Authors: Kathleen Kirkwood
Tags: #romance historical paranormal time travel scotland victorian medieval
“Longford is quite right. Bound to
improve. But I, for one, don’t intend to allow a patch of bad
weather to deter me in the least. Some of the finest sport is to be
found in this portion of Scotland.”
“But how will you manage it, let alone
find the creatures in such a broil?” Lady Charles
“My dear lady, I’ve sported throughout
the Highlands for many a season and in considerably wetter
Lady Charles looked to Julia, mouthing
Lord Withrington’s last words in disbelief.
“All that as it is,” he continued,
ignoring her look, “I wouldn’t miss this opportunity. To my memory,
this is the first time Dunraven has opened its doors to guests in
two decades. I don’t know how young Eaton convinced his uncle to
agree to it, but I am supremely gratified he did. Mark my words.
The forests will be thick with game.”
“I thought Dunraven was Lord Eaton’s estate.”
“Oh no, my child.” Lady Charles wagged
her head. “Roger Dunnington has yet to come into his titles. No,
‘Lord Eaton’ is only his courtesy title. Lord Muir, his uncle, is
quite alive, though a tad ancient, seventy if he is a day. It is he
who bears the title of marquis. He holds lesser titles and estates
in England and Scotland, as well, including that of Twenty-seventh
Laird of Dunraven Castle.”
“But, you say Lord Muir has invited no
guests these twenty years past?” Sir Robert injected, looking to
Lord Withrington. “Is there a reason?”
Lord Withrington dragged on his chin
in thought. “It’s all rather mysterious, actually. There was a day
when the castle hosted numerous hunts. But Lord Muir closed it up
quite abruptly one season and without explanation.”
“True,” Lady Charles concurred. “My
late husband attended several hunts at Dunraven in his younger
years. He knew Lord Muir personally and praised him as a superb
marksman and a genial host.”
A line pleated her brow as she reached for
some thread of memory.
“I believe Nigel attended that last
autumn. The hunting was prime, the men of good cheer; then, on the
final night of their stay, Lord Muir retired early as he was wont
to do. Something occurred in the night. Or so one presumes. The
next morning, he did not appear to bid his guests farewell. He
became somewhat of a recluse after that and closed Dunraven to
“Rumor holds it possesses some murky
secret,” Lord Withrington added.
“Possesses?” Sir Robert’s
brows rose. “As in
Heads floating in the castle halls, glowing green
ladies, phantom pipers?”
“No, no, man. Nothing like
that. But there is something peculiar about the place. Something .
. .” Lord Withrington groped for the word. “Something
Why else shut up
the castle for so long? Should make for an interesting stay, eh
Julia could not believe her ears. After the
rigors of the day, must she now sleep in a castle harboring dark
“Well, I do hope we shall be soon to
Dunraven,” Lady Charles opined. “Nights are obsidian in the
Highlands, and tonight there will be no moon.”
“No moon?” Julia wrapped her plaid
more tightly about her. “Ah, you mean it is the night of the New
Moon.” Instinctively, she glanced to the window.
“Careful.” Sir Robert’s comment drew
her gaze back. “There are mysterious forces surrounding the moon.
Or so the Scots believe. They have a rich lore dealing with lunar
cycles — when to cut one’s hair, dig ditches, plant crops, marry —
all based upon whether the moon is waxing or waning, rising or
setting. On the night of the New Moon, it is courting bad luck to
gaze at it through glass.”
“Preposterous,” Lord Withrington
protested. “You mean to say, if I should even look through my
spectacles, or out this window here, ill would befall us?” Putting
his bewhiskered face to the window, he purposely stared out. “See.
No harm done.”
At that, lightning fissured the sky,
followed by peals of thunder. The coach lurched hard to a stop, as
if a giant hand reached out of the ground and seized the back
wheel, pulling it down into the mire.
With the other carriages far in advance and
unaware of their plight, the little group was left to rely upon
themselves. The men gallantly assisted the driver, while the ladies
took refuge under umbrellas, wrapping themselves in plaids.
An hour later, dislodged from its muddy
trap, the coach lumbered on. Next to the loss of her parents,
Julia thought, surely, Scotland was her worst nightmare.
At Devils Elbow they left the main
route and proceeded slowly through the ponderous mountains, into
the teeth of a galloping squall. The skies clashed and roared all
about, and they feared the horses would bolt. Cautiously, they
traversed narrow passages, climbing and plunging with sometimes no
more leeway to the precipice than a hand’s stretch.
Spectacular flashes of lightning
filled the sky as they arrived long last at Dunraven Castle.
Despite Sir Robert’s warnings, Julia looked out and caught sight of
the castle. Another flash of lightning revealed a massive,
truncated tower rising on one end, while a Jacobean extension
crowned with corbels, turrets, gables, and pepperpots sprawled
eastward in a haunting but pleasingly proportioned
The carriage ground to a halt, and the
gentlemen climbed out quickly, in turn, aiding the ladies.
The wind and rain whipped wildly about Julia
as she emerged from the carriage. A sharp crack of lightning drew
her attention, once more, to the massive tower.
In her fatigue, she imagined it
watched her, contemplated her. Cold — or was it apprehension? —
shivered along her spine. Lord, but what she would give to be in
Hampshire now, or even Braxton Hall for that matter. As she gazed
on the brooding tower, she wondered what secrets its ancient stones
At that, the sky fired with dramatic
display — a spidery hand reaching down to earth as if it would
snatch both her and the tower right up. Julia gasped, the air
catching in her lungs.
As the spectacle dissolved into ebony
darkness, the castle door pulled open. Grim-faced servants
appeared, dimly illumined in torchlight, bidding them enter
Julia stood dripping onto the
flagstone floor and took in the cavernous hall with its high
vaulted ceiling and walls bristling with antlers.
To her left, a peat fire blazed in a
great, yawning fireplace, its light crowding back the darkness that
swamped the chamber. Half-spent torches flickered in iron brackets
affixed to the wall. These created pockets of illumination down the
length of the hall — wavering, ruddy gold pools, tilting against
Opposite the entrance, to the
chamber’s far end, rose a magnificient stone staircase. A dozen
broad steps reached up to a spacious landing. There, as below,
ornate candelabra crowned the newels — rearing bronze stags,
sprouting heads full of antlers, the points spiked with tapers.
From the landing, twin flights swept to an upper gallery, the whole
of it swallowed in shadows.
Julia’s gaze drew
. At ground level, right and left of the
staircase, and then again behind it, on the back wall, passages led
off, each vanishing into an Egyptian darkness.
The torches and tapers proved a feeble
match for the vast expanse of the hall, Julia observed as she
continued to glance about, noticing for the first time an immense
tapestry covering the wall to her right, its hunting theme barely
discernible in the dimness.
Truly these were the lodgings of a
gamesman, a man unrelievedly passionate for the sport. And yet,
Dunraven had welcomed no hunters for nigh on to twenty years. How
was it their group should be allowed here now, she wondered? Did
Lord Eaton hold such sway with his uncle? Julia decided she very
much looked forward to meeting the “ancient” laird of Dunraven
The storm rumbled without, as if in response
to her thoughts. The fine hairs lifted on the nape of her neck, and
she clutched her sodden cloak closer, over her chest.
“Yer wrap, miss.” The butler’s voice
sounded behind her, scabbed with impatience.
Julia turned and met his dour gaze. He
stared at her from beneath a bramble of brows, a gruff-looking
little man, no taller than she. Squarish in build and kilted in
red, he possessed a receding crop of coppery hair and full side
whiskers, threaded liberally with gray.
Julia fumbled with the fastener at her
throat as he continued to wait and glare.
“We’ve created a small lake, I fear,”
she offered conversationally, spying the puddles that mottled the
floor where she and her companions had tread.
“So ye have,” he agreed
Without further comment, he accepted her
mantle and moved off to aid Sir Robert. At the same time, a tall,
needle-thin woman came forward. Dressed in an unadorned dress of
gunmetal gray, her hair skinned back into a knot, the woman
presented a stark contrast to the colorful, bandy-legged
“The floor will clean up tidily
enough,” the woman informed, her voice as expressionless as her
narrow face. “I am Mrs. McGinty, the housekeeper. You have met Mr.
McNab.” She gestured to where the butler now retreated from the
hall, his arms laden with a mound of sopping coats and
“The fires in the parlor were
extinguished several hours past when the ladies retired for the
night. I must ask that you remain here. The hearth will afford you
sufficient warmth while you await Lord Eaton.”
The housekeeper withdrew, gliding over
the flagstones with an eerie grace, her spine arrow-straight,
shoulders level with the floor, head never bobbing.
“I do believe the woman’s face would
crack if she attempted a smile.” Lord Withrington echoed Julia’s
thoughts as she joined him and Lady Charles before the expansive
“Such a gloomy twosome,” Lady Charles
declared. “Let us hope the rest of the staff is more
Dull thunderings sounded without. Julia
wrapped her arms about her and looked to where Sir Robert paced the
length of the hall, examining varied trophies of the hunt. As he
neared the far end, light spilled from an unseen door, illuminating
the passage to the left of the stairs. In the next breath, Lord
Eaton appeared, accompanied by a half dozen or more men, all of
whom Julia recognized as having traveled from Braxton.
“We’d quite given up on you!” Lord
Eaton greeted brightly, relief evident in his voice.
Tall and mustached, he cut a dashing figure
in his costly smoking jacket of quilted satin and velvet. His hair
waved from a fashionable center part and gleamed of Macassar oil
which made it several shades darker than its true russet color.
Julia considered Lord Eaton to be passable
in looks but not truly handsome. His was a meticulously fostered
image, both in style and manners, one that engendered an aura of
attractiveness and a certain magnetism. Yet at times, behind the
polish and charm, Julia thought to glimpse . . . something. She
could not quite lay a finger to it, but she sensed it to be somehow
Lord Eaton clasped hands in welcome with Sir
Robert then moved toward Lord Withrington, repeating the same, and
finally bowed to the ladies.
“We were just now discussing forming a
search party and who should go. Jove, but the lot of you are sopped
to the gills!”
Julia smoothed a self-conscious hand
over her traveling dress, knowing the lower portion of her skirt to
be saturated. The bows and lace on her bonnet drooped as did Lady
Charles’s feathers, a rather soggy mess that draggled over the brim
of her chipped-straw hat. The men’s trousers fared worse, not only
drenched but mud-splattered, attesting to their labors.
“Confounded piece of luck, don’t you
know.” Lord Withrington adjusted his glasses. “Roads went to
pudding and sucked in our carriage right up to the axle. Took an
eternity in the bloody downpour to liberate it.”
Lord Eaton’s dark eyes whisked to
Julia, sweeping over her none too discreetly before shifting to
“What a wretched welcome to the
Highlands. But here, we must see you all into some dry clothes and
put some heat back into your bones.”
Catching sight of the housekeeper reentering
the hall, Lord Eaton turned to her.
“Mrs. McGinty, bring plaids for our
guests before they catch their death in this drafty hall, and see
what McNab is doing about the luggage. We’ll need a fire built in
the parlor and some hot tea.”
The potent odors of cigar smoke and
whiskey assailed Julia’s nostrils as Lord Eaton and his companions
crowded about them, inquiring further of their mishap. Julia lifted
a hand to cover a sudden cough. Obviously, the men had come
directly from that venerable male sanctum, the smoking room. She
coughed again, then cleared her throat.
“My dear Julia, are you well?” Lord
Eaton closed the space between them, catching her hands in his,
concern charging his features. “You haven’t a jot of color and
your fingers are freezing.”
Julia repossessed herself of her hands,
nettled that he took the liberty of addressing her by her first
name when she had never given him license. Again the brawny odors
of tobacco and liquor assaulted her.