Alone in her bedchamber, Fiona sank on to a chair, suddenly exhausted. So much had happened, her head was whirling. Was it really just this morning she had arrived at the Glasgow docks? Had all this change been necessary?
Closing her eyes, Fiona forced herself to consider the question seriously. Had she just been reacting to her father’s death, running away to avoid confronting the evidence of his absence?
A trail of tears trickled down her cheeks as images of their little croft fluttered into her mind. The brilliant blue of the sky merging with the sparkling glitter of the sea, the sound of the waves pounding on to the sand, and her washing flapping on the line.
Her father’s chuckle when Dolly, their elderly brown cow, stuck her head over the kitchen door and lowed, reminding them she was due to be milked.
The tender smile on her father’s face when he looked at that most treasured of his possessions, his wedding photograph. He’d been holding it against his heart when he drew his last, rasping breath, Fiona’s trembling hand held tightly in his other huge fist, calloused from years of hard physical toil.
The trickle of tears became a flood. He’d been ready to go in the end, exhausted with the suffering, so sure he’d be with his beloved Kirsty. Fiona’s tears fell not just for her father’s death, but for the loss of their way of life, of all the everyday little rituals and customs that made up the sum of their existence. Factor Morrison had put paid to any hope she’d had of keeping it going on her own. And Euan . . .
Exhausted and emotional, Fiona couldn’t prevent that last encounter with Euan playing out in her head. It had been so much more painful, with so much more left unsaid than she’d let on to Ella earlier today . . .
* * * *
Factor Morrison had just given her notice only five days after the funeral. Sitting distraught at the scrubbed table, Fiona had been staring distractedly into space when Euan’s familiar tap on the door of the croft announced his arrival.
“I just saw Morrison leave,” he said grimly, sitting down opposite. “I can see from your face what he told you.”
“What am I going to do, Euan?” Fiona said, sniffing and scrubbing at her eyes with the back of her hand.
She should have known from the way he hesitated. The way he looked at his hands, got up to pace the tiny room, ducking his head to avoid the low rafters, for Euan was a tall man. He was broad, too, with the kind of muscle that comes from hard work. But she’d been too frozen with grief and anger to notice until he stopped suddenly and sat down again, taking her hand between his own work-roughened ones.
“What is it?”
Euan’s hair was standing up in little peaks. Black, the same colour as her own, but wiry, and he had a habit of running his hand through it when he was upset, or when he was thinking.
“I want to ask you to marry me,” he said abruptly. “Ach!” He pushed the chair back so that it clattered on to the stone floor of the cottage. “You see what I mean?”
She could see herself sitting motionless at the table, her mouth open in surprise.
“You know what I feel for you, Fiona,” Euan said earnestly, “You can’t doubt that. I . . .”
Suddenly spurred into action, Fiona jumped to her feet.
“No. Don’t say it, Euan. Please don’t ask me. It wouldn’t be right. I can’t.” Fiona put her hand against Euan’s mouth. “I know why you’re asking me, and it’s right kind of you, and it’s generous. I should have expected no less from you,” she said.
“This is not about charity,” Euan said, pushing his hand through his hair, his eyes blazing with some emotion she couldn’t quite grasp.
“Don’t be angry with me. I can’t tell you how grateful I am, but . . .” She stopped.
He looked like a calf with a broken leg just before it is put down, frozen for a moment in shock before the dull look of comprehension dawns. If she could have bitten out her tongue, or phrased it differently, or just avoided the whole thing, she would have.
“Euan . . .”
He shook her off.
“You don’t love me,” he said. “Well? Do you or don’t you?” he demanded.
Heaven help her, she didn’t know herself. Looking at his familiar figure, his handsome features, she still couldn’t decide. She’d taken his presence for granted, and taken his courtship of her for granted, too. Now, caught up in the grief and pain of her father’s death, she had no emotions left to spare. She didn’t answer Euan’s question. She didn’t need to. He left her, then.