Cassie’s intuition told her to hand the woman the book and then haul ass out of there, but the pull she felt beckoned her to enter. She did.
Thunder cracked as she walked into the entry hall. It felt damp, cold, and smelled musty. There was even a scent of something metallic, or rather, something bitter, if bitter could be a smell. The only thing that came close to describing the unusual scent was when she had accidentally bitten her lip when she fell from her bike as a child and it bled into her mouth.
“You can wait in the black room while I get Gustave.” The woman pointed to a large room to the left.
“Thank you,” Cassie said, crossing her arms as she held the book next to her chest. The chill in the air was giving her goosebumps as she walked through the open doorway and into the darkened room lit only by the flames in the fireplace and candelabras placed around the room. She walked up to the fireplace to warm herself. Thick black curtains were drawn closed over the few windows that it had. Was there no electricity in this remote area?
Cassie looked back at the fire, feeling the warmth.
“Ah, my dear, Cassie.” A familiar voice said from behind her. His accent seemed stronger than she had remembered from the bookshop.
Turning back toward the alcove, Gustave was walking toward her. She smiled and her heart throbbed at the sight of him. He was no less handsome than she had remembered. “Hello. I’m so sorry to drop by unexpectedly like this but the phone number you left at the bookstore doesn’t work.”
Gustave stood next to her, the light from the fire warmed his anemic face. If there was such a thing as auras, his was mingling with hers; she could feel it. “I am happy you are here. You are welcome to my home anytime. There is nothing to be sorry about.”
“Thank you.” Cassie’s face felt warm from the blood coursing through her veins. She held up the book. “I brought the book you ordered, An Impartial Account of the Trial of Lord Conwallis. Would you like to inspect it?”
Gustave took the box from her hand and removed the covering. He looked at it as though he was only half interested in it. “This is perfect, just as I wanted.” He rewrapped it and sat it on the fireplace mantel.
Cassie was not sure what to say next. It was time to leave yet she liked—loved—being in Gustave’s company. “We can get more books for you, if you like. We have access to many from around the country, and the world. Is there anything else you’d be interested in?”
Gustave smiled. “You have traveled a long way to bring me my book. For your kind work, I would be interested in having you stay for our evening meal.”
Relieved the stay would be extended, Cassie nodded. “I would like that very much. That’s kind of you.”
“I am pleased.” Gustave motioned toward the davenport. “Please, make yourself at home. I will let the others know that you will be staying. I will return.”
Cassie walked over to the large upholstered sofa. She sat down, half expecting dust to puff into the air from the worn fabric. Then she noticed there was not a television or radio in the room. No electrical devices. Is Gustave roughing it?
Gustave returned with a bottle of red wine and two glasses. He put them on the round wooden coffee table and sat next to Cassie. “Would you like some wine before dinner?”
“Sure, that sounds nice.” Cassie looked at the unlabeled dark wine bottle as he poured sanguine wine into the glasses. She could tell it had been recently wiped off because a curled dead spider hung from a web clinging to the bottom. He must have gotten it from the castle’s wine cellar. The candle’s flame flickered on the table, its reflection glowed on the stemmed glassware, prompting her to ask, “I noticed there doesn’t seem to be any electronics, does your home have power—out here in the middle of nowhere?”
“Very observant.” Gustave swirled the wine in his glass. “The bastion was built a few hundred years ago, before the American Revolution, by comrades from across the ocean fleeing their own persecution. And you are correct, this part does not have power but there is an addition to this main building that does have electricity. Does that bother you?”
“Oh, no, not at all,” Cassie said, waving a hand—the hand with the skull ring. Crap, she had forgotten about the stuck piece of jewelry. She slouched, setting the glass of wine on the coffee table. “I almost forgot to tell you, but you left your ring at the bookstore and I, well, put it on to keep from losing it and now . . . now it won’t come off.”
Gustave reached toward the ring. “May I?”
Cassie held out her left hand. Gustave gently held it, just like Derrick did when he proposed to her. With the other hand, he gave the ring a wiggle and it slid off her finger. “No problem.”
“I can’t believe that just came off.” Cassie could not explain the ease at which Gustave removed the ring.
Gustave then did something that made her quiver, he placed the ring back on the finger where he had just removed it. “You can keep it, Cassie.”
It was like another marriage proposal, but not. Not a proposal at all, but the way he placed it on her ring finger made her feel like they were now engaged. But of course, that was silly, her stupid imagination was running away with her. She looked at his hands where each finger had a ring. The one where he once wore the skull ring now had a ring of what looked like—a gargoyle. She almost gasped.
Cassie slid the ring off her finger and tried to hand it to him. “I’m sorry, but I can’t keep this ring, it’s yours.”
Gustave held up a hand as if he was a police officer directing traffic to stop. “It is your ring now, my fair Cassie. Please put it back on your finger.”
Cassie lowered her hand. “I can’t possibly take this ring, it’s yours. Besides, you don’t even know me, and it looks to be a rather valuable piece of jewelry.”
“Its value means little to me.” Gustave took the ring and placed it back on Cassie’s finger. Then he picked up her glass of wine and handed it to her. “No more talk of the ring. Let us make a toast.”
Cassie took the glass that Gustave handed her.
“To my new friend, Cassie. May her bookshop flourish so that she can bring more exquisite literature to me for a long, long time to come.”
Their glasses clinked. Cassie brought the wine to her lips; it was smooth and tasted of an unusual fruit. So, he wants to see more of me? He likes me.
Belladonna walked into the room with a tray in her hand. “Would the lady like cheese with her wine?”
As Belladonna sat the tray of yellow and white cheeses on the table, Cassie noticed she had a skull ring on her ring finger, too. “Oh, we have the same ring.”.
Belladonna smiled. “Gustave is quite generous.”
Cassie watched Belladonna leave, her gait feminine and alluring. She sipped the wine, thinking this whole ring thing was rather strange.
“Please, have some cheese,” Gustave said, picking up the tray. “You have traveled a long way and in need of nourishment.”
“Thank you. I am hungry.” Cassie popped a small bite-size piece of cheddar into her mouth. The creaminess melted on her tongue. She took another sip of wine to wash it down.
“This beverage is rather strong if you’re not used to it. A little food in the stomach will help you.”
Cassie touched her forehead. “You’re right. I’m feeling it already.”
“Most people do.” Gustave poured more wine into her glass. “Don’t worry about driving back tonight, you are welcome to stay in a guest room. No, I insist that you do not drive under the influence.”
Cassie did not want to stay, she wanted to get back to Black Water. But then, why? Derrick was not there waiting for her. “I can drive.”
“As you wish.”
They talked and laughed. Cassie was enjoying herself, conversing with Gustave about his travels around the world.
“The pyramids of Giza, Scottish castles, Paris, and all the other places you said, plus all the famous people you’ve hobnobbed with; Princess Diana, Marilyn Monroe—” Cassie sighed. “I can only imagine.” Cassie sipped her wine. “I’m impressed that you were able to do all this travel, live in these exotic locations, and hang around all these famous people in your life; and you don’t seem to be that old.”
Gustave smiled. “My dear Cassie, I believe you will have your opportunity to explore the world and not worry about time.”
Cassie almost rolled her eyes. “I doubt it, I’m not even rich. I’ll be lucky if I can spend the weekend at Cedar Point before summer ends.”
“You need to widen your vision, Cassie, and see all the possibilities that there are in this world.”
“I love your views, your ambition.” And you, Cassie thought in her inebriated mind.
They had finished the bottle when she finally looked at her watch, it was late into the evening.
“Oh, I didn’t realize it was so late.” Cassie stood up, losing her balance as she tipped to the side. She gripped the arm of the davenport and plopped back down on the cushioned seat. The room was spinning, and she was feeling nauseous. “I need to use the bathroom.”
“Of course. I will help you there.” Gustave stood and held out a hand for Cassie to take.
Cassie took his hand and when she stood, she promptly fell into him. Gustave put his arms around her and held her close to his body. “I’m so sorry.”
“No need to be sorry, Cassie.” Gustave put an arm around her waist and led her to a half-bath.
Cassie rushed inside, closing the door behind her. Then knelt in front of the white porcelain stool, waiting for her stomach to release its content. Her mouth watered before the acidic liquid traveled back up her throat and out past her lips. She began to panic when she thought she had vomited blood, but it was just undigested wine.
After flushing the toilet, she rinsed her mouth and washed her hands in water that would not warm. When she opened the bathroom door Gustave was not around, he must have gone back to the living room. As Cassie walked back down the hallway, she was intrigued at how the stone floor and walls mingled with modern construction like the bathroom fixtures. She passed the grand staircase; it was magnificent. The stone steps and rails must be original to the massive structure.
Gustave was standing by the fire when Cassie entered the room. “I think I’ll take you up on that offer of a guest room to sleep in. I’m not fit to drive.”
“Yes, my dear Cassie. I will take you there.”
Cassie held Gustave’s arm, just like she had held Derrick’s when they went to Aubree’s. For a moment, she felt guilty for being with another man but she and Derrick were no longer in a relationship. Gustave led her into the foyer and up the staircase. Their steps echoed from the hard surfaces as they climbed to the next level. Gustave motioned for her to turn left. Cassie let him guide her to the first door on the left. With a clink, Gustave unlatched the rustic wooden door and led her to the canopy bed. She promptly sat down while Gustave lit the candle on the nightstand.
“No electricity in this room?”
Gustave blew out the match and sat it in a tray. “My apologies, Cassie, but the other rooms have not been prepared.”
Cassie slid off her shoes and laid down on the soft bed. “Where is your room?”
“My room is at a lower level.”
“Oh, I wanted to ask you. Is this place called Bitter Castle?”
“Where did you hear that?” Gustave said, sitting on the bed next to her.
“Some old lady told me.”
“Ah, a gypsy I would bet.”
“Yeah, she looked like a gypsy.”
“Some people call this Bitter Castle.”
“Why? What does it mean?”
Gustave laughed. “I suppose because people don’t like the taste.”
“The taste of what?”
Before Gustave could answer, she sat up. “I forgot to call Nicole. I should let her know that I’m spending the night. I think my phone is still in the car.”
“The storm is still upon us. There is no need to go out into the whipping rain. You can call in the morning.”
“Yeah, I suppose you’re right.” Cassie laid back down. “And those creatures might be out there, too.”
“Creatures? Another fantastic story from the gypsy woman?”
“No, I saw them; they looked like gargoyles.”
“There are all kinds of strange things in these woods.” Gustave leaned over and kissed Cassie on her forehead. “Sweet dreams my dear Cassie.”
Cassie looked into his eyes. She was not sure what she saw in them, they seemed almost empty yet inviting at the same time. She reached up and ran her fingers along the side of his face. He smiled and then kissed her lips for only a moment. The bed jiggled when he stood. She watched him leave the room and close the door behind him.
Feeling chilled, Cassie slid under the musty sheets, too weary to remove her clothes—and not so sure she wanted her skin touching the sheets of a stranger’s bed. The wooziness she had felt from the wine was subsiding but not the feeling—the feeling of communion and love that she felt toward this mysterious man.
Muffled thunder reverberated through the castle’s stone walls as Cassie lay on her side. She stared at the candle’s flickering flame before dozing off. Visions of darkness as if in the void of outer space filled her mind, then it was penetrated by images of her and Gustave together and connected by that invisible cord she had felt earlier. Then she heard voices, not from her drowsing mind but from outside her room. She opened her eyes as if doing so would improve her hearing. She listened. It sounded like Gustave and another woman, not Belladonna, were carrying on a conversation.
Hearing her name, Cassie sat up in bed. She could not make out what they were saying, but she got the impression they were speaking about her. The voices faded; they were walking away. She laid back down, drifting back into dark nothingness.
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