June 18, 1819
To Daisy Montgomery, it was a day like any other summer day in the Scottish Highlands—
And as Hester, the Scottish housekeeper, would say: a wee bit off.
So magical, the sun had refused to stop shining all through the night, reluctant to leave this glorious land in darkness for even an hour.
And a wee bit off because Daisy lived with a cruel witch of a mother and a younger sister who was a fool.
It was a day for daydreaming about possibilities.
And a day for wishing Mother and Perdita to hell.
Which Daisy would never do because she was a good girl and would always try her best to love her family. But she longed to love them from afar—from across an ocean. And maybe another continent after that.
Now that her jolly stepfather Barnabas had died, it would be so nice if Mother and Perdita would go back to America and leave her here in Scotland with her new sister Ella.
Actually, they’d been sisters for four years now. Sisters of the heart. Ella didn’t say much, but she understood Daisy, and Ella understood her. It was an understanding based not on any sort of logic but on love. Daisy had felt it with Barnabas, too, before he’d died. And also with Hester and Joe, their old shepherd, who’d nicknamed her Yankee.
As she walked up the road from the village of Glen Dewey to the formidable Keep and its neighbor, Castle Vandemere, Daisy knew she was loved. She fingered the beautiful ring Barnabas had given her his last Christmas alive as a token of their special bond and savored the fact that she could love her new family, too, without fear that they’d fling that tender gift of her spirit back in her face.
It was reason enough to forget all her cares.
Above her, the Keep jutted out on its west side above a crop of rock worn smooth by centuries of inclement weather. Its humble, much older neighbor, Castle Vandemere—which was her home–lay but a quarter-mile east of the larger fortress and was protected from the north winds by an ancient hillock that resembled a kindly old face.
The air was brisk and cool, saturated with the peppery smells of pine, gorse, and heather, as well as the green smell of wet bracken drying in the sun. The water in the burn gurgled merrily, calling to her like a friend, challenging her to a race down the slope.
Traipsing along next to her, Ella swung her empty basket. “Oh, the world is a beautiful place!” she trilled. She always said the same thing every day, rain or shine. “Isn’t it, Daisy?” She turned to look at her with her big, blue eyes.
“It is,” she agreed with a smile.
And it was true. The vista surrounding them—craggy mountains meeting deep, blue loch–was so magnificent it took Daisy’s breath away. And whether the straths, glens, moors, and mountains of the northwest Highlands wore gray veils of mist or basked in sunshine, they made her heart ache with the intensity of their beauty.
Ella started singing again. She was the same age as Daisy but sweet. Innocent. Almost other-worldly. Ella didn’t see problems anywhere.
But Daisy did. Aside from the daily angst of having to figure out how to live with two shrews who hated Ella with a passion, she worried very much how they were going to survive now that Barnabas had joined his wife Catherine in their special part of Heaven, which surely contained hounds, bagpipes, and books galore.
Money was always scarce these days. But Daisy’s anxiety had to do with much more than finding their next bite to eat and keeping a roof over their heads.
She was worried about Ella’s happiness.
It must be preserved at all costs.
Daisy had promised Barnabas that she’d make sure Ella was not only well cared for but happy. Always. She simply wasn’t sure how to manage it, although Hester told her that if she listened long enough to the unspoken wisdom of the ageless hills and lochs of the Highlands, she’d know what to do.
Hester said it would come to Daisy as a message on the low-moaning wind. Or in the kiss of the sun on her cheek. Or in the soaring flight of a golden eagle or peregrine above the moor.
Hester knew this deep in her bones.
Daisy knew nothing of the sort.
All her life, her flights of fancy, whenever they happened to take wing, had been thoroughly shot down by Mother’s biting remarks and the realities of a life lived on the run and in back rooms of seedy lodgings in large American cities. So Daisy was leery of anything that smacked of whimsy. She tried to tell this to Hester in her own way, by changing the subject whenever moaning winds and soaring eagles came up, but the housekeeper insisted that Daisy must trust–
Wait for an opportunity.
Well, Daisy was tired of waiting. She’d had enough of looking for signs. She’d been waiting all her life to escape Mother and Perdita, hadn’t she? And now she had to wait to save Ella from them, too.
The American in her rebelled. She didn’t want to wait any longer. She wanted to create her opportunity. Now.
As usual, they were in no rush to get back home from their daily trek to the village to sell eggs. Every morning with Ella, Daisy walked purposefully down Glen Dewey’s High Street, looking around to see if an answer would come to her—in the form of a letter, or some sage advice from one of the wise old locals saying hello to them from a doorway. But nothing extraordinary ever happened in Glen Dewey these days. And not a soul came to visit, either. And why should they? The sparkle that used to infuse the occupants of the small Highland village had faded to a dull acceptance of their lot.
The decline in glen morale had begun long ago, with the Clearances, but it plummeted to a new low when Barnabas was forced to leave the Keep and a stranger, Mr. Beebs, moved in and ended the tradition of the annual great hunt and the subsequent games held on its grounds each year.
Daisy had a host of reasons to dislike Mr. Beebs, and the highest on her list involved his undue attention to Ella. He waved at her every time his big, black coach went by the castle, but it would be a cold day in hell before Daisy let him near her.
“Let’s stop to pick some heather,” Ella suggested, and beckoned Daisy to step off the crude road leading upward to the Keep and Castle Vandemere.
They were near the Stone Steps, a natural rock formation that looked like five steps leading to the sky. Below the steps, three giant larches hid the village from view. But if a traveler were to climb to the top step, he or she could peer over the tree tops and see Glen Dewey again.
“Yes, let’s,” Daisy said without hesitation. Ella had taught her that nothing was more important than living in a beautiful world, not even the problem of getting away from Mother.
She followed behind her stepsister, who hummed and picked, then wended her way alongside a small, dense patch of woods, where she hummed and picked more purple blooms. A beautiful meadow lay on the other side of the trees. If Ella wanted even more heather, they’d take a longer way and go round the copse, which locals knew hid the small, deadly pool of peat, muck, and lichen known as Bigley’s Bog.
They’d done the same thing a thousand times, but then something happened that made this time…different. A ray of sunshine kissed Daisy’s cheek. That was all well and good, but then she glanced up and saw a golden eagle soaring overhead, and it was adrift on a breeze—a breeze which carried the voice of a man, reedy with panic.
“Help! Someone, please help me!” The summons came from inside the wood.
Ella dropped her basket.
“Please hurry!” cried the voice. “I’m sinking fast!”
Someone was in Bigley’s Bog!
Between the branches of pine and rowan, Daisy caught a glimpse of a man’s form. The bog was miniscule compared to the vast swaths of bogland farther north, but it could still be deadly to any man or beast who found themselves trapped in it.
Daisy’s heart was in her throat, but even so, she had the presence of mind to be grateful for her walking stick. Surely it would be of use. Picking up her skirts with her free hand, she ran forward, her boots sinking into the soft earth of the wood.
“We’re coming!” she cried.
“Dinna move, whoever ye are!” cried Ella right behind her.
Dark shadows abounded, and a multitude of tree limbs made the going slower than Daisy wished. But then the trees parted and—
It was Mr. Beebs, the bounder!
Some might consider the spindly, pale-faced landlord in the prime of his life, although to Daisy, nearly thirty-five years was rather old. And a naïve person might be forgiven for believing the pleasant light in his eye and the easy smile on his face marked him as a gentleman.
But Daisy knew better.
He was a cobra in the grass. A spider in a web. She’d even liken him to a pig who’d missed his supper (Bert, Ella’s favorite pig, could be quite threatening when he was hungry).
The bog gripped Mr. Beebs up to his thighs and didn’t appear to want to let him go. Not a branch was close enough for him to grab. If he moved, he might sink more. He was so close to rescue that he could spit on dry land. But at the same time, he was so far–
Far enough to die.
“Oh, my goodness,” Daisy whispered, a chill going down her spine.
This was meant to be her opportunity. The Highlands had brought her an answer, just as Hester said it would.
She gulped in disbelief. “Don’t move,” she commanded Mr. Beebs. “You’ll only sink further.”
“Right,” he whispered, his earnest green eyes masking the villain’s soul that lay beneath his frightened expression. “I was out walking, and I heard a puppy yelping in here—he was yours, Miss MacGregor, the one you call Bandit.”
And how did he know that? Daisy wondered. Unless he were spying on Ella from the Keep, or accidentally on purpose had run into her on one of her own walks.
Ella’s large, blue eyes got bigger. “Bandit’s a naughty wee dog to be down here alone! I’m so sorry, Mr. Beebs. I thought he was in the castle. He must’ve tried to follow us to the village.”
“Yes, well, I-I managed to extricate him,” Mr. Beebs said.
“As anyone with even half a heart would do,” Daisy muttered, to downplay his heroics.
“But I took one step too many into the bog to reach his nape,” Mr. Beebs went on. “So when I tried to escape myself”—he looked down—“you can see I went in too far.”
Ella, angel that she was, began crying.
“Don’t worry, Miss MacGregor,” he said, “The pup’s probably run back home with his tail between his legs.”
But still she cried, no doubt for fear that Mr. Beebs himself would perish. In fact, right before their eyes, he sank another six inches.
Daisy held out her walking stick, just out of his reach. “Rest assured I will help you, sir,” she said. “But first—“
Mr. Beebs’s eyes widened.
He knew. He knew something big was coming!
So did she, but what was it?
She wracked her brains. It was on the tip of her tongue. And then it came to her.
“First, you must give us Castle Vandemere.” Daisy heard herself say the words as if from far away. Her voice sounded bold, yet it also had a strange trembling in it. Time slowed to nothing. The whole world was Ella, Mr. Beebs, Daisy, and the bog.
It was the perfect answer! They’d always have a place to live. And Ella would be happy. She’d stay in Castle Vandemere as long as she wished. She’d leave it only to marry the perfect man, if he ever came along.
“I can’t do that.” Mr. Beebs sounded almost regretful.
But Daisy knew that bad people didn’t sound regretful, even if they were facing punishment. They sounded angry and confident, no matter what.
Mother did it all the time: “You’ll be sorry!” she usually screamed to no one and everyone when she broke a vase. Or tripped over a crack in the stone stairs leading up to her bedchambers. Or spilled her own wine.
But she was also unpredictable. Evil people generally were…to throw other people off.
Daisy felt a surge of confidence. She knew exactly how to handle this situation. “I can tell you wish you could give up being greedy so you won’t drown in a bog,” she informed Mr. Beebs with what she thought was a great deal of compassion. “But you’re having trouble doing so. It’s ingrained in you to be wicked.”
A memory of Mother that morning at the breakfast table flashed before Daisy’s eyes: “Pass the butter,” Mother had hissed, yanking it away from Daisy before she could use it, leaving her toast to grow cold.
To Mother, everything was the butter at the breakfast table. Hers. Hers alone. And fie on everyone else’s toast.
“Tell me, Mr. Beebs,” Daisy asked him, “are you fond of butter on your toast?”
“Who cares?” he said a bit impatiently, showing the first sign of temper.
“It’s important to you, isn’t it?” Daisy said. “Always buttering your toast first. Always taking castles. Always…riding a horse when no one else has one.” She was profoundly jealous of his horse. “Those habits will kill you in the end, Mr. Beebs.”
“Please don’t speak for me, Miss Montgomery,” he said. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Honestly, Mr. Beebs,” she went on, “it’s all right to let go of your grasping nature. Embrace selflessness. Give up the butter, for once in your life. And your horse. And Castle Vandemere!”
He looked vastly annoyed. And confused.
“If you don’t”—she braced herself, knowing she was telling a lie—“you’ll die.”
He stared first at her, then at Ella. “I-I can’t give up the castle.”
“Well, if it’s pride holding you back,” Daisy assured him, “I promise never to say ‘I told you so.’ Neither will I ever tell any of the locals you fell into the bog. You know how they’d tell the story for years and years.”
“No.” His tone was flat. “I’m afraid I still won’t change my mind,” he said with such emphasis, he sank another few inches.
“Oh, dear,” Ella exclaimed through her tears.
“Please, Miss MacGregor,” Mr. Beebs whispered. “Please help me.” He threw her a beseeching look, knowing full well she was the most likely of the two to have sympathy for him.
And then he sank more and more, the selfish lout, looking as innocent and scared as a lamb going to slaughter.
Everyone knew Ella didn’t hate anything or anyone, and she cried harder, her whole body shaking. “D-Daisy, do something,” she said in her soft, pleading voice.
“Trust me, Ella.” Daisy looked into her sister’s frightened eyes. “You must trust me, all right?” She leaned over and whispered in her ear. “I won’t let him die. I promise.”
Ella gave a little nod and a hiccup.
Daisy went back to Mr. Beebs. “You will return us the castle.”
“No. I can’t.” His face grew even paler than usual. “It’s not as easy a thing as you’d imagine, giving someone a castle.”
“Oh?” Daisy was scornful. “It’s not as easy as winning that same castle in a game of cards?”
“No.” He gulped. “It’s much harder. Besides, I’m already letting you live in it rent-free.”
“But we want to own it again,” Daisy said to him.
He was up to his hips now. “Isn’t occupying it without leasing it good enough?”
“No. The three years are almost up. We want to live in it with no lease forever.”
He started to flail about in earnest. “But you already do.”
Daisy huffed. “Barnabas said you only gave it to us lease-free for three years. And it wasn’t until after he begged you to show some mercy that you relented—you, the man who took advantage of his kindness and hospitality and are now partially responsible for his death. Our three years are almost up, and we want the castle back.”
He shook his head, and she could see the whites of his eyes. “I never put a limit on your stay.”
“You say that now,” Daisy said, her words bitter, “because you want me to save you.”
“That’s not true.” His eyes were a little wild. “You must believe me.”
“Why should I believe anything a diabolical man says?”
Mr. Beebs took a deep breath. “Let’s not have a debate now. Just know you never have to leave the castle. I promise. Please hurry. We’re running out of time.”
And they were. His hips were now sinking beneath the watery peat.
Daisy took a deep breath. “It’s not as if we’re asking for the Keep back,” she added, although now that she thought of it—
No. The Keep was too big to keep clean and didn’t have nearly the charm of Castle Vandemere, decrepit as it was. And the castle had the legend attached to it, which until now had seemed rather silly. But Daisy wasn’t sure what to think of the legend now. Maybe, just maybe, there was something to it.
“Don’t you realize if I die today, you won’t get anything?” The bog made a hideous sucking noise and pulled Mr. Beebs a few inches deeper into its murky depths.
“Daisy, help him!” Ella screamed and then crumpled into the bracken into a faint.
Daisy was feeling a trifle lightheaded, too. “All right, then, Mr. Beebs. I’ll agree to the new terms: we get to stay rent-free in Castle Vandemere forever. But we also get to buy it back whenever we get the money.”
That was a good plan. She didn’t trust his rent-free promise. Best to own it again. But rather than snatch the castle back, she’d pay for it. After all, she’d be no better than he if she strong-armed him so completely when he was at his lowest ebb—the way he’d done Barnabas.
“How much?” He didn’t sound very interested. But at least he’d asked.
“Ten pounds.” A nominal amount should do it, she thought.
“I-I can’t.” He shook his head, appearing almost feverish. “I can’t do it.”
Did he want to die?
Daisy’s lips thinned. She didn’t have much time. “One hundred pounds.” It would take them a long time to find that much money. At least a year. “Well, Mr. Beebs? What do you say?”
But he ignored her and turned to Ella. “Miss MacGregor!” His voice was hoarse with panic. “Miss MacGregor! Wake up!”
“Why do you want to speak to her?” Daisy asked him. “You’re about to sink, man. Agree to my terms. They’re more than fair.”
“Please wake up, Miss MacGregor!” Mr. Beebs’s waist sank beneath the black morass.
“Leave her alone.” The chilling sounds emanating from the bog made Daisy’s knees tremble. And the man’s dithering was giving her palpitations. She had perhaps ten seconds left to negotiate. After that, she’d never be able to pull him out.
Ella sat up and rubbed her eyes. “Oh, no! He’s still in the bog–Daisy, do something!”
“Tell your sister I agree to her terms,” he begged Ella as he sank another inch, “all except one.” He paused. “No, two.”
Two? The man had nerves of steel. And as a result, Daisy was beginning to lose this battle.
“You don’t have time to bargain,” she said. She’d be forced to save him any second now.
“It must be a thousand pounds,” he said quickly.
Daisy couldn’t believe his arrogance. “Never.”
“Then I suppose I must die,” he said calmly.
Daisy was in a quandary. Was he bluffing—or not? Was he willing to die—or not?
No matter what, he had her over a barrel now. The more he sank, the more leverage he had.
“All right, a thousand,” she agreed in waspish tones. Somehow, she’d do it. “What’s the other term? And make it quick.”
“I can’t give you forever to come up with the money,” he said. “I’ll give you a year from Miss MacGregor’s next birthday.”
“Which comes up soon,” Miss MacGregor said with a smile. “A few weeks from today.”
He smiled back. “Fifteen days from today, actually.” Then he looked at Daisy again, the smile gone from his lips. “So you’ll get a year and fifteen days.”
“A year and fifteen days?” Daisy thought that was ridiculous. They’d never be able to raise so much money in such a short time.
But Mr. Beebs was about to disappear into the oil black depths of the bog–and it would be all Daisy’s fault.
“Yes,” he said, “and it will be four years to the day from the night I won the MacGregor lands and properties from your stepfather.”
“You mean, the night you stole the MacGregor properties after getting your host drunk when he was in a bad way already!” Daisy corrected him. “What kind of man would take advantage of another man while he was worrying about whether his daughter would live through the night?”
Ella looked down at the ground then and bit her lip. Daisy was sorry she had to bring up that night—Ella had eaten something bad at her birthday dinner and almost died from it. It was not a happy memory for any of them.
“One year and fifteen days to raise a thousand pounds,” Mr. Beebs repeated. “But rest assured, if you can’t raise the money in time, then you’ll remain rent-free forever, just as we’ve agreed. You can’t lose.”
“I don’t want to live on your largesse! I want our castle back!” Daisy was livid.
“My terms are fair, Miss Montgomery. Take them–or live with guilt of my death the rest of your life, which will have to be spent somewhere other than Castle Vandemere because the next owner won’t let you stay there, I can guarantee you that.”
She couldn’t imagine what it would be like when the bog reached his lips. Would he choke on the peat?
Ella grabbed her arm. “Agree now,” she said in the firmest voice Daisy had ever heard her use. “His life depends upon it.”
And so did their future.
“Very well, you wicked man,” Daisy called to Mr. Beebs. “The deal is sealed.”
She tried to act triumphant, as if she’d maintained the upper hand, but the truth was, he’d gotten her to agree to almost impossible terms.
Blast it all. She was disappointed that the one chance the Highlands had given her to fix things, she’d not done as well as she’d hoped.
Then again, at least she had a smidgeon of a chance to buy back Castle Vandemere.
It was better than no chance at all.
Quickly, she held out the end of the stick to her foe. He grabbed it with two hands and would have pulled her in, but Ella stood behind her and pulled on Daisy’s waist until Mr. Beebs was out of the bog.
It took them a good few minutes to rescue him.
As he lay sprawled on the firm earth, gasping for breath, angry as she was at him, Daisy couldn’t help respecting him just a little for having the wherewithal to parley an agreement even as he was on the brink of annihilation-by-bog.
“Hurry, Ella,” she whispered to her stepsister. Both of them were still panting from their own exertion. “Let’s get out of here.” She didn’t want to be around when Mr. Beebs was able to heave himself up off the ground.
“Very well,” Ella whispered back. “Are—are you sure we should leave him?”
“I’m fine,” he croaked, rolling over enough to peer up at them with one eye, his cheek peat-spattered, a pool of bog water in his ear. “Thank you. Thank you for saving my life.”
“You’re welcome,” Ella said back, wringing her hands. She gave a tremulous smile, which showed her dimples to perfection.
Daisy merely glowered at him. “A year and fifteen days from now,” she said in her crispest tones, “we’ll own Castle Vandemere again.”
Then she grabbed Ella’s hand and strode from the wood.
“Be satisfied with your current situation, Miss Montgomery,” she heard Mr. Beebs call after them as they navigated the limbs and fallen logs of the sinister little grove. “You’ll never find a thousand pounds in a year and fifteen days.”
“Oh, yes, we will,” she flung back. “Just you wait!”