Warm lips brushed her cheek. A hand caressed her face. Warmth lapped at her skin. A whisper danced over her ear. “Come to me, beloved.”
Kate sat bolt upright in bed, gasping for the air stolen by the unfamiliar touch. Her heart pounded. “That is the third strange dream this week.” Kate’s words fluttered across her empty bedroom. The familiar surroundings calmed her.
As her thoughts cleared, a list of the day’s tasks took its place. Too much to sit pondering irrelevant dreams. “Better get ready for work.”
Her feet slid from the warmth and touched the cool rug. Her skin prickled with goose bumps. The bathroom tile curled her toes, and she walked on the side of her feet to the mat outside the shower. Turning on a steady stream soon steamed her image from the mirror. Stepping in, the warm water washed the specter down the drain.
* * *
Kate glanced one last time at her reflection in the floor-length mirror. Straightening the white blouse over her slacks she slipped into low heels. Good enough for today. No contractors to meet and no messy restorations on the day’s to-do list. A quick dash down the stairs and into the modern, uncluttered kitchen, she pulled a pre-made breakfast shake from the top shelf of the refrigerator. Contentment at her no-fuss practical life brought a skip to her steps as she headed for the car.
* * *
Gravel crunched as her convertible neared Brightway Manor. She rounded the circular drive and parked at the door. No deliveries planned for today either. The day should prove to be quiet. A good day to get a few things crossed off her tidy list.
Climbing the stone steps she found the door unlocked. “Jeremy, you here?”
Movement came from above and she moved to the bottom of the grand staircase. “Yep,” Jeremy’s shaggy blond head came into view above her. He leaned over the banister and smiled, paint already splattered on his hands, a spot on his cheek, and more in his hair.
“Don’t get paint on all the newly restored wood,” Kate warned. She tried to sound fierce and hold her lips in a scowl, but Jeremy’s impish grin, and his hands raised in surrender tugged at her resolve.
“Yes, Ma’am. No paint anywhere but the walls.”
Kate relented offering him a small grin. “How many rooms left on the second floor?”
Jeremy’s face scrunched and his fingers touched to his thumb counting off. “Seven more on this floor and then the master suites and the few rooms on the upper floor and the attic.”
“Well, better get back to it. I have a shipment of furniture coming at the end of next week, and the whole project is slated to finish at the end of next month.”
Jeremy glanced around. “Still can’t see this old place as a swanky B&B.”
“Give me time, I’ll have it gleaming like one of Sir Reginald Godfrey’s jewels before you know it.”
“Bummer! I’ll be off on another project by then. Soon as these last rooms are done I’m outa here.” His voice faded as he returned to his work.
Kate turned to the formal sitting room at her right. This room was completely restored. Every tall winged-back chair reupholstered in period fabric. The wood polished with so much lacquer she could see her reflection in its intricate carvings. They sat like silent sentinels in clusters around settees and tables. Reproduction electrical lights made to look like original oil lamps and candles graced the tables. Having the dilapidated, early seventeen hundred’s mansion wired for electricity had been Kate’s biggest challenge. She spent far less time tracking down original pieces to return to Brightway Manor. Many items were even returned at little or no cost in exchange for some free stays once it was open for business. The new owners gladly agreed to the trade and now the posh get-away was booked for the first two months.
Kate wouldn’t take time to admire work already done. The list hammered at her thoughts like a manic woodpecker. She turned to leave and her gaze lighted on the huge portrait of Sir Reginald hanging over the ornate marble mantle. Kate stopped, tipping her head to consider him for a moment.
The oil painting was the last thing added to the room after hours of restoration work. Kate had been covered in paint herself as she labored for days at it. He stood next to one of the chairs in this room, one hand on his hip looking regal. As the second born of a cousin to the King of England, he could have been king—had all the right people died. Today there seemed to be more color in his cheeks, and did his gaze turn her way? A breath trickled over her lips at her own silliness, she dipped a quick curtsy to the lord. “Good day to you, sir.”
She moved beyond the grand stairway, past the library. It stood polished and ready for the books she was gathering. Some Lord Godfrey had owned and others she included as great works of their time. She strolled down the wood lined corridor. More portraits were needed here, some were on her list to acquire and others waited on her worktable in the converted stables—now garage—out back. So much to do.
She entered the formal dining room with a breath of relief. The huge table seated thirty and was already laid with a decorative runner and matching placemats.
Tall straight chairs ringed its beveled edge. Against the walls were buffet cabinets, hutches, and other tall dark cupboards. Here lay her work for the day, putting everything from fine china, ornate silver, to pristine crystal into its rightful place.
Kate kicked off her shoes and pulled open the first box. China. She pulled the box with care to the other end of the room and knelt beside it. As she pulled out the first few pieces she noticed fine dust. She stood and wound her way through a servant’s prepping room into the kitchen beyond. This room too stood nearly complete. The large wood stove dominated the room. Soon modern appliances would arrive to be hidden behind wood doors.
She returned to the dishes with a damp towel and wiped each clean as she stacked them on the many shelves. From there she moved to a box of crystal she placed in a china hutch. The late morning sun sparkled off the glass through the windows on the opposite side of the room.
Kate nearly dropped the goblet in her hand at the male voice whispering through the mansion.
“Jeremy?” No answer came. She called louder. “Jeremy, is that you?” Her stomach knotted. No one had called her Katherine since her mother passed away several years ago. She went to every doorway, and glanced out the windows at the dirt awaiting the landscapers’ attention. Nothing. She closed her eyes and took a long deep breath. Too many days spent in this old empty house. Now she was imagining things.
After three more boxes of glassware, she moved to a skinny box pushed part way under the table. Pulling it out, she stood and came face-to-face with Jeremy. The box dropped to the floor with a clatter and several pieces of silverware skittered across the floor.
Jeremy jumped back in an effort to save his toes. Water from one of the two bottles he carried splashed on his shirt. “Gee wiz, Kate! What’s made you so jumpy?”
“What’s the matter with you? Sneaking around and popping up out of nowhere.”
He offered her the unopened bottle. “Thought you might be thirsty.”
Her heart still hammering against her ribs, her breath coming in gulps, she stared at him.
“If you don’t want it, it’s no skin off my nose.” He turned to leave.
Her hand brushed across his arm stopping him. “Sorry. You startled me.”
“The old place is getting to you, isn’t it?”
Kate smirked and took the bottle. “Seems so. I’ve done restoration jobs before, but never on this scale. Or for this long.”
“Well, take a break, girl, relax. It’s just walls and paint,” Jeremy flashed a smile as he swaggered away.
Kate sipped the water as her frayed nerves and tight muscles relaxed. She collected the scattered silver and placed it in the narrow slots of one drawer. Dropping the box on top of the others she’d emptied, she moved to the remaining serving dishes.
Not again. She jumped into her shoes and raced down the hall. “Jeremy, I’m going out for lunch,” she said flying through the front door.
* * *
A kiss pressed against the top of her spine. “Come to me, beloved,” Kate pulled from the now familiar dream and kicked off the suffocating covers. The voice—now one she knew well—called to her at least once every night in her dreams and more often whispered her name at Brightway.
She had no time for nonsense. A couple hours and the landscapers would be on site to finish off the gardens. Latching onto reality, she checked each item on her list. The ballroom seating should arrive today.
* * *
Kate hung the last of the portraits in the hall. Music filtered to her. The enticing whisper of string instruments and harpsichord drew her toward the ballroom on the opposite side of the mansion. The empty room hummed with indistinguishable voices, but no one gathered inside. The newly restored floor glistened.
Kate slipped off her shoes and slid into the room. Not a single thing lay within these four walls. She was losing her mind. She stood still, the faint music struck a slow waltz. Her eyes closed to enjoy the forgotten echo of balls once held in the mansion.
A hand took hers and placed it on a shoulder before sliding around her waist. She kept her eyes closed not wanting to break the spell. Another hand filled hers. Drawn into a firm hold of a dance partner, Kate’s senses noted every detail. The sharp spice of a man’s shaving cream. The warmth of the hand clasping hers. The straight tall posture of her partner.
He stepped to her left and she moved with him. Guided by his hold, she began to waltz. Around the dance floor they strolled, lost in a moment that never was.
His voice tickled her ear. “I have waited so very long for thee, Katherine. Why will thou not come to me?”
A dreamy whisper breathed out her lips. “I’m here now.”
“Yeah, lady, so are we.”
Music stopped. Air caught in Kate’s throat. The smells and sounds fled the room replaced with stale cigar smoke and a tapping boot. She almost slipped as she spun to see a broad-chested man in a dirty T-shirt. “You Miss Montgomery? I have your furniture. And other deliveries to make today, please.”
“Furniture?” Kate stuttered. “Oh yes. It should be three settees and three dozen chairs.”
“And six small tables, yep. Got all that. Where do you want it?” the man growled around his cigar.
Kate tossed her head freeing it of the fantasy, squared her shoulders and walked toward him. Taking his paperwork, she scanned and signed it. “All of it goes in here. Two tables on each side and two near the back wall, three chairs around each with the remainder—”
“Listen, lady,” the man snarled. “I’m paid to get it off the truck and in the room you want. Where you place it, is up to you.”
He disappeared, and Kate shivered in the empty space—devoid of its enchantment.
* * *
Kate took a moment, as she did everyday, to stop in the sitting room. She curtsied to Sir Reginald. “Well, my lord, I have all the beds to make today. There is only the attic and a few finishing touches left now. Soon your beautiful home will be filled with people once more.”
She hoped this would have made the gentleman happy, but she was sure his portrait frowned at her today.
She dipped in another observance. “Good day, sir.”
Making up twenty some beds, from mattress protectors to damask quilts and everything in between would take time. Without the help she’d planned on, Kate finished the final details alone. People who didn’t keep their commitments upset her order-driven life.
Tightness filled her chest, and her arms and legs ached. Each room took at least an hour to complete. Will it ever end? To never come to Brightway Manor again stole her breath and seized her heart. “I will miss spending my days in your fine home, my lord.”
Kate tossed her armload of clean bedding down on the lord’s imposing bed. The carved posts were nearly as big around as she, and almost reached the ceiling. Fumbling through the pile she found the first piece and set about securing it over the corners of the mattress.
A caress washed down her arm from her shoulder to her wrist.
Kate stilled. She closed her eyes. The spicy sent filled her nostrils.
The hand brushed aside her long hair, and a kiss pressed to the top of her spine.
Her knees gave way and she turned to slump on the edge of the bed.
The tender touch brushed her cheek and slid down her neck.
Heat filled every cell of her body. Her breath came in quick gasps. She allowed her head to drop back, inviting the caress to continue. She leaned back bracing her arms on his bed.
His bed! She sat on the lord’s bed.
She leapt to her feet with a gulp, eyes popping open. She stood alone. The spicy musk faded, her skin prickled with goose bumps. She couldn’t breathe.
“Leave me not, my beloved.”
“Leave you? Who are you?”
No more whispers came and she made quick work of finishing the lord’s suite before she hurried from the room. She nearly fell in her rush down the stairs. Her only intent, to flee out the door to her quiet condo.
She froze in her tracks. Leave the fantasy behind and return to the real world, or investigate a dream? Reality was comfortable, familiar, understandable. But the specter offered intrigue, and stirred such a longing in her. Go? Stay? Kate stood frozen in indecision.
“Get a grip on yourself, Kate. There is no one here and nothing to enchant you in this old mansion. Go home and start looking for your next job,” she scolded herself, and slipped out the door.
* * *
Kate set up an antique chess game on a small table in the attic. She collected the wrapping and boxes of all she had arranged in the long room. The many gable windows flooded the space with light making it a bright retreat to sit, play a variety of games, or enjoy another’s company.
Kate’s shoulders rose and fell in a deep sigh. Every single detail complete, yet heaviness pressed on her. Slipping to a window she surveyed the beautifully manicured grounds. She strolled to the next window and the next, viewing the entire property from the high perch. Coming back to the stairs, she paused. “I don’t want to leave,” she muttered.
Music? No, a whisper? Did she hear something? Or did she only hope she had heard her phantom suitor beckon?
She closed her eyes and strained her ears hoping for something more.
Kate took one last look at the attic recreation room and started down the stairs. Only a few servants’ rooms were up here beside the game room. They would soon be assigned to the live-in chef and serving staff. With the attic door closed, the hall filled with shadows. Empty, cold, dark corners, her skin prickled.
She plodded down the stairs to the third floor. Kate’s gaze washed to the right a few large staterooms between her and the lord’s room at the end of the hall. Now as a bed and breakfast, every door was closed and locked waiting its first guests. Again the silence assaulted her. She shivered.
Turning to the next set of stairs, a light caught her attention. On this side of the mansion sat the lady’s chamber. Though history recorded Sir Reginald never married, it was a room as grand as his own. Here the door stood open and a light flickered from within.
“Hello?” Kate called.
Stillness, not even the creak of a floorboard under her feet answered her.
Kate crept toward the room and called again at the doorway. Her own echo her only replied. The electric sconces, mounted on both sides of the bed, flickered like ancient candles. Scanning the room, Kate noticed the cherry wood wardrobe stood open. She looked inside. A green satin gown embroidered with hundreds of tiny pink roses hung within. A hoop skirt sat in the open drawer below, with a corset, bloomers, house hose, slippers and gloves.
“Where did these come from?”
Her fingers brushed the fine fabric. Did she dare? Would it even fit? She glanced at her watch. Three o’clock. Still early. The owners weren’t due in until after the weekend anyway. Another Friday night with no plans. What would it hurt to slip into the gown and take one last twirl on the ballroom floor?
* * *
Kate wiggled into the crocheted glove and smoothed out the skirt of the gown as she looked at her reflection in the floor mirror standing in the corner. Her hair was pulled up and secured with a pearl comb she found on the bedside table. She glanced at her watch sitting in its place. Five. She understood why women of the time needed servants. Getting into all those layers was definitely a three-woman job.
She twirled. Everything fit as though made for her. Her eyes closed and she swayed to the music of her dream. Her eyes popped open and she stopped abruptly. “I should show Lord Godfrey.” She was at the bottom of the stairs before reason returned. She would have turned and climbed the stairs sheepishly had the lights in the setting room not been flickering too.
A quick glance at the front door told her the bolt still remained locked. No one else had keys. Her shoulders slumped, and a long breath slid between her drooping lips. She turned and rested her hand on the banister. Time to go home and let the dream die.
Her throat burned, and she fought to swallow down her tears. You won’t be alone forever she tried to convince herself. Her legs trembled as she stumbled forward to the chair near the stairs. She crumpled into it, her hands lifeless in her lap and her head hung only inches above them. A tear slid down her cheek and she swiped at it with the back of her gloved hand. The tight weave scratched her face. “Better get out of this dress before you ruin it, girl,” she rebuked herself.
She pushed to her feet feeling as old as the chair. Taking a step inside the parlor she dared raise her gaze to Sir Reginald’s portrait. She staggered back a step for it no longer sat atop the mantle but now rested on the floor before her. And the image smiled.
The spicy scent filled the air, warm and masculine.
She stared unable to move, think, or breathe.
From somewhere far in the house the voice came too. “Katherine, my beloved. Now, is the time thee must come.” The statuesque figure of oil shimmered and moved. His hand left his hip and reached out of the frame—off the canvas—toward her. The disembodied voice now sounded with the movement of his painted lips. “I love thee, Katherine. I swear to love thee to the end of time. Will thee come, now?”
Drawn by the power of a love she could not understand or escape, Kate stepped forward and placed her hand in his.
* * *
“Honey, you in here?”
“I’m in the parlor, Babe. Come see what just arrived.”
“Reggie what is that?” Ali asked.
Reggie forced the crowbar into the crack of the slender wooden shipping crate. The wood squeaked in protest as he grunted. “A wedding present.”
“I sent it off—” grunt, “to be restored, but—I was afraid it wouldn’t arrive in time.” With a final gasp and squall, the crate opened. Reggie set the crowbar on the floor and motioned for her to move to the other side. “Help me lift the lid off and I’ll show you.”
“Where are we going with this?” she asked sliding her hands in place.
Reggie pointed behind him. “We’ll walk this back and stand it up in the doorway for now. I want you to see this.”
As they set the lid aside, Reggie slipped his hand in Ali’s and drew her back to the open container, pulling back the cloth protecting it, revealing a life-size portrait of a man and woman in century regalia. The man in a long jacket, short pants and house hose and the woman in a green gown with pink flowers.
“A portrait?” Ali asked.
“Not just any portrait, babe. This is my eight-times great grandparents.”
“And this is a wedding present?”
Reggie slipped his arm around Ali’s waist and pulled her close. “Yes, this is one of my presents to you for our wedding on Saturday. I wanted them hung up in our home. From the day Lady Katherine Montgomery appeared in the mansion and married Lord Reginald they were never apart. She traveled with him on every trip, even back to England. She left her second son, William, at less than a year old for six months as she toured the colonies with her husband on behest of King George III.”
Reggie cupped Ali’s face in his hands. “I want that kind of love and devotion to be forever in our home. The story goes that the lord died in his sleep. Lady Katherine would not leave his side all day, refusing to allow the undertaker to remove the body. The housekeeper found her dead that evening. She could not bear to be parted from him. Alissa Charlotte Rose Winters, I love you that much. I always want to be by your side.”
Ali slipped from his grasp and slid into his embrace, encircling him in her arms. She rested her head under his chin. She was quiet for several minutes. “Thanks Reg. I love you too. I see why this painting has such interest for you.” She loosened her hold and raised her face to gaze at him. “But I have to say, as much as I love you, if you die first, I’m going to live a second life after you.” She pulled completely out of his hold, tipped her head to the side and smirked at him. “Who knows, I might find me a cute young guy to console me in my loss.” She flipped her hair at him with a giggle and strolled out of the room, calling back to him. “Don’t forget, my love, you have tuxes to pick up this afternoon.”
Reggie tossed his head with a laugh. His Ali never did go for the sentimental stuff. He glanced at the portrait before leaving the room. Both figures were looking up at him from their crate, smiles spread across their oiled faces. His breath caught and he swore the lord winked at him. Reggie shook his head and rubbed at his eyes. When he looked back the painted couple again gazed longingly into one another’s eyes.
Reggie swallowed down his heart. “Babe?” he called out shuffling from the room. “What time was that pick-u again?"
Everyone has moments of loneliness, but there is greater depth to those of us who feel we are never seen. But in that you are strong.