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The Girl Who Wrote In Silk


Sunday, February 7, 1886 — just past sunset
Puget Sound, Washington Territory

Liu Mei Lien felt the steamship shudder beneath her feet and wondered if the quaking of her own body had caused it.

“You don’t have a choice,” Father hissed. Before she knew what was happening he’d prodded her to the ship’s cold metal railing. “Climb up, Mei Lien.”

She looked at him in horror. Obeying him was something she always did without question. But this? “I can’t.” She pressed a hand to where her heart pounded in her chest and felt the coin purse under her bindings. “Please!”

His face hardened. “Do not disappoint me, Daughter. Do it. Now!”

His tone made her fear recede long enough for her to hear her own voice of reason. It told her Father was right. She had no other choice.

Shaking, she climbed up on the railing to sit at the top, her hands holding tight to the wet metal bar. Beneath her right palm she felt a pockmark where someone had painted over an old chip. She wondered if that was the last thing she’d touch before death.

Before Mei Lien could say another word, Father placed his palms at the small of her back and pushed her off the steamship.

“Bà ba!” she screamed, the words echoing all the way down. Then she felt her breath leave her as she hit the freezing cold water. Icy fingers dragged her down, into the void below.

Somehow she found the strength to fight. Kicking and clawing at the water, she dragged herself upward, her lungs on fire.

As her head broke through the surface she dragged in lungsful of air between wracking coughs. When she managed to wipe the water away from her eyes with her fingers she saw the ship passing dangerously close. Father stood at the railing but his back was to her, as if he hadn’t just cruelly pushed his only child to what could be her death.

A wave splashed over her face and she felt herself sinking down again. This time her limbs felt stiff and her muscles were starting to cramp in the near-freezing water. Instinct took over, making her feet kick as she dragged her body away from the ship with her arms, as Father had taught her all those years ago. She shut off her mind and swam, with no idea of what she might be heading toward.

Mei Lien’s head pounded from the cold. With each kick her limbs ached to rest, to give in to the pull from below that promised ease and warmth.

She looked one last time toward the ship but it was little more than a distant blur of light growing smaller.

Her family was gone from her. Her life was gone from her. If she gave into the pull of the water, what would it matter?

She stopped trying to fight and let herself fall into the water’s frigid grasp, willing it to carry her to the spirit world. She even saw death coming. It rose out of the water as a huge black sea monster, one glaring yellow eye boring into her aching head. Just as the monster grabbed her, she felt the void take over her mind.

She welcomed it.


Sunday, May 27th – present day
San Juan Islands, Washington

Inara Erickson stood at the ferry’s side rail with her sister and watched as the wake from their ship splashed against Decatur Island as they passed. A blast of cold air wrapped around her, filling her nose with hints of sunbaked cedar, damp moss and tangy salt. Immediately her mind took her ahead in her journey, to the family estate and all she’d left behind there years before.

She wasn’t ready to face the memories yet so she pushed them away and, in an attempt to ignore the shaky, melting feeling in her core, turned her attention to her older sister Olivia. “Liv, are you warm enough? We can go inside if you want. Get a cup of coffee.”

Olivia tucked a strand of long blond hair that had escaped her bun behind her ear and lifted her face to the unseasonable sun shining down on them. “God, no, this is heaven.” Despite her words, she pulled her jacket tighter around her and hunched her shoulders against the cold air biting off the water.

“Thanks for coming with me today. You sure Adam’s okay with the kids?”

Olivia opened her eyes and shot Inara a glance that told her she wasn’t worrying about her family today. “They’re fine. I’m happy you asked me to come with you. I can’t believe it’s been nine years since we’ve been there.”

Inara nodded and watched as a pod of porpoise raced alongside the ferry, their black bodies arching in and out of the sun-splashed waves. “I should have come to see Aunt Dahlia before she died, but…” she shrugged, at a loss for the right words, “I don’t know. It was too hard, I guess.”

At that, Olivia put her arm around Inara’s shoulders and squeezed. “Me was easier to move forward.”

Inara swallowed and would have said more but just then a rowdy group of kids burst out of the ferry’s side door. One of them, a boy about ten years old, pointed to the porpoise and exclaimed, “Look! A killer whale!”

Inara grinned with her sister. As kids, when they’d come up to Orcas Island every summer, they would feel so superior with their knowledge of the islands’ flora and fauna. They’d laugh at all the tourists, like these kids, who expected to see Orca whales along the ferry route. The locals knew that the whales tended to stay on the outside of San Juan Island, in Haro Strait.

“Those sure are small whales.” A shorter, female version of the boy put her fists on her hips. “Are you sure that’s a killer whale?”

Her brother scoffed as only brothers can do, “I’m not stupid.”

Just then Olivia nudged her elbow and pointed to a channel marker where a fat harbor seal rested on the rusting metal.

It was like time had not passed here at all, Inara realized. Just as the ferry slipped between islands, she was slipping today into the life she’d left behind and it felt surprisingly comfortable. The only difference was that today she counted her sister as a friend whereas, years ago, they couldn’t quite bridge the eight-year age gap between them.

Inara felt her cell phone buzz in her jacket pocket and pulled it out to answer the call, thankful the kids were moving to the front of the boat, leaving the side deck quiet. “It’s Nate,” she told Olivia before putting the phone to her ear. “Hey, big brother, guess where Liv and I are right now.”


“No, closer.” She had to shout over the noise of the ferry’s engines.


“No. We’re on the ferry to Orcas.”

Silence. Then Nate cleared his throat. “You okay?”

“Yeah,” she answered even though she wasn’t sure it was true. Leave it to Nate to understand how hard it was for her to come back here for the first time. “Olivia is keeping me distracted.”

“Good. Hey, I’ve got a question for both of you. I’m here with Dad and we’re nailing down a date for our dedication of the Duncan Campbell Memorial Park. Since the mayor will be out of town the week before, we’re thinking October sixth. Does that work for you?”

Duncan Campbell was their great-great-great-grandfather on their mom’s side of the family, and the man who had single-handedly launched the maritime trade industry in Seattle. He’d emigrated from Scotland in the late 1800s to what had been little more than a muddy logging town and built an international shipping company from practically nothing. Because of him, Seattle was now known as a major port for trade. If not for Duncan Campbell, Seattle might never have been put on the map and Seattleites knew it, having named buildings after him and devoting a whole section to him at the Museum of History and Industry. With his success, Duncan built the island family estate, Rothesay, named after his hometown in Scotland, which Inara had just inherited and was traveling to now to inspect.

“Is this when Duncan’s statue will be revealed?” she asked, referring to the bronze sculpture her dad had commissioned a year ago for prominent placement in the new waterfront public park the company was building near the cruise terminal. Inara’s dad now ran the company Duncan founded, Premiere Maritime Group, or PMG as it was known, after taking over from his wife’s father over a decade ago. He was having great success of his own since expanding to include a cruise line serving Alaska, Mexico and the Caribbean.

“Yes. So, the sixth?”

“Hang on.” She pulled her phone away from her ear to pull up her schedule and fill in Olivia on the plans. Olivia nodded. “We’re both good with the sixth,” she told her brother.

A loud beep sounded over the ferry speakers, followed by an announcement that passengers disembarking on Orcas Island should return to their vehicles.

“I gotta go,” she said now, turning with Olivia toward the door that led inside.

“Wait, Dad wants to know if you want him to call his real estate agent and get the paperwork going.”

Inara smiled to herself. “Tell him I’ve got it handled, but thanks.” Her dad made no secret of his relief that she was selling the estate that none of them wanted.

Nate was still talking. “Good luck today. Let me know how it goes.”

“I will.” She hung up and they made their way down the green metal stairs to the car deck and the old BMW she’d owned since graduating from high school. Through the windshield she watched Orcas Island draw nearer, each second making her heart beat faster. Sweat pooled between her breasts.

At 57 total square miles and a year-round population of 5,000, Orcas was the largest of the islands in the San Juan archipelago in the northwest corner of Washington State. The ferry dock at Orcas Village was at the bottom of the left arm of the horseshoe-shaped island, which meant she’d have to drive up through the bend, where the town of Eastsound was located, and then a quarter of the distance down the right arm to get to Rothesay. On that drive she’d pass the accident site.

This was a mistake. She should have arranged for someone else to come up and inspect the property and box up her Aunt Dahlia’s ninety-seven years worth of personal possessions. With one phone call Inara could have had a real estate agent on the job and she’d be home in Seattle, at peace today. She had enough going on, what with her new job starting in a couple of weeks.

Olivia must have seen her panic. “Inara, it’s okay. I’m here and we’ll face this together. Don’t be scared.”

Inara felt like a kid on Olivia’s exam table about to get a vaccination, but she had to admit that the soothing voice did help. She looked at her sister. “Aren’t you freaked out at all? You haven’t been back, either.”

Olivia nodded. “A little.” She looked out the front window as the brake lights on the car in front of them came on, indicating it was time to turn their own car on and drive off the ferry. “Tell me about your job. I bet you’re excited, huh?”

Inara went along with her sister’s ploy to distract her as she carefully maneuvered off the ferry and onto the island. “Yeah, I guess. I’ll be in charge of global supply chain operations. Did I tell you they’ll be sending me to Italy within the first three months?” She’d just finished her MBA in International Business and had been offered a job at Starbucks’ corporate headquarters.

“So why do you only ‘guess’ you’re excited?”

Of course her sister caught her slip. She shot Olivia a look of frustration, then gave in and admitted, “I know it’s a great opportunity, and Dad is so proud of me for getting it and all…” She struggled to find the right words. “I’m just not sure it’s the right job for me.”

“So do it for a few years, then find something else. Dad will understand.”

“Yeah,” Inara agreed, not so sure. As they continued chatting about the job, Inara found herself distracted by memories.

Orcas Road looked exactly as it always had, with sunshine spearing through the trees, leaving dappled shadows flickering on her windshield. Through the forest she spied occasional glimpses of beach shacks tucked beside million-dollar mansions. Dirt driveways were often the only indicator there was a dwelling behind the trees at all. She rolled down the window and drew in the scent that her mind had forgotten but her soul had held onto – sun-warmed dirt, blooming blackberry bushes, briny saltwater. As she breathed it in she felt something inside of her shift, like a puzzle piece sliding into its niche.

She was still breathing deeply when she crested the rise and came upon the corner where their mom had been killed. The moment she saw it every bit of air in her lungs was sucked out, leaving her gasping.

“Just keep going,” Olivia murmured. “You’re okay.”

Inara had been fifteen when their mother died in a car accident on this corner. The police said there must have been something on the road, like a deer or raccoon, and that her mom had swerved to avoid it and lost control. But Inara knew her mom was a hyper-vigilant driver who would never have lost control of her car if she hadn’t already been upset and distracted from the argument she and Inara had just had.

Olivia didn’t understand. Not fully. She’d been twenty-three and already married and doing her residency when it happened. She hadn’t been at Rothesay when the local sheriff pulled in with lights flashing and a rain-soaked hat held to his chest in sympathy.

Inara slowed down, way below the 40 mph speed limit, and focused on breathing while trying to avoid looking at anything but the pavement in front of her.

But then her gaze darted to the side of the road.

No sign of trauma remained on the huge cedar. Blackberry vines and wildflowers grew abundant and pristine, as though nothing bad had ever happened here. As though a car hadn’t slammed into the tree, flinging her mother’s mangled body against the rough bark.

Someone behind her honked and she realized she’d come to a complete stop in the middle of the road. Flustered, she lifted her hand in a wave of apology and carefully navigated around the corner, picking up speed. A black SUV tore around her and sped away. Her fingers cramped on the steering wheel.

“Maybe you should pull over.”

Without answering, Inara did as her sister suggested, easing to a stop at the next gravel pullout. Then she closed her eyes and rested her forehead on the steering wheel. After that horrible day she’d gone back to Seattle with her dad and tried to be a normal teenager, but everything had changed. Normal teenagers didn’t cause their mother’s deaths.

Nate, too, had been off at college and it was just Inara and her dad at home, two ships with broken propellers drifting on the currents of life, unable to find their way to shore. So she’d lashed herself to her dad and his dreams for her. After high school she’d plunged into pursuing a business degree to make him happy even though she would have rather done something else, like anthropology or history.

“I know it’s hard, but you’ve made it this far.” Olivia was rubbing her back and speaking softly, like she did to her three-year-old daughter after a meltdown. “Want me to drive?”

It helped, Inara realized. Her sister’s voice gave her something to grab onto to pull herself from the abyss she might have sunk into if she’d been here alone. She took one more deep breath then lifted her gaze out the windshield, relieved to find the road no longer seemed impassable. She could keep going. She’d come this far, as Liv had said, and she would continue, not because she had inherited a house she had to deal with, but because it was time to face her past and move forward. “I’m okay now.”

She guided her car back onto the road and glanced one last time at the corner in her rearview mirror before resolutely focusing forward.

Forward was Rothesay. And forward was making all the necessary decisions about the crumbling estate that Dahlia had left to her less than a month ago. Inara had been so surprised at the reading of the will two weeks ago, and yet, it kind of made sense. Although Dahlia was really her mom’s great-aunt, it felt as if they were more closely related. Of the three siblings in their generation, Inara had been the one who’d loved the island the most, and the one who’d spent every waking moment with Dahlia. But she’d been surprised by the next part of the will, Dahlia’s expressed wishes that the estate be converted to a bed and breakfast so that Rothesay would once again be filled with joy and life.

Really? A bed and breakfast? Of course Inara wanted to give Dahlia her final wish, but Inara had her own career to launch now that she finally had her master’s degree. She was sure Dahlia would understand that she needed the proceeds from the sale of the property to pay off student loans much more than she needed to run a bed and breakfast to satisfy someone else’s dream. The first payment on those loans was due this September. Only a few months away.

Too bad she couldn’t keep the estate to use as a vacation home like her family had done during her childhood. Dahlia had lived there year round with her partner, Nancy, and had offered full use of the manor and grounds to the entire family, just as her parents and grandparents had done before her. It was where they’d all gathered for holidays and where Inara and her siblings had spent every summer while their parents worked in Seattle. Her mom had always taken the month of July off to spend with them on the island, and most weekends, too. When she arrived every Friday night, they’d all gather on the beach around a bonfire.

Keeping Rothesay as a family vacation home made sense, but a bed and breakfast? Crazy.

Inara and Olivia had taken the early ferry, so it was not yet nine when they reached the twin stone pillars marking the entry to Rothesay. Inara turned onto the curving forest-lined driveway, both sisters straining for their first glimpse of the manor. When she saw it, Inara gasped.

Everything looked desolate. Neglected. She’d wanted to feel her mom and Aunt Dahlia here, but the property felt lifeless. Her throat closed up and she felt cold, despite the morning sunshine flooding the grounds. She parked in front of what had once been a showpiece fountain but was now dry and black with mold. “It got to be too much for Dahlia to keep up, I guess.”

“Yeah,” Olivia agreed as she climbed from the car. “We should have come and helped her instead of believing her phone calls that she was doing fine.”

It wasn’t until Inara was an adult that she realized that Dahlia and Nancy were a couple. It wasn’t something the family discussed, but it was certainly the reason Dahlia’s father had hidden her away on the island, safe from tongue-wagging society in 1930s Seattle. But then, Dahlia had loved the island and wanted to be here as badly as her father had wanted her hidden.

Inara got out and went around the car to stand next to Olivia and take in the view of the home they’d taken for granted all their lives. The sound of songbirds in the surrounding forest slowly soothed the ache inside and she was finally able to see through the disappointment clouding her vision. She was surprised to see fresh grass clippings scattered along the edge of the asphalt driveway.

No one should have been here in the month since Dahlia died. Who could possibly have mowed the grass?

“Let’s go inside.” Olivia started toward the double front doors.

Inara hesitated a minute more as she studied the main house again. This time she felt a familiar thrill skitter through her body. If she squinted she could look past the peeling paint and sagging porch and see the heart of the place, the magic and promise of adventure.

A spurt of adrenaline kicked her feet into gear and she followed her sister toward the manor. She was a little kid again arriving for summer vacation and eager to do everything at once, but she made herself approach slowly so she could take it all in.

The colonial revival-style main house stood a stately three stories tall, complete with white pillars along the wide front porch and curving steps welcoming visitors inside. From each of the front corners curved two-story galleries connecting the main house to the matching smaller buildings facing one another. The entire structure formed a wide U with the driveway and fountain in the middle.

On her left was the garage and above it, the billiards and smoking room. On the right was Dahlia’s house, the original house built on this property. Duncan Campbell had updated it to seamlessly blend with the rest of the manor when it was built, including adding pillars to the tiny front porch. Dahlia should still be sitting on that porch right now, with her steaming mug of tea.

Pain pierced Inara’s heart. She should have realized long ago how important Aunt Dahlia was to her. She should have figured out a way to spend time with her no matter how difficult it was to be on the island. It had been Dahlia who took care of her and her siblings every summer. It was Dahlia who’d held her all that terrible night after her mom died.

But long before then, Dahlia had been like a special treasure, more important to Inara than any of her grandparents. Dahlia had let her tag along as she weeded the garden or gathered berries in the forest. She built bed sheet forts for her on rainy days, wove wildflower tiaras on sunny ones, and baked cookies and cakes most days in between and flipped a coin to see which of them got to lick the beaters. She was sure Dahlia had cheated to keep the chocolate ones for herself.

Had Dahlia known how much Inara loved her? Inara had left the island after the accident and never came back. Damn, she hadn’t even come last spring when Nancy died — she’d told herself that Dahlia would understand it was too hard for her to come.

And yet, now here she was.

When Dahlia passed away last month, Inara’s dad had her body taken to Seattle where they’d had a service and burial in the family plot. But being here again at Rothesay, feeling the magic of the islands come over her, Inara wondered if they’d made a mistake.

They should have buried her here on the island she’d loved, in the public cemetery next to the woman she’d happily grown old with, or somewhere on Rothesay property.

Inara took a deep breath and turned, raising her gaze to the towering, evergreen-covered mountain behind her, trying to shake the pressure in her chest by thinking of something other than Dahlia. From where she stood the trees blocked her view of the neighbor’s property across the road, making her feel like nothing separated her from the steep slope of Mount Constitution that seemed to rise from the water of East Sound behind her.

One of these days she’d drive up to the observation tower on top of the mountain like they used to do as kids. But today she found she preferred the feeling of being cradled at its base, safe from everything and everyone else. Like it was just her, the mountain, the water and the forest; where things like student loans and new jobs didn’t exist.

Again she felt that stirring in her belly. The stirring of Orcas magic. Today, even with memories of all that was lost clouding her heart, she felt it.

The longer she was here, the more she felt like a snake shedding its skin; like something tight and constricting was falling off her. For nine years she’d focused on her studies and her goals for the future, and now that her future was upon her, she wanted only to sink into the comfort of the past. Of this island. This place that felt more like home to her than her father’s house in Seattle.

What would the estate be like as a bed and breakfast?

She shook her head and joined Olivia at the double front door, where she pulled the key out of her purse and fit it into the lock. It took some jiggling, but finally the tumblers fell into place and the lock clicked.

With a gentle shove, the door swung open and together they stepped onto the stained oak entry landing between the first and second floors. Even in the dim light coming from the open door behind them and the fanlight above it, she could see down the steps to the great hall that ran to the curtained back doors. Despite the dust covering everything, the scars and scratches in the wood showed through, evidence that the stairs and floors would need refinishing.

“Race you for the corner bedroom?” Olivia teased, without moving toward the steps.

Inara laughed and felt for the panel of light switches next to the door and turned each one on. As the lights along the upper balconies came on she lifted her gaze to the row of bedroom doors on the right side. “It’s all yours. I’m sleeping in Dahlia’s house tonight.”

Making quick time, she and Olivia swept through the main hall, pulling back drapes, opening French doors to let in air and sun, and whipping dustcovers off furniture to reveal antiques they’d never appreciated as kids.

“Now this is Rothesay,” Olivia said with her hands on her hips as they surveyed the long hall, its floor covered by two piles of dusty sheets.

“Much better,” Inara agreed, but then her gaze flicked upward. “Except for one thing.” She sprinted up the stairs and continued down the long balcony until she came to the back of the house and the open sitting area where the ladies of the house would take afternoon tea and while away the hours knitting and gossiping. She tugged open the drapes covering these windows, and then felt her breath catch.

The view was unbelievable. From the back terrace stretched a wide green lawn – freshly mowed like the front, by some mystery caretaker – followed by a strip of native forest growth separating the lawn from rocks that dropped sharply into the sound. The water sparkled between the firs, cedars, and madronas, and it pulled at her, made her want to forget her inspection and go sit on the black rocks on the beach where the water, ripe with kelp, would lap just out of reach. There, every sense would be filled to the brim and, for once, she’d be alive.

Where had that thought come from? She hadn’t been dead these past years, just busy getting an education, making something of herself.

Shaking her head, she turned away from the windows, promising herself time at the water before they caught the ferry home tomorrow.

Ignoring the dustcovers on the sitting room furniture, Inara crossed to the balcony railing and looked down on the great hall. Olivia had disappeared but several of the doors off the main hall were open, leading her to assume her sister was investigating the first floor.

She could almost hear her family’s laughter echoing through the house, hear her mom’s voice calling her to grab her purse, they were going to kayak to Eastsound for lunch. Olivia’s teenaged voice protesting, Nate’s begging for one more minute on the phone with his girlfriend.

Within a few months Inara would hand over the estate keys to its new owner and then she’d walk away forever. Immediately on the heels of that thought came a sense of panic that surprised her. Why did she care? She’d done just fine without this place for a long time now.

But she’d always known it was here, waiting for her. She wanted the kids she’d have someday to know the joy of summers at Rothesay. Her siblings’ kids had been missing out, but they were young and had plenty of summers left to spend here. If she sold the property, she’d be depriving the next generation of its birthright.

But she had to sell. She had no choice. She had to be a responsible adult and unload this place on someone who would put it to good use. Besides, she’d be busy with her new job. She didn’t have time to maintain a property she’d hardly ever get to see.

Inara headed back down the stairs to find her sister and get to work inspecting the manor and listing everything that was needed to fix it up before putting it on the market.

Three hours later she unlocked the door leading into Dahlia’s kitchen. “You should bring the kids up here before it sells,” she told her sister as they stepped inside, but then stopped short, her train of thought interrupted. The room settled around her, flashing her to the past while simultaneously stabbing her heart with Dahlia’s absence. “Oh, my…”

“It’s like Dahlia and Nancy just stepped out a moment ago,” Olivia whispered.

Seattle Times newspapers overflowed from a wicker basket on the Formica countertop and a stack of dog-eared novels graced the kitchen table. Next to the sink sat a fat, white tea mug with a lip-shaped pink stain on the rim. Dahlia’s pink. The one in the gold tube she always had with her. The same pink that matched the streak of pink she’d colored into her hair the summer Inara had turned twelve. In all the years since, Inara still hadn’t met another 80-year-old with the spirit to match her hair to her lipstick. The sight made Inara’s eyes sting and she had to turn away.

The stairs to the second floor started here in the kitchen. A pair of fuzzy yellow slippers waited on the bottom step for their owner, holding down a corner of the worn carpet runner that had once been tacked onto the steps but was now curling up from the bottom.

Family lore told of how Duncan Campbell had purchased the property before the turn of the twentieth century and lived in this part of the house, which the previous owner had built, while adding on the rest of the manor where he eventually entertained guests with grand parties.

Other family tales, shared only in private, never in public, told of the oddballs in the family. Like Duncan’s wife. She’d lived here year-round even though her husband spent much of his time in Seattle running the shipping company. This woman – Gretna, if Inara remembered correctly – had been diagnosed with a nervous constitution and so lived her days in the peace of the island, disturbed only by her husband’s many parties.

Each generation brought another oddball including Inara’s favorite, Dahlia. Being a fiercely independent young woman uninterested in finding a husband or obtaining an education, she’d jumped at the chance to move to the island in her early twenties to become the estate’s caretaker. After that, as far as Inara knew, Dahlia had rarely left the island.

Standing in Dahlia’s house now, away from her father’s expectations and realizing this was the only place where she’d ever felt encouraged to be herself, Inara had the somewhat uncomfortable realization that with Dahlia gone, she was the next one. The next family oddball.

How else could Inara explain the totally crazy thought that had been niggling at her mind since she’d stepped out of her car? She kind of wanted to stay here. She wanted to turn her back on a job most people would kill for and spend her every day dabbling with paint and plaster and everything else she and Olivia had just listed that was required to put the estate back together.

A laugh escaped her before she even felt it coming, surprising her by echoing through the room.

Olivia stuck her head in from the adjoining living room. “What’s so funny?”

Inara laughed again as she reached for a pink and purple shawl Dahlia had left hanging by the back door and wrapped it around herself. “How do I look? Like a woman who could run a bed and breakfast?”

A bark of shocked laughter burst out of her sister, sending them both into a fit of giggles. “You’re not serious.”

Inara tilted her head to the side and considered. “What if I am? Dahlia left me that binder with all the plans and projections. Blueprints even. I think the hardest part would be telling Dad I was turning Starbucks down.”

Nodding in agreement, Olivia came fully into the room. “But, how would you pay for renovations? I know I wasn’t the only one noting all the work that needs doing in the manor just to make it livable. And don’t you still owe on your student loans?”

She considered. “Maybe I could take the job for a few years and work on the estate on weekends and holidays.” God, that sounded exhausting.

Olivia nodded, but her expression clearly showed she wasn’t convinced. Then, like the level-headed big sister she was, she simply shrugged. “Well, you don’t have to decide right this minute. Let’s check out the rest of the house.”

Agreeing, Inara turned to the CD player on the counter and hit the play button. Neither of them expected the screaming guitars of classic Aerosmith to fill the house, which made them stare at each other in shock before dissolving into laughter so deep Inara’s stomach was aching by the time they recovered enough to get to work. With a swipe at a tear, she pulled the notebook she’d been using to list repairs out of her back pocket and shook her head. Aerosmith. Man, she missed Dahlia.

Notepads in hand and dancing to the music, they took stock of the little house and met back in the kitchen an hour later, both starving.

“I guess we should drive into town for lunch,” Olivia muttered as she stared into the empty refrigerator. “Some neighbor must have cleaned this out after she died.”

Inara stuck her head into the pantry. Peanuts, packets of oatmeal, olive oil, balsamic vinegar. “How does saltine crackers and tea sound?”

“Good enough for now,” Liv answered, reaching for the teapot and filling it at the sink.

With their feet up on chairs, they sat at the round kitchen table and dug into the crackers.

“I could live here and hire crews to get the manor in shape,” Inara mused.

Olivia narrowed her eyes. “You’re really considering this, aren’t you? What about Starbucks?”

She’d be crazy to turn Starbucks down. The job was exactly what she’d been working so hard for in school for over the last seven years.

But not once in all those years, and not even when she’d gotten the job offer, had Inara felt this alive and full of ideas of what might be. Not until she set foot on the estate again had she realized she’d been asleep all these years and only in coming here had she woken up. She didn’t want to go to sleep again. “I don’t think I’ve really thought about what I want for a long time,” she finally answered, unsure of what to say.

“But now you want to open a bed and breakfast?”

“No.” A bubbling feeling started in her gut and made her sit up straighter as a vision filled her mind. “Not a bed and breakfast. A boutique hotel. I could make this the vacation destination for the entire Pacific Northwest.”

Olivia was nodding and seemed to be considering. Then, over the music still coming from the CD player, they heard a distinctive ringtone coming from upstairs. Olivia jumped up. “Dang, I must have left my phone in Dahlia’s room.” She took off at a run up the stairs but didn’t make it past the first step when her toe caught on the curling carpet runner. She fell hard, her shins banging the edge of the next step. “Ow!”

Inara jumped up. “Oh my god, are you okay?”

Olivia twisted around so she was sitting on the stairs, her hands holding her injured shins and her eyes shooting daggers at her sister. “If you’re going to live here, you need to take care of that death trap.”

Inara had been hovering over her sister, inspecting her bruises, but now she fell still and met her sister’s gaze. “You think I should do it?” They both knew she wasn’t referring to fixing the carpet runner.

Olivia grabbed Inara’s hand and squeezed. “I think you should do whatever will make you happy. You never liked coffee much, anyway.” She paused, then cleared her throat as she released Inara’s hand and went back to rubbing her shin. “It won’t be so easy convincing Dad, though. I think he was thrilled to think we could all forget about this place for good.”

Inara nodded, instantly sobering. “I know.” She didn’t want to think about that right now. She scowled at the curling carpet runner. “I really should do something about that.”

As Olivia continued upstairs to retrieve her phone, Inara grabbed hold of the curled-up corner and tugged with all her strength. With only one side still secured to the bottom step, it didn’t take much to free the carpet. The step beneath where the carpet had been was made of a golden hardwood, marred with what looked like years of scuffs and scratches.

She shifted her hold and gave another tug on the runner. The second tread gave her more trouble. She straddled the step with one foot braced on the bottom step and the other on the third and gave a hard yank on the carpet just as Olivia came back down the steps. The runner gave just enough to encourage her to keep trying.

“I’ll find a claw hammer.”

Not wanting to wait, Inara gathered her strength and pulled again. This time the carpet jerked loose with a popping sound. When she looked down she saw it wasn’t only the runner that had come free. In her hands she held the entire stair tread, still connected to the carpet. Where the second step should be was nothing but a dark hole.

“Should’ve waited.” Olivia turned back to the cabinet and her hunt for a hammer.

Sighing, Inara started to replace the tread, intending to leave the runner for someone else to deal with, when something in the hole caught her eye. “There’s something in there.”

“Probably a mouse nest.”

Inara shivered at the thought. “Forget the hammer. I need a flashlight. And rubber gloves.” No way was she going to stick her bare hands into a mouse hole. Olivia returned a moment later with both, which she silently handed to Inara with a ‘you’re crazy’ look toward the hole.

Inara slipped on the gloves, then braced her knees on the bottom step and pointed the flashlight into the hole.

Under a coating of dirt and cobwebs and, yes, mouse droppings – yuck – lay a bundle of some sort. Definitely man made. Not rodent.

But the mouse responsible for the droppings could still be there.

Afraid to reach in, yet unable to walk away from the hidden bundle without knowing what it was, Inara held her breath and slowly reached inside the hole with a gloved hand.

The bundle felt soft. And surprisingly lightweight.

“What is it?” She could feel Olivia breathing on the back of her head.

“Watch out.” Quickly she grabbed the bundle and pulled it from its hiding place. Then, still thinking of mice, she held it away from her body and turned toward the table as Olivia dropped the stair tread back into place with a bang.

With her free hand she grabbed a stack of newspapers from the basket on the counter and spread them over the kitchen table before setting the filthy bundle on top.

Whatever was inside had been wrapped in a cloth and tied with brown twine. The whole thing was square-shaped and no bigger than a cantaloupe. She reached for the twine and tugged. It slipped out of her gloved fingers without budging loose from its knot.

“Here.” Olivia handed her a carving knife from the block on the counter.

Soon she had the twine cut off and the stained oilcloth unwrapped.

Inside was yellowed blue-checkered fabric. Surely this wasn’t all there was. “Who would tie up and hide an old piece of fabric?”

“Maybe it’s wrapped around something more valuable, like a jeweled necklace,” Olivia moved to stand so close to Inara she could smell her coconut body lotion.

“Or maybe it’s a purse full of gold, or a diary full of juicy secrets.” She met her sister’s excited gaze and knew they were both thinking of the treasure hunts Aunt Dahlia dreamed up for them as kids.

“Open it,” Liv urged.

Inara reached out to do just that, but then stopped when she saw the dirty gloves still on her hands. “Hold it for now, but wait. Don’t open it.”

Olivia reverently took the gingham cloth bundle out of the dirty oilcloth. Hurrying, Inara balled up the oilcloth and newspapers and threw it all in the garbage can under the sink, including the gloves. Then she washed her hands and rushed back to the table where her sister relinquished their treasure to her.

Carefully, Inara pulled the cotton back, unfolding each crease until it was spread open on the table. “It’s a man’s work shirt.”

“Where would Dahlia have gotten a man’s work shirt?”

Then they saw what the shirt had been protecting.

It wasn’t gold, jewels, or secrets, but Inara had no doubt this was a true treasure. Folded into a square as big as one of her hands was a piece of blue silk embroidered with colorful threads in intricate patterns.

Slowly, being careful with the fragile fabric, she lifted it from the work shirt and unfolded it.

Once she had the silk completely unfolded, all she could do was stare in wonder. Olivia, too, seemed speechless.

It was a sleeve. Not a whole garment, but a single long sleeve with a funny-shaped cuff. The entire thing had been cut from whatever it had once been attached to. But, intriguingly, nearly every inch of the sleeve was intricately embroidered with richly colored threads, creating pictures as detailed as if they were paintings.

Inara knew nothing of textiles or sewing, but even she could tell this sleeve was not merely a piece of clothing, but a work of art.

“What do you think it is?” she asked her sister, not really expecting an answer. She squinted at it, holding it from different angles to try to make sense of what the pictures depicted and what kind of garment the sleeve could be from.

“Why would Dahlia hide an old sleeve under her stairs?” Olivia leaned closer to get a better look. Inara shifted so she wasn’t blocking the light and could see the pictures better.

The scene created in the stitches seemed to center around a large steamship floating on turbulent seas. People, or maybe they were sea creatures like mermaids, swam all around the ship.

Away from the steamer, further down the sleeve, she saw a male figure standing in a tiny boat holding up a yellow light.

“Maybe it wasn’t Dahlia who hid it, but someone before her,” she mused. “Duncan Campbell sailed to Asia often. Maybe it was his.”

It definitely had an Asian look to it. Like Japanese or Chinese paintings she’d seen in museums. She could even make out what looked to be characters from an Asian language woven into the scene.

“Maybe it’s valuable, especially if we can find the rest of the garment hidden here somewhere.”

“Valuable or not, why cut the sleeve off and hide it under the stairs? It doesn’t make sense.” Inara dropped onto a chair and stared at the sleeve. “And what am I supposed to do with it?”

Olivia sat on the chair next to her and tilted her head. “I guess it’s yours now, so you get to decide.”

Inara stared at the ship on the sleeve. As intriguing as it was, something about it told her she should just stash the sleeve back under the stairs and forget about it.