1 THE OWNER HAS LEFT THE BUILDING
DR JONATHAN CHASELING – young, bearded and hipsterish-looking – navigated his car around ruts and potholes on a relentlessly straight, orange-red dirt track stretching away to infinity. Up ahead he saw a lone tree, a ghost gum with thin, white branches reaching for the sky like skeletal hands.
A few minutes later, he parked near the tree, which was growing in a hollow beside the track. There was no mobile reception here, so he couldn’t take a GPS fix or use Google Maps, but the tree ghost gum was a landmark that would help him find his way back to the car, a RAV4, normally white but now coated with red dust.
A 26-year-old medical graduate on his way to Alice Springs to start a hospital job, Chaseling had detoured off the main highway to check out this place. It was renowned for marine fossils – a legacy of the time, aeons ago, when this part of Australia was covered by a vast inland sea. He got out of the car and walked into the scrub.
Taking a weaving course round scattered patches of saltbush, he kept his eyes to the ground, which was littered with small pieces of flat, rust-coloured sandstone. Every now and then he stopped to pick up a rock and look at it, turning it over in his hand, hoping to see the form of a trilobite or other long-extinct species.
He’d been walking for about 10 minutes when he saw a flat slab of stone, almost a metre long, distinctive because it was the only large rock he’d seen since leaving the track. Chaseling bent down and gripped the edge of the slab. He gave an experimental tug but it didn’t budge. Then he shifted his right foot forward to give his body some leverage and put his back into the job, hauling upwards with both hands. There was a sucking noise as the slab came away from the damp earth beneath.
Holding the rock on its edge, he looked down at the patch of dirt he’d revealed – and noticed something white and rounded protruding from it. An ancient sea shell, perhaps. He set the slab down off to the side. Then he started scraping away the ochre dirt with a finger-length, sharp-edged piece of flint that had been underneath the rock. He gave a gasp. Staring up at him was the eye socket of a human skull.
His hands shaking, he uncovered the other socket, which like the first was filled with compacted ochre dirt. Next he scratched away the earth over the mouth, revealing a perfect set of teeth. Probably an Aborigine from the times before white settlement, Chaseling thought to himself. The teeth seemed to be grinning at him. He looked down at the piece of flint in his hand. It was a dark tan colour, very different in shade and composition to the other rocks in this area. And the picture became clear. This had been the dead person’s prized knife and it had gone to the grave with him. Or possibly her, although judging by the large size of the skull and teeth, it had most likely been an adult male.
Now he knew what to look for, he could see the shape of a rib cage in the dirt. And his eyes were drawn to something else. A small, disc-shaped object the size of a dried apricot, but thicker. It was caked with earth like chocolate on a Kinder
Surprise egg. He picked it up – it was heavy, some kind of rock – and scratched at the dirt with the piece of flint. There was a flash of phosphorescent colour. Opal! His heart started thumping with excitement.
As he uncovered more of the precious stone, he saw that it had raised, spiral ridges radiating out from its centre. It glittered with a kaleidoscope of hues – now emerald green, now a brilliant magenta morphing into electric blue, each shade burning with a fire from deep within the rock. He uncapped his water bottle and rinsed the stone. He thought how 100 million years ago or even earlier, a marine snail – an ancestor of the modern-day nautilus – had lived and died in a primeval sea bed. Its shell became filled with silica-rich mud and fragments of marine life. And after the sea retreated, the contents of the shell gradually transformed into a gem which shimmered with the green of long extinct seaweeds, the blue of ancient fish scales, the iridescent purple of giant sea urchin spines and the brilliant red and orange of prehistoric jellyfish. It could well be worth of a fortune.
Chaseling put the flint back down where he’d found it. After a few moments’ hesitation, he placed the opal in the pocket of his cargo shorts. It won’t be missed, the voice of his shadowy other self whispered inside his head. The previous owner has left the building. He scooped up some dirt and covered first the grinning mouth, then the eyes and nose socket of the long-buried skull.
1. Past (2002-2007)
When I was fifteen I left the smoky, wide-open skies of Dallas, Texas, for the rain and the thick, grey clouds of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. It was less than a year after the twin towers in New York had fallen, and I’d spent that year living with my father before deciding, finally, to return home to live with my mother in a little apartment block somewhere on the city’s east side.
That year, I kept mostly to myself, managing a tenth grade quick and painless, turning sixteen along the way. Then, sometime through the eleventh grade I fell in love with my thirty-something Spanish teacher, Karen Thoreson, through the twelfth grade starting an affair with her. It was an involuntary act for both of us, to fall in love, and it scared me more than I’ve ever been scared of anything else. But even after all that’s happened, after all the suffering it’s caused and all the lives it’s destroyed, I still don’t know if I can say I’d have given up what we had.
It’s not that I don’t think we made no mistakes. There were a lot of things that happened that I would’ve done differently if I could go back and do it all over again. It’s just that what we had, for the time we had it, was so beautiful that I would never give back that feeling of having been with her.
Anna Cameron had spent too many hours in an airline seat tighter than a respectable dress, and that had done nothing to improve her mood. Used to being impeccably groomed, she felt crumpled, grubby, and even more like a failure as she stepped off the jetway with a wine-stained blouse and naked face. But flying business class was not in her future anymore.
As an unemployed lawyer—aka fired with no hope of ever practicing law again—she needed to manage on a tighter budget.
Honestly, she was lucky to be in Scotland now at all. If her Aunt Elspeth hadn’t been desperate for help with the Beltane Festival and willing to pay her way, Anna would have been stuck in the Cincinnati suburbs instead, hiding out in the kitchen she’d worked so hard to escape, while her mother delivered yet another lecture on the topic of her middle daughter’s many failings. With two broken engagements and a colossal screw-up behind her, Anna was officially a “disappointment.”
Mostly to herself.
But enough. She was determined to be positive. Her old life in Washington, D.C.—and Mike and his new fiancée—were three thousand miles behind her on a different continent. She had dreamed of coming to the Scottish Highlands all her life. Now she was here for an entire month, visiting with her favorite aunt. As a bonus, there was the possibility of turning her knack for organizing events into a new career—one she badly needed.
Shrugging the straps of the four-year-old Louis Vuitton Keepall she’d gotten as a law school graduation present into a more secure position, she set off on long, slim legs toward the baggage claim, her dark tumble of curls bouncing around her shoulders. She even refrained from stopping at the duty-free shop to buy a Toblerone.
But then it happened. An ocean away, and she still could not escape.
L. Ann Marie
I shield with him and we hear Jess yell. “Hold the shield, Aiyana, she cut her hand, she’s fine.”
“Roger.” I am always amazed at how he sees everything so fast. When his gun goes off I jump holding my breath. This is not what I expected of training. As a matter of fact, this is what I was afraid of. Helping from the reservation is much safer than bullets flying anywhere close to me. I am not yet trained for all of this.
“Clear, Ops.” His voice sounds like he is growling. I look at his face, but he does not look mad as he is holstering his gun.
Two motorcycles come flying into the parking lot and stop very close to me causing me to step back. I am not accustomed to how fast they ride and stop, and right now I am angry that they forced me to step back. I do not back down. Ever. I give the riders a look that they ignore. One goes right into the building. Since I want to make sure Dakota’s woman, Jess, is okay I follow.
The Lab is set up with four workstations, there are tables and counters all along the back wall, hologram boards, like Christian showed me at the Security building, are everywhere. Robotic body parts are all over the tables and counters, a laser or something shows the outline of a man, in a 3D graph form, slowly spinning in the center of the room. The Prince guy talks softly to Jess then pulls his helmet off and looks at her hand. I think I should look at her hand, but he is gorgeous with dark hair and the lightest blue eyes I have ever seen.
He looks at me and I am stunned for a second. “Can you get the first aid kit by the door?” He is watching me, thinking I look like a picture he has seen.
I nod and pull my eyes from him looking toward the door. Taking a breath, I try to clear my head and move for the box with the red cross on it. This is not a kit, it is a whole damn box and by its weight — I’d say it is a full box. “I heard you yell, but Christian said you were fine. Are you okay, Jess?” I hand Jared the case. I like his name. Jared Baxter that works in his own building like this one, but it has all kinds of moving parts and motorcycles in it. I wonder what he does, but do not have time to look right now. I focus on Jess, seeing her mind is at ease.
She is always smiling. “I’m fine or as Dakota says, I will be fine. I didn’t know what was going on and grabbed a piece of metal on my way to the safe room. Christian told me to get in there and hide, so I was running and the metal hit the door jamb cutting my hand. It’s no biggie.”
Jared is looking at her hand. “You need stitches.” He looks closer moving to wipe up the blood that is oozing out of it.
‘I am three out, Aiyana. I will take Jessica to the clinic,’ Dakota says in my head. Why does he not want me to heal her?
I wait until Jared stops talking. “Dakota will take you to the clinic, he will be here in two minutes.”
Jared lifts his head giving me a funny look. “Who are you?”
Jess wraps some tape on the gauze he is holding. “I’m good, Jared. This is Aiyana from the reservation. I’m surprised you haven’t met, she likes cliff diving as much as I do, she’s always with us when she can make it.”
I laugh at her ‘cliff diving’, it is really just a bluff.
“Stand and deliver!”
The demand came loud and clear, as Lady Caroline Godwin’s coach came to a sudden stop. She sucked in a deep breath, holding onto the sides of her bench seat to brace herself against falling off. Her maid did the same, looking up at her in fright. “Oh, my lady. It’s a highwayman. I knew we shouldn’t have travelled at night.”
Lady Caroline couldn’t have agreed more. However, upon receiving news that her father was gravely ill and had lost a fortune at cards again, she knew she must leave London and return home. Travelling at night to get there as quickly as possible had seemed worth the risk. Not only did she need to know exactly how much her father had lost, she knew that her mother wouldn’t be able to cope with the situation. Her father had suffered a stroke immediately after losing and was currently bed bound.
Lady Caroline tried to reassure her maid. “I need you to be calm, Maisie. If we do as the rogue asks, we will come to no harm.” Yet after the initial shout, there was no sign of the highwayman. Furious both at her father for gambling away his money, and for getting stopped like this, Lady Caroline was feeling brave rather than scared. She was about to get out of the coach and see what was going on, when there were a few muffled curses from above them, a few thumps and then silence. She frowned, straining her ears to hear more.
“He’s going to kill us all!” cried Maisie fearfully, before fainting.
Lady Caroline looked at her maid lying in a crumpled heap on the bench seat opposite and couldn’t help feeling even crosser. “For heaven’s sake,” she muttered. And what has happened to my coachman and footman? “Frank? George?” she called out. She was met with silence.
She gasped as the door was suddenly pulled open and a tall, masked figure appeared, holding a pistol. The man, dressed all in black and with a tricorn hat on his head, looked around the coach, before returning his gaze to her. The pistol was aimed at her. “Good evening, my lady.”
Lady Caroline stared at him. The moonlight shone down on him, but didn’t reveal much, due to his dark clothing and black eye mask. She could make out sensual lips though, her gaze drawn to them because it was the only part of his face she could clearly make out. Then her gaze dropped to the pistol aimed at her and she felt renewed anger.
WHY I WROTE THIS BOOK
I wrote this book because I believe there are too many women who are feeling hopeless about their current life and career situations. I would like to be an encouragement to others who have been through my similar life experiences. You may be going through a divorce with children, trying to find the best way to get back into the workforce. You may be deciding that you have had enough of a toxic work environment. Or you may be thinking that now is the time to do work that helps other people and is important and meaningful to you.
In addition to being a teacher and certified life coach, I am also a wife, a mother, and a grandmother. I have been through marriage and divorce. I have been alone and on call 24/7 raising two children while working full-time for several years through tough economic times. I have known the frustration of trying to find time for myself.
During the course of my over 30 years of work experience, I have had two careers. One in business, working in the financial world of escrow, and one in education. My experience in the education field included managing a licensed child care business of my own that included my children when they were young and working as an elementary school teacher in the public school system.
At the end of 2010, I was working in a stressful job in the commercial escrow department of a title insurance company that was going through a merger.