Escape to the beautiful Scottish Highlands and indulge yourself in an uplifting romance.
Here’s the first chapter of –
Back teaching in Balcreggan, the Highland village where she was brought up, Rowan Fairlie has everything.
She’s amongst the people she cares most about. And Simon Fraser, the handsome young owner of Balcreggan Estate, wants to marry her. Life surely couldn’t get much better? But there is a problem! She doesn’t love him.
Rowan is far more intrigued by Clett Drummond, the new tenant farmer at Ballinbrae Farm, who has come to the Highlands to help his two little daughters, Charlotte and Poppy, recover from their mother’s death in a car accident.
But he isn’t behaving like a farmer. His air of authority suggests he’s more used to giving orders than taking them.
And there’s an aggression between the two men that worries Rowan. Their paths have obviously crossed before. But what dark secret do they share?
It was early, but there was no shortage of activity around the tiny harbour. The days of the commercial fishing boats might be long gone, but Balcreggan men would always sail out of this loch, just as their grandfathers had done, and their grandfathers before them. And if they caught a few crabs or the occasional lobster to sell on to a local hotel then that was a bonus.
Rowan Fairlie stood in front of the neat whitewashed cottage where she’d grown up and watched the boats mirrored in the harbour water.
Sounds of a chugging engine, the grating of a rusty winch chain, the voices of the men as they joked with each other, drifted to her from across the quay. Life was lived to a different beat here in this corner of Scotland.
She took a deep breath enjoying the sensation of the pure Highland air filling her lungs and reminded herself for the umpteenth time how lucky she was to be home.
A voice made her start.
‘Just the girl I was hoping to meet.’ Simon Fraser’s grey eyes were smiling this morning. ‘I have a treat for you, Rowan.’
He flapped two gold embossed tickets in her face.
‘We’re going to the Highland Ball next weekend.’ He raised an eyebrow waiting for her enthusiastic reaction, but it didn’t happen.
‘I’m sorry, Simon. I can’t come. I have a previous arrangement.’
‘What do you mean, can’t come?’
She saw the muscles in his jaw flex, as they always did when things were not going his way, but her decision had been made and she would not be swayed.
Not even if half the population of Balcreggan appeared to be eavesdropping on their conversation. She smiled across to the little group by the harbour and got a couple of waves in return.
She wasn’t one of his tenant farmers, nor an estate worker, or beholding to him in any other way. They were supposed to be friends, and in Rowan’s book that meant considering each other’s point of view.
He threw an irritated glance back to the harbour and frowned at the two boat owners who had been following the little scene with some amusement. He lowered his voice and the words came out in an angry hiss.
‘We shouldn’t be discussing this here.’ He nodded towards the pub. ‘Let’s have a drink and discuss this in a civilised way.’
Rowan sighed and tapped her watch.
‘Not open yet, and besides, I’m expected somewhere else and I’m already late. Sorry Simon.’
His eyebrows met in a confused frown and he glanced to the low cottage behind her.
‘I assumed when your car was parked here that you were calling on your mother.’
‘That’s right, and I’m already late.’
‘But surely Evelyn won’t mind if we at least went for a coffee?’
‘Look Simon, I’ve already told you I don’t want to go with you to the Highland Ball.’
She shook her head and her shining cap of dark hair swung out and back into place.
‘And I’m not going to change my mind, no matter how many cups of coffee you ply me with.’
She could see the colour rising in his handsome face and wondered if she’d gone too far.
The ball was the social event of the year in the Highlands. It was the opportunity for wealthy businessmen, such as Simon, to mingle with Scotland’s elite.
Rowan was only an ordinary primary school teacher and would feel like a fish out of water in such company.
Simon’s eyes had narrowed.
‘Have you any idea how many strings I had to pull to get these tickets? And it wasn’t easy getting two rooms in the Inverlochy Hotel.’ He emphasised the word “two”. ‘All the decent Inverness hotels are booked up months in advance for an occasion like this.’
His voice was rising again and Rowan could see a pair of village women glancing back as they passed, their heads together, enjoying the pleasure they would have relating this little incident to all who would listen.
‘Well, I’m sorry,’ Rowan’s shoulders rose in a shrug. ‘But you didn’t exactly consult me before making arrangements on my behalf.’
Balcreggan Primary was just a tiny village school, and apart from Helen Gemmel, a part time teaching assistant, Rowan was its one and only fully qualified teacher.
She had responsibilities, and her weekends were spent planning projects that the children would enjoy in the coming week.
‘Can’t you find someone else to take?’
Simon stared at her as though she was mad.
‘Of course I can’t. It’s you I want with me Rowan.’ He looked away, exasperated. ‘But if it’s more important to you to stay here, playing headmistress, rather than supporting me then there’s no more to be said.’
Before she had a chance to respond he had turned on his heel and was striding across to the shiny, green 4×4 he’d parked by the harbour. He jumped in, ramming it into gear, and took off in a cloud of dust through the village.
Rowan stared furiously after him. The man’s arrogance was appalling. Of course her job was more important to her than being paraded on Simon Fraser’s arm as some kind of trophy girlfriend – even if he did now own Balcreggan Estate – and most of the cottages in the village.
‘Is this a bad time?’ The deep male voice cut through her thoughts and Rowan looked up, still frowning. The man was across the road, sitting at the wheel of a mud encrusted Jeep.
‘You are Miss Fairlie, aren’t you?’ he called. The accent wasn’t local and Rowan was struggling to place it. She was still seething with anger at Simon Fraser’s petulant outburst.
‘I’m sorry. Did you want to speak to me?’
He got out of his vehicle and walked with a slow, confident stride towards her.
‘Clett Drummond.’ He extended his hand and nodded in the direction of the fields that sloped away from the far side of the harbour. ‘I’m the new tenant at Ballinbrae Farm.’
They shook hands.
‘You’re very young to be a head teacher, if you don’t mind my saying so.’
Rowan could feel her colour rising under his stare.
‘That’s a bit of a misnomer, I’m afraid. Balcreggan Primary is a tiny school and we don’t have enough pupils to justify more than one class.’ She shrugged. ‘So it’s just me and my class assistant.’
He smiled, but it didn’t reach his eyes, which were as green as the sparkling waters of the loch. But there was a shadow of sadness in those eyes that made Rowan want to reach out and touch him.
So this was the Clett Drummond that had got the village talking! It was obvious why his arrival had set female hearts fluttering, and from his manner she guessed that he would be more than able to deal with Simon.
The whole village had heard about the Drummond family’s tragic history. Just over a year ago Mrs Drummond had been killed in a car crash, leaving him to bring up their two young daughters on his own.
No wonder the man looked sad.
She realised he was still watching her and she raised an eyebrow, but she already knew what he was going to say.
‘My girls,’ he said. ‘I need to enrol them in school.’
‘How old are they?’
‘Charlotte’s nine and Poppy’s seven.’
‘That’s fine. Bring them along on Monday morning around nine-thirty.’ That would get the class settled before Rowan could leave them with Helen.
Clett Drummond nodded.
‘We’ll see you then.’
He turned and walked back to his farm Jeep without the trace of a smile, though he did lift his hand in a casual wave as he drove off.
Rowan was thoughtful as she turned towards the little white cottage.
Evelyn Fairlie was checking the progress of a chicken casserole in the oven, but her face, still flushed from the heat, broke into a smile when she saw her daughter coming through the back door.
‘This is almost ready. Come away in Rowan and take your coat off and sit down.’
She pulled out a kitchen chair, taking a quick concerned glance at her daughter’s face.
‘Nothing wrong, is there?’
Rowan smiled as she hung her jacket on the hook beside the back door. She’d told Simon her mother had been expecting her, but it had been a white lie.
‘Do I need an excuse to visit my mother?’
‘Of course not, you know I’m always pleased to see you. In fact why don’t you stay for a bit of lunch? This chicken will be ready in no time and there’s plenty for two.’
The delicious smell of the casserole filling the kitchen swept aside any resistance.
‘Thanks Mum. I might just do that.’
There was a salmon steak sitting in her fridge up at the schoolhouse but the thought of eating alone suddenly didn’t appeal.
Evelyn sat down, wiping her hands on her floral apron, and studied her daughter.
‘Have you had a falling out with somebody. Is that what’s wrong. Some of these parents have too much to say for themselves.’
Rowan shook her head, laughing.
‘I told you, Mum. There’s nothing wrong. I’m just a bit tired, that’s all.’
She wasn’t in a mood for repeating the exchange she’d so recently had with Simon. But her mother’s ability to see through her daughter’s excuses was infuriating.
Rowan sighed and ran a hand through her short hair, pushing straying dark locks behind her ear.
‘Why can you always read me like a book?’ she said with a wry smile.
‘It’s what mothers do.’ Evelyn grinned back, raising an encouraging eyebrow. ‘So what’s this all about, eh?’
Rowan got up to get the plates and cutlery from the dresser.
‘I met Simon down at the harbour and he invited me to the Highland Ball.’
‘And why would that upset you?’ Evelyn was staring at her daughter with a quizzical frown. ‘Don’t tell me you refused.’
‘Of course I did. He knows very well how busy I am at weekends planning the class projects for the coming week. Besides, he didn’t ask first if I wanted to go. He just made an assumption and bought the tickets.’
She looked up at her mother from under dark lashes.
‘He booked rooms as well in the Inverlochy Hotel – before he’d even checked with me.’
Evelyn rolled her eyes.
‘I don’t know what you’re thinking of, Rowan. Every other lass in the village would give her right arm to go out with Simon Fraser, never mind be taken to the fancy Highland Ball…Why, he’s practically the Laird.’
‘Simon’s not the Laird,’ Rowan protested. ‘Sir Alex was the Laird, and now he’s gone.’
‘And now we have Simon Fraser – very much alive.’
Rowan sighed. Her mother was right, he was eligible enough, but he was so unpredictable and she couldn’t make herself have feelings for him.
It wasn’t that she didn’t enjoy his company, but theirs was a friendship, not a romance, and she suspected that Simon was no longer satisfied with that.
His outburst earlier was out of frustration and she knew he would now be regretting it. But the words had been said and Rowan suspected there was more than a grain of truth in them. Simon was never a hundred per cent supportive of her teaching career, but she had no intention of giving it up. Not for him, or for anyone else.
‘I met the new tenant farmer at Ballinbrae,’ she said to stem any further comments from her mother. ‘He’s coming to enrol his two daughters in school on Monday.’
Evelyn’s expression took on a look of compassion.
‘That little family has had a bad time of things this past year, what with his poor wife having died so young and him left to bring up two wee lassies on his own. It’s not every man who could cope with such a thing.’
Her voice fell.
‘It’s bad enough when it happens to a woman.’
Evelyn looked away, but not before Rowan saw her blink back a tear.
She knew she was thinking of her dad, Hugh, who had died after a heart attack five years ago.
When Rowan had got the appointment at the tiny Balcreggan Primary – where she herself had been taught as a child – she’d been delighted at the opportunity to return to the village where she’d grown up.
She loved the idea of being back with her family. From her kitchen window in the schoolhouse she could see the chimneys of Craigie House where her older sister, Shona, lived with her husband, Rory, Hannah, who was eight, and six-year-old Josh.
It had been a shock when the Laird of Balcreggan, Sir Alexander Gifford-Bane, died. He had never married and the estate was put on the market.
Rowan had imagined his successors at Balcreggan House would bring an army of staff and estate workers with them. Sir Alex had coped with the task almost single-handedly since her father had died. Hugh Fairlie had been estate manager at Balcreggan for twenty years.
The huge sprawling estate, with its farm steadings, woods and pastures, stream and pond, had been the young Rowan’s playground. Whenever she got the chance she would accompany her father in his various duties, overseeing the farms, checking on fences, caring for the trees. Not even the Big House was out of bounds.
Everyone loved Sir Alex. She could see him now, his big wiry frame in a tweed jacket with huge leather patches at the elbows, as he strode through the village with a purposeful gait. He knew everyone by name and stopped to chat, doffing his cap to the ladies. His two Golden Retrievers, Clyde and Tay, were always by his side, as old and gentle as their master.
His death almost a year ago had saddened the whole community. Rowan returned home from Glasgow where she was teaching to attend the funeral. Sitting next to her mother and sister at the back of the packed church she’d blinked back tears as one by one, villagers stepped up to recount their memories of the man.
Every now and again Rowan caught sight of the woman in black at the front, her back ramrod straight. The handsome sandy-haired man sitting next to her took occasional glances over his shoulder, as though surprised at the size of the turnout for the old Laird’s funeral.
Evelyn followed her daughter’s gaze.
‘That’s the new owner of Balcreggan Estate, Simon Fraser,’ she whispered. He’s been more or less running things on the estate since he arrived.’
Her glance shifted to the rigid shoulders of the woman next to him. ‘And that’s his mother, Mrs Geraldine Fraser. I hope she’s not going to be as snooty as she looks.’
Rowan gave her mother a sharp nudge and frowned, lifting an eyebrow in warning to say no more. Evelyn Fairlie was not known in Balcreggan for holding her tongue when she had something to say. But this was not the time or the place.
The Frasers put in a brief appearance at the wake, which was held down by the harbour at the Crab and Creel, the pub where Sir Alex had enjoyed a daily pint.
But Rowan had hardly noticed them. Her attention was so taken up meeting and greeting old friends that she seldom even looked in the direction of Simon Fraser and his mother.
It was at then that she discovered the teaching post at the local primary was soon to become available. Miss Martin, who had been in sole charge of the school for as long as Rowan could remember, had come up behind her.
‘Has your mother told you I’m retiring at the end of next month?’ Her kindly blue eyes crinkled in the same caring way Rowan remembered. ‘Why don’t you apply for the job, my dear? I think you would be perfect.’
‘Yes, why not, Rowan?’ Evelyn had come up behind them and Rowan sensed a conspiracy going on.
Yet it was something to think about. So she applied for the post, holding out little hope of actually getting it since she did not have all the qualifications the board was looking for.
But to her delight she was offered an interview. And when later she got a telephone call offering her the job she had no hesitation in accepting.
As soon as she was back in Balcreggan she’d been swept into village life, but it was different now, she had new responsibilities. As a local girl returning to the village where she was brought up, the community now expected her to support local activities, but this was no hardship.
The first thing was a Bring and Buy Sale. She had offered to help her mum and Dolly Miekle, a former classmate, who was now the school cook, to organise it at the church hall.
It was the day she’d officially met Simon Fraser. Geraldine Fraser had graciously agreed to open the event, but things soon became a bit of a shambles. Balcreggan women, and those from the surrounding villages, were ruthless in their search for bargains. Garments were snatched up, examined, and discarded again as the shoppers searched for just the right thing.
In the warm hall the atmosphere soon became hot and sticky and Mrs Fraser peeled off her smart grey coat and laid it carefully over a chair.
Some minutes later her voice rang out.
‘Where’s my coat? I left it here and now it’s vanished.’
The pink flush on Dolly’s face deepened.
‘What did it look like?’.
Upon hearing the description of the coat, Rowan’s eyes flew open as she stared at her friend.
In answer to the unspoken question, Dolly nodded.
‘I think I sold it.’
There had been no option but to come clean and admit the catastrophe. Amid profuse apologies, Rowan and Dolly assured the woman they would retrieve her coat and return it good as new.
‘One good thing,’ Evelyn said, later, making no effort to disguise her amusement at the day’s events. ‘I think we got a good price for the precious coat.’
It took them two days to track down the buyer and return Mrs Fraser’s coat. Rowan was feeling pleased with herself as she stood before the double oak doors of Balcreggan House ringing the shiny brass bell, with the grey coat draped reverently across her arm. She followed a maid into the big bright sitting-room.
She had to blink to make sure it was the same room she had remembered. In Sir Alex’s day it had been oak panelled, and the rugs on which Clyde and Tay slept were threadbare.
That had all gone. Ivory walls were hung with modern paintings – a bit too garish for Rowan’s taste – and Sir Alex’s battered old red leather armchairs had been replaced with elegant cream sofas.
Simon Fraser and his mother sat opposite each other, each reading a newspaper.
‘We have your coat, Mrs Fraser,’ Rowan announced, smiling. ‘I don’t think it’s come to any harm.’
Geraldine Fraser lowered her spectacles.
Rowan held it out.
‘That old thing. You don’t imagine that I would wear it now, do you, dear?’ She gave the garment a disparaging look. ‘Keep it for your next jumble sale.’
She softened her reaction with a condescending smile.
‘Call it my donation.’
Rowan’s face fell.
Simon, who had sprung to his feet when she came into the room, now strode towards Rowan.
‘Mother! Where are your manners? This lady has gone to a great deal of trouble to retrieve your coat, and this is how you thank her.’
Rowan coloured. She was getting annoyed now.
‘It’s perfectly all right. I’m sure someone will appreciate it.’ She turned on her heel and marched out of the room with Simon in hot pursuit.
‘I don’t even know your name,’ he called after her.
She stopped and turned back.
‘I’m Rowan Fairlie. I’m the teacher at Balcreggan Primary School.’
At least she knew how to behave, even if other people didn’t.
‘I’m Simon Fraser.’ He smiled down at her, extending his hand as he did so. ‘I really am sorry about my mother. She can be a bit sharp sometimes. She doesn’t mean any harm. Look, let me make amends. May I buy you dinner, this evening Miss Fairlie?’
She hadn’t intended to accept, but it didn’t make sense falling out with these people, which is why later that evening she found herself seated opposite him in the rather formal surroundings of the dining room at the St Leonard’s Hotel in the nearby town of Invermore.
It was mid-week and only three other tables were occupied. Simon looked around the room and grimaced, then ran a finger along the inside of his collar in a gesture of discomfort.
‘I should have taken you somewhere else.’
Rowan followed his stare.
‘It’s not that bad,’ she said. ‘I hear the food is very good.’
He looked at her and they both burst out laughing. He stood up, grabbing her hand.
‘I’m sure it is, but let’s find out another time.’
In the street outside he turned to face her.
‘I’m still a bit new here. Any ideas where we could go?’
Rowan pursed her lips while she considered.
‘There’s the Clunie Inn. It’s not so posh as this place, but they don’t stand on ceremony and the food really is great.’
‘What are we waiting for? Lead the way.’
The inn was at the end of the long main street and Rowan suggested they should leave the car and walk there. Simon’s eyebrow went up. He wasn’t used to walking.
‘You were right about the food.’ He touched the crimson napkin to his lips. ‘That was one of the best steak pies I have ever tasted.’
He glanced down at Rowan’s plate, which held the remnants of the lemon sole and delicate parsley sauce she’d chosen from the menu.’
‘How was yours?’
Rowan laid down her knife and fork and swallowed her last mouthful.
They declined the array of sweet deserts on a trolley, choosing instead to have biscuits and an assortment of cheeses. Rowan watched him sip the robust red wine he’d ordered for them both.
‘What made you buy Balcreggan Estate, Mr Fraser?’
‘I thought we had agreed that you would call me Simon.’
She gave him an embarrassed smile.
‘But to answer your question, I bought Balcreggan because…well, because I could.’
Rowan was shocked. She didn’t like the sound of that at all.
‘But that’s no reason,’ she said, sharply. ‘The estate comes with so many responsibilities. The livelihoods of almost half the people in the village depend on you.’
She could never have imagined Sir Alex saying anything so ridiculous and wondered if he would even have sold the place to someone with that philosophy. But then he hadn’t had a say in it.
Simon’s eyes twinkled and he held up his hands as though to fend of any further rebuke.
‘I was joking, you know. You mustn’t take me so seriously.’
‘I don’t see it as a joke to be in charge of such an important place.’
‘Sorry. I shouldn’t have treated your question so lightly. The fact is that I have always wanted to own a place like this.’
He looked up and smiled at her.
‘And before you ask, the answer is no. I have no background in this kind of business. I buy and sell properties. I buy when they are rundown, make improvements, and re-sell at a profit.’
‘That’s my business, and I’m good at it. I run a company based in Inverness called Highland Properties.’
‘You buy and sell? Does that mean you don’t intend to keep Balcreggan Estate then?’ Alarm bells were ringing.
‘On the contrary. I plan to settle here. That’s why I’ve brought my mother to stay. This kind of life suits us both.’
If you want to read the rest, Highland Heart is available here.