Hometown Girl at Heart
Tara’s swabbed the back of her wrist across her forehead leaving a smudge on the bridge of her nose. Cocking one hip against the wall and tilting her head, she evaluated her work. Sweat trickled down her back, crawling between her shoulder blades, and floating sawdust settled in the oppressive humidity, sticking to her face and arms. She sucked down a long drink from her bottle of water, savoring the chill as it slid down her throat. Tipping the bottle up again, drops of condensation fell onto her tank top, leaving small, dark circles in the dust.
Careful not to trip on the bulging black trash bags she’d piled near the door, Tara backed across the room to get a different point of view and crinkled her nose. The partially-sanded shelving unit covering one wall of the living room looked even more dismal than when she’d started. Grime may have been all that was holding the poor thing together.
Stepping back up to the shelves, she pulled her hand from her filthy leather glove and smoothed her fingertip along the molding, pausing to tap on the beveled glass door. The glass was firm – no sagging. At least that won’t need to be replaced. She could appreciate craftsmanship that held up for almost a hundred years.
The cabinetry was filthy and abused but at one time it had been planned for this room, designed not for electronics and cords, but to display cherished family Bibles, precious photos, and heirlooms; the heart of a family. Her mind wandered to fairy tail domestic images – contented children, joyful parents.
Lost in her favorite fantasy, she took another long swallow from her water bottle and wandered to the window of the old house, hoping for a breeze. No such luck. Only one of the two windows was open; the other was painted shut, or maybe it was jammed and wasn’t going to open until they jacked that end of the house up. Either way, sunlight burned through the filthy windowpanes showing no mercy to the many imperfections of the house.
The view out the window wasn’t much better. Paint peeled from the wood siding, fascia boards hung at all angles like crooked and missing teeth, and the overgrown yard was beyond thirsty. As a matter of fact, the opulent green of the Pennsylvania hills stopped abruptly at the edge of the yard. Following a sunbeam that landed on the floor next to her, Tara looked up at the corner of the room where daylight shone through the ceiling. The house was a mess, but it was hers, she mused. She’d signed the papers that morning.
Feeling more than a little overwhelmed at the sheer amount of work the property would need over the next two months, she was about to turn back to her cleanup efforts when the noise of a pick-up pulling up the long drive caught her attention. The bright yellow truck was new and flashy but the bling didn’t keep it from rattling down the washboard drive like a jalopy, dust wafting behind it like a parachute.
Tara turned away from the window to greet the soul brave enough to cross the smashed culvert at the end of the driveway. She wasn’t expecting anyone today – the roofer and plumber were scheduled to show up tomorrow and the electrician on Thursday. Unfortunately, the culvert at the end of the driveway wouldn’t be repaired until Friday, so any one of the army of workers coming in the next few days could drive right into the low ditch and get stuck before they made it onto the property. This project was to be completed and resold in eight weeks so she could begin the big resort and so far, the broken culvert was the only kink in her plan.
As she picked her way around the trash bags and over the broken boards of the porch and into the shabby yard, she took a moment to readjust her ponytail, which now contained only a portion of her long, dark curls. Distractedly, she brushed dirt and cobwebs from the front of her damp tank top.
The truck came to a stop and the accompanying dust cloud caught up, hung in the air around it, then settled onto the bright paint and silver chrome. The windows were tinted dark but she could hear faint rock music thumping from inside as the truck clicked and cooled. Sighing, she waited, her gloved hand shading her eyes, the other hand fisted on her hip.
Justin unclenched his teeth and rolled his head from one shoulder to the other. He’d been stuck in the broken culvert at the driveway entrance for ten minutes. Shifting the truck into park, he turned off the ignition and huffed out a long sigh.
Surveying the property with an investor’s eye he’d noticed the natural water supply back down the long, dirt road. Trees dotted the landscape around the dilapidated house, which was obviously a complete loss, but one or two of the out-buildings might be salvageable. The fence certainly had to go. The property as a whole would be adequate, he decided as he slipped his sunglasses into the velvet bag and placed them in the console. Once the wreckage and old buildings were cleared and this property resold, the proceeds would give him the head start he needed to move on with the resort project.
As he collected his portfolio and phone from the passenger seat, he wondered how much it would cost him to repair his front fender. The truck had one hundred and forty-six miles on it and now it also had a nasty dent in the front fender. At least he knew the four-wheel drive worked because he’d needed it to back out of the ditch by the culvert. “The current landowner must not care who gets injured on this property,” he grumbled. He’d address that immediately.
Justin wished he’d arrived the week before in order to buy the property as he’d planned but moving had taken longer than expected.
He stepped from his truck, waved away the settling dust, then reached down to run his hand along the shallow dent in the front fender. Taking a step back to get a better look, he sensed a movement on the porch of the broken down house. He’d worked long and hard to buy this truck and he was heartsick to see it dented on the first day.
“Your culvert over the ditch back there is broken,” he growled, gesturing over his shoulder. “It’s dangerous. Put a nasty dent in my truck.” Sullen, he looked up.
Taken aback that he was snapping at a young woman with long, tan legs, he cringed and did a double take. She wore cut off shorts and a sweaty tank top that clung provocatively to every curve of her long lean body. He had prepared himself to speak with an old farmer, not the overheated, scowling young beauty that stood before him. Her hip was cocked with one fist planted on it and her face was in the shadow of her glove.
“Oh!” He could only sputter as he collected his scattered thoughts from truck to woman and back to property.
“What on earth is this?” Tara muttered to herself, her hand dropping from her eyes. Any idiot could have seen that the culvert is broken. Who is he to pull into my yard and start yapping at me? She watched the man step around the truck and head toward her. His crisp linen trousers and leather loafers were quickly collecting dust and his fancy city hairdo had probably taken an hour to style. She disliked him. He was obviously a snooty city boy.
“Hello. Fine day, isn’t it?” The man smiled but she offered no response. He cleared his throat. “Would you happen to know where the owner of this property is?”
A long pause ensued and her lips twisted in irritation. “Yeah,” she finally muttered as she turned away. What is he going to do, sue me for having a broken culvert? Irritated, she headed back into the house and the man followed.
Tara bent to collect the trash bags of debris she had gathered inside the front door to make room for the man to pass. It was her first day on the property and she always took time to walk through her houses and examine them carefully before anyone else came on the property. She’d only been able to see the surface of the place previous to the purchase, and oftentimes the past owners left behind long-forgotten treasures in their trash and debris. Now, however, she was embarrassed that she was sweaty and covered in dirt, cobwebs, and sawdust. The place looked a fright and so did she.
The man followed her into the empty house, his mouth agape in disgust.
He isn’t a building inspector, she speculated. I know all the inspectors in the county. He’s tall, well over six feet, has a strong chin and his upper arms fill out that pastel polo shirt. Yup, a rich, pretty boy for sure, complete with gym muscles and a spray-on tan.
She dropped the last trash bag on the pile and turned toward the man. “I’m Tara,” she began in a no nonsense way, pulling off her one filthy leather glove. She searched the room for something to wipe her hand on, gave up, and swabbed it across her stomach before extending it toward the man.
He shook her hand as he gaped at the hole in the living room ceiling through which sun beamed onto her shoulder. “I’m Justin,” he said distractedly, squinting at the gap in the ceiling. Stringy, damp paper insulation draped through the hole. “This place is in bad shape. Why are they having you clean up before demolition?” he asked as he glanced toward the outdated, grimy kitchen.
Tara was taken completely by surprise. “Demolition? This house isn’t going anywhere.”
“This place?” He snorted. “Right, it’s not like the whole house leans to one side. So…where is the owner? I was told the he’d be here today.”
Who does he think I am? Tara frowned as she watched him meander into the kitchen and lifted a board in the pile of rough oak she’d stacked earlier. His nose wrinkled and he dropped the board then strolled back into the living room and glanced at the sander and the smooth, clean spot on the wall unit.
“Were you sanding this? Are you with those re-claimer people who salvage stuff from old houses? I hear that’s big around here, but this is a built-in. How do they plan to get it out of here in one piece?”
In no frame of mind to answer, and growing more and more irritated by his attitude, Tara let him speculate. She supposed that thinking she was a salvage person was a step up from seeing her as the cleaning lady, but he had automatically assumed she wasn’t the owner. He’d been told the owner would be here and she was the only person on site. She hated being underestimated. She knew she looked young but this city boy and his disdain for the things she valued irked her to the core. I do not want to deal with this guy right now, whoever he is.
She turned her back on him to lift three bags of trash. “This property is owned by a real-estate company in town,” she tossed over her shoulder as she struggled to fit the bags through the doorway.
“Let me help you with that,” he replied, moving to her side to take a lumpy bag. The smell of his aftershave wafted toward her, making her feel even filthier.
“I’ve got it. You’ll get all dirty.” Tara snapped as she stepped onto the porch and directly onto a rotted board. Her foot broke through the wood and she lost her balance, landing hard on her backside with a trash bag on top of her. She struggled to get up, but her foot was stuck up to the ankle in the broken porch boards.
Justin hurried to her side. “Whoa, whoa, let me help you. Just stop for a minute and let me get your ankle loose.” His voice was calm and reassuring as he slipped his hands between her ankle and the jagged porch boards.
Jarred by the tenderness of his touch, she ceased struggling and met his eye. He was handsome – she had to admit. Hot tears of humiliation and pain popped into her eyes. She hated the shriveling feeling of being vulnerable. Blinking, she allowed him to help her pull her foot loose from the porch boards, then she stood and shrugged, attempting to collect her broken pride.
Justin understood that Tara needed a minute to regroup, so he gripped her elbow as she gingerly put weight on her foot. She’s a pretty little thing, under all that indignation and grime, he supposed. As he watched, her sage green eyes blinked back tears and a dimple played on one cheek as her teeth clamped her bottom lip.
“These wrecked old places can be a real death trap,” he assured her, hoping he sounded sympathetic. Much to his shock, her spine stiffened and she appeared to be irate.
Frowning, she tore her elbow from his grasp. “Well then let’s get you away from this death trap!” She slammed the front door of the house, snatched up the trash bags and limped indignantly to her old truck and tossed the bags, one at a time, into the back.
Justin stood in stunned silence as Tara hobbled round the truck, climbed in, slammed the door, and drove away in a cloud of dust.
Justin’s GPS directed him back to town and to a stop in front of an old Victorian house. Precious time had been wasted finding the real-estate company that owned the property, and that cleaning girl, Tara, hadn’t been much help. Maybe she didn’t really know who owned the house. She must have been all of seventeen and she’d looked exhausted. She definitely hadn’t liked him; that much had been obvious. He didn’t understand why, because back home women liked him – as a matter of fact, they chased him. He shrugged and collected his paperwork.
Painted in scrolling, swooping script, the sign in front of the Victorian house, read: “Hometown Real Estate. Your neighbor – Your friend.”
As Justin walked to the front door, he noted flowerbeds overflowing with blossoms, lining the walks. Craning his neck, he counted seven colors of paint on the gingerbread trim of the stately home.
What a waste of paint and time for an office building. The manpower and funds it must take to keep up the building could have paid for an entirely new property.
He didn’t understand people who wasted time and money. Then again, things were different here. He was glad he worked with corporate clients; big business money and the people who spent it. His wealthy clients in DC wanted weekend retreats and summer homes. Their interest was ultra-modern, flashy, vacation getaways – locations away from town to entertain. He’d found a lucrative niche in the real-estate market with those people.
An inviting whoosh of cool air met Justin as he opened the front office door. To his surprise, the house was set up as a home more so than an office. Fine antique furniture filled the front parlor. A few sample catalogs on the coffee table were the only sign this wasn’t a home. Framed watercolor paintings of beautiful old homes covered the walls. Delicious smells wafted toward him from a plate on a side table stacked with steaming chocolate chip cookies.
“Come on back!” called a cheery female voice. Justin didn’t know where back was but he followed the voice to a fully appointed and beautifully restored kitchen. An old woman was pulling a pan of cookies from the replica turn-of-the-century oven. Justin wondered again if he’d walked into someone’s home instead of a business.
“The coffee is fresh dear, help yourself,” the woman said as she placed the cookies, one at a time, on a cooling rack. Justin glanced over his shoulder to see who she was calling dear, but he was the only other person in the room.
“Ma’am?” He hoped she’d realize he wasn’t dear without further explanation.
The woman set the cookie sheet in the sink to cool, tossed down the potholders and placed a cookie from the rack onto a china dish and handed it to him. She wiped her gnarled hands on her apron and a smile lit her face as she met his eye. “I’m Mrs. Wynn,” she said, extending her hand, “but you can call me Winnie. And you are…?”
He fumbled to find his voice as he shoved his portfolio under one arm. Balancing the cookie plate, he extended his hand and replied with his name. What kind of business is this? And why is Grandma here baking cookies?
Mrs. Wynn sighed. “The coffee is right over here, or if you’d rather, I have tea…”
Justin stood staring.
She tried again. “Iced tea…Sweet tea?” She opened the enormous, wood-paneled fridge and pointed to a glass pitcher with lemon wedges bobbing on the surface.
He shook his head.
“Okay, I see.” She lost the neighborly vibe and removed her apron, hanging it on a hook by the door. “Come this way please.”
Justin set the cookie plate on the counter and followed her back to the living room. Mrs. Wynn sat daintily on the edge of an antique sofa, adjusted her hankie under her watchband, and tucked her feet under her, crossed at the ankle. She smoothed her skirt and looked up at Justin, expecting him to speak.
He was at a loss.
Her eyebrows rose. “You must be looking for a home?”
He felt rude and awkward, as if his hands were too large. Her warmth was gone, stamped out, evidently, by his lack of correct responses. He had not been tongue-tied for years. His business manners were flawless. He charmed people on a daily basis. He was a consummate smooth talker, yet twice in one day he had alienated local women and he had no idea what he should have done differently.
He perched on the edge of the sofa near Winnie.
“You’re clearly new here,” she whispered, placing a wrinkled hand on his knee.
“Is it that obvious? What gave me away?”
“Your shoes dear.” She glanced at his loafers as if they were an embarrassment. “Now about that home…”
Justin shook his head. He’d paid a hundred and fifty-two dollars for those shoes. “I came to ask about a property that sold yesterday, out on the west end of town? Past the river.”
“Oh yes, the Harrison place.” She paused with a knowing smile. “It will be beautiful.” She spread her hands in front of her, enjoying a vista in her mind as she spoke. “We have such lovely plans for it.” Her hands returned to her lap and she looked back to Justin, “It will ready in about eight weeks.”
“Ready to sell dear, when it’s finished.”
“Finished?” He was puzzled. “I’d like to put in an offer on it now – as is.”
She looked bemused. “As is? No dear. I don’t think so. That’s not what we do.”
“What do you do?” He was almost afraid to ask. None of this was the way real estate should be sold.
“Well, as you know, we buy sad old homes and restore them using all local salvage items, then sell them at reasonable prices to families. How old are your children?”
“Children? I don’t have children Mrs. Wynn…”
She interrupted him with her hand up between them; “It’s Winnie, dear. And if you don’t have children yet, what a wonderful place to plan your family! You will be so comfortable in that sweet home when it’s finished. Gail and Denny Harrison were wonderful people and it was so sad to see their place fall into disrepair. Reminds me of the Lawson home...” She pointed a crooked finger toward a watercolor of a white farmhouse on a nearby wall. “I think it was even more beautiful after we were finished than it was when Mildred lived there but oh, it was a mess when we got it.” She clucked and fussed.
He was baffled again. “You remodeled all these houses?” He glanced around the room.
She nodded and smiled serenely, her hands in her lap.
“So the property is not available, is that right? Even though the house and maybe the barn need to be demolished, and I’m willing to pay well over the asking price, you are telling me that it will be restored in eight weeks, then resold?” He shook his head. “In eight weeks, someone will want to live in that house? It’s leaning to one side!” He ran his fingers through his hair, leaving it standing on end. “And do you actually make a profit doing this?” He was horrified at the prospect of all that lost revenue.
“I know, dear. When we first started, no one believed we could do it, but now…” She indicated the pictures lining the walls, and stood. “You come back in about a month and we’ll do a walk-through with you and you can pick out paint colors.”
“Mrs. Wy…” He stood.
Her hand came up. “Winnie.”
“Winnie, I’m sorry but I don’t want to buy the house.”
He was immediately interrupted. She clutched his elbows and led him to the door. “Dearie, I know it’s not in shape for a bride just yet, but you come back here in a month and you won’t believe your eyes. I promise you. Don’t you doubt me now, it’s the truth.” She shook her bent finger under his nose.
Justin felt as if anything he said at that point would be a personal slight to her integrity, so he thanked Winnie and left. As he climbed back into his dirty, dented truck, he realized he’d blown most of the day and hadn’t accomplished a thing. He couldn’t afford to waste any more time – he needed to get back on his groove.
Winnie watched him drive away as she picked up the phone. When Tara answered, she said, “We’ve got a new investor in town, dear.”