We can judge the heart of a man by his treatment of animals.
18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant
Just because you’re moving fast doesn’t mean you’re going somewhere.
Jake Randall shifted his gaze away from the bumper sticker prominently displayed on the older-than-dirt Dodge Dart that crept along in front of him on the two-lane road. He’d been stuck behind it in a no-passing zone for what seemed like an hour, though it had only been a torture of ten minutes at most.
Rubbing his jaw to force himself to stop grinding his teeth, he glanced at the gas gauge and then his Rolex. A quarter of a tank left, and it was already past eleven. It would be close to midnight by the time he pulled into Faythe. Just enough gas, but about four hours later than he’d planned. Aunt Tillie would be in bed.
A flashing turn signal finally brought deliverance and the Dodge slowed almost to a stop to turn into a narrow driveway. Jake pulled around the car, then pressed the gas pedal down and reset the cruise control.
The speed soothed him; he was in very familiar territory and his whole body felt like it was in gear. He took the curves fast and it was almost as though his body had a kind of cellular memory of the road even though he hadn’t driven it for thirteen years.
As he glanced out the window a sign welcomed him back to Door County Peninsula, then he checked his mirrors. No headlights or taillights as far as he could see. The way he figured it, there was an excellent chance the county sheriff was home in bed, his radio crackling on the nightstand. He’d avoided many speeding tickets in his youth simply by being aware—aware of his surroundings, aware of speed traps, and aware of his talent for talking his way out of trouble.
Inhaling deeply, with every breath he felt himself begin to let go—just a little—of some of the built-up tension he held so tightly. The night air he breathed in was crisp and filled with the fragrance of pine trees, moist from the waters of nearby Green Bay, Lake Michigan a mere seven miles due east.
He ripped past the entrance to Peninsula State Park, then continued northeast on Highway 42. Though no sign told him so, he knew it was another thirteen and a half miles. Faythe had always been too insignificant to even be on the state map, let alone any roadside mileage sign.
As he neared the city limits, a shiny new billboard welcomed him to Faythe, Wisconsin. The simple painted sign of his youth had been replaced by a large sign painted forest green with bright white letters, complete with a single spotlight illuminating it.
Tourists typically didn’t even think of stopping in the small town. Most were too eager to either get to the end of the peninsula if they were headed north, or down to Sturgeon Bay if they were headed south. If you had no reason to stop, you could easily forget the town was even there.
Jake decelerated on Main Street. His memory of downtown Faythe was of several blocks of absolutely nothing.
The drug store was still there. A professionally lettered sign said: April Special: Root Beer Floats. Two for One. The old hardware store looked exactly the same, its large front window filled with tool displays and plumbing parts. On the next few blocks he noticed the addition of an upscale gift store, with a prominent “local artists and craftsmen wanted” sign in the window, and, surprisingly, an art gallery and several antique stores—a “grand opening” sign nearly covered the window of a store with a shiny new sign: Second Hand Rose. Freshly striped parking spaces sat in front of all the chic storefronts and there was a new sense of vitality where there had only been disrepair in his youth.
Just past the main drag the houses were well maintained, yards neatly mowed and sidewalks swept clean. It was a pretty safe bet most of the properties were still owned by the same families. In Faythe, sons and daughters who’d left were expected to return and live in their childhood houses after their parents died. It was tradition.
Slowing to a stop, he turned left on his great-aunt’s street. Her house was the largest and oldest Victorian on the block and she’d taken pride in keeping it period inside and out. As a child he’d been reluctant to sit on the antique sofas and chairs, but she’d always insisted he treat the house as his home away from home. And her house had indeed been a refuge, probably the only way he’d survived his childhood in one piece.
As he pulled into her driveway he turned off the engine and the lights, then coasted to a stop. Every window of the old house was dark. He listened to the quiet, then tipped his head back to look at the night sky, glad he’d left the top off his Porsche Boxster. The night sky was dazzling compared to the Chicago sky he’d grown accustomed to, and he picked out some of the constellations Tillie had taught him. If you ever feel lost, just find the North Star and you’ll know the way home. She’d been patient with him and he’d soaked up the mythic stories she’d taught him of the stars and planets. It would be so good to see her again, and, for the first time in a long time, in Faythe.
As he glanced again at the front of the house, a light came on upstairs. In a few moments, another one downstairs.
She was awake.
A grin tugged at the corners of his mouth, knowing he’d soon be sleeping soundly in the guest room after all. He watched as a shadow moved past the parlor window, his great-aunt checking to see who was in her driveway at such an ungodly hour.
Jake got out of the car and made his way up the front walkway, then climbed the creaking front porch steps and stopped in front of the door, listening. First he tried the door bell. Not a sound. Probably one of his first repair jobs on the long list he knew she’d have waiting for him.
Though it would be difficult to slow down—he hadn’t taken a real break from working in over ten years—he was determined to honor his great-aunt’s wishes. And her plea to him for help was the one and only thing that had the power to bring him back to the town he’d tried so hard to forget.
And besides, the Stuart advertising campaign was well ahead of schedule thanks to his recent round-the-clock attention. He had a long history of coming up with award winning ideas for their line of luxury hotels—they could certainly coast for a couple of weeks. Think Tank owed him that and, more importantly, he owed Aunt Tillie. She’d offered him a lifeline when he was young, and if all she wanted was some help with her old Victorian, he was happy to do what he could to help her get the house ready to sell. He’d simply keep to himself and be back in Chicago as quickly as humanly possible.
He tapped with his knuckles on the beveled window glass of the front door and in a few seconds, the porch light came on.
“Aunt Tillie? Aunt Tillie, it’s me, Jake,” he said. “If you’d ever get a phone I could have called...and I’m sorry it’s so late, but I—”
The door opened a crack and a flash of orange streaked past his ankles, down the steps and into the front yard, straight toward the maple tree.
The voice belonged to a young woman who appeared in the doorway as the door opened wide.
The woman stepped out the door and pushed past him, strands of her long curls whispering against his bare arm as she ran down the steps. Jake took a step backward and turned to watch.
The woman’s thin, white gown revealed the silhouette of every sumptuous curve of her petite body, and her reddish-brown hair cascaded to the middle of her back, dancing as she raced after the cat. Jake stared as the woman stood under the maple tree with her arms extended, calling softly.
“Max...Max...it’s okay...but you have to come down...” When the cat climbed higher in the tree, the woman spun around to face him.
Jake turned away from her and leaned his head inside the front door. Whoever this night nymph was, he had a feeling he’d definitely need his great-aunt to identify him.
“Are you just going to stand there?” The irritation in the woman’s voice pulled his attention back to her. Her eyes narrowed as she placed her hands indignantly on her round hips. The effect of the full moon on her gown left even less to his imagination and he forced his gaze away from her body to meet her glare. And although her expression certainly defied it, she was nothing but angelic in the silvery glow of the moonlight.
“What?” In his mesmerized state, he couldn’t think of a single thing to say to her.
From her stance by the tree, the woman continued to stare at him, but now seemed as if she were evaluating him. Her ill-humored expression softened a degree.
Finally she spoke in a measured tone, “Would you please come over here? You’re probably tall enough to reach him.”
Jake closed the front door against any additional potential feline runaways, then walked down the steps to join her. Again he forced his gaze away from her fluttering gown, this time to the long-haired orange cat who sat calmly looking down at them from a thick branch.
“Can you reach him?” she asked.
“Nope. Got a ladder or a stool or something?” Jake stared at the cat who yawned as though he was already getting bored with the game he’d started.
“I’ll get a chair off the porch,” she said, twirling around and walking briskly past him. Again her long curls brushed his arm, this time leaving a scent of lilacs in the air.
Jake held both hands up toward the cat. “You better come down, Max. This lady’s not in such a lovely mood—”
To Jake’s amazement, the cat eased down the tree trunk, then stepped with great care onto a lower branch and finally into Jake’s arms. There he relaxed, nuzzled his nose into the bend of Jake’s elbow and began to purr.
“How did you do that?”
Jake turned to the woman and shrugged his shoulders. “We’re old friends. I didn’t think he’d remember me.” She stood in front of him holding an antique ladder-back chair to her chest, her dark eyes fixed on his.
Then it hit him. “Cory? Cory Wells?” He watched her eyes widen under now sharply raised brows, and he could see her cheeks color even in the moonlight.
“Tillie’s your aunt?” she asked in a hushed voice.
“She’s my great-aunt, actually. What are you doing here?”
“I moved back to Faythe to help Tillie...her health...the house...”
“Where is she? Is she still asleep after all this racket?”
Jake watched as Cory took a deep breath, then returned his stare with a rock steady gaze.
“I’m so sorry, Jake, to be the one to tell you. Tillie passed away over a month ago...she went peacefully, in her sleep.”
Jake stepped back, the trunk of the tree meeting his shoulder with a painful thud.
Jake stared at the cat in his arms, his mind racing. Too late. He was too late. “I...I was in London...I didn’t know...she asked me to come, but I’m later than I thought I’d be and...”
“Jake, why don’t you come in and I can explain—”
He broke off her invitation by handing her back the cat, then he shook his head. He needed some time to adjust to what he’d done...no, what he hadn’t done. How could this have happened? Anger and regret pumped through his veins, burning his soul with the realization that he hadn’t been there when Tillie had needed him most.
“Is the Lakeview Motel still open between here and Ellison Bay?” he asked over his shoulder, already turned away and on his way back to the car. His breath came in ragged bursts as he battled the panic that was building inside him, panic that he was about to break down, lose control of his emotions in front of Cory.
“I think so. Jake, why don’t you meet me at the attorney’s in the morning at ten,” she called after him. “Al Weismann’s office is above the hardware store—I’ll let him know to expect you. I’m sure you have lots of questions, and he’ll be able to explain things and read you the will, tell you why I’m...”
The frantic sound of Cory’s voice faded, drowned out by the pounding of his heartbeat in his ears. When Jake reached the car, he slid into the seat and, with shaking fingers, managed to get the key into the ignition and start the engine.
He didn’t look back at her or the house as he drove away. Instead, he put all his effort into one thing: suppressing the threat of hot tears by shutting down the flood of grief. He’d bury it deeply for now, deal with it later—a skill he’d perfected in his childhood.
With each deep breath he pushed his grief deeper and deeper until he felt numb, a wall safely built between it and his heart.
A stab of pain pulled Jake’s index finger to the side of his head to rub in deep circles at his left temple where a tension headache had already begun.
He stopped hard at the four-way; a hand-painted sign nailed to the wooden post offered the comfort he sought: The Java Hut. Open ‘til midnight. Turn left on Cherry Street.
His old street. Perfect. A jolt of caffeine would help his headache if he could ingest it in time, and, more than that, he needed to stop and think.
As he drove, the thought popped into his head of how ridiculous it was for a trendy coffee place to share the block with his old man’s ramshackle clapboard house. Well, Pop, things change...whether you like it or not.
Jake turned onto his old street and then into the parking lot of The Java Hut. He jammed on the brake, blinked hard, then twisted his neck to look over his shoulder, then back again to search for address numbers, finally finding brightly colored blue and yellow tiles above the shiny red door. Seven thirty one.
His Porsche was parked exactly where his old bedroom should have been. To his right he should be looking at an ancient gnarled cherry tree—and not a Dumpster camouflaged by a white picket fence on which was painted a steaming cup of coffee and “The Java Hut” in bright red letters.
It hit him that the coffee shop was sitting precisely where his childhood home should have been.
As Jake stepped inside the shop, he watched an older woman look up from wiping down the espresso equipment. More than ever he was counting on his charm to discourage her from glancing toward the clock and noticing it was closing time.
He drew his mouth into a well-practiced killer smile. The woman returned with one of her own, then tucked an errant gray hair behind her ear.
She tossed her cleaning rag on the back counter and said, “Now, you, young man—you look like you need something strong enough to put some hair on your chest. How ‘bout I make you one of my special cappuccinos. It’ll give you a little kick to get you through whatever it is you’re trying to get through, or maybe help you get away from whatever you’re trying to get away from.”
Jake nodded. “You’re a mind reader. Sounds perfect.”
While the woman concocted her miracle drink, he settled onto a tall stool at a nearby table. Too many surprises. Too many unknowns to deal with in the middle of the night.
The woman set the cup on the table in front of him and Jake offered her another cultivated smile. “Have you worked here long?” he asked as he brought the steaming cup to his lips, then took a sip. C’mon caffeine, do your stuff.
The woman grinned, one eyebrow lifting. “You from around here?”
“Used to live here—actually right here.” He emphasized his point by tapping a finger against the red and purple mosaic tabletop. “This shop is sitting exactly where my house used to be.”
“That right? Well, I’ll be damned. You’re Ralph Randall’s kid, aren’t you?” She broke into an open, friendly smile and joined him at the table.
“Jake,” he said, extending his free hand to her.
“My, my, you sure have changed.” she said putting her hand in his. “When you came in I pegged you for a big city executive-type who got himself lost. Felt sorry for you and figured the least I could do was get you a cup of coffee. I’m remembering you left Faythe for Chicago the minute you graduated—that right?”
“You know what happened to my house?”
She studied him for a moment before she answered. “Not that I really blame you much for not asking, but don’t you want to know what happened to your father?”
Jake opened his mouth to speak, but nothing came out. Truth was, he really didn’t give a rat’s ass what had happened to his old man—but he couldn’t quite say the words out loud. He had Tillie to thank for that too. She’d insisted on manners and a civil tongue, especially around women.
“Your dad got sick,” the woman began, “a few years ago. Then he got so he couldn’t stay alone anymore—Alzheimer’s.” She paused, her brows pulling together. “You know about your Aunt Tillie?”
“Just found out.”
“She was a hell of a nice woman. An institution here, you know. Faythe won’t be the same without her.”
“Anyway, your dad’s property ended up being sold. Out-of-towners bought it. They demolished the building and built this place. The money from the property’s in an account that pays for your dad’s care.”
“He’s over at Miss Mabel’s on the north end of Main Street. She turned her house into a board and care place for people...like your dad. You come home to stay?”
The cup of cappuccino froze in mid-air at the idea of coming home to Faythe to stay, and Jake shook off the feeling as he shook his head no. “You know anything about the woman in her house?”
“I know Tillie hired her to help out with the house and the cats. And Tillie told me last year she was having good days and bad days, and she got so she didn’t want to be by herself. I heard at Tillie’s service she even put that woman in her will. Al Weismann’s who you’ll want to ask more about—”
“—so I heard.” he interrupted. “Hey, thanks for this. You’re a goddess of liquid magic.” He took another sip, then added, “Much better than the big city stuff. Now I know where to send someone for a decent cup of coffee.”
The woman got up and returned to her cleaning while Jake drank his cappuccino in silence.
His great-aunt had looked fine in December when he’d seen her last. Frail, certainly, but mentally sharp and as feisty as ever. Just like always, she’d gotten someone to bring her into the city, and then she just showed up at his office unannounced. She knew he’d drop everything to go to dinner and an evening performance of The Nutcracker with her. After their evening together was done, he’d call Smart Cars and order her a limo ride home.
She did it every year around the holidays as though she knew it was the only celebrating he did. God, how he hated the ballet. But he went happily, just to be with her and listen to her say how darling the children were and how she wondered why she’d never taken up dancing, how she sure had the legs for it. Then she’d laugh at herself and her under-five-foot stature and the silliness of impossible dreams.
And it would be wonderful. She’d compliment him on his accomplishments and all he’d done with his life in spite of everything. And then she’d ask him why she only got to see him a couple times a year.
Regrets soured Jake’s stomach along with the strong coffee. His cup now empty, he put a twenty on the table next to it and blew a kiss to The Java Hut miracle woman as he left the coffee shop.
“Don’t be a stranger, now.” She smiled and waved at him.
Fortified, he headed out of town knowing he’d probably be up the rest of the night in his motel room, but at least he’d be headache-free.
Cory pulled the thin blanket to her chin. With at least one cat sleeping on each side of her and usually one on her feet, she rarely needed the bed’s heavy quilt even though the nights were still cool.
Tonight it was Amber and Oscar who snuggled against each hip, with escapee-Max at her feet. Since Tillie had passed away, shy Amber still only showed up at night, staying well-hidden during the day, seeking human companionship exclusively after the lights were out.
Inhaling deeply, Cory concentrated on her heartbeat, and tried to stop its racing. The thudding had started the instant she’d recognized Max’s rescuer.
It had taken a while. In fact, she hadn’t really figured it out until he’d said her name and she’d looked deeply into his eyes as he’d cradled Max in his arms. The last time she’d seen Jake his dark blond hair was well past his shoulders. Now he wore it short with stylishly applied blond highlights, a no-nonsense business style so different than the wild and free style of his youth. He’d been dressed “expensive business casual.” Something her ex-husband had been good at wearing too. Nice car, nice clothes. By the looks of it, Jake had done more than all right for himself since he’d left Faythe.
What had been even more surprising was that he’d recognized her first. She’d worn her wavy hair layered short in high school; cutting it had seemed the only way to tame the unruly curls. Then when she’d met Ed in college, he’d kept mentioning how much he liked long hair, so she’d let it grow. She’d discovered it was more manageable that way, so she’d kept it long even after he was gone.
So, with her hair flowing in cascading waves to the middle of her back and sans Coke-bottle-glasses, thanks to her only self-indulgent post-divorce splurge of getting her eyes lasered, she knew the image of her now had no place in Jake’s memory. But he’d recognized her first anyway.
She never thought she’d see him again as long as she lived...let alone back in Faythe.
“Come on up, Leona.” She patted the extra pillow next to her head and soon the tawny kitten was curled up in the middle of it, her tiny motor humming.
Cory forced her eyes closed. There was nothing she could do now. Morning would come and Jake would hear for himself why she was in Tillie’s house. He’d have to believe the attorney. It was in the will.
Tillie had thrown her a life raft, and she intended to use it. Earning half the value of the house would allow her to stay in Faythe. It was a way of achieving the impossible. With no other nursing jobs anywhere close to the small town, she was destined to return to Chicago—or some other big city—and all the pressures she’d left behind. Half the value of Tillie’s house after it sold would buy her time. She’d be able to afford to buy a small house with the money, perhaps, and at the very least, she’d have the luxury of time to figure out a way to have it all. A home. Maybe a new, less stressful way to make a living. Maybe even more. Most importantly, Tillie had taught her to dream again.
Even if she spent the rest of her life an old maid-divorcee, she intended to make Faythe, Wisconsin her refuge. Her home.
But, Jake was Tillie’s great-nephew. What if it changed everything? He could easily contest the will, couldn’t he? She sighed from the strain caused by the string of questions speeding through her mind. He’d changed everything once before for her. What made her think it wouldn’t happen again?
And why, in heaven’s name, did just the sight of him make her feel like she was eighteen all over again?
It was embarrassing.
“And ridiculous,” she whispered to Leona as the kitten kneaded the down pillow with her paws.
He’d walked away from her once. She should hate him.
Jake jerked hard in his sleep, waking himself up.
He’d been dreaming of high school. And her. He’d had the dream hundreds of times, so much so that it had become somewhat of a comfortable habit with him, even though he felt unsettled every time.
He wiped his lips with the back of his hand.
He’d noticed her as a new kid in junior year at Faythe High School, but she hadn’t spoken to him until the following September when she’d asked him if he had any change for the pay phone to call her dad in Chicago.
Cory’s family had been one of those who’d come to Faythe to escape the hustle and bustle. She would move on, he’d suspected even then, as soon as daddy picked the right college for his little princess. She was smart, and from a family who had great expectations for her. He knew the only boy her father would approve of: someone intelligent, worldly, college educated, and preferably from a wealthy family. Birds of a feather.
And everything he wasn’t.
Cory. Pretty Cory.
But she’d been persistent, finding excuses to talk to him, to ask him questions.
Finally, he’d confronted her. She should have been hanging out with the cheerleaders or the smart kids, and it hadn’t made any sense to him why she wanted to associate herself with the class playboy, the biggest goof-off in school.
But she’d stared straight into his eyes and with just the slightest tremble in her voice she’d declared she simply wanted to get to know him better.
And he’d believed her. For once in his miserable life, he’d listened to his heart, giving in to her brown, puppy dog eyes...and he’d believed her.
It had been his biggest mistake.
And it would always be his biggest mistake...to let himself fall in love with a girl he could never have.
In a cat’s eye, all things belong to cats.
Jake stopped on the sidewalk outside the Faythe Hardware Store and looked up, just long enough to read the gold gilded lettering on the second floor window: Alan Weismann, Esquire. Established 1970.
He reached for the knob on the door that led up the stairs, opened it and climbed the steps two at a time. In his motel room he had finally fallen asleep at four, had slept through his alarm, and now was thirty minutes late for his appointment with Tillie’s attorney. He hated being late.
Rapping sharply on the door at the top of the landing, he paused a few seconds, then let himself into what seemed to be a waiting area. A tiny brass bell at the top of the wooden door jingled his arrival. The area inside was small, with only enough room for two wooden chairs and a brass coat rack. No Cory there for him to explain why he was late. Was she inside? Or maybe she had gotten tired of waiting and had already left.
After pausing another moment Jake stepped up to the office door, his hand poised to knock on the frosted glass, when the door opened.
“And you must be Jacob Randall, Tillie’s great-nephew?”
Jake nodded at the man who opened the door. He looked like he’d stepped out of a spaghetti western, with a crown of silver hair and matching handlebar mustache, and wire-rimmed half-glasses perched low on his narrow nose. He wore a starched white shirt, black string tie, and a buttoned maroon brocade vest complete with a gold watch fob that draped to a tiny pocket. The only thing missing was a six-shooter and a star.
The man smiled, removed his glasses, and extended his hand. “Al Weismann. Good to finally meet you.”
Jake grasped the man’s hand firmly and said, “I must apologize that I’m late—”
“Nonsense, this must be a difficult shock for you—come in, come in.”
The attorney gestured Jake into the office. The room was meticulously tidy and a somewhat curious blend of business and pleasure. In one corner a Tiffany-style floor lamp stood guard next to an overstuffed leather chair that’s permanent seat depression showed its frequent use. Several books were stacked on a small, round side table next to the chair and Jake pictured the man reading away the day, waiting for clients to appear. Or, maybe wishing they wouldn’t.
“You’ve come in from Chicago?”
Jake felt the man’s hand on his arm, his thoughts interrupted. “Yes, but I’ve been in London for the last two months on business.”
“Ah, I see. Before she passed away, Tillie had told me you would be coming to help with the house and had been expecting you at any time, but.... Where are my manners—please, sit down. Ms. Richards is already here.” Weismann made a sweep of his hand toward two tall wing-backed chairs that sat in front of the massive cherry-wood desk that dominated the room.
Richards? If she was married, what was she doing at the house alone?
As Jake followed the attorney toward the desk, the scent of lilacs in the air would have tipped him off anyway that Cory was already there. He breathed deeply to calm his nerves and to steel himself for his second meeting with her. Think of this as just another business meeting.
Jake took his seat and glanced toward the other chair where Cory offered him a tiny smile. Her brown eyes looked even darker in her pale face. Her long hair was secured into a ponytail hidden behind her. She wore a yellow sleeveless dress that hugged her waist, reminding him of how she’d looked standing under the maple tree trying to retrieve Max less than eleven hours ago. A vintage straw hat lay in her lap, her slender fingers clutching its brim, a cloth tote bag sat at her feet.
Jake licked his lips and tried to come up with something appropriate to say. Nice to see you again, Cory, but you looked much lovelier in the moonlight in your nightgown. His stomach knotted in response to his wildly immature thoughts. Had his brain time-warped to when he was nineteen just at the sight of her? Pull it together. It’s just Cory. Someone from another lifetime, a lifetime he was not the least bit interested in revisiting. He’d hear what the attorney had to say and leave his past behind him.
Hoping to distract himself, Jake focused his attention on the desk in front of him. It was all business: in-and-out basket, telephone, pen and notepad, all positioned within easy reach. The surface closest to him was bare; the deep reddish wood gleamed from recent polishing. Two floor-to-ceiling bookshelves covered the wall behind the desk. One with law books lined up like good soldiers on one bookcase, but on the other, a variety of volumes bound in fine leather and gold leaf and several shelves of what looked like popular fiction, just as neatly lined up as the law books. He liked the man already. Everything he’d seen so far made him feel the attorney was someone real, someone he could trust.
As Weismann approached his spot behind the desk, Jake watched the small town lawyer straighten his vest and his posture before he began to speak.
“First, let me begin by extending my condolences to you. Tillie will be greatly missed here in Faythe. She and I were friends for many years—ever since I started my practice here, actually. Everyone who knew her liked her and respected her. She was an important part of the community in many ways.”
“Can you tell me how she died?” Jake’s voice caught in his throat just a little, and he heard a rustle from Cory’s direction as she shifted in her seat.
Weismann sat in the chair behind the desk. “I do know she passed peacefully in her sleep with no pain or suffering. The doctor pronounced legally that her heart just stopped; that her body was simply finished. Tillie and I had completed some changes to her will, true, but there was no sign there was a need for haste. Though, after the fact, I wondered if she’d had an idea her time was coming.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, she’d notified me when she’d hired Ms. Richards, here, about a year ago to help keep up the house and to assist with the cats. It was only after Tillie died that I learned that Ms. Richards is actually a private duty nurse.”
Jake looked at Cory, his brow furrowing. Why hadn’t his great-aunt mentioned she needed real help? But he knew the answer even as the thought was complete. She wouldn’t have done anything that would have disrupted his career. She’d even said as much to him, how she was so happy he seemed to have found his niche and not to ever worry about her.
The attorney cleared his throat and began again. “Tillie and I talked about you a few months before she died.”
Weismann swiveled in his chair toward a tall, oak filing cabinet and pulled a large manila envelope out of a drawer and put in on the desk.
“I’m sorry to be so formal, Jake, but could I make a copy of your identification?”
Jake pulled his wallet from a back pocket and took out his driver’s license for the attorney.
“Thank you,” he said as he walked a few steps to a copy machine to scan the document.
“I’m sorry I was late,” Jake whispered to Cory.
Her eyes searched his for a moment before she spoke. “Al will be able to explain everything much better than I could have last night anyway. Did the Lakeview Motel work out?”
He nodded as the attorney returned and handed his license back to him and took his seat again.
“Before we continue, perhaps you both might like a cup of coffee? I was just about to offer Ms. Richards some when I heard the bell when you arrived.”
Jake nodded. “Yes, actually, that sounds good. Black is fine for me.”
“Cream and sugar,” Cory added.
The attorney walked to the far side of the office and filled two mugs with steaming coffee, returning with them on a silver tray.
“Jake, your great-aunt always made me drink a cup of tea when I visited her,” he said, handing Jake one of the mugs. “Some kind of herb tea, I imagine.”
“Tasted like dirty bath water?” Jake smiled at the attorney who nodded back, a small smile tugging at his lips making his mustache twitch. Aunt Tillie served chamomile tea to every visitor, whether they wanted it or not. Jake had learned at an early age to make it palatable with as much honey and cream as he could stir into the dainty china cup she insisted on using.
“I never had the heart to refuse her,” Weismann said.
“I know—God-awful stuff. I never refused either.” Jake pointed at the envelope and asked, “Is that her will?”
“Actually, Tillie has set up a rather unique situation.”
“Unique in what way?”
“Ms. Richards became a good friend to Tillie, and she liked and trusted her implicitly. More than once Tillie shared with me how important Ms. Richards had become to her. They shared a deep and special bond. Within the first addendum to Tillie’s will, Ms. Richards has been given the opportunity to earn half the value of the house and its contents upon its sale.”
Jake looked at Cory, whose own gaze remained on the attorney.
“Let me start by reading you both something,” Weismann said as he dumped the contents of the large envelope onto the desk. Out of it came a DVD and three white envelopes. One envelope was opened, the other two were sealed. The attorney glanced up at Jake for a moment, then opened one of the sealed envelopes.
“Ms. Richards already knows the contents of the first envelope that states Tillie’s request that she stay in the house at least four months. During that time she is to renovate and furnish the house to get it ready to sell, as well as find homes for Tillie’s cats. She agreed to do so and has three months remaining in her commitment. This next part is being revealed to you both for the first time. Ready?”
Jake nodded, then turned his head slightly, noticing Cory’s slender shoulders straighten.
“This first part is a short letter from Tillie to you, Jake,” Weismann explained.
Jake leaned back in his chair while Cory leaned forward. The end of her ponytail almost reached her waist and it hung in one long s-curve. She looked so different, and yet somehow much the same. She hadn’t aged much, and her skin was creamy and pale so unlike the perennially tanned women he was more used to in the city. Women in the city were interested in looking successful—bronzed, like they were just back from some exotic vacation. Career women. Women he understood.
“All right,” Weismann began, slipping his glasses back on his nose, “I’ll read you the first part. It’s quite brief.”
Jake sipped his coffee, sneaking a glance at Cory every few seconds. Her face was relaxed and she seemed confident, completely at ease.
The attorney cleared his throat, then began to read out loud.
Please know that Mr. Weismann is a true and trusted friend, as well as my attorney. I know he will explain to you what has happened and will make my desires clear to you now that I am gone.
I hope you will choose to honor my request, Jacob, for you must believe I have my own good reasons for what I am asking of you.
I have such fond memories of our times together, dear. And please know that I love you very much and want your continued happiness above all, happiness that you deserve.
My wish and hope is that all works out for the very best.
All my love,
Jake stared as the attorney placed the page on the desk and scooted it toward him. It didn’t make sense. “That’s it?” he asked.
“Well, that’s Tillie’s introduction to what I’ll be explaining to you both now,” he said. “As you know, Ms. Richards is currently living in the house so she can place Tillie’s cats into good homes and also to get the house spruced up—”
“Which is why Aunt Tillie asked me to come,” Jake interrupted.
“Yes, and all of this was quite unexpected, you see, but there are details in place that deal with things as they are right now—now that you’re here.”
“It may sound a bit convoluted to you, Jake, but I assure you Tillie was quite insistent about how she wanted this plan to roll out.”
Plan? Jake shook his head. It was sounding more and more strange.
“As I said, Ms. Richards has specific tasks to accomplish, you see, and the overall goal is to get the house ready to sell. Now that you’re here, though, things are a bit different. As it stands now, if you agree to stay for three months and assist with repairs, you’ll each earn half the value of the house upon sale.”
“Three months?” Two weeks away from the Stuart account was feasible. Three months would give Rod Thomas a chance to slip into the limelight, something that would create consequences he’d worked hard the last couple of years to divert. And besides, he wouldn’t do it to his boss. He owed him as much as he owed Tillie. Three months was a big problem. “And if I can’t stay?”
The attorney held his gaze for a long moment, then moved it toward Cory. “Then Tillie’s will awards the entire house and contents, or the value after sale, to Ms. Richards.”
“The whole house?” Cory asked, her voice incredulous.
“Yes, Tillie was quite clear. She had told me you had shared with her your desire to stay in Faythe and make a home here.”
Jake tried to wrap his mind around the words. It was hard to fathom that his great-aunt was willing her estate to someone she’d known...what...a year, at most? He turned to look out the office window, trying to sort out his jumbled thoughts. The sash was up and a breeze fluttered the sheer curtains and carried in the sound of people talking on the sidewalk outside the hardware store below.
Three months? And not just three months in Faythe...three months living with Cory Wells, or Richards or whatever her name really was. Three months away from important accounts that would definitely be affected by his absence, three months juggling house repairs here in Faythe, plus everything it would take to keep his hands on what was happening at Think Tank. But, what choice did he really have? None. The analysis was simple: if Aunt Tillie wanted him to stay, he’d stay. He’d just have to make it work...somehow.
“Would you like some time to think things over?” Weismann asked.
“Jake, you don’t need to decide this minute—so much has happened...it’s all so unexpected,” Cory’s soft voice urged.
He felt the feathery touch of her fingers on his arm, sending a shock wave that surged to his stomach. He moved his gaze from the window back to Weismann, shrugging his shoulder to disengage from her touch. “No. I don’t need any time to think about it. It’s what Tillie wanted, that’s all I need to know.”
“Then I’m sure you and Ms. Richards have things to discuss. Why don’t I leave you two alone while I print out some papers for you both to sign. My computer is in the next room; I’ll only be a moment.”
Weismann opened an interior door and disappeared, leaving Jake nothing else to do but to turn to Cory. “Richards? Not Wells?”
She held his gaze steady as her chin tipped up defiantly. “Divorced. But I’m changing my name back.”
“Anyone I knew from high school?” As soon as he’d said the words he realized how stupid he must sound. Why should he even care if he knew the guy? She’d had a life. He’d had a life. None of it should really matter.
“No, I met Ed in college.”
“So, exactly how long did you know my great-aunt?”
“I’ve been here over a year. Jake, I’m as surprised as you are about this.”
Before Jake could continue, Weismann returned and placed a paper and pen in front of each of them. “Jake, I understand you and Ms. Richards are already acquainted?”
“We both went to Faythe High School.”
“Hmm. Odd that Tillie didn’t mention this to me, but it should make things a bit easier, eh? You’re not total strangers at least.”
Not easier. No, not easier. But, he’d do it. He’d do it because he owed Tillie.
Time spent with cats is never wasted.
Jake left the attorney’s office, still stunned at how everything had changed so dramatically since he’d driven into Faythe.
He rolled his shoulders as he walked down the stairs, trying to relieve the ache in his bones. His whole body hurt from the tension of the last twenty four hours, and from the saggy mattress he’d endured at the Lakeview Motel. As predicted, he’d been unable to sleep at first, blaming the caffeine as well as the shock of Tillie’s death. He’d paced his motel room floor for hours trying to watch HBO, then channel surfed until he’d finally given up and forced himself to lie down.
Then his mind began its nonstop replay of the recent chain of events: how he’d volunteered to go to London, how the European branch of Think Tank had gone crazy over his ideas and wanted more, and how they’d made it so damned easy to stay. That’s what he regretted most of all. If he’d been in Chicago where he should have been, he would have been there when Tillie had needed him. He’d let her down and the feeling was going to be with him forever, like the forever-ache of a long-mended broken bone. But this would never mend, and he knew it with every fiber of his being.
Now he stood on the sidewalk below the attorney’s office and wondered what to do with himself. Cory had already gone, declining his offer of a ride back to the house, saying she needed to stop at the library while she was in town. They’d agreed to meet back at the house in an hour.
Jake drove to The Java Hut where he found a rumpled copy of yesterday’s Sun Times and ordered a scone and a large coffee.
As Cory paused at the top of the library’s steps, she shifted her bag of books so she could push open the heavy door with both hands. The cool interior of the historic building soothed her warm skin and eased the heat of the day...and the heat of the uncertainty she felt about everything that had just been dumped into her lap.
She walked up to the counter, forcing a smile on her lips. “Hi, Sara.”
“Hey, girlfriend, you’re early. My lunch break’s not ‘til one.”
“I just stopped in to get a rain check.” Cory piled her library books on the counter and watched the scowl grow on her friend’s face.
“What—painting or planting that can’t wait?”
“Can we go somewhere?”
“If my big belly will even fit in the aisles, you can help me shelve returns.”
“You’re not that big—
“Ha! This morning I couldn’t even tie my sneakers. Martha just laughed when I came in, said she was fine with my new stylin’ footwear for the next couple of weeks.”
Cory glanced to the floor beneath Sara’s very pregnant stomach to see she was wearing slip-on beach sandals instead of her usual Nikes. “But isn’t today your last day?”
“I think I’d go crazy at home so I’m figuring I’ll keep working until the contractions start. I think I’m good for another week at least. Martha was rather pleased, I think. She’s not looking forward to training a temp. You know how she is about change.”
“Well, let me at least push the cart.” Cory pulled the book cart away from Sara and turned it around.
Sara sighed, then dropped her hands to rub her stomach. “I’m babysitting, so it’s probably good that we reschedule our lunch anyway.” She tipped her head at a boy who sat several yards away in one of the overstuffed leather chairs that formed a semi-circle on a large, colorful oriental rug in the reading corner.
“That’s Mitch,” Sara said. “Ted’s nephew.” They both watched him turn a page in the book he was holding, then lift his head. He smiled a happy grin and lifted a hand to wave. Sara returned the wave. “We’re watching him for a few days while his mom’s at Mayo Clinic for tests. He’s such a great kid.” She sighed, shaking her head.
“Sounds serious. Does he know his mom’s sick?”
“I don’t think so, and I don’t feel comfortable intervening. Ted’s family is a lot more stoic and close-mouthed about everything than my wild and crazy family—we’re such opposites.”
“—that attract,” Cory added.
Sara smiled and nodded. “Some days, Cory Wells, I blame you for introducing us, but mostly I thank my lucky stars I ended up with one of the good ones.” She patted her round belly and a satisfied sigh escaped her lips.
Cory pushed the cart forward as Sara shuffled toward the children’s department.
“Hey, are you working on any matches since Tillie’s gone?”
“Not really. I keep thinking about Mr. Foster and Ellie, from The Java Hut, though.”
“Might be interesting. He’s been alone a long time, hasn’t he?”
“Yah—and I haven’t done any investigating yet. I figure I’ll get through the house-thing first and then hang out my matchmaker shingle and try to fill Tillie’s shoes.”
With great difficulty Sara lowered herself onto a pint-sized wooden stool in front of the low bookshelf. “Hand me those books and I’ll sit while I shelve them.” She extended a hand for Cory to pass her the books, then said, “Okay, spill it. Why are you breaking our lunch date?”
Cory handed her a small stack and took a deep, fortifying breath. “Last night, Tillie’s great-nephew showed up at the house, and this morning we met at Al’s so he could explain what I was doing there.”
“Did you know he was coming?”
“Of course not. I didn’t even know Jake and Tillie were related.”
“You know this guy?”
“His name is Jake Randall and he went to high school with us, actually. I don’t think you two ever really knew each other, though.”
“Wait a minute,” Sara said as she twisted on the stool to stare up at her. “Did you know him...or know him?”
Cory hesitated. She hadn’t talked about Jake to Sara and now she wondered why. When she’d discovered Sara and Ted had come back to Faythe after college and had married, she’d been eager to get reacquainted. She’d been more than pleased about what good friends they’d become—they hadn’t hung out much together in high school since Sara had been a year behind her.
Since Cory had been back in Faythe, she and Sara had been meeting almost weekly for lunch, and their time together had become a wonderful ritual of sharing and comparing what had happened since high school, as well as talk about what the future held.
She cleared her throat before she answered. “We sort of dated. Well, we never really went out, I guess...we were just sort of a couple who hung out together.”
“Judging by your suddenly shy and pathetic tone, sounds like you never got over this guy.”
“That’s really ridiculous, Sara. I haven’t seen him since graduation. He left. It was over. That was it.”
Sara held her gaze. “It’s obvious there’s more. C’mon Cory. It’s me. What happened between you two?”
“I thought I was in love with him...probably puppy love...oh, I don’t know.” She felt the frustration inside her instantly rise to flood level. “We got so close during that last year, but he was still so secretive about everything. I never could figure out if he was hiding something from me, or if maybe he was hiding me from something or someone.”
“So why did he leave?”
“No clue. The night before graduation, we met in the woods by the school and he just said he had to leave town. I felt like a fool because I thought I’d meant more to him. That summer I rationalized what I had been feeling was probably just wishful thinking. All the girls were after him, but it was me he seemed to choose to spend time with. He made me feel special...I figured I’d probably read more into it than was really there.”
Sara reached a hand toward her and patted her knee. “I’m sorry. Sounds like you were going through a lot—I wish we’d known each other better then.”
“So, did Al explain what was going on?”
“Yes, but there was an addendum to Tillie’s will.”
“Because of him showing up?”
Cory nodded and handed Sara the last of the children’s books.
“Pull me and this baby up, or I’m never moving again as long as I live.”
Cory grinned and helped Sara to her feet. She pushed the cart and followed her toward the juvenile section.
“You should read this one if you haven’t,” Sara said, handing Cory the book instead of shelving it. “Holes. Louis Sachar tells a great story; really well-wrapped-up details blending the past with the present. You’ll like it.”
Cory tucked the book under her arm and handed Sara a stack. “According to the will, Jake has to live in the house for three months and help with repairs and renovations in order to earn his half of the value of Tillie’s estate after it’s sold.”
“And if he chooses not to?”
“Well, actually, then the whole house goes to me.”
Sara looked at her, her almond-shaped eyes widening, her dark eyebrows raising so they disappeared behind her straight black bangs. “You’re kidding. Jeez, Cory, you could easily stay here then. You could even do the Bed and Breakfast idea—people would go nuts about Tillie’s place, especially once you’re done furnishing it and decorating. That’s great news, huh?”
“But he’s staying.”
“With you...in the house.”
“So it seems.”
“Well, that makes things pretty interesting. Well, back to square one. You still should be able to buy something small with your half, so nothing’s really changed. So he can just be away from his job for three months while he plays handyman?”
Cory shrugged. She didn’t even know what Jake did for a living, but he hadn’t raised any strong objections. She followed Sara into adult fiction with the last of the returned books.
Sara faced her and said, “So, you’ll just finish out your four months. Seems simple enough to me. What’s he look like, by the way. I still can’t get a picture in my head of him from high school.” She kept her voice neutral, but her left eyebrow rose a fraction.
Cory wrinkled her nose back at her.
“I’m just curious, that’s all. C’mon, humor the nine-months-pregnant lady whose hormones are raging out of control.”
Cory let out an exasperated breath. “Short hair. Clean-shaven. Trendy dresser.”
“That’s it? A little light on the details, Cory. Sounds like I need to meet him and see for myself.”
“What you need to do is spend more time thinking about putting your feet up and keeping your stress level down. I’m sure he and I can manage to cohabitate in that big house without running into each other that much.
“Yeah, right.” Sara handed Cory the last two books that remained on the cart. “Have you read these latest ones by Susan Wiggs and Mary Leo? Maybe you better take a good romance to bed with you at night to keep yourself distracted from the hunk in the next room.”
Cory took the two books and forced a glare at her well-meaning friend. “Leave it alone, Sara.”
“Okay, okay. Well, I’ll give you a rain check on lunch until next week. We’ll recap where we both are with contacting hospitals and clinics—did you get those letters out?”
“Good. By the time my maternity leave’s over, maybe we’ll start seeing some supplies trickling in. Okay—you’re off the hook for now, Cory, but I’ll be expecting all the scoop about Jake next week. Deal?”
Jake glanced at his watch as he walked up the steps of Tillie’s house and onto the big front porch. He was early, kicking himself that he hadn’t thought to ask Cory for the key to the house when they were at the attorney’s.
He lowered himself into the same ladder-back chair she’d brought to the cat-rescue. Settling in, he tapped his foot as he scanned the porch and the front of the house. Some of the paint was flaking pretty badly on the trim around the windows and doors, and he wondered if he’d need to scrape it down to bare wood before repainting it. The wood on the porch seemed solid enough, but there were a few loose boards that would need some stabilizing.
He straightened the doormat with one toe and stared at it. Tillie had always left a spare key there when he was young. Could she have retained the habit after all these years?
Bending over, he lifted one corner of the braided rag rug and spied a tarnished brass key almost buried in a little pile of dirt.
He pulled out the key and put it in the lock and turned it. Grabbing his suitcase, he let himself in, quickly pulling the door closed behind him in case Max was standing by to try another escape.
The aroma of the house was the same as he remembered; lemony from years of polishing all the furniture and the thick banister on the staircase. He also noticed that old-house musty smell that was more a comfort than an irritant, and there still was a hint of his great-aunt’s signature rosy scent in the air.
Jake turned as he heard footsteps on the porch and before he could move out of the way, Cory opened the door and walked directly into him.
They froze in the awkward embrace—his arm around her and clutching her waist, the palm of her hand flat on his chest—balancing precariously against each other.
“How’d you get in?” she asked, her voice breathless.
“Key was under the mat,” he said, finally releasing her so she could get her feet under her.
“Oh. Good.” She kicked the door closed behind her, then set her bulging tote bag on the drum table and hung her straw hat on one of the hooks of the massive oak hall tree. “Have you been waiting long?”
“Nope. Just let myself in a minute ago.”
“So, you have your things with you, I see.” She pointed at the suitcase on the floor.
“Well, I have two weeks worth of things, anyway. That’s how long I thought I was staying.”
He watched as she licked her lips and took in a short breath.
“I’m already set up in Tillie’s bedroom, but if you’d prefer—”
“The guest room next to it is fine.”
She nodded. “I’ll let you get settled, then. Would you like some lunch? I was going to make myself a sandwich.”
“That would be great. I’ll show myself upstairs and be right down. We can...talk about how things are going to be.”
He watched as she turned away and walked down the hall. Her hips swayed and he had no recollection of all the nice curves her snug dress revealed, finally realizing her body had matured since he’d last been with her. She turned in the last doorway on the right, into the kitchen and out of sight. Jake felt like he’d stepped back in time, a boy in a man’s body, and he was embarrassed he had stared at her so intently. His fingers flexed, remembering the feel of her waist, curious about the rest of her. The girl he had known had definitely grown up.
Before making his way upstairs, he ducked his head into the parlor. Tillie kept it in a true Victorian style, a sitting room for company only and not everyday use. It looked much the same as he recalled, though there were some antiques he didn’t recognize, and the mantel above the small fireplace was overflowing with various picture frames of couples, some women in wedding dresses. He’d remembered there were always some pictures there, but now there wasn’t an inch of free space on the dark wooden surface.
Jake turned toward the windowsill where, gazing intently at him, sat a very proper-looking black and white cat. He walked up to it and ran his hand down the cat’s spine, wondering exactly how many cats Tillie had managed to acquire.
Upstairs in the guest room he found Max curled up contentedly in the middle of the bed. He gave the cat a scratch under his white chin, then unpacked his suitcase and put his things into two drawers of the highboy dresser. He left his toiletries in his Eagle Creek bag on top of the dresser until he knew which bathroom he would be using, assuming he’d end up in the small half-bath downstairs and they’d take turns using the claw-footed tub in the full bath down the hall.
He flipped open his cell phone and checked the bars. Battery was reading full power, but no service. Great. Tillie’s house seemed to be in a dead zone. Problems already. Now he’d have to call the office from a pay phone or see if he could get service in another location. He already imagined Rod rubbing his greedy little hands together once he heard that he’d be extending his two weeks away from the office, stuck in Faythe for three friggin' months.
He didn’t even bother trying his wireless laptop. As he walked toward the door, at the last second he turned his head to glance back at the crazy quilt that covered the narrow twin bed. A pang of sadness mixed with indebtedness battled within his heart. Not the guest room. It had been his room. Tillie had declared it would always be his room from the first night he’d spent at her house—the summer he’d turned ten, and the first year he’d moved in with his old man. He’d met his mother’s aunt at his mother’s funeral service in Faythe and it was then that Tillie had suggested he stay with her during the summers.
Somehow she’d bluffed his old man into agreeing. Spending summers with his great-aunt had been the only way he’d survived each school year after that. School had always been hard, but it was even more difficult being the new kid. And no one at the small school had understood the kind of help he’d needed. He’d learned early on to compensate with humor, quickly learning how to charm his teachers and make his classmates laugh.
He’d counted the days until summer, putting “Xs” on the calendar to mark the days. It had been heaven at Aunt Tillie’s, doing all the things he loved to do, no pressure, no tests.
No hiding his secret.
Heaven, that is, until he’d turned fifteen and his old man had gotten him a summer job sweeping up at the factory.
You’re too old for all the pantywaist stuff that old woman is spoiling you with. It’s time to get some blisters on those sissy hands of yours. His father’s words reverberated in his mind.
Even then Jake sneaked away any chance he could, even though his father forbade it. He’d learned to just patiently wait until his old man went on a bender, knowing he’d be passed out for hours when the liquor finally caught up with him.
Though Jake had rarely been able to spend the night during those times, Tillie had kept the bedroom the way it had always been, telling him it would always be his home too.
Now it was Cory’s home, or at least half of it at the moment. Jake drew his lips into a thin line. They had lots of details to sort out if they were going to be house-mates, and the sooner they started the better he’d feel. And he didn’t much like the churning stomach he had that seemed to have started the minute he’d rolled into Faythe. He was determined to put it to rest, and talking about their living arrangements should do the trick.
After a quick appraisal of the upstairs study, Tillie’s bedroom—Cory’s bedroom, he corrected himself—and the upstairs bathroom, Jake walked downstairs. The living room was beyond the parlor and it looked in pretty good shape, though the fireplace looked like it needed a serious cleaning and the room seemed a bit too sparsely furnished. The dining room seemed to be in the best shape, probably only needing new wallpaper above the chair rail.
Finally stepping into the kitchen, Jake judged it needed the most work of all. The wallpaper had been partially stripped, revealing more layers underneath. The cupboards looked like they might get by with a fresh coat of paint. The yellowed linoleum floor he remembered was no longer there, though, and instead he saw a nicely polished wood plank floor.
“I know, I know,” Cory said, “this room probably needs the most help. I had the floors done with some of the money Tillie had set aside for the bigger jobs. And there’s money for more furniture—and appliances too, but I’m having trouble finding ones that don’t look too modern but still work.”
“So, we’re supposed to keep it period?”
“As much as possible. She was hoping...hoped...the renovation could be done keeping at least eighty percent period. She always said she didn’t much care for furniture newer than the 1930s, but with the typical modern conveniences, of course. So far it’s been up to my discretion.” The look in her eyes said she’d wished she’d chosen different words.
Jake ignored her possessiveness for the moment and looked down at the perfectly appointed table. A crocheted tablecloth covered the square wooden table, and two place settings had been laid out with blue and white Currier and Ives plates and fine silverware. A small bouquet of fresh flowers filled an antique crystal vase that sat in the middle. “I don’t remember these plates,” he said, absentmindedly running his finger along the edge.
“I’ve been going to flea markets and estate sales to find glassware and things. What do you think?”
Jake shrugged, then his stomach growled loudly.
“Please, sit down and eat.”
On each plate sat a mile-high roast beef sandwich on dark bread, with a small mountain of potato chips next to it, and even a dill pickle spear. He put the white linen napkin in his lap and took a sip from a tall cobalt blue glass that he soon determined was filled with honest-to-goodness hand-squeezed lemonade. Before he could stop himself he had drained the glass.
“More?” Cory stood next to him with a large clear pitcher in her hands, sliced lemons bobbing among the ice cubes. She refilled his glass, filled her own, then sat down to join him.
“Looks good,” he said reaching for the sandwich.
“Thanks. It’s kind of nice to have some company to set the table for.” A smile found its way to her lips.
Jake smiled back, then picked up half the sandwich and took a healthy bite. She had set a nice table, and now he knew she made a mean sandwich.
A memory tugged free and he remembered a long ago picnic they’d shared. She’d made chicken salad that included nuts and grapes and he’d made her cross when he’d teased her about it being strange. She’d told him she was trying a new recipe, then made him take a bite and swear to tell her the truth. He’d been surprised it was so good, even more surprised she’d gone to so much trouble. And when he’d complimented her, her eyes had moistened. He’d had no idea his opinion meant so much to her. And he’d meant every word.
They both ate in silence for a few minutes, and somewhere in the house a clock chimed.
Eventually Cory cleared her throat. What was she supposed to say? Welcome to my home—that’s really your home—and isn’t it funny how Tillie’s will has thrown us back together again after all these years? And, by the way, why the hell did you leave Faythe and me behind anyway?
She watched Jake finish his sandwich and drain his glass for the third time, then placed his napkin on his plate.
“So, how many cats are there?” he asked.
“Nine, including Max.” Good. Nice, neutral conversation.
“Jeez, that’s a lot of cats. There’s a light-colored kitten on Tillie’s—your—bed.”
“That’s Leona; she’s only five months old. You probably won’t even see Amber until after dark—she’s an orange short-haired tabby, very shy. If you look under the hutch there, you’ll see Dolly and Petunia.”
Jake tipped his head and leaned low so he could look in the direction Cory pointed.
“The gray one’s Dolly. The calico’s Petunia. She was a stray Tillie found a few years ago in—”
“—one of the flower beds?”
“Yes, and Dolly, we decided, was abandoned. She had a tag, but the phone number had been disconnected. She’s fine now, but it took a while for her to adjust.”
“The black and white one in the parlor?”
“Winston; he’s been with Tillie a long while. And Gypsy and Suki tend to hang out in the living room. Gypsy’s dark with tan markings on her face and Suki has Siamese markings.”
“Oscar. He’s very playful, smoky gray, gold eyes. Usually he’s upstairs. He keeps tabs on Amber and likes to lounge on the bookshelves in the study. He’ll probably bring you a wadded-up piece of paper to toss. I think he thinks he’s really a dog.”
“I didn’t see any litter boxes—”
“Dolly and Petunia go in and out,” Cory pointed at a flap in the bottom of the kitchen door, “and there are boxes in the basement that I clean twice a day. It’s not too bad, really, and I don’t mind doing it. They were good company for Tillie, and, now, for me.”
“So, what else have you done to the place?”
Cory scooted her chair back and reached for a binder that was perched on the counter behind her. The feeling of confidence grew now that she was on more familiar ground. “It’s all in here,” she explained, handing Jake the notebook.
“Ah, a master plan—just like old times.”
Cory felt the heat blaze in her cheeks. Was he making fun of her?
“Reminds me of Mr. Foster’s class. We did get an ‘A-plus’ on every project, didn’t we?”
She stared at his face and determined he was paying her a true compliment and not teasing her. His grin was irresistibly devastating and her heart pounded loud enough in her ears that she couldn’t make out what he’d just said, hoping her smile back would be enough of a reply. Jeez, pull it together, girl. It’s only Jake.
“Do you ever see any of our old teachers?”
“Most have retired. Mrs. Anderson’s still teaching history, I think. And Mr. Foster actually works part-time at the hardware store. He’s got some glass knobs and brass drawer pulls on order for the cabinets in here. They should be in next week, so you could see him if you want to pick them up. I’m sure he’d enjoy it.”
“I knew he’d never really retire,” Jake added as he started paging through the notebook.
“It’s all there.”
“I’d say so.” Jake stared at the flagged page, reading it slowly to himself. Rake mulch...check flower bulbs...rake leaves...return books to library...lunch with...Sara. Who’s Sara?” he finally asked, breaking the long silence.
Cory swallowed her embarrassment. So she kept detailed ‘to-do’ lists. So what? What was wrong with a little organization? Maybe he wasn’t being as critical as he suddenly sounded; she should probably give him the benefit of the doubt. Taking a relaxing breath, she explained, “Sara’s the assistant librarian. She went to Faythe High—”
“—Sara Nguyen?” he interrupted.
She was surprised he even remembered Sara. “She’s Watkins now.”
“As in...Ted Watkins?”
Cory nodded and got up to clear the table, unused to so many questions at once. She’d grown accustomed to the quiet and her own thoughts.
“Sara and Ted. Now there’s a couple I never would have seen together.”
“They got married right after college and came back to Faythe. He travels a lot installing computer networks, but they manage to make it work. They’re really happy and it’s been nice getting reacquainted; we’re working on a project together for Faythe.”
“We wanted to secure one of the empty storefronts downtown for a volunteer-run monthly medical clinic. We’ve got the space; now we’re working on getting commitments from doctors to work a shift, and getting supplies donated. We have a long way to go, but I’m amazed at what we’ve accomplished so far.”
“Didn’t she run for class president or something?”
“And she won. Sara’s like a dog with a bone—she pretty much gets what she goes after. And she’s about to have a baby, actually. Any day, now.” Cory started filling up one side of the porcelain double sink with hot water and dish soap.
Jake didn’t reply, but got up and grabbed a cotton dishtowel from the counter to dry the dishes as she washed them.
“You don’t have to do that,” she said.
“Look, Cory. You don’t have to be so formal with me. We’re going to have to relax a little around each other. I’m going to live here, you know.”
She shot him a glance, but didn’t answer. With him what seemed like only inches away from her right hip, she could feel the heat radiating from his body as he took a dripping dish from her hand. She didn’t like the way his close proximity made her feel all mushy and...well, young. Three months...only ninety days. She could certainly do ninety days...somehow the thought of days sounded so much shorter than months.
“So, am I supposed to check your almighty lists for what needs to be done, is that it?” This time he definitely sounded like he was teasing.
“Why don’t you just tell me what you’d rather work on, and I’ll adjust my list. Not everyone can see the big picture like you, Jake Randall. This binder has helped me deal with all that needed to be done after Tillie died. You should have been here and seen this place six weeks ago when I...” Her voice faded when she saw the storm clouds gather in his blue eyes, sure what he had heard was: six weeks ago when you should have been here.
“I think I’m finished here,” he said. “I’ll change and then go outside and start working on the yard. I think I can find the tools I need. I could use some fresh air.”
Jake handed her the dishtowel and turned to leave the room. She sighed. It wasn’t a great start, and she should have been more sensitive. It must have been such a shock for him to have learned about his great-aunt and then to have all his own plans dashed, forced to stay where he clearly didn’t want to stay.
She vowed to do better the next time they were together, but she also vowed to try to keep a little more physical distance between them so she didn’t have to keep dealing with her pounding heart.
Jake stood in front of the shabby wooden garden shed and pulled the door handle, which promptly came off in his hand. Great. By the looks of it, he’d need to rebuild most of the shed if it was to be of any real good as storage. Termites and dry rot had taken a pretty good toll on the small building.
After trying to squeeze his fingers into the door frame to pull the door open, he finally gave up and retrieved the jack handle from his car, using it like a crowbar. The door actually came off its hinges as he pried it open, and when he peered inside, he saw an awful lot of daylight streaming in. Studs would need to be replaced and new pieces of plywood would need to be used to replace some of the walls.
A jumble of yard tools were piled in one corner and finally he spotted the leaf rake. He took it and an empty trash can to the front yard. He started by gently raking the mulched flower beds that bordered the front of the house, knowing the dozens of tulip bulbs and daffodils Tillie had always kept planted there.
Pointed green leaves had pushed several inches up and through the dark soil and he pulled the dead leaves away from the wider leafed tulips that, in just a couple of miraculous weeks, would produce stems, then bright red flowers.
Tillie had insisted on only red tulips, and all the flower beds had been organized in a specific palate of color—no wonder she’d liked Cory. They were two of a kind with their lists and rules.
He’d not been that surprised to see Cory’s notebook in the kitchen. She had always attacked any project they’d worked on together in high school with a systematic approach that had just about driven him crazy at times. They were opposites in that way. He had the ability to see the big picture, preferring to fly by the seat of his pants rather than be tied to a detailed step-by-step list she’d insisted on keeping even then.
His creative juices would start flowing at the beginning of one of Mr. Foster’s assignments, and she’d write down all their brainstorming onto neat little pages, filling notebook after notebook for the class. The teacher had paired them at the beginning of their senior year and Jake had been a little uncomfortable at first. Especially since Cory had already approached him, and her seeming to be interested in being more than just friends.
Cory had even mentioned at one point how it had seemed like fate brought them together. He had been quick to correct her, reminding her Foster had said the pairs had been random. In response, she’d tipped her chin at him then, just like she’d done in Weismann’s office, her stubborn streak plainly showing.
Jake leaned on his rake and looked around the yard, evaluating the amount of work to be done. He could probably spend the entire three months outside—between rebuilding the shed, cleaning and oiling the tools, mucking out the flower and vegetable beds, pruning the trees and bushes, painting. And maybe it would be better if they stayed away from each other. He certainly didn’t like the way he felt around her. Cory Wells—Richards—needed to stay firmly a part of his history, and besides, he had absolutely no intention of returning to any part of his past.
Whatever they had shared was over. He hadn’t been good for her then, and he was willing to wager that nothing had really changed.
Cory looked out her bedroom window and down to the part of the yard where Jake had been working. The breeze had stilled and with the sun shining from a cloudless sky, he’d taken off his red-and-black flannel shirt. His muscles worked as he dragged leaves into haphazard piles, stopping every so often to scoop them into a trashcan.
She remembered the first time she’d seen him without a shirt. He’d been alone and running the track, letting off steam, he’d explained. The work his father made him do around the house plus his after school job at the plant had begun to put muscles where she’d imagined they should be...on a man’s body. To her Jake had always been a strange mix of boy and man. Now there was no mix. His solid muscular build was testament to that.
Jake’s skin was already reddening and she was fairly certain he hadn’t bothered with sunscreen.
She walked to the bathroom and pulled a bottle of SPF 30 sunblock out of the medicine cabinet and went downstairs.
“You’re getting red. You should put this on.” She held the bottle out, staying at her spot on the porch.
Jake looked up from his work, squinting in the bright sun. A trickle of sweat traveled down his cheek and he wiped it away as he walked toward her, stopping with one foot resting on the bottom step.
“Thanks, you’re right. I haven’t been out in the sun this much in years.” He took the bottle and squeezed a generous portion into his hand, then handed her the bottle. He quickly spread the lotion over his arms and chest. “Do my back?” he asked, then turned around without waiting for an answer.
She bit her lower lip, then squeezed a pool of white into the palm of her hand. She was doing him a favor, saving him from a bad sunburn. But the thought of running her hands over his back still made unwanted butterflies take flight in her already jumpy stomach.
What was the matter with her? She’d touched him before, even rubbed sunscreen on him before...so what if it had been over a decade. She put the bottle on the railing, then stepped down a step as she rubbed her palms together to warm the lotion.
Then she held her breath.
She spread the sunscreen in slippery circles over his wide shoulders, down to his trim waist, then up again to make sure the back of his neck was sufficiently covered.
Smoothing the lotion over his skin was doing terrible things to the butterflies in her stomach and before she passed out from the lack of oxygen, she stopped, and took a fresh breath.
“There,” she pronounced. “I’ll let you get back to your work.”
Quickly she grabbed the bottle, then wiped one hand on her arm so she could manage the door and, without looking back, went upstairs. After she’d returned the sunscreen to its place in the medicine chest she went back to her bedroom window.
Jake was still standing with his back to the house, rubbing excess lotion into the skin of his arms and chest. She watched as his shoulders seemed to involuntarily shudder and she wondered if he’d felt something too when she’d touched him.
End of Excerpt