The air was damp and muggy. Heavy with the smell of saltwater. The sky was an immaculate white, with too many clouds and a blinding light emanating from it. Looking at it was like looking directly into a lightbulb; and for Claire’s delicate golden irises, it wouldn’t be sustainable in the long run.
Quickly, she brought her glance away from the sky and rubbed her eyes, trying to ignore the black dots in front of them from the light. Adjusting her glasses, she continued looking at the sights around her. The only place she had ever known in Scotland was Edinburgh — where she spent a few years roaming its streets and university halls — but that was about it. She knew the concrete, the pubs, the shops, Arthur’s Seat, and other various green expanses. The other side of the country, though, was foreign to her. The wilderness. The Highlands. The place where nature did whatever it wanted, whenever it wanted it.
— that place, she had no idea about. There was a certain feeling of apprehension clinging inside her ribcage. It was meant to be sunny this weekend, she had checked the forecast a few times before leaving Oxford; then again when they landed in Edinburgh. Then again, on the train to Orkney; and then again, before getting onto the boat.
She’d be lying if she only blamed the weather for her mood. She was mostly nervous for the weekend itself. Nervous to be enclosed in such close quarters with people she barely knew. People who, for the past two years, had never bothered to make her feel even slightly welcomed.
A sassenach, they had called her once or twice.
They being her fiancé’s group of friends.
None of them had meant any harm by the comment; quite the contrary, they assured her. They had received her into their tightly bonded group, teasing her about being the first woman Lennox had ever introduced to them. She often wondered, what they would think of the engagement? They had been together for almost two years; surely, it was a reasonable time. Not that it was any of their concerns, she reminded herself. They both wanted this.
— that was all that mattered.
Claire often felt like she didn’t belong with the group. She felt like a voyeur, watching them all talk and laugh about their school years; sharing inside jokes and anecdotes she did not understand. Things she couldn’t understand, no matter how many times Lennox had explained some of them to her. Each time, she would nod and smile at him, maybe letting a calculated little laugh escape her lips to pretend she understood what the hell they were talking about. But she never did.
When Lennox proposed, they had agreed to take a little trip to Scotland to celebrate. Only the two of them.
“We could go to Orkney? What do ye think?” he asked, drawing patterns onto her bareback with his index finger.
Lennox, the handsome publicist who had told her upon their first meeting that commitment was not for him. That he was too free-spirited for it — she had shared the sentiment at the time.
Lennox, the man she thought would be fun to have a one night stand with (it had been), was now the same man who had opened a little velvet box, containing a huge diamond ring, in front of the fireplace and asked her to marry him.
She had said yes. Looking at the rock on her finger now, she was still wondering if she meant it... it was normal, wasn’t it? She was still slightly shocked at the proposal. Neither of them were really prone to weddings, they had discussed this multiple times over the years.
Guess people change.
“Why Orkney?” Claire looked up at him, feeling the warmth of the fireplace glowing against her bare skin.
“You will be married to a Scotsman, it’s time ye visit the country a bit more,” he kissed the tip of her nose, smiling — his half-crooked smile of his she loved so much.
“I reckon, yes,” she couldn’t help but grin, thrilled at the idea of a romantic getaway together.
“Orkney it is, then.”
“I always wanted to visit their library, too,” she added, shifting onto her side.
“Of course ye did,” he kissed her again, pulling her close. His accent wasn’t as thick as it used to be, tamed by a few years of living in England. His words carried the same effect. But sometimes, the way he spoke a word or a sentence brought out the Scot in full force. It was charming, all right.
What Lennox had failed to mention that night was that the little romantic getaway was actually about to become a friends’ trip, on one of the smallest islands around Orkney.
— she didn’t mind, not really. Or maybe just a tad.
— she couldn’t mind.
He was way too excited to spend this time, not only with her but also with his best friends. To celebrate and spend a joyful weekend altogether.
“It would be a good occasion for you to really get to know them, Claire.”
He wasn’t completely wrong. She simply wasn’t too sure she cared to know them. To his friends, she’d never be more than Len’s girl. Sharing a meal or drinks with the group was one thing. Inviting them to the house for rugby night (a tradition for the boys) or seeing them at various professional parties thrown by Lennox and his firm, too, but a whole weekend? Confined to an island? That was something else.
Lennox did not ask her to invite her own friends. Not even a hint of an invitation. Nothing. She was starting to regret not doing so without consulting him. After all, the estate was meant to be big enough.
— at least they wouldn’t have to suffer through a storm.
Or so she thought.
She silently cursed her phone’s weather app as the rain started to fall; a claustrophobic mist bringing out the frizz in her carefully straightened hair. To top it all off, the little boat bringing them to the estate was anything but still. Clashing against waves, holding its own against the groaning sea. Water clung to her trousers, getting into her boots and carrying the horrendous smell of dead fish to her nostrils. She wasn’t one prone to seasickness, but she wasn’t too sure she’d be able to hold everything down for much longer.
Lennox was sitting next to her, enjoying himself more than she was. His jet black hair brushed back by the wind, a tiny streak of silver coming through the front. His eyes were just as dark — so dark, that one didn’t know where his pupil ended and his iris began. Raven-like, focused on the horizon; though it was hidden by a thick fog.
His hand squeezed hers when he turned his face to look at her, his smile gentle, “All right there, poppy?”
“Bit cold,” she answered, one eye half-closed because of the wind. She was sure her Barbour jacket and heavy turtleneck would have been enough to keep her warm. Rookie mistake. She blamed it on the romanticising of what a Highland trip would look like more than anything else.
“We’re almost there,” he leaned closer and kissed her temple, sensing her struggle with the boat ride. His arm wrapped around her shoulder.
“So who else is coming?” she asked, though she already knew the answer. Up until this morning, she thought this trip was only the two of them. She already knew what type of reactions his friends would have upon seeing her, and the awareness of having to control herself all weekend, to watch every word she said, every reaction she had, was prompting a headache.
That was always how it was around them; she played a role to fit in.
“Alasdair, Tommy, and Sarah —”
“Elise is not coming?” Claire frowned, though more out of surprise than discontent. There was a certain satisfaction in knowing that, at least, she wouldn’t have to deal with her here.
It had always been cordial with Elise, but she wasn’t a dupe when it came to the woman’s fake enthusiasm. She was Lennox’s oldest friend and one of his clients. On some busy days, the man spent more time with her than with his fiancée. Out of the group, she was the one who had a tight smile and the inauthentic laughs when she met Claire for the first time. She caught Elise looking at her once or twice in a certain way — a way that seemed to wonder too many things at once.
“Nay,” he said a bit loudly to be heard over the wind. “She has an audition this weekend, but she sends her love!”
Claire simply gave him a smile; there was no use answering him, she wouldn’t have been able to hide her contentment.
Then, she looked straight ahead. It seemed that the fog was opening up to reveal the island. It wasn’t very big. However, the estate perched in the middle of it was enormous. The sight altogether took her breath away; a mixture of awe...and fear. They’d be here for the weekend, unreachable, in case of a storm.
Her breath was coming in short spurts. Her hands shook, but not from the freezing temperatures. The palpitating pulse of the sea echoed her heart.
Claire looked at the sky for a brief moment. It wasn’t as blinding anymore...instead, it was darkening rather quickly. Grey menacing clouds afar, approaching. All she could do was squeeze Lennox’s hand gently, snuggling close to him to try to relax.
“Do a lot of people come here?” she asked, turning towards the captain. Discussions were always a good distraction.
The man didn’t seem very old, forty at most, but the life at sea had added a few years to his harsh features. He wasn’t very tall either; smaller than her, actually. But he had a friendly face and curious green eyes, reminding her of a child.
“In the summer, aye!” He leaned back slightly, smiling and ignoring the wave crashing at his side altogether.
“‘Tis a bonny time for a visit, too. No’ many people come ‘round during this time of the year. But some do, mind ye,” he smiled, reassuringly. He seemed to have noticed her unease.
Claire didn’t know why it hadn’t occurred to her until now that coming to a Scottish island in the middle of November was not much of a good idea. Not that spring and summer meant good weather here, but at the very least, the days stretched longer and they surely wouldn’t look so sinister.
“The estate is a bonny place, though. Has belonged to the owners’ family for six generations, at least. The current Laird remodelled the place and opened for business a few months ago.”
“All my clients want to come here,” Lennox interjected, proud to be witnessing this exclusive place before all the rich wankers he took care of. Most of them were actors. Most of them were despicable.
“It looks to be a good setting for a story,” Claire couldn’t help but grin at that. Her writer’s mind opened up at the possibilities of what type of story she could take out for such a trip. His friends were all the sort of people one would find in a book, too.
Alasdair — a lawyer, already divorced twice. The business mind of a shark, the brain of a puppy, the behaviour of a toddler. He was and always had been Lennox’s shadow, apparently. Both attending some English boarding school for boys in the middle of nowhere. “It bonds you, this stuff,” he said once, reminiscing about their school days. It was a Christmas party, and he had more coke up his nose than there was snow outside.
Tommy — She had met him before she even met Lennox at that party. He introduced them. He worked in publishing, forever the singleton. He was not one for commitment, he smoked and drank too much; but at least, he admitted it. He went to boarding school and to university with Lennox.
“My parents insisted I attend.” he shrugged off, proudly. “At least, I met that one,” he patted Lennox on the back, his eyes bloodshot and his laugh piercing.
Sarah — Small in size but loud in character, she had welcomed Claire with open arms and a glass of whisky. She was a surgeon, with a severe look but a very piercing laugh. Compared to the rest, she seemed inoffensive and to actually like her a little.
Then, there was Elise; but thankfully this weekend, Claire would not have to think about her.
Elise — Breathtakingly beautiful Elise. Lennox’s oldest female friend; like the sister he never had, he liked to say. The first person who trusted him with her career. She took credit for his business being so prolific; but the truth was, she had not been working for the past two years, and the offers were not really crawling, either. She was getting by because of detox tea advertisements on her various social media accounts.
In the group, she was the one who had taken the least to Claire, though pretending it wasn’t the case at all. Even though Len did not seem to notice, her acting chops were truly shit.
“Maybe you should tell Elise it’s time to find another job?” Claire looked up from the trash tabloids on the breakfast table. Once again, Lennox’s protégée found herself on the front page, with less than flattering headlines. “Unless partying is part of her shtick?”
“Look, it’s been a bit rough for her, but she’s had some auditions and things are picking up,” he kissed her head, closing up the buttons of his shirt. She often wondered why he always found excuses for her behaviour.
“Don’t be like that, aye?”
“Like what?” She knew what he meant.
“I think sometimes it’s good to recognize something is not working anymore and move on. This is hurting her more than anything, Len.”
“She is my oldest friend, I can’t abandon her simply because she’s not landing roles the way she used to. It’s been tough for everybody. It’s only a little drought, she’ll get through it.”
A drought. That was the understatement of the century. Elise had had only one prolific role, and it was in a daytime soap so badly written that Claire had fallen asleep the first time Lennox had made her watch an episode.
Turning to him, she smiled softly, “I know, love. I’m sure she’s very glad to have you on her team. I’m just saying...I don’t want her to end up, well, you know.”
“Don’t worry your pretty little head about it, poppy,” he gave her shoulders a squeeze. “You should be thinking about your book right now.”
“Oh, I’m thinking,” she brushed off, taking a sip of coffee. The outline of her next novel was in her mind. Hazy but there, nonetheless. She should be thinking about that instead of wondering, all of a sudden if Lennox and Elise had ever slept together.
“The gang will arrive in the afternoon,” Lennox added, resting his chin on her shoulder. “We’ll have time to explore the estate in peace for a bit,” he winked.
Her eyes focused on the island once more; the sight approaching at speed now.
— God, she hated that fucking name.
“Wow...” Claire looked around the hall, mesmerized.
“This is quite something.”
“It’s beautiful,” Lennox said softly, wrapping his arms around her from behind. He kissed the spot behind her ear; the spot only he knew about. “I told ye I’d make this weekend perfect, poppy.”
“It’s already off to a good start,” she turned around, wrapping her arms around his neck. She was starting to relax again. Sheltered from the wind and the rain, she felt like herself again...the hall was too big to be warm, but it was better to be here than outside.
“Ye’re in for a treat,” he whispered, pressing himself against her. His lips found her neck and his hands slipped under her blouse, their coldness making her wince slightly at the contact.
“Len…” she closed her eyes, biting her lip. Claire knew exactly where he was getting to, but she was in no rush to stop him. After all, the place was huge and supposedly empty.
“Aye?” he nibbled her earlobe, his hand squeezing the inside of her thigh.
Goosebumps erupted over her skin along the path his fingers were following. That was one of the best things about their relationship — the sex. He had introduced her to an array of things she had no idea about before they met. He made her more adventurous; always in need to please him. To be pleased in return. No matter what went on between them during the day, they always could take the edge off at night.
Somehow, Claire managed to lean against the nearest piece of furniture: a Victorian chest of drawers. On the wall in front of her, there was a painting of what looked like a noblewoman in the eighteen century. She had long red hair and piercing blue eyes.
Her hands gripping his jacket, his hand coming dangerously close to a place she wanted it the most. She only noticed the painting when her own eyes opened again.
The very same eyes from the painting were in front of her. This time, belonging to a man. Broad and tall; taller than anybody she had ever met. The skin of his face was freckled and his curls were the colour of fire. For a brief moment, she stood there, entranced by this man, bewitched, completely forgetting Lennox and what he was doing.
— she knew them.
For what felt like more than mere seconds, their eyes were locked together. He didn’t move. He did not say a single word. It was as if he was too focused on her to notice what they were about to be doing. Or was he purposely not saying anything?
Then, the man finally cleared his throat.
Claire pushed Len’s hand away quickly, straightening herself. She was blushing; she could feel the heat rising in her cheeks, but not for the reasons one might think.
Lennox pulled himself together and turned around, quickly regaining a perfect composure. He smiled broadly, “Oh, hello there. Sorry, we did no’ see you.”
“Ye must be the first guests,” the man said in a perfectly calm tone, his accent so thick it made Lennox seem like an Englishman in comparison. He was returning the smile, but something about it felt hollow. He seemed to be studying Lennox closely.
“Aye, that’s us,” Len took a step closer, holding out his hand. “I’m Lennox Campbell, and this is my fiancée, Claire.”
Claire came to join them. Her legs felt boneless and her head was slightly spinning, but she managed to smile, too, hiding the discomfort of whatever had just happened. Lennox had not seen this man watching them, but she felt his arm wrapping around her waist, like some sort of odd protective gesture. As if he was silently notifying the other man that she was, in fact, not his to look at.
“Hello,” she answered, feeling the grip tightening around her. Lennox could be a brute, sometimes, but it never happened outside of the bedroom.
“I’m Jamie,” he finally introduced himself, his dark eyes going from her to him and back again.
“Let me show ye the room and bring the bags upstairs, aye? Ye’ve asked for the Laird’s room, if I recall.”
“Indeed I did,” Lennox grinned at her and winked.
“This way,” Jamie motioned towards the big oak staircase before leading them to the second floor.
Claire turned her head slightly, casting a look at the big window at the end of the hall. The rain was slapping against the stained glass rather aggressively. It wasn’t a mist anymore, the realisation bringing back the small ping of fear from earlier.
Outside, it seemed, the storm was only getting started.