Authors: Meredith Moore
The whispering starts
again that night, but the earplugs do the trick, and I finally get some good sleep. The next morning at breakfast, I linger in the dining room longer than I usually do. Since Poppy made me promise to join her and Charlie and Blair in the mornings, I've been rushing through the meal, too uncomfortable to eat much around Blair. But today, I get a second cup of tea and pay close attention to Mabel as she rushes in and out, serving the large platters of food for all of us. But I see nothing different about her. She is still the same short, slightly stocky woman in a stiffly ironed apron. She has her hair in the same neat, dark gray bun, the same hard glint in her eyes, the same pursed lips. She doesn't look at all like she did last night, scurrying around frantically, heading to the underground heart of the castle to worship an ancient tree.
Breakfast ends, Poppy goes to school, and now my thoughts are once again occupied by my grandparents. And Dunraven Manor, which is so close. So after Albert and I drop Poppy off at school, I casually ask him to drive me to Perthton.
“Perthton? Why do you want to go
?” he asks, turning around in the driver's seat so that he can look me in the eye. “There are closer villages for shopping.”
I shrug, trying not to squirm under his curious gaze. “I saw there was a yarn store there,” I say. The search I did on Perthton said it was the largest yarn store in the Highlands. “I thought I could take up knitting while Poppy's at school.”
He still looks at me, as if unconvinced, but agrees and starts the car anyway.
Should I just tell him? I could reveal that I'm the long-lost granddaughter of the Cavendish family. He's lived around here his whole life and has been working for the Moffats since his twentiesâhe probably knows the Cavendishes. But I don't want to talk about it, not even with someone as understanding as Albert. Not until I know more about all these family secrets.
Thankfully, Albert doesn't say another word as he drives me to Perthton. It's a much larger town than Almsley, though that's not saying much. It has a couple of shops and pubs and even a small hotel on its main square.
I promise to call Albert when I'm ready to be picked up and step out onto the sidewalk. I walk into the yarn shop, a much tinier place than its website led me to believe, and pretend to browse the shelves for a few moments until the car disappears down the road.
According to the map, Dunraven is only a couple of miles from the village. I find the two-lane highway that will take me there and start walking.
It's warmer than it's been in weeks, and the sun's even trying to peek through the clouds. After a few minutes, I shrug off the heavy coat that I borrowed from Alice and sling it over my arm.
There's no sidewalk, and only about two inches between the edge of the road and the low-lying stone wall that runs alongside it, which separates me from fields of rolled-up bales of hay and shaggy cows. So every time a car comes by, I have to hop up onto the wall to let it pass. Luckily, though, there's not too much traffic on this stretch of road.
I try to enjoy the walk, the feel of sunshine through my thin sweater, the comical Highland cows with their curious stares. But today is one of those days when the sadness has a terrible weight, and it presses down more heavily than usual. Some days it seems the grief is closer for no particular reason. Perhaps it's
not the best day to seek out my mother's childhood home, but I can't stay at the castle when I know exactly where my grandparents are.
I try to ignore the grief, but soon all I can feel is the churning anxiety in my stomach. The sunshine disappears, and a misting rain starts to fall, the wind growing more forceful, pulling at my clothes like it's warning me to turn back.
I don't have to go looking for my grandparents now, I tell myself. I could just see the house where my mother grew up, then leave. I'll just look at it and hurry back to the village and wait for Albert. There's nothing to worry about.
Finally, the low stone wall grows higher, more protective, and eventually I reach a road on the left. It's blocked off by an ornate wrought-iron gate, and a plaque on the front reads
There's a security camera at the gate, but it's pointed down at the road to identify any incoming cars. After a quick glance over my shoulder to make sure there are no cars passing by, I climb up the chin-high wall and swing myself over it.
I pause. If those men in the pub were right, that means I'm standing on my family's land. This place is my mother's history. My history.
The thought of it is too big to comprehend, and I don't
take the time to try. Instead, I start walking. I don't see a house, though the entrance road stretches far into the distance in front of me until it disappears down a hill.
I walk the path through these beautiful acres of wild land, which are growing with lush fir trees and healthy heather despite the chilly fall weather. I pass a placid flock of sheep, their wooly coats dirty and gray. They snip away at the grass with hardly a glance at me, and I continue on, careful where I place my feet. I should have worn boots, not these old Converses. The ground beneath me is rocky and treacherous, just like it is at the castle.
I realize as I walk deeper into the property that I'd been hoping to feel some kind of connection, some deeper sense that this place was my homeland, but it doesn't come.
Because you don't have a home
, that wicked voice in my head says. The nasty one that's not my mother. I stop for a moment and close my eyes, willing the voice to disappear.
The mist turns into rain, and then heavier rain, and before I know it, I'm soaked through. I should call Albert, but if I leave now I don't know if I'll have the courage to come back. I at least want to see the house.
I follow the path up and down a few more hills before I finally catch sight of a sprawling manor in a valley below. And the sight of it takes my breath away.
I wouldn't have thought that a manor house would be as large as a castle, but as far as I can tell, it's even bigger. It's made of a similar gray stone, but it doesn't look as ancient as Fintair Castle does. It's not a fortress, meant to protect the inhabitants against invaders, but a palace, built to be pretty and proportional, a huge rectangle with wings on either side stretching longwise, making an H-shape. There are more windows and chimneys than I can count.
I hardly have time to marvel at it, though, before I hear someone clear his throat behind me.
I whirl around to find a man standing a few feet away, frowning at me through the rain. He wears a patched wool jacket and sturdy boots and has one of those weathered faces that make it impossible to tell if he's thirty or fifty.
“You're trespassing, lass,” he says. He crosses his arms in front of him, which makes him look even broader and more intimidating, which must be his goal.
“I'm so sorry,” I say, my words tumbling over each other. “I must have gotten lost. I didn't mean to, I'm sorry.”
“Gotten lost after climbing over a stone wall into private property?” he says with a snort. “There are cameras all over. We've been watching you snooping around for the past ten minutes. Come with me.”
“I'm not snooping!” I protest.
“Aye, right! Are you going to come with me willingly, or am I going to have to drag you, lass?”
My shoulders slump. “Lead the way,” I mutter.
I wasn't even sure I wanted to meet my grandparents today, and now I'm going to be dragged before them like a criminal. I follow behind the man like a scolded puppy. He takes me down the hill to a side door of the manor house, and despite my somersaulting stomach, I can't help but gasp at the sight of the place up close. It towers above me and seems to stretch on forever. Why did Mom never tell me how exquisite and expansive her childhood home was?
But when we walk through the front door, I realize that she did. Because way up on the ceiling of this glittering entryway, there's a fresco of a fire-breathing dragon, its scales blue and green and gold. I know immediately from its colors and menacing expression that it's the same dragon Mom described in her stories. In those tales, the princess who slew dragons lived in a giant palace with so many rooms that the king and queen had run out of uses for them.
We enter some kind of den or study, with stiff-looking couches and towering walls of old books. Normally I'd be awestruck by a room like this, but all sense of wonder escapes me when I see an older woman standing in front of me with her hands clasped, watching me as I drip water onto the polished
wood floor. Her hair is dark gray and spun into a low bun at the nape of her neck. Her dress is the same dark gray, and her lips are pressed into a thin line. My grandmother?
“Who are you?” she asks.
“Are you Mrs. Cavendish?” I ask, nearly breathless.
That provokes a reaction: a quick quirk of her eyebrow. “No. I'm Mrs. Drummond, head of household. Mr. and Mrs. Cavendish do not concern themselves with such trivial matters as voyeuristic intruders.”
I breathe out a sigh of relief. “My name is Fee,” I say quietly, hoping she's never heard my name mentioned before. “Fee Smith. I'm an au pair for the Moffat family.”
“And what are you doing here?” she asks, with a slightly less glacial tone.
“I'm sorry, I didn't want to disturb the CavendishesâI just wanted to see this place. Everyone's told me how beautiful Dunraven Manor is. I'm so sorry I've caused so much trouble.” There. That didn't sound so crazy. Did it?
Mrs. Drummond gazes at me for an extended moment, and I begin to doubt myself.
“Well,” she says finally. Her form softens, losing most of its fearsome disapproval. “No harm done, I suppose. And if you really are the Moffats' au pair, you'll be able to call Albert and have him pick you up, yes?”
“Yes. Yes, of course. I'll call him right now.” I take my phone out and dial his number. He answers on the first ring, and when I tell him where I am, he promises to come get me immediately.
Mrs. Drummond nods at the man who apprehended me. “That will be all, Reggie. Thank you.”
She fetches me a towel, which I use to dry off, and then waits with me for Albert. We sit there for a full half hour while questions about the Cavendishes bite at the tip of my tongue. Are they here right now? Could they walk in at any moment?
“Do you like working here?” I croak out finally.
“It's one of the most desirable posts in the country,” she says without hesitation.
“What are the Cavendishes like?” I ask, my voice hardly louder than a whisper.
She considers me for a moment, her expression softening. “They are fine employers.” She pauses. “They were very close to Lady Lillian Moffat, as a matter of fact. She came to visit them every week. She was almost like a daughter to them, and they are very distraught by her passing.”
I blink, absorbing the impact of her words, the unintentional cruelty they convey.
And that cruelty, combined with the grief that has been suffocating me all day, is too much. I try to swallow the sudden
lump in my throat, but it only grows larger. In a few moments, I know I'll be sobbing.
Luckily, Mrs. Drummond gets up to look at something out the window. “Albert's here,” she says, opening the door for me.
I hurry out into the heavy rain and to the car, not even stopping to thank Mrs. Drummond. I can't speak.
“Everything okay?” Albert asks, swiveling around in his seat to look at me. “What were you doing out here?” I think he means to sound concerned, but it comes out harshly. “Fee?” he says when I don't answer. I can't help it. I start crying ugly, heaving sobs, my entire body crumpling over across the backseat.
I just want him to start the car and get us out of here, but instead, he opens his door and hurries out into the rain, toward the house. I'm weeping into the soft leather of the backseat. I can't stop. I want to go home. Why can't we just go home?
It's an eternity until Albert comes back, and the engine finally roars. “Put on your seat belt, lass, and I'll get us out of here,” he says softly.
I struggle to get the stupid seat belt into the stupid clasp as Albert, my savior, speeds us right out past the gate.
I hate them. I don't even know the Cavendishes, but I hate them. How could they be so affected by Lily's death but not at all by Mom's? How could they treat Lily as a daughter when they never cared about their own? Mom may have run away, but they
clearly didn't try too hard to look for her. What kind of monsters would do something like that? Ignore their own family, ignore
, while I've spent years yearning for one?
I pull my knees up to my chest and press them against my eyes, but I can't stem the tears.
I can't stop crying.
Why can't I stop crying?
A rational person would have calmed herself down by now. When Mom was really getting worse, she would cry for hours at a time, over nothing. I half expect to hear her voice in my head right now, telling me that everything will be all right. But for once, she's silent.
Is this what it was like for Mom?
That thought only makes me cry harder, and by the time we get home, I'm practically hysterical. Albert swerves to a stop in front of the castle, where someone I can't make out through the rain or my tears is standing. Albert gets out of the car to meet them, and I hope with everything I have left that it's not Mabel. Or Blair. I don't want either of them to see me like this.
The car door across from me opens, and all of a sudden Charlie is sitting beside me, unbuckling my seat belt and pulling me to him. I'm hiccupping, trying to apologize, and I try to move my tear-soaked face from his shirt, but he just presses me closer.
“It's okay, Fiona,” he murmurs in my ear. “It's okay.”