At No Man's CommandBy: Melanie Milburne
AIESHA HAD BEEN at Lochbannon a week without a single whisper in the press about her whereabouts. But then, who would have thought of hunting her down in the Highlands of Scotland in the home of the woman whose marriage she had effectively destroyed ten years ago?
It was the perfect hideaway, and the fact that Louise Challender had been called away to visit a sick friend abroad meant Aiesha had had the place to herself for the last couple of days. And, being the dead of winter, there was not even a housekeeper or a gardener to disturb her idyll.
She closed her eyes and, tilting her head back, breathed in the ice in the air as fresh flakes of snow began to fall. The soft press of each snowflake was like a caress against her skin. After the traffic fumes and incessant noise and activity of Las Vegas, the cold, fresh, quiet Highland air was like breathing in an elixir, bringing her jaded senses back to zinging life.
Being up here on her own where no one could find her was like coming off a stage. Stepping out of a costume. Undressing the part of Vegas showgirl. She could feel it falling away from her like a heavy cloak. Up here she could take her game face off. The flirty vamp face. The face that told everyone she was perfectly happy singing in a gentlemen’s club because the tips were great and she had the days free to shop, hang out by the pool or get a spray tan.
Up here in the Highlands she could relax. Regroup. Get in touch with nature.
Revisit her dreams...
The only hiccup was the dog.
Aiesha could babysit cats, no problem. Cats were pretty easy to take care of. She just filled their dish with biscuits and cleaned out their litter tray, if they had one. She didn’t have to pat them or get close to them. Most cats were pretty aloof, which suited her just fine.
Dogs were different. Dogs wanted to get close to you. To bond with you. To love you.
To trust you to keep them safe.
Aiesha glanced down at the limpid brown eyes of the golden retriever sitting at her feet with slavish devotion, its tail brushing against the carpet of snow like a feathered fan.
The memory of another pair of trusting brown eyes stabbed at her heart like a knitting needle. Eyes that still haunted her, even though so many years had passed. She pushed back the thick sleeve of her coat and looked at the underside of her wrist where the blue-and-red ink of her tattoo was a vivid and permanent reminder of her failure to keep her one and only best friend safe.
Aiesha swallowed the monkey wrench of guilt in her throat and frowned down at the dog. ‘Why can’t you take yourself for a walk? It’s not as if you need me to show you the way. There aren’t any fences to stop you.’ She made a shooing motion with her hand. ‘Go on. Go for a run. Go chase a rabbit or a stoat or something.’
The dog continued to look at her with that unblinking stare, a soft little ‘play with me’ whine coming from its throat. Aiesha blew out a breath of resignation and began trudging in the direction of the forest that fringed the stately Highland home. ‘Come on, then, you stupid mutt. But I’m only going as far as the river. It looks like this snow’s going to set in for the night.’
* * *
James Challender drove through the snow-encrusted wrought-iron gates of Lochbannon as evening folded in. The secluded estate was spectacular in any season but in winter it turned into a wonderland. The Gothic-style mansion with its turrets and spires looked like something out of a children’s fairy tale. The frozen water in the fountain in front of the house looked like a Renaissance ice sculpture with delicate icicles hanging down like centuries-old stalactites. The thick forest that backed on to the estate was coated in pure white snow, the rolling fields were also thickly carpeted, and the air was so sharp and clean and cold it burned his nostrils as he drew it in.
The lights were on in the house, which meant the housekeeper, Mrs McBain, had generously postponed her annual holiday to look after Bonnie while his mother visited her friend, who had suffered an accident in outback Australia. James had offered to look after the dog but his mother had insisted via a hurried text before she boarded her flight that it was all organised and not to worry. Why his mother couldn’t put her dog in boarding kennels like everyone else did was beyond him. It wasn’t as if she couldn’t afford it. He’d made sure she was well provided for after the divorce from his father.
Lochbannon was a little large for an older single woman with only a dog for company and a handful of staff, but he had wanted to give his mother a safe haven, a place that was totally unconnected to her former life as Clifford Challender’s wife.
Although he had insisted the estate was in his mother’s name, James liked to spend the occasional week up in the Highlands away from the fast lane of London, which was why he’d decided to come up in spite of his mother’s assurances that Bonnie was well taken care of.