The front door of the inn stuck. Maybe it wasn’t the door exactly, but the doorknob. Or maybe stuck wasn’t the right word. I had a key. It just didn’t seem to work.
“Try turning it, Mom.” Zane, wanting to be helpful, was crowded up with his nose practically against the doorknob.
“I might have a better chance of getting it open if I could see,” I said, wishing I didn’t sound quite so irritated. But I was tired. We all were tired. I think we probably had been since the phone had rung late that night, since Todd’s partner had called to tell us about the stop they’d made. About the car that didn’t see the officer bending over next to the driver’s side. About what a good partner and friend my husband had been. We’d been tired since that night in a way I didn’t know was possible. And now all I wanted was to get this damned door open and do our best to start again. To find something to smile about and to see the light come back to Hazel’s eyes.
Zane stepped back, and after at least five solid minutes of jiggling, praying, cursing and deep breathing, there was a resounding click. And if it had been the click of the key turning in the lock, I swear I would have danced a jig. Actually I might’ve done a shimmy because I honestly haven’t got the first clue how one jigs. Alas, the click was actually the sound of the key breaking off in the lock.
“Oh for fu—”
“Hello, neighbor!” I was saved from uttering a word my kids had probably heard more than they should have already by the enthusiastic greeting of a stranger bouncing up my steps.
“Hi.” I tried to sound cheerful—after all, I think it’s the deodorant ad that reminds us we get only one chance to make a first impression—but I didn’t feel cheerful, and I probably could have used a second swipe of deodorant at that point. It had been a very long day. Zane and Hazel sat side by side on the porch swing, closer than they usually managed without fighting. They looked droopy and exhausted.
“It’s so good to meet you,” the stranger said. “I’m Elizabeth Hester. I live just down the street.” She gestured off to her right and then turned back to me. Her eyes met mine and then she leaned in slightly, peering past me into the inn. “Are you the new owner? Isn’t it a great house?” she asked.
“It looked nice in the photos,” I said, unable to keep my sarcasm tucked down deep where it belonged. “And I’ve actually been inside once. Just not lately.”
Elizabeth scrunched up her nose in adorable confusion and I tamped down the desire to dislike her for her blatant cuteness. I was tall and thin with an athletic build—I’d never been called cute and it had always been a designation I’d longed for. “Well you should definitely head on in,” she said, as if speaking to a five year old.
“Can’t,” Zane piped up. “Mom broke the key in the lock.”
I shrugged at Elizabeth, revealed for the idiot I seemed to be.
“Oh,” she said, her smile dropping for a split second before she brightened again. “Did you try the cellar door?”
“I didn’t know there was a cellar door.”
Elizabeth led me around the back of the house after I’d instructed Hazel and Zane to wait on the porch. Hazel looked half asleep anyway, but I could tell Zane would rather protest but seemed to think better of it.
Once we’d plowed through the tall grass in the back, which clearly needed a good mow, Elizabeth led me to a set of stairs that led down to a simple wood door with a darkened bronze knob and peeling paint. “There’s a little trick to this, but the lock is so old…” she trailed off, jiggling the knob in her hand and leaning into the door with her shoulder. After a minute, the door popped and swung inward. “There we go,” she sang.
I didn’t know whether to be pleased we were finally inside or terrified that the house was that easy to break into. “I guess I’ll be calling a locksmith in the morning.”
Elizabeth grinned at me over her shoulder as she led me directly to a light switch and a set of stairs. The cellar was cluttered with old furniture, shelves of paint and canned goods, and the laundry machines set off in one corner. I followed my neighbor and rescuer up the stairs into the kitchen, which had a black and white tile floor and gleaming granite countertops. “Nice, huh?” she asked, grinning at me over her shoulder. She led me directly to the front door, which she opened before calling out, “It’s unlocked now, kids!”
“You seem to know your way around the house,” I commented as the kids scooted past me and straight up the stairs.
“Ha. Yes.” She paused and looked around, her eyes clouding slightly, as if she was remembering something. “My grandmother used to live here, actually. She and her husband built the place. I spent holidays here when I was a kid.”
Surprise trickled through my tired body. “I’m surprised it didn’t stay in your family,” I said, feeling suddenly like an outsider in what was supposed to be my home.
“Well.” She looked uncomfortable and dropped my gaze. “That’s a long story. One I’ll tell you over tea some time, okay?”
“Definitely.” I went back out to the porch and wheeled in suitcases before shutting the door. “Well, since you’re here, and you know the place, do you want to give me a tour of our house?”
She actually squealed, and I wished for a split second I could be half as open as this stranger managed to be with my own emotions. The kids came back down, and Elizabeth walked us through a grand foyer, a downstairs sitting room with a huge fireplace, a formal dining room in which the chandelier actually sat on the table beneath a gaping hole in the ceiling. “Oh oh,” Elizabeth laughed when she saw it. We moved on before I’d really had time to think about it, and halfway through the tour I realized I should have been carrying a notepad to keep a list of all the repairs I’d need to make. Missing light switches, broken banisters, a sink that was actually cracked in half…
“Oh my God,” I said as we entered the master bedroom on the top floor. The wood plank flooring had been pulled up in the center of the room, leaving a sizable hole through which I could see the ceiling of the room below. “What happened to this place?”
Elizabeth shrugged, but she wouldn’t meet my eye. “I know a decent handyman,” she said. “But I don’t know if he’d be willing to do any work for you, now that I think of it.”
Something about that statement got my back up, and I felt color rise to my cheeks. “Why not?” I was preparing for something about out of towners or a veiled comment about the fact that I was clearly unprepared to run a hotel since I had zero experience. But Elizabeth’s answer surprised me.
“Because the best handyman in town runs the only other bed and breakfast in town. The Tangerine Inn.”
I pulled Seth’s card from my pocket. “This guy? Met him a couple hours ago.”
“Aha. Yes. So you’ve met him.” She said this as if there was a specific response she expected from me, and I wasn’t quite sure what it was. I waited for more. “And?” She asked, grinning.
“I guess he seemed nice enough,” I tried.
“No, no. Nice is not the point. I mean…you saw him, right?” Her eyebrows climbed toward her hairline and her mouth hung open slightly.
“He’s…I guess he’s nice looking?” It felt like a betrayal to say even that out loud. I’d loved my husband. I still loved my husband.
“He’s not just nice looking. He’s panty-dropping hot.” She said this and then blushed furiously.
I lifted a shoulder, remembering the smoldering eyes, the wide shoulders. “He was hot,” I said, agreeing. He was. It wasn’t as if I hadn’t noticed. “And he’s the local handyman, huh?”
“You can give him a call. He’ll probably help. It’s a separate business, after all.”
I tilted my head to the side, considering whether I wanted the competition in here anyway. “I’ll figure it out.”
Zane and Hazel had dropped off the tour route as we’d gone through the upstairs bedrooms, too busy choosing the rooms they wanted to call their own. As Elizabeth and I wandered back down the third floor hall, I peeked into one room to see them both snuggled together on a wide double bed, whispering.
“They’re adorable,” Elizabeth said.
“They’re usually much more combative than this.” It was nice to see them come together in the face of an uncomfortable and new situation. I’d seen them do it a lot in the last year, actually.
“Well, I should let you get settled,” Elizabeth said. “In the meantime, I’ll see you at school, Zane—you’re seven, right?” She grinned at my son, who looked up and gave us a thumbs up. Elizabeth looked up at me again. “I’m the first grade teacher over at Appleton Elementary. Zane’s on my class list.”
“Oh,” I said, pleasantly surprised. “And that’s Hazel. She’s starting Kindergarten.”
“That’s great,” Elizabeth said. “Well, I’ll see you again soon, I’m sure. In the meantime, let me know if you need anything, and do give Seth a call.”
I walked her down the stairs to the second floor and then down the much grander staircase to the foyer. Despite the fact that it seemed to have been strangely abused, the house was lovely. “It was so nice to meet you,” I said. “Thanks for stopping by. And letting us in!”
“Anytime,” she said. “And I know this might be weird, but it’s so hard to make friends as grownups…” she flushed again and looked at her feet for a split second. “But maybe we could get coffee sometime? Or a glass of wine?”
“I’d like that,” I told her. “Let’s do it soon.” I was going to need all the friends I could get.