To young Victoria Cameron, Angus, Scotland is the most beautiful place on earth and she wishes nothing more than to stay on her little farm for ever. But the death of her beloved grandfather leaves her and her mother without a farm and struggling to make ends meet.
Never one to give up, Victoria soon finds work in a Dundee mill, while her mother supports them by taking in lodgers. Neither ever expected one of those lodgers would be John Cameron, the father that walked out on them so many years ago.
Victoria is torn about how to receive this stranger, and torn about the other man in her life - a young boy she thinks she could love if only he comes back from the war.
Priory Farm, Angus, 24th May 1900
Pain gripped Catriona. It tore at her angrily, as if punishing her for some unknown crime. Sweat broke out on her forehead and she tried desperately not to scream. She had never believed it would be like this, never. Was she not the daughter of farmers? Had she not seen birth a dozen times a year – a thing done privately, causing as little trouble as possible.
‘Ach, lassie, let it out. There’s no one to hear but me and auld Jock out there and he’d bear it for you, if he could.’
The voice was that of Maggie, employed by Jock Cameron as dairy maid and now midwife.
Catriona’s scream tore through the air and died to a gasping whimper. Maggie held her hand and, outside, Jock stopped his pacing and listened.
‘Dear God, help the lassie, as I’ve never been able to help.’
She was quiet. Was that it? Was it over? Was he a grandfather?
There was another scream, cut short by the simple expedient of biting as hard as Catriona could on the rolled-up towel that old Maggie had put into her open mouth. Catriona’s eyes rolled in agony; there was a name she wanted to call out, but she would not. She would not beg and she would not hurt the old man any more by having him hear it.
The pain receded and she took the towel away. ‘It’s cold for May, Maggie, so cold.’
The midwife looked at the girl for a moment. Cold? It was a perfect May day. This morning the sweat had been rolling down between her ample breasts as she had sat milking in the parlour, and now her newly washed cotton frock was damp with perspiration. But the lassie was cold. ‘Dear Lord, shock.’ She ran to the airing cupboard for clean, warm blankets. Everything was to hand, meticulously prepared by Catriona herself.
‘Let me wrap you up a bit more, lassie: you’ve lost a wheen too much blood but it’ll soon be over. In a moment, the next push will bring us the head and your bonnie wee bairn will slip out like a boat being launched into the Tay.’
Catriona could hear Maggie’s voice but she could not make out the words. She seemed to be floating. It was such a lovely feeling. She had been so cold, and now she was wrapped up the way her own mother had bundled her up against the cold of an Angus winter. So safe, so secure. Nothing hurt, nothing mattered – nothing, nothing. She would drift away, oh so slowly, like a leaf tossed into a quiet stream.
But Maggie would not let her slip away into that peace and contentment. She shook the girl, she cajoled, she wheedled. ‘Catriona, Catriona, fight, lassie, fight. The bairn’s crowning. He’s coming, lass. I can see his head. What a crown of dark hair, just like his daddy.’
His daddy. John. John with his grey-blue eyes, his devastating smile, his hands that could . . . For a moment she struggled but no, it was so warm here, so peaceful – nopain, no tears, no wondering why. She would stay here where it was warm, where nothing hurt, where sound was blurred and hazy and soft. ‘Oh, John, why?’ Had she said the words or just thought them? She had no time to wonder, for the pain struck again and instinct took over her exhausted body.
'Work with the pains, lassie, dinnae fight them. That’s it, that’s it. Just a wee breath there, a wee rest to get ready for the next one.’
In the passageway outside, Jock Cameron paced as he waited. It was his fault, all of it. That lassie had been in there for fourteen hours trying to birth her baby, and the man who should have been here, either by himself or marching side by side with Jock, was God alone knew where.
‘I spoilt him, Mattie,’ he told his long-dead wife. ‘He was that bonnie though, and always minded me of you. I couldnae hit you, Mattie, that’s what it would have felt like and he knew it, the wee rascal, but he’s a grown man now, Mattie. I’ll never forgive him for this and if the good Lord spares me my daughter-in-law and my grandchild, I’ll make it up to them.’