A taster for Tall Dark and Kilted by Lizzie Lamb
Some hours later Fliss woke with a start. Disorientated, she pushed herself up onto her elbows and tried to figure out why she was lying on a huge brass bed in a room with a turret window. Focusing on the nymphs and shepherdesses frolicking in the toile de jouy wallpaper she rubbed her eyes and stretched out on the bed, languorous as a cat.
She glanced at the clock on the bedside table and then sat bolt upright, all traces of sleep gone. Ten fifteen - it couldn’t be! The clock was wrong; it had to be much earlier - the sky was as bright as day. Realising that she’d probably slept the clock round and missed Mitzi’s party, she flopped back on the pillows, dismayed.
Some first impression she was going to make!
She reached out for her silk kimono someone had thoughtfully draped across the foot of the bed and shrugged it on. Feeling like a hung-over princess in the tower, she made her way to the window which looked over the rose gardens and the loch. Below her the party was in full swing. People were dancing on the sands in the luminous twilight and she couldn’t wait to join them. As the last vestiges of sleep drifted away, she remembered Cat mentioning something about how, during the summer in Wester Ross, it never really got dark.
Then, just as she was turning away from the window her eye was drawn towards something black and malevolent squatting on the edge of the sands. A helicopter! Of course, it must have been the beat of its rotors as it landed which had woken her from her dreams. She moved away from the window, no longer feeling like the princess in the fairy story. Somehow, the black helicopter - so out of place on the gingerbread coloured sands - generated a sense of unease.
It was difficult to say exactly why she felt on edge. Her welcome to Tigh na Locha had been genuinely warm and friendly. She was here at Mitzi and Angus Gordon’s invitation to sort out the therapy centre, had been treated like an honoured guest and given one of the best rooms in the house. So what was worrying her?
Not what - who - a voice whispered in her ear.
Until now she’d shut her mind to the possibility that Ruairi Urquhart could put a stop on the therapy centre. But here, where his word was law and even Mitzi seemed in awe of him, it now seemed a distinct possibility. Taking a deep breath, she counselled herself to think positively - when he jetted in from
Hong Kong in a couple of weeks the centre would be up and
running and there would be nothing he could do about it.
She knew she was a born worrier but - this time - she told herself sternly, there was simply nothing to worry about. ‘I’ll have oodles of time tomorrow to raise the topic of the therapy centre with Mitzi and Angus, ask a shed load of questions and get everything shipshape,’ she told her reflection in the mirror.
Tonight was all about having fun.
But as she made her way over to the en suite bathroom and caught another glimpse of the black helicopter sitting on the sands, her blood ran cold. Something about it made it seem like an omen, a harbinger of bad luck.
Fun? What was she thinking?
She was here to do a job, not to be sucked into the Urquhart’s charmed world of romantic castle in the highlands, staff to do their bidding and (from her financial viewpoint) money to burn. She had to keep her identity intact and her wits about her, if she was going to hold her own with Ruairi Urquhart. She was starting to think and act like Cat and Isla - the joint queens of procrastination. And that wouldn’t do - it wouldn’t do at all.
Putting everything from her mind, she concentrated on getting ready for the party. Her cases had been placed on top of the wardrobe, and someone had set out her toiletries on the glass topped dressing table. Walking over to a mahogany tallboy she opened the drawers and found her greying underwear and shrunken t- shirts neatly folded among scented drawer liners. A member of staff must have unpacked her case, hung her belongings in the wardrobe and put mineral water and a tin of biscuits by her bed while she’d slept. She cringed at the thought of some unknown hand unpacking her battered suitcase and making unfavourable comparisons between her Primark knickers and the silk and lace undies they more usually unpacked for house guests.
Drawn back to the window by the insistent thump-thump of the disco, she pushed it open. The delicious aroma of barbecued food wafted up, making her stomach rumble, reminding her she’d eaten nothing since breakfast.
Snatching a piece of shortbread out of the tin she munched it as she made her way to the bathroom to take a shower. The shower water was peaty brown from the hills and left her hair feeling soft and her skin glowing. She was just drying herself when Cat - channelling the punk fairy on crack cocaine look for the party - entered the room. She’d overdone the Goth pallor, heavily ringed eyes and face piercings; but, on closer inspection Fliss saw that her spectral paleness was entirely natural.
Her heart skipped a beat and her earlier disquiet returned.
‘The shit’s hitting the fan down there and heading in our direction.’ Cat rubbed her hands together agitatedly and then tucked them under her armpits like a nervous teenager.
‘Our?’ Fliss questioned, wondering how she could possibly be in trouble when all she’d done was arrive at Tigh na Locha and slept. But Cat appeared beyond listening, let alone responding to her question.
In an obvious attempt to chivvy her, Cat picked up a paisley patterned bikini and folded length of sari cloth laid out across a button backed nursing chair. Ornate bracelets, earrings, anklet and a pair of flat sandals fell out of the folds and landed at Cat’s feet. Scooping everything up, she tossed the improvised fairy costume onto the bed.
‘Get dressed. Quickly!’
‘Why?’ Fliss was becoming immune to Cat and Isla’s little dramas and refused to be rushed. ‘My hair’s soaking wet.’
‘Never mind that! Ruairi’s here. He’s arrived in Angus’s helicopter. That’s it down there on the beach.’ She muttered something in Gaelic, dragged Fliss back to the window and pointed at the helicopter. ‘Now do you get it?’ Like an understudy for Lady Macbeth, Cat’s hand-wringing recommenced. Evidently, the day of reckoning had arrived sooner than any of them had bargained for.
Fliss sat down at the dressing table and tried to remain calm, but Cat’s anxiety was contagious. ‘Your stepbrother, Ruairi? Here?’ she echoed, trying to gain herself some thinking time. Her mouth was dry and her tongue had glued itself to the roof of her mouth - whether as a result of nervousness or the two whiskies she’d drunk earlier on top of an empty stomach, she wasn’t sure.
‘Yes. Tonight of all nights. He’s come straight from Hong Kong, jet lagged and in a foul mood . . . gone ape because he didn’t know about the party . . . and we’re supposed to be grounded . . . Mitzi’s been spending money she hasn’t got, or more importantly the estate hasn’t got. And, worst of all - he knows all about the plans to revive the therapy centre. I left them having a blazing row - and with poor auld Angus playing Piggy in the Middle.’
At the mention of the therapy centre, Fliss’s brain switched into a higher gear. She’d never seen Cat look so scared, so chastened - not even when she’d been arrested and taken to the police station. And that worried her.‘Get dressed. Mitzi wants you to come down to the beach and meet Ruairi ASAP. She’s convinced that once you talk to him and go over your plans for the centre he won’t think that it’s just another of her hare-brained schemes - to use his words.’ She rolled her eyes, leaving Fliss with the unflattering impression that she didn’t believe her capable of dissuading Ruairi Urquhart from a course of action once his mind was made up.
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Tall, Dark and Kilted - Notting Hill Meets Monarch of the Glen - 2012
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