Wish of a Highlander – Katy Baker

Ava Hall put on her best smile. “Fifteen for the necklace. And there’s a matching set of earrings to go with it. Twenty-five for both. Can’t say fairer than that, can I? Authentic 1940s style. It’s very much back in fashion.” The blonde-haired woman who’d been perusing Ava’s stall pursed her lips, considering. “Actually, I don’t think the color would suit me.” “Are you kidding? The color would set off your eyes perfectly!” But the woman just shook her head, placing the necklace back on the stall, and walked away. “How about twenty for the pair?” Ava called after her. “And I’ll throw in a gift box!” The desperation in her voice made her cringe, but things were getting desperate. She’d not sold a thing all day. The customer shook her head and carried on walking. Ava sighed and hunkered further down into her coat. It was cold today.

Really cold. Why had nobody warned her it got so cold up here in the Highlands? You wouldn’t have listened if they had, she chided herself. You were so sure this was the right thing to do. Another sigh. Like so many things, Ava was beginning to suspect she’d been wrong about that too. Around the square, the other stallholders were also wrapped up against the weather in thick coats, hats and gloves. To Ava’s eye, they looked like small, wooly bears. The cold weather had driven most of the customers away, but like the stalwarts they were, none of the traders had given in, steadfastly refusing to be beaten by the weather. Ava would be damned if she would be the first. The wind picked up, slicing through the marketplace like a piece of jagged glass and sending icy fingers snaking under Ava’s clothes.

She shivered. Oh, what she wouldn’t give to be sitting in her cozy little rental cottage now in front of an open fire! She didn’t have an open fire, of course, just a small electric one, but Ava was nothing if not romantic. She rattled her cash-tin. It remained depressingly empty. Maybe if I go see Mr Cartwright, he’ll give me an extra week to pay the rent, she thought. There are bound to be more customers once the weather picks up. But Mr Cartwright, kind old soul that he was, had already let her defer a month’s rent and she hated to take advantage of his good nature further. Face it, that little voice in the back of her head whispered. This isn’t working out. You’re going to have to go back to the big city.

No! she answered herself. I will not. I’ll just have to think of something else, that’s all. Maybe open an online store and sell my stuf that way. There has to be a way. There has to! The thought of leaving the Highlands made her feel sick. The thought of going back to the city made her feel sick. She couldn’t return to that life of meetings, targets, bonuses and pressure, pressure, pressure. It would be the end of her. It already almost had been.

She still didn’t really understand how she’d fallen into that profession to start with. After university it had seemed the thing everyone was doing and before she knew it, she was working every hour of the day—and the night often too—trading stocks and shares in the City of London and making huge amounts of money for big corporations. For over a year she’d told herself she was happy. After all, this was what success looked like, wasn’t it? Living in an expensive apartment in central London, drinking in expensive bars, partying A away the few spare hours she had away from work? Yes, she was happy. She was a success. Until one morning she woke up and could not get out of bed. Just the thought of facing another day like all the others made her feel like she had a bowling ball in her stomach. So instead of getting out of bed, she’d reached for the half-empty wine bottle from the night before. And that’s when she realized enough was enough. That very afternoon she’d given her notice at work and booked a one-way train ticket to the Highlands of Scotland.

Many of her colleagues didn’t understand. They thought she was running away. But Ava didn’t feel like that. She wasn’t running away. She was running towards something. Even if she wasn’t quite sure what. She smiled wryly and glanced at the goods on her stall. She sold a bit of everything: antique jewelry, ornaments, paintings. Anything really that her trader’s instincts suggested might sell. After all, her father had been a market trader, like his father before him, and Ava had spent most of her childhood helping him out, come rain or shine.

He’d had quite the eye for spotting the bargain. Unfortunately, Ava didn’t seem to have inherited the family skills. Turning to the stallholder next to hers she called, “Max, fancy a cuppa? If I don’t get something warm soon, I think I’ll freeze from the inside out!” Max, a gray-haired local who sold ironmongery, laughed. “Aye, that sounds grand, lass. Tell Mary to put a dram of whisky in mine, will ye?” Ava rolled her eyes. “Keep an eye on my stall, then? I’m sure you can handle it if there’s a mad rush!” She tramped across the square to the burger van that sat in the corner. Mary, the proprietor, leaned out of the hatch. “Let me guess!” she said, smiling. “A strong black coffee for ye and a cup of tea for Max?” “How did you guess? Anyone would think we are predictable! Oh, and Max asked if he can have some whisky in his.” Mary laughed.

“Did he now? And ye can tell him from me he will get naught but a steaming cup of non-alcoholic tea and be grateful for it!” As Mary turned away to prepare the drinks, Ava stamped her feet and rubbed her hands to try and keep warm. Her breath misted in the air and she could no longer feel the tip of her nose. “Aye, it’s a mighty cold one today, isnae it?” Ava turned to see an old woman standing behind her. She was short, barely reaching Ava’s shoulder. She wore a long brown coat buttoned all the way up to her chin, and her gray hair was pulled back into a severe bun. She grinned up at Ava merrily, dark eyes sparkling above rosy red cheeks. “You can say that again,” Ava agreed. “I think my toes will never forgive me. You’re one of the few shoppers brave enough to venture out to the market today. I think we should give you a medal or something.

” The old woman’s smile widened. “Oh, I’m not here to shop, my dear. I’m here for something much more important. I’m Irene. Irene MacAskill. It’s a pleasure to meet ye.” Ava stuck out her mittened hand and shook Irene’s hand. “Nice to meet you too. I’m Ava. I run the stall over there.

” “Oh, I know who ye are, my dear.” “You do?” “Aye. I’ve traveled a long way to find ye.” “You have?” The old woman nodded. “Not as far as ye, though. After all, ye’ve run all the way from London trying to find what ye seek.” Ava blinked at her. How did she know that? “Have you been speaking to the other stallholders?” “I dinna need to speak to anyone to see what’s in plain sight.” Ava looked at the woman dubiously. “Oh? And what’s that?” “That yer life hasnae turned out how ye imagined.

That ye have a nagging feeling that somehow ye missed a turn on life’s road and now ye are heading in the wrong direction.” Ava laughed, although it came out a little shriller than she’d intended. “And you can tell that just from looking at me, right?” Just her luck to get accosted by the local crackpot! “Aye. It’s written across yer soul.” The laugh died in Ava’s throat. Irene’s words seemed to soak into her bones like freezing water, leaving behind a chill deeper than any the weather could bring. Something stirred inside Ava, that dark feeling that she tried to suppress, that sense of being in the wrong place and the wrong time. It had been with Ava her whole life, but since coming to the Highlands it had lessened, if just a little. Now though, it came roaring to life again, leaving behind it a sense of dislocation, as if Ava were a bystander in her own life. She shook her head, annoyed at such foolish notions.

What was she doing listening to the ramblings of a confused old woman? “I don’t know what you mean,” she said. “I’m perfectly happy, thank you very much.” Irene cocked her head. Those eyes of hers, as dark as onyx, regarded Ava without blinking. “Are ye?” she said softly. “Are ye really?” Ava took a step back. Irene MacAskill suddenly seemed to tower over her, even though she’d not moved an inch. In that dark gaze she saw a deep compassion and something else: the swirling of infinite possibilities. “Who…who are you?” she whispered. “A friend,” Irene answered.

“Someone who’s come to show ye yer true path. It isnae too late, my dear. It’s never too late, although sometimes we convince ourselves that it is because staying on our current path is easier than changing course. It is a choice we make. Everything is a choice. Yers will soon be coming, Ava Hall. Yer life will split in two, and ye must choose which fork to take. Should ye choose to turn off yer path and take another, the cost will be high. Things will be asked of ye that ye never imagined. Yet, if ye have the courage to take that path, maybe, just maybe, ye will no longer be torn in two.

” Ava stared at the woman, mouth working but no words coming out. What was she supposed to say? What could she say? She didn’t think she’d be able to form words even if she’d wanted to. Irene smiled and then reached up and patted Ava’s cheek. “Think about it, my dear. Ye willnae have long to do so.” Then, without another word, she turned and ambled across the square, disappearing into a side street. “Do ye want some sugar for yer coffee? I know Max has about three, no matter how many times I tell him it’ll rot his teeth.” “Hmm?” Ava turned distractedly to where Mary was leaning on the serving counter of her burger van. “What? Oh, yes. One sugar, please.

And give Max one. I’ll tell him it’s three and I bet he won’t notice the difference.” As Mary grabbed the sugar sachets, Ava added, “Did you recognize that woman?” Mary leaned out of the hatch and looked right and left. “What woman?” “The old woman who was talking to me just now.” A frown pinched the space between Mary’s eyebrows. “I never saw an old woman. Ye were standing here by yerself.” “Get away!” Ava laughed. “You must have heard me talking to her!” But Mary just shook her head. “I never heard ye utter a word.

” Her frown deepened. “Are ye all right, Ava? Mayhap ye should knock off for the day, go get somewhere warm.” “No, I’m fine.” She took the cups Mary held out for her and began crossing the square, holding the cups carefully so as not to spill any of their precious contents. The task wasn’t helped by the fact that her legs felt a bit wobbly. What had just happened? Had she seen a ghost? Or had she imagined the whole thing? Forget it, she told herself as she reached Max’s stall and handed over his cup of tea. Focus on the now. And that means selling some of this damned jewelry!

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