Every morning and afternoon, Margaret Dalrousie walked the grounds of Glengarrow, daring the ghosts to accost her.
Over the last few months, it had become a game of sorts. She was determined to persevere despite her feeling the house disliked her. Or perhaps anyone disturbing Glengarrow’s eerie serenity would have felt the same.
This morning, dead leaves in shades of persimmon and ochre clustered in bunches in front of the gates. A gust of wind suddenly tossed the leaves into the air, and as they tumbled across the brittle grass, they made a sound like slippered feet on a wooden floor.
No one had danced at Glengarrow for years.
Between the front parlor windows was a space where the yellow silk curtains didn’t meet, revealing furniture draped in pale linen shrouds. Janet kept the dust in abeyance and her husband, Tom, armed himself with the task of ensuring that all was well in the Earl of Linnet’s ancestral home. To that end, he did as much as he could with no funds. The roof leak was patched; the rotting windowsill in a third floor maid’s room was removed and replaced. Six months ago, a squirrel had ventured into the south wing and created a nest in the fireplace; a generation of birds had raised their young in the ornate carved cornice above the blue velvet curtains of the ballroom.
At least – as Tom said – the birds and squirrels brought life and sound to the house, banishing the eternal silence.
The villagers said Glengarrow was haunted, that it had been for years, ever since the Earl of Linnet left for a trip to the Continent with his family. But if ghosts lived there, they roused only to guard the sprawling old house. They showed themselves to mortals with a flick of a curtain, a glimpse of moonlight reflected in a window, or a soughing sound as the wind careened through the trees.
If she believed in such things.
The house was deceptively small from the front. Two long wings stretched to the back from either side, and in the rear of the house was a large courtyard, its ornamental urns now draped in burlap, the yews and rosebushes likewise protected against winter.
Margaret slid her gloved hands into the slits of her cape and stared up at the
front of the house through the rusted iron fence. Window frames of faded white contrasted vividly against brick the color of dried blood. Broad gray steps led to a wide front door badly in need of painting. No doubt the pitted brass fixtures had once gleamed brightly.
Glengarrow seemed to know it wasn’t at its best and consequently, wasn’t the least welcoming. Four rows of windows reflected a pewter-colored sky and a long, straight lane framed by gray, skeletal trees. The old house was perched on the top of a rise, its back to an outcropping of Ben Mosub. Almost a stubborn house. Or Scot. Glengarrow was definitely Scot.
The wind pushed against her, and she wrapped her cape tighter. Despite the fact the bare branches of the trees were coated with ice, and snow was hinted at in the gray sky, the weather was still temperate compared to what she’d experienced in the last three years.
She shook her head. Now was not the time to think of Russia. Instead, she began to walk once more, taking the path to the gates of Glengarrow as she did every morning and every evening. Her walks were meant to take time away from her thoughts, not allow them to overwhelm her.
“Commune with nature, Miss Dalrousie,” the physician had said. “Allow God in His mercy to show you what a wondrous world this truly is. Find a place rife with beauty and let it sink into your soul. You will be yourself within weeks, I venture.”
She had not exactly chosen Scotland as a refuge. Instead, it had chosen her. As for beauty, there were plenty of places in this corner of the Highlands that brought a sigh to her soul. Each time she witnessed the birth of a dawn bathed in gold and pink or saw the mountain’s craggy peak swathed in clouds, she wanted to weep.
What good was beauty when she couldn’t replicate it?
No, she wasn’t going to think about that, either.
Someone had cleared the walk, removing the dead branches and the worst of the leaves. Tom, again.
Tom was the one who’d advised her to begin walking Glengarrow’s paths. “Oh, the earl be abroad, Miss Dalrousie,” Tom had told her months ago. “Gone near three years. He’ll not be caring.” Tom had looked sad then, but she’d not asked the cause for his sudden expression. As she’d grown more private, she’d reciprocated by respecting the privacy of others.
She pushed open the iron gate and slid inside. Flanking the gate on either side was a red brick pillar. Atop each was a stone lion, carved in a lion rampant pose more often found on a coat of arms, the beast seated with one paw raised.
As she did every morning, she nodded to the lions but they ignored her in favor of staring impassively down the lane. Today, instead of taking the path closest to the house, she took the lower walk, choosing the approach to the gardens along a tall brick wall.
She began to count the steps, another habit she’d acquired. Forty steps to the wall. Fifty-three additional steps to the bench in front of the embrasure. Sometimes, she’d sit on the bench and stare at the urn carved in relief on the wall, wondering whom it honored and why at that particular spot.
This morning, however, she passed the bench and continued on, down the gradual slope to the edge of the forest. From somewhere deep inside the woods came the sharp cry of a fox. Just as suddenly, a flock of birds flew swiftly up from the top of the trees, alarmed at her approach.
She veered to the right, still following the path, returning to counting again. The numbers kept her from thinking. Thinking led to remembering, and memories were not good company of late.
Yesterday afternoon she’d surprised a deer in this very spot. The two of them had stared at each other, both nervous creatures. Had the deer felt Margaret’s sudden fear, or had it simply been alarmed for its own safety? It had turned and bolted into the forest, leaving her to stare after it, wondering what type of haven the deer sought.
Was there a haven anywhere?
Resolutely, she continued on the path, her gloved hands clasped together beneath the folds of her cape. Made of brilliant red wool, it was the warmest garment she owned, and still it was not warm enough. Once, she would have passed over the cape in favor of something lined in fur, an ankle-length cloak with a hood, perhaps. She’d sold that garment before leaving Russia, to a minor noble who wanted it as a gift for his mistress.
Not again. She halted once more, staring into the forest, the trunks of the trees now only a mass of sticks with a few die-hard leaves affixed to them. The winter forest bounding Glengarrow was ugly, without color, a stark representation of her mood.
Why today? Why was she determined to revisit the past today?
She began walking again, keeping her mind empty, her feet on the path and her gaze on the monochromatic landscape. A bird, braver than his compatriots, flew down and perched on the wall bordering Glengarrow as if to take a look at her. He, too, was winter-colored with a brownish gray plumage. He tilted his head as he regarded her, then flew away, leaving her feeling as if she hadn’t passed his inspection.
The air was colder now, but she was walking into the wind, heading back uphill. To her left, the base of the mountain was separated from the house by only a thin strip of forested land. She welcomed the cold, her thoughts finally diverted from the past and fixed on the effect of the wind on her exposed skin.
A fox cried again, but that was the only sound other than the sough of the wind. Margaret wrapped her arms around her waist beneath the cape. Perhaps she was not as immune to Scottish winters as she’d thought. This was a damp cold seeping into her bones and making them ache.
She’d have a cup of tea, perhaps, when she reached her snug little cottage. Later, she’d have one of Janet’s jam tarts. That, and a book she’d not yet read, part of a shipment from Edinburgh. There, the afternoon was planned, as her mornings always were.
The sudden sound was oddly discordant. A deep thumping echoed from the forest and back again, as if Glengarrow had suddenly developed a heart, and it was now beating furiously. Startled, Margaret remained in place, her eyes darting from the trees to the wall between her and the house, then to the lane ahead of her. The sound was louder, but she still didn’t recognize it.
A rider abruptly appeared at the end of the lane, as if he’d magically sprouted there. Then, suddenly, where there had only been one rider, now there were four of them. No, six. A carriage rumbled down the road, followed by a slower wagon piled high with trunks and cases and followed by still more outriders. The strange drumbeat now sounded like thunder.
She marked the exact moment the leader saw her. His gaze was straight ahead, directed at Glengarrow. A moment later, he glanced to the right, in her direction. In less time than it took for Margaret to realize she was in danger, he spurred his horse and began riding straight for her.
She turned and started to run, leaving the path and heading into the forest. The peace of the early morning had been shredded and in its place this terrifying cacophony. Her heart was beating so hard it was difficult to breathe. She raced through the trees, up a gentle slope, all the while seeking sanctuary. But winter had stripped the forest of any covering, and the trees were too young to provide any hiding place behind their trunks.
As she ran, she glimpsed shadows on either side of her, horses with caped riders, dark specters flying over the frozen ground. Her breath escaped her lungs in panting gusts, little clouds of terror.
Glancing over her shoulder proved that her fears were real. She was being pursued by five more horsemen.
This was Hell, revisited.
She emerged from the line of forest to face a small clearing. On the other side of it were granite boulders the size of a man, marking the base of the mountain.
One by one, the men emerged from the trees, each horse and rider ringing her until she was surrounded.
A scream caught in her throat and emerged from between her lips like a kitten’s tiny cry. Last time, she’d begged for mercy. This time, she wouldn’t beg. But they would have to kill her before it happened again.
One man garbed in a black greatcoat urged his horse closer. He held up his hand as if to silence the others. But none of them had spoken. Nor were there any smiles in evidence.
Her assault was to be no matter for amusement, then.
The leader still didn’t speak, merely walked his horse closer. He had a handsome face, but she’d learned attractiveness was no guarantee of character. Sometimes evil was exquisitely beautiful.
His hair, thickly black, was too long, curling over his collar and falling down on his forehead. His nose was narrow, and his lips thinned by anger. He would tower over her if standing next to her. Even on a horse, he was commanding.
His face was ruddy with cold, but he wore no hat. That absence alone marked him as arrogant. Did he think himself impervious to the weather?
When she awoke this morning, she had no idea her life would end today. She had no inkling that today, of all her days, she would die trying to protect not her virtue, but her very soul.
This would not happen to her again.
She pulled her hands back beneath her cape, clenching them together out of sight. With more daring than she believed possible, she straightened her shoulders and tilted her chin up so she might face him with her own show of arrogance.
“Why have you waylaid me?” she demanded.
“Why are you trespassing on Glengarrow land?”
She stared at him a moment. “You’re the Earl of Linnet, then?”
He nodded. “I am. Who are you?”
Being an earl did not render him less dangerous than he appeared. Being an earl was merely a title, and she’d already been the victim of men with titles.
“Will you let me pass? Or have you other plans, you and your men?”
He didn’t answer. Instead, he lifted his left hand again. Just that, and the five men on the opposite side of the clearing disappeared, fading into the winter forest as if they, too, had become black and white and gray.
Still, four men were behind him, each of them intently focused on the confrontation.
“Who are you?” he asked again, and she understood. The price of her safety was information.
“Margaret Dalrousie,” she said. Would there be a reaction? Evidently the Earl of Linnet paid no attention to society.
“Why were you trespassing?” he asked.
Did he think she was a threat to Glengarrow? That she was a vagabond?
“I take my walks here,” she answered. “Because the area is peaceful and private, and there was no one to bother me. Until today.”
He didn’t speak, only raised his left hand. This time, however, the men flanking him slowly walked their mounts to the side so he could turn.
“Find another place to walk, Miss Dalrousie,” he said over his shoulder. “I have come home.”
Margaret was too busy drawing a deep breath to respond. As her heart slowed its frantic beat, she stared after the Earl of Linnet.