Daily Lines, Day Nine

Darcy was ecstatic to be freed from his mud room prison. After greeting Dex, jumping like a kangaroo on his hind legs, he turned to Mark, nailing him in his most sensitive area. Practice made Mark’s response automatic, and the dog hit his protective hands instead.

“Darcy! Not there! For god’s sake, not there,” Dex said, laughing. “I’ve got this down, now,” said Mark, opening the door to the yard. The whippet ran outside, making circles, decreasing in speed till he found just the right shrub. Mark stood behind Dex, his arms around her waist, nuzzling the back of her neck. “He’ll be all right outside for a bit, now, won’t he?” asked Mark. “Long enough,” replied Dex.

He kissed his way around her neck, turning her to him as he progressed, lifting her onto the washer. She raised her head, and she felt his kiss warm her down to her toes. “Oh, Mark,” she sighed. “Let’s go upstairs.”

“No, here,” he said, pulling his shirt over his. “Now.”

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Daily Lines, Day Eight

“Where’s Mark?” asked Claire. “Out there,” replied Dex, pointing down the hill. “With Samantha.”

“Not done, Ed,” said Claire. “Let’s go look at the gatehouse!”

Laura sighed. “Really, isn’t Mark capable of assessing the project without a crowd?” she asked. “I thought you wanted to see that portrait again.”

Dex strode to the glass door, out onto the ravaged lawn, Claire on her heels. She hoped Dex could rein in her temper when she got to Mark, she worked hard to get those two together, and she wasn’t going to watch all that effort go up in the smoke from a Dex Cranford explosion, and from the look on Dex’s face, Mount Cranford was going to blow.

“Dex, wait,” she said, catching up, grabbing Dex’s arm. “Don’t be mad at Mark, from the minute that woman saw him, she was salivating like a dog at dinner time.”

“From the moment he saw that portrait in the drawing room, he was in another world,” said Dex. “And then he saw Samantha, who looks exactly like the portrait, and he’s off with her? I’d say he’s flattered that she’s that obviously attracted to him.”

“Laura will put a stop to that,” said Claire. “She’ll think she has a prior claim on Mark.”

“I have a prior claim on Mark,” said Dex. “Or I thought I did.”

Daily Lines, Day Seven

“What seems to be project for us, Laura,” asked Mark.

“Oh, I’ll show you,” said Laura, taking his arm, drawing him away from Dex.

“It’s outside, but there’s another issue, in the tower, the woodworking contractor thinks the railing isn’t up to code or something,” she stopped at the doorway to the morning room, flooded with cool northern light streaming in the wall of windows opening to the terrace that filled the fourth side of the house, light filtered only by the branches of leafless trees.

“What a perfect room for an artist,” said Dex.

“That’s what I’m hoping,” said the woman seated beside Ed at the dropleaf table off to the side of the room. She smiled, saying “and this must be Mark. I’ve heard so much about you, Laura thinks you’re a genius.” She raised her hand to Mark, who took hold with both hands. “I’m Samantha, but you can call me Sam.”

Dex inhaled sharply. The woman at the table was the twin of the woman in the drawing room portrait.

“My sister,” said Laura. “Younger sister,” said Sam, tilting down her head, looking at up at Mark through long, long lashes.

“So, Dex,” began Claire, “I think there may be a genetic link to our Lady of the Ruby Ring. Don’t you think?”

“Laura,” said Dex, “when I asked if you knew who the subject of that picture is, why did you say you didn’t know?”

Ed looked up from the table. “Oh yeah,” he said. “I see it now.”

“Now?” asked Dex.

“That picture’s been out for cleaning, it wasn’t hung till the day before you saw it,” said Laura. She shrugged. “I don’t know. There is some resemblance–”

Samantha laughed, one of those silvery, classic movie laughs, a Norma Shearer, Constance Bennett laugh, enchanting, charismatic, and calculatingly cold.

“Oh, Laura,” she said, “I’m sure Granny Speakman would be delighted to know that Philadelphia’s next best-selling author looks so much like her!”

“Maybe it is Granny Speakman,” said Laura, “but I wouldn’t be so happy about it, she came to a bad end. I think. Our family wasn’t big on genealogy. The portrait in the hall is definitely a relative, it’s identified.”

“Who’s the artist?” asked Dex, looking out at the tracks through the gardens left by heavy equipment, crushing the perennials and small shrubs.

“You’re a writer,” asked Mark, as Samantha stood, took his arm and began to draw him from the room.

“Maybe,” said Sam very softly, bending over to speak into Mark’s ear. “I’ve sent my manuscripts to several publishers. I think my series will be the next ‘Outlander’ or Debbie Macomber. Romance, liberally peppered with mystery.” She gave him another flash of brown eye from beneath lashes. “And sex. This is going to be my writing room, but I’ll be living in the gatehouse.” She took another step toward the door.

“But that’s a wreck!” said Claire, batting the third petit pain au chocolat from Ed’s hand.

“That’s why I wanted Mark here,” said Laura, looking pointedly at Dex. “Steve wants to know if it’s feasible to renovate. And if it’s not, a replacement plan. This is a historic property, and we want it done right. Maybe you could take some pictures or something, for Milton. There’s bound to be something you can do, since you’re so useless as a psychic.”

Dex looked at Mark, to see his reaction. She had the impression that the new project at Edgecombe Hall he described to her on the way over was a minor problem with the major work already in progress, not a whole new building.

Mark and Sam were gone. She looked out the wall of windows again, and there they were: walking arm in arm, heads together, toward the derelict gatehouse a quarter mile away, near the end of the old, disused drive.

Daily Lines, Day Six

“Is this not yours?” he glared at her.

“Yes, but–” she said.

“One of the workman discovered it at the top of the unfinished staircase. Would you care to explain how it came to be there?” Henry demanded.

“I do not know,” she whispered, her head beginning to spin. “I never—”

“You were at the top of the unfinished staircase, a dangerous place for a woman in your condition. I forbid you—again—from entering the Tower until construction is complete.”

He snatched the fabric square from the desk as Emma reached for it. “I shall call for Doctor Schaefer, I believe you have some condition affecting your intelligence. Be available this afternoon. Can you manage that? You will not wander off on the grounds. You will not bedevil Mr. Swayne in his studio with your ridiculous smears.”

Emma swallowed hard, trying to hold back the tears that would only serve to increase Henry’s annoyance with her. “Yes,” she said.

He pressed his lips together, and slapped his hand on the desk, making her jump.

“Yes, what?” he asked.

“Yes, Henry, my love,” she replied, a single tear fighting its way down her cheek. “Yes, my dear.”

Daily Lines, Day Five

“Voodoo girl?” asked Steve, “Is that what you call her? She does seem to have what’s his name in her spell.”

“She has Peter Werkhiser under her spell,” said Laura. “He poured his heart out to me last month at the Art Association opening.”

“That’s what you do at these things?” asked Steve. “You sit with some young guy, hold his hand, listen to his life story? Anything else I should know?”

Laura waved a beautifully manicured hand as though swishing away an unpleasant smell. “Oh, Steve,” she said, “you know you’re the only man for me.”

“I guess I know that,” said Steve. “But the only man for you is sick of this house. I don’t care how long it was in your family, let’s get the hell out.”

“Dinner is ready,” announced Tiffany, the housekeeper, making Laura jump. “We’ll discuss this later,” said Laura, clopping into the hallway.

Steve caught Tiffany’s eye and smiled. “Did she find it?” whispered the housekeeper. “Do you know how hard it is to get a Siamese cat to do something it doesn’t exactly want to do? Did she find it?”

“She had to,” said Steve. “She called that ghost woman from the Red Rose Inn.”

“Mark’s girlfriend,” said Tiffany. “I guess Laura thinks she can kill two birds with one stone.”

“Tiffany!” shouted Laura from the dining room. “I do prefer my hot food hot and  my cold food cold. Are you serving dinner this evening, or do I need to serve myself?”

“Better go,” said Steve, giving her a quick hug and a push toward the dining room. “See you later, sweetie,” replied Tiffany.

Daily Lines, Day Four

Laura stood in front of a landscape, flooded with light. Dex knew exactly what time of day that picture had been painted, she’d seen Chester County landscapes in precisely the same light and vague mist.

“Norman told us this was the best picture in the collection,” Laura said. “It’s a William Trost Richards, actually painted near here.”

“Lovely,” said Dex. “I’ve long been a fan of his, there are several pictures in the Museum.”

She could see through the open doors into the big parlor, admiring the purple curtains framing the almost floor to ceiling windows that looked out onto the porch. A woman’s portrait hung over the fireplace, and Dex walked into the room, leaving Laura and Claire behind in the hall.

“Dex?” asked Claire, following.

“Well!” huffed Laura. “I was going to show the other landscapes here in the hall, and there’s a Maud Earl I thought Claire would like to see.”

Claire found Dex staring at the three-quarter pose portrait. The subject was a thin woman, in clothes from a time when substantial women were the fashion; her dark hair was pulled tightly back from a center part and formed into a pile of ringlets atop her head that spilled down to her shoulders. She was wearing a deep red dress that seemed to reflect fiery highlights into her brilliant hazel eyes, brilliance that suggested the artist had captured her expression seconds before she burst into tears. The corners of her mouth seemed to hold back whatever emotion was exposed by her eyes, yet her face was beautiful, and the eyes riveting. Displayed prominently on her right hand which lay face down in her lap, the paleness of her arm acting as an arrow, was a ruby ring, the large red stone sparking crimson fire from its nest of diamonds.

Dex stood before the portrait, mesmerized. The woman in the portrait seemed uncomfortable in her sumptuous dress, adding a suggestion of being on the verge of panic. A skittish woman, likely to bolt at any moment.

“Who are you?” Dex whispered. “And why are you so sad?”

Daily Lines, Day Three

Dex waited by the sliding glass door that led to her back stoop. Any moment now, Claire would fly up her driveway, pausing momentarily for Dex to leap into the silver Mercedes coupe that had been Ed’s first post-windfall gift. Darcy, now incarcerated in the mud room that doubled as a laundry room, yowled as the car sped up the drive.

“Hurry,” said Claire said through the open window, “I’m dying to hear why Laura Peters wants you.”

“Locking me up in a basement so she has a clear run at Mark?” Dex replied, climbing in the passenger seat. “Does she know he’s in England right now?”

Claire rolled into the road from Dex’s driveway and hit the gas. “Please,” begged Dex, “please stop at the end of my driveway. Mark almost got t-boned leaving here just before he left for Bradford. No one does the speed limit down this road these days.”

“Sure, sure,” said Claire. Her cell phone buzzed into life. Grieg’s “In The Hall of The Mountain King” jangled in tinny low-fidelity sound. “That’s Laura. Hello Laura, we’re on our way. Yes, I know I said a half hour and that was forty-five minutes ago. I had to persuade Dex into this.”

Claire glanced at Dex, shaking her head as she looked out the window at the passing Chester County countryside, in the full splendor of early autumn that precedes shortened days and falling leaves.

“Dex Cranford. The graphic designer. Mark’s girlfriend. Yes, he has a girlfriend, and Dex is she.”

Claire sighed. “My voodoo girl.”

Dex suppressed her laughter at this. “Tell her I’m bringing a live rooster to sacrifice on her doorstep,” said Dex, “tell her it’s critical that she humor me about everything or I’ll turn her into a zombie, the old fashioned, Val Lewton kind of zombie.”

“What’s that, Laura? I didn’t hear you, Dex was talking to me.” Claire put her hand over the phone, removing both hands from the wheel. “Shh, Dex, you’ll just provoke her.”

She grabbed the wheel again, turning to match the car’s path to the road’s curve. “We’ll be there in five minutes,” Claire said, punching the ‘end’ button.

“Do you think she’ll give us lunch,” asked Dex. “I’m hungry. Maybe we should stop. Iron Hill is right nearby, isn’t it? She’s in the serpentine mansion on Street Road, right? Mark told me about it, there were interesting issues with the exterior facade.”

“Laura Peters doesn’t give anyone anything,” replied Claire, “unless it’s giving Mark’s behind the eye. I’m telling you, she wants him.”

“She’s married!” said Dex. “Maybe I can divert her attraction to Pete instead, he’s rented the loft at that wrought iron artist’s barn, so he’s fairly close. He doesn’t much go for married women though. That would be a problem.”

“What about Mark?” asked Claire, “what’s his position on married women?”

Dex shrugged. “Don’t know, the subject never came up.”

“What do you talk about anyway?” Claire asked. “You’re either a clam that requires any conversation to be extracted with forceps, or you chatter on and on and on about nothing. Which are you with Mark.”

“Depends,” said Dex. “Sometimes he takes the conversational bit in his teeth and runs with it, and sometimes I do. I’m happy to listen to him. I mean, have you heard him talk? I keep trying to get him to read to me, but so far, not happening.”

Claire was happy to see Dex smiling while she spoke of Mark, happy to see her friend happy after all the drama with Pete.

“We go birdwatching, we take Darcy for walks in the nature preserve, we play Scrabble,” said Dex.

“Is that it? I’m horribly, horribly disappointed with you,“ said Claire.

“Well…” smirked Claire, “…but I’m not going to tell you about it.”

“Oh, come on,” said Claire. “Dish.”

The Mercedes purred into the circular driveway before Edgecombe Hall. The four storey tower loomed over them, throwing the garden area contained by the drive into shadow. Apparently, the Peterses were saving the landscaping for last, which was a good idea judging from the tire tracks in the lawn to the left of the tower. Something large and heavy drove through there.

When the two women got out of the car, they could hear the groan and buzz of heavy equipment working nearby. Claire paused a moment to examine Dex, who was prone to leave her house wearing her gardening clothes, consisting of jeans or cut-off jeans that needed extreme unction and tank tops with whippet pawprints in inopportune areas. She sighed with relief, Dex was wearing capri jeans today, and a cropped boatneck jersey. Mark had done wonders for her wardrobe, thought Claire.

“I changed before you got there,” said Dex, making Claire jump. “Though the idea of meeting Laura Peters on her own turf in my cut-offs and a ragged T-shirt did kind of appeal to me. I did not apply make-up or do anything to my hair.”

Claire made a face at Dex’s smug smile. “You never need make-up. I hate you.”

Daily Lines, Day Two

“Do you remember the forty-ish woman, a tad heavier than the usual wife of a developer who’s grown the final crops of six Chester County farms as McMansions? Wearing a burgundy Monique Lhullier dress just a teensy bit too tight with expensive shoes a teensy bit too high? And following Mark around just a teensy bit too close?”

“Oh, her,” said Dex. “She made quite an impression on Mark. With her fingernails. He had dents in his arm.” She took a bite from her sandwich, finally cool enough to eat and waited for Claire’s reaction.

“They acquired Edgecombe Hall sometime last year, he vetted the place for them. So she pre-dates you with Mark and obviously feels a little…proprietary?” replied Claire. “They’ve made extensive renovations on some of the rooms downstairs, and one of the baths upstairs so they could move in, and now Laura is hearing things.”

Dex snorted. “People always hear things in old houses. This place isn’t that old, and I hear things. I hear mice and god knows what else. Darcy hears things, but that doesn’t mean the place is haunted.”

She took another bite from her grilled cheese, savoring the crunch of toasted bread and the sweetness of a fresh, homegrown ripe tomato. Good pepper jack really was the best way to stuff a grilled cheese sandwich, with homemade sourdough bread a good base. No response from Claire…yet.

“Well?” Dex asked. “Are you at a loss for words (finally), or are you still thinking?”

She could hear Claire rummaging in a container. “What?” said Claire. “Oh! Sorry, the puppy I’m running on was playing tug of war with one of my bar towels. What did you say?”

“I said, all old houses make noises,” replied Dex. “Edgecombe Hall would be no exception.”

“Yes, but…” began Claire.

“No buts,” said Dex, chewing another bite of her sandwich. “The Inn was a one-off, I’m sure. I’d always had, well let’s just call them feelings, there, and what I think I saw–”

“What you know you saw,” interrupted Claire. “You saw the skeleton we found in the well put a bag of gold behind a loose stone in the cellar. And you know it. Don’t try to bamboozle me.”

“One-off,” said Dex definitively. “Never had those feelings anywhere else.” She relaxed the frown on her face and smiled. “Maybe I’m just attuned to your Inn.”

“Doesn’t matter,” said Claire, “I told Laura Peters I’d bring you along to check it out. Did I tell you she described you as my ‘voodoo girl’?”

“Oh cool,” replied Dex, “shall I kill a chicken and sprinkle blood on her porch? That would be a nice touch. My neighbors have a rooster I bet they’d part with.”

“Mind you,” Claire began, “on the other hand, she might just be trolling for Mark. I think she has a thing for him, and her husband is a bit…gruff.”

“The developer?” asked Dex, then dropped the phone. Claire heard running footsteps, and a whippet skidding on a non-carpeted surface.

“Darcy, you stinker,” she could hear Dex shout. “I wasn’t finished with that.” Dex returned to the phone.

“He pinched the last quarter of my sandwich!” said Dex. “Practically out of my hand! He’s getting worse. That’s it, I’m setting mousetraps.”

Daily Lines

In the bright light of the morning, Laura couldn’t imagine being frightened by a cat wandering about in her mansion. She roamed through the redecorated drawing room, pale mauve dupioni silk portieres framing the doorway into the morning room. She ran her hand over the polished surface of one of the mahogany tables beside the fat upholstered chairs, royal purple sateen gleaming softly in the light filtering through the louvered shutters on the long windows. She paused to lift the Meissen shepherdess, admiring the delicacy of the hand that had painted that petal pink pout two hundred years before. Steve hated that shepherdess; he wasn’t fond of her companion shepherd, either. Too wussy, he complained. Laura smiled at the altercation he’d had with the designer about the library. Norman Walters wanted to continue with more purple in that room, this time velvet for the upholstered seats and backs on the chairs for the library table. Steve had been adamant. No purple in his library. She wandered into his room, his room with oxblood Moroccan leather instead of purple velvet.

She looked up at the mounted eland head, proof you could buy anything for interior decoration these days, Steve never traveling outside the United States. “Not that he’d shoot an eland, either,” she said to the antelope’s head. “He was kind of upset with Norman about you.”

From the corner of her eye, she spied a bit of white beside the enormous teak desk that Walters had uncovered in a remote antique shop on the Eastern Shore. The large buffalo horn inkwell lay on the floor beside. She bent over it, picking up a handkerchief so fine that the fabric was nearly transparent. Embroidered in the corner in faintly lavender silk were the initials “ESH.”

I’m cheating a bit…

I started “A Flash of Cochineal” a while ago, but didn’t apply myself to NaNoWriMo in either 2015 or 2016. I have no excuses, simply a lack of will. This year, I’ve planned a little more, though what good that’s going to do, I don’t know, my characters seem to get away from me at times.

This year’s effort involves Dex, Claire and more intricately, Dex’s new beau Mark, who finds a young woman, strongly resembling the subject of a Gilded Age portrait, strangely attractive.

Each plot involves a physical location in Chester County, and for 2017 I’m using a serpentine mansion, originally built for a wealthy local businessman before the Civil War, but enlarged and updated to Victorian magnificence by a Philadelphia magnate in 1878. There’s a tragedy attached to this house, and Dex must unravel the threads from both the 21st century and the 19th century to reveal the “Flash of Cochineal”.