Nestled on Lake Superior in northern Wisconsin is a small, secluded town called Bloodmoon Cove with volatile weather, suspicious folk…and newly awakened ghosts.
Sometimes what you don’t know can hurt you…
Following a troubled childhood, Sybilla Nygard marries her much older entrepreneur partner, Tobias Ocampo. They’ve been inseparable since they started Offbeat Enterprises together. Their publishing house produces a book series focused on unusual homes.
After suffering memory loss about his past, Tobias inherits an elaborate, isolated estate at the top of Bloodmoon Mountain in Bloodmoon Cove. The reports and rumors swirling about the house, suggesting death and secrets hide within, make it all the more appealing to Syl as their next Offbeat Homes project. But her biggest motivation is discovering more about Tobias’s beginnings. Although Syl and Tobias don’t relish spending winter trapped in isolation, they bring along their closest family and friends to keep them company while they search out the mysteries of Howling Halls.
The nightmare Syl has been having as long as she can remember returns. The voice of a ghost urges, Find me, leading her to hidden spaces and the skeletons of a family desperate to escape its demons…all while monstrous things are waking up hungry.
Genre: Paranormal Horror Word Count: 113, 919
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(ebooks are available from all sites, and print is available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble and some from Angus and Robertson)
Continue the series:
Since his marriage–or more aptly, since the day he’d met his better half, Sybilla Nygard–Tobias Ocampo had come to dislike arriving home alone, knowing his wife potentially wouldn’t be joining him for hours. He grimaced as he transferred his briefcase to his left hand along with his cane, then closed the entry side of the two arched-topped front doors of the Gothic Revival stone mansion he and Syl had lovingly restored. He’d originally hired her eight years ago to be his interior designer. At that time, she’d just gotten her art design degree and started her own interior decorating business that took advantage of the growing trend in offbeat rather than traditional styles of design. He’d been her first client.
As soon as he laid eyes on the utter fascination that eccentric, one-of-a-kind Sybilla Nygard could only be described as, he’d known he wanted much more. She’d become the heart and soul of Offbeat Enterprises, not only coming up with the name in place of the literal question mark he’d initially proposed, but inspiring and partnering with him in the entrepreneural-concepts-turned-businesses that had launched his windfall inheritance into an unprecedented fortune many times over.
Turning, he shifted his briefcase and cane back into his right hand and limped deeper inside the airlock entry with its three arched windows overlooking the front foyer. It was late afternoon and, once he made it into the hall that split off in several different locations, he paused to listen for any sign that Sebastian was at home. Tobias and Syl’s close friend and personal live-in chef must have gone out for groceries or to see his children.
Tobias turned to scoop the pile of mail off the entry table, where Sebastian or Ava generally left it, surprised by how heavy the bundle felt.
Always, the house seemed too empty, quiet, disturbingly still for his tastes when he was alone inside it. There’s nothing alive here, he’d thought countless times in the past eight years. The barren sensation was part of the reason he’d asked the Michelin star chef to come live with him and work for him almost as soon as he came to Grimoire, Wisconsin. He’d wanted to fill his life with the kind of loving family he had no memory of ever being a part of yet revered. Syl shared his need for building a nest in which their closest friends became their family. When they’d finally married six months ago, she’d come into the house she’d made singularly beautiful and turned it into the home he’d longed for. She’d brought her adoptive mother Ava, a woman nearly as unusual and kind-hearted as Syl, with her.
If only I could convince Wolf to move in…
But Tobias’s oldest friend, Sergeant Adalwolf Loquin, his commanding officer when they were in the Marines together, still hadn’t come to grips with losing the love of his life a year ago. That was something Tobias understood almost as if he’d had the experience himself. The thought of losing Syl was the source of his greatest fears. I would never get over that. I became the man I was always meant to be when I met her. I would cease to be viable if she wasn’t the focus of my life, the way she has been from Day 1.
Wolf’s wife Lily had died, cruelly, on April Fool’s Day. The fatal aneurysm had struck while she was driving. The doctor reported she’d already passed before her car crossed two lines of traffic, miraculously only injuring one other driver on the busy freeway. To prevent Wolf any trauma on the anniversary of that tragedy, Tobias and Syl had put off the spring wedding they’d planned for years. Wolf’s protests had given them the permission they needed to go forward with their nuptials this past summer.
Upon their return from a lengthy, blissful honeymoon, both Ava and Sebastian reported that Wolf had become a vertible hermit. A bit of physical challenge tended to cheer the former special ops leader up, and Syl encouraged the trip despite that they were newlyweds and neither looked forward to a two-week separation so soon after tying the knot.
Tobias’s need to be a consolation to his oldest friend had prompted the rock climbing in Joshua Tree National Park, where he broke his ankle. Not for the first time, Wolf had saved his life when he carried him off Quail Mountain.
The fracture three months ago had taken much longer to heal than his doctor believed was warranted, given that the relatively minor avulsion injury hadn’t even required surgery. Daily, Tobias was in pain. He’d agreed to taking the calcium and magnesium supplements to aid in mending the bone, though he’d been adamantly against taking so much as an aspirin for most of the life he recalled. He’d also altered his diet–though he and Syl naturally gravitated toward healthy eating–to ensure his body got what was required to speed healing.
Once the injury began to heal and the brace came off, Tobias at last graduated to a cane, but his limp was still pronounced, especially after the gruelling physical therapy sessions he endured twice a week–the most he could stand. Ironically, a workout with Wolf had been a daily part of his life for as long as he could remember. Yet he barely handled what, in comparison, could be considered little more than strenuous.
He made it to his den, tossing the mail and his briefcase next to where he sat on the three-seat, hand-carved wood sofa upholstered in royal blue velvet fabric. A clanking sound barely registered against his literal groaning need to get off his feet.
After propping his cane along the side within easy reach, he untied and then removed the mid-ankle style Clarks boot. Bracing himself with one hand, he used his other to lift his leg up to the sofa table in front of him, where a cushion waited to receive his throbbing ankle gently. Sweat broke out on his forehead, reminiscent of his earlier therapy exercises that took everything out of him. Grunting with the exertion, he leaned his head back and closed his eyes.
Despite being 45, he could easily pass for a man half his age, and it made sense that he felt like he was no older than in his mid-20s. A person who can’t remember the first 20-some years of their life will never feel their age the same way those without the same impediment would.
But, at this moment, he could only chide himself for being an old man who needed a nap. Syl would beg him to take the medication that would alleviate the pain. When he stubbornly refused, she would ice and elevate the leg, distract him in the most glorious ways. But she was where she needed to be right now, where he had tried to be after starting physical therapy but had embarrassed himself too many times by dropping off in exhaustion during meetings or even phoned-in conference calls. Now he came home immediately after the excruciating therapy and gave in to old man tendencies.
Sighing, he loosened the button on his suit jacket, wishing he’d had the energy to remove it before he sat down. As he turned his head, his eye caught the sprawled mail beside him, and one word stood out that caused his fatigue to dissolve instantly. Straightening slightly, Tobias frowned, recognizing only after long minutes of haunted silence stretched his nerve endings to the breaking point that what he was experiencing was déjà vu.
Military hospital. Wolf rescued me after my kidnapping. I didn’t know Wolf. Didn’t know I was a Marine or part of a special covert ops team. But Wolf knew me. The Marines knew me. I joined at the age of 17. Wolf said from the day we met I insisted he never ask me about my past life. I didn’t have photographs, a single memento. I came into the military with the clothes on my back. If I had memories then, I refused to speak of them.
After I joined the spec ops team Wolf commanded, I was kidnapped during our mission–by the enemy, supposedly. Wolf’s orders were to leave me for dead. And he did. For far longer than he was comfortable with. Weeks. But then he went against orders–the whole team did–and they searched for me. Found me.
I woke up in that military hospital, and I was told all these things about myself, but none of them were familiar. I was a blank slate with an unfamiliar name: C. Tobias Ocampo. Wolf didn’t know “C” stood for Crisanto any more than I did until my military records unveiled that truth. I remembered nothing of what happened my entire life until waking up there.
I don’t know how long it was later when I got mail. An oversized envelope with the distinctively simplistic, pure-text logo of Umbra Law Firm in Grimoire, Wisconsin. A post office box for a return address.
Tobias didn’t consciously realize his breathing was irregular until he awkwardly reached to fan out the mail a little more, revealing more of the legal-sized manila envelope. The last time he’d seen the like had been in that military hospital, only weeks before he was honorably discharged from the Marines.
Blank slate came into an inheritance so massive, I couldn’t have accepted it easily on my best day. I tried to find out more… By mail, followed up with the law firm and did my own research, which told me only that my parents were entrepreneurs who owned several companies that gave them their enormous wealth, though they weren’t personally involved in the daily running of any of them. Who they were, who I was…I may never know.
When I didn’t get any response from Umbra, I came to Grimoire, Wolf unflaggingly at my side every step and ever since. Didn’t find out anything significant beyond that the lawyer didn’t have physical offices in the small city.
I ended up hiring my own lawyer to investigate my inheritance. Little was discovered beyond what they believed was the important part: The inheritance was mine. I was a millionaire overnight, free and clear. But I was never easy about it, never wanted to be someone who made his mark by simply amassing wealth.
Until I met Syl, I didn’t know who I was or what I wanted. She shaped me, defined me, made me into the person I am. She inadvertently convinced me to stop asking questions I’m not sure I ever really wanted answers to. Where I came from, who I was no longer matters. Only who I am, with her, means anything.
But crawling dread settled in the pit of his stomach, inched up his spine, and settled into his head like deafening static at seeing that word “Umbra”. The law firm was as much an enigma as his parents were. He’d wanted to put the whole business of solving puzzles behind him. Though he’d come to Grimoire, intent on finding answers, he took the easy way out of learning them. Deliberately.
Don’t ask me any questions and I’ll tell you no lies…
“Isn’t it better to know? To find out everything you can?” Syl had once asked him early in their relationship, when he admitted he didn’t remember much about his past.
“I’ve never been sure…”
She rarely brought it up since that first time but, when she did he deflected, feigned carelessness, dismissed. Because it was easier than delving into cold, dark areas where shadows could be revealed as monsters.
Unconsciously, he reached up and touched the thick, ugly scar that slashed through his right eyebrow and the eyelid so his right eye was distorted. The scar picked up again just above the right side of his top lip and marred that side of his mouth. Wolf said he’d had the scar when he joined the Marines and the photographs from that time showed it vividly, as if it was a bloody wound instead of a healed scar, making him look unintentionally badass.
He had no memory of where he’d gotten it. Another mystery, another cause for swerving to another topic, anything to avoid the subject. Syl teased that the disfigurement kept him from being so handsome that women the world over would swoon in worship. She saw the scar as an expression of who he was, what he’d been through, though he couldn’t remember its origin. What she found beautiful, he hated. But not because he suspected it played a small part in his sense that he didn’t fit in, wasn’t like anyone else around him. He couldn’t explain the revulsion he felt whenever he looked at the blemish too closely, touched something that might as well have been a scorpion for the poison inside him that rose in his unconscious mind whenever he encountered it.
Swallowing, he reached for his collar, as if it was suffocating him. His unique fashion style regularly featured in their monthly trend magazine, Offbeat Life, shunned a formal tie and buttoning a shirt to the top. His suits custom made by Offbeat Fashions always spotlighted a colorful boutonniere that coordinated with the handkerchief in a creative pocket square fold. Additionally, unique, handcrafted lapel pins, and cuff links were part of his brand.
With the first four buttons undone now, he expected to breathe a little easier.
If there was any way to return to the nap that had been imminent even before he got in the house, he would have. But he couldn’t.
It all started here.
His throat dry, he forced himself to grasp the oversized envelope with his hand and pull it out from the stack of other mail. The clanking sound he’d heard when he dropped the mail beside him on the sofa came again and he frowned, wondering what was causing it.
The envelope was thick, taped securely at the top. The amount of energy he expended to rip through the paper and adhesive left him winded, but he didn’t hesitate to pull out the stack of binder-clip-secured papers. A ring of countless keys fell out onto his lap in the process.
“What the hell…?” he said under his breath, straightening the sheaf to see the top page was labeled as a property inheritance document. The estate in question was something called Howling Halls in Bloodmoon Cove, Wisconsin, which Tobias knew was about an hour from Grimoire, though he had no memory of ever having been there.
Turning the torn envelope over, he saw his name listed as the intended recipient. He’d never heard of Howling Halls and couldn’t imagine how it’d come into his possession. The last thing he needed were questions he could live with indefinitely, without curiosity, if those around him didn’t see them as intriguing riddles to be solved–aggressively. To forbid them from pursuing would convey a sense of discomfort, raise doubts about why he wasn’t more interested, might even make him look suspicious. Luckily, in the past cold trails had always called a halt to the eager investigations of his loved ones.
Tobias shook his head, recognizing that his first step needed to be to call his lawyer–the same he’d hired when he first arrived in Grimoire and needed verification that the inheritance Umbra had stated belonged to him was indeed legitimate.
Because his lawyer had become part of a considerably larger law firm since Offbeat Enterprises made them a force to be reckoned with, he always got personal treatment. Charlotte came on the line, sounded flushed with pleasure, “Tobias, how are you?”
“I can’t complain. And you?”
“The same. Are you up and walking again?”
“With a cane. The physical therapy is brutal.”
“I’ve heard. I’m sorry you have to go through that.”
“I can only agree,” he said on a chuckle she joined him in.
“How is Sybilla?” she asked politely, taking her time before getting past the pleasantries.
Tobias sighed longingly at the name. “My work of art, my lucky charm, keeping me respectable.”
When he’d written the byline for his umbrella corporation, he’d been describing Syl: For the one of a kind: Be in control. Make the choices, big and small. Don’t let go. No compromise. No regrets. Stay offbeat.
Charlotte offered a slightly awkward titter at his exposed heart. “Is there anything I can do for you, Tobias?”
“I received a property bequest and the law firm is again Umbra.”
“Really? Well, that is odd.”
“Could you swing by the house and get it, let me know what you find out about it?”
“I can be there in an hour, if that’s acceptable.”
“Of course. At the moment, Sebastian and Ava are out so let yourself in. I’m in the den. I’m not sure I’m up for a trek back to the front door.”
She agreed, and he hung up, slipping his phone back into his jacket pocket.
He’d always hated reading legal documents and this time was no exception, but he deduced after a brief scan that Umbra was the executor of the property, as had been in the case of his parents’ monetary holdings. Howling Halls’ insurance, property taxes, and upkeep were paid out of the Estate Trust. The house had been made available for rent until such a time as the permanent owner (Tobias’s full name was inserted) was married and had started a family.
Tobias frowned, wondering why this had come today. He and Syl had been married for six months. They’d talked often about having children, but they’d decided to spend a few years as blissful honeymooners first. There was no rush. So what did this mean? What did his being married and fatherhood impending have to do with assuming a piece of property he’d never heard of before?
Though he tried to talk himself out of it, he forced himself back to his feet and went to his file cabinets. Finding the folder with the will that bestowed his parents’ fortune on him was no small task. He’d buried it, and he remembered wanting to lose it altogether when he put it in the place he finally found it.
Instead of settling back comfortably once more, he sat behind the desk, certain he didn’t want Charlotte to find him babying his slowly mending ankle when she got here.
On top of the will was the letter he’d made a copy of when he wrote to the Umbra Law Firm with questions about his parents and his own past. He hurried past that and sent his gaze scanning the will, looking for any mention of Howling Halls. In truth, he didn’t expect to find anything. But it was there, a half inch and many pages in, with a clause about why he wasn’t gaining immediate possession of the property. Here, too, as in the new property document, the stipulations seemed clear: He had to be married, starting a family, before he was legally allowed to claim Howling Halls as his own.
His disbelief in the insanity of the clause immersed him so he was stunned when he heard Syl’s clear, ringing voice breaking through his ruminations. She always announced her presence whenever she walked in the front door. He loved that about her.
His pulse raced, his heartbeat quickened at the thought of seeing her, just as it had every time since their first meeting. They’d spoken on the phone prior to seeing each other in person that first time, and her voice had excited him as if she was a drug injected in his veins. The actual sight of her could never become commonplace, not then, not now.
At 29, she was a woman without comparison. She was small, barely 5’5 with an ectomorph body shape, lean and angular, waif-thin. The platinum blond fade buzz cut over elvish ears had an underlay of black that matched her finely arched eyebrows over manga-huge, electric blue eyes. She wore dark makeup to emphasize their unusual beauty, and dark lipstick showed a sculpted mouth clearly meant to be considered a work of art. She sported a classical nostril piercing, along with a horizontal eyebrow piercing and triple earlobe piercings. Her idea of fashion had become as much of a legacy in their business as his. Though she always wore black, the unique combination of layers in her clothing emphasized her singular personality.
She strode into the den like a wind-shower of flowers and rainbows, peeling off the lacy, fringed scrap she wore around her arms to toss it aside. As usual, he noticed the tattoos that ran the length of her arms, vivid, exotic flowers that went with the ash-risen phoenix tattoo on her back. She’d designed the work of art that covered a good portion of her body herself. Even after his dreams had come true and Syl had finally become his lover, he still couldn’t get enough of exploring the masterpiece that was her.
As soon as Syl saw him, she smiled, his entire body became unfettered electricity, and he struggled to stand although she didn’t give him the chance. “Don’t get up.” She came and sat in his lap. The enthusiastic kiss brought him to life, assuring him that nothing else mattered but this: This woman and his perfect life with her.
“My Goya,” he murmured lovingly. She was the essence of his favorite artist, Francisco De Goya, always changing, always heart stopping, always unique, always beautiful beyond understanding or fully capturing.
After Wolf and the spec ops team had rescued him, he’d devoured art and architecture as if they were the shapes by which he wanted to define a life that had essentially started then, not before. Wolf was a hundred percent sure Tobias had never mentioned the slightest interest in art or architecture before his rescue.
In his art virginity, Goya had stood out, defying description, in unrivalled mysticism, as had the Gothic Revival building style Tobias gravitated toward. Syl shared both of his newfound passions.
He intended to tell her Charlotte was on her way over, only that would have meant giving up even a second of this uninhibited reunion.
“Tobias?” Charlotte’s voice came distantly, clearly from the front door, far too soon.
Syl smiled, unmoving, when the lawyer appeared in the doorway, looking suddenly self-conscious at the intimacy of their pose.
Tobias instantly felt the awkwardness of being in the same room with a woman he’d forced himself to date once. He’d chosen Charlotte because he knew her and they got along. At the time, that was a connection he couldn’t say he’d had with any other woman. While Offbeat Enterprises had put him in the spotlight and turned him into an icon that women unfathomably found attractive, that hadn’t been the case as far as he could remember prior to coming to Grimoire. He’d dated not at all, and he’d felt the gulf between himself and the rest of the world. Even Wolf had said he’d never so much as approached a woman or looked at one in the time they’d been in the military together. Tobias couldn’t explain why he didn’t find any of the women he saw and met attractive, why he wasn’t attracted to them. Point in fact, men had never interested him either. Syl alone held that power. She’d changed everything for him.
“Sybilla, it’s wonderful to see you,” Charlotte said politely.
“You, too.” Syl got up to greet their lawyer with a distant hug and air-kiss. Tobias managed the same, though the tension increased because of his ungainliness.
“What’s going on?” Syl asked.
Quickly, Tobias covered the facts, then handed the property inheritance document to Charlotte. “I’ll see what I can find out ASAP,” she promised.
“Can you stay for dinner?” Syl asked. “Sebastian is making Cod Veracruz.”
Wolf would be joining them tonight along with Sebastian and Ava.
“I hate to miss that. You’re sweet for inviting me,” Charlotte said apologetically, “but I already have plans. Raincheck?”
Charlotte said she’d call in a few hours if she found anything to update them on the property bequest. Syl walked her to the door.
Tobias met her halfway on her way back to the den. “How was your physical therapy?” she asked gently, already drifting into his arms again.
“Did you get a nap?”
He blushed, and she chuckled, murmuring, “Let’s go upstairs.”
The elevator had been put in after his injury, and they rode it upstairs, oblivious to anything else but their love. Once behind their closed bedroom door, Syl undressed them carefully, keeping their clothes from wrinkles and setting his cell phone on the nightstand. She danced away from him each time he tried to hold her close, until finally he was lying comfortably and she was over him, his ankle safely out of harms’ way.
“I live for you, for these moments,” he murmured into the fragrant curve of her neck, gasping as she drove them to the point of no return slowly, sensually. He died and was resurrected anew in her arms.
While they lay cheek to cheek, spooned, she caught him up with what he’d missed at Offbeat Enterprises during his physical therapy that afternoon. They’d been setting up Offbeat Fashions, hiring a team, for a while now, and the men’s and women’s clothing designs Syl had created had been finalized so that her adoptive mother, Ava, who was in charge of the enterprise, was ready to begin work on the prototypes that would be launched a year from now.
“I got a chance to go over some potentials for our next Offbeat Homes book.”
Not surprisingly, it was Syl’s idea to expand into publishing. Offbeat Life spawned Offbeat Design Trends, two magazines published by Offbeat Publications. That had led them into books, including individual series covering offbeat homes, restaurants, hotels, and destinations. While each series was handled by the in-house editor and written by a variety of authors, Syl had wanted to write the unusual historical homes series herself–with help from Tobias because of his deep passion for architecture, predominately house styles. After he moved to Grimoire, he’d buried himself in reading everything he could get on the subject. Their first three offerings in the Offbeat Homes Series had catapulted the other series like it to escalating sales each and every month. All three were on major bestseller lists around the world.
“Anything?” he asked.
She shook her head a fraction under his. “Not yet. But book sales quadrupled this month. I didn’t think they could get any higher after we broke the previous record last month.”
“Impressive.” He kissed her shoulder, lingering on the brilliant orange flower tattoo.
“It is. Which is why I really want to find our next project soon. We should do road trips this year to check out anything interesting. We’ll bring everyone–Ava, Wolf, Sebastian…”
Tobias chuckled sleepily, his hand sliding to an ultra-sensitive breast. She shuddered when his first light caress settled to the perfect spot for resting.
But a nap wasn’t to be. His cell phone rang. Carefully turning herself over him and giving him the most enticing view, she answered the call, after a moment asking Charlotte if she could put her on speakerphone so Tobias could hear, too.
“The inheritance is legitimate, just as the previous one was. Apparently an attempt was made to sell Howling Halls just after your parents’ deaths, but it was quickly taken off the market again. The clause within the will went into effect–that the house would be made available for rent (all debts and expenses to be handled by Umbra) until the rightful owner–you–got married and started a family. The property would then pass into your hands. So you’re free to do what you will with it.”
“I don’t understand the clause,” Tobias said. “Why would it matter whether or not I’m married? And, frankly, I haven’t started a family, so why is this coming to me now, if that somehow matters?”
“Eccentricities of your parents, I suppose. I checked Property Deed Records. The house is unequivocally yours now. If you want to move in, provided you have the keys, you’re free to. I assume you got the keys?”
“On a ring with about 50 other keys in the same envelope.”
“Good. I also did a search of the property to see what I could learn. The internet has some outdated advertisements about renting Howling Halls, but those lines of inquiry went nowhere. I’ll put out feelers about learning more, but I’m suspecting we’ll find little. I’ll let you know if I do discover anything worth knowing.”
“Thank you,” he and Syl said at the same time.
“Is there anything else I can do for you?” Charlotte asked.
Tobias thanked her once more and told her he’d be in touch if he thought of anything else.
“I’m intrigued. Maybe we should go see it this weekend,” Syl said after she set his phone aside and slid down beside him again. She traced the tattoo on his chest–the only one he had and ever would. He’d gotten it while they were on their honeymoon. She’d designed the Offbeat logo with a phoenix, and he said it was her, his lucky charm.
“Howling Halls is probably a wreck and a money pit, better if I just unload.”
She smiled, shaking her head. “You don’t know that. Don’t you want to see it first before you decide anything?”
“Let me get you an ice pack.” She sprang up, light as a fairy, and flew into the en suite bathroom. When she came back and carefully inserted his ankle in the sealed ice wrap, her face was enraptured while she talked about the house. As had been the case since the moment he heard her voice, he couldn’t say no to her. Whatever she wanted to do, he would find a way to make happen for her and pray she wanted to take him along for the ride.
“We should find out more about the place. Maybe I can call around, see if I can find out anything about Howling Halls from the townsfolk. Maybe the local real estate agent can give us some information.”
She nodded, smiling blissfully at his quietly reluctant suggestion. “Let’s make a weekend of it. We can ask Wolf, Ava, and Sebastian to join us at dinner. What do you think?”
“If you love the idea, I love it, my Goya. Just as long as we’re together.”
Ava Nygard was standing in front of the elevator when it opened two hours later. Tobias had gotten the nap he seemed to need each day lately, and Syl had time to think about her life, the way she rarely did during a busy work day.
Instead of jolting at the sight of them kissing inside the car, her mother smiled as if she’d barely noticed. While Syl and Tobias had been closer than best friends since they met–hearts and minds forever in sync–their relationship hadn’t turned romantic until two years ago. If Tobias hadn’t taken the initiative, things might never have changed between them.
Ava saw something in him–his love for me–that I couldn’t get myself to accept or even test the waters.
At 55, Ava was the picture of elegance with white-blond hair, a comfortable, trim figure, and kind eyes that almost always matched her welcoming smile. She’d been the first woman Syl looked upon as a mother, having never known her own. Foster mothers had seen her as little more than a steady paycheck.
All her life, Syl had been boldly aware she was different than everyone else on the planet. She looked, saw, sounded, thought, and acted differently from everyone else around her. She’d grown up in an orphanage followed by a series of foster homes in which her differences continuously got her ridiculed and in trouble within the families and the schools she attended. That she spent nearly all her time trying to stay hidden, unnoticed, might have been precisely why she was picked on so much. Adults and children alike were ruthlessly cruel about her tattoos, piercings, her androgynous appearance, the odd way she dressed and wore makeup. She’d even been teased about the way she talked, her voice, not to mention the peculiar way her mind worked in ways that were nothing like the rest of the population.
Maybe if she’d conformed to what was expected of her, she wouldn’t have stood out quite so much. But she’d never been able to do that, never been able to do anything but be true to herself, even when it brought abuse from every side. She’d needed to express herself, and her hair, face, body, the fine-art tattoos and piercings were all part of who she was.
Often, she’d thought she’d been born in the wrong era. When she was growing up, her means of being true to herself painted her as a freak. These days, she received kudos from the fashion experts for her edgy, offbeat style.
The only friend she’d had growing up had been Ava’s son, Cael, who was an avant-garde artist himself. Unlike Cael, Syl had never had any desire to “expand her mind” with the drugs Cael had seemed drawn to helplessly from an early age. The tattoo designs she’d sketched, he’d brought to life on the canvas of her skin. His death put a halt to the work of art they’d been designing together.
Ava and her husband had been gang bikers whose home was the Harley they rode around the country, they were different from most people in every way. Until Ava got pregnant in her late 30s, they’d never had any intention of settling down to anything like normal life. But Ava’s pregnancy had changed everything for them. They’d finally kicked their alcoholism and drug addictions, curtailed all brushes with the law that had once been the norm for them. But the fairytale life they’d been building wasn’t to be.
When Cael died of a drug overdose at the age of 15, Syl had all but been living with them, her dreaded foster parents next door. Ava and her husband began the process of adopting her formally as a way to cope with their own loss, but Ava’s husband had never been right after Cael’s death. In his grief, he’d taken his own life.
Since then, Ava and Syl had been inseparable. Tobias had changed Ava’s life as well, when he asked her to head Offbeat Fashions, utilizing the seamstress skills she’d gained when she’d settled down to become a wife and mother and began making clothes for all of them, including Syl, her son’s best and only friend.
“I was just coming to look for you,” Ava said. “Sebastian is wondering how many for dinner.”
Inviting someone to dinner was something Syl and Tobias did often and encouraged Sebastian and Ava to do the same whenever they wanted. Sebastian always knew to have extra on-hand for a last-minute guest. Leftovers made an excellent lunch the next day.
“Wolf will be here soon. Just the five of us, but if Sebastian could make something for Etcetera, too…” Syl started as they stepped out of the elevator on the ground floor.
Wolf had come to Grimoire with Tobias and now was head of security for Offbeat Enterprises. After he’d met Lily, they’d trained Chow Chows in their spare time. At the moment, Wolf only had one 18-month-old dog since he and Lily had decided to curtail their hobby in favor of adopting a child from a Third World country. After she got sick, the adoption had fallen through.
The doorbell rang, and Ava said, “That must be Wolf. Why don’t you answer it, and I’ll get back to Sebastian about dinner for humans and canines alike.”
Syl thanked her, then returned to Tobias, threading her arms through his so they could slowly move toward the foyer. Wolf had been part of their family from the beginning, so ringing the doorbell had been a mere formality to let them know he’d arrived. He’d come in and Etcetera rushed to greet them, her lion-mane ruff quivering, belying the snobbish, scowling expression that didn’t fit her personality at all. The Chow Chow was 20 inches at the shoulder, and she’d been taught not to barrel anyone down in her enthusiastic greetings. Syl wouldn’t have minded except she knew Tobias wasn’t steady on his feet these days, even after graduating from the crutches that frustrated him to no end to a cane.
I’ve been babying him. Until I got that phone call from him in the hospital, I hadn’t realized I’ve been holding my breath almost from the moment he told he loved me…is in love with me. How many times did I think while growing up, When has my life ever gone the way I expected or wanted? I’m not like anyone else. That was driven home to me brutally from the moment I was aware of my own existence. Cael was a friend I never thought I’d have. No one else understood me. They shunned me, teased me, made me feel like an alien who wasn’t welcome anywhere on their planet.
Meeting Tobias… I still think about our first phone call, our first face-to-face meeting… I fell in love with him from his first word, and the deed was done at hello, our handshake fusing us. But I never needed romance. I never longed for anything like that. Never. I knew I wasn’t designed for it until Tobias made me think of things that were so foreign, and yet with him… He’s a man who can read my mind simply by looking into my eyes and loves everything he sees, everything he encounters in the hidden depths of all I am and can be.
He was the most beautiful man she’d ever set eyes on. Tall, slim, muscular, as natural and graceful as a panther, moving through life as if he wasn’t aware of his own power and magnetism. And she knew he wasn’t, which was part of her helpless attraction to him.
His thick, silky black hair was always picture-perfect and well-trimmed, as was his clean-shaven face. With his fashion style, he could grace the cover of Q Magazine every day of his life and offer something exquisite. Combined with that, he had extremely sharp, high cheekbones; haunting, hooded ebony eyes; and a beautiful mouth. His only moot flaw was the scar she barely noticed anymore, and, when she did, she loved it the way she did Goya’s Judith and Holofernes painting. Each time she glimpsed it, she saw something incredible and heart-stealing there, something mysterious and equally revealing. Whenever she decided she knew everything there was to know about it, another slant of light emerged from the shadows and told a brand new story.
From their acquaintance, she’d wanted nothing more than every single moment he’d give her. But, yes, she had eventually noticed he was alone, just as she was by choice. That his attempts at dating were nothing short of clumsy and lacking anything like intention, finesse, desire hadn’t been lost on her. He seemed to think dating was expected of him but unsure by whom.
“Why are you alone, Syl?”
Two years ago, on New Year’s Eve, he’d asked her that question. They’d gathered in his home with all their friends who would stay over for the holiday. They’d all turned in for the night before the two of them and, once alone together, Tobias had asked her the question that had changed everything between them. The inquiry had brought another, this one more naked than the last: “Is it because you have feelings for me? Please, God…let it be that.”
He hadn’t waited for her to answer what she’d sometimes felt couldn’t have been more obvious if she’d tattooed her feelings for him on her face. “I love you, Syl. I’ve been in love with you from Ground Zero. I couldn’t tell you. Couldn’t risk losing you. But…I can’t go on like this.”
How she’d spoken through her shock, she’d never know. She’d asked if she was an infection, teasing, but neither of them could smile at that tense, pivotal moment.
“God, yes. My infection. My symbiont. My Goya. I’m too old for you, I know. And I’m…horrifying–” He’d waved, his expression twisted in self-revulsion, at the scar.
She wouldn’t let him get away with that. She’d slid across the sofa to him, and he’d been waiting to take her in. “We’re the same. What is age? Meaningless. And you’re a work of art to me.” She’d kissed the scar from his eyebrow to his mouth, and he’d been all but paralyzed, his eyes filled with moved tears, when she pulled back. “Tobias…I spend all my time with you. Every day. Every single day. As much time as you’ll give me. It’s why I’ve never minded working 18-hour days since I met you. I want to spend my life with you.”
He’d shuddered at her words, his tears falling. “Everything I am, everything I have, is yours. Consume me. Transform me. Make me a part of you, Syl. It’s all I’ve ever wanted. From this moment on, let me be with you everywhere, always.”
But the confidence that had been born that night in his love, the truth that they’d been meant for each other, had shattered into a fear she hadn’t even realized was living just below her skin when he called her from the hospital near Joshua Tree National Park. Their honeymoon had been a fantasy she hadn’t been ready to let go of, but he’d been so worried about Wolf when they got back, after they learned how withdrawn and isolated he became. Lily had died and it might have happened seconds ago for how little Wolf had dealt with the loss. Tobias was so sure an adventure would get him back in the land of the living. Wolf adored rock climbing. Syl had been all for the trip. Yet, from the moment the two men left, she’d felt fear threatening to break free.
I can’t lose him. I spent my life looking for Tobias without even realizing I was doing that until he was there and I recognized he was my pinnacle. She’d told herself since his confession that freed their love that they were cemented, unbreakable, fused. They were the only fit that was perfect in a world that repelled her. Without him…meaning, will, all purpose is lost.
But Wolf had rescued him again. Instead of waiting for the search and rescue team to find them, as maybe would have been wise, Wolf had carried Tobias off that mountain against all odds.
Prior to that, he’d done the same after Tobias’s capture by the enemy. Freed from the red tape the military had tried to bury him and his team in, Wolf had damned his superiors’ orders, expecting to find his best friend dead. But Tobias hadn’t had a single scratch on him when the spec ops team found him. His body had been vibrantly healthy, though his mind had been in torment without memories or connections in the world to anchor him. He didn’t remember being tortured, presumably mentally, as there was no physical damage done to him.
Wolf had been at his side ever since, deflecting any hint of offense that Tobias didn’t know him, didn’t recall anything about their relationship prior to leaving that cave he’d been imprisoned in.
They’d made new memories.
At 52, Wolf might have still been a sergeant in the military who kept to daily fitness routines for how in shape he was. He towered over Syl and even over Tobias, who was several inches shorter. Heavily muscled, he was the only one in their group who didn’t “dress for dinner”. He always wore black jeans and the same style of slimming casual shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows, his salt-and-pepper hair in a buzz cut that required little maintenance. His facial hair was so thick, he generally only shaved once a week because it was too much work to do it every day.
He and Tobias shook hands, which wasn’t in any way formal, but warm and welcoming. Even if Tobias couldn’t remember their friendship before his capture, he’d made sure to hold on to what past they shared. They both knew Wolf would never forgive himself for following orders and not rescuing him earlier. But Tobias proved on a daily basis there was never a need for him to experience guilt.
Wolf engulfed Syl in a hug before they went to the kitchen that was a wide-open room intimately connected with the dining room. A heavily decorated window with steeped arches flooded light into the rooms. Etcetera moved over to the elaborately carved stone fireplace that connected the living room with the kitchen and was often used for cooking. The dog sat on her haunches, watching them with contentment.
Ava and Sebastian came to them for greetings, and Syl warmed at the sense of family she hadn’t known quite as vividly as during these past eight years. Tobias had hired Sebastian right from the restaurant he’d gotten his accolades. He’d lost his beloved wife years before, and he’d been considering retirement so he could spend more time with his grown children and grandchildren. Tobias’s offer to have him work here and live with him, become part of his family, had given him the lifestyle he’d longed for in his retirement years.
Often, he reminded Syl of Ava’s late husband with his full beard and easy, wide smile. He wore glasses, too, but Cormac had always been taking them off, the tough guy not wanting to admit he needed them. Though Ava and Sebastian were in the same age group, neither of them had romantic aspirations, for each other or anyone else. Both had put that aspect of their lives in the same grave with their cherished spouses. They were close friends, and Syl suspected they sometimes felt like the parental figures in the group to the three of them.
While they caught up, Sebastian served herbed goat cheese polenta bites with Dolcetto out on the fully furnished deck outside the dining room, where they often ate in warm weather.
Syl wondered if Tobias would mention the property inheritance or expect her to. He knew she was excited about making a weekend of it. Not until they were well into the cod in the dining room did he finally break the news. When he wondered why the inheritance had come so long after the first bequest, Ava reiterated Charlotte’s comment about eccentricities.
“We’ve been married six months now and we haven’t started a family yet. So this timing seems random and, frankly, obscure.”
“Maybe you were a wild teenager, Tobias, and they were afraid if you got the house too soon, you’d gamble away the family legacy?” Wolf ribbed.
But no one who knew Tobias would believe he’d been anything but a misunderstood, withdrawn, troubled teenager. If he’d ever gambled a single time in his life, Syl would be shocked to learn of it.
“I couldn’t have imagined the first windfall,” he said, looking as embarrassed and ashamed as always about accepting the inheritance from people he had no memories of whatsoever. He had taken it and used it for good, but it hadn’t relieved his anxiety about the necessity.
As soon as Offbeat Enterprises reached the status of being a Fortune 1000 company only a few years ago, they’d started their Grow a Village Foundation. Intending to assist the most poverty-stricken areas in the world, they provided the financial means for a community to have clean water, all that was needed to grow their own food, to build a free hospital as well as a school. In an attempt to completely avoid gentrification, the effort didn’t focus on addressing housing concerns. Their first project was in Somalia in sub-Saharan Africa. They anticipated that each community would require at least a decade to become established, but they’d launched fundraising efforts after the first time they visited the village, wanting to do more and sooner, once they got to know the selfless, generous people working for them as well as the villagers they served. They intended to return to the community once a year and, if and when feasible, start another project in another poverty-stricken area as soon as possible.
“This may be a real chance to find out more about where you came from,” Syl said, never taking her gaze from her husband while she spoke.
She and Wolf had been given permission to find out more about Tobias’s past, but they’d learned almost nothing beyond that his parents were eccentric billionaires who made a fortune investing in businesses they weren’t personally involved in. Nothing was known about who they were beyond that. In every way, they’d kept their private lives hidden from the world.
She saw the instant dismissal of her words in Tobias’s eyes. He didn’t have any desire to learn more about a forgotten past, who he was. He’d made that abundantly clear before but he’d never put too fine a point on the truth. As usual, he favored sweeping aside his own feelings to focus on hers. “If that’s what you want, my Goya, let’s do it,” he said enthusiastically. “What does everyone else think? Shall we make a weekend of it?”
Both Sebastian and Ava begged off, with apologies and promises to join them next time, because of individual plans they’d already made for the weekend. As usual, Wolf agreed to join them and said Etcetera–who was nearby eating her beef and rice dinner without spilling a drop–could use some fresh, mountain air.
Over decadent, homemade mango sorbet, Syl wondered how Tobias would react if they did find out something about his family. Why do I seem to need that more than he does? He wouldn’t react. He’d act thrilled that I accomplished something I was interested in. But he wouldn’t care. He wouldn’t let it touch him. How can I blame him? He lost his memory. Even if he found out something, it wouldn’t spark anything personal inside him. Would it?
She hadn’t grown up in a world where truth unfailingly righted wrongs and healed horrors. Truth could rip a life from its moorings as surely as it could bring back unending pain that might lack necessary definition and context for one who’d lost his memory so completely. But always she believed that it was better to know instead of living in ignorance that could deprive someone of the rich complexity life offered.
Besides, she knew as well as Tobias did that they were forever trying to bring those they loved and cared for into their circle, creating a world where they had everything they wanted and needed in a contained, isolated space. It’s how I hid from a world that didn’t want me in it. It’s how Tobias copes with the blank spaces in the first 20-some years of his life. But sometimes we have to open our world, when we’re suffocating and may not even realize we are.
This feels like one of those times.