In spite of catching every red light, Norah still managed to be the first to arrive at Wilson-Dawes House. As she walked around to the side entrance, she called out a cheerful ‘good morning’ to the groundskeeper. George responded with a brief nod and tip of his faded baseball cap. He reminded Norah of her grandfather, a man whose gruff and sometimes grumpy exterior had harbored a heart of gold.
Once inside the five-story mansion, she followed a passageway leading to the room set aside for staff. Here she put away her purse and made the coffee no one could do without. A stairway brought her to the wide hall running through the middle of the house. Seven months ago the faces staring down at her from their gilded frames had been strangers. Now they were like old friends. Norah knew their life stories as well as her own.
Her favorite among them was Rutherford Dawes. If his position in the dimly lit back corner wasn’t enough to indicate his black sheep status, one only had to note his bold, dark stare and devil-may-care smile to know where his loyalties lay. Oddly enough, it wasn’t his decision to run off with his sister’s governess that caused so much scandal. It was the fact that he married her. He might have been every kind of rogue, but when he fell in love, he didn’t hesitate to follow his heart. Norah thought it a very romantic story. It went right along with her belief that love was a force unlike any other, impossible to ignore or resist, and fully capable of clearing every obstacle in its path.
To her way of thinking, it was wrong (and kinda sad) that Rutherford’s wife was hidden away in one of the upstairs bedchambers instead of hanging on the wall across from him. When she mentioned this to the curator of antiquities who oversaw the placement of every item on display, she was told in frigid tones that historical accuracy had to be preserved. Norah recognized a brick wall when she saw it, but this setback didn’t lessen her determination. If she ever had anything to say about it, Charlotte Dawes would be in her rightful place.
Leaving the hall, Norah moved silently through the rooms, opening the still-beautiful velvet curtains and adjusting the cloth barriers designed to keep curious tourists from wandering into unauthorized areas. When she returned to the staff room, she found her manager Crystal pouring enough mocha almond creamer into her coffee to make it undrinkable.
“How are you doing on this cold, October morning?” Norah asked.
“Not bad. Mr. Barrett called me last night. It appears the search for a buyer might be over. A prominent attorney from Mt. Pleasant is coming to look over our little operation tomorrow morning. I need to make sure all the earnings reports and accounts are in order.”
Norah leaned against the counter. “So we might be trading a group of stingy investors for someone who likes the sound of his own voice and knows how to win an argument. I don’t know whether that’s an upgrade or not.”
“We’ll find out soon enough. He’ll be here at nine for an informal tour. I’ll let you handle that. After you finish impressing him, I’ll show him the business side of things.”
“It sounds like we’re interviewing for our jobs.”
Crystal tasted her coffee, made a face, and added more creamer. “I don’t think we have anything to worry about. Wilson-Dawes House is the most toured home in Charleston’s historic district. That doesn’t happen without a good staff. I’m sure he’s smart enough to realize that.”
“Let’s hope so.” Norah glanced at the clock on the wall. “Time for me to give a few tours, and maybe teach a little history along the way.”
For the rest of what turned out to be a busy Monday, Norah didn’t have time to worry about any potential ownership change. It wasn’t until she was driving home that she remembered who would be waiting for her first thing in the morning. Hopefully, the old saying ‘a new broom sweeps clean’ would turn out to be false. She’d had enough change in her life in the last year.
After picking up her mail from the bank of boxes on the front porch, Norah swung open the latticed screen door and stepped into the foyer. The appetizing smell of cloves and cinnamon had her nose twitching. It must be baking day. Her landlord, Mrs. Worsley, was a retired school teacher. Stuck with a sprawling Victorian house becoming more and more expensive to maintain, she wisely decided to rent out her unused rooms. The tenants were mostly students from nearby College of Charleston. Norah had been lucky enough to get a suite of rooms on the ground floor. Along with being convenient for her job, she was within walking distance of the shopping district.
Her grandmother’s much-loved gray and white cat was waiting in his usual spot in the window when she came through the door.
“Hello, Oliver. How was your day?”
He responded with a rusty-sounding purr. Norah put her purse, keys and mail on the antique side table before bending down to pick him up, cradling his sun-warmed body close to her chest. “I wish you could tell me what’s going to happen tomorrow. Fall is a historically bad time to look for a job.” Oliver pushed his head against her shoulder. She obeyed this unspoken request for a back rub.
After dinner, she settled on the loveseat in the living room. Her glance shifted to the pictures on the mantel shelf. Her grandparents were gone now, the two people who sacrificed so much to make sure she didn’t feel abandoned by the mother who dropped her off and never returned. Their devotion and the selfless way they put each other’s needs before their own convinced Norah, as nothing else could, that love wasn’t just for fairytales. True love did exist. She just hadn’t found it yet.
* * * * *
Lance put down the deposition he hadn’t finished reading and reached for the duffle bag behind his desk. Walking into the bathroom adjacent to his office, he traded his suit for jeans and a t-shirt. Stopping only to grab his laptop, he made his way to the reception area.
His secretary looked up at him and smiled. “Do my eyes deceive me? Are you actually leaving before me?”
“I have to. It looks bad if the coach isn’t there before the players.”
“The word ‘no’ isn’t in your vocabulary, is it?”
“I guess not. I won’t be in until lunchtime tomorrow. I’m spending the morning at Wilson-Dawes House. If all goes well, we should be out of this cramped and overpriced office space within a month.”
“Are you serious about keeping up the tourist operation?”
“Very much so. From what I’ve seen, they only use about half the house which means the rest is available for us. After a little remodeling and soundproofing, they won’t even know we’re there.”
“Is your cousin excited about the move?”
“Jody can’t wait to get out of her apartment. She and Logan can have their pick of the rooms in the family quarters. I only need a place to sleep.”
“That could change when you get married.”
“You’re talking about a near statistical impossibility.”
“There’s no such thing when you’re dealing with love.”
“Cupid gave up on me a long time ago.”
“Not true. You’re the perfect age for matrimony.”
He tried not to laugh. “I’m probably going to regret this, but what’s so special about thirty-four?”
“You’re old enough to realize that being single is overrated, but still young enough to chase after your kids.”
Lance ran his fingers down his face. “If that was supposed to make me feel better, it didn’t. See ya tomorrow.”
As he drove through the early evening traffic to the ice rink, he still couldn’t believe he let Jody talk him into coaching Logan’s hockey team. It wasn’t as if he needed something else to do. Between his regular clients and his charitable work, he didn’t have much free time. None of that stopped Jody; she countered every objection (and excuse) he made before playing her trump card. She had Logan ask him. Lance couldn’t refuse the six-year-old who lost his father during a training exercise with his SEAL team.
The loss had been devastating both personally and financially. Jody’s part-time job working in the lunchroom at Logan’s school didn’t come close to paying their living expenses. True to form, she refused Lance’s offer of assistance, choosing instead to sell her house and move into a one-bedroom apartment so small it could fit in Lance’s living room. He understood and admired her wish to be independent, but he also knew she needed a better solution, one that would allow her to build a more secure future.
When his dream house came on the market, he saw an opportunity to help Jody in a way she couldn’t refuse. In return for being his housekeeper, she would have a rent-free place to live, a large enclosed yard for Logan to run around in, and the flexibility to finish her college degree.
The parking lot at The Ice Palace was just beginning to fill up. Lance pulled in next to Jody’s minivan. Inside the arena, he found her and Logan waiting near the skate rental desk. The latter hurled himself at Lance, almost knocking him down.
“Where’ve you been, Lance? We’ve been waiting here for hours.”
Lance exchanged a look with Jody. “Hours, huh?”
“More like ten minutes,” she told him. “What time should I be back to get him?”
“I’ll drop him off when we’re done.”
“It’s so far out of your way.”
“Not for much longer I hope. In a few weeks, we could all be under the same roof.”
Logan looked up from tying the laces of his new black and white hockey skates. “Are we really going to be living with you?”
“That’s the plan.”
“Can we play checkers sometimes before I go to bed?”
“Sure thing, buddy.”
Logan shot his mother a triumphant glance. “See, Mommy. I told you he’d say yes.”
Jody stood up. “I didn’t say he wouldn’t play with you. I said there could be times when he can’t.”
She ruffled the curly, dark hair covering Logan’s head. “Because he might be taking a pretty lady to dinner.”
Logan’s snub nose scrunched up in disgust. “Why would he want to do that?”
Lance leaned forward to tighten the pads slipping off Logan’s shoulders. “I’m trying to figure that out myself.”
Jody jiggled the keys in her hands. “Which is really a shame. I know at least four single moms at Logan’s school who’d be more than happy to spend an evening with you.”
Lance’s lips twitched. “Only four? I must be slipping.”
“Don’t be flippant about it,” she warned. “When you try to live without love, you’re only half alive.”
Something he already knew, but wisely kept to himself. The arrival of another parent and her twin boys saved him having to reply. Trying to keep his ragtag team of six-to-eight-year-olds in the right place and doing the right thing kept his mind occupied for several hours. But escape wasn’t so easy. Jody’s words returned to him later when he walked into his dark condo.
Most people assumed he was single because he was married to his job. Having them think that was ten times better than them knowing the truth: that the woman he loved was married to someone else. He could still remember the day seven years ago when he came home for Thanksgiving and found Holly in the kitchen helping his mother make pumpkin pies. Having to eat every word he ever said about love at first sight was a price he’d been more than willing to pay. Unfortunately, this was one happily ever after that never got off the ground.
It was evident from the start that Holly only saw him as her best friend’s brother. The words of love filling his mind and aching to fall from his lips had to remain unspoken. The tiny hope he carried inside that she might one day change her mind was extinguished when she married Devon. Lance went to the wedding only because staying away would have hurt her, but it hadn’t been easy watching her walk down the aisle with someone else.
This was a secret he planned to take to his grave. Lance couldn’t imagine the drama he’d be forced to endure from his family if they knew how he felt about Holly. Added to that was the embarrassment such knowledge would cause her and Devon. Lance didn’t see them often, but when he did, at least he was the only one who found it uncomfortable.
With four married sisters, he was easy prey to all manner of matchmaking schemes. Their last attempt had been the previous summer when they tried to fix him up with Willow, the sister of Lance’s brother-in-law Jackson. She also happened to be the personal assistant to country music sensation Sage. Willow lived up to the billing of being attractive, witty and extremely likeable, but Lance got the impression that like him, her heart was already spoken for.
In the wake of that failure, his sister Summer had started calling him an old, crusty bachelor. He was beginning to believe she might be right. In spite of his family’s efforts as well as his own, he hadn’t found anyone to replace Holly in his heart. Maybe he was one of those people who only love once.