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  • Writer's pictureCathryn Grant

Novel Excerpt: The Woman In the Castle

Napa Valley, California

Tess was waiting for Damien and me. She stood on the front patio of her palatial Mediterranean home wearing a pale green dress that fell to mid-calf.

As I slid out of the Uber, she took off her sunglasses and stared at me, shaking her head ever so slightly.

I had no doubt the head-shaking was over my new hair color.

The evening before my flight, I’d had my hair dyed a stunning strawberry blonde with streaks of copper. It was longer now, reaching to the center of my back. Every morning, I used a fat curling iron to give it wild, luscious waves. It attracted more attention than I was used to, so I wasn’t sure how long I would leave it that color, but I was enjoying it. The colors felt summery and perfect for my temporary new life in California.

I didn’t know if I’d done it for California, or for Tess, or because I needed to see someone different when I looked in the mirror every morning.

I reached back into the car and removed Damien’s travel cage. When I emerged holding him, Tess dropped her sunglasses onto a small table and came running toward me. She began talking to Damien a mile a minute. He squawked back, clearly not happy with what he’d experienced during his nearly six-hour flight, not to mention all the shuffling around he’d had to endure before and after his time in the air.

“Wait until he sees his aviary,” Tess said. “He’ll never shriek like this again.”

She picked up his cage and started toward the house. I followed, pulling two large suitcases, two zippered carryalls and my everyday bag slung over my shoulders.

The entryway was magnificent. It opened to the second story, with a landing that looked down onto the tile floor below. To the left was a bench with a potted palm on each side. To the right was a recessed wall displaying framed photographs of Tess and her fiancé, Marcus, many of them taken in Australia. There was also a sixteen-by-twenty photograph of Tess and me. We were sitting on the patio in the backyard of the house where we’d lived in Australia, sipping martinis. Both of us were laughing. Tess was gazing at me, almost as if she were in love with me. Both of us looked blissfully happy.

Directly across from the front door was the aviary. It stood at a towering twelve feet and was almost the size of a small bedroom. Inside were potted eucalyptus branches and several live plants. There were three perches at varying heights from which Damien could survey his surroundings. There was a large dish of water and another bowl containing mango, and some of the seed mix that provided him with a balanced diet.

Tess unlatched the door, stepped inside, and placed his travel cage on the floor, which was covered with fine gravel. She opened his cage door and stepped back.

Damien wasted no time stepping out of his cage. He strutted directly to the bowl of mango and took a piece without comment. His crown was lowered, and he bobbed slightly as he gobbled the fruit. If a bird could smile, if he could look as blissfully happy as Tess and I did in that oversized photograph, that was how Damien appeared when he swallowed the first piece of mango. He cocked his head to the side and looked directly into Tess’s eyes.

Delicious mango, he said.

We watched him eat every piece of fruit in the bowl, then we stepped out of the aviary, leaving him alone to get comfortable in his new home.

As I followed Tess through to a living room lined with bifold doors that opened onto a huge patio and a lush garden beyond, I felt my shoulders relax. It was a relief to no longer be responsible for her charming, opinionated cockatoo. It had been a lot of fun listening to him speak. I was constantly entertained as I imagined him carrying on conversations with me. I liked pretending I could tell him my secrets, that he was listening and keeping them safe, but I had not liked dragging him around New York City. I had not liked being responsible for his wellbeing. I had not liked keeping him locked in my small bedroom to ensure my roommate’s fiancé didn’t harass him, or worse.

“Do you want a cappuccino or iced latte?” Tess asked. “Water? A glass of wine?”

“Water, for now.”

She disappeared from the living room and I settled onto her enormous sectional, looking out at more greenery and blue sky than I’d seen in over a year, almost two. All that endless blue sky seemed to promise a peaceful existence. I felt a thousand miles from the grit of New York City, from the gray skyscrapers, the nearly constant noise of traffic, and a tremendous number of people navigating a very small area.

Lingering back there in the shadows of those skyscrapers was Ned Carter. I’d pointed a shadowy finger at him in the death of Carolina Scott. It was unlikely he would connect me to her and the trouble I’d caused him. Almost impossible. Still, I longed to know the outcome of my finger-pointing. I didn’t like not knowing the outcome because even though he couldn’t connect me to Carolina, he definitely blamed me for the loss of his fiancée. I had no idea how deep his anger went, knowing that my recording of him hitting on me had cut Eileen cleanly out of his life.

I hadn’t been able to resist punishing him. But I wanted both the satisfaction of knowing I’d caused trouble, and the assurance that he hadn’t tied it to me.

It was a curiosity I would have to live with, so I tried to put it out of my mind. So far, it wasn’t cooperating as well as I’d hoped. I stood and walked to the glass doors to get a better view of the garden.

I wondered where Marcus was and how long it would be until I met him—the man who had transformed Tess into a woman who had chosen to sideline her successful and lucrative career in order to stomp grapes and, soon, start making babies. I was beyond curious.

A guy who had made millions with his cyber security start-up. I knew the type. A techie with so much money he’d come to believe he was always the smartest guy in the room. The most deserving guy in the room. The Man. Anyone who didn’t speak his language was stupid by default.

Maybe he wasn’t. But a lot of them were, and even though my experience was limited, I wasn’t predisposed to assume he and I were going to click.

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