Wren Fuller pushed into the office she ran to the shrill sound of the phone ringing. Already. She sighed, this Monday shaping up to achieve the horrible reputation all Mondays dealt with.
She’d arrived at A Jack of All Trades, the family owned and operated business, fifteen minutes early. Whoever was calling could leave a message. Wren dropped her purse at the desk where she sat and continued through the door to the left so she could put her lunch in the fridge.
It would be nothing short of a miracle if her sisters came in today. They sometimes did after their housecleaning jobs, but Wren had them pretty well booked today, much to Fabi’s disgust. The oldest of the twins, Fabi loved sleeping in as much as the rest of the Fuller clan, Wren included.
But whatever. Wren tucked her hair behind her ear and deposited her brown bag in the fridge. She paused and looked in the mirror to the side of the door that led back to the reception area, trying to make her blonde hair grow longer just by staring at it.
It was in this weird, in-between stage she hated. But she didn’t like her hair long either, so she’d cut it. But she didn’t have a feminine enough face for a short, pixie cut, so she was growing it back out.
No matter what she did, her hair seemed determined to make her life more difficult.
As she settled into the ergonomic office chair she’d insisted Daddy buy, the phone rang again. Though they still didn’t open for another ten minutes, she answered the call with a chirpy, “A Jack of All Trades, it should be a good Monday,” and waited for a chuckle or at least half a giggle.
She got silence.
“Hello?” she asked.
“Yes, hello,” a man said, his tone the no-nonsense clipped kind. “I need a maid.”
“Well, we certainly can help you with that.” Wren’s four sisters managed to keep their schedules full with the amount of dust and dishes that the townspeople in Brush Creek wanted someone else to take care of. Especially in the summer, when they’d rather go camping, fishing, hiking, or strawberry-picking.
“Let’s see,” she said, tapping to wake her computer. Sometimes it took an extra few seconds to find the WiFi after being asleep overnight. Thankfully, it fired right up today, and she had the family’s online calendar open in less time than it took to inhale and exhale.
“I can get someone out to you next Tuesday.”
“That’s right. It’s best if you get on our regular schedule. That way, we’ll come at the same time every week, or every two weeks, or once a month. It’s—”
“I just need someone once. I can clean my own house.”
“Oh.” Wren blinked, the man’s tone the type that shut down conversations and left no room for argument. “Then I can get you an appointment for next Tuesday.” And if he could clean his own house, why had he called her and asked for a maid?
“I need someone today. Is that possible?” He removed the demand from his question. Sort of.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “My girls are all on other jobs.”
“I just arrived in town,” he said. “I just need help for a few hours today, and then I can get my stuff moved in.”
“Oh, you’re new?” Wren leaned back in the chair and put her shoes on the edge of the desk. “How did you hear about us?” Wren wasn’t sure, but she could’ve sworn he growled.
“Erin at the bakery. And Landon up at the horse farm.”
Wren grinned and nodded, though this new stranger to Brush Creek couldn’t see her. She pushed the glasses she didn’t need to wear higher on her nose. “Some of our best clients.”
“I’ve got to take Octagon up to the horse farm, actually. Then I’d like to move in.”
“So you want someone to come right now, this morning?”
“If possible. I’ll pay double the rate.”
“You don’t even know what the rate is.” Wren enjoyed this exchange more than she should’ve. She should tell this guy to find someone else and begin her morning Solitaire game until she had to get some work done for the day.
“Can you send someone or not?”
Wren could send someone…herself. Technically, she could be out of the office for the morning. Any calls that came here would forward to her cell, and she could pocket the extra cash as a tip.
“Give me a few seconds to check with one of my girls.” She put the man on hold as he started to protest, a grin flirting with her lips. She wasn’t exactly dressed for scrubbing sinks or mopping floors, but she could do it. Heaven knew she’d spent enough time growing up cleaning everything from tack rooms, to trucks, to toilets.
Still, she loved this shirt with the bright purple My Little Pony on it. Bleach would not be kind to it, so she resolved to grab an apron from the closet in the kitchen before she went out on the job.
She pressed the hold button and said, “I can send Wren.”
“Great,” he said, almost a deadpan.
“Where am I sending her?”
“I’m on Traverse Road?” He spoke the name like a question, but that wasn’t the reason Wren’s blood turned cold.
“Traverse Road?” she repeated it like a question.
“Yeah. It’s the first one after you turn. I guess a family named Hammond used to live here.”
“I know it,” Wren said, the rundown house flashing through her mind. She straightened, intending to tell him she was Wren and she’d be there in twenty minutes.
“Great. Good-bye.” He hung up before Wren could say anything. She tilted her head and stared at the receiver, wondering if the entire call had been a prank. It didn’t seem to be. She hung up and exhaled as she stood.
“Good news, Wren,” she said. “You can change before you go next door and clean the house that should’ve been knocked down years ago.”
* * *
Wren hadn’t seen anyone around the old Hammond place, ever. Her house sat a hundred yards past it, on the same side of the street, and she drove by every morning and every evening. So really, anyone could’ve come and gone during the day and she wouldn’t have known.
She liked to think she would’ve noticed tire tracks, or something left on the porch, or that one of the fence slats had been nudged slightly out of place. But she hadn’t noticed anything.
After she changed and pulled into the driveway, she still didn’t see anything that told her someone had purchased this home and planned to live here.
Because it was pure madness. The porch needed to be replaced, as did the railing, the roof, and all the windows. The whole thing needed to be remodeled, and Wren actually worried that her foot would bust through the steps as she climbed them to the front door.
So she’d put on a few pounds. She didn’t care. She’d listened to her mom put her value in the number on the scale, and she didn’t want her life to be measured in pounds. Maybe she chose nachos when she should’ve opted for the Caesar salad. But at least she could walk around with a smile on her face.
“Hello?” she called when she noticed the front door gaped open a couple of inches. No one responded, and she caught sight of a scrap of paper taped to the doorframe.
Come on in and get started. I took my horse up to the ranch. Be back later.
Relief rushed through Wren, and she pushed the front door open further. The inside of the house hadn’t fared much better than the outside, much to Wren’s disappointment. He hadn’t given specific instructions for what he wanted cleaned, but it was obvious the kitchen in the back needed a thorough scrub from top to bottom. All the floors needed to be stripped of their dust. And one peek down the hallway showed three bedrooms and a bathroom that all needed a vacuum, a duster, and a whole lot of elbow grease to make them habitable.
“Did he even look at this place before he bought it?” she wondered as she set her bucket of cleaning supplies on the tile in the kitchen. If he had, he would’ve known he couldn’t just move right in.
She started in the kitchen, glad when clear water came from the sink. Wren didn’t worry about splashing on the floor, as she’d clean that last.
Two hours—and at least a bucketful of sweat—later, Wren finished the kitchen and living room. She’d emptied her vacuum three times, but the carpet was walkable now. The walls had been wiped down. The light fixtures and shelves had been relieved of their cobwebs. All cupboards and appliances had been scrubbed, and the floor glinted where the sunlight hit it through the back windows. She’d abandoned the bulky black frames she wore to make herself look smarter long ago, as it was too hard to keep pushing them into place as she worked.
She smiled at her progress and wondered when the man would return. It certainly couldn’t take that long to drive a horse up to a ranch and drop him off. She moved into the bathroom, secretly hoping he wouldn’t return until she was finished. She could bill him.
Bent over the tub, she heard the distinct sound of boots entering the house.
“Hello?” a man called, and he sounded softer, kinder, than he had on the phone.
Wren scraped her bangs off her forehead, cursing her hair for the tenth time that morning as it stuck to the back of her neck. It wasn’t quite long enough to pull into a ponytail, and she had the fleeting thought that she’d like to shave every last hair from her head.
She hadn’t even made it to her feet when he said, “You call this cleaning?”
Wren faced him and put her hands on her hips. She felt red-faced and sweaty and her guard went right up as she drank in the boxy shape of his shoulders. The deep brown hazel color of his eyes. The way his jaw already held a day’s worth of facial hair. It matched the rich brown color of his hair, and Wren suddenly needed a very cold glass of water.
“Yes,” she managed to clip between her lips. “I call this cleaning.”
“There’s dust on the shelves in the living room.”
“Impossible,” she said. “If that’s true, it settled there in the past half-hour.”
His eyebrows went up as if he wasn’t used to being questioned. And it was clear he wasn’t. “You want me to show you?”
Frustration boiled in her, and though her momma had always taught her to clean until the customer was satisfied, she bent and extracted a duster from the box she’d brought. “I’d rather you just wiped it up.” She held the blue duster toward him, satisfied when he looked at her like she’d grown a second head and told him he would too if he touched her.
Who was this man?
Your new next door neighbor, her mind whispered, and Wren regretted her decision to quip at him to do the dusting himself. She started to withdraw her hand, but he reached out and snatched the duster from her, spinning with military-precision on his toe, and marching down the hall.