“I get it,” Liz said. Though she was on the other end of the line, Jonathan heard the eye roll in her tone. “For the five millionth time—the world won’t end if you can’t answer your phone for a few hours at a time. Or a few days. I owe you for that debacle of a charity event. I’ll handle things.”
He scowled at the reminder, both of the disaster and that she wanted him to ignore work while he was on bereavement leave. “This doesn’t make up for that, because you’ll call me long before things get that bad.” Every time he hit a bump in the dilapidated road, his rental car jolted, and he stuttered.
“Liz.” Even after ten years, the overgrowth here looked the same. There was no question which turnoff was the road to his destination. Trees overhung the driveway, their branches scraping the hood of the sedan. Weeds crept up through cracks in the asphalt, and bright splashes of purple, red, and blue blossoms peeked out from beyond the path.
She sighed. “Next time you ask for a favor, remind me you’re uptight and incapable of delegation.”
“Take care of things. Mourn your grandmother. Turn off your phone. Don’t worry about the office until you’re done.” Her tone was sympathetic.
He smiled, despite the tension coursing through him at the idea of ignoring the office for so long. “Fine. But I’m not turning the phone off.” He pulled up in front of the house. The white-painted wood was stark, as if it was touched up recently. More of the foliage dipped over the split-level home, dusting pollen and leaves onto the porch. A fist clenched around his chest at the rush of memories, and he swallowed it all back. Fortunately, a woman with distracting curves paced the porch running the front length of Nana’s house, and gave him a new focus. Nosy neighbor? “I’ve got to go. Later,” he said.
He disconnected without waiting for a reply from Liz. The woman didn’t look back when he parked the car and shut off the engine. She poked at the rockers and the two-person swing, then turned her attention to the chain holding it up. From behind, he could tell she was almost his height, with long legs, a narrow waist, and white-blonde hair piled in a messy bun on top her head.
Something tickled his memory, but he couldn’t grasp it. He wasn’t interested in digging too deep anyway, in case it was associated with the summers he spent here. He climbed out of the car and strolled toward the house. “Excuse me. Can I help you?” he asked.
The woman spun to face him, and his stomach flipped. Bailey. The glasses perched on the edge of her nose didn’t hide how clear her blue eyes were, or the smattering of freckles that smooshed up when she met his gaze and smiled. She looked good.
“No.” She closed the distance between them. “I think the time for that is long past, Mr. Woodhouse.” She rubbed her palms on faded jeans before extending one in greeting.
He shook her hand, using the couple-second pause to regain control of his senses. “People call me that every day, yet coming from you, it feels like you’re talking to my father. Jonathan is fine.”
“That’s gonna be awkward, because I prefer you call me Ms. Moore.” Her tone cooled his skin, despite the August sun trying to beat its way through his suit coat.
Something brushed against his leg and at the same time meowed, drawing his attention. A long-haired white cat wove itself around him. He gave the animal a half-smile. “Not now, pretty kitten.” With every new pass of the cat, more fur decorated his dark slacks. “I’m not dressed for that.”
Bailey bent at the waist, offering Jonathan a fantastic view down the front of her button-down top, and picked up the cat to scratch its head. “You’re not really dressed for this, in general. Lucifer is helping you adjust your expectations. Aren’t you, princess?” She looked at him again as she straightened and held up the cat.
“Truly kind of her.” He reached out, keeping an arm’s length between them, and teased behind the cat’s ears for a few seconds, before shaking the fluff away and stepping aside as it drifted to the ground.
Bailey rolled her eyes. “Do you want me to get you gloves and a plastic slicker, sir?”
“I’m fine, thank you. I’m meeting with the appraiser and auctioneer for Nana’s estate, and then I’ll be on my way. You and Lucifer can kick up dust and fur and laugh at me all you want once I’m gone.” Jonathan wasn’t sure what he’d done to incur the frigid reception, but he didn’t plan on sticking around long enough for it to matter.
She set the cat down, and Lucifer strolled back to Jonathan’s leg, hopped up on her back paws, propped the front against his shin, and mewled loudly.
“She’s your grandmother’s.” Bailey winced. “Sorry. Was. I think she recognizes you.”
He scooped Lucifer up—mostly to prove Baily wrong, and only partly to distract himself from another surge of grief—and held her close, scratching her chin. “See? A little fluff won’t hurt me.”
“Glad to hear it. I hope a little dust doesn’t bother you either, because we’ve got a lot of cataloging to do. I’m the appraiser and auctioneer.”
“Ah.” He fumbled for a better response, but nothing offered itself. He wasn’t used to being on his guard like this, even against an icy demeanor. So why did Bailey have him stunned silent? He shook the question aside. It was because being here reminded him how much he missed Nana. Nothing more. Bailey was a part of the past, gnawing at his senses and insisting he give it attention. He’d push through it now, and cope when he got back to his hotel. “What do you need from me? I let you into the house, give you my number, and when you’re done, you provide me with a list of what the estate holds and estimates?” Lucifer nipped his finger, and when he started, hopped from his arms and fled around the side of the house. What was he going to do with the cat? Someone local would give her a good home, right?
Bailey frowned. “Sure. We can do it that way. Don’t you want to see any of her belongings for yourself? It’s my understanding the only items that go to auction are those you don’t want. There are a lot of memories in there.” She nodded at the house.
Exactly. Memories from spending every summer here, from childhood until he was eighteen. Of the ridiculous stories Nana convinced younger-him were true, about pirates and haunted beaches and hidden treasures. Of running away here when he was fourteen, only for his father to haul him back home a month later. Of watching Bailey celebrate her engagement to the biggest asshole on the island.
The past throbbed behind his temples. Nope. He wasn’t interested in diving into any of that. Not with her here, not ever. He gave Bailey his widest smile. “No. I trust you. I’m not worried about value. I simply want her things to go to people who’ll appreciate them.” He handed her a business card. “Call me when you’re done.”
When Jonathan turned away, Bailey clenched and loosened her fist several times, her arm hanging loose at her side. It took the last of her restraint to stay aloof with him, especially with how incredible he looked in that suit. Sandy-blond hair, cut so short it didn’t brush his ears; navy jacket and slacks that accentuated broad shoulders, a defined chest, and long legs—the bozo had to go and be more attractive than she remembered. That didn’t stop her from pretending she didn’t give a flying fig if he was the executor for this estate, any more than if anyone else were in his place.
But watching him turn his back on his heritage rubbed her wrong. “If Nana didn’t want you to be a part of this, she would have left your name out of the will. Show some respect.” The older woman’s name was Nancy, but because she’d been like a grandmother to everyone on the island, they all called her Nana.
Jonathan shook his head. “I’ll be in town for a few days,” he called over his shoulder.
“You sure you can stand it here for that long?” She winced at the bitterness that tinged her question.
He dropped into the car. One leg stayed on the ground, propping the door open. “Don’t have to. I’m staying on the mainland.”
A gust shredded through the area, tearing at her hair. Dirt and debris bit into her face, and she closed her eyes against the gale. Through the howl, she heard a car engine start. When the weather ebbed enough for her to pry one eye open, she saw Jonathan backing out of the driveway.
“Bozo.” Her shout at the retreating vehicle vanished in the stiff wind. She turned back to the house, opened the door, and Luci shot past her legs to dart inside. This was for the best. The last thing Bailey needed was Jonathan hovering over her shoulder, sharing her personal space, and being… him.
She entered the house, locked everything behind her to keep it from rattling in the sudden gusts, and then paused. Where to start? Besides a little dust that had gathered in the last week, the home looked like Nana stepped out for the afternoon, instead of passing away. A bitter lump formed in Bailey’s throat. She didn’t understand how Jonathan could be so removed about the whole thing. Bailey wasn’t even related to the woman, and she missed her terribly. Going through this place felt like she was disturbing ghosts.
She needed to get started, though. The kitchen was first. The fridge and freezer would need to be emptied. New, amazing, and disgusting smells wafted from the vegetable crisper. The stuff in the cupboards and pantry could go to the neighbors.
She headed upstairs next. Three rooms lined the hallway. The first on the left was an office. A desk and bookshelves to sift through. She wandered into the small room, running her fingers over worn spines without touching them. The assortment always amazed her—classic leather-bound tomes, mixed with scintillating romance novels. Women on the covers with barely covered, heaving chests, in the arms of their manly counterparts. This was where Bailey discovered how much she loved reading.
She blinked several times, to clear away the dust making her eyes water. Why wasn’t Jonathan doing this? She left the room but couldn’t bring herself to enter the other two. She knew what she’d find. On the left would be a twin bed, stripped of its sheets. Shelves, lined with model planes, dinosaurs, and plastic planets. All of it dusted, as if Nana expected teenage-Jonathan to return any day.
Nana’s room was on the right. Bailey swallowed past a raw throat. Right. Time to see what was in the attic. Those memories shouldn’t be attached to fresh, open wounds.
She reached the end of the hallway, found the rope dangling from the ceiling, and then tugged. The ladder to the attic scrolled down, feet landing near hers.
Sunlight streamed through the high windows and filtered through dust, greeting her as she climbed into the small space. Boxes, trunks, and crates lined the walls and spilled into the path like a broken Tetris game. She could do this. It was like any estate she worked with, it would take time, but she’d treat the things up here the way she always did—like precious parts of someone else’s life, not her own.
She’d need an empty spot to shift things into. Enough space to rearrange as she went, so she kept track of items to be auctioned versus those that held nothing but sentimental value. She grabbed the black marker and sticky notes from her back pocket, and started labeling in the corner that held the least. This was good. The methodical sorting would keep her mind off the tragedy that brought her here, and distract her from how irritated she was with Jonathan for shrugging this off as if it were a neighbor’s vacation slides.
The first few boxes were easy. More books, all of them paperbacks. She sneezed several times, as she slid them toward their holding spot. Those would go up for auction in as-is sets.
She opened a trunk, to find uniform stacks of shoe boxes. Flipping the lid on the first revealed photos. Some had to be almost as old as Nana, in black and white, with yellowed edges and a girl in her late teens, posing with various people. They were mixed with others, in faded colors. A kid in a striped shirt and running shorts that barely covered his legs—Jonathan’s father. Bailey ground her teeth. A stack of printed photos from an early-model photo printer sat at the bottom. A blonde girl with a bob that didn’t reach her shoulders, on her skateboard next to a boy on a bike.
She crammed the photos back in their box, labeled the trunk Personal, and shoved it in the other direction. Someone else could finish sorting through them.
A loud pounding jarred her from her work. Someone hammering on the screen door. She tucked loose strands of hair behind her ears and made her way downstairs. A glance at the clock told her she’d been working for almost an hour and a half.
When she opened the door, she was shocked to see Jonathan standing on the other side. He’d shed the suit coat and tie, rolled his sleeves up, halfway to the elbow, and undone the top button on his shirt. “You’re right.” He gave her a cocky grin. “I should help.”
She stared back in disbelief. “Really. Just like that, you changed your mind.”
“That, and the bridge is closed because of a storm watch.”
When tropical storms and hurricanes blew in, the roads between the Keys and mainland Florida flooded. It was common to shut down the bridges before that happened, rather than risk losing cars to floods or wind. Which meant he couldn’t leave the island.
“How altruistic of you. Come on in.” She unlocked the screen door and pushed the latch. The wind ripped the door from her hand, and Jonathan stepped back as it tore open and slammed against the side of the house.