T.J. MacGregor tried to leave Seascape Inn, but every time he crossed the property’s boundary line, he blacked out.
For nine months now, he had attempted to find out why. Yet, after all this time, he stood alone on the misty shore, his feet wedged into crevices in the jagged rocks, without so much as a weak hypothesis.
Hoping for a miracle, but fearing he’d used his ration of them long ago, he looked to the horizon. A wall of fog headed inland, rolling over the white-capped Atlantic. That the frigid, November wind soon would carry it onto the cliffs and it, too, would enshroud him, had new resentment heaping onto the old, and burning in his stomach. There had to be a reasonable explanation for this. Why couldn’t he find it?
Angry waves crashed against the sea-jutting rocks forming the coastal barrier and the narrow strip of sandy beach below. The smell of salt spray filled his nose. It tingled from the cold, as his nerves did from tension, and he looked down at his hands. They were red and raw and trembling. He rubbed warmth into his numb fingers, setting them to stinging and him to cursing at not having gloves. If he’d expected to winter in Sea Haven Village, Maine, he’d have had gloves. But he’d expected to be at home in New Orleans. He’d expected to be painting.
The resentment burned deeper, welled in his throat. His eyes stung and teared. He blinked then turned away from the ocean, letting his gaze dart past the dead grass, brown and bent and broken under the weight of blade-clinging ice. Feeling equally burdened, he looked on, toward the nest of firs and the hints of rooftops beneath the steely gray clouds in the sleepy village to the south, then up the western path leading back to the house that once had seemed to heal him and now had become his prison.
Across the road and atop a little hill, it looked so . . . ordinary. Just three floors of gray Victorian clapboard with stark, white shutters; a widow’s walk; a wide porch strewn with rockers and a swing; a north tower stretching up into the heavy clouds.
Yet no one knew better than Tyler James MacGregor that Seascape Inn was anything but ordinary.
During his time here, most guests had attributed Seascape’s “special” assets to its caretaker, Miss Hattie, an angel if ever one walked the earth. But some had claimed Seascape itself the haven: a wonderful old house with seemingly magical, soothing powers where a person could come broken-bodied, or brokenspirited, gaze out upon the star-spangled sea, and heal.
On departing, three guests had appeared . . . disturbed, though they’d refused to disclose their reasons, which could have been entirely unrelated to the inn. But the majority of the guests had said nothing out of the ordinary and had glowed silent contentment. A rare two guests, however, actually had called Seascape The Healing House. With those rare two, T.J. closely identified. Though cynical now, he’d felt that same way years ago, on his first visit here.
Miss Hattie swore that during her lifetime Seascape had seen more than its fair share of miracles, and everyone in the village considered her word bankable. Forced to agree with them, T.J. rubbed at his neck. Pure and simple, the woman could never lie. But she could be a victim of distorted perception.
Living here as a prisoner for the last nine months had opened his eyes in a way only forced, constant exposure can. What he’d known about the seaside inn back then hadn’t been the entire picture, and the entire picture had him wondering. Was Seascape a haven, or hell?
Still uncertain, he squinted up at the thin rays of weak sunlight seeping through cracks in the early morning haze. They slanted against the attic room window, and the glass sparkled gold like a cocky, winking sentry, mocking him. His stomach churned and, seething, he glared at the glass. How had he been so blind? So enraptured with Seascape’s false sense of calm and peace back then that he’d convinced himself the house held the ability to heal? How had he been so arrogant as to truly believe it held magic and he’d captured that magic on canvas?
T.J. grunted. That was the trouble. He had believed. God, had he believed. So much so he’d neglected to remember something very basic in art, and in life: every object casts shadows.
He’d once experienced Seascape’s light, its healing magic the object. Now, he experienced its dark side, its curse its shadows. The light sucked a man in and blinded him to his troubles; the shadows lured him, then tortured his mind and smothered him until the man inside threatened to wither and die.
Forgetting that basic truth had been a big mistake.
He kicked at a small stone and watched it skid over the rocks then plunk down into the ocean. Why had he forgotten it? He had no highblown illusions about himself. He was an artist in a sense, an atypical one because he wasn’t atypical, just talented. No overestimation of his worth, by any stretch of the imagination. Ten world class pros stood brush-in-hand right behind him, nipping at his professional heels and, at any time, he could be replaced by an up-and-coming. He was rich and made no bones about it. Why should he? Money was an accident of birth, useful only for the good that could be done with it no less, but certainly no more. Only the way a man lived his life determined him a better or worse person than any other man. He reeked conservative; definitely not flashy in manner or appearance. He hated flash as much as he hated snobs, peach ice cream, government interference, closed minds, and garden variety fanatics who should either commit and focus or go home. And he never, never, used his personal clout to further his professional aims.
No, he shifted on the granite cliff and stiffened against a strong gust of wind, he had no illusions. In the physical sense, he was above average for a guy in his thirties, filling out a good FortyFour Long suit just about right. Big men seemed to attract women and, for that, he felt grateful. He genuinely liked women. The way they walked, thought, sounded, and felt, fascinated him. On the emotional front, well, he had a way to go to get to average. But he loved those he loved, and he never lied to those he didn’t. All things considered, he rubbed his jaw, he was a guy with dreams and the desire to become a better human being who happened to paint for a living just as other men happened to run corporations or to work in mills. He played straight with everyone; personally and professionally. Tried to live right. Hell, he’d never even stinted and squirmed out of jury duty. So what had he done wrong?
Where had he failed?
This imprisonment had to be punishment for something. But what? What had he done to warrant whatever in hell this was?
A lump of bitterness swelled in his throat. He swallowed it. No, even if Seascape were magical, it couldn’t heal him again. Though his friend, Bill Butler, disagreed, T.J. clearly had gone too far for it to help him this time. Bill might be one of the best fishermen, the most sensitive poets, devoted family men and trusted friends a man could have, but about T.J.’s situation, the man was dead wrong.
Or was he?
The wind shivered through the pines down to the tree line and lifted whorls of sand on the rocks below. The tide was coming in, splashing higher and higher on the rocks, and the wind was bouncing off them, gushing up and over T.J.’s skin and whistling in his ears. Okay, there was logic in Bill’s argument. If T.J. believed his art had caused him to become stuck here then it did stand to reason that his art could free him. But could the mystery playing out here be that simple? T.J.’s gut instincts screamed that it couldn’t and, when Bill returned from New Orleans with the painting and T.J. tried, and failed, to cross the boundary line and to escape while holding it, Bill would see that this situation had nothing to do with logic. Like everything else sweet that had soured in T.J.’s life, this had to connect to his gift . . . somehow.
T.J. fisted his hands. Some gift. He never wanted to paint again. Why the hell would he want to paint again? It had cost him everything. His parents. His fiancée, Carolyn. His freedom. And now, he feared, his sanity.
His nerves were raw, his muscles clenched into ropey knots. He squeezed his eyes shut. No. No, Bill had to be right. This strange phenomenon had to be psychological. T.J. couldn’t fight insanity, but he could fight psychological. He was not insane. His attempts to leave here were not futile. He could fight.
He stiffened his spine, determined to regain control of his life. Despite the frigid chill in the air, sweat trickled down his temples, between his shoulders, his ribs, and down his back. So many times, he’d attempted this challenge and every time he’d failed.
But this time he would succeed.
This time he would cross the invisible boundary line and step off Seascape land. He would walk down the cliff to the winding road and then on into the village. From there, he’d hitch a ride with Jimmy Goodson, the mechanic, and drive up to Bangor where he’d catch the first flight out and go home to New Orleans. He’d leave Seascape Inn and its mysteries to its caretaker, Miss Hattie, the soft-spoken, ironwilled and goldhearted angel who for some unknown reason chose to spend her declining years as she had spent the rest of her life: residing here among the demons. This time, T.J. would leave. And he’d never look back.
Resolved, he opened his eyes, scuffed the toe of his shoe into the boundary line. While dragging it, lifting tiny stones and forming a ridge in the coarse, damp sand, he issued himself his standard preattempt reminder: The sooner you get away from here, accept your loss, and bury everything that’s happened here, the better off you’ll be.
Feeling an adrenaline rush, a surge of fear chink at his certainty that this time would be different, he lifted his foot and stepped over the line.
The temperature plummeted.
That familiar veil of freezing mist blanketed him.
Those hated, icy fingers of cold applied pressure to the hollow at his shoulder.
Dread punched into his stomach and warning spots flashed before his eyes. Panic seized his mind and, fighting the unseen demon for all he was worth, he swung his fists and screamed, “Nooo!”
Clipping only air, he swung again and again. His head grew lighter and lighter, his vision dimmer and dimmer. His chest throbbed. Oxygenstarved, his lungs burned and ached. He struggled to gasp, but couldn’t find air; fought hard, then harder, but the unseen demon wouldn’t let go.
His strength drained. Helpless and weak, he crumbled onto the rocky ground, and despair settled in. God help him, it was happening again.
And again there was nothing he could do to stop it.
He ceased struggling.
And he sensed . . . nothing.
* * *
After two years in what amounted to a self-imposed prison, Maggie Wright stepped off of the riverfront sidewalk and into Lakeview Gallery. A warm blast of heat welcomed her, and somewhere in the back of the building a bell tinkled softly, announcing her arrival. It wasn’t cold in New Orleans, it was rarely cold in New Orleans, but it was raining, and she’d gotten wet hiking the three blocks from the closest available parking space, which didn’t do wonders for her mood. At best, that mood bordered on grouchy, and it hovered too close for her comfort at downright scared.
Shoving aside the feeling she was forgetting something being mobile and responsible only for herself again would take a little adjusting she gave her shimmering teal raincoat a gentle shake and wiped her matching, drenched heels on the carpet in front of the glass doors. Why would anyone put white carpet in such a high traffic area?
She looked around. The old warehouse had been remodeled by someone with an appreciable taste and talent that helped her recapture her confidence. She’d never been a wimpy woman a flaw her mother had warned her against from the cradle. Maggie, you’ve got to be less sure of yourself, hon. If you’re too independent, you’ll never snatch up the gold ring, much less the man dangling it.
Maggie grimaced at the memory constant repetition had burned into her brain not that she considered it credible. In her book, feminine or eligible didn’t equate to helpless or dependent and, even if it did equate, she lacked the panache to fake it. Who’d want a man who wanted a woman like that, anyway?
With a calmer eye, she scanned the gallery. Muted white satin benches circled the bases of tall white columns that stretched up to the high ceiling. The walls and ceiling, like the floor, were painted soft white. So was the long linear desk near the far south wall. In fact she scanned the wide room there was nothing present to detract from the purpose here. And that purpose was art. Visitors had to focus on the sculptures, on the paintings lining the walls, because there was nothing else to focus upon. Yet, the place didn’t feel cold or distant. It felt . . . alive.
The marketing expert in her appreciated the clever design and decor. Maybe the white carpet wasn’t so silly after all. The aesthetic gain far outweighed the hassle of dealing with a little dirt.
A black man stood across the cavernous room. His hand shoved into his slacks’ pocket had his suit jacket bunched up and pushed back at his hip. He had a kind, sensitive face, a tall, graceful body clearly a runners and, from his expression, the painting on the wall before him entranced him. He wasn’t a collector. While nice and immaculately pressed, his suit wasn’t expensive, and collectors who acquired art via Lakeview Gallery were notoriously as wealthy as the gallery was prestigious. More likely, he was an employee. Hopefully, one who could give her the answers to questions she’d pondered on, wanted, and waited two long years to hear. Answers, now that the time had come, she half feared.
Before she died, had Carolyn changed? Had she been capable of change? Maggie’s mother insisted Carolyn had but, disappointed once too often, Maggie remained cautious and held her doubts. Still, she’d promised her mother to solve the mysteries surrounding Carolyn’s death and to find out what really had happened to her. After all her mother had been through, Maggie hadn’t the heart to refuse her, and Carolyn, for all her faults, had been family. That alone, without the promise, made uncovering the possibly ugly, surely embarrassing, truth Maggie’s responsibility. It helped that she wasn’t going into this blind to Carolyn’s flaws. Hoping for the better, but prepared for the worst, she would keep the deathbed promise her mother had made to Carolyn’s mother when Maggie had been twelve. And now that her mother had recovered well enough to again be on her own, Maggie would do her family duty.
To Carolyn’s credit, she had been a master manipulator but never a thief. The police had insisted she’d stolen the Seascape painting, but it had to have been that MacGregor man. He was the hotshot, famous artist with the world-class connections. Carolyn had just loved him. She’d been about to marry him. And if not for him, why would she have gone to Maine? From her address book and personal correspondence, she hadn’t known a soul in Maine.
Questions tumbled through Maggie’s mind. She couldn’t answer them any more now than when Carolyn had been killed two years ago. A traffic accident, they’d said. But had it been? Really?
Maggie didn’t know, but she intended to find out. The painting was here. Carolyn had worked here. Tyler James MacGregor’s work was sold here. And Maggie’s answers would come, starting here.
Trembling inside, she steeled herself then walked over to the man who still stared at the painting. “Good morning.”
He turned, looking dazed, and smiled, as if a little embarrassed at having been caught dreaming. “Hello.”
“I’m Maggie Wright.” She hitched her purse strap up on her shoulder and extended her hand. “Carolyn Conners was my cousin.”
He looked surprised, but clasped hands with her. “Bill Butler.”
“I’d like to ask you some questions about her, Mr. Butler. Actually, about her and Tyler James.”
“Tyler James?” Bill Butler cocked his head, looking even more surprised and now a little suspicious. She nodded, and he added, “I’m afraid I don’t know much about the artist, other than information that’s common knowledge.”
“It isn’t the artist I’m particularly interested in,” she confessed. “I’m more concerned with T.J. MacGregor, the man.” It was a calculated response. One meant to let Bill Butler know she knew of the artist, but also of the man who in the art world dropped the use of his surname. Hopefully, that insider tidbit would encourage Bill Butler to open up to her without forcing her to open up the family door and expose skeletons she’d really rather keep hidden.
A flicker of recognition shone in his brown eyes. He lowered his lashes and glanced down at the floor. “I know a little about him.”
“I understand your reluctance to discuss one of your artists, Mr. Butler. Especially one of T.J.’s fame and reputation but, I assure you, my interest is strictly personal. I’m not sure if you know it, but he and Carolyn were engaged.”
“Yes, I was aware of that.”
“Then you know she died two years ago.” A droplet of rain dislodged from Maggie’s hair and trickled down her cheek. She brushed at it. “A few of the circumstances surrounding her death are, well, frankly mysterious.”
“Mysterious?” He arched a brow. “Then why have you waited so long to check them out?”
Valid question. And one, thank goodness, she’d anticipated. Still, something in his stance warned her to be honest. She gave him another once-over. Did she dare to ditch her rehearsed spiel?
“Until now I wasn’t free to investigate.” The truth. Another gut-instinct-based, calculated risk. One she prayed she wouldn’t regret. “My mother suffered an injury right at the time Carolyn died, Mr. Butler. A severe injury that required extensive therapy. If you couldn’t be in two places at once, wouldn’t you give priority to the living?”
Had she blown it already? Her palms grew sweaty. She dragged them down her soggy raincoat and let him see the concern in her eyes. “Please, I just want . . . . I need to know what happened to her.”
“I heard it was an auto accident.”
He wasn’t going to help her. Maggie’s stomach muscles constricted, and her determination compressed with them. “I heard that, too. I also heard a painting was in her car.” Squeezing her purse strap, she lifted her chin. “Carolyn burned beyond recognition and the car exploded, but that painting wasn’t damaged in the least. Doesn’t that strike you as odd?”
He didn’t look at her, but shrugged. “It’s a big world out there, Miss Wright. Strange things happen in it.”
Stepping back, he sat down on the bench and slid her a compassionate glance, then propped his elbows on his knees and laced his fingers together. “I’m sorry about your cousin, but I get the feeling you think T.J. was somehow involved with her death.”
Too transparent! Fighting the instinct to stare at his shoes to avoid his eyes, she held his gaze, but she couldn’t make herself outright deny his suspicions. She’d never been good at deception, and she’d been worse at half-truths. Had she been crazy, thinking she could pull this off?
He pursed his lips, thoughtful. “For whatever comfort it might be to you, me being here proves T.J. wasn’t involved.”
Her heart pounded a strong, hard beat that thumped in her temples. “I don’t understand.”
“No, you don’t.” He looked away, back at the painting. “But I imagine you soon will.”
Confused, sensing sadness in his tone, Maggie started to ask for an explanation, but her gaze drifted to the painting he’d been studying. Her thoughts dissipated. A sense of calm and serenity and peace she hadn’t known since she was little and became suspicious at the goings on at home, seeped from the painting into her pores. Her insides warmed and a sense of balance, of rightness, flooded her.
The painting was of a house atop a hill near the shore. But not this shore. Nowhere in the South. The painting’s shore was rugged and rockbound. She appreciated art, but never before had she reacted so vividly or intensely to it and, though she couldn’t begin to explain it, she sensed something special about this painting. Something that whispered to her and lured. Something . . . magical.
She glanced down and read the signature: Tyler James.
The discreet brass plate attached to its frame: Seascape Inn.
“Oh God.” Her knees went weak. “That’s it. That’s the painting.” Shaking, she leaned back against the column for support and forced her gaze back to the man. “It’s in Maine, isn’t it?”
Bill Butler sighed. He’d seen her reaction before everyone who lives in Sea Haven Village had seen one like it at some time or another. Still, he didn’t know quite what to make of Maggie Wright.
She was pretty, about thirty, he supposed, with shiny red hair that hugged her shoulders and green eyes that at present pleaded with him. She was about as tall as his wife, Leslie, who topped out at his shoulder and long ago had mastered that tell-me-what-I-want-to-know look Maggie Wright leveled on him. She wanted answers, but should he give them to her? She’d lied to him.
He’d known it the second she’d said she wanted to know about T.J., the man. Her face had flushed red, she hadn’t met Bill’s eyes, and the pulse in her throat had begun pounding against her skin. Leslie’d had that same look thirteen years ago when she’d assured him she wanted to move from California to Sea Haven Village so he could build Fisherman’s CoOp and be close to his Uncle Mike.
Yes, Maggie Wright had lied. And she radiated that hell-hath-no-fury glow he’d learned to respect all those years ago. She suspected T.J. was involved in her cousin’s death, and proving it was her bottom line.
If only she knew the truth.
Bill resisted shaking his head. Ridiculous. If it weren’t, he’d be home fishing, not here doing T.J. a favor. Well, doing him a favor and because T.J. had paid him to come. Bill would’ve made the trip anyway, but with fish prices being down, the extra money certainly would come in handy which, he supposed, was why T.J. insisted on paying for the favor. A man capable of that kind of caring wouldn’t be involved in anything shady. Would he?
He might. T.J. was in trouble. But what world class artist who couldn’t paint wouldn’t be in trouble? Carolyn’s death was tied up with that somehow, though Bill couldn’t peg the connection other than as a side effect of T.J. having lost his fiancée. Loss could do terrible things to a man’s mind. And the way he was living up at Seascape wasn’t helping, either. Keeping himself locked in the Carriage House, sitting on the cliffs and staring at the ocean for hours on end . . . .
Well, the man might be suffering from guilt, but guilt at having something to do with Carolyn’s wreck? Ridiculous. And yet, if T.J. somehow had been involved, even indirectly, that would explain his guilt feelings . . . and his blacking out episodes.
Bill grimaced, feeling like a traitor. How could he even fleetingly doubt T.J.’s innocence? “T.J. didn’t have anything to do with your cousin’s death, Miss Wright.”
“How do you know that?”
“I just . . . know.” How could he not know? He’d watched the man suffer and struggle for nearly a year, trying to come to terms with his losses. Difficult to tell what all went on in T.J.’s mind he held his feelings close to his chest but Bill strongly suspicioned, and Leslie agreed, that Carolyn was but one of the losses that had sent the man into a tailspin. Bill maintained his opinion, too, that it would take a professional to help T.J. untangle his emotions and get him back to flying straight. A professional, or a miracle.
“That house,” Maggie pointed to the painting, “is in Maine, isn’t it?”
From her doubt-riddled expression, the woman didn’t believe him. She’d already tried and convicted T.J. guilty. Bill chewed on his lip and considered his options. Never would he be so foolish as to think he could tell any woman her opinion on anything. There were things a person had to learn firsthand, and trust ranked among them. Living with Leslie had taught him that, too. But he could see to it that Maggie had the opportunity to learn the truth.
He reached into his inner coat pocket, pulled out his business card and a pen, then wrote Miss Hattie’s name and phone number down on the back of it. “It’s in Maine.” He passed the card to Maggie Wright. “The innkeeper’s name is on back. You’ll need to call and let her know you’re coming.”
Maggie looked at him, her eyes wide and round. “How did you know I intended to go to Seascape? I only just decided.”
Bill shrugged. Her bewildered look, he’d also seen before. “Just a hunch.”
* * *
Groggy, his head aching like the devil, T.J. groaned and opened his eyes.
Something bright white blinded him. He squinted and saw it was Miss Hattie’s hanky. She stood over him, flapping the scrap of lace as if the cold wind whipping over the granite cliffs weren’t strong enough to revive him without her personal assistance. Bill Butler’s whopper-telling, tall, lanky, eleven-year-old, Aaron, stood next to her, his breath fogging the air. They both looked worried.
“Hey, Mr. James.” Aaron blinked, his eyes bright in his warm cocoa face. “Did ya fall and bust your head on the rocks?”
This was not a dream. He was still here in this godforsaken place.
Frustrated at yet another failure, T.J. looked at Miss Hattie. Her apron showed in the gap of her unbuttoned coat. It whipped around, molding with her dress to her plump calves. A blueberry stain near the pocket looked wet. He’d interrupted her making her morning muffins . . . again.
Miss Hattie stopped flapping her hanky and pressed it into her coat pocket. “Are you all right, dear?”
Her kind green eyes looked worried, and he hated seeing that, but he couldn’t do a thing to ease her concern. He was plenty worried himself.
Reaching beneath his hip, he pulled out a stone that was digging into his side. His head ached like hell. So did his back. He pursed his mouth to tell her he was anything but all right and he would have told her had he not been looking at her.
The wind teased her white wispy curls that had come loose from her bun and sneaked out from under her blue woolen scarf to frame her tender face. Round and soft and lined with wisdom, it was chafed red by the wind and cold. A woman in her seventies had no business being out in this damp breeze. Miss Hattie thought she was invincible and if he’d reminded her that she wasn’t, she’d only scoff, so he didn’t. But he couldn’t bellow at her, either. It’d be like giving hell to Mary Poppins or the good fairy.
“I’m fine.” Unfortunately, he’d live. T. J. frowned and rubbed at the back of his head, pressing against a lump the size of a goose egg. Pain shot through his skull, and he winced. “Just fine.”
“You don’t look fine. You look a bit peaked. Doesn’t he look peaked, Aaron?”
Aaron twisted his mouth and studied T.J. “Uh-huh, he surely does. ” He squinted up at Miss Hattie. “He looks just like Mrs. Johnson when Mr. Johnson dozes off in church.”
“That bad?” T.J. muttered. If anything could be worse than dead, being equated to the stuffy, social-climbing Lydia Johnson was it. She’d been bad enough as co-owner of The Store, but when her husband, Horace, got elected mayor the woman became a first-rate snob or tried to. Frankly, she never quite pulled it off. His shoulder stiff, T.J. rolled it to loosen it up.
“Yes sir, you do and that ain’t no lie.”
“I happen to agree with the boy, Tyler. You’re as pale as a ghost.”
Grunting, T.J. hauled himself to his feet, careful that not so much as his big toe crossed over the boundary line, off Seascape land. He’d already pushed fate far enough for one day. “I’m fine, Miss Hattie. Really.” Dusting the sand and dead grass from his jeans, he gave her a reassuring smile. “I just fell on the rocks, like Aaron said.”
Aaron grinned as if pleased he’d been right. “Folks from away don’t know it, but you gotta watch those rocks, Mr. James. They’re slicker than spit.”
“That’s a bit graphic, mmm?” Miss Hattie patted the boy’s coat-padded shoulder. “What are you doing running around up here anyway?”
“Mama sent me. She got a message from Daddy. He said to tell Mr. James that he’s flying home with the painting today. The man at the gallery said okay.”
Miss Hattie gasped. “He’s secured the loan of the painting, Tyler! Isn’t that wonderful?”
“Yeah, wonderful.” The painting wouldn’t work, but it could get Bill and Miss Hattie past believing that this situation was completely psychological. A little reassurance would be welcome to T.J., too. Doubts about his sanity were eating him alive. Still, being of two minds on the matter, he didn’t know what to hope. Half the time, he wanted to believe that the problem rooted in his mind because dealing with that seemed more comfortable than accepting any alternate root cause. But the other half of the time, he wanted an outside source to blame even a bizarre one because he hated that possibility less than the idea that even his psyche had turned against him.
“Aaron, you tell your mama not to risk the drive to Bangor. I’ll phone Jimmy straight away.” Miss Hattie looked at T.J. “Leslie’s from California, you know. She’s only been here thirteen years. Not at all used to driving on snowy roads.”
Carolyn hadn’t been, either. T.J. nodded, solemn. Then what Miss Hattie had said hit him. Thirteen years? Well, this was Maine. Maybe in another generation or two, the Butlers wouldn’t be considered from away.
“There’s something else, too.” Aaron scratched his dark head, as if it’d help him recall exactly what.
The boy’s glove was a little large, frayed at the wrist, and bunched at his fingertips. But at least he had gloves. T.J. grimaced.
Remembrance lit Aaron’s eyes and, clearly pleased with himself, he looked at Miss Hattie. “A lady’s gonna be calling, Daddy said. Maggie White. No, that ain’t right.” He grinned. “Maggie Wright. That’s it. Maggie Wright.”
“Thank you, dear.” Miss Hattie gave the boy a smile. “You’d best get home now and help your mother with your brothers.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Aaron turned and started down the path to the road.
T.J. didn’t watch him. Though he couldn’t put a finger on it, there was something odd about Miss Hattie’s reaction to Aaron’s message. It gave T.J. a flicker of hope that the painting would work, and that he hated. He’d be a fool to believe it for a second. “Don’t get your hopes up, Miss Hattie.” He looked down at her, spoke gently to not upset her. “Bringing the painting here won’t make any difference. I’ll be a Seascape prisoner forever.”
Miss Hattie twisted her lips, clearly disagreeing. “Something unusual is going on here, but I’m sure it’s only temporary.”
“Nine months is stretching the bounds of temporary,” T.J. countered. She’d said before she had no earthly idea why he couldn’t leave, and he believed her. The situation was frustrating for him and clearly perplexing to her. From her jerky movements, she didn’t much care for feeling perplexed.
They started back toward the house. The path was speckled with patches of ice, and he gently clasped her arm to help support her. “I just wish I understood what was happening to me.” A spark of fear threatened him. The wind had died down but the mist still clung to the shore. “I don’t feel crazy.” He shoved his free hand into his coat pocket. “Am I crazy?” Finally, he’d asked the question out loud.
“No, Tyler, of course not.” She patted his forearm, linked with hers. “I wish I could explain this to you, but I’m afraid I don’t understand it myself. Let’s just hope that the painting works, mmm? We both feel it was spared from the fire for a reason. Maybe helping you now was the reason.”
“I always believed that about the painting, Miss Hattie, but my gut’s telling me I’m not the reason it didn’t burn in Carolyn’s wreck. I don’t know how I know it, but I do. Still, I’m desperate. I’ve got to try this. What else is left to try?”
“Once you believed in the magic of healing.”
“I know. And I know that you think the healing magic I felt when painting Seascape will somehow help heal me now, but–”
“It is possible.”
Was it? No. But Miss Hattie believed it, heart-and-soul. It’d been easier to send Bill to get the damn painting and prove her wrong than to argue with her. She was a nurturer down to her bones, pure and simple, but she was also Maine stubborn.
Sidestepping a large stone, T.J. returned to the path, feeling helpless and vulnerable. Both were feelings he’d had and hated before. He still hated them. “As soon as I prove it won’t work, I’m going to burn the damn thing. I’m going to burn everything that has anything to do with my work.”
“Tyler, no!” Miss Hattie gasped and squeezed his arm. “You can’t squander your gift. It isn’t–”
“It isn’t a gift. Painting used to be . . . everything, but not anymore. Now, it’s my curse.”
“Tyler!” A strong, phantom wind gust furled the end her scarf like a flag.
“It’s true. My artistic ability has cost me everything that matters to me. Would a gift cost a man everything that matters?”
“It hasn’t.” They’d arrived at the road, at Main Street. Pausing, Miss Hattie looked up then down it, and, on seeing the way was clear, she crossed and started up the fir-lined drive to the house. “Your gift wasn’t responsible for your losses, and neither were you.”
“Then why can’t I leave here? Why do I land on my backside every single time I try leaving?”
“I don’t know.” Leaves crunched under their feet. “Jimmy really needs to do some raking. Remind me to mention it to him when I phone him about Bill, mmm? I’d be lost without Jimmy helping me out around here, but I do so wish he’d find himself a good woman and settle down.”
The swift subject switch had been intentional. She knew more than she was telling him. “How long has Seascape been an inn?”
“About twenty-six years. Why?”
“Twenty-six years. And I’m supposed to believe that I’m the only guest who ever has run into this kind of trouble.”
“Tyler, you sound like Beaulah Favish. Are you going to start troubling the sheriff with nonsense of weird happenings here, too?”
“I’m not like your nosy neighbor, and you know it. Have I told anyone about this?” People including Batty Beaulah would think he’d slipped over the edge.
“No. I doubt you’d even have told Bill Butler, if he hadn’t come upon you prone during one of your failed attempts.”
T.J. wouldn’t have told Bill. Or anyone else. “Regardless, something weird is happening. You can’t deny it.”
Miss Hattie looked straight ahead, and said not a word.
His heart rate quickened. She had her suspicions on exactly what that something weird was, all right. When Aaron had relayed the message from his father, she’d gotten the strangest, serene expression on her face. That worried T.J., and he prayed it didn’t signal another matchmaking attempt in his immediate future. Though well meaning, he was about sick of her matchmaking attempts. But he wasn’t so sure matchmaking schemes had prompted that expression. “You aren’t going to tell me a thing, are you?”
“I can’t tell you what I don’t know, dear.” She patted his arm. “Things will work out as they’re meant to. When one has little else, one must believe in fate.”
“Fate.” He sighed. Looked as if another attempt was inevitable, anyway. Irksome, but he’d nix it soon enough.
“You’re listening but not hearing, Tyler. You’ll come to understand. I will say, though, that soon there might well be burning at Seascape. We agree on that. But, unlike you, I’ll wager here and now that not a snippet of ash will be canvas.”
What did she mean by that? T.J. looked up at the attic window. Something flickered and his skin crawled. Surprised at his reaction, he blinked and checked again, but saw nothing. A trick of the light?
“Tyler?” Miss Hattie slid him one of her helping-things-along looks he definitely recognized as a pre-matchmaking signal. “I need for you to move into the main house.”
Here it came. Opening the back door into the mudroom, he paused. “Why?”
“The Carriage House needs a new roof. I intended to get it done this fall, but you so enjoy your privacy in its apartment and I didn’t want to disturb you. Yet I can’t wait any longer now. Winter is here.” She stepped past him, shrugged out of her coat, then hung it on a peg on the wall. “Do you mind?”
“Not really.” He minded a lot. He pegged his coat and toed off his muddy shoes, glad to be out of the biting wind and cold. “If the weather holds, I’ll move this afternoon.”
“I think Maggie Wright will arrive this afternoon and I hate to welcome a new guest while we’re in turmoil. This morning, mmm? After breakfast, which might well be late if my muffins have burned.”
He smiled. “They wouldn’t dare.”
She smiled back, then grew serious. “You know, Tyler, your situation sincerely troubles me. This is the first time in all my years at this house I’ve been uneasy. I sense you have reservations, but I truly have no idea what is happening to you,” she stared up at the ceiling as if miffed and speaking to someone else entirely, “and I don’t much like it.”
He didn’t like it, either. But what could he do about it that he hadn’t already done?
The smell of blueberry muffins drifted on the air. His stomach growled and, without an answer, he followed Miss Hattie into the toasty, warm kitchen.
The phone rang.
She walked over to the wall, pulling her clip earring from her lobe, then lifted the receiver to her ear. “Hello.”
Miss Hattie listened, smiled, then cupped her hand over the receiver and whispered to T.J., “Maggie Wright.”
“Wonderful.” The matchmaking queen was at it again.
“Just a moment, dear.” She looked at T.J. “Go wash up, Tyler. Your help is on the way.”
His help? Did she mean the painting? Or the woman?*
Clean Reads Hardcover Edition: Thorndike Press