Authors: Kristin Wallace
Emily stepped out of her car and gaped. Talk about a small-town utopia. Stately oak trees lined a quiet street, which was framed on both sides by graceful homes that wept of
charm. Covered verandahs, intricate gingerbread embellishments, painted shutters. White picket fences. For what picture of America could be complete without gleaming white partitions?
Something warm and gooey filled Emily's veins, like chocolate chip cookies right out of the oven. Home, sweet home. Unbelievable.
The front door creaked open, and Julia emerged on the front porch. “Hey there. Glad you found us. Did you have any trouble?”
Emily's gaze caught on the flower boxes underneath the upstairs windows. “No, your directions were perfect.”
Window boxes? Seriously? People still had those?
Julia walked down the steps and surveyed the house and yard. “What do you think?”
“Is that a porch swing in the back?”
“Takes your breath away, doesn't it?” Julia asked with a conspiratorial grin. “I nearly left skid marks the first time I pulled up in the driveway when I came back. Covington Falls scared the life out of me.”
First chance Emily got, she would head for the swing, armed with a glass of sugar-loaded ice tea, some cute finger sandwiches with the crusts cut off, and a good book. “I didn't know places like this still existed.”
“So you'll be at home?”
“I think I could live here forever.”
The comment brought forth an outright belly laugh. “I warned you about that. Let me run in and tell Grace you're here. We'll get the key for the apartment and meet you by the garage.”
Julia disappeared inside the house, and Emily wandered around to the back yard. Lush trees and colorful blossoms created a Southern brand Garden of Eden. Tucked above the garage was a small apartment. Concrete steps led up to a narrow landing with a waist-high iron railing. Giggling, Emily took them at a run. She peered in the small window, but the dim light didn't reveal any secrets.
“There isn't much to see,” a soft, feminine voice said from behind her.
Emily found Grace and Julia on the landing.
Grace held out a key. “Would you like to do the honors?”
Yes, Emily would. With an excited grin, she unlocked the door. She flipped on the light, revealing a small, single-roomed space with a couch, an old wooden dresser, a twin bed, and a kitchenette. She immediately fell in love.
“You said Seth lived up here?” she asked.
“He moved in after his wife died,” Grace answered. “I think he found comfort in this quiet space.”
Emily wandered over and sank down onto the bed. “How long did he stay?”
“Until he didn't need it anymore.”
Emily bounced on the edge of the mattress and hid a smile. Grace did have a way with words. There always seemed to be a wealth of meaning behind each phrase.
“So you like the apartment?” Julia asked.
Emily stood up. “I'm sold. I'll go get Wordsworth out of the car.”
Julia stayed to help her unpack, and before long, Emily had settled in to her temporary new home. She sat on the bed and surveyed her domain again. Julia plopped down next to her with a gust of air.
“As that little singing orphan would say, âI think I'm gonna like it here,'“ Emily said.
“Wordsworth seems to approve,” Julia said, pointing across the room to where the fat Persian had taken up residence on the back of the couch. The feline had sniffed every conceivable inch of the apartment, before settling down in his current spot.
“Word is used to making himself at home.”
Julia slanted a glance out of the corner of her eye. “Seems like the two of you have that in common.”
Emily grinned. “We've got wandering souls.”
“Don't you ever get lonely?”
The question hit a newly exposed raw nerve, and Emily pretended to study the pattern on the quilt. “I guess I'm a loner at heart. Probably why I can spend hours sitting in front of a computer by myself.”
“Or will you settle down when you finally learn to deal with whatever sent you out on the road in the first place?”
Emily flopped onto her back and covered her face. “I should have known you couldn't resist the lectures.”
“Not when you give me such an excellent set up.” She pulled Emily's hands away. “How's the dealing with it going anyway? Not too well, judging from your expression.”
Emily glared at her new friend. “Why are you so sure there's something I have to deal with? Why can't I just be suffering from the world's worst case of writer's block?”
“Because saying it's only writer's block is easier than dealing with your life.”
Emily groaned. “You won't give up, will you?”
Julia laughed and stood up. “Not when I'm right.” She dragged Emily to her feet. “I also have a lead on a paying job for you.
“Yes, although I'm not sure you'll thank me for suggesting it.”
“Why? Am I going to be doing something smelly or gross?”
“Not quite, but you might end up preferring one of those jobs after a few hours with Aurora Johnston.”
“Who's Aurora Johnston?”
“An elderly lady at our church, although she hasn't actually been to a service in years. She's in need of a companion.”
“Like a dowager countess from Regency novels?”
Julia crinkled her nose. “I guess.”
“What would I have to do? Remember, I don't do kitchens.”
“She has a cook. And a maid.”
“What does she need me for then?”
“You'd be doing errands, helping around the house. Mostly sit with her and keep her company. Seth mentioned something about a dog that needs to be walked. The maid is older, too, and she can't handle the walks anymore.”
“I'd be like a poor relation,” Emily said. “The orphaned niece who gets taken in by her rich godmother for the Season.”
“Whatever works for you, sweetheart,” Julia said, patting Emily's hand. “I have to warn you, Aurora isâ¦ difficult.”
“On a scale of one to ten, she's about ten thousand. She pays well, though, and you'll have something to do while you're
dealing with whatever is keeping you from writing. Besides, I think you can handle her.”
“Of course I can. How tough can one old lady be?”
“You're not a drug addict are you?”
Emily blinked and stared at the old woman in astonishment. What? Not even a hello, nice to meet you?
Aurora Johnston rapped her cane on the hardwood floor. “Well, girl? Are you deaf? Do you not speak?”
Emily flinched at the loud
. “I speak perfectly well. Same with my hearing. I'm also not partial to drugs or alcohol.”
“How do I know you're telling the truth? You young people lie all the time.”
“I could pee in a cup for you,” Emily shot back. “Let you run a drug test.”
“And you're a cantankerous old bat.”
“Overbearing battle axe.”
Aurora's eyes glittered, with anger true enough, but Emily sensed a good bit of pleasure behind the acid-tinged words. Her lips twitched. Miss Aurora loved to tussle.
“You're amused.” Aurora's wrinkled face turned red. “What kind of companion are you?”
“The kind who knows a thousand creative ways to insult someone. I'm a writer. How many times do you think I can use the word
without having to repeat myself?”
The old woman pursed her lips, but the steam seemed to have been let out. “So, you're the one. The author.”
“E.J. Sinclair, at your service,” she said, sketching a bow. “You can call me Emily.”
Aurora leaned back in her chair. “Do you make a habit of insulting your employers?”
“You're not my employer yet.”
The old woman huffed and waved a hand, looking every bit the Queen of England. “Hmphâ¦ very well. You may stay. I suppose you'll do as well as any other. At least you have some semblance of intelligence.”
“My mother would be pleased to hear that.”
“This my mother already knows.”
Emily saw a glimmer of a smile before the old lady stuffed the expression down. Since she wasn't going to be sent to the dungeons, Emily perched on the chair next to Her Majesty. “Why don't you tell me what my duties will be?”
“My Polly needs to go out for a walk every day.”
Emily's gaze shifted to the overgrown, chocolate brown dachshund sprawled at Aurora's feet. The sausage-like animal had to be as big around as she was long. How did a dog get so fat anyway?
“My maid, Hortense, has bad knees,” Aurora said, answering the silent question. “She can't walk far, so Polly has been constrained to the backyard the last couple months.”
A maid named Hortense? Perfect. Emily really had landed in a Regency novel. Except, the bad knees part concerned her. She had a sinking feeling the rest of Aurora's house might have developed a sagging middle just like Polly. Emily hoped she wouldn't be called upon to play housekeeper.
Aurora Johnston lived in what could best be described as a mausoleum. One stuffed to the rafters with a mixture of furniture made up of everything from late 19
century antiques to garage sale circa 1973. There were two more floors, and Emily had no doubt they were crammed with junk as well.
The dusting alone would be a nightmare. Emily shuddered at the thought.
“I have a cleaning service come in every Wednesday,” Aurora said, jarring Emily back to the present. “Hortense supervises them, but I'll need you to inspect the upper floors as she has trouble with stairs.”
Maids for the maid. Interesting. Emily wondered why the old lady kept Hortense around if she couldn't clean anymore.
“Are you listening to me?” Aurora demanded.
Emily started and told herself she'd have to get used to being barked out. “Of course I am. You want me to walk the dog and check after the cleaning crew.”
“Stay out of my kitchen,” Aurora said, pointing a knobby, arthritic finger. “I heard about your little escapade at the bakery. My house is over a hundred years old, and I'll not have you burning it down.”
“I have no intention of cooking. Anything else?”
“I'll write out my list of needs in the morning and leave it on the table in the foyer.” Aurora picked up a silver bell from the table by her chair and jangled it in the air. “Hortense will come and show you where Polly's food and leash are kept. She can give you a tour of the house, as well.”
Emily tilted her head. “I hope the dog's food isn't in the kitchen.”
Aurora sniffed, and Emily liked to think the woman was trying to keep from showing any amusement, which would, of course, destroy the image the old bitty had so carefully constructed.
A minute later a tall, skeletal woman with steel wool hair appeared in the doorway. She even looked like a Hortense.
“Hortense, this is Emily Sinclair,” Aurora said. “She's to be my new companion. It's four o'clock. Time for Polly's walk. Show Emily to the dog's room to get the leash.”
Emily's head swung around. “The dog has her own room?”
Polly must have recognized the word
because she heaved herself off the floor with a mighty groan and waddled over to Hortense. Emily had serious doubts the little porker would even make it to the end of the driveway.
As it turned out, Polly made it about a hundred feet before collapsing in the grass with another fireplace bellows' groan. Emily shrieked in alarm and dropped down to the ground. Great. The last thing she needed was to kill her employer's beloved pet on the first day. She reached out a cautious hand and shook the dog.
She leaned over and put her ear against Polly's chest. Heart still beating. A good sign.
Then she recognized a familiar sound. Of snoring.
Snoring? Did dogs snore? She'd never heard of the phenomenon, but apparently they did.
“I've been given charge of a narcoleptic dog.”
Giggles bubbled up, and she clapped a hand over her mouth to try and stifle them. The chuckles transformed into a guffaw, and before long, she was rolling in the grass laughing like a loon.
So this is what has become of my lifeâ¦
walking an obese dachshund with a sleeping disorder and verbally fencing with cranky old ladies.
Desperation and despair flooded through her entire being. A knot formed in her chest, tightening its grip like a noose until the laughter choked off and tears streamed down her cheeks.
She squinted up at the sky. What was it Julia's fiancÃ© had said? Try praying about it? Emily had tried everything else to get her imagination back. She'd asked and received the
sign, but since she'd been fired from the bakery job, she figured a wire had gotten crossed somewhere. Maybe it was time to go to a higher authority again.
“God, this isn't funny anymore,” Emily prayed. “I'm going mad. Could you maybe help me out here? One idea. That's all I ask, and then I promise I'll take it and run. Please. I just need a real sign.”
A car engine pierced the quiet of the afternoon. Coming closer. Emily knew she should stand up. Anyone driving by would think she had died or gone crazy. She couldn't actually dispute such a claim, but she still had
dignity left. She opened her eyes and sat up.
Laughter bubbled up again when she saw the rattletrap white truck. She glanced up into the heavens. “So you've got a sense of humor.”
Brakes squealed as the truck came to an abrupt stop. Nate stuck his head out the window. “I hate to even ask.”
“I wouldn't advise it.”
He regarded the brown blob next to her. “What is that?”
“My new job. I've become a dog walker and Girl Friday to a mean ole' spinster.”
“A what to a what?”
Right. Had to remember they didn't speak the same language. “I'm working as a companion for Aurora Johnston. This is Polly and we're going for a walk.”
He glanced over his shoulder at Aurora's mansion. “You didn't get far.”
Emily sighed. She nudged the dachshund, but lazy bones wouldn't budge. The truck door slammed, and her head shot up. Nate walked around the truck. Her heart began beating faster with each step.
He crouched down in front of her. “Is she sick?” he asked, reaching out to stroke Polly's head.
Lucky dog. She wondered what would happen if he stroked her hair like that. “Nope, just tired.”
He twisted around and sat next to her. Close enough to touch. If she put her hand out she could...
t be stupid, Emily.
s wrong with you?
“Hmm?” he asked.
“What?” She'd spoken out loud. She glanced up, only to be pulled back in by Heathcliff eyes. “Nothing. Ignore me.”
“I'm not sure that's possible.”
“Listen, don't feel like you have to babysit me,” Emily said, wondering how long she could sit here before she tackled him. “I'm not completely helpless, you know. I'm sure you have somewhere you need to be.”
He hesitated and then his head bowed. All the sudden he seemed sad. Defeated. And so alone.
His posture silenced the inner base drum playing in her chest.
She reached out. “Nateâ¦”