Read the First Chapter of The Gate House

Chapter One

Nara Blake punched her pillow for the fifth time, kicked off her twisted blankets, and sat up in bed. She was not the type of person to continue pining for what she could not have.

The windows in her upstairs bedroom were still dark, but she was wide awake, with the familiar sense of dread and loneliness that had kept her awake so many nights since she and her father, Jack Blake, had moved to England. She shivered in the chilly bedroom. It was only September; she had not expected to feel so cold so soon.

Nara pulled the blankets around her body and allowed herself the luxury of missing the warm tropical nights in St. Clare — and Davis. She hugged herself and thought of the way his strong arms felt wrapped around her body the night before she left St. Clare, his warm breath as he whispered in her ear, the tingling in every fiber of her body as his lips brushed her face, her throat. They were warm and safe, with the sounds of the tropical night and the waves of the Caribbean lulling them to sleep; they planned to marry. They talked endlessly about what they would do when he finished his pediatric residency and established his clinic on the island. Nara would be working with her father, managing his import business, preparing to take over the company sometime in the future when he retired. Eventually they would build a house on the island and have children.

Then everything changed.

The nagging cough that had plagued her father for months turned out to be lung cancer. The doctors in St. Clare recommended treatment in London; it was superior to what they could provide in their small Caribbean hospital. Jack’s sister Sue had just purchased a bed and breakfast in Springfield, Lincolnshire, about an hour from the hospital in north London. Sue had been a nurse and would be able to provide proper care for her brother — if Nara would help run the bed and breakfast.

Nara was devastated when her father told her the plans he had made for both of them — not only because she was being torn away from the man she loved, but she had no interest in changing sheets and cleaning bathrooms for tourists, or “guests,” as Sue insisted she call them. They hearty English breakfasts she learned to cook for the guests — a fry-up of eggs, sausage, beans, mushrooms and tomatoes — turned her stomach, and she longed for the fresh papaya and pineapple she had enjoyed on St. Clare.

Nara had begged her father to let her stay in St. Clare to oversee the import company, but he was adamant. He had a capable manager, Michael, who had worked for the company for ten years and knew every aspect of the business, and Jack trusted him implicitly. Besides, her father wanted Nara near him in what could be his last few months of life, and she couldn’t deny him that. They had always been close. She had the rest of her life to spend with Davis; she could give a few months, or even a year, to her father.

But now, after a month in England, e-mails from Davis had grown more and more infrequent. He was busy; she knew that. The pediatric residency in the small hospital demanded his time. She had tried to call him soon after her arrival in Springfield, but he always seemed to be out. She left messages at the hospital, but he had not returned her calls. Now, in the darkness and quiet of the Lincolnshire, Nara could admit to herself that her sense of foreboding was real. Obviously, the relationship had meant more to her than it had to Davis.

She was here in Lincolnshire, buying woolen sweaters to bundle up against the rainy fall days that would soon turn into the cold days of winter. Nara had never experienced winter — she had attended college in Miami — and if the cold chill of September was any indication of what was to come, she was not going to enjoy it. Especially when the man she loved was a world away.

Even as she thought about letting go of Davis, at least for now, tears slid unbidden down her face. Wiping them away impatiently with the back of her hand, she slipped out of bed, wriggling her toes to find her fuzzy blue slippers. Imagine — fuzzy slippers in September, she thought crossly as she pulled her robe from the tangled bed covers and tied it around her. The robe was too large for her, although it was the smallest the store carried. Nara’s slight build made her look far younger than her 22 years. She pushed her wavy black hair back from her face and thought again that it needed a trim. She definitely looked more mature with a good hair cut and makeup, but it seemed too much bother when the main part of her day was spent doing housework, caring for her dad, and occasionally shopping in the town market.

Nara quietly opened her bedroom door and stepped out into the hall, which was illuminated by one of Aunt Sue’s ever-present night lights. This one was in the shape of a diminutive Victorian milk maid with a pail in her hand. There was no sound from her father’s room; he was sleeping for once. Perhaps the new medicines were working.

Nara tiptoed carefully down the carpeted stairway, her thoughts on a cup of tea. She would get a pad of paper and a pencil and make a list of things she needed to do to get her life back on track. She had to face the fact that she was going to be here for a while, and by the time she got back to St. Clare, Davis might not be part of her life. She had picked herself up and worked through pain before; she could do it again.

When she reached the ground floor hallway, Nara gasped. A dim light shone in the den just off the guest sitting room, and it seemed to move slowly back and forth just inside the doorway. The house was old; it had been a railroad gate house in the 19th century, and of course there were stories of railway workers who had been killed on the tracks and were now stuck here forever as ghosts, unable to go home.

Nara was enough of a island girl that she half believed all the ghost stories that were told to frighten children. In fact, the nanny who raised her after her mother’s death always comforted Nara when she came home in tears, scared to death of the stories the older children told of the “child-eaters” and the old woman with the skull face hidden beneath her scarf. She would wrap her arms around the little girl and hold her close. Nara would listen to the woman’s heart beating beneath her ample bosom and know she was safe from unseen things. But she had also watched her nanny kiss the amulet she wore around her neck when a hurricane hit the island, or someone had been found murdered. She hung little crosses in the rooms of their house and touched them when she was afraid, when she thought little Nara wasn’t looking.

Nara heard a scraping noise in the den and walked quickly over to the doorway, causing the old wooden boards under her feet to creak. Immediately the light went out, and she heard a soft curse from outside the window. A cold draught of night air coming out from under the door told her the window was open. Someone is trying break in, she thought. Heart pounding, she switched on the overhead light and opened the door. The room was empty. She glanced at the darkened window and realized that whoever was outside would be able to see her standing there in her robe. Switching off the light, the retreated to the kitchen. She picked up the phone and with shaking fingers dialed the police.

“Someone just tried to break into our house.” Her voice sounded unnaturally loud in the sleeping house.

“All right, miss. What is your address?” The tired voice on the other end of the line answered, followed by a muffled, “It’s another break-in,” to someone else at the police station.

Nara recited the information and the dispatch officer promised to have someone there in a few minutes. She mulled over what he meant by “another break-in.” Hands trembling, she filled the kettle for tea. She would have to wake Aunt Sue immediately, but the whole house would be awake once the police arrived anyway. The small battery clock on the kitchen counter showed 4:00 a.m. These tourists — or rather guests — would have a story to tell when they arrived home.

Nara climbed back up the stairs and knocked on Sue’s bedroom door. Without waiting for an answer, she opened the door a crack. “Aunt Sue? Aunt Sue? Someone just tried to break into the house. I called the police and they’re on their way.”

Aunt Sue leapt out of bed quickly, then sat down again on the edge of the bed. She rubbed her hand across her stomach as it growled with hunger. “That’s impossible, Nara. There are no break-ins in Springfield. Why would anyone want to break in here? Maybe you left the window open and forgot about it.”

Nara gave an exasperated sigh. This is a waste of time. Like her father, Nara liked to cut to the heart of the matter. What was, was — then you dealt with it.

“I went downstairs to the den and there was someone outside with a light, opening the window.” She was still keeping her voice to a whisper, but it seemed to her as loud as Big Ben.

Sue looked at her bedside clock. “What were you doing in the den at 4:00 in the morning?”

Nara was becoming more and more exasperated with her aunt. Sometimes she had a difficult time understanding how this stubborn woman could be her father’s sister. She shifted back and forth in her slippered feet; whether from impatience, anxiety or the cold, she wasn’t sure. “I went downstairs to make myself a cup of tea because I couldn’t sleep. I saw the light and went into the den. Now get up! The police will be here any minute.”

Nara turned and left the room, closing the door behind her. She stood shivering in the hall, astonished at the way she had just spoken to her aunt, whom she had only met a few times in her life and in whose house she was living. A moment later Sue emerged from the bedroom, wrapped in a maroon silk robe that Nara had never seen before.

“There couldn’t possibly have been a break-in, Nara,” Her voice betrayed both her sleepiness and her exasperation with her niece. “There must be a simple explanation. It was probably someone wandering home after too many hours at the pub and stumbling into the wrong house.”

“The pubs closed hours ago, Sue.”

The older woman sighed and followed her niece downstairs to wait for the police.

Downstairs Nara and Sue met the two constables at the door. “I’m sure it’s nothing,” Sue said. “Nara heard a noise and overreacted.”

“That’s not what happened, Aunt Sue.”

The sergeant smiled at the contradictory reactions of the two women. “Why don’t we come in and take down some information?” he asked.

“Then can I get you some tea?” Sue asked, pulling the belt of her robe more tightly around her waist. Nara suppressed a smile at Sue’s obvious discomfort in the robe whose fabric clung to her generous curves.

“No, thank you,” the sergeant replied as he stepped inside, followed by his colleague.

Nara showed the two of them to seats in the lounge and sat down herself on a wooden straight-backed chair. Sue looked around and then chose a similar chair for herself.

The sergeant asked the questions, which Nara answered clearly and succinctly. He ignored Sue’s protests that it couldn’t have been a burglary.

When they finished their questions, the junior of the two officers went out to inspect the ground outside the window, while the sergeant examined the den. When they met back at the door, the junior officer announced that there were clear signs of forced entry. Nara had caught the intruders just as they had pried open the window. “A few minutes later and he would have been in the room,” he added.

Both Sue and Nara were silent as the reality of what might have happened sunk in.

The sergeant closed his notebook with a snap and replaced his pen in his pocket. “We’re taking this seriously. You have a lot of antiques here, Sue.” He looked around at the shelves full of delicate porcelain with elaborate designs, nineteenth century photographs, and Victorian-style lamps, some with fringed shades, others with colorful glass shades in the style of Tiffany. “There was another burglary in town tonight.” He cleared his throat before continuing. “Someone broke into the church and stole that seventeenth century tapestry that hangs in the small chapel and a pair of gold candlesticks. They are probably the two most valuable pieces in the church. And they removed a stained glass window and took that along with them. Obviously knew what they were looking for. The vicar is beside himself. Who around here would break into a church? And they can barely keep up the building, old as it is, and now to worry about security.” He sighed and looked around the room again. “Strange that they would come here on the same night — assuming it was the same people.”

Nara felt cold, as if a sudden draft had gone through the room. She had admired the vast collection of antiques and bric-a-brac that decorated every room in the house. She had picked up the treasures, examined the marks on the bases, and stroked some appreciatively. But she hadn’t had time to learn anything about them. Now the little animal figurines and china cups and saucers took on a sinister look. These trinkets couldn’t be worth enough that someone would try to burglarize the house? Or perhaps, were they looking for something else?

By the time the police had finished their inspection of the crime scene, the sky had lightened to pink along the horizon. Nara put on a pot of coffee and started chopping fruit for breakfast. It was better to keep busy. Sue nibbled on a piece of dry toast, then set the table for their guests. Nora sat silent with her own thoughts of the night’s events.

The first of the guests came down for breakfast, asking questions about the medieval church in the neighboring town of Donington, which was mentioned in the Domesday Book of William the Conqueror.  Sue told them the church contained stained glass windows from the 15th century. Their interest, however, was in the stained glass window in honor of Matthew Flinders, a Lincolnshire native who, in his ship the Investigator, was the first man to circumnavigate Australia and had sailed with Captain Cook. Sue answered their questions cheerfully while Nara started bacon and sausage sizzling in a pan.

She was going to Lincoln today to register for business classes at the college, and although she still couldn’t see herself running a company, she was excited about the classes. It would give her an opportunity to meet new people, make new friends her age. She was eager to do something — be someone — she wasn’t sure what or who. She moved the bacon and sausage to a covered plate to keep it warm and started frying eggs. While they cooked she popped two more slices of bread in the toaster. How someone could eat all this food for breakfast was beyond her.

When the eggs were done as the guests had requested, soft by not runny, she moved them to two plates and arranged the meat, along with the friend mushrooms, tomatoes and beans and carried them in to the dining room, automatically putting a smile on her face. “I’ll be back in a moment with your toast. Is there anything else I can get you?”

The couple tucked into their breakfast with satisfaction. “No. Nothing at all. This looks wonderful.”

******

Jack Blake lay in his bed upstairs, free for the moment from the coughing spells that wracked his chest all too frequently these days. He felt well and surprisingly comfortable, lying there in the dim room. The street light cast a glow across the foot of his bed, reminding him of the moon in St. Clare. But he wasn’t in St. Clare. He was in Lincolnshire, England, in his sister’s home, and it had been his idea to come here. The chemotherapy treatments were going well, and he was not as sick as he had been warned he might be. True, he had lost his hair, but he rather liked himself bald. There was a certain sexiness about a bald head; just think of Yul Brynner, he thought. Yul Brynner had died of lung cancer, too. Not a good line of thinking to pursue. Sean Connery, then. Or Michael Jordan. Jack was not an old man; he was just 52 years old. He would get through this, and he and Nara would go back to the Caribbean where they belonged.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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