HIGHLAND PERIL

~

CHAPTER 1

As much as I love Seamus, he can make me crazy.

Don't get me wrong—living in the Scottish Highlands suits me better than I ever dreamed it would when he first suggested we leave Edinburgh. I enjoy working in the antique shop and I don't even mind running the gallery when he's been bitten by the painting bug and can't tear himself away from his latest creation.

But when he asked me to "whip up a wee snack" for him and a client, I had to put my foot down.

"I'm not your maid, Seamus. Whip something up yourself."

He spread his big hands out, pleading. "Please, Sylvie. I don't have time."

"Neither do I. Just take him over to the pub."

"It's pouring out. There's no need to go out in this weather when we have stuff to eat here. I promised him real Scottish food."

"Well, that's your problem. You know I can't cook anything, let alone anything Scottish."

"Just slice up some of the haggis in the fridge and fry it."

"I'll burn it. Remember what happened the last time?"

He nodded, grimacing. "It was as hard as a rock."

"Why do we need to feed him, anyway? What's so special about him?"

"Keep your voice down," Seamus cautioned, looking over his shoulder through the door to the shop. "He's up from London. Looking at a painting that reminds him of his childhood. There's one he seems to like, but it's expensive and I'm trying to butter him up."

"Well, you'll have to butter him up without haggis, I'm afraid."

"Fine. Just get us a couple drams, would you?"

I glared daggers at my husband. "All right. But if you sell that painting, you have to take me shopping in Edinburgh."

He smiled. "You know I will, love."

"You're lucky I'm so nice."

He chuckled as he walked back into the shop, shaking his red head. "Care for a dram?" I heard him ask the man from London.

I went into the house and poured two measures of whisky, put them on a tray, and carried them back into the shop. Seamus was pointing out a small detail on a painting when I walked in. 

"Ah, here's the whisky, along with my wife. Sylvie, I'd like you to meet Florian McDermott. He grew up in the Highlands and lives in London now. He's looking for a special painting. Florian, meet Sylvie."

I set my tray down and shook hands with the man, who was wispy and pale. His hand was cold in mine, though his eyes were warm. 

"I'm looking for a painting that reminds me of my childhood in the Highlands," Florian explained. 

"You must have fond memories of your childhood."

"What makes you say that?" Florian asked.

"Um, I guess..."

"It was awful."

I was at a loss for words. I looked to Seamus for help.

He just smiled and reached for the two glasses. Handing one to Florian, he raised his own in the air and said in a booming voice, "Here's tae ye!"

Florian raised his glass in silence, nodded, took a tiny sip of the whisky, and began to cough. He hacked away while Seamus grabbed his glass and I hurried for the pitcher of ice water I kept in the gallery. He was still coughing when I returned. He drank the water straight from the pitcher, though I had meant for him to add it to the whisky to cut its strength.

"Are ye all right, man?" Seamus asked. Florian gasped for air, nodding, his previously pale face now a mask of hot pink.

"Sorry about that," he gasped. "It was a bit stronger than I expected."

"A bit stronger?" Seamus asked. "It must have gone down your throat like flame. I'm sorry. If I'd known, I would have had Sylvie get you something milder."

I glared at him. If I'd known, I would have made you get your own whisky, I thought.

"No, no. I just wasn't expecting it, that's all," Florian assured us. "I'm not much of a drinker."

"Ginger ale for you?" Seamus asked.

"No, thank you. I think I'd like to go back to the bed and breakfast where I'm staying and think about this for tonight."

"No problem at all," Seamus replied. He handed Florian a business card. "I look forward to hearing from you."

Florian nodded, his face returning to its former ghostly hue. He left without another word.

"He's a strange one, that's certain," Seamus said after Florian had disappeared from view.

"Did he say why he wants to get a painting to remember something he thought was awful?"

Seamus shrugged. "He didn't make much sense."

"Quite a loon," I said.

"I don't care if he's from outer space as long as he buys that painting. I've had it for three years now and nothing I can say will convince anyone to buy it. It's just too expensive."

"Why not lower the price?"

"Because it's by William Leighton Leitch, a famous Scot painter. So it's worth a lot of money. It's just a matter of waiting for the right buyer to come along."

"Well, maybe you've finally snared the right person."

He chucked me under the chin. "I didn't snare him. I just let the painting do the talking."

I smiled at my big, burly husband. "That painting must have quite a way with words, then."

He busied himself in the back of the shop while I returned to the gallery. No one had come in while we were speaking to Florian. We didn't get a lot of visitors, but when we did it was usually a serious buyer who came specifically to buy one of Seamus's paintings.

When we lived in Edinburgh, Seamus painted urban scenes with great success. In Bide-A-Wee house, where we lived with my sister, Greer, and her daughter, Ellie, until our marriage, Seamus had made part of the sunny bright living room into a studio. He sold paintings online and in Edinburgh galleries. He had also been invited to show several of his paintings in some of the smaller London galleries, where they nevertheless had a larger audience and fetched higher prices. Once we were married we moved into our own flat near Bide-A-Wee and he continued painting there, until the weekend we went camping with friends—against my better judgment—in the mountains of the Scottish Highlands.

Seamus was hooked. The raw, rugged beauty of that part of Scotland appealed to both the artist and the outdoorsman in him, and he couldn't wait to leave Edinburgh and head north. He longed for a change from the scenery of the city.

But I didn't want to go. I loved the city, with its moods, weather, wonderful and sometimes quirky inhabitants, and its cultural events and history.

We were at loggerheads—a rather inauspicious way to begin married life.

But repeat trips to the Highlands on our days off and Seamus's constant discussi0n of how wonderful life would be if we moved finally began to wear me down. I found myself looking online at homes for sale. I began to actually look forward to our day trips and short overnights to the mountains. 

But what clinched it for me, what made me finally agree to leave Edinburgh (with promises from Seamus practically written in blood that we would return to the city often) was a gift.

Seamus gave me a camera for my birthday that year, just a few months after that momentous camping trip. Previously I had used my mobile phone for photos and it wasn't very good. The camera unearthed a passion for photography I never knew I had. With that camera in my hand, I found I could make the Highlands come alive. I could see the interplay between light and shadow, between color and white space, that other people missed when they looked at a landscape. 

So I started taking that camera with me wherever I went, and my favorite photos were ones I took on our drives up to the Highlands. The craggy mountains capped with snow, the purple heather-covered moors, the dark peaty bogs, the deep blue lochs—I took pictures of everything. My cousin Eilidh convinced me to start selling my photos online and before I knew it I was making an income, however small, with my passion for photography. I had never had a job I loved: I had graduated from university with a degree in business and hopped from one boring office job to another for years until I discovered photography. Between Seamus's gift and the beauty of Scotland's breathtaking landscape, I had finally found more than a job—I had found a career that made working exhilarating and fun.

Seamus's feet did not touch the ground for a week after I told him I was ready to make the move to the Highlands. He was thrilled and quite willing to do anything I asked in return.

So I made the one request I'd been mulling over: I told him I wanted to live in the tiny village where Eilidh and her husband, Callum, lived. Seamus agreed in the blink of an eye. Having lost his own parents in a house fire, Seamus heartily embraced my family—from Eilidh and Callum to Greer and Ellie to my mum, whom he loved as his own. He had been an only child, so having an extended family was new and wonderful to him. He loved the idea of living just a stone's throw from my cousin and Callum. 

And that's how we came to live in Cauld Loch, a wee village clinging to a steep hill overlooking a loch of the same name, a small mountain lake with icy dark blue water. There was only one place for sale in the village, a house with a large attached shop, and we bought it. We named it Gorse Brae, after the gorse that grew in the front yard. We divided the shop into three parts: an antique shop, a studio where both Seamus and I could work, and a gallery to display his paintings and my photos. We had been looking for a shop because just as I found a passion for photography, Seamus found a passion for antique artwork. He had begun amassing his collecti0n before we were married and finally decided he wanted to start selling it, too.

Seamus had invited Eilidh and Callum for dinner the night of Florian's visit, and the four of us pondered the mysterious stranger over our lamb stew. 

"If he doesn't like the Highlands, why come all the way up here to find a painting? There are lots of places to find Highland art in London," Eilidh said.

"He didn't say," Seamus answered.

"How did he hear about the shop?" Callum asked.

"Saw one of my paintings in London and asked the gallery owner about me. I guess he likes the style of my paintings, but he wanted something old, something that had a previous life. And when the gallery owner told him I have an antique art shop up here, he took a chance that I sell the same types of artwork I paint, so he came up."

"He must be pretty serious about finding just the right painting," Eilidh noted.

Seamus nodded, his mouth full. Finally he swallowed. "Aye, and this one seems to be just what he's looking for. I've had nary a nibble on it in a long time."

"What is it called?" I asked.

"It's unnamed. I call it 'Old Kirk in the Field.'" 

"So it's a picture of a church?"

"Yes, but there's an old woman stooped over in front of the kirk. It looks like she's picking flowers."

"I wonder why that reminds him of his awful childhood."

Seamus shrugged. "I've no idea."

"If William Whoever was such a famous painter, why do you have one his works in your shop? Shouldn't it be in a museum somewhere?" Eilidh asked.

"It's William Leighton Leitch. When he died in the late eighteen hundreds, he left behind just a few paintings a drawings. Someone this one ended up in a shop in Edinburgh. I bought it for a bargain because it's not in great shape."

"What's wrong with it?" Callum asked.

"There's a small tear in one corner and the paint is quite faded. Still, it's a steal. A famous painter, a painting that was lost after his death—it's all very exciting."

"It's too bad the painting isn't in good shape. If it was you could sell it to a museum instead of Florian and get a bundle for it," I said.

"Maybe," Seamus said, sitting back in his chair, but I don't really have the time to restore it right now, and I don't want to pay for its restoration if I can someone to buy it from me as is. Someone like Florian."

The phone rang in the gallery. We normally didn't answer the gallery phone after hours, but Seamus pushed his chair back from the table and hurried through the door into the gallery, saying over his shoulder, "Maybe that's Florian."

He was gone several minutes. I cleared away the dishes and was setting out bowls of berries an cream when Seamus came back in, shaking his head.

"Was that Florian?"

"You won't believe this," he said. "It was some guy wanting to look at the Leitch painting. The same one Florian is interested in."

"You're kidding."
 

"No," he said, rubbing his beard. He did that when he was thinking. "He said he heard I might have an old beat-up William Leighton Leitch painting in my shop, one with a stooped old lady at a church, and that he'd like to come up tomorrow to see it."

"What did you tell him?"

"I told him I might already have a buyer for it and that person gets first dibs." He turned to stare at me. "Can you believe it? I've tried to sell the thing for three years with no bites, and all of a sudden I have two potential buyers."

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© 2021 by Amy M. Reade.