Lion of Caledonia(5)

By: Caro LaFever

But no. Clearly, Mrs. Rivers was not much of a housekeeper. The likelihood of her noticing a missing heirloom, much less a missing tuft, was small.

Good. Fulfilling her grandfather’s wish appeared to be getting easier and easier.

A thick ridge of dust lay on the maple wood of the piano. Each of the statues and suits of armor she passed looked like they needed a good wash. From afar, the velveteen sofas appeared impressive. Up close, she decided if she sat on any of them, she’d be consumed in a cloud of dirt.

“This is the drawing room.” Mrs. Rivers swung two massive oak doors open to another huge room.

Drawing room? Who in this day and age had a drawing room?

At the woman’s impatient wave, she dutifully stuck her head in. The walls were covered in a deep-green tapestry, sporting colorful birds and a weave of plants. Floor-length satin curtains draped to the floor, muting the light falling on a mishmash of antique tables and bookcases—all as dusty as their counterparts in the great hall. Above a black marble fireplace hung a huge painting of a man, dressed in 19th-century clothes, surrounded by a bevy of dogs.

Wanting to be cordial and realizing she hadn’t said a word since she’d left the library, Jen plastered on an inquiring smile. “Who’s the man in the painting?”

“How would I know?” The housekeeper gave her another dull look before she turned from the room and went down another hallway.

“Oookay,” she muttered under her breath as she continued to follow behind.They passed through a dining room sporting an enormous, grimy glass chandelier, into another hall featuring a grand limestone staircase covered with a worn, ruby-red runner.

“You’ll want to stay away from the second floor.” Mrs. Rivers waved a wrinkled hand to the stairs winding to the left. “That’s for family.”

Family? She frowned. Her research spoke of a dead wife in her new employer’s past, but that had been years ago.

“You’ll want to stick to the right.” Another wave of the wrinkled hand. “Those stairs lead to the third floor.”

She glanced at the woman. A pursed mouth, blank eyes, and hands folded firmly in front of her told Jen the tour was over. “I’ll just go up then.”

“Yours is the first door on the right.” Mrs. Rivers turned and walked off down the dusty hall and into the bowels of the house.

“I couldn’t feel more welcome,” she said to the empty room before yanking her suitcase up one step after another. By the time she reached the third floor, the luggage felt like a load of lead. She hadn’t counted, but she’d bet there’d been more than a hundred steps.

“Why did you pack so much, silly fool?”

Her words echoed down the long, long hallway. At the end of the corridor, a round window spilled the last of the misty mid-March sun onto another dusty rug. A half-dozen doors ran along each side of the rug, cutting neat oak planks into the yellowed wallpaper.

Why would a man own such a magnificent home and not take care of the place? From what she’d read about Cameron Steward’s life in the past eight years, he’d made himself filthy rich selling his line of thrillers. Why hadn’t he spent any money on upkeep?

Jen shook off her thoughts and walked to the first door on the right. Pushing it open, she stepped into a surprisingly clean suite. On the left stood a door to a compact bathroom. Straight across was a cozy little nook starring a fat armchair in front of roaring fire. A mini-kitchen ran along the wall beyond the fireplace, and to the right was a cozy-looking bed with a bright-blue comforter and a jumble of pristine white pillows.

“Not bad.” She could stand to live here for a few days.

The roaring fire and made-up bed told her the job had been hers before she’d even entered the mansion. There hadn’t been a string of other applicants waiting in the wings that she’d detected. Her concern had been for nothing.

“See? As usual, you got yourself into a stew for no reason at all.”

Her fragile confidence bloomed once more.

Within a couple of minutes, she’d unpacked an assortment of jumpers and pants into the old-fashioned armoire. The kitchen fridge yielded a frozen casserole filled with shredded chicken, potatoes, and mushrooms. The microwave buzzed and she settled into the armchair to eat her dinner.

The flames of the fire crackled into a slow simmer and her eyelids grew heavy. It had been a long week. First, the summons from her cousin Edward. Away from her position at the nursery. Away from the small cottage she’d decorated to suit her own inclinations. Away from the serene life she’d created.

Then the meeting with her deathly-ill grandfather in his hospital room. Her acceptance of the task before her. The planning, the packing, the trip to Scotland using the train instead of her trusty Volkswagen hatchback to avoid any detection after she’d left this place.

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