Wishing For a Highlander

By: Jessi Gage

Chapter 1

The first bite of her sandwich transported Melanie to another dimension–she could swear food tasted better in pregnancy, at least now that the first-trimester nausea had passed. Her lunch break at the cramped but tidy Old Charleston Tea House got even better as she reached the first spicy part in her paperback. The combined pleasures of Golden Monkey tea, perfectly-seasoned egg salad, and a succulent make-out scene between a librarian and a rugged Scot had her moaning in rapture before she could stop herself.

“No wonder she’s pregnant without a ring on her finger,” one of the elderly women at a nearby table said behind her hand. “Look at the trash she reads.”

The woman’s blue-haired companion snuck a glance at her from behind oversized glasses. “Little slut. Probably counts on her big chest to rope ’em in and then doesn’t have the brains to keep ’em.”

Melanie plunked her tea down so hard it sloshed and stained the lacy tablecloth. Every Friday, she tuned out the constant complaining generated by these two women, but she’d never been the subject of their biting criticisms before. She glared at the pair over the top of her book. Both of them suddenly found the view of Meeting Street out the large plate glass window exceedingly fascinating.

“I’m sorry,” she said with mock sweetness, “did you have something to say to me?”

Two pairs of watery eyes blinked innocently at her. “What was that, dear?” One of the biddies cupped a wrinkled hand around her ear. The other adjusted her hearing aid.

Gretchen, her favorite server, wedged herself between the tables, interrupting her view of the biddies. “She said, ‘How did you like the tea?’ Will that be all for you ladies?” Gretchen scooped up the leather check holder with a placating look over her shoulder.

Melanie huffed and folded her arms, but she couldn’t bring herself to hold a grudge, since Gretchen was the one whose tips would suffer if she chased away some of her best customers.

The jingling bell over the door heralded the bitch brigade’s exit, but she still couldn’t get back into her novel. Giving it up as a lost cause, she stuffed the paperback into her messenger bag and scarfed down her lunch without tasting it. Leaving her twelve dollars on the table, she waved goodbye to Gretchen and slipped out into the January chill.

Normally she tried to be a words-can-never-hurt-me kind of girl, but those words had cut right through her tissue-thin, pregnancy-enhanced emotions. It wasn’t the remark about her chest that hurt–she was used to being judged by her blond-haired, D-cup cover. It was the assumption that she couldn’t hang on to a man. That had hit a little too close to home.

Kyle’s last words to her circled in her mind as she reached the bike rack and strapped on her helmet. “What do you want from me, Mel? I’m not going to change my life because you forgot your pill one day. Don’t all you independent career women want to be single moms, anyway?”

“Bastard,” she seethed as she hiked up her knee-length skirt to hop on her trusty antique Schwinn. It wasn’t like she’d expected Kyle to propose or anything. Just a little responsibility. A little support. That’s all she’d asked for, and she thought she’d earned it, since they’d been together for almost a year.

But no, all Kyle had for her was blame and a view of his cowardly behind as he ran away from what they had created together. A new life, vulnerable and precious, even more so because she hadn’t missed a pill like Kyle insisted. The life inside her was a beautiful miracle who existed despite the minor obstacle of a little manufactured hormone.

All she’d wanted from Kyle was for him to be a father to his child. But all Kyle had wanted was to marry a girl named Becky, whom he’d apparently been cheating with for some time. Now, Kyle was a happily married sperm-donor, and she was left to face a monumental and wonderful challenge all by her lonesome.

As she pedaled up Meeting Street, back to the Charleston Museum, she gave thoughts of Kyle and bitter old ladies the heave-ho, choosing instead to think about what made her happy: her loving and supportive parents, her friends, chocolate cream pie, the escape of a good romance novel, and her work organizing the Scottish immigrants exhibit opening next Friday.

Eeek! Friday!

That was only seven days away! And there was still so much to do, including finding a new keynote speaker for the grand opening, since Professor Calderwood, a distant relative of famous Scottish immigrant Andrew Carnegie, had cancelled. Her brain whirring away with her to-do list, she shoved her bike into the rack behind the museum and got to work.

Hours later, with several disappointing phone calls and much eye-straining proof-reading under her belt, she finally laid her eager hands on the package Dr. Calderwood had Fed-Exed. A phone message indicated he’d sent several artifacts from his personal collection for her to include in the exhibit, and she’d looked forward to opening the package as her reward for an afternoon of hard work.

Inside were five carefully-wrapped items: a journal kept by a Scottish relative who had settled in Charleston in the 1890’s, a flintlock pistol, an antique rosewood box whose rich, dark finish reminded her of her grandmother’s prized hope chest, which had been in their family since the old days, and two gleaming sgian dubhs.

She appreciated one of the sgian dubhs first, running her gloved fingers over the flat of the blade and the intricately-woven leather-wrapped hilt. To think, some nineteenth-century warrior had carried this knife in his jacket or tucked in the top of his hose. A thrill of connection went through her until Alan’s voice at her office door made her jump.

“It’s nearly seven, Mel. Go home for God’s sake.”

She lifted her magnifying glasses to her head and smiled at her boss. “This is better than home. You need to see this stuff Dr. Calderwood sent.”

He shook his head. “I’ll take a look on Monday. Promise. Sam’s got a recital at school and I’m running late. I mean it. Go home. You need your rest.” He nodded at the barely noticeable swell of her belly.

“I’m pregnant, not an invalid, Al.” She gave him a wink to soften the rebuke as she lovingly set the first sgian dubhs aside and began fondling the other. “I’ll go home in a few. I just want to put these artifacts in the safe.”

“Uh-huh. Just make sure you wipe all the drool off before you do.” He gave a wink of his own before leaving.

“Mmm, finally, it’s just the two of us,” she said to the knife. “Well,” she amended as a stray finger caressed the other sgian dubh, “just the three of us.” The journal, pistol, and box suddenly looked sullen on her workbench. “Oh. Sorry. Just the six of us, then.”

She wished she could spend her evening giving each artifact the attention it deserved, but Alan was right. She could use some rest. And she had a frozen pizza and half a chocolate cream pie beckoning her to her apartment. “Monday,” she promised the artifacts as she placed them on a felt-lined tray for the safe.

As she gathered up the packaging materials to toss in the trash, she caught sight of a sheet of paper tucked in the bottom of the box. She pulled it out and gave it a quick scan. It was a letter from Dr. Calderwood in which he repeated his regret that he would miss the exhibit’s grand opening and offered a brief description of each item.

She couldn’t resist reading the letter in full. The couple of paragraphs about the box were especially interesting.

Rosewood box: Owned by Mr. Andrew Carnegie and bought at auction by yours truly October 1985.

Originating in the Scottish Highlands, as the inscription indicates, the box has an intricate opening mechanism that few have reportedly mastered. With no obvious latch on the outside, it is assumed that a series of pressure points when touched the right way releases an inner spring, which opens the lid. I personally have never been able to open it, and three separate antique dealers have inspected the box and concluded that whatever mechanism opens it is likely frozen with age.

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