All Vivianna had to do now was get inside. That was it. Easy, really. You can do this, Vivianna. Maybe if she motivated herself the way her father would, like an unforgiving general? “You must do this.” She was here. She’d made it. Why was she frozen now? She wanted this. She craved this. She thought she might die if she didn’t get this opportunity. And here she was. She couldn’t let a little thing like the dark scare her now.
No. She shook her head. It wasn’t that. The black sky overhead was full of stars, more beautiful than ominous. Was it that she’d never been by herself in her life? Was that what frightened her? She’d been surrounded by people at her father’s, at her grandmother’s, her assistants and servants always hovering. And yet she’d always felt completely and utterly alone.
Standing on the sidewalk, her driver waiting, watching her, and she couldn’t move. He’d set her suitcases by the front door and returned to the SUV. She’d climbed out, taken two steps, let out a breath and with that it was like all her energy, all her push, all her need to get here fizzled out like someone had doused the fire with a bucket of water.
She’d fallen asleep on the way here from the airport, finally, after not sleeping well in the days leading up to her trip. No sleep, too nervous to eat, and here she was, losing her shit right before she actually made it inside the house that she’d rented for the next three months. Her very own space. Something she’d chosen. A decision she’d made all on her own.
She gripped her folders in one hand and her purse in the other and tried to take one more step. Just one more, then one more, then one more. That’s all it takes. That had gotten her this far in her life. Softly ordering herself to take a step at a time, to ignore the hurt emotions and the loneliness and confusion, and simply move forward.
Vivianna turned her head slowly. It took all the energy she had. A man stood a few feet away. Great. She inwardly laughed at her situation. She’d come this far to get away from the Alexandres of the world and here was another pretentious snob peacocking in a tux, his perfect brown hair slicked back, a perfect blank look on his face, a perfect model girlfriend on his arm.
Well, the woman wasn’t actually on his arm. She stood closer to a limo, wearing an expensive dress. Her blonde hair, long and straight, was pulled behind her ears with a glittery but very stately headband. It was like two statues had been plucked from Vivianna’s previous life and set down right beside her. And not a genuine smile between the two strangers.
Vivianna could feel them staring down their noses at her, the catty remarks they made in their heads while watching her. It was like she hadn’t arrived somewhere new at all. This Alexandre or whoever he was slid his hands into his pockets and glanced toward the house she’d rented.
“You renting Gale House? Everything should be fine. Is something bothering you?”
“Jake, leave the woman alone. She doesn’t need us scaring her. Let’s go.” The woman practically floated up the sidewalk in her pointy heels and entered the house next door.
Why couldn’t she do what that woman had done—ignore things completely and sail into the house with perfectly poised indifference, exactly as she’d been taught to do? The moment stretched out around her as if she’d climbed onto a carousel and it had slipped into slow motion, lulling her but disorienting her at the same time, the old-timey music not keeping in tune with the swirling.
“Your tie’s undone,” she blurted. Perhaps he wasn’t from her real life. After all, none of the men her father had paraded in front of her would have allowed themselves to be seen undone in any manner. Not a seam out of place.
He looked down at himself. “Yeah. Can only stand these things for so long.” He tugged the bowtie through his collar, folded it haphazardly and stuffed it in his pocket.
“You…what…” Her mouth dropped open in shock. One didn’t crumple a silk tie and shove it in a pocket. No, no. I don’t care. Vivianna shook off the thoughts and whipped her face forward again. All she had to do was get inside. Then she could rest and regroup. She could do this, only a few more feet. “Sorry, no…nothing… Never mind. I’m good. I’m fine. Sorry to bother you.”
“It’s no bother. You look like you—”
“Like what?” she snapped. “Sorry, again.” Quit apologizing to this stranger. He’s the one bugging you. She squeezed her eyes shut, hoping that when she opened them, she would magically be inside the house with the rest of the world closed outside. Her sigh of disappointment exhausted her further. “I’m just… Long trip.”
Her voice had risen in pitch with each word. Trying, she was trying so hard to maintain control. She slipped out of her heels and let the cool, hard sidewalk seep through her skin, then started forward again, one step. “If you don’t mind. I’m quite fine.”
“Right. Well, I’m Jake, your neighbor, I guess. If you need anything. I’ll just… I live…there. Goodnight.”
Her hands decided to betray her at that moment as she finally found the ability to walk. Papers began fluttering down around her. Just get to the door. That’s all. She sped up her pace. It was either save her papers at this moment or make it inside and save her sanity, and she wasn’t capable of both. Gripping the rest of her folders to her chest, she shuffled toward the front door.
“Here. I’m not trying to bother you. You lost some things.”
He was closer now. She’d made it up the two steps, and, fumbling with the key in her hand, unlocked the door.
“I’ll…uh, leave these here.”
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw him set the papers down on the bench by the front door. He grabbed a stone from the front garden and gently set it on them. Then he turned and walked away.
She did her best to drag her suitcases in and lock the door behind her. Feeling as though she’d just climbed a mountain, Vivianna dropped her purse and papers and slumped down against the door till her butt met the hardwood floors. She drew her knees up and wrapped her arms around them, hugging herself. You made it. You’re here.
After a year of planning, she’d secured herself three months of freedom. She’d made it to this small town in Oregon, away from her austere grandmother in New York, away from her father in France and her family responsibilities. It wasn’t that she was brave, really. After all, her father knew where she was. He’d hired her drivers and it had nothing to do with his generosity or concern over her welfare, but rather so he could spy on her.
All the decisions, all the silent work she’d done after hours to get here, the anticipation, it bled out of her now. Slowly, fatigue set into every joint and bone. She dragged her body up, turned on the lights, and the tightness in her chest eased slightly. A few steadying breaths helped.
She was in a tiny cozy living room with a gray loveseat and matching armchairs nestled around an old fireplace that was now for appearances only. The brick had been painted white and a gorgeous wood mantel drew the eye. A series of soft round rugs graced the floors, and on a wooden coffee table sat a basket overflowing with goodies and a note. Carefully she sat on the sofa and fingered through the basket. Fresh baguettes, cinnamon rolls, fruit, potato chips, two bottles of wine, several boxes of tea and a small box of chocolates nestled inside.
A basket of comfort.
Welcome to Gale House, named after the strong wind that coils up from the sea and sings her mournful but beautiful song through the streets of Graciella, more often in the fall. An old tale handed down from a secret group of witches centuries ago who came to Graciella to hide but found their power was necessary to protect the town. Instead of hiding, they sang songs of warning, lullabies, even lamentations when people were hurting. You might hear the wind singing around the cottage at times.
We hope you enjoy your time here. There are more groceries in the kitchen to make your stay as pleasant as possible, but please call us if you need anything.
Vivianna had done her research on this town, its history, its charm. She’d come here to work with Adam Brockman. This rental house was owned by Turner and Lily Brockman, and here was another Brockman, the owner of a thriving café and small event business at Brockman Farms. All these strangers living their dreams. That was what she’d noticed as she’d narrowed her search for working horse farms willing to implement her dissertation theories. In fact, Adam had been more than willing. After one phone call, he’d asked her how soon she could get there.
All these people pursuing their own happiness. She’d been drawn to the beauty and charming history of the area, but more she’d been lured by the idea that she too might have a chance at a peaceful, lovely life doing what she wanted, even if it was only for one precious autumn.
She carried the basket into the tiny white kitchen, the only pop of color a pale iridescent aquamarine backsplash, like mermaid scales. Feeling the gnawing ache in her stomach and nearly overwhelmed by the scent of the fresh bread, Vivianna made herself some tea with the electric kettle, climbed onto one of the stools at the kitchen bar and spread the most delicious-smelling butter on the mini-baguette.
She took her time, savoring each bite, letting the tea soothe her tired soul. She ate the entire baguette, all by herself, using as much butter as she damn well pleased, and licking her fingers when she was finished. The indulgence felt wonderful. The quiet in the house felt wonderful, like she was safe to be and do exactly what she wanted, with no expectations, no rules to follow, no one to disappoint. If she hadn’t been so exhausted, she would have enjoyed some of the wine and chocolate. As it was, she wasn’t sure she could make it to bed without collapsing.
The bathroom mirror showed what she feared. The lanky hair of her ponytail, flat, bangs plastered to her forehead with sweat, bright red anxiety hives covering her neck and cheeks and probably her entire chest, because her body was so lovely like that, freaking out and putting it on full display for the world to see when she was nervous.
Although, she had to say, it was worse when her hives came during one of her father’s balls when she was dressed in some stuffy gown her manager had picked, with her hair up in a severe bun and the eyes of all the remaining leftover ancient French nobility and who’s who on her. Sometimes she wondered if they enjoyed seeing her like that. They could smell her fear, see all her weaknesses. They were like a pack of hyenas circling, waiting for her to fall.
A quick shower helped wipe the rest of the day from her skin. There was another welcome basket on the bed with lushly scented bath soaps and lotions. On the pillow rested a matching sweatshirt and sweatpants in the palest of pinks. She rubbed the fabric against her cheek. Vivianna’s life had included every luxury a person could desire. “Only the best for the Orleans,” her father had said two million times. But right now, this fabric was the softest, most luxurious thing against her skin, like her very own cloud. She put the clothes aside, carefully plugged in her cellphone and found the white noise app she set to rain to help lull her to sleep.
When she climbed into the comfortable bed, it was like a cocoon within a cocoon, charming small house, charming bed in a charming small bedroom, all of it wrapping around her in comfort, exactly what her body had been craving for so, so long.
It was foreign at first, but her body slipped into it easily, if a bit warily. The wind swirled gently outside and sent a low whistle through the house. It didn’t scare her—it sounded like enchantment and someone singing her a song.
Surrounding herself with the blankets and pillows and hugging one to her front, Vivianna tucked herself in, as she’d always done, and listened to the gale sing to her.