The cool glass of the window rattled against Ivy Croften’s temple as the train curved through the Scottish highlands toward Inverness. After a twenty hour trip through airports and a sleepless night in Glasgow, Ivy had seen nothing of Scotland but a hotel room and the darkness outside the train. It felt surreal, to be barreling through the highlands with no view of the outside world. She cursed herself for choosing a night train but it was cheaper and she was saving every penny she could. Opening her own studio would cost far more than her salary at Saskin & Hughs Restoration paid and she needed every penny to cover that cost when she went back to Baltimore.
It was her work on the Jeselnik House in Baltimore that earned her the Castle Invergaren project. Ivy restored historic woodwork as well as created her own sculptures and panels in the style of Grinling Gibbons. She worked under the watchful eye of Robert Saskin since her first year of college at St. Julia Women’s College. Robert was the best in his field; historically accurate restoration of architectural sculpture. There were only a handful of people in the world that could do what Robert did, but Robert was approaching the delicate age of seventy-five and arthritis plagued his hands for a decade. He took on apprentices, but claimed that Ivy was the one he would eventually leave his artistic legacy with. Ivy believed him. She was often shy with social situations but she was confident in her work. She was the best, and she strived to be even better.
Robert became more than a mentor. He was a father figure to her, a venerated and elegant relic of a bygone era. She was stunned and grateful that he recommended her for the Castle Invergaren project in Scotland. The intricate woodwork of the 600 year old castle needed to be restored toits former glory. At the age of twenty-six, Ivy was the youngest of Robert’s team, and she would lead a team of conservators in Scotland in the restoration of dozens of wood panels in the castle. The decision was a controversial one among Robert’s team. Ivy was the only woman on the restoration team and most of the men did not feel comfortable with the choice of a female, and one so young.
The master of the house, Lord Malcomn Lachlan was said to be a stern and quiet man. Robert Saskin had met him while doing lectures at Oxford. Ivy had no experience with stuffy old world nobility and did not look forward to working under the thumb of a man with a reputation for being a cutthroat businessman and somewhat of a recluse. The project would take months. Her life would be consumed by art. She pressed her cheek to the cool glass of the window and tried to focus on that rather than the possibility of dreadful personalities.
The train pulled into the station at Inverness, almost barren at two o’clock in the morning, save for a handful of yawning Scots and a uniformed soldier. Ivy switched on her cell phone and checked the notes she made for the trip; time schedules, copies of train tickets, directions to the castle. Plans were arranged for Malcolm Lachlan’s personal secretary, a woman named Olivia Haskel, to meet her at the train station and drive her to the castle estate. Once at the estate, Ivy would be given the use of a vehicle for her personal use. Everything had been drawn up in detailed plans and sent through emails for the last two months. Robert had assisted with negotiating the work schedule, the cost and the details of undertaking such a project. Ivy saw in her notes the description of Olivia Haskel- blond, tall, blue peacoat. Robert mentioned casually in an email,
‘You’ll know her when you see her.”
And he had been right. In fact, it was impossible to miss her. At almost six feet tall, Olivia Haskel had the feline ice queen looks of a Ukranian supermodel. Legs up to her neck, Ivy thought. Her platinum blond hair was pulled up neatly in a chignon, too neat and perfect for two o’clock in the morning. The clothes were right out of a fashion magazine for socialites. Flawless skin. Only a hint of lines at the corners of her eyes to indicate age. Maybe forty. Maybe. Eyebrows just two shades darker than the platinum ice of her hair. Could be natural. The only hint of make up was the scarlet red lipstick. Ivy was reminded of the icy cold blond in Hitchcock’s Vertigo. The woman waited stone still by a column in the station, handbag clutched neatly in both hands in front of her. Red shoes. Kitten heels. She suddenly spotted Ivy and walked with a determined purpose that seemed to push past the air itself. She stopped just in front of Ivy and smiled. Cheshire cat smile. Teeth a little too white. Catherine Denueuve in The Hunger. All she needed was David Bowie lamenting about existentialism by her side.
“You must be Ivy,” she said. Accent mostly upper class English. Socialite London girl, except there was a faint trace of something else. Eastern European maybe. German? Czech? She extended a manicured hand. “I hope your journey was not too tedious. We still have another hour to go. I’m Olivia. I believe Mr. Saskin spoke to you about me. I’m Malcolm Lachlan’s secretary and assistant. I was told your bags were shipped in ahead of you and will be arriving in two days. Byron can assist you with any personal bags you have with you.”
She gave a little wave of her hand and summoned a man who seemed to come from nowhere. Ivy had not seen him at the platform just a moment before and wondered where the hell he came from. He was brawny, and bearded and gruff looking. He said nothing, but nodded and tipped his herringbone flat cap at her with what she imagined was an audible grunt. He picked up her two suitcases with ease and started toward the stairs. Olivia smiled again and beckoned Ivy to follow them.
The cool Scottish night air fogged her breath and she exhaled, feeling the Autumn chill in her bones. She wrapped her coat tighter around herself and tried to keep up with Olivia’s brisk steps. A silver Mercedes gleamed in the dim light of the car park and Byron had already tucked the suitcases into the trunk and taken the wheel, warming up the engine. Olivia slid into the back seat and gestured for Ivy to do the same. Ten minutes later, the road narrowed to a lane and a half and wound up through the highland forest, which did not seem to phase Byron at all. He pushed through the curves and blind corners of the road like a Viking at the helm of a war ship. Olivia was nonplussed, taking out a gold compact mirror and slicking lipstick on her lips as if they were not edging on disaster. Ivy gripped the seat and felt her stomach knot into her throat.
“You’ll be staying in The Green Room. It’s rather… green, as you can imagine. Malcolm… Lord Lachlan had most of the bedrooms redone when he inherited, but they have all been done with care to the historic character of the rooms which I am sure you of all people can appreciate. You will have a car while you’re here, but I’m afraid it’s nothing glamorous. Robert said you would require a supply vehicle and so the groundskeepers have given you the use of the supply van for your work. If you need anything else, just let me know. I can always give you a ride into town.”
“How close is town?”
“Well, Inverness is the nearest sizable town and that is an hour away. There are several villages nearby for the simple things. Anything other than a tiny co-op and a tourist gift shop and you’ll need to go into Inverness. I go every Thursday on errands. You are welcome to join me. Meals are served in the dining room at very specific times. I will give you a schedule. If you want anything else, you’ll have to get past the chef, Mrs. Parsons. She doesn’t like anyone in the kitchen besides her staff. You can take meals with the serving staff if you like something informal. Otherwise, Lord Lachlan has welcomed you to join the formal table. He is quite interested in your work, you know.”
“I received his letter welcoming me to the castle. He’s very… formal.”
“Oh, I wrote that. I take care of most of Mal… Lord Lachlan’s correspondence. Most of the time he is busy with his business.”
“Is it usual for a Lord to be… employed?”
“He has his own company, and Lord Lachlan is anything but usual. He didn’t grow up as most little rich boys do. He made his own way.”
“A self made Lord.”
“Not quite. A Lord most certainly, but he was estranged from his family until a year before his father, Lord James Lachlan passed away. Malcolm made his own way since the age of nineteen.”
“Estranged?” Ivy asked, then saw the icy look on Olivia’s face that indicated she had already shared enough with a stranger. The cold look was immediately followed by a toothy smile. A rapid change that was unnerving. Ivy decided to not press the inquiry any further.
The car turned into a long and winding unpaved road that snaked through a thick copse of trees and opened to a clearing. A pair of wrought iron gates weighed down against pillars of stone. One of the gates was slightly off kilter. Byron stopped the car in front of the gates and got out of the car. Ivy watched as the the man found the proper key for the lock. Ivy was surprised that there was no electric system for the gates. He unlatched the gate and pushed open the heavy wrought iron as if he had done it a hundred times before, and he likely had, Ivy thought. Byron slid back into the car, moved it forward and then got out to close the gates with the same nonchalant ease. It was dark, but twilight had begun to creep up into the cloudless sky. Ahead of them, a turreted castle rose up, it’s face lit by wrought iron lamps. Ivy had seen a photograph of the castle before she boarded the plane for Scotland, but the photograph did it no justice. It was not a fairy tale place. It was brooding and solid, a sentinel to dozens of wars, centuries of history.
“Lord Malcolm and his partner Callum MacGregor are constantly working to restore this place,” Olivia said, walking toward the large arched door with Ivy following. Somewhere behind them, Byron had the suitcases. “There are always work crews here. You may like Callum. He is an architect and quite the artist himself.”
The foyer was an understated one for a castle this size. Byron lumbered through huge arched double doors and disappeared up the stairs with her luggage. Olivia led her through to a beautiful parlor, most likely remodeled in the Victorian era. A massive stone hearth dominated an entire wall and above it was a painting of a woman in a draped blue dress. It was an oil painting, but the woman was modern. The dress was modern. The placard was inscribed with ‘Lady Catherine Lachlan’. A baby grand piano graced the room next to a window draped with blue and dark gold damask curtains. Framed family photos cluttered the top of the piano. Ivy stopped long enough to glance at a few of the photographs in the dim light of one lamp. The woman in the oil painting was featured often, sitting with her three children who varied a bit drastically in age. Two sons and a daughter.
A young man who might have been a teenager stood a head and a half taller than the others in the photographs. He was a massive wall of a man, even as a teenage boy. From the clothing they wore and the age of Emma Lachlan, Ivy guessed the photos were a decade old. The hulking young man was handsome, with dark hair that fell in soft waves around his face, making him seem almost angelic save for the harsh nose. A Roman nose, they called it in paintings. He had dark, hypnotic eyes. A very handsome man, even at that age. Ivy wondered what he looked like now. He looked out of this time, a product of a past era. There was another young man in the photos, a few years younger than the first and a head shorter. He had the same dark color of hair, though cut neat and short in a fashionably modern style. He did not share the broad shouldered frame of his older brother. He was athletic, but seemed of an average height for a teenage boy. He was a handsome young man with a squint of a smile. His The daughter was clearly Emma Lachlan, fae and fragile.
“That’s Lady Catherine Ingle, Lord Malcolm’s mother. Family and friends call her Lady Cate, but I would wait a while before trying that out. That is his brother Charles. We all call him Charlie. And of course, that’s Emma,” Olivia explained.
She looked at more photographs and saw that there were many of Catherine with Charles and Emma, but there were very few photographs of the eldest son, and what photos there were seemed to end before adulthood. One formal family photograph stood out. The photograph was dated on a placard just three years ago. In the photograph, Lady Catherine sat flanked by her second son Charles, and her daughter Emma. Behind her, with his hand on her shoulder, stood a man that could only be her husband and their father, the late Lord James Lachlan. He wore full highland regalia and his son wore a kilt but slightly less decorated than his father. Lady Catherine, a statuesque and elegant woman with auburn hair tucked neatly into a chignon wore a simple, elegant blue dress and Emma’s matched in color and style. Lord James Lachlan was an enormous, formidable man with eyes that seemed to bore into the soul even in a photograph. She also noticed that the man did not smile, but rather scowled at the camera. His family’s smiles seemed forced and unnatural. The current Lord Lachlan, Malcolm, only showed up again in what looked like very recent photographs. He stood next to an attractive man with golden blond hair and the brightest blue eyes Ivy had ever seen, his arm around the younger man. Both men were almost impossibly handsome, but in very different ways.
“They are a beautiful family,” Ivy said, and it was true. They were particularly handsome people.
Olivia quirked her mouth to the side and looked for a moment like a statue come to life.
“Lord Malcolm is away in Glasgow on business until tomorrow afternoon, but it is late and you must be exhausted. I arranged a room for you in the Abbey wing of the castle on the gallery. No one else is up there so you’ll have it all to yourself. Byron is putting your things in your room. If you’re hungry you can help yourself to the kitchen. The staff is done for the night, of course. It’s what? Three in the morning? I believe the cook, Mrs. Parsons left some steak pie in the fridge if you like and there is cullen skink from this evening…”
“Scottish cuisine. It’s a fish stew. Quite tasty actually.”
“Oh,” Ivy said dumbly.
“Your room is this way…”
Down a long corridor leading to the East wing of the castle, they came to a row of oak doors. Olivia fished into her handbag for a key and found one of dozens on a large keyring and opened the door. Stepping inside, Ivy felt the recently polished floor slippery under her feet. The room was another room redone in the Victorian era, as many Scottish castles were. The bedroom was large and paneled with carved oak wainscoting on the walls. A set of French windows flanked by dark red curtains looked out into the darkness and a glint of water from a lake glimmered in the moonlight. A fireplace glowed orange with a freshly kindled fire that Byron started when dropping off her luggage. A beautiful vanity, armoire and writing desk graced the room. The focal point was a stunning canopied bed draped in green and gold. The bed sported four thick columns of carved oak depicting fruit and vines with a lattice pattern in the background.
“It was made in 1744 for Lady Marie Pascaline as a wedding gift. She married a Lachlan. Lord Robert Lachlan the third.” Olivia spread her arms open to indicate the opulence of the room. “She was French.”
“The woodwork is spectacular,” Ivy said. “It looks like the wainscoting is original…”
“Has it been reconstructed?”
Ivy hear the door squeak shut behind her and turned to see that Olivia was gone. That’s well enough, she thought with a yawn. She shrugged out of her coat, kicked her shoes off and felt completely out of place sitting on an eighteenth century bed in jeans and a Pink Floyd tee shirt. Her suitcases looked like too much of a task for such a late night. She slipped out of her jeans and found the sleep mask she used on the plane in her purse. An oversized tee shirt, panties and socks would have to do for pajamas She laid back, pulled a blanket over her and fell asleep with a hitching snore.
The soft watery ripple of a dream halted to a startling stop as something, someone, thumped against the door of her room. A light thump of a sound, followed by loud thud and then laughing. A squeal of a girl’s voice, perhaps a child. A man’s voice was laughing, but theatrical, the way a villain in an early James Bond movie would laugh. The sound of running down the hallway and then back again. Ivy slipped out of bed, stumbling on the shoes she left on the floor beside the rug the night before. Her sleep mask was pushed up onto her forehead. She went to sleep in her oversized Pink Floyd ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’ tee shirt and thick wool socks the night before, too exhausted to rifle through her suitcase to find her pajamas. She opened the door and saw two figures whiz by, running down the hallway in front of her room. It took her eyes a minute to adjust to the light.
A young girl of maybe twelve or thirteen ran through the hallway, carrying a bright pink nerf gun that had silver plastic gemstones glued on it spelling out the name ‘Emma’ and a handle wrapped in silver tape to match. The girl was tiny, a waif of a girl with a fawn blond pixie haircut and a little heart shaped face. She looks like a cupie doll, Ivy thought. She wore a camouflage coat that was so big on her that it swallowed her up like an oversized sack dress.
A man her own age was crouched down behind the bannister of the staircase, assuming a half cover position, arms bracing his own large nerf machine gun, this one camouflage, the butt of the gun gleaming black and wrapped with electrical tape for grip. On his torso was a double holster made of brown leather which held two neon colored pistols which looked like toy water guns, one neon green and the other electric orange. The holster fitted nicely over a V-neck white tee shirt. A toy walkie talkie was clipped to the holster. She took stock of what she was looking at. White tee. Jeans. Bare feet. Hint of a tattoo on one bicep, though she couldn’t tell what it was. But the bicep… quite nice. She watched them for a moment. The girl fired a foam ball at the man and missed by a long shot. He ducked and pulled the walkie talkie out, ducking behind the cover of the bannister the way an actor would in a war movie.
“Stargazer to Station Nine, this is Stargazer, reporting in. Emergency! I need backup on the Northern platform immediately! They’ve launched a full scale invasion! Platform Nine, do you read me?”
The girl put on a raspy, alien-like voice and shouted,
“Your colony’s sorrow is my joyful playground!”
He shot up quickly from behind the bannister and fired back,
“Your tears are the fountain I frolic in!”
Ivy could not help but smile. But he was hit, an orange foam ball bouncing lightly off of his chest. He threw his arms up in the air and flailed, making a show of being hit, then a long, drawn out gurgling death scene as Emma laughed and raised her arms in victory.
“We’re both too old for this,” he laughed.
The girl grinned, braces on her teeth.
“No, YOU’RE too old for this. I will never be too old to destroy you.”
Suddenly, the girl spotted Ivy standing in the doorway and she dropped her arms and looked like a fawn caught in the headlights of an oncoming truck. The man raised his head from the floor and looked at Ivy, then smiled. Gorgeous smile, she thought. The kind of smile that could melt you with charm. He stood up and brushed off his jeans, eying Ivy with an impish grin.
“I am so sorry we woke you. See, what happened was, Emma invaded the Zythalon colony of Station Nine with her level 14 star cannon ship and me, well, since I’m the captain of the alliance federation of planet Farkon, Station Nine, it is my civil and moral duty to defend my people against imminent destruction.”
“I’m sorry I interrupted,” Ivy smiled, not caring anymore about sleep.
“You must be Miss Croften. I’m Callum. Callum MacGregor.” He extended a hand and she took it. Warm and firm.
“Just Ivy,” she offered.
“Just Ivy then. But, um… yeah, really sorry we woke you up. This wing is usually empty so this is where we have galactic battles,” he explained, holstering the foam shooting machine gun into a strap on his back.
The girl switched modes quickly and suddenly seemed terrified. She moved behind Callum and peered from behind him with large cornflower blue eyes like a frightened child. Callum did not seem surprised by this behavior and Ivy noticed that the man shielded her with his body without really making it obvious. Ivy had always been quick to notice things others did not. Despite this, she was so enchanted with Callum’s smile that she did not hear Olivia come up the stairs and when the woman spoke, Ivy jolted.
“Are these two playing intergalactic war games again? Don’t mind them, Ivy. They’ll be at it for hours, or at least until the planet Zorgon or whatever it’s called is defeated by the galactic army. I believe your bedroom used to be the planet in question.”
Olivia carried a box of books and ducked into a room at the end of the hall to set them down before drifting down the stairs again with a dismissive wave of her french manicured hand.
“Oh, I see. Well, I wouldn’t want to stand in the way of a galactic invasion.”
“Miss Ivy Croften, this is Lord Malcolm Lachlan’s sister, Emma Lachlan. Emma, this is the artist that will be staying with us to restore the grand ballroom.”
The girl looked terrified, but Callum patted her on the shoulder and she looked up at him, gathering courage. She stepped out from behind him and shakily extended her hand, but then snatched it away at the last second and looked embarrassed and apologetic.
“Miss Croften,” she said in a silvery, shaky voice. “Welcome to Castle Invergaren.”
“Pleasure to meet you, Miss Lachlan,” Ivy said. “May I call you Emma, or is it Lady Emma? Or Lady Lachlan?”
The girl turned red and hid behind Callum again.
“She’s a bit shy around new people. Emma, why don’t you go to the study and work on your homework. When Mal gets home, he can help you with your French papers.”
She nodded and ran down the stairs. Callum smiled that panty dropping smile again.
“She’s not used to new people around here.”
“She lives here?”
“No. She lives with her mother in Nairn. Lady Lachlan moved out of the castle years ago, before the late Lord Lachlan passed away. Emma comes to stay for a weekend sometimes. She’s a sweet girl. She’s um… well, she’s painfully shy.”
“Not around you, it seems.”
“No, not around me or Mal. It took us years to get her to that point though where she is not afraid of us. Don’t take it personally if she isn’t very warm to you.”
Callum’s eyes moved to her tee shirt she was sleeping in and she suddenly realized that her nipples were hard and poking against the fabric. He snapped to attention and looked apologetic for staring.
“I should really go and get dressed.”
“I can show you the castle and grounds,” he offered.
“That sounds good.”
“Meet you at the bottom of the stairs in an hour?”
Ivy couldn’t help but stare as he turned and walked away.