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Obsessed: Chapter 3

Lochinvar

At the gates of the wee village school, Isla turned her anxious gaze on me, the grey-and-green uniform we’d rustled up at late notice too big for her tiny frame. For the past couple of days, I’d made every effort to settle her in, and she was handling the changes well.

Like me, she coped.

“Tell me your name,” I asked.

“Isla Ross,” she said, no hesitation over what we’d practiced. “Will ye be picking me up?”

“I want to. For my first day, I hope I willnae be out on the hill. See ye this afternoon.” I stooped and wrapped her in a tight hug, then sent her to scamper inside with the friendly teacher we’d met yesterday.

Ongoing, I’d rely on the school staff and locals to help with Isla’s care if I had a call-out, but from what had happened after our arrival, I wasn’t so confident with the original plan.

It bothered me that my neighbour hadn’t wanted to tackle the fucker who’d painted abuse on her door. I guessed it was a boyfriend she’d fallen out with, which only made it worse. If she didn’t stand up to him, he’d only do worse next time.

No way did I want that impacting my daughter if she happened to be in the house.

Annoyed, I got my arse into my car and stepped on the accelerator.

The road circled the loch, autumn winds churning up the grey waters.

It was a pretty place, the Cairngorms National Park, and reminded me of where I’d done the best part of my growing up—in Torridon, far to the north-west. I’d visited to climb the mountains but never lived or worked here. A remote and wild place, its charms were in the isolated, small communities, and the fact Isla and I could hide here while I still earned enough to live on.

It felt like home.

I’d researched the place carefully before I committed, but there were limits to what a man in my circumstances could do.

I passed a castle, then drove out to higher ground and onto a moor. A large aircraft hangar loomed in the distance. My workplace.

A man waited in the car park. He hailed me as I climbed out.

“Lochinvar Ross?”

“It is. Glad to meet ye, Mr McRae.” So far, we’d only spoken on the phone. I strode over and shook his hand, taking in his blue jumpsuit and ready smile.

“Gordain, please. Come inside and I’ll give ye the tour.”

Inside the hangar, with its huge sets of doors opened to the concrete expanse outside, we passed a row of helicopters with busy crew and a class underway with an instructor at a whiteboard. The scent of oil and fuel hung in the air, redolent of the military base I’d left.

Gordain gestured at the throng. “Flight school and heli hire this side. Rescue service operates over here.”

We continued on to a segmented part of the wide space. My gaze shot instantly to the gleaming helis, different to the for-hire ones. The first, the S-92, was a common sight for me, but the second was less so. I gravitated to the Sea King and patted her underbelly.

“I didnae expect to see one of these,” I said.

“I’ve held on to her. Probably for sentimental reasons.”

I switched my gaze back to Gordain. “Ex-military?”

“Aye, I was a pilot in the RAF. Ye served in the search and rescue career that I wanted.”

He gestured to what must be the operations office, and I followed him in, lifting my chin to the offer of coffee.

Gordain poured us both a steaming mug, and we sat at a conference table. Around us, maps lined the walls. Incident boards waited on stands. The door to an equipment store lay ajar with high-visibility red jumpsuits on locker doors.

The tools of my trade.

I itched to get started.

Gordain indicated to the notes left up on one of the boards. “We had a call last night. Six hours to get a lad off the hill. Twenty-year-old on one of those challenges.”

I snorted in dislike, knowing exactly what he meant. People came into the mountains to test themselves but also for bragging rights disguised as charity fundraising. Climbing the biggest mountains in the country on a time limit. Or worse, speeding between England then Wales to climb their highest peaks, too.

“No idiot should climb a mountain under a time constraint. They’re asking for trouble.”

“Aye, he was well-equipped at least, but the weather turned.”

I could almost smell the night air. Feel the chill on my skin. I’d been made for this. The call. “Wish I could’ve helped out.”

“I wasnae about to interrupt your settling in. Besides, ye won’t have to wait long. Calls happen at all hours, and soon enough the responsibility for handling them will be all yours. This month is quieter, but next, we’ll see an average of two a day, mostly clustered around weekends. Have ye talked to Cait yet about providing childcare?”

I took a swallow of the hot drink to cover my sudden stumble.

Cait, my neighbour, wasn’t talking to me.

Once her door was scrubbed down, she’d crouched to introduce herself to Isla. She’d waved to my daughter every time since but had given me the cold shoulder.

As Cait had predicted, my interference had caused her family to descend on her cottage. From my position of taking luggage into my and Isla’s place, I couldn’t avoid witnessing her frustration with the drama. Her da had stomped around, waving his arms and making a fuss. Cait had glared daggers in my direction every time we made eye contact, including this morning from her desk in her window, but I wasn’t sorry.

Whatever fucker had targeted her would think twice if he’d been watching.

Then again, she’d hinted that this was a continuing situation.

The urge came over me to find out more. Later, I’d try.

“Naw yet. I’ll talk to her today.”

“Grand. I’ll take ye to Castle McRae to introduce ye to your backup, should Cait naw be available, but ye can always bring your lass here to the hangar and she can wait for collection. We’re a big family and we look after our own.”

We drank our coffees, and Gordain gave me the lowdown on the job I was taking over. My responsibilities covered a vast area, extending outside of the National Park. I had sixty people under my command, mostly volunteers, in various locations, and a wide range of connections to other emergency services. We spent the morning covering the basics, getting me up to speed with their processes.

Midway through a walkthrough of recent incident summaries, an alarm blared.

Gordain’s head swivelled, and he leapt to grab a phone. After listening intently, he barked a series of questions, ones I automatically wanted to know the answers to. The casualty’s location, age, and their status.

My pulse picked up.

I’d suspected I’d have little time to acclimatise before my first call-out, and this focus was what I needed.

Gordain got off the phone and took up a radio, instructing someone to rally the on-call list. As he spoke, he gripped my shoulder and pointed at the equipment store. We entered, and he indicated to a kit already laid out. A jumpsuit, weather gear, and a backpack.

L. Ross, it read on the identity label.

The reminder of seeing my old name on the note that almost derailed our arrival here barely touched me. This was my element, and I was ready to do battle.

I stripped my jeans and jacket and quickly dressed again, following my boss out of the hangar and to a 4X4.

Gordain drove us away from the mountain rescue base, all action, though his posture was relaxed in the way of a man comfortable in his role. “A baptism of fire for ye, aye?”

“Give me the details.”

He filled me in with short sentences. A woman in her fifties, fallen while walking. A common occurrence, even with experienced hill walkers. Her husband was present but couldn’t get her down the mountain alone. Gordain had arranged for a medical pickup, with six of us heading out to collect her.

“For today, watch and learn,” he said. “Ye need time on the hill to know the place, and this is the best way to get it.”

We sped along. I eyed the weather—grey and with reduced visibility from earlier—and put myself into the mindset of my position of command. In no time, Gordain would hand over the reins, and I’d be doing this alone. I’d rely on the support I’d yet to meet.

“Who’s in the crew today?”

“Cameron is your right-hand man. He’s leading the advanced party directly there.”

I cast my mind to the list of names I’d already memorised. “Isn’t he young for that?”

Gordain raised a shoulder. “He’s twenty-two but a team leader, trainer, and one of my most valued crew members. He’s also the land manager for the entirety of the two McRae estates, and my nephew. Cameron’s a highly capable lad. He nearly always answers the call.”

I held back my doubts at such a youngster being second-in-command. At thirty, I knew my mind, but had I eight years ago? I wasn’t so sure.

“Can I ask why ye left the military?” Gordain took a turn up a steep track, off the main road now. We’d been all business this morning and hadn’t tackled any personal information.

“My daughter. I couldnae commit to a tour and leave her for months on end. I had limited options, and my term had been served. It was time to leave.”

“Where’s her mother?”

I knew this question would come. I had readied an answer, but even so, it grated to give up any details on the subject. “My wife is naw joining us. I’m everything to Isla.”

Gordain watched me for a moment before returning his attention to the road. “I looked into your background carefully. It was an unusual request ye made of me, and I needed to be sure of who I was bringing into my employ.”

A pilot friend had told me about this job. I’d needed a place to take Isla, but changing our names meant difficulties with my references. I was an honest man, and the subterfuge rankled.

Gordain knew the truth.

Well, one truth.

He’d accepted us with the answer to a single question—was I doing anything illegal or immoral? I’d told him no and that I was protecting my daughter. He’d offered me the job.

“Ye made a good choice trusting me,” I said.

“I’m sure I have. Kin comes first, and I live by that. The reason I’m giving up this job for the winter is because I need to support my family. Viola, my daughter, is newly pregnant. A secret within the estate, by the way. Her husband is a musician. A famous one.”

I didn’t have time to keep up with music, so I doubted that I’d heard of the son-in-law. “Congratulations. You’ll be a grandfather. First time?”

“Aye, Viola is my one and only. They’re going on tour for six months, and I’m taking over as head of Leo’s security. He’s had bad experiences with support in the past, and I willnae expose them or the bairn to risk.”

“Ye cannae trust anyone like ye can family,” I muttered.

A wave went over me, temporarily disrupting my keen eye for the rescue we were about to undertake. I lacked family, but at least I’d had that growing up. Isla missed out on it all.

I could give her everything but that.

“Exactly.” Gordain sped the distance to the trail end, two other cars waiting and presumably containing today’s crew. “Get ready to meet your new family, Lochinvar. They’re all dying to see ye. First, sort out your childcare while we have signal. We willnae be off the hill in time for the end of the school day.”

I winced but pulled out my phone, my signal reduced by the altitude.

The school would look after Isla for a couple of hours, then my neighbour would be the last resort.

Cait might still be unhappy with me, but I wasn’t all that impressed with her either. But for now, I had no choice. Isla would always come first.


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