Brand New! I hope you’ll enjoy the excerpt of A Stranger in Wynnedower. Release date November 2012.
Please visit me at www.GraceGreeneAuthor.com
Rachel Sevier, a thirty-two year old inventory specialist, travels to Wynnedower Mansion in Virginia to find her brother who has stopped returning her calls. Instead, she finds Jack Wynne, the mansion’s bad-tempered owner. He isn’t happy to meet her. When her brother took off without notice, he left Jack in a lurch.
Jack has his own plans. He’s tired of being responsible for everyone and everything. He wants to shake those obligations, including the old mansion. The last thing he needs is another complication, but he allows Rachel to stay while she waits for her brother to return.
At Wynnedower, Rachel becomes curious about the house and its owner. If rumors are true, the means to save Wynnedower Mansion from demolition are hidden within its walls, but the other inhabitants of Wynnedower have agendas, too. Not only may Wynnedower’s treasure be stolen, but also the life of its arrogant master.
In letting go of what she has struggled to control and hold onto, will Rachel gain more than she could have dreamed? Or will she lose everything and everyone she cares about?
A Stranger in Wynnedower (excerpt)
Rachel Sevier stared at the monstrous stone house, and its rows of blank, dirty windows stared back.
She’d driven from Baltimore to Virginia, to this area called Goochland. After leaving the interstate, there’d been a pocket of shiny new construction—a small shopping center and houses—but that snippet of civilization was quickly gone and then she was deep in the woods.
Jeremy had given her directions: drive until the trees crowd in close and the road looks like it’s about to end, then keep driving. She had.
Wynnedower Mansion, built of gray stone and mellow wood, looked out of place, as if a giant hand had plucked it from the gently rolling hills of England, dropped it into this clearing, and left it to rot amid honeysuckle vines and Virginia creeper.
Not quite what she’d expected. To her, the word ‘mansion’ meant something a little more upscale.
Gnats swarmed in the humidity. Rachel shooed them away. Hers was the only car here, and there was no one else, including Jeremy, anywhere in sight.
Several weeks ago, with graduation barely behind him, he’d told her he was taking a job at Wynnedower as a caretaker. He already had a real job in Richmond and was supposed to be preparing for graduate studies, but he wanted to be independent. It’s a great deal, Rachel, he’d said. No rent in exchange for part-time caretaking.
Caretaking? Really? She adored her baby brother, six-foot-two, golden-haired and smart—so different from her own appearance that no one believed they were related until they saw their eyes. There was no mistaking their unusual eye color. But handsome or not, he wasn’t trained in security and had no handyman skills. The worst of it was he’d stopped returning her calls two weeks ago, right after he told her he’d met a girl. He’d said it in that special way in which girl didn’t just mean girl—it meant everything bright and shiny and worth living for.
It was a big sister’s job to inject reality and practicality and she’d done her duty. He hadn’t appreciated it, and it wasn’t the first time they’d disagreed, but he’d never stopped talking to her before.
Finally, she gave in to worry and moved up her visit. Luckily, the change in timing worked for her current job and for the new job she hoped to get, but she needed to find her brother before she could get on with her plans.
She tucked her cell phone and keys into the pockets of her suit jacket and locked her purse in the car.
Scraggly bushes obscured the ground level of the house. A wide stairway bypassed that level and led to the main floor. Rachel paused at the entrance. A broken doorbell dangled by a wire. She settled for knocking.
There was no shade on the porch. She tapped her shoe, tugged at the neck of her blouse and fanned the front of her jacket. She should’ve waited until after she’d arrived before getting into this suit.
The suit was out of place here. Dressy and expensive, it was not in the budget, but it made a bold statement and was perfect for the event she planned to attend in Richmond that evening. She straightened her skirt, brushed off a speck of lint, and knocked again.
No answer. She tested the knob, barely touching it, yet the door swung slowly inward on silent hinges.
The foyer was the size of her apartment living room, but without a stick of furniture or decoration. Ahead, a wide opening led to an even larger room.
She leaned inside and called out, “Jeremy?”
Her voice traveled through unseen rooms and echoed back emptiness.
Rachel stepped inside and eased the front door closed. As she crossed the bare wood of the foyer her heels clattered. No one had responded to her call; she was surely alone here. Even so, she removed her shoes and tucked them under her arm.
This room was vast and high-ceilinged. The walls were a mess of half-stripped wallpaper and dingy paint, but the air was surprisingly, deliciously cool. She paused to soak it in. To her right, a wide staircase climbed halfway to the second floor, did a U-turn and continued upward.
Did she dare?
She’d risk anything for Jeremy.
Dark wood balusters led the way. Upstairs, doors and shadowy alcoves ringed a spacious landing. A hallway continued onward, but she didn’t follow it because the only light filtered up by way of the stairs and it was too dim to see properly. The doors on the landing each presented the same paneled surface with faceted glass door knobs set into cast iron plates.
She turned the knob of the nearest door. Locked. The door directly across was locked, too. She stooped to peer through the keyhole.
A gruff shout jolted her. “What are you doing?”
He was a tall man, broad and unshaven, with long, unruly black hair. His jeans were rumpled and worn, and marred by paint smears. He wore an unbuttoned, wrinkled cotton shirt over a white t-shirt.
Rachel stumbled back a few steps, then steadied herself. She pointed her spiked heels at him. “Who are you?”
The dark hall deepened the shadows beneath his brows, making his face impossible to read. She felt his eyes take in her shoes, her suit, then drop down to her nearly bare feet. She felt even shorter than she was.
“You’re trespassing. Get out,” he said, his voice rough and uncompromising.
“Is Jeremy Sevier here?”
“If you’re a jilted girlfriend, that’s not my problem. If you’re hunting antiques, you’re a looter.”
“Looter?” Outrage pushed her fear aside. “I’m his sister. Where’s Jeremy?”
“Sister? He didn’t leave a note. Get out.” He turned and walked toward the alcove.
“Wait, tell me what you mean. He left? Why?”
He looked back and glared. “Ask him when you find him.”
“You said he didn’t leave a note. What did you mean?”
“What I said. He didn’t notify the property management company he was leaving, so unless he sends a postcard from wherever, I don’t expect to hear from him.”
Fear curled up hard and cold in her belly. “How can you be sure he simply left?”
“That something didn’t happen to him?”
He moved a few, deliberate steps toward her. “If it did, it didn’t happen here.”
Past her first shock and with her eyes better adjusted to the low light, Rachel realized that his clothing, though shabby, was clean. She detected a whiff of soap. The wild hair that had looked stringy was actually still drying, and the stubble on his face obscured the strong bone structure.
“Are you the owner?”
He made a rude noise. “Owner? Right.” He pointed toward the stairs. “The door is that way. Leave or I’ll call the police. Trespassing is a crime.” He walked away, dismissing her.
Rachel waited, breathless, disbelieving his behavior and expecting him to return. Her hands fisted. This man was no help. An impediment, that’s all he was. And he’d left, arrogantly assuming she’d follow orders, so he was also foolish.
She went to the stairs, but only descended a few steps, then waited as the sound of his footfalls grew distant. If she moved quickly, she could check the other doors before he returned.
The door opposite the alcove was unlocked. It opened. The brighter light straggling in through the grimy window was a welcome sight.
The corded plaid spread on the bed—she recognized it. She’d purchased one for Jeremy years earlier. He’d taken it with him to college, and this one was bedraggled enough to have been in use for a decade, but it was a common style and proved nothing, really.
A comb, a few pennies and a green dry cleaners’ tag littered the top of the dresser. Old paperbacks were stacked in a corner. Nothing identifiable as Jeremy’s.
Unlike the floor below, the air up here was musty and hot. Rachel tossed her shoes onto the bed. Through the window, she saw her car below. She pushed up on the window sash. It was out of alignment and budged only one stubborn inch. She gained another inch on the second try but left it at that lest she break a nail. After all, she had plans for the evening, plus the job interview in the morning.
Rachel shrugged off her suit jacket and hung it on the door knob. With the door open and the window up a bit, the fresher air made the heat more bearable. The silk shell stuck to her back. She pulled it away from her damp skin.
She searched the room. The closet was empty except for plastic hangers. In the drawers, she found a few socks with threadbare heels and an old pair of jeans. There were so few personal items. Yet this was where she’d expected to find him and she found it hard to give up that idea. Then she hit jackpot—a sweater she’d given him two Christmases ago.
Relief washed over her. She leaned against the dresser, elbows resting on the scarred wood and her face in her hands. Jeremy hadn’t been a kid in a long time, but she’d raised him, bandaged his scrapes and fussed at him to do his homework. As he grew and towered over her, she’d worked to support him. He’d always be her baby brother and he was the only family she had left.
The lack of possessions in the room suggested he’d moved out, at least in part, perhaps in haste. Next, she’d talk to his employer—his real employer, not this guy.
Who was this man, anyway? A handyman? A new caretaker? Had Jeremy already been replaced? She slapped the top of the dresser.
A waft of cooler breeze caught her by surprise and caressed her face. She closed her eyes, relishing the relief brought by the stronger draft—until the door slammed shut.
Momentary blankness swamped her. She gripped the edge of the dresser and drew in a long, slow breath. Calmly, she walked to the door, twisted the knob and pulled. Nothing.
“Hello?” She called out in a reasonable voice, then louder, “Hello?”
The man must have opened an exterior door. The air had sucked through like a wind tunnel, pulling the door along with it.
Rachel grabbed the knob and rattled it, shaking the door. She added her other hand, getting a firm grip on the knob.
Whoa, Rachel. No need to panic.
She released the doorknob and brushed her moist palms against her skirt.
Breathe deeply. Think it through.
He had opened a door, probably the front door for the draft to have such force. He’d see her car and come back. If not, no problem. She had a phone. She could call for help. She’d deal with trespassing issues later.
Rachel patted her sides. No pockets. No jacket. She turned to the bed, but only her shoes were there. Her jacket wasn’t on the floor; therefore, it was on the other side of the door, out of reach, with her phone in the pocket.
She drew in a long, deep breath, closed her eyes tightly and focused, willing it to happen. She visualized that rude man from his dark hair and shirt to the jeans with paint marks and the broken down loafers. He gets angry when he sees the car and realizes she ignored his order to leave. He storms up the stairs. Her red jacket hangs from the doorknob like a flag. He sees it and understands what has happened, that this falling down house has trapped her.
Her heart pounded.
No panic allowed.
She slumped against the door and sneezed.
More than a century of dust, long settled into the sinews of the house, seemed to swell and fill the hot air. Stuffy and a headache-maker, for sure. Now, thinking about heat and dust, she was thirsty, too.
The mattress dipped as she sat on the edge and stared at the door. Perspiration prickled at her hairline, and rivulets trickled down her spine.
She squashed her fear by focusing on reality. This delay jeopardized her evening plans. Time wise, it was a good thing she was already dressed for the reception because, if that awful man rescued her soon, she could still make the museum reception.
Oh, Jeremy. Where are you?
Suddenly she saw what was right in front of her: a gap of about one-half inch, maybe a bit more, between the door and the floor. Rachel dropped to her knees and peered through the opening.
Her jacket had fallen to the floor.
It was a dark, reddish mound in the dim hallway. If she could snag the material with a hanger, she could pull it, along with her phone, through the gap.
The pantyhose would never survive a sprawl on the floor. They were hot, too. She slipped them down her legs, then folded and tucked them into the top dresser drawer along with the lonely socks, presumably Jeremy’s. The scatter rug would protect her skirt from the dirty floor.
Plastic hanger in hand, she lay down on the rug. It scrunched up beneath her. She smoothed it out and tried again. Cheek to the floor, she pushed the hanger through. Slowly, the crook went into a fold. She coaxed the red fabric toward the door.
Sweat broke out in the parts of her body that had been dry until now. She ignored it, as well as the grainy feel of the dirt between her cheek and the floor boards, and focused on the jacket. It slid, making a soft brushing sound against the floor. It came loose, but close to the door. She stretched her fingers through the opening. It was a snug fit and the bottom edge of the door scraped her skin, but lightly. She touched the fabric with the tips of her fingers.
A shadow fell across the jacket.
She held her breath. Why wasn’t he saying anything? Her fingers were sticking out. He had to know she was here. She pulled her hand back, rose to her knees and banged on the door.
“Please, help me. Get me out of here. I’m trapped.” Ear to the door, she listened in vain. “Hello? Who’s out there?”
She pressed her cheek to the floor and watched as the shadow moved. A floorboard creaked, and then there was nothing except the jacket and that narrow view of the hallway.
Anger bubbled in her veins; the heat in the room faded by comparison. Someone had stood, watching, hearing her pleas for help, yet had abandoned her without a word. Adrenaline fueled her anger. She stretched her fingers forward again, beneath the door, and pushed half of her hand through. Her flesh tore, but she snagged the fabric between two fingers and pulled. The jacket came forward. The red fabric peeked through the gap below the door, but then stopped.
Was it the phone or the keys? She didn’t know, didn’t care. A tight fit, but they would fit. She would make them fit.
Rachel grasped the sleeve with both hands and tugged. She half-rose to improve her leverage and pulled harder. On her feet, she gripped the fabric in both hands and yanked for all she was worth. The scatter rug slipped. She launched, feet up and backside down, and smashed onto the floor.
Stunned, winded, coated in sweat, she lay there gasping to refill her lungs. In her hand, she clutched one red sleeve.
After a few minutes, the pain eased in her lungs and back. She rubbed her face. A coarse film of dirt covered her hands and cheeks.
She’d saved her pantyhose, but the suit jacket—the expensive suit she couldn’t afford—was torn and no longer wearable for the reception.
Her eyes burned. She closed them tightly forcing the tears to remain unshed.
She’d hoped to get that job by going to the reception looking fabulously chic. It seemed a great idea while she was sitting amid H-frames stacked with plumbing fixtures and supplies, counting the stock and making plans. The intersection of daydreams and reality was a harsh, smack-you-in-the-face, experience.
Lying there on the floor, she remembered she was resilient. The museum people hadn’t been expecting her tonight, and she might have said the wrong things and screwed it up, so maybe it was just as well. Her actual job interview wasn’t until tomorrow. After a bath and a good night’s rest, she’d make an unforgettable first impression. After she found an inexpensive hotel room for the night. After she got out of this prison.
She needed to think, but first she needed to rest a bit, just long enough to stop her head from spinning, and to get her thoughts together.
Rachel crawled over to the bed and hauled herself up onto the old bedspread. She stretched out flat on her back and tried to imagine ‘cold.’
Eyes closed, she envisioned a tall glass of ice water with condensation gathering on the sides. Ice cubes, clear as crystal, filled the glass. She focused on the image and the chill radiating from it cooled her face. She held it, in her mind’s eye, and touched it to her forehead, her temples, and sighed.
Her head was splitting, and it was dark. Sweat had soaked her silk shell. The fabric had dried and felt pasted to her skin. Rachel raised her hand and heard a male voice say, “Don’t move.”
Her immediate reaction was to do exactly that, but her limbs felt sluggish. Where was she? Jeremy’s room? She remembered. She’d climbed onto the bed.
“Lie still. I have a damp cloth.” He laid it across her forehead, and then stepped away. A soft light snapped on across the room. “What happened? Do you need an ambulance?”
“No, it was just the heat.”
“Then why didn’t you leave?”
Was the man blind? “The door was jammed shut.”
“No, it wasn’t.”
Pushing the cloth higher on her forehead, she raised herself slowly upright and lowered her legs over the side of the bed. Beyond the window was night. What had happened to the day?
“I don’t think you should stand yet.”
“I fell asleep, that’s all.”
His hair was disordered, some of it caught into a short ponytail at the nape of his neck. He looked a century out of date. Those dark, heavy eyebrows hadn’t improved either. He was probably angry and, honestly, who could blame him?
She asked, “Did you see my jacket on the hallway floor? Or was it the car out front that got your attention?”
“It was the open door. I keep them closed and locked. Your jacket is hanging on the bedpost.”
He’d ignored her question about the jacket on the floor. She let it go, too weary to push.
“Thanks for picking it up.”
“I didn’t. It was already hanging there.”
The cool washcloth against her face helped. Was she dreaming? Had she been hallucinating? No. Her legs were bare. She knew what had happened. If this man would lie about a door being jammed, then there was no point in asking why he’d ignored her plea for help.
Rachel pushed off the bed and onto her feet. She handed him the dirty, but neatly re-folded washcloth.
“I’ll give you my cell number. If you hear anything from Jeremy, please contact me. I have an appointment in the morning. If there’s no word from him by that time, I’ll go to the police and file a report.”
“The police? A report?” He stopped in the open doorway, seeming to fill it.
“Of course. To file a missing persons report.”
“Do you believe he qualifies as missing?”
Her heart said ‘yes.’ “He’s not here, he doesn’t answer the phone, and neither of us knows where he is. I have to do something.”
“Where are you staying?”
All he needed was her cell number. The creepiness of knowing he’d watched her from the hallway without speaking a word rankled. For heaven’s sake, she’d groveled on the dirty floor with a stupid plastic hanger.
“I’ll find a hotel in town. Do you have something to write my number on?”
“Just say it. I’ll remember it.”
In the dresser mirror, Rachel caught sight of herself and every other thought was swamped. Her silk top was stained with dirt and sweat. Her dark hair was frazzled and stuck to her grime-coated cheeks.
Bitter words overwhelmed her self-control. “You act so concerned now. Where was that concern when you stood in the hallway watching me trying to force my jacket through the crack? I’ll bet that was quite a show. Did you have a good laugh? Why didn’t you open the door?”
He drew back. “What are you talking about?”
“Please. Who else could it have been?”
“Your imagination? Or a trespasser like you?”
She stormed past him, then paused at the top of the stairs. “What’s your name?”
“Call me Jack.”
“I don’t want to call you anything. I want to know what name to give the police when I file the report.”
His face hardened. He crossed his arms. “Do what you have to do. I doubt they’ll be interested. Jeremy—is that his name? Jeremy’s a grown man and single. He probably moved into town with a girl. There’d be a lot more to interest him there, and maybe he didn’t think it was his sister’s business.”
He held out her jacket. “Don’t forget this.”
Rachel grabbed it from him and went straight to the stairs. She didn’t stop until she reached the bottom where she paused to put on her shoes.
He called down. “Wait, I’ll walk you out.”
“No thanks.” She took the keys from her pocket and entered the night.
Dark. Breathless dark. It hit her like a wall. She stopped. This was not city dark.
An exterior light switched on with a puny glow.
Thanks for nothing, Jack.
Jack? The owner? She wasn’t surprised. At some point, she’d figured it out even though he’d denied it earlier. Or had he denied it? Her brain was mush.
She held on to the iron stair rail as she descended. The car was parked a few yards away where she’d left it hours ago.
The lower level of the house, that area behind the bushes, was black as pitch. It was unnerving to look into the void. No sight. No sound.
Rachel hit the door unlock button on her key fob. Nothing happened. She hit it again and again.
Desperation rising, she fumbled the key trying to fit it into the lock, but finally got it and the door opened. Once in the driver’s seat, she pushed the manual door lock. Only then was she able to draw in a deep, cleansing, calming breath.
Refusing to accept the car was dead, she inserted the key into the ignition and turned. Nothing happened. The darker than pitch area ahead of her seemed to swell. It swallowed the world beyond the windshield.
A light flickered from within the bushes.
Too much. It was too much.
Calm down. Think it out, Rachel.
Should she call a tow truck? If she could get to a hotel, she could deal with the car in the morning. But the expense of a cab…costly, either way.
She hadn’t dialed information in years. Hoping information was still 4-1-1, she punched the number in and hit dial. No ringing, there was only an unfunny series of beeps. She read the screen. The battery was low. The message suggested charging the phone immediately. What next?
Phone dead. Car, too. The heat. The dirt. The manicure. Tears squeezed from Rachel’s eyes. How shallow was it to cry over a manicure? It was the safest thing to cry about. Not her missing brother. Not the events in the house. Not home. Not her aloneness.
If she returned to the porch and knocked on the door, would he answer? Or had he already vanished into whatever cave he hid in when he wasn’t frightening lone women and trespassers?
Pull yourself together. You’re an adult.
Things happened. Everyone knew that.
Suddenly, she wanted to speak to Daisy, to hear her friend’s sympathy and common sense. Daisy would say, ‘You just need a bath and a good night’s sleep.’
Daisy was right.
She’d deal with one thing at a time.
Tonight, she needed a place to stay and a mechanic or tow truck. She’d call Martin Ballew at the museum in the morning and reschedule the interview for later in the day. He’d understand. Meanwhile, she’d do what she had to do.
The porch light still burned. She removed the keys from the ignition.
Something brushed the side of the car. Her side, but nearer the back seat.
She was overwrought; she pushed away panic.
Consider it rationally. Strip away the emotion.
Rachel closed her eyes and tried to visualize a well-lit, secure hotel room.
Remove the extraneous. Identify the true need.
Something hit the window next to her head. She screamed. A huge shapeless dark mass grabbed at the door, yanking at the exterior handle.
Skirt, heels, and all, she scrambled over the gear shift and to the passenger side seat. Her fingers scrabbled at the door, desperate to exit and forgetting it was locked. She heard a voice, Jack’s voice, shouting from the far side, his face close to the glass, wild and scary. Her heart slammed almost through her chest.
“Stop yelling. Are you hurt? Unlock the door.”
Should she? It was hard to take that giant step back into sanity. She hit the manual unlock button and opened the passenger door. Sliding out, clinging to the door frame, she yelled at him over the car roof, “You startled me.”
“Startled? What do you do when you’re terrified? You scared the crap out of me. I thought something was attacking you in there.”
“So did I.” She sniffled. “My car won’t start.” She crossed her arms to stop the shaking. “My phone died. Can I borrow yours?”
His hands were on the roof of the car. He thumped them lightly against the thin metal. The porch light edged the side of his forehead, his cheekbones and the long line of his jaw with a narrow glow. “You can come in and use the phone.”
Not back inside. “Do you have a cell phone? I don’t want to put you out.”
He laughed rudely.
“I mean more than I already have. I apologize for trespassing, although I didn’t believe I was. I thought I was visiting my brother, or looking for him. I should’ve left when you told me to, but then….”
“But then you still wouldn’t know if your brother was here.”
“I only have a landline.”
He walked slowly around the car, his fingers trailing across the hood. Her knees were quaking, but she held her ground, refusing to appear weak. Afraid? Yes. Hysterical? Maybe. But weak? Never.
He stopped a few feet away and glowered. Her heart raced.
With a small, sardonic bow, he said, “After you.”
Nothing lay beyond the wide arch on the far side of the huge living room.
Rachel froze as she stared at the pitch-dark opening. “Where are we going?”
“The only phone is in my room.”
One phone and it was a landline. This man lived in the Dark Ages. “What about your tenants?”
“Tenants? You mean the caretakers? Like your brother? They have cell phones or no phones. There are some old phone lines in the house, but so far you’re the only one who has raised the question. And, frankly, you are a….”
“Right. Do you want to stand here and discuss it?”
She didn’t. She followed him into the dark place. They turned a corner into a hallway. Here, there was light, not much, but welcome. Weak bulbs in sconces lit the back hallway and created deep, distorted shadows that climbed the walls and festered in the corners.
They passed doors on the right and a row of windows on the left, but no moonlight made it through the clouds tonight and there was nothing to see outside. Rachel caught the lingering smell of food. It reminded her of Daisy’s diner and her own, small apartment over the restaurant. She pressed one hand to her midsection willing her stomach not to rumble.
Near the end of the hall, he opened a door and gestured for her to enter. Again, she paused. Following him into his room warred with every iota of common sense she possessed.
“It’s here or nowhere,” he said.
The lighting was stronger in his room. It revealed old furniture, cheap area rugs and general clutter. A lamp scattered light across a desk stacked with papers and cast a halo on the ceiling. The phone was on the desk. Belatedly, Rachel thought of getting her phone charger from her suitcase in the trunk. A quick unzip would’ve put it in her hand where, now that she was near an outlet, she could’ve plugged it in for a fast charge.
“I have a phonebook somewhere.” He waved his hand in the general area of the desk. “I’ll find it. Why don’t you use the bathroom? Wash your face or something.”
She should wash her face?
Rachel held her breath, forcing the ungrateful words to stay unsaid. His bad manners didn’t justify the same from her. She touched her face, remembered, and gasped. “Where’s the bathroom?”
“A few steps down that hallway. Door on the left.” He resumed opening desk drawers.
She wanted to yell or throw something, but she didn’t. Impervious to her stare, he stayed turned away. She gave up and went to the bathroom.
Old and shabby, the floor and walls were patterned with tiny black and white tiles. The claw foot tub had an aluminum frame attached that draped the shower curtain around it. Rust stained the drain of the worn porcelain sink, but it was clean. The mirror over the sink showed her reflection.
The view in the dresser mirror upstairs had been tempered by the low, soft light. This light was bald and harsh. Sooty dirt, sweat, and tears streaked her face. She reached up to touch her cheek and saw the ragged fingernails again. A sob rose to choke her.
Rachel closed her eyes and her mind. She didn’t want to keep this image in her head to be stuck forever.
Her sad state was fleeting. With soap and water it would pass. With the help of a good nail file and clipper, her nails could be repaired. Her clothing? The silk shell had been vanity, as had the suit. She should never have indulged herself. A waste of money. Live and learn. As punishment went, fate had been gentle.
Calmer, she turned on the hot water and started splashing her face and arms.
When she returned he was bent over the phone book. The lamplight framed him as he ran his finger down the listings. Dark curls, free of the pony tail, fell forward across his cheek.
“You found the phone book.”
The finger stopped and he looked up. “Yes. I called a couple of local tow companies. But it’s late. Mike’s garage is nearest. He’s also a mechanic and he’s reliable, but he can’t get out here until the morning.”
“Pardon?” He frowned.
“What else can go wrong?” She rubbed her temples. At least, the grit was gone. “I need a taxi then. I can leave the car here overnight, right?”
He stared. The moment stretched out long and taut. Surely, he wouldn’t refuse.
She prompted, “Which hotel is closest?”
“You’re talking going all the way into Richmond. At least to Short Pump.”
“Is it far?”
The moment stretched out again. This man didn’t owe her anything and she didn’t want to be in his debt, but she was fresh out of options. Rachel met his eyes and watched thoughts play across his face. She read reluctance in his tight jaw and resignation in his sigh.
“Don’t mistake this for hospitality.” He pushed up from the desk chair.
“I could give you a ride into town, almost two hours of my time there and back, and then what will you do in the morning? The car will be here, but you won’t. It’s too late to hunt down another tow or a mechanic tonight. As for a cab…from out here….”
He uncrossed and re-crossed his arms. He scratched his five o’clock shadow, already well-underway.
“I hope I won’t regret this. Stay here tonight. You can have a room up near where you were trespassing. Lock yourself in and get some sleep.”
His great sacrifice of allowing her to stay the night annoyed her. Rachel skipped the customary thank you.
“You’ve been trying to throw me off the premises since we met this afternoon. Now, you’re inviting me to stay the night? Why the change of heart? Aren’t you afraid I’m going to run off with the copper pipes?”
He frowned. “If you knew how hard it was to keep a hulk like this from getting ransacked, you wouldn’t be so flip about it. Let’s just say it’s inconvenient for you to stay, but more inconvenient for me to drive you into town.”
“Earlier you said you weren’t the owner. That’s not true, is it?”
“Is that what I said? Is it any of your business? No, it isn’t, but let me tell you about a house like this.” His face flushed to a deep red as his voice grew louder. “You don’t own it. It owns you. It’s a money pit. It’s an anchor mired way down deep where you can’t pull it out.”
Choices. Did she have any? Yes. Did she really believe this man had stood outside the door while she tried to hook her jacket? No.
“Thank you. Before you withdraw your offer, yes, I appreciate the help.” She clasped her hands together. “I watch the news, so I do know people vandalize old or empty houses. Sorry to have made light of it, but I didn’t think of looting and theft in connection to me.”
Instead of appreciating her conciliatory response, it seemed to frustrate him more. He snatched a large, old-fashioned ring of keys from a board on the wall near his door. They jangled as he stalked past her.
Fatigue hit like a solid mass that touched the top of her head in a heavy caress. It gathered weight and force as it rolled over her shoulders and down her body.
Missing brother. Juiceless cell phone. Dead car. Ruined clothes. This rude man’s offer was the best thing to happen to her today, which kind of summed it all up in a really depressing way.
Her stomach gave a resounding grumble. He heard.
She shrugged. “I haven’t eaten since breakfast.”
“You’d like a meal, too.” He didn’t say it as a question.
“I need to get my suitcase from the car.”
His eyebrows drew together. He touched his jaw as if it hurt. Rachel felt a perverse satisfaction lightly mixed with shame at her own ingratitude.
Jack led her back down the hall to the doorway where she’d smelled food. He reached in and slapped the light switch. The kitchen was painted a putrid shade of yellow, overlaid with years of grease. The stainless steel refrigerator and oven were modern and shiny, making the old, worn-out furnishings look all the sadder. He leaned into the fridge and emerged with a casserole.
“I hope you’re not picky.” He turned on the oven and slid the dish inside. “Wait here. I’ll get your suitcase.” He held out his hand for her keys.
When he left, Rachel collapsed onto a dinette chair at the chipped yellow Formica table, but as the minutes passed and the aroma of the baking casserole grew, she recovered. With one finger, she traced a crack in the Formica while eyeing the contrast of the dingy walls with the shiny Dresden china in the Welsh cupboard.
Porcelain. Blue and white. Blue Onion pattern. That was it. She’d seen a picture. Heaven knew where. Her imagination and iron-clad memory were assets and a curse, but, without doubt, her greatest weakness was curiosity, and the conflicting images around her stirred up intriguing questions.
The Welsh cupboard looked like it was attached to the wall. She shook it, but gently. Those pretty dishes rattled, but the cupboard didn’t budge.
Rachel went to the kitchen sink. The pipes moaned as she ran water over the dishcloth and squirted dish detergent into the cloth. She sudsed it up and scrubbed, but the counter and table weren’t dirty, merely worn and stained.
The casserole was browning nicely. Chicken, if her nose was correct. Half the dish was empty, and the scraped remains were baking onto the glass. It was going to be a bear to clean. She chose plates and utensils and set the table.
Her host returned and stopped short when he saw two place settings.
He grabbed an oven mitt and removed the dish from the oven, setting it directly on the old Formica table.
“I already ate.” He tossed the mitt on the counter. “I left sheets and towels out for you. I hope you can make your own bed. Go ahead and eat. I’ll be back.”
He didn’t wait for an answer. That was good because she didn’t have a socially acceptable one handy.
She should’ve known he’d already eaten. By the hour, for one thing, and also due to the aroma she’d smelled earlier. Showed how exhausted she was. Steam rose as she spooned chicken pasta casserole onto her plate. He was doing her a favor. He wasn’t obligated to be gracious about it.
What was there about her own behavior that would encourage courtesy? Nothing.
Rachel’s lower lip trembled. She wouldn’t cry no matter how tired she was. She blew on a hunk of chicken. After a few bites, there was no more trembling because she was busy eating.
What to call him? Jack?
Jeremy had said he worked for the Wynnes. Surely, this guy was Jack Wynne. Of Wynnedower. He was one heck of a cook. She could forgive him a lot for this. Perhaps she could dredge up some niceness for him.
She chewed, considering. The room he gave her would be similar to Jeremy’s. A shiver seized her at the memory of the imprisonment, but it passed quickly. She was determined and resilient. No matter how saggy the mattress or unswept the floor, she’d make sure Jack Wynne knew how much she appreciated his efforts whether he liked it or not.
Rachel swallowed the last bite. “Let me tidy this up.”
He grabbed the casserole dish and put it in the sink.
“What about the leftovers?”
“This way,” he said.
She added her plate and utensils to the items already in the sink. Jack led her back down the dim hall and around that dark corner. They passed within sight of the foyer and front door, but then ascended the stairs, the same stairs she’d climbed earlier.
He passed Jeremy’s door and unlocked the next one, swung it open and placed the key in her palm. It was a skeleton key. She’d never actually been where they were still in use. She closed her hand around it like a lucky charm or talisman, capturing the feel of it.
“This is the sitting room. Go through the next door—this key fits that lock, too—and that’s the bedroom. The bathroom is the door on the left.”
She started forward, but he stopped her.
He continued, “This is important. Lock the door and keep it locked. If you hear noises during the night, ignore them. Intruders do break in. That’s why the doors are kept locked. It slows them down and reduces the opportunity for damage. Here’s the number for the house phone.” He handed her a slip of paper. “You have your cell phone?”
“Yes. It needs charging.”
“Then charge it. Call me if anything alarms you. Stay in your room and keep it locked until morning.”
He was gone before she could begin to register his sinister words. He hadn’t even said goodnight.
His warning about intruders? Rachel wasn’t fooled. He wanted her to stay out of his way.
The sitting room was shoebox-shaped and windowless. A lamp burned in the corner next to a sprung chaise lounge, but as with every bulb in this house, it was weak and the room was full of shadows. The door at the far end, to the bedroom, was open, and a lamp also lit that room. Rachel locked the sitting room door before moving on.
Her suitcase waited on a red satiny bench at the foot of an inviting bed.
Doors and doors. This was a house of doors. The bathroom door was to the left of the bed, but there were two other doors on the far side. One opened into an empty closet. The other was locked. Rachel tried the key Jack had given her. It didn’t work.
The bathroom was more than acceptable. Old-fashioned, but not neglected. She inspected the claw-footed tub and was delighted to find it clean. She opened one of the faucets. The water ran clear. No rust.
Rachel ran her hands along the tub’s smooth porcelain curves and murmured in appreciation, “We have a date tonight.”
There was a connecting door in the bathroom. To Jeremy’s room, surely. The door was locked, but the location seemed right. The rooms were as anonymous as a hotel room.
The bathroom window pushed up easily. A nice breeze swirled through the stuffy air. Rachel opened the bedroom window, too. Delicious, refreshing night air. These rooms were better maintained than the one in which she’d been trapped. Even better than her host’s from what she’d seen. She gave the mattress the sit-and-bounce test. Nice. Better quality and better maintenance in here, without doubt.
With the water filling the tub, Rachel stripped the ruined shell over her head. Suddenly, she felt exposed. She was in a stranger’s house. Wasn’t it a little late to worry about ulterior motives?
Rachel considered it and admitted she felt no distrust, but there was no harm in caution.
She stacked a chair and an end table in front of the bedroom door as a crude alarm, then plugged her phone and charger into the bathroom outlet within easy reach.
A hot, relaxing bath could do amazing things for a gal at the end of a dreadful day. Rachel stayed there, soaking her worn body and trimming her ragged fingernails, until the water grew cold. Finally, she dried off and pulled out a pink t-shirt and striped, lightweight cotton pajama pants. Her hair, coal black and straight, was cut in a bob that brushed her jawline. She had only to run a comb through it and let it dry.
Rachel did a quick job of making the bed, then curled up in the over-stuffed chair near the window. She enjoyed the fresh breeze while she dialed Daisy.
Daisy answered on the second ring. “Rachel? How was your drive? You made it okay?”
“It’s been crazy here, but that’s a long story. Too long for tonight. The end result is I’m stranded.”
“Do you need help?”
In her head, Rachel saw Daisy already reaching for her keys. “No, I’m fine. My car wouldn’t start. It might be the battery. Like I know anything about cars, right? All I know is it doesn’t work.”
She propped her feet up on the windowsill and rested her head back against the tapestry fabric of the chair.
“Could be the battery. Possibly the alternator. Where are you? I hope you’re not standing on a roadside?”
“I’m at The Mansion.”
Daisy breathed, “Wynnedower? What’s it like? You found Jeremy?”
“No, not yet. He was here, but has gone somewhere.
“You don’t sound worried. Might be he’s with that girl he told you about.”
“Jeremy wouldn’t take off like that. He has too much going on in his life, too many plans. I’ll talk to his employer tomorrow morning and if there’s no good explanation I’ll speak to the police.”
“The police? So you are worried.”
“I am, of course, but not as much. I’ve seen where he was living and met the owner. The man is rude, but I don’t think he did anything to Jeremy.”
“Isn’t it nice that bad people wear signs and we don’t have to guess?”
“Ha-ha.” Rachel shifted in her chair. “What I mean is, most of Jeremy’s stuff is gone. As if he left. But if someone was trying to make it look like he left when he didn’t, they’d clear out everything, right? Plus, the owner is genuinely angry at Jeremy for taking off without notice…not that I believe Jeremy did, but the owner certainly does.”
“So you met the owners? What are they like?”
“He. A guy named Jack Wynne. Honestly, I can’t tell you what he’s like. He’s different, looks sort of eccentric. Bad-tempered. On the other hand, he’s set me up here tonight very comfortably.”
That ‘oh’ was full of insinuation. “It’s not like that, Daisy. In fact, all he wants is for me to stay out of his way. He told me to lock my door and not come out until morning.”
“What is he? A werewolf or a vampire?” She growled in the background.
Rachel laughed. “If you saw him, you might lean toward werewolf. He has lots of hair. Long, dark hair that he keeps pulled into a ponytail.”
“Lots of hair? Is he hairy like Beauty and the Beast hairy?”
“Beauty and the Beast? Oh, please. No, not beastly at all. He’s got good bone structure, nice cheek bones and a strong jaw and dark eyes that seem to swallow you up.”
“You and bone structure. Please. So, he’s good looking. How good looking?”
She hesitated. “In an aggressive sort of way. In fact, he seems familiar somehow. Not specifically familiar, but generically familiar. Do you know what I mean?”
“Flowing hair. Strong, aggressive good looks. Sounds like he stepped off the cover of a romance novel. One of those historical ones. Is he showing any bare chest?”
“Not wearing a kilt, is he?”
“Not nice, Daisy. Stop teasing me.”
“But it’s so much fun, and I’m not entirely teasing. The whole situation sounds suspicious. If you need me, let me know. I’ll be there right away.”
“Daisy, you’re the best. That’s why I put up with your strange sense of humor. In reality, his reason for asking me to stay locked in the room is simple. He says looters break in.”
“What? Wow. Well, then stay in the room.”
“He just wants me out of the way.”
“What are these people after? It’s a big house, right? But lived in, so what’s going on?”
“He mentioned copper pipes.” She shrugged. “The man didn’t say this, but Jeremy told he’d heard rumors about something valuable being hidden here at Wynnedower.”
“He said something about artwork. Paintings or something. He teased me, saying we could go on a treasure hunt.”
Daisy laughed. “That sounds right up your alley, both the art and the treasure hunt.”
“Well, that was before he got angry with me, and apparently, moved without telling me.”
After a pause, Daisy changed the subject. “If you only made it as far as Wynnedower, should I ask about the museum reception?”
Rachel pulled her legs up into the chair and sighed. “No, didn’t make the reception. It’s okay. Tomorrow is another day, per Scarlett.”
“Don’t let it get you down. Always remember what’s important. Anything else is nice-to-have. And Rachel, have some fun.”
Daisy was always saying stuff like that. She and Daisy were very different personality types, but friends. Her best friend. Only real friend.
“I have fun. Often. And this is an interesting place. For a night, anyway. After I find Jeremy….”
“After. Always after. You’re too much in your own head.”
“I’m solitary, true, but in my own head? I’m interested in lots of things.”
Daisy started laughing. At first, Rachel was annoyed, uncertain, but then couldn’t help laughing with her. She didn’t understand the joke, but she trusted Daisy’s heart.
They said goodnight, and she laid her phone on the nightstand. Lying there in the dark, suddenly she felt lost in the near silence. Only cricket noises came through the window. Country life? It seemed almost too quiet too sleep. In the distance, a train rumbled past. A long train. As the sound faded away, so did she. She fell off to sleep without noticing.
She woke the same way, with the sudden realization that she was awake. The time on her phone read one a.m.
Lying still, listening, she heard a creak from somewhere outside the room. Creaks were to be expected in an old house.
Another sound, difficult to identify and location hard to pin down.
Could it be Jeremy? Suppose he’d returned? He wouldn’t know she was here unless he recognized her car in the dark.
It would be fun to surprise him. He’d say, “Rachel, when did you get here?” and she could tell him about getting trapped in his room.
Cautioning herself not to be disappointed, she felt along the floor with her feet, searching for her slippers.
She moved the furniture, unlocked the bedroom door and peeked out into the empty sitting room. When she turned the key in the sitting room door, the sound of the mechanism unlocking sounded like a shot in the silent night. Breath held, she eased the door open. There was no light peeking from beneath the other doors, including Jeremy’s.
He wasn’t there. It was disappointing, but while she was up she’d retrieve her pantyhose.
The door was still unlocked. One quick moment and she had her hose. She shoved them into the pocket of her robe. As she stepped into the hallway, a faint scent tickled Rachel’s nose—a tantalizing wisp of flowers that was quickly gone.
In the far alcove, a whitish shape moved and vanished. Instinctively, Rachel surged forward, and then stopped. Was she really going to chase after a blur? It was probably nothing more than lint on her eyelashes. She spun around to return to her room and bumped into a solid wall of warm body. Hands grabbed her arms.
“How hard was it to respect my one request? That you stay in your room? Believe it or not, it’s for your own safety.”
He released her arms. She rubbed them.
She asked, “How did you get over here behind me?”
“What are you talking about?”
“I saw you go into the alcove. I saw someone in white.” Rachel pointed at his white t-shirt. He was wearing the same jeans as earlier.
“You saw someone?”
“Just a shape.”
He shook his head. “You’re lucky. It could’ve been an intruder.”
“I was hoping my brother had returned.”
“Go.” He waved in the direction of her room.
A couple of steps along, she stopped and turned back. “Jack?”
She could tell by the shift of his shoulders and his sudden stillness otherwise, that she’d startled him. “You said to call you Jack.”
“Why is Jeremy’s door unlocked? Every other door in this place is locked tight.”
“Rachel. May I call you Rachel?” He stepped closer.
The hallway was small. Claustrophobia touched her. Her stomach did a little jump.
His voice dropped, low and tightly controlled, “Rachel, your brother left without notice and took the key with him. I won’t bore you with the details of the key situation here, but until I find one that fits, it will remain unlocked. Any more questions?”
She scooted back to her room. She looked back. He was standing there watching.
“Goodnight,” she said.
He barely acknowledged the ‘goodnight’ and headed down the stairs, apparently in pursuit of whomever or whatever she’d seen. Rachel closed her door and turned the key, this time reassured by the sound of the internal mechanism as it slid closed. She hoped it was enough to guarantee a safe night’s sleep.
Rachel wondered…if Jack thought she’d nearly run into a looter, wouldn’t he rush off to catch him instead of staying to lecture her?
The elusive scent. The blur of someone disappearing into the alcove…someone feminine?
Perhaps Jack had another guest at Wynnedower—one he hadn’t chosen to mention.
One who was none of her business.
(At this time, A Stranger in Wynnedower is only available at Amazon as part of a special program. If you are a Nook or iPad user, I apologize for the inconvenience and hope you’ll contact me via my website to discuss.)