Inhale – two steps…exhale – two steps…‘I’m going to wear out her running shoes in a couple of weeks if I keep going on this rocky track.’ Ashleigh thought as she shifted to the right to avoid some of the larger stones scattered throughout the rough lane.
Inhale – two steps…exhale – two steps…The salt air burned her sinuses, but she kept pushing. She turned down the trail toward the beach hoping it would be a little smoother. Once she reached the flat expanse of packed sand she kicked into high gear and sped down the shore.
Inhale – two steps…exhale – two steps…Every muscle in her legs and core engaged to maintain her balance in spite of the shifting of the sand under her feet. Still, it was better than tripping over rocks.
Around a bend in the shore a wall of rock rose up that stretched across the beach to the water cutting off the cove she was in from the next. She pulled up and leaned forward propping her hands on her knees to catch her breath. Her head pounded, but then it had been pounding since she got on the plane. She really should drink more water.
As her breathing slowed Ashleigh stood and stretched propping a foot on the rock wall. She lunged forward to stretch her hamstring and looked around. Her little cottage was nestled over a hill, close enough to see the ocean, but far enough to be protected from the worst winds. There wasn't another house in sight, nor another person. She thought she spotted a few sheep dotting the hills further from the shore. Not a soul in sight.
The only person she'd seen since driving out of Stornoway two nights ago was Lachlan Shaw, the caretaker. He hadn't been what she expected. The estate agent had said not to be bothered if he was rude, that he was just an old curmudgeon. The way she'd talked Ashleigh had pictured him as a little old man in worn clothes who smoked a pipe and grumbled about tourists and 'kids these days'.
She had been surprised when she'd opened the door to find him middle aged, tall and very imposing. He wasn't small or old by any means, in fact he looked quite vital maybe even handsome under the scraggly beard and stocking cap. His clothes did look a bit worn but he was hauling peat, not exactly something a person did in his Sunday best. She hadn't found him rude at all, a little awkward but not abrasive. He seemed like a man who was used to being alone and liked it that way, which suited Ashleigh just fine.
She was here to relax, recharge. She wasn't looking to make a bunch of friends. Though at least the people here wouldn't look at her the way her friends at home did. She was so tired of seeing that look in their eyes whenever someone mentioned Wade or babies. She wouldn't miss how their voices got hushed and they avoided eye contact with her whenever there were babies nearby. She'd started ignoring them, which is probably why it was such a shock when she found out.
One week earlier
Hillsborough, North Carolina
Columns and rows of data were swimming in front of her eyes. Ashleigh leaned back and stretched her arms behind her. The chair in her office wasn't much more comfortable than her seat on the plane had been, but there was work to be done. She checked the clock on her computer, 6:42. She should probably go home and get some rest, as soon as she finished this one report.
"You're going to go cross-eyed if you stare at that computer any harder." Ashleigh looked up to find her boss standing in the doorway. Harlan Cobb was the Chief Operations Officer of Piedmont Mills, and an old family friend. His tie was loosened, his sport coat flung over an arm and he had his brief case in one hand.
"I'll be fine. I just wanted to finish this report so I could get it to you tomorrow."
"It could have waited. You've got to be tired. Did you come straight here from the airport?" He stepped in and took a seat across her desk from her. Harlan was always telling her to go home and take it easy. It was usually accompanied by that look. The look that said, 'I know what you've been through and you're not as strong as you think.' Ashleigh hated that look, but Harlan was like family so she put up with it from him.
"I'm fine. I must still be on Mountain time. Doesn't even feel that late." Just a little white lie. She was exhausted, but she didn't want him worrying.
Harlan gave her a look that said she wasn't fooling him. "I'm worried about you, Ash."
She sighed. "Now, Harlan. I've been taking care of myself for a while. I'm a big girl."
"I know you are, and I know you'll pull out of this. But, honey, you have got to slow down." He gave her a fatherly look of concern. "You've been working and travelling non-stop for the last year. You've got to take a break."
"I've taken breaks. I went to the beach with the girls for a long weekend just last month." It had been a trial sharing a beach house with some of her friends from college. Suzanna had just learned that she was pregnant. Ashleigh was happy for her friend, she really was. But she couldn't express that without unleashing all kinds of pitying looks from her girlfriends. After a while she'd gotten so tired of it, she'd just retreated to her room and work.
"And emailed me at least a dozen times while you were there." Ashleigh made a mental note to save her emails next time until she'd gotten home.
"Most bosses would be thrilled that to have such a hard worker on their team."
"You know darn well, I'm not most bosses and you're not most employees." He gave her a level look before changing the subject. "How was Guatemala?"
"Hot, but the mill seems to be in good working order. They should be able to produce the volume that we need."
He nodded and fell silent. After a few seconds he leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees. "Asheigh, you know I'm planning to retire next year."
"I would like to name you as my replacement," And she would like nothing better. It's why she was working so hard. "I know it would be the right thing for the company. But I'm not so sure it would be the right thing for you."
Ashleigh started. "Harlan, that's exactly what I've been working for. I..."
"I know you have, and I know you'd be great at it. But, honey, you've got to have some balance in your life. For the past couple of years, you haven't. I'm worried that if something doesn't change for you, and you step into this role you'll never have it."
Ashleigh sank back into her chair, deflated. She didn't know what to say to that. How could he be thinking of not promoting her when she'd worked her tail off? She wanted to say something, to argue, but she just couldn't think of what.
Harlan leaned across the desk and took her hand. His voice was a gentle rumble. "Honey, you haven't stopped working since you lost the baby. You've got to give yourself a chance to grieve, to heal. When was the last time you did something just for yourself?"
She looked at him, gritting her teeth against the urge to scream. "All I do is for myself. It's not like I have anyone left to do anything for."
He shook his head. "I know this is tough talk, Ash, but I wouldn't be saying this if I didn't think you needed to hear it. I want you to take some time off."
"Now, Harlan," She bristled.
"No, hear me out. If you become COO, you're not going to get a chance to take much time off for a long time. I think you really need it. I want you to give yourself some time to get over the baby, and Wade. You've been through a lot."
Forced time off? No. This was not happening. "I'm doing fine. I'll be fine. I could take over tomorrow, not that I want you to go."
Harlan looked down for a few seconds. When he looked back up, Ashleigh knew she wasn't going to like what he said next. "I told him I would look after you. These past couple of years, I don't think I've been doing a very good job of it."
Ashleigh swallowed around the lump that always formed in her throat at the mention of her grandfather. He and Harlan had been coworkers and longtime friends. "Now, you're playing dirty."
"I'm doing what I have to do, to get you to do what you need to do. I love you like a daughter, Ash, and I want you to be happy. But this job isn't going to do that for you if you're miserable in every other aspect of your life, and don't tell me you aren't"
She couldn't. She couldn't say anything.
"Take some time. The company will still be here for you when you get back." He gave her hand a squeeze, picked up his briefcase and walked out.
Ashleigh was still reeling from her talk with Harlan an hour later as she trudged through the aisles of the grocery store. She stopped on the way home because she knew after spending the week in Guatemala she wouldn't have anything edible in her fridge. Between jet lag and the career bomb that Harlan dropped on her she couldn't seem to make a decision on what she wanted to eat...or drink, or do next for that matter.
Harlan's words kept running through her head. 'Honey, you haven't stopped working since you lost the baby. You've got to give yourself a chance to grieve, to heal.'
No, she didn't. Because as soon as she stopped working she would start asking herself what she had done wrong. She would analyze why it had happened. Had she exercised too much, worked too much? Was it the 3 glasses of wine she'd had before she realized she was pregnant? Had she eaten something that had caused it? Her doctor, Wade, her parents, her friends had all said that these things just happen sometimes with no reason.
But Ashleigh's analytical brain wouldn't let her accept that answer. The world worked on cause and effect. Nothing happened without a reason. There was always a cause, always a chain of events that led to a result good or bad. That was her job, right? Navigating cause and effect. Bad weather affected cotton crops which affected supply and costs and sales.
There must have been some cause, and since it was her body it had to be her fault. That was the reason she worked all the time. She couldn't sit and think, couldn't let herself accept the she was the cause, and the implosion of her life as she'd known it two years ago was the effect.
She turned into the freezer aisle, some vague notion tickling her brain through her tired haze that she might find a frozen meal for one. There was a giggle down at the other end of the row of freezer cabinets. Ashleigh glanced up to a couple standing close together in an open freezer door. He had his arm around her and she was flashing a flirty smile. Her eyes danced as she held up a tub of ice cream for him to look at.
Ashleigh tried not to stare. She remembered when she'd been that happy. It seemed like yesterday and a thousand years ago at the same time. She opened a freezer and grabbed a couple of meals, not really paying attention to what they contained. She dropped them in her basket and began walking the rest of the way down the aisle.
The couple continued laughing and flirting as they chose their ice cream. It wasn't until Ashleigh got closer that she realized how familiar the man was. Then, as she came up next to them, he turned.
She felt recognition hit her like a fist to the gut. No wonder he'd reminded her of when she'd been happy. She'd been happy with him. This man laughing, flirting, man pawing the woman in the frozen food section was her ex-husband. He certainly worked fast. Their divorce had only been final for about six months.
It hadn't been acrimonious. He said he'd had enough and she had let him go. She hadn't put up much of a fight, hadn't really had any fight in her. Still, she hadn't expected him to move on quite so fast.
He glanced at her and then his eyes went wide and his face turned pink. "Ashleigh!"
"Hi, Wade." At least she'd had a second to prepare, to school her features so she wouldn’t show how much it bothered her to see him with another woman so soon.
The woman with Wade who had been looking in the freezer turned around. Ashleigh looked her up and down. She was cute. Her blonde hair was pulled back in a pert ponytail, and her blue eyes smiling. She was in great shape, which made the bump of her belly that much more obvious.
Ashleigh felt a burning start behind her eyes and her ears began to roar. She just barely heard Wade introduce the woman as Melanie, his fiancée. Fiancée. She managed a stunned. "Wow. Congratulations."
Wade made an lame excuse. "I was going to call you, but you were out of town."
Ashleigh felt herself nodding but was barely conscious of the movement. She looked at Melanie and tried to smile. "It's nice to meet you. So, how far along are you?"
Melanie flashed that million watt smile again and patted her belly, "Oh, about four and half months."
About 18 weeks, Ashleigh thought. Right where she had been when she'd lost the last one, the one that she had felt move, the one that had given her hope. She tried to smile. It wasn't this woman's fault, wasn't even Wade's fault really. "Well, congratulations again."
She looked up at Wade and meant to say something pleasant, something nice, but the look of mingled pity and guilt and misery on his face stopped her. "Ash, I..."
She gave her head a tiny shake and he cut off what he was about to say. They might not be married anymore, but they had been together long enough to have developed that system of non-verbal communication that couples have. Ashleigh made it clear with a look that she didn't want to hear another word.
She turned and started for the checkout, but set her basket down before she got there. She stumbled through an empty lane bumping her hip on the counter as she almost blindly made for the door. Once she was in the open she broke into a run.