Susanne Marie Knight
The old man had waited a long time. Longer than the number of years Methuselah was purported to have lived.
Much longer. Fifteen hundred and twenty revolutions around the sun, to be exact.
He’d nearly given up hope that he would once again be called upon to mediate matters in the world of men. But now, today, in this, the twenty-first century, he felt a tingling in the toes on his left foot. The sensation hopped over to the other foot, spread up his withered legs, into his desiccated loins, and then settled in his power center--the solar plexus.
He throbbed with energy. Shrugging off any residual lethargy, he hobbled over to the wooden table where a blue orb was stationed. It concerned him not to know who had summoned him. That he was needed was all that was important.
The orb grew to the size of a full moon, then transformed into a globe of the mother planet, complete with oceans and land and ice.
Laying his hands upon the orb, he concentrated. “Where is the trouble spot, eh? Where is it that I am to serve?
Heat seeped into his hand, again on the left side. A light indicating the location of the hornet’s nest of activity pulsed with crystal clarity.
Over his spectacles, he peered at the land mass depicted on the globe. The continent was unknown to him--that was no surprise. A great deal had changed in the millennium and a half since he’d visited Britain’s shores. However, sequestered as he was in a forgotten cave, the old man was not completely shut off from the world. He did have his magic.
“Ho, what strange place is this?” he inquired of the enchanted orb.
Whirling and clicking noises sounded. “The Americas,” droned the device. “North America, specifically.”
Specifically, North America didn’t mean a hill of beans to him. He scratched his chin through his matted, grubby beard. “What is America?”
“The Western Hemisphere of Earth,” was the prompt reply. “Consisting of North, South, and Central America.”
More meaningless words. What he was in need of was a good geography lesson.
The old man sat on a flimsy chair, pulled off his cap, and then slapped it against his arthritic knee. The volume of displaced dust caused him to cough. “So where am I to go in North America?”
The monotone voice echoed out into the dimly lit cave. “To the Pacific Northwest region of the sovereign country, the United States. To a monument honoring heroism and peace.”
The old man nodded approval. Heroism and peace were worthy causes.
“To the Stonehenge Memorial,” the blue device added.
Stonehenge. The mists of time clouded the old man’s watery eyes. He remembered when the king of the Britons, Uther Pendragon, had tasked him to construct a memorial. A memorial for his slain brother, Aurelius Ambrosius.
Using magic, the old man had transported a circle of ancient stones from Mount Killaraus in Ireland to the Salisbury Plain. He wept, thinking about the mass grave of valiant noblemen upon which Stonehenge had been erected. But now he was tasked to journey to North America. Had Stonehenge, then, been moved?
Merlin wiped his eyes on the sleeve of his robe. He had no time to ponder this mystery. Nor indulge in reminiscing. He had much to do in preparation for his reemergence into the world.
Heather Woods parked her trusty SUV alongside the front entrance of the charming Victorian style house that would be her temporary home--at least for a few days.
Shutting off the engine, she sighed. How quickly plans could change. Did change. Just this morning, she’d been on her way to Crescent City, California, to spend July and most of August at her boyfriend’s beach house. But about an hour out of Portland, she’d gotten Connor’s call.
“Don’t bother to come,” he’d said. “My pal Guitar George and the rest of his band are winging their way here. The guys need to decompress before heading over to their gig in Japan. They’re bringing their own girls, and well, you wouldn’t be comfortable, y’know? You understand, Heather.”
Click. That had been the end of that two year relationship, but Connor wasn’t aware of it... yet.
Heather stepped out of the car and gazed at the A-framed house. Cocoa colored with blue-grey trim, the house was set on an oversized lot surrounded by a beige picket fence. Tall, leafy oak savannah trees provided shade, which was a good thing. Already the temperature was pushing one hundred.
She hauled her bulky suitcase out of the SUV. Her family, bless them, had never been fond of Connor. Obviously, they’d had him pegged right. But she couldn’t return home the same day she’d left, and eat crow. No, not just yet, anyway.
Fortunately, she’d thought to call her mother’s best friend, Nerissa.
The front door, inset with a large oval glass, opened. Nerissa ran down the steps and out through the picket fence gate. “Sweet merciful heavens! My little godchild! I haven’t seen you in such an age, Heather. Gracious me, your hair’s still as blonde as mine is white.”
Heather found herself enveloped in a hug. An extremely emphatic hug that nearly knocked her off her feet. She was also, just as emphatically, enveloped in sweet perfume.
“Nerissa, hi.” Heather pulled away and regarded the older woman.
Nerissa Emery was beautiful. From the top of her wonderfully white-haired head to the tips of her coral polished toes, she exuded female vibrancy and sensuality. She had a timeless beauty.
Every time Heather saw her godmother, which wasn’t often, the woman grew lovelier. Thirty years separated them. It was Heather’s heartfelt hope that she looked as good at fifty-five.
“Now you must come inside and tell me all about that nasty Connor. Stupid boy.” Nerissa curved her arm about Heather’s shoulders, and then led her through the gate. “And I’ll not hear anything on your leaving in only a few days. You planned a vacation until mid-August, and that’s exactly when you’ll leave. I won’t take no for an answer, child.”
Heather allowed herself to be led, and let Nerissa chatter on. In truth, she was still in shock. Other than opting to visit Goldendale just over Oregon’s border in Washington, she hadn’t thought about what her next step would be.
How could she, with her dreams broken? With her heart so callously and thoughtlessly stomped on?
The entryway in the house welcomed them with a rush of cool air. No matter what the outside temperature was, it was always comfortable inside Nerissa’s place. Even without air conditioning.
A breeze of incense also greeted them. Nerissa was never without her incense. A rhododendron fragrance was her favorite. She insisted it was an essential component to her healing practice.
“You set your bag down here and we’ll take our lunch out on the veranda. We’ll watch the trees talk to each other.” Nerissa smiled. “I know there’s not much for you to do here, child, but I’m sure you’ll have fun. Meet a few people, go to some parties. Maybe you’ll sit in on my healing sessions.”
The kitchen, set in the back, was light and airy, just as Heather remembered.
“You also have the healing gift, you know. I told your mother, Gwynne, that a long time ago.” Nerissa took a plate filled with a hunk of beer bread, apple slices, and alfalfa sprouts from the refrigerator and handed it to her. “You’re very special. Extraordinary, even. How can you not be? You’re the seventh daughter of a seventh daughter.”
Nerissa winked as if to prove the point.
Heather walked out onto the back porch. How could she have forgotten Nerissa’s pet hobby horse? She always harped on the seventh daughter bit as if it were important. Honestly, who in their right mind paid attention to that kind of superstitious belief?
Not that Nerissa was crazy. Perhaps a better word was kooky. Sure, Heather was the last born in a family with only girls--seven of them. Helen, Harriet, Hope, Holly, Hannah, Heidi, and Heather. She’d never felt special, though. If any of the girls had, it was Holly--but in a bad way. Poor Holly had to go through childhood with the name, Holly Woods.
Sitting on a lounge chair, Heather allowed the steady breeze to finger its warm breath through her wavy, shoulder-length hair. She sighed. In a way, the backyard had a magical air. Lively yellow buttercups dotted the lawn. Distinctive tiger lilies in glorious shades of reddish orange swayed in unison around the backyard utility shed. The flowers moved together like a dancing chorus.
She relaxed against the seat cushions, and then exhaled deeply. This was a perfect place for her to lick her wounds. While she didn’t want to take advantage of Nerissa’s hospitality for six weeks, it would be good to dally here for at least one. She could plan what she would tell her family... and also Connor, when he finally returned to Portland.
* * * *
The Honorable Matthew A. Limner dropped the receiver of his office phone back onto its cradle. In truth, he would’ve rather thrown the phone, in its entirety, out the window. But, of course, a cooler head prevailed. As a judge, a cooler head was a job requirement.
Besides, everyone received bad news every now and then. Obviously today was his turn.
His judicial assistant, Trudy Folliett, dashed into his office, carrying several copies of the afternoon court docket on top of three volumes of the RCW, Revised Code of Washington. “Is anything the matter, sir? Can I... I mean to say, do you need my help?”
Trudy was a sweet child. Serious to the point of being morose. But right now he wasn’t in the mood for soulful brown eyes.
He had to give vent to his feelings however, and she was a convenient audience.
“No, thank you, Trudy. This has nothing to do with you. Or the court. Or any upcoming cases.” He sat in his plush leather chair, and then swiveled around to stare out the window at the pure blue skies the city of Seattle was now enjoying.
He chewed on his lower lip. Summer fever was hitting hard. “It has to do with my vacation.”
She set her burden down on the credenza, and uninvited, sat in one of the three chairs opposite his wide desk. “Is there something wrong with the accommodations I made you? Has the lodge lost the reservation? I can get a copy--
“No, no, that’s all in order.” He left the contemplation of the magnificent skies and the busy street below to swing back around. All year he had anticipated this vacation. Two quiet weeks idling the time away at his timeshare cabin on Lake Coeur d’Alene near the Idaho-Washington border. No phones, no television, no Internet--he’d planned to fish, lounge, and read, with no company to disturb his solitary state.
But all those plans had changed in an instant, by this unexpected... to put it mildly, telephone call.
“Sir?” Trudy raised her pencil thin eyebrows, recalling him back to the here and now.
Matthew brushed back his annoying overhang of hair off his forehead, and then stood. He paced the length of his office to release his frustrations. “My long lost uncle, on my father’s side, has suddenly decided to pay me a visit. As I’m the only family member in Washington, he’ll be visiting just me, nobody else. He’s booked a flight out of London and will be arriving on Friday.”
She sat perched at the edge of the chair as if uncertain whether to stay put or take flight. “Oh, I see. Will he be staying long?”
“Two weeks. My two weeks.” Matthew glanced at the trophy trout he had mounted on the wall behind his desk. The trout was the only item in his chambers that wasn’t law-related.
He sighed his regret. Too bad he wouldn’t have a chance to catch another fish to balance the display.
“The devil of it is, Trudy, I’ve never met the blighter. Never even heard of the fellow until my father mentioned the connection only a week ago.” He shrugged. “Mallory Limner is his name. Evidently he’s a black sheep, and that’s why he’s never been mentioned. He’s a good bit older than the rest of the family, too. About forty years older than me.”
Which meant Mallory was in his late seventies. Matthew shook his head. What the devil was he going to do with an old coot? Correction--old English coot.
“Wouldn’t your uncle enjoy Lake Coeur d’Alene? I hear it’s absolutely beautiful.” A wistful quality entered the nasal tone of Trudy’s voice.
Matthew glanced at the time. His next case would begin in ten minutes. He opened his closet door, slipped on his robes, and then checked his appearance in the door mirror. He frowned. His curly hair refused to stay in place, his brown eyes had lost their twinkle, and his five-o’clock shadow had popped up three hours earlier than it should have.
He dismissed his lackluster appearance, and closed the closet door. “The old man wants to do some sightseeing. Not in Seattle, not in Coeur d’Alene. Has someplace special in mind but won’t tell me yet. It’s a surprise.”
Matthew turned back around to face his assistant. “I pleaded my case--you know how persuasive I can be, but to no avail. Mallory is unmalleable. And what’s worse, the man doesn’t care to fish.”
She stood, and hurried to his side. “Oh dear. You’ve got some lint on your robes.
He waited while she brushed him off. Every day she said the same thing, then ran her hand over the tops of his shoulders. Truth be told, he never saw any lint that she supposedly needed to evict. Then again, he suspected her actions were just a ploy to touch him. Trudy Folliett couldn’t hide her infatuation.
Not that it mattered. He wasn’t interested in her in that way.
“There. Perfect,” she pronounced. “But, sir, about your uncle. I don’t understand. You have brothers and sisters, right? And two aunts, in addition to your father, if I’m not mistaken. Why does your Uncle Mallory want to spend the entire time with just you?”
“The hell if I know.” Matthew pressed his lips together to keep words even more inappropriate from escaping. After all, judges were supposed to maintain their calm in the midst of chaos.
At this moment however, he didn’t feel particularly calm. But he’d get over it.
“Thanks for listening, Trudy.” After checking the clock again, he headed for the door. “Looks like it’s showtime.”
He walked through his chambers, nodded greetings at the rest of his staff, and then strode down the private corridor headed for the courtroom. On the docket were three vehicle impound cases--standard, tedious civil matters that would, most likely, tranquilize his turbulent emotions.
* * * *
It didn’t take long for Heather to feel at home, or at least, relaxed here. Her godmother had a knack for making her guests comfortable. On this, day two of her cruel detour from California, she sat on a lounge chair, kicked off her Tiva sandals, and propped her bare feet up on the porch railing.
The air smelled fresh, like newly cut grass, and the day had now descended into twilight. It had been a good Thursday. Fun, restful. Earlier, Nerissa had insisted on going for pedicures. When your hostess insisted, what was a guest to do but comply?
Heather grinned at her newly manicured toes. Who could refuse an hour of foot pampering? She almost could forget about how her vacation plans had been unceremoniously canceled by Connor to please his musician buddies.
Almost, but not quite.
She flared her nostrils. Of course she still seethed beneath the surface.
But Connor Collaten was old news. Why should she allow him to ruin her remaining vacation? The hot night was crystal clear, the moon full, and the air buzzed with sounds of tiny hummingbirds hovering as they took advantage of Nerissa’s colorful fuchsia basket hanging nearby.
It was simply beautiful here, and yet Heather could admit to an empty feeling settling heavily on her shoulders. To sorrow that invaded her heart.
She had loved Connor, had wanted to build a future with him, but clearly, the feeling hadn’t been mutual.
Using her hip, Nerissa pushed open the screen door, and then stepped out onto the porch. Wearing a vividly pink muumuu, she held a bamboo platter containing a large glass pitcher and several ice-filled glasses.
“Lovely night, isn’t it? You’ve got to try this iced tea, child. It’s my own special recipe. Minty tea. Guaranteed to quench your thirst. I grow the mint in my garden over by the shed.” She set the tray down on a small patio table.
Heather poured tea into two glasses, and then handed one to Nerissa. “Smells wonderful. Thanks.”
Her hostess dropped fresh mint leaves on top for decoration. “It’s my pleasure. Truly. Believe me, I’m very glad you decided to come here, Heather.”
Nerissa was so sweet. A person could always depend upon her to wipe away real or imagined troubles.
Heather took a sip of the tea. Refreshing!
Nerissa sat in the next chair. She languidly fanned her face with her hand, while huffing a breath to blow strands of white hair off her smooth forehead. “I hope you don’t mind that I invited some friends over this evening. Arlene, Brenna, and Cara. They’re such a hoot. The girls and I always get together on Thursday to catch up on the latest.”
“No problem, Nerissa.” Heather scooted forward in the chair, getting ready to stand. “I’ll go to my room--”
“We’d love it if you join our group.” Nerissa cast a sideways glance Heather’s way. “You understand, new blood, and all.”
“Sure. Why not?” She didn’t usually enjoy hen parties--her mother’s hen parties, anyway. But honestly, she just didn’t feel like moving a muscle.
Heather finished her tea, and then Nerissa graciously refilled the glass. Heather’s head buzzed along with the shimmering hummingbirds. The slightly bitter beverage seemed to have an intoxicating effect.
She closed her eyes, enjoying the sensation. Perhaps she even fell asleep, for the next thing she knew, the sound of car doors slamming reverberated in the hot, sultry air.
“We’re finally here.” A high voice sliced into the burgeoning night.
Heather straightened in her chair and watched as three women walked through the gate into the backyard. Tall, medium, and short. Brunette, blonde, and redhead. Plump, skinny, and perfectly proportioned. Young, middle-aged, and old.
The women could not have been more different, and yet there was something about them that made them look as if they belonged together. Something Heather couldn’t put her finger on.
“Yoo-hoo!” The tall, plump, young brunette called out as she madly waved her hand in Heather’s direction. “You must be Nerissa’s friend. Heather Woods, am I right?” The woman, maybe the same age as Heather, giggled. “Oh, you’ve got to tell us everything. Every little tidbit about that blackguard you were dating.”
Heather lifted an eyebrow. Blackguard? That was a rather archaic word.
The brunette hurried up the porch steps, panting as she went. “Men. Who needs them?” She winked, and then pumped Heather’s hand in a shake. “I’m Arlene, by the way. So good to meet you.”
After a moment, Heather removed her hand from Arlene’s enthusiastic grip. “Nice to meet you, too,” she murmured. Then she shot a look full of reproach at her godmother. Who wanted total strangers to know about her hard luck story?
Nerissa wagged her finger as if it were much ado about nothing, then helped the oldest friend up the steps and into a chair.
“This is Cara,” she explained as she poured the short, well-proportioned redhead a glass of cool tea. “Cara doesn’t say much. She likes to take everything in.”
Cara nodded with the wisdom of someone in her seventies. Her hair, a defiant shade of cherry remained stiffly in place.
“So that leaves me.” The third woman bounced up the steps and stood before Heather. “I’m Brenna--blonde, skinny, medium height, and pushing forty.”
“Pushing fifty,” Arlene corrected.
“Whatever. Anyway, absolutely thrilled to meet you, dear. Thrilled. I’ve been waiting so long--”
“Brenna, why don’t you have a glass of my special minty tea, okay?” Nerissa shoved a cold beverage into her friend’s hands. “Now sit and let’s catch up on the news.”
Heather smiled at her godmother’s attempt to cut off Brenna, the middle one. Perhaps Brenna was as talkative as Cara was silent.
As the evening wore on, the women talked around her, sometimes stopping to ask her questions--questions mostly pertaining to her love life--or lack thereof.
For some reason, Heather couldn’t actively participate in the conversation. It was almost as if she was a child in a room full of adults. Which was funny, really, for she was a kindergarten teacher--her job, of course, to be the only adult in a room full of kids.
The women’s voices droned on, weaving around her like a sorceress’ chant. She yawned. She couldn’t help it. After she yawned a second time, she closed her eyes.
The heavy scent of rhododendron incense displaced the fresh nighttime air. Blinking, she opened her eyes. A cloudy mist hid the backdrop of the yard, the oak trees, and the utility shed.
She wasn’t alone. The women were still there, sitting in a circle around her. They’d changed clothes, though. All four women wore white robes.
What? Heather shook her head. The vision cleared. Nerissa was back in her pink muumuu, Arlene had on her jean short shorts, Brenna wore capris, and Cara sported her polyester pants and button-down blouse. Everything was back to normal. Even the fragrance of rhododendrons was gone.
“So, Heather, it’s a date, then,” Arlene said brightly, and slapped her on the back. “I’m looking forward to showing you the Stonehenge Memorial on Saturday.”
Stonehenge? What in the world was Arlene talking about?
Cara broke her silence by saying she was ready to go. Evidently, when Cara was ready, she was ready in capital letters. Her two companions quickly helped her to her feet, then guided her down the stairs onto the grass.
It was pitch dark out on the lawn, even with the porch lights on. They took their time walking over the uneven ground. Nerissa, more surefooted, led the way.
With waves goodbye and plans to meet again on Saturday morning, the three left through the back gate and walked toward a parked dark car.
Heather waited on the porch for Nerissa to return. Why couldn’t she recall the conversation? And Stonehenge--she’d always wanted to view the replica of the ancient Neolithic landmark, but had never had the chance to visit. Saturday would work out perfectly.
But still, she should’ve remembered talking about it with the group.
And what about the mist and the white robes?
Heather twirled a limp lock of hair around her finger. What was going on at Nerissa Emery’s house?
* * * *
Mallory Limner wasn’t anything like Matthew had expected. British accent, sure, but other than that, the man defied logical description.
From behind his Maserati’s steering wheel, Matthew glanced over at his uncle. Tall and lanky, Mallory gave the impression of being even taller. When standing side by side, Matthew had to quell his impulse to look up at the man. Which was an unusual circumstance since Matthew measured six foot five.
But now, settled in the passenger seat, Mallory seemed to shrink into the cushions. Peculiar, to say the least.
He had a commanding head of silver and grey hair, a matching short beard and upturned mustache. Dressed in a suit and tie, he looked ready for a court appearance, instead of heading out for a day... or more of sightseeing. And yet, somehow, he seemed unkempt.
As for sightseeing, Mallory hadn’t wasted any time. After just arriving in Seattle yesterday evening, he insisted on viewing Sam Hill’s Stonehenge Memorial today, Saturday. Stonehenge--not the usual first attraction a British tourist had on his to-see list.
Matthew shrugged. He’d never seen it either, so now was as good a time as any.
His uncle tore his gaze away from the window to look over at him. “I must say this is awfully good of you, my dear boy, to change your holiday plans and cater to an old man’s whims.”
Whether he was good or not was beside the point. In truth, Matthew hadn’t had a choice. But he’d gotten over his fit of pique. Instead, curiosity overwhelmed him.
With regard to Mallory being an old man, here again was another discrepancy. According to Matthew’s father, Mallory was close to eighty. He had the grey hair, the weathered lines, and the sunken cheeks to prove it. But there was something youthful about him, too. Spry. Mischievous. The man had an agenda only he was privy to.
“Not a problem, sir. Happy to finally meet you. I wonder why no one in the family has ever talked about you. By an odd coincidence, my father mentioned your existence just this past week.”
Mallory’s smile did not include his teeth. “Ah, the Limner family. Bit ashamed of me, I will wager. Brother Mick, that is your dad, eh? He had a soft spot in his heart for me when he was growing up.”
Matthew had never heard his father, Michael, referred to as Mick.
“If you don’t mind me asking, sir, what had you done to cause the family to turn away? How did you come to be in England? And why have you decided to visit?”
Visit me, he wanted to add. But that question could wait for a while.
“I do not mind you asking.” Mallory slapped his bony hand on Matthew’s knee.
He flinched. A judge had a type of privileged status in society. He didn’t expect to be touched without permission.
“And drop the sir, eh? Call me Mal.” Mallory stroked his well-trimmed beard. “Although ‘mal’ has a negative connotation, does it not? Maladroit, malady, malaise, malcontent, malefactor, malice, maleficence, malfunction, malignant, and two from your legal system--malfeasance and malpractice.”
“A Middle English root, from Old French, and of course, Latin.” Matthew took a quick look at his road map. Next up was Highway 97. He spotted the sign, then veered to the right. With any luck, they’d reach their destination in an hour. “If you have no objection, I’ll use Mallory.”
Mallory chuckled. “Who am I to argue with a judge?”
He still hadn’t answered any of Matthew’s questions. Obviously a master at avoidance.
“At the risk of repeating myself, why did the family turn away, how did you come to be in England, and why did you decide to visit?”
“You have got stick-to-it-ness. I like that.” Mallory loosened the knot in his tie. “In a small way, you take after me.”
Matthew raised his eyebrow. Would he have to repeat himself... again?
“Fine. You should not take on so, my dear Matthew. Here are your bloody answers, eh? The family had doubts about my parentage. Whether it was an indiscretion on your grandfather or grandmother’s part, who knows? Does not truly matter, does it? Therefore, I was given the cut direct from the family’s bosom. Young lad that I was, I preferred to live in the ancestral home on the bonny shores of England.”
Keeping his focus on the highway, Matthew mulled over his uncle’s words. Difficult to imagine either of his grandparents straying from the straight and narrow.
“So why did you visit now?” he prompted again.
“Why now and why you, that is what you wish to ask, is it not?” Mallory locked his violet-eyed gaze on Matthew. “These old bones just had a yearning to travel, I suppose.”
“Besides,” Mallory added. “I have never flown before.”
“Not by plane.”
What the devil did that mean?
“And as for you, my dear boy, if I may be so bold as to address you thusly. I have heard great things about your noble career. I wanted to meet the chip off the old block.”
Matthew increased the flow of the air conditioning. The weather in this part of the state was at least ten degrees warmer than what he was used to. “Old block? You’re referring to my father?”
“Of course, my boy. Who else would I mean?” The man’s small smile lifted the edges of his mustache into a devilish grin.
Indeed. Who else? But there was something else, only Matthew would have to observe his uncle further, and gain more information about him, before he could hazard an informed guess.
The highway driving droned on. Soon a spectacular sight captured both of their attentions. The circular structure of Maryhill’s Stonehenge proudly sat on a cliff overlooking the Columbia River Gorge.
While this particular monument didn’t have any secrets attached to it, Great Britain’s Stonehenge did. As did the British passenger, Mallory Limner.
Matthew exhaled deeply. As strange... or as fanciful, as it sounded, he believed there was some sort of mysterious connection between the two.
© 2011 by Susanne Marie Knight
Author: Susanne Marie Knight
Genre: Fantasy Romance
Available electronically at Amazon.com.
Buy link: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B005GKYCIU
Book Video Trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HTGkLGFbC5c