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Jordan Tanner pulled up across the street from the faded purple monstrosity and uttered a dozen different curses, each one ending with Great-aunt Beulah. Not that he wasn't grateful to have inherited the housemausoleum, whateverbut he harbored no illusions. As the last Tanner standing, this legacy had come to him through default.
Rain beat against the windshield of his Lexus as the wind tore down the deserted street. The oak he'd parked under groaned from the assault. He should move his car away from the trees. But Dunstan Lane was entirely lined with the old giants, and he knew a stall tactic when he saw one.
Jordan climbed out, unfurled his umbrella and studied his new home through the pelting rain. Not home. Residence. Home was his I-can't-believe-I-finally-made-it condo forty minutes down the highway. All he had to do was ride out the next few months in the butt-ugly Victorian until the place sold. Then he would return to his real life.
A movement on the roof three stories up caught his attention. Curious, he crossed the street and peered upward. A small woman, maybe a girl, scampered over a dormer, stopped near the edge above him and raised her arms to the sky. You didn't have to be Einstein to know that was a curse ripping out of her mouth.
He tossed the umbrella aside and broke into a full out run. How long would it take him to get to the top floor? And then? Then he'd figure it out. Talk her down. Break into the third-floor apartment if he had to and find a way onto the roof. No one was going to kill themselves today. Not on his property.
He pounded up the fire escape, stopping only to sight the woman. She was squatting now, even closer to the edge, and swinging something in her hand. He pulled his head down and pushed on, his breath searing his lungs. Waste of energy to shout. Probably some crack crazed teenager. Probably one of his tenants. He hit the landing outside the top-floor apartment. Nailed to the side of the house was a ladder that went the rest of the way up. Thank God.
He grabbed the bottom rung as he spared a quick check on the crazy lady. Yup, still there, but she had turned away from the edge, her attention focused on the shingles.
"I wouldn't do that if I were you, mister." A thin voice wafted out from a window that opened onto the fire escape.
Jordan shot a look behind him but the curtains obscured whoever had spoken. Another nutcase, no doubt.
"There's a woman on the roof," he hollered over his shoulder as he hoisted himself up the first rung. "I think she's going to jump."
A small boy poked his head out the open window. "She's fixing the roof. You better wait until she comes down." The anemic-looking child pushed his heavy framed glasses farther up his nose and looked him over. "You got a cold beer?"
"She thinks cold beer is yummy. If you give her one, she might not yell at you."
Jordan stepped back onto the landing and leaned over the railing until he caught sight of the woman. Now that he was taking time to notice, yeah, that was a hammer in her hand. The soft thump of hammer meeting nail reached him as he watched her duckwalk away from the edge.
He hunched his shoulders against the relentless rain. "Does she always work on the roof during a storm?"
"Not always." The kid looked like he was having a midlife crisis at the age of, well, whatever age he was. Somewhere between eight and twelve. His thick black glasses swallowed his face, giving him a pinched look, as if he spent a lot of time scraping the bottom of the peanut butter jar. He started to shut the window.
"Hang on a sec. What's your name?"
"Jacob." He banged the lower edge of the window with his fist. It slid down another two inches.
"Jacob, I'd like to ask you a few questions." Like how rotten the old house was, and exactly who lived in it. Beulah's solicitor hadn't mentioned children. And where was the caretaker? Could it possibly be the tiny woman repairing the roof?
"I'm not supposed to talk to strangers," Jacob said through the glass.
Of course he wasn't. But Jordan would probably get more out of the kid in five minutes than a wily old caretaker. He hadn't talked to his aunt for at least ten years but that didn't mean he'd forgotten her. Beulah had been borderline crazy, in his opinion, and like attracted like. The five apartments in the house probably housed all sorts of misfits. Like the woman on the roof for instance. "If we introduce ourselves, we're not strangers. I'm Jordan."
He pasted on his I'm-a-nice-guy smile, the one he used right before he told his clients how much it was going to cost them to save their companies. Jacob sent him a withering look. "That's not the way it works."
Okay, the kid wasn't stupid. Time to talk business. "Give you a couple bucks if you answer some questions."
"About theumph" Jordan crumpled to his knees as someone ambushed him from behind. An arm wound around his neck, cutting off his air supply. What in blazes? He grabbed the slender arm and tugged. If he could get to his feet, he could fall backward and shake off
"I've got a hammer in my hand," a voice grated in his ear. "You move, and I'll use it." The woman from the roof.
"Call 9-1-1, Jacob. Tell them we have an intruder," she said.
"Perry will come when he hears our address," Jacob shouted through the window.
Roof Lady swung her hammer under his nose. "What kind of sicko sneaks up a fire escape in the pouring rain and offers a child money to talk to him?"
Jordan eased back on his heels, his attacker plastered to his back like Spider-Woman. "You don't want to call the police."
Her grip tightened around his neck. "Are you a friend of Tony's?"
"I'm Jordan Tanner, Beulah Winer's nephew."
Her arm went slack, and he heard her suck in a sharp breath.
"Oh, boy." Jacob slammed the window all the way shut.
She climbed off his back. "Mr. Tanner?"
"Yeah." He got to his feet and wiped the rain from his face as he turned around on the small landing. The woman barely reached his armpit. With her huge green eyes and small pointed face, she reminded him of a drowned kitten. He looked pointedly at the hammer in her hand until she slipped it into the hoop on her tool belt.
She crossed her arms over her chest. "You're early," she said in the same voice his secretary used when he was late.
"Why are you up on the roof whenYou're the caretaker." The conclusion he'd been trying to avoid couldn't be ignored any longer. Round one to Beulah Winer. He'd assumed she'd left him the house because he was the last living member of their not-so-illustrious family, but only five minutes in, and it wasn't stacking up that way.
He'd hoped the house would provide the means of cementing the financial security he'd always dreamed of and very nearly achieved. But he'd failed to take into account the fact that his great-aunt was the benefactor. There was a good chance Beulah had left him the house to torture him.
"That's right, I'm the caretaker." Roof Lady elbowed past him and after a couple of thumps, yanked the window open and slid through. Jordan barely had time to register her trim butt before she turned and eyed him. "Do you have any ID?"
"You've got to be kidding." Hadn't she been listening? He owned the building.
"You were lurking outside my window, trying to bribe my kid with money. I'm calling the cops if you can't prove who you say you are." She grabbed the phone from the kitchen counter and cradled the handset under her chin. Her right hand stole down to rest on the head of her hammer.
"I thought" he got out through clenched teeth as he wrestled his wallet out of his soaked pocket "that you were a jumper." He flipped his wallet open and held up his driver's licence. "Jordan Tanner, at your service."
Beulah Winer had been meaner than a swarm of wasps on a hot summer day. And just as crazy. She hadn't been particularly fond of Nellshe hadn't been fond of anyone as far as Nell could telland Nell had returned the favor. Like everyone else living in the house, she'd made a wary peace with the spiteful old lady, had even helped her as much as Beulah allowed. In return, Nell had found a safe harbor for the past two years. A safe harbor that was quickly sinking out of sight.
"You thought I was going to jump off the roof?" She slid the phone back on the counter. With a sinking stomach she studied his driver's licence. Even with his hair plastered to his head and rain trickling down his face, Jordan Tanner still managed to look as self-assured as his photo. He had a stubborn chin and clear blue-gray eyes with a black rim around the iris.
"I didn't see the hammer from the street," he said as he pushed his dark hair off his forehead. "All I saw was a woman up on a roof in a storm."
Nell narrowed her eyes. Okay, so she was drenched. And of course he had to arrive before she had a chance to change out of her overalls and get rid of her tools, butWhat was she doing? The only thing that need concern her was getting Mr. Tanner in and out of the building and her life as quickly as possible. And if that meant playing nice for the next hour or so, she could do that. She didn't have to like it, but she could do it.
She bit back a smile as she demurely motioned for him to crawl through the open window. She knew she should suggest meeting him at the front door, but watching him clamber through the narrow opening was much more appealing. He shot her a hard look, as if to say he knew exactly what she was up to, then in one graceful move, somehow managed to maneuver his wide shoulders through the small frame. She took a step back when he straightened to his full height, the room dwarfed by his size. She should have guessed he'd rise to the challenge.
"If you give me your suit jacket, I'll hang it up in the bathroom and grab us some towels. Unless you want to go home and dry off. Come back later." Hard to keep the hopeful note out of her voice.
"I'd prefer to look around now."
With a heavy heart she accepted his sodden jacket and trudged off to the bathroom. Of course he wanted to look at the apartments today. From the little she'd been able to squeeze out of the tight-lipped solicitor who'd handled Beulah's affairs, Tanner was a business consultant who lived in Seabend, the upscale seaside community just twenty minutes out of Halifax. Seabend had become so crowded with trendy coffee shops and boutiques, Nell barely recognized it anymore. The only reason Waterside hadn't developed in the same way was because they were another forty minutes down the road, making them a solid hour from the city. Tourists trickled through in the summer, but they stuck to the waterfront where a few stores had sprouted. Thankfully, people like her, who lived a few blocks back in the old neighborhoods, were left undisturbed. Heaven forbid Tanner should waste time making a second trip here. She rolled her eyes. God save them all from consultants.
In the bathroom, she scrubbed her face with a towel and studied her reflection in the mirror. Her eyes were huge, and if anyone bothered to notice, they'd see the slight tremble at the right corner of her mouth.
She gripped the edge of the sink with both hands and leaned into her reflection until her breath steamed up the mirror. You will not be afraid. You will go out there and tell that man he needs you to run this place. You will . She rested her forehead against the mirror. She couldn't lose her apartment. Jacob and Lacey had finally started treating the place like home. She'd never find another one for such a low rent in this neighborhood. If they had to move, her little patched-together family would sufferand so would her chances for adopting her niece and nephew.
The thought that Jacob and Lacey could be taken away from her, that she might not gain custody, was unacceptable. She wanted to howl every time she thought of the kind of life they'd have with their abusive father, Tony. The adoption should have been final ages ago, made easier because she was a relative. But Tony had contacted Child Welfare a few weeks ago and expressed concern that his children weren't receiving the best care. In Nell's opinion, his real concern was getting parole, and if he had to use his children to get it, he would. As a result of his bogus complaints, she and the children were now being subjected to an intense home study. It scared her to think of what would happen to Jacob and Lacey if he was granted custody after he got out of jail. Who would take care of them?