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Awaken

Shadows of a Forgotten Past


by Marcia Maidana

Voice of Innocence

Could there exist a love powerful enough to overcome the grave?

Hard times during the Great Depression force nineteen-year-old Florence to leave her service at the monastery and seek employment. Fate brings her to work for a wealthy recluse, General Alexander Sterling. Despite many daunting events and a meddling housekeeper with dark secrets of her own, Florence and the General find themselves falling deeply in love.

What she doesn’t know is that General Sterling has left his native country escaping a painful past, one he yearns to forget. Destiny won’t allow it as he meets Florence, whose resemblance to his deceased wife is unbearable. Could Florence actually be the same woman who still owns his heart and haunts his dreams?

When their blossoming romance is shattered by an explosive truth, a mysterious stranger gives her an opportunity to go back in time to unlock the secret to her existence. Florence must strive to return to the present time to save their relationship from the imminent danger that awaits them.


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Release Date: July 11, 2017
Genre: Contemporary
White Satin Romance


Excerpt

Chapter One

~ Obscure Reality~

 

Geneva, Western New York, 1936

 

A crust of three-day-old bread and watered down milk is hardly a meal to stoke the flames of courage, and standing on the wide steps of Oak’s Place in the drizzly rain, I needed every spark of spirit I could gather. Usually, a rather gothic door knocker baring its teeth at me would not have me in goose bumps. Nor would capricious weather, not to mention applying for a position of employment, even at a house whose mysterious owner was keeping a storm of gossip rioting around town. But hunger has a way of wearing down even the bravest heart.

Maybe I owed my unease to the stories circulating about this place. The red brick walls and high chimneys of Oak’s Place estate, neatly surrounded by acres of woodland, spoke of better days now long past. The house seemed to have taken a certain decline in its character, perhaps patterned after its new owner. Last summer the estate had fallen into the hands of a retired British general. Who was he? Why had he selected this isolated part of the world to retire to? No one knew. No one had ever seen “the Shadow,” as he was called.

Naturally, that just gave my imagination free reign. Although Granny—Sister Dolores to the rest of the world—disapproved, I often tuned into the Detective Story Hour after supper, and it was all too easy to picture the new owner of Oak’s Place as a silent yet fierce vigilante. Maybe it was a childish game to play but understandable when I had spent the last nineteen years fully loved and cared for by my adopted granny, who was a saint at heart but who also made sure that my life was as boring and dull as only a nun could. Whatever he was, I had to square up my shoulders and face it now. The fact that Oak’s Place—or any other place—would have a job to offer was rare, and one that a woman could do—a miracle in itself.

I took a deep breath and let the humid air fill my lungs, regaining focus. I reached for the lion knocker and tapped on the door.

Almost instantly, a gray-haired woman with cat-like eyes stared at me from the other side of the open door. “Good morning,” I said. “I telephoned about the ad in the paper.”

“Yes, of course.” She gestured for me to step inside. The first thing I noticed was the thick silence of the house. The square foyer was devoid of any furniture. It was a bleak room unencumbered by emotion, as if not wanting to be bothered with visitors. “I am the housekeeper, Mrs. White,” she said in a sharp British accent. She seemed vaguely familiar. I wondered where I had seen her before.

“Florence Contini. It’s a pleasure to meet you.” I handed her my resume, noting her unstable hands as she took it. Mrs. White stared at the paper for a long while. Her eyes became confused—distant.

“You are too late, too late indeed,” Mrs. White softly murmured.

“Late? I’m sorry, the lady on the phone said I could come by anytime this morning. I drove here as soon as we hung up...” I hesitated, hoping she would say something encouraging. Had someone beat me to the job? Impossible—my friend Jim had shown me the ad before distributing the papers to town, and I had rushed to make sure I was the first in line to apply.

“You can leave your resume. I’ll make sure to speak with Mr. Sterling about it.” I stared at Mrs. White blankly, feeling a desperate need to find the right words. Not to beg, but to convince her I was the right person for the position.

“What is the matter, Deborah?” a low voice came from the dark hall. A moment later, a man joined us in the foyer. He was a good foot taller than me, with olive complexion and dark eyes that left me disquieted. He inched closer, the three of us forming a triangle. An unexpected feeling of insecurity invaded me, and I took a step back towards the door.

“Mr. Vines! What the devil are you doing, creeping around the house?” hissed Mrs. White in a loud tone, contradicting the image of cool self-control she projected.

“Me? Creeping around?” Mr. Vines let out a sarcastic laugh. “No one knows the art of creeping around more than you, Deborah. I’m just making sure you’re not causing this young lady any trouble.”

“Trouble? For goodness’ sake, Mr. Vines, watch your tongue.” His presence seemed to have altered Mrs. White. “This is Miss Florence Contini.”

For a moment, Mr. Vines contemplated me with such intensity that I was almost convinced our paths had crossed before and somehow, he knew me all too well. “Oh, indeed. Florence Contini, it is.” His heavy British accent was filled with certainty. “I’m Mr. Vines, the chauffeur. I hope you’ve come to stay this time.” He stretched out his hand to meet mine. Without thinking, I shook his hand, but at his touch, an unpleasant sensation shivered through me.

“Nice to meet you,” I lied, liberating my hand from his firm grip, and trying to make sense of the strange feeling. One thing I knew for sure—I hoped I’d never be touched by him again. Come to stay this time? His words resounded in my mind; perhaps it was his unusual way of communicating that unsettled me.

Mrs. White was swift to say, “Actually, she was just leaving.”

“She can’t leave. Mr. Sterling asked me to show Miss Contini to his office.”

“Did he now?” Mrs. White appeared startled by Mr. Vines’s comment, and I had the distinct impression that she had to summon a great deal of restraint not to argue with him. She returned the resume to me and signaled towards the first room off the foyer. “Wait here, please.”

Mrs. White and Mr. Vines disappeared down the hall. I stared after them acknowledging to myself how masterfully they had managed to keep courtesy to its minimal requirements.

The waiting room was spacious and lit only by a single lamp sitting on the desk. There were some landscape paintings hanging on the walls, an armoire, and a slim side table. I had never seen pieces so old and unique. A comfortable-looking armchair was situated by the side table, and I sat down to wait, continuing to examine the room as I did.

Sharply contrasting with the elegant decor, the shadows in the room lent it a vaguely sinister quality. From the ceiling hung an enormous chandelier, guarding everything with constant vigilance. I wished it would magically turn on and chase away the darkness in the corners—although the light switch stared back at me from the side wall, I felt reluctant to leave the security of my seat.

Sitting in that lovely but rather oppressive room, I mused over the turn of events that had led me to this point, at which I was practically begging for employment at a dark mansion. I couldn’t deny that I felt a twinge of guilt for judging Mr. Sterling without just cause. Just because all sorts of lurid speculation ran rampant in town, it gave me no right to participate in unfounded gossip. Perhaps the dislike people had towards Mr. Sterling might be a result of prejudice—he was a foreigner—and jealousy—he was very rich. Most likely it was the latter reason.

Sadly, I understood their feelings. It was easy to feel resentment when our nation was experiencing the worst period of poverty in its history and life was harder than we had ever known. The sudden fall of the stock market and its chaotic impact was still a hard reality for people to accept. Among them was Granny—her soup kitchen, the school for girls, the sisters, the trips, all gone.

When Granny had used the same teabag two days in a row and breakfast was an egg shared between us with the last of the day-old bread, I had made up my mind. I would jump at the first opportunity of employment that came my way without hesitation—even without Granny’s approval. Yet, when I read this morning’s ad I wrestled with the idea, but my strong will prevailed and wild rumors or not, I was going to apply for the help wanted position at Oak’s Place. Besides, I rationalized that it was perfect for me; I could manage the role of secretary fairly well.

Turning in for bed the night before, I had no inkling of the surprises the new day would bring. Now that I was actually here inside the Shadow’s house, I thought back over the events of the morning. Since before dawn, I had tossed and turned on my bed, trying to forget the troubles that haunted not only me, but also the entire nation. When sunlight invaded my room, determined to start a new day, I heard the bell on Jim’s bicycle ringing persistently from the grounds below.

I stole a glance at the clock sitting on the night table by my bed, threw my covers off and ran to the balcony right outside my room.

Every day, Jim delivered the morning paper to the monastery. We were stop number five on his ever-shrinking route, yet judging by the early hour, I was sure that today we were stop number one, and that could only mean good news for me. 

“Stop making a racket, I’m not deaf!” I reprimanded, looking down at him from the balcony.

“Good morning to you too,” Jim mocked, sounding the bell a few more times. “I can’t believe you were still asleep...so late.”

“Late? It’s only a few minutes past six!” I shivered a little in the crisp morning air.

“Late indeed. I’ve been up since four,” he boasted.

“Lucky you,” I teased.

“Lucky indeed,” he replied in a softer tone, and as he observed me, his gaze suddenly grew with a warmth that I did not welcome.

Looking down at my long, thin nightgown, I felt disappointed at myself. How could I have been so careless to come out here without my robe? “I’ll be right down,” I said. Swiftly returning to my room, I grabbed my robe before heading downstairs.

Jim hadn’t bothered to park his bike—it just laid on the ground as he waited, paper in hand.

“Oh Jim, you found one!” I exclaimed.

He nodded. “Here—look!” he pointed to a small ad at the bottom of the short-classified column. “This is really good, Florence,” he stammered in excitement.

I read the ad and was stunned—was it a joke?

Jim must have sensed my hesitation. “Come on, Florence, you’ll get it for sure,” he encouraged.

“Really Jim? You can’t be serious.” Yes, it was true that I had made up my mind to take on the first thing that came my way, but I had never imagined that it would be this.

“Don’t tell me you’re afraid.” He raised an eyebrow at me. “This is the perfect opportunity. Think about it—no one will try to get it—it is all yours.” His excitement did not convince me.

“Perhaps no one else will, but that’s not good, is it?”

“Better than nothing. Besides, you can’t really believe everything people say.”

“No, but you can’t deny that this contradicts the infamy of Oak’s Place.”

“This is different. I doubt they’ll throw you out when you show up, you know…” He paused before continuing, “They are advertising a job. It’s not like you will be offering them unsolicited help.” Taking the paper from me, Jim quickly flipped it to the front page. “Look at this and then tell me that you’ll let a little gossip stop you.” He pointed to the article beneath the headlines.

 

Ships are silently waiting in harbors for better days while their hulls are rotting. Freight-trains and passenger-carts are empty. Millions of people are unemployed...millions beg for food as businesses are at a standstill...two to three hundred-thousand young boys are drifting aimlessly along the highways...

 

I shook my head to dispel my uneasiness. “I suppose I have nothing to lose—I hope.”

“It’s a great opportunity. Just give it a try.” Before I knew it, Jim kissed my cheek and mounted his bike. “Good luck! I have to go.”

The whoosh of the wind rushing past the window brought me back to my present situation. Here I was, daring to dream that I’d get a job, yet worrying that even if I was the only person to apply, they would think I was inexperienced. I had to make a great first impression on Mr. Sterling; perhaps he would pity how young I was and give me an opportunity. 

The sound of shoes thumping against the stone floor brought me to my feet. Mrs. White came through the door. “Follow me, if you please.”

We traveled down a wide hall dimly lit by sconces on the walls and came to a halt at the very last door. Before knocking, Mrs. White ran her fingers over her black, well-pressed dress, to smooth out the nonexistent wrinkles. Instinctively, I looked down at my own worn blue blouse and skirt, feeling too plainly dressed.

A deep voice sounded in reply to her knock, “Come in.”

Mrs. White opened the door and introduced me.

“Miss Contini, sir.” I hesitated in the doorway until Mrs. White said, “Go on.”

As I crossed the threshold, time seemed to stop for just a moment, and nothing around me felt real. Although I possessed a vivid imagination and loved to escape in a well-told story or an afternoon at the cinema, I was equally grounded in reality. Hard times have a way of doing that to a person. So, I was surprised at the strong presentiment which filled me; I was suddenly convinced those few uncertain steps would become the most significant ones I would ever take. Mrs. White retreated to the hallway, shutting the door behind me.

Mr. Sterling stood motionless, looking out the back window of his office. I noticed the dim light spilling through the open curtains, the walls dressed in carved wood panels, a brown sofa facing the brick fireplace, a pile of books rising from the floor next to a small corner table, a large desk accompanied by two chairs on the visitors’ side, and a leather chair directly opposing—all of these things I perceived in a single flash, before my attention returned to the stillness of the man by the window.

I wondered if I was supposed to say something. I looked past the tall figure with broad shoulders and thick black hair, through the glass into the yard, catching sight of what clearly was the center of his attention; a statue of a woman embracing a child. The statue looked radiant, as if it had some life vibrating in it.

Mr. Sterling turned to face me. “Good morning, Miss Contini.” He was backlit by the light at the window, his face still in shadow, but I was pleasantly surprised at his subtle British accent.

“Pleased to meet you.”

He walked across the room towards me, and my heart seemed to stop for a moment once I could see him clearly. Mr. Sterling wasn’t young, but he wasn’t as old as I’d imagined either. He looked to be in his mid-forties, and he had the fine features of one who had been extremely handsome in his youth and was so still. That sense of foreboding that had washed over me earlier came rushing back with renewed intensity. Somewhere, sometime, I had seen those deep blue eyes, the dark eyebrows and eyelashes, his fair skin, his dominant, almost intimidating presence, although I knew that was impossible. Since Mr. Sterling had moved to Oak’s Place, I had not once seen him, only imagined him while I listened in amusement to the local gossip.

Still holding my gaze, he stopped a couple of feet from me. His eyes held a curious emotion that I couldn’t name. Unsure of the correct protocol and starting to feel flustered with his staring, I decided to feign confidence, and stretched out my hand for a shake that was never reciprocated. For a moment, I imagined how I must look to him. The rain and wind had done a number on my hair, and it had escaped from the clips I had carefully fixed in place this morning. At least my outfit, a leftover from the monastery’s charity chest, complimented my auburn hair and brown eyes. But under Mr. Sterling’s silent appraisal, I felt gauche and awkward, not polished and competent. How on earth was I ever going to convince him I could handle any task he gave me when I was windblown and pale with nerves?

After a moment, he pulled out a chair from the massive desk.

“Please sit down.”

“Thank you,” I replied, wondering why he hadn’t shaken hands with me.

He strolled back to the opposite side of the desk to take his seat. His eyes fixed upon mine as if waiting to hear a confession, and I had the distinct impression that he could see through my bravado. Yet, I had to remain in control if I was to accomplish my goal, so I said, “Here is my information.” I placed my resume on the neatly arranged desk.

The gray morning suddenly grew a shade darker, diminishing the already weak daylight that struggled to light the room. The soft rain that caressed the windowpanes increased in strength, preparing for the restless pounding that immediately followed.

Mr. Sterling seemed totally oblivious to the pouring storm. Just like Mrs. White had done, he stared at the paper for a long moment, causing me to worry once more that there was something wrong with it, something wrong with me.

“Have we met before?” His eyes flickered from the ink on the paper to me.

“I don’t believe so. Have you ever been to town?” I knew the answer; I would have remembered him.

“No. Could we have possibly met in England?”

“I have never left New York. I was born and raised here.” I forced myself to meet his gaze. I had no intention of being a weak female, but I felt captured by his eyes and eventually looked away, unable to hold his firm gaze.

“Your name is Florence Contini.” It was more a statement than a question.

“Yes.”

“You were raised by Sister Dolores Perkins—a nun?” Mr. Sterling looked intrigued.

“Yes.”

“Who was your father?”

“Who was my father?” I shook my head a fraction of an inch to each side. His question left me feeling at a loss.

“Yes, that’s what I said,” he pressed, a little less patiently this time. “Who was your father?”

I had given the same painful answer many times in my life. “I don’t know. I’m an orphan. I was abandoned on the monastery grounds when I was a baby. Granny—I mean, Sister Dolores—found and raised me as her own.”

“But, you were trained at a private school for girls, Higher Grounds. Where is that?”

“At the monastery, several miles north of town. The school was shut down last November after I graduated.”

“I see.” His finger followed some lines on the paper. “You were born in 1917. How can that possibly be? Nineteen years ago...” he muttered, and his eyes seemed to go unfocused, as if his thoughts were taking him to another place, another time.

Something wasn’t right—something about my age—was I too young for the job?

I had to reassure him, to convince him I was capable of being his secretary. “After I graduated, I became the record-keeper for the monastery. Under the current economy, the church keeps a close watch on all of its assets. So, in that regard, I feel most confident that I can manage your business affairs in a satisfying way.”

“You already have a job then?”

“Yes, well, no, not a paid job. The church has cut back on all of its expenditures. There are no funds available at the monastery, and now that I’m of age, I have to justify my living there.”

“I see.”

From the hall came the sound of a loud crash, as if something just outside the door had been overturned.

“Excuse me.” Mr. Sterling quickly rose from his chair, annoyance crossing his strong features.

“Of course.” I nodded. He withdrew from the room and shut the door behind him.

Through the door, I could hear Mr. Sterling and Mrs. White arguing in lowered voices. To my disappointment, they weren’t clear enough for me to make out their conversation, but it was starting to look obvious that I wasn’t going to get the job.

A book bound in rough black leather lay on the desk. I picked it up and flipped through its pages, still aware of the ongoing quarreling outside the office. The yellowed pages turned unwillingly, except for a few of them in the middle, which revealed that they were frequently visited. Concealed between them, I found a torn piece of paper. I retrieved it carefully. It was either ancient or had been through a lot of handling. Time had left only a few legible words on it.

 

Named...birth...minutes...died

 

I forced my eyes to focus, trying to decipher the faded words, but the irreversible weathering had permanently destroyed readability.

The sounds from the corridor ceased, abruptly bringing my intense curiosity to an end. Immediately, I returned the book to its place.

When Mr. Sterling entered the room, his face bore signs of distress. Whatever the problem had been, it had agitated him. Slowly, he sat down, his arms rested on the desk, his hands turned into fists.

“Miss Contini, I only have one more question for you.” His strong eyes pierced mine, and I braced myself for the worst. “When can you start?”

I wondered if I had heard what I wanted to hear and not what he had really said. Apprehensive to give the wrong answer, I didn’t immediately reply.

“Miss Contini?” he asked again. “When can you start?”

“As soon as you require,” I answered in what I hoped was a casual voice, hiding how astonished I was.

“Would tomorrow be too soon?”

“Tomorrow should be fine.”

“Then it’s settled. Mrs. White will help you get started. She knows more about my own affairs than I do.”

“Thank you, Mr. Sterling. I won’t disappoint you.” My head was already racing; I hoped to keep that promise.

Without a pause, Mrs. White entered the room. Her timing was impeccable.

“Very well,” she said flatly. “I’ll show you to your office.” Realizing that she had already known that I would be hired was disconcerting.

“Thank you, Mrs. White.” Mr. Sterling nodded at her but immediately turned his attention back to me. I could still feel his gaze on me as I followed Mrs. White out of the office.

Mrs. White led me back down the hall into the very same room in which I had been seated earlier. She walked briskly across the room and with a single pull on its strings, the curtains parted to reveal a large window bathed in raindrops. The room flooded with the day’s gray light, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that my office would be much less oppressive than I had originally thought.

“Everything you need is in here,” she informed. “There is no better time than the first day to clarify your position. All rules must be understood and followed. Failure to follow any of them and the cost will be your job.” She paused, giving me the opportunity to speak. I mentally sighed at what I had gotten myself into, but beggars couldn’t be choosers. Jobs of any type were in such low supply that I couldn’t complain. Not only that, but I was determined not to give Mrs. White the satisfaction of knowing that she left me feeling unsettled. She was evidently pleased that I had nothing to say.

Mrs. White handed me a small book from the desk along with a pen. “You may want to take some notes.”

I sat down and readied myself to write her instructions. She retreated to the corner of the room to open the doors of an enormous armoire. I couldn’t believe how many books and documents had been packed in it. Carefully, she extracted several thick leather bound volumes, completely filling her arms.

“The family’s solicitor was in charge of all of this, but he retired at the same time we moved to America.” With a loud thump, she unloaded the heavy books on top of the desk. “Mr. Sterling owns many large properties. These books contain everything that relates to his acquisitions. In here, you will find deeds, tax information, rents, fees, settlements, etc. Your job will be to organize, update, and maintain it all.” Mrs. White went on explaining my duties in putting Mr. Sterling’s affairs in order.

As she spoke, I took notes, but my mind kept wandering back to Mr. Sterling.

“I’ll meet with you at the beginning of each day to go over your tasks. I hope that you’ll catch on quickly. I’ll provide any relevant information you need.”

“All right, thank you, Mrs. White.” By the expression on her face, I knew we were equally thrilled to work together.

“Now, this is the perfect time to go over the rules.”

“I’ll write those down too.”

She situated herself in the chair across from me, demanding my complete attention.

“Rule number one: you are never, under any circumstances, to disturb Mr. Sterling. You will refer to me for absolutely everything. Mr. Sterling suffers from an unknown disease. At times, he gets violently sick. Rest and isolation are the only way he can cope with it. So, it is imperative that he is not disturbed.”

A mysterious disease? Was that the reason why he didn’t come to town? Was that the reason why they needed to get his affairs in order? He didn’t look that sick to me. I suspected that Mrs. White was not being frank with me, and I promptly decided that I disliked rule number one.

“Rule number two: you are not to discuss any of Oak’s Place’s private matters outside these walls.” I understood rule number two a little better. I kept writing. “Rule number three: you are not to wander around the premises. You will only be allowed in certain parts of the house, and I strongly suggest that you don’t cross any boundaries. We don’t like people prying around.”

From the many things that Mrs. White had said, I learned one thing with certainty—she was both the lawmaker and the law enforcer at Oak’s Place.

 

 

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