Leslie was headfirst inside an alcove in one of the bathrooms digging out old insulation and rotted drywall when something shifted and a bunch of stuff came tumbling down on her. Pieces of drywall, plaster, and insulation—fortunately, nothing really heavy, but it was a mess nonetheless.
Coughing and rubbing the back of her head, she backed out of the crawlspace where some old pipes had been laid to run water for an ancient bathroom. It was the only one that had never been fully modernized, probably because it was in the farthest corner of Shenstone House and accessed only by a narrow hallway that led to the back—likely servants’ area—of the house. That was another reason the bath had never been updated. Whose servants needed hot running water, after all?
Drywall dust coated Leslie’s shoulders, arms, and torso, and still hung in the air, waiting for a place to alight. She brushed ineffectively at the powder, coughed some more, and berated herself for not wearing eye protection because she knew better. Her baseball cap had kept most of the dust from her face, and of course she’d been wearing gloves and jeans, but she still had some grittiness in her eyes.
It had been a very busy month since she’d arrived in Wicks Hollow on the tenth of September and dug into her new life. She’d moved into her Aunt Cherry’s guest room for the first week—just until she made certain the house was livable and the wiring was up to code. It was, and since then, she’d been living in a comfortable bedroom suite just off the kitchen, which was where the previous owner had lived.
It had taken working with contractors that first week, plus the help of her aunt and her aunt’s best friend Orbra, to do a major update on the living suite (which included a luxurious bathroom, bedroom, and small office/sitting area): a hardwood floor, freshly painted walls, and new hardware and vanity in the bathroom. But that cozy corner of Shenstone House, right off the kitchen, was now her little sanctuary amid the rest of the construction and renovation. Hopefully before spring, the rest of the house would be updated and ready to be lived in—or, more accurately, rented out as bed and breakfast rooms. Contractors had been coming and going erratically, but Leslie, who felt the need to be hands-on as well as keep herself physically busy, was doing a good portion of the demo and cleanup work herself.
She suddenly became aware of an irritated voice in the distance.
“Helloooo? Anyone here?”
She frowned and grabbed her cell phone from the table where she’d left it for safety, and saw five missed calls and two texts. Oh crap. It was the guy for the wrought iron on the stairs. She’d been waiting a week to get him in here. Who’d have thought a blacksmith would be so busy in this day and age?
“I’m here,” she called back, then coughed again as she began to hurry from the back of the house, creating a cloud of drywall dust around her like Pigpen.
“Hello?” The voice was even less pleased now, and it sounded further away.
“Wait! Don’t leave!” she shouted, pushing through the double maple doors that connected the kitchen and dining room. They swung back into place behind her with gusto and a pleasant squeak.
“Ms. Nakano?” the man called back.
“Yes, sorry,” she said, rushing into the hall that led from the parlor to the guest rooms. “I lost track of time. You must be Declan Zyler.”
“Yep.” He looked her over just as frankly as she was looking at him, though Leslie doubted he could see much beneath her coating of drywall and dust, baseball cap, and worn jeans.
How far I’ve come from the boardroom. She controlled a gleeful smile. And thankful for it every day.
But that thought went out of her mind as quickly as it came, for it was followed by the realization that Declan Zyler looked exactly like she’d pictured a blacksmith to look…back when she had time to read those historical romance novels about young ladies of the gentry who fell for the inappropriate groom, tutor, or—most titillating of all—the muscular, sweaty, lowborn blacksmith. Forget the dukes and earls…she liked the stories about star-crossed lovers from different “sides” of society.
Leslie just hadn’t expected a metalworker in the twenty-first century to look so…raw and wild. His hair was the color of mahogany—a dark, rich red that was nearly black—and he needed a shave, for gold and red stubble glittered over his chin and jaw. He had the build of her imagined blacksmith too, for he wore a white t-shirt, which clearly showed the muscles of his pecs, and an open red and blue plaid shirt with the sleeves rolled up. The flannel shirt obstructed the shape of his biceps, but his golden brown forearms—freckled, lightly scarred and burned, and very powerful looking—were bare.
Those were not the kind of muscles a guy got from working out at Gold’s Gym.
“Well? You going to show me the stairway?” Zyler was looking at her as if she were a toddler. Or a damned mess, which, in this case, wasn’t too far from the truth.
“Of course.” She responded without flickering an eyelash. Working in a high-powered, fast-paced business world and interacting with her fair share of supposedly intimidating men (and women) had taught her how to turn on a dime, hide her feelings, and communicate clearly and effectively even when taken off guard.
So what if the man standing in her house was the most amazingly male creature she’d encountered in person in years? Leslie was cool and collected and businesslike as they came.
A lesser woman might have taken off her ball cap and yanked the fastener out of her ponytail, or brushed off her shirt—a dirty, baggy tee—or even apologized for her appearance. But Leslie didn’t bother. He might look hot as sin and right out of her fantasies, but she wasn’t in the market for a man at the moment. Not only that, she had absolutely nothing to prove to anyone…except maybe the bank that had given her the small business loan to help jump-start the inn.
“You probably saw it when you came in—it’s the one leading to the second floor.” She gestured back down the hall, the obvious way from which he’d come.
“Yep. But I didn’t want to go poking around till I talked to you.” From the tone of his voice, it was clear what he meant to say was I didn’t want to waste my time.
They were in the foyer now, and both looked at the grand, sweeping staircase that started on the right side of the wide, shallow entrance hall and ended up sweeping left across the way in a balcony-like swoon. Two hallways spiked out from behind the balcony, leading to what would become guest rooms. In 1920s art deco style, the balustrade was a design of perfect curves, finial-topped semicircles, and twists and turns. It was very complicated and extremely elegant.
“Nice piece,” he said, though Leslie could hear something more like reverence in his voice. “Some cast iron here in the ornamentals, but the rest of it’s definitely wrought.” He glanced up. “The difference being—”
“Cast iron is poured into molds and wrought iron is pounded into shape in a smithy,” Leslie interrupted with a grin. “I did my research, Mr. Zyler.”
His lips moved briefly; it might have been a smile, but possibly a grimace. The corners of his eyes crinkled a little too. “Can’t tell you how many times I’ve been called to a place only to learn it’s cast metal.”
“My Aunt Cherry says you do a lot of restoration work.”
“Cherry Wilder’s your aunt?”
“Yes. Do you know her well?” Leslie didn’t think he looked like a guy who’d spend a lot of time in a yoga studio, but then again…he’d have no problem balancing himself in Crow with those arms. She swallowed hard at the delightful mental image.
“Well enough. I just moved back a little more than two months ago—I grew up here—and ever since I mentioned in passing last week that she reminded me of Helen Mirren, she’s been on my case to come to one of her hot yoga classes.”
Leslie laughed. Cherry was definitely a cougar on the prowl. “Well, she could be trying to get you into a belly-dance class, so be thankful for small favors.”
His eyes crinkled and those lips moved again. Definitely getting closer to a smile. “Excellent point. And yes, most of what I do is restoration. To comply with historical society requirements, if the iron was originally wrought rather than cast, it’s got to be replaced with same to keep the building’s designation historical. Keeps me busier than I need to be, but busy enough.” He stopped abruptly, leading her to believe he’d been about to say more.
“Which is why I called you,” Leslie said. “Besides the fact that Orbra van Hest said I had to.”
He exhaled a short laugh. “Ah. Orbra. I’ll remember to thank her next time I see her. She’s a piece of work too.”
“I’ve been kind of scared of Orbra since I was ten, so yes, I agree.”
Declan glanced at her with a sudden, full-blown look. “I get the impression you’re not scared of many people, let alone a sixty-eight-year-old woman who serves tea and crumpets.”
For some reason, Leslie felt her cheeks grow warm. “Well, Orbra or a big spider—either will do the trick. And then there’s Maxine Took…but we won’t even go there.” She gestured to the stairway. “So, I could replace the whole thing with wood spindles, or even the iron ones you get at Home Depot or—” She stopped, because she was fairly certain those broad shoulders had actually winced. She hid a grin. Sensitive about his work, was he?
He’d returned to his examination. “I’ve done hundreds of projects, most of ’em for historical buildings, and I’ve never seen anything like this. The workmanship is unique—gorgeous, in fact—but this rust…Wrought iron doesn’t just rust like this unless it’s exposed to the elements for a significant amount of time. Cast iron would rust easier, like—see those pieces over there? The—excuse me, but cheap—fleur-de-lis sort of caps on the wall sconces? They’re not rusting at all.” He was frowning now, looking back and forth between the sconces and the spindles. “Was this place ever roofless? Flooded? Destroyed by a tornado? Windows broken?”
Leslie drew closer, her hands on her hips. “No. The building’s been intact, as far as I know—it was even kept up after Alice ver Stahl moved into a nursing home five years ago. I tried to use a hard-wire brush to get rid of that stuff, but…it’s weird. I don’t think it’s rust.”
He was standing at eye level to the bottom of a stretch of the square-on-square railing, about eight stairs from the ground. Silently, he examined the coppery damage that seemed to be growing up from the bottom of the mooring spikes like rusty moss. He scraped at it with a finger, then leaned forward to sniff at it. Pulling away, he frowned, dug in his jeans, and pulled out a pocketknife.
“I don’t know what it is. It’s only on the bottom, too; not spread along the whole thing, as you’d expect rust to do,” he muttered, using the tip of the blade to pick at the damage. “Hmm. Whatever it is, it’s discoloring the metal…but I don’t think it’s from oxidation—the whole spindle would have the damage instead of just the bottom part. And it’s just in this section of the railing. Strange.”
He clicked his knife closed and slipped it into his jeans pocket. When he turned to look at Leslie, she was surprised at how green his eyes were. Wine bottle green.
“What do you think?” she asked. “Can you fix it?”
“Of course I can fix it. But it won’t be cheap.”
She sighed and crossed her arms over her shirt, releasing a soft puff of drywall dust. “I was afraid of that. But in order to keep my historical society designation, I’ve got to replace it accurately. When can you get me on the schedule to start?”
“Next week, probably.”
“Probably? All right, then, that’s sooner than I expected, to be honest. So why did it take over a week to get you out here to take a look at it?”
Declan gave her a forbidding look. “Had some things going on with my daughter. Was busy.”
Leslie felt a surprising sort of deflation. His daughter. Which implied a wife too. Not that it mattered—she was too busy to be interested in a man. “I hope everything’s okay,” she said automatically.
“She’s fifteen. What do you think?” he said wryly, then turned back to the matter at hand. “I want to know what’s under there.” He gestured to the thin base of the balustrade, the flat channel into which the stairway spindles were set. “Maybe there’s damp under that skinny section there and that’s causing the rust to work its way up from beneath.”
“You said it wasn’t rust,” Leslie reminded him.
“Well, I don’t know what the hell it is,” he said absently, picking at it again with his thumbnail. “That’s why I want to look under there.”
She shrugged. “Fine by me. You’ve got to take it out anyway if you’re going to restore it.”
“I’ll help. I already tangled with some dastardly drywall anyway.”
He eyed her for a moment, and she swore his lips twitched again. “Dastardly drywall?”
“It fell on me with no provocation whatsoever. I call that dastardly.”
“I see.” His eyes were crinkling at the corners, but for whatever reason, he didn’t seem to want to let a full-blown smile erupt. He turned back to the railing. “Well, let’s get to it.”
Leslie didn’t have to do much at first. She stepped out of the way as Declan removed the main column at the bottom of the stairway with a few well-placed thuds of a rubber mallet. Then it was short work to dismantle the handrail, separating it from the spindles, which positioned the organic, curvaceous design about three inches above the base.
While Declan carried the old pieces outside, Leslie began to work out some of the iron spikes from their moorings. They were set in a wooden track made from maple, which, she noted, definitely needed a new coat of varnish.
Several spikes came loose easily, and she moved a two-foot-wide section of railing away and leaned it against the wall. But when Leslie got to the area with the rust, they didn’t want to budge. “Do you think they’re cemented or glued in there?” she asked when Declan paused to watch her struggle with them.
“They would have been glued originally, but by now, it wouldn’t be that strong. Let me try.”
Leslie stepped aside. She had a moment of pure female appreciation as Declan stood in front of the railing and clamped his hands around one of the spikes, fist over fist, and pulled up.
Though the spike didn’t budge, his muscles sure as hell did. She actually went a little dry in the mouth, watching the way his bare forearms rippled and his shoulders shifted as he tried in vain to wiggle the spikes free. Oh my God.
“What the hell?” he muttered, and the moment was over as he stepped back from the railing.
“I’m thinking cement,” she said, bending over to look into the holes of the three spikes she’d already removed.
“That would be very unusual, but there’s definitely something going on in there. Okay if I get a little more insistent with it?” he asked. “It might make a mess.”
Leslie made a show of looking down at her powdery clothing and then around the foyer, which showed definite signs of being a work in progress. “I don’t think that’ll be a problem.”
“I’ve got to grab a few tools from the truck. Be right back.”
While Declan was outside, Leslie made her way back to where she’d left her cell phone and other tools. One of her life-altering changes when she’d left the corporate world was to no longer be a slave to her smartphone or computer, so she often made herself leave her phone in another room, or at least out of sight or reach.
Another life improvement, as she called the list she’d created when she decided to leave corporate America, was to learn how to cook. She was getting pretty good at that, too. As for another one on the list—getting at least seven hours of sleep a night? That one was a piece of cake. She loved being able to sleep past six a.m.
Her abandoned phone had four texts that she needed to return (one was for an interview with a potential assistant-slash-teen-intern that sounded very promising), and by the time she was finished with that, she heard thuds from the foyer.
She returned just in time to see Declan prying up pieces of the maple base where the spikes had been positioned.
“Here we go,” he muttered, and Leslie moved to help him as he pulled the stubborn section of wrought iron free. The whole base moved with it, and there was an eerie, groaning sound as the two of them dragged the rail from its moorings.
As it came free, the groan tapered off into an echo that didn’t really belong to the sound of iron being wrested from wood. Leslie had the odd sensation that the entire house was shuddering, as if giving a reluctant release.
A chill skittered over her shoulders, and the scent of dust and must, and something else…something sharp and cold and unfamiliar…seeped into the air from the opening beneath the railing.
The hair lifting at the back of her neck, she glanced at Declan, feeling very strange about the fanciful thoughts that had overtaken her. He seemed oblivious to anything out of the ordinary, for he’d turned to set the section of wrought iron squares against the wall.
Now that part of it had been removed, Leslie could see how the rust—or whatever it was—had encroached not only onto the bottoms of the spikes, but inside the narrow, hollow base beneath the railing.
“Is it some sort of mold?” she asked, using a flathead screwdriver to poke and scrape at a portion of it.
Declan returned and looked down into the hollow of the railing’s base. Pieces of insulation and other debris were stuffed inside, but moving some of it out of the way exposed the inside of the stairway wall. The coppery rust appeared to be all along the inside, and when Leslie looked at the underside of the maple channel into which the spikes had been thrust, there was more of the strange rust.
“It’s more of a discoloration,” he said, poking at it with his own tool. “It doesn’t scrape off like mold or rust would.”
Leslie stepped back and sighed. “I guess I’d better get someone in to look at it, and make sure.” She crossed her arms and surveyed the damage—both literal and figurative. She could see her nest egg dwindling like a little puff of smoke.
Declan seemed to feel her pain. “Sorry about that. And I’ll do my best to keep the costs down on the iron.”
She smiled ruefully. “Ah, thanks, but I expect to be charged a fair price, Mr. Zyler. I knew what I was getting into when I started down this path—I mean, I suspected there would be surprises along the way. I just want everything to be done right.”
“Right. I can appreciate that, but I also understand budgetary constraints. So let me know if you change your mind and want to just replace it all with the spindles from Home Depot.” He swallowed hard. “I can’t bring myself to do that personally, but I know someone who can.” He managed a smile.
“Thanks. You’ll really start on it right away?”
“Yes, tomorrow. I’ve got a few projects going, but I’ll take this section with me and get working as soon as possible. And call me Declan. Or Dec. Mr. Zyler just makes me feel uptight.” Now, there was a real smile.
“And I’m Leslie.” She held out her hand for the shake that hadn’t happened originally, and wasn’t surprised when she felt a shock of awareness when their hands touched.
Somehow, Leslie suspected she’d make certain to find a way to use the blacksmith’s skills at Shenstone House as much as possible.
Even if it cost a fortune.