Nichol Seacliff is facing his darkest hour. He’s sole remaining heir to a failing sheep farm on the Isle of Arran, and about as lonely as any young man could be. His only companions are his grumpy grandfather Harry, and three sheepdogs who won’t answer to his whistle.
He’s thinking about throwing the whole business in when, one bitter, stormy night, a stranger breaks into his barn. Nichol, at the end of his rope, is inclined to deal with new trouble with a shotgun, but soon realises this intruder means no harm. He’s a lost lad by the name of Cameron, on the run from a dodgy and dangerous Glasgow past.
As the island winter melts into glorious summer, Cameron finds a place not only on the farm but in Nichol’s heart. Even Harry can’t hold out against his charm. But Cam can’t escape his shadows, and the dreadful secret he’s concealing has the power of a hungry tide, ready to wash all his newfound happiness with Nichol away.
It was almost dark by the time I got done. Harry hadn’t returned from his mysterious jaunt, and now the lambing was over I’d had to send Shona’s lads back home. I hadn’t realised quite how much work Cam had been taking off me in his quiet way. Wearily pulling off my coat and boots in the porch, I resolved to talk to Harry about finding some way to pay him, Kenzie or no Kenzie—he was definitely worth more than just his bed and board.
I went through into the kitchen. There was no sign that he’d fixed himself any supper in my absence. Lamplight was shining from the half-open parlour door.
“Cam?” I said, pushing it wide. “I’m back. You okay?”
He was sitting at the polished table, his shirtsleeves rolled to his elbow. All around him were neat stacks of paperwork, and in front of him several sheets of calculations and the open A4 book, which I could see from here now contained column after nicely ruled column of figures. He looked utterly exhausted, but when he saw me he seemed to light up from the inside, and I felt as if I did too.
“You smell like a cool summer night.”
I came and straddled a chair next to him. “Is that a good thing?”
“It’s very good.”
“You’ve been pretty busy.”
“I wish I had better news from it all for you. Still, I can—”
“Ah, Cam,” I interrupted him. I was tired and sore, and all the muscle-wrenching labour in the world wouldn’t serve to banish my desire for him, or my conviction that I’d never be good enough—for him or for anything else. I couldn’t even keep my granda’s farm. “You can’t make a silk purse out of the sow’s ear I’ve made of things here. I’ve run the place into the ground.”
He laced his fingers together for a moment. Then he reached for the book and flipped back through a few pages. “Nic, I know you loved your brother.”
“What has that to do with—?”
“I’m sure he did his best with all of this, okay? But it’s not you who’s been running it down.”
“What do you mean?”
“Going through this stuff, I’d say Alistair was great at shifting debts around. But he was just staving off disaster. He took out loans with some real sharks then borrowed off bigger ones to try and pay them off. I reckon…best will in the world, the farm would’ve crashed in a year or so anyway.”
I sat back. I felt very strange. Weights were lifting from me, but I wasn’t sure I was ready to let them go. Al did practical things well and I did them badly. That was enshrined in Seacliff family legend. The failure of our business here had been my fault for so long that the guilt had become a kind of scaffold to me, a prop. “I don’t understand. He was always so sure of himself.”
“It might have been bravado. He was in trouble.”
“God almighty. Can I do anything to put it right?”
“You don’t want to sell the place up, do you?”
“I couldn’t. Harry was born here.”
“But what do you want? You were born here too.”
We sat looking at one another. He kept wrong-footing me by putting me first. I’d grown up in a family with a patriarch and a domineering older brother. Even my ma, loving though she’d been, had eclipsed me. I hadn’t minded—I’d never known different, and they were good people, a wolf pack tolerant of its omega when they noticed it was there. What do you want? A question in violet eyes now fixed on mine.
“Me? I don’t know.”
“Yeah, you do.”
“All winter all I could think about was selling it. I was on the brink of trying to tell Harry the night you arrived. Now I’m not so sure.”
“What about your studies? You gave up everything to come back here.”
“I’d love to finish. I’d love to…” I paused, long-neglected dreams reaching surface, “…to pack up the Toyota, get on the ferry—not the Calmac, the Brittany one—and drive down through France. I’d like to rent a medieval tower in the Southern Pyrenees in some sizzling-hot valley where it never rains, stay there all summer and figure out the origins of Basque.”
“See? You did know.”
I began to laugh. That had been pretty specific. “Looks like. What can I do, though? The farm’s Harry’s, not mine. I couldn’t sell it even if I wanted, and these guys from the Midlothian will come and break our kneecaps if we don’t pay up.”
“No, they won’t. I phoned them this afternoon. I hope you don’t mind.”
“You… Wow.” For me that was the equivalent of walking into the dragon’s cave and calmly requesting a chat. “No, I don’t mind. But…didn’t they ask you security questions and stuff?”
“The ones your brother wrote in red Biro on the back of their first letter?” He picked the paper up and showed me. “Sometimes it’s easier to call and say you can’t do it—put the ball in their court, see how they’ll react.”
“Don’t they just call the bailiffs? Foreclose?”
“Expensive exercise for them. And if you go bankrupt, chances are they’ll get next to nothing from your assets. I suggested a year’s extension, twelve instalment payments.”
“Won’t they kill us with the interest?”
“I told them to freeze it where it stands, or we wouldn’t be able to do anything for them at all.”
“They never accepted that.”
“The agreement’s in the post. It’s tough times—everyone’s just trying to grab what they can.”
I drew a deep breath. I seemed to have extra space in my lungs for it now. “Bloody hell. Look at the big pair of Wall Street balls on you!”
“That’s all right with you, then?”
“Christ, yes. Thank you. Even with that sorted, though—can we make it? What about the tax return?”
“Well, now that I’ve made you some books, I reckon I can fix them up.”
“What—cook them, like for your criminal taskmasters?”
“No, you idiot. But there’s things you can claim—allowances, grants, low-income supplements—that you haven’t been doing. Legally. And these loans your brother took out, I can consolidate those. The reputable Scottish banks don’t want to see farms like this shut down. They go for a song then get turned into caravan parks. I bet I could find you a good deal. And, looking at all this lot…” He pushed the papers around thoughtfully. “I’m not sure you’ve even earned enough this year to go over the threshold. You might not need to make a return at all.”
I got up. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. He looked so lovely sitting there, weary in the lamplight. He wasn’t ill, I decided—he’d been shaken so badly by his encounter with Archie that it had made him sick, and the marks of his fright were still on him. I vowed I’d never let him be so scared again, whatever had happened in Glasgow. I didn’t care what he’d done.
I put out a hand to him. “Come here.”
“Don’t get too excited, Nic.” He let himself be drawn to his feet. “I’ll do the research, fill in the forms if you’ll let me, but it might not work.”
“I don’t care. I mean, I do, but it’s the fact that you’ve spent all day even trying to sort this stuff out for me. Beannachd do t’anam is buaidh.”
“What’s that mean?”
“Blessings on your soul and your future. It sounds horrible in English.”
His hand tightened on mine. “No, it doesn’t. Please don’t take it back. You’ve no idea how much I need a blessing.”
“And you’ve worn yourself out. Come here with me and sit down.”
The fire I’d lit for him earlier had settled to a glow, a little sunset to match the vast one casting its last lights into the room. I led him by the hand to the sofa that faced the hearth. It wasn’t a large one, and when we sat down, our shoulders touched. Thighs too, and there were our joined hands. I wasn’t much given to admiring myself, but I loved how my arm looked curved over his. Like Harry, I had year-round weather tan. His skin was paler, ivory in the firelight. His upcoming musculature matched mine. I turned my head and found him already looking at me, lips parted, eyes fathomless.
“If this place is Harry’s, why doesn’t he help you out with the finances?”
“Harry? Um…” I grabbed a cushion and flipped it as casually as I could across my lap. “Harry doesn’t do money. Not since it was beads and barter, anyway.”
“Well—I adore your granda, but I think he should at least try and get his head round it, to make life a bit easier for you.”
“Oh, right. Will you be telling him that, then?”
“I might have a go.”
“Cam, love—do you really want to talk about Harry just now?”
“No. And you can move that cushion.”