace the blood already lost and she needed urgent evacuation due to hypothermia, having lain outside overnight. The searchers carried the stretcher back to the area by the stream.

Mac was the winch-operating expert so he was the one to climb into the hovering helicopter to set up the operation. Julia had to catch her breath, blown away by the flash of fear for his safety as he ran, crouched, under blades that would end his life in an instant if something went wrong.

The fear should have been crippling and yet Julia could still tend her patient and reassure her. She drew up a second dose of morphine and topped up the pain
relief and then she was aware of the wash of relief at hearing Mac's voice in her helmet as the helicopter hovered at a safe height above them.

‘Sending the line down, Jules. You OK?'

‘All good. Ready when you are, mate.'

If anything, the only difference their new connection made to how they worked together professionally was to improve it. Julia wanted Mac to be proud of her. To not only perform at her best but to improve her skills. He had already seen her intubate critically ill patients and perform chest decompressions to save the life of someone with a tension pneumothorax. On a night shift not long after the mountain rescue, Julia had done her first crico-thyroid puncture to save a man in anaphylactic shock. It had gone perfectly because she'd had Mac there right beside her.

And he
was
proud of her. He'd told her so, in the early hours of the following morning, when they'd stolen some time for themselves in her cottage.

And Julia had never been so proud of herself.

She'd had to tell her sister all about it, later that day.

‘It was pretty terrifying. I mean, I could palpate the membrane but it was hard to stabilise the thyroid cartilage at the same time as getting the cannula in at just the right angle and putting traction on the plunger at exactly the same time.'

‘It's a good feeling, though, isn't it, when you can aspirate air and know you're in the right place?'

‘The best feeling in the world. You know, I can understand the thrill you get out of surgery more now.'

‘You sound pretty happy with what you're doing.'
Anne sounded almost wistful. ‘In fact, I don't think I've ever heard you sound as happy as you have in the last few weeks.'

‘I am happy. It's not just work. I'm loving all the sightseeing. Mac took me up to the Loch Ness museum last week. And we've been to look at the Burrell collection and Robbie Burns's wee cottage and heard someone playing the bagpipes on the wall of Edinburgh castle. Mac's determined that I get to see the “real Scotland”. He says he'll take me to Oban the next time he goes to visit his mum. Apparently she makes the best oatcakes and shortbread in Scotland. And—'

Anne's laughter interrupted the excited flow of words. ‘You're certainly packing in as much as you can. It sounds wonderful.'

‘It is.' Unbelievably wonderful. Julia shut her eyes for a moment, remembering one of those outings, when they'd wandered around the Burrell collection, hand in hand, admiring fabulous tapestries and old oak furniture and stained-glass windows. How the beauty had seemed somehow outside the bubble created by that connection between herself and Mac. That the real beauty came from the bright colours and astonishing sensations that only happiness could create.

She sighed. ‘I can't believe how fast the time is going, though. It's been six weeks already, Annie. Another few weeks and it'll all be over. I have to make the most of it.'

Anne knew the time frame was all about her relationship with Mac. She couldn't miss the note of sadness in Julia's quiet words either.

‘Maybe it doesn't have to be.'

The hope those words generated had to be crushed. ‘It has to be, you know that as well as I do. Hey, it was your idea that I get into this, remember? Because it would do me good and it had a time limit.'

‘Yes, but I didn't know how happy it was going to make you.' Anne's sigh was audible. ‘Do you think Mac feels the same way?'

‘He's just as determined to make the most of the time we have. We don't talk about me going home. It's just there…getting closer all the time. Making everything we do together seem, I don't know, more precious, maybe.'

‘You'll have to talk about it some time.'

Julia tried to laugh. ‘At the airport, probably, when he comes to wave me off. We'll both promise to ring, or email and keep in touch.' Her voice began to trail away. ‘But we won't… Don't worry, Annie. I can handle it.'

‘I hope so, hon.'

So did Julia but she didn't say so aloud. If she could hide any doubts from her sister, maybe she could also hide them from herself.

CHAPTER SEVEN

‘Y
OU'RE
taking Jules
where
?'

‘Oban.' Mac did his best to make it sound like it was no big deal. ‘To visit my mum.'

Angus exchanged a look with both Dale and Joe, and Mac's heart sank. He hoped Julia wasn't reading more into this invitation than she had let on. Just because he was taking a girl home to meet his family, it didn't have to be an event of major significance. Good grief. His mother had met girls he'd been associated with before, hadn't she? Or maybe she hadn't. Maybe Christine had been the only one he'd taken home. Mac scowled, irritated by the unwanted association.

‘He's a good boy,' Joe offered into the silence. ‘Visiting his mum.'

Angus raised his eyebrows in Julia's direction. ‘You want to meet Mac's mum, then?'

‘It's more a case of it being the other way round.' Mac looked up again from the paperwork he was trying to finish. ‘Mum's best friend Doreen's son Lachlan emigrated to New Zealand about thirty years ago. Doreen wants to go and visit her grandchildren and she wants
Mum to go with her. I think she'd love it but she's too set in her ways. Meeting Jules might be just the push she needs.'

Julia was smiling. ‘Besides, Mac says his mum's house is a slice of “real Scotland” and I can't go home without tasting her oatcakes.'

‘Oh…' Angus was distracted now. ‘That's right. It's not long to go now, is it?'

‘Just under three weeks.' There was an edge to Julia's voice that Mac could feel like a noose tightening around his neck. Time was running out.

At least the others on station weren't reading anything into the revelation they would be spending some time off together. They were all too busy being subdued at the thought of Julia leaving.

Two days later, Mac collected Julia a little after 8 a.m. He drove them north of Glasgow until they reached Crianlarich and then took the road to Oban. Being midweek, the roads were nice and quiet. It was raining but the scenery was beautiful and they knew each other so well now that they could be together in silence and be totally content. On some of the straight stretches, Mac could keep just one hand on the steering-wheel and hold Julia's with the other.

The periods of silence were not uncomfortable but it occurred to Mac that they'd been happening more often lately. As though they each had things on their minds that they didn't want to share. A discomforting thought.

‘Won't be too much longer,' he said.

He could swear he felt Julia flinch. As though she'd been miles away and his words had brought her back
to reality with a crunch. And then she blinked and nodded, smiling.

‘What time is your mum expecting us?'

‘Whenever we turn up. She's only expecting me. You're a surprise, but don't worry. She'll be thrilled.'

‘She might not be. What if she feels she needs to give us lunch or something? Shall we take some food?'

‘We won't stay that long. Mum can talk the hind leg off a donkey. You'll be exhausted by the time we've been there long enough for a cup of tea, and Mum's always got something in the tin for visitors.'

‘Is there much to see in Oban?'

Mac smiled. So she didn't want this time together to finish too soon? That was good. Just as well, given the arrangements he'd made a few days ago in the wake of Julia's enthusiasm for the idea.

‘We've got somewhere else to go,' he told her. ‘Something I want you to see.'

‘Oh? What?'

Mac's smile broadened. ‘It's a surprise.'

 

Mac's mother lived in a tiny, terraced brick house in an old cobbled street. She was grey-haired, wiry and stern looking, and right now she was almost flapping her apron in consternation.

‘Tch! You know better than this, Alan MacCulloch,' she chided. ‘Bringing a visitor without letting me know. I'm all topsy-turvy in here. It's a terrible mess.
I'm
a mess…'

The accent was strong enough to make it difficult for Julia to catch all the words but the tone was unmistakable and Julia turned, ready to give Mac an ‘I told you
so' look. But she saw amusement in his face and the kind of tolerance that only came from a mixture of real respect and deep affection. She watched as he caught his mother's hand and stopped her patting the firm-looking waves of her permed hair.

‘Your house is never a mess, Mum, and it wouldn't matter if it was. It's you I brought Julia to see, not your house.'

‘Och!' Jean MacCulloch shot Julia an oddly shy glance but she was hanging onto her son's hand now and beamed up at him. ‘Look at you, lad… Will you ever stop growing?'

‘I think you're shrinking.' Mac hugged his mother, lifting her effortlessly off her feet. She emitted a muted shriek.

‘Put me down,' she commanded. ‘You're not too old for the wooden spoon, you know.'

‘That threat stopped being effective when I was about five. You've never used a wooden spoon on me in my life.' Mac laughed but set her down gently. ‘Mum, this is my friend Julia.'

Julia met another curious glance from behind wire-rimmed spectacles. ‘I'm pleased to meet you, Mrs MacCulloch.'

‘Och, call me Jeannie. Everybody does. And where have you come from, Julia?'

‘New Zealand.'

Mac's mother blinked, looking flustered. ‘That's a very long way away. Good gracious…'

‘Julia's working with me for a while, Mum. We've only come from Glasgow today. We're sightseeing.'

‘Is that right? New Zealand… Doreen's Lachlan says it's a bonny place. I'm…thinking of making a visit myself one day.'

Mac's lips twitched. ‘Are you going to put the kettle on, Mum, or shall we just stand on the doorstep?'

The house was anything but a mess. Mac insisted on busying himself in the kitchen making tea and Jean insisted on giving Julia a tour of her home. It was obvious that everything was dusted and polished to within an inch of its life. Doilies were positioned precisely and most were beneath framed photographs.

‘That's my Donald,' Jean told Julia proudly. ‘Mac's father.'

The photograph, in pride of place on a bedside table, was of a man who was an older version of Mac. Even more rugged and more serious but Julia could see that his face would crease in exactly the same way if he smiled.

Jean touched the frame in an action that looked so automatic it was unconscious. ‘It's been fifteen years,' she said softly, ‘but I still miss him.'

Julia's smile went deeper than merely sympathy. Jean would see that image when she woke in the mornings and before she turned her light off at night. Julia knew what it was like to love someone like that. How lucky were Mac's parents to have had so many years together? To have had a family. Jean looked up and caught Julia's gaze and for a moment the two women just stood there, perfectly in tune. Disturbingly so. Julia had the impression that Jean had her son's ability to read her mind occasionally and knew exactly what she was thinking.

‘Come and see Alan's room,' the older woman directed gently.

It was an odd mixture of a guest bedroom and a child's room. Rows of toys and books adorned shelves. Boys' adventure stories, Julia noticed. She'd have to tease Mac about that later. There were old, well-loved wooden building blocks, a tiny microscope, cowboy and Indian models and a train set. Nothing had even a speck of dust on it.

‘It's not really his room,' Jean confessed. ‘I only came here from the farm after I lost my Donald and that was after Alan had gone away to university. I keep it nice for when he comes to stay and…I keep his toys, of course…for the grandchildren.'

She beamed at Julia but it was suddenly very hard to smile back.

Oh…Lord! She had caught the vibe of her thinking about how much she loved Mac and it was patently obvious where her thoughts had moved onto. What would Mac think if he knew what was happening upstairs? She had been so convinced that Angus had been wrong in assuming there was a deeper significance in this visit.

What was the surprise Mac had talked about?

A trickle of apprehension whispered down her spine. Was it possible Mac was planning to ask her to stay longer in Scotland? To propose marriage, even?

She couldn't let that happen. She didn't want to reject him. She didn't want to hurt anybody.

Including his mother.

So she kept up a bright conversation over the late-morning tea. She told Jean how beautiful her country
was and how much she loved it. Maybe she was a bit too enthusiastic but there was an element of panic in there somewhere and maybe if she reminded Mac of how much she loved her home, he wouldn't think of asking anything that might interfere with her return.

She praised the oatcakes and shortbread sincerely but Jean just flapped her hand at her guest. ‘They're nothing. I'll give you the recipe, pet.'

Finally, they could take their leave and Julia could escape the tentacles trying to wind themselves around her heart. The solid love Mac's parents had had for each other. That row of toys waiting for a new generation to play with them.

‘I think you won her over,' Mac said as they climbed back into his car.

‘Oh?' Julia hadn't been trying to win anything. She certainly didn't want to have left Jean with expectations that could only be crushed.

‘You sold her on New Zealand. Doreen's going to be very happy.'

‘Hey, no problem. Happy to help.' Relieved by Mac's cheerful smile, she grinned back at him. ‘Do I get to know where we're going now?'

‘Nope. Wait and see.'

So she waited, through a delicious lunch of fish and chips near the wharf and then in the car in a queue to get on the ferry to the island of Mull. A short voyage on a calm sea with seagulls circling overhead, their lonely cries a poignant soundtrack.

When they drove off the ferry, Mac took a turn away from the road to the main township of Tobermory.

‘Wasn't he a womble?' Julia's spirits were lifting. This was new and beautiful and she was alone with the man she loved. She'd been wrong to read too much into this and she could relax and simply go with the flow and enjoy herself.

Mac smiled but said nothing. He was, in fact, rather worryingly quiet for the whole drive that took them to the very end of the island where they found a narrow stretch of sea and another ferry.

‘We have to leave the car here,' he told Julia. ‘No vehicles are allowed on Iona.'

It was well into the afternoon now and the sign stated that the next trip would be the last crossing for the day. Julia looked over her shoulder at the car and then raised her eyebrows at Mac. ‘How will we get back?' she asked.

‘There'll be another ferry in the morning.'

‘But…'

‘I've booked a room in a guest house. Upstairs overlooking the beach where we'll be able to smell the sea and hear the waves. That's the surprise. A night in a place where magic happens.'

‘But I haven't brought anything! Not even pyjamas.'

For a long, long moment Mac looked down at her, his face so serious that Julia's heart stopped for a beat. And then his face softened and he drew her into his arms and bent to place a slow, tender kiss on her lips. ‘You won't need them, hinny, trust me.'

 

A place where magic happened.

Had it begun even before they'd reached their destination?

Mac hadn't intended anything significant by this surprise he'd planned for Julia. He'd been here once before, as a child, and remembered being overawed by the sense of history, not to mention the sheer number of royal gravesites. The serenity of this isolated little island had stayed with him as well and it was like a cultural jewel. One that he wanted to gift to Julia so she could take it home with her and keep it for ever.

When did that plan start to become something else?

Had it been when he had hugged his mother in farewell and she had whispered in his ear, ‘Don't let this one go, Alan. She's special.'

He knew Julia was special. But he also knew that she saw their relationship as simply a bonus extension of her overseas training experience. A secret one.

How could he prevent her from going?

By asking her to marry him?

The very thought was shocking enough to keep him quiet on the rest of their journey. Thinking hard. Confused by the strength of his feelings. Arguing with himself.

She didn't know him well enough. Or, rather, she didn't know all of him. And there were parts of Julia he knew weren't being shared. They hadn't had time. Or maybe they just hadn't wanted to take that final step into the kind of intimacy that could lead to permanence.

She wouldn't want to.

He
wouldn't want to.

Or would he? Faced with the alternative of seeing her vanish from his life for ever, it seemed like a lifeline.

Julia didn't know it yet, but this was going to be the first whole night they would spend together. No going
home to the apartment to make sure nobody guessed where Mac was spending so much of his time away from work. Would it be enough to chase away that niggle of discontent for Mac? Would it be enough?

Yes. The magic had begun. Things seemed to be falling into place. Or they would, if Mac could stop fighting it. The serenity of Iona was exactly what he needed. The magic.

They explored the abbey and the cemetery, cuddling together to break the bite of a chilly wind from the sea.

They ate wonderful, home-cooked food in the guest house for their dinner and then he opened the window a little in their bedroom so they could hear the rhythm of the sea as they made love.

They knew each other's bodies so well now. It was so easy to kindle passion. To take infinite delight in each touch…each kiss…knowing what depth of fulfilment they were heading inevitably towards.

There was something different about this night, however. Something that touched Mac so deeply it made him want to close his arms around Julia and never let her go. For this one night, he didn't have to.

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