Authors: Cynthia Luhrs
The rental car was small enough to park anywhere. She had to laugh, reading all the warnings plastered all over the car to keep left. How many tourists crashed each year driving on the right by mistake? Getting out of the airport and onto the highway without incident made Melinda relax and enjoy the drive.
It was so cold. Sure, it got cold in North Carolina, but the cold here seemed to burrow into her skin. She turned up the heat, found a station on the radio to sing along with, and was happy it wasn’t snowing. The highway gave way to smaller roads as she passed cute cottages and small villages.
Melinda stopped for fuel, ate lunch, then stopped again for caffeine. What she wouldn’t give for an icy-cold sweet tea. At the next stop she finished filling the car up and yawned. According to the map, she was almost there. No matter how tired she was, no napping. She’d stay up until her usual bedtime tonight so her body would quickly acclimate to the time change.
As she drove through the village, the shell of a burned-out church stood in stark contrast to the homes around it. There were several quaint-looking shops lining both sides of the street. Up ahead she spotted Blackford pub. The car safely parked, Melinda hurried inside and almost groaned in pleasure as the warmth pushed the cold out of her bones.
A tiny table near the fire beckoned. She stretched, releasing the tension in her neck and shoulders, before sitting in the chair and letting the fire warm her.
It was half past five. There were a few folks at the bar and tables, but otherwise the place was hers. Guess the dinner rush or evening drinkers hadn’t shown up yet. The quiet murmur of voices soothed her. Curious looks passed over her, followed by whispers.
She recognized the signs of a stranger in a small town. Heck, she knew everyone in Holden Beach. If someone came into French’s, everyone would have whispered and talked about the stranger. That is, until beach season. Then from late April to Labor Day there were crowds, too much traffic, and noise. Ugh, it was annoying just to think about. Melinda bet the small village of Blackford didn’t have to deal with too many tourists. She ordered hot tea and a bowl of stew.
“Get you anything else, miss?”
Lucy’s boyfriend might have been a jerk and a crazed murderer, but he had an accent to die for. Oops, so not funny. The bartender stood looking down at her, a smile hovering at the corners of his lips, as if he knew the effect he had on her. She resisted the urge to tell him he could be ninety and she’d look at him the same way.
“I’m good. On the way into town, I passed a church. What happened?”
He nodded to two old guys at the bar trying to get his attention. “Another pint?”
When he smiled, she found herself smiling back. He had a friendly face.
“Let me take care of these blokes and then I’ll fill you in.”
Melinda finished the stew and bread. The fire warmed her back, making her drowsy.
“Brought you some more tea.” Mr. Too Good-looking For His Own Good sat down across from her.
“You were wanting to know about the church?”
She nodded, which was all it took for him to chat away.
“So it was passing strange. Old Father Moore hated technology. The young Father Moore tried to get him to change for years, but it never happened. A fire broke out in the storage closet, destroying everything. All the records were lost.”
He looked off into the distance. “Since nothing was computerized, records of births, deaths, marriages…all gone.” He grinned at her.
“A lot of the blokes in town think it’s a sign. No proof of marriage. They’re thinking it’s a chance to find a young bird.”
“Aren’t you the charmer?” She couldn’t resist. Melinda stretched her foot out, caught the leg of the chair, and gave a little tap.
He fell backward, and she tried not to laugh, really she did. But the laughter bubbled up, and for the first time since Lucy went missing, Melinda laughed so hard it hurt.
She bit the inside of her cheek. “Sorry. I wasn’t laughing at you.” She clapped a hand to her mouth to stifle the giggles. The look on his face… She clapped the other hand over her mouth.
The bartender dusted off his butt. “I’ve got to get back to work if you’re not needing any other questions answered.”
She snickered. Then held a hand up. “I’m so sorry. I can’t seem to help it. Really, I don’t mean to laugh at you.”
Melinda took a deep breath. “I haven’t laughed since my sister went missing. Lucy Merriweather.”
He cocked his head. “The American?”
Melinda nodded, afraid to say anything.
“She and some bloke were poking around Blackford. A wall gave way and the sea took them. Terrible storm that night.”
“Simon. The bloke was Simon. He owns the castle.”
Now he looked confused. “Blackford Castle?”
“Simon Grey is Lord Blackford. Or was, until he supposedly died with my sister.”
“There hasn’t been a Lord Blackford since the fifteen hundreds. And they were named Brandon, not Grey.”
He turned and yelled across the small room. “Griffin. When did the last Lord of Blackford die?”
The old guy scratched his nose. “Winston Brandon. He passed in 1564. The castle went to the National Trust.”
Her hand trembled as she lifted the teacup. Winston was their dad’s name. Okay, so it was a common enough name. But then why would Simon lie about owing a castle? Guess some guys would do anything to impress a girl.
She set the cup down, sloshing tea over the edge, suddenly tired. “Thanks for the information. I didn’t notice any hotels when I drove through town. Is there someplace to stay nearby?”
He grinned at her. “You’re in luck, love. We’ve rooms above.”
“I’m not sure how long I’ll be here. Maybe a few days to a couple of weeks?”
“I’ll get the key and show you to your room. By the way, name’s Brad if you need anything. You’ve lovely green eyes and that red, curly hair.” He put a hand over his heart. “I think I’m in love.”
“I bet you say that to all the girls.” She blushed. This guy must kill it with the ladies. Nope. Not interested. After Carl, she was off men for good. The Merriweather sisters’ curse of choosing bad men stopped with her. Here and now. England would be the start of new choices, better choices.
Brad brought in her luggage, carried it up a narrow stairway, and opened a door. The room was small but cute. The four-poster bed looked like she could sink into it.
“Loo is down the hall. Let the water run for a few minutes to get hot. My brother, Henry, will make you breakfast in the morning.” He handed her the key. “Fancy a drink?”
“No, I’m exhausted. Got a lot of work to do before bed.” She gently shut the door.
The next morning, after breakfast dressed in a sweater, leggings, and boots, Melinda was ready to face the castle again. The first time, just after Lucy fell, she hadn’t really noticed much. A vague impression of stone and the ocean beyond were all she could recall.
“Heard you’re headed to the castle.” He pointed to the thermos at her feet. “Want some coffee to take along?”
“Tea would be great.”
She pulled on her coat and a dark blue hat and scarf Lucy had crocheted for her two years ago.
“Here you are.”
“Thanks. I’ve been drinking gallons of hot tea since I landed. It’s so cold.”
“Where are you from? By the accent, I’m guessing somewhere in the South.”
She tucked her mittens in her pockets along with the key to her room. No need to bring anything else with her; she’d only be gone a few hours.
“North Carolina. And I was going to say you were the one with the accent.”
He laughed. “Be careful and stay off the stairs. They’re unstable.” Henry held the door for her. “Car’s warmed up.”
“Thank you. And don’t worry; I don’t plan on climbing anything. Just need to have a look around.”
“You’re the sister. Sorry about what happened.”
Familiar pain lanced through her. “I’ll be back around lunchtime.”
It was a short drive up to the castle. She had the place to herself. Melinda put the keys in the center console along with her room key, pulled on her mittens, and followed the paved path leading from the car park to the ruins.
Cold, salty air blew through her hair, pulling a curl loose from the hastily done French braid. She walked along the outer walls until she came to the North Sea. Talk about some serious surf. On the rocks she spotted wreckage. What looked like wood. Maybe from a boat? Or something that fell from the castle.
Melinda made her way through the courtyard, stopping at a stone bench. It nestled against the wall, blocking most of the wind. She sat down and looked around. This was the last place Lucy had visited. What happened to her?
A big black bird cawed from above. The raven landed on the wall to Melinda’s left. They stared at each other for a long moment. The wind shifted and a stone fell, landing on her foot.
“Ow. Thanks a lot.”
The raven cocked its head, looked at the ground, and, with a loud caw, flew off. She rubbed her foot. Something was in the hole left by the falling rock. Melinda leaned over and pulled out a worn piece of cloth. There was something wrapped in the wool. Slowly unwrapping the cloth, she saw what must have been paper at one time. Given the harsh sea air, the letter could have been written weeks or centuries ago.
As the breeze blew over her, the fragments scattered to the wind. One piece caught her eye, as it seemed to hover in the air just out of reach.
A drop of sweat ran down her side, her heart beat in time to the waves, and black and blue spots formed in front of her eyes. Melinda recognized that handwriting with the swirly S and the smiley face in the bottom of the letter. Her sister had done it ever since she’d learned her letters as a child. No amount of fussing by the teachers would get Lucy to change. She said S was a happy letter.
Lucy. The word on the scrap of paper was safe. Melinda reached out to grab the fragment, desperate for what might have been the last thing her sister wrote. The wind snatched it away. And as she helplessly watched, the paper tumbled end over end until it disappeared over the cliffs.
What on earth did it mean?
Melinda held up her hand and frowned. The pretty coral polish was chipped and she’d broken three fingernails. No wonder, after pushing and prodding every single stone around the bench to no avail. She’d remove the polish and file her nails tonight.
Then she worked her way down the wall, following it around the castle all the way back to where she started. As she sat on the bench, Melinda pulled her hat off, letting the cold, salty air cool her down. A gust of wind snatched her hat.
“Oh, just flipping great.” She jammed the scarf in her coat pocket. No way she’d lose it too.
Talk about hot and sweaty. Whoever came up with the phrase “Southern women glow instead of sweat” was insane. She sniffed at her underarm. “Phew.”
“Did you just smell your armpit?”
Melinda jumped, feeling her face heat up. “You should pretend not to see. But since you ask, yes, I did. And yes, I stink. Thank you very much.”
Henry busted out laughing. He stuck his nose in the air and pursed his lips. “My apologies, princess.”
“What are you doing here?”
He held up an old-fashioned basket. “You missed lunch ages ago. It will be dark in a few hours. Thought I’d better come up and check on you.”
“I didn’t realize how late it was getting. No wonder I’m famished.”
“Want to go back down the pub or eat here?” He eyed her. “You look as if you’ve been crawling around in the dirt.”
“Aren’t you the charmer. Just like your brother. Must run in the family.”
“Aye, it does, love. But I think you’re immune.”
“I am. Got all my shots before I crossed the pond. Let’s eat here, and I’ll tell you why I’m a filthy, stinking mess.” Too bad she was done with men. Henry was funny and cute. Of course, they had the whole geographically undesirable thing going on. Nope. She had a job to do. No distractions. Enjoy the view, flirt a little, but nothing more.
Henry unpacked a veritable feast. He pulled out bread, fresh from the oven, homemade butter, tea in a thermos, and some kind of heavenly smelling chicken potpie, the steam wafting in the air and tickling her nose. He spread out a small cloth on the bench between them, nodded at his handiwork, then toasted her. She with tea and him with beer.
“Ah, that’s good.”
Melinda took a sip of the tea. “You remembered to put honey in it.”
“I know how you like your tea. I’m a good bartender, remember?”
They ate in companionable silence, the sounds of the surf against the rocks calming her. Melinda wiped her mouth, sat back with a groan, and patted her stomach. “Delicious. Thank you again for bringing me lunch. I hope I didn’t put you out.”
“No bother. Ready to tell me why you’re covered in dirt and dust?”
She looked at him for a moment. Would he think she was crazy? Who cared. She came from a long line of crazy Southern women—might as well embrace it.