The tor rose from the ground as if conjured by mystical forces, dominating the land around it, demanding obedience and sacrifice. Its steeply sloping sides challenged the small men and women who climbed to worship at its crest.
The church that crowned the tor was hard grey stone against the clear, open sky. Its coldness and bleakness foreshadowed what the congregation would find inside.
The priest ruled with an iron fist and a cold heart. He demanded where others might request; he crammed fear down their throats at communion; and he punished and tortured where others might forgive.
The parishioners in the small town around the base of the tor looked up in fear and secret loathing, forgetting that they used to look up in love and praise. Their god now had a spokesman, and he would not be challenged.
Father Damon reached his icy fingers and caressed the cheek of the woman forced to kneel in front of him, whispering softly, “Cursed child of the devil. You have no place in this world; so, with the blessing of my Lord God Almighty, I will send you back to the depths of hell that spewed you forth upon my land.”
“I did nothing—nothing but love a man of your congregation,” the woman said proudly in a heavily accented voice. “A man whose heart showed him we can live in peace. We do not hate your god. We do not hate you. I have done nothing to threaten you or your church,” cried the woman at his feet. She struggled against the hands of the holy men at her side who dug their nails in even harder making her scream and arch her back in pain.
The man of God paced with an agitated stride, distracted by the soft features of her porcelain skin. He found it difficult to look at her directly; it was as if her slate-coloured eyes could chisel at his soul. It disgusted him that he should be so easily affected by this temptress from across the sea. He was one of the most powerful men in the south of England, and no woman would halt his progress to the highest seat in the church. He had schemed so successfully to remove all obstacles, and he had reached a pinnacle in his career. This witch would not cause him to falter now.
He turned to spit his words into her face with a ferocity that expressed his fury and disgust. “My god and I will not tolerate such blasphemy! You speak of love as if you had a heart; you speak of peace as if you understood its meaning; and you speak of doing nothing to threaten us when your very existence causes my blood to boil and my eyes to roll back in my head. You are the daughter of Satan, and it is only a matter of time before your darkness will descend on us all.”
“NO, NO!” she cried. “I am a daughter of the earth, the sun, the moon—the very things you say your god created! I am a creature of God, not the Evil One!”
“HOW DARE YOU SPEAK HIS NAME!” Father Damon screeched; smashing his hand into her face, shattering her cheekbone with the diamond-encrusted ring on his middle finger and spattering the robes of the men with blood.
The young monks dropped their hands and let her fall to the cold, stone floor where she clutched her face and wept quietly.
A door opened, banging against the wall, and a young priest hastened through. He dropped to the side of the woman and cradled her in his arms. “This is not the way, Father. We must guide her to the light and out of the darkness. She is a child of God, just as we are. We cannot judge before we have given God a chance to forgive her.”
“Father Peter! Do not challenge me in my own church!”
“I thought this church belonged to God, to the people, and to the good brothers below,” replied the younger man, hoping to hide the contempt he felt for Father Damon, who was a cruel man, used to having his way.
Even the revered Abbot Whyting never questioned Damon about the way he chose to rule the church on the tor, but instead focused the small amount of energy he had remaining on the abbey below. Whyting was in poor health and allowed his prior and the priests and monks to do as they pleased. As long as the churches and chapels under his rule made money and continued to serve the Lord, Whyting felt he deserved to live out his remaining years in his sumptuous abode several miles away.
Father Peter had recently arrived from one of the priories in the north, and was disgusted at the way Damon treated the suspected heretics under his jurisdiction. Most of the men and women in Damon’s custody were just too poor to pay his exorbitant rents, or did not attend his sermons as regularly as Damon would wish.
Damon glared into Peter’s eyes. For a moment he feared this newly appointed priest would report him—perhaps Peter desired St. Michael’s church for himself and planned to usurp him. But then Damon brushed this thought away. The old abbot was sure to die soon, leaving Glastonbury and its many lands and buildings under the control of the next abbot. Then, the pathetic, young Peter would discover who truly ruled over the monastery and the brothers who would decide their next leader. No one would dare to vote against Damon. He had won over too many souls in the church, and he was a first cousin of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Nothing could stop Damon from achieving the success he so richly deserved. How dare this newcomer question his actions.
His lip curled, and his nose wrinkled as he watched Peter holding the woman against him with no fear of the evil powers she was accused of possessing. “I have been chosen by God to rule here and rid the land of this vermin. You are misguided in your consideration for their souls. They have none!”
Peter looked into the blue-grey eyes of the woman in his arms. Her black hair fell in waves to brush the stone floor; and her white, smooth skin was spoiled by the ragged cut and bruises that were blossoming there. She muttered something. He leaned in closer. “Save my children,” she whispered tenderly into his ear. He nodded and lifted her from the ground, horrified that innocent children might be left motherless.
Father Damon tried to control the level of his voice. “You will regret trying to help such evil. She will die with the others at dawn and you will do nothing to interfere or Rome will hear about it. I will not tolerate insubordination in my flock!” he stated slowly and carefully as Father Peter carried the woman in his arms back to her prison in the bowels of the church.
He laid her carefully on the small cot in the tiny cell, but kept her held against his chest; the simple wooden cross he wore crushed against his heart.
He ordered the guard to bring a goblet of wine, which was done promptly. The guard then stood, clenching the bars of the cell, staring wide-eyed at the raven-haired beauty before him. Peter glanced into the man’s face, and was startled to see conflicting emotion flicker over him: Revulsion, fear, and though Peter had little experienced it, he witnessed lust burning there. He sent the guard away.
The priest lifted the cup to her lips and let her take a sip, and then another until she began to revive.
A crimson drop clung to her full bottom lip, suspended like a garnet jewel. He put down the goblet and swiftly caught the drop before it fell, bringing his finger to his open mouth. It was sweet and salty, just as he imagined her lips would taste. His gaze wandered down her white, exposed throat, and his moist finger traced the red fingerprints that were pressed into her flesh.
His brow furrowed when he saw the scratches, bruises, and torn dress; and his breath caught when he noticed the oval stone of darkest black tucked into her bodice and resting between her breasts. The fire in the center of the necklace dragged his attention away from the laces of her gown, and he slowly reached for it.
Her hand caught Father Peter’s wrist before he touched the amulet. “You are a good man, Peter; a man of God.” He snapped his eyes upward to meet hers. “You should leave me now.”
He stood shakily, grasping the bars of the cell to steady himself, embarrassed that his breath was ragged and his head full of images not acceptable for a servant of the church.
Peter stepped out into the circular stairwell, calling for a runner to be sent down to the village to bring a healer. He did not tell the monk who the healer was for, as he knew he would refuse for fear of retribution from Damon.
He then found he could not leave her as she had requested; but instead waited outside the woman’s cell, protecting her and keeping her company.
“Thank you,” she said, reaching through the bars for his hands, which he willingly gave. “I know you will keep your promise and help my children. They are innocent, pure, and good. You must find them sanctuary. They are with a nurse in the woods. Their father, Philip Smith, will take you to them. Please tell Philip that I love him and he should not have anything more to do with his daughters.” At this she sobbed and leaned her forehead against the bars. The priest caressed her hands, giving her strength to continue through the pain. “They must be hidden away, and he must let them go. He should carry on and forget us. It is the best thing he can do to keep them safe and himself free from condemnation.”
Father Peter lifted her chin gently and peered into her beautiful face—the face of an angel. “I know Philip. He is a good man. He tended my horse when I arrived in Glastonbury. I think it will be very difficult for Philip to accept your wishes, but I will do everything in my power to help him.”
“Then, that is enough,” she sighed and slid gracefully to her cot.
Peter turned to try and leave finally, when she called out, “Wait! I must ask one more thing.” She tore a piece of cloth from the bottom of her emerald gown, and took off the necklace. She wrapped the treasure and held it up to Peter. “Please give this to Philip. It is for our daughters. But you must not touch it—it will burn your skin. The necklace holds a special protection for those like me, but my powers are weakened now. I have been too long in your world, so it will not protect me as it will them. Please take it to my children, I beg you!”
“I will,” Peter answered. He placed the package in his robes and took her hands again. Then he dared to ask what the other brothers had been afraid to. “What is your name?”
“Miruna Arcos. I will never forget what you have done for me, Peter. Thank you!” She kissed the priests hands over and over again; he felt a warmth and peace flood through him, and he knew what he had done was right.
Father Damon plunged his hands into the font of holy water; the blood that had dried on his ring and knuckles creating swirls of red in the pure liquid.
After drying his hands hastily on his robes he entered his rooms and was startled to find a tall man standing at the fireplace, warming himself.
“Lord Ciaran! What are you still doing here? I already thanked you for capturing the witch. I am sure you must be eager to return to your travels.”
The man turned, his cold eyes had absorbed none of the warmth of the flames. “I thought I would visit my brothers here before returning. There are still small groups in this part of the country. It would be wise to inform them of the infestation we may be facing.”
Father Damon shook his head. “We? No, Ciaran, I believe I have controlled their population here. You drove that witch down from Scotland; perhaps you should look to the north—look to your homeland for the source of the infestation of which you speak. You should hurry back, Lord Ciaran. I am sure your druid friends could not continue without you.”
Ciaran was tempted to throttle the priest. He towered above the holy man, his powerful jaw muscles tensing as he struggled for control. He hated to look into the priest’s spiritless eyes, and accept his condescension. “We are called the Naddred,” he enunciated. “You should speak the word with respect!” Ciaran knew he should be more careful. This was not his territory, and he had no authority here.
“Then you should beware, Naddred! Witches are not to be suffered, but it may be only a matter of time before Rome demands a full cleansing of England, and you will be next.”
Ciaran was not afraid of this little man, but he must not lose his temper. He still had need of the priest. “I will be out of your sight soon enough. I wanted to be here to watch her burn. I wanted to be sure she was destroyed before I left.”
“Very well, but then I want you gone. And tell the others in the area that they will not be tolerated in Glastonbury. They are to follow you north. See if King James will look as kindly on you,” he snickered, knowing the King of the Scots would not abide heresy of any kind. “Understand me when I say the peace I hold with your brethren is only for the mutual aid we can provide one another. The Naddred despise witch folk as I do; that is our only commonality. Once the land is purified and rid of witches, I will look to you and your kind.”
The tall man nodded and turned to leave. This fool of a holy man had no perception how many covens inhabited the surrounding countryside; and how many secret brotherhoods of Druid and Naddred marshalled the land and kept the peace.
Damon held out his hand as he passed. Ciaran forced himself to bow low over the priest’s hand and place a kiss upon the large ring. He noticed some blood still encrusted in the creases of the skin, but closed his mind to the images that tried to form. He turned his back on Damon and marched from the room.
Father Peter, led by Philip, stepped carefully over tree roots and through the thick fern undergrowth. Philip stopped and whistled into the gloom. An answering whistle told them they were close. A few more steps and Peter could smell the smoke from a fire; a few more and he could make out a small group huddled around the flames for warmth.
“Philip! We had hoped you would come today. Martha was worrying about her mistress’s fate,” said one of the men, who rose to greet them.
“I said I would come!” Philip snapped from stress and exhaustion. “This is Father Peter.”
The group froze when they noticed the robes and cross of the holy man.
“Do not be alarmed,” Peter assured them. “I do not serve Father Damon. I am against all that he stands for. His god is not the same as mine, I think. I come to offer what assistance I can to you all.”
Philip ushered Peter closer to the fire. “Father, this is Martha and her husband, Owen. I am thankful for such loyal friends. They have kept my children safe from harm.” The priest noticed two curly haired cherubs coiled together in sleep at Martha’s feet. “And the other women are attendants to the countess.”
“Countess?” asked the priest, looking at the three cloaked women on the far side of the fire.
“Yes, the mother of these children is Countess Miruna Arcos of Moldavia. She fled her country for the same reasons she is persecuted here—ignorance and fear.”
“Please, Master Philip, what will happen to my mistress?” Martha begged.
Philip hung his head and mumbled, “She will be burned at the stake in the morning. There is nothing we can do.”
A united cry arose from the party, and Martha rang her hands in consternation.
The priest withdrew the package from Miruna and unwrapped it, careful not to touch it. “The countess gave me this for her daughters,” he said, passing it to Philip who took it in his hands immediately.
“Agh!” he screamed and dropped the jewelry. The burning blisters were visible on his palms. “I forgot, she warned me not to touch this. Now I know why!” he said, watching Father Peter retrieve it with the piece of cloth to protect him.
“Give it to me,” Martha said softly and Peter passed it to her. “Thank goodness! I thought this was lost forever . . . but I should have known my mistress would not forsake her children.”
“Be careful!” Peter cried out as she picked up the stone and caressed it in her palm.
“Oh, it won’t hurt me,” she assured him. “I am one of the coven, and Miruna’s Heart cannot harm a follower.” As Martha spoke, the black jewel glowed with the light of many souls, bound as one in its ebony depths. A warm energy flowed in and around the small group of people, soothing and assuring. It was as if the necklace sensed it was back within the safety of the coven. “There’s more power in this necklace than in all of England; my mistress would not die without making sure it was in the hands of the sisters. She can pass on without regret now. Her duty is done.”
The priest stared in wonder, not at all afraid of the power he witnessed, but sure it was born of beauty and love. Just as the wearer of the stone had filled him with confidence, and left him knowing that she was pure and good, the energy now emanating from the stone also brought him a feeling of love and peace. He watched as the nurse placed the stone and the scrap of cloth from Miruna’s skirt between the sleeping twin girls. They stirred from dreams of their mother’s face; one reached out and grasped the stone in her small hand, the other her mother’s shred of clothing.
“You must leave them, Philip, and let these daughters of the coven flee to safety,” Peter whispered as they stood over the trusting infants. “I know they are not evil, but there are others who will tear this country apart to get at them.”
“I know,” said Philip, bowing his head in grief.
“Do not worry about the children or us,” said Martha confidently. “There are ways to stay hidden even under their very noses. My mistress made the mistake of falling in love, and that weakened her—placed her in great danger. I think she regrets it now, but it is too late,” she said with a side glance at Philip who tore at his hair and sobbed in despair.
“Please do not torture me anymore. I know now that I put her at risk, but we hoped to live peacefully without discovery. It was that blackheart, Ciaran, who identified her. He spent months hunting her down all the way from the Scotland! What kind of a madman would do such a thing?”
Ciaran sat astride his horse in the cold dawn. He waited patiently as the monks and townsfolk stacked bracken and bark around the stakes. He ignored his hunger and thirst as the sun rose in the sky. The blackflies bit at his face and exposed neck, but only his horse twitched and showed its irritation.
He moved slightly in his saddle as he noticed movement at the door to the prison under the church—the prison Father Damon had ordered built for the incorrigibles.
Damon enjoyed torturing the mad men and women—and the occasional witch—who filled his cells. Today, he would be rid of all the putrid scum in his custody and order the cells cleaned out ready for new occupants. He had beaten, bruised and bloodied his captives almost to death; he had relieved them of their earthly riches and promised them eternal damnation. Today he would burn them all as witches. No one would question his decision. And he did have one real witch among them, and this would appease the congregation.
Miruna was led from the doorway in shackles, her long tendrils of dark hair blowing in the wind and whipping the men on either side of her.
Ciaran let out a small gasp as he watched the proud beauty march toward the stakes, dragging the monks along with her. The wind tugged at her tattered skirt, exposing her white calves, and pulling it taught across her thighs. She thrust her chest into the harsh, biting air and never wavered from her path.
She allowed them to tie her to the wooden pole—their hands shaking and fumbling. Her eyes flashed in hatred and they turned away, unable to look upon her.
The early morning sky above the shackled men and women darkened; clouds scurried in and the wind roared louder. Father Damon had to force his voice into a scream as he denounced Miruna and the other pathetic souls beside her as witches and ordered the fires to be lit.
The monks struggled against the buffeting air, and now raindrops added to their frustration as they tried to feed the sputtering fires. It seemed the pyres would never light.
Ciaran’s horse stomped and whinnied as his master tightened his grip on the reins and thrust his heels into the beast’s flanks, urging him forward. The rider and mount charged into the wide church archway where two large torches lit the entrance and were sheltered from the storm. Ciaran grabbed up one of the torches, turned his horse abruptly and bowled over two priests to reach the stake where Miruna was bound and being slowly soaked by the rain. He could not look her in the eyes, but threw the flaming torch onto the pile of dampened wood. The heat from the flame caused the wood to crackle and dry instantly, allowing it to catch. The monks rushed to light the other pyres from Miruna’s fire.
Ciaran’s horse rolled its eyes wildly, and backed away from the smoke which choked and blinded. Ciaran wrapped the traces between his gloved fingers, and reined the horse in far enough away so he would not spook.
As the flames crept higher, the screams of the victims cut through the raging storm. Most of the townspeople had gathered for the spectacle, huddled against the furious wind; but even the ones remaining in their homes below were forced to be a part of the horror.
But Miruna kept silent. She did not take her eyes off the man on the horse. Her spirit bore into his soul, ripped at his heart, enslaved him; but he refused to look away. She was now experiencing an agony equal to that which she had caused him to feel—and he would watch her suffer. The woman who had driven him to madness would never know the love of another man; never feel the sweet ecstasy of a hunger satisfied. Ciaran felt it now. Every nerve in his body screamed in climax as he watched the flames envelope her like the arms of a lover. He watched as her hair ignited and filled the air with the sickly sweet smell that to him was like roses. His sins were washed clean. The brothers of the Naddred would now welcome him back; he was free from the clutches of the seductress.
But she did not scream; she denied him that satisfaction. Instead, she held his eyes until the very last, and then threw back her head and howled with laughter.
I received the phone call Monday morning as I was dragging my hair into a messy ponytail, and heading out the door of my tiny apartment for my two hundred and third day of teaching. I almost hit the sleep button on my phone—I was late already.
“Miss Elizabeth Ayers?” asked a serious male voice with a clipped British accent.
“Yes?” I answered, balancing the phone on my shoulder, while shoving a scarf into my purse.
“I am the solicitor for your grandmother, Wilhelmina Ayers. My name is Frederick Bartholomew and I am calling from London to inform you of Ms. Ayers’ passing,” he stated. “I offer my condolences.”
“Mr. . . . Bartholomew,” I stammered, letting my purse drop to the floor. “I wasn’t even aware of my grandmother’s name, so hearing of her passing is the second piece of information you’re giving me. Have you contacted my mother yet? In fact, how did you find me at all?”
The lawyer chose to ignore my query about how he’d found me, but explained, “I was not directed to inform your mother. I was instructed only to contact you. I must request that you come to England in the next couple of days to attend your grandmother’s funeral and the reading of her last will and testament.”
“I, er, I don’t even remember my grandmother. Sorry, I didn’t even know we shared the same last name. My mother didn’t tell me Ayers was her family name. I was under the impression it was my father’s name. I guess I was wrong.”
The lawyer paused for a moment, waiting probably to see if I had finished my ramble, and then commented, “I am under the impression there are many things about which you have not been informed, and that is why it is imperative you make the journey here so that I can tell you everything you need to know. I will make the travel arrangements and the cost of the trip will be taken care of. Please, Miss Ayers, you are the only descendant to benefit from your grandmother’s will and it was stipulated you must be present at her funeral, or forfeit any claims on her estate.”
“I see; I think I understand. Is there a number where I can reach you? I have to make a few arrangements first.”
“I will call tomorrow morning with the time of your flight. Please make any necessary plans. Good day, Miss Ayers.”
“Wait, I , er . . . ” but he had already hung up.
“Holy shit!” I sat down at the kitchen table and took a deep calming breath before dialing the school. I requested a substitute and said I would be on bereavement leave until further notice. The principal immediately agreed to take my class until a suitable replacement could be found. I thanked him profusely and promised to drop by later in the day to go over my lesson plans. I would need to say goodbye to a person or two. Something told me I might not be back for quite a while.
The phone call with my mother did not go as smoothly.
“How do you know this isn’t some hoax? I never got a phone call, and I’m sure if my own mother died, I would be the first to hear about it!”
“Mom, I told you—the lawyer said I was the only family who was contacted. Probably something to do with the falling out you guys had. You would never say what it was about, but obviously your mother held a grudge too. When I find out more I’ll let you know as soon as I can.”
“Libby, don’t go off halfcocked. You don’t know anything about my mother or why I left. Believe me; whatever she left you won’t be worth it.”
“Then tell me why you left England. Tell me about my family; I have a right to know!”
“You have no right at all; it doesn’t concern you. I moved to Canada to give you a better life, and going back is like you’re throwing it all away. You might as well spit in my face and tell me to go to hell!” she cried, her voice reaching a hysterical pitch.
“Mom! Please! I’ve been asked to attend my grandmother’s funeral. Don’t you want me to go on your behalf and pay our respects?” I asked, shocked at her reaction.
“No, I don’t want you to attend at all; and there are no respects to be paid.”
“Well, I was only six when we moved to Canada. I want to go and see where I came from. I have questions that need answering—you won’t tell me anything!”
“How is a dead woman going to answer any questions? Trust me, Libby; no good can come from this.”
Of course I didn’t listen to her; I did my laundry, packed a bag and took out my frustration on my kitchen floor. No point in leaving my apartment a mess. Then I went to the school after all the buses had left. Only a few kids lingered in the halls as I made my way to the second floor.
“Hey, Libby, I heard you had a family emergency. Hope everything’s okay,” Chad said as he sidled up to me. He taught music and art and had been a good friend to me. We had begun our teaching careers together here at Claybourne Middle almost two years ago. I had not bonded with any of the other staff, so his friendship meant a lot to me.
“My grandmother passed away. I didn’t even know her.”
“Sorry all the same. Is there anything I can do for you?” he asked.
“Just keep an eye on my sub for me? And come by tomorrow for my keys. My plants will need to be watered.”
“Sure thing. How long do you think you’ll be gone?”
“No idea,” I answered, slowing my pace and turning to face him. “I have to travel to England for the funeral.”
“Then you’ll need a ride to the airport too,” he said. “I’m owed some time off.”
“Thanks!” I breathed out. “Before today, I didn’t even know my grandmother was still alive, and I don’t know if I have any other family over there—or anywhere, for that matter.”
“Why won’t Anita tell you anything about your family?”
I shook my head and shrugged my shoulders. “Mom still avoids the subject.”
Chad put his arm around my shoulder. “They must have some huge skeletons in their closets—murder, incest, maybe even a little insanity,” he teased. “You have to tell me everything you can find out. I’m dying to know what all the intrigue is about.”
“Me too. I have to do some digging. Who knows what I’ll unearth,” I whispered, rolling my eyes dramatically as I reached my room.
“I’ll pop back soon; I have to grab some papers to mark,” he smiled at me.
It didn’t take as long as I’d thought it would to outline my plans for the sub. I always liked to stay ahead of the game—I didn’t like surprises—and most of the lessons were already clearly written out. So, I spent some time uncluttering my desk. The poor sap who would replace me didn’t have to look at my chewed pencils, broken eraser bits and scraps of torn paper with scribbled notes. I was always writing down unrelated words and then discarding them, as if I were trying to come up with song lyrics or the plot to a dream I had had the night before. The words I wrote never made any sense, but trying to figure them out seemed important nonetheless.
I flicked off my desk lamp and was just deciding whether or not to trust my replacement to water the potted plants scattered about the room when I heard a small sound behind me. Assuming it was Chad returning, I turned and called his name.
The room was empty. I walked to the door and looked up and down the hallway. No sign of life; the hall was still and quiet.
From behind me, I heard a rasping whisper that made my blood run cold. “Elizabeth . . . Elizabeth, I will protect you.” I spun around and staggered when I realized there was no one at all in the room. But I felt something; sensed a presence. I blinked my eyes and took a step forward; I thought I could make out the shape of a person in the shadowed corner of the room. “Hello?” I whispered tentatively.
The voice began again, “Beware the . . .
“Hey there, beautiful!”
I screamed as Chad pulled me into a hug from behind and planted a kiss on my cheek.
He let me go immediately. “Whoa there! You’re jumpy!”
I turned and stared at him with my mouth hanging open. I looked back at the corner. It was empty. Then I shook my head and asked, “Did you see anyone in the hallway?”
“No. Why? What happened?”
“Nothing, nothing . . . just my imagination, I guess.”
Chad sighed and took my hand gently. “You’ve had a shock. I know you said you didn’t know your grandmother, but you’ve always wanted to find out about your family and this must be a real blow to you.”
I smiled and tried to make light of my reaction. “I’m fine, really,” I assured him, pulling my hand away and moving back to my desk to collect my favourite fern.
“Still, maybe you should come over for a drink later. Steve is making samosas!”
“Thanks, but I should get home and finish tidying up—and I’m not that hungry.”
“Well, you should eat . . . but not your cooking . . . I’m sure you want to make your flight tomorrow!”
“Jerk!” I said, balling up a piece of scrap paper and throwing it at him.
“Well, you know you are a shit cook,” he said, catching the paper ball and tossing it into the recycling bin.
I smiled at him warmly. “Takes one to know one! Actually, Chad, I could do with the company,” I said as I looked over at the corner of my room again. “Walk me out to my car?” I asked sheepishly, hugging the potted plant to me.
“Wow, the loner wants to mingle!”
His reaction was not surprising; it was unusual for me to want company. But something about the voice I heard spooked me—it hadn’t been my imagination. I often had dreams in which voices spoke to me and tried to warn me of some danger or other. I usually shook them off and ignored them. But this was different. Someone had broken from my dreams and was trying to send me a message and Chad had interrupted them. I didn’t want to give the speaker an opportunity to finish the message; I knew it wouldn’t be a positive one.
“These samosas are perfect!” I mumbled around a large piece of flaky pastry and delicately seasoned vegetables.
“I’ll give you the recipe,” Steve promised, smiling as he knew I would never make them for myself. “Chad told me you’re leaving tomorrow. So fast! You’ve never been back?”
I swallowed and shook my head. “Mom never told me where we were from exactly, and I’ve had no luck researching my family . . . a lot of dead ends.”
“Well, here’s hoping you get to meet them all. There must be aunts and uncles, cousins . . . someone,” Steve shrugged.
“Yeah, I guess so. When I try to remember people, I just see foggy faces. I mostly recall outdoor places. I have a distinct memory of walking through a meadow of some kind. Grass, then tall trees, and sunshine on my face. I was wearing a white lacy summer dress and holding someone’s hand—I suppose it was Anita’s.”
Chad took my plate, which I had scraped clean, and replaced it with a bowl of fruit. “Do you remember the house you lived in? You must have memories of your home,” he asked.
“I have just one memory. I am sitting on a carpet before a fireplace. Someone is reminding me not to get too close to the flames, and I can hear a baby crying in the background. The room is cramped and small, but cozy,” I said, snapping out of my reverie and adding, “I felt safe there.”
“I wonder who that baby was,” Steve mused. “It’s hard to understand why Anita never kept in touch with your family.”
“When I ask her about her past, she changes the subject. It’s always been just the two of us. You guys are the closest thing to family I have. Anyone I meet in England will be a stranger.”
Chad did not agree. “Family is a bond that endures time and distance—you’ll see. And we will be here for you when you return—you’d better return!” he asserted.
I smiled. “Of course. This is home. I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. In fact, whenever I try to remember my family and think about going back, I have terrible nightmares; I always wake up terrified. Sometimes I think I hear voices or see people out of the corner of my eye. Just today I imagined I heard a voice, but this time it promised to protect me—from what I don’t know.”
“That was just before we left the school today, wasn’t it?” Chad questioned.
“Yes. I thought I saw someone too, but of course it was all in my head.”
Steve stared thoughtfully at his bowl while I dug into my desert, then he spoke. “You should meet our friend, Chandra. She’s into that metaphysical stuff and believes that our subconscious is constantly sending us messages and warnings, but we don’t take the time to tune in.”
“Hey, that’s right!” said Chad. “She’s awesome! Perhaps she could help you sort out your visions and why you’re having them. She and her grandmother do readings and such, and Chandra can put you into some sort of trance—regression therapy—right, Steve?”
“Hm, maybe when I get back,” I said. “I still have to pack and prepare for my journey tomorrow.”
Mr. Bartholomew called as promised the next day and informed me my flight was to leave that afternoon, arriving the following morning, London time. I was not surprised at the expediency; I had expected it.
“Thank you, Mr. Bartholomew. Will I see you when I arrive? I was hoping I could get a ride from the airport,” I hinted.
“Your ride has been arranged. The driver will have a sign. I will see you at my office tomorrow afternoon. You will then be taken to your hotel which has been booked, and we shall attend your grandmother’s funeral the next day.”
I had not expected this level of thoroughness; I was not sure how to respond. “Sounds like everything has been arranged . . . thank you!”
“There is no need to thank me. I am only doing my duty. Until tomorrow, Miss Ayers.”
I checked my suitcase and carryon one last time, and wrote out the plant watering schedule and instructions for the mail while Chad carried my suitcase and carryon bag to his car.
“Bags stowed. Is that for me? Long list!”
“Well, I have no idea how long I’ll be away. I hope everything can be wrapped up in a week or two and then I can get back to my life.”
“Don’t worry; just let me know when you’ll be coming back. I want enough time to replace any plants that I kill.”
“You’d better not!”
“No one can take care of plants as well as you. It’s a freaking jungle in here!” he gestured to the many pots and window boxes.
“So, I have a green thumb,” I said defensively.
“You have too much time on your hands; you need a man in your life.”
“I already have one,” I smiled, grabbing his face and planting a big kiss. “Two if you count Steve—hey, thank him again for dinner last night; it was fantastic.”
Chad would not be ignored. “I mean a man who can see to your needs, and I’m not talking about watering your plants!”
“I have everything I need. I’m happy,” I said, rinsing out my single cup and plate, and placing them in the dish rack.
“You sound just like your mom. She doesn’t sound very convincing either,” Chad quipped. “You girls are far too independent. How come she isn’t going with you anyway?”
“Family drama—ancient history,” I sighed. “Like I said, I’m not sure what it’s all about, but I hope to find out.”
“Well, let’s get going. I want to make sure you get to the airport in plenty of time. I have a vision the traffic is going to be terrible,” he closed his eyes, pressing his fingers to his temples.
I laughed. “Thanks again, Chad. You’re the best. I’ll make sure to keep in touch.”
“You’d better! I want to hear about what your granny left you and all about your kooky family.”
I locked up before following Chad to his car. I ran my fingers over the green door and wondered for a moment if I was doing the right thing. It was all so hurried—I felt pushed and pulled about.
But Chad’s comment got me thinking. I couldn’t help but be curious about what my grandmother had left me in her will. My mother had never mentioned any possible family inheritance or hinted that she had come from wealth. We always had just enough to get by on. And the feud that had separated the family was insurmountable—I was never to bring up the matter.
I knew very little of my father. He died when I was six years old and I think my mother blamed her family somehow. Whenever I asked about him, it only resulted in my mother crying and reaching for the whisky bottle, so I stopped asking.
And when I did try to do some digging, I always came up empty and left with a feeling of dread, wondering what horrible secrets my mother must be covering up. After hearing the eerie voice promising to protect me, I couldn’t imagine what I could possibly need protection from.
It was time for answers. I was ready.
“Excuse me; I think that seat’s mine.” I smiled my best and most apologetic smile and shifted my carryon higher up on my shoulder. The woman sitting in my seat barely glanced up, but sighed loudly and dove downward making a big to-do about digging the ticket out of the purse at her feet.
“I have my ticket right here,” I offered, leaning forward with outstretched hand.
“Well, then, now you can read it and find out your actual seat number,” snapped the seat usurper.
I pursed my lips and took a deep breath, wishing the woman would go up in a puff of smoke. I glanced around, hoping this exchange was not being overheard. My eyes locked for a moment with a man sitting in the row behind 35H. He smiled briefly, and then returned his gaze to the laptop screen in front of him. I bit my lip, wishing this whole interaction would end and willed the catty woman to hurry up and discover her mistake.
“Aha, just as I thought—35H,” sneered my nemesis, thrusting her ticket toward me and waving it so the seat number was impossible to read. A warm rush started in my chest and rose into my cheeks. I knew that I would now have to reexamine my ticket, thus appearing doubtful. God, why couldn’t I have just checked the damn ticket before saying anything? I looked at the piece of paper in my hand, letting my hair fall around my face, hoping it would hide my embarrassment. Sure enough, the number on my ticket read 36H, and I wanted to die.
“I am so sorry; I made a mistake,” I mumbled as I inched sideways to the row behind.
“I can’t believe some people!” exclaimed the woman, rising up in her seat and glancing around the cabin to see if anyone agreed with her. Thankfully, no one seemed concerned, or had in fact appeared to notice the commotion at all.
As I shimmied into row 36, the laptop man smiled slightly as I took my seat beside him. I wasn’t sure, but I think I heard him mutter, “Some people, eh?”
I was distracted by an overweight man lurching past me and taking a seat beside the loud woman. She began relating the story of my blunder, while he grunted into his seatbelt.
I quickly unzipped my bag and dug out a novel—the type of book that is easy to read and has a simple plot line. I found the page I had last paused on and held up the book to stare at it. My eyes were focused forward but my ears were eavesdropping on the woman in front. I wanted to make sure I was not still the topic of discussion. My cheeks flushed again as I realized she was now sharing her opinions on illiteracy and the stupidity of the general populace.
Blinking rapidly, I tried to pay attention to the sentence in front of me. More people were inching down the aisle; bags, tickets and jackets in hand, searching for assigned seats as the time for departure loomed. My peripheral vision caught men, women and children of all shapes and sizes, caught up in the same river that I had been in, heading in the same direction. The difference was they had each other. I was all alone. Well, no turning back now. No choice but to forge on and discover what the future held for me.
“Good book?” asked a gentle voice, breaking my reverie. Oh, God—small talk. I glanced at the man beside me, who was still balancing the computer on his knees, and shrugged my shoulders. “Only I was just wondering,” he added with a sly smile, “because you’ve been staring at the same page for ten minutes.” His voice was musical, with a soft Scottish accent.
I closed my book slowly, laying it on my lap. “Well, the secret’s out; I’m the world’s slowest reader,” I said with a hint of a smile.
At this he grinned widely and leaned in toward me a little. “You have to turn the pages once in a while to fool people,” he whispered conspiratorially. “Like my laptop here—I write during flights; that way I can avoid unwanted chit-chat.” He nodded slightly to his right, indicating a matronly woman with a gossip magazine in her hands. I noticed then how his green eyes sparkled when he smiled. I hadn’t paid much attention to him as he seemed so preoccupied and he was the type of square-jawed handsome that did not usually make an effort to chat with average like me. I was sure he must be trying to make me feel better after my telling off. He was probably bored with his writing and we weren’t even in the air yet.
“If you need a break, you could borrow one of my books. I brought a few to keep me busy and I promise they’re all as captivating as this one,” I joked as I bent to dig out another pulp novel. At seeing the cover, my seat mate brightened and laughed, reaching down into his laptop bag. He flipped a book toward me and I could see it was the same as mine, probably purchased at the same airport bookstore.
“Is it worth cracking the spine?” he asked.
“I was actually going to say you probably wouldn’t enjoy this one . . . or do you like romances?” I questioned carefully, not wanting to insult his literary tastes.
“Is that what it’s about?” he grimaced. “I saw the title—thought it was a mystery. Blood’s Revenge . . . now that doesn’t sound like a love story, does it? What a dunderhead I am,” he added with an infectious laugh. “I guess I should have read the back.” He proffered his right hand, which I gently took in mine, and he introduced himself as Daniel Paterson.
“Libby—avid trashy novel fan.”
“Then I’d better let you get back to your stories,” he suggested. Ah, the brush off. He had touched base politely in case he needed to squeeze by me to the bathroom. Now he could settle back and ignore me for the rest of the trip. At this, the Fasten Your Seatbelts sign came on and I clumsily groped for the restraint. Daniel tucked away his laptop temporarily and smiled at me before turning to stare out of the window.
I was annoyed to discover I was flattered. This interesting man had bothered to engage me—and I didn’t care whether or not his flashing eyes were sincere. I wasn’t usually flummoxed around a man. I preferred to be independent, alone and above silly flirtations and fantasies. I was even more annoyed when I found myself hoping for further conversation once we got underway. Daniel might make this a much more pleasurable trip after all. He may be inclined to chat further if bored enough. And, after all, he had confessed he usually went out of his way to avoid casual interactions.
Had it been my imagination or had he seemed interested in me? Perhaps he had poor eyesight. Perhaps he had a thing for women who embarrassed themselves in public. I smiled at my nervousness and decided to be open to conversation—if Daniel felt like it—but not to put too much into it. After all, I was on a serious venture. This was not a time for furtive glances and innuendos.
The takeoff was uneventful and the plane was soon at a level altitude. The seat belt sign turned off and a few people were up and about. I tried to appear engrossed in my novel but it was hard to pay attention with Daniel typing frantically again next to me. I wondered what he was working on. I began imagining what he did for a living—perhaps a travel writer doing research. He was definitely handsome enough to be on TV—maybe a news anchor or an actor heading to a movie location. I peeked at his profile as discreetly as I could. I wondered if I would recognize him if he were a semi-famous personality.
He suddenly stopped typing and glanced at me. Damn it, he saw me peeking at him. He looked back at his computer screen with a sly smile on his lips. Now with renewed effort, I turned a page in my book and read each word deliberately. I was halfway down the page and making no sense of what I had just read when I noticed movement to my right. Daniel was closing his computer and tucking it away into the carryon at his feet. I kept my eyes on the page in front of me.
“So, why are you traveling to England? If you don’t mind me asking,” he whispered.
I smiled and put down the book. “It’s a long story.”
“I promise I’ll listen if you promise it’s a good one.”
“Don’t know yet—I don’t know the ending,” I said honestly and proceeded to tell him more than I had ever told anyone in one sitting about myself and my life. It was a relief to tell someone about it, and his clear, green eyes made it easy to answer his questions.
“And you haven’t been back in over twenty years? And no contact with any family there?”
“No,” I answered, “and that’s the odd thing. I don’t remember much about my grandmother. I have some vivid recollections of scenery and even specific streets, but not people. I know nothing about my family and my mother never shared anything with me about her past.”
“What’s your family name? You didn’t mention it.”
“Oh—Ayers. It was odd when I found out that it was my mother’s maiden name; I’d always believed my mother and father had married and she’d taken his name. It surprised me that she kept the name of the family she never wanted to see again.”
Daniel furrowed his brow and sat back heavily in his seat.
“Did I say something wrong?”
“Er . . . no. I just wonder at that name—Ayers. I seem to recall some significance to that family name.” he explained.
He was silent for a moment, and then asked, “What happened to drive your mother away, do you think?”
“Not sure,” I shrugged. “She never wants to talk about it.”
When I was done describing how my mother and I spent most of my childhood moving around Canada until settling in Vancouver, he let out a low whistle. “That’s a shame, to be sure! At least you found a place to call home and your mother settled down.”
“I think it was only because she ran out of continent—only the Pacific Ocean after Vancouver. But I do love living there. I couldn’t ask for a more beautiful place to live. Listen to me prattle on—I haven’t even asked about you! Were you on vacation?”
“I photograph and write about historical homes and landmarks.”
“Fascinating! For work or pleasure?”
“A little of both; I write for various magazines and there are some very interesting locations in North America.”
“Which magazines? Any I might know?”
“I doubt it—a very particular readership. What is it that you do?”
His fast change in subject did not escape me; so, I went on to describe the school and the kids who both frustrated and inspired me daily. I found myself wondering if they missed me. I hadn’t had a chance to say goodbye.
“Sounds like you love your job. My sister is a teacher too—in Bristol, where we live. We’re flat mates.”
“Oh,” I said, surprised he admitted living with his sister.
“I travel a lot, so having a place of my own doesn’t make much sense. Kendra travels in the summer, so that’s when I try to stay at home and enjoy the peace and quiet. Family is nice, but I prefer it when I can have some time to myself. I’m usually a bit of a loner.”
He seemed to be rambling a little; he was nervous—not as relaxed as he had been at first.
“I see. You’re flying into London, so is Bristol quite close?” I asked, wondering why his fingers tapped against the arm of the seat.
“About two hour’s drive—not too bad. I’m staying in London for a day or two though. Going over the pictures with my editor and attending some boring meetings. Maybe we could get together for dinner if your schedule allows. I’d love to hear more about your family; the last name certainly rings some bells—may have some historical importance,” Daniel suggested. He smiled then and relaxed when he noticed a flush appear in my cheeks.
It had been a long time since any man had asked me to dinner, besides Chad. “You’ve got to stop avoiding men, Libby.” Chad had told me many times. “You aren’t getting any younger, and let’s face it—the selection is narrowing every day.”
I quickly agreed to dine with this handsome stranger so I could prove Chad wrong. Daniel was hardly a stranger anymore, though. We knew so much about each other already. Introducing yourself on a long flight can have its drawbacks; but, apparently, also its benefits. I did find myself checking the third finger of his left hand, though—can’t be too careful. I wasn’t sure I believed the story about his sister; something about the way he described his life seemed restrained. He was abrupt in his descriptions and encouraged me to talk more than him—I wasn’t that interesting.
It was then that the flight attendants began their trek down the aisle, handing out snacks and requesting drink orders. When a striking blonde reached our seats, she quickly took my order and tossed me some crackers and a soda, then became much more animated as she smiled and spent some time discussing her job with Daniel. She dragged her polyester clad elbow across my forehead as she slid him his drink, but didn’t seem to notice. She laughed loudly at a couple of his weak jokes, commenting on his adorable accent, and then winked as she continued to the neglected row in front of us. The loud woman complained about the speed of the service and the skimpy snack.
So, Daniel was that sort of man—flirting with anyone who was interested. Suddenly I regretted how open I’d been with him. He obviously had more than enough attention-seekers to occupy him. But, I had already agreed to dinner, and I supposed it was better than eating alone.
After landing, we exchanged numbers and he helped me find my suitcase before I went with the hired driver who met me at the arrivals gate. I took one last look at Daniel before the glass doors closed behind me. At first—but I must have been mistaken—he glared at me with a burning intensity. But it was over in a flash. He smiled and waved, and I turned to leave.
England is so different from the motherland in my mind. Everything looks smaller and wetter than the jigsaw-pieces making up the pastoral scenes of memory. Granted, there are large chunks missing; and, obviously, I now realized the missing bits were the blurry, foggy, drizzly bits that I had blocked out because of the sheer difficulty of fitting them into the pretty, green England I liked to imagine. I know it’s there somewhere; I’d seen it in paintings and on PBS. And I did have memories of meadows and trees and running wobbly-footed on sun-warmed cobblestones. I had hoped the happy images would help to get me through a funeral for someone I didn’t remember at all. But all I could see from the cab was a dull-coloured city of stone and smog.
The rain definitely did not help. It just made me feel like adding to the general dampness of the place with a few tears. Better get moving, I thought, after the driver deposited me on the sidewalk. I didn’t want to get any colder and more soaked than I was already. It would have been helpful if the driver had been kind enough to drop me a little closer to my destination; but for some reason, he had trouble finding the address. Odd—I seemed to know which way to go without checking the brass numbers beside the doorways of the Edwardian townhouses.
Frederick Bartholomew’s office was off the main road and up a winding, steep stairway. Dragging a suitcase and a carryon did not ease the ascent. Finally arriving at a heavy wooden door, I knocked and entered. The office was large and comfortable and the receptionist welcomed me in a crisp manner. I was to wait for a few moments and she offered to watch my bags for me. I accepted, happy to have someone else worry about them.
“Miss Ayers! Delighted to finally meet you,” a tall, heavy-set man announced as he approached from his inner office.
“Mr. Bartholomew. Yes, I made it. Long flight and I’m exhausted, and wet.”
The lawyer offered me a clean handkerchief to dab my face. “Come, come. Tea?”
“Ms. Farnsworth, could we have a tray brought in please? Now, make yourself comfortable, Miss Ayers. We have a few items to go over,” Bartholomew added as he showed me into his wood paneled office and into a large leather chair. “This is my office in town. I do have a small office in the country, but I prefer to do most of my work from here. Less distractions for me; I have some very demanding clients in the country.” He attempted a smile.
As soon as the solicitor was seated behind his desk, he leaned back and pressed his fingertips together. He examined me as I settled into my chair. I felt his eyes bore into me, watching for reactions as he began.
“Your grandmother will be interred tomorrow in the family tomb.”
Well, he knew how to get right to the point! “I didn’t even know there was a family . . . tomb.” I almost choked on the word.
“Quite. Yes, I am aware your grandmother has had no communication with you or your mother for over twenty years, so I am sure there is a lot you do not know,” he assumed correctly. He pursed his lips and read over a few lines in a document before him. “Apparently it was your mother’s wish for you to have no contact with your grandmother, and Ms. Ayers has certainly kept her promise not to contact you—until now. As I have already stated, you are the only beneficiary of the estate, and the only family member invited to the funeral.”
“Excuse me. There’s other family?”
Bartholomew adjusted his tie, and waited until his secretary had finished laying out the tea and plate of cookies. Once Ms. Farnsworth exited the room, he answered my question.
“Ah, yes. There is an uncle; your mother’s brother, Walter. Your grandmother gave him a gift of money before her passing, on the understanding that he would not be present at the funeral, or the reading of the will. There are other relatives who you will find out about later, no doubt. Now, on with the particulars.”
I could not sit through the will reading without further explanation. “I’m sorry, Mr. Bartholomew, but this is all very sudden and very strange to me. First, I find I have a grandmother who recently passed, now an uncle I never knew about, and you’re telling me I’m the only heir to an estate I had no expectation of. I’m sure you understand how overwhelmed I feel—not to mention jetlagged,” I added, rubbing my temples.
“You find it odd that the estate will pass directly to you and not your mother or uncle, yes?”
“Yes,” I nodded and leaned forward.
“It would have gone to your mother, but she forfeited any rights when she left England. Your uncle was never a candidate for the inheritance.”
I shook my head, not understanding this statement at all.
Bartholomew noticed my confused expression. “Though not common in our culture, there are ancient civilizations that practiced matrilineal succession—and still do,” he tried to explain, but I must have looked further perplexed, as he added, “In which the decedent leaves property to the daughter, niece or granddaughter—female to female inheritance.”
“I see. But why would the Ayers family practice this?”
“It has been so for many hundreds of years, as far back as I have cared to investigate. I am surprised—you seem adverse to the idea.”
“Not at all; I’m just confused by the whole arrangement and the apparent secrecies of my family. There seems to be a lot I need to learn.”
“Many of your questions will be answered when you arrive at Netherdale,” Mr. Bartholomew assured me.
“Netherdale? What’s in Netherdale?”
“Netherdale is the family home you have inherited. A modest manor house located in Glastonbury—where I have my country office. It’s not far from Bristol. But, it is necessary that you agree to certain terms before the property can be signed over into your name.”
“Terms?” I asked, stunned that I was about to inherit an English manor, for crying out loud.
“Yes, terms. Clearly set out in your grandmother’s will; and, they must be agreed upon and followed to the letter. I will allow you some time to read over the document in its entirety; but in simplest language, you are to reside in the home for the next two months. If you do not wish to live in the house after two months, you may leave but not sell the home. It is to be left in your will to any female heirs of yours, or your cousins. I have already drawn up a will for you which you also need to sign before we can proceed.”
“Cousins? I have cousins? My uncle’s children?”
“Yes, a daughter and a son, and there are some other distant relatives who may lay claim if you do not produce any female progeny.”
“I think I will read that over if I may. I need some time for all this to sink in,” I said, shaking my head and reaching for the document.
“I will enjoy my cup of tea and biscuits if you don’t mind, while you read. I am partial to mid-afternoon refreshment.”
“Yes, please—go ahead,” I said as I reached for a cup he had just poured out for me. I stirred in some sugar and settled down to read. It did not take as long as I had expected. My eyes widened when I read the amount of money left to me, and narrowed when I read the odd requests from Wilhelmina Ayers . . . like no gentleman callers. Grandmother didn’t like men, I guess; I was surprised she had any children at all. I must also agree to allow my Uncle Walter to remain in the cottage on the grounds of Netherdale and attend to the gardens.
The oddest thing I read was contained in the will that had been drawn up especially for me. It stated that when I die I must agree that my body be placed in the family vault and under no circumstances should I be cremated. This I found very intrusive as I had imagined—when I thought about the unsavory subject at all—I would prefer cremation over burial. Entombment seemed so ancient and creepy. Wilhelmina Ayers certainly liked to control things. I would need some time to think about this arrangement. I was being pushed into a decision that forty-eight hours ago had not even been on my radar. Or was it less than forty-eight hours? Traveling through time zones threw me off for days.
I sipped the last of my tea and sat back with a sigh. The lawyer noticed I had finished reading and set aside his cup and observed me again over his entwined fingers. “So, do you have any questions, Miss Ayers? No doubt you would like a few minutes to think it over before signing.”
“No, everything seems clear and to the point, but I am going to need more than a few minutes. Would you mind if I took these and thought about it overnight?”
“Miss Ayers, your grandmother made it very clear your decision must come before she is laid to rest. She will not be buried with the matter undecided. If you do not accept this generous offer, I will have to repeat this reading with a cousin which was not your grandmother’s wish at all. She wants the manor kept in her direct female lineage. It is meant to be yours. I will allow the decision to be put off until morning, but I must insist the paperwork not leave my office; and you must speak of this to no one. You are welcome to read it over one more time while I order the car to take you to your hotel.”
“Thank you, I appreciate that,” I managed to say without meaning it. I was irked by the way this was all being handled. I began to wish my mother were here. She never put up with anything she didn’t like and I had never witnessed her being pushed around like this. She just wouldn’t tolerate it. But that’s where we were always different.
I took the time to read through the will one more time; then realized how exhausted I was . . . and I still had a lot to mull over.
Once back at the hotel, I found just thinking about my situation didn’t help; I needed to speak to someone, despite the warning not to. What could it hurt? I considered my mom, but didn’t think she would have an objective perspective. As much as I adored Chad, and he was fun to hang out with, he was far too opinionated to be open-minded in this unusual situation; and he would hate that I had to be away for so long. I needed someone to act like a sounding board—a good listener. I glanced around the room, and my eyes came to rest on the business card I had accepted from Daniel. He had made an offer of dinner, and he would at least be attentive—he had said he was interested to hear more. I bit my lip and grabbed my phone.
“So, you say you have until tomorrow to decide whether or not to accept the house?” Daniel asked while cutting into his steak.
“Yes, and I’m not sure I’m willing to give up the next two months of my life, and the choice of how and where I’ll be buried.”
“May I put in my tuppence worth?”
“Your opinion? Yes! That’s why I just bored you with all the details. Please—your thoughts!” I waggled my fingers, urging him on.
“Well, first: not boring at all,” he smiled at me, resting his knife on his plate. “Second: two months is nothing to decide something so important; third: when you’re dead, you aren’t going to care a wee bit where you’re buried; and fourth—” he paused for dramatic effect.
“We definitely need another bottle of wine!” he said, lifting his almost empty glass.
I laughed and agreed. He ordered another bottle from our waiter before continuing with more seriousness. “You have an amazing opportunity here. I think if you had more time to appreciate it, you’d be thankful and accept. I say relax for the rest of the evening, and the answer will come in the morning,” he said, topping up my glass to the rim.
My eyes popped. “That, or an incredible hangover.”
When dinner was finished, I leaned on Daniel as he walked me back to my hotel. His strong arm was warm and I felt safe and protected. We continued discussing what the manor in Glastonbury might look like, and I admitted I was intrigued.
“If you want to, we could check it out,” Daniel offered.
“The house? How?” I asked.
He swung the messenger bag he was carrying around to the front of his body. “I brought my laptop. Didn’t want to leave it in my hotel. We could Google it.”
“Do you think there’d be much information?”
“Only one way to find out!” he said as he held open the lobby door.
We hurried up the two flights to my room and set up his laptop on the small table in the corner by the bed. After plugging it into the outlet, he opened his browser and typed in Netherdale Manor. There were a few entries. The first explained a little of the history of the Tudor house which was built on land occupied by the resident family since 1542. But the author admitted some doubt as to his sources. Images showed sketches of a stone façade, with a sharply peaked roof and many multi-paned windows. The front door was set back into the center of the house with two wings sheltering a small courtyard before it. The house had three stories. One of the entries described how the owners had fiercely protected their privacy over the years, and would admit no one but the closest of family members.
Daniel read out tidbits of information while I scrolled through grainy pictures. “Over four hundred years old. Passed on from mother to daughter . . . descended from a noble family . . . Countess Arcos! Gosh, you might be royalty!” he admired. “No admittance to the public—yes, thank you, we know that—sheltered from view by thirteen acres of thick woodland. Hmm, here’s something interesting: The Ayers family is reported to have given rise to the Neopagan rituals now common practice in much of Glastonbury and surrounding counties. The Countess Arcos fled Moldavia, now Romania, where she was persecuted for her beliefs.” Daniel stopped and pushed the computer away from him. “Okay this is getting too weird. It’s time I came clean with you.”
I smirked at first, and then realized he was serious. “What do you mean?”
“I knew I recognized the family name and now I remember why. My work introduced me to your family history years ago.” Daniel paused while he reached into his messenger bag and pulled out a tattered notebook, flipping over the pages while he continued talking. “I don’t usually tell people everything I write about because I get really odd looks, if truth be told.”
“You’re not a writer for various magazines with . . . ‘a very particular readership’?” I quoted him sarcastically.
He smiled and continued. “Yes, but I don’t just cover famous historical sites. Mostly they are reputed to be involved in the occult.” He watched me closely for a reaction. “This house—Netherdale. I remember the name. It was one that my editor said he would love to get a story on, but we couldn’t contact the owner. There were rumors it was haunted. Whether you accept this house or not, I want in!” He turned the book toward me and jabbed at one entry, scrawled in small, tight handwriting. “I would do anything for the story. Any chance I could speak to that solicitor?”
I took the book in my hands. “Well, there goes my objective advisor,” I bemoaned. I read through his brief notes; then handed it back to him. I could make nothing of the scribbles and drawings of stars and circles.
I closed his laptop and grabbed the bottle of water I had helped myself to from the mini fridge.
“Sorry, Libby. I got excited there for a moment. I should leave you to think about your decision. Er, would you mind giving me a ring in the morning and letting me know what you decide?”
I managed a half-smile. “Sure, and thanks for your help, Daniel.”
“You’re more than welcome. Thanks for joining me for dinner, and sharing this with me. Don’t you think it extremely odd that we meet on a flight only to find we’re going to be less than an hour apart—Glastonbury is just a short trip from Bristol—and you inherit a house I’ve tried to gain access to in the past? I think it’s . . . it’s . . . ”
“Spooky?” I helped him out.
“Yeah,” he said, staring at me for a moment with concern. “Look, I’m all for fate and karma and all that, but this is just sort of freaky, don’t you think?”
“Let’s not get carried away. It’s a coincidence and nothing more. I happened to sit next to a writer on a plane to England. Of course you would know this area—you’re from around here. It’s not a huge stretch you might write about old houses—I’m sure there are lots with mysterious histories.”
“Right, right. I guess so. You’ll find out more in the morning. You should get some sleep,” he said, heading toward the door. “Hey! You’d make a great journalist; stick to the facts—that’s one of the first things I learned about writing. I tend to bend those facts a little these days,” he said with a wink. “Anyway, goodnight, Libby. I hope to talk to you tomorrow.”
I walked him to the door, preparing to close and lock it behind him, but he surprised me by turning and kissing me on the cheek. “Thanks for a great evening.”
I smiled and looked down at my feet as he left, closing the door quietly behind him.
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