Chapter 1 of Loving Number Seven

Rhoda C. Hill

1

Penny Weis made a mental walk-through of her cottage, conducting a list of valuables and trying to place whether she’d remembered to store everything before the takeover began.

   French chateau curtains from my bedroom?

   Check.

   Embroidered silk wall hanging from the loft?

   Check.

   She was down to mere hours now. After nine tonight anything left behind would have to be a sacrificial offering, given in the name of her father’s one hundred twenty-five acre oasis.

   Vintage hand knotted medallion rug from the living room?

   Check.

   The thought of work boots dirtying up her rug was almost too much to bear. She couldn’t leave things the way they were and expect to return with everything the same. She was saving herself the headache and, if she were being honest, the heartache, especially since her father refused to make the workers sign a waiver of any sort.

   “Faith, and good ol’ camaraderie,” is what he told her when she questioned his reasoning; blind trust was more like it, but Penny’s trust was thin and she certainly didn’t have the gumption for blind-anything.

   “Things are replaceable,” he told her, and although she knew he was right, the side of her that obsessed over vintage tapestry, fabric, and linen begged to differ. Did six rough-and-tumble construction workers really care if they had pretty bedspreads and fancy curtains? As long as they had a place to fall and food to eat they’d get on just fine, and she’d made certain to stock the fridge and the cupboards with every food she could think of. She’d even gone a little heavy on the carb-laden foods, and had stocked the fridge with beer.

   She plucked an overlooked hand-laced doily from beneath a nearby lamp and folded it in a bit of the acid-free paper and added it to the cedar chest at the end of her bed.

   French Normandy lace bedspread from my bedroom?

   Check.

   Vintage chenille bedspreads from the spare bedrooms?

   Check.

   Lamé piano shawl from the dining room wall?

   She could definitely check that off the list. Her late husband had framed the ninety by sixty-five inch vintage shawl for her as a wedding present, and that monstrosity had been cumbersome to rearrange in her distillery. She’d enlisted the help of her father to remove it, along with an English regency stool and a three-piece French Victorian parlour suite from the sun room. Some things just couldn’t be sacrificed in the name of any oasis, no matter how beguiling her father made it sound.

   Turkish rug from the dining room?

   Check.

   With some reluctance she’d left a Grecian rocker, a pair of Queen Ann-style wing chairs, and a 1970s plycraft lounge chair and ottoman. She’d removed the Victorian frame that held her wedding photo, but had left the smaller frames peppering the walls. Although it would have been simple to remove the few textile samplers and ribbon dolls she owned, it left the walls too empty and a declaration of her intentions. The only framed tapestry sampler she’d removed was one from her bedroom, a needlework of graduated lines of alphabet. Below the alphabet panel were an embroidered mop and a pail overflowing with penny coins, and the words ‘My little Penny Mop’ stretched along the bottom panel.

   She could picture each item neatly folded between papers and placed in the chest. The edges of a large white sheet spilled out over the sides of the chest onto the hardwood floor; they tickled the tips of her toes as she pivoted around looking for any missed treasures.

   Grandma’s Italian lace tablecloth?

   Check.

   The first Cantu bobbin lace doily my mom made?

   Dropping to her knees in front of the chest she slipped her fingers inside and fingered the simple pattern on the doily.

   Check.

   If everything survived these next few weeks, she would find the perfect frame for the doily. If she survived the next few weeks.

Confident that she had safely stored everything in appropriate places, she pulled the edges of the white sheet around the trunk’s contents, carefully tucked it all up nice and neat, and then closed the lid and turned the key.

   Penny slipped the key into the pocket of her jeans and made her way to the window. From this side of the house she didn’t have a view of her lavender gardens, but the aroma was thick in the air and wafted in through the open window, filling the cottage with its crisp sweetness.

   Closing her eyes for a moment, she willed the tranquility the flowers evoked to enter her. As the gentle wind lifted the curtain of wheat-coloured hair from around her shoulders and bathed her in a cloud of sweet-smelling aroma, she allowed herself to be calmed.

   “Penny-Laine?”

   Her father’s voice calling to her from downstairs pulled her from her reverie. She rushed to close the window quickly before answering, “I’m up here, Dad.”

   Squatting behind the cedar chest, she pushed it across the floor and toward the opening of her closet as her father stepped inside the bedroom. “Just tying up loose ends,” she told him.

   “Just squirrelling away your treasures, you mean.”

   Spencer McCalla wore an aura of greatness about him; it burst from him in leaps and bounds and was infectious to everyone around him. His smile was unforced, not something he just put on, but rather an effortless part of his being. People liked him, and what was there not to like? He was friendly and pleasant to be around, and even surrounded by the trappings of his wealth he stayed humble. He loved life and living, but above everything else Spencer loved his children.

   But Spencer was no pushover, either; he stood for what he believed and could negotiate a hard bargain with an act of persuasion that left you reeling. His children were not impervious to his charm, which is why she found herself readying up her cottage and handing it over to six construction workers for the next few weeks.

   “Can you blame me?” she asked, sitting back on her haunches to look up at him. “I can’t go stay with you and leave these out to dirty, clumsy man paws.”

   “You’ll be about a hundred feet away; you can peek in the window and insure their safety every hour on the hour if you want to.”

   She grimaced at that and continued to push the chest toward the opening of the closet. “I have no desire to peer through windows and spy on six grease monkeys.”

   He laughed. “Listen, Penny-Laine, if it’ll settle your nerves at all, I came up here to tell you the six grease monkeys, as you put it, are going to be staying with me.”

   She rolled back on her haunches again and looked up at him, confused.

   He held up a hand as if to ward her off. “No, no, we’re still going to need your cottage. But instead of six grease monkeys you’ll be contending with just one.”

   She dropped her hands from the chest and pushed herself up to standing position. “One whole three-bedroom cottage for one man?”

   “Well, no, not exactly.”

   Crooking her head at him, she gestured for him to continue. “Enlighten me, please.”

   “He’s bringing his family along.”

   “He’s bringing his family with him?” She gawked, waiting for the punch line. When it didn’t come she set her hands on her hips. “He’s coming here to work, and he’s bringing his family with him?”

   He nodded, a smile still plastered to his face.

   “Miles in the woods, away from life’s little gadgets and gizmos? In the middle of no man’s land? This man is bringing his family?” She squinted, and looked skeptically at her father. “What’s the catch?”

   She returned to the chest and dropped down in front of it again. Planting her hands on the sides, preparing to push again, she looked up at her father. “What are you not telling me?”

   Crossing his large sun bronzed arms over his chest he leaned against the door frame and shrugged. “No catch. It was his only stipulation. If I wanted him, I had to take his family, too.”

   “And, of course, you wanted him?”

   “Damn straight.”

   “And he’s part of the construction crew?”

   “Well, not the construction crew per se.”

   “So this is just a vacation for him?” She tilted her head and narrowed her eyes. “Am I just giving my cottage over to one of your vacationing friends?”

   Spencer walked to the window to look out over the lake. “That’s one hundred twenty-five acres of mostly woodland and wildlife.” He spun around to look at her. “I just think it would be in our best interest to have someone on board who can insure we are upholding regulations.”

   “A police officer?”

   “No, nothing like that. He’s a game conservation officer, as well as a certified arborist and tree risk assessor.”

   “Why didn’t you just say that from the get go, instead of tip-toeing around it like you have something to hide?”

   He shrugged, “I’m not tip-toeing. I just wasn’t sure how you’d react.”

   “I think it’s a great idea.” She reached out to squeeze his hand. “Mom would love you even more for it.”

   Pulling on his collar he cleared his throat, his smile a little more nervous than she was used to.

   She watched his face for a long moment, and then turned back to the chest. “Well? Are you just going to watch me wrestle this into the closet or are you going to give me a hand?”

 

~

 

Penny slipped into the master bedroom of her father’s home and closed the door against the laughter pouring in from the deck. She’d spent an adequate amount of time welcoming the six construction workers that she didn’t feel inhospitable about retiring to her room. The men would no doubt be tipping back a few and getting caught up on the comings and goings of each other’s lives until the wee hours of the night. Unlike her father, who was retired, she had business to tend to in the morning and couldn’t while away the hours even if she wanted to. Weeding was best done in the mornings, when the sun was still on the horizon and the air was cool.

   Her cottage was still unoccupied. Her father had told her that, although the arborist and his family had hoped to arrive tonight, things hadn’t worked out and they would be arriving in the morning instead.

   That was fine with her. Perhaps in the morning she would have enough time for one more walk-through. Although the thoughts of a woman living in the cottage with the man did calm her nerves to a certain extent, she still worried. Would she be the kind of woman who valued such things as vintage fabrics and tapestries? Was she the type who focused all her attention on making memories, and everything else be damned?

   She stopped dead in her tracks at the next thought. Did they have children? Were they bringing along a little hellion with jittery legs and exploring fingers? She shuddered.

   As laughter spilled into the house from the deck, Penny slipped from the front door and circled around the house. Although she had to pass in front of the deck where the men hung out, no one even noticed her slip down the path leading to her cottage.

   The light from the waxing moon poured down through the treetops, casting shadows along the path. The sound of spring peepers filled the air, and the further she went along the path, the fainter the laughter from her father’s deck became.

   Under the blanket of night her lavender fields looked like a deep Tuscan red haze. Beguiling and mysterious, and misleading. In daylight the lavender was a sea of deep purple.

   She closed the door of the cottage on the peepers and the sound of the laughter, still faint on the air. Leaning against the door she looked around at her home, everything cast in shadows. What would her home look like with a family? When she and David built the place, that had been their intention. That was the reason for three bedrooms. They were to be a perfect family of four, but things hadn’t worked out, and instead she lived alone.

   Her life would be so different now had David lived. From the small foyer she could see through the dining room and into the family room. The empty spot where she’d removed their wedding photo seemed forlorn and so final.

   A small choke rose in her throat and she slid to the floor. He didn’t deserve to be packed away. He had as much right here as any stray game conservation officer, complete with family. She’d already removed every trace of him, and now she’d taken down the one picture of him from the wall. Mr. and Mrs. Game Conservation Officer needed to see that any memories they made here were irrelevant. This home was a Weis home, already filled with Weis memories, and their memories were beside the point.

   She pushed up from the floor and ran up the stairs to her bedroom, fishing the key from her pocket as she ran. In the closet the chest was pushed as far back as she had been able to push it, and she’d placed a couple empty laundry baskets in front of it, a miserable attempt at camouflage.

   She tossed the baskets out and knelt in front of the chest, inserted the key into the lock, and found the picture wedged in the side of the chest.

   She emerged from the closet with the securely wrapped frame, dropping the tissue paper and bubble wrap on the floor as she left the room.

   Moonlight poured through the windows of the family room, and she used the light to guide her to the wall. Carefully she slid the picture back onto the hook, and then dropped back to look at it. That was better, it all felt right now. The room felt whole again, even with everything else still packed away.

   She spun around in the dim-lit room. Now any family that came in would see this picture and know that memories had already been rendered here.

   She gazed at the picture again, and sighed. She was tired. The storm of emotions had left her exhausted.

   Running a finger down David’s smiling face, she allowed a tear to roll down her cheek. She turned and headed up the stairs.

   The bubble wrap popped beneath her feet as she made her way to the bed. The crisp sheets felt good on her bare legs as she slid beneath them, and as the familiar smells and feels wafted around her she allowed herself to drift off to sleep.

 

~

 

Reuben Lafford swung his jeep up past the big house and eased to a stop in front of the cottage beyond it. Solar lights lined the walk way, but the cottage was dark.

   He had called ahead to let Spencer know they’d changed their mind and had opted for travelling at night rather than waiting for morning. It would be a much quieter ride with the girls sleeping. Spencer had explained where the cottage was, and what road to follow, and assured him the place was prepped and waiting for them. He explained that his daughter had retired for the night, but that the door was unlocked, and he would have her deliver the key in the morning.

   He nudged his mother awake and stepped from the jeep. “I’ll go open the door and take a quick look around inside. Then I’ll come help with the girls.”

   With no key to fiddle with, he opened the door and found a light switch. Spencer had given him a brief layout of the cottage a few days before, and he knew the two smaller rooms were downstairs and the master bedroom above. His mother would take one of the rooms below and his daughters would share the other.

   In what would be the girl’s room, the lamp beside the double bed flickered a few times before it lit up the corner of the room. He turned down the covers and went back to the jeep.

   His mother was hoisting Ember into her arms.

   “The first bedroom to the right,” he murmured, then circled the jeep to collect Terra. She whimpered as she snuggled into him, but didn’t wake up.

   He followed Gyla into the cottage and lay Terra beside Ember on the bed.

   “You’d better bring Lacey, in case she wakes up and discovers her missing,” Gyla said. She’d removed Ember’s shoes and reached to remove Terra’s, too.

   Reuben stepped out on the deck and surveyed the surroundings. Spencer had told him he was building an oasis, but looking around now he had no idea what he meant by that. This place was already an oasis in his opinion. Just beyond his jeep he could see a tree-canopied path, with a string of solar lights lighting the way up to the big house.

   The sweet smell in the air was almost overwhelming, but he suspected a few days here and he’d get use to it. It wasn’t hard to find the source of the smell, though. To the left he could see acres of lavender.

   At his jeep he turned the headlights on high beam and walked a few feet ahead to look out over the field. In the beam of the lights the purple was bright.

   The cottage had a lower level, and the ground sloped down. The gardens almost came right up to the basement doors. He could recall Spencer telling him his daughter worked in the basement, a lavender business he presumed.

   “It’s just breathtaking and lavender is so therapeutic.” His mother came up beside him and linked her arm with his. “And that smell is just heavenly.”

   They stood in silence for a moment before she reached up on her tiptoes and pulled his head down to hers. Planting a small kiss on his cheek, she caught his long braid in her hand as it fell over his shoulder. “You’re a good man, Reuben. Your dad would be so proud of you.”

   He smiled back at her and wrapped an arm around her shoulder. “I needed to hear that, mom.”

   “Now come inside and get some sleep.”

   At the jeep she reached in to grab a bag. “Just take what you need for the night and we can bring in the rest in the morning.”

   He killed the lights and grabbed two bags from the back of the jeep. He was about to close the door when he spotted Lacey between the seats. The 1960’s vogue doll had been his wife Eve’s, and Ember had grown attached to it. Wedging it under his arm, he picked up the two bags, kicked the door shut, and returned to the cottage.

   The master bedroom was at the top of the stairs. A dim light shone green from the face of an alarm clock next to the bed, enough to let him find his way about.

Just inside the bedroom was a door to a bathroom. He nearly kicked a laundry basket as he entered, and he bent down to place it out of the way against the wall.

As tired as he was, a shower was in order. He placed his bag on the floor, closed the door out of habit before turning on the light, and began to peel away his clothes. He’d just take a quick one, enough to cool down and help him settle for the night. Pulling the elastic from his braid he ran his fingers through his hair and stepped into the shower.

   He’d brought his children and his mother with him after a lot of urging from Spencer. This was the first time he’d taken them to work with him. He’d accepted the offer because, truth be told, his daughters’ lives had become monotonous. He wanted to break up the norm for them, and show them nature for a change. Eve had been a city girl, but he had grown up in the country, it’s where his heart was. His family. His roots. Maybe it was time to be true to himself. Time to teach his girls about nature and their ancestors. Maybe it was time to set Terra, his wildling, loose. To let her explore the side of her that was begging for adventure. And maybe it was time to teach Ember that while pretty things were okay, being a child was okay, too.

   If he got a moment he’d take his daughters out mushroom hunting, or berry picking. It had been ages since he’d roamed nature just for fun. With one hundred twenty-five acres at his fingertips for the next few weeks, surely he’d be able to find some free time on his hands to take the girls on a hike. He’d teach them the dos and don’ts and at the same time make a lot of memories.

   Of course he was here to do a job and that took precedence, but he planned to spend every free moment with his girls. He wondered if lady slippers grew in the woods here in Ridgeville. He couldn’t be sure, but he just bet they did. He made a mental note to watch for them. He knew Ember would enjoy seeing ballerina slippers in flower form.

   Stepping from the shower, Reuben dried his hair as best as he could with a fluffy towel from the rack by the sink. He tied the towel in a clumsy knot around his waist and stepped into the bedroom.

   After the glare of the bathroom light, the bedroom was deep in darkness. He found his way to the bed without stubbing any toes, sat down, and reached for the lamp.

   As he did he felt a shift on the bed. Someone was in the bed, he was almost certain of it.

   In the same motion Reuben turned the bedside lamp on and stood. And there lying in the bed was the most beautiful woman he’d ever laid eyes on.

   For a moment he just studied her. This had to be Spencer McCalla’s daughter, but Spencer had told him she was staying at the big house.

   Long blond hair spilled out over the pillow in a golden border around her head. The sheet she lay beneath had fallen away, and her t-shirt lifted at the hem, exposing a flat stomach and a thin band of delicate beige panties.

   He followed the outline of her body beneath the sheet to one foot peeking out over the edge of the bed. Then he looked at her face again, so peaceful in sleep. Her lashes were long and sat against her cheek, her tiny nose upturned slightly, and a light dusting of freckles peppered the bridge. She looked like sleeping beauty.

   A better man then he would have looked away, but he couldn’t. She was a rare sight. A raw beauty, with no augmentations, and it had been too long since he’d feasted his eyes on something so perfect. The t-shirt clung to the subtle curves of her breasts, and as he watched them rise and fall gently, his breath hitched in his throat, and an ache clinched within his chest.

   Then she stirred ever so slightly, the sheet riding down to expose a hipbone. The band of her panties settled just under the hipbone and his teeth set on edge. He fought an overwhelming urge to catch the hipbone between his teeth and run his tongue over the flesh.

   For a moment her gentle breathing stopped. He stood stock still, willing the stirring in his groin to abate, willing her to continue sleeping.

   When the rhythmic breathing returned he slowly stepped back to leave. But, as he did so, his heel came down on something squishy and a popping sound filled the room. Her eyes flew open and locked onto his.

   He knew she was going to scream. He could see it on her lips and in her cornflower-blue eyes. In one swift motion he was on the bed beside her, a hand clamped over her mouth.

   He leaned in closer; the smell of lavender clung to her hair and rose to circle around him. His eyes locked onto hers, her lips inches from his own.

   He lay a finger to his lips in a hushing motion and slowly moved his hand from around her mouth, then pressed the finger to her lips.

   “Shhh,” he said. “You’ll wake my daughters.”