Authors: Meredith Moore
An Imprint of Penguin Random House
Copyright Â© 2016 Meredith Moore
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eBook ISBN: 978-0-698-15776-7
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
To Greg and Jenn
For being part of my family and making me part of yours
I step out
of the tiny outdoor train station to find a village that consists of only three other buildings: a general store with a floral dress and piles of toothpaste in the window, a crumbling post office, and a pub, the one place open at this hour. The grass-covered mountains of the Scottish Highlands rise above it all, appearing as massive shadows in the dim light from the overcast moon. A few old men sit drinking pints outside the pub across the street, but otherwise the town is deserted, the only sound the rustling of leaves tumbling along the cobblestones.
I'm the only one who got off the train in Almsley, this tiny little place, and the only other person at the station is a clerk reading a glossy tabloid in the information booth. No one's here to pick me up. I check the clock hanging above the platform: 8:00. Right on time.
I try to calm my quickening breath and settle onto the bench outside the station. That woman, Mabel, is just running a little bit late. I don't have any British pounds left for a cab to Fintair Castle, but I'm sure I can manage to find it on my own if I need to.
The wind bites into me and whistles past my ear. I hug my ragged coat even closer. It's only late September, but the wind here grows vicious as the night wears on. I sit on that bench until I can't feel my fingers and then grab my patched-up duffel bag and lug it over to the pub. No use freezing outside if no one's coming to get me.
The pub is a cozy, worn-down, jovial sort of place. People of all ages crowd around the bar and lounge in the tattered green plaid armchairs by the fire. Two girls, one with dyed black hair and an impressive amount of cleavage and the other with wavy blond hair and a very short skirt, hold court in the middle of the room, surrounded by nervous male admirers. I skirt around them and head for the seat closest to the bright orange fire, drawn by the warmth.
A guy sits opposite me, staring into the flames, his curly brown hair shining with glints of red in the firelight. He doesn't look up to acknowledge me, though I'm only a yard away from him. I roll my eyes as I unwrap my scarf and stretch my hands toward the fire. The thin gloves I found in the Mulespur
Salvation Army have done nothing to keep my hands warm, and I stifle a sigh as the feeling begins to return to them. West Texas had no pervasive cold like this, even in the dead of winter. For a moment, I almost miss the sunbaked red dirt I just left behind.
I look up and see that the guy is staring at me. I blink, but he doesn't turn away.
“Can I help you?” I ask in the voice that my friend, Hex, taught me to use on creepers. It's a menacing, pointed thing, meant to pierce, but he doesn't even flinch.
He quirks an eyebrow in surprise, then shakes his head and looks back at the fire.
The dyed-black-hair-and-cleavage girl circles behind his chair. I watch her from the corner of my eye. She looks like she's stalking a particularly tasty kind of prey. “You up for a pint, then, love?” she asks, placing herself between him and the fire, one hand expertly resting on her cocked hip.
“Not tonight,” he says, looking through the girl like he can still see the flames behind her. His accent is something like the Scottish brogue I kept hearing on the train, but it's crisper somehow. Cleaner. It reminds me so much of my mother's, and I realize suddenly that I'm blinking back tears.
“Come on,” she says, bending down lower, no doubt to position her cleavage right in his face. “You've had a rough time of it. Let me make it better.”
He finally looks up at her. “I'm fine,” he says firmly, staring her down until she walks away.
She makes a clucking noise to save face and then escapes back to her circle of admirers. I don't blame her. There's something icy and unforgiving in those green eyes of his.
I realize that I'm staring openly at him when those cold green eyes shift to mine. And then they soften, and I realize that he must see the tears conjured up by his familiar accent.
And that's my cue to leave. I grab my scarf and my duffel bag and fling myself out of that little pub before he can say anything. Before he can see anything else.
There's a man with a thick overcoat standing across the street at the train station, and when he sees me looking at him, he heads toward me. He has shockingly white hair, deep wrinkles, and a broad smile. “You must be Fiona Smith, then?” he asks, taking my duffel bag before I can tell him that no one's called me Fiona in years. I'm Fee now. “Sorry I'm late,” he continues. “We've had a bit of a situation at the house, but everything's sorted now. Poppy's very excited to meet you.”
Poppy, the eleven-year-old girl I've come here to nanny.
Her mother, Lady Lillian MoffatâLily, as my mom called herâgrew up with my mother here in Scotland and recently invited me here for this job. But then two weeks ago, I got the Google Alert on my phone. I'd just bought this scarf and gloves
and too-flimsy coat, preparing for my new life back in my mother's home country. I was on my phone, waiting for my aunt to come pick me up, and when the alert pinged, I thought it would be just a puff piece about Lord and Lady Moffat, the glamorous owners of the
newspaper, at yet another social gathering. Their smiling faces were often slathered across the
site, though as hard as I looked, I could never find photos of Poppy or her older brother, Charlie.
It wasn't a photo of Lily and Harold this time, though. It was a picture of their mangled car.
I had never met them. I'd only spoken to Lily a few times on the phone, her voice crackling and quiet across what sounded like a bad connection. She had been my mother's best friend once. And even though it was hard for them to keep in contact after my mother ran away from the life Lily eventually took over, Mom always said she was witty and fun, someone worth knowing. And now I'd never know her.
Reading the news story, I sat down hard on the curb, my eyes filling with tears for this woman I didn't know who had died much too young, just like my own mother. For the son and daughter she left behind. I almost turned around and returned all the cold-weather clothing I'd just bought, but my aunt swerved into the parking lot and honked her horn in a long, angry screech, and I couldn't keep her waiting.
The call from the head housekeeper came a couple of days later. I'd already told my manager at the Buffalo Head CafÃ© that I would be staying, resigning myself to the fact that I wouldn't ever get out of Mulespur. That I would be surrounded by drugged-out cowboys and sunburned oilfield workers for the rest of my life. That I would never escape the stifling resentment of my aunt's home.
But Mabel, the housekeeper, told me that I was still wanted. “You may be asked to take on more responsibilities than originally planned,” she told me, her brogue thick but her warning clear. “Master Charlie is legally in charge of Poppy, but he has to run the family business now. She needs someone to look after her.” Her voice broke a little at that, and I could hear the undercurrent of grief in her tone. “You'll receive the same salary as previously negotiated.” I'd never “negotiated” a salaryâLily could have offered me nothing but room and board and I would have still jumped at the chance.
So I kept the winter clothes and flew over the Atlantic Ocean on my first plane.
“I'm Albert, by the way,” the old man says, extending his hand and breaking me out of my thoughts. “Forgot to introduce myself. That's the way of it when you get to be my age. I'm the driver. The chauffeur, Lady Lillian liked to call it. She always liked things to be fancier than they were.”
That explains why she hired me as an
, not a nanny.
You'll be the perfect companion for Poppy
, she'd written in the email that came out of the blue. She wrote that even though she'd never met me.
I shake Albert's weathered hand and follow him to a large black car. He opens the rear passenger door for me, and I consider protesting, insisting I sit up front with him, but he raises his eyebrows at me, and I slide in without a word.
I buckle myself in, and now I know there's no turning back.
I don't know why I agreed to this. Why I thought I could do this. As the car travels out of the little crossroads town and up the winding mountain roads, I clench my hands together.
In my ear, I can hear my mother whisper:
do this, Fiona. And you will.
I pick at the cuticle of my left index finger, my bad habit, and stare out the window, trying not to react. My mother's voice hasn't popped into my head much over the past few years, but I heard her in the airport back in Lubbock, too, as I stood in front of a bathroom mirror and tried not to have a panic attack over getting on a plane for the first time.
You'll be fine, hen
, she said, using her Scottish pet name for me.
It's just a grief reaction, I tell myself. It's not actually her, and I'm fully aware of this. It's my way of coping with a stressful situation. It's normal. I'm just freaking out because I am now
somehow responsible for taking care of a girl who just lost her mother, too.
I've never known my fatherâhe abandoned my mother before I was born. My mother had given up her life of privilege in Scotland to marry a wannabe rock star from America who was passing through the UK. Lily had warned her that he would ruin her life, that she would become someone so different that she wouldn't recognize herself. But my mother ignored her, left the fiancÃ© her parents had picked out for her, and followed my father to a little apartment in Austin. Love, obsessive love, had put her in danger, leading her down a path she could never recover from. Her parents disowned her promptly, and after about seven years, my father ran off without a word while she was pregnant with me.
Despite everything, she made my life nothing short of charming. We lived in a garage apartment in a neighborhood with addicts and gang members and the kindest, most caring neighbors we could have wished for. Mom made sure I never knew how poor we were. She filled my life with brightly painted yellow walls and stories of princesses who slew dragons and, above all else, music and literature. Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns always reminded her of home, and she'd read their work aloud for me, so that I could have a taste of that homeland, too. She told me tales of Celtic myths, the
, and fairies who
led travelers off the roads. Strong princesses who fought their own battles. Ghosts and goblins and ghouls were my favorites, and she made up stories about all of them.
All that happiness, all those stories, died when she did, when I was twelve.
After that, I moved from the lively bustle of Austin to the hot, dead-end town of Mulespur to live with my father's older sister, the only family I had left. My mother's parents, the Cavendishes, died after she left Scotland. No one could get in touch with my fatherâhe'd thoroughly vanished long before. “Probably dead in a ditch somewhere,” my aunt said once before spitting on the ground. “Good riddance.” My aunt put me in the back room of her little shotgun stone house, but not without warning me that she could get rid of me anytime she wanted. I grew up and went to high school and counted down the days until I could be free.
I was studying for my last final when Lily's email came. I'd known that she'd married the man my mother was supposed to, Lord Harold Moffat. They had a young daughter who needed an au pair for the school year. She wrote that she had kept an eye on me ever since my mother died, spurred by the memory of her friend, for whom she still felt obligation and affection. If I didn't have any plans for the next year, there was a position available for me in her home.
When Mom left Scotland, Lily took my mother's fiancÃ© and carefully planned future, and Mom didn't begrudge her any of it. “I have you,” she told me. “I have freedom.”
Albert turns into a dusty dirt drive, revealing a view so magnificent that I can't help but gasp. Trees from the surrounding patch of forest line the road, their branches curving over to reach the other side, creating a space like the nave of a great cathedral. Spotlights shine down from the trees, fighting against the darkness of the night, creating shadows all around us.
“The avenue's been here since the mid-eighteen hundreds. The mistress was very proud of it.” His voice is low and hushed, that particular tone of grief. He must have been very close to Lily to feel her loss like that.
We drive for what seems like miles through the cathedral of trees, until they suddenly fade away and reveal a long lawn with a reflecting pool, and a building that is definitely a castle. There is a central rectangular stone tower with several wings branching out from it. Dozens of windows line the walls, and the gray turrets and multiple chimneys reach up into the sky, lit by bright floodlights and the dim moon. We enter through an arched gateway into a stone courtyard, and the size of the castle stretching up around us overwhelms me.
I did a bit of research on the family before I came, eager to learn more about the people I was going to live with. The
Moffats have owned this castle for centuries, though Lord Harold bucked the family tradition of living off the land when he bought a national newspaper as well. The paper, the
, did not have a website I could access without a paid subscription, but as far as I could tell, it was established, respected, and serious.
No wonder his castle is so well maintained.
Albert stops the car in front of the door. “Here you are, then,” he says, hopping out so that he can open my door.
I take a deep breath before I unbuckle my seat belt and get out of the car. This can't be real life. I must have stepped into one of my mother's fairy tales. All that's missing is the dragon I'm supposed to slay.
Albert knocks on the massive front door, then looks back at me with a kind smile, though there's still that observant glint in his eyes. “It'll be good to have some new young blood in the house, lass. You might bring some happiness to the poor little girl.”