Authors: Patti Berg
She hadn’t tackled the upstairs yet, except for hauling out a few old mattresses that had become home to critters too numerous to mention and ridding the rooms of spiders and their webs.
She’d dozed in a sleeping bag for seven nights. The old chesterfield was soft and big, and she found she could curl up nice and comfortable amid its high back and arms.
The storekeeper’s son had been kind enough to
drop a cord of wood at her back door. She’d bought an ax and filled a box with kindling, and she’d managed to keep a fire going almost every night. She’d long ago given up hope of the furnace keeping her warm. The temperature control knob seemed to have a mind of its own. Every time she turned it up, it would slowly wind its way back down.
A week ago she’d halfway considered giving up on the place. The work was more extensive than she’d imagined, she had no help, and she had no friends.
But Jon Winchester’s arrogant attitude had fired her resolve. Every time she thought of quitting, she remembered his words, that insufferable lopsided grin, those crossed arms. No way would she give up.
She had cried, of course. In the loneliness of these rooms her tears had fallen easily. And then she’d reflected on the good things. She had a home
and a future; she was alive. A year ago at this time she’d thought she was going to lose all those things. Better off alive and lonely, she thought. Dead didn’t seem such a great alternative.
The grandfather clock just inside the entry—still running in spite of its age and the filth she’d cleaned from it—gonged eight times to announce the hour, and with each gong she heard a thud. Those noises were going to drive her insane.
It wasn’t until she picked up a cloth to polish a silver candlestick that she realized the thud was a knock. Going to the entry, she saw the shadow of a man—a big man.
Oh, heavens! She could think of much more appropriate
words, but she’d promised not to swear. It didn’t matter if the occasion warranted it.
She tapped her foot and counted to ten before opening the door and facing the titan.
“‘Mornin’, Elizabeth.” Jon tipped his hat. One side of his mouth tilted into a poor excuse for a smile, his sapphire eyes sparkled, and her feet and toes had the nerve to grow warm. She didn’t like the effect he had on her. He was abusive and rude. How dare she let his looks interfere with the way she loathed the man!
“You didn’t leave anything behind when you left here a week ago,” she said flatly. “Is there some other reason you’ve dropped by?”
“City council’s not too busy at the moment. You need help, and I aim to do the work.”
“I don’t need your help. I think I made that clear before.”
“You made it clear, but I decided this morning that you hadn’t meant a word of it.” He knelt down, picked up the biggest toolbox she’d ever seen, and grabbed a ladder he must have propped up next to the door.
“I meant every word.”
The grin touched his face. He laughed and would have walked right over her if she hadn’t moved out of his way. She was sure he could do it, too. In fact, she had the feeling Jon Winchester could leap tall buildings in a single bound, swing a sledgehammer with his little finger, and drive a nail with just one blow.
He leaned the ladder against a wall in the parlor and turned around. “I’ve watched you hauling water
all week. I take it the plumbing’s not working too well.”
“Oh, there’s water, all right. It looks like sludge, and I imagine that’s what’s stopped up the drains.”
He set the toolbox on the floor and walked toward her. Too close... way too close. She took a step back. He moved another step closer, reached out an ungloved hand, and gently brushed a thumb across the tip of her nose. “Y’know, Elizabeth, you’re just as pretty with dirt on your nose as you are without.”
Her eyes widened.
Red hot heat crept up her neck, and she hoped it had stopped before reaching her cheeks.
“If you want to work, fine. But please save the flattery for someone else.”
He shrugged and she turned away, but his words stuck in her mind.
were such commonplace words thrown at the models she’d worked with that they meant little or nothing. They were part of the business, the hype. But
You’re just as pretty
had sounded so much nicer, so much more sincere, coming from Jon. She liked it—but he didn’t need to know.
She walked to the kitchen, coming to a sudden halt when Jon cupped his hand around her arm. “I owe you an apology.”
His words surprised her, but she didn’t turn around. She waited for more.
“I was rude the other day.”
“Overbearing and judgmental, too,” she added.
“You’re probably right.” His hand slid up her arm and rested on her shoulder. “I’ve got faults, Elizabeth. You’re bound to find even more flaws in
my character—if you’re willing to get to know me better.”
She stepped forward, away from the grip of his hand. She thought about turning around, she thought about giving him some kind of response, but instead she continued into the kitchen. Behind her she could hear Jon’s boots on the hardwood floor. “You could start with the plumbing,” she said.
“I could,” he said, circling Elizabeth until he stood right in front of her. He leaned against the counter, and slowly she looked into his eyes. “Am I going to be just the hired help,” he asked, “or will you give me a chance to make up for an unfortunate case of bad manners?”
Her smile came too easily. She wanted to hold it back, but she couldn’t.
“Does that smile mean I’m forgiven?” he asked.
She shook her head. “Fix the plumbing for free and I’ll consider it.”
He laughed. “Ever the businesswoman, right?”
businesswoman,” she corrected him. “I learned a long time ago how to deal with stubborn, egotistical men. That helped me succeed.”
“That’s part of why I like you.”
“Because I’m successful?”
“No, because you think you know how to deal with me.”
“You’ve already informed me that a two-by-four doesn’t work. Guess I’ll just have to stick with words.” She turned away from his grin and ran a hand over the old and cracked linoleum countertop.
“This needs to be replaced,” she said, effectively
changing the subject, “and the wallpaper needs to be stripped in every room. My first priority, though, is the plumbing. I’d like it to be
first priority, too.”
He laughed. “Are you always this dictatorial with your hired help?”
She tilted her head and smiled. “It didn’t endear me to anyone, but it got the job done.”
“Good thing I decided I liked you long before I decided to be your slave.”
And he did like her. He liked her spunk, he liked her drive. He liked the dirt on her nose and the wisps of ebony hair that had fallen out of her braid and encircled her face like a halo. But she was no angel. Hell, no! He’d dated angels, even been in love with an angel once—and he’d been bored to tears.
There was nothing the least bit dull about Elizabeth Fitzgerald.
“Before I shove my head under the sink, why don’t you give me a tour of this place?” he said. “Haven’t been in here since I was a kid.”
“I doubt it’s changed.”
“A little boy’s memories aren’t always the same as a man’s. Things seemed immense back then... of course, I’ve grown a bit since I was a kid.”
Slowly her eyes traced the length of his six-foot-six frame from head to toe, and he just stood there and let her peruse him. A hint of a smile touched her face, tinting her cheeks a pale shade of pink against her porcelain skin. He thought she might comment on his size. Instead, she returned to talk of the hotel. “I guess there’s time to show you around. The upstairs, at least. Once you finish the
plumbing down here, maybe you can figure out how to add a few bathrooms.”
“You have high hopes for my plumbing skills, don’t you?”
“I would imagine a man like you thinks he can do anything,” she fired back, and he liked the pretty grin that accompanied the words.
“I imagine I could, with the right incentive.”
She laughed, and he sensed some of her animosity draining away. “Come on,” she said, opening a narrow kitchen door that led to a small landing with steps going up and another flight leading to the basement. “The furnace is downstairs. Maybe you can check it out in the next few days. The fire’s nice, but it doesn’t warm the entire place.”
She led the way to the rooms above and Jon followed closely behind. ‘There are two floors above us and the attic, with four bedrooms on each floor,” she said, “far more than I’ll need. What I’d like to do is put in four suites, two on each floor. One for me, the others for guests.”
Jon listened to her talk as he followed her up the stairs, so similar to the spiral stairway leading from his kitchen to his studio. It was close, quiet, and dark. He could smell dust mixed with the light scent of Elizabeth’s perfume. And then an odd sensation he remembered from his childhood caught hold of him: he felt as though they were being followed, that each step he took was matched by another step—
that wasn’t Elizabeth’s.
He turned around suddenly, but saw nothing except darkness.
He placed a boot on the next stair and a strange light breeze blew against the hair that waved
slightly over his collar. He gripped the iron railing. He didn’t like what he felt. He didn’t like feeling that something was mimicking his moves and breathing down his neck. He’d spent years in and out of a psychiatrist’s office being convinced that ghosts didn’t exist—except in his mind.
But, dammit, it had seemed real back then.
It felt real now.
The door at the top of the stairs creaked when Elizabeth opened it, and they stepped into the dimly lit hallway. “I turned all the lights on this morning to brighten up the place. Didn’t do much good, though,” she said. “When you have a chance, maybe you could put new bulbs in.”
He quit thinking about ghosts and things he hadn’t worried about in over twenty years and took a good look at his surroundings. Yard after yard of wainscoting needed to be stripped and re-finished. Creaking floors needed the same thing. Yellowed wallpaper hung in strips, their edges curled and turning brown. There were water spots on the ceilings, and the light fixtures were so dingy that putting in new bulbs wouldn’t brighten the hall. “From the looks of this place, I think you’d be better off just tearing it down and starting over again.”
The smile he’d seen on her face when they’d stepped into the hall faded away. “My last house fell down—with me under it—and this is the first permanent home I’ve had since then,” she said. “If you think the job’s too big, tell me now. I don’t mind working hard... and I don’t mind working alone.”
He’d meant it as a joke, although he really believed
it would cost far more than the place was worth to fix it up. He hadn’t meant to hurt her—again. Her words about her last house falling down, and the almost tearful way she’d uttered them, touched him deep inside. It was an uncommon feeling, but he thought he could easily get accustomed to it.
She was tugging at a piece of wallpaper, and he pulled her hand away and drew her close. He tilted her chin and held it there so she would look at him. “I’m sorry.” They were two words he hadn’t said very often, but he meant them completely.
Her amber eyes looked into his, and they were filled with tears. Slowly she smiled. “Are you sorry about my house falling down, or about your insensitive remark about this place?”
“Both.” He smoothed away a smudge of dirt from her cheek. “If you think this place is worth fixing, I’ll help you out. If you want to talk about the other, I don’t mind listening.”
“I’ve talked too much about the other. It’s not something I want to discuss anymore.” She moved away from him and went through a door on her right. He followed behind and leaned against the doorjamb, watching her walk around the room, touching the old dusty furniture, grasping a bed-post and holding it tightly.
“This place may look like a dump to you, but it doesn’t to me,” she said. “There’s so much I want to do around here.”
“Tell me your plans.”
“Are you humoring me?” she asked, “or do you really want to know?”
“I want to know.”
She sat on the wooden bed frame and looked around the room, her amber eyes glittering as she spoke. “I want to restore it, make it look just as it did a hundred years ago. This is going to be my room,” she said. “I’ve ordered wallpaper samples from a place in New York that specializes in Victorian reproductions. I’ve counted three layers of paper on these walls. I hope when I get down to the bottom, that I can match what was originally in the house. And this bed—” She ran her fingers over the footboard, then looked to the top of the tall, spiraling bedposts. “I’ve got fabric samples coming, too. I’ll have yards and yards of Venetian lace draping the bed and the windows.”
She smiled at him then. “It’s going to be beautiful.”
He folded his arms across his chest and nodded.
“This, of course,” she said, moving across the room to a pink-and-white variegated marble statue of entwined lovers, “has got to go.”