Christine studied the tall brick house from the sidewalk. Not unlike the other prestigious homes in this dignified university neighborhood, and yet somehow this one seemed different. She glanced down the tree-lined street to survey the other houses. Obviously, these were old and established residences, not anything like the houses in the neighborhood she’d grown up in, where houses popped up almost overnight, like mushrooms, her father liked to say, and where landscaping was minimal and trees were immature and spindly at best. No, this influential neighborhood appeared well established in both history and wealth. And for some reason that irked her.
But why did this house feel different than the others that lined the street? Was it an aura of heaviness? A feeling of sadness? Or perhaps it was simply the lack of Christmas decorations. No bright evergreen wreath hung on its stark black door. And no cheerful lights helped to relieve the foggy gloom of the late afternoon dusk. She walked up the neat brick walk and rang the doorbell, afraid that to hesitate one more moment might compel her to turn back and abandon this crazy stunt altogether.
After what seemed several minutes, the door slowly opened and the face of an older woman with steely blue eyes and silver hair peered through the slit of the open door.
“Yes?” Her voice had the sound of gravel in it, like someone who had smoked for many years.
“Hello . . . Mrs. Daniels? I’m . . . I’m Christine Bradley—”
“You’re late,” the woman snapped as she leaned forward on an aluminum crutch to see Christine better. Then she opened the door a little wider to reveal a foot wrapped in elastic bandage. She glared at the girl. “And you may as well know right from the start that I absolutely will not tolerate lateness.”
“Late?” Christine said, feeling slightly off balance but curious just the same.
“Yes, the agency said you’d be here an hour ago. And I was just about ready to give up on you completely.”
“Oh, I’m terribly sorry.” Christine tried her best to smile, deciding to go along with this strange woman’s charade, for the moment anyway. At least it delayed the inevitable, which suddenly seemed a good thing, especially since Mrs. Daniels appeared rather abrupt and foreboding, not to mention rude.
“Well, come in here, and close that dang door behind you. I can’t afford to heat the entire neighborhood. Despite what some people may think, I have to live within my means.”
Christine quickly shut the door, careful not to slam it lest she be chided for that as well. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Daniels, but I have to explain—”
“Look, don’t waste my time on apologies or explanations, you’re probably not right for the job anyway. Just hang your coat there and then come into the living room and we’ll get this over with as quickly as possible.” Mrs. Daniels hobbled on her crutches toward a leather club chair, then eased herself down with a loud sigh. “This ankle! I don’t know how I could’ve been so clumsy as to sprain it.”
“How did you—”
“Never mind that! I’m the one asking the questions here.” She stared openly at Christine as if she were summing her up and finding her lacking. Then she waved her hand as if to dismiss her altogether. “First of all, you’re much too young. How old are you, anyway? Sixteen?”
“I’m nineteen, almost twenty.”
Mrs. Daniels shook her head. “Well, I wanted an older woman. Someone more responsible. You do understand this is a full-time position, don’t you? And it’s going to include some evenings as well. I don’t want some flighty young thing who thinks she can come and go as she pleases or take off early just because she has a date. I simply won’t tolerate it.”
You don’t tolerate much, Christine thought, but instead she said, “To be honest, I really don’t go out much. The Wednesday night worship service, occasionally. But that’s about it.”
“You’re a church girl, then?” Mrs. Daniels’s brows lifted with a faint flicker of interest, but her cold blue eyes still looked at Christine as if she could see right through this impromptu deception.
Christine shifted uncomfortably in her chair. What in the world was she doing here? And why on earth had she allowed their conversation to reach this weird place. “Uh, Mrs. Daniels, I need to tell—”
“Just where are your references?” It sounded like an accusation.
“References?” Christine studied this woman’s soured expression and decided to continue with the charade.
Mrs. Daniels ran her hand through her short-cropped hair and rolled her eyes in irritation. “Don’t they teach you young people anything these days? When you come for a job interview, you’re supposed to bring references. I suppose you don’t have any. Have you ever held a job before?”
“Actually, I did work at McDonald’s during high school, for nearly two years.”
Mrs. Daniels laughed but with no mirth. “Now, that’s real handy. Maybe you could go into the kitchen there and whip me up a Big Mac for dinner. Good grief, girl, do you know anything about housekeeping?”
“Oh, I don’t know why I’m even bothering with you, Miss . . . Miss—what was your name again?”
“Christine. Christine Bradley.”
“Right.” Her eyes narrowed. “Well, Miss Bradley, tell me, do you even know the difference between a mop and a broom?”
Christine nodded slowly. “I did keep house for my father during the last six years.” A lump grew in her throat as she suddenly realized how much she missed him as well as the familiarity of her previous home.
Mrs. Daniels looked skeptical. “And what did your mother do?”
“My mother died,” Christine said quietly. Twice, she thought.
“Oh, well, that’s too bad.” Mrs. Daniels seemed to soften just a little. “But at least it seems you do know how to keep house, then?”
Christine nodded again, ready to end this ludicrous interview, but not quite ready to divulge her true identity to this antagonistic woman. How could someone this cold, this calculating, actually be her genetic grandmother? Perhaps she’d made a mistake somewhere, gotten it all wrong. But she knew that was impossible. Without a doubt this must be the right woman. It was the right address, the right town, the right name. But just the same it was all wrong. Terribly wrong!
“Mrs. Daniels,” Christine began again. “I really need to—”
“Well, I really need you to write down those references for me, and if they meet my satisfaction, and if no one better shows up, well, then you can start work right away. My daughter-in-law is wearing on my nerves these days. And she said just today that she can’t keep this up forever, especially during the holidays, which is perfectly fine by me. The less I see of that woman, the happier I’ll be. For the life of me, I still can’t see why my stepson ever married someone like her to begin with.”
That must be my uncle, Christine thought. Although her father had never mentioned anything about Lenore’s other siblings. But then maybe he was a stepuncle. She wasn’t sure. And her father hadn’t really known much about her birth family in the first place, other than the name and the town, and that had been discovered only recently and quite by coincidence.
“And those grandkids aren’t anything to brag about either. A couple of spoiled brats, if you ask me, always whining and complaining and getting underfoot.”
“But how fortunate you are to have family that—”
“Fortunate?” Mrs. Daniels scowled. “Why, they’re just waiting for me to croak so they can inherit all this.” She waved her hand around, then laughed in a sharp, cynical way. “But what they don’t know won’t hurt them. And, just so you’ll know, Miss Bradley, just in case you’re thinking you can sneak in here and steal from the old broad, well, you’d better think again. I may be pushing eighty, but I’ve still got all my marbles up here.” She pointed to her head. “Not that my family thinks so. I’m sure they’d love to declare me senile and have me committed to some old folks home to whither away and die.” She leaned forward and peered at Christine. “Felicity didn’t send you here, did she?”
“Felicity?” Christine said, feeling more and more like she’d just stepped into the twilight zone.
“My daughter-in-law,” Mrs. Daniels said with a frown. “That girl is out to get me. I just know it.”
“But why?” Despite her reservations and a longing to escape this cantankerous woman, Christine felt herself being reeled in. She sensed there was a reason that Mrs. Daniels was so bitter and jaded. And she wanted to know what it was.
“Like I said, they’re after my money.” She got a sly smile, as if she were keeping a secret. “And that’s perfectly fine with me. I plan to keep stringing them along just to ensure that they show me a bit of respect during my final years. I’m sure that’s the only reason they even attempt to be nice to me—thinking I’m going to leave my vast fortune to them.” She laughed again, only this time the hollow sound seemed to echo with sadness as it reverberated through the impeccably decorated rooms of the large, quiet house.
Inexplicably, and to her own irritation, Christine felt a real wave of pity for this embittered woman. And although it seemed impossible to think they were actual blood relatives, she felt some strange kind of connection.
“Okay, Mrs. Daniels, I’ll write down my references for you. I can give you my pastor’s name and number, and my manager at McDonald’s. I could give you my father’s phone number too, but he recently left the country to teach at a mission base down in Brazil. Will just two names be enough?”
“I guess it’ll have to do. But mark my word, young lady, in the future if you should ever apply for a job again, you had better bring your references along with you!” With a loud groan, she pulled herself to her feet and then struggled for her crutches. “Young people nowadays!”
Christine stood too. “So when do you want me to come?”
“Well, Felicity is coming back today. Why don’t you come tomorrow at eight o’clock sharp, but not a minute before since I don’t get up until eight. And if you can promise to come tomorrow, I can tell Felicity that she no longer needs to bother herself with me. Actually, I’ve been telling them both that since I got home from the emergency room last Saturday, but do they listen to me? Ha! Not on your life.” The woman arranged her crutches beneath her arms, then hobbled away without even saying good-bye or seeing Christine to the door.
Christine pulled a small notebook out of her purse, neatly wrote down the references, and left them on the gleaming mahogany table in the foyer. Then quietly she slipped on her parka and let herself out the front door. It was already getting dark outside, and she shivered against the cooling temperature. She hurried down the walk and questioned what she was getting herself into. But then again she had wondered what she’d do with herself during Christmas break. Surely this would be a holiday she’d never forget.