The Victorian Mansion, as its previous owners often referred to it, sat a half-mile from the quiet road. Rows of massive oaks lead along the dusty driveway, all the way to the front door, and dense woods framed the home like a knotted head of hair. The house itself was kept meticulously well, overflowing with period details that almost anyone would fall in love with. High ceilings and crown moldings framed overly large rooms filled with stately walnut furniture, kept gleaming by a weekly team of cleaning staff. Knickknacks and photos crammed on every standing surface and in every free corner, along with many ivy plants that grew haphazardly in colorful pots in a kind of beautiful chaos. Behind every set of partially open pocket doors lay a lifetime of objects, which made sense since the current matriarchal occupant had been there for what seemed like always to anyone who lived in town.
But the man now standing at the end of the lane loved the windows best. He had passed by the estate often, especially lately, and he always admired the windows. The beveled, stained, and tempered glass from the home's dozens and dozens of windows winked in the moonlight. And tonight, when the lightning flashed, it lit the place like mirrors.
He scurried up into a tree when the storm took hold, but even from his perch up in the furthest oak, he was up far enough that he would never be noticed. Members of the elderly Katherine's family passed below in their aging cars, with their aging clothes and grown children and grandchildren. But even then, the man with the gloves was never seen, despite his lengthy cloak hanging from the branch like a shroud.
Inside, young Kate sat in a darkening room, low fire in the parlor fireplace and candles on every still surface. This was her Friday night ritual. Her namesake, her great grandmother Katherine, along with the older woman's guardian, traveled most weekends to visit friends or go on one of her art-buying trips. Once Kate turned 16, she started flat out refusing to go. And now, at 18, well, she was an adult, and she demanded her quiet time. Social circles practically gave her hives, and putting on airs suited her even less than it suited those she put them on with. She accepted the weekly visits from extended family for what they were, check-ins her great grandmother insisted upon, short visits to exchange pleasantries and drink tea or coffee. Cook always put out baked goods or crudites before leaving, and Kate plastered a fake expression of caring on her face for the hour or so the visits lasted. The whole thing was completely exhausting but a very small price to pay for her almost total freedom the rest of the time.
Kate was tall and unconventionally beautiful, with an elongated, angular face and body. Though she had long, wavy chestnut tresses, she almost always had her hair piled in some intricate form on her head. Braids, twists, buns, or some combination of them all. Only at night, with her nightgown on and her bedroom door firmly closed, did she let her hair all the way down. Now, with everyone finally gone from the evening's visit, she twirled an errant curl at her neck as she read poetry and sipped a cup of tea, with a shot or two of brandy swirled in.
She looked up at the ceiling, cocking her head to listen. She almost swore she heard … No. All was silent.
It wasn't until the doorbell rang a second time. That's when she placed the chipped tea mug – her favorite with its yellow flowers and purple vines – on the mosaic table, next to her book of poems. She was reading Dickinson. Well, she had been until the ringing bell.
She slipped her feet into her slippers and padded her way across the creaky wooden floorboards. In the foyer, she checked her face quickly in the mirror. She'd managed a complex, looping ponytail and only lip balm today. She was not what she considered beautiful, but her face was hers, and she'd never quite minded it. She had years anyway for beauty to find her. Or not. It didn't matter much to her.
Her breath caught in her throat when she opened the door.
She was certain. She ran a shaky hand along her head, then smoothed her shirt down.
But no, the gentleman on her step had graying hair peeking out from under his hat, not brown, and he had a clipboard, and when he grinned, his bucktooth smile wasn't as friendly as Martin's had ever been. Or was it? Memory clouds things, she thought. It kaleidoscopes everything into something it never was.
"No money for anything new," she said, voice cutting like glass. Even at eighteen, she had perfected her great grandmother's aloof way of turning off solicitors.
"If you please," he answered, bowing his head slightly. He brought a gloved hand to the top of his hat. "Just a moment of your time?"
Not Martin, certainly, but there was something in his face that was familiar …
"What's your business, exactly?" Her words were sharp, but she let the screen open a bit more. She moved to the side. Not inviting him in – no. But opening enough space for him to see into her living room.
He nodded toward the low burning fire. "May I?"
She shook her head abruptly and pulled the screen toward her. "What did you say your business was, sir?"
He tapped his fingers against his clipboard. "I am looking for the lady of the house," he said dully, momentary confusion dissipating as his eyes flickered across Kate's face.
Annoyance stirred, deep in her belly. Her tea was getting cold, and this man who wasn't Martin was staring at her strangely. His fingertips, encased in the wool gloves, reached toward her. She looked down at her arm, almost as if she was frozen in place. Why was the stranger reaching to touch her arm? But he pulled back at the last minute, fixing a smile on his lips. They were chapped, she noticed, cracked and scabbed in the corners. They had barely a hint of color either and were almost gray. Not as silver as his hair, but sallow, like his skin. He shivered, and she watched the movement travel from his head to his feet as if a snake had slithered down his spine. His forced, rigid stance told her he tried to hide it.
She tilted her head, gripping the screen more firmly. It was time to close it, she decided. But as his leg shot out, the last shimmy of whatever it was moving through him, and her own leg shook, the tremor moving up her body. Like him, she braced against it. But it was useless.
His eyes hardened as he watched her react. He hadn't been exactly kind before, but now he looked . . .
She stumbled back, shaking her head until the tremor left her completely, her ponytail falling out, hair loose around her shoulders. A heavy pit descended in her stomach. She looked to the mirror on her right. A bright light lit the room behind her. She seemed to glow. Blue, red, yellow? No. That wasn't right. The room was lit only by the fire and candles. If anything, the light was beginning to wane. Was it even dimmer now?
It was as if someone had slipped a sheet of tulle in front of her face.
Blinking rapidly, she shook her head again. What was happening?
When she saw him in the mirror behind her, she remembered. The man who wasn't Martin, the man with the silver hair. He pulled off his gloves and reached for her as the screen banged shut behind him.
His heart sped, pumping blood at double the speed it normally did. He took controlled breaths, reminding himself to go slow. He had waited, after all, for years.
Her eyes darted from his hand to the mirror, to the fire. She looked at the door, wishing once more for that cool breeze from outside that she could run onto the porch or even down the lane. Wishing she hadn't left her tea and poetry. She could have let the bell ring without answer.
But it was too late. Even as she ducked out of his grasp and tried to thwart him, even as he grabbed a fistful of her hair, and she felt her frail and worried heart cry out in electric pulses, even then, hope drained from her, not in a trickle, but a burst.
This is not Martin, she thought, definitely not Martin. It was her last thought for the rest of...