A Scandalous Scot Excerpt

 

CHAPTER 1

 

Ballindair, Scotland

Summer, 1860

Rules for Staff: When being addressed, stand quiet with your hands folded together in front of you.

Jean MacDonald dropped down behind a dusty bureau, wrapping her arms around her knees. Silence was a necessary requirement for seeing a ghost. So was patience. She’d been patient for the last year. All she’d learned in that time was that this business of ghosts was a delicate one.

According to the other maids who claimed to have seen him, the Herald had no qualms about appearing even in daylight. A handsome soldier, clad in kilt and shirt with a set of pipes slung over his shoulder, he didn’t announce death as much as change.

The Green Lady wasn’t supposed to be that difficult to find, either, since she was reputed to appear in the coldest spot in a room.

She had yet to see either of them.

Nor had she seen the French Nun, but no one had. That ghost was proving to be elusive. Was it because the nun still felt shame, even a hundred years later?

Jean yawned, clamped her hand over her mouth, and shivered with fatigue.

Her aunt, Ballindair’s housekeeper, had set them all to working like dervishes this past week. The Earl of Denbleigh himself was due to visit in ten days. Although Ballindair was normally spotless and perfect, she insisted that the entire castle be cleaned again. All the chandeliers, ornate picture frames, urns, and silly little statues of posing shepherdesses and dogs that really didn’t look like dogs had to be dusted over and over again. All the ornate furniture must be treated with a special beeswax and turpentine mixture. All the fireplaces must be blackened, even though that chore had recently been done, and the shiny andirons polished still further. The floors were scrubbed, then buffed using a lambs wool pad, until Jean could see her face in the dark oak boards, and each of the carpets brushed and beaten until her arms ached.

Her knees were abraded and her hands swollen and red. She’d worked as hard as any of the others – except, perhaps, for one person. Her sister, Catriona, had the ability to escape everyone’s watchful eye.

Jean sometimes thought that Catriona believed she served the world simply by looking beautiful. Perhaps she did, at that. Most people stopped and stared when first viewing her. Catriona had bright, golden hair, and eyes a deep blue, a color Jean had never seen in another. In addition, Catriona was dainty and delicate, unlike her own too tall frame.

Even the Presbyterian minister, sermonizing on the evils of the flesh, had allowed his gaze to linger on Catriona during Sunday services. Before they’d left for church the next week, Aunt Mary had given all the maids a stern lecture on comportment. Catriona had only smiled sweetly, as if not realizing the admonishment had been pointedly directed at her.

What would it be like to have a man fall at her feet? Or to have a man stare at her across the room? That had happened on a great many occasions when they’d lived in Inverness, but the attention was always on Catriona and never on her.

She sighed. What a waste of time to think about such things, especially since it was doubtful she’d ever attract any man’s attention, being a maid at Ballindair.

Tomorrow, they were to start cleaning this very suite. When all the work was done, her aunt would have the rooms locked, just to make certain all stayed in readiness for the earl.

Tonight was the last opportunity she’d have to see the French Nun. Since the nun was rumored to haunt the Laird’s Tower more than any other place at Ballindair, she couldn’t overlook this chance to see the ghost.

She lay her head back against the wall, grateful the floor was hard. At least she was in no danger of falling asleep. To be a little more comfortable, she untied her shoes and set them to the side, wiggling her toes in pleasure.

Why was the earl coming back now?

“He had business in England,” Aunt Mary had said. “He was a representative peer for Scotland at Parliament.”

Evidently, no longer.

What her aunt hadn’t said was that the earl had disgraced himself, and was returning to Scotland like a fox going to ground. Jean had only learned that through the Laird’s Lug – a cunningly designed tube in the wall leading to the Clan Hall. She hadn’t meant to eavesdrop, truly. But when Mr. Seath and her aunt were talking and the earl’s name mentioned, it had been impossible to turn away and pretend an interest in dusting the painting of a long dead person.

“Why ever did he do it?” Mrs. MacDonald asked. “Why couldn’t he let the situation stand as it was? He wouldn’t have been the first man to endure that kind of behavior.”

“He has his pride.”

“Too much of it, I’m thinking,” she said. “If he damages the reputation of the MacCraig family for it.”

The two of them had moved away, leaving Jean wishing she knew more. What had the Earl of Denbleigh done?

After five years away, he was finally coming home to Ballindair. Why hadn’t he returned in all that time? Was it because he preferred London to his own country?

She much preferred Ballindair to Inverness. Inverness was filled with memory. Here, at least, her recollections were only a year old.

The past had a way of creeping into her mind like the mist over Loch Tullie. First, you couldn’t see your feet, then your legs, and before you knew it, you were enveloped in a neck high cloud. She’d learned never to consciously remember Inverness. Or, if memories slipped up on her unawares, to run from them as quickly as she could.

Ti tak the bree wi the barm. One of her mother’s sayings: to take the rough with the smooth. The past had been rough.

The life of a maid couldn’t be said to be smooth, not with all the rules to learn and tasks to master. Her time was regulated from dawn until two hours after dinner, when she was expected to return to her room, prepare herself for bed, and go instantly to sleep. No daydreams were allowed or dreams, either. Sleep was only a restorative, to ensure Ballindair had an eager and rested staff.

Leaning back, she glanced at light filtering through the emerald curtains. In the Highlands, the sky didn’t darken until nearly midnight. Earlier, she hadn’t needed a candle when she’d left her room – against the rules – and crept through the castle to the tower.

Moving a few inches to the left, she studied the Chamber of State, the old name for the suite of rooms: bedroom, sitting room, and bathing chamber occupied by the Earls of Denbleigh.

The four poster bed was heavily carved, with a headboard inscribed with the earl’s crest – an eagle with outstretched wings holding a cluster of thistles – and dominated the dais on which it sat. The bed had been made in Scotland, that much she knew from her instructions. Her aunt insisted that each of the maids learned not only how to clean Ballindair but the history of every room, the better to appreciate the value of those items entrusted to their care.

A secretary and chair sat opposite the bed, with a large fireplace on the adjacent wall. The bureau behind which she was hiding was the match to an armoire, both festooned with curlicues and crafted from the same cherry wood as the bed. The room was spacious enough to accommodate a round table in the corner, along with two chairs, and a small settee beside which stood a table and lamp.

The entire lower floor of their house in Inverness could fit comfortably within this chamber.

No, thoughts like that would only lead to tears.

Yet wasn’t it normal to feel the past so strongly when she was waiting for a ghost? Didn’t a ghost belong to the past? Didn’t ghosts wander through the present because of sins they’d committed, or wishes left unfulfilled, or longings that would not let them pass into eternity?

Would she be a ghost one day? Would people study her life the way she’d pored over the book, The Famous Ghosts of Ballindair? Would they speak of her in low voices, pity coloring their words? Poor, dear Jean, plain as milk. Died alone and single, of course. What man would want her?

There she was again, thinking of a man’s attentions. Just as she was aware of Catriona’s beauty, she was conscious of her own appearance.

Her face lacked any distinction at all, being an oval shape. Her eyes were brown and average, and always looked too large for her face. Her mouth was average. Her chin neither jutted out nor receded. Her nose was neither too long nor petite. Her forehead was neither too high nor too short. She was simply average and regrettably indistinct – plain as milk.

In addition to lacking her sister’s looks, she also possessed a mind that was a constant source of irritation to some people. Even after the wisest woman in the room subsided into silence, she kept asking questions.

“Is why your favorite word?” Catriona asked once.

“Why shouldn’t I want to know?” she’d responded. “Have you no curiosity about the world?”

Catriona had only shaken her head and moved away, dusting the bric-a-brac on the mantel with a desultory sway of the feather duster.

“What does it matter what you discover? It doesn’t change your circumstances or make them better.”

Granted, the world had been a difficult place for both of them in the last two years, but surely Catriona had more hope than that.

When she said as much, her sister laughed.

“Hope is just another name for wishing, Jean. Wishing never made anything better.”

“If you don’t have hope, Catriona,” she’d said, ”what do you have?“

Catriona had smiled. “You have the world as it is. And you must make do with it.”

At that moment, her younger sister had seemed so old and worn that Jean had been silenced.

At least they had a roof over their heads and food to eat. During that last month in Inverness, she’d doubted they’d survive. Hunger had been one of those constants like sunrise and sunset. If she was awake, she was hungry.

Then the letter had come from their aunt, offering them both positions as maids at Ballindair. Catriona had been sent to tend to the public rooms, while Jean had been designated a general maid. She’d had to learn a great deal about the workings of a large home when her only experience had been a small house of seven rooms.

Circumstances change. You must adapt. You have to accept certain realities about life. On that she agreed with Catriona.

She hadn’t the education to be a governess. She lacked fluency in French and she was abysmal at watercolors. Her alternatives were few: become a bedewoman, a licensed beggar, or allow her sister to become a wealthy man’s mistress. More than one man had hinted at an arrangement with Catriona.

At least being a maid was a decent occupation.

When they’d come to Ballindair a year ago, she’d had a choice: bemoan what had happened to them or accept her new life. She’d grown tired of grief, of worry, and despair, so she’d taken up her aunt’s lessons in earnest, deciding to become the very best maid she could be. She’d taken pride in each task given her, learned as much as she could, and tried to become a valuable addition to the castle staff.

Along the way, she’d find nuggets of joy in each day, like the sight of a flower in bloom, the breadth and depth of the night sky, or the flicker of a candle flame.

The book she’d borrowed from Ballindair’s library had been one of those nuggets, leading to her interest in three of the castle ghosts: the Herald, the Green Lady, and the French Nun.

That interest was why she was here in the middle of the night, trying to find the ghost of a woman whose life had been, in contrast, so much worse than hers.

At least, so far.