Disclaimer: Just playing. I know I can't keep 'em...damnit!
Thanks to KT for Monarch of the Glen AU
Characters: JD, Buck
Summary: Glenneaval Castle opens its doors for a charity event, and inadvertently lets in trouble.
My thanks to Blackraptor for keeping my stories safe; and to Kathy, and Mary Ann for being my 'extra eyes'.
"John Dunne, get back in here and eat your breakfast properly!"
While still munching on a piece of toast, JD's grinning features peeked back into the dining room. "Sorry Ma'am, gotta go. Josiah and Vin are waiting on me. See ya!"
Shaking her head, housekeeper Nettie Wells smiled and gathered up the dishes. "Oh, of course, can't keep any of the lads waiting while you eat now, can you?"
Nathan stepped into the room. "'Morning. The caterers and hall decorators need the key to get into the function rooms."
Nettie nodded. "Good morning, Nathan. You'll find it in the kitchen on the third key hook from the door."
"Wait! Have you eaten breakfast...?" She waved a dismissive hand and continued to clear up. "Och, I give up. I need to talk to Christopher about teaching these boys proper mealtime etiquette."
Soon, the castle and its grounds were buzzing due to the hustle and bustle of people setting up the ballroom. The local Scottish Women's Rural Institute had approached Glenneaval's admin team, and its young laird, to offer their help with the preparation of the Great Hall, which was the usual venue for The Salmon Charity Ball.
Hiring the local Church hall would normally suffice for small, town events, but years back, the castle was the leading location for the area's grand occasions, and JD had recognized his uncle's wishes, and expressed a desire for the estate to once again become more involved in community activities and with community groups. His enthusiasm was borne from his belief that community help for his mother in Brooklyn went a long way toward her surviving as long as she did.
This open-handed approach quickly made the estate many new friends in a very short space of time, and even though this celebration was estate-orientated, the community and local charity groups had become eager to be involved. On this occasion, and being the first to offer, the SWRI were assisting. The deal worked out between them and the estate's admin team was that, after expenses, all profit would be theirs. For future events, other charity organizations were assured that, if they helped in a similar way, the same agreement would be offered. It was a win-win situation. Charities were in a position to make money, and the estate, while bringing the community together, would break even.
Angus's passing, and Maude's subsequent departure, allowed the seven men to run the estate in the way Angus always preferred before Maude's and his marriage. The upshot, was that the community was responding, and the Ball tickets were selling fast, while many more were requested, exceeding anticipated sales. After a quick, emergency meeting, a decision was taken between Chris, Ezra, and Nathan that, rather than cut back on numbers; they use a room that hadn't been utilized since just after Angus's marriage to Maude Standish.
Despite the extra activity coupled with building anticipation of the event, daily business for the estate was ongoing, but as Ezra returned to his office, he took a small diversion and walked into the Great Hall. He stopped to watch the proceedings, and was so lost in thought when Buck approached him; he failed to respond to Buck's greeting.
"Hello? Earth to Standish. Are you receiving?"
Ezra's raised eyebrow greeted Buck when the resident solicitor and accountant turned to look at the estate's tall, assistant manager. "I am indeed. My thanks to you for securing my attention, and in consequence, reminding me that I am shirking my responsibilities by dillydallying here."
Buck stared at him, and then laughed. "You need to chill out, Ezra."
Now both Ezra's eyebrows rose. Chill - out? I see that time spent with our young American is having a patois effect on your vocabulary, Buck."
Buck chuckled harder. "If that means the way he talks is rubbing off on me, then aye, I believe you're right." He gestured around the light, bright Great Hall. "I reckon it'll be a good night."
Ezra nodded. "It feels good to have the ballroom opened up. In my time here, it's been used once. From that one time, Mother insisted soirées be on no more of a scale than was easily accommodated in this Great Hall."
"Ballroom? Buck frowned as he glanced around. "I always thought this room was the castle's largest function room."
"Oh no. Even though we held the Hogmanay celebration here in the Great Hall..." Ezra gestured toward a heavy tapestry draped along the center third of a wall of the room they were standing in. "...Behind that drapery, my friend, are the doors to the Ross Ballroom." He crooked a finger. "Come with me."
The pair stepped across the polished wood floor of the tasteful and elegantly decorated Great Hall. Taking up a weighty, braided cord, Ezra tugged it and the tapestry sashayed like a curtain to reveal a set of dark, oak-paneled, double doors. Placing a hand on each door's ornate, cast-iron knob, Ezra gave them a twist, and with a hefty push, led him and Buck into a vast, dark wood-paneled room with a huge polished wooden floor. The most astounding heavyset wooden beams supported a vaulted ceiling. Buck's gaze scanned the walls hung with large oil portraits of past Ross family members, weaponry of all descriptions, standards, and - his eyes widened - dozens of pairs of antlers. It took a while to find his voice.
"Good, God. Has JD seen this?"
Ezra smiled. "Not yet. On occasion Nettie keeps the room aired and dusted during the day, before locking it up again, so I doubt he's been around to see that activity. As for today, by the time the decision was taken to open this room up for the ball venue, and we unlocked the doors, JD had already headed out with Josiah and Vin."
Buck frowned. "So, why has this room been locked?"
Ezra gestured around. "The decision to discontinue its use was made following Angus and Mother's first event as husband and wife was held in here. Mother took a great dislike to this room. I believe she commented that the dark wood, antlers, portraits, semi-Gothic ambiance, and sheer size made her queasy, and from that day she insisted it no longer be used."
Buck grinned. "So, just a minor loathing, then," he teased.
"I can assure you, Mother does nothing in small measure." Ezra replied. He smiled. "Much to her dismay I recall Angus introducing his new bride to the gathering as 'The New Maid of Glenneaval'. From then, due to her intense dislike of being referred to as a 'Maid', Mother insisted that she be called by her preferred appellation of 'Lady Monarch'.
"Oh, and I failed to mention - Mother was convinced she sensed a 'presence' in here." Ezra's eyes narrowed as he shook his head. "Her conduct at times was inexcusable and, believe me, even if only in retaliation for her insistence on shutting down this magnificent hall, it took a lot of self-restraint on my part to not sneak into her room in the middle of the night and put a bat up her nightgown."
Ezra's deadpan delivery caused Buck to crack up laughing. "Now that I would have paid money to see."
Standish offered a wry smile. "Just because Maude is exiled from visiting for all bar one month of the year, I haven't totally given up on the idea."
Buck slapped Ezra's back. "On that note, I'll go try and intercept JD. I wan'ae see his wee face when he comes in here for the first time."
Nodding, Ezra accompanied him back into the great hall, and then to the corridor before heading back to his office. "I would enjoy that, also. Give me a nudge when you find the lad."
JD leaned over the hood of Vin's truck and watched while Josiah and Vin examined a coppiced woodland. The success of Josiah's plan to encourage a variety of wildlife into the area was evident all around. The recent months of rainfall often kept temperatures above freezing. Now, the thawing blanket of snow along the forest floor revealed early budding anemones and snowdrops; and even bluebells could be seen poking through the sodden, duff- covered soil. Brambles growing around the coppiced stumps had become havens for insects, and smaller animals seeking protection from predators, while beetles were making habitats in abandoned woodpiles from previous cuttings. This method of woodland practice was rare these days, but Josiah's reintroduction of the custom, and his, Vin's, Chris's, and Buck's on hand management of it, had guaranteed the scheme would be successful.
Tanner smiled across at the contented environmentalist. "Chris has earmarked another area for this project, if you're up for it."
Josiah nodded. "Most definitely. The forest's delicate ecosystem can only benefit from more of these wildlife havens." He looked back at the ghillie. "I can't thank you all enough for trusting in my ideas."
Vin turned to leave. "You've nae steered us wrong yet, Padre."
Josiah chuckled at the nickname, which evolved from Angus's insistence that Josiah stopped 'preaching', and put his money where his mouth was, or in other words, stop talking up a storm about his ideas, and get to 'doing'.
Angus loved his lands, which he considered only to be in his hands for the safekeeping of future generations of Ross Lairds. He established procedures, among other introduced practices, such as replanting to replace the trees felled in the small amount of logging done on the estate, and cull-only deer hunting, even if it stopped short of the full hunting season. Chris and his team had been actively keen to embrace the ideals to insure the healthy preservation of these magnificent meadows, peaks and glens, while upholding the estate's traditions.
The pair returned to their vehicle to find JD scanning the landscape with field glasses. At the snap of a twig, he turned their way and grinned at the magnified images, before lowering the glasses. "Hi guys, all done? Are we heading home?"
"Aye, all done," Vin replied.
"You seem a wee bit keen to get back, John, do you have plans?" Josiah asked.
The three climbed into the truck. From the rear seats, JD buckled up and shrugged. "Not plans as such but I'm kinda eager to see how the Great Hall is coming along."
"Great Hall?" Josiah repeated. "Don't you mean the Ballroom?"
JD frowned. He didn't think he'd misquoted. Still... "Uh, yeah, I guess."
Driving along the bumpy dirt tracks, Vin turned to Josiah. "He doesn'ae know about the big room."
Listening in, the young laird was even more confused. "Are you saying there's another room the same size as the Great Hall?"
"You'll see," Josiah teased. He chuckled at the whistle from behind him.
"Man, this place just gets more freakin' amazing every day."
Hearing a familiar call, Nettie smiled, and looked away from the kitchen sink and her task of peeling potatoes. Seconds later her niece Casey bounded into the kitchen. "Hello, Aunt Nettie."
Nettie wiped her hands on her apron and hugged the girl. "How lovely to see you, but what are you doing out of school, child?"
"One of my university lecturers has the flu, so the canceled lessons gave me a free week. With the Salmon Ball taking place, I thought it would be fun to come home." She made a bad job of posing her next question nonchalantly.
"Is, err, JD around?"
Nettie smiled. "JD is out, but he's due back anytime soon. While you're waiting, why don't you go and freshen up?"
"I'm not looking for him, I was just wondering," Casey defended. "Good idea about freshening up though." She kissed her aunt on the cheek, and skipped off, leaving Nettie chuckling as she resumed peeling.
Chris came out of his office situated in one of the outbuildings in the rear courtyard, and smiled at the sight of Buck half-bouncing, half-hovering, near the back door. He approached his long-time friend. "Should I be worried?"
Buck turned sharply toward Chris. "Eh?"
"Ants in your pants? Bunions on your feet? Too much caffeine?" He chuckled at Buck's confusion and gestured to the area Buck had been pacing. "You! Wandering around like you're walking on hot coals."
Buck laughed. "Aye, well, I'm waiting on JD."
Larabee went serious. "Problem?"
Buck waved a hand. "Nah, it's just I cann'ae wait to see his face when I show him the ballroom." He waited for the penny to drop.
"JD's never seen it," Chris realized. "Be interesting to see what he makes of it."
Buck rubbed his hands in glee. "Aye, it will." His deep blue eyes lit up at the sound of a familiar engine approaching. "They're here."
Pulling up, Vin eyed the welcoming party. "Looks ominous." He grinned as a dark-haired head bobbed between his and Josiah's shoulders.
"Ooh, man, it sure does." Moments later, JD's door was thumping shut as he exited the truck. Equally curious to know what was going on, Vin and Josiah alighted and followed JD over to Buck and Chris.
Chris couldn't help but consider the similarity between the two cousins as JD bounded over to them.
"What's up, guys?"
"Never took you for a pessimist, Kid," Chris deadpanned.
"You assumed something was 'up'..."
Buck interrupted and grabbed JD's arm. "He's winding you up, laddie. Come with me."
Chris acknowledged Vin and Josiah when they caught up and gestured for them to follow Buck and JD. "Walk with me, and fill me in on the Coppice Project."
Buck practically ran JD through the castle's hallway, but as they neared the ballroom, he halted them. "Shut your eyes."
"Huh? Buck, what in the heck's going on?"
"Close your eyes," Buck urged.
JD did so. "Alright, alright, I'm doing it, okay?"
Grinning at the approach of Chris, Vin, and now Ezra, who had heard the commotion from his office, the gregarious assistant manager led his little pal into the great hall. "Open up."
Blinking, JD stared around at the undecorated room. He frowned. "What?" He turned to the others. "No decorations - has the ball been canceled?"
"Close your eyes," a grinning Buck urged again.
JD groaned. "Bu-uck!"
"Come on, trust me. Just do it."
Screwing up his eyes in semi-protest, JD allowed himself to once again be blindly led.
"Okay. Open up."
The boy's eyes remained closed. "Why? So I can find myself back in the hallway?" He heard someone chuckling from behind.
"Stop your whining and-just-LOOK!"
At Buck's raised tone, JD looked...and looked...and stared back at his friends...and looked around again. "Wha...? Whe...? Where are we?"
Buck's obvious delight at being able to find yet another surprise for the young American, made the others chuckle.
"Remember that large standard draped along part of one wall of the Great Hall?" He watched JD nod. "There were locked doors behind it, leading to this." Buck gestured around. "The Ross ballroom." He stood with the others and left JD to take it all in.
Ezra regretted not starting a wager when JD took almost a minute to speak.
"This is...AWESOME." He turned to his friends. "How come I've never seen this place? Why was it locked away...?"
Buck halted him and pointed to Standish, grinning knowingly as he did so. "I'll let Ezra fill you in, he explains it so well."
All eyes turned toward Nathan at the sound of the nurse's voice. "Here you all are. JD, you have a visitor."
"I do? Man, this is turning out to be some kinda day."
Josiah and Vin peeled off, but curious to know who JD's visitor was, Buck, Chris, and Ezra followed Nathan and JD to the drawing room.
Nathan led the way into the drawing room and announced JD to a woman and a man waiting in there. The dark-haired woman with the bespectacled appearance of a recent university student noticed JD's frown when Nathan referred to him as 'Laird of Glenneaval', and quickly introduced herself.
"Hello, I'm Amanda Burlington. I write for a magazine called 'Architectural Digest', and this is Luke Ferris, my photographer. We came here to ask permission to talk with you about this wonderful old castle." She smiled.
"I must confess, this place was on our radar, but moved to the top of our list when we learned an American was now Laird."
JD licked his lips nervously and looked to Chris and Buck for help. While Buck moved in front of JD to cut off any chance of him being photographed, Chris stepped forward. "I'm unsure of what kind of story you're looking for, but I can assure you, there's nothing here of interest to the gutter press."
"Oh, no, no, please understand, our primary interest is the castle, but we also write a little about who lives here - nothing more. May I conduct an interview, while Luke takes a few shots?" she again gestured to the man with a camera slung over his shoulder, and standing next to her.
Chris pursed his lips and glanced toward Buck, Nathan, and Ezra before answering. "I want to see the questions you intend to ask."
Amanda nodded. "Absolutely." She handed him her notebook. "Why don't you sit in on the interview?" she offered.
Chris agreed, and within five minutes, he, Amanda, and JD were chatting over coffee and cake.
Initially it was all about the castle and grounds, but eventually with Amanda curious to know how JD came to be Laird; the questions became more personal. Chris, however, ensured JD offered nothing too revealing by skillfully redirecting her back to the castle. Having once dated Mary Travis, a reporter, the owner of the area's local newspaper, and daughter of Judge Orin Travis, Chris knew only too well, how answers were twisted to suit the needs of a publication's readership.
The interview and photography concluded within the hour. Chris stood, said his farewells, and with a squeeze to JD's shoulder, left the room. With the pressure off, and the interview having gone well, JD was much more relaxed.
"Do you ever miss home, JD?" Amanda returned the smile from him, totally smitten with the sweet, young man.
"Oh, sure. I mean, I love it here, and don't ever want to leave, but first and foremost, I'll always be an American."
"And your mother? How did she see herself, as Scottish, or American?"
The mention of his mother caused JD to swallow before he answered. "Definitely Scottish. I got the feeling sometimes that, uh... "He paused, "that toward the end, she was really pining for here, for home, and for Uncle Angus."
Amanda stood and started to pack up. "Shame she couldn't get back here before her passing," she sympathized. "You must have been so lost when she died. Do you have siblings?"
JD also got to his feet. He shook his head. "Nah, it was just me and my mom, and yeah, I missed her a whole lot - still do. She was real sick, for a long while, and taking care of her took up a lot of my time."
"Oh, yes; I'm sure it did." The woman smiled. "Thanks so much for allowing me into your amazing home. I'll send you a copy of the magazine when it's published." She bent to pick up her voice recorder.
JD smiled, and stuffed his hands into his jeans pockets. "Hey, no problem. I may have inherited this place, but it's home to a lot of other folk who are a huge part of this estate, and have become like family to me."
"I'll be sure to make that clear." She offered her hand and JD awkwardly pulled out his from his pocket to shake it.
As Amanda left, she stuffed her voice recorder into her bag and with a great interview under her belt, and a copy of a photo of JD in his dress tartan, which was taken on the day of his inauguration, Chris walked Amanda to her car and watched her drive off.
The next morning at breakfast, talk turned to the upcoming ball. JD munched on a piece of toast and aimed his question toward Chris, Vin, and Buck. "So, why's it called the 'Salmon Ball'?
"Start of the season," Vin stated simply around a gulp of coffee.
"The salmon fishing season," Chris clarified. "It's a long-standing tradition of the Ross Clan to honor the opening of the fishing season. Fishing's a big money-spinner for the estate these days, and has been a major part of life here for generations."
"But, why a ball?" JD pushed. "I mean, there's not one for hunting season, right?"
"There was one to close it," Josiah replied. "The church has always frowned on Halloween festivities, which is when the ball was held; and so to appease the Ministry and maintain a good relationship, the date was changed to mid-October, and renamed the Hunters' Ball."
"Apparently, they got to wear costumes, and masks," Buck said with a grin.
JD chuckled at his cousin's eyebrow bob. His gaze moved to Josiah. "Past tense?"
"Used to be called the Hunter's Ball?"
Ezra nodded with a slight sigh. "Another little tradition Mother ruined."
"Maude? How?" JD asked.
"Her extravagant tastes, I'm afraid. Mother insisted only dignitaries be invited so she could avoid rubbing shoulders with the local hoi polloi; her terminology, not mine," he assured. "Villagers and tenants were dropped from the guest list, further ensuring the Ross Ballroom would remain closed..."
JD glanced at Buck. 'Huh?' He nodded at Buck's expression, which told JD he would explain later.
"...When Angus fell ill, the decision was taken to only celebrate Hogmanay, and the Salmon Ball," Ezra continued.
Nathan chipped in. "While I agree that Angus's health was primarily the issue..." he glanced toward Ezra and smiled when the Englishman nodded, "...the exclusion of local inhabitants from the castle's events made him very unenthusiastic about throwing any functions." He smiled at JD and Buck.
"Since your arrival, we've had the inauguration, and Hogmanay, and because JD, you mentioned early on that you wanted the estate to become more involved with villagers, local farmers, and tenants, Chris and Ezra decided to go ahead with this year's Salmon Ball."
JD nodded, before quickly looking down at his breakfast plate, a little confused as to why he hadn't been involved in those discussions. He glanced up when a hand squeezed his forearm.
"When you mentioned how you wanted the estate to become proactive in local events, I took it as read that we were in a position to, if necessary, make a decision with an aim to consult with everyone later. Was I mistaken?" Chris asked.
JD blushed and looked down again. "No sir. Sorry, I'm just being dumb, is all."
Chris gave an uneven smile. "JD, JD, look at me, son." He waited for the teenager to do so. "Sometimes here, we need to make quick decisions. The local rag called asking if we planned to hold the ball this year. Everyone was spread far and wide across the estate, and so, acting on your initial wishes, Ezra and I told the reporter 'yes'."
JD nodded enthusiastically. "Cool. Honestly, I'm totally cool with that. I'm real sorry, I didn't mean..."
Buck lightly thumped JD's shoulder. "Chill out, Dude."
Ezra rolled his eyes, while the others laughed at Buck's Scottish accent attempting one of JD's favorite phrases. The cousins grinned at each other, but before either could speak, the whirlwind that was Casey Wells breezed into the room.
"Here you all are. 'Morning, everyone." She walked over to JD. "'Morning, JD."
"'Morning, Casey," six men chorused.
"Hey, when did you get home?" JD asked with a grin.
Casey spoke as she helped herself to breakfast and then took Buck's seat next to JD when the grinning man happily gave it up for her and sat next to Ezra.
"Yesterday, but I had plans to meet up with friends and didn't get back until late." She took a sip of juice. "Is it true that we're holding the Salmon Ball this year?"
"Sure is," JD replied. He frowned at Casey's giggle and simply shook his head. He had no idea how much the girl adored his accent, among others of his assets.
"Hope your dancing's up to scratch," Vin cut in.
"The Laird leads the first dance," Ezra explained.
JD's features were a mask of horror. "What? I have to...? In front of all those...?" He shook his head. "No, no way can I do that."
"You won't be alone," Vin assured. You'll have a bonnie wee lassie to accompany you."
Casey's eyes widened and six men saw her barely able to contain her excitement. JD, however, missed it.
"Ah, well, that settles it," JD said, tossing his napkin down on the table and sitting upright against the chair back. "Who the hell do I know to ask to a ball?" He heard a small squeak and a scrape of a chair across the wooden floor before a small fist punched him hard in the arm.
"Oww! What the...?" He watched Casey march off. "What was that for? Casey? Where're you going?" Shaking his head, he looked to the six grinning men, who were rising to leave. Still seated, JD rubbed at his throbbing arm.
"Man, that girl's loony toons. What's her problem?"
From behind, Buck placed a hand on each of JD's shoulders and leaned in close to his ear. "Boy, if you were any blinder, you'd be walking into walls." He didn't wait for a reply; instead, he tightened his grip and hauled JD to his feet.
"Come on, Romeo, we have work to do."
The remaining men laughed as JD was dragged out of the room while still questioning what Casey's punch was all about.
"Romeo? ROMEO? What does that mean? Are you going nuts on me too, Buck?"
Eyes turned to Tanner, who shrugged. "The lad needed to be told. Can't tell him just before the ball." His cheek dimpled in a grin. "As for Casey, the kid'll work it out."
Josiah raised an eyebrow. "We shall see."
Nettie watched her niece breeze into the kitchen and flop down into a chair at the table. She bided her time, and, sure enough, Casey spoke.
"Stupid, thoughtless, inconsiderate American."
"What is it that you think JD's done this time?" Nettie asked, her voice filled with amusement, as she knew JD was a good boy, and would never do anything so bad that she would need to be concerned.
Casey looked at her aunt. "I was right there, right next to him, and he says 'who do I know to ask to a ball?' What am I? Invisible?"
"Aahh, I see." Taking a seat next to her, Nettie held the girl's hands. "No, you're not invisible to JD, but he's young..."
"So am I..."
"...Let me finish, child. He's young, and once lived in a world where he worked, years before he should ever have, to support the ailing mother he took care of. While JD's peers were chasing girls, and kicking cans around a street, JD was a full-time nursemaid with no time for such frivolities. He has a lot of catching up to do, so to quote one of his sayings - cut him some slack." With a pat to Casey's hands, Nettie went back to her task, confident that Casey was already feeling a little discomfited.
"Well, it's painfully obvious that little has changed around here."
In the study, and on hearing a familiar scold, Ezra looked up sharply from his laptop. "Mother?" He stood, walked over to the elegantly attired Maude Ross-Standish and kissed her on the cheek. "Mother, I wasn't expecting you. Why didn't you call ahead?"
Maude laughed lightly before patting Ezra's cheek. "What, and miss that expression on your face? Allow me some fun, my darling." She glanced around. "There was so very little of it the last time I was here."
"The last time you were here was for your husband's funeral, so it was hardly surprising," Ezra reminded, his tone sharp.
"Indeed. How could I forget? And then, virtually penniless, he banished me from my home." She sniffed. "Such a warm memory."
Ezra scowled. "Just before Angus fell ill, you disclosed to me that you wanted out. In his last months, you spent more time in the city than here. Under the circumstances, I think one million pounds, the house in France, and over a million in diamond jewelry is fair recompense for just stopping short of abandoning him."
"I cared for that man right until he died," Maude snapped.
"NO! Nathan cared for him, while you found every excuse possible to stay out of the house." Ezra drew closer, his anger rising. "That dear, sweet man loved you. At least have the courtesy to remember that while in his house."
Maude stared, and then quickly recovered. "Ezra, darling, I didn't come here to fight. Let's start over. I fear the uncomfortable bed last night at the Balmoral has left me a little tired and irritable."
Ezra relaxed his tensed shoulders and gave a wry smile. "How inconsiderate of Edinburgh's finest hotel. I'm sure you chastised them effectively." Calming down, he moved to a silver tray on the bureau. Ezra uncorked a crystal decanter, poured them both a whiskey, and handed one to Maude.
Maude sipped her drink and smiled. "You can bet your lifesavings on it," she replied.
Ezra guided his mother to a leather armchair. "Let me ask Nettie to make us a pot of tea and some sandwiches, and then I'll show you to your old room."
Maude sat down. "Isn't that now your room, Darling?"
"It is, but I will be equally comfortable in the room across from you while you visit with us." He suddenly had a thought. "Will, err, will you be staying the full month?"
Maude looked horrified. "Good Lord, no. Just until the end of the week."
With a nod, and feeling a strange mix of relief, and disappointment at Maude's answer, Ezra went to find Nettie, fully confident that the woman would warn the others of their visitor.
"Damnit, Buck, tell me!"
"Less of the cussing, Laddie."
JD sighed. "P-l-e-a-s-e?"
As he drove through the breathtaking countryside, Buck smiled. He'd made the kid suffer long enough. "Casey hit you."
JD rubbed at his arm. "Yeah, and you saw her do it."
"Do you recall what were you talking about?"
After a pause, JD replied, his face contorted in a grimace. "About me having to lead the dancing." He huffed and spoke under his breath. "No way, no how."
"And for that...you'll need a partner, aye?"
The teenager rolled his eyes. "Buck!" He shook his head. "Like I said, who do I know to ask? Not that I'm gonna be dancing..."
JD jolted and looked at Buck in surprise. He'd never before called him by his given name.
"I thought you were serious about doing things properly."
JD swallowed. "I...I am." He looked down. "I'm not making fun of this stuff, Buck; it's just that...I..." He sighed. "I can't dance. Never even tried to."
Picking a spot on the narrow, winding, country road, Buck stopped the truck. His gaze softened. "Och, Kid, we can remedy that." He bobbed his eyebrows. "Not sure it'll be so easy for you to fix Casey, though." He saw JD frown.
"Think about it. Who do you know that would make a good partner for the ball?"
After only seconds of pondering, JD screwed up his eyes and groaned before again looking at Buck. "Shoot. Guess I deserved to get punched, huh?"
Buck released the parking brake and rolled the truck onward. "A wee bit, aye. But there's time to make it up to the lass." When no comment came, Buck glanced across at the quiet teen. "JD? What is it, Kid?" He heard a soft sigh.
"Casey's a friend."
"Aye, what of it?"
"I like her, really I do..." JD looked at Buck. "If I invite her to a ball as my partner...will she think...? I mean, we haven't even been out together for a soda, or anything." He felt a squeeze to his knee.
Buck smiled. "Ah, I see. Well, when you ask her, keep it light. Tell her the truth about your dancing, and tell her that, if you have to make a fool of yourself, you'd appreciate having a friend to laugh with you about it."
JD looked at Buck and for a few moments, his mouth opened and closed as if trying to form a reply. Finally, he nodded. "Yeah, I like that." JD grinned. "Thanks, big brother."
Buck chuckled. "Glad I could help little brother." He winked. "Now, watch and learn."
Hearing the approach of a vehicle, Inez Recillos looked up from feeding her goats. She allowed herself a small smile before exiting the enclosure, and leaned on the secured gate to wait for the truck to stop, and its occupants to alight.
"Your GPS playing up?" she asked, teasingly.
Buck chuckled and shrugged. "What can I tell you? It's become a homing device for beautiful women, but only ever wants to bring me here."
JD groaned. "Aww, man..."
Inez bit back a giggle. "Alright, pleasantries over, what is it you need?"
Buck took her hand in his. "I know you've RSVP'd to grace us with your presence at the ball, but I wanted to ask you..." he made eye contact, "...to attend as my guest."
Inez swallowed before she pulled her hand from his. "And I suppose my acceptance would require me having to dance with you on occasion, during the evening?"
Buck smiled. "Well, a chore, I know, but it would help pass the time between the exceptional dinner we'll be serving, and the midnight buffet."
"Hmm. I assume wellington boots and dungarees are not dress code?"
Buck winked at JD and delivered, what he hoped would be the deciding element.
"Evening gowns," Buck smiled. "And we extend an offer for you to have a room at the castle in order to get dressed, and rest up after it's over."
Inez raised an eyebrow. "Close to yours?"
Buck leaned in and bobbed his eyebrows. "It can be arranged."
Inez drew close and spoke huskily. "I would be delighted to accept the offer of a room..." She straightened and her tone hardened. "...Providing it is not in, or close to yours, Senor Wilmington."
JD snorted, and stifled a laugh, but Buck's grin simply widened. "You may regret that decision, but aye, it will be."
Inez picked up the empty feed pail and flounced off. "Until Saturday, then."
Back in the truck, JD stared at his cousin. Eventually he could hold his tongue no longer. "You call that success? She totally blew you off."
"Coming as my guest, isn't she?"
"And we'll be having breakfast together, right?"
"Sure, sort of, I guess."
Buck grinned at JD. "That, Squirt, is most definitely success." He sobered a little. "Sex is always nice, but building trust and friendship is much more important."
JD smiled crookedly, and nodded. "Point taken."
Later, and while driving across the bridge on the approach to the castle gatehouse, a glint of light through the trees caught Vin's eye. Once through the gate, he parked up and walked off to one side of the road and into the vast woodland that flanked the roadway almost right up to the house. Finding a locked and abandoned CRV, Vin studied the ground around it before heading off in a direction.
Within twenty minutes of walking, the trail stopped. Peering through the undergrowth, the ghillie could see the form of a man pointing what looked like a gun, toward the castle. Taking off at a sprint, Vin dipped a shoulder and slammed into the man and the pair rolled around in the moss and dead leaves while struggling for possession over what the man was pointing.
Just at the moment Vin noted the object he was grappling for was a camera, pain spiked through his head causing him to lose strength. Strong hands pulled Vin off the man he was wrestling with and he struggled to stay cognizant as he heard two voices talking.
"Why'd you hit him for Christ sake?"
"Didn't know what else to do. Come on, let's get out of here."
Unable for the moment to do much more than lie still, Vin listened to the scuffle of running feet, and then to the sound of an engine start up, to eventually fade into the distance. He groaned, and struggled onto his knees and hands, but it took several attempts to get up before succeeding. Once on his feet Vin leaned against a tree and felt the sore spot on his head. A bump was emerging, and he noticed blood coated his fingertips. Unsteadily, Vin staggered to his truck and got inside. After taking several deep breaths, he drove slowly on back to the castle.
Hearing a vehicle, Chris poked his head out of the office situated in an outbuilding in the rear yard. He nodded to Buck and JD as they pulled in, and greeted them when they got out of the truck.
"Sure thing," JD replied for them both.
"Word of warning," Chris said, "Maude Ross-Standish is here."
There was silence before JD spoke. "The lady that was at the reading of the will?"
JD turned to Buck. "Ezra's mom." He grinned. "I can't wait to meet her. Never really got a chance last time she was here."
Buck shrugged. "Donn'ae get your hopes up. By what Ezra himself says, she's no an easy woman to be around."
JD frowned. "She's his mom, how bad can she be?"
Chris glanced at Buck as if to say 'bad enough'."
All three turned at the sound of an over-revving engine. Seeing Vin's truck moving erratically into the yard, the three ran to meet it. When it stopped, Chris opened the door to find Vin groggy and blood trickling down from just above his right ear. He leaned in to help him get out just as Buck pulled on the parking brake.
"Shit! Vin, what happened?"
Vin thumbed at the road behind him. "Two men lurking in the woods beyond the gatehouse." He arched his neck back to relieve the ache before looking at Chris. "One of the bastards had a camera pointed this way." His cheek dimpled uneasily.
"I thought it was a gun." He noted Chris's look; a look that said 'and you still approached him?'
"Why'd they attack you?" JD asked, cutting off any chance of a scolding.
Vin's pained gaze looked at the boy. "Good question. A better one is why were they there at all?"
Buck assisted Chris to help the ghillie out of the truck, but Vin's knees gave out unexpectedly and he was helped across the yard and inside the house. As he did so, Chris barked out an order.
"JD! Go find Nathan and ask him to come to the kitchen."
With a nod, JD ran off.
By the time JD and Nathan, accompanied by Ezra and Josiah, arrived at the kitchen, Vin was seated, and Nettie was holding a damp cloth to the crown of his head. Nathan examined the cut, checked Vin's eyes with a small flashlight, and then straightened.
"He's got a bump and a small cut - not too deep. We could take him to the cottage hospital in the village..."
The nurse ignored Vin's plea. "But I reckon if I glue it, and he stays here tonight, I can keep an eye on him, and he should be fine."
Vin's fate was sealed as all agreed. JD took Vin's keys from the kitchen table. "I'll move the truck, get the dogs out of the back, and lock up." He left.
"I'm not going to bed. I've no had dinner, yet," Vin complained.
Chris shook his head and smiled. "Fine; we'll take it a step at a time, and you can fill us in on what you can recall."
JD was just going into his bedroom to shower and change for dinner when he noticed a figure appear at Ezra's bedroom door. Seeing it was Maude, he rubbed his palm on his jeans, smiled, and as he walked toward her, extended his hand. "Hi, Miz Standish, name's JD." She ignored his offered handshake and, a little embarrassed, JD retracted his hand.
"I remember you, dear; the underprivileged progeny of the family's black sheep, who crossed the ocean to inherit a fortune. She looked him up and down. "And who appears to be in dire need of a bath right now."
JD frowned. "That's where I'm heading, though there's nothing wrong with a little good, honest sweat, Ma'am."
"True gentry do not sweat, or become dirty from manual labor," she admonished. "The fact that you are inclined to become so speaks volumes with regard to your birthright." Maude turned, walked into the bedroom, and closed the door, leaving JD standing in the hallway feeling confused, a little uneasy, and suddenly not in the least bothered about dinner.
Due to his unexpected, but welcomed need to rest up the previous evening, Vin recounted the tale of his experience over breakfast the following morning, causing much speculation as to why two men were trespassing in the castle grounds to take photographs. JD was quiet while he ate, glancing between a glowering Casey and an indifferent Maude as he did so. He sighed inwardly, wondering how in hell he'd managed yesterday to piss off two women in one day. Maybe Casey, yeah, but what was all that about with Maude?
Ezra didn't miss the glances, or the fact that JD's excuse for missing dinner the previous evening lacked conviction, and on seeing Buck was also quietly concerned, he planned to talk to JD later.
"I was thinking I may as well stay long enough to attend the upcoming ball," Maude said as they concluded their breakfast with coffees and teas. "It's been some time since I've mingled with the Glen's elite."
"I'm sure they'll be happy to see you," Ezra replied. "As will the many villagers, local farmers, and tenants, who are also attending." Ezra wasn't surprised to see his mother's expression remain unmoved, despite the fact that she must have desperately wanted to react.
"How nice for you all," she replied before sipping her coffee. "You opted for a good old-fashioned 'knees-up', I see."
"Aye, and in the Ross ballroom, no less," Buck put in, surprising himself at his need to impart that information.
"Poor Angus must be turning in his grave." Maude replied.
JD's head rose for the first time in some while and he stared at the woman in confusion.
"Hardly," Ezra cut in, quickly. "As I recall, the closure of the room was never down to him."
"It was due to concerns for his deteriorating condition. Functions of that scale were becoming too much for him. It was impossible to expect him to mingle with so many. Restricting guests was a necessary option, and with such a decision, the larger room was unnecessary."
"A debatable point," Ezra replied.
Chris stood. "If you'll excuse us, JD, Buck, and I have a tenants' meeting soon, so we should be going." He noted Vin looking at him. "You sit this one out, take it easy for today."
Noting Nathan's interested expression, and owing to the headache he was suffering, which he was sure Nathan had noticed; Vin didn't fight the decision. "Got things that need doing," he informed them.
Buck smiled. "Jot down the most urgent jobs, and JD and I'll get to them after the meeting."
Vin nodded and watched Chris, Buck, and JD excuse themselves from the table and leave the room.
Nettie stood, pulling Casey with her. "Come on, bairn, help me to clear up." She glanced at Vin. "Go rest and I'll bring you up some soup, later."
About to protest, Vin felt a hand on his arm. Josiah winked and shook his head, so Vin accepted his orders, quietly warmed by the concern for him.
"I'll walk you out," Nathan offered, and he, Vin, and Josiah also left the dining room.
Still angry at the exchanges from Maude, Ezra looked at her. "Well, Mother, you still have the aptitude for clearing a room." He patted his mouth with a napkin and stood.
"If all you came here for was to cause animosity, it might be prudent to accept that you succeeded to a point, and leave." The pair eyed each other for several moments. Much to Ezra's surprise, his mother relented first.
"I had no plan to cause trouble," she said. "After you called me out of the blue that time, I've wanted to make the journey, here." She dabbed at her mouth with the table linen. "It's hard for me, Ezra. I was once Lady of this Manor. I had standing here, respect. In just a few words in a will, I became relegated to lower in status than an ex-housekeeper-turned-addict and her offspring. I invested time in this place, and was banished for all but one month of a year by means of a simple sweep of a pen. Allow me some acrimony, would you?"
Ezra walked toward her. "I can sympathize, truly, but we both know, as did Angus, that until he fell ill you were ready to throw all this away for the bright city lights you pined for. You didn't physically stay with Angus until the end; so technically, you were no longer lady of this fine estate. As for the 'ex-housekeeper-turned-addict' you speak of, she was born and raised here, and had she survived Angus, would have had the option to take his title, or pass it to her oldest son." Ezra took her hand.
"Accept your fate graciously. Under the circumstances, I think you came away with more than you deserved, and I am in no doubt you believe this, also."
Maude held eye contact, but a glimmer of a tear spoke volumes.
"Leave JD out of this. He's an exceptional, and kind young man, who has the true heart of his Clan and wants nothing more than to restore this estate to its rightful place in the Glen and the community; as do each and every other man and woman working and living here. As for his mother, he loved her deeply, despite her past transgressions..." He smiled wryly.
"Sons have a habit of loving their mothers unconditionally."
Maude rose and stood before Ezra. In moments, they were embracing.
"May we start again?"
Standish nodded. "Most definitely, under one condition...you put right whatever it was you did or said to JD."
Separating from the clinch, Maude nodded, not in the least surprised that her son knew she had made a faux pas. "I will."
A thatched building belonging to the estate, and located along one of the many winding lanes between the castle and the village, was set aside for the monthly tenants’ meetings. This month's was going well, and business was almost concluded when a slightly built, fair-haired, stranger carrying a notepad and a newspaper, and with a large satchel hanging from his shoulder, entered the hall. He stood quietly at the back. Not recognizing the man from the area, Chris glanced across at Buck and JD, who shrugged. He challenged him.
“Can we help you? This is a private meeting; are you here to represent someone?”
A harsh, English brogue replied. “May I ask a question?”
JD chuckled. “You just did.” He cleared his throat when the stranger didn’t respond. “Uh, yeah, sure.”
“Actually, it’s more of a grievance.”
Hushed mumbling filled the hall as tenants whispered conspiratorially and glanced back at the man.
“I’d like to know why it was acceptable to allow the son of a drug addict to become Laird of Glenneaval.”
A collective gasp went up from the tenants and heads turned from the direction of the stranger to the three men sitting at the front of the hall. JD’s world narrowed and his head snapped toward Buck, one of only six people he had shared that information with since arriving in Scotland.
Buck saw JD’s alarm; the expression subconsciously mirrored in his own features. Noting Chris’s frown and momentary loss of speech, Buck replied. “You’re talking out of your backside, man.”
The stranger waved the newspaper in his hand. “Am I?”
He walked down the central of three aisles handing out tabloid newspapers from the bag on his shoulder. He finished by placing one on the desk that Chris, Buck, and JD were sitting behind. The bold, front-page headline read - 'From rags to riches.' The byline stated; 'Heiress of Glenneaval dies a drug addict - her illegitimate son claims fortune.'
Mortified by the unraveling events, spots danced before JD’s eyes and he struggled to catch his breath. The man knew about his mom, and now, everyone would. He had to get away from the accusing stares, and before the questions started. Mildly aware of Buck and Chris saying something over the rising chatter, JD stood, lowered his gaze, and with a mumbled ''scuse me', hastily exited the hall now buzzing with muffled conversations. He gathered speed, feeling as if every eye in the room was on him.
The meeting hall was located on the bend of a narrow road. A distraught JD stepped out of one of the building's three doorways and into the lane. He didn't hear the approaching Land Rover, but he certainly felt the vehicle's impact when it screeched to a halt, caught his hip and thigh, and sent him bouncing several feet across the unyielding surface.
Noting the rising din inside the hall and while painfully aware of JD's departure, Buck stood and snatched at the reporter's shirtfront. He pulled the man forward to lean him over the table, and gestured to the open newspaper.
"What's this bullshit?"
Unfazed, the journalist freed himself from Buck's grip and straightened his clothing. "I think you already know that this is the truth..."
"The truth in your opinion," Chris growled.
"He's nae illegitimate," Buck snapped.
The man shrugged. "Not what I've learned. Look, I came here to offer Mister Dunne the chance of rebuttal." He thumbed toward the doors. "It's said that a hasty exit is generally a strong indication of guilt."
Buck was furious and went to take a swipe at the smug individual, but was halted by Chris's raised hand. The horrific sounds of screaming brakes, and an ominous thump from outside silenced the room. Both men took off instantly, and in fear of what they might find.
"Oh God...oh no, no, no, no..." Cattle farmer Aiden Muir was out of his vehicle and hovering over JD's sprawled form. Hearing voices, and one in particular calling out, he turned that way and babbled his innocence.
"I...he...the boy just appeared in the road. I swear I no saw him until I was right on top of him."
While shocked villagers took positions around the incident to halt any oncoming traffic, Buck dropped to his knees and carefully cradled JD's bleeding head in his large hands. "Oh no. JD? JD, son, can you hear me?"
Long, black eyelashes flickered, and pained hazel eyes looked at Buck, but wearily closed again. Realizing Chris had finished with whoever he was calling, and was now offering assistance, Buck gently handed JD's care to him, got up and strode meaningfully over to the stunned journalist standing in front of a doorway. He held up his hands.
"You see this blood? It's on my hands, but on your conscience!" He threw a hard punch at the man's jaw, and as several strong, male tenants pulled Buck back and held onto his struggling form, he yelled angrily at the reeling journalist.
"You no good, propaganda-stirring Sassenach! Do you see what your lies have done? I'm gonn'ae pound your useless, lie-spouting face into ground meat if that boy..."
Hearing Chris's urgent cry, and on seeing JD struggling, Buck wrenched himself free of the men attempting to protect him more than the journalist, and went to his cousin and self-adopted little brother.
"What is it?" Buck asked Chris, but with his full focus on JD.
"Don't know, he suddenly got agitated." Chris knew a head injury could make a casualty restless, but JD had still caught him by surprise.
Buck placed a hand either side of the boy's face and gently held it while speaking, softly. "JD, JD, look at me. JD, do it now." Buck smiled at the hazel gaze peeking at him, but his expression quickly changed.
The skin on JD's hip, and side burned as he skidded to a halt on the road's surface. Moments later the pain from the unexpected impact started at his head and side, and soon felt as if every part of him throbbed in time to the beat of his heart.
Eyes still closed, JD heard an anxious, and unfamiliar voice somewhere above him, quickly followed by the buzz of distant mutterings. He was about to blissfully escape the pain and noise, when kind hands enveloped his head and a voice he loved drew his consciousness back from the quiet recess it was aiming for. JD's eyes opened to see Buck looking at him and saying something, but the bright light surrounding the man's features was not only too much to look at, but JD was simply too tired to keep them open any longer.
All at once, the grip on his head altered and the comforting voice changed from Buck's to Chris's, prompting JD to force his eyes open and see why. His efforts were rewarded with a smile from the man he was in awe of, but JD's curiosity for where Buck went quickly built into anxiety when, in the distance, he could hear Buck yelling at someone. He needed to see, wanted to know what was wrong. Who was Buck angry with?
'Buck, no! Come back, don't be mad. Buck!'
JD knew Chris was speaking, but wanted to know about Buck, and it was overshadowing everything else, even his own pain. 'Buck!'
And suddenly it was fine. Buck's voice and hold was back and instantly calming him, but more importantly, proving to JD that his big brother was okay. JD repaid Buck's insistence with a grateful look before he finally got the little man beating out a rhythm in his head to be quiet. Unfortunately, that entailed JD having to allow himself to rest for a while. He faded to the sound of Buck's anxious tone calling out his name, but it was just too much effort to respond.
Nathan stared at the photographer standing at the castle's main door. Remembering one of the men who attacked Vin had a camera, Nathan played it cool. "How can I help you?"
The man answered in an English accent, a softer brogue than Nathan's own Bristolian timbre. "I wondered if I could get a few shots of the Laird...for my publication. Maybe several of the castle's interior, too."
Nathan narrowed his eyes. "Is this connected with the architectural magazine that visited a while back?"
"Err...yes, yes, it is."
Vin's voice from somewhere behind him caused the photographer to jolt, and then pale on seeing who was speaking. "You recognize me, then." He rubbed at his sore head. "I didn't get a good look at you that day, but I never forget a voice." Tanner looked at Nathan.
"This is the clag-tail that I wrestled with before his partner in crime smacked me in the head."
Biting back a grin at Vin's moniker for the man, Nathan's expression turned serious. "You don't say?"
The man raised placating hands. "Now look, you know it wasn't me that hit you. I'm sorry you got hurt, that was never my intention."
Vin rounded the man to cut off any chance of escape, while Nathan closed in from the front. "Says you. So I ask what it was that you and the other numpty came here for."
All eyes turned to Ezra when he unexpectedly appeared at the door. "He came here as an accomplice to the gutter press that have apparently slandered the good name of JD and his mother." He noted the confused looks and didn't leave them wanting.
"See him off, or set the dogs on him. There's been an accident and we have a more important place to be."
The photographer didn't need to be told twice. In seconds, he was gone, and minutes later, Ezra was filling in the others as they headed for the Cottage Hospital's ER.
In the kitchen, Casey stood in shock at the news, while Nettie forced back her anxiety and continued preparing for dinner. "They'll need a hearty meal when they all return, especially JD." She glanced at a tearful Casey.
"Come on, child. JD's a tough little man and will be home soon, you'll see."
"I've been ignoring him," Casey finally stammered. "What if that's the last thing we..."
"Hush, now." Nettie ordered. "Ezra said there was an accident, not a death. JD will be back soon, and you'll have an opportunity to let him make up for his mistake instead of keeping the poor wee lad on tenterhooks."
With a nod and a dab to her eyes, Casey helped her Aunt make the best dinner, ever.
Alerted by the commotion as the household reacted to Ezra's news, and now standing in the corridor outside the kitchen, Maude listened at the door. She felt a peculiar emotion wash over her. Unaware that it was compassion, she returned to her room to think about the last few days, and decide what her next course of action would be.
Buck paced the Cottage Hospital's only waiting room. Community hospitals were designed to deal with emergencies and a provision of care that involved the attendance of the locals' own doctors. The objective was to triage an illness or injury, calling on a doctor's personal knowledge of his patients in the hope of avoiding the long trip to a larger, city hospital. This building, which housed an ER and only a dozen or so beds, was old, and so the hospital's outer rooms were pokey, and most certainly so for two giant presences such as Chris and Buck.
Chris stood facing a diminutive window and balanced on the flat of his hand as it rested against the wall. He was lost in his own thoughts, while trying desperately to blank out Buck's continual walking back and forth. Realizing he was letting his own anger dictate his responsibility to help Buck, Chris straightened, turned, and caught the distressed Scotsman mid-pace.
"Ease up, pal. You'll wear a hole in the floor."
"Why can't I be in there? JD's still a minor, and I'm next of kin."
"You heard Doc Dalglish when they took JD in. He needs a calm environment while he's being examined, and you were too wound up right then."
"I'm alright now."
Chris raised an eyebrow and cast an exaggerated look at the man. "Aye, of course you are." He took Buck's bruised fist in his hand. "Now you're here, why don't you get this looked at?"
Buck tugged his hand from Chris's hold. "Och, man, one wee punch to a jaw's hardly gonn'ae hurt me."
Chris almost commented that he hoped the reporter wouldn't sue, but decided better of it, for now. Maybe he'd have a quiet word with Ezra.
"I'm not saying it hurts, I was just being cautious."
Buck absently rubbed at his knuckles. "I'll live." He sighed. "I just hope JD will, too."
"It's that bad?"
Josiah was first to enter the room and clearly alarmed by Buck's words. Chris waved a dismissive hand. "We don't know for sure, but after his initial examination, Hamish was quietly confident it wasn't as bad as first feared."
Nathan relaxed a little. "Doc Dalglish's word is good enough for me."
"What happened?" As always, Vin wasted no time in getting to the point when he walked in.
Buck snatched up the discarded newspaper as if it were toxic. He slapped it against the ghillie's chest. "This is what happened. Bastard gutter press."
Crowding around, the four men were openly shocked on reading the headline and byline. After a few seconds, Vin passed the paper to Ezra and walked to the window where Chris stood only minutes earlier. He gave nothing away emotionally save for the twitching nerve in his jaw. Josiah's, Ezra's, and Nathan's expressions exhibited a mix of anger and sorrow. Buck resumed pacing.
Vin's voice broke the stunned silence. "Well, we know why there was a photographer in the grounds, now."
"Could this be down to the young woman who interviewed JD recently?" Josiah asked.
Chris tilted his head. "Can't see how. I was there throughout the interview and she didn't ask him anything overly personal."
"Quite a coincidence though, don't you think?" Ezra stated.
"Don't believe in coincidences," Vin said, gruffly.
Chris stared at his best friend. He nodded. "Me either."
Buck's cry had them all turn toward the door. Doctor Hamish Dalglish stopped walking as six men surged toward him. He smiled.
"Concussion, a badly bruised left hip and thigh, and a mild dose of road rash, but JD's suffered no broken bones or serious internal injury. I wondered if I should go examine the vehicle that hit him and see if it fared any worse." He watched the six men relax a little.
"Can I see him?" Buck asked.
Hamish gestured to the hallway. "Fill your boots, lad."
Buck left and Chris approached the doctor. "Can the kid go home today?"
Hamish shook his head. "No. I need to monitor him for twenty-four hours, and he'll need his dressings changed again before leaving."
Chris frowned at the need for dressings, and then nodded in understanding. "Right, the grazes."
"Aye. Forty-eight hours or so, and he can have a warm bath with a measure of baby shampoo in the water."
The doctor looked to Nathan for a word, and so Chris gestured for Ezra to join him.
Nathan nodded at the doctor's instructions. "When should I leave off the dressings?"
"Keep applying the antibacterial ointment and Tegaderm until his bath, and then just the Tegaderm."
"Will do," the nurse promised. "Painkillers?"
Doctor Dalglish nodded. "He's suffered through a painful debridement, so allow him to guide you with his pain control. I've also prescribed Erythromycin - a seven day course."
Nathan noticed Josiah and Vin's curious expressions. "Oral antibiotics for the grazes to stave off infection."
Vin's cheek dimpled in understanding.
"Thank you," Josiah said.
Ezra followed the estate manager into a far corner. "Chris?"
"Buck punched the journalist...hard."
Standish remained unmoved. "I see. Injuries?"
"I'm thinking maybe dental work. He was complaining too much for a broken jaw."
Ezra couldn't help but smile. "Leave it with me. I already have plans to file an injunction to halt any follow-up articles, and to initiate a personal lawsuit against the journalist, and also the newspaper, for instigating JD's accident."
"What if JD doesn't want that?" Chris contended.
"That is for us to know, and our adversary to ponder," Ezra reassured. "If a claim is filed against Buck, a counter-claim from us will most certainly give them cause to consider whether it is wise to pursue."
Chris straightened and took a breath. Feeling a little reassured, he turned to Vin, Nathan, and Josiah, now sans the doctor. "Come on; let's go see how JD's doing."
Even with pain medication, JD was hurting, but he figured it would be a helluva lot worse without the drugs. He was lying in a curtained area and in a state of semi-sedation when the voices of two nurses tending to him drifted into his sleepy thoughts.
"I suppose you have to feel sorry for him. He can't be blamed for what his mother was."
"Maybe. But, what if he was helping her to feed her addiction. Until now, all we knew about him was that his mother was Angus's sister. Perhaps he takes drugs too. Or used to. With a junkie for a mum, I dread to think what sort of life she offered him, and how he got by each day."
JD's eyes were wide-open and spilling tears when Buck joined him. The big man leaned in and thumbed away a tear, overwhelmed by the misery in JD's features.
"Hey, come on now. Doc says you only have to stay in tonight."
"Please can we go home?" the youth's voice was gravelly.
Buck ran fingers through JD's blood-stiffened hair. "Tomorrow..."
JD tried to get up. "...NO! Now, Buck, please...aaahhh..." Pain took his breath and he had to allow Buck to ease him back down onto the bed.
"See? You're no up to moving just yet."
A nurse came into the cubicle and Buck was surprised at the strength of grip to his arm from JD when he saw her. He noticed JD's eyes well up and narrow in anger as she moved around.
JD beckoned Buck to move closer. "If you don't get me outta here, I'm gonna get my ass out of this bed in the wee small hours and find my way back myself."
Shocked by the conviction in JD's gaze and words, Buck was almost lost for words. Finally, one came. "Son..."
JD's chin wobbled as he battled with his emotions. "I mean it Buck." One tear dropped. "Please," he begged. "I can't be here." Buck locked gazes with JD, nodded and left.
Outside the cubicle, the others arrived to see Buck glaring at the back of a nurse's head. He appeared to be moving toward her, and Chris cut in.
"Buck. Is everything okay?" He looked to the curtain and then back to Buck. "Is JD...?"
Buck's sorrowful gaze glanced around them all. He focused on Nathan. "JD's begging to come home," he said, quietly. "I could be wrong, but I think someone's said something about him, or his ma, and he overheard. The kid's beyond desperate, and threatening to get out of here one way or another. I wann'ae sign him out."
Buck rarely asked for anything, so Nathan knew this was serious. "What if we stay here with him...?"
"If you wann'ae see that boy fall apart, then aye, let's do that."
Nathan had heard enough. He nodded and turned on his heels. "I'll see to it."
Several years earlier, Chris had trusted Buck with his life on a daily basis, and while he knew the man was a sucker for a sad story, when Buck was deadly earnest he could be more determined than a salmon journeying upriver to spawn. With such sincerity, Chris would deny the man nothing. This clearly wasn't just about Papa bear wanting his cub close, and he was determined to get to the crux of the matter shortly.
However, the first order of business - JD was to come home.
Two hours later, and with Doctor Dalglish's admonishment on their decision still ringing in their ears, the six men got their youngest out of the hospital and into Chris's Range Rover. They all knew the physician relented because he trusted Nathan, while appearing to know a little of what was troubling JD. There was no disagreement from the six men that JD should be under a doctor's care, but his mental state was becoming as much of a concern as his physical condition and that made taking him home a done deal, regardless of medical protest.
Standing in the entrance hallway at the back of the building, Nettie and Casey were shocked at JD's condition when he was helped inside. He was barely able to propel himself along under his own steam, and so Buck and Josiah were helping him. The boy was leaning heavily against Buck, his face and eyes screwed up in agony with each step.
"Good Heavens, there's no way this bairn should be out of the hospital."
Chris watched the two men aid JD up the stairs, while Vin and Ezra followed in their wake. He turned to Nettie and gestured to Ezra. "I assume Ezra updated you on the situation."
The matriarch nodded in acknowledgement to Ezra's earlier phone call.
"We can't be sure, but by the way JD was behaving, and threatening to get out of the hospital with or without our help, we think maybe he overheard members of staff discussing his situation."
Casey openly sobbed; Nettie stiffened her chin. "Then it's up to us to take care of him until this foolishness blows over."
With a grateful smile, Chris moved to the stairs and jogged up after the others. He agreed, it was likely just a storm in a teacup for the estate, but for JD, seeing the locals' reactions to the news of his mother, and the fear of it tainting folks' memory of her, was clearly a living hell.
Two days on, and in the wee small hours Buck sat in the chair in JD's bedroom and watched the boy's painfully restless slumber. The first night had been torturous, even the prescribed painkillers didn't help. Doctor Dalglish paid a visit on request from Nathan. He gave JD a shot, and arranged for something more potent to take orally. The group decided that enduring the man's 'I told you so' scowl was worth it when JD was finally resting - that was until the youth awoke, and promptly threw up for hours. Nathan made a note never to give JD morphine-based drugs again. He destroyed the prescription, and worked on preparing an herbal remedy to accompany a less powerful medication.
Due to the timing of the accident, and then the sickness, JD hadn't eaten in over forty-eight hours, so today Nathan planned to bombard the kid with soup. He figured small meals, provided little and often, would help build up JD's appetite and un-shrink his stomach enough to enable him to resume eating solid food.
In the hope that it would take JD's mind off the bruises, cuts, and scrapes that was causing his pain, Buck wanted to get his cousin up and walking around. The Scotsman's face broke into a grin when he realized he was being watched.
"You should be asleep."
JD peered at him through one eye. "So should you," he croaked. Despite knowing it was going to hurt like a bitch, JD pushed himself up into a sitting position. He couldn't help crying out, and was suddenly aware of gentle arms helping him. He smiled at Buck. "Thanks."
"Family donn'ae need to say thanks."
"I guess, but then my mom always told me to mind my manners."
The mention of his mother caused JD's face to crumple, and Buck was shocked to see him weep. He sat next to him instantly.
"Och, come on, you'll soon be fit as a flea and chasing me around the fens..." His eyes misted to see the sorrow in JD's gaze.
"It's over, Buck. I can't stay here knowing everyone is aware of what happened to Mom."
Buck tried to control his alarm. "Now you just ken this, laddie. This is your home, and it was your ma's home, and always will be. We all carry secrets we'd rather others never found out about, but just because yours is out there, doesn't change that both you and your ma are loved in this glen. You did nothing wrong, and this will all soon blow over, trust me on this."
JD shook his lowered head. "I heard 'em, Buck, in the hospital, speculating as to whether I helped feed her habit, and maybe was even a druggie myself." He looked up and into Buck's eyes. "Don't sound too affectionate to me."
"Och, just idle, ill-mannered gossip, JD, and based on assumption rather than fact. Now, let's drop this and I'll go get you a nice glass of milk."
JD yawned as he shook his head. "Nah, I got water here. Just gonna lie down and try to get back to sleep." He clasped the top of Buck's hand. "Thanks, Bro."
Buck smiled and watched JD wriggle back down in the bed. He retook his original seat and remained there until JD's body quit fighting sleep and the boy finally went still. Buck was tired also, but JD's mindset had him worried. That morning, the group decided to postpone the Salmon Ball for two weeks to give JD time to recover. Buck now feared that when JD found out, he would think they canceled for very different reasons. Tomorrow morning he would talk to the others about this new development.
The next morning Nathan insisted JD have breakfast in his room, but promised he could be up and about by around midday. He wanted the boy to have a nice soothing bath, and then he would change his dressings before letting him loose. The reason for the combination of increased movement and keeping his grazes moist was to minimize scarring, and only forty-eight-plus-hours on, and as he gently bathed the teenager, he could see there was a significant improvement in the wounds. The bruises were still angry, and causing stiffness, but even those appeared to be causing JD less trouble.
What did concern Nathan was JD's quiet demeanor. Even when he was clearly hurting, the boy never made a sound, and only uttered a soft, though heartfelt 'thanks' when the nurse left him to get dressed.
Breakfast for JD had been porridge with honey, and he'd eaten it all. For lunch, and after discovering it was JD's favorite, Nettie made tomato soup and served it with a fresh bread roll. When JD asked for some crackers to break into the soup, she happily obliged, but he didn't finish all his soup, or touch the bread, and she feared they'd gone too fast, too soon.
Halfway through the afternoon Nathan found JD sitting on a large rock on the loch beach and brought him out a strawberry and banana protein smoothie. The nurse was delighted when JD came in half an hour later asking for more.
However, dinner for a hungry household that JD could also enjoy was a challenge, so Nettie decided to serve a chicken noodle soup starter, and then individual creamy chicken, ham, and leek pies with Clapshot, and mushy pea sides. She figured JD would pick through what he could manage and Nathan would be happy, as the individual serving would show him how JD's appetite was coming along.
The soup went down well, and conversation was light and mostly work-based as they happily munched through the pie and mash. Then talk turned to the ball, and Maude was the unwitting instigator.
"I hope you won't mind, but as I'm allowed to stay one month, and although my original plans were not to, I would like to take up the opportunity. Despite the ball's postponement, I find I'm rather keen to once more experience a function here."
JD's head shot up and he glanced around at the men he considered family. "You guys postponed the ball?" His eyes filled, and he feared the worst. "Because of me?"
There was a pause and then Buck jumped in. "Aye..." he saw JD's alarm, "...err no...not because...ach..."
Chris cut in. "JD." He waited until the mortified teenager looked at him. "Yes, because of you. We wanted you well enough to attend, so we put it back two weeks."
JD's focus was on Chris but his peripheral vision caught heads nodding eagerly. Chris Larabee wouldn't lie to him, JD knew that without question. He swallowed the lump lodged in his throat. "Okay."
So many questions flooded the boy's mind but he was afraid he might break down if he addressed any as they almost all featured his personal situation. His mind now spinning, JD stood. "Excuse me." He looked at Nettie.
"Sorry, Ma'am, dinner was awesome, but I'm just a little tired so I'm gonna go on up to bed." His gaze moved to the others, but he felt unable to meet theirs, so he lowered his head and left the room. "'Night."
One by one, the eyes of those in the dining room turned to Maude. She appeared genuinely surprised at the frustration in the gazes, and found herself struggling not to be troubled by it. "I assumed he knew about the ball."
In fairness to the woman, each man quickly realized JD should have been informed sooner rather than later, and so the topic was dropped.
Once dinner was over, the group dispersed. Casey took an opportunity of following after Maude when she noticed the woman heading for the rear grounds.
Maude turned away from the moonlit loch and looked at Casey. "You can drop the 'Ross', darling, I have. Can I help you with something?" She gestured to one of the garden's stone benches and the pair sat down.
"You've been to lots of swanky functions, right?"
Maude smiled. "A few, yes. Why?"
"It's about the ball. JD's being all dumb, as usual, but I reckon by the time it takes place, he'll ask me to go with him."
Maude's eyes twinkled with mirth at the girl's conviction. "I'm sure you're right, dear." She noted the pause. "And...?"
Casey sighed. "I've always been a bit of a...tomboy. If he does ask me, I haven't got a ballgown, or even know where to start to look for one."
Maude stood, and brought the girl up with her. She compared their dimensions and smiled. "When do you return to University?"
"Tomorrow, but I'm coming back for the ball."
"Excellent. Can you return several days prior?"
"Come and see me when you arrive back." She watched the girl smile, and then leave.
In his room, JD was in bed. Buck and Nathan had called in on him, but now he was alone in the dark, and sobbing softly to himself as he stared in the direction where his mother's picture sat.
"I'm sorry Mama; I didn't want folk to find out this way. It's not fair, they'll never understand how hard you fought an addiction you never wanted, or believe how great a mom you were, despite everything. But worst of all, they won't care that, when you died, you'd only been taking prescribed drugs, they'll just see you as an addict, and leave it there." His voice shuddered.
"And it's all my fault. By coming to the glen I've taken away the last things you had left here...the love and affection of the folk who watched you grow."
He closed his eyes and full on cried. "I've ruined everything, Mom, I'm sorry..."
A week on and JD thanked Nathan for all he'd done for him, but insisted he was ready to change his own dressings now. Nathan agreed, reminding him that he only had to ask if he needed help. When the nurse left the boy, the air of detachment from JD hadn't quite clicked; a fact that would haunt him, later.
Despite insisting he could make breakfast, Nettie would have none of it from the boy and made him scrambled eggs on toast. Vin called in, and grinned gratefully at the extra portion she'd made as it was plopped down in front of him when he sat at the kitchen table and opposite JD. While eating, he noted JD was quiet.
"You okay, Kid?"
JD nodded but kept eating. "Sure."
Vin glanced at Nettie and tried again. "Do you no have plans for today?"
Again, JD didn't look up. "Just to get some fresh air, is all."
The fact JD never mentioned getting back to work caused Vin to file that for when he saw Buck, Chris, or both, later. Already finished, the ghillie stood, leaned in and snatched up a little of JD's eggs as he moved to leave. He smiled when his hand was slapped away and JD offered a little giggle. Satisfied with the response, he nodded to Nettie, and as he walked away, carefully avoided the spot on JD's scalp that was glued when he playfully ruffled the dark hair.
From inside his study, Ezra watched JD walk around the rear gardens after coming up off the beach. It bothered him that the activity wasn't producing the usual look of contentment on the boy's face, and he wondered if he should talk with him. Deciding he would, Ezra waited for JD to pass by his door, but before that happened, his phone rang. By the time the conversation was over, JD was long gone.
Outside on the yard, JD crossed the area to head for Chris's office. He wondered if Chris was there, or anyone, for that matter. Either way, he was curious as to where Buck was working today, and wanted to take a look at the schedule pinned to the notice board. The information told him Buck was miles away until later that afternoon, so JD decided to go back indoors. He was about to leave Chris's office when he heard his name spoken, and so ducked back inside where he couldn't help but overhear the conversation.
"I wondered if that was the real reason. I've heard a rumor that calls were coming in hourly to cancel acceptances to the ball. So why are they flogging a dead horse?"
Another voice answered. "Well, it's for charity. They wouldn't want the SWRI to suffer for a former Maid of Glenneaval's indiscretions, would they?" His voice lowered. "Not sure how true this is, but I heard Larabee's worried how much more the kid's hiding from him."
Shock at the mention of his hero doubting him caused JD to lean back against the inwardly opened door. The action caused the door to bang against the office's wood-paneled wall. JD flew out and past the two stunned workers, his head lowered as he hurried back into the castle. He cursed that he was upset again, but this chain of events was overwhelming him, and suddenly he knew that the problem weighing heavily on his mind all day gave him only one option.
Ezra was just exiting a rear door when JD brushed past him, knocking him back a little. "Mister Dunne! JD!"
"Sorry!" the boy called back, but he didn't stop.
Standish watched as JD disappeared. He spotted two workers on the yard and looking decidedly guilty before they too dashed off. "Oh this is not good, not good at all."
At dinner that evening, Ezra could feel questioning eyes on him as JD chattered, laughed, and acted as though none of the past week had happened. The legal eagle had given the men of Glenneaval a heads-up of JD's actions earlier, but there wasn't a hint of an issue this evening, in fact, quite the opposite. Every scrap of food on JD's plate disappeared, and he even teased Vin by going for his. Nettie offered more, but JD raised a hand and admitted he was only kidding; and that he was pretty full, actually. With an exaggerated yawn, and a cheery goodnight, JD headed for a shower, and bed.
"You feel up to coming out with me tomorrow, Kid?" Buck asked.
JD turned before closing the door. "I'll let you know."
For a few moments, there was silence around the table until Ezra finally spoke. "Well, all I can say is I'm astounded. I've never seen such a transformation in a person in so short a time."
Chris shook his head. "Maybe whatever happened before you saw him finally pulled him out of wherever his head's been lately."
"Good," Buck commented. "I've missed the wee lad."
While everyone agreed, there was an underlying tone that neither of them could fully communicate, and so decided to sleep on it.
JD had gone as fast as he was able to his room and now his hip and leg ached. However, there was a more pressing problem dominating his thoughts. In just days, JD's personal life had gone from idyllic, to crap. He glanced across at the open newspaper on his bed and closed his eyes. God, he wished he could turn back time. Phrases such as 'from a prospective heiress to always between jobs', and 'forced to marry due to a child born on the wrong side of the blanket', ran in a loop through his brain. The last one especially haunted him, as he hadn't confided to anyone that, unlike Uncle Angus believed, JD's mom gave birth to him two years before getting married to her second husband The marriage was hardly a happy alliance, and by which time she was a confirmed drug addict. He shook his head at the only two things his real dad had ever given his mom - himself, and a heroin addiction.
Tears dropped from the tip of his nose as once again his head bowed over the vicious newsprint that exposed his mother's struggle through addiction and near-poverty, due to her inability to keep a job for any length of time; while her brother lived like a king on the other side of the world. That day in the crofters' hall, JD had found the reactions to the reporter's disclosure painful to see. The subsequent rumors circulating now substantiated his perpetual belief that he didn't deserve his inheritance. Consequently, he feared what repercussions his personal catastrophe would have on the estate and on the folk who worked so hard on behalf of it; and that dread finally prompted him into making an agonizing decision.
Taking a long glance through his bedroom window and out over the shimmering loch, JD swiped angrily at his tear-stained face. He sat at the desk in front of the window, opened up the laptop he'd gotten as a gift from Chris and Buck, and typed.
>> Dear Buck,
Actually, I guess this is to all of you.
I can't stay. After what's happened, and on seeing folk's disappointment in me, each day gets tougher, and I know you all said I have nothing to be embarrassed about, but I feel staying here will bring the estate down. It's obvious there are folk who think I'm not worthy of my inheritance; but more importantly, I won't stay here to listen to others rip my mom's character to pieces.
You and the guys have been my rocks, but I can't stay where I don't deserve to be. This place needs you, Buck, and you'll be a great Laird. Shoot, you already are. Take care of everything, everyone, and yourself, for me, yeah?
I love you all, and will never forget you. I hope that y'all will understand why I did this, and maybe sometimes, you'll think of me, too.
While JD shut down his laptop, the printer whirred. Placing the letter on top of the closed case, he picked up the packed dufflebag that he first arrived with, crept through the creaky, slumbering house, reset the alarms, and walked out of the door and away into the night.
To avoid discovery the teenager decided to meet his taxi at the end of the long driveway. All he could hear as he walked were his quick breaths and his sneakers crunching along the winding, gravel road. A brisk, soft breeze whipped up and chilled his nose and ears, tousled his dark hair, and rustled the leaves in the brush and trees that were dotted throughout the extensive lawns either side of him.
While inhaling the heady scents of the loch, surrounding trees, and various garden fragrances that wafted along on the wind, his head turned at every sound, causing him to wonder if it was real, or imagined. His eyes became accustomed to the poor light, and he could just make out the winding hedgerows beyond the lawns that snaked out of sight, only to re-emerge further in the distance, though at this point, it was too murky to see that far, he just knew that they did.
What he could see clearly was the illuminated sign on the roof of the cab waiting for him at the end of the driveway, and the outline of the driver in the glow of the car's interior light.
JD got into the taxi, groaning slightly at the pull to his healing injuries. "Thanks."
The cabbie rested an arm on the back of his seat as he turned to address the boy. "I could just as easily have picked you up at the door, Laddie."
Buckling up, JD offered a tight smile. "Felt like a walk, thanks anyway."
"Where to, son?"
He took one last glance back at the home he'd come to love. God, he'd miss this place.
"Uh, train station, please."
With a spin of wheels on gravel, and to the sound of a fading engine, Glenneaval Castle stood as a silent sentinel in the darkness while its Laird departed.
Before climbing into the vehicle, JD failed to notice the pair of green eyes watching his departure in disbelief from an upstairs window of the castle. While grateful he had trusted his instincts to keep an eye on JD, he had been a mite too slow, and now Ezra hurried through the building, and headed toward the kitchen wing and to Buck's residence above, in order to raise the alarm.
Chris rolled over in his bed and reached for his watch. 3:30 am. He couldn't sleep, and wasn't sure why, but his instincts were screaming that something was wrong. He wasn't surprised when his cell phone rang. "Larabee." He listened.
"Yeah, I can't sleep either. Seeing as we have to get up in an hour or so anyway, why don't you head here and then we'll go up to the castle. Okay, ten minutes."
He slipped his naked body from between the warm sheets and walked toward the bathroom, all the while hoping that, just this once, his instincts were wrong.
But then again, there was Vin's, too...
Frustrated at finding Buck's room and bed empty, Ezra jogged through the castle toward the only place he thought a restless Buck might be. He did indeed find Buck inside JD's room, and the man was stood at the window and reading a note by lamplight. "Buck?"
The brunet looked up, his eyes shimmering in the muted glow. "He...JD's gone," he said, so softly that Ezra barely heard it.
"I know. Come down to the kitchen, we need to talk."
Buck walked toward the lawyer. "You know?"
Ezra placed a hand on Buck's arm. "Trust me, my friend, and let's go to the kitchen. I fear we'll be needing caffeine." As they left JD's room, Maude stood in the doorway to her own. She hugged her dressing gown around her.
"What is it? Is JD ill?"
Ezra stopped, but only for a moment. "No, Mother, but he is most certainly below par." He offered a tight smile. "We're going to make coffee."
Maude nodded. "I'll be right down."
Ezra wasn't surprised when Nathan and Josiah were soon sitting at the kitchen table while Nettie served them coffee, and when Chris and Vin turned up several minutes later. Buck was staring out of the kitchen window and had been for the time it took for all to arrive. With JD's note clasped tightly in his hand, he turned to face them.
"Kid's gone." Buck's face crumpled and he shook the paper.
"By taxi," Standish added.
Buck's fist slammed at a cupboard door, causing them all to jolt. "Stupid, damn - why? Why would he think he didn't belong here, or deserve his inheritance?"
Stunned expressions greeted the news. Chris stepped forward. "To hell with why, we can figure that out when we catch up with him. Right now, it's the how, and we're wasting time." He turned to Vin. "You, Buck, and me will go check out the bus and train stations. Ezra, call in favors. He's heading for a city, but which one?"
"Nathan, hospitals; Josiah, rally the troops and send out a couple of search parties to JD's favorite hangouts, in case JD changed his mind and took a taxi right back."
The group of men dispersed, leaving Nettie and Maude sitting in the kitchen. "This is quite alarming," Maude said, finally. She appeared genuinely confused. "He must be a sensitive boy, to allow tittle-tattle to prompt him to abandon his home."
Nettie nodded, sadly. "He pretends to be all tough, but he's just a wee boy, without his ma, who finally found a true family." She smiled. "Good thing he has big brothers to keep him in line."
"Yes, I find it decidedly...heartwarming." Maude hastily sipped her coffee. 'Good Lord, Maude Standish, did you just say 'heartwarming'? Whatever is happening to you, woman?'
The bus station was a bust, so the three men made for the train station. They had picked the former first, in anticipation of finding JD there waiting on transport. The station was sleepy at best, and the men hoped there were no trains until later, but they did run through the night. Seeing a man in uniform sitting dozing in a chair in a corner of the ticket office, Chris tapped the glass. When the man didn't move, Buck got more determined.
"Hey! Hello there, we need help, here. HEY!"
The man's eyes opened. Adjusting his attire, he rubbed his eyes, stood, stretched, and walked over to the glass-enclosed ticket counter. "There'll be no trains in or out until nine."
"We need to know about one that might have left recently," Chris got out before Buck could start in.
Buck groaned and banged his head against the glass.
"That'll do you nae good, it's bulletproof."
"What time did it go, and where to?" Vin pushed, while fighting the urge to ask why they needed bulletproof glass at a small station like this.
The man scratched his chin. "That'll be the 1:00am sleeper from Inverness, stopping at Kingussie, Glenneaval, Dalwhinnie, Perth, and Edinburgh. Huh, come to think of it, a young lad came in earlier and bought a ticket, one way, to Edinburgh."
"Thanks," Chris said and gestured for them to leave.
"Right, Edinburgh," Buck said, looking as if he was about to hit the road, running.
"Home, first. We can't just take off, and we need for Ezra to check if he has anyone there who can help us when we arrive."
During the long train ride, the chance to sleep eluded JD as conflicting thoughts and emotions sent his mind into a spin. When he'd traveled from the US to here, it had felt so right. Now, the further he moved away from his new home, the more wrong it seemed. Finally, his mind settled and he grew resolute. Damn him for running away, he should be right back there defending his mom, not allowing others to get away with ignorant speculation. Screw the Lairdship; they could keep it. If maybe he could take a croft on the estate, he could still work alongside the guys, while spending as long as it took, the rest of his life if need be, setting folk straight and restoring his mom's rightful place in Glenneaval.
Arriving at Edinburgh's Waverley station with a newfound purpose, JD stepped from the train onto the quiet platform littered with sleeping, homeless people, and walked straight over to the solitary open ticket window. Approaching the manned transom, he pulled out a small billfold to request a return ticket. he was suddenly tackled sideways and sent crunching into several rows of secured chairs. Winded and shocked, JD looked up to see a large, scruffy man with dirty hair and partially eroded teeth grinning and holding his wallet in triumph. Despite his previous injuries making themselves known, the Bronx in JD kicked in. Allowing all the recent frustration he'd harbored to surface, he pushed himself upright and swinging his dufflebag, laid into the man.
"That's mine, you jerkass...hand it over! You want something, you ask! No one takes from us again, y'hear? No one!"
His final swing dislodged the wallet from the stunned man's fingers and the pair both dove to the floor to grapple for it.
As soon as the man in the ticket office saw the incident, he shut down his window and dialed the police. In minutes, transport cops were on the scene and separating the battling pair. An adrenaline-fueled, disoriented JD struggled and in moments found himself pinned to the floor and his wrists cuffed behind him.
"Get off me, Get the hell off me!"
An unfamiliar voice rumbled into his ear.
"Settle down, laddie, you'll just hurt yourse'n more."
The voice broke through the red mist that had enveloped JD and, panting, he settled. He looked at the face next to his. "The guy stole my wallet."
"Maybe so, but for now, just calm down. You want to get up?"
"Good lad. Right, when I say, move onto your knees. Okay, now."
With the officer's help, JD got to his knees. Seconds later, he was up on his feet. He nodded at the cop. "Thank you, Sir."
"Just stay calm, and we'll get this sorted in no time."
JD nodded again, but weariness had kicked in and he wasn't fully listening. He stared at the hollering man being pinned down by two other cops. "Is he homeless?"
The officer with JD glanced over at the scuffle. "Aye, and suffers all that goes with it."
JD's eyes closed at the unexpected memory flash of finding his mom one night, after her going missing for days. She was huddled in an alley, cold, hungry and strung out from needing a hit. He could still recall how hungry he'd been so many times due to his mother's habit. He got a couple of after-school and weekend jobs while his mom got help, and then eventually hold down a job herself. His eyes welled.
"He can keep the money. It was never about the money, it was about taking without asking."
The officer eyed JD up and down. He shrugged. "No matter, it'll all have to be settled at the station, now."
JD's head snapped to attention. "Me too?"
"Aye, for now. We're the authorities here, so we have to get statements, and look at CCTV footage." He noted JD brighten a little and inwardly smiled. He had a feeling this kid was good, and clearly the fact of this incident being on camera would prove him right.
"Our man over there is destined for a holding cell, and my associate and I are off duty soon, so you can stick with us."
JD swallowed and awkwardly raised his arms behind him. "In these?"
Looking across the area, the cop saw the ticket vendor talking animatedly to his partner. He smiled. "We'll see."
Due to the early hour, driving to Edinburgh wasn't fraught with the usual traffic issues, although fighting tiredness was a hindrance. Chris drove, while Buck sat next to him and Ezra occupied the rear seat. The estate's attorney leaned forward.
"I have contacted any and all colleagues and associates in the Edinburgh area, including those who have links to travel. They assured me of their diligence in keeping watch for our lost Laird."
Chris simply nodded.
"Josiah tells me that the train JD caught will get to Edinburgh two hours before our ETA."
Buck's heavy sigh prompted a squeeze to the brunet's shoulder from Ezra before the legal eagle relaxed back in his seat.
"We'll make it," Chris stated.
"What the hell was he thinking?" Buck growled out.
"JD's not thinking," Chris reminded. "He's reacting. Got to get it into his head that he can talk to us..."
Buck glanced across at his long-time friend, appreciating that his words was the first indication that Chris wasn't mad, but worried.
"Ezra, call Josiah and tell him to get hold of the reporter who interviewed JD. There must be a connection between that meeting and the tabloid story, and I want to know what that is." On hearing Ezra dialing, Chris put his foot down to try to close the gap between the train and themselves.
At Glenneaval castle, everyone on the estate was up and about. In his line of work, Vin was used to being out early, but so far, he hadn't ventured past the castle's kitchen. While drinking his third coffee of the hour, a weighty knock to the front door caused him to get up from his seat at the kitchen table. Curious to see who was calling at such an early hour, he got to the door just as Nathan was answering it and ushering someone inside. He couldn't control the scowl on seeing it was reporter Amanda Burlington of the Architectural Digest magazine. The woman didn't miss his hostility, either.
"I understand your antagonism toward me, but please allow me to explain what's happened."
Nathan glanced a warning at Vin and then placed a hand on her back. "Let's take this into the sitting room."
Amanda was surprised to see so many faces staring back at her, but she came here to set things straight, and so continued on from her conversation in the hallway. She pulled out her voice recorder.
"This recording is untouched from the day of the interview. I listened to it to type up the article, and left it on my desk while I liaised with the print room. When I returned, I set it to play to ensure I hadn't missed anything and realized that I'd recorded this after our chat was concluded." Leaning forward, she hit the play button. Hers and JD's echoey voices filled the room, causing various reactions as the assembled group listened.
>> "Do you ever miss home, JD?"
"Oh, sure. I mean, I love it here, and don't ever want to leave, but first and foremost, I'll always be an American."
"And your mother? How did she see herself, as Scottish, or American?"
"Definitely Scottish. I got the feeling sometimes that, uh...that toward the end, she was really pining for here, for home, and for Uncle Angus."
"Such a shame she couldn't get back here before her passing, you must have been so lost when she died. Do you have siblings?"
"Nah, it was just me and my mom, and yeah, I missed her a whole lot - still do. She was real sick, for a long while, and taking care of her took up a lot of my time."
"Oh, yes; I'm sure it did. Thank you for allowing me into your amazing home. I'll send you a copy of the magazine when it's published."
"Hey, no problem. I may have inherited this place, but it's home to a lot of other folk who are a huge part of this estate, and have become like family to me."
"I'll be sure to make that clear." <<
The group smiled at the final comment. That's exactly how they felt about living and working there, like being around family.
"Someone got hold of this," Josiah speculated.
Amanda nodded. "A day or so after JD' story hit the papers, one of my colleagues commented that she'd seen a visiting reporter for one of the city tabloids hovering around my desk the day our magazine went to print. I feel awful. I think he may have heard this and acted on it."
"Why would a big-time reporter be hanging around a small-time architectural magazine?" Vin asked."
"They often call in to see if there's anything of interest we have that they can run with, especially if we've interviewed celebrities. Had I heard that tape in full, I wouldn't have shared it anyway, let alone leave it lying around; I'd made a promise to JD and Mr. Larabee, but this was taken out of my hands. I'm so very sorry."
All in the room could see she was sincere.
"Was it this man?" Josiah pushed a newspaper under her nose to show her the name and photo accompanying the headlines. It was of the man who had turned up at the meeting hall.
Amanda nodded. "That's him, Andrew Lambton. He's been looking for a big story for some time now..." She sighed. "I'm so sorry it was this one."
"How'd he get hold of personal information so quickly?" Vin asked.
"Contacts, internet access, Google, willing informants...personal privacy can be bought quite cheaply, these days," Josiah replied, his own frustration reflected by a heavy sigh.
"If I can find a way to put this right, I will," Amanda promised.
"Not sure it's possible," Vin decided. "Maybe best to let sleeping dogs lie."
Amanda stood. "You could be right." She glanced around. "Is it possible to apologize to JD personally before I leave?" She noted all in the room glance around at each other.
Josiah spoke up. "JD had an accident a little while ago and isn't well right now. I promise I'll tell him you called."
Amanda looked shocked. "Oh Lord, I'm so sorry." She handed over a large envelope from inside her bag. "Would you give him this? It's a copy of the magazine interview that I promised him." She attempted a smile. "I think he'll like it."
"Would you like some breakfast?" Nettie asked.
"No, thanks. I have meetings set up, so I must go."
After seeing her out, Josiah dialed in order to answer Chris's earlier question via Ezra.
The transport police station was located on Waverley's platform nineteen. JD was now uncuffed and sitting in an interview room. He'd expected to be carted off into the city, and so was relieved to find the actual police station situated inside the train station itself. His head rested in one propped up hand, and he jolted from a light doze when the door opened and the cop who had cuffed him walked in.
"Are you old enough for Coffee?"
JD grinned. "I'm American, I was born old enough." He sobered at the man's raised eyebrow. "I'm almost eighteen."
The officer chuckled and handed over a cardboard cup filled with steaming, aromatic liquid. "I put sugar in it."
JD tasted it and made a face. "Just the one?"
The man sat down and passed over several sachets of sugar and a wooden stirring stick. "Two, but here's more." They both looked up at a knock and saw a man pop his head around the door.
"Name's Brodie. I'm tonight's duty solicitor. You have a client for me?"
The officer nodded. "Aye, but not this laddie, he's the victim. You'll find your man two doors up." He noted the solicitor staring at the boy. "Problem?"
The man straightened and smiled. "Eh, no...just...he seems familiar."
JD blew on his coffee. "I doubt that, mister, I'm from New York, and haven't been here real long."
"My mistake. Forgive the intrusion."
Officer Larkin went to dismiss the comment when he saw that JD's head was partially buried in folded arms that rested on the tabletop. "What is it, son?"
It took a moment, but JD took a deep, shaky breath and proceeded to impart all that had happened over the last week or so.
When JD finished, Pat Larkin patted the boy's elbow. "I can't imagine Edward Brodie reading anything other than the Times, the Guardian, or the Independent, much less a tabloid, so I doubt he recognized you from the newspapers, lad." He stood. "Now, did I hear you admit to being under eighteen?"
JD looked up at him. "Yeah, why?"
"Well, as you are, and due to this morning's events, it's the law, and my duty to inform your guardians of your whereabouts." He tilted his head. "Won't they be worried?"
JD swallowed, he'd actually been about to head home. "Yessir, I guess, but..."
Understanding JD needed to get his thoughts together, Pat stood. "Why don't I rustle you up a sandwich and then you can give me some details." He saw the relief in the boy's face.
"Nae problem, laddie."
JD rested his head back on his arms, and in the solace of the quiet room, was soon fast asleep.
"Hey, lawyer man, you gonn'ae help me, or what?"
Ed Brodie couldn't get the face of the young man he met earlier out of his mind. He stood. "Aye, I'm here to help, but I need to step out a moment."
The arresting police officer and another cop watched the man leave the room and one turned off the tape recorder. "Not your night, eh, Fergal?"
The man who attacked JD huffed. "When's it ever?"
Fergal couldn't believe his luck. "Aye."
One man stood. "I'll go get you something."
Fergal offered a near-toothless smile. "God bless you, sir."
The remaining officer smiled inwardly. While their duty was to keep the railway station and tracks clear of trouble, the plight of the homeless did not sit well with them, and the local cops would often help out, within reason, if they could.
Entering the corridor outside the interview rooms, the officer going for food approached Fergal's legal representative. "Everything okay?"
The man held up his phone. "I knew that kid's face was familiar."
The officer frowned. "We know his name."
"Aye, but a friend of mine put a message out to say he was missing and to keep a look out."
"So, you've texted him?"
"And emailed...just in case."
"I'm going for food. You want anything?"
"Coffee would be appreciated." With a nod, they parted company, the officer to go for food, and Ed to go back into the interview room.
The large railway station was stirring into life as Chris, Buck, and Ezra crossed the shiny floor of the main lobby. Photo in hand, the men were ready to approach anyone looking even remotely official in the hope they'd seen JD. However, before they could, all three cell phones chimed at once.
Chris answered, and Josiah filled him in on Amanda's revelation, Ezra received a text and an email, and Buck took a call from Officer Pat Larkin.
Hearing Buck's declaration, Chris excused himself from his call. "Where?"
"Transport police picked him up..." he noted Chris's alarm, "...long story, but he's okay, just have to find their HQ."
Ezra smiled and pointed to a sign for platform nineteen. "We're this close." He saw their surprise. "A friend of mine is on duty with them tonight and he's just contacted me to tell me he's seen him...here."
A drained Buck suddenly perked up. "Well, what are we waiting for?"
Aware they were grinning inanely, the three men headed for the police station on platform nineteen.
Although dressed in civilian clothes, Pat Larkin dutifully came to the front desk when the officer there informed him that three men were enquiring about his charge. Greeting them with handshakes, he insisted they prove their connection to JD before he took them back to the interview rooms.
"He's had an eventful arrival here in Edinburgh, and by the looks of him, a sleepless night, so I wasn't surprised he fell asleep once he'd had some food." He halted before they entered the room.
"JD told me about his recent troubles." He noted their surprise. "He was afraid a passing associate recognized him from the newspapers, and it all came spilling out."
"Would that be your duty solicitor, Edward Brodie?" Ezra asked.
Pat frowned. "Eh...aye. How could you know that?"
"Before traveling here I alerted all and anyone I could think of in various businesses to keep an ear to the ground. I am confident Edward would never associate himself with reading the tabloid press."
Officer Larkin chuckled. "I agree." He opened the door and with a gesture, ushered them silently into the room.
In two strides, Buck was at the table, and perched close to JD's head. He rested one hand on the dark tresses, but didn't speak. He just sat there quietly and allowed his racing heart to slow down. Larkin spoke softly.
"JD got jumped on the platform as he approached the ticket booth. On viewing the CCTV tapes it was clear he did nothing to provoke the attack, and so his retaliation is being considered as self-defense." The man smiled.
"When we became involved, the lad actually said the man could keep the money...he was just mad about him not asking, first." He turned to Chris, who was looking at him. "His concern for the homeless man was touching. I'm guessing he's had a tough life."
Chris nodded. "Past tense and forever behind him if he'd just let us help him."
"I'm thinking this night, that particular corner may have been turned," Pat assured.
"Not before time," Buck muttered, his hand, and attention, still on JD. He felt JD's head moving under his fingers and leaned in. "'Morning, sleepyhead." He chuckled at the face JD made while waking and stifling a yawn simultaneously.
JD blinked and peered through tired eyes at the man seated next to his head. He sat up on spotting Chris and Ezra, and for a moment, he thought he'd dreamt his recent journey. Then he spied Pat, and recognized his surroundings.
JD sighed and looked suitably embarrassed. "Uh, hey guys."
"Are you done with train-hopping, or should we get you the timetables?" Chris teased. He watched JD's head go down. Placing his palms on the table, Chris leaned in. "JD...JD, look at me."
The boy looked up and started slightly at how close Chris was.
"How could you leave like that without so much as a conversation with us?"
There was a pause and then JD's sleep-roughened voice spoke up. "Because I've allowed my mom's memory to become tainted, and felt I was bringing down all the good work you fellas have done on the estate."
"And?" Buck interjected. "You really thought those reasons gave you the right to just cut us out of your life after all we've been through since you and me came here? It didn't occur to you we'd be worried?" Buck's voice rose as he stood.
"Or upset, and want to come looking for you?" Buck felt the firm grip of a familiar hand on his shoulder and reined in his frustration. "Och, laddie, we're family."
JD bowed his head again. "I'm sorry..."
Officer Larkin interrupted. "JD...you need to tell them."
"Tell us what?" Ezra asked.
Pat waited, hoping JD would speak up for himself. "JD?"
The teenager finally looked up. "I was coming right back." He swallowed and took a swig of cold coffee to lubricate his dry throat. "The guy jumped me when I took out my wallet to pay for a return ticket."
The three men of Glenneaval exchanged glances.
"Thing is," JD continued, "on the way here I did a lot of thinking and came to realize my mom needs me on the estate to speak up for her. She didn't make it home, so it's down to me to keep her memory alive in the place she loved as much as I do. I planned to come back and spend however long it takes to put folk straight about all she went through."
Buck squatted down next to the cousin he considered a brother. "Care to fill us in first?"
"Sure, but...can I do that when we get home?"
Buck finally pulled JD up for the hug that had been threatening. "Aye, sounds just what the doctor ordered."
JD clung on to the only blood family he had left in the world. "I'm sorry, Buck."
"It's done. Let it go now, Kid, but..." He moved back and looked at JD. "...If you do something like this again, I'll tan your hide."
Chris straightened and stepped forward. "The fact that you'd already decided to come back and face up to your problems says a lot about your integrity, JD, even if you still need to learn when to ask for help. Your uncle and your mother would be proud of you..." he saw JD look at him.
"...Because we are."
JD's gaze turned to one of awe.
Officer Larkin presented his hand to JD. "I'll bid you good luck, son, looks like you're already in good company."
JD shook the offered hand and nodded. "Yessir, I sure am." He smiled. "Thanks for all you did for me tonight."
With a nod, Pat shook the remaining three men's hands, and then left.
Buck wrapped an arm around JD, and steered the boy to follow Chris and Ezra out of the room. Within the hour, the four had eaten breakfast and set off for home.
Chris called ahead and while doing so asked if they could have a family dinner prepared for when JD arrived home. He hoped it would help settle down not just JD, but all of them. There were plans to make, work issues to discuss, a ball still to hold, and reputations to repair. Chris figured the order of how these were tackled would come naturally, and he'd also decided that anyone on the estate wishing to speculate further on events would be given an ultimatum as to their future with them. Angus was a stickler for loyalty and discretion, and Chris was no different in his managerial approach. They might be running a business, but it was deeply rooted in family, and it was time to get tough and remind folk of that truth.
He smiled when he drove up the driveway and spotted several silhouettes milling around the front portico. He could hear the uneasiness in JD's voice as they got closer, but decided he'd play it by ear. No one waiting intended to give JD a hard time, and Chris wasn't about to allow the lad to give himself one, either.
Vin walked forward as the Range Rover rolled to a halt. When JD followed Buck out of the back seat, the ghillie grinned and gave a small but triumphant slap to his thigh to see the boy safe and sound and back where he belonged. In a rare response, he stood in front of the youth, nodded, smiled, and gave a squeeze to JD's arm. The grin he got in return warmed him from head to toes and lingered when he received approving nods and smiles from the other three men.
Stepping closer, Josiah's arms encircled the slight youth, enveloping JD in a warm and comforting embrace and setting off the remaining surrogate family in a round of pats, hugs and questions. Finally, Nettie thread her arm through JD's and with a glance at the others, she whisked JD off to wash up for dinner. Tired, but happy people followed her lead and Chris brought up the rear as he decided it was finally time to move forward; and day by day, step by step they would do so...together.
After dinner, Maude Standish took the opportunity of catching JD on their landing before they each retired to bed. She approached the exhausted youth, inwardly wincing when he lowered his head and unruly bangs hid his eyes.
The boy looked up a little and peeked out at her. "Ma'am?"
Maude smiled. "I wanted to apologize for my sour demeanor on arriving here and any hurtful remarks I made to you."
JD shrugged. He was too tired to hold grudges, anyway. "Sure, okay."
"JD." This time Maude waited until she gained his full attention. "I understand you have no experience of the dance you are required to lead the ball with."
With a soft huff and a crooked grin, JD answered. "That's one way of putting it, or any others, for that matter."
"Then would you allow me to tutor you before the event?"
JD's eyes widened. "You...you'd do that for me?"
Maude's smile grew. "It would be my absolute pleasure." She winked. "Just between us, of course."
JD nodded. "I'd be real honored, Ma'am, thanks." He turned to go.
"For the love of God, ask Casey to accompany you to the ball before the girl bursts."
The boy looked surprised. "Casey? You reckon she'd go? I mean, I didn't think it was her thing, y'know?"
Now Maude turned to leave. "My dear boy, very few women would turn down the opportunity of wearing a ballgown and to be escorted by one of the handsomest young laird's this estate has known. Goodnight." She closed her door and smiled at the final image of JD standing there with his mouth hanging open.
As she later settled down to sleep, Maude questioned the odd, lighthearted sensation she was experiencing. It was a feeling with which she was unfamiliar, but God forbid was beginning to enjoy.
JD stood in his room and scrutinized every inch of his personal sanctuary. The note he'd left was gone, his bed was freshly made and it looked Heavenly. The teenager walked toward the window and its view of the lake, not realizing tears were falling until one hit the desk in front of the casement. He shook his head. What had he been thinking? So a couple of yahoos bad-mouthed him and his mother...so what? They hadn't known them, all they had to go on was idle gossip and speculation - not the first time he'd come up against that.
But this time was different. He'd felt at home here, at times, even more than back in Brooklyn. The unending struggle was gone, as was the insecurity and constant fear that his mom would once again succumb to the drug regime that forged her dependence and eventually killed her, albeit indirectly.
And just as they were getting their life together.
Glistening eyes stared out across the moonlit-silvered loch and to the trees beyond. He was home, and he needed to 'man up' and fight for it, not run and hide because some jerkass wanted a good headline. His mom needed someone in her corner and from this moment on, he'd be there for her.
Still a mite stiff and sore from his previous accident and the scuffle in Edinburgh, JD slowly undressed. In only his boxers, he slipped between cool, crisp, white cotton sheets and savored the chilled comfort. With thoughts on his mind of how he could put right his goof-ups to the guys, Nettie, and Casey, his exhaustion caused him to quickly fall asleep.
Saturday, one week on and, from the crack of dawn, the castle was buzzing with activity. The hall decoration in the Ross Ballroom that was started some weeks back was finally completed. The caterers arrived to first set up and dress the tables situated in the Great Hall ready for dinner, and then would take over the castle kitchen to prepare the meal, and also the sumptuous buffet for later.
It had taken some time to get ready but now all seven men were clad in dress kilts and ready to join the arriving guests. Chris was piping in the guests, and so went into the hall early. Vin, Nathan, and Josiah soon followed and after checking in on JD, Buck waited at the door until Inez arrived in a stunning blue satin ball gown topped with the revealing neckline of a corset bodice. He couldn't hide his approval and after kissing her cheek, he handed the Spanish beauty an orchid corsage before escorting her into the ballroom. Sadly his euphoria was short lived when a message from Ezra reached him and he, and all but Chris headed back upstairs
Five men stood on the landing close to JD's room. JD had grown more anxious with each item of clothing he put on and as images of disapproving guests flooded his mind. Suddenly the whole idea of attending a function where people would already have judged him and his mother became too much. All at once, he'd lost the strength to face their guests.
Vin was comforting a worried Casey, who'd emerged from Maude's room, where she'd been getting dressed. Buck stood at JD's bedroom door.
"You're worrying over nothing, Kid."
JD called through the door. "Easy for you to say, Buck." There was a pause before JD's voice came back softer. "I guess I'm just not as up to this as I thought. Please, Buck, can't you just tell folk that I'm still sick? Please?"
From the direction of the plea, Buck figured JD was sitting on the floor with his back to the door, so did likewise. He shrugged. "Aye, I can do that, but it would'nae be true. Is that what you want...for me to lie?"
Another pause. "N-o..."
Buck turned his head side on and rested it against the oaken door. His voice dropped low and mellow. "JD, have I ever steered you wrong?" He waited for the reply.
"Then trust me on this, no one inside this castle wants to dwell on a malicious newspaper story about two people they care about. What they do want is for their laird to kick-start this shindig so we can all have some fun. How about it?"
When Buck jumped to his feet, it alerted the others that there was progress. Casey went back into Maude's room to allow JD some space. The door lock clunked heavily and the door slowly opened. JD sheepishly appeared, his cheeks flushing when he saw his friends waiting on him. He glanced at Buck.
"I sure hope you're right. I really want to put the past few weeks behind me."
Buck grinned and drew the boy into an embrace. "We all do, Kid, and we're going to, you have my word."
JD pushed back a little and looked up at Buck, and then at his friends. "I'm no coward, I just...I dunno...freaked out, I guess. Sorry." He saw the men smile, and knew they weren't judging him. He really hoped they wouldn't be the only ones tonight. He straightened.
"Uh, guys...could we break protocol this evening? I mean, I'll lead the dancing and all, I just...I wondered if y'all would walk in with me?"
"I donn'ae have a date," Vin instantly replied.
"You could ask Nettie to walk with you...and Ezra's got Maude, Buck has Inez. Josiah told me Missus Potter from the local store's here...and Nathan...well, I know he's got his eye on that pretty nurse from the cottage hospital, and she's here."
While he paused to ponder something, the others reacted with grins, clearing of throats, and some astonishment at just how observant JD apparently was as to which women they'd been showing an interest in.
"'Course, then there's Chris..."
Buck chuckled and held the boy's arms. "Chris is piping for the lead dance, and he's already in the ballroom piping in the guests. He can't leave his post until the lead dance is over."
JD nodded and smiled. He looked to the others. "Well, guys?"
As the others dispersed from the landing, Ezra tugged at the cuffs of his jacket and stepped toward JD. He gestured to the room in which Maude was staying.
"I'm ready to collect Mother. As Casey is with her, I wondered if you were ready, now."
JD tried to swallow the lump in his throat that he was convinced was his heart. "Ready as I'll ever be, I guess." He closed his door and walked across the landing with Ezra, who then knocked on Maude's door, which she'd closed when Casey came back inside.
Maude, resplendent in a sleeveless, full-length, bejeweled strap and bodice, turquoise chiffon gown, opened the door. She smiled at JD and, taking Ezra's elbow, allowed her son to escort her downstairs. A little confused as to where Casey was JD peeked inside. His eyes almost popped out of his head at the vision before him.
Casey's hair was down and she wore a full-length, red satin, strapless ball gown with a sweetheart neckline bodice. Its material draped in swathes to the floor and the whole ensemble was adorned with clusters of diamantes.
JD couldn't take his eyes off her as he walked into the room. He offered her a small corsage of a 'Jessica' rose, scarlet in color with a buttercream center. "You...you look amazing."
Casey beamed and her hand brushed his as she took the dainty spray and put it on her left wrist. She gestured to his Ross tartan dress kilt, white, ruff-collared shirt and waist-length, black jacket with silver buttons. "You don't look so bad yourself."
JD crooked his elbow. "Ready?"
Casey took the offered support. "For my first ball? Oh yeah."
"Mine, too."JD grinned, his first for hours. "Let's do this."
In the Ross Ballroom, all the guests had arrived and so Chris stopped playing to take a breather. From the main doors, he noted a nod from Tyler McDougal, their Master of Ceremonies, and once again took up his position. He moved the mouthpiece of the blowpipe between his lips and puffed air into the semi-filled bag nestled between his flank and elbow. As a tuneful drone sounded and caught the room's attention, Tyler announced from the door.
"Pray, be upstanding for John Dunne-Ross, Laird of Glenneaval, and guests."
To the tune of 'The Lady Charlotte Anne's Wedding March - Highland Schottische', and holding Casey's hand aloft, JD led her in, followed by Buck and Inez, Ezra and Maude, Vin and Nettie, Josiah, and Gloria Potter, and Nathan, and Rain Goines. While the others stood to one side, JD and Casey took to the center of the dance floor. Chris paused, looked to JD, winked when the boy nodded, and once again played the tune they'd marched in to.
Before starting their lead dance, and unknown to either, both JD and Casey glanced quickly at a smiling Maude, causing Ezra to note the interaction and ponder its meaning, though he had a pretty good idea as to what might have occurred. He found himself filling with an uncharacteristic sentiment toward his mother...pride.
JD and Casey faced each other. He bowed, and she curtsied, then he took her in his arms. To rhythmic clapping from all gathered in the magnificent Ross ballroom, the pair hopped, pointed their toes, and spun around in perfect time - albeit a little stiffer than more experienced dancers. After a full turn around the floor, the others who'd accompanied them in, joined them. JD leaned in close to Casey's ear.
"This is fun, but I think I prefer something more modern to dance to."
Casey grinned back at him and nodded, but as she held him tighter, couldn't help thinking that this kind of dancing meant closeness, and that was rather nice.
Chris stopped playing and as he walked away to wild applause, a fiddle orchestra struck up a fresh tune, to which all six friends and their partners danced. After they'd performed a full turn around the floor, the guests paired up and soon happy dancers filled the dance floor. While the fiddle orchestra led the impetus, the guests danced the Eightsome Reel, the Gay Gordons, and the Dashing White Sergeant, at which point the MC called the breathless, high-spirited guests into the adjoining Great Hall for the dinner and a spectacular Menu;
> Basket of warmed breads and butter
Oak smoked salmon with prawns in tipsy Marie Rose sauce, garnished with baby leaves.
Charcuterie selection of Serrano ham, smoked duck breast and chicken and brandy pate garnished with baby gem salad and pickles.
Roasted red pepper and tomato soup with herbed crčme fraiche
Roasted and stuffed boneless baby poussin with sage and onion, pomme de terre straws and traditionally seasoned gravy.
Scottish salmon fillet with a champagne butter sauce served with griddled fresh asparagus, all served with fondant roast potatoes and a selection of seasonal vegetables.
Ricotta and spinach ravioli served on a bed of ratatouille with parmesan shavings.
Snow dome; white chocolate truffle filled with raspberry coulis
Caramel festive surprise; salted caramel and vanilla panacotta with banoffee drizzle garnished with orange macaroon, chocolate spears and caramelized almonds.
Traditional cheese plate served with a selection of biscuits and breads, black grapes and chutneys.
Followed by coffee and petit fours. <
Everyone took up his or her allotted seats at the beautifully set-out circular tables. Chris led the rest of the Glenneaval team to the table in the most central position. Seated next to JD, Buck leaned in.
"How're you enjoying you're first official Ball, Kid?" He grinned as he watched JD thirstily gulp back his especially ordered glass of Doctor Pepper - and quickly offered him a napkin when it looked like JD might wipe the back of his hand across his mouth. The grin from JD made it clear he was just kidding.
"So far, it's been better than I expected, thanks," JD replied. He stared down at his starter. "Do I like pate?"
"You'll like this one. These caterers are the best."
JD saw Vin looking his way and smiled. "D'ya reckon they'll let us try all the desserts?"
Vin returned the grin. "I'm up for asking if you are."
To the backdrop of laughter from the others at the table, they tucked in.
The meal drew to a close, and a replete JD was wondering how on earth anyone could dance after eating such a big meal - not to mention the buffet due to be served at midnight, though that would be a more informal affair, designed to offer guests the option to relax, talk and eat, away from the music. The MC called the seated room to attention as a large cine-screen slowly descended from its camouflaged casing secured to the wall and close to the ornate ceiling. JD stared at his friends, who seemed as surprised as he was, and became even more so when the chairwoman of the Scottish Women's Rural Institute took to the podium set up to one side of the screen, and tapped a glass with a knife to obtain order.
Marla Pearce smiled, and addressed the guests. "Laird Dunne-Ross of Glenneaval, the good people of the Glenneaval estate, ladies and gentlemen. First, may I thank you all for attending this event. The cash you parted with for the tickets will help tremendously in our ongoing community aid projects."
"My special thanks also to the Laird and the management team of Glenneaval estate, for their kindness and generosity in allowing us to benefit from this social gathering. People, your reinstatement of the estate's annual and special events has brought this community together in a way that has not been seen for some years, indeed, not until this present Laird was inaugurated and the current admin team took over running the estate's affairs." Her smile broadened and eyes twinkled.
"In short, you've breathed back the community spirit that was lost when Angus became ill, and for that, we thank you."
The room erupted in applause, and the central table coyly accepted their well-earned plaudits before Marla Pearce once again called everyone to order. Her expression softened as she looked toward JD. "John Daniel Dunne."
The boy felt his world narrow and his body went cold as all eyes turned to him. He was calculating how fast he could get up, cross the room, and exit through the nearest door when, from somewhere behind their table a stream of dust-littered light crossed the room and large numbers counting down from ten to zero hit the extended screen.
"When your mother's plight hit the tabloids it shook the community somewhat..."
Buck placed a protective arm around JD's shoulders and noticed the boy quaking. He glanced around the table and could see the concern in his friends' eyes, and the simmering fury to match his own in Chris and Vin's stares. Unaware of the growing anxiety, Mrs. Pearce continued.
"...However, to us, this was not the girl we watched grow into a young woman; who captured our hearts, and earned our love and respect before she left us forever. The troubled woman portrayed in that heinous report was clearly struggling to recover from her past mistakes while bringing up the child who we've come to love and respect just as much as his mother." She smiled, kindly, but was too far away to see the large teardrop fall from JD's lashes and directly onto his collar ruff.
"Your uncle and mother became the heart and soul of this community and we adored them for making us all feel so loved, wanted, and needed. Angus taking up the Lairdship changed his relationship with your mother, JD, but not with the people of this Glen."
She gestured to a paused image on the screen. "We could never hate your mother, JD, and most certainly could never hate you. We all make mistakes, and good people forgive - and would certainly never blame a son for his mother's imperfections. Someone here in the castle offered me this old cine film. I'm afraid it has no sound, but the images are as clear as the day they were shot. Enjoy."
She left the podium to the sound of applause, and walked to her seat. Before sitting, Marla nodded to someone behind the back tables and the images on the screen flickered into life, holding everyone mesmerized with their subject matter, and JD openly crying, but this time, tears of joy.
Someone had lovingly pieced together years of shot color cine film onto a reel. It showed Angus as a young boy running along the moors with his father, the Laird of that time, as a kite bobbed along behind them high in the bright sky; and of him in what seemed like an attic room, playing with a rather large train set while a conductor's cap sat atop his head. There were birthday parties, and snatches of images of a boy watching from the stairs as guests arrived for grand events.
Buck was still holding onto JD and felt the boy shudder with a succession of sobs when Angus was filmed holding a baby. Even though no one could hear the lad, he could clearly be seen saying 'my sister', before kissing the wee bairn on the forehead. From there the pair was rarely filmed apart. It was clear Angus doted on Jess, and as she grew, Jess idolized her big brother. JD watched his mother and uncle frolicking on the loch beach and showing the camera operator their sandcastles, and collection of shells; playing on a swing attached to a branch of the large tree in the walled garden; pulling up weeds, which were actually flowers, and looking suitably abashed.
They were filmed dressing up, making tents with bed sheets, and covered in chocolate after raiding their Easter egg haul; and all the while they laughed, twirled, ran, held hands, or comforted when one or the other was hurt.
Their younger years were perfectly captured for posterity, right up to Angus's first ball, and then Jess's; the heartache of separation when Angus went off to university, to the joy of his returns during breaks, and then eventually back for good. The final images were from behind the pair while standing knee-deep in the loch and skimming stones across its glassy, moonlit surface.
When the reel ended, the room was silent, save for the audible sniffs from JD. Marla stood and approached the boy.
"Oh, JD, I'm so sorry, I didn't realize it would upset you so."
A bright, damp, hazel gaze rose to meet hers. "Oh no...no, ma'am, I'm not upset." He pointed shakily toward the now blank screen. "That...that was just awesome." He smiled. "You've shown me something I never thought I'd see - a view of my family's past." As he said it, he couldn't help but glance at Buck, who squeezed JD's shoulder in understanding that JD was acknowledging Angus as Buck's father, and so including him in the family reference.
JD stood and unexpectedly embraced Marla, who smiled and hugged him back. "Thank you," he whispered.
Everyone gathered in the hall stood and clapped. The mood was joyful, and energized, and JD was finally ready to believe the people whose families had been here for generations wanted him here, too. He smiled gratefully at his gathered friends; he already knew they wanted him.
A few hours later, and with music from the castle playing in the distance, JD and Casey walked the lantern-lit rear gardens to get some air. JD smiled when Casey curled her fingers around his hand, and he turned to face her.
"Uh, Casey...I need to be straight with you. I like you an' all, but..." He touched her face with his fingers. "I'm not ready for..."
Casey placed a finger over his lips. "...Me either. Doesn't mean we can't have fun together, or maybe an occasional kiss."
Her smile lit up her face and JD found himself returning the grin, while pushing a stray strand of hair behind her ear and drawing her close, but they were interrupted.
JD froze. He knew that cough. He looked to where Nettie was standing and took a step away from Casey, whose glare at her aunt could have melted steel right then.
"Uh, hullo, ma'am."
Nettie crooked a finger at Casey and the girl moved to join her. "I think 2 am is quite late enough to be outside, young lady. They turned to leave.
"Uh, Miss Nettie." He waited for her to turn to look at him. "I could never...I mean, I wouldn't have..."
Nettie raised an eyebrow. "I know, laddie, and that's why you're not standing there with your ears boxed. Goodnight, John Dunne."
JD blew out a soft breath. "'Night, ma'am, 'night, Casey."
"'Night, JD." She giggled and leaned in to her aunt. "Don't you just love his accent?"
JD grinned at the comment, and then nearly jumped out of his shoes when a hand lit on his shoulder. He turned. "Shoot, Buck! Where'd you spring from?"
The brunet glanced guiltily at a nearby hedgerow of Rose of Sharon.
"You were spying on me!"
"Now don't get your sporran in a twist, lad. I was just making sure you didn'ae get yourself in trouble with Nettie." He offered a kind smile. "You've had enough trouble these past weeks, don't you think?"
JD shook his head but looked a little hurt. "True, but...I would never hurt Casey, Buck."
Buck embraced the boy. "I know, son, and it was your heart I was protecting, not Casey's."
JD hugged Buck hard, and they remained that way for a while. "I love you, Buck," JD whispered.
Buck squeezed the boy. "Love you too, little brother."
From underneath the rear portico, Chris's cheroot lit up as he took a puff. He leaned against one pillar while he watched his oldest and newest friends embrace and he smiled. Buck and JD were good for each other, and it was a relief to finally see the end of JD's doubts, and anguish.
"You still smoking those wee nasties?"
Chris grinned and turned to Vin. "Only on special occasions."
Vin mirrored his stance against the opposite portico. "Been a good evening."
Chris nodded. "Aye. Remind me to send Marla some flowers, tomorrow."
"Ezra's already on it. Best get some for Nettie, and Maude, too."
Chris looked over at Vin, and then nodded his understanding. "Nettie provided the cine film. And Maude?"
"Helped Nettie locate the reel, taught both kids to dance, and gave Casey a ballgown."
The estate manager smiled, dropped his cheroot and stubbed it out with his shoe. "She's a changed woman."
Vin shrugged. "Some, maybe, but enough to make Ezra happy."
Seeing Buck and JD separate, Chris straightened and turned to go back inside. "I like the idea of this place being happy, again."
Vin followed Chris in. "Aye, me too."
Outside, in the front drive, Josiah kissed the back of Gloria's hand and bid her goodnight as he saw her into her taxi. He smiled on his return inside the house when he spied Nathan and Rain alone in the darkened drawing room and entangled in a heated exchange of kisses. He re-entered the Great Hall, took up a plate of food, asked the barman for a large whiskey, and raised the glass, first in the direction of Rain and Nathan's clandestine tryst, and then toward Ezra and Maude, who were seated in a corner, close to the buffet table.
Ezra raised his own whiskey glass to Josiah and then took a long sip. He looked at his mother. "Am I right to think you had a hand in JD and Casey's dancing tuition for this event?"
Maude eyed her son. "And where would I find the time for such an undertaking?"
Ezra's cheek dimpled in a smile. "Of course, and that wouldn't be your fifty-thousand pound designer dress from Paris that Casey's wearing either, I suppose."
Maude sipped at her brandy. "Perish the thought." The pair looked at each other and laughed. "Thank you for allowing me to stay on for the month, darling. Surprisingly, I've had quite an enjoyable stay."
Ezra stared at his whiskey, and then at his mother. "Me, too. Are you still leaving in the morning?"
"Oh yes. Time to find a new adventure. Lord Whittington is holding a poker tournament and has requested my presence." She set down her glass and cracked her knuckles. "And right now I'm feeling extraordinarily lucky."
Again they laughed.
"I'll miss you." Ezra shocked himself with his knee-jerk comment and took a quick look at his mother, expecting some form of rebuke. Instead, she kissed his cheek.
"I will miss you, too, son."
Back in the garden, Buck gestured toward the doors. "You ready to come back inside, Kid?"
JD shook his head. "In a while. You go ahead, Inez is waiting for you."
Buck grinned, licked his thumb pads and smoothed down his eyebrows. "That she is, and, I am worth the wait."
JD laughed and watched Buck go back toward the castle.
Inez was waiting for Buck in the portico. She smiled. "Is he alright?"
Buck nodded. "Aye. He's a tough kid...just needs to remember he's loved."
Inez went on tiptoe and gave Buck a lingering kiss on the lips. "I am in no doubt you will be there to remind him."
Buck licked his lips, and then smiled. "You can count on it."
Outside, JD turned back to the beach and took a cleansing breath before going back inside. He blinked on seeing two figures on the sand, arms around each other, and walking ankle deep through the water, and he walked closer to the steps that led to the beach to get a better look. A man and woman looked back at him and waved. Thinking they were guests, he went to wave back, but suddenly gasped.
The pretty brunet was in her late thirties, while the man was graying, and in his fifties. JD knew him from the portraits in the castle, and his heart thumped on realizing he was looking at his mom and Uncle Angus. They waved again, and his mother blew a kiss. JD awkwardly waved back, and then turned his head to see if anyone else was seeing this, too, but he was alone. He looked back to the beach, but the couple was no longer there.
For a split-second JD was devastated that they were gone, but it was quickly overtaken by elation as he understood that his mom had found a way to show him that she and Angus were finally reunited. Already emotionally wrung out, tears fell again, but as earlier, they were happy tears. "Thanks, Mom," he whispered.
The final guests' cabs took them away at 3:40 am. With a cleaning crew due in at 7:00, the remaining tired, but happy household had a nightcap together, before retiring to their rooms. The women left first, leaving the seven friends together. Chris's voice broke into the companionable silence.
"JD." He waited until the boy looked at him. "I know it's late but...I wondered if you felt able to share a little of your mother's illness with us, now."
JD glanced sideways at Buck. The big man gave him a supportive smile and wink. He then looked around at his friends, resting on Chris. Well, he had promised...
The boy wrestled with a yawn, but nodded. "Sure. I guess now's as good a time as any." He noted the men patiently waiting as he composed himself.
'Where to start?'
"At some point between losing Carl, the guy Mom went backpacking with, eventually married, and who got her hung up on H...uh, heroin, she got pregnant. It wasn't Carl's, he'd died not long after they got to New York, and she told me it wasn't John's, the man who married her after I was born and who I called 'Dad' for four years." JD shook his head. "I can't believe the reporter found out about that." After a pause, he continued.
"Anyway, John's head was all over the place, a real high-maintenance guy, and then one day he went out and...never came home." JD's throat was dry, so he took a sip of his hot chocolate. "Mom was pretty bad after that; would shoot up with anyone who'd share a needle. That's how..." JD faltered and lowered his head.
Nathan stepped in. "She contracted hepatitis?" he asked, sympathetically.
Keeping his head bowed, JD nodded. "She didn't find out until Father O'Keefe persuaded her to go to the doctor's to get assessed for methadone treatment. The doc examined her and gave her a heap of tests, including drawing blood, but it was already too late for immunization, even before the results were confirmed." Weariness was fast catching up to the boy, and it didn't go unnoticed.
"Well done, Kid, that was a good start," Chris praised. "Thank you." He stood. "Are we about ready to turn in?"
All in agreement, the seven headed off for bed, with a promise from JD that he'd tell them the rest another time.
During the walk to his room, JD settled on not sharing what he'd seen on the beach for fear they'd think he'd either gone crazy, or was drunk, which Chris had made him promise not to do - and he'd kept his word. Despite his weariness, he hung up his dress attire before crawling into an inviting bed and snuggling down. He took one last look through his undraped window at the shimmering loch, and then fell sound asleep.
He dreamed all night of his mother and that she and his uncle came into his bedroom, where she kissed him goodnight, and his uncle told him he was proud of him, and the job he and the guys were doing. JD sighed happily in his sleep and turned over, enjoying the familiar fingers carding through his hair.
In the morning, he would wonder if it was a dream but finding sandy footprints on the carpet would suggest otherwise...and he'd decide that he wouldn't be sharing that with anyone, either!
Comments to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Scottish Women's Rural Institute
Clagg-Tail - Unwiped Ass (insult).
Numpty - Idiot
'Fill your Boots' - 'Go for it', 'help yourself'
Ken - Know
Strawberry Banana Protein Smoothie
Creamy Chicken, Ham and leek Pie
Glenneaval Train Station
Waverley Station, Edinburgh
British Transport Police
The Highland Schottische lead dance with bagpipes
With fiddlers and full dance team
The Eightsome Reel
The Gay Gordons
The Dashing White Sergeant
The decorated Great Hall
Boxed Ears - To slap someone on the side of the head, especially as a punishment
Rose of Sharon