Read An Unexpected Suitor Online

Authors: Anna Schmidt

An Unexpected Suitor (5 page)

“Then I’ll get in touch with Mr. Humboldt right away. Good day, Harry.”

She had opened the door and stepped out onto the landing when she heard the rustle of papers followed by his voice.

“Nola?” He handed her the copy of his play. “So, what did you think of it?”

“It’s quite good,” she replied primly as she pulled the door closed behind her. It’s going to be brilliant, she thought and as she descended the stairs she could not help but marvel at the many talents God had seen fit to bestow upon Harrison Starbuck.

 

Two days later Nola could not seem to control her curiosity. Judy had reported that Starbuck had sent Jonah to the railway station to meet the performers and bring them up the hill to Nola’s place.

“I would think Mr. Starbuck would meet them himself,” Nola said.

“Oh, he’ll stop by later, I’m sure, but something came up with the cabaret construction so he’s had to go over there for the time being. Perhaps you should go on down there and greet them,” Judy suggested.

“I hardly think that appropriate,” Nola replied and yet she seemed incapable of moving away from the bay window of her parlor as the little train chugged into the station. With a swoosh of its brakes, the two open railway cars came to a stop and what she observed next gave her pause.

The first passengers to appear were a couple of dandies—young men in boater hats, striped jackets and vanilla-colored flannel trousers. They did a little tap dance when Jonah greeted them and ended it with a bow. Next they took positions to either side of the platform and appeared to announce the arrival of three women, each of them flamboyantly garbed. The first was a tall stately woman of indeterminate age. She wore a violet gown fitted to every curve of her full-bodied figure down to her knees where the skirt flared. She wore a ridiculously large plumed hat with a veil and twirled a small lavender parasol over one shoulder.

The next two women were slim and also tall. Dressed identically in bright green gowns more suited to evening wear than traveling, they seemed to be talking in unison and nonstop. The fabric of their colorful clothing glinted in the sun and while their arms and necks were covered in white lace, the effect was somehow far too dramatic for proper daytime attire. They also wore hats—smaller than the purple monstrosity the first woman wore but every bit as overdone with plumes and tulle.

Nola sighed. What had she let herself in for?

She was about to turn away when she caught the shadow of yet another passenger. A petite elegant woman dressed in a fashionable canary-yellow suit with a wide-brimmed straw
hat banded in yellow tulle stepped into the sunlight. She was holding a small white dog.

Fascinated, Nola watched as the woman stepped from the train and started walking down the platform where a porter was unloading several large steamer trunks onto the dray Jonah had hired. The others trailed behind her forming an unlikely little parade of characters. To Nola’s surprise, the woman in yellow stepped up to have a word with Jonah as he pulled the carriage and waited for the actors to climb aboard. She saw Jonah indicate the tearoom at the top of the bluff and then the stairway that was the only way other than the beach road to get there.

The actress appeared to thank him profusely and then she headed directly for the stairs while her fellow performers paused, appeared to consider the climb and then trailed after her.

“Well, they’re here,” Nola said to Judy, who had also watched the arrival by pretending to sweep the side porch and steps. “Let’s hope I haven’t made the gravest of errors in judgment,” she murmured.

As Nola stepped out onto the porch to greet them, Judy joined her, smoothing her hair back and setting her broom aside.

The woman in yellow was a good ten steps ahead of the others, who appeared to be struggling to catch their breath after the steep climb.

“Miss Burns? I am Eleanore Chambliss. Harrison tells me you have quite literally rescued our little band from homelessness.” She offered Nola her hand and Nola could not help noticing that the actress’s fawn leather gloves were the finest she had ever seen.

“This is Mrs. Lang,” Nola said, turning to Judy, who curtsied to the actress.

“Ah, the chef,” Eleanore said and Judy blushed scarlet. “And this is Sir Lancelot,” she said, introducing the white ball of fur that might have been taken for a muff if the season were different. “Not to worry,” she assured Nola, “he’s quite housebroken and well-behaved. He was born backstage during a matinee.”

“I hadn’t expected to have…” Nola began but the actress interrupted.

“Come along, darlings,” she called over her shoulder. “Miss Burns has a business to run here and we are delaying her.”

“I’ll just show you to your rooms,” Judy offered.

“Lead on,” Eleanore instructed with a dramatic wave of one hand.

The rest of the introductions were hastily made as the remainder of the troupe followed Eleanore through the doors and up the main stairway. “Of course, we shall use the back stairs when we are working,” Nola heard Eleanore instruct the others.

“There was no mention of a dog,” she muttered, wondering what else Starbuck might have failed to tell her. “Interviews will begin promptly at eleven,” she called up the stairs. “And I assume you will wish to change.”

“Your traveling attire simply will not do for serving here at Miss Nola’s,” she heard Judy explain.

Just half an hour later Nola was pleased to see all six members of the group seated on the twin tufted benches that lined the foyer between her parlor and the tearoom. They had all changed into clothing that, while still a bit colorful for her taste, was at least more subdued than the garb they had arrived in.

“Very well,” she said, “shall we begin with the gentlemen?”

The two young men leaped to their feet and smiled at her with confidence. “Jasper March,” the one announced.

“William Andrews,” chimed in the second, “but everyone calls me Billy.”

Nola glanced at their hands—smooth as the inside of an oyster shell. She sighed. “Have you gentlemen ever washed dishes?” she asked as she waited for them to precede her into the parlor and then shut the doors.

The interviews went far better than Nola might have expected. Jasper and Billy assured her that kitchen duty was just fine with them. In fact, they relished the opportunity to work with Mrs. Lang and learn from her. “After all, Billy here will be pulling double duty cooking for the rest of us once we get settled into our real digs,” Jasper informed her. “See, he’s new and as the new guy he gets the bottom-of-the-barrel assignments—and parts.” He chuckled and nudged Billy with his elbow. “Not that I’m saying working in your kitchen is bottom of the barrel or anything,” he hastened to add.

“Stop talking now,” Billy muttered under his breath and Nola repressed a smile.

“We’ll see how things go,” she said, ushering them to the door. “Please go see Mrs. Lang and ask her for further directions. Next,” she called and the two identically dressed females stood up. They were girls really, surely no more than eighteen, if that.

“Deedee and Mimi Kowalski, ma’am,” they chorused.

A bit nonplussed that the two of them not only dressed alike but seemed to speak in unison as well, Nola turned to the third woman—still wearing purple although now it was a plainer skirt and blouse ensemble. Nevertheless it was still fitted to show off her large chest, tiny waist and curvaceous hips. Her face was heavily made up in what Nola realized was an attempt to hide her true age. “And you are?”

“Olga Romanoff—Countess Olga Romanoff,” the woman
intoned in a deep throaty accented voice as she brushed past Nola and entered the parlor.

Nola saw Eleanore roll her eyes and heard Sir Lancelot give a low growl as the countess passed.

The Kowalski twins were eager to please and seemed to look upon this entire business as some grand adventure. The Romanoff woman, on the other hand, appeared bored and dismissive and Nola was trying hard to decide how best to handle her when the interview was interrupted by a loud shriek and repeated yaps from the dog outside the door.

“What on earth?” Nola muttered as she got up from her desk and slid open the pocket doors. The sight that greeted her explained a lot.

Harrison Starbuck and Eleanore were clasping hands, laughing and talking over each other while the dog danced excitedly at their feet.

Nola’s first thought was that there was more between Harry and the actress than simple friendship. “Oh, Harry,” Eleanore crooned in that light musical voice of hers, “it’s been too long, darling. And what a wonder Miss Burns is,” she gushed, widening the circle to include Nola. “Why, she has made us all feel so welcome and at home and we’ve barely just arrived. I have to believe that it’s her innate sense of hospitality that has made her so successful in business.”

“So I’ve heard,” he said, a half grin playing at the corners of his mouth. “I’d like to add my appreciation for your kindness, Miss Nola.” He stepped toward her and instinctively Nola moved a step away, her back coming up against the frame of the open parlor door.

This was a mistake, she thought. This entire idea of having them stay here and work for her. Up to now it had been Nola versus Starbuck, but she could see that she had
played right into his hands. How could she possibly ever explain her reasoning to Minnie and Rose and the others? Perhaps Rachel Williams could pull off something so bold in Nantucket, but this was ’Sconset and things were different here.

The sound of Judy’s high-pitched laugh rolled down the hall from the kitchen and behind it came the voices of the two young male actors. The unmistakable sounds of pots clanging and the fragrant scent of Judy’s cinnamon bread fresh from the oven accompanied their chatter.

“Oh, Mrs. Lang, that’s lovely,” Nola heard one of the men exclaim.

“Oh, Billy,” Judy mocked with a laugh, “don’t be charming me now. That pot needs more scrubbing.”

Nola recalled the interview with the young men. They certainly had experience working in restaurant kitchens and Judy was clearly in need of some immediate help she could count on. The exchange from the kitchen had caught everyone’s attention—except Harry’s. He was watching her. The reality was she needed these people to work the kitchen and tearoom if she had any hope of staying in business at the prime opening of the summer season. She glared up at Harry and it had the expected effect of making him retreat half a step.

“You have lip rouge on your face,” she said as she opened the console where she kept a fresh supply of folded linen napkins and handed one to him. Before he could react she moved back into the parlor where Olga and the Kowalski sisters were waiting and deftly slid closed the doors.

Chapter Five

A
s soon as Nola shut the door, Harry turned to Eleanore, his eyes wide with confusion. Eleanore was no help at all. She practically had her fist crammed into her mouth as she tried to stem what he realized was laughter.

“What?” he barked irritably as he scrubbed at his face with the napkin.

“Oh, darling, I do believe that we’ve gotten off to a poor beginning with Miss Nola.” She glanced at her reflection in the mirror next to the hall tree and checked her hair. “Perhaps I should try and smooth things over,” she said, stepping to the door prepared to knock.

But from behind the closed doors they heard Olga’s raised voice. “I do not do menial tasks,” she declared.

Nola’s more modulated reply was difficult to hear without actually pressing closer to the door. There was no sound from the twins.

Harry sighed. “The countess is overacting as usual,” he muttered. At auditions he had sized up the potential for each of the actors to add to the success of the season or be a
problem. Olga would be a problem, but she was perfect for the role of the matriarch.

At the audition she had been introduced as Olga Romanoff—an introduction she had quickly corrected to
Countess
Olga Romanoff.

“Ah, Countess,” Harry had said almost reverently as he bent over her hand and kissed it lightly. “It is always a delight to have royalty on the bill.”

Now Harry couldn’t help wondering if he’d made a mistake hiring the temperamental actress.

“Perhaps Olga would be happier in the role of hostess,” Eleanore mused, turning his attention back to the situation at hand.

“Perhaps,” he replied. “She does bring a certain mystique to her performances and what is serving the public but another performance?”

Behind them the doors opened and Nola emerged with Olga and the twins. “Ladies,” she said, “if you would all be so kind as to see Judy in the kitchen. She can supply each of you with an apron and give you the tour of the pantry and cupboards. We open in half an hour.”

Harry saw that Olga was about to protest but Eleanore took her firmly by the arm and ushered everyone down the hall to the kitchen.

“You’re still here,” Nola said, her eyes settling on Harry.

“Just leaving,” he assured her. He took his hat from the hall tree and clamped it onto his head at the usual jaunty angle. “Could I ask a question?” he asked.

As usual Nola blanched as if he’d insulted her but she gave him her full attention.

“Just what was it you thought you saw when you opened those doors and saw me with Eleanore?”

Nola looked down. “Your relationship with Mrs. Chambliss is none of my business as long as it does not affect her work—or her stay here.”

Harry sighed. “Look, I realize I don’t owe you an explanation, but Ellie and I are old friends. Her late husband was a gifted actor. Ever since he died unexpectedly, she’s had a difficult time of it and it was just so nice to see…”

“As you said, you do not owe me an explanation,” Nola interrupted. “At least not about your relationships with the female population.”

He saw her wrestle with the facts he had given her. She wanted to believe him but something prevented her from fully giving her trust.
Could it be that Nola Burns’s hard exterior was no more than a facade behind which she hid the truth—that she was every bit as afraid, unsure and insecure of herself as the next person?

Harry took a step closer and placed his hand lightly on her shoulder as she stood with her arms crossed protectively over her chest. “Nola, I’ve never been anything but forthright when it comes to my intentions. I would like to buy you out, but that doesn’t mean we have to be adversaries. You can trust me.”

The look that flashed across her dark eyes mixed weariness with resignation. “It hardly matters at this point, does it? Your actors are here and that was completely my doing. As one of your fellow playwrights once noted, ‘The die is cast.’”

Ah, Nola, don’t give up so easily. I haven’t won yet.
He felt the urge to tighten his grip on her, to reassure her. But instinct told him that she would either take the gesture as too forward or worse, as pity, and she would not allow him to view her as weak.

She pulled free of him and all trace of defeat evaporated with a flash of her eyes. “If there’s nothing more?”

“Going now,” he said with a grin as he fumbled for the doorknob and made his escape.

 

Nola forced herself to take a long steadying breath. When Starbuck had touched her shoulder she’d suddenly remembered another encounter they’d shared the summer when she’d been sixteen. As usual her brothers had abandoned their chores in favor of fishing. It wasn’t unusual for them to disappear like that on a summer’s evening. The fish in Tom Nevers Pond held far more appeal for them than scrubbing baking pans in the hot kitchen of the tearoom did. But on this night Mama had become dizzy and almost fainted. Nola had persuaded her to lie down while she went to find help.

As she approached the pond, she’d heard laughter and the splash of the water. The merriment had only served to make her more annoyed with her brothers. But the first person she’d run into that evening was Harry. He’d been laughing and calling back some insult to his friends as he strode up the path from the pond.

“Nola?” He had touched her then, his hand damp on her wrist. “Are you all right?” He had not waited for an answer. Instead he had shouted for her brothers and they had come running. What happened after that was hazy. Nola knew that she and her brothers had hurried back home to attend their mother while Harry ran to get the doctor. But the only clear memory was of his hand, gentle and concerned, touching her lightly as he assured her everything would be all right.

He was wrong. Her mother had died a few weeks later.

Did he remember?

Of course he doesn’t remember. By that time he’d been
off to the mainland to seek his fortune. Stop this foolishness,
she mentally ordered herself. She rarely indulged in such romantic nonsense, but now realized that ever since Harry Starbuck had first stepped onto her front porch just two weeks earlier, something had changed.

It’s only because he’s—what? Suddenly where you are so often? Or is it because someone like him is beyond attainable for someone like you?
Nola glanced toward the mirror and her image shocked her. The woman in the mirror looked wistful, almost sad.

She pressed her hands over the starched bodice of her shirtwaist. You’re pathetic, she thought and turned resolutely away from the mirror.

“Judy, it’s time,” she called as she stepped outside to post the sign proclaiming the tearoom open for business.

When she returned to the foyer, she was pleasantly surprised when the Kowalski twins presented themselves promptly for duty, their crisp white aprons properly tied. More to the point, the bibbed aprons went a long way toward downplaying a bit of the actresses’ natural flare for overstatement especially when it came to their hair and makeup. When Nola asked why the countess had not put on an apron, Eleanore explained that, if Nola agreed, Olga would be greeting the guests while the Kowalski sisters waited tables and the two young actors helped Judy in the kitchen.

“And you?” Nola asked.

The actress smiled and gave a small bow. “I am here to serve at your pleasure wherever I may be needed,” she said. “However, I did have a thought.” She cast her gaze toward the piano that filled one corner of the large room. “What would you say to a bit of the light classics—background music?”

For years now the piano had just sat there in the corner of the tearoom, a relic of the future she’d once imagined for herself. Nola immediately saw the potential in Eleanore’s suggestion and wondered why she’d never thought of it herself. On the other hand, she was reluctant to give the actress too much control over things. “We could try it,” she said. “Business won’t really pick up until next week. So if our current guests find the music intrusive or annoying…”

“Exactly,” Eleanore agreed. “Thank you, Miss Burns, for everything.”

“You’re welcome, and you may call me Nola.” She could give the woman that, at least. No need to let Eleanore think she was a complete stick-in-the-mud.

The actress’s smile was radiant. “And I am Ellie.
Eleanor-a
is so pretentious, don’t you think?” She placed the back of her hand to her forehead and struck a melodramatic pose, then shrugged and giggled. “But then, that’s the point of stage names,” she explained. “I’ll just run up to my room and get some music.”

“Ellie?”

The actress paused on the third stair.

“Mr. Starbuck mentioned the passing of your husband—I’m sorry for your loss.”

Ellie’s lovely face flushed as she fought against her grief. “Thank you, Nola. I think the summer here may help. Performing always takes me back to the happier days before Phillip became so ill.”

“You performed together?”

Ellie nodded. “It’s how we first met and from that day until he died we were never apart. Have you lost someone dear to you, Nola?”

Nola thought of her mother and father and nodded.

“Then it’s no wonder you are so understanding,” Ellie said and hurried on up the stairs.

Not really, Nola thought. She’d never known that kind of loss. That kind of love.

“Miss Nola?”

Nola turned to face the countess, who was actually smiling. “Yes?”

“I hate to raise the matter, but the room I’m to share with the Misses Kowalski is quite—cozy. Forgive me, but I could not help but notice a more spacious room just across the hall.”

“You would prefer the larger room?”

“Not at all,” Olga replied quickly. “I was thinking that it would be more comfortable for the girls. I would happily remain in the smaller room.”

“And share the bath?”

Olga’s smile cracked slightly but she recovered by lowering her lashes. “If it would suit you,” she said.

Why not? It’s not as if you plan on renting the rooms to others. And it may well make for smoother sailing with the countess.

Nola gave the actress a warm smile. “I think the idea is quite a good one,” she said. “Have the Kowalski sisters ask Judy for linens for the beds.”

Olga dipped into a curtsy worthy of greeting a queen. “Thank you,” she whispered huskily. Nola was relieved when the tinkle of the bell above the front door announced the arrival of customers. Olga glided forward. “Good afternoon and welcome, ladies,” she said. “We have a lovely table by the window if you’ll follow me.”

Nola knew from the expression on Rose Gillenwater’s face that she and her constant companions, Lucille Dobbs and Dorothy Bosworth, had not come for tea. Rose ignored
Olga as she stepped forward and mouthed to Nola, “A word in private?”

Nola indicated the parlor and waited for the three stalwarts of the church to sail through the doors. “Please don’t hesitate to interrupt should there be anything you cannot handle alone,” she told Olga.

The countess seemed offended. “There is little that could occur that I would not be able to ‘handle,’ as you so quaintly put it,” she said.

Just then Ellie came down the stairs, a music book clutched in one arm. She glanced from Olga to Nola and said, “Shall I just begin playing or introduce the music?”

“It’s background,” Nola reminded her, and Ellie nodded.

“Right. Just strike up the band, then,” she said and headed for the piano.

Now it was Olga’s turn to give Nola her full attention. “She is to perform?” Clearly she was offended by this change in assignments.

“Yes, well, the job of greeting our guests was taken—and I must admit you are doing it beautifully, Countess,” she added hurriedly and realized it was exactly what Harry Starbuck would have said to soothe the actress’s ruffled ego. “Ellie—Eleanore—is simply going to provide a bit of soft classical music to further enhance the mood you have already begun to set for our patrons.”

She saw Olga process this information even as Nola heard the impatient tapping of Rose Gillenwater’s leather shoe on the bare wood floor behind her. “Carry on, then,” she said with a weak smile at Olga as she once again closed the doors to her inner sanctum and turned to face yet another problem.

“Actors, my dear?” Rose said the moment they were behind closed doors. She clicked her tongue against her
teeth and shook her head slowly. “I can possibly understand employing such people since you are admittedly in a bind regarding keeping your tearoom in operation. But putting them up in your home? Has it come to this?”

As the wife of Alistair Gillenwater, Starbuck’s business partner and a successful attorney as well as ’Sconset’s self-appointed keeper of the standard for decorum, Rose Gillenwater had a well-defined and equally well-known code of conduct she expected others to follow. Those who did not risked not only her disapproval but her considerable influence in the community to impact the individual’s social standing, and in Nola’s case, her business.

But from the moment news of her father’s death at sea had reached them, Nola’s mother had drummed one lesson into her children’s heads—survival. “Whatever it takes as long as no one is harmed and you aren’t breaking the law,” she had lectured.

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