In the interest of full disclosure I need to state for the record I am a Sassenach. A full-blooded Sassenach with genetic connections to Wales and Ireland, but definitely not Scotland. Despite that I do consider myself slightly Scottish. My husband (Irish) grew up just north of Glasgow and I moved to Scotland in 1989 to start my Ph.D. in St Andrews, Fife.
Not only did I meet my husband in St. Andrews, I gave birth to both our children in Kirkcaldy. The fact I know how to say Kirkcaldy and Auchtermuchty shoots me straight to near Scottish status in of itself. And although it took a few months I can understand most of what any Fifer says to me—even those guttural mumblers who you pretty much have to mind read. Not a problem. And those old ladies? Well I turned the worst of those into an old hag for my book STORM WARNING and feel like I got my full measure of revenge. In truth the old ladies in the street where I lived in Cellardyke were absolutely adorable. They fussed over my bairns and petted my dogs and never looked down their noses even though I only cleaned the stoop once a year and not once a day. Those people, those wonderful fluttery, strong, determined and yet somehow frail characters are some of the many joys of Scotland. Notice I’m talking about the people here? I haven’t mentioned the scenery and I’m not going to, even though the landscape feels like a part of my bones.
My other book set in Scotland (SEA OF SUSPICION) is set in the marine lab where I did my Ph.D. I met so many truly brilliant people there that it is one of those special pockets in life that shimmer with happiness when you think of them. The main problem I had writing the story was not using the amazing characters of the people I knew (not to mention all the real life secrets and dramas and scandals). It’s possible there’s the odd subtle hint here and there of some of the vibrant people I knew, but I’m not confirming any rumors.
Here’s an excerpt from the first chapter of STORM WARNING—I hope it gives you a wee taste of Scotland. It’ll have to keep me going until I next go home.
The rocks and stones that flanked the Scottish coastline could twist an unwary ankle or break a foolish neck. Sorcha ran anyway. Waves crashed and pounded the rocky shore. Bitter wind flayed her face and slapped spray against her cheeks. Her foot slipped on the dangerous rocks but she was gaining on the man who tormented her and she pumped her legs faster.
A crack of thunder jerked her head right, and in that split-second her foot connected with a patch of green algae and she crashed to the granite. The figure disappeared around the next corner.
“Bloody hell!” She sat up, flexed sore wrists and rubbed her battered knees. Apart from the graze on her shin she was uninjured. “Just crazy,” she muttered as she climbed to her feet.
Unwelcome sensations spun through the air. Her heart raced triple-time and the sweat on her body crystallized to hoarfrost. The pressure of probing eyes snagged her attention to the houses that lined the coast. A jumble of seventeenth and eighteenth-century cottages that crowded the shore, as if the fishermen who’d built them had staked their claim on the sea and dared it to come any closer. Shivering, she held her breath, blood pounding through her ears with the cadence of thunder. Danger pulsed through the air. Or was it just her oversensitive imagination?
She started jogging, tiredly stretching out aching muscles, wanting to get home and away from the nightmare her life had become.
She rounded the corner and lurched to a stop, shock welding her feet to the ancient Scottish bedrock.
A body rolled in the surf.
Oh God, not again. Was he real?
Indecision held her in place. Should she pretend she didn’t see him? Was she really this insane? She squeezed her eyes shut and curled her hands into fists because she didn’t want to be the crazy lady. She was sick of being the weirdo. When she opened her eyes again, the pewter sky had darkened, reflecting ominous hues in the green-tinged North Sea, and the body was still there. Her hands shook. Breath jammed in her lungs. She expelled it and took one tentative step forward. Then she began to run.
Horror ripped away decades and she couldn’t move fast enough. She climbed rocky steeples, staggered across granite ledges and plunged into water so cold her skin blistered. She skidded, hissed out a cry and grabbed at his sweater.
But Christ, he was real! She hadn’t expected him to be.
She swallowed her relief because now there was a genuine emergency. He weighed more than lead, heavy clothes dragging him into the swirling depths. A wave crashed over the top of the ledge, cascading into the pool and over Sorcha’s head as she tore at the man, trying to lift his face for air. Panic gave her strength.
He may not be dead. He may not be dead yet.
Desperate, she grabbed the material, felt the stretch and give of waterlogged wool, and heaved. Turning him over, she took an instant to absorb the fact that it wasn’t him.
Thank God, it wasn’t him.
This man was young with dirty blond hair plastered to his skull. He looked more like a student or a tourist than a fisherman, and he wasn’t breathing. Currents tried to steal him as waves pounded the rock pool, but she refused to let go.
Using every muscle in her body, she worked at pulling his dead weight clear of the water. If she could get him there, if she could get him breathing, there was a five-minute window where she could run for help before the storm-driven tide stole him again.
Imagine how crazy she’d sound if she claimed to have found another body on the beach, only this one disappeared? She’d been gone for many years, but in this part of Scotland people didn’t forget—and they didn’t forgive.
Her feet slipped. “No!” She lost her balance on the treacherous rock and his weight pushed her under. She banged her head on granite and choked as seawater entered her airway.
Spluttering, she rose to her feet, hooked her hands beneath his arms and dragged him backward out of the weed-infested pool before she collapsed.
Waves lashed around both sides of the rocks. There wasn’t much time to resuscitate him before the tide caught up with them, but she had to try. Rough stone bit into her knees as she checked for a pulse. She searched his thick wrist, then the wall of his neck for the telltale beat of life. Nothing moved. No flutter of blood, no rise or fall of his chest. His lips were blue. Skin, pale and waxy. Glassy eyes stared up at her, reminding her of another face…
“He’s dead.” The voice came out of nowhere, loud and startling, despite the howling gale.
Sorcha screamed. She didn’t mean to, couldn’t help the screech that escaped her lips.
“Take it easy.” A stranger stood nearby, holding up his hands, fingers spread wide in a nonthreatening gesture. Black eyes stared at her from a harsh face, spray or perspiration beading his forehead. His lips were compressed into a thin red line and a muscle ticked in his jaw.
There was no compassion in his gaze, no relief to be found in his presence. A shudder ran through her as the wind cut through her wet clothes to penetrate her skin, only it wasn’t the temperature that made her shake. The guy was about as friendly as razor wire.
“Do you know him?” The man, an American by his accent, shouted above the roar of wind and water.
Sorcha looked down at the man at her feet—the undoubtedly dead man at her feet.
Lord, I should recognize a corpse.
She shook her head. She’d never seen the young man before.
“Think you can make it up the shore?” he asked.
“Of course. What about him?” Despite the lungful of water she’d inhaled, her voice held. She wasn’t the one who needed to be rescued. In case he hadn’t noticed, she was the one doing the rescuing.
Foam frothed. The tempest was about to hit full force. The furious gray clouds started to spit. He tore his gaze from the surging water back to her. “I’ll carry him.”
“He’s heavy.” Sorcha hesitated to touch the man now that she knew he was dead, but she felt bound to him. Just like so many years ago. “I can help.” She moved forward to pick up the dead man’s arm, preparing to haul him up.
Ignoring her, the newcomer maneuvered himself around the rocks to stand on the other side of the body and hefted the dead man across his shoulders.
Sorcha opened her mouth to argue, but the Yank was already striding away and she had no choice except to follow. Why did men take over like that?
The American couldn’t hear, but she wasn’t so sure about the dead.
The stranger negotiated the jutting slabs of bedrock with ease, the corpse strung across his shoulders as though he carried dead bodies every day. Wrapping her arms tight across her chest, she trailed him. A boulder wobbled beneath her trainers and she slipped, letting out a yelp of surprise. The American turned, the dead guy streaming water down his crimson jacket like fresh-flowing blood.
Unsettled, she forced the image away.
“Need some help?” he asked.
Away from the violent surf he’d relaxed a little, his expression unlocked by the barest degree. Although the derision in his eyes suggested he found her discomfort amusing.
Just what I need. A sadist.
And suddenly there was her father again, strolling up the beach ahead of them, disappearing through the garden gate. A voice whispered close by, the words whisked away by the fury of the storm. She held herself rigid, fighting the urge to close her eyes and weep.
Her father was dead.
The American didn’t notice anything was wrong. He just turned around and carried on walking. Her fingers shook as she dragged her hand through her sticky hair. She lurched onward, barely able to feel her toes. She wasn’t sure what affected her more—the icy water, the cruel storm or the ghosts from her past.
Her eyes latched onto the stranger’s red jacket, a lifeline, and her feet carried her on autopilot. He headed to the old Johnstone cottage, the one closest to the beach.
She didn’t want to remember the last time she’d been in that house. Fifteen years was a long time, but not long enough to eradicate those memories.
Despite the rain that made distinct splashes on the rocks, her pace slowed. Part of her wanted to go home, to continue walking up the beach a few houses and forget she’d ever found another body in the rock pool. Instead she followed the American past where the rocks turned into coarse sand and salt-tolerant wildflowers encroached on the sea’s territory. They went up three stone steps and through a newly painted blue door set in the old stone wall. And each step brought with it a sharp sense of déjà vu.
The stranger laid the dead man on the thin strip of grass that constituted a lawn, and the corpse seemed to glow in the twilight. Who was he? How had he ended up on this beach?
She resisted the urge to cross herself.
The American disappeared along the covered passageway toward the cottage’s door, but the vulnerability of the body pulled at her. An old stone potting shed stood in the garden. She rattled the doorknob in search of a tarp or a towel to cover the dead man, but it was locked. Old Mrs. Johnstone used to hide the key beneath the dusty flowerpot which still sat at the corner of the shed. Numbly Sorcha scrabbled her fingers beneath it, found only dried dirt and cobwebs. Some things did change if you stayed away long enough. She rested against the wall, and the rain beat down on her head.
The American approached, carrying a coarse pink blanket and a cell phone. The sharp angles of his face contrasted with the weathered stone of the cottage behind him.
“Who are you?” she asked softly.
“Name’s Ben Foley.”
Nothing else. No pleasantries. No “Isn’t it terrible we found a dead man on the beach?” Droplets of moisture glistened in his hair. Knowledge and intelligence sparked in the pitch of his eyes.
She shrank away, alarmed by what he might see. “I need to go home and change—”
“No. I called the cops.”
She edged back, but he followed. He held up his cell phone and tilted his head. “Said they’d be right over.”
Bloody hell. She needed to get away. “Look, I’m freezing. I need to change out of these wet things.”
“Sorry.” He didn’t sound sorry at all. “The police wanna talk to you.” His tone was firm, brooking no argument. He flashed a smile, a crease bisecting one clean-shaven cheek. He was deeply, gloriously tanned, making her feel washed-out and insipid by comparison. “The fire’s lit.” He slipped the phone back into his pocket. “And I can lend you some dry stuff.”
Tension gripped her as he stepped closer and held the blanket wide as if to wrap her in it.
She twisted away. “Put it over him.” She pointed a finger at the body.
“Believe me, he doesn’t need it.” He stood in front of her, a solid wall of determination.
“Yes, he does.” She tried to control the tremor in her voice and glanced at the neighbors’ windows, which shone with light. At least one curious onlooker was silhouetted against pale curtains. How could she express her distress at the thought of people seeing the dead man at his most vulnerable? “He needs to be covered up.”
They glared at each other until he finally backed away. “Fine, lady. Whatever.”
God, he was cranky.
The wind sliced through her. She rubbed her arms and stamped her feet to try to get warm, silently cursing as her soggy trainers squished. She did not have time for hypothermia.
“Are you sure you don’t recognize him?” he asked.
“I’ve never seen him before.” And hoped to hell she never saw him again. One ghost was enough.
Ben Foley covered the body with the blanket. He knelt to one side and swept the sleeve of the sweater up above the elbow of the dead man’s arm and quickly pulled it back down, adjusting the cuff. Sorcha’s teeth chattered as he tucked the blanket securely beneath the head and torso to foil the wind.
His movements were respectful. It helped, though she didn’t know why.
The storm ripped at his jacket as he turned back toward her, this tall startling foreigner. She stood her ground even though what she really wanted to do was run.
“Let’s get you inside.” Gripping her arm, he escorted her toward the cottage and pushed her through the small wooden doorway into a wall of heat. Even so she felt chilled. She hadn’t been inside this cottage since she was a little girl. She hadn’t been here since that awful day…
It hadn’t changed much, although her memories of the cottage itself were dim. A fire blazed on the hearth and she moved toward the fierce, bright flames, leaving a trail of wet footprints behind on the floor.
The American hesitated before closing the door. He seemed agitated all of a sudden. More agitated than when he’d carried a dead body off the beach.
What’s with that?
He moved to the dining table and began clearing away his laptop and papers.
Hah. Like she cared. Unlike the rest of this town, she wasn’t always poking her nose into other people’s business.
A chair faced the picture window overlooking the beach. A fat white telescope was mounted in front of it and pointed toward the sea. Had Ben Foley been watching the storm? Had he seen her race for home, trying to beat the rain? Had he watched as her nightly run ended in gruesome discovery?
She should be grateful. Without him, the boy’s body would have been lost.
She held her hands outstretched to the fire and dropped to her knees to get closer to the heat, regretting the movement as soon as her wet clothes slapped her skin. Yuck. She yanked the clingy cotton sweatshirt over her head, and dropped it in a soggy heap on the hearth. A prickly sensation spread along her nerves as she felt Ben’s eyes bore into her. She toed off her runners and peeled wet jogging pants down her legs. Stripping to her underwear didn’t bother her. In fact, her body was one of the few things in her life she wasn’t ashamed of.
Turning to warm her back, her gaze locked with Ben Foley’s. Unease filtered through the shock. Her breath stopped.
Maybe this wasn’t the brightest idea she’d ever had.
The flames danced higher and Sorcha wondered if she’d made a terrible mistake. She was down to her underwear, alone with a strange man, a dead body in the garden, and only his word that the police were on their way.
STORM WARNING and SEA OF SUSPICION
Scottish Romantic Suspense from Carina Press
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