Such an ugly, unforgiving word. Full of pity and dismissal, and nothing like the life Elspeth Otis had always dreamed for herself. Nothing.
She looked at the birthday present in her hands as if it were a spider, when, in reality, it was only a silly lace cap, delicate, frilly and handmade. But Elspeth felt its uneasy touch settle upon her skin like a stray cobweb stretched across the garden, unseen and unavoidable. And somehow inevitable.
Time had flown with such cruel speed that she had somehow passed straight through the years of great danger, to arrive at this time even more desolate and desperate. Because the present of the cap meant that she had, on what otherwise ought to have been a most pleasant day—her four and twentieth birthday—irrevocably joined her spinster aunts on the shelf.
Only women of a certain age wore caps. And unmarried women who put on caps were all but saying they had given up all hope of ever finding their true love. Given up believing such a man even existed.
Elspeth did not want to give up hope, but the plain truth was that she hadn’t much chance for finding true love, living with her aged aunts—the sisters Murray, as they were known—in a tiny, thatched cottage, at the bitter end of a lane, in a forgotten village at the edge of the world. The idea of finding true love seemed as far-fetched as finding a pot of gold hidden in the garden.
“Put it on,” urged Aunt Isla.
Elspeth held the fine lace creation up to the light and attempted to make appropriately admiring sounds. “So very pretty,” she managed. Really, it was pretty—fine and delicate and exquisite as spun sugar. And yet she could not bring herself to put it on her head.
She racked her brain for a suitable excuse. Anything would do—anything that wouldn’t hurt any finer feelings or seem ungrateful. Anything.
A sound came from without—the jangle of harness and the creak of cartwheels on the rutted track running up to the cottage.
“Someone’s in the lane.” Which was both a mercy and a true diversion—normally no carriages stopped at Dove Cottage. But Elspeth meant to make the most of the distraction, even if it were just a drover who had lost his way.
Anything to put off the inevitable.
She pushed the lace cap deep into the pocket of her practical quilted skirts and bolted for the door. “I’ll just have a wee look, shall I?”
“Elspeth!” Aunt Isla remonstrated. “Have a care!”
This was Elspeth’s task in life—to have a care. To never call attention to herself, nor give up her guard against her tainted blood. To keep vigilant against all manner of mischief or mischance lurking within and without. To keep safe, and quiet, and not—under any circumstances—to be herself.
“Don’t rush,” Aunt Isla continued to instruct. “Why must you always rush?”
Elspeth rushed because she was trying to outrace the dreadful dullness of her life. But also because a clarty, mud-splattered dray was drawing up beside their gate, and the driver was looking meaningfully at their cottage.
She was down the path in a trice, despite the dreich, dripping June weather. The Aunts came hard behind, hovering in the doorway to listen to every word, so Elspeth was rather more careful of her diction—no scaffy, vulgar Scots cant for the genteel sisters Murray—than her skirts. “May I help you?”
“Deliv’ry fer Miss Otis,” bawled the driver over the chitter of the rain, shooting his thumb over his shoulder at the large tarpaulin-covered mound in the muddy well of his dray.
“There must be a mistake. We’re expecting no deliveries.” Aunt Molly called from the doorway, waving her arm to shoo the nuisance of a mon away from the gate, as if he were a large, mud-splattered midge.
But the dray mon was stout of heart as well as of girth, and assessed the situation with one squinted eye. His gaze pegged square on Elspeth. “Ye be Miss Otis?”
“Aye. I am.” Elspeth stepped forward into the rain, not caring if she did get soaking drookit—she was as stout-hearted as any other Scots lass, and she was more curious than she was afraid of catching cold. “What is it you’re delivering?” She went on tiptoe to peer over the side. “From whom is it sent?”
The driver heaved his bulk down onto the lane. “Frae Edinburgh,” was his terse answer. “Sn’ Andrew’s Square.”
“Nay!” Aunt Isla gasped.
His words doused her aunts more effectively than any downpour—they shrank back into the doorway, as if the dray might contain some great calamity instead of what was undoubtedly some commonplace item—for nothing outside of commonplace ever occurred in their village.
The driver barely raised a bushy brow. “A trunk, it be,” he went on as he began untying ropes and peeling back the tarpaulin to reveal the most battered, unprepossessing, commonplace old trunk Elspeth had ever seen. “Where d’ye want it?”
“I’m not sure.” Besides the fact that Elspeth could not imagine how or why she should be sent a trunk from Edinburgh, her aunts’ reactions told her they would be loath to allow the thing into the cottage. “D’you know what it contains?”
“Iniquity!” Aunt Isla’s thin voice was sharp with frantic accusation. “She needs nothing from that huzzy. Nothing, I tell you! Take it back, take it back.”
Elspeth had rarely heard such invective from her aunt. “What huzzy?”
The Aunts exchanged one of their long moments of silent communication before it was somehow tacitly decided that Aunt Molly would answer. “That Wastrel’s sister,” she said at last, pursing her thin lips in distaste. “She has a house, so we are told, on St. Andrew Square in Edinburgh.”
That Wastrel being her late, unlamented father. Of whom Elspeth was never to speak.
“Den of vipers,” Isla added in a fervent whisper. “All of a piece.”
A piece of what, Elspeth did not ask. She was too busy overcoming the curious shock of learning she had any other kin in the world besides the two elderly relations in front of her, let alone a woman who lived so close as Edinburgh. The metropolis was a little over twelve miles to the north and east, but for Elspeth, who had never been allowed to venture farther than the next wee village, it might as well have been the farthest reaches of the heathen Americas.
“Why in heaven’s name did you never tell me?”
“Because a more scandalous, scarlet woman of Babylon never lived,” was Isla’s fervent opinion.
“We thought it best,” was Molly’s more decorous judgment.
“But she, this scarlet woman”—and if a lass were to have an unknown relation, how intriguing, and somehow inevitable, that she should be a scarlet woman—“has known of me? Well, clearly she has”— Elspeth answered her own question—“for she has sent me a present. On my birthday. But how strange that she should never have written me before.”
Another fraught, stony-faced look passed silently between the two elderly sisters.
“Aunt Molly?” Elspeth faced the eldest of the two. “Do you mean to tell me she has written to me previously?”
“We thought it best,” Molly repeated, “to keep you from the influence—”
“The iniquitous influence,” Isla amended.
“—of That Wastrel’s family.”
Elspeth braced herself for the lecture she knew would be coming following the mention of her long-dead father. John Otis had done three things to earn the sobriquet of “That Wastrel”. First, he had fallen in love with her mother, the Aunts’ lovely youngest sister, Fiona, which had led to pregnancy, Elspeth’s birth, and shortly thereafter, her mother’s untimely death. Secondly, he had written a book so scandalous, licentious and popular that it had subsequently been banned from publication. And lastly, he had, in his grief over his young wife’s death, slowly drunk himself to death, leaving his only daughter to the tender care of the only family she had left in the world—her devoted, but strict, spinster aunts.
“We wanted to wait until you were older,” Aunt Molly tried to explain.
“Old enough to know better,” Isla added.
Well. She was certainly old enough now, wasn’t she, now that she was a dashed spinster?
“Aye, there be a letter, too.” The dray mon slapped into her palm a thick, expensively papered letter with Elspeth’s own name in an elegant scrawl across the front.
“Michty me.” Elspeth gave vent to her frustration with forbidden Scots cant. “What else have ye twa been keeping frae me?”