No, Father,” Belinda Eldridge exclaimed. “I will not give up my child.”
“Yes, you will, young lady,” Captain Sam Eldridge replied. “There will be no bastard child raised in this digging, regardless of what your mother said. You will not keep this child. You are nothing more than a strumpet.”
She stomped out of the bedroom fit for a princess on the second floor of the family’s mansion, down the mahogany-trimmed, curved staircase. She ran down the steps faster than prudent, but she ignored safety in favor of escaping her unreasonable father.
“Where do you think you’re going, Belinda Sue?” he yelled. He descended the spiral staircase. “You come back. We’re not finished with this conversation. There’s no way in hell you’re leaving this house—now or ever.”
She tripped a few steps away from the bottom stair. Her hand trembled when she grabbed for the banister at the same moment her father’s fingers closed tightly around her arm.
He wasn’t trying to keep her from falling. He was doing everything in his power to keep her from leaving. If she got outside, she’d never come back to her mean, controlling father.
She yanked away her arm which enabled her to reach the glass knob. Her father slipped on the stair. The heavy door swung open and slammed into the wall, allowing the strong November wind to fill the vestibule.
The frigid air forced its way beneath her flannel robe and nightgown, chilling her to the bone. Or, perhaps it was the fear of her father and what he might do to her and her unborn child. He would never let her marry a man of her choosing, especially Joshua.
“Belinda, stop,” he yelled. He tried to regain his footing.
She dashed barefoot across the frozen lawn; her toes tingled from the bitter cold. Her father’s labored breathing indicated he was close behind. The thorny, wild rosebushes caught her robe. If she could reach the bluff and get down the stairs, he’d never find her in Joshua’s cave, their love nest recessed amongst the dense trees.
Asthma caused her chest to tighten and made it difficult to catch her breath. She stumbled over a large branch that had fallen in the recent storm. Hands and knees soiled and bloodied from the spill, she fled with renewed intensity until she reached the bluff blanketed with ivy.
Even though her father had been drinking heavily earlier, he caught up and blocked her entrance to the stairs that led to the strip of beach far below. Her pregnant condition had slowed her down.
“Father, you can’t take my child away from me. I love my baby and would do anything to keep it safe. I love Joshua. He’s coming back for us. We’re going to get married, be a family. You’ll see.”
“No, he’s not, Belinda.” He placed his hands on his knees to support his body, puffs of mist released into the frigid air. “He’s nothing more than a no-account mud sill. His boat sank in that nor’easter fifty miles out. He’s dead and you can’t raise this child alone. I forbid it. You and the baby will be a disgrace to this family. You will go to a home and put this bastard up for adoption. This is the devil’s work.”
“No, I won’t. He is coming back. You’re lying to me. They never found his body. You’d do anything to keep me away from Joshua, I know you would. Mother said she’d help me.”
When he approached, she stepped back toward the cliff. Her left foot slid underneath a tangled, thorny locust tree. She lost her balance, causing her to fall backwards.
“No, Belinda, no,” her father shrieked as he extended his arm.
She reached out, his fingers inches away. Her body reeled seaward with a sense of timelessness and suspended animation.
“No, please God, no.” The hysterical tone in his voice echoed over the water.
The winds whirled around her as though attempting to soften her fall. The radiant full moon illuminated the sky; speckles of stars dotted darkness. Waves crashed on the jetty below and echoed in her ears.
Her nightgown fluttered in the wind while her body made the descent. Her back faced the rocks eighty feet below. She swathed her arms around her distended abdomen, holding her precious baby she loved more than life itself. She wailed silently within, but was peaceful as she embraced her impending doom, accepting a fate beyond the reality threatened by her parochial sire.
Instead of seeing the man in the moon, Joshua’s face appeared. His eyes beckoned before she hit House Rock.
Kelli Goddard’s stomach tensed when she recalled the letter she received two weeks ago. Compelled to deal with the property tax issue herself on her inherited mansion on Cape Cod Bay, she turned into the uneven rocky driveway on Manomet Point Road just as dusk set in. Intertwined, overgrown knotweed had created an impenetrable barrier that hid the old mansion from the two-lane road. She slowly crept up the winding drive.
At the top of the driveway, she came to a halt. The silhouette of the house reminded her of a horror flick movie set. The dilapidated mansion had obviously been neglected too long. No lights were on, inside or out. An upstairs window had been boarded on the top quarter panel, crooked steps and a slanted porch obvious even in the growing darkness.
Something creaked, maybe a shutter, maybe not. Goosebumps traveled up her arm and caressed her spine. Not knowing what she faced, her breathing quickened.
She parked and rolled up the window in her decade old Jeep and grabbed the bulky flashlight from the cracked leather passenger seat. She had been afraid of the dark since a small child. Her pulse quickened. Fallen tree limbs, uneven stones, and warped steps caused her balance to falter. It was as if the old house warned her to leave. Nevertheless, she bravely faced the ten-foot double wooden doors.
Imposing overgrown lilacs and wisteria, tangled with bittersweet, swayed with the strong north wind and clamored like a woman with long nails, scraping wood on the side of the house. The wind swirled restlessly and sounds emitted from the interior.
Was someone whining or crying? No, it was just her imagination.
With fumbling cold fingers, despite it being late June, she propped the flashlight between her bare knees and struggled with the padlock. After several attempts to unlock it, she tried to force it only for the padlock to smash her stiff ring finger before giving in.
“Damn,” she muttered, shaking her injured appendage. Then she mustered all her strength to push open the cumbrous doors. Rusted hinges creaked loudly. Her ears vibrated.
She hated to admit, but she was scared shitless. Her heart beat fast and hard; she held her breath. She focused the flashlight beam up the massive curved staircase, catching a red reflection at the top. Was that Belinda, the ghost she’d seen as a child? Strong drafts hurled dust and debris through the ray.
The batteries in the flashlight weakened and drained fast. If there had been moonlight, it might have helped her strained eyes. She’d driven over twenty hours straight from Illinois.
A board creaked on the second floor. A piercing wail reverberated throughout the house. She quivered. Maybe she should leave and come back tomorrow during daylight?
Without warning, a crushing blow smashed the side of her head. Luminous streaks of light flashed around her as the darkness overtook her.
~ ~ ~
When Kelli woke, her head pulsated which quickly reminded her something serious had happened. Her eyes darted around the pristine white room. She searched for anything familiar. An IV machine beeped next to her. Doctors and nurses scurried in the hall with stethoscopes draped around their necks.
Why am I here?
“Miss Goddard?” The doctor strolled into the room with a small laptop in his hand. “I’m Doctor Brown and you’re one lucky lady.” He stepped closer and made eye contact. “If that blow had been a quarter of an inch closer to your temple, I’m afraid the outcome would have been significantly different. The CT scan didn’t show any swelling of the brain, which is remarkable given the size of the wound to your skull.”
“What happened?” Her fingertips recognized the gauze surface which covered the side of her head, the wound tender to the touch. “I don’t remember anything.”
The young intern stepped to the right side of her bed, leaned down and flashed a bright light in each eye temporarily blinding her. “That’s not uncommon with head injuries, ma’am. Actually, Officer Scott is here to ask a few questions, or I can tell him to come back tomorrow.”
Acid swelled in her throat. Her body was sore, reminding her of the time she’d flipped over the handlebars of her bicycle at twelve.
“You have a concussion, so you may experience dizziness, nausea, or blurred vision, all normal symptoms. We’re going to keep you overnight for observation,” the doctor said. “I’ll let the officer in, but just for a few minutes. If you need anything, let the nurse know. I’ll check on you tomorrow morning.”
Before she could reply, a man, oddly familiar, in a blue uniform entered.
“Officer Scott,” Dr. Brown said, “you may find she perseverates or repeats herself. You have five minutes and that’s all.”
She rearranged her body in the uncomfortable hospital bed. Each move caused a throbbing pain.
“Kelli, it’s Gregg. Officer Gregg Scott now. Didn’t think we’d be meeting up after all these years like this.”
“Sorry about the accident. Heard rumors you were coming back to handle the probate for Hattie and do something with the mansion.”
Gregg Scott. Of course. She hadn’t seen him in at least thirty years, but she would never forget those baby blue eyes. And, how she’d felt about him at one time.
“What happened? I don’t remember anything?”
“A passerby found you lying on Point Road unconscious and bleeding from the head. Thought you’d been involved in a hit and run, but doctors said that was unlikely with your head wound and no abrasions or broken bones. Were you walking on the road? We’re hoping you could shed some light on what occurred.”
“Side of the road?” She lightly ran her fingers through her tangled hair; flecks of blood dislodged and fell on her loosely-fitting hospital gown that would expose all if she stood up.
“Try to remember, Kelli.”
She closed her eyes and laid her head against the pillow. “All I recall is going to the mansion. Just got into town and was anxious. I went inside and that’s the last I remember.”
“Were you alone?”
“Did you see anyone or hear anything?”
When she opened her eyes, two of everything danced around the room which caused her to be woozy and queasy. “No. It was dark and windy. Did someone hit me on the head?”
“Doctor said you got a dandy blow. Who would’ve known you were there? Maybe some plaster from the ceiling fell on you? But that doesn’t explain how you got back down the road.”
A petite nurse entered the room. “Officer, I’m afraid you must leave. Doctor wants Ms. Goddard to rest now.” The woman grabbed her wrist and checked for a pulse.
“Kelli, we’ll get to the bottom of this. Where are you staying?”
“The Blue Spruce, but haven’t checked in yet.”
“Once you’re feeling up to it, we’ll need to interview you. If you need a ride when you’re discharged, let me know.” He handed her his card. “Nice to have you back in town. Sorry you got off to a rough start.”
“Thanks, Gregg. My car?”
“It’s parked in front of the mansion. It’s not going anywhere.” He exited the room with a familiar lazy gait she recalled from their teenage days. Apparently, over the years he’d gained extra weight, especially the bulging midsection that obscured his belt. A fan of locally brewed beer, no doubt, or maybe too many donuts. Then she frowned.
Why would someone want to hurt me?
~ ~ ~
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