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Poppy left her overnight bag in the hallway and walked into the dining room of her parents' garden flat. The remains of breakfast still on the table, her father was working his way through a stack of Sunday newspapers and her stepmother's fingers were flying with the nimble precision Poppy always envied across the current tapestry she was working on while chuckling at the programme she was listening to on the radio.
The comforting familiarity of the domestic scene smoothed the furrow etched in Poppy's smooth brow. It hadn't always been this way. Until the arrival of Millie on the scene Sundays, and for that matter every other day in the Ramsay household, had been very different. At ten Poppy had not realised some fathers did not spend the entire weekend at the office. Millie, she reflected fondly, had changed their lives utterly and very much for the betterit was just a shame that her grandmother still refused to recognise this.
Millie Ramsay glanced up, the smile of welcome on her pretty freckled face fading into a look of concern as she took in her stepdaughter's troubled expression. 'A problem, Poppy?' she asked, laying aside her work.
'Yes,' Poppy admitted, perching on the arm of her father's chair as he laid down his newspaper with a rustle. She paused and shot an apologetic look Millie's way before responding.
'It's Gran,' she said, thinking, Cue awkward silence.
Robert Ramsay's expression had iced over before his newspaper came up with a rustle. Millie, her serenity unruffled, switched off the laughter on the radio.
It was Millie who broke the growing awkward silence.
'Is your grandmother not well, Poppy?' she asked, getting to her feet.
Behind his newspaper her husband cleared his throat noisily. Millie sighed at the strangled sound as she said quietly, 'She's an old lady, and she's your mother, Rob.'
A second snort then silence from behind the newspaper greeted this quiet reproach.
'She's finewell, not ill at least,' Poppy said, addressing her response to Millie. 'On Thursday when we spoke on the phone, I could tell from her voice something was wrong.' After a lot of probing the truth had finally emerged. 'It turns out she'd had a letter from the council that had upset hernot the first.' When pressed her grandmother had admitted the rather onesided dialogue with the local authority had been going on for nine months.
'And let me guess Mother ignored them?'
'It looks like it,' Poppy said, addressing her reply to the newspaper. 'It started when a hiker using the public footpaththe one that goes through the kitchen gardenbroke his ankle. He complained and from what I can gather it seems someone came out to investigate and well, the outcome was they discovered the entire west wall of the east wing is in danger of falling down.'
Robert Ramsay's newspaper came down. 'The west wall has been falling down since I was a boy,' he said scornfully. 'The entire place has been falling down, but I don't see what business that is of the council or, for that matter, anyone else.'
'Pretty much Gran's reaction, but Inverannoch Castle is a listed building, Dad, and as the owner Gran is legally responsible for maintaining the fabric of the building.' A brief Internet search had revealed that much. 'And as the footpath runs so close it becomes a health and safety issue.'
'Health and safety!' Her father snorted. 'A load of mollycoddling rubbish!'
'Again pretty much Gran's response, once she stopped throwing the letters from the council's legal department on the fire. Reading between the lines, I got the impression she's managed to offend just about everybody and now, well ' The furrow between Poppy's dark feathery brows deepened. 'She's really afraid she could lose Inverannoch, and I think she might be right.'
'Oh, dear!' Millie said, glancing towards her husband, who had hidden again behind his newspaper. 'What do you think, Rob?'
'It's a fuss about nothing.'
'I hope so,' Poppy said quietly.
'Ring the council if you're worried.'
'I did, I spent half of Friday being put on hold. But they wouldn't discuss it with me, which is why I've decided to go up there and find out for myself.'
'What?' Robert Ramsays's incredulous deep voice boomed. His paper came down with a rustle. 'You're not serious?'
Poppy lifted her chin. 'I'm on my way to the airport, Dad. I just dropped by to tell you. I'll ring when I arrive in Inverness. I'll hire a car there.'
'Drop everything and hare off to the back of beyond just because of a letter!' Robert Ramsay rolled his eyes contemptuously. 'Talk about overreaction. If you expect your grandmother to be grateful for this dramatic gesture.'
'I don't,' Poppy admitted, a brief grin momentarily lighting the sombre cast of her features. 'She'll tell me I'm interfering and that she's more than capable of sorting out her own affairs.' Her smile faded. 'Aren't you even a little bit concerned, Dad?'
Her father's eyes fell. 'If you're really that worried,' he grunted, 'give her the number of my solicitors, but I think you'll find it is all a storm in a teacup.'
'I really hope you're right and it's a wasted journey, Dad, but I am going.'
Robert Ramsay eyed the stubborn set of his daughter's jaw and shook his head. 'You always were an obstinate child.'
'I can't imagine where I got that from.'
Poppy watched her father fight a smile. 'All right, if you won't listen to me what about this boyfriend of yours? What does he think of you dashing off this way? And what about work? I thought you'd used up your annual leave.'
Not the ideal moment she had been waiting for, but Poppy took a deep breath. 'I don't have a boyfriend, and I handed in my notice last month.'
Taking advantage of the stunned silence that followed her casual disclosure, Poppy made a hasty exit turning a deaf ear and closing the door on her father's bellow.
* * *
Adrenaline still surging through his bloodstream, Gianluca, his chest heaving from the exertion of the swim to shore, dragged a hand over the salty water streaming down his face and watched for a moment as the boat he had owned for almost an hournot his best financial investmentsmashed itself to matchwood on the rocks, before turning his back on the scene of devastation.
The ten-mile track around the mist-shrouded mountain in a gale would, it turned out, even allowing for recent rock slides that had apparently washed away part of the track, have been the safer choice, but then hindsight was a marvellous thing.
The warnings of the locals that he had listened politely to before choosing to ignore them had clearly not been exaggerated, unlike the price he had paid for the vessel.
The guy who sold it to him had had no qualms when it came to fleecing a strangeron another occasion Gianluca might even have admired his enterprise.
He shrugged, his firm lips twitching upwards at the corners into an ironic smile that faded as his lean body was shaken by a deep tremor and then another. He clenched his jaw and blinked away the water that still streamed steadily into his eyes and assessed his situation.
A man did not have to be a survival expert to work out standing here second-guessing his choices was not a good idea. The exposed pebbly beach offered zero shelter from the wind that cut through the wet clothes he wore like a cold surgical blade sending the chill of his skin bone deep, and blue had never really been his colour, he thought, grimacing as he rubbed the skin of his forearms to kick-start the circulation.
Standing here inviting hypothermia would only confirm the locals' opinion that he was an idiot. According to them taking the small boat out in the storm had been inviting worse than hypothermia and as it turned out they had very nearly been right. Not that Gianluca, who possessed a pragmatic attitude to such things, wasted more than a moment contemplating how close he had come to a fate similar to that of the vessel.
He had chosen to take a calculated risk, something he had done before, though admittedly his own skin was not generally at risk, and in this instance the risk had not been entirely successful. On the plus side, he might be temporarily stranded but he had reached his goal.
He turned his back on the cauldron of grey foaming waves and directed his narrowed gaze speculatively towards the outline of Inverannoch Castle visible through the mist.
The turreted stone building, even in its present semi-derelict state, was imposingin a grim and forbidding sort of way. Much, he mused, like the old lady who lived there, his godmother Isabel Ramsay.
He had been attending an international conference in Edinburgh where he had been guest speaker when he had received a phone call from his very anxious grandmother, who was worried after speaking to her old friend Isabel.
'She's putting a brave face on it, Gianluca, but she's really upset, I could tell, and that's just not like Isabel. Do you really think she could lose the castle? You won't let it happen, will you?'
It would have been hard to fulfil his promise if he had gone down with his ship, he mused as he strode towards the steps cut in the stone cliff past what remained of an old harbour wall, a reminder of the glory days when the castle had been the destination of the rich and glamorous of the day. Possessing the balance of a natural athlete and a lean, toned body to match it, he did not slow as he negotiated the lethally slippery worn steps.
From the top of the cliff the castle, hidden by a forested area, was no longer visible. Someone who was not familiar with the area would not have seen the path through the trees. It took Gianluca a few moments to locate it. Years ago he had been as familiar with every track as he was with his own hand. Now in recent years his visits to the castle had been to see his godmother and had not involved reacquainting himself with the landscape.
Unsure of his welcome, he had come back that first time eighteen months after his wedding. Since then a sense of duty had made him undertake the painful trip once or twice a year. Seven years now, he made the calculation with a sense of shock, but the visits were rarely more than fleeting overnight stopovers, the private helicopter either waiting for him or returning the next morning to pick him up.
A loud crack broke into his private reflections and Gianluca instinctively stepped back, narrowly avoiding the large branch that fell at his feetno surprise there had been no pilot willing or suicidal enough to bring him out here today!
He had always supposed that it would have got easier over the years, but nothe place just held too many memories. He had judged it best to limit his contact and avoid falling into the trap of indulging in the sort of sentimental nostalgia that he despised.
Considering his reluctance to spend more than a night here, he had been surprised by how strongly he had reacted to the idea of the resident Ramsay being forced from her home and the crumbling castle being restored by others, not as a home, but a destination on a tourist map.
How would Poppy react if her grandmother was forced from her home?
He pushed the thought awaythe past belonged in the pastand walked towards the densely packed trees that offered some shelter from the wind. They also reduced the daylight, such as it was that remained. Wishing he had had the forethought to grab a torch before he had abandoned the boat to its fate, he added a few scratches from overhanging branches to the bruises he could not yet feel. That was something to look forward to when he thawed out.
From this side of the trees he saw what had not been visible from the shore: the lights shining from the windows of the inhabited rooms in the west wing.