The wind was tossing up outside and he watched with his usual pang of worry as Emma got into Louise Melkin’s little blue American car. The winding drive along the loch was a knuckle biting one and though Louise had done it a hundred times before, he worried about Emma and her nanny on the drive up to Nairn. Emma waved goodbye to him from the car window and he wished he had been able to spend the full weekend with her, but business in Glasgow was becoming complicated without his constant attention and he needed to make sure the workshop was running at the highest quality level. Running his family’s castle estate had never been part of his plan and the sudden need to do so had changed the course of his life and Callum’s too. Malcolm wanted a simple life. He wanted to build boats, to sail and to spend his time with Callum, the way he had done for years. When they became serious about each other six years ago, they got a flat together in the Haymarket district of Edinburgh. Malcolm agreed to commute every day from Glasgow, simply because Edinburgh was nicer than Glasgow. The drive was not that long. When Malcolm was called to take up his duty to his family estate, they both risked everything to move to the highlands. It was worth it to be closer to Emma and to his mother. Emma could come for a weekend now and then and they could go up to the country house in Nairn and spend time with her. Callum’s family was in Aberdeen, so the castle was closer to them. At least that was something.
When the car was out of sight, Malcolm pulled his collar up to keep the biting wind off of his neck, and headed out to the East wing. The restoration artist would surely be awake already. He saw a figure in an arched window. The flash of a camera. Probably one of the stuffy academics from the Historical Preservation Society’s American chapter. He made his way down the long corridor of the East wing, stepping over stone rubble and the remnants of the section that had not been fully restored yet. He constantly worried about Emma getting into that section of the castle. The East wing was a crumbling remnant of the past and required the most reconstruction. Work crews were often at the castle, working on preserving the grand old section that had stood for five centuries. The rest of the castle had been restored in the Victorian era and then modernized in the 1980’s when Malcolm was a child, but the East wing had been left to a haunting kind of dilapidation. Stones frequently fell from the ceiling, letting patches of dappled light fall in scattered patterns over the moss that grown on the damp stones of the floor. There was a section of floor that was still wood, but the wood was rotting and it was easy enough to break an ankle falling through the soft wood that would break like the shell of a boiled egg. Workmen left tools; crowbars, broken drill bits, nails and rusted bits of metal scattered around. Malcolm and Callum always worried about Emma getting curious and wanting to explore the ruin for inspiration for one of her goblins and elves stories she wrote.
He pecked his way around the debris and saw the figure of a woman with a camera, photographing the details of the architecture that was left, the magnificent details that still graced the walls but had begun to rot away. Cherubs and winged devils carved in wood panels on the walls, done by a student of Gibbens centuries ago. The panels, tragically had been left to the elements. His father had taken little interest in preserving the castle’s more fragile sections or the rich and beautiful art that graced its walls. His mother had not always been the independent woman she was now. In the early days, she had bent to the will of James Lachlan and had been too intimidated to ask for the money for restoration of the fantastic wooden panels, so they had weakened and bits had broken away. The wing of a flying serpent, the extended arm of a wailing angel. Moss obscuring the faces of saints depicted in suspended glory at the top of the panels that hovered above the windows that once housed stained glass. It was a shame that it had gotten so bad, but art historians he spoke to claimed Robert Saskin was the best in his field. Despite the high cost, Malcolm sent for him. The 1.2 million pound cottage sales would have to pay for the restoration costs and the project would take months.
“Up early?” Malcolm said and saw the woman jump with alarm. She turned quickly and almost dropped the camera in her hand.
“Jesus, you scared the hell out of me!”
“Apologies. I didn’t mean to startle you.”
He tilted his head as he got closer to her. Callum had been right. She had to be seen to be believed. The woman was beautiful. Not fashion magazine beautiful. No, that was never a truly appealing kind of beauty. This was something else entirely. She looked like an oil painting. Titian hair. Boticelli skin. The thick sensuality of Reubens. The long tapered fingers of Modigliani. The flaws of her face were beautiful strengths. Her nose with the slightly upturned tip. Her eyes that were set too far apart. Her mouth that was a little too large for her face. Symmetry would have been terribly boring. She wore her awkward beauty with grace. She blew a wayward curl away from her eyes with a blow of her lips and then smiled. Yes, the mouth was too big and it was exactly right on her face. She extended a hand.
“Lord Lachlan, I presume?”
“We’re quite informal here,” he replied. “Everyone just calls me Malcolm and the ones that I annoy call me Mal. The Lordly title we save for impressing tourists. You must be Robert Saskin’s protege.”
“Ivy Croften.” She shook his hand. “Pleasure to meet you. I wanted to photograph the area in ideal light. I’m documenting the restoration. If you don’t mind, Lord Lachlan… I mean Malcolm… would you mind if I took your photograph by the window? I would like to document the people involved with the restoration as part of the whole project.”
“I don’t make for the prettiest picture, but if it pleases you.”
He stood by the window and slipped his hands into the pockets of his long black wool coat. He imagined it made for a brooding and atmospheric photograph, which would likely be impressive in Ivy Croften’s portfolio. Malcolm knew that his appearance, despite his bulk or perhaps because of it, invoked… what had the Duchess of Fife called it? A Lord Byronesque romance. An elegant brute. Callum had laughed at that but then called him that in bed that night. Ivy’s camera flashed and he saw her eye him with an intrigued expression. Good, he thought, let her think I’m Lord Of The Manor if she wants to. If it excites her. He would play along.
“Did the photograph turn out to your liking?” he asked.
She nodded, checking the digital screen and fumbling nervously with the buttons.
“My team will be here in a couple of days. I have three people coming in from Baltimore and a sculptor from Naples coming in next week. Robert said I would have access to a supply van while I’m here?”
“Yes, of course.”
“I need to go into Fort William to get supplies, scaffolding and drop cloths.”
“We might have some of that here. The restoration has been an ongoing process and the work crews do leave behind a lot of things. Byron can show you the storage rooms and get you sorted. I trust my secretary set up up with a suitable room for your stay?”
“Oh yes, Olivia. Yes, my room is gorgeous, thank you. I met Callum and Emma. They’re lovely.”
He did not have anything to say about that because it always seemed obvious to him.
“Do you really think we can restore one of those panels and install it in the ballroom in three months?”
“I do. I work like a demon.”
He caught her gaze moving over the length of his body and he cast her a crooked smile. She snapped back to attention and looked a little flushed at being caught.
“I’m sure you do.”
He caught the little bite of her bottom lip, the nervous gulp in her throat. He knew how to make people do that. He didn’t have to try much. People reacted to his size and what Callum called “Jon Snow hair”. With Callum, there were a lot of Game Of Thrones references. He was almost as bad as Emma was with Doctor Who.
“The first panel, the Revolution panel… it has the least amount of damage. It is also the largest of the panels. I will have to restore it here on location. I am making arrangements for the smaller pieces to be taken to Glasgow and restored by my team with the help of the conservators at the Burnell Trust. The large panel will be difficult. The size of it makes it too difficult to transport off location. My equipment will be arriving soon. I have a team member bringing up some things from the Burnell conservatory that they have been kind enough to let us use on loan. I will need to go to Glasgow myself in the next couple of days and make sure the smaller pieces are x-rayed and sorted properly. I can design a plan then. Once that is on its way, my team can begin their work. I will be taking the large panel into the ballroom and turning that into my studio. Trust me, Malcolm,” she said, gathering her nerve. “I know what I’m doing.”
He did not doubt that for a second.
The fireplace took the chill out of Malcolm’s office. Olivia sat by the window, doing the estate books for the quarter. Malcolm was always impressed by how much work Olivia took on and how efficient she was at everything she did.
“How are we doing?” he asked, tapping a pencil against the desk.
“Fantastic, actually. You’ve really managed to save this place from oblivion. The debt that your father left has all been paid off. The castle restoration is in the budget and can continue as planned. Your mother is well and good, and everything is set for Emma.”
A weight lifted from Malcolm’s shoulders.
“And none of that could have been done without your help, Olivia. I cannot thank you enough.”
“Well, lets not get too hasty,” she said, raising a manicured hand to slow him down. “There is one problem.”
“Jesus, why am I never surprised by that? What’s he done this time?”
“It seems that Charlie has been drawing very large amounts from the inheritance.” She gestured to the screen of her laptop. “I’m looking at ten thousand pound withdrawals on a weekly basis. He has been doing this since June 16th. The problem is that due to your father’s accountants, I don’t get notified about any withdrawal that Charlie makes that is under twenty-five thousand, something I am quite sure Charlie made sure to persuade your father into adding into the structure of the account. These withdrawals were not reported until the latest one raised some red flags.”
“Three hundred thousand? How the fuck did I not know about this?”
“It was last Tuesday, and no one called until this morning. With the ten thousand pound withdrawals I could make an educated guess that he is back into drugs again, but this last one… I have no idea what he’s doing with the money.”
“Get him on the phone.”
“I already tried. He isn’t answering anything from me. I tried calling from Cal’s cell too, but he won’t answer.”
“He hates Cal,” Malcolm tossed a pencil across the room and watched it ricochet off the band of a waist basket.
“I know, but I gave it a try. I think we both know he won’t take a call from you, Mal. He knows we were going to find out sooner or later.”
“I need to shut him out of the family money or he will break all of us. That is everyone’s future he is pissing away. We will lose this place. I’ve given up too much of my own life to let that happen. Did you talk to my father’s accountants?”
“Weeks ago. I’ve tried so many times, Mal, but the answer is always the same. Charlie has full access to the money. There is nothing we can do to stop him.”
“My father wasn’t even coherent in those last days and Charlie was in that room with him, conning him into putting this shit into his will. Charlie given access to piss away the family fortune. He thinks it is just him. He doesn’t understand that there are dozens, maybe even hundreds of people that rely on that fortune to remain intact. Employees, their families, the businesses in the village, the goddamned accountants that manage it…”
“No, not Emma. Cal and I, we put a trust fund aside for Emma with our own money. Money Charlie can’t get his hands on.”
“He asked your mother for money, you know. Cal found out about it and didn’t want to tell you because he knew it would just upset you. Charlie went up to Nairn and asked your mother for a fifty thousand pound loan.”
“Did my mother give it to him?”
“Of course not, but he apparently laid a heavy guilt trip on her before shuffling back to Glasgow.”
“What the hell does he need the money for? He has a million pound flat, a car that costs more than most people make in two years and I give him an allowance that affords him that ridiculously flashy lifestyle he likes to show off to pick up gold diggers. Why does he constantly need more?”
“More gold diggers.”
“Normally I would agree, but this stinks of something else. I need to go down to Glasgow and stop my arse hole brother from ruining all of us. He could burn through millions at this rate.”
He got up and paced the room, covering the length in three effortless strides where it might have taken her six, or even seven. Malcolm stopped behind her and saw her open a file on the Gibbons restoration project. Olivia gestured to a wince inducing number on the screen and gave him a resigned smile.
“Miss Ivy Croften will need to be paid soon, and there is quite an estimate for supplies it seems. Oh, and you do know that she is technically DOCTOR Ivy Croften, don’t you? Sorry I left that tidbit out. I didn’t know who she was until she showed up. I typically snoop better than that.”
“Dr. Croften, hmm?”
“Yes, after she arrived, I dipped into some research.” Olivia opened another file and a series of photographs published by the Baltimore Herald showed the auburn haired beauty in a white smock and goggles, working to restore a carved 18th century ship’s figurehead. Next to her was her mentor, Robert Saskin. “She has quite a resume. Studied at St. Julia Arts College, then The Baltimore Academy Of Technical Arts. There was a scholarship to The Goffard Conservatory in New York. Then an apprenticeship with Robert Saskin at Saskin & Hughs. It seems the old goat pays her next to nothing for her work though. He kept her on as an unpaid apprentice for two years longer than she should have stayed. This is her first major solo gig. Dr. Ivy Croften is a broke, underpaid genius.”
“No wonder she jumped on this job.”
“And I spoke to her two hours ago and apparently our ballroom is now the site of an on location temperature controlled studio which she is setting up over the next week. A truck is delivering temperature control monitors as we speak. A bit much, I think.”
“If that’s what she has to do, then let her do it.”
“It’s not just the money, Malcolm. That we can afford. But do you think we really need this chaos right now? Another work crew? Another restoration? We haven’t had the place all to ourselves in months.”
Malcolm stiffened and turned to meet her eyes.
“Ms. Haskel,” he began and saw her taken aback. He only called her Ms. Haskel when he was angry at her, which wasn’t often. “May I remind you that there is no “we” involved here. This is MY family’s estate and I will do what needs to be done to restore and preserve its heritage.”
“Yes, I understand. I just… sorry.”
His face softened.
“We aren’t a couple anymore, Olivia. We haven’t been since college and I think it is important to maintain boundaries here.”
“As for Miss… Dr. Croften. Let her do what she needs to get that Gibbons panel up in the ballroom in time for Christmas. That party is not just a party. It’s business. We have company investors coming in from all over and they were told that there would be a Gibbons exhibition for the Autism fundraiser.”
“Your mother told them that.”
“I know, and she shouldn’t have, but there it is. And…” he took a long gulp of Scotch and poured Olivia a glass. “I don’t want to let down Emma. She is very passionate about that charity, as we all are. But for her… it’s closer to her heart.”
“Of course. I’ll give Dr. Croften what she needs, Lord Lachlan.”
“Knock that off. Give me a hug and get out of here.”
Malcolm watched the moving truck finish unloading bulky temperature control units, enormous piles of canvas, two thick and sturdy work tables, work lamps, lumber and cases of equipment that he couldn’t guess what might contain. Dr. Ivy Croften guided this unloading process with confident efficiency. She carried in crates with the moving crew, not shying away from the hard work. She was a very physical woman. He liked that. Delicate flowers had never impressed him. He leaned against an arched column at the portcullis of the castle entrance and watched the chaos that surrounded Ivy Croften with a curious look. She was young. Maybe Callum’s age. Twenty-six or twenty-seven. Too beautiful to be cooped up in a conservatory.
“I see what you’re looking at,” Callum’s voice took him out of his reverie. There was always a glint of playful wickedness in Callum’s voice. The man could talk about quilting and it would sound sexy. He had seen him do that with Mrs. Parsons, who always blushed and waved him away like a naughty ten year old stealing cookies.
“I was simply watching the process unfold.”
“Oh? So, it has nothing to do with the fact that Dr. Croften has an amazing ass in those jeans?”
“That might have a little to do with it if I really examine the situation.”
“My birthday’s coming up, you know. I would like two of those please.”
Callum was joking of course. Or at least partly joking. It was hard to tell with Cal.
“We have become lecherous bastards, haven’t we? Dr. Croften is a respected professional in her field. We’re talking to her like she is made of juicy steak.”
“How about we go help her carry in that stuff and see if she notices our man-steak.”
“Jesus, you’re terrible,” Malcolm chided, but hid a secret smile.
“I’m gonna go test the waters. You coming to help?”
“I’m not helping with shit. It’s her job, let her do it. She doesn’t need my help.”
“Such a lack of chivalry for a Lord,” Callum clicked his teeth and shook his head, then shrugged out of his jacket, revealing the close fitting white tee shirt underneath.
Callum’s simple style of dressing often reminded Malcolm of James Dean. If James Dean had a desk job. Jeans, white or black tee, simple jacket, feet often shod in trainers. Malcolm had over the years gotten him to occasionally wear what he referred to as “grown ass man shoes” but Cal usually kept to his casual, sporty and effortless look. It worked on him. Malcolm could never get away with that. Callum ran across the courtyard and smiled at Ivy. Malcolm watched him offer to take up the heavy end of a long, narrow crate. She nodded and he lifted, flexing the ink covered biceps that indicated a lean, toned body under the white tee shirt. One thing about Callum was, he was finely made. He did not have Malcolm’s unusual height or his bull-like bulk, but he had a lanky, elegant muscle tone that was the product of excellent genetics and frequent five mile runs. Callum was a health shake and protein powder kind of guy. Crossfit and swimming in ice cold water, which Malcolm would never consider doing. The result was an angel face with David Beckham abs.
Malcolm enjoyed the fruits of his labor. A healthy lifestyle and all the workouts made for a very energetic man, and Callum never seemed to run out of that frenetic energy that hummed just beneath the surface. He made it boyish charm, but there was nothing boyish about what Callum could do in bed. There was something in that humming energy and the glint of mischief in Callum’s eyes that made everyone suspect he would be a devil in bed, and they were right. Ivy looked like she was on the receiving end of one of Callum’s ‘I could bang you like a screen door in a hurricane’ looks because she wobbled a little in that smooth confidence of hers. Women adored Callum. Malcolm saw their reaction to him everywhere they went. Malcolm knew that Callum had an interest in women, but had never been with a woman. Apparently in college, he had been too busy (quite busy) with men, and shortly after college he met Malcolm and they had been together since. Malcolm had been almost the opposite. He had only one male lover before Cal and that had not turned out well. There had been many women. Even though Cal had not been with a woman, they all clamored to him like bees surrounding untouched honey. He enjoyed their attention. Cal enjoyed pretty much anyone’s attention. He was essentially a purring cat that always wanted to lay on someone’s lap. He was long and sleek and looked boyish and dangerous at once. They had certainly brought third party lovers into their bed before for one night threesomes and twice those lovers had been female, but Cal had preferred to just watch, and occasionally direct the action. And he could direct like a master. In bed, Cal was Martin fucking Scorcese.
Malcolm grinned and shook his head when Callum lifted several large boxes out of the back of the truck and then lifted the bottom of his tee shirt up to wipe sweat off of his face. Sweat that probably wasn’t there. It was cool outside and threatening to rain. Still, it caught the attention of Ivy (and even the bearded and overalled movers cast a glance) and she stopped still in her tracks and licked her lips, then caught herself staring and went back to work a little more flustered. Callum turned to give Malcolm a gesture that said, ‘I told you so’ and grinned. Malcolm witnessed Callum shamelessly pull out every act of flirt-warfare he knew, and the arsenal was impressive. The thing was, when Cal flirted shamelessly, it was part of his charm. He let you know it. The man had never been shy. Callum vanished into the foyer of the castle, following Ivy presumably to the ballroom that would now be her work studio and Malcolm wondered how long it would take Callum to completely charm the doctor.