Heroes Are My Weakness

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HEROES ARE MY WEAKNESS

CHAPTER ONE

Annie didn’t usually talk to her suitcase, but she wasn’t exactly herself these days. The high beams of her headlights could barely penetrate the dark, swirling chaos of the winter blizzard, and the windshield wipers on her ancient Kia were no match for the wrath of the storm that had hit the island. “It’s only a little snow,” she told the oversized red suitcase wedged into the passenger seat. “Just because it feels like the end of the world doesn’t mean it is.”

You know I hate the cold, her suitcase replied, in the annoying whine of a child who preferred making a point by stamping her foot. How could you bring me to this awful place?

Because Annie had run out of options.

An icy blast rocked the car, and the branches of the old fir trees hovering over the unpaved road whipped like witches’ hair. Annie decided that anybody who believed in hell as a fiery furnace had it all wrong. Hell was this bleak, hostile winter island.

You’ve never heard of Miami Beach? Crumpet, the spoiled princess in the suitcase retorted. Instead you had to haul us off to a deserted island in the middle of the North Atlantic where we’ll probably get eaten by polar bears!

The gears ground as the Kia struggled up the narrow, slippery island road. Annie’s head ached, her ribs hurt from coughing, and the simple act of craning her neck to peer through a clear spot on the windshield made her dizzy. She was alone in the world with only the imaginary voices of her ventriloquist’s dummies anchoring her to reality. As sick as she was, she didn’t miss the irony.

She conjured up the more calming voice of Crumpet’s counterpart, the practical Dilly, who was tucked away in the matching red suitcase in the back seat. We’re not the middle of the Atlantic, sensible Dilly said. We’re on an island ten miles off the New England coast, and the last I heard, Maine doesn’t have polar bears. Besides, Peregrine Island isn’t deserted.

It might as well be. If Crumpet had been on Annie’s arm, she would have shot her small nose up in the air. People barely survive here in the middle of the summer let alone winter. I bet they eat their dead for food.

The car fishtailed ever so slightly. Annie corrected the skid, gripping the wheel more tightly through her gloves. The heater barely worked, but she’d begun to perspire under her jacket.

You mustn’t keep complaining, Crumpet. Dilly admonished her peevish counterpart. Peregrine Island is a popular summer resort.

It’s not summer! Crumpet countered. It’s the first week of February, we just drove off a car ferry that made me seasick, and there can’t be more than fifty people left here. Fifty stupid people!

You know Annie had no choice but to come here, Dilly said.

Because she’s a big failure, an unpleasant male voice sneered.

Leo had a bad habit of uttering Annie’s deepest fears, and it was inevitable that he’d intrude into her thoughts. He was her least favorite puppet, but every story needed a villain.

Very unkind, Leo, Dilly said. Even if it is true.

The petulant Crumpet continued to complain. You’re the heroine, Dilly, so everything always turns out fine for you. But not for the rest of us. Not ever. We’re doomed! Doomed, I say! We’re forever

Annie’s cough cut off the internal histrionics of her puppet. Sooner or later her body would heal from the lingering aftereffects of pneumonia—at least she hoped so—but what about the rest of her? She’d lost faith in herself, lost the sense that, at thirty-three, her best days still lay ahead. She was physically weak, emotionally empty, and more than a little terrified, hardly the best state for someone forced to spend the next two months on an isolated Maine island.

That’s only sixty days, Dilly attempted to point out. Besides, Annie, you don’t have anywhere else to go.

And there it was. The ugly truth. Annie had nowhere else to go. Nothing else to do but search for the legacy her mother might or might not have left her.

The Kia hit a snow-packed rut, and the seat belt seized up. The pressure on Annie’s chest made her cough again. If only she could have stayed in the village for the night, but the Island Inn was closed until May. Not that she could have afforded it anyway.

The car barely crested the hill. She had years of practice transporting her puppets through every kind of weather to perform all over, but even a decent snow driver had limited control on a road like this, especially in a Kia. There was a reason the residents of Peregrine Island drove pickups.

Take it slow, another male voice advised from the suitcase in the back. Slow and steady wins the race. Peter, her hero puppet—her knight in shining armor—was a voice of encouragement, unlike her former actor boyfriend-slash-lover who’d only encouraged himself.

Annie brought the car to a full stop then started her slow descent. Halfway down, it happened.

The apparition came from nowhere.

A man clad in black flew across the bottom of the road on a midnight horse. She’d always had a vivid imagination—witness her internal conversations with her puppets—and she thought she was imagining this. But the vision was real. Horse and rider racing through the snow, the man crouched low, the horse’s mane streaming. They were demon creatures, a nightmare horse and lunatic man galloping into the storm’s fury.

They disappeared as quickly as they’d appeared, but her foot automatically hit the brake, and the car began to slide. It skidded across the road, and with a sickening lurch, came to a stop in the snow-filled ditch.

You’re such a loser, Leo the villain sneered.

Tears of exhaustion filled her eyes. Her hands shook. Were the man and horse indeed real or if she’d conjured them? She needed to focus. She put the car into reverse and attempted to rock it out, but the tires only spun deeper. Her head fell against the back of the seat. If she stayed here long enough, someone would find her. But when? Only the cottage and the main house lay at the end of this road.

She tried to think. Her single contact on the island was the man who took care of the main house and the cottage, but she’d only had an email address to let him know she was arriving and ask him to turn on the cottage’s utilities. Even if she had his phone number—Will Shaw—that was his name—she doubted she could get cell reception out here.

Loser. Leo never spoke in an ordinary voice. He only sneered.

Annie grabbed a tissue from a crumpled pack, but instead of thinking about her dilemma, she thought about the horse and rider. What kind of a crazy took an animal out in this weather? She squeezed her eyes shut and fought a wave of nausea. If only she could curl up and go to sleep. Would it be so terrible to admit that life had gotten the best of her?

Stop it right now, sensible Dilly said.

Annie’s head pounded. She had to find Shaw and get him to pull out the car.

Never mind Shaw, Peter the hero declared. I’ll do it myself.

But Peter—like her ex-boyfriend—was only good in a fictional crisis.

The cottage was about a mile away, an easy distance for a healthy person in decent weather. But the weather was horrible, and nothing about her was healthy.

Give up, Leo sneered. You know you want to.

Stop being such a douche, Leo. This voice came from Scamp, Dilly’s best friend, and Annie’s alter ego. Even though Scamp was responsible for many of the scrapes the puppets got into—scrapes heroine Dilly and hero Peter had to sort out—Annie loved her courage and big heart.

Pull yourself together, Scamp ordered. Get out of the car.

Annie wanted to tell her to go to hell, but what was the point? She pushed her flyaway hair inside the collar of her quilted jacket and zipped it. Her knit gloves had a hole in the thumb, and the door handle was icy against her exposed skin. She made herself open it.

The cold slapped her in the face and stole her breath. She had to force her legs out. Her beat-up brown suede city boots sank into the snow, and her jeans were no match for the weather. Ducking her head into the wind, she made her way to the rear of the car to get her heavy coat, only to see that the trunk was wedged so tightly into the hillside that she couldn’t open it. Why should she be surprised? Nothing had gone her way in so long that she’d forgotten what good fortune felt like.

She returned to the driver’s side. Her puppets should be safe in the car overnight, but what if they weren’t? She needed them. They were all she had left, and if she lost them, she might disappear altogether.

Pathetic, Leo sneered.

She wanted to rip him apart.

Babe… You need me more than I need you, he reminded her. Without me, you don’t have a show.

She shut him out. Breathing hard, she pulled the suitcases from the car, retrieved her keys, snapped off the headlights, and closed the door.

She was immediately plunged into thick, swirling darkness. Panic clawed at her chest.

I will rescue you! Peter declared.

Annie gripped the suitcase handles tighter, trying not to let her panic paralyze her.

I can’t see anything! Crumpet squealed. I hate the dark!

Annie had no handy flashlight app on her ancient cell phone, but she did have… She set a suitcase in the snow and dug in her pocket for her car keys and the small, LED light attached to the ring. She hadn’t tried to use the light in months, and she didn’t know if it still worked. With her heart in her throat, she turned it on.

A sliver of bright blue light cut a tiny path through the snow, a path so narrow she could easily wander off the road.

Get a grip, Scamp ordered.

Give up, Leo sneered.

Annie took her first steps into the snow. The wind cut through her thin jacket and tore at her hair, whipping the curly strands in her face. Snow slapped the back of her neck, and she started to cough. Pain compressed her ribs, and the suitcases banged against her legs. Much too soon, she had to set them down to rest her arms.

She hunched into her jacket collar, trying to protect her lungs from the icy air. Her fingers burned from the cold, and as she moved forward again, she called on her puppets’ imaginary voices to keep her company.

Crumpet: If you drop me and ruin my sparkly lavender dress, I’ll sue.

Peter: I’m the bravest! The strongest! I’ll help you.

Leo: (sneering) Do you know how to do anything right?

Dilly: Don’t listen to Leo. Keep moving. We’ll get there.

And Scamp, her useless alter ego: A woman carrying a suitcase walks into a bar…

Icy tears weighed down her eyelashes, blurring what vision she had. Wind caught the suitcases, threatening to snatch them away. They were too big, too heavy. Pulling her arms from their sockets. Stupid to have brought them with her. Stupid, stupid, stupid. But she couldn’t leave her puppets.

Each step felt like a mile, and she’d never been so cold. Here she’d thought her luck had begun to change, all because she’d been able to catch the car ferry over from the mainland. It only ran sporadically, unlike the converted lobster boat that provided the island with weekly service. But the farther the ferry traveled from the Maine coastline, the worse the storm had become.

She trudged on, dragging one foot through the snow after the other, arms screaming, lungs burning as she tried not to succumb to another coughing fit. Why hadn’t she put her warm down coat in the car instead of locking it in the trunk? Why hadn’t she done so many things? Find a stable occupation. Be more circumspect with her money. Date decent men.

It was over ten years since she’d been on the island. The road used to stop at the turnoff that led to the cottage and to Harp House. But what if she missed it? Who knew what might have changed since then?

She stumbled and fell to her knees. The keys slipped from her hand and the light went out. She grabbed one of the suitcases for support. She was frozen. Burning up. She gasped for air and frantically felt around in the snow. If she lost her light…

Her fingers were so numb she nearly missed it. When she finally had the flashlight back in her grasp, she turned it on and saw the stand of trees that had always marked the road’s end. She moved the beam to the right where it fell on the big granite boulder at the turnoff. She hoisted herself back to her feet, lifted the suitcases, and stumbled through the drifts.

Her temporary relief at having found the turnoff faded. Centuries of harsh Maine weather had stripped this terrain of all but the hardiest of spruce, and without a windbreak, the blasts roaring in from the ocean caught the suitcases like spinnakers. She managed to turn her back to the wind’s force without losing either one. She sank one foot and then another, struggling through the tall snowdrifts, dragging the suitcases, and fighting the urge to lie down and let the cold do what it wanted with her.

She’d bowed so far into the wind that she nearly missed it. Only as the corner of a suitcase bumped against a snow-shrouded stone fence did she realize that she’d reached Moonraker Cottage.

The small, gray-shingled house was nothing more than an amorphous shape beneath the snow. No shoveled pathway, no welcoming lights. The last time she’d been here, the door had been painted cranberry red, but now it was a cold, periwinkle blue. An unnatural mound of snow under the front window covered a pair of old wooden lobster traps, a nod to the house’s origins as a fisherman’s cottage. She hauled herself through the drifts to the door and set the suitcases down. She fumbled with the key in the lock only to remember that island people seldom locked up.

The door blew open. She dragged the suitcases inside and, with the last of her strength, wrestled it shut again. The air wheezed in her lungs. She collapsed on the closest suitcase, her gasps for breath more like sobs.

Eventually, she grew conscious of the musty smell of the icy room. Pressing her nose to her sleeve, she fumbled for the light switch. Nothing happened. Either the caretaker hadn’t gotten her email asking him to have the generator working and the small furnace fired up or he’d ignored it. Every frozen part of her throbbed. She dropped her snow-crusted gloves on the small canvas rug that lay just inside the door but didn’t bother to shake the snow from the wild tangle of her hair. Her jeans were frozen to her legs, but she’d have to pull off her boots to remove them, and she was too cold to do that.

No matter how miserable she was, she had to get her puppets out of their snow-caked suitcases. She located one of the assorted flashlights her mother always kept near the door. Before school and library budgets were slashed, her puppets had provided a steadier livelihood than her failed acting career or her part time jobs walking dogs and serving drinks at Coffee, Coffee.

Shaking with cold, she cursed the caretaker who apparently had no qualms about riding a horse through a storm but couldn’t summon the effort to do his real job. It had to have been Shaw riding the horse. No one else lived at this end of the island during the winter. She unzipped the suitcases and pulled out the five dummies. Leaving them in their protective plastic bags, she stowed them temporarily on the sofa, then, flashlight in hand, stumbled across the frigid wood floor.

The interior of Moonraker Cottage bore no resemblance to anyone’s idea of a traditional New England fishing cottage. Instead, her mother’s eccentric stamp was everywhere—from a creepy bowl of small animal skulls to a silver-gilded Louis XIV chest bearing the words “Pile Driver” that Mariah had spray-painted across it in black graffiti. Annie preferred a cozier space, but during Mariah’s glory days when she’d inspired fashion designers and a generation of young artists, both this cottage and her mother’s Manhattan apartment had been featured in upscale decorating magazines.

Those days had ended years ago when Mariah had fallen out of favor in Manhattan’s increasingly younger artistic circles. Wealthy New Yorkers had begun asking others for help compiling their private art collections, and Mariah had been forced to sell off her valuables to support her lifestyle. By the time she’d gotten sick, everything was gone. Everything except something in this cottage—something that was supposed to be Annie’s mysterious “legacy.”

“It’s at the cottage. You’ll have… Plenty of money…” Mariah had said those words in the final hours before she’d died, a period in which she’d been barely lucid.

There isn’t any legacy, Leo sneered. Your mother exaggerated everything.

Maybe if Annie had spent more time on the island she’d know whether Mariah had been telling the truth, but she’d hated it here and hadn’t been back since her twenty-second birthday, eleven years ago.

She shone the flashlight around her mother’s bedroom. A life-sized mounted photograph of an elaborately carved Italian wooden headboard served as the actual headboard for the double bed. A pair of wall hangings made of boiled wool and what looked like remnants from a hardware store hung next to the closet door. The closet still smelled of her mother’s signature fragrance, a little-known Japanese men’s cologne that had cost a fortune to import. As Annie breathed in the scent, she wished she could feel the grief a daughter should experience following the loss of a parent only five weeks earlier, but she merely felt depleted.

She located Mariah’s old scarlet woolen cloak and a pair of heavy socks then got rid of her own clothes. After she’d piled every blanket she could find on her mother’s bed, she climbed under the musty sheets, turned out the flashlight, and went to sleep.

***

Annie hadn’t thought she’d ever be warm again, but she was sweating when a coughing fit awakened her sometime around two in the morning. Her ribs felt as if they’d been crushed, her head pounded, and her throat was raw. She also had to pee, another setback in a house with no water. When the coughing finally eased, she struggled out from under the blankets. Wrapped in the scarlet cloak, she turned on the flashlight and, grabbing the wall to support herself, made her way to the bathroom.

She kept the flashlight pointed down so she couldn’t see her reflection in the mirror that hung over the old-fashioned sink. She knew what she’d see. A long, pale face shadowed by illness; a sharply-pointed chin; big, hazel eyes; and a runaway mane of light brown hair that kinked and curled wherever it wanted. She had a face children liked, but that most men found quirky instead of seductive. Her hair and face came from her unknown father—A married man. He wanted nothing to do with you. Dead now, thank God. Her shape came from Mariah: tall, thin, with knobby wrists and elbows, big feet, and long-fingered hands.

“To be a successful actress, you need to be either exceptionally beautiful or exceptionally talented,” Mariah had said. “You’re pretty enough, Antoinette, and you’re a talented mimic, but we have to be realistic…”

Your mother wasn’t exactly your cheerleader. Dilly stated the obvious.

I’ll be your cheerleader, Peter proclaimed. I’ll take care of you and love you forever.

Peter’s heroic proclamations usually made Annie smile, but tonight she could think only of the emotional chasm between the men she’d chosen to give her heart to and the fictional heroes she loved. And the other chasm—the one between the life she’d imagined for herself and the one she was living.

Despite Mariah’s objections, Annie had gotten her degree in theater arts and spent the next ten years plodding to auditions. She’d done showcases, community theater, and even landed a few character roles in off-off Broadway plays. Too few. Over the past summer, she’d finally faced the truth that Mariah was right. Annie was a better ventriloquist than she’d ever be an actress. Which left her absolutely nowhere.

She found a bottle of ginseng-flavored water that had somehow escaped freezing. It hurt to swallow even a sip. Taking the water with her, she made her way back into the living room.

Mariah hadn’t been to the cottage since summer, just before her cancer diagnosis, but Annie didn’t see a lot of dust. The caretaker must have done at least part of his job. If only he’d done the rest.

Her dummies lay on the hot pink Victorian sofa. The puppets and her car were all she had left.

Not quite all, Dilly said.

Right. There was the staggering load of debt Annie had no way of repaying, the debt she’d picked up in the last six months of her mother’s life by trying to satisfy Mariah’s every need.

And finally get Mummy’s approval, Leo sneered.

Pulling the scarlet cloak tighter around her, she wandered to the front bay window. The storm had eased and moonlight shown through the panes. She looked out at the bleak winter landscape—the inky shadows of spruce, the desolate sheet of marsh. Then she lifted her gaze.

Harp House loomed above her in the distance, sitting at the very top of a barren cliff. The murky light of a half moon outlined its angular roofs and dramatic turret. Except for a faint yellow light visible from a room high in the turret, the house was dark. The scene reminded her of the covers on the old paperback gothic novels she could still sometimes find in used bookstores. It didn’t take much imagination for her to envision a barefoot heroine fleeing that ghostly house in nothing more than a filmy negligee, the menacing turret light glowing behind her. Those books were quaint compared to today’s erotically charged vampires, werewolves, and shape-shifters, but she’d always loved them. They’d nourished her daydreams.

Above the jagged roofline of Harp House, storm clouds raced across the moon, their journey as wild as the flight of the horse and rider who’d charged across the road. Her skin turned to gooseflesh, not from the cold but from her own imagination. She turned away from the window and glanced over at Leo.

Heavy lidded eyes… Thin-lipped sneer… The perfect villain. She could have avoided so much pain if she hadn’t romanticized those brooding real-life men she’d fallen in love with, imagining them as fantasy heroes instead of realizing one was a cheater and the other a narcissist. Leo, however, was a different story. She’d created him herself out of cloth and yarn. She controlled him.

That’s what you think, he whispered.

She shivered and retreated to the bedroom. But even as she slipped back under the covers, she couldn’t shake off the dark vision of the house on the cliff.

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderly again…

***

 

She wasn’t hungry when she awakened the next morning, but she made herself eat a handful of stale granola. The cottage was frigid, the day gloomy, her car was stuck in the snow, and all she wanted to do was go back to bed. But she couldn’t live in the cottage without heat or running water, and the more she thought about her absent caretaker, the angrier she grew. She dug out the only phone number she had, one for the island’s combination town hall, post office, and library, but although her phone was charged, she couldn’t get a signal. She sank down on the pink velvet couch and dropped her head in her hands. She’d have to go after Will Shaw herself, and that meant making the climb to Harp House. Back to the place she’d sworn she’d never again go near.

She pulled on as many layers of warm clothes as she could find, then wrapped herself in her mother’s red cloak and knotted an ancient Hermes scarf under her chin. Summoning all her energy and willpower, she set out. The day was as gray as her future, the salt air frigid, and the distance between the cottage and the house at the top of the cliff insurmountable.

I’ll carry you every step of the way, Peter announced.

Scamp blew him a raspberry.

It was low tide, but the icy rocks along the shoreline were too hazardous to walk along at this time of year, so she had to take the longer route around the saltwater marsh. But it wasn’t just the distance that filled her with dread.

Dilly tried to give her courage. It’s been eighteen years since you made the climb to Harp House. The ghosts and goblins are long gone.

Annie pressed the edge of the cloak over her nose and mouth.

Don’t worry, Peter said. I’ll watch out for you.

Peter and Dilly were doing their jobs. They were the ones responsible for untangling Scamps’ scrapes and stepping in when Leo bullied. They were the ones who delivered anti-drug messages, reminded kids to eat their vegetables, take care of their teeth, and not let anyone touch their private parts.

But it’ll feel so good, Leo sneered, then snickered.

Sometimes she wished she’d never created him, but he was such a perfect villain. He was the bully, the drug-pusher, the junk food king, and the stranger who tried to lure children away from playgrounds.

Come with me, little kiddies, and I’ll give you all the candy you want.

Stop it, Annie, Dilly said. No one in the Harp family ever comes to the island until summer. Only the caretaker lives there.

Leo refused to leave Annie alone. I have Skittles, M&Ms, Twizzlers…and reminders of all your failures. How’s that precious acting career working out?

She hunched into her shoulders. She needed to start meditating or practicing yoga, doing something that would teach her to discipline her mind instead of letting it wander wherever it wanted—or didn’t want—to go. So what if her acting dreams hadn’t worked out the way she’d wanted. Kids loved her puppet shows

Her boots crunched in the show. Dead cattails and hollowed reeds poked their battered heads through the frozen crust of the sleeping marsh. In summer, the marsh teemed with life, but now all was bleak, gray, and as quiet as her hopes.

She stopped to rest once again as she neared the bottom of the freshly plowed gravel drive that led up the cliff to Harp House. If Shaw could plow, he could get her car out. She dragged herself on. Before the pneumonia, she could have charged uphill, but by the time she finally reached the top, her lungs were on fire and she’d started to wheeze. Far below, the cottage looked like a neglected toy left to fend for itself against the pounding sea and rugged Maine cliffs. Dragging more fire into her lungs, she made herself lift her head.

Harp House rose before her, silhouetted against the pewter sky. Rooted in granite, exposed to summer squalls and winter gales, it dared the elements to take it down. The island’s other summer homes had been built on the more protected eastern side of the island, but Harp House scorned the easy way. Instead, it grew from the rocky western headlands far above the sea, a shingle-sided, forbidding brown wooden fortress with an unwelcoming turret at one end.

Everything was sharp angles: the peaked roofs, shadowed eaves, and foreboding gables. How she’d loved this gothic gloom when she’d come to live here the summer her mother had married Elliott Harp. She’d imagined herself clad in a mousy gray dress and clutching a portmanteau—gently born, but penniless and desperate, forced to take the humble position of governess. Chin up and shoulders back, she’d confront the brutish (but exceptionally handsome) master of the house with so much courage that he would eventually fall hopelessly in love with her. They’d marry, and then she’d redecorate.

It hadn’t taken long before the romantic dreams of a homely fifteen-year-old who read too much and experienced too little had met a harsher reality.

The backyard with its gaping maw of an empty swimming pool was eerie enough, but the simple sets of wooden stairs that led to the back and side entrances had been replaced with stone steps guarded by gargoyles.

She passed the stable and followed a roughly shoveled path to the back door. Shaw had better be here instead of galloping off on one of Elliott Harp’s horses. She pressed the bell but couldn’t hear it ring inside. The house was too big. She waited, then rang again, but no one answered. The doormat looked as though it had been recently used to stamp off snow. She rapped hard.

The door creaked open.

She was so cold that she stepped into the mudroom. Miscellaneous pieces of outerwear, along with assorted mops and brooms, hung from a set of hooks. She rounded the corner that opened into the main kitchen and stopped.

Everything was different. The kitchen no longer held the walnut cabinets and stainless steel appliances she remembered from eighteen years ago. Instead, the place looked as though it had been squeezed back through a time warp to the nineteenth century.

The wall between the kitchen and what had once been a breakfast room was gone, leaving the space twice as large as it had once been. High, horizontal windows let in light, but since the windows were now set at least six feet from the floor, only the tallest person could see through them. Rough plaster covered the top half of the walls, while the bottom was faced with four-inch square once-white tiles, some chipped at the corners, others cracked with age. The floor was old stone, the fireplace a sooty cavern large enough to roast a wild boar…or a man unwise enough to have been caught poaching on his master’s land.

Instead of kitchen cabinets, rough shelves held stoneware bowls and crocks. Tall, freestanding dark wood cupboards rose on each side of a dull black industrial-size Aga stove. A stone farmhouse sink held a messy stack of dirty dishes. Copper stock pots and saucepans—not shiny and polished, but dented and worn—hung above a long, scarred wooden prep table designed to chop off chicken heads, butcher mutton chops, or whip up a syllabub for his lordship’s dinner.

The kitchen had to be a renovation, but what kind of renovation regressed two centuries. And why?

Run! Crumpet shrieked. Something’s very wrong here!

Whenever Crumpet got hysterical, Annie counted on Dilly’s no-nonsense manner to provide perspective, but Dilly remained silent, and not even Scamp could come up with a wisecrack.

“Mr. Shaw?” Annie’s voice lacked its normal powers of projection.

When there was no reply, she moved deeper into the kitchen, leaving wet tracks on the stone floor. But no way was she taking off her boots. If she had to run, she wasn’t doing it in socks. “Will?”

Not a sound.

She passed the pantry, crossed a narrow back hallway, detoured around the dining room, and stepped through the arched entry into the foyer. Only the dimmest gray light penetrated the six square panes above the front door. The heavy mahogany staircase still led to a landing with a murky stained-glass window, but the staircase carpet was now a depressing maroon instead of the multi-colored floral from the past. The furniture bore a dusty film, and a cobweb hung in the corner. The walls had been paneled over in heavy, dark wood, and the seascape paintings had been replaced with gloomy oil portraits of prosperous men and women in nineteenth century dress, none of whom could possibly have been Elliott Harp’s Irish peasant ancestors. All that was missing to make the entryway even more depressing was a suit of armor and a stuffed raven.

She heard footsteps above her and moved closer to the staircase. “Mr. Shaw? It’s Annie Hewitt. The door was open, so I let myself in.” She looked up. “I’m going to need—” The words died on her tongue.

The master of the house stood at the top of the stairs.

***

He descended slowly. A gothic hero come to life in a pearl gray waistcoat, snowy white cravat, and dark trousers tucked into calf-hugging black leather riding boots. Hanging languidly at his side was a steel-barreled dueling pistol.

An icy finger slithered down her spine. She briefly considered the possibility that her fever had come back—or her imagination had finally shoved her over the cliff of reality. But he wasn’t a hallucination. He was all too real.

Only slowly did she tear her gaze away from the pistol, the boots, and the waistcoat to see the man himself.

In the dim gray light, his hair was raven black; his eyes a pale, imperial blue; his face chiseled and unsmiling—everything about him the embodiment of nineteenth century haughtiness. She wanted to curtsy. To run. To tell him she didn’t really need that governess job after all.

He came to the bottom of the stairs, and that was when she saw it. The pale white scar at the corner of his eyebrow. The scar she’d given him.

Theo Harp.

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