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His Last Duchess
About the Author: Vancouver writer Merrilee Robson’s short stories have appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, the People’s Friend, and many other magazines and anthologies. Her traditional mystery, Murder is Uncooperative, is set in a non-profit housing co-op in Vancouver, BC. Merrilee is vice president of Sisters in Crime – Canada West and a former director of Crime Writers of Canada.

“Are you sure he doesn’t have a mad wife in the attic?” my sister asks when she first sees the house. She walks around the living room, taking in the view of the flat, grey ocean, glancing at the blank space above the gas fireplace. “At least there’s no portrait of the first Mrs. de Winter.”

“Mary, this isn’t a novel.” I smile, as if I think she is joking. Zach’s been divorced for over five years. And the housekeeper’s name is Teresa, not Mrs. Danvers, so I think I’m safe.”

Her brow is wrinkled with worry. “But he’s so much older than you. Are you sure about this? It all happened so fast. You hardly know him.”

Zach is fifteen years older than me. That’s no big deal.

I smile at my sister. “Yes, it was a whirlwind romance. Now come see the rest of the house.”

“Sure,” she says. “I need to check the attic.”

Despite Mary’s snide remarks, the house is nothing like the mansions in gothic romances. They are set in the remote countryside, dark and chilly buildings with miserable servants. Stuffed with worn furniture passed down through generations. And draped in cobwebs.

This house is in a city. Our neighbors aren’t too close but I know they are there.

The rooms are open, airy. On the main floor, they flow from one to another, with few walls to break them up.

Every space is filled with light. The property is on a point of land jutting into the sea. Most of the windows reach from floor to ceiling, showing off the ocean view on three sides. The white walls and trim reflect the sun pouring through uncovered windows. The furniture is white too, with accents of palest silver and a bluish grey that mimics the color of the Northern Sea outside.

Not a cobweb in sight.

There’s the sound of a car. I run to meet Zach as he opens the door.

And there it is again—the feeling I had when I first laid eyes on him at that cocktail party only three months ago. The feeling I get every time I look at him.

He is tall, and I know his tailored suit covers a lithe body with broad swimmer’s shoulders. His wheat-colored hair looks too long but, when he runs a hand through it, the strands fall back into place as if he’s just had it cut. His smile is perfect, a glimpse of white, straight teeth. His nose is a straight line between dark eyes with perfectly arched brows.

At the party he looked at me as if I was the only person in the room, as if we were alone. Everyone else turned to shadows. The smells of perfume and cocktails faded. I heard nothing but the sound of my own breath.

And when he smiled, I was his.

He’s not smiling now.

“Ah, you have a visitor. How nice.” His voice says otherwise.

“My sister,” I tell him, taking his arm. “Come and meet Mary.”

He stills for a minute and I think he is going to pull his arm from mine. But I must be mistaken because he moves forward, his other arm outstretched for a handshake. The warm smile on his face is the one I saw at that first meeting.

“Welcome to our home,” Zach says. “It’s nice to meet you.”

“Sorry I couldn’t be at the wedding.” Mary is not smiling as she looks Zach up and down. “I gather it was very small.”

Our wedding was small. Just the two of us, standing on the beach near the wilderness lodge where we were spending the weekend. Zach had surprised me, going down on one knee on the lonely beach and presenting me with a ring beyond my wildest dreams.

Then he astonished me further with a wedding, all arranged—a white dress laid out on the bed in our room beside a bouquet of white roses, a marriage commissioner waiting for us on the beach, a photographer and a violinist who doubled as witnesses.

“It would have been awkward if you’d said no,” Mary said when I called her with the news. “And didn’t you want to pick your own wedding dress?”

“It’s so beautiful. I would never have been able to afford one like that. And of course I said yes. I love Zach.”

I smiled, remembering how he had looked, with the wind on the beach tossing his hair, the sun brightening its color to gold.

“It was the most romantic day of my life.”

This story appears in our NOV 2022 Issue
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