Adrenaline pumped through Mattie Winston’s veins. Her feet pounded the treadmill. The resounding thud of her sneakers rang through the room. Under her black spandex, her breasts tingled with sweat that trickled between them. She loved to run, but for the last few days her pace was off, her stride stuck in an awkward beat.
“We’ve found a new keeper.” The family council’s declaration rocked Mattie’s world.
She balked at the changes the decision would create. No longer could she hide behind the walls of Winston Manor. Her solitude for the last twenty-eight years shattered by the threat of someone else ruling her domain.
Mattie caught a brief glimpse of Beth’s iridescent figure.
“Jonathan wants to see you in the basement right now.” Her words floated through the air moments before the spirit disappeared.
Mattie slapped her hand against the stop button and hurried to the door. She hated it when Jonathan altered her morning routine. At the main staircase she paused and forced her breathing into a steady rhythm.
The soft red carpet absorbed her footsteps as she descended the stairs. Her hand caressed the elegant oak curved railing.
In the entryway, the crystal chandelier reflected a rainbow of light off the white marble floor. Painful spears shot through Mattie’s heart at the idea of losing her home.
She rounded the corner and rushed to the basement door. Her habit of adjusting the ugly landscape hanging on the wall stopped her for a second. The painting, her aunt’s favorite, was estimated to be worth a fortune someday.
Her aunt had enjoyed decorating her home. The thrill of picking out carpet and selecting colors had excited her for months. Even after twenty plus years, Mattie hadn’t altered the main design of the house.
What kind of changes would the new keeper make?
The narrow steps which led to the basement slowed her pace. Jonathan, the head of the family, hated to wait. His plans always overruled hers, regardless of what she might have scheduled.
Frustrated, she grumbled, "For heaven sakes, I’m still in my workout clothes. Why can’t he plan ahead for these meetings, or at least give me some warning?"
Not dressed in her usual professional attire, she felt out of sync with her role as the Winston’s family keeper. The façade provided her with the appearance of having some control. Her job, after all, included handling the business concerns for the family.
Inhaling several deep breaths, Mattie prepared herself for the meeting. Jonathan liked to assign chores. Without a doubt, he’d dictate a long list for the next few weeks.
Nothing new, I can handle this.
An extra part of her job stemmed from the various requests from the other council members. No matter what, they were never satisfied.
Why did she continually try to please them?
Stifling humidity greeted her when she opened the door to the main section of the basement. She eyed the man seated behind a long oak table. The air conditioner hummed. The soothing whine didn’t calm her fears or cool the subterranean room.
Dressed in an eighteenth century colonial suit and stuck at the perpetual age of thirty, Jonathan resembled George Washington ready to command his troops. His eagle-eye glare nailed her.
A drop of sweat trickled down her back. Apprehension raised goose bumps. She shivered.
“I press earnestly for you to take a seat, Mattie, so we can start.” In a regal colonial voice, Jonathan’s words thundered off the walls.
Mattie walked to the end of the table and sat across from him. Dread threatened like a storm on the horizon. She surveyed both sides of the table. None of the other council members were in attendance.
Mattie wiped her sweaty palms along the length of her thighs. What did he want?
Jonathan didn’t usually hold a one-on-one meeting in this setting. Normally, they met in her office upstairs.
The muscles in her stomach jerked.
“In concise statement of the facts as I see them,” Jonathan spoke without preamble. “We have found your replacement, and we need to address the issue of your future.”
Her fears were relieved as to the topic of today’s meeting. She decided to address a number of other issues that should be discussed before her future. “Shouldn’t we wait until Amber Harrison accepts the job?”
Startled, Mattie blinked. “Why?”
“Because no matter the outcome, you will still be replaced,” Jonathan declared.
“Yes, but what if Amber doesn’t work out?” For days, she’d speculated on how to approach this subject. “My nephew, Josh Clarkston is a lawyer. He’d make an excellent keeper.”
“No,” Jonathan’s rough voice commanded. “The wisest council will not be misled into offering such an important post to such an unworthy candidate. His character lacks the necessary virtues to accomplish the tasks we require of our keeper.
“As for your sister, Cynthia Clarkston, she never speaks of us without evidence of malice. We find no cause to reward her for her gum and insolence.” The rigid set of Jonathan’s jaw indicated he refuse to budge on the matter. “Like a Redcoat, she only wants what she can get from us. Her son has grown into a bad egg.”
“But...” Her stomach grumbled, mirroring her distress.
“Mattie.” His tone lower, he shook his head. “Many hours have been spent debating the matter. You’ve been a loyal subject since the age of fifteen, and you’ve paid your dues to your family. We hornswoggled you out of your youth. It’s time for you to relinquish control.” An indulging note bled through his words. “No one will ever be good enough to replace you.”
“Trust us child to find a soul who will honor your position. Nothing will remove your fears until you can reclaim your life’s mission and enjoy the rest of your days on earth.”
“But what if Amber doesn’t like it here? She’s a young college student from sunny California. Why would she move to Ohio where it’s cold? Even in the summer, we don’t have beautiful weather. The rain can last for days.”
“There is no dispute,” Jonathan growled. “Amber is a Winston. She longs to live here.”
“But you don’t get it. There’s no guarantee. Josh has lived here all his life. He’ll do a good job.” Mattie wished Jonathan could see her point. Things might not turn out like he’d planned. “Besides Cynthia will be deeply hurt when she finds out everything is under the control of a stranger instead of her son. She won’t understand.”
“The Council’s point exactly. Cynthia cares only for gold, not for others. It’s best for the family to have someone else as the keeper.”
The havoc this decision would cause in Mattie’s life washed bitter bile through her mouth. She swallowed, hard.
Like everyone in Newark, Cynthia would call her crazy for letting someone outside the family control the family trust fund and not acquiring the Winston estate would only deepen her pain. Her sister wasn’t aware of how the family spirits guided every decision, or Mattie’s part in carrying out their tasks.
Unable to solve the problem, Mattie posed a different one. “What if the girl doesn’t like the job? What then?”
“There’s no reason for you to fret, Mattie. She’ll take her rightful place.”
Her heart sank and Mattie fidgeted in her chair. The council didn’t understand the real world. Who in their right mind would move across the country to be the keeper to a bunch of unknown relatives?
“So, how soon does the council want me to leave?”
“That’s the issue we’re hammering out today. The council knows you’re a little anxious to start a new adventure.” He brushed his hand over his sleeves. “We demand you stay in the immediate area for the next year.”
He paused and studied the papers on the table. Mattie couldn’t see any writing on the sheets, but Jonathan consulted one page with a raised eyebrow.
“You, of course, can travel. Amber will still require your assistance from time to time, so we’re compelled to warn you not to overbook your schedule.”
Mattie wanted to laugh or maybe cry. Without the job of running errands for the family, she’d loved to have more time at Winston Manor.
“As long as we’re clear on the point that your first duty is to train Amber, then you’re free to receive gentlemen callers, attend school, take trips, or pursue a new career. You have a promising future.” Jonathan waited for an answer.
When she didn’t, he faded out of sight.
The meeting over, Mattie slumped in her chair. “My future, what a joke, the family spirits just fired me.”
“I still don’t understand why you want to go.” Susan handed Amber a bottle of shampoo. “It’s cold in Ohio and it rains there all the time.”
“Yes, well...” Amber brushed her long, blonde hair back over her shoulders. “It might help curl my hair.”
“Right.” Susan sat on the corner of Amber’s bed, next to her suitcase. The white down comforter slipped closer to the carpet.
Amber wasn’t certain why she wanted to go either, but something inside demanded she check it out. “I’ve given you next month’s rent, so I’ll be back in a few weeks. Just think, you’ll have the place to yourself.”
“I can’t believe your parents like this idea.” Susan fiddled with the blue silk blouse lying inside Amber’s bag. “Your mother’s probably already arranged for you to meet a number of men over the summer. How can you miss that?”
“Right, like I want to endure that torture again. I barely escaped my lying, cheating, testosterone driven ex-fiancé.” Amber shook her head and stuffed extra socks alongside her jeans. “The idea of getting away and seeing someplace new is much more appealing.”
“What about school?”
“I’ll be back before the fall semester. Who knows, with my lousy GPA, maybe I’ll try doing something else when I return.” She turned and tossed the last of her drink down her throat. The sweet carbonation bubbled across her taste buds.
Her parents would probably cut off their support after they found out her grades anyway. She mentally placed another red mark on her parents’ achievement chart. She’d failed again.
Susan picked up Amber’s clothes and set them in her suitcase. “I know your high-priced-lawyer father has checked out the situation, but I don’t like the idea of you leaving. Why deal with these grumpy, old people, if you don't have too?”
Pictures flashed in her head of her grandparent’s home. Solid wood furniture, delicate crystal, tarnished silverware, each piece held loving memories of their life together and the happiness they had shared. Her mind suddenly switched to a different vision, the heart wrenching scenes of her grandfather’s final days. Her chest muscles tightened. She struggled to hold in the unresolved pain of his death and glanced away from her friend. “Think of all the wonderful antiques they might have.”
“I really don’t see the appeal of a bunch of old junk.” Susan rose and grabbed Amber’s arm. “And I don’t want you to go.”
Smiling, she hugged her friend. “Yes, well, doing what’s expected is boring. Maybe a change of scenery will get my blood pumping.”
Later, she recalled the remark while sitting in the back seat of a black sedan. Was she insane? Why agree to spend time at a place she’d never been before with people she didn’t know?
Fear and eagerness warred in her stomach. Breathing rapidly, she inhaled the scent of her peppermint gum. The crisp fragrance reminded her of her grandfather’s breath mints, and she took another deep breath to calm her shaky nerves.
Past the point of no return, even if the adventure ended up to be a free trip to nowhere. Whatever happened she’d see it through.
The soft leather seat cooled her skin. Tired from her long trip to Ohio, she leaned her head on the plush headrest. She used the relaxing motion of the car to recover some of her energy and turned her head to view the landscape outside the car.
Different from Southern California, no lollypop trees or car-packed freeways met her gaze. The road supported only a few cars moving along at a steady pace. Calm pastureland lined the highway with wildflowers dancing in the wind. Large limbs darting in every possible direction, small leaves announced spring to the world with their bright green foliage. No structures marred the view or broke the serene pleasure of the unencumbered land.
Yet, they’d only left the airport a few minutes ago.
Her mind wandered to the place where they were headed. She shot her silent driver a quick glance. She’d questioned the portly old gentleman about Winston Manor when she’d first arrived. He’d said they needed to get going and refused to comment beyond that.
Once in the car, she’d tried again. Her blue eyes caught his in the rear view mirror, and he assessed her value before glancing away.
Amber brushed her long, blonde hair back off her shoulder and tugged on her cotton tee shirt to straighten out the wrinkles.
“How long until we arrive at Winston Manor?” she asked.
He didn’t respond, almost as if he hadn’t heard. Unwilling to be rude, she decided to settle back in her seat.
The answers would come once she arrived at Winston Manor.
Standing by the bay window in the front room, Mattie watched the car approach. Her new recruit’s arrival had goose bumps popping out on Mattie’s skin, adding to her anxieties.
She wanted to run, but instead glanced at the kindhearted spirit of Opal, her distant grandmother. Dressed in her best early American gown, the many layers of her petticoat swished with a soft hiss when she moved.
“There’s no reason to be nervous. Once you meet Amber, you’ll see she caps the climax,” Opal voiced in a soothing tone. “Your Aunt Rachel is absolutely thrilled to have a descendant from her branch of the family as keeper.”
Looking beyond her at the rest of the room, Mattie searched for the other members of the family council. They always offered her their support when she faced a big decision. Yet, today they were conspicuously absent.
“Don’t worry. The whole family is behind you. We just thought it better if we didn’t all hover.”
Shifting from foot to foot, she wrung her hands together. A simple process of a changing of the guard for them, Amber’s arrival marked the end of the life Mattie loved.
The beautiful spirits around her didn’t understand how cruel humans could be to each other. What if she screwed up and the girl left? Or the girl hated living with a house full of spirits?
Unease pricked at Mattie’s mind. She had no experience in dealing with strangers. All her business associates understood her likes and didn’t force her to attend any social events.
A quick glance out the window, and a car rounded the fountain. She wasn’t prepared to entertain Amber. How could she be? She never invited guests to the estate.
“Now, Pumpkin, there’s no need to worry. It’s time another branch of the family realize what a pain it is to be keeper.” Opal smiled, offering her special form of reassurance. “We’re all here to help with the transition.”
The high notes of Beethoven’s Fifth sprang from the piano. Mattie jumped in surprise at the sudden noise. She whipped around to see Uncle Samuel, the artist of the family, standing next to the piano.
“The game is afoot.” He arched his eyebrows and grinned, then disappeared.
“I’d better leave.” Her aunt patted Mattie’s shoulder. “Just remember, the girl is uneasy too.”
With a deep breath, Mattie turned and gripped the cold metal knob in her hand.
Soon her home would belong to a stranger, and then what would she do?