It was 3am when he walked through the door of the Police station – tall, blonde, gorgeous and unfortunately dead. I blinked. I had never seen a vampire before although I was sure that's what he was – there was something just...other about him. It was that weird hour of the night shift when your body clock starts a full scale rebellion, plummeting your body temperature and giving you the early hours heebiejeebies. For a second I thought I was hallucinating but when I had blinked a second time and he was still there I got to my feet, plastered on a watered down version of my Protect and Serve smile and went to the counter.
"What can I do for you?" I asked politely and he grinned.
"Finally, someone in this godforsaken country I can actually understand." He ran a large hand through his blonde hair and gave me another mega-watt grin. If I wasn't so tired I might have returned it. Instead I waited patiently for him to tell me what he wanted. "I'm looking for a hotel but there isn't anywhere open." He explained. "I tried calling a couple of the numbers I had but no-one is answering and the one woman I got through to, I couldn't understand a word of what she was saying."
I smirked. It had taken me two months after I moved to Caithness to understand what anyone was saying. I lived in Wick which was near enough as dammit to the northernmost point of the UK and rather than being anglicised the local dialect had been derived from the ancient Nordic languages. Added to that a tendency to swallow consonants and run words together without taking a breath, I could understand why someone from out of town would have a hard time.
"It's 3am." I replied patiently. "No-one will be awake now, not in December."
"So what can I do?" He looked troubled. "I need to find somewhere light-tight by morning."
"That won't be a problem." I assured him. "Every house in town has black-out blinds. The problem is going to be finding somewhere that opens before sunrise. We're late starters here in Wick."
"Every house has a vampire room?" He looked astonished and I was surprised into laughing.
"As far as I know you're the first vampire ever to visit the town." I told him. "We have black-out blinds because in the summer we only get an hour of darkness and even then it's not true darkness. You can play golf at midnight on Midsummer's Eve. That's why no vampires live here – you'd be out of action for several months of the year."
For the briefest of moments he looked wistful. "I had forgotten." He whispered quietly, almost to himself and then shook himself out of his reverie with a shudder. He was about to say something else when Ellie, one of the cops and the only other English person at the Station, bounced cheerfully into the room.
"Hey Bex, you want a cuppa...?" She trailed off when she saw I was talking to someone and came to stand next to me at the counter, no doubt drawn by those ice blue eyes and rock hard pecs. "Are you in trouble sir?" She asked politely and he sighed.
"No, I'm just visiting and I can't find anywhere that's open." He ruffled his hair again. "I must say, I had heard wonderful things about the hospitality here but it seems sadly lacking tonight."
"It's 3am and it's December." Ellie pointed out as though that explained everything and then her eyes lit up. "Becky has 2 guest rooms." She stared all wide eyed and innocent at me as she put me painfully on the spot. "Obviously not the ideal solution but I'm sure for a reasonable fee you could be a B&B for one day, right?" She smiled winsomely and I wanted to throttle her.
"That would be incredibly kind and gracious of you." The stranger smiled at me and I knew I couldn't refuse, not if I didn't want to seem churlish and unpleasant.
I sighed. "Fine, you can stay with me – the guest rooms are made up." I checked my watch. "I'm finishing work at 7am so I don't know if you want to go for a walk or..."
"We're about to take our break." Ellie announced brightly. "Why don't you join us – it's much warmer in here."
"Thank you. That would be most kind." He was staring at me with an amused face as I tried to look something other than sullen and failed miserably.
"What's wrong with you?" Ellie whispered as she buzzed him through security into the building. "He's gorgeous!"
"He's also dead." I replied drily. "Didn't you notice?"
She looked totally stumped and then winced. "I thought it was just the fluorescent lighting." She admitted eventually. "It makes everyone look pale." She brightened. "Never mind, he's still gorgeous. Who needs a pulse anyway?"
Grumbling under my breath I followed her and the stranger down the hallway to the canteen and managed to force down some cereal while we talked about mundane things such as the weather and various tourist sites to check out. It transpired the stranger's name was Eric and he was visiting from Louisiana.
"What made you come here?" Ellie was fascinated and Eric shrugged.
"I was a Viking before I was turned." He said it in the same tone as I would have said 'it's raining' or 'my cat threw up a fur ball'. Clearly being centuries old was not worthy of comment. "This is, or was, Viking country." He grinned widely, showing the tiniest amount of fang. "You could say it's a heritage tour since I was in the UK on business anyway."
"Wow." With an effort Ellie didn't gape at him. "I bet it looks totally different now."
He nodded as though it was a serious question. "I don't recognise anything but then I've only been here a few hours. The plane landed not long after midnight."
It was my turn to frown, the coast road was closed cutting off connections from the south. "Did you fly into Inverness?" I asked and he laughed.
"No, I chartered a flight directly to Wick. I was hoping to go to Kirkwall but they refused the flight plans."
Ellie and I both stared at him. He chartered a flight? Who was this man? Politely we both refrained from asking and Ellie asked him what he intended to do up here instead, glossing over the awkwardness of our silence.
"I was hoping to travel around, see some of the sights." He stretched out in the chair like a cat, full of predatory grace. "Unfortunately I don't know where anything is and I can't understand a word anyone is saying so I think I may have to just chance stumbling across a few things while travelling around."
"Well what a coincidence!" Ellie was doing her wide eyed innocent thing again and she was just that little bit too far away for me to kick her. "Becky is off on leave now for a week and she makes a great tour guide." She bubbled enthusiastically. "I'm sure she wouldn't mind showing you a few things while she's off, especially since you're staying with her."
I closed my eyes and counted to ten, praying for patience. "I booked the leave to work on my Christmas commissions." I reminded her pointedly. "I really haven't got time to be a tour guide."
"I would pay you handsomely." He looked as though he was amused by my discomfort but really wanted me to say yes. "I would try not to take up too much of your time. What commissions do you have for Christmas?"
I didn't get a chance to answer – Ellie once again beat me to it. "She makes the most amazing jewellery!" She gushed. "You must let her show you some of it when you're at the house. It's beautiful."
"It's just a hobby." I gritted my teeth and silently vowed revenge for her matchmaking. "I just have a few items that have been requested by family and friends." He nodded as though it was all settled and Ellie looked at the clock.
"Back to work!" She announced cheerfully. "Not long now til the end of the shift. Eric, I'm sure no-one would mind if you sat out front for a couple of hours. We had this Spanish guy once who slept in reception because he got off the train at the wrong station."
"That sounds...uncomfortable." He blinked and returned his gaze to me. "I will take a seat, of course."
I let him back out into reception where, of course, he took the seat closest to the security glass so that he could continue to speak to me while I sat at my desk.
"So how long have you lived here?" He asked conversationally and I quietly calculated.
"Just over a year." I responded eventually. "I moved in November last year."
"Why did you come to Wick? Is it not somewhat remote?" I knew he was just trying to make conversation but the pain in my heart was immediate and sharp and I didn't know how to answer without making up some inane platitude. "I apologise." He was studying my face. "That appears to have been a deeply personal question."
"No, it's okay." I tried to relax my jaw which had unconsciously gritted. I needed to be able to talk about it without falling to pieces. "I needed to start over, somewhere new and different. The job came up here and I decided to go for it. I didn't have anything to tie me down."
For the longest time he just gazed at me, still and unmoving while his eyes bored into my soul like they were drilling through my memories, and then he frowned. "What was his name?"
I stared right back at him. "I don't talk about him. Ever."
He held his hands up in apology but persisted with his line of questioning. "It must have been bad for you to move this far away?"
I put down my pen and leaned back in my chair. "You wouldn't understand Eric. Have you ever been in an abusive relationship?"
To my astonishment he nodded. His eyes went distant and his voice turned bleak. "My maker was not a kind man." He said shortly. "I should not have intruded – I understand your situation all too well."
There was a story here that I suddenly very much wanted to know. Although I had been through counselling at the refuge it was still a healing thing to share a story with another survivor. "How far did you run?" I asked him and he sighed.
"I guess I deserved that." He smiled ruefully. "I left Europe for the New World but I wasn't running really, I was just-"
"Starting over." I finished for him. "Precisely."
He looked right into my eyes. "You are a fascinating woman Rebecca." He sounded as though it troubled him and I left him to his thoughts as I went back to my work.
When my shift finished I drove him back to my house on the outskirts of town and gave him a quick tour of the rooms. It felt strange not offering him a drink but then I guessed he wouldn't drink hot chocolate. He watched with curiosity as I boiled the kettle and filled a hot water bottle.
"What is it?" He asked, poking it and I gaped at him.
"Do you not have hot water bottles where you live?" I was astounded but he merely shrugged.
"If we do I have never seen or had reason to purchase one." He poked it again. "What is it's purpose?"
"It keeps you warm." I couldn't believe I was explaining it. "If you put it in bed it warms the sheets before you get in."
"I see." He suddenly smiled. "My second would adore these. They're so...human." He poked it again. "I must buy her one before I return home."
I took it out from under his hand and clutched it to my chest. "I'll take you to the supermarket – they have cute Christmas ones there." I offered. "Now, I don't mean to be rude but I'm heading for bed."
"Of course." He looked out the kitchen window where the sky was beginning to lighten with the curious gloaming that only existed on the north coast. "I must...sleep too."
I fetched him a towel and then we went to our respective rooms and slept.
When I awoke I opened my eyes to find him staring at my face from a few inches away. Yelping I hauled the sheets right up to my neck and he chuckled, moving back a short distance but not by much.
"You have exceptional hair." He lifted a strand of it from the pillow and ran it through his fingers. "It's so long and lustrous."
"Um...thanks?" I rubbed my eyes. "What are you doing in here?" I realised he was already dressed in a vest and jeans. His arms were impressive. "What time is it?" I asked, distracting myself from that train of thought. Whatever Ellie was trying to set up, I did not want to get involved with the undead.
"It's just after 5 in the afternoon." He grinned. "These long nights are extraordinary. I spend more time awake than asleep." Without warning he gracefully leapt over me onto the far side of the bed and settled down to look at me. I just didn't know what to do. How did one go about ordering a person twice ones size out of bed and out of the room? "Where is the hot water cushion?" He asked. "Is it still hot?"
"Hot water bottle." I corrected automatically. "And no, it's not still hot. What do you want Eric?"
"Are you always this grumpy when you wake up?" He asked curiously and I sighed.
"I don't normally have strangers in my bedroom when I wake up." I knew I sounded stroppy but he was right – I was tired and grumpy and he was making me think.
"I am most glad to hear it." He poked my bracelet, rolling it beneath his finger. "Is this one of yours?" He asked and I looked at it.
"Yeah, it's one of mine." It was the original prototype of my latest range – I was still adding charms to it as I came up with new designs.
"I have seen this before." He sounded thoughtful and the connection twigged in my brain.
"That's because it's Viking weave." For the first time since waking up I was amused. "Back in your day the war lords and wealthy guys were buried wearing this stuff. That's how we know how to make it. It's a very ancient technique."
"I did not know people were still making it." I couldn't tell if he was sad or pleased. "Would you make me one? Again, I would pay you handsomely."
"We'll talk about it when I've had a cup of tea." I smiled at him, trying to be a good host. "If you wouldn't mind, I need to get up and dressed."
He didn't move.
"Um, Eric...I can't get dressed with you in the room." I pointed out and he still didn't move.
"I am hungry." He told me and my heart sank.
"Oh bollocks." I instantly understood the problem. "There's nowhere here that sells that synthetic blood because we have never had a vampire visit."
"Are there no fangbangers?" He asked and I couldn't help myself, I started laughing.
"Eric, a prerequisite for fangbangers is having some 'fang' to 'bang'. No fang, no bang. You see where I'm going with this?"
He sighed. "Yes, I see. I don't suppose you have a red light district either?" That just set me off laughing even more, the thought of Wick having a red light district. We didn't even rate having a cinema. "Do not laugh at me woman." He growled. "If I cannot pay for it I must hunt."
That sobered me instantly. "You can't." I put my hand on his arm and was surprised to feel that it was cool to the touch. "Eric, hunting is illegal in this country and this is an extremely small community. They will all know by now that you are here and if someone turns up with bite marks they will know exactly who to question."
"Oh." We sat in silence for a while pondering the dilemma but I couldn't see a solution. We had suffered a heavy snow fall the previous week and the coast road south was still blocked. There was no way to order in anything unless it came by air and that could take days. Suddenly he grinned and his look went from troubled to seductive. "Well in that case there's only one thing for it." He stared at me meaningfully but it still took me a moment to get what he was saying.
"No. No way. Absolutely not." I clutched the sheets even tighter. "That was not part of the deal."
"I believe I am paying for bed and breakfast. Emphasis on the breakfast." The bastard was enjoying this and I sighed.
"If you want bacon and eggs or even pancakes I will cheerfully make them for you but I will not sell my body for money."
"It won't hurt." He was moving closer and I could feel his hand creeping up my side to hook over the top of the duvet between my white-knuckled grip. "In fact I can make it so that you fully enjoy it."
"Eric I work in a public position." I declared primly, trying to squash my rising panic. "I would be sacked – I can't parade around with bite marks on my neck."
He chuckled. "Who says I want to bite your neck?"
I failed miserably to find a comeback for that. While I was still searching for the words he tugged the blanket out of my hands and folded himself underneath it.
"Eric!" I was squeaking now. This was a bad sign. "I don't know you!"
"You are about to know me exceedingly well." He smirked and that did it.
"Why! You insufferably arrogant SCOUNDREL!" I shot upright in bed. "You do NOT come into my home and assume that I will fall at your feet just because you happen to be cute!"
"You think I'm cute?" He asked mildly and I shrieked in wordless fury. I was all prepared to jump out of bed and rescind his invitation to my home when he gave me the full and undivided attention of his gaze and said softly "You really are quite beautiful, even angry...especially when you're angry. Your eyes have such amazing fire in them."
Abruptly I wanted to cry and I wasn't even sure why. "Don't!" I blinked away tears but my fury was starting to simmer down. "Don't you dare try and seduce me just to use me. Don't you dare."
"That was not my intention." He said quietly and he gathered me into his arms against my protests, holding me until I quieted. "I meant every word." He told me when I had stopped crying. "You are a beautiful woman Rebecca. The fact that I want you and am immensely attracted to you does not diminish the truth of my words in any way."
"It's a very long time since I've felt beautiful." I wiped my eyes and thanked whoever was up there that I wasn't wearing mascara, although I knew I must look a state. I always got blotchy from crying and snot is not a good look on anyone.
He reached over and grabbed me a tissue from the bedside table. "If I give you words of wisdom will you promise to still think I'm a scoundrel?" He was half joking and it surprised a small laugh out of me so I nodded and he smiled. "You allowed me into your home when I was alone and in trouble and you treated me graciously when you did not have to. Right now you may be beautiful of face but some day when you are old and wrinkly and your breasts are situated somewhere near your waist, you will still be beautiful and it's because you are beautiful of heart. I cannot make you believe that what you see in the mirror is truly exquisite, which it is!" He tapped me gently on the nose. "But no-one needs to convince you of the warmth in your heart because you know it's there. With every fibre of your being you know that you are beautiful in your heart."
I wanted to argue with him but I didn't know where to begin. My uncharitable thoughts of the previous night had shamed me and the truth was that I tried to be a good person. I gave to charity when I could, I volunteered at the refuge and I tried to always do my best for people, even when I didn't much like them. I wasn't sure if that made me beautiful of heart but it was probably the nicest thing anyone had ever said to me.
"I don't..." I sighed, trying to find the words to express my doubts without sounding ungrateful for the things he had said to me. "Eric I don't know if I can do this." I turned in his arms to face him. "It's not just that I don't know you. You would be the first since...him and he always hurt me. It was never pleasant. I don't know if I'm ready yet."
"It has been more than a year Rebecca." He reminded me gently. "Do not let him destroy you in this way." He brushed a stray lock of hair away from my face. "He is a year and 700 miles in your past and he cannot hurt you anymore. I am here and I understand you in a way that most men never will. Do you trust me?"
I looked up into those piercing blue eyes and somehow I did. It was crazy, I had known this man for just a few hours and I knew that he was something not quite human, something deadly, but right there and then, encircled in his arms, I felt safe.
"Please allow this to be my gift to you in return for your kindness." His words were oddly formal but there was nothing stuck up about the way he kissed me and I felt the last of my fears melt away as I succumbed to the surprising softness of his cool lips. As first kisses went it was pretty mind-blowing, smashing down all my barriers and reservations in a flurry of dancing tongues and possession. I slid my hands into his hair and held him close as he embraced me tightly, pressing his cool body the length of mine, and when he released me I was breathless. "Are you okay?" He whispered and I nodded, too dazed to trust my voice. "Good." He grinned and slid a hand up under my vest top, caressing my breast and watching my face as I gasped and my eyes fluttered closed with pleasure. When he lifted my top over my head I obediently raised my arms and let him take it off, too lost in the touch of his lips and hands to feel self-conscious about being exposed in front of a man for the first time in more than 12 months. He swept away my fears in a rush of sensation, his clever tongue flickering over my nipples and teasing them gently to life with his teeth.
When I thought I would die if he didn't go further I tugged his vest up and growled softly at him until he lifted his arms and let me pull it over his head. He smiled at me as I tossed it somewhere on the floor and smoothed his hair down where I had mussed it. He was an extraordinarily fine figure of a man to look at and I took a moment to follow the line if his chest down to the small line of blond hair that disappeared into his jeans. When I looked back at his face amusement was clearly warring with desire.
"You looked like you were undressing me in your head." He said and I snorted.
"Only because it was faster in my head than it is in reality." I was mocking but he looked serious.
"Trust me, we should take this one step at a time." He lowered his head and kissed the sensitive part of my neck where there was a small hollow over my collarbone and I shivered with delight. "You've been waiting a long time." He trailed a line of fiery icy kisses up my neck. "I want to make this worth waiting for." He nibbled my ear and if I hadn't been lying down I might have swooned.
He moved over me, covering my body with his much larger one and kissed a line all the way down my front. He got as far as my navel before I realised where he was headed and suddenly I was nervous. "Stop thinking." He ordered and I felt him smile against my belly. "Clear your mind of everything except what I'm doing to you."
"That's what made me nervous in the first place." I pointed out and he chuckled, his breath sliding across my skin.
"No, your self-confidence issues made you nervous. Trust me, I want to worship every inch of this body of yours. Your nervousness has nothing to do with what I'm about to do to you." He looked up and winked at me as he slid my pyjama trousers down and lifted out first one leg and then the other. "What lovely ankles you have." He kissed each one before he laid them on the bed and scooted right down between them until he was resting on his elbows looking up at me from between my thighs. I wanted to be embarrassed but my traitorous libido was dancing happy circles in my lower abdomen and when he kissed the soft skin on my inner thigh I quivered all over in anticipation.
When he spoke his voice was strained. "I cannot restrain my hunger much longer." He admitted. "After, can I feed?"
It seemed unfair to deny him when he was on the verge of making me whole again so I whispered yes and he didn't waste a second, applying himself thoroughly to the task in hand with long sure strokes of his tongue. It was the first time any man had done this to me and it was such an extraordinary feeling I cried out, arching against him. It wasn't long before an orgasm built and it crashed over me inexorably, making me shudder all over with pleasure in wave after wave. I barely noticed when he took his mouth away but next he slid strong fingers into me and that was a whole new sensation to make me writhe uncontrollably in the sheets. I felt a sudden and sharp pain at my inner thigh but it was quickly drowned out in a wave of bliss as another climax crashed over me and when I finally stopped shaking he had drunk his fill and I had hardly even noticed. He gazed at me wordlessly, the question in his eyes, and I nodded. I was ready.
He shucked his jeans off and underneath he was perfect and gloriously naked. Carefully he raised my hips and slowly slid into me, kissing away the tears I didn't even know I'd cried.
Afterwards I lay in his arms and wept both for joy and for sorrow. It had taken someone undead to make me realise how much I wanted to live again.
He insisted I eat as soon as I got out of the shower and sat at my kitchen table watching me scrambling eggs and grilling bacon and tomatoes. He looked troubled and I asked him what was wrong. For the longest time I didn't think he was going to answer me but eventually he sighed.
"This is not who I am." He told me softly. "I am a ruthless bastard in general. I am fair but I put the fear of god into people on a daily basis. I never apologise for things and I certainly do not admit that I think someone is beautiful of heart. I would never explain myself in this way to anyone and yet I find I want you to understand. I do not know what has come over me. I feel almost...human. It is immensely disturbing."
I sat opposite him. "Maybe it's because you're away from all the politics and power of your job back home." I suggested. "Perhaps being vampire for several hundred years hasn't completely drowned out your humanity and this is what you're like when you relax."
He mulled this over and then closed his eyes. "You remind me of my wife." He declared abruptly. "She had hair like yours and the same fire in her eyes. Being here...this place...and you. I cannot be objective and I don't like it."
Wow. Well that came from left of centre. I reminded him of a woman who had been dead for several hundred years. I couldn't even begin to imagine the depth of his grief over all those long centuries, being ripped away so abruptly from everything you know and love to remain unchanged and ageless, knowing that the people who owned the parts of your heart you had left behind were ageing and dying without you at their side. My sadness for him ached in my chest.
"Maybe it's time to lay your sorrows to rest." I suggested cautiously. "In all the years since you lost her, have you really grieved Eric?"
Anger filled his eyes and he opened his mouth, no doubt to say 'of course' and then the realisation dawned in his eyes and he somehow shrank in stature. "No." He confessed quietly. "No I haven't. At first there was hunger, all consuming hunger and blood lust. And then there was shame." He did not need to explain for me to know he was thinking of his maker. "And then I left and spent the formative years of my vampire life trying to put those years with him behind me..." He trailed off.
"And after that?" I prompted and he turned those icy eyes on me.
"And after that there was politics." He continued simply. "I am a master manipulator Rebecca. I am a powerful and wealthy man and have enough in my life to tie me up in machinations for all my waking hours. If we were there instead of here I would be running over in my mind all the ways I could tie you to me and how I could use your particular gifts to make me money and you would never know what was going on in my head until it was too late, until you were sucked so absolutely into my world that there would be no hope of redemption for you."
"Go Eric! Don't hold back with the honesty." I said sarcastically, making light of it hoping that he would understand that his thought processes didn't scare me and he looked startled. Then he laughed and carried on laughing until pink tears were streaming down his cheeks and he was clutching his stomach. I would have laid money on him not having laughed like that in years.
Having talked it over he seemed prepared to let it go and spent the time while I ate telling me stories of his time as a Viking marauder. If you believed everything he said then he could singlehandedly decimate the enemy armies and was responsible for conquering most of the known world. He might not have been a great vampire in that hour but he was certainly an entertaining dinner companion. I was still giggling when I fetched my coat and hat and a thermos of hot tea to take in the car.
"Where are we going first?" He sounded excited like a small child and I grinned at him.
"Since it's a clear night I thought we'd go out up to Dunnet Head and we'll come back by way of the cairns. If it's not too late and it's still clear we'll go out to Yarrows and I'll show you the roof of the world." I wound my scarf around my neck and pulled leather gloves on, knowing that it was going to be bitterly cold out there in the night.
He bounded lightly down the steps to the car while I locked up and tried to ignore the fact that my neighbour's curtains were twitching. Eric's enthusiasm was infectious and as we made the drive out to Dunnet I tried to fill him in on some of the more recent history of the area that he may have missed out on, such as the world wars which had a massive impact on the landscape of the far north. The drive out to the viewpoint took us out into the middle of nowhere on winding roads that bisected the peat fields and followed valleys between the placid lochs. It was bleakly beautiful and it saddened me that he would never see it in heather season when the hills were a riot of purple blazing in the sunshine. The roads were icy and the car was at crawling pace by the time we had climbed up into the hills to the view point at the top. I parked the car in the small gravelled area and fetched a torch, leading him up the hill the last few steps until we reached the circular viewpoint with its great slabs of the famous black sparkling Caithness stone telling you what you were looking at.
Eric whistled long and low as he surveyed the view. It was truly spectacular. Inland on a clear day you could see all the way to the mountains that marked the borders of Sutherland and out towards the ocean you could see the Orkney Islands scattered like gems in the waves. I stood in silence, letting him take it all in and when he turned to me his face was filled with a fierce joy.
"I remember." He laughed. "I remember this land. In the summer sunshine the light had this amazing quality that made everything golden and glorious. In the autumn the hills were purple and fragrant and the women cut great mattocks of peat from the beds to keep our fires going over the winter. The snow shone in the winter sun until it was blindingly beautiful. I remember." He turned back to the view and I surreptitiously wiped a small tear from the corner of my eye, telling myself it was the wind making my eyes water and not the uplifting joy in his voice. I was amazed that after all this time he could still remember that the light here was different. We were surrounded on three sides by the sea and the sunshine reflected off the water giving everything an invisibly dappled quality that was quite magical. It was stronger in Orkney which, as an island, was surrounded on all sides by the sea but it was amazing anywhere it happened.
We remained there for nearly an hour while he carefully read the stones and memorised the new names of the hills and islands, fixing them in his mind so that he would not forget. By the time we got back to the car my feet were numb and my teeth were chattering and he poured me some tea while we headed back to the main road and then inland towards Camster.
It was almost 11pm when we got on the road out into the wilderness and Eric looked out across the landscape with some curiosity as we headed cross country.
"There are things moving out there." He remarked and I nodded.
"This is deer country. You don't see them so much in the summer but in the winter the snow forces them down out of the hills in search of grazing." I wanted to look but the snow hadn't melted out here and the road was treacherous. I suspected my eyesight wasn't good enough to see them anyway. He let me concentrate on the road until I spotted the layby on the right hand side and I pulled into it, stopping the car slowly so we didn't slide off down the hill in the ice. The cairns were stunning in the moonlight, rising out of the grass like faerie mounds, ancient and majestic. I came out here often to be alone with my thoughts and they still took my breath away every time.
By the time I had cocooned myself in assorted knitwear against the bitter night wind Eric was standing by the side of the road looking down at the cairns with a strange look on his face. "Are you okay?" I asked, coming to stand beside him and he nodded.
"This seems a fitting place to spend eternity." His voice was oddly distant as he looked down at me. "The fact that I will never have a grave had not occurred to me until now." He returned his gaze to the view laid out before us and then took my hand, leading me down the rough hewn stairs onto the wooden walkway that would take us out into the valley.
He was too big to climb into the cairns and watched with some fascination as I crawled through the low, narrow passageway into the centre of one of the stone structures and took pictures with the camera on his phone so that he could see what was inside. Obviously they now looked nothing like what they would have originally looked like but it was still an eerie sensation to be standing in a burial mound in the middle of nowhere at midnight with a giant undead Viking waiting patiently outside. I had a fit of hysterical giggles and his face appeared in the opening.
"What's happening?" He sounded concerned as his voice echoed weirdly down the tunnel and that just made me laugh even harder, the torchlight flickering all over the place as I tried to control myself.
"I'm fine." I giggled and held my breath until I calmed down. I crawled back out to him, bumping the walls and ceiling as I tried to avoid the puddles on the floor and he helped me out at the far end. He looked at me oddly but refrained from comment and once he had looked at the pictures we headed back to the car.
"What shoes are you wearing?" I asked as we got back on the road and he stared at me.
"Does it matter?" It wasn't rude, just curious.
"I'd like to take you up to Yarrows but it's a peat bog. You'll be up to your ankles in ice cold, extremely brown water." I explained. "I have wellies in the back but you'll be pretty miserable and it's a 2 mile trek to see all of it. I should have thought of it before we left the house. I'm sorry."
"It's not a problem." He waved expansively. "Take me there. I'd like to see it." I eyed him dubiously but he seemed pretty determined so I shrugged and turned back to the road. The Camster road joined the coast road at Lybster and we turned left, heading back north up to Wick. As we drove I pointed out the Whaligoe steps and signs to the Hill o' many stanes but although I described them we didn't stop, we didn't have time if we wanted to see Yarrows before dawn.
We turned off the coast road at Tannach and headed inland into the wilderness again. Eric was smiling. "Why is it that all of these places are in the middle of nowhere?" He asked and I shrugged.
"You tell me. You were around when some of them were built. The broch I'm about to show you I totally understand, but the cairns? I have no idea."
"Probably for the same reason I admired them." Eric mused solemnly aloud. "Because they were a truly spectacular place to spend eternity."
There wasn't much I could say to that except to agree and I stayed silent the rest of the drive to the trail. We followed a small single track road for a couple of miles after we'd branched off from the Tannach road and parked in the yard of a sprawling farmstead. I perched on the lip of the boot of the car changing my trainers for wellies while Eric studied the map that was placed by the gate which led to the path. I had no idea how he was reading it in the darkness but he was studying it closely so I let him get on with it.
"It's this way." I said quietly so that we didn't wake any of the farm residents. Sounds carried amazingly well across the night landscape when the wind died down and it was a still and crystalline night over the loch. I started for the gate but Eric caught my hand.
"Which bit are we looking at first?" He asked and I pointed with my free hand directly out into the fields.
"There's a loch out that way with a broch next to it." I explained. "The first part of the walk isn't so bad. It's when we get out to the fort that it starts getting wet." He narrowed his eyes looking into the distance and nodded, scooping me up into his arms before I could even blink.
"Hold on." He grinned and took off, soaring across the darkened fields in one spectacular leap.
"Oh my god!" I squeaked, clinging to him and shaking with fright. "Put me down!" We weren't that high up, I could still see the ground, but he had taken me totally by surprise. He just laughed at me as we alighted on the wall of the broch and I slid down his front onto trembling legs, gasping for breath. "Give me some warning next time!" I was trying to shout quietly but he was shaking with laughter and I wanted to smack him.
"What a fortuitous place to live." He ignored my anger like one would ignore a small child and looked around with interest, trying to hide his amusement. "I understand what you mean about this broch – clean water, fishing, lands for grazing and it seems very sheltered." We both looked down into the huge circular building almost 20 feet across and I was surprised all over again at how much of it had survived. It was wildly overgrown and in places it was almost 2 foot deep in water but it was still an awe-inspiring structure with its thick inner and outer walls. In some places it was clear that there had been a second floor where they had suspended giant sheets of slate between the walls, building them into the outer stonework. For a Stone Age structure it was truly remarkable.
I swallowed my anger and tried to be gracious that he had saved my feet from the cold. "The ones at Skara Brae over on Orkney are even better preserved but none of them are this big or this impressive." I sounded like a tour guide but he didn't seem to mind.
"I should like to visit there before I leave." Eric had wandered around to the far side of the structure and I followed him, picking my way over the uneven rocks.
"Might be awkward with the ferries." I pointed out. "I don't know when the first morning ferry back is but the crossing takes 40 minutes and we might not make it home in time for sunrise."
"Unless the sea has altered my depth perception, the islands are within spitting distance." He shrugged. "The ferries are of no consequence. We shall fly."
I gaped at him but he wasn't looking at me. He was facing out into the darkness across the loch either remembering or trying to imagine what it would have been like living here in that age. Swallowing my astonishment I waited until he was done with his thoughts.
"Where next?" He asked, stepping off his rocks back down towards me and I looked around, squinting into the darkness to gauge our position. Although the moon was clear and bright the shadows it cast tinged everything with an aura of unfamiliarity.
"The top of that hill please." I pointed and managed not to squeak this time when he lifted me up as though I weighed no more than a feather. The bottom of my stomach still dropped out sickeningly as we left the ground but after the initial rising sensation it wasn't so bad and within seconds we were standing on the hill.
Eric looked around. "I'm not seeing anything." He frowned. "What's supposed to be here?"
I chuckled. "Believe it or not we're actually standing in the middle of a Roman fort. You'll see it more clearly from the next hill." Eric looked around and shrugged. He was right – unless you knew what you were looking at it was just a windswept hill top. We didn't waste any time there and made a slightly longer jump this time to the tallest hill in the area where the ruined remains of two cairns stood majestically looking over the landscape.
"Turn around." I whispered to Eric who was looking at the cairns and he did, awed into stunned and frozen silence at the vista that lay beneath us in the moonlight. "Beautiful huh?" I smiled at his expression of wonder. The view may not have been as far reaching as that from Dunnet Head but to stand here and look out was to understand what it was like to look down from the roof of the world.
"I am...humbled." He murmured softly and took me in his arms, resting his chin on my head as he gazed out across the view. "I am humbled."
We got home exhausted but happy and I had a small snack while Eric, still fascinated with the hot water bottle, filled it up from the kettle for me. We went to bed together but I was asleep before the sunrise and never saw him fade.
I awoke in his arms to find him already awake and happy in that way that men are when they've just woken up. There was no talking this time and he made love to me tenderly with a wistfulness in his eyes. I didn't know if it was from his memories or because he would soon be leaving and I didn't really care. I just wanted to be in the here and now with this remarkable man who was healing what months of counselling could not.
That night we drove out to the west coast and drove along to Bettyhill. The scenery was epic in its scope and several times we had to stop the car just to stare at it. The night was again clear and it was nearing full moon so everything was washed alight in silver glow. It was incredible. We parked the car at Farr Bay and walked out across the dunes.
"There was some sort of battle here." I explained as he took my arm and helped me down a steep section onto the beach. "Every time we have a storm the skeletons start washing up and we have to send the CID out to check they're not murder victims before the archaeologists can come in. I don't know when it happened but it was Viking era."
"I was not here." Eric frowned as he looked around. "I visited this place but there were no battles. It must have been before or after my time." We walked up and down the beach and then drove for a couple of hours admiring the scenery before we returned home and he settled into my ratty armchair while I built up the fire and sat down to make jewellery in the few hours before sunrise.
"We never had that discussion about you making me something." He was smiling and I stuck my tongue out at him.
"That's because you tried to eat me for breakfast right after you asked." I pointed out and he laughed.
"This is true." He flashed his fangs at me. "So how about it? Will you?"
"Of course but it may take a few days. When are you leaving?" I looked up from what I was doing in time to catch the fleeting sadness that passed over his eyes.
"Tonight will be my last night." He ran his hands through his hair. "I must return home – I have left people I trust in charge but I have been away for nearly 3 weeks. I want to visit Orkney so I will stay one more night." And he didn't want to leave. The words hung unsaid in the air and I nodded.
"Then you'll have to leave me a postal address I can send it to." I said practically, refusing to allow any sadness into my voice. We had both known this was coming, it was time to be adult about it.
"Of course." He studied me and I continued to work in peaceful and silent companionship while the fire roared behind me, keeping the night at bay.
Again he was the first to wake that night and I was surprised to find he had let me sleep until almost 7pm. "You were starting to look tired." He explained when I commented, smoothing the hair away from my face. "It is not natural for you to be nocturnal, your body is rebelling."
I didn't feel tired. I felt relaxed in his company and there was a sudden joy in my heart that was a mixture of my sexual awakening and pride in the land I called home and all the beauty it had to offer. We laughed all through our 'getting up' routine and he stood over me insisting I ate a huge hot meal before we set out for the night. He wrapped my scarf around my neck while I pulled my gloves on and planted kisses all over my face while I giggled, searching for the car keys in my pockets.
We drove to Duncansby Head and I pointed out the famous Highland cattle to him as we drove past the great shaggy beasts with their impressive horns and toffee coloured fur. We parked the car by the lighthouse and raced across the rise, laughing at being able to cross from the north coast to the east coast in all of 2 minutes.
Finally, panting for breath I collapsed against the car laughing and he grinned down at me in the darkness. "Are you ready for the crossing?" He asked and I nodded, straightening up and wincing at the stitch in my side. I'd packed a rucksack with a thermos and some snacks and I pulled it on while he locked the car and then he embraced me, hiking me up so that my legs were round his waist, my arms were around his neck and I was looking him in the eyes.
"Hold on tight." There was such fierce joy in his face that I laughed with him and barely noticed the rise from the ground. We soared across the ocean which was sparkling with midnight and crossed the first of the islands which lay below us in a breathtaking vista. I gasped with delight as we swooped through Scapa Flow low enough to catch the spray in our faces and giggled as we shot up into the air again to cross the next island.
We finally landed out at Skara Brae and sneaked into the enclosure to look at the ancient huts. Hundreds of years ago they had been swallowed up by the duning sands and had been preserved in almost pristine condition until they were uncovered by a convenient storm and excavated before being turned into a prime tourist attraction. Eric was fascinated and jumped right down into them while I watched from the footpath, poking at the ancient stones and examining the various pits and fireplaces before sticking his head into various tunnels to look round.
"I don't remember this place at all." He remarked conversationally, climbing gracefully back out. "This was way before my time – we had long-houses – but I can see that these would have been more sheltered in the winter."
We walked around the manor house and the grounds and then took to the air once more for a breathtaking tour of Kirkwall. The air was bitterly cold as we swooped around the cathedral and tower and I burrowed my hands into Eric's cashmere coat as I held on for dear life. We went to the Italian chapel and stopped there while I explained some of the history to him and pointed out the land bridges between the islands.
After that we travelled to Maeshowe and I explained the marvel of the ancient cairn to him, that once a year on midsummer's day the sunset hit the hole above the door of the cairn so exactly that it filled the whole chamber with blazing magnificence. He was astonished and we both wondered aloud how they had managed to calculate that so precisely.
Finally, about four hours before sunrise, we landed in one of my all time favourite places – the Ring of Brodgar. In the moonlight it was both surreal and magical – the massive stones towering over the landscape like the bones of the earth, fractured and forced into the sunlight. As I always did in this most special of places, I closed my eyes and turned my face to the sky, feeling at one with the earth and the ancients...timeless, alone and yet somehow never alone.
When I opened my eyes again Eric was standing very close looking down at me, his pale skin glowing luminous in the moonlight. He looked like a god and it took my breath away, he was so beautiful.
"Come back with me." He whispered, the curtain of his hair falling around my face as he pressed his forehead to mine. "I don't want to leave you behind. Come back to America with me."
With the wonder of the ancients still coursing through my body I kissed him slowly and lingeringly and then I said no. "I have no place in your world Eric." I told him softly, reaching up and cupping his cheeks in my tiny hands so I could look him in the eyes. "This you, this wonderful, open, vulnerable you has no place in your world either. Let me keep this little piece of your heart safe in my wilderness and I will love it for as long as I breathe. You will walk forever with me through this landscape of your past."
He went to his knees like a broken man. "Rebecca...please, in you I am learning what it is like to live again. I cannot know that you are here, thousands of miles away from me and unreachable. You are in my blood."
"And you in mine." I replied gently, feeling a burgeoning joy at this knowledge. "You have shown me what it means to live again. I was not made for politics or wealth Eric. Your world would crush me until I am nothing but a broken shadow of the woman I once was. Let me live, let me breathe and let me know joy here in this place where you showed me that I was beautiful of heart." My tears fell on his upturned face and I leaned down to kiss them away, salty on my lips like the spray from the ocean that gave life to these islands. "In me you will always have a refuge." I reminded him. "It's not as though you are forbidden from ever visiting again." I smiled. "I will be here."
He cried like his heart was breaking and I knew that he grieved not just for me but for his wife and the humanity he had left behind. When he left this place he would be a better and stronger person for having laid his ghosts to rest and even in my sadness I was glad for him.
We arrived back at the house just over an hour before dawn and made frantic, passionate love before drifting off at sunrise in a tangle of limbs and tears.
He woke me just after five with a cup of tea. "My flight is in two hours." He said sadly after kissing me hello. "I was too selfish to let you sleep." I smiled and got up to give him a hug.
"It's okay." I breathed in his subtle fragrance that was all man. "Let me get dressed and we'll go find you a hot water bottle for your...?"
"Second." He finished. "I had forgotten." He released me and I rummaged through my drawers for a clean pair of jeans and a warm jumper with a T-shirt to wear underneath it. He followed me to the bathroom and sat on the floor talking to me while I had a quick shower and got dressed. He wrote down his address in Shreveport and stuck it to my fridge with a magnet while I gulped down a bowl of cereal, telling me he wanted a triple-weave bracelet in medium gauge platinum wire. He faithfully wrote down my bank details so he could transfer money for the platinum and promised to send money as soon as he was settled back in Louisiana. Finally he added his landline phone number to the sheet on the fridge and put my mobile number in his phone while I rinsed my dishes, calling my mobile just to make sure he had the international code correct and then saving his mobile number in the directory of my phone.
When we could not stall any longer he loaded his overnight bag into the back of my car and warmed the engine for me while I checked the house over quickly for anything he might have missed. He will be back, I said silently to the house as the feeling of emptiness threatened to overwhelm me and I blinked away tears as I locked the door.
We drove in silence to the supermarket and although we tried to be cheerful while picking out a cutesy hot water bottle for this woman, Pam, the misery of our impending separation overlaid everything. We paid and then drove in silence to the tiny airfield on the outskirts of town.
"Are you going straight home or are you stopping in London first?" I asked, more to break the silence than because I wanted to know and he sighed.
"Straight home. My luggage from the London conference has already been sent back." He got out the car and I followed, watching as he checked his bag through the minimal security and exchanged a few words with the Anubis flight attendant who was waiting patiently for him on the tarmac.
Finally there was nothing left to say and we stood and looked at each other. Wordlessly he pulled me into his arms and squeezed me until I almost couldn't breathe.
"I'll miss you." He said when he finally released me and I smiled ruefully.
"I'll miss you too. But you can come back." The tears were threatening and he seemed to know that I couldn't bear for him to drag it out.
"Be safe. You have my heart." He whispered as he kissed me one last time and then he was away, striding across the tarmac without looking back, his glorious mane of blond hair flying in the wind as though giving me one last reminder of his beauty. The ache in my heart was immediate and agonising but I did not call him back. I could no more live in his world than he in mine.
Two weeks later, just days before Christmas, a large parcel arrived in the post bearing an unfamiliar post mark. Ellie was at mine and she was heating Winter Pimm's at the stove, watching with some curiosity as I cut the sellotape and opened the box.
Laid neatly on top of all the packaging was an expensive looking cream envelope in heavy embossed paper with my name scrawled across it in black ink. I knew who it was from without having to open it.
"Eric?" Ellie guessed, ladling out a large mug from the pan for me and I nodded. I opened the letter and started to read.
My bracelet arrived in the post yesterday. It is perfect and I will wear it always. It is strange to me how something so small can contain so many happy memories. I have transferred money into your account, both in payment for the bracelet and for the use of your house while I was staying in Scotland, and attached a copy of the balance transfer in case of issues with the bank. Do not be angry with me. Your joy is mine – you were born to make beautiful things and I hope this will give you the freedom to do just that.
Pam was delighted with her hot water bottle and is making a collection of them. She would like to meet you some day. She has included some gifts that she thought you may appreciate.
I miss you. Send me a copy of your plans and I will try and work out when is best to call with the time difference. In the meantime I am clearing a period of three weeks in the autumn to come back and see you. I look forward to it with every part of my being except for the little piece of my heart that is already in your possession.
"That's so romantic!" Ellie squealed. "What does that say?" She pointed at something written at the bottom in a foreign language and I smiled even as my eyes welled up. I couldn't translate it directly but I knew what it meant.
"It says I'm beautiful of heart." I told her and she did that happy-jumpy-high pitched thing that good friends do when something good is happening in the life of someone they love.
"What's in the box?" She asked and I let her rummage through it while I watched in amusement. There was a calendar where every month, peculiarly, was a picture of Eric as Mr January not wearing an awful lot. There were two hot water bottles, one which had the logo for somewhere called Fangtasia stitched into the fleece cover and one which was all Christmassy in tasteful shades of red and gold. There was a book on Louisiana and a small album of photographs of Eric and friends (read minions) at his place of work. I compared the sign at the bar to the logo on the hot water bottle and realised they were one and the same. That made me smile. Lastly, right at the bottom, there was a jewellery box.
"You'd better open this." Ellie said, handing it to me. "It looks expensive."
With shaking hands I opened the box and nestled within on ruffles of black velvet was a platinum ring set with a large pale sapphire, exactly the same colour as Eric's eyes. Engraved within was the same phrase in a foreign language that he had written at the bottom of the letter. There was a note tucked into the box and I unfolded it. "Wear this to remind you of my regard in the same way that I will wear your work and think of you." There he went with the overly formal again but I guessed now that he was back home he was once again a different man. Needless to say it fit perfectly and we both spent a good ten minutes admiring the way the stone caught and sparkled the light.
Finally Ellie insisted I open the envelope that contained the balance transfer and I almost fainted dead away. "What? What does it say?" She took the paper from my hands and scanned the contents, her jaw dropping. "This says he transferred five hundred thousand pounds." She said faintly and the world swam. I collapsed into a chair and held my head in my hands, ring forgotten while I fought the black spots in my vision that threatened to make me pass out. "Why would he transfer you five hundred thousand pounds?" She slumped in the chair opposite me and stared.
Finally I collected myself and started laughing. "Read the letter." I pushed it back across the table. "He says I was born to make beautiful things. This is his way of giving me the freedom to quit my job and start up a jewellery business." I looked at the transfer again and grinned. "Interfering bastard."
Ellie snorted and then laughed out loud. "I think he's got the hots for you." She declared. "This is just like some sort of fairy tale!" I was going to say something rude about undead fairy tales on the lines of the nightmare before Christmas but just didn't have it in me.
I folded the transfer and slid it into the envelope with the letter. "Or maybe," I said softly "He too is just beautiful of heart."