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Authors: Meredith Moore

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BOOK: Fiona
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“Yeah. My great-great-grandfather or something had it built because he wanted a place he could hide with his mistresses where no one could find him.”

“Charming,” I snort, and Poppy murmurs in agreement.

Finally, we reach a large wooden barn, which looks much newer than anything else on the property. “Dad built this for me when he gave me Copperfield,” Poppy explains as we walk into the large, shadowed space. It takes a moment for my eyes to adjust and see the horses in their stalls.

A guy who looks only a few years older than I am is brushing down a horse with silky rust-colored hair, the one Poppy was riding earlier, and Poppy leads me to him. “I'll take that, Gareth,” she says. He surrenders the brush to Poppy with a smile and nods his head at me, and I realize that he was the one who helped her off the horse earlier this morning.

“I'm Fee,” I say, holding out my hand.

He shakes my hand slowly, lingering in the motion. “Gareth.
And I ken who ye are right enough. This place is small.” His brogue is so thick, with such wildly rolling
R
s, that I can barely understand him. I try to translate the words in my head, but his wide, knowing smile is easy enough to interpret. I pull my hand out of his grasp, but I can't bite back my own smile. He chuckles a bit and pats Copperfield's side before stepping out of the stall. “It'll be too much fog for riding this afternoon, miss,” he tells Poppy.

She nods. “I'll just brush her down then. Fee's never ridden a horse before.”

Gareth turns his deep brown eyes to me, eyebrows raised in surprise. “Really now?”

“Not much of a horse person,” I explain, reaching out a tentative hand to pat the neck of the absolutely massive horse in front of me. His hair is more bristly than I expected, and I can feel the thick, powerful muscles underneath it.

“Well, Poppy here knows everything about horses. She can teach you whatever you need to know. Or I can, if you'd rather.” He offers me another flirtatious grin, and I shake my head at his lack of subtlety. There's something endearing about how open he is, though. It's completely harmless flirting, which makes it all too easy to respond to. And he's cute enough, too, with messy muddy-brown hair and broad shoulders.

“I'll make sure she does,” I say, smiling at Poppy. There's a
faint hint of a blush on her cheeks and a pleased smile playing on her mouth.

Gareth nods at me before grabbing a bucket and heading out of the barn.

“He's dating Alice, one of the maids,” Poppy whispers to me as soon as he's gone. “And they think we don't all know about it.”

I'm surprised, but I try not to show it. I can't imagine practical, blunt Alice with someone like Gareth. And he was way too flirtatious with me, even if it didn't mean anything. “Why is it a secret?” I whisper back.

“Mabs doesn't approve of staff relationships.”


Mabs
doesn't seem to approve of much of anything,” I say, and there it is again: Poppy's almost-smile. She catches herself at the last moment, and her face smooths out into its usual expression of sullen boredom. But for that brief moment, she completely brightened.

Once Poppy's cleaned Copperfield's colossal hooves and settled him in for the night, we head back to the house. A dense fog has come in, rolling off from the mountain. “Is it always like this?” I ask Poppy, waving my hand around in the thickening air.

“This time of year, yes. Dad used to call this the witching hour, when the ghosts and fairies would come out and walk among us, just out of sight.”

It sounds like the kind of story my mom used to tell me. I
shudder, my eyes darting around, as if I'm actually expecting to see an apparition rippling through the fog. I don't relax until we reach the castle door.

Poppy's done enough homework for a Saturday, so I ask the cook if she'll send dinner for the two of us up to Poppy's sitting room, where we curl up in blankets and watch some mindless English romantic comedy that makes Poppy almost-laugh a few times. That positive development makes up for Mabel's cold stare of disapproval when she brings up our bowls of beef stew and thick hunks of brown bread. No matter what she thinks, I think Poppy and I will work together just fine.

CHAPTER 4

Once Poppy has gone to bed,
I'm left to confront the one thing that has been bothering me all day: the lie I told Poppy. Or, rather, what I
didn't
tell her. I try to busy myself by unpacking my suitcase, taking a long shower in the bathroom down the hall that I share with the maids and female kitchen staff, checking my email on the computer in the servants' common room. Hex wrote begging for information about Scotland, reminding me of the boring details of her job at the Buffalo Head Café, the most popular of the three illustrious dining options in Mulespur. She writes about how lucky I am to have escaped the monotony of serving endless chicken-fried steaks to drunk fans after every Friday night football game, and tells me she sort of misses me. I send her a long, rambling email back, telling her
about Poppy and the castle and Mabel and Albert and everything else that makes up this place I've found myself in.

No matter what I do, though, I can't stop thinking about my mother and, after a while, I don't have the energy to try. I give up and go to my closet to get the shoebox, the most important possession that traveled with me from Austin to Mulespur. The vessel that holds my past.

I open it and remove the photos and the note, letting memory take me over.

I told Poppy that my mother died in an accident. It's what I tell everyone, except Hex, who knows the more complicated truth.

I was almost seven when I realized that there was something wrong with Mom. I'd gone with her to the supermarket in East Austin to find something cheap for dinner. We were standing in the cereal aisle, and I was impatient because my mother was comparing prices. We were surrounded by other shoppers, everyone delicately maneuvering their carts in the small space, faces blank and tired as they scanned the contents of the shelves.

All of a sudden, my mother grabbed my arm and pulled me to her.

“Stay away from her!” she yelled as I fought to escape her viselike grip. It took me a second to realize that she was talking
to an old man near us. He looked up in surprise, his watery blue eyes flicking from me to my mother. He couldn't have looked more harmless if he'd tried: his back hunched over, his white hair covered by a newsboy cap, his face inundated with wrinkles.

“You can't have her!” my mother screamed, over and over, clutching me to her so tightly that I would have fingerprint bruises on my arms for weeks.

A security guard in an ill-fitting uniform had to escort us out of the market. I could feel everyone's eyes following us as my mother continued screaming that the man was trying to take me away from her.

She'd displayed paranoiac tendencies before, often convinced that someone was following us or listening in on our conversations in the apartment. But she had never reacted so violently, so publicly before. I finally realized that other people's mothers didn't act that way, that most kids didn't have to triple-check that the front door was bolted and the shades of the windows were drawn at all times.

When we got home, she slept for hours.

“I'm so sorry, sweetheart,” she told me the next day. “I don't mean to be that way.” And most of the time, she wasn't. Most of the time, she was my charming mother, who told me stories and made me eat my vegetables and tucked me into bed every night.

But after a while, her episodes started getting worse and
worse. She told me that if she told a doctor, they would put her on medication and take me away from her. I learned how to be very careful around my school friends, to make sure they never knew what was happening in my tiny garage apartment.

Then, one afternoon, she wouldn't let me into the apartment after school. She was supposed to be on shift at the café, but instead she was holed up inside. I unlocked the door, but she'd pushed her bed and my futon and everything else we owned up against it, and I could only get it open a crack. But I could hear her raving through the wall. “Get out!” she screamed. “You can't take me away! Get out!”

“Mama?” I said. It came out as a whimper. I hadn't called her “Mama” in years, not since I was a baby. “Mama, it's me. It's just me.”

“You'll hurt me, I know you'll hurt me. You seem so nice and soft, but it's all deceit, I know it is. I know it now!”

“Mama, I just want to come in. I'll make you dinner. It will all be fine, you'll see.”

“No!” she screamed, like someone was attacking her. “You can't take me!” And then there was a bang—a gunshot, I knew right away—and she stopped ranting.

I must have screamed. I must have screamed loudly and for a long while, because by the time the neighbors came home
and came up to see what was wrong, my throat was scratched and my voice was gone. And so was my mother.

The social worker they put in charge of me asked, “Why didn't you call an ambulance when you first got home?” She was a woman of soft smiles and reassuring hand-squeezes, but I could see the judgment in her eyes.

“She always told me not to call anyone,” I answered, my voice hardly more than a whisper. “She said it would pass, that I should just wait it out. If I called an ambulance, they would have taken me away from her.”

I know now that I should have fought Mom, that I should have done whatever I could have to bring her to a hospital years before. But I was too scared, too young to know what was really going on, and it all happened so fast. I thought she would recover, the way she'd always recovered from her episodes.

Instead, I moved to the middle of nowhere with an aunt I'd never met, who only took me in out of obligation. She kept me fed and left me alone, and I know I should have been grateful. But every now and then, I would catch her watching me, her eyes piercing my skin as though she could see the darkness within me. Waiting for the crazy to come out.

Because I know I'm at risk for the same disease my mother had. And that if I have it, the symptoms will start to show up
soon. It's why I was so terrified when I started hearing my mother's lilting Scottish voice in my head, years after she died.

But that voice is a product of grief, not schizophrenia. I don't have any other symptoms. I don't see or hear things that aren't really there. I don't have delusions of grandeur or paranoia. I straighten my shoulders and take a deep breath, the habit I developed to pull me out of my darker thoughts. It's the same ritual I perform before I play the piano, and it makes me feel calmer. Peaceful. Normal.
I'm not my mother. I'm not going to become schizophrenic.
I repeat that over and over again. Maybe someday I'll truly believe it.

I stare at the photos in front of me, the only images I have of my beautiful, once-joyful mother. In my favorite one, she has her curly red hair flung over her shoulder, her head tipped back in laughter, one hand resting on her hip and the other on her heart as happiness overtakes her. I can't remember what I said to make her laugh like that, but I can remember the sound of her laughter, deep and rich and irresistible, as I took the photo.

I press my eyes closed, trying to stop the tears, but it doesn't work. It never works.

I unfold the note, the one she wrote me during one of her last lucid spells. I've read it so many times that the edges of the paper—the blank side of an order slip from her café—are soft and frayed.

I love you. Always remember that I love you.

I fall asleep clutching that note, willing myself to dream something happy.

• • •

I try to get to know Poppy better over the next few days. I help her with her homework, discussing the Hundred Years' War and
Ivanhoe
with her and quizzing her on math problems that I barely remember how to do.

She still makes sure to let me know how very unwanted I am. Along with the constant eye-rolling, she typically refuses to respond to any of my attempts at friendliness. I ask about their family vacations, about her horseback riding, about her school friends, and all I get is silence.

I don't blame her. But she needs someone to talk to. She needs an outlet for all that anger and grief I know she's got bottled up inside her.

When she's at school, the hours seem to drag on. I make cautious friends with the gruff cook, Mrs. Mackenzie. She doesn't seem to like me, exactly—she doesn't seem to like anybody. She's too busy for anything resembling small talk, and whenever I walk into the kitchen, she fixes me with this look that demands I spit out whatever request I have and then get out of her way. But when I ask her to recommend some kind of tea that will help me sleep, she brews a cup of her special
heather chamomile tea and shows me the tin, so I can make myself a cup of it every night.

During the day, I tend to secret myself away on the window seat in the library, where there are soft pillows and books to distract me from the memories that bombard me when I'm alone. There I can hide myself away from the rest of the world behind a thick curtain and look out over the back of the house. The land slopes down below me, and I can barely see the stable beyond the hedge maze and the trees. It's magical.

But after about a week or so, as the chill of early October begins to take over, I'm restless for something new. Poppy rides Copperfield every afternoon after school, so she doesn't return until dinnertime. There are too many hours and not enough to fill them with in this old, damp castle.

One morning, I decide to follow Alice around like a lost puppy, helping her with her housework in exchange for information.

We're cleaning one of the dozens of spare bedrooms when I finally ask the question I've been wondering about most.

“What's Charlie like?” I say as she hands me a feather duster.

She raises her eyebrows, then sighs. “That's—well, it's complicated.”

“Why?” I'm trying not to sound too interested, but I can tell from her quick, hard glance that I'm not successful.

“Because he's changed so much since his parents died. He used to be something of a playboy, a partier. The lord and lady managed to keep his antics out of the papers, but he spent most of his time at university getting into trouble. Only graduated this year because his parents kept donating money. He had a girlfriend at St. Andrews for a while, Blair. But he'd cheat on her every time he came back home, with whatever local girl he could find. They all fall all over him.” There's a hefty amount of disgust in her voice that catches my attention.

“Did you and he . . . ?” I ask.

She scoffs. “Not on your life. He's broken a few of my friends' hearts, though.”

“You said he's changed since his parents died?”

Alice nods. “He had to. He couldn't be the irresponsible spoiled brat anymore, not when he had to take care of Poppy and his father's company. Now he's serious all the time, a completely different person.”

“No more cheating on his girlfriend?” I ask.

“No more
girlfriend
,” she answers, taking the duster from me and cleaning the mantelpiece and the antique dueling pistols hanging on the wall above it herself. “Or at least she didn't come to the funeral.”

“And he's in Glasgow now?” I ask.

“He left the day you arrived. Had to show the board that he was ready to take over as CEO.”

I nod, throwing the used dust rags into a basket and picking it up.

Alice stops me before I can walk out of the room. “When you meet him, just be careful, okay?” she says, her eyes intent on mine. “He has this way of sweeping girls off their feet, but once a heartbreaker, always a heartbreaker.”

I laugh, shifting the bin from one hip to the other. “Players really aren't my type. Don't worry about me.” It hits me how ironic it is that she's lecturing me about staying away from players when she's dating the flirt from the stables. But Poppy said it was supposed to be a secret, and I don't want to betray her tentative trust.

Alice nods, but there are still traces of doubt in her eyes as we leave the room together.

I think of the guy from the pub with the red-brown curls and the icy green gaze, wondering how he could cause Alice such concern. He must have been much more charming before his parents died, I decide.

Half the boys in my high school thought they were insanely irresistible, so I'm used to players and their practiced charm. When I was a sophomore, a senior boy named Matt spent the better part of fall semester hanging around my locker, asking
me to parties and dates and football games. He used honeyed, well-rehearsed words and clichéd moves—tucking a lock of hair behind my ear, taking my books from me and walking me to class before I could protest. I would have been tempted, because he was undeniably cute, but I'd watched him use those same moves on three other girls in my grade, making them go all soft and giggly and then breaking their hearts once he'd grown bored with them. I refused to turn into one of those girls, and I rejected him every time, but he wouldn't take the hint, and finally Hex told me I needed to “woman up” and grow a backbone. So the next time he tried to grab my books from me, I gave him a flirtatious smile and told him, sweetly, “Not a chance in hell.”

The memory makes me smile. Both of us were so embarrassed by the whole thing that we spent the rest of the year hiding from each other.

My smile fades when I hear stomping behind me, and when I turn around, I find Mabel bearing down on me, her eyes flashing. I assume she's mad because I've been helping Alice, who scurries off without even a goodbye.

“Where's Poppy?” she demands.

I stare at her for a moment, frozen. “It's not four yet, is it?” I sputter out. “She's still at school.”

“The school just called. Poppy has been missing classes for the past week, and today she didn't even show up at all.”

“But—Albert and I dropped her off this morning. I saw her walk into the building.”

Mabel points her finger at me. “She's not answering her mobile, and no one knows where she is. It's
your
responsibility to make sure she's where she's supposed to be. You need to find her. And if she's hurt because of your negligence, you will find yourself fired immediately.”

BOOK: Fiona
9.3Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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