A Winter's Dare by Leigh Ellwood
December, 2006 - 978-1-59426-569-3
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Kate Robeson's husky, film noir voice carried as gaily as possible through the truncated ground floor of Dare House. "Athena," she seemed to sing in the stale air, scented with ancient book dust and faded daisies, "that's enough! Behave now."
Kate stood in the kitchen of the oldest house in Dareville, now a museum preserving the legacy of a town that had withstood two wars, as well as that of the mistress who called it home during the second, and not necessarily civil, one. The plastic-wrapped loaf of wheat bread, one of a few anachronisms in the otherwise authentically appointed room, rolled to one side at Kate's feet, untouched. By human hands or feet, anyway.
Kate shook her head. Athena was going to be the death of her, she just knew it. Perhaps, though, that was the girl's plan. Perhaps she wanted more permanent company than Kate could give.
"What are you shouting about now?" The voice of Kate's mother Marlene arrived mere seconds before the shapely, sixtyish woman flounced into the kitchen, swinging a heavy purse onto a nearby butcher's block. The table's long, varnished legs cried out in response to weight it was no longer accustomed to supporting. Kate cringed and had to wonder why her mother insisted on packing like Lewis and/or Clark just for a brief excursion into town.
Marlene carried on without skipping a beat, regarding their quaint surroundings with a disapproving gaze. Her nose wrinkled and her eyes squinted, as though willing away a layer of dust that threatened to coat her skin. "Honestly, Kate," she said, "you ought to get rid of the cat. You don't need animals running around here. What if it decides to sharpen its claws on one of Polly Dare's handmade heirloom quilts?"
With a labored sigh, Kate swooped down and collected the bread with an open palm. "For the last time, Ma, there's no cat in the museum. How many times do I have to tell you that? Even if there was one, those quilts are encased in acrylic frames. No amount of cat scratching will get to them."
Marlene shrugged. "I'm surprised you don't have a cat, as much as you try to keep Dare House authentic. Didn't Polly Dare have a cat? For all we know, those celebrated quilts have been soaked through with cat piss for all these years. Preserved forever behind acrylic."
Kate rolled her eyes upward, as though wishing for x-ray vision to verify the intact cleanliness of the aforementioned quilts, lest her mother suggest extracting DNA from the threads to clone Civil War cats for fun and profit. She tried not to fist the soft bread slices into a plastic-covered ball, though she found the gesture too therapeutic to dismiss.
Carefully, breathing sharply through her nose, Kate extracted two slices for her lunch and replaced the loaf in its cupboard. Only when the door squeaked shut did she deign speak to her mother. "Polly had a beagle, named Aristotle," she said calmly, in the pleasant hostess voice used to lecture school groups and other interested parties who requested the full guided tour. "I was addressing Athena, the house servant."
"When did you hire an assistant?" Marlene reached for a potato chip from the open bag by Kate's sandwich. "And why would you call her something like that?"
"Polly's house servant, Ma!" For once since her appointment as curator of Dare House, Kate was relieved to know the place was devoid of guests. She knew damn well her mother liked to yank her chain, closet sadist that she was; anyone unaware of this practiced comedy routine might see a harried woman yelling at her dementia-suffering mother.
To be certain, Marlene Robeson was anything but senile, yet Kate braced for the inevitable implication by Marlene that the disease had come to claim her spinster child at the ripe old age of thirty-six.
"My own daughter, hearing and seeing things," Marlene muttered. "No wonder you're still single."
"I do hear Athena, Ma. Her ghost haunts this house. How do you think the bread got on the floor?" Athena indeed haunted Dare House, it was hardly delusion on Kate's part. Three separate investigations by different experts in the parapsychological field had confirmed this over the past two years, after Kate's initial suspicions prompted her to research the possibility. Luckily, Athena's spirit was a playful one, interested only in attention as it saw fit.
Skeptics like Marlene, however, saw the ghost only as a ploy to attract more business. Kate could only wish for such a boom. Children only visited the museum by virtue of field trips, and hardly seemed impressed with the stories of Athena's invisible antics. Apparently, the gentle ghost didn't bring the "shock and awe" kids preferred to find in video games, and hence behaved when tourists visited. Kate likened her to the cartoon frog she adored as a child, the one that sang and danced in private yet merely croaked in the company of others.
"How did the bread get on the floor?" Marlene echoed. "Because I have a clumsy daughter."
"Because Athena pushed it off the counter to get my attention." Kate had yet to actually hear Athena outside of the occasional rustled curtain and moved object, but imagined the ghost of the young black woman now laughed at the trouble she caused.
"Because my clumsy daughter is also befuddled."
"Is there a reason you're here bothering me?" Kate slapped her sandwich together and nearly bit the whole thing in half. A line of detached crust hung from her lip, and she chewed it slowly into her mouth.
Marlene eyed the ravenous gesture with some amusement. "Well, I had come to take you to lunch."
Kate waved the remnants of peanut butter and jelly under her mother's nose.
"Then at least close up early," Marlene pleaded. "Nobody's going to come today. There's a foot of snow on the ground, and everybody who didn't have the good sense to stay at home is at the school or at Jake's."
"I can't. I need to be here." The temptation to leave early was strong, especially with the annual Dareville Winter Festival going on at Dareville Primary Academy and the nearby grocery. Two minutes alone with her mother had Kate dying for a glass of Virginia-made Chardonnay, or whatever Jake would be serving from his inventory.
One glass? Kate chuckled to herself, reconsidering the thought. With her mother around, try twelve.
"You need to be there, socializing with real people."
"You mean men." What would be the point in that? Any man in Dareville worth the trouble was already married. All that remained were the smattering of high school graduates who had yet to move—and Kate hardly fancied herself the Mrs. Robinson type—and senior citizens about two minutes away from being able to date Athena.
"I mean people who are breathing. You spend all day in this dreary place, and all night reading about it." Marlene clucked in disapproval. "It's no way to live, obsessed with death."
"It's my job—and my research. And it's not all about death, either. I'm trying to learn more about Polly's life." Kate sighed. No sense in rehashing the same arguments with Marlene. Kate both valued her privacy and loved her job. How else would she able to write a concise history of Dareville if she didn't devote herself to the research? Finding a man could wait, and if Mr. Right was so hellbent on finding Kate, everybody in town could tell him where to find her.
Marlene snorted at Kate's reasoning, and whipped out her green woolen beret. "Fine, stay here and talk to yourself. I don't want to hear you complain the next time you bend down for a dropped loaf of bread and your back gives out from osteoporosis, because you're so damned old and alone."
"You won't." You'll be dead by then, I hope, she thought, but not with malice. "And I'll try to be less clumsy. Maybe the next thing I'll have to pick up from the ground will be my hat, when I'm old enough to join the Green Berets."
"We are called Jaded Ladies," Marlene said, and arranged the beret on her head in a jaunty tilt. A few strands of gray missed by Marlene's stylist curled on her forehead. Kate tried not to laugh. It was nice to see her mother finally come out of her recent depression, following the desertion of Kate's father and a failed attempt to pursue a relationship with grocer Jake Marbury. Joining the social club geared toward middle aged woman seemed a smart move for Marlene, though Kate had to question the wisdom of the name, jaded meaning cynical.
Then again, maybe all these women did was drink and compare the sexual inadequacies of their ex-husbands. If so, Kate felt better for having spent her nights alone.
She shooed her mother out the front door, leaving Athena to the sandwich and other antiquated household appliances. "Go," she commanded. "Enjoy the festival. I have to stick around anyway for the delivery guy. I'm expecting some documents from Richmond. If nobody comes to visit by three I'll close early and meet you there, okay?"
Marlene didn't counter the compromise and left on a pleasant note to accompany the ringing bell hooked atop the door. Kate waited until the older woman reached the sidewalk before splitting into a relieved smile. Her back to the now closed door, she sank an inch and pressed her weight against the wood, wincing as her knees creaked in response. Damn, she was getting old.
Old and alone, chided her mother's voice in her head. Kate frowned and blew away a clump of brown hair fallen between her eyes, expelling with it the sudden image conjured of an older version of herself rocking in Polly Dare's favorite chair, surrounded by cats.
No. Much as she enjoyed her solitary life, Kate never imagined she would be unwed forever. She corrected herself—she was not getting old. Thirty-six may have been ancient for the spinster Polly Dare in the Reconstruction Era, but in the twenty-first century women were reconstructed. If Madonna could stare fifty straight in the eye while spinning on a stripper pole without getting dizzy, Kate figured she had time.
Right now, she craved the time alone, and the quiet of Dare House as she waited for her important package. Just her, the books she loved, the naked woman stretched over the staircase...
Kate hadn't focused on any particular spot when Marlene left, but in her reverie allowed her gaze to pan the breadth of the parlor, the hallway, and the small foyer with the podium that served as the admissions kiosk. The gentle movements dancing in her peripheral vision she attributed to everyday bleariness, as often as she pored over handwritten diaries and histories when Dare House was empty. Looking up the stairwell toward the second floor landing, her breath hitched upon seeing a lithe, young woman two shades away from midnight, her elbows propped against the step, arching her back to better display her small, bare breasts.
Naked, black, and beautiful. Dark eyes appraised Kate with silent amusement. Full lips curved upward and parted slightly to offer a flash of white. Even with the dimmed light and distance, Kate felt blinded by that smile, shocked to encounter a face she had first seen in the charcoal sketches of Polly Dare's journals.