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House Of Strangers
By Carolyn McSparren
Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.Copyright © 2003 Harlequin Enterprises Ltd. All right reserved. ISBN: 0-373-71143-3
Chapter OneEarly March
"I'm sorry Trey sold the house to a stranger," Ann Corrigan said as she hooked her foot under a rung of her bar stool at the counter of the Wolf River Café. "Not that I really blame him. What else could he do?"
"Two years on the market without a nibble. I guess he could have burned it down and collected the insurance," Bernice Jones answered. She ran a clean rag over the counter. "You want breakfast?"
"Just some iced tea, please. I would have bought the place myself if I had the money and could afford to fix it up."
"What would you do with a big place like that?" Bernice shook her head, picked up a mason jar, filled it with ice and tea, then set it down in front of Ann. "It's about ready to fall down. Trey jumped at that fool's offer, don't you think he didn't."
Ann peered across the counter. "Bernice, don't you have any lemon?"
"If you'll hold your horses, I'll cut you some. The tea's barely had time to steep." Bernice reached for a wicked-looking paring knife, picked up a lemon and began slicing it with speed and accuracy. "Bet you couldn't get iced tea this time of the morning up in Buffalo, could you?"
"Half the time I couldn't get iced tea in the middle of the day up there. They have this weird idea that iced tea is for hot weatherand never for breakfast. And they never even heard of sweet tea."
"Ought to be glad you finished that job and got yourself back down south. You must be sick of blizzards."
"I spent so much time restoring the proscenium arch in that old theater I didn't much care about the weather outside. I do not want to see any more gold leaf for a while."
"Not much of that next door at the old Delaney house." Bernice set a dish of sliced lemons on the counter. "Be better if it collapsed on its own, except it would probably fall on the café and kill us all."
Ann speared two pieces of lemon, squeezed them into her tea, then added a couple of packets of artificial sweetener. "Why are you so down on the place?"
"Everybody who ever lived in that mansion was miserable. Some houses are just unhappy from the get-go. You mark my words. That Frenchman has bought himself a heap of trouble." Bernice looked past Ann's shoulder.
"Hold your horses, boys. I'll be there with the coffee in a second." She picked up the big pot and wended her way through the tables occupied nearly every morning by the same group of local farmers indulging in a second breakfast.
When Bernice set the coffeepot back on the warmer, Ann said, "I was happy there. Sometimes after my piano lesson Aunt Addy and I would have lemonade and homemade macaroons in the conservatory. That house is probably the reason I got into the restoration business. Every time I see an old building fallen on hard times, I just ache to make it glow again."
"Huh. That house hasn't done much glowing in my lifetime."
"I hoped if it stayed on the market long enough, maybe Trey would donate it to the town for a museum. Endow it, restore it - something."
"What does an itty-bitty town like Rossiter, Tennessee, need with a museum?" Bernice waved a hand at the walls of the café, which were hung with yellowed newspaper clippings going back nearly a hundred years. "This is as close as Rossiter gets to a museum. It's not like that old house was built before the war."
Ann knew the war in question was the Late Unpleasantness between North and South. Other wars were spoken of as World or Korean or Desert Storm. "I hate to admit this, but I used to swan down that staircase and pretend I was Cinderella. I dreamed about the way it must have looked all lit up for the cotillions and parties."
"At least Trey sold the house to somebody who's got the money to fix it up. And you got you a job close to home into the bargain. You met the new owner yet? That Frenchman?"
"Nope. Daddy's supposed to be meeting him this morning to set up the schedule for the renovations. I might not see him for weeks if he commutes from New Jersey. And Daddy says he's not French."
Bernice leaned her elbow on the counter and rested her cheek on her hand. "What I want to know," she whispered, "is why some bachelor would buy that old house in a little town like this and spend a bunch of money on it."
Ann shrugged. "Daddy says he used to be an airline pilot. He got hurt and can't fly big planes any longer. Maybe he's buddies with some of the pilots who've redone the antebellum houses in LaGrange. He could have heard about the house from them."
"Those pilots fly out of Memphis, so they have to live close by, and they've got families and more money than sense. He's just some guy who showed up out of the blue, bought the place in five minutes and hired your daddy to fix it." She shook her head. "I'm surprised he didn't try to turn it into apartments or maybe tear it down and build something else - not that the town would let anybody do that to a historic property." She nodded her head sagely.
"They say he's retired." It sounded like an accusation.
"So?" Ann asked. "Lots of men retire early."
"Not that early. According to Lorene Hoddle, he's no more than thirty-five or -six. I tell you, Ann, there's something strange about it."
"Oh, come on, Bernice. You think he's going to set up a crack house or a high-class bordello?"
"Hush. Anyway, Miss Ann, you and your daddy take care not to do all that work and let him skedaddle without paying you."
"Daddy's checked out his credit references. He's got the money to pay us, and most people don't run out owing the chief of police money." She considered. "Gangsters wouldn't set up drug operations or prostitution in a town of 350 souls, most of whom are kin and all of whom know one another's business. Why drive way out here from Memphis to sin? And with legal gambling just south of the border in Mississippi, he'd hardly be likely to open an illegal casino in west Tennessee."
"Well, just you wait. There's something not right about it." Bernice refilled Ann's glass. "I thought he might be one of those professional decorators - you know, like Patsy's boy Calvin that went away to New Orleans - him not being married and all, but Lorene says he seems real macho. And real handsome. Now, Ann, if you play your cards right ..."
Ann laughed into her tea so hard she sputtered. "Bernice, one minute you're convinced he's a drug dealer, the next you're telling me to go after the poor man. No, no and no."
"Why not? You been divorced almost two years. You're too young not to get married again, have some babies."
"Bernice, I love you, but I'm not looking for another handsome man - certainly not one who's retired, as you say, at thirty-five, and definitely not one who bought my family's old homeplace. He'll be my client for as long as it takes to finish the Delaney mansion, then I'm off to restore something else. I've got good reason to know that good-looking men tend to think the rules don't apply to them."
Excerpted from House Of Strangers by Carolyn McSparren
Copyright © 2003 by Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.