Lion of Caledonia(4)

By: Caro LaFever

“The terms are the same as I listed with the job agency.” His voice came from above her and she felt as if he encircled her with his heat and scent and sound. “Is there something wrong with any of them?”

“No.” What did the terms matter? She’d be gone before her first pay packet. Scribbling her fake name on the paper, she slid the pen on the desk and edged farther into her seat.

Silence came from behind her chair. Then the man moved again in his unique prowl, walking past her to stand behind his desk once more. His finger punched several buttons on the utilitarian office phone. Nothing happened. An irritated growl rumbled from his throat as he punched more buttons.

The phone beeped and then went silent.

“Baw!” The roar erupted from his mouth, a long, drawn-out cry that thundered through the room. “Mrs. Rivers!”

Before his last vowel rang its peal over the books and memorabilia and Jen, the same woman who’d ushered her into the house not one hour ago, appeared at the open library door. “Mr. Steward?”

She looked completely unfazed at the noise her employer had made, as if this were a daily occurrence.

Was the place filled with nutters?

Finding the ring and getting away from this madhouse couldn’t happen soon enough for Jen’s peace of mind.

“Ye will show Ms. Douglas to her room.” The rumble of disgust at the intransigence of his phone lingered in his voice. “Give her a wee bit of a tour as well. I’ll see ye at eight a.m. sharp, Ms. Douglas.”

“Yes, sir.”

Jen’s words made her new employer frown again. But before he could rebut her use of a title he’d rejected, the other woman intervened with her own assent.

“Yes, Mr. Steward.” The older woman beckoned to her, and with dizzy relief to be out of his presence, she clutched her purse and coat and followed Mrs. Rivers out the door into the vast hall.

“Well, he’s found another one, I see. You’re younger than the others.” The woman wore a serviceable grey jumper matched with a darker-grey skirt. Her silver hair was cut short, highlighting the myriad wrinkles circling her vacant blue eyes. “You can call me Mrs. Rivers.”

“Um.” Another one? Had Mr. Steward run through a whole slew of transcribers before her? Not that she cared; she wasn’t here to keep a job. Yet, the way the woman looked her over gave her the willies. A cold draft of air drifted along the intricately-designed parquet floor, sending a shiver up her legs. She tried to distract herself by glancing down the hallway the woman led her into.

The chill in her gut intensified.

The great hall of this massive mansion should have been glorious. The arched ceiling soared above their heads, held up by elegant marble columns. From where she stood, Jen counted four magnificent stone fireplaces. Panels of oak lined the walls, interspersed with ancient suits of armor and old medieval shields and huge threatening pikes. Dotting the hall were a series of velveteen sofas and elaborately carved chairs and tables. An immense Steinway grand piano stood in solitary splendor at the end of the hall.

The lot of it gave the impression that it all might crumble into dust if a crisp Scottish wind ran through the room.

“You’ll be wanting to gather your luggage.” Mrs. Rivers stuck her hands in her pockets, making it clear she wouldn’t be helping.

Jen obediently glanced around and spotted her one small suitcase nudged into a corner by the double front doors. Her grandfather had been so sure she’d get this job, she’d decided to pack and bring everything she needed for the few days she’d be here. Why go to the hassle and expense to take the train all the way back to London?

“Go on.” The older woman gave her an imperious look. “I’ve got things to do.”

Shuffling to her luggage, she gave herself a wry grimace. She’d been so focused on the coming interview when she’d arrived, she’d barely taken in anything. Ushered into the library so quickly, she hadn’t had time to take in details of the house or this woman. The only thing she’d had time to do was hand over her case and step into Mr. Steward’s lair.

Now, the reality seeped in. This place was strange and so was the housekeeper.

“Well, come then.” The woman marched off down the long line of dusty Persian rugs. Jen snatched up her luggage and scrambled to keep pace.

“I’m the housekeeper here.” The silver head bobbed in front of her as the words wafted back. “I’ve put you on the third floor so you’ll be away from the noise.”

The noise?

Like the roar of her new employer?

Clutching her coat and purse, she dragged her case behind. The rollers kept getting stuck on the tassels of the rugs and she wondered if tugging some fringe off one of these antiques might lead to her immediate dismissal.

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