Sunday, February 15, 2015

Help(less) Chapter 4

Hello, Current Readers!

Ready for another chapter? I suppose so, why else would you be here?
Anyhoo, things are about to heat up a bit. Not only does Stephanie have a few more unpleasant run ins with Charles, but there is also another man who comes around asking questions. And the last thing Stephanie wants is someone digging up her past.

Chapter 4

The dim glow of sunrise crested over the dense forest behind the estate. Stephanie breathed in the fresh scent of dew and flowers as she dumped a pail water off the back steps.
“I can’t believe it,” Maggie said, as Stephanie stepped into the kitchen again. “I don’t remember the last time these pots looked so clean.”
Stephanie dropped her head to hide her flushing cheeks. Before she could say anything else, the front door to the kitchen flew open as Charles barged through. She retreated slightly, standing against the wall as he made his way across the kitchen. He didn’t seem to notice her anyway.
Maggie maintained a cool expression, but Stephanie could see how her eyes lit up when she saw him. “Morning, Charlie.”
“Morning love,” he responded with a wink, plucking an apple from the bushel on the table.
Maggie smiled and shook her head, signifying she wasn’t complete impervious to his flirtation. "You should be saving that charm for the young ladies."
His eyes landed on Stephanie, and he seemed to clench his jaw. He looked back to Maggie, taking a large bite from his apple. "I would if there were any."
Stephanie looked down at the floor, embarrassed that she should be there.
“You hear anything about Tilly?” he asked Maggie, his brow cocked high.
“No,” she answered coldly, all humour gone. “Of course not.” She turned her back to Stephanie, facing Charles. Stephanie imagined her mouthing something urgent to him but saw and heard nothing. Maggie turned back to the table, throwing her rag down. “I got eggs to gather.” She sent a glare Charles’ way. She grabbed the woven basket by Stephanie’s feet, sending her jumping out of the way, and stormed out the back door. Stephanie watched as she stomped towards the hen house.
“I suppose no one’s told you about Tilly.”
Reluctantly, she turned back around to find Charles staring at her intensely.
He went on, not waiting for a response. “Tilly was the old maid. About your age.” He took another bite of the apple and wiped a dribble of juice from his lips. "She didn’t last very long either.”
“What happened to her?” she asked, her voice quiet. Like a mouse.
“This house happened. You know…some houses are built for comfort, some for shelter. But this house, it’s built to last.” He moved to the doorway. His hand slid up the rich, dark wood of the frame. “It’s strong. A force that crushes anything and everything weak and unstable in its wake.” He looked back at her. “It’s not a good place for someone like you.”
She broke the eye contact to look down at her feet. She hated herself for it. For looking away. For having to look away. But what else could she do?
He gave a satisfied sniff. The heel of his boot scraped the floor as he turned.
“I’m not as weak as you think.”
He stopped. ”For your sake, I hope not.”

Stephanie stood before the fireplace. A chill hung in the air of the salon. There wasn't enough wood for a fire in every room, or so Maggie said. Half the rooms were cold and the other half freezing. Her muscles, back, neck, almost everything ached after being cold so long. Her muscles constantly tensed, trying to keep the chill at bay. But there was nothing for it. If there wasn’t wood, there wasn’t wood. Like her father used to say, no use whining over things that can’t be.
She flicked the feather duster over the surface of a photograph. A black and white picture with a young Mrs. Callowell standing next to a man. He was young, mildly handsome, with a thick, dark mustache. They looked stern, yet serenely at the camera. Stephanie wondered at what might have driven away that calm tranquil look, leaving only the sombre and severe. And who’s this man? Her eyes moved up to the ceiling. All had been quiet since that first day.
A sharp knock rang out, startling her. She fumbled with a picture frame, almost dropping it, but caught it at the last moment. She positioned the heavy, silver frame to its proper place and went to answer the front door.
She opened the door slightly. Enough to fit her face in the doorway. She squinted in the glaring light. “Yes?”
A man in a brown suit and hat turned, smiling. “Good afternoon, Miss.” He removed his hat. He stood very straight, his narrow shoulders squared and back. His dark blond hair was brushed back and thick with curls. A thin moustache curled upwards in a slight smile.
“Good day. I’m afraid Mrs. Callowell isn’t here. She’s gone into town.”
“That’s quite all right. I’m actually here to see you, Stephanie.”
She took a step back, so she stood behind the door. “You know my name? But I’m not anyone.”
“I’m sorry, I’m being rather rude. I’m Theodore Glanville.” When she didn’t move or respond, he continued. “And yes, I know who you are. Or, rather, your name.”
“What do you want?” She didn't mean for it to sound like an accusation.
“Straight to business,” he said, chuckling. “Quite right. I’m here on behalf of Mrs. Rebecca Burbank.”
Stephanie’s grip on the door tightened. The name was like a stab in her gut. “Why..what does she want with me?” She loosened her grip on the brass door handle and wiped a sweaty palm on the front of her dress.
Theodore opened his coat and pulled a narrow, leather bound notebook from his pocket. “I understand you used to work for Mrs. Burbank.”
“Mr. Burbank hired me.”
“Mmm hmm.” He wrote something and looked back at her. “And how long did you work for them?”
“Umm,” she said, pretending to think. Her heart thumped like a drum. She prayed he didn't notice the intense flush in her cheeks. “A few years. I suppose.” She pulled her hands behind her back to hide their shaking.
“Why’d you leave?”
“What did you say this was about?”
“I didn’t, actually,” he said, smiling. “It seems Mrs. Burbank is missing a locket, a family heirloom. You cleaned her room, I’m sure you’re more familiar with it than me.”
“That’s not true.”
“Beg your pardon?”
“I mean, I wasn’t responsible for her room.”
“Oh?” He looked at his notes again. “She told me you were.”
“She’s mistaken.” Liar.
“Well, she does have a rather large staff. I suppose mixing up a maid here and there is common.”
Stephanie gripped her hands tightly behind her back. “Yes, we do all look alike,” she said, looking down at her feet. To some, she added to herself.
When she looked up again, he raised an eyebrow, as though not quite sure how to take her remark. “And did you leave on good terms with Mrs. Burbank?”
Stephanie was trembling now, understanding perfectly. If Mrs. Burbank sent him, he already knew the answer to that question. Furthermore, he should know that she would know that. The only reason he would ask such a question would be to see her reaction and response. She took a deep breath.
“Can I help you with something?” came a voice from the side.
She looked to see Charles walking up alongside the house. His eyes darted between Theodore and Stephanie. The situation was getting worse by the moment. If Charles found out...if Mrs. Callowell found out, she'd be both out of a job and homeless. Why can't that woman just leave me be?
Theodore began turned his hat in his hands. “I’m just having a word with Miss Kitling, here. It won’t take but a minute.”
“What is this in regards to?” Charles asked, taking the stairs towards them two at a time.
“For Miss Kitling’s sake, I think that’s better left between us.”
Stephanie's heart picked up its pace. She retreated further behind the door, terrified they might hear her thumping heart. Go away! Please, just leave!
Charles looked from Theodore to Stephanie. She withdrew from his glance as much as from Theodore’s questions. Charles looked Theodore up and down and crossed his arms, taking a step towards the man. “And who are you?”
“Theodore Glanville.”
“Yes, but, what are you?”
“I’m a detective, sir.”
“And under what authority are you questioning her?”
Theodore faltered momentarily. “I suppose, under my own.”
“You aren’t a police officer, then?”
“I’m a private investigator.”
“Then she isn’t bound by law to answer any of your questions?”
“No, but I—”
Stephanie bit her lip. Charles wasn't needling her, or trying to humiliate her. He was actually helping, defending her. She tried not to smile.
“Very well,” he said, stepping in front of him and brushing past Stephanie into the house. “A good day to you, sir.” He shut the door before Theodore or Stephanie could say another word.
A relieved breath filled her lungs, but there wasn’t time to enjoy it. Immediately after the door clicked shut, Charles spun around on her. “What did he want?” he said, grabbing Stephanie by the arm.
Any gratitude she might have harboured towards him, shrivelled away under his grasp. She inhaled quickly. “I don’t—”
“Don’t lie to me. What did he want?”
She tried to pull away, but he was too strong. “You’re hurting me!”
He seemed to notice his hand on her arm for the first time. Surprise showed in his eyes. He released his grip. “Fine, keep your secrets.” He looked away, running his fingers through his dark hair. “But just know that Mrs. Callowell doesn’t like people sniffing around asking questions.”
“I’m sure it was nothing to do with Mrs. Callowell.” She rubbing her arm where his hand had been. It did nothing to relieve the dull ache there.
His face fell. “I’m sorry,” he said, looking away. “I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
“Well, you did.”
He looked as though he was about to say something but stopped. A sudden darkness crossed his face as his brow furrowed. He turned and fled for the side staircase. He bounded upwards, taking the stairs two at a time as though he were fleeing something.
Or someone.

Stephanie rushed up to her bedroom. Once in the room, door closed, she dove for her pillow. Underneath, the gold locket remained, just where she’d left it. She snatched it up and held it close to her chest, closing her eyes tightly. Warm tears trickled between the creases of her eyelids.
“It’s mine,” she whispered. A promise. “She’ll never get it back.” I’ll die before I let her touch it again.
She was about to put the locket back under her pillow when she thought better of it. The safest place for such a valuable article was on her person, where she could keep an eye on it. She pulled the chain over her head and tucked the locket under her uniform. The heavy locket fell between her breasts. It was surprisingly cold. Taking a deep breath, she pressed the locket against her skin, reminding herself she’d done the right thing. It belonged with her, with family.
A soft noise from outside the door made her jump, grasping the locket through her dress. It sounded like footsteps. Her pulse quickened. Slowly, she crept towards the door. Pressing an ear against the door, she listened as another footstep fell in the hallway. It was probably Maggie, coming to look for her, she told herself, unconvincingly. The sounds of laboured breathing seeped through the door.
She grasped the door knob. Quickly, she thought. She jumped back, throwing open the door. She gasped at what she saw. A look down either side of the hallway confirmed it.
There was no one there.

So, that chapter is a touch longer, but I think it's an exciting one. What do you think? And who do you think was standing outside Stephanie's bedroom door at the end?
If you like it, or have any questions, let me hear them in the comments section!

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