In 1782, on a deserted shoreline in the Scottish Highlands, a longboat is pulled ashore. A man steps onto the rocky inlet, determined to make his home in the desolate structure he calls Aonaranach, the Gaelic for lonely. In his determination to find solace both from the world and his past, he puts into motion a series of events which culminate in a trial, a flight to freedom, and a passionate, searing romance.
Scotland welcomed Hamish MacRae back to her shores with fists of black clouds looming on the horizon. Weak sunlight left the day overcast and gray, and the wind whistled out of the north, chilling him to the bone.
He anticipated the coming storm, the pulsing, pounding fury of it. He wanted to experience a Highland tempest in all its rage. He’d stand in the middle of it, arms outstretched to the heavens and command the thunder, invite the lightning. Perhaps God would finally strike him dead for all his sins.
“There,” he said, pointing to where the land sat humped like a dragon’s back. Atop the last mound was a castle, a place he’d remembered from a previous visit to Scotland. A desolate- looking sentinel on a rocky islet, it was connected by a small stone causeway to the mainland.
“It’s a ruin,” his brother Brendan said at his side.
“I’ve lived in worse.”
From the Orient to India, they’d each spent time in palaces and hovels. Even their own ancestral home, Gilmuir, might be considered a ruin. His older brother had it in his mind to rebuild the castle. Hamish had no doubt that Alisdair would have accomplished miracles since he’d seen the place.
He felt as if he’d been away from Scotland longer than three years. The time had changed him so much that he might as well be another person.
“Set me down here,” Hamish said, wishing that his throat didn’t feel scraped raw. He’d have to learn to deal with the new sound of his voice as well as other reminders of his time in India.
Brendan moved to stand a little ahead of Hamish on the bow, as if that foot or so distance would gain him a better vantage point over what he studied now.
“No man could survive there.”
“Which is not exactly a deterrent,” Hamish said, allowing a small smile to curve his lips.
“Don’t joke about such things.”
Brendan had lost his humor in the past three months while Hamish had, oddly enough, gained a sense of the ridiculous.
“Very well. Let’s discuss my life. I have to live it somewhere.”
“You could remain at sea.”
Hamish smiled again and tipped his head in acknowledgment of Brendan’s words. “Of course I could. I’m a captain who’s not only lost his crew and his ship, but also the use of his arm. Who wouldn’t wish to sail with me?”
Brendan’s silence didn’t surprise him. Even his brother couldn’t conjure up a remedy for the wreck he’d become.
His smile was too difficult to hold, so Hamish let it slip away.
“You’ll get what I need, then?”
“You know I will,” Brendan answered. “What will I tell the others?”
By the others, Brendan meant his two older brothers, Alisdair and James. Hamish loved his brothers, but he didn’t want their companionship or their understanding. Nor did he need their pity.
“Tell them whatever you wish, Brendan. Something, hopefully, that will keep them far from here. Tell them the truth, if you must.”
“What is the truth, Hamish? You been sparing with it ever since India.”
Hamish turned and looked at his younger brother. What did Brendan want from him, a litany of his capture? If so, he was doomed to be disappointed. Some things Hamish would never tell anyone.
He directed his attention to the castle.
The shoreline was rocky, and farther in, the black boulders gave way to multicolored stones in hues of gray, black, and brown. Beyond the bridge was a strip of pines curving around to the road like a green ruff adorning a crone’s neck.
In his mind he’d named it Aonaranach, the Gaelic for lonely. The place was obviously deserted, as were so many other dwellings in the Highlands. Once Hamish might have been curious about why it had been abandoned. Now, however, he couldn’t summon up a thought or a degree of empathy for the long vanished inhabitants. All he cared about was that it was empty and a refuge of sorts for him.
“If you’re going to ground, Hamish, at least choose a half decent burrow.”
Hamish glanced over at his brother, frowning. “It will do for my use. It’s deserted and far away from any settlement.”
“I don’t like this.”
“I know your sentiments, Brendan. You’ve been very clear about them.”
“But it doesn’t matter, does it? You’re set on this, Hamish?”
He nodded, staring at the castle. “I’ll not return to Gilmuir.” He’d been too ill to countermand Brendan’s instructions when they’d left India. Now, however, he was grateful his brother hadn’t decided to go home to Nova Scotia. He could well imagine what the sight of him would do to his parents. Yet he wasn’t prepared to sail farther north for Gilmuir, either.
“Dying won’t make them come back,” Brendan said.
Hamish didn’t bother explaining that he had more guilt to bear than the loss of his crew. He only smiled, touched despite himself by his brother’s fierce devotion. Brendan had always been loyal. Why had he expected this situation to be any different?
Ever since they were young, he and Brendan had been the closest of the MacRae brothers. They’d goaded and pushed each other, each always achieving more with that extra bit of competition. They’d planned their voyages to meet in far off cities, and sometimes the two MacRae ships would take the same trade route.
Now, however, he wished that Brendan would simply let him be.
“I won’t die, Brendan,” he said. “I have an unquenchable, irrational, desperate desire to live.” The fact that he was standing there proved that.
Brendan didn’t say anything else, only moved away, no doubt to give orders to his men.
Hamish stood at the bow and listened to the sounds behind him, playing a game in his mind about what the crew would be doing. The scrape of metal against metal was the sound of the anchor being lowered. Its drag would slow the forward momentum of the ship. Iron against wood signaled that the heavy sails were being drawn in, the huff of canvas as wind clung and then reluctantly surrendered its hold.
Slowing a ship was noisy business, but speech was needed only to relate orders. There was no good-natured ribbing or laughter, or supposition about the shore leave soon to come. A pall had fallen over the ship ever since India.
The first mate came and stood beside him. Hamish knew the man well from previous voyages. Sandy, they called him, not because of the color of his hair but because of his first adventure at sea. He’d stranded a longboat on a sand bar and had been ridiculed by his crew mates, the teasing resulting in the name he had carried for twenty years.
“I’ll have my trunk,” Hamish said, and gave the order for the other possessions he wanted. He’d have enough provisions to last him until Brendan came back. His brother had reluctantly agreed to bring supplies to the castle, at least until Hamish decided what he was to do with his life or until death itself claimed him.
The first mate nodded, but unlike his brother he didn’t try to talk Hamish out of his decision. Perhaps Sandy, and the others, couldn’t wait for him to leave the ship. Sailors were a notoriously superstitious group, and his presence aboard was no doubt seen as a bad omen.
Less than an hour later, he was being rowed to shore. Brendan sat opposite him in the boat, frowning at him.
“You’ve done all that you can and more,” Hamish told his brother, trying to assuage any misplaced guilt Brendan might be feeling.
“Why do you talk as if you’re dying, Hamish?” Brendan said sharply. “Is that what you’re going to do, will yourself to die?”
“The process of attrition?” Hamish asked, genuinely amused. He would simply forget to eat or drink, not make the effort to tap a cask or remove a piece of hardtack or jerky from its crate. He would simply not hunt or prepare a fire. Without his lifting a hand, death might come to him. It was a frighteningly seductive thought.
To die, and not to feel. To die and no longer hear the tortured screams of his crew. To die and not awake sweating and racked with guilt. But he didn’t die easily. Hadn’t he already proven that?
The boat hit the shore, and Hamish stood, grabbing one end of his trunk with his good hand.
“You only need time,” Brendan said, reaching for the other handle. “You still haven’t completely healed from your wounds.”
Hamish only smiled. He was completely healed, but he’d never again be whole.