Many Years Earlier
McMillan Castle, 17th Century Scotland
The clash of something heavy behind him caused Niall McMillan to spin towards the sound. For the third time this week, Osla’s self-portrait had fallen from its place on the wall. It made no sense. He’d ensured it was properly secured only two days ago. And yet, once again, the portrait had nearly landed on his head. Had it fallen one second earlier, or had his steps been one step slower, it would have. Frowning, Niall bent and lifted the portrait until Osla’s inky eyes were level with his own.
Not much scared Niall—he was the true monster to be feared within the castle—but as he stared into the inky eyes of his late sister-in-law, a shiver spread its way down his spine.
The portrait made him uneasy. It always had. From the moment Osla had commissioned the artwork, he’d objected to Baodan hanging it in the great hall. Not that the decision had been his to make. His brother was Laird of McMillan Castle. At least for now.
He continued to stare into Osla’s eyes as he willed the sense of unease inside him to go away. He hated looking at her. The likeness to her was unsettling, the way her eyes seemed to track him as he walked was almost supernatural. Not that he believed in any such nonsense. Flesh and blood, here and now, that was all there really was. Once dead, you were simply gone. Forever.
Still, ever since Osla’s death, he wasn’t the only one who found objection with the painting. On more than one occasion, he’d overheard servants whispering of how they didn’t wish to be in the great hall alone. One of the cooks swore she’d seen the picture blink. And even their mother had told him in private that Osla’s portrait looked as if it ached to breathe, and if she stared at it long enough, she wondered if perhaps she would truly see Osla’s chest begin to rise and fall.
Breathe. Something Osla would never do again. Niall smiled as he thought back to the night the first part of his plan had been executed with such glorious perfection. The poison had worked so much better than he’d ever imagined it would. And the weight she’d lost during her sickness had made it easy for him to slide her out of the bedroom window once he’d wrapped the noose around the foolish woman’s neck.
Thinking of Osla’s death calmed him. The woman was dead. And with it, her secrets. This portrait could do him no harm now, even if it seemed determined to fly off its place on the wall with unsettling regularity.
Even so, perhaps it was better to rid all of them of its dreadful presence. Baodan didn’t need the daily reminder of Osla’s miserable face staring down at him. His brother was already gloomy enough since his wife’s death. If Baodan asked where the portrait had gone, he would simply blame it on a servant—perhaps the one who’d dodged his advances the other day in the hallway outside his bedchamber. He didn’t want that bitch around anymore either.
Two birds, one stone, as they say.
Smiling, his unease faded as he tucked the portrait beneath his arm and headed for the stables. He would go out for a long ride and give it to the first vagabond he happened upon once outside his brother’s territory. Perhaps the wretch lucky enough to cross Niall’s path could catch a price for the portrait, and the money received from it could see the poor man fed for at least a few moons.
It was a good thing he was doing, really. A generous thing. Sometimes it was good to do something entirely out of character.
MacMillan Castle, 17th Century
Many Years Later – October
The sizzle of the stew bubbling out into the open fire it hung over caused me to jump as I stirred from my seat next to Henry’s bed. Once again, he’d persuaded me to tell him stories about my old life—my life before my daughter Rosie and I abandoned life in the twenty-first century for a much more difficult, and much colder life, in the seventeenth century. Shivering, something I was quite certain I hadn’t stopped doing since we arrived in this godforsaken century, I stood from my seat and reached for a heavy cloth so I could remove the old man’s dinner from the fire.
A long-time servant of McMillan Castle, Henry knew all about the magic that had brought so many to this time and castle. After several years of confusion and questions, Baodan McMillan, laird of my new home, had decided that it would be easier for everyone if all those who worked for the McMillans knew the truth of the magic and time travel that seemed to be the heartbeat of his home. Sworn to secrecy, and with the threat of magic over them if they ever did let the castle’s secrets escape, no such slip-up had ever happened.
The steam rising from the pot warmed me slightly as I stirred it so it would cool down quickly enough for me to give some to Henry before I had to leave. Serving as a sort of home health nurse for Henry since his stroke was vastly different from the high-paced, non-stop work I’d been accustomed to at the Chicago hospital, but it had kept me busy enough for the past two months that I was now too tired when I crawled into bed at the end of the night to lie awake for hours and wonder if I’d ruined my daughter’s life by uprooting her and bringing her here.
“Why doona ye go back, lass?”
I paused my stirring and looked through the steam toward the old man. “Why do you ask that?”
Deciding that the stew would have to just sit for a bit before serving, I walked over to the fire, poked at it a bit, and pulled Henry’s sitting chair close to it before waving him over as he answered me.
“You’re nae less miserable today than ye were when ye first came to help me two moons ago. Why did ye come here if ye enjoyed yer life in yer own time, so much?”
The damage from the stroke made Henry’s words slow and difficult to understand, but after so many days with him, I’d learned how to decipher most of what he said to me.
It was easy for me to make life in my own time seem lovely when I regaled Henry with stories of running hot water and food delivery services, but the truth was, I’d been just as miserable there. Besides, we couldn’t go back. There was nothing left for us in twenty-first century Scotland, and Chicago held too many terrible memories for us to ever have a home there again, either.
“Do I behave miserably around you, Henry?”
He shook his head as he worked his way over toward me with his cane. “Nae, but that doesna mean that ye are happy, lass. I can see how much it takes of ye to appear so.”
I sighed. “Just because miserable is my normal, doesn’t mean that everyone else should have to feel as I do when they’re around me. Faking it is my only option. I used to think that one day the faking happy would stick, but I’ve since given up on that dream.”
It was a horrible thing to admit, but it was true. Some part of my brain could vaguely remember a different version of me existing—a lighter, happier, less perpetually moody Madeline—but I was quite certain that girl had died along with Tim. The grief I’d once felt for him wasn’t quite the same. I could now think of my late husband without my chest bearing down on me with such pain I thought I might die, but the person I’d been with him had yet to return, even all these years later.
The old man stared at me hard as I helped to lower him into his seat. “Pretending that much for that long will kill ye, Madeline.”
“It hasn’t yet.” I smiled at him as he patted my hand in dismissal of the conversation before turning to return toward his dinner. The sun was already setting, and I couldn’t stay with him as long today as I usually did.
“Yet is the word ye might should pay more mind to, lass.”
With my back still toward him as I ladled his dinner into a wooden bowl, I responded. “I think you’re overestimating my acting skills, Henry. I’m polite, but I don’t think anyone would describe me as happy.”
“Mayhap so. I doona wish to upset ye. Bring me my dinner, and tell me about something else that will make me envious that I wasna born in yer time.”
Happy to move away from the current conversation, I reached for his spoon and smiled as I faced him. “I promise you I will tell you more stories tomorrow, but tonight I must leave a little early. Tomorrow is Rosie’s birthday, and I have an important role to play in a surprise we have planned for her.”
I still wasn’t entirely sure what the surprise was. Cooper had been incredibly tight-lipped about it to me, but I left that part out of my explanation to Henry.
Henry smiled and nodded in understanding. He adored Rosie. At least twice a week she would come with me when I came to check in on him, and every time she came and I watched him interact with her, it made me ache for him that he didn’t have any grandchildren of his own. The old man would’ve been so good with them.
“Ach, o’course ye must. How old is the wee lass?”
Just thinking of her being a teenager now made me ache inside. “She’s not so wee anymore. She’s thirteen today.”
“Thirteen! Why, I married me Agatha when she was but thirteen.”
I shuddered at the horrifying thought. “Rosie won’t be getting married for another twenty years if I have anything to say about it.”
Henry laughed and reached for his dinner. “Alas, it is unlikely that ye will have much to say about it after a few more years. Best enjoy this time with her while ye can.”
Dread settled in my stomach as the truth I knew was spoken aloud. It seemed like yesterday that I was bouncing her on my hip as she giggled and latched onto my hair before snuggling into my neck. I could still smell the sweet little baby smell of her if I closed my eyes and thought of it. How had time gone by so quickly?
At least the only young little gentleman currently determined to win over Rosie’s heart was three years her junior. I still had quite some time before I had to worry about Rosie’s heart being entirely broken.
Cooper stared down at his plans for Rosie’s surprise as anxiety built inside him. There was too much to do and far too little time in which to do it. He needed this to happen for her tonight. Rosie needed one good thing that was just hers. He knew how she tried to hide it from him—Rosie was good at keeping her feelings hidden—but Cooper could see just how difficult the move here had been for her.
He jumped at the sound of a knock on his bedroom door, quickly sliding his carefully drawn plans out of sight just in case it was Rosie.
“Come in.” He smiled as Rosie’s mother slipped into the room and closed the door behind her. “Hello, Ms. Madeline.”
She shook her head at him as she smiled. “Cooper, I’ve told you a hundred times. You don’t have to call me ‘Ms.’ Just call me Madeline.”
The young boy shrugged and shook his head. “Sorry, Ms. Madeline. It just doesn’t sound right without the Ms. at the beginning of it. What’s up?”
Cooper watched as Madeline lowered herself to the ground and sat cross-legged across from him.
“What’s up is that it’s time for you to spill the beans. If I’m going to keep Rosie distracted for the next handful of hours, I need to know what the surprise is.”
Cooper sighed and reached for the drawing underneath the edge of his bed.
“Alright, I suppose it’s time. But you promise you won’t tell her, right?”
She held out her pinkie towards him. “Of course, I promise. I don’t want to ruin the surprise for her.”
Cooper took her pinkie as they swore secrecy then handed her the drawing.
“We are going to turn the old tower into a bedroom and study that’s just for Rosie!”
The young boy’s voice lifted with excitement as he smiled with pride at his idea. He did his best not to feel crestfallen when Madeline frowned at him.
“Oh, Cooper. There’s no way I can let you do that. The tower was supposed to be your room. I heard E-o and your mother talking about it just a few weeks ago. You’re getting older, and you’ve shared a room with your younger siblings for far too long. I know you’ve been looking forward to having your own space.”
Relieved that worry over his own disappointment was Madeline’s only reservation, Cooper smiled again and plunged ahead. “You’re right. That was the plan, but I don’t want that room. Truly, I don’t. Besides, it only seems right to me that the oldest kid in the castle should have their own room, and now that’s Rosie. She’s a part of the McMillan clan now. She needs to feel like it. I know I need my own space too, but I get that all the time. Since I wake up so early, I usually have several hours a day where the entire castle is all mine. I’ll be fine sharing with my siblings. Will you please just look at my plan and tell me if you think she will like it or not?”
Cooper extended the piece of paper toward her until she took it from him. He sat nervously as she stared down at his work until she smiled.
“What’s this space here?”
Cooper leaned over to see her pointing at the bookcase his dad had been working on for the past two weeks.
“I’m calling it ‘Rosie’s Reading Corner.’ I’ve had Harper busy gathering up a whole bunch of spooky books since I know that those are Rosie’s favorite, and Dad went through just yesterday to pick them up. We’re going to fill the bookcase with all sorts of things for Rosie to read, and Dad even built a cushioned seat that will sit up in the tower window so she can read in the sunshine or moonlight.”
He said nothing, but Cooper frowned as Madeline reached over and tousled his curls. He knew people meant well, but he hated when people touched the top of his head. It made him feel like such a little child. He was in the double digits now—well on his way to adulthood.
“Coop, you truly are the sweetest boy that’s ever lived. Rosie is going to love this. Are you going to be able to get it all done tonight?”
“Aye, we will.”
Cooper and Madeline both turned toward the sound of E-o’s voice in the doorway. Relief washed over Cooper at the sight of his stepdad. If E-o said there was time, Cooper had no doubt they would be able to get it done.
“Baodan, Grace, Mitsy, yer da and Kathleen, all are at the ready to help. All the furniture yer da has been working so hard on is lined up and ready to be carried up from our secret location. As soon as Madeline has Rosie tucked away for the evening, we are ready to begin.”
Cooper jumped up from the floor and offered Madeline his hand. “Are you ready, Ms. Madeline? I’m so excited I can hardly stand it.”
She smiled at him, and Cooper thought it was the happiest he’d ever seen Rosie’s mom look.
“Yes, I’m ready. I’ll make certain to keep her busy until you all are ready to show her.”
Madeline took his hand, pulled herself up, then pulled him into a hug. “Thank you, Cooper. I can’t wait to see Rosie’s face.”
He couldn’t either. Her face was always his most favorite thing to look at. If she were truly happy about this, he couldn’t even begin to imagine how completely radiant she would look then.
* * *
Cooper had never worked so hard in his entire life. Even with a handful of strong adults helping him, transforming E-o’s old tower into a bedroom fit for Rosie was a tough job.
But now, with a few hours to spare, it was finished. Rosie would officially be able to wake up on her thirteenth birthday in her very own room.
It was the greatest accomplishment of his life.
He looked up in the direction of the hand that suddenly gave his shoulder a gentle squeeze. His father was smiling down at him.
“You’ve done good, kid. I think this is just the thing Rosie needs to change her perspective about being here in this time. I know it’s been an adjustment for her. This will surely help. It’s perfect, Cooper.”
He smiled, unsure if he’d ever been as happy as he was right now.
“It is, isn’t it? It’s the most perfect thing I’ve ever seen. Now, let’s go get her so we can finally all go to bed. It’s way past my bedtime.”
* * *
For the first few hours, keeping Rosie distracted had been no problem. After gathering some dinner from the kitchen, spreading a blanket on the floor of our shared bedchamber, we’d been happy to have an indoor picnic, play some board games we’d brought with us from our own time, and visit. But as the evening hours crept past the time they usually went to bed, Rosie grew suspicious.
“What is going on, Mom? I do not understand why you’re not letting me go to sleep. Usually you’re insisting I do just that.”
I scrambled for some sort of a plausible answer. I really should’ve put more thought into how I would keep her away from the hustle and bustle going on outside of our room without ruining the surprise.
“There’s something special supposed to happen with the moon tonight. I really wanted you to see it. Let’s just stay up for a little while longer. One more game?”
She frowned at me and crossed her arms. God, she looked just like her father.
“How in the world do you know about seventeenth century astronomy stuff?”
“I…” I fumbled and knew I’d officially screwed up. “I don’t. Umm…Baodan told me.”
She shook her head and pushed herself up from the floor. “Nope. Baodan didn’t tell you anything. What is going on? Why is there so much noise going on outside? I’m going to go…”
The door to our room flew open, interrupting her speech. Cooper stood in the doorway, beaming with pride.
“It’s ready. Come on, Rosie. We have a surprise for you.”
As per usual, Rosie was suspicious of just about any scheme Cooper came up with. Despite the fact that she usually ended up enjoying whatever the young boy planned for them, Rosie was determined to resist the friendship.
She crossed her arms once again and furrowed her brows at him. “What sort of surprise. It’s too late for surprises.”
Cooper reached for her arm, pulling on it, until she uncrossed her arms as he began to tug her from the room. “It’s not too late for this surprise. Come on. Come on.”
I smiled as I followed them, laughing as Cooper determinedly dragged my daughter along behind him.
When we finally reached the staircase to the attic, Rosie stopped short. “I have absolutely no desire to see what is up there.”
Cooper let loose of his grip on her arm and stepped up two steps before facing her so that they stood at eye level.
“Tough. You’re going to see what’s up there if I have to throw you over my shoulder and carry you up there myself.”
I had to swallow hard to keep from laughing. Rosie was twice Cooper’s size. There was no way he could carry her, but the seriousness of his tone was enough to keep Rosie from giving him any more hassle. Without another word, she followed him up to the tower room.
When I reached the doorway and looked inside, my eyes filled with tears, and although I couldn’t see my daughter’s face, I was almost certain hers were doing the same.
The room was perfect. Large and creepy—Rosie would adore it. And the thought put in to each and every space blew my mind.
“Is this…is this for me, Cooper?”
I stepped around her, needing to see her face. Looking at her wide eyes and flushed face made me start blubbering.
Cooper nodded and smiled. “Yes. You’re going to be thirteen tomorrow. I thought you should wake up on your birthday in your very own room.”
Silently, she threw her arms around him and hugged him tight—something I’d never seen her do before.
“Thank you, Cooper. This is the nicest thing anyone has ever done for me.”
When she released him, Cooper’s cheeks were as red as Rosie’s hair.
“So, you like it?”
“I love it.”
Cooper yawned, and his yawn quickly spread to everyone else in the room.
“Good. That’s all I wanted. Now, let’s go to bed. Happy Birthday, Rosie.”
One by one we filed out of Rosie’s new room. After everyone was gone, I lingered just past the doorway to watch her. Unaware that I could see her, Rosie smiled and began to spin around the room in delight.
I cried happy tears all the way back to what was now my own private room.
Perhaps moving here hadn’t completely ruined my daughter’s life. If I could find solace in nothing else, at least there was that.
For exactly three nights he’d been the reluctant owner of some strange woman’s portrait, and for exactly three nights he’d woken in the middle of the night, drenched in sweat after the most horrid and repetitive dream. Duncan never dreamed, and yet ever since welcoming the portrait into his home, he couldn’t seem to escape the onslaught of horrible visions that found him each night as he slept.
After lying sleeplessly for the latter half of the night, Duncan finally rose from his bed, moving to light a fire for warmth as he spoke to the stray village tabby cat that he allowed into his home each night so that she wouldn’t freeze. He called her Tabitha. He wasn’t sure if anyone else in the village had taken to her enough to give her a name. She ran wild during the daytime, but for some strange reason, after years of doing exactly as she pleased, Tabitha had fallen into the habit of coming to Duncan’s home each evening, happy to seek the warmth of four walls and the comfort of someone’s company during the night’s darkest hours. Did that make Tabitha his? No, he thought to himself. He had no need of anything that required him, relied on him. He could barely take care of himself. Still, he couldn’t deny that any night that Tabitha was a little late in her arrival, part of him began to worry dreadfully for her.
“What do ye say, Tabitha? Am I losing me mind, or is there something wrong with this here painting?” He pointed at the portrait for good measure as the fire he stoked began to roar. Tabitha—bless her—turned her head in the direction he pointed and meowed in appeasement.
He chuckled and nodded. “Aye, ye are right. Mayhap I am losing me mind. I’m speaking to ye as if I expect ye to answer me back. Though the lad did seem in quite a hurry to be rid of this here lady, dinna he?”
It was no wonder that he’d made less from his work this year than any year prior. How did he expect to make what he needed to, when he accepted gifts rather than currency for work?
He continued speaking to Tabitha, even as the cat turned away from him, no longer interested in the conversation.
“Either way, whether it be the painting or me own mind, I doona think I can keep her in the house another night.”
The fire crackled beside him, and for a moment he had the mind to walk across the room, pick up the portrait and throw it into the flames, but as he stared into the eyes of the woman within, something stopped him short.
Duncan wasn’t a believer in the supernatural. Unlike many in Scotland, he didn’t fear that he might one day wander into the land of the faeries, and he didn’t feel the need to stay indoors during a full moon. But if anything could change his mind, he was certain it would be the portrait that hung just a few paces from him. It filled his entire room with a sense of unease he didn’t care for.
“What do ye say, Tabitha? Do ye wish to follow me to me mother’s house? Ye ken she ’tis likely to have fresh milk that she will spoil ye with.”
His mother was the village oddity. Happily widowed for decades, if not for the protection their laird provided her, Duncan was certain she would’ve been burned as a witch years ago. She wasn’t a witch, at least not that Duncan knew of. But she did have an unusual proclivity for all things occult. Perhaps she could give him some idea of what to do with the dreadful painting and how to find some restful sleep once again.
Dressing quickly, Duncan reached for the portrait before opening the door to the cold October air. As expected, Tabitha shot out of his home with such speed that he knew there was no chance of her following him over to his mother’s like some docile, obedient dog. It would be evening before he saw the wee beastie again.
It was just as well. He understood Tabitha’s wildness, and he had no desire to change it. No one had ever been able to tame him, either.
It was early still. Although most of the village still slept, he knew his mother would be awake, most likely sewing by her fire.
He knocked gently on her door before opening it as he called out to her. “Do ye ever sleep past the rising of the sun?”
His mother twisted in her chair and frowned at him. “Why ever would I do that, lad? At my age, I doona have time to waste sleeping. I doona wish to miss a moment of whatever time I have left snoring it away.”
He smiled at her and pulled up another chair near the fire before returning back to the front door of her home to pick up the portrait he’d set just inside upon entering.
“Some would say that sleep might see ye live longer.”
“Some say a fair manner of nonsense, Duncan. Ye most of all. Now, why are ye here so early? Ye have never had any trouble sleeping past the rising of the sun, as ye say, and what did ye bring in here with ye?”
Carrying the portrait over to her, he sat down across from his mother and set the bottom edge of the portrait’s frame on the floor so that his mother could see it.
“I think this lassie may be haunting me.”
“Haunting ye? Ye doona believe in ghosts.”
“I doona. But each night since she came into me possession, I have had the most terrible dreams of the woman portrayed in the painting.”
“Ye never dream.”
“Aye. I ken.”
His mother sighed and leaned back in her chair. “Just how did ye come into possession of this portrait? And what precisely, are ye dreaming?”
“Old man Travis gave it to me in exchange for some stonework I did for him. He dinna tell me until the job was done that he dinna have the means to pay me. And I dinna notice at the time just how eager he seemed to be rid of this lassie. And as for the dreams, ’tis the same dream each night. I dream that I am sleeping, but the sound of something rattling startles me awake. I wake to the fire in me home raging and this here portrait rattling furiously against the wall. When I rise from the bed and approach her, I can see tears streaming down her face. When I reach for her, her mouth opens and the wretched lass screams violently at me. Then I awake covered in sweat despite the chill in the air all around me.”
The expression on his mother’s face was stern. Pushing her feet into the ground, Duncan watched as she scooted a little further away from him.
“And ye thought it a grand idea to bring this horrible item into me home then, did ye?”
Duncan chuckled. “I willna leave her here with ye. I wish to ken if ye have any suggestions for what I might do with her. I must have a peaceful night’s sleep, or I fear I truly shall lose me mind.”
“Lift it in front of me so that I might look at her more closely.”
Standing, Duncan did as instructed and held the picture high enough so that the strange woman’s eyes were level with his mother’s.
He watched as she stared at it for a long while. Eventually, after studying it, she reached out and brushed her finger across the signature at the bottom, before pulling back to look at her own finger.
“Ye may set it down now, lad. The portrait is signed in someone’s blood. I would wager her own. If the woman in the painting is dead, her soul may be trapped within it. Best ye return her home and find out. The poor lass is far from home. She is unlikely to find any peace here.”
Duncan swallowed hard as he lowered the portrait to the floor.
“Ye canna be in earnest, aye? Such a thing couldna trap a soul.”
She nodded firmly. “Aye. It can, and I believe it has. Ye should wrap her up and leave at once.”
“And where precisely am I to go with her? How do ye ken where her home is?”
His mother pointed to the bloody signature. “Osla McMillan. Ye must go to McMillan territory.”
McMillan territory was at least a four day’s ride from their own. With weather as cold as it was now, it might take him even longer.
Before he could utter a word, his mother spoke up again. “Doona worry, son. I shall let Tabitha into yer house each night and let her out each morning. Ye do ken that ye are the owner of a cat now, aye?”
He shook his head as he stood and reached for the portrait. “I ken no such thing.”
His mother laughed as he walked toward the door once again.
“It doesna truly matter whether ye ken it or not. ’Tis true enough. Safe travels, son. See this lassie safely home. Help her find some peace. Then ye shall sleep soundly again, I’m certain.”