Chapters 15 – 16  Wherein Robin justifies her progress, and Carmen is invited to Ravensglen

Previously in Hold Gently the Shadows: Preface, Chapters 1 – 3, Chapters 4 – 6,

Chapters 7 – 9, Chapters 10 – 12, Chapters 13 – 14

 

Chapter Fifteen

When the phone rang, Robin braced herself for the inevitable questioning. Instead, the conversation began with an implied accusation. “The theaghlach is becoming most impatient,” said Raven, sighing dramatically.

“I’m expecting positive news,” said Robin.

“Only expecting?”

“Let me rephrase,” said Robin with exaggerated patience. “I’m awaiting inevitably positive information.”

“From whom?”

“From local sources I’m befriending.”

“For godsakes, you don’t have time to develop a friend circle. We want that woman and her baby back here ASAP!”

“First I need proof of a baby,” said Robin.

“Why do you think we sent you there!?”

“You needn’t scream at me,” said Robin in an offended voice.

“Sorry,” said Raven, lowering her voice. “At least reassure me you haven’t got yourself involved in the murder you witnessed.”

Robin couldn’t resist goading Raven by relating information she’d heard from townsfolk and gleaned from the papers. So she purposely related that the coroner had released Janine’s body for funeral arrangements after concluding the homicide was caused by blunt force trauma. The same weapon, most likely a hammer, had been used on the second victim who was now recovering at his father’s home.

Raven clenched her jaw in irritation. “For someone not involved, you seem to know more about the murder victim than you do about your mission. Tell me something positive.”

Robin searched her mind for information she was ready to share with the demanding Raven. Time away from the theaghlach had given her the freedom to think about her own life and everything she’d lost because of her loyalty to them. She had time to reflect on how Raven had selfishly turned her back on her the one time she needed her. More infuriating was the realization that she, Robin, had allowed it to happen. She could not undo the past, but hopefully, she could repair some of it. At the very least, she had to know what happened, and that meant pinning down the crafty Maggie.

Until then, she had to remain in Creekside while appeasing Raven with positive leads on the missing heir. Her second quest must  remain a secret until both missions were accomplished.

“The pieces of the puzzle are coming together nicely,” she told Raven. “During my surveillance of Briarfeldy Manor, I’ve observed a little boy living there. He would know if there were a baby in the building.”

“Have you talked to him yet?” asked Raven.

“Not yet, because someone always meets his school bus and takes him directly into the back garden.”

“And you plan to talk to him how?”

“First chance I find him playing alone, I’ll have a little chat with him through the garden gate,” said Robin.

“It seems to me you’re suffering from hotel fatigue,” said Raven. “If that’s your best lead, it might be time to relieve you of this task.”

“I’m in the final stages of solving a complex situation,” said Robin.

“Solve it fast,” said Raven.

Robin abruptly ended the call, angrily resolving to wrap up her own mission before leaving Creekside. Until then, although she would continue to seek his whereabouts, she would provide no further updates on their precious heir.

 

Chapter Sixteen

Paola, Carmen and Mavis met midweek in the back garden to enjoy tea while continuing the memory sessions. It was a sunny autumn day, perfect for Noah to get fresh air as he lay in his stroller. Paola said that without Alistair’s presence, she had nothing to discuss, and Carmen should continue priming her memory for Noah’s sake.

“I suppose because of the things that happened later, I should tell you about Thol’s proposal while we were at The Pinery,” said Carmen. “I skipped over it before because Paisley was present.

“Early on the morning of our second day in the park, Dorrian went hiking with the boys from the nearby campsite. Since I was already up, I went outside and sank into a camp chair facing the peaceful river. Thol joined me  soon thereafter. Commenting that it was just the two of us, he pulled up a chair beside me. I replied that it was the calm before the storm, relating to him that I would have both children at the campground for a couple of days. Then, because their stepmother had morning sickness, the three of us would be returning to Creekside for the duration of the summer.

“We sat in silent camaraderie gazing over the water. It took a while to clear my mind of the turmoil that lay ahead. Thol’s thoughts were elsewhere. ‘You know, Sasha,’ he said, ‘when I encouraged you to venture out on a book tour, it wasn’t merely so you could greet your fans and give them an opportunity to meet their favourite author. It was mostly because I wanted us to have time together.’

“I could feel my heart wildly thumping in my chest, my pulse drumming loudly in my ears. Nonetheless, I coolly replied that he must have been disappointed when I brought Dorrian with me on the book tour. He agreed, admitting it was selfish of him, given the recent death of my sister. I casually said something like not having time to chat like in the old days. Thol said he had more than chatting in mind. I inhaled slowly, fearful of what he would say next, and at the same time fearing he would not say it. He reached for my hand and clasped it gently in both of his.

“Still holding my hand, he said he had a short-term proposal for me before getting to what was really on his mind. ‘Ravensglen would be the ideal place for you to write and for the children to vacation,’ he said. I agreed that we’d have more room than in the carriage house, and asked if we might stay there till school started. He said, ‘Most certainly, but when the children leave, I want you to stay there forever.’ My heart skipped several beats and barely aware of my actions, I rose from the chair and walked to the edge of the embankment. Thol followed.

“He reminded me how we’d shared many professional and personal experiences through the past many years. I concurred, saying we had a great professional relationship and a wonderful friendship. He asked, almost shyly, if we could become more than friends. Feeling as fluttery and nervous as a school girl, I sputtered that I wasn’t sure what he had in mind. Thol tilted my face toward his and kissed me gently. He asked whether that gave me an idea. Before I could reply, he pulled me closer and crushed my mouth against his in a lingering, impassioned kiss. I responded tentatively to his embrace before succumbing to an almost-forgotten hunger that rendered me faint. ‘Marry me, Sasha,’ he whispered into my ear.

“It was then I had a brief moment of sanity that failed to save me in the end. When he questioned my hesitation, I asked him what Eric meant when he asked if I’d been told about the others. Thol drew back, his countenance darkening. Having never seen Bartholomew Wolfe anything but poised and self-disciplined, I held my breath. But then he regained his composure and said Eric was lashing out irrationally because he saw him as a rival. He assured me there were no others, and I was the only one with whom he wanted to spend the rest of his life. He added that, by coming to Ravensglen, I’d be shielded from all stalkers like Eric.

“Intoxicated by his nearness and unexpected possessiveness, I was overwhelmed with yearning to be loved and protected by this man. So when he reached into his pocket, withdrew a velvet box, and placed on my finger a ring with a large sea-blue aquamarine, my birthstone, I was transfixed. Something within me cried we should wait, but the words spun unspoken in my mind. When I murmured it was beautiful, but…, he hushed me, touching my lips with his fingertips. He said we must leave then to initiate the ritual that would satisfy the theaghlach. Bewildered, I asked him what he was talking about.

“Theaghlach,” he repeated slowly, pronouncing it with a guttural, huh-eye-lockh. Irish for family. I made a feeble attempt to repeat the Gaelic word before conceding I couldn’t quite manage the throaty sounds. He assured me I would learn. I reminded him that, other than his sister, Emily, I hadn’t met his family. He told me Emily was the most important member. Then he told me to grab my purse, we were going to the municipal office in a nearby town for the preliminary rite.

“I was jolted back to reality and told him I would not be married by a justice of the peace if that’s what he was talking about. Thol said it was only the first step, and promised me a lavish churchly wedding at Ravensglen where I would be adorned like a goddess. By having a civil marriage first, it would relieve the old canon at Ravensglen from the responsibility of forms and legalities. I told him I needed time to think, that this was really much too fast.

“Thol reminded me there had been currents of attraction between us for a long time, and we’d already waited overly long. It was true that being in his presence had occasionally set my pulse racing, and I did find his virility captivating. Sensing my hesitation, he promised I’d be secure and pampered at Ravensglen. I found myself wavering, and when he caressed my face and told me to expect more than pampering in our boudoir, I was ready to surrender my fate to Bartholomew Wolfe. Nonetheless, I would not accept the speedy civil wedding. Thol did not hide his disappointment. Still, he insisted on me bringing the children to Ravensglen until school started in the fall.

Carmen took a sip of herbal tea and turned to Paola and Mavis. “Enough for one day?” she asked.

“You’re on a roll, Carm,” said Paola. “We’re fine if you are.”

“Let me freshen your tea first,” said Mavis.

“Thanks,” said Carmen. “Okay then, I’m going to jump ahead to our arrival at Ravensglen.”

“We’re listening,” said Paola.

“I felt a chill, a sense of foreboding when I first entered Thol’s cottage,” said Carmen, setting down her mug of tea on the grass. “I tried to brush the feeling away, telling myself it was merely the unexpectedness of the minimalist style in décor. It was a man’s home, I reminded myself, and in no time at all, it would be strewn with the children’s holiday belongings. Noticing me shiver, Dorrian asked me if I was okay. I assured him I was, chastising myself for forgetting how my nephew’s recent personal loss left him overly sensitive to my frame of mind. It was important I made the holiday pleasantly memorable for him and Paisley.

“We had barely determined which upstairs room belonged to whom when a phone call warned us of the imminent arrival of people coming to help us unpack. Suddenly weary, I already longed for night. A light rap upon the door announced the arrival of our anticipated company. My niece skipped to the door and invited them in. There were five of them, four women and a man. One of the women stepped forward and said, ‘Welcome to Ravensglen, Dr. Deleaney. I’m Nerys Vossen, housekeeper. My husband, Wills, is caretaker here.’

“Even before I took her outstretched hand, I was shocked by my recognition of two of the women who accompanied her. So was Dorrian. ‘I know you!’ he said to them. They acknowledged cheerfully, almost in unison, that they had given him butter tarts while we camped along the St. Lawrence Parkway early in our trip. One of the women identified herself as Janice Quenneville, the other as Liz Giroux. I asked them if I should surmise that meeting up with them on the book tour was coincidental. They admitted that, although they did love my books and we enjoyed the trip, they were sort of looking out for me.

“I asked the male member of the welcoming committee whether he’d been looking out for me as well. The man laughed, shook my hand, and introduced himself as Gabe McGregor, manager of the lodge. ‘Fact is, I was mostly looking out for the Professor on his travels, but I was delighted to also watch over the gracious lady and considerate lad who fed two starving bikers,’ he said. I was only slightly mollified by the man’s courteous manner and flattery. ‘You were one of the motorcycle guys that camped beside us on the Cabot Trail,’ said my bewildered nephew. He agreed, adding that the other biker was Rafe Donnelly, the chef at the lodge.

“I asked the group as a whole how I came to have the honour of an uninvited security detail. A plump, older woman, stepped forward to take my hand. She said she, Daphne Bowring, was responsible. I extracted my hand and stared at her impassively. The woman gazed back, smiling and unruffled. When I asked her if Thol wanted her assistance, she told me it was in his best interest to provide it. She’d been involved in Thol’s wellbeing since he was young. His sister’s too. ‘Seems I can’t help myself,’ she said, shrugging in a self-deprecating way without appearing convincingly contrite.

“Torn between genuine bewilderment and barely-controlled anger, I asked why they thought I needed protection, and from whom. Daphne told me to think of myself and Thol as celebrities on tour. She said most public figures have security measures in place and they were happy to fill that role. Feeling claustrophobic in their controlling presence, I wanted to leave Ravensglen right then. Incredibly, I had trusted a man I didn’t really know, and left the sanctuary of my Petrolia carriage house for a madhouse environment. Worse, I’d brought my innocent nephew and niece along with me.

“Sensing my discomfort, Paisley came and leaned against me. I put my arm around her, pulling her close. The child chose that moment to announce to our visitors that we saw wolves running behind the zigzag fence. The welcomers froze at the girl’s words, their eyes bright with alertness. ‘You saw wolves?’ asked Janice intently. Paisley nodded affirmatively. The visitors traded glances that I couldn’t quite read. Daphne proclaimed it a good omen. She insisted I sit down on the sofa, while she made me some tea before I went upstairs to rest while they unpacked for me. I told her I’d appreciate tea, but would do my own unpacking. Standing nearby, Janice told me Daphne was a skilled herbist who brewed amazing concoctions for all occasions. Overwhelmed by the solicitous attention, I waited uncertainly until Daphne returned with the tea. I sipped it slowly, inhaling its rich flavour.

“In the meantime, Nerys stepped outside and returned moments later with refreshments in a picnic basket. She invited Dorrian and Paisley to follow her upstairs to their rooms. By that time, I was experiencing a pleasant lethargy. It no longer concerned me that the strangers who seemed intent on manipulating my life were about to handle my personal chattels. Janice informed me it was time for a nap. Helping me to my feet and escorting me to the stairs, she told me I must take care of myself in my esteemed role. Dreamily, I asked her what esteemed role she was talking about. ‘The wolves always know,’ she replied.

“It was my niece and nephew who wakened me for dinner. Paisley told me it was seven thirty, the time Daphne told them to get me up. I knew dinner in the lodge dining room ended an hour earlier, so I threw off the comforter and jumped from the bed. Dorrian said the usual closing time was only for the seasonal guests, but we were to dine at eight. I had just enough time to freshen up and dress for dinner. I noticed that my clothing had been unpacked and neatly placed in dresser drawers and hung in the bedroom closet.

“Downstairs, I was shocked to find several items from Emily’s Bed and Breakfast distributed throughout the cottage. Pictures and paintings had been hung, ornaments displayed and pillows arranged on sofas and chairs. Moreover, my computer and writing material had been neatly organized in Thol’s office. While I was trying to comprehend it all, Paisley said she was hungry, and urged us to get going.

“When we stepped out into the fresh evening air, a golf cart awaited us near the door. The driver assisted me into the front seat while Dorrian and Paisley climbed into the back. As we drove along, he introduced himself as Wills Vossen, husband of Nerys, whom we’d already met. He said the Professor hired him and Nerys as newlyweds, and now they had three daughters. He told us how much he enjoyed being caretaker at the lodge, adding it was a great place to raise children. Wills pulled up at the lodge entrance, leaving us to enter through the front door while he parked the vehicle.

“Dorrian asked me if I was nervous and I confessed to being a bit. The reality was that I’d always found social occasions with their expectation of small talk and casual laughter to be downright unnerving. The buzz of conversation in the great hall stopped abruptly at our arrival, and all eyes turned to us where we stood. I looked around anxiously for Thol but failed to locate him. Then Gabe came forward to escort Dorrian, Paisley and me to the dining room. Tables had been pushed together to form one long one, draped formally in white linen. Stemmed glassware and small floral arrangements conveyed an atmosphere of tasteful simplicity.

“Grateful to be seated between my niece and nephew, I could engage with them while hiding my perplexity at Thol’s absence. It would not do to admit to these intrusive tenants that I did not know the whereabouts of our host. Janice and her husband, Paul, sat across from us. As if reading my thoughts, Janice commented that I’d get used to Thol’s comings and goings. When Paisley asked the Quennevilles where the Professor was, Paul explained that he and his sister, Emily, were attending to some legal business. He said they’d be here for the welcoming ceremony, if not before.

“Of course I had to ask about the welcoming ceremony, and from her place further down the table, Daphne said it was to be a surprise. While we waited to be served, the remaining diners introduced themselves and the ones we’d met earlier added to our earlier conversation. ‘I’m Rob Giroux,’ said a bearded man with kindly blue eyes. I was groundskeeper here once upon a time. These days I just putter around.’ His wife, Liz, said we surely knew her. ‘Now that our children are grown and gone, I do crafts whenever I’m not lounging around,’ she said. ‘Don’t be taken in by her false modesty,’ said Janice. ‘Liz is a talented weaver whose murals are snapped up internationally by discriminating collectors.’

“I asked Janice about herself, and she said she was a midwife. She said she was mostly retired in the last few years, but she could make exceptions. With that, she smiled at me, and I quickly patted Paisley’s arm in an effort to disguise an involuntary shudder. Her husband introduced himself as a potter who’d been a bank manager in Owen Sound in the final years of his banking career. Canon Malcolm Darling said simply that he was a priest and would always be there for me should I need a friend or a listening ear. Ian and Martha Duncan, retired teachers, said they’d taught for years in Coltsfoot before indulging in bird watching. ‘Most days we don’t have to leave the acreage here,’ said Ian. ‘The woods, wetlands and clearings of Ravenswood sustain an abundance of wildlife.’

“Dorrian told the Duncans he saw a raven when we arrived at the cottage. ‘Oh yes,’ said Martha. ‘The ravens like to know what’s going on.’ She shook her head in the manner of a fond avian grandmother. Nerys introduced her daughters, November, April and July. The girls, including November, whom we’d met on arrival, smiled and politely said, pleased to meet you, while their mother observed them with a critical maternal eye.

“Served efficiently by summer students, we enjoyed a meal of Greek salad, chicken fricassee and roasted vegetable medley. Dessert was warm apple streusel drizzled with caramel sauce. Rafe Donnelly came from the kitchen to introduce himself and receive compliments on ‘another magnificent dinner’ as Canon Darling proclaimed it to be. Rafe made a point of coming over to remark how he welcomed the opportunity to repay us for the meal we’d shared at the campsite. Dorrian asked him which he enjoyed more, being a biker or being a chef. He replied that he was happy to take on whatever role the Professor requested.

“When Rafe returned to the kitchen, Canon Darling told us that the Professor met Gabe and Rafe while interviewing motorcycle gangs for his book and recruited them for security detail at the lodge. Dorrian wondered why they had other jobs, to which Ian Duncan said it was their choice. ‘They like to stay busy, plus it gives them opportunity to keep tabs on everything that happens around here,’ he said.

“As soon as I deemed it politely proper to leave the dining room, I thanked everyone for our wonderful welcome to my new home, and prepared to return to the cottage. But it was not to be. Daphne asked Liz to be so kind as to take the children back while Dr. Deleaney attended to the wedding planner. Rising from the table, Liz readily obliged, and beckoned to Dorrian and Paisley to go with her.

“‘Wedding planner?’ I asked. ‘Yes, she’s waiting for you in the sitting room off the hall, said Daphne. ‘Wedding preparations are complex, and time, as you well know, is at a premium.’ I protested that Thol and I had yet to make wedding plans. Daphne replied that Bartholomew said I’d insisted on a proper wedding, and they intended to carry out my wishes. Determined to clear up the matter, I resigned myself to an unwelcome extension to my already lengthy day. I promised Paisley and Dorrian I would join them shortly.

“While the children were led away by Liz, I followed Daphne across the great hall to the back of the staircase where three heavy oak doors were set into the wall. Indicating the door nearest the back wall, Daphne said it led to Emily’s living quarters now that she’d returned. ‘Bartholomew and Emily’s grandparents lived here originally. The middle door is where the business office is,’ she said. She opened the third door and we entered a room with a sofa, upholstered chairs and a table strewn with sketches and cloth samples. Two women rose from their seats to greet me enthusiastically.

“‘How lovely to meet you, Dr. Deleaney,’ said a middle-aged woman, hastening over to shake my hand. ‘I’m Dorothea, your wedding planner. Zarina here has some wonderful designs and samples to show you.’ I told them I preferred to plan my own wedding, if and when it went ahead. The wedding planner and dressmaker stared at me in confusion. Clearly ruffled, Daphne said that because of my attitude, they’d be making changes to the welcoming ceremony.”

Feeling weary and headachy, Carmen ended the session. “I’m exhausted, and I haven’t yet reached the abyss of lost memories,” she told her listeners.

“We’re here for you,” said Mavis.

“All the way,” agreed Paola.