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The farmhouse was enormous. Priscilla wandered through the rooms with mounting excitement. This was exactly the kind of place she was looking for to redecorate and turn into an inn. The location, too, was almost perfect?close enough to Boston to be an easy drive and yet near Gloucester, too, where there would be enough to keep guests busy during the day. And Essex was horse country?hunting, polo, riding. She drew a notepad from her purse and began to consider the possibilities in earnest, waving off Mr. Amherst, her real estate agent, when he approached her.
As Priscilla wandered once again through each of the rooms, she noted down its dimensions, condition, the possibility of adding a bath, and the location of the nearest existing one, the current state of the farmhouse kitchen, and a myriad of other details. When she was satisfied she could add nothing further, she approached Mr. Amherst, ready now for his sales pitch.
But he was no longer paying attention to her wanderings. Another man had joined him, and they stood in the entry hall?which would be more than large enough for a reception area?and discussed the building.
"The price is right," her agent was saying.
His companion negligently lifted a set of broad shoulders and muttered something about the need for extensive renovations.
Priscilla was a little annoyed to find Mr. Amherst attempting to sell the property to someone else when he had met her there specifically because of the interest she'd shown when he offhandedly told her about the place on the phone. It wasn't one of the usual properties he showed her: the skimpy, poorly built excuses for farmhouses. The fellow had no idea what shewas after, but she continued to listen patiently to the new listings he called with each week. This particular place had been mentioned to her almost as an aside. And now he was trying to interest someone else in it.
"Excuse me," she said when she had stood waiting more than long enough for him to revert his attention to her. "I have several questions about the building."
Both men turned to face her, exaggerated politeness masking their irritation at being interrupted. The newcomer's eyes widened slightly as he took in her masses of chestnut hair, her green eyes, her stately height?and the exotic poncho that covered her right down to her fur-lined boots.
Priscilla had found the poncho in a musty shop on Newbury Street and had known immediately that it was exactly what she wanted. Its red, magenta and blue stripes were brazen in both their width and their brightness. Not everyone could have worn it, which was probably why such a fine wool poncho was on sale for such a ridiculously low price.
Coming from California, she hadn't owned any clothes that were appropriate to the Boston winters. She didn't particularly like the Boston winters, but she found the town compatible with her antique business. There had seemed no need to return to California after she'd decided she could make a living in Boston; she simply set up shop. And she hadn't regretted it much in the two years she'd been in New England.
Her real estate agent was considerately introducing her to the intruder, and she nodded but didn't bother to catch his name. The only thing of importance to her was the information that he was another real estate agent. Probably checking out the property for a client, she thought as she turned back to Mr. Amherst and began to ply him with questions about price, terms and the condition of the building. He told her the original house was almost two hundred years old but that half a dozen additions had been made over the course of its life. Priscilla did not notice when the other man wandered off.
It soon became apparent that Mr. Amherst had no further information he could give her and that he was in a hurry to be off to another appointment. But Priscilla had thought of several items she wished to explore, and she was unimpressed with Mr. Amherst's great rush. She was a client, after all, and he ought to be able to tell from her obvious interest that this time she was seriously considering buying the property. Even someone as dense as Mr. Amherst must appreciate this after her notable lack of enthusiasm for the shoddy stuff he usually showed her.
"Really," he said, running a hand nervously through his thinning hair, "I had no idea you'd want to spend so much time here, Miss Larson. Perhaps I could bring you back another day." He glanced surreptitiously at the thin gold watch on his scrawny wrist and shook his head. "I have an important meeting I can't afford to miss."
"Run along," Priscilla urged him. "I can see that the place is locked when I'm finished."
"I couldn't possibly do that!" he protested. "One doesn't just leave a client to wander around a house."
"Afraid I'll steal the silver?"
There was nothing, at least nothing Priscilla had seen, of the least value in the farmhouse, and she should know. There wasn't an antique in the place. For that matter, there wasn't anything over thirty years old, and most of the furniture was incredibly tacky, in her opinion.
Mr. Amherst was visibly making an effort to be patient with her. "It's not done. I could bring you around again first thing in the morning."
Priscilla sighed and waved a hand toward the recesses of the house. "Couldn't that other fellow wait around and lock up after me? I won't be all that long."
A choking sound came from Mr. Amherst's throat. He clutched unhappily at the knot of his tie, easing it as he glanced around furtively to make sure the other man had not heard. "But I introduced you to him!" he gasped.
Obviously, Priscilla had missed the great privilege this was meant to be. "Yes, yes," she said, impatient, "and you told me he was in real estate. Surely he wouldn't mind locking up after me."
Mr. Amherst dropped his voice to the merest whisper. "That's Craig James Pinckney III."
She'd never heard the name in her life. Of course, it took time in a new locale to find out who the local dignitaries and scions were. The object of her meditations now came into view at the top of the stairs, and she waved a hand to get his attention. "Ah, Mr. Pinckney. I wonder if you could do me a favor? Mr. Amherst is in a great hurry, and I'd like to stay a little longer. Would you mind locking up after me?"
Beside her, Mr. Amherst was making fluttering motions with his hands, clawing at the air and desperately shaking his head. For God's sake, Priscilla thought, the man is an absolute throwback to a peasant in the presence of the lord of the manor. She refused to withdraw her request no matter how important Mr. Pinckney was. If the man sold real estate, he couldn't be that important. Priscilla had a rather low opinion of real estate people in general.
For a moment, the man stood unmoving at the head of the stairs before he slowly began his descent. When he had reached a position not three feet from her, he said, "Certainly. I'm not ready to leave yet myself. There's no need for you to stay, Jack, if you'll just leave me one of those information sheets."
Priscilla could see that Mr. Amherst was overcome by Mr. Pinckney's use of his first name. Until that moment, Priscilla hadn't really comprehended what an ineffectual man he was; now his fawning speech of gratitude as he scavenged through his briefcase nearly made her sick. She wandered off into the long beamed living room, away from his ingratiating whine. There was no one on earth she would grovel to that way.
When she had heard the door close softly behind him, she turned around to face the man standing in the doorway. He was frowning slightly in her direction. "Are you rich or just famous?" she asked, a trace of amusement brightening her face.
"Neither," he replied absently.
His survey of the room had an intensity Priscilla didn't quite like. She was familiar with the look in his eyes; it was speculative, acquisitive. She knew she got it, too, when she was on one of her buying trips to England or France and saw a piece of furniture she knew she wasn't going to be able to resist. Probably she was wearing it right now. "I won't be very long," she said, walking toward the study off the living room so he wouldn't catch a glimpse of her eagerness.
"Take your time. I'll be a while myself. Just let me know when you're ready to leave."
The study would make a perfect billiard room, she decided. It was large enough, which was the main thing, and had a nice view over a small orchard. The carpets would have to go, of course. But then, it was her intention to replace everything. Furnished with antiques and decorated in her own exotic style, the farmhouse would make a charming, comfortable inn. It was personal flair that had everything to do with success in some businesses, even a business like antiques. Priscilla was sure the same would hold true with running an inn, though she'd never attempted it before. But trying new things was fascinating rather than frightening to her.
Mr. Pinckney had disappeared from the living room when she returned, so she felt no hesitation in exploring the wing off the kitchen before she left. Unfortunately, she found him there, lifting a rug in the corner to study the oak flooring. Few people did that unless they were really interested in a property.
"Are you thinking of buying it?" she asked as offhandedly as possible.
His eyes were a smoky brown under his heavy brows. There was only a little gray in the otherwise rich brown of his hair. Priscilla placed him somewhere in his mid-thirties, too young to have any gray hairs at all. He had a stubborn chin and sun-tanned skin. He looked up from where he was stooping, the expression on his face clearly indicating that he thought it was none of her business. "Possibly," he said. "Are you?"
"It needs a lot of work."
Priscilla laughed. "Work has never bothered me, Mr. Pinckney."
He rose, and she noticed that he stood several inches taller than her five nine. "It's not the sort of work one person could do alone. You'd have to have a crew in? carpenters, electricians, plumbers, sheet rockers, the whole lot."
"I can see that; it doesn't worry me."
"Perhaps your husband is a contractor."
"I don't have a husband anymore, thank heaven. And the one I used to have wouldn't have been the least use." Priscilla considered this the understatement of the year. "Is your wife a contractor?"
He looked momentarily startled, then smiled reluctantly, the corners of his lips apparently not wholly under his control. "No, and she's my ex-wife now. I'd love to see Monique wielding a hammer," he said as he thrust his hands into the pockets of his overcoat. There was no heat in the farmhouse.
"She'd probably do better with one than Percy did." Priscilla allowed her gaze to wander over the room, deciding it would be perfect for a live-in manager, or herself, if she chose to run the place full time. In that case, she would have to hire extra help at the antique store. "What would you want with a farmhouse?" she asked.
For a moment, he didn't answer; then he shrugged. "I'd restore it and resell it. There's a decent profit to be made in that sort of transaction if you do it really well. You have to start with a worthwhile property like this, of course."
Priscilla shook her head. "It's too big for that, for a single-family home. You'd put in more than you could get back."
"Not if the initial selling price was right. There are plenty of people who can't see the possibilities until a place is completely fixed up."
"One family would rattle around in here," she insisted. "It would cost a fortune to heat in winter. Surely in your line of business you see places more promising than this to restore. And places not so far from Boston."
"What would you do with it?" he asked.
If he hadn't told her what he planned himself, she wouldn't have answered. He wasn't her agent, after all. That poor, slavering Mr. Amherst was her agent, heaven help her. But she could feel the excitement quicken in her even as she thought about the inn. She tried to repress it as she answered with a negligent shrug, "I'd turn it into an inn, furnished with antiques."
"Too close to Boston. Too expensive to consider?with the extra baths you'd have to add and the updating of the kitchen." He dismissed her idea with a wave of one long hand. "It would never pay for itself."
"Little you know," she sniffed, annoyed with him. The problem with real estate agents was that they had no real imagination. Oh, they were marvelous at exaggerating a house's features and perfectly florid in their descriptions of what wonders could be achieved with a coat of paint, but they had no real genius for seeing unusual potential. "I'm ready to leave now," she said, hiking her purse strap up on her shoulder. "Thanks for staying."
"My pleasure," he murmured, following her to the front door as though he, too, were afraid she'd walk off with the tasteless vase in the hall. Probably thought she'd stick it under her shawl and give it to Goodwill. Priscilla laughed to herself as she descended the front steps and walked to her car without a backward glance.
* * * *
Craig James Pinckney III watched her climb into the Volvo station wagon. Crazy woman, he thought as he closed the farmhouse door. She couldn't have any idea how impossible her scheme was. He'd run into that kind of dreamer before. Not that this was the usual society woman who thought money was interchangeable with gravel and flung it about with well-bred carelessness. No woman of his acquaintance would have contemplated that poncho for more than five seconds. But she had the same kind of naiveté as many of Monique's friends, who spoke about ?some little hobby for myself?a bookstore or a restaurant." Dear God, someone should sit down with them and explain the facts of life. And he wasn't interested in her observations on what would or wouldn't be profitable for him. Restorations of truly interesting properties were his hobby, part of his business, but not the part that brought in the best portion of his income.
When he turned back to the farmhouse, he decided he'd seen everything he needed. He would make a good offer, low enough to make his project worthwhile, and that would be the end of it. If Miss Poncho did make an offer, she wasn't likely to have the credit to actually buy the place. Fortunately, there were safeguards against that sort of thing. No one lent money to an unqualified buyer.
The light was fading as he locked the door behind him and hastened to his car in the bitter cold of the evening. A light rain had turned to sleet that morning, and the roads were icy, so he swung his Audi cautiously onto the road, finding himself not far behind her station wagon. Women took an inordinate amount of time getting started, he'd observed.
Monique especially had taken forever. She would climb in a car, arrange her purse on the seat beside her, open the glove compartment to check on tissues or lipsticks or some such thing, fasten the seatbelt, if she thought of it, jiggle her feet around on the pedals and finally turn on the engine. But that was not the point at which she took off. Oh, no, then, with the car running, guzzling gas, she would study herself in the mirror attached to the back of the visor and adjust her hair. Usually, she hit the windshield wipers instead of the blinkers, too.
Craig was feeling disgruntled, and he wasn't quite sure why. The farmhouse had excited him. It was just the sort of project he needed now to add some interest to his life. His other business was going well, with three substantial buildings in escrow. His love life, to be sure, was not exactly thrilling these days. All the women he met seemed duplications of Monique, and he wasn't going to get caught in that trap again. What he needed was to find someone entirely different, someone who hadn't grown up in New England in one of the prestigious old families like his. But that seemed to be the only kind of woman he met.
Ahead of him, the station wagon's headlights were turned on against the gathering gloom, and he absently turned on his. It wasn't quite dark yet, but with the streets as slippery as they were, it was a wise precaution. He was surprised Miss Poncho had thought of it. There was a pickup truck some distance ahead of her, loaded down with crates, but little other traffic on the road. Craig was eager to get home, fix himself a drink and sit down with a pocket calculator to figure out exactly how much he was willing to offer for the farmhouse. He was experienced enough in restoration to make a rough guess at how much the needed work would cost, how much profit he could expect if he got the building at the right price.
The pickup truck, which had been traveling a little faster than was prudent on the icy road, suddenly skidded across the street far in advance of him. Craig was instantly alert, especially with another car between them. Who knew what the crazy woman would do in an emergency? The precariously balanced load of crates in the truck shifted as it swung back across the road, and in what seemed like slow motion, began to pour off the back of the truck bed like rambunctious children let out to play, scattering everywhere.
There was no possible way the Poncho could miss all of them. Already he could see that she was braking, slowly but surely, and beginning to weave drunkenly through the assorted obstacles. Incredibly, her car did not skid once, and she wound through the course like an experienced test-car driver, pulling alongside the truck at the side of the road unscathed.
Craig was not as lucky. His Audi clipped one of the heavy crates, and he could both hear and feel the sickening crunch of his left front fender. The damn box must have been full of lead! He was able to stop his car behind the truck, finally, just as the Poncho rolled up her window after exchanging a word with the driver. Craig saw her give a blithe wave of her hand and drive off, paying not the least attention to him and his predicament. After he'd waited to close up the farmhouse for her! That was gratitude for you. Just what he might have expected, he thought wearily as he climbed out of the car to get information from the truck driver. All he needed was to have his car in for repairs for the next week or two ...
* * * *
Priscilla wasn't even aware that Craig had been right behind her in his car. Assuming that it was some stranger who had hit the crate, she stopped only long enough to speak with the truck driver and assure him of her own undamaged state before driving off. She might have offered to help him gather the crates, but she wasn't feeling particularly altruistic. Besides, from the terrific crunch she'd heard behind her, she was convinced there was nothing light about those innocent-looking crates, and she had no intention of getting herself killed in the dark trying to spare some other driver.
By the time she reached her apartment in Charlestown, she was feeling the aftereffects of the near accident. For a while, her skill in avoiding the crates had left her almost euphoric, but she felt drained by the time she let herself into the building. She tossed her purse on the Sheraton sofa and walked eagerly into the kitchen, shuffling through her mail.
Nothing of interest?including the letter in Percy's handwriting?she decided as she set the bundle aside and began to make herself a hot toddy.
Once the heat of the drink had worked its way into her freezing body, she would discard the poncho and change into her bathrobe for a comfortable evening at home. Well, after she took care of her pets, she thought ruefully, reaching down to stroke the various animals. That was a major advantage of owning your own property; you could have as many pets as you wanted. Priscilla found it impossible to refuse a sorry stray or an animal someone was about to turn over to the SPCA. None of them, after all, was very large, though it was difficult keeping them off the antiques.
Her apartment, located above the antique store she owned, was more than adequate for her, and she'd restored the lovely old building with care. The rooms were of moderate size, made more interesting by her collection of antiques. That collection changed with some regularity, owing to the interests of clients at the store. The Sheraton sofa, for instance, was really just what Mrs. Thornton was looking for, and to keep it here where the cats might scratch at it was hardly good business. Priscilla sighed as, just when she decided to have it moved to the store and replaced with a Nicholson settee in which no one had shown any interest as yet, the phone began ringing.
Sometimes when the phone rang, she ignored it, even though she had an unlisted number. It wasn't just the crank calls she was intent on avoiding but those from people like Percy, who, despite the two years since their divorce, still called to bemoan whatever new travesty had befallen him. But there was his letter sitting on the counter, and he probably wasn't in any financial position to phone her, or he would have, since he detested the effort of penning a message.
Thinking the caller might be her shop assistant, Clare, she answered the phone. A very masculine voice asked, "Miss Larson?"
"This is Craig Pinckney. I met you at the farmhouse this afternoon."
The smoky-eyed Boston blueblood. Priscilla was extremely cool when she said, "I don't remember giving you my phone number, Mr. Pinckney."
There was a moment's pause before he replied. "I got it from Jack Amherst."
"I doubt that was an appropriate thing for him to do, Mr. Pinckney. If I'd wanted you to have my number, I'd have given it to you."
"I didn't think to ask for it at the time."
He hardly sounded apologetic. What was the use of having an unlisted phone number if people handed it around like popcorn? If Priscilla hadn't wanted the farmhouse so badly, she would have dropped Mr. Amherst and his fawning ways without so much as a blink. Wearily, she asked, "What can I do for you, Mr. Pinckney?"
"I thought we might get together for dinner some evening."
"Did you?" Priscilla was in no mood for this kind of nonsense. Either he wanted to talk her out of the farmhouse or into bed, and neither possibility appealed to her. "I'm sorry, Mr. Pinckney. I have a full schedule." She added, just to be polite, though she didn't feel like it, "Thank you for calling. Good-bye."
Perfectly satisfied with this conclusion, Priscilla replaced the receiver in the cradle after she'd heard him utter a mildly surprised good-bye of his own. What in heaven's name had possessed him to call her after regarding her with those cool, calculating eyes at the farmhouse? She had seen him make an instant evaluation of her. Not one of us. The message had been as clear as though he'd spoken it.
And he hadn't appreciated her poncho. Priscilla was sure of it. One of them didn't wear things like that, his widened eyes had hinted. Well, more fools they. Let them walk around in their drab suits and dresses and have not the least fun in embellishing themselves. Priscilla relished the opportunity of adorning her long, slender frame with the most outlandish and intriguing costumes she could find. People noticed her. They wouldn't notice Craig James Pinckney III unless he came up and kicked them. Or unless someone like Mr. Amherst went into his obsequious routine.
When she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror, Priscilla ran a hand through her chestnut hair. Mr. Pinckney would undoubtedly be shocked to hear that her tresses were, untinted, a rather boring shade of brown and that her eyes weren't quite as green as the contacts made them appear. On the other hand, perhaps he would approve, since appearances were probably very important to him. She grinned at herself in the mirror and went reluctantly to read Percy's letter.
* * * *
Craig stared at his phone for some time after hanging up. Whatever had possessed him to call the crazy woman? When he had finally left the poor, crumpled Audi in the street and crossed to his condominium in Louisburg Square, she had still been on his mind. His admiration for her driving skill helped assuage his annoyance with himself for not proving as dexterous. There wasn't really any reason she should have stayed to console him on the accident or to help, as he had, restore the crates to the truck. That bit of Samaritanism had almost cost him his life when a car had come barreling around a corner without its lights on.
Granted, she was an attractive woman with that glorious thick chestnut hair and those luminous green eyes. And she was certainly different from the society women he knew. Probably she didn't wear that poncho thing all the time. It hardly looked warm enough for the cold weather to be expected in Boston over the course of the next few months. He had thought she looked chilly, even at the farmhouse. But the purple boots, which went perfectly well with the poncho, wouldn't match all that many of her coats, would they? Or would they? Craig had a depressing feeling they just might.
Well, it didn't matter, since she'd given him a thorough brush-off. Perhaps he shouldn't have called Amherst to get her number. And probably Amherst shouldn't have given it to him. Craig had known he would; he had known Amherst would be willing to pass along any unlisted number in his book to do a favor for him. Which wasn't entirely because Craig was indeed from an old Boston family, but also because his reputation in real estate grew with each passing year. His family had been firmly against it when he ventured into the field, but it had fascinated him as no other business endeavor had, and within a year he'd been hooked on it.
Monique, too, had been wary, especially when she became pregnant with their only child. "It's such an unstable income," she had protested, gazing up with soulful eyes. "I want everything to be safe and secure for the baby." It hadn't proved to be his income that wasn't safe and secure for Michael but the marriage itself. That was the only thing Craig really regretted about Monique's decision to divorce him, that Michael had had to suffer. It was no fun for a ten-year-old to be shuffled back and forth between his parents.
Craig crumpled the piece of paper with Priscilla Larson's phone number on it and tossed it accurately into the wastebasket halfway across the room. He'd played basketball at Yale, though he'd never been good enough to turn professional. Now that would really have upset his family, he thought ruefully as he stretched his long legs and took another sip of the Manhattan he'd mixed himself. He also smiled when he imagined what they'd think of his seeing someone like the Poncho. But he was thirty-five years old, and though he tried not to offend them, his family no longer had any say over how he conducted his life. He wouldn't be seeing her, anyhow.