Named Best Indie Romance of 2011 by Red Adept Reviews
Sylvie was a pleaser. She did as her mother pleased, and she did as her fiancé pleased. Then she did as she pleased. Determined to take back her life, she heads to the hills instead of the altar on the day she's to wed. Coming across a quaint, country inn with an intriguing name, she impulsively checks in.
Peopled with an odd assortment of characters, the inn has clearly seen better days. Even the regulars have a bit of wear on them. When Alex arrives and is strangely comfortable vacationing among the geriatric set, Sylvie is wary and does her best to ignore him.
But Alex will not be ignored, pushing her buttons until she admits, if only to herself that she’s falling for him. Not until she’s hired to manage the inn does she learn he’s not the businessman he pretends to be, but a streetwise PI hired by her ex to find her.
Adding insult to injury, he buys the inn and asks for her help in restoring it to its former glory. Forced to work together, both learn about relationships, expectations, and acceptance—among family members as well as strangers who become like family.
"Ma," Sylvie Gardner said between clenched lips. "I told you, I don't want glitter in my hair." After two hours in the beauty spa, Sylvie had endured enough poking, prodding, plucking, and primping.
"Oh, Sylvie, it'll look so pretty. Don't you want to be pretty on your wedding day? Girls, tell her how pretty she'll look."
"Ma, stop it!"
Genna Howard frowned through her face mask. "Do you have to take that tone with me? After all I've done to make this day special for you? Talk about ungrateful children."
"Ma, it's just nerves talking," said Sylvie's younger sister Crystal. "And maybe it's not such a good idea for her to have glitter in her hair. It'll set her apart from the rest of us lowly bridesmaids who need a little extra to sparkle."
"Thank you," Sylvie said, whipping off her protective drape. "Now if there's nothing else you want done to me, I'm going back to my apartment. I'll see you later."
"Don't forget, darling, the limo's picking you up at twelve. Do you want one of your sisters to come by and help you dress?"
"I don't think that's necessary. They'll have enough to do getting their little ragamuffins ready. Besides, there are no buttons up the back, so I can handle it." With that, Sylvie hurried off. She needed to lie down and rest. But even that, she feared, would elicit stern disapproval from her mother. She could almost hear her now, berating her for ruining the work of two hairdressers working simultaneously to make her beautiful--an uphill climb as far as her mother was concerned.
At fifty-one years of age, Genna Howard took great pride in being able to pass herself off as one of her daughters, covering the few strands of gray in her brown hair in an auburn shade. The fact that Sylvie had other priorities, like excelling in her work, had caused many a battle between them.
Alone in her car, Sylvie sat for a moment, relishing the absence of high-pitched voices screaming to be heard over the whine of hairdryers. The spring air felt warm today, but not so warm as to be uncomfortable. Overhead, the sky between the buildings was an amazing shade of blue. And from some rooftop or ledge, unseen birds twittered sweet nothings to each other. It was a perfect day for a June wedding.
So why did her stomach feel like it had an alien being inside, scratching and clawing to get out? Her sisters had called it jitters and said it would pass. But it hadn't, and now she wanted to hurl.
Hoping to get over it before she had to walk down the aisle, Sylvie fastened her seat belt, careful not to chip her freshly manicured nails. Then she drove off, past her old grammar school where she received her first kiss, past the corner grocery store where she bought her first legal six-pack of wine coolers and, incredibly, past her Queens apartment where her fifteen-hundred-dollar wedding gown hung from a window cornice awaiting its big day.
As the oldest of three daughters and the only one still unmarried and childless at the ripe, old age of thirty-two, Sylvie was tired of the dating game. Wanting to share her life with someone on a permanent basis, she'd accepted Tim Endicott's proposal; getting her mother off her case was an added bonus. Tim, a new accountant at the firm she worked for, was everything a mother wanted in a son-in-law. Ambitious, as evidenced by his rapid rise within the company; and good-looking, with dark eyes, dark hair, and an olive complexion. Smooth was how her mother described him; Sylvie thought slick fit him better. And, like a docile pet eager to please, she'd done nothing to upset the apple cart, thinking it her fault that she couldn't appreciate his better qualities. Even when he asked her to quit to satisfy the company's policy against employing spouses, she blindly complied. And she'd been with the firm since college.
These and other indignities continued to weigh on Sylvie as roads and bridges, rivers and hills raced by unnoticed. By the time she took note of her surroundings--rolling hills and quaint stone farmhouses--she found herself far from the city, under a vast, blue sky with just a wisp of clouds dusting the horizon. More surprisingly, somewhere along the way, the alien being in her stomach had peacefully left the premises.
Wanting to be a part of the serene environment, she turned off the car's air conditioner, pulled the hairpins from her elaborate hairdo, and let her hair fly at will. With no destination in mind, she made a right turn at a gray barn with a faded Mail Pouch Tobacco sign painted on its side. The next left took her past an old stone mill churning water from a spring-fed pond. From there, it was straight into the setting sun. Or as straight as the narrow, twisting road allowed.
The more she drove, the more she questioned her one-sided relationship with Tim. Why hadn't they ever taken day trips to the country? And why had they never enjoyed a picnic in the park, a day at the beach, or a ride through the mountains? Their dates always seemed to be surrounded by people to whom he owed favors, or whose favors he sought. People who'd pat him on the back and tell him how clever he was, or what a good choice he'd made in choosing her for his wife. Then again, assets and liabilities were Tim's stock in trade. He even made love like an accountant, plodding a predictable path toward that all important bottom line. Passion never entered the picture.
As Sylvie cruised along the winding country road, the forest abruptly closed in on her. Sunlight filtering through the leafy green canopy made driving a dizzying experience, and she instinctively eased up on the gas. Here and there, road kill littered the pavement. A small furry object zipped across her path and then vanished into the woods. Farther ahead, as she rounded a curve, a startled deer bolted from the road. It was the most wildlife she'd seen, dead or alive, since her fifth grade field trip to the Bronx Zoo.
When she finally emerged from the leafy tunnel, a weathered sign tacked to a tree beckoned her to Serendipity House. On impulse, she turned in the direction of the faded arrow. Although stumbling across good fortune on an old country road seemed like a long shot at this point, she was game. For good or ill, she had burned her bridges and had nothing more to lose.
As she traversed the winding lane, dodging potholes the size of bathtubs, Sylvie's newfound sense of adventure got a practical dose of reality as she envisioned herself dropping into one of the canyons, never to be seen or heard from again. At the top of the hill, the road opened onto a flat stretch of lawn studded with evergreens, maples, and pin oaks. In the center of all this greenery stood a large, white house with a wrap-around porch, its wicker settees and rockers reminiscent of a bygone era. On each end of the porch, ferns and potted ivy cascaded from waist-high pedestals.
A ladder leaned against the three-story house, one wall of which gleamed a pristine white. An empty paint bucket lay nearby. The house's shutters, removed and scraped in preparation for a fresh coat of paint, rested against the porch railing.
Parked in the open clearing, Sylvie had a breathtaking view of the valley. Straight ahead, the sun was a blinding crimson ball, with rays, like the spokes of a golden chariot racing across the afternoon sky.
Stiff from her long ride, she climbed from her car and headed toward the magnificent vista, wincing as gravel embedded into the soles of her thin sandals. At the crest of the hill, she gazed down over a lake with a wooden raft anchored to its middle, a small sandy beach, a canoe tipped on its side, numerous flower and vegetable patches, and a fence enclosing two horses, one champagne colored, the other chestnut; each had its neck stretched through the fence as far as it would go to get at the succulent sprouts on the other side.
"Oh, please, tell me it really is greener on the other side," she whispered.
"Can I help you?" a male voice called out to her.
Startled, Sylvie spun around. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to trespass, but I didn't see anyone when I drove up."
"I was in the shed out back getting more paint," the man said. "Are you a guest?"
"Maybe," she said. "If there's a vacancy."
The man brushed a shock of sandy hair from his forehead, the eyes beneath them a warm brown. "There usually is," he said, chuckling. He wiped his calloused hands on a rag, and then extended one to her. "Welcome to Serendipity House." He smiled, and Sylvie felt her stress melting like snow in April.
"Come on in and meet the owner," he said, nodding toward the house. "Violet will never win any awards for congeniality, but don't let that scare you off. She's fair and runs a decent place here. Food's good too."
"So where am I exactly? New Jersey?"
The handyman looked at her askance. "Hell, no. You overshot Jersey a bit. You're in the beautiful Pocono Mountains."
Sylvies brow creased. She'd driven from New York through New Jersey and into Pennsylvania? How could she have crossed so many bridges with no memory of it?
The man led her up the steps into the resort's main hallway. There she detected the faint, musty odor of old wood and wallpaper blended with the unmistakable scent of pine oil.
"Oh, Mrs. Schaefer," the man said with a tap on the door to her left. "We've got a paying customer here."
"For goodness sake, Bradley, you make it sound like that's a novelty," an exasperated voice called back.
"She'll be out in a minute," he said. Violet doesn't like to be interrupted when her soaps are on."
"Thank you, Bradley."
The handyman winced. "Brad. Call me Brad. Violet knows I hate to be called Bradley."
He left, and Sylvie took the time to study her surroundings. Toward the rear of the reception area she saw a magnificent staircase, its railings buffed to a fine patina from years of wear. Before she could explore further, a thin, unsmiling woman in her mid-seventies appeared.
Sylvie forced a smile. "A single room, please."
"All our rooms have one large double bed," the woman snapped. "Two hundred dollars in advance. Meals are extra."
Sylvie's eyes widened. With prices like that, no wonder the place had so many vacancies. "I'm sorry," she said, putting away her credit card. "That's a bit steep for me."
The woman's eyes raked Sylvie's clothes. "How much did those jeans set you back? No matter, that's your business. Mine is this place, and I can't go any lower than two hundred dollars a week."
"Uh, a week?"
"That's what I said."
Sylvie did a quick mental calculation and determined she had enough in her checking account to stay the summer without defaulting on her current obligations. "I'm sorry," she said, opening her purse again. "I misunderstood."
The stone-faced woman flipped open a guest book to which Sylvie added her name.
"Sylvia Gardner, New York City," the innkeeper read. She peered over the counter. "Any luggage?"
Sylvie remembered the set of luggage Tim had given her for their honeymoon trip to Acapulco. She'd packed the largest last night so it would be ready to go immediately following the reception. "Yes. In my car."
"Meals are promptly at eight, noon, and six, served family style. You'll need to indicate on the sheet at the end of the counter which meals you'll be taking with us. Here's your key. Room six, top of the stairs, turn right." With that, the dragon lady returned to her lair to finish watching her soaps.
Left to fend for herself, Sylvie fetched her bag from the car and lugged it up the wide staircase to her room. The accommodations seemed pleasant enough, a bit shabby and outdated, but comfortable with lace panels on the window and a homemade quilt atop a double bed. It wasn't the poshest establishment she'd ever stayed in. Her mother certainly would have turned up her nose at it. But it was more than adequate for the price. It would be interesting to see what else the inn offered.
Postponing curiosity out of necessity, Sylvie looked around for a bathroom. The first door she tried turned out to be a small closet. Assuming the second door was the bathroom, she flung it open, intruding on a plump, older woman tugging at the zipper on her too-tight sun suit. "Oh, I'm so sorry!"
"No problem," the woman said in a high, girlish voice. "It's all yours now. Just give a knock next time." The woman fluttered her fingers in what Sylvie took to be a wave and then exited through a door on the other side.
Sylvie stared at the door as it closed. Then, despite her full bladder, she risked a laugh. Shared bathrooms? No wonder the rates were so affordable.
After using the bathroom, Sylvie changed into a fresh blouse to go exploring. She'd just stepped off the porch when Brad called down from the top rung of the ladder.
"I see you're ready for the grand tour."
She squinted up at him. "Are you volunteering your services as a tour guide?"
"Yeah,I'm due for a break. Just let me clean up a little." Climbing down, the young maintenance man rinsed out his brush, wiped his hands on a rag, then formally introduced himself. "Brad Sullivan at your service, ma'am."
Sylvie giggled. "Oh, please. I hope I haven't reached ma'am status yet."
"So how long have you worked at the inn, Brad?"
"Oh, let's see. I started working here part-time in high school. So that makes it about twelve years."
Walking briskly, he led her down the steep hillside. "Now watch your step," he warned. "The grass might be slippery from a recent mowing."
Sylvie stayed to the footpath where she could and took small, baby steps where she couldn't. Upon reaching the lake, Brad showed her where they kept the fishing gear in case she wanted to catch her dinner. Sylvie peeked in the bait box, recoiling at the small plastic bags filled with squishy things she didn't want to look at much less touch.
Brad caught the look on her face and laughed. "Not a fisherman, huh? I didn't think so."
He nodded toward the makeshift stable, a two-stall contraption constructed of old doors and cinder blocks. Next to that was a grazing pasture with clover and buttercups growing along the edge of a white fence also in need of paint. "How about horseback riding? Are you a rider?" He whistled, and one of the horses trotted over. "Give her a pat," he urged.
Hesitant, Sylvie reached out. The mare, sensing nervousness, tossed her chestnut mane, and Sylvie drew back. "He's so much bigger up close."
"She," Brad corrected. "And, look, you're twins. She's the same color as your hair."
Sylvie offered up a weak smile. No one had never compared her hair to a horse's mane before.
Brad continued to scratch the horses broad forehead. "Maybe next week, after I finish painting the house, I'll show you the rest of the property by horseback."
"Oh, that sounds--interesting."
"There's actually over a hundred acres of creeks, hills, fields, and woods. See there, between those trees? There's a riding path that criss-crosses the entire property. Though with only two horses, it doesn't get used much. Not that our guests care one way or the other. Most of them are content to sit on the porch and play cards."
"Speaking of guests, where are they? I've been here over an hour and I've only seen one woman."
"Oh, Doreen took them into town to see a movie. That's a big deal around here. Not too many G-rated movies to choose from." Noticing the puzzled look on her face, he went on to explain. "Most of our guests are older and frown on four-letter words."
"And this Doreen you mentioned?"
"Doreen is Violet's daughter. She must be close to retirement age herself. Comes out every summer to help her mom run the place. And no matter what she does, poor thing can't seem to please the old bat."
Sylvie lowered her head in silent commiseration. Her own mother couldn't be too happy with her right now either. God only knew what kind of scene played out when the limo arrived at the church without the bride.
"Is something wrong?" Brad asked at her sudden silence.
"What? No, everything's fine." She turned her attention to the neatly kept garden. "What's growing over there?" she asked of the pods dripping like tinsel from every branch.
"Peas. I think Doreen will be freezing most of them. Last year we had peas up the wazoo. Everyone was sick of them."
"Do you eat all your meals here?"
"Only lunch. I have my own place down the road."
As they trekked back to the house, Sylvie met the chubby woman she'd barged in on earlier. The woman now wore a flowered bathing suit, skirted to hide her dimpled thighs. Wedged around her middle was a fat inner tube.
"Mrs. Pulaski, say hello to Sylvie. She'll be staying with us for a while."
"Hello, dear. My, but it's nice to have some younger people to visit with," the woman said in a high, squeaky voice. "I get so tired of listening to the old folks talk about their ailing digestive tracts. I, myself, have never had such problems. Comes from a lifetime of eating the right foods, you know. That's why I just love this place. All the food is organically grown, you know. And the atmosphere is so tranquil, though I do get weary of talking to myself sometimes. Violet just doesn't have the business she had when her husband was alive. Not that I was around then. Heavens, no, I was just a young girl at the time, but I hear the old-timers talking about how it used to be, and I--"
"Sorry to interrupt, Mrs. P.," Brad said, "but if you want to take a dip, you better get going. You know Violet doesn't like it when guests are late for supper."
"Oh, my, you're right. Toodle-oo!"
"Nice to meet you, Mrs. Pulaski, and enjoy your swim," Sylvie called after her.
"Well, now you've met our very own Chatty Cathy," Brad said, laughing. "A word to the wise though--don't pull her string if you can help it."
"I'll try to remember that," she said, laughing as well.
"Okay, tour over. Now I better finish painting or the dragon lady will dock my wages."
"Well, thank you for the tour, Brad. I enjoyed it. Sylvie watched the young handyman amble off, thinking what a refreshing change he was from Tim. Tim was a man who never met a mirror he didn't like, checking his appearance more often than a Hollywood starlet. Sylvie was quite certain the only time Brad looked in the mirror was when he shaved.
Exploring on her own, Sylvie went inside, curious to see more of the old building. Directly off the lobby, she peeked into what appeared to be an activity room with several overstuffed chairs and colorful rag rugs set about on wide, oak floorboards. Overhead, wood beams supported the high, vaulted ceiling; and piled on large, round tables were board games of all kinds. Dominating one corner of the room was an upright player piano, its top cluttered with yellowed rolls of music.
Intrigued by the old piano, she ventured in and scanned the titles, "Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition!", "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree," "When Johnny Comes Marching Home." All vintage pieces. It made her wonder if she'd just signed herself into a retirement home.
She pressed the center white key, and a sound like that of a cow in labor bellowed through the empty room. Wincing, she withdrew her hand. She could only imagine the discord that came out of the ancient upright once the piano rolls were inserted.
"Can you play?" a brittle voice asked.
"Oh, Mrs. Schaefer, you startled me." She smiled. "No, I can't play. I did take lessons as a child though, but I never followed through with it."
"Kids," the old woman snorted. "They're all the same."
"Did your children take lessons too?"
The woman's eyes narrowed. "I gave my children the best of everything, including piano lessons. And when they got older they abandoned it all, starting with their mother."
Sylvie didn't know how to respond. As the child of a domineering woman herself, her first thought was to defend the children. Fearing that might set the stage for continued animosity between her and the innkeeper, she said nothing.
"Play it if you want. No one else does," Violet Schaeffer said. "I have to finish making supper now. My daughter is supposed to be here, but as usual, she's nowhere around."
"If you need help, I'd be glad to--"
"Sorry. I don't allow guests in the kitchen when I'm cooking," came the curt reply.
"I understand. Then perhaps you can point me to a phone. I didn't notice any in my room, and I forgot to bring my cell phone with me."
Violet pointed to the staircase. "It's a pay phone, so you'll need change."
Sylvie followed the direction of the innkeeper's bony finger and saw a small cubby tucked under the staircase. In it was a wall phone and a built-in bench. Checking her pockets for change, she found just enough to make a brief call.
Someone picked up on the first ring. "Sylvie? Is that you?" her mother asked breathlessly.
"Yeah, Ma, it's me."
"What happened? Where are you? Are you all right?"
"I'm fine, Ma, and nothing happened. I just couldn't go through with it, that's all."
"No, you listen. How could you embarrass me like that in front of all our guests? I spent a fortune on this wedding, and this is how you repay me?"
Sylvie squeezed her eyes shut, wondering if she should even bother to explain. Taking a deep breath, she gave it a go. "I'm sorry, Ma. I really am. I know you like Tim, but I can't marry a man who has no regard for my feelings and opinions. Not even for you."
"Don't give me that crap. Tim is a wonderful man; he'll make a perfect husband."
"Ma, I didn't call to discuss the merits of Tim Endicott as husband material. Lord knows, you have more experience in that department than I do."
"My marriages have nothing to do with--"
"Look, I don't want to fight. I just called to let you know I'm okay. Much to your disappointment, I wasn't kidnapped or murdered. I have to go now, Ma. Tell Crystal and Mia I'll pay them back for the bridesmaids' dresses as soon as I can. And give my love to their little ones."
Before her mother could light into her again, Sylvie hung up. Then, oblivious to the passage of time, she sat in the tiny nook nursing her hurt.
She'd never hung up on her mother before. In fact, she'd never defied her mother at all. Not even in high school when rebellion was expected. If Mom wanted her home by eleven, she made sure she was home by eleven. If Mom said she had to pay for her own prom gown, she used money earned from babysitting. She'd always been the perfect daughter--until now.
Sylvie blinked back the tears gathering in her eyes. Outside her little cubby, she heard tires crunching on gravel, doors thudding shut, and feet thundering overhead as the other guests returned from their outing. But it wasn't until she heard the clinking of forks against plates that she snapped out of her pity party.
Supper! She was late for supper!
All eyes turned on Sylvie as she entered the dining room. Two elderly men jumped up and introduced themselves as Sheldon and Elliot Stein; each offered his seat. Sylvie took one, and the men slid down one place.
"Hello, Sylvie, we're very glad," one said.
"to make your acquaintance," the other finished.
The brothers, Sylvie noticed, were complete opposites. Where Sheldon was short, bald, and chunky, Elliot was tall and thin, with black hair that appeared suspiciously like a small rug perched on his head. Sheldon wore glasses with thick, heavy lenses, while Elliot, Sylvie presumed, was more vain, donning his horn rims only when he desperately needed to see what was on his plate.
Sylvie forced a wan smile, then turned to the white-haired couple across from her, also up in age. "Nice to meet you, dear," the apple-cheeked woman said. "I'm Edna Wooten and this is my husband, Homer."
Homer put his arm around Edna and gave her a squeeze. "We're newlyweds."
"How wonderful," Sylvie said. "Congratulations."
"Aren't you sweet. Thank you, dear," Edna said. "And I know you'll enjoy your stay here. Most of us arrive around the end of May and stay till the end of October. And we just love it. It's so peaceful and quiet sometimes you can actually hear the grass grow."
Sylvie smiled at the woman's description, then turned her attention on the others present. The chatty Mrs. Pulaski held down one end of the table, while Violet Schaefer, regal and silent, kept order at the other end. Directly opposite Sylvie, when she wasn't skittering to and from the kitchen, sat the unappreciated Doreen, a gentler version of Violet with salt and pepper hair framing a round face.
After dining on fried chicken, potatoes and gravy, fresh peas, and strawberry pie, everyone but the innkeeper and her daughter retired to the game room. Mrs. Pulaski chatted with the Wootens, who couldn't keep their hands off each other; the Stein brothers politely disagreed over a chess match carried over from the night before; and Sylvie shuffled through a stack of outdated periodicals, finally settling on a People magazine only two months old.
After an hour of light banter and even lighter reading, she headed toward the kitchen for a glass of water. As she neared, she overheard Violet and Doreen bickering.
"Mom, you didn't have to bake today," the younger woman said. "I told you I'd pick up bread in town."
"You did not," Violet said. "I didn't even know you were leaving. I turned around and everyone was gone."
"I told you at breakfast."
"Don't you think I'd remember if you did?"
Sylvie heard a long, drawn out sigh. Then, "Okay, Mom, maybe I didn't. I'm sorry."
With her own mother-daughter problems too fresh in her mind, Sylvie returned to the game room without her water. By nine-thirty the Wootens and the Stein brothers had gone to bed. Only Mrs. Pulaski stayed behind, bending Sylvie's ear until she ran out of steam and also went to bed. At ten-thirty, after learning more than she ever cared to know about the secret lives of celebrities, Sylvie did the same.
Snuggled under the cozy quilt, waiting for sleep to obliterate the memory of the past twelve hours, Sylvie felt more alone than ever. This was supposed to be her wedding night. Instead, she slept alone, holed up in a shabby resort with a couple of horny septuagenarians, Mutt and his brother Jeff, a magpie, and a mother-daughter combo that mirrored her own dysfunctional family.
* * *
Alexander Clemenceau stuffed another pair of socks in a corner of his bag. Although he normally tackled each new case with enthusiasm, his heart simply wasn't in this one. Had it been a runaway kid, or a philandering spouse, fine. But chasing down a bride who'd literally left her groom at the altar hit too close to home. Besides, after meeting his obnoxious client, he didn't blame the woman for taking off.
"The bitch stole something from me," the man had said right off the bat. "And I want it back."
"What's that, sir?"
"You don't need to know that. Just find her for me."
"Yes, sir. I'll try my best."
"I'm not paying you to try. I want results and I'm paying well to get them. If you don't think you can find the little bitch, get out of my office now."
Alex knew he could do the job. Nonetheless, because of the way the man treated people he deemed beneath him, he'd considered walking out then and there. Despite his misgivings, however, he'd taken the case because the payoff promised to be a handsome one. Not that a rookie private eye always earned that much. Some months he barely cleared enough to pay the rent and make his car payment. He could've opted for a cheaper office and a less expensive car. But he believed the illusion of success would attract the right clientele. No one but working stiffs with limited resources would hire an ex-cop operating out of a rundown storefront. Locating his office in the Upper East Side gave him respectability.
So far the strategy seemed to be working. Accountable to no one but his affluent clients, he no longer had to deal with murders, mayhem, and unsavory characters on a daily basis. More importantly, he slept better, having distanced himself from the graft and corruption so prevalent among the more jaded members of law enforcement.
As a former beat cop with the Hoboken police department, Alex had witnessed a few of his comrades shift from cop to criminal. Although he couldn't condone their actions, he couldn't condemn them either. And he certainly couldn't rat on them without incurring the wrath of the entire department for shining a spotlight on their shame.
Unable to reconcile his moral dilemma, he'd put the whole ten years behind him. Dreams die hard, but tarnished dreams die easier. His only regret was not making the break sooner. Had he done so, he might have been able to salvage his crumbling relationship with Mandie.
Alex reviewed what he had on his current quarry one last time. His contacts at the police department had obtained the woman's current credit card transactions, so he had a good idea where she was hiding out. Armed with the necessary data, he tucked the folder in his briefcase and set off to find the wayward bride. He was merging onto Interstate 80 when he remembered he didn't tell his grandmother he'd be out of town for a few days. Flipping open his cell phone, he punched in the number where she worked part-time as a cleaning lady.
"Alex, what's wrong?" she cried as soon as she heard his voice. "Are you hurt?"
"No, Gran, I'm fine. I'm not on the force anymore. Remember? So stop worrying about someone taking a potshot at me."
"Oh," she said with a relieved sigh. "That's right."
"So how are you feeling? And don't automatically say fine. I want the truth."
Up in years, Angela Tanner had been the only one to come forward when her daughter, Alex's widowed mother, passed away unexpectedly. His brothers and sisters by their mother's first marriage had already flown the coop, coming back briefly to cry at their mother's funeral. After the services, they'd rummaged through her rented home and confiscated anything of value. Mementoes they called them. Even at the tender age of eight, Alex knew they were nothing but a pack of thieves. They left with their spoils, and he never laid eyes on them again.
"Gran, I'll be away on a case, so don't worry if you don't hear from me for a while. But if there's a problem and you need me, call. Okay? And quit that damn job. It's time for me take care of you."
"I'll think about it."
"You do that."
"I said I will. Now go do your job and don't worry about me."
Aware that Gran's working was a sore point between them, Alex ended the call. But it didn't stop him from worrying. What if she needed help and wasn't able to get to a phone? She could fall down the stairs or have a heart attack, and he wouldn't know until it was too late. She'd already been advised to take it easy because of a weak heart and advanced arthritis. Thank God she had friends and neighbors who looked in on her. Even Mandie stopped by just to chat or see if she needed anything. Which was both comforting and humiliating, considering the woman had dumped him for his best friend.
Pushing his anxiety aside, Alex raced down the highway, eager to confirm the whereabouts of the runaway bride and get back to the city.
* * *
By the end of her first week at Serendipity House, Sylvie had lounged in the sun with the honeymooners, floated in an inner tube with Mrs. Pulaski, and held her own in a game of checkers with Sheldon. Although she'd learned how to play chess from her mother's third husband, she hadn't played in years and didn't want to embarrass herself by challenging the brothers to a match. All in all, she hadn't felt this relaxed in ages.
Today, she was picking peas with Doreen.
"Why is it," Doreen mused, "that no matter how many times you go through a row, there's always some you miss? Where do the little buggers hide the first time around?"
Laughing, Sylvie reached deep into a bush and snapped off a pod. In the short time she'd been there, she'd developed a special rapport with Doreen, a woman incapable of harboring a bad thought about anyone. As the oldest of Violet Schaefer's six children and the only daughter, Doreen had been elected by her brothers to help run the inn during the busy summer season.
"Mom's not the easiest person to get along with," Doreen explained. "It's all I can do to get my kids and grandkids to come out and visit. She gets so nasty, sometimes I wonder if aliens haven't snatched her away and left this bitter old woman in her place."
Sylvie gave her friend a sad smile. Someday she and Doreen would have to compare horror stories.
After packing most of the peas for the freezer, Sylvie settled on the porch with a book she'd brought along. Aware that she'd probably see no fireworks on her honeymoon, she'd tucked a spicy romance in her suitcase. Spotting Brad with a flat of geraniums, she set the book aside and offered to help plant them. She'd always loved geraniums and had pots of them on her balcony in the city. Brad accepted her offer, and together they arranged the blooms in the shrubbery bed adjoining the porch.
Just as they placed the last two plants in the ground, a silver BMW rolled to a stop a few feet away. The driver surveyed the house, now painted a gleaming white with crisp black shutters, and then stepped from his automobile.
Brad's eyebrows rose. "Looks like we're starting to get a classier clientele," he said, nodding toward the man.
No longer concerned about the condition of her nails, Sylvie tamped her plant into the earth, then took a closer look. With his silk shirt, Gucci loafers, and expensive car, the man did seem out of place.
"Good morning," he said with an odd accent. "Lovely flowers, geraniums. Reminds me of home."
Sylvie smiled in agreement. "Yes, they're one of my favorites too."
"So," he said, adjusting his cuffs. "Do we have any vacancies today?"
Brad nodded. "Inside and to your left. Just knock on the office door."
Brad waited until the man went inside, then turned to Sylvie. "Sounds like a limey to me."
Sylvie shrugged. "I don't know. I can't quite place the accent. He sounds like a cross between Noel Coward and Maurice Chevalier."
Brad's brow wrinkled. "Who?"
"Before your time," she said, laughing. "And mine."
Five minutes later, the man returned to his car for his briefcase and bag. On his way back, he introduced himself. "Alex Clemenceau here. And you?"
Sylvie looked at his outstretched hand. Not wanting to appear rude, she wiped her soiled hands on her jeans before clasping it. "Sylvie Gardner."
"Sylvie. My pleasure," he said, holding her hand longer than necessary. She pulled it away, and he turned to Brad. "And you must be Bradley, the handyman."
Brad scowled at the formal use of his name. "Yeah. Pleased to make your acquaintance, guv'ner."
Sylvie noticed the men sizing each other up. Unlike Brad with his craggy, outdoor looks, Alex was lean, with thick black hair, wide blue eyes, and a deep cleft in his chin. By rights, he shouldn't have been as attractive as his individual features warranted. In all, he presented the picture of a sleek, black panther, as dangerous as he was handsome.
"Well, enjoy your stay, Alex," she said, breaking the standoff. "I think you'll find it restful here. Lord knows, I have."
"Thank you," he said, disappearing inside.
Sylvie stared after him, thinking it odd that a man many years shy of retirement would want to spend his vacation with a bunch of old folks. Then again, who was she to talk?
"Well, we must have been wrong about the accent," she said, turning to Brad. "The name definitely sounds French to me."
"Whatever," Brad muttered. "Wait till Mr. Bigshot finds out there's no room service."
"Never mind that." Sylvie giggled. "Wait till he finds out we share toilets."
* * *
Alex surveyed the sparse room, checked the locks on the doors and windows, and decided, for a building that housed strangers from all over the country, the place was far from secure. A five-year-old could break into these rooms. Although he would've preferred nicer accommodations--room service, maybe a mini-bar and a TV--this would do in a pinch. Since opening his own detective agency two years earlier, he'd become accustomed to ritzier digs while on a case.
Testing the bed, he found it clean and comfortable, topped by a thin quilt that had been through the washer a few too many times. He leaned back on his arms and scrutinized the room, wondering whatever possessed him to check in. He'd already located the woman. All he had to do was report back and collect his fee. And where did that stupid accent come from? He'd been trying to sound French, but what spilled out sounded more like a mongrelized version of a British lord. Laughable in more refined circles, clearly passable in these.
Having assessed the entire room in less than a minute, Alex leaned against the windowsill and perused his bucolic surroundings. The only thing missing from Mayberry was a man and boy in bib overalls with fishing poles slung over their shoulders. Cocking his head to one side, he listened, half-expecting to hear whistling in the distance.
* * *
With new blood at the table that evening, questions flew at Alex faster than balls in a batting cage. Temporarily forgotten, Sylvie listened with only half an ear, glad someone else occupied the hot seat tonight. To his credit, the new guy weathered the siege with aplomb, saying that he worked for an international company and had discovered the quaint inn purely by chance.
Sylvie paid little mind. Whether the man worked with his hands or his brain made little difference to her. Though she had to admit, he intrigued her.
Dressed informally in a T-shirt and jeans, he didn't seem at all the dapper gentleman who'd checked in earlier. But no matter the dress, he was still a panther.
"So how about it, Sylvie?"
With a start, Sylvie realized the panther had posed a question to her. She looked around the dinner table. "I'm sorry," she said, embarrassed to find everyone waiting on her answer.
"I asked if I might engage you in a board game this evening."
"Thank you, but I think I'm just going to watch a little TV, then go to bed," she said to the disappointment of fellow diners.
Undaunted, Alex turned to Mrs. Pulaski. "What about you, Mrs. Pulaski?"
"Why I'd be delighted to play with you, Alex." The plump woman giggled. Then she giggled again at her unintentional double entendre.
Later that evening, as the Stein brothers mulled over their chess moves, and Alex and Mrs. Pulaski played Monopoly, Sylvie curled up on the couch to watch Wheel of Fortune with the Wootens who couldn't resist yelling at the contestants on the screen.
"No, no, you dummy," Homer scolded. "Don't waste money on a vowel. Pick a T, a T!"
Her mind wandered to Brad, and she wondered how he spent his evenings and why he didn't live at the inn. It's not like there was a shortage of rooms. Did he eat supper alone? Or was there a woman in his life?
At the game table, Mrs. Pulaski crowed. "Park Place, yippee. I'll buy it."
Alex groaned in mock dismay. "Mrs. Pulaski, you're simply too shrewd for me."
Violet Schaefer, looking more haggard than usual, dropped into a chair next to Sylvie. "Well, the kitchen's cleaned up, the table's set for breakfast, and tomorrow it starts all over again."
"You really should hire some help," Sylvie suggested.
"I do have help. At least I did until the silly girl went and got herself pregnant."
"Then perhaps you should consider--"
"Do you young people have an answer for everything?" the surly innkeeper snorted. "Well, young lady, I'd need to get a lot more money out of this place before I could even think of hiring the kind of help I need."
Sylvies face flushed, and she considered slinking off to her room early. But something, a latent streak of rebellion perhaps, or her resurrected pride, held her fast.
"Mrs. Schaefer," she said in a voice that carried well beyond their little corner of the room. "Far be it for me to tell you what to do. But if you checked with other resorts around here, you'd find that your rates are well below the norm. Maybe if you raised them and did a little advertising, you could afford decent help. Then maybe you wouldnt be so--so," The word crabby came to mind; Sylvie settled on tired.
In her indignation, she didn't realize she'd drowned out Pat and Vanna until she looked around and found all eyes focused on her.
Suddenly support came from an unlikely source. "Actually, she's right about that, Mrs. Schaeffer," Alex said. "You really should think about restructuring your rates."
A collective gasp traveled through the room, to which he quickly added, "Though a discount for frequent guests would be appreciated, I'm sure."
Sylvie glared at Alex for inserting his two cents. She wanted to tell him to butt out, that this was her fight, and she'd fight it alone. But she just wasn't up to taking him on too.
When the crusty innkeeper finally found her voice, it was cool. "I'll consider that, Mr. Clemenceau. Thank you for your input." She turned to Sylvie, grudgingly adding, "And yours."
After the brief hubbub died down, Sylvie excused herself and went out on the porch to clear her head. Why had she reacted so strongly? She had no stake in the business and didn't really care how the old biddy ran the inn.
Night descended early in the mountains, and Sylvie soon found herself sitting in the dark. Mosquitoes came out in force, and she thought about going inside. Deciding to tough it out, she slapped and swatted for over an hour, loath to lock horns with Violet Schaeffer twice in one night. When she heard Violet go to bed, only then did she sneak up to her own room.
* * *
The next morning, keeping the promise he made on her first day at the inn, Brad helped Sylvie mount a huge mass of horse flesh. The animal whinnied and snorted, and he quieted her with a pat. "Be good now, Polly. Sylvie's a greenhorn." To Sylvie, he said, "Just relax and enjoy the ride. This old girl knows the way." Then he climbed on the other horse and led her out of the pasture.
Sylvie clutched at the reins as the horse trotted off, unsure how a person could relax without sliding out of the saddle. At the top of the hill, the trail meandered through a wooded area, and the air grew noticeably cooler. The scent of rich, dark humus under a blanket of decomposing vegetation gave her a heady feeling.
Brad turned to her with a grin. "There's a treat in store coming up. I think you'll find it's worth the ride."
Sylvie couldn't imagine anything more beautiful than the wooded enclave through which they rode. It was almost as if Mother Nature deliberately kept her best work hidden from view.
When they finally burst into sunlight, the scene was nothing short of spectacular. Perched on a hillside, seemingly at the edge of the world, Sylvie was speechless. In the distance, overlapping hills in various hues of green and lavender created a mosaic of nature's cleavage. The air hummed with life as bees, birds, and butterflies flitted from one scented blossom to another as they propagated the next generation of wildflowers.
Brad helped her dismount and together they gazed out over the valley. Planted knee deep in wildflowers, Sylvie watched as a butterfly kissed a purple blossom, and then floated away on the summer breeze. Nearby, chipmunks chattered as they gathered food for the lean months ahead. Her senses alive, Sylvie dropped to the soft, green carpet and turned her face toward the sky. Brad joined her.
As they lay on the breast of Mother Earth, a picture show of clouds passed overhead, morphing from people to animals, and then back to people. Sylvie thought one formation resembled George Washington; Brad thought it was an exact likeness of George Bush.
Twenty minutes later, having identified a score of famous faces, Sylvie suggested they return to the inn. "I wouldn't want you to get in trouble because of me," she said, rising to her feet.
Unsteady on the sloping hillside, she tottered. Brad reached out to steady her, and she laughed at her clumsiness and grabbed hold of him for support. When he pulled her close to keep her from falling, her laugh dwindled. Excited by his raw, earthy scent, she raised her eyes, surprised and delighted to see something she'd never seen on Tim's face. Desire.
He lowered his head as if to kiss her; she closed her eyes in sweet anticipation. Then, in keeping with her newfound independence, she did something completely out of character: she kissed him, adding the whipped topping to her strawberry shortcake morning.
Before she had a chance to savor the moment, however, he broke away. He cleared his throat, and then said, "We should go now." He turned her toward her horse and cupped his hands to receive her foot.
Embarrassed by her action and his non-action, Sylvie mounted her horse. Judging by the interest he seemed to have shown in her, she thought he would've been a little more receptive to her impulsive gesture.
For reasons Sylvie couldn't explain, the ride back, though just as scenic, didn't elicit the same awe as the trek out. They'd no sooner arrived back at the inn when she spotted Alex poised for a dive off the raft. An instant later, he sliced through the water, cleanly, athletically. Surfacing, he shook the water from his hair before climbing back on the platform for a repeat performance.
Unwilling to give him the satisfaction of an audience, Sylvie slid off her horse without waiting for assistance. "I really enjoyed today, Brad," she said, masking her disappointment with a smile. "I hope we can do it again sometime."
Brad kicked at the ground with the toe of his boot. "Sylvie, there's something I have to tell--"
"Yoo-hoo, Sylvie," Mrs. Pulaski shouted. "I've been looking all over for you. Where have you been, girl?"
Brad took the horses' reins. "I'll catch you later," he said, leading the horses back to the stable.
"Mrs. Pulaski," Sylvie said. "I just had the most wonderful experience. Have you ever gone riding?"
The portly woman laughed. "Good Lord, no. Do you want both the horse and me to have a heart attack?" she said, poking fun at her ample girth. "No, Lordy, not for me. I keep these tree trunks rooted in good old terra firma."
Sylvie tried not to laugh. "So what did you want to see me about?"
"I'm planning Cindy's shower, and I thought you might like to help."
"Cindy? I don't believe I've met her."
"Oh, you must have. Brad's Cindy? She's such a dear, little thing, I'm sure you'd remember if you met her."
Sylvie's smile faded. "Is this a bridal shower?"
"Oh, no. Brad and Cindy are already married. We're throwing a baby shower."
This excerpt is from the middle section of the book.
Alone with her thoughts and a dozen eggs, Sylvie mindlessly cracked them into a bowl. She didn't realize how many she'd cracked until she reached for another and came up empty. Snatching up her whisk, she began beating them to a sunny froth.
The basement door opened, and Alex emerged from its depths wiping grime from his hands. "You have to go through those boxes and see if there's anything you want to keep up here." He spotted her manic egg-beating and rushed to her side. "Honey? What is it? What's wrong?"
Sylvie continued beating her eggs. "That was Doreen on the phone," she said, unmindful of the yellow spatters on the table.
"Oh." He stepped back apace. "Honey, I planned to tell you when the time was right, I swear."
"And when was that, pray tell?"
"Baby, don't be mad. Please. I did it for you."
"No, you didn't!" Eyes blazing, Sylvie tossed her whisk aside. "You did it for you. Everything was for you, to bolster your ego. You came, you saw, and you conquered. You're no better than Tim at using people."
"That's not true. Remember that day in the corn field? I made a play for you and you turned me down."
"That's because there were strings attached!"
"No, you're dead wrong there."
Sylvie stared at his plaintive expression. For an instant he almost had her convinced of his sincerity. But he'd lied convincingly before. Refusing to be taken in again, she grabbed her whisk and resumed beating her eggs.
"Why should I believe you? From the very beginning you've done nothing but lie to me." Her voice broke and tears flooded her eyes. "Son-of-a-bitch," she said, throwing down the whisk. "If you want to eat, scramble your own damn eggs!"
She ran to their room, and when he followed, she slammed the door in his face.
Undeterred, Alex talked through it. "Sylvie, please, don’t be like that. All I ever wanted to do was make you happy. I knew the inn made you happy, and I needed to find another line of work anyway, so . . . I swear, baby, I was going to tell you when the time was right."
When she didn't answer, he left. Ten minutes later, she heard a timid knock.
"Sylvie? Honey? Eggs are on the table if you feel like eating."
"I'm not hungry."
"Look, Sylvie, I know you're mad. But it's seven o'clock and you haven't had anything to eat since breakfast."
As if pleading to be filled, Sylvie's stomach growled loud enough to be heard through the door. "See," he said.
She held a hand to her complaining stomach. Traitor. Flinging the door wide, she pushed past him to the kitchen, her eyes warning him not to utter a word. Heeding that warning, Alex ate his eggs in silence.
Later, drained physically and emotionally, both turned in for the night, she keeping to the east side of the bed, he to the west. And through the long, sleepless night, ne'er the twain did meet.