August 12, 1745
A cold rain pelted Aberdeen when the magistrate found Faith Shire innocent of witchcraft. The judge, a pious old man, found no legal reason to imprison Faith, but he feared the dark arts. Wishing to be rid of her, he determined transport to the Virginia Colony the best solution for all.
As the lowland woman was pulled over slick cobblestone streets to the docks, she screamed, her high-pitch shrill cutting through the rancorous crowd. Some looked away. Some left. But I stood firm as I watched her climb the plank of the Constance, the three-masted ship weighed low in the water with other indentured men, women, and children bound for the colony.
As Faith turned to steal one last look at Scotland, a sudden wind stirred up her red locks into a fiery halo. Watery, vivid blue eyes scanned the onlookers until they settled on me. She held my gaze until the guard yanked her below deck.
May God have mercy on me.
The Universe has sucker punched me twice. The first nearly cost me my life. The second changed it forever.
But near-death or life-altering experiences weren’t on my mind when I flipped the Open sign to Closed on the front door of Shire Architectural Salvage.
On this warm August evening, my nerves were shot and my head rattling from an argument I’d had hours earlier with my brother-in-law, Zeb. Furious, he’d curled calloused fingers into fists, paced, and shouted so loud his voice reverberated down the rows of reclaimed doors, stacks of lumber, stained glass, claw-foot iron tubs, marble mantels, and bins filled with odds and ends.
“Addie, how could you do this to me?”
To calm my racing thoughts, I shifted my focus from invoices to cast-iron keys, antique doorknobs, and back plates assembled by my Aunt Grace during her three decades of salvaging. For years, she’d been tossing keys and locks into a big bin, never bothering to sort or catalogue. With the keys, at least, I could transform chaos into order.
“How long have you known she was sick?” Zeb shouted.
“I tried to warn you!”
“You didn’t try hard enough!”
“I thought she’d tell you,” I stammered.
“She didn’t tell me shit!” Eyes once friendly, burned with scorn.
Trembling fingers brushed over a large tarnished brass key, three inches long. Its lopsided heart-shaped handle created an ornamental air that set it apart from the other utilitarian keys designed for heavy-duty locks. Where had it been found? Grace never worried about documentation. She simply collected, her aim to keep alive as much history as she could cram into the two-thousand-square-foot warehouse on King Street. For every item here there was a second chance for some kind of life.
As I closed my fingers around the old key, a heavy energy reverberated through my hand and up my arm. Dust flecks danced like fireflies in light generated by countless rescued crystal chandeliers, copper ship lamps, and dozens of other salvaged fixtures. Images of sky and wide-open seas flashed in my mind. Outside, thunder cracked.
Breathless, I nearly dropped the key back into the box. For a few long, tense seconds, I stared at the lopsided heart, not quite sure what to do with it. The sound of a car door closing caught my attention and I slid the key in my pocket, determined to ask Grace about it later.
A heavy August rain pelted hard against the salvage yard’s glass window when I heard the hard, fast rapping on the front door. Glancing up, I saw my sister, Janet, standing in the rain, holding up a soggy paper bag. Water dripped from her mascara-smudged eyes, which blinked fast, like windshield wipers. Raindrops flattened her thick blond ponytail and soaked her red sundress.
My relationship with my older sister was forever contentious. There’d never been a time of calm or sisterly love. She was the fun, energetic one, whereas I was the safe, steady one. She made messes. I cleaned them up.
I’d hoped we could find a peaceful middle ground after Janet married Zeb at Christmas and then gave birth to a son, Eric, days after Easter. Healthy, with a lusty cry, the boy inherited his father’s dark hair, olive complexion, and long limbs. The day Eric was born, I held him in my arms and, after counting all his fingers and toes, I said a prayer of thanks that he was a boy. He was safe.
You see, Janet and I come from a long line of women who are cursed.
No one can pinpoint how far back the curse reaches, but I know for certain that Janet, our mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother were all burdened with the same affliction. Mom’s doctor was the first to give it a name. He’d called it bipolar with psychosis. Drugs could balance and treat, he’d said, and for a time, there’d been some hope a modern miracle drug would counteract what centuries of prayers couldn’t. The medications did offer brief tastes of normalcy, but neither Mom nor Janet liked the side effects, so neither stayed on their medications long. Calm waters never lasted.
Whatever hopes I nurtured that day in the nursery quickly crumbled. Janet, under the twin weights of wife and mother, dipped back into depression within weeks. At first, Zeb and his parents attributed Janet’s mood to postpartum blues. However, those theories shattered when she quickly soared, like Icarus toward the sun, into mania.
Janet knocked harder on the door, shifting her stance from side to side. “Addie, open up!”
My sensible tennis shoes squeaked on the cement warehouse floor as I crossed the main floor and opened the door. “Zeb’s looking for you.”
Janet brushed inside quickly, tracking mud on my freshly swept floor, and held up a prized bag from the Union Street Bakery. “Happy Birthday, Addie.”
I folded my arms, bracing. “Janet, did you hear me?”
“Zeb is fine. Don’t worry.”
“He looked mad.”
She waved away the comment with long, elegant fingers. “You thought I’d forget your birthday, didn’t you?” Grinning, she was pleased she’d remembered and bought a cake. Details were hard for Janet, just as they were for our mother. Remembering was a prize not to be downplayed. “It’s chocolate. Your favorite.”
My birthday was two weeks ago. “I love chocolate.”
Janet meant well, but her illness stole time. She often lost months when the depression hit or the mania whipped up into full swing, her racing mind moving so fast that life zinged past her in a colorful blur.
Grinning, she fumbled for pockets at her side only to realize she wasn’t wearing her coat. “I wanted to light a candle for you, and I was careful to put matches in my pocket.” Nervous laughter bubbled. “Now I just have to find the pocket.”
Accepting the bag, I fished out napkins, a couple of plates, a plastic knife, candles, and matches. Janet would not have remembered this detail. That was someone at the bakery’s doing. “It’s all in the bag.”
“Oh, great! You can make a wish like you did when you were little.”
I lifted the cake out of the damp, crumpled cake box and set it aside before I scooped up the soggy carton and dropped it in the trash. “Why don’t you let me light the candles?”
“I can do it.” With a trembling hand, Janet settled several candles in the center of the cake. “I’m not such a lost cause after all.”
I wiped the flecks of sticking cardboard from the counter as she dug a match from the small box and struck it. The tip didn’t flare or light, and so she attempted a second and then a third match. Finally, Janet handed me the matches. “I think they’re too wet.”
I removed one from the box. “How you been doing?”
“Been doing okay. Got new medicine, and I’m feeling real good. Life’s feeling steady.” She tugged the folds of her wet skirt.
I struck the match again. Too wet to ignite, it snapped in my hand. I chose another and tried again. It failed. “Zeb said he hasn’t seen you in four days.”
She flinched. “I’ve been busy. Lots to do.”
“What about the baby?”
“Zeb has him.”
The last match sputtered and finally caught fire. I held the glowing tip to the candle’s wick. Slowly, the circle of candles came alive and cast a soft glow over the waves of chocolate. I blew out the match.
“What have you been up to?” I asked.
She clapped her hands together. “Addie Morgan, today is about your birthday. I want to talk about happy things.”
“How about the demons? Have they been bothering you?”
The demons, the witches, even the lady of the lake, they’d all come to see Janet over the years. The apparitions, which the doctors said were caused by a terrible lack of sleep, were rarely kind to my sister. They taunted her. Told her she wasn’t good enough and, sometimes, they suggested I was a threat.
Janet swiped her finger along the rim of the cake, gathered up icing, and licked. “So what are you gonna wish for, Addie? What do you want more than anything?”
My wish was simple. I wanted a normal life. One where my sister and I were friends. A world where the demons didn’t come around to taunt her. A world without curses. “I wish we could be normal.”
Janet smiled as a shadow darkened her gaze. “I wish it, too, Addie. And you know what? I think this time I might be able to hold on. I might not fly toward the clouds or fall into the swamp.”
“Well, then it’s the official birthday wish.” I blew out the candles, and we both clapped. I laid out the paper plates and with a plastic knife sliced each of us a piece.
She accepted her plate, jabbed her fork into the cake, moved it around, but didn’t eat. “This is nice.”
And on the surface, it was kinda normal. A birthday. Two sisters.
I bit into the cake. Stale and dry—she’d bought it weeks ago and forgotten about it. Smiling, I chewed and swallowed. Carefully, I stabbed another piece, moved it around but didn’t eat it. We sat in silence for a few minutes, both of us pretending to eat the soggy, stale cake.
“What kind of meds do the docs have you on, Janet?”
She dragged her fork over her icing. “I can’t remember the names. But I have all the bottles in my pocket.”
“In the pocket of your jacket?”
“Yes.” Her fingers again slid down the sides of her dress and then curled into fists. “I forgot. I’m not wearing my coat. I must have left it in the car.” A shrug of the shoulders reminded me of a twelve-year-old girl, carefree and unworried.
“When are you supposed to take the meds, Janet?” Somewhere along the way I became the oldest child.
“It’s not for a while. I’m fine. You don’t need to worry.”
I swirled my fork in a lump of chocolate icing. “I’m not worried. Just wondering when you’re due to take the meds.”
She sighed. “Not until six o’clock tonight. So there. You don’t need to worry.”
I glanced at the clock on the wall. “Janet, it’s after eight.”
She stared blankly at invisible puzzle pieces lying in a jumble. “It can’t be after eight, Addie. I left the bakery at four with your cake and came straight here.”
“You sure you came straight here?” Sheila McCrae would not have sold her a stale cake.
“I didn’t stop at a bar, if that’s what you think.”
“I didn’t think that.” The edges of Janet’s plateau cracked and crumbled like the dry cake. “Why don’t you let me call Zeb? He’s worried about you.”
“No. Don’t call Zeb.” She dragged the tips of her plastic fork against the paper plate until she dug a rut.
“Why not? He’s a good guy, Janet. He loves you.”
A deep frown furrowed her brow. “You and Zeb think alike. All you two see are my screwups. I’m always wrong where you two are concerned.”
This fake normalcy thinned like ice cream on a hot day. Soon it would drip, run, and melt away. “Maybe we should go get your medicines. I’ll drive you home.”
“No. I don’t want to go home.”
She jabbed agitated fingers through her hair. “Because.”
I dropped the fork and knife, no longer able to keep up the pretense that I was enjoying the stale, soggy chocolate mess. “Why, Janet?”
She tightened her jaw and moved to slide her hands again into pockets that weren’t there.
I met her gaze and could see the confusion mingling with the frustration. “What’s happened? Are you and Zeb having trouble?”
“No trouble. Not exactly.” She fisted her fingers. “I moved out. It was all getting too crazy in the apartment. The baby was crying. Zeb was upset and frustrated. I couldn’t take it.”
Even Zeb’s once-steady demeanor couldn’t navigate these waters. “Where are you staying?”
“In a motel.”
Janet sniffed. “I hate it when you judge me. First, you light the candles, and then you ask me about meds, and now you want to know where I’m staying. So many questions. You were always like that. Asking questions.”
And with that, the ground under the almost peaceful moment vanished, and we plunged. I collected our dishes and dumped them in the trash. “Let me drive you. Is your car parked out front?”
Janet flipped a lock of her wet blond hair out of her eyes. “I can drive myself.”
“Let me drive, Janet. The rain is coming down hard, and I know you don’t like the rain.”
She turned to the glass storefront window and stared at the pelting rain splashing on King Street and washing into the gutter. “I don’t like rain.”
From under the counter, I grabbed my purse. “I can drive.”
She moved to the door, opened it an inch, but let it close immediately when the water splashed her face. “The demons like the water.”
I grabbed my rain jacket, too tired to point out that the demons weren’t real, and laid it over her shoulders. “Let me have your keys.”
“They’re in the car.”
“Where’s the car?”
“Down the block.”
“Let’s get to the car.”
Cringing, she stared at the rain pelting the windows. “I don’t want to go.”
I held out my hand. “We’ll go together. I’ll drive.”
Eyes wide with fear, she shook her head. “You’ll protect me?”
She took my hand. “You fix everything, Addie.”
Outside under the awning, I locked the front door and then, hand in hand, we rushed through the rain to the white Volvo sedan. By the time I slid behind the steering wheel, my hair and coat were as soaked as Janet’s. Inside the car, the faint scent of old pizza and hamburgers drifted up from a backseat packed full of her clothes, an assortment of groceries, and empty boxes.
“Do you remember the name of your motel?”
“The blue one.”
“Yes.” She let her head fall back against the headrest as her gaze drifted out the side window.
I started the car. The gauge registered a quarter of a tank of gas. It was enough to get us to the motel on Route One and then to the apartment she shared with Zeb.
Seeing Zeb didn’t thrill me.
“I haven’t seen her,” I’d told him. “But she’ll be back. She always comes back.”
“Always? How many times has this happened before?”
“A few times when we were teenagers. I thought she’d gotten a handle on it.”
“I can forgive her. She’s sick. But you, I can never forgive.” Anger had radiated from him. “You must have thought you’d found a real sucker when I came along.”
Headlights cut through the rain as I backed out of the spot. We were on the main road in less than five minutes and headed across town toward Route One. “Janet, you’re sure you’re staying at Riverside?”
Long fingers flicked her bangs back and she folded her arms again. “I don’t know why you keep asking so many questions.”
“Just want to be sure.”
“Riverside reminds me of the places we lived with Mom.”
Faded gray carpets, dark floral bedspreads, cheap seascapes of clipper ships and mildewed bathrooms—there wasn’t much to love about those places.
As I rounded the corner, I was distracted, worried and tired from the long day.
The windshield wipers fought, but failed, to keep up with the hammering rain. The road’s center yellow line vanished.
Janet’s gaze brightened with panic and she shook her head as if one of her demons flickered and danced in her peripheral vision. She covered her eyes with her long pale hands and began to moan. “I have to get out of the car.”
I should have slowed, but an invisible clock ticked louder and louder in my head. Soon Janet’s moans, like Mom’s, would become screams. She needed her medicine and the sooner I got her to the motel and to her meds, the better for Janet.
She grappled with her door handle, desperate to get out.
Gripping the wheel with one hand, I glanced at Janet. “Janet, take a deep breath.”
She shook her head. “I don’t want to be here!”
“It’s okay, Janet. As soon as we get your medicine, you’ll be better.”
She raised her fisted fingers to her ears and shrieked.
Distracted, I lost sight of the yellow line again and the car drifted toward the center. As Janet’s screams shrilled, I glanced toward her. “It’s okay.”
Suddenly, headlights cut through the rain and blinded me. A horn blared. I swerved hard. Metal crunched.
Later, the officers would declare it an accident. They blamed it on the rain. Low visibility. No fault.
Janet walked away from the accident without a scratch. My arm was badly broken and I suffered a concussion.
Two days later, Janet vanished.
July 14, 1750
Traveling into uncharted territory has an exotic, lovely sound to it. It conjures images of sailing vessels, strange and wonderful lands, and fascinating, if not dangerous, people. In reality, traveling is difficult, filled with endless seasickness and the smell of unwashed men. Belhaven, or rather Alexandria, is not what I expected. As I stand on the deck of the ship, now moored in the crescent harbor, I see high up on the bluffs a small scattering of wooden homes. They are clustered near Mr. West’s tobacco warehouse, perched on the eastern edge of the harbor. It’s all so desolate. I fear I have plunged into the deepest end of an abyss. My dearest husband, Dr. Goodwin, is filled with excitement for this new opportunity to build his practice in the colonies. He is convinced the Virginia Colony is a land where fortunes can be made. He says we will become rich beyond our dreams. A faithful wife follows her husband, but I will confess, I fear this strange and savage land.
Glue. No one pays much attention to glue. Doesn’t matter if it’s the white, pasty elementary school, slightly sweet kind or the industrial strength, crazy variety capable of suspending a construction worker five stories in the air. Doesn’t matter if the glue is the human kind that holds families together or keeps businesses running. No one really cares about glue. Until it’s gone and life falls apart.
My cell phone buzzed with an incoming call and, without a glance, I hit Delay and continued to run through the sales projection numbers for Willow Hills Vineyards. The main thrust of the discussion was simple. Willow Hills Vineyards could not survive on wine alone. Weddings and other special events would be necessary to bridge the gap until wine sales reached their tipping point and would allow us to claim a profit measured in dollars and not pennies.
“Addie, how do the reservations look for next quarter?” The question came from Scott Cunningham, the vineyard owner and my boyfriend.
I glanced at my budget numbers. “We have two weddings on the books, but there are two other couples that might still book a last-minute gathering. I should know in the next day or two.”
Scott swept thick blond hair away from his deeply tanned face. “Not perfect, but it’ll have to do. My big worry is the launch of our new Chardonnay. How are the preparations for the event going?”
“All on track. All under control. Do you want me to run through the checklist?”
He glanced up at me and grinned. Just a shifting of muscles, but I drank up the love and gratitude in his eyes. “No. That’s not necessary. I trust you.”
We sat at the long oak farmhouse table centered in the new tasting room that had been completed months ago. The walls were made of a thick gray stone harvested from the western part of Virginia and the south wall, made entirely of glass, faced toward the rolling hills of the Shenandoah River Valley. Directly to the right of the glass wall stood the tasting bar, handcrafted from knotted pine reclaimed from a nineteenth-century farm in Kentucky. Behind the bar, wine bottles nestled on their sides in hundreds of cubbies. Pendant lights hanging above the bar illuminated sparkling glasses stacked in neat rows.
I loved the room’s quiet stillness. The calm before the storm. Everything was clean, perfectly aligned, polished to glistening and in its place. Perfect. No chaos. I inhaled, savoring the scent of the lemon polish I’d applied on the hardwood floor early this morning.
He winked. “I don’t know what I’d do without you.”
“You’d be fine.” I leaned a little closer to him. “You dreamed up the vineyard and gave it life when no one would have dared. This is your dream.”
“Dreams need to be fed and nurtured. Without you, my dream wouldn’t be what it is today.”
Drawn, I leaned in another inch, waiting for him to close the gap and kiss me. When he held steady, I tilted forward the last inches and kissed him. His lips carried the flavors of this morning’s taste testing, and he smelled of fresh air and the soft scent of his handmade favorite soap. “I love you.”
“I love you, too, baby.”
The display on my phone lit again.
I deepened the kiss, already looking forward to the end of the day, when we would share a glass of wine on the new stone veranda as the sun set.
As I drew back, I glimpsed my phone. The display read: Janet Morgan. Fingers of tension rubbed against the nape of my neck. “I have phone calls to make for the wine launch.”
He winked. “Don’t let me keep you.”
I scooped up my phone along with my papers and hurried from the tasting room to my office, a small room located at the back of the building. The phone buzzed in my hand, insistent and demanding, but I refused to answer or look at the display. When the buzzing stopped, I shoved out a breath. I waited several minutes, gripping the phone and praying she didn’t call me back.
Janet was the past. My future, my life, was here now at the vineyard.
Closing my eyes, I imagined the tasting room five days from now, filled with people from all over the region gathering to taste the new wine that Scott was launching. It was a Viognier aged in French oak barrels. Its smooth, honeyed flavor possessed a tropical twist. Scott had been nurturing these vines for ten years and these were the first grapes he’d withheld from the wholesale market so that he could make his own signature wine.
The terroir of the Willow Hills Vineyards, like the terroir of any vineyard, was unique. Terroir was not simply the soil, but also the way the sun warmed the earth, how and when the rain fell, and the mix of temperature in summer and winter. A mile or two east or west, north or south ensured the grapes grew differently. Perhaps they’d be better, perhaps not.
Scott’s gift as a winemaker was his ability to use the land. He worked with the terroir instead of against it. He understood the synergy of man and earth.
My phone buzzed a third time. Janet. Again. Frowning, I stared at the display. “What do you want?”
The last time Janet called me, she was living in Chicago and working as a cocktail waitress. She was drinking again and facing a DUI charge. She needed bail money. When I said no, she cried and begged. I maxed out my credit card and got her out on bond. Two days later, Janet jumped bail, leaving me to eat the cost.
Janet always possessed a talent for reemerging when my life was perched on the edge of hopeful and good. An exam. A job. A new wine. Janet knew when to call and tip over the applecart that I carefully filled.
Tense seconds passed as I stared at the display. Finally the buzzing stopped. “Stay away from me.”
The doors to the reception hall opened and, immediately, I lowered the phone and rose from my desk. I hurried into the main hall to find a tall, burly man wearing jeans and a work shirt bearing the name Billy stitched above the pocket.
“Where do you want the tables, Addie?”
I blinked, shifting my brain from the past to the present. Tables. For the tasting. In five days. “You brought rounds, correct?”
Billy owned a party rental company in Staunton, Virginia, which was about twenty-five minutes south of the vineyard. He and I had traded several e-mails, texts, and calls over the last few days as I revised the head count for the opening.
“Thirty rounds according to the e-mail last night. Looks like you’re gonna have yourself a crowd.”
“We’re getting more RSVPs than I imagined. It’s exciting.”
“I’m glad for the business.”
“You and me both. Start placing the tables in the center of the room, and then we’ll work it out from there.”
Billy nodded. “Will do.” He headed back out the glass doors to a large yellow truck. As he unlocked the back of the truck and raised the door, Scott entered the room.
Seven years ago, I left Alexandria with no fixed destination, but determined to go far. And then two hours away, the rolling hills, the white farmhouses, and peace seduced me. The Help Wanted sign posted in the small town of Middleton caught my eye and I decided to apply at Willow Hills. I was hired as a picker during the harvest season, but within days I surrendered to the heat and my aching muscles, which were still strained from the accident. The I-want-to-work-on-a-vineyard was officially exorcised, and I wanted my city life back.
* * *
“Give me Park Avenue,” I grumbled in my best Eva Gabor accent as I marched up to the vineyard’s main office, which was little more than a trailer, to quit. Even five days at the vineyard was enough to show me Scott was a dynamic visionary who spoke passionately to his workers about growing the best grapes and creating award-winning wines. He was a man to be respected. But I wanted nothing more to do with grapes.
When I knocked on his door, he sounded gruff when he shouted, “Enter.” Tonight, he wasn’t the noble, sun-kissed man riding a tractor up between the rows, but a very tired guy, slumped over a secondhand desk, doing his best to make sense of the day’s accounting numbers.
He glanced up, his gaze gutted with fatigue and confusion. “Addie?”
He knew my name. There were more than twenty of us working the fields, and I assumed I vanished in the masses. “Scott.”
“What can I do for you?” Dirt-crusted fingernails dug through sun-drenched hair.
I stared at his lean face, vivid blue eyes, and deeply tanned skin, and fell a little in love with him at that moment. He was the poet, the dreamer. I never harbored any big dreams and found I was drawn to anyone who did. “I don’t want to interrupt.”
“You’re not.” A very disarming half smile flashed. “It’s accounting and schedules, and I’m terrible at both.”
With the rumpled resignation letter in my fist, I stepped forward. “Numbers are kinda my specialty.”
“You signed on to pick grapes.”
“I have an accounting degree. I was stepping outside of the box and thinking of a grand adventure.”
I held up the letter. “I hate picking grapes. I want back in the box.”
He chuckled. “I love the fields. The sun. The smell of the wind. The feel of the rich soil in my hands. But I get that this life is not for everyone.”
“Which is why you should be here, and I shouldn’t. I’ll finish out the picking season, but I’m gone in two weeks.”
Scott nodded. “Fair enough. Fair enough.”
I laid the note on his desk and glanced at the open ledger and the scrawl of numbers and words. “Thanks for giving me a try.”
“No worries.” He tucked the note in the back of the ledger and tapped the page. “Thanks.”
Suddenly, I sensed a broken energy that tore at me. Maybe because I grew up with so many wounded, I felt comfortable around the broken and bruised. “What are you trying to do there?”
“Payroll. But it’s not balancing.”
“Want me to take a stab at it?”
Extending dirty and vine-scraped arms and smelling like the inside of a barn, I smiled. “Don’t I look like I have an accounting degree?”
He laughed. “No.”
“Give me a try. And if I can fix this, you pull me out of the fields and turn me loose here.”
He studied me a long beat and then finally nodded. “Okay, Addie. Show me your stuff.”
From that night on, I ran the office, finding I could love the vineyard through numbers, logistics, through marketing plans. And, of course, through Scott’s eyes.
* * *
Now, as Scott stepped into the tasting room and whistled his approval, I couldn’t resist crossing to him and stepping into his arms. I savored his embrace as he rested his chin on the top of my head. “It’s all coming together.”
“Yes. It’s going to be perfect.”
With an extra squeeze, he broke free of the embrace, but held me close at his side. His gaze scanned the room. “Addie, you’ve outdone yourself. The launch is going to be perfect.”
The compliment almost filled the emptiness. “Willow Hills Vineyards will shine on Friday night.”
He drew in a deep breath as he moved toward the polished granite countertop and smoothed his palm over the surface. “We’ve plenty of wineglasses?”
“They’ve been washed?”
“I inspected them all for spots when they came out of the sanitizer.”
“And the caterer?”
“She’s on target and will set up on Friday morning.”
“Confirmed. Here midday Friday.” And before he could ask another question, I said, “We’ve received one hundred and fifty confirmations to our invitation, and I’m sending one last e-mail to everyone on our list this morning to remind them. The web page was updated and table linens were delivered an hour ago. I’ll have the room set up today.”
He kissed me. “I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
My phone buzzed, sending a chilled warning up my spine. I didn’t dare look at the display. Please, Janet, for once, stay away.
Scott drew back. “Aren’t you going to answer that?”
“What? Oh, I suppose.”
“It could be a vendor.”
I looked at the phone and saw Janet’s name. I silenced my phone and slid it in my back pocket. No more car accidents. No more bail. No more fixes, Janet. “No one that can’t wait.”
“Well, if you have it all under control, I’m going to check the north property. We’re clearing the land today.”
I never lied to Scott, but I also never told him about my family. Long ago, I locked away Janet, my mother, my Aunt Grace, and my life back in Alexandria in a very small box, and I had never once been tempted to open it. I reinvented myself when I moved to Willow Hills and left my history behind.
One day, I might tell Scott, but for now, there was no reason. My sister weathered crisis after crisis and this one would likely blow over by tomorrow.
I watched him leave, but the lightness I had enjoyed ten minutes ago vanished. Pulling out the phone, I checked for a message. Four missed calls but no message.
Guilt chewed at me as I stared at 4 “Missed Calls” on my phone’s display. Janet was back, no doubt bringing with her another wave of destruction.
July 15, 1750
We spent our first night in Alexandria in the tavern built in the shadow of the tobacco warehouse. Mr. Talbot, the tavern keeper, sent a female servant to attend me. Pale-skinned and gaunt, the servant kept her capped head bowed as she moved about my room. She barely spoke two words to me, but I felt her scorn. Thin as a reed, she moved as silently as a cat. When she finally lifted her face and I looked upon the ice blue eyes, recognition mingled with fear. I knew her. She is Faith. Witch of Aberdeen. A castout.
That night, nestled close to Dr. Goodwin, I asked him about Faith. He told me she is indentured to Mr. Talbot, who bought her contract from the McDonald family. Talbot says she is a curious woman but means no harm.
No harm. Mr. Talbot surely does not know his servant’s dark past. I wanted to ask Dr. Goodwin more, but feared my questions would arise his curiosity. Better he never know my association with the witch.
Minutes after two, the sun reached the hottest part of the day, its harsh light heating the rolling green hills of the valley and burning off the morning’s cool and pleasant breeze. I closed the doors to the tasting room. The air conditioner now hummed, the vents gently fluttering the muslin curtains. A wine-bottle wind chime, hanging near a window, clinked.
All morning, I prepped for the launch party by setting up tables and chairs. The table linens were inspected and placed on each table. Table decorations—small wine casks with a bundle of white roses and grapevines in the center—would arrive Friday morning. Candles would be placed tomorrow, and the wine-cork place card holders would go out before the event.
With one table to dress, I stood back, savoring the order and organization. I invested energy and care into each place setting, hoping that by creating order on every eight-foot round, I somehow restored balance to the Universe tipped out of balance by Janet’s four calls. The phone remained quiet since the initial burst of calls but, as much as I wanted to believe all was well, silence often came before disaster. I was in the eye of the storm.
As I smoothed my palm over the last white table linen, an old truck rumbled up the main drive, its engine grinding and humming as its tires crunched gravel. Gears shifted and groaned as the truck slowed. The old truck radio blared a country western song about wishes and moonshine. The song coaxed a smile. It must be Scott in one of the farm vehicles. Scott liked country western music. Though raised in an upper-middle-class home, he somehow fancied himself a good old country boy. Gentleman farmer described him best.
I expected the sound of his booted feet thudding up the steps to the porch, no doubt sprinkling clumps of dirt in their wake. Scott never was good about the boots or cleaning up messes. Never.
Scott worked harder than anyone else on the vineyard, so I couldn’t criticize. But he expected hard work and productivity to end with the desired result. Two plus two always equaled four in his world. He never toiled toward a goal only to see it ripped out of his hands and destroyed.
Since this morning and Janet’s call, I imagined Fate flipping a coin now flying high in the air, turning end over end. Soon, the coin would fall toward the ground losing side down.
When I didn’t hear footsteps, I rose from the table. Suddenly, I pictured Janet standing outside the tasting room, staring at the building, ready to charge inside.
Heat rushed at me as I opened the door and, shadowing my eyes from the high sun, I didn’t see a vineyard vehicle, but a red, rusted truck.
The door opened and an old woman got out. Her graying hair was pinned back in a tight bun; deeply tanned, well-lined skin surrounded her eyes and her mouth. She wore an old sweatshirt, faded jeans, and scuffed brown work boots. Crystal blue eyes snapped and bit as her gaze roamed.
Not Janet. My Aunt Grace. My mother’s sister. The last time I saw her, I was packing up my car, my body still battered and bruised from the car accident. She asked me to stay. I refused.
My walkie-talkie buzzed with Scott’s voice. “Addie, I’m headed up to the tasting room. Sorry, I’m late.”
I plucked the walkie-talkie from my hip and pushed the red button, my gaze squarely on Grace. “Scott, head up to our house. Grab a hot shower. I’m minutes behind you. There’s nothing else for you to do here.”
“You sure? Thought you wanted me to check the layout.”
“It can wait. I have a vendor onsite, and we’re gonna have to talk for a few minutes.”
Shifting focus, I clipped the walkie-talkie to my hip and moved across the open veranda and down the steps. I approached Grace much like I would a stray dog.
Grace was the strong one in our family. The summer I turned twelve and Janet turned fifteen my mother needed to be hospitalized. Social Services contacted Grace and she agreed to take us. Aunt Grace was never a chatty woman or very maternal, but those three months were delightfully predictable. I hoped to stay forever but then Mom returned. Janet was thrilled as we sailed away from Grace’s safe harbor toward the choppy waters with Mom.
Grace eyed me for long, tense seconds. “You don’t answer your phone.”
“Lots of work today. I turned it off.”
She rested bent hands on narrow hips. She was fifteen or twenty pounds leaner. “You turned it off when Janet started calling.”
“Yes.” Steel, which I kept in close reserve, molded around my heart. “I suppose she’s in trouble again.”
“You could say that.”
I folded my arms over my chest, knowing I might not be cursed with madness, but I was indeed cursed with a sister who refused to release her grip on me. “What has she done this time?”
“She’s in the Alexandria Hospital.”
No insurance likely. No money. What was the issue? Overdosed? Fallen? Another car accident? “Did she toss out her meds again? Is she psychotic?” Seven years separated Janet and me, but in a blink, all the old fears and anger rushed me.
“She’s out of it pretty bad.” Grace approached, but neither of us made an effort to close the remaining feet between us and hug the other. “She also gave birth this morning. This time it’s a girl.”
I sensed a shift in the earth under my feet and a wave of nausea passed over me. Another female in the clan. More madness. “A girl.”
“Six pounds. Six ounces.”
“A miracle, considering how Janet must have lived the last nine months.”
Oddly, we Shire women enjoyed strong constitutions. Physically, we rarely were sick. Pregnancies and births were easy. We could count many among us who lived into their eighties and nineties.
But I wasn’t worried about the child’s physical health. Selfish, maybe, but my focus rested solely on her mental state. Of course, it would be too early to tell. The madness didn’t show itself right away, and though some would argue it might not ever come, the odds were stacked against us.
This morning, mere phone calls from Janet stoked my imagination with a thousand disaster scenarios. Now with the actual news in, the burden nearly made my knees buckle. I shifted, hoping maybe I could shake it off. But like a perched hawk, it clung with strong, sure talons.
“Who’s the baby’s father?”
The lines around Grace’s mouth, which some might have mistaken for laugh lines, deepened as she frowned. “I asked, but she’s too far out of it to know.”
“What are the chances that she’ll ever know?”
Grace held up her palms in surrender. “I’m not here to defend your sister or what she’s done.”
“Why are you here?”
“To ask you to come home.”
“I am home.”
Her frown deepened. “Home to Alexandria.”
I touched the walkie-talkie, wishing I could call for help. “No. I am not going.”
Grace shifted her stance. “I know you love this fantasy life you’ve made for yourself here. I know you want to forget you are a Shire.”
“I’m a Morgan.”
“You’re half Shire. And the days of pretending you don’t have a family are over. We need you.”
“I’m not pretending.” The pitch in my voice rose before I caught myself. “This is my life, and I love it.”
The lines deepened around Grace’s mouth as her forehead furrowed. “It’s not a real life. It’s pretty. It’s neat and clean, but it’s not really your life.”
In the distance, I heard Scott’s truck rumbling in from the fields. My heart slowed as I waited until I heard it make the turn toward our house. “How can you say that?”
“Do your new friends know about your mother? Do they know what you did to yourself in college?”
A jab of ice sliced through my chest right into my heart. “What I have with these people is none of your business.”
My walkie-talkie squawked. “Heading home, Addie. See you soon.”
My eyes on Grace, I lifted the radio to my mouth. “See you soon, Scott.”
Grace nodded. “Scott. That’s a nice name. I bet he’s handsome. Nice. Great smile.”
My fingers gripped the hard edges of the walkie-talkie.
Grace’s head tilted. “He doesn’t know, does he?”
My teeth ground so tight I feared my fillings would crack. “Would you lower your voice?”
“Addie, my back is to the wall with your sister.” Her voice was a raspy stage whisper. “I can’t do this without you. You need to come home for a few days or until we can figure out what to do.”
The walls inched a little closer and the air grew stale. “I don’t want any part of Janet’s latest drama.”
“You think I want to deal with this shit? Do you think I want to clean up another mess? For all the dramas you cleaned up with your mother and Janet, I’ve done the same plus more with my own mother.”
Steel wrapped my heart. “Janet is not going to ruin my life.”
“I will if you don’t deal with this.”
A cloud passed in front of the sun, blocking its rays. The glare from my eyes was gone and I could really see the disaster shaping up before me.
“She doesn’t know where I am.”
“But I do. And if you don’t come back with me now, I’ll smash this life to bits. No Shire woman gets a free ride.”
I stepped toward her, my temper heating. “That’s crap. You’ve no right to come here and threaten me.”
Grace arched a brow. “If you’ve been honest about your past, then the truth I got to share won’t matter a bit.”
My jaw clenched. “I don’t want you talking to anyone here.”
“I didn’t think so.”
Outrage collided with fear. “This isn’t fair, Grace.”
That prompted a laugh. “Fair. Don’t toss fair at me, girl.”
As the cloud moved away from the sun and the light shifted again, I noticed the slight tremor in Grace’s left hand. Her shoulders stooped forward an inch or two more, and though she was now threatening me, I could feel the desperation rumbling under each word. Calling the bluff of someone with little to lose never ended well. She drove two hours south from Alexandria to find me. She played every card in her deck. And if we went head to head, I’d lose. “What do you want me to do?”
“Help me deal with the social workers. I don’t have patience for those people and all their questions and forms.”
The stone under my feet turned to sand, shifted. “If I talk to the social workers and get the baby placed and Janet committed, you’ll leave me be?”
Grace’s well-lined hand pushed back a shock of gray hair from her sharp eyes. “Sure. I’ll cut you loose. But you’ve got to deal with the city people. You know I don’t do that.”
My calloused fingers clenched and unclenched. “I want to be clear. I’m not staying past tomorrow. I have a huge event here on Friday. I have to be here.”
“I’m not asking for your life, Addie. Just a day or two to help me get this fire put out. It’s been a long time since I handled this kind of situation, and I don’t have the spirit to do it.”
“You have the fire to drive here and blackmail me.”
Grace rested a clenched fist on her thin hip. “I still have a move or two left in me.”
I ran a hand over my tight ponytail. “Put one fire out and then another starts. That’s how it goes with our family.”
With squinting eyes, she stared off toward the mountains, the longing for the quiet and stillness burning in her gaze. “It’s always the way, Addie. It’s always the way. But I can’t worry about a new fire when one’s raging at my feet.”
I looked back into the reception hall, so pretty and neat. So perfect. This was my world. My perfect life. “This is bull. I don’t want to deal with this.”
“Are you coming or not?” Grace sounded weary but determined.
My gaze shifted from the neat and organized to the road that snaked toward the main road and eventually the city. I lost the coin toss. “I’ll see what I can do, but I’m not staying. I swear to you, Grace, I’m not staying.”
August 1, 1750
Barely a year old, Alexandria is a collection of half-built wooden structures, muddy streets etched with deep ruts, and none of the culture we enjoyed in Scotland. The doctor enjoys his clay pipe, puffing tendrils of tobacco smoke that permeate the hot, humid air of our one-room cabin. My new home is a single room with a dirt floor and a large stone hearth. One roughly hewn table and four chairs dominate the space and serve as a place to prepare meals, mend clothes, and on very rare occasions transcribe my thoughts. The doctor tells me he was lucky to acquire a lot of land this close to the thriving port. Of the sixty-plus surveyed plots last July, all sold within days during the land sale. He tells me Virginian and British gentry desiring a home closer to the bustling warehouse purchased the lots, so we will be in good company. Mr. Carlyle, a second son of a Scottish lord, is building what promises to be the largest home in the city for his new bride, Sarah Fairfax of Belvoir. Made of limestone, it sits on two lots on the newly named Fairfax Street. The doctor assures me our wooden house is temporary. He has vowed we will live in a brick home by next summer.
He presented me with a serving girl to assist me in my daily chores. She is not more than sixteen. Plump and strong-boned with skin the color of mahogany, she promises to be a good worker. Her name is Penny.
“What do you mean you’re leaving?” Scott looked up from his wine journal, his eyes wide with a touch of panic, and his mouth slack. I couldn’t have surprised him more if I told him dinosaurs roamed the vineyards.
“I wouldn’t go if I absolutely didn’t have to.”
He drummed his pencil on the journal. “What could be more important than the launch of this wine? I can’t think of what matters more than this.”
Guilt chewed. “I agree. But I have to go back to Alexandria and take care of some family business.”
“Family business. You never talk about family.”
“We’re not close.” The door to my past creaked open wide enough for me to hear the whispers of self-doubt and fear. “But I’m the only one that can help.”
He rose, and I wanted him to wrap his arms around me and tell me it would all be fine. The secrets and decisions I made long before loomed between us, silent and threatening. I didn’t want my life—our life—to shatter, and I feared it would collapse under the weight of too much truth. “I’ll drive into the city in the next hour, and then I’ll be home by tomorrow afternoon. I’m ahead of schedule, and there really isn’t much I can do until Friday.”
Scott shook his head. “I don’t like this, Addie.”
“Neither do I, Scott. But it can’t be helped.”
“What’s so dire that you have to take care of it?”
Telling one bit of the truth was akin to tugging on one loose thread. How much would make it all unravel? “The details don’t matter.”
He sighed out what sounded like the weight of a great sacrifice. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Yes. Tomorrow.” He wasn’t pressing for details and that eased some of the worry. But then Scott never really pressed for details. He always assumed I’d handle it.
“Okay.” He leaned forward and kissed me lightly on the lips. “Be safe.”
“I will. I love you.”
A smile tweaked his lips. “I love you, too.”
He sat and turned his attention back to his notes.
There was no reason to linger, but I wished like hell I could stay as I packed a clean shirt and a second pair of jeans along with a toothbrush in a duffel bag. I walked to my car, a dusty white CRV. I tossed my purse and bag on the passenger seat and slid behind the wheel. Gripping my keys in my hand, an odd energy surged, and when I opened my palm, my gaze was drawn to the old key I’d found in the box at the warehouse so many years ago. After surviving the accident, I thought of it as a lucky charm and kept it on my key ring.
For a moment, my grip tightened around the old key. “Damn you, Janet. Damn you.”
I jammed the car key in the ignition. A turn of the key and the engine roared to life, and I drove the narrow dirt driveway toward the main road. Dust and rocks kicked up under the tires. At the end of the drive, I glanced at the Willow Hills sign, the dangling Welcome sign, and the bright yellow marigolds planted days ago.
My life. My home. I didn’t want to leave.
Shoving out a breath, I turned right and headed northeast toward Alexandria.
Country roads that rolled past barns, green fields, and split-rail fences gave way to bigger routes, which quickly fed into I-66, the main artery between the west and east in Northern Virginia. By the time I reached the Washington, D.C., Beltway, traffic was heavy, nearly bumper to bumper, and the sixty-plus-mile-an-hour pace I enjoyed outside the city slowed to a crawl.
Traffic moved along the hot paved roads bracketed by tall concrete sound barriers. The only hints of green now were clumps of weeds that grew at the base of the barriers or around a few guardrails. My chest tightening, I opened the window, expecting fresh air. The hot breeze carried with it the heavy scents of gasoline and oil. Damn. Welcome back, Addie.
I slunk around the Beltway until I spotted the Telegraph Road exit. More inching and moving forward at a snail’s pace away from my life, toward insanity, followed.
“Leave it to you, Janet.”
By the time I parked in the Alexandria Hospital parking lot, the traffic and fatigue had wrung out some of the anger. Resolved, I made my way to the nurse’s station, where a tall, lean woman dressed in dark slacks, a white shirt, and a pink smock stood. Her nametag read Molly Burns, Volunteer, and she wore her long brown hair swept into a thick ponytail. A ready smile reached her green eyes.
“I’m looking for the maternity ward. I’m here to see my sister.”
She grinned. “Maternity is on the sixth floor. There’s a nurses’ station to your left when you get off the elevators. And congratulations.”
I’d not been in a hospital since my car accident, but I could see little had changed. The air still held that stale antiseptic smell and the glow of the fluorescent lights made everyone look sallow. I punched the Up button and when the doors opened I stepped inside. The elevator stopped at the third floor and a young Indian couple stepped inside. They spoke in whispered tones, but when they saw me they grew quiet. We all rode the remaining floors in stiff silence.
When the doors dinged open, I flinched. The couple exited and turned toward the nursery. I didn’t want to see the baby. Janet was the real issue now. Getting her fit and healthy was the priority.
I found the nurses’ station easily and waited while a short, round woman in her mid-fifties and dressed in scrubs finished a phone conversation. When she glanced up, I shifted, nervous and edgy. “I’m here for Janet Morgan Talbot.” I didn’t know if she still used her married name.
The nurse glanced at her patient list and then back up at me. “You’re her sister?”
“That’s right. I’m Addie Morgan.”
Concern deepened her frown. “You’re on the list of approved visitors.”
“Do all the patients have lists?”
“No. But she’s different.”
Different. “How did the delivery go?”
She smiled, but it didn’t quite reach her eyes. “C-section, but it went textbook.”
“What about the baby?”