Authors: Megan Hart
Castle in the Sand
Copyright 2010 Megan Hart
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***THIS WORK WAS PREVIOUSLY
Castle in the Sand
By Megan Hart
Some things change.
And some things don't.
The key in Claire Munroe's fingers slipped
into the lock without effort, but though she had no trouble turning
it, the door wouldn't open. She put her shoulder against the
weathered, once-white painted wood and pushed. It still wouldn't
"C'mon, you bugger."
Claire Munroe had been coming to Nonesuch for
a long time. She'd done her share of cleaning and repairing. She'd
given this unassuming beach house her share of sweat and toil, and
yes, even her share of blood. She had the scars to prove it--there
on the palm of her hand, where the splintered wood of the deck had
once gouged her deep enough to leave a mark.
Dale and Kevin, two of the eight who'd dubbed
themselves "the Fellowship" during their college years, had found
the door at a junkyard and brought it to Nonesuch because of its
beautiful and amazingly still-intact stained glass window. Claire
had never had difficulty with it before, but like everything else
about the house, the door was worn and sometimes cranky.
She shaded her eyes and peered through the
squares of blue and red to the cozy, familiar kitchen inside. Had
someone arrived before her and padlocked the door? She looked over
the splintered balcony again. No car, and besides, it was her turn
this year to open up the house.
Clouds blew across the sun, which should have
been bright with the promise of summer, but instead was a pale,
lifeless disc against a gray and unhappy looking sky.
Some weather for June, she thought with a
shudder that wracked her from her head to her toes. It was cold and
looked like rain. They'd be lucky if they got any time at the beach
She removed the key, rubbed it on the sleeve
of her cardigan, then slipped it back into the lock. "C'mon."
The door opened with a creak and groan that
made Claire smile and shake her head. "Sand in your joints? I know
how you feel."
Once inside, she hung her keys on the hook
below her name and the laminated photo of her from ten years
before. In all this time, they'd never changed the pictures. Claire
paused in front of the purple-painted piece of molding one of them
had hung so many years ago. Eight hooks. Eight photos.
each of us.
She touched them all in turn. "The
The name had begun as a joke in the dorm in
which they'd all lived, but it had lasted through four years of
college and ten years of friendship since. They'd been together
through final exams, frat parties, panty raids, job interviews,
marriages and births. Dale, Tracey, Kevin, Lisa, Joe, Alisha,
Claire...and finally, the last face...Malcolm.
The smile left her lips and Claire turned
away from that last picture. She didn't want to think about
Malcolm. If he even bothered to show up this year, she'd do what
she always did. Let her eyes slide past him. Pass him the salt at
the dinner table and make certain their fingers never touched.
She'd had years of experience ignoring Malcolm McGregor. She'd get
by. She always did.
The thought sent another chill skittering
down her spine, and she rubbed her hands briskly along her arms. It
was too cold for June. Claire rubbed her hands together to warm
them, too. She realized she was gritting her teeth at the memory of
his face, and she forced herself to relax. Stop thinking about him.
He's not worth this.
She looked around the kitchen where she'd
spent most of her vacations for the past ten years. Nonesuch wasn't
one of the big fancy beach houses tourists shelled out exorbitant
amounts of money to rent during the summer. If it had been, not
even the Fellowship teaming up together financially could have
afforded to buy it.
The house had been, and always would be,
slightly ramshackle, no matter how much time and money they put
into it. It was two stories, set on stilts, with multiple decks and
balconies, a screened porch and a modest, cozy kitchen. They'd
turned the top floor, originally only an attic space, into a
sleeping area. They'd also redone the dining room and an old
laundry room as well to give Nonesuch five bedrooms.
The single, narrow bathroom boasted a leaky
shower and a toilet with a pull-chain. There was rarely enough hot
water for everyone to shower with, and the only air conditioning
came from the open windows, while an ancient, cranky gas stove
provided a modicum of warmth in the rare winter months they
Claire loved it. Not to live in all the time,
of course, since she did like her creature comforts. But for the
week every year they all came together, and for occasional
weekends, Nonesuch was perfect.
Sleeping space was awarded on a first-come,
first-serve basis, and there was never a question about which room
Claire chose. She climbed the steep, narrow stairs, which opened
directly into the attic space. The sloping roof made walking a
hazard, unless you kept to the middle of the room. A double bed and
matching dresser took up most of the space, while a smaller single
bed had been tucked away beneath the eaves. A rag rug Claire had
found in town gave a splash of color to the bare wooden floor.
There was nothing extravagant about this
room, just as there was nothing luxurious about the rest of the
house, but it was Claire's favorite for one reason. The view. Two
windows, one on each end, let in bright light and gave a view of
the sea from one and the small stand of evergreen trees on the
Hoping to catch a glimpse of the ocean, she
went to the bed and knelt on it to peer out the window. Claire
frowned, then ran her finger along the glass. It came away black
with dust. She wrinkled her nose. No wonder the room had seemed so
dim. She looked down at the bed's comforter. She remembered it as
being a wildly colored patchwork quilt of vivid reds and blues. Now
the red looked more like pink, and the blue had faded so much it
was nearly white. She blinked, then looked again. Had someone
changed the cover? The pattern looked the same, but the
colors...the colors just didn't seem right.
Claire got up and looked down at the rug. She
had bought it in a local artisan's shop four years ago, loving the
splashes of color and texture, but not quite willing to have such a
crazy piece in her apartment. It had been perfect for the attic
room. Now, the colors she recalled as being so vibrant and clashing
looked muted. Pale. She bent and touched the twists of rag. It was
the same rug...wasn't it?
Disturbed, she got to her feet and looked
around. The sea air destroyed everything, slowly but inexorably.
Things faded. The constant grit of sand underfoot had worn the
linoleum in the kitchen downstairs to the wood beneath. Maybe it
had worn the rug, too.
With a shrug, she put the rug and the
coverlet out of her mind. She'd clean the windows and put fresh
linens on the bed. Maybe she'd buy a new rug again this year.
Feeling better, Claire went back downstairs
to the kitchen. A dark shape stood silhouetted in the doorway and
she let out a cry. Her heart flew into her throat and she stumbled
The man stepped toward her. Instant
recognition swept over her, and embarrassment flooded her. "You
scared the life out of me!"
"Hello, Claire. I wasn't certain you'd be
He pronounced it "sair-tin," in the faint
lilt of a Scottish burr that hadn't faded though he'd spent nearly
twenty years in the United States.
"The list goes around in December."
Tracey, the most organized of them, had been
in charge of the duty roster since the Fellowship had bought the
house. Every year, she sent around a list of whose turn it was to
open the house and make it ready for their shared week. Whose
responsibility it was to shut it up at the end of the season. Who
was in charge of contacting the local realty company that handled
the rentals during the times none of them were using the house. The
list changed from year to year, so everyone had a turn.
She crossed her arms over her chest. "You
knew it was my turn to open up. I just...I just didn't realize it
His hair was tousled and damp. His white
T-shirt clung to him, and his jeans were dark with wet. The sudden
flash of lightning and the patter of rain told her why. He bent and
pulled a brightly colored beach towel out of a mesh bag and used it
to scrub his hair toward dryness.
"It's not. Dale had to work this weekend and
couldn't get off until later in the week. So I came in his place. I
wanted to get in a swim before dark. The storm caught me
Claire and Malcolm hadn't shared
house-opening duties since...before. She chewed on her lip for a
moment. Surrounded by their friends, with laughter and
companionship to cushion the distance between them, she'd always
been able to ignore him. Now, without anyone else around... Claire
lifted her chin. She'd be fine. In a few days, the others would be
here. Surely she could stand to be alone with Malcolm for two days.
Three at the most.
What's the worst that could happen in three
"I know you're surprised to see me. And not
pleasantly." He finished with his towel and hung it on the back of
a chair, then stepped closer to her.
Claire caught a whiff of salt and sand. The
scent filled her head and made it spin. She took a deep breath and
kept her expression carefully blank.
He moved closer still until he stood directly
in front of her. His feet were bare. He'd cuffed his jeans. Her
eyes traveled the height of a body she'd once known as well as her
own, and she finally looked at his face.
He'd changed the least of them over the
years. He still had the same rounded, boyish features and
thin-lipped mouth that could quirk into a playboy's smile in an
instant. His hair was still the color of wet sand. His eyes
remained the color of the sea, sometimes green or gray or blue...or
a mixture of all three.
Malcolm tilted his head. "I wasn't sure you'd
How could she have ever thought she'd be able
to ignore him? Claire backed away until she hit the edge of the
counter. "Of course I see you. This is the only place we ever see
each other." Anymore. It hadn't always been that way...
He nodded. "I always see you here. But,
Claire, you never see me."
Claire's jaw clenched, and she forced herself
to relax. "Don't be silly."
He came closer and lifted a hand, as though
unable to help himself. He touched the length of her hair, which
had come loose from its ponytail and now draped over her shoulder.
His fingers caught in the strands, tangled, tugged.