A free novella for my twitter followers!
by Jennifer Brassel
The book fell open.
“Damn,” Erin muttered as she bent to retrieve the old photo album she’d dropped. Fearing damage, she examined the fragile pages. When she turned the third page, her breath caught. For long seconds disbelief overwhelmed her.
Staring at the photo, her fingers felt almost icy. Who is the woman smiling out from the hazy black-and-white image? Yellowing with age, mouldy splotches peppered the lighter areas, yet it was like looking into a frosted mirror. The date below said 1857. London 1857.
The image had the same long, wavy dark hair. The same almond eyes. The same full mouth.
It was her. But it wasn’t.
Gently, she removed the picture and examined the back. No name.
Another portrait, similarly indistinct, showed the woman in what appeared a white nun’s habit, though as Erin flipped the pages of the album she realised she was looking at a nurse. A nurse who was also her doppleganger.
Erin didn’t understand it.
The university had suggested Mrs J Sanders-Bell employ Erin to catalogue the library of a recently deceased aunt. There was no way Erin bore any relation to her client yet she’d swear she was looking at her own image.
It didn’t make sense.
“Hello there,” came a deep voice from the library doorway.
Stunned at the photo’s implications, Erin glanced up to see a stranger smiling obliquely at her. Thirtyish, his grey eyes seemed almost colourless. Hypnotic eyes that made her want to shiver.
As far as she knew, apart from the caretaker who let her inside to wait, the house had sat empty since the owner’s death.
“Can I help you?” she asked, as the tall, strongly-built man came into the room. He was dressed casually, though stylishly, in fawn chinos and black polo shirt. A pair of wire-framed glasses dangled from his fingers.
“I’m guessing you’re the archivist?” The man stepped forward and held out his other hand. “I’m Daniel Bell.”
“Oh, Mr Bell. I was just taking a look around.” Erin slipped the picture back into its pocket and placed the album on a nearby shelf before shaking his hand. She couldn’t help but notice his hand was long-fingered, the skin soft.
“Is your wife with you? The caretaker said she was running a little late and I could wait in here. I hope you don’t mind, I took a peek at the books.”
“Not at all. And that’d be my mother, not my wife. I’ve never had that pleasure,” he added with a wry twist of his mouth. “Mother will be terribly late. She’s always late. She does it intentionally. For effect.”
“That’s okay, Mr Bell. I’m in no hurry.” She turned in a circle and indicated the floor-to-ceiling bookcases that covered just about every available inch of wall space. “And this looks like rather a big job.”
“Call me Dan,” he said with a smile that seemed to turn his eyes blue.
“I’m Erin. Erin Morris.”
“Well, you don’t know the half of it, Erin. See that panel?” he said, pointing to a waist-high wood-panelled section of wall, the sole area of uncluttered space in the room. “That’s a kind of trapdoor leading to a cellar. A cellar full of books and memorabilia. Much of which is hundreds of years old. There’s also an attic which is stacked to the rafters. I’d suggest you fetch your suitcase and move in as soon as possible.”
At Erin’s laugh, he added. “I’m not joking. It’s going to take you months. We’ve got plenty of room here. And I’ll help with the cataloguing, of course.”
“Yes. You’ll need someone from the family to explain the history and relationships, help with the chronology.”
“But don’t you have a real job? Surely you can’t spare the time to help with this?”
“Actually, I can. I’m filling in as security,” he made a pair of quotes in the air, “until after all the legalities are finalised. I’m a freelance architectural restorer so I can work anywhere. And,” he glanced around the room with a wistful expression, “this place has always been a favourite of mine. I designed renovations a few years back, but Aunt Cecily refused to change a thing. She was very devoted to her father, Great Uncle George, and wanted to keep everything as it was when he died.” He nodded at the trapdoor. “She spent half her life down there, reliving the past. Sometimes nobody heard from her for days or weeks at a time.”
Erin frowned. “Should we air it out before the work gets started? I expect it’ll be all musty and dank down there.”
“In fact it’s remarkably clean and fresh. I went down last week and was surprised to find—” The front door slammed and Dan’s head spun to face the doorway.
“Yoohoo! Anybody about?”
“That’s Mother,” Dan nodded in the direction of the foyer. “In here, Mum!”
Mrs J Sanders-Bell swanned into the room, a riot of colour. From her red hair to her violet pantsuit, to the garish blue flower pinned to her breast, she oozed energy. Though she wore dangerous, three inch, diamante-studded heels, she moved with practiced elegance.
“Ah, you must be the girl from the university. I’m Josie Sanders-Bell. I see you’ve met Dan already.” She waved a hand at her son dismissively, but grinned at the same time.
Erin recognised in an instant that while Josie needed to command the room no matter what, she also adored her son.
“Call me Josie.” She glanced at the coffee table and sighed. “What, no tea, Dan? Where are your manners? Miss Morris must be thirsty after the long drive out from the station.”
Dan smiled in Erin’s direction. “What Mum is really saying is that she needs a cup of tea.”
“That too,” Josie said, as she kicked off her high heels. She sat gracefully in the nearest armchair with her beautifully pedicured feet propped on a leather ottoman.
“I’ll go and make a pot of tea, then.” Dan headed for the hall. “Mother, don’t harass the poor girl while I’m gone.”
“Moi? Don’t be ridiculous, dear. I never harass.” She directed her attention to Erin. “Dan likes to make people think I’m some kind of harpy. But I’m really a pussycat at heart. So, Miss Morris—”
Josie gave a regal nod. “So, Erin, what do you think? How long should the cataloguing take? Dan did explain that more than half is in storage, didn’t he?”
“Yes, he did. I’d have to take a look down there of course, but I expect it’ll be several months, depending on how thorough you want the cataloguing and how you want the library classified.”
Josie spent a few minutes showing Erin some of the family heirlooms hidden in amongst the bookshelves. Some looked like Lladro figurines while others appeared to be tacky holiday souvenirs.
Sorting this lot will be interesting, Erin thought ruefully.
“We’re planning to auction the books, Cecily’s jewellery and gowns. There are a few paintings as well. Minor artists. The rest will depend on value.” Josie picked at some imaginary fluff on her sleeve. “Ceccie was a bit eccentric in her tastes. Ah, here’s Dan with our tea.”
Dan placed the silver tea tray on the desk before stirring the tea in the pot. “How do you have it, Erin?”
“Just a splash of milk.”
She smiled her thanks when he handed her a cup.
“Not much to have with it, though.” He brandished a plate of plain biscuits. “These are about the only things that haven’t passed their ‘use by’ date. We’ll have to go shopping before you move in.”
“You were serious?”
“Of course,” Dan said.
Josie dipped a biscuit in her tea and sat with the soggy end hanging precariously over her cup. “You weren’t planning on commuting were you, Miss Morris? I thought Mr Craig had explained that the job was live-in preferred. Oh well, you know now. That won’t be a bother, will it? Dan will be here and there’ll be a housekeeper from next Tuesday to cook and clean. You can choose from two suites of rooms upstairs. Dan will show you. Won’t you, Dan?”
Erin felt almost breathless. Josie hadn’t given her a chance to get a word in edgeways even if she wanted to object. Which, now that she thought about it, she didn’t. Her cousin Jillian had moved in with her three weeks ago, supposedly just for a few days, but now it seemed she liked the place so much she wanted to stay.
“Just like when we were kids,” Jillian had said. “We can do all that girly stuff.”
While Erin loved her bohemian cousin, she could only take her in small doses, so a few months away sounded like a bit of a blessing.
“I hadn’t planned on living in, but,” she glanced around the room, “it probably makes a lot of sense. When were you thinking I should start?”
“Whenever you want. I’m sure Dan could fetch you and your belongings this afternoon if you’d like.” Josie grinned.
Erin wasn’t sure if the woman meant it or not.
Dan drew his brows together. “Mum, how about you give Erin a minute to decide what she wants to do. You’re like a steamroller when you get an idea into your head.”
“It’s fine,” Erin said. “What about Monday? I don’t need a lift though. I have my own car and if I am moving in, I’ll need to bring luggage and make a few stops along the way.”
Josie shot Dan a look that signified victory.
Dan just shook his head.
“C’mon, Erin, let’s go upstairs and I’ll show you the suites.”
Placing her cup on the table, Erin scrambled to her feet and followed Dan into the hall. Josie’s voice drifted behind them …
“See you later, children, I’m going to go for a walk.”
Dan waited for Erin at the foot of the curved staircase. “Don’t mind Mum, she’s not as scary as she pretends to be.”
Erin laughed. “You haven’t met my dad. He’d give her a run for her money and then some.”
With a nod of understanding, Dan gripped the highly-polished banister. “Watch your step, it’s quite steep. These old Victorian houses weren’t as well designed as our modern buildings.”
Several stairs creaked loudly as they made their way up to the first floor. “I guess there’s no hope of sneaking out at night,” he added conspiratorially when the next step squealed even louder.
At the top of the stairs was a small landing with a narrow arched window that gave a view of the drive below. A Turkish runner joined the doors at opposing sides of the space. The door on the left revealed a small suite of rooms with a distinctly masculine feel. Though light and airy, the bedding, curtains and sofa were of a deep Prussian blue, with tiny splashes of black and silver.
“This is nice,” Erin commented as she went into the ensuite bathroom.
“It is,” Dan replied, “though you might like the other suite better. It’s bigger and the sitting room catches the morning sun. Come, I’ll show you.”
They proceeded across the landing where the doorway opened up on a slightly larger set of rooms. A separate sitting room held an antique desk, comfy-looking armchair in pale green, a television and audio system. An arched opening led to a bedroom decorated in varying shades of emerald and ivory. The bedside window showed a view of a courtyard garden in full bloom. The bathroom was larger than in the blue room, as well.
“These were Aunt Ceccie’s rooms. You’re welcome to use them while you’re here.” He shot her a wide grin. “You’ll probably appreciate a bit more personal space. There’s a separate study downstairs where I’ve set up my drafting gear but if you need an office?”
“No, this is fine. Probably bigger than my apartment. It’ll be like I’m on holiday.”
After they made their way downstairs, Dan showed her his office, the kitchen, bathroom and laundry, before boiling the kettle to refresh the teapot.
When Erin was ready to take her leave, Josie was nowhere to be found.
“Mum’s probably pottering around somewhere out in the gardens,” Dan said. “I’ll let her know everything is set for Monday. I’m moving my stuff in over the weekend, so I’ll be here when you return. I plan to do a shop in the meantime, any preferences in the way of food? Special milk? Favourite brand of coffee?”
“Not really,” she replied. “I’m not a big fan of red meat, but beyond that I’m fairly relaxed about what I eat. I’m a coffee addict so if you don’t have a percolator I can bring mine.”
“Not necessary—there’s an espresso machine.”
“Even better. I ought to get going. I should be here bright and early on Monday morning, traffic permitting.”
Dan followed her to the front door. “I’ll see you Monday.”
She smiled over her shoulder as she bounced down the front stairs. “Ciao until then.”
As Erin’s car disappeared beyond the trees, Josie popped out from behind a nearby privet hedge. “She’s gone already?”
“Yes. I expect she’s got a bit to organise before Monday. Why didn’t you tell William we wanted someone to live in? It nearly spooked her.”
“We had to make sure she was suitable. And you saw her. She’s more than suitable.”
Dan’s eyes narrowed as he took in his mother’s calculating expression. “What are you up to, Mum?”
Josie’s face transformed into a picture of innocence. “Not a thing, my dear. You have a suspicious mind.”
Dan shook his head. He knew her too well. His mother was planning something.
Dan opened the door and Erin suppressed the desire to laugh. He had sleep hair. In a very bad way. And his spectacles had greasy fingerprints all over them. She’d be surprised if he could see her at all. He looked so cute and vulnerable—like a mischievous little boy.
“Hmph,” Dan grunted before pushing the door wide. “When you said early Monday morning, you really meant it.”
Erin waved her iPhone in the air with the time readout glowing bright green.
“It’s almost seven,” she chirped, deliberately teasing him before grabbing her suitcase and breezing past.
She heard his groan as the door clicked shut.
“Big night?” she queried with a smile.
“Mmmn—no. Sleepless night actually. I think one of the neighbours was having a celebration. I heard loud music all night. Weird though. It was mostly classical.”
“No accounting for taste.”
“Drop the suitcase there,” he said, putting out his arm to prevent her starting up the staircase. “I can take it up later. I need caffeine. You had breakfast?”
“Ages ago. But coffee’d be good.”
She followed him through to the kitchen, sat on a barstool by the food prep area and watched as he efficiently prepared coffee and scrambled eggs.
“Looks like you’ve had a bit of practice,” she commented as he deposited his eggs on a large slice of toasted sourdough.
“Been taking care of myself since forever. My mother isn’t terribly domesticated. I learned at an early age that if I wanted to eat things other than canned beans and franks, I’d have to be able to cook it myself. My dad was pleased, in more ways than one, that I decided to become an amateur chef.”
“I can imagine.”
When he’d finished eating, Daniel washed his dishes and left them to drain on a wire rack, before excusing himself to go to the bathroom.
When he returned his hair was wet and finger-combed and his spectacles were shiny clean. “Why the heck didn’t you tell me I looked like I’d been wrestling bears?”
“Old family joke. We have a picture of a cousin in the 1920s who made his living wrestling bears in the circus. In the picture, taken after a bout, he looked a lot like I did earlier. Did you want to check out the cellar this morning?” he asked, changing the subject without missing a beat. “I can take your suitcase up to your suite now. You might want to throw some old clothes on—”
“But I didn’t bring any old clothes.”
He lifted one brow. “Jeans?”
“Jeans I can do.”
“Oh my god,” Erin exclaimed, once they’d negotiated the narrow trapdoor and rickety staircase down to the cellar. It comprised three rooms. The first, like an old-fashioned study, held a desk, two straight-backed chairs and a number of bookcases. Like the room above, every inch of wall space held books except for the upper edge where a row of clerestory windows provided light.
Behind that, where Erin now stood, was a room that looked like something out of the 19th century. Racks of fancy evening wear, hats and coats stood alongside a three-paneled dressing screen of highly polished ebony with embroidered Chinese silk inlays. An antique couch was draped with more clothing, a feather boa and a beautifully decorated fan. If she didn’t know better, Erin would have said she’d stepped backstage in an old theatre.
A third room held a narrow bed and dresser, complete with porcelain wash basin, pitcher, and an ivory brush and comb set. And strangely, a bronze hourglass lay on its side as if it had been knocked over. Erin righted it and stared in fascination as the golden sand began to flow.
“We think Ceccie slept down here a lot of the time,” Dan said, coming up behind Erin. “You’d think she would have suffocated, but there’s a vent on the corner of the ceiling and a corresponding vent in the hallway above. I suspect she spied on the comings and goings up there, too.”
“Yeah. Mum reckons that Ceccie was somewhat eccentric. She used to tell stories of grand balls where her grandfather took her dancing in the moonlight. Personally, I think she should have been a romance writer. Ceccie bore a striking, though skinny, resemblance to Barbara Cartland in her later years.”
Erin hadn’t read any Cartland books but she knew of her by reputation. This job seemed to be getting more and more interesting. To catalogue an eccentric old spinster’s belongings, a woman who obviously lived in a bit of a dream world, if this hidey-hole was any indication, was going to be more than just a job. Feather boas. Fans. Sequined gowns.
“Much more than just a job,” she muttered to herself.
A female voice bellowed from above stairs.
“That must be the new housekeeper. I’ll be back shortly. Feel free to start checking out the boxes and things while I’m gone.”
Erin circled the small bedroom again, before returning to the study and scrutinising the various shelves of books. Many volumes appeared to be early editions of Victorian literature: everything from Thackeray to Eliot, from Browning to the Brontës. Excitement filled Erin’s chest, how she would love to own books like these! She’d start her cataloguing here. These books, if genuine, will be worth a fortune.
She retraced her steps to look more closely at the gowns and evening wear.
Wondering what lurked behind the silk dressing-screen, Erin moved a large box of hats aside. As she stepped behind the screen, the room darkened momentarily and the scent of lilies overwhelmed her.
She gulped a breath and tried to stifle a wave of nausea.
Taking another step, she suddenly felt as if she’d slipped knee-deep into a pool of mud and was being sucked down. Her legs were heavy and rubbery.
“What the …?”
“Miranda!” A voice chimed from just beyond where the screen should have been. But now wasn’t.
Who spoke? Erin turned to look first behind, then ahead again.
Edging forward, she couldn’t believe her eyes. No longer in the cellar, she stood in a large sitting room decorated with typical Victorian era furnishings. She turned full circle, unable to breathe. Directly behind her was an ordinary door. The screen had vanished.
An elderly woman sat before her, and a tall, fair-haired man of about forty, dressed in jodhpurs and an embroidered waistcoat, stood by an antique desk. He smiled broadly at her.
“Ah, Miranda, we are pleased you have returned,” the man said as he tapped out his pipe.
Erin couldn’t speak. Was the coffee drugged? It’s the only logical explanation for this hallucination.
“Charles,” said the elderly woman who sat on a nearby settee, wearing voluminous ruffles over a black shiny gown. She raised a pair of ornate spectacles to the bridge of her nose and scrutinised Erin up and down. “I believe this girl is not Miranda. She certainly looks like Miranda, but this person is not her.”
The man stared at Erin more closely for a short moment, then reddened slightly.
“Forgive me, young lady. You look very much like my niece,” he stated.
Erin remained frozen. Had she landed in some kind of period play? Or had she hit her head? That was it! She was unconscious. Dan will come back into the cellar any moment and find her out cold on the floor behind the Chinese screen. Surely.
“Miss?” Charles inquired.
“Perhaps the girl is dimwitted, Charles,” the woman suggested. “Or she doesn’t speak English. She might be one of those Irish chits Edward took on?”
Erin drew her brows together. “Sorry … I?”
“She does speak English, at least,” Charles interrupted.
“Perhaps she is ill?” The woman said.
Erin closed her eyes and shook her head. “No, I’m not ill. “Unless you count hallucinations, of course. “I just don’t understand. Who are you people?”
“That question is more suitably mine, young woman. You have just emerged from the salon. Are you a new maid?” She gave Erin another once over before saying, “Now I look at you, I would suggest you are attired like a stable boy.” The woman sniffed as if affronted.
Erin glanced down. She wore jeans and a pink blouse. Not stable attire as far as she was concerned.
“Aunt Mary, perhaps we should give the girl a moment to collect herself and explain her presence?”
Mary raised her chin a notch but remained silent.
Both looked expectantly at Erin but she had no answers that’d make any sense. She looked out the window behind Mary and saw the same driveway she drove along that morning. Yet it wasn’t the same. The trees seemed a little different from what she remembered. And the gardens held different flowers. And … jeez! My car!
Erin rushed forward. Where’s my car?
Instead of her little Fiat, an open-topped, black buggy sat on a gravel drive!
Suddenly, she found it hard to catch her breath. Her pulse pounded in her ears.
Where the hell am I?
Without another thought she spun about and raced for the door they said she’d exited. She nearly broke the bronze doorknob off as she wrenched the door open. It slammed against the wall and Erin heard the picture frames rattle. One or more must have fallen to the floor—the sound of shattering glass echoed in her wake.
But she didn’t care! Whatever had happened, however she’d succumbed to this hallucination, she knew she needed to get away and fast.
In her haste her foot caught on the edge of the carpet and she pitched forward into darkness.
“Erin … Erin?”
Someone was patting her cheeks. Hard. And it stung. She tried to turn away, to beg that it stop, but she only succeeded in getting a mouthful of feathers.
“Pthhhfthh,” she spat out a feather as she forced the hand away. “For god’s sake stop whacking me.”
Opening her eyes, she found a concerned Dan hovering over her. “I’m okay,” she breathed. “Just give me a minute.”
She thrust away the feather boa that hung in her face then ever so slowly she pushed herself into a sitting position and got her bearings.
“What the hell did you put in my coffee?” she accused.
Dan shook his head. “What are you talking about?”
“The coffee. You spiked it.”
“Spiked? I did NOT tamper with the coffee. Why would you think that?” He stood and backed away, the look on his face was a combination of annoyance and disbelief.
“Why?” she asked. “Because I just had the weirdest hallucination … and the only thing I’ve consumed in the past few hours was coffee. Coffee that you made.”
After a struggle she managed to stand, somewhat unsteadily.
Again Dan shook his head. “I drank the coffee too. You saw me make it. Maybe you cracked your head? What sort of hallucination?”
Erin closed her eyes and thought back. She had seen him make the coffee. What was more she had selected which cup she drank after he placed both on the table. She could just as easily have grabbed the other cup.
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.” She turned away.
She glanced at the Chinese screen wondering if she believed it herself. With a sigh she made to push past him, intending to head back upstairs.
But Dan snagged her wrist. “C’mon. Tell me. Whatever it was, there’s probably a logical explanation for it.”
Erin stifled a derisive laugh. “I doubt it.”
Dan released her wrist and crossed his arms. “Surely it isn’t that crazy.”
Scrubbing her face, she realised she might as well tell him, though he’d likely think she was bonkers and see her off the property tout de suite. She certainly would in his position.
Puffing out a breath she turned.
“You’ll think I’m a nutter. Right now I think I’m a nutter … but here goes. I walked behind the screen,” she gesticulated toward the silk dressing screen, “and when I stepped through to the other side I found myself in what I assume is the Victorian era. There were a couple of people present. A middle-aged man called Charles. An elderly lady who he addressed as Aunt Mary.
“At first the man called me Miranda, but then Mary saw I wasn’t her … whoever Miranda is. I thought I’d walked in on a kind of period drama. Please tell me some film company or other are using the place as a set.” She looked into Dan’s eyes, imploring that he affirm that scenario.
With a fierce frown, Dan stepped behind the screen and a second later emerged from the other side.
“Well there’s nothing here now.”
“Of course there isn’t.” She looked away. “It was a hallucination, like I said. So we’re back to the spiked coffee. Or I’m insane. Which is a possibility after spending the last three weeks with my cousin.”
“I doubt either is true. And I can tell you who Miranda is: she was Ceccie’s father’s aunt. Ceccie’s father George inherited the house after Miranda died.”
“Was she a nurse?”
“I think so.”
Erin nodded. “That answers that question then.”
“The other day when we first met … the photo album I was looking at. There was a picture that for a minute I thought was me. It was an old black-and-white, speckled with age, but the young woman could have been my twin.”
“Hmmm. How about you show me?” he suggested, turning for the other room.
Making a wide arc around the screen, Erin followed him through and up the steps into the library.
Once upstairs she felt a little silly. If it wasn’t the coffee and she hadn’t cracked her head … perhaps she was more tired than she thought and had drifted off into a daydream.
Sounded logical. Didn’t it?
It took a moment to find the photo album as some shelves had been rearranged since last week.
“Here it is,” she said as she sorted through a pile of similar albums stacked in the corner. She flipped the pages until she came to the one she sought.
“See?” she handed the photograph to him.
Dan studied the photo and looked at her face, then at the photo again.
“You’re right. The resemblance is uncanny.”
Erin peered at the picture. “Of course, we don’t know what colour her eyes are, or her hair. But it looks as if we could be related.”
“Perhaps you are,” he offered with an indulgent smile.
“Maybe. But stranger things have been known to happen. Do you know much about your ancestry?”
“I know three generations before me and there were definitely no Sanders or Bells amongst them.”
He turned and pointed to a row of leather-bound volumes on the top shelf behind the desk. “Up there is my family history. And that big bible,” he gestured to a volume that took pride of place on a side table by the window, “has the family tree through four or five hundred years. With a little research …”
Erin burst out laughing. “We’re here to catalogue your aunt’s books for sale. Not play detective. I expect that I fell asleep back there and having seen the photo, I conjured up an interesting dream.”
“And the fact that the man—Charles was it?—called you Miranda?”
Again Erin laughed. “I probably saw the name written somewhere when I was snooping the other day and didn’t consciously remember it.” She began flipping album pages in an attempt to find evidence for her assertion.
“Maybe. But while we’re cataloguing, it wouldn’t hurt to check it out anyway.”
“And I thought I was insane!”
Dan grinned. “My mother tells me I’m nuts all the time. Anyway, I reckon we need to take a break and plan our attack.”
“I still haven’t checked out the attic. I like to do these things systematically. Saves retracing territory later on.”
“Why don’t you go and take a quick look while I make us a cappuccino?” He gestured that she follow him into the kitchen. “I’ll just grab the key to the attic for you.”
In an alcove behind the pantry, Dan retrieved a set of keys.
“I had these cut for you yesterday.” He showed her each of the numbered keys that gave access to the house, garage and various rooms in the house. “I didn’t bother getting a copy of the gardener’s shed key for you. This one,” he held out a slightly larger, silver key, “opens both the attic staircase door and the attic itself. Be warned, it’s a little spooky up there.”
“Can’t be any spookier than this morning’s escapade,” she said ruefully.
Dan cast her a look that said otherwise, before his face broke into a broad smile. “I’ll make the coffee.”
“And no spiking!” she warned as she turned for the stairs.
As Erin stood at the bottom of the attic staircase, she wondered whether she should have waited and got Dan to accompany her. He was right. It did look spooky.
But she’d come this far.
Like the main staircase, each tread squeaked loudly. She found the sound comforting—it meant that nobody could go creeping about at night. She had yet to sleep a night in this old house, and now that she thought on it … there could be ghosts and ghouls of all kinds lurking in the many hidey-holes she’d seen.
Stop it! Why she was so intent on scaring herself she didn’t begin to understand. Not for the first time, she lifted her hand to examine her skull for lumps and bumps, wondering if she’d hit her head and simply didn’t remember. But nothing felt tender, nothing out of the ordinary. All she’d managed to do was snag her hair in the band that held her ponytail in place. She pulled it out, shook her head vigorously then retied it, hoping she wasn’t too disheveled.
Taking a deep breath, she turned the key in the lock and swung the attic door wide. Though gloomy, a small window at the far end of the long room afforded enough light for her to find the pull-cord to a tall standard lamp. Once illuminated the space appeared like any other cluttered storage area. Boxes were piled high. Dressers and travel trunks, suitcases and hampers spread out in a chaotic jumble.
And, of course, there were the obligatory bookcases.
Erin wondered if anyone in the family had read all the volumes stored, or were they simply handed down from generation to generation, gathering dust all the while.
At first glance there weren’t very many books up here so she grabbed the nearest stack. She’d take them all to the library so they were catalogued together.
When she turned to go, she saw the painting.
It was Miranda. No question. A shiver arced up Erin’s spine. This picture, in glorious living colour, was even more like her than the photograph. Hair, a dark chestnut. Just like hers. Eyes, a deep hazel/green. Just like hers. A tiny spread of freckles across her nose.
“Coffee’s ready!” came Dan’s voice from the base of the stairs. “I made waffles too if you’re interested.”
Erin turned away from the painting and pulled the lamp cord. At the door she glanced back and tried to force away the eerie feeling in her gut. Even in dimness, she could still see the portrait. One thing that struck her was a sense of sadness that seemed to pervade the eyes.
Despite her earlier dismissal, Erin did want to know Miranda’s story. And now, even more … after seeing the colour portrait … the coincidence was too great to contemplate.
Leaving the door open so she could return for the rest of the books, she joined Dan in the kitchen where he’d set up morning tea.
“Have you been up there?” she asked Dan as she tucked into her second waffle sprinkled with Dutch cinnamon and smothered with cream. She hoped this was just a one-off feast. She’d be fat as a barn when she finished this job if he dished up treats like this on a daily basis.
“The attic? Never. Anything interesting?”
“Well, there’s a portrait up there that I assume is of Miranda. A painting. And she looks even more like me than I do.”
He raised his eyebrows but didn’t comment.
“What I’d like to do is bring all the books into the library, sort and then catalogue them together … that way I can box and store them according to type/author or era … whichever is most appropriate. But I can’t assess that until I’ve seen the entire collection. I’ll grab the rest from the attic—there aren’t many up there—and make a start this afternoon. The initial sweep should take a few weeks. Unfortunately, I can’t use a barcode scanner as most volumes are from pre-code days. The data will need to be fed into the database manually.
“After that, I’ll sort through family photographs and such—at which time we can separate out and include any of the books, journals and so on that pertain to the family.
“Finally, we can go through the memorabilia, gowns, figurines, artworks and the like and prepare those for auction. How does that sound?”
Dan shrugged. “Fine by me. Would you like me to bring the books up from the cellar for you?”
She shook her head. “Don’t you have your own work to do?”
“Not at the moment. I finished my last commission on Saturday and I haven’t accepted anything new yet. I don’t mind. As a matter of fact I’m intrigued by all of this. Aunt Ceccie was always very secretive—not quite a recluse but almost. There’s a lot we don’t know about her life and I’d love to learn her secrets and any others hiding in my family’s past.
“Plus, I’d really like to buy this house once everything is sorted out so I can do those renovations I designed. Mum owns half, but there’s some confusion about the rest of the estate. Ceccie’s will bequeaths the other half to a long lost great aunt’s descendants. Details are sketchy. The lawyers and genealogists are investigating now to see if there’s any truth to it but it is a slow process. They have to be certain.
“I’m hoping that by the time we’ve finished here, they’ll have tracked this relative down and we can come to some sort of agreement.”
“I’ll do my best to get it done in a timely manner, then.”
Dan smiled a silent thank you and suddenly she felt all warm inside. She didn’t understand how such a man had escaped a permanent attachment before now. He was good-looking, worked for himself and could cook. What more could a girl want? Maybe he had some dreadful habits that she was yet to learn about. Or he snored really loud.
Well, I guess I’ll find out over the next few weeks.
By the time Dan poked his head in the library door Erin had eight stacks of books scattered about the floor.
“Ready to take a break for dinner?” he asked.
Looking up, she blew some stray strands of hair out of her eyes. The cotton gloves she wore were covered in dust, as were her flushed cheeks, and nose.
Unbidden, he felt a surge of emotion race through his belly, and he felt the impulse to go over and wipe the dust from her face before leaning in and placing his lips on her rosy mouth. Where the idea had come from he didn’t know, and he certainly wasn’t going to act upon that impulse, but looking at her …
“Umm—ah—I’ve made coq au vin. It’ll be ready in about ten. You might want to go clean up a bit.” He grinned. “Shall I open a bottle of wine?”
She shook her head. “No, I’m on a roll here. I’d like to do another hour or two after dinner. And,” she darted him a pointed glance, “I’m a passable cook. You don’t have to keep feeding me.”
“How about we do turn and turn about on the housekeeper’s day off?” he offered. “You can cook next Monday.”
“Sounds good.” She stood gingerly and arched her back. “I didn’t realise I’d been crouched here so long. I’ll just go up and dust off then.”
He remained in the doorway, so she had to turn side-on to slip past him and even then her breast brushed his arm. For one long moment she froze as he studied her with an amused expression.
“Sheesh, men,” she muttered under her breath as she headed for the stairs.
Once safely in her room the air whooshed from her lungs. She hadn’t seen that coming. One minute Dan seemed like the boy next door, the next …? Was he flirting with her?
“Stop it!” she ordered herself. Just my imagination.
And after checking in the mirror, she understood. She was covered in grime like some kind of street urchin. No wonder he’d grinned at her, he was just teasing.
She washed her face before redoing her mascara and lip gloss. She also changed her clothes—a peasant skirt and blouse. It was only as she bounced back down the staircase that she wondered why she’d gone to the trouble of making herself look more presentable for dinner. It wasn’t like a date or anything.
In the kitchen Dan was busy ladling chicken and sauce over a bed of fluffy white rice.
The plate he put in front of her could have fed an entire family.
“You don’t honestly expect me to eat all this, do you?” she asked.
Pursing his lips, he scrutinised the plate, then shrugged. “I’m used to feeding myself. Just eat as much as you want. Any leftovers can be fired up for brekky tomorrow.”
“Coq au vin for breakfast?” She shuddered at the thought.
“What’s wrong with that? Omelettes are French too, and I bet you’d readily eat one of those first up.”
“Somehow, I don’t think it’s a matter of nationality.”
“Perhaps not, but when you think about it, it’s just convention. For instance, tiramisu is breakfast food in Italy, but most other countries treat it as a dessert.”
“Mmmm, I love tiramisu.”
“I’ll see if I can pick some up whilst you’re here.”
Erin grinned and dug in. She surprised herself by eating more than half. When she put down her fork she said, “That was pretty good. Maybe I should let you do the cooking after all.”
“The housekeeper will do most of the cooking from tomorrow on. She’ll likely prepare dinners for us to heat up while she’s not here. And we can always eat out some nights. There are a few very good restaurants not far from here. Thai, Indian and Italian. I’m sure there’d be tiramisu on the Italian’s menu.”
“Well, I’m here to work. So I’d better get back to it. I’ll just stack the dishwasher first,” she said as she stood.
Dan took the plate from her hand. “Leave that to me tonight. You’ve got lots to do in there.”
Erin let him win the argument this time.
“Okay, I’ll do a couple more hours in the library then head on up to bed. See you in the morning.”
By the time Erin took off her gloves, the mantle clock gonged eleven. Where the time had gone she couldn’t fathom. Her gloves were filthy, which was to be expected since most of the bookshelves weren’t glass-fronted. And she’d managed to make a second set of clothes grubby in a few hours. But she’d made good progress.
At the top of the stairs she stopped a moment. Dan’s door sat ajar, and she could hear him singing tunelessly over the sound of the running shower. It sounded very much like a 1980s disco song. She chuckled to herself. This man was surprising to say the least.
After a decadent breakfast of bacon and eggs courtesy of the housekeeper, Denise, Erin set to work in the library. She assumed Dan was having a bit of a sleep-in, but he turned up a short while later banging on the front door.
“I remembered seeing a box of books in the garage,” he explained as he dumped the box at her feet. “I don’t know what’s in here, but this should be the last, except for those in the cellar. I’ll bring them up by lunch and you’ll be all set.”
Erin closed her eyes and sighed. The library was already filled with so many stacks getting around was becoming precarious. She wasn’t sure there’d be room for any more from downstairs.
“I’d better get stuck into it then. Just leave this box here for now—I’ll look at the contents before I take them in … that way I can put them with similar volumes straight away.”
She worked steadily for several hours, unaware of anything beyond the piles of books that surrounded her. She’d been photographing the spines and frontispieces with her iPad to start an initial record and was lining up a new stack when Denise cleared her throat from the doorway.
Erin looked up with a start.
“Sorry to disturb. Dan asked me to let you both know when lunch is ready. But I can’t seem to find him … is he hiding in here?”
Erin drew her brows together. “Dan? … I haven’t seen him for several hours. I thought he’d gone down to the cellar to collect the last of the books.”
Denise looked apprehensively at the trapdoor opening. “Down there?”
Erin grinned, stretching as she stood. “I’ll go down and get him.”
She crouched at the opening and stopped to listen. It seemed incredibly quiet considering he should have been stacking books in boxes.
Ducking through to the top of the short flight of rickety steps, she called, “Dan? Dan, are you down here?”
Silence greeted her ears so she moved down the steps and through to the next room. Empty. That’s odd. Maybe he’s napping on the bed?
The bedroom was empty too. As she stepped around several boxes, she saw that Dan had begun to tidy a little as he worked.
For long seconds she stared at the Chinese screen. Surely not.
He wouldn’t have.
Cautiously, she moved closer to the screen and peeked behind it. Several sequined gowns hung from the rafter, obscuring her view.
She shivered. Something inside her wanted to turn around and high tail it back upstairs. But she needed to see. What if he’d knocked himself on the head back there?
Her fingers shook as she stepped forward and pushed one of the gowns aside. At the same moment something hard and curved hooked her ankle. Stumbling, she caught a glimpse of an ornate umbrella tangled around her leg.
With a squeal, she flew forward, almost in slow motion, before landing on her face with a thud.
“Oh, Aunt Mary, it’s that young woman again.”
Erin didn’t want to lift her eyes. She didn’t want to believe.
Now she did look up.
Dan sat, white-faced, nursing a delicate china cup. “Am I glad you’re here, Erin! They … ahh … they think I’m some soldier or other who got Miranda pregnant and took off—”
Mary snorted and began speaking over Dan, “You will not escape your duty, young man. As soon as Miranda returns you will marry her and give your daughter her rightful name. And you will pray the almighty forgives you for your sins!”
Erin dragged herself upright. She gazed first at Dan, then Mary and Charles in turn.
“Whoever you think is responsible, Dan is not your soldier. C’mon, let’s go back.” She began to turn when Charles took a pistol out of his desk drawer and aimed it at Dan’s chest.
“Whoa!” Dan slowly placed the cup and saucer on the table and raised both his hands. “There’s no need for guns.”
Mary sniffed. “The young man is right, Charles. Put the thing away. I am sure he’ll be reasonable. But just to make sure, we should lock him up until Miranda arrives.”
“But—” Erin began.
“Do not argue, young lady. If this … this … scoundrel, does not do his duty we will summon the constable and have him shackled until he does.”
Erin nearly burst out laughing at the ridiculousness of the situation until she saw Dan’s expression.
“Please, Mrs …? Ah … look, I’m honestly not who you think I am. But if Miranda is due here soon, I am sure she can confirm I am not the father of her, or anyone else’s child. And besides,” he stood and wrapped an arm around Erin, “my wife would be most distressed. Wouldn’t you, dearest?” Then he leaned down and planted his mouth upon hers.
“I beg your pardon!” Charles erupted in alarm. “One does NOT indulge in public displays of affection.”
Dan lifted his head and for a second Erin felt even more disoriented. Heat seared her from head to toe, and when she gazed into Dan’s eyes, she could see he was just as affected.
Mary coughed, loudly, before pretending to faint.
But Erin knew it was all an act. And not for the first time did she think this entire scenario was some kind of set-up. Even so, Dan kept his arm secured about her waist as if to confirm the relationship.
“Do something, Charles,” Mary ordered when she opened one eye and saw her pretense had made no impression.
Charles gave both Erin and Dan a searing look. “I do not believe you, young man. The young lady is clearly astonished by your actions. Have you proof of marriage? I see neither of you wear wedding bands.”
Dan opened his mouth to reply but Mary spoke over him. “Certainly, you must supply proof before we accept this preposterous story. You are exactly as Miranda described, and until she arrives I propose we keep you here, under guard if necessary.
“Perhaps we should lock them both in the salon and have the gardener stand guard outside the windows to prevent his escape. Miranda’s missive stated she would arrive by sundown.” The old woman nodded sagely. “We must ensure he remains until then. You, young lady, may return to where you came from.”
“If I stay, my wife stays,” Dan declared.
“An excellent plan, Aunt Mary,” Charles said, ignoring Dan’s words. He picked up a small bell on his desk and gave it a vigorous shake.
Seconds later a cadaverous old man, dressed in black tails, shuffled into the room and sketched a barely perceptible bow. “You rang, Sir Charles?”
“Ahh, Bilson, would you have the boy summon the gardener? And fetch the key to the salon … and more tea while we wait.”
“But, Sir, the salon door is not locked,” Bilson stated.
“It soon shall be,” replied Charles, favouring first Dan, then Erin with a scathing glare.
Dan rolled his eyes. “This is getting silly,” he whispered to Erin out of the corner of his mouth. “Let’s just make a break for it and go back the way we came.”
Erin nodded her agreement.
“On three,” he whispered, as Charles turned to speak quietly with his aunt.
“One … two,” he murmured, “three!”
As one, Erin and Dan turned and bolted for the hall. Dan wrenched the doorknob so violently it came off in his hand.
“What the …?” He held up the bronze device and looked at it quizzically before tossing it aside.
“Hurry!” Erin beseeched.
Dan pushed at the door several times before ramming it with his shoulder. He stopped in his tracks when he heard a very loud click beside his ear.
Turning slowly, Dan found the etched silver handgun pointed at his nose.
Charles’s smile wasn’t threatening, despite the gun.
“You compound your sins with property damage? Oh, dear me, sir, I have grave misgivings about you joining this family,” he tsk-tsked.
“I think bigamy might be a bigger sin,” Dan commented, though Charles didn’t seem to see the humour.
Charles motioned with the gun that they should enter the salon.
With no other option, Erin led the way.
At the door, Charles said, “I’ll have cook prepare tea while we await Miranda,” before shutting door and turning the key.
They were locked in.
Dan immediately looked for an alternate escape route, but they’d entered the only door and the one window opposite showed the silhouette of a burly man, standing guard as promised.
Dan furrowed his brows. “That must be the gardener. I guess all we can do is wait.”
Erin spun about slowly, taking in her surroundings. If she didn’t know better she’d say she stood in the library. There were different furnishings, of course, with lots of embroidered tapestry chair coverings and heavy, dark wood, but the basic shape of the room was the same. And at the end of the room a portrait took pride of place above the cast-iron, blue-tiled fireplace. The same portrait that now sat languishing in the attic. The portrait of Miranda.
“I’m dreaming, aren’t I,” she stated to herself.
“If you’re dreaming, so am I,” Dan said.
“Oh that’s easy, you’re in my dream. So you’ll be consistent with the world I’ve created.”
“Do you think so? Is this like any dream you’ve had?” he said, before taking her in his arms and covering her lips with his.
She didn’t struggle, as a matter of fact, since she knew she was dreaming, she dove head first into the kiss without any inhibitions.
I might as well enjoy the fantasy.
He was so warm. So welcoming. Erin allowed her hands to slide up his chest until they reached the anchor of his broad shoulders. She stood on tip-toe to get closer and her skin tingled wherever they touched.
With gentle fingers he lifted his hands to cradle her face, and she couldn’t help opening for him, inviting his hot tongue to caress hers. He filled her with heat. For long seconds his mouth was intoxicating and sweet before he abruptly broke the kiss and backed up out of arm’s reach. The wave of warmth that surged through her remained. And the tingle remained as well. Her lips hummed.
“Don’t tell me that was a dream,” he murmured before turning away from her.
“But … but …” she began.
“It must be some kind of portal. Like a wormhole. It makes sense.” He spun back around and nodded to himself as if nothing had just happened between them. “It would account for the fact that Ceccie went missing for days and weeks at a time. She used to tell these outrageous stories about grand balls and formal dinners she attended. We thought she was just getting dotty … making stuff up. But what if she was coming here? I always wondered why she had the bed down in cellar.
“Yep—makes perfect sense when you think about it.” He grinned.
Erin narrowed her eyes. “Only if you’re insane,” she muttered under her breath, though from Dan’s scowl she knew he’d heard her.
“This is my dream—” she began.
The sound of the key in the lock cut Erin short. She held her breath, hoping that it was the signal she’d wake up. But a silver tea tray preceded a young woman dressed in a long, grey dress and stiff white apron. She didn’t speak but merely placed the tray on the nearby table and exited without a pause. The sound of the key turning in the lock seemed shatteringly loud.
“Might as well make ourselves at home,” Dan sighed, plonking down on one of two settees separated by the tea table. “Did you want to pour?” He added in a posh voice as if getting into ‘character’.
Erin laughed and gestured for him to do the honours.
Little cakes sat on gilt-edged China side plates. He popped one in his mouth before filling her cup. “Mmmn—these are good. Buttery. Milk?” he lifted the jug in question.
She sat opposite and took the cup and saucer he offered her.
“This is still ridiculous,” she complained.
“Maybe. But it’s real.” He pinned her with a piercing gaze.
She looked away. “Think what you like. It defies physics. I don’t believe it.”
Dan just shrugged and tucked into the cakes.
“You really ought to have one. They’re great!”
But as she leaned forward to grab one, the sound of horses drew her attention. She stood and hurried to the window.
Dan followed after snatching another of the cakes.
Over the gardener’s shoulder they saw an open carriage, like the one she’d seen the day before, circle the drive and come to a halt just out of sight.
“That must be Miranda,” he stated.
“I guess I can wake up soon, then.”
Shaking his head indulgently, he turned toward the door waiting to hear the key in the lock. A muffled commotion ensued before Erin heard a feminine shriek that set the hairs on the back of her neck on end.
A second later the key turned and door was flung open so swiftly that it bounced against the wall.
Erin felt something inside her tremble as she gazed upon the woman who could have been her twin. Dressed in a full length navy gown adorned with tiny rosebuds and red piping, Miranda turned a chalky white as soon as she laid eyes on Dan.
“William?” Her voice was a mere whisper. Moving forward, her brows slowly began to knit. More with each step she took. By the time she stood before him, her face was flushed and she appeared quite distressed.
“You’re not William,” she murmured. “I knew it couldn’t be. William is dead.” She staggered.
Dan reached out to steady her and led her to a settee, before he and Erin sat opposite. Charles entered the room and Miranda sighed deeply.
“Did I not tell you, my dearest? Your young soldier is returned to you,” he said with an air of triumph.
Miranda shook her head sadly, and Erin could see the poor woman was on the verge of tears.
“No, Uncle Charles, you are mistaken.” Her voice shook. “This man looks somewhat like William but he is not my lost love.”
“But the portrait you showed us … this is the man in the portrait.”
Again, Miranda shook her head. “I wish it were so. But it is not. I concede this man bears a resemblance from a distance … but …” Her tears threatened to spill over. It was only then that Miranda looked directly at Erin. Shock made her eyes widen.
“Pardon my rudeness,” she said, wafting her hand uselessly. “Are you a cousin I’ve not met?”
“No,” Erin responded. “No relation, as far as I know.”
Seeing Miranda in the flesh, she realised the resemblance was less than the photograph and portrait suggested. Miranda’s nose was a little larger and her mouth wider. And her skin was covered in golden freckles while Erin’s own had just a sparse sprinkling. Somehow, she found those differences comforting.
Charles looked at first Dan, then Erin. “Please accept our apologies. I have made a dreadful mistake. But it was of pure heart … I would do anything to see my niece find happiness.”
“Thank you, Uncle Charles. I know you meant well.” She glanced at Dan and tried to smile. “I suppose you must think us candidates for Bedlam?”
I know I am, Erin thought.
“Not at all,” Dan said. “But please, an explanation would be helpful.”
Miranda took a lace handkerchief from her sleeve and delicately patted the corners of her eyes.
“I worked as a nurse at the British Hotel at Balaclava. My William was a member of the 5th Dragoon Guards. He came to the hotel to recuperate from his wounds in battle. His wounds were dreadful and we despaired for his survival. But he slowly recovered and we fell in love. It was many months before he could walk unaided.”
Miranda’s eyes welled again as she spoke. “William returned to his regiment. I got word … they say he was killed delivering a message … I discovered I was with child …” She began to sob and Charles sat alongside to comfort her as best he could.
“You see why I so hoped you were Miranda’s young soldier,” he said to Dan.
Miranda collected herself, though her eyes still shone with moisture. “I knew it could not be true.
“I took Charlotte to live with William’s family. They lost their son, but they have his daughter to love.”
“But what of you?” Erin asked. “Won’t you miss her?”
Smiling sadly, she nodded. “Of course. I am permitted to visit Charlotte but as an unwed mother, I would forever cast a pall of illegitimacy upon my daughter. William’s family will give her their name. She is the only child of their only son. While I come from a respected family, I do believe her future will be better served if she does not know of her illegitimate beginnings.”
Charles almost snarled. “You know we would not hold that against her, as we do not hold it against you. Charlotte is welcome in this house.”
Miranda patted his hand. “Thank you, Uncle Charles, but I am thinking of what is best for Charlotte. I have chosen to be treated as a family friend. William’s father has promised to send regular notes of Charlotte’s progress. She will not want for anything where she is. And, above all, there will be no stigma. They have put about that both William and his young wife died while travelling back to England. Thus she will be spared any indignity resulting from her birth.”
“And you will be free to marry,” Charles added.
Miranda shook her head. “Never.”
Charles stood and held out a hand to Dan. “Again, my apologies, sir.”
“No need. This explains much about Cecily.”
“Ceccie?” Charles’s eyes lit up. “You know Ceccie?”
Suddenly, to Erin, it all began to make a kind of whacky sense. She had no doubt she was still dreaming but now she had a context. The family bible should explain it.
“C’mon Dan,” she said. “We ought to be getting back.”
Dan looked torn. She could see he wanted to learn more about his family but he also knew they needed to be in their own reality.
What am I thinking! Dan is merely doing what my dream wants him to.
“I suppose you’re right,” he conceded, as if immediately responding to her rationalisation.
Charles led them to the salon door. “Please return soon, young man. It has been some time since Cecily visited with us. Perhaps you can bring her with you?”
Erin saw the hope brimming in Charles’s expression. He didn’t know she’d died.
Dan dropped his eyes and turned. “I’m very sorry, but Cecily passed away ten weeks ago.”
All colour drained from Charles’s face. “Cecily has passed? Oh … my …”
Now Miranda came to give her uncle solace in return for his earlier concern of her. She led him to the settee and took his hand in hers. “We knew she was unwell last time she came to us.”
Dan nodded. “Yes, her heart …”
Drawing a deep breath, Charles sighed. “It is not unexpected, yet it is still a shock. Where is she buried? I would build her a memorial.”
Dan and Erin exchanged an uncomfortable glance. “Ah, that is a little difficult to explain …”
“Next time we come,” Erin said quickly, “We will bring all the details. We really must go.”
Still dazed, Charles allowed them to depart without obstruction.
Bilson was just finishing the repair of the broken doorknob when Erin and Dan made their way to the hall.
“This is an amazing dream,” Erin commented as she reached for the bronze knob.
Dan laughed. “I’ll prove it isn’t.”
“Is that a challenge?” she asked as she stepped into the darkness that heralded the transition between the real world and Erin’s dream world.
Behind her, as the world began to spin, she heard him say, “You can count on it.”
He was whacking her face again.
“Wakey, wakey, Erin.”
Flailing her arm, she pushed him away. “Will you stop that! Now what did you put into my coffee?” she accused as pushed herself upright.
“Not a thing.” He leaned over and planted his lips upon hers. Warmth flooded her limbs.
“That’s so you know we weren’t dreaming.” He sat back on his heels and tilted his head as if considering. “Hmmm. I might make that a habit.”
A swarm of butterflies took up residence in her belly.
“But … but …” She didn’t quite know what she found more alarming: the idea she hadn’t been dreaming or that he’d taken a liking to kissing her.
“But it had to be a dream!” Erin chose to ignore the kiss. It was safer that way.
“If it was a dream then it was a shared one. I’d say there’s a wormhole or time-tunnel down there. Cecily used it and now we have.”
“Ridiculous,” she returned with little conviction. She stumbled to her feet and headed for the stairs. “There’s got to be a logical explanation. A logical explanation that does not include defying physics.”
He followed close behind.
“Who says it defies physics? There are theories … science is changing all the time.”
“I don’t know enough about it to say one way or another, to be honest. But I still don’t believe it.”
He blocked her exit.
“Do you believe this?” He took her in his arms and placed his mouth upon hers. And what started out as gentle and sweet soon turned fiercely carnal as Erin let go of her reservations and accepted this one thing.
Attraction. A strong attraction. She’d felt it the moment she’d seen him there with his spectacles dangling from his fingers that very first day. She’d felt it on Monday when he opened the front door with his hair askew and his eyes hazy with sleep. She’d felt it, unmistakably, when he kissed her back in the … what …? Miranda’s time? She still couldn’t believe that. But the rest …? Time and a little research would tell.
His body pressed against hers and she tingled at every place they touched.
Somewhere in the back of her mind she knew this was madness.
She pulled away. “Will you stop that! You’ve made your point.” She ducked through the opening and hustled into the library before he could stop her.
“What point would that be?” Dan demanded as he emerged from the cellar.
Her cheeks warmed. She didn’t know how to answer him and wanted to hug Denise when she appeared in the doorway.
“Finally,” Denise complained. “You’re lucky your lunch is a cold antipasto. Otherwise it’d be ruined. I suppose I’m going to have put dinner back as well. I hope this won’t become customary.” Turning on her heel, she disappeared in the direction of the kitchen.
“Uh, oh,” Dan said sheepishly. “I expect I ought to apologise. C’mon … those cakes didn’t touch the sides. I’m starved.”
He grabbed Erin’s hand and dragged her from the room.
Erin didn’t feel much like food. Her stomach still churned, what with all the kissing and time travelling. But after Dan made such a production of his apology to Denise, who forgave him instantly, Erin felt compelled to eat.
A crusty roll with cheese and sun-dried tomatoes gave her a few minutes to think, though the way Dan kept looking at her made the thinking difficult.
“I suggest we spend the afternoon, what remains of it, researching the family tree. See what we can find to prove whether Charles is indeed my ancestor. That way, when we go back—”
“Go back? You’re not serious.”
“Of course, I’m serious. And besides, you promised.” Dan grinned as if he just check-mated her.
“But I only said that … well … because … he just seemed so sad. I still reckon I was dreaming though. And nothing you say will convince me otherwise.”
“Looks like more kissing is in order then,” he declared.
“And what would that achieve?”
“Does it have to achieve anything … except pleasure?”
That stumped her.
Dan loomed over Erin’s shoulder as they studied the entries in the family bible. She wasn’t sure whether or not he intended it, but his warm breath fanned the fine hairs at her nape, making her want to shiver. She’d been trying to ignore the wayward feelings he evoked but it was kind of hard when he smelled so delicious.
How does a man smell delicious, anyhow?
“Look here,” he said, tapping the page as he counted the generations. “Charles must have been my great, great, great, great, great grandfather. And Ceccie was the younger sister of my paternal grandmother.”
Tracing back up the page, he found Miranda’s entry. “Says here Miranda was the daughter of Charles’s sister Anne. But there are no children. So if she had a daughter … Carla was it?”
“Charlotte,” Erin corrected.
“Charlotte. From what I can see, this line of the family ended with Miranda. I guess Charlotte and her offspring, if she had any, must be who the genealogists are searching for.”
“Probably. But how do they know who she is? Did Charles say anything about Miranda’s dead soldier? Do we have a name?”
Dan shook his head and looked up at the row of books and journals on the top shelf. “Perhaps there’s something up there, or we can go back through the wormhole and ask?”
Erin backed up and held out her arms as if to fend off an attack. “No way, José. I refuse to subscribe to the fantasy.”
“But it might help track down who Charlotte was. And then her family. Wemight even find out who owns the other half of the house.”
“Count me out. If you want to go … then fine. But I’m staying right here.”
“Suit yourself,” he said as he shifted the step-ladder and began pulling out the journals. “Take these.” He handed her the first couple of large, leather-bound volumes. “We can start here for now. If they contain nothing to help us, I’ll go back and ask Charles or Miranda.”
Taking the journals, Erin gave him a dubious look.
“I might go back anyway,” he continued with his back to her. “I’m intrigued to know how Ceccie explained herself to them. Surely she didn’t tell them she was from their future. Just from what we saw, I don’t think Charles or Mary would have bought that idea.”
Erin took the next bundle, barely catching the stack of letters that started to spill out and sighed. “You’re assuming what happened back there was real. That those people were real. I still don’t believe it.”
“Then we can agree to disagree. Charles is in my family tree … so that, at least, confirms a relationship. And don’t forget, you met him before I did,” he replied as he dropped back to the floor. Grabbing most of the journals, he started for the kitchen. “We need to spread out a bit and there’s no room here. I’m sure Denise won’t mind if we commandeer the dining room.”
Erin followed in his wake, sincerely hoping all the answers would be found within these pages. She didn’t want to think about the alternative.
“Ahem.” Denise stood in the doorway wiping her hands on a tea towel. “I was about to set the table for dinner.” She cast a frown at the array of open books and papers scattered on the dining table, the sideboard, and in several strategically placed piles on the floor.
Dan looked about him and grinned sheepishly. “Ah, I guess we’ll eat in the kitchen?”
Denise’s brow furrowed further before she let out a breath. “I suppose dinner would be cold by the time you made room here. Five minutes,” she added before turning on her heel.
“We could do alfresco in the garden,” Dan suggested to Erin.
“Nah, kitchen’s fine. You got anything?”
“The letters I’ve found so far are from before she went to the Crimea. She hasn’t met the guy yet. I daren’t jump forward in case I miss something.”
“Yeah, same here,” she said.
They’d decided Dan would start at the beginning of Miranda’s life while Erin would work backward from her death, in the hope they’d find something helpful before they reached the middle.
“It seems Miranda spent most of her later life doing charity work. Especially with orphan children and unwed mothers. She doesn’t appear to have married. And I’ve had no mention of Charlotte at all,” Erin told him.
“C’mon, let’s go eat. There’re only a couple more bundles of Miranda’s letters and one journal left as far as I can see. We can come back after dinner and knock those over. If there’s nothing there, we should look at Charles’s journals next.”
Over dinner they discussed the possibility of tracing the official death records from Balaclava and trying to find the young soldier’s name that way.
“I don’t know much about that era of history, but I doubt the records will be able to help much if we don’t have his surname. I know Miranda said he was what… a dragoon? But I didn’t pay close enough attention to details.”
“Me either. More reason to go back and ask,” Dan suggested.
Erin rolled her eyes. “I thought we agreed we’d exhaust all avenues here first.”
“You agreed. I’m more interested in solving this problem quickly and I reckon going to the horse’s mouth’d be quicker than wading through all the documents.” The look he gave her was enough to melt her insides.
She tried to ignore the sensation.
“If, and I stress if, Miranda’s child is the progenitor of the person who should inherit half this house, you’ll need tangible evidence. Not the say so of a mythical person we spoke to in a dream.”
“We’re back to that again, are we?” Dan sighed dramatically and circled the table.
Before she could protest he drew her out of her chair and planted his warm lips upon hers. He swallowed her squeal of protest and took advantage by deepening the kiss. The way he fitted his body to hers made her dizzy. The same kind of dizziness she experienced when she fell into the wormhole.
She gripped Dan’s shoulders to steady herself but it only brought her breasts in contact with his chest. That sent darts of fire in all directions. To places she barely ever noticed.
Her toes tingled. How can my toes tingle when he kisses me?
His soft mouth was like a drug. One she suddenly craved but also feared. The heat. The light-headedness. The uncertainty. All those things made her afraid she was losing her heart.
And what of Dan? Was he simply playing with her? She’d challenged him again. Was he merely responding to the challenge in a way he knew would disarm her?
She absorbed the luscious sensations for a few more seconds before dragging her face to the side and giving him a gentle push.
“You’ve got to stop doing that,” she muttered as she extricated herself from his arms.
“Why?” His eyes showed a glint of mischief that only confirmed her assumption.
Sobering, she said, “I’m going to bed. We can make a fresh start in the morning.” Turning on her heel, she exited the room.
Dan didn’t try to prevent her escape. He needed to think about what just happened. What had started as a bit of fun just got very serious. Oh, he could readily admit he liked her. He’d liked her from the first. She was sassy and smart. And very pleasing to the eye. But just now, the reactions that tore through his gut were ones he hadn’t felt for a very long time. Not since before Lizzy was killed by a drunk driver the very night he’d planned to propose.
For the first time since Lizzy’s death he didn’t feel guilty having kissed another woman. Over the past six years every time he’d tried to get close to someone he’d been overwhelmed by an avalanche of guilt. Like he was betraying the love they’d shared. But with Erin just now, it’d been different.
He hadn’t forgotten Lizzy, would never forget her. But somehow this felt okay. Somehow he knew Lizzy would approve.
Heading up the stairs to shower, he reckoned he might sleep very well tonight.
The housekeeper put a plate of French toast in front of Erin.
“Have you seen Dan this morning?” she asked after she’d eaten most of her breakfast.
“He was up early. Went down to the cellar a long while ago.” Denise replied as she began to load the dishwasher.
He didn’t. He couldn’t have.
With a groan she pushed her empty plate away. Gulping down the last of her coffee, she stood. She really didn’t want to go down there. Really she didn’t.
“When you say ‘a long while ago’ is that minutes … or hours?”
Denise slammed the dishwasher drawer and wiped her hands on her apron as she stared up at the clock. “Hmmm. An hour maybe? Perhaps a little more.”
In the library, Erin stared at the opening and toyed whether to go in search of Dan. He could just be down there looking through stuff in the hope of getting some answers.
Sure. Like that’s likely.
Resigned, she crouched and shuffled through the trapdoor.
It was eerily quiet. The butterfly swarm that inhabited her belly took flight again, but for different reasons to last night.
As she expected, the first room was empty. A quick check of the other two yielded the same result. She stared at the Chinese screen for long seconds before letting out a frustrated sign. At least he’d removed all the obstacles … there were no hanging gowns or fancy umbrellas to cause havoc.
Breathing deeply she stepped behind the screen.
At first nothing happened and she wondered if the ‘doorway’ had closed. But a sudden wave of nausea reassured her. And then darkness shrouded her. Normally she’d have feared the sensations but this time she welcomed them. Whether she dreamt or this was actually happening, didn’t really matter. They needed to know.
Last night, she’d taken the rest of Miranda’s letters and read until very late. They didn’t contain a single mention of Charlotte which made Erin wonder whether the woman had been a heartless soul. She hadn’t appeared that way when Erin met her … but …?
Oh for God’s sake! Meeting Miranda was just a dream.
As she exited the door in the hall from the past, silence greeted her. She’d expected to find Dan or Charles or even old Aunt Mary. But the sitting room was completely empty.
It rained outside, beating down in sheets that cast a grey pall over the room. The sound was like a drumming on the window panes.
“Dan?” she whispered.
When nobody answered, she moved to the salon and peeked her head in. Nobody.
Pursing her lips she backed up and headed for the stairs. Knowing the layout of the house helped. Though she was surprised to find another wing to the house extended beyond the staircase.
I wonder when that was knocked down?
After making sure the kitchen was empty, a room that was very different to the modern version, she took the stairs two at a time.
Tapping first, she pushed the main bedroom door wide. “Hello?”
Dan looked up from the small writing table and waved a bundle of letters at her.
“Where is everyone?” Erin asked as she entered.
“No idea. Place appears vacant. Locked up tight. This must be Miranda’s room. I found some letters and another journal. Makes for interesting reading,” he said, handing her a bundle of gilt-edged envelopes.
“Yeah. Here,” he stood and motioned that she sit in the chair. “You’d better get comfy.”
With raised eyebrows, Erin sat and examined the first letter. It was unsent, and addressed to Charlotte. Although aware Dan watched her, the words on the page stole Erin’s attention. It spoke of Miranda’s heartache that she couldn’t see her daughter. It rambled, full of sadness, and Erin felt her own eyes well.
The next, apparently returned unopened. A note across the address merely said, ‘unknown at this address’. It contained a single page asking why William’s family had taken Charlotte out of reach to America.
Several more of the letters, also returned, contained similar questions.
The next, addressed to Miranda, came from a solicitor in London stating that William’s parents had died in a house fire in America. Their granddaughter had since married a Robert Warn and settled in New York.
A number of other solicitor’s letters revealed no further information.
“Well, we have a name now,” Erin said as she laid the last letter aside.
“A place to start, at least.” He grabbed the pile of letters and pocketed them.
“Hey! That’s stealing. What will she think when she gets back from wherever she is?”
“Hmmm, you’re right.” Dan pursed his lips before he found a fat pencil and ripped the last page from the journal. He sorted through the letters until he found the one detailing Charlotte’s marriage. He noted the name and the letter’s date so they had a reference for the search.
“Better? C’mon, I guess we can go back.”
“Quit it!” Erin flailed as Dan patted her cheeks.
“Prefer this?” he asked. He leaned over and ran his thumb across her lower lip before touching his mouth lightly to hers. He’d been wanting to do it since she walked into Miranda’s bedroom. Now he’d made peace with Lizzy’s memory, he felt liberated.
Her plump lips welcomed him with a warmth that made him slowly settle on the floor beside her. He gathered her into his arms and every cell in his body seemed to buzz with the rightness of it. His groin tightened until the restriction of his jeans became almost painful. Still, he could wait. They’d known each other for mere days and the cataloguing will take months, so there was plenty of time.
Right now he just wanted to enjoy the sensation of having a woman in his arms again.
“You need to quit that too,” she muttered with little conviction when he drew back.
He let her push him away.
“Why do I always black out when we come back and you don’t?” she asked.
Dan shrugged. “Just lucky, I guess.” He stood and held out a hand to help her up.
He smiled to himself. She wouldn’t look at him. The kiss had obviously unnerved her and that pleased him no end because it meant she felt something.
“Shall we get going on the research?” he asked, brandishing the paper he’d written on in Miranda’s bedroom. Handing it to her, he added, “You know what this means, don’t you?”
He nodded at the paper. “It means it definitely isn’t your dreams. That note is a tangible piece of evidence that we just travelled through time.”
Erin opened her mouth, then slowly closed it. Her cheeks paled before her face went red all over.
“I don’t want to think about it now,” she said and pushed past him, hurrying up the stairs and into the safety of the library.
Grabbing her iPad, she opened her browser and started searching for marriage and death records for someone named Robert Warn on a popular genealogy website. The list was extensive.
“How do we narrow down the criteria? There’s no marriage record for New York that I can find for around that date. And he could have lived for a long time.”
Dan leaned over her shoulder. “Try Charlotte. The name probably isn’t so common.”
Erin tapped in the name and started scrolling. “Five. Hang on,” she added Robert Warn in the spouse column and hit paydirt.
The marriage record showed Charlotte Warn nee Patrick married Robert Warn on Feb 13, 1877. “A daughter, Mary, was born in 1880.”
“So now we look up Mary,” Dan suggested.
They followed the trail back to England where Charlotte’s granddaughter Doris settled after marrying a British sailor named Markham in 1946, shortly after the end of the war.
Erin started to feel a little sick when she saw the next generation. Doris had a daughter named Jean, born in 1955, died in 2009. She handed the tablet to Dan and walked to the window.
“Jean married David Morris in 1980. They have one daughter, born on March 31, 1986.”
Dan’s head swung around to where Erin stood. Her pallor was grey. “A daughter named Erin. I can’t be her …” she began.
He slowly placed the iPad on the desk and went to her.
“It would explain a lot.”
Standing behind her, he wrapped his arms around her waist to comfort her.
“I know it’s a shock and we’ll have to verify the records,” he said, watching her face in the reflection of the window.
She turned in his arms. “Did you know? Was all this … the last few days … all the kissing and stuff … aimed at letting me discover for myself?”
Letting his arms drop he backed up and shook his head. “I promise, I had no idea. Absolutely none.” Turning, he scanned the stacks of books. “Mother might have, though. I got the impression something was going on when you came for the interview. I’ll have to ask her.
“But on my life,” he held his hand to his heart, “I honestly didn’t know.”
“And the kissing?” she raised her eyes slowly until they fixed upon his face.
“That was ALL my idea. A good one, I thought. A lot more would be even better and I intend to follow up when the time is right.”
Her cheeks flushed then her forehead creased as she indicated the open page on the iPad. “But doesn’t that make us related?”
“We’re talking seven or eight generations. It’s legal for cousins to marry …”
“Marry?” she squeaked.
“Maybe. We can see how things go. Down the track. We’ve got plenty of time.”
“Do you think the portal was only open until we worked out I was your long lost sixth cousin once removed … or some such thing?” Erin asked as they considered fabric swatches for the drapes in the library. They’d decided to make it the family room where they’d spend most of their free time. The room looked completely different now all the dark bookcases had been removed.
Dan shrugged. “Who knows? It’s closed now, so we’ll never know.”
“And we didn’t get to tell Charles more about Ceccie.”
Tapping on the pale blue, he said, “I like this one.”
Erin tilted her head. “Yeah, it’s nice. And we could have the walls painted in a slightly darker shade. Or were we thinking wallpaper?
“By the way, I got an email from the executors this afternoon. They tell me that since we’re getting married we don’t need to have a legal agreement about deeds to the house.”
“Makes things easier.”
“And the genealogist will supply a full family tree before the wedding. I’d like to fill in the empty section in the bible as soon as it arrives.”
Dan opened his arms and she walked into them. “Do you think our children will believe us when we tell them the story?”
“I still don’t know whether I believe it myself.” She looked over his shoulder at the trapdoor. “Are we going to tell them about the portal?’
“Maybe we should keep that to ourselves.”
In the basement bedroom the hourglass lay upon its side, waiting to be righted again.