Two decades earlier
Caro pulled her jersey over her knees knowing she should just be sensible and have an early night. She’d said her goodbyes to her friends who were having drinks not far away and she had a cab booked for five in the morning to get her over to the other side of the Greek island where she’d been staying to catch the ferry to the mainland and the airport.
But the beauty of the evening, dark yet full of the sounds of insects and gently lapping waves, was so seductive. The enormous golden moon shone low over the sea like a lantern. A wild rose bush covered an outcrop of rock and pale-pink petals fell from time to time from the tiny pom-pom flowers filling the air with their scent. Somehow she couldn’t tear herself away just yet.
‘Do you mind if I join you?’
Caro jumped slightly. She couldn’t really see who was asking but his voice was nice and her friends were fairly close so she felt perfectly safe.
‘Help yourself,’ she said.
They didn’t speak for several minutes. Caro wasn’t really shy but she was aware that the boy who’d chosen to join her was very attractive. Not that she could see him in detail; it was too dark. But he was tall and well made. She sneaked a look at him and saw that he had a strong nose and chin – a good profile.
‘The thing I’m going to miss about the Greek islands, when I move on,’ he said, ‘is the fragrance. The roses – especially here, just now – smell amazing.’
Caro was surprised. She turned to him, struggling to see him in the dark. She really loved aromas too, but her friends seemed to have no sense of smell and couldn’t detect anything unless it came in a bottle in the duty-free section of an airport.
‘Men don’t usually notice fragrance,’ she said. ‘I think they ruin themselves by over-application of Lynx when they’re at school.’
Her companion laughed. ‘I’m Xander and I’m interested in perfume in spite of the Lynx,’ he said. ‘You smell nice,’ he added.
She shifted away a little bit, not quite sure how to take this. She only wore scent on special occasions because the only one she really liked was what her mother wore and it was terribly expensive. She didn’t have much left, but she’d put some on that evening because she hoped she might get more for her birthday. ‘I’m Caro.’
Possibly aware he’d said something a bit odd, he went on. ‘So where is home for you, Caro?’
‘London,’ she said. ‘You?’
‘A tiny corner of Scotland called Glen Liddell.’ He sighed. ‘But there’s lots of world to be explored before I go back home.’
Possibly because they were in the dark and the night air was so hypnotic they couldn’t stop talking. Xander told her how he wanted to study perfume and that his father wouldn’t hear of it. She told him how she was feeling pressure to take up her university place but wasn’t sure it was what she wanted. They talked about their favourite music, books and films. Sometimes they agreed and sometimes they had to argue the case for some of their more unusual choices. But Caro never felt she had to keep quiet about liking something a bit odd; she knew he wouldn’t judge her and would just be interested.
Then suddenly they saw car lights coming along the coast road. It was her cab, dawn was breaking and she had to go.
In the cab on the way to the ferry she realised that tears were trickling out of the corners of her eyes. She’d met a man she felt totally connected with, in every way, and they hadn’t even exchanged contact details. How could she have let that happen? And would she regret it for the rest of her life?
‘A caravan,’ said Caro, looking about her, trying to keep her feelings out of her voice. It wasn’t even a nice caravan. It was made of plastic and had a strong old-carpet smell about it.
‘Yes, I’m sorry,’ said the woman who had shown Caro to her new temporary home. ‘There is a cottage but it needs work doing before it’s habitable. It’s been rented out and has got into a bit of a state.’
The woman, who had introduced herself as Heather, didn’t sound quite apologetic enough about this, Caro felt. Heather was late-middle-aged and kindly, her greying hair cut into a neat bob, but she didn’t know – couldn’t have known – how disappointed Caro was about her accommodation.
At her interview, which had taken place at a London hotel, there had been talk of a typical Highland cottage, which had given Caro ideas of a low, stone building with a tiled roof, or maybe even some sort of thatch. She was hazy about Scotland and thatch but the image had been lovely and, in her head, had only smelt of peat smoke or possibly pine trees. Mrs Leonie Gordon (call me Lennie) who’d conducted the interview had been nice, Caro had thought, and although quite grand was warm and friendly. A smelly caravan had not been part of the deal.
‘I’ll leave you to settle in,’ said Heather, having given the caravan a cursory inspection from the doorway. ‘Then come back to the house for sherry. Murdo always has a drink at about six. With luck all the team will be there and you can meet everyone. Though I don’t know if Alec will appear. He’s been away. That’s partly why the cottage isn’t ready. So, see you in half an hour? Is that long enough?’
‘I should think so,’ said Caro. She was feeling gloomy. She knew it was probably because it had been a long journey and parting from her daughter Posy had been difficult but she really hoped it wasn’t because she realised that she’d made a dreadful mistake coming up here. Still, it was only for a month or so. Surely she could survive that?
As she patted the bedding to see if it was damp she wondered if she should take a quick picture of the caravan to send to Posy. She probably wouldn’t be able to send it for a little while as she doubted the caravan had a signal (although at least the sheets seemed dry) but it might make her daughter laugh. Posy only knew that her mother had taken a job looking after an elderly gentleman in Scotland (or keeping him out of mischief, more than anything, Lennie, his daughter, had said) because she’d had a lifelong ambition to answer an advertisement in The Lady magazine, and also wanted to do something completely different at the beginning of her daughter’s trip to Australia, so she wouldn’t feel lonely on the Dutch barge they had lived in together in London.
She wouldn’t dream of sharing with her daughter the other reason she’d accepted the job because she didn’t really like to acknowledge that one to herself.
While she couldn’t summon up any enthusiasm for unpacking, Caro made herself look respectable before setting off for ‘the Big Hoose’, as she thought of it. She didn’t go to the lengths she’d gone to for the interview (skirt, knee-length boots, a blow dry she’d paid for and some extra highlights for her dark blonde hair). Now, she made sure her jeans were clean, her make-up was more or less in the right place and scrunched up her hair, which always reverted to curls if not professionally seen to. She added her favourite cashmere poncho on top of her jumper because she felt good in it and was convinced that Scotland was always freezing. Although it felt like winter, it was the end of April and there were signs of spring shyly appearing among the faded bracken, sheltering against the huge granite boulders. As she planned to tell Posy later, there was still quite a lot of snow on the furthest mountains. She’d moved back a season up here; she’d be glad of the jumpers she’d brought with her.
As she walked down the path she examined the Big Hoose, imagining how she would describe it to Posy. She wasn’t sure that Posy, who was twenty, would understand what ‘Scottish Baronial’ looked like but would relate to ‘imagine spooky black birds flying out of the turrets to give you the idea, and then take away the spooky black birds – it’s huge, it’s grey, it has turrets and it doesn’t look homely’.
Inside, Caro was hoping for faded tartan carpets, stags’ heads and a huge, smouldering fire. She didn’t even mind if the fire billowed out smoke from time to time, she just needed to see a flame. Her permanent home, the Dutch barge she’d inherited from her parents, near Canary Wharf, didn’t have any sort of burner that had a visible flame and, to her mind, this was one of the few downsides. She made up for the lack with copious candles.
Now, she wished she’d put on her coat and scarf on top of her double layer of cashmere – the wind could ‘clean corn’ as her father would have said. She also hoped that she wouldn’t have to face too much questioning. She was expecting questions from Murdo, Lennie’s father, but she didn’t want to be grilled by everyone else as well. There was no shame in saying that she’d been a ‘shop assistant’ and her reason for leaving was that ‘the shop closed down’ but it didn’t sound very inspiring. She was perfect for the job in many ways, after all. She could play bridge and chess, up to a point, she was quite a good cook (her scrambled eggs were considered excellent by many and this was one of Murdo’s favourites, she’d been told) and she had, according to Lennie at her interview, a pleasant speaking voice. This was an advantage when it came to reading the newspaper to Murdo, who had very little sight when it came to small print. Apparently it was the letters to the paper that were his favourite, so he could splutter and exclaim or nod and grunt accordingly. She’d passed the first test, and, now she had Lennie’s approval, she had to meet the man whose opinion really counted. She banged hard on the door with the stag’s head knocker.
Heather opened the door and let Caro into a hall that was satisfyingly Scottish. It was large and gave the impression that it been like this for generations. There were the hoped-for stags’ heads on the walls, no doubt stalked by long-dead ancestors, and the faded tartan carpet had rips in it repaired with gaffer tape. Pervading everything was the smell of peat smoke to add the final Caledonian flourish. Caro gave a little sigh of happiness. This was what she’d travelled over four hundred miles north for.
The furniture was a mixture of periods but none of it was new. A leather hall chair was spewing horsehair from where the gaffer tape – obviously used to mend everything – had peeled off. Caro would have liked a few moments to examine her surroundings, but Heather had things to do.
‘Now,’ she said briskly. ‘Himself is in the drawing room. If you’d like to go through and introduce yourself, I’ll go and get the drinks.’
As she was ‘staff’ and not a regular guest, Caro could only comply with this suggestion although it was the last thing she wanted to do. She wasn’t particularly shy but the thought of meeting her new employer without any sort of buffer was daunting. However, she obviously couldn’t hover in the hall even though she was dying to inspect the ancient framed maps and family portraits. She took a breath and set forth.
The first thing that struck her when she reached the drawing room was the large bay window that had a wonderful view over the loch. The hills and mountains beyond were truly majestic and Caro longed to gaze at them, too. But she was not here for the scenery and standing by the fire, wearing tweed from head to foot, was a formidable old gentleman.
Caro felt a flash of recognition and she realised that he had a look of her father. Piercing blue eyes under bushy, sandy eyebrows, a wind-burnt complexion and a resolute mouth. The fact that he could hardly see didn’t seem to affect his penetrating gaze.
Caro realised she had one chance to get this right. Show fear now and he’d bully her into the ground. Lennie had warned her of this at the interview and her own knowledge of old- fashioned gentlemen, used to getting their own way, confirmed it.
‘Hello!’ she said, walking towards him. ‘I’m Caro Fitzwarren.’ She took his hand and shook it.
He squeezed it in return. ‘So you’re m’minder, eh?’
Already half prepared to be evicted from the house and sent back to London on the first train, Caro made a decision. ‘Your minder? Oh God! I thought I was here to play a little gentle rummy and lean over your shoulder while you played patience. And possibly read you the less offensive letters to The Times. I didn’t know you needed a minder!’
There was an agonisingly long pause and then he nodded. The bright eyes produced a twinkle and they both relaxed a little. ‘I think you might do,’ he said. ‘Murdo McLean. Everyone calls me Murdo.’
Just then a little dog of varying breeds ran into the room and up to Murdo.
‘This is my dog, George,’ said Murdo. ‘Disobedient little brute but small enough not to do too much damage.’
George ran to Caro and sniffed her. Then he raised his leg and relieved himself on her jeans.
‘Oh my God!’ she said before she could stop herself.
‘He hasn’t done it again, has he?’ said Murdo, and then roared, ‘Heather! Bastard dog! Pissed on a visitor! He should have been put down. I knew he was a bad ’un.’
Caro could tell from this diatribe that Murdo was devoted to George and hoped she too might come to forgive the little dog in time.
Heather came running in. She had a spray bottle and a cloth in her hand. ‘Trouble is,’ she said, handing the bottle and the cloth to Caro, ‘he doesn’t do it for months so you forget he might.’
‘It means he likes you,’ said Murdo gruffly, with no hint of embarrassment.
Caro sprayed and rubbed, knowing only a proper wash would do the job.
‘Actually, would you mind if I went back and changed? It won’t take a second,’ she said.
Heather nodded. ‘Bring your jeans back with you and I’ll put them in the machine.’
When Caro came back, slightly out of breath, the drawing room seemed full of people. Fortunately, or maybe deliberately, Heather was on hand again to meet her.
‘I am so sorry about the dog!’ she said, taking the jeans. ‘Murdo dotes on him, of course, and it seems to have made George a bit territorial. But he’s a grand little dog really.’
‘I realised Murdo loved George and it’s a case of “Love me, love my dog” with him. I’m sure we’ll become friends. Eventually,’ said Caro.
Heather sighed, as if with relief. ‘It’s not everyone who could forgive a dog for lifting its leg on them.’
Caro shrugged. ‘It’s either that, or go home,’ she said bluntly.
Heather acknowledged the truth of this with a nod. ‘Now let’s get you to meet the family.’
‘Are they all family?’ said Caro, suddenly a bit overwhelmed by the number of people that seemed to be in the drawing room.
‘Not all. One or two people work on the estate in some way or other. Now let me take you around and introduce you.’
Caro noticed a girl – mid-teens probably – with a long rose-gold plait over one shoulder. She was strikingly beautiful and looked quintessentially Scottish, Caro decided.
‘That’s Rowan, Murdo’s granddaughter,’ said Heather. ‘I worry that it’s a bit lonely for her up here. Beauty alone isn’t enough when you’re seventeen.’
Caro nodded. She wouldn’t have thought Rowan was older than about fifteen. ‘Are her parents here?
I’m just trying to work out who everyone is and how they fit in.’
‘Skye and Alec will be here later, I think. Skye’s a bit . . .’ Heather paused, obviously thinking of how to describe her without being disloyal to the family.
Caro laughed. ‘I used to work in an artists’ supplies shop. Some of our customers were away with the fairies.’
Heather nodded. ‘We’d call her “fey” round here. Alec is more reserved so don’t take offence if he doesn’t seem friendly. He is very busy and doesn’t socialise much. He lives in a but and ben up the glen a bit.’
‘So he’s Murdo’s son?’
‘That’s right. I’ll introduce you to Rab. He runs the smokery. And then there’s Ewan, he’s my husband, and he does everything on the estate no one else does and a lot besides. Now, what would you like to drink? There’s whisky or sherry?’
Caro hesitated. Part of her yearned for something warming and relaxing but she felt she should hold back until she’d talked to Murdo for a bit.
‘I’d better go and talk to Murdo first,’ she said. ‘I didn’t get a chance earlier.’
Heather shook her head. ‘That wee dog! But Murdo will expect you to be sociable. Have a dram. I’ll bring it over.’
As Caro went across to Murdo she realised how grateful she was to Heather. Although obviously dedicated to the family, she would steer her through if things became rocky.