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Authors: Janet B. Taylor

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BOOK: Into the Dim
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“Lu believes in her because she's Sarah's daughter.” The woman sounded unsure. “She's had no real training, and 'tis a hard task for one not raised to it.”

I couldn't make out Mac's reply, though I heard the woman's response well enough.

“I hope that's so. I worry about the poor lamb. We've so little time to get her prepared.”

I frowned.
Get me prepared? For what?

I didn't like the sound of that at all. But I probably wouldn't learn much lurking in the shadows. Exhaling, I pushed into a bright, homey kitchen. Next to a flour-dusted island, Mac and the woman stood in a loose embrace. A thick, graying braid swayed across her back as he rocked her gently, her head tucked under his chin. My throat swelled, watching them. When I was little, I'd once come upon Mom and Dad in the same pose, swaying to music only they could hear.

Mac's blue eyes opened, and I realized I'd been right about Phoebe. The eyes were identical.

“Why, look who's come to join us, darlin'.” He released the woman, grinning at me, and I realized he'd passed his blazing smile along to his granddaughter too. “Welcome to Christopher Manor, lass.”

Within a few seconds, I learned the round-faced woman was Moira, of the jam sandwiches. That she was Mac's wife and Lucinda's best friend and business partner for more than thirty years. That she and
only
she ran this house, and that I was too thin and needed fattening up. Despite her bulk, Moira bustled around the kitchen with the grace of a ballerina.

She hustled me toward one of the benches that lined the long, scuffed but scoured kitchen table. Soon she was smiling down at me as I scarfed up steaming eggs and two pieces of warm bread slathered with fresh butter and strawberry jam.

When Moira offered a large ladle of baked beans, Mac chuckled at my horrified expression. “Aye, I understand you Yanks don't appreciate the bean for breakfast?”

“Well, they're mostly a supper thing for us. Thanks, though.”

“Pity that.” Mac smothered his own breakfast with a hearty portion. “Ye don't know what you're missing.”

I scanned the room, wondering where the girl had gone.

“If you're looking for Phoebe”—Moira settled onto the bench next to me with a groan—“I've sent the little minx to the village. She knew she wasn't to speak to ye till Lu's return.”

“Our granddaughter's a bit on the curious side,” Mac explained through a mouthful of food.

Moira snorted. “Curious—that's an understatement if ever I've heard one, John MacPherson.”

“Hope”—Mac wiped his mouth with a yellowed linen napkin—“Phoebe's a good girl, and I hope ye'll take to her. She's high-spirited, but she has the biggest heart in the Highlands, she does.”

“With the biggest mouth to go along,” Moira muttered, though a fond smile softened her words. “Our grandson, Collum, has gone with Lu. Ye'll meet him when they return in the morning. Collum's a . . . serious lad. As different from his sister as night is from day.”

I laid my fork down, careful not to look up from my plate. “Speaking of Phoebe,” I said, “she mentioned something about my mother being here in the fall. But how could that be, when—”

Mac stood abruptly and hurried to open a door that led out onto a mud porch. “Och, look a' the time. I must away to the west barn. One of the ewes is near her time.”

He thrust long arms into a faded vest and plucked a houndstooth cap from a peg on the wall. “Moira will show ye the house. If this rain lets up, I'll take ye out on the horses later. I hear ye're a fine rider.”

Moira snatched up my empty plate as he left. I stood and offered to help. At the sink, I turned toward her. “Moira, about my—”

She shooed me from the kitchen before I could finish the sentence, telling me she'd come for me once she'd finished up in the kitchen, and we'd take a tour of the house. I paused in the doorway and turned to face her. My utter confusion must've shown, because her apple cheeks rose as she gave a soft sigh.

“Child,” she said, “let me offer ye some advice my old mum used to give me.” When she smiled, her eyes nearly disappeared behind the full cheeks. “A drop of patience can yield an ocean of reward. Now, I admit, I often have a hard time following it myself. But I'm offering it to ye anyway.” She cocked her chin toward the door. “Now scoot.”

The rear of the house, which apparently contained more parlors, a billiards room, and a grand ballroom, was sealed off. Locked up due to heating costs, Moira told me during the tour. After viewing innumerable bedrooms, most shrouded in ghostly dust covers, I was relieved when Moira pushed open a set of wide double doors saying, “And finally, there's the library, o' course.”

Moira reminded me of my dad's grandmother, the only member of his family who never treated me like some kind of fungus that had invaded their family tree. Memaw died when I was ten. Like her, Moira was all round curves and sweetness, a person who solved life's problems with hugs and a tin of sugar cookies.

I liked Moira, except that all during the tour, whenever I opened my mouth to ask about my mom, she diverted the conversation with a quirky comment on this ancestor or that piece of furniture.

I swallowed down my latest attempt as we stepped inside the cozy room, the sights and smells a balm to my jangled nerves. Tall mullioned windows. Muted yellow light. Aged leather and old paper. The library smelled like Shakespeare. It smelled like my mom.

I breathed it in, walking over to pull a book from one of the floor to ceiling shelves.
The Royal Forests of Medieval England,
by Charles R. Young.

I'd read it, of course. The words were installed in my memory files along with billions of others. If I needed them, I could bring them up by chapter or page number.

“Ye'll find most of the best history books ever written on these shelves, my lamb,” Moira said. “And you're welcome to any you care to read.” She paused, head tilted as she studied me. “I understand ye've the gift of memory?”

Some gift,
I thought as I slid the book back.

“Yes, ma'am,” I said. “When I see or read something, it . . . well, it just kind of sticks.”

“What a blessing that must be,” Moira said as she cupped my cheek. “Your mother told us you were a very special girl. It's happy we are to finally have you here, and to welcome you into our family.”

Family.

I nodded, my throat too tight to speak.

“Now”—Moira linked arms with me and towed me toward the marble fireplace, above which hung a huge painting—“may I introduce Lord and Lady Hubert Carlyle. Your many-times great-grandparents. And with them is their son, Jonathan.”

Hubert was a stern-looking guy with a walrus mustache and heavy jowls. His wife looked as if she'd been sucking on lemons. But the young Jonathan's hazel eyes danced with mischief. I liked him immediately.

In the portrait to their right, Jonathan was older. He was situated behind a beautiful, seated woman whose shiny dark hair was replicated in the two little girls kneeling before her. One hand on his mother's shoulder, a gangly, adolescent boy stared out with his father's sparkling eyes.

“Jonathan's wife, Julia,” Moira said. “And their children.”

“Oh . . . the little girls are so cute,” I grinned at the youngest girl's chubby cheeks.

Moira stared up for a long moment. “Aye.” The word came out as a croak and she had to clear her throat before continuing. “Aye. They certainly were.”

The far side of the fireplace held a smaller portrait of a round-faced couple. The woman had Moira's merry eyes and round chin. “These are my own ancestors on my mum's side, James MacPherson and his wife, Edwina. James was Hubert's estate manager. Mac is also distantly related to the two, this part of Scotland being riddled with MacPhersons, ye know.”

I wandered around the welcoming room, touching this and that, until I noticed a heavy silver frame on a small table tucked into a far corner. My eyes widened. I couldn't believe it.

“Hey, Moira,” I called, picking up the photo. “Is this my mom? Wearing a toga?”

Moira slid a pair of reading glasses off her graying hair. She squinted in the low light, then muttered, “I thought I'd put this one away.”

She reached to take the picture from me, but I pretended not to notice. Her mouth tightened, but she said nothing as I tilted it for a better look.

She sighed. “Yes, that's Sarah. And Lucinda beside her.”

Aunt Lucinda looked a lot like my mom. Smooth hair, in a shade of ripe apricots. Broad at hip and shoulder. Same long nose and close-set eyes the color of faded denim. But even though Lucinda was smiling in the picture—and dressed for a frat party besides—her erect posture seemed too stern, like she was preparing to rally the troops.

Mom was squashed between her sister and a guy with freckles and a blaze of red hair. The boy had his arm around Mom, squeezing her to him. While Lucinda looked to be in her twenties, the other two couldn't have been much older than I was now. Hair wrapped around her head in elaborate braids, her shockingly slim body draped in folds of white linen, and gold sandals laced up bare calves, my mom grinned madly into the camera. So young. So happy. I'd never seen her look like that.

Moira peeked around my arm. “That's Collum and Phoebe's da, our son Michael, there with your mum. I'd always hoped . . .” She paused, frowned. “Well, but he was young and stupid. Ended up marrying a local girl, didn't he? Fiona, the children's mum, wasn't worth a hill of beans. Took off with another man soon after Phoebe's birth. I ask you, what kind of woman leaves a young lad and newborn behind for a father to raise? If things had been different, he and Sar—” Her voice cracked as she traced a finger over the happy-looking young man. “Oh, but Michael did love those babes.” She gave a small sigh. “He's been gone nigh on twelve years now.”

“I'm so sorry, Moira,” I said, feeling a rush of sympathy for the funny girl, Phoebe. At least I still had my dad.

She waved me off, and I stared down at the photo, still incredulous. “So
my
mom actually went to a toga party.”

“Not exactly,” Moira said.

Suuure.

At the edge of the frame, a pretty, olive-skinned girl with high cheekbones and jutting chin stood slightly apart from the others. Dark braids twined to her waist, like slender snakes. She was the only one not looking at the camera. Instead, her black eyes were narrowed on Michael MacPherson and my mom snugged up together. While the rest practically danced off the photo, the brunette glowered. Though she was dressed like the others, there was something different about her. The longer I stared, the more I could almost feel the rage and jealousy flow off the picture.

“Is the black-haired girl Fiona?” I asked. “'Cause she doesn't look too happy in this picture.”

Moira stiffened and plucked the picture firmly from my grip. Mouth tight, she glared down at the dark-haired girl, and I got the impression she wasn't Moira's favorite person. “No,” was all she said.

Moira thumped the frame onto the table, picture side down.

“And this is the end of the tour, I'm thinking.”

With a decisive step, she moved off toward the door. I didn't follow at first, only watched as she flitted around the room, clicking off the small, mismatched lamps and casting the library into shadow.

“Hey, Moira? I—”

“Och, but this place needs a good dustin',” she cut me off, reaching on tiptoe to swipe a finger across the edge of an upper shelf.

When Moira glanced back to see me standing still and alone in the center of the room, her pursed mouth softened. “Come along then, my lamb,” she said, “'tis time for tea.”

Chapter 5

W
HEN
M
AC WOKE ME FROM A NAP A COUPLE OF HOURS LATER
, I felt drained—a wrung sponge left to dry on the sink. My limbs dragged as I moved the book that lay open on the bed beside me, a biography of Eleanor of Aquitaine someone had left on my bedside table, and followed him to the stables.

BOOK: Into the Dim
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