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Christmas with the Recluse by Victorine E. Lieske (1)

Chapter 1

Charley tapped the steering wheel of the rental car as Bobby Helms belted out “Jingle Bell Rock from her car speakers. This was the best time of year. Charley loved everything about Christmas, and even though she would spend her first holiday season away from home, she was excited to be on this adventure. This was her first real job as an antique appraiser.

The Colorado air was crisp with the promise of snow, and Charley could hardly wait. Growing up on the coast of Florida, she had never experienced a white Christmas. She once again silently thanked her father for sending her on this job.

The GPS told her to take the next turn, and as she traveled up the winding road, her excitement peaked. The tall trees that lined the road gave the driveway a majestic feeling. She rounded another turn and a towering mansion came into view. The Neoclassical style of architecture took her breath away. Four large columns supported a curved balcony above the second floor. Everything about the mansion was stately. She couldn’t wait to see what antique treasures she’d find inside.

She pulled to a stop and hopped out of the car. She smoothed her skirt down as she pulled her suitcase behind her. Her father said the job would take a while, and the guy was willing to give her a guest room while she was there. Judging from the outside of the house, he probably had quite a few empty guest rooms.

She stepped up to the ornately carved front door and pressed the bell. She heard a buzz inside and then footsteps. A man answered the door. He looked to be in his late sixties and wore a suit. “May I help you?”

“Hi, Mr. Norris. I’m Charley Davis. I’m here to appraise your antiques.”

The man frowned. “And I’m Thomas Aims, the butler.”

“Oh. Right.” Charley felt her cheeks heat and she shrunk into her coat.

“Please come in. I’ll go get Mr. Norris.” The butler opened the door for her and she walked into the massive entryway, her suitcase wheels gliding across the smooth tile floor.

“Have a seat,” Thomas said, pointing to an antique settee. Charley obeyed, tugging at her socks. Maybe wearing candy-cane striped knee-high socks hadn’t been the best choice for her first day on the job. She suddenly felt underdressed.

The butler disappeared around the corner and Charley waited, tapping her foot to the sound of Jingle Bell Rock that still played in her head. The house was quieter than she’d expected. She did hear the distant sound of pots and pans being washed in the kitchen.

And then footsteps approached, and she stood when Mr. Norris came around the corner. The first thing she noticed was how distinguished the man looked. And handsome. He was tall and slender but well built. The suit he was wearing made him look like he belonged on the pages of GQ. His jet-black hair complemented his dark brown eyes. They were stunning.

The second thing she noticed was the scowl on his face. His gaze traveled down her outfit before he glared. “Who are you? And what in the world are you wearing?”

Oh, no. This was not going well. She definitely shouldn’t have worn the socks. But she could salvage this. She had to. She stuck out her hand. “Hello, Mr. Norris. I’m Charley. I’m excited to be here—”

“Wait.” He held up a hand, leaving her hand outstretched and hanging. She stopped talking.

You’re Charles Davis?”


He shook his head. “I contacted the world-renowned appraiser Gregory Davis last week. He told me he couldn’t come out, but he was sending a man who could do the job. A Charles Davis.” His gaze traveled down her once more. “You’re obviously not the man he was talking about.”

This wasn’t the first time Charley’s name had given someone the wrong impression, but she had always managed to correct any misunderstandings in the past. Usually all that was needed was a brief explanation. She plastered on a smile. “This happens sometimes. See, my name is Charley, and every once in a while, people get the impression I’m a man, but, as you can see, I’m not. But don’t worry. I know my way around antiques. I can do the job.” She clasped her hands in front of her and rocked forward on her toes.

He narrowed his eyes. “You can do the...How old are you? You look like you barely graduated college.”

She didn’t think it was possible, but his scowl deepened. Worse, he was right. She’d graduated this last fall. But even though she was in her early twenties, she knew almost as much as her father about antiques. Her throat tightened and she tried not to hyperventilate. She couldn’t lose this job. She’d flown all the way from Florida. Her father was depending on her. “Yes,” she blurted. “But I grew up in the business. My father is the most sought-after appraiser in the United States. And I assure you, I—”

“You are not who I was led to believe. Please leave at once.” Mr. Norris gave her a wave of his hand and turned, starting down the hallway, his footsteps crisp on the tile.

Panic filled Charley. She couldn’t fail. Not on her first ever assignment. “Wait!” Her voice echoed through the large space, and Mr. Norris stopped short.

He turned slowly back around. “What did you say to me?”

She ignored the way his eyebrows rose up into his hair. He looked like he was going to start yelling any second. She swallowed, her desperation making her sweat. She pointed to the settee where she’d been seated. “This French provincial chair-back settee is circa late seventeenth century, hand-carved out of mahogany, and I would value it at...” She peered at the bench a little closer. “$3,900. There are a few condition issues, but the settee is becoming more popular as of late, so the value is increasing. Hold onto it another five years and it will probably be worth another five hundred dollars.”

Mr. Norris stood there, his mouth opening and closing, but nothing coming out. This was her chance. She could feel it. She had to convince him all her travel time hadn’t been in vain. “My father has taught me well. He sent me to value your property with every confidence I can do it.”

The man seemed to awake from his stupor. He shook his head. “There will be heavy lifting involved. You look... What are you, five-foot four? One hundred and ten pounds?”

Charley grew defensive, and she straightened her back. She was a bit sensitive about her height. “Come now, Mr. Norris. I can do the work, I promise you. Give me a chance. Even on a trial run. Let me prove to you my value.”

He rubbed his temples as if he were getting a headache. A little black kitten rounded the corner and came skittering down the hallway. Mr. Norris smiled and the transformation was astounding. He bent to pick the tiny thing up. “How did you get out of your room?” he asked, his voice gentle.

He scratched the patch of white fur under the kitten’s chin and Charley could hear the loud purring. “Found her out back yesterday. I haven’t had time to take her to the shelter yet.” He gave her a small smile then turned away. “Thomas?”

The butler appeared, as if he had been waiting on the other side of the wall. “Yes?”

“Will you take her back to my office? I need to show this woman around.”

Charley almost couldn’t hold in her excitement. Mr. Norris turned back to her, his deep scowl gone. “All right. You may stay and start the job. But if you can’t handle it, you’ll need to leave tomorrow morning.”

Elated, Charley clapped her hands together and bounced on her toes. “Oh, thank you, Mr. Norris. You won’t regret this. I promise.” Before she could think, she bounded over to him and kissed him on the cheek. The look of surprise on his face almost made her laugh, but she finally came to her senses and stepped back from him, feeling her cheeks redden.

His frown fell back into place and he once again looked her up and down. “I can assure you, I most certainly will,” he said under his breath. “You may follow me and I will show you to your room and get you started on the job.”

“Yes, sir.” She decided she’d better temper her excitement for the time being. Maybe after she was alone, she could do a little victory dance. She grabbed her suitcase and wheeled it behind her as she followed him through the front hallway.

He started up the grand staircase. Charley followed him, in awe of the home, but pinching her lips together. She would wear her boring socks tomorrow and act like a perfect lady. She would show him she could do this job without screwing up.

He opened the first door they came to and ushered her inside. The bedroom looked like it belonged in a museum. Every piece of furniture was antique, and she mentally calculated the value and details as she rolled her suitcase onto the carpet. “Very nice.”

“This will be your room for tonight.”

She ignored the implication that she’d be leaving the next day and nodded. “Thank you.” She took off her coat and walked toward the closet.

“No need to hang your coat. You’ll be needing it.”

Charley stopped short. “I will?”

“It’s rather cold in the garage.”

She blinked at him. “I’ll be in the garage?”

“Yes. I explained everything to Gregory.” He once again rubbed his temples. “I see my time was wasted.”

Nice. Her father hadn’t mentioned anything about a garage. Hopefully the antiques had not been stored there for long. The extreme temperatures would not be good for them. “Don’t worry,” she said, slipping on her coat. “I’m ready to work.”

He sighed and walked out of her bedroom. She sprinted to catch up. She followed him through the house. When he stepped into the kitchen, a woman with short, dark hair turned to them. She looked to be in her fifties. She wore an apron and Charley assumed she was the cook. “Well, hello,” she said, a smile spreading across her face.

“Dorothy, this is Charley.” He emphasized her name, like he’d been misled about it. Charley held in a frown. She wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of knowing he was getting to her.

Mr. Norris continued. “She will be staying the night.” Mr. Norris didn’t even stop to allow them time to shake hands. He opened a door and disappeared.

Charley tossed Dorothy a wan smile. “Hello.”

Dorothy’s nod seemed to hold an apology. Charley hurried to catch up to Mr. Norris. When she stepped into the garage, she sucked in a breath. The entire three-car garage was filled with moving boxes piled high over her head. Some had water stains, and others were half-open, revealing clothes or bric-a-brac. Mr. Norris stood in the one space that wasn’t occupied. “You will go through these. Anything not of value is to be taken to charity. Anything of value is to be placed up for auction.”

Charley stared at the mounds of sagging boxes and her heart sank. This was the job? Sorting through junk in a garage?

“You will work in here today.”

Charley stuck out her chin, determined to show this awful man she could succeed. “And if my work is satisfactory?”

His gaze penetrated through her. “If you can do the work, then you will stay until the garage is empty. I will pay you ten thousand dollars.”

Charley knew the job paid well, but she hadn’t expected quite that well. She swallowed. “All right. I’ll get to work.”

He nodded and brushed off some imaginary dust from his dress pants. “I’ll leave you to it, then.”

He turned and left her alone in the garage, the cold December air seeping in. Charley blew a strand of hair from her face. She’d better get started.