Read The Winter Spirit ARE Online
Authors: Indra Vaughn
He wore a different suit, but had that same rakish smile going on, the twinkle in his eye noticeable even in the sepia photograph. I wondered what he’d done to deserve being kept in the archives, and noticed there was an article attached to the photograph with a drop-down link. I clicked on it.
Naval officer dies on horseback following deviant scandal.
I gasped and blinked at the screen. Part of me thought this was private and I should really close this window, but I was too curious not to read it.
Detroit, Mi, Dec. 26. — Following the suicide of Sheriff Heathcliff F. Heartland, Naval Officer H. Gabriel Wickfield took a fatal fall yesterday afternoon at his family’s estate in Jackson, Michigan. Facing charges of imprisonment for degenerate behavior, Heartland took his own life two weeks ago. Prior to his death, the fellow-accused Wickfield remained elusive after Heartland’s suicide, but sources confirmed his state of mind had been such suicide can’t be ruled—
I closed the article with a snap of the mouse.
. I wanted to know more, but I wouldn’t get the information like this, behind Gabriel’s back.
I didn’t leave the desk for several long minutes, because my knees felt weak. He’d had an affair, and it had obviously gone so very wrong. For both parties. I couldn’t even imagine.
Is that why he got stuck? Was it some unrequited love thing? Was it because he killed himself? But why the B&B of all places?
I opened Google again and wasted forty-five minutes of my life researching exorcisms.
By the time I remembered I had to pick up the dynamic duo I was already ten minutes late, so I shut down my search and left the library in a cloud of sadness. My heart ached for Gabriel and I regretted every single time I’d called him Gabe just to goad him.
I found Mrs. Anderson and Mr, Houzer holding hands in the crowded and steamed-up coffee shop where I told them we’d meet. I tried not to look too sour when I interrupted their sweet mumblings.
“Ready to go?”
“Oh.” Mrs. Anderson startled and blushed. Was that a hickey on her neck?
. “Yes, of course. Thank you for taking us, Mr. O’Donnelly. And for picking us up. That was very kind of you.”
I almost told her Mr. O’Donnelly was my long deceased and slap-happy grandpa but that would mean we’d be on first name basis, and just, no.
“Let’s get going,” I said. “It looks like more snow.”
They hurried to their feet and followed me to the parking lot. No one said anything when we were faced with the bluest sky we’d seen in days.
The drive home was even more awkward because despite the empty seat beside me, they decided to sit in the back. I kept my eyes resolutely on the road and thanked my lucky stars for the short drive.
As always Lake House seemed to welcome me with open arms. From the wrought-iron gate to the white smoke coming from the chimney, I could breathe easier as soon as I saw it. The Christmas lights twinkled sweetly in the gentle breeze and I knew I was home.
I remembered my resolve to be nicer to my guests. “Need help with anything?” I asked Mrs. Anderson. She shook her head quickly, flashed me a fake smile, and scurried inside.
Maybe I really had been too rude. I’d make it up to them somehow. First, I needed to find Gabriel. I didn’t spare much thought to the brand new Toyota sitting in my driveway.
“Is he around?” I asked Elisa as I carried in the groceries and disappeared into the pantry.
“Who? Owen? He’s in the lounge, I think.”
“No. Gabriel.” I peered into the mirror, but there was no one there.
“Why?” Elisa asked, following me and closing the door behind her. “Did you find out something interesting?”
I shook my head, not wanting to talk behind his back. Especially since he could be listening and I wouldn’t have a clue. “Do any of the guest rooms still need cleaning?”
“I did them all, but the lounge needs a vacuum.”
“I’ll do that as soon as Owen’s out of there.” She stared at me for a long moment and I stared back, waiting. “What?”
“You’re not going to sit with Owen?”
I thought about that for a second. I could imagine him by the hearth, long legs stretched out in front of him. Maybe he’d lost the sweater in the heat of the fire…
Gabriel’s story tugged at me.
“Maybe later,” I told her and left her gaping after me as I hurried toward my room.
I had a feeling he’d be waiting to talk to me in one of my mirrors but I wasn’t prepared to find him sitting by the French doors, staring out over the lake. He gently rocked back and forth, but his posture wasn’t relaxed. His elbows rested on his thighs, his fingertips pressed into his lips and his forehead creased into deep lines.
“Hey,” I said when I’d recovered from the mini heart attack.
“Nathaniel,” Gabriel said, cutting me a quick glance before going back to staring out of the window. He did his best to relax a little, sitting back, but I wasn’t fooled.
I eased closer, wary of the strange tension in the room. The sunlight made his hair gleam, and I realized—”You’re more solid!”
Gabriel slowly turned to look at me with those bright blue eyes and I felt my face go red. Was that a terrible ghostly faux pas? Did one not comment on one’s spectral form’s state of solidity? Was that like pointing out someone had gained a few pounds? “Um.”
“It happens around this time of year.” He barely raised his voice above a whisper but it felt like his voice filled the room. “If I let it.”
I didn’t know what to say now that he was here with me.
So you died after your illicit lover killed himself, want to talk about it?
“Tell me about your grandparents, Nathaniel.” Gabriel straightened a little and indicated the other rocking chair.
“I…what do you want to know?” I hedged, walking slowly closer so I could perch on the edge of the seat. It nearly tipped forward and I flailed a little to keep my balance. Smooth. I glanced at Gabriel from underneath my bangs. He watched me, face unreadable.
“Your uncle used to tell me things. He never went into an awful lot of detail, but sometimes, he’d talk. So I know a little of what you went through growing up, and I’ve always wanted to know more.” He frowned a little, rubbed his fingertips across his forehead, looking strangely hesitant. “I know you found out,” he went on when I said nothing. “You want me to share something I feel extremely uncomfortable sharing, so I’d like to understand a little more about you first.”
I leaned forward and reached out to touch his knee, but he flinched and my hand froze in midair. “Sorry,” I mumbled, snatching my hand away. I realized it’d probably pass through him. “You don’t have to tell me anything. It’s your business.”
He nodded slowly and to my surprise, his mouth lifted in a slow smile. “I don’t mind telling you,” he said. “But quid pro quo, my friend. I’ve been observing you for a long time and you…intrigue me. Tell me about the people who raised you.”
I blinked, shivering a little. “Okay. Uh, well, I’m sure there’s a lot you know already, just from, um, hanging around.” I took a deep breath. “My dad was never in the picture. My mom died of breast cancer when I was two, so I never knew her either, really.” I glanced at him, expecting pity or sympathy or something. There was nothing but the ice in his eyes and a flexing muscle in his jaw. I pushed on. “My grandparents took me in, although they were already very old. My grandpa died when I was thirteen and then it was just grandma and me.”
Gabriel’s eyes zoned in on mine and he pinned me with his stare. “This explains a lot,” he murmured. I opened my mouth to protest when he asked, “What was your grandfather like?”
I shrugged. “Old. I mean, to a kid my age he seemed—”
. I didn’t say it. It still felt disrespectful, even now. Years after I realized he’d nearly broken me as a child. That part of the reason why I was alone was because I found it so hard to trust anyone with my heart, my body. My soul.
“What else? Was he kind? Did he love you? Did you like living with them?”
I remembered the amount of times I’d escaped to the library after school, at first to avoid grandpa and his ruler, and then to get away from the black sinkhole that was grandma’s depression after he died. “I didn’t like it, no.” Something I hadn’t realized until I was older and understood not everyone had grown up like that. I tried to shrug it off like I’d done for years. “It was what it was.”
Maybe he sensed I didn’t want to talk about it anymore, because he settled deeper into his chair and I dared to look at him full on for the first time. His gaze was far away and hazy, as if his irises absorbed the sharp winter sunlight bouncing off the snow.
“My affair with Heath was very brief,” he said. “I was on leave from the Navy. I planned on spending a few weeks in Detroit with some old friends, and met him on my first night there. We just collided.” Gabriel closed his eyes. It was so brief it was there and gone in a second but the look on his face…it left my heart racing. “He didn’t want to feel attracted. He tried to fight it every time we met, but it was inevitable.” The small smile deepened and his cheeks dimpled as he opened his eyes. He was so far away it made my stomach ache. “For the first few days it was…bliss.” He cut me a quick glance as if to gauge my reaction, but I kept my face blank. “After a few weeks, I realized... Times were different back then, we didn’t have much choice. We couldn’t have everything we wanted. I was—I was falling in love and I had to protect myself, you see, as well as him. Or so I thought. I went there to tell him we had to end it.” Gabriel’s face shuttered closed. “I’m not proud of it. I’d pursued him like he was prey. Then like a coward, I told him we couldn’t do this anymore.” I couldn’t tell if he was going pale, or more see-through again, but he looked untouchable in his grief. As approachable as a caged panther. “His sister and mother walked in on us when we exchanged a last, passionate kiss. I think if it had only been the sister…but the mother went into hysterics.”
Gabriel’s palms were clasped together in his lap, and I could see the sharp indents his fingertips made between the bones of his hand. Shallow half-moon shapes of pain that ran as deep as his soul. I wanted to reach out to him again, to ease him somehow, but I couldn’t touch him. God. How long had it been since someone had touched him? Well, I knew exactly how long, didn’t I?
“What happened?” I asked when he didn’t go on.
“Accusations were made. It turned ugly. Everything changed, obviously. I wanted to run away together since everyone knew anyway. Our lives were ruined. We planned to meet at my family’s estate and go from there, but he never came.”
“Oh Gabriel,” I whispered. I wanted to reach for him so badly I had to ball my hands into fists. “I’m so sorry.”
“So that’s the story.”
“What about you?” I asked.
“I waited for him.”
“Did you—” I faltered. “The fall, was that an accident?”
His head snapped up and I startled at the raw emotion his face betrayed. The air in the room popped, and he was gone. I sprang to my feet.
“I’m sorry,” I said desperately. “I didn’t mean to offend you.” He didn’t come back. I stood there for a long time, watching his chair rock back and forth. When it came to a halt I frowned at it. So how did that work? How could he sit on something while I couldn’t touch him? Or maybe I could and it was unwelcome. Well. I wouldn’t try again, no matter how much I found myself wanting to.
I made myself scarce until dinner time, tidying, cleaning, and eventually shutting myself up in the office on the opposite side of the lounge to deal with bills and other paperwork. I partly wanted to avoid Elisa’s questions but I also hoped Gabriel would come to me again. I suspected he wouldn’t.
I wondered what Owen was doing. Then what he was doing
, specifically. I contemplated finding out but my mood was a solitary one.
I was interrupted by my cell phone ringing. I frowned at it for a second when I recognized the number as coming from one of the rooms.
“The Lake House,” I said, confused.