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"Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven."Luke 6:37
"This is it?" Wide-eyed and a little confused, Abby Bancroft stared out the passenger side window of the Ford Escort parked in front of the large Victorian house. Her stomach churned as her gaze flipped between the obviously outdated brochure in her cold hand and the three-story wooden structure to her right in need of a new paint job and some other cosmetic work. If the outside reflected the inside, her vision of reopening the Bancroft Bed-and-Breakfast by the Founder's Day Festival the first weekend in May died a quick and painful death.
Disappointment pooled around her shoulders and matched the dismal early March skies. Puffy gray clouds threatened more snow in the sleepy town of Dynamite Creek in northern Arizona. The bare limbs of the tree standing guard by the long porch running along the front of the house looked more inviting than the empty windows that stared back at her. She should have guessed the house would be as welcoming as the people who once lived inside.
"Yep. This is it. We're here." Delia Wentworth, the receptionist from her late grandmother's attorney's office unbuckled her seat belt and opened the driver's side door. Frigid air blew through the interior, making Abby shiver inside her inadequate jacket and miss the warm Southern California weather. Here wasn't exactly the picture perfect place she'd expected to find as she sat frozen inside the car.
"It's really a great house. It just needs a little TLC," Delia responded enthusiastically before leaving the car.
"A little?" Abby's skepticism showed in her voice. She knew nothing about general construction, but she had eyes, unless something in her brain had gone haywire in the long drive between Los Angeles and Dynamite Creek. Maybe she needed a pair of rose-colored glasses like Delia wore because Abby didn't quite see the old Victorian in the same way.
Pulling her collar around her neck, Abby grabbed her purse, exited the car and walked to where the young woman stood. Abby held up the brochure and compared it with the house. Then she flipped the piece of paper over. The photo credit was from 1987. Figures. Over the years, beautiful and welcoming had morphed into dismal and uninviting. The yellow paint had faded over time and had begun to peel in several places and some of the porch railing sagged. And that was just what she could see.
A gust of wind frosted her legs and whipped a loose strand of hair into her eyes. Abby should have waited until May to collect her inheritance, but the letter from the attorney's office hadn't really given her much choice and she wasn't fool enough to walk away from a place she could finally call home. If she found a way to fit into Dynamite Creek.
The cold, hard reality in front of her caused doubt to creep in. She didn't have a lot money or time for a place that wasn't turnkey, but she'd never be able to reopen the B and B until it resembled the picture in her hand. Her gaze skimmed the dull, faded exterior again. No one in his or her right mind would even consider staying in the house in its present condition. How the Bancrofts managed to attract customers the past few years amazed her. Even though the home had only been shut down six months ago with their deaths, neglect clung to every nook and cranny.
"Okay, the place needs more than just a little bit of care. Your grandparents"
"Charles and Sally Bancroft?" Bitterness and disappointment pulsed in her heart. "Hardly. Grandparents only by name." Crossing her arms in front of her, she stared at the numbers screwed to the fence post also in need of a fresh coat of paint.
The Bancrofts hadn't cared that her mother, Sharon, had spent years working two jobs and struggling to make ends meet while raising their granddaughter. Nor had they bothered to visit while her mother was ill. They hadn't even gone to her funeral when her mother finally succumbed to cancer ten years earlier. How apropos they'd saddle Abby with a falling down pile of wood that was probably as cold on the inside as it looked on the outside.
"Well, the Bancrofts had hired a contracting firm out of Phoenix with roots from Dynamite Creek to remodel the place about a year ago, but one of the partners took off with the hefty deposit money and never started the job." Delia opened the gate and ushered Abby through.
"That pretty much destroyed them physically and emotionally. Your grandfather died shortly afterward from a heart attack. Your grandmother didn't last too much longer. Such a shame. Anyway, as my boss told you, aside from the house, there wasn't much left once their medical bills were satisfied. Come on, let me show you the interior."
Not much left was right. Abby guessed she had two months of inheritance money to survive plus what she'd stocked away in savings and her retirement fund. She had to open the B and B or be forced to accept another failure. Maybe she should sell the property? But who would buy the run-down place in this economy? And did she really want to walk away from where her mother grew up? Houses like this didn't fall from the sky every day. Not for her anyway.
Following the younger blonde up the walkway, Abby's gaze skimmed the brown patches of grass peeking through the thin layer of old snow. Dead garden beds lined the sidewalk and the base of the house. Only the partially visible green shrubbery showed any signs of life.
"You were their legal firm, why didn't you sue?" The wooden steps creaked under her weight and the metal handrail only numbed her hand further. Bare branches rustled in the wind and dead leaves sounded nothing like the waves pounding against the shore of her favorite place in L.A. Dirt and debris piled on the porch looked nothing like the soft, grainy sand on the beach where she used to work as a teenager.
"Mrs. Bancroft didn't want to. I think she had a soft spot for the partner left holding the proverbial bag, but it wouldn't have mattered anyway. The company filed bankruptcy." Unlocking the front door, Delia stepped through and flipped the light switch. "I'll bring over the contract and bankruptcy paperwork later if you'd like."
"That's not necessary. I doubt I'll ever run into any of them, so I won't be able to give them a piece of my mind," Abby replied as she stepped inside. The warm interior surprised her, as did the lighting from the old-fashioned stained-glass light suspended from the foyer ceiling. "Heat? Electricity?"
"I'll bring it by anyway. My boss turned on the utilities yesterday for your arrival. In anticipation of your continuing the business, he even managed to get the phone service activated as of this morning under the Bancroft Bed-and-Breakfast name. Don't be surprised if you start getting calls for reservations. Despite how it looks, the Bancrofts had standing reservations every year for the Founder's Day Festival. Aside from this one, there's only two other B and B's in town, and they're probably already full. There's a file folder on the kitchen table with all the contact numbers so you can switch everything into your name. It's right this way."
Abby trailed after Delia, feeling as if she'd stepped back in time. A crystal chandelier hung from the center of the long hall, the light merrily reflecting off the glass. A tall wooden chair with a beveled mirror that also doubled as a coat rack graced the faded wall by the fireplace. High doorways on either side of the foyer led to more rooms. Beneath her feet, small, multicolored tile peaked out from underneath the worn rug. Despite the scent of neglect, the house had a charm she could almost grow accustomed to. She spun around, trying to take it all in before she hustled after the other woman. At a first glance, the interior needed as much work as the exterior, especially the kitchen. It was way too small.
Her heart plummeted again as enormous dollar signs flashed in her brain. She'd have to take out a loan. The appliances looked like they hadn't been updated since the late sixties. The lime green, orange and gold linoleum flooring had to go, but the Formica dinette table showed promise. It reminded her of Mrs. White's, the elderly woman who lived in the apartment next door to Abby's last place of residence.
"Here's the information on the utilities." Delia handed her the folder from the table. "And I thought you might appreciate this." The assistant handed her another folder a thicker one with several pamphlets inside. "It's kind of like a welcome packet. I know what it's like being new to town having moved here a few years ago with my husband, so I stopped by the Chamber of Commerce and got you this stuff. There's also some information about the church we belong to in case you're looking."
Church. Another concept as foreign as the small town of Dynamite Creek. The only time she'd ever stepped foot in one was for her mother's funeral. Not wanting to hurt Delia's feelings, Abby took the folder. Aside from the church, the rest of the information inside could prove useful. "Thanks. I'll be sure to look everything over when I get the chance."
Frigid air swirled around them as they walked back to Delia's car, the piercing wind sneaking inside Abby's collar. She shivered and got inside to go back to the attorney's office. Determination filled her when she glanced at the house again. Her mother had once told Abby that hard physical work brought rewards beyond compare. It looked like Abby was finally getting her chance to see if her mother's wisdom rang true. And maybe she'd finally found the home she'd always been searching for.
The sound of the phone woke Abby from a deep sleep. Stretching in the dim dawn light, she unwound her stiff body from the sofa where she'd sat down to rest just after midnight. Her brain still full of cobwebs, she stumbled to the back room she'd discovered yesterday while exploring the place. She grabbed the phone on the antique desk before she turned on the stained-glass lamp. A kaleidoscope of color danced across her vision as light spilled over the dark patch of stain on the desk that hadn't been worn thin like the rest of the surface. "Hello?"
"Hello?" A woman's voice floated over the line. "Is this the Bancroft Bed-and-Breakfast?"
Dread and a tinge of anticipation chased away her exhaustion. Abby found a stray curl and wound it around her pointer finger. Breathing deeply, she stilled the butterflies whirling in her stomach. "Yes. Sorry. This is the Bancroft Bed-and-Breakfast, how may I help you?"
"Yes. We'd like to make a reservation."
Abby's eyes widened at the sight of the old-fashioned black rotary phone. She didn't even know these things existed anymore outside of the movies. The numbering in the circles even looked foreign to her like most of the antiques inside the house.
"Um. Sure." With her computer still in a box on the floor next to the desk, Abby searched frantically for a piece of paper to write her first customer's information on. Her hand stilled on what looked like an old ledger stuffed inside the top drawer. Blowing lightly to clear the dust, she placed it on the worn surface and yanked a pen from the holder next to the lamp, her hands damp with a bit of nervous moisture. A lump formed in her throat but she managed to find her voice. "Our reopening will be May 5. Or would you be looking for a date later in the summer?"
"Hang on a moment. Harry, I've managed to get a hold of someone. It looks like we can get our Founder's Day Weekend after all." Abby held the phone away from her ear as the woman conversed with her husband.
Her gaze froze on the peeling corner of dark orange wallpaper with silver and gold thread running through it. She closed her eyes and dropped her forehead to rest on the palm of her left hand. What was she doing? There was no way she was going to get this house in order to receive guests in two months' time. Not without help and considering she knew no one in town except Delia and her boss, no one would be coming to her aid any time soon. Her breath rushed out in one big whoosh, sending a dust bunny fluttering to the floor along with her confidence.
"Fine. We'll take that weekend. We always love coming to The Founder's Day Festival. This is Harry and Edith Gordon. And we always stay in the blue room. This is Sally, right?"
Abby paused a moment and furrowed her brow. Making sure she said the right thing was as important as making sure she correctly wrote the information down in the faded yellow ledger. "No, this is her granddaughter, Abby. I'm sorry to say that both Charles and Sally passed away last year."
"Oh, how sad. I'm so sorry, dear. Funny, they never mentioned you, though."
She almost snapped the pen in two as she wrote in the date on the first available space she could find. "You'll still be coming, won't you?"
"As long as you don't give us some ridiculous rate or change things too much. We're creatures of habit, you know. And we hope you know how to make those blueberry scones your grandmother was famous for."
Biting her lip, Abby nodded until she realized the woman couldn't see her reaction. "Of course, Mrs. Gordon. Your rate will be the same as last year since you're a repeat customer. I'll be taking care of a few repairs and painting and such, but everything else should be pretty much as you remember it. Thank you for staying with us again. Have a nice day."
After hanging up the phone, more butterflies gathered in her stomach. What kind of businesswoman was she? Not a very good one. She'd been a lifeguard, a waitress, a store clerk, a pizza delivery girl and had worked in an insurance office. The few business classes she'd taken in junior college hadn't prepared her for the real world. Figuring out how to make blueberry scones was the least of her problems. She hadn't secured the room with a credit card or gotten any of the Gordons' contact information. Hopefully her grandparents had been good bookkeepers.
Soft sunlight filtered in through the slats of the old wooden blinds as she sat at the desk. The chair squeaked in disapproval as she leaned back. Bookshelves and file cabinets filled the entire side wall. It would probably take until May to figure out what rate the Gordons' had paid last year, especially since the only technology in the room seemed to be the calculator by the memo pad.