I could barely see the house for the horizontal rain blasting across my windscreen. What I could make out was dark and bleak and about as welcoming as a leaky roof, but since I was already late for my initial appointment—thanks to appalling single-track roads and foul driving conditions—I took the next turning and bumped my poor old car up the muddy track towards Invershiel House.
I thought this might once have been a gracious driveway, for in front of the big, turreted house itself, it widened into a large, tarmac area with two four by fours parked near the imposing front door. I parked my poor little car next to the others, grabbed my bag, and made a dash for the entrance. I bolted up the steps to the wide porch, which was flanked by two stone columns, and rang the bell.
While I waited, I turned and gazed through the rain at the lowering Highland hills, their summits lost in mist and cloud. Even in this foul weather, the scene held a strange, grand beauty that caught at my breath with sheer awe. I felt very small and insignificant.
Footsteps scuttled towards me from inside the house. The door opened to reveal a fifty-ish woman in an old-fashioned apron.
“Mrs. Stewart?” I asked, hopefully.
The woman looked startled and broke into laughter. “Bless you, no, wouldn’t that be something? I’m just the cleaner, though they’re kind enough to call me housekeeper. Can I help you?”
I liked her soft, lilting speech, very different from the harsher accents of Southern Scotland. But I couldn’t let myself be sidetracked here. “I’m Kate Yorke,” I said hastily. “I had an appointment with Mr. Stewart, though I’m afraid I’m a bit late.”
“I wouldn’t worry about that. He isn’t here anyway.” She opened the door wider. “It’s probably Ellie you need to see.”
I murmured thanks, although since I’d been looking forward not only to getting out of the rain, but to having my first glimpse of the letters I’d come all this way to read, my heart sank a little at the mix-up.
“Ellie!” the housekeeper called as I followed her inside a wide wood-panelled hall. “There’s a young lady to see Dan!”
A door slammed overhead, and someone ran down the polished wood staircase. The housekeeper stood aside to reveal a dark-haired young woman in black jeans and top with matching black earrings and eye makeup. She carried it well. Having a fabulous figure helped as, I suspected, did the cut of the clothes which had designer labels well outside my price range.
“Yes?” she said to me with a hint of impatience, while the housekeeper rushed off into the bowels of the house. Her gaze flickered over my flung together look with more surprise than contempt. “Danny isn’t here.”
“My name’s Kate Yorke,” I repeated. “I had an appointment with Mr. Stewart to study some eighteenth century letters.”
“Really?” A frown of annoyance tugged down her brow. “He never put it in the system. Did you phone?”
“I wrote.” I delved into my all purpose backpack containing books, papers, laptop, notebook, and phone. “He wrote back. Sort of.”
I produced the well-folded piece of paper and showed her the note scrawled across the bottom of the letter I’d sent him. Sure. See you then, followed by an illegible scrawl that I’d assumed said Daniel Stewart. Though it could as easily have said, Dr. Frankenstein or Ha-ha, fooled you! Suddenly, I was afraid that what I’d built such hopes on was only a joke.
The woman, Ellie, gave a lopsided half-smile. “Yeah, that’s Danny…” Her eyes scanned the rest of the paper, presumably to see what I’d wanted in the first place, and she glanced up sharply. “Cambridge University,” she observed. From her accent, she wasn’t a Highlander. She spoke like a Scot who’d travelled and adjusted her speech for easy communication with non-Scots. There might have been a hint of Glasgow there. Accents were a hobby of mine; they fascinated me.
“Yes, Cambridge,” I said, “I’m researching a book.”
“On…women in the Jacobite rebellions. How will these old letters help you?”
“I won’t know until I read them, but as I understand it, they’re the correspondence of Margaret, Lady Stewart of Invershiel, exchanged with various friends and family members in the 1740s. Her husband was a Jacobite, her brother a government supporter. She had friends on both sides, and I’m hoping these letters will shed fresh light on the thoughts and actions of women involved in the upheaval. Umm…are you Mrs. Stewart?”
Oddly, I got much the same response as I had from the housekeeper. “God, no. I’m supposed to be his PA. Ellie Mackie,” she added, handing me back the letter.
“Ah,” I said. I gave her my best hopeful smile. “Then since Mr. Stewart has already given his permission…I don’t suppose you could show me the letters? Or…when will he be back?”
She regarded me. “How long would you need?”
“I’ve allowed two days, but I might need to ask for longer.”
“I don’t think Danny mentioned the charge.”
My heart sank. “No,” I agreed. My research funds were shrinking rapidly.
“Cheer up,” Ellie said. “It’s minimal. Just trying to run a business here, and the house is a money pit. Where are you staying?”
“Hopefully at the B&B in the village, though I haven’t booked. If there’s a problem, I can easily drive through to the hotel at—”
“You can stay here if you like. Thirty pounds a night, including breakfast.”
I blinked. “That’s very reasonable.”
“Plus it beats driving in that rain. It’s meant to get worse. Gale force winds. Thunder.” She turned and walked towards the stairs. “Come on, I’ll show you the letters first, then you can decide if they’re going to be any use to you.”
Slightly dazed, I followed her across the hall and up the fine, wooden staircase. The house had an odd, gloomy beauty, dark, bare, and yet built on gracious lines. I didn’t have much time to gain more than an impression, for Ellie was asking me more questions as we climbed.
“How did you hear about the letters, anyhow?”
“A visiting colleague from Glasgow University,” I replied. “Professor Ewan? She knew the previous owner, Sir Thomas Stewart. When she discovered my interest in the subject, she told me about the letters, said I should get in touch with the new owner.”
“Has she read them, then?” Ellie asked.
“No, she just knew they were here. They’re not her area of interest, but she’s sure they’re a wonderful, untapped resource.” I bit my tongue on the rest. I didn’t want the price to go up.
An hour later, I didn’t care what the price was. In the wood-panelled room Ellie called the study—although it looked more like a library—I sat at one large table with my coffee cup on a smaller one next to it, dividing a huge pile of thick, closely written correspondence into piles. As well as Margaret Stewarts’s letters from her husband and a huge circle of friends and extended family, there were other epistles that she had written to her husband, and to a number of other people who had apparently returned them to Lady Stewart’s son as a kindness after her death. A few were short and to the point, but most were long, open, and discursive. I’d struck gold.
I couldn’t believe these letters had never come under academic scrutiny before and the thrill, as well as the responsibility of being the first, was overwhelming. I was enchanted. Even from briefly skimming a few to work out which pile they should occupy, I was desperate to delve into the long dead Lady Stewart’s world.
When a knock sounded on the door, I actually jumped. The housekeeper bustled in with some sandwiches on a plate.
“I thought you could use these, dear. You’ll not be wanting to go out in this if you can help it! There’s coffee and tea in the kitchen—just help yourself when you want more. That’s me finished for the day.”
“Thanks,” I said gratefully.
“Did Ellie show you your room?”
The housekeeper pursed her lips. “I’ll show you now if you like. Just bring your stuff in whenever.”
Reluctantly, I left the letters and followed the housekeeper, for it had suddenly struck me that if she didn’t live in, perhaps Ellie didn’t either. In fact, Ellie could already have left.
I said nervously, “Am I going to be alone in this great big house?”
“Possibly,” the housekeeper said with caution. “Do you mind?”
I thought about it. “No,” I said in surprise. “Actually, I’d enjoy the peace.”
“Well, there’s no crime around here, and whatever anyone tells you, the house is not haunted.”
I smiled, walking beside her along the wide hallway which, like the study, was panelled to head height in beautiful dark wood. “Who says it is haunted?” I asked, as we veered around a corner.
“Children, mostly. What child doesn’t want a haunted house in their neighbourhood?”
“Of course. Who haunts this one?”
“Your Lady Stewart, according to some. According to others, it’s her husband, Sir Donald Stewart of Invershiel. Or even the ghost of Dan’s girlfriend.”
“Can’t they tell?”
“Apparently not.” We walked up two steps, and the housekeeper indicated the open door on my right.
It was a large, spacious room with a king-size bed, complete with antique carved wood headboard. It smelled fresh and clean, and pleasant warmth issued from a radiator by the door.
“This is lovely.” I walked across to the window. It was beginning to get dark, and the trees bending back in the gusting wind looked eerie in the fading light. Beyond them, rose rugged brown and rust-red hills, with the glinting silver of a river flowing between. It was one of those views that hurt your heart. “Fantastic…”
“It is. But you might still want to close the curtains. The windows don’t fit as well as they might! I’ll be back up in the morning to make your breakfast.”
“Leave the front door on the latch if you go out, although why you would, I don’t know! Or if you prefer, there’s a key on the table outside Ellie’s office on the ground floor. All the other outside doors are locked. All right, good night, dear.”
“Good night. Oh, Mrs—” I broke off, realizing I didn’t actually know her name.
“Anna. Just Anna will do.”
I smiled through my unease. “Anna. It just struck me… Mr. Stewart will be all right about me staying here?”
“Oh, aye,” she said comfortably. “I doubt he’d notice, even if he was here to object! Lives in his own world, does Dan, and a bit of a recluse into the bargain. Don’t worry about him.”
“Is he interested in his ancestors?” I asked. “I mean, do you think he’d be willing to donate, or sell, these letters to the university?”
Anna blinked. “Well, he can’t be that attached to a pile of letters. They just came with the house and contents when he bought them. They might have his name, but they’re not actually his ancestors.”
I frowned. “Really? I thought he just didn’t use his title!”
Anna laughed. “Bless, you, no, he’s never had one! Or at least not like “Sir”. Do you not know who he is?”
I shrugged. I couldn’t help being disappointed that he wasn’t Sir Thomas Stewart’s heir, the descendant of my eighteenth century Sir Donald and Lady Stewart. Instead, he was, presumably, some rich businessman who wanted to play at being a laird.
“Hedge fund manager,” I guessed, ill-naturedly.
Anna laughed with genuine amusement. “Hardly! Dan Stewart?” she said patiently. “Of Bad Mouth? Even I’ve heard of them, and I don’t get out much.”
I flushed slightly, since she obviously understood I didn’t get out much either.
On the other hand, I had most certainly heard of Bad Mouth, the notorious Scottish band who’d rocked and shocked the world for more than seven years before retiring. Or at least, those left alive had retired in a mire of orgies, drug charges, and rehab. According to the stories. Three of them were dead now, one in a road accident, and two from drug or drink abuse so far as I could recall.
“That Dan Stewart,” I said faintly. “I’d no idea. Professor Ewan never mentioned more than his name.” Which probably meant nothing to Professor Ewan anyway. She was your actual personification of unworldly academic.
“Aye, well don’t fash over it,” Anna said kindly. “He’s a wee bit abrupt and unpredictable, but he’s not the devil everyone says he is. Even when he’s here! Nighty night.”
I let her go, wondering exactly how one fashed. Or didn’t. But it probably happened a lot around Dan Stewart and Bad Mouth. I could Google it, I supposed. At least I’d got the Wi-Fi password from Ellie before she’d vanished.
Going downstairs, I braved the elements to get the rest of the stuff out of my car. After I’d dumped it in my bedroom, I went back down to the huge, modernized kitchen and made myself some more coffee to have with Anna’s sandwiches. Then I got down to some serious work.
However, I’d been driving all day, and enthusiasm could only fight so far against exhaustion. I stared at the black, vibrating window. Rain hurled itself upon it at quick, if irregular, intervals as the wind gusted. I had a choice. I could go to bed, sleep, and wake bright and early to get started again. Or I could brave the storm, go for a brisk walk in the rain, and let the weather blast my cobwebs to kingdom come, and then come back and do another couple of hours as I’d originally intended.
Hell, since there was no one here, I could even sneak some letters into my bedroom to read there…
Decisively, I went to the bedroom, changed my driving shoes for wellington boots—I’d been warned about the rain up here—and put my raincoat on, fastening it up to the neck and drawing the strings tight around the hood. Suitably protected, I sallied forth.
In the downstairs hall, I found the big, old-fashioned key on the table where Anna had said. Since it wasn’t my house, and I was a city girl besides, I hesitated a moment over whether or not to take the key and lock and the door behind me.
While I dithered, my eye was caught by a photograph on the office wall, just inside the half-open door.
It showed a woman, laughing, a fiddle in one hand, a bow in the other. She was a beautiful red-head, dressed all in provocative black leather, save for a flash of white lace at her throat, and a large, spherical pendant which seemed to reflect and emphasise the gorgeous shades of her hair.
I peered closer. Islay Lamont, Bad Mouth’s glamorous singer and violinist. Even in a photograph and without obvious make-up she shone, reminding me again of her vivid stage presence. What a tragedy that she’d died so young, and in such a way. And here at Invershiel House.
I walked away without the key, leaving the front door on the latch as Anna had advised.
I knew almost at once that I wouldn’t go far. The gale seemed likely to blast more than cobwebs—I was sure I could feel layers of skin peeling off and vanishing into the rushing wind—and the sky was filthy. I walked around the house and towards the wooded hill behind it. The wind whipped my breath away; powerful gusts slowed me down or even stopped me in my tracks.
When the first flash of lightning cut across the sky, I decided enough was enough and turned back to the house. Against the stormy background, it was a magnificent, doom-laden edifice, seemingly as old as the hills that surrounded it—although, of course, it wasn’t. Even Margret Stewart wouldn’t have recognized her home in the largely Victorian building it was now, but remnants of the castle as it had been in the eighteenth century were still in there somewhere, as were the remains of a much older medieval hall. I hoped I’d have time to look around properly once I’d finished with the letters…if I ever finished them. I wondered if I could persuade Dan Stewart, via Ellie, perhaps, to let me take them back to Cambridge with me.
Head down, I ploughed on against the driving wind and battering rain, only glancing up occasionally to make sure I was still trudging in the right direction. At the back of the house, only the study lights on the first floor were on. I felt a warm glow, knowing the treasure that awaited me there. I’d just glanced away again when fresh lightning flashed across the sky. Instinct dragged my head up in time to see the face at the study window—wild, staring eyes, hollow cheeks, ferocious in the unforgiving double-flash of lightning.
It was only an instant, and yet behind the ferocity, I imagined torment, a soul-crushing grief. Something I couldn’t possibly have seen over such a distance, let alone in such impossible conditions. Imagination…
Thunder crashed around my ears, much closer than the first time, jerking my brain back into gear. I’d left the door on the latch and the letters unprotected, and now someone was in the same room as them, threatening them. Guilt and anger propelled me far faster than I’d started out. My heart hammering, I closed my fingers around the pepper spray in my pocket and charged around towards the front door.
I all but threw myself through it, slamming it behind me, and ran for the stairs. At the top, dripping wet and panting for breath, I dragged the pepper stray from my pocket and charged through the open study door.
A large, untidy man with black hair and stubble around his lean jaw sat on the corner of my table, my notebook in one hand and one of the precious letters in the other. He looked up as I fell in the door, his grey eyes reflective, almost silver, and a lot steadier than mine. I could hardly breathe, although I brandished my pepper spray in as threatening a manner as I could manage.
The big man nodded at it. “Want chips with that?” he asked.