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Gowan Kilbride, aged sixteen, had never been much for early rising. While still living on his parents' farm, he had grumbled his way out of bed each morning, letting everyone within hearing distance know, through a variety of groans and creative complaints, how little to his liking the life of husbandry was. So when Francesca Gerrard, the recently widowed owner of the largest estate in the area, decided to convert her Scottish great house into a country hotel in order to recoup upon the death duties, Gowan presented himself to her, the very man she would need to wait on tables, officiate behind the bar, and oversee a score of nubile young ladies who no doubt would eventually apply to work as serving girls or maids.
So much for fantasy, as Gowan soon discovered. For he had not been employed at Westerbrae a week before he realised that the workings of that immense granite house were to be orchestrated solely by a contingent of four: Mrs. Gerrard herself, a middle-aged cook with too much growth of hair on her upper lip, Gowan, and a seventeen-year-old girl newly arrived from Inverness, Mary Agnes Campbell.
Gowan's work possessed all the glamour commensurate with his position in the hotel hierarchy, which is to say that there was virtually none. He was a factotum, a man for all seasons of travail, be it working the grounds of the rambling estate, sweeping the floors, painting the walls, repairing the ancient boiler on a biweekly basis, or hanging fresh wallpaper to prepare the bedrooms for their future guests. A humbling experience for a boy who had always seen himself as the next James Bond, the irritations of life at Westerbrae were mitigated solely by the delicious presence of Mary Agnes Campbell, who had come to the estate to help put the house in order prior to its receiving its first paying customers.
After less than a month of working at Mary Agnes' side, even getting up in the morning was no longer a chore, since the sooner Gowan bounded out of his room, the sooner he would have his first opportunity of seeing Mary Agnes, talking to her, catching her intoxicating scent on the air as she passed by. Indeed, in a mere three months, all his former dreams of drinking vodka martinis (shaken, not stirred) and showing a marked preference for Italian handguns with skeleton grips had been quite forgotten. In their place was the hope of being favoured with one of Mary Agnes' sunny smiles, with the sight of her pretty legs, with the agonising, tantalising, adolescent hope of brushing up against the swell of her lovely breasts in one corridor or another.
All that had seemed quite possible, quite reasonable in fact, until the arrival yesterday of Westerbrae's very first bona fide guests: a group of actors from London who had come with their producer, their director, and several other hangers-on to work the wrinkles out of a new production. Combined with what Gowan had found in the library this morning, the presence of these London luminaries was making his dream of bliss with Mary Agnes look more remote every moment. So when he pulled the crumpled piece of Westerbrae stationery out of the rubbish in the library, he went in search of Mary Agnes and found her alone in the cavernous kitchen, assembling trays of early morning tea to be carried up to the rooms.
The kitchen had long been a favourite haunt of Gowan's, mostly because, unlike the rest of the house, it had not been invaded, altered, or spoiled. There was no need to suit it to the tastes and predilections of future guests. They would hardly come wandering through to sample a sauce or talk about the turn of the meat.
So the kitchen had been left alone, just as Gowan remembered it from his childhood. The old tile floor of dull red and muted cream still made a pattern like an enormous draughtboard. Lines of coruscating brass pans hung from oak stringers against one wall where iron fixtures were like smudgy shadows on the cracked ceramic surface. A four-tiered pine rack atop one of the counters held the everyday dishes of the household, and beneath it a tricornered drying stand wobbled under its burden of tea towels and cloths. Pottery urns stood on the windowsills, holding oddly tropical plants with large, palmate leaves--plants that by rights should have withered under the icy adversities of a Scottish winter, but nonetheless thrived in the room's warmth.
It was, however, far from warm now. When Gowan entered, it was nearly seven, and the frigid morning air had not yet been cut by the huge stove heating against one wall. A large kettle steamed on one of the burners. Through the transomed windows, Gowan could see that the previous night's heavy snowfall had smoothly sculpted the lawns rolling down to Loch Achiemore. At another time, he might have admired the sight. But right now, righteous indignation prevented him from seeing anything but the fair-skinned sylph who stood at the worktable in the centre of the kitchen, covering trays with linen.
"Explain this tae me, Mary Agnes Campbell." Gowan's face flushed nearly to the colour of his hair and his freckles darkened perceptibly. He held out a discarded piece of stationery, his broad, callused thumb covering the Westerbrae estate crest upon it.
Mary Agnes directed guileless blue eyes towards the paper and gave it a cursory glance. Unembarrassed, she went into the china room and began pulling teapots, cups, and saucers from the shelves. It was every bit as if someone other than herself had written Mrs. Jeremy Irons, Mary Agnes Irons, Mary Irons, Mary and Jeremy Irons, Mary and Jeremy Irons and family in an unpractised script up and down the page.
"Wha' aboot?" she replied, tossing back her mass of ebony hair. The movement, designed to be coy, caused the white cap perched rakishly over her curls to fall askew, over one eye. She looked like a charming pirate.
Which was part of the problem. Gowan's blood had never burned for a single female in his entire life as it burned for Mary Agnes Campbell. He had grown up on Hillview Farm, one of the Westerbrae tenant holdings, and nothing in his wholesome life of fresh air, sheep, five brothers and sisters, and boating on the loch had prepared him for the effect Mary Agnes had upon him every time he was with her. Only the dream of someday making her his own had allowed him to keep hold of his reason.
That dream had never seemed entirely out of the range of possibility, in spite of the existence of Jeremy Irons, whose handsome face and soulful eyes, torn from the pages of countless movie magazines, graced the walls of Mary Agnes' room in the lower northwest corridor of the great house. After all, girlish adulation of the unreachable was typical, wasn't it? Or so Mrs. Gerrard tried to tell Gowan when he daily unburdened his heavy heart to her as she supervised his advancing skill at pouring wine without sloshing most of it onto the tablecloth.
That was all fine and good, so long as the unreachable remained unreachable. But now, with a houseful of London actors to mingle among, Gowan knew very well that Mary Agnes was beginning to see Jeremy Irons within her grasp. Surely one of these people was acquainted with him, would introduce her to him, would let nature take its course from there. This belief was attested to by the paper Gowan held in his hand, a clear indication of what Mary Agnes felt the future had in store for her.
"Wha' aboot?" he repeated incredulously. "Ye left this lyin' in the lib'ry, tha's wha' aboot!"
Mary Agnes plucked it from his hand and shoved it into her apron pocket. "Ye're kind tae retairn it, laddie," she replied.
Her placidity was infuriating. "Ye gie me no explanation?"
"'Tis practice, Gowan."
"Practice?" The fire inside him was heating his blood to a boil. "Wha' kind of practice d'ye need tha' Jeremy Irons'll help you with? All over the blessit paper. And him a marrit man!"
Mary Agnes' face paled. "Marrit?" She set one saucer down upon another. China jarred together unpleasantly.
Gowan at once regretted his impulsive words. He had no idea whether Jeremy Irons was married, but he felt driven to despair by the thought of Mary Agnes dreaming of the actor nightly as she lay in her bed while right next door Gowan sweated for the right to touch his lips to hers. It was ungodly. It was unfair. She ought well to suffer for it.
But when he saw her lips tremble, he berated himself for being such a fool. She'd hate him, not Jeremy Irons, if he wasn't careful. And that couldn't be borne.
"Ah, Mary, I canna say faer sairtin if he's marrit," Gowan admitted.
Mary Agnes sniffed, gathered up her china, and returned to the kitchen. Puppy-like, Gowan followed. She lined up the teapots on the trays and began spooning tea into them, straightening linen, arranging silver as she went, studiously ignoring him. Thoroughly chastened, Gowan searched for something to say that would get him back into her good graces. He watched her lean forward for the milk and sugar. Her full breasts strained against her soft wool dress.
Gowan's mouth went dry. "Hae I tol' ye aboot my row to Tomb's Isle?"
It was not the most inspired conversational gambit. Tomb's Isle was a tree-studded mound of land a quarter of a mile into Loch Achiemore. Capped by a curious structure that looked from a distance like a Victorian folly, it was the final resting place of Phillip Gerrard, the recently departed husband of Westerbrae's present owner. Rowing out to it was certainly no feat of athletic prowess for a boy like Gowan, well used to labour. Certainly it was nothing that was going to impress Mary Agnes, who probably could have done the same herself. So he sought a way to make the story more interesting for her.
"Ye dinna know aboot the isle, Mary?"
Mary Agnes shrugged, setting teacups upon saucers. But her bright eyes danced to him briefly, and that was sufficient encouragement for Gowan to wax eloquent upon his tale."Ye havena haird? Why, Mary, all the villagers know tha' when the mune is full, Missus Francesca Gerrard stands buck nakit a' the windae of her bedroom and beckons Mister Phillip to coom back to her. From Tomb's Isle. Whair he's buried."
That certainly got Mary Agnes' attention. She stopped working on the trays, leaned against the table, and folded her arms, prepared to hear more.
"I dinna believe a word of this," she warned as preamble to his tale. But her tone suggested otherwise, and she didn't bother to hide a mischievous smile.
"Nar did I, lass. So las' full mune, I rowed out myself." Gowan anxiously awaited her reaction. The smile broadened. The eyes sparkled. Encouraged, he went on. "Ach, what a sicht Missus Gerrard was, Mary. Nakit at the windae! Her arms outstretched! An' glory, those dugs hanging claer tae her waist! Wha' an awful sicht!" He shuddered dramatically. "'Tis na wunner to me tha' auld Mister Phillip be lying so still!" Gowan cast a longing glance at Mary Agnes' fine endowments. "Coorse, 'tis true tha' the sicht of a luvely breast cuid make a man do anything."
Mary Agnes ignored the less-than-subtle implication and went back to the tea trays, dismissing his narrative effort with, "Gae on wi' yere work, Gowan. Weren't ye supposed tae see tae the biler this mornin'? It wus fozling like my grannam last nicht."
At the girl's cool response, Gowan's heart sank. Surely the story about Mrs. Gerrard should have engaged Mary Agnes' imagination more than this, perhaps even encouraging her to request a row on the loch herself next full moon. With drooping shoulders, he shuffled towards the scullery and the creaking boiler within.
As if taking pity on him, however, Mary Agnes spoke again. "But aiven if Missus Gerrard wants, Mister Phillip winna coom back to her, laddie."
Gowan stopped in his tracks. "Why?"
"'That my body shinna lie on this cursit ground of Westerbrae,'" Mary Agnes quoted smartly. "That's what Mister Phillip Gerrard's will said. Mrs. Gerrard told me that herself. So, if yere story is true, she'll be at the windae forever if she hopes tae hae him back that way. He isna aboot to walk across th' water like Jesus. Dugs or no dugs, Gowan Kilbride."
Finishing her remarks with a restrained giggle, she went for the kettle to begin making the morning tea. And when she came back to the table to pour the water, she brushed so near him that his blood began to heat all over again.
Counting Mrs. Gerrard's, there were ten trays of morning tea to be delivered. Mary Agnes was determined to do them all without stumbling, spilling a drop, or embarrassing herself by walking in on one of the gentlemen while he was dressing. Or worse.
She had rehearsed her entry often enough for her debut as hotel maid. "Guid mornin'. Luvely day," and a quick walk to the table to set down the tea tray, careful to keep her eyes averted from the bed. "Juist in case," Gowan would laugh.
She went through the china room, through the curtain-shrouded dining room, and out into the massive entry hall of Westerbrae. Like the stairway at its far side, the hall was uncarpeted, and its walls were panelled in smoke-stained oak. An eighteenth-century chandelier hung from its ceiling, its prisms catching and diffracting a soft beam of light from the lamp Gowan always switched on early every morning on the reception desk. Oil, a bit of sawdust, and a residual trace of turpentine scented the air, speaking of the efforts Mrs. Gerrard was making to redecorate and turn her old home into an hotel.
Overpowering these odours, however, was a more peculiar smell, the product of last night's sudden, inexplicable flare of passion. Gowan had just come into the great hall with a tray of glasses and five bottles of liqueurs to serve to their guests when Mrs. Gerrard tore wildly out of her little sitting room, sobbing like a baby. The resulting blind collision between them had thrown Gowan to the floor, creating a mess of shattered Waterford crystal and a pool of alcohol a good quarter-inch deep from the sitting-room door stretching all the way to the reception desk beneath the stairs. It had taken nearly an hour for Gown to clean the mess up--cursing dramatically whenever Mary Agnes walked by--and all that time people had been coming and going, shouting and crying, pounding up the stairs and down every corridor.
What all the excitement had been about was something that Mary Agnes had never quite determined. She knew only that the company of actors had gone into the sitting room with Mrs. Gerrard to read through a script, but within fifteen minutes their meeting had dissolved into little better than a furious brawl, with a broken curio cabinet, not to mention the disaster with the liqueurs and crystal, as evidence of it.
Mary Agnes crossed the hall to the stairs, mounting them carefully, trying to keep her feet from thundering against the bare wood. A set of house keys, bouncing importantly against her right hip, buoyed her confidence.
"Knock quietly first," Mrs. Gerrard had instructed. "If there's no answer, open the door--use the master key if you must--and leave the try on the table. Open the curtains and say what a lovely day it is."
"And if 'tisna a luvely day?" Mary Agnes had asked impishly.
"Then pretend that it is."
Mary Agnes reached the top of the stairs, took a deep breath to steady herself, and eyed the row of closed doors. The first belonged to Lady Helen Clyde, and although Mary Agnes had seen Lady Helen help Gowan last night in the friendliest fashion with the spilled mess of liqueurs in the great hall, she wasn't confident enough to have her first-ever tray of early morning tea go to the daughter of an earl. There was too much chance of making a mistake. So she moved on, choosing the second room, whose occupant was far less likely to notice if a few drops of tea spilled onto her linen napkin.
There was no answer to her knock. The door was locked. Frowning, Mary Agnes balanced her tray on her left hip, and fumbled about with the keys until she found the master to the bedroom doors. This done, she unlocked the door, pushed it open, and entered, trying to keep all her rehearsed comments in mind.
The room, she discovered, was terribly cold, very dark, and completely soundless, where one would have expected at least the gentle hiss of the radiator at work. But perhaps the room's sole occupant had decided to pop into bed without turning it on. Or perhaps, Mary Agnes smiled to herself, she wasn't in the bed alone, but was snuggling up to one of the gentlemen under the eiderdown. Or more than snuggling. Mary Agnes stifled a giggle.
She walked to the table beneath the window, set down the tray, and pulled open the curtains as Mrs. Gerrard had instructed. It was not much after dawn, the sun only an incandescent sliver above the misty hills beyond Loch Achiemore. The loch itself shone silver, its surface a silky sheen upon which hills, sky, and the nearby forest were duplicated exactly. There were few clouds, just shredded bits like wisps of smoke. It promised to be a beautiful day, quite unlike yesterday with its bluster and storm.
"Luvely," Mary Agnes commented airily. "Guid mornin' tae ye."
She swung around from the curtains, straightened her shoulders to head back towards the door, and paused.
Something was wrong. Perhaps it was the air, too hushed as if the room itself had drawn in a quick breath. Or the odour it carried, rich and cloying, vaguely reminiscent of the scent that flew up when her mother pounded meat. Or the mounding of the bedcovers, as if pulled up in a hurry and left undisturbed. Or the absolute lack of movement beneath them. As if no one stirred. As if no one breathed . . .
Mary Agnes felt the bristling of hairs on the back of her neck. She felt rooted to the spot.
"Miss?" she whispered faintly. And then a second time, a bit louder, for indeed the woman might be sleeping very soundly. "Miss?"
There was no response.
Mary Agnes took a hesitant step. Her hands were cold, her fingers stiff, but she forced her arm forward. She jiggled the edge of the bed.
"Miss?" This third invocation brought no more reply than the previous two.
Seemingly on their own, her fingers curled round the eiderdown and began pulling it away from the figure beneath it. The blanket, feeling damp with that kind of bone-chilling cold that comes with a heavy winter storm, snagged, then slid away. And then Mary Agnes saw that horror had a life all its own.
The woman lay on her right side as if frozen, her mouth a rictus in the blood that pooled crimson about her head and shoulders. One arm was extended, palm up, as if in supplication. The other was tucked between her legs as if for warmth. Her long black hair was everywhere. Like the wings of ravens, it spread across the pillow; it curled against her arm; it soaked itself to a pulpy mass in her blood. This had begun to coagulate, so the crimson globues edged in black looked like petrified bubbles in a hell-broth. And in the centre of this, the woman was held immobilised, like an insect on a display board, impaled by the horn-handled dirk that plunged through the left side of her neck right into the mattress beneath her.
From the Trade Paperback edition.