Jenny Ryan is a ghost writer. She has written the autobiographies of many famous people but when she has the opportunity to work with Sholto MacNab, adventurer & explorer, she’s intrigued. Sholto has specified a male writer but Jenny’s pen name is J J Ryan so he & his sons, Alec & Fergus, weren’t expecting Jenny when she arrives for the interview. Jenny is fascinated by the castle, by its dilapidated state, by the family motto, “Let fear be far from all”, & by the legends that surround the family. Sholto’s motive for publishing his memoir is to make some money. The estate is in dire need of cash & Jenny convinces him that she’s the right person to help him do that. She agrees to stay at the castle while they work & soon becomes involved with the family & their future.
Jenny is drawn to Alec, a quiet man who runs an armoury business from the castle that brings in much-needed income. Fergus runs the estate but lack of money is hampering his ideas for the future. Then there’s the curse that hangs over the heads of all the MacNab men. The faithless wife of an MacNab laird was murdered by her husband with the Cauldstane claymore, a massive sword that still hangs in the Great Hall. Her mother was a witch & she cursed the family by declaring that no MacNab wife would live long or bear children if they were not of the MacNab blood. She was condemned as a witch & drowned in the river near a rock called the Blood Stone because of its colouring. Legend says the curse was written on that stone. This curse has blighted the lives of the family ever since. Alec’s wife, Coral, had died young, drowned in that same river. Whether it was an accident or suicide is unclear. Fergus had just proposed to his girlfriend but she refused him after she heard of the curse & became frightened. The family is divided over the future of the estate. Should they sell up or work towards some of the ideas that Fergus & Zelda are keen to try to give Cauldstane a future?
Sholto’s first wife, Liz, had died in a fall from her horse when Alec & Fergus were very young & his second choice, singer Meredith Fitzgerald, had been a mistake. She’d been Sholto’s mistress, one of many, while he was married to Liz, & convinced him to marry her after Liz’s death. Meredith was expecting wealth & luxury but Sholto’s fame & his ownership of Cauldstane didn’t translate to money & soon they were living separate lives. Another faithless wife of a MacNab, Meredith was killed in a car accident after a drunken argument with Alec on his wedding day. Sholto’s sister, Zelda, returned to the castle after divorcing her husband & helped to run the house with help from Wilma Guthrie, who has worked for the family since the boys were small.
As Jenny’s affection for Sholto & attraction to Alec increases, she becomes determined to break the spell of misery, grief & fear surrounding the MacNabs. However she has not only the legend to conquer but a more tangible threat to overcome. She hears harpsichord music. Messages begin appearing among her notes on her laptop, evil messages filled with jealousy & hatred. Alec knows who the writer is & he’s determined that Jenny should leave the castle for her own safety. Jenny realises that she now has to fight not only the legends of the past & Alec’s fears but face her own insecurities & the secrets of her past. As Alec withdraws & becomes more distant, Jenny’s determination to save the castle & the family increases. Her investigations reveal secrets that will shock the MacNabs but may also set them free.
Cauldstane is a terrific story, a Gothic mystery set in a haunted & cursed Scottish castle. As I read, I was reminded of many of my favourite books, from the romances of Victoria Holt to Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca with echoes of Shakespeare & Elizabeth Gaskell as well. All the characters are beautifully drawn, from Alec, whose life has been burdened by guilt to Sholto, the aging adventurer who is troubled by the consequences of the reckless behaviour of his past & worried about the future of his sons & the estate. Jenny has secrets of her own which are only gradually revealed but she’s an undaunted heroine whose love for Alec will give her the strength to fight the evil force threatening the family & her own happiness.
I hope I haven’t made the story sound too gloomy as there’s a lot of humour as well. Sholto’s glee in describing his near-death experiences in the Arctic gives us a glimpse of the dashing adventurer he’d once been until ill-health & regrets about his behaviour to Liz consumed him. As always, Linda Gillard describes the natural world beautifully. The castle is a character in its own right, as evocative as Manderley & a perfect setting for this Gothic tale of love & the struggle between good & evil.
I was lucky enough to be sent a pre-publication copy of Cauldstane by the author.
Cauldstane is available as a Kindle ebook from Amazon & will be published in paperback soon.