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It was the wind that stopped her.
Not the force of it, but the message it carried on its course. Cold air tumbled over warm currents, whipping around her legs and across her chest. It swirled about her body like a lover who simultaneously promised what was next and took control to make it come about.
Seventies rock blasted in her ears and she slowed her run. Her feet stopped their rhythmic pounding on the packed sand of Stinson Beach.
She tried to catch her breath and searched the deep lapis waves that rode toward her. It was cold air that blew over the warm, a pattern her mother said meant that upheaval rode on the appearance of calm.
“No,” Gemma said between gasps for air. Her voice was low. Determined. Firm. “Not again.”
She pulled the earbuds from her ears, stared at the waves that rolled over the depths of the ocean, and the wind settled as though backing down from her challenge. It switched to a sun-warmed draft that caressed her face and neck.
Something tingled inside of her from it, like the effects of a possessive kiss. An awakening, a calling. The result of an event already put into motion.
She tried to cast aside her mother’s Native American wisdom, especially because it had proven itself right more often than she liked.
“Stay away.” Her voice held no mercy and no patience. She fit the earbuds into her ears again and cranked up the volume.
The gray shingles and glass of her house were in her sight now. She ran toward it with all the speed she had left, along with the sinking feeling that this wind pattern was signaling yet something else she couldn’t outrun.
Gemma flipped on the gas stove to heat the kettle for tea. She wanted to shake off the warning that rode on the early ocean wind, and a plunge into her morning routine was the way to do it. There had been enough abrupt and recent change in her life. Permanent change that could not be undone. Change that had been predicted by the wind patterns then, too.
She paused in front of the eight-foot Victorian coatrack in the foyer, a ghosted memory of her mother formed in the center mirror—her mother’s long dark hair smoothed and tucked behind her shoulders, as always.
This antique from her childhood home had captured lots of precious memories over its lifetime—that’s all this was. Like when her mother brushed Gemma’s red hair into two bristly pigtails that burst to the sides when she was five, and when her mother hemmed her party dresses as a teenager. And when she passed on her favorite advice. “There’s someone for everyone,” her mother would say mid-embrace. “You just have to trust your instincts to find him.”
She forced herself to relax her grip on the ache in her chest and the coat in her hands.
On with routine.
She gathered a large can of cat food, a can opener, and two small, white bowls in her arms. Her hip bounced the screen door open, she stepped onto the back deck that faced the ocean, and the door shut behind her with a satisfying slam.
It would have been more design-perfect for her to stick with the sliding glass door that had been there when she moved in. Though this was the same type of screen door slam she and her brothers had grown up with in their parents’ lovingly restored Queen Anne Victorian.
Gemma’s door didn’t yet have a good squeak to it, but she hoped, with time, it would come. She had long dreamed of the day when this screen door could whine and slam, then three sets of small, sandy feet would trample through the house like a herd, leaving giggles in their wake.
The collection of bowls and metal clattered against the glass-topped bistro table. She scooped the fish and gave the spoon an exaggerated tap against the porcelain edge to call the two strays she cared for.
Her eyes scanned the beach, expecting to see her two furry neighborhood friends galloping from behind a bush or another yard, their tails twitching behind them.
“Fred! Ethel!” She clicked her tongue against the roof of her mouth and placed two small white bowls full of chopped fish-scented meat on the floorboards of her back deck. Finally, two cats, both light gray with darker stripes, meowed and trotted around the seagrass that lined her property.
“You’re late,” Gemma said with warmth and love for her stray friends.
Both sandy-pawed felines stopped in front of their feast and stared at her. Actually, it may have been closer to a glare.
“Well, clearly, I was early.” The left side of her smile tipped in a smirk. Her phone vibrated and she ignored it.
“Gemma!” Cameron, her neighbor with the angular glasses and slightly oversized veneers waved and headed her way. After too many invitations, she’d finally gone out with him, but, no. He was just—no. Too needy.
“Call.” She pointed to her phone. “Have to take this.”
She stepped inside and glanced at the caller ID: Platinum Life Magazine. Her heart danced a triple beat to the tune of hope. Platinum Life Magazine was a national publication that was widely considered the arbiter of taste on every area of design, from interiors to fashion. They covered the globe with their opinions and they were calling her.
She made a wide press-perfect smile before she answered the call—in part to bolster her confidence in case they were calling to offer her a subscription, but also to lend her voice a friendly, agreeable tone. “Gemma Stewart.” Clear and succinct. Professional and approachable. Well done.
“Hello, Ms. Stewart, this is Dawn with Platinum Life Magazine.”
“I hope I’m not calling too early; I didn’t want to take the chance that I might miss you.” Her voice was curt. Sharp. Clearly on a mission.
Gemma relaxed her PR smile. If the other woman didn’t give soft and fluffy edges to her words, Gemma was relieved she didn’t have to, either. “No, this is fine.”
“Excellent. We’re doing our resort issue four months from now, and we decided on a last-minute addition entitled ‘Top Ten West Coast Resorts.’ I was narrowing down the candidates and was impressed to find that the top three resorts on our list were designed by your firm.”
Gemma was impressed, too. It had been a long, hard climb to this place in her career.
“We would like to add a one-on-one interview with you to the issue.”
She hoped her quick inhale didn’t sound like a gasp on the other end of the phone. “I’d be honored.” A wow-I-did-it feeling lit in her chest and burned as bright as the early morning sun.
“Perfect.” Dawn said it with all the conviction of a deal closed. “Now. I’d also like to include a sidebar on the page highlighting a custom top ten from you. Maybe you could talk about the top ten design tips for creating an oasis at home? Or the top ten relaxing features to include in your vacation home? We can refine it later. Just come up with a top ten list, and we’ll work with it.”
“Sounds great.” She kept her voice calm, but her heart fluttered such that she had to walk around the room. She inhaled deeply, well aware that this was a dream-come-true moment.
“I’d like to do a photo shoot of you at one of these signature properties you’ve done, really show off your amazing talent. Could we shoot the one in San Francisco?”
“Sure, I can make that work. How soon?”
“We’re on a tight deadline—can you do Monday? That would give you and the hotel the weekend to stage for the photo shoot.”
A bullet of adrenaline shot through her heart and ricocheted down her arms. The weekend was not nearly enough time to take care of current work and get everything staged. “Plenty of time,” she heard herself say.
They traded email addresses and said their goodbyes. Gemma flipped her phone onto the driftwood dining table and did an air high five. “Yesss!”
This would be a new level of success for her business. Platinum Life was a career-making publication. She paced the kitchen floor, pumping her fists now and then.
The new all-too-quiet of her empty house was so loud it almost echoed. She glanced out the window. Fred and Ethel had moved on with their day, their empty bowls waiting for her on the porch. Preston was gone. It was too early to call friends.
She sighed at her ocean view amidst her moment of silent victory and decided she’d phone her assistant Charlotte in about an hour to get the shoot organized. They could toast with a glass of champagne at the staging. Other than that, there wouldn’t be any available time for celebrating. Too much work to do.
The teakettle scream-whistled. She reached for her phone and noticed that it had slid next to a puffy envelope that she’d brought in from the mailbox the night before. Johnston and Lewis was printed in the upper left-hand corner. These would be the final divorce papers, the ones she hadn’t wanted to look at last night.
She lifted the kettle from the flame. “Okay, Mom. You’re right about one thing. I have to trust my instincts.” The memory of Preston’s betrayal ignited a special strain of fury, and her voice sounded strangled. “Right now, my instincts are telling me this divorce is the right decision.”
She ripped open the envelope and double-checked a couple of items on the document. Though he had asked, she was not going to pay him alimony. He had plenty of family money; he could run back to Daddy if he needed a check. And he would. She knew he would.
She had a keen sense of justice, which demanded that he’d never see another dime from her.
There it was. His attorney said they would take that clause out. They hadn’t. She rifled through the drawer in the island for a pen and crossed through that line item several times. In the margin, she wrote in all caps: NO ALIMONY.
Maybe this was what the had wind pointed to, the finality of her divorce. She signed her name on the line. “There. Done. Free.” The chokehold on her voice relaxed.
With a personal policy against doing work barefoot—it made her feel too informal—she slipped on her most-loved black boots, the ones with the silver chains hung around the ankles. She grabbed her favorite tea and mug and poured hot water over the pungent herbs while she searched out the window. Now that she’d signed the papers, the wind patterns ought to have relaxed.
Her sight stumbled on a tan suit that she’d tossed over the back of an upholstered chair. Her freshly christened ex-husband had called and told her he’d forgotten the suit in the closet and asked her to send it to him. It was custom-made, he’d explained.
Hot tea in hand, she picked up the suit and headed to the outdoor alcove. She tossed it on top of the wood in the outdoor fireplace and lit it with a long-neck lighter. Then she settled into the niche that was protected from the wind by three sides of her house. She crossed her ankles such that her boots were now the center point of her view of the ocean. Now and then, she glanced at the fireplace, the last remnant of her wasband disintegrated in a satisfying burn.
She should have gone for more old-fashioned qualities of love like loyalty, honesty, and kindness. She ought to have avoided someone who had drop-dead, all-too-perfect qualities. Those opened doors to temptations that few knew how to resist.
She tapped the play image of the first voicemail message and immediately, her call waiting buzzed through. Dad. She walked to the gravel garden she’d designed at the southwest corner of her lot.
She dragged her boot over the dark gray pebbles that formed a mock river and flowed into the alcove. She knew he would be happy to hear her news about the magazine feature. “How are you?”
“Not bad. Gotta minute? I have an opportunity I want to discuss with you.” His voice sounded mostly upbeat, but a certain amount of emotional weariness weighed his enthusiasm. When she heard the fatigue, something caught in a tender place in her heart, and she decided to hold off on telling him her news.
Never one to beat around the bush, her dad launched right into his idea—a project he and her mother had been working on for a year before her death, one that he and Gemma could finish together.
“Alcott Manor?” Old memories sprang to life and squeezed her voice thin. “I don’t know, Dad. Didn’t Mom say that the original owner killed his wife there?”
Her father cleared his throat. “Well, the jury of public opinion is that he killed his wife. The husband always claimed that she killed herself. The first half of the opinion poll is what has made it so hard for the owners to raise enough funding to finalize the renovation. But they’ve done it, and they want the job completed.”
She walked into the alcove again and silently counted her steps to the couch—a self-calming behavior she hadn’t done in a long time. When she caught herself doing it, she stopped.
The cool ocean breezes washed over her face, and she sniffed the restorative salty air deep into her lungs. Her father went on with more details, so she put the call on speakerphone and inhaled the mind-centering herbs of her tea. This was not a job she would take.
“Your mother, the team, and I have taken the property a long way in the past year. The job has had a lot of setbacks, though, and I need for you to clear the land so we can finish out the project on time. I need you to work your special expertise. We need our house whisperer.”
House whisperer. That wasn’t a title she would put on her business card or company brochure. Her mother had taught her how to heal the energetic imprints that history abandoned in its wake. Negative events or repeated behavioral patterns left marks behind. Like a shadow or a ghost, a flavor of what used to be. Those imprints influenced people and their futures. Removing them from land and houses resulted in greater harmony and prosperity for the owners. Left untouched, they wreaked havoc.
She redirected the conversation. “Your buddy from West Point still helping to oversee things?”
“Yeah. Tom’s good people. He runs the Charleston Historic District Commission now, so he’s been a great help in pushing things through.”
“Who owns the property?”
“It’s family-owned. They elected one representative to serve their interests and to oversee the renovations.”
“Who?” Her fingers were poised on the screen of her iPad to look up names.
“Ah, his name is Henry Alcott. He’s a wealthy expat who has lived in London for the past decade. Interestingly, he’s a direct descendent of the original Benjamin Alcott who built the house. Tom insists that everyone call him Mr. Alcott. Anyway, he’s contributed most of the money for the restoration.”
She tapped Alcott Manor into the browser on her phone. Up popped very few images of the house and its original owner. The black-and-white photos revealed a magnificent Greek revival estate home. It dwarfed the tiny figures in front of it, people whom Gemma figured were the original family owners. Even without color in the picture, the white paint gleamed, and the house seemed to own the family that stood in front of it. The surrounding trees boasted pride at the privilege to surround a home of such extraordinary elegance.
In another photo, Benjamin Alcott, a U.S. Senator from South Carolina, was a character to behold, and from tip to toe, his appearance played the part. His longish white hair was neatly combed. His wide handlebar mustache fit perfectly with his highly-starched cravat and the asymmetric horizontal bow that accented his conservative black suit.
She could just envision him sitting on the wooden church pew with his subdued, order-obeying wife and children lined up next to her.
“Doesn’t look like a wife murderer.”
“They never do,” her dad said.
She tapped “Henry Alcott London” into the search bar with one finger, and several articles about hotel acquisitions came up. “So, I’m guessing that this Henry Alcott is single, and that’s the real reason why you want me on this particular job.”
Her father coughed and cleared his throat. “I wouldn’t have any idea,” he said with caught-red-handed alarm in his voice.
“I think you probably have a lot of ideas. Especially if this guy is single and has amassed enough money to rehab his ancestor’s estate.” She clicked on the articles, which didn’t reveal any significant details about Henry, while she single-handedly batted away her father’s matchmaking efforts.
“He may be single; I don’t really know. But I do know you’ve overseen too many projects at once, and it may be time—”
“Projects that have set my career.” She wasn’t in the mood to be match-made, now or probably ever. She wouldn’t be talked into doing this job.
“I think we ought to work together on this one.” His tone swelled with fatherly concern. “It wouldn’t hurt for you to slow down for a minute, enjoy life, allow us to spend some time together.”
She sighed and her will softened. Her dad’s deep and gravelly voice was a comfort to her. Now that her mother was gone, he was the single steady—albeit infrequent—force in her crazy, busy life.
“Is ‘slow down and enjoy life’ code for ‘get married’? Because we’ve been over this. If there were someone special in the cards for me, I would know by now. I’m happy, Pop. I’m at my best when I’m working and independent. And I’m not stepping foot in a house with a tragic history like that.”
Her dad argued his point, and she questioned whether he really needed her talents or if he just wanted her company on the job. She sat on the edge of the wraparound koi pond she had designed for the house before she moved in. The previous owners had divorced and sold the house as a part of their settlement.
It was important to transform the energy from prior owners before you moved into any home. Otherwise, their problems could become your problems.
She and Preston were already headed toward divorce before she’d moved in. She didn’t want to settle into a batch of energetic ingredients for another one. These particular fish and their gently moving water represented good fortune and prosperity. Though it didn’t much matter. She wasn’t interested in trying for another relationship.
“There’s someone for everyone, Gem.” His voice deepened into the gravity of hard-earned wisdom.
Gemma put her fingers into the cool water and counted the fish that nibbled at them. She used to believe that. With all her heart, she did. When she was young, she saw the kind of love her parents shared, and she took for granted that she would have it one day, too.
It had never happened, though.
“Just because you and Mom had forty-five great years together doesn’t mean everyone gets that in life.” She pushed the disappointment over Preston’s broken promises down to one of the dark corners of her heart, where it usually lived. Where she couldn’t see it.
“Call me a romantic, Gemma Rose, but I think it means exactly that. What I’m saying is that we need to go after this job because it would be fun for us to work together on a project this size, and healthy for you to be in one place for a while. And who knows? If you weren’t switching coasts every few days, you might meet someone.”
She heard the squeak of her dad’s office chair, and she knew he sipped his coffee while he tilted back as far as the old black leather chair would let him. She could almost smell the dark roast.
“I know you. You’re ready to sink your teeth into a project where you could really use your creativity. An 1800s Greek revival—this could open new doors for our family business. If we do this one well, we’ll have our pick of any historical renovation project in the country.”
“This job’s not for me, Pop. I don’t do haunted.” Her voice was firm, despite the shiver that traveled along her torso.
“The past is the past. Nothing like that would ever happen again—that was just a freak situation. Plus, I’d be there with you. Doing this job together would be like old times. I’d bet we could even find some antique furniture in the home that we could restore. Remember when we used to do that, just you and me? You always enjoyed that. What do you say?”
He sounded uncharacteristically eager, and she decided he was lonely. He had his buddy, Tom, though. She knew they had a close friendship, so he wouldn’t be alone on the job. And though she wouldn’t work with him day-to-day on the property, she’d plan a visit to spend time with him. He would benefit from a real connection with someone who shared his last name, with someone who understood exactly how much had been lost when her mom died.
“No, I’m sorry. I can’t. I have very firm boundaries where even a hint of haunted is concerned. I know you understand. You have Tom and a good team. I’ll help you find someone local to the area to clear the energy on the land if you need that, and I’ll come out for a visit. On a related note, it might be about to get really busy for me. I got a call this morning from a national magazine. They want to do a feature, and the business coming in from that will be…” She waited for the congratulations and the “Aw, honey I’m so proud,” but he didn’t respond.
The quiet became heavy between them. “Pop? Are you okay?”
She heard his chair squeak to an upright position.
“The truth is, I need your help.”
She stood and walked to the front of the alcove. “Tell me what you need.” She knew he had long been more dependent on her mother than he realized. Her recent death was a big adjustment for him. She’d talk with him in detail about the visit she was planning. That would give him something to look forward to.
He sighed for the second time and she tightened her grip on the phone.
“We didn’t want to tell you this because we thought we could work it out on our own. The authorities said there was a good chance that after they liquidated his assets, there would be enough for everyone to get at least half of their money back.”
“Pop. What authorities? What money?” She tried to force herself to sound calm, but the words rushed from her mouth in a race for answers.
There was a third and even heavier sigh. “Your mother and I invested in a hedge fund through our stockbroker a few years ago. The returns they showed us were impressive, and, as it turns out, too good to be true. We were counting on those returns to finish out our retirement.”
She felt her knees turn to liquid. Her parents had worked tirelessly for forty years in their own business for those savings.
“He took everything.”
“Oh.” Panic gathered in her chest, rose upward, and hit her head in waves.
“The authorities thought they might get us about half of what we placed with him. It’s all tied up in the courts now, and it’s a lot bigger case than they originally anticipated. No one really knows when or how it will work out.”
She paced over the white and gray gravel garden she’d designed and rubbed her forehead. “Do you have…anything left?”
“I have the proceeds from your mother’s life insurance policy. I’ll have to keep working, though. For a long while.”
Worries swirled around her like sharks. Her father was not young. He had a heart condition, which had to have been put to the test with the stress of her mother’s unexpected death, and now this. “I know you didn’t plan on working much longer at your age, at least not for income. I would also imagine you needed those personal funds as capital in the business. To fund cash flow and front payroll? Particularly with this Charleston project that you want to finish.”
“Yes,” he said.
She’d never known him to ask for help. The humiliation must be killing him.
“Pop, I’ll give you whatever you need—”
“No, Gem. That’s not why I’m calling.”
“It’s no trouble. I would enjoy giving back after everything you’ve done for me over the years.”
“I would never take your money.” Her father’s tone was sharp and final. “If you can spare the time for it, though, I would accept your help with this job. There’s a hard stop in place just a few months from now. We’ve had a difficult time getting projects wrapped up.”
A fierce updraft from the ocean blew across the sand, and she zipped her shirt over her chest. She wondered if she could help her father with this property and say yes to the business that the Platinum Life article would generate.
She thought of her parents’ company, how many people worked there, and how they would lose their jobs if the business folded. She didn’t have enough funds to pay for her expenses, her retirement, his retirement, and fund his business for this job.
She could afford to send him a check every week for his living expenses. And he would take a check from her if that’s the option she gave him. But she also knew that would kill him. He was a proud man. He would never have told her about his mix-up in this Ponzi scheme if he hadn’t been forced to ask for her help.
Yes, if he had to close the business and live off her income, he’d be dead within a year. He’d have nothing to live for, no one to share his life with, and nothing to look forward to.
Gemma rubbed at the tension that pulsed through the back of her neck.
“I don’t want to interfere in your life. You may not have time to do this.” His tone softened to a near mumble. “I think you mentioned something about a magazine article a minute ago.”
“Oh, don’t worry about that.” A cold wind blew at her face while warm currents twisted around her legs. She closed her eyes and braced against it. This was obviously what the wind foretold.
“You know your mother and I have been working on the property for a while.”
Gemma chose not to bring up the fact that her mother had died on the property. Yes, it had been the result of natural causes—a heart attack—but with the probable murder committed by the original owner, she didn’t discount the effects of those imprints on the property. “No…strange experiences?”
“Well, there’s always something a little strange here and there in an older home. We handled it. You can always handle it when you have to, right?”
Bricks of quiet built between them once again.
“I don’t want to put you in a bad position. I can try to work this out a different way.”
Of her parents’ three kids, she was the youngest and the most responsible one. She took care of what needed to be done. It’s what she did. Maybe this time she could take care of her father’s business and her own. “No, Pop, it’s good. I can make it work. How about if I come out to the property, do my research, and clear the imprints? Then I’ll need to come back. I’m expecting a significant uptick in business here over the next few months. I need to be here for that.”
She made a note to ask Charlotte to send Dawn some of the publicity shots of her in the San Francisco hotel. She wouldn’t have time to do the shoot now. Which was okay, she rationalized. This was a family emergency and the photo Charlotte would send was good. Dawn would understand. Hopefully.
“Then you’ll come back out? It’s a big house with a lot to do in a short amount of time.”
“I’ll clear whatever you need me to, so your team can get the work done. But I can’t do the restoration work.” Her memories created a chill from the inside out as they always did. She tried to push them away. “I just— I can’t.”
There was yet another long sigh on the other end. “All right. I understand. I’ll try to find some extra management-level people and make that work. Though they won’t replace you. You’re the best.”
She wrestled a surge of guilt, then made a mental note to schedule time for additional trips to South Carolina. The magazine feature would bring in lots of new business. She would just schedule longer deadlines on projects to make time to help her dad.
“You okay, Gem?”
“Yeah. It’s—it’s just that the wind is blowing some crazy patterns out here today.”
He clicked his tongue against the roof of his mouth. “Aha. Your mother’s wisdom. She was usually right about these things. ‘All truth can be found in nature,’ she always said.”
His chair squeaked several times, and Gemma knew he was rocking. “Maybe you’re about to meet someone. Or maybe this job will open new doors for your business. That’s what I’m hoping anyway. You could really leverage the work you used to do with those skills of yours.”
“I don’t—never mind.” She knew she wouldn’t work historical renovations again. “I signed the divorce papers this morning. Maybe that was it.” She didn’t think that was it. Some sort of change—she didn’t think it was positive—was stalking her, and she wasn’t sure which direction to turn in to get away from it. If she started running, she just might hit it head on.
“Well…I know that was hard.”
“Had to be done.”
“Only good things ahead, Gemma-bean. I can feel it. I’ve got to run, but we’re staying at The Elliott House, a little bed and breakfast in Charleston. I’ll meet you there on Sunday night. We’ll head to the manor together on Monday morning.”
They said their goodbyes. Gemma stared at the white water that crashed onto the sand, ignoring the Pacific Ocean winds that whipped in circles around the seagrass. Her dad had just skipped over all the specifics he would normally cover for a new job: the detailed history of the home, what projects needed completion, if the main client contact was easy or difficult to work with, deadlines…
Especially deadlines. With restoration jobs they were usually somewhat flexible, since you never knew what you were going to encounter once you dug beneath the surface. But he had said hard deadline.
There was probably a story there. One he didn’t share. Which was all too like him. Her mother called it his “tip of the iceberg strategy.” He would only share a tiny bit of the story until he had your buy in. Only after the fact would you realize what you’d gotten yourself into.
What concerned her most with this strategy of his was the haunted detail. She had been firm that she would not work on a haunted project. He’d agreed. But he’d never denied that the property was haunted.
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