All I’d known for the last few hours was pain. Four small summits, they’d said, like it was no big deal.
Lies. All lies.
I wanted to drop to the ground and refuse to go any farther. But there were so many reasons why that wasn’t an option, not the least of which was tall, Scottish, and sexy. And had been the bane of my existence since the beginning.
He was keeping pace with me, looking over every few minutes to make sure I was still there. It was mortifying, but I took some sadistic pleasure in knowing that his long legs were probably aching from the effort to go slowly as much as mine were from trying to keep up with the group.
My thigh and calf muscles screamed on the ascents, and my knees screamed on the way down. My eyes burned from the wind, and my shoulders ached from my pack.
And we hadn’t even made it to lunchtime yet.
What the hell was I doing here?
Two Days Earlier
“Welcome to the Isle of Skye!”
The enthusiastic shout startled me from the weird stupor I’d fallen into following my overnight transatlantic flight from New York to Glasgow, the four-hour train ride from Glasgow to Fort William in the West Highlands, and nearly three hours in a van, broken up by a few stops along the way to stretch our legs and take photos of the increasingly more spectacular scenery as we ventured deeper into the Highlands before crossing the bridge to Skye.
Where I’d spend the next week walking over eighty miles from the northernmost tip of Skye down along the eastern side of the island.
I had a vague impression of the other people in the van from our brief meeting in Fort William before we were picked up by the guys from Scotland By Foot, the trekking company I’d be hiking with: a couple from Florida and two women from London, all around my parents’ age, and two bearded brothers in their thirties from somewhere in New England. They had all looked super-fit and super-excited, and if their well-used gear was any indication, super-experienced, too.
And they were all pairs. Couples, friends, brothers—and me. Traveling by myself, sitting in the front bench seat of the van with the two male guides. As if being a novice hiker doing a week-long trek on the Isle of Skye wasn’t bad enough, I would be the only solo traveler in a group full of pairs.
Rather than dwell on that, I focused my attention on the jagged mountains in the distance, a blue-gray haze against the bright blue sky.
I sat up straight. Wait, were those mountains part of the Skye Trail? Carrie, what the hell were you thinking? And what the hell was I thinking when I decided to do this?
It was so wrong to be doing this trip without her. Carrie was the hiker, not me. We did everything else together, but not this. I was from flatter-than-flat Long Island, New York—how the hell would I be able to hike that mountainous trail?
Somehow, I would do it. I had to do it. For Carrie.
“How much longer?” asked one of the women in the back.
“About another half hour,” said Tommy MacDonald, the guide who sat next to me on the bench seat, the one who’d just welcomed us to Skye.
“If we don’t get stuck behind too many tourists,” muttered Rory Sutherland, the other guide and driver of the van. If Tommy was the “friendly guide,” as evidenced by the way he’d bounded up to us in Fort William with a blinding smile on his face, Rory appeared to be playing the role of “surly guide,” barely saying a word on the three-hour drive except to swear at the drivers ahead of us.
Hopefully his grouchiness was due more to the long, slow drive on the narrow, one-lane-each-way roads—which I could relate to, coming from Long Island, where every hour was rush hour and every road was permanently under construction—and not an indication of how he’d be on the hike.
Otherwise, this would be a really long week.
God, the scenery was awesome. On one side of the road, jagged mountains stretched off into the distance as far as I could see; on the other side was the sea, sapphire blue in the afternoon sunlight. And all around were hilly, green fields dotted with fluffy, white sheep and frolicking lambs. Skye was remote, stunning, and intimidating.
But Carrie, did you really have to hike it?
I lowered the window so I could take a few photos. Then I looked at them to make sure they came out okay.
Rory said something under his breath.
“I’m sorry, were you talking to me?” He hadn’t spoken to me at all other than a mumbled hello when Tommy introduced them both in Fort William.
“I said, ‘there she goes again with her phone.’”
I stared at him. “Do you have some kind of problem with me?” I knew I sounded bitchy, but I so did not need this guy’s attitude after eleventy million hours in transit.
He glanced at me, then back at the road, his facial features obscured by dark sunglasses and a ball cap. “I just don’t understand why people travel thousands of miles from home to see a new place, and then spend the entire time on their phones. You haven’t put yours down for more than five minutes since you got in the van. Maybe you should try stepping away from Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook for a little while and experience Skye for yourself rather than for all your many friends and followers.”
I opened my mouth to tell him to piss off, but Tommy cut me off before I could speak. “Not this again,” he said, looking at me apologetically. “Rory’s like a broken record. He hates technology, would probably toss his phone and live off the grid if he could. Don’t pay attention to him.”
Tommy’s diplomatic response derailed most of my angry retort. But I couldn’t let Rory’s condescension go unanswered. “You don’t know anything about me, Rory,” I hissed. “Not. One. Thing. So how about you don’t make snap judgments, and I’ll show you the same courtesy and not call you a jerk to your face.”
“Burn,” muttered Tommy.
“I shouldn’t have said that,” Rory acquiesced after a moment, looking over at me again.
I couldn’t tell if he was sincere, but at least he’d sort of apologized. I nodded once and then focused my attention out the window again.
I was right. This was going to be a long week.
My room at the B&B in Portree was charming, with a large bed that was covered with a white duvet that looked like a cloud. I emailed my folks, gushing about the beautiful scenery.
Then I gave in to the lure of the white duvet and napped for an hour. That, plus a long, hot shower, went a long way to making me feel human again, as did the soothing routine of running my fingers through my long hair as I blow-dried it. I wasn’t much for makeup, but with some concealer on the dark circles beneath my eyes and a touch of eyeliner, I looked less like a zombie.
I pulled on jeans and a black V-neck top and scrutinized myself in the mirror. Still pale, still tired-looking, but otherwise not bad. Besides, dinner in a pub I could handle easily enough.
It was hiking eighty-odd miles on the mountainous Isle of Skye over the next week, camping out nearly every night along the way, that might very well kill me.
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