New Year’s Eve (Hogmanay) in the depths of the Scottish Highlands…
In their haunted mansion, the eccentric and troubled Maxwell family brings in the New Year with a big party. Unknown to them, they have uninvited guests – a perilously incompetent set of Glasgow criminals.
Feisty single mother Ariadne McSween is not having a good New Year. She has her own reasons for helping her shady brother and his even less savoury accomplices commit burglary. But nothing is going right.
By a series of accidents, Addie comes face to face with the house’s dark and dangerous owner – concert pianist and accused murderer, John Maxwell, who just happens to be gorgeous.
Then, Addie’s violent and erratic accomplice, Shug, takes their hosts hostage. Now, how is Addie meant to get everyone out of there before Shug kills someone? Or before she falls utterly in love with the chief victim of her crime…who has his own ways of fighting back, some of which involve some very bizarre ghosts.
(Formerly published as Ariadne’s Thread)
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The burglar hanging out of the first floor window stared down at her in disbelief. Wearing black from neck to toe in the finest tradition of his profession, he stood out through the falling snow like a negative beacon in the white night.
“Addie?” he hissed furiously—for he was her brother. “What the fuck are you doing here? Where’s Malky?”
“Fixing the car. How do I get up there?”
“I thought you needed another lookout?”
Jim ran an anxious hand through his hair. “Oh, shite. Here.” He ducked down for an instant and a knotted rope began to snake down the wall.
It wasn’t difficult to climb, especially since Jim pulled it in to speed things up. Slithering through the window, she had an upside down glimpse of the house—a big Victorian folly of a place, all towers and turrets and fake battlements. It looked rather beautiful amidst the falling snow, like a fairytale castle, and then she was inside, blessedly sheltered from the icy wind.
There was a distant hum of voices, interspersed with the familiar delicate clink of touching glasses and the occasional louder burst of laughter. Addie stood, listening, ignoring Jim who shone the battery torch directly in her face. She could hear music now, too, traditional accordion stuff. A breeze ruffled her hair. Just for a second, she imagined it came from inside the house rather than through the open window and she shivered.
Jim said, “Shug’s going to go ape shit. He didn’t want you here in the first place.”
Addie shook herself and pushed the torch away. “Well if he thinks I can fix the car better than Malky, he’s an arse. Malky’s got an NVQ is car mechanics. Or something. Don’t you have a safe to crack? What do I do?”
“Watch out the window,” Jim said grimly, already moving away across the room. His dancing torch beam wavered over a faded carpet, a corner of a grand piano and a wood-paneled wall. “It’s our way out, so we need to know it’s safe. Divide your time between that and the hall—come here.”
Obediently, Addie followed him across the room. He shone the torch for her in case she blundered into anything. She saw the wooden floor surrounding the faded carpet, and the polished castors on the grand piano. Jim put his ear to the paneled door, then opened it a crack to peer out with one eye. Addie felt hysterical laughter rise up in her throat.
Well, it was certainly a different way to spend New Year…
Apparently satisfied, Jim opened the door further and looked to right and left, beckoning Addie with one hand. Addie slipped out after him into a long, semi-lit hallway. Jim pointed to a closed door diagonally opposite them.
“That’s the office, where the safe is,” he whispered.
“So what am I supposed to do?” she whispered back.
“Look out for us!”
“From here? Jimmy, by the time I’d warned you someone was coming, they’d already be past—or watching you stealing.”
Jim looked harassed. “Aye, right enough,” he allowed. “Well, maybe Malky was meant to thump whoever came near.”
“Shug is an arse,” Addie observed.
“Shut up,” Jim warned, shoving her back into the room with the piano. “Just look out, all right?”
“Jim, I’ll phone if there’s a problem, OK?”
He looked so relieved at that—they already had instructions to communicate in this way, with their phones set only on vibrate—that Addie wondered yet again how they were not all in jail already. She had spent enough time with them driving up here from Glasgow to work out that her brother’s criminal associates were not the sharpest tools in the shed. In fact had she known beforehand that Shug Campbell (whom she remembered only too well from school) was involved, she would never have agreed to do this. But, the money was good and, as Jim had pointed out, she needed it more than whoever lived in this bloody great house in the Highlands.
Closing the door silently, Addie walked across to the open window. The snow continued its graceful, silent fall, piling up a soft, white carpet on the ground below. Addie had serious doubts about driving in the hills in this weather. In fact the whole plan was bloody stupid. Turn up here on Hogmanay while the owners were having a New Year party and rob them under cover of general jollity. And if they encountered anyone, they just said “Happy New Year!” and no one would suspect a thing. Apparently.
Oh, yes, Shug was an arse.
Addie closed the window as quietly as she could, though it still screeched painfully, and turned back to the room. For a moment, she just gazed at the shadowy piano, till the distant merriment of the house receded and she could imagine only too well the glorious music…
Inevitably, it drew her—although since Jim had taken the torch, she had to feel her way toward it with outstretched hands and feet, avoiding possible obstacles like a blind woman.
Once there, she discovered a lamp. She hesitated only briefly. The door was closed. No one would see so dim a light from the hall.
She clicked it on, and the piano was bathed in light.
It was a beautiful thing, overwhelmingly so. Polished dark wood, gorgeous curves, intricately carved ornamentation on the lectern… Addie slid onto the stool—old and comfy.
Something made her shiver again, a cold fluttering from the base of her spine to her neck. She twisted quickly to check she was alone. For a fraction of an instant, she imagined a shadow disappearing from her view, but when she turned her head further, there was nothing. Of course.
Feeling slightly foolish—she prided herself on being down to earth, the sensible one of her ridiculous family—she returned to the piano, lifting the heavy, shiny lid to reveal the ebony and ivory keys beneath. The maker’s name, Bechstein, stood out in gold lettering, causing her eyes to widen further. Never in her life had she been this close to such a wonderful instrument.
Greatly daring, she touched her fingertips to the keys. Love at first touch, she thought wryly, before she’d even heard it sound a note. Tenderly, she glided her fingertips along the keys. Sparks of excitement flowed up her wrists. Desire to play twisted through her, all the more forceful for the years of abstinence.
Delicately, so gently she wasn’t even sure it would sound, she depressed the middle C with her thumb. It was soft, barely startling her at all, yet clear as a bell, full-toned and gorgeous, in perfect tune…
Addie risked another note, then another. She brought up her left hand, watching her fingers settle over the keys as if they owned them. She gave one uneasy glance toward the window, cocked her head for any untoward sound, then looked back at the keys. Very softly, she began to play Beethoven’s “Für Elise”. It had been her party piece as a kid, on the bashed up old piano in the church hall. There was no comparison. On this instrument, you could make music… For an instant, Addie had a glimpse of another world, beyond the music she had learned and loved, of a talent and knowledge nurtured way beyond the level of her own. Abandoning Beethoven, she began the most difficult piece she had ever played, Christopher Maxwell’s “Sonata in F”.
It was a beautiful, evocative piece that made her think of bubbling streams and high mountains, the sort of wild nature you didn’t get in the city. It had brought her peace in the past, along with fresh excitement in life, and powerful, reasonless happiness. In this particular situation, she hardly lost herself in the music. She was in the house of people she was helping to rob. She had to play extremely quietly while listening for sounds of approach. Her nerves jangled, and she had to ignore the creepy, guilty feeling of being observed that had freaked her when she first sat down. Besides which, she’d forgotten some of it and had to improvise.
With a frustrated gasp, she dragged her hands upwards off the keys as if they’d been burned. Enough of this, Ariadne!
Twirling round on the stool, she leapt to her feet—and faced the man standing in the open doorway.
“Fuck!” she uttered before she could prevent it.
It wasn’t Jim, or even Shug. Dimly lit from behind as well as from the piano lamp, she had only the impression of a large man in a kilt, arms folded as he leaned against the doorframe to watch her.
“Before we’ve been introduced?” he enquired.
His voice was Scottish, but only just. The sort that would be considered English where she came from. Worse, it was deep and low, with a devastating timbre that vibrated right to the bits you didn’t want to think about while trespassing with criminal intent.
To her alarm, he pushed himself off the wooden frame and came toward her. His kilt swung round good, strong legs—stop looking at his legs!—as he walked, leisurely and graceful as a big cat. He was tall, rumpled as you’d expect of any self-respecting New Year reveler, tieless, his kilt and unbuttoned jacket crushed, shirt open askew at the throat, his dark, curly hair falling in wild disorder across his forehead. Black eyebrows stretched upwards in straight, dramatic lines from the bridge of his nose—devil’s eyebrows—and beneath them, intense, unquiet brown eyes regarded her without blinking. Shadows lurked beguilingly below finely sculpted cheekbones. His nose was slightly hooked, adding a predatory air to already Byronic good looks.
He didn’t look happy.
It was only willpower that prevented her climbing backwards across the stool to get away from him.
Releasing her gaze, his dropped to the region of her lips, flickered lower across her body and back up to her face. Surely that wasn’t a lustful gleam in his eyes now? Trick of the light… In fact, he looked thoroughly pissed off.
“Or have we?” he asked sardonically
Addie found her voice at last. “Have we what?” she demanded with more aggression than she’d intended.
Christ, I hope not! Yet something suddenly seemed familiar about him… Surely to God they hadn’t met before? He was not the sort of man you generally met on a thirty-seven bus.
“No,” she said baldly, as if the force of her single word could make it true.
“What’s your name?”
At this point, in real life, she would have said “Fuck off.” But she was standing in someone else’s house, supposedly watching out for her brother and his mates who were robbing it. Whoever this arrogant git was, and however annoying his presence, there was really no high ground from which to look down on him.
“Kate,” she blurted, and could have kicked herself. Determined not to give her own, she had said the first name to come into her head. Her daughter’s.
For some reason, it seemed to mean something to him. His annoyance appeared to soften to merely resigned irritation. “You’re a friend of Tammy’s?”
“Aye,” said Addie, clutching at the lifeline. “Yes.”
“Well, Kate, let me show you where the party is. For future reference it is not in my study.”
Oh, Jesus Christ, he’s the owner. He just had to be the bloody owner. She dragged her gaze free.
“Sorry,” she mumbled, brushing past him toward the door. At least she tried to brush, but since he made no effort to get out of her way, it was more of a bump. He felt solid, immovable.
Yet by the time she got to the door, he was there beside her, his hand on the knob, ironically bowing her through.
He said bad-naturedly, “It seems I should have locked it to make the position clear.”
He closed the door almost on her back and reached into his jacket pocket. Which was when she realized that he intended to rectify his oversight.
Addie grabbed at his wrist. “All right, don’t rub it in. I get the message. I will not go near your piano again, ever.”
For a moment, his hand resisted her tug without effort. Then a faint glint of amusement crept into his stormy brown eyes and he allowed his hand to be drawn out of the pocket. Keyless.
It was a nice hand. Large, long-fingered, strong. Veins and sinews stood out in an intricate, fascinating pattern. Unbidden, she wondered how it would feel to be touched by such a hand. Intimately. On her breast, those fingers closing tenderly around her nipple, rubbing…
Her breath caught. Talk about untimely fantasies! Afraid to drop his hand in case it reached once more for the key, she floundered for a way to get him out of this corridor.
“Show that you forgive me,” she blurted, tugging him in the direction of the stairs. He allowed himself to be drawn. “Want to dance?”
“Hey, don’t beat about the bush,” she babbled. “I can take rejection.”
The noise of the party below grew louder as they reached the top of the staircase. A woman in a long, black evening dress rushed past her line of vision, reminding her forcefully that this was really not her kind of party. She would get him downstairs, lose him, then sneak back up and get Shug and Jimmy out of there. They should have cleaned out the whole damned safe by now.
Deliberately, she let her fingers trail down his hand to his fingertips before she released him. At the same time, she glanced up at him and smiled in blatant invitation. That should at least get him down the stairs.
For a second he looked startled. Something else heated his troubled eyes, a maelstrom she had neither the ability nor the time to interpret. It did cross her mind to wonder if she’d just bitten off more than she could chew, but then he snapped, “I don’t dance. Nor do I flirt with my little sister’s friends.”
That did it.
She let a lifetime of scorn seep into her face. “Why’s that? Too much man for the silly wee lassies to handle? You’re obviously doing them—and me—a big favour there. But for what it’s worth, I wouldn’t take an arsehole like you in a lucky bag.”
It came from the heart, and also got her past him with an excuse to storm away at the foot of the stairs. Behind her, she thought she heard a breath of laughter.
A moment later, he swung round in front of her, bringing her storming to an abrupt halt, his hands on the handsome wooden banister on either side of her body, imprisoning her. A rueful, dangerously charming smile lurked in his eyes, twisted his full, sensual lips.
“Was I being a pompous wanker? Sorry. I forget neither my sister nor her friends are sixteen anymore. For the rest, I’ve always been a rude bastard, even to my guests. I won’t dance with you because I’d walk all over your feet. Besides, you don’t seem the Jimmy Shand type. But I can find you the best booze in the house.”
It was a devastating charm offensive, all the more effective for being so unexpected. Women must have fallen over themselves for half that much attention from him. Fortunately, Addie was made of sterner stuff—and a much less pure motive. She could ignore the butterflies in her stomach, the sudden heat in her body generated by the proximity of his. She could curl her lip and say with all the contempt of Glasgow’s inverted snobbery: “From the family cellar, no doubt.”
“Maybe, but not this family’s. I swipe the best as my first footers bring it in. What would you like?”
She would in fact have liked a large whisky to help her deal with this ridiculous situation. Instead, she said awkwardly, “Look, I was only kidding you on. I’m a bit underdressed for a party like this…”
“Over-dressed,” her host corrected with a flickering smile. For an instant, his long fingers brushed the sleeve of her thick black sweater. Through the wool, her skin felt burned. “Doesn’t this come off?”
Whoa! Now who’s flirting?
She had a brief, overwhelming vision of him taking her sweater off, running his strong, sensitive hands upwards over her breasts…which were covered only by that new camisole she’d bought for Christmas. It had cost all the money she’d been given, plus some more. A stupid expense for something no one would ever see…and yet when she’d bought it, it had crossed her mind that it would pass as an evening top in the unlikely event she’d ever need one. It was embroidered silk, gorgeously red and clingy, and the most luxurious garment she’d ever owned. Just why she’d worn it tonight on her most reprehensible expedition to date was one for the psychiatrists.
Well, she had little choice but to go along with this to facilitate her escape. And if it lit up the eyes of this rich and intriguing bastard, well that was a bonus for her ego—and more fodder for those shrinks.
Holding his challenging gaze, she took hold of the bottom edges of the sweater and pulled it over her head in one movement. She shook out her untidy, uneven chestnut hair and glared defiantly back up into his dark eyes.
They didn’t light up. They darkened alarmingly, save for tiny flecks of gold that seemed to dance at the edges. His hands, still on the banister, moved inward. He took a step nearer so that his kilt brushed against her denim-clad legs, his sporran against her abdomen.
“There you are, Johnny!” exclaimed a woman’s voice from the foot of the stairs. “The ceilidh band are drunk and trying to confiscate your mother’s record collection.”
“Good luck to them,” murmured her host. Over his shoulder Addie glimpsed a beautiful young woman in a dark blue dress with a stylish tartan sash. His wife? Girlfriend? Please not his sister Tammy!
Whoever she was, he seemed in no hurry. He didn’t even glance at the newcomer. He said, “What did you say you’d drink?”
Really, you could drown in those eyes. And those lips must taste like…
“Whisky,” she said shakily. “Please.”
The corners of his mouth tugged upward. “Good choice, as it happens. Don’t go away. I want to know more about you.”
“Like what?” she demanded. Like where she went to school? Or what she was doing in his house?
He straightened, removing his enclosing arms, and stepped back. “Like where you learned to play the piano.”
His hand twitched the sweater from her lifeless fingers and slung it over the banister. A moment longer, he held her bemused gaze, then his lips quirked upwards. He took the final few stairs in one bound, allowing a tantalizing glimpse of his lower thigh. “Have you met Liz, by the way? She’s a journalist, so watch what you say. Liz—Kate.”
Feeling more than slightly dazed—and ridiculously happy because he’d almost implied a compliment about her piano playing—Addie blinked after his disappearing back. Reluctantly, she walked down the steps towards the journalist, who appeared to be waiting for her.
“Charming, isn’t he?” the other woman said mildly. “The trouble is, he knows it. I’m Liz Conway, by the way, and I’m a music journalist, not a scandal sheet reporter. Just so you know I’m not looking for gossip here.”
“’Course not,” said Addie. Though if you asked her, the woman looked far too…interested.
“So which side of the fence are you on? You don’t believe he killed his wife, or you don’t care if he did?”
Addie blinked. “Which scandal sheet are you not working for again?”
The woman’s mouth twitched with surprise. Then, recovering quickly, she laughed, a bright, tinkly sound that grated on Addie’s nerves. “Sorry, I’m more of a family friend than a mere journalist. I’m afraid I was testing you. Poor Johnny has had a lot to put up with recently. How do you know him?”
“I don’t,” said Addie. “Excuse me, where’s the nearest toilet?”
Liz waved her elegant hand across the hall. Damn—not upstairs as Addie had hoped. Never mind, she could still hide in the downstairs cludgie until the coast was clear enough to find Jimmy and get out of here.