It was a gatehouse of some sort, she realized dazedly, and thank God there was a light on inside.
She didn’t realize she was crying until she felt the tears, frozen on her face. Something under the snow – a fallen tree trunk or a rock – made her stumble. With a cry she fell hands-first into a snowdrift as her ankle gave way and twisted beneath her. Now her trousers were as sodden and wet as her gloves and her ankle began to throb. She shivered and dragged herself back up, then staggered, wincing with pain, towards the door.
‘Help,’ she croaked as she pounded weakly on the door, ‘someone let me in, please...’
‘I saw the sweetest family at Heathrow,’ Natalie ventured an hour later. The atmosphere in the Mondeo, she couldn’t help but notice, was decidedly tense.
Dominic said nothing and glowered out the window. Rhys, his jaw set, was silent as he focused on navigating the slippery, snow-covered road.
And Gemma was too busy texting and posting on her mobile phone to notice anything – or anyone – around her.
Desperate to lighten the mood, Nat added, ‘This family had a little girl and a little boy. The girl was put out because she wanted an ice lolly. In this weather! Can you imagine? Isn’t that too funny?’
Evidently no one else thought it was funny, or even particularly interesting, as no one bothered to respond. Natalie gave up and subsided with a sigh into silence.
‘I’ll say this much,’ Rhys observed grimly a moment later. ‘It’s bloody treacherous out here.’
Nat leant forward and touched his arm. ‘Will we make it safely to Loch Draemar, do you think?’ she asked in a low voice. Anxiety etched her face.
‘We should do,’ he allowed, his words cautious as he kept his eyes on the windscreen, ‘barring no unforeseen surprises, like an accident or an engine malfunction—’
He’d no sooner uttered the words when a stag leapt out of the surrounding forest and slid to a stop before them, legs wildly cartwheeling, blocking the road. With a startled curse, Rhys wrenched the wheel sideways to avoid hitting the animal.
Natalie gasped. Gemma shrieked. And Dominic snarled, ‘What the fuck are you doing up there, Gordon? You made me lose my place in the latest issue of Luxury Car Gear.’
Rhys shot him a murderous glare. ‘I’m driving, in the event you hadn’t noticed, in a bloody blizzard, whilst trying to avoid the very large elk that just leapt in front of us.’
‘Oh.’ Dominic peered ahead. ‘Well, try not to kill us all in the process, if you don’t fucking mind.’
‘It’s you I’d like to kill,’ Rhys growled, ‘you poxy, ungrateful little shit—’
‘Ooh, look!’ Natalie exclaimed, anxious to de-escalate the hostilities as she clutched at Rhys’s sleeve. ‘Our friend’s leaving.’
It was true. The elk, having decided that the car and its occupants were of less interest than the prospect of food, turned and, with a dip of his majestic, antlered head, leapt back into the nearby woods and disappeared.
‘Could we get on with it, please?’ Dominic demanded. ‘I’d like to get to the village before nightfall. Gem and I still need to find a hotel room, you know.’
‘Perhaps,’ Rhys said, his voice dangerously calm, ‘you’d like to drive?’
‘Not my hire car, is it?’ Dominic fired back. ‘I can’t drive it, as I’ve got no liability. Sorry, mate.’
Rhys pressed his lips together. It was only Natalie’s whispered reminder that Dominic so wasn’t worth spending the night in a Scottish gaol that kept him from shoving the gearshift right up the rock star’s skinny little arse.
And Gemma, who’d returned once again to her texting and posting and uploading, took no notice of any of them.
Helen’s feeble knocking finally alerted someone inside the cottage, and the door swung open. She was vaguely aware of a man who helped her stumble inside, and the moment he led her to a sofa in front of a deliciously warm fire and threw a quilt over her, she fell into a deep and exhausted sleep.
She dreamt of shattering glass and overturned lorries and headlights rushing straight at her, and she heard the sound of her own screams echoing in her head...
With a start she woke up. ‘Where am I?’ she muttered, disoriented. She didn’t recognize the stone fireplace, its maw blackened and its mantel hewn of wood, or the floor lamp with its tasselled shade. Her ankle throbbed dully.
A man knelt down, his voice gruff as he said, ‘Be glad you’re not out there. Worst blizzard in five years.’
‘Who ‒ who are you?’ she asked.
She stared at him, mesmerized. He was a giant...a scowling, dark-ginger-haired giant with a dark-ginger beard who might have stepped from the pages of a fairy tale, one about woodsmen and children who foolishly nibbled on houses made of candy...
‘The groundskeeper.’ He offered no further information. ‘And who are you?’
‘Helen,’ she said after a moment. ‘My car hit an icy patch and slid off the road at the bottom of the drive.’
‘It’s nae a night to be driving.’
‘No, it isn’t,’ she responded, suddenly defensive, ‘but I had no choice.’
‘Because I’m working. I have responsibilities. Deadlines. Things I can’t put off until the weather improves.’ She paused and added, ‘What’s your name?’
She pushed herself up, wincing as pain shot through her foot with the movement. ‘Have you an aspirin? I think I may have turned my ankle.’
He said nothing, but straightened with a grunt and disappeared into the kitchen. Judging from the sound of banging pots and water running and cabinets opening and closing, he must be making tea. She hoped he was making tea. She’d kill for a cup of strong, hot Earl Grey right now.
Five minutes later she heard the kettle whistle, and the clatter of china and silverware. He returned in a moment with a tray in hand, laden with mugs, spoons, and pots of demerara sugar and cream...and a couple of aspirin.
There was even, she was surprised to note, a plate set out with a lemon wedge.
He put the tray down on the coffee table and glanced up. ‘How d’you take yer tea?’
‘Lemon, lots of sugar. No cream,’ she answered, and waited as he ladled in three heaped spoons of sugar, plonked in the lemon wedge, and stirred the lot with a spoon.
He thrust the mug at her.
‘Thank you.’ Gingerly she took it, and had a sip. She closed her eyes in ecstasy. It was the most perfect cup of tea she’d ever tasted, and she told him so.
In answer, he grunted.
Not exactly a candidate for a London talk show, then, she thought uncharitably. ‘Where is this place?’ she asked, curious.
‘Draemar. Loch Draemar, to be exact.’
She’d never heard of it. ‘Ah. And who owns the castle on the hill?’
His eyes came to rest on hers. ‘Who wants to know?’
‘What is this, twenty questions?’ Irritation coloured her voice. ‘I’ve told you, my name is Helen. Why won’t you answer my question?’
He narrowed his eyes at her. ‘Why