Authors: Stacey Coverstone
Tags: #mystery, #series, #Paranormal, #Romance, #Gothic, #novella
DECEPTION AT DARK HALL
Book Two of The Briony Martin Mystery Series
Copyright: 2013 by Stacey Coverstone
Cover Art by Sheri L. McGathy
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales, is entirely coincidental.
All rights reserved. No part of this ebook may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission of the author. This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people.
To my aunt, Karen Kruse, who was one of my greatest fans and biggest supporters, and to Paul, the love of my life.
Thank you to Melissa Blue and Mary Whealdon for reading, critiquing and editing this novella. Your assistance was greatly appreciated.
Early February 1956
Just over three months ago, Briony Martin bid farewell to the island of Cape Marble, Maine, its ghosts, and John Fletcher. Since she’d been back home in Kansas, John had called on the telephone once each week and they’d exchanged photos and monthly letters. But he’d yet to come visit as he’d promised the day the ferry chugged away from the dock.
She sat on the edge of her bed in the house she shared with her mother in Wichita. Every time she looked at the photo of John on her bedside table, an internal flame ignited. After he’d surprised her on Cape Marble’s dock with a public and passionate kiss that had spoken of desire and possible love, Briony’s heart soared with the promise of a potential future with the ruggedly handsome private investigator. Now it had been three consecutive weeks without word of any kind.
Releasing a sigh, she continued to pack clothes into the suitcase lying open on her bed.
Having succeeded in eradicating many of her former fears after returning to her quiet life as a court stenographer, Briony struggled to push down the building anxiety that bubbled. Although John had sworn his job mostly involved doing background checks, locating missing persons, conducting surveillance, and performing clandestine operations such as digging through people’s trash and photographing cheating spouses, occasionally he found himself in dangerous situations dealing with hardened criminals.
Could one of those criminals have hurt him? Did he get injured while working on one of his cases? Was he sick and in the hospital? Or worse. Had he died? John’s father passed away before Briony had a chance to meet him. There were no siblings. In the months they’d kept in touch, John hadn’t mentioned the names of friends. There’d be no one to let her know if something terrible had happened to him.
Briony double-checked to make sure she had everything she needed for her trip and snapped the suitcase shut. Still reflecting, she pulled her winter jacket out of the closet and slipped her arms through.
After her father’s abandonment and her brother Ben’s death, she couldn’t bear the thought of losing another person she loved. But there wasn’t anything she could do aside from return to Maine and knock on John’s door to see if he answered. If he answered, but his feelings for her had cooled or he’d found someone else, she’d be mortified. Besides, chasing after a man was not her way. Social norms were well defined. Dating rituals dictated the proper way for a man to court a woman—even long distance—and Briony was one to adhere to those rituals.
She was twenty-three and John was several years older. They were beyond pinning and going steady. But they’d grown close through the months. In her mind, their relationship had developed into something special. They’d exchanged more than photographs and letters; they’d shared heartfelt sentiments.
Glancing one more time at his photo, her breath hitched. At six feet tall with deep brown eyes, thick and wide sideburns, black hair styled in a pompadour, and an extroverted personality, John was unlike any man she’d ever known. She could see spending her life with him. At night before drifting to sleep, she even allowed herself the fantasy of imagining the day when he proposed marriage.
Would her fantasy become reality? Or were John’s feelings for her only those of a good friend? Although he expressed warm affection, he hadn’t told her he loved her. If he didn’t care for her romantically, why waste both of their time with phone calls and promises of visits?
She wanted to believe he was an honorable man. But doubt as to his true intentions was beginning to creep into her bones like the icy chills she’d felt each time she encountered a ghost on Cape Marble.
Briony heaved the suitcase off of her bed and padded down the stairs. Even if she were a bold woman who didn’t care what people thought, she still couldn’t go to Maine. Her best friend, Paige, had invited her to Chicago to meet her new baby, Amanda. Briony was the godmother, and Paige wanted her there for the baby’s christening.
Because the bus ride would be more than eleven hours and too much time to spare, she was flying on an airplane for the first time. The two-hour flight on TWA would land at Chicago Midway, the world’s busiest airport. That in itself made her heart pound. When she saw her mother waiting at the kitchen door to drive her to the Wichita Mid-Continent Airport, a knot twisted her stomach. Concerns that the plane might run out of fuel, lose an engine, or crash momentarily diverted her thoughts of John.
“We’d better get a move on,” her mother said, checking her wristwatch. “You might miss your flight if there’s traffic.”
Although Briony was anxious to spend five days of quality time with Paige, her husband Mark and their baby, she questioned the decision to take an airplane rather than a bus. But her mother, who’d become a happier and more carefree person since finding closure regarding her missing husband, had encouraged her to continue on her journey of trying new things.
You’ll be all right
, Briony told herself.
Airplanes are as safe as cars
That’s what the advertisements say
. She slid onto the seat of the family Buick and began deep breathing as her mother backed out of the driveway and pressed on the gas.
~ * ~
She survived the flight and discovered she’d enjoyed the experience. Even in winter, Chicago from the air had been a beautiful sight.
“I’m so glad you were able to come,” Paige said, sitting across from Briony at her chrome kitchen table. Briony cradled a hot mug of tea in her palms. It was just what she needed to take the chill off. As soon as she’d stepped out of the airport terminal and into Paige and Mark’s waiting car, the sky had opened up to release a freezing rain, and it hadn’t let up.
Once they’d reached the Collier’s two-story brick house on a tree-lined street, Paige put Amanda down for a nap, and Mark made himself scarce to allow the friends time to catch up.
“I wouldn’t have missed my goddaughter’s christening for anything,” Briony said. “And I’ve missed you so much. A year is too long between visits.” She squeezed Paige’s hand. “Amanda is adorable. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more perfect child.”
Paige smiled. “Thank you. She’s a good baby, too. Rarely does she cry. She takes after her father. Mark is a laid-back person, you know.”
“He looks content. You both do. Marriage and relocating, and now parenthood, seems to agrees with you.” It was just a little over one year ago that Briony had been the maid of honor at Paige and Mark’s wedding. They moved shortly afterward to Chicago for a job opportunity for him. Paige had worked at a cosmetics counter in a department store before getting pregnant.
“Do you miss working?” Briony asked. She liked her job as a court stenographer, but assumed she’d give it up when the time came that she married and had a child of her own.
Paige shook her head. “You know I only worked to pass the time until we conceived. I always wanted to be a wife and mother. I’m satisfied being at home with Amanda. In my opinion, raising a child is the most important job a woman can hold.”
“I couldn’t agree more.” Briony smiled and sipped at her drink, sorry that her own mother had been forced to work outside the home when Briony’s father abandoned his family. She glanced around Paige’s kitchen to admire the matching avocado appliances, gingham curtains at the window, a rooster clock hanging on one wall, and an oversized fork and spoon on another. “Your house is cute. It must be fun to decorate it the way you want.”
Paige chuckled. “I do enjoy domesticity. Mark and I have a modern marriage in which our duties are divided equally. I shop and he pays the bills.”
They both laughed.
“Enough about me for now,” Paige said, leaning forward. Her eyes twinkled with mischief. “I want to hear all about you. Tell me more about this mystery man of yours, John Fletcher. You’ve been so cagey on the phone when talking about him.”
It’d been far too long since they’d shared secrets and dreams with one another in person. Talking on the phone wasn’t the same. When Briony first returned from Maine, she’d called and told Paige about her cross-country trip and explained how she’d learned her father had been murdered, and how the murderer had almost killed her, too. She’d even revealed her experiences with the ghosts in the lighthouse. John’s name had come up casually, and Paige had said she’d been able to tell from the lilt in Briony’s voice that he was special. Now she wanted the juicy details.
Briony finished sharing her unease about not hearing from John for three weeks when the kitchen door opened. A man looking vaguely familiar rushed in, slammed the door behind him, and wiped his wet shoes on the doormat. Water dripped from his coattails and rolled off the brim of his gray fedora.
“It’s still raining cats and dogs,” he said, glancing between Briony and Paige.
“Sit down and I’ll pour you a cup of tea. It’ll warm you up.” Paige scooted her chair out from under the table and stepped toward the stove.
He hung his jacket and hat on a peg by the door. “Don’t bother. I’m going to take a hot shower. No need to set a place for me at dinner either. I’m going out tonight.”
“Before dinner?” Paige looked disappointed.
“I’ll grab something at the diner down the street.”
“Going to Dark Hall again?” Paige’s eyebrow arched.
“Yes, I am.” His gaze narrowed, and then his head jerked toward Briony. The tight lines of his mouth relaxed and formed a polite smile. Stepping forward, he held out his hand. “Forgive my rudeness, Miss Martin. Paige and Mark told me you were coming. Nice to see you again.”
She shook his hand and stared, wondering how he knew her.
“Don’t you remember Mark’s brother, Daniel?” Paige asked. “You met at our wedding.”
That was where she’d seen him. “Of course. I thought you looked familiar.”
“I guess I didn’t make that big of an impression,” he teased. “You’re here for the christening.”
“Yes. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.” Briony suddenly remembered Paige telling her that she and Mark had chosen his brother as another godparent. “You and I are fortunate to have been selected as godparents for such a precious little treasure as Amanda,” she said to him.
“I just hope I’ll be able to live up to the obligation involved.”
“Of course you will,” Paige said.
Obviously distracted, he skimmed a hand through his disheveled hair and glanced at the rooster clock. “If you’ll both excuse me, I’m going to say hello to Mark and then shower and change. Mark’s home, isn’t he, Paige?”
“In the living room,” she said.
He nodded. “See you both later.”
When he left the kitchen and was out of earshot, Paige returned to her seat. A gray pallor replaced her previously sunny expression.
“What’s wrong?” Briony asked. She could read her friend like a book.
Paige’s voice lowered to a whisper. “It’s Daniel. I’m worried about him. Mark is, too.”
“Worried? About what?”
“It’s this woman he’s been seeing. We think she’s a bad influence on him.”
“I didn’t even know Daniel lived in Chicago. When did that happen?”
“He moved here shortly after we did. Unfortunately, he was laid off from his job in St. Louis. Mark thought a change would do him good so he helped him find a position here. So far it’s working out.”
“Oh. You say he’s seeing a woman? In what way is she a bad influence?”
Paige’s gaze shifted to the doorway. Daniel and Mark’s conversation could easily be heard from the kitchen. Her voice was barely audible when she answered. “Mark and I believe she could be into witchcraft and drugs, and God knows what else. Daniel has changed since he met her.”