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If You Give A Girl A Viscount
On a sunny afternoon high in the left turret of a small, crumbling castle in the northwest of Scotland, Highland lass Daisy Montgomery scrubbed the hearthstones in her bedchamber and dreamed of finding her prince. He'll make me laugh, she thought, wringing out her rag in a bucket of cold water. Then, as she applied all her muscle to the coal-black stone, I'll make him laugh.
"You need to clean between the keys of the pianoforte," her stepmother told her from the door in that cool, deliberate way she had.
And he'll transport me, Daisy hastily added to her mental list. She'd read that in a gothic novel once. He'll transport me anywhere the shrew behind me isn't. And I'll transport him to a place he wants to be. But I'll go to my place first. He'd be the sort to understand.
Wishing with all her might that she didn't have to, she turned to look at Mona. "I just cleaned the pianoforte a few days ago."
"You're lying," Mona snapped. "Cassandra hit a flat note today, thanks to you. Use a string wrapped in flannel, and be sure to change the flannel after every third key. I'll know if you don't."
Daisy forced herself not to cringe. "Very well," she said in even tones, "as soon as I'm done here, I'll do it again."
"Oh, you're done, all right," Mona replied in a low register, which meant that if Daisy didn't stand up immediately, she'd be pinched by the woman's long talons.
Daisy dropped her rag and stood. "I suppose I'm finished then."
Mona stalked down the gray stone corridor in her beaded black sheath with a preposterously low neckline. It was completely inappropriate for daytime, but that was typical of Mona. It went without question that Daisy would follow her.
"It's exhausting dealing with you," Mona said. "You're so--" She waved her claws about.
"Braw?" Daisy whispered in a sad voice.
Mona hailed from Cheapside in London, and her Scottish vocabulary wasn't exactly extensive. Braw was a compliment meaning fine, good, even brilliant.
"Close." Mona laughed in a mean way. "God, you were braw to high heaven yesterday after you finished cleaning the scum off the top of the moat."
"Very well." Daisy sighed. "Perhaps you mean ... bricht."
Bricht meant bright, which seemed obvious toDaisy but was somehow not to Mona, who'd never adapted to the Highland way of life.
Daisy knew it was childish of her to take these subtle jabs at her stepmother, but it was her only solace, other than sitting with Joe and Hester in the kitchen, where each night they'd dunk shortbread in warm milk and talk in low tones about their day.
Mona nodded. "It's despicable how bricht you are, you sulky miss. You ought to be like my girls. Charming. Ever ready with a nice word."
The woman's deluded, Daisy thought. Perdita and Cassandra were awful.
But Daisy was a survivor, and she knew the servants' futures also lay in her hands, so she said, "I'm sorry."
"You should be," said Mona. "I've half a mind to give you bread and water tomorrow as punishment."
There was only one way to deflect such a punishment: pretend to be jealous of Mona.
"You'd never be braw," Daisy told her stepmother wistfully as they passed under a portrait of Papa as a boy. "Or bricht."
"Right you are." Mona's breasts led her like two roly-poly foot soldiers carrying bayonets into her bedchamber. "I'd be ashamed to be. Now brush my hair five hundred strokes, or I'll see to it that you get no supper and that you're locked in your room until morning."
Although she was thoroughly disgusted, Daisy refused to wince, not only at the threat and theprospect of a distasteful chore but at the changes Mona had wrought to the master suite Daisy's parents used to share. The hangings were a garish scarlet with black lace trim instead of the pretty sage-green-and-ivory toile they'd been before. And all the lovely, light figurines and paintings Papa and Mama had collected over the years had been replaced with crouching gargoyles and dark paintings.
As she brushed Mona's lank locks, Daisy tried to pretend she was somewhere else. But it was difficult when her stepmother kept slapping her hand and telling her she was either brushing too hard or not hard enough.
The worst came when Mona demanded her usual compliment. "What do you think of my hair?" she asked Daisy.
"It's lush and luxuriant," she replied.
It was the required response, even though Mona had bits of scalp showing through. The first several times Daisy had said anything else, she'd been sent to bed with no supper.
Mona smiled, close-lipped, into the looking glass, seemingly satisfied.
Inside, Daisy said ugh. And then a mote of dust flew up her nose and made her sneeze.
The looking glass reflected Mona's narrowed gaze. "Sneeze one more time, and you'll sleep in the byre tonight."
Daisy widened her eyes on purpose. She knew it made Mona happy to see her afraid. "Not the byre," she said in her best fearful tone.
"Indeed, the byre," Mona replied. "It's cold outtonight, too. You'll have to snuggle up to those pigs."
Mona closed her eyes, no doubt contemplating the glory of that scene in her head, and promptly fell asleep. It was happening more often ... Mona had always sneaked whisky. She'd made Daisy get it for her when Papa was alive, but since he'd died, Mona drank it openly, sometimes starting before noon.
Daisy laid the brush aside. She'd made it only to two hundred fifty-two strokes this time. She lifted her stepmother under her arms and dragged her to the bed, where Daisy proceeded, through much effort, to roll Mona on top of the gaudy satin coverlet.
The grasping woman who'd taken advantage of Daisy's grieving father began to snore. Much relieved, Daisy crept from the room and shut the door.
You'll be doing this forever, a mocking voice in her head said. It sounded exactly like her stepsister Cassandra. Cassandra was able to get to her in a way Mona couldn't--because Mona was rather stupid.
Cassandra wasn't. She was clever.
But Daisy refused to listen to Cassandra's voice in her head.
She couldn't. If she did, she'd cry.
And the last thing she wanted Mona or her daughters to see was her crying. The one time they had, when she'd fallen off a horse and broken her arm, not two weeks after their arrival, their jeers had haunted her for months.
Of course, Papa had been nowhere near at the time. Daisy was sure that Cassandra, who'd been standing near the small jump, had somehow spooked her mare into tripping over it.
But Daisy had learned--oh, how she'd learned!--to keep her tears to herself.
She'd learned so well, she hadn't cried at Papa's funeral. The night he'd died, her private grief had been wretched, a pain so deep that she never thought she'd be free of it. She still wasn't.
And she knew she never would be.
In the kitchen, she washed her hands in a bucket of clean water, dried them on a clean piece of linen, kissed Hester's cheek--appreciating how lovingly it was offered to her--and formed a bannock of oatmeal dough for Hester to bake on a griddle.
"Bake it extra hard, Hester," Daisy said. "I'm hoping Mona will break a tooth on it."
"Has she been worse than usual today?" The housekeeper was as soft as a freshly baked bun herself.
"Not really. But for some reason, I felt more provoked than usual." Maybe because Mona had interrupted Daisy's daydream about her prince. "She's sleeping right now and will no doubt wake up just in time for dinner."
Hester tsk-tsked. Daisy went out the kitchen door and down the steps to check on her potted lemon tree, the one she'd grown from a seed Papa had brought her back from London. One lovely lemon was growing on it--it was the first one ever, and shewished Papa could see it as she'd grown it especially for him.
But it was too late. He was gone. And Mona's hatred of her, which Daisy had always been keenly aware of--even when Mona used to smile at her and hug her in front of Papa--had come out into the open since his death and was stronger than ever.
The truth was, Papa would still be here today if it weren't for Daisy and her carelessness.
The old guilt came back, spreading through her like a pool of black bog sludge. And then, as it always did, it became guilt coupled with sorrow as thin and sharp as the blade on Papa's old skean dhu.
Then ... guilt, sorrow, and anger--a lumbering, suffocating anger that was always the same: accusing. Cruel. Unreasonable. Unaccepting.
She tried to breathe.
She let out a little sigh.
She was angry at herself--there was always that--but there was the beginning of something else surging in her, tendriling up from the depths of her despair and demanding notice.
She'd give it time. She must be patient. Because it might be her only lemon, too. She couldn't afford to waste it.
Which was why moments later when Cassandra and Perdita called her into the drawing room, she straightened her spine and went to them without complaint.
"Yes, sisters?" she said in her most pleasant tones. Not because she felt like being polite but because she knew it annoyed them no end, how sweet and kind she always was to them.
Cassandra was a stunning young lady with glossy black curls and fine gray eyes. She and Daisy were almost the same age. Perdita, a year older, appeared to be a man dressed in women's clothing, and she sounded like one, too.
"You blondes are dimwitted, aren't you?" Cassandra said to Daisy. "I require tea and cakes immediately."
Hester walked in then. "You're impatient, lass," she told Cassandra with a placid smile, and placed a tray of cakes upon a low table. "You've already asked me for tea. I'll have you know the kettle has not yet boiled, but here's something to pique your palate."
"Your old bones will be fired, Hester," Cassandra replied in sharp tones, "if you insist on being so slow. You and your simpleton brother with you."
Daisy's whole body stiffened with rage. How dare Cassandra threaten Hester and Joe--and then insult him so! No one had been here as long as he. For the past fifty years, the people of Glen Dewey could look up and see him, regular as clockwork, tending his sheep with loving care on the side of Ben Fennon.
He was the heart and soul of Castle Vandemere.
Hester, his younger sister, and still a fierce Highland lass beneath those wrinkles forming about her eyes, merely folded her hands in front of her. "MissCassandra," she said in a gentle but firm tone, "I'm doing my verra best to serve you."
And then she curtsied out of the room, but not before she gave a small wink to Daisy.
Winks always meant the same thing: may the Furies rot in Hell.
Hester had read about the wicked threesome in Papa's big book of Greek mythology. Scots believed in education for all, and Hester was no exception. They also believed in calling a spade a spade, and if anyone could be compared to the three Furies, it was Mona and her two daughters.
Only because Hester was able to do so, Daisy also held her temper as Perdita ate an entire cake whole and then another. But these days, as the first anniversary of Papa's death came near, Daisy couldn't help thinking, When will it be my turn?
Her turn to be in charge? Her turn to make Cassandra and Perdita uncomfortable? Her turn to oust the vermin living in her ancestral home, the ungrateful English family who'd so bamboozled her father and made her life, Joe's, and Hester's a living hell?
Joe knocked at the drawing room door.
"Come in," she said, admiring the way the aged shepherd's eyes sparkled so blue in his swarthy face. Not a day went by that he didn't say--
"It's a braw, bricht day, Miss Daisy," in his thick burr.
He did so now, and as always, his gaze was innocent and his demeanor shy. He clasped his cap to his breast and looked at her hopefully.
She gave him the response he loved. "It is, indeed, Joe," she said with spirit.
He grinned. It was a braw, bricht day to Joe even when a cold rain was slashing his face, or snowflakes found their way between his neck and the collar of his faded woollen coat. It had even been a braw, bricht day the day after Papa had died, and Joe had said the words with tears streaming down his cheeks.
Like their mother, Cassandra and Perdita showed no interest in their adopted country. Neither had ever bothered to learn any special Scottish words or ask to hear stories about the old clans. And they didn't give a fig for anyone at the castle or in the village of Glen Dewey.
Cassandra held up a hand. "Joe, don't you dare come in if you smell of the byre."
"Or sheep dung," Perdita added, with crumbs falling out of her mouth.
"Those sheep," Daisy said pointedly to her two stepsisters, "put food on our plates and a roof over our heads." She looked at Joe. "Come in, dear, and you're very welcome."
"Ta, Miss Daisy," said Joe, and limped over the threshold, his weak leg dragging behind him. From beneath his cap, he pulled a folded note and held it out to her. "The mail coach came to Glen Dewey today. And this was on it."
Cassandra jumped up faster than Daisy had ever seen her move and snatched the missive from Joe before Daisy had a chance to take a step toward him.
"No!" he remonstrated with Cassandra. "Tha's not for you."
Cassandra held the paper triumphantly over her head and giggled. "Finders keepers!"
Joe looked worriedly at Daisy.
"It's all right," she told him with a small smile to send him on his way with a light heart.
He still looked doubtful but retreated, no doubt to visit Hester in the kitchen before he went back out to Ben Fennon. The baking bannock was creating delicious smells that had wafted on the ever-present draft to the front of the castle.
Meanwhile, Daisy's smile disappeared and her heart raced. The letter could only be from one person: her godmother. Daisy had never met her before and had only just discovered she had a godmother two months ago, when she'd been reading from one of Papa's books and a letter had slipped out.
It had been dated from before Papa was married to Mama and had come from a Lady Pinckney. She'd said that if Barnabas ever married and had a daughter, she yearned to know of the news and was highly desirous of being the godmother. Those had been her exact words: yearned and highly desirous.
Daisy could tell from that letter that Lady Pinckney must have been one of Papa's old paramours.
Now Cassandra threatened to burn the letter in the fire. She looked back at Daisy with glee in her eyes. "What will you do if it goes up in flames?" she asked in a wheedling tone.
That green, pushy thing growing inside Daisyshot up another inch. "I'll break your arm," she said, "the same way you broke mine."
Cassandra sucked in a breath and stared at her. Perdita let half a cake fall out of her mouth onto her lap.
Daisy strode toward Cassandra with her hand outstretched. "Give it to me now, or rest uneasy tonight."
Cassandra blinked repeatedly. "Why, you--you--"
Daisy snatched the letter out of her hand. "Cat got your tongue for once?"
Cassandra's mouth gaped even wider, and she blinked more and more rapidly, and then her chest started heaving.
Daisy had a sneaking suspicion Cassandra was trying not to cry.
"What's happened to you?" Perdita roared at Daisy.
Perdita couldn't help roaring. It was simply her way. Everything she said came out as a roar.
Daisy turned to look at her, feeling powerful with that letter in her hand. She didn't even know what it said, but it was from her godmother, by God, and that was something.
It was something, indeed.
"Nothing's happened to me, Perdy," said Daisy. "But something may happen to you."
"What do you mean by that?" shrieked Cassandra.
Perdita merely gave a soft roar, which was as close to a whimper as she would probably ever get.
Daisy turned her back on them and walked outthe drawing room door and up to her bedchamber. For the first time, she looked at the writing on the note.
Her heart sank. It was from a man. The handwriting was strong. Even fierce.
Some of the concern came back. What would Cassandra and Perdita do to her after that scene in the drawing room? She'd gone a bit far, hadn't she?
But it had felt good. It had felt right.
Still. She'd never done it before. It had been the letter that had given her courage.
Pushing down her worry, Daisy closed the door behind her, broke the wax seal on the paper, and unfolded it, all the while wondering what the man in the letter would want of her.
After she finished reading, she folded the long-awaited note back up and stared into space. "I've been given a viscount," she murmured, testing out the words.
But she hadn't asked for a viscount. She'd asked for a godmother.
He'd be here any day now. His name was Charles Thorpe, Viscount Lumley, and he was Lady Pinckney's grandson.
What in God's name was Daisy to do with him?
Copyright © 2011 by Kieran Kramer.