The stronghold of clan Douglass
Near Wick Bay, Scotland
It was Fiona Douglass’ seventy-first wedding.
To be precise, it was her seventy-first time attending a wedding.
When you belonged to a large and thriving clan, there were naturally a lot of weddings to go to and the total number was bound to be high, especially if you weren’t a giddy girl any longer, but — to put it politely — a lady of considerable maturity.
So: seventy-one weddings for Fiona.
The details had long begun to blur, of course, but there were certain ceremonies that stood out in her mind.
Today would be memorable because her youngest sister, Rossalyn, was getting married.
Two years ago, in this very church, a spectacular brawl had erupted at the altar when the bridegroom’s twin brother (already roaring drunk) had lunged forward, seized the hapless bride, and tried to carry her off. A wild melee ensued as several other men (also already drunk) had, with joyful shouts, joined in. Forty-five minutes later, the combatants subdued by brute force and the bride’s veil hastily repaired, the ceremony had proceeded without further incident, the chastened, bloodied twin the very first to warmly shake his brother’s hand.
It was also in this church that three years ago Fiona had attended the wedding of her younger sister Dallis.
Seven years ago, old Mrs. Gibbs, aged ninety-eight and heartily disliked by nearly everyone in the entire clan, had loudly expired just before the vows were spoken. The general agreement was that she’d done it deliberately in a last triumphant bid for attention, and that she was likely chuckling up in heaven (or down below in the other place) because afterwards, as her corpse was being removed, her pet ferret had crawled out from a pocket in her skirt and dashed up the towering headdress of a haughty dowager from Glasgow, from which vantage point it had leaped gracefully onto the shoulder of Fiona’s own mother, who had screamed and then fainted, sending the bride into hysterics and several small boys into paroxysms of noisy laughter, thereby provoking Fiona’s father, the mighty chieftain of clan Douglass, into a fury so awful that the wedding was quietly called off and no one dared to partake of the gargantuan feast laid out in the Great Hall, resulting, of course, in a great deal of secret rejoicing in the servants’ hall for at least three days after that. The ferret was never seen again.
Eight years ago, it had rained so hard during the wedding of Fiona’s cousin Christie that the church had begun to leak in (Fiona had counted) fourteen places and quite a few hats had been ruined.
And nine years ago — why, nine years ago Fiona had watched as her younger sister Nairna had married the love of her life.
The love of Fiona’s life.
Fiona had never told Nairna that. She knew that seventeen-year-old Nairna was madly in love with Logan Munro, and as for Logan, who could fault him for preferring sweet Nairna Douglass, as soft and playful as a kitten, petite and rounded in all the right places and with masses of dark curls that framed her piquant little face most fetchingly? Who wouldn’t prefer Nairna to Fiona, at eighteen painfully thin and gawky and oversensitive, who blurted things out and tripped over her own feet? Especially since, at that moment in time, Nairna’s dowry had been substantially greater than Fiona’s.
It all made total sense.
Even back then, in the darkest period of her devastation, Fiona hadn’t been able to summon resentment or hostility toward Nairna, whom she had loved — still loved — with the fierce, protective devotion of an oldest sister for her younger siblings.
To be sure, there was a secret part of her, a sad and cowardly part, that would have driven her far from home on this lovely summer’s day, where she wouldn’t be forced to look upon Logan Munro’s handsome face, but to this desire she hadn’t succumbed; wild horses couldn’t have kept her from attending Rosslyn’s wedding. She had, though, slid inconspicuously into the very last pew. She did this also as a kindness to her fellow guests. Even with her hair twisted into smooth braids, all coiled together and set low on her nape, she was so tall that she could easily block the view of others behind her. Nonetheless, and thanks to her accursed height, she could plainly see Logan where he sat, several pews away, next to Nairna.
Logan’s hair was still black as a raven’s wing, still thick. His shoulders were still broad and heavily muscled beneath the fine mulberry-colored fabric of his fashionable coat.
And, Fiona realized, a heart could still physically hurt, could ache painfully within one’s breast, even after nine long years.
She made herself look away from Logan.
Instead she gazed down at her hands, loosely clasped in her lap. Hands that weren’t white as they ought to be, fingers that were a little coarsened by riding without gloves, by long hours working in her garden.
Around her slim — the less charitable might even have said bony — wrist was looped the silken cord of her reticule.
Surreptitiously Fiona loosened the opening of the reticule and pulled out a small piece of paper, quietly unfolding it. On it she had written her latest list.
Ask Dallis — when new baby due?
5 sheep with bloody scours, 2 with rupturing blisters — why?
Help Aunt Bethia find her spectacles (bedchamber? solarium?)
Avoid Cousin Isobel, too
Mother’s birthday next Saturday
Tell Burns — STOP cutting roses too early
Fiona withdrew a small pencil from her reticule and added another item.
Stop thinking about Logan
She also wrote:
Make sure maid packed Rossalyn’s warmest wraps & tartans
Northern cow pasture — fence fixed?
Osla Tod — toothache — better or worse?
Stop thinking about Logan
Then she carefully folded the little piece of paper in two, slid it and her pencil back into her reticule, and looked toward the front of the church, ensuring that her gaze was firmly fixed on Rossalyn and her bridegroom, Jamie MacComhainn.
How exquisite was Rossalyn’s gown, all shimmery silk and delicate lace, and how beautiful she looked in it. Jamie, in his turn, was a bonny young man. Fiona eyed him — the back of him — speculatively. Perhaps even a little bit suspiciously. He was amiable and intelligent, and from a good family. Father had approved his suit readily enough and had even, in a sentimental spasm, doubled Rossalyn’s dowry, and so here she was, not quite seventeen, a bride.
Fiona watched as Rossalyn and Jamie turned to each other and smiled. Oh, she hoped that all would be well. She wished that she knew Jamie better, that she trusted him more.
But thanks to handsome, charming, winsome Logan Munro, Fiona tended to view men with a certain skepticism.
A certain reserve.
She thought back to that dark time when she was eighteen, when Logan had come to Wick Bay to visit. Nothing formal had been declared between them, but enough had transpired, previously, in Edinburgh, to make Fiona feel confident that she’d soon be engaged.
Instead, with stunning speed Logan had transferred his affections to Nairna, gone to Father to request her hand in marriage, and been — to everyone’s amazement — accepted on the spot, quite possibly because Nairna, among all her sisters, held the softest spot in the hard and erratic heart of Bruce Douglass.
Even though Fiona had confided in her mother about her hopes, Mother had, without missing a beat, continued to smile and flutter around Logan, petting and praising her future son-in-law. Fiona had long considered her mother — warm and affectionate, plump and still pretty in middle age — as soft and yielding and altogether as comfortable as a child’s stuffed toy, but still, her behavior did seem a trifle callous.
Privately, Fiona had said to her, hating the little tremble in her voice:
“Mother, why are you so friendly toward Logan? After what he did to me?”
“Oh, my darling child, I know how hard it is for you, truly I do,” said her mother, her large dark eyes filling with tears. “I remember how dreadful I felt when I discovered that your father had married me for my fortune — I really had thought it was a love match. It all happened during that terrible famine of the eighties, and people were starving. I was an heiress, you know. And only seventeen, like dear Nairna! But,” she had added, smiling through her tears, “I was considered quite beautiful in my day! Even your father said so! And he used my dowry so cleverly — within a few years he brought the clan back into prosperity!”
Earnestly Mother had leaned forward to pat Fiona’s hand. “Thanks to your father we all live so comfortably, Fiona dear! Our gowns and jewels! Everything of the finest quality! So you see, everything always works out for the best. I’m sure that Nairna and Logan will be very happy together — such a handsome couple, and he simply dotes upon her! — and that another suitor will come along for you — someone you’ll like even better.”
Fiona had brushed that aside. “You don’t regret marrying Father?”
“Regret?” Mother’s dark eyes had shown nothing but bewilderment. “What a foolish notion, Fiona, to be sure! Besides, by the time I met your father I had, luckily, very nearly recovered from my stupid infatuation for my second cousin Ludovic — or was he my third cousin? So confusing! — it would never have done, you know, for the very next year he went to America and was killed. And your father so tall and so strong, and so handsome! Like a Viking warrior, everyone said!” Mother had fidgeted with the soft fringe of her shawl, then smiled again and with every appearance of sincerity went on: “I’ve been very happy these twenty years. Your father has taken such good care of us, and I’m just sorry that I haven’t been able to do my duty by him.”
She meant, Fiona knew, that she had not been able to produce a living son, despite miscarriages (the full number of which she didn’t divulge), two stillbirths, and four healthy baby girls. Of this sad fact everyone in the Douglass keep was fully aware, for periodically Father would erupt into one of his angry outbursts, quite often in the Great Hall with dozens of people present.
You’ve failed me, madam! he would roar, pounding his silver goblet on the table, denting it in a way that would have been comical if it wasn’t all so unpleasant. Other men have ten sons — a dozen sons — and I have none!
Or: I had my pick of maidens, and ’twas my misfortune to choose you, madam. They told me you were fertile! Fertile for sons, that is, he might add, with a contemptuous glance toward his daughters.
Or: I’ve managed to save this clan from extinction, and what have you done all these years? Nothing!
Mother would sit quietly, passively, but Fiona — watchful, observant, even as a child — would see the quiver of her tender mouth, the quick rise and fall of her chest as she gave a deep silent sigh, her shoulders held tensely high.
And then Father might fling his tankard out into the Hall, striking an unwary soul, or abruptly stand up and shove back his chair, toppling it, or stalk off, aiming kicks at the dogs who, fortunately, had learned to be preternaturally nimble when their master’s voice was raised. Fiona would look around and see the tears in Mother’s eyes, and in her sisters’ eyes, too. Not hers, though: her eyes were dry and her heart would feel all stony and angry.
“Mother,” she would hiss, “he’s awful.”
And then Mother would pull herself together, and drop her shoulders, and smile. “Oh no, Fiona dear, it’s just that he’s had so much on his mind. Didn’t you hear him say there’s a wolf after his sheep, and the Talbots are feuding again and setting fires? It’s not easy being chieftain, you know. Here — won’t you have another slice of mutton? I vow, you’ve somehow gotten thinner since breakfast!”
And grumblingly Fiona would accept the mutton, being, in fact, still hungry.
The human storm that was Father would just as easily shift into good humor, and then there was no one in the world more delightful to be around. But you could never trust that he’d stay cheerful. His expression could darken in an instant, his fists would clench, and things might fly across the room. You always felt a little wary around Bruce Douglass.
Eventually, he seemed to accept his fate as the father of only daughters. There was, at least, a crumb of comfort for him in this unfortunate debacle: the wealth he’d amassed made the Douglass girls highly desirable matrimonial quarry.
Father had therefore had quite a bit of fun by decreasing his daughters’ dowries on a whim, or suddenly increasing them to astronomical sums, thus keeping his lawyers in a continual anxious flurry of documents destroyed and rewritten. Fiona’s case was a little different. When, in his opinion, she’d been particularly annoying by — for example — forcefully disputing something he’d said, or disappearing all day on her horse, Father would retaliate by eliminating her dowry entirely. But not forever. The sun would shine, Father would change his mind, and eventually restore it, quite possibly to a radically different amount.
Over the years, suitors for the Douglass girls came and went, thronged and melted away, and Father watched, welcomed, interrogated, feinted, scorned, rejected, laughed, and allowed himself to be shamelessly flattered by them all. One by one, his daughters wed.
All except Fiona, who had never, somehow, found someone she liked enough to accept, and Father, rather surprisingly, had only nine or ten times threatened to lock her in her bedchamber until she said yes.
And so the time had passed, on the whole not unpleasantly. Fiona had kept herself busy. There was always so much to do.
But weddings tend to resurrect old issues, old emotions; new ideas, new possibilities.
As if on cue, Fiona was distracted from gazing steadfastly (if a little absently) at Rossalyn and Jamie when, from his seat four pews away, Niall Birk turned and smiled at her, showing all his teeth and this, in the context of a rather long face with large damp eyes, reminding Fiona forcibly of a horse.
Niall Birk hadn’t given her the time of day for a quite a while, which probably meant that Father had, in a last-ditch effort to get his remaining daughter off his hands, taken advantage of the massive clan gathering at the keep to make it known that Fiona was not only dowered again, but — judging by the breadth of Niall Birk’s grin — very generously as well.
Fiona’s suspicion was confirmed when, as soon as the ceremony was over, not only was she swiftly approached by Niall, but Ross Stratton and Walraig Tevis came crowding up around her, eagerly soliciting her hand for the dancing that was to follow the enormous meal awaiting them in the Great Hall.
Fiona looked at them thoughtfully. She was twenty-seven. Since Logan, she’d never met a man who had caught her interest, or made her laugh, or inspired her blood to run a little hotter.
Perhaps that was all behind her now.
Perhaps she was incapable of falling in love again.
Still, marriage had its benefits, didn’t it? She would be mistress of her own household. Maybe there would be children. And she’d no longer be subject to the unpredictable, tempestuous swings of Father’s moods — that in itself was appealing.
Walraig Tevis, a great lumbering fellow nearly as wide as he was tall, pushed spindly Ross Stratton to one side. “You’re daft, Stratton, to think you’ve got a chance with Fiona,” he said, his heavy face alight with malicious humor. “She’s a full head over you, you wee mousie, you’d be the laughingstock of the clan!” He jabbed a beefy elbow into Ross’ chest with such force that the smaller man reeled backwards and nearly fell over, but with surprising dexterity he whipped from his boot a nasty-looking dagger and only the quick intervention of the scandalized minister prevented what promised to be a vicious altercation, and possibly a murder or two, from occurring a mere twenty paces from the church.
Yes, as a married woman she’d be free of Father, Fiona thought, but she’d also be putting herself in the power of a husband who would have the indisputable right to do anything he liked with her.
And yet . . . and yet if any of them were to give the slightest sign that they really liked her, she might be tempted to seize the opportunity provided her by Father’s momentary generosity. Niall, for example, wasn’t bad-looking (especially since she liked horses). He wasn’t completely stupid. And he had a decent estate not far from where Rossalyn would be living with her husband Jamie MacComhainn; she could visit them often.
Experimentally, Fiona stepped a little closer to Niall. She caught a whiff of stale sweat, alcohol, onions, and even — her nose wrinkled — a faint, flat, rank scent of blood. She flashed a quick glance over him and saw a reddish clump of matted hair near one temple.
He grinned. “Bad, eh? You should see Dougal Gow. Poor lad couldn’t rise from his bed to come the wedding. He’ll miss the feast and the dancing. So, you’ll give me the first two reels, lass?”
Fiona had a sudden image of Niall, stinking of blood and onions, saying casually to Rossalyn at some future gathering: Fiona couldn’t come, for the poor lass is in bed — fell down the stairs and she’s all black and blue.
She took a step back, abruptly reminded of something that happened during last year’s sheep-shearing festival, when she had allowed Niall to kiss her behind a shed (she’d had a dowry then). Pressing his mouth on hers, he’d bent her neck back too far, while at the same time he squeezed her breast so roughly she’d thought for a bad, a very bad moment she would pass out.
She answered coolly: “No. I’m not dancing.”
“I’ll try to bear it.”
His arm shot out and he took a hard grip on her upper arm. “I don’t care for your tone. You’re to be a good girl and choose a husband from among the three of us. It’s your father’s decree.”
“A fine way to woo, Niall Birk, grabbing at a woman and scowling at her. Let go of me.”
His fingers tightened painfully for a moment before he released her. “You’re thinking I’m a bad bargain, no doubt, but at least I’m not a great lump like Walraig Tevis, who’d crush you under him like a bug, or Ross Stratton, who’d as soon garrote you as kiss you.”
A cold chill shivered up Fiona’s spine, but she only said, lightly, “You may be right. Would you excuse me, please? My mother needs me.” And she flitted off to where Mother did, in fact, require help untangling herself from the enormous plaid shawl she had wound about herself in so convoluted a fashion she was in danger of — curiously enough — falling down the church steps.
“Oh, thank you, dear!” Mother said breathlessly. “It was a lovely ceremony, wasn’t it? I cried just like a baby! But I always do at weddings. I cried at my own! Isn’t our Rossalyn the bonniest bride you’ve ever seen? Although Dallis, of course, was just as pretty, and so was Nairna! Your Aunt Bethia quite agrees with me! And oh! Bethia shared with me the most astounding piece of news! She had it from her sister-in-law Sorcha who is, I’m sure, most reliable. Apparently Alasdair Penhallow has been scandalizing the Eight Clans for years with his disgraceful behavior, and not just on special occasions but every day! Consuming spirits to excess, presiding over debaucheries, and so on! A monster of irresponsibility! And he the great laird of Castle Tadgh!”
“Well, Mother, so what? Besides, if he’s been doing this sort of thing for years, it’s hardly news,” said Fiona, guiding her overexcited parent down the uneven stone steps and at the same time keeping a sharp eye out for Logan Munro.
“No, no, you mistake me! According to Bethia, Alasdair Penhallow, on a dare, recently rode his horse all throughout his castle, and without a stitch of clothes on!”
“Did the horse have a saddle?” inquired Fiona, now a little interested.
“Bethia didn’t say. I’ll have to ask her. But isn’t it an atrocious tale?” Mother made a tsk-tsk sound, but whether it was because of the enormous pile of dog manure blocking her path or her feelings about the shocking Alasdair Penhallow, Fiona didn’t bother to ask. Her flicker of interest had already waned. And she had more important things to think about.
Nairna — is she expecting too??
Make plan: must get rid of Niall, Walraig, & Ross
STOP THINKING ABOUT LOGAN MUNRO
Throughout the feast, Fiona was irritated to find that her three would-be suitors had decided to all sit next to her, two on one side and one on the other, altogether giving her a disagreeable sense of claustrophobia. It quite took away one’s own appetite, which made her even more resentful.
Nonetheless, as the evening wore on, seemingly interminably, she not only managed to avoid the dancing, she also went here and there and got a great deal accomplished.
She found Aunt Bethia’s spectacles, which were, in fact, in the stillroom, although they had inexplicably been placed in the bowl of a large wooden mortar otherwise used for crushing herbs.
She dashed up to Rossalyn’s room, spoke with her maid, approved the packing of the trunks.
She neatly avoided speaking with Cousin Isobel, against whom she still bore a grudge after nine long years, for her role in the Logan Munro disaster —
But no. She wasn’t thinking about him.
She went on.
She learned that her sister Dallis, three years married and with a little one at home just taking his first wobbly steps, was looking forward to the birth of her second child in six months or so.
She enjoyed a fascinating and productive discussion with old Clyde Keddy about rupturing blisters and the various possibilities for treatment, although he confessed he was stumped about the bloody scours.
She drew Nairna aside, into a private alcove, and clasped her hands in her own. She looked down into her sister’s lovely heart-shaped face; it was thinner and paler than she remembered, although Nairna looked decidedly plumper in her midsection. “Are you quite well, my dearie?”
Nairna smiled radiantly. “I’ve never been happier! Oh, Fiona, it’s happened at last!”
“I’m so glad for you!” said Fiona, meaning it, and warmly hugged Nairna, already thinking, in the back of her mind, about sewing some adorable little garments for the baby in addition to the ones she’d already planned for Dallis’.
“Logan’s been so patient all these years,” Nairna said, blushing. “It’s not been for lack of trying. But three months ago, my courses ceased, and I’m already showing! And it’s all thanks to Tavia Craig!”
“Who is that, my dearie?”
“She’s a wisewoman, and so awfully kind! She cured Logan’s mother of the warts on her hands — they’ve been plaguing her for months — and knew exactly what to do to make his sister’s cough go away!”
“Yes, but —” Fiona hesitated. Wasn’t there a vast difference between warts and coughs, and difficulty in conceiving a baby? “What does Mother say?”
“Mother said she wished she’d consulted a wisewoman, for very likely she would have had boys instead of girls.”
Fiona refrained from commenting that Mother’s regret implied a desire to negate her daughters’ very existence, then immediately was ashamed of this sour thought, for she knew that Mother loved them all. “Well, it’s wonderful news to be sure, my dearie!” she said instead.
“Yes, and Tavia is certain it’s a boy! Logan is so excited!”
“So excited about what?” came a familiar voice, and at the sound of it Fiona felt as if her stomach dropped like a boulder to her toes. She took a breath, and tilted her head toward Logan Munro. She was considered very tall for a woman, but Logan was even taller. Once upon a time, she had loved that about him, loved gazing up into his deep, dark eyes.
“Excited about the baby, Logan!” said Nairna breathlessly, her pretty face lighting up as it always did when she saw him. “I’ve just been telling Fiona all about it — about him!”
“Yes,” Logan replied, smiling, “it’s wonderful news, my beautiful one.”
Nairna blushed all over again, then said, “Oh! I have another question for Dallis about the lying-in! Stay, darling, and talk to Fiona! Doesn’t she look lovely in that blue gown?”
“Indeed she does.” Logan watched as his wife hurried away.
With that crest of thick black hair and juttingly straight nose, his profile was magnificent. And how often, how very often, had he called her, Fiona, my beautiful one . . . Fiona tamped down a treacherous rush of sweet memories as Logan turned to her again. Behind them, along the stone corridor, tramped a raucous horde of guests, singing “At the Auld Trysting Tree” at the top of their lungs and banging — God in heaven, where had they gotten pots and pans? — on the walls. Yet Logan never took his eyes from her. It was another one of his attractions: he always made her feel as if she was the only one in any room, at any gathering . . .
Fiona almost felt as if she was melting in the delicious warmth of Logan’s proximity. The years seemed to suddenly dissolve between them — she was once again a romantic, dazzled eighteen-year-old, and she found herself leaning a little closer to him, her lips parting expectantly, her limbs all at once feeling wonderfully heavy. Then, with a kind of inner gasp, she thought in horror: You fool! Nairna! Your sister!
She drew herself up to her full height, said coolly, “My congratulations to you both,” and briskly walked past Logan Munro, away from him, ignoring the fact that in his expression, his half-smile, was a sympathetic sort of understanding, as if a little secret bond, unshakable, unbreakable, drew them together.
A night and a day later, the celebrations were finally over. Her sisters had left with their husbands. Nearly all the guests had gone, too, and the weary servants were hard at work cleaning up the keep — no small task given the broken dishes, the spilled food, the toppled bottles of spirits, the rushes in the common areas sodden and bad-smelling, and everywhere discarded items of clothing which made Fiona frown as she made her way up to the solarium where Mother spent much of her time. Here, at least, was order and cleanliness. Well, actually, to be honest there was more cleanliness than order, for Mother, as dear and delightful as she was, wasn’t known for her organizational abilities.
Still, as afternoon sunlight poured in through the long bank of narrow windows that had once served as arrow-loops, the solarium was a pleasant chamber, with the scattered piles of fabric, the great loom in the corner, Mother’s harp, old copies of La Belle Assemblée, shawls and ribbons and colorful spools of thread all combining in a scene of familiar and cheerful disarray.
“Hello,” said Fiona cautiously, standing at the threshold.
Mother looked up from the escritoire at which she sat and put aside her quill, her face brightening in welcome, then promptly clouding. “Oh, Fiona dear,” she said uneasily.
Fiona came in and threw herself into a chair by the fire, stretching out her long legs to warm her toes in their tall boots. “What’s done is done, Mother,” she replied, unable to keep a slight note of defiance from her voice.
“Yes, but to challenge Niall Birk and Walraig Tevis to an arm-wrestling match?” said Mother with plaintive dismay. “And then to beat them both!”
“I can’t brag about it, Mother, for they were both so drunk they could hardly sit up.”
“Brag about it? Oh my goodness, why would you? So unmaidenly! And then to dare Ross Stratton to compete with you in a footrace!”
“It wasn’t a fair match either. He was drunk and for some reason he had on someone else’s shoes, and they were far too small for him.”
Mother gave a little moan. “Oh, Fiona, this is dreadful!”
“Yes, but Mother, I had to get rid of them, don’t you see? Everyone mocked them so badly that they left before dawn, without trying to propose to me again. And now Father can’t pressure me into accepting them. Wasn’t it clever of me?”
“Well, yes, of course it was, darling, you’ve always been so terribly clever, but now . . . ” Mother looked nervously toward the doorway. She lowered her voice and went on: “But now your father is furious with you, and he’s completely taken away your dowry again.”
“I don’t care about the dowry, but —” Fiona felt a frisson of anxiety on Mother’s behalf. “—he’s not angry at you, is he?”
“Oh no, dear, it’s all you, I’m afraid. But without a dowry, and for who knows how long, what is going to happen to you? Who will want to marry you?”
Fiona knew that Mother didn’t mean to be hurtful. But still it did hurt, a little, in some obscure, unprotected area of her heart. “Why, I’ll go on living here forever,” she said lightly. “When Father isn’t angry at me, he finds me quite useful to have around. In fact, when he’s in a pleasant state of mind, or is a little inebriated, he’s often said I’m nearly as good as a son — such a way as I have with the crops and the animals.”
Mother brightened again. “That’s true. And you’re such a help in the keep! Speaking of which, Cousin Isobel would like to switch bedchambers. She’s worried her room is overlarge and requires too much wood to keep warm. I’ve tried to dissuade her — we’ve wood enough for an army! — but she insists! Please could you talk to Mrs. Abercrombie about it?”
“Cousin Isobel is still here? Ugh. Why?”
“Yes, dear, she’s come for a nice long visit. You ought not to scowl so. You’ll get wrinkles before your time, and that won’t help matters! I invited her to stay on because she’s suffered some financial reverses. She’s had to give up her house in Edinburgh, you know, the poor thing. Where are you going?” Mother added, as her firstborn stood and shook out her skirts.
“Riding.” Fiona glanced down at Mother’s cluttered escritoire. “Your quill needs mending. Would you like me to do that?”
“No, thank you, darling, I’ve quite finished my letters. Six thank-you notes, and I even managed to write to Henrietta Penhallow — I’ve owed her a letter for these many ages.”
Penhallow. That name again. How odd. “Who is she, Mother?”
“A distant connection in England, whom I met in London many years ago.”
“Oh,” said Fiona, losing interest. Not only did she want to avoid Cousin Isobel, she’d prefer to get out of the keep without encountering Father if possible, while his temper was running high. “Well, I’m off to see Osla Tod, and bring her a tincture for her toothache. You know she lives beyond the bogs, so don’t expect me for dinner.”
“Oh dear, must you stay out past sunset? You’ll take a groom, won’t you?”
“No.” Fiona spoke without rancor. Mother knew she’d left off having a groom accompany her on her rides for many years now, but still she faithfully asked, in the same sweet and hopeful way. Fiona dropped a kiss on Mother’s smooth white forehead and quickly left the solarium, her boot-heels clicking sharply on the cold flagstone flooring. She spoke with the housekeeper Mrs. Abercrombie about accommodating Cousin Isobel’s request, and it was with relief that some half an hour later she was on her stallion Gealag and riding fast — away from the keep, away from Father, away from them all. Sleep had not come to her last night and now she was fatigued to her very bones, but at least she could, for these few snatched hours, be free.
She loved the feel of the cool afternoon air ruffling her hair and her skirts, loved the vibrant green of summer all around her and the great blue sky above. Loved gripping the leather reins in her bare hands and how willingly her big white horse carried her along. It was almost like flying. Her tired mind calmed, quieted; slowly, slowly, almost without realizing it, she drifted into a pleasant daydream.
Herself. In a lovely blue gown. Dancing, swirling circles on a polished wood floor, her lacy hem fluttering around her ankles. Held in strong arms. Her heart beating hard. Looking up. Looking up into dark eyes, alight with passion . . .
Fiona snapped out of it. Gripped Gealag’s reins more tightly. And fiercely summoned a new image into her mind.
A small piece of paper.
Rheumatism — Mrs. Ambercrombie — chamomile? Cat’s claw?
Order new parcel of books
Sheep & rupturing blisters — research. Cause, treatment?
Visit northern cow pasture tomorrow
Gift for Mother’s birthday?
Start sewing baby things
Gealag — to be shoed next week
NEW RUSHES brought in tomorrow WITHOUT FAIL
And so it went. Today she would visit old Osla Tod. Tomorrow she would cross off as many items as she could from her list. The next day, she would do the same. And the day after that as well. There was, after all, a kind of comfort in knowing what the weeks and months ahead would bring.
But Fiona was wrong.
Five days later, the letter came — the letter that would change everything.