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Authors: Janet B. Taylor

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BOOK: Into the Dim
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I tapped ragged fingernails on the wooden desk. I didn't need to read the letter. I'd committed it to memory in that one, quick glance.
As I've already offered my condolences, I shall not do so here.

I grunted.
Wow. What a sweetheart.

My gaze snagged on the postscript.

I also believe there are insights she might gain at her mother's childhood home which would not be feasible for her to discover in her current circumstances.

“Insights?” I muttered. “What's that supposed to mean?”

I stood and paced to the window. Even here, in my own space, I felt suffocated. I shoved the sash open, but the muggy June air only made it worse.

Frustrated, I slammed it back down. Wrapping a fist in the nubby curtains, I started to jerk them closed, when a blaze of blue caught my eye. Our neighbor's massive hydrangea bush.

I flinched away from the window as the memory sliced me apart.

The annual Walton Fourth of July picnic was mandatory. Only imminent death excused attendance. That year, Mother Bea had hired a professional photographer, who'd spent the day snapping candids. Twelve, chubby and awkward, I'd spent my day ducking out of them.

As the sun waned, my grandmother had perched in her favorite wicker chair before a great wall of blue hydrangeas to begin formal portraits. When the photographer called for the grandkids, Dad towed me toward the plethora of cousins. Stifling a sigh, I'd arranged myself near the back. Mother Bea's perfectly permed gray head swiveled, scanning her progeny. When the photographer raised his huge camera, she gestured for him to wait.

Without bothering to turn, my grandmother made the announcement. “I'd like for these to be blood kin only,” she called. “Hope, you understand, don't you, dear?”

Stung—stunned—it took me a second to get it. After I slunk away, my grandmother ordered the obviously disconcerted photographer to proceed. Several of my cousins snickered as waves of hot embarrassment baked my face. Of course it wasn't a secret that no Walton blood flowed in my veins. But never before had I been singled out that way.

Left
out that way.

In the tangerine glow of a perfect sunset, I'd watched the mob of tanned, golden-haired kids cluster around their matriarch. Uniformly big teeth gleamed as they grinned on cue. I stood alone, a pale, dark-haired stain against a gleaming white column.

My mother's reaction was predictably fierce, and the next day, after my lesson in Empirical Russian, she'd informed my father that she and I would attend no more family functions.

My mom despised her mother-in-law and everything she stood for. She would never have wanted me to stay.

I sank down in the desk chair. Tears blurred the screen as, hands shaking, I typed in the two-word reply.

“I'll come.”

Chapter 3

I
WOKE JUST AS THE PLANE TAXIED INTO
E
DINBURGH
A
IRPORT.
Dad had been right about the sedative, though I was fairly sure Dr. Miller, a kindly, old-school pediatrician who'd treated my myriad ailments since I was six, might've upped the recommended dosage just a smidge.

The first, lighter round of meds had kicked in just as I boarded and strapped in. Somehow, I had stumbled to the right gate in Atlanta. Then I'd spent the next ten hours passed out, drooling, and—based on the mutters of the disgruntled passengers around me—snoring like a bear with a sinus infection.

Before I left, I'd tried to research my aunt's home, Christopher Manor. There was little to find. Only a few faraway photos posted by hikers traveling through the famous Scottish Highlands. And a stern warning that—unlike a lot of other grand Highland estates—it was not open to the public.

“Your aunt's right sorry she couldn't be here to welcome you herself, lass.” Mac, Lucinda's lanky, balding caretaker, had explained when he met me at baggage claim with a little, handwritten sign. “Urgent business, you understand.”

All this way. And she wasn't even here?

Still drowsy and more than a little grumpy, I hadn't said much on the long, dark drive from Edinburgh. But when we pulled up the gravel drive and parked in front of the massive, imposing mansion, I couldn't help but gape.

Floodlights illuminated five or six stories of golden stone that glowed against the night sky. Square Norman towers stood sentinel at each corner, giving the manor a boxy look. There were no storybook turrets that I could see, but the crenelated tops of the walls and towers made it easy to imagine long-ago kilted archers defending the house against rival clans.

“The house nestles right up against the mountain,” Mac said as he saw the direction of my gaze. “She's a right good old girl.”

I nodded, still mute with awe. I couldn't tell how far the mansion stretched out behind. But judging by the distance to the hump of the mountain in the near distance, it had to be enormous.

Inside, the house was dark and silent. Only the soft glow of wall sconces set between grim-faced ancestors lit our way as we trudged up two flights of wide, carpeted steps. The scents of stone, lemon polish, and musty drapes cascaded over us as I followed Mac's knobby shoulders down a narrow hallway.

Only a small bedside lamp lit the room where Mac deposited me and my bags. With a groan, he laid my suitcase on a nearby table before pointing out a thermos and covered plate. “My Moira wanted to wait up for ye,” he said. “But I told her we'd be sore late getting in. Still I swear she'll take a broom to these old bones if ye don't eat at least two of her famous jam sandwiches.”

At my very-polite thanks, his grin widened, making his small blue eyes disappear into a fan of wrinkles. “Aw, Lass,” he said, “You've had a hard row to hoe. But it's right pleased we are to have you here. Now, you get yourself some sleep. The others will be rarin' to meet ye come the morn.”

Still druggy and exhausted, I climbed up the three wooden steps to the bed and, fully clothed, passed clean out.

The clack of footsteps woke me the next morning. I cracked one crusty eyelid to see that pearly dawn light now puddled on the floor of my new bedroom, brightening as I watched. Groaning, I glanced at the ornate bronze clock on my bedside table.

Not even seven, yet. Who the hell is wandering around at this ungodly hour? And in heels, no less.

I pulled the quilt up to my chin and burrowed deeper into the feather mattress.

Without warning, the bedroom door flew open with such force, it smacked against the paneled wall. I shot up, heart hammering. Before I could blink, a dainty, elf-faced girl with an upturned nose and short spiky hair the startling shade of a blue Slurpee bounded into the room. In a short skirt and peasant blouse—and sporting the highest platform heels I'd ever seen—the girl scampered up the steps to the bed and settled herself beside me, wriggling like an excited puppy.

“Cheese an' rice.” A toothy grin lit her entire, freckled face. It was infectious, and I had to force my own lips not to respond. “I thought you were going to sleep away the morn.”

My mouth felt lined with cat fur, my brain pickled from sleep. I shoved my hair out of my face and scooted back until I was pressed against the puckered velvet headboard.

She followed my gaze to the half-open door. “Shh. I'm supposed to let you sleep, but you look fine to me. I'm Phoebe, by the by,” she said. “Mac's my grandda. You met him last night, I hear. He and Gran help Lu run the estate.”

“I'm—”

“You're Hope,” she said, giving me a blinding grin that went all the way to her hairline. “I know. Everyone knows. We're so excited you're finally here.”

“That's, um . . . good?” I managed before she hopped to the floor.

“I'll put your things away while you get ready.”

I winced as the bubbly girl began yanking clothes from my suitcase and jamming them into a massive ancient dresser. When a pair of too-large sweats emerged from the jumble, she cocked an eyebrow at me.

“They're my mom's,” I said as I slid from beneath the covers. “I just—”

“You don't have to explain to me. I sleep in one of my da's old shirts. I know it's nutters, but sometimes I can still smell him. We lost him when I was but a babe. Still . . .”

Her smile wobbled as she swiped a hand beneath her nose. “It's pure natty, but I don't care. Gran and I had a huge row when she threw it in the bin and I fished it right back out.”

It was so weird to watch someone else handling my things. I'd never had a friend back home. No one to wear my clothes without asking or ruin my favorite sweater or share stories about boys. When I was younger, I dreamed of having a friend like that, but Mom always claimed being around “empty-headed” girls my own age would only distract me from my studies.

Stifling a groan, I eased out from under the covers and stumbled to the center of the room, taking a first real look at my new surroundings.

Holy cow, I'm living in freaking Hogwarts.

Turning in an idiot circle, I gawped at the shabby opulence. Dusty ostrich feathers topped yards of midnight-blue velvet that draped the immense canopy bed. A high, scalloped ceiling was complete with plaster cherubs. Stuffed bookshelves lined each side of an honest-to-God marble fireplace. I inhaled, tasting book glue and the ghosts of long-ago fires.

Phoebe cheerfully slammed the last of my things into a drawer. “Pure awesome room, aye? It was your mum's, you know. Sarah's.”

I could see it. My mother as a young girl, curled on the tartan loveseat, strawberry hair tucked behind her ears as she frowned down at a leather-bound book.

Phoebe tactfully ignored me, humming under her breath as she heaved my empty suitcase over to a closet. I noticed her eyes were an exact replica of her grandfather's. Small. Blue. Smiling.

Before setting the frame on a bedside table, she studied the only photo I'd brought. Me and Mom, lying on a bed of autumn leaves, brown and gold bits tangled in our hair as we grinned up at my dad.

“Gads,” she said. “You don't look anything like her. Sarah, I mean. You're exotic, like some gypsy girl, with that dark hair and those great gray eyes of yours.” She tilted her head, studying me. “But then, you're adopted, aye? Lucky, that. They say I look just like my mum. And you couldn't know, but that's pure unfortunate.”

I couldn't help but grin at her comically tragic expression. A stud pierced one straight, rust-colored eyebrow, which I assumed meant that beneath the dye, she was likely a redhead. The silver stud winked in the light as she babbled on in an accent so thick, I had to concentrate to understand.

“I met her—Sarah—when she was here in the fall. She came before . . . Well, she was in an awful hurry then, wasn't she?”

“You saw my mom?” The words tangled in my mouth until I almost couldn't get them out. “But . . . she never . . . I mean, I thought she went straight to India. Are you sure it was
last
fall? When, exactly?”

The girl's mouth snapped shut, eyes widening at the obvious mistake.

My mind whirled, trying to take it in.

Mom had left home only once last year. The final time, nearly eight months earlier.
Why hadn't she mentioned going to Scotland?

“So, uh . . . you haven't met Collum yet,” she bumbled on. “Just so you know, my brother can be a bit of a wank, sometimes. Though if he acts like that to you, I'll give him—”

Phoebe winced as a distant voice called up the stairs.

“Bollocks!” she groaned. “If Gran catches me, I'm done for. Don't mention you saw me, aye?”

“But,” I called after Phoebe as she fled the room. Feeling as though I'd been buffeted about by a tiny, blue tornado, I whispered to the now-empty room.

“But why would she lie to us?”

Chapter 4

A
FTER A QUICK SHOWER IN A CLAW-FOOT TUB WHOSE HAND-HELD
sprayer spat rusty, lukewarm water, I wound my way down the curved stairs and through a series of rooms. High ceilings soared over scarred wooden floors lined with tatty vintage rugs. Scruffy antique furniture was clustered in comfy arrangements before fireplaces mounted with crossed swords or family crests.

I followed the sound of clinking dishes until the heavenly scents of baking bread and frying eggs overcame the odors of stone and age. My stomach rumbled as I paused in the long dining room to watch a spider swing between the prongs of a huge deer-antler chandelier. Judging by the spotless gleam on the massive table beneath, I didn't think the impressive web would be there long.

Two voices penetrated the nearby door, the source of the delicious smells. When I heard my name, I shamelessly pressed against it to listen.

“What did ye think of her?” a woman's voice spoke. “Will the lass be able to handle such a thing?”

I recognized Mac's gravelly rumble. “The child barely spoke, my love. She was exhausted, and most Yanks get a bit fankled when they first see the manor, even in the dead o' night. All I know is that Lu believes her capable.”

BOOK: Into the Dim
6.6Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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