Spirit of Passion [MultiFormat]
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eBook by Victoria Rivers
eBook Category: Romance/Mystery/Crime
eBook Description: In the wake of a painful breakup with her unfaithful fiance, actress Sloane Tierney seeks refuge in an ancient castle far from the public eye. Liar's Keep is an isolated place on a tiny Scottish island, where Sloane finds an enigmatic man dressed in 18th century clothes, pretending to be the ghost of a long-dead earl. As she is drawn into the mystery of Tristan Hayward's tragic life and death, she discovers that he may be exactly what he seems, and that Liar's Keep holds other dangers that could cost Sloane her life ... or the love of a lifetime.
eBook Publisher: The Fiction Works, Published: 1999
Fictionwise Release Date: May 2006
20 Reader Ratings:
She came in through the bathroom window.
Her house keys were lost somewhere in the grass on the slope between the canyon road above and the secluded house in the valley below. Her car had died in the road nearly a mile back after she'd had to dodge that monster tree limb the wind had blown into her path, and she hadn't been able to get it started again. And to top off the lousy evening, it was raining buckets and she was soaked to the bone.
But Sloane Tierney was used to such inconveniences. She was an actress and in the course of her many roles she had been in worse states before.
Once she had maneuvered the tiny window above the tub open and climbed through, she set about drying off. She stripped off her flannel shirt and jeans that she'd thrown on that morning to go to the studio and wrapped up in one of the thick, velvety brown towels before pulling open the bathroom door to look for Maverick.
His car was parked in the garage, so he should have been home, though he hadn't answered the doorbell. If he was plugged into the stereo with his headphones he wouldn't have heard the bell, so she thought she'd sneak up on him and surprise him. They had a good day filming and wrapped early, so she was in a mood to celebrate, and her inadvertent acting out of the famous opening line of the old Beatles' tune would be the opening of a night she and Maverick would never forget.
He wasn't in the bedroom, so she pulled a robe out of her closet and slipped it on, leaving the towel on underneath until she warmed up a bit. Down the spiral staircase from the bedroom they shared she padded on silent feet, smiling to herself as she heard the sounds of music and muffled groaning coming from the living room below. He was watching "those" movies again, getting ready for her homecoming like he often did. She knew she'd find him stretched out on the couch with remote control in hand, stark naked and hard as a rock, and she'd be ready for him.
She rounded the corner with her hands on the sash of her robe, and froze.
The man she had lived with for the past two years, whose engagement ring she wore on her finger, was in the midst of a passionate encounter with the lounge singer he had taken her to see only the night before. Both of them were naked, and their cries told her they were just finishing up. She stood there, rooted to the floor, too much in shock to move.
Until Maverick raised his gray eyes from his lover's face to the tall, stunned form in the doorway.
"Oh, dammit! Sloane..." he cried, getting up off the dark-haired woman and chasing after his fiancé as she ran through the house.
Sloane grabbed his keys off the foyer table where he always left them and dashed out to his car, slamming the door in his face and pounding down on the lock. Her hands were shaking with fury as she stabbed the key into the ignition and romped on the accelerator, tearing out of the driveway in reverse.
By the time she pulled onto the freeway she was screaming and pounding on the steering wheel, hot tears of rage and pain streaking down her face and neck. She jammed the pedal to the floor, not caring where she was going, weaving into and out of traffic wherever she could find a space. She swung in sharply between a van and pickup to get around some old coot in a Fairlane, and the rain on the oil-coated roadway carried her right up against the guardrail in the median, sending up a shower of sparks as she grazed the side of the car against the metal barrier for a few hundred feet, until she managed to get control of the car and herself and ease back into traffic.
Her mouth was full of her heart, and it took a phenomenal effort to swallow it back into place. Maverick had betrayed her, and she never wanted to see his face again. But in the meantime, she had absolutely no place to go. She wasn't wearing a stitch of real clothes, had no shoes on, and her purse was still sitting on the back of the toilet tank in her bathroom. She didn't even have her driver's license in case she got stopped.
But she had a telephone. She dialed her agent's number from memory and kept trying back until she made it past his answering service and got through to him personally. She surprised herself with how calm she sounded while she was quaking inside.
"Hey, Cliff, sorry to bother you at home, but this is urgent. I need a place to hide out for a few days without creating a stir. Got any ideas?"
"What'd you do, Sloane, rob a bank?" asked Clifford Diego jokingly. Of all his high-profile clients, Sloane Tierney was the most level-headed. Even for a woman so young, she had been very shrewd about picking her roles and he couldn't imagine what would have prompted such a desperate call from his rapidly rising star.
"Maverick..." She couldn't say it. She tried to visualize lines on a script page. "Maverick was doing it with another woman when I got home, Cliff. I need a place he won't know to look for me. And you don't tell him where I am unless you want a homicide on my résumé. Okay?"
"Damn, Sloane! What the hell was he thinking?"
"Don't talk to me like that, Cliff," she snapped into the receiver. "You know I hate that language."
"Sorry, babe," Diego said contritely. "Tony Hopkins has an apartment in the hills, staff and everything. He's on location in England this month, so let me give him a call and see if he'll let you have a few days there. Where are you now?"
"Mav's car, but I've turned the ringer off," she replied tensely. "How long do you think the call'll take?"
"Gimme an hour. It's about 11 p.m. over there I think, and I may not get him right away."
"So what am I gonna do for an hour, twiddle my thumbs?" Sloane groused. Tears were gathering in her eyes again and she didn't want to cry. Not over Maverick.
"Go on over to the apartment and wait," Diego suggested. "Keep circling the block if you have to. Here's the address."
An hour later Sloane Tierney parked the scratched-up classic Ford Maverick, which was her former fiancé's pride and joy, in the underground garage at the posh apartments in L.A.'s fashionable Beverly Hills area, and strode sheepishly into the guarded elevator, flashing a nervous smile at the operator as she requested the proper floor. A gracious staff answered her ring on the doorbell, showed her into the very English surroundings and made her feel quite pampered, indeed. After a hot bath and a simple but elegantly prepared meal, she fell into Anthony Hopkins' empty bed and slept a troubled sleep. * * * *
The sun was well up when Sloane dragged her weary body out of the strange bed and stumbled around until she found the bathroom. After a shower and a few sips of coffee that she didn't normally drink, she phoned the studio to ask about the schedule for the next few days of post production. With a sigh of resignation she called up one of the stores on Rodeo Drive where she had an account and ordered enough items to get her through the next few days. She only hoped Maverick didn't show up at the work when she got there and make a scene.
There were flowers waiting for her at the studio when she arrived, and she promptly gave away the dozen or so arrangements to a handful of staffers admiring them. She stuffed the cards into the back pocket of her jeans until she located both a smoker and an ashtray where she could incinerate them with a borrowed lighter.
The cards died a fiery death without being read first. Nothing he could say could repair the damage he'd done, and nothing he could do would get him back into her life. Ever. Not even for a film project, unless maybe the money was ludicrously high. The tabloids would have the story soon enough, and she wanted to be safely gone by then, out of the country to some backwater hideaway where no one could find her unless she wanted them to, and no one would recognize her if she chose not to wear a disguise.
For that, she knew just who to ask. The looping studio was located on a section of the back lot in a small soundproofed building, and her friend would be waiting for her there. She hurried off the golf cart that had carried her from the parking lot near the front of the studio grounds, leaving her driver with a smile and a friendly wave that were one of the best acting jobs she had ever done. Being sociable and jovial were far from her true feelings, and she had to reach deep in her soul for the inspiration to play that part at that moment. She headed into the windowless steel door, signed in at the secretary's desk, and went down the short hallway to the artist's lounge.
"How ya doin', Tommy?" she asked warmly, planting a kiss on the shiny forehead of her bare-faced co-star. He slept in his swivel chair while waiting to be called to dub in the lines that hadn't recorded well audibly during the filming. Sloane parked her shapely behind on the counter where a thick white ceramic teacup sat cooling, and leaped right into the subject foremost on her mind.
"You remember that little cottage you told me about when we did the shoot up the coast that day? The one you said was twenty leagues from nowhere on that little island?"
Thomas Stafford MacLeod opened up intense hazel eyes and regarded his latest leading lady with sleepy interest. He had developed an instant fondness for the girl, disregarding the forty year gap between their ages from the moment they met. She reminded him of a former sweetheart he'd had about the time he won the Mr. Scotland title, and holding her in his arms had made the years fall away for a few brief moments. And only a handful of people were privileged enough to address him as "Tommy" anymore. Sloane Tierney was one of them.
"Stafford Cottage," he said slowly, traces of the Scottish accent of his youth flavoring his cultured British enunciation. "Would you like me to bring up some photographs tomorrow so you can see it? Or did you want to hear more stories about Liar's Keep?"
"I want to rent the place, Tommy," she blurted out, crossing her arms jerkily, trying to hold in the emotion that threatened to spill over onto her cheeks. "I need a quiet place to get away for a while till the dust settles. The media is about to have a field day with my life and I don't want to be here till it's over." In as few delicate words as possible, she explained.
"Well, of course you can stay at the cottage," he offered warmly, sensing her distress more than seeing any evidence of it other than the unnatural brightness of her eyes. "I'll contact the caretaker this afternoon. How soon were you thinking of leaving?"
"As soon as they can do without me here. Few more days, maybe." She shrugged, trying to look nonchalant, but her lower lip was trembling.
"And how long will you stay? Just a guess. I don't need a firm commitment," he assured her, leaning forward in his chair so he could lay a hand on her tightly crossed arms while he stood. "I keep it up in case I want to go out for a visit, but who wants to go to Scotland in the winter? That's the only time I ever have free, it seems. No one's been to stay at the cottage for years."
Sloane sniffed. "A few months, maybe. Could be a year. It just depends on things here, and how I deal with all this once I get there. Is that okay?"
Stafford MacLeod pulled the lithe redhead into his arms for a fatherly hug, and gently stroked the long mass of curls tumbling down her back. "Stay as long as ye like, kitten. I canna think of a better place tae hide from the world than that godforsaken rock. Just bring a lot of warm clothes. It may be June now, but the chill never seems to quite leave the island. It's the ghost, ye ken."
Sloane buried her face against the older man's broad chest and tried to let go of a weary sigh, but the sound that squeezed out of her chest was a broken sob riding in advance of another flood of tears. She hated crying, but in Tommy's arms it really did seem to provide a little release, and when she had wiped her face and blown her nose on a linen handkerchief he produced from his pocket, she felt more ready to face the day. And the next morning when Tommy escorted Maverick out of the studio by his shirt collar, she felt a genuine pang of deep affection for the elegant old fellow and gave him a place in her heart forever.
Less than a week later she was dressed up in a disguise and flying across a continent and an ocean to the promise of sanctuary. Her arrival at Heathrow was uneventful, and she managed to drive the rented car out of the congested traffic, nervously obeying the British traffic laws as she made her way north to Scotland. After a stopover at a small bed-and-breakfast inn in the Lake District, she hit the road again to the north, following Tommy's precise directions down small country roads to the tiny village of Penrose nestled in a cove on the western coast, not far from the Isle of Skye.
She pulled into the parking lot beside the only pub in town, and took a moment to look around.
It was chilly out, and she drew her gray woolen cape closer about her body, gazing down a winding main street that cut through the heart of the sleepy town. Penrose might have been any fishing village on the coast of Scotland, but for the silhouette of the island clothed in mist some distance across the water, and the tall spire of a ruined Catholic church that lay on the promontory. Sloane supposed that the church had been grand once, with ornately carved arched windows and a huge Celtic cross atop the spire. But now only the bell tower itself remained intact; the rest of the walls had crumbled into rubble, and the roof was gone all together.
Beside the pub was a market square filled with fishermen and farmers selling their wares and townsfolk making purchases. Beyond that was a row of other shops, a school, a community center and an Anglican church, and scattered all around on the landward side were neat little stone houses that looked as though they had been there for centuries. Further back were more houses, much more modern structures, though none looked to have been built later than the Second World War. And crowning the knee of the slope at the back of the village was the new Catholic church, all gray marble and sparkling with that freshly-built look of a well cared-for place.
Sloane decided then that the bulk of the population of Penrose was Catholic. With a deep breath of unpolluted sea air to lift her spirits, she strolled casually into the pub. She took an empty stool at the bar and looked around the dimly lit interior for anyone who might look remotely like Tommy's description of Elizabeth Murdoch, the caretaker of Stafford Cottage. After a few minutes of speculating she gave up when the bartender asked her what she'd have.
"I'm looking for Elizabeth Murdoch," she answered automatically. "She's supposed to meet--"
"Lizzie!" the man bellowed across the noisy room.
Sloane flinched at the volume so close to her ear, and hastily recovered her feet.
"Aye, Michael!" came a lusty shout in reply from the back corner. A tall woman with straight, shoulder-length sandy brown hair cut through the crowd, cigarette in one hand and a glass of mead in the other. She sidled up to the redhead with a quick nod of greeting. "Tommy said ye'd be comin' an' here ye are," she said brightly. "An' all jet-lagged oot, ye must be. D'ye want to git a swallow afore we catch the ferry?"
Sloane loved the husky sound of the woman's voice and the thick burr of her Glasgow accent, and couldn't stop the big smile sliding across her lips as she listened. "I'm fine, thanks, Ms. Murdoch," she answered warmly.
The Scotswoman flipped a hand negligently at her, dropping a small column of ash at her feet. "Och, noo, don't ye be callin' me sae formal. I'm Liz tae ye, an' that's that, lass. Come along, then an' I'll git ye stowed awa' nice an' proper. Yer bed's awaitin' on yonder isle."
Sloane fell into step behind the woman, who led her out the door without relinquishing her glass and headed unerringly for the rental car without a word from the visitor about which car was hers. She watched as Liz installed herself in the passenger seat without spilling a drop and directed her to drive down the street toward the docks beyond. She also noted that the Scot didn't use her seat belt, and guessed that it wasn't as much of a concern in this rural community as it was back home.
That thought brought a tempest of emotions to the fore in her soul. She had managed to collect the majority of her personal things from the house while Maverick was out, but there were others that they had collected together that would have to be divided later. And she had not been spared the fallout from the relationship's sudden demise as she had hoped, for left conspicuously out in the open on the bed at the house they'd shared was a tabloid with a publicity shot from the new film she'd just finished featuring her and Tommy in a clinch, with a pasted-in photo of Tommy's wife of 30 years looking on, and less than pleased.
Maverick had done that to her on purpose to hide his own guilt a little longer. She hadn't thought he was that vindictive. It would be a long time before she trusted another man with her heart.
With a heavy sigh Sloane drove up to the pier and parked, handing the keys to Liz.
The Scot eyed them with a frown. "I'll hae tae find ye someone tae drive it back for ye, as I dinna drive mysel'," she explained. "Michael, my husband, could, but the pub takes all his time, ye ken."
"Oh, that's fine," said Sloane. "Oops, there's more of my stuff in the trunk. I forgot."
The two women unloaded the pile of bags and huge suitcases from the rented Mini and loaded them onto a spacious flat-bottomed ferry big enough to hold a whole car. It might have been easier to take the car over, but Sloane found the thought of riding on that swaying deck with a car unsettling, and she didn't want to leave Liz the responsibility of getting it back ashore. And she reasoned the exercise of moving all that baggage would be good for her.
The water was choppy on the way across the channel and Sloane felt a little queasy by the time they made land. They unloaded everything onto a small cart that sat awaiting them on the quay, and the two women shared the wide crossbar topping the long tongue like a pair of dray horses all the way up the slope to the blue stone house settled at the foot of the hill ringing the island's stony beach. The house was beautiful, right out of a storybook, topped with a thick brown thatch roof and sporting a chimney at the back.
All around the front were bright summer blooms, growing wherever there was space enough for soil among the broad rocky planes, and the plaster around the diamond-paned windows had been freshly whitewashed. The little house was a charming place, quite obviously well kept and treated with love.
Inside was just as cozy, with the evergreen smell of the outdoors testament to a recent airing, and the presence of fresh cut flowers to her expected arrival. There was even a newspaper on the foyer table. It already felt like home.
They carried the suitcases into the living room, and Liz gave Sloane a quick tour of the house, making sure the American knew where to find all the sundries and showing off the well-stocked larder.
"Ye do cook, don't ye, lass?" Liz asked with a straightforward gaze.
"Love to," Sloane grinned. "I'll probably get fat while I'm here."
Liz nodded in approval. "All right, then. Now to our schedule." She looked out the kitchen window at the encroaching mist. "I'll come tae check on ye of a mornin' unless ye'd like me tae come less often. If weather's bad, I'll ring ye up an' ye'll be on yer own, unless ye needs a doctor. An' I'll warn ye, most days there's fog roundabout Mystic Island, an' if it's down tae the water, we canna get through. This place was made for solitude."
"Well, that's what I've come for, Liz," Sloane admitted shyly. She knew Tommy had informed Liz of her arrival, but on her own request he had not used her real name, just in case. "And please call me Kate." For expediency's sake, she gave the diminutive of her middle name that her grandfather had called her, since he had disapproved of her manly-sounding first name.
"Kate? Ye dinna look like a Kate," observed Liz shrewdly.
Sloane didn't know if the Scot was fishing or just making a statement, but she had to agree. "It's short for Caitlin, actually."
Liz smiled and gave a soft, throaty chuckle. "A good Gaelic name, lass. I'll call ye that."
With another nod, she promptly exited the house and made her way back to the quay and the ferry she had piloted across.
Sloane breathed a sigh of relief. As much as she thought she would probably like the woman once she got to know her, she was still glad to be alone at last. Without further ado, she sought out the closest bed and climbed in, clothes and all. * * * *
There were lights on in the house below.
For ages he had seen no one on the island except the sandy-haired woman puttering about the cottage during the day. That was her job, as it had been her family's job for generations, and she was good at it. The place was ever in a state of readiness, and that pleased him. It showed that she cared, and Mystic Island held his heart like a prison.
She had even seen him looking at her twice from a window in the keep, but in that imperturbable Scottish way, she had simply turned back to the task at hand as though nothing was amiss. She even came into the castle once a month to dust, and announced herself to him upon entering, asking his permission to clean before she started. After a moment's silence, she would always give her customary quick nod, and get to work.
But now there was someone else to watch for, and by the look of all the baggage she brought with her she meant to stay a while. As long as she kept away from the castle, that was well enough with him. If she was the curious type, then a proper haunting might be in order to make her keep a respectful distance.
He watched the lights in the cottage move from room to room as the woman wandered through the place, and wondered why she had come, and who she was.