Hello and welcome to event 14 in the Virtual Book Festival line up. As with event 13 this is a joint one with the Books For Older Readers Blog Blitz. You can visit the Books for Older Readers website here.
Today I’m sharing the first chapter of one of my second-chance romance novels. As I said in event 13, I write books aimed at adult readers of any age who enjoy mature, romantic, and thought-provoking fiction.
Snowmelt and recent heavy rainfall meant the normally tame burn was now a forceful and rapid river. The water was up to my waist. I was stuck, held fast by the mud, trapped in darkness. The flow pushed hard against me. I no longer had the strength to free myself.
It was January on the island of Skye and the wind-chill meant the temperature was probably below zero. I no longer shivered. I didn’t feel cold. I didn’t feel anything. The ewe had stopped struggling a while ago but I kept my arms around her neck.
I’d gone out at around seven that evening to check the sheep. Bonnie, my sheepdog, was with me. It had already been dark for hours. I’d normally have been out much earlier than this, but the last of the mourners hadn’t left until around six so I’d been delayed. There’d been a wake in the hotel immediately after the burial, but a few friends and neighbours had accepted the invitation to come back to the house afterwards.
When everyone had gone, Morag helped me clear up. She offered the services of her husband Alasdair to check the animals. But I declined the offer.
Morag shook her head as she wiped down the kitchen worktop. “It’s a pity your brother isn’t staying here tonight. You shouldn’t be on your own.”
“Jonathan offered to stay. But he’s been here every night since Mum died and this was the only chance for him and Alec to have a few beers and a catch-up before he goes back. Besides I just want a hot bath and an early night. I was happy for him to go.”
There was more head shaking from Morag. “And I suppose you’ll say no to having dinner with us as well.”
“Thanks, really.” I tried a placating smile. “But I’m not hungry, not after all that tea and sandwiches. No, you’ve been a good friend, as always, but …”
“But now you want your precious privacy back, I know.” Morag spoke kindly, but I could tell she found my need to be on my own difficult to understand. “In that case,” she continued, “I think I’ll take Alasdair up on his offer to take me to see the new Bond film. It’s on in Portree. And don’t be too long outside. You look shattered. After all it’s not just been today, you’ve been looking after your mother for a long time.”
“Yeah, I don’t know what I’ll do with myself now.”
“You could try starting to live for yourself a bit more.” Morag patted my arm. I flinched at her touch. I couldn’t help it.
She appeared not to notice my discomfort. “You’ve spent your life looking after other people and, with everything that’s happened in the last few years, you deserve a bit of happiness.” She stretched her arms out towards me. “Oh, come here. You need a damn good hug.”
I let her embrace me.
As she let me go she looked at me sadly. “The old Rachel hugged people back.”
“The old Rachel!” The force and agony of my raised voice surprised us both.
I closed my eyes, put my head in my hands, pulled at my hair and took a moment to get a grip on my temper. When I could speak again, my voice was strained but quieter. “You’ve no idea what it’s like. Nobody does. Any chance of happiness died two years ago, along with the old Rachel. She’s dead and gone to Hell.”
Morag looked distraught. I knew she hadn’t meant to hurt me. I was angry because I knew she was right.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I just meant it’s time you did stuff for you, got on with your life.”
“Right, that’s it,” I said. “I’m not listening to this. I’m going to check the sheep. Thanks for your help today. You can see yourself out.” I hurried out through the doorway that led from the kitchen into the side porch. I shoved my feet into my wellingtons and whistled for Bonnie. My faithful old collie looked at me reproachfully, whether it was for rousing her, or for shouting at my best friend, I don’t know. She hauled herself out of her basket by the stove and came to me.
The dark was deep, and sleety rain swirled around us. A screaming northerly blew hard and the rain felt needle-sharp on my face. I didn’t hear the sheep’s distressed bleating until I approached the bottom of the croft. I swung the torch in the direction of the sound and had to grab the fence to steady myself. The bleating was coming from the burn.
It was one of the Jacob’s shearlings, a pregnant ewe. She was submerged to her shoulders in the swirling water and not even trying to climb out. At first I tried grabbing hold of the horns and pulling hard, but to no avail.
It didn’t occur to me to get help. I told Bonnie to stay and placed the torch on the ground pointing towards the ewe. Then I slid off the bank into the shockingly cold water. It felt like minutes before the shock passed and I could breathe again. Too late, I realised my mistake. Like the ewe, I was stuck in the mud.
All I could do was try to keep both our heads above the rising water. I knew it was pointless to shout. The wind would swallow the sound and, even if it had been a quiet night, I was too far away from any of my neighbours’ houses to be heard. Bonnie barked and darted in and out of the torch’s beam. For a while she alternated barking with whimpering. Then she went quiet and the light from the torch disappeared. I could only assume she’d run off, moving the torch as she did so.
In the complete darkness, as the last of the feeling left my body, I felt sleepy. My grip on the ewe loosened. The animal must have felt my hold slacken, and with one huge kick she leapt up the banking and scrabbled to safety.
The force of the kick toppled me over and freed my feet from the mud. I fell backwards and went under. I grabbed at a boulder to prevent myself from being swept away and then I heard a voice. Was it my own? ‘Let go. Stop fighting and just let go,’ it said. And I wasn’t afraid any more. It would all be over soon and I would find some peace. I loosened my grip and let myself sink. I saw a bright light coming towards me.
I almost fell over the stupid sheep. It appeared out of nowhere as I followed the barking collie to the water’s edge. The beam of my torch picked out the woman’s face and her outstretched arm. She let go of the rock and started to slip downstream. I slid down the bank and managed to grab the hood of her jacket. I was surprised by how light she was, even in her sodden clothes. She fought against me as I dragged her from the water.
I put her over my shoulder and half jogged, half stumbled back to the holiday cottage I was renting from Morag. The dog ran by my side and followed us indoors. I set the woman down in a chair at the fireside and threw some more coal into the grate. Then I went to the bathroom and grabbed a towel. I took off my sweater and put it and the towel on the floor in front of her. I told her to get out of her wet things while I made a hot drink.
When I returned with two mugs of tea and a blanket, she was standing, looking into the fire. She rubbed half-heartedly at her hair with the towel. Her wet clothes lay in a pile on the floor. My sweater came down almost to her knees. She turned to look at me. She was slightly built and could only have been about five-foot-three. Her face was pale, her eyes large. She was obviously in shock and she looked exhausted.
I laid down what I was carrying. “Here, let me.” I took the towel from her. At first she tensed up, but she allowed me to rub her hair. As it dried I saw that she was a redhead, just a bit of grey here and there. “That’ll do,” I said, putting down the towel. “Now, get this down you. It’s hot and sweet.” I handed her a mug. I also gave her the blanket. “And wrap yourself in this.”
She took the tea and sat on the sofa. The dog followed her and sat on the floor at her feet.
I remained standing by the fire. I glanced at the woman as I sipped my tea and wondered how she’d come to be in need of rescuing. I guessed she was in her late forties or early fifties, not bad looking, even in her exhausted state. As she drank her tea, she stared into the fire. She’d tucked her legs up under her and covered herself with the blanket. From time to time she ran a hand through her hair, and the more it dried the curlier it became.
She caught me looking at her. “Thanks for the tea,” she said. “But now Bonnie and me had better leave you in peace.”
I was slightly surprised to hear her voice. She hadn’t spoken a word so far.
“No, take your time, there’s no rush. Is there someone you’d like me to call? Someone who will be wondering where you are?”
She didn’t reply. I saw her jaw tense as she looked at me.
“Maybe I should take you to the hospital, get you checked over.”
“That won’t be necessary, really, I’m fine.” She pushed the blanket aside and laid the mug on the side table. As she stood up, she staggered and grabbed the sofa arm to steady herself.
I went over to her, put my hands on her shoulders, gently sat her back down. “Oh, yes, you’re clearly fine. Half drowned, exhausted and probably hypothermic, but apart from that right as rain.” I also wondered where she thought she was going, dressed only in my sweater. I sat beside her and, taking her wrist in my hand, felt for her pulse.
She pulled her hand away. “Are you a doctor?”
“No, I’m a policeman, was a policeman, retired Detective Inspector, Lothian and Borders. I was trained in first aid in the force. I’m Jack by the way, Jack Baxter.”
“Rachel Campbell.” She met my gaze, but only briefly, her smile a mere flicker.
The dog stood up, looked from Rachel to me, gave a little bark.
“That’s a good dog you’ve got there, protective and very persistent,” I said.
Rachel just nodded.
“It was lucky I’d gone out to get some coal,” I went on. “I heard her barking. She was down at Morag and Alasdair’s place. I thought she maybe belonged to them, but there was nobody home. I tried to get her to come in here, but she kept running up the track every time I got close, until I got the message and followed her. So I just grabbed my coat and a torch and she led me straight to you.”
“Yes, Bonnie’s a good dog. I owe her, and you, of course. I owe you both. I’d no strength left.” Her voice trembled and she looked away as she finished speaking.
“Look, why don’t I get us some more tea and you can tell me how you ended up in the water. And then I’ll take you home. I take it you live close by.”
“Yes, yes I do, Burnside Cottage. And thanks, more tea would be nice.”
“Good, might even throw in some toast.” As I stood to go, I took the box of tissues from the coffee table and handed it to her. “Use as many as you like,” I said.