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Glenash, Scotland, 1874.
Lucy hurried across Glenash village square as she tried not to slip on the dewy cobblestones in the early morning light. The big clock on the village church said it was ten past eight, and she hoped the bakery wouldn't be too busy.
She wished she had remembered to simply make the dough before she had gone to bed; usually, she left it under a damp tea towel to rise overnight. She liked baking, and everyone in the village knew she made the best cakes, so it was nothing short of humiliating to have to go to the bakery to get bread for breakfast for her mother and fathers. Papa Jim wouldn't mind so much if there were no rolls to go with his scrambled egg, but Papa Merrin had a strict routine in the mornings, and any divergence from it caused havoc to his digestion. Lucy hoped to fetch the bread in time to avoid any stomach-related catastrophes.
She stopped dead when she saw the queue. It was almost pouring out of the shop. She pulled open the wood-and-glass door and the little bell above it jingled cheerily. She couldn't step inside, however, until some of the people further ahead got their bread. The scent coming from the bakery was tantalizing, and even if today had been foggy, she was sure she could have found the bread simply by following her nose.
As she waited, she contented herself with watching Steen, the twenty-four-year-old baker, as he happily worked his way through people's orders. Beneath his cooking apron, she saw the outline of his strong muscles. His shirt barely contained his incredible body, and she wondered how he maintained it in the face of so much bread. Her own slightly plump figure was a direct result of all the cakes and pastries she loved to bake, because how would she know if her food had turned out well unless she tasted it? And he’d had two extra years of eating than she’d had, so really it wasn’t fair he’d turned out so perfectly-formed.
"Penny for your thoughts, lass?" A familiar voice said. Lucy turned around and her expression became fixed as she realized it was the last person she wanted to see. Hugh McAllister was an incredibly handsome, blond, twenty-five-year-old man with a very unfashionable golden tan that suited him perfectly. His physique was easy to explain: As a fisherman, he spent most of his days hauling thick rope nets of heavy fish, never mind whatever they all did with the sails and oars. She'd never been on a fishing boat, but having watched them from the shore enough times, she knew they looked extremely complicated and like they involved a lot of very hard work.
"Just wondering whether the bread'll still be warm when I get it home." She tried to be nonchalant, as a flush stole over her face.
"It depends whether you lose it on the way," he remarked pointedly.
"Aye, because bread has four legs, a tail, and a mind of its own," she retorted. He was never, ever going to let her live it down that she was supposed to watch his cat and it had wandered off. He blamed her for losing Felix, but really, she'd done her best. She'd looked everywhere but the silly tabby was nowhere to be found.
"Cats don't lose themselves."
"It was two months ago, Hugh, you need to find something else tae do with your mind instead of still going on aboot a cat I lost so long ago! I'm sorry she went astray on my watch, but there's only so many times I can apologise for the same thing!"
He sighed and looked at her sternly. "And I suppose you've matured into a responsible and careful woman in the past two months, have ye?"
If it were possible for her face to flush even redder, it did at that moment. She just wanted the bakery to run out of bread so she could go home and face Papa Merrin occupying the privy for the rest of the day instead of having to stand in this queue for any longer.
"I'm very responsible," she replied.
"Then why are you waiting to buy bread? I ken ye can cook perfect morning rolls, and even those fancy French baguettes."
She shot him a death glare. "I forgot to make dough last night. Happy? Look, Lucy Gallagher messed up yet again, everyone in the Highlands should come and laugh at her." She turned around and stared pointedly at the back of the head of the woman in front of her.
This was the first time she'd made a mistake since she lost Hugh's cat, but of course the spirit world had to make a big thing out of it and ensure he knew all about her failings. Heaven forbid he forgive and forget. Life was so unfair, sometimes.
Finally, she got to the front of the interminable queue, and all her irritation melted away as she came face to face with Steen, the handsome baker. He was possibly the only eligible man in the village who baked as well as Lucy, and she respected a man who knew his way around a kitchen. It would be wonderful to not have to remember to make the dough once in a while.
"Lucy?" Steen looked at her with concern etched on his face.
"Aye?" she replied, lost in a reverie as she stared at him.
"How many morning rolls did ye need, lass?" To her relief, he waited patiently for her to come down to Earth and answer him.
"Oh, sorry... six, please. Two each for my papas and one each for me and me mam."
"Nae bother, lass, here. That'll be thruppence." He handed over a rapidly-filled paper bag of bread rolls, and she gave him a thru'penny bit.
"Say, Lucy," Steen said, as she was about to turn and leave.
"Would you fancy walking out wi' me maybe? Tonight, I mean?"
She beamed and nodded. "Aye!"
"I'll meet ye outside the bakery at seven, aye?"
"Indeed." She grinned, nodded, then turned and skipped out of the store. Perhaps this was shaping up to be a better day, after all. If only she had squared things with Hugh, somehow, the day would have been perfect.
As Lucy turned around to pointedly ignore him, Hugh shook his head in exasperation. The girl was always irritated when she saw him; it never took much to get her to snap at him. His heart sank a little. He really liked Lucy, but why she had to push him away all the time, he didn’t know.
It always brought out the worst in him, though, and when he was around her, for some reason he fell into the role of stern guardian far too easily for his own liking. If she would stop fighting him, of course, he could court her and easily break this standoff they kept finding themselves in.
He’d fantasised about her a thousand times. They’d both been in the village all their lives, and he’d been very taken by her chestnut-brown hair and twinkling blue eyes. She was so vital and full of joy it was infectious. Or, it had been until she’d lost his cat.
Felix had been his mother’s pet. When Hugh’s parents had died of influenza two years ago, he’d decided he needed a fresh start, so while he’d had no choice but to keep the old three-bedroomed cottage, he had stripped it of every piece of furniture, every item of clothing, every keepsake. He’d wanted it all gone. It had been important for him to get rid of the shadow of the crippling and soul-destroying loss.
Except the cat.
Recognising Felix was completely alone in the world, just like Hugh was, they’d been drawn together by their grief. People said cats didn’t really care for humans, but Felix had profoundly adored Hugh’s mam. The cat had searched for her for weeks after she’d been buried in the village cemetery.
As Hugh had come to terms with the loss of his three parents, he had grown close to Lucy. As far as he knew, she’d never experienced great loss or suffering in her life, and her happy outlook was both refreshing and infectious. When the spirit world hadn’t intertwined Hugh and Lucy last summer, Hugh had been very surprised, but eventually he had realised the spirits were waiting for her to find her second husband. There was a long line of suitable candidates; everybody loved Lucy. How could they not?
Two months ago, when Hugh went out on a three-day-long fishing trip, down into the Irish Sea, he had asked the girl he trusted most if she would take care of Felix for him. Readily, she had agreed, but when he had returned... the cat had gone missing.
The cat had been his last connection to his family. It was hard for him not to remind her of her staggering irresponsibility, after he had trusted her with something so important.
But still, he dreamed about her. If only they stopped arguing for long enough, he was sure he would make her climax so much she’d never have another smart-mouthed comment for him again.
"Mam, tonight, is it all right if I go walking oot with Steen from the bakery?" Lucy stood hesitantly in the doorway to the kitchen, where her mam was washing pots in the big Belfast sink.
Lucy stared around at the granite walls, decorated with little cross-stitch pictures and cheap paintings from the market. Her eyes fell on the dresser, beside the stove. The lower shelves were mismatched cups, plates and bowls, but the highest one was stacked with tiny decorative thimbles. Her mam had collected them from all over Scotland, and relatives had always brought her more, when they ever went anywhere. It hardly seemed like her family was well-travelled, and they spent most of their time in Glenash, but over the course of fifty years, Lucy’s mam had managed to amass an impressive collection.
Lucy had been to Fort William three times in her life, and once to Inverness. She wasn’t especially sure what was so important about chasing around going to lots of places, when she was generally content being in Glenash. It was where her oven was, and more importantly, it was where all her friends were. She couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.
Anyway, she always found it strange and slightly flat when she remembered, outside this secluded village, most of the rest of the world was a place where one man married one woman. It broke her mind to try and visualise her childhood with only one father, instead of two.
In preparation for meeting Steen, Lucy had washed her face and re-tied her hair into a braid to keep it tidy, since she wasn't very accomplished with updos and didn't have any make-up.
She hadn’t changed her dress. She owned three floor-length dresses in various pleasant tartan patterns. Since the Highland clearances of old, and the ban on men wearing tartan (officially, anyway. Lucy knew most of the men in Glenash flouted that law on a daily basis), the various tartans were no longer associated with clans so much as areas. The local weaver had his own pattern, which had probably belonged to Clan Glenash back in olden days.
The weavers around Fort William had their own colours and patterns, too, and Lucy liked to pick and choose the ones that suited her. There were other, non-tartan fabrics making their way into the Highlands these days, too, but Lucy didn’t like the flimsy silky materials. They looked nice enough on the woodcuts of wispy women from southern England, and France, but they’d be no good in the cold of a real Highland winter.
Today’s dress was a pleasant, summery, light green tartan with stripes of crimson and black, and it fitted her shape nicely, accentuating her ample cleavage. Being shapely wasn’t the fashion du jour, either. Women were supposed to be thin whalebone-created cylinders with no breasts at the moment, but it hadn’t caught on in Glenash.
Lucy had never really seen the need for the fancy corsets she knew women wore in refined places like Inverness and Glasgow; the corsetiers didn’t exist in Glenash and the nearest place a woman could buy anything fancy was Fort William. Such things were also rather costly, and she did not especially want to ask her parents for money for underwear whose sole purpose seemed to be to squash a woman until she literally fell at men’s feet. She certainly didn’t want her mam to see her in it. It was too embarrassing. Anyway, none of the other girls in Glenash wore such things, aside from the mayor’s daughter, Catriona, who, as the daughter of the village’s leader, had the money and inclination to wear whatever fashions she chose. She didn’t have to mix dough in that getup, though.
The morning encounter with Hugh had been quite a disaster. Everything always was, where he was concerned. Luckily, the rest of the day had gone smoothly and Papa Merrin's digestive catastrophes had been avoided.
Lucy's mam finally paused in her work, turned around and smiled. "Aye, Steen seems nice enough, lass. Better than the fellow you walked oot with last week... Angus. I didnae like him at all. And the Circle Dance is coming up.”
Lucy sighed in exasperation. “I ken that, Mam.”
“Have you thought about finding a couple of men to marry, yet?"
It was tradition for the women of the village to take two husbands, and their hearts would all be bound together at the midsummer Circle Dance. However, some women only married one man, in the village church, instead.
Most of the men in Glenash were in dangerous occupations such as hunting and fishing, and having two husbands ensured women and children were taken care of. Some people, like Lucy's parents, never had to worry about such things. Her two fathers had lived well past forty, and they were both fishermen, so it wasn't impossible to hope for happiness, even though they had only been blessed with the one daughter.
Lucy sighed. "Aye. I have some fellows in mind. I dinnae want to jinx anything though."
"I understand. Dinnae fret, lassie. The spirits will bring ye together with the right men. Ye ken that."
Lucy nodded. The spirit world looked after the entire village. They were part of the old ways that had sustained the village for thousands of years, but everyone went to church on a Sunday as well. The two things didn't seem so far apart, here, where nature could destroy everyone with one swift storm and the forest seemed full of odd creatures.
It was widely believed the spirit world brought people together and made matches in time for the Circle Dance each year. If they danced together, their hearts would intertwine, and they had a couple of days to consummate. If they did, they would remain bound to one another for the rest of their lives.
If they didn't... Lucy assumed they would be permitted to go their separate ways. She'd never seen anyone separate, though. On some level, those drawn together for the Circle Dance always seemed to belong with one another, but with the dance only happening once a year, she supposed the spirits would have plenty of time to be certain people would fit together.
Steen spent the day working, but his thoughts were on Lucy. He was excited, after he had gathered the courage to ask her out, that she had said yes. He had no idea where they were going to go, or what they were going to do, but that wasn’t the point of going out. You didn’t go out to somewhere, you went out with someone. And the someone was all that mattered. The person you went out with transcended the where, when, what or why.
“Steady, lad, ye’ve almost burned those!” The strained voice of Steen’s Papa Seoras roused Steen from his daydream about Lucy, and he quickly pulled the baguettes out of the oven. It was all well and good his father wanting to bring fancy French bread to the village, but Steen hated that it went from slightly undercooked to almost burned in mere moments. He set the bread to cool and Seoras turned his attention back to mixing another batch of dough.
“What’s the trouble, lad?” Seoras finally asked, as Steen idly cleaned the same patch of the oven door for the fifth time.
“Nae trouble, Pa. Just... there’s this lassie, Lucy, she’s wonderful and I asked her tae go oot wi’ me tonight... and she said yes. And I cannae wait.”
“A lassie? Well, good for ye, son. But dinnae ruin my reputation as a baker. Until it’s the end of the day, ye’ve got work tae do.”
“Aye, Pa.” Steen sighed and wiped the oven door for the sixteenth time that day. It would help if they’d had any customers after the early morning rush.
Time dragged for the rest of the day, but finally, the bakery closed for the night and Steen was free. Usually, the evenings stretched out ahead of him with emptiness, but not tonight.
Papa Seoras had to do the bookkeeping with Papa Murchadh, and his mam was at home making dinner, so Steen was left to lock up the bakery. He was turning the key in the wood and glass door when he heard footsteps behind him.
“Hallo, lassie,” he greeted jovially, but when he turned around, it was Millie Woodward who stood too close to him.
“Hallo yourself,” she said, with a smile. Despite her neat black ringlets and perfect blue eyes, something about her was a little off-putting, and he was never certain what it was.
“We’ve nae bread left, I’m afraid. Ye’ll have tae wait until the morning,” he told her.
“Nae bother, Steen. I wasnae here tae see the bread. I wa’ here tae see the baker.”
“My pas are both working on figures.”
“Nae. You.” She put a hand against his chest. He gave her a tight smile and removed it.
“Listen, Millie, I’m tae meet someone... a lassie.”
“Oh, but I was hoping ye’d walk oot wi’ me,” she said with a pout, making a gesture to link arms with him. “Go on, just this once, aye?”
“I’m sorry, Millie, but I’m already taken for tonight.”
He didn’t want to hurt her feelings, but she wasn’t right for him, and he felt it in his heart.
She looked a little put out, and he wished there was some other man out there for her, because she was probably a nice lass beneath her desperation.
“If ye change your mind, let me ken, aye?” she said earnestly. He nodded. He felt bad for her, but at the same time he wished she would just go away so he could be with Lucy.
Millie did leave, and Steen eagerly waited for Lucy to arrive. She was always late, but the clock on the church was approaching twenty past eight, and she wasn’t here yet.