Authors: Carol Miller
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For my family,
who's weathered many a storm
“Any sign of the truck yet, Ducky?”
“Not since the last time you asked, which was about two minutes ago.”
“You're sure?” Aunt Emily called.
Daisy restrained a smile. “I'm standing at the window, looking straight out at the driveway and the road. I couldn't possibly miss it.”
There was a momentary silence, then a set of loudly clicking heels headed down the entrance hall of the Tosh Inn. Daisy turned from the tall casement window just as the heels rounded the corner of the parlor. She met Aunt Emily's blue eyes. Ordinarily they were shrewdâtoo shrewd for comfort, on occasionâbut today they were more anxious than anything else.
“They should be here by now,” Aunt Emily warbled in an equally anxious tone.
“The delivery was scheduled for three o'clock,” Daisy reminded her. “It's only a little bit afterâ”
The clock on the marble mantle chimed the half-hour.
“They're late!” Aunt Emily knit her freshly manicured fingers together. “What if there's been a mix-up about the day?”
“There couldn't have been a mix-up,” Daisy replied patiently. “You confirmed the date with the shop at least half a dozen times over the past week. I did it twice myself.”
“But what if there's been some sort of a problem with the loading, or the truck broke down, or there's been an accidentâ”
It was a rare spate of fretfulness from Aunt Emily, who was the proprietor of the inn and not in fact Daisy'sâor anyone else's, for that matterâaunt. She was usually a tough old biddy, a very apt expression that she was fond of using to describe herself. Although she was closing in on seventy, advancing age had dampened neither Emily Tosh's beauty nor her considerable wit. Silver hair and a smattering of laugh lines and wrinkles merely complemented her invariably fashionable appearance and razor-sharp mind. She did tend to dance to the beat of her own drum, however, which sometimes gave the impression of her being a tad eccentric, not to mention a few apples short of a bushel.
“If they don't come soon,” Aunt Emily pressed together the nervous raspberry lips that matched her nails, “the guests will begin arriving, and there will be no furniture for them.”
“There's plenty of furniture,” Daisy countered, gesturing around the room. “Armchairs and settees, tea tables and coffee tables. Everyone will have a place to sit and,” she added with a slight chuckle, “a place to set their drink.”
Aunt Emily nodded earnestly in agreement. “Thank heavens for that, at least.”
“Are you cold, Ducky? Should we turn up the heat?”
“No.” She took a step back from the window. “I just got a chill. The wind must be picking up outside, because I felt a gust come through.”
“The price of being an old Southern house, I'm afraid. Paper-thin walls and windows that never close quite right.”
“I do wish that you could have replaced them, Aunt Emily. They're so drafty this time of year.”
“The insurance simply wouldn't cover it,” she responded regretfully. “The moldy rugs and draperies, yes. The stained and broken furniture, also yes. But the windows were fine and still plenty usable, according to the adjusters. Nothing that a little bleach and paint couldn't fix, they kept telling me.”
“Well, bleach and paint sure don't fix the bugs and humidity that creep in during the summer or the cold breezes that whip around from corner to corner in the winter,” Daisy returned dryly.
Aunt Emily nodded again. “But I think it came out all right in the end, don't you, Ducky? The parlor looks nice after the repairs, doesn't it?”
“Very nice! Especially when you consider what a complete mess it was only a couple of months ago.”
It had been four months, to be exact. In October, the inn's well had gone wonky and ended up bursting into a geyser on the side lawnâflooding the parking lot, several of the outbuildings, and a portion of the grand Victorian behemoth in the process. The wraparound front porch and the stately parlor with its plethora of antique furnishings had sadly taken the brunt of the damage.
After weighing their collective options, Aunt Emily and the rest of the inn's regular inhabitantsâDaisy and her sickly mama includedâhad determined to rally together and loyally stayed put. They didn't, in truth, have much of a choice. For a variety of reasons, they were all at the inn because they were otherwise without a home. But they resolved to make the best of the unfortunate situationâsharing rooms when necessary, helping with the dismal ensuing cleanup, and using whatever talents or abilities they possessed to assist with the lengthy list of repairs.
The work was finally completed in early February, and the Tosh Inn stood once again in all of its majestic, yellow-gabled glory. Aunt Emily had wasted no time in organizing a reopening celebration. The inn had never officially been closed, but that made not the slightest difference to her. She was an extremely social creature by nature and never missed an opportunity to play the role of hostess, which she always did with great skill and flair. A small weekend party for a select group of friends and neighbors was the perfect way to show off the inn's renovations. The only hiccup in the plan was that some of the newâalbeit antiqueâfurniture that had been purchased as part of the parlor redecoration was now tardy in its arrival.
“Is that the delivery truck?” Aunt Emily said hopefully.
Daisy looked out the window. A vehicle had turned off the main road onto the long driveway leading up to the inn. It was a rusty old pickup.
“Wait a minute.” Aunt Emily squinted at it. “Doesn't that belong toâ”
“Rick,” Daisy answered.
Aunt Emily glanced at her questioningly. “What's he doing here?”
“I have no idea.”
The pickup halted in the middle of the driveway, at the far end of the front walk.
“Oh, he can't park there!” Aunt Emily protested. “It'll interfere with the delivery.”
She hurried from the parlor into the hall, and a moment later, the front door of the inn swung open with a heralding squeak.
Trailing after her, Daisy shook her head. “I don't know how you managed it, Aunt Emily. The whole entrance was fixed from top to bottom, but somehow that door still squeaks like a screechy cat toy.”
“It works much better than any fancy, overpriced alarm system,” she replied gravely.
Daisy didn't argue, knowing full well that Aunt Emily couldâand wouldâgo on at length about the numerous safety and snooping benefits of squeaky doors and creaky steps, another one of her perennially favorite topics. Even though the front porch steps of the inn had also been repaired after the flood damage, somehow they still creaked, too. It was Daisy's guess that at the conclusion of the renovations, the amply skilled carpenters had departed with several gratis jars of Aunt Emily's highly coveted gooseberry brandy in their deliberately creak-and-squeak-producing hands.
Together they watched Rick as he sprang from his truck and walked with long, lean strides toward the porch. He was wearing worn jeans and construction boots, with a navy wool shirt over a white T-shirt. His hair was dark and tousled. When he saw them standing at the open door waiting for him, he laughed. It was an arch, mocking sort of laugh, perfectly in keeping with his personality.
Richard Balsam was an exceedingly clever and incorrigible country boy, fond of guns, blueticks, and corn whiskey. A childhood friend of Daisy, he was an inveterate snake charmer, with lots of money from his extensive illegal moonshine enterprises. As part of his likker empire, Rick owned Daisy's ancestral home, which was a continual source of irritation to her, along with his tendency to appearâand then just as unexpectedly, disappearâat the most inopportune moments. Rick could be loyal. He also had a capricious temper.
“Hello, ladies,” he drawled. “You look lovely today, Aunt Emily. As always.”
As always when Rick flattered her, Aunt Emily blushed. “Why, thank you, Rick. You're so kind. Isn't he kind, Ducky?”
Daisy rolled her eyes.
“Now don't be jealous, darlin',” Rick chastised her. “You know I've got a soft spot for Aunt Emily.”
“Only because she's got a soft spot for your sweet talk,” Daisy retorted.
Rick grinned. “I'd talk plenty sweet to you, if you'd let me.”
She rolled her eyes again, but she couldn't refrain from smiling a little, too. The man really was incorrigible.
With a wink, Rick changed the subject. “I heard that you were having some furniture delivered this afternoon,” he said to Aunt Emily. “I thought I'd come by and see if you needed any help.”
“Yes, we are expecting a delivery,” Aunt Emily acknowledged, with some surprise. “How did you know?”
He shrugged. “I have my sources.”
Daisy knew what that meant. “Let me guess,” she responded wryly. “One of the furniture deliverymen moonlights for you? Hauling antiques during the day and then bootlegging 'shine at night?”
“People tell me things,” Rick answered, not elaborating further. He dropped his voice to a more intimate tone and locked his dark eyes onto her. “I wish you wanted to tell me more things, Daisy.”
Like the inescapable gravitational pull of a planet, his bewitching gaze drew her in. Then she reminded herself that she had to be careful. Rick might seem as cool as the moon, but he could burn her just as brutally as the sun. With effort, Daisy blinked and turned away.
“I tell you plenty of things,” she said lightly, pretending that she hadn't understood him. “So does Aunt Emily. But we didn't tell you about the inn's new furniture, because we don't need any help with it.”
“But we very much appreciate the offer,” Aunt Emily added graciously. “We're having a little party to celebrate the redecoration. If you'd like to join us, Rick, you're more than welcome.”