North Harbor, Michigan
"Victor Carlston, don''t you think it''s wicked to sit here enjoying yourself while your dearest relative lies at death''s door?"
"That''s a good start," I said out loud, even though there was no one to hear. "Although, I don''t know about Carlston. It doesn''t sound British enough. Maybe Worthington? Weatherby? Or Parkington? I think I like Worthington." I rolled the name around in my head and scrolled back up to make the change, reading aloud as I made the edits.
"Victor Worthington, don''t you think it''s wicked to sit here enjoying yourself while your dearest relative lies at death''s door?"
"Hmmm ... I wonder if Worthington is too British. Maybe I should go with something simple, like Brown." I was about to try out yet another surname on my hero when the doorbell rang. My toy poodles, both moments earlier curled up sound asleep on an ottoman, barked and raced downstairs to greet our visitor.
I peeked over the stairs and saw my sister Jenna''s reflection in the glass. I considered ignoring it and sneaking back into my office until my cell phone started vibrating in my pocket. My family and the Borg from Star Trek had a lot in common. Both demanded complete assimilation and resistance was definitely futile.
My sister wouldn''t leave me a moment of peace. It was just a matter of time before she tracked me down like a bloodhound.
I girded my loins, tramped down the stairs, and opened the door.
Like a blustery autumn wind, Jenna Rutherford blew through the doorway and marched up the stairs, talking a mile a minute.
"Have you talked to your mother?" She stopped at the top of the stairs, turning, and looked at me. "What''s taking you so long? Do you have any tea?"
Resistance truly was futile. I closed and locked the door and went upstairs. She already sat at the breakfast bar, waiting for her tea. I stepped behind the bar, grabbed the kettle, and filled it with water from the sink.
"Your mother. When is the last time you called her?"
It was always "your mother" when Mom was annoying.
"I talked to her this morning," I said slowly and deliberately. I knew where this conversation was going.
"Oh. Well, your mother called me all upset."
"Hmm." Little input was needed on my side of the conversation. She was on a roll. I placed the kettle on the stove and took tea bags from the cabinet.
"Sam, it''s been six months. You''ve got to snap out of this," she droned on.
This was an old song I''d heard before, but that day something snapped.
"Six months. Is that the deadline?" Anger rose. "Leon and I were married for thirteen years. He was my best friend."
Perhaps Jenna sensed we were on dangerous ground when my voice got softer and each word became more pronounced. Unlike most people who got louder as they got angrier, I tended to get softer and I enunciated each and every syllable.
"Is six months really the cutoff for mourning?" I took several deep breaths to regain my composure. "Jenna, I know you mean well. Everyone means well."
What neither my well-meaning sister, nor the rest of my family, understood was that mourning was actually comforting.
"The first month after Leon died, I don''t think I felt anything. The shock was so painful, I was in a daze. Afterward there were so many things to do. Decisions had to be made. I didn''t have time to think. I barely had time to breathe. I definitely didn''t have time to grieve." I paced behind the counter while I talked.
Thankfully, Jenna sat and listened, something she rarely did where I was concerned.
"After the shock wore off, the pain started. It felt like a part of my body had been cut off. It''s only now, six months later, that I feel like I can mourn. I have finally allowed myself to feel again and the heaviness, the grief is actually comforting."
The look on her face said she didn''t understand.
"I know it sounds crazy, but it''s like when your foot falls asleep. At first you can''t feel anything, so, you keep shaking it to wake it up. Eventually, you get the prickly tingles right before your foot wakes up completely."
She stared, but at least she wasn''t talking. I shouldn''t be angry with her. None of it was her fault.
"Jenna, I''m fine," I said calmly.
Her skeptical expression was enough for me to backtrack.
"Okay. I''m not fine." I sighed. "But I will be."
She looked into my eyes as if the truth was there behind my irises. Who knew, maybe it was.
"Okay. But we care about you and we''re all worried, especially your mother."
"I know, and I''m sorry. I don''t want you or Mom to worry."
The kettle whistled and I poured the boiling water into the mugs and handed my sister the box of raw sugar she liked, which I kept in the cabinet especially for her.
"Anyway, what were you doing?" Jenna asked.
I perched on the stool next to her and sipped my tea.
"Writing," I said shyly. The fact that I was actually attempting to write a book was a deeply held secret I shared with very few people. Until recently, my sister and my husband were the only people I''d entrusted with my precious dream. Talking about it was still scary.
Leon and I were both huge mystery fans. We met in the mystery section at a chain bookstore. Leon liked hard-boiled, private detective stories and I was more of a British cozy person. Regardless of the types of mysteries, we both loved the genre. Even our dreams revolved around mysteries. I fantasized about becoming a successful mystery writer, while Leon dreamed about owning a bookstore that specialized in mysteries. We spent countless hours talking about our dreams — dreams that seemed light years away. Leon worked as a cook at a diner and I was an English teacher at the local high school. We worked hard but lived hand to mouth and paycheck to paycheck. We knew our dreams were just that — dreams.
By the time the doctors found the cancer that caused the pain Leon complained about for more months than I could count, it was too late. With only a few weeks before he died, he made me promise I would buy the brick brownstone we walked past weekly and talked about "one day" or "when we hit the lottery" how we would fix it up and have our bookstore. He made me promise I''d take the insurance money and buy the building and write my book.
I sold the three bedroom home we''d purchased and renovated over a decade ago. It held too many memories. Every room was a story about our life together. My family and friends tried to talk me out of making major changes. Maybe I''d regret selling the house one day, but Leon suggested it. He knew me so well. He knew I''d never be able to move forward as long as I continued living in the past.
"Earth to Sam."
I pulled myself off memory lane. "I''m sorry. What did you say?"
"I asked how the writing was going." Jenna took a scone from the tiered plate on the counter and inspected it.
I knew what she was looking for. "Don''t worry. There aren''t any raisins in that batch."
She spread clotted cream and strawberry preserves on her scone, took a bite, and moaned in delight.
"The book is coming along pretty well, but I''m just getting started. I have a long way to go. I have my main characters, Penelope and Daphne Marsh and Victor Carlston — or Worthington. I''m not sure which name I like best."
"I like Carlston," Jenna said with a mouth full of scone.
"I like it too. Maybe I''ll keep it." I reached for my fourth scone of the day.
"And when is the grand opening?"
"Supposedly in two weeks."
"I''m still waiting for the last set of bookshelves. I''ve got boxes and boxes of books that have to be inventoried and shelved and my new point-of-sale system isn''t working yet. I also haven''t gotten the final okay from the health department to open the tea shop."
"Well, the tea shop can wait. You don''t have to do everything at once. You could get the bookstore opened first. Then once it''s open and running, you can open the tea shop later." My sister always adopted a condescending tone when she talked to me. It annoyed me. The fact that she was right made it even more annoying.
A couple of scones and two more cups of tea later, she left. I loved my sister, but spending time with her left me emotionally drained.
I wasn''t exactly in the mood for more writing. I sat at my computer and reread what I''d written so far, hoping it would help me get back to a relaxed frame of mind.
Wickfield Lodge, English country home of Lord William Marsh — 1938
"It seems wicked to sit here enjoying yourself while your dearest relative lies at death''s door."
Victor Carlston might have taken Daphne''s statement more seriously if he wasn''t laughing uncontrollably. Lord William Marsh was the dearest relative, who was, according to Daphne, a breath away from death. Not a callous man, Victor didn''t laugh at Lord William''s ill health, which placed him at "death''s door" once every three months. He always pulled through. His illnesses always followed a night of rich food and extensive enjoyment of the fruit of his vineyards. No, Victor laughed at Daphne''s dramatic manner. She fussed and fidgeted as if she was about to go into hysterics. He''d read of a fellow who kissed a girl to stop her from hysterics. Maybe this was his opportunity.
Daphne was bewitchingly beautiful, and he''d barely had two seconds alone with her all night. That obnoxious American, Charles Parker, kept popping up. The slippery Parker was confident, cocky, and overdressed in tails. Daphne didn''t appear to mind.
Speak of the devil. Parker''s "How about a dance, Daphne old girl," was more a statement than a question. Before she had a chance to reply, Parker pulled her to her feet and into his arms and spun her off to the dance floor set up in the parlor of Wickfield Lodge.
Damn it! He''d missed another opportunity, and there Daphne was, dancing and laughing as though whatever Parker whispered in her ear was the most hilarious thing she''d ever heard. Where was her concern for Lord William now? Victor sat in brooding silence and smoked.
"Perhaps if you weren''t so obviously in love with her, she might take you more seriously." Victor hadn''t noticed Penelope in the seat recently vacated by Daphne, until she spoke.
"Am I that obvious?"
"Even a blind monk could see you''re in love with her."
Penelope held out a cigarette, which Victor lit. For a few seconds they smoked quietly until Penelope broke the silence.
"You know what your problem is, Victor?"
"No. Do tell."
"You make your love too easy. There''s no challenge."
"Challenge?" Victor laughed. "You talk of love as though it was a game or a battle to be fought in war."
"It is a game and a battle. Haven''t you heard?" Penelope leaned back and looked at Victor through lazy, dark eyes, with a smug smile.
He stretched his legs in front of the fireplace. "I was never good at playing games." The stretch felt good. He''d been sitting far too long and the knee he''d injured in the war was stiffening up.
"If you want Daphne, or any woman, for that matter, you''ll have to learn to play the game."
"Perhaps you can enlighten me on the rules." He swallowed the lump that had developed in his throat when Daphne and Parker glided out of the room onto the terrace behind the parlor.
Wickfield Lodge, the ancestral home of Lord William Marsh, had a lovely back terrace with magnificent sweeping views of the rose garden, hedge maze, fountain, and the wooded copse below. At this late hour, none of the grounds were visible by moonlight. Obviously, Parker wasn''t interested in admiring the foliage.
"Victor, you''re tall, dark, and handsome. You''re rich, which is always a plus, and you''ve got brains. That''s more than I can say about most men your age."
He raised an eyebrow at the backhanded compliment and stood, performed a sweeping bow, and sat back down.
"Don''t be an ass." Penelope spat the words.
"Given the qualities you mentioned, one would expect me to be the one out on the terrace with the beautiful Daphne, instead of sitting here with ..." He stopped, but not quickly enough.
Penelope knew what he was going to say. He could tell by the way her eyes flashed and the flush that went up her neck. For a moment, he thought she''d cry, but Lady Penelope Marsh was made of sterner stuff.
A moment was all it took for her to regain her composure.
"I''m an ass! I''m terribly sorry. I didn''t mean —"
Penelope held up her hand. "Yes, you did mean it, and it''s okay. It''s true. Everyone knows Daphne is the beautiful one in the family. Golden hair, blue eyes like sapphires, and skin like cream. She''s a goddess. I''m not stupid. I know my sister got the beauty and I the brains. It''s all right."
Victor tried again. "I''m really sorry, Penny."
"No need for apologies." Penny gazed at him. "I''m going to put my brains to good use. I''ve decided to help you."
Puzzled, it took a few moments to grasp what she''d said. Eventually he''d recovered enough to ask, "Help me? What are you going to do, drive a stake through Charles Parker''s heart? That''s the only thing that can help me." Victor tossed back his drink and brooded.
"I''m going to help you win Daphne''s heart." Penelope accepted a drink from a nearby waiter.
"And how do you propose to do that? I gave my heart to Daphne a long time ago." He grabbed a drink from the waiter and took a sip. His desperation echoed in his ears. He winced.
"Exactly. No woman wants something that''s given so easily. Daphne knows she has but to snap her fingers and you''ll come running. You are the ever faithful, ever loyal, always to be relied upon, Victor Carlston."
Tossing his cigarette into the fireplace, he tried to hide his anger, but there was an edge in his voice. "You make me sound like a dog."
"Exactly my point. Why should Daphne waste her youth and beauty on someone who''s always here? She can have you any time she wants. A woman wants a challenge."
"Why are you laughing?" Penelope perched on the edge of her seat like an eagle.
"You have such a way with words. You make love sound like a battle."
"It is a battle. What other challenges does a woman of Daphne''s station, breeding, and class have? She can''t go to war. She can''t work. And there are only so many cushions a well-bred lady can stand to embroider."
Something in her tone made Victor wonder if there was more to Penelope Marsh than he''d seen before. He looked at her as a woman, and not simply Daphne''s sister. "You sound like you''ve thought about this a lot."
"What else do I have to do but think? I have no talent for sewing cushions." Penelope''s eyes flashed. Perhaps it was the firelight or her anger but, for an instant, mousy Penelope exuded a passion that transformed her dark eyes and complexion. In that moment, Victor Carlston made a decision that would forever change his life.
"That''s enough for one night." I closed my laptop. It was getting late, and I had a busy day coming up, the last day of school, for the children and for me. I would leave the stable security of a regular paycheck, insurance, a pension, and the union that had dictated my life for the past twelve years to embark on a new adventure.
Following your dreams sounded like an exciting journey, but for a widow in her mid-thirties, it was a bit scary. As a society, we were encouraged to work hard, invest for retirement, and make sound financial, practical decisions. Maybe it was my working class upbringing, or maybe it was the Midwestern work ethic. Whatever the reason, I found myself waxing nostalgic about the daily grind of teaching our nation''s youth. On the wall hung the motto from Henry Ford that Leon liked to quote,
If You Always DoWhat You''ve Always Done,You Will Always GetWhat You''ve Always Got.
I knew what I had to do. Change was scary, but if Leon''s death taught me anything, it was that life was short, sometimes too short. Tomorrow wasn''t promised. I needed to do this for Leon and for myself. I consoled myself with the knowledge I could teach nights at the community college if I truly needed money.
I''d been very frugal with both the insurance money and the money from selling the house. In our original plan, Leon and I envisioned converting the upstairs of the bookstore into living space, which we could rent out to help pay the mortgage. Near the end, when Leon thought I needed a clean start, the idea of my living in the space took shape. The upper level of the soon-to-be bookstore was a large, open loft with beautiful oak hardwood floors, brick walls with seventeen foot ceilings, and windows stretching from floor to ceiling. The renovated 2,000-square-foot space contained a nice kitchen area, living room, two bedrooms, and two bathrooms. Track lighting and skylights made the space bright and inviting. I enjoyed the space more than I imagined I would. My new home was just right for me. There was even a detached garage at the back of the lot, which I accessed through an alley. I''d had a fence installed and created a small courtyard perfect for my dogs, Snickers and Oreo.
I decided to turn in. I needed all of my mental and emotional strength to get through yet another change.