The House on the Shore

The House on the Shore

Victoria Howard

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This visually magical tale takes the reader on a journey from the remote shores of Loch Hourn in the Scottish Highlands to the singular beauty of Cape Cod.

 
PUBLISHED BY: Vanilla Heart Publishing
ISBN: 978-1-935407-03-4
PUBLICATION DATE: 2009
WORD COUNT: 98500
SEXUAL CONTENT RATING: 2 2
EBOOK READER RATING:
CATEGORIES: Romantic Suspense, Mystery/Suspense, Romantic Fiction
KEYWORDS: Victoria Howard, romantic suspense, Scottish Highlands, Loch Hourn, intrigue, romance, Vanilla Heart Publishing
 

EBOOKS BY Vanilla Heart Publishing

EBOOKS BY Victoria Howard

 
EXCERPT
COPYRIGHT Victoria Howard/2009

Chapter One

Anna MacDonald never felt so betrayed.

Not only had Mark, the Head of the English Department, given the job he’d promised her to someone else, but he hadn’t had the nerve to tell her himself. But that was just like him. He’d do anything to avoid confrontation.

What should she do? Everyone in the department knew they’d been seeing each other outside of work, and would hear on the university grapevine that she’d been passed over for promotion.

How could she face the humiliation and the knowing stares? And how could she work with Mark each day knowing he’d betrayed her?

Anna leaned back in her chair and considered her options. Could she continue to work with someone she couldn’t trust? The answer had to be no. But lecturing posts in Scotland where hard to come by, especially in creative writing the subject she taught. And then there was their personal relationship. By this move Mark had destroyed her trust in him, not only as a colleague, but as her lover too. Did she really want to carry on dating someone she couldn’t trust? Again the answer had to be no.

The more Anna thought about her situation, the more she realised she had only one option. She crumpled the letter into a ball and tossed it into the waste paper bin.

Straightening her shoulders she marched down the university’s wide corridor to Mark’s office and pushed open the door. Mark sat at his desk, a pile of term papers in front of him. He must have sensed her presence because he looked up—and paled when he saw her.
“Anna—”

“A letter, Mark? After telling me the job was as good as mine, you send me a letter saying you’ve given it to someone else. Couldn’t you have told me face to face? I’m not just your work colleague, I’m your girlfriend. Or have you conveniently forgotten that fact?”
Mark held out his hands as if offering an apology. “I was only following procedure.” A lock of blond hair fell into his blue eyes and he brushed it away without thinking.

“I see.” Anna swallowed her hurt. And rage. She didn’t want to leave on a sour note. “Well, you can’t complain about my letter of resignation, can you? Either you accept it, or I go over your head and give it to the vice chancellor.”

“Anna, darling, I thought you enjoyed your job. Sit down and let’s discuss this.”

“I don’t want to sit down, thank you, and I did enjoy my job.”
“Then I don’t understand why you want to leave. Don’t you think you’re being impulsive?”

“I think I’m being very reasonable under the circumstances. You expect me to carry on working in the department while…while your new blonde bimbo sits in what should have been my office, doing what should have been my job!” Anna felt her blood pressure rising. She took a deep breath.

“We only went to dinner…” Mark shuffled the papers on his desk.

“Don’t lie to me, Mark.”

“I’m not.”

“Think again. And while you’re doing that you’d better start advertising for a new lecturer because I’m leaving at the end of the term whether you like it or not!”

“But term finishes on Thursday—”

“So it does. That gives you three days and all of the summer vacation to find a replacement for me. I’ve marked and returned all the end of term papers to my students. I have no more classes scheduled, so this is my last working day.”

“Look, can we talk about this tonight? I’ve a mountain of paperwork to get through. I’ll stop at the supermarket on my way home pick up a bottle of that red wine you like and a take-a-way.”
“Are you serious? You don’t really expect us to continue our relationship, do you?”

Mark stepped out from behind his desk and rested his hands on her shoulders, his face devoid of expression. “Anna, please, this is business. Just because you were passed over for promotion, doesn’t mean our relationship is over. You love me.”

Anna stared at him and wondered why she had ever considered him husband material.

“No, Mark, I don’t. I’ve realised that I don’t trust you. And without trust there can be no love.”

“I see. Have you found another job?”

“No, I haven’t.”

“Let me guess. You’re going to write a book. Lecturers who give up academia usually pick that vocation because they love books but lack the talent to write them.”

The arrow hit its mark, but she wasn’t going to allow Mark’s derisive comments dissuade her. “Look, I’ve made my decision. I’m handing in my notice. There’s nothing more to be said on the subject.”

“Then I suppose I’ll have to accept your resignation. But would you mind if I dropped by your flat now and again to see how you’re getting on? For old times’ sake?”

“I doubt very much if the new tenant would appreciate that.”

“New tenant? You’re not giving up your apartment too, are you?”

Anna ignored the question. “Goodbye, Mark.” Without saying another word she turned, and left his office.

It was only later that week as she boxed up the contents of her home that she began to wonder if she’d made the right decision.
Her doubt started with the picture.

It was taken at the university picnic. She and Mark knelt in the grass by a gigantic oak tree, side by side, heads slanted toward each other, arms around shoulders, clearly and disgustingly in love. When was it taken? A year ago? No, two. Had they been together that long? She swallowed the pain as she took the photograph out of the silver frame. The frame she would keep. The photo… she held it in both hands and struggled to tear it, but couldn’t see it through the tears. She settled for balling it up and letting it fall to the floor.

There was no denying Mark was a complete bastard. Thank God she’d never asked him to move in with her. And it was clear that he had no intention of marrying her. He’d been adamant that he’d never stoop to such old fashioned sensibilities. For a time she’d agreed with him. What was marriage anyway, but a contract that didn’t just bind two parties, but frequently strangled them?

Damn. She could have been a good wife. Would have been a good wife. But now?

Was she doing the right thing? While she could never forgive his infidelity, she would miss her job and her friends. She scrubbed a tear away with the back of her hand.

It was too late now to change her mind, she thought, folding a pair of jeans into her suitcase. She’d already surrendered the lease on her fashionable Morningside apartment. The rent, barely manageable on her salary, ate into her savings quicker than a ravenous hyena.

“It’s all for the best,” she told her two border collies. Their tails wagged as if they understood. “Besides, I’ve been breaking the lease with you here anyway. No pets allowed, remember?” The younger collie, bright eyed with dappled paws, edged over and gave her hand a quick lick. Anna ruffled the black and white head. “You’re a good dog, and I’m doing all of us a favour anyway. We’re off to the country, my girls. Peace, quiet, and who the hell knows what else.”

Anna locked the suitcase and placed it next to the door with the others ready to carry down to the old beat-up Land Rover. She took one last look around the room. The place looked huge now, emptied of its contents. She couldn’t take her furniture with her, and had arranged to put it into storage. All that remained of her life—seven years of it—was a carpet that needed shampooing and places on the wall where lighter paint called attention to where her paintings had hung.

She picked up her handbag. This phase of her life was over now. She had a book to write. Apart from her clothes, laptop, printer, and the few books she intended to take with her, the things she most wanted to leave behind were the raw sores of an aching heart.
She knew she’d be taking them too.

Five hours later she coaxed the elderly Land Rover the last few yards down the potholed track toward Tigh na Cladach, her late grandmother’s remote croft on the shore of Loch Hourn, in the rugged northwest Highlands. She couldn’t afford to breakdown now, not when she was so close to reaching her destination. There had been times during the drive from Edinburgh when she thought she would get no further than the city limits, but despite the vehicle’s faded green paintwork and battered appearance, the engine seemed sound.

With a sigh of relief she yanked on the handbrake, climbed down out of the driver’s seat, and stood for a moment savouring the silence. After the bright lights and noise of the city, it felt strange to be so far from civilisation. She glanced at her watch—ten o’clock on a summer evening—yet she could see every rock and bush clearly, for it never became truly dark this far north. Indeed, night itself became no more than deep dusk.

Ensay and Rhona, her two, black and white Border collies, relieved to be released from the confines of the rear seat, chased each other on the lawn in front of the small stone cottage.

The old squat house was small, about forty or fifty feet long, and of traditional one and a half storey height. A chimney rose at either end. The walls were at least three feet thick and built of rough, white-washed granite. The building stood some thirty yards from the water’s edge, nestled in the natural curve of the hillside, as if seeking protection from some invisible force. Whoever had originally built it had chosen the location well, for it fitted into its surroundings perfectly, its stone walls standing the test of time and weather.

Either side of the bright green door were two small quartered windows, set deep into the stonework. The one on the right belonged to the kitchen, and the other to the sitting room. It wasn’t much, but it had been her grandparents’ home. True, it was miles from civilisation, but it was mortgage-free. And now hers.

Collecting her handbag, laptop, and a box of groceries from the passenger seat, she locked the Land Rover and made her way over the cobbled path to the croft. All she needed now was a hot drink and a good nights’ sleep. The rest of her unpacking could wait until morning.

Inserting her key in the lock, she pushed open the door, flicked on the hall light, and walked into the kitchen. The scent of lavender hung in the air. Not only had her dear friend, Morag McInnes, dusted and aired the croft in time for her arrival, she’d also left a bowl of her favourite potpourri on the oak dresser.

Anna filled the electric kettle, put it on to boil, and opened the mail sitting on the table where Morag had left it. There were two letters. The first turned out to be a demand for taxes from the local council. The second envelope was made of heavy parchment, the top left hand corner of which advertised the name and address of a firm of Glasgow solicitors. Curious, as to why they would be writing to her, Anna slipped a neatly manicured fingernail under the corner of the flap, tore it open, and scanned the contents in disbelief. It contained an offer—a very generous offer—on behalf of their unnamed client, to purchase Tigh na Cladach.

“Well, of all the nerve,” she said out loud. She read the letter again to make sure she hadn’t misunderstood. Well, their client could go to Hell, thought Anna, as she stuffed the letter back into the envelope and propped it up against the pepper pot. Too tired to deal with it now, she’d write in the morning and tell the solicitors the croft wasn’t for sale now, nor would it be at any time in the future.
Stretching to ease the stiffness in her shoulders and neck, she made herself a cup of tea, and carried it to the table. She fed and watered the dogs, then made her way up the narrow wooden staircase to the bedroom she’d slept in ever since she was a teenager.

Situated directly above the kitchen, the room nestled under the eaves of the roof. Light, airy and warmed by the heat of the range below, it was painted a delicate shade of pink. The window, which overlooked the loch, was bordered by rose-coloured chintz curtains. A large, brass four poster bed, covered by a hand-stitched patchwork quilt in shades of red, rose, pink and green, stood opposite the door. Her grandmother’s music box, the key long ago lost, stood on the chest of drawers in the corner.

With a long exhausted sigh, Anna quickly undressed and climbed into bed, pulling the blankets up to her chin.

Something woke her. The digital clock on the bedside table flashed 2.00a.m. She’d only been asleep for a couple of hours. Her hands twisted nervously in the blankets, she held her breath as she listened for the slightest sound. Apart from the gentle snoring of the two dogs curled up on the rug at the foot of her bed, there was silence. She felt uneasy, but told herself it was foolish to feel afraid. Nevertheless, her hand trembled as she fumbled for the switch on the bedside lamp. A shaft of light struck her pillow, making her squint but leaving the rest of the room in eerie darkness.

She sat up, let out a long, shuddering breath, and ran a hand down her bare arm; it was cold, clammy and covered in goose-bumps. The hairs on her neck prickled, as if touched by some invisible hand. There wasn’t a sound; not even the pitter-patter of the mice that inhabited the roof space of the old croft. Yet something had wakened her. She shivered, and chewed on her lower lip, as she stole a look at the dogs. Odd—they were her early warning system and reacted to the slightest noise, but neither seemed alarmed.
She sighed and rubbed her forehead wearily. Had she been dreaming? She thought not and yet the feeling something was wrong persisted.

Unable to settle, she pulled back the blankets, swung her legs over the side of the bed, and went barefoot to the window. She drew back the curtain and peered into the twilight. A ghostly silhouette moved across the lawn in the moonlight. The curtain slipped from her fingers as sheer black fright swept through her. For once she wished the croft wasn’t quite so isolated and that her grandparents had installed a telephone. But they hadn’t, and even if they had, it would take the police the best part of an hour to reach her.

She tried to ignore the creaking and settling of the old house, but the strange sounds only added to her nervousness. She shook her head in an attempt to clear the fog of sleep from her brain and searched for a plausible explanation.

Had she seen a figure? Or had it been a shadow simply caused by a cloud crossing the moon? Summoning all her courage she parted the curtain once more. To her relief there was no one there. Her heart still pounding, she tugged on her green candlewick dressing gown, tying the belt tightly around her slim waist, and crept downstairs.

The front door was locked and bolted.

Still fearful, she padded into the kitchen, starting when the floorboards creaked beneath her feet. Her hand shook as she made a cup of cocoa and crawled into the old oak rocking chair next to the Aga. Tucking her feet beneath her for warmth, she let the steam from the cup warm her face and thought about what she’d seen.

Was her imagination working overtime? Had living in the city made her so soft, she wondered, that she jumped at every foreign sound? Even the floor scared her, for God’s sake! In town, the only noises she heard at night were ambulance sirens and traffic, while here in the glen only the occasional bark of a fox or hoot of an owl broke the silence.

Few people bothered to drive this far, even in daylight, so the chances of someone doing so in the early hours of the morning were slim. It couldn’t have been a man, she reasoned. It must have been the shadow of a roe deer crossing the lawn. They often came down off the hill to drink in the loch at night.

Anna swallowed the last of her cocoa, rinsed her mug, and left it on the draining board. Stifling a yawn, she pulled the cotton blind back from the window and looked out on to the hill behind the croft. Nothing moved. Not even the leaves of the rhododendrons that surrounded the croft. She tucked a strand of her tousled, copper-coloured hair behind her ear and went back to bed, pausing to give the dogs a gentle pat. Sleep was a long time coming, and when she finally succumbed, it was into a restless and fitful slumber.
 

 
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