Will stood on the lower deck of the Dolphin IX, listening to the brief lecture going on above her. Sunshine reflected off the water and, as the boat gained speed, the wind whipped her hair and cut through her Dolphin Fleet windbreaker. They rounded the narrow tip of Long Point and skirted the coast along Herring Cove before heading for open water. It was one of the last whale watches of the season.
|Spring’s Wake By Aurora Rey|
But real winter was still a couple of months away. For now, life was good. Will breathed in the sea air and closed her eyes. As sheâ€™d taken to doing each time she went out as part of the Dolphin Fleet crew, she offered up a moment of gratitude.
â€œWhere are the restrooms?â€
The question pulled her back to the present. Rather than resenting the interruption, she smiled and pointed to the narrow metal door. â€œRight behind you.â€
â€œThanks.â€ The woman led a little boy who looked to be about five into the bathroom.
Will tuned back in to the lecture. She liked Grahamâ€™s delivery the most. Although she was still a graduate student, and only part of the crew as an intern, her knowledge base was solid and her enthusiasm for marine life infectious. Of course, Will had a bit of a soft spot for her. Theyâ€™d started with the fleet at the same time. And while Will was merely a customer service member of the crew, they hit it off. Graham was sweet, funny, and profoundly optimistic. Sheâ€™d only been entrusted with giving the lecture a few weeks prior and killed it. Will was proud of her, in a big sister sort of way.
She dashed up the stairs to the top deck to say as much, but Graham was surrounded by little kids oohing and aahing over a whale tooth or some other artifact from the talk. Since she was on service duty today, Will didnâ€™t linger. She returned to the main deck and headed to the canteen. Since the weather had turned colder, they sold a lot more coffee than bottles of water and soda. She sidled up behind the counter next to Liz and jumped in.
It didnâ€™t take long for whale sightings to begin and the interior room quickly emptied. Over the speaker, she listened to Graham and Charles, the more senior naturalist, talk about breeding behaviors and the tail patterns used to identify and track the whales. In her five months working on the boat, sheâ€™d learned a great deal about whales and marine life in general. She enjoyed it more than she expected, feeling an unusually strong affinity for the wildlife and geography of the waters surrounding New England.
Sheâ€™d also found her sea legs. When she first started, choppy water would have her bracing her legs and grabbing onto the closest available surface. Now, sheâ€™d adopted a slightly wider stance, swaying with the rocking of the boat instead of fighting it. It made serving coffee a hell of a lot easier. At this point, she could serve customers and still steal glances out the window, even catching a glimpse of a whale from time to time between the people huddled along the side of the boat.
The boat stayed out for a couple of hours before heading back to shore. The line at the canteen picked up with people in search of a quick snack or late lunch. She served up clam chowder and chili, hot dogs and pizza. The crowds were smaller now that school had started, but still sizable and always enthusiastic.
Before she knew it, they were back in the harbor and pulling up to the dock at MacMillan Pier. Because sheâ€™d arrived early to do set up, Will was off the hook for cleanup. She grabbed her things and headed for the ramp to the dock just as Graham came down the stairs. â€œAre you done for the day?â€ she asked.
Will smiled. â€œI am.â€
â€œWant to grab a beer?â€
â€œYes. Yes, I do.â€ They strolled down the pier together. Will stole a glance at Graham, whose eyes were shaded by sunglasses. She had this happy, bouncy energy that Will found infectious. It reminded Will of her own youth. She chuckled. When had she started referring to her youth in the past tense?
â€œWhatâ€™s so funny?â€
Will shook her head. â€œNothing.â€
Graham stopped walking and gave her an exasperated look. â€œCome on. Tell me.â€
â€œI was merely appreciating your joie de vivre.â€
Graham raised a brow.
â€œReally. Youâ€™ve worked all day, but youâ€™re still soaking up the sun, looking thrilled to be alive.â€
They continued walking. â€œI am thrilled to be alive.â€
â€œExactly. And I love that about you.â€
They meandered down Commercial Street. Much like the crowds on the boat, the throngs of people in town had thinned. Will considered it the sweet spotâ€”just busy enough to keep things interesting. They peeked in the window at the Squealing Pig, happy to discover only about half the stools at the bar occupied. Will held the door for Graham, who smiled at her then led them to a spot near the back.
Within seconds, they had matching glasses of cold Cape Cod Blonde. Will lifted her glass. â€œHereâ€™s to a great season.â€
Graham clinked her glass. â€œAnd to enjoying every minute of it.â€
They drank in silence for a moment. Will found her thoughts turning to what would happen next. She had two more weeks with the Fleet, helping to clean and winterize the boats for storage. That would get her almost to Thanksgiving. After that, though, her options were slim. She knew finding a full-time job in the off-season would be unlikely. But she hoped to piece together some part-time work and maybe do odd jobs here and there. For never having owned a house, she was pretty handy. Years working at one of the big box home improvement stores had taught her quite a bit.
â€œI donâ€™t think Iâ€™m ready for the season to end,â€ Graham said.
â€œI feel you. Are you heading back to school?â€
Graham shrugged. â€œIâ€™m not sure. I didnâ€™t sublet my room, but I donâ€™t have classes or anything. I need to work on my thesis, but I could do that from here.â€
â€œIâ€™m clearly biased, but I think you should stay.â€
Graham smiled. â€œThanks. Iâ€™ll think about it. Iâ€™m not sure my aunt bargained on giving up one of her rooms through December. Speaking of which, why donâ€™t you come home with me tonight?â€
Will raised a brow at the suggestive phrase. â€œAre you propositioning me?â€
Grahamâ€™s cheeks turned crimson and Will almost regretted teasing her. â€œI mean, come to my house for dinner. My aunt has a full house for a wedding and is doing a clam bake for the rehearsal dinner.â€
That sounded far more delicious than the frozen burrito waiting for her at home. Still. â€œIâ€™m sure the last thing she wants is an extra person to deal with and another mouth to feed.â€
Graham was unswayed. â€œSheâ€™ll have an obscene amount of food. She always does. What if I said you could earn your dinner by helping me with cleanup?â€
Will smiled. â€œNow the truth comes out. Youâ€™re looking for labor.â€
â€œSo youâ€™ll come?â€
Will didnâ€™t mind helping out. She liked feeling useful. â€œIâ€™ll come.â€
Will looked down at her jacket. Underneath, she wore a faded thermal shirt. â€œI should probably go home and change.â€
â€œRelax. I wonâ€™t change, either. Weâ€™ll stay behind the scenes.â€
â€œAll right.â€ It was a relief, really. This made it seem like she was coming to pitch in more than be fed a nice meal. Besides, she wasnâ€™t sure she had any nice shirts clean.
Graham glanced at her watch. â€œWe should go. I think it starts in about an hour.â€
They left the bar and started walking toward the East End. The sun had set and dusk was quickly giving way to dark. â€œShouldnâ€™t you let her know Iâ€™m coming?â€
Graham shrugged. â€œShe wonâ€™t be looking at her phone anyway. Donâ€™t worry. Itâ€™ll be fine.â€
â€œOkay.â€ Will matched her pace to Grahamâ€™s. If Graham didnâ€™t think it was a big deal, she wouldnâ€™t worry about it, either. She was looking forward to meeting Aunt Nora. From the way Graham described her, she sounded like quite the force. And Will had walked by Failte Inn enough times to be curious about the inside.
She tucked her hands in her pockets and soaked up the last of the dayâ€™s warmth. The breeze carried the smell of the ocean and aromas wafting from the restaurants they passed. Sheâ€™d been in P-town for six months and the reality of it still made her smile. She thought of Grahamâ€™s earlier statement. Maybe there was something to be said for being thrilled to be alive.
* * *
Nora crossed her arms and surveyed her back garden. Even without the lush flowers of summer, the space was her favorite. More than the perfectly decorated guest rooms or her meticulously appointed kitchen, the garden soothed her soul. It had been an overrun mess when she bought the place, used as little more than an extra parking spot and smoking area. Now, it was one of the features that drew guests to Failte, and had them returning again and again.
Had it been summer, she would have served dinner outside. But since the temperature would dip into the upper thirties by nightfall, her guests would have to settle for a small fire to cap off the evening. Still, sheâ€™d strung extra fairy lights, and half a dozen vintage hurricane lanterns hung from shepherdâ€™s hooks. Even with the chill, the space emitted a warm and welcoming glow. If she didnâ€™t have a thousand things to do, she could stand there and enjoy it for hours. But today she did have a thousand things to do and she wanted everything to be just right.
She turned on her heel and headed back to the kitchen. Tisha, her summer manager, was inspecting clams and loading them into steamer baskets. Corn and potatoes were already prepped, along with mussels and a bowl full of lemons, onions, and garlic. â€œHowâ€™s everything in here?â€
Tisha nodded. â€œRight on track. Iâ€™ll have the drinks set out before everyone arrives, then be ready to go with hors dâ€™oeuvres.â€
â€œExcellent. Do you need a hand with anything?â€
â€œNot until we start steaming.â€
â€œGreat. Iâ€™m going to change into something presentable. Iâ€™ll be back in a few minutes.â€
Nora headed to her room at the back of the house. Although smaller than the guest rooms, it had the perfect blend of coziness and natural light. The southern-facing window helped, as did the mix of antique furniture and pastel walls. She took a moment, as she always did, to appreciate it before hustling over to her closet. She surveyed her options, wanting something nice enough for playing hostess and forgiving enough to allow her to work during the party. She settled on a dress with a floral print. It had such a nice cut, she felt feminine even after slapping an apron over it.
She put on flats that looked nice but wouldnâ€™t kill her feet, earrings, and just a little makeup. It was a party after all. She brushed her hair and studied her reflection, grateful the light color belied just how many grays had appeared in the last couple of years. Nora shook her head, refusing to fret about it. She pulled the front half back with a clip so it would be out of the way and stepped back from the mirror. Satisfied with her appearance, she returned to the kitchen.
Tisha greeted her with a whistle. â€œDonâ€™t you clean up pretty.â€
Nora gave her an exasperated look, then smiled. In addition to running things with the same efficiency and attention to detail that she did, Tisha managed to maintain a playfulness in her personality. As someone prone to seriousness, Nora appreciated the balance. Nora gave a little twirl, more for Tishaâ€™s benefit than her own. â€œSomeoneâ€™s got to do it.â€
Tisha laughed. â€œBetter you than me. I like getting pretty, but charming a bunch of strangers is not my idea of a good time.â€
â€œYou say that, but youâ€™re better at it than me.â€
â€œIâ€™m good at scrubbing toilets, too. Donâ€™t mean thatâ€™s how I want to spend my time.â€
â€œYou make a good point.â€ When sheâ€™d hired Tisha seven years ago, it had been for just that. Well, toilets and cleaning and other housekeeping. Sheâ€™d returned the following summer and the summer after that, returning to Jamaica each winter to be with her family and work the high season there. Each year, sheâ€™d taken on more and more responsibility, becoming almost a partner for the high season as well as a friend. Sheâ€™d be leaving in a couple of weeks and Nora already missed her.
Tisha finished plating a tray of bruschetta. â€œSo maybe there will be a smooth-talking and handsome butch who comes tonight and sweeps you off your feet.â€
Nora rolled her eyes. â€œNot likely. The couple getting married is a pair of gay men in their fifties.â€
â€œThey have friends.â€
This was true. Still, she didnâ€™t have the time or inclination to think about being swept off her feet. But she knew better than to say that to Tisha, who was constantly telling her she needed to loosen up, have a little fun, have an affair. â€œIâ€™ll be sure to keep you posted.â€
Graham led them down a narrow path to the front porch. In addition to the lights on either side of the door, thick white candles burned in decorative lanterns set on small tables and a welcoming glow poured from the windows. â€œThis place is gorgeous.â€
Graham smiled. â€œWait until you see the inside.â€
They went in the front door and Will did her best not to gape. The entryway boasted a gleaming wooden staircase and wide openings to the adjacent rooms. It wasnâ€™t over-the-top fancy, but it was beautiful, and nicer than any place sheâ€™d ever stayed.
â€œGraham, is that you?â€
Will looked in the direction of the voice, but didnâ€™t see anyone. â€œYes, and I brought a friend. Sheâ€™ll work for food.â€
Will chuckled at the assessment, in part because it made her feel about fifteen and in part because it was true.
â€œYou know you can bring people over without putting them to work.â€
The owner of the voice came into view and Will blinked in surprise. Sheâ€™d imagined sort of a Martha Stewart type. This woman was no Martha Stewart. Nor was she like any of Willâ€™s auntsâ€”women on the far side of middle age who either clung to their youth or gave themselves over to their role as grandparents. Nora was something in the middle, older but with a kind of refined beauty and poise. Her hair was a sandy blond, perhaps with a hint of gray running through it, that fell in waves to her shoulders. She wore a floral dress that accentuated an hourglass figure. Over it, a dark green apron. She was stunning. Will swallowed.
â€œAunt Nora, this is my friend, Will Lange. Will, Nora Calhoun.â€
Nora extended her hand. â€œNice to meet you.â€
Will shook her hand and tried to find her vocabulary. â€œLikewise.â€
â€œYou have an interesting name, Will. Is it short for something?â€
Will smiled. â€œWilla. My dad had a literary streak.â€
â€œAnd her sister is Emerson,â€ Graham said.
Nora smiled and Willâ€™s heart rate kicked up an extra notch. â€œHow nice. I always wanted a name with a little more flair.â€
â€œI like it now, but as a kid, all I wanted was one that was more normal.â€
Graham laughed. â€œThere was a kid who called me Golden Grahams for the entirety of second grade.â€
Will laughed, too, then realized they were likely keeping Nora from her preparations. â€œI donâ€™t intend to crash your party, but I really am happy to help.â€
Nora looked at Graham and shook her head. The girl had a huge heart and, as a result, was always bringing home strays. Usually, they were kids around her ageâ€”college students, seasonal workers, an artist here or there. This Will seemed different, older. At least Nora hoped she was older. Nora didnâ€™t want to think about finding a twenty-three-year-old attractive. And she definitely found Will attractive. â€œEverything out here is set. Iâ€™m sure Tisha wouldnâ€™t mind some help in the kitchen.â€
â€œWeâ€™re on it.â€ Graham took Willâ€™s hand and led her toward the kitchen.
Nora remained in the hall and watched them. Even in the same uniform jacket as Graham wore, Will stood out. She had a posture, a certain energy. Add to that blue eyes, a mop of short brown curls, and high cheekbones. She reminded Nora of Jordynâ€”physically, but also in the magnetism Nora felt in her presence. Nora shook her head again. She needed a trip down memory lane like she needed a hole in the head.
When Will glanced back and caught her staring, Nora quickly turned away. She took a deep breath and refocused her attention on the dining room. Neither the time nor the inclination. Understatement of the century.
She spent a minute fussing over the table in the dining room, then glanced at her watch. Her guests were due in a few minutes. Nora took the lighter from her apron pocket and made her way around the room, lighting candles.
The wedding party arrived with some of their guests. The grooms, a pair of teachers from Rhode Island, had been so easy to work with. Theyâ€™d not even planned on a rehearsal dinner, but with so many of their family and friends coming in the day before, they begged Nora to throw something together. And she was happy to oblige. Nora greeted them, then headed to the kitchen to bring out hors dâ€™oeuvres. She spent the next two hours moving in and out of the kitchen, checking the chafing dishes sheâ€™d set up on her buffet and making sure everyone was happy.
She didnâ€™t see Will, but knowing she was around put Nora on edge. Not angry or nervous, just aware. Different from the kind of awareness she felt with guests or Tisha or Graham. Not unfamiliar, but something she hadnâ€™t felt in a long time.
Trying to shake it off, Nora went to the back yard to light the fire and set out a tray of ingredients for sâ€™mores. It wouldnâ€™t have quite the charm of a beach fire, but the grooms had requested it. The guests moved outside and Nora returned to the house to grab the basket of throw blankets and pashminas sheâ€™d put together for guests who wanted them. On her way back to the yard, she caught a glimpse of Graham and Will in the now empty dining room, eating. She nodded her approval and passed through the kitchen. â€œIâ€™m going to deliver these and check on things, then Iâ€™ll be back to start cleaning up.â€
Tisha waved a hand. â€œTake your time and tend your guests. Iâ€™m fine in here.â€
She didnâ€™t intend to take her time, but Nora found herself pulled into several conversations. She didnâ€™t mind the chatting. And although she didnâ€™t want to saddle Tisha with all the cleanup, playing hostess was as much a part of the job as cooking meals and making beds. As she went about the familiar routine, she wondered if Will had left for the night. She shouldnâ€™t be disappointed by the possibility, but she was.
When she finally made it back inside, she found Graham and Will at the sink, laughing and washing dishes. Seeing Will the second time gave her the same jolt as the first. Just like the feeling that had stayed with her most of the evening, it felt uncomfortably familiar. Annoyed, she stepped the rest of the way into the kitchen. â€œI meant what I said. You donâ€™t have to earn your dinner.â€
They turned to look at her in unison. â€œIâ€™m happy to help,â€ Will said. â€œThe dinner was exceptional.â€
Graham tipped her head toward Will. â€œWhat she said.â€
She glanced at Tisha, who simply shrugged. â€œThey take good direction.â€
Nora decided to let it go. They were young and had the boundless energy to match. She returned to the back yard just as the last guests were trickling in. Some had already set up camp in the sitting room to drink wine and laugh and play games. A few had gone to bed, including her grooms. She loved the vibe of a wedding party in the house. She always considered her home, her inn, a happy place, but weddings brought an extra level of joy.
She picked up the yard, blowing out candles and poking at the remains of the fire. It should go out on its own, but she hated to take chances, so she filled a bucket and doused the embers. Satisfied everything was in order, she returned to the house.
* * *
When theyâ€™d finished the dishes, Will dried her hands and turned to Graham. â€œDo I get the tour?â€
Graham grinned. â€œI canâ€™t show you the guest rooms, since there are guests in them, but everything else, sure.â€
â€œIâ€™ll take it.â€
Graham gestured to the space around them. â€œThis is the kitchen.â€
â€œSo I gathered.â€ It was a beautiful space, a mishmash of professional-grade appliances and French country decor that somehow worked. It reminded her of those insane home kitchens on cooking shows, the ones that were too perfect for any normal person to have. But this one had a lived-in feel.
They exited through a swinging door to the dining room, where theyâ€™d had their dinner. The French country feel continued. A massive farmhouse table had seating for twelve. The sideboard had been cleared of chafing dishes and set up as a coffee bar. Black and white toile curtains stood in contrast to deep red walls and complemented the black metal scroll work of the chandelier. â€œI love this room.â€
Graham nodded. â€œAunt Nora handled all of the design herself. She bought the place when I was still a kid and it was in terrible shape.â€
â€œI love that the style is a mix of traditional and eclectic.â€
â€œWait till you see the library and sitting room.â€ They left the dining room and entered a hallway. Graham gestured up the stairs. â€œThere are three guest rooms upstairs, including a suite. One more down the hall on this floor, along with my auntâ€™s room and the one Iâ€™m staying in.â€
They crossed into a large room with tall windows that faced the front garden. A sofa, love seat, and two chairs flanked a fireplace. Some of the guests from dinner sat, drinking wine and talking. Another pair of chairs were tucked into a corner with a small table. It felt homey. Like the fantasy version of homey that had never actually been home for her, but homey nonetheless. Will imagined sitting by the fire with a book. She could see Nora in jeans and a baggy sweater, curled up at the opposite end of the sofa, their socked feet entwined.
Where did that come from? The image was so vivid, she had to shake her head to chase it away.
â€œThis room is great, but the library is still my favorite.â€
Grahamâ€™s voice yanked Will back to the present. â€œThereâ€™s more?â€
Graham led the way to a door at the back of the room. A moment later, Will found herself in a space probably a third the size of the sitting room. It felt even smaller thanks to towering bookshelves that lined three of the walls. â€œWow.â€
â€œI know, right?â€
A much smaller sofa, that appeared to be an antique, sat opposite two leather wing chairs. Even without a fireplace, the room felt even more inviting than the sitting room. â€œIâ€™d spend all my time in here.â€
â€œWhen no one else is in here, I do.â€ Graham grinned. â€œI think that makes us nerds.â€
Will smiled. That word had generally been reserved for her sister. She liked the idea that someone might think of her that way. â€œIâ€™m okay with that.â€
Graham led them out of the library and down a short hall past the kitchen. â€œAunt Noraâ€™s room is there and Iâ€™mâ€¦â€ She opened a door. â€œHere.â€
Will stepped inside. The room was cozyâ€”full bed, narrow dresser, and a small chair in the corner. Smaller than her room, but with nicer decor. â€œThis is very cute.â€
Graham bumped her shoulder. â€œThanks. Itâ€™s an add-on room people can book with the adjoining one if they have kids. The regular guest rooms are much nicer.â€
Will shrugged. â€œI think this one is plenty nice.â€
â€œAnd best of all, itâ€™s free. I tried to pay Aunt Nora rent, but she refused.â€
â€œIâ€™m sure she loves having you around.â€
It was Grahamâ€™s turn to shrug. â€œI hope so. This was the best summer of my life.â€
The fact that Graham would be leaving soon made Will a little sad. Other than Emerson, there was no one in P-town sheâ€™d spent more time with. She hated the idea of becoming friends who texted and saw each other once a year. â€œItâ€™s been pretty great. And to think I applied to the Dolphin Fleet on a whim.â€
Will nodded. â€œWhen I decided I wanted to stay in town, I needed a job. And I wanted something that wasnâ€™t retail or bar tending.â€
â€œSo, you joined a whale watch. So random.â€
â€œBut if I hadnâ€™t, weâ€™d never have met.â€
Grahamâ€™s face grew serious. â€œI donâ€™t even want to think about it.â€
Not wanting to tread into overly sentimental territory, Will smiled. â€œShall we go see if your aunt needs any more help?â€
They found Nora in the dining room, putting dishes and glasses into the buffet. â€œThank you again for the help,â€ she said.
â€œHappy to do it.â€ Will offered a warm smile. â€œIâ€™m still pretty sure I got the better end of the deal.â€
â€œItâ€™s nice of you to say so. You two have any other plans for the night?â€
Graham looked at Will expectantly. Will shrugged. â€œI hate to admit it, but itâ€™s already past my bedtime.â€
Nora returned the smile. â€œThereâ€™s nothing wrong with that.â€
Graham rolled her eyes. â€œThe two of you.â€
â€œAre you a morning person at heart or is it the line of work?â€ Will asked.
â€œI always have been.â€ Nora shook her head. â€œMuch to the consternation of my sister, with whom I shared a room for fifteen years.â€
Will laughed. â€œMy sister is exactly the same. She got up early when we were kids because sheâ€™s an overachiever, but she hated it. These days, she keeps the craziest hours.â€
â€œOne more reason to be glad Iâ€™m an only child,â€ Graham said.
Will raised a brow at her. â€œAnd to think you turned out not the least bit spoiled or difficult.â€
Graham pouted dramatically, but then grinned. â€œFunny. So, Iâ€™ll see you tomorrow?â€
Will turned to Nora, who seemed to be watching them with mild amusement. â€œNow I think sheâ€™s trying to get rid of me.â€
â€œIâ€™m just kidding. But it is late. I should get going.â€
Graham walked with her to the door. Will stole a final glance at Nora as she left, hoping to share a smile or some other moment of connection. Her attention was back on the dishes, though, and she never looked up.
By the time Will got home, she was exhausted. She peeled off her clothes and threw on her robe. As she was walking to the bathroom for a shower, Kaylee emerged from her room. â€œWow, you look fancy. Hot date?â€
â€œVery.â€ Kaylee grinned. â€œHopefully, I wonâ€™t see you later.â€
â€œSince Iâ€™ll probably be sound asleep in under an hour, I would hope not.â€
Kaylee gave her an exasperated look, but laughed. â€œYouâ€™re too young to be such an old fart.â€
â€œIâ€™m way older than you and I worked all day. I can be as much of a fart as I want.â€
â€œJust know Iâ€™m going to drag your ass out before the season completely ends.â€
Kaylee picked up her wallet and keys and opened the front door. â€œHave a good night.â€
â€œYou, too. And Kaylee?â€ Kaylee turned. â€œI hope you get laid.â€
She quirked a brow. â€œMe, too.â€
Kaylee left and Will headed to the bathroom. After her shower, she padded back to her room. Since it was quarter after elevenâ€”well past her usual bedtimeâ€”she stripped off her robe and crawled into bed naked. She picked up her book, but instead of opening it, let her mind wander back over her day. No, that wasnâ€™t accurate. Will let her mind wander over her interactions with Nora.
From the moment she saw Nora standing in her beautiful inn wearing that perfect dress, Will was taken. She always had a soft spot for that slightly older, polished kind of beauty, but her reaction to Nora went beyond that. Will was more attracted to her than sheâ€™d been to a woman in a long time. Her voice, her mannerismsâ€”everything about her only intensified that attraction.
And now Graham was about to leave and sheâ€™d likely have no occasion to cross paths with Nora again. Even in such a small town, it was hard to imagine they moved in the same circles. Or that a chance second meeting would amount to anything.
Will opened her book and attempted to read.
It didnâ€™t help that sheâ€™d shown up in her work uniform, traded some help in the kitchen for dinner. The whole thing reminded her of high school when sheâ€™d go home with one of her teammates after a soccer match or basketball practice. Her friendsâ€™ parents would serve them dinner, then shoo them off to study. Of course, some of those study sessions had turned into her first explorations of being attracted to girls. Only in this scenario, she wanted to make out with the mom and not the best friend. Will sighed. It wouldnâ€™t be the first time sheâ€™d had a mom crush.
Only Nora wasnâ€™t Grahamâ€™s mom. Even as an aunt, she pegged Nora as no more than twenty or so years older than Graham. Which made her only about ten years Willâ€™s senior. And there was nothing weird about that at all.
Not enough age difference to be creepy. Will set her book back on the nightstand and scratched her temple. Probably not a compelling case to get Noraâ€™s attention. Of course, she had caught Nora looking at her twice over the course of the evening. Technically, that could mean anything, but Will liked to think at least a hint of the attraction might be mutual.
Will switched off her light and stared into the near dark of her room. Even if she didnâ€™t get the opportunity to pursue Nora, she was glad to know that part of her brainâ€”and her bodyâ€”still worked. Although sheâ€™d confided her general longing for a relationship to Emerson, she hadnâ€™t felt a real spark since ending things with Kai. And since that time had included an entire summer in P-town, sheâ€™d actually started to worry. So she might be attracted to the wrong women, but at least her ability to feel attraction in the first place wasnâ€™t broken.
Will chuckled to herself. Compared to the train wreck of her relationship with Kai, maybe being attracted to Nora wasnâ€™t such a bad thing.
The rehearsal dinner was Tishaâ€™s last event of the season. As she did every fall, she packed up and Nora drove her to the airport in Boston. And, as she had since opening the inn ten years ago, Nora would handle the off-season solo. The bookings had already begun to thin and, with the exception of holidays, she already had stretches during the week of no guests at all. Nora was curled up on the sofa in the sitting room, sipping tea and trying not to feel blue about it, when Graham came in.
â€œAre you alone?â€ she asked. Her tone was incredulous.
Nora smiled. â€œI am.â€
â€œDonâ€™t move. Iâ€™m going to make some tea and Iâ€™ll join you.â€ Graham started toward the kitchen, then turned back. â€œDo you need a fresh cup?â€
â€œIâ€™m good, thanks. I just sat down.â€
Graham returned a few minutes later with a steaming mug. Sheâ€™d swapped her shoes for slippers, but she took even those off to curl her feet under her. â€œI love it when thereâ€™s no one here.â€
Nora chuckled. â€œI canâ€™t say I agree entirely, but I know what you mean.â€
â€œDoes it make you sad when everything slows down? Or do you like the break?â€
â€œA little of both.â€ Nora thought about the cold, dark days ahead. â€œItâ€™s nice for the first few weeks. And I usually have people over the holidays. Itâ€™s mostly January that feels a bit grim.â€
Graham nodded soberly. â€œYeah.â€
â€œWhat about you? Are you looking forward to getting back to your life in Maryland?â€
â€œIs that a no?â€
â€œHow would you feel if I stayed the rest of fall?â€ Graham set down her tea and looked at Nora with anticipation.
â€œWhat do you mean?â€
Graham shrugged. â€œSince Iâ€™m not doing classes this term, Iâ€™m in no hurry to get back to school. I donâ€™t want to take up one of your rooms, but Iâ€™d love to stay. I could help out.â€
Nora sighed. Under most circumstances, sheâ€™d be thrilled to keep Graham around for a couple of months. With her busy season winding down, theyâ€™d actually get to spend quality time together. But something told Nora that time with her favorite aunt wasnâ€™t Grahamâ€™s primary motivation. â€œIs that the only reason youâ€™re looking to stick around?â€
â€œI love spending time with you. And even now, P-town has way more charm than Baltimore.â€
Nora nodded. â€œDoes it have anything to do with that girl you brought home the other night? Will?â€
Graham sat up straight. â€œI invited her for dinner. You make it sound like more than it was. Weâ€™re friends.â€
The speed and vehemence of the reply made Nora think there was perhaps more to it than Graham wanted to share. But harping on it wouldnâ€™t help. And truth be told, Nora didnâ€™t really want to know. She got a funny vibe from Will and would be happy if Grahamâ€™s interest in her didnâ€™t go any further than friendship. â€œAll right. You donâ€™t need to convince me.â€
â€œDoes that mean I can stay?â€
Nora smiled. Graham had been born while she was still in college. And while theyâ€™d always been close, Nora most treasured the last few years when Graham could stay with her for long stretches of time. It felt like her chance to play the role of older sister, rather than the younger one sheâ€™d been in reality. â€œOf course you can stay. You are welcome here anytime.â€
Graham beamed and threw her arms around Nora and squeezed. When she pulled away, though, her face was serious. â€œI can pay rent, you know. I feel bad that Iâ€™m taking up space you could be using.â€
The room sheâ€™d given Graham was technically a bedroom she could use for guests, but it was small and she never booked it as a standalone reservation. It had been easy enough to take it offline when Graham arrived for the summer. With the high season over, she doubted sheâ€™d have need for it even if it was available. â€œYouâ€™ll do no such thing. Youâ€™re family.â€
â€œWell then, youâ€™ll have to let me pitch in around here.â€
Nora nodded. She had a few winter projects in mind, on top of her usual deep cleaning, and having an extra pair of hands would make them go more quickly. â€œI think that could be arranged.â€
â€œThank you.â€ Graham beamed. â€œOh, Iâ€™m so excited. Weâ€™re going to have fun.â€
â€œIâ€™m going to remind you that you said that when weâ€™re waxing floors.â€
* * *
Will looked at her phone and smiled. Graham had been moping about the end of her fieldwork for the better part of a week, but suddenly seemed to be in better spirits, including orchestrating a happy hour to celebrate the final sail of the season. Since they werenâ€™t on the same schedule, Will promised sheâ€™d be there.
Although Will had another week of work lined up, she had her own touch of melancholy over the end of whale watching season. When sheâ€™d applied for the job shortly after arriving in Provincetown, she never would have expected it would turn into something she loved so much. Nor could she have predicted the friends sheâ€™d make. Graham was her closest friend by a long shot, but sheâ€™d hung out with half a dozen other members of the crew at one point or another.
Part of that fun, free-spirited vibe stemmed from the fact that the crew was young and mostly unattached. And if a few of her previous jobs had that, Kai never let her join in. She still couldnâ€™t believe just how isolated sheâ€™d let herself become. Will sighed. One more reason to appreciate her freedom.
By the time she got to Norâ€™East, the Dolphin Fleet crew had taken over nearly half of the outdoor seating area. She stopped at the bar to grab a beer, then went out to join them. Graham spotted her almost immediately and came over, a huge smile on her face. â€œGuess whoâ€™s sticking around until Christmas?â€
Will didnâ€™t figure it was a trick question. â€œYeah?â€
â€œAunt Nora insisted she didnâ€™t mind and I found someone to sublet my room.â€
â€œReally? Thatâ€™s awesome.â€ Graham had hinted at wanting to stick around, but Will didnâ€™t think she was serious.
â€œOne of my roommateâ€™s friends broke up with her girlfriend, so she needed something quick.â€
â€œSounds like a win-win.â€ Will smiled. The idea of Graham sticking around for a couple of months made the impending slow season less daunting.
â€œIâ€™ll work on my thesis, we can hang out. Itâ€™s going to be great.â€
Hanging out with Graham would be great. So would having more occasion to see Nora. Will didnâ€™t say as much to Graham, but the prospect of spending more time at the inn and in Noraâ€™s company made Willâ€™s stomach leap with anticipation.
â€œIâ€™m going to help her with some projects. Maybe Iâ€™ll rope you in.â€ Graham took a sip of her beer. Her eyes lit up. â€œHey, thatâ€™s actually a great idea. Do you have work lined up for the rest of the fall?â€
She had a couple of leads, but nothing solid yet. â€œIâ€™m working on it.â€
â€œMaybe Aunt Nora will hire you. I think she wants to paint and redecorate some of the rooms and she does a crazy deep clean when there arenâ€™t any guests.â€
Will nodded. Part of her wanted to jump at the chance. Part of her hesitated. She didnâ€™t want Nora to think she couldnâ€™t support herself. Then again, she was pretty good at around-the-house sort of projects. It might be a way to impress Nora. Not to mention spend a lot of time with her. â€œWell, if sheâ€™s looking for someone, Iâ€™d definitely be interested.â€
â€œIâ€™ll mention it to her. It would be so much fun to work together.â€
Will wondered what Nora was like when she wasnâ€™t in full-on hostess mode. Low-key and relaxed? Or did she maintain that controlled poise that Will found both sexy and a little intimidating? She realized how badly she wanted to find out. â€œI have some relevant experience from when I worked at a home improvement store.â€
Graham gave her a quizzical look. â€œWhen did you do that?â€
â€œA few years ago. I started as a cashier, but ended up rotating through most of the departments. I learned a ton. I can paint, build basic stuff. I stay away from plumbing and electric.â€
Graham shrugged. â€œThat seems reasonable.â€
Will grinned. â€œAnd safer.â€
â€œIâ€™m pretty sure itâ€™s painting and stuff she has in mind. Iâ€™d love the company. And Iâ€™m sure sheâ€™d pay you. I just donâ€™t know how much.â€
Would working for Nora help Willâ€™s cause or hurt it? If she never saw Nora, she didnâ€™t even have a cause to worry about. And, even if she didnâ€™t want to admit it, she could use the cash. Sheâ€™d saved up enough to mostly make rent, but sheâ€™d need to bring in some money if she planned to eat all winter. â€œIâ€™m sure sheâ€™s reasonable and fair. So, yes. Please include me if sheâ€™s open to it.â€
Happy hour concluded with lots of hugs and well-wishes, hopes to meet again the following year. After, Will walked to the store to get things to make dinner for herself and Emerson. Sheâ€™d seen so much less of Emerson since sheâ€™d practically moved in with Darcy and Liam. And now that they were about to close on a house in Wellfleet, Emerson made a point of scheduling time to hang out. Will appreciated the gesture as well as the promise of sister time. Both of her roommates were working late, so she had the apartment to herself. She changed into sweats, put on some music, and got to work.
A couple of hours later, Emerson sat cross-legged on the sofa, shoveling pasta into her mouth. â€œThis is really good.â€
â€œThanks.â€ Since moving to Provincetown, Will had been spending more time in the kitchen. Sheâ€™d come to find cooking both relaxing and adventurous. Not having to worry about Kai, who shunned both messes and carbs, made a huge difference. Her roommates had even taken to giving her money for groceries in exchange for dinner a couple nights a week. Tonightâ€™s concoction was Bolognese and, for her first attempt, she was pleased.
â€œSo youâ€™re done with the Dolphin Fleet?â€
Will nodded. â€œTheyâ€™re closed for the season. Iâ€™ll stay on a couple of weeks more to help with the winterizing, but Iâ€™ll need to find something to tide me over until spring.â€
â€œAlex might have something at the cafÃ©. All her seasonal staff is long gone. I think she usually has just Darcy and Jeff for the winter, but she might take someone else on part time.â€
â€œIâ€™ll stop by tomorrow and talk with her. Thanks.â€
â€œAnd you know I can float you a little if you need it.â€
Will shook her head. â€œNo way. You put me up when I came to town and now you have a house and a family to take care of.â€
â€œSpeaking of the house, I think there might be some projects there. Iâ€™m not sure if itâ€™s stuff we can do or if Iâ€™ll have to hire a contractor, but Iâ€™d love your thoughts.â€
Will had seen the house before Emerson and Darcy put in an offer. She hadnâ€™t looked closely, but she had a feeling it was more cosmetic work than anything structural. â€œI bet we could do a lot of it ourselves. When do you close?â€
â€œNext week. Weâ€™re both a little terrified, although Iâ€™m not sure if itâ€™s buying a house or the prospect of moving.â€
â€œThe house is great and the moving will be a snap. Youâ€™ve got me to help and we donâ€™t even have to deal with appliances.â€
â€œRight.â€ Emerson offered a nod of determination, then smiled. â€œYou always know what to say to make me feel better.â€
Will leaned over and nudged Emersonâ€™s shoulder with her own. â€œThe feeling is mutual, Em.â€
When Emerson left, Will indulged in an extra long shower. She put on clean pajamas and climbed into bed. She wondered if Graham would convince Nora to hire her for the projects at the inn. Based on what she saw her one time at Failte, everything looked perfect and professionally maintained. Still. She probably had more experience than Graham.
As it had a hundred other times since they met, the image of Nora filled her mind. The way her hair curled around her shoulders and the cool, reserved way she looked at Will. It made absolutely no sense to pursue Nora romantically, if for no other reason than she seemed utterly disinterested. Will sighed. She had such a penchant for wanting what she couldnâ€™t have. And now Noraâ€”beautiful, elegant, reserved Noraâ€”sat squarely at the top of that list.
â€œSo, Iâ€™ve been thinking,â€ Graham said over breakfast.
â€œWhy does that worry me?â€ Nora was kidding. Mostly. Graham folded her arms and pouted. Or, more accurately, she pretended to pout. Nora knew better than to think sheâ€™d throw an actual tantrum. â€œKidding. What have you been thinking?â€
â€œI can clean with the best of them. And although I havenâ€™t except for once when I was fifteen, I can probably paint a room.â€
â€œOkay. Havenâ€™t we already discussed this?â€
â€œYes. Iâ€™ve been thinking how great it would be to do more.â€
â€œMore whatever. Painting, building stuff.â€
Nora studied her niece. Clearly, the girl had something on her mind. But sheâ€™d be damned if she knew what it was. â€œBuilding stuff?â€
â€œYou know my friend Will? The one I brought over the night you did that rehearsal dinner.â€
Oh, she knew. â€œI remember her.â€
â€œWell, sheâ€™s pretty handy and she doesnâ€™t have a lot planned for the off season and I thought it would be cool if you hired her and we could get so much more done.â€
Nora blinked a few times, trying to process Grahamâ€™s train of thought. Red flags flashed. â€œIs this your idea? Or hers?â€
Graham sat up straight. â€œOh, itâ€™s totally mine. I thought it would be fun to do stuff with her now that we arenâ€™t working together. And then I thought she might not have a job lined up for winter, which she doesnâ€™t. And it turns out she worked at a home improvement store and knows how to do all sorts of things. Not plumbing. Or electric, she said. But more than me.â€
Nora pressed a finger to her temple. She had so many problems with Grahamâ€™s proposition, she didnâ€™t even know where to start. â€œYou didnâ€™t promise her anything, did you?â€
Graham shook her head. â€œNo. I was thinking out loud and mentioned it. She said that if it turned out you did want some things done, sheâ€™d be interested. We left it at that.â€
At least that was an appropriate response. That meant Will likely wasnâ€™t trying to insinuate herself into a job. Or other places, like Grahamâ€™s bed. Nora sighed. â€œI donâ€™t know.â€
â€œYouâ€™ve talked about painting all the upstairs guest rooms. If I had help, we could do that and more. She knows what sheâ€™s doing.â€
Nora wasnâ€™t opposed to hiring someone to help with the work, especially someone trying to make a go of living in town year-round. She might not be crazy about Will and Graham spending lots of time together, but if Will knew what she was doing, Nora would be happy to have her services. And if it meant spending more time with Will herself, well, sheâ€™d just have to keep a professional distance. â€œOkay.â€
â€œOkay, youâ€™ll hire her?â€
â€œOkay, Iâ€™ll talk to her.â€
â€œExcellent.â€ Without waiting for another word, Graham picked up her phone. â€œIâ€™ll text her right now.â€
Nora sipped her coffee and wondered how quickly she would regret this. Maybe Will knew less than Graham implied and she could get out of it. Almost as quickly as Graham stopped typing, her phone chirped. â€œDid she answer you already?â€
Graham nodded. â€œSheâ€™s free this afternoon or tomorrow morning, whichever is more convenient for you.â€
She could interpret Willâ€™s promptness a dozen different ways. Not ready to give her the benefit of the doubt, Nora filed the detail away. â€œIâ€™ve got a doctorâ€™s appointment tomorrow, so this afternoon would be better.â€ Graham started typing again, so she added quickly, â€œOnly if she really is free.â€
* * *
By the time Will stood in her front hall a few hours later, Nora had thought through the projects sheâ€™d like done and planned out the questions she intended to ask. Hopefully, sheâ€™d figure out quickly enough whether Will could actually do the work. And what her intentions were.
â€œThank you so much for the opportunity to talk with you.â€ Will extended her hand. Nora shook it. She seemed nervous, but in a good way. The way that meant she was treating this like a job interview. Sheâ€™d dressed nicely, too. Nora told herself she appreciated that Will took the conversation seriously. It had nothing to do with the fact that Will, in gray pants and nicely pressed oxford, could drive Nora to distraction.
â€œThank you for making the time to do it on such short notice. Shall we sit?â€ She gestured toward the dining room.
â€œThat would be great.â€ Will walked in ahead of her, took a seat, and sat up straight with her hands folded neatly on the table.
Nora realized she was frowning and plastered a smile on her face. â€œGraham tells me you have some DIY experience?â€
â€œMore training than experience, to be honest, but the training was good. I worked at both a small hardware store and a larger home improvement center. I learned basic carpentry and hand tools, painting, and wood finishing.â€
Nora nodded. â€œImpressive.â€
â€œI didnâ€™t want to be presumptuous, but I did bring a copy of my rÃ©sumÃ©.â€ Will leaned over and pulled a sheet of paper out of her messenger bag.
Nora accepted it and skimmed the contents. On one hand, it was a smattering of experience that told her Will seemed to lack professional focus or ambition. On the other, there were no gaps and she spent an average of three to five years in each position she held. And she seemed to possess the skills Graham had promised. â€œNot at all. You seem to have picked up a lot over the course of your jobs.â€
Will swallowed and told herself to relax. â€œI like to learn new things. I never could bear the idea of a desk job, but I wanted more than basic retail.â€
Nora made a face and Will instantly regretted saying what she said. But then her features softened and the expression that remained was kind. â€œI could definitely use another pair of hands. The pay will be fair, but it wonâ€™t include benefits.â€
Will nodded. Being around Nora every day would be benefit enough. Getting to use her hands, and getting paid, felt almost too good to be true. â€œI donâ€™t know anything about plumbing or electric, but Iâ€™m willing to do just about anything else.â€
â€œPainting mostly. Moving furniture and doing a deep clean. The hours wonâ€™t be regular, Iâ€™m afraid. Weâ€™ll have to schedule everything around my guests. It does mean, at least, you wonâ€™t have to work weekends.â€
Will smiled. Was it as easy at that? â€œIâ€™m used to irregular hours. I donâ€™t mind. And I really appreciate the opportunity.â€
Graham, who must have been hovering just around the corner, popped her head in. â€œWhen do we start?â€
Nora laughed, so Will let herself chuckle as well. â€œIâ€™m helping my sister move later this week. Otherwise, my schedule is completely open.â€
â€œLet me get my reservation book.â€ Nora stood and disappeared into the kitchen.
Will looked at Graham, who waved her arms around in a silent happy dance. It was cute, but Will was still trying to make a good impression. â€œWould you be cool?â€
Graham rolled her eyes, but gave Will two thumbs up as Nora returned. â€œIâ€™ve got guests this weekend, but Tuesday through Thursday of next week looks clear.â€
Will smiled. â€œWorks for me. Do you know where youâ€™d like to start?â€
â€œOne of the rooms upstairs has sadly dated wallpaper. Iâ€™d like to remove it and paint. Can that be done in three days?â€
â€œAbsolutely. Especially if Graham is helping.â€
Graham offered a salute. â€œAt your service.â€
Will stood and extended her hand again. It was the professional thing to do, but part of her simply wanted to touch Nora again. When their hands touched, she felt the crackle of a static shock. Nora jerked her hand away. â€œSorry,â€ Will said.
â€œNo, no. I think it was me.â€ Nora reached out and took Willâ€™s hand.
No shock this time, but Will experienced an entirely different kind of spark. She wondered if Nora did, too. â€œIâ€™ll see you next Tuesday. Is eight oâ€™clock too early?â€
Graham groaned. â€œHowâ€™s nine?â€
â€œEither works for me,â€ Nora said.
Will looked at Graham, who gave her a playfully pleading look. â€œLetâ€™s say eight-thirty.â€
Graham gave Will a quick hug. â€œIâ€™ll take it.â€
Nora said goodbye and Graham walked her to the door. â€œThanks for hooking me up.â€
â€œIâ€™m glad it worked out. Iâ€™m so excited weâ€™re going to still be working together.â€
Will left the inn and headed toward Emersonâ€™s condo, stopping at Wired Puppy for coffees. The wind had picked up and rain seemed imminent. She hunched her shoulders against it and wondered how long she had before it turned to snow. Probably better not to think about it.
She knocked on Emersonâ€™s door. When it opened, she found a bedraggled version of her sister on the other side. â€œHi.â€
Emersonâ€™s gaze went from Willâ€™s face to the cups in her hands and back. â€œOh, my God. How did you know I was on the verge of giving up?â€
Will smiled. â€œI didnâ€™t, but Iâ€™m glad Iâ€™m here.â€
Emerson accepted one of the coffees and stepped back so Will could enter. It took only a second to understand the source and extent of Emersonâ€™s state. Her place was a disaster. Emerson offered a sheepish smile. â€œItâ€™s going slower than I thought.â€
â€œSlower? Have you actually packed anything?â€
â€œYes.â€ Emersonâ€™s answer was emphatic, but when Will gave her a stern look, she recanted. â€œSome. A little.â€
She pointed to a pile of exactly three boxes in the corner. Will shook her head. â€œYouâ€™re terrible at this.â€
â€œI thought I should sort through things, get rid of some stuff.â€
â€œItâ€™s a noble idea. And when you start a month before youâ€™re moving, totally reasonable. When youâ€™re moving in two days, not so much.â€
â€œOh.â€ Emerson frowned.
â€œThe closing came together faster than you expected, so itâ€™s not entirely your fault.â€ It really had. Within a month of putting her place on the market, Emerson had a buyer. And she and Darcy had found an adorable little Cape Cod-style house off Long Pond Road.
â€œThanks. Does that mean youâ€™re here to help?â€
Will pretended to consider, even though sheâ€™d shown up with the intention of helping. â€œI could be persuaded. Especially since I got a job today.â€
â€œYou did? Where?â€
â€œNot full-time or anything. I told you about my friend Graham from work?â€
Emerson angled her head. â€œI think so. Grad student, right?â€
â€œYeah. Sheâ€™s staying in town through Christmas. Her aunt owns Failte Inn and hired us both to paint a couple rooms and do some other projects.â€
â€œThatâ€™s cool. Are you twoâ€¦â€ Emerson trailed off in a way that invited Will to finish the sentence.
â€œGood friends. Nothing more.â€
Emerson looked at her with concern. â€œAre you still feeling gun shy?â€
There were a million different, yet completely honest, ways she could answer that. â€œNo. I mean, maybe a little. I donâ€™t want to make another terrible mistake, but Iâ€™d be lying if I said I wasnâ€™t lonely. I donâ€™t think a celibate life is for me.â€
Emerson smiled. â€œThatâ€™s good. You deserve to find someone, or to have some fun if you want to. I know you feel like you stayed with Kai longer than you should have, but she was still the fuck-up in your relationship.â€
â€œI know.â€ She did know. And Emerson had helped to drive home the point when Will confessed the extent of Kaiâ€™s abusive behavior. But that didnâ€™t mean sheâ€™d entirely finished beating herself up about it, or questioning her judgment.
â€œAre you interested?â€
Will blinked at her, confused. â€œHuh?â€
â€œGraham. Are you interested in her?â€
Will shook her head. â€œOh, no. Itâ€™s not like that. Sheâ€™s very pretty. Smart and funny, too. Itâ€™s,â€ Will paused, â€œshe feels like a kid still. Kind of innocent.â€
Emerson smirked. â€œAnd youâ€™re so jaded and world-weary?â€
Will rolled her eyes. â€œIn relative terms, maybe.â€
â€œWhy do I feel like you arenâ€™t telling me the whole story?â€
Will sighed. One thing hadnâ€™t changed through the years, even when they hadnâ€™t seen much of each other. Emerson could still read her like a book. It was kind of annoying, considering she was the younger of them. Annoying, but also nice. â€œI met her aunt.â€
Emerson raised a brow. â€œAnd?â€
â€œAnd sheâ€™s gorgeous. Like, movie star gorgeous.â€
Emerson made a face. â€œHow old is she?â€
â€œNot old.â€ Will straightened her posture. â€œEarly forties, maybe? I think sheâ€™s Grahamâ€™s dadâ€™s younger sister. Or maybe her momâ€™s. I canâ€™t remember.â€
â€œAnd you have the hots for her?â€
On a most basic level, the answer was yes. She did have the hots for Nora. But even though theyâ€™d only spent maybe twenty minutes total in one anotherâ€™s company, Will felt like it went deeper than that. Not that she could articulate exactly what that meant, but it was definitely more than a passing infatuation. â€œIâ€™m attracted to her. She has this poise, an elegance to her. I appreciate it and want to muss it up at the same time.â€ Emerson studied the box in front of her. The lack of response, paired with her refusal to make eye contact, told Will that she didnâ€™t approve. â€œWhat?â€
Emerson looked up. â€œWhat? I didnâ€™t say anything.â€
Will shook her head. â€œYou didnâ€™t have to. I can tell.â€
Emerson crossed her arms. â€œWhat can you tell?â€
Will mirrored the gesture. It was how theyâ€™d faced off for as long as she could remember. â€œThat you donâ€™t think sheâ€™s someone I should be attracted to.â€
â€œYou canâ€™t help who youâ€™re attracted to. It just happens. Acting on it is another matter.â€
â€œOkay, fine. You donâ€™t think I should act on my attraction to her.â€ She was being defensive, but she couldnâ€™t help it. Probably because part of her knew that pursuing Nora would be a terrible idea.
Emerson shrugged slowly, like she was weighing whether or not to say anything. â€œItâ€™s not that sheâ€™s older, but she seems to be in a very different place in her life than you. And if youâ€™re friends with her nieceâ€¦â€
She trailed off again, leaving Will to fill in the rest. Will sighed, irritated with Emerson, but more so with herself. â€œI havenâ€™t asked her out. And I probably wonâ€™t. For all the reasons you mentioned. And then some.â€
â€œYou know Iâ€™m not telling you what to do.â€
Will sighed. â€œI know.â€
â€œI just worry about you.â€
â€œI know that, too.â€
â€œAnd I want you to be happy.â€
â€œYeah.â€ Will knew Emerson cared about her. And, despite being younger, had a tendency to be protective of her. It wasnâ€™t that she resented it. She resented the idea that she needed protecting, especially from her own bad choices.
â€œI didnâ€™t mean to be a killjoy. What can I do to make you feel better?â€
Will squared her shoulders and smiled. â€œNothing. Iâ€™m here to help you, remember? Iâ€™m perfectly happy with my life right now. And youâ€™re right. I will find someone and Iâ€™ll probably do better if sheâ€™s someone even remotely in my league.â€
Emerson pointed a finger at Will. â€œHey, I never said she was out of your league. Youâ€™re a great catch in any league.â€
At the compliment, Willâ€™s irritation melted. How could she hold a grudge against her biggest champion? â€œThanks. Thatâ€™s not exactly what I meant, but thanks all the same.â€
â€œI mean it, though. Youâ€™re going to make some woman very happy someday. And sheâ€™s going to know how lucky she is to have you and treat you the way you deserve to be treated.â€
Will cringed. â€œOkay, weâ€™re venturing into pep talk territory here. You know how I feel about pep talks.â€
â€œAll right. No more pep. I promise.â€ Emerson laughed. â€œI still find it ironic that someone who was on more sports teams than I could even name hates pep talks.â€
Will raised a finger. â€œThereâ€™s a difference between getting pumped up for a big game and coming to terms with my poor choices in the romance department. I hate pep talks about my love life.â€
â€œPoint taken. Iâ€™m done.â€
Will took a deep breath. â€œGreat. How about we get to work?â€
Emerson looked around, seeming surprised that the chaos hadnâ€™t worked itself out when she wasnâ€™t looking. â€œRight.â€
They spent two hours packing. Now that Emerson had let go of the need to purge, things moved quickly. She did manage to toss some old art supplies and at least a dozen paint-splattered shirts, so there was that. By the time they called it a night, Will guessed more than half the condo was packed.
Emerson surveyed the space with a pleased look on her face. â€œYouâ€™re a life saver.â€
â€œYou needed a nudge more than anything, and Iâ€™m always happy to give you a kick in the ass. Gently, of course.â€
â€œOf course. Well, it did the trick. Iâ€™m no longer terrified Darcy will come over and see how little Iâ€™ve done.â€
Will arranged several boxes into a neat stack. â€œHow are things at her place?â€
Emerson shook her head. â€œShe and Liam are packing and organizing machines. Other than the things strategically left out to use this week, they finished days ago.â€
Will smiled. â€œI love that.â€
â€œMe, too. Except that itâ€™s made me feel like a total slacker.â€
â€œEh, itâ€™ll pass.â€
â€œThanks. Iâ€™m heading over for dinner soon. Do you want to come?â€
â€œNo, you go do the family thing. Iâ€™m good.â€ Will tossed her now-empty coffee cup in the trash and went to the door.
â€œOkay. Iâ€™ll see you Friday?â€
Will nodded. â€œIâ€™ll pick you up to go get the truck at seven.â€
Emerson followed. â€œGod, thatâ€™s early.â€
â€œI know. See you then.â€
Emerson put her hand on the knob, but stopped. â€œYou know I support you, right? And you can date whoever you want. Well, except Kai.â€
Will took a deep breath. â€œI know.â€
â€œI just donâ€™t want you to get hurt.â€
â€œI know that, too. And I know my track record lately hasnâ€™t been all that great. I appreciate you looking out for me.â€ Even when it irritated her.
â€œYou certainly did it enough times for me.â€ Emerson pulled Will into a hug and then sent her on her way.
Nora pulled into Martha and Heidiâ€™s narrow driveway and cut the engine. Sheâ€™d been happy that Will couldnâ€™t start for a few days, since she had plans of her own. What had started as a bridge group some ten or twelve years ago had morphed into friendship. Two of those friends had become a second family, sharing birthdays and illnesses, holidays and hard times. It also, as was the case today, included binge watching Netflix.
She grabbed the six pack from the seat next to her and headed to the side door. She knocked, but walked in without waiting for an answer. She found Martha and Heidi in the kitchen. Bowls of popcorn, snack mix, and M&Ms took up most of the small island in the middle of the room.
Nora chuckled. â€œDid you invite the whole neighborhood? I would have brought more beer.â€
Heidi rolled her eyes and tipped her head in Marthaâ€™s direction. â€œDonâ€™t blame me. She has no self-control.â€
Martha huffed. â€œIf youâ€™re going to binge watch something, you might as well binge.â€
Nora nodded. â€œShe has a point.â€
â€œPlease donâ€™t encourage her.â€ Heidi shook her head but slid her arm around Marthaâ€™s middle and squeezed.
â€œBut I do think one shouldnâ€™t watch six hours of television straight without some heavy-duty carb loading,â€ Nora said.
â€œExactly.â€ Martha took the beer from Nora and opened three. â€œAnd if weâ€™re entering a world where a lesbian can be on the Supreme Court, it will also be a world where I can eat all the Chex Mix I want.â€
They each took a bottle and a bowl into the living room, setting up a buffet of sorts on the coffee table. Martha picked up the remote and navigated them through the menu. Nora helped herself to a handful of popcorn. â€œThis feels much more civilized than queuing it up at midnight.â€
â€œAgreed. Weâ€™re too old for that nonsense.â€ She hit play and Nora settled in for some mindless entertainment.
After three episodesâ€”complete with heckling, commentary about wardrobe choices, and cheering a particularly steamy same-sex kissâ€”Martha looked over at her. â€œStretch and pee break?â€
Nora nodded. â€œSounds good.â€
They wandered into the kitchen, taking turns using the restroom. While Heidi was in, Martha folded her arms and leaned back against the counter. â€œHowâ€™s life at the inn?â€
Nora shrugged. â€œQuiet, at least in relative terms. Weekends are still full, but Iâ€™m empty two nights this week and three next.â€
â€œGraham still there?â€
â€œYes. Sheâ€™s going to stay until Christmas. My sister and her husband are coming up and weâ€™ll do Christmas here.â€
â€œOh, thatâ€™ll be nice. I know you havenâ€™t gone there the last couple of years.â€
Nora rolled her eyes. â€œMuch to my sisterâ€™s chagrin. I hate traveling in the winter, though, and itâ€™s a surprisingly good week for business.â€
â€œWell, this seems like a win for both of you. Anything else going on?â€
Noraâ€™s mind went immediately to Will. Not that she would admit that. Even if Martha and Heidi were her best friends, there were some things she simply didnâ€™t confide. Will, and whatever feelings she stirred up, fell squarely in that category. â€œNot much.â€ After saying that, she realized the other, non-weird reason Will was on her mind and almost laughed at her hypervigilance. â€œIâ€™m using the down time to freshen a couple of rooms. New paint, waxing floors.â€
â€œDid you hire someone?â€ Martha raised a brow. â€œI know how much you hate that sort of thing.â€
She thought back to her halting attempts to do some of the initial work on the inn. Sheâ€™d already become friends with Martha and Heidi. Theyâ€™d shown up one day to help out and found her half covered in paint and swearing at a paint roller. Not her finest moment. â€œSort of. Graham wanted some projects to earn her keep and one of her friends from the fleet was looking for winter jobs to tide her over.â€
Heidi emerged just as Nora finished her sentence. â€œWhoâ€™s looking for winter jobs?â€
â€œGrahamâ€™s friend that Nora hired to do some painting at her place.â€
â€œAh.â€ Heidi nodded. â€œIs she Grahamâ€™s age?â€
Nora shook her head. â€œOlder than Graham, but still on the young side. At least compared to us old biddies.â€
Martha wagged a finger. â€œWe are not biddies. We are women in our prime.â€
Heidi leaned forward and looked at her suggestively. â€œIs she gay? Is she hot?â€
Nora rolled her eyes. â€œYouâ€™re incorrigible. I doubt sheâ€™s even thirty.â€
â€œYou didnâ€™t answer my question.â€
â€œI shouldnâ€™t assume it, but sheâ€™s probably gay. She seems it.â€
Heidi nodded again. â€œGood looking?â€
Nora ran fingers through her hair and looked at the refrigerator. She didnâ€™t want to lie, but she had no intention of articulating just how attractive she found Will. Doing so would ensure that Martha and Heidi would want to talk of little else. And since she was doing her best to think of Will less rather than more, that was the last thing she wanted to do. She shrugged. â€œIn a way. Kind of fresh and wholesome looking Iâ€™d say.â€
â€œOh, no.â€ Nora thought about the way Willâ€™s pants hung on her hips. The muscles in her arms. The way the super short hair on the back of her neck begged to be touched. She made an involuntary noise that she had to quickly cover up with a cough.
â€œSo, she is hot.â€
Nora sighed. â€œSheâ€™s got to be twenty years younger than us and sheâ€™s working for me. Two very compelling reasons for me not to have an opinion on the matter.â€
Martha shrugged. â€œBut that doesnâ€™t stop you from having one. Itâ€™s human nature. And if youâ€™re being reticent, you probably think sheâ€™s attractive.â€
Nora reminded herself that she liked having friends who were astute, and direct. â€œShe happens to fall into the category of women I find attractive, yes.â€
â€œCategory of women?â€ Heidi shook her head. â€œI think you might be trying too hard.â€
â€œIf I am, itâ€™s because Iâ€™m smart enough to know I have no business being attracted to her.â€
â€œBut you hired her.â€ Martha folded her arms.
â€œGraham asked me to. If anything, I think Graham might have a thing for her. And if the feeling is mutual, Iâ€™d just as soon see for myself what sheâ€™s all about.â€
â€œYou do realize that makes no sense. And on top of that, Graham is an adult.â€
There was little Nora hated more than feeling irrational. â€œWell, whatâ€™s done is done and Iâ€™m going to get some rooms painted in the process. Can we get back to the show now?â€
Heidi nodded, but Martha gave her a serious stare. â€œI think you should focus less on how you think things should be and more on how they are. Or even how they could be.â€
Nora returned the intense look with a bland one. â€œThatâ€™s very profound, Martha. Thank you.â€
Martha smiled smugly. â€œYouâ€™re welcome.â€
Heidi led the way and they filed back into the living room. After the sixth episode, they decided to order Chinese. By the time Nora headed home, she felt stuffed, lazy, and content. Even if her mind kept wandering back to Will and what it would be like having her in the house for days at a time.
* * *
Will hefted what felt like the millionth box and carried it down the ramp of the moving truck. She passed Darcy on the short path into the house and smiled. â€œJust the mattress left.â€
â€œHurray.â€ Darcy lifted her arms and waved them feebly.
Will carried the box into the house and set it in the corner of the living room. Emerson jogged down the stairs and the two of them walked out to the truck. They found Darcy wrestling with a queen sized mattress. â€œNot a one person job,â€ Emerson called to her.
â€œI know.â€ Sheâ€™d managed to pull it forward and against her, which muffled the sound of her voice.
Will and Emerson climbed into the truck and went to either end of the mattress. â€œWhy donâ€™t you go check on Liam and your parents?â€
â€œExcellent idea.â€ Darcy stepped back. â€œAre you two sure you have it?â€
â€œWeâ€™re fine.â€ Will was beat, but with the end in sight, she had a surge of energy. â€œHome stretch.â€
She and Emerson maneuvered the mattress down the ramp and into the house. The stairs proved trickier, as they had to fold it over slightly to round the corner. Still, they got it into the master bedroom and set it on the box spring that had been brought up earlier. Emerson took a deep breath. â€œThanks. I thought we might not make it for a second.â€
Will laughed. â€œRight?â€
Darcy came in, followed by Liam. Darcyâ€™s parents stood in the doorway. Darcy eyed the bed. â€œIs that it?â€
Emerson nodded and Will swept a hand around the room. â€œCongratulations, you guys. Youâ€™re officially moved in.â€
â€œYes!â€ Liam ran the rest of the way into the room and flung himself onto the unmade bed. He flopped onto his back and spread his arms wide. â€œIâ€™m exhausted.â€
â€œWho wants pizza?â€ Darcy asked.
Liam, whoâ€™d done his fair share of carrying things after getting out of school, popped up without a second of hesitation. â€œI do.â€
Emerson turned to Darcy. â€œIf you call it in, Will and I will return the truck and pick it up.â€
Darcy leaned in and kissed her on the cheek. â€œDeal.â€
Will and Emerson put the truck back together and piled into the front seat. Emerson started the engine and Will let out a big sigh. â€œI wish I had Liamâ€™s energy.â€
Emerson laughed. â€œYou and me both. I canâ€™t thank you enough for helping today.â€
â€œYou say that like thereâ€™s a chance I wouldnâ€™t.â€
â€œYou know what I mean.â€
Will propped an elbow against the window and looked at Emerson. â€œI do, but one of my favorite things about moving here is stuff like this. Holidays and family dinners are nice, but Iâ€™m really in it forâ€”â€
â€œThe manual labor?â€ Emerson turned onto Route 6 toward Truro.
â€œBeing there for each other. That really feels like family to me.â€
â€œSee, thatâ€™s really nice. Iâ€™m sorry I teased you.â€
They drove the short distance to the service station that doubled as a U-Haul rental and traded it for Emersonâ€™s car. Then they stopped by the pizza place Liam insisted was the best. By the time they got back to the house, Darcyâ€™s parents were gone and Liam lay flopped on the sofa.
â€œThey were going to stay for dinner, but I could tell they were toast. As much as they love our companyâ€”â€
â€œAnd pizza,â€ Liam interjected.
â€œAnd pizza. I offered them the chance to call it a day and they jumped on it.â€
Emerson turned to Will. â€œIâ€™m sorry. I should have said the same to you.â€
Will shook her head. â€œYou wonâ€™t get rid of me that easy. Iâ€™m starved.â€
Liam hefted himself from the couch and darted over to give her a high five. â€œI like the way you think.â€
They ate pizza on paper towels with cans of soda. Will had to laugh because Liam was clearly in hog heaven. She thought back to the days when life was that simple. After two slices, Liam began to fade. His eyes got droopy and he kept jerking himself awake.
â€œHow about we call it an early night?â€ Darcy asked.
Liam nodded. â€œYeah.â€
â€œI could put your sleeping bag on your bed instead of sheets. Itâ€™ll be like camping, and you can wait until tomorrow for a bath.â€
Emerson smiled at them. â€œIf you do that, Iâ€™ll clean up here and unearth the coffee pot for the morning.â€
Darcy smiled. â€œYou have the best ideas.â€
Emerson stood and Will followed her into the kitchen. â€œLet me help you unpack some essentials. Thereâ€™s nothing worse than rifling in boxes when youâ€™re trying to put a meal together.â€
â€œIâ€™m no dummy. Iâ€™m not going to refuse the help.â€ They started with Darcyâ€™s boxes. First, because she had all the makings of a functional kitchen. Second, because all of her boxes were neatly labeled KITCHEN. â€œRemember how I said I could float you some money if things got tight over the winter?â€
â€œYeah.â€ Will had no intention of taking her up on it, but she still appreciated the offer.
â€œIâ€™d like to amend that. I might have a couple of odd jobs around here you could help me with and Iâ€™d insist on paying you for your time.â€
â€œIâ€™m always happy to help. Free of charge. Youâ€™re my sister and youâ€™ve helped me more times than I can count.â€
â€œEureka.â€ Emerson pulled out the coffee pot and set it on the counter. â€œWeâ€™ve helped each other.â€
Will angled her head to one side. â€œLetâ€™s be honest, youâ€™re generally much more together than I am.â€
â€œMaybe, but youâ€™ve always been better with your hands.â€
Will wiggled her eyebrows suggestively. â€œSo Iâ€™ve heard.â€
Emerson rolled her eyes. â€œYou know what I mean.â€
â€œI do.â€ For all Emersonâ€™s talent as an artist, she did not do well with other tools or media. Sheâ€™d once attempted to assemble an IKEA desk on her own and it was so mangled, Will had to take it all apart and start over. â€œWhat kinds of projects?â€
â€œEvery room will have to be painted and Darcy has convinced me we can reface the kitchen cabinets and replace the counters ourselves.â€
â€œSheâ€™s probably right. I led a workshop on refacing cabinets at the store once.â€
â€œThe regular guy was sick. I had his notes. Itâ€™s really minimal carpentry. Take off old doors, paint or refinish the frames, put on new doors.â€
Emerson chuckled. â€œYou make it sound easy.â€
â€œItâ€™s way easier than replacing them.â€ Will looked around. The cabinets looked tired, but sturdy. â€œWe can totally handle it.â€
â€œHow do you feel about making a loft bed? Liam wants his to be raised so he can have a giant desk underneath.â€
â€œOf course he does.â€ The more she got to know Liam, the more he reminded her of Emerson as a kid. â€œIf we find a good set of plans, Iâ€™m sure we can handle it.â€
â€œOkay, see, now Iâ€™m getting excited. Please let me pay you so youâ€™ll have enough time to help me with these things. I can work around your job at the inn and any others you take on.â€
The idea of spending much of the winter with Emerson, and the rest of it with Nora and Graham, had major appeal. â€œModest payment. Maybe. Just so I can eat well. Do you have tools?â€
Emerson cringed. â€œNot really. I know Iâ€™ll have to buy a few. Iâ€™m also thinking I can borrow some from Darcyâ€™s dad.â€
â€œPerfect. Well, my weekends are free.â€ She tapped a knuckle on one of the cabinet doors. â€œHow about I come over next week and take a closer look at these guys?â€
â€œThat would be great.â€
â€œAnd we can take some measurements in Liamâ€™s room. That way, I can start doing some research into possible plans.â€
Emerson smiled. â€œYou do that and Iâ€™ll make lunch.â€
â€œAnd by make, do you mean warm up something delicious that Darcy brought home from work?â€
Emerson nodded without hesitation or shame. â€œYes. Yes, I do.â€
â€œThen Iâ€™m in.â€
â€œYou do own a tape measure, right?â€
â€œIn one of these boxes?â€ Emerson smiled sheepishly. â€œIâ€™m pretty sure thereâ€™s one in Darcyâ€™s tool box.â€
Will narrowed her eyes. â€œItâ€™s pink, isnâ€™t it?â€
Emerson shrugged. â€œI plead the fifth.â€
â€œSo, weâ€™ll also do an inventory of tools and make a list of what you need. Then you can decide what to buy and what to borrow.â€
â€œYouâ€™re so efficient.â€
Will chuckled at the descriptor. It wasnâ€™t one Emerson usually used for her. â€œI have my moments.â€
When she got home, Will took a shower and climbed into bed with her computer. Although the kitchen was probably the priority, she started looking at plans for building loft beds. As long as Liam didnâ€™t want any fussy detail work, they could build some really cool setups. She bookmarked a few she liked, including a couple of different desk and shelf configurations underneath.
She wasnâ€™t opposed to painting, but she hoped Nora had something similar in mind. Not a loft bed, obviously, but something special that would let Will show off her skills. At this point, sheâ€™d take pretty much anything that would make Nora think highly of her.
The night before her first day at Noraâ€™s, Will set her alarm to go off extra early, but still woke before it went off. She dressed quickly, had a cup of coffee and a package of Pop-Tarts. Then she paced back and forth between the kitchen and living room, not wanting to be awkwardly early. Why was she nervous?
She rolled her eyes, knowing exactly why she was nervous. She was about to spend the entire day with Nora. Okay, that was probably a bit of an overstatement. She was going to spend the day with Graham, working at Noraâ€™s house. But she was certain to spend more time with Nora today than she had previously. Add to that, sheâ€™d be doing work for Nora. Even though Nora had agreed to hire her, Will got the feeling sheâ€™d done so under duress, or at least nudging from Graham.
She didnâ€™t want to be some hapless seasonal worker relying on the generosity of others to be able to support herself. And she most definitely didnâ€™t want one of those others to be Nora. Will hadnâ€™t figured out why, but she had a suspicion that Nora didnâ€™t like her. An extra degree of coolness in her eyes when Nora looked at her, maybe, or the reserved way she spoke.
Not that the coolness or reservation on Noraâ€™s part made Will any less attracted to her. If anything, it heightened it. It probably wasnâ€™t healthy if the attraction stemmed from the fact that Nora didnâ€™t seem too keen on her. Will shook her head. No, sheâ€™d found Nora striking the moment she laid eyes on her. Sure, the aloofness might have made her even more appealing, but at least it wasnâ€™t the cause.
God, how pathetic. Will had never been skilled at picking relationships. She had a penchant for older women, women who seemed sophisticated and confident. Not that there was anything wrong with that, but those same women never seemed to see her as an equal. That left her either admiring from afar or always scrambling to keep up. Or, in the case of Kai, letting herself get pushed around. And now here she was, obsessing over a woman at least tenâ€”maybe more like fifteenâ€”years older than her who was the aunt of her good friend. She wondered vaguely what was wrong with her.
She didnâ€™t wonder for long. A glance at the clock on the microwave told her that sheâ€™d paced and processed for close to twenty minutes and now ran the risk of being late. She grabbed her things and headed out.
On the walk to Failte, the wind gusted, causing dead leaves to swirl on the street. It might be sunny, but the warmth of early fall had vanished. Will zipped her jacket and stuffed her hands in her pockets, wishing sheâ€™d poured the last of the coffee into a travel mug. Maybe Nora would have some and share.
Will reached the front gate, thinking of the first time sheâ€™d been there. It felt longer ago than the few weeks that had actually passed. Even with most of the bushes and vines hibernating until spring, it looked inviting and well-tended. The crushed shell path crunched under her boots. At the front door, she hesitated again. Since guests of the inn came and went freely, it seemed weird to knock. Of course, strolling in unannounced did, too.
Before she could settle on one or the other, the large wooden door swung open. Graham smiled at her from the other side. â€œHi.â€
â€œI thought it was you coming up the walk. Come on in.â€
Will followed her into the foyer. â€œAre you ready to get to work?â€
â€œCanâ€™t we have a cup of coffee first?â€ Grahamâ€™s tone was playful.
Will breathed in the aroma. Yes, she definitely wanted a cup. â€œI think itâ€™s considered better to work first and earn a coffee break.â€
Graham shook her head. â€œWho knew youâ€™d be such a task master?â€
â€œI know sheâ€™s your aunt, but Iâ€™m still trying to make a good impression.â€ Will didnâ€™t add that she wanted Nora to think of her as more than just Grahamâ€™s friend.
Graham angled her head and gave Will a puzzled look, as though such a thought had never occurred to her. â€œYeah, okay. Sure.â€
Great. Now she was the killjoy. â€œI just meanâ€”â€
â€œI appreciate your diligence.â€ Nora appeared from the dining room.
Will cleared her throat, feeling even more awkward at having been overheard. â€œGood morning.â€
Nora dried her hands on a towel and offered a smile that was, if not warm, kind. â€œGood morning. I promise that I will judge you on the quality of your work, not how many cups of coffee you drink.â€
Will blushed. Yep, awkward. â€œThanks.â€
â€œIn fact, why donâ€™t I pour three cups that we can take upstairs while we discuss the work to be done?â€
Graham leaned over and kissed Nora on the cheek. â€œYouâ€™re the best.â€
Will, though tempted to do the same, refrained. â€œI really do appreciate the sentiment, and the coffee.â€
Nora looked her up and down and nodded before turning around and heading back to the kitchen. Will couldnâ€™t be sure, but it felt like she might have just passed a test. She took a deep breath and stuck her hands in her pockets.
â€œRelax. Sheâ€™s sweet.â€
Will nodded. Not the word she would use. Not that Nora couldnâ€™t have a sweet side, but thatâ€™s not what Will saw when she looked at her. Or wanted to see, really. She liked Noraâ€™s perfect posture and reserved air. Almost as much as she liked to think about what might be simmering below the surface. And what it would be like to tap into that, to have it directed at her. For the second time, Will cleared her throat.
â€œDo you need some water or something?â€
Will laughed. Fortunately, Graham didnâ€™t have a window into her thoughts. â€œIâ€™m okay, thanks.â€
Graham rolled her eyes. â€œYou need to relax.â€
Ha. If only it was that simple. â€œYes, maâ€™am.â€
Graham opened her mouth, probably to protest being called maâ€™am, but was interrupted by Nora calling to them from the kitchen. â€œWill, how do you take it?â€
Will sighed. In another life, she might turn the question into playful banter or, even better, open flirtation. Another life. â€œBlack is fine for me. Thanks.â€
Graham crinkled her nose. â€œYou and Aunt Nora are two peas in a pod.â€
Nora emerged with three cups and handed one to each of them. Will peered into Grahamâ€™s cup, its contents light enough to be tea. â€œIs that even half coffee?â€
â€œShut up.â€ Graham nudged her in the ribs.
Nora led the way upstairs and into a bedroom. All of the furniture appeared to be antique and lovingly cared for. The decor was elegant, if dated. It would appeal, perhaps, to an older traveler, but could stand a good freshening up. Of course, that might be Noraâ€™s style. â€œSo, what are you thinking?â€
Nora walked to the center of the room. â€œThe floors are in decent enough shape that Iâ€™m not going to do anything with them. The furniture is as well. But I havenâ€™t redecorated since I opened ten years ago, so Iâ€™m going for a full update.â€
â€œNice,â€ Graham said. Will nodded.
â€œIâ€™ve already picked out new bedding and rugs. Window treatments. Your job will be to move the furniture to the center of the room, remove wallpaper, and paint.â€
Nora had said as much when she offered Will the job. Even if part of her had hoped for something more involved, the other part was relieved. Simple projects were harder to mess up. And as much as she liked Graham, Will had the feeling she hadnâ€™t done much in the way of DIY. â€œDo you have the paint already?â€
Nora looked around the room. â€œIâ€™ve got the color picked, but Iâ€™m waiting to see the condition of the walls before I buy. Iâ€™m hoping we can do paint and primer in one.â€
â€œThe thing is that the room is booked for this coming weekend. I need to know if you can do all the work in three days.â€
Will glanced at Graham, who looked nervous all of a sudden. Will smiled. She could do it alone in that amount of time. As long as Graham was even minimally helpful, theyâ€™d be fine. â€œNot a problem. Weâ€™ll get the walls stripped and prepped today. Can you get the paint by tomorrow morning? Or give me the specifics and I can pick it up?â€
Nora waved a hand. â€œIâ€™ll go out this afternoon once you decide on the state of things.â€
â€œSounds good. Weâ€™ll get cracking.â€
Nora pointed to a pile on the floor. â€œThat should be all the supplies you need. If something is missing, let me know.â€
â€œThank you.â€ Will looked at Graham. â€œYou ready?â€
Graham nodded, now looking more eager than nervous. â€œReady.â€
â€œIâ€™ll leave you to it.â€
Nora disappeared and Will tried not to be disappointed. She chided herself. Nora had hired her, not invited her over for tea. She finished her coffee, which might be the most delicious coffee sheâ€™d ever had, and looked at Graham. â€œFurniture first?â€
â€œSounds like a plan.â€
They moved the bed away from the wall, then positioned the rest of the furniture around it. She had Graham cover it while she got on the step ladder to remove the window treatments. Once that was done, she turned her attention to tools. Whether Nora had done it before, or had simply done her homework, it looked like sheâ€™d thought of everything. She pulled a paper scorer out of the package and handed it to Graham. â€œCan you run this all over the wall while I mix up the paste dissolver?â€
Will took it back and did a quick demo. â€œLike this.â€
â€œOh.â€ Graham took it back and offered a confident smile. â€œYes.â€
* * *
At noon, Nora decided to check the progress of the work and offer lunch. She climbed the stairs and heard laughter coming from the room where Graham and Will were working. She crept toward the door, stopping short of the threshold, and listened.
â€œIâ€™m just saying youâ€™re precocious. I didnâ€™t kiss anyoneâ€”boy or girlâ€”until I was fourteen,â€ Graham said.
â€œIt was all innocent stuff, I swear. I didnâ€™t have sex until college.â€ Willâ€™s reply sounded more playful than defensive.
â€œWith?â€ Graham let the question linger.
â€œA graduate student. The teaching assistant in my Western Civ class.â€
â€œWhat year were you?â€
â€œFreshman.â€ There was a pause and then Will added, â€œI didnâ€™t get any farther than that.â€
â€œFarther than sex?â€
â€œFarther than freshman year.â€
â€œIt just,â€ Will hesitated. â€œIt just wasnâ€™t for me.â€
â€œThatâ€™s cool. I sometimes wish Iâ€™d been too cool for school. I was the biggest nerd.â€
Nora tensed. If Will so much as hinted that Grahamâ€™s education wasnâ€™t worth it, sheâ€™d fire her on the spot.
â€œEmerson was like that. I was athletic, popular, but I always wished I could be more like her.â€
â€œYou could always go back.â€ The youthful optimism in Grahamâ€™s voice made Nora smile.
â€œI think that ship has sailed. Itâ€™s okay, though. I like working with people, and with my hands. I do all right.â€
The last statement gave Nora pause. Sheâ€™d made it through college, but barely. More because it was important to her parents than any intrinsic motivation. Theyâ€™d hoped she would become a teacher. Sheâ€™d gone along with it until she got her first glimpse of student teaching. Sheâ€™d almost had a panic attack at the prospect of standing in front of thirty kids all day. Now, she staunchly supported higher education. But if she was being honest, it hadnâ€™t really been for her either.
Wanting to cut off any further trip down memory lane, she called out a greeting and went the rest of the way into the room. The furniture had been moved and draped with sheets. The curtains were down and Graham was wiping a wall down with a sponge. â€œI see you two are making good progress.â€
Will looked to Graham, who said, â€œSomeone told me we were working on a deadline.â€
Nora chuckled. â€œOh, right. Still, itâ€™s looking good. How about a lunch break?â€
â€œThank God. Iâ€™m famished.â€ Graham pressed the back of her hand to her forehead.
Nora looked to Will. â€œWill?â€
â€œIâ€™m fine to take a break. I feel like I should tell you, though, that your walls have some rough spots and some stains.â€
Nora sighed. Of course they did. â€œIs it a couple of extra hours bad or I need to cancel this weekendâ€™s reservation bad?â€
Will flipped her hand back and forth. â€œSomewhere in the middle. I can definitely get it done, as long as you donâ€™t mind me coming early and going late the next couple of days.â€
Nora appreciated the attitude. â€œI donâ€™t mind at all. Iâ€™ll pay you for the time, obviously, but we can also work out some kind of overtime for your trouble.â€
Will lifted a hand. â€œNo need. Iâ€™m truly happy for the work and I want it to be done right.â€
â€œMe, too,â€ Graham said.
Nora glanced at Graham, having forgotten for a moment she was there. â€œThank you. Iâ€™m not above getting pulled in, too, if needed.â€
â€œBut we still get lunch, right?â€
â€œOf course. Iâ€™m not a tyrant.â€
Graham dropped her sponge in the bucket at her feet and crossed the room to give Nora a hug. â€œYouâ€™re a benevolent boss.â€
Nora chuckled. â€œWill, youâ€™re free to come and go, but you are also welcome to join us. Itâ€™s just soup, but thereâ€™s plenty of it.â€
â€œI would love that.â€ The genuine gratitude in her voice caught Nora off guard.
They sat at the dining room table, talking about everything from Grahamâ€™s thesis to how Nora came to own the inn. Will asked lots of questions, seeming to be as interested in Nora as she was Graham. Nora didnâ€™t know what to make of it. Not that she had to.
When theyâ€™d finished eating, Nora shooed them back upstairs to keep working while she cleaned up and made a trip to the hardware store. She picked up the paint, along with the putty and special primer Will suggested. By the time she got home, it was close to four and her walls were bare and ready to go.
Will accepted the supplies. â€œPatching holes is sort of a one-person job, so Iâ€™ll do that before I go. Then we can sand and start priming in the morning.â€
â€œIâ€™ll keep you company,â€ Graham said.
Nora sighed. A small part of her wanted to linger, enjoy playful conversation and not think about anything else. But thatâ€™s not who she was, and on top of that she had things to do. â€œI appreciate your staying late. Iâ€™ll be downstairs if you need anything.â€
Nora went to the small office nook she had set up in a corner of the kitchen. She booted up her computer and opened the reservation book, selecting recipes and making lists in preparation for the weekend. Occasionally, she heard laughter from upstairs and found herself, not jealous, but envious perhaps, of the easy rapport. She shook her head. That was ridiculous. Between her friends and her guests, she had plenty of that. She didnâ€™t needâ€”or even wantâ€”that with someone like Will.
* * *