In just a few more hours, I’ll be off to Midwestern Book Lovers Unite! Where I’m looking forward to putting a lot of faces to names I’ve only known online so far, and socializing with a few hundred other romance aficionadas! If you’re one of them, finding this page for the first time, welcome! — have a look around, check out the book links and my post library… and enjoy an excerpt from my current work in progress, Bound in Oak, the third novella in the Tales of the Grove series.
Cass Argall felt naked.
He wasn’t, of course. He was perfectly sensibly dressed for the weather BBC.com had told him to expect, in a black woolen pea-coat he’d dug out of a bin in a charity shop back home in Bridgeport last winter. He hoped he looked at least a little authentically Scottish, but he was willing to settle for not looking authentically like the fucking idiot who had been locked out of his own apartment and his own bank account, forced to scavenge other people’s cast-offs.
BBC.com, unfortunately, hadn’t managed to convey the entire experience of going for a stroll less than half a kilometer from the western coast of Scotland’s Isle of Lewis on a wet February morning. Cass was pretty sure pneumonia was going to be his next great adventure.
“Are ye sure ye’r a’richt?” The estate agent tilted her head as she looked at him, like a sociable bird.
“Fine.” Cass pulled the lapels of the jacket closer around his throat and tried not to sound surly. The weather wasn’t Ainslee MacDonald’s fault, and neither was his touch of agoraphobia. “I’m fine. Just a little jet-lagged still.”
The curly-haired young woman looked dubious, but seemed willing to take him at his word. “I dinnae ken how ye cuid hae done it, cooped up in a plane sae lang.” She glanced around, at the sullen grey sky and the tumbled, rugged landscape. The comforting bulk of Mealisval, a very large hill the maps charitably called a mountain, was behind them and their path was strewn with rocks, from boulder-sized to gravel.
Cass could already hear the sea, or he thought he could, and the thought of all that open space made him sweat despite the chill in the air. “I don’t see very many trees,” he blurted, grimacing as the wind caught his words and scattered them.
“That’s an odd thing tae be noticing.” Ainslee–Miss MacDonald, as she’d assured him with a flirtatious flutter of lashes when she’d turned up at the bed and breakfast a half hour ago. “But ye’r right, they dinna care tae grow against the wind.”
Either the estate agent’s accent was becoming less pronounced, or Cass was having an easier time understanding her. He suspected the latter, as she probably wasn’t toning down the brogue. Just the opposite, she was doing her best to be charming. In an innocent way he might have fallen hard for, had Miss MacDonald been a Mister.
Except, of course, that he would do no such thing. Never again.
“Then why did Uncle Eonan call his estate Last Oak?” He realized as he asked that he was genuinely curious. The phone call three weeks ago had been short on details–his mother’s uncle had passed away last summer, Cass was his only living heir, sorry for how long it had taken to find him, and would he be willing to come take a look at the property to decide whether it was to be sold?
“Estate?” Ainslee laughed delightedly. Cass tried not to flinch. “That’s far tae grand a word for an auld blackhouse, though I don’t doubt it would have pleased him to hear it called such.”
They both leaned into a sudden gust, and Cass found himself acutely nostalgic for the cozy comforts of his bed and breakfast. Even a car would have been nice, but he hadn’t dared to rent one and Ainslee had left hers at the bed and breakfast, pointing out that the road didn’t come close to going all the way to the sea.
“Even stranger, then.” Cass gave up trying not to gasp with the damp chill. Let Miss MacDonald think him a soft American. He was a soft American, one who avoided the cold winter winds off Lake Michigan whenever possible. “Why give a name to a–did you call it a blackhouse?”
“Aye, richt enough.” Ainslee’s sensible wellies crunched dirt and gravel underfoot. “An auld form of house in this part of Scotland, built of earth and stone and low tae th’ ground. Nae sense in standing up tae th’ wind.” She laughed again, as if she’d told a good joke. “And Eonan MacKinnon didnae give the name tae th’ house. Nor a’body else, for that matter. It’s always been such.”
Last Oak. Thinking about the name helped distract Cass from too much contemplation of the wide cold emptiness around him, and of the way it seemed to be getting wider and colder and emptier the closer he got to his destination. The name sounded…wild. Romantic. And from what little his mother had ever said, her uncle Eonan had been neither. He remembered a single photo in a family album, taken on his mother’s single childhood trip to Scotland to visit her kinfolk. Uncle Eonan had been a beanpole of a man, towering over the little girl beside him, one large hand resting awkwardly on her shoulder, as the two of them squinted into the camera. And hadn’t they been standing under a thick-trunked tree?He thought so, but it had been a long time since he’d been welcome in the house where that album sat on the coffee table.
“An’ thare it’s!”
Ainslee had reached the top of a slight rise ahead of him and was looking down the other side. Cass hurried to catch up to her.
And stopped, staring, the salt-smelling wind tugging insistently at his shaggy blond hair and his coat. The sea was still some way off, but the only thing between him and the vast expanse of it was a stone house, long and low to the ground, just as described, with a thatched roof and a chimney at either end. The mostly-bare branches of the crown of a tree were visible on the far side of the house. Cass’ heart raced at the sight, and he wasn’t sure why. It couldn’t have been the giant tree he remembered from the picture, and surely couldn’t be the oak the place had been named for.
Yet he felt drawn. He was winded by the time he reached the front door, set into the side of the house facing the sea and guarded by the young tree. He stopped to catch his breath, one hand on the doorjamb, waiting for the estate agent to catch up. From this side of the house, he could see how the land fell away to the ocean, the surf crashing against rocks and sending up spray. He even dared a look out across the water at the rows of white crests riding steel-gray waves to be broken on the rocks, one after another.
The whistle of the wind through the branches over his head called his attention back to the tree. An oak, a young one. Growing out of the split and weathered and rotted remains of a once-mighty trunk. Cass knelt, running a hand over one of the bits of greyed wood sticking up out of the stony earth like shards of wooden teeth, and smiling as a tingle ran up his arm. He loved working with ‘found’ wood for his sculptures. It was so easy to believe stories were buried in it, running with the grain, and all he had to do was set the stories free–
“I see ye’ve found the auld oak.”
This, by the way, is Cass…