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Tess Roussel sidled through her Main Street office doorway a quarter of an hour past the posted opening time. She maneuvered a stylish leather briefcase, two rolled elevation plans, an oversize clutch purse, a custard-filled maple bar and her triple-butterscotch latte past the jamb, but coffee slopped through the cup lid and splattered over her gray suede heels.
"Not again." She inhaled April air smelling of last night's special at the trattoria across the street and this morning's catch on the docks two blocks over. And then she blew it out with a disgusted sigh. "Damn parking meters."
Shoving the door closed with her hip, she flipped a row of light switches with an elbow. It wasn't that she was too cheap to spend her work breaks feeding coins into one of the meters stationed along Main Street, although the daily expense competed with the cost of her favorite caffeinated beverages. And it wasn't that she was too forgetful to deal with the meters' payment schedule, especially after four parking tickets had forced her to devise an alarm system that could penetrate her deepest levels of concentration and summon her from her design work.
It was the principle of the thing. Potential customers shouldn't have to pay for the privilege of popping into the Victorian-era storefronts crowding Carnelian Cove's marina district. And the merchants shouldn't have to pay for the convenience of parking near their own places of business. And she shouldn't have to make the hike from the stingy public lot three long blocks down the street. And definitely not twice on such a drizzly morning, just because she had too much stuff to tote safely in one load. And not in these heels.
Although the shoesattached to the heels were simply fabulous.
Her stylish heels clicked across the scarred plank floor, echoing in the high-ceilinged space. Usually she enjoyed the ambience of her one-of-a-kind officethe subtle industrial spotlights punctuating the softer illumination of period fanlights, the brick side walls separating her office from the used bookstore on one side and the gardening boutique on the other, the touches of sharp black lines and bright red paint and delicate greenery. But this morning, in the fog-dimmed daylight trickling through the street-front bay windows, everything looked a little worn-out and washed-up.
Kind of like the way she'd be feeling if she let herself dwell too long on her problems. She dumped the briefcase, purse and elevations on her drafting table and scowled at today's project: a contractor's rough sketch for a bowling alley renovation she'd agreed to transform into a permit-ready plan. Not exactly the glamorous career she'd envisioned while slaving through her university design classes. And nothing like the exciting projects she'd worked on during her seven years with one of San Francisco's most prestigious architectural firms.
Her father, a dashing, aristocratic Frenchman whose work had dazzled the city's art connoisseurs before his untimely death, would have shuddered at the bourgeois assignment. Her mother, owner of the Bay area's finest art gallery, would probably cringe at the dull practicality of the finish details.
But drawing restroom updates and adding more diner space to Cove Lanes was the only kind of work available in this compact northern California town on the Pacific coast. She knew she should be grateful for the crumbs the local contractors had tossed her way since she'd arrived a year ago, though she understood why they were so quick to give her this particular share of their business: builders wanted to build, not fuss over paperwork.
Yes, she understoodmore than any of them realized. As much as she enjoyed the process of design, of crafting neat, two-dimensional schemes that would be transformed into three-dimensional works of art, it was nothing compared to the thrill of helping to shape her creation on the job site. The buzz and clang of equipment, the smell of sawdust and solvents, the skeleton and organs and nerves and skin of studs and plumbing and wiring and sidingevery step was fascinating and exciting and hers. Every detail and decision was hers to choose and make, and the sense of power and control was addictive. Every line and corner and arc sprang from her imagination, and watching it all rise from the ground was a rush beyond compare.
She switched on her music system and selected her favorite Miles Davis albumsomething cool to match the day, a bluesy tune to match her mood. No one in Car-nelian Cove considered hiring an architect when there were plenty of contractors willing to secure a building permit with the inexpensiveand unimaginativebasics. That's how things had always been done, and most people couldn't see a reason to do things differently. She'd known it might take a while to change their minds, and she'd been prepared to watch her savings dwindle during the adjustment period. But she hadn't realized there might never be any genuine design business for her architecture firm.
Her very own firm, her long-time dream: Roussel Designs. She sighed and carried her maple bar and her cooling latte across her office to study the model occupying the prime real estate in the windows fronting Main Street: the model for Tidewaters. Retail spaces for six smart boutiques and offices, a midsize restaurant at dock level and five spacious multilevel condominiums above. A wonderful boardwalk fronting the bay and an open, parklike space surrounding the parking area ample, meter-free parking. A harmonious blend of commercial use and stylish housing, a contemporary building reflecting local traditions, an ideal example for future waterfront redevelopment.
And it was absolutely, positively gorgeous.
She bit into her pastry and licked creamy custard from the corner of her mouth. She'd get Tidewaters built, all right. She'd pull it from her imagination and raise it from the ground, and then they'd see the three-dimensional proof of what she had inside her. She'd show them all what she could doeveryone back in San Francisco who'd warned her she'd never make it on her own, everyone here in the Cove who didn't think an architect could make a difference, everyone in her family who'd patronized her ambitions and doubted her abilities.
Everyone but her grandmother, Geneva Chandler. Grandmére didn't need proof of her granddaughter's talent and determination. She'd already put up the financial backing for the construction and had been calling in her political markers for this building she wanted as much as Tess did herself. They'd make a hell of a team.
Tess shifted her shoulders, uncomfortable with the possibility of comparisons to Geneva Chandler. She loved the old woman, but her grandmother could be powerfully intimidating.
A streak of sunlight pierced the low-lying fog along the bay, and the interior of Tess's office brightened. The fog would clear by midmorning, and another gorgeous spring day would lift her spirits. Good weather for building something.
And time to get started on the day's work.
She turned to face her desk, ready to draw the bowling alley plans on her computer's CAD system, and saw her answering machine's red eye blinking from beneath a messy stack of bills. The display listed the number for Chandler House.
"Tess, dear," scolded Geneva's recorded voice. "You're late."
"I know." Tess snatched at the bills before they toppled over the edge of the desk.
"If you're going to advertise office hours, you must make more of an effort to keep them," the machine continued. "It's part of a polished professional appearance."
"Get to the point," Tess muttered.
"But that's not why I called." Grandmére paused for dramatic effect. "I want you to cancel your morning appointments"
"As if I had any," Tess said with a sigh.
"and meet me here, at Chandler House. I'll expect you by eleven. No later than eleven," Grandmére emphasized. "You can practice your punctuality on one of your relatives, who manages to love you in spite of your shortcomings."
Tidewaters. She had newsthat had to be the reason for this summons. Tess pressed a hand to her jittery stomach and sank into her desk chair.
A city council meeting was scheduled for tonight, and the waterfront zoning issue was on the agenda. Again. Grandmére had been pulling strings behind the scenes, postponing a vote until she was sure the results would go her way. She still carried plenty of political clout in this town, and several of the council members already agreed with her plans.
They were right to agreeTidewaters would be a genuine asset to the city. It would develop a weed-choked gap along the waterfront, provide new jobs and help reinvigorate the quaint, older business section of townand all on someone else's dime. Tess had been astounded that anyone would refuse Geneva Chandler's offer to build such a wonderful, beautiful place in the heart of her community. But the opposition to development had been fierce. There were many here who wished things to remain as they were, who viewed progress with suspicion and the land at water's edge as untouchable.
Tess set the remains of the maple bar aside, wiped her sticky fingers and tried to concentrate on her work. But she couldn't shake the case of nerves or the unsettling swings from elation to dread that kept her stomach churning. Even if her grandmother had won this battle, even if construction were about to begin, Tess wondered if the war over the waterfront would quietly move underground.
And she didn't like the idea of building on such a shaky foundation.
Precisely one hour later, Tess drove her roadster up the long, winding approach to Chandler House. Early shrub roses edged the drive, and puffs of cotton-candy blooms dotted the rhododendron bushes spreading beneath the lacy canopy of a redwood grove. With each bend in the road, she caught a glimpse of the creamy yellow shingle-style mansion rising at the edge of Whaler's Bluff.
Her great-grandfather, an ambitious man who rose from lumberjack to mill owner, had purchased the site and planned for a great house overlooking the growing town. His son, a clever man who launched several local businesses and invested in others, created that house to showcase the family's wealth. Both men had used their moneyand that of the heiresses they marriedto benefit Carnelian Cove and their own positions in the community. Both had filled various city political offices; both had served as mayor.
Tess's mother had spent her childhood in the fairytale house, her room overlooking the crescent-shaped sprawl of Carnelian Cove. The building's fanciful bays and jutting windows, its wide porches and shadowed niches had filled Tess's imagination with romantic scenes during the holidays and summers she'd spent here as a girl, and she wonderedas she so often did latelywhether this grand old place was the source of her fascination with architecture.
She slowed as she passed through the gap in an imposing black iron gate, admiring the stone steps that marched from the leaded-glass entry to meet the dramatic sweep of pristine lawn. Pale green ferns spilled from wicker stands, and the porch swing sported bright new pillows striped in sherbet shades. One of Grandmére's fussy, yappy little terriers dashed to the top of the steps and sounded the alarm.
Though she'd have preferred to continue to the rear service area and enter through the modest kitchen door, Tess pulled beneath the stately porte cochere shading the side entrance. She was a grown woman nowand gathering every one of her thirty-one years about her like a shield. She didn't need the additional fortification of a cookie stolen from Julia's fat jar to help her face her formidable grandmother. But she did take a moment to run a comb through her hair and freshen her lipstick before she stepped from her car. Geneva Chandler wasn't simply Grandmére this afternoonshe was a business associate.
The heavy oak door opened and two more yipping, beribboned dogs escaped to circle Tess's car. Geneva stood in the doorway, a tall woman whose regal stance was softened by pink cashmere, pearls and a welcoming smile. "Right on time," she said.
"I can manage when it matters." Tess grinned and waded through the pack of terriers sniffing at her ankles. "And I was hoping you might reward me with lunch."
"I might at that, if you don't mind sharing a plate of cheese and fruit." Geneva wrapped her in a quick, tight hug that smelled of Chanel and felt like summer. "Julia has the afternoon off."
If Julia had prepared the plate before she'd left for the day, the cheese would be brie and the fruit would be fresh and arranged with artistic flair. Grandmére's cook may have rapped Tess's fingers with a wooden spoon more than once when they'd inched toward the cake frosting or strayed into the sugar bowl, but she'd always found time for a kitchen visit, inviting Tess to perch on one of the tall stools around the gigantic island, oohing and aahing over the news of the day while she stirred the makings of something fabulous in one of her huge crockery pots.
"Sounds like you might be needing some company," Tess said as she stepped into the cool side hall.
"Depends on the company."
"I could manage to be on my best behavior."
"Don't beg, Tess, dear," Geneva said with a shiver. "It's so unnerving."
Tess laughed and bent to scoop one of the terriers into the crook of her arm and then grimaced as a quick pink tongue scored a direct hit on her lower lip. "Ugh."
"You're getting slow in your old age." Geneva turned and headed down the narrow servants' passage. "Please wipe your mouth and join me in my office."
Tess set down the dog, tightened her fingers around her purse and followed her grandmother. A summons to the office had rarely ended well. Grandmére had always favored that spot for issuing difficult requests or doling out punishments.
Her grandmother ushered her into the small, thickly paneled room and then pulled the tall pocket door closed on its silent track. Tess's heels sank into the thick Aubusson carpet, and she inhaled the familiar scents of old books and furniture oil. Sunlight shot through the ruby reds and cobalt blues of the stained-glass panes above the lace curtains and pinned rainbows on the portraits of Chandlers in military uniforms and Victorian gowns. The spired mantel clock, wedged between a pair of smudge-snouted Staffordshire spaniels, ticked away the seconds.
"Have a seat, Tess." Geneva crossed to a cabinet. "This won't take long."
Tess perched on the edge of one of the delicate chairs near Geneva's desk. Neatly stacked on the desk's surface were correspondence and newsletters, no doubt from the Historical Society, the Garden Club, the Ladies' League, the University Foundation Committee. As one of the Cove's leading citizens, Geneva liked to keep a finger in every social pie in the county.
"I know it's a bit early for this," she said as she dribbled sherry into two dainty goblets, "but I think we can indulge ourselves just this once."