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Kingdom of Shadows

Kingdom of Shadows
Kingdom of Shadows Barbara Erskine Barbara Erskine's classic bestseller, the successor to Lady of Hay, at last available as a HarperCollins paperback.In a childless and unhappy marriage, Clare Royland is rich and beautiful – but lonely. And fueling her feelings of isolation is a strange, growing fascination with an ancestress from the distant past. Troubled by haunting inexplicable dreams that terrify – but also powerfully compel – her, Clare is forced to look back through the centuries for answers.In 1306, Scotland is at war. Isobel, Countess of Buchan, faces fear and the prospect of untimely death as the fighting surrounds her. But passionate and headstrong, her trials escalate when she is persecuted for her part in crowning Robert the Bruce, her lover.Duncairn, Isobel's home and Clare's beloved heritage, becomes a battleground for passions that span the centuries. As husband Paul's recklessness threatens their security, Clare must fight to save Duncairn, and to save herself from the powers of Isobel… BARBARA ERSKINE Kingdom of Shadows COPYRIGHT (#ulink_a112fbe7-0f4a-52a5-abba-2514c1ba8985) Published by HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd 1 London Bridge Street London SE1 9GF www.harpercollins.co.uk (http://www.harpercollins.co.uk) This edition first published by HarperCollins 2004 First published in Great Britain by Michael Joseph Ltd 1988 Published by Sphere Books Ltd 1989 Published by Warner Books 1992 This novel is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or used fictionally. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or organizations or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. The quotation from ‘I Have a Dream’ composed by Bjorn Uluaeus and Benny Anderson, is copyright © Bow Music Ltd, 1979, 1 Wyndham Yard, London, W1H 1AR, reproduced by kind permission. It is specifically excluded from any blanket photocopying arrangements. Copyright © Barbara Erskine 1988 Barbara Erskine asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. By payment of the required fees, you have been granted the nonexclusive, nontransferable right to access and read the text of this e-book on-screen. No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, downloaded, decompiled, reverse engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express written permission of HarperCollins e-books. Source ISBN 9780007288663 Ebook edition © JANUARY 2009 ISBN 9780007290673 Version 2017-09-12 HarperCollinsPublishers has made every reasonable effort to ensure that any picture content and written content in this ebook has been included or removed in accordance with the contractual and technological constraints in operation at the time of publication. DEDICATION (#ulink_5a9a4cca-e392-5459-a161-9e160fdba50e) For Adrian James Earl and Jonathan Erskine Alexander also descendants of the Bruce CONTENTS Title Page (#u8c8a8c5a-448e-5108-91b6-2803a4e1fb05) Copyright (#ulink_9fe381e7-42c3-54e5-bacf-12d9a1e72634) Dedication (#ulink_75604fc5-1732-593d-8eca-69f264837fa6) Map (#ulink_f656f0c5-0185-5afb-afd6-1b08f8ecd4a1) The Dream (#ulink_96a401e8-01ed-5474-9312-095be1db78b8) Prologue (#ulink_72242c12-d335-5295-a283-54f18e968e8d) Chapter One (#ulink_1b737820-10d7-5682-9dcd-385b4123bb0e) Chapter Two (#ulink_3773097e-2e8c-5c9c-b5ed-15675a438715) Chapter Three (#ulink_d5b89780-8e9f-5f48-9716-86d099e0d0c7) Chapter Four (#ulink_06e345c4-0b1a-5600-be98-b0a08f3ed95b) Chapter Five (#ulink_ff612149-3c40-52ff-812e-35d23a4e45b1) Chapter Six (#ulink_794d389f-765f-5141-8efd-717612f51d1e) Chapter Seven (#ulink_75f48972-07c2-50e4-b87f-ff880f1d21bb) Chapter Eight (#ulink_74bbff24-9b36-507f-871f-39b4121af9a8) Chapter Nine (#ulink_7295e4dd-427c-5dfb-89bc-af2ea6e0b6d1) Chapter Ten (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Eleven (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twelve (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Thirteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Fourteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Fifteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Sixteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Seventeen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Eighteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Nineteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twenty (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twenty-One (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twenty-Two (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twenty-Three (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twenty-Four (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twenty-Five (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twenty-Six (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twenty-Seven (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twenty-Eight (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twenty-Nine (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Thirty (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Thirty-One (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Thirty-Two (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Thirty-Three (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Thirty-Four (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Thirty-Five (#litres_trial_promo) Postscript (#litres_trial_promo) Historical Note (#litres_trial_promo) Acknowledgements (#litres_trial_promo) About the Author (#litres_trial_promo) Also by the Author (#litres_trial_promo) About the Publisher (#litres_trial_promo) MAP (#ulink_231753c7-0220-54c4-9054-31ba65f961f9) THE DREAM (#ulink_925b1a1a-1ed7-5fad-8730-2cd345d6264b) It came again that night with the silent menace of a cloud sliding across the moon. In her sleep her hands began to clench and unclench, slippery with sweat. Her breathing became short and irregular, her heartbeat increased and she threw herself from side to side, moaning with fear. Then she ceased to move. Beneath her eyelids her eyes began to flick rapidly about. Panic-stricken she fought to escape, her hands groping in the darkness whilst something held her back, trapping her, holding her immovable. There were bars above her head, behind her back, on every side of her, and, beyond the bars, eyes. Faces staring, mouths moving, teeth glittering with spittle, like the fangs of animals. Only they weren’t animals: they were people and only the bars could save her from them. She cowered back now, on her knees, her arms about her head. When she looked up, they had gone. All was empty again. Slowly she stood up. Now in her dream she was a bird. Her wings were stiff with disuse, the feathers dusty and brittle. To spread them hurt the muscles in her breast and shoulders. She tried to beat them, faster and faster, willing them to carry her outwards and upwards towards the sky. But the bars held and the feathers beat against them – beating, beating until her wings were broken and bloody and she was exhausted. Hope died; she knew again she was a woman. The dream began to lift and with it the immobility which comes with the deepest sleep. Tears filled her eyes and slipped from beneath her closed lids. She moved her head restlessly again, her hands groping in an echo of the dream, seeking the bars, afraid they would still be there when she awoke. She was fighting the dream now, yet still ensnared. One hand, flailing in the darkness, caught something and held it until her knuckles whitened. It was the chained door of the cage. As her eyes flew wide she opened her mouth and began to scream. PROLOGUE (#ulink_3ddb2294-5934-53f8-97ce-e03144d30aeb) 1970 Margaret Gordon looked down at the two children at her feet and smiled. James, his cheeks pink and shining, his hair neatly brushed and his checked shirt and jeans clean for once, was sitting fidgeting on the footstool, near her chair. At eight, he was already a tall, athletic boy, promising to be as handsome as his father. She shook her head sadly, then she turned her attention to Clare. Four years older than her brother she was a dark-haired, slim child, with the grace and elfin beauty of a fawn. Her short, wavy hair framed a delicate face, dominated by huge grey eyes. And the eyes as always were fixed unwaveringly on her great aunt’s face. ‘Go on, Aunt Margaret, let’s hear the bit about the spider.’ James leaned forward, elbows on knees. ‘And how the king escaped from Scotland.’ Margaret smiled indulgently. ‘Again?’ You ask for that story every time you come to see me.’ How strange the way the children yearned for the same old tales to be repeated. And complained if you forgot or altered the slightest detail. ‘And Clare?’ She turned and smiled at her great niece. ‘Which story would you like?’ As soon as the words had left her mouth she regretted them, knowing what the answer would be. She felt her stomach muscles tighten warningly as she met Clare’s steady gaze. ‘I’d like to hear about the Countess Isobel who crowned him king,’ the girl whispered. ‘And how they put her in a cage …’ Margaret swallowed. ‘That’s not very cheerful, my dear. I think perhaps we should stick to the spider today, as it’s nearly tea-time.’ She hesitated, uncomfortable beneath those huge, expressive eyes. ‘Besides, your mother and Archie will be back from their walk soon.’ Easing herself back in her chair she let out an exclamation of irritation as the two walking-sticks, hooked over the wooden arm, fell to the floor with a rattle. Clumsily James jumped to his feet to retrieve them, stepping over his sister who hadn’t moved. ‘Go on then, Aunt Margaret.’ He wedged them firmly back into place. ‘It happened on Rathlin Island …’ Margaret looked down at her hands. The slim aristocratic fingers were thickened and knotted with arthritis now, so she could no longer wear rings, nor push a bangle over her swollen knuckles. How silly at her age to care for such vain, inconsequential things. Surreptitiously she glanced at Clare again. When the child was a little older she would give her the jewellery. For the rest Clare would have to wait until she was dead. She gripped one of the walking-sticks tightly and rested it upright against her knees so that she could lean on it, perched on the edge of the high seat to ease the pain in her back. The child’s mother said she often had nightmares. Had she already had the dream? There were dark shadows under her eyes which should not have been there in a girl her age. Margaret felt a warning shiver of apprehension. Abruptly she brought her mind back to the story. ‘On Rathlin Island there was a cave, and there the king and his followers hid the whole of that long, vicious winter …’ If only Isobel had gone with him. If only he had allowed her to stay at his side as he longed. If only he had not sent her away. The long silence stretched out as her thoughts went back over the story: the story which had obsessed her as long as she could remember, the story she had told these two children again and again. But how had she heard it herself? She couldn’t remember who had told her first. The story had always been with her, part of her bones, part of her soul. The joy, the pain, the love and, at the last, the fear and despair. And with it the recurring nightmare. ‘Aunt Margaret?’ James gave a tentative cough. ‘The king … on Rathlin …?’ With a start she dragged her thoughts back to the present. She forced herself to smile. ‘I’m sorry, James. I think I must be a little tired.’ She glanced at Clare, almost afraid that the girl had read her thoughts, but Clare was no longer looking at her. Her eyes were fixed on the window, staring up at the thick mat of grey cloud which hung over Airdlie House. Her eyes were full of pain. ‘Clare!’ Only the astonishment in James’s face made Margaret realise how panicky her cry had sounded. The girl jumped up. ‘Yes, Aunt Margaret?’ She came to stand at the old woman’s side, her face full of anxiety. ‘What is it?’ ‘Nothing, my dear, nothing.’ Margaret levered herself to her feet. Her imagination was running away with her again. It was crazy to think one could unwittingly pass on an obsession. Another fear to lay at the door of her over-fertile brain. The child was growing up, that was all. On the threshold of womanhood. Soon she wouldn’t want to listen to an old woman’s ramblings any more. She would be far more interested in boys and pop music and clothes. There would be no time then for a story so many generations old. No time at all. She would forget. Margaret took a stick in each hand and gripped them firmly, placing the two black rubber tips squarely on the polished boards on either side of her swollen feet. ‘Let’s go and start making tea, shall we?’ she said. ‘The Bruce and his spider can come later.’ 1 (#ulink_880100be-2b3c-5509-82fe-a9f5704083a8) ‘You know, you are being bloody unfair to Paul!’ Gillian Royland reached for the tumbler and sipped lazily at the fruit drink. She pushed her sunglasses up into her hair and peered at her sister-in-law myopically from beneath her shady hat. ‘Don’t you want children, for God’s sake?’ ‘You know I do.’ Clare eyed the other woman’s hugely pregnant bulk beneath the expensively cut sundress, then she lay back on the towel and closed her eyes, one hand dangling in the pool feeling the silkiness of the water against her fingertips. They were in the garden of Clare’s country home, Bucksters. ‘Then why won’t you have some tests to find out what’s wrong?’ Clare sighed. ‘Paul and I have both been to Dr Stanford.’ ‘Oh yes, a chat with your GP.’ Gillian heaved herself up higher on the cushioned chair. ‘What does he know about it? I told you, you must go and see my gynaecologist in Harley Street.’ ‘There is nothing wrong with me, Gill.’ Clare clenched her fist in the water, unwilling to talk about the questions, the tests, the humiliations she and Paul had already faced. ‘John Stanford said I should learn to relax a bit more, that’s all.’ ‘And you respond by going to this crazy guru!’ ‘He’s not a guru!’ Clare sat up impatiently, shaking her wet hair back from her face. ‘He teaches yoga. Millions of people study yoga. There is nothing wrong about it. You should try it. Yes, even in your condition!’ ‘Hey, keep calm.’ Gillian hastily dropped the glasses on her nose, retreating at once from the threat of an argument. She eyed her tempestuous sister-in-law wryly. ‘You certainly need to learn how to relax.’ When Clare didn’t respond, she went on tentatively, feeling more secure behind the glasses. ‘Everything is all right between you and Paul?’ The question hung for a moment between them. Clare clasped her arms around her knees, her shoulders hunched as a breath of cold touched them. A few leaves drifted down from the beech hedge into the still blue water. ‘Why shouldn’t it be?’ she said at last. Gillian watched her covertly. ‘No reason at all. You are both coming to our party on Saturday, aren’t you?’ She changed the subject so abruptly that Clare stiffened. ‘If Paul can get away from London this weekend.’ Clare stood up suddenly with effortless grace and stood poised by the side of the pool, conscious for a moment of her sister-in-law’s critical stare. Then she dived into the water. The cold was biting, invigorating, touched already by that frisson of autumn in the air. It was the first day of October. By the time she pulled herself up the ladder at the far end of the pool she was shivering violently. ‘He’s still furious about your great aunt’s will, isn’t he?’ Gillian’s cool voice brought Clare up short as she stooped for her towel. ‘He told you that?’ Clare swung to face her. ‘He told David about it, in the end. But we’d guessed something was wrong. Everyone thought she would leave you and James half of her money each.’ ‘It was hardly everyone’s business!’ Clare retorted. ‘Oh come on, we are family.’ Gillian began to lever herself to her feet. ‘Paul isn’t worried about money, is he, Clare?’ ‘Paul?’ Clare stared at her, visibly shocked by the question. ‘What on earth makes you ask that?’ The two women eyed each other for a moment, Clare’s steady grey eyes meeting Gillian’s pale watery ones. Uncomfortably Gillian looked away. ‘Nothing. Nothing at all. He just seemed so upset about it, that’s all.’ ‘He was upset for me.’ Clare rubbed her hair energetically. ‘He thought I minded.’ ‘And don’t you?’ Clare shook her head. ‘I wanted Duncairn, that was all.’ She stood for a long time after Gillian had gone, gazing down at the pool as another shower of golden leaves pattered on to the water. She had minded about the money, of course. She had minded dreadfully. It would have given her her freedom. She dried herself lazily and dropped the towel as the breeze died away again and the sun reappeared, warming her chilled skin. Running her hands slowly down her own slim, tanned body she was scowling, thinking of her sister-in-law’s swelling, fertile figure, when she noticed that behind her a woman had appeared at the gateway in the high hedge which enclosed the pool area. She waved. ‘Come on, Sarah, and have a swim whilst the sun is out,’ she called. Sarah Collins frowned. Tall, smartly dressed, a woman in her early fifties, she wore an apron over her skirt. In her hand was a packet of letters. ‘The post came just as Lady Royland was leaving,’ she called back. ‘I thought I’d bring yours over. I can’t swim now. I’ve an enormous amount to do this morning.’ Had she imagined the slight emphasis on that last pronoun, Clare wondered: the unspoken implication that Clare of course had nothing to do at all. Clare smiled at her determinedly. ‘I’m sure things in the house can wait, Sarah. I doubt if we’ll have many more beautiful days like this, this year.’ She knew the woman wouldn’t swim. She never did. For all Clare’s determined efforts to make a friend of her, Sarah Collins seemed equally determined to keep her distance, to draw demarcation lines. Mistress and servant. Lady of the house and housekeeper. Confidante – that was a traditional part of the role – but giving nothing in exchange, so not a real friend. Ever. Clare shrugged. She picked up the towel again and, drying her hands, she took the letters. Glancing at them without interest she threw them down on the white-painted wrought-iron table. Already Sarah was walking back to the house. The gate clicked behind her and Clare was alone again. Sighing she poured herself some juice from the jug on the table, but she didn’t drink it. Instead she walked over to the mat on the pool’s edge. She would do twenty minutes’ yoga practice now, whilst her body was clean and invigorated and relaxed from the swim. Slipping out of the wet bikini she tossed it on to one side, sitting, gracefully naked, on the mat. Taking a deep slow breath she closed her eyes and began deliberately to relax, muscle by muscle, limb by limb, letting her mind float blankly as, slowly, she drew her legs up into the first asana. ‘Yoga, meditation, relaxation. First-class, my dear. They’re all first-class.’ She could still hear John Stanford’s slightly patronising tones. ‘Anything to help you unwind and remove the stress. Now don’t worry about it at all. The tests are going to prove there is nothing wrong. You’ll see. When nature thinks you’re good and ready you’ll conceive and not a moment before. We can’t hurry these things, you know.’ ‘But don’t I have to go into hospital or anything?’ She had expected worse than those tests; a hospital appointment, talk of a D and C; something. Not a pat on the back for going to yoga classes. He had shaken his head. ‘You’ve been on the pill for five years, Clare. It can take a while for your fertility to return. I’m sure in my own mind that is all it is. Is Paul putting the pressure on you, my dear? Wanting a son and heir and all that? I’ll have a word with him about it. Leave it to me.’ And that had been that. And meanwhile Paul’s family surrounded her reproachfully with their children. Gillian with three and another on the way; Chloe, her other sister-in-law, with two; and even Em, her best friend, Paul’s baby sister, had Julia. She opened the first of her letters as she walked back towards the house, once more clad in the bikini for the sake of Sarah’s susceptibilities. She was reading it as she reached the soft mossy grass of the back lawn. We understand that you are the owner of the hotel, castle … and policies of the area known as Duncairn … Scotland. Our client has indicated that he would be interested in purchasing the above-mentioned property in its entirety … negotiation of a price to be undertaken … Clare stared down at the letter in disbelief. A wave of anger swept over her. Did they seriously imagine she would sell Duncairn? Sell her birthright, sell seven hundred years of history, her inheritance from Aunt Margaret; sell all that beauty and wildness and memory? The letter had an official, demanding tone; the impersonal legal phrasing implied more than a casual interest, it implied knowledge of the place, and of the extent of her ownership; it implied the right to buy. Suddenly she was filled with panic. Clutching the letters in her hand, she began to run towards the house, her bare feet silent on the old polished boards as she pushed open the french windows. The drawing room was cool, shaded from the sun by half-drawn curtains, and Jocasta, her long-haired golden retriever, was lying in there in the cool, asleep. The dog raised her head as Clare appeared and wagged her tail in greeting as her mistress threw the rest of the post on to a chair. Not even pausing to read the letter again, Clare sat down at her desk, pulled a piece of headed notepaper from one of the cubby-holes in front of her and grabbed her pen. Nothing, nothing would ever induce her to sell. No amount of money would be sufficient incentive. Her pen raced over the paper. The property was not and never would be for sale. How dare Messrs Mitchison and Archer even ask? She scratched her signature and folded it into an envelope. It was then that she realised her hands were shaking with fury. With a loud sigh the dog lay flat again and closed her eyes. The action brought Clare up short. She stared at Casta for a moment, then slowly she tore the envelope in two. She took a deep breath. Body awareness, Zak called it. Be aware of your body; notice when it’s under stress. Be conscious of your pulse, your heartbeat. Feel the heat in your face. Notice how you are breathing. Give yourself more oxygen. Nothing is worth that much hassle … His cool voice came back to her. Time. Take time. She hadn’t realised she was trembling, reacting to the threat as though this man, this unknown lawyer with his importunate letter was in the room with her. Slowly she stood up. Idiot that she was. There was no hurry. The letter could be posted any time. He could do nothing. The land was not for sale. Whatever his client wanted it for, they could find somewhere else. Nothing and no one could force her to sell … She thought suddenly of Paul and she found herself swallowing nervously. What would Paul say when he heard about the offer? And with the same thought she knew with calm certainty that she would never tell him. Upstairs she showered, then, wrapping herself in a bathrobe, went into her bedroom. It was a pretty room, full of sunlight, the dust-pink curtains and frills making it warm and friendly whilst the silver-grey carpet gave an impression of cool self-possession. She could smell the roses from the silver and glass bowl on the table by the window. Meditate. That was Zak’s remedy for situations she couldn’t handle. Meditate, relax, take time. Then face the problem and do something about it. Then forget it. She opened the cupboard in the corner of the room and brought out a candle in a squat cut-glass holder and some matches. Lighting it and placing it carefully on the carpet, she drew the curtains, then cross-legged she sat down before it, eyes closed, wrists hanging loosely on her knees. Her favourite exercise wasn’t really meditation. She had tried the various forms Zak had suggested, but none had the appeal of the first visualisation exercise he had taught her. ‘Close your eyes and think of your favourite place. The place you feel happiest and most relaxed. Picture the scene. Make it so real that you can smell it, feel it, hear it, feel the sun on your skin, hear the birdsong, smell the grass, make a mental ashram there.’ She always chose Duncairn. It was in June she had been there last, on Midsummer’s Day, just after she and Paul had had their first quarrel. The will had been quite explicit. To Clare came the ruined castle, a thousand or so acres of moorland around it, the old-fashioned, sleepy, hotel and the feus of the fishing village which nestled at the foot of the cliffs. As she had a rich husband to support her, she had no need of money, so the three farms and the money, all of it, went to James, who was so like his dead father; as did Airdlie, the Perthshire house and estates, although their mother and her second husband, Archie, had life tenancy there. ‘Did you know what the old bat planned to do?’ Paul turned on her the moment they were alone in their hotel room after the reading of the will. ‘No, I didn’t know.’ Her voice was bleak. ‘She always said she would leave everything to us both. I was to get Duncairn – I’ve always known I’d get Duncairn – but I thought she’d leave me some money too.’ ‘Some money!’ Paul lowered his voice. ‘Margaret Gordon was worth over one and a half million, Clare, in securities alone. With the farms another three at least.’ His handsome face looked drawn and pale as he caught her arm and swung her to face him. ‘And she left it all to James! You will have to contest it.’ ‘No!’ ‘No?’ He stared at her. ‘No, Paul. I won’t contest it. She’s right. You’re a wealthy man. My brother had nothing, nothing at all. He never even had a father. Daddy died before he was born!’ ‘He had Archie –’ ‘Archie hates us. He has always resented us for being there; he thinks of us as coming between him and Mummy – you know that as well as I do.’ Clare’s eyes were blazing. ‘No, that money is James’s by right. I have everything I want.’ Abruptly her anger subsided. She put her hands on Paul’s shoulders. ‘Come on, darling. We don’t need any more money.’ Paul caught her wrists and pushed them away. ‘Everyone needs more money, Clare. Duncairn’s worth nothing.’ His voice was harsh. For a moment she stared at him, shocked, then she turned away and walked over to the window, staring down over the rooftops at the back of the hotel towards the distant Firth of Forth. ‘Well, it’s worth everything to me,’ she whispered. ‘Everything. Don’t you understand?’ She spun round. ‘It’s been in our family for seven hundred years!’ ‘Then perhaps James ought to have it as well. He is, after all, the heir to whatever pretensions your family have to gentility, not you.’ Paul’s voice was deliberately cruel. She gasped. ‘Paul!’ ‘Well, it’s true. Or are you claiming some feminist right of inheritance because you are the eldest? Perhaps it is I who should have taken your surname when we married!’ His voice was heavy with sarcasm. ‘Well, at least it’s a name to be proud of!’ she flashed back at him, not caring suddenly what she said any more. ‘After all, what are you? The third son of a family who can’t trace their ancestors back more than one generation! I never could understand why you were so anxious for an heir. He’ll have nothing to inherit from you!’ ‘Apart from the wealth which everyone keeps talking about, you mean,’ said Paul. His voice was ice-cold. Clare stared at him, furious to find herself near to tears. To conceal them she turned back to her scrutiny of the rooftops, watching with anguished intensity a gull wheeling around the distant chimney-pots. She hunched her shoulders. ‘Apart from your wealth,’ she echoed. ‘So. At least I now know what you think of me,’ he went on quietly. ‘May I enquire why you lowered yourself so far as to marry me?’ ‘You know why I married you!’ She didn’t turn round. ‘I loved you.’ ‘Loved, I notice. Not love.’ ‘Love, then! Paul, what’s the matter? What’s wrong with you? Why are you like this?’ Pushing herself away from the windowsill, she came to stand in front of him. He stared at her. Her pale face with the expressive grey eyes and the dark frame of her hair never failed to make him catch his breath with its frail beauty. The frailness, of course, was misleading. Clare was as tough as old boots, even if she was a bit highly strung. He noted the tears on her cheeks now and felt a sudden twinge of contrition. He hadn’t meant to hurt her. It was just that the disappointment and the anxiety had been so intense. Dear God! how he had relied on that money. It was to have been his life-line. His only way out of the hell he had found himself in. He could feel the sweat starting out on the palms of his hands just at the thought of what had happened. Abruptly he began to peel off his jacket. ‘If we’re to meet the others in the bar before lunch we’d better get ready,’ he said abruptly, throwing it down on the bed. ‘No doubt your brother will want to buy a bottle or two of Bolly to celebrate his little windfall.’ ‘Paul –’ ‘No, Clare. Don’t say another word. Not another word. I think you’ve said enough.’ Pulling off his tie he threw that down too before disappearing into the bathroom and slamming the door. Clare stared after him in silence. She could feel herself beginning to shake. She was overwhelmed by a sense of utter loneliness, as though she had found herself suddenly in the room with a stranger. A stranger of whom she had been for a moment almost afraid. Her gaze fell on the dressing-table where earlier he had thrown his car keys. Less than a minute later she had grabbed them and, with a glance at the closed bathroom door, let herself out of the room, and begun to make her way quickly down the hallway. Dazzled by the blaze of the hot afternoon sun Clare had stared around at the castle ruins. Behind her the cooling engine of the British racing green XJS ticked quietly, pulled up on the grass at the side of the track. The cool wind carried the scent of the sea, sweetened by the dog roses which climbed the crumbling grey walls. Slowly she walked out along the promontory towards the cliff and cautiously peered over. Perhaps a hundred years ago railings had been put up across the massive breach in the walls where the seaward stones had begun to fall down the cliffs, but now they sagged drunkenly over the gap. She looked down towards the water, grey-blue and opaque, cold, even beneath the blazing June sky, and watched the gulls circling in the air currents. All round her the sound of birds was deafening; kittiwakes on the cliffs, their cries echoing off the granite shell of the tower, the yelp of a jackdaw hidden somewhere in the crumbling walls, a blackbird high in the rowan which grew in the space between the walls where once the chapel had stood. The castle was deserted. Well off the tourist trail, and unsignposted, only the visitors to the hotel ever came here, and there were few enough of them. She glanced over her shoulder towards the grey stone walls of the Duncairn Hotel, nestling behind the deep windbreak of birch and fir. It was making a loss, that she knew, but it would be hard, very hard, to bring herself to change things. She loved Duncairn for its solitude, with the distant low silhouette of the hills behind it. A successful hotel would end that solitude overnight. Slowly she strolled over the grass. In the centre of the walls someone had mown it roughly, just enough to make for easy walking amongst the ruins – Jack Grant at the hotel, she supposed. She would stay the night there before driving back to Edinburgh. It would give both her and Paul time to cool off. And she couldn’t face going back to Airdlie. Not now it belonged to James. She was no longer shaking. She had expended her fury and her pain by hurtling up the motorway at over a hundred miles an hour, not looking or caring if the police were patrolling, and then on the long narrow road north. But she was still tense, still depressed after the ordeal of the formal reading of the will, knowing that she had been the only person in the room who truly and desperately mourned Margaret Gordon. She jumped as a shadow fell across the grass near her and looked wildly round, but it was nothing: just the wind flexing and tossing the graceful branches of a birch. Slowly she began to walk round, every now and then reaching out to touch the warm, grey-pink stones of the castle walls as if greeting them ritually, taking possession of her inheritance. Picking her way through the thistles and rank grass and wild flowers towards the stone steps she climbed precariously up to what remained of the second floor of the old keep. The floor had half collapsed and two of the walls had gone, but one high rounded window on the seaward side remained intact and she made her way carefully to it, standing in the embrasure, her hands on the sun-warmed sill, looking out to sea. There was a bank of mist out over the water now, pearly in the diffused sunlight. A man was standing watching her from about twenty feet away, leaning against the crumbled remains of the eastern tower. Instinctively she drew back into the shadow of the window arch. He must be a guest at the hotel, she supposed. She studied him covertly, noting the patched khaki sweater, the threadbare cords and the more-than-serviceable binoculars slung around his neck. He was a tall man, in his mid-thirties perhaps, good-looking in the rugged Scots fashion; very fair. And he was an intrusion. She felt a wave of resentment at his presence. She needed to be alone. Angrily, she turned back and descended the steps once more, conscious that she was in full view of him. She wondered suddenly what he must make of her, still dressed for the Edinburgh solicitor in a dark blue silk dress with court shoes, scrambling over the ruins. Only her hair was appropriate now, torn from its neat style by the wind and whipped into wild tangled curls. She expected him to retreat as she walked near him, but he didn’t move. Folding his arms, he leaned comfortably against the wall, and she thought she saw a flash of grim humour in his eyes as she walked past him, her heels catching in the grass and stones, before he turned away. It was as she was making her way slowly back across the high bank of turf which covered one of the collapsed walls that she felt it. Suddenly, from nowhere, a wave of grief and despair swept over her, so tangible that it stopped her in her tracks. She shivered violently, staring round. It was as if the mood came from outside herself, an atmosphere borne in on the cold wind. Behind her, the banks of mist had drawn closer and the haar was beginning to come in off the sea, drifting soundlessly up the huge granite cliffs, lapping amongst the fissures in the stone. Even the birds had fallen silent. She found she was holding her breath, her fists clenched so tightly she could feel the slippery perspiration on her palms, and she glanced up at the sun. Moments before it had been shining hotly down out of a blue sky. Now it was a cold white disc, shrugging into the mist banks and out of sight. For no reason she was suddenly afraid. In spite of herself she glanced back over her shoulder towards the stranger, seeking the comfort of another human presence. He was standing now beneath the rowan tree, staring up at the broken arch of the high window which had once dominated the chapel. And, without even seeing his face, she knew that he too had felt something of the cold shadow which had crossed the castle. Lost in her meditation Clare frowned, guiding her mind back into the sunlight as she had been taught, driving away the North Sea haar which had cast its cold fingers over Duncairn, driving away the despair and fear which had persisted until she retraced her steps to the car and drove on to the hotel. She had not seen the stranger again. Sarah Collins was in the kitchen polishing the silver when the phone rang. She waited meticulously for four rings, to see if Clare was going to answer it upstairs, then she picked up the receiver. ‘Hello, Mrs C. It’s Emma Cassidy. Is Clare around?’ Sarah frowned. She resented deeply being addressed by anything other than her proper name. ‘I believe she’s upstairs, Mrs Cassidy. If you wish, I’ll call her.’ She didn’t wait for a reply. Dropping the receiver on the work top with a rattle designed to illustrate her irritation, she began to walk slowly towards the stairs. The door of the master bedroom was shut. Sarah listened for a moment, her ear almost against the wood panelling, then very gently, she knocked. There was no reply. She pursed her lips slightly and was about to turn away when on impulse she gripped the handle and twisted it quietly until with a click the latch slid back and the door opened. Clare was still seated on the floor, her legs crossed, her hands resting loosely on her knees. Her eyes were shut. Sarah watched in horrified fascination, noting the candle, the wax dripping slightly on the side away from the gently blowing curtains, the pale ice-green bathrobe slipping so that it revealed one long tanned thigh and most of Clare’s left breast. Her breathing was deep and completely regular, her body relaxed, her face a picture of calm serenity. Sarah shivered. It might be an Indian summer in the garden, but in this shaded bedroom, it was suddenly very, very cold. Turning, Sarah almost ran from the room, pulling the door closed silently behind her, then she hurried back down to the kitchen. Her hands were shaking as she grabbed the phone. ‘I’m sorry, Mrs Cassidy, but I can’t find her. She must be outside somewhere. Shall I get her to call you back later?’ She did not wait for Emma to ring off. Slamming down the receiver, she took a deep breath, then picking it up again, she began to dial. She was put straight through to Paul’s office. Gripping the receiver tightly in her left hand she glanced nervously towards the kitchen door. ‘She’s doing it again,’ she whispered into the mouthpiece. ‘Now, this minute. The candle and everything.’ ‘It’s good of you to ring, Mrs Collins.’ At his desk in the dark oak-panelled room, Paul stood up slowly. ‘But I don’t think there is any cause for alarm. I gather contemplation of a lighted candle is a well-known meditation technique.’ Sarah took another deep breath, clearly audible down the phone. ‘I think it is more than meditation,’ she said darkly. ‘I’ve seen meditation on TV and when that dreadful man Zachary came over here to give her those lessons, what he showed her was quite different. What Mrs Royland is doing is wrong. It’s very, very wrong.’ Paul leaned against his desk wearily. ‘In what way wrong, Mrs Collins?’ She bit her lip, rubbing her fingers distractedly through the iron set of her hair. ‘It’s just wrong,’ she repeated stubbornly. ‘You must stop her doing it, Mr Royland.’ ‘I doubt if I could do that.’ She heard with surprise the bitterness in his wry laugh. ‘I doubt if I could stop Clare doing anything she really wanted to.’ He hung up and stood looking down at the telephone for several minutes, without seeing it. Then he threw himself down once more into the deeply-buttoned leather desk-chair, gnawing his thumb. His office was large, with panelled walls hung with oils of former directors of the bank. When, as now, the sun was not shining directly into the window, it was a dark, depressing room. The sound of the phone interrupted the silence once more, he turned back to it, irritated. ‘Paul, I would like you to look in, if you would, when you come back this weekend.’ It was the Roylands’ doctor, John Stanford. Paul frowned, automatically reaching for his diary. Then he pushed it aside without opening it. ‘What is this all about, John? Do I gather it is not a social call?’ ‘I’ve had the results of the tests we ran on you and Clare. I’d like to discuss them with you before I talk to you both together.’ Paul closed his eyes. Slowly he sat back in the chair. ‘Which is as good as saying that we have a problem. And as you want to see me, I gather it’s in my department?’ He took a deep breath. ‘Come on, John. Don’t pussyfoot with me. I don’t need anyone to hold my hand and look into my eyes while they talk to me. You can tell me over the phone.’ ‘Very well.’ There was a pause as though John Stanford, far away in his Suffolk surgery, was choosing the right words. ‘It is the sperm count, Paul. It is low. Very low. We could repeat the tests yet again, but the results are coming consistently. I’m afraid that it is very unlikely that you would ever be able to father a child. Under the circumstances, I think we can rule out the need for any further tests on Clare.’ There was a long silence. Then, ‘Paul? Are you there? Listen, we should discuss the situation. Will you look in anyway when you get back? There are avenues you should consider pursuing at this stage.’ ‘You mean it’s curable?’ Paul was twisting a pencil between his fingers. ‘No, Paul. I’m sorry. But there are other ways. Adoption, artificial –’ ‘No!’ Paul slammed his fist down on the desk. ‘If it is irreversible, then there is nothing to discuss, John. Nothing. Forget it. Do you understand. And John, I forbid you to tell Clare, or discuss this with her at all. Is that completely clear? I absolutely forbid it. I will tell her myself when the right moment comes.’ He put the phone down and stood up. The bottle of Scotch in the drinks cupboard in the corner of the office was still unopened. Breaking the seal he unscrewed it, pouring himself half a tumbler and sipping it slowly, his mind mercifully blank as he walked over to the window and stared down into Coleman Street. The traffic was at a standstill, the pavements crowded. He had been watching for several minutes when slowly his attention focussed on the far side of the road. A woman was standing there waiting to cross. She was holding a small boy by the hand. As they waited, the child began to jump up and down with excitement, looking up at her, and he saw the woman’s face as she smiled down at him. It held an expression of such tenderness that for a moment he found himself biting his lip. With a groan he turned from the window and hurled the whisky glass across the room. 2 (#ulink_6b41cc21-06b3-58d9-ba2c-55ac67afbbf6) Emma Cassidy was in the bath when her brother rang. Wrapped in a dark green bath sheet she sat down on the edge of her bed. ‘Hi, Paul. How are things in the City?’ ‘Much as usual.’ He sounded depressed. ‘Em, I want to talk to you about Clare.’ ‘Oh?’ Emma was suspicious. ‘You know she’s got very involved with this yoga stuff. She’s taking it very seriously.’ ‘That’s a good thing, surely.’ Emma threw herself back on the heaped pillows. Downstairs, her daughter Julia was sitting watching children’s TV. For five minutes the house was peaceful. ‘I’ve done some yoga myself. It did wonders for my figure.’ ‘No doubt. But she is doing it because she is obsessed with this idea of having a baby.’ Paul’s voice was hard. ‘It’s crazy. She must stop thinking about it. I am sure now in my own mind that children would not be a good thing. Not for us. We manage fine without that encumbrance in our lives and we’ve got to find a way to put an end to this obsession of hers.’ There was a short silence, then Emma laughed uncertainly. ‘My God, Paul. I thought it was you who kept on about having a son all the time. It was you who was making poor Clare feel so bad about it.’ ‘In which case I must disabuse her of the idea.’ Paul was abrupt. ‘I’ve changed my mind.’ Emma sat up straight. She frowned. ‘Has something happened, Paul? What is it?’ ‘I’m thinking of Clare. She’s been under a lot of strain.’ He sounded repressive. ‘And she is taking this yoga too far. I don’t like the sound of this man who has been teaching her, or the thought of him wandering around my house. He is beginning to get her involved in some weird practices.’ ‘Really?’ Emma gave a breathless laugh. ‘You know, I think I like the sound of that. I wonder if they’d let me join in!’ ‘I’m being serious, Emma. Something has to be done, before it gets out of hand. I want you to try and talk her out of this whole stupid business.’ ‘Why me, Paul? Why can’t you do it?’ Emma was serious again. ‘Because she won’t listen to me. You know what she’s like. She can be so damn stubborn.’ Emma frowned. ‘I always thought you two could talk, Paul. Have you been quarrelling again?’ ‘We have not.’ He was growing exasperated. ‘Just help me in this, Emma! You have always got on well with her. She’ll listen to you. I have to nip this thing in the bud. When did you last speak to her?’ ‘I tried to ring her at Bucksters today, but your terrifying Mrs C. said she was out. I’ll try again when she comes up to town tomorrow. We’d vaguely arranged to meet on Friday anyway. But Paul, surely yoga isn’t bad? I don’t understand why you’re so worried about it.’ ‘It’s not the yoga as such, it is what goes with it: it’s the meditation this man is teaching her, the mind bending, the attempts to conjure a child out of the air –’ ‘Is that what she is doing?’ Emma was horrified. ‘Oh, Paul, that’s terrible. Tragic.’ ‘Exactly. So will you help me?’ ‘You know I will. Oh poor Clare, that’s ghastly.’ She looked up at Julia who, bored with television, had wandered into the room, chewing on an apple, and suddenly her eyes filled with tears. Rex Cummin was standing on the balcony of his penthouse flat in Eaton Square. It was eight in the morning and the air was still cold as he absently studied the trees while waiting for his car to arrive outside the front door four floors below. ‘Here’s the mail, honey.’ His wife stepped out next to him with a handful of letters. They were a good-looking couple in their mid-fifties, both immaculately and formally dressed for the day. ‘Do you want me to fetch you some breakfast before the car gets here? Louise is late again, I’m afraid.’ He looked up from thumbing through the pile of envelopes. ‘Don’t be too hard on that kid, Mary. She’s efficient enough, and she has a long way to come on the bus. Toch!’ He gave an exclamation of disgust and handed the post back to her. ‘Still nothing from that Scotch solicitor! Dammit, Mary, when is that woman going to answer him?’ ‘You only instructed him to make an offer for the estate last week, honey.’ She did not have to be told what he was talking about. ‘It could take months for them to get round to discussing it.’ She noticed with a worried frown that he had clenched his fists and that the vein in his temple was beginning to throb again. ‘Months is no good!’ he shouted. ‘Sigma has got to have that land all signed and sealed before any breath of suspicion about the secret seismological surveys leaks out. Hell, Mary, what we’ve been doing is strictly against the law in this country. You can’t go round doing surveys on other people’s property without permission. We’ve got to cover ourselves. That’s why this place is so perfect. We make Mrs Royland a good offer for that hotel – which must be losing her thousands a year. OK, so everyone realises why we did it later, but by then it will be too late. My God, even Bob Vogel in Houston isn’t on to the implications of those surveys yet.’ He slapped his fist into his palm. ‘And we have to wait for some goddam British solicitor to ass about –’ He winced suddenly, his hand going to his diaphragm. His wife’s practised eyes missed nothing. ‘I’ll get you some Maalox, honey, it’ll line your stomach.’ She turned back towards the windows. Then she hesitated. ‘Did you make offers on any of the rest of the properties in that area?’ It was a seemingly innocent question. He shook his head. ‘There are going to be problems with the rest. Most of it is owned by the National Trust for Scotland and people like that. We’ll put in bids later if the British government gives us exploration licences. Besides, those test bores may not strike so lucky –’ He paused thoughtfully. ‘No, Duncairn is perfect. The test results; it’s privately owned; and there’s the hotel – the perfect excuse for the offer. My God, Mary, do you know there’s even a ruined castle!’ ‘I know, Rex. You already told me.’ Did he really think she could have forgotten? The letters from the Scottish American societies, the passionate delving into his ancestry, the genealogists in London and Edinburgh, the excitement when he found that he might be descended from an ancient Scots family; a family who had once owned amongst many others a castle on the wild north-eastern seaboard of Scotland, a castle which now was possibly sitting on seven million or so barrels of oil. She smiled indulgently. ‘Now, you promise me you’ll eat something on the plane.’ ‘Sure, honey.’ He was impatient. ‘And you call me, at once – at once – if that letter comes.’ ‘Of course.’ She walked ahead of him through the wide open full-length windows into the large drawing room with its modern tubular steel and glass furniture. Something crossed her mind suddenly. ‘Why did you ask him to send his letter here, Rex? Why not straight to the office?’ He scowled, running his fingers through his hair. ‘Not a word of this must get out, Mary. Not one word. I sometimes think not everyone in that office is entirely loyal. No!’ He raised his hand as she was about to protest. ‘No, I can tell. Ever since I was ill they’ve been watching, waiting to see if I’m still on top of things. Nothing is said. To my face they’re all great guys, but I can sense it. And I’m not going to lose this opportunity to prove that old Rex Cummin is still one step ahead. And I am not going to lose that castle! That is why I’m going to Houston in person.’ Mary sighed. ‘What if Mrs Royland turns down your offer?’ she couldn’t resist asking. ‘I’ll make a bigger one.’ He flipped open his black leather attaché case, deftly checking that passport and documents were in place. ‘The lady is a Scot. I’m sure she appreciates the value of money.’ He smiled wryly. ‘Even if she doesn’t you can make sure you get in the best tender later,’ she said quietly. He snapped his case shut and stared at her for a moment out of very blue eyes. ‘I don’t just want the licence, Mary. I want to own that land. I want Duncairn.’ Paul Royland had agreed to join one of his junior partners for lunch in the City Club. Both tall, impeccably clad in the city uniform of dark suits, striped shirts and sober ties; Paul dark, Henry very fair, they made a striking pair as they threaded their way towards their table. Henry Firbank was on edge. Several times as they ate their hors d’oeuvres he glanced across at Paul as though trying to pluck up the courage to say something. Finally he managed it. ‘Old Beattie asked me in for a chat yesterday. He –’ He paused, chewing on a mouthful of melon. ‘He mentioned you several times.’ ‘Oh?’ Paul looked up, his fork halfway to his mouth. ‘He was a bit concerned about some of the deals you’ve been involved in over the last few months. I can’t think why. I told him everything was going fine. I told him you’ve always had an idiosyncratic way of handling things, that’s all.’ Henry gave an embarrassed smile, his florid face even more pink than usual. ‘But he did seem a bit worried. I thought you’d better know.’ He looked down at his plate apologetically. Paul gave a grim smile. ‘Beattie should worry about getting himself measured up for a bath chair. The bank’s getting beyond him.’ ‘Right.’ Henry grinned amiably, obviously relieved to have got his remarks off his chest. ‘I must get Penny to check that my filing is up to date, I can see that,’ Paul went on sarcastically. ‘I had no idea I was being investigated.’ ‘Oh, it’s nothing like that, I’m sure.’ Henry became quite agitated. ‘There has been some muddle over old Mrs Barlow’s investments, I gather, and –’ He broke off. ‘What is it, old boy? Is something wrong?’ ‘Nothing.’ Paul closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He put his fork down and pushed aside his plate. He had hardly touched his food. ‘I’d better have a word with Beattie about this. You forget it, Henry. I know what’s happened. There’s been a cock-up between the old girl and her broker. She’s reluctant to change over to BCWP.’ He took a long drink from his glass of wine and changed the subject. ‘You’re coming to this reception at the Guildhall tonight, I hear. Clare is driving up from Bucksters for it. I’m sure she’ll be pleased to see you there.’ ‘How is Clare?’ Henry looked up, his face alight. ‘It’s ages since I saw her.’ Paul, beckoning the waiter to take away their plates, gave Henry a hard look. ‘She is well. Radiant as always.’ ‘Radiant?’ Henry echoed. ‘She’s not – that is, you’re not – I mean, I know she hoped –’ He floundered to a standstill, embarrassed. Paul frowned. He closed his eyes for a moment as a wave of anger and despair swept over him. ‘If the word you’re looking for is pregnant, the answer is no. She’s not.’ Clare had arrived in London late that morning. She drove straight to their house on Campden Hill. Easing the Jaguar into a parking space in the narrow street, she climbed out and stood for a moment looking up at the house front. It was a pretty, white-painted Regency cottage, hung with clematis. In front of it there was a small paved area, starkly bare save for an Italian stone urn which contained an ornamental bay tree and two large terracotta pots overflowing with geraniums and lobelia. Letting herself into the hall she paused and listened. She had left Casta at Bucksters with Sarah Collins, otherwise the small elegant rooms would have been filled immediately with bouncing, grinning retriever. Without Casta the house felt very quiet and empty, but London was no place really for such an energetic animal, not when she could stay at home with Sarah whom she adored almost as much as she loved her mistress. Shutting the door behind her Clare carried her case straight upstairs to the main bedroom and hung up her dress for the Guildhall, then she made her way back downstairs. She was exhausted by the long drive and there were dark rings under her eyes. She had had the nightmare again last night, waking at three in the morning to the sound of her own screams. It was the third time in as many weeks. Again and again the dream had come back since she had gone to Duncairn in June, as if somehow that lonely ruin had stirred some sleeping demon in her brain. If only Aunt Margaret were there. She had understood. Once, when Clare was a child, they had talked about the dream. Clare, tearful, and shaking after it had come again, had run, not to her mother’s bed – Archie had long ago forbidden that – but to Margaret Gordon’s, snuggling into her great aunt’s arms in the four-poster in her room in the cold north wing at Airdlie. ‘One day I’ll explain, Clare,’ Margaret had whispered. ‘Dear God, the nightmare is mine, not yours! You shouldn’t have to suffer it as well. Be brave, my child. Remember, morning always comes, the sun returns, and it will stop. I promise, one day it will stop.’ And for several years it had not returned. Not until that midsummer night at the Duncairn Hotel; since then she had had it four times, and then again, last night. As she sat up in bed trembling Clare had heard the creak of floorboards on the landing. She held her breath, desperately trying to calm herself, praying it wasn’t Sarah coming down from her top-floor flat, but the urgent scratching at the door, followed by a pleading little yelp, reassured her. She shot out of bed and ran to let Casta in, flinging her arms around the dog’s neck as she wept into the thick golden fur. She had spent the rest of the night with the light on, the dog lying next to her on the bed. Paul rang her at the house in Campden Hill just after lunch. ‘I thought I’d see if you’d arrived safely,’ he said. His voice was strained. ‘What sort of journey did you have?’ ‘Tiring.’ She was sitting at the Queen Anne bureau in the front room. ‘I left later than I meant to, so the traffic was bad. Where shall we meet this evening?’ They talked almost as strangers these days. Polite – there had been no more quarrels – but slightly distant, as though those unpremeditated words hurled at each other in the bedroom of the Edinburgh hotel had unlocked some secret hostility which neither had recognised before, and which they were both terrified they might let loose again. Even the intimacy of the visits to the doctor, and the terrible embarrassing tests and all that went with them, had been conducted on a strangely impersonal level. ‘Why don’t you come to the bank at about six, and we’ll go on from here, then I’ll take you out to dinner afterwards, if you like.’ Suddenly Paul was sounding more relaxed. Clare brightened. ‘I would like that, darling.’ ‘Good. By the way, John Stanford rang yesterday with the results of our tests. They all proved normal. And I agree with him, now, that we should leave things there. Give it a rest. Leave it up to chance. Stop worrying. Forget about doctors. Forget about having a baby. Let the whole thing go, now. Get on with our lives.’ ‘But, Paul –’ ‘No, I mean it, Clare. This has all been too much strain on you. I don’t want you cracking up. I don’t even want to discuss it any more, do you understand? We have both been in danger of becoming obsessed by the subject, so let us drop it for good. No babies. No children. I’ve come to think we’d be happier without them in the long run anyway.’ His voice tightened. ‘Right? Now, I’ll see you later, and we’ll have a pleasant evening without that subject hanging over us. Agreed?’ It was only after she had hung up that it dawned on her to wonder if he had sounded slightly drunk. Carefully she unpacked the candle and set it on the floor of the bedroom. A bath, then half an hour’s meditation would restore her energy before she changed for the reception. She walked into the bathroom and threw open the window. It looked out on to the tiny garden with its trellised roses and mossy paving stones. One or two rather dog-eared blooms still clung to the wall below the window-sill. Turning on the bath water she tipped in some essence, then she stepped in, lay back and, closing her eyes, she thought about Paul. He very seldom drank. Unlike his two brothers who were men who indulged their appetites, if not to excess then at least without too much soul-searching, Paul had an almost ascetic approach to food and drink. In spite of this, however, he was a large man – all three Royland brothers were tall and broad-shouldered – but unlike the other two his late thirties had not produced a paunch or a thickening of the flesh. She couldn’t believe he had been drinking. Of course it was hard to tell, sometimes, over the telephone. Perhaps it was euphoria because the tests had proved normal after all their worries. If so, she desperately hoped it would last. Drying herself slowly, Clare wandered back into the bedroom. The room was hot and stuffy after the country in spite of all the open windows, but at least she was alone. She had to admit that the presence of Sarah Collins, constantly tip-toeing around the old Suffolk farmhouse, got on her nerves. She longed to be alone – really alone. To be able to do what she wanted, to strip off her clothes and run down to the pool or anywhere else in the house naked if she chose. Just to be relaxed. She dropped the towel now and stood in front of the long mirror scrutinising her figure critically. At twenty-eight, ten years younger than her husband, she was as slim and taut as she had been when she was eighteen. She lit the candle solemnly and raised her arms as Zak had told her, to signal the start of her meditation. Then slowly she sank down into the half-lotus position. She had written back to the solicitor the afternoon before, a considered, firm letter in the end, politely informing him that Duncairn was not, and never would be, for sale, and she had driven into Dedham with it and caught the evening post. As far as she was concerned the matter was closed. Duncairn was safe. Her haven, her refuge. As Zak had promised, the problem, once faced, had gone away. For a moment, on the brink of closing her eyes, she hesitated. Her last visualisation of Duncairn hadn’t been as she intended. It had brought back unbidden memories of Midsummer’s Day. She shivered. That experience she did not want to relive. This time she would be more careful. She would picture the moors beyond the castle and perhaps, if she concentrated, she could summon Isobel back, the Isobel of Aunt Margaret’s stories … The Isobel who had been the heroine of all her daydreams as a child; her imaginary playmate in her loneliness. Carefully she began to construct a picture in her mind of the moor near the castle as she had seen it so often when she was a child. She saw the blaze of heather beneath the torrid sky and the hills, misty in the distance. Overhead, slowly rising on the invisible spirals of the wind a buzzard was mewing, the lonely call echoing across the moorland. She could feel the sun on her back, smell the soft honey of the wild thyme and moss, even hear the gentle ripple of the brown water in the burn at her feet. Now, with the scene set, perhaps the story could start again … Shaking her long hair back from her face the child threw herself down full length on the grass and began to scoop the cool water into her mouth. The young man standing behind her eyed her bare legs and naked brown feet doubtfully. ‘You’ll be in trouble when your nurse finds out where you are,’ he said, his face unwillingly relaxing into a smile. ‘Nurse!’ She sat up. Some of her hair had slipped into the water and it dripped on to the shoulders of her thin woollen gown. ‘I don’t have a nurse. I’m a grown woman, Robert of Carrick, and don’t you forget it.’ ‘You are?’ The young man laughed out loud. ‘I beg your pardon, my lady Isobel. But all the ladies I know have bevies of maids and attendants following them everywhere, and men-at-arms to watch over them when they stir from their castles!’ ‘I do too.’ She clasped her knees with a shiver. ‘I ran away from them when I knew you were riding up here. I wanted to come too. I get so bored doing what Lady Buchan tells me all day long, Robert.’ ‘Nevertheless, you should obey her.’ Robert looked troubled. ‘If you are to marry the earl it is important that his mother teaches you all she knows. Lord Buchan is a great and powerful man, Isobel. He will expect much from his wife.’ ‘Pooh.’ Isobel flung herself backwards on the grass, shading her eyes to stare up at the sky. ‘He’ll never marry me! He barely knows I exist. Do you know, when he comes to Duncairn or Slains to see his mother he sometimes takes me on his knee and tells me stories. He gives me presents and sweetmeats, just like the children of his brothers. I’m sure he thinks I must be one of them.’ ‘I doubt it.’ Robert stood looking down at her. ‘You and he have been betrothed since you were a small child. He’s only been waiting for you to grow up. That is why your mother gave you to Lady Buchan to bring up, when your brother was sent to England after your father died.’ There was a long silence as his words sank in. She sat up again, pushing the hair back off her face. It was a small oval face with huge grey eyes, set below straight dark determined eyebrows, a face which promised great beauty. Defensively she hugged her arms around herself, unconsciously hiding the budding breasts which barely showed yet beneath the loose folds of the dusty gown. ‘Then perhaps I’m not grown up,’ she said at last in a whisper. ‘Perhaps I never will.’ The betrothal had taken place before her brother was born. She remembered vividly the day at Falkland Castle when her father had told his wife what he had arranged. Neither the earl nor the beautiful Joanna de Clare had realised that their small daughter was listening and taking in every word of their conversation. It had been after Duncan of Fife, young and inexperienced as he was, had been chosen as one of the two earls on the small council appointed to rule Scotland after the death of King Alexander. He had received the news of his appointment confidently, attributing it to his own undoubted qualities, becoming since that day more conceited than ever, flaunting his position, using it everywhere to his own advantage. Later Isobel had learned the truth: that the earldom of Fife had to be represented because of its pre-eminence amongst the seven ancient earldoms of Scotland; before she had believed it was because her father was a great and good man. The earl had glanced down at his daughter as she played near him. ‘I have been speaking to my lord of Buchan. He is willing to agree to her betrothal to his heir.’ Duncan had preened himself, waiting for his wife’s reaction. Isobel too had waited; and she had seen the horror and disbelief on Joanna’s face. ‘You wish to betroth that child to John Comyn?’ Her eyes had grown enormous. ‘But, my lord, she is only a baby, and he a grown man. He would never want a child for a wife!’ ‘He will wait.’ Duncan had given a snort of laughter, throwing back his head so that Isobel could see even from where she sat on the ground the gaping hole in his gum where the surgeon had pulled a great aching molar. ‘By the saints, he’s waited long enough to take a wife as it is!’ He had grown serious suddenly, sitting forward on the edge of the wooden bench, resting his chin on his hand so that he could gaze into his wife’s face. ‘Don’t you see what a marvellous union this will be? The Comyns are the richest and most powerful family in the land. The old earl is with me one of the six guardians, but when he dies, which must be soon, Joanna, it would be expedient if our two families were linked by more than just friendship. Our lands in the north march together – what could be better than to bring them closer. After all,’ he had added bitterly, ‘it looks as though that puny girl will be my only heir.’ He had paused, and Isobel, hugging herself with sudden devastating misery, saw the sparkle of tears in her mother’s eyes as he rushed on in a bluff attempt to cover his cruel remark. ‘Think, Joanna, think of the power this will bring us. If it hadn’t been for this little queen of ours far away across the water, it might well have been a Comyn chosen as king. Think of that.’ And now that little queen had died without ever coming to Scotland, and as Duncan had predicted, a member of the huge Comyn family had been chosen as king – John Balliol, Lord Buchan’s cousin. Only six weeks after that terrifying news of her impending betrothal had come tidings of the death of the old Earl of Buchan. Joanna had been afraid that now he was free of his father’s influence John Comyn would repudiate the agreement. She had heard, and so had Isobel, all eyes and ears as usual, how he had sworn and flown into a rage when told that his father’s choice for his bride was only four years old; but then he too had seen the strength which would lie in such an alliance and only two weeks after his father’s death he had come to Fife for the betrothal ceremony and Isobel had seen him for the first time. He had brought a fine filigree brooch of silver for Joanna and a heavy ring, engraved with the Buchan seal, for Isobel; her small finger had not even the strength to hold it. Once the ceremony was over he had galloped out of the castle courtyard, followed by his retinue. Two days after that a messenger had arrived from him bearing a doll. The riders had, it seemed, passed a travelling packman, and the earl had found a gift more suited for his little bride. They had heard nothing of him after that until Isobel’s father died. Robert rode ahead of her to within sight of the castle, then he drew rein. ‘You go on, back to your attendants,’ he said. ‘I think it better that we’re not seen together. I’ll ride on south to Mar, as I intended in the first place.’ His smile softened the rebuke. ‘If you see my great grandmother at Kildrummy will you give her a kiss from me.’ Isobel smiled suddenly. Malcolm, Earl of Fife, had died some twenty years before, long before Isobel was born, and his widow Helen had remarried, taking as her husband the powerful Earl of Mar, but she had kept her interest in her Fife family, particularly Isobel, in whom she recognised much of herself when she was young; and Isobel, in a world devoid now of close family, loved her dearly. ‘Why don’t you get into trouble if you ride without attendants?’ Isobel asked Robert suddenly. ‘It’s just as dangerous for you to ride the hills alone.’ ‘My attendants are waiting for me, as you well know.’ He slapped the neck of his horse affectionately. ‘Besides, I am a man.’ He frowned. ‘Will you get into bad trouble when you go back?’ ‘I’m bound to.’ She looked up at him unrepentantly. ‘But Mairi, who has charge over me, never does very much, even though she says she will. She says I’m uncontrollable.’ ‘I can believe it!’ He laughed. ‘I’m glad I’m not to have the marrying of you, cousin. I doubt if I could cope.’ She giggled. ‘No, you couldn’t. I shall be a shrew and a scold and no man will want anything to do with me! I shall ride the hills dressed in men’s clothes and be my own mistress. Then my Lord Buchan will wash his hands of me and marry an old docile lady who can give him ten fat babies!’ This time they whipped her. They took her into the great hall at Duncairn where Elizabeth, Dowager Countess of Buchan, was sitting on the low dais. Isobel stood before her defiantly, her fists clenched in the folds of her skirt, as Lady Buchan distastefully looked her up and down, taking in the ragged gown hitched up in her girdle revealing her muddy, scratched legs and feet. ‘So, where did you find her this time?’ she asked. ‘In the byre with the animals?’ Mairi, a stout woman of indeterminate years and unswerving loyalty to her young charge, shook her head miserably. ‘She went out riding alone, my lady. She told her escort to go back without her.’ ‘And they obeyed her?’ Lady Buchan’s eyebrows shot upwards towards her fashionably plaited and netted coils of hair. ‘Oh yes, my lady. The men always do as Lady Isobel says.’ Mairi bit her lip. ‘She’s awful determined, for a lass.’ ‘Is she, indeed?’ Lady Buchan’s face was growing more and more grim. ‘And did you set off to ride looking like that, my lady?’ Isobel coloured a little at the sarcastic tone ‘I took my kirtle and my stockings and shoes off and bundled them up in the heather so that they’d not be spoiled,’ she said defiantly. ‘I see. And what were you intending to do, that they might get spoiled?’ The older woman rose to her feet suddenly. Her face had sharpened with suspicion. ‘Was there someone with you, out there?’ ‘No, my lady,’ Isobel blurted, suddenly guilty. ‘There wasn’t anyone there.’ ‘Are you sure?’ Taking a step towards her, Lady Buchan seized her by the wrist. ‘No young man? No love to amuse you? Where is my son?’ She turned abruptly to the attendants who encircled them. ‘He’s just returned to the castle, my lady,’ a voice replied. ‘He said he’d be in to greet you directly.’ John, Earl of Buchan, was as good as his word, striding in to the castle hall only a few minutes later, his spurs ringing on the stone flags. ‘So, what is this? A trial with so small a prisoner?’ He dropped a kiss in the air some inches above his mother’s head and then straightened to look at Isobel, standing before Elizabeth, her arm still firmly clasped by the wrist. He was a tall, hirsute man in his late thirties, good-looking, with hard brown eyes. Isobel took a step back as his gaze fell on her. ‘This child has been roaming again. She behaves like a strumpet.’ Although near sixty, Lady Buchan was still a slim, graceful woman, without a streak of grey in her dark lustrous hair. She was almost as tall as her son as they stood facing each other across Isobel’s head. ‘A strumpet, is it?’ John looked down at Isobel with sudden interest, his eyes travelling down her slight form. ‘Aye, a strumpet. And her maidenhood will be long gone before you get around to making her your wife!’ Elizabeth of Buchan tightened her lips primly. ‘She is uncontrollable.’ ‘Surely not.’ John stepped forward, and taking Isobel’s arm, pulled her away from his mother. ‘How old are you, sweetheart? I thought you were still a child, but I gather you are not content with a child’s games any longer.’ Too proud to shrink away from him, Isobel straightened her shoulders and stuck out her chin. ‘I am fourteen, my lord.’ ‘So you are indeed. Old enough to be bedded it seems, so old enough to be wedded. Who did she lie with?’ He shot the question over her head at the unfortunate Mairi. ‘Whoever it was, he’ll pay for it with his life.’ ‘There was no one, my lord.’ It was Isobel who answered, her eyes blazing. ‘Your lady mother seems to think I would lie with stable boys and serfs – I, the daughter of the Earl of Fife, a descendent of the ancient house of Duff!’ ‘Hoity toity!’ The dowager countess gave a humourless laugh. ‘If you behave like a strumpet, madam of Duff, you may expect to be treated as one. She has disobeyed me too often, John. She should be whipped.’ Isobel bit her lip. She stood her ground, though, her wrist still firmly held in John’s rough fingers. He seemed to be considering, and for a moment she dared hope he would reprieve her, but it was no good. He released her wrist. ‘Very good, Mother. Perhaps a lesson in obedience now will make her a douce wife later. But don’t hurt her too much. I’d hate to see such a pretty child marked.’ Almost blind with rage and humiliation, Isobel barely noticed as she was led, stumbling, to the chamber she shared with Mairi and two of Countess Elizabeth’s grandchildren, and there made to take off her gown. Standing shivering in her shift, she watched dumbly as one of the countess’s ladies appeared, carrying a hazel switch. She was too proud to cry. When it was over she pulled her gown back on with Mairi’s help, and then walked in silence to the deep window embrasure. Only there, behind the heavy curtain, did she allow herself to waver for a moment, kneeling on the cushioned window seat, staring out across the glittering sea. The telephone made Clare jump nearly out of her skin. It was several minutes before she could gather her wits enough to stagger to her feet to answer it. It was Emma. ‘I thought I’d missed you again. Are we still going out tomorrow evening?’ Emma’s voice was down to earth, cheerful. ‘Tomorrow?’ Clare was dazed. ‘You remember. We agreed we’d have a meal together – just us, without husbands – to try that new place we were talking about. Are you all right, Clare?’ ‘I’m sorry.’ Clare pushed her hair back from her face distractedly. ‘I must have been asleep. What time is it?’ ‘Just after five –’ ‘Five?’ Clare’s eyes opened wide. ‘My God, I’m due at the bank in less than an hour. I’ll talk to you tomorrow, Em, OK?’ She sat still for a minute after she put down the phone, trying to gather her wits. The meditation, if that is what it had been, had been a terrifying reality. It was as if, in sitting down and opening the secret, closed recesses of her consciousness to the past, she had allowed someone else’s memories to come flooding back. It was as if she were Isobel and Isobel were she; as if she had entered completely into the mind of this child who had, according to Aunt Margaret, been her ancestor, and as if Isobel had entered into hers. Shaken, she stood up and gazed into the mirror, trying to catch a glimpse of those other eyes which had, in the silence of her meditation, looked out through her own. But it was no use. They had gone. All she saw were the eyes of Clare Royland, a twentieth-century woman who was late for an evening with her husband. Shrugging off her mood as best she could she began at last to get ready. She slipped into the green silk dress with its swirling calf-length skirt, and reached for Aunt Margaret’s gold pendant to clasp round her neck, staring at herself in the mirror for a moment one last time before reaching slowly for her hairbrush. Already it was nearly half past five. The taxi dropped her opposite the broad flight of steps which led up to the door of the merchant bankers, Beattie Cameron, at 6.15 p.m. exactly. Slowly, trying to compose herself into the role of partner’s wife, she walked up the steps and smiled at the commissionaire who unlocked the door for her. ‘Good evening, Mr Baines. Is Mr Royland in his office?’ ‘Good evening, Mrs Royland. It’s a treat to see you again, if I may say so. I’ll just check at the desk.’ He led the way to the reception desk and picked up the internal phone. Clare stared round at the huge entrance hall. This was still the old building, for all its modern plate-glass doors, the broad flight of stairs and the oak panelling betraying the office’s solid Victorian origins. Above the grotesque marble fireplace at one end of the hall was a large portrait of James Cameron, co-founder of the bank, and opposite him, hanging over another equally imposing fireplace, Donald Beattie, grandfather of the present senior partner. Paul’s office was at the top of the first flight of stairs. As Baines rang off she turned towards the stairs with a smile. ‘All right to go up?’ ‘He’s not in his office, Mrs Royland.’ Baines came out from behind the desk. ‘He’s in the new building. If you’d like to follow me, I’ll show you where to go.’ He opened a door in the far wall beyond the stairs and ushered her through. There, a glass walkway lined with exotic plants led directly into the new tower building where the bank and the stockbrokers, Westlake Pierce, her brother’s firm, now formed the nucleus of a new and powerful financial services group. Clare followed him into the fluorescently lit building until he stopped outside a row of lift doors. ‘This one will take you straight to him, Mrs Royland. The penthouse conference room. Non-stop. You get a breathtaking view from up there. You haven’t been in the new building before, have you?’ He paused, his finger on the button as the lift door slid back. ‘Mrs Royland? Are you all right?’ Clare had closed her eyes, her fists clenched tightly as she felt her stomach turn over in panic. The lift – a steel box with deep grey carpeting on floor and walls – was waiting for her, the door open, the little red eye above the call button alight and watching. Desperately, she swallowed. ‘Are there any stairs?’ ‘Stairs?’ He looked shocked. ‘There are thirty-two storeys, Mrs Royland! Don’t you like lifts? I don’t like them much myself, truth to tell, but they’re fast, these ones. You’ll be all right.’ He gave her a reassuring smile. She bit her lip. ‘Would you come up with me?’ ‘I can’t.’ He shook his head. ‘I’m not supposed to leave the desk. By rights, I shouldn’t even have come through here …’ There was nothing for it. Giving him a shaky smile, Clare stepped into the lift, clutching her leather purse tightly to her, and watched as the door slid shut. Paul couldn’t have done it deliberately. He wouldn’t. Yet how could he have forgotten her claustrophobia, her terror, above all of lifts? Why couldn’t he have waited downstairs and come up with her, rather than making her travel up alone? Was this some weird punishment for being half an hour late? Breathe deeply. Relax. Use what you’ve been taught. And count. Slowly count. The lift is a fast one. Any moment it will stop and the doors will slide open. It was slowing. She braced herself ready for the slight jolt as it stopped. Relieved, she waited for the door to open. There was total silence around her. Nothing happened. Even the slight hum of the mechanism had stopped. Then the lights went out. ‘Oh God!’ Clare dropped her purse in the darkness, the adrenalin of panic knifing through her stomach. Desperately she reached out in front of her, until her hands encountered the heavy steel doors, groping frantically for the crack between them. She could hear her breathing, hear her own sobbing as she clawed desperately around her. It was like the nightmare all over again, the nightmare of the cage – but this cage was real and solid, and it wasn’t a dream. Was there an escape hatch? A telephone? She couldn’t remember. Frantically she tried to keep a hold on the threads of reason as she hammered on the heavy, fabric-deadened walls. But there was nothing. Just a square, empty box. ‘Oh Christ! Oh God, please don’t let this be happening! Please!’ Already it was growing hot and airless. The darkness was absolute; tangible, like black oil swirling round her – Falling to her knees she put her hands over her face, trying to cut out the darkness, rocking backwards and forwards on the soft executive carpet, and at last, uncontrollably, she began to scream. 3 (#ulink_ec5672be-f111-58e2-878b-814ed58a0af0) ‘Clare? Clare darling, you’re all right. It’s all over. You’re safe.’ Paul was squatting beside her in the lift, his arms tightly round her. Behind him, the broad penthouse reception area was bright with light. ‘Come on, Clare. Can you stand up? Nothing happened. There was some sort of power failure. It was only a few seconds, darling.’ Shaking like a leaf, with her husband’s arm around her, Clare managed to rise to her feet and Paul helped her out of the lift. ‘Come on, darling. There are chairs in the conference room. Penny, could you get some brandy? Quickly.’ Paul’s secretary had been hovering white-faced in the doorway. Clinging to him, Clare followed Paul into the huge conference room with its floor-to-ceiling windows. Some were screened with blinds, but no blinds were drawn on the western side, and the whole side of the room was a blaze of fiery red from the setting sun. Helping Clare to a chair, Paul took the proffered glass from his secretary and held it to his wife’s lips. ‘Drink this. My God, woman, you frightened me. Why on earth did you scream like that?’ ‘I’m sorry, Paul, but I couldn’t help it –’ ‘Of course you couldn’t.’ Penny put a comforting hand on her shoulder. She was a plump pretty woman of about thirty, smartly dressed in a dark suit with a frilly jabot at the collar of her blouse. Next to the green swirl of silk under Clare’s mink coat it looked odd, even indecently sober. ‘I hate that lift myself. I’m always terrified it might get stuck.’ ‘It didn’t get stuck.’ Paul sounded irritated. ‘It stopped for a couple of seconds when the electricity went off. That’s all.’ ‘It was several minutes, and it probably seemed like several hours to poor Mrs Royland,’ Penny retorted stoutly. She glared at her employer. Shakily Clare took another sip of brandy. ‘I’m all right now, really.’ She managed a smile. Behind Paul the sunset was fading fast. Greyness was settling over the city. No one had switched on any lights in the conference room itself, and it began to seem very dark. Paul was watching his wife closely, as if undecided what to do. The wave of tenderness which had swept over him as he helped her from the lift had passed, leaving him strangely detached once more. When at last he spoke, his eyes were cold. Whatever regret and sadness that still touched him when he thought of their longing to have a child had been firmly suppressed. He had far more immediate worries on his mind. ‘You look very pale, Clare. I don’t think you should come to the reception after all.’ ‘Nonsense, Paul. I’m fine.’ ‘I don’t think so.’ Paul was firm. ‘Penny, would you go back with Clare? Get a taxi and see her to the house. I have to go on to this wretched do, but I’ll come on home straight away afterwards. You should go to bed, darling. You look completely overwrought.’ ‘I’m not, Paul.’ Clare was suddenly angry. ‘I’m perfectly all right. If you’d been waiting in your office none of this would have happened.’ ‘I thought you’d like to see the view.’ ‘But you know how much I hate lifts. Couldn’t you at least have waited downstairs and come up with me?’ She knew she sounded petulant, and the realisation made her even more angry. He was looking at her thoughtfully. ‘I suppose I should have. I’m sorry.’ ‘Oh Paul.’ She bit her lip suddenly, desperately wanting him to put his arms around her, but it was Penny who kept ineffectually patting her shoulder. Paul had reached into his pocket for his wallet. He extricated a ten-pound note. ‘Here, Penny. Would you take her home now, please, then go on yourself. I’ll see you in the morning.’ ‘Paul –’ ‘No, darling. I insist. I’m afraid you will have to go down in the lift again, there’s no other way, but I’m sure you’ll be all right with Penny with you.’ Clare swallowed her anger and disappointment with difficulty. Paul was treating her like a spoiled child who needed punishing. She wanted to shout at him, to defy him, to go to the party in spite of him, but then again, for his sake she did not want to argue in front of the other woman; and she had to admit, her legs did still feel shaky. She glanced up at him, suppressing with difficulty the new wave of fear which swept over her at the thought of getting into the lift again. ‘But what about you? Why can’t you come down with us?’ ‘I’ll follow in five minutes or so. I have a few papers to sort out.’ He glanced at the long conference table. At the far end his case lay open, a neat pile of documents beside it on the polished surface. His gold fountain pen lay meticulously aligned on top of the papers. ‘You will be all right, Clare. Penny will look after you.’ Unceremoniously he ushered them both to the door. He didn’t wait to see them call the lift. Penny pressed the button, her arm firmly linked through Clare’s. As the doors slid open she glanced up at the small glass-fronted cupboard set into the wall high up near the lift buttons. Inside it were all the emergency power switches for the top floor. Sitting in the conference room, bathed in the light of the setting sun, she had got up to close the door on to the landing after Paul went out to the cloakroom. She was sure she had seen him standing there near the switches. Then all the lights had gone out and, dazzled by the sunlight behind her, she could see nothing on the dark landing at all. ‘The club is almost empty this evening.’ Peter Cassidy greeted James Gordon in the changing room at Cannon’s as the latter, having fitted his card into the electronic door, came in carrying his sports bag. ‘We needn’t have bothered to book a court.’ He stooped to retie the lace on one white tennis shoe. ‘How is your sister, James? Em seems to think she’s going through a rough patch.’ ‘Is she?’ Putting his card back in his wallet, James ripped off his tie and pulled the Asser and Turnbull shirt up over his head without undoing more than two buttons. ‘I haven’t talked to Clare for ages. I think she was a bit miffed about me inheriting Aunt Margaret’s money. I mean, the old girl had a very good reason for doing it, but Paul and Clare didn’t see it that way. Paul wanted to contest the will and have her declared senile.’ ‘Which she wasn’t, I gather.’ Peter sat down on the bench in the middle of the room to wait for him. ‘No way. She was right on the ball up to the last five minutes, Ma said. Clare knew that of course. I don’t think she cares, actually. It’s Paul. You’d think with all his money he’d leave it alone, wouldn’t you? But perhaps it’s a habit with him.’ He paused reflectively. On the whole he was a great admirer of Paul’s. ‘Anyway, I thought Clare might be too embarrassed by the whole stupid thing to want to talk to me for a bit.’ He grinned, flicking his dark hair back from his face. ‘Besides, she hasn’t been much fun lately. She leads such a boring life, stuck in that house stuck in the middle of nowhere.’ He stepped out of his trousers and reached for his shorts. ‘It doesn’t sound boring from what I’ve been hearing.’ Peter laughed. ‘She’s having personal private lessons in body-building from a continental lothario.’ James had been rummaging in his sports bag for a shirt. Abruptly he straightened. ‘Oh, come on. That’s one of Emma’s stories!’ ‘No, you ask Clare.’ ‘I will.’ James laughed. ‘Good old sis. Perhaps she’s finally kicked over the traces. I always knew she would in the end. I wonder what Paul thinks?’ ‘He’s horrified. He was the one that rang Em. He wants her to talk Clare out of it all. Apparently he thinks it’s all some sort of compensation for not getting pregnant.’ ‘What a load of crap.’ James had finished putting on the white socks and shoes. Stowing the last of his things into his locker he picked up his squash racquet. ‘It’s Paul who is neurotic about having a son. I don’t think Clare gives a screw. Come on. I’m going to thrash you tonight, then last man to finish twelve lengths of the pool pays for dinner.’ James looked distastefully round at the disordered living room of his flat in the Barbican when he got home that evening and sighed. The cleaning woman had failed to come for the second time running, and it was thick with dust. Dirty plates and glasses littered every free surface and there were clothes scattered on the floor. The air smelt stale. Throwing open the windows he went into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator. It was empty of food. Tonics, cans of lager, two bottles of Bollinger, that was all. It didn’t matter. He wasn’t hungry. Peter had gone home to Emma for supper in the end. James had been invited, but he hadn’t wanted to go – there was always tension in the Cassidy house. He helped himself to a can of Pils and, going back into the living room, threw himself down on an easy chair, picked up the phone, and extending the aerial, began to punch out a number. It was several minutes before she replied, and when she did she sounded depressed. ‘Hi, Clare, how are you?’ ‘James?’ From the slight sniff he wondered suddenly if she had been crying and he frowned. Deep down, beneath all the aggression, he was very fond of his sister. After Penny had dropped her off at the house an hour earlier, Clare had gone straight upstairs to lie down, not even bothering to remove her dress. Still indignant at Paul for sending her home like a child who has been forbidden a party because it has misbehaved, she was even more cross with herself for allowing him to do it. She had been lying gazing up at the ceiling, still feeling very shaky, when James rang. Now slowly she sat up, and, the receiver to her ear, swung her feet to the carpet, pushing her hair back from her face. ‘It’s a long time since you bothered to ring. What do you want?’ she asked, forcing herself to sound cheerful. That was more like it. He grinned to himself as he lay back in his chair, resting his ankle across his knee. ‘I don’t want anything. I can afford my own, now, remember?’ he said maliciously. ‘No, seriously, sis. I’ve been hearing weird stories about you and your body-building. What gives?’ There was puzzled silence, then Clare laughed. ‘Bodybuilding? Who told you that?’ ‘A reliable source. Come on. Tell me about it.’ ‘It, James, is yoga, that’s all.’ ‘What, no dumb-bells? No rippling muscles and black satin G-strings?’ ‘No.’ It was her old infectious laugh. ‘And no continental lothario?’ There was a pause. ‘No, Californian actually.’ James whistled. ‘What does Paul say?’ ‘He’s not interested, and if he was I wouldn’t care.’ She sounded rebellious. She didn’t want to think about Paul. She changed the subject abruptly. ‘James, you haven’t had any letters about selling any of the estate, have you?’ ‘No. Why?’ She hesitated. ‘I had one from a solicitor in Edinburgh – Mitchison and Archer – saying they had a client who wanted to buy Duncairn.’ James gave a soundless whistle. ‘I wonder why. Did they name a price?’ ‘No. They said it would be negotiable.’ ‘Are you going to sell?’ ‘Of course not. That’s my inheritance. All there is of it,’ she couldn’t resist adding. James ignored that. ‘I can’t think why anyone would want Duncairn,’ he went on relentlessly, ‘unless –’ He stopped suddenly. ‘You know, there were some rumours in the City last month about the oil companies sniffing round the north-east coast again. Maybe they’re looking for somewhere to put a new terminal.’ He was intrigued. ‘That would be a turn up, Clare, if old Duncairn turned out to be worth a fortune. Whatever they want it for, if it is an oil company, they would offer serious money.’ ‘Even if they do, I’m not selling.’ Clare was appalled at the thought. ‘Listen James. Don’t mention this to anyone. I haven’t told Paul about the letter and I don’t intend to. There’s no point.’ ‘There would be if they offered you enough money, sis. I’ll ask around and see what I can find out for you.’ Clare walked across to the window after James had rung off and drew back the curtains. The night was cold now, after the hot day. She could smell smoke. Someone had been burning dead leaves in one of the squares and the scent flavoured the night with autumn. With a sigh she closed the window and walked slowly downstairs still wearing her green dress. The skirt dragged on the steep uncarpeted staircase behind her with an exotic rustle. She went down the second flight to the basement kitchen, wondering if she should find herself something to eat – she hadn’t eaten properly since breakfast that morning, but she wasn’t really hungry. Damn James. She hadn’t wanted to think about that letter any more. And damn Paul. She had been looking forward to the reception. And damn the lift! She shivered. Baines had been amazed when Penny asked him about the power cut. None of the building seemed to have been affected except the top floor. Of course none of the other lifts had been in use at the time, but he would call the engineers at once, and have them checked. He had been indignant, asking why they hadn’t called him on the internal phone, and scolded them for using the lift again. Clare had clenched her fists tightly as they waited for the taxi, her eyes firmly on the locked glass doors. Only when she was out on the pavement once more did she begin to relax at last. She went back upstairs into the living room. The original two rooms had been knocked through into one, so there were windows at both ends. She walked across and drew the front curtains briskly, then went to stand looking out into the darkness of the back garden beyond her own reflection. It was probably damp and misty in the country by now, but here the night was clear and luminous even where it lay beyond the reach of the light from the window. She could see the pale, blighted rose buds clearly, clinging to the trellis behind the oak garden seat. She missed Casta desperately. She brought the candle downstairs and set it in the middle of the Persian rug in the front half of the room and lit it, then, kicking off her shoes, she turned off all the lights. As an afterthought she unplugged the phone, then, quietly shutting the door into the hall, she turned back to the candle, and closing her eyes raised her arms above her head. She was going to try it again; try and see whether she could enter Isobel’s life once more with the uncanny reality of last time. Half afraid, half excited, she began to empty her mind. If she could not go to the Guildhall, perhaps she could retreat to this strange other world of the past where she could forget her own troubles and lose herself in someone else’s life. Bit by careful bit she began to construct her picture of Duncairn as it used to be. This time Isobel was wearing a beautiful deep-red full-skirted gown with a long train. It was held in place with a plaited girdle and she wore a gilded chaplet over her hair which hung loose over her shoulders. She was a little older now. She was standing in the shadows at the back of the great hall, watching eagerly as the page made his way to the Earl of Carrick’s side as he sat talking with a group of men. She saw the boy sidle up to him and whisper in his ear, and she saw Robert look up, his eyes quickly scanning the great hall. He couldn’t see her, hidden as she was in the shadow of one of the pillars which soared up into the darkness to support the massive roof timbers. Outside night was falling. The moment she saw Robert stand up, she turned and slipped out of the hall, picking up her skirts to run, threading her way swiftly through the crowded passages of the castle towards the chapel. The door was heavy. Grasping the iron handle she turned it with an effort and slipped inside. The chapel was almost dark, but a candle burned before the statue of the Virgin in a niche beside the altar, another on a ledge beside the door. The air was sweet with incense. There was no one there. Breathing a quick prayer of gratitude that the place was empty she curtseyed before the statue and crossed herself, then she waited, her eyes fixed on the huge arched window above the altar. With darkness outside she could see none of the colours in the patterned glass, only the fluted stone tracing which held it in place. When the door opened again with a slight creak she gave a little gasp, but it was he. ‘Robert!’ She flew to him. ‘I had to see you. Why have you come back to Duncairn? Where is Lord Buchan?’ Robert caught her as she threw herself at him, holding her at arms’ length. ‘I came here to meet with him, Isobel, but he and I could not agree.’ He tightened his lips. ‘I leave now and I do not intend to return to this castle or any other held by Lord Buchan.’ ‘But Robert –’ She looked up at him pleadingly. ‘No, little cousin. He has seen how worthless the Balliol is as king, yet still he supports his claim to the crown against that of my father because the Comyns and the Balliols are kin. He even arranged that John St John should place the crown of Scotland on John Balliol’s head in the name of your young brother.’ He smiled wryly. ‘Your house of Duff has power indeed, my Isobel. The hereditary right to crown a king! It was that crowning which gave weight of custom to Edward of England’s choice for Scotland’s king.’ He paused. ‘Perhaps when the people of Scotland come to their senses, we can bring your brother back from his place at the King of England’s side, and then, one day, he can crown me! But until the Bruce claim is recognised and Balliol dispossessed your betrothed and I cannot agree. Now,’ he smiled at her in the darkness, ‘what is so urgent you have to see me alone?’ ‘They have fixed our wedding day.’ Her whisper was anguished. ‘If the king gives his permission we are to be married at Martinmas. Oh, Robert, I can’t bear it. It mustn’t happen. You have got to help me.’ For a moment he looked down at her, his face sorrowful, then, almost reluctantly he drew back. Briefly he touched her cheek with his hand. ‘Poor Isobel. There is nothing I can do, you know that.’ ‘But there is. There must be.’ Her voice rose in panic. ‘That is why I wanted us to meet here. It is the only place in the castle where we can be alone. Please, Robert, you have to think of something. You have to get me away.’ She took a few paces from him towards the altar, then turned back, her red skirts sweeping the stone flags impatiently. Behind her the candles flickered and smoked. ‘Please, Robert. Any moment Father Matthew may come back. You’ve got to think of something.’ He studied her gravely – the beautiful, anxious face beneath the long curling black hair, the huge grey eyes, the slight but undeniably feminine figure beneath the figure-hugging red cloth. She was close to him now, and he could smell the sweet musk of her skin and the slight scent of lavender from her gown. Unexpectedly he felt a wave of intense desire sweep over him and, surprised and embarrassed, he took a step back. ‘Isobel, nothing can be done. You have been betrothed to Lord Buchan since you were a child. A betrothal is binding, you know that.’ ‘But it can be broken. Somehow it must be broken. If you are going to be king, you can do anything! You must marry me instead, Robert. Please. You like me, don’t you?’ She took a step towards him, putting her hands on the front of his surcote, her eyes pleading. ‘You know I like you,’ he whispered, his hands gently covering hers. ‘Isobel, this is foolish. It cannot be.’ ‘Why?’ Instinctively she knew what to do. Gently, standing on tiptoe, her hands still pressing against his breast, imprisoned in his own, she kissed him on the mouth. It was the first time she had kissed a man. He groaned, and pushed her away violently. ‘Isobel, don’t you understand? It can never be. Never. I too am betrothed, remember? And I too have fixed my marriage date. It was one of the reasons I went to Kildrummy. Isabella of Mar and I will marry at Christmas.’ Stunned, Isobel stared at him. ‘Isabella of Mar,’ she echoed, dully. ‘You prefer that milk sop to me?’ ‘Aye, I do.’ He looked at her coldly. ‘I’m sorry, but that’s the truth.’ He tried not to see the hurt and rejection in her eyes, hardening his heart against the pain he knew he had caused her. He had in fact spoken only half the truth. He loved his betrothed; she filled him with tender protectiveness, making him feel strong and chivalrous, her knightly protector, a role which appealed to him greatly; but, he had to admit, he felt very strongly attracted to Isobel of Fife too, although in quite a different way. He closed his eyes. He was a man, not a boy. He knew the difference between courtly love and lust. What he felt for his gentle, beautiful betrothed was the former. Isobel of Fife, on the other hand, stirred him to passionate longing. She was exciting, a temptress, though she scarcely knew it yet herself, and undoubtedly she was trouble. The feelings she aroused in him shocked him. One should not feel desire such as that for any lady of high birth, never mind one so young and destined to become another man’s wife. With an exclamation of anger he turned from her, staring hard instead at the serene painted wooden face of Our Lady in the niche. ‘You are making yourself unhappy,’ he said curtly. ‘There is no point, can’t you see that? There can be nothing between us, ever. And there can be no escape from your betrothal.’ He saw that his blunt words had stung her. She straightened her slim shoulders. ‘Oh but there can, Robert,’ she retorted, her eyes flashing rebelliously. He wasn’t sure to which of his two statements she was referring. Perhaps both, he thought, and in spite of himself he felt a little shiver of excitement. But his voice remained firm. ‘You can’t escape, Isobel. Make up your mind to accept it.’ She shook her head. ‘I don’t accept things,’ she retorted. ‘Even if you do. I’m a fighter, and I’ll fight this. If you won’t help me, then I’ll manage alone. Now, you’d better go, or your men will miss you in the hall.’ He hesitated. ‘Don’t do anything foolish.’ She tossed her head. ‘I don’t intend to.’ ‘You won’t try and ride anywhere alone?’ Almost unwillingly he had stepped closer to her again. His hand strayed to her shoulder, touching her hair. ‘It’s none of your business where I go or what I do,’ she replied softly. ‘Not now.’ Her mouth was close to his. He saw the tip of her tongue for a moment between her lips, unconsciously teasing. Unable to stop himself, he held out his arms and drew her to him, his mouth urgently seeking hers, crushing her breasts against his chest, imprisoning her arms against her sides. ‘Oh God forgive me, but I do love you,’ he breathed. ‘Then help me.’ Somehow she freed her arms, winding them around his neck. ‘Please, Robert.’ ‘And make you my little queen, love? I can’t. Don’t you see, I can’t.’ Anguished, he kissed her again, stifling her words. Isobel stiffened, then with a sob she tore herself free of his arms. ‘Then go!’ she cried. ‘Go now. I never want to see you again! You shouldn’t have come here! To kiss a woman in here before Our Lady is wicked – it’s sacrilege!’ ‘Then it is a sacrilege I gladly commit.’ Gravely Robert took a few steps towards the door. ‘May Our Lady protect you always, Isobel, my love. I wish I could,’ he said. Then he was gone. The ground-floor office in the sixteenth-century building on the north side of the Grassmarket in Edinburgh was untidy, piled high with books and pamphlets; files overflowed from shelves and chairs on to the floor, and posters covered more posters on the walls. Sitting at the desk in the centre of the room, Neil Forbes paused in his writing and, dropping his pen, stretched his arms above his head with a sigh. He glanced at his wristwatch. It was after 9 p.m. Behind the blind, the Grassmarket was deserted, the dark street wet in the wind-swept rain. He gave an exclamation of irritation as the phone rang. ‘Neil? I’m so glad you’re still there. I didn’t have any other number –’ He frowned momentarily, not recognising the voice. ‘It’s Sandra Mackay. You remember. I came to the Earthwatch meeting when you were talking about pollution. We had a drink afterwards – I’m a friend of Kathleen’s –’ Her voice trailed away uncertainly. ‘Of course I remember.’ He squinted up at the ceiling, noting a new place where the lining paper was beginning to peel away. ‘What can I do for you, Sandra?’ He had a pleasant voice, deep and musical with a slight Scots inflection. She gave a strange half sigh. ‘It’s difficult. I know I shouldn’t tell anyone this – it’s breaking the rules of the office. I’m supposed to keep everything I see and hear confidential. I always have, but –’ He could hear the indecision in her voice. ‘Sandra, if it is something that worries you, and you think Earthwatch should know about it, then you have done the right thing in ringing me. Personal loyalty is a wonderful thing, but not at the expense of the environment or the safety of the people as a whole. These days we must all learn to accept that.’ It was what he always said. Trite, but true, and something he passionately believed. ‘Now, can you tell me over the phone, or would you like to meet me somewhere?’ ‘No, no.’ She sounded terrified. ‘Listen, I’ve only five minutes to talk before my mum gets back.’ She paused for a moment, then began in a rush. ‘I typed out a letter last week to a Mrs Clare Royland in England. We were transmitting a client’s offer to buy her estates. She owns about one thousand acres up on the coast at Duncairn, including the village and the old castle. Today she wrote back refusing to negotiate. She said the estates were not for sale and never would be. Well, Mr Archer called me in to dictate a reply without even consulting the client again. They are offering more money than you can imagine!’ She paused. ‘When I’d taken down the letter he told me his client was prepared to go much higher if necessary to get it.’ Neil had risen to his feet. Still holding the telephone he walked across to the map of Scotland pinned on one wall of the office. The phone in one hand, the receiver in the other, he peered at the map, even though there was no need. He knew only too well where Duncairn was. ‘Mr Archer said there were rare birds and plants on the cliffs there and he thought they had some sort of development in mind, and he said he didn’t like the sound of the offer at all,’ she went on. Neil scowled. ‘Neither do I,’ he said grimly, ‘and I would guess they are offering well over the normal market price. Do you happen to know the name of the prospective buyer?’ ‘I shouldn’t tell you.’ ‘You have already told me most of it, Sandra.’ He was at his most reassuring. ‘And no one will ever know how we found out any of this, I promise.’ ‘Well,’ she sounded only half reassured. ‘It was a man called Cummin. He works for something called Sigma Exploration.’ Neil stood staring at the map for several minutes after she had hung up, then slowly he returned to his desk. He took a file out of one of the drawers and opened it. So it was true, the rumour that someone had been carrying out surreptitious geological surveys along that stretch of coastline. And it looked as though the worst had happened. The surveys had been encouraging. ‘Gossip has it that it is onshore oil, Neil,’ Jim Campbell had said in his note. ‘I can’t believe that, unless the geological structure of Scotland has changed recently, but for what it’s worth someone has been surveying pretty thoroughly up and down the coast over an area of several miles. And doing it far from openly. It is an area that contains several SSSI and some of it is owned by the NTS and is protected coastline …’ ‘And some of it is owned by Mrs Clare Royland,’ Neil murmured to himself. He threw down the file and, standing up again, began pacing the short space of empty floor between his desk and the window. He was remembering the visit he had paid to Duncairn in June shortly after Jim had sent in his report. It was a place he knew well, a place he had visited on several occasions as a student, a beautiful place, ruinous – including the hotel, he thought wryly – wild, unspoiled, peaceful, with several miles of rocky, dramatic coastline, which had to be preserved at any cost. He had wandered around all morning, going to the hotel for a pint of Export and some sandwiches for lunch, then, drawn back almost against his will, he had walked back to the sprawling ruins of the castle for one more look before driving back to Edinburgh. It was then that he had seen her. He was certain it had been Clare Royland. Who else could it have been? She had arrived in a flash green Jag, dressed for a London garden party, even to the high-heeled shoes. Young, beautiful, oh yes, undeniably beautiful, rich, aristocratic – looking at him as though he had no right to be there, which, strictly speaking, he hadn’t, and then, later, looking through him as though he wasn’t there at all. Bitch. He remembered how the whole place changed after she arrived. The joy had gone out of his visit. It was as if her arrival had released strange, unhappy memories in those ancient stones. He shivered at the thought. The haar had come in off the sea, drifting up the cliffs and cutting off the sunlight, and he had left her to it. She was the type who would sell, damn her. She might protest her love of the place, but in the end she would sell, if only because Paul Royland would see to it that she did. Neil smiled grimly as he turned off the desk lamp and began to pull on his patched tweed jacket. He had good reason to remember Paul Royland of old. Henry Firbank paid off the cab at the bottom of Campden Hill and began to walk slowly up the road. When he had met Paul at the Guildhall, Paul was deep in conversation with Diane Warboys, one of the new brokers at Westlake Pierce, but he had paused long enough to explain that Clare had had a fainting fit at the office and decided to go home rather than come to the reception. Later, when Paul had offered to take Diane out to dinner, Henry had made up his mind. He wasn’t being disloyal to Paul. It was merely natural concern to see how Clare was. He would knock, perhaps not even go in, just see she was all right … It never crossed his mind to telephone instead. He could see a faint light showing at the crack in the heavy pale aquamarine silk curtains. Straightening his tie he lifted the knocker and let it drop, wishing he had thought to stop off and buy some flowers somewhere on the way. He waited, then he knocked again, louder this time. Perhaps she had fallen asleep in front of the television. He wasn’t sure, afterwards, what made him do it, but when she failed to answer his third knock he found himself slinging one long leg over the low railings at the side of the steps and stepping into the paved front garden so that he could peer across the narrow barred area which lent light to the basement window and through the crack in the curtains. Clare was seated cross-legged on the floor in front of a guttering candle. She was facing the window and he could see her clearly. Her face was serene, blank, her eyes closed; her whole attitude completely relaxed as the flickering candlelight played over her, illuminating her features, turning them to alabaster, picking out the glint of gold at her throat and wrists and on her fingers, sending darting shadows into the deep folds of green silk piled so carelessly around her on the floor. Henry caught his breath. He watched her, fascinated, unable to tear his eyes away, as the candle slowly died, leaving her sitting in darkness alleviated only by the thread of light thrown across the floor by the street lamp behind him, and it was only the sound of footsteps walking down the road behind him in the distance which made him straighten suddenly, realising how he must look to a passerby, doubled up with his eye to a crack in the curtain. Vaulting back over the railing, he stood uncertainly on the step, wondering what to do. Tentatively he knocked again, then, bolder, he rang the door bell. It pealed through the house, making him jump and he waited breathlessly. Minutes later a light came on in the hall and the door opened. ‘Henry?’ Clare stared at him, dazed. ‘Clare.’ He bent forward and kissed her cheek. ‘I’m sorry to call so late. If you’d rather, I’ll go away at once. Only Paul asked me to look in on my way home and see that you were all right. He has met up with a client, I gather, and he’ll be a bit late back – you know how it is.’ Paul hadn’t asked him to do anything of the sort. Clare bit her lip. She looked tired and strained in the harsh light of the hall. ‘That was good of you, Henry. You’d better come in.’ She backed away from the door. He followed her into the living room and he found himself looking at the rug where she had been sitting. There was no sign now of the remains of the candle, but he thought he could smell it, mixed with her subtle perfume in the air. ‘You’re sure you’re not too tired, Clare? Paul told me you weren’t feeling very well.’ ‘No, I’m fine. Come on down and talk to me while I make us both some coffee. The lift at Coleman Street got stuck with me in it and I made a bit of a fool of myself, that’s all. I’m afraid it will be all around the bank tomorrow.’ She smiled wanly. ‘Oh Clare, how terrible.’ He followed her down the steep flight of steps. ‘I’ve been claustrophobic since I was a child. So silly really.’ She busied herself filling the kettle and plugging it in whilst he sat down on a stool watching her, his long legs folded under the breakfast bar. ‘Clare, I couldn’t help seeing, through the curtains, upstairs. What were you doing with that candle?’ He hadn’t meant to ask; hadn’t meant to admit to spying on her. She glanced up at him sharply, but she smiled. ‘Meditating.’ ‘You mean like praying?’ He looked embarrassed. ‘Perhaps, a little. Although, not the way I do it.’ She was playing with her sapphire engagement ring, twisting it around her finger so that the facets caught the light. ‘It’s very strange, Henry. Something I started doing to help me unwind a bit.’ Suddenly she found she wanted to tell someone about it. ‘When I was a child I had a sort of imaginary playmate – I think a lot of children do. She was called Isobel.’ She paused for such a long time that he wondered if she had forgotten he was there. ‘Go on,’ he said at last. ‘My brother was four years younger than me, and we never got on, really. We still don’t –’ she smiled wistfully. ‘So, I was a lonely child.’ Isobel’s brother was four years younger and a posthumous child, like James. She had stopped speaking and was staring into space, recognising the strangeness of the coincidence for the first time. With a little shake of the head she went on. ‘I suppose that’s how children always react to loneliness: an imaginary friend.’ She paused again. Henry said nothing, afraid to interrupt her train of thought. ‘She was a real person,’ she went on, at last. ‘An ancestress of ours. My great aunt used to tell us stories about her. Long, involved, exciting stories. I don’t know where they came from, if they were true, or if she made them up, but they caught my imagination. I would act them out again and again in my head or in my games. Sometimes Isobel was my friend. Sometimes she was me and I was her …’ Her voice trailed away. Behind her the kettle boiled and switched itself off. Henry didn’t move. ‘I hadn’t thought about her for years – not until I went to Duncairn again in June. Now she has come back. Not to play with’ – she laughed, embarrassed – ‘not like when I was a child, but when I meditate. It is as if I am opening a door, and she is there waiting … She is much more real than before. No longer my creation. It is as if she has a life of her own.’ Henry could feel the skin prickling slightly on the back of his neck. He cleared his throat. ‘I expect the meditation technique allows your imagination a free hand,’ he said slowly. ‘But if it upsets you, you should stop.’ ‘Oh, it doesn’t upset me. I enjoy it. It’s so much more exciting than –’ She stopped abruptly. ‘I was going to say than real life, but that sounds so awful.’ Henry grinned. ‘It’s not awful at all. It’s quite understandable. Real life is – well – real. Your Isobel presumably has more fun in her life.’ Clare smiled. She was thinking of Robert’s kiss. ‘Indeed she does. Do you think I’m quite mad?’ ‘Only marginally.’ He was relieved to see the strain leaving her face. ‘Please don’t tell Paul. I don’t think he’d understand. I know this isn’t exactly a world-enhancing pastime, but in a sense it’s a serious exercise, and it’s better than TV.’ She smiled disarmingly. ‘Paul thinks I should be happy pottering about like Gillian and Chloe or your partners’ wives, organising NSPCC coffee mornings and church jumble sales and discussing fashion and make-up, but I’m not like that. I need something more; something different to them. The trouble is, whenever I try to explain to him that I would like to get a job, or do some really serious studying, we get back to babies.’ Her jaw tightened. ‘Babies?’ Unobtrusively Henry leaned forward for the jar of instant coffee and drew the empty mugs towards him. ‘Paul wants me to have babies.’ ‘And you don’t?’ ‘Oh, I’d love to have one; I sometimes think I can’t live without one; I look into people’s prams and things.’ She smiled wistfully. ‘But then I get depressed about it and all I want to do is forget about babies altogether.’ She paused for a moment thinking again of Paul’s phone call earlier that day. The tests were OK and yet suddenly he’d changed his mind. Now he too wanted to forget about babies. She bit her lip. Somehow it didn’t ring true, but that was something she could worry about later. She smiled at Henry. ‘That’s when I’d like to do something positive; something to take my mind off children altogether. I wish Paul really could forget about babies for a bit. In fact I wish the whole Royland family weren’t so obsessed with procreation.’ Henry laughed. ‘Tough. Tell him you’re on the pill, taking a degree in Oriental studies and about to rebuild your fairy-tale castle with your own hands once you’ve finished your brick-laying apprenticeship, and there will be no babies until you’re forty at least. I gather motherhood late in life is all the rage these days. That should fix him.’ She giggled delightedly. ‘Oh Henry, I’m so glad you came round. You put everything in perspective. Bless you.’ Henry picked up the kettle. Suddenly he felt ridiculously happy. James was surprised Paul agreed to meet him so quickly. Perhaps it was something in the suppressed excitement of his voice which had prompted his brother-in-law to suggest lunch that day. They met in the foyer of the bank after James had walked through from the Westlake Pierce dealing room in the new building. ‘So,’ Paul looked at the younger man with some curiosity as they made their way briskly along Coleman Street, ‘what is all this about?’ James was very like Clare to look at. Roughly the same height, which was fairly short for a man, slim, dark-haired, the same large grey eyes; but curiously, the features didn’t make him look feminine at all. On him they were rugged and handsome. Handsome enough to pull women in droves according to his sister, even before he had inherited his fortune. ‘I wanted to know how Clare is.’ James looked him straight in the eye. ‘She’s fine. That was a stupid incident last night. She has to learn to be less neurotic, that’s all.’ ‘Last night?’ James raised an eyebrow. ‘What happened last night?’ ‘She was trapped in a lift for a minute or two and it shook her up. Isn’t that what you meant?’ Paul said mildly. ‘No.’ For a moment James looked uncomfortable, then with a slight shrug, he went on. ‘No, I was talking about this man teaching her to cope with mental stress or whatever it is. Why is she so stressed?’ Paul gave a deep sigh. ‘I wish I knew. But, as to her handsome yoga teacher,’ – he gave a half smile – ‘I think you can take it that he will shortly be getting his marching orders. Clare’s neuroses, such as they are, are better served by rest and quiet than by some quasi-spiritual mumbo jumbo. I’m sending her on a holiday next month. That will help her more than anything else.’ ‘Lucky Clare,’ James said dryly. ‘Does she know yet?’ Paul caught the note of sarcasm and looked up. Unexpectedly he smiled. ‘No,’ he said. ‘She doesn’t know yet.’ It was not until they were sitting at their table downstairs at Gows and their food had arrived that James dropped his bombshell. ‘What do you think about the offer for Duncairn?’ he asked innocently as he picked up his fork. ‘The what?’ Paul stared at him. ‘Clare received an offer for Duncairn. Didn’t she tell you? She turned it down, of course. I gather they didn’t mention a figure –’ ‘Who? Who wants to buy it?’ ‘Ah well, that’s the interesting point. Clare didn’t know – the offer came through a third party, but I’ve done some nosing around amongst my pals.’ James stopped and put a forkful of fish into his mouth, chewing slowly, well aware that Paul was waiting. ‘And?’ ‘And I gather there is some speculation about surveys they’ve been doing up that coastline. Word is one of the oil companies might have put in a pre-emptive bid just in case they decide to test drill. The bet is that the offer is from one of the big consortia, or, just possibly from an outfit called Sigma Exploration, a US-based company which is trying to get a larger foothold overseas. There’s been a lot of talk about them in the City lately. You must have heard of them. They’re trying to raise some big bucks.’ ‘And you think some of it is to buy Duncairn?’ Paul’s eyes narrowed. ‘For God’s sake, Clare never mentioned it!’ ‘She doesn’t know,’ James put in hastily. ‘Not about Sigma.’ He hesitated. ‘She’ll put up a hell of a fight for Duncairn, Paul –’ He stopped, astonished, as Paul laid down his knife and fork, his food untouched, and pushed back his chair. His face was white … ‘Fight,’ he said slowly. ‘She doesn’t even know the meaning of the word. If someone is offering big money for that heap of stones, and she opposes the sale, I’ll make her sorry she was born!’ Turning on his heel, he headed for the staircase. 4 (#ulink_d42c5914-a50d-529f-b3be-0b8ed8a94e73) Clare was out in the tiny suntrap of a garden at the back of the London house when Paul arrived. An open book had been discarded on the paving stones beside her chair as she lay, dressed in a low-necked cotton blouse and shorts, soaking up the afternoon sun. For a moment she didn’t see him as he stood in the doorway watching her, then sensing his presence, she opened her eyes. He stepped out on to the terrace and stood looking down at her in silence. Clare sat up, startled. ‘Paul? What is it? Did you forget something?’ That morning he had left before she was awake, and she had not heard him return the night before. ‘I’ve just had lunch with your brother.’ ‘Oh?’ Clare felt her stomach tighten warningly. Deliberately she resisted the urge to scramble to her feet. She stared hard at the litter of crisp dead leaves nestling in the moss against the bricked border of the flower bed, and waited. ‘He tells me someone has offered to buy Duncairn.’ His voice was even. ‘That’s right.’ Clare tried to sound casual. ‘Crazy isn’t it? I expect they wanted to develop the hotel.’ She carefully avoided looking at him. ‘No doubt. May I ask how much they offered you?’ ‘They didn’t mention a figure. They said if I were interested we could discuss a price, but as I have no intention of selling, there is nothing to discuss.’ She knew she was speaking too quickly. ‘And you weren’t even interested enough to find out how much they were considering offering you?’ His tone had a mocking, dangerous ring. ‘No.’ She stood up abruptly, her shoulders hunched, and took a few steps away from him, studying a bruised rosebud with exaggerated care. ‘What if I told you that it was worth a fortune to the right person,’ he said quietly. ‘It wouldn’t make any difference.’ She turned to face him. ‘I suppose James told you that he thinks they want it for an oil terminal or something. Well, even if they do, I don’t care. I’m not selling.’ ‘Not a terminal, Clare. They think there is oil there.’ She stared at him. ‘I don’t believe you!’ ‘It’s true. Whether you believe it or not, and whether there is really oil there or not is immaterial. The fact is, one of the oil companies believes there may be, and they want to acquire the land. Under different circumstances, I might have agreed with you and said keep the land, although rents and revenues are unlikely to be worth much, but we need the capital, and with the oil industry in such turmoil, the sensible thing is to go for money in the hand. Now. If this company wants to invest in a speculative deal, then you should take their offer. It will be a big one.’ He was watching her intently, his voice still carefully even. ‘They might change their mind later.’ ‘No.’ Clare clenched her fists. ‘Don’t you see? I don’t want to sell.’ Paul sighed. ‘I appreciate your sentimental attachment to the place, but you must overcome it. People have to move with the times.’ ‘No. No they don’t. Aunt Margaret left Duncairn to me. She meant me to have it for ever.’ She was trying to breathe calmly. ‘And pass it on to your children?’ Paul’s voice was acid. Clare froze. ‘Mine or James’s,’ she whispered at last. Paul sat down on the wooden bench near her. Behind him the mellow London stock bricks of the wall radiated a gentle heat from the sun. He took a deep breath, determined to seem calm. ‘Clare,’ he said with exaggerated patience, ‘I do appreciate your feelings, darling, but they are totally irrational. When the price is right one must always sell.’ ‘And everything has a price, of course.’ She sounded very bitter. ‘So, tell me, Paul. What is the price for Duncairn? Were you thinking of driving them up? Holding an auction perhaps in a marquee in the castle grounds? What is it to me, after all? Just some scrubby moorland, some inaccessible cliffs, the feus of a fishing village, a ruin and a hotel that makes no money! You’re right. I should sell it at once! I can’t think why I should have delayed.’ She flung herself towards the door. Then she stopped and faced him again. ‘Money! That’s all you think about! For God’s sake, why do we need any more capital? Haven’t we got enough? We’ve so much more than most people have.’ Her voice had risen passionately. ‘No, we haven’t got enough. As I told you before, Clare, one cannot have enough money,’ he replied coldly. ‘And as your aunt failed to leave you any at all to administer the estate, and as you seem convinced she had your welfare at heart, I can only assume that she had some idea of its worth. It may be that she did after all leave her property divided equally between you and James. And if that was the case, she expected you to sell.’ ‘She did not.’ Clare stared down at him. ‘You know perfectly well she did no such thing. I don’t understand you any more, Paul. If we needed the money, this would make sense, perhaps. But we don’t.’ She pushed her hair back from her face. ‘Do we?’ For a moment he hesitated, then he shook his head. ‘I need all the money I can get, Clare. For investment.’ He gave a hard, humourless smile. ‘And I intend to get it. And I am not going to let you stand in my way.’ There was a moment’s stunned silence as Clare stared at him. ‘What do you mean?’ she managed to ask at last. ‘I mean, I intend to see to it that you accept that offer. You’ll have no children, Clare, to pass on some stupid old woman’s sentimental vision of a family seat to. The Gordon connection with that land would die with you anyway, because I’m damned if you’re leaving it to your brother. He’s got enough as it is.’ ‘I could still have children, Paul –’ In her confusion at his sudden rage Clare seized on her one bit of hope. ‘You said there is nothing wrong with me –’ ‘No! Accept the fact. You will never have children. John Stanford told me so, Clare. We didn’t want to hurt you, we didn’t want you to blame yourself, so we agreed to say nothing to you. But it’s you. You who can never have a baby!’ He stood up, his face taut, his bitterness, anger and impotence focussing at last on her, battering her, determined to hurt her as he had been hurt. ‘Inheritance means nothing when the line is barren, you might as well face it. Do you think if you did decide to leave Duncairn to James that he would keep it for one single minute? Of course he wouldn’t. He would sell.’ ‘Paul –’ ‘No, Clare. No more crazy excuses. I want you to give me that letter. I’ll contact the solicitor –’ ‘I burnt it.’ Quite suddenly she was completely calm. She looked at him coldly. ‘I have no intention of selling, Paul, or of letting you do it for me. The land is mine. And it will remain so.’ Their eyes locked. For a moment she thought he was going to hit her. Then, abruptly, he pushed past her and went into the house. A few minutes later she heard the front door bang. For a long time she sat quite still on the bench, her mind a blank. The October sun had slipped behind the rustling, paper-dry leaves of the plane tree in the garden behind theirs, throwing cold, flecked shadows over the paving. She shivered violently. Barren. The most desolate word in the English language. No pregnancy; no baby; no sons; no daughters. Just a useless empty woman, hated by her husband. The look in his eyes had been more eloquent than any of the words he had thrown at her. He disliked her and he despised her. The change in him which had started the day Aunt Margaret’s will was read was now complete. The Paul she knew, the Paul she had married, had disappeared. His charm, his sense of humour, his carefree extravagance – all had gone. Had he never loved her then, at all? Was the acquisition of money going to take the place of the family they would never have? She stood up and blindly she turned and ran into the house. Picking up the phone with a shaking hand, she began to dial. ‘I’m sorry, Mrs Royland, Dr Stanford is on his rounds at the moment. Can I get him to ring you when he comes in?’ The polite voice was impersonal. Clare closed her eyes. ‘No. No thank you. Don’t worry him. It wasn’t important.’ Slowly she put down the receiver. For a long time she sat staring into space, then at last she stood up. Walking slowly upstairs she went into her bedroom and drew the curtains. Her legs crossed, her hands resting loosely on her knees, she tried to force herself to breathe steadily. She could hear her heart pounding in her chest, feel the throbbing of her nerves, like electric shocks in her stomach. Calm. She must be completely calm before she lit the candle. But it was no good. Slowly she pushed her body into a series of yoga movements: the cobra, the swan, the shoulder stand, the stork. But her mind was still racing, her muscles contorted. She could find none of the usual comfort in the asanas. Lying down flat on the floor she tried to relax, bit by bit, starting with her feet as she had been taught, but that was no use either. Exasperated, she gave up. What was the point of trying relaxation methods now? She never would conceive. There would be no baby. She was barren. She paced up and down the floor a couple of times gnawing her thumbnail, then she reached for the phone again and dialled the Cambridge number. ‘Zak, I’m sorry to ring you, but you did say –’ ‘Sure I did, Clare. What is it? You sound upset.’ At his desk at the open window overlooking the river, Zak de Sallis leaned back in his chair and threw down his pen. He was a tall, rangy man in his early thirties, his long brown hair caught back at the nape of his neck with an elastic band. His denim shirt and jeans, though frayed, were immaculately washed and ironed. Behind him the young man who had been lounging at the table stood up. He came silently across the room and stood behind Zak, his hand resting gently on Zak’s shoulder. ‘The doctor’s results have come through.’ Clare’s voice was loud in the room. ‘It is me, Zak. It is my fault. I’m the one who can’t have children. I’m barren. And there’s nothing any one can do. No amount of yoga is going to help me.’ ‘Hey, steady, Clare. Calm down.’ Zak felt the hand lifted and knew that Kenny was frowning. He hunched his shoulders in momentary irritation. ‘Listen. Did the doctor say there was nothing to be done? That doesn’t sound likely to me. There are always things they can do.’ ‘No. He told Paul I would never have children – there is no point in me going on with all this, Zak –’ It was a plea for help. ‘Oh, but there is, Clare.’ His lean figure relaxed and he tilted the chair back, balancing himself with one finger under the rim of the desk. ‘All the more reason. You are a very together person, Clare. You can do it.’ The soft Californian accent was rhythmical and calm. ‘You have enormous inner resources, Clare. I don’t have to tell you that.’ ‘I don’t know that I have, Zak. I don’t know if I can cope with all this. Please. I must see you –’ ‘You don’t need me, Clare.’ Zak glanced at Kenny, who was staring out of the window, his hands in his pockets. ‘You have the techniques now, and I know you can use them.’ ‘But I’m not doing it right. I’ve tried and tried this afternoon, and I can’t do any yoga. I can’t meditate. I can’t even relax on the floor. I’m so wound up I feel I might snap at any moment –’ ‘So. I want you to lie down on the floor. Do it now. Take the phone down there with you. Now, close your eyes.’ Zak was staring at the water. A punt with three young men in straw boaters was drifting down the centre of the river. ‘Now, I want you to picture somewhere special. Somewhere you love very much. Somewhere you feel secure.’ His voice was low and caressing. ‘It’s not going to work!’ There was real distress in her voice. ‘Oh, Zak! That was the one exercise I could do – the one I really enjoyed. I can’t even do that one!’ He could hear her panic; her sense of bereavement. ‘Well, the exercise you need is the one that works for you. So, we have to find out why it’s not working now, and start you off again. One of them will work, Clare.’ Suddenly he relented. ‘Look, where are you? I have to go to London tomorrow for a few days – if you can meet me there, maybe?’ ‘Tomorrow?’ Clare hesitated. ‘I’m supposed to go home tomorrow. No, I’ll be here, Zak. I can’t face driving home with Paul tonight anyway, not after what has happened between us. Come here, to the house. I’ll be alone.’ ‘OK, Clare. I’ll see you about three. And meanwhile keep relaxed, and keep practising the technique you find you’re comfortable with. It’ll work. Don’t try and force it. Just take it nice and slow and steady.’ Putting the receiver down he took a deep breath. ‘Don’t say it, Kenny,’ he said through clenched teeth. ‘Just don’t say it!’ Thoughtfully Clare looked down at the phone. She took the receiver off again and laid it gently on the table, listening for a moment to its quiet purr, then she ran downstairs to the front door. She locked it from the inside and set the chain, then slowly she walked upstairs once more. Zak’s calm voice had reassured her, had stilled the urgent jangling of her nerves. She would try again, as he suggested, and if it didn’t work at once, she would go on trying. There was no hurry. She had all evening. But somehow she had to find a way of getting back into Isobel’s world. There she could forget her own. She lit the candle and stood looking down at it for a while, breathing slowly and rhythmically, then slowly she raised her arms. She closed her eyes and sank down to the floor. ‘Be there,’ she murmured out loud as she began to build again her laborious picture of the empty moors. ‘Please, be there for me …’ Isobel was on horseback, a bundle of clothes tied behind her on the wooden saddle, a cloak around her shoulders. A heavy fur-lined hood bounced behind her on her back and her hair was loose, streaming in the wind as she bumped up and down to her horse’s trot. She was alone. She glanced behind her apprehensively, but the castle, silhouetted blackly against the blaze of the sunrise, was quiet. She had not been missed yet. Her heart gave a little lurch of excitement as she kicked the animal into a canter. It was a year since Robert had left Duncairn and still she was unmarried. Martinmas had come and gone and Lord Buchan was too busy to arrange his marriage. He was constantly absent from the castle. One of the most influential men in the land, he was helping to direct the nation’s affairs, helping to balance the delicate political manoeuvres needed to keep Scotland an independent nation, free from English domination. Having been asked to choose Scotland’s king from amongst the several claimants to the throne, after the direct royal line had failed with the death of Scotland’s little Queen Margaret far away in Norway, seven years before, Edward of England was not inclined to retire now from Scottish politics. His aim was to be overlord of Scotland if not king himself. The nation was in deadly danger. In March Berwick was captured and sacked and then the Scots had been defeated at Dunbar. Lord Buchan had not returned to his northern lands. Isobel, with everyone in the Countess of Buchan’s household, heard the news from the south and waited anxiously to see what would happen next, but her anxiety had a very personal twist to it. She did not want the Earl of Buchan to come back at all, unless, perhaps, he had had second thoughts and still thought his betrothed too young for marriage. Nothing was said and Isobel prayed that the affair was forgotten. Then to her horror she found that it had merely been postponed while lawyers wrangled. Once again, she now knew, the date for the wedding had been set. So now she was having to carry out her plan. Robert’s departure the year before had left Isobel very thoughtful. If he would not help her, no one would. She was alone. Alone in every sense but the true one, for not for a moment was she allowed out of sight of one of Lady Buchan’s attendants; on every side there were eyes watching her. They could watch, but they couldn’t read her thoughts. Her vague childish optimism that the earl would forget about her was gone, so every waking second of her day was filled with plans of escape. She was cautious now, and outwardly docile, but inwardly she was defiant. She would not marry the Earl of Buchan. She still hugged the thought of Robert to her secretly. His words had shaken her but, unknowingly, he had offered her a challenge. It was one she could not resist, and the reward for success was freedom. He was married now to another and he could never marry her, but he loved her. He had kissed her, and that kiss, she knew instinctively, had sealed a bond between them which had to be redeemed. And to redeem it she had to leave Duncairn. She did not doubt she would succeed; there was no possibility of failure. Carefully she laid her plans. Calmly practical she had rejected the romantic notion of climbing the castle walls. She had to go out through the gates, but invisibly, covering her tracks, so that no one would miss her and no one see her go. That meant at night. The horses had been easy. She bribed Hugh, the handsome son of the farrier, to take one of Lady Buchan’s palfreys from the stables under the west wall and leave it overnight in the stall next to the forge. Reluctantly she decided against her own showy spirited grey pony, and selected instead a sturdy bay, a horse which would excite no attention on the road. Hugh knew what he had to do. The bundle of clothes was easy too. She gathered them together over two days, stuffing each garment down behind a coffer in a corner of the dark sleeping chamber. It was the actual leaving of the curtained bed she shared with Mairi and Alice, one of Lady Buchan’s grand-daughters, which would be very hard. She tried getting up before dawn to see what would happen. Grumpily Mairi turned her head on the pillows. ‘Where are you going, my lady?’ The woman’s eyes were still puffy with sleep. ‘Where do you think!’ Isobel slid out of the high bed. In the privy she waited, counting slowly to see if Mairi would get up to see where she was or go back to sleep. Mairi got up. The second idea was more daring. She announced she had decided to go to keep a dawn vigil in the chapel to pray for the soul of her dead father. Grumbling furiously Mairi accompanied her there too and Isobel was forced to kneel on the cold stone for an hour, her eyes fixed on the statue of the Virgin before she would admit that she could stand it no longer and creep back to the warmth of the bed. In the end the solution had presented itself. Mairi was so tired after her disturbed nights that she nodded off once or twice in the course of the day. Isobel noticed, and waited, and managed to whisper to Hugh. That night she was deliberately restless, kicking her companions, tossing and turning, determined to keep them awake as long as possible so their exhaustion would make them sleep through her exit from the bed, though, she had to acknowledge, she could not have kept still if she had tried. Keyed up beyond endurance as she was with the thought that Hugh would be waiting at dawn, she was terrified that she would fall asleep herself and miss her assignation with him. As the first lark soared upwards into the black sky Isobel lay completely still at last and held her breath. Beside her Mairi groaned and, punching the soft pillows, turned on her side. Within a few minutes her breathing had steadied and she was deeply asleep. On the other side of her Alice muttered incoherently and let out a gentle snore. Isobel breathed a little prayer and wriggling towards the foot of the bed pushed her way out between the heavy curtains. The spiral stair outside the door was pitch dark, the light in the sconce long since burned out. Holding her breath she listened; then she pulled her kirtle on over her head and wrapped herself up in her cloak. Barefoot she began to feel her way down the steep stairs, her hand pressed against the cold curving wall. In the silence of the pre-dawn she could hear everywhere the sigh and shift of the sea below the castle walls. It was almost high tide. The great hall was full of sleeping figures, men lying on the rushes, wrapped in cloaks or plaids; the air was fetid. Wrinkling her nose she crept along the wall towards the door and using every ounce of strength to lift the latch and pull it open she slipped through. Beside it the door ward, an empty ale tankard beside him on the floor, sprawled against the wall. He never heard the latch lift, nor saw the slim dark figure slip out of sight amongst the shadows. The cold morning air was sweet and intoxicating. Waiting only to pull on her shoes and take a firmer grip on her bundle, Isobel ran down into the outer bailey, praying Hugh had remembered. He was waiting at the postern with the horse, the keys in his hand. When she had gone he would relock it, slip the keys back into the gatehouse, and crawl back to his pallet at his father’s side. Isobel was exultant. She had not dreamed it would be so easy. Staring up into the brilliant blue of the sky she felt her heart soar up with the lark. She would show Lady Buchan and her son! And Robert! Other women might meekly marry and submit to their fate, but not she! She felt the wind lift her hair and, dropping the reins, she flung out her arms towards the sky. She was free! She rode all day without seeing anyone, carefully avoiding the wider tracks, keeping to the deer paths through the heather, always alert for the movement of horses or the alarm calls of the buzzards which would tell her she was not alone. Two days’ ride, she had heard, that was all; two days with her back to the rising sun and her nose to the land where it sets, then she would reach the territory of the Gordons, the sworn enemies of Lord Buchan. As night came near she grew less certain. She was desperately hungry, and she was cold. A heavy dew was falling as she stopped at last in a small glen with a burn running through it. It seemed a safe enough place, with shelter and grazing, but as the shadows lengthened and the soft darkness deepened around her, she felt for the first time a shiver of fear. Tethering the horse, she lifted down the heavy saddle with difficulty and, wrapping herself in her cloak, she settled herself to sleep. It was impossible. Her mind was racing in circles: pictures of her life in the Buchan castles, at Duncairn and Slains, Kinedar, Ellon and Rattray and the others flashed before her eyes, and with them visions of the countess, the earl, their household – and Robert. Again and again the face of the handsome young earl appeared before her. She scowled, shifting her weight as she leaned against the saddle, feeling the damp from the ground working its way into her clothes. Somewhere nearby an owl hooted and she shivered at the sound. If only Mairi could have come with her. She prayed silently that Mairi wouldn’t get into trouble for letting her escape. She loved Mairi, who had looked after her since she was a baby, going with her when, at the age of four after her father was brutally murdered, the Countess of Fife had sent her to the Buchans. Joanne de Clare, distraught and preoccupied after the death of her husband and the traumatic early birth of her son, had not had the strength to stand out against the earl’s demands that she send Isobel to be brought up by his mother. The owl hooted again and seconds later Isobel heard the agonised scream of a small animal dying in the heather. She was frozen and aching in every limb by dawn; sleep had come in the end, but only in short fits and starts, interrupted by every night sound. She had been reassured by the steady single-minded grazing of the horse and its relaxed dozing – it sensed nothing to fear – but her senses were over-stretched and exhaustion had made her too tired to sleep deeply. By dawn she was again in the saddle, her back resolutely to the crimson blaze of the sunrise in the sky behind her. Lady Gordon was completely confused by the arrival of her young visitor. The dishevelled clothes, the dusty, exhausted horse, the absence of escort or anything to prove her identity beyond the haughty demeanour and Isobel’s insistence that she be received at once by the lady herself were all most perplexing. ‘But who are you?’ Lady Gordon stared at her visitor in astonishment. ‘I am Isobel of Fife; the earl is my brother,’ Isobel smiled demurely, only half aware that she looked more like a peasant than a lady, with her peat-stained face and hands. ‘I have been held prisoner at Duncairn Castle. Lord Buchan wants to force me into marriage. I knew you would help me.’ She was thoroughly enjoying herself now, her hunger and exhaustion temporarily forgotten, as she became conscious of the circle of men and women behind her, listening open mouthed to her dramatic appeal. She held her breath, her eyes pleading, as Lady Gordon stood up. The reference to the Earl of Buchan had evidently struck a chord with her. Her pale cheeks had coloured violently. ‘Nothing would surprise me about that man! You poor child. What a terrible thing! Of course we will help you!’ Isobel sighed with relief. She was safe. Within an hour she had been fed and wrapped in warm blankets and put into a bed. Only minutes later, hugging herself with excitement, she was fast asleep. It was two days before she discovered her mistake. Running upstairs to join her hostess who was spinning in the comparative comfort of the solar as the soft rain fell outside, Isobel, pausing outside the door to grope for the handle, heard a male voice. It was full of excitement. Almost without realising it, she stopped to listen. ‘My God, mother! Do you realise what a strong hand it gives us? That child was no prisoner! She is Buchan’s betrothed. She has been lined up to be his bride practically since she was born. And we have her! It gives us the key, don’t you see? If we hold her he’ll have to agree to our demands over our boundaries and give us back our lands. All we have to do is say he must agree or he won’t see her again! She’ll have an accident of some sort, and disappear!’ On the landing, Isobel closed her eyes. In the solar, Lady Gordon stood up, agitated. ‘How could you be so stupid, my son! He would never allow himself to be blackmailed! He’ll come and take her by force, killing every man, woman and child here and burning our roof over our heads while he’s at it.’ Isobel could hear the sound of her skirts catching on the dusty heather strewn on the floor as she paced back and forth. ‘Dear God, I wish Patrick were here. He would know what to do! We cannot defy Lord Buchan, we cannot!’ ‘You were prepared to hide the girl.’ ‘That was because I believed her. I thought she was being held against her will.’ There was a laugh. ‘She probably was. She probably has a lad somewhere she would rather marry. She’ll learn.’ He sounded cynical. ‘When she’s a countess.’ Isobel waited to hear no more. Cold with horror, she turned and fled down the long staircase. The servants had been given no orders about her, and the surly ostler was leading out her palfrey in response to her imperious demands when from the gatehouse they heard the sound of the watchman’s horn. She froze as the heavy gate opened, staring at the white mist of rain beyond it, her mouth dry with fear, and hope died as she saw the band of horses milling around the gate. More than half of them wore the livery of the Earl of Buchan. Sir Patrick Gordon looked her up and down as he dismounted from his horse. ‘So, the rumour is true.’ He turned to the grim-faced man who waited, still mounted, at his side. It was Sir Donald Comyn, steward to the household of the Countess of Buchan. ‘It appears, sir, that the Lady Isobel is indeed our guest, but not, I think, an unwilling one.’ He glanced at the doorway behind her where his son had appeared. ‘We have resolved our differences with Lord Buchan,’ he said curtly. ‘The matter has been settled. And now I am glad to see that we can give his lordship earnest of our good intentions by returning to him his lady. There was a rumour at Scone that she had been kidnapped. I knew that could not be the case. I am glad to see that she found a friendly roof to shelter her until Lord Buchan’s men could come for her.’ Behind her in the doorway Isobel heard the sharp hiss of breath as the younger Gordon turned towards his father. The young man glanced at her, and for a moment Isobel was terrified he was going to tell them her story. He looked at her thoughtfully and she saw his eyes soften. Whatever he had been prepared to do to her to get his own way, he was not going to betray her now. ‘I understand Lady Isobel was lost on the moors whilst flying her hawk,’ he said slowly. ‘It was lucky she found her way here. Because of the mist we had not yet managed to dispatch a message to Duncairn to say that she was safe.’ Isobel saw the naked relief in Sir Patrick’s eyes. Turning to his son she gave him a grateful smile, then slowly she began to descend the stairs towards the horsemen. ‘I have summoned my son from the south.’ Lady Buchan was standing by the table sorting through a pile of bright silks as Sir Donald ushered Isobel into the solar. ‘He shall know of your escapade in person.’ Isobel raised her chin a fraction. ‘I got lost on the moors. The Gordons were most hospitable and kind.’ She turned to Sir Donald in mute appeal. He nodded. ‘I gather the little lady was out with her bird,’ he said. ‘She became confused in the mist. She was lucky to have found shelter.’ ‘Rubbish.’ Lady Buchan swept the silks together into an untidy heap and turned her back on them. ‘You do not have to leave the castle alone at dawn in order to go hawking. Were you running away, my lady? Trying once more to avoid marriage with my son? He does not meet your requirements, I gather.’ There was no humour in the cold eyes. Isobel clenched her fists. She held Lady Buchan’s gaze as firmly as she could. There would be another beating, but the pain would soon be over and then there would be another chance to escape. ‘I do not wish to marry anyone, my lady,’ she said. Lady Buchan gave a harsh laugh. She glanced at her steward then back at Isobel. ‘Indeed. So you intend to enter a convent?’ ‘No! Yes …’ For a moment Isobel looked away from her, confused. ‘There is no other use for a woman. Either she belongs to God or she belongs to a man.’ Lady Buchan walked thoughtfully towards her accustomed seat and sat stiffly down. ‘If I thought God had called you to his service, Isobel, neither I nor my son would dispute the right of the church to take you. But you have no such calling. You are destined for a man. Your father and he settled it many years ago, and the king has agreed.’ She gave Isobel a cold smile. ‘You belong to my son.’ ‘I shall belong to your son at Michaelmas, my lady. Until then I belong to no one but myself.’ To Isobel’s surprise her voice sounded determined, even defiant. Lady Buchan smiled. ‘A Michaelmas wedding would have been very pleasant,’ she said quietly. ‘As it is, I think a summer wedding would be even better.’ Isobel’s eyes widened. ‘What do you mean?’ ‘Why do you think my son is returning? To reprimand you again? To punish you? I can do that without his presence. He is returning so that the marriage can be brought forward. There is no need for delay, and once you are his wife you will have no further opportunity for these rash sorties into the hills.’ She smiled coldly. ‘I understand that the bishop of St Andrews will be accompanying him to perform the ceremony.’ ‘No!’ Isobel stared at her, terrified. ‘No, he can’t do it so soon, he can’t –!’ ‘He can and he will.’ There was no pity in Elizabeth’s eyes as she looked at her future daughter-in-law’s face. There was a guard on her door. For three days they had kept her a prisoner at the top of the keep, alone but for one of Lady Buchan’s waiting women, who sniffed and moaned and sat huddled and unmoving over the empty hearth. Even her friend, Alice, had been forbidden to come near her. Isobel was standing at the eastern window. It was unshuttered, looking directly out to sea, and the cold wind was funnelling through the deep embrasure into her face, making her eyes run, but she did not move. It seemed terribly important to watch the shifting grey slopes of the water as the night fell, with the white specks which were the gulls, wings folded, seemingly asleep on the heaving ever-changing mass. The room was full of the sound of the waves. She pulled her cloak more tightly round her and shivered. The door opened, and she turned, her face setting automatically into an expression of stubborn wariness. The Countess of Buchan stood in the doorway for a moment, fighting for breath after the long climb, one hand braced on the doorpost, the other still gathering up the folds of her heavy dark red skirt after ascending the stairs. ‘My son and the bishop have arrived,’ she announced as soon as she could speak. ‘The chapel is being made ready for the nuptial mass. My ladies will dress you now.’ Behind her three figures had appeared carrying armfuls of clothing. For one wild moment Isobel thought of escape as the women laid the heap of bright fabrics on the bed, but there was nowhere she could go; nothing she could do, save submit with every ounce of dignity she possessed as they gathered around her, chattering happily amongst themselves, to pull off her everyday woollen gown and replace it with shift and gown and kirtle of silk and velvet in crimson and azure and gold whilst Elizabeth watched, her face curiously abstracted. The chapel was lit by a hundred candles, and crowded. Isobel gasped. She stopped in her tracks, conscious of the three women closing around her, realising that she could not breathe, again feeling the tight panic closing over her as Elizabeth took her arm. ‘My son is waiting for you,’ the countess whispered. Isobel could feel her heat beating unsteadily beneath her ribs; her mouth had gone dry and she felt very sick. ‘No.’ She whispered desperately, ‘Please, no.’ The fingers on her elbow tightened. ‘He is waiting,’ Elizabeth repeated. The Earl of Buchan, his constable, Sir Donald, the chamberlain, and the bishop of St Andrews, followed closely by the castle chaplain, were standing now near the door to the chapel. John stepped forward and took her hand. ‘The time has come sooner than expected, it seems, for us to exchange our vows, my lady.’ He looked at her impatiently. She felt the bishop’s eyes on her, and she looked up at him, half hoping that he would see the monstrousness of the act he was about to perform and refuse; but the stern unsmiling gaze swept over her almost without interest and lighted on the countess at her side. The bishop gave a slight bow, then he turned back to the earl. Isobel gritted her teeth, her hand cold in that of her betrothed. She was determined he would not feel her tremble. The vows took only a few minutes to exchange. She thought of remaining stubbornly silent, refusing to say a word, but she knew it was no use. They would find a way of making her swear or they would ignore her altogether. She was there at the earl’s side before the bishop. That was enough. Together she and Lord Buchan made the short walk to the altar to hear the hasty mass. Then it was done. When she rose from the faldstool it was as the new Countess of Buchan. Elizabeth, standing so tight-lipped behind them, was relegated finally to the position of dowager. There had been no bridal attendants, no flowers for her hair, no lucky charms to bless her with, and now there was to be no celebration banquet. He took her straight to the bedchamber in the high keep and dragged the door closed behind them. ‘So, to bed with my new wife.’ Up until now he had not even looked at her. Now he turned and glanced at her face. It had lost its customary defiance. The expression he saw there was full of fear. He frowned. ‘Shall we call the bishop to bless the bed with holy water? It might be fitting to double-bless this union, unwilling as it seems to be.’ Slowly he lifted his heavy mantle from his shoulders and threw it down on a stool. Beneath it he wore a long tunic, fastened by an ornate girdle. ‘Our union will never be blessed, my lord.’ Isobel stepped back from him, feeling the solid oak of the door behind her. ‘You have married me under duress. You know I have no wish to be your wife.’ ‘I think few women go happily to their husbands, if the truth were known,’ John said slowly. ‘But in the end they get on well enough. It is not so bad to be Countess of Buchan, is it?’ He made no attempt to touch her. Turning away he walked to a side table and poured himself some wine. Her face had shaken him. He had always thought her a child, playing with his niece to whom she was so close in age; so alive, so vibrant, so happy. Beneath her silken veil her pinched, unhappy face was transparent with emotion. He could see the fear and doubt and defiance chasing each other through her eyes. She was like a little trapped bird, pressed there against the door of his room. He gave a deep sigh. She looked very young and vulnerable. Too young. His tastes were for more mature women. Yet he had to bed her, and at once, then he could get back to more important matters, like the war with England in the south. He downed the wine and set the goblet with a bang on the carved wood of the side table, then he turned to face her. ‘You look cold, my dear. Why don’t you take off that gown and climb into bed. Let me bring you some wine.’ ‘No.’ Her voice was tight with fear. John sighed again. ‘Isobel. You know what must be done. Come.’ He held out his hand. Stubbornly she shook her head. He caught her arm, exasperated. ‘I shan’t be a cruel husband, Isobel. If you obey me, we shall be content together. Come.’ As he pulled her towards him his hand strayed to her face. ‘You aren’t a child any longer, sweetheart. There is strength here, and beauty. I’m a lucky man.’ Leaning down towards her he kissed her on the forehead. Isobel stiffened, and with a little cry, stepped back, but he tightened his grip on her. ‘You mustn’t be shy with me. Come, show me a proper kiss. I am assured you know how.’ He was beginning to grow impatient. His moment of concern had passed. He was remembering his mother’s warnings; her insistence that Isobel had a lover somewhere out in the hills, her reiteration that the girl had bad blood and that she was a devil’s tease, sent to tempt men from their wives. Her skin was soft and yielding beneath his fingers. At last he was beginning to desire her. He released her abruptly and turned back to the wine. ‘Drink.’ He handed her the goblet. ‘Now. Every drop.’ He put his hands on her shoulders as she raised the goblet to her mouth. The rough Gascony wine was warm against the cold metal beneath her lips. She sipped it, then obediently sipped again, feeling the warmth travelling through her veins. ‘And again.’ He fetched the jug and filled her goblet anew, watching as she drank it. She felt a wave of nausea and protested, and he pushed it to her lips again. Her head was beginning to swim, and the room spun around her, but still he forced the wine down her. Then he took the cup from her fingers. She felt him lift her off her feet and lay her on the bed, and she thought she raised her hands to defend herself. But nothing seemed to happen. The room was growing dark. The branch of candles on the table was dripping wax on to the embroidered cloth in the cool breeze which was blowing in from the sea. Outside, the long summer evening was drawing to a close as bats flitted past the high narrow windows. In the room there was a deep silence, broken only by the sound of the earl’s heavy breathing as he held his young wife down and began to remove her clothes. 5 (#ulink_b2b770b4-a459-54be-bbe9-db1865313f53) Clare sat completely still. She was numb from head to foot. Disorientated, she stared around her, then she heard it again. Someone was ringing the doorbell. Beyond the curtains it was dark now. In the shadowy bedroom the only light came from the flickering candle. She was shivering violently. Emma was standing on the doorstep. ‘I was just going,’ she said as Clare opened the door. ‘I thought you must have forgotten and gone out.’ She was a tall, striking young woman with glossy chestnut hair and the dark Royland eyes. Beneath her coat she wore a pale blue silk shirt and skirt. ‘Are you all right?’ She peered at Clare suddenly. ‘You look frightful. Is anything wrong?’ Clare laughed uncomfortably. ‘I’m sorry, Emma. I forgot you were coming this evening.’ She stepped back to allow her visitor inside. ‘I don’t even know what the time is.’ ‘After seven. What have you been up to? You weren’t asleep?’ Clare hesitated, then impulsively she clutched at Emma’s arm. ‘I’ve got to tell someone. It was awful – so … so real.’ Suddenly she buried her face in her hands. ‘Clare?’ Emma stared at her in horror. ‘Come on, what’s the matter? Is it Paul? What has that bloody brother of mine been doing now?’ Wordlessly Clare shook her head. ‘Then what?’ Emma’s voice was gentle. ‘Come on, Clare. You must tell me. Is it – is it about those tests you and Paul went for?’ Slowly Clare raised her face from her hands. She sat down limply in the Victorian chair near the fireplace. ‘Oh that!’ Could she really have forgotten that? ‘The results have come back, I can’t have children.’ ‘Oh, Clare.’ Helplessly Emma stared at her. ‘I’m so sorry.’ She didn’t know what else to say. ‘I was so sure there was nothing wrong.’ Clare stared straight ahead of her at the pattern on the rug near her feet. ‘It’s strange, but I thought I would know if it were me; know in some subconscious part of myself. But I didn’t. I can’t come to terms with it yet.’ ‘Are you going to think about adoption?’ Emma asked cautiously. Clare shrugged. ‘I don’t know what we’re going to do. Paul was foul about it.’ ‘The bastard!’ Emma threw herself down on the sofa opposite her. ‘He has got to be the most insensitive, unfeeling, boorish man I’ve ever met!’ In spite of herself Clare smiled. ‘So much for sisterly love.’ ‘You know there’s not much of that lost between Paul and me. We’ve always hated each other.’ Emma grinned. ‘I never could see what you saw in him. But you know that.’ Clare smiled. ‘Oh, he has his moments.’ She hesitated, then she frowned. ‘But he has changed lately. He seems to have a lot on his mind and it’s not just the baby business. At least, I don’t think so. He seems to have got some sort of an obsession about money at the moment, almost as if he’s worried –’ she stopped abruptly, shaking her head. ‘Maybe there are problems of some sort at the bank. He never talks about what goes on there.’ She sighed, leaning back in the chair. ‘I’ve been trying to think of ways of taking my mind off everything. And I think I’ve found one. It’s not a permanent solution but it’s a sort of temporary counter-irritant. Inflicting one kind of pain to distract oneself from another worse one. That is what I was doing when you rang the doorbell.’ Emma frowned. ‘I take it that this is something to do with the yoga I’ve been hearing about.’ ‘Who on earth told you about that?’ Clare stood up restlessly. ‘But, yes, it’s to do with that. Meditation. It’s the most incredible experience, Em. It’s exciting, frightening sometimes – mind-bending. One empties one’s mind and concentrates, in my case on Duncairn, and after a bit all these images start to appear: people, places from long ago. It is an amazing way of escaping reality!’ She grinned suddenly. ‘It’s as if I were conjuring up the spirits of the dead!’ Emma stared at her, her eyes wide. ‘You’re not serious! What happens?’ ‘First I do some yoga to put me in the right frame of mind, then I have a little ritual with a lighted candle that Zak – that’s the man who has been teaching me the technique – taught me. It is a way of opening the doors to some sort of altered state of consciousness. I’m going to buy some incense while I’m up in London – that helps, too, apparently. It’s great fun. Then I begin to meditate, and it all starts to happen – scenes from the past, with real people who talk and move and seem as solid as you or me, and it’s so vivid I feel as if I were there. It is as if, if you had been here, you would have seen them too – seen every thing that happened.’ ‘It sounds incredible! You’re loopy, Clare! You do know that?’ Emma grinned fondly. Clare smiled. ‘I know, it’s frightfully shocking isn’t it? I dread to think what Paul would say if he knew.’ Emma raised an eyebrow. ‘What makes you think he doesn’t?’ She grimaced. ‘There’s no way he could. I’ve never told him. Oh, he knows about the yoga. He thinks that’s one of my typically crackpot schemes. The virtue of yoga is that lots of people do it, and it’s good for the figure.’ ‘Even I’ve done yoga,’ Emma said thoughtfully. ‘Well, there you are then. It must be all right.’ Clare smiled at her teasingly. She was beginning to feel better. ‘What you’re doing frightens you, though, doesn’t it?’ Emma was not to be distracted. ‘You were in quite a state when you opened the door earlier.’ ‘Was I?’ Clare looked surprised. ‘The doorbell startled me, that’s all. Although’ – she hesitated – ‘it was rather horrible.’ ‘What was?’ ‘Nothing.’ Clare shook her head. ‘Come on. You were about to tell me, and whatever it was it has nothing to do with you and Paul not being able to have children. It was to do with the meditation – if that’s what it is.’ Emma stood up and rummaged in the sideboard for Paul’s malt whisky. ‘You don’t think you really are conjuring up spirits, do you? Like a medium. Or making ghosts appear or something?’ Her eyes were sparkling. ‘Will you try? While I’m here?’ She gave a mock shudder. ‘Here, for God’s sake let’s have a drink! I’ve gone all shivery!’ Clare laughed. ‘From ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggedy beasties, good Lord deliver us! Oh, I’m glad you came, Em. I would have spent the evening in that other world otherwise and it’s much more fun with you. Isobel – that’s the girl whom I seem to see most – well, her life is not quite as fun to watch as it was. In fact I think it may be strictly for when this one is too awful to contemplate.’ Her face sobered for a moment as she remembered the dark, echoing chamber high in the keep at Duncairn, full of the sound of the sea. She pushed the picture away firmly. The only merit in the scene she had been witnessing was that Paul had not been able to follow her there too. ‘Come on. Give me ten minutes to change and we’ll go out. I have a feeling Paul has gone back to Bucksters without me – he doesn’t want to miss the party tomorrow.’ She stopped suddenly. ‘Are you and Peter going?’ ‘To David and Gillian’s?’ Emma shook her head. ‘No fear. We’re going to the theatre. Clare, seriously –’ ‘No, Em. I don’t want to talk about it any more. Let’s go out. Please.’ She collected the two glasses and put them down on the sideboard, then she turned back to Emma. ‘You won’t say anything about any of this to Paul, will you.’ ‘Of course not. What do you take me for?’ Clare smiled. ‘A friend. Otherwise I wouldn’t have told you anything.’ Emma grinned back at her. ‘I’m the soul of discretion. You can count on me. You know that.’ The Reverend Geoffrey Royland sat back comfortably at the breakfast table and opened his copy of The Times. At the table with him, his wife, Chloe and their two teenage children, Piers and Ruth, were immersed in the post. The large untidy kitchen, the only modernised room in the sprawling Edwardian rectory, smelled comfortably of coffee. When the doorbell rang no one moved. ‘Your turn, Piers.’ Ruth did not raise her eyes from the multi-paged letter in which she was engrossed. ‘It’s bound to be for Dad.’ Piers, two years younger than his sixteen-year-old sister, and already a head taller, was flipping through the latest issue of Combat. ‘Even so, it’s your turn, Piers.’ His mother, with an exasperated glance at her husband who appeared to have heard none of the exchange, tried to sound firm. ‘Come on, love. It’s time we all moved. I know it’s Saturday, but that’s no excuse, and Dad’s got a wedding this afternoon.’ Grumbling, Piers climbed to his feet. Clutching his magazine he headed for the hall. Moments later they heard the creak as the heavy front door with its insets of vivid stained glass swung open. ‘It’s Em,’ Piers shouted over his shoulder, then he was gone, two at a time, up the stairs to his bedroom, leaving their guest to find her own way to the kitchen. Geoffrey, the middle Royland brother, stood up as he saw his sister. ‘What brings you out so early?’ He dropped a kiss on her cheek. ‘Coffee, Emma?’ Chloe slid an extra cup off the sideboard with a surreptitious glance at her sister-in-law. Emma looked tired, and there were dark rings under her eyes. Her normally cheerful face was very sober. ‘Please.’ Emma took Piers’s chair. There was a moment’s silence. ‘Is something wrong, Emma?’ Chloe put the cup down in front of her. ‘I don’t know. I wanted to talk to you, Geoff, about Pete and me.’ ‘Ooh, lovely. Gossip!’ Ruth put down her letter, her eyes shining, and pushed her elbows forward on the table amongst the dirty plates and cups. Geoffrey frowned. ‘That’s enough, Ruth.’ ‘It’s nothing very dramatic; I just feel I want someone to talk to.’ Emma smiled apologetically at Chloe. Geoffrey interrupted her with a gesture of his hand. ‘Why don’t you bring that coffee into my study. We’ll talk there. I know Chloe and Ruth will excuse us. They both have things to do.’ Ignoring the almost identical looks of anger and frustration on the faces of his wife and daughter, Geoffrey led the way out of the kitchen. His study was a ground-floor room, overlooking a quiet tree-lined street. Outside he could see Emma’s Golf parked beyond the gate. Gesturing her towards what his family referred to as the interrogation chair, a deep-buttoned shabby leather arm-chair opposite his desk, he lowered himself into his own place. ‘You and Peter have been having problems for a while, haven’t you?’ He glanced at her, concerned. ‘Is it that obvious?’ ‘Perhaps only to people who love you. Has something happened?’ She shrugged. ‘Nothing special, I suppose.’ She sat back in her chair and sighed. ‘It’s just, well, he’s never there. I went out last night with Clare because I was all on my own again. Then when I got home the house was so – so empty!’ Geoffrey sighed. ‘Poor Em. But from what I hear he won’t change his job. Wheeling and dealing in the Far East is his whole life. Can’t you and Julia go with him sometimes?’ She raised her hands helplessly. ‘If I give up the gallery, I can.’ ‘Ah.’ Geoffrey looked at her thoughtfully. ‘And you don’t want to do that.’ ‘No I bloody well don’t! It’s not even as though Pete is away at the moment. He came back later from his beastly meeting and of course we had a row! The trouble is we never go out, Geoff! Even when he is home. It’s all work, work, work!’ She smiled ruefully. ‘I’m sorry. I don’t know why I came to dump all this in your lap. I suppose it was talking to Clare last night. It made me realise how important it is to have something else if your marriage falls apart.’ Geoffrey raised his eyebrows. ‘Oh dear. Don’t tell me that is what is happening to Clare and Paul too?’ ‘They’ve found out it is she who can’t have a baby.’ ‘Poor Clare. I know how heartbroken she must be, but surely that is not going to destroy their marriage?’ ‘It’s helping. She’s discovering fast just how rotten Paul can be.’ Emma shook her head sadly. ‘She has got nothing now. No job. No children. And probably no husband. Poor Clare. All she is left with are her daydreams and her visiting spirits!’ ‘Her what?’ Geoffrey looked startled. ‘Oh lord! I’m not supposed to tell anyone.’ Emma put her hand to her mouth. ‘Well, not Paul, anyway. She’s doing some kind of weird meditation and conjuring up the spirits of the dead.’ She paused, then, seeing her brother’s face, she was unable to resist dramatising her statement. ‘With candles and incantations and incense and spells!’ Geoffrey was looking at her closely, unable for a moment to decide whether or not she was joking. It took only a moment to convince him that, in spite of the dramatic whisper, she was not. Uneasily he rubbed his hands together. ‘I think you’d better tell me all about it,’ he said after a moment. ‘How did she start all this?’ ‘She met someone who had been teaching her yoga. It’s all right, Geoff. There is nothing strange about that, at least I don’t think so. Mind you he does sound a bit weird, and I suppose she is exactly the kind of target some of these freaky sinister people look for to exploit.’ ‘And you think this man is freaky and sinister?’ Emma shook her head and shrugged. ‘I’ve never seen him, but she seems to think he’s all right. She met him at a party. He’s Californian.’ ‘It follows,’ Geoffrey said dryly. ‘And he’s gay, so he’s not after her body, only her mind.’ She laughed. ‘Or her soul.’ There was a pause. Emma eyed her brother uneasily. ‘Don’t take it too seriously, Geoff. Meditation is very trendy still, you know.’ ‘Indeed. And so are all kinds of unfortunate cults. You don’t think Paul knows anything about this?’ She shook her head violently. ‘And he mustn’t. She doesn’t need any more hassle from Paul, she really doesn’t.’ ‘It isn’t just a question of hassle, Emma. This could be serious. If you are correct, then Clare could be playing with fire. So many people get involved with these things without realising how dangerous they are.’ Geoffrey stood up and walked across the room. Absentmindedly he picked up his pipe from an ashtray and tapped it against the white plaster moulding of the mantelpiece. ‘I really ought to talk to her,’ he went on after a long pause. Emma watched him uneasily. ‘Geoffrey, I promised I wouldn’t mention it to anyone.’ ‘I’m glad you did, though.’ He polished the bowl of the pipe thoughtfully on the front of his sweater. ‘You and Clare get on well together, don’t you?’ ‘You know we do.’ ‘And you care about her?’ ‘Of course!’ He paused. ‘Are you sure it wasn’t this you came to tell me about, Emma? You are worried about her, aren’t you.’ ‘I’m worried about myself, Geoff. That is why I came.’ ‘Of course.’ He smiled. ‘And we must talk again. Don’t do anything too precipitous, Emma. Peter is a good man. I think you’ll work it out. I think you both still love one another. And as for Clare –’ He hesitated, frowning. ‘I really do feel I must do something for her. Unfortunately I have to go away next week, but in any case I must think about this very carefully, and …’ he hesitated with a quick glance at his sister, ‘I must pray.’ Emma snorted. ‘What else?’ she said. She grinned. ‘Will you pray for me as well? I need it.’ Then her face sobered. ‘Don’t say anything to her, Geoff, please. Whatever it is she’s doing, it matters to her. It is all she’s got at the moment.’ Geoffrey frowned. ‘That is the danger,’ he said. ‘That is exactly the danger. Poor Clare. I feel guilty that I hadn’t noticed that she was so unhappy. But we don’t see her and Paul that often, and when we do she always seems so self-contained. Chloe is very fond of her.’ ‘So am I. And I don’t want to see her hurt. Leave it alone, Geoff, please.’ ‘I can’t do that, Em. Not until I’ve found out what she really is doing. I have to, don’t you see? And something else. I think I should talk to Paul.’ ‘No!’ Emma jumped to her feet. ‘No, you mustn’t. Look, maybe it’s not as bad as I’ve made it sound –’ She stopped as she caught sight of the expression on Geoffrey’s face and she could feel herself blushing. ‘No, I haven’t lied. Don’t look at me like that, but maybe I exaggerated a bit –’ ‘Even if you have, Em, I think I should look into it as soon as I come back. I have to make sure she’s not doing something silly and I must make sure that Paul understands the strain she has been under.’ ‘Blast you, Geoff! Can’t I make you understand! Leave Paul out of it!’ She put her hands on the edge of the desk. ‘Don’t mention it to Paul. Don’t you know yet what a bastard our brother can be?’ ‘Oh, come on, Emma. That’s uncalled for.’ ‘Is it?’ Emma slumped back in her chair. ‘I sometimes think you don’t know him at all, Geoff. Not at all.’ ‘The idiot wouldn’t listen!’ Emma threw her car keys down on the kitchen table at home. Peter, deep in the weekend section of the Financial Times, did not respond. Emma clenched her fists. ‘Did you hear me, Peter?’ ‘What?’ Something in her tone got through to him. He half closed the paper, but only to turn the page; then it was reopened before him, separating them from one another as effectively as a brick wall. ‘I said, Geoffrey wouldn’t listen!’ Emma repeated, her voice tight. ‘About what?’ Behind the paper Peter was obviously still listening, but only just. He had cooled off considerably since their row the night before when he had arrived home after midnight exhausted from his meeting in the City. She had refused to believe that work could have gone on that late, and he had been short-tempered and irritable after an endless evening with a party of Japanese industrialists who had indeed talked nothing but business the entire night. ‘You know, Em, we should try and grow some of these pollution-resistant shrubs. It says here they are –’ He stopped abruptly as she swooped forward and plucked the newspaper out of his hands. ‘If you don’t shut up and listen, I am going to tear this into tiny little pieces and jump up and down on them!’ ‘Sorry.’ Peter gave an exaggerated sigh. ‘So, you’ve been over to the Pompous Pontiff for breakfast.’ In spite of herself, Emma giggled. ‘You must not call him that. Especially in front of Julia –’ ‘Julia is quite spectacularly not here –’ ‘I know that! She’s spending the day with Tamsin. Listen Peter, I told Geoff about Clare. I didn’t mean to, but it sort of slipped out, and now the idiot insists he’s got to tell Paul.’ ‘Of course he must. If the whole family is being told, why should Paul be the only one left out?’ ‘The whole family isn’t being told!’ ‘No?’ Peter looked at her coldly. ‘Geoffrey and Chloe, and no doubt those fearful children know. James knows. I know. No doubt David and Gillian know. If they don’t, someone will tell them at their party tonight.’ He shrugged. ‘Thank God we’re not going to be able to go to that. I can’t stand all that open air and rural gossip.’ ‘I would like to have gone.’ ‘Rubbish. You’d spend your entire time sending up those terribly boring people David and Gillian know. The soi-disant grande bourgeoisie of East Anglia who order their copies of The Times to drain their green wellies on to. I doubt if any of them have ever actually opened a copy in their lives.’ Gently he retrieved his paper from Emma’s hands. ‘So, don’t pretend to be sorry. I bet Clare’s not going.’ ‘Well, no.’ ‘Exactly. She’s got more sense. And, whatever she’s doing, Em, in future keep out of it.’ Paul had taken Casta for a walk across the fields. The grass was white with dew and a thick mist still clung amongst the trees; it was cold. Hands in pockets, he strode down the lane and up the edge of a field, watching with only half an eye as the dog ran back and forth, plumed tail wagging, flushing rabbits and partridge out of the hedgerow. He was still seething with anger. The drive back to Bucksters, always agonisingly slow on a Friday evening, the realisation that he should have brought Clare back for the party – David and Gillian would raise their eyebrows when he turned up without her – and the continuing nagging worry about the money, all had contributed towards a sleepless night and a king-size headache. He was well aware that he was being unfair to Clare, but he could no longer think about things rationally. He kicked at a stone which lay in his path. Across the fields a tractor was slowly pulling a plough parallel with the hedge away from him, a cloud of gulls following it, hovering excitedly as the dull dead stubble turned methodically into huge scoops of shining clay. She had to be persuaded to sell; it was imperative that she be made to see the sense of whatever offer was being made. He drew off his boots in the back porch and walked into the kitchen at Bucksters. Sarah Collins was rolling out some pastry at the table, her hands covered in flour. She glanced up as he walked in. ‘The post and papers have come, Mr Royland. They’re there, on the side.’ She smiled at him distractedly. ‘I’ll make you some coffee, shall I, as soon as this pie is in the oven?’ Paul’s answering nod was automatic as he picked up the two newspapers and the pile of letters before heading for the drawing room. One of the envelopes was addressed to Clare – typed, with an Edinburgh postmark. Thoughtfully he turned it over, then with sudden attention he ripped it open. He read the contents twice, carefully, standing with his back to the fire, then throwing the letter down on the low coffee table in front of the sofa he went to the french doors to stare across the garden. At last the mist was lifting and the sun was coming out. Slowly Paul smiled. ‘I sure like the house.’ Zak leaned back on the Victorian chair and stretched his long legs out before him. Clare smiled. ‘Thank you.’ She sat down opposite him. ‘I’m really glad you came.’ Her face was troubled. Zak gave her a quick appraising glance. ‘Did you speak to your doctor yet, about the results?’ She shook her head. ‘I tried ringing once or twice, then I realised I didn’t want to speak to him. I can’t face it. I just want to put everything out of my mind for a while. I want to know that when I close my eyes at night I can forget about Paul and babies and doctors and tests and just sink into peaceful sleep. Without nightmares. Perhaps I should take sleeping tablets, I don’t know.’ Zak shook his head slowly. ‘That’s not the answer, Clare, and you know it or you wouldn’t have rung me.’ He was studying her face. ‘I’ve been doing the yoga,’ she went on thoughtfully. ‘And that is good. I enjoy it and it makes me feel marvellous. At least it always has until yesterday. But the meditation exercises are different. They are all good for me, I suppose, when I can do them, but some of them are so boring.’ She glanced at him with a half smile. ‘All except the one – the visualisation one.’ He waited, his eyes not moving from her face. ‘It’s the one you told me to do yesterday. The one where I think myself into a special place; where I’m supposed to find myself at peace somewhere I’ve been happy.’ Her voice had dropped so low he had to strain to hear it. Once more there was a long silence; Zak waited easily, not pushing her. ‘I managed to do it again after I spoke to you, but I don’t think I’m doing it right. Suddenly there is no peace in the scenes I see.’ This time he sat up, straightening slowly in the chair, resting his wrists loosely on his knees. He frowned. ‘Tell me what you see.’ ‘Scenes. From the past. Very vivid and sometimes quite horrible.’ ‘Scenes?’ ‘Scenes; like a film. People come and go; they talk; they fight. They are real.’ She hesitated and then gave an apologetic smile. ‘I told my sister-in-law it was as if I was conjuring up the spirits of the dead.’ She shrugged painfully. ‘That is what it feels like, Zak.’ Zak shook his head slowly. ‘First lesson, Clare, never tell other people what you are doing. So few understand.’ He gave a wistful smile. ‘There may be a thousand books on meditation in the shops, and every newspaper and magazine may recommend it for everything from business stress to shop-lifting, but it still takes courage to admit you take it seriously. Yoga, yes; yoga serves the body beautiful. Meditation, no way.’ He was almost talking to himself. ‘I know a lot of people who won’t accept it or take it seriously. People who should know better.’ Clare caught the sadness of the tone and she remembered suddenly the athletic young man she had met at Zak’s side once in Cambridge. Rude health had oozed from him, but he had not been one who would cultivate the spiritual, that much had been obvious. ‘But is what I am doing right?’ Unobtrusively she brought his attention back to herself. ‘Is that what is supposed to happen?’ He pulled himself together visibly. ‘I’m sorry, Clare. Tell me some more of what happens. Or, better still, why don’t we meditate together? I can see how you prepare and what you do.’ She nodded, doubtfully. ‘I don’t suppose it will work in front of anyone else.’ ‘Work?’ He looked puzzled. ‘What’s to work? You mean I might distract you? If that is the case you are not putting your full concentration into it. Come on.’ He stood up. ‘Can we do it here? Are we likely to be interrupted?’ She glanced at the front window, remembering Henry. ‘I’ll draw the curtains and lock the door. I’m not expecting anyone.’ She looked down at herself uncertainly after she had closed the curtains. She was wearing grey slacks and a cotton sweater. ‘I know you said one should bathe and wear something loose –’ ‘And then relax body and mind with a session of yoga exercises.’ He nodded easily. ‘I guess we can skip that, OK? What you’re wearing is fine. Show me what you do next.’ She took a deep breath. ‘I’ll fetch a candle.’ The box of candles was upstairs in the bedroom at the back of a drawer. Extracting one, she kicked off her shoes and ran downstairs, barefoot. Zak was sitting cross-legged on her Persian rug. He too had removed his shoes. His hands rested on his knees; his eyes were closed. He opened them as Clare appeared. ‘OK,’ he said softly. ‘Do you always use a candle?’ She nodded. ‘It seems to help me concentrate.’ ‘Fine. That’s OK.’ He closed his eyes again. Clare set the candle down on the rug in front of him and lit it. Then she hesitated. She wasn’t sure where to sit – beside him or facing him. Suddenly she felt rather foolish. Zak spoke, his eyes still closed, his tone soft and preoccupied. ‘When you’re ready. Take your time. Do what you usually do. Whatever feels right. Take no notice of me. I’m not even here.’ The room was intensely silent. Even the noise of the traffic outside in the street seemed to die away. Slowly Clare sank to her knees and raised her arms before the candle, parting her hands as if opening a curtain, then gracefully she slipped into the cross-legged position and closed her eyes. Surreptitiously Zak opened his own. His relaxed posture did not change, but every sense was alert as he watched Clare’s face and he knew the moment she had slipped away, out of the quiet Campden Hill house, and into the past. In spite of the brilliant light of the sun, Elizabeth de Quincy, dowager Countess of Buchan, had ordered the lighting of a hundred candles. The hearth was empty. In the doorway the King of England stopped and looked around him. His followers crowded around him staring at the two women at the far end of the hall. Around the walls of the castle the household and the servants stood peering over each other’s shoulders in awe. Edward’s reputation was of a formidable and a vengeful man. Elizabeth, who had not yet departed for her dower lands, stood on the dais in the great hall, with her new daughter-in-law at her side as King Edward entered. It was a violently hot day. Outside the sea murmured against the cliffs; the birds were silent, roosting in the shade, or rocking gently on the sleeping waves. Behind him his followers filed into the courtyard and spilled out across the bridge to the meadow beyond the castle. He was tall, a good-looking man still, in his late fifties, his dark hair greying at the temples beneath the gold coronet he had elected to wear on his triumphant journey. Beneath the cream woollen mantle he was wearing a full suit of mail. He alone amongst his sweating followers looked as cool as an ice floe in the winter hills. By that midsummer of 1296 the Scottish armies were scattered and in defeat. King Edward was in the ascendant. Lord Buchan had come back briefly to Duncairn with Scotland’s elected king, John Balliol, his cousin and the Lord of Badenoch, and sat up all night grimly discussing policy with his cousins. He left with scarcely a word for Isobel. They had decided to beg for terms. The only policy possible at the moment was to be received into Edward’s peace. The King of England’s terms were harsh. At Brechin, King John of Scotland and his followers were told their fate. The kingdom of Scotland was forfeit and its most sacred treasures, including the Stone of Scone and the Black Rood of St Margaret, were removed to London. King John and his Comyn friends and relatives were to be sent south into England, the Earl of Buchan with them. Lord Buchan was luckier than his kingly cousin. He was not destined for the Tower. Instead he was merely required to remain south of the River Trent, beyond the sphere of Scottish politics. His new wife was not required to go with him. She had her own appointment with Edward of England. At Duncairn the news of John Balliol’s humiliation was greeted with horror by the dowager. At Montrose, his abdication of the kingdom had been followed by the ritual tearing off of the royal arms from his surcoat – an action which was to gain him throughout the land the nickname of Toom Tabard. He was then sent south, the prisoner of Thomas of Lancaster, whilst King Edward turned his attention north. Slowly and inexorably the royal train began touring the defeated land, stopping at every town and castle of note on the way to demand the abject homage of every important person left behind after his prisoners had been sent south. On 22 July he had at last arrived at Duncairn. ‘So.’ He did not appear to raise his voice, but it carried with ease across the hall to the dais. ‘This is one of the strongholds of Lord Buchan, who is at present our guest in England. I shall require the keys of this castle, and homage from its keeper.’ His eyes strayed from Elizabeth to Isobel. He gave a slight, humourless smile. ‘Lady Buchan? The keys if you please.’ The keys lay on the table, beside Elizabeth. Automatically she reached for the heavy ring. Then she drew back. ‘You are the countess now, child,’ she whispered hoarsely. Isobel froze. Her mouth had gone dry. To pay homage to the King of England for a single stone of Scotland was heaping insult on their already pitiful humiliation, but she dared not refuse. Slowly she picked up the keys. She stepped off the dais and began the slow walk down the hall, aware that every eye was on her. She held her head high, walking with slow dignity, her eyes fixed on the face of the king. Reaching him she dropped a deep curtsey and handed him the keys. He tossed them to the knight standing at his side. ‘So, you are Lord Buchan’s bride. My congratulations, madam. I am sorry to have had to deprive you of your husband so soon.’ His face was cold. ‘Our cousin, your mother, sends you greetings; and your brother who is in the household of our son.’ ‘Thank you, sire.’ She curtseyed again. She had seen her mother so seldom in the last few years she could barely remember what she looked like; her brother she had never seen, save as a baby. ‘And your uncle, Macduff, who appealed to us at Westminster last year, if I remember right, against your late lamented King John’s decision to imprison him.’ Again the humourless smile. ‘It was astute of him to recognise us even then as overlord of Scotland.’ Isobel could feel her cheeks colouring in indignation. ‘My uncle, sire, was bitter at the injustice done him by our elected king.’ She emphasised the penultimate word. ‘Had Scotland’s true king been chosen to rule, my uncle would not have needed an arbitrator.’ She heard the gasp of horror from the onlookers at her temerity, and she felt a little clutch of fear but she kept her head held high. ‘The true king?’ Edward enquired with deceptive mildness. ‘Robert Bruce, the lord of Annandale, sire.’ ‘Ah.’ He nodded. ‘The man who thinks I have nothing better to do than win a kingdom for him. His claim was dismissed as invalid at my court, Lady Buchan, with those of the other rabble of claimants to the throne of Scotland. And now that John Balliol has proved himself traitor to his overlord, Scotland can do without a king at all. I shall rule this country myself from now on. I require your homage, madam.’ She swallowed. ‘You have my homage and my loyalty, sire, for our lands in England.’ ‘And now you will kneel before me for your lands in Scotland.’ There was a slight movement around them, whispering amongst the Buchan household as they watched the young woman standing before the king. Elizabeth de Quincy raised her hand to her mouth to hide a smile. Her own mortification at their defeat was lessened by the sight of Isobel’s dilemma, and not for the first time she felt a secret grudging admiration for her rebellious daughter-in-law. Isobel had clenched her fists. ‘I will give my allegiance only to the King of Scotland, sire –’ she whispered. Her courage was fast oozing away. ‘There is no King of Scotland.’ Edward was peremptory. ‘You will do homage to me as overlord of Scotland, madam, or you will be sent a prisoner to England after your husband. Choose.’ She gave in. Kneeling in the dried heather at the king’s feet, she put her hands in his and repeated the oath in a voice so quiet that he had to bend to hear her. Twenty minutes later the King rode out of the castle, leaving a token garrison behind to hold it in his name. It was a year before she saw her husband again. The following summer King Edward granted Lord Buchan a safe conduct to travel north for two months only, to visit his lands in Scotland and to see his wife. Isobel was pacing up and down the deserted tower room, kicking at the hem of her skirts with every step, her arms folded, her face set with fury. She was alone. The servants had fled downstairs. Lord Buchan had still not come to greet her. For months she had remained alone at Duncairn. The morning after the King of England’s departure, Elizabeth had removed most of the household to Slains Castle a few miles along the coast. Isobel was left behind. It had been her husband’s orders before he left under escort for England. She was to remain at Duncairn with the garrison and a handful of women and learn the duties of a wife. Frustrated, bored and angry, she had begged and railed and sworn at her husband’s steward, demanding to be allowed to ride out of the castle, but he was adamant. The earl’s orders were to be obeyed. She was a prisoner. And now Lord Buchan had returned. The night before she had heard the horses and men ride into the castle and she had waited in her room, trembling, for him to come, but he had not appeared. Now her fear had passed and the anger had returned. How dare he ignore her! She was the countess – that much she had learned in her solitude in the castle, and she deserved his attention. With a whirl of scarlet skirts she stormed back to the window and stood in the embrasure looking down at the sea, drumming her fingers on the stone. The tide was high and the waves were crashing on to the base of the rocks, casting clouds of spray into the air. The sun was shining directly into the window – a brilliant September sun, highlighting the whin on the granite cliffs and turning the dry soft grasses to gold. When the door opened behind her, slamming back against the wall, she did not turn. ‘So, this is where you hide yourself. Can you not even come down to the great hall to greet your husband?’ Lord Buchan’s voice was acid as he banged the door shut behind him. She swung round. ‘I am not a groom to attend at your stirrup, my lord.’ ‘Indeed not. You are the lady of this castle, the hostess I expect to find in the hall greeting my guests.’ ‘I was unaware you had guests.’ Isobel stepped down from the embrasure. ‘As no one had the courtesy to tell me!’ She had a sneaking feeling she was in the wrong, but nothing would make her admit it, even though the sight of her husband’s tall, muscular figure beneath the dark green mantle had brought back her fear of him with a sickening jolt. He sighed. ‘Isobel, I do not want us to be enemies,’ he said slowly. ‘Nothing will be served by your temper. Come.’ He held out his hand. ‘Let us go down now.’ For a moment she hesitated, then, reluctantly she put her hand in his. If the only way to get out of the castle and ride free was to appease him, then appease him she would. The truce lasted until dusk. At the high table in the great hall she was seated between her husband and his guest, his cousin John Comyn. As a succession of courses came and went before them, their talk was all of politics. ‘You agree that King Edward of England is making more and more impossible demands of the Scots people. We have to find a way of being free of his ambition.’ Lord Buchan leaned forward, his elbows on the table. Comyn nodded gloomily. ‘Our cousin, King John,’ his voice was full of irony, ‘does not dare cross him now. He is useless. We have to throw the weight of tradition and the wishes of the community of the realm into the scale. All the lords of Scotland are with us.’ Buchan frowned. ‘Nearly all. There are some who put their arrogance and personal ambition before Scotland’s good.’ Comyn nodded. ‘The Bruces, you mean. They are still with us at heart, even if they appear to support Edward. Young Carrick is a fine fighter.’ He sighed. ‘They find it hard to acknowledge that their claim to the throne was overturned and John Balliol made king. They will come round slowly if we can find a way to make them turn their allegiance back to Scotland without rubbing their noses in the act.’ Isobel looked from one man to the other. The mention of Robert’s name had set her heart beating very fast. ‘Robert will never swear allegiance to Balliol,’ she said firmly. ‘The Bruce claim was far the stronger!’ Both men looked at her in astonishment. ‘So, you are an expert on the law, little cousin!’ John Comyn smiled at her patronisingly. Isobel could feel herself growing red. ‘I know who was the rightful heir to King Alexander’s throne,’ she said tartly. ‘But it was a representative of your own brother who crowned Balliol king, surely.’ Comyn was enjoying himself. ‘The seal of approval from the Earl of Fife himself – who else could have put the crown on King John’s head?’ ‘My brother is in England, sir, and a mere child,’ she retorted. ‘He knew nothing about it. He would never have set the crown on Balliol’s head of his own choice.’ Buchan’s face darkened. ‘That is enough! John Balliol is our king for better or worse, and we must abide by the court’s decision. Now the important thing is to see that Scotland regains her independence and rights as a kingdom.’ ‘To do that, she must have a strong king!’ Isobel put in. ‘And you think old Robert Bruce of Annandale is the man to fill the position?’ Comyn asked, still amused. ‘A man whose wife, if the story is true, threw him across her saddle when she took a fancy to him, and carried him off to force him into marriage! A strong man indeed!’ He leaned back with a roar of laughter and raised a goblet of wine in mock salute. ‘I think it is the younger Robert Bruce she means,’ John put in coldly. ‘Am I not right, my dear? It is his son, Lord Carrick, we are talking about, are we not? The one who paid you so much attention when he was here last.’ Too late, Isobel saw how she had betrayed herself; desperately she put her hands to her flaming cheeks, conscious that the eyes of both men were upon her. ‘I haven’t spoken to Lord Carrick for more than a year!’ ‘But when you did?’ John was watching her face thoughtfully. ‘You spoke to him alone, did you not? It was reported that you were both seen leaving the chapel.’ ‘Perhaps. I don’t remember.’ She raised her chin defiantly. ‘What does it matter now?’ ‘It matters not at all. Now,’ he said quietly. Alone in their chamber later he turned on her. ‘You will not see Lord Carrick again alone, do you understand?’ Isobel, wrapped in the pale green bed gown Mairi had given her after helping her undress, shivered. The room was dark now and full of shadows as the candles streamed in the draught from the window. ‘I doubt whether the occasion will arise, since you are enemies,’ she said sadly. ‘And he has no interest in me anyway. He is married.’ Her eyes betrayed her pain for a moment. Lord Buchan saw it. ‘So. That is it. You would have preferred a young, handsome husband, a man whose father claims a kingdom. That appeals to you does it?’ His face was hard with anger. ‘Not the stable boy my mother thought you were involved with, but an earl! So much more fitting for the great Lady of Duff. Far more to her tastes, although not, perhaps, to Carrick’s, as you came to me a virgin! Or was he still so recently knighted that he was mindful of his vows! Well, you are married now, madam, and to an earl of ancient lineage. To me! And you will play the part of my wife in every particular until the day you die, do you understand me?’ He caught her shoulders. ‘Your first duty being to provide me with an heir!’ He took no pleasure in her body. Her slim, almost boyish figure, her pale skin and delicate bones excited him hardly at all as he pulled open her gown and pushed her down on to the bed. Only her rebellion raised him to passion, and then it was anger, not desire which inflamed him. He stayed at Duncairn for three weeks as he discussed with the Scottish lords their plans for rebellion and made the decision at last to defy King Edward openly by breaking his parole and joining them. By the time he left the castle with them, Isobel knew that she hated him as she had hated no one in her life before; and she also knew that she was pregnant. As he rode away down the track at the head of his men she called Mairi to her. ‘A bath,’ she commanded. ‘Have them bring a bath up here and fill it for me!’ ‘My lady?’ Mairi stared at her. ‘Up here? Now?’ ‘Now,’ Isobel was imperious. For once she did not care how much work it made for the servants, or how hard it was to carry water up the high winding stairs. She waited in the chamber she had shared with the earl for the men to drag the heavy wooden tub up the stairs and fill it with bucket after bucket of rapidly cooling water, then, alone save for Mairi she began to remove her clothes. She heard the woman’s quickly smothered gasp of horror as she saw the bruises on Isobel’s arms and shoulders, and the lacerations where her husband’s brooch and buckles had caught at her bare skin as he took her again and again over the weeks, not even bothering to undress himself, but she ignored the woman’s unspoken sympathy. She gritted her teeth. If she wavered even for an instant in her resolve she would begin to cry, and that she would never do. Helping Isobel climb into the high-sided tub it was Mairi who found that she was blinking back her tears, but Isobel was uncowed. ‘Fetch me that box, standing on the coffer,’ she commanded as she lowered her aching body into the water. Mairi did as she was bid, wiping her eyes surreptitiously on her sleeve as she picked up the small carved box. Isobel held out her hand. ‘Now, leave me alone,’ she commanded. ‘My lady –’ ‘Leave me! I’ll call you when I’m ready.’ Her voice wavered for the first time. She waited for the door to close, then, carefully holding the box clear of the water, she opened it. The powders were ready; crushed herbs and tree bark, the ash of a burned piece of parchment on which a spell had been written and the charcoal remains of a poor burned frog. With a shudder she tipped the mixture into the water, and throwing the box to the ground she gently stirred it in around her. She had already swallowed some of the powder, dissolved in wine; this ritual cleansing would complete the spell which Mairi had herself told her, long ago, and would rid her of Lord Buchan’s child. When the water was quite cold and she was shivering violently she called Mairi back. ‘Quick, give me a towel.’ She climbed awkwardly from the bath, and ran, swathed in the towel to stand by the fire. Her teeth were chattering audibly. ‘Throw on more peats, Mairi, I’m so cold.’ Outside, the wind was rising; the polished horn shutters in the windows rattled and the dried heather on the floor stirred uneasily in the draught. ‘I won’t bear his child!’ Isobel cried as Mairi approached with a neatly folded clean shift from one of the coffers. ‘I won’t. I’d die rather!’ Mairi shook her head sadly. ‘It will be as God wills, my lady.’ ‘No! It will be as I will!’ Isobel shook out her hair. She snatched off the towel and stood for a moment, naked in the firelight, looking down in distaste at the roughly woven unbleached cloth which was covered in little bits of the herb and bark that had been clinging to her damp skin. Mairi shrank back. Such blatant nakedness was suddenly shocking. The child she had bathed a thousand times before had become a stranger. As she watched, Isobel held the towel high and flung it on the fire. It smoked and blackened on the smouldering peats, then it burst into a brilliant flame which leapt crackling up the chimney. Both women stared at it for a moment, then, shaking with fear, Mairi hurried forward and wrapped Isobel’s chilled body in the shift. When she turned away the little hairs on the back of her neck were standing on end. Glancing over her shoulder at her mistress, Mairi crossed herself secretly. ‘You’re not afraid of me, Mairi?’ Isobel asked suddenly. ‘Of course not, my lady.’ Still unnerved, Mairi didn’t look at her. She stooped to pick up the box near the bath and closing it reverently she put it down on the table. ‘I meant it, Mairi. I will not carry that man’s baby.’ Isobel spoke with a new authority, no longer a child. ‘I believe you, my lady.’ Mairi shivered again. ‘And now it is over.’ Isobel was staring into the fire. ‘Soon the blood will come, and I shall be free of it!’ 6 (#ulink_9ca76990-37e0-56e9-b141-d05fc2e5e1a3) ‘James Gordon is here, Mr Royland.’ The voice on Paul’s desk rang out suddenly in the silence. Paul turned from the window and pressed the intercom switch. ‘Thank you, Penny. Could you ask him to come in?’ He smiled wearily as the door opened. ‘I’m sorry about lunch last week.’ James shrugged. ‘No problem. Did you talk to Clare?’ Paul nodded slowly. He threw himself down into a chair, gesturing at his brother-in-law to do the same. ‘We discussed things at some length.’ He hesitated, giving James a quick appraising glance. ‘I want this conversation to be completely confidential. It is to ask you about Clare.’ James sat down slowly. His expression was carefully guarded. ‘As you predicted,’ Paul went on, ‘she is adamant in her refusal to contemplate the sale of Duncairn. Irrationally so.’ He paused again, allowing the words to hang for a moment in the air. ‘It is of course a very difficult time for Clare. The discovery that she can never have children has upset her enormously. It is perfectly understandable that her entire outlook on life is a little disturbed at the moment. The problem is that she is allowing her emotional distress to interfere with her business acumen.’ For the first time James’s face flickered. ‘I never thought my sister had any business acumen at the best of times.’ Paul looked at him sharply. ‘Indeed?’ he said. ‘Well, I assure you she has. Which is why she would be the first to be furious if she found that she had missed out on a massively profitable deal while the balance of her mind was disturbed.’ James let out a soundless whistle. ‘That’s a bit strong, surely.’ Paul stood up restlessly. He walked across to the window and stood looking down into Coleman Street for a moment in silence. When he spoke it was with extreme care. ‘I understand that there have been times, even from her earliest childhood, when Clare has had periods of, shall we say, strangeness?’ He put his hands in his pockets, leaning forward slightly, as if studying something below on the pavement. ‘Hardly strangeness.’ James was staring at Paul’s back. ‘She’s always been highly strung, I suppose. And Aunt Margaret used to call her fey. But I don’t think that means what one thinks it does, does it?’ He gave a forced laugh. ‘It means doomed to die young.’ Paul turned sharply, leaning against the window sill. James licked his lips. They had gone rather dry. ‘I’m sure Aunt Margaret did not mean that.’ ‘What then?’ James hadn’t realised before what hard eyes Paul had. Brown, like nuts; expressionless in the handsome, slightly overweight face. ‘I think she meant slightly spooky; seeing ghosts, that sort of thing. Like those nightmares she used to get all the time.’ ‘She still has them.’ ‘Does she?’ James glanced up at him. ‘And she is still suffering from claustrophobia. That has something to do with the nightmares, I think.’ James hesitated uncomfortably. ‘I don’t know that it does, actually,’ he said at last. ‘I think that may be my fault.’ He stood up and slowly paced up and down the carpet. Paul was watching him, a frown on his face. ‘It was when we were children,’ James went on after a second or two. ‘A game that got out of hand.’ He glanced up at Paul with an apologetic smile. ‘Aunt Margaret used to tell us stories about Robert the Bruce, Scottish history, battles and stuff.’ He paused again. ‘One of the stories was about a woman who was put in a cage and left there to die.’ He shuddered. ‘It was pretty horrible really. Clare was obsessed by it and Aunt Margaret would go on about it; it never seemed to dawn on her that Clare was really upset by the whole thing. Anyway, we used to play Robert the Bruce games: the Battle of Bannockburn, that sort of thing. And once we played the woman in the cage.’ There was a long silence. ‘Kids can be pretty cruel, can’t they, and there were times when I thought I hated Clare. She was older than me, and I always thought she was mother’s favourite, so I didn’t have too much conscience about what I did.’ He stopped pacing the floor. Looking down he kicked viciously at the carpet. ‘And what did you do?’ Paul prompted softly. ‘I locked her in a cage at Airdlie.’ James resumed pacing the floor. ‘There was a cage at the back of the stables – a small run really, where grandfather kept his dogs. I found an old padlock and pushed her in and left her there. It was quite late at night. Completely dark. There was no one around.’ ‘How long was she there?’ Paul’s eyes were fixed on his face. ‘All night. We started playing after we were supposed to be in bed. The grown-ups were having a dinner party. No one noticed she was missing. No one heard her call.’ ‘What happened?’ ‘In the morning I went to let her out. I thought it was a great lark but she was unconscious. I can still remember how frightened I was. I thought she was dead. I didn’t know what to do. The woman who looked after Aunt Margaret came and I helped her carry Clare to bed. She was terrified because she was supposed to have been looking after us. She put hot-water bottles at her feet and smacked her hands and face and in the end Clare woke up.’ ‘And?’ ‘That’s the strange part. She didn’t seem to remember anything about it. And no one ever said anything. You’re the first person I’ve ever told.’ James gave an embarrassed laugh. ‘It was shortly after that that she started getting attacks of claustrophobia – quite serious ones. I felt as guilty as hell.’ ‘Hardly surprising,’ Paul said grimly. James grimaced. ‘Aunt Margaret blamed herself. I think she suspected that it was to do with the woman in the cage, but she didn’t know what I had done. She never told us that particular story again.’ He paused again. ‘The woman in the cage. I think she died at Duncairn.’ ‘I see.’ Paul turned away, walking back to the window thoughtfully. There was a long silence, then at last he spoke. ‘It is my opinion, and that of our doctor, that Clare is heading for a nervous breakdown. To avoid such a thing happening, I am going to take as much as possible off her shoulders; take over the management of her affairs; send her away for a long rest so that she can get things back into perspective.’ ‘And sell Duncairn while she isn’t looking,’ James said almost under his breath. Paul swung round. ‘I can see no merit in keeping the property. That hotel will be nothing but a drain on our resources. However, if there is really some family attachment to the place I am prepared to offer it to you first.’ ‘At the same price Sigma are offering?’ James raised an eyebrow. Paul inclined his head slightly. ‘The property has become valuable and I am a businessman.’ ‘How do you propose to get Clare’s agreement to all this?’ ‘I will see to it that I get power of attorney.’ ‘You mean you’re going to have her certified?’ Paul noted the sudden indignation in his brother-in-law’s voice. ‘There is no question of that. She will give it to me willingly.’ ‘You think so?’ James looked sceptical. He paused, then he shook his head. ‘Thanks for the offer, Paul, but I’m not interested in buying Duncairn. I wouldn’t do that to Clare, and besides, I’m not about to throw that kind of money into any property, whether it has oil or not. Nor am I sure anyway that I necessarily want to stand around and watch them put nodding donkeys all over the headland.’ Paul gave him a withering look. ‘I didn’t see you as sentimental.’ ‘No?’ James raised an eyebrow. ‘Perhaps you forget that I’m a Scot too, Paul. Aunt Margaret left the place to Clare because she thought I wouldn’t appreciate it fully. Perhaps she was right, I don’t know. But I wouldn’t have sold it. I may be a businessman, but to see Duncairn raped would hurt even me. I won’t go so far as to try and stop you selling; no one could ignore the kind of offer you’ve had, but I won’t stand and watch.’ Paul inclined his head slightly. ‘Fair enough. We understand one another, I think.’ James looked him in the eye. ‘Indeed we do,’ he said slowly. ‘Indeed we do.’ Rex Cummin sat down on the white leather sofa and pulled the telephone towards him. Mary was out, and the flat was quiet. His cases still lay humped together in a heap in the lobby where he had dropped them as he came through the front door. It took him only a few moments to be connected with Alec Mitchison in Edinburgh. ‘I’ve received a letter from Mr Paul Royland, the owner’s husband.’ The crisp Scots voice, crackling with energy, came down the wire. ‘He says that Mrs Royland is unwell and he is handling her affairs. I gather he may be prepared to discuss matters.’ Rex sat forward eagerly, his knuckles white on the receiver. ‘What did he say exactly?’ ‘He says he would be prepared to meet you, that’s all.’ ‘That’s enough.’ Rex took a deep breath. ‘Set it up, will you? In London or Edinburgh. Wherever he wants. You’ll be there, of course.’ There was a pause the other end of the line. When the voice resumed it was heavy with disapproval. ‘You wish to reveal your identity so early in the negotiations, Mr Cummin? I would have thought that a grave mistake.’ Rex could feel the sweat breaking out on his forehead. The supercilious Scotsman was right, of course, but he couldn’t wait. Not now. There wasn’t time. He took a deep breath. ‘I feel sure,’ he said slowly, ‘that Mr Royland and I can meet as private individuals. I will not mention my company’s identity at this stage. I will allow him to think that I am interested in developing the hotel.’ He knew Mitchison didn’t think he could pull it off; the man probably thought Royland knew about Sigma already. If so, so be it. They would negotiate with all the cards on the table. And he meant every card. As he put the phone down, he had already decided to find out all there was to know about Paul Royland. And he meant all. He was going to leave nothing to chance. Behind him the door opened and his wife appeared, laden with carrier bags. ‘Rex! When did you get in, honey? Why didn’t you say you were flying back today?’ She dropped the bags and kissed him on the cheek. Rex stepped back a little. ‘I came back sooner than I expected, that’s all,’ he said testily. ‘Is something wrong?’ His wife’s radar was finely tuned to every nuance of tone. ‘Nothing, honey, nothing. They are a load of old women back there in the States, that’s all. The drop in the price of oil is scaring the shit out of them.’ ‘And they don’t want to invest any more in Europe?’ He shrugged. ‘They haven’t said yes or no. They’re hesitating and while they hesitate, someone else is going to get his goddam hands on Duncairn.’ He walked over to the bar and reached for a bottle of Bourbon. ‘Except they’re not. The Royland woman’s husband has written to Mitchison. He’s prepared to talk. She’s ill apparently.’ Mary sat down slowly, unbuttoning her white raincoat. She kicked off her shoes with a groan. ‘Poor woman. We must send her some flowers or something.’ She glanced at her husband and frowned. ‘Go easy on that stuff, honey, you know what the doctor said.’ ‘That doctor is a fool.’ Rex refused to meet her eye. ‘I reckon he thinks I’m getting old. They all think I’m getting old.’ He drained the glass and slapped it down on the bar. ‘Were there problems in Houston, Rex?’ Mary asked gently. ‘Nothing I can’t handle.’ Hooking his finger into the knot of his tie he loosened it slowly. ‘I’ll be flying up to Aberdeen tomorrow and as soon as Mitchison can arrange it I’ll meet with Royland and get this deal tied up. Then perhaps that would be a good time to think about planning our retirement, what do you say?’ He turned away from her before he could see the alarm in her eyes. The roses glowed in the misty morning sunshine as Clare reached up to cut them from the back wall, putting them gingerly into her basket one by one. She swore as a thorn pricked her. Paul had driven straight to the office when he returned from Bucksters on Monday morning so she hadn’t seen him until yesterday evening when he had returned at about seven. ‘David and Gillian missed you,’ he said curtly as he walked in. ‘I explained that you were unwell.’ ‘Was it a good party?’ She smiled at him tentatively, trying to gauge his mood. ‘Their parties are always amusing.’ He walked across to the sideboard and began to rummage in it for his whisky. ‘May I ask what you did all weekend?’ ‘Nothing. You told them the truth, as it happens. I wasn’t feeling well.’ She knew she sounded defensive. ‘I see. Clare, I’ve been thinking.’ He poured two double whiskies, neat, and handed her one. ‘I think perhaps you should go away for a holiday. A couple of months in the sun would do you good.’ She shook her head. ‘Perhaps after Christmas; I don’t want to go away now.’ ‘Why not?’ ‘I want to go up to Scotland. I have to sort out one or two things.’ There was a moment of silence. When he spoke his voice was grim. ‘May I ask what sort of things?’ ‘Duncairn, for one.’ She looked him straight in the eye. ‘I want to discuss the future with Jack Grant. There are repairs that need doing as soon as possible to the hotel.’ ‘I see. And where is the money going to come from?’ ‘I am sure I can find it. I still have money of my own, Paul.’ ‘Yes; and I know exactly how much. How far do you think that will go?’ ‘Far enough for the time being.’ ‘Clare! You’re crazy. You might as well stand on the edge of that damn cliff and tear up the money, note by note, and throw it into the sea. No one in their right mind would contemplate pouring money into that hotel.’ ‘Except the man who wants to buy it. You wouldn’t object to him throwing his money away, I take it?’ She tried to keep her voice steady. ‘He doesn’t want the hotel, Clare. He wants the oil.’ ‘Well, he’s not getting it.’ She clenched her fists. ‘I thought I would go up north later this week.’ ‘We have a dinner party on Saturday, if you remember.’ ‘Early next week, then. I’ve made my mind up, Paul.’ He had slept in the spare room, and he had left for the office before she was awake. Thoughtfully she reached up to clip another rose, sniffing it absent-mindedly before she dropped it into her basket. Since Zak’s visit she had not left the house. When the meditation had ended, she had remained sitting on the floor, still staring at the guttering candle, waiting for him to speak. Slowly he had risen to his feet and walked across to the window. Opening the curtains, he stood, looking out into the road. For a long time he said nothing, then at last he turned. ‘Clare, I think I must suggest you turn your meditations in a different direction. What you are doing is a valid exercise, but it is not one which is going to bring you the results you need. I want you to go back and practise some of the methods I first taught you. Especially the counting.’ He smiled. ‘That is the one you find so boring, I think you said.’ ‘But why can’t I go on as I am?’ She looked up at him. ‘What am I doing wrong?’ ‘You are not doing anything wrong, as such.’ He hesitated. ‘I have been trying to decide what is taking place. As you suspected, although your technique is correct, what is happening to you is not usual; it is not what you expect from a simple visualisation. There are several possible explanations. The most obvious, and the one I hope it is, because it is the least complicated, is that you are remembering a previous incarnation; that you were this Isobel in another life and that meditation has given you access to the memory.’ He gave an almost apologetic smile. Clare stared at him in astonishment. ‘That’s not possible!’ ‘Why? Don’t you believe that you have lived before?’ He frowned. She shrugged. ‘I don’t know. I’ve never really thought about it. I suppose I’ve had feelings that I’ve been here before – doesn’t everyone? But not as Isobel, Zak.’ She shook her head firmly. ‘What makes you so sure?’ ‘I know. All right, you want something more positive than that. Well, Aunt Margaret saw her too. We can’t both have been her in a previous life, can we?’ ‘Ah.’ Zak moved slowly back and sat down stretching his long legs out on the carpet in front of him. He was silent for a moment. ‘Then we must consider some of the other possibilities.’ ‘Zak.’ Clare was thoughtful. ‘How do you know about Isobel? Did I talk out loud?’ He frowned. ‘A little. I prompted you and you answered.’ ‘Without knowing it?’ He nodded. ‘You were hundreds of miles away, Clare, and you were in a different time. You had no knowledge of me being there, but with part of your mind you heard me and you replied.’ He hesitated, unwilling to give up his theory. ‘Are you sure your aunt saw the same things?’ Clare nodded. ‘And she spoke to you of them?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘And did she ever tell you how she summoned Isobel?’ He was feeling his way with care. She nodded. ‘She used to tell me that she closed her eyes and imagined as hard as she could, and if I imagined hard enough I would see her too: that when I opened my eyes again she would be there.’ ‘And it worked?’ ‘Always.’ ‘So that was that you were doing just now?’ ‘Not consciously.’ She hesitated. ‘At least, I don’t think so. I’m not aware that I was trying as such – or at least not in the same way …’ She stopped, confused. ‘She just comes.’ ‘That is because of the meditation technique. You have learned how to open your mind to the past without effort.’ He pushed. ‘When you were a child, was Isobel a child?’ She nodded. ‘I played games with her.’ She paused again, embarrassed. ‘She was very real to me when I was little, Zak.’ ‘And she’s very real now, isn’t she?’ Zak was becoming more and more uneasy. She nodded again. ‘And now she’s grown up. Each time I see her she is older, closer to my age. It isn’t meditation, is it?’ He shook his head. ‘No. I don’t think it is. I hoped you were reliving a past incarnation. That may be traumatic, cathartic even, but I don’t think it can really harm one. If that is not it …’ He stopped, again, trying to choose his words carefully. ‘I think, Clare that you must have managed to get the knack of doing something which takes people years of study. You have a natural aptitude for a science which should not be undertaken by someone who is not properly prepared, or by someone who is’ – he hesitated – ‘uninitiated. I think for your own sake you must stop, Clare.’ ‘But why? Surely it can’t do me any harm? You yourself said anything I enjoy doing would be better than nothing.’ Something like panic had crept into her voice. ‘I didn’t realise then what you were doing,’ he interrupted her. ‘But you don’t know now for sure! All you could do was see me sitting there with my eyes closed and ask me a few questions!’ She scrambled to her feet and pinching out the candle put it on to the sideboard. Her eyes were alight with rebellion. ‘I do know,’ he repeated. He was watching the trail of smoke rising from the wick. ‘You see, I saw them, Clare.’ ‘What?’ She stared at him, aghast. ‘I saw them. You have learned to project thought forms. You have made these people real. I don’t know if they are actual physical entities or whether I saw them telepathically, but I saw them. I don’t know if they are spirits, or from your imagination – I think perhaps the latter, as they seem unconcerned about relaying messages and only re-enact their own lives – but the power of your imagination has given them reality. And that is dangerous. Please, believe me, Clare. You should stop.’ ‘And what will happen if I don’t? What if I enjoy it?’ She pushed her hair back from her face. Zak sighed. ‘No one can stop you doing it if you want to continue, Clare, but you would be crazy to go on. The power of thought is very real. To a certain extent these people you have created have a life of their own now. And they will take you over if they can.’ ‘You’re not serious!’ ‘I am and I’d blame myself if something happened to you, don’t you see? You have, in a sense, set a mechanism in train which is very hard to switch off, not least because you, on your own admission, enjoy it.’ ‘And is that so bad?’ ‘It is once you lose control.’ ‘But that won’t happen –’ ‘It might.’ He was looking at her very seriously. ‘You might find you had no choice but to go on, Clare. I think maybe your Lady Isobel needs you as much as you need her.’ Clare stared at him. Her face had gone white. ‘Oh for God’s sake, Zak! You’re not serious? What I am doing is a child’s game. Pretend, that’s all. They are part of my imagination. It’s the meditation technique which has allowed my imagination to run wild, that’s all. You said that yourself. It’s a game! Just a game!’ ‘Then why did you call me? Clare, you were worried enough about what you were doing to want to talk to me about it.’ She glanced at him almost guiltily. ‘I called you because I couldn’t do it any more. I panicked because I thought I would never see her again. Then I could and – well’ – she hesitated. ‘I wanted you to tell me it was all right, not tell me I’m engaged in some sort of occult practice! For God’s sake, Zak!’ ‘You panicked because you thought you’d never see her again,’ he repeated, quoting her. ‘Leave it alone, Clare. I mean it.’ She had never seen Zak angry before. It was out of character. His cool, gentle tone had gone and he had sounded almost afraid. And he had refused to change his mind. ‘Clare, please think about what I’ve said.’ He stood up slowly. ‘Promise me.’ ‘I’ll think about it. Of course I will.’ ‘Look, I’ve got to go, it’s late.’ Zak picked up his jacket almost with relief. Outside it was nearly dark. ‘But I’ll come back on Monday or Tuesday and we’ll talk again. I want you to promise me you won’t do any more meditation of any kind until we’ve talked again.’ ‘Zak –’ ‘Promise me, Clare. Please.’ ‘All right.’ She sighed. ‘And don’t be alone, Clare. Don’t give yourself the opportunity to be tempted.’ ‘I won’t.’ She did try to ring Emma, but there was no reply. That night the dream came back. Alone in the big double bed Clare turned this way and that, fighting the pillows, her hair damp with perspiration, and when at last she sat up, suddenly and violently awake, there was no dog to comfort her. She lay still, shaking, too afraid and disorientated for a moment to move at all, then, slowly she dragged herself out of bed and switched on the light. The house was completely silent. She sat for a long time on the side of the bed, trying to calm herself, then at last she lay back on the pillows, worn out. But sleep had not come back. She took the roses into the kitchen and put them carefully into a porcelain vase, glancing up at the clock as she did so. Zak was coming back that afternoon before he returned to Cambridge, but she still had most of the morning to get through. She had already spent two days fighting the longing to retreat into her dream world. She wanted so much to know what was happening to Isobel. Isobel who had become pregnant so easily and who wanted so desperately to lose her child. Clare shivered. Surely her curiosity was natural? Morbid, perhaps, perverse even, but not sinister. It couldn’t mean that already Isobel was gaining some kind of hold over her. Could it? That Zak was right, that already she preferred the past of her dreams to the present. She shook her head slowly. She had to get out of the house. That at least would distract her until he came. Harrods was crowded. For a long time she wandered around the ground floor, staring at the displays, browsing at different counters, picking up scarves and handbags and putting them down again; she bought an olive-green suede belt, a pair of gilt earrings and in another department a length of pale blue silk, none of which she really wanted. At about half past eleven she decided she would like a cup of coffee and she walked up the stairs, heading for the coffee shop. As she threaded her way across the fashion floors she could hear in the distance the jerky rhythmic music which accompanied a dress show and unconsciously her steps quickened. Anything to keep her mind occupied for a few more minutes. It was very hot upstairs, and she unbuttoned her jacket as she made her way between the displays of clothes, through the shoppers towards the crowd of spectators. The music was loud, the beat subliminally painful as she stood on the edge of the crowd. Strobe lights cut the air in a whirling mock disco as models danced and jerked their way, marionette-like, around the floor. Behind them the scene was set with a huge hardboard slab of prison bars; to the left of them another stretch of bars, the real things this time, glinting in the lights. They were hung with chains. The models too wore chains, their clothes brief, erotic, black and khaki, their limbs painted silver and covered with sequins, their faces immobile, their black wigs short and masculine. Clare glanced around her. The women near her had their eyes glued to the production; she could see the beads of perspiration on one woman’s lip. Her mascara had run and her lipstick was caked at the corners. She was swaying to the music, fascinated. The arcs of colour crossed and recrossed the bars, throwing their shadows across the floor as the elegant, gawky limbs jerked and dangled their way around the dais. The music grew louder and more insistent; the air was stifling with rich perfume and a less discreet hint of sweat. Near Clare a security man was scanning the crowd, a radio clipped to his breast pocket, his face shaded and sliced by the lights. The shadow of the bars fell across him and she could see the whites of his eyes gleaming, watching, staring … She didn’t realise that she had screamed. Dropping her parcels she turned and began desperately fighting her way back towards the stairs, pushing out of the crowd, her heart thudding with panic, her throat dry, oblivious of the startled faces near her, pushing out of the heavy swing doors on to the cool broad staircase. The door opened immediately behind her and the security man appeared. He stopped abruptly, seeing her leaning against the wall, her face glazed. ‘Can I help you, madam?’ He was staring at her suspiciously, only with difficulty restraining himself from taking her arm. Still trying to steady herself Clare shook her head. ‘I’m all right. I’m sorry. It was the lights –’ She could barely speak. Behind them a second figure appeared in the doorway, carrying Clare’s belongings. It was the woman who had been standing next to her. ‘Are you all right?’ Pushing the man aside she put her arm around Clare’s shoulders. ‘It’s all right, officer, or whatever you are. I’ll take care of her. I could see you going funny, love. All that heat and those lights and the crowds: it’s enough to make anyone feel faint.’ The security man frowned, obviously out of his depth. ‘If you’re sure –’ Desperately Clare nodded and with a thankful shrug the man disappeared. The woman gave a sarcastic laugh. ‘Disappointed. He thought you’d snatched something! And it was me that ended up with your bags! Here.’ She pushed them at Clare. ‘Are you sure you’re OK? Do you want me to get you a taxi?’ The cheerful voice pattered on as, slowly, she guided Clare down the broad staircase and out into the Brompton Road. ‘A bit of fresh air and you’ll be fine.’ Clare barely heard her. Her head still whirled: bars; lights; noise, the searching, probing eyes; the eyes, the bars of her nightmares. Clutching her parcels she allowed herself to be pushed into a taxi; she heard herself thank the woman, heard herself reciting her address to the driver, then she flung herself back in the seat and knew that she was crying. ‘Paul Royland.’ Neil Forbes sat on the edge of the desk reading from the typed notes in front of him. ‘Aged thirty-eight. Eton and Oxford – I knew that – we were at the same college, though he was a couple of years ahead of me. Career in the City. Coutts; Lombards, from 1981 a partner in Beattie Cameron, now a director of BCWP. Married in 1981 to Clare Gordon, daughter of the Hon. Alec Gordon who died in 1962.’ He threw the notes down on the desk. ‘Paul Royland!’ he repeated in disgust. ‘The bastard tried to talk me down in the Union once. Then he tried to get me banned.’ ‘I didn’t know you were at Oxford.’ The folk singer, Kathleen Reardon, was standing watching him, her coat on, her bag already slung from her shoulder. Four years older than Neil, she looked ten years younger. ‘Quite the gentleman yourself, aren’t you?’ The soft Belfast accent was mocking. Neil stood up. He went across to her and put his hands on her shoulders. ‘There are a lot of things about me you don’t know.’ ‘And a lot I do.’ She narrowed her light blue eyes. ‘I know you’re a chauvinist bastard; I know Mr and Mrs Royland have got up your nose; I know that if the poor bugger went to Eton you’ll be ready to string him up from a lamp post, and I know that you promised to buy me some supper. And if we sit here much longer, sure every food outlet in Edinburgh will be locked and barred and bolted and the sun will rise over my poor bleached empty bones!’ Neil chuckled. ‘I always forget what an amazing appetite you have.’ He reached to turn off the light. ‘I’m going up to Duncairn again,’ he said as they left the office and turned out into the cold Grassmarket, the huge bulk of the castle walls looming high behind them in the dark. ‘I want to get this campaign off the ground before the Roylands know what has hit them, and before Sigma realise that their interest in the place is out in the open. We’ve got the edge on them, but only for a very short time.’ He pushed his hands deep into the pockets of his jacket. ‘Earthwatch is mounting a huge campaign against onshore drilling and in today’s climate with oil prices at rock bottom, we should be able to win. I’m going to use Duncairn to spearhead our campaign in Scotland.’ Kathleen glanced at him curiously. ‘Just because you hate this Royland man and his wife so much?’ ‘It’s got nothing to do with personalities, Kath.’ ‘Oh no? Like hell it hasn’t!’ Glancing at him, her face illuminated by a street lamp, she tossed her long black hair back over her shoulders. ‘You know I almost feel sorry for those two.’ Two days later Neil was back at Duncairn. He climbed on a bar stool and leaned on the counter, a glass of malt whisky nursed reverently between his hands. ‘Have you heard anything from your new owner yet, Jack? I remember last time I was here you mentioned that the place had changed hands.’ He glanced casually up at the landlord’s craggy face as the man tidied up the bar. Jack Grant had run the Duncairn Hotel for twenty years now. He had moved there from Aberdeen after his wife died, full of ideas to renovate the place and make it popular. Margaret Gordon had initially given him the money to improve the fabric of the building, a Victorian grey granite pile built from the stones of the old castle itself, but his plans to modernise it had met with a veto. No new bar with piped music; no ceilidh nights; no large notice on the main road to bring in the passing trade. She wanted the place to remain a haven of peace for the people who knew it. She was not interested in making a profit, and slowly Jack had come round to her way of thinking and he had come to love this rugged piece of headland with its ever-changing skies. The only solace to his former ambition, the only extravagance he permitted himself now, was the excellence of his menu which was slowly gaining a reputation throughout north-eastern Scotland. There were few evenings in the summer when the restaurant wasn’t full and often at weekends the guests would stay a night or two in the faded splendour of the baronial rooms. But now, in October, the hotel was all but empty. He ran the place with a minimum of staff. Mollie Fraser and her daughter Catriona actually lived in the hotel, helping him in the kitchen and looking after the occasional guests. In the summer two or three women came up from the village to help, glad of any extra work that was going. But apart from that they coped. He and Mollie had an understanding. They were comfortable. Behind Neil the room was empty. From the low, broad windows, he could see the top of the remaining tower of the castle, the stone, yellowed with lichen, rising above the trees. Even from here he could hear the soft soughing of the waves below the cliffs. Grant shrugged. ‘Not a word. Mrs Royland came up here in June shortly after old Miss Gordon died.’ He sniffed. ‘She used to come up here a lot as a lass, wee Clare Gordon. A cute little thing, she was, but now she’s married to an Englishman she hasn’t time for us any more.’ ‘Do you think she’ll sell the place?’ Neil dropped the question casually into the conversation. ‘Never. It’s in her blood. Even if she doesn’t come back, she’d not sell.’ ‘She’s had an offer for it.’ Grant looked him straight in the eye, suddenly suspicious. ‘How come you know so much about it?’ ‘I work for Earthwatch. I don’t want to see this coast spoiled by on-shore drilling, and I don’t want to see this hotel closed. Your whisky is too good!’ Ignoring the compliment Grant pulled himself up on to a stool his side of the bar, and leaned forward. ‘Are you saying there’s oil at Duncairn?’ Neil nodded. ‘And you think Clare Royland will sell up?’ ‘She’s been offered a hell of a lot of money, Jack.’ ‘I still can’t believe she’d sell.’ Grant shook his head. ‘It would be right out of character.’ ‘What if her husband wanted her to? He’s not interested in Scotland.’ ‘As to that, I don’t know. I’ve not seen him more than once.’ ‘We’re going to fight the oil, Jack. Are you with us?’ Neil watched him closely. ‘Oh, aye, I’m with you. I’m too old to change to the fast-food and fast-women market. Leave that to the boys in Aberdeen.’ ‘Even if it means fighting Clare Royland?’ ‘She won’t sell.’ Neil scowled. ‘I wish I had your faith in her.’ Grant sat for a moment, lost in thought. ‘Surely it doesn’t matter who owns the land if there’s oil there. The bastards will take it anyway.’ Unprompted he reached for Neil’s glass and refilled it. ‘Maybe, but if the oil company already own the land they want to drill we have far less chance of winning. If, on the other hand, it has belonged to the same family for generations –’ ‘For seven hundred and fifty years.’ ‘That long?’ Neil said dryly. ‘And if we can shame Clare Royland into opposing any drilling, then we’ll get public opinion on our side. The English public; the public in Edinburgh and Glasgow, they love a romantic tragedy; theirs is the support we need. That and the fact that rare plants and animals and birds live here on these cliffs, with the real threat of environmental pollution – it would all give us a working chance of saving this place.’ He walked around the castle again later, watching as the mists slowly crept landwards across the sea. The stones were passive in the cold sunlight; no echoes this time. He pictured Clare as he had seen her, her hair blowing in the wind, her high-heeled shoes sinking into the grass. Strangely she had looked at home, he realised now; decadent and beautiful, like her castle. If only she had kicked off those damn fool shoes he might even have felt some sympathy for her. He frowned. Was Kathleen right then? Had it become a personal vendetta? Kathleen had stayed in Edinburgh. She was booked to sing at a club for the week and anyway he hadn’t wanted her up here with him. Somehow she always came between him and the scenery; not intentionally, but as a distraction, a discordant note, in the tranquillity of a landscape of which he felt completely a part. For all her ethnic clothes and other-worldly manner she was a city animal – a beautiful black-haired panther of a woman, who would be as out of place here at Duncairn as a bird of paradise on a grouse moor. He climbed up into the tower and stared out to sea, feeling the strange throbbing power of the wind and waves in his very soul. Dear God, he had to save this place! ‘What’s wrong with me, Zak? Am I going mad? I don’t understand. I’ve been claustrophobic since I was a child, but like that! In Harrods! With hundreds of people watching! I made such a fool of myself!’ Clare put her face in her hands for a second, then she straightened and looked at him. ‘What is the matter with me?’ she whispered. Zak sat down slowly and stretched his legs out in front of him. ‘Nothing’s the matter. People often feel like that in crowds. You’re reading too much into a fairly common reaction. Think cool, remember?’ ‘Think cool! How can I? The only thing I had to help me was the meditation, and you told me not to do that any more.’ He looked uncomfortable. ‘I’ve been thinking about that, Clare.’ ‘And?’ ‘And more than ever I am certain that you must stop doing it. I’ve been talking to someone about you, someone who knows about these phenomena. He agrees that the way you are approaching the exercise is wrong. Wrong for you. It is too risky. I still feel meditation could help you, Clare, but not this kind, please believe me.’ ‘Zak?’ She sat down near him suddenly. ‘The nightmares, the claustrophobia. Do they have something to do with Isobel? Is this all connected?’ He frowned. ‘I don’t know, Clare. Everyone has nightmares – they are externalisations of one’s inner fears and worries –’ ‘Are my worries that terrible?’ ‘They are to you, Clare. But you are facing them with your conscious mind now, and that should help. They should get better. Meditation, real meditation, the kind you think is boring. That will help.’ He looked uncomfortable. Watching him, Clare suddenly felt sorry for him. He was out of his depth. She had leaned on him too far. What for him had been a straightforward exercise without complications, without questions, had turned out to be for her a tortuous path. He could not help her any more and he was frightened by what he had started. Standing up restlessly she turned away from him. She should tell him to go; tell him it was all over; tell him she wouldn’t be tempted to meddle with the past again. Get on with her life. And yet he was in a sense her only lifeline. ‘Tell me one thing, Zak.’ She faced him, her voice calm. ‘Have I been conjuring up the spirits of the dead?’ ‘I think you were well on your way towards it.’ He refused to meet her eye. ‘You think I’m a medium of some sort?’ ‘Maybe.’ ‘And you think Isobel would hurt me if I went on contacting her?’ Her fists were clenched tight. ‘She seems to have a very powerful personality –’ ‘More powerful than mine, you mean.’ Clare raised an eyebrow. ‘I didn’t say that –’ ‘But that is what you meant.’ ‘Look, Clare. This is crazy.’ He sighed. ‘I can’t advise you. I’ve told you what I think. I’ve told you it is dangerous to meddle in this. I think you should stop, but I can’t force you to. Only please, be warned by what I’ve said. It may be that you are actually contacting the spirits; it may be that you’re only producing some powerful thought forms; either way what you are doing is dangerous!’ ‘Are you sure you’re not the one that’s crazy, Zak?’ She smiled sadly, shaking her head. ‘All this could be rubbish, absolute rubbish, couldn’t it? You can’t conjure real people out of daydreams. Daydreams can’t hurt you!’ ‘No?’ He grinned back amiably, standing up. ‘Well, I hope not, for your sake.’ He held out his hands to her. ‘Whatever I say you’ll do what you want. Take care, Clare. I have to catch my train. You know where I am if you need me. I’ll be thinking of you, OK?’ ‘OK.’ She gave him a wan smile. And that was that. He had gone, leaving her alone. They both knew she wouldn’t ring him. Instinctively she knew that she had to go to Duncairn. There she would find the answer to all her questions. Perhaps. She longed to be there, to feel the wind on her face, to hear the sea birds, to taste the North Sea spray on her lips. There she would find peace. She never gave a thought to the menace of the oil. As far as she was concerned it was over, settled by her letter to Alec Mitchison. On Thursday she rang Jack Grant. ‘I’ll come up to Duncairn next week. If you could give me a room for a few days, perhaps we can discuss the position, sort out our plans for the future.’ He could hardly refuse to have her, but after she had hung up she sat thoughtfully gazing at the phone. Had she imagined it or had there been suspicion and hostility in his voice? She shrugged. She had always liked Jack Grant when she was a child and the thought of him there at the hotel when she went back to the castle was reassuring. And she had to go to the castle. That much she knew. They had asked six guests to dinner on Saturday night: Sir Duncan and Lady Beattie, George Pierce, who had been senior partner of Westlake Pierce, with his wife Susan, Henry Firbank and Diane Warboys. Diane was sitting on the window seat, her legs elegantly crossed, dressed in a tight black skirt, slit to the thigh with a lace camisole beneath her black silk jacket. With her shoulder-length blonde hair she looked dramatic and very sexy. Henry could not take his eyes off her. She had eyes only for Paul. As Paul poured the rest of the guests their drinks and handed them round, Clare stood by the fire with Henry. Dragging his gaze away from Diane he gave her a conspiratorial grin. ‘How are you?’ ‘All right. Thank you for coming round the other night.’ Henry threw a quick glance towards Paul. ‘It was a pleasure. I hope you haven’t had any more turns like that one in the lift.’ For a fraction of a second she hesitated then she smiled. ‘I haven’t been in any more lifts. It’s usually possible to avoid them, thank goodness.’ ‘I heard about your getting stuck in the lift, my dear.’ Lady Beattie’s sharp ears had picked up their conversation. ‘I am so terribly sorry. Duncan has told the lift company to come and check every single nut and bolt on the wretched things.’ Henry grinned. ‘I don’t think it was the lift, Lady Beattie. There was a short power failure, I understand.’ ‘Whatever it was,’ Clare managed a bright social smile, ‘I shan’t go near those lifts again. Next time I have to go to the conference suite I shall take crampons and a pickaxe and climb the outside of the building.’ ‘What a riveting thought,’ Henry applauded. ‘If ever you need an anchor man, Clare, don’t hesitate to ask me.’ Amidst the general laughter Clare saw Paul turn and look speculatively at his partner. There was something in his expression which made her shiver. Diane moved forward from the window seat and sat down next to him, her glass dangling from red painted fingertips. In the office she wore black too, but sober, high-necked black, and her hair was usually drawn back into a tight, slim queue, held with a velvet ribbon. She eased her position imperceptibly so that her thigh was touching Paul’s. ‘One should never allow one’s life to be run by phobias,’ she said into the silence. ‘Have you ever thought of seeing a psychiatrist, Clare?’ Clare swallowed. She glanced at Paul. There was a slight smile on his lips. ‘No, Diane.’ She managed a quiet dignified laugh. ‘I have never felt sufficiently mad. Not yet.’ ‘Oh, I didn’t mean –’ ‘Of course she didn’t.’ George Pierce broke in. ‘I expect Diane was thinking of psychotherapy. Everyone is into that these days, aren’t they? Making people stroke spiders – that sort of thing!’ In the corner of the room Sir Duncan Beattie emptied his glass and held it out for a refill. He had been watching Paul closely, a speculative frown on his face. ‘Aversion therapy, I believe it’s called,’ he said. ‘There are many ways of trying to cure phobias, and I suspect claustrophobia is one of the commonest. I must confess I dislike those lifts myself.’ He gave Clare a kind smile as Paul got up to take his glass. Clare smiled back. She had seen Diane edging closer to Paul on the sofa and she had seen Paul’s seeming indifference. She sighed. It was going to be a strained evening. A few minutes later she excused herself so that she could go downstairs to put the finishing touches to the food. It had been fun preparing a dinner party herself again. These days Sarah Collins was always there when they had a party, and she had been content to allow the woman to do everything once she had chosen the menu. This time, to Paul’s annoyance, she had refused to ask Sarah to come up to London to take over the organisation of the food and for the last three days she had thrown herself into the preparations, doing even the shopping and cleaning. She had her reasons, of course. She was still desperately trying to keep herself occupied; to fill every moment and to fall into bed each night so tired that she slept, dreamless, at once. To her surprise she had enjoyed it. She was a good cook and she had forgotten the fact. She resented Paul’s unspoken hint that Sarah could do better, and if she was tired, that was her intention. She had not wanted to allow herself one single second to think. She glanced round the kitchen. Outside, in the garden, it was foggy and dank. She peered through the blind and shuddered. Inside it was warm and bright. The hors d’oeuvres were laid out neatly on the kitchen table ready to take into the dining room; the casserole was in the oven, the vegetables ready, the salad and dressing prepared. She walked through and glanced around the dining room. The wine had been opened an hour before; the last of the cream roses filled a silver bowl on the centre of the table; the glasses sparkled under the lights. All was ready. She picked a box of matches off the sideboard and leaned across to light the candles in the silver candelabra, then, exhausted, she sat down in Paul’s chair at the head of the table. One quiet moment was all she needed before she went back upstairs and marshalled her guests for dinner. But Isobel was waiting in the shadows in the corner of the room. 7 (#ulink_1c9d2fa2-3f02-5a4d-b4ed-f7eddb495e94) Mairi stared at her young mistress suspiciously. ‘What are you doing there all by yourself, and so quiet, my lady?’ She wondered for a moment if Isobel had been crying. The girl turned away sharply. ‘I shall ride again this afternoon, Mairi. Tell Hugh to bring a fresh horse.’ Mairi scowled. ‘My lady, don’t do it. You’re just exhausting yourself. It’ll not help.’ ‘It will.’ Isobel put her hands on the almost imperceptible swell of her stomach. ‘It has to.’ She gritted her teeth. ‘A fresh horse, please, Mairi.’ They no longer stopped her leaving the castle. A countess, with her retinue, might ride where she willed, it appeared, once she carried her lord’s heir in her belly. And ride she did, galloping across the moors, regardless of the weather, until her horse was exhausted and her followers gasping. She jumped the animal over burns and gullies, and returned home aching and exhausted at dusk day after day. But still the baby inside her grew. It filled her with horror and disgust; she could not bear to think that anything of Lord Buchan’s could be growing inside her, that any part of him could become a part of her. Besides that, she was terrified of even the idea of childbirth. It was one of the few things of which she was truly afraid. The fear went back to when she was four years old and her brother Duncan was born. She remembered the time vividly – a few beautiful days at the beginning of September in the year 1289 which would remain in her mind forever as a time of blood and terror. The Earl of Fife had been sceptical about his wife’s joyful news of her pregnancy when she had told him. He had gazed at Joanna with hard grey eyes, scarcely a flicker of response on his youthful face, not allowing himself any hope from what would surely be yet another false alarm. It had been more than three years since the birth of their first child, and even then his wife had disappointed him. It had been a girl. Joanna had shivered, and pulled her mantle more closely around her shoulders, remembering her husband’s anger and frustration as he stood looking down at the puny mite which had for a moment been placed in her arms. But this time it would be different. She had prayed to St Margaret and to St Bride and to the Blessed Virgin herself and surely they would not let her down. With a son at his side Duncan would once again, she felt sure, become the debonair young man to whom she had come a bride from England. Then he had been thrilled to receive her as his wife, dowerless though she was, as a daughter of the Earl of Clare, Hertford and Gloucester, and close kinswoman to England’s great King Edward. Then he had treated her as precious gold. The whole of that long hot summer after the young earl had ridden away they had waited. Then, one day Isobel’s secure world had changed. It had been a beautiful day, but it was drawing to a close. Outside the narrow castle windows a light breeze had sprung up, bringing with it a suspicion of early autumn chill. To Joanna de Clare, standing at the window, the afternoon had seemed long and dreary, and she had welcomed the cool air after the heat of the hall where they had taken their evening meal. Now from behind the distant hills the sunshine slanted low across the misty shores of the Forth, staining the tide race with carmine and gold. Any day now her husband would return, and she, now heavily pregnant, could show him the reassuring evidence that this time her promise of a child had been well founded. A boy had thrown some dead fruit wood on the fire and its sweet scent had drifted across the chamber, almost neutralising the fetid stench which even the autumn winds could not quite disperse from the stagnant moat below. Quite soon they would be moving south, leaving behind them the Fife castles with their stinking piles of refuse and exhausted storerooms, all the evidence that remained to show where her household had passed the months of the long summer. Behind her the sound of a shrill childish giggle rose suddenly above the muted sounds of talking which had been reaching her but faintly from the fireside behind her where several of her women were seated on stools around the leaping flames. The boy was carefully feeding the greedy licking lights with the dried twigs, slipping them one by one into the red hot embers to be devoured with a quick crackling sound, and as each crumbled into hot dust the flame would reflect in the bright red kirtle of the child’s gown. Mairi had been young then, and nervous in her first position in the countess’s household. ‘Now, my lady, will you leave the poor little creature alone!’ Her frightened voice was raised at last in sheer desperation. At once, the chatter ceased and several pairs of reproachful eyes were raised from finely-stitched needlework. The only sound came from the crisp crackle of the fire and the mournful notes of a muted harp. Then, after a hasty glance towards the countess, the women had resumed their quiet gossip. Joanna watched them all for a moment. The child was on her knees at the nurse’s feet, her dark ringlets hanging around her shoulders, her scarlet gown a patch of brilliance against the drab dusty heather which strewed the floor. She seemed to be trying to bury something beneath Mairi’s long skirts as the unsuspecting young woman picked up her spindle. Another piercing giggle reached her mother’s ears as Mairi sharply pulled the sweeping folds of material away from the little girl. Again there was an uneasy silence. Joanna had shown herself to be possessed of an uncertain temper in the last few months and she had made it quite clear that her high-spirited daughter should be kept as much out of her way as possible in this, the smallest of the earl’s castles, where they were all forced to share the same restricted living space. Only the old man, sitting in the corner, did not seem to notice the strained atmosphere in the room. His long frail fingers stroked the harp strings soothingly, but his eyes were fixed on the embrasure where his mistress stood silhouetted in the bright evening light. Master Elias had been harper to King Alexander in the old days, but since the king’s death he had returned to the service of the Fife family, from whose lands he had come so many years before. His music was said to be the best in the whole of Scotland. Joanna had noticed his gaze. It disturbed her to see his eyes, which had been for so long completely blind, fixed unerringly on her face. She was certain he could read every thought which passed through her mind and with a superstitious shiver she turned away from him, directing her attention once more to her daughter. ‘Isobel! Come here and show me what you’ve got,’ she called out suddenly, sitting down on the narrow stone seat. The child paused in her play, uncertain, but then as the gentle reassuring sounds of the harp continued, she rose and gathering something up in her arms danced with it across the floor, out of a last small patch of sunlight near the fire, across the darkening room and back into the mellow light near her mother. She dropped a slightly unsteady curtsey and held out her arms to let a tiny kitten fall on the waiting lap. Joanna suppressed the urge to smile at the eager little face and surveyed her daughter gravely. Someone had woven a little wreath of cornflowers into the dark hair and they had begun to wilt sadly. The girl looked like a small wood nymph with those mischievous eyes and laughing mouth. By the fire the women had watched with interest as mother and daughter confronted one another. The little girl was looking up shyly through her dark lashes, in awe of this beautiful young woman who was her mother. She was well aware that Joanna had ordered Mairi to keep her away from her. Joanna had half smiled, however, as the child put her hand on the scrap of fur that was lying exhausted in her lap. She was a pretty child, with the flecked grey hazel eyes of her Celtic ancestors. Drowsy in the heat of the fire Joanna, lost in a dream, was brought back to the present only when the kitten, stretching, began energetically to knead at her knees, its claws hooked into her gown. Catching hold of it impatiently she threw it on to the floor where it landed on its feet, spitting with fright and indignation. Isobel had been standing watching her mother’s face with wide-eyed intensity, but now she fell on her knees beside the kitten, gathering the tiny creature up in her arms and soothing its ruffled feelings. She had looked up at her mother, her eyes blazing with uncontrollable temper although she had said nothing, and Joanna did not notice the child’s anger. She had risen from her seat and was gazing from the window once more, lost in thoughts of her husband’s return. Mairi had not, however, missed that look in Isobel’s eyes. Leading her charge back to the fire she shook her head sadly. There was temper there which must be curbed for Isobel’s own sake. She had seen too many signs of it over the three years she had had charge of the child. Mairi had first come to Isobel from a village high in the mountains of Mar. The Earl of Fife’s grandmother, who was now Countess of Mar, had found the girl and arranged that she come to Joanna’s service. She was a quiet, introspective young woman, whom some had thought simple. But she had soon picked up a smattering of the Scots which the household of her new mistress spoke, while she still spoke her native Gaelic to the child when they were alone together. Isobel, avid for stories, and with the quick ear of the very young, did not care what language they were in as she clamoured for more and more, as long as they came fast and ever more exciting. Mairi was clever at relating, with wide eyes and expressive gestures, the hair-raising tales of her own mountains, with their attendant ghosts and demons, sprites and fairies, and Isobel had absorbed them all. The boy began lighting the torches with a brand from the fire. They flared wickedly for a moment as each caught, then settled to a steady flame. Joanna turned from her place at the window at last and went back to her seat near the fire. ‘My lady, there are riders coming.’ The boy had been drawing the heavy shutters across the window. Joanna looked up, trying to steady the sudden excitement in her heart. ‘Let us hope they are here before darkness comes,’ she said as calmly as she could. She turned to the harper. ‘Pray, play something more cheerful for us before we retire to bed.’ Isobel knew instinctively that her mother was excited; she knew she hoped for her father to return soon, but she did not care. Small as she was she had nursed in her heart her father’s scorn and it had festered. ‘Well, sir, are you not to play for us tonight?’ Joanna turned sharply on the harper, who had continued merely to stroke out gentle meaningless chords from his instrument. He turned his face in the direction of her voice and opened his mouth as though to say something, then he changed his mind. Instead he began to play a soft haunting melody, stroking sounds of loneliness and mourning from the golden wires of his instrument. It was a sound so desolate that after a few moments all conversation came to a stop, and the women turned, troubled, towards him. Even Isobel, playing sleepily with the doll Lord Buchan had given her, had turned from examining the exotic green silk in which its limbs were swathed and looked up from her toy. She had been filled suddenly with a terrible, inexplicable feeling of dread, a feeling she did not even understand. Climbing to her feet she had gone over to the musician, and stood for a while, gazing intently into his face. He had at once sensed the child close to him, and turned to smile at her, although he did not cease playing. ‘Stop playing that sad tune!’ she ordered suddenly. He took no notice. ‘Stop it!’ she cried again, stamping her foot. ‘Stop it, stop it, I don’t like it. Make him stop!’ She turned tearfully to the fire. Mairi hastily rose to her feet. ‘With your permission, my lady, I will take her to bed,’ she said nervously. Before she could reach the child though, Isobel had leaned forward and wrenched the old man’s hand from the strings. ‘Stop it! Stop it! Stop it!’ she screamed again. There was an anguished arpeggio of notes from the instrument, and then silence. Joanna straightened, horrified. ‘Take her upstairs,’ she ordered. ‘Take her upstairs and whip her!’ She looked at the old man almost in fear. His fingers were gently feeling the frame of his instrument, nursing the sharp ends where two wires had been torn from their anchorage. At her words, however, he looked up and put out his hand to Isobel who had not moved. ‘Do not punish the child,’ he said softly. ‘She and only she understood the message of my tune. Do not be angry because it struck terror into her heart. I spoke to her of destiny and of death; of duty towards men and towards kingdoms. As yet she does not understand, but she felt fear at what life holds in store for her. Fear which you too should feel, madam, for all you bear a son in your womb!’ ‘A son!’ Joanna put her hand to her belly in wonder. ‘How do you know?’ ‘I know.’ She shook her head, still shocked and distressed by what had happened. ‘But your harp! She has broken your harp.’ Master Elias put the harp down on the floor beside him and, groping for his stick, he rose to his feet. Making his way towards the door, the old man paused for a moment beside her. ‘My harp can be mended, Lady Joanna,’ he commented tersely. Without another word he made his way to the door, feeling before him gently with his stick. The boy rushed forward to open the heavy door for him, and the old man disappeared slowly down the dark draughty stair, the sound of the tapping of his stick, and the soft shuffling of his fur robe on the stone steps, coming up to them long after he had gone. There was a moment of silence, then Mairi had taken Isobel by the hand. ‘Come along, my little love,’ she said softly. ‘Trobhad seo, Iseabail, tha tha thîd agad dhol dhan leabaidh. We’ll away to our bed.’ Silently they too crossed to the door, but as they reached it, the sound of hasty footsteps came up to them from below and the ring of spurs on stone. Pulling Isobel to her, Mairi waited. Joanna had risen from her chair at the sound, her cheeks pale, and her own breath coming sharply as the steps came panting up the stair. Behind her the other women rose looking at one another in consternation. Mairi put her arm around the child’s shoulders protectively, and looked at the countess, who was standing clasping the back of her chair as two men appeared at the top of the stairs. They wore the livery of the Earl of Fife, but their clothes were torn and spattered with dried mud and dust. One, the taller of the two, stopped abruptly, and remained by the door, awkwardly fingering his sword hilt; the other strode straight to where Joanna stood, and went down on one knee before her. His face was lined and tired and his expression was grim. There was a moment of silence as he knelt unspeaking, his eyes fixed on the hem of her gown. Looking down at his heaving shoulders, Joanna had hardly dared speak. Her own heart was thumping with fear as she waited for him to say something. ‘Well?’ she cried at last, unable to bear his silence. ‘My lady, I have dreadful news.’ The man made a visible effort to collect himself, then paused again, uncertain how to continue. ‘You bring word from the earl my husband?’ she prompted. He winced as though she had struck him. ‘My lady, we were riding towards Brechin. It was growing dark, and the men were tired. The earl wanted to reach the burgh before dusk. My lady, we were ambushed.’ His voice was scarcely audible as he continued with a rush. ‘There were so many of them, hiding by the roadside. We stood no chance, my lady! We shouted at them! There must have been a mistake.’ He was appealing to her now. ‘They were lying in wait for someone else. It was twilight and hard to see. We shouted, my lady! They were the earl’s kinsmen, my lady! They wore the livery of the Abernethys. We fought them off as best we could, my lady, but two of our comrades were killed and … and …’ Joanna was no longer listening. The words washed over her with the icy rush of a mountain waterfall. Everything inside her had gone cold and the room was silent. Isobel held her breath. It was as if the whole world had stopped breathing with her. Then she heard the man again. He rushed on, talking desperately into the silence. She barely understood his words, but she knew what they meant. Her father was dead. And she was glad. ‘… He did not stand a chance … they did not give him a chance to fight fair! He was murdered … murdered by his own kin.’ The man was blubbering now, like a child. His companion remained, as though stunned, rooted to the spot by the door. Suddenly Joanna turned on the kneeling man, her eyes blazing, half in tears, half in anger. ‘And how, sir, does it happen that you are still alive? Did you flee from aiding my lord to save your own skin?’ She almost spat the words at him. The man looked up with indignation. ‘The moment he was dead they fled, my lady. We could not follow in the darkness. And we could not leave … we could not leave him lying there.’ She stood looking down on him in silence. ‘The body is being conveyed to the abbey of Coupar Angus, my lady countess.’ The man by the door spoke at last. ‘We shall be pleased to help escort you there at daybreak.’ ‘Requiem aeternam dona ei, Domine.’ The mournful voices echoed back and forth, high in the shadowy vaults of stone in the abbey chapel across the garth. To Isobel in the guest house, it was the sound of doom. At her mother’s side she had ridden behind Mairi to the abbey the day before and despite Mairi’s protests, she had been made to accompany her mother to look at the Earl of Fife’s body. It lay on a bier in the shadowy nave, covered by the earl’s own banner, surrounded by tall candles. Joanna walked slowly towards it, holding Isobel’s hand tightly in her own. The rest of the church was dark and empty. The praying monks, their heads covered by their cowls, withdrew silently to the shadows as the widow approached. ‘I want to see him.’ Her whispered command sounded harsh in the silence. ‘It would be better not, my lady.’ The knight at her side put out a hand as if to restrain her. ‘I want to see him,’ she repeated stubbornly. She stepped towards the bier. Isobel hung back, suddenly afraid, but her mother pulled her forward. Duncan’s face, smoothed of its petulance by death, looked young and handsome in the steady candlelight; to Isobel, so small beside her mother, it looked already like stone. She wondered for a moment why her father lay so still in this cold, dark church; then she remembered. He was dead. She had seen death before, often, in her short life, but never so close; never so immediate. She stared curiously, resisting the temptation to reach out to touch him. Joanna moved forward suddenly and caught the silken banner, with its rippling rampant lion, pulling it completely from the body. She gave a strangled gasp. The earl’s clothes were soaked in blood, the encrusted hands, crossed so reverently on his breast, mutilated almost beyond recognition. With a shrill scream Isobel tore her hand free of her mother’s and ran blindly into the darkness of the abbey. No one saw her go, for Joanna, with a moan, had fallen to her knees, clutching in agony at her stomach as the first labour pain tore through her body. Mairi found Isobel in the end: the child was huddled in the choir stalls, her hands over her ears. At least in the darkness after her mother had been carried outside, it had been quiet but she had been too frightened to follow, conscious of the silent figure, once more hastily covered by its silken pall, lying so still in the candlelight. Mairi took her back to the guest house and left her, with firm instructions not to move, with one of Joanna’s ladies. She herself was needed by the countess. Joanna’s moans had continued all night. The next morning, as the monks began to sing their requiem, the first of the woman’s screams echoed round the small square building. Isobel cowered back, her small face white, her eyes enormous. The woman with her glanced at the child. ‘Outside, my lady. Go outside and play.’ She ushered her towards the door. ‘Go on, quickly. I must go to your mother.’ But Isobel hadn’t gone. Cautiously she had followed, creeping towards the door of the small guest chamber where Joanna had been lodged, and there, unnoticed by the panicking, frantic women, she saw and heard it all. There were no midwives to take charge. Joanna, still a month from the expected date of her confinement, had not thought to bring any. Her escort had consisted only of armed men, three of her ladies – all unmarried – and three servants, only one of whom had had a child of her own. This woman, thrust suddenly, trembling and terrified, into the role of midwife, could think only of what would happen to her if the countess should die. Mairi was the only one in the end to keep her head. Calm and reassuring she had bathed Joanna’s face and held her hands as the countess lay propped up in the high bed, cursing the mournful chanting which could be heard so clearly from the open door of the chapel. In numb, terrified silence, Isobel stared into the room. She saw and smelt the blood; only this blood wasn’t black and clotted like that which had stiffened on her father’s embroidered tunic. It was red and alive. It soaked the sheets and covered the women’s arms, and it seemed to pour from her mother’s body endlessly as again and again Joanna screamed. And then the baby came. Her brother. Duncan. Her father’s heir. The new Earl of Fife. A tiny, blood-stained, ugly doll, the cord still hanging from his belly as someone held him up. He was mewling like a puppy. And they were pleased. Even her mother, exhausted as she was, was smiling now through her tears, holding out her arms for the boy. Isobel turned away. Tiptoeing towards the room where she had slept some of the night, she crawled under the covers of one of the beds and began to cry. It was Mairi who had told her that she need never have a baby of her own; Mairi who had promised there were ways for women to stop it happening and that if need be she would show her how; Mairi – who now said it was God’s will – who had dragged the child Isobel back almost from the edge of madness that September day. Isobel looked at her now reproachfully and wondered if she remembered those days too. She caught Mairi’s eye and held it, and knew that she did. It was Mairi who, shamefaced, turned away. ‘May I ask what has happened to our dinner?’ Paul’s voice cut through the silence like a knife. Clare stared at him blankly, then horrified, she rose to her feet. The candles in the candelabra had burned down more than an inch; the room was full of the smell of cooking. ‘Paul! I’m sorry. I … I must have fallen asleep.’ ‘Indeed, you must.’ He gave a grim smile. ‘I warned you you would be too tired if you did everything yourself.’ ‘It’s not that –’ ‘No?’ He knew what she had been doing. Her eyes had been shut, but her whole posture, though relaxed had been attentive, alert, as though she were listening to something far away. He wondered momentarily why Sarah Collins found it so alarming. Clare was daydreaming, that was all, but was it normal to sit daydreaming for nearly an hour when you had six important guests upstairs? He thought not. ‘Is the food spoiled?’ he asked coldly. Clare shook her head. ‘The casserole needed another half hour anyway.’ ‘I see. But you didn’t think to return to your guests. They bore you, I suppose.’ Clare could feel herself colouring. ‘You know that’s not true, Paul. I just sat down for a moment to … think –’ ‘To think!’ Paul repeated the words, his tone deliberately insulting. ‘And may I ask what you were thinking about so hard that you gave every appearance of being asleep?’ ‘You were watching me?’ He could see she was uncomfortable. ‘I watched you.’ His eyes narrowed slightly. Clare turned away from him abruptly. ‘If you want to know I was thinking about babies. Childbirth.’ She gave an involuntary shiver. She hadn’t been thinking about their own predicament, the dream was too immediate, too real, but Paul saw the shiver and misinterpreted it. ‘Clare, I have told you to stop dwelling on that.’ The sudden twinge of guilt made him angry. ‘One can’t just stop, Paul. Not after all you and I have been through in the last few months.’ Clare had realised suddenly that they were at cross purposes. ‘You have to, otherwise you will make yourself ill.’ Ill. Was that it? Was that what was happening to her? She had not sat down to meditate. She had not summoned Isobel. She had constructed no ashram to frame a meditation. The dream had come unbidden, a nightmare of blood and fear and pain to put an end forever to her own special little fantasy of a beautiful sterile birth with a tiny, powdered, pink and white baby as the end product. She took a deep breath, trying desperately to master her sudden cold fear. ‘Shouldn’t one of us go back upstairs?’ ‘Both of us, Clare.’ Paul took her arm. ‘Are you sure the food is all right?’ She nodded, dragging her mind back fully to the present, and pulling away from him she went towards the kitchen. ‘I’ll put the starters on the table, if you’d like to bring the others down.’ ‘Are you sure you feel well enough?’ Paul asked grudgingly. ‘Of course. No one will know anything. I promise.’ She forced herself to smile. ‘Go on, Paul. Fetch them now.’ ‘A crisis, dear?’ Lady Beattie smiled at her graciously as she led the other guests into the room a few moments later. ‘You should have called me. I’m an old hand at coping with disasters.’ She was peering round the room as though expecting to find evidence of calamity pushed under the table. ‘It must be a frightful bore when your staff let you down.’ Diane’s drawl cut the air like a knife. ‘Paul was saying that your cook is stuck down in the country.’ ‘She’s not stuck.’ Clare took her place at the table with a smile. ‘I told her not to come. It was hardly necessary for her to make the effort for a small dinner party like this.’ She was aware of the scandalised expression on Paul’s face and felt a sudden surge of triumph. ‘And there wasn’t any crisis. I was just putting the finishing touches to one or two things.’ She had seen Henry’s gaze go to the candles, already burning, translucent with heat, then back to her and she knew that he had guessed. She refused to catch his eye. Kathleen leaned on the bar, watching Neil with narrowed eyes. She was drinking tomato juice. The Cramond Inn was packed. He was standing near her, a glass of whisky in his hand, lost in thought; then he glanced at his watch. ‘She’s not coming.’ She sat down on a bar stool near him. ‘She will.’ Kathleen raised an eyebrow. ‘It’s too big a risk for her. Anyway, why should she? You know enough.’ ‘I don’t know enough!’ Neil slammed his hand down on the bar. ‘All I know is that Clare Royland turned down the first offer. I have to know what happened when she received the next one.’ ‘Does her reaction affect the campaign then?’ ‘Of course it affects the campaign. Are we on the side of the owners, fighting the oil moguls and the government, or are we against private individuals exploiting the environment to enrich their own purses?’ He was speaking quietly but his voice was passionately intense. ‘The whole angle of this campaign is going to depend on what Sandra has to say.’ ‘They might not have heard anything yet.’ ‘They’ve heard. She told me that much on the phone.’ Kathleen gave a slow smile. ‘You want her to accept that offer, don’t you? You want to fight this beautiful Mrs Royland.’ She narrowed her eyes again, cat like. ‘Don’t let her get to you too much, Neil.’ Raising her hand to his cheek for a moment, she flexed her fingers, stroking his face for a fraction of a second with her nails. ‘You mustn’t lose the cool impersonality for which you’re so famous.’ Neil stepped back slightly. ‘I won’t.’ He was visibly irritated. Turning his back on her he surveyed the crowds in the room. Sandra had arrived while they were talking and was standing nervously just inside the door. ‘There she is. You stay here.’ His voice was curt. Putting down his glass he threaded his way towards the girl who was staring short-sightedly around her. ‘I’m sorry. I took a wrong turning.’ She greeted him anxiously. ‘I’m not used to driving on my own. Can we go outside. I don’t like pubs.’ Neil opened the door for her and ushered her outside without a word. The car park was cold and very silent after the noise of the pub. It was slightly foggy. ‘Wouldn’t you rather I bought you a drink?’ He was wondering why she had chosen to meet there if she didn’t like pubs. She shook her head. ‘I was thinking that none of my mum’s friends would go somewhere like that, but I might be recognised by anyone – one of Mr Mitchison’s or Mr Archer’s clients. I’d forgotten that that is the sort of place they would go on a Saturday night –’ ‘Let’s walk down to the river. No one will see us there.’ Neil pushed his hands down into the pockets of his jacket, with a quick shiver of excitement. Her air of frightened conspiracy was contagious. They stood in silence at the end of the causeway which led out towards the sleeping hump of Cramond Island. The receding tide had left darker patches in the darkness where the mudflats glistened. Lights showed every now and then from the towns strung along the distant coast of Fife, then the mist would drift back and they would disappear, only to reappear, strafed into whiteness by the monotonous lighthouse beam out in the Forth. Neil could hear the quiet confidential chatter of birds in the distance. Slowly they walked up the Almond, staring across into the darkness of the Dalmeny woods. Water was lapping gently below the sea wall. ‘I’m sorry to be so silly,’ she said after a moment. ‘But my job means a lot to me.’ ‘Your job is safe, Sandra,’ Neil said firmly. ‘You have my word. No one will see us here.’ Behind them the village was empty and deserted, the black and white houses of the winding street and the quay floodlit by street lamps which showed the wet reflection on the road. Somewhere in the distance a dog barked. She moved closer to him. ‘Mr Mitchison had a letter back from Mr Royland. Apparently his wife is ill but he is interested in the offer, and’ – she glanced over her shoulder – ‘Mr Mitchison has set up a meeting between Mr Cummin and Mr Royland.’ Neil let out a soundless whistle. ‘So! I knew it! When are they meeting?’ ‘Next Friday. I typed out the letter confirming it yesterday. They’re going to meet for dinner in London.’ In the darkness Neil was staring out across the cold water. ‘Do you by any chance know where they’re meeting?’ ‘Yes.’ He smiled. ‘Good,’ he said. Casta was ecstatic. Yelping with excitement she leaped around Clare as her mistress climbed out of the car on Sunday morning. The fog was still thick and the fields around the house were dank and silent. Without a word Paul went to the rear of the car to find their cases. ‘Paul –’ Clare followed him. ‘No, Clare. I need you in London.’ He didn’t even bother to look at her. ‘It’s not convenient for you to go to Scotland at the moment. I’m sorry.’ ‘It would only be for a few days.’ She could hear herself pleading and she despised herself for it. She felt trapped. ‘No!’ He slammed down the boot lid. ‘God knows, Clare, I’d have thought after last night’s fiasco you would have wanted to make amends. Sonja Beattie was scandalised by your behaviour.’ Clare stooped to give the dog a hug, hiding a half smile in the golden fur. ‘I don’t think she was at all,’ she said defiantly. ‘I think she was amused. Anyway why call it a fiasco? They didn’t know what happened. And the food was good; the wine was good; there were no awkward silences. In fact,’ she straightened and looked at him, ‘I think it was a successful dinner party all round. You should be pleased.’ She turned and walked into the house. Paul’s eldest brother was waiting in the drawing room. Sarah Collins had lit the fire and the room smelled richly of the old dry apple boughs she had thrown into the inglenook fireplace. There were new bowls of chrysanthemums and Michaelmas daisies, beautiful amongst the silver frames of the photographs on the tables scattered around the room. Throwing her jacket down on the sofa Clare went straight to the fire and knelt before it, holding out her hands. ‘How are you, David? Where’s Gillian?’ She did not wait to kiss her brother-in-law or take his hand. Sir David Royland put down the business section of the Sunday Times and stood up. He was a tall man, like his brothers, his hair a uniform grey. He wore a dilapidated cashmere sweater over baggy cords, and his feet were clad only in socks. The Member of Parliament for the Stour Valley was off duty. He put his cup down on the low coffee table and then straightened again, looking at her closely. ‘I’m fine, my dear. And so is Gillian. She thought she’d take it easy this morning though, with the baby so imminent. Where is Paul?’ She shrugged. ‘He’ll be here in a minute.’ She was staring into the flames. Sir David walked across to the silver tray on the grand piano. ‘Can I pour you some coffee? It’s still hot.’ He smiled at her. ‘The excellent Mrs Collins brought enough cups. She was expecting you.’ He handed her one, and stood looking down at her. ‘We were sorry not to see you at the party on Saturday.’ He paused. ‘I hope you’re feeling better. Wouldn’t you be more comfortable in a chair, my dear?’ Clare hunched closer to the fire, holding the porcelain cup and saucer against her chest. ‘I’m fine, thank you. For God’s sake, sit down, David. Don’t hover! You’ve come to see Paul, I suppose?’ She looked up at him suddenly. ‘I did, as a matter of fact.’ He studied her face, noticing the signs of strain, and he frowned. Clare always made him feel uneasy. He found her extremely attractive, he had to admit, and yet she irritated him and put him on the defensive, mocking him and all he stood for from behind those innocent grey eyes. He knew she found him pompous and she teased him openly, especially about his recent knighthood, and he wished he could dismiss her as a silly young woman of whom he could take no notice. But he couldn’t. Whenever she was in the room with him he found himself drawn towards her. Also he respected her brain – something his own wife appeared to be able to do without – and he found himself wondering, often, how she and Paul conducted their sex life. He had frequently suspected his brother of being totally uninterested in sex. For this vivacious, beautiful woman to see anything in Paul at all was a conundrum upon which he pondered with a frequency for which he despised himself. He sat down on a chair near her and leaned forward, his elbows on his knees, his chin cupped in his hands. Whatever he felt about Clare he had never before found himself feeling sorry for her, but now suddenly there was a wistfulness in her face which made him feel strangely protective. ‘Paul has asked me whether I would be prepared to break the children’s trust fund.’ He looked thoughtfully into the fire. ‘I take it that that was your idea?’ ‘My idea?’ Clare sat back on her heels and looked up at him. ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ ‘Don’t you?’ He looked pained. ‘Paul feels that Father’s will, because it was so heavily weighted towards his grandchildren, actual and potential, is grossly unfair. My children, and Geoffrey’s and Em’s, will inherit the bulk of Father’s estate when they grow up.’ He glanced at her. ‘Paul feels we should split up the money so that he can take a quarter.’ Clare put her cup and saucer down on the hearth and climbed to her feet. ‘And you think that is my idea?’ David hesitated, scrutinising her face, then he shrugged. ‘I thought it might be. It seems strange that Paul should suddenly want the money.’ ‘And you thought it must be the grasping wife?’ Clare bent to pick up a log from the basket and threw it into the fire, watching the flames lick round it. She swung round. ‘Well, it wasn’t, but I can guess why he’s done it.’ She was suddenly on the defensive. ‘He wants it because he knows he will never have any children to inherit anything, at least not as long as he’s married to me.’ She clenched her fists. ‘But no doubt he told you that. Perhaps he feels this is just compensation for having a barren wife. It is his share of the inheritance, I suppose, so why shouldn’t he have it?’ ‘Exactly.’ Behind them Paul had appeared in the doorway. ‘So, is that why you’ve come, David? To give me your decision?’ He strode into the room and leaned against the oak chest near the door, his folded arms concealing his agitation. ‘Have you and Geoff talked it over?’ His voice was heavy. ‘Geoffrey is away at some conference.’ David adopted a soothing tone which managed to sound patronising. ‘But I’m sure we’ll be able to agree about this when he gets back.’ His tone visibly irritated his brother. ‘And how much do you suppose you will be able to spare me after your deliberations?’ ‘That is rather up to the four of us, as trustees, and to the accountants, don’t you think?’ David said dryly. ‘If you feel you are entitled to a particular percentage, you’d better say so. The money you’re talking about is at the moment to be divided equally between the children as they reach the age of eighteen with a capital sum remaining to give each of them a small income and to cover any late arrivals.’ He gave a tight smile. ‘We four are supposed to have had our share when Father died, remember?’ ‘Of course I remember.’ Paul turned away sharply. He went across to the window and stared out at the mist. The chestnut trees were dripping dankly on the lawn, their golden leaves mud-coloured without the sun. His brother was watching him closely through narrowed eyes. ‘Well, if you still want to go ahead with this, I suggest we call a meeting of the trustees to discuss it.’ He stood up. ‘I’ll ring Geoff tonight and see if he’s back. I think I should tell you, Paul, that Gillian and I are not very happy about this.’ ‘I’m sure you’re not!’ Paul didn’t look round. ‘Your bloody kids get the lion’s share.’ ‘They will get an equal amount each.’ David was tight-lipped as he strode towards the door. ‘I’m sorry Paul is putting you through all this, Clare –’ as he opened it he glanced back at her. She was still standing by the fire, her face set. ‘You deserve better, my dear.’ Clare watched until her brother-in-law’s old Bentley had disappeared up the drive, then she turned towards Paul. ‘Why didn’t you tell me you wanted to break the trust?’ He left the window and threw himself down with a sigh into the chair his brother had just vacated. ‘There is nothing to tell as yet. But Geoffrey will agree with me because it’s the Christian thing to do and Em will agree because it’s fair.’ He gave a grim smile. Clare bit her lip, trying to fight down the guilt and unhappiness which were threatening to swamp her. She was watching him closely, and she realised suddenly through her misery that the strained transparency of the skin around his eyes and the loss of weight in his usually solid face had not just happened in the last few days. His concern about money, and his bad temper, had been going on now for months; since the end of June when they had learned that she would not inherit any money from Margaret Gordon’s will. Yet Paul was a rich man – both from his father’s money which, as David had pointed out, had been considerable, and through his investments. She frowned. ‘Are you worried about money for some reason, Paul?’ she asked wearily. ‘Nothing has gone wrong in the City has it?’ ‘Gone wrong?’ He stared into the fire. ‘Of course not. Did it look as if anything were wrong last night?’ ‘No.’ ‘Well then.’ He flung himself back in the chair and closed his eyes. ‘There is nothing to worry about, is there?’ The helicopter hovered for several minutes over the field, then it circled the castle, the huge rotor blades fanning the branches of the rowan and birch, parting the grasses until they bent and streamed like water. On the cliffs the birds flew up in clouds, screaming, their cries drowned by the roar of the engine. Rex Cummin leaned forward, staring down, his eyes fixed on the pile of grey stone which had been the tower of Duncairn. He had a note pad on his knee and there was a pen in his hand, but he made no attempt to write. Out at sea the fog banks were a pearly white, obliterating the horizon, but inland the ground was bathed in sunshine. His eyes gleamed. Far below the sleeping rock, below the matted bracken and heather and dry grass there was oil. He knew it in his bones. In the hotel Jack Grant stood at the office window watching as the helicopter circled. He frowned, noting the logo painted on its side, then he reached for the phone and dialled the number Neil had given him. He consulted his notes. ‘Does the Greek letter Sigma mean anything to you?’ he asked as the line connected. In Edinburgh Neil cursed. 8 (#ulink_cdd8cc1a-ec66-5e99-8100-fec977c7cb47) The offices of Sigma Exploration were on the third and fourth floors of a glass-fronted block overlooking the Thames at Westminster. Sitting at his desk in the deeply carpeted, luxurious executive suite, Rex Cummin could look across the river towards the Houses of Parliament and it still gave him something of a thrill, after three years, to see the silhouette of the Victoria Tower and Big Ben against the clear duck-egg glow of the early morning London sky. He was sitting at his desk now, and in front of him on the blotter was a closely typed report. He picked it up and read it again slowly. He was smiling. … Beattie Cameron Westlake Pierce … rumours about undercapitalisation … insider dealing … possible investigation by the Stock Exchange Council … Paul Royland’s name mentioned in the press, on each occasion unfavourably … directors in internal squabble over funding … Sir Duncan Beattie defends Royland to colleagues over Beattie Committee controversy … MP’s brother suspected over collusion in funding scandal … Rex’s face creased into a contented smile. He picked up the phone. ‘Leonie, honey, would you fix up a lunch with Diane Warboys for me? It must be before Friday. You’ll find her number in the file under BCWP in Coleman Street. Oh, and honey, would you send some flowers to Mrs Clare Royland? I have her address here, and I’ll give you a note to go with them.’ He chuckled as he put down the receiver. He lay back in his chair and, tapping his teeth with his pencil, he picked up the report again. At last things were beginning to go his way. Emma was meeting Diane Warboys that lunchtime at El Vino’s in Martin Lane. She glanced at her watch and then looked around her again at the other diners, drumming her fingernails on the menu which lay beside her on the checked cloth. Sally would only cover at the gallery for another couple of hours. It wouldn’t give them much time. They had drifted into meeting about once every two or three months after they first met more than a year ago at a party James had given for some of his friends and colleagues at his flat in the Barbican, and Emma found herself frequently asking herself why she and Diane should get on so well together. They were so different in every way. Diane, American, brittle, ambitious, smart as a fashion plate, efficient, very bright and dedicated to her career; herself, not exactly dowdy – more comfortable, bright, yes, efficient, no – She smiled to herself. A career woman too, now, or trying to be, with the gallery on Kew Green nearly six months old. For a while Emma had wondered if what she and Diane had in common was her husband, Peter, but on the whole she thought not. Surely, Diane wouldn’t be able to look her in the eye if that were so. ‘Hello. I’m sorry I’m late.’ Diane descended into the chair opposite Emma and propped an attaché case against the table leg. ‘We were dreadfully busy in the office this morning; and I’m afraid I’ll have to be fairly brief. The boys are covering for me, but I never like to let them think they can manage without me for too long.’ She smiled. ‘What are we drinking?’ ‘In my case white wine.’ Emma indicated her glass. ‘I’ll have the same. So, how are you? Are you coming to Singapore with Pete?’ Emma could feel herself stiffening. ‘Was I invited?’ Diane looked at her steadily. ‘I don’t know. Were you?’ She paused for a moment, searching Emma’s face. ‘Pete and I have never had an affair, you know. There is nothing like that between us.’ She smiled at the waitress who had brought her glass. Emma looked down at the table. ‘I never thought there was,’ she said quickly. Too quickly. Had her thoughts been that easy to read? Diane reached over and picked up the menu. ‘There is no time for that kind of relationship in the office, Emma. You should know that. Incestuous though the City is with everyone knowing everyone, it just wouldn’t work. Not for long. With your husband and your brother working there you should know that.’ There was a moment’s silence as she studied the menu, then she looked up. ‘Paul is a workaholic like Peter, I suspect, isn’t he?’ The question was very casual. Emma laughed. ‘I suppose he is; I try and avoid my brother where possible. We don’t get on.’ Diane played with the stem of her glass. ‘I had dinner with Paul and Clare on Saturday.’ She smiled reminiscently. ‘It was marvellous. Clare went into some sort of trance in the kitchen, or that is what Henry thinks – anyway she disappeared for a long, long time, and dinner was an hour late. Paul nearly had a fit because the Beatties were there, and Clare was unrepentant and told Lady Beattie she was someone of no importance.’ She chuckled again at the memory as she sipped her wine. ‘Paul and Clare don’t get on, do they?’ Emma frowned. ‘I think they’re going through a rough patch,’ she said cautiously. She glanced at Diane. During the week the latter wore no make-up at the office – her face was ostentatiously naked, the lashes thin and fair, almost invisible. It made her look very young and naive. Emma wasn’t fooled. ‘I doubt if Paul would ever have an affair,’ she said gently. ‘He really isn’t keen on women at all.’ ‘But he’s not queer?’ ‘Of course he’s not queer. But he is single-minded; and cold. I was never actually sure why he married Clare.’ ‘For her money?’ Diane raised an eyebrow. ‘Perhaps.’ Emma shrugged. ‘Not that she has as much as all that; not as much as people think. Just her lands in Scotland which I suppose might be worth a fortune. I don’t know. I do know Paul was furious when she didn’t inherit any money as such.’ She paused, frowning suddenly. Had he just married Clare for her money? Was that the reason Clare was so unhappy now? ‘Clare is a very attractive woman,’ she went on, half thoughtfully. ‘I don’t see any reason why he couldn’t just have fallen in love with her. She was all right, was she, after her’ – she hesitated – ‘her trance?’ ‘Right as rain. In fact she was more animated than I’ve ever seen her. She and Paul –’ Diane paused, choosing her words with care. ‘Do you think their marriage is over?’ ‘No.’ Emma was suddenly resentful of the questions. ‘No, I’m sure it isn’t. They’ll be fine. All they need is a bit of time to get over their disappointment about not being able to have children.’ ‘I didn’t know they couldn’t have children.’ Diane raised an eyebrow. ‘I’m sure they don’t broadcast the fact. And don’t you, either. I shouldn’t really have told you.’ ‘Oh come on. I’m a family friend.’ Diane sat back in her chair and crossed her long legs uncomfortably under the small table. ‘Besides, who am I going to tell? I don’t know anyone who would be interested.’ ‘Would you like me to get anything for you when I’m in Ipswich this afternoon, Mrs Royland?’ Sarah appeared in the doorway of the drawing room so suddenly that Clare jumped. She pushed back the pile of unopened letters on her writing desk – the invitations to charity events, the pleas for money, at least two demands that she join fund-raising committees; she didn’t have to open them to know what they were. She glanced out of the window at the hazy garden and sighed. The sun was just breaking through the mist, shimmering on the copper and russet leaves of the chestnuts in the drive. Clare sighed. She stretched her arms up above her head. ‘You know, it’s so beautiful today, I think I might come with you. I could do with a change of scene.’ Sarah frowned. ‘It wouldn’t really be very easy, Mrs Royland. I …’ she hesitated. ‘I’ve so many different things to do. But I’d be happy to pick anything up for you.’ Clare bit her lip, trying not to feel rejected, trying to fight down the feeling of desolation which threatened to overwhelm her. Paul had left for London that morning, before it was light. He had slept in her bed, but he hadn’t touched her. If Sarah went out and left her in the house alone, the loneliness would return, and with it the need to fill the emptiness with daydreams. She stood up. She would go too. She must. Suddenly she was afraid, terrified of the silent rooms. She turned to follow Sarah into the hall, but as she reached the door, the phone rang. With a pleading glance at Sarah’s departing form she turned back and picked it up. ‘Clare? It’s Chloe. My dear, I had to ring you. What on earth have you been getting up to?’ Her sister-in-law sounded breathless with excitement. Clare sat down again, making a determined effort to steady herself, her fingers once more, automatically, idly, turning over the letters on the desk. Even without the sound of car tyres on the gravel outside she had known Sarah would take the chance to go without her. Her heart sank. Another afternoon alone in the house; and probably a whole evening after it, and then the night, all to be got through somehow. She sighed, fighting back the fear. ‘Clare, are you there?’ Chloe sounded indignant. ‘I shouldn’t tell you, but Geoffrey is praying for you!’ ‘Praying for me?’ Clare’s attention snapped back to the phone. ‘He’s desperately worried about you and I thought I’d better warn you, he’s going to come up and see you.’ ‘What on earth for?’ Indignantly Clare stood up. She shuffled all the envelopes into the waste bin, and stood staring out at the grass where a blackbird was standing, head cocked to one side, intently watching a patch of daisies. ‘If it’s to do with my inability to have a baby, it’s a bit late for prayers.’ She couldn’t keep the bitterness out of her voice. ‘Unless one believes in miracles.’ ‘Oh, Clare.’ For a moment Chloe was silent. ‘My dear, I was so sorry to hear about that, and it’s never too late to pray about something so important, but that wasn’t what I meant.’ She sounded deflated. ‘What then?’ Clare picked up the phone and walked to the french windows. She pushed them open and stepped out on to the terrace. The sun was warm on her head, the garden still. ‘Emma came to see us last weekend, just before Geoff went off to his conference. She came to talk about her and Pete. You know they’re having problems with their marriage because Peter is away so much. Well, Geoff took her off into his study and’ – Chloe’s voice took on a hollow ring supposed to denote awe – ‘they talked for ages.’ ‘So?’ ‘They talked about you.’ ‘Me?’ ‘It took me hours to wangle it out of him later. Clare, you must be doing something truly dreadful! Emma only mentioned it casually at first. Geoff said she didn’t seem worried. He said she didn’t realise what you were up to. So, what are you doing? Are you sticking pins in wax figures, by any chance?’ There was a breathless pause. ‘I see.’ Clare smiled wryly. ‘Oh, it’s far worse than that.’ It was hard to resist the temptation to tease her credulous sister-in-law. ‘In fact I doubt if you should even risk talking to me! The telephone wires might go white hot and burn you.’ She walked restlessly back into the house, the phone in one hand and the receiver in the other, trailing the long flex behind her. Damn Emma. Who else had she told? ‘Tell Geoff not to bother coming, Chloe. I’m beyond redemption. I’m unrepentant and probably dangerous.’ She meant it to come out jokingly, but her voice sounded too serious. Behind her the door opened a crack and a golden nose pushed through it enquiringly. Clare ignored it. ‘You must talk to Geoffrey, Clare.’ Chloe’s voice had lost its lightness. In the rectory she shivered suddenly. ‘Please. He genuinely wants to help you.’ ‘I told you, tell him not to come. Tell him to mind his own business.’ Clare took a deep breath. ‘I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said that. It’s just that there are too many people breathing down my neck at the moment, Chloe, and I don’t need it. Whatever problems I’ve got I have to sort them out myself. Look, I’ve got to go.’ Suddenly she couldn’t bear to talk any more. ‘I’ll see you in London soon. We’ll have lunch. OK?’ She put the phone down, not sure whether to be angry or amused. First Emma; now the pompous pontiff; Chloe; Henry; Zak! Was it really so dangerous to daydream about the past? Thoughtfully she walked upstairs, past the flowers in the hall and on the landing, smelling the polish and the roses, seeing the curtains blowing gently in the breeze. The afternoon was hot and still and her bedroom was very silent, shadowed by the half-drawn curtains. She stood in front of her dressing-table mirror and studied her eyes critically. They were large, a clear transparent grey, with a slightly darker ring around the iris, fringed with long dark lashes, set attractively far apart beneath a broad brow. Her fair skin was tanned to an even gold. She stared at herself, unblinkingly critical, then she began to pull off her clothes. Naked, she wrapped a towel around herself and ran downstairs. The heavy cover was over the pool but she dragged it off, feeling the wind cold now it was touching her skin, negating any warmth there might be in the hazy sunshine. Throwing down the towel she dived in, feeling her breath caught and dragged from her body by the chill of the water. Twenty minutes’ swim and an hour’s gentle, meticulous yoga left her body toned and relaxed, receptive. Automatically she drew her legs into the cross-legged position, resting her hands, forefinger and thumb circled, on her knees. Slowly she emptied her mind. Around her the crisped autumn leaves drifted down onto the pool and settled in the still, clear water. She did not see them. She was repeating to herself, as Zak had taught her, the mantra which would dispel all outside thoughts. Om Nama Shivaya; Om Nama Shivaya; Om Nama Shivaya … Don’t let the mind stray; don’t let any pictures come; relax; gently hold the mantra. Om Nama Shivaya; Om Nama Shivaya … She was stiff and cold when she had finished. Dragging the cover over the pool once more, she made her way back to the house. The kitchen was immaculate as usual, not so much as a teaspoon out of place. She curbed a sudden childish urge to make an incredible mess and went instead to the bread bin. She cut herself a thick wedge of Sarah’s homemade bread and plastered it with butter and honey, then she wandered into the hall. The house was totally silent. Casta was asleep on the lawn, under a walnut tree. Standing at the window, eating her bread, Clare watched the dog for a while, thinking idly that this – eating and doing nothing – was how people got fat. She turned. Even the fire was silent. Sarah hadn’t bothered to light it that morning, and neither had she. The phone rang as she was reaching for the box of matches. ‘Clare, I shall need you in London on the first of November. Would you put it in your diary? Dinner with the Beatties.’ Paul’s voice was uncompromisingly brusque. Clare hitched herself up on to the table, still wearing only the towel, the wedge of bread in one hand. ‘So, they’ve forgiven me, have they? And until the first, Paul. Won’t you be needing me until then?’ She emphasised the word sarcastically. ‘Clare.’ His tone was warning. ‘That is, by my count, Paul, nineteen days. One could go around the world comfortably in nineteen days. I can have a fortnight in Scotland and still be back easily –’ ‘No, Clare! I said, no!’ ‘Just how do you intend to stop me, Paul?’ To her annoyance she found her voice was shaking. ‘I’m not your property; you don’t own me.’ ‘Clare.’ Paul took a deep breath, clearly audible over the phone. ‘Darling, you’ve misunderstood me. I do need you there.’ He enunciated the words slowly as if she were a half wit. ‘Look, I’ll be home tomorrow night. We’ll talk then. I …’ he hesitated. ‘I have a surprise for you.’ ‘Really?’ Clare raised an eyebrow. ‘To have you home mid week would be surprise enough.’ She hung up and took a bite out of her bread, feeling surprisingly cheerful suddenly. For once she had had the last word. And she was right. He didn’t own her. She was not a prisoner. There was nothing to stop her leaving. Her car had been left in London because she had driven back with Paul in the Range Rover, but there were trains and taxis. She wasn’t locked in and spied on like poor Isobel. She stood up. To plan her escape would give her something to do today. She could find out train times, plan connections, arrange to hire a car when she got to Aberdeen, and in the meantime there was always Isobel. She finished her bread and honey thoughtfully. If there was some threat in Isobel’s appearance it was being perceived by others, not herself. She had been afraid when Isobel appeared suddenly and uninvited before the dinner party in London, but that had been because it had taken her by surprise. Now, when she thought about it, she could see what had happened. She had been tired. Her mind had been distracted, she had sat down with the specific intention of relaxing for a few moments, and she had lit her candles. Her brain had misinterpreted the signs, that was all. There was nothing sinister in it. To Clare, Isobel was a friend – a companion – a part of herself. Why should she let other people make her afraid of summoning the past? What possible harm, logically, could there be in a dream? It was as if a tremendous weight had been lifted from her mind. There was nothing wrong in daydreaming. Her mistake had been to tell people about it. Everyone had their secret dreams and memories; she was no different from them. Except that she had talked about them. In future she would make sure that she kept them to herself. Buoyed up with sudden resolution Clare ran up to her bedroom and, carefully closing the door, she pulled open the drawer in her dressing table where she kept the candles. Shivering as her towel slipped to the floor, she paused. For a moment she frowned. She wanted to stand naked before the candle flame, arms raised to draw back the veil into the past. It seemed a dramatic, almost natural gesture to make, one of which Isobel would have approved; one she might have made herself. But was that somehow wrong? Did that smack of deliberately summoning spirits? Was that what Zak and Geoff were afraid of? For a moment she hesitated, tempted, then, with sudden self-consciousness she turned away. She pulled on some jeans and a sweater. Then she lit the candle. Lord Buchan had returned. He stood staring at his wife, his eyes fixed on her face. ‘So, my lady, I am told you are riding dangerously long distances each day for no reason. May I know why?’ Isobel could feel the heat rising in her cheeks. She turned away from him. ‘I feel trapped here, my lord, and bored. I need the air; I need to ride!’ His eyes strayed thoughtfully to her stomach where her mantle hid the slight swell of the five-month child which all her efforts had failed to dislodge. ‘Then your desire for air must be quelled,’ he said sternly. ‘There is enough air to be had in walking the walls. The ground outside is too dangerous for riding now.’ He glanced at the heavy wooden screens over the windows. Behind them thick snow fell slowly and relentlessly, muffling the sluggish movement of the waves beneath the cliffs, smothering the ground, drifting into the rough angles of the castle walls. ‘No one should ride while this weather lasts.’ He sat down heavily on the edge of a carved oak kist. ‘As well we reached Duncairn before the tracks here became impassable. I did not expect such thick snow on the coast; inland the passes are already closed. There will be no more fighting until the spring.’ He paused. ‘I have brought visitors for you from Ellon. Our niece Alice is here, with her father. You must come down to greet her.’ In spite of herself Isobel smiled. ‘I will, gladly.’ Even Alice’s company would be better than none while she pondered ways to rid herself of her child. Lord Buchan saw the smile, and for a moment he glimpsed his wife’s loneliness. He seldom thought of her as a person. The vast Buchan lands were still ably administered by his energetic mother, so to him, Isobel was merely a dynastic necessity, a woman to whom he was married for political reasons; a woman who was there solely to provide him with an heir. What she did when he was away was of no concern to him, save where it touched his honour or his child. ‘I told her you needed company. You should not be alone over the next few months.’ He frowned. ‘She will help organise your household and see to it that you do not grow bored. It will be pleasant for you to have a woman to talk to while you spin and weave and make clothes for the child.’ Isobel clenched her fists. ‘I do not enjoy spinning and weaving, my lord. I shall go mad if I am forced to sit and listen to women’s gossip at the loom. I cannot bear being cooped up like some poor broody hen!’ She began to pace the floor. ‘I would rather hear the conversation of men!’ Lord Buchan gave a grim smile. ‘Then you will be pleased to hear, no doubt, that your great uncle, Macduff of Fife, is here also.’ The great hall was crowded. Lord Buchan’s followers, and those of Macduff overflowed the hall out into the snowy courtyard. Alice Comyn, the daughter of Lord Buchan’s brother, Alexander, was standing, still swathed in heavy furs, her hands outstretched to the blazing fire. She offered a cold cheek to Isobel. ‘We thought we’d be cut off on the road through the mountains. My father’s horse went into a snowdrift up to its belly. It took two others to pull it out!’ She took Isobel’s hands in hers. ‘How are you, aunt?’ Her eyes sparkled irrepressibly. Isobel was two years her junior. ‘Uncle John tells me you need company. You must be so excited, carrying his baby!’ Isobel smiled wanly, liking the young woman in spite of the ineptness of her last remark. She remembered Alice as a pert, sneaky girl, constantly creeping into corners to whisper with the pages, but now she seemed changed. Isobel sensed sympathy and warmth in the girl to which she instantly responded. She drew her niece nearer to the fire. ‘Your own marriage is arranged, I hear,’ she said softly. Alice nodded eagerly. ‘I am to marry Sir Henry Beaumont.’ She shook her head wistfully. ‘I long to have babies of my own.’ ‘It is not something to look forward to!’ The words slipped out before Isobel could stop them. ‘To know that something is growing inside you, taking you over, possessing you! Something which is going to tear you apart and perhaps kill you so that it can take life of its own!’ She shuddered. Alice stared at her, horrified. ‘You don’t really believe that?’ Behind them the hall was noisy and hot from the flaring torches and the huge fire, which was heaped high with driftwood from the bay, and fanned by the constant draught from the doors behind the screens. Isobel stood motionless, looking at her. Alice was her husband’s niece; his spy. ‘No,’ she said shortly. ‘Of course I don’t really believe it. If women believed that, there would be no more children.’ She put her hand on her stomach where she could feel a faint uneasy fluttering. Lord Buchan’s child had quickened. Alexander Comyn, two years younger than his brother, Lord Buchan, was watching his daughter and Isobel with curiosity. He was a tall, vigorous man, of uncertain temper, but for the moment he was content. The warmth of the fire was finding its way into his bones and a servant was approaching him with a jug of wine. He looked at Isobel closely. She seemed pinched and thin, unhappy, but there was no doubt that the girl was with child. Thoughtfully he stroked his cheek. His only comfort at his own failure to sire a son – two daughters were all his wife had given him – was the fact that his elder brother had no heir. Now this late marriage with Isobel of Fife seemed likely to give John the son he desired. He scowled. ‘So, will Edward of England winter in Flanders?’ His brother was at his elbow. Sir Alexander Comyn nodded grudgingly. ‘I doubt if he’ll move before the spring. We’ll have time to plan our campaign with Wallace.’ ‘You support him wholeheartedly now, then?’ Macduff of Fife stepped forward from his stance near the fire. He strode over to his great niece and embraced her. He was a slight, wizened man, his hair grizzled, stiff and glittering still with clotted sleet which had not yet melted in the heat of the fire. ‘Isobel, child, how are you?’ He kissed her on the top of her head. ‘Are you well?’ His narrowed eyes surveyed her face intently. She was no longer the carefree child with the delightful giggle whom he remembered as being so like her spirited mother. He frowned, then he turned back to the Comyns. ‘You recognise now how much Scotland needs the Wallace.’ ‘It appears he is the leader which we lack while our king is a prisoner elsewhere,’ Alexander acknowledged. ‘He more than proved himself at Stirling Bridge.’ At last the boy with the wine had reached him. He seized the proffered goblet and, draining it, held it out for a refill. ‘It seems that all the factions within our kingdom will follow him. Even the Bruces seem prepared to support him.’ Lord Buchan’s gaze went thoughtfully to his wife’s face. ‘Robert Bruce still broods over his grandfather’s claim to the throne – a claim which his father seems singularly ill suited to pursue. I trust neither of them.’ ‘Nor I, entirely, but for Scotland’s good, Comyn and Bruce must run in harness and as long as Lord Annandale lives, his son’s pretensions are curbed. Even he sees that his father could never rule this country. He will not support a Balliol king, but while Balliol is out of the country, then he will fight for Scotland.’ He threw himself down into a chair beside the long table. ‘So, brother.’ He changed the subject abruptly. ‘You are to have an heir in the spring, I see.’ He chuckled. ‘I didn’t think you’d tame that little wild cat of yours. She looks too thin. You must see that she eats well this winter.’ Lord Buchan sighed. He sat down stiffly next to his brother, stretching his long legs out in front of him. ‘I trust that your daughter will calm her down. I am weary of fighting each time I speak to her.’ His brother threw back his head and laughed. ‘So, you are hen-pecked, brother, and those scars come from your wife’s claws, not an English pike as we all thought! I’m surprised you managed to bed her at all!’ Pleased with his joke he stood up and walking over to where Isobel stood near the fire he threw his arm around her shoulders. She shrank away distastefully, but he did not release her. ‘So, sweetheart. How are you? Is my little sister-in-law well?’ ‘Thank you, Sir Alexander, I am well.’ Her voice was cold. ‘Good, because we are going to need your good offices in the spring, when negotiations resume amongst the lords of Scotland. We must bring them together if we are to eradicate the threat of England’s suzerainty once and for all. And you have influence with some of our more recalcitrant leaders, I hear. The Earl of Carrick for one.’ He raised his eyebrow suggestively. Isobel stiffened. ‘You are mistaken, Sir Alexander. I have no influence over Lord Carrick. I have not seen him for a long time.’ She was suddenly very conscious of her husband, still sitting at the table, looking in their direction, and she wondered if he had heard his brother’s comment over the shouting and laughter in the hall behind them. There was a speculative frown on his face. As she watched he stood up and walked over to join them. ‘So, has my wife agreed to talk Lord Carrick round?’ Isobel’s heart sank. ‘I have told Sir Alexander I have no influence over my cousin,’ she said defiantly. ‘I do not see him any more.’ ‘While he was fighting on the side of the English,’ Lord Buchan’s voice was silky, ‘it would have been inappropriate for you to have done so, to say the least.’ The colour flared in Isobel’s cheeks. ‘You yourself swore allegiance to King Edward not so long since, my lord!’ ‘We have all been guilty at some time of bending before the wind,’ Macduff put in hastily from his position near the fire. ‘What matters is that we should all now put Scotland’s liberty before our personal ambitions and quarrels and free her of the domination of England for good. And to do that we must put our differences behind us. Sir Alexander is right. Bruce and Comyn must fight on the same side.’ Did that mean that she would see Robert again? Later, in the bedchamber, Isobel allowed herself to think about the possibility. For months she had gleaned small pieces of information about his whereabouts and at last heard the devastating news that he had come into King Edward’s peace and fought for the English rather than support the Comyns and John Balliol. It was hard to believe that his hatred of the Comyns was greater than his love for Scotland and however much she tried she found it impossible to justify his actions, but even though he had betrayed Scotland she had still prayed for him, and desperately she had hoped that somehow one day she would see him again. Sometimes she thought it was her dreams of Robert which kept her sane. With a sigh she glanced around the room. Alice was sitting near her, her spindle lying in her lap. Her attendants were there too, clustered around the fire. Some of the driftwood which had come ashore had been brought up to the tower room and it crackled noisily, sending strange green and blue lights leaping up the huge chimney, a change from the calm glow of peat. Wood was usually far too valuable to burn. Dreamily Isobel allowed Mairi to help her out of her clothes and into the fur-trimmed bed gown in which she habitually slept. The woman was gently combing out Isobel’s long curling hair when the door opened and Lord Buchan walked in. There was sudden silence amongst the women. Mairi’s hands fell to her sides as she saw the disgust and fear chasing one another across her young mistress’s face, before Isobel concealed her feelings with a look of wary blankness. Lord Buchan was drunk. ‘Leave us.’ His eyes were fixed on his wife’s, but his command was unmistakably directed at the others in the room. One by one the women hastily gathered up their spinning and sewing and scuttled towards the door. Only Alice stood her ground. ‘It was good of you to come to wish us goodnight, uncle,’ she said firmly. ‘I am going to share Aunt Isobel’s bed tonight. I knew you would want to remain in the hall with my father.’ Isobel’s eyes were fixed on those of her husband. She had gone completely cold. ‘I said out.’ Lord Buchan did not even look at Alice. His brother’s joke had touched a raw nerve and he had spent the last hour, as he drank moodily in the great hall below, allowing it to fester. Alice glanced at Isobel apologetically and edged slowly towards the door in her turn. Her aunt had not moved. ‘So, at last my wife and I are alone.’ Lord Buchan moved slowly towards her. ‘I trust you will make it clear to your clucking attendants that I intend to sleep here in the lord’s bedchamber as long as I remain at Duncairn.’ ‘You must not touch me, my lord!’ Isobel found her voice at last. ‘It … it might harm the child.’ ‘Nonsense. Women can accommodate a man till their bellies are too big to get near them, and even then there are ways and means!’ He laughed coarsely. ‘It seems to me that you are always trying to keep me from your bed. You have to learn to give pleasure to your husband, my dear. Your body was made to please men. You must learn how to use it. Take off that hideous robe and let me see this belly of yours.’ ‘No!’ Isobel stepped back sharply. ‘You musn’t touch me. Please – haven’t I done my duty enough?’ ‘Your duty is to please me.’ He cornered her near the high curtained bed. Pulling open her robe he pushed it back off her shoulders and stared down. The slim child’s body had gone. Since he had seen her last she had become a woman indeed. Her breasts were full and heavy, her stomach, boyishly flat before, was rounded, her hips defined. He felt a wave of intense desire shoot through him. ‘So. You think to keep me at arms’ length, till you are delivered of my son!’ He spoke thickly as he pulled her to him. ‘Think again, sweetheart. I find you more beautiful now than ever before.’ He dropped his head to her breast, grabbing for the nipple with his teeth. Isobel caught her breath with pain. Desperately she pulled at his hair, trying to dislodge him, and, finally managing it, she pushed him violently away from her and dodged out of reach. Her eyes were dark with temper. ‘Curse you, John Comyn! Don’t you touch me again! Don’t you so much as lay a finger on me or I shall kill this child. By the gods I swear I shall kill this child and you will never have a son!’ She could feel the wall behind her, cold beneath its tapestry hanging, and she pressed her hands against it, her eyes fixed on her husband’s face. ‘Leave me! Leave me, now.’ He had gone white. For a moment he stood completely still, staring at her, then he stepped towards her. His voice was very quiet. ‘Sorceress! Witch! Don’t you ever threaten me again!’ He caught her by the shoulders. ‘I knew the devil would claim you for his own one day! Be thankful there was no one here to hear your evil tongue, my lady. Be very thankful indeed.’ He shook her, then quite deliberately he released her and, raising his hand, he hit her across the face. Her head snapped back against the wall and she sagged forward for a moment, stunned, but already he had grabbed her arms and pushed her upright again, his eyes hard. ‘Did you hear me? You are my wife, madam. In the eyes of God and in the eyes of men and at the command of the king, you are my wife, and you will obey me.’ Still stunned, she tried to push her hair out of her eyes. The side of her face was a throbbing mass of pain. ‘At the command of our king!’ She forced herself to stand upright, her voice mocking. ‘Toom Tabard. The king of Nowhere. The king without a country. He is not our king. Our true king would never have given me to you!’ ‘Ah, the father of the handsome Earl of Carrick!’ Lord Buchan raised his hand again. ‘How sad that you could not marry Sir Robert, my dear. How sad that you must be forced to love, honour and obey the husband you have.’ She dodged the next blow, trying to push past him, but he caught her easily. Pain exploded in her head as he hit her again. Blind with fury and tears of agony she clawed at his face, trying to free her wrist from his grip, then as she felt him raising his hand for another blow she sank her teeth into his fingers. With a growl of rage he tried to pull free, pushing her away from him with every ounce of strength he had. Unable to save herself, she was thrown sprawling across the high oak coffer which stood at the end of the bed. The iron-bound corner caught her in the stomach with the pain of a turning sword blade. With a scream she staggered to her feet, clutching at her belly and as, deep in her womb, the blood began to flow, she collapsed at his feet. Sarah Collins turned into the driveway and parked beneath the stag-headed oak. She turned off the engine and sat still for a moment staring at the front of the house. No lights showed and the curtains were undrawn. She frowned. Mrs Royland usually turned on the outside lights if she was going to be out late. Stiffly she climbed out of the car. The mist was thickening rapidly. She couldn’t see the lights of the village across the fields. The garden was very quiet. She felt guilty about leaving Clare alone in the house, but she hadn’t wanted to spend the afternoon with her. Acutely aware that sides were being drawn up in some domestic battle, and instinctively knowing that it would be Mr Royland who pulled the punches when the time came, she didn’t want him to think she was in any way on Clare’s side. She valued her job too much. Reaching into the back of the car for her handbag and two carriers, her afternoon’s shopping, she closed the door softly and began to walk across the gravel. The front door was unlocked. Switching on the lights she drew the curtains. ‘Mrs Royland?’ she called, suddenly nervous. Quick footsteps crossed the landing and Casta ran down the stairs, tail wagging. The sight of the dog reassured her. ‘Where’s your mistress?’ She bent and patted the thick fur. Deep down inside, she knew. She glanced around again uncertainly, and then she made her way into the drawing room. Closing the full-length curtains over the dark windows she put a match to the ready-laid fire. She would put on the kettle and then she would go upstairs. Casta followed her up, keeping close at her heels. On the broad galleried landing Sarah hesitated. The dog had stopped, hackles raised. She growled slightly and Sarah looked down. She swallowed nervously. At the end of the hall Clare’s door was standing ajar. From where she stood on the landing Sarah could see the pale glow of the candlelight. The pain grew in waves, flowing through Isobel’s body, carrying her to the edge of unconsciousness and then drawing her back. The room was hot; sweat poured from her and grew chill as she began to shiver. She was conscious of people all round her; hushed voices, hands holding hers, cool scented cloths on her face. Mairi was there, and Alice. Someone was piling more wood on the fire. She clutched at a hand, moaning as the pain came again. Mairi was bending over her, her lips moving. ‘A Mhuire mhathair! It’s what you wanted, eudail. Be brave. It’s nearly over. The child is dead. You’re losing it now. It’s what you wanted, Iseabail, eudail … It’s what you wanted!’ When it was over she slept. The bleeding had not stopped. Around her the women glanced at one another with pale faces. Nearby the tiny body, wrapped in the silk standard of the Earl of Buchan lay in a basket. With the soil frozen they could not bury it; no one dared to throw it on the fire. No one as yet had dared to tell the earl. The foetus had been male. When at last he was informed of what had happened Lord Buchan, white with fury, made his way back up to his wife’s bed chamber. ‘Murderess! Sorceress! You killed my child!’ He bent over the bed, his face twisted with rage. ‘No!’ Isobel stared up at him in terror. ‘It was you –’ ‘This entire household knows what you’ve been doing, my lady. Riding at all hours, swallowing potions to rid yourself of it.’ He towered over her, his eyes blazing. ‘In this very room you flaunted what you intended to do! And now you have achieved it. You have murdered my son. By right, you should die.’ She shook her head desperately, too weak to rise from the pillows. ‘I didn’t … I didn’t kill him … I didn’t …’ ‘Brother –’ Sir Alexander had followed the earl up the winding stair. He put his hand on Lord Buchan’s shoulder. ‘Leave it now. Nothing will mend the harm that’s done.’ He eyed the vicious bruises on Isobel’s temple and cheek grimly. ‘There will be other sons. I’m sure your wife will take better care of herself next time.’ Lord Buchan was breathing deeply, the heavy blue mantle he wore falling across the bed. The brooch on his shoulder caught the candlelight in a cold glitter. Weak from loss of blood Isobel was barely conscious. Around her the room was full of shadows. Dimly she knew that Mairi was there. She felt herself raised and feebly sipped the decoction of bramble, acrimony and horsetail in wine which was held to her mouth, then slowly, as another wave of pain overwhelmed her, the darkness closed over her again. Mairi stared up at the earl, her expression carefully veiled. ‘She must sleep now, my lord. She has lost much blood.’ ‘Please, father.’ Alice appeared out of the shadows. ‘Take my uncle away. If we are to save Aunt Isobel’s life she must have quiet.’ Lord Buchan moved back from the high bed. His face was grim. With one last glance down at his wife’s pale, bruised face he turned on his heel and strode towards the door, his spurs ringing on the stone flags beneath the dried heather. Sir Alexander followed him and the two women were left alone with Isobel. Alice glanced at Mairi. ‘Will she live?’ Mairi was fumbling in the bodice of her gown. She produced a necklace of dried rowan berries strung on a red thread. Carefully she bound it around Isobel’s throat. ‘St Bride and the Blessed Virgin willing,’ she said. ‘She bleeds still. Look.’ She indicated the stain, spreading on the sheet below the covers. ‘She did want to get rid of the child, didn’t she?’ Alice gently took hold of Isobel’s hand. ‘That is mortal sin.’ ‘Sin against the earl, perhaps,’ Mairi pushed the pewter wine jug back into the embers to warm it. ‘My mistress deserves better than him.’ Alice looked shocked. ‘My uncle is one of the greatest earls in Scotland.’ ‘He’s too old for her.’ Mairi was unrepentant. ‘And too hard. She’s like a wild bird, my little lady. She needs gentle handling. A true mate for her would be proud of her spirit, not try and crush it. Here, let me change her linen –’ Sickened at the sight of the blood Alice turned away to the fire. She shivered. ‘Is it true she loved Lord Carrick, do you think?’ Mairi frowned. Deftly packing the moss-filled strips of linen beneath her mistress’s hips she glanced up at Alice suspiciously. ‘She’s been faithful to her husband. That I know.’ ‘That’s because he’s had her watched.’ Alice squatted in front of the fire, holding out her hands to it. ‘He brought me here to watch her, too. He’s afraid of her, Mairi. I saw that just now. He can’t understand her, or control her, save by force.’ Mairi was pulling the covers over Isobel once more. ‘She needs friends, not people to spy on her,’ she commented tartly. ‘And I am her friend.’ Climbing back to her feet Alice came back to the bed. ‘But how can I make her realise it?’ ‘Friendship has to be earned.’ Mairi tightened her lips. ‘And proved. I’ll sit with her now, mistress, if you wish to go and rest.’ Alice hesitated. ‘You’ll call me if anything happens?’ ‘Aye. I’ll call you.’ Mairi sat unmoving for a long time in the silent, empty chamber, her eyes not leaving Isobel’s face. Only when the candles on the coffer near her began to smoke and gutter into pools of grease did she stir. Stiffly she rose and went to sit on a stool before the fire, her eyes fixed on the flames. Macduff visited Isobel later, sitting at her bedside, holding her hands in his. She moved a little, recognising him in the light of the single candle which burned on the table at the far side of the room. He smiled. ‘Courage, lass.’ His deeply lined face was gentle. ‘Lord Buchan will kill me,’ she whispered. He shook his head slowly. ‘He knows he shouldn’t have struck you, and there will be other babies soon enough. You must submit to him, lass. No more arguments in the great hall; no more political statements in front of his men. You deserved to be chastised for that.’ ‘Chastised!’ She raised her hand painfully to her face. ‘Is that what you call it?’ ‘Aye. Chastised.’ He sighed. ‘You’ll have time to recover, Isobel. We’ll be away as soon as the weather breaks. There is much to discuss with the lords of Scotland.’ He looked down at her, and the name of Lord Carrick hung for a moment in the air between them, unspoken. ‘Just so long as you take my husband away,’ she whispered at last. He smiled. ‘We’ll take him away, lass. Never fear.’ But the snow did not relax its grip. Weeks passed. Slowly Isobel’s young body mended and once more Lord Buchan began to think about his young wife. 9 (#ulink_14a8e86c-cafb-5679-878a-246c50be3c24) The hand on her shoulder was hesitant. ‘Mrs Royland? I’m sorry to disturb you –’ Around her the room was dark save for the candlelight. The undrawn curtains showed a starless night, opaque with fog. Clare stared up at Sarah blankly. ‘I’m sorry, but Lady Royland is downstairs.’ Sarah glanced round nervously, then switching on the table lamp she went automatically to close the curtains. ‘I wasn’t sure if I should interrupt your meditation. I hope you don’t mind, only she’s been here half an hour …’ She was aware of the dog sitting, ears flattened, in the doorway. Abruptly Casta bounded into the room, tail wagging. Sarah breathed a sigh of relief. The atmosphere had cleared. Slowly Clare stood up. She looked dazed. For a moment she stood staring down at the candle, then she stooped and, picking it up, blew out the flame. ‘Who did you say was here?’ she asked hesitantly, turning to Sarah at last. In the lamplight her face was pale. ‘Lady Royland.’ Sarah was watching her surreptitiously. ‘I’ve given her a glass of sherry and settled her in the drawing room.’ Gillian was dressed in voluminous fuchsia-coloured dungarees. She came straight to the point. ‘I think it is downright dishonest of Paul to try and break the children’s trust. I couldn’t believe it when David told me what was going on.’ Clare sat down opposite her. She felt strangely dissociated. Gillian’s sudden energy did not impress her. ‘I didn’t know about it, either,’ she said wearily. ‘But it is fair, if you think about it. If we can never have children.’ ‘Fair!’ Gillian exclaimed. ‘Paul had his share! This is for the kids!’ She moved sideways on the sofa, easing her weight with a groan. ‘Don’t tell me now that Paul is not worried about money. He must be if he’s prepared to take the cash from a baby’s piggy bank!’ Clare smiled. ‘Hardly that, Gill.’ ‘As good as.’ Gillian was breathing heavily. ‘So, if he’s not worried, why does he want the money? And don’t tell me it’s just a principle, because I don’t believe it.’ Clare gave a deep sigh. She stood up restlessly. ‘To be absolutely honest I think he must need the money. He wants me to sell Duncairn too.’ ‘And are you going to?’ Clare shook her head. ‘No.’ She paused uncomfortably. ‘I’m not being disloyal, it’s just that he demands I sell it, without telling me why he wants the money, and Duncairn isn’t just another asset to be bought and sold like so many shares. It’s part of me.’ She gave an embarrassed smile. ‘Does that sound very sentimental?’ ‘I don’t see why you shouldn’t be sentimental.’ Gillian sounded comfortably practical. ‘I think Paul has been having things too much his way. It’s time we all said no. I take it you and he had a row last week, and that’s why you didn’t come to the party?’ Clare nodded ruefully. ‘I’m sorry. I just couldn’t face a whole weekend with him.’ Gillian sighed. ‘I can’t say I blame you. Impossible man! I can’t think how you can stay married to him.’ She laughed. ‘No, don’t tell me. No doubt he has hidden charms.’ She reached for her sherry glass. ‘But seriously, Clare. David is worried about him. You don’t think he’s done anything silly in the City, do you? He hasn’t been speculating and losing millions?’ ‘I am sure we’d have heard if it was anything like that.’ Clare smiled unhappily. Gillian sniffed. ‘Well, you’d better warn him. David can’t have the Royland name involved in any scandals.’ ‘I thought our dear Member of Parliament was involved with environmental issues. He’s got no interests in the City, surely.’ Clare stooped and threw a log on the fire. ‘Only his father’s shares which they all got. Nothing else. And of course he’s declared his interests there. But his reputation has to be protected. If there were the slightest whiff of dishonesty in the family it could be disastrous for his career.’ ‘Well there isn’t.’ Clare flared up suddenly. ‘So stop being so bloody self-righteous! Why doesn’t he stop worrying about Paul and worry about the environment instead? Places like Duncairn, for instance. I’ve had an offer to buy it from an oil company. They want to destroy that beautiful place!’ ‘You’ve actually had an offer?’ Gillian echoed. ‘You mean there’s oil there? No wonder Paul wants you to sell it!’ ‘I told them there was no question of selling, ever.’ Clare hesitated. ‘They can’t make me, can they?’ ‘I don’t think so. But I have an awful feeling that the oil isn’t yours. The government can take it any time they like, can’t they?’ Gillian grimaced. ‘I’ll ask David if you like. He’ll know.’ ‘They never wrote back after I turned down their offer, so I hoped the matter was closed.’ Gillian stood up with a groan and put her hand to her back. ‘Well, I hope for your sake it is. I must go. I’m terrified I’m going to drop this child on someone’s carpet. It’s due any second, and they come so quickly …’ She smiled smugly. ‘Take care of yourself, Clare. Don’t let Paul bully you. And tell him to forget about the trust. OK?’ Geoffrey Royland arrived at ten o’clock the following morning at the wheel of a dusty Audi estate. He was wearing his dog collar, with a rumpled rust-coloured sweater. Following Clare into the cold drawing room he stared around as she set the tray of coffee on the table. ‘I’m sorry the fire’s not lit. Sarah went shopping for me early and she must have forgotten. It’ll soon warm up in here.’ She handed him a cup, then, glancing out of the windows at the garden which was still swathed in damp mist, she reached for the matches and knelt before the fire. ‘I suppose you’ve come about the trust as well. I had Gillian here yesterday.’ She sat back and watched as the flame flared on the firelighter and spread to the rest of the kindling, licking along the twigs and across the bark of the apple logs. Behind her, her brother-in-law stood, coffee cup in hand, and stared down at her thoughtfully. ‘I was passing on my way up to Norwich actually,’ he said after a pause. ‘I thought it would be nice to look in and see how you were. I’m not here about the trust.’ ‘Good, because it’s nothing to do with me. You and David and Paul can fight it out between you.’ He studied her for a moment. She was looking particularly attractive in a flared emerald-green skirt and green and black sweater. He had always thought her a good-looking woman, particularly her eyes. There was something especially appealing about her eyes. But he was shocked to see how tired and strained she was looking. ‘I was so sorry, Clare, to hear about the results of the tests.’ He sat down and balanced his cup on his knee. ‘Chloe told me. I hope you don’t mind.’ He saw her knuckles whiten on the poker as she stirred the fire and he paused for a moment waiting for her to speak. When she didn’t he went on gently, ‘Have you and Paul discussed adoption?’ ‘We haven’t discussed anything much lately.’ She put the poker down, but she stayed where she was, staring into the fire with her back to him. ‘I’m just glad all the tests and things are over.’ ‘You’re not going to seek a second opinion then?’ ‘No.’ She tightened her lips. ‘I see.’ He paused again, then he went on, choosing his words with care. ‘And are you going to go on with your study of yoga?’ ‘How did you know I was studying yoga?’ Slowly Clare stood up. When she turned to face him she had remembered Chloe’s call and she was smiling impishly. ‘Of course. Emma told you, didn’t she?’ ‘She mentioned it, yes.’ Geoffrey looked down at his cup. ‘My dear, I don’t want you to think I’m interfering, but I was a little concerned when I heard what you were doing. Can we talk about it?’ ‘That sounds very portentous, Geoffrey.’ She sat down opposite him. ‘Does the Church of England disapprove of yoga?’ ‘Yoga is often misunderstood, Clare. Practitioners of it tend to emphasise the fact that it is just a method of exercising and relaxing one’s body. They play down the fact, either intentionally or because they do not know it, that it is also a spiritual exercise, designed to bring about changes in one’s whole psyche, and that if one does it properly it can open and expose one’s mind and soul, and leave them very vulnerable.’ He smiled ruefully. ‘Does that sound very pompous?’ She nodded. ‘I’m afraid it does rather. A far cry from the classes they give in the village hall here.’ ‘But you didn’t learn it in the village hall, did you?’ He put down his coffee cup. ‘I gather that the man who taught you has also taught you something about meditation.’ ‘Which again comes highly recommended in every book you pick up these days. It’s the panacea of the eighties.’ She frowned. ‘It’s not dangerous, Geoffrey.’ He scowled. ‘Tell me about these visions you see.’ ‘You mean the one with the horns and the cloven hooves and the tail with a point on the end?’ Outside the sun was fighting its way out of the mist. A ray of sunlight crept slowly across the carpet and stopped at her feet. He didn’t laugh. For a long moment he watched her intently, then at last he looked away. ‘You think it all a joke?’ ‘No.’ She shook her head. ‘It’s not a joke. Not to me – but it is when you take it so seriously.’ She refused to allow herself to think about what Zak had said. ‘I take it seriously because it’s a serious matter, Clare.’ ‘You’re talking about the witchcraft now, of course.’ She looked at him solemnly. ‘I didn’t think I’d told Emma about that. There are a lot of covens in East Anglia – but there are waiting lists. One would be lucky to get into one.’ She walked over the window and stared out, so he couldn’t see her face. ‘I’m getting very good at it.’ Behind her Geoffrey swallowed. ‘Clare –’ ‘It was frightening at first, of course – especially the first time I raised the devil. It’s hard to remember the ceremonies; the incantations – but when it works …’ She turned to face him. ‘Don’t you believe me? You should ask Sarah. She’ll tell you. She caught me at it last night. She was almost terrified to death.’ ‘Clare –’ ‘The Church of England is boring, Geoffrey.’ She was speaking very fast. ‘It hasn’t reassured me, or comforted me. It leaves me cold. I’m sorry. But it’s true. And if it’s concerned about my soul I’m grateful – but I don’t need its concern. I’d rather go on my own way.’ ‘Will you tell me what you do?’ ‘The ceremonies are secret. You know better than to ask that.’ She was swinging from humour to seriousness so quickly he was not sure which was which. ‘Then tell me what happens. Do these people appear to you as apparitions?’ ‘They appear as people; in my head. They are daydreams. Imaginary. Nothing to do with you.’ ‘But they are not daydreams, are they? You are summoning them.’ ‘Imagining, summoning. What’s the difference? It is not as though any one else can see them. At least …’ She stopped in mid sentence. She was staring at the dog who was lying head on paws near the door. Casta had sensed them. And so had Zak. She shivered suddenly. Geoffrey was watching her closely. He frowned. ‘Please let me help you, Clare,’ he said. His voice was uncharacteristically gentle. ‘Please. I can get rid of them for you.’ She stared at him. ‘Get rid of them?’ ‘These people who are tormenting you.’ ‘They are not tormenting me! And I don’t want to get rid of them!’ Her indignation flared again. ‘I care about them, Geoff. Isobel is like another me. I want to know all about her. I want to dream about her, or conjure up her shade or whatever it is I’m doing. She belongs at Duncairn. She’s part of my history; she’s part of me. She’s living again through me. And I intend to go on summoning her to me, even if it does put my soul in jeopardy!’ She took a deep breath. ‘What sort of life do you think I lead here, Geoff? What do you think I do all day?’ She sat down near him. ‘I’m young; I’m energetic; I’m intelligent. I can’t have children, so I’m not spending my time with my family. I have a housekeeper to look after the house. My husband doesn’t want me to work – and up to now I haven’t been able to face the hassle of fighting with him about it. He doesn’t want me with him all the time either. I spent a lot of time raising money for charity when we were first married – but he resented even that time I wasn’t with him. I have no friends around here. A lot of acquaintances, but no one I could call a friend. I wanted to go up to Scotland to see my mother and to go to Duncairn – but he wouldn’t even let me do that! So, what the hell am I supposed to do all day?’ Her voice had risen passionately. ‘I took up yoga, Geoffrey, to try to learn calmness, to reduce stress, to try to have a baby. That, it appears, is never going to happen, but I have grown to enjoy yoga and meditation, to rely on it, if you like. It makes me feel good and it gives me a prop when I need one. I am beginning to fight my way out of this morass of boredom and indecision. I am beginning to question what the point of it all is. And because of that, I am beginning to make sense of my life.’ She paused and smiled at him. ‘I’ve always had dreams, Geoff. I’ve always been haunted by the past. That is nothing new. What is new is that I’ve learned to call it up at will, and learn from it.’ ‘I appreciate that you have problems with your marriage, Clare.’ Geoffrey rubbed his cheek with his hand. ‘But they can be faced in other ways.’ He hesitated. ‘You must see, my dear, that what we are talking about has gone beyond daydreaming. You are not some sort of female Walter Mitty. You are lighting candles and invoking the spirits of the dead. And they are, as you have found, only too eager to communicate. It is dangerous, Clare.’ In the long silence that followed as they stared at each other they both heard the scrunch of car tyres on the gravel outside the house. Clare shivered again. She swallowed. ‘That will be Sarah coming back. I think you’d better go, Geoff.’ Slowly Geoffrey stood up. ‘Of course.’ He reached out and took her hands. ‘Please think about what I’ve said, Clare, I beg you. And feel you can ring me at any time. If you’re lonely, come and see us. Chloe is very fond of you. We both are. And I’ll have a chat with Paul. He must be made to realise that you need something to occupy you –’ ‘Don’t you say a word to Paul!’ She was angry suddenly. ‘I am quite capable of talking to my own husband. Keep out of it, Geoffrey. I’m working things out my own way.’ In the distance the doorbell pealed. ‘Now, go. Please go. Sarah must have forgotten her key –’ She almost ran into the hall. Outside there was a florist’s van. There was no sign of Sarah or her car. A young woman was standing on the gravel, staring up at the house front, a cellophane sheaf of flowers in her arms. ‘Mrs Royland?’ Clare carried the flowers back into the drawing room where Geoffrey was still standing awkwardly in front of the fire. He smiled as she laid the flowers down on the coffee table. ‘It looks as though someone loves you after all.’ He watched as she unpinned the note which came with them. Tearing open the envelope Clare read the carefully written message and her face went white. ‘So sorry to hear you are unwell, but delighted you have reconsidered the sale of Duncairn. Look forward to meeting you when you are recovered. Very Best Wishes. Rex Cummin.’ The sea was churning restlessly over the rocks at the foot of the cliffs. Neil walked to the place where the wall had fallen and peered down into the dark. A gentle south wind touched his cheek with cold fingers. Above, the sky was ablaze with stars. ‘It’s very quiet, isn’t it?’ Behind him Kathleen glanced nervously down over his shoulder towards the white luminescence which was the sea curdling on the rocks far below. She turned and walked back towards the keep, feeling the chill of the dew soaking into her shoes. ‘What a spooky place. Where is the oil? Right under the castle?’ Neil hadn’t moved. Hands in pockets, he hunched his shoulders. ‘It’s very deep. It would cost a lot to drill here.’ ‘But not a fraction as much as it costs to drill under the North Sea, presumably.’ She paused. ‘I like your Mr Grant at the hotel. You’ve got an ally there.’ Walking back to him, she took his arm. ‘We didn’t need to come up here, Neil.’ ‘I needed to.’ He turned to go with her. ‘This place is special, Kath. Can’t you feel it? It represents everything that Scotland stands for. A castle high on a cliff; a castle which has stood here for eight hundred years; a place where they fought for Scotland’s independence. A place where men and women died to save Scotland’s resources for herself.’ Kathleen shivered. In spite of herself she glanced over her shoulder. Ever since they had walked out into the darkness after dinner she had had the feeling they were being watched. ‘Scotland didn’t have many resources. Not until the oil came,’ she said gently. ‘Scotland has always had resources. Her people; her learning; her pride and independence …’ Kathleen grinned ruefully. ‘So, do I gather that if it were a Scots’ oil company you wouldn’t feel so bad about their bid?’ ‘No. Even then we would fight. The environmental threat is too great. Imagine it, Kath. A hundred-foot drilling rig here, on the cliffs. It would be sacrilege!’ He pushed his hands deep in his pockets. ‘But an American oil company – run by people who know nothing of Scotland – who have never even been here! That is scandalous.’ ‘Jack Grant said they’d been up here at the weekend.’ ‘Oh yes, another surveyor, no doubt. I don’t expect Cummin has ever been here, or his US directors. The people in charge of wrecking places invariably live thousands of miles away.’ High above them the tower rose black against the luminous sky, the broken walls jagged and irregular in front of the stars. Where was Clare Royland? Why wasn’t she here, fighting? ‘Neil –’ Kathleen was beside him again. ‘Go back to the hotel, Kath, please. I need to think.’ There was a long silence. He could feel her eyes on his face in the darkness. Then she shrugged. ‘OK. I’ll see you later. Don’t fall over the edge, now.’ He watched as her figure faded into the darkness, then he turned back towards the castle. How could Clare Royland even contemplate selling? How could she betray her roots, her heredity like this? Couldn’t she feel it when she came here? The pull? The tie which held the sons and daughters of Scotland to the land. He pictured her yet again with her expensive car and her rich, beautiful clothes and he frowned as somewhere a bird let out a long mournful cry. He and Clare Royland were going to have to meet … ‘So, how are you enjoying working in a man’s world, honey?’ Rex smiled at Diane Warboys as she sat opposite him in the pink alcove at Corney and Barrow. ‘As challenging as you hoped?’ ‘It’s not strictly a man’s world any more, Rex. But it is challenging, yes, and I’m enjoying it enormously.’ She leaned back in her chair and looked at him hard. It had been nearly ten years since she had last seen her godfather. Then he had been based in Houston, and she had called in to see them one vacation when she was at school. He was still an extraordinarily handsome man, tanned, silver-haired, with a smile which could charm a bird out of a tree, but he was tired – she could see it in his eyes. ‘How are you and Mary?’ She smiled at him fondly. ‘I had no idea you were based in London now.’ ‘We’re just fine.’ Rex sighed. ‘Getting older. But that’s to be expected, I suppose.’ She laughed. ‘You old fraud. You don’t look a day over forty.’ ‘Well, I’m quite a bit older than that, honey.’ His face was sober for a moment. ‘A lot more than that. But let’s talk about you. What is it like, working for BCWP? Are they good people?’ ‘The best. Well almost. We were number two, last year.’ Rex frowned. ‘So, there’s no truth in the rumours that they’re undercapitalised.’ Diane raised an eyebrow. ‘My, we have been doing our homework.’ She grinned. ‘No truth at all. The firm is solid. There were one or two shaky moments when they first set up, but not any more.’ ‘I came across the name of one of your directors the other day.’ He glanced up at her under his eyebrows. ‘Paul Royland.’ He noticed the slight colouring of her cheeks and he frowned. ‘Do you know him at all well?’ ‘I had dinner with him and his wife last weekend, actually.’ Diane eyed him cautiously. ‘Why do you want to know?’ ‘Just curious to know what kind of people my goddaughter is working for.’ He grinned. ‘Is he a good business man, do you reckon?’ ‘I don’t know.’ She glanced away. ‘He’s on the banking side, so I don’t see a lot of him.’ ‘You just said you had dinner with him, Diane,’ his voice was softly wheedling. ‘You must know him quite well to have done that.’ ‘I was taken, by one of his co-directors. Henry Firbank. We go out from time to time.’ ‘I see.’ Rex leaned forward and steepled his fingers over his glass. ‘I see. So tell me, from what you know of him, would you say Paul Royland would be a good man to do business with?’ Diane frowned. ‘Is that what you’re thinking of doing? Raising money through BCWP?’ ‘Possibly. But I was thinking on a more personal level. I want to know if he’s sound.’ His voice had sharpened. She looked down. ‘So. This isn’t just a social lunch. You’ve asked me here for a reason. I might have guessed, you old fraud. You don’t change, do you? Well, the answer is I don’t know. There have been rumours.’ She glanced up at him, uncomfortable now with his questions. ‘I shouldn’t tell you any of this, Rex.’ ‘It won’t go any further, honey.’ He reached over the table and took her hand. ‘But I need to know.’ ‘Well,’ she hesitated again. ‘Henry would never say anything, he’s too loyal, but I know Paul’s sister, Emma, quite well, and she’s let slip a few things. Her husband is on the Far East desk, and she has no idea of how to keep tactful silence about things he’s told her about the office.’ She smiled fondly. ‘And of course, Peter only tells her because she is Paul’s sister! Peter thinks that there may have been trouble about the Hannington takeover, when the price dropped when they had the strike. Do you remember? The shares shot up and there were screams of insider dealing. Then the takeover fell through. I suspect Paul lost a lot of money over that deal. I think he can be less than shrewd sometimes.’ ‘But you like him anyway.’ Rex raised an eyebrow. ‘Is it that obvious?’ ‘Only to me. I’ve known you too long. So, what about his wife?’ Diane sighed. ‘She is rich and stunningly beautiful. I would never stand a chance.’ ‘You too are stunningly beautiful, my Diane.’ He smiled at her, raising his glass. ‘Do you like her?’ Diane shrugged. ‘I’m not sure, to be honest. She’s strange. A bit vague.’ ‘And what is his sister like, apart from garrulous?’ ‘Nice. You’d get on well with her.’ ‘And is she close to her brother?’ He made the question casual. Diane laughed. ‘She can’t stand him. Poor Emma. Like Clare she is not really a City wife. Neither of them fit in. They don’t know what to talk about.’ ‘And yet you get on with her.’ ‘Perhaps that’s because I’m different too.’ She grinned. ‘I’m a woman and I’m American. That makes me an outsider in the City as well. Why are you showing such an interest in the Roylands, Rex? Are you sure it’s just business?’ ‘I’m interested in you, honey. That’s all. I want to know all about you. It’s been too long since we’ve seen you. I tell you what. Why don’t you bring your boyfriend – Henry, did you say he was called? – to dinner one evening. Mary would be thrilled with that …’ ‘What the hell do I do, James?’ Clare’s knuckles were white on the receiver. She had dialled her brother’s number before Geoffrey’s car had vanished down the drive. ‘Sell, Clare. You’d be crazy not to. They don’t have to buy, you know. They could just apply for a licence to drill. And there would be nothing you could do about it. The oil isn’t yours, sis.’ ‘What do you mean, it isn’t mine?’ ‘Oil belongs to the country, Clare. They can take it, whatever you say. My guess is that this company wants the land and the hotel to ease the hassle. But they’ll get the oil if the government grants them a licence.’ ‘I don’t believe you!’ ‘It’s true, Clare.’ ‘Have you been talking to Paul about this?’ ‘He asked me about Duncairn. He can’t understand why you didn’t want to sell.’ ‘So he decided to sell over my head! That’s what it sounds like.’ ‘Well, he can’t do that, so don’t panic. No one can force you to sell or sell without your consent. Married Women’s Property Act and all that!’ She took a deep breath, trying to calm herself. ‘You are sure?’ ‘Paul must have told him you are ill as an excuse to start negotiating on your behalf. All you have to do is ring this man and deny it.’ ‘I can’t. I threw away the letter. I can’t remember the solicitor’s name …’ James looked heavenwards. ‘Ask the florist, Clare, but I think you’ll find that the firm is called Sigma.’ Rex phoned her back as soon as he got back to his office. ‘Mrs Royland. How are you?’ He sat down at his desk and leaned back, staring out at the murky sky. ‘I’m very well, Mr Cummin. Thank you for the flowers, but they weren’t necessary. And I’m afraid you are under a misapprehension. I have not changed my mind about selling Duncairn. It is not and never will be for sale. And if my husband has led you to believe that he is empowered to act on my behalf he is misleading you. He has no authority to act for me. None at all.’ She could feel the receiver slipping in her hand. ‘Please leave us alone, Mr Cummin. There is no oil at Duncairn.’ ‘Ah. There, my dear lady, you are wrong. There is oil there.’ ‘Then leave it there. This country doesn’t need any more oil.’ ‘There is always demand for oil, Mrs Royland.’ He leaned forward on the desk, easing his weight on the chair. ‘Why don’t you and I meet? I’d like to explain things to you, tell you our schedule, put your mind at rest. I could show you my plans for the hotel and the castle. I think you’d like what I have in mind. I’m a Scot by descent, Mrs Royland. I care about that castle as much as you do.’ Конец ознакомительного фрагмента. Текст предоставлен ООО «ЛитРес». Прочитайте эту книгу целиком, купив полную легальную версию (https://www.litres.ru/barbara-erskine/kingdom-of-shadows/?lfrom=334617187) на ЛитРес. 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