Here is the first chapter...
Present-Day London, England
Visiting England was better than death.
Brenna Keelin stared out the window of her English tour bus at an early morning fog. The mist-swathed countryside lay in a gray blanket that shrouded any view of the bright emerald fields and crisp white sheep she’d hoped to see.
Just when Brenna thought the gray view and the stale bus air might undo her well-organized to plans to have a desperately-needed vacation, the bus finally drove past a sign for Cambridge, the second stop on their two week tour of England.
The fog cleared just enough to reveal an inn that could have been featured on a British postcard, with its rose-tangled doorways and row upon row of centuries old stacked-stone fencing protecting the perimeter.
“Come on, Sleeping Beauty.” Brenna elbowed her sister Janelle, who dozed against the padded headrest, her mouth gaping open. “We're here.”
Janelle slicked on some lip-gloss, then followed Brenna out of the bus. Once they had loaded themselves down with suitcases and bags, mostly Janelle's, Brenna lead the way through the chilly air toward the pension, fought with an unforgiving revolving door, and finally stumbled into a quaint lobby.
Brenna released handles and shrugged straps until the luggage clunked to the floor. She stretched to ease the ache in her shoulders. Looking around the reception room at all the plates and platters hanging on the walls, she nodded at the décor. Very British. “Like the place?” She looked for her sister.
Janelle was chatting up their tour guide, Jacob.
Two hotel staff we`re watching her from behind the desk, as Janelle was a blonde hair, blue-eyed torpedo as their father used to call her. Any man in a ten-mile radius would be under her allure.
“Well, I love it,” Brenna said to no one in particular. She stepped toward a blue plate that caught her eye. The plate showed a faded painting of a woman in a wedding dress. An ache lodged in her chest. Her idle wedding dress still hung in her closet. She wrapped herself with one arm, not sure this trip was such a good idea. But it was better than wishing to be dead.
“We are in England.” Janelle gave Brenna a hearty side hug. “Aren’t you happy now?”
“Yes,” Brenna pasted on a smile. “Now all I need is a cup of tea.” She nodded at the hotel employee who handed her a room key. “Thank you.”
“Oh Bren—you sound just like an English woman,” Janelle whispered as they passed their handsome leader on the way to their room. “What I need is a British boyfriend. What do you think of Jacob our tour guide?”
“First, he’s Austrian, oddly muscular, and a little like a football player who has taken a few too many hits,” Brenna said as she unlocked the door and collapsed onto the bed. “You need to find someone smart and reliable like Dad.
“You are hopeless...lighten up.” Janelle fluffed her white-blonde hair in the mirror. “And with your good looks, it wouldn’t do you any harm to start paying attention to men again.”
“My good looks? Oh please, don’t do that, I’ll humor my older sister thing. We all know who got the beauty in the family.” Brenna playfully pulled on her sister’s hair. She then leaned over and pulled out a stack of postcards she’d bought at the airport, trying to think of whom to send them to.
“Bren, what’s happened to you? You were the most sought after event planner in Virginia. People booked you a year in advance.” Janelle flounced onto the bed. “Tell me again why you quit.”
Brenna twirled a lock of her hair around and around as was her habit whenever she felt overwhelmed. “You know.” She had to admit, she did miss the excitement of her previous job. “That last wedding I did really got to me. All those happy people...I couldn’t stand there and smile, pretending nothing was wrong—”
A gentle knock on their door distracted them.
Janelle bounded up to answer it.
“Hello,” greeted their brawny Austrian tour guide. “I’m sorry to disturb you, but a few of us are going out to a pub. Want to come?”
“Sure thing.” Janelle grabbed her jacket. “You want to go?”
“No, thanks.” Brenna let go of her hair and pretended to get something from her suitcase. “I‘m pretty tired.”
Jacob’s grin dropped. “We won’t be out late.”
“I think I’ll turn in early. I want to unpack, get organized.” She held up a book on English history and fixed a smile in place. “But you all have fun—ah, Janelle, don’t stay out too late.”
Janelle made a face. “Brenna is never up passed ten. She’s an attached lady you know—I mean, she used to be—” Janelle cast an, I’m sorry, look toward her sister. “Well, I guess we’d better go.” Almost out the door, Janelle ran back into the room and planted a kiss on her sister’s forehead. “Are you gonna be okay?” she asked.
But before Brenna could answer, her sister skipped out the door.
Brenna sat on the edge of the bed as her anxiety flowed through her veins like a champagne fountain. This was better than suicide.
***The next day, the city of Cambridge worked its charm on Brenna with its outdoor markets and quaint shops. But the most fascinating excursion took place on their second day in the enchanting town, a ride in the long, narrow boats that glided on the Cam River behind the colleges of Cambridge. Brenna felt her melancholy trailing away as the view of the ancient bricked buildings along the water brought an unbelievable sense of being back in time. It was as if one could just lean over and touch history.
She held her face up to a peek of sunshine, fighting to get through the gathering clouds. A smile touched her lips as the short-lived warmth filled her body—until she remembered the boat accident. The sail-boat that was discovered drifting off the Virginia coast with no one aboard. The body of her fiancé that was never found—
The boat rocked as Jacob moved from his center seat and sat down next to her, his tight black t-shirt bulging with muscles. “Are you looking forward to the rest of the tour?”
“I’ve always wanted to come to England.” She dipped her fingers in the cool water and a shiver went up her spine.
Jacob flexed his muscles and stretched his arm along Brenna’s back.
The smell of his musky cologne filled her nose.
“Isn’t this trip supposed to help you get over your loss?”
Brenna shook her head. Janelle. Her gaze drifted to the college students lounging by the river. The grassy slope that overlooked the water provided a quiet place for them to read, talk, study. With Stephen gone, she had nowhere to feel safe. “I think so. I mean yes, of course. I’ll be ready to get back to work as soon as we’re home.”
“If you don’t mind my asking…what happened?”
“My fiancé died in a boating accident three months ago.” She nodded. It felt good to put the horror of it all into one orderly sentence.
“I’m so sorry. Do you think you’ll ever want to date again?” His arm tightened around her.
“I don’t know when I’ll be ready for that.” She would never allow herself to be that vulnerable again. She flitted her gaze away from Jacob’s steely blue eyes. “Where did Janelle’s boat go? That girl, I turn my back for a second—”
“If you ever want a private tour of Vienna,” he handed her his card. “I’d be very happy to oblige.”
She read, Heit World Tours: Jacob Heit-Tour Organizer and Guide.
“We have offices in London, York, and Vienna. If you ever need anything, or if you are ever back in England, call me.” Jacob’s voice sounded husky.
“I’ll remember that.” She sat up straighter, distancing herself from his touch as she filed his card in a card organizer in her purse. “So, where are we off to next?”
“The medieval city of Yorkshire. One of my favorite places to visit.” Jacob raised his brows and smiled mischievously.
“Oh really? So what’s the surprise?”
He shook his head. “No, no, it’s just that the settlement has retained so much of its medieval structure, it’s like walking back in time. Very mysterious, that village.”
“Really? In what way?”
“You’ll see.” His face was engulfed in an admiring grin, his eyes twinkling. “It used to be a city of marshes before it was settled, so people often went missing.” He nudged her shoulder. “It would be a good idea for you to stay close to me.”
Brenna widened her gaze. “Okay, thanks for the warning.”
“Don’t worry, I haven’t lost a client yet.”
Early in the morning, the tour bus headed toward the city of York and its famous cathedral, the York Minster. As Brenna and Janelle made their way up a crumbly set of stone stairs and entered the Great West Door, a cool swath of air swept over Brenna’s neck, sending a chill down her spine. The cold seemed to leach off the ancient walls and seep into her bones.Janelle was decked out in a white fur vest, while Brenna went with sweats and jeans. She was very proud of how organized her clothing selection was for the trip. Sturdy, practical, multi-functional. No wonder she always felt like the step-sister to Cinderella? She tucked her long hair behind her ears. After being Janelle’s sister for eighteen years, you’d think she would be used to being the wallflower by now. She rubbed at the chill in her arms as she followed the tour group farther into the cathedral.
Brenna’s head almost involuntarily swung upward toward the breath-taking vaulted ceiling. But as she stepped forward, each of her steps thudded loudly. She cringed and looked around at the fifteen or so other tour members in her group, but no one else seemed to notice the sound.
“The York Minster, England’s largest church, was constructed beginning in 1220 and was completed in 1472...” Jacob motioned their group forward as he began his lecture.
Half an hour into the tour, Brenna drifted from her sister’s side, to admire the beautiful stained-glass windows. A sense of holiness filled the air around her. Perhaps, it was the vaulted ceiling, or the other-worldly quietness that lulled one into a sense of peace. The vast size of the cathedral made her feel small, as if there was a world beyond what she could see. Hope rose in her heart. Maybe there could be a new start for her just around the bend.
As she walked farther down, well beyond her travel companions, she rounded the corner to the middle section of the Minster. She stepped up into a semi-circle shaped alcove that overlooked the rear of the church. Right in her line of vision was a small, wooden door.
With a glance over her shoulder, she stepped over and gave the aged door a gentle tug. Poking her head in, and peering up to the left, the smell of dank, musty drafts filled her senses. As her eyes adjusted to the darkness, she saw a set of narrow, wooden stairs. Dust and glistening particles hung in the air, illuminated by a shaft of light coming down from the top where there was an opening.
Brenna continued to study the stairway, as if, for a brief second, she could hear the tread of shoes and the rustle of skirts climbing up the wooden corridor. She had the sense of touching time, if one could do such a thing.
She glanced behind her to find only a few tourists taking pictures in the distance, none of whom were paying any attention to her. Adjusting her purse straps farther up on her shoulder, she licked her lower lip. A compelling longing to climb the stairs overcame her normal reserve and fear of doing the wrong thing. She pressed forward. The door closed behind her with a thud like the final gong of a clock. The passage was a tight fit, but she could just make it through. The sense of countless days gone by seemed engraved into the space. If only these walls could talk…
Each wooden step creaked and protested her unfamiliar weight as glistening particles swirled around her. She ran her hands along the roughhewn walls. The same walls that people from centuries ago had touched. The enclosed area made her heart race as the sound of her careful tread echoed around her. An intoxicating sense of destiny beckoned her forward. What was at the top of these stairs?
She wiped the moisture from her forehead. Further and further she continued. Something important waited for her, some discovery. Curiosity propelled her up the cramped steps to what? A secret passage way? A hidden room? She cast a look behind her at the steps that disappeared into the darkness. She swallowed. What was she doing?
Once she reached the top, she stepped out onto a choir loft that overlooked the back of the church. Brushing some of the dust and smudges from her jeans and dark gray sweatshirt, she imagined herself singing in the church. But as she looked over the rear of the Minister, she frowned. Where had all the tourists gone? Everyone had vanished, except for one cleaning woman, sweeping the floor between rows of wooden pews. The scrape of a straw broom was all that could be heard.
Brenna craned her neck, leaning over the balcony to get a better view of the front of the church, trying to see her sister, Jacob, or any of the tour group. The cathedral looked vacant and deathly quiet except for a few people dressed in some sort of Victorian costumes coming down the walkway. Were they getting ready to put on a play?