Heroes Are My Weakness(7)

By: Susan Elizabeth Phillips



Harp House rose before her, silhouetted against the pewter sky. Rooted in granite, exposed to summer squalls and winter gales, it dared the elements to take it down. The island’s other summer homes had been built on the more protected eastern side of the island, but Harp House scorned the easy way. Instead it grew from the rocky western headlands far above the sea, a shingle-sided, forbidding, brown wooden fortress with an unwelcoming turret at one end.

Everything was sharp angles: the peaked roofs, shadowed eaves, and foreboding gables. How she’d loved this Gothic gloom when she’d come to live here the summer her mother had married Elliott Harp. She’d imagined herself clad in a mousy gray dress and clutching a portmanteau—gently born, but penniless and desperate, forced to take the humble position of governess. Chin up and shoulders back, she’d confront the brutish (but exceptionally handsome) master of the house with so much courage that he would eventually fall hopelessly in love with her. They’d marry, and then she’d redecorate.

It hadn’t taken long before the romantic dreams of a homely fifteen-year-old who read too much and experienced too little had met a harsher reality.

Now the swimming pool was an eerie, empty maw, and the simple sets of wooden stairs that led to the back and side entrances had been replaced with stone steps guarded by gargoyles.

She passed the stable and followed a roughly shoveled path to the back door. Shaw had better be here instead of galloping off on one of Elliott Harp’s horses. She pressed the bell but couldn’t hear it ring inside. The house was too big. She waited, then rang again, but no one answered. The doormat looked as though it had been recently used to stamp off snow. She rapped hard.

The door creaked open.

She was so cold that she stepped into the mudroom without hesitating. Miscellaneous pieces of outerwear, along with assorted mops and brooms, hung from a set of hooks. She rounded the corner that opened into the main kitchen and stopped.

Everything was different. The kitchen no longer held the walnut cabinets and stainless steel appliances she remembered from eighteen years ago. Instead the place looked as though it had been squeezed through a time warp back to the nineteenth century.

The wall between the kitchen and what had once been a breakfast room was gone, leaving the space twice as large as it had once been. High, horizontal windows let in light, but since the windows were now set at least six feet from the floor, only the tallest person could see through them. Rough plaster covered the top half of the walls, while the bottom was faced with four-inch-square once-white tiles, some chipped at the corners, others cracked with age. The floor was old stone, the fireplace a sooty cavern large enough to roast a wild boar . . . or a man unwise enough to have been caught poaching on his master’s land.

Instead of kitchen cabinets, rough shelves held stoneware bowls and crocks. Tall, freestanding dark wood cupboards rose on each side of a dull black industrial-size AGA stove. A stone farmhouse sink held a messy stack of dirty dishes. Copper stockpots and saucepans—not shiny and polished, but dented and worn—hung above a long, scarred wooden prep table designed to chop off chicken heads, butcher mutton chops, or whip up a syllabub for his lordship’s dinner.

The kitchen had to be a renovation, but what kind of renovation regressed two centuries. And why?

Run! Crumpet shrieked. Something’s very wrong here!

Whenever Crumpet got hysterical, Annie counted on Dilly’s no-nonsense manner to provide perspective, but Dilly remained silent, and not even Scamp could come up with a wisecrack.

“Mr. Shaw?” Annie’s voice lacked its normal powers of projection.

When there was no reply, she moved deeper into the kitchen, leaving wet tracks on the stone floor. But no way was she taking off her boots. If she had to run, she wasn’t doing it in socks. “Will?”

Not a sound.

She passed the pantry, crossed a narrow back hallway, detoured around the dining room, and stepped through the arched entry into the foyer. Only the dimmest gray light penetrated the six square panes above the front door. The heavy mahogany staircase still led to a landing with a murky stained-glass window, but the staircase carpet was now a depressing maroon instead of the multicolored floral from the past. The furniture bore a dusty film, and a cobweb hung in the corner. The walls had been paneled over in heavy, dark wood, and the seascape paintings had been replaced with gloomy oil portraits of prosperous men and women in nineteenth-century dress, none of whom could possibly have been Elliott Harp’s Irish peasant ancestors. All that was missing to make the entryway even more depressing was a suit of armor and a stuffed raven.

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