Authors: Cathy Maxwell
November 15, 1814
hat had started as a gentle mist was turning into sheets of rain when they least needed it.
Portia Maclean charged up the attic stairs in a race against the leaks in the roof.
“Cold, drafty, leaky house,” she muttered, stomping on each step in her frustration. There were two buckets up there that were probably full from the rain the day before. She had been hoping she could put off the chore of emptying them. Now she was on a race against Nature.
The attic was not her favorite place. It smelled of must and was full of wooden boxes, crates, trunks and old furniture from what seemed to be centuries of previous tenants.
Portia could not stand the smell of dirt and decay and she hated cobwebs. She always held her breath when she came up here and prayed she never saw any of the spiders she knew had to be lurking in the rafters. Spiders that watched her, waiting for an opportunity to
down upon her.
A shiver went through her at the thought, or at imagining any of the other multiple-legged creatures that lurked with those spiders.
The first bucket was close to the staircase and was, as she had suspected, almost full. She pushed the bridge of her wire spectacles up her nose, waved away a wet cobweb dangling from the ceiling, and picked up the bucket handle with both hands. She lugged it to the small window overlooking the front drive. Humidity had swollen the wood—again—so she had to give the sash a few pounds of her fist for it to open.
She poured the water out, returned the bucket to its place and went in search of the other in the far corner where the attic was darkest, even in the afternoon.
Anxious to finish this unpleasant task so she could return to the fire in the kitchen, Portia wound her way around the accumulated boxes, trunks, tables and crates toward the steady drip of water dropping into the bucket. Here was where the roof leak was the worst.
Portia found the bucket and made quick work of emptying it, closing the window when she was done. She was hurrying to place the bucket back under the leak when a streak of white blazed across her path.
She stumbled backward in surprise, reaching out for the first available surface to catch her balance, and ended up tipping a precarious stack of junk down onto her. She fell to the floor in a crash of wood and billows of dust.
Coughing, Portia needed a moment to grasp what had happened to her and to be certain she was all right. The noise of her fall had been so loud, she was surprised her mother and her sister hadn’t heard and come to check on her.
Instead, all was quiet save for the rain on the roof. Her younger sister, Minnie, was probably down in the kitchen, and their mother . . . well, Lady Maclean might be in the bedroom almost directly below where Portia was now, but rarely stirred herself for anyone.
Portia wiggled her toes and her fingers. Nothing was broken. She was all right . . . but what had that flash of white been? She was a practical woman and not given to flights of fancy, well, other than her very reasonable distaste of bugs. If she saw something, then there was something. But before she could investigate, she needed to dig herself out of this mess.
She shoved a wooden crate off her legs. It had been filled with old shoes, clothes and hats, none of it salvageable. She and Minnie had already investigated the attic last June when they’d first moved in. She lifted the box and set it on top of a trunk and was just turning to pick up the empty bucket off the floor, when a book fell onto the floor right in front of her.
. There were never enough books to read in the house. It was a heavy, leather-bound book and so aged, the binding was falling off its spine. Portia forgot about the bucket and the leaks. She took the book and hurried back to the window so she could inspect it better in the light.
The book was handwritten. The paper was yellow and brittle. She had to be careful with it. There were pages and pages of writing. Perhaps poetry? She adored poetry—
“It’s recipes,” she said, disappointed. She frowned again, attempting to decipher the faded handwriting. Yes, recipes, but not the sort she was familiar with. “How to remove warts,” she read and then curled her lip in distaste at the instructions to make a mash of onions and potatoes and apply to the wart for no less than ten days. “The whole poultice will stink after that period of time,” she mumbled to herself. She turned a few more pages, and her imagination was captured. There were recipes for strawberry wine and what to say when surrounded by a toadstool ring to protect one’s self against evil. Who would have imagined toadstool rings were evil?
“ ‘Queen of the Meadow, take this evil from this house,’ ” Portia chanted and then hummed her disbelief. She wasn’t superstitious. Toadstool rings were toadstool rings. They harbored no magic, or at least not the ones she tromped through.
She flipped more pages and found one that was wrinkled and the ink smeared as if someone had shed tears over the recipe titled, “To Reclaim True Love.” The word “Charles” had been written in the margin. The name wasn’t in the same handwriting as the recipe, so perhaps this spell had been used. Perhaps some woman, years earlier, had pined for Charles.
Portia wondered if, after the spell, he’d come back to her. And if he’d been worth it!
Love was a mystery to Portia. Her sister was in love with Mr. Oliver Tolliver, the valley’s physician, but who knew what would become of it. Right now, Minnie was pining because Mr. Tolliver had not called in three days. Portia thought the man was busy with his duties. A doctor was always at the beck and call of his patients, and she’d told Minnie as much. Minnie was not convinced. She feared he had lost interest.
Portia herself had never been in love, and after witnessing Minnie’s miserableness waiting for Mr. Tolliver these past few days, was grateful to have been spared. Then again, her father had taught her well that men could be selfish creatures with no thought of using women and then discarding them. After all, wasn’t that what he’d done with his own family?
Of course, since she was seven and twenty and lacked a dowry, the likelihood of Portia ever marrying was long past. She was a penniless spinster, an old maid. She’d made her peace with it.
That didn’t mean that she didn’t find this love spell fascinating—
Her thought broke off with insight. Love spell? Yes, this was a book of spells.
Fascinated, Portia flipped through more pages. The toadstool chant wasn’t the only spell that made her chuckle. There were spells to rid a house of demons—she should share these with Reverend Ogilvy—and to keep people she didn’t like from crossing her path. She wondered if she could use that on the daughter of her landlord the duke. The very pampered and petty Lady Emma, daughter of the Duke of Moncrieffe, had lorded over the valley as the reigning beauty until the Macleans had arrived. Minnie had usurped her place, and Lady Emma was not happy.
On the inside front cover page of the book was a list of women’s names. Most were unreadable. However, the last one on the list caught Portia’s eye.
. If ever there was a witch’s name, Fenella was one.
At that moment, Portia’s musings were interrupted by the sound of a small meow.
Portia cocked her head, unsure if she had heard correctly. How could a cat find its way into the attic?
As if answering her question, a small white cat climbed onto the lid of a trunk close to Portia’s right hand.
Or at least she thought it was a cat. The body, tail, and sweet face were all catlike. However, the ears were different. They folded over, giving her head a flat roundness, much like the shape of an owl’s.
The ears weren’t the animal’s only different feature. She had the largest, most expressive eyes Portia had ever seen on a kitty. They, too, were owlish in expression: all-knowing, all-wise . . . with a touch of almost human understanding.
Portia shook her head, thinking she was being far too fanciful now.
The cat jumped to the floor. She walked around Portia’s skirts and rubbed her face in them, purring softly.
Portia was charmed. She set the book aside and picked the animal up. Kitty weighed next to nothing. “So you are the culprit for the knot on my head.” Portia smiled and the cat seemed to smile in return. “What beautiful eyes you have, kitty.”
The cat closed her eyes and rubbed her cheek against Portia’s hand, begging for a pet.
“Would you like some milk?”
Those expressive eyes came open. The cat made a sound that could only be interpreted as agreement and leaped down from Portia’s arms. She trotted to the stairs before turning as if to ask Portia if she was coming.
“I suppose you do,” Portia said with a laugh. “But wait. I must put this bucket in place.”
She carried the bucket to the corner of the attic. The cat waited for her to finish the chore, taking a moment to gracefully groom herself.
A pet was exactly what Portia needed. She and Minnie had never had one. Her mother wasn’t fond of animals.
But they were in Scotland now, her father’s ancestral home. Their lives had changed in so many ways . . . so perhaps it was time they had a pet. Besides, Lady Maclean left her room only for church and visitors, so keeping the cat a secret would not be that difficult.
Portia walked to the stairs and sat on the floor, fears of spiders forgotten. The cat climbed into her lap. “Owl,” she said. “I shall name you Owl.”
The cat purred approval.
Portia would have gone down the stairs, but Owl jumped from her lap and ran back to the window as if to remind her that she had almost forgotten the book. Portia laughed at the cat’s almost humanlike sensibilities and at herself for imagining them.
“Thank you, Owl, I don’t want to forget it,” she said. “How else shall we know what to chant when we see a bat?”
The cat purred her approval and followed Portia down the stairs.
ortia, take your eye spectacles off your nose right this minute. You know I don’t like you to wear them around me. Or around anyone,” Lady Maclean complained as she fluffed her pillows so that she could sit up in bed before Portia set the breakfast tray on her lap. Her ladyship’s blonde hair was tucked into a lace cap, and her lace Spanish vest—a short jacket that served no purpose that Portia could tell—covered her lace nightdress. She rarely rose before noon.
“I need to see them to see, Mother,” Portia responded dutifully. They had this conversation practically every day.
With an impatient sound, Lady Maclean declared, “You see fine without them. They age you, my girl. Not that you aren’t old enough, but a woman shouldn’t want to call attention to the fact. I don’t understand why we haven’t received our invitation to the Christmas Assembly,” she announced, her mind shifting into another sequence of thought without pause. “They couldn’t
think of inviting us.”
Oh yes, they could
, Portia thought as she walked over to the window to open the draperies.
When the Macleans had first moved to Glenfinnan, her mother had made it clear she thought herself better than the Scots even though they undoubtedly knew all too well what a scoundrel her husband and Portia’s father, Captain Sir Jack Maclean, truly was. After all, Black Jack Maclean had grown up in these parts, and one thing Portia was learning about country society was that there were no secrets.
Lady Maclean sighed wistfully, “I always adored Christmas. The parties, the dinners, the gaiety.”
Portia didn’t remember the parties, the dinners or the gaiety. As far back as her memory went, they usually spent the season being shuttled back and forth among relatives who didn’t really want Black Jack’s family. “I like not having all those relatives around. It is good to be under our own roof.”
“Even in Scotland?” Her mother sniffed her opinion and sipped her tea.
The day outside was overcast with the threat of rain. Portia wondered what the weather would be like in mid-January, when, she’d been told, it finally, truly would go cold. Would the rain change to sleet? She could go out in the rain but sleet was not to her liking. She began straightening the room.
The family only had one servant, a local named Glennis who did the cooking and the wash. Portia and Minnie managed the rest of the house. Minnie saw to the garden and Portia took care of the chickens, cow and pony. It was a good life, far better, to Portia’s thinking, than the one they’d left behind in England.
“Your eyes are weak because you read too much,” Lady Maclean said, returning to her earlier complaint. “If you would stop reading, you wouldn’t need them.”
“Minnie reads as much as I do and she doesn’t wear spectacles,” Portia argued.
“Poor Minnie,” her mother said in another lightning-quick change of thought, “how are we going to find her a suitable husband if we are not invited to the Assembly? We must go.”
Portia smiled at that concern. “Minnie has
a suitable husband,” she reminded her mother. She crossed to the bed. “Her affections are fixed on Mr. Tolliver. You may not think him suitable enough—”
He is not
. I will not let her throw herself away on a mere physician.”
“He is well respected and comes from a good family.”
“He is ugly,” her mother pronounced, munching on her toasted bread.
This was dangerous ground.
Minnie was a true beauty, with the round, guileless blue eyes and the blonde hair that had once made their mother famous. Wherever Minnie went, heads turned. When they had first moved to Glenfinnan, the sitting room had been full of young bucks, until they’d realized Minnie had set her cap for Mr. Tolliver.
Oliver Tolliver was of middling height, had a pouch around his middle and had a hairline that was receding rapidly. He was also one of the kindest men Portia had ever met. She understood how he could capture Minnie’s affections. Portia believed them made for each other.
It would also be hard to find a man as handsome as Minnie was beautiful. Portia thought this without jealousy.
Of course, life could be difficult being constantly compared to such a beauty—especially by one’s mother. Portia’s hair was brownish with untamable curls she could only manage by pulling them back to the nape of her neck. Not even braiding brought them under control. Her nose was straight, her eyes were blue—but there wasn’t anything remarkable about her features. She was also far less buxom than her sister.
And she wore spectacles.
In spite of their contrasts, she was proud of her sister and loved her dearly. “Minnie sees the measure of the man beyond his looks,” Portia said. “And I think better of her for it.”
“And I think she has an obligation to her family to marry well,” her mother muttered before taking another drink of tea. “She’s our one chance, Portia. Without a good marriage from her, we are sunk. How thoughtless of your father to leave us without anything.”
“We’ll manage fine, Mother. Let Minnie marry the man she loves.” And hopefully he would call again soon. It had been almost two weeks without a word from him. Portia continued to assure Minnie that her gentleman had not forgotten her.
Lady Maclean gave a snort. “That will not happen.” She set her cup down on its saucer and smiled. “You see, I had a private conversation with Mr. Tolliver when last he called.”
All of Portia’s senses went on alert. Her mother could be very resourceful when she wished. “She loves him, Mother,” Portia restated. “In fact, she is quite concerned that he has not called lately. I tell her that he has probably been very busy. His profession is not one with regular hours.”
The self-satisfied smile spread across Lady Maclean’s face, and Portia’s suspicions grew. “You warned him off,” she accused her mother.
“He’s not worthy of her.”
“How did you do it?” Portia demanded, spreading her arms wide. “You are either here in this room or in our company at all times.”
“You girls are not as attentive to me as you wish to believe. I had a moment alone with him the last time he called. It did not take long for me to say what I wished to express to him.”
Portia let her arms fall to her side in exasperation. “How could you do that to Minnie? She loves him.”
“Love is not for those of our class, my daughter. We each have obligations. We marry for the benefit of
. God gave Minerva beauty for her
benefit. She needs to marry rich. After all, I want my sugar.”
The last statement startled Portia. “Your sugar?”
“I like sugar in my tea,” Lady Maclean announced as if stating the obvious. “We have not been able to afford it since we moved to Scotland, and I find that unacceptable.”
“So Minnie must be unhappily married so you can have sugar? This is beyond selfish, Mother.”
“This is being practical.”
him,” Portia all but shouted. “And he loves her.”
“Obviously not as much as you assume. It only took a word from me to set him off her. Trust me, Portia, it pains me to cause any of my daughters the slightest bit of unhappiness, but we must be sensible.”
Portia looked at her mother, who was dressed in lace and lounging on a bed that had seen finer days. They lived in a house that was cold and drafty, and so she dared to ask something they had never discussed before, “Didn’t
marry for love, Mother?”
Lady Maclean’s gaze shifted away from her. She reached down and picked at the shawl around her shoulders, rearranging it before raising guileless eyes and admitting in a quiet voice, “And so I know of which I speak.”
Crossing her arms, Portia looked away. “When were you going to tell Minnie what you’d done?”
“I see no reason to do so. If he doesn’t call, she will forget him, especially when we go to the Christmas Assembly and all the men flock to her.”
“But how will she dance with a broken heart, Mother? Minnie isn’t shallow. She cared deeply for him.”
“She will learn to care for another” was the tart reply.
There was no answer to that.
Suddenly, Portia couldn’t stay in her mother’s presence one more second. She picked up the overflowing laundry basket and left the room.
“Please shut the door,” her mother called. “I hate the draft in the hall.”
Portia was happy to comply, slamming the door behind her.
However, alone on the other side, she all but collapsed against it.
Her mother exhausted her.
“And poor Minnie,” Portia whispered to herself. She must tell her what their mother had done.
At that moment, a door opened and Owl came down the hall, her tail high in the air as she trotted up to Portia. So far she had managed to keep the cat’s presence from their mother. Of course, Owl was a very independent creature. She could disappear for days at a time and then present herself whenever and wherever she wished.
Portia knelt to gather her pet up in her arms, asking, “What am I to say, Owl? How will I tell Minnie that Mr. Tolliver has deserted her? And all because of what Mother said. She’ll be heartbroken. Then again, what sort of true love is he to abruptly drop her just on Mother’s say-so? He probably understood our circumstances and ran. After all, how can he support all of us?” She hugged the cat close, feeling her heart beat. “I don’t know what we shall do, Owl. Things are not good—”
“Are you talking to your cat again?” Minnie asked, her voice light with teasing as she came up the stairs. At the top step, she paused and tilted her head, her smile turning to concern. “Portia, are you feeling all right? Your face is very pale.”
Owl struggled for release and Portia set her down before turning to her sister. “Minnie,” she started, ready to confess what their mother had said to Mr. Tolliver, when Owl gave a loud, forceful meow as if in warning and bumped into her leg.
Portia looked down at her pet in surprise. The cat’s expressive eyes seemed to urge her to silence. It was the most unusual impression.
“What is the matter?” Minnie asked.
“Nothing,” Portia answered. She pulled her gaze away from Owl.
“Dear, I worry about you,” Minnie said with great concern.
“You needn’t,” Portia answered. “I’m fine, or I will be.”
“Perhaps not. We have a visitor. Mr. Buchanan is here and he is being very formal.” Minnie lowered her voice as if not wanting it to carry where their mother could hear. “Are we behind in the rent?”
Mr. Buchanan was the Duke of Moncrieffe’s man and managed all of his properties, including Camber Hall. It was a bad sign when a man was formal around Minnie. Usually they doted on her. Portia handed the laundry basket to her sister and untied the apron at her waist. “This will not be pleasant,” she muttered.
Minnie understood that the answer was yes. “How far behind are we?”
“A month, so far. Uncle Ned will send money soon. I know he will,” Portia repeated, more to reassure herself than anyone else. Their mother’s brother Edward was their sole source of income and he was more than a bit unreliable in keeping his promises. It was he who had suggested the move to Scotland. She thought he believed that her father’s relatives would be willing to help. However, although many had known Black Jack, few admitted they were related to him.
Portia forced a smile on her face and went downstairs.
Mr. Buchanan waited in the sitting room. He stood by the cold hearth, his hat in his hand. He still wore his heavy coat, and his boots were caked with mud. She’d have to sweep the wood floors once he left.
He was a head shorter than Portia and had a balding pate. He tried to hide his baldness by combing his hair from one side of his head to another. Portia thought it silly but tried not to give away her thoughts in front of the man.
“Mr. Buchanan, what a pleasure that you have come to call,” she said, entering the room. “Please, have a chair.” She indicated the two chairs and settee that were the room’s main pieces of furniture. There were also several side tables.
“This is not a pleasure call,” Mr. Buchanan answered in his thick burr. He took a step toward Portia. “I am so sorry, Miss Maclean, but I must have the rent. Your family is in arrears.”
“I am sorry, Mr. Buchanan, that we have fallen behind. Certainly you can understand how precarious a position we are in. You know my father was a war hero—”
“ ’Tis why the duke offered you this establishment, Miss Portia. He knows your difficulties, but he means to be paid his rent. I need something, coin, household goods, something. I don’t want to throw you out.”
“Perhaps I should speak to the duke himself,” Portia suggested, putting the right note of hauteur in her voice. Her mother wasn’t the only one who could put on airs. Granted, Portia’s workday dress might be frayed at the hem and her hands rough from housework, but her pride was intact.
“I wish you would,” Mr. Buchanan said. “Frankly, I don’t believe he would receive you.” He shifted a glance toward the hall where Minnie hovered anxiously. “If I may speak plainly?”
“I pray you do.”
He sidled over to Portia, lowering his voice. “I don’t believe Lady Emma is happy you are here. Your sister is too attractive.”
Portia frowned. “Lady Emma has no grudge against us,” she said, knowing that was not true. “And Lady Emma is attractive as well.”
“But not as lovely as Miss Minerva. It is embarrassing how headstrong and jealous my employer’s daughter is. She is also his one weakness. He cannot deny her anything. There has been talk since you all arrived in the kirk that Miss Minerva outshines Lady Emma.”
Portia was aware of this. “But my sister is no threat to her. Her affection is fixed on Mr. Tolliver.”
“That’s not the word being bandied about in the valley. They say your sister rejected Mr. Tolliver. There are many hard feelings toward your family. Mr. Tolliver is very well respected, and, pardon my saying this, Miss Portia, you are English. We expect the English to be fickle.”
fickle,” Portia shot back at him in an angry whisper. This is what her mother’s meddling had wrought. “ ‘They’ are wrong in what they say. My sister is steadfast in her character and her affections and you can tell them that. As for your rent, tell the duke he shall be paid.”