What happens when a workaholic serial remodeler falls in love with an old stone cottage built by an ornithologist and his eccentric Irish wife? If you’re Madison Boone, you kick your budding romance with handsome Psych Professor Coleman Welles to the curb and lose yourself in a new project.
Madison renovates distressed homes in addition to her busy real estate sales career. When she hears about a quaint house on a private tract of land overlooking Lake Sonoma, she climbs in the window for a private tour and falls in love with the place. With help from lawyer Genevieve Delacourt, Madison soon learns that a corrupt attorney is attempting to sell the estate to an anonymous client in a deceitful plan for personal gain. Good fortune enables her to purchase the Blackburne’s property, but far more than a new home and lush gardens await discovery during this renovation.
As Madison works on the remodel, she’s drawn into an old love story with dangerous consequences. She unearths buried secrets and discovers herself in the process. Good thing she has three wise, hilarious friends to advise her along the way! Mark of the Loon is the skillful combination of history, mystery, and romance in a novel that explores deep friendship, choices, and how individuals cope with loss.
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Mark of the Loon, Chapter One:
Madison Boone guided the white Toyota 4-Runner slowly down the sweltering rural road, desperate for any sign of the property she’d been trying to locate for over half an hour. Not a breeze was stirring. Heat blistered off the asphalt like visible radio waves. Although the car’s AC blasted frigid air, its efforts were hindered by the open window and the afternoon inferno that was inland Sonoma County in September.
Earth to Heaven. Turn down the temp!
Curse the rotten luck. She huffed a sharp breath upward and blew thick bangs back from her sweaty forehead, then adjusted the scrunchy that held up her shoulder-length mahogany hair. It wasn’t enough to keep her neck from roasting. She couldn’t take much more. A cold beer and a thermostat that registered 68 degrees would go a long way toward restoring her sanity. Well, that would have to wait. Giving up now was not an option.
Mill Creek Road was a pricey older neighborhood near Lake Sonoma. The houses were set back from the street, and few could be seen by weekend drivers eager for a glimpse of the water. That was the problem. Although she’d found 1204 and 1208, she’d driven back and forth countless times in a persistent effort to ferret out the address that should be somewhere in between.
The roadside was dotted with the matchstick stalks and bright yellow flowers of Scotch broom. Upright plumes of invasive Pampas grass swayed like silky mares’ tails above each thick hump of drying grass. The landscape out here among the oaks and madrone was easy enough on the eyes. What the area lacked was house numbers. Other than the winemakers, it felt as though the locals did not want to be found.
She glanced again at the number scrawled on the Board of Realtors paperwork riding shotgun beside her, then pressed the gas and drove on. A lone buckeye reached thirsty branches toward the lake, reminding her of her own parched state. Leaning forward, she shrugged tanned shoulders in a vain attempt to liberate the simple cotton dress plastered to her spine by the sticky leather of the 4-wheel-drive’s seat. She checked the time and thrust her cell into a pocket of her shift, then jabbed the GPS buttons for the hundredth time. Where had everything gone wrong? Tapping the brake, she drew a deep breath and tried to relax.
Her attention was drawn by the brick-red chest of a bird in the branches of an apple tree. A grosbeak. They would be migrating soon, bound for Mexico to feast on Monarchs through the winter. Wait, an apple tree. Out here in the brush? Madison watched as the bird flitted to the south, landing atop a rotten old post. The number 1206 materialized, just like a picture puzzle hiding an image within it. Where is Waldo? The wrought-iron numbers hung askew, obscured in part by a long-neglected climbing rose. Right there, all along. Not like her to miss much. Chances were good her brain was singed from the brutal weather.
Once the sign was revealed, the driveway also magically became apparent. Relief renewed her energy. She paused before turning into the hidden road and breathed deeply of the unbelievable perfume the wild thicket of rose blossoms projected into the summer air. She picked a crimson bloom and held it to her nose, eyes closed. Impossible for anything to smell so delicious. She placed the rose on the dash and drove on.
A deep layer of decaying leaves covered the passage. The mulch had been pushed aside here and there by wildlife or the wind to expose patches of what appeared to be real cobblestone. She knew the paving was often salvaged from renovated San Francisco streets and recycled into landscaping and patios as far as moneyed owners were willing to ship the long-gone masons’ handiwork. Madison perked up at her first glimpse of the perfectly fitted mortar-free pattern. Perhaps it was a hint of what was to come.
A whimsical, filigreed iron fence barred her way not twenty feet from the street. The lopsided beauty had long since seen its heyday, vanquished by lack of care and the elements. She threw the transmission into park. When she climbed out to inspect the situation, she discovered that the padlock was not securely fastened. With a quick push, the gate receded silently inward. She was free to drive into the shadows.
Wild beds of iris and dahlias and tangles of blooming perennials and trees thrived along the entry road. A row of grapevines laden with fruit made her mouth water. She spotted the crepe-like saucers of a stand of Matilija poppies and with a pang recalled the gray-green leaves of the leggy native in her mother’s garden. Fried egg plant, her playmates had called the tall shrub, because of the bright yellow centers grounding the white petals of each flower. She knew it thrived in summers free of water. The perfect choice for the back of a bed, and happy as a lark soaking up Sonoma’s heat.
Unlike herself today.
Madison couldn’t help but shake her head with longing. Someone with a green thumb surely adored this jumble once. At that moment, her car cleared the copse of overgrown shrubs that thronged the approach and rolled slowly, slowly onto an open circular drive.
An English cottage right out of the Shire was set back in the midst of a clearing. Built of native stone, it looked as if it had been picked up by a tornado in the Cotswolds Judy Garland-style and plopped down here among the rainbow hues of the wild abandoned garden. Seeing it, Madison sat upright in her seat and blinked hazel eyes a dozen times in disbelief. “Oh. My. God. Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore.”
The structure was an artisan’s delight of steep gabled slate roofs and tall chimneys and mullioned windows and rock. Bizarre and charming, and it looked so small. Deceiving, since the county records said the structure was eighteen hundred square feet.
She stopped the car and sat still, contemplating the magic of the setting. At the same time, she assessed the extent of the project. The house’s exterior appeared to be a torrent of deferred maintenance. From here, the peeling woodwork and rotted wooden flower beds looked like the worst of it.
She slipped old sneakers on her bare feet and jumped out. “Hello, gorgeous.” Hobbitesque windows screamed for a washrag. The dry wood of the unpainted door begged for a healing coat of stain. “Oh, what I could do with you.” She ambled up the overgrown walkway to the entry and ran her fingers down the well-crafted casing, appreciating every inch of the grain. Looking around to see if anyone might be watching, she knocked half a dozen times and called out, “Hello. Anyone here?”
Either no one was home, or the house was vacant. Against better judgment, she rattled the door handle twice. She was saddened but not surprised by the unyielding response of the latched deadbolt. She peered through the doorway’s peephole, but was thwarted by an opaque curtain over the pane and the dimness of what was probably the foyer on the other side.
She examined the ivory-lined drapes of a nearby window for spaces between the folds that might allow a glimpse through the glass, but was disappointed once again. Turning away, she started down a path paved in yet more cobbles that looked as though it might lead toward the back.
Every imaginable summer-blooming flower lined the way. A cluster of hollyhocks as tall as a man and flush with multihued pastel blooms stood guard against the house. Butterfly bushes badly in need of pruning arched branches dense with purple flower spikes over the dappled passageway. The subtle smell of lavender caught her attention, but was soon overtaken by the sweet, cloying tang of mint as she crushed the trailing plant beneath her shoe.
Eventually, she burst through into bright sunlight once again and faced a gentle slope peppered with trees. A hundred feet or so away stood a two-story carriage house with its back against a small knoll. It was built in the same delightful style as the main building, with an apartment or studio above a ground-level garage.
Beyond it a long, low open shed housed a substantial hoard of split wood. No other homes were visible. The rear of the cottage was to her left, although she couldn’t see it, hidden as it was by a continuation of the masses of shrubbery that covered everything in sight.
She followed the path along the back until it merged into a wide, paved terrace. A weathered gazebo graced the far side. At one end was a lovely pond, sprawling and neglected but still full of water. Cement birdbaths and whimsical feeders were placed around the yard. She could only imagine the Audubon heaven the property must have been when they were full. Even now, feathered visitors found the place irresistible. She could see why.
Double French doors opened from every room on the hind side of the structure onto the patio where she stood, designed to take advantage of what was a remarkable setting with the vista of brown and green valleys beyond. She squinted into the bright sunlight and caught a glimpse of the lake in the distance. Water glistened below the steep, brush-covered hills. Sunsets viewed from here would be a spectacle.
When she turned back to the house, the painted roof turrets caught her eye. With delight, she realized the attic vents were disguised as purple martin houses, perched at the top of the steep gables. She wondered if the burgundy-hued swallows would return from South America in the spring. Someone went to a lot of trouble to invite them.
She moved to the doors and shimmied a handle back and forth without luck, then tried the next and the next with the same result. Curtains shielded the interior from prying eyes here, as well. Turning the corner, she walked along the south wall and worked the doors there with a similar outcome. She was about to investigate the carriage house when the glint of glass alerted her to the presence of yet another leaded pane hidden deep behind an enormous heritage rose.
Madison shifted the thorny canes aside and was astonished to discover a window half an inch ajar. Ignoring her short summer garb, she moved the screen and drapes out of the way. With care, she hoisted her 5’7’’ frame onto the sill, at once sorry she’d allowed that extra ten pounds to accumulate over the winter and spring.
Dang junk in the trunk.
When her eyes adjusted, she could just make out the dim outline of chairs and couches beyond the open door. A furnished living room. She walked to the expanse of glass that formed the rear wall and whipped back a drape, then turned and was immediately transported in time.
Madison giggled aloud at the captivating scene.
The décor smacked of the English countryside. Couches and chairs slip-covered in an antique cabbage rose were placed before the windows. Older primitive furniture added to the gorgeous vignette. A Persian carpet covered much of the pine flooring.
Overflowing bookshelves hosted a number of beautifully framed pictures among the hard-backed tomes. Dominant among them was the photograph of a gray-haired couple smiling at each other, ignorant of the camera, with arms entwined. A cozier image of home would be tough to conjure.
The bones of the bungalow were fabulous. The plaster walls and high ceilings appeared to be in good shape. The vintage wallpaper would definitely need to go, but with luck, once stripped of the paper, the walls would simply need a coat of paint. The wood windows were pleading for help. Aside from that, even a real estate novice would understand the potential.
Everything seemed to be in great condition, the absolute reverse of what was happening outside. While the complete lack of dust opposed the appearance of the yard, it also conveyed the message that the house was regularly attended to despite its apparent lack of residents. Concern made her shift out of appraisal mode and move on.
She swung through a door into a lovely, homey old-fashioned kitchen, complete with a massive antique cabinet that seemed to be built into the thick plaster. Another door led to a dining area beyond, accessible from the living room but its own separate space. Although the downstairs floor plan was designed in an open style, she wondered how the upstairs space would stack up. It wouldn’t be the first time she’d removed a wall to bring in light. Enchanted, she clapped her hands and whispered, “Please, please, mine, mine, mine!”
The sound of a car cut off Madison’s glee and sent her, frightened and cursing, to sweep the drapes closed and rush head first back through the window. She nearly fell in the dirt below. Catching herself, she managed to avoid the rose thorns that tried to scratch at the back of her legs and dress as she slipped from the sill. She plunged the window down and stepped onto the terrace to smooth her hair and skirt. One sidelong glance at the glass doors verified that the curtains were not swaying.
A tall, slender man close to her own age with a clipped Ivy League haircut stepped around the house and stopped, hands folded, before her.
Madison raised an eyebrow at the sight of his minister’s collar. She steadied her breath, sighed, cocked her head to one side and said, “You caught me.”
The man cleared his throat, then ran a hand over his tidy brown curls. “I’m Reverend Ryan Kavanaugh, Assistant Rector of the Protestant retreat just over the hill. What did I catch you doing?” His voice held the hint of an Irish brogue.
Surprised, Madison said, “Excuse me?”
At least half a foot taller, he leaned forward before he spoke, as though he thought she might be hard of hearing. “I was out for a walk and happened to look down and see your car.” His words were clipped. “May I ask the nature of your visit?”
Madison considered the fact that his black suit and polished, dust-free shoes were neither appropriate hiking gear nor weather-conscious. His vocation probably required that he always dress formally. Odd, though, that he managed to look cool in the wretched heat.
“Look here, miss. I’ve been tasked with keeping an eye on the place. I came over to ask your intentions. You understand you’re trespassing, don’t you?” He smiled without parting his lips. What she saw in his eyes was just a little too dark and disapproving for the boyish charm of his face.
She held out her right hand. “I’m Madison Boone, a real estate agent with Sloan Anderson Homes in Santa Rosa. A friend faxed me a notice from a little Richmond newspaper that said this place was scheduled for probate sale. I wanted to take a look. So you caught me doing my job, checking on the property’s condition. I couldn’t find a sale listing or a phone number in the public records and didn’t know who to call to ask permission.”
His smile faded, but he recovered and gave her outstretched fingers a solid shake. “Do you have a buyer?”
“Not really. I just wanted to see if an investor might be interested.”Madison’s inner radar was tweaking out a staccato beat. Something was off. “Since the property is for sale, you aren’t surprised people are trying to locate it, right?” She moved aside and looked over his shoulder. “Where did you say you could see me from? There aren’t any buildings around.” She looked him straight in the eye, mirroring his tight smile.
He pulled a business card from an inner pocket of his jacket and held it out. “I’ll refer you to the attorney handling the estate. This is his contact information. I thought he’d arranged to have the gate locked to keep out strangers with unwholesome objectives.”
Her grin disappeared, but she regained her composure and accepted the card. “Thank you so much, Reverend Kavanaugh.” Her words held just a tinge of ice. “It was a pleasure to meet you. I apologize for the inconvenience. It won’t happen again.”
Their eyes met. He bobbed his head in an ever-so-slight nod as she brushed by on her way back to the garden path. Unwholesome objectives, indeed. Madison blamed guilt over her slightly unscrupulous behavior for not standing up to his insinuations.
She pulled the car door open and swung around one last time, scanning the hills for a path or hiking trail. She saw nothing but native redbud and thick stands of heavily-branched shrubs and trees. Where the hell had he been, anyway?
A flock of birds rose like a cloud above the distant lake. She shaded her eyes to get a better look. Intent on the sight, she was startled when the Reverend spoke.
“Something frightened the loons.”
Copyright ©2012, Molly Greene. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission from the author, except in the case of brief quotations used in articles and reviews.