‘So you do know it.’
‘I know of it. Not the same thing at all,’ he retorted, and turned away.
‘Wait,’ Helen protested. ‘Where are you going?’
He didn’t respond, just disappeared from the room. He came back a moment later with her handbag and laptop and dumped them both unceremoniously on the table next to the tea things.
‘My purse,’ Helen exclaimed, and reached out to snatch it up and scrabble through it in search of her mobile. It wasn’t there. ‘Shit,’ she muttered, ‘my phone must’ve slid off the seat onto the floor.’ She glanced up. ‘Did you happen to see it?’
‘If it’s not there,’ he retorted, ‘I didn’t see it. I brought what I found.’
She met his impenetrable eyes. ‘Right. So you did. Well, thank you, for that—’ she broke off, puzzled. ‘But...how did you get in? The car was locked.’
He raised his brow. ‘Aye, it was locked,’ he agreed, and eyed her levelly. ‘But the rear hatch wasn’t.’
And although he didn’t say it, Helen knew – just knew – that he was thinking to himself what a stupid, rattle-brained Londoner she was, wandering about in a life-threatening blizzard, when the rear bloody hatch of her car was unlocked the entire bloody time.
‘You’ll want to call in the morning to get someone to tow your car out,’ he said, his words gruff. ‘I can’t do it, the tractor won’t make it down the ravine. And there’s nae a phone here.’
She said nothing, but she wasn’t surprised he hadn’t a telephone. The cottage, with its huge stone fireplace, deep-silled windows, and ancient furnishings, was like something out of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Or The Hobbit.
After all ‒ why would a man like Colm have anything as modern as a telephone?
‘It’s late.’ He found another blanket and a pillow and tossed them on the sofa, then turned away. ‘Take that aspirin now, the tea should be cooled enough, and try and get some sleep. If there’s naught else, I’ll say goodnight.’
‘Goodnight, and thank you for this—’
But he’d already turned and trudged upstairs, where he went into his room, and shut the door.
And as he did, it occurred to Helen that he never had told her who lived in that castle up on the hill.
‘Oh, look, down there!’ Natalie exclaimed, and pressed her face to the car window. ‘Someone’s wrecked their car.’
Rhys followed her pointing finger. A car had indeed slid down an embankment and lay half buried in a snowdrift.
‘I do hope whoever was inside is all right,’ she said, her eyes anxious. ‘Should we check and see, do you think?’
Rhys shook his head. ‘It’s too far down the embankment, and it’s much too dark to investigate now. I’ll tell them up at the house. We’re nearly there.’
Sure enough, the lights of the castle’s turrets shone through the snowy darkness, beckoning them onward. Trees marched thickly along the edges of the road; the blackness beyond was impenetrable.
‘About bloody time,’ Dominic muttered.
He and Gemma had been unable to get a room in the tiny village of Loch Draemar, as no one had booked them in at the hotel. There was only a bed and breakfast down the road, and, the proprietor informed them in a thick Scottish accent, it was fully booked.
‘Thanks for letting us come along with you to Tarquin’s, Nat,’ Gemma offered, and cast Dominic a dark look. ‘It’s a good thing you waited.’
Rhys negotiated a curve in the drive and kept his attention on the road. ‘I didn’t expect there’d be anything available at such short notice. It is nearly Christmas, after all.’ He glanced in the rear-view mirror at Dominic. ‘Didn’t you arrange for a room beforehand?’ You wally, he almost added, but didn’t.
‘Of course I did!’ Dominic snapped. ‘Well, my agent did, anyway. Max said he took care of all of that. Bastard.’
Ten minutes later, Rhys stopped the Mondeo in front of quite the most impressive castle Natalie had ever seen outside of a fairy tale.
It had all the requisite things a proper castle should have – battlements, turrets, multi-paned windows, and a wooden door with metal hinges...even, it appeared, a moat – frozen now – and a drawbridge.
‘It’s gorgeous,’ Nat breathed as she leant forward in her seat, entranced. ‘Like a princess’s castle.’
They’d scarcely flung open the car doors and stepped out cautiously onto the snow-covered drive when the front door swung open. Light spilled out in a warm, welcoming path across the snow.
‘Fàilte! Welcome to Draemar,’ Tarquin called out, standing in the doorway with his arm around his petite wife, the aptly named Wren. ‘We were worried you wouldn’t make it through this blizzard.’
‘Tark!’ Natalie exclaimed, and catapulted herself into his and Wren’s arms. ‘It’s so good to see you both again, you have no idea!’
‘Aye, you too. It’s a nasty night for traveling.’
‘It was a dicey trip,’ Rhys admitted as he shook hands with Tarquin and Wren, ‘but somehow, we made it.’
Wren smiled warmly as she leant forward to kiss his cheek. ‘And we’re very glad you did.’ She turned with a quizzical but welcoming smile to Dominic and Gemma, hovering uncertainly in the darkness behind Nat and Rhys. ‘And who is this? Oh, my goodness ‒ isn’t that Dominic Heath? The rock star?’
‘I’m terribly sorry,’ Natalie apologised, ‘where are my manners?! Yes, it’s Dominic, and Gemma, his fiancée. They ran into a bit of trouble at Heathrow. It seems Dom’s agent forgot to book them a hire car, or rooms in the village hotel, and so they’ve no place to stay tonight.’
‘Oh! How awful.’ Wren eyed them in sympathy. ‘Then you must stay here, of course.’ She glanced over her shoulder at the enormous face of the castle. ‘It’s not as if we haven’t plenty of room to spare,’ she added wryly.
‘Thank you,’ Gemma said. ‘That’s very kind.’ Dominic mumbled his thanks and thrust out a hand to Tarquin and Wren.
‘Please, all of you, come inside,’ Tark urged. ‘You must be tired, and cold, and famished.’
‘I wouldn’t say no to a sausage roll and a cup of Builders,’ Dom muttered.
The main hall was enormous, with a sweeping staircase and a minstrel’s gallery overlooking the entranceway. An ancient carpet in faded shades of green and blue and red silenced their footsteps as they came inside. Overhead, a chandelier glimmered like a magnificent, jewelled bauble.
‘Ooh, what a gorgeous chandelier,’ Gemma breathed, awed.
Rhys glanced up, then back at Natalie. His eyes narrowed. ‘It ought to be. It cost £11,000. Plus shipping.’
Natalie blushed. ‘I’ll never hear the end of that, will I?’ She cast Rhys a reproving look and went to link her arm through Wren’s and glanced round in awe. ‘How on earth do you manage a place this size?’ Nat asked, curious. ‘It’s simply...enormous!’
‘Oh, we’ve a full staff,’ Wren explained as she and Tarquin led them into an elegantly appointed drawing room. ‘Draemar employs thirty-nine people.’
‘Thirty-eight,’ Tarquin corrected her. ‘One of the kitchen maids was sacked this morning.’