About the Author
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Brian Blackstone gripped the banister and eased him self down the left-hand set of stairs. The steps' creaking bounced back and forth through the vast formal hall. This one room, the entrance hall to what had once been a splendid English manor, was half the size of his former house. The railing shook and rattled beneath his hands like ill-fitting dentures. But his weakened state forced him to lean heavily on the banister. Each step groaned as if it was ready to break and pitch him headlong. When he reached the stone landing, he heaved a sigh of relief. He heard sounds emanating from the downstairs apartment and hurried for the front door. He needed to meet whoever shared this house, but not now. One thing at a time. It was a creed that had served him well for the past two years.
Outside the solid-oak door, Brian almost stumbled over his valises. The leather suitcases were battered and grimy from two hard years of third-class travel. He had left them there the previous night because he had not felt able to carry them up the winding stairs. And the taxi driver who had brought him in from London's Heathrow Airport had certainly not been willing to take them anywhere, not after he had seen the paltry tip Brian had offered. Brian really was in no shape financially to take a taxi at all. But so late at night there had been no other way to journey from the airport to the village of Knightsbridge.
Brian heaved one case and then the other into the foyer. He unlatched the clasps and dragged out two cotton sweaters and his only jacket. They were the warmest things he owned. The clothes felt distinctly odd, particularly when layered one on top of the other. It was the first time in eleven months he had worn more than sandals, shorts, and a thin cotton shirt.
The December wind made up in wet chill for what it lacked in strength. Brian walked down the graveled drive, sheltered beneath the tallest elms and chestnut trees he had ever seen. Leaves rushed about his feet as the empty branches hummed and rattled overhead. To his right stood a converted stable, red-brick and crumbling. The gatehouse and the manor's main entrance rose just beyond. The entry's tall stone pillars supported a pair of rampant lions clasping some long-forgotten family shield. The iron gates were a full fifty feet wide and thirty high, now rusted permanently open and sagging with age.
The gatehouse was as derelict as the stables. The entire facade was covered in vines, their bases as thick as his thighs where they emerged from the earth. They framed the big lead-paned windows and the doorway. The metal plate set above the mail slot announced that the house was called Rose Cottage.
As he passed through the main gates, he could not help but glance back. His first genuine view of the manor rising above the chestnuts was astonishing. No photograph could possibly do the estate justice, and upon his arrival the house had been reduced by the night and his fatigue to a hulking shadow. Now not even the gray wintry day could erase its decaying grandeur. The house only had three stories, but the ground and second floors were both more than twenty feet high. The Cotswold-stone manor was nine windows broad, and each window measured five feet across.
As he walked the narrow village lane, Brian found himself thinking back to what the taxi driver had said about Knightsbridge. Strange that the man's words seemed clearer now than they had the night before, when the world had drifted vaguely through the mist of Brian's exhaustion. Now, as he walked past brick-and-flint walls bowed with the pressure of uncounted centuries, he heard the man's voice anew. The taxi driver had related how the village was the oldest borough in England. Knightsbridge had been the first capital of William the Conqueror; the ruins of his castle still stood within the village green. The present bridge was erected upon stones set in place by the Romans themselves. The village was filled with centuries of rumors about knights and clandestine monasteries and hidden secrets and mysteriously vanished treasures. On and on the taxi driver had prattled, while Brian huddled in the dark backseat and struggled not to groan.
He felt better after a night's sleep, but slightly feverish and still very weak. The smell of freshly baked bread was the first sign that he was approaching the village's heart. The lane opened into a central square, where a banner announced the annual Christmas market. The plaza was filled with stalls and chatter and people, and flanked by buildings as old as the manor. The chilly air was spiced with mulled cider and cinnamon and cloves. Brian followed his nose to a stall with a rainbow-bright awning and a portable stove displaying trays of hot-cross buns. He pointed and asked, "How much for one of those?"
"Fifty pence, love, and a better bargain you won't be finding here today."
Fifty pence was eighty American cents, too much for a raisin bun as far as he was concerned. But his sense of prices had been seriously distorted by all the places he had recently left behind, and his stomach clenched with hollow hunger. It had been quite a while since he had felt much appetite for anything. "I'll take one, please."
He stepped to the corner of the stall and stood tearing off tiny fragments of the hot bun. Experience had taught him it was far safer to take solid food in small segments. He finished the bun, wiped his sugar-coated hands on his trousers, and waited to see how his stomach responded. When all appeared calm, he returned to the stall's front. "I'll have another, please."
"Knew you would." The woman was as broad as her stall, and the morning's heat caused her to glisten like the buns she sold. "Grand fellow like you couldn't get by on just one."
Brian handed over his money, trying not to wince at the cost, and asked, "Could you tell me where I'd find the Whitehorse Realty Company?"
"Just behind you, love. No, over there, by the solicitors."
Brian thanked the woman and moved back to the side, where the booth blocked the worst of the wind. The day was probably not too cold for early December in England. He had never been in England before. In fact, he had spent two full years avoiding this very arrival.
He felt eyes on him, and knew it was not just his imagination. He tried to remind himself that eyes had followed him through many of his travels, for he had been in a number of places where white men were an oddity. But he could not fool himself into thinking that it did not matter. Here was different. Here he was supposed to feel at home.
A strident shouting match across the square caught his attention. He could not make out the words, but the banners above the two opposing camps were clear enough. Two elderly ladies staffed a narrow stall whose banner read, "Buy a raffle ticket and save the heritage of our village bells." Two hefty women shouted at them and gestured angrily, waving placards as though wishing they were holding battle-axes. Brian squinted and made out the placards' words: "Ban the noise; ban the bells. Sign our petition today." Just as the argument threatened to come to blows, a lean, middle-aged gentleman wearing a vicar's collar rushed up and swiftly stilled both sides. Brian found himself admiring the man and his ability to calm waters with a few quiet words.
Then he heard two women behind him talking loudly and assuming the noise from across the market masked their voices. Brian realized they were speaking about him.
The first woman said, "He doesn't strike me as a posh gent."
"What, you were expecting the Yank to show up wearing a pair of shiny gray shoes, them with buttons up the side?"
"All I'm saying is, a deep-pockets like him ought to pay a little mind to how he goes about town. Look at him, will you? Skin and bones, he is. Not to mention brown as a native. Clothes flapping on his frame like they was hanging on a line out my back garden."
"Don't be daft. A bloke that rich can ruddy well dress how he likes."
"Say what you like, I'm thinking the new master of Castle Keep is as batty as the old maid herself was."
Brian finished his second hot-cross bun, brushed his hands on his trousers, and moved off. There was nothing to be gained from correcting them. Nor from asking how they knew who he was. The busybody attitude of small village life was one of the reasons he had avoided coming to Knightsbridge for so long. One of many.
Nor were the market women the only ones who knew of him. For as he crossed the cobblestone square, the realtor's door opened and a man bounced out. Everything about him was tightly compressed. The man did not rise above five feet six inches nor weigh more than a hundred and fifty pounds. He sported a double-breasted blue blazer, a flamboyant yellow polka-dot tie and matching pocket handkerchief, and a trim beard. As he offered Brian a small, neat hand, even his smile was condensed, slipping in and out of view in seconds. His voice popped out words like a softly cracking whip. "You must be Mr. Blackstone. Hardy Seade. Such a pleasure, sir. A pleasure. Please, come in. Come in."
The office was compact as well, the ceiling so low-beamed that Brian had to stoop to cross before the receptionist's desk. Hardy Seade asked, "Will you have a coffee, tea?"
"Sorry about the ceiling heights. They weren't built with Americans in mind." He gave quick laugh as he led Brian into the back office. "Naturally not, since this building was erected before America was discovered. Most of the Knightsbridge market predates your aunt's estate. Have a seat there, Mr. Blackstone."
Brian slid into the chair, eased the crick in his neck, and corrected, "My wife's aunt."
Hardy Seade hesitated in the act of seating himself. "I beg your pardon?"
"Heather Harding was my wife's aunt."
Seade lowered himself and proceeded tensely. "But all the documents l...