Empires Apart v1 0 3-SiMPLEX

Lion of Caledonia(10)

By: Caro LaFever

“Um…” Heated embarrassment ran up her neck. Digging with an antique would make her appear ridiculous.

“Hundreds of years ago, every good Scotsman kept a black dagger under his arm or in his stocking.” His lethal smile widened. “Just in case.”

The heat of her embarrassment mixed with another kind of heat she didn’t want to stop and identify. “Well—”

“Still, I’m not one to reject a helping hand.” His smile mocked her too. “If ye want to tackle the garden in your spare time, I’m not going to say no.”

“Um.” If he gave her a few years and a hundred thousand dollars, she’d be able to turn his backyard into a garden fit for a king. However, that wasn’t why she was here.

“But not with one of my antiques. Put it where ye found it.”

Feeling like she couldn’t do much else, she placed the antique down with a careful touch.

“Come along.” He didn’t seem fazed by her muted response. With his usual grace, he turned.

She wasn’t a short woman, yet she scrambled to keep pace with his long, strolling legs. He led them down a flight of stairs, past a kitchen with an old Aga oven and an ancient fridge from the seventies. Reaching the end of a dark, low-ceiling hallway, he grabbed a musty, woolen coat and thrust it into her hands. “Wear this.”

She noticed he didn’t grab one of the dozen other coats hanging on a strip of hooks for himself. Maybe the heat his body generated while strutting across his land made him impervious to the chill of the weather.

Before she could push the thought of heat away again, her temporary employer banged the stone door open and marched into the back of the garden. Jen trailed behind, grappling with her lingering embarrassment and growing bewilderment at her reaction to this man. The mix made her uneasy and also more determined. She could escape this bizarre situation if only she could find the damn ring. But here she was, thrown out into the garden, a place no sane person would store a ring.

“You’ll find some stuff there.” His big paw waved to a broken-down shed. “Help yourself.”

He gave her another mocking quirk of his brow and mouth before tramping past the overgrown flower beds and over the hill facing the loch, disappearing into the mist coming off the water.

She let out a relieved breath.

He was too much for her, and the sooner she got away the better.

Finding the ring couldn’t be done, though, at least for now. Who knew when the man would pop his head into a room and question what she was doing? For the time being, she’d have to do something outside, which was fine. She preferred the outdoors to the drafty building behind her. However, she wasn’t going to do his bidding and work for free in his garden.

She had too much new spine to do that.

Spotting a ramshackle building on the bank of the loch, she hiked onto the muddy path of the garden. The bare limbs of a line of chestnut trees whipped back and forth above her head in the stiff breeze coming off the lock. She came out onto the open lawn of the mansion next to the old building. The aged planks of oak and the cracked tiles of the roof told her this was old, and like everything else on this estate, ill-cared for. Bulky wooden piles stood in the water, holding up a second floor with a rickety porch possessing nothing more than one old plastic chair.

Jen didn’t think she’d want to risk sitting on that chair to stare at the loch in contemplation. She might well find herself hip-deep in freezing water.

Still curious, she walked to the side of the building. The sliding door she found was hard to open, but she managed to yank it wide enough to peer in. A stout, rounded boat with a small covered area floated next to a sleek sailboat. Both of them appeared well-kept, compared to anything else in this mansion or grounds.

Her employer must sail. And maybe fish.

Not that she cared.

It was only surprising to note: he could take care of things if he chose to. So why didn’t he care about the great mansion he must have paid millions to acquire?

Not that she cared.

She glanced at one wall and noted a thin stairway going up to the second floor. Figuring she had nothing else to do, she walked over and gingerly tested the wood steps. They seemed sturdy enough, so she climbed.

There was only one room, with a mangled kitchen and small, filthy bath on the side. A loft, with stairs she decided right away not to test, rose above. The place was empty of furniture and empty of spirit.

A feeling, soft, then harsh whispered through her soul.

Stepping to the one window, she stared out onto the waves. The clouds blurred the sun; only a thin stream of light glittered on the waves. The blue-grey ridge of mountains loomed over the other side of the loch, and the lap of the water on the rocks below competed with the ever-present whip of the wind.

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