Sunset at Catoctin Creek, Chapter Three

Continued from Sunset at Catoctin Creek, Chapter Two

Chapter Three: Rosemary

As soon as she welcomed Stephen inside, Rosemary regretted her words. What was she thinking, inviting a stranger into the house late at night? Well, not late. It was only eight thirty. But still. She was basically asking to be murdered.

That’s definitely Gilbert Beckett’s kid though, she reminded herself. The New York accent gives him away. And Gil was a good guy. His son won’t be the murdering type.

That was the best reassurance she could do for herself on short notice, but she decided it would be enough. Gil Beckett had been a stranger when he’d come to Catoctin Creek, but he hadn’t stayed that way. He’d assimilated to life here, become a part of the community, and everyone had eventually stopped making fun of the way he said his r’s. His Fourth of July parties had entered into Catoctin Creek mythology, filled with food and fireworks and fun, and open to everyone. Hopefully, this apple hadn’t fallen too far from that tree. Although she supposed the parties were probably a thing of the past.

As he came closer, the porch light started to illuminate all sorts of things about the Beckett boy. Chit-chat from the Blue Plate, filtered through Nikki, had merely said he was tall and decent-looking, like Gil must have been when he was a young man. What Nikki hadn’t mentioned was the confidence with which Beckett carried himself, or his broad shoulders, or his chiseled chin. He brushed back dark hair as he looked up at her from the bottom step, and she mentally added to the list: strong forehead, piercing eyes, excellent nose.

Photo Rich Brooks Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Oh damn, Beckett boy, Rosemary thought. She hadn’t bothered with men in years, but if this one was just going to appear on her doorstep…

“So, I’m Rosemary,” she said, offering him her hand. “And you’ve been marooned on Notch Gap Farm.”

“Seems like a nice place to be marooned,” Beckett replied pleasantly, taking her hand. His skin was soft, reminding her he wasn’t from her neck of the woods. She wondered if he felt her callouses and thought the same thing about her. “Maybe I won’t get saved for a little while yet.” He smiled at her in a conspiratorial sort of way.

She smiled back. Here’s hoping. “Well, come in, it’s freezing out here.” She stood back and let Beckett get past her—or rather, she tried to, but he was broad-chested and the old doorway was narrow. Beckett’s arm brushed against Rosemary’s chest, and despite the sturdy, no-nonsense layers of flannel and wool between her skin and his, she felt his touch ripple through her body like a pulse of electricity.

Take it slow, she warned her body, but her overactive nerves didn’t seem to want to listen. She counted to three, breathing in the cold night air, and then closed the door. “Would you mind taking off your shoes? The clay from the yard gets everywhere.” 

“Not at all.” Stephen leaned down and started unlacing his leather oxfords.

“I’m sorry about your father,” Rosemary said, deciding some preliminaries must be delivered. “Everyone in Catoctin Creek loved Gilbert.”

“Thanks,” Stephen said. “I loved him, too. We didn’t see each much in the last ten years, though.” He straightened. Even barefoot, he was still several inches taller than Rosemary. She had to look up to meet his eyes.

She tilted up her chin and met his green-blue gaze head-on. His eyes seemed to hold hers with magnetic force. Rosemary felt that flutter of sensation running through her nerves again, and briefly wondered if she might be getting sick. If this was attraction, it was like nothing she’d ever felt before. This was a full-body experience.

There was a moment of silence while they considered one another. Then he took a breath and rocked gently from side to side. It was just enough movement to bring her back to earth. His feet must be cold, standing on the chilly floor right in front of the door. “Come to the kitchen where it’s warm,” she urged him. “It’s too cold to stand here.”

“Of course,” he said, in tones of extreme politeness. “Thank you.” He looked down at her for a moment. Suddenly, Rosemary felt her old friend anxiety rising up in her throat, pushing aside everything else. Oh, why was she talking to a stranger? Who was this man in her house? Why hadn’t she stayed upstairs in her bed until he went away? Why was he staring at her? How long had it been since she had said something? Say something, Rosemary! Say anything!

“I’m Rosemary Brunner,” she blurted, because her name was the only thing she could trust at this moment.

Then she remembered she’d already told him her name.

Rosemary curled up her toes inside her thick woolen socks, feeling like a fool.

Stephen smiled, his sea-colored eyes twinkling at her. “Proper introductions! Of course! Where are my manners? Madam, I am Stephen Beckett. Late of Manhattan,” he added, bending at the waist and giving her a little bow. “At your service.”

Rosemary grinned, feeling weak with relief. “Now, now, none of your highfalutin’ city manners here, sir,we are but quiet country folk.”

“I love this,” Stephen stage-whispered. “Let’s always talk like we’re in a British farce.”

“I already can’t think of what to say next,” she whispered back. “I don’t think it’s going to work out.”

Stephen sighed tragically. “Very well, madam. Lead on to the kitchen.”

She laughed, noticing as she did how his eyes lit up and his gaze traveled around her face. “Let’s get you those directions.”

“And a cup of tea? In the metropolis where I hale from, wandering travelers are always offered a cup of tea. It’s considered polite.”

“Oh, you’re still doing that tired old act?” She winked to show him she was just joking and he winked back with such joviality that Rosemary was able to force down her uneasiness. She was determined to see this through…whatever this turned out to be. She knew that somehow, she instantly liked Stephen Beckett. The feeling was as wonderful as it was alien.

Stephen Beckett followed her past the staircase, down the hall, and into the kitchen at the back of the house. She gestured to a chair at the old wooden table, wherein he settled comfortably and commenced watching her. Rosemary felt a little like a mouse under the gaze of a barn owl. Except, she didn’t actually dislike his gaze, and she doubted a mouse would have similar second thoughts about the owl’s predatory nature.

Then she got hold of herself, picked up the kettle, filled it at the kitchen sink, and put it on the cream-colored stove. The flame hissed up beneath the kettle.

“I could definitely use a cup of tea,” she said airily, as if a drink had been her idea all along. “It’s chilly in my bedroom tonight. The north wind always comes right in under the windowsill.”

Image by Lorri Lang from Pixabay

Then Rosemary froze for a moment, shocked that she’d mentioned her bedroom. It was an old teenage phobia of hers, left over from high school days and the terrifying, enticing, constant implication of sex floating in the air between everyone in her age group…all of which flared right back up when she said the word bedroom to this handsome stranger sitting in her kitchen.

Yikes, Rosemary thought, taking down mugs with slow, careful consideration, trying to keep her back to Stephen long enough for the pink to fade from her cheeks. She hadn’t thought about sex in some time. Truthfully, she had essentially sworn off men—too difficult to meet, too difficult to talk to—and unless she developed a sudden appetite for Nikki, she wasn’t going to find a likely female partner, either. So the sudden surge of interest she felt every time she looked at Stephen was…disconcerting.

But exciting.

And a little annoying.

And maybe a bit…thrilling?

When she turned around again, mugs in hand, it was to find him watching her. Rosemary told her quivering loins to calm themselves down and put the mugs on the table with as much dignity as she could muster. Even so, her hand shook a little as the ceramic met the wooden top of the kitchen table.

“You hungry?” she asked. “I have some leftovers in the fridge.”

Instantly, Stephen’s hungry gaze changed to an altogether different kind of hunger. “Oh God, so hungry,” he admitted. “I got to the Blue Plate at five after eight. The manager was…not amenable to a late arrival.”

Rosemary laughed, thankful the atmosphere had lightened. Although, truth be told, as soon as the sexual tension dissipated between them, she missed it. Ah well, she told herself. It was probably just a fluke. I’ll bet he has a hot Manhattan girlfriend waiting for him back at his penthouse.

“I’ll heat you up a plate.” Rosemary winced inwardly. The words made her sound like someone’s mother. But Stephen looked appreciative as she pulled a covered Corningware dish out of the fridge, doled out a heaping helping of the chicken and broccoli casserole she’d had for dinner, and put the plate into the microwave. The tea kettle whistled next, and she placed the sugar bowl onto the table in front of him. Everything felt so domestic, she wondered if she’d just imagined the charged atmosphere of a moment before.

Stephen spooned a truly astonishing amount of sugar into his mug, and smiled appreciatively when she doused it with hot water. “It’s cold out there,” he said neutrally. “I don’t drink much tea as a rule, but it feels right in a place like this.” He looked around the kitchen as he spoke.

Image by Denise Husted from Pixabay

Rosemary smiled at him, but she wanted to scream. Her kitchen was unchanged from her mother’s time, and her mother hadn’t changed much when she’d come here as a bride, thirty-five years ago. The walls were a faded yellow, trimmed around the white ceiling with a once-cheerful, now rather depressing wallpaper border printed with drooping daisies. The cabinets were of an indeterminate brown-stained wood from the nineteen-seventies, and the counter tops were almost brown-stained, too, they were so far removed from the original white. The sink was a relic of another age, a porcelain beast standing on its own sturdy legs, with a frilly curtain of faded gingham hiding the cleaning products crouching underneath. Only the refrigerator was of a recent vintage, and its relentlessly shiny metal face seemed to cast everything else into the room still deeper into shabbiness.

Rosemary had always liked this kitchen, liked feeling a connection to her mother and her grandmother as she stood at their old countertops whisking batter for a cake or washing dishes in their antique sink. Now, though, in front of Mr. Manhattan, she felt unbearably fusty, a farmhouse relic in a house that was practically a roadside antiques mall.

“It’s very old,” she managed to say.

“Well, I like it,” Stephen declared, nodding appreciatively. “Very homey. Like a TV show from the fifties.”

The microwave beeped, sparing Rosemary from having to think of a reply. She put a steaming plate of casserole in front of him, and sat down at the chair across the table.

“None for you?” Stephen asked. “I have to eat while you watch me?”

“I have to make sure you clean your plate,” Rosemary teased. Maybe adopting the down-home farmer mama persona was the way to go. It was the only option open to her, anyway. “Waste not, want not. If you finish that, you can have some pie.”

“Pie, you say? Well, I assure you, I’m not going to waste a bite of this,” he said happily, digging a fork into the mass of food. “It looks amazing, and I am literally dying of hunger. Forgive me if I’m lacking in sparkling dinner conversation.” He filled his mouth with casserole and closed his eyes in appreciation. “Mmmm.”

Rosemary sipped her tea and let him eat in peace. She had to admit, there was a satisfaction in watching Stephen plow through the food she’d made, and it wasn’t the same as the pleasure she took in feeding her elderly neighbors every Thursday night. That was motherly, a doting feeling of caregiving as she watched Aileen and Rodney Kelbaugh smile over the dinner she’d prepared for them. This was more…satisfying, somehow, as if she’d been waiting all day for the chance to cook for a man who couldn’t fend for himself.

This thought was so un-feminist that Rosemary felt she had to stop her line of thinking altogether. New subject, hmmm.

“So, how are you liking Catoctin Creek?” she burst out suddenly.

Stephen looked up, chewed, and swallowed, all rather laboriously. He’d had quite a lot of food in his mouth. He cocked his head, thinking. “It’s…quiet?” he finally offered.

Quiet sounded as if it was the nicest thing he could think to say, and Rosemary didn’t like what this implied. “Well, yes. We’re far away from all the traffic and noise down in D.C.,” she agreed, rather pointedly. “It’s quiet in a good way, if you’ve ever been down there in that mess. My English teacher in high school had a bumper sticker on his desk that said Frederick County: far from the maddening crowd. Of course, it was supposed to be madding so he crossed out the extra letters with a Sharpie.”

“Nothing like a good English teacher correction. I have admit, I’m not used to quiet,” Stephen said, working in the words around another mouthful. “I have to use a white noise app to get to sleep at night. And sometimes it shuts off and I wake up in the middle of the night to total silence…it’s terrifying. I tend to think, I don’t know, that I’ve died or something. I always wonder if that’s what my dad felt like when he first moved here. I never asked him. I wish I had. I don’t know why he came here to begin with. I never asked, and then he passed away, and now I’ll never know.”

Stephen took another large bite of casserole, but he looked thoughtful.

Wow, Rosemary thought, shifting uncomfortably. A lot of death in that statement. “Your father was a nice guy,” she said hesitantly, not sure where to take the mention of his departed dad, but pretty certain the opportunity for a condolence and a compliment could not be overlooked. “We don’t get a lot of newcomers in Catoctin Creek, but he seemed to fit right in.”

“But, here’s the thing. I don’t see how that could be,” Stephen said, putting down his fork. He looked perturbed. “He was a cop from Queens. He had never been out to the countryside for more than a couple of days in his life. How could he have come here?”

The confusion in Stephen’s voice surprised Rosemary. What was there to question about a body wanting to live in Catoctin Creek? It was perfect here. Anyone could see that. “Maybe he just needed to slow down,” Rosemary suggested, shrugging. “Take in some beauty. Maybe he drove through here once on a trip and saw one of our amazing sunsets. You’ve seen them, you’ve been here long enough. You know how beautiful they are. His place has some of the best.” Not as good as mine, of course. “Anyone would fall in love with Catoctin Creek.”

“I can’t even imagine how he ever found this place,” Stephen insisted. He picked up his fork again. “Let alone, decide to live here. I’m telling you, he was a city boy through and through. Like me.”

“Have you ever tried living in the country before?” Rosemary asked, suddenly deeply curious. Stephen’s life must be the polar opposite of hers. What would that be like? She tried to imagine herself in the New York City of sitcoms and movies, and failed utterly. There were far too many people there. Cars and lights and tall buildings certainly, but ugh, the people.

“Oh, just the past month! And that’s been enough, thanks. I can’t wait to get home. I can’t believe I’ve been here this long.” His tone grew harsh, as if this was an offense he’d been brooding over for some time. He picked up his fork again and took a savage bite.

Figures, Rosemary thought. First guy I’m attracted to in years, and he can’t wait to get away from me. Well, maybe not from her, exactly…but away from Catoctin Creek, anyway.

And wasn’t that the same thing? Rosemary wasn’t going anywhere. She knew where her home was.

She’d lived in it her entire life.

“Well, let me get you those directions!” she announced, pushing back from the table as if Stephen’s departure had suddenly become urgent and time-sensitive. She picked up the legal pad she kept beneath the old wall-mounted telephone and started drawing a little map. “You’re very close, just a couple of miles. You must have taken the wrong turn at Clancy Farm Road; happens to the best of us when it’s pitch-dark out like this. Mr. Clancy had put a big wooden sign at the fork once, years ago, and he’d painted on it ‘All Through Traffic Turn Left’ but the state came out and took it down. If you turn right you end up driving alongside all Mr. Clancy’s cattle pastures and then you come out on Routzahn Road…”

Image by Michel Huché from Pixabay

She shut her mouth suddenly, realizing she was rambling and that her map was sprouting all sorts of forks and detours Stephen would never need. He had come here just long enough to settle his father’s estate and head right back home. He didn’t have to learn the neighborhood or its folklore. She slapped the map in front of him as he pushed his empty plate aside. “It’s all right here,” she finished, her tone short.

“Have you ever been to my father’s house?” Stephen asked, sounding impressed.

“Of course I have,” Rosemary snapped. “Everyone goes to his Fourth of July party. He has some of the best sunset views around, plus no animals, so we can light off fireworks from the yard.” She paused. “Well, we did. He did. Sorry.”

“It’s hard to remember to think of people in the past tense,” Stephen said.

“I know,” Rosemary sighed, thinking of her parents. Four years into this version of life, and she still stumbled on the tenses. “Sometimes it’s better to not even try.”

“Hey,” Stephen said suddenly, “do you live alone out here?”

It was as if this startling thought had just occurred to him.

“Almost alone,” Rosemary said. “I have eight horses and a cat.”

“All alone in the middle of nowhere.” He shook his head wonderingly.

“I have the Kelbaughs.”

He looked up sharply from the map. “You know the Kelbaughs?”

Rosemary was startled. “You know the Kelbaughs?”

He nodded, looking back down at the map as if he didn’t want to meet her eyes. “A little.”

“Well, they’re my next-door neighbors. And they’re not that far away.” She paused. He was still bent over her little map as if it was a vast parchment filled with wonders. She wanted his attention again. “Do you want to see their place from here?”

Eyebrows raised, but evidently up for a little bit of mystery, Stephen looked up again. “Lead the way.”

Rosemary led Stephen down the hall, then climbed up the creaking stairs, listening to the wood groan as Stephen clumped up behind her. She turned right in the upstairs hall and hesitated just a moment at her bedroom door, then pushed inside. She turned off the light on the way in.

Stephen paused in the hallway behind her. “You want me to come into your dark bedroom? What are you going to do to me? Rosemary, if you’re going to murder me you have to tell me. That’s the law.”

“I’m pretty sure it isn’t,” she laughed. “But I just want to show you the view out my window.” She went over to the tall, narrow window with its warped glass, shivering a little as a gust of wind hit the house and slid beneath the leaky sill.

“Your view, in the dark?” Stephen sounded mystified, but to his credit, he came and stood beside her.

Through the dark, bare branches of the trees along Catoctin Creek and Notch Gap Run, past the open field where she knew Long Pond sat invisible beneath the moonless sky, a little golden light glimmered like a tiny star fallen to earth. Just the sight of it made Rosemary feel grounded and safe. She put her fingers to the glass.

Stephen stood beside her, a solid and warm presence she knew she’d miss as soon as he left. Not just tonight, but forever, she thought, then mentally chastised herself for being so dramatic. 

“What is that light?” he asked softly.

“It’s Aileen Kelbaugh’s kitchen night-light,” she explained. “And it’s been lit every night for as long as I can remember. It’s only been out when there’s been power outages…and then she tries to light a candle for me.”

Image by Richard Revel from Pixabay

There was a moment of silence while he took it in. She waited, watching the light with a dreamy pleasure.

“How did you end up here alone?” Stephen’s voice was wondering. “You’re not a ghost, are you?”

“Take your pick, I guess…I’m a ghost or I’m a murderer.”

“I choose ghost, but please don’t ask me to avenge anyone. I’m a lover, not a fighter.” He chuckled softly, and bumped against her.

Rosemary let herself lean into him ever so slightly, her heart racing, her skin tingling. Too bad they were both wearing thick layers of flannel and wool, because she got only the slightest impression of what his chest felt like beneath all those winter clothes—but it was enough to spark her interest. “What if I haunt your dreams?” she asked him, and immediately wondered if she’d ever said anything so flirtatious in her life…and if she would ever manage to follow it up.

“I think you will for sure,” Stephen whispered, pressing his lips close to her ear, and Rosemary felt herself melt against him.

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