By Freda Warrington, James Frenkel
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2010 Freda Warrington
All rights reserved.
Arrival. Stumbling out of a taxi, catching her balance on her painful leg, looking up at a gatehouse: a neat structure of mushroom stone with pointed gables and black window frames. A long driveway curved away beyond wrought-iron gates, but Gill could see nothing of the great house itself, only a wisp of smoke drifting up behind a green haze of conifers. The estate was fringed by woodland and softened by drizzle misting from a bleak grey sky. Inland stood the sweeping shapes of mountains, all in slate hues in the chilly gloom of the day. She could smell the sea. It was May, but felt like winter. The highland landscape looked barren, wild, hostile; nothing had prepared her for the physical rawness of it.
Gill wondered what she was doing here.
"Rotten weather for you, miss," said the taxi driver, a Sikh with a broad Glaswegian accent. He dumped her case beside her. "Sure you don't want me to take you up to the house?"
"No, it's fine," she said, startled out of her blank moment. "They said I'd be met at the gatehouse."
She paid her fare. It was a sum that might have made the locals blanch, but she was used to London prices and thought nothing of it. As she fumbled in her purse, a small shock whipped across her stomach. Nothing waited for her in London.
With a cheery salute he drove away, leaving Gill alone on the drive. She spotted a distant church spire, but there was no other hint of habitation, only woods, heather and forest, and a silver rim of ocean to her left. That seaweed scent, mixed with the tang of gorse on a sharp breeze, was exhilarating. Several hundred miles from London on the northwest coast of Scotland — and not a soul knew where she'd gone.
I made it, I've escaped, she thought. Her hand convulsed on the handle of her case as the wind took her breath away.
The door of the gatehouse opened and a tall, thirtyish man with scruffy blond hair came strolling out to her. He had stubble and ripped jeans, a lazy, confident swagger, and a shrewd, unfriendly gaze. He wasn't local, she realized as he spoke; his voice had an antipodean twang.
"Hello, there. I hope you're not from the tax office. No one goes in without an appointment and you lot are really pushing your luck."
She frowned. "I've rented a cottage."
"Oh yeah? Think you can trick your way in? That's new."
"No, really." She pulled her booking confirmation from the front pocket of her suitcase. "I'm here on holiday. Gill Sharma."
He glanced at it, gave a quirky, one-sided smile. "Oh. Miss Sharma. Robin Cottage. Right. Sorry, just checking. You look like you're on a mission, and that case could have been full of documents, you know?" The blue eyes came to life and his voice became friendly and teasing — or was it mocking? Her judgment on such nuances had never been great. Because she'd traveled first-class on the train, she'd dressed appropriately, as if for work; a charcoal-grey suit with pencil skirt, black tights, no- nonsense shoes with a medium heel. Her outdoor jacket was stuffed inside the wheeled case. Her hair was tied back and her narrow, black-framed glasses were businesslike. She felt exhausted and rumpled but, apparently, still looked smart enough to be mistaken for a tax inspector.
"Am I in the right place?"
"You certainly are, Miss Sharma. Hi, I'm Colin, apprentice genius and general dogsbody. You've booked Robin Cottage for six weeks. So, no car."
She shook her head, opening one hand to emphasise the self-evident fact that she was on foot. Colin raised an eyebrow. "Come on, jump on the buggy and I'll take you over there. Welcome to Cairndonan."
He let her through a side gate beside the wrought-iron main gates and flung her bag onto a golf cart that was parked just inside. As she climbed up beside him, her hip joint zinged with pain and she gasped. It would sometimes catch her like that, a stab of fire, so sharp that she couldn't hide her reaction.
"You all right?" Colin asked cheerily.
"Fine," she said through her teeth. "I'm getting over an accident. It seizes up sometimes."
"Wow, that's not good."
Stiffening her face to a mask of calm, Gill pretended the heavy throb of her leg belonged to someone else. She watched the landscape sliding past; deer grazing the rough parkland, distant hills reaching steep arms towards the sea. She waited for a glimpse of Cairndonan House but it remained hidden behind folds of land and forest.
Colin swung onto an unexpected right fork. The buggy began shuddering its way along a narrow track with a meadow on the right and thickly tangled woodland on the left. Gill swallowed a twinge of unease. "Don't I need to check in at reception, or something?"
He smirked. "We don't have anything as grand as reception. Just an office and three slaves; me, Flora and Ned Badger. You can drop into the office later. Get settled in first, eh?"
They were descending a slope, steep enough to make her hang on to her seat. She heard the music of running water. As they passed into the damp shadows of a wood, she saw a stream ahead, running between the rugged sides of a gorge. Trees grew out of the rock itself to form a lacy tunnel above the flow. This was as isolated as she could have dreamed.
"And where's the office?"
"Up in the big house. There's a footpath up through the woods, about half a mile. Hope you brought your walking boots."
"I did," she said. The smell of the stream reached her, a fresh scent of wet rock and leaf mold. In response to all the damp and cold, her leg began to ache fiercely. 'Not that walking is my strong point at the moment."
"So, you're not booked on the course, then?" he asked.
Puzzled, she hesitated. "No. There's a course?"
"Oh, yeah." He inclined his head over his shoulder, as if to indicate the unseen mansion. "Annual art school. Three weeks. Starts today, goes until the fourteenth of June. You know who the owner of Cairndonan Estate is, don't you?"
Gill felt a twinge of dismay. An art course meant people, when all she wanted was solitude. She should have realized, or at least read the website more carefully. "Dame Juliana Flagg," she answered quietly. "I didn't see anything about it when I made the booking."
"Well, you wouldn't. She doesn't need to advertise. You know she's mega-famous, don't you? She's a living bloody legend!"
"So I gather, but I'm not really into art."
"That's a shame." He sounded disappointed that she wasn't more impressed. "That's a bit like visiting Buckingham Palace and saying you can take or leave the Queen."
Gill bit her lip, annoyed but forcing herself to smile. "I'm sure Dame Juliana would rather not rent cottages to gawping fans."
"Fair point," he said, drumming his fingers on the steering wheel. "Have to admit, I'm a fan. I'm her student. I work for her — odd jobs, estate maintenance, studio help — and in return, I get a few precious hours of tuition. That's the deal."
"Sounds like a tough apprenticeship."
"She doesn't take any prisoners," said Colin, with a grimace.
"You don't look like an artist."
"Well, what's an artist supposed to look like? I'm a sculptor, big-scale. You need a bit of muscle for that. Never had a chance to go to art school; what you see is raw talent." He grinned; she rolled her eyes at the way he managed to be self-mocking yet full of himself at the same time. "Bet you can't guess where I'm from."
"New Zealand?" she said.
Colin looked impressed. "Spot on. People usually say South Africa, or Australia."
"And I suppose they ask if you got the muscles from sheep-shearing?"
"Always. That gets a bit old. So what's your story, then? Up from London, aren't you? Long journey."
"Endless," she sighed. "My story is that I'm knackered, and dying for some peace and quiet."
"Sure. Don't mind me, I'm just nosy." The path meandered downhill until it reached a stone bridge. The golf cart negotiated the span, the torrent swirling over rocks beneath. Turning left, fifty yards along a gravel track that ran along the far bank they came to a tiny cottage. A tall rock face rose behind it, seeming to shelter and cup the building. All over the rocks and around the cottage itself grew gnarled trees, briars and ivy.
Gill took this in only superficially because she saw someone there; a skinny man, wearing faded black trousers and jacket, who seemed to be fixing something on the front door. She tensed. "Who's that?"
"No worries," Colin said dismissively. "That's Ned Badger."
"What's he doing?"
"Lord knows. Nothing I couldn't have done, I'm sure. Here we are, Robin Cottage. Mobile phone reception is poor to nonexistent, by the way."
As he pulled up, the man turned to them, holding a screwdriver in one hand. He had thick black hair streaked with grey and a pallid, expressionless face. It seemed he'd been attaching a horseshoe to the door; then she realized the horseshoe was actually a door knocker.
"Here's our guest," said Colin, helping her down before hefting her case. "Miss Sharma, this is Ned; one or the other of us will come if you have any problems."
"Problems?" she said stiffly. She wanted them both to go. Colin made her uneasy, and Ned Badger's Dickensian seediness gave her chills.
"Yeah, with plumbing, electric, anything at all."
"There will be no problems," Ned said impassively. "I've checked everything and made repairs where needed."
"Great, well I can take over from here. You want a lift back, mate?"
The friction between the two men was tangible. "No," said Ned. "I'll walk."
"All set, then," said Colin to Gill. "Here's the key; if you need another, you can get it from the house."
"One key is fine," she said, and then felt a flash of panic. Great, the staff knew she was on her own, and they had other keys. She pushed the fear back into its box.
She willed Colin to leave, but he insisted on letting her in, taking her case upstairs, then striding around jovially showing her light switches, kettle, teabags, all things she could have found without help. "Flora will pop in to vacuum, dust, change bed linen and that. But if you need anything at all, just come up to the house and we'll help you out, okay? In fact, if you're lonely, you can come up of an evening for a glass of wine with the students. Dame Juliana won't mind."
His easy friendliness was sandpaper on her nerves. She was shooing him out of the cottage now, almost physically pushing him with the front door. Ned Badger had already gone, disturbingly, as if he'd simply melted into the air. "Thanks, Colin, but I wouldn't want to presume on her hospitality."
"She can be a diva," he said confidingly, "but underneath, she's sound."
"Just worried about tax inspectors?" she said dryly.
He grimaced. "That was a joke."
"Oh. Thanks, but I'll be fine."
"See you tomorrow, then," Colin said cheerfully, and she closed the door behind him, locked it, rested back against it with a long sigh. Alone at last.
* * *
Robin Cottage was tiny and old-fashioned. There was a small parlor with a flowery sofa, a fireplace fitted with a glass-fronted log-burning stove, a television. At the back was a small, basic kitchen with a back door leading to a yard. There was no garden, just few flagstones, a brick outhouse, and then the sheer wall of rock rising up until it was lost in a cloud of greenery.
The rock barrier gave her a sense of security, and the doors were sturdy, with big solid bolts. Gill stood in the center of the small front room, imagined herself truly safe and hidden within the stone walls. She allowed herself to test her feelings.
Safe. No one knew where she was. No one could torment her anymore.
All that was over now.
She looked out of the front window at a veil of tall ashes, poplars and sycamores on the far bank of the stream. They swayed, the spring green of their leaves vivid against the rainy sky. This moment was all she'd thought of for weeks but she had never considered the reality of how she would get through the minutes of the hours of the days with absolutely nothing to do, no goals, nothing but a receding tunnel of images that she couldn't escape.
The idea that Ned Badger had been inside, "checking things" just before she arrived, made her feel unaccountably violated. He had a key, he could let himself in any time he liked ...
Suddenly she began to quake. The feeling came up from deep inside her, like an earth tremor. She felt no emotion, no fear, no anger, nothing, just a wide-open numb shock that seemed to shake the world.
No sooner here, than she wanted to leave. Really, to fling open the front door and run as fast as her legs could carry her — at that thought, she grinned sourly. And flee to where, exactly? The panic had no possible resolution. It would come with her wherever she went, like a cloud of angry wasps.
From long practise, she ignored the impulse. Instead she climbed the narrow twist of stairs. The first step made her thigh zing with pain, but she kept going. It was going to be even more fun coming down.
There was one bedroom, almost filled by a double bed with a puffy white duvet. An old oak wardrobe and dresser leaned towards each other on uneven floorboards. What must once have been a second bedroom had been converted to a bathroom with a white suite. It was plain but clean, with blue towels and a selection of soaps and shower gels in a flowery china dish. It was all she needed. It was fine.
I'm safe and I'm staying, Gill told herself.
The first thing she unpacked was her toiletries bag, stacking bottles into a mirrored cabinet. As she closed the cabinet door, her reflection slid into view and she grimaced. The tracery of worry lines and the black-framed glasses made her look severe. She didn't actually need the glasses; they were camouflage she'd worn for work, to affect a demeanor of unapproachable efficiency. They, and the charcoal suit, had been a sort of armor she'd gotten into the habit of wearing, but — strange to realize it — she didn't need them anymore.
As an office worker, she'd always felt a fraud. Her true self was an athlete — but she wasn't even that anymore.
With the glasses off, her face looked naked and vulnerable. Her dark brown eyes were haunted, and her skin had more the look of tepid coffee than the dusky glow on which she'd sometimes been complimented. Her complexion came from her Indian father, as did her good bone structure and kohl-lashed dark eyes. Since the accident, though, all she could see was the pale and harassed English half of herself.
Gill pulled the ponytail band out of her hair, letting the blue-black waves slide over her shoulders as she leaned down to turn on the bath taps. Steam rose around her as she discarded her clothes. The body underneath, which once had been honed and athletic, was now merely thin; wasted from long weeks in the hospital, tracked with scars. She tried not to look, tried to ignore the familiar feeling of disappointment.
Suddenly she felt like someone who'd been dropped onto a strange planet, or who'd crawled up a deserted beach with amnesia. The past was a mangled mess that she'd left behind. Present and future were a clean, clear blank.
She ran water into a tooth mug and took her medication; one antidepressant, two painkillers.
* * *
Juliana Flagg released the catches and let the bulky, oblong lid of the kiln rise from the sand bed below. It was a serious piece of equipment, designed to heat a huge slab of glass to the consistency of soft toffee until it slumped over a pre-made form. Residual warmth radiated from the interior. Even in her mid-sixties — my immense age, she thought wryly — she loved the hard physical work of sculpture, the heavy stuff that really made the muscles ache, the furnace heat, the fountains of light from her arc-welding torch or the scream of a chainsaw on seasoned oak.
At this stage, the raw glass looked a mess, like an amorphous mass spewed from a volcano. She rubbed sand away from one rounded edge and saw the greenish translucence beneath, rough and cloudy with bubbles. Promising ...
"Hey, don't even try to take that out on your own, Dame J," said Colin, slipping in through the big double doors of the foundry. "That's what I'm here for."
Ned Badger followed him, a slip of darkness. Their antagonism, their competition for her attention, amused her; but it was their own affair. She let them get on with it.
"I'm not taking it out," she said crisply. "It's annealing. Did that woman arrive for Robin Cottage?"
"Yes," Ned began. His slightly husky local accent was drowned by Colin speaking over him.
"She sure did. I nearly sent her packing. I thought she was from the bloody tax office!"
"Colin, for heaven's sake. You didn't say that to her, did you?"
"No, no. Just had to double check before I let her in."
"Thanks for the loyalty, but I hope you weren't too rude. You sorted her out, I take it?"
"Yeah, no problems, Dame J, but you know, she got me wondering."
Juliana didn't respond, to indicate her lack of interest in gossipy details.
"Mm, almost like she was in disguise, you know? I reckon I know who she is, though."
"Really," Ned said under his breath. He frequently managed to dismiss Colin with all the exquisite subtlety of a royal butler; too subtle for Colin to notice, unfortunately. He was too pleased with his own detective work.
"Yeah. She was wearing a seriously sexy pair of glasses, but behind them she was the spitting image of a long-distance runner — remember, that Brit who won silver at the last Commonwealth Games? What was her name?"
"I don't follow athletics." Juliana was only half-listening to Colin's chatter. Her attention was still taken by the raw glass. No two pieces were ever the same. Each had its own personality, its own power. And did this have any merit? It had a one in three chance; it might have the right feel, or it might have a dark, skewed energy, or it might have nothing at all. Once doubt set in about a piece, she was ruthless.
"Gillian Shaw, that's it. This woman's name is Gill Sharma. Too close to be coincidence, I reckon."
Juliana turned her gaze to Colin, silencing with the frigid light of her eyes. "So? Your point is?"
"Nothing." He shrugged, deflated. "Just be interesting if it was her, that's all."
"No, it wouldn't. It would be an idle scrap of gossip. Cease."
"Sorry, Dame J." Colin came to inspect the cooling mass. "Looking good."
He gave a sort of wink as he said it, so it wasn't clear whether he meant the glass slab, or her. She ran a sweaty hand over her hair and gave an imperious sniff, dismissing the notion. "No, it isn't. Destroy it."
Colin stared at her in despair. "Oh, come on. Not another one."
Ned, too, gave her a narrow look, but said quietly, "If Dame Juliana is not happy, her judgment is all that matters." (Continues...)
Excerpted from Midsummer Night by Freda Warrington, James Frenkel. Copyright © 2010 Freda Warrington. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.