Applecross, Scotland, July 1882
In a world run by loud people, quiet was a scarce commodity. Catriona was willing to pay for it and she knew all the ways to acquire some solitude. The one thing she couldn't do was store it in her veins for later use-a pity, because tonight at seven o'clock, a stranger would invade her home.
For now, she had sought refuge in the cool waters of Loch Shieldaig. The lake of her childhood home filled her ears with the heavy silence of a tomb. She floated on her back, her bare white body stark against the black depths, her arms outspread as if trying to embrace the blue expanse of sky above. Now and then a wave lapped over her face, leaving a brackish taste in her throat. Had she known her father would invite a guest to the family seat, she would have thought twice about coming up to Applecross for the summer. One assumed that a remote castle was free from the distractions that lurked back at Oxford: sociable friends. The suffrage cause. The lingering awkwardness of an unrequited crush. Where could she work on a book in peace if not here?
The visitor's presence would make her feel alien in her own dining hall. She'd do her duty and play hostess, of course. At five-and-twenty, she knew the protocol: hold his gaze, smile slightly, and put her comfort last. Ask light questions about his travels and research plans, all while discreetly observing his plate and wineglass in case the footmen failed to anticipate his needs on time. She did have an eye for detail. Luckily, most people did not. Few ever saw the true emotions behind her mask. The visitor, too, would be none the wiser that she was wishing him away.
The breeze stirred and sent shivers across the loch, and the cold entered her bones, urging her to return. She swam with practiced backstrokes, her mind inattentive as her body knew the route to the eastern bank by habit. No one ever visited the small crescent of shoreline where she had left her clothes. The spot was shielded by a rare patch of forest, and only sheep and old gamekeeper Collins knew the path, neither of whom posed a threat to the daughter of Alastair Campbell, Earl of Wester Ross.
Gooseflesh rose on her wet skin when she emerged from the water. She strode to the forest edge quickly. Her clothes were still laid out on the boulder, secured in place by a thick volume of Virgil's Aeneid. With clammy fingers, she picked up the book and her spectacles. Then she noticed it: the presence to her right. She froze.
A man was blocking the entrance of the forest path.
Ice shot through her stomach.
She clutched the Virgil in front of her modesty; her spectacles clattered to the ground. He was five yards away. Watching her. Her heart was racing. He had already seen her . . . he had seen everything. She turned to him fully with the treacle-slow motion of a bad dream. His contours were fuzzy, but conclusive enough: still young, strong features, broad but lean shoulders in a fitted coat-he was in fine fighting form. Not good. And he was still staring. With an age-old expression of awe. As though he had unexpectedly stumbled through the doors of a cathedral and felt ambushed by the dizzying heights and the dusty taste of the eternal. It would have given her pause, except there was a pair of binoculars resting against his chest. A white-hot sensation rushed to her head.
"What do you think you are doing," she snapped, the words shooting out cold and clipped.
The man came alive as if he had been released from a spell. He turned his face away.
"You . . . are a woman," he said, sounding vaguely stunned.
"Astutely observed, sir," she said, incredulous.
He made a noise in his throat, like a surprised chuckle.
The pulse pounding in her ears near drowned out her conscious thinking. "Of course you're amused," she said. "One would expect nothing but low humor from a cowardly Peeping Tom."
He twitched, as though it cost him effort to not whip his head back round to her. "I was not . . . peeping."
"So you did not, while walking along the ridge, spot me in the water, use your binoculars to ascertain that I was indeed an unclothed woman, and then creep all the way down through the forest to spy on me?"
Her tone had sharpened with every word and by the end, he should have lain on the ground in neat slices. He stood quite intact if a bit befuddled. His head tipped back on a soft laugh.
"That sounds like a lot of trouble just to see an unclothed woman," he said. "You are very charming, miss," he added, "but it's nothing I have not seen before."
Her cheeks stung as if she had been slapped.
"Then why," she cried, "are you still standing there-oh!"
Her startled gasp did make him look back at her, just as a translucent shape flew toward him on a fresh gust of wind. Hell. Her untethered underclothes, fine like cobwebs, had taken off in the breeze.
"Blast." She lunged forward and slammed her palm down on a remaining stocking. She cast a quick glance sideways. The man was straightening from a crouch with her chemise caught in his fist, as if he had swiped it from midair like a large cat. He eyed her pantaloons next-they had landed in a shrub, and it had to be the pantaloons because there were blurry pink ribbons, doing a saucy dance.
"Don't touch that," she wheezed.
He raised his arms over his head. "I won't touch."
Her chemise fluttered in his hand like a white flag.
"You really ought to take your leave now," she suggested through gritted teeth.
"Absolutely," he agreed. "See here."
He turned around, seemed to survey the nearest tree, and then he deftly tied her chemise to the trunk by its decorative cords.
"Voilà," he said and spread his fingers. "You shall never see me again."
Without a backward glance, he strode into the forest at a fluid pace.
"Nearly gone now," he called out before his elegant form disappeared around the bend.
She stayed hunched over the boulder, barely able to swallow around the shock still clogging her throat. The path remained empty and the forest quiet, as if the man had never been here at all. Oh, he had been quite real. His roaming gaze had left a smoldering trail across her body. She had refused to flail and twist to cover her breasts; he had already looked his fill anyway and it would have probably given him satisfaction to see her squirm.
Eventually, she picked up her spectacles. They had survived the fall intact. She put them on, and Castle Applecross slid into focus on the plateau on the opposite bank, its old stone towers sharply delineated against the clear sky. She was rather far from home here, on the other side of the loch. Sudden energy surged, and she rushed to take her chemise down from the tree. What a neat, pretty bow the creeper had tied, voilà! Would it be safe to walk home? He could be lurking in the brambles and pounce after all. She looked back at the castle, half a mile across a rippling surface. The decision was made quickly: she chose the risk of the water over the man. Back at the boulder, she put down the chemise and pulled her shawl from under her gown instead, wound it round her head, and secured it with her hatpin. She gave the Virgil an apologetic pat. "I shall fetch you later."
The loch engulfed her body like a large cold fist.
When she staggered onto the shoreline below the castle, her arms and thighs were burning with exhaustion. The plateau enclosed the beach like a protective wall, so she took some time to regain her breath. Wrapped in the plaid, she hurried up the crumbling steps her ancestor had once hewn into the side of the rock face. Overgrown vegetable beds and a tumbledown cottage blurred past on her dash to the castle walls. She slipped through the side entrance into the dimly lit wine cellar, then up the cobwebbed spiral staircase, one floor, two, three. On the final landing, she threw her shoulder against the servants' door, until she burst into her chamber.
A scream rang out.
MacKenzie was pressing a fist to her chest, her wide-eyed gaze fixed on Catriona as if she were one of the castle ghosts. "Milady. I near jumped out of my skin."
Catriona padded past her on numb feet to the rocking chair with the tartan throws. She sat and huddled into the blankets while her former-nanny-turned-lady's-maid surveyed her with a hand on her sturdy hip. After thirty years of service in the Campbell household, MacKenzie was accustomed to remarkably eccentric behavior, but parading around in nothing but a plaid was a novel, unacceptable development. Sorry, MacKenzie. Crossing the loch with the added weight of waterlogged undergarments would have been rather too reckless.
Before MacKenzie could inquire about her clothes, Catriona asked: "Do you know if the earl has employed a new gamekeeper?"
MacKenzie's consternated expression changed to concern. "A new gamekeeper," she repeated in her thick brogue. "I hadn't realized you let the old Collins go."
Catriona rocked with the chair. "I would never."
Neither would her father, come to think of it. Then why the binoculars on that man?
She couldn't feel her face. The hexagonal room on top of the south tower, despite thick wall tapestries and sprawling Persian carpets, was never warm, and the fright from being watched was still lodged in her chest like an icicle.
"You must make haste," MacKenzie said, and nodded at the copper basin in front of the hearth. Steam was swirling lazily into the cool air. "His lordship's guest has arrived."
The clock next to the chamber door said it was not yet three in the afternoon.
MacKenzie pursed her lips. "He's arrived early. Poor manners if I may say so-everyone's in a tizzy. But the tub's ready for you."
"Good grief," Catriona muttered. A sudden change in schedule made her feel queasy on the best of days. "Oooh," she then said. "Oh no. Oh dear."
She felt so weak, it was as though her heart had stopped.
"Dinna fash," came MacKenzie's voice from a distance. "The earl has just returned, he was at the Middletons'-they are separating, the Middletons, have you heard . . . but his lordship is back, and he's entertaining the young gentleman until dinner. All's well."
All this was easy for MacKenzie to say, because she didn't know about the stranger at the loch.
"He rolled his r's," she moaned.
She buried her face in her hands. "This is bad."
"If you bathe now, you should be ready soon enough," MacKenzie said in the soothing tone she used on the unwell.
Catriona looked up at her, feeling dizzy. "Did our guest take a walk after his arrival?"
The math was damning: two strangers on the same day in remote Applecross was highly improbable. Had she not been so shocked, and so set on him arriving at seven, this would have occurred to her it was happening.
"I don't know if the gentleman went for a walk," said MacKenzie. She opened the top drawer of the dresser next to the fireplace to take out a stack of towels. "Once Mary told me he was here, I saw to the bath and laid out your clothes."
While MacKenzie's back was turned, Catriona rose, dropped the damp plaid, and climbed into the heat of the tub.
"What's he like?" she forced herself to ask.
MacKenzie placed the towels on the footstool next to the tub and straightened with a soft grunt. "I haven't seen him," she said. "Mary said he's brought a trunk full of wine and he carried it from the carriage all by himself."
She should have asked questions about the man when the earl had announced a visitor, but, frustrated by the news, she hadn't. She knew he was an expert on Phoenician high culture from the Levant, Mount Lebanon more precisely, with several terms at Cambridge among his credentials. He was one of the numerous international scholars interested in an exchange with Oxbridge academics, and, apparently, just the person Wester Ross needed to assist with cataloging some of the Eastern artifacts back at Oxford. Voilà. What if he had said wallah-Arabic-and not voilà-French-and in the heat of the moment, she had misunderstood? The penny would have dropped sooner. Wallah, you shall never see me again. Well. Well, they would see about that.
"What a day," she said tonelessly.
"I'll be back to help do up your hair in half an hour," MacKenzie said. She walked to the door with a slight limp that had certainly not been there before.
Catriona contemplated this as MacKenzie's steps faded away, momentarily distracted from her scandalous situation.
While her father diverted time and attention toward hosting academic guests, the castle was crumbling around them, weeds conquered the grounds, and the people in charge of maintaining it all were increasingly plagued by their own ailments. An attempt at a land sale with neighboring Baron Middleton, which could have eased the strain on the Campbell purse, had fallen through in the spring. No wonder her thumbnails were bitten to the quick. In the end, it was the earl's and her responsibility to run Applecross, but they were as bad as each other when it came to managing the stewards and accountants. Usually they justified their neglect with their cerebral brilliance-who had time to look after ledgers if one could add to the production of knowledge or advance women's rights instead? However, lately, she was failing at it, the brilliance. On her desk below the window loomed a stack of books. She had already scoured it top to bottom for inspiration. After co-authoring countless papers with Wester Ross, she had been keen to finally write a book in her own name, on a topic of her choosing, but a curious blank yawned where passion should have been. Writing without that passion was like squeezing water from a stone; weeks had passed and her well was still running dry. She had no noble excuse left for letting Applecross fall into ruin.
She grabbed the floating flannel and ran it over her arms and neck. She gave her shamelessly ogled chest a good scrub. She was neither a waif nor voluptuous, but her breasts were sizable in relation to her frame. Plain gowns concealed this. Now a man knew. On her left nipple, the silver studs of her piercing caught the red gleam from the fire in the hearth. Had he noticed the intimate piece of jewelry? For a moment, her hand lingered on the wet, warm curve of her breast. She exhaled and put her head under water.
Copyright © 2023 by Evie Dunmore. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.