Antique Charming, страница 1
By Books to Go Now
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First eBook Edition –September 2011
Printed in the United States of America
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This book is a work of fiction and any resemblance to any person, living or dead, any place, events or occurrences, is purely coincidental. The characters and story lines are created from the author’s imagination and are used fictitiously.
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She heard it again.
The same time as last Friday night.
Three taps at her front door.
Lizzie muted the television, tossed the blanket off of her body and scurried out of bed. She slipped her robe over her shoulders and tied it securely, determined to find out who in the world would knock at her door at three in the morning. By the time she had reached the door the week previous, no one was there. The street had been dark and still.
It had to be a mistake. She had only recently closed sale on the long abandoned funeral home, determined to restore it to its once former glory. She had only been living in the upstairs flat for a few weeks.
As she hurried down the staircase, each step beneath her feet creaked in protest. There was no one visible through the peephole. She unchained the door and opened it just enough to peek around it.
No one was there, just like the previous week.
The street was dark and quiet. Not even the whisper of a wind could be detected. Only the cold dampness of the October night raised a chill on her skin.
Who was playing this weekly joke on her? Could it be the ghosts of some departed soul who had passed through the halls of Nichols Funeral Home sometime during the past century? A small smile crossed her lips as she prepared to close and lock the door. She was a third generation Funeral Director. Did she now believe in ghosts?
Before the door could close, a hand poked into the slight space and seized her wrist. A cry rose in her throat and she jerked backward, but the hand held tight and the door flung open.
The man emerged, shrouded in darkness. He was an ethereal creature, tall, and dressed in anonymous black. Only a streetlight glowed behind him.
“I’m home,” he announced.
In a panic and with her heart now beating double-time, Lizzie pushed her free hand into his chest in an attempt to push the stranger out the door. “Get out!” she growled.
He caught her other wrist and held her firm, his hands icy from the cold October night.
“I’m home,” he repeated.
There was such a vehement strain of desperation in his voice that Lizzie stopped her struggle. When she did, he let go of her wrists. Did he think he really was home, or was he just some disillusioned homeless man? Maybe if she stayed calm and explained things, he would quietly go away.
“No, you’re not home. This is my home. I bought this place a few weeks ago. I plan to refurbish the funeral home and reopen it for business in the next few months.”
“Please,” he implored and slid past her into the foyer. He closed his eyes and rubbed circles on his temple with his fingertips. “I’m cold and I’m tired. I would like a bath and bed.”
As he reached for the banister of the stairs leading to the flat, Lizzie grabbed the sleeve of his long sleeved shirt. “Wait, you just can’t come into my home. Who are you?”
He stared down at her in the dim light of the foyer. His eyes shined, but she couldn’t see the color. “I’m Adam Nichols.”
A thread of impatience in his voice led her to believe that he thought she would know him on sight, that she should be expecting him.
Nichols, she thought silently to herself. As in, Nichols Funeral Home, the original owners of the now defunct funeral home she owned. This was very bad. Maybe Adam really did think he still owned the funeral home and the flat.
“Adam, you need to understand that you and your family no longer own the funeral home or the flat. I do.” She tried to sound gentle but firm.
A trace of a smile played on his lips. “You must be my new lady assistant. What is your name?”
It was obvious he was either delusional or worse…he really did think he still owned the place and that she was playing some sort of game with him.
“I’m Lizzie Morton.”
He ran a gentle finger under her chin and held her brown eyes to his. “You’ll do just fine, Lizzie.”
Her response stuck in her throat. Before she could release it, he broke their eye contact, to her relief, and began to climb the stairs. Lizzie could do nothing but follow.
If he really was a descendant of the Nichols family, surely it could all be straightened out with a telephone call to the realtor in the morning.
Until then, maybe it was best to let him have a bath and let him sleep in the guest bedroom. Adam didn’t seem malicious, just tired and very confused, and he seemed to know his way around the flat.
At the top of the stairs, Lizzie turned down the hallway and entered the bathroom. Turning on the taps of the antique claw foot bathtub, she adjusted the water temperature and turned back to Adam. She was startled by his appearance in the light. His hair was raven black and hung in waves to his collar, and his eyes were a unique indigo in color that she had never seen in any person--ever. His nondescript black clothing looked oddly dusty.
She averted her eyes to keep from staring at the stranger who had invaded her home, and turned her attention back to the bath water. “Adam, if you leave your clothes on the floor, I’ll put them into the wash for you.”
He didn’t reply, so she turned off the taps and dried her hands on a towel. “There’s everything you need…soap, towels. If you need anything else, just call.” She walked around him and out of the bathroom.
In the kitchen, Lizzie turned on the kettle to boil, and reached for a box of blackberry tea to make a cup for herself and her unexpected houseguest. She had always been taught growing up to be pleasant and polite to anyone who crossed her path.
Although it was the twenty-first century, her father and brothers still thought a woman’s place was in the background, smiling and making tea. Even Adam thought she was his new “lady assistant.” What they didn’t know, or never realized, was that she was just as good, if not better than they were in the embalming room.
In truth, it was a lonely life. She craved a connection with someone, a family of her own. But at the very least, owning her own funeral business would be more fulfilling than being ignored in her family’s business.
Her thoughts turned back to Adam. What was his story? Where had he been all of this time? He didn’t seem to have a clue that the funeral home and flat had been sold. He was coming home, or more precisely, he was coming home to where his home once was. It was almost…sad.
When twenty minutes passed by without even a single sound, Lizzie crept along the hallway on tip-toes and stood very still, her back
Concerned he might have drowned, she swallowed hard and turned to the open door and hoped to remain unnoticed. She peeked into the bathroom.
Adam remained in the bathtub. His head was lulled back, his face pointed up to the ceiling, eyes closed. His arms extended out of each side of the tub, palms upward. Water dripped from his fingertips and his hair. Steam rose upward from the water.
Unable to tear her vision from his bare body in the water, Lizzie continued her voyeuristic stare. Suddenly, he sat up so abruptly that the water spilled out of the sides of the bath and onto the floor. With a very slow and deliberate motion, his face turned toward her.
She jumped and stumbled. A hot blush started in her belly and crept up to her face and settled there. “I just wanted to be sure you were okay…and to get your clothes to take downstairs to the laundry,” was her attempt at a quick recovery. She reached down and scooped the pile of discarded clothing into her arms.
Unfazed, Adam laid back and assumed the same position within the tub, and closed his eyes once more.
Lizzie opted for a quick escape from both Adam and her embarrassment. She hurried down the stairs of the flat and into the funeral home. Opening the heavy door at the back of the home, she flipped on the light switch and descended the stairs into the basement where the prep and embalming rooms were located, as well as the laundry room.
Once inside the laundry room, she felt around in the darkness for the chain that turned on the overhead light. Once she located it, she pulled downward and light flooded the room. She quickly went about turning the pockets of his trousers inside out looking for anything she could find to glean some knowledge of the stranger who was above her in the bath.
There was no wallet. All Lizzie could find were a few old coins and a piece of paper that looked to have been unfolded and folded hundreds, maybe thousands of times. She unfolded the battered square of paper and strained her eyes trying to read the faded writing on it.
The elegant, scripted handwriting hinted at another time long ago. Although barely readable, it was clearly an address: 503 Pointview Street. The address of the place she now lived and called her own. Just how long had Adam been trying to reach his old home?
She quivered just then, but reminded herself that it would all be over soon. In a few short hours, she would call her real estate agent and ask for advice. She would then show Adam the deed that proved she was now the current owner of the funeral home and the flat. If afterward he still wasn’t convinced, she would be forced to call the police and have them send Adam on his way.
She took a cautious sniff of his shirt. The fabric didn’t exactly reek, but it smelled stale, like it had been stored in some musty old closet for an extended period of time. She loaded the clothes into the washer, added a capful of detergent and softener, closed the lid and pressed the start button.
She pulled the chain to shut the light and hurried back up the flights of stairs to the flat. A quick glance into the bathroom showed nothing but a bathtub of tepid water and a towel neatly folded and left on the floor. The smell of sandalwood soap filled the steamy air. Adam was somewhere in the flat.
The kitchen was empty except for the two cups of tea she had prepared earlier. Lifting a cup, she placed it onto a matching china saucer she had found left behind in a cupboard by the previous owner, and she walked down the hallway balancing the black, sweet smelling brew. It didn’t take long to find Adam; he was in the guest bedroom, in bed. His head was back on the pillow, eyes wide open, and the blankets pulled up over his bare chest.
She knocked gently on the doorframe.
“Come,” he said softly.
She walked into the room and placed the tea cup and saucer on the night table beside the bed. “I brought you tea.”
“Thank you, Lizzie.” His voice was a tired whisper.
She couldn’t help but be concerned. “Are you okay, Adam? I mean, are you ill?”
A smile creased his lips. “I’m so tired, but I’m feeling better with every passing minute.”
He was happy to be home…or at what he thought was his home. It was going to devastate him when he realized he would soon need to leave. “Just try to have a few sips of tea.”
She lifted the tea cup and sat on the edge of the bed. “Can you lift your head, Adam? I’ll help you,” she offered.
He turned onto his side and propped himself up on one elbow. Lizzie held the cup with its tea to his lips. After he finished she placed the cup back on the saucer and arranged the blankets back over his chest. She dared to brush his still damp hair back from his forehead. His skin was now pleasantly warm to her touch.
“Just rest now, Adam.” Lizzie actually enjoyed the chance to take care of someone. Watching someone suffer was just not a part of who she was.
“I will, but Lizzie, I want to get the funeral home back in business as soon as possible.”
“That’s what I want too, Adam. It’s what I’ve always wanted since I first saw it.” For a brief moment, she could envision the two of them working together, but she quickly dismissed the idea.
“You are going to be a good assistant, sweetheart.”
A prickle of discomfort rose on her spine. He was talking again about her being his assistant. She was no one’s assistant.
“I’m a licensed Funeral Director, Adam, and a damned good embalmer,” she insisted.
He let out a soft chuckle. “You silly girl, it’s not Funeral Director…an Undertaker.”
Lizzie’s lips thinned with displeasure. Undertaker was an antiquated term that she didn’t much care for. She hadn’t heard anyone use that term for years, and even then it was older folks who still called her an Undertaker. Just how long had Adam been away from the business? He couldn’t be more than thirty-five or so.
“Adam, where have you been all of this time?” Her heart palpated and she pressed her hand over her heart to calm it. She wasn’t sure she really wanted to know the truth.
After a long pause, he said, “I’m not sure, Lizzie…everything is so…confusing to me right now.”
That was the understatement of the year. Adam wasn’t the only one who was confused.
It’s okay, Adam. You’re just tired. You need to rest now. We’ll figure it out in the morning.”
He reached out and caressed her cheek with the back of his hand. “You’re a good girl, Lizzie. We’re going to get along wonderfully.”
If it were only so easy, she thought as she eased herself to her feet and turned off the lamp. “Sleep well, Adam.”
Lizzie sat in the flat’s sitting room and rocked back and forth in the rocking chair while she pondered the latest developments in her life. She relished the prospect of restoring the funeral home to its former glory with a modern renovation. It would go out as Nichols Funeral Home and emerge as Morton Funeral Care.
The flat, she loved from the first moment she had seen it. The real estate agent had listed it as “antique charming.” The former owner left behind all the sumptuous antique furnishings and rugs, including the claw foot bathtub and an exquisite Victorian-era secretary desk made of walnut with inset bird’s eyes maple panels, solid bronze hardware and a carved interior. The desk was still brimming with old papers and memorabilia that had long been abandoned.
As she sipped her tea, she wondered if the flat and the funeral home had been wrongly sold, and really did belong to Adam Nichols. She would be beyond disappointed for sure. She glanced across the room at the intricately cut crystal butterfly clock on the mantel. It would be at least three hours before she could call her realtor and try to solve this mess.
Weariness consumed her and she closed her eyes, intending to rest for just a moment or two. When Lizzie opened her eyes again
She punched in the number for her realtor and waited for an answer. Finally, she connected with a voice.
“Good morning, could I speak with Caroline Harper?” she asked.
There was a momentary pause of the line. “I’m sorry, but there is no one here by that name.”
Lizzie shrugged her shoulders. Had Caroline left the business in just the few short weeks since the completion of the sale? “I just purchased the old Nichols Funeral Home with included flat. Caroline brokered the sale.”
Before Lizzie could respond, instrumental music wafted over the telephone line. She sighed deeply. There was nothing she could do but wait. A few minutes later, a hesitant voice came onto the line. “Ah…I’m sorry, but you’ve called the wrong number, Miss. There is no one at this office named Caroline Harper—never has been--and we never had a listing for a funeral home--ever. As a matter of fact, that place has never been for sale.”
Lizzie’s body went cold and panic rose in her throat. She stood in the center of her living room for several minutes with the disconnected telephone receiver still in her hand, while she tried to absorb what was happening around her.
There was no Caroline Harper.
The Nichols Funeral Home had never been for sale.
Who had taken all of her money, and given her a key?
She dashed for the walnut secretary desk, using the back of her hand to clear away the tears that blinded her, and began to rifle through papers looking for her deed to the property. It had been there, she was sure of it. She had only seen it a few days earlier.
She grabbed the brass handles and yanked out the drawers and spilled the contents onto the hardwood floor. “Oh, where is it, where is it?” she repeated over and over in a whispered cry. Finally she dumped the last drawer to find nothing but old invoices and a few photographs.