Elspeth Shaw prefers her solitary life to the tragic results that come from mixing in society. Elspeth is cursed: every mortal being who forms an attachment to her dies a horrible death. Yet when the doomed Lord Falmouth arrives in search of the very artifact that blights her, she hasn't the will to refuse. But the price for cheating death may be more than any human can pay...
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22 September 1899
All through the final months of the century, Elspeth read signs and omens in the skies above the main island of St. Kilda.
Birds careened overhead in mad, unnatural patterns before dashing themselves against the cliffs and falling broken into the restless sea. Clouds spelled out warnings in ancient Greek, and hailstones sharp as darning needles forced the village folk into their houses and down to their knees in frantic prayer. In August, the crazed winds whipped an early fall of snow into a seething, crystalline god of wrath. The North Atlantic threw another of her prolonged fits of temper, and St. Kildasituated some forty miles west of the Hebrides and a hundred miles from the Scottish mainlandbore the brunt of her rage. Conditions grew hostile to human survival.
Elspeth, who alone on the island possessed both an understanding of ancient Greek and the time to note the behavior of suicidal seabirds, knew she was somehow to blame.
"The ground's froze solid," said Mrs. MacGillvrey, her middle-aged peasant's face a study in accusation, "and it's only just September. The men don't dare fish these rough waters, and hunting's a lost cause. What few crops were saved won't be enough to last the winter. There's babes goin' hungry"
"I've already said yes, Mrs. MacGillvrey. By all means, take as much from the pantry as will fit in the handcart." Elspeth refused to meet her housekeeper's gaze, staring instead into the cold, empty fireplace on the other side of the library. Beyond the windows, the storm's inhuman howl all but obliterated the tinkling of her father's wind chimes.
"I'll be gone 'til Friday next," Mrs. MacGillvrey warned her. "How will ye feed yerself? And what will ye do if one o' them blasted contraptions takes it into its head to murder ye in yer sleep?"
Elspeth shrugged, an unladylike mannerism she'd picked up from her father sometime in her first five years life and hadn't ever been able to lose. "I am as able as you to brew tea, toast bread and simmer porridge, and I see no evidence that my life is in imminent peril. But I do thank you for your concern."
She lifted her eyes in time to see her housekeeper make a sour face. Mrs. MacGillvrey had never liked her, not from the moment they'd met. It was why Elspeth had hired her in the first place. The woman's instant antipathy made her the perfect candidate for the positionthat and her ability to speak a decent version of the Queen's English in addition to St. Kilda's Gaelic dialect. Although it made for an exceedingly lonely existence, Elspeth knew it was better this way.
For both of us.
"Then I'll take meself to bed, if ye don't mind, and be up and out at first light."
"Yes, of course," Elspeth said. "And do take care, Mrs. MacGillvrey."
A contemptuous sniff was the housekeeper's only reply.
In the library of the great house built into the side of the highest hill on the island, Elspeth sat at her father's abandoned desk, her white hands folded on the unblemished green blotter. In three quarters of an hour, the other servantsthose Mrs. MacGillvrey called "blasted contraptions"would assemble in the main hall for their daily maintenance, a necessity that never failed to remind Elspeth of her solitude here among her father's creations. Nevertheless, she would wind their clockworks and pump their bellows and oil their joints, and keep her distaste for her charges to herself. She owed her father that much loyalty, at the very least.