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Authors: Meredith Moore

Fiona (7 page)

BOOK: Fiona
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“Where is she now?” Poppy asks, her voice soft.

“She's back in Texas.”

“Do you miss her?”

I nod. “Every day.”

“I'm sorry I've been so awful to you,” Poppy says after a moment.

“It's okay,” I say, and I look right at her so she knows I mean it. “Charlie's sorry, too, you know. That he had to leave you.”

She looks back down at the floor. “I know.”

We sit there quietly for a few minutes until Poppy pushes herself back up. “I should probably shower before bed. I still smell like horse.”

I stand up, too. “About that. Try to make it to school tomorrow, okay? Or Mabel might skin me alive.”

Poppy snorts. “Okay.”


That night,
I'm too excited to sleep, so happy that I finally made it through to Poppy. So I go down to the library and curl up behind the curtain on the window seat. I've started reading
by Daphne du Maurier, about a woman who's married a widower and moved into his big house on the English coast, a place with fog and secrets swirling in the air.

Suddenly, the door to the library swings open and bangs against the wall. I scream, the book dropping from my hand.

“Oh, God,” a voice says. A voice I know.

I push myself off the window seat, drawing back the curtains that hide me until I see Charlie standing in the doorway, his face white with shock, staring at me like I'm a ghost. “You scared the bloody hell out of me,” he says. He's lost his suit jacket and
tie, and his white button-down hangs open, revealing a lean chest with lines of definition down to his low-slung pants.

“You scared
,” I whisper, unable to stop staring.

“I'm sorry.” His voice is low, deep, and he braces himself against the doorway, pressing his hands against the frame like he needs something to hold himself up. Or like, if he weren't grasping the sides of the doorway, he'd be launching himself forward. At me.

He's looking at me with those warm green eyes again, his strong jaw tense.

I slip off the window seat, closing my book. “I'll get out of your way,” I murmur.

“You don't have to leave,” he says quickly.

I open my mouth, about to say something about how I should get to bed, when he interrupts me.

“I'm sorry about earlier. At dinner. Did Poppy—is she okay?”

“She will be,” I say with more confidence than I feel. I take a few steps toward him, until I'm halfway across the room. “She's just hurting.”

He laughs one short, bitter laugh. “I keep hurting everybody.” I hear honesty, pain in his voice.

“What do you mean?” I ask, unable to stop myself.

He shakes his head and doesn't answer.

I step forward again. I feel as if I'm approaching a wounded animal, trying to soothe it into trusting me. So that I can fix it.

But I can't fix this, I remind myself. I don't have the cure for grief caused by losing your parents. I can't even cure myself.

Why is his shirt unbuttoned? It keeps distracting me.

He finally looks at me, his eyes trained on my lips, which I realize now are slightly parted.

And then, inexplicably, he starts laughing. Uncontrollably. “I'm sorry,” he says, nearly doubled over. “It's just—”

“Are you drunk?”

He holds his thumb and index finger sideways in the air, the universal sign for “just a little bit,” and I roll my eyes.

Plenty of my classmates back in Mulespur spent their nights hidden away on playing fields or in friends' barns, far from the prying eyes of parents, getting wasted on cheap beer. Then they'd show up to class hungover, if they showed up at all. I didn't care how they spent their time, but doing well in school was the only way I could make it out of Mulespur. I wasn't going to waste my life away night after night.

“Would you at least button your shirt?” I snap at Charlie.

He finally stops laughing and looks down, seemingly surprised to find himself so rumpled. When he looks back up at me, there's something new in those green eyes. Curiosity,
maybe. An almost calculated interest. “Does it make you uncomfortable?” he asks, stepping toward me. Once. Twice. And then another long stride.

He must be really drunk, I realize, or he wouldn't have made such a suggestive remark. He wouldn't have stepped so close to me that I have to tilt my head to look him in the eyes.

This is the player version of Charlie that Alice warned me about. All charm and no substance.

I lean in slightly, watching with satisfaction as his eyes widen. Slowly, achingly slowly, I raise my lips to his ear. “Get some sleep and sober up,
Master Charlie
,” I say, my tone full of fake deference.

I step back, a smile flitting across my lips, and step around him to leave. He says nothing, just lets me go.

Back in my room, all of my confidence fades away. I just told my boss to sober up. My
. And I leaned in close to him, so close that I could smell the whisky on his breath and then, beneath that, a scent like rain and wood fire.

I shiver and fling myself on my bed, only pausing to take my shoes off before curling up under the blankets. Maybe I'll wake up tomorrow morning and it will all have been a dream. Or maybe it really did happen, but he was so drunk that he won't remember anything at all.

I hide my face in my pillow. How could I have lost control over myself? How could I have acted like that in front of my boss? No matter his behavior, I should have been able to keep up some kind of professional demeanor. It's what normal people would do.

There's a muffled sound of laughter from the other side of the wall. It almost sounds like it's coming from the left, but I'm in the last room in the hall, so it must be coming from Keira to my right. She's one of the maids, and she seems friendly enough when we cross paths around the castle. I hope she's not laughing because she heard me throwing myself on the bed.

I burrow back into my blankets and do my best to calm the whirling storm in my mind. I have to get a good night's sleep if I want to figure out how not to lose my job tomorrow.

I'm just about to slip into unconsciousness when a large bang on the other side of the wall jolts me upright. The left side, the outside wall. The room falls silent again, the only sound my staccato breathing.

But then there's another muffled sound, and I sit up, straining to hear. From the tinny sound of whispered conversation, it seems like someone to my left is watching TV. At two in the morning. There must be some weird acoustic thing happening
to make it seem like the noises from Keira's room are coming from the other side.

I bury my face back in my pillows, but I can't block out the sound. I consider getting up and asking Keira to tone it down, but I don't want to offend her. Not when I'm still so new to the house.

Finally, after about an hour of indecipherable whispers, the room falls silent, and I fall asleep.


I wake up
the next morning groggy and tired, determined to avoid Charlie all day. If I don't see him, he can't fire me. But when I walk into the dining room with Poppy for breakfast, he's sitting at the table, not sleeping off his hangover as I was predicting. He winces when he sees me.

Poppy approaches him cautiously. “Sorry,” she says, almost in a whisper, “about last night.”

He raises his eyebrows, and his whole face brightens. “Me too,” he says.

She nods, grabbing the dish of potato scones and sliding one onto her plate. Charlie looks over at me. “Thank you,” he mouths, and I nod.

I grab a piece of shortbread and bite into it, just to have something to do, but as soon as it hits my mouth, I freeze.
Because it's not just any shortbread. It's my mother's shortbread, with a hint of cayenne pepper, just enough to shock the taste buds. She made it accidentally one day, when I was eight, after knocking a bit of cayenne into the batter. We liked it so much that, ever after, she made it the same way.

I nearly spit it out.

Mabel marches into the room, setting a plate piled with thick bacon and a fried egg in front of Charlie.

“Where did this recipe come from? For the shortbread?” I ask her.

She turns around and blinks at me. “Mrs. Mackenzie's been making it this way for years. Is it not to your taste?” she asks with a sneer.

“It has cayenne in it.”

“What?” Mabel asks.

?” Poppy asks. She's staring at me, too, now. My face must have gone white, and I know my eyes are round in horror.

Mabel lifts another piece of shortbread from the plate of them and takes a bite. “I don't taste anything strange,” she says, narrowing her eyes at me, as if I'm just causing problems for the sake of it.

I swallow the last crumb of shortbread and sit down. Maybe my taste buds are off this morning, out of whack from lack of
sleep or something. “Never mind,” I murmur, and everyone goes back to their breakfast.

I stare down at the remainder of the shortbread. For that brief moment, I felt like I was little again, back in Austin with my mother, chatting and laughing over cookies. Have I just been missing her so much that my brain tricked me into thinking it was that same old taste? Still, I don't dare take another bite.

I opt for some fruit and keep my eyes on my plate for the rest of the meal, but I can barely taste a thing. Every time I open my mouth, it fills with the thick tension in the room, coating my tongue and nearly making me gag. He's looking at me. I can feel it.

I get up to leave as soon as Poppy is done. “Fee, can you wait a second?” Charlie asks before I can scurry out of the room.

Poppy waltzes away, and I have to face him.

He waits to speak until I finally meet his gaze. “I owe you an apology,” he says. “I was guttered last night, and I acted inappropriately.”

I breathe out, relieved. So I won't be fired, then. “I take it ‘guttered' means really drunk?”

He almost smiles. “Yes.”

“I thought you weren't a big partier anymore.” I nearly bite my tongue. What's the matter with me?

“You've been asking about me?” he says, his brow raised in genuine surprise.

I shrug, trying to act unconcerned. “I just wanted to know what kind of man I was working for.”

He nods with a sigh. “It was a . . . a hard day yesterday, and I didn't handle it the way I should have. I'm sorry you had to see me like that.” He speaks formally, as if he's making a big effort to act the way he thinks he should. The way a grown-up would.

“I understand,” I say.

“Do you? Because you've got this look—” he starts, but cuts himself off.

I blink. “What look?”

“Nothing,” he says quickly. But he stares at me, as if he can see every single emotion racing across my features. As if he can see through my thin facade of normality.

“I should go make sure Poppy's ready for school,” I say, breaking my gaze from his and skirting around him.

• • •

Alice finds me the next day roaming around the castle, strolling along the portrait gallery, trying not to linger too long in front of the gloomy stare of the Grey Lady. “Bored yet?” she asks, resting her vacuum against a doorframe.

“How'd you guess?” I say, my lips quirking up slightly.

“Wandering the halls is never a good sign.”

“It's too stormy to wander outside,” I say. It's been raining in blinding sheets all morning, dark clouds swirling above, a cold and gloomy October day that makes the castle feel small and suffocating. I've had a prickle on the back of my neck for hours, the sensation I get when I feel like I'm being watched. “It just feels so . . . isolated here.”

“That's because it is. We're miles from any other house, any other family. It's our own little world out here.” She lifts the heavy vacuum again. “Come on, I have to clean the family rooms.”

I follow her up the stairs to the fifth floor. “Is that why you dated Gareth? Because he's the only guy nearby?” I ask with a lilt in my voice. I can't help my curiosity anymore.

She half smiles, half grimaces. “You heard about that, huh?”

I shrug, trying not to show how interested I am.

“I've known him since we were little,” she says with a sigh. “We grew up in the same area. When he came to work here last year, it was easy to sort of . . . fall together. I think we were both just lonely and bored. At first, at least. And then, I don't know.” She presses her lips together, glancing at me as if she's just remembered I'm here. “Ancient history at this point, anyway.”

She watches me now, as if she knows all about that strange moment I had with Gareth in the stable. My breath grows shallow; there's not enough air in this room.

But then she speaks again, and it's not about Gareth at all. “So, Fee, what do you think of Charlie?”

I'm caught off guard, and I hope with all my might that I'm not blushing, but I'm sure I am. “He's not—well, I guess he's not what I expected him to be.”

She tilts her head at me, disappointment falling across her expression. “I know he's charming. And he can make you feel like you're the only girl in the world. But it doesn't mean anything to him.”

I take a deep breath. “What did he do? To your friends?” I ask.

“He slept with a few of them. Just one-night stands, nothing serious. Except it was serious to my friend Georgina. They fooled around once, and she thought it was turning into something more. She thought he would leave his girlfriend for her. But he was just using her while it was convenient for him, same as all the other girls. He has no idea the kind of damage he causes.”

I'm about to assure her that I'll never give Charlie the chance to break my heart, when Alice unlocks and opens the door to Lord and Lady Moffat's bedroom. I follow her inside, taking in the splendor. Ancient, faded tapestries adorn the stone walls, and a glittering chandelier hangs from the ceiling above a soft ivory-colored couch and armchair gathered in
front of a fireplace, which is directly across from a huge white, canopied bed. There are family photos everywhere: the mantel, coffee table, nightstands. Charlie and Poppy at various ages, in formal and relaxed settings. I trace a finger along a frame holding a photo of Charlie that must have been taken just a few years ago. His red-brown hair is longer, shaggier, and he beams out at the camera from the deck of a sailboat. Shirtless, in just a pair of swimming trunks. I swallow, loudly.

“The family sailed around the Mediterranean a few summers ago,” Alice says, noticing my attention on the photograph with a curious mixture of disapproval and envy. “They tend to stay away from the castle in the summer, when it's open to the public.”

“They open this place up to visitors?” I ask, surprised. “Why?”

“They need the money, of course. Taxes and upkeep on a place like this are murder. Lord Moffat's newspaper hasn't been doing well for a while now. Not well enough to keep up a place like this, anyway.”

“Why not?”

She shrugs. “No one's buying newspapers anymore. Not in print, anyway. And their website is clunky, outdated. The lord kept the paper old-fashioned on purpose, keeping it a source of serious, in-depth news only. So it's got that dusty old reputation, which means it isn't selling well. Needs quite a bit of work,
I should think. And Lord Moffat had a life insurance policy, but it wasn't much, so Charlie doesn't have a lot to work with.”

No wonder Charlie's been under so much stress lately. I try not to let the pity I'm feeling show on my face, but Alice catches it anyway and clucks her tongue at me.

“They're still plenty rich,” she says. “But plenty rich may not be enough to keep a place like this. Now come on.” She rolls the vacuum to a door and opens it to reveal a small room with a dark wooden desk with delicate scroll legs and a plush office chair. “This was Lady Moffat's office,” she says, plugging in the vacuum. “She did all of her social planning and upkeep in here, writing letters and organizing dinners and balls and charity galas and things like that. Even when they could barely afford them.”

Alice turns on the vacuum before I can ask more about what Lily was like, so I examine the desk instead. On top of it are even more framed pictures of Poppy and Charlie, and a slim laptop. There's a beautiful coffee table book on French interior design, too, set on the diagonal and hanging halfway off the desk, like someone dropped it there just for a moment.

“Everything in this master suite is still the way they left it,” Alice says, turning off the vacuum and noticing what I'm looking at. “No one knows what to do with it, and no one wants to bother Charlie about it.”

This room is a time capsule, then. Preserving all of Lily's secrets.

Who was this woman who used to be my mother's best friend? Who wrote to my mother, probably from this very desk, telling her she would be her confidante? Why did she ask me here after all those years I spent with my resentful aunt? Why did she trust the daughter of a schizophrenic to look after her own child? The questions scream in my head, and soon I find myself staring at the desk drawer underneath all those photographs. What secrets did she hide in there? As soon as Alice goes back into the main room, I hurry around the desk and try to pull the drawer open, but it's locked.

I snatch my hand back as if the knob has burned me. What was I thinking? I can't go snooping around in some dead woman's personal things just because she used to know my mother. Whatever's in there is meant for Charlie and Poppy to go through when they feel up to it. Why on earth would I have followed such a strange impulse? What kind of delusion is this?

I can feel the blood drain from my face.
What's the matter with me?

I swallow, hard, and shake my head. I straighten my shoulders and take a deep breath.
Just forget it. Nothing's wrong.
I walk as steadily as I can back into the main room and, with a quick wave to Alice, make my way to the safety of my own room.

BOOK: Fiona
13.31Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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