Authors: Robin Pilcher
Tags: #Romance, #Contemporary, #Adult
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The writing of this book was always a possibility, never an inevitability. For it to have come to fruition, my deepest thanks go to my wife, Kirsty, who was always there to read a chapter, a page, a sentence, a word; to Ros, who constantly encouraged and dug her son out of a literary hole more times than can be admitted; to my sister Pippa and family, who guided a lost Scotsman around Long Island; to Matthew Gloag, Bill Lumsden and Tony Tucker for their infinite knowledge of the whisky industry; to Miranda Lindsay and Charlie Pank, two Oxford students split by a decade or two; to David Nichol, who helped me thrash out the constitutional issues; to Alexander Dundee for keeping me straight on the House of Lords; to Felicity Bryan, my agent, for being on hand always at the right time; and finally to Tom, my editor extraordinaire, who, having encouraged me to write over a period of ten years, gave his all when the time came.
Jane Spiers drove with extreme caution through the pelting rain, her shoulders hunched over the steering wheel as she strained to make out the blurred outline of the road ahead. The windscreen wipers of the old Subaru struggled to cope with the deluge pouring down from the cold grey skies, and the feeble wheezing of the car's hot-air fan was of little help in clearing the steamy fog that had developed on the inside of the windows. That was Arthur's fault. He sat, enclosed in the boot by a large dog rack, soaking wet and panting heavily after his exertion on the moor. Jane opened the window a fraction to see if a little air circulation might help but shut it immediately when she felt the sliver of icy Scottish weather suck the warmth from the car. In all the forty years that she had lived in Scotland, she could not remember a May so cold and miserable.
Turning off the main road through a pair of lodge-gates, newly painted and bearing a sign marked
, she drove up the long tarmacked avenue, the tall oak trees on either side at last offering some protection against the elements. In this new-found shelter, the windscreen wipers' performance improved, and Jane crunched into a higher gear.
After half a mile, the drive opened out into a gravel sweep that rounded in front of the large Victorian house. Picking up one of her gloves from the passenger seat, Jane wiped the condensation off the windscreen, eager to complete the last few yards of her journey without running over either the trimmed edge of the grass border or one of the three black Labradors who customarily came bounding down the front-door steps.
On this occasion, there was no such welcoming committee, but even as she lurched the car to a halt in front of the house, Arthur sat up in the back and whined, his ears pricked forward and his nose pressed through the square mesh of the dog rack, anticipating a mad tear-around in the garden with his three black friends. Jane looked at his plaintive face in the rear-view mirror.
“Good boy, Arthurâyou stay there,” she said, pulling up the hood of her Barbour jacket and tightening the draw-string under her chin. “I won't be long.”
Holding hard to the door in case the wind took it completely off its ageing hinges, Jane clambered out of the car, then, slamming the door shut, she scrunched her way in a half-run across the wet gravel and up the steps to the front door. With the informality of a frequent visitor, she opened up one of the heavy oak double doors and let herself in.
“Oooee!” she called out. “Anyone he-ere?”
No immediate reply. She took off her dripping Barbour and hung it on a hook amongst the collection of heavy tweed overcoats and waterproof jackets, then, clearing a space for herself on an old church pew, a dumping ground for fishing-tackle, hats and garden implements, she sat down to take off her sodden walking shoes.
“Hullo-o! Anyone here?” she called out again, and looked around to see if anyone had taken any heed of her call. The hallway of Inchelvie House stretched to the full height of the edifice, and was dominated by a huge central staircase which divided at right angles halfway up, leading to a balustraded landing above. Dark oak-panelled walls were lined with large family portraits intermingled with an eerie selection of crossbows, double-handed swords and shields, and above them, ranging to the highest point of the house, an array of about forty stags' heads, all rather old and moth-eaten. Jane smiled to herself, her own private thought always being that it was a toss-up as to which of these three adornments was the most hideous.
She left the pew and padded in her stockinged feet across the hallway. Approaching the bottom of the staircase, she became aware of a man's voice coming from the drawing-room. It was not a voice she recognized, more the deep, serious tone that might belong to a solicitor or chartered accountant, and instantly she wondered if she had chosen a bad time to call. She was caught in a moment of confusion, whether to try calling out again or just quietly leave, when a door opened in the far corner of the hall beyond the staircase and a small grey-haired lady appeared, precariously carrying a tray of tea and oblivious to her presence.
“Hullo, Effie,” Jane said, as gently as possible, so as not to spread-eagle the little housekeeper and her load. Even at that, Effie stopped abruptly, making the contents of the tray shoot forward.
“Oh, Mrs. Spiers, whit a fright you gave me!” Effie said, steadying herself. “I didn't hear ye coming in.”
Jane walked around the side of the staircase. “I'm sorry about that, Effie. I did call out twice, as loud as I thought decent.” She smiled at the older woman, who was slowly recovering her composure. “I thought the dogs would probably have heard me. It's not like them to miss out on a good bark.” She glanced towards the door of the drawing-room. “Tell me, is this a bad time to call? I have a feeling that Lady Inchelvie might have someone with her at this minute.”
Effie shrugged up her little shoulders in a display of mousy mirth. “No, no, that's just the television you'll be hearing. Lady Inchelvie always has the volume up pretty high, and that's no doubt why the dogs never heard ye coming in.” Effie always spoke quietly, as if everything she said were imparting some hugely private secret. “The snooker's on, ye see, and there's nothing she likes better than to watch the snooker.” She moved forward, her eyes sparkling, ready to tell the best part of the tale. “Especially if yon Scottish laddie Stephen Hendry is playing. I think that she must be his greatest fan!”
Effie's face creased into another muted giggle, though it immediately gave way to a frown of concern when she noticed that Jane's jersey and tweed skirt were beginning to steam in the heat of the hall.
“Michty me!” Effie exclaimed. “You're surely awful wet! Dinnae tell me you've been walkin' oot on the moor wi' your dog on a day like this?”
Jane rubbed herself on the arm, Effie's observation suddenly bringing it home to her that she was indeed feeling rather damp. “If I didn't go out in weather like this, then Arthur wouldn't get a walk for about nine months of the year.”
“Well, we canna have you standing around here catching your death,” she said, bustling her way across the hall. “Let's get you in beside the fire, and then I'll away and fetch you an extra cup. Was Lady Inchelvie expecting you?”
“No, she wasn't. I just wanted to, wellâ¦” Jane stopped Effie by putting her hand on her shoulder. “Actually, the real reason why I'm here is that my husband asked me to pop in just to find out how everyone is. He's purposely not visited since RachelÂ â¦ well, let's just say he felt that it would be better if I dropped in, sort of in passing, rather than himÂ â¦ as the family doctor, so to speak.”
“Dinnae say any more,” said Effie, flashing an understanding smile at her. “I'll no' tell Lady Inchelvie that you're here just yet. I'll just take in her tea-things and you go through to the kitchen, and we'll have a wee chat before you go in and see her. Does that suit you?”
“That would be just fine. Thanks, Effie.”
Jane watched her scuttle off to the drawing-room, knock and enter, then turned and walked across to the door from which Effie had first appeared, and pushed it open.
The kitchen was large and utilitarian, unlike Jane's own, which she herself had lovingly converted into the hub of the house over the years. This was a complete throw-back to the green-baize-door era, all the walls being painted in a sickly yellow and cream easy-wipe gloss. There were no easy chairs, no wall decorations, just a plethora of pots and pans hanging from meat-hooks alongside three blinding strip lights above the enormous scrubbed pine table in the centre of the room, its austere cleanliness reminding her of a Victorian operating-theatre. She walked over to the old cream Aga at the far end of the kitchen and leaned on its spotless surface in order to induce some heat back into her bones.
The door opened behind her and Effie entered. “There we are now,” she said, walking towards her. “Let's get the kettle on, and we can have a good natter over a nice cup of tea.”
Jane moved to the side of the Aga, so that Effie could put the kettle on the hob. “Can I do anything to help?”
“No, no, you just away and sit down at the table. I know where everything is in this place. Now tell me, how is Dr. Spiers keeping?”
“Run off his feet at the minute,” Jane replied, pulling out one of the kitchen chairs from the table and sitting down. “This wretched weather is really keeping the cold and flu bugs flying around. About half the children at Dalnachoil Primary School are off sick, and rather than get them brought into the surgery, he spends most of his day charging around from one house to another in the village.”
Effie moved around her familiar kitchen like an automaton, taking cups and saucers from the pine Welsh dresser, then the milk from the fridge and putting everything on the table. “Aye, we're that lucky to have a man like Dr. Spiers around here.” She took the steaming kettle off the Aga and poured water into the teapot, then, turning to face Jane, she took up her apron and rubbed her hands on it. “He really has been the saviour of this family over the past six months.”