Promise of a Highlander – Katy Baker

There’s the problem. See?” Emelia Shaw peered in the direction the foreman was pointing. The construction site—a wide swathe of cleared ground filled with equipment and bags of sand and grit—ran all the way down to where the river lapped lazily at the shore. Above her reared the city’s railway bridge, all thick girders and steel rivets that carried trains across the river. She squinted up at the bridge. Yes, the foreman was right. Even from here Emelia could see the cracks in the struts that had been driven into the river bank to support the bridge. If she and her team of engineers didn’t find a way to reinforce the bridge and increase its carrying capacity, the whole thing would have to be replaced— an operation that would keep the railway closed for God-aloneknew how long and cost so much money it made Lia’s eyes water to think about it. “This plan is never gonna work,” the foreman continued. “We can’t just bolster those supports and add steel plates like the boss said. They won’t take the weight and it will never pass a safety inspection.” Lia sighed. She had always suspected this approach wouldn’t work. How many times had she told her boss exactly that? But he wouldn’t listen. Under pressure to get this job finished on time and within budget, he wasn’t willing to entertain alternative ideas.

Especially not her ideas. After all, who wanted to listen to a disgraced civil engineer who’d been so incompetent she’d lost her family’s company? Everyone knew she’d only been kept on after the takeover because the CEO had felt sorry for her. The construction site had ground to a standstill and she could feel the eyes of the workers on her back. She resisted the urge to pull down her hard-hat to hide her face. Once, those workers might have stared at her in admiration. Once, she’d been the up-and-coming hot-shot, the brilliant young engineer who was blazing a trail right through this male-dominated industry. Once, people had wanted to listen to what she had to say. But now? Now she was the maverick who’d taken one risk too many and paid the price. What did the workers see when they looked at her? A failure. Someone best avoided lest they get tarred with the same brush.

She cleared her throat. “I’ll go talk to the boss. It’s almost home time anyway. Why don’t you guys knock off for the day?” The foreman scowled. “Maybe I should check with the boss first?” Lia gritted her teeth. Here we go again. “I’m the supervisor here,” she reminded him. “And I say we can’t do any more work today. Get the site cleared up and then knock off. It will still be waiting for us on Monday morning.

” She fixed him with a hard expression, daring him to undermine her. In his fifties, with a bald head and a sagging paunch, the foreman clearly didn’t like taking orders from a woman half his age. Especially not one he thought wasn’t up to the job. Then, much to Lia’s relief, he bellowed over his shoulder, “Carter! Get the boys packed up!” Without another word to Lia, he turned and stomped away. Lia let out an explosive sigh as she watched him go. She pulled a pencil from behind her ear and squinted at the schematics pinned to the clipboard she clutched in one hand. Around the edges of the plans she’d scrawled calculations and added her own little diagrams to the design, a solution to the problem that she was sure would work—if only she could convince her boss to give it a try. “T Lost in her plans, the site emptied around her until she was left alone. From where she stood the ground sloped down to the river’s edge, a wide, sluggish flow carrying cargo in and out of the busy port. The railway bridge above her would have done the same until it had been closed suddenly two weeks ago when it had failed a safety inspection.

She glanced at the bridge then back to her clipboard. Hurriedly she made a little sketch, adding extra support here, shoring up the construction there. Yes, perhaps if they did it this way— She jumped as her cell phone beeped. Digging it from her pocket, she thumbed to the messages. Meeting up at Georgio’s at 8 then maybe onto a club. Fancy it? Come on, it’s Friday! Sarah. Friday night. Where had the week gone? Lia knew she ought to take Sarah up on her offer. It would do her good to let her hair down and forget about work for the weekend. She’d not had a night out for…heck, she couldn’t remember the last time.

But almost of their own accord, her fingers typed, Sorry. Maybe next time. She had a site report to write and a whole host of other things to complete before Monday. Maybe next weekend. Perhaps then she’d have time. Or if not, then when this project settled down. Yes, she’d definitely have some down time soon. A breeze coming off the river stirred her hair and sent a shiver down her spine. The building site was gray and desolate, as empty as a graveyard. Why am I doing this? she thought suddenly.

What am I trying to prove? Everything, she answered herself. You know that. She tucked the clipboard under her arm, locked up the site, climbed into her shabby sedan, and drove across town to the firm’s headquarters. As she pushed through the glass doors, Alan, the elderly security guard she’d known since she was a girl, called a greeting. Lia waved back and then took the elevator to the top floor and the CEO’s plush office—an office that had once belonged to her father. A wrench twisted her stomach as she walked through the door. Almost all trace of her father was gone. Only the big leather swivel chair remained although another man sat in it now. Howard MacCarthy had been her father’s biggest rival. Before Lia was even born both men had been busy building their companies from scratch, having started out with tiny, tin-pot building companies over thirty years ago.

Following her father’s death, Lia had been unable to stop Howard MacCarthy taking over her family company. Guilt about that gnawed at her. Maybe it always would. Howard MacCarthy glanced up as she entered the office. “Ah! Emelia! Alan said you were on your way up. What can I do for you?” He gestured to the chair opposite him and Lia slid into it gratefully. “I hope you’ve not come to give me more bad news on the riverside project?” Despite his warm smile and jovial speech, Lia heard the iron underneath his words. “Bad news? Has somebody been talking?” Lia replied. “The foreman perhaps?” Howard laughed. “Okay, you caught me out.

Roger called me to check it was okay to halt to work for the day. Don’t look at me like that! I told him you’re the supervisor and he needed to speak to you. He also told me about the problem with the struts.” Howard steepled his fingers and watched her over the top of them. “I assume that’s what you’ve come to see me about?” Lia nodded then pulled the schematics out of her pocket and unrolled them on the desk. “I don’t think our current plan will work,” she said, pointing to the appropriate part of the diagram and the calculations she’d scrawled along the margin. “We just hadn’t factored in how bad the metal fatigue would be. We need to scrap this idea and start again.” Howard raised one bushy eyebrow. “And I’m guessing you have just such a plan?” Lia took a deep breath.

This was her chance. “I do, actually.” She pulled out her own diagram and passed it over to him. Howard took it and examined it quizzically. “Flying buttresses?” he said at last. “That’s your suggestion? On a railway bridge?” “I realize it’s a little unconventional,” Lia replied quickly. “But if you look at my calculations, buttresses will easily spread the weight of the bridge and stop the struts from cracking any further. Old buildings in Europe, particularly cathedrals, often have flying buttresses. If it was good enough for them, surely—” “Let me stop you there,” Howard cut in. “I appreciate you’re fascinated by these old architectural methods but there’s a reason they aren’t used anymore.

” “I know that,” Lia responded. “But in this case, we need to think outside the box. If you’ll just take a look, I’m sure—” “I’ve seen all I need to.” He scrunched Lia’s drawing into a ball and then tossed it into the wastepaper bin. He leaned back, hands clasped over his stomach. “Let me give you a bit of advice, Emelia. Stop trying so hard. You’re a damn good engineer but there are times when you just have to get your head down and do as you’re told.” The words he’d not spoken rang clearly in Lia’s head. Don’t get above yourself.

Remember what happened last time you did that? You lost the business your father worked his whole life to build. Shame washed through her. Shame and anger and frustration in equal measure. She nodded. “Of course. Thank you for your time, Howard.” She climbed to her feet and hurried out. As the elevator descended, her mind whirled. She shouldn’t be surprised Howard wouldn’t listen to her ideas. After all, who would listen to somebody who had failed so spectacularly? She was so preoccupied with her thoughts that she barely registered the fact that the elevator had stopped to let somebody else in.

As it started moving again a voice suddenly startled her out of her thoughts. “Penny for em, dearie?” Lia blinked. “I’m sorry. What?” A diminutive old woman was standing in the corner of the elevator. She was so small she only just reached the control panel. She wore a shapeless brown dress and had gray hair pulled back into a bun. She peered up at Lia with dark, sparkling eyes that held a hint of mischief. “I said penny for em, dear. Yer thoughts that is. Ye seem to have a lot on yer mind.

” The woman’s thick Scottish accent meant it took Lia a moment to work out what she was saying. “What? Oh, yes. I suppose I have. Sorry, I was miles away.” “Aye. So I see.” At that moment the elevator made a strange screeching sound and juddered to a halt. “Och, would ye look at that?” the old woman said, startled. “It hasnae broken down has it? I dinna like lifts at the best of times!” “Don’t worry,” Lia replied. “It’ll get going again in a minute.

” The old woman pressed a hand to her breast, breathing heavily. “We’re trapped!” She pressed the emergency call button and began banging on the doors. “Let us out! Help!” Lia laid a gentle hand on the old woman’s arm. “It’s all right,” she said. “This happens all the time. It’s an old building that wasn’t really designed to take an elevator. The machinery is a bit temperamental, that’s all. We’re perfectly safe. We’ll be on the ground in a moment. Trust me.

” The woman went very still. She cocked her head and gazed up at Lia. Her eyes, Lia noticed, had the most enormous pupils with hardly any iris around them at all, making them seem as black as coals. They sparkled with fierce intelligence. For a moment Lia forgot where she was. She felt trapped by the old woman’s gaze and her hand, where it rested lightly on the old woman’s arm, tingled. Then the old woman blinked and the moment passed. She patted Lia’s hand, her skin as warm and dry as sun-baked parchment. “I’m sure ye are right, my dear,” she said in a jovial voice. “I’m Irene by the way.

Irene MacAskill. It is a pleasure to meet ye after all this time.” “After all this time?” Lia asked, puzzled. “You know me?” “Of course,” Irene replied, as though this was a stupid question. “But we’ve only just met!” “Ah, so we have, but that doesnae mean aught. I’m glad I’ve found ye at last, Emelia Shaw.” Lia backed up, suddenly uncomfortable. The elevator was so small that after only two steps her back pressed against the wall. “How do you know my name?” Irene rolled her eyes. “Are ye not listening, my dear? I’ve been waiting for ye.

” The tiny old woman smiled up at Lia like some kindly old grandmother but under that dark gaze, Lia felt a little unnerved. All trace of the woman’s distress at being trapped in the elevator had vanished so completely that Lia wondered if it had all been an act. “What do you want with me?” she asked uneasily. Irene shrugged. “Only what ye want for yerself, my dear. To show ye the path that will lead to peace and yer destiny. Yer true destiny that is, not the one ye think lies in store for ye.” “My destiny?” Lia said with a shrill laugh. “You’re kidding, right? Next you’ll be telling me that you’re going to read my fortune!” Her poor attempt at humor had no impact on Irene. The old woman watched her steadily, her presence seeming to fill the elevator like a thundercloud.

“Nay, my dear,” she said softly. “I willnae do aught of the sort. In fact I willnae do aught at all. This is yer choice, lass, as it always must be. Ye are walking a path that willnae lead where ye think it will. Ye walk alone, pushing all others aside, no time for friendship, no time for love. All in the name of trying to prove yerself worthy. Trying to prove to yerself and everyone around ye that ye are good enough.” She took a step towards Lia who tried to shrink away but her back was already against the elevator wall. “But that isnae the path to the redemption ye seek.

Ye canna find what ye are searching for without opening yer eyes and yer heart. Ye have a choice coming, lass. Will ye remain on this path ye have chosen? Will ye continue to walk alone? Or will ye take a chance? Will ye allow yerself to risk failure? Will ye allow yerself to feel all the hurts and pains and wonderful joy that this life can bring? Will ye allow yerself to find yer true destiny? Only that way can ye find the peace ye so desire.” Lia stared, her heart thumping. Who was this woman? Why was she saying these things? Irene’s words stirred up a whirl of emotions, of feelings Lia had thought she’d buried deep. Trying to prove herself? Pushing aside friendship? Love? What crap! She didn’t do any of those things! She was just fine the way she was, thank you very much! But then she remembered Sarah’s invitation to go out tonight and how casually Lia had declined, without even really considering it. She remembered all the other such invitations, the dates that might have become more, the chance to make connections with people. She’d dismissed them all. And for what? So she could chase a dream that had never really been hers. It had been her father’s dream.

His dream that she’d tried so desperately to keep alive after his death and in which she’d failed so spectacularly… Sudden anger flared. “Listen!” she snapped. “I don’t know who you are but I’d thank you to keep your nose out of my business! Who do you think you are lecturing me when you don’t have the first clue about my life?” Irene watched her. Compassion shone in those dark, dark eyes. “Am I wrong?” she asked softly. Lia opened her mouth for an angry retort and then snapped her mouth shut. That emptiness, that old, familiar sense of dislocation, of futility, was opening up inside her again. She thought she’d hidden it well. She thought she’d buried it under site reports and meetings and schematics and project plans. But here it was again, opening up inside her like a rotten flower, brought back to life by the words of a strange old woman.

“No,” she found herself whispering. “You’re not wrong.” Irene nodded. “It isnae too late,” she said gently. “The balance has a way of nudging us back onto the right path when we stray. Yer choice is coming. It willnae be an easy choice and yer path will lead ye down a dark road, one that will make ye question everything ye know, or think ye know, about yerself and yer life. But only by walking through darkness can we really appreciate the light.” Lia stared at her. “Who are you?” Irene smiled, making her look like an ancient cherub.

“A friend, my dear. I hope in time ye will realize that.” At that moment the elevator made a whirring sound. The doors pinged and then opened. “Ah!” Irene said brightly. “Ye were right, my dear. We didnae have to wait long at all. Well, good night!” With that the tiny woman walked out into the foyer. Lia sagged against the elevator wall for a moment, trying to gather her scattered thoughts. What the hell had just happened? That was probably the strangest elevator ride she’d ever taken! “Wait!” she called, stumbling after Irene.

“Hang on a minute! I want to talk to you!” She staggered to a halt as she realized the foyer was empty. Alan looked up from his seat at the security desk. “Everything all right, Lia?” Lia spun around. “Where is she? Where did she go?” Alan looked puzzled. “Where did who go?” “That woman! Irene MacAskill! She was only two steps ahead of me!” Alan shook his head slowly. “Nope. Nobody came out of the elevator ahead of you.” “What? Of course she did! She was in the elevator with me when it broke down. Then she walked out ahead of me when we reached the foyer—” Her words stuttered to a halt as she realized Alan was watching her strangely. “Are you feeling okay, Lia?” he asked.

“Of course! Why?” “The elevator hasn’t broken down in months. Mr MacCarthy had the mechanism replaced. It’s certainly not broken down today. When it does, the alarm sounds on my desk.” Lia stared at him. Was he messing with her? Playing some sort of joke? But no. Alan wouldn’t do something like that. She pressed her hand against her forehead, feeling suddenly dizzy. Alan came around his desk and laid a hand on her shoulder. “Lia, are you sure you’re okay? You don’t look so good.

” Lia forced a smile. “I’m fine. Just a bit tired. It’s been a hell of a week.” He smiled in sympathy. “I know that feeling.” She walked off, sensing Alan’s concerned gaze on her all the way to the door. When she reached her sparse apartment, she kicked off her shoes, poured herself a glass of wine, and sank down onto the sofa. She flicked through the TV channels for a bit, not really noticing any of the programmes. The incident with Irene kept playing through her head.

Will ye allow yerself to find yer true destiny? Only that way can ye find the peace ye so desire. The shrill ringing of her cell phone made her slosh wine all over her lap. With a curse, she snatched it up and saw Howard MacCarthy’s number on the display. Her heart sank. Great. What was he going to berate her for this time? She pressed the phone to her ear. “Hi, Howard. What can I do for you?” “Actually, Lia, it’s more what I can do for you,” said Howard’s voice. “I’ve just got off a conference call with the directors in our Europe office. There’s a problem with one of our historical sites.

I mentioned your design and they asked to see it. They were impressed, Lia.” “They were?” Lia replied. “But I thought you said it wouldn’t work?” “I said it wouldn’t work for our bridge project but the European directors think it might on others. They want you to fly over and take a look.” Lia didn’t reply. Had she heard right? She was being offered a placement in Europe? And they were going to run with her idea? For a moment her head swam and she barely heard Howard’s next words. “…leaves on Sunday night. Can you be ready for then?” She struggled to catch up. “What? Sunday? Sure.

Of course. Sorry. Where did you say I’m going?” “Have you been listening, Lia? One of our historical sites in the Scottish Highlands. They want you there ready to start first thing Monday. Do you want the placement?” Did she want it? Was he kidding? Did she want the chance to work on a Scottish historical site? Did she want the chance to finally test her ideas? “I’ll need the project details emailing over,” she said in a rush. “And the site reports as well as the architect drawings they’ve been working from. And I’ll need to arrange a flight. And a cab to take me to the airport. Oh God! I’m not sure where I’ve put my passport. Will I need a visa? Can I get one in time?” She realized she was babbling but didn’t seem able to stop.

“Calm down, Lia!” Howard said with a smile in his voice. “I’ll have my PA take care of all the admin. I’ll tell them to expect you on Monday.” He paused. “Oh, and Lia? Your father would be proud of you.” With that, he hung up. Lia gaped at her cell for a moment, stunned. Your father would be proud of you. Ye will find yer true destiny and it may not be the one ye think. With shaking hands, she put her wine glass down on the table and sucked in a deep breath.

Jeez, this had been a crazy day. But deep inside she felt something she’d not felt in a long time. She felt…excitement. Anticipation. She climbed to her feet already running through a list of everything she’d need to take with her. She’d better get started.

.

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