As a metaphor for my life, the crossroads rocked. I sat
in my rented Chevy, glaring at the GPS screen, then got out
of the vehicle and looked around. On one side of me was an
evergreen forest, into which one road descended, and on the
other was a rocky prominence, the highway cutting through it
like a kebab skewer through shish.
However, I was not reflecting on my metaphorical
lostness, but my literal situation. The GPS told me I was in
front of a Denny's on I–90 as it cut through Upstate
New York. Looking around at the gloomy walls of evergreen
and granite, I reflected that a Denny's breakfast would be
welcome, about then, but no shiny happy hostess came melting
out of the woods with a coffee pot and a smile.
My odyssey began in a car rental lot in Jersey City
before midnight August 31st, also known as the night before,
and just now the rosy beginnings of dawn were glimmering
through the piney treetops. September first, a good date for
a fresh start, if I could ever find my way out of the woods.
Some of my worldly belongings were piled in the back seat
and trunk of the rental Chevy and the rest were stacked in a
locker at a Manhattan Mini Storage near SoHo. Merry Wynter,
adventuress, I thought, my mouth twisting in a grimace. But
I wasn't just wandering, I was looking for my inheritance. I
leaned back into the car and grabbed the plastic tub of
carrot muffins, prying off the lid and inhaling the
cinnamony aroma. I took out the last one, peeled off the
paper cup, and munched away, the melting goodness of my
homemade muffins sweet on my tongue.
While I ate, I considered my options.
After a long night of driving all the way from Jersey
City to Upstate New York, I was exhausted. With a GPS in the
rental I thought it would be easy going, but the trouble
was, the probate lawyer who gave me instructions on how to
get there had assumed I was familiar with Wynter Castle and
its environs, and that I have a reasonably good sense of
direction. I wasn't, and I don't. I'd only been there once,
as a child. I'd like to say my navigational skills have come
a long way since then, but my grandmother told me lying is
wrong. I may be thirty–nine, and grandma may be long
gone, but I still hear her voice in my head. When the GPS
started screwing up, I wasn't aware of it until I was
I learned I inherited Wynter Castle many months before
and put it up for sale, sight unseen, with a local Autumn
Vale real estate agent named Jack McGill. Why would I do
something so stupid? It's complicated, and in retrospect not
the brightest move I've ever made. Here's the thing... that
visit as a kid is not a happy memory, and my own life has
been in turmoil the last several years.
Long story short: once upon a time (briefly) I was a plus
size model. I quit work when I married a photographer, but
then my beloved husband died. I was still young, and I
needed something to do, but I didn't want to be a model
again, and I was getting too old anyway. So even as I fought
my overwhelming grief, I began styling a few model friends,
plus and regular sized, choosing their clothes, helping them
define their look. It's like an advanced game of playing
dress–up, the same game I played with Barbie dolls
when I was a kid, much to my hippie mother's chagrin. In the
meantime, though my darling Miguel left me reasonably well
settled, I thought I could do better and began to play the
stock market with my savings.
You guessed it; the economy tanked, my investments
disappeared into the pockets of the wealthiest investors
while those of us foolishly toying with our life savings
suffered, and I was left with very little. But it was okay;
my career as a stylist was beginning to take off. As I
started doing all right, making enough to live on without
touching what was left of my savings, an opportunity came up
that I could not ignore. When someone offers you a six
figure salary, what do you do? You grab it and hope no one
notices you don't deserve it, right?
This is what happened... a few years ago Leatrice Pugeot
(born plain old Lynn Pugmire more years ago than she
admits), the internationally famous supermodel, happened to
be at New York Fashion Week, and so did I. I came across her
in a corner of a show venue weeping her eyes out. Concerned,
I asked if I could help, and she asked me to get her some
Xanax. Where was her purse, I asked. She said ‘no, dummy,
just score some from a dealer'. I refused, gave her a cup of
herbal tea instead and talked to her for an hour.
At the end of that hour she asked me to come work for her
as a personal assistant. I demurred, but she was persistent.
Over the period of a few days she steadily sweetened the pot
until it was up to six figures. Here's where it gets tricky;
I heard, through the grapevine, that Leatrice was difficult
to work with, like, Naomi Campbell difficult, but she seemed
just like a sweet, if troubled, soul, to me.
So I took the job, which seemed like it was going to be a
lot less effort than the constant push to find clients and
stay on top of the industry. The hole that Miguel left in my
life was not being filled with work, no matter how hard I
tried to stay busy, and I was beginning to worry that I
wasn't strong enough to build a whole new career while still
struggling with grief. Looking back, I think that my state
of mind had a lot to do with why I took the job, despite
warnings to the contrary. I needed to be needed, and
Leatrice needed me terribly. The next couple of years were
interesting, to say the least. Ultimately, everyone was
right about Leatrice and it didn't go well. I left (was
fired/quit... depends on who you talk to, me or her) after
she accused me of stealing from her.
About that time I learned about my inheritance, a cash
poor family ‘estate' in the boonies of Upstate New York.
Wynter Castle; at first I thought that was one of those
bougy names developers throw around, like McSnobbin Estates
or Uppercrust Acres, which are really just suburban ticky
tacky boxes thrown up on seven feet of land. I let it slide
for a long time while I dealt with the fallout from my
problems with Leatrice, hiring a local real estate agent to
sell the place. He wanted me to come look at it, but I just
couldn't handle it. I did begin to remember Wynter Castle at
that point, and my one visit to it when I was a child of
about five. My memory of that visit did nothing to make me
want to go there.
It wouldn't be an easy sell, I was told by both the real
estate agent and my uncle's attorney and executor, and that
prediction was on the money. It languished on the real
estate list for months without even a hint of interest.
Since I had been scrambling to make ends meet for some
time—it's the old story, just when I think I've made
ends meet, someone moves the ends—I finally took the
advice of a dear friend and did something about it. I gave
up the sublet on my tiny slice of Manhattan, and set out
without telling anyone where I was going. Correcting the
mistake I made several months before in not going to
evaluate my inheritance seemed a challenge, but doable.
Maybe I was finally getting my act together after a long run
of personal tragedy compounded by stupid decisions.
So here I stood, in the gloom of pre–dawn, out in
the middle of nowhere, lied to by a freakin' computer. It
was quiet, at my crossroads, too quiet, I thought, looking
around. Overhead a big bird circled, like a vulture waiting
for me to collapse into a heap. It was quite the view;
nothing but a long dirt slope downward in one direction, a
rocky face upward in another, and a paved sideroad slicing
through the rock face across it. Wind tossed the tops of the
trees, and a scent like a pine tree shaped car freshener
drifted down to me, with the rustling sound of movement
nearby. I should have felt alone, but I didn't, having the
uneasy sensation I was being watched from the shadowy depths
of the forested slope. Turning quickly, I caught a movement
in the bushes, and jumped back in the car, my heart
I was just tired and edgy, I reassured myself. I'd return
to the last place that the GPS system made any sense and go
from there. This wilderness was not how I pictured Upstate
New York. Where were the quaint artsy towns and elegant
country houses? Where were the Martha Stewart clones?
Shouldn't they be out picking dew–flecked roses from
their perfectly trimmed gardens wearing twinsets, pearls and
flowered gardening gloves?
I drove back the way I had come, past lonely farms and
isolated houses that looked deserted, out to an open area.
Instead of trying to find Wynter Castle, I'd concentrate on
the nearby town of Autumn Vale. Anyone who had negotiated
the intricacies of the London tube and the Paris Metro
should be able to find a town in Upstate New York. Laying my
actual paper map on the passenger's seat beside me, I
followed the highway, coming to a river. The map was being a
good boy scout, and telling me the absolute truth; it
certainly seemed more trustworthy than the disembodied voice
that kept telling me to turn right in fifty feet, when there
was no right turn available. The road I wanted departed from
the river and descended steeply to another branch of the
river. That was where the GPS had begun to malfunction,
confusing me hopelessly. But now the map started to lie to
me, just like the GPS had; none of the road names I was
seeing on signs appeared on the map. Hmm.
I'd ignore the road names, and just drive. Following a
hard–packed dirt road overarched by tall poplars that
tossed and swayed above, I found Butler Lane, which
according to the map should have been the Wynter Line.
Hoping I was on the right track, I began to descend and
wound along a treed road until the vista finally opened out
onto a picturesque view of a village below me, which a
signpost announced was Autumn Vale.
"Eureka," I shouted and pounded my fist on the steering
wheel. I paused and gazed at the village, still sleeping in
the dawn mist. It was a unique experience, like looking down
at a model train town; among the leafy green, I could spot
the main street, a solid line of Victorian shops and
businesses, all gray stone buildings it appeared, from a
distance, and then roads leading away from it, lined with
red brick homes and gleaming white clapboard frame houses,
punctuated by civic buildings, construction yards and the
occasional massive garden plot. Now that was what I expected
from an Upstate town! Maybe there would be an occasional bed
and breakfast, and perhaps even a quaint inn or two! I was
hoping at the least for a cutesy café with some decent food.
My stomach grumbled, but I put it down to too many
muffins and not enough real food. I should have packed a
bologna sandwich, but muffins are my ‘go to' comfort food.
That was the last thing I did in my little studio apartment
in Manhattan, make a dozen muffins to share with my
neighbors. Of course, muffins were also responsible for much
of my trouble with Leatrice, but that story can wait.
Buck up, Merry, I told myself. First things first, and
that was finding someone who could direct me to Wynter
Castle: Jack McGill, the real estate agent, or the lawyer,
Mr. Andrew Silvio, or someone. It was a little early for a
realtor or lawyer though, just six–forty–five by
my Piaget, so anyone who could give me the directions to
Wynter Castle would be fine.
I pulled into a parking spot in front of a hardware store
(closed), and got out, looking up and down Abenaki, the
street that appeared to be the main—or
only—business section of Autumn Vale. I needed
someplace open to ask directions. The streetscape was
adorable, with commercial buildings like ones I'd seen in
miniature, painted by skillful craftspeople. Stone fronts
with big glass bow windows, clapboard–sided shops with
gingerbread trim dripping from the eaves; but the reality
was a little more grim than the picture–perfect image
of small town America. What I hadn't seen from a distance
were the multitude of boarded up windows.
All crammed together as they were, the shops seemed like
good friends who leaned on each other for support in tough
times. I walked past a bank (closed), beauty salon (closed),
a clothing store (boarded up), a convenience store (closed),
and another clothing store, an antique shop, another antique
shop, a café, a nail salon and a dog groomers: boarded up,
closed, boarded up, closed, closed and on vacation. The
opposite side of the street appeared to be much the same
story. Wasn't anything open? A cool breeze fluttered down
the street, chasing a few stray leaves along the sidewalk. I
shivered. The early morning air was misty and damp and my
short–sleeved blouse inadequate. What I needed was a
Aha! I perked up when I saw, across the street, a
beckoning ‘open' sign in the window of Binny's Bakery;
glowing blue and red neon cheered me immeasurably. I crossed
the street, climbed the three steps and opened the door,
triggering a chirpy bell to ring. A yeasty smell and moist
warmth enveloped me. New bread! And something else
familiar... olive oil, rosemary, and cheese? Having eaten
four carrot muffins since midnight and nothing else,
something not sweet appealed.
A young woman wiped her floury hands on her floury apron
and approached the counter. "Can I help you?" she asked,
looking me over like I was an alien life form.
I glanced around the bakery, and was riveted by the
shelves lining one whole wall. Teapots! Hundreds and
hundreds of teapots! I truly was home, in one sense. I
smiled, as I turned toward her. "How are you this morning?"
"Fine. Can I help you?"
The woman didn't sound fine. Her mouth had a natural
downturn, unfortunate in someone so young and attractive, I
thought, noting dark hair pulled back in a ponytail that was
confined in a net.
"You have a wonderful place, here. There is no better
smell on earth than fresh baked bread, is there? And
teapots; you have an amazing collection."
The teapots ranged from a marvelous Mount
Rushmore—impractical, but very collectible—to a
chintz porcelain beauty that I lusted. My
not–so–secret passion is collecting teapots in a
variety of shapes, sizes and prints. That's what was in at
least twenty of the boxes at the Manhattan Mini Storage:
about half of them miniatures. Another ten boxes held
teacups, an uncounted number.
I pointed to an elderly beauty. "That ornate one... it's
Italian, right? Majolica? And the other one, with the roses
and cherubs... that's Capodimonte."
Sighing, the woman rolled her eyes. "Look, not to be
rude, but I have a million things to do. The focaccia is
almost ready to come out of the oven." She glanced over her
shoulder at a timer, then back to me. "How can I help you?"
I scanned the others—there were English and Chinese
teapots, art deco shapes, utilitarian designs and fanciful
animal shapes—but I didn't have time to look them
over, as the baker was getting impatient. No small talk,
then. Too bad. I'm the master of small talk. In the modeling
world, it pays to know how to schmooze, no matter what your
position. First as a model, then a stylist, and then,
finally, as a personal assistant to a model, being nice to
hair stylists, make–up artists, set decorators,
assistants, gofers, photographers and everyone in between
had paid off.
"I need directions," I said, holding up the printed map,
flapping it around. "This seems to be useless, since none of
the roads around here have the names listed on the map."
The woman cracked her first smile. "It's a conspiracy,"
she said, with a short laugh. "Town council and the county
can't agree. The names get changed every year or so. You'd
think they didn't want anyone to find us. What are you
Finally, some friendliness! "I'm trying to find Wynter
Castle, on Exeter Road."
The woman's smile died swiftly. "You don't want to go out
there. All you'll find at Wynter Castle is death." She
turned away as the oven timer binged a warning.
"What do you mean?"
She bustled around in the back, taking a tray out of the
oven and banging it down on the counter.
"Hello?" I hollered. "What do you mean by that?" She
wouldn't come back, ignoring me completely, so I stalked out
of the place, winding up on the sidewalk again, looking up
and down the street.
An old fellow in a trapper hat and plaid jacket shambled
past, making use of his cane. He eyed me with interest, his
smudgy glasses not quite concealing a ferrety intelligence
in his beady eyes. I'd try again. "Excuse me, sir," I said.
I had to bend over to talk to the elderly gnome, but his
eyes twinkled with reassuring sharpness. "Could you help
"Mebbe," he said, bushy brows raised. "Whadyawant?"
"I'm trying to figure out the best way to get to Wynter
Castle on Exeter road."
He made a choked sound in his throat and bolted away from
me as if I had a communicable disease. Who knew someone
using a cane could move so quickly? Tap–tap,
"Charming." As I stood, watching the oldster speed down
the sidewalk, a police cruiser slowed near my rental car.
I walked towards it, watching the cop lean across the
passenger seat and examine my rental's license plate. If he
was so interested, he may as well help me out. I walked out
onto the street and leaned over the cruiser, gesturing the
cop to roll down his window. He did, and I leaned in the
open window. "Hi, there! Maybe you can help me?"
He looked down at my cleavage and smiled, then looked up
into my eyes. "I sure hope I can," he replied.
Never failed. I sighed inwardly, but smiled back, amused,
as always, by the male fascination with breasts. The poor
dears just can't help themselves. I read his name tag, and
said, "Well, Officer Virgil Grace—"
"Sheriff Virgil Grace, ma'am," he said, with an
"Sheriff, how... western. Anyway, I'm trying to find
"I'd love to help," he said, a dimple winking in his
cheek. "You looking for the way to my heart?"
He was a definite cutie, but too young for me. I wasn't
on the lookout for the trail to any of his vital organs.
"Maybe another day. Right now I just need directions to
Wynter Castle, but no one wants to tell me how to get there,
not even the friendly voice on my GPS."
Watching my eyes, he frowned and said, "Why do you want
to go to Wynter Castle?"
It wasn't any of his business, but maybe it would help if
I explained. "I'm Merry Wynter, Melvyn Wynter's niece and
heir. Wynter Castle is my property."
He nodded. "Okay. I heard you were trying to sell it."
"I was... am... but no one seems to be in the market for
a monstrosity of a castle in the wilderness of Upstate New
York," I said, and stood, hand to my back. After no sleep
and hours driving, I was cranky, but had to stifle the urge
to snap at him. I bent back down again, and said, in as
neutral a tone as I could manage, "So what is the problem
with me trying to find Wynter Castle?"
"No problem," he said, his expression serious. "Follow me
and I'll lead you there."
"You may not thank me when you see the place."
Read Bran New Death by Victoria Hamilton to find out why
the sheriff doesn't think Merry will be happy he is leading
her to her castle inheritance!