The whir of the saw and the beat of the hammer had been a constant melody over the past months; the scent of wood stain and paint wafting up on the Sonoma Valley breezes to the window where Evvy watched. Her new neighbor was industrious; the worn tool belt a fixture on her narrow hips as she worked sometimes into the night, strong and competent for one so young. But she seemed to go about it all as though she had to keep a step ahead of something or someone, even though she worked entirely alone. There was that element of attack, of driving herself, in each action.
Evvy knew the feeling. Every breath she drew through her sodden lungs was a challenge. If they knew how bad it really was, they’d force her into the hospital and she’d miss the resuscitation of Ralph’s house. It didn’t matter, of course. It wasn’t Ralph’s anymore. But she felt responsible anyway. Watchful.
There were so many memories. And not just hers. Ralph’s were muddled now, but he had told stories....
The whine grew to a pained wail that set her teeth on edge in a way it never had before. It passed with a breathy whiff of new maple, mingling brazenly with musty damp and age. Rese breathed the scent that had filled her lungs more comfortably than the purest air. She let go the trigger on the miter saw and examined the fresh cut on the section of molding, then approved it with her fingertips.
Maple, oak, and cherry had been her companions as long as she could remember. The plane had molded her palm; the chisel had developed her eye and fingers. She knew her way around any power tool on the market, had shot nails, routered trim, sanded and carved and finished every wood worth using. She’d also laid pipe and run wires, though it didn’t compare to working the wood. Nothing did.
Rese knew how to bid a job, how to recognize one she didn’t want to tackle, how to see past the damage to a true gem like the one she’d found here in Sonoma. The property’s value was elevated by the community alone—a rural, self-protecting city that recognized the potential for explosive growth and development around the vineyard industry, and chose instead to maintain its identity, unlike its Napa twin.
The place practically shouted, “Keep your glitz and glamour and big money. We’re the old guard, and we like things the way they are.” Only the decrepit condition of the villa, too historical to pull down and too unsafe to live in, had given her a wedge. Even so she’d used every argument she had to break through the no-growth moratorium on lodging—not that different from battles she had waged over permits and regulations. She wasn’t building new lodging here, just resurrecting an existing property and making it earn its keep. She hoped.
The structure had been built to last, and once she finished the facelift, it would be as stately as at its birth. Not gaudy or ornamental, the villa had a simple grace that reflected an understanding of line and form, and she stayed true to those elements now, in her renovation. A master had to know the heart of a place to do it justice. That’s what she’d been taught, but she’d always had the eye, and since this was the very last time, she had chosen carefully.
Rese swallowed at tightness in her throat as she climbed the frame of the scaffolding and fitted the cornice piece against the wall along the ceiling. The fit was good, the cut sharply aligning with the last section. A wave of satisfaction buoyed her as she stepped out onto the boards and tapped in a few anchoring nails to hold the molding in place. Such a little thing to matter so much. She caressed the wood, admiring its grain, absorbing the beauty.
Each board had its own fingerprint in the pattern of the grain formed by years growing in the sun and rain. She did not take for granted what had gone into each piece of wood she used, what made it strong, what made it supple, all the elements that made it beautiful, useful, and enduring. A California girl, she’d heard all the anti-tree-cutting arguments, but nothing compared to wood when it came down to it.
She did keep all the scraps, however, and many became the corner-piece carvings that were her trademark. Not many people were known by the work of their hands anymore, but she had determined from the start to be more than a nameless nail driver like the rest of the crew.
Years back, she had gathered the ends and spare pieces and practiced with the different chisels until the rounded handles felt more at home in her palm than a pen or a book or a jump rope. She could draw well enough to pencil her designs, but it was when she dug into the wood that the magic happened.
Rese climbed back down, slid the next board into place in the miter box and found her pencil mark. She aligned the blade with the edge of the wood, checked the degree of its angle and reached for the trigger. Before she could squeeze, the image struck her mind. Thick, callused fingers with blunt, chipped nails, the silver blur of the blade.
She pressed her eyes shut and drew long breaths through her nostrils, then seized the trigger and put the saw in motion, edging it into the wood. Another clean cut. She eased the molding out from the miter table, climbed the scaffolding and tacked it to the adjoining wall and ceiling. Focus and perform; don’t think, don’t remember, don’t imagine what-ifs. Just find the rhythm in the wood.
The moment Lance stepped inside the neglected yard of the Sonoma villa, the very ground reached up and embraced him. Grapevines along the squat, iron fence beckoned like gnarled hands. Ancient blood stirred in his veins. It must be the place, or the ground would not cry out to him. The breeze ruffled his hair with spring-scented fingers. New sprouts and blooms awakened in the yard, but the house seemed still.
Its creamy stucco was flawless; no gutter sagged; no shutter listed. The porch posts were freshly painted white, though the narrow porch that framed the door drew no more attention than the long paned windows of the first floor or the arch-covered windows of the second. There was a pleasing symmetry that blended it all together, and yet ... that feeling of pause, as though a great sleep had settled over its walls, and now it waited ... and watched.
The construction pickup in the driveway read Barrett Renovation and explained the pristine condition of a structure more than a hundred years old. But none of that work had penetrated the silence. As his gaze traveled the plastered face before him, Lance realized how deeply the need had settled inside ... the right—yes, the right.
The slate walk was somber as he covered its length to the worn, solid stairs beneath the arched portico and climbed. Before he rapped the door, Lance laid his hand to the wood. What will you show me, old house? He closed his eyes and pressed his other hand to the inner pocket of his jacket; a second letter entrusted to him by the old woman he had come to love after three weeks in her convent kitchen, a letter with a return address matching the property he now inspected. “Use it wisely, Lance,” she had instructed.
I will, cogino mio.
But would he? He always started out with good intentions, even when they got him into trouble—as they had more often than he liked to think. He began with brilliance. It was seeing it through to the end that somehow eluded him.
This would be different. This wasn’t about him. It was for Nonna. A vise squeezed his chest, releasing only when he drew a slow breath and knocked. The whine of a saw blade came from inside, and his second knock went unnoticed. He would have called ahead, but he’d only just seen his opportunity for introduction in the front window.
Lance tried the knob and opened the front door. The sense of purpose crept through his hand and up his arm as he peered inside at the broad staircase rising up before him. He almost pictured a young, graceful Antonia descending to welcome him with open arms and a kiss to each cheek. He’d never seen her that way, only softly wrinkled, like crepe, but she was beautiful still.
His gaze slid over the spacious front room; walls patched and awaiting paint, but seemingly sound and promising elegance. Muted gray and beige stone in the entry floor, wood for the rest. Tall ceilings and long narrow windows. The place was old, though not the hoary age of the Italian structures he’d seen in Italy. Age without infirmity; wisdom, not senility. Watchful, expectant maturity. He swallowed. He hadn’t expected to react so powerfully to the house.
Drawing himself up, Lance called, “Hello.” Or maybe he thought it only. “I’m home,” he breathed, though he’d never set foot in the place. He shook his head. Way too quixotic. He stepped inside and sought the sound of industry.
A noise from behind brought Rese sharply around to the figure standing in the doorway with a look of belonging on his face, as though she had walked in on him. For a moment, under his dark-eyed scrutiny, she felt herself the trespasser. No way. She had spent too many years as the odd man out to accept it in her own dining room. “Did you want something?”
He hung his hands in his jeans pockets. “I’m looking for Rese Barrett.”
“No doubt you expected a burly man with a crew.” He didn’t deny it, nor did he appear chagrinned at falling into the stereotypical mindset. He was probably another neighbor concerned about an inn, eager to instruct her on his personal expectations, as if she didn’t know to provide enough off-street parking for guests and curtail late-night noise. On this fringe-of-town street only one house was close enough to be affected by what happened on her property, and that closest neighbor had yet to appear. Until now?
But the guy looked up to the cornice she held and said, “You need help.”
“No, I don’t.” She sent a last nail nearly through the cornice and let go. Help and need were not in her vocabulary. Even now.
“You said so.”
He motioned through the wide doorway to the sign in the front-parlor window. The sun-backed, reversed letters did form a Help Wanted sign, and along with her name and phone number she had written in bold black the position available: maid/cook.
He came forward and reached up. “I’m Lance. Lance Michelli.”
Sighing, Rese climbed down the scaffolding, hung the hammer in her belt and gave his hand a decisive grip. “You’re a maid?” She did not make assumptions according to gender.
He said, “Cook,” and before she could set him straight, added, “I’ve trained with two of the best chefs in Italy and New York.” He glanced at the freshly hung cornice. “I can also do some carpentry.”
She took in his spare frame, the stylish cut of his dark hair, and especially the diamond in his ear and tried not to snort. “I do the carpentry. And if your other claim is true, you’re overqualified for my opening. Why don’t you apply at the fancy restaurants on the plaza?”
He looked around the dining room’s long, multi-paned windows and his tone deepened. Again she sensed his belonging as he said, “This place is just what I’m looking for.”
She clamped down on her concern. “This place is a bed-and-breakfast—muffins, fruit. I don’t need a chef.”
“Why not espresso and pastries? Frittatas and crepes, almond focaccia and tarts?”
The idea sprang up with a life of its own. She tried to slap it down, but it slid into her mind as though it belonged there, much the same way he’d slid into her dining room. She frowned. She had not intended anything that fancy. Good breakfasts, yes, but ...
“Or a nightly special,” he went on. “Saltimbocca or pollo marengo or lasagna. What other bed-and-breakfast offers that?”
Her stomach growled. How long since she had stopped to eat? She didn’t know half of what he was saying, but lasagna—she imagined the aroma seeping from the kitchen. She had not planned to serve full meals, though the kitchen was certainly sufficient for it. The family who built the villa must have considered that room the social hub of their lives. Personally, the less time she spent in any kitchen the better.
She looked him over again. She hadn’t expected a response to the sign so soon after putting it in the window, had only just called in the ad. It was crazy to choose the first person through the door just because he talked a good line and appealed to her hollow stomach. But his idea did intrigue her.
Sonoma had its share of bed-and-breakfast establishments, and her competition was stiff. Most were within walking distance of the historic plaza; hers was nearer the outskirts of town. It wasn’t a long drive in, but people would need incentive to choose hers over a closer inn. She hadn’t opened yet, but she had put enough work into the place to form a protective attitude. Even when she renovated other people’s property, she felt as though it was a little bit hers when she’d finished.
This time it was all hers, and she wanted it to work—needed it to. Again she felt the vise at her throat; again she forced it away. She wouldn’t want a hoity-toity chef, but what about one who would produce irresistible food? Was this man capable of irresistible?
Maybe, but he was sidetracking her from the real issue. “Look, I’m sorry, but it won’t work.”
“It’s a dual position, maid and cook. I can only afford one person.”
He considered that a moment, then shrugged. “Okay.”
“You can be a carpenter, but I can’t be a maid?”
“That’s not what I meant.” And she flushed that he would think it. She was more fair-minded than any person on the planet. “The job is minimum wage plus room and board. I’m sure you can do better than that ... and frankly, I’m looking for a woman.” Let him sue her. It wasn’t job discrimination; it was practical. She was not sharing her quarters with a guy. She had worked with men exclusively for too many years to choose that situation again.
His eyes flashed. “You won’t be having male guests?”
“Male guests will use the upper-level guest rooms. And they leave.”
“What about the building out back?”
“What?” Rese turned and followed his gaze through the tall, arched windows to the stone tumble almost completely surrounded by old grapevines. “It’s not habitable.”
“I’ll make you a deal. You provide the materials and tools, and I’ll do the work.”
He’d make her a deal? She stared out the window as yet another thought wormed in to curl up with the last. She hated to lose the old structure but would not have time to restore it before opening if she wanted to have any track record before the main season began.
She glanced again at the diamond in his ear, his chic jeans and leather jacket—not the sort she would ever hire on to her crew. Besides, the building wouldn’t pass code. “It would have to be wired for power and—”
He hung his thumbs in his belt loops. “I can run an electrical line.”
And juggle burning torches and play a harmonica with his toes, no doubt. “You’d have to come off the box in the kitchen, and there’s a problem in the wiring. The appliances work, but the other breaker’s messed up. I haven’t gotten to it, and I’m not sure when I will.”
“I’ll look at it.”
She didn’t hide her skepticism. “You’ve done that sort of work?”
“I’ve done a bit of everything.”
Rese snorted. “Jack-of-all-trades and master of none?”
He jerked his chin and blazed her with his eyes. Talk about intense. He would be trouble, she could tell. Trouble she didn’t need. She wasn’t judging, but his hands were too expressive for manual labor, not a callus in sight. It was obvious.
But he said, “If I can rebuild the carriage house, I get the job?”
She perceived a keen desire that didn’t quite make sense. It wasn’t that great a job. He’d make more money at any restaurant in town, though he couldn’t live in town on that. Room and board was a substantial perk, and one she had hoped would get her an appreciative employee.
She hadn’t expected the woman she hired to build her own room, but if he wanted the job enough to tackle the carriage house, it would free the second room of her suite for an office. That thought of her own fit snugly with his implants. No doubt he would have suggested it himself if she’d voiced the need for computer space.
Rese expelled her breath. No point scrutinizing him further; she wouldn’t tell anything more by appearance. It was productivity that mattered. “If you can do that, we’ll make it a trial period, to see that you can also cook. And clean.”
“Deal.” His grip was firm and confident. “When do I start?”
“I’m opening the first of May.” Just over three weeks to finish the renovation, a Web site, and other advertising and promotion. If he hadn’t rendered the carriage house habitable by then, he’d be on his own for lodging. “Your compensated hours will depend on reservations.”
“Okay.” He glanced about. “Mind if I take a look around?”
“Go ahead.” She slid a fresh board onto the worktable. “You might change your mind. It’s a lot of house to take care of.” And she was not compromising on the maid part.
Rese aligned the pencil mark while he wandered off. Three more sections and she’d have the cornice up. This room and the front parlor had been the most work, requiring both structural and surface repairs over the last few months, but the bulk of it was done and she was down to the finish work.
The six bedrooms upstairs had not been as damaged by time and vandals as the lower level. Her guests would sleep in mostly original architecture, not counting the bathrooms that had been added before her. Rese had determined that earlier remodel adequate, since there was only so much she could accomplish alone. With a jolt, she realized that had just changed.
Jack-of-all-trades and master of none? Did she know how condescending she sounded, her scornful gaze, that mocking snort? Rese Barrett had scoped him out and judged. In those few minutes, she’d seen ... more than he intended? Lance frowned. Maybe it wasn’t personal; maybe she thought the worst of everyone.
Walking through the rooms of the old villa confirmed his first impressions. Not an architectural marvel compared to its European forebears, but a stately structure nonetheless. His pulse quickened as he roamed the rooms, freshly papered and painted, though not yet furnished.
He’d learned from the people at his hotel that the address he asked about was being renovated as a bed-and-breakfast. Then he’d seen the truck outside and expected a construction crew, not a one-woman operation—formidable as she was. Rese Barrett’s work was competent and interesting, but she could have no idea what secrets the old place held, what memories she’d papered over. She could not know the house had a story, or that the story was his.
He hadn’t even known it until recently. Three weeks in Liguria had brought him here, unsure of what, if anything, he’d find. He hadn’t anticipated employment right on the property, but he should have. From the time he’d left Nonna’s side, every step seemed to be orchestrated. For once he might just be doing exactly what he was meant to do.
Lance went down to the kitchen. No other room welcomed him as this one, and he guessed it was more than the scant amount of attention it seemed to have received. The tile floor might even be original. The gas stove and oversized sink basin were dated, but that suited him just fine. He closed his eyes and imagined the life this room had held, a young Antonia with her mother, her grandmother? Sisters, cousins? He could almost hear the laughter, the scolding.
He laid his palms on the stone counter and breathed deeply. The cook position was clearly a godsend. The maid portion—divine comedy. Rese Barrett? Penance. He could picture Nonna agreeing. But he’d live with that; he’d live with anything in order to do what he’d come for. Nonna Antonia was depending on him, and her need sharpened the razor edge of his own and kept him from feeling guilty. He’d have the chance to find whatever Nonna needed, and then Rese could hire the woman she wanted.
He went out the back door and fought through the tangled vines and other brush to the carriage house, imagining the scents of leather and polish, horsehair and manure, the squeak of harness and a creaking wheel. Instead, he ducked beneath the sagging roof only to have weeds and mildewed wood assault his nose, and there was no sound but the buzzing of a fly.
The walls would probably not cave in, though in places the mortar had chunked out completely between the stones. The remnant of roof, however, might very well come down on him. That was the place to start. Though he hadn’t planned on it, he had done this sort of labor before, among other things. His experience was broad, and that would benefit him now, whatever his new employer thought.
He could work on the carriage house as long as he was there, even if she wasn’t paying for his time. That way they’d both get something out of this. The thought eased his conscience. She had put a lot of work into the villa, and he was not averse to adding his own sweat. The place deserved it. How much of its history did she know? It seemed she had recently acquired the property. He might kick himself for bad timing, but it wouldn’t have mattered if he had found it for sale. He could never have afforded it.
So for better or worse, Rese Barrett was his immediate future—which might explain the premonition he’d had the moment he saw her, the sense that she was part of his quest. Of course, that was before she opened her mouth.
Through the window, Rese glimpsed Lance heading for the stone structure with the crowbar and ladder he’d requested. He would have his hands full making that place a dwelling. She was skeptical of the outcome, but it was worth a try. “Doing a bit of carpentry” could not compare to the years she had put into the craft—nothing personal. Excellence required a sustained attention and a diligence not many were willing to devote. But if he had construction experience and could make it safe, it might not need to be beautiful.
She could hardly believe she was thinking that, when quality workmanship meant everything to her. She tacked up the last section of ceiling trim and walked around the scaffolding, sinking finishing nails and plugging them with putty so they were all but invisible. The details of her own work were never unimportant.
She disassembled the scaffolding and turned her attention to the baseboards. Measure, cut, and fit. Not everyone would expect perfection in baseboards, but a misaligned fit would grate on her like a paper cut. Her hypercritical attention to detail might not be healthy, as some people had insinuated, but it was as much her nature as brown hair and brown eyes, and she could change those two more easily than the first.
Rese worked through the afternoon and packed up her tools as the last of the daylight faded. She would have turned on a light, except the chandelier for the central fixture had not arrived and only a pair of stiff wires extended from the ceiling. She had work lights, but could not bring herself to use them. Yet, she told herself. Yet.
Casting her gaze once more around the room, she heard activity in the kitchen. Her cook?
He was unloading a paper sack of groceries and glanced over as she entered. “Have you eaten?”
She shook her head, then jutted her chin toward the can he’d set on the counter. “I don’t really like artichokes.”
“You will.” He drizzled olive oil into the old copper pan she had hung above the stove for decoration, apparently finding it usable. His fingers were deft as he minced a single clove of garlic and scattered it over the olive oil, then laid two flattened chicken breasts in the pan. The pungent aroma wafted up and tantalized. Maybe he did know how to cook.
Rese went back to her business and left him to his. The more she thought about it, the more delighted she was to relinquish control of the kitchen. She let that role peel away like the flaky skin of his garlic. If she never cooked again, she would not miss it one bit.
Lance bathed the chicken in Chardonnay, then when it had mostly cooked off, he topped the golden meat with sautéed artichoke hearts and sprinkled it all with a finely minced basil leaf and fresh grated parmigiano. The crisp green beans cooked with olive oil and lemon were a perfect complement, and he garnished each plate with a slice of lemon on a trio of basil leaves.
He was hungry, but this meal was also to show Rese what he could do. He wasn’t concerned about her disdain for artichokes. A lot of people thought they didn’t like something because it hadn’t been prepared well. He would be very surprised if she complained.
Earlier that afternoon he had torn off the carriage house roof, then ridden his Harley into town to wash up at his hotel room. The welcome he’d received there was far more genial than Rese Barrett’s. Baxter had been cooped up too long and all but shoved him out the door with his shaggy head. After giving the dog time to run it off, they had shopped for ingredients, then headed back to the bed-and-breakfast together. He was hoping to keep the animal there even before the carriage house was habitable. He would ask Rese after he fed her. Things usually worked better that way.
He poured two glasses of water and went in search of her. The second floor was empty, but he found her just outside the only lower-level bedroom, which must be her own quarters, now that he thought of it. By the state of her hair, she was fresh out of the shower. Since it formed a dark cap around her features and was even shorter than his, he guessed she didn’t fuss much with it. “Dinner’s ready.”
“We need to establish some rules. You’re not allowed past that door.” She indicated the door into the narrow hall that separated her suite from the kitchen.
“Okay.” He started back through it. If she wanted cold food, she could have it cold.
But she followed him out and took a seat in one of the two rickety wooden chairs in the kitchen. Where she had picked them up he could hardly guess, but he hoped she intended to do better for her guests. He sat down, breathing a silent prayer over the food, then watched intently as she took her first bite.
She cut another bite and ate it. No comment, no change of expression. He cut into his succulent chicken, breathed the aroma of blended oil and herbs, cheese and wine, then took the bite. Perfect. What was her deal?
She rubbed the napkin over her mouth. “I’ll need you to fill out an I–9 and a W–2 and produce two types of identification and references.”
“Would you like that before you try your beans?”
She frowned down at her plate. “No, we can eat first.” She stabbed a bean and bit it in half. He could tell by the way her teeth broke through that it was perfectly al dente. She chewed and finished the other half, then went back to her chicken.
He sipped his water. What was her game, to intimidate by disinterest? Annoy by lack of expression? How many women had a savory meal cooked just for them and ate it in stoic silence? It wasn’t as if the sheer tantalizing pleasure on her tongue kept her mute. He might have served up a boiled hot dog on a bun.
Baxter barked outside the back door, and she raised her head. Lance laid down his fork. “It’s only Baxter.”
“You have a dog?”
“I was just going to mention that.” If Baxter hadn’t forced the issue he would have worked into it gradually. Do you like animals? How do you feel about one on the property?
“What does he want?”
“To make sure I haven’t forgotten him. Normally he’s not insecure. But this is all new. We’ve only been in town a couple days.”
She got up and went to the door, peering through the glass to where he had left the cocker-retriever mix under the nut or fruit tree. “Is he hungry?”
“You want to give him your chicken?”
She glanced over her shoulder. “I’d rather finish it.”
Well, what do you know. “I fed him before we came back. He’s just lonely.”
She opened the door and went out. He huffed a short laugh. At this rate the dog held the best chance for wowing her.
Baxter’s plaintive whine ceased as it always did with a good ear scratch. Guess the dog won’t be a problem. Lance cut another bite of the fragrant chicken. Maybe he just had to find the right meal. Everyone had some food they couldn’t resist. Rese came back in and washed her hands, then sat.
He said, “Tell me what you like to eat.”
She shrugged. “Anything I don’t have to cook.”
“There must be something you prefer.”
Again that direct gaze. “Food doesn’t excite me.”
Did she have any idea how disagreeable she was? She wouldn’t last a week in the hospitality business with that attitude and personality. “Well, then what does?”
She looked up and studied the walls and ceiling with mute captivation. “This place,” she whispered finally, with a wash of emotion that caught him off guard.
Lance’s chest tightened. He did not want to hear that tone in her voice, the same emotion he felt for the villa—a house that might not be hers at all. He stabbed a bean and bit it in half. The meal had lost its appeal.
Secrets by Kristen Heitzmann
Copyright © 2004 ; ISBN 0764228277
Published by Bethany House Publishers
Used by permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.