The gate gave easily beneath her touch. A light brush of pressure was all it took for the old hinges to swing inward.
Any hint of resistance would have deterred her. That’s all it would have taken for her to turn around, crawl back in her car, and leave behind this foolish notion of claiming her inheritance. Yet, the gate had opened with invitation, beckoning her inside the sleepy yard, and now Charity Gannon was halfway up the pebbled walk.
It all looked innocent enough. Idyllic, even. A tiny little cottage set in the middle of an over-sized lot, nestled beneath the arms of mature crabapple, cherry, and sugar maple trees. Window boxes and flowerbeds, an inviting screened-in summer porch. Peeling white paint for instant shabby chic charm. Signs of a vegetable garden off to the left, a weathered old shed to the right. A porch swing suspended from the limb of a huge old oak, surrounded by rose bushes and flowering shrubs.
Under normal circumstances, the charming scene would delight her. It looked like a clipping from one of those travel magazines, one that touted the hidden treasures of rural Vermont. The right travel agent could lease the cottage as the perfect summer retreat, garnering a hefty price tag for its quiet location and its nod to yesteryear.
Under normal circumstances, Charity might be tempted to rent the cottage herself. But there was nothing normal about her visit today, and she could not rent what she already owned.
In spite of the homey appearance of the cottage, a sense of dread spilled out onto the walkway and muddled around Charity’s footsteps. Her pace slowed as she drew closer to the porch. Instead of cheerful window boxes, her eyes were drawn to the windows themselves– sad, empty panes that looked into a darkened house.
Charity tugged her sweater closer, gathering a handful of courage along with the fabric as she stepped onto the porch. The screen door protested with a loud screech, but it gave no more resistance than the foot gate out front. Maybe the front door would be less cooperative. Maybe the key would not fit. Maybe she could put this off until tomorrow.
But no, the old key was a perfect fit for the tarnished brass doorknob. The lock tumbled easily. As the door swung inward, Charity had no excuse not to step inside.
She stepped over the threshold and came to an abrupt halt. She was overwhelmed to see that the cottage was still fully furnished, filled with the remnants of someone else’s life.
Not just someone’s, she reminded herself. Aunt Nell’s.
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