‘That could take us into a whole new interesting arena if I were deliberately to misconstrue that question.’ He grinned. ‘Want to ask me again? But perhaps this time with a little less provocative passion?’
A SHAFT OF SUNLIGHT beamed in from a small side casement window and created a pool of light in the middle of the floor. It lit up the muted reds and golds of an old faded Persian carpet that had been unfolded there a long time ago—possibly even before Keir had been born. Round the edges of that eye-catching pool of light were some of the now superfluous remnants of his family’s past.
In one corner were a pair of discarded Tiffany lamps that had once resided in his father’s study—the— study that now belonged to Keir—and next to them an old oak dresser-cum china cabinet, long empty of any fine display of porcelain and pottery, and— now home to a generous coating of dust.
Piled around the room in general haphazard fashion were myriad cardboard boxes, splitting at the seams with books and ornaments and trinkets, and possibly somewhere in amongst all that the beloved chess set that his mother had surprisingly presented to him one Christmas when his father had been away on business. It was a gift that had often been utilised as a means of escape and distraction from James Strachan’s sour temper, and its home had nearly always been this attic.
Robbie and Keir would steal away up here as often as they could, to shut the door on their parents’ terrible— rows, and locked in the strategy of the game would briefly escape the trauma that seemed to underline their childhood. After their mother had died there’d been no more refuge in the attic to play chess.
Both boys had gone to a local public school, as their father had done before them, but they hadn’t been allowed to board like most of the other pupils. If they had, Keir sometimes wondered if the bleak-ness— of his home life wouldn’t have scarred him quite as badly—but James had seemed to take particular delight in demanding that his sons came home at the end of each school day, just so that he could remain in rigid control of every aspect of their lives and plague them further with his meanness and ill temper.
Made to do various jobs round the house as well as work on the estate, they’d also regularly had to listen to his various rants and small-minded preju-dices— over the political situation, or his belligerent belief that ‘people just don’t know their place these days,’ and that they should show the gentry more respect. When Keir had invariably started to disagree with his point of view and dared to express his own his father had demonstrated his fury with his fists…
Feeling slightly nauseous at the relentless tide of unwanted memories that washed over him—each one like a stinging cut that had never healed—Keir moved with trepidation into the room and acciden-tally— trod on something hard underfoot. Looking down to see what it was, he picked up a once lovingly painted miniature replica of a nineteenth-century Scottish soldier. For a few moments he scarcely breathed. Then, his palm curling tightly round the small toy, so that the metal edges dug painfully into his flesh, tears stabbed the backs of his eyes like dagger points.
‘Robbie…’ he murmured fiercely, a thick, merciless— ache inside his throat. ‘I’m sorry, Robbie…I’m so sorry…’
‘Georgia!Are you bringing that coffee?’ Keir bellowed.
Turning towards the thickly carpeted staircase, with— its almost Gothic carved figures on the newels, Georgia was careful to balance the silver tray she carried as she ascended the stairs. As she went, she took a deep breath in and scowled.
‘I wonder whatever happened to good old-fash-ioned— manners?’ she grumbled.
Even after the little talk they’d had earlier, her boss had been like a wounded bear all morning, and his mood was showing no sign of improving any time soon. Just as she reached the landing and approached— the study door, she saw Keir’s tall, broadshouldered— figure impatiently pacing the floor. His dark straight hair, sticking out a little at odd angles, attested— to the fact that it had taken the brunt of his impatience. Immediately honing in on her presence, he— didn’t trouble to conceal his irritation.
‘For God’s sake, don’t hover! Just come inside, will— you?’ he commanded.
Just about holding onto her own temper at his belligerent mood, Georgia reluctantly crossed the threshold into the study.
‘If you remember to say please, I will,’ she retorted smartly.
Her glance colliding with his steely blue glare, Georgia’s heart bumped indignantly as she carried out his request, her jaw set mutinously to show her displeasure.
So much for restoring some peace to their working morning! The half an hour’s breather Keir had taken earlier to—in his own words—‘get his head straight’ clearly— hadn’t done much good. Maybe she should suggest he spend some more time on his own?
‘I can take the letters into the library and do them there, if you need some privacy for a while?’ she offered, thinking that that would probably be the best arrangement. There was a spare computer all set up in there, and it wouldn’t be a chore.
She loved the lofty elegant room, with its studious yet inviting ambience, and it was filled to the rafters with books of all kinds. The shelves that contained them were made from oak inlaid with maple, Moira had told her, and some of the books had been in Keir’s family for centuries. With its worn but lovely carpets and its big overstuffed sofas and chairs it was a room to sit and dream in, or while away a rainy day in unashamed comfort.
But Georgia saw the flicker of a dissenting muscle in Keir’s chiselled cheek and knew that her helpful suggestion had gone down like a lead balloon.
‘There’s no need for you to go anywhere else. This is where I work, and this is where I expect my secretary to work!’
Standing next to her, he slammed his hand down onto the desk to emphasise his point. The sudden violent movement dislodged the tray Georgia had just placed there, and as he reached out to try and stop it from crashing to the floor the full-to-the-brim silver coffee-pot toppled over, splashing its scalding contents all over his wrist.
Georgia acted immediately.
‘Let’s get you to a bathroom. We’ll go to the one across the hall.’ Already with her hand at his back, she— started to push him towards the door.
‘I don’t bloody believe this!’ he muttered furiously.
Examining his shocked face, Georgia led him into the marble-tiled bathroom and hurriedly turned the cold tap full on. As the water gushed out from the faucet she held his arm beneath it, watching it soak into the coffee stained sleeve covering his forearm. She wouldn’t be attempting to peel back the material until she was certain that no skin would come away with it.
‘We need to do this for at least ten minutes,’ she told him, her heart racing fast at what had happened. ‘Thank God the coffee wasn’t quite boiling hot…By the time I’d brought it from the kitchen and came up the stairs it would have cooled down considerably. I don’t think you’ll need to go to hospital, but it will probably sting like crazy for a few hours or more. Are you okay?’
Acting purely on impulse, she pushed back a lock of his midnight-dark hair. But seeing him flinch, she wondered if she had taken a liberty she shouldn’t have.
‘I’m fine.’ His breath exhaled on a ragged sigh, Keir turned to glance sideways at Georgia, a surprising— lift at one corner of his mouth. ‘I didn’t know you were a trained nurse in one of your previous incarnations,’ — he commented wryly.
‘I did some first-aid training with the St John’s Ambulance organisation. When you’re left to raise a fourteen-year old boy all on your own, you need to know some basic first-aid skills, let me tell you!’
‘Ouch!’ He blanched as Georgia gently moved his arm, to make sure the water was reaching the entire area where the coffee had been spilt. ‘I’m lucky that you were around and knew what to do,’ he— remarked.
It struck Keir then that he felt total confidence in Georgia’s healing skills. She was capable and firm when she needed to be, and yet exceedingly gentle too. As her calm voice washed over him and her soft skin inevitably came into contact with his, where she held his hand and guided his forearm beneath the splashing water, he was aware that even though he was in considerable pain he very much liked this sudden enforced closeness with Georgia.
Moira Guthrie put her head round the door just then, her flushed round face bearing rosy evidence that she’d rushed up the stairs.
‘What on earth has happened?’ she asked breath-lessly,— coming into the room. ‘I was in the hall and I heard you cry out. Oh, good gracious! Was it the hot coffee, lassie?’
As she saw that Georgia had clearly taken charge, and— knew what she was doing, some of the anxiety drained out of the housekeeper’s face.
‘It spilled across his wrist. Just a little longer,’ Georgia told Keir, when she saw him flinch again in pain. ‘Believe me this will help. Moira, do you think you could find me a clean, dry dressing? And if you wouldn’t mind going into my bedroom and getting my handbag? I’ve got some arnica in there, which is good for shock. We’ll wait here.’