A Man in a Kilt

Behold, I send an Angel before thee, to keep thee in the way, and to bring thee into the place which I have prepared.   ~ Exodus 23:20


Prologue

St. Regis Hotel

New York , New York


Since introducing himself to Miss Katherine Elizabeth Pudding, estate executor Tom Silverstein craved only one thing. Whiskey.

Aqua vitae. The water of life. Any brand, any age, so long as there was plenty of it.

Shrugging out of his wrinkled suit coat, he could--to his dismay--still picture Miss Pudding, the new heir to Castle Blackstone, smiling benignly from behind her catering office desk as he told her about her inheritance and all it entailed.

She was still smiling when she led him through the doors of the nearest police station, where she insisted he be fingerprinted and interrogated. She did apologize profusely after the police verified his credentials, but it still took him the rest of the day and the better part of the night to convince her it was in her best interests to travel with him to Scotland, to at least see her inheritance. 

He tossed his briefcase onto the king-sized bed and reached into the in-room liquor cabinet for the cut crystal decanter labeled Scotch. He drained two finger’s worth of whiskey in one swallow and refilled the tumbler. Drink in hand, he picked up the phone. His beloved and very pregnant wife, Margaret, answered the first ring.

The relief that came into her voice on hearing his warmed him in a way whiskey never would. He asked, “Are ye feeling well, love?”

“Aye, but where have ye been? I’ve been fashin’ meself sick.”

Reluctantly, he told his bride—a Highlander with a keen appreciation for the absurd—about his day. To her credit, she did manage an “Oh my, ye poor lamb” and a few commiserating “clucks” between muffled giggles. Imagining her, plump and rosy- cheeked, sitting in her favorite parlor chair with a hand on her belly and tears of mirth rolling down her face, he smiled.

She asked, “Will Miss Pudding come, then?”

“Aye, but we willna be home for another week.” 

Margaret sighed. “‘Tis just as well. Gives me time to tidy the place up a bit.”

A new ache suddenly materialized between his eyes. “What has his lordship done now?”

“As soon as ye left, he tossed everything the old man owned—from toppers to shoes—into the bailey. Even smashed the telly to smithereens. A shame, that.”

Tom hadn’t liked the previous heir in the least himself, but to smash the telly...

He squeezed the bridge of his nose in an effort to ease the pain. “It could have been worse.”

“Aye, according to your Da, it has been.”

“Love, I dinna want ye goin’ over there.”

“Dinna fash, Tom. I’m far too pregnant to tolerate another trip to the castle in that wee boat of yours. I’ll send a couple of lads over to snow up the place. But tell me, what does Miss Pudding look like? Will his lordship find her fair? Bonnie?”

“Who can tell under all the paint American women wear.”

“Tom, I’m no’ in a mood--”

“She’s attractive, but I suspect she’s really quite plain under all the gloss and feathers.”

“Oh, dear.” After a pause Margaret asked, “Does she at least have red hair? He has a recorded weakness for titians.”

“I’m afraid it’s kirk-mouse brown, love.”

“Ack. I was so hoping for our son’s sake...”

“Aye, I ken.” Since 1408, a Silverstein son had been chosen and educated in law and finance—despite what aspirations he might hold—to serve as executor to the Laird of Castle Blackstone. And so it would be for his soon-to-be-born son, unless... 

“If it’s any consolation,” Tom said, “Miss Pudding isna a fool. She asked if Blackstone was haunted.”

“What did ye say, Tom?”

“I told her I’d never seen a ghost.”

“Tom! ‘Tis written, as executor, ye canna lie to the heir. A ‘alf truth--by omission or otherwise--is still a lie.”

“‘Tis no lie to say I’ve never seen him. Heard him, aye. Tolerated his insufferable arrogance and temper, aye, but never once has he deemed me worthy of his august presence, so I dinna lie.”

After a sigh and a long pause, she murmured, “Could Miss Pudding be the one?”

Margaret’s reference to the Gael curse apparently leveled on their laird only moments after his death and later found roughly etched in his grave marker made the words swim before Tom’s eyes.

 

Curse ye MacDougall by my will
forever lost in nether world
to pine for all ye lost most dear
Only by ain token thrice blessed
‘tis the way to dreams and rest
will one come to change thy fate.


“Love, we willna ken the answer to that question,” murmured Thomas Silverstein, the twenty-third of his line to serve Duncan Angus MacDougall, “unless he takes her.”

 

 

                                                                         
Chapter 1
Drasmoor, Scotland

Yawning, Duncan MacDougall, the laird of Castle Blackstone, stretched in his enormous bed then cursed as the residual stench from Robert Sheffield’s cigars filled his nose. Eight weeks had passed since the old man’s death and still the noxious odor hung about the solar like a shroud. Who would come now? 

He prayed it wouldn’t be another cigar smoking fop, but better that than no heir. He feared for his home--where he’d been trapped between life and death for so many lifetimes.

Victoria Regina had just died the last time a young family had claimed Blackstone. He smiled thinking of John and his lovely wife, Mary. He missed their bairn. Aye, it had been too long since he’d heard a lass giggle or watched a lad play with the lead soldiers now hidden away in the east wing.

But what if Silverstein couldna find a rightful heir? Or worse, what if he had, and the new occupant wanted to convert Blackstone into a bloody tourist attraction?

Duncan shuddered, picturing thousands of stippled and pierced youths with their pot-bellied parents stomping up his stairs and running their sticky hands over what had taken him a lifetime--at the cost of his soul--to acquire. He’d sooner abandon his long held hope for redemption, to suffer the perpetual fires of hell, than bear witness to such a violation of his home. 

Wishing his recently departed heir—the one who hadn’t been man enough to marry and produce an heir--a well-deserved stay in hell, he threw open the mullioned windows and heard the thudding of an aluminum hull pounding against whitecaps. Over the wave-slapping racket he picked up the familiar high-pitched whine of Silverstein’s launch engine.

He craned his neck for a better view of the harbor and cursed seeing a woman, her dark hair whipping in the breeze, sitting next to Silverstein.

God had granted his solicitor the love of a good woman and the gift of a wee bairn--something he, a laird, had apparently been unfit to receive, dying unloved as he had and with the blood of three wives on his hands--and look what the daft fool does. He puts the poor woman in his miserable boat!

“God’s Teeth! In her condition, she should be lying-in, nay bouncing like a bloody cork across the bay.” He started down the stairs. “He’ll be shakin’ the wee bairn loose, for God’s sake.” Outraged by this real possibility, he raced to the great hall, determined to confront Thomas Silverstein face to face. 

Generally, he preferred subtle—and sometimes not so subtle-—displays to demonstrate his displeasure rather than materializing before the living. Becoming visible always took more effort than most offenses warranted, while his temper tantrums were easily done and usually proved both effective and entertaining.

But Tommy Boy had now done the unthinkable; risking his child’s life was tantamount to slapping God’s face and placing Blackstone on the block. For those sins, his solicitor would pay dearly.

Katherine Elizabeth MacDougall Pudding clutched her really good Dooney and Bourke knockoff satchel to her chest without a thought to its prized contents and gasped as a huge, spiked gate suddenly ground down behind her with an ear-shattering screech.

“Don’t be alarmed, Miss Pudding,” Tom Silverstein cheerfully yelled as he strode toward the keep tower with the rest of her luggage in hand. “The portcullis occasionally slips its chain. There’s a hand crank on the left side to raise it again.”

“Ah,” Beth said, not caring for the image of herself suddenly skewered by the enormous rusting teeth should the damn chain slip just as she passed beneath. Deciding fixing the ancient gate would be number one on her list of things to do, she followed tall and lean Mr. Silverstein through the courtyard--or bailey as he called it. 

Frowning at the weeds and withered vines clinging to the fifteenth century stonework, she wondered how some people managed to go through life with no pride in ownership. It only took a little love and elbow grease to make any place a home.

Not any home, she thought, but my home. Hers to do with as she wished. In her twenty-four years, these ancient granite blocks would be the first walls she could lay honest claim to.

Until two days ago, the latest place she’d call home had been an overpriced, roach infested efficiency in an aging Bronx brownstone, but still the roof, the stairs, and the pride of ownership had belonged to another. Even the roaches had been here today and gone tomorrow and then back again as if she’d had no say in the matter.  

She raised her gaze to the sixteenth century mullioned windows above her. They should have been refracting multi-prismed rainbows as they faced the setting sun; instead they stared back at her, dull and opaque like the eyes of a landed cod.

With a proprietary eye, she gauged the height of the four-storied tower before her and the depth of its windowsills.

“Why not,” she muttered, deciding to clean them as soon as possible.

Hell, she’d hung many a time out her fifth floor tenement window risking life and limb to scrub soot off warped plate glass for a clearer view of a brick airshaft. For an ocean view out a leaded window, she could climb a rope with her teeth.

She frowned seeing her castle’s thick, arched door hadn’t fared any better than the windows. The solid oak was stained by creeping mildew and so cracked it appeared to be made of cork. Mr. Silverstein forced it open with a shoulder and said, “Welcome to your new home, Miss Pudding. Welcome to Castle Blackstone.”

Ruminating over the delicious import of his words, Beth followed him in. She grabbed the rope railing with her free hand and carefully climbed the tightly curved, well-worn stones to yet another door.

She walked into what Silverstein called Blackstone’s great hall and froze, mouth agape.

Her new living room had to be at least sixty feet in length and thirty feet in width. Two ornate, soot covered fireplaces--each as tall as a man--graced the ends. Three huge, wheel-shaped wrought iron chandeliers hung above her, suspended by chains from a barreled ceiling. She felt relief seeing the fixtures had been electrified, but suspected she’d been in diapers the last time they and the twelve-foot high woodwork surrounding her had seen so much as a dust cloth.

Silverstein reached for the door at her back. As he pushed it closed, one huge mottled hinge screeched and detached. When he only shrugged, she wondered if a ten-penny spike and a gob of nail glue would be all she’d have at her disposal to hold the door up until she garnered some income.

She had no idea what the “maintenance income” Silverstein alluded to in New York might amount to in dollars--and having only six hundred in her checking account--she began having serious doubts about the wisdom of accepting her inheritance.

Her doubts only multiplied as she studied the chipped stenciling on the lofty plaster and beamed ceiling. Could she keep herself warm, let alone keep a castle in a decent state of repair, on a maintenance?

“Mr. Silverstein, how long has the castle been empty?”

“’Tis never been empty, lass.” He scowled as he waved toward a God-awful mix of contemporary and period furnishings. “Oh! You mean to ask how long have we gone without an heir?”

“Yes.”

“Two months.”

“Ah, yet it seems like just yesterday,” she murmured, sniffing the acrid stench of lingering cigar smoke. She ran a hesitant finger along a filthy window sash.   Linda, her best friend and the Director of Housekeeping at the St. Regis- New York, would have a heart attack. “Could we open a window or two to air the place out?”

“Certainly.”

It still didn’t seem possible; she owned a castle—actually, it was little more than a medieval fortification occupying most of the landmass of a dinky isle off Scotland’s Highland coast, but a rose by any other name...

Her, an orphan raised by—no, dragged up within—the Big Apple’s foster-care system.

And what could she--would she--do with it? 

According to Silverstein, she had to reside in Blackstone for six months to lay claim to her inheritance. After that, she could return to her job in convention services at the St. Regis, using the castle only as a retreat, or she could reside here permanently. The decision would be hers. But no matter, after a six-month residence, her inheritance would be secure and would pass on to her descendants. Not that she had any hopes of having any.  

More than a decade had passed since she’d exposed herself to the hope of being loved, and she couldn’t imagine a set of circumstances that could ever prompt her to do so again.

It hadn’t taken her long to discover most men liked their women pretty and compliant. She was neither.

Having only a high school education, she’d started her career path as a waitress. While watching prettier women seemingly rise without effort, she’d clawed her way, rung by rung, up three different hotel development ladders to become an assistant director. She didn’t resent the pretty women. She envied them. They didn’t have to work harder, be quicker and brighter, to get noticed.

Too, if the mirror hadn’t made her plainness obvious to her, a frank foster mother had. She’d been only twelve when the woman she had tried so hard to please—to be loved by—had told her, “You’ll never be pretty, so you’d best learn to use make-up. Then, there’s an outside possibility someone might consider you attractive.” 

She shook off the memory. It really didn’t matter anymore. She, Katherine Elizabeth MacDougall Pudding, was an heiress. She now owned a tiny island and its broken down castle. The very thought took her breath away.

“Let me show you to your rooms before we tour the rest,” Silverstein suggested as he gathered her bags.

“By all means, but I’ll take that.” She snatched her prized satchel from Silverstein’s hands and gave the surprised man an apologetic smile. Heiress or not, she still couldn’t bring herself to trust the bag’s contents to another. What if he dropped or misplaced it?   The nearest cosmetics counter sat in Glasgow, a good four-hour train’s ride away, for God’s sake.

“ Humph!” Duncan thought, his anger forgotten as he followed Silverstein and the stranger up the stairway. He’d been relieved to his marrow to find it wasn’t Silverstein’s wife he’d seen in the boat, but who is this? He listened to their conversation.

Ah! So this is the new heir.

He glanced at her left hand and his heart nearly stopped. Why hadn’t he been told? A young, unattached female hadn’t taken control of Blackstone in centuries. The last, a beautiful but viperous titian, had nearly been the end of him. But what if this one...

He scowled watching the woman’s lithe form lean precariously to the left as she struggled to carry her heavy bag around the tight curves of the stairway. Why in hell hadn’t Silverstein offered to carry it for her? Had chivalry died with his generation?

Duncan stayed just steps behind her. He couldn’t have her toppling and dying of a broken neck before he could assess the possibilities.

When the woman made it to the fourth floor landing without mishap, he sighed in relief. To his surprise, Silverstein immediately led the woman into his solar.  

“This is the solar,” Silverstein told the woman, “the master bedroom of the castle. Our previous heir, Robert Sheffield, preferred less spacious quarters and slept in the east wing on the second floor.”

   Duncan grunted at his solicitor’s blatant lie.

   He’d come into this very room shortly after Sheffield had arrived and found the bloody bastard trying to fondle the then ten-year-old Will Fraiser’s jewels. Furious, Duncan had frightened the piss out of both his heir and the boy. His next inclination had been to pitch the old blighter headlong down the steps, but having accumulated enough blood on his hands for one lifetime, he’d contented himself with terrorizing Sheffield for the next two decades. The old fop hadna so much as dared look at another lad or venture above the second floor landing during the entirety of his residence. 

“I hope you find it to your liking,” Silverstein continued. “’Tis quite extraordinary. The tapestries on either side of the bed were produced in the late seventeenth century by one of your predecessors, Lady Katherine Stewart MacDougall. The bed is original to the castle. ‘Tis over-sized because Duncan Angus MacDougall, the first Laird of Blackstone, was a huge man. Supposedly, he stood six and one half feet tall, much like Robert the Bruce.”

Duncan snorted. There was no supposedly about it. He did stand six and one half feet tall and weighed seventeen stone, if anyone cared to know. Ack, and Tom kenned better than to compare him to the Bruce.

Waving around the room, Silverstein concluded, “And the windows, Miss Pudding, offer a spectacular three hundred and sixty-degree view.”  

Pudding? Which one of his cousin’s mangy descendants had had the audacity to rut with a Sassenach--an Englishman? Ack! Matters had apparently deteriorated further than he’d surmised.

“It’s lovely,” Miss Pudding murmured running a careful hand over the hunt scenes carved into his headboard. She then gently pressed the mattress. “But please call me Beth.”  

“Beth it is, but don’t be distressed if most about call you my lady.”

“Oh?”

Silverstein smiled. “The honorarium comes with the castle. We tend to keep to the old ways as much as possible here. Within the next day or so, most from Drasmoor will be out to welcome ye.”

“Ah.” She wandered to the open window. Staring out, she murmured, “It’s still so difficult to believe, Mr. Silverstein. That all this...,” her hand fluttered, encompassing the room and the view, “could be mine in just six months’ time. For so many years, I’ve not had so much as a...”

Hearing her voice crack then falter, Duncan moved closer to the now silent woman staring out his window. He studied her face as she tried unsuccessfully to blink away tears. What caused her to cry? From her silent shaking carriage, he suspected she wasna a woman who cried easily and he hoped for her sake that it wasna too often.   ‘Twas not a pretty sight.

She’d bitten her bottom lip to the point of scarlet and strange black streaks now stained the flat planes of her cheeks. When she shivered, he felt heat radiate off her and instinctively stepped closer, only to be bathed in a strange scent, an exotic mix of something sweet and soft. He fought the unaccountable urge to reach out and touch her. How curious.

“Shall we tour the rest of your domain now?” Silverstein asked from across the solar, “And please, call me Tom. There’s no point in our standing on ceremony. We’re likely to have a long, complex relationship.”

Duncan frowned at the comment, but the woman, Beth, silently nodded as she hastily brushed her tears away. She heaved a huge sigh and faced his solicitor, this time with a smile. 

“I’d love to see the rest of my home.”

When she put the emphasis on home, Duncan Angus MacDougall grinned for the first time in decades.

Alone now and hungry, Beth wandered into the bowels of her keep to the kitchen.

Here, at least, she wouldn’t have to worry about contracting something nasty. Someone had taken the time to scour the large whitewashed room to a high shine. Even the battered tin pots above the hearth glowed.

There were no wall-mounted cabinets in the basement kitchen; just an enormous center table surrounded by stools, an ancient, multi-drawer spice chest and a few old appliances. The cavernous room’s only charm came by way of a six-foot high by eight-foot wide fireplace, complete with wrought iron hooks, a boar-sized roasting spit, angle irons and four separate side ovens. As she ran a hand over the embossed lions on one of the cast iron doors, she could almost smell fresh bread baking. Her stomach growled.

Given the lateness of their arrival and Beth’s inexperience with operating a boat, Mr. Silverstein had thoughtfully arranged for a week’s worth of fresh food to be laid in. She examined the unfamiliar labels on the canned goods and sniffed the fruit and breads on the table before opening the squat refrigerator to find a quart of fresh milk—its thick cream filling the top two inches of the bottle, a half dozen brown eggs, two chops and butter. Too tired to make anything elaborate, she snatched two eggs from their cardboard container.

She scrambled the eggs before noticing a five-gallon container of mysterious yellow liquid fueled the stove. Shrugging at the oddity, she turned a porcelain knob and waited for a familiar click-click-click. When nothing happen she immediately flipped off the knob and stared at the enameled, cast iron contraption. Even her fifth floor walkup’s stove had an electric ignition. Now what?

Matches. After a three-minute hunt, she struck one and held it near a burner as she turned the appropriate knob. Nothing happened. She tried three more times before huffing in exasperation and dumping her eggs down the drain.

Toast and an apple, then.

Finding an ancient toaster, it took her awhile to get its sides to flop open. “I could starve to death at this rate,” she muttered, dropping two slices of bread into it. After finding an outlet, she shoved the toaster’s odd shaped plug into the wall.

“Oh, shit!”

She jumped back as a shower of fluorescent sparks spewed from the wall socket. The fireworks continued as ribbons of acrid smoke oozed out of the toaster.

“God damn it!” She yanked the toaster’s cord from the wall. When the sparks abruptly ceased, she heaved a sigh of relief and heard a masculine chuckle. Startled, she spun around.

Seeing no one, she lowered her hands and released her breath. “Next, you’ll be seeing ghosts,” she chided, feeling foolish.

She was, after all, a city chick, well used to the wail of sirens, screeching tires, and things that go bump in the night. She shouldn’t be jumping, heart in her throat, because sparks flew and an errant wind whipping around outside decided to come down the roasting pit’s flue. 

She turned her attention back to the toaster. It felt cool. Gingerly, she touched the socket. Finding no heat, she thanked God for small favors. Having no idea if the problem stemmed from the toaster or the wiring, she felt disinclined to experiment further.

She grabbed two apples from the table and shut off the light. Whatever caused the problem could wait for daylight.