Tuesday, October 05, 2010
First Excerpt from The Seduction of Simone
The swollen, February sky brooded with purple and rose hues, as though Mother Nature had slapped it. There would be no point for Simone to put on a happy face. Her fickle emotions had bounced erratically between the pain of loss and joy all day.
Mr. Cavendish stood at the rusted iron gate, which towered behind him like the grill of a Mack truck. His tiny, red sports car, parked off to the side, allowed her to drive on the narrow pavement, leading to Celeste's estate.
No. Her estate now.
A chill stung her cheeks as she powered down the Jeep window and waited for the unsmiling octogenarian to meander slowly to the door.
"Simone Devereux?" His breath smelled of peppermint.
Old, weathered skin told a silent story of years sailing and a life by the sea as he leaned in close to her. Interesting that Celeste had chosen this grumpy relic as her attorney.
"Yes, and you're Mr. Cavendish?" She managed a smile.
He slid on thick, reading glasses over a narrow nose and peered closer at her face.
His grey eyes widened, and he took a couple of steps back. "Well, I won't need any identification. Your features are very much like your Aunt Celeste's. Follow me, please."
Leaving Simone in confusion over his clipped tone, he took a set of keys from his coat pocket and opened the lock. The thick chain grated across the rusted iron with a high-pitched screech, as he opened the gates one at a time.
The large iron letters, C and D, separating like a final epitaph of Celeste's sudden demise, unsettled her. Sadness choked her throat, as Cavendish slid into his car. His engine came alive with a whine, and Simone followed his ascent up toward the estate.
The winding road with its neat rows of evergreens stood in contrast to her disorderly state of mind. With a sigh of deep regret, Simone wished she'd accepted more of Celeste's invitations to stay. Her last visit, two years ago, had been too brief, considering the proximity of San Francisco to O'Malley's Cove.
Simone had always been enchanted by the large Victorian home. The estate had been a child's hideaway, with rooms galore to play hide and seek. Was her child-like wonder and enjoyment what Celeste remembered when she'd left her the estate by the sea?
She may never know why the multimillion-dollar property came to her. Celeste didn't have time to leave a letter or digital recording to accompany her last will and testament. Her death came too soon and took her away at far too young an age.
The letters they'd written to one another were now her only comfort. How could she have been irked Celeste never owned a computer? For years, she'd written off Celeste's eccentric ways as a desire to be reclusive and bohemian. She'd been shortsighted to judge Celeste so harshly, considering how similar they were.
Simone's father hadn't seemed surprised by his baby sister's generosity. Her mother explained that Celeste had wanted Simone's school pictures every year.
How strange to learn these small things after an aunt departs this world and is incapable of explaining them herself. Her mother believed Celeste felt intrigued by the rare resemblance of their face and body. Right down to the birthmark above their breast.
Over the top of the evergreens, the tall, brick chimneys on each end of the house were visible. The seriousness of her decision to move in and expand her business twisted in her stomach. This large, family estate would be her home now. There would be no going back. One day she hoped she'd find and marry her soul-mate and have children.
She'd come here to stay, just as Celeste had twenty years ago, after breaking off her only engagement. Celeste never spoke of her fiancé. Simone had always been curious about the mystery surrounding the ended relationship and asked her father to explain Celeste's decision. He'd told her Celeste had read her lover's tarot and knew he'd break her heart.
As a gypsy, Simone believed in the power of the cards in the right hands. What if Celeste had read the cards wrong? Had she spurned her soul-mate, fearing a brief moment of pain? She would have never thought her aunt lived by the tarot cards to such an extreme. Yet, during their last visit, Celeste had told Simone that marriage would never be in her stars; her aunt never spoke about why.
In addition to holding a belief in the occult, creativity also ran in their family's gypsy blood. Celeste was a free spirit and painted portraits. So did Simone, but hers were more risqué. She painted nudes of couples seeking immortality, by appointment only.
She'd taken a big leap when she'd closed her San Francisco studio. Her senses told her she had taken the right path. Now she would follow through. Her plan seemed solid. She'd offer a weekend bed-and-breakfast and entertain clients who came to pose for their portraits.
The move had been a big risk, her clients must travel from San Francisco and beyond. Hopefully couples would make the trip with a desire to have her immortalize their love for one another in oil. Simone could think of nothing she'd rather be doing than paint. She enjoyed using art as her medium to cater to the amorous needs of her customers.
The pavement widened as the massive, two-story Victorian mansion came into view. Her new home looked magnificent and beautifully preserved in deep-green, burgundy and cream. The grounds, sparkling from a late afternoon rain shower, were well groomed.
Simone brushed away the tears, parked next to Cavendish and locked the car. She rolled her eyes at the city habit and grinned excitedly as she walked toward the estate. How were her jumbled feelings possible? How could she be so happy at her good fortune and still depressed from Celeste's untimely passing? She chewed her lip; constantly pulling herself back from both emotions had become exhausting.
Cavendish wheezed as he opened the front double-doors using a brass key and slowly pulled them apart. She anxiously stood behind him and wiped her clammy hands across her jeans. A large maw opened wide, and the interior waited as if to digest her into the estate's inner core. Gooseflesh rose on her skin, giving Simone a quick shiver, as she climbed the stone steps. Cavendish seemed oblivious to any otherworldly feelings. Simone's heart leapt as she followed him into the darkness to be swallowed whole.
"I have some documents for you to sign, Miss Devereux, if you'll take a seat in the library to the left."
In the dim light, her gaze swept over the burnished-wood paneling and Italian-tiled floors adorned with oriental rugs. There were pieces from her great-grandparents, great-Aunt, Celeste and now hers to add touches to the décor. A feeling of nostalgia struck her. Someday she'd pass the estate on to another. Her own children?
Cavendish gazed impatiently at his watch. Simone obligingly went into the library and sat on the settee between some exquisite hand-worked pillows.
Cavendish pushed a handful of papers and a pen into her hands.
Simone sighed and got to work, signing her name a dozen times to agree she owned the property. The task seemed redundant. Judging by the scowl on Cavendish's face, he didn't care if signing would be unnecessary or not.
"Here are the keys to the front door, basement, attic and the building outside near the path to the ocean. All of the utilities are on, but you'll need to change them into your name as soon as possible. If I can be of any legal service, or you wish to sell after all, here are my cards."
Simone took the two cards and forced a smile. She hadn't returned his phone calls of late and had deleted his insistent messages on her cell phone, asking her repeatedly to sell. Why couldn't he leave her alone? She'd never sell, not a chance.
"Thank you, Mr. Cavendish; as I told you, this place is going to work out beautifully for my business. I have no desire to sell. This is a family estate."
He didn't smile, only nodded stiffly as he left with his briefcase; moments later she heard the doors close behind him.
God, the estate was really hers.
She stood to take a tour before unloading her baggage, but paused to turn and gaze up at Celeste's self-portrait over the fireplace. Edging closer, she recognized herself in so many ways—the full lips, the long, honey-colored hair, blue eyes and the birthmark. How odd they'd both have a mark in the same spot just above the left breast. On tiptoes, she smoothed her finger over the familiar bird in flight where Celeste's low-cut dress began. She shivered with how much the mark resembled hers and pulled back.
The similarities seemed a bit eerie; two women, twenty years apart, looking so much alike. More macabre had been how Celeste died. How many years did she walk the grounds, only to one day simply slip off the cliff into the sea below? She'd just turned forty-seven. An accident like hers should never have happened.
Her death and the aftermath seemed suspicious at every turn. None of Celeste's family received notification of her passing until after the cremation. Some kind of screw-up with the local sheriff's office. The family had been furious.
Missing a beloved family member's funeral made the grieving harder for those left behind. There'd been no closure and no goodbye. Her father had been heartbroken.
"I always loved you, Celeste; thank you so much for leaving me the Devereux Estate."
Warm tears fell and she swiped them away. Two months and she still had a hard time making her peace with Celeste's death. Pictures, videos and memorabilia would have to do as reminders of the time they spent together. Such a sad second to flesh and blood.
The tall, full-length mirror across the room reflected her sorrow. Simone walked over to stand in front of the glass. With a licked index finger, she wiped away the black mascara under her eyes.
She had to allow for time to soften the pain caused by Celeste's premature passing. Simone reached out and stroked the hand-carved, gilded frame with respect. Her aunt and family before her had a keen eye for antiques.
A shiver with the sense of someone watching had her turning to look for Cavendish. Had he forgotten something?
A peculiar smell tickled her nose. Black licorice? She moved around the room, sniffing for the source, until she came back to the mirror. The odor seemed to come from the glass. She quickly stepped back. Her eyes reflected her anxiety. Simone rubbed her chilled arms; the room had become cold.
The smell and feeling receded, leaving her trembling from the odd occurrence. She tsked and turned away. There wouldn't be time today to imagine things or to be morose. She had a long list of need-to-dos before she slept tonight. She should get busy.
Simone slipped off her coat and placed it on the settee. Most of her personal items were in the Jeep. The other larger boxes were coming tomorrow by truck. With a last glance at the mirror, she left to start the search for a bedroom.
She remembered a kitchen any chef would adore, an elegant dining room, library, laundry room and two nice-sized bedrooms with baths—all on the first floor. She'd start there and work her way upstairs.
Curious to see what Celeste had in her cupboards, Simone took the long hallway toward the back of the house. The remodeled kitchen had major upgrades during the life of the estate. The appliances were large enough to cook for a small army. She grinned; her culinary talents were limited; the last few years she'd mainly eaten peanut butter and banana sandwiches.
The first set of cupboards contained condiments and food items that wouldn't go bad. The refrigerator was empty. Cavendish had a cleaning service pull everything out, so she'd need to make a list later before going to the grocery store.
The next door led to a small room full of boxed food, canned goods and canned fruit. Glass bottles of peaches, cherries and other delicacies lined one whole shelf. They were from a local place—The O'Malley Cove Farm.
Despite the label's lack of originality, she'd bet the fruit inside tasted great. She loved organic and farm-fresh food and her guests would too.
She backed out of the pantry, satisfied she'd need mostly perishables like milk, cheese and eggs. Simone sighed with relief to need so little. Her budget needed a breather after the moving-truck expense.
She turned toward the back wall of the kitchen that led out to the patio. The massive glass windows and French doors had peach-colored blinds. She pulled a set to the side. The tumultuous ocean struck the side of the cliffs, and the wind blowing the bushes outside came from the northwest.
She opened the French door, breathed in the cold, sea air and grinned happily. San Francisco had been a great city to grow up in, but the quiet and peaceful quality of her new home would be wonderful.
Simone locked up and pulled the blinds back into place. She really needed to get upstairs and check out the master bedroom. The sky would be getting dark soon, and she still needed to pull her suitcase and personal things out of the Jeep.
She climbed the spotless carpeted steps toward the master bedroom. Creaks from the old, wooden stairs brought back pleasant memories of playing cat and mouse with cousins. Weekends with Aunt Celeste had always been a great adventure, especially when she pulled out the tarot cards and read Simone's palm by firelight.
Celeste had encouraged her to read tarot and became enthusiastic with her attempts. Her aunt believed she could be a natural and someday would read true from the gypsy blood coursing in her veins.
As she neared the top of the stairs, a deep growl made her stop in rigid fear. She gripped the banister as she quickly looked down the stairs for a dog.
She frowned, looked at the landing above and caught sight of two large, marble gargoyles. Simone's gaze flicked from one to the other, then she whispered a protection charm. When the low growl stopped, she moved slowly up the remaining stairs.
The gargoyle sentinels were new since her last visit. Why would Celeste need to guard her home so fiercely with gypsy magic? As Simone turned left toward the master bedroom, she shook her head at the amazing ability her aunt possessed to conjure such a powerful protection spell.
The question of why Celeste needed so much magic nagged at her as she walked down the long hallway. Her gaze followed the walls, lined with mirrors and portraits of long-dead family members. Celeste had a talent for drawing out the essence of a person's character in her art. The skill had been another similarity they shared, but her own journey never included painting portraits of ancestors.
At the end of the hallway, Simone stopped at a closed door and laid a hand on the glass doorknob. As she turned the handle, an unexpected pressure-change occurred and frigid air burst past her into the hall. Blinking at the chill on her face, she entered the bedroom. The presence of her aunt filled her senses.
Familiar scents, wall hangings and Celeste's favorite colors of rose and cream were everywhere. Simone crossed the room, pulled back the heavy drapes and found an open window. Whoever had cleaned must have left the window open for fresh air before the storm hit.
Drops of rain on the windows warned her that the storm out at sea would come toward the estate. The odor of uprooted seaweed lying on the wet sand below floated up on the tiny droplets of sea spray. The turbulence of the ocean farther out would do more damage before the day ended.
She ran her fingers along the wet edge of the windowsill, looking for the crank. The stiff, metal handle complained loudly from rust