Rose Harbor was in bloom. Purple rhododendrons and red azaleas dotted the property. I stood on the porch, leaning against the thick white post, and looked over the property for my bed-and-breakfast. The Inn at Rose Harbor was beautifully scripted on the wooden sign and was prominently displayed in the front of the yard along with my name, Jo Marie Rose, as proprietor.
I never planned on owning or operating a bed-and-breakfast. But then I never expected to be a widow in my thirties, either. If I’d learned anything in this road called life it’s that it often takes unexpected turns, rerouting us from the very path that had once seemed so right. My friends advised me against purchasing the inn. They felt the move was too drastic: it meant more than just moving and leaving my job; it would mean an entire life change. Many thought I should wait at least a year after losing Paul. But my friends were wrong. I’d found peace at the inn, and somewhat to my surprise, a certain contentment.
Until I purchased the inn, I’d lived in a condo in the heart of downtown Seattle. Because of my job and other responsibilities, I hadn’t had pets, well, other than as a youngster. But shortly after I moved to Cedar Cove I got Rover. In only a few short months, I’d grown especially fond of him; he’d become my shadow, my constant companion.
Rover was a rescue dog I’d gotten through Grace Harding, the Cedar Cove librarian. Grace volunteered at the local animal shelter, and she’d recommended I adopt a dog. I thought I wanted a German shepherd. Instead I’d come home with this indiscriminate mixed-breed short-haired mutt. The shelter had dubbed him Rover because it was clear he’d been on his own, roaming about for a good long time.
My musings were interrupted by mutterings from the area where I planned to plant a rose garden and eventually add a gazebo. The sound came from Mark Taylor, the handyman I’d hired to construct the sign that stood in the front yard.
Mark was an interesting character. I’d given him plenty of work, but I had yet to figure out if he considered me a friend. He acted like my friend most of the time, but then every so often he turned into a grumpy, unlikable, cantankerous, unreasonable . . . the list went on.
“What’s up?” I called out.
“Nothing,” he barked back.
Apparently, the ill-tempered monster had returned.
Months ago I’d asked Mark to dig up a large portion of the yard for a rose garden. He’d told me this project would be low on his priority list. He seemed to work on it when the mood struck him, which unfortunately wasn’t often, but still I thought a month or two would be adequate in between the other projects he’d done for me. To be fair to Mark, though, it’d been a harsh winter. Still, my expectations hadn’t been met. I’d wanted the rosebushes planted by now. I’d so hoped to have the garden in full bloom in time for the open house I planned to host for the Cedar Cove Chamber of Commerce. The problem, or at least one of them, was the fact that Mark was a perfectionist. He must have taken a week simply to measure the yard. String and chalk markings crisscrossed from one end of the freshly mowed lawn to the other. Yes, Mark had insisted on mowing it first before he measured.
Normally, I’m not this impatient, but enough was enough. Mark was a skilled handyman. I had yet to find anything he couldn’t do. He was an all-purpose kind of guy, and most of the time I felt lucky to have him around. It seemed as time progressed I found more and more small jobs that required his attention.
New to this business and not so handy myself, I needed someone I could rely on to make minor repairs. As a result, the plans for the rose garden had basically been ignored until the very last minute. At the rate Mark worked, I’d resigned myself to the fact that it wasn’t possible for it to be ready before Sunday afternoon.
I watched as he straightened and wiped his forearm across his brow. Looking up, he seemed to notice I was still watching him from the porch. “You going to complain again?” he demanded.
“I didn’t say a word.” Reading his mood, I forced myself to bite my tongue before I said something to set him off. All Mark needed was one derogatory word from me as an excuse to leave for the day.
“You didn’t need to say anything,” Mark grumbled. “I can read frowns, too.”
Rover raised his head at Mark’s less-than-happy tone and then looked back at me as though he expected me to return the verbal volley. I couldn’t help being disappointed, and it would have been easy to follow through with a few well-chosen words. Instead, I smiled ever so sweetly, determined to hold my tongue. All I could say was that it was a good thing Mark charged by the job and not by the hour.
“Just say what’s on your mind,” he insisted.
“I thought I’d told you I wanted the rose garden planted before I held the open house,” I said, doing my level best not to show my frustration.
“You might have mentioned this earlier, then,” he snapped.
“Clearly it slipped my mind.”
“Well, don’t get your dander up.” It wasn’t worth fighting about at this late date. The invitations were mailed, and the event, ready or not, was scheduled for this very weekend. It would be nothing short of a miracle if Mark finished before then. No need to get upset about it now.
Actually, I was as much at fault for this delay as Mark. Often before he ever started work, I’d invite him in for coffee. I’d discovered that he was as interesting as he was prickly. Perhaps most surprising of all was that he’d become one of my closest friends in Cedar Cove, so naturally I wanted to find out what I could about him. The problem was he wasn’t much of a talker. I’d learned more about him while playing Scrabble than in conversation. He was smart and competitive, and he had a huge vocabulary.
Even now, after five months, he avoided questions and never talked about anything personal. I didn’t know if he’d ever been married or if he had family in the area. Despite all our conversations, most of what I knew about him I’d deduced on my own. He lived alone. He didn’t like talking on the phone, and he had a sweet tooth. He tended to be a perfectionist, and he took his own sweet time on a project. That was the sum total of everything I’d learned about a man I saw on average four or five times a week. He seemed to enjoy our chats, but I wasn’t fooled. It wasn’t my wit and charm that interested him—it was the cookies that often accompanied our visits. If I hadn’t been so curious about him he probably would have gone straight to work. Well, from this point forward I would be too busy for what I called our coffee break.
Grumbling under his breath, Mark returned to digging up the grass and stacking squares of it around the edges of the cleared space. He cut away each section as if he was serving up precise portions of wedding cake.
Despite my frustration with the delay and his persnickety ways, I continued to lean against the porch column and watch him work. The day was bright and sunny. I wasn’t about to let all that sunshine go to waste. Window washing, especially the outside ones, was one of my least favorite tasks, but it needed to be done. I figured there was no time like the present.
The hot water had turned lukewarm by the time I dipped the sponge into the plastic bucket. Glancing up at the taller windows, I exhaled and dragged the ladder closer to the side of the house. If Paul were alive, I realized, he’d be the one climbing the ladder. I shook my head to remind myself that if Paul were alive I wouldn’t own this inn or be living in Cedar Cove in the first place.
Sometimes I wondered if Paul would even recognize the woman I’d become in the last year. I wore my thick, dark hair much longer these days. Most of the time I tied it at the base of my neck with a scrunchie. My hair, which had always been professionally groomed for the office, had grown to the point that when I let it hang free, the tendrils bounced against the top of my shoulders.
Mark, who rarely commented on anything, made a point of letting me know I looked like I was still a teenager. I took it as a compliment, although I was fairly certain that wasn’t his intent. I doubt Mark has spent much time around women, because he could make the rudest comments and hardly seem aware of what he’d said.
My hairstyle wasn’t the only change in my appearance. Gone were the crisp business suits, pencil skirts, and fitted jackets that were the customary uniform for my position at the bank. These days it was mostly jeans and a sweater beneath a bib apron. One of the surprises of owning the inn was how much I enjoyed cooking and baking. I often spent the mornings in my kitchen whipping up a batch of this or that. Until I purchased the inn there hadn’t been much opportunity to create elaborate meals. These days I found I could read a recipe book with the same rapture as a New York Times bestseller. Baking distracts me and provides afternoon treats for my guests and wonderful muffins and breads I take such pride in serving for the breakfasts. I’d put on a few pounds, too, no thanks to all the baking I did, but I was working on losing weight. Thankfully, my favorite jeans still fit.
Some days I paused, wondering if Paul would know the new me—mainly because I didn’t recognize myself any longer. I’d changed, which I suppose was only natural. My entire world had been set upside down.
After dipping the sponge in the soapy water, I headed up the first three steps of the ladder, ready to wash off several months’ accumulation of dirt and grime. I wrinkled my nose at the pungent scent of vinegar, which my mother had recommended for cleaning windows. Unfortunately, I failed to write down the proportions. Seeing that it was a big bucket, I emptied half a bottle into the hot water. At this point, my bucket smelled more like a pickle barrel.
“What are you doing?” Mark shouted from across the yard.
“What does it look like I’m doing?” I asked, refusing to let his bad mood rile me. Being Mark’s friend required more than a fair share of patience.
He stabbed the pitchfork into the grass and marched across the lawn toward me like a soldier heading into battle. A thick dark frown marred his face. “Get down from there.”
I remained frozen on the third step. “Excuse me?” This had to be some kind of joke.
“You heard me.”
I stared at him in disbelief. No way was I going to let Mark dictate what I could and couldn’t do on my own property.
“Ladders are dangerous,” he said, his fists digging into his hip bones.
I simply ignored him, climbed up one additional step, and started to wash the window.
“Don’t you know sixty percent of all home accidents involve someone falling off a ladder?”
“I hadn’t heard that, but I do know sixty percent of all statistics are made up on the spot.” I thought my retort would amuse him. It didn’t. If anything, his frown grew deeper and darker.
“You shouldn’t be on that ladder. For the love of heaven, Jo Marie, be sensible.”
“Me?” If anyone was being unreasonable, it was Mark.
“It’s dangerous up there.”
“Do you suggest a safety net?” He made it sound as if I was walking along a window ledge on the fifty-ninth floor of a sixty-story building instead of on a stepladder.
Mark didn’t answer my question. He pinched his lips into a taut line. “I don’t want to argue about this.”
“Good, let’s not. I’m washing windows, so you can go back to planting my rose garden.”
“No,” he insisted.
“I’m staying right here until you give up this foolishness and come down from there.”
I heaved an expressive sigh. Mark was treating me like I was in kindergarten instead of like a woman who was fully able of taking care of herself. “I suppose I should be grateful you’re concerned.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” he said. “For all I care you could break your fool neck, but I just don’t want to be around to see it happen.”
“How kind of you,” I muttered, unable to keep the sarcasm out of my voice. His attitude as much as his words irritated me, so I ignored him and continued washing the windows. When I was satisfied the top two were clean, I carefully backed down the rungs just to prove I was capable of being cautious. Mark had his hands braced on the ladder, holding it steady.
“Are you still here?” I asked. I knew darn good and well he was.
Again he ignored the question.
“I’m not paying you to stand around and watch me work,” I reminded him.
He narrowed his eyes into slits. “Fine, then. I quit.”
I didn’t believe him. “No, you don’t.”
Within seconds he was off the porch and stalking across the yard, every step punctuated with irritation.
I jumped down the last two rungs and followed him. I don’t usually lose my temper, but he was pushing all the wrong buttons with me. I’m far too independent to have anyone, especially a man, dictate what I could and couldn’t do.
“You can’t quit,” I told him. “And you certainly can’t leave my yard torn up like this.”
Mark acted as though he hadn’t heard a word I’d said. Instead he gathered his pitchfork and other tools, most of which he’d left in the grass.
“We have a contract,” I reminded him.
“So sue me.”
“Fine, I will . . . I’ll have my attorney contact you first thing in the morning.” I didn’t have an attorney, but I hoped the threat of one would shake Mark up enough to realize how foolish he was behaving. I should have known better; Mark didn’t so much as blink.
Rover followed me across the lawn and remained at my side. I couldn’t believe Mark. After all these months he was ready to walk away over something completely asinine. It made no sense.
With his pitchfork and shovel in one hand and his toolbox in the other he started to leave, then seemed to change his mind, because he abruptly turned back.
I moved one step forward, grateful he’d come to his senses.
“Give your lawyer my cell phone number.”
“Yeah, right. You forget to carry it half the time, and if you do, the battery is low.”
“Whatever. Give your attorney the number to my business line, seeing that you’re so hot to sue me.”
“I’ll do that.” My back went rigid as Mark stalked off the property. I looked down at Rover, who’d cocked his head to one side as if he, too, found it difficult to understand what had just happened and why. He wasn’t the only one.
“He isn’t worth the angst,” I advised my dog, and then, because I was half afraid Rover might be tempted to run after Mark, I squatted down and patted his head. “Everything takes ten times longer than he estimates, anyway.” Raising my voice in the hopes that Mark would hear me, I added, “Good riddance.”
I stood back up and remained in the middle of my yard until Mark was completely out of view. Then and only then did I allow my shoulders to sag with defeat.
This was nuts. Barely an hour earlier we’d been sipping coffee and tea on the porch, and now I was threatening Mark with a lawsuit. And the way I felt right then, he deserved it.
Returning to my window washing, I was so agitated that I scrubbed and washed the glass until the shine nearly blinded me. I finished in record time, the muscles in my upper arms aching from the vigorous scrubbing I’d done. For half a second I was tempted to contact Mark and let him know I’d survived this dangerous feat but then thought better of it. He would have to apologize to me because he’d been way off base, treating me like I was a child.
My apologizing to him simply wasn’t going to happen. But I knew him well enough to realize how stubborn he could be. If he said he wasn’t coming back, then I had to believe he meant it.
My anger carried me all the way into the evening. I didn’t want to admit it, but the truth was I would miss Mark. I’d sort of grown accustomed to having him stop by every so often, if for no other reason than coffee. He offered great feedback on the cookies and other items I baked. We’d grown comfortable with each other. He was a friend, nothing more, and I appreciated that we could be simply that: friends.
In an effort to distract myself, I emptied the dirty wash water from the bucket in the laundry-room sink, rinsed out the sponge, and set it out to dry, and then went into my small office.
I had guests arriving this weekend, which was the good news and the bad news. The first name I saw on the list was for the mysterious Mary Smith. I took the reservation shortly after taking over the inn, and it had stayed in my mind. Mary had sounded unsure, hesitant, as if she wasn’t sure she was doing the right thing booking this room.
A party had booked the inn as well. The original call had come in from Kent Shivers, who hadn’t sounded the least bit excited about all this hoopla his family had planned for him. Kent and his wife, Julie, were about to celebrate their fiftieth wedding anniversary by renewing their vows. Other room reservations had been added at later dates, all from family members. Seven of my eight rooms were booked for Saturday.
Only one of the guests would be here through Sunday evening, though, and that was Mary Smith. Remembering her hesitation, I’d half wondered if she’d cancel at the last minute, but to this point I hadn’t heard otherwise. Her room was made up and ready.