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Obsessed: Chapter 4

Cait

Outside my window, rain drizzled, ghosting over the open glen and obscuring the line between land and sky. Usually while working from home, as I did for three days a week, I’d feel snug and safe at my desk, but unease rattled me.

Annoyance, too.

The mystery of who’d graffitied my door remained unsolved.

I tapped a pen against my lip, staring into space. It wasn’t as if I’d dated anyone I could’ve offended. And no one had approached me in forever…

Wait.

Yes, they had.

I snatched up my phone and scrolled through my messages. Three weeks ago, Jessica, an old school friend, had sent me a text on behalf of her brother, Jeremy.

He’d wanted to know if I was single.

I’d replied with a thanks, but no thanks.

My mouth dropped open. Could it have been him? Our local police officer had suggested the act had all the hallmarks of dented pride.

With a zing of energy, I found Jessica’s social media and then Jeremy’s.

Ah, there it was.

Just a few weeks ago, he’d broken up with his girlfriend and lost his job. I breathed in through my nose and peeked at the subsequent posts. Online arguments abounded. Wow, this arsehole liked to air his dirty laundry in public.

Ha! His old job had been with a painter and decorator. Lots of access to paint.

It had to be him.

At the top of the page, I read the most recent post. It seemed Jeremy had taken a new job, far south over the English border.

I exhaled in relief and sat back. Was this problem solved? On paper, it could be. I hadn’t been able to make the connection to the weird stuff happening at work, so it made sense for it to be a local lad with an axe to grind.

At least I knew it wasn’t anything truly personal. Jeremy had been pissed off with everyone.

My email dinged, and I focused on my laptop screen. My boss had sent a meeting request.

From: Rupert Gaskill

To: Cait McRae.

Cait, there’s something I need to talk to you about. It’s a delicate matter but shouldn’t take long. I wouldn’t want to call you all the way into Inverness on your working-from-home days. Perhaps I could come to you?

R

I grimaced at the screen and considered my reply.

I’d worked at the University of the Highlands for two years as a researcher, supporting the development of courses for students—an entirely boring job that neither taxed me nor stretched my skills. I reported into a number of different professors and also to Rupert, the administration lead.

In all that time, Rupert and I generally met once a fortnight. He’d never been anything other than professional, thank God, except I’d been getting a weird vibe from him in the last few meetings.

His gaze set on me for a beat too long. The personal questions he’d ask from my university days to what I got up to on weekends.

Now he wanted to come to my home?

A shiver ran down my spine.

Surely he wasn’t the one messing with me at work. I was probably imagining the strange vibe. Some people were just naturally chatty.

I made my response, booking a very public meeting room in my reply. Of course, but I’ll happily come in, I wrote.

Slamming my laptop closed, I grabbed my phone and crossed the room to my kitchen, dialling my closest friend on the way.

Casey answered right away. “Hello!”

I opened the fridge and took out a salad I’d made. “Ever feel that you live in the twilight zone for strange things happening?”

“Uh-oh, sounds like a story.”

“Oh yes. What are ye all doing for dinner tonight? I could use some company if you’d like to come here.”

“Love to! Brodie’s in his workshop, and I’m pottering around at home, so we’ll be ready whenever you want us. Blayne might be late.”

“No biggie. We can save him a plate.”

My cousin, Blayne, had two partners. Brodie, who’d been his best friend for years until it had led to more, and Casey, who’d been an instructor at the snowboarding centre on my family’s mountain. They’d had a three-person wedding and were expecting a baby in a few months. Their unconventional relationship worked, and they were the happiest people I knew. Their bairn was going to be so lucky.

I took inspiration from them that families didn’t all look the same.

On the estate, we already had Archie, who had been born in the spring to Isobel and Lennox. Isobel’s brother, Sebastian, often visited with his wife, Rose, and their baby, Persephone. And Viola, my other cousin, was newly pregnant.

Babies were my most favourite thing in the world, and I badly wanted to join the parent club. Though this was complicated by the fact I didn’t have or want a partner.

Which was why I’d contacted a fertility agency.

Tonight, I’d tell my guests all about it. It was way more interesting than the random strange happenings.

“I might have to spill my news before he gets here. Is seven okay?” My phone binged in my ear. I glanced at the screen. “Oops. I have another call.”

“Way to keep me on tenterhooks. See you at seven.”

Casey and I hung up, and I leaned on the kitchen island and accepted the new call. “Cait McRae.”

Wind buffered the other end of the line. “Cait? It’s Lochinvar Ross. Your neighbour.”

I rolled my eyes. We hadn’t got off on the best foot, but I knew who he was. Nobody could mistake the big, scowling man. “Mr Ross. What’s up?”

“Sorry to ask before we’ve had a chance to talk. I’ve been called out to a rescue. The school will keep Isla until five, but if I’m later, can ye help?”

My parents and brothers often went out with the mountain rescue. Many of my relatives did. Call-outs could last for hours.

I was the anomaly within them—I hated hiking and had no sense of direction. I’d never even considered joining up.

“I can take her. I have friends coming for dinner, so she can help me cook. Is there anything particular I need to know? Is she fussy with what she eats?”

But Lochinvar’s answer was lost to the bad weather. The call cut out, and I checked the time. I’d have to hustle to finish work early. Then again, this was the life of a parent, and I had to get used to it, even if I was only playing pretend right now.

At some point, I’d be balancing a child and a career for real. Like Lochinvar was.

I needed the practice.


The school minibus rumbled to a stop on the road beyond the cottages’ puddle-filled gravel track. I stepped outside, my big umbrella protecting me from the driving autumn rain. Una, the headteacher, exited the bus, Lochinvar’s little girl behind her.

Una was a close friend to one of my aunts and had been my teacher, too. She waved, clutching the hood of her sou’wester. “Cait, are ye okay to take Isla?”

“Aye, her da called. Ready, Isla?”

Isla peered at me, but whatever resistance she might have had dissolved in the weather. She darted across the ground then dove inside my home. Una waved again and climbed back onto the empty bus.

I followed my charge.

In the lounge, Isla waited, dripping water onto the rug. “Did you say Da called?”

“He did earlier. He’s working so isn’t home yet. Ye can wait with me until he’s back.”

“Can I speak to him?”

“It could be tricky getting through. I’m sure he won’t be long.”

Isla’s mouth turned down. Oh heck, I didn’t want her to cry.

“Let’s get you out of that wet coat then ye can help me in the kitchen until it’s time to go home. Want to tell me about your first day at school?”

I eased her soggy raincoat off and hung it on a hook next to mine. Isla removed her shoes, her white knee-length socks dark with water. No words came from the little girl.

“Socks off, too. You can borrow some from me. I have some cute and fluffy ones with owls on.”

Still nothing. I darted for my bedroom and grabbed the snug socks. On my return, Isla hadn’t moved.

“Ye must’ve liked Una, aye? She was my teacher when I was a girl.”

Isla reluctantly took the socks. She drew them on, far too big but better than being chilled, then she finally opened her mouth. “Did someone die on the mountain?”

My jaw dropped, and for a moment, I couldn’t summon an answer.

“Did the man who ran the rescue die? Is that why Da has the job?” she added.

I blew out a breath and crouched to her level. “Oh, sweetie, no. That’s my uncle, and he’s just fine. Your da will be, too. He’ll be home soon and giving ye a big hug.”

The poor girl. She had a new home, school, and life to contend with. No wonder she was worrying about her father.

Where was her mother? Maybe joining them later.

I dusted my hands together. “While we wait, we’ll get dinner started. Ye can help bake cookies for after.”

Cooking was my favourite hobby and one I practiced a lot. Where I failed as a mountain woman, I excelled with a mixing bowl. Cakes and biscuits were always welcome—I only had to shoot my brothers a text and one or the other would find a reason to drive by and help themselves.

First thing was to get Isla fed. My questions on her preferences fell short, so I took out the large tray of chicken I’d be cooking for tonight and fried her up a few pieces, mixing it in with pasta, peas, tomato sauce, and topped off with cheese.

The whole time, she only watched.

But she ate. As soon as the bowl touched the island where she sat, she launched into it. I continued with the preparation for the curry I was making for the adults, trying to hide my astonishment.

When she was done, colour returned to her cheeks. She drank her glass of water, and her eyes brightened.

She’d needed feeding, that was all. Relief warmed me.

“Does your da like curry?” I asked. “I imagine he’ll be hungry when he’s finished work. Shall we save him a bowl?”

She considered the question. “He likes home-cooked food. He says that lots. He didn’t normally have time to cook when we lived on the base. Blair used to make dinner sometimes.”

“Oh? What did she make that you liked?”

Isla raised a shoulder. “Lasagne, from frozen. I wish she could’ve come here with us.”

Blair might have been Lochinvar’s girlfriend, I guessed, as Isla didn’t call her Ma. Best to leave that stone unturned, too. I went for the other question that sprang to mind.

“On the base? Was your da in the army?” Lochinvar looked the type. Some of my relatives had been military, and I knew the process-driven, serious ways it instilled.

Isla pressed her lips together then brought her hand to her mouth, her eyes wide.

“I’m not meant to talk about that,” she said.

I blinked, entirely curious now. “Okay. Why don’t ye help me with the cookies instead?”

Her eyes rimmed with tears, and she pressed her hand tighter.

Something was wrong here. Badly so.

I wiped my hands in my apron and approached her, sitting on the next stool. “Ye don’t have to tell me anything. Ye haven’t done anything wrong either. You’re among friends here.”

But she’d shut down once more. I made the cookies with her only watching, and for the next hour, she didn’t make a single peep.

Nor did we hear from her da.

I knew the routine and had never worried for the safety of my family out on a rescue, even in the dark with the rain pouring. They were well-practiced. Then again, Lochinvar was new to the area. If he’d strayed from the crew…

I ceased my line of thinking and concentrated on keeping my guest happy and the dinner moving on.

It was only when my guests arrived that Isla finally perked up. She stared at Casey when I introduced her, taking in her obvious baby bump along with her pretty face and American accent.

Brodie gazed at his wife in devotion while she sat beside Isla at the kitchen island, then turned to me. “Blayne willnae be long. He texted to say he’s in the car.”

“You said you had news.” Casey steepled her hands. “Don’t make us wait.”

I raised a shoulder, sliding a glance at Isla. I guessed it wouldn’t matter if she heard. “I registered with a clinic. I’m going ahead with having my own bairn.”

Casey’s eyes lit. “Oh my God! That’s the best news. How long do you have to wait?”

Excitement fizzed in me. “They have to do several tests before we agree to the mechanics of it, and they did warn me it could be a while until they have availability for my first appointment.”

Isla wrinkled her nose. “Are you married?”

“Nope. I’ll be a single mother, like you have a single father.”

“My baby will have a mom and two dads,” Casey added. “There are plenty of ways to make a happy family. Each is as good as the others.”

The little girl blinked but didn’t offer anything more. I served up dinner and put the TV on for her, but she chose to remain in the kitchen, snacking on cookies.

We’d finished our meal when an engine roared outside.

“Da!” Isla leapt down and ran for the door.

I followed, peering into the calmer evening.

Blayne climbed from his car, and Isla visibly wilted. It was past seven now, and I’d begun wondering about putting up a bed for her in the living room.

On instinct, I placed a hand on her head to reassure her. She drooped on me for a moment then returned inside. I waited for my cousin, and the huge man gave me a hug in the doorway.

But before I could invite him in, another vehicle arrived, spitting gravel under its tyres. The driver launched from the car, glowering at Blayne, his focus on my cousin’s arm over my shoulder.

Lochinvar was home, and once again, the man was furious.


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