Contemporary Romance

The Old Black Curtain

By

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Synopsis

"You reach a point in life when you have to make a change. You don't know if it's going to be good or bad, you just have to follow wherever it leads."
-Catherine Miller

Michael Murphy never forgot those words.

Michael Murphy had lived most of his life in complete contentment, believing he had attained all he could. But with his life now falling to pieces and the inheritance of a small book shop, his life is beginning to change. When he meets a beautiful young woman with a mysterious past, he is instantly drawn to her, and could never have imagined what life had in store for him next....

The Request

... Eighteen months earlier

The rain was coming down hard, harder than it had been all week. Ordinarily, I enjoyed the rain, but today, today I was in no mood for it. I was sitting in a stuffy conference room with my older brother Thomas Murphy, one of the top divorce attorneys currently in London, England. Seated across from us, a tad too close to each other for my liking, was my soon to be ex-wife Robin, and her attorney, Mr. Edward Barnes. The thought of them together surged through my mind and I wondered, was he her lover? From the beginning of our marriage, I could sense something was amiss, the late nights and long weekends with ‘friends’. I suspected she might be seeing someone, but I never thought it was her divorce attorney.

Sixteen years ago when I first met Robin, she was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. Tall and slim, with long blond hair and ocean blue eyes, at the time she was everything I thought I wanted. A natural wordsmith who could talk anyone into just about anything and she played me, so very well. The truth of the matter is that Robin stayed married to me just long enough to receive the largest sum based on our prenuptial agreement –– three and a half million. Now, to me three and a half million isn’t exactly life-altering and I wasn’t concerned about paying her out, but I wasn’t thrilled with the idea of losing it, either.

At eighteen, I decided to do my higher education abroad. I applied to the University of Edinburgh and was accepted into their four-year Computer Science program. During the final year, along with my mate Hamish MacPhail, we created the world’s leading security software called Obscure Security Coverage or OSC for short. About a month before we graduated, Hamish and I were approached about selling OSC. One night down at the pub having a few pints, Hamish laid out his whole vision of us running our own computer company and becoming the world’s leading software duo. He is definitely the dreamer between us. Personally, I was on the fence, knowing I could do anything I wanted. I thought of staying in university and working towards my PhD. Hamish suggested I do just that while he built up the business. He had already received his business degree, and I had all the capital we would need to get started. Needless to say, after a few days Hamish wore me down and I agreed to his plan.

So Hamish and I declined the offer on OSC and built M&M Tech instead. Being the people person between us, Hamish took care of the day-to-day running of things. Business was not my strong suit so I mainly tinkered on our latest projects, improving OSC and rolling out the newest versions of everything while working on my PhD. After three years, we expanded into online tech support and services. Our stock was rising and Hamish and I began making a name for ourselves.

When my father passed away, Thomas and I inherited everything. Our father had been the top attorney in Toronto and unsurprisingly had built up quite the nest egg. With Hamish and me doing fine with M&M Tech and inheriting half a fortune, I was doing rather well financially. So I really can’t say that I minded giving Robin the sum.

What I did mind were the last fifteen years she spent convincing me we were happy. The lies were bad enough, but worse than that, I fell for them and didn’t notice. I thought I was happy, I thought we were happy. I mean, our marriage wasn’t perfect and we certainly had our problems but still, I thought we were at least content. Now, even after I learned of the affairs and knew she no longer wanted to be with me, I couldn’t bring myself to leave her. I had made a vow, given my word, and I don’t break my word. I had made it clear from the start, if Robin wanted out of our marriage, she’d have to be the one to file for it. And she did.

Now the four of us were sitting in Mr. Barnes’ stuffy conference room, watching Robin get everything she wanted, my money, her freedom, even my flat. Though I was sad to part with it — it was a great flat —Thomas convinced me it would be better in the long run. A clean and simple divorce would be best all around. It wasn’t worth fighting over a flat, no matter how amazing, when I could simply go and buy a new one, so I relented. We all signed the papers, and now we just had to wait thirty days and our divorce would be finalized. A huge part of my life had just ended, and I was completely unprepared for where life was about to take me.

“And, finished,” Thomas said as he put the cap back on his pen. He looked over to me, pleased with a job well done. With the papers signed, Thomas and I stood from the large conference table and headed towards the door.

“Michael…” I heard Robin say.

I turned to face her, expecting more, but there was nothing, just a soft smile and a nod. I nodded back, then turned to leave with Thomas following behind.

We left Robin to her spoils and to her Mr. Barnes and went to the elevator. Just as Thomas pressed the button for the door, my cell went off. The call was short but impactful, and I was at a loss for words. I took a sharp breath to settle myself as I hung up and pocketed my phone. Once inside the elevator, I turned to Thomas to let him know what had happened.

“That, ahh… that was Mr. King, our aunts’ attorney... he’s in town and needs to see us. It’s Betty and Ronnie,” I started, but was struggling to get my words out so I tried again, “Betty and Ronnie have… have passed away.” My voice broke as I said the words. I quickly wiped a small tear from my eye as I let Thomas take in the news. He remained silent. I couldn’t tell what he was thinking.

“He would like to see us tomorrow morning at your office. Go over their wills. Around 10 am.” Thomas nodded as the elevator doors opened into the parking garage and we stepped out. He ran his hands over his face, reeling from the painful news. Thomas and I had never agreed on much, but we loved our aunts. They raised us.

“Fuck this. I need a drink. How ‘bout a pint down at the pub?” Thomas said after a few moments.

“No thanks,” I told him, shaking my head, “think I’ll just… I’m just gonna walk for a bit. I’ll see you later.” I turned from Thomas, heading towards the sidewalk. I could barely hear Thomas ask me if I was sure over the rain, the distance growing between us with each step I took, so I just gave a wave behind me and kept walking. My mind was officially on overdrive and I needed space to calm down and refocus.

I found that walking the busy streets always managed to make me feel better, especially at night when the evening fog rolled in. This night, however, it wasn’t working, not with the pains of this day. Divorcing Robin and losing my aunts all at once was simply too much. The only person I had left in the world was Thomas, and though I loved my brother, that thought didn’t fill me with much comfort. Thomas had been supportive during my divorce, representing me and putting me up in his spare room. But I knew Thomas too well. Though he might mean well at times, he always does what’s best for himself first. A pint might ease his grief but it wouldn’t do much for mine.

By the time I got back to Thomas’ place, it was well past midnight. He had already turned in for the night, but in spite of my exhaustion, I was too wound up to sleep. I got myself a glass and grabbed the first bottle from Thomas’s bar that my hand touched, then moved to the couch and poured myself a sizable drink. I read the bottle: Spirit of Dublin Teeling Whiskey Single Malt, aged thirty years. The bottle had to be worth nearly €1,600. Thomas always did have expensive taste. I downed his over-priced whiskey then poured another, and another, and another. While drowning my grief, I noticed how my brother’s OCD characterized his home. Everything was neat and in its place. His whole flat looked as though he had cut it out directly from a magazine.

Thomas’ flat was almost a mirror image of himself, pristine and orderly. Between the two of us, Thomas was the handsome ‘put together’ one. Tall and muscular with short brown hair neatly kept in place, the grey just starting to show along his temple, and blue eyes and a soft smile he used to make women swoon. He was always clean-shaven and dressed for business. Thomas and I looked similar in some ways but there were definite differences. For starters, I’m three years younger. Thomas, Hamish and I had actually celebrated my 42nd birthday three days before Robin and I signed our divorce papers. I felt as though I was off to a rough start. I’m 5’7” to his 5’11”, slender to his muscular frame, but I’m not without definition. My short curly hair, that is now practically all silver and grey throughout, always looked unkempt. My eyes, a soft green-blue enhanced by my black full-framed glasses. My smile, though surrounded by a short scruffy beard, could be as soft and charming as Thomas’s. I hardly ever kept myself clean-shaven. No, unlike Thomas, I had a more rugged look. I can pull off that clean cut look when necessary, but it just isn’t me. Where Thomas constantly wears high-end tailored suits, I prefer my worn out jeans and button-down, collared shirts for the sake of comfort.

I poured myself another glass of whiskey and went over to the bookcase. Drink in hand, I bent down to the bottom shelf and pulled a photo album out before wandering back to the couch. After downing what I’d just poured I put the glass on the coffee table and opened the album. The first few pages were all of Thomas and me growing up in Toronto. We were a real family back then, or at least the illusion of a real family. However, all this was before our mother died.

She was heading to meet our father at a work function of his when a drunk driver hit her. We were told that she didn’t suffer much, as she died on impact, but our lives were never the same. I was eight when this happened. Our father had his older twin sisters, Betty and Veronica (or Ronnie as she preferred) come and live with us so he could bury himself in work. He had never been an overly warm or affectionate man, but after mother died, any warmth left in him quickly vanished. Our father then spent the rest of his life making money, believing that was all he needed. Once Thomas passed the bar he went to work with our father at his firm Murphy’s at Law, and they became the best in the city. Eventually Thomas convinced our father to expand the firm, bring on more clients and open up branches in the UK to start. He wasn’t keen at first but eventually Thomas got his way. But despite our father’s death, and business expansions, Thomas refused to let the business name falter; his clients would and could expect the same exceptional work they had always provided.

I poured myself another drink and continued to flip through the album. The next few pages were pictures of us as teenagers. At this point, we had moved away from our father who found his life much easier when we weren’t around. We travelled with our aunts. Each picture was from a different place, a different town, a different country. Betty and Ronnie loved to travel and wanted to see the world, but the way we all travelled was a bit unorthodox. Our aunts were freelance consultants, and they travelled all over the world restructuring bookstores in decline. We would stay in each town until the store was once again turning a profit, and then move onto the next. Thomas and I would work in the shop part-time while being home-schooled by Ronnie. To be honest, I loved it. I must have tried to read every single book that we came across, but of course, never quite managed it. Thomas, on the other hand, hated every moment of it. He found it boring and would always run off with new friends he’d made, leaving me with all the work. Thomas was always more social than me. Of course, Betty and Ronnie’s dream was to open their own bookstore one day, and they finally did a couple of years ago. Happily, they ran a tranquil little bookshop in a lovely little city, until they met their untimely deaths.

I turned the next couple of album pages showing Thomas graduating college and then my graduation. Pictures of my wedding with Robin followed. I drank another long nip of whiskey as I flipped through the pages of wedding photos wondering if she was already cheating on me then. Given how my life was going of late, it’s possible I was becoming a cynic. I hated myself for looking so damn happy. As I examined the pictures I felt like burning them, but that could have been the whiskey. Either way, it was the last thought I remember having that night.


The next morning, I woke to the grating sound of Thomas in the kitchen, grinding coffee beans. I slowly sat myself up on the couch, still in my, now wrinkled, blue suit from the day before. Rubbing my temples, I prayed the obscenely loud sound of the coffee grinder would stop. The nearly empty bottle of whiskey and my dry, empty glass were sitting on the coffee table, the photo album lying open on the floor. My raging headache let me know I was awake.

“Morning,” Thomas said once the grinder stopped, louder than he knew he needed to be. “You might want to get ready, we have the will reading at ten, remember.” Thomas was already showered, shaved and ready to go for the day. I looked at my watch, it was only 8:30. I had time.

I left Thomas to his grinder and dragged myself into a hot shower. My head was throbbing from the half bottle of whiskey I had consumed but the hot water was helping. By the time I was showered and dressed in the only other suit I had with me, Thomas had finished making coffee and had a full tumbler waiting for me. I took my coffee with thanks as we headed out into the centre of London.

My intense hangover combined with the deaths and divorce put me in a rather irritable mood, not a good start to the day. With our father gone, Betty and Ronnie were the only family Thomas and I had left, so when it came to their wills, I fully intended to honour their final wishes.

Robert King was the man representing our aunts. He was a short, pudgy sort of man with a receding hairline. He might not have been much to look at but he was a damn good lawyer and had been representing our aunts for at least a decade, if not longer. Mr. King began the meeting by giving us his deepest sympathies for our loss.

“Please, how did they die, Mr. King? You didn’t give us any details on the phone yesterday.” I asked. Mr. King shifted in his seat as he contemplated how to begin.

“Yes, right, now, I was told everything by Ms. Miller, the young woman in your aunts’ employment. If you have any more questions once we’re done, she asked me to relay that she’s more than happy to go over everything with the two of you.” Mr. King paused to take a breath before continuing, “Betty had fallen ill with bronchitis a couple months ago, and unfortunately it turned into pneumonia. But, Betty being Betty refused to go to the hospital, even after it turned into pneumonia, so Ronnie was doing her best to care for her at home. Ahh… then the other day Betty took a turn for the worse and finally agreed to go to the emergency room for help. Ronnie called Ms. Miller around midnight to take them to the hospital. With Ms. Miller driving, and Ronnie and Betty in the back seat — they were only a few blocks from the hospital when another driver, heading out of the downtown area and not paying attention, ran a red light. He hit the passenger side of the car. Ronnie and Betty died from injuries sustained in the accident.” Mr. King paused, settling his shaky voice. He had more to share but could see our hearts break with each word he uttered.

“Stubborn old bird,” Thomas muttered as he stood from the table and paced over to the window running his hands through his hair to calm down. “If she had just gone to the hospital earlier,” he said.

“Thomas, this… this is no one’s fault. You know Betty… she hated doctors and hospitals. Of course she put it off for as long as possible.” I tried to reason, with Thomas as well as myself. I wanted to reassure him, but scarcely believed the chain of events myself. He was right; Betty was too stubborn for her own good sometimes. I nodded to Mr. King to continue.

“Betty… Betty died on impact; and Ronnie… well Ronnie was pinned under the car and while the first responders managed to get her out and rushed to the hospital, she suffered significant injuries. I’m afraid the doctors did everything they could but she died during surgery.”

Mr. King took a breath, having gotten the worst out and done with, allowing Thomas and I to absorb the details of what happened. Thomas was staring out the large window of the conference room, watching it rain while I sat in disbelief, desperately trying to make heads or tails of it all. I looked back to Mr. King, grief flooding my senses while questions began to fill my mind. I gave myself a moment to compose myself before responding to Mr. King.

“What… ahh… what happened… what happened to Ms. Miller and the other driver? The one who hit them… What happened to them?” My voice was shaky but I didn’t care; I wanted to cry, to drink, to sleep. I wasn’t quite sure which, but I needed to hear the rest. As I spoke, Thomas finally came back to the table, his eyes red from holding back tears while he listened to Mr. King’s response.

“Well, the driver died at the scene. He sustained a fatal head injury, and…”

“Good. The bastard murdered our aunts, he deserved to die.” Thomas spat out in anger, cutting Mr. King off mid-sentence.

“Thomas, come on. I know you are mad and I am too but still, it was an accident.” I placed a hand on Thomas’ shoulder in an attempt to calm him. Perhaps I should have let him be, but Thomas was never great at containing his temper and I did not want Mr. King to get the brunt of it. I knew Thomas needed to vent and Lord knew I needed to as well but it could all wait, it would all wait.

“And Ms. Miller?” I asked, trying to get us all back on track.

“Ms. Miller… she, she was the lucky one actually. She suffered a rather nasty concussion but other than that, just superficial cuts and bruises really. The doctors kept her for observation of the concussion but she’s going to be just fine.” Mr. King gave a small smile of comfort for the one sliver of good news out of the whole ordeal.

“That… that’s good… ahh, good, I’m glad she’s ok after… after everything,” I muttered after a few silent seconds. Thomas was still shaking his head from the sequence of events. I found, for myself at least a small amount of comfort knowing that someone made it out okay.

“That’s good? Really, Betty and Ronnie are dead! They are dead and you say that’s good?” Thomas hollered at me, “Who cares if the girl working for them is fine? They’re not!” I could see his temper rise.

“Yes Thomas, it’s good that Ms. Miller is okay. She went through an ordeal. She was trying to help our aunts and didn’t deserve this any more than they did. So yeah it’s good!” I bawled back at him. Usually I was not one to raise my voice but we were both having a bad morning. Really, we were both having a bad week, but at this point, it couldn’t be helped.

“Now, can we please finish going through their wills and be done here? Can we please just do that much?” I asked Thomas, hoping he’d sit back down so Mr. King could finish and we could all move on from this. It took Thomas a few dragged out seconds before he crossed his arms and finally sat back down. Mr. King looked at the two of us once more and started reading Betty and Ronnie’s wills. Both were nearly identical. As expected, Thomas and I were to split most of their financial assets and properties fifty-fifty, but there were additional requests of me. In Betty’s will, there was a three-fold request: First, I was to take over the operation of their bookshop in Victoria, British Columbia. Second, allow Miss Catherine Miller to continue to work there. And third, that Ms. Miller be given the sum of $20,000. Mr. King stated that this was in Betty’s will because the shop was legally in her name and not Ronnie’s, but the request came from both of them. When Mr. King read out this section, Thomas interjected.

“Why are our aunts giving $20,000 to a complete stranger? What right does she have to anything from Betty and Ronnie? And why... why is Michael singled out and left the bookshop?” I stared at my brother, dumbfounded and shocked. Complaining over a measly $20,000 and a bookshop he never cared for. A bookshop neither of us even needed. Mr. King addressed Thomas before I had a chance to say anything.

“Mr. Murphy, it is my understanding that Ms. Miller is the young woman who has been in their employment for nearly two years. Your aunts grew very fond of Ms. Miller and they were adamant in their wishes regarding her job at the bookstore and the $20,000.” Mr. King paused to let Thomas take in the news for a second time.

“What does it even matter? This is what they wanted,” I questioned.

“It matters, we don’t even know this girl. Why would they want to give her money? Besides, she was driving — she’s just as liable as that idiot who hit them. She should be arrested, not rewarded with twenty grand. ”

“Do you hear yourself? Ms. Miller was trying to help Ronnie and Betty and she was injured in that accident. She’s far from liable. Besides this is what the aunts wanted so dammit I’m going to oblige.”

“Mich—” Thomas began.

“Seriously. Get over it.” I was done with this conversation. He was getting on my nerves but it could have just been me, my mind was on overload and I just wanted the day to be done already. “We will, of course, honour our aunt’s wishes concerning Ms. Miller, Mr. King. Don’t worry.” My tone was firm and definitive, there was no room for Thomas to object.

Thomas was quick to show his disapproval, but I didn’t care. I had no objections to Aunt Betty and Ronnie’s request. If this was what they wanted then this was what was going to happen, no matter what. Though Thomas seemed to be having a hard time coming to terms with everything that was happening, this was not about him.

Thomas and I had entered that meeting with the same expectations but only one of us left disappointed with the outcome. For the rest of the day, I had to endure my brother’s bad mood. He started to behave like a six-year-old who just had his favourite toy taken away. I knew there were things that needed to be done, arrangements for the funeral, which was taking place in Victoria where Betty and Ronnie had spent the last four years. That was the longest time they had spent anywhere. Thomas and I would have to go through their belongings, box up their lives, decide what to keep, and what to give away. I had to decide what to do with the bookshop. The idea of simply giving it to Ms. Miller crossed my mind, but if our aunts had wanted that surely they would have put that in the will. With the company growing and Hamish wanting to start expanding, I wasn’t sure I had the time for a bookshop too, especially one in another country. But it was left to me, so I had to figure out something. Though it had been years, the thought of working in a bookshop again did sound nostalgically pleasing, and it couldn’t possibly be more difficult then starting M&M Tech.

A small comfort had come to me when I learned that our aunts had pre-planned their funeral. All that was left for Thomas and I to do was show up. Mr. King had given me the address of the bookshop that also happened to be where Aunt Betty and Aunt Ronnie lived. As it turned out, the building they had bought with the store had an apartment upstairs. Mr. King also provided the address for the church and the pastor’s contact information for the funeral. I emailed him to set up a meeting for when Thomas and I got into town.

I was extremely curious about Ms. Miller, what kind of young woman was she to aid her employers in the middle of the night? That says a lot about a person; at least it did to me. Betty and Ronnie were obviously fond of her, how would she take the news about the money she had been left in their will, especially after what had happened?

That night, Thomas and I were packed and ready for our twelve-hour flight the following day. I gave Hamish a call, filling him in on the last couple of days and told him I was heading out of town for a few weeks. Hamish, of course, had no issue with me taking off and told me to let him know if there was anything he could do.

With nothing else to do before leaving, I went in search of a box I had been keeping in Thomas’ storage area with the rest of my belongings. I found the box and headed back to the living room, putting it down on the coffee table. Thomas had already retired for the night, so I poured myself a glass of Pinot Noir, sat down, and opened the box. There were some old trinkets inside, papers I hadn’t looked at in years, and a small old wooden chest with a broken metal lock. I pulled out the small wooden chest, removed the lock, and slowly opened the lid to examine what was inside.

Aunt Betty and I had always been rather close. Whenever she and Aunt Ronnie were away she would write, letting me know where they were and how they were doing. Betty and I began this tradition when I went off to college and was out on my own for the first time. That’s why I was shocked to hear from Mr. King that Betty had been so ill, Betty and I kept up a regular correspondence. I had hoped we had the type of relationship where she would have told me something like that. There was a time when we discussed almost everything, but there were things I never confided to her. I never did tell her the whole story behind Robin and me getting divorced. Betty loved Robin, so I told her the divorce was no one’s fault, we just grew apart and that it was all for the best. Aunt Betty wrote about how disappointed she was in me for letting the marriage dissolve, but she seemed to understand.

The wooden chest was full of her letters, I had kept them all over the years. Once a month I received a letter from her, letting me know how things were going, even when nothing had changed. When Mr. King read out the section of the will regarding Ms. Miller, her name resonated in my mind. I remembered Aunt Betty writing about her once. Digging through the pile of letters I finally found the one I remembered.

My dearest Michael,

I was sorry to hear about you and Robin. Is there really no way of repairing your marriage? You are not divorced yet, you haven’t even started the proceedings, and you two could keep trying. After all, marriage is a sacred bond between two people, and such a bond should be honoured despite all of life’s challenges. But then, I’m just an old woman with outdated beliefs, so what do I know. If Robin isn’t the key to your happiness my boy, then I just hope one day you find it. Nothing is more important in life than being happy.

Speaking of happiness, my dear sister and I have finally found someone to help us out here in the shop (which is doing quite well, I might add). She’s a lovely young woman who recently moved to the island. Her name is Catherine and she is just a darling. Now that she’s here, Ronnie and I have no idea how we ever managed to get along without her. She’s kind, hardworking and she certainly knows her books. At any rate, we have both readily fallen in love with her. Personally, had I ever been blessed with a daughter, I would have liked her to be like Catherine. I’m sure if you ever decide to come and visit your dear old aunts and meet her for yourself, you’ll feel the same as we do. Anyway, we certainly think of her as our own. The poor thing has no family here and always seems so anxious; we have never met a young person as demure as Catherine. Regardless, she really is the sweetest thing.

Well my love, just a short letter this time. Ronnie and I continue to hope dear Thomas will stop being so adventuresome and settle down one of these days. Anyway, we are happy here in our little shop, and both of us are well, so you are not to worry as I know you do. Give Thomas our love. Do write soon, love hearing from you.

You’re loving aunt,

Betty

I put the letter down and drank some of my wine. Of course Aunt Betty had written of Ms. Miller on other occasions but none of those letters elaborated details about her. Perhaps they never did learn much more about the young woman they had taken in.

I read the letter again along with some of the others from Aunt Betty trying to piece together a timeline, attempting to find some small clue she might have left. Berating myself for not staying in better contact, I wondered if she had attempted to tell me something more. Was I too caught up in my own life to see the signs? As sad and heartbroken as I was over their deaths, I found myself angry that Betty had not told me about her poor health, for not giving me the chance to help, and spend time with both her and Ronnie. And at the very least, the time to say goodbye.

About the author

I self-published my first novel, Choices and Consequences, in 2017. While writing The Old Black Curtain I released a reflective album: Achor My Soul. As a writer, I find ways to combine my two passions: music and literature. view profile

Published on May 22, 2020

40000 words

Contains explicit content ⚠️

Genre: Contemporary Romance

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