He saw Priscilla Halburton-Smythe walking across the drive in front of the castle and his heartbeat quickened. What a stunner! Thank you, God!


Jenny Trask had a lot in common with Jessica Fitt. Although she was attractive and in her twenties, she was painfully shy outside the confines of her job in a legal office. She hated dating because either the man dashed off right after dinner, which was a painful rejection, or he stayed on, obviously expecting the evening to end in bed. Jenny felt she did not belong to the world that her contemporaries inhabited. They thought nothing of leaping into bed with someone on a very short acquaintanceship. They were, or so Jenny thought, hard-headed and practical. Jenny dreamt of romance and longed for the days, now long gone, when a girl could expect to be courted. She had only recently joined Checkmate, and this visit to the Highlands was her first experience with the agency.

Hope sprang eternal. Jenny had flown to Inverness and then caught a bus to Ullapool, then changed at Ullapool to a creaking local bus to take her to Lochdubh. Her hopes soared with every mile. So remote from London and so very beautiful. She was seeing the mountains and moors of Scotland as they are rarely seen, benign in sunlight. It had cost an awful lot of money, but already she felt sure it was all worth it. Somewhere at the end of the journey was the clever, sensitive and romantic man of her dreams.


Peter Trumpington drove his Mercedes with the real leather seats competently through some of the most dazzling scenery in the world – like Switzerland without people – and was completely unaware of the beauty around him. He would have been just as happy in London. But if this long journey meant a suitable bride, then this long journey had to be completed. All that was in his mind was the thought of a long cool drink and a hot dinner. He did not know Deborah Freemantle had been chosen for him, or anything about her.


Deborah was also driving along the one-track roads near journey’s end. She was employed as an editorial assistant with Dumbey’s Publishing, who produced large coffee-table books on art or country houses or other inoffensive and expensive subjects. She had been hired not for her brains, but because she did not expect to be paid very much, because her grammar was quite good and her enthusiasm boundless. She also had one great asset. She did not aspire to take her boss’s job. Dumbey’s was not a competitive firm, and editors liked to have inferiors who would not threaten their position. Her enthusiasm was not an act. She was genuinely enthusiastic about everyone and everything, which made up for her clumsiness and large backside. She had heavy Hanoverian features and rather thin brown hair. She bounded and giggled much as she had done at the expensive boarding-school she had once attended. She had made her come-out as a debutante, but things, her parents had decided, were not handled as in the old days, when a good dowry was enough to thrust a beloved daughter into marriage. Checkmate had been their idea. As with Jenny, this would be the first get-together she had attended. She was not very worried about it all. Mummy and Daddy usually knew best.


John Taylor, QC, alighted from the station at Inverness. He recognized Maria Worth, who was walking along the platform in front of him, but he did not hail her. To him, she was a sort of employee and he was not going to demean himself by sharing his taxi north with her.

The taxi-driver he asked to take him to Lochdubh explained it would probably cost him in the region of forty- five pounds. “Oh, get on with it,” snapped John, and climbed into the back seat.

Money was no object when it came to spiting his children. The trouble had started last Christmas in the family get-together at John Taylor’s country home in Buckinghamshire. His wife had died when the children were still young, and he considered he had done the best anyone could for daughter Penelope and son Brian. Brian was a lawyer like his father and quite a successful one. Penelope had married an affluent stockbroker. All was what it should be.

And then, coming down the stairs one morning before Christmas, he had overheard Brian and Penelope talking. “I wish we didn’t have to endure these ghoulish family affairs!” Brian was saying. “The old man has about as much Christmas spirit as Scrooge.”

Penelope gave her infuriating giggle and said, “He hasn’t been quite the same since they abolished hanging. He’s still boring on about bringing back the birch and the treadmill.”

And Brian had rejoined, “Only a few more days to go and then we can escape from his pontificating. But be sweet to him, Penelope. Your kids and my kids will soon be ready to go to public schools and you know what a mint that’s going to cost us. He can’t last much longer. He looks like a cadaver warmed up. He’s made his will and we both get the lot. So let’s continue to ho-ho-ho our way through this awful Christmas.”

John had retreated back upstairs. Hatred burned inside him. To cut them out of his will would not be revenge enough. After he was dead, he wouldn’t be around to see their stupid faces. He thought long and hard about ways to get even and then he decided to go to Checkmate and order them to find him a bride. They probably had someone on their books desperate enough.


Mary French had already arrived at Tommel Castle Hotel. Mary was always early for everything. She turned up at dinner parties at least an hour early. She had taken the train up to Inverness the day before and had got the first bus in the morning to Ullapool and then a cab from Ullapool to Lochdubh. She was not nervous in the slightest. Maria Worth might regret the fact that Mary had buckteeth and jug-ears, but Mary saw rare beauty when she looked in the glass. She taught at a girls’ school, one of the few that still employed only female teachers. That was why, she knew, she was not married. Men could only admire her from afar. The fact that she met plenty of men on her annual holidays did not count. Her aristocratic breeding had put them off. Checkmate would find her the right sort. They’d better, she thought with true aristocratic thrift. She was paying enough.


Maria got down to business with Mr Johnson as soon as she arrived. There was to be a drinks party before dinner; not in the bar, but in a small private room off the dining room.

Priscilla Halburton-Smythe was upstairs in her room, cursing as she took out a black dress. Two of the waitresses had gone off sick with summer colds. She could not risk getting some untrained woman from the village. She would need to act as waitress herself, and that meant taking round the trays of drinks before dinner as well. Thank goodness her father retained enough distaste for Checkmate to want to play ‘mine host’, or he would foam and huff and puff at the sight of his daughter in a waitress’s uniform, blissfully unconcerned that if she did not help, the dinner would be a disaster.

The programme for the week had been posted up in each of the Checkmate clients’ bedrooms. They were expected to present themselves for drinks at six-thirty. Priscilla went along the corridor to the maid’s cupboard and selected and tied on an apron. She hesitated over the cap but then decided she had better put one on and look the part.

She went down to the bar at six-thirty. Jenkins, the Halburton-Smythes’s former butler, now the maitre d’hotel, gave her a scandalized look as she walked through the hall. Jessie, the one waitress on duty, followed Priscilla into the room off the dining room. Maria was already there, wearing a scarlet evening gown. The barman was ready to take orders. All Priscilla and Jessie had to do was go to the bar and fetch them and, after that, serve the dinner, which Jenkins, with averted eyes, told her was all ready.

Maria saw nothing wrong with the daughter of the house acting as waitress. Tommel Castle was a terribly expensive hotel and she expected the best of service.

“I have checked the place-settings,” said Maria. “Everything is correct. The right people will be sitting next to each other. Nothing can go wrong. They should be here any minute.”

And then she looked over Priscilla’s shoulder to the doorway and turned a muddy colour. Startled, Priscilla turned round.

A large fat woman was standing there. Her hair was dyed a flaming red. She was wearing a huge loose flowered blouse over a pair of trousers and an old-fashioned corset, to judge from the bumps and ridges. Her small, cornflower-blue eyes were sunk in pads of fat, and she had a small, petulant mouth.

“Surprise!” she cried.

Maria recovered with an effort. “Peta,” she said in a hollow voice. “What are you doing here? I thought you were in Hungary.”

“Changed my mind,” said Peta triumphantly. “I called in at your office this morning and that silly secretary of yours said she didn’t know where you were. So I checked the computer and found the address. I got the plane to

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