Read An Unexpected Suitor Online

Authors: Anna Schmidt

An Unexpected Suitor (6 page)

And now as Nola faced Rose and her cohorts, she couldn’t help thinking that these women had never once had to even consider what they might do under adverse conditions. The greatest problem any one of them had ever had to face to Nola’s knowledge was whether or not the fabric they had ordered for a new gown had arrived.

She remembered what Harry had told her about Ellie’s devastating loss and felt sympathy for the actress. The truth was that, in spite of her concern about the theater people coming to ’Sconset, more than once she had questioned the underlying prejudice with which many had treated the resident actors. And suddenly she had to fight her inclination to tell Mrs. Gillenwater that who she chose to hire—and house—was no one’s business but hers. Instead she drew in a breath and smiled. “Ladies, please,” she said, “let’s
sit for a moment. Shall I ask Mrs. Lang to bring us some tea and a plate of her delicious cucumber sandwiches?”

“We won’t be staying,” Rose replied haughtily even as the other two women nodded eagerly at the prospect of tea and treats. “Imagine my surprise earlier when I was calling on poor Mrs. Hogan down the lane and we observed this little band of minstrels approach your door. Well, I was quite certain that I would soon see them on their way to Ina Matthews’s boardinghouse. I never imagined…”

“They have fallen on some difficulties that are not of their own making,” Nola explained. She mentioned the damaged cottages and the delay in getting materials. Encouraged by the sympathetic expressions on the faces of Mrs. Dobbs and Mrs. Bosworth, she continued. “And then, as you know the help I had hired for the season became unavailable.”

Rose glared at her, unmoved. “I would remind you, Nola, that the Devil often waits for just such coincidence. It is a form of pure temptation, putting you in circumstances of distress and then seeming to offer the perfect solution when in fact you are putting not only your position in the community but perhaps your very soul in peril.”

The other two women rearranged their features to support this position, frowning at Nola as they nodded in agreement with their leader’s point of view.

Nola was well aware that Mrs. Gillenwater believed every word of her sermon. This was hardly the first time she had felt compelled to deliver similar warnings. But outside the closed parlor doors, Nola could hear the sounds of sterling on fine china, accompanied by quiet conversation and the soft underpinnings of a Viennese waltz. Experience told her the tearoom was filled for the first time in months and she believed she knew why. Rose and her companions were not
the only ones who were curious about Nola’s decision to staff the tearoom with traveling entertainers. If she stepped across the hall she suspected she would see her tables filled with locals.

“It appears that business is quite good for this early in the season,” she noted.

Rose waved a dismissive hand. “We are all well aware that what you have attracted are curiosity seekers. They will not return. And so, my dear, although one does not like to broach the subject of finances,” Rose continued, “your mother was a dear friend and I would be remiss were I not to keep an eye out for your well-being—a task I might add that has been unnecessary until now. Still, if you have had to resort to hiring unsuitable staff, I can only assume…”

“I do not need money,” Nola said softly, even as she clenched her fists against the sides of her skirt. “Money is not the issue. After all, one cannot serve customers with dollars and cents. It takes actual people to pour and serve and clean up after.”

Rose’s eyes widened and the shocked expressions of her companions told Nola that she had crossed a line in daring to challenge the matriarch. She smiled apologetically and added, “But I appreciate your concern, Rose. Mama always said that I could count on you to watch over me.”

Actually what Mama said was that Rose would watch my every move, expecting me to fail.
But Nola had spent many long hours making sure that she did everything by the book, from raising her siblings to running her business, so that she found favor with people like Rose Gillenwater. Now she was surprised to feel a bubble of rebellion rising from within. She had worked hard and proved herself first as the sole support of her family after their parents had passed and then as a suc
cessful businesswoman. She was no longer the girl she had been when she took on such responsibility. She was a grown woman and had long since earned the right to the respect of these women.

She was on the verge of saying just that when her pragmatic side prevailed. “Forgive me,” she said. “It’s been a stressful time as you’ve so rightly observed. Please understand that this arrangement is temporary. Surely you can see that I must be able to keep the tearoom open while I seek the proper staffing. By the time the season is fully underway, I have little doubt that everything will once again be quite back to normal.”

Somewhat mollified, Rose stretched the fingers of her gloves more tightly over her stubby fingers. “It’s just that appearances, especially for a woman alone like yourself, simply cannot be underestimated.”

“Absolutely, and thank you so much for your concern.” Nola made a move toward herding the three toward the door, but Rose headed off in the opposite direction toward the window.

“And speaking of appearances, Nola dear, there’s the matter of Harrison Starbuck.”

Nola opened her mouth to protest, but Rose held up a restraining hand. “He has been reported calling here with some frequency in recent days. Mrs. Dobbs observed a most unsettling scene just recently as she was on her way home after church.”

Lucille Dobbs made a detailed study of the pattern on the rug as Rose continued. “Really, child, a man on his knees outside your door and then you invite him onto the side porch where your interactions are concealed by foliage?” Once again she clicked her tongue in disapproval.

“It was a business matter,” Nola said quietly. “Surely having seen Mr. Starbuck in church, all of you are well aware of his penchant for the dramatic? He was putting on an act to—”

“Harrison Starbuck was a rogue as a youth and I am sad to report that he does not seem to have matured much in that facet of his personality. He quite devastated our daughter, Violet, just last summer. And my dear boys looked up to him—so impressionable. So young and trusting. Vulnerable even in spite of their size and age.” She shook her head and her companions nodded sympathetically.

Rose’s sons, Edgar and Albert, were now fifteen and sixteen respectively. They were hardly children. The truth was that although they were quite pious and innocent-looking whenever their mother was around, there had been some rumors that they were at the center of a group of mischief makers on the island. In fact Nola had heard more than one local resident compare them to a younger Harry Starbuck.

“My interactions with Mr. Starbuck are purely business,” Nola repeated.

“Sadly we were forced to send dear Violet off to Europe to recover,” Rose continued as if Nola had not spoken. “Alistair insists that the man is very shrewd in business, but, if you ask me, people do have a tendency to give him far more leeway than is usual. You would be well advised to watch your step, my dear.”

“I…”

“All of which brings us back to the main point,” Rose interrupted as she moved to the door and slid it open. “These people are not our sort, Nola,” she said. “As my dear Alistair is quick to remind me, they provide a service in enhancing
the appeal of our little community to the tourists to be sure, but one crosses the line in actually forming alliances—business or otherwise. Lucille, Dorothy,” she commanded as the two hurried to follow her out into the foyer.

Harry Starbuck and your husband are partners in numerous business ventures that include theatrical productions, Nola wanted to shout as the three women descended the porch stairs and set off down the street. Maybe you should speak to your precious Alistair about interacting with “that sort.”

When she turned away from the door, biting her lip, Olga was waiting. “These women are bourgeois,” she huffed, and Nola realized that she had heard Rose’s last comment.

Nola could not hide her surprise at what she realized was Olga’s expression of sympathy and support. “Nevertheless, they are quite powerful here in ’Sconset,” she warned.

Olga shrugged. “And history has taught us that those who think themselves invincible are the easiest to topple,” she said as she glided across the hall to greet the latest customer.

Chapter Six

A
lthough Nola agreed with Rose that once the locals had satisfied their curiosity business would slacken, at the moment the tearoom was quite busy, and the afternoon flew by. Nola barely had time to dwell on the encounter with Mrs. Gillenwater as she circulated among tables occupied by townspeople and even a few early arriving tourists. A mother and daughter visiting from New Bedford seemed so taken by the ambience of the place that they asked if Nola had ever considered renting the tearoom out for weddings or receptions. She was pleased to receive compliments on the fare, the service and the addition of the background music. She did not want to take credit for Ellie’s idea but at the same time did not wish to get into a long explanation of how Ellie and the others had come to work for her.

By the time the last customer had left, Nola had all but put the encounter with Rose Gillenwater behind her. She gathered the remaining cups and plates on a tray and pushed the swinging door to the kitchen open with one foot then paused.

“…so then what happened?” Jasper March asked as he
stood at the sink, shirtsleeves rolled back and forearms buried in sudsy water.

“They left,” Olga reported. “But people like that, they will be back. They will bring trouble,” she added ominously.

“Well, I don’t see how they could cause any trouble,” Mimi Kowalski replied. “Everyone was so impressed. Why, they’ll be talking to all their friends and neighbors about this place. You mark my words.”

“They loved the music, Ellie,” her twin sister Deedee added. “That gave the whole place such class. It was like one of those elegant tearooms in New York.”

“And just what would you know about such a place?” Billy teased.

“My gentleman friend took me to one once,” Deedee countered.

“You mean that old guy who came to see you at the Majestic five nights in a row?” Billy asked and everyone laughed.

But as soon as Nola entered the room, they all sobered and focused on their work. The two men gave their attention to washing and drying the china while Deedee and Mimi put the dishes in their assigned cupboards. Olga sat half reclining on a kitchen chair, a cup of tea without a saucer at hand while Ellie sat across from her, folding napkins.

“Where’s Mrs. Lang?” Nola asked as if she had not overheard any of their discussion.

“We told her we would clean up,” Jasper replied. “Hope that was all right?”

“Yes. Thank you. It was a busy day, especially for this time of year.”

“Curiosity seekers,” Ellie said with a smile. “Don’t worry. In our business you get used to people wanting a look.”

“Yes, well, it was good practice for you all. Next week
when the season begins in earnest we are likely to see this kind of business daily—especially if the weather turns damp.”

“Speaking of practice,” Billy said. “Mrs. Lang said that Mr. Starbuck stopped by earlier and dropped off copies of the script. I took a peek and it looks to me like he’s making the play into a musical and I’ve got the opening number. Ellie, he said to tell you to have me try it to the tune of Clare and the loon?”

“‘Clair de Lune,’” Ellie corrected. “I know it.”

“So, could you give me a hand with it? I could come by your room later and…”

“Absolutely not,” Nola interrupted and all six actors turned to her. “There will be no visiting between rooms,” she said. “At least not between those who are residing on the third floor and those on the second.”

“Between men and women,” Ellie translated when the others looked a bit mystified.

“But we have to learn our parts—and now there’s music as well,” Billy protested.

“How about if we use the piano in the tearoom, Miss Nola?” Jasper suggested.

Nola hadn’t even considered that the actors might expect to make use of her home for rehearsing during their off time. She had simply assumed that they would gather at the cabaret. Of course, that building was still under construction.

As usual her first thought was how holding rehearsals on the premises in addition to the transgressions she had already committed might set with Rose and her group. On the other hand, it was a sight better than the idea of working together in their bedrooms. And really, where was the harm? The tearoom was closed at six with clean-up usually taking another hour. It was now seven and if the actors were rehears
ing at least she knew where they were. They wouldn’t be out getting into trouble. “I suppose we could see how that goes.”

“You’re sure?” Ellie asked. “Maybe we should just wait until tomorrow and see if Harry has found another rehearsal space.”

Nola was tempted to reconsider as she itemized the events of the day. There had been the arrival of the actors, followed by her encounter with Starbuck, and the confrontation with Rose Gillenwater close on the heels of that. For a moment, she was so taken aback with the enormity of what she had gotten herself into that she was speechless. Instead she gave the company a curt nod and before she knew it Billy had taken off for upstairs while Jasper and the others began pulling drapes closed and arranging chairs in a semicircle near the piano.

When Billy came pounding down the stairs waving a sheaf of music, Ellie took a seat at the piano and waited while Billy passed out scripts to the others. “Thank you,” she mouthed to Nola as she played the introduction while the others found their places.

“You won’t be long at this,” Nola instructed, checking her watch for emphasis. “Eight o’clock at the very outset.”

Ellie stopped playing and nodded. “Not a minute past,” she assured her.

“Why don’t you join us, Miss Nola?” Jasper called.

“Yes, do,” the twins chorused.

“Thank you for asking, but I have work of my own to attend. I’ll be just across the hall should you need me.” She locked the front door as she crossed the foyer. “Eight o’clock,” she said firmly just before closing the parlor doors, but not quite all the way.

“And then what?” she heard one of the Kowalski twins
ask in a stage whisper. “Are we to go to bed? I mean, what is there to do in this town?”

The others mumbled their agreement.

“I don’t know about all of you,” Nola heard Ellie say in her normal voice, “but after a full day of performing for customers—or waiting tables or cleaning up—and now trying to work our way through these new lyrics, I for one will welcome a good night’s sleep. Remember, dear ones, we are doing double duty for the time being. We not only have day jobs, we have music to learn. And unless I miss my guess, there are going to be several rounds of revisions before this show is ready for even a preview performance. There will undoubtedly come a time when we long for a few early nights and some extra sleep.”

Thank you, Nola thought. She had already moved to the parlor door, prepared to step forward and offer further rules for conduct to the group. Horrified at the very idea that they might yet go looking for some nonexistent nightlife and finding none, would come up with their own version, she had been prepared to nip such ideas in the bud. And yet she hated always being the one to throw cold water on the enthusiasm of others. It had been her role with her siblings and after they had moved on to lives of their own, it had transferred onto the hired help she brought in every summer to cater to her guests.

She turned to her desk and prepared to tackle the pile of bills she had put aside while handling the staffing crisis. But her attention was drawn to the tearoom where the cast had moved on to other numbers. Ellie played an introduction and then she heard Jasper and Billy stumble through a chorus.

“No, no, no!” Olga cried. “Forte! Forte,” she commanded and Nola heard Ellie play the introduction again.

This time the two actors boomed out the words. Then the women joined in and after several starts and restarts, Nola found herself keeping time with the music as she made short work of the bills and prepared the menu for the coming week.

 

It was after seven by the time Harry finished his work for the day, but instead of heading directly home to his cottage, he pedaled his bicycle aimlessly through the village. He reasoned that it was a fine spring evening, redolent with the scent of the sea and the hint of flowers on the verge of bursting into full bloom. He rode past Rest Haven, the group of cottages run as a spa and homeopathic health facility. It was owned by two doctors from New York who specialized in “Nervous Diseases and Diseases of Women and Children.”

Harry couldn’t help smiling every time he passed the place. To his way of thinking, a person didn’t need some doctor to tell him that time spent in a quiet seaside village was good for the nerves—not to mention the soul. In Harry’s view, God had given every human certain ingrained instincts and one of them was that when a person was feeling stressed and tense, a few moments communing with nature and the wonders that God had created was all that was called for.

He considered riding out Milestone Road to the golf moors. Harry had invested money in the nine-hole course and he took some pride in looking at the finished product. But he rejected the idea of walking the links as pointless on a moonless night. Perhaps he should check on what progress workers had made on construction of the cabaret.

But instead he turned in the opposite direction and coasted past yet another landmark of the community—the large dwelling with the modest sign announcing Miss Nola’s Tearoom in gold script and in smaller block lettering below,
Serving the Public Daily in Season Except the Sabbath. The windows on the second and third floors were dark as usual. Light from what he now knew to be Nola’s private quarters spilled onto the porch and a muted glow found its way around the closed drapes of the tearoom and out through the fanlight over the front door. He paused and heard the unmistakable tinkle of a piano accompanied by a chorus of voices.

So she has given them permission to make use of her piano after hours.
Harry couldn’t help but be impressed that the actors had somehow managed to get past that wall Nola had built around herself and persuade her to allow such a thing. He’d seen the trio of women from the church headed to the tearoom earlier as if on a crusade of utmost urgency. Harry was well aware of Rose Gillenwater’s poor opinion of him since he’d ignored her thinly veiled attempts to match him up with her daughter, Violet. On the other hand, the fact that Alistair Gillenwater owed at least a part of his financial success to some profitable business ventures that Harry had brought his way left the woman in a bit of a quandary. It amused Harry to see that she had decided to deal with this matter by avoiding him whenever possible and lavishing him with compliments when a public encounter forced her to keep up appearances of civility.

Frankly he didn’t care either way. It was her husband he felt sorry for. The man was a walking definition of the term
henpecked.
And truth be told, it was partly out of a desire to bolster Alistair’s self-confidence that Harry had hired him as his solicitor and included him in his business dealings.

Rose and her ladies-in-waiting had not been at Nola’s longer than a quarter of an hour when Harry saw them march back down the front stairs of the tearoom and board the surrey, driven by the eldest Gillenwater boy. As the lad nav
igated the carriage full of chattering women past his office, Harry couldn’t help wondering what had transpired in that meeting. He was a keen observer of people and everything about Rose Gillenwater’s expression and posture screamed that she was less than pleased with whatever had taken place. He was certain that the three women had not had time to stay for tea and yet what would have set them off? Rose Gillenwater had more than once made a point of praising Nola’s conduct and comportment. He’d even heard her hold Nola up as a model for her own daughters to emulate. In fact, until recently, when he had thought about Nola Burns at all it had been as a younger version of Rose Gillenwater.

Until recently.
In his encounters with her these last couple of weeks, Nola had shown a surprising amount of spunk—an independent streak he’d never anticipated. Was it possible that Nola had broken ranks with the matriarch?

He leaned his bike against the natural stone fence that surrounded Nola’s property and considered stepping up the front walk and ringing the doorbell. He could say he’d stopped by to drop off his copy of the agreement Nola had insisted on.

Since when does Harry Starbuck need to plan an excuse? What if he was in the mood to call on Ellie? She was a dear friend. It was a free country.

Unbidden came the memory of the shocked look on Nola’s face when she’d opened her parlor door and seen him with Ellie. In the moment it had taken for her to recover he had registered something in the way she looked at them. Jealousy? No, Harry had had enough experience with competing females to know that look all too well. No, it was something else, something more poignant and unexpected.

Longing.

Well, and why not? A spinster like Nola? He shook off the notion of going in. He wasn’t in the mood for another debate with her tonight. The truth was that the woman confounded him. What was it about this uptight female, his adversary in business, that drew him to her like a moth to a flame? That was it, he realized. She was a woman and he was used to doing business with men and charming the ladies. This was business—pure and simple.

Relieved that he had solved the mystery of his fascination with the tearoom proprietress, Harry strolled out onto the footbridge that led to the stairway down to the beach and looked back at the impressive home with its mansard roof and dormer windows. Nola had done a fine job with the grounds. They were inviting and made good use of traditional ’Sconset plantings—climbing roses that lay heavy on the low stone walls marking the boundaries of the property. They would make an instant positive impression on city types who’d come with a preconceived and romantic notion of what an island resort town should look like. Those carefully pruned hydrangea bushes that lined the foundation of the porch, and the lush ferns in ceramic planters on high plant stands stood sentry among the several rocking chairs that aligned the front porch. In back near the carriage house, he was sure he’d seen a small herb garden surrounded by a picket fence. Beyond that was a small windmill for pumping water for the kitchen and bathrooms, and climbing the trellis at the side of the carriage house was a thick vine of morning glories.

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