I hurried to my room, freshened my lipstick and ran a comb through my hair. I loved my new short hairstyle, even if Ben didn’t like it. It didn’t take hours blow drying and styling even after a shower. Chad Andrews, the contractor Connie recommended, would be here any minute. I liked the sound of his voice over the phone, all deep and masculine. Besides, he sounded as excited about the restoration as I was.
I hurried downstairs when the doorbell rang, opened the door, and my mouth darn near dropped open. The sexiest, hunk of a man I ever saw stood in front of me. His dark hair, mussed from the wind, fell over his forehead. Bushy eyebrows topped the bluest eyes I’d ever seen. He towered over my five foot six height. A complete contrast to Ben’s dark brooding looks.
Something jolted inside me, and I swear electricity seared the air between us. Even my arms tingled. Never had a man affected me this way. What was wrong with me? I’m engaged for heavens sake. But I couldn’t help it. Chad Andrews stirred something inside of me. Something Ben never stirred.
“Hi, I’m Chad Andrews. Are you Anna Hughes?”
Heat burned my face at my thoughts, and I held out my hand toward him, hoping it wasn’t too red. “Nice to meet you, Mr. Andrews.”
“Chad, please. Nice to meet you too, Anna. You don’t mind if I call you Anna do you?”
He took my hand, and my heart did a strange flip. A trembling all the way down to my toes scared me. I liked the feel of his rough hand, calloused from hard work, and was disappointed when he let mine go.
“Hi, Chad. No I don’t mind.” His name flowed easy from my lips, like I’d been saying it forever. And I especially liked the way he said my name, placing the emphasis on the first syllable – Ann-a, unlike the quick way Ben said it, more like On-na, with the emphasis on the last syllable. Kind of hoity-toity.
Chad’s smile reached his eyes. Something about it made me think he was fun-loving, spontaneous and adventurous, unlike serious minded Ben. Not that there was anything wrong with Ben being serious. I just wished sometimes he’d let go a little. Darn it, why was I comparing Chad to Ben?
“Please, come in.” I swung the door to let him in, and closed it behind him. He stood in the foyer and looked around, letting out a low whistle as he stared up the curved staircase. A picture of him, standing there years ago, waiting for the daughter of the house to join him, flitted through my mind. He seemed to fit.
I smiled at the image. “I’ve heard good things about you, Chad. I’m glad you agreed to look at this job.”
“I couldn’t resist. When I heard it was a Queen Anne style Vicky, well let’s just say that’s my weakness.”
“Mine too. When this house came on the market I had to see it. Once I saw it, I was sold.” I led the way to the attic. “Come on, I can’t wait to get your opinion.”
I turned the corner to the landing and looked back at him. Darn, he was good looking. “This is the first room I want done. We’ll look at the rest of the house later.”
As we rounded the corner of the attic, Ben joined us. “We want this wall knocked down for starters. Anna thinks there’s a room behind it. At least there’s a leaded glass window that shows from the outside of the house,” he said.
Ben’s tone irritated me. Okay, so he didn’t agree with me about the renovations, that didn’t give him the right to intrude on my conversation.
Chad knocked on the wall in several different places and looked at the space between the walls and took some measurements. “She could well be right,” he said. “This room should be much larger.” He turned his attention to me. “What exactly do you want?”
“I want to make a home office up here for my writing.”
“You’re a writer?”
Ben didn’t give me a chance to answer. He came and stood next to me and put his arm around me possessively. I tried to shrug him off. This wasn’t like Ben. He never touched me in public. Never even held my hand.
“So what will you charge to knock the wall down and finish this space? I mean is it even worth it?” Ben pulled me tighter against him and almost knocked me over.
“Just to knock the wall down and haul the material away, fifteen hundred dollars. It depends what else Ms Hughes wants as to the rest of it.” Chad turned his attention back to me again.
“I can’t give you a price on that until the wall is gone, and we see what’s behind it. I’ll need to know exactly what you want, wiring, lights, that kind of thing. You can knock the wall down yourself and save the money. There’s no wiring or heating ducts to worry about.”
“Okay, we’ll be in touch,” Ben said. “Thank you for coming. He guided me to the top of the stairway and waited for Chad to go ahead of us. I tried to pull away, but Ben held me tight against him.
“Anything else?” Chad turned to me again.
“We’ll talk about it and get back to you,” Ben said, not giving me a chance to answer.
I bit my tongue. Oh we were going to talk about it. No doubt about that. I’d say something now, but didn’t want to start anything in front of Chad. What made Ben think he could take over like that? Like I was a moron who couldn’t think or talk for myself.
“Okay, then.” Chad turned and went downstairs ahead of us.
Ben finally dropped his arm from around me and followed Chad to the door before I made it to the bottom step. “We’ll be in touch,” he said and almost pushed Chad out the door.
After Chad left, Ben looked at me. “I think we should knock the wall down ourselves. Then you can see what’s behind it and not waste the money.”
“You’re willing to help knock down the wall?” Would wonders never cease? I couldn’t believe my ears. I let the matter of Ben’s rudeness drop. If Ben was willing to work on the attic, I wasn’t about to start an argument. Not yet anyway. But you can bet I wouldn’t forget it, either. He’d hear about it eventually. I’d have my say. Oh no, he wasn’t getting off that easy.
“Sure, we can start tomorrow. Once you see there’s no room up there, you can forget this nonsense of renovation.”
I opened my mouth to argue, but thought better of it. Ben was willing to help, and I was taking advantage of that. Fifteen hundred dollars was a lot of money. “Okay, we’ll start tomorrow.”
Whack! I swung the hammer, and the hole in the attic wall widened. Even through the plaster dust, I swore I smelled flowers. Roses and something else, Lily of the Valley - that was it. One more whack and a section of the wall collapsed.
“Ben, look!” I stepped through the opening and stared into the room. A dusty, women’s antique French desk stood in the center of the large room. The wall behind it held book shelves still lined with books. Two chairs grouped around a table that held a tarnished silver tea set in front of the window.
I spun around the room. “My God, what is this?” Pictures hung on faded rose wallpaper. Dim light, from the dirty stain-glass window in the alcove, cast eerie shadows. “This is unbelievable.”
Shadowy figures in the corner of the room beckoned to me. At first I thought my eyes were playing tricks. Between the dust and the dim light, but no, the shadows were there, plain as day. They hovered over a carved trunk.
“Ben, do you see that?”
“See what?” Ben brushed the dust off his hands.
I held back a giggle. I couldn’t help it, he looked so uncomfortable. This wasn’t Ben’s cup of tea. Why he offered to help was beyond me. He stepped through the opening and looked at me.
“Shadows over that trunk.” I held back, dying to know what was in it, but half afraid to go near it.
I sighed. The look on Ben’s face said it all. “Cobwebs, right.”
“There you go again. You and that overactive imagination. I suppose now you’re going to go ahead with the renovation.” He took a couple steps into the room, stopped next to the desk and opened a drawer. “Hm, Look at this.” He pulled a sheet of stationary out of the drawer. “Mary Elizabeth Gilbert, wonder who she was.”
I took the stationary from him. A bouquet of lily of the valley embossed the top of the page. Again the shadows appeared and beckoned to me. “Those aren’t cobwebs, Ben. Look.”
I shook my head. Like I didn’t know the difference between shadows and cobwebs. Definitely shadows. Willowy figures hovered over the trunk. Come open it, they seemed to say. There was a sense of urgency about them, yet I didn’t feel threatened.
Giving in to the urge, I hurried to the trunk and lifted the decorative lid. “Oh, look at this!” I lifted a pearl handled hairbrush out of the trunk. “It’s beautiful.” A shadowy figure floated above it. Then I lifted out a corset and held the tiny form in front of me. One of the shadowy figures moved closer, almost on top of me.
“Ugh, I can’t imagine having to wear one of these.” Suddenly, my stomach and chest tightened. I lost my breath, gasped and sunk to my knees. The corset fell from my hand. The shadows backed off. I was finally able to take a deep breath, and let it out slowly.
When I opened my eyes, Ben stood over me. “Are you okay? What happened? You looked like you were going to pass out.”
“I...I don’t know. I couldn’t breathe. It felt like someone was squeezing the life out of me.” I looked at the corset lying on the dusty floor. What just happened here? A shadowy figure lingered nearby. What was it trying to tell me?
“I think we better get out of this dust for a while, get some fresh air.” Ben helped me to my feet. “You can come up later. I know how anxious you are to go through that trunk. There’s no stopping you now, is there?”
I hated to leave, but Ben was right. I had inhaled an awful lot of dust. “Ben do you smell flowers -roses or lily of the valley?”
“All I smell is plaster and years of dust. Roses, are you sure you’re okay?” He furrowed his brow and gave me one of those disapproving looks that said I was nuts. I hated that look.
“I’m fine, just a little woozy. You’re right, probably from all the dust.” So Ben hadn’t seen the shadows, and he didn’t smell the flowers, so what. I looked back through the opening, and they were there, big as life. I sighed and reluctantly followed Ben downstairs.
After a quick lunch and something to drink, I stood, anxious to go back up to what I now called my treasure trove. I love old things. That’s why I bought this old Victorian house. Sure, it was a fixer-upper, but that was part of the charm and fun.
I needed a quiet place to write. Someplace I could retreat while work was being done on the rest of the house, and the attic fit the bill. Besides, I needed a place of my own, away from Ben.
Ben had noticed the stained glass window from the outside a couple weeks ago. I hadn’t noticed it when I bought the house. I’m sure Ben was sorry he mentioned it to me. But I was still planning on renovating the attic. The window was the only reason I managed to talk Ben into tearing down the wall. Not that he believed me. He thought someone just covered over the window from the inside. He only went along because he thought it would prove me wrong. Ben liked to do that. But I knew I was right this time, and I took great satisfaction in proving him wrong for a change.
I had been drawn to the attic ever since I first saw it, even without knowing about the window. And I wanted to help with the renovation, but it didn’t take a brain surgeon to know there was a lot I couldn’t do. Electrical work for one and the whole house needed rewired. Thank goodness, I found Chad. Hopefully, he was still interested in doing the work, and Ben’s rudeness hadn’t turned him off.
Downstairs, Ben dusted off his clothes. “I hope you’re going to hire someone to finish this. You know I’m not cut out for this kind of work.”
I sighed. Luckily, Ben had helped this much. “You know I’m going to hire Chad, if he’s still willing to do the work, that is. You were awfully rude to him.”
“I think you should find someone else. I don’t like that guy.”
“He comes highly recommended. Connie says he’s tops in his field.” Of course Ben was going to give me a hard time about Chad. His dislike was evident right from the beginning, and he didn’t do a thing to hide it. “Besides, I liked him. He didn’t have to suggest we knock down the wall. He could have charged me for it. I think he’s honest.”
“I don’t like this, Anna. This whole renovation thing is crazy.”
“Come on, Ben. Just help me finish knocking down that wall. There’s not much more to do. I’ll call the contractor later.”
I didn’t like the way Ben looked at me. Like he was sorry he offered. He hated dirt. Besides the fact that he was sweating and the plaster dust mixed with the sweat probably made him feel gritty. He was going to back out and leave me to finish the job. I wasn’t sure I could handle it. “Please, I really need your help.” Begging usually worked with Ben. He loved to hear me beg.
“Oh, what the heck.” He shrugged. ”You’re right there isn’t much more to knock down. Guess that’s the least I can do. Besides I’m already dirty. Once we get that wall knocked down, I can take a shower and call it quits. Okay, I’ll help with the rest of the wall, but that’s it.”
I smiled and kissed him. “Thank you.” How Ben was going to survive coming here with all the renovation going on, I didn’t know. Even as a kid, he said he hated getting dirty. While the neighborhood kids played in the dirt, he sat in the air conditioned house, reading. I could picture him. Serious-minded Ben didn’t like things other boys enjoyed, like sports. He still didn’t.
But he followed me up the steps. “Let’s get this done.”
Back upstairs, we knocked down the rest of the dividing wall. All the while, I watched the shadows move back and forth between me and the trunk. What was in there? I couldn’t wait to find out, but I continued to help Ben. He’d have a fit if I quit.
“Why do you suppose someone sealed up this room?” I tried to ignore the shadows flitting in and out of my vision. They definitely wanted me to follow them.
“I have no idea.” Ben knocked down the last of the dividing wall. “There, we’re done. Now let your contractors finish the job.” He brushed off his hands. “Why I offered to help you is beyond me. Can I leave now?”
I laughed. I couldn’t help it, he looked so pathetic. Pathetic and so dirty. I appreciated the fact he helped me. Really I did. Ben didn’t particularly like the old Victorian and couldn’t understand why I insisted on buying it. Oh well he’d get used to it. He’d have to if we were going to get married. This was my home, and I was in it for the long haul.
“Maybe someone was hiding a past.” I ignored Ben’s question. Seldom did he ask permission for anything and staying dirty a few more minutes wouldn’t hurt him.
“It’s like someone walked out of this room and built the wall. They left everything just as it was.” Again the shadows appeared and disappeared. Maybe they held the key. I was dying to dive into that trunk.
With the last of the wall down, I began the clean up. Ben stood by while I put chunks of plaster and pieces of lathe into an old box. I could see all Ben wanted to do was jump into a shower.
Finally, Ben apparently couldn’t stand it anymore. “I’m heading for the shower.” He turned and hurried down the steps before I could answer. Not that I cared. Right now I was better off without him. I barely glanced at him. “Go ahead. I can clean up.”