Authors: Kelli Maine
Tags: #Fiction, #Contemporary Women, #Erotica, #General, #Romance, #Contemporary, #Suspense
Ingrid’s here. I can feel her in the air, like the first time I stepped foot inside the ruins of Turtle Tear. It’s a special kind of magic. A whispered language only I understand.
It’s a bond we share with Archibald and Ingrid Weston, like we share the island they called home so many years ago.
Scanning the old, yellowed newspaper article in my hands, I’m startled by your arms wrapping around my waist from behind. “Reading that again?” you ask. Your warm breath tickles the back of my neck.
I turn and lean into you, resting my head against your chest. “You know I’ve always felt a special connection with her.”
You squeeze me, holding me tight against you. We fit together perfectly. “You’re kindred spirits,” you say, reminding me how our minds piece together as well as our bodies do. You
me like no one ever has.
“You know what this means?” I say, nodding at the article. “Her spirit isn’t at rest. She wants to go home to Turtle Tear.”
You take the newspaper clipping out of my hand and scan it, your eyes running quickly across the words as you mumble the words to yourself.
“Outside St. Petersburg sits an old antebellum plantation house that used to be home to the Weston family. The Weston Sugar Plantation operated from the 1830s until 1865, when the mill burned down near the end of the Civil War.”
I stand closer to your side and lean my head against your shoulder as you read, letting the deep, rich timbre of your voice rumble through my ears.
“Attempts by the current owners to renovate the plantation house have been thwarted at every turn by a ghost they call Ingrid.”
You gaze down at me and kiss the top of my head.
“Legend has it,” you continue, “the woman is Ingrid (Burkhart) Weston, wife of Archibald Weston, son of the original owners of the plantation. The Westons and the Burkharts were Florida’s Civil War version of the Montagues and Capulets, making Ingrid and Archibald true star-crossed lovers.
“Archibald built a home for his beloved on Turtle Tear Island in the Everglades, where they lived and raised their own family.”
You run your hand up my back and thread you fingers under my hair, massaging my neck. “They forgot the part where he
her away,” you whisper in my ear, sending chills down my back.
I tilt my chin up and kiss you. “That’s a part I never forget,” I say, and kiss you again. I can never get enough of your full, soft lips.
“Are you going to let me finish reading this?” you tease.
I give you one more kiss before leaning my head back against your shoulder.
“Although Ingrid died while staying at the Weston Plantation, her body is said to be buried on Turtle Tear Island.
“ ‘She’s not with her body,’ the current plantation owners say of Ingrid’s spirit. ‘She’s here, but she wants to go back.’
“How do they know Ingrid’s wishes? She’s told them,” you read.
Take me back to Turtle Tear
was written in the condensation on the attic window after a storm,’ they say. ‘She’s written it in the dust on the attic floor, too, and every time we bring a crew in to remodel the attic she shows herself, scatters their tools, barricades the stairs, and scares them away.’
“ ‘I feel bad,’ the current owner says of Ingrid’s predicament. ‘I’d take her to Turtle Tear if I knew how.’
“For now, she’s stuck at the Weston Plantation, desperate to get back to the island home her Romeo built her.”
You turn toward me and wrap your strong arms around me. I let my head fall back and look up at you as you look down at me with those dark, soulful eyes that see right through to the center of me.
“You believe this?” you ask, cocking a dark brow.
My heart drops a little. “You don’t?”
Conflicted, you run a hand through your hair, like you always do when you’re frustrated. You’re at odds with what you know I want to hear and the truth. “I don’t believe in ghosts, Rachael.”
“I know it’s her.” I step out of your arms, tug the clipping out of your grip, and turn back to the steamer trunk where the newspaper was found along with a lifetime of memories tucked in the pages of photo albums, written in letters from the war, embroidered on pillowcases, and engraved on silver trinkets.
“Don’t be angry with me,” you say, brushing my hair aside and placing a kiss at the base of my neck. Goose bumps blossom across my shoulders and down my chest. Even when I’m trying to be irritated with you, my body can’t help but react to your touch, your kiss.
“You know I feel it; that whatever it is,” you say, “when it’s quiet at Turtle Tear and I’m standing in the entryway surrounded by the Spanish murals, or when I get a whiff of lime in the air, or hear the gentle rush of water falling from the fountain.”
You press your lips to the side of my neck then whisper in my ear. “I know it’s only for us. Something that can’t be explained. Something that comes from somewhere bigger than us.”
I lean my head back and gaze up into your dark eyes. Whatever it is—a ghost or something timeless from the earth itself—Turtle Tear binds us together. “I wonder if in a few hundred years another couple will be saying these things about us?”
You kiss the tip of my nose. “I guarantee it.”
will believe in ghosts, because I’m never leaving that island, even after I’m dead!”
Your deep laughter echoes through the run-down plantation house you bought as a surprise for your son.
“I love that you gave this place to MJ. It ties him to Turtle Tear, the past, and our future. It feels—”
“—right,” you say, leaning your forehead against my temple. “If we have some strange connection to Archibald and Ingrid, then so does he.”
The front door opens, letting a block of light stream across the scuffed hardwood floor. MJ and his girlfriend, Maddie, come inside looking happier than I’ve ever seen them. She can’t stop gazing at the platinum ring on her finger. Not an engagement ring, but one that means just as much—a promise of keeping no secrets. A promise of someday. A promise that nothing will ever come between them again. “He gave it to her,” I whisper, glancing up at you.
You smile, making those Rocha dimples dent your cheeks.
“You all knew about this!” Maddie says, grinning and holding up her hand to show off her new ring. She and MJ have been through more than their share of pain, being kept apart by the manipulations of Enzo Rocha, MJ’s grandfather.
I’m so proud of you for helping him find a jeweler in Atlanta to handcraft it. It’s beautiful and one of a kind, just like you. Just like MJ. Both of you are one of a kind, even if the two of you could have been made in the same mold.
“Let me see,” I say, rushing forward. I saw the ring when MJ first brought it home from the jeweler, but seeing it on Maddie’s finger gives it a whole new look, a shine and a purpose behind the platinum. “It’s gorgeous.” I squeeze her hand in mine. Her blue eyes are wet with unshed tears of joy.
“Thanks,” she says. “I think so, too.” She turns to MJ with so much pure love on her face, my breath catches and I spin back around to find you standing behind me watching them. It rarely happens, but right now I can’t make out the expression on your face, what’s going on behind your eyes. Then those black orbs shift to me and I know instantly. It’s pride. Love. Awe.
You reach out, take my hand, and pull me to you. “I have more than I’ve ever dreamed of,” you whisper in my ear. “It used to be just me and a hotel in ruins on an abandoned island. I can’t stop thinking I’m going to wake up and find all of you gone.”
When your past surfaces as doubt, my heart aches for you. I run the back of my fingers down your cheek, across the stubble along your jaw. “It’s real, Merrick. Believe in us.” Before you respond, I reach down behind you and pinch your butt.
“Ouch!” You grab my hand and laugh. “What was that for?”
“To prove you’re not dreaming.” I rise up on my toes and press a firm kiss to your lips. Holding your face between my hands, I whisper, “I love you. Nothing will ever change that.”
Your fingers slide through my hair as you guide me back to your lips for a deeper kiss. I can’t imagine ever getting enough of you, of your touch and taste, the way you hold me. “I never knew what love was before you, Rachael.”
I close my eyes and sink against your chest. “Are you ready to go home?”
“Thirty minutes. I want to go over the plans for the west wing with MJ before we go.” Your hands stroke my back and you kiss the top of my head before releasing me. “Ready to get back to work?” you call to MJ, striding toward him.
“I’m ready,” MJ says, releasing Maddie’s hand.
You gaze down at the ring on her finger. “That’s a beautiful ring. He’s lucky to have you.”
“Yes, he is,” MJ says, and chuckles. “She knows that all too well.”
Maddie kisses his cheek. “I’m lucky, too.”
“Okay, let’s get this done so I can get Rachael and Maddie back to Turtle Tear. I’ll send Beck back to take you to Atlanta. You can take my car from the airport.”
“Sounds like a plan,” MJ says, and the two of you stroll across the room to a dusty table covered with drawings and blueprints.
Maddie tucks both hands in her pockets and nods to the chest. “Find anything else in there?”
I kneel beside it and gingerly pick up one of the photo albums. “Look at this.” The spine is broken, and the front is embellished with purple-and-green velvet and a star-shaped mirror in the center. Inside, the pages are yellowed and worn with age, but the photos… the photos are jarring. When I look into the eyes of the people in the pictures, it’s like seeing people I’ve known my entire life and at the same time only just met.
“This is their oldest son, Bertram.” I pick up Ingrid and Archibald’s family tree to show her. The page is hand drawn and very similar to one hanging on the wall in the biggest second-floor bedroom at Turtle Tear.
Maddie gazes from the family tree to the photo. “So then,” she says, pointing to the other children in the photo, “these others would be Jeptha, Seth, Hattie, and Ruth.”
I can’t help but laugh. I’m overflowing with joy at having found this treasure chest of the Westons’. “Yes. Those are Ingrid and Archibald’s five children.” I touch the photo lightly with my fingertips. Somehow feeling it on the page tacked on by old, cardboard corner tabs makes it believable, and I can’t believe I’m holding their family album in my hands.
I glance up at Maddie and don’t miss the flash of concern on her face. She might think I’m a slight bit obsessed. “Do you know how long I researched the island and Ingrid and Archibald? Months. Before I interviewed with Merrick for the project manager position to renovate the hotel, I researched the history for months. I know their story like I know my own.”
I close the album and cradle it in my arm. Stroking the velvet and seeing my reflection in the tarnished mirror on the cover, it feels like I’m really a part of them now, of their world and their history. It’s my story, too. “Merrick has never understood why he… well, how we came together like we did, but I know why.” I tear my eyes from my reflection and find Maddie’s. “Fate. He and I are supposed to carry on the tradition of Turtle Tear. Carry on what comes next.”
She takes a deep breath and smiles brightly, glancing around at the plantation house in desperate need of repair and renovation. “I know how you feel. It’s the same for me here. The future is so clear when I’m standing here in this entryway.” She nods to where MJ and Merrick have their heads bowed over the blueprints. “When I hear his voice filling the rooms.” I watch as she subconsciously spins her new ring around on her finger. “He’s home to me. Here, with him, is home to me.”
“Well, home for
is Turtle Tear,” Mr. Simcoe says, startling us. He limps up behind us and sets a hand on his daughter’s shoulder. “And we have an anniversary party to get ready for. Lots to do. We should be heading back soon.”
“Where’ve you been?” Maddie asks her dad. “I have something to show you.”
“Outside wandering around all of the outbuildings,” he says. “What do you have to show me, Peach?”
She holds up her hand and shows him the ring. He takes her hand and examines it, smiling. “A lock and key. Very fitting for the two of you. Neither one of you could get away from the other if you tried.” He kisses her cheek. “You’ve been locked together since you were kids.”
In the short amount of time Mr. Simcoe has been at Turtle Tear assisting in the day-to-day operations of things—mostly fishing, gardening, and small talk, with a few games of chess sprinkled in—I’ve grown very fond of him. He’s a solid, steady presence that we’ve all been missing. Mr. Simcoe being at Turtle Tear brings me peace of mind, and I wouldn’t be able to host the first event since the hotel’s renovation without him. Mr. and Mrs. Nelson, the couple coming for their fiftieth anniversary with all of their friends and family, arrive in five days, and there is a ton of preparation to do. “Merrick said we’ll be going as soon as he goes over the plans for the west wing with MJ.”
I study you standing with your son across the room and wish we could stay here. The hotel is my heart as much as you are, but there’s something about the Weston Plantation that draws me in and makes me want to uncover all of its secrets.