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Authors: Jennifer; Wilde

Stranger by the Lake

BOOK: Stranger by the Lake
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Stranger by the Lake

Jennifer Wilde writing as Beatrice Parker

CHAPTER ONE

It was pouring down rain when I got off the train, and there was no one to meet me at the station. I wasn't at all surprised. Aunt Agatha was always vague about timetables and dates, and she had probably forgotten that I was to arrive in Gordonville this evening. It was just as well, as I was drenched, my clothes soaked and my hair a mass of limp wet tendrils. It had been over three years since I had seen my aunt, and I didn't relish the idea of our reunion taking place when I looked like a drowned cat. I would stay at the inn tonight and take a taxi to Gordonwood in the morning.

The station was deserted. It was never bustling, even on the busiest days. Gordonville was a small village over two hundred miles from London, one of those quaint, rustic little communities full of eccentrics and very little industry. Historians revered it as the birthplace of Sir Robert Gordon, the explorer and linguist who had been one of the most flamboyant and fascinating men of the Victorian age. Aunt Agatha had married his grandson. A widow now, she lived in the vast old house the first Sir Robert had purchased in 1790. Although I had been there only once before, I remembered the house vividly. It reeked of the history of those colorful individuals who had lived there in the past and was filled with curios and bizarre artifacts Sir Robert had brought back from his many explorations. I was eager to explore it again, but that could wait till morning. At the moment I was far more eager to get into some dry clothes.

Remembering that the local inn was just down the street from the train station, I hurried toward it, gripping a suitcase in each hand and holding my head down. The rain poured mercilessly, splattering noisily on the sidewalks. I kicked open the door of the inn and rushed into the lobby, dropping my luggage and shaking myself briskly. The young man behind the desk jumped up in alarm, his face pale. He looked as though he expected me to pull a gun and start firing away. I smiled reassuringly, but that didn't seem to help much.

“Where did
you
come from?” he asked shakily.

“The train station.”

“In
this
downpour?”

“There was no one to meet me,” I explained, “and no taxis were available. You
do
have taxis in Gordonville, don't you? I'm going to need one in the morning.”

“There's no regular taxi service, if that's what you mean. I have an old Chevrolet parked out back. Anyone needs a lift, they give me a call.”

“Marvelous. Now, about a room——”

“How long were you planning to stay?”

“Just the night. If it's not too much trouble,” I added, somewhat irritably.

He grinned and cocked his head to one side. He was a handsome lad in his early twenties with shaggy dark blond hair and marvelous brown eyes. I regretted my peevishness immediately. He handed me a pen and asked me to sign the register, and after I had done so he picked up my bags and led the way up a flight of broad wooden stairs. I smoothed my hair back, wondering just how much damage the rain had done.

“Don't get many visitors this time of year,” he said over his shoulder. “In fact, we don't get many visitors at all. Gordonville isn't exactly a blooming metropolis.”

“I've noticed that.”

“Come here often?”

“I've only been here once, and I was twelve years old at the time. My aunt lives here. She's Lady Agatha Gordon. I'm going to be staying at Gordonwood.”

We were walking down the hall. He stopped to turn and look at me, a curious expression on his face. His dark brown eyes were filled with suspicion and something almost like fear. I was puzzled.

“Is something wrong?” I asked.

“No—uh—here's your room. It's the nicest we've got.”

He led me inside and set the bags down beside the door. He was studying me now as though I were some exotic creature from another land. All his cheerfulness was gone, and his mouth was tight. He looked resentful, and worried. I shook my head, certain that my imagination was working overtime. I took a few coins from my purse and offered them to him.

“No tips,” he said gruffly.

“I see. Do you have room service? I'm going to want something to eat after I've changed.”

“We've got a restaurant downstairs,” he said. “It's the best in town. Keeps us going when the rooms remain empty.” He paused, giving me a long, searching stare. “My name's Charlie Grayson,” he said abruptly. “I own this inn. My folks left it to me. I don't like trouble.”

“Few of us do,” I said, more puzzled than ever. “Thank you, Charlie. The room's divine.”

He left, closing the door behind him. I didn't know whether to go into shock or burst into laughter. Charlie Grayson was a most peculiar fellow, I thought, but then peculiar fellows were not uncommon in towns like Gordonville. Isolated, inbred, out of step with the more modern communities, places like this bred eccentrics. People were less involved with the major issues of the day, and they had more time to develop their idiosyncrasies. I thought it was charming, far more interesting than the mass conformity found in the major cities.

I put these thoughts out of my mind and surveyed the room. It was delightful, if somewhat shabby. The wallpaper was ivory with a border of blue and green flowers, and the carpet was green, the nap worn with age. There was a massive brass bed with a quilted blue counterpane, and a white milkglass vase on the dresser held a bouquet of white and yellow roses, their petals drooping sadly. Most pleasing of all was the gray marble fireplace with logs and paper fan all ready to be lighted. I took a match from the container on the mantel and had a pleasant fire glowing in a matter of minutes.

The bathroom adjoining was done in ancient jade green tiles, and the plumbing was prehistoric, but that didn't matter. It worked, although there were some rather ominous noises in the pipes. I took a long soaking bath, reveling in the hot water and the fragrant soap lather, and when I stepped back into the room half an hour later I felt like a new person. The fatigue of the long day's train ride was gone, and I felt gloriously indolent. It was nice to be away from London for a while, nice to have no more deadlines to meet, no more galley proofs to correct.

The new book was finished, and my publisher was satisfied. In a few months my fans would have another Susan Marlow novel to read, and my critics would have yet another excuse to exercise their wits and denounce such insubstantial fare. My books were light mysteries, with an emphasis on romance. They were great fun to write and, evidently, great fun to read, for they sold nicely, if not quite as briskly as I would have preferred. While they didn't bring great wealth, they enabled me to lead a comfortable life, and in between books I could travel and feel wonderfully independent. There had been several years of secretarial work before the first book sold, and I was blissfully thankful to be free of that form of slavery at last.

The fire was crackling merrily now, tiny orange flames licking at the charred logs, and the room was snug and warm and very inviting. I could hear the rain clattering on the roof, but it was a pleasant sound now that I was no longer out in it. I felt unreasonably happy as I took a dress out of my suitcase and laid it out. I was twenty-five years old and on my own. I was going to spend a week or so with my aunt and then I intended to throw caution to the winds and have two outrageously expensive weeks in Majorca. My ever-tottering budget could scarcely tolerate such extravagance, yet I was going to indulge myself just the same. Perhaps I could persuade Aunt Agatha to join me on the trip. She was a vivacious creature, full of fun and frolic, with the ability to make even the most tiresome task seem like a lark. She would be a marvelous traveling companion, and it would do her good to get away from Gordonwood for a spell.

I hummed to myself as I put on the dress. It was blue, with a snugly fitting waist and a short, full-gathered skirt that swirled about my knees. It showed my healthy figure off to advantage, and as I tugged at the waistband I wondered if that figure was growing a bit too healthy. I frequently despaired at my robust, well-rounded body. Not that I was plump, mind you, but this was the day of thin, wraithlike models, and I would always have a fullblown figure, no matter how I starved myself. I stepped over to the mirror for the first time, bracing myself to see just how much damage the rain had done to my hair.

It was an unnerving sight. No wonder Charlie Grayson had acted in such a peculiar manner. My hair looked as though I spent the majority of my time on the moors, stirring a cauldron. It was dry now, fortunately, but tangled and matted in a coiffure that would have done justice to Medusa in her heyday. Grabbing a brush from my bag, I launched an attack on the dark brown mats, brushing furiously for a good ten minutes. It finally fell in long lustrous waves to my shoulders and gleamed with golden chestnut highlights. I sighed, satisfied at last with the reflection.

My face was attractive, if not remarkably so. I had a clear complexion, high cheekbones, and a straight nose. My lips were full, naturally pink, and my eyes were large, a deep violet-blue. I would never win any beauty awards, true, but my features were pleasant and friends said I had a clean-scrubbed, wholesome look. I didn't know whether to take that as a compliment or not. At least I wasn't plain, and I had enough natural coloring to keep the use of cosmetics to a bare minimum.

I left the room and went downstairs, feeling quite contented and wondering if I should call Aunt Agatha. If I did, she would insist I come on out to Gordonwood, and I wasn't going to go out in that rain again for anyone. I would simply wait until morning and surprise her. She had probably forgotten that I intended to come at all. Aunt Agatha was always bubbling over with enthusiasms, always involved with some madly improbable project, and she had little interest in mundane matters. That was part of her charm. I was enough like her to appreciate her distressing lack of concern for the boring realities of day-to-day existence.

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