“Oh, Mom, there it is.” August Myer craned her neck to catch the first clear view of the walled castle atop the hill. “A real Austrian castle and it’s all—ow!”
Her head clunked the side window, and she braced her hands against the dashboard. Her mother had swerved the rental car to the edge of the narrow, mountain road then stomped on the brakes. The seatbelt cut into August’s shoulder and held her like a vice as the white BMW ground to a stop off the pavement.
“Mom, what the hell?”
The scream of a siren blotted out her mother’s obscenity. She caught a glimpse of a dark-haired man whose face telegraphed an apology as he whizzed past. The silver Porsche 911 with a portable flasher on top barely missed nicking their front end when he zipped around them.
Her mother slumped forward, head on the steering wheel and chest heaving. “Where did that crazy idiot come from?”
August rubbed her shoulder where the seatbelt held her in a death grip, then straightened the red scarf draped around her neck. She glanced out the rear window and the settling dust. “That last corner was totally blind. You’d think a cop would know how to drive on mountain roads.” She patted her mother’s shoulder. “Are you okay?”
She sat back slowly. “Yeah. He might’ve thought to put his siren on before climbing up my butt.” She flattened her palm on her chest as if checking her heartbeat. “How about you?”
“A bump on the head and severe seatbelt burn on my neck, but hey, driving with you is always a treat.”
“I appreciate the guilt trip.” Her mom snickered. “He probably could’ve gotten past us without my panic maneuver. But he appeared so suddenly in my rearview mirror. Sorry, kiddo.”
“No need to excuse him.” Not inclined to let the cop off the hook, she widened her eyes and exclaimed, “Mad Austrian arm of the law!”
Mom chuckled, then stared out the windshield. “There’s nothing ahead except the castle and estate, and that’s the end of the road. Wonder what’s going on?”
August followed her gaze to the castle nestled in the foothills of the Alps. The walled fortress covered the top of a small peak. Higher mountains loomed above the estate with patches of snow on their tops.
The silver Porsche had disappeared, eaten up by heavy forest obscuring all but the last quarter mile of the road leading into the castle entrance. As she admired the ancient fortress, the car reappeared in front of the gate and stopped. An iron grate lifted and disappeared into the wall above. When two mammoth doors swung inward like something from a movie about medieval Europe, she shivered with anticipation of entering another world.
The Porsche inched forward then sped inside the walled estate where flashing lights topped two emergency vehicles.
“That answers your question. Apparently, there’s an emergency at Castle Luschin.”
The giant-sized doors closed slowly, but not before August saw the courtyard, or what the castle occupants might call the bailey. A circular drive surrounded a deep green lawn. Thickly flowered shrubs on each side of a walkway led to steps that in turn led to highly polished, double wooden doors. Stone benches were scattered on the green. Uniformed men, maybe police, stood on each side of the entrance.
“I doubt that’s our welcoming party,” she quipped. This didn’t look like a normal day at the home of her great-grandfather. She’d not met the man or ever visited his castle estate, but emergency vehicles didn’t bode well for their first visit.
Her mom frowned. “I hope it has nothing to do with Herr Luschin.”
August gazed at the vanishing scene before them as the gates closed. Her stomach fluttered like the first time her parents took her to Disneyland. She remembered exactly how her ten-year-old self felt standing before the pink make-your-dreams-come-true castle. Thirteen years later, this fairytale fortress, although not pink, loomed larger than Cinderella’s castle. The stonewall surrounding the estate glistened white under a nearly clear Austrian sky, while the green, multi-tiered roof matched the lush Norway pines and beech trees covering the foothills. Behind and above the castle, the peaks of the Alps rose and poked at a lone, white puff of cloud. She caught her breath at the beauty.
“And I thought the peaks of Timberline were breathtaking.” Mom echoed her thoughts.
“Falling in love with Timberline’s handsome sheriff might’ve colored your vision.”
“Oh, August.” She flipped hair from her shoulders to her back.
“Really, Mom. You’re like a schoolgirl lately. Sometimes I think you’re younger than I am.” Her chest welled with joy for her mother whose face glowed with happiness about her newfound life. This trip was the opportunity to meet her grandfather and help her discover more about her roots. Their roots.
August slapped the dashboard. “What are you waiting for? Get this heap started so we can claim our inheritance.”
She checked all the mirrors twice before pulling out onto the road leading to Castle Luschin. “Attitude, August. I don’t think we’ll be too welcome if we try to storm the fortress.”
Mom was wound tight. She hadn’t used attitude, August since her high school years. “They know we’re coming, and I’m joking. This is fun, Mom. Admit you’re as excited as I am.”
“Oh, I’m excited, kiddo. And by the way, my inheritance.”
“Ha. Right. Going to get picky about that little age clause, are you?”
“I am. I have a year before you’re twenty-five and nearly five years with your brother before I have to worry about my kids knocking me off to grab the castle estate.” Her words teased, but she frowned and stared ahead.
“What’s wrong, Mom?”
“I’m just a bit concerned about what’s going on at the castle.”
“A tourist probably had a heart attack making the trek up.”
Her mother bit at her lip, worriedly, and concentrated on the winding road. Having never met her grandfather before, she was no doubt nervous.
August fidgeted, a bit wound up, too. An estate this size and this old had to hold a plethora of art. The reasons for this mother-daughter trip had three purposes, and the order of importance was different for both of them.
Her mother’s attention was fully focused on the short distance to the castle entrance. Only months before, she’d learned about her birth parents, who were killed in an airplane crash that had left the infant Lacy the lone survivor. Her search led to a father which led to a bloodline deed to this castle estate.
Discovering more about their lineage was important to August also, but not as important as it was to her mother. The hoped-for bounty of art that lay within the walls of the centuries-old castle was a fascinating draw and an added enticement to make this journey. Collecting art for her Tucson, Arizona gallery was her passion. Of course, she’d like to learn more about her ancestry and meet her great-grandfather, who, amazingly, was still alive. But the art in a castle and inheritance to boot? Her palms sweated as she imagined the artists of ages past, perhaps painting a portrait of her ancestors or sculpting a piece for the garden.
The third reason was only a blip on August’s radar but a driving force for her mom. Mom thought an adventurous trip was what August needed to get past the trauma of her recent divorce. She’d given up trying to make her believe that as long as her bastard husband didn’t fight her for the gallery, then all was right in the world. And in return, Evan wouldn’t get his reputation destroyed for knowingly selling forgeries. She could get past the lost love part; she would never have gotten over losing the gallery. Her father had left her the money in his will to purchase it, and she wouldn’t lose it no matter what.
The castle loomed larger. The green-roofed spires of the corner towers poked above the wall surrounding the estate. She tapped her toes against the floorboard, anxious to be walking the grounds of the ancient fortress.
The car slowed then stopped as the mammoth wooden doors towered before them.
August rolled down her window, stuck her head out, and peered upward. The square openings, only big enough for a head or maybe guns to poke out, in the turrets on each side of the closed entry appeared empty, understandably so. Not too many conquering armies tried to breach the wall in this century. She glanced in either direction. If a wall walk existed at the top, no one strolled along it today.
“Now what?” She brought her head back in. The cool air followed her, and she lifted a corduroy jacket off the backseat. July in Tucson was triple digits, but she guessed today’s Austria temperature around seventy.
Her mother pushed the heel of her hand against the horn. After a moment’s blast, they both craned their necks to look out the front windshield. The outer grate of iron was recessed into the stone archway above, but the doors, made from foot-wide slats of wood and crosshatched with black iron bolted into the wood at intervals, remained tightly shut.
“Do it again.” August opened the car door to stand on the gravel drive. When the horn silenced, she stooped and looked into the car. “Maybe the hullabaloo inside has everyone occupied.”
“I would think your great-grandfather would be looking for us. You told him the time we thought we’d arrive, right?”
At a noise behind her, she straightened. A common-sized door within the castle wall had opened, and a uniformed policeman stepped out. She had no love for policemen after the few run-ins she’d had in high school, but if all Austrian cops looked like this guy, she might set aside her prejudice. His navy beret was cocked to one side, navy jacket hugged a well-formed chest, and the pants with their oversized pockets low on the legs couldn’t disguise his muscular thighs. This wasn’t the typical uniform of an American policeman; although, one hand rested on the gun riding on his hip. He was probably near her age of twenty-four.
As he approached the car, he pushed his jacket sleeves up to his elbows, exposing a golden layer of down catching the sun. “Wie kann ich euch helfen.”
“Yes…whatever that means,” she muttered, then held her tongue when the side of his mouth ticked up. “Er, we don’t speak German.” From his bemused face, he must’ve understood a bit of English.
Her mom got out, rounded the front of the car, and met him by the front bumper. “Do you speak English?”
He tipped his head in response, but his bright, blue eyes never left her. “Yes, I do. Americans?”
“Yes, we are. My name is August Myer, and this is my mother, Lacy Dahl. I mean Meadowlark. Lacy Meadowlark.” She hadn’t gotten accustomed to her mother’s new married name.
“Guten Tag. Excuse me. Nice to meet you. I am Polizist Kurt Gruber.”
His accent gave her a flutter low in her abdomen. “So, what’s going on inside?”
Her mother stepped closer, but seemed content, if not amused, to let her handle the situation. Was it so obvious she found the policeman attractive?
“We need to go inside.” August reached for a more formal and authoritative attitude. “If you could have someone open the doors, we’ll drive in. I don’t think we should leave our car outside.”
“I’m sorry, Ms. Myer, Ms. Meadowlark. Today is not a day to be the tourist.” When he smiled, there was something about his face that struck her as dangerous. A glint in his eyes? Or was it the way his mouth…
“But we aren’t,” her mother broke into the conversation. “We have an appointment with Herr Lenhard Luschin. He’s expecting us.”
“Perhaps I can help.” Porsche Man stepped through the open doorway and strode next to Policeman Kurt. “I am Chief Inspector Tobias Wolf.”
The beret tipped toward the new man on the scene who apparently had more authority than Golden Boy. The Inspector muttered some unintelligible information that she wouldn’t have been able to understand even if he’d spoken loudly. Yet, without understanding German, the younger man’s dismissal was obvious. He nodded at his superior, stepped back, nodded at them, and spun on his heel. A last glance over his shoulder, and the door closed behind him.
The Inspector regarded them. “Can I be of assistance?”
“I hope so.” Her mother’s voice sounded strong but strained. “I’m Lacy Meadowlark and this is my daughter, August Myer. We have an appointment with Herr Luschin.”
“Nice to meet you.” The inspector tipped his head to each of them. “The castle is closed today. I am sorry, Ms. Meadowlark, Ms. Myer.”
Disappointment at seeing cute, and maybe dangerous, Kurt disappear was replaced by agitation at the appearance of the man who’d only moments before run them off the road. “You should be sorry,” she snapped. “You ran us off the road.”
“And I’m sorry for that, too.” He raised a brow. “You were saying you had an appointment with Herr Luschin?”
When his brown eyes regarded her, August thought of warm, toasted almonds and was immediately annoyed with herself. She set her shoulders to address his half-hearted regret. “Which we almost didn’t make after getting run off the road and nearly killed.” Mom deserved more than a cursory apology. He’d scared the hell out of her. “You’re lucky my mother has quick reflexes.”
“I’m very happy that she does.” He offered a reserved, yet attractive smile. “My apologies, Ms. Meadowlark. Monday isn’t a normal day for Castle Luschin to accept tourists. I didn’t expect to encounter anyone on the road so close to the castle, but my carelessness is inexcusable.”
Although heavily accented, his English was good. At least fifteen years August’s senior, he had a kind of James Bond quality about him, exuding a seductive confidence with his every move she couldn’t ignore, in spite of her irritation. He wore a well-tailored, light gray suit that didn’t hide the ruggedness of his physique. A scrape on the knuckle of one hand and an emerald ring on the other reflected virility and sophistication. His square jaw and tanned face certainly didn’t belong under florescent lighting. The Alps as a background suited his cool and craggy aura. She studied his chestnut hair, longish compared to the golden policeman Kurt when, with a half-smile, his attention came back as if to gain acceptance of his apology.
His toasted almond gaze caught her admiring his profile. She swallowed deeply to regain her composure. “Yes, we have an appointment.” She hadn’t listened so much to the words he’d said as to his deep, smooth voice with the exotic accent. “Can you please tell the gatekeeper, or whoever controls the entry, to let us drive in? Or shall we just leave our car here and enter through there?” She stepped toward the door.
He made the slightest movement, and although she could’ve easily stepped past him, the air of authority he radiated stopped her abruptly.
“I’m afraid Herr Luschin will not be able to see you.”
She bristled. “Why not?”
Her mom’s forehead creased. “Has something happened to Lenhard, Inspector Wolf?”
He hesitated a fraction of a second, his stern authority wavering. “Yes, I’m afraid so.”
An anxious tightness wrapped around August’s middle. “What?”
“I don’t think the family would want me to discuss such matters.”
“We are his family.” Mom’s voice cracked as she touched the inspector’s forearm.
Inspector Wolf blinked. “What do you mean?”
“I’m his granddaughter. His only son, Hartmut, was my father.”
August took her mother’s hand, and the tightly gripped response made her chest flutter. Her mom had traveled so far to meet her only blood relative. If she couldn’t know her father, she keenly wanted to meet her grandfather.
The inspector appeared lost for words. He glanced back and forth between them, rubbed his jaw from chin to ear, and frowned. “Can you prove this?”
Her mother’s birth certificate, a letter from her grandfather, and the deed to the Castle Luschin Estate were proof.
“Please, Inspector, what’s happened?” her mother implored.
“I’m sorry.” He glanced at both of them before speaking. A sighed deeply. “Herr Luschin is dead.”
Tobias waited as the white BMW maneuvered around the myriad of emergency and police vehicles. When Ms. Meadowlark had proclaimed her relationship to Herr Luschin moments before, he’d realized why her unusual green eyes seemed so familiar. The late Herr Luschin’s eyes were the same light green.
Funny. He hadn’t noticed August Myer’s eyes. Her heart-shaped lips and feisty attitude had drawn his attention to the point of distraction from the conversation. Lovely, high cheekbones added to her haughtiness—haughtiness that bordered on caustic. The quiet classiness the older woman embodied was more typically attractive. And yet, he felt no physical attraction to Ms. Meadowlark. He couldn’t say the same for her daughter.
The women parked. Outside the car, they spoke to each other a moment, and the daughter patted her mother’s back as they walked around the drive and toward him. He buried his hands in the pockets of his slacks and admired lovely calves below the short jean skirt of the younger woman.
“I agree.” Albert Feld, his partner, appeared at his elbow. “Fine legs on the young woman. Although, I find the curve of her mother’s ass more to my liking.”
“I hadn’t noticed.”
“And I’m the King of England.” Albert chuckled, disturbing the buttons trying to hold his too tight jacket around his thick belly. His partner was only months from retirement and had already relaxed in several ways. “Ah, yes, nice indeed.” He sighed. “I doubt I could keep up with even the mother.”
“Iris will be happy to hear that.” He followed his partner’s appraisal of the women, admiring in silence.
With the mention of his wife’s name, Albert drew a hand over his face and smiled at Tobias. “Keeping up with Iris isn’t always easy.”
He laughed. “Too much information, Inspector.”
“Are we dealing with stray tourists?”
“Stray relatives. Apparently, Herr Luschin had heirs in America.”
Bushy, gray brows rose. “The plot thickens.”
“You want to go in and take some staff statements?” He cocked a thumb toward the castle behind them. “I’ll handle Frau Luschin and the nephew once I’ve settled what to do with the new relatives.”
“I can do that.” His partner scratched the top of his balding head and ran a hand along the thicker gray hair over his ears. “Be careful with the young American woman. She looks like a handful.” He retreated before Tobias could come up with a retort.
His gaze fell on August. She definitely had a different look about her. Brown hair barely touched her shoulders where the spiky, burnished gold ends matched the gold loops in her ears. Three loops on one ear and two on the other. Small-breasted, her nipples peaked beneath her clinging blouse…
He cleared his throat. He had a job to do.
“This way, ladies,” he called from the main entrance.
Ms. Meadowlark’s shoulders sagged noticeably. She’d seemed quite shaken with the news of her grandfather’s death. The daughter slowed, admiring the intricate slate and marble pattern inlaid in the four steps leading up to the wide landing.
He might have gotten on the wrong side of the daughter, assuming there was a right side, but her tenderness and worry for her mother as she quickly caught up touched him. When the women’s gazes lifted to the door as he opened it, Ms. Myer gawked at the intricate wood and metal artwork of the highly polished surface, slowing them further. He wanted to urge them along, but he understood their fascination. He’d grown up with this castle practically in his backyard, so he tended to overlook the centuries-old beauty. His family estate was just as old and regal, although not quite so large.
He tapped his fingers against the polished copper handle. “Ms. Meadowlark? Ms. Myer?”
The older woman nudged her daughter, and they hurried forward, passing him to enter the Great Hall, the public entrance. Police and medical personnel would be ushered in and out of the family’s private entrance several yards away. Alone in the Great Hall, he would be able to quietly question them and discuss the news of Herr Luschin’s death.
“Let us sit over here, shall we?”
Tobias led them past the first pillar to the second one farther from the door and in front of the mammoth fireplace. He gestured for them to sit on the circular bench surrounding the second pillar.
“Where is everyone?” Ms. Myer asked. Her gaze wandered overhead to the colorfully painted, domed ceiling.
“This is a public area. The family quarters are in another area of the castle. Please, sit. We’ll talk.”
“Isn’t that where we should be?” The daughter persisted while she remained standing.
Her impatience could wear his patience thin.
Ms. Meadowlark sat and tugged on her daughter’s hand to join her. “What happened, Inspector Wolf?”
Once both women were seated, he made an effort to gentle his voice. “Herr Luschin’s wife found him dead in their bedchambers this morning.”
“How awful.” Ms. Meadowlark’s grip grew tighter on the daughter’s hand. “How did he die?”
“Mom, he was eighty-six, pretty old.” She patted her mother’s hand. “Did he have a heart attack or something? He sounded fine only a few hours ago.”
He took a pad and pen from his jacket pocket. “Exactly what time did you speak to him?”
“It sounds as if you’re questioning us.” Ms. Myer narrowed her eyes at him. “How did he die?”
There was no point in avoiding her questions. Her personality and steadfastness would only cause him anxiety if he chose to ignore her inquisitiveness. He’d get his own questions answered sooner or later. “At this point, it appears to be suicide.”
“Appears?” Ms. Meadowlark’s eyes grew round. “How did he…?”
“An apparent overdose of his prescription medication.” He kept his voice level and noncommittal. He’d been fond of the old lord, but his years of police work made setting aside his own feelings a matter of habit.
“And you think he did it on purpose?” Ms. Myer frowned in disbelief.
“It could have been an accident. These deaths are always investigated before a ruling is made.” He offered his standard by the book answer, ignoring the niggling doubts rising in his gut.
“Maybe he had a stroke or something.” The brash young woman encircled her mother’s shoulders with her free arm. “He sounded excited to see us today, not suicidal.”
“That’s true, Inspector,” Ms. Meadowlark added. “I’d spoken to him a couple of times before we left the States.” Her voice cracked, and she swallowed deeply. “Learning of our existence shocked him, but it was a joyful shock. He said having a granddaughter and great-grandchildren made his life complete.”
The little bud of doubt Tobias had about Herr Luschin’s death transitioned to full bloom. “Can you tell me about the proof you have regarding your relationship, and how you came to make the trip now, Ms. Meadowlark?” He addressed the mother, ignoring the sultry mouth of her daughter.
“When both of my adoptive parents died, I decided to find out what I could about my birth parents.” She slipped a hand into the bag on her shoulder and drew out a manila envelope. “This is my birth certificate.”
Tobias carefully read the document that proved her to be the daughter of Herr Luschin’s son, Hartmut. He looked into her green eyes and was again reminded of the elder man.
“Hartmut traveled to the States in the sixties, met my mother, Kaya Mochta, and I was conceived,” Ms. Meadowlark explained. “It seems my father was estranged from his family. But after my birth, they decided to reunite with the Luschins in Austria. Unfortunately, the small plane taking them from Timberline, Arizona to catch a plane for Austria crashed. I was the only survivor.” When he handed her back the birth certificate, she gazed at the document with misty eyes. “I learned about my mother only months ago, and there are no living blood relatives on her side. I’d hoped to come here and meet my grandfather.” She cleared her throat. “And find out what I could about my father.”
She pulled another envelope from the oversized khaki bag. “This is a deed to the estate. Only a few items, some pictures, some art and this deed, were left to me from my birth parents. I don’t read German, but I’ve had it authenticated. I’m sure you’ll see the estate is a bloodline inheritance. My father was an only child, and I’m his only daughter. I realize Herr Luschin has remarried recently, but the estate wouldn’t be part of whatever he might leave to her. I have a letter from Lenhard, too, mostly a personal acknowledgement of his joy at discovering us and inviting us to come.”
He read the antiquated document, which had been encased in plastic. Apparently, Ms. Lacy Meadowlark now stood to inherit the entire Luschin estate. Fabian Bauer, Lenhard’s great-nephew and the presumed sole and indirect heir, would be surprised. It appeared Herr Luschin hadn’t mentioned Fabian to the women.
“So, this is why you are here? To survey your inheritance?” The timing was uncanny. When exactly had they arrived in Austria?
“I’d hoped to meet—”
“I don’t like your tone,” the daughter interrupted with plenty tone of her own. “Mom just told you why we’re here. What are you implying?” Her beauty flared with her temper.
“I’m not implying anything, Ms. Myer. As I said, we investigate every angle of a death.”
“Well, investigate in another direction, Inspector, because the only thing my mother wanted was to meet her grandfather, and learn more about the father she never knew.”
Why the hell did he feel any attraction to this woman? She was, without a doubt, a passionate person, but too young and too quick to temper. He handed the document back, and stared into her glittering eyes.
“Calm down, August.” Ms. Meadowlark shook her head, blinking slowly as if fatigued.
“I’m sorry if I’ve offended you,” he said, and dipped his chin for emphasis. Her protectiveness was admirable, but the young woman would have to find a way to deal with his questioning. And there would be more questions.
“You seem to be sorry a great deal, don’t you?”
Had he thought her feisty earlier? Fiery was more like it. He wasn’t scoring any points with her so far. Doubt she would want to go to the gasthaus and have a beer later. Attractiveness aside, she’d not be good company anyway. Best to keep a professional distance and full attention on the questionable suicide. He shifted his attention to the mother who’d clamped her hand on her daughter’s arm.
“The fact you spoke to him this morning, and a couple of hours later he’s dead, could be important. You might be the last person he spoke with outside of the castle.” He’d like to get closer to Herr Luschin’s state of mind. The daughter’s opinion that he wasn’t suicidal coincided with his.
“I spoke to him this morning,” Ms. Myer corrected.
“Yes, I’m referring to both of you, actually.”
“Did he leave a…note?” Ms. Meadowlark’s eyes glistened with sadness.
“No.” And the fact he hadn’t added to his suspicions.
She clasped her hands then nervously played with her rings. How unfortunate she wouldn’t get to know a most agreeable man to have as a grandfather. He’d offer his heartfelt condolences, but her daughter would probably bite his hand.
“Are you two traveling alone? You said grandchildren. Are your other children in Austria, also?”
“Not in Austria. I have a son at school in Paris. My daughter and I are traveling together.”
“I see. Well, I’d like to hear more about what you and Herr Luschin discussed over the last few weeks, Ms. Meadowlark. And how he sounded the last time you spoke. Could you help me understand what led up to this sad day?”
Her lovely face softened. “Please, call me Lacy, and yes, I’d love to help.”
“Thank you, Lacy.” The daughter’s mouth remained tightly closed. Amusing. “This bench is hard and cold. May I offer you comfortable chairs and some coffee?”
“Yes, that would be nice.”
“Let me see…” He pivoted and scanned the wall on either side of the fireplace. “This room is intended for receiving guests at large functions, but...” He searched his childhood memory of the layout. “The large door behind the dais goes to the kitchen. There’s a sort of den…” He regarded the two smaller doors, one on each side of the fireplace. One led to a display of seventeenth century clothing, the other to a small room reserved for special, visiting tourists to relax.
He chose a door, turned the ornate glass handle, and found the small, richly furnished den he’d expected. “Here we are.” He held his hand out in invitation.
Lacy passed by him then the daughter.
The younger woman paused for a split second, tipped her head to bridge the gap between their heights, and looked him in the eye. In her flat sandals, he guessed she stood at least five six. Her tightly closed mouth relaxed, and one brow twitched upward.
“You may as well call me August. Looks like we’ll be spending a bit of time together.”
The pause was long enough to see the deep brown of her eyes with a curious green rim and to feel the warmth of the hot-blooded American woman whose body brushed his as she passed.