Chapter One

 

THE train rocked, abruptly ripping Cole from the light sleep he had managed to find. He gasped in surprise and quickly sat up, wiping his face to collect any tears that might have followed from his dream. Cole sighed, relieved to find his face dry. He looked around the cabin and found it just as empty as it had been in Phoenix. A seat in business class meant only a few people occupying the cabin of twenty-four seats. No one cared for conversation, either. A trip by train meant time for laptops and reports.

Cole sat back in his seat and opened the window’s cover. The terrain had changed overnight from dirt, cacti, and bright sun to grass, trees, and overcast skies. Cole leaned his head against the cool glass and watched the drops of rain collect together and run down the window.

After a few more moments of watching the green landscape passing by, Cole opened his laptop bag and pulled out a stack of papers. His destination was a secluded cabin in the mountains of Colorado owned by an artist named Lucian Thomas. Lucian had found fame at a young age, lived in the spotlight for a few years, and then made an unexplained change in his life and disappeared from the public eye. Lucian remained an active artist, but he only attended one show a year and refused any form of interview.

The seclusion only intensified his fame. He was now an enigma. People clamored for a taste of him. The art community around the world knew about him, but no one was said to truly know Lucian. When Cole’s boss was contacted by Lucian with the opportunity to interview him, she promptly placed Cole on the next train. The magazine was popular and had many writers capable of the task, but Cole had been sent in place of a veteran. He had been shocked by the assignment, but he eagerly took the job and the chance to meet the artist he had admired since college.

Cole flipped through the stack of papers to reread the information he had collected on Lucian before departing for the trip. Lucian was still young, only twenty-nine. His expression in all the pictures Cole had found with an online image search showed a gentle face with soft, blue eyes and a small smile. No one knew why Lucian dropped from view, and Cole had been told to learn the reason above any other fact. Rumors were potent about Lucian, but Cole had already learned never to believe anything he heard from a third party.

The train slowed and Cole looked outside. An announcement stated the next stop, and Cole gathered his things. The stop was at a small town where Cole would rent a car and then drive the rest of the way to Lucian’s home. Cole had never driven through a forest before—let alone one as thick as forests in Colorado were said to be.

 

 

COLE had never seen so much growth. Even the tree trunks seemed to be green. He slowly navigated the narrow dirt road while hoping no one would come down the mountain as he drove up it. The road lacked a shoulder and had a very sharp drop on the right side.

After an hour of driving, Cole finally found the colored street sign marking the final unpaved path he had to take on the curved mountain road. Cole took a deep breath to calm his nerves and directed the rental car down the long driveway.

The path was overgrown, and Cole cringed at the sound of branches scratching against the car, praying the sound was worse than the damage. The narrow road finally opened up into a clearing. Cole stopped to stare wide-eyed at the sight. The yard was trimmed with short grass that covered the open area, but where the tree line started, the growth was so thick it was as if the forest hadn’t been cleared but simply pushed back. A dirt driveway led forward to a small cul-de-sac, and two large houses sat on either side, facing each other. The houses were not what Cole had expected in the Colorado mountains—and nothing he usually saw in the land of stucco he called home.

The larger one, on his right, was a two-story Victorian Gothic Revival style with a two-deck veranda that circled to the left. The brick was a deep red and complemented by light stone trim. The door sat between two Palladian windows and up three steps off an open porch. The house on the left was a Country Victorian style with a large, covered porch encircling the side. The two-story house was wood with ornate trimming. One corner was a turret that curved the porch outward.

“Amazing,” Cole whispered before letting off the brake to pull forward. He had no idea which house belonged to Lucian, so he turned the vehicle in the cul-de-sac and parked between the houses.

Cole took another deep breath and opened his car door, hoping Lucian would have heard his arrival and come out to greet him to save Cole the embarrassment of knocking at the wrong door. The air was heavy from the morning rain, but the weather had cleared and sun now entered through the clearing.

Cole studied the house in front of him. The coloring was pink with yellow trim. It seemed quaint and friendly, but not quite an artist’s home. The porch had four chairs, a bench, and a swing. Despite being clean, the house looked a little too weather worn. Cole looked over his shoulder to the other. The house looked old, too, but appeared tidy and kept up nicely. Cole decided this brick home would be Lucian’s.

A soft creak of wood cut through the silence that hung in the air. Cole snapped his gaze back to the pink house with a gasp. A little girl sat in the swing. “You scared me,” Cole said, laughing, touching his hand to his chest. His heart had jumped out of place and now settled back into his chest.

The girl stared at him with a blank expression. She wore a yellow sundress with white lace, and her bare feet swung freely off the edge of the swing. Cole offered a friendly smile. “I’m Cole Saunders. I’m here to see Lucian.” The girl made no change of expression.

Cole decided she looked to be about ten or so. Her black hair was long enough to reach the seat, and bangs framed her face, giving her big blue eyes the illusion of standing out against pale skin. Her lack of smile, or any expression, made Cole’s smile falter awkwardly. He had never met a child quite as creepy as this silent one.

The girl slowly dropped to the porch and entered the house through a squeaky screen door that slammed behind her. Cole let out a deep breath, took a step backward, and turned to approach the brick house.

He walked up the steps of the porch and rang the doorbell. The front door was open, and only a glass security door blocked Cole from entering. After the doorbell went unanswered, Cole knocked on the screen door and looked inside. The foyer opened to a double, round staircase, but he could see no signs of anyone inside.

“You must be Mr. Saunders.”

The voice startled Cole. He whirled around on his heels and found Lucian standing at the foot of the porch stairs, dressed in black slacks, a white dress shirt, and a blue vest. A chain for a pocket watch graced the front of the vest, and a blue tie completed the look. He was entirely too dressed up to live in the woods alone, but Cole couldn’t help but now feel underdressed in his jeans and button down casual shirt.

“Lucian,” Cole gasped. “I mean—” He had forgotten his manners. “Mr. Thomas,” he stammered, “it’s a pleasure.” Cole put out his hand and walked forward.

Lucian chuckled appreciatively and met Cole halfway to shake his hand. Cole had stayed at the top of the stairs and came eye to eye with the six-foot-three artist after stepping onto one of the three stairs. “Please address me as Lucian. Mr. Thomas sounds so stiff.”

“Yes, of course.” Cole nodded. “I’m sorry,” he quickly added. He was suddenly very nervous.

“Are you in need of refreshment?” Lucian’s voice was smooth and fluid. He walked up the steps and opened the glass door. “Please,” he said as he gestured with his free hand for Cole to enter. A gentle breeze tousled the artist’s black hair. The hair moved like a cottonwood seed does in the wind, and Cole knew the locks would be feathery soft to the touch.

Tearing his gaze away from Lucian—it was rude to stare, and Cole didn’t want to offend the artist—he spoke while entering the home. “I’m sure Margareta gave you the time to expect me. I hope I wasn’t too late.”

“Margareta?” Lucian closed the front door. “Is that the magazine owner I contacted?”

Cole chuckled nervously. “Yes. She sent me.” He had addressed Cole by his last name, so surely he had known to expect him.

“Oh, of course.” Lucian laughed lightly and waved his hand in the air. “She’s a doll. A little too aggressive for a lady, but I like that, and that’s why I gave her rights to my interview.”

Cole followed behind Lucian into the foyer. The floors were a rich, light wood that seemed to shine even though the aged wood creaked beneath their footsteps. The walls were painted a neutral light brown with a deep, dark brown for the crown molding and baseboards. The home was old but clearly had been remodeled. Cole was amazed at the house and wanted to see more, but remained behind Lucian as he walked to the left of the entryway then took an immediate right out of the hallway.

Cole stopped short of entering the new room. The kitchen was larger than Cole’s bedroom and living room in his one-room apartment. The counters were light-gray granite that looked perfect against the cherry wood cabinets. A table that could seat six sat between the two counters, but there was still plenty of space. The table’s chairs matched the cabinet color and ornate wood design.

“You have a beautiful house,” Cole whispered in awe.

“Thank you.” Lucian smiled brightly. “Water or something else?”

“Water is fine.” Cole continued to look around the kitchen, intrigued by the molded ceiling and a stairway tucked into the corner that led up to the front staircase.

“I’m afraid I’m out of ice.” Lucian walked to the cabinet to find a glass.

“No ice is fine.” Cole smiled politely, glancing around the kitchen and noting the lack of a microwave, dishwasher, or toaster.

Lucian filled the glass halfway. “Did you have a nice trip?”

“Yes.” Cole nodded and took the drink from Lucian. Their fingers brushed, and Cole swallowed hard. There was no denying Lucian was attractive, but the fact that Cole had been a fan of his work from the day he discovered the artist made today almost like a dream.

“The train ride wasn’t too long, I hope.” Lucian pulled out a chair at the table and sat down.

“Not too bad.” Cole also sat down, choosing a seat across from Lucian. “Would you like to do the interview now?”

Lucian laughed heartily and shook his head. “Oh heavens no. You need to rest after such a long journey. You came from Arizona, was it?”

“Yes,” Cole confirmed. “I’m not sure why Margareta didn’t have me fly out instead. It would have saved time.”

Lucian placed a hand on his cheek and rested his elbow on the table. He studied Cole with an intensity that threatened to bring a blush to Cole’s cheeks. “I love trains,” Lucian finally stated. “I think everyone should love trains. Airplanes are flying death tubes.”

“I see your point, but a plane is faster.”

“Then why do they call the airport a ‘terminal’?”

Cole chuckled at the question but offered no reply.

Lucian lifted an eyebrow and fired off another inquiry. “Do you hate trains, Mr. Saunders?”

“Please call me Cole.”

Lucian grinned, ignoring Cole’s request. “Why do you hate trains, Mr. Saunders?”

Cole wouldn’t correct Lucian again. He smiled graciously and replied, “I don’t hate trains.”

“But you prefer planes, so therefore, you must hate trains,” Lucian explained without losing the smooth edge of his voice.

“I don’t hate either one.” Cole smiled to fight off the awkward feeling caused by such a strange argument.

“So you love trains.” Lucian smiled happily. “Good. I sent the train ticket. I would feel bad about placing a burden on you if you hate trains.”

Cole was surprised. “You purchased the train ticket for me?”

“Yes,” Lucian confirmed, suddenly looking bored. “Do you want sugar in your tea?”

“Tea?” Cole raised his eyebrows and looked at the glass of water in his hands.

“Don’t tell me you prefer coffee.” Lucian sighed heavily. “You can’t drink coffee with afternoon tea.”

“Afternoon tea,” Cole repeated, feeling a little disorientated at the sudden change in conversation.

“I’ve never heard of afternoon coffee.” Lucian pushed back his chair. “But if you want coffee, I can make some.”

“No.” Cole stopped Lucian by reaching out and touching his arm when he stood up. “I don’t want coffee.”

“So tea it is,” Lucian decided. “Splendid. Let’s go to the backyard. I do love it there.”

“Uh.” Cole watched Lucian walk to where the cabinets ended and the kitchen flowed into a breakfast nook. His walk was almost a dance, quick and fluid steps with a subtle bounce. Cole sighed, placed the glass of water on the table, and stood up to follow.

The nook was at the opposite end of the kitchen from where they had entered. Cole paused briefly to study the elegant wood table and the bow windows that made up the far wall before following Lucian out of the french doors and onto the terrace that looked over the backyard. Cole was once again stunned.

Down the terrace steps, the backyard was spacious and gorgeous. The grass was a rich, vivid green—greener than anything Cole had seen. The tall bushes patterned throughout the grass were flowering with large, yellow blooms. Patches of daisies were spread out in the grass in a haphazard fashion and battled for dominance with lilac bushes.

In the lush garden, a table was situated in the middle of a gravel circle surrounded by rose bushes with full, red roses. The tea table was set up with a tablecloth and covered with everything needed for a tea party: four teacups with saucers, small plates, a dessert tray, and two teapots. Each item was a different bright color.

“Have you met my neighbor?” Lucian asked, walking around to stand behind the little girl from the pink house. She wore the same sundress but had placed a blue cloche hat on and tied back her hair with a blue ribbon. “This is Lady Victoria Carole James.” Lucian smiled, but Victoria’s blank expression remained.

“She saw me when I arrived.” Cole slowly stepped down the porch steps.

“She lives with her mother and brother across the way,” Lucian explained, taking a seat across from her. “She’s as lonely as I am, so we have tea every day.”

Cole approached the table for four and sat down between the two. “She seems quiet.”

“Why speak if there is nothing to say?” Lucian poured tea into Cole’s cup. “I don’t agree with such a silly rule, but Lady Victoria is a fine example of it.” He set down the teapot and added, “On occasion, at least.”

Cole studied the tea, wondering if Lucian had prepared it before Cole’s arrival and if the slow response to the doorbell was perhaps due to setting up for afternoon tea. “Why do you address her as ‘Lady’?” Cole asked with genuine curiosity. Was it just a way of playing along with a young girl’s imagination?

“That is her title.” Lucian shrugged as if disregarding the question.

Cole looked to the house behind him and where the veranda ended at the terrace. “Did you build this house across from Victoria to be close to her and her family?”

“No.” Lucian shook his head, pouring tea for Victoria. “This house was here before I was. I simply moved in.”

“Who sold it to you?”

“No one.” Lucian looked confused by the questions.

“I don’t mean to pry, but I’m curious why a house like this one was built in a forest. Two rather large houses out of the way is a bit odd. I’ve never heard of such a thing.” Cole apologized with a faint smile.

“You expected log cabins and lumberjacks?” Lucian’s eyes lit up. “How fascinating. I’d very much like to see that.” He looked to Victoria and asked, “Have you ever met a real lumberjack?”

Victoria shook her head. Cole looked back to Lucian and explained further, “I just didn’t expect a Victorian-style house here.”

“You didn’t want to see lumberjacks?” Lucian frowned.

Cole sighed, exasperated. “I hadn’t expected to see a lumberjack.”

“But did you want to see one?”

“Well, I guess not.”

“Is that only because you hadn’t thought of it?” Lucian raised his brow and grinned. “That’s where most people fall into boredom.”

“I don’t understand.” Cole had not expected Lucian to behave so strangely.

“Adults forget how to use their imaginations. I like to exercise my mind and dream up the impossible.” Lucian intertwined his fingers and rested his chin on them. “Like a lumberjack coming to interview me instead of you.”

Cole chuckled at the idea. “I assure you that I’m not a lumberjack.”

“How are you so sure?”

Cole blinked. “I don’t cut down trees.”

“You use paper. You’re enabling the death of trees, so you’re a lumberjack,” Lucian decided and sat back with a proud grin. “I’ve never met a lumberjack before. You’re punier than I had pictured a lumberjack being.”

Cole shook his head, absolutely astonished by Lucian. “I’m a writer for a magazine. I’m no more a lumberjack than you are.”

“That’s a shame,” Lucian whispered. “I’d very much like to meet one.”

Cole cleared his throat and got back on track. “When would you like to conduct the interview?”

“Are you in a hurry?” Lucian asked.

“No.”

“Then we’ll do it tomorrow. Working and traveling in one day is not very appealing.”

“I’m okay if you want to have the interview today,” Cole assured Lucian. “It is only noon, after all.”

“No.” Lucian waved his hand in the air as if he was clearing the idea. “Tomorrow.”

“Very well,” Cole relented. He wanted Lucian happy. An interview with the elusive and popular artist was an honor, and Cole did not want to ruin it by pestering.

“Lady Victoria.” Lucian placed his hands on the table. “Have you ever seen an elephant wear swimming trunks?”

“I have not,” Victoria replied. Her voice sounded like a soft whisper, but Cole could tell her voice was simply naturally quiet.

“I bet an elephant would look quite silly in swimming trunks.” Lucian chuckled, looking off into the yard.

“How would he remove them to take a bath?” Victoria quizzed him with a tiny smile appearing across her lips.

“Yes. How indeed?” Lucian mused and looked at Cole. “Do you know how an elephant would remove swimming trunks to bathe?”

Cole raised an eyebrow. Had Lucian truly just asked that? “Um, elephants don’t have thumbs, so he wouldn’t be able to remove swimming trunks.” He tried to play along and earned a frown from Lucian.

“How horrible,” Lucian gasped sadly. “Lady Victoria, elephants do not have thumbs. How could we have overlooked the obvious? Who would put the swimming trunks on the elephant?”

Cole wasn’t sure what to make of the conversation. Was Lucian only entertaining Victoria? She certainly seemed like a timid girl, and living in the forest probably made it difficult to make friends.

“It’s going to rain,” Victoria stated evenly, taking a sip of her tea.

“Oh, bother.” Lucian looked up at the thin layer of clouds that had covered the sunlight from Cole’s arrival. “Mr. Saunders, do you wish to spend the evening in my guest room?”

“I can drive back to town. I’m not here to be a pest,” Cole declined as politely as he could manage.

“I have enough space to not notice your presence.” Lucian grinned at Cole. “You’re welcome to sleep the night in a guest room. The drive back to town is far, and we can conduct the interview tomorrow morning, during breakfast, if you stay.”

Cole smiled at the offer. “Very well. I’ll stay one night.”

“Are you sure you’re okay with that decision?” Lucian questioned seriously. “You can’t leave once the rain starts. If you have any doubt, you need to return to town now before it starts to rain.”

“Is the rain expected to be that bad?”

“The road up here was not paved, was it? Dirt becomes mud and mud is slippery.” Lucian looked to the house. “Slippery is not a good thing when there’s a drop right off a cliff beside the road.”

Cole understood Lucian’s concern. “I’m sure one night in your guest room will be fine. I really do appreciate the offer and will do my best to not be a bother.”

“I love guests!” Lucian laughed suddenly. “Wonderful. So you’ll stay here tonight?”

“Yes,” Cole agreed.

Lucian picked up his teacup. “I guess it can rain now,” he stated to Victoria.

A crack of thunder tore through the sky. Cole gasped from the sudden noise. As if the sky had split open, rain poured down. It was not rain Cole had known before. It was as if a hundred fire hoses had been turned on above their heads. Cole jumped to his feet, ready to run to the porch, but paused after only two steps.

Lucian and Victoria remained still at the table. Lucian took a drink from his teacup. “My tea has gone cold,” he stated, placing the cup back on the saucer.

Cole looked between the two. Victoria stretched out her arms and tilted her head back. Her blue hat fell to the ground, landing in a puddle that had already formed in the gravel. Lucian stood up and pulled his pocket watch out from the vest pocket.

“Your mother will be expecting you, Lady Victoria.” He closed the watch and placed it back in his pocket.

Cole was thoroughly soaked. Lucian was drenched, as well. The once feathery light hair now clung flatly against his forehead. Victoria stood up, picked up her hat, and returned it to her head. She walked to the terrace and turned around to curtsy before crossing quickly through the house to get to hers. Cole looked at Lucian, who had remained standing by his chair. He didn’t seem to notice the heavy rain.

“Lucian, shouldn’t we go inside?” Cole asked.

“Yes.” Lucian walked forward. “Nice weather, isn’t it?”