When Ayda and Hunter find a stoned up staircase leading to a hidden room it doesn't take long to realize that there is more than one story forgotten to the ages.
But with no art to drop the clues for Ayda she calls in Rowanne, an expert in medieval history and a long time friend for help. That's when its Hunters' brother Lorne's chance to be smitten and to tell all the family stories. From a Restoration actress and spy to an American heiress in trouble there's always a surprise for the newcomer.
The great hall of Castle Am Binnean was a huge room, with soaring stone walls and giant beams, each holding a huge wrought iron medieval chandelier. Giant fireplaces though were the focal point, no one could miss the holes in the walls large enough to stand in. The table was of an old style with the ends far across the room from one another. A few large stag horns soared high above their heads on the 20-foot walls. Several ancient tapestries covered the cold stone making the lead mullioned window set in the thick wall stand out even more. Ayda Sinclair stared at the hole appearing in the wall. The worker cursed as he dropped the chisel and hammer to grab a torch.
“I’m sorry Lady Braydallin. It’s supposed to be eight feet thick, that’s what it was just there,” he apologized, pointing to the other channel he had chipped out earlier not a few feet away.
Half hidden in the mist stood the castle Am Binnean with only a nineteenth century bridge linking it to the rest of Scotland. Hovering ghostlike, the castle sat on an island where an ancient blockhouse had protected the bridge from being crossed, in addition to the castle battlements.
In far off times, it had been the proverbial drawbridge allowing access to a castle. They were chiseling channels to run wires for a new security system. The entire castle needed protection now. Certain rooms had been turned into an art gallery with the oldest art and antiques housed within them. From the new exhibits came new attention from magazines and books that never cared before. With a distillery grand opening in mere days there would be more tourists coming for visits, not to mention Christmas a week later.
“What’s behind it? The old kitchen? That’s about where we are,” Ayda asked as the man peered through with the torch.
“No, looks like stairs, my lady. What I can see anyway.”
“Please not my lady. It’s Ayda.”
“What’s this? I heard a crash.” A hand slipped along her waist and Ayda leaned back against her husband, Hunter. The future Duke of Cairnmuir, currently the Marquess of Braydallin, was gorgeous to a fault, with dark blue eyes and thick brown hair streaked with blond. The sweater couldn’t hide his solid lean build, but it showed off the reddish-brown tan of a man who spent a good deal of time outdoors, even if it was winter. In that, he and his brothers took the same description, and yet none looked alike. That he was all hers still surprised her.
“I swear, Sir, it’s supposed to be eight feet thick here. On the old exterior walls all along here it has been, but...”
Hunter started laughing. “No foul done. There’s still an old priest’s hole we’ve lost track of over the years, I doubt it’s the only place with all the building additions. Open it up then, if there’s something behind it.”
A few hard blows with the hammer, and Hunter’s mother came quickly. Ayda always felt underdressed when Janet Sinclair, Duchess of Cairnmuir, was in the room. She looked like she should be in a French society page and yet she was also the one who made Hunter, the former RAF pilot, take Scottish dance lessons as a child. A contradiction indeed. “What happened?”
“We seem to have found a mystery. Stairs going down,” Hunter replied.
The Duchess walked closer, trying to see over the workman’s shoulder. “Is it another way into the dungeon? This is the oldest part of the castle.”
The workman shrugged his shoulders and then thought better of it. “No idea, Your Grace.”
“Wouldn’t it rather defeat the purpose of a dungeon to have another way in?” Ayda muttered.
“Mother, the dungeon is under the tower over there,” Hunter added, pointing to the opposite corner of the room. There weren’t many records of people being thrown there, but the gated hole still had a lock just in case.
The Duchess smiled. “I’m impatient, I know. I wonder if this was put in when the French Comtesse married into the family.” There was no Comtesse in the family. There was the daughter of a Comte, but in the Hundred Years war the land was lost and in France when the land was lost so was the title. That was in the 1400’s and still Janet called her a Comtesse. Just like she was Lady Janet MacLeod regardless of marrying the Duke. It was a surprise she didn’t mention the Princess to the workmen. She was the name-dropping sort. Janet was a smart name dropper though. The ‘Comtesse’ made a big building expansion, and the Princess was her daughter in law. She brought the name, but not building.
When Ayda had arrived at the castle four years earlier, it was to work on the art collection for one summer to finish up her doctoral thesis. Before the summer was up, she and Hunter were sharing a bed, and he had offered her the permanent job of taking care of the collection. He was even willing to put aside bed, if that was what it took to keep her there. She’d been smart enough to listen that she could have both, a man fast falling in love with her and a job most dream of.
The early castle history had never been put down before, other than vague details—trying to get her paper finished, they started telling her stories they knew. It was the only way to hear the past with the holes in the bits written down, there were dates enough, a mausoleum full of monuments and effigies with more awards mentioned than one could keep track of, many when asked about no one could say why they were awarded, but the stories gave the castle life. Old stories told by the cooks around the kitchen table on cold Scottish winter nights. Those were a bawdy lot. All the clan books had been changed with her digging into the past anew. Only rumors had remained from those early days of marriages among people. The mausoleum started in the 1440’s leaving 300 years unnamed other than a piece of paper and it had holes. They were still uncovering things as she tried to keep 1100 paintings in good order.
“Hunter, help the man,” The Duchess ordered.
“Ayda, do you want a torch?” The Duchess was asking as a huge dark gaping hole filled the wall before Ayda.
Ayda came back from her thoughts. “Of course, I wouldn’t miss it.”
Hunter only shook his head as his impeccably dressed mother went down the ancient stairs first. Cobwebs were everywhere, and dust from the centuries covered each step. The cleared opening was only two feet wide and six feet tall, Hunter had to duck his head to descend. There was no chance the opening would fall though, the way was covered in stonework. Someone had spent a good deal of time preparing it. That, right there, seemed to rule out being part of the dungeon, a room little more than dug in the very stone that made up the island she lived on now. But there at the bottom of the stairs she stared at another room dug into the very rock almost as large as the old kitchen that was now her workroom. At least what she could make out with just dim torches. It wasn’t a small room, and the light vanished into the gloom.
“When do you think it dates from?” The Duchess asked.
“Another mystery for you to solve, Ayda. I better get used to you hiding on me again,” Hunter joked.
Ayda wanted to shove him or something, but there was too much to see. “Very funny. If you Sinclairs would just keep better records, there wouldn’t be any for me to solve. How a family doesn’t know there is a Titian hiding in a storeroom I’ll never understand. Or that there was a Viking Princess in the family?”
“At least we knew about the ghost or you might have run off before you ever got me in bed.”
Ayda stuck her tongue out. He never let her stick her tongue out unless she was prepared to use it. With his mother there it was a taunt—he couldn’t do anything about it. “You never did say when you thought it might be from. You’re the one keeping track for restoration purposes.”
He was silent for some time just looking around. The walls were finished, but some of the mortar lay about on the ground where it had fallen onto the flagstone floors.
“The only thing I know for sure is that it’s not on any plans I’ve ever seen.”