Last Thanksgiving I drank Jack Rose cocktails with the two men I love most in the world. When I looked this past Thursday, I was out of whiskey and apple brandy. Hugo is dead. Twice stolen from me. Jeremy and I … the thread between us has snapped.
I rented a car, a burly four-wheel-drive affair, and left with a hastily packed bag. Speed wasn’t the intent, so I took the back roads once I was in Vermont. The state roads drew me north, drew me out of my own head. The foothills of the Green Mountains were bare and gray, the spine of the state evergreen. There was a dusting of snow on the highest peaks.
I stopped at the small market in town for essentials. I’d met the market’s owner before, an older woman with hair like a mink, a single streak of snow-white running back from her widow’s peak.
“On your way to the Ballard place?” She knew the surface of the story. That I now held the keys to Hugo and Ilsa Ballard’s mountain retreat. I nodded, returning my credit card to my purse, trying to banish the thought of Hugo. And Ilsa.
A shadow crossed her face. I wondered just who they thought I was, the people who called this village home, who’d known Hugo and Jeremy — and Ilsa — as long as I had, who only knew I was neither sister nor widow.
I worried the thought like a sore all the way up the frozen track from the mountain road to the house. Twilight had fallen, the sky fading from gray to fuchsia to indigo over the Adirondacks — a ghost range on the western horizon in my rear view mirror as I made the climb up out of town in my rented car. The firs and birches flanked the driveway like sentinels. Here a fine film of powdery snow-covered the hard-packed dirt. The SUV’s tires made short work of the trip.
The last thing I expected when I made the last hairpin turn was to find the windows aglow and white smoke curling from the chimney at the center of the house. The plume drifted out over the glittering blackness I knew to be the lake.
I was out of the car and dialing my phone, praying for more than a spotty signal when the car stopped me dead in my tracks.
Hugo’s Aston Martin. The blue one he’d driven all those years ago, before Ilsa, before this life of mine. His car. My heart leaped at the thought even as rage battled fear for control of my head. Hugo!
Foolishly I stormed the porch, pounding on the door. The man who answered was not Hugo. The man who answered was slightly shorter, more wiry, with eyes like the sea. His broad smile was welcoming, as were the mingled scents of roasting nuts and wood smoke from inside.
“Encantada, Bianca.” He took my hands, holding them around my phone, and kissed me affectionately on each cheek. When he spoke, it was with the soft fullness of Andalusia in his stilted English. “Come inside. I peel you a chestnut.”
Wearing my confusion like perfume, I allowed myself to be ushered inside my own house.