Almost two years ago, outside of Campbeltown, Scotland

 

It was common knowledge around Campbeltown that the owner of Kintyre Mansion was getting rid of staff left, right and centre. Which meant he had vacancies, and Donna Sinclair was just desperate enough to apply for one of them.

“Are you sure about this?” her older sister Agnes asked as she drove up the sweeping drive to the imposing Georgian mansion. “This guy is notoriously hard to work for. He’s fired six people in the past month alone.”

“He’s only lashing out because he’s in pain.” Duncan Stewart had lost his young wife a few months earlier, after a lengthy battle with cancer, and by all accounts, he wasn’t coping well. “People need to have a little patience with him.”

“No, they don’t,” her youngest sister, Mairi, said from the backseat. “What people need to do is keep far, far away until he’s done grieving and stops lashing out. Seriously. Would you go near a lion with a thorn in its paw? No. Because you’d get your head bitten off. Self-preservation is how the species survives.”

“You forget who you’re talking to,” Agnes said. “If there was an injured lion within a two-hundred-mile radius, Donna would want to cuddle it until its boo-boo was healed.”

“I would not. You guys always paint me as some sort of bleeding heart. I’m not, you know. I can be just as hard as the next person.”

Agnes and Mairi burst out laughing.

“Say that again,” Mairi said as she held up her phone. “I need to film it for Isobel. She’ll be gutted she had to stay home with the kids and miss it.”

“Funny, very funny.” Donna frowned at them, but her attention was stolen by the sight of the Georgian mansion house as it came into view. It looked like a massive stone cube with windows. There were three stories, with the windows on the top floor being smaller than on the other two. There was an equal number of windows either side of the vast front door, and a sweeping stone staircase leading up to it—complete with wrought iron handrail.

“It looks very. . .” Intimidating? Scary? Haunted? “Grand,” she said at last.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” Agnes said.

“We need the money, Aggie.” It was the understatement of the year.

The four sisters pooled every penny they made to cover Agnes’ university tuition, as well as to pay off the loan Isobel’s ex-husband had taken out—with a guy who broke legs if he didn’t get his money.

“I’m earning now.” As usual, Mairi was texting as she talked. “I can take on another couple of online boyfriends and up my hourly rate. You don’t need to work for the Devil of Kintyre. You can wait and find a decent job in town.”

Donna let out a sigh. Her eyes still fixed on the imposing building. Georgian architects sure liked symmetry. “I appreciate that. I do. But jobs are hard to come by right now. I haven’t seen another vacancy in a bank since my branch closed down.”

“Recession.” Mairi gave a knowing nod.

“It isn’t recession, dimwit,” Agnes said. “It’s the fact we live in the middle of nowhere. The only way off the peninsular is by boat or a five-hour drive to Glasgow. It isn’t exactly a commutable location.”

“Remind me,” Mairi said, sarcastically. “Why do we live here again?”

“Because our parents thought the world ended at the borders of Kintyre and we can’t afford to move anywhere else,” Agnes told her for the millionth time.

“And Isobel needs help with the kids,” Donna added.

“It sucks being us.” Mairi took a photo of the mansion to send to her fake boyfriends.

Agnes parked the car in front of the stairs leading up to the main entrance, and Donna took a deep breath. “Here we go. How do I look?”

“Like you could clean a house,” Mairi said, “which is good, since that’s the job you’re applying for.”

“Thanks.” Donna climbed out of the car. “Helpful as usual.”

Mairi beamed at her. “Knock ’em dead.”

“And we’ll help bury the body.” Agnes gave her a thumbs up.

With a shake of her head and a smile, Donna climbed the curved steps to the main door. The grey cube of a building was severe, and she couldn’t help but feel intimidated. But they did need the money, and beggars couldn’t be choosers. Plus, the owner of the mansion was fast running out of staff who would put up with his mood swings. Donna figured if she could live with her three sisters, she could cope with one grieving man. All he needed was a little understanding and compassion. She could do that. Heck, she’d been born to do it.

She knocked on the door, stamping her feet against the cold as she waited for the housekeeper to answer. Living on the flattest part of the peninsular meant there was nothing to stop the winter winds as they came off the Atlantic and rushed straight through Campbeltown—as well as everyone who lived there. It was only the beginning of winter, and already Donna felt like she’d never get warm again.

As she waited for the housekeeper, she looked out over the mansion estate. At over fifty acres, the Kintyre holding was one of the largest in the area. And it looked a bit unkempt. The grass was barren in patches, bushes needed trimming, and the roses that lined the driveway were growing wild. If she didn’t know better, she would think the place had been recently abandoned. There was a definite air of neglect hanging over the mansion—probably due to the owner losing the staff needed to care for it.

A noise drew her attention back to the vast oak door. Bolts turned with an ominous clang, making her think of every old Hammer Horror movie she’d watched as a child. Slowly, the door swung open, and Donna’s jaw dropped. Because it wasn’t the long-time housekeeper who appeared before her but the famed artist who owned the mansion.

“What do you want?” He glared at her as he folded his arms over his crinkled, blue tartan shirt.

It was impossible to reply, because she was looking at the sexiest man she had ever set eyes on. Even with a scowl on his face, Duncan Stewart was everything a man should be—rugged, masculine, strong. He wasn’t a scrawny man, there were muscles under his clothes, and even barefoot he towered over her, which made him at least six foot tall. His hair was unkempt, his beard ragged, and there were deep lines etched into his face. The kind of lines that came with agony rather than time. He oozed power, arrogance, and pain. And it was the pain that jerked Donna out of her daze. It was a stark reminder that he’d buried his young wife just a few months earlier.

“If you don’t have anything to say, you can clear off. I don’t have time for this.” He made a move to swing the door shut in her face.

“Wait! I’ve come to see the housekeeper about the cleaning job.”

He paused, staring at her with eyes so dark they seemed almost black. “I fired the housekeeper.”

“Oh.” She hadn’t expected that. Although, considering the rate he was going through staff, she probably should have. “Okay, well, who do I talk to about the job?”

His gaze seemed to bore right through her, and she found herself fighting the urge to squirm. She knew she wasn’t much to look at. At just over five feet tall, with curves that betrayed a fondness for cake and a distinct disinterest in sport, she was the kind of woman who blended into the scenery. She had no standout features to redeem her. Her eyes were a watery blue, her hair a mousy brown—with a kink in it that couldn’t be bothered turning into a wave, and her nose was a round dot in the middle of her face. A clown’s nose. She’d often thought that if she’d painted the end red, people would think it was fake.

“You’re hired,” Duncan snapped once he’d finished his mysterious assessment.

“Thanks?” She couldn’t hide her hesitance. “When do I start?”

“Now.” He swung the door wide. “You’re the new housekeeper.” He grabbed a set of keys from the table beside the door. “Your apartment’s on the third floor. It’s included in the job. And there’s a car somewhere.” He scratched a beard that sorely needed trimming. “Ask the cook, she’ll know.” He turned back to the dark interior, clearly done with the conversation.

“Wait,” Donna called. “I don’t know anything about being a housekeeper, and you don’t know anything about me. You didn’t even ask my name. I came here for the cleaning job.”

“There’s more money in the housekeeping position, and I don’t need a cleaner. Housekeeper’s the only job I’m offering. Take it or leave it.” His tone was flat, and his eyes were dead. It was clear that he didn’t care either way whether she took the job or walked away.

Donna knew her sisters would have taken one look at Duncan and run for the hills. The man was clearly on a course set for destruction, and there was a good chance he’d take down anyone near him when he went. But, she couldn’t get past the agony in his eyes. Inside, he was screaming and wailing, raging against his grief and loss. He was lost, and there was no one around to help him find his way back. He’d fired everyone else, and it was well known around town that he refused to see his friends and family. He’d isolated himself, while slowly letting his grief kill him. He needed someone, anyone, to look out for him. How could she walk away from a need like that?

She took a deep breath. “My name is Donna Sinclair. My record is clean. I don’t drink, smoke or do drugs.”

“Like I said, you’re hired.” He pointed to the stairs. “Find your own way.”

“That’s it? No job description? No contract?”

“I’ll email my lawyer. She’ll sort out a contract and your money. The job description is easy—keep everybody out of my way and finish my wife’s renovations.” He stalked away but turned before the gloom of the building swallowed him. “And no damn parties.” With that, he was gone.

Donna stood there for a moment, wondering what had just happened. She’d come for a part-time position and nabbed a full-time live-in job—with a man who was broken and hitting out at everyone around him. On reflection, it might have been a good idea to turn down the job and call in the professionals to deal with Duncan.

“Is he gone?” Mairi came up behind her and peered into the foyer.

“Yeah.” Donna looked in the direction Duncan had disappeared.

“Did you get the job?” Agnes said over Mairi’s shoulder.

She forced a smile. “You’re looking at Kintyre Mansion’s new housekeeper.”

Housekeeper?”

Donna tried hard to look like she was happy about her new job, when mainly what she felt was terror at biting off more than she could chew. But still…Duncan Stewart needed somebody.

She took a deep breath and forced a smile. “Apparently it’s a live-in position. There’s a flat on the third floor.”

“Cool,” Mairi said. “A live-in housekeeper makes more money, right?”

“Dingbat.” Agnes smacked her youngest sister on the back of her head. “You only ever think about the money.”

“We’re poor, Aggie. What else are we supposed to think about?”

“Well, you could try thinking about the fact Donna will be living here all alone with a strange man. One who has a reputation for being bad-tempered.”

“Oh, that.” Mairi’s eyes widened, and she brushed her mane of wild, red curls from her face. “Maybe we should stay here with you, for a few days, just to make sure he isn’t an axe murderer or something.”

“Good idea.” Donna didn’t like the look of the huge, empty house, and the thought of staying there alone with the grieving widower didn’t appeal to her at all.

“Did you even want this job?” Agnes said.

“I’m sure it’s a great job.” Donna sidestepped the question but fooled nobody.

“Oh, Donna,” Agnes sighed. “You did it again, didn’t you? You saw a lost cause and you couldn’t say no.”

“He needs someone to look out for him,” Donna protested. “How was I supposed to say no to that? He’s just lost his wife.”

“And gained a housekeeper who doesn’t know anything about the job,” Agnes added. “One who’s too soft-hearted and easy to walk over.”

“I resent that.” Donna glared at her.

Agnes just lifted her hand and ticked off on her fingers. “You’re a member of the Bacon of the Month Club, even though you’re vegetarian, because the guy was worried he’d lose his job if he didn’t sign people up. You once spent a weekend at a Jehovah’s Witness retreat because you felt sorry for them not being able to talk people into going along. You—”

“Enough.” Donna held up her hand to stop the long, embarrassing list. “I need a job. Duncan needs a housekeeper.”

“Or a keeper generally,” Mairi said helpfully.

Donna frowned at her. “This is good money. And a good job in an economy where there aren’t many. It also means that I can move out of Isobel’s house, so she’ll have more space for her and the kids. He even said there was a car I could use. I don’t see a downside.” What she really meant was that she didn’t want to see the downside.

“The big, angry, grief-stricken guy who keeps firing people might be the downside,” Agnes said. “He’s hell to work for. He’s got a temper, and he isn’t afraid to use it.”

“I can cope with shouting.” Donna didn’t need to remind them that their dad had been an expert in that area. “He just looked so sad, what was I supposed to do? Say no? He really needs a housekeeper.”

“Because he fired the last one,” Agnes guessed, making Donna wince.

“I don’t know why you’re giving her a hard time about this,” Mairi said. “If she can’t say no to bacon, she didn’t have a hope in hell of turning down a sad sack like Duncan Stewart. On the plus side, if the job’s horrible, she probably won’t be in it long. He’ll most likely fire her before the week’s out. Now, can we go see the housekeeper’s accommodation? And a wee tour of the rest of the house would be nice too. I’ve always wanted to check this place out. Although, it’s creepier than it looks from the outside.” She turned to her sisters. “Are we sure his wife died? I mean, she isn’t locked in the attic, right?”

“Mairi!” Donna poked her sister in the ribs.

Mairi held up her hands. “Just asking.”

And together the three sisters headed up the wide, curved stairway to Donna’s new accommodation.

*** 

Donna’s book is out at the end of this month. Check out the next newsletter for details.

You can read more about Mairi’s story here.

 

 

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