Sunday, January 31, 2010

Beguiled - Chapter 1

(Bethany House March 1, 2007)

Something wasn't right. Rylee Monroe unclipped the leash from Romeo's collar, then stood still in the quiet kitchen, all senses alert.

The toy schnauzer clicked across the wooden floor and lapped up water from his bowl, sloshing it over the sides in his enthusiasm. Not a speck of dust touched the slick black granite countertops. An assortment of spoons, ladles, and spatulas hung above the chrome- plated gas stove. Above that, a row of dinner, salad, and dessert plates rested between vertical dowels.

From the kitchen, she could see the sunken sitting room and the archway opening into the dining room. White sheers hung in front of two bay windows, foiling the sun's effort to fade the richly upholstered furniture. No cushion had been disturbed. Nothing was out of place.

She slowly closed the back door, turning the knob to reduce any noise she might make. Romeo looked up from his bowl, water dripping off his wet cheeks. Squatting down, she quietly patted her thigh.

He trotted over, tail wagging a mile a minute.

"Listen," she whispered, wiping his chin and picking him up. "You hear anything?"

Outside, a tour bus struggled to accelerate. Distant sounds of electric saws, chisels, and hammers kept up a continual din. All normal sounds for the historic district of Charleston.

The floorboards above her squeaked under the weight of a footstep.

She stiffened. Had Karl come back to get something? She checked her watch. Ten o'clock. Too late to return for a forgotten item. Too early to quit for the day.

Romeo began to squirm. She tiptoed to the laundry room and set him behind the doggie gate. He immediately began to whine.

"Shhhh." She gently held his mouth closed. "I'll be right back."

She glanced at the set of kitchen knives resting in a wooden block. The temptation to grab one was strong, but what if it was Karl? What would he think if he caught his new dogwalker creeping up the stairs with a butcher knife in her hand?

She kept to the edge of each step, where the wood had less give. Sweat beaded her hands, playing havoc with her grip on the railing. At the halfway landing, she paused, her own breathing loud in her ears.

The hum from outside no longer reached her.

A creak from behind.

She spun around. A bust of Henry Timrod, the Poet Laureate of the Confederacy, stared back at her. She glanced down the stairs.

The massive front door with beveled-glass sidelights remained bolted and chained.

Taking a deep breath, she continued up, finally stepping onto the oriental rug gracing the second-story landing. The door to her right stood open. The foot of the four-poster bed and carved hope chest were visible and undisturbed.

The door to her left was closed. She frowned, wondering if it was always closed. She'd never had reason to go upstairs. In spite of how long she'd known the family, the Sebastians were new clients, and it was too soon for her to know what was normal and what wasn't.

A shadow passed below the door.

Her heart tripped.

Then she forced herself to calm. She was going to feel awfully silly when that door opened and it was Karl.

The floor creaked again.

"Hello?" she said.

The shadow stilled, stopping in the center of the doorway.


A scrambling from inside.

She touched her throat. What if he had a woman in there? Karl was unmarried. In his early thirties. And GQ-gorgeous.

Heat crept up her neck. "Karl? It's me, Rylee. I don't mean to be a bother. I just thought I heard something and wanted to be sure everything's okay. Is everything okay in there?"

A whoosh. A clatter. A grunt.

Her pulse picked up again. He should have answered by now.

"Karl? I'm coming in." She placed her hand on the knob, the brass cool to her sweaty palm. Slowly, slowly she turned the handle and peeked inside.

The bedroom stood immaculate. Another four-poster bed. A kentia palm tree. A mahogany chest of drawers. A tall urn.

She pushed the door the rest of the way open. Nothing.

With a crash, one end of the window's curtain rod swung down.

She whirled around, her heart slamming in her chest. A man's leg, tangled in gold brocade curtain, protruded from the window. He yanked the limb free, pulling the rod the rest of the way down.

Screaming, she bolted, banging the doorframe on her way out.

The noise set Romeo off. His loud, incessant yipping echoed through the kitchen like a homing beacon.

She scrambled down the stairs, swung around the landing, and rushed to the kitchen phone. Jumping over the dog fence and into the laundry room with Romeo, she slammed the door shut, then punched 9-1-1.

"Please! There's a burglar! He's outside on the second-story balcony. Hurry!"

The operator verified her location and kept Rylee on the line and talking.

Romeo stood with ears and tail up, barking so loudly she couldn't hear a thing.

The shakes took hold. Her legs quaked. Her arms trembled. The phone slipped from her hands twice.

She slid down the door and onto the floor. "Yes, yes. I'm fine. Just hurry."

The questions and reassurances continued for a few minutes until a deep male voice rang out from the kitchen. "Miss Monroe?"

"Yes! In here." She cracked the door open.

The uniformed man looked to be in his fifties but plenty robust. "You say you saw a prowler, ma'am?"

She nodded. "Upstairs. First door to the left. He was crawling out the window."

He pushed a button on the walkie-talkie strapped to his shoulder, dropped his voice an octave, and mumbled something indecipherable into it.

He looked at her. "Close that door and don't come out until I return for you."

Swallowing, she did as instructed. The shakes were worse now. Had the robber managed to get untangled and off the balcony? What if he was still there? What if he was younger and stronger than the officer? What if he had a gun and got the first shot off?

She'd be a sitting duck.

Romeo crawled into her lap, sensing her distress. She cuddled him close, drawing comfort from him. Most schnauzers had bobbed tails and ears and shaved bodies. Not Romeo. For whatever reason, he'd never been clipped. His ears and tail, along with the rest of his coat, were long, shaggy, and adorable. She'd fallen in love with him on sight.

She gave his head a kiss. Maybe that's why they named him Romeo.

Picking up the phone she'd had earlier, she speed dialed Karl at the law offices of Sebastian, Lynch & Orton. "Rylee Monroe calling. Would you tell Karl it's an emergency, please?"

Innocuous elevator music filled her ear before Karl picked up.

"Rylee? What's happened?"

"There's been an intruder."

"At the house?" he exclaimed. "Are you all right?"

"I'm fine. The police are here now."

Someone knocked on the laundry room door. "Officer Quince here. You can come out now."

She scrambled to her feet. "I'll call you back, Karl."

"No need," he said. "I'm on my way."

Cracking the door, she peered around it. "Did you catch him?"

"He's long gone, ma'am."

Unhitching the doggie gate, she and Romeo joined him in the kitchen.

The officer listened to her story, making occasional notes as she spoke. "So you didn't get a good look at him?"

"No, sir."

"White, black, Hispanic?"

"I couldn't really tell. All I saw was that leg and boot trying to kick free of the curtain."

"Is anything missing?"

"I don't know. This isn't my house."

He looked up. "Not your house?"

"No. I'm the dogwalker. The house belongs to Grant and Amelia Sebastian."

"Have you called them?"

"They're on their honeymoon. I'm walking the dog while they're gone. But Mr. Sebastian's son lives here, too. He's on his way now."

She gave the officer the last of her personal information just as Karl pushed open the back door, a lock of sun-kissed blond hair falling over eyebrows pale to the point of translucence.

He ran his gaze up and down her. "Are you all right? Did he hurt you?"

She shook her head. "I'm fine."

"You sounded pretty shaken on the phone." A well-tailored tan jacket nipped around his graceful frame, his white linen shirt lay open at the collar. His jeans gave the look a relaxed charm. Not exactly the attire she'd expect of a law-firm associate—she'd never seen his father in anything but suits and ties—but Karl knew how to wear his clothes.

"I interrupted him while he was in one of the bedrooms upstairs."

He sucked in his breath. "Which bedroom?"

"Second floor, the one on the left."

A pained look crossed his face. "That's my bedroom."

With the officer leading the way, the three of them headed upstairs. Now that there wasn't a burglar to distract her, Rylee got a good look at the room. Not what she would have expected from a single man in his thirties. In spite of herself, she was impressed.

The crystal chandelier would have been better suited for a formal dining room. His bed was neatly made. Instead of clothing strewn all over the floor, a single linen jacket hung on an antique wooden valet with a pair of polished shoes underneath. A flat-screen tv atop the chest of drawers angled toward his four-poster. A dog-eared issue of the Robb Report and a DVD lay next to an urn.

She squinted, then smiled. Season Two of Heroes. She loved that show.

On the bedside table rested an iPod, a James Patterson paperback, and three remote controls, all neatly arranged.

Karl scanned the room, went into the bathroom, came back out, and then disappeared inside his closet. "My jewelry casket!"

"Jewelry casket?" The officer joined Karl. Following behind, Rylee noted the empty spot on the low shelf above his slacks.

Karl clamped a hand over his mouth, shaking his head. "It's nothing."

"You sure about that?"

"Karl," Rylee said. "What is it?"

"If he took something, sir, we really need to know about it."

Karl looked at them both, then surrendered with a shrug. "Yeah, it's missing. A kind of shrine-looking jewelry box." He gestured with his hands. "It has all these hand-painted panels and finials that look like Roman statues. Dates to the mid-1800s. Been in our family for years."

"Was the jewelry inside it worth much?"

His eyes wide with distress, he strode out of the closet. "No."

The officer nodded. "Then it was the actual, um, casket that was valuable?"

He tunneled a hand through his hair. "To me, it was. But it's not near as valuable as that amphora." He indicated the urn Rylee had seen earlier. "Why couldn't he have taken that?"

"How much is this urn worth?" Quince asked.

Karl paced. "Twenty-five thousand? Thirty? I'd have to check to be certain."

Rylee swung her attention back to the urn. It was about a footand- a-half tall, had a narrow neck and two handles. Engraved silhouettes of male and female figures decorated its bowl. She'd seen something just like it at Hobby Lobby last week.

"And the jewelry box?" the officer asked. "What's your best guess there?"

Karl rubbed his forehead. "I really couldn't say for sure. Not much, though. Somewhere in the one to two thousand dollar range?"

Rylee frowned. Two thousand dollars? And he'd have preferred for the robber to have taken the thirty thousand dollar urn?

She wondered if the jewelry box had a sentimental value. Inwardly cringing, she fingered the pearl drop hanging around her neck. It was the only memento she had of her mother's. And no price could be put on that.

"Well, that fits the modus operandi of our Robin Hood burglar," the officer said.

Karl shook his head. "It's not him."

"I'd be willing to bet, sir. This will make the third time he's hit a house south of Broad and left with only one piece—and a piece that wasn't close to being as valuable as some of the other items in the house. We'll know for sure when—if—the piece gets donated to some nonprofit somewhere." He scribbled on his pad. "You sure nothing else is missing?"

Karl blinked, as if he didn't understand the question, his self- assurance suddenly gone.

Rylee moved next to him, touching his sleeve. "Did the box have sentimental value?"

His tanned skin had lost all its color. "Yes," he said softly. "Very much so."

She squeezed his arm. "I'm so sorry."

The officer cleared his throat. "Is anything else missing, Mr. Sebastian?"

Karl opened a few drawers, went back into his closet, and then came out again. "Not that I can see." He stopped at the window. The curtain rod lay at his feet, rich brocade pooling around it like liquid gold. "The guy came in through here?"

"We're not sure. He definitely left through there, though."

Karl nodded.

"Would you mind taking a look at the rest of the house to see if anything looks out of the ordinary?"

"Of course not."

A search of all four stories offered up no further clues.

In the kitchen, the officer shook Karl's hand. "We'll be in touch. In the meanwhile, see if you can locate a picture of that jewelry casket."

"Will do, Officer. Thanks." He closed the door, then turned back to Rylee.

"I'm so sorry, Karl."

"Yeah." He shook himself. "But it's only stuff. You know? It could have been worse. Something could have happened to you. Are you sure you're all right?"

"I'm fine."

"I saw you rubbing your shoulder."

She touched her right shoulder. "I ran into the doorframe trying to get out of the bedroom."

He frowned and stepped toward her. "Let me see."

"It's nothing. Really."

He lifted a brow, his eyes more turquoise than blue.

Flustered, she dipped down the side of her summer cardigan.

He brushed her shoulder with his fingers. "Looks like you're going to have a nasty bruise."

He was close. Very close.

She shrugged the sweater into place. "It'll be fine. I hardly even feel it."

A small smile tugged at the corners of his mouth, deepening his laugh lines. "Liar."

She softened. "It's good to see you smile."

She'd had a crush on him for three years. Ever since his father, a longtime friend of her family, had helped sell her house on Folly Beach. Anytime Karl made the society news, she always took note. But she'd never expected him to notice her.

She swallowed. "Well, unless you need anything else, I probably ought to get going."

"You'll be back tonight?"

She glanced at her watch. "Yes. I'll make sure Romeo gets in a good walk and some dinner."

"Tonight, then."

She skirted around him, then darted toward the door.


She turned.

"This yours?" He held up a pink and yellow Vera Bradley messenger bag.

"Yes." She took it and slipped it over her head, careful not to wince when the strap hit her sore shoulder. "Thanks."

"You're welcome."

She backed up. "Right. Well. See ya, Karl. See ya, Romeo."

With a quick wave, she stumbled out the door.


Josanne said...

I'm the intrigue and the romance. I feel like I've been in this house. Great showing of the place! Wish this one had a free drawing! I will have to search this out.

Pat Iacuzzi said...

Would love to win "Beguiled". We have a dog walker in the family--and love D. Gist's work. Beautiful site & blog, Jill! Pat I.