Authors: Christina Dodd
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“We do ask that you watch your step and use the handrails.” Gwen Ricci indicated the stairway leading up to the guest cottage and the broad ironwood porch. “We added traction strips to each tread because … you know the Pacific Northwest! Always raining, especially here in Washington, and we don’t want our guests to fall.” She smiled back at Mario’s cousins from Minneapolis, Minnesota. “Also, Cecily, please be careful with those heels that they don’t slip between the boards!” Gwen found herself mentally adding,
Stupid inappropriate heels.
Funny. Gwen was already talking to herself. Usually it took three days of unrelenting company before she was adding sarcastic mental asides. With Cecily and Landon, it had taken less than thirty minutes.
“I didn’t realize there would be so many steps.” Cecily paused halfway up the stairs and put a hand on her richly endowed chest.
Gwen paused, too. “Do you have a heart problem?”
“No. No, I don’t think so, although my mother died at an early age of a heart attack, so that’s always a concern.”
“What a relief!” Gwen started up the stairs again.
“My father died of an accident when I was only sixteen, leaving me an orphan.”
“I’m sorry for your loss.” Why were they talking about her father? It looked like sixteen was quite a few years back for Cecily.
“And I do have a joint disease that makes all this climbing tragically difficult.” Cecily took a long, martyred breath. “But don’t pay a bit of attention to me. I can handle the pain.”
Okay, I won’t.
Yet Gwen kept her tone encouraging as she said, “Once you get inside the guest cottage, you’ll decide that it’s all worthwhile.” She reached the porch, turned and waited while Cecily continued her laborious trek up the stairs.
Mario, honey, what were you thinking?
He had located his cousins through a genealogical service and emailed with them for a month; then one day the phone rang. It was Landon Ricci, accepting an invitation to stay with Mario and Gwen; an invitation Mario swore he had not extended. But Mario, being Mario—tall, handsome, expansive, hospitable, and Italian to his bones—had assured them they were welcome.
Then Mario—being the owner of an expanding electrical firm with locations from Portland to the Canadian border—had an emergency call this morning, leaving Gwen to welcome his guests.
Yep. When Mario got home, Gwen was going to kill him.
Cecily managed to get to the porch. She clutched the handrail and pulled in deep breaths of air. She looked back along the gravel path that they had just traversed—past the goldfish pond, the bubbling fountain, the hot tub, and the lush green lawn to the main house—and said, “Your house … you say you designed it yourself?”
As always when Gwen viewed their tall, narrow Venetian-style home, she smiled. “We did design it ourselves. Mario and I took a tiny one-story built in the thirties and remodeled it. Of course we needed more room, so we deliberately built up three and a half levels to keep the same footprint and reduce the environmental impact. That is so imperative in a fragile ecological area like the Olympic Peninsula, don’t you think?”
Most people were impressed, or at least pretended to be, by the Riccis’ care for the ecosystem.
Cecily said, “That explains why it looks out of balance.”
You’re one to talk.
Gwen’s mental sarcasm was getting louder.
Cecily was a tall woman, architecturally top heavy; strip off her top and bra and she could pose as the figurehead on the bow of a ship. Her tiny waist flared out at the hips, giving her an extreme hourglass figure. She wore a low-cut button-up white shirt that showed eight long inches of cleavage and a tight black skirt.
And those heels. Gwen didn’t remember the last time she’d seen stiletto heels outside of a Hollywood awards show. They were a rare sight anywhere in Washington and almost nonexistent in the nearby small town of Virtue Falls.
“I simply don’t know how I’ll manage these steps”—Cecily pointed toward Landon, laboring up beneath the combined weights of two bags—“back to your house and up to the second floor to the kitchen every day.” A delicate pause. “I mean, Landon and I are allowed in the house, aren’t we?”
“Of course, you’re welcome anytime.” Gwen felt her smile become fixed, and she could not bring herself to make eye contact. “It’s only ten steps up to this porch, there are no steps in the cottage, and in the house, our living room is on the ground floor. I can serve your meals there on a tray if you like.”
“Oh, no.” Cecily sounded shocked. “I’ll come to the kitchen table. I don’t want to be a bother.”
Landon arrived on the porch in time to stop any unwise retorts from Gwen, so she unlocked the cottage, flung open the door, and waved Cecily and Landon inside. “You’ll love it here, I promise.”
The guest cottage was actually a luxury suite, with a small kitchenette, a bathroom with a shower and a soaking tub, and a main room big enough for a king-size bed, a gas fireplace, and a sitting area. The idea of a cottage had been forced on the Riccis by the realization that people—friends and relatives—were going to want to visit Washington in the summer when the days were long, the weather was warm, and every turn in the road revealed another snowcapped mountain peak or long reach of dunes that led down to an isolated beach.
Gwen had designed the cottage and coaxed the Virtue Falls planning commission into allowing them to build it by donating massive native growth easements on either side of their property, easements that in perpetuity could never be developed. Then she had decorated it herself, wisely keeping to cool shades of blue and white, and for color, a delicately patterned Japanese red silk kimono displayed on the wall. She wanted nothing to distract from the centerpiece of the room—the wall of windows that looked out over the magnificent vista of forest, beach, and ocean.
Gwen waited in anticipation for the gasps of awe and praise.
Cecily said nothing.
Landon put down the suitcases with a thump.
After a silence that went on five beats too long, Gwen said, “I hope you’ll be comfortable here.”
“Oh. Yes. Yes! Of course! It is so … original … and cutting-edge clever. I can’t imagine how much thought and effort you put into designing and decorating this place.” Cecily went to the bed and pressed on the plush down comforter. “I simply don’t understand why we aren’t allowed to stay in the house with you.”
Gwen barely knew how to respond. Guests were always enthusiastic about the idea of their own residence set in such magnificent surroundings. “Well, because … in the house, the second bedroom is small and off the kitchen and has no view. We built this so our guests could enjoy some privacy and—” She stopped herself.
She and Mario worked hard. They had built the firm together, they were childless, and they were dedicated to each other. For them, after a hard day at work, having their home to themselves was important, and she would not apologize for offering luxurious accommodations to relatives who had invited themselves to stay.
With a snap, she said, “As I said, you’re welcome to visit at the main house at any time. Now, the kitchenette is stocked with juices and healthy snacks. If you’ve forgotten any toiletries, you should find what you need on the tray on the bathroom counter. The gas fireplace is on a timer, so if you wish to enjoy the firelight as you go to sleep, feel free to do so.” She glanced at Landon.
He grinned like a normal man who looked forward to a romantic evening with his wife. But he kept his mouth shut.
Landon was tall and lanky, with a gaunt look around his cheeks and prematurely gray hair. He hadn’t said a word since his initial
Hi, good to meet you,
and Gwen wondered if Cecily withheld food as punishment for insubordination.
Poor guy. Gwen put her hand on the cloisonné tray with the bottle, the cork pull, and the two gold-rimmed crystal glasses. “As a welcome gift, we left you an appetizer tray and wine from one of Washington’s finest wineries. The Chardonnay is one of our favorites, so we hope you will enjoy it.”
Cecily sighed wistfully. “If only I could. But my acid reflux won’t allow me to drink the tiniest drop of liquor of any kind.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.” Gwen was pretty sure she didn’t give a damn.
“It’s really okay. I’ll be the one laughing when you drinkers destroy your livers.”
Gwen, and her liver, were speechless.
Oblivious to her faux pas—or was she?—Cecily walked over to the window and looked out.
Gwen told herself to relax, for who could resist that idyllic view of primal forest and distant ocean?
Cecily ran her hand over the sill, looked at her fingers, rubbed them as if she had detected dust, and asked, “Where are the curtains?”
“Yes. Curtains. For this window.”
“The copper trim was added as a decorative frame for the view. It doesn’t need any more embellishment.”
“It’s not about embellishment, Cousin Gwen.” Cecily sounded as if she was explaining the principles of decency to a child. “People can see in!”
Gwen took a firm grip on her patience. “No. They can’t. Virtue Falls is the closest town, five miles to the north. We’re off the main highway, no one comes out here, and even if someone wandered onto the property by mistake, the ground drops away steeply at this side of the cottage and it’s impossible for anyone on the ground to see more than the bottom of the deck.”
Cecily’s artificially plumped lips wrinkled like a prune. “Can someone get up to the deck from the ground?”
“No, the only way onto the deck is through these doors.” Gwen flung open the sliding glass door and stepped out to let the cool ocean breeze cool her cheeks.
Landon followed her out.
Cecily hurried after them. “Heavens, Cousin Gwen! I don’t want you to feel guilty or remiss.”
Not a problem!
“I just feel so … exposed.” Cecily hugged herself.
Gwen wanted to say,
No one wants to look up your skirt.
Instead she said, “We have never had trespassers.”
With halfhearted enthusiasm, Landon said, “This is really nice.”
Which wasn’t the kind of admiration Gwen was used to, but after her pummeling by Cecily, she was grateful for even such slight praise. She waved an arm. “Washington in all its grandeur!” Then she cursed her own nervous, chirpy voice.
Cecily turned back toward the cottage—and promptly stuck her stiletto heel into the crack between the boards on the deck.
Gwen and Landon leaped to her assistance.
Cecily moaned about her joints and nerves and examined her shoe with a ferocious and furious intensity, an intensity she transferred to Gwen when Gwen suggested she put on flats to more easily navigate the rugged Washington landscape.
In a low voice that throbbed with drama, Cecily replied that heels were an important part of her exotic persona.
Gwen didn’t have a single doubt that her own khaki trousers, button-up shirt, old-fashioned boat shoes, and chin-length brown hair with its streak of premature white did not, in Cecily’s estimation, contribute to an exotic persona, or any persona at all.
Gwen announced that dinner would be served at seven and escaped back to the main house.