On a sunny afternoon high in the left turret of a small, crumbling castle in the northwest of Scotland, Highland lass Daisy Montgomery scrubbed the hearthstones in her bedchamber and dreamed of finding her prince.
He’ll make me laugh,
she thought, wringing out her rag in a bucket of cold water. Then, as she applied all her muscle to the coal-black stone,
“You need to clean between the keys of the pianoforte,” her stepmother told her from the door in that cool, deliberate way she had.
And he’ll transport me,
Daisy hastily added to her mental list. She’d read that in a gothic novel once.
He’ll transport me anywhere the shrew behind me
And I’ll transport him to a place
wants to be. But I’ll go to my place first. He’d be the sort to understand.
Wishing with all her might that she didn’t have to, she turned to look at Mona. “I just cleaned the pianoforte a few days ago.”
“You’re lying,” Mona snapped. “Cassandra hit a flat note today, thanks to you. Use a string wrapped in flannel, and be sure to change the flannel after every third key. I’ll know if you don’t.”
Daisy forced herself not to cringe. “Very well,” she said in even tones, “as soon as I’m done here, I’ll do it again.”
“Oh, you’re done, all right,” Mona replied in a low register, which meant that if Daisy didn’t stand up immediately, she’d be pinched by the woman’s long talons.
Daisy dropped her rag and stood. “I suppose I’m finished then.”
Mona stalked down the gray stone corridor in her beaded black sheath with a preposterously low neckline. It was completely inappropriate for daytime, but that was typical of Mona. It went without question that Daisy would follow her.
“It’s exhausting dealing with you,” Mona said. “You’re so—” She waved her claws about.
Daisy whispered in a sad voice.
Mona hailed from Cheapside in London, and her Scottish vocabulary wasn’t exactly extensive.
was a compliment meaning fine, good, even brilliant.
“Close.” Mona laughed in a mean way. “God, you were
to high heaven yesterday after you finished cleaning the scum off the top of the moat.”
“Very well.” Daisy sighed. “Perhaps you mean …
meant bright, which seemed obvious to Daisy but was somehow not to Mona, who’d never adapted to the Highland way of life.
Daisy knew it was childish of her to take these subtle jabs at her stepmother, but it was her only solace, other than sitting with Joe and Hester in the kitchen, where each night they’d dunk shortbread in warm milk and talk in low tones about their day.
Mona nodded. “It’s despicable how
you are, you sulky miss. You ought to be like my girls. Charming. Ever ready with a nice word.”
The woman’s deluded,
Daisy thought. Perdita and Cassandra were
But Daisy was a survivor, and she knew the servants’ futures also lay in her hands, so she said, “I’m sorry.”
“You should be,” said Mona. “I’ve half a mind to give you bread and water tomorrow as punishment.”
There was only one way to deflect such a punishment: pretend to be jealous of Mona.
” Daisy told her stepmother wistfully as they passed under a portrait of Papa as a boy. “Or
“Right you are.” Mona’s breasts led her like two roly-poly foot soldiers carrying bayonets into her bedchamber. “I’d be ashamed to be. Now brush my hair five hundred strokes, or I’ll see to it that you get no supper and that you’re locked in your room until morning.”
Although she was thoroughly disgusted, Daisy refused to wince, not only at the threat and the prospect of a distasteful chore but at the changes Mona had wrought to the master suite Daisy’s parents used to share. The hangings were a garish scarlet with black lace trim instead of the pretty sage-green-and-ivory toile they’d been before. And all the lovely, light figurines and paintings Papa and Mama had collected over the years had been replaced with crouching gargoyles and dark paintings.
As she brushed Mona’s lank locks, Daisy tried to pretend she was somewhere else. But it was difficult when her stepmother kept slapping her hand and telling her she was either brushing too hard or not hard enough.
The worst came when Mona demanded her usual compliment. “What do you think of my hair?” she asked Daisy.
“It’s lush and luxuriant,” she replied.
It was the required response, even though Mona had bits of scalp showing through. The first several times Daisy had said anything else, she’d been sent to bed with no supper.
Mona smiled, close-lipped, into the looking glass, seemingly satisfied.
Inside, Daisy said
. And then a mote of dust flew up her nose and made her sneeze.
The looking glass reflected Mona’s narrowed gaze. “Sneeze one more time, and you’ll sleep in the byre tonight.”
Daisy widened her eyes on purpose. She knew it made Mona happy to see her afraid. “Not the byre,” she said in her best fearful tone.
“Indeed, the byre,” Mona replied. “It’s cold out tonight, too. You’ll have to snuggle up to those pigs.”
Mona closed her eyes, no doubt contemplating the glory of that scene in her head, and promptly fell asleep. It was happening more often … Mona had always sneaked whisky. She’d made Daisy get it for her when Papa was alive, but since he’d died, Mona drank it openly, sometimes starting before noon.
Daisy laid the brush aside. She’d made it only to two hundred fifty-two strokes this time. She lifted her stepmother under her arms and dragged her to the bed, where Daisy proceeded, through much effort, to roll Mona on top of the gaudy satin coverlet.
The grasping woman who’d taken advantage of Daisy’s grieving father began to snore. Much relieved, Daisy crept from the room and shut the door.
You’ll be doing this forever,
a mocking voice in her head said. It sounded exactly like her stepsister Cassandra. Cassandra was able to get to her in a way Mona couldn’t—because Mona was rather stupid.
Cassandra wasn’t. She was clever.
But Daisy refused to listen to Cassandra’s voice in her head.
She couldn’t. If she did, she’d cry.
And the last thing she wanted Mona or her daughters to see was her crying. The one time they had, when she’d fallen off a horse and broken her arm, not two weeks after their arrival, their jeers had haunted her for months.
Of course, Papa had been nowhere near at the time. Daisy was sure that Cassandra, who’d been standing near the small jump, had somehow spooked her mare into tripping over it.
But Daisy had learned—oh, how she’d learned!—to keep her tears to herself.
She’d learned so well, she hadn’t cried at Papa’s funeral. The night he’d died, her private grief had been wretched, a pain so deep that she never thought she’d be free of it. She still wasn’t.
And she knew she never would be.
In the kitchen, she washed her hands in a bucket of clean water, dried them on a clean piece of linen, kissed Hester’s cheek—appreciating how lovingly it was offered to her—and formed a bannock of oatmeal dough for Hester to bake on a griddle.
“Bake it extra hard, Hester,” Daisy said. “I’m hoping Mona will break a tooth on it.”
“Has she been worse than usual today?” The housekeeper was as soft as a freshly baked bun herself.
“Not really. But for some reason, I felt more provoked than usual.” Maybe because Mona had interrupted Daisy’s daydream about her prince. “She’s sleeping right now and will no doubt wake up just in time for dinner.”
Hester tsk-tsked. Daisy went out the kitchen door and down the steps to check on her potted lemon tree, the one she’d grown from a seed Papa had brought her back from London. One lovely lemon was growing on it—it was the first one ever, and she wished Papa could see it as she’d grown it especially for him.
But it was too late. He was gone. And Mona’s hatred of her, which Daisy had always been keenly aware of—even when Mona used to smile at her and hug her in front of Papa—had come out into the open since his death and was stronger than ever.
The truth was, Papa would still be here today if it weren’t for Daisy and her carelessness.
The old guilt came back, spreading through her like a pool of black bog sludge. And then, as it always did, it became guilt coupled with sorrow as thin and sharp as the blade on Papa’s old
Then … guilt, sorrow, and anger—a lumbering, suffocating anger that was always the same: accusing. Cruel. Unreasonable. Unaccepting.
She tried to breathe.
She let out a little sigh.
She was angry at herself—there was always that—but there was the beginning of something else surging in her, tendriling up from the depths of her despair and demanding notice.
She’d give it time. She must be patient. Because it might be her only lemon, too. She couldn’t afford to waste it.
Which was why moments later when Cassandra and Perdita called her into the drawing room, she straightened her spine and went to them without complaint.
“Yes, sisters?” she said in her most pleasant tones. Not because she felt like being polite but because she knew it annoyed them no end, how sweet and kind she always was to them.
Cassandra was a stunning young lady with glossy black curls and fine gray eyes. She and Daisy were almost the same age. Perdita, a year older, appeared to be a man dressed in women’s clothing, and she sounded like one, too.
dimwitted, aren’t you?” Cassandra said to Daisy. “I require tea and cakes immediately.”
Hester walked in then. “You’re impatient, lass,” she told Cassandra with a placid smile, and placed a tray of cakes upon a low table. “You’ve already asked
for tea. I’ll have you know the kettle has not yet boiled, but here’s something to pique your palate.”
“Your old bones will be fired, Hester,” Cassandra replied in sharp tones, “if you insist on being so slow. You and your simpleton brother with you.”
Daisy’s whole body stiffened with rage. How dare Cassandra threaten Hester and Joe—and then insult him so! No one had been here as long as he. For the past fifty years, the people of Glen Dewey could look up and see him, regular as clockwork, tending his sheep with loving care on the side of Ben Fennon.
He was the heart and soul of Castle Vandemere.
Hester, his younger sister, and still a fierce Highland lass beneath those wrinkles forming about her eyes, merely folded her hands in front of her. “Miss Cassandra,” she said in a gentle but firm tone, “I’m doing my verra best to serve you.”
And then she curtsied out of the room, but not before she gave a small wink to Daisy.
Winks always meant the same thing:
may the Furies rot in Hell
Hester had read about the wicked threesome in Papa’s big book of Greek mythology. Scots believed in education for all, and Hester was no exception. They also believed in calling a spade a spade, and if anyone could be compared to the three Furies, it was Mona and her two daughters.
Only because Hester was able to do so, Daisy also held her temper as Perdita ate an entire cake whole and then another. But these days, as the first anniversary of Papa’s death came near, Daisy couldn’t help thinking,
When will it be my turn?
Her turn to be in charge? Her turn to make Cassandra and Perdita uncomfortable? Her turn to oust the vermin living in her ancestral home, the ungrateful English family who’d so bamboozled her father and made her life, Joe’s, and Hester’s a living hell?
Joe knocked at the drawing room door.
“Come in,” she said, admiring the way the aged shepherd’s eyes sparkled so blue in his swarthy face. Not a day went by that he didn’t say—
day, Miss Daisy,” in his thick burr.
He did so now, and as always, his gaze was innocent and his demeanor shy. He clasped his cap to his breast and looked at her hopefully.
She gave him the response he loved. “It is, indeed, Joe,” she said with spirit.
He grinned. It was a
day to Joe even when a cold rain was slashing his face, or snowflakes found their way between his neck and the collar of his faded woollen coat. It had even been a
day the day after Papa had died, and Joe had said the words with tears streaming down his cheeks.