The small town of Stewart, Massachusetts not so proudly boasted two claims to fame. Its proximity to Salem and the Corwin Curse.
Derek Corwin was well acquainted with that damned curse, as his family had come to refer to the albatross one of their ancestors had saddled them with. All because William Corwin couldn’t keep it in his pants, what should have just been a scandal had turned into a centuries-long damnation.
So said town lore. So said history.
Every male Corwin since had suffered its wrath. Derek included.
A man with half a brain wouldn’t return to the scene of the curse, but Derek had figured when the chips were down—or in his case, the Dow Jones—he might as well head home. That had been six months ago.
“Dad!” His eleven-year-old daughter’s yell reminded him of why it was a good thing he’d come back.
After two long years of keeping his child from him, Derek’s ex-wife had just remarried and decided she wanted a summer alone in Paris with her new husband. She’d sent his daughter, Holly, to live with him here in Stewart, in the renovated barn directly behind the house that had been in Derek’s family for generations. All the girl had were males to guide her through this long, hot summer. Poor kid.
But Derek was happy to have her back, to get a second chance at being a father who was there instead of one focused on his career. He wanted to get to know his daughter. Unfortunately, he didn’t have a clue how to deal with her moods or her girlish tastes.
“What’s wrong?” he asked, pausing at the landing of the stairs that led to the loft, which held two small bedrooms, his and hers.
After two years of living alone in an apartment that was huge by New York City standards, Derek actually enjoyed being among family in the small barn he was slowly but surely making his own.
“The dog chewed up my flip-flops!” Holly yelled downstairs.
He closed his eyes and groaned. The damn dog. “He chewed what?”
She came into view at the top of the loft and rested her elbows on the ledge. “My flip-flops. You know, sandals? Thongs? Flip-flops?” she asked, exasperated.
He nodded, finally understanding the problem. “Sorry. We’ll pick up a new pair at the mall.”
“Yes!” She pumped her fist in the air and whirled away, disappearing from view.
He laughed, pleased he’d made her happy. Even if happy translated into him spending more money. He should be used to it.
His ex-wife didn’t shop down, as she’d reminded him over the years. The harder and the more hours he’d worked, the more money his ex had spent to compensate for his absence.
Although they’d been divorced for more than two years, he didn’t think she’d changed her habits. Certainly his monthly child support and alimony had guaranteed her the lifestyle she’d come to expect. At least it had, until he’d lost the bulk of his wealth in a huge investment gone bad and moved back home. He’d been about to petition the court to change the payments, since he now earned much less than he had in the past, when his ex let him know she was remarrying. That ended Derek’s obligation to pay alimony, leaving him with child support only. That he could definitely afford without issue.
He glanced upstairs. “How about we get ice cream while we’re at the mall?” he asked.
“I’m lactose intolerant!” came the reply.
He winced. Shouldn’t he remember that? He consoled himself with the fact that by the time the summer ended, he’d know everything there was to know about his daughter.
“We’ll get lunch instead!” he said.
“Okay! I’ll be down in a sec. I have to change.”
Another thing she’d learned from her mother…she was obsessed with fashion, even at her young age. He figured she’d be at least twenty minutes.
“I’m going to return Fred to your grandfather’s.” He patted his leg and whistled.
The basset hound came down the stairs slowly, sauntering toward him. Fred didn’t look any more guilty for chewing Holly’s sandals than he had after he’d peed in the shoes Derek had left at the foot of his bed this morning. Why should he? Fred pretty much did as he pleased, and nobody had said anything for the past ten years. If Holly didn’t love the dog so much, Derek would move Fred to his father’s place for good.
Derek snapped a leash onto Fred’s collar, neither of which the dog had owned before Derek had come back home. Holly joined him just as he walked out the front door.
“I told you I’d be down in a sec!”
“I thought you’d take longer. Sorry.”
“That’s okay.” They made their way over the grass that divided the yard. The barn was on the back acreage, the main house on the front. Suddenly, she said, “I’ll meet you at Grandpa’s!” She took off across the yard at a run.
He debated jogging over, too, but one look at Fred’s sad face and he changed his mind. “You’re going to make me fat, old man,” Derek said to the dog, slowing his pace a little more.
“Dad!” Holly shrieked, shattering the silence of the quiet morning. “Grandpa has a gun!”
“Good Lord,” Derek muttered, pulling Fred into a jog, whether he liked it or not. What was his ornery father up to now?
Holly ran back to him and he handed her the leash. “Stay here,” he instructed his daughter. Then he headed over to where his father stood fooling with the old, pump-action shotgun that had been in his family for generations.
“Put that away before you shoot yourself!”
Hank Corwin lowered the gun to his side, glanced at Derek and frowned. “It’s not loaded.”
Derek breathed a sigh of relief. At least his father wouldn’t blow a hole in his addled brain.
“Not yet, anyway.” Hank chuckled.
Derek scowled at the older man. “What are you doing with that thing?” As far as Derek knew, the twelve gauge had never been removed from the cabinet where it was displayed.
“I’m polishing the hardware so I can make a point down at the library tonight.” Hank ran a hand over the gleaming weapon, the pride in his movement unmistakable.
Derek glanced at his father. At fifty-seven years old, Hank was a handsome man, not that you’d know it by the company he kept—his brother and his long-eared dog, Fred. Appearance wasn’t important to him. He rarely cut or styled his dark hair and never worried about what he wore. Why should he, considering the ladies in town were all well versed on the curse and stayed clear of all the living, breathing Corwin men? Hank’s summer attire consisted of worn khakis, which he paired with a white T-shirt—for his job as an electrician and on days off.
His father’s generation of Corwin men had all discounted the curse and lived to regret it. Hank and his brother Thomas now lived together in the main house. Their third brother, Edward, was a loner, a recluse of sorts, mainly because Thomas had married the woman Edward loved. Derek had two male cousins with whom he was close, one per uncle, and Thomas also had two daughters, both happily married. The Corwin women had prospered. The men had floundered.
Growing up, Derek wasn’t sure he believed in curses, but after seeing his father’s and uncles’ lives shattered, Derek had lived his life very carefully. Not that it had helped him. Derek had even given up the woman he loved to protect them both from the curse. His life—and finances—had gone down the tube, anyway. He was finished taking chances.
“What’s happening at the library that’s got you packing heat?” Whatever it was, it couldn’t be good, Derek thought, eyeing the weapon.
“This.” Hank stalked over to the old wooden picnic table and picked up a flier. “Read it and weep. And not just because your high-school sweetheart’s returning.”
“Gabrielle’s back?” Derek asked, certain he’d misunderstood.
Hank inclined his head. “Yep. And I’m not going to let that girl stir up trouble by getting people talking about that damn curse again.”
That girl. Derek’s high-school love and the woman he’d pushed away rather than subject to the despair that inevitably followed any woman who allowed herself to love a Corwin man.
His father had liked Gabrielle. She’d come to dinners at their house and he’d had many meals at hers. Her parents had treated him like a member of the family while Hank had welcomed her into theirs. For a gruff coot even back then, Hank had been fond of Gabrielle.
Derek sighed. “You aren’t going to shoot Gabrielle just because you don’t like her choice in subject matter.”
Hank glanced at him, defiance in his stare. “I don’t like being talked about. It’s been quiet around town for a long while. I’d like to keep it that way.”
“Just because you don’t hear people talking about the curse doesn’t mean they aren’t still whispering behind our backs. It’s a fact of life.” Derek grabbed the flier and scanned the page.
Apparently, the Perkins-Stewart Public Library was hosting a lecture titled Curses: Irrational Psychological Suggestion, by onetime resident and bestselling author, Gabrielle Donovan.
Derek knew Gabrielle had written a number of books, debunking popular myths in print and then discussing those books on big-time talk shows. It was no coincidence that she’d chosen to study the occult and New Age, Derek thought. His past had defined both of their lives.
Although she hadn’t been back to visit, the town claimed her as their own local celebrity. The diner on Main Street had a signed photograph on the wall, although Derek had seen the signature and doubted its validity. He wouldn’t put it past Henry, the owner, to forge it instead of contacting Gabrielle and asking for one.
Even Derek’s father was one of her fans—Derek had seen her books on Hank’s shelves. In reality, Derek wasn’t worried that his father would shoot her. But that didn’t mean he couldn’t cause trouble in other ways….
Derek placed the flier down on the picnic table and looked Hank in the eye. “You aren’t going anywhere near the library, Pop.”
“Want to bet?” Hank asked.
“Well, you sure as hell aren’t taking a shotgun.” Though Derek spoke to his father, his thoughts were far away, already in turmoil over the chance of seeing Gabrielle again. He’d spent enough time avoiding watching her on TV. Seeing her in real life would be far more painful. He didn’t need to worry about their reunion occurring over the barrel of his father’s shotgun.
Derek grabbed the rifle, intending to lock it up tight at his place or in the trunk of his SUV. There was no telling how easily an old rifle like this one could go off if Hank started waving it around to make his point.
Hank stamped his foot and shook his finger in Derek’s face. “You don’t play fair.”
“And you don’t play rational. Want to go to the mall with me and Holly?” Derek waved his daughter over.
“No. I have to pick up some things in town. Then I’m going to prepare a rebuttal to that girl’s speech tonight. No curse, my hiney,” Hank said, stomping toward his house.
Derek laughed and let him go. Hank was all bluster. Derek couldn’t imagine Hank showing up any place where the Corwin Curse was the subject of public discussion.
A discussion started by Gabrielle Donovan.
Damn. He couldn’t believe she’d returned after all these years.
He’d broken up with her after the prom. Post-graduation, her parents had moved away, and she’d gone with them. At least he hadn’t had that summer to watch her, longing for something he could no longer have. But while they’d been together, his life had been spectacular. At eighteen she’d been the most beautiful, sensual woman on the planet. He could only imagine what the intervening years had done to her already lush body and china-doll-like face. With her mother’s French genes, she hadn’t been afraid of passion or sex, and they’d indulged in both often, until Derek realized it was no longer just physical attraction that kept him coming back for more.
She’d been smart, too, the only daughter of parents who were both professors. She had a sharp wit and had been insightful, understanding Derek’s love of high-stakes finances even before he had the money to indulge his passion. She probably wouldn’t be surprised to learn he’d gone to Columbia undergrad and directly on to Wall Street as a trader until he was hired by an investment-banking company and made himself rich from lucky, huge deals.
He’d made himself poor the same way, investing too much in a company that went south instead of north. These days Derek was a financial planner, getting his thrills by building other people’s incomes more slowly and sensibly, not toying with his own.
He shook off the memories and headed to where his daughter was trying to play fetch with Fred. The dog was lying on his fat stomach without moving, staring at the stick she’d tossed.
“Ready?” Derek asked her.
Holly wiped her dusty hands on her jeans shorts. “I’m ready.”
“Good.” He ruffled her long hair. “Let’s drop Fred off at the house before we go.”
Holly nodded and pulled the reluctant dog’s leash. Fred trotted along at her side.
“Daddy? What’s wrong?”
“Why would you think anything’s wrong?” Derek asked.
His daughter met his gaze, squinting as the glare of the sun hit her eyes. “Because you look sad.”
“Hey, how could I be sad when I’m spending time with my favorite girl?” he asked, determined not to let anything dampen the time he had with his daughter.
She giggled. “I’ll go give Fred to Grandpa.” She walked to the house, leaving Derek alone with his thoughts. The most tempting woman in his past had shown up to wreak havoc with his future.
Maybe she wasn’t here to stay.
Yeah, right. And maybe the Corwin Curse wasn’t responsible for the breakup of every male’s marriage down the family line.
Gabrielle Donovan drove her black Lexus convertible down Main Street. She took in the stores and the colorful awnings and decided other than a few newer, more modern shops, nothing major had changed. She wondered if Derek Corwin had.
From her long-time friend, Sharon Merchant, Gabrielle knew that Derek had returned to their old hometown about six months ago. Gabrielle, herself, had moved from Florida to Boston about one month earlier, following her parents, who’d relocated from Florida six months before. She was used to being near her close-knit family. And as a writer, Gabrielle could work anywhere, so relocating wasn’t a hardship.
Was it a coincidence that Derek had returned around the same time?
Gabrielle shook her head. There were no coincidences. She might not believe in curses, but she definitely believed in Fate and true love. Derek Corwin had been hers.
From the day they’d met in the cafeteria in sixth grade, there had been something between them. Over the years, a solid friendship had turned into a crush. A middle-school dance had led to a kiss and suddenly they were inseparable, hanging out after school, doing homework together and sharing secrets.
Derek and Gabby, Gabby and Derek. He’d been her other half from eighth grade through senior year. She knew about the curse. Everyone in town knew.
Derek feared the power of the curse, and though Gabrielle had never believed in such things, given his family history, she’d respected the threat it held over the Corwin men. Derek had never used the “L” word, not even the day after the prom when he’d ended things and broken her heart. She knew he’d loved her too much to take their relationship further, thereby setting the curse in motion, so he’d said goodbye. He hadn’t even given her a choice in the matter.
But she had a choice now. And she chose to believe that she and Derek were in such close proximity after all this time for a reason. For Gabrielle, the reason came down to second chances. She needed to know if the flame between them still burned.
The memories she had of him were strong. She’d idealized him and their relationship to the point where no other man could live up to the standard he’d set. No man since had understood her or given enough of himself. No man had been Derek.
So after years of moving from relationship to relationship, always being the one to break up, always looking for more than whatever the man of the moment had to offer, Gabrielle saw this as her chance to revisit the past—and find out, once and for all, whether her future could include Derek. If it didn’t, at least she’d know. Then she could move on.
It helped that her best friend was also the librarian of the Perkins-Stewart Public Library. By asking Gabrielle to speak, Sharon had given her a reason to come to town. Gabrielle was ready for her talk at the library, but she didn’t expect to see Derek there tonight. She considered herself a pretty good judge of character, and given what she knew of Derek, he’d avoid her lecture on curses at all costs.
That was fine with her. Gabrielle preferred to set her own agenda where Derek was concerned.
Her first stop this morning was the Rhodes Inn, which consisted of a trio of rooms in an old boarding house. Though Boston was only an hour away, Gabrielle wanted to visit for a few days so she’d taken a room at the inn run by Adele Rhodes, Gabrielle’s fifth-grade teacher, a nice woman who’d indulged Gabrielle’s love of school and writing. When Gabrielle had called to rent a room, Mrs. Rhodes had been thrilled to hear from her now-famous student.
Gabrielle checked in and shared a warm reunion with her former teacher. She unpacked her suitcase and personal items, climbed back into her convertible and drove to Sharon’s house on the outskirts of town.
Sharon and her fiancé, Richard Stern, had bought their own home in Perkins. But until they married after the election in the fall, Sharon still lived with her parents. Richard was running for mayor of Perkins against the previously uncontested Mary Perkins. He couldn’t afford the scandal living in sin would cause. Once upon a time, Sharon would have had no problem flouting convention, but a painful episode in her past had changed that. These days, Sharon was happy but more subdued.
Gabrielle parked out front and rang the doorbell of the old Cape-style home. Sharon opened the door and greeted Gabrielle with a huge hug.
“I’m so glad you’re back,” Sharon said, releasing her.
Although they’d kept in touch by phone and e-mail and Sharon had visited Gabrielle in Florida, this reunion was different. Gabrielle hadn’t been back in town for almost fourteen years. She’d avoided this place—and the memories of Derek—for way too long. But now that she was living within driving distance, she was finished staying away.
Gabrielle smiled. “I’m happy to be back, too. You look great,” she said, taking in her friend’s long blond hair and flowered sundress.
“Back at you!” Sharon gestured to Gabrielle’s hair, cut in the latest style. “I’m dying for a good haircut, but I can’t bring myself to trust anyone locally!”
“I found this great stylist in Boston. If you’re serious, we can go next week and you can get it done.”
Sharon nodded, her eyes filled with excitement. “I would love it. Maybe I’ll even cut it above my shoulders, like yours.”
“You’d look gorgeous with shorter hair.” Their conversation reminded Gabrielle of an adventure they’d shared in high school, when they’d both dyed their hair with hydrogen peroxide, hoping to become shining blondes. Instead, they’d wound up living with green hair until their mothers agreed to pay for a professional fix.
“Let’s shop Boylston Street and Copley while we’re there,” Sharon said, making a disgusted face as she pulled on the fabric of her dress. “I need some new clothes.”
Gabrielle laughed. Some things never changed. They both loved shopping. She and Sharon were just like sisters—sisters who never fought and just enjoyed each other’s company.
Sharon led her inside and they sat in the living room decorated by photographs of Sharon and her brother and eclectic other odds and ends favored by Sharon’s mother.
“I’m so grateful you came to give that lecture for Richard. He’s convinced that in order to beat Mary Perkins, he has to get rid of the townspeople’s fear.” Her friend was a huge supporter of Gabrielle’s work and kept the library stocked with her books.
“My pleasure.” Gabrielle reached out and squeezed her friend’s hand. “I’m so excited to be living close by you again.”
Sharon leaned forward. “Same here. But right now, I want to know about your newest project. What do you have planned for your next book?”
Gabrielle drew a deep breath. “I’m going to write about the Corwin Curse.” And hopefully dispel it for good.
“Exactly. I’m going to do some research, as well as interview the Corwins and the Perkins’s. I’m determined to shed some light on this thing, once and for all,” Gabrielle said, definitively.
For years, she had dispelled other paranormal rumors like ghost sightings or UFO reports, writing about everything but curses to try to heal her pain over losing Derek. But avoidance hadn’t helped. The Corwin Curse had taken the man she loved away from her because Derek was a believer. If not for that curse, Gabrielle would probably have married Derek and been the mother of his children. She’d still be a writer because it was in her blood, but her personal life would have played out so differently. It was time for her to deal with that, Gabrielle thought. She planned to face her past, define her future and confront old ghosts.
“How do you think they’ll react?” Sharon asked.
Gabrielle shrugged. “I can’t worry about it. I need to do this for myself.” From the day Derek had broken up with her, her life had been defined by that curse.
After moving to Florida after graduation, she’d gone to college there. She’d majored in psychology and minored in human behavioral science. Over time, she’d let her writing become a means of working out her feelings. She hadn’t been able to fight Derek’s beliefs when he’d broken up with her, nor had she understood how he could allow an old curse to destroy the future they could have shared.
Gabrielle needed to understand how human beings with free will could have their behavior swayed by things that didn’t exist. She had to somehow comprehend how the man she loved and who she thought had loved her had dumped her because he believed he was cursed.
“I just can’t get over the fact that Richard’s future hinges on an old, ridiculous myth,” Sharon said.
Gabrielle gave her friend a wry smile. “Why not? Mine did.”
Sharon slapped her hand over her mouth, deliberately dramatic. “I’m sorry! What an awful thing for me to bring up. I just wasn’t thinking!”
“It’s fine. I was kidding. The problem is, when people believe in this kind of stuff, their beliefs are based on things that are just so hard to refute. For one thing, history has repeated itself over and over, making it appear as if the original curse on the Corwins has validity.” That was why Gabrielle needed to research it in detail.
Sharon scrunched her nose, her disgust with the subject clear. “You mean, because all the Corwin men have been unlucky in love, people believe that a witch caused it to happen?”
“It’s not just that they’re unlucky in love. It’s also because Mary Perkins’s family, who’ve run the town for years, have used those failures to cement their position. By reminding everyone of the Corwin Curse, the Perkins’s are able to manipulate those around them, holding on to their power by playing on people’s fears.”
Sharon nodded. “She’s as much as insinuated that, since she’s the namesake of the original Mary Perkins, she has the power to brew up another curse. Just when Richard thinks he’s making headway in reaching people, she’ll bring up the past and remind people of her power.”
“In what way?” Gabrielle asked, wondering how one woman could have so much sway.
“Well, a large development group came to town to buy property that they wanted to turn into an ocean-front resort. Mary doesn’t want to chance anyone coming in and usurping her position, so she coerced the owners to sell their otherwise profitable land to her at a cheap price rather than to the developers.”
Gabrielle rose and smoothed the wrinkles in her linen skirt. “How? And why in the world would anyone take a lesser price?”
Sharon got up, too. “Mary claimed the town owned the land through eminent domain. She threatened to take the individual landowners to court, informing them she’d win and they’d probably get much less than what she was graciously offering now. She also mentioned she was a direct descendant of the Mary Perkins, and not so subtly reminded those homeowners that she could bankrupt them with a few choice curse words. Darned if they didn’t sell cheap. And of course, after the fact, nobody would admit they’d been threatened, either.” Sharon shrugged.
Pausing by the window, Gabrielle glanced out at her convertible parked on the quiet street. “Well, I can see why Richard has his hands full.” Gabrielle didn’t want to tell her friend that a few lectures might not be enough. Old beliefs were powerful. Too often, not even persuasive reasoning or common sense could overcome them.
“So…we’ve talked about the curse long enough. When are we going to discuss the five-hundred-pound elephant in the room?” Sharon asked.
Gabrielle raised an eyebrow, pretty sure she knew what her friend was referring to but wanting to hear it before she jumped to the wrong conclusion. “Care to elaborate?”
“The man himself? Derek Corwin? I know that seeing him again won’t be easy.”
Gabrielle smirked. “Five hundred pounds? Guess I won’t have to worry about that old attraction rearing its head again after all.”
“I thought so.” She shrugged and remained quiet.
Sharon exhaled loudly, breaking the silence. “Okay fine, I get the message. We won’t talk about Derek today. So here’s the plan. I need to stop by the library and pick up my cell phone first, since I left it there last night. Afterward, I thought we’d go shopping. There’s a new mall you’ll love. What do you think?”
Gabrielle nodded. “Sounds good.”
Anything that changed the subject, Gabrielle thought.
She’d become an expert at that. Whenever Sharon tried to impart gossip about Derek, Gabrielle deliberately asked about something else. But that hadn’t stopped Sharon from letting some pertinent facts slip over the years, from Derek’s early marriage to his more recent divorce. Hearing about him only reopened old wounds, but Gabrielle had recently been forced to accept that those wounds had never really healed.
She may have tried to move on with her life, but even all these years later, she hadn’t been successful. It was time she confronted the past. She had no choice. Derek had left her incapable of moving on.