Authors: Jenny Hale
—that was the number of windows across the front of this house. Four—it had
chimneys. Abbey had only just counted them all as the enormous, Georgian-revival-style mansion came into view at the end of the mile-long driveway. She’d had to be let in via an intercom at a pair of iron gates bigger than her apartment building. As she’d snaked along the property in her car, miles of perfectly manicured grass—green, despite the winter weather—stretching out on either side of the drive, and the James River angrily lapping on the edge of the property under the winter clouds, her hands had begun to sweat. Abbey had always been impulsive, even though she’d tried very hard not to be, but she’d done it again.
She’d dressed up. She wasn’t used to dressing up. Normally, she had on scrubs at work, and on her off time she wore hoodies and jeans. But this was a business meeting, and she’d wanted to look prepared; however, nothing had prepared her for what was in front of her now. She shifted her portfolio case on the seat of her car to keep it from slipping onto the floorboards. It was a gift from her gramps and had sat empty until now.
You can do this
, she said to herself as she tried to keep the seatbelt from wrinkling her clothes.
You’re gonna have to do this. You made your bed. Now you have to lie in it.
The owner of this home was in a league beyond comprehension. He was the grandson of a woman named Caroline Sinclair for whom Abbey cared. Caroline lived in a small cottage on the edge of the Sinclair property, and Abbey had always reached her cottage using a private side road. The estate was so large and wooded that the cottage seemed to be all by itself; the main house wasn’t even visible. Caroline had explained that she wanted it that way.
“If Nick is making me live on the property, I want to at least feel that I can come and go as if it’s my own residence. I don’t want to live out back of the house, or something demeaning like that. I want my own place, not a guest quarters.”
Abbey had gotten the job caring for Caroline while working at an upscale retirement home. Nicholas Sinclair had called to ask if they had a service for in-home nurses. When she’d said that they didn’t, he’d offered to pay her more than what she was making there to care for Caroline at home, because he didn’t want to put her in a facility. Caroline had mentioned that her grandson, Nick, had a “big house,” but this kind of wealth was something out of a storybook.
As Abbey looked at the house, it shed new light on Caroline’s quirks—the way she’d held the thick mug that Abbey had gotten her for her birthday as if it were a delicate piece of art, the straightness of her back when she sat on the edge of her chair, the manner in which she nodded and said “thank you,” for the smallest of things. It was all clear now. What had seemed like generally polite behavior had actually been the behavior of a privileged upbringing. Abbey had never met Mr. Sinclair face to face. She’d always just provided Caroline’s current health status and data from her tests via phone—usually leaving a message—and he’d mailed her paychecks. Now, she wondered if she’d notice those small indications of wealth when she met him.
Abbey parked her car in the great, circular drive and turned off the engine. Snowflakes dotted her windshield as she took a peek in her rearview mirror to be sure she was as presentable as possible. She dabbed on some lip-gloss quickly and dropped it into her handbag. With a deep breath, she got out of the car, her heels wobbling slightly with her nerves. Hoping the snow wouldn’t begin to pile up when she was inside, she clicked along the brick patio-sized pathway to the front steps. With every step, she could feel the crescendo of the pounding in her heart.
She stopped between two urns, each one containing a spruce tree the size of her Christmas tree at home, and pressed the doorbell. The double doors in front of her were so ornate and grand that she almost feared what was behind them. What was she thinking, telling Caroline she’d do this? Was she out of her mind?
The door opened, and, standing in front of her, was a short man wearing a charcoal gray suit and a red tie, his hair balding on the top. Abbey had heard about Nick Sinclair from the other nurses at the retirement home. They’d described him as tall, quiet, handsome—gorgeous, one had said—with dark hair and perfect clothes. While there was nothing wrong with the man in front of her, he was a far cry from the description she’d received.
He smiled, his lips pressed together, and took a step back to allow her to come in, the large door closing behind her as she entered the home.
She refocused on the man. “Hello. I’m Abbey Fuller. You must be Mr. Sinclair?”
“No, ma’am. He’ll be with you shortly.”
, she thought.
He doesn’t even open his own doors
. Her eyes moved around the space, taking in everything that surrounded her. The floor was a white- and slate-colored marble, with matching columns that looked as though they were holding up the entire second floor. The upstairs ran along an oval balcony that completely circled the room. The space in that one room was the size of the house where she’d grown up. It was so grand that it had to have three massive chandeliers to light it, but the windows spanning every surface were large enough that the natural light coming in was plenty.
“Follow me, please,” the man said as he led her across the marble floor, between the two wide, curving staircases flanking each side of the room, and through an ornate doorway with more pillars on either side, the woodwork all painted cream to match the walls. Each piece was carved into swirling perfection that rolled to a peak at the top of the doorframe. The more she walked, the more nervous she became, her mouth drying out.
Her breath caught, and she swallowed to cover it up as she entered the next room. A wall of windows on the east side offered an almost blinding white light from the clouds outside. The grass had been dusted with snow in just the amount of time she’d been in the house. In front of the windows sat a black grand piano, the top propped up, the keys so shiny she could see the reflection of the panes of glass on their surfaces. On the south side of the home another wall of windows stretched to the top of the thirty or more foot ceiling and overlooked the grounds. The walls had intricate woodwork framing their surfaces, the color between the woodwork the matching blue of the rug.
The man had walked over to two facing cream-colored sofas that seemed so comfortable that she wanted to snuggle up on them with a blanket and read. Their billowy cushions were juxtaposed to the formality of the blue and cream patterned rug that extended the entire length of the ballroom-sized space, and the general emptiness and sterile surroundings. He gestured for her to take a seat.
Abbey’s eyes could not stay still in this room because she’d never seen anything like it in real life. It was such a stiffly styled room, yet those sofas were sitting at one end, and she wondered if anyone had ever sat on them.
What kinds of things would someone do in a room like this? Did Nick Sinclair play piano? Had he ever played for anyone before, or was it just a prop, a piece of furniture?
She sat down and the man left her alone with her thoughts, having never even introduced himself. Abbey put her hands on her knees as she sat on the edge of that gorgeous sofa. How impressed must Caroline have been with her decorating skills to suggest that Abbey decorate this mansion for her grandson? She couldn’t even allow her pride to slip in because the whole situation was so baffling to her. She was shaking—partly from nerves and from the fact that the house was just slightly colder than she found to be comfortable. She shivered. The snow had really started coming down now in the few minutes she was there, already covering the ground outside. The scene played out before her through the towering windows, like a movie. Her mouth was so dry at this point, she couldn’t even lick her lips, and she worried that her lip-gloss wouldn’t last.
If she had to sit there much longer, she would explode—she needed to talk, have some kind of interaction—so she stood up to try to burn off her nervous energy. Her heels tapped on the marble floor that ran along the edge of the rug, and made hollow clicks that echoed throughout the room. “Rug” was an amusing term for this piece. It was half the size of a football field, it seemed. Her back to the room, Abbey looked out through the windows and, when she realized what was out there, she had to consciously keep her mouth from hanging open.
Covered in snow were tennis courts, a brick gazebo as big as a four-car garage, and, off in the distance, closer to the river, was a swimming pool. As she looked out at the grounds, the cold of winter seeping in through the icy glass in front of her, she wondered what Nick could possibly be doing. Why hadn’t he greeted her at the door? Did it take him that long to walk from wherever he was in the house? She’d left a message, as he’d directed, and told him she’d be there at two o’clock. She’d just expected him to answer the door.
“Hello, Ms. Fuller,” she heard the words echo across the room.
Abbey turned around. As she fixed her eyes on him, she had to work to keep her breath from coming out in ragged, nervous jerks. He
gorgeous. He was probably the most handsome man she’d ever seen. He had on navy trousers and a buttercream sweater with a thick collar that made the icy blue of his eyes visible even at a distance. His hair was perfectly combed, not a strand out of place, and his face looked soft, as if he’d just shaved a few minutes before their meeting. Perhaps that was what he’d been doing… Abbey shook the thought from her mind.
“Hello,” she returned. She wanted to walk toward him, but she didn’t trust herself in heels, and she worried that she might fall. He crossed the room and stopped in front of her, giving the two of them a large amount of personal space. He held out his hand in greeting, the starched cuff of his button-up shirt peeking out from underneath his sweater. She shook his hand.
“It’s nice to finally put a face with the voice,” he said. “Shall we head into my office?” He moved aside so that she could step up next to him. “We can discuss the details of your employment more easily there.” He smiled. It was a pleasant smile, but it didn’t seem to sit comfortably on his face.
They walked along the corridor, a lofty area so wide and open that it couldn’t possibly be called just a hallway. It, too, was quite empty—no pictures, no accent tables, nothing. Abbey was shocked at the lack of decorations. The house was so cold and unfriendly that it made her wonder about Mr. Sinclair. Was he as cold as this house? They finally stopped outside what looked like Nick’s office.
“You can just call me Abbey,” she said, gripping her portfolio case to keep her hands steady.
He smiled down at her.
“Did you just move in?” she asked out of curiosity. There was nothing in this home to suggest that it was regularly lived in. There were no photos, no memorabilia anywhere—nothing to tell her about who he was.
“No,” he said, sitting down behind a shiny desk with a mahogany finish. His chair rolled on the slick marble floor beneath it. Then, he made eye contact. “My grandmother tells me that you are a very good decorator,” he said, offering that manufactured smile again. This time, Abbey could almost tell that he’d practiced it. Was he used to having to smile when he really didn’t want to? She wondered what he looked like when he laughed—really laughed. What would his mouth do then? Would he keep still or throw his head back? Would she be able to see amusement in his eyes?
She sat down in one of the leather chairs facing his desk and crossed her legs at the ankle. With a tiny breath to steady herself, she put her portfolio case on her lap and unzipped it. She’d taken a few photos of her best decorating and had them blown up to a larger size for her presentation. “I’ve never had a project this size,” she warned. What she really wanted to tell him was that the only decorating experience she’d had was when she’d decorated his grandmother’s cottage because Caroline didn’t have the ability to paint and decorate herself. Abbey had worked hard to make her presentation professional, and there was a lot riding on this. She had Max to think about.
Abbey’s son, Max, was in first grade. He needed lunch money, school supplies; he was on neighborhood sports teams. There were things she
to pay for if she wanted Max to have a regular childhood. Her poor judgment with his father had been her fault, not Max’s. And the fact that her grandfather needed medicine that she had to help her mother pay for—that wasn’t Max’s fault either. Her son deserved nothing but the best, and she was going to give that to him, even if it meant that she went without. And she had before. Abbey had gone nights with no dinner, skipped parties with her friends, and lived on meager funds so that Max would never know that he was any different than anyone else. Secretly, she worried about him. Would he wonder why he didn’t get beach vacations with his family? Would he wish that he could have big birthday parties with all his friends? She fretted about it all the time. And this was her chance to do something great for his future.
“I’m not concerned about any lack of experience. You come highly recommended by my grandmother, and she’s hard to please, so I trust you’ll do just fine.”
She pulled back the flap on her portfolio and retrieved the first photo from it, turning it around for him to view. “I have experience decorating in a small variety of styles…” she said nervously. She’d practiced her presentation last night a hundred times but it was quite different with Nick’s eyes on her. “As you know, this is a picture from your grandmother’s cottage. I thought I’d start with hers first, since you could envision the before and after…”
He cleared his throat. “You don’t need to sell me,” he said. “I’m already hiring you.” He offered a pleasant expression, but it was clear from his face that her presentation was over.
She slid the photo back into the case and closed it.
“Are you planning to charge a flat rate per square foot, or would you prefer a salary with a decorating budget?” he asked.
“Uh-mmm…” Abbey chewed on the inside of her lip, trying to scramble for an answer. She didn’t know. She didn’t have a clue. She’d only ever been a nurse. The idea of how to charge him hadn’t even crossed her mind. That thought alone was unsettling enough to cause her chest to burn with anxiety.