Even as a little girl, Miranda Nolan loved to sing and dance, especially for her reclusive neighbor, a woman who was more like a second mother. She never expected to inherit her mentor's estate and to have to put her career as a performer on hold. Even more confusing, she's found herself settling affairs with co-claimant Russ Gerik, an interpreter who lost his hearing in a tragic bombing and struggles to find his way in a now-silent world. Unimaginable.
As the two work together to catalog the possessions ofand understanda woman shrouded in mystery, they forge a powerful connection. But how long can their bond last when it's not built on trust?
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"I've inherited a haunted house," Miranda said. She surveyed the front of the Victorian home with a myriad of emotions that swung from sadness to guilt to elation.
Miranda was sitting in front of the house that was now hersor it would be once she'd jumped through all the legal hoops. The last occupant, whom everyone referred to as "Miss Virginia," had lived alone for the past seventy yearsunless one counted the cats that had decorated the porch, fence, roof and the inside of her fireengine-red Cadillac convertible. Word around the neighborhood was the car hadn't been driven since it was delivered by the dealership in 1959. Miranda's father, Tim, once told her he'd never seen it leave the driveway and no one had ever glimpsed Virginia behind the wheel. Possibly because there were always at least two cats draped around the steering wheel and ten more sunning themselves on the front hood regardless of the season.
Miranda stepped out of the SUV her dad had loaned her and glanced at her watch. She had about forty minutes before the guys from Rocky Ridge Furniture were scheduled to deliver a new bed frame and mattresses to the house where she'd be staying for at least a monthpossibly a bit longer. Her first order of business would be hiring a yard service to deal with the unkempt trees and lawn. Miss Virginia had spent her final weeks in a hospital, then at home with a hospice team, and Miranda doubted that pruning or mowing had been anyone's priority. The famous Caddy was still in the driveway, though absent of the felines. Miranda stared at the car for a few moments, blinking back tears and wondering if Virginia had even had a driver's license.
The house itself appeared to be in great shape. Even the roof looked new, and although the shutters needed a good paint job, the windows were storm-worthy.
Dave Brennan, Virginia's lawyer, had dropped off a key for Miranda that morning. It was time to use it. If bats with fangs flew out of the house, she'd simply pitch a tent on the front lawn until she could figure out her next move.
The key turned easily and nothing attacked her as she opened the door so she ventured in a bit farther and did a little tap dance in her sneakers on the hardwood. There was no lingering odor of big or small cats, and the switch in the front hall produced real light when she clicked it on. Not only that but those floors were in pristine conditionpossibly because nothing had been moved for years.
After taking a look at the massive amount of furniture, piles of books, records and boxes, Miranda nearly turned around and headed back to the airport. Virginia must have moved all of her possessions down from the attic because Miranda had never seen even half of what was now crowding the room. One item, however, had not been moved. Miranda was thrilled to discover the old upright piano pushed against the north wall. She spent a few minutes shifting some of the lighter boxes so she could find out if the instrument was as neglected as the front yard.
Once the path was clear, she sank down onto the piano bench and lifted the lid to reveal the keys. The chord she sounded was clear, bright and absolutely in tune. The action was even the right weight. She immediately popped back to her feet and, on a hunch, opened the bench, where she discovered a pile of sheet music. Things were looking up already. Images of mornings spent in Virginia's kitchen drinking tea followed by leisurely sessions of playing the piano began flowing through her mind. Perhaps she wouldn't sell. Perhaps she could rent some of the bedrooms to reliable tenants (assuming such beings existed) and stay at the house, something she resolved to do more often. Or she could hire a caretaker.
Miranda resisted the impulse to start playing a musical number from Phantom of the Opera. Instead, she dug inside her purse, grabbed her mobile phone and hit Speed Dial number two.
"Hey, Dad." Miranda didn't wait for a hello. "Have you seen this place in the past few years?"
"A bit overwhelming?"
"Well, let's just say I didn't remember it looking like a museum. It wasn't like this the last time I came over. Of course, that was right after I graduated college and Miss Virginia didn't want me to come inside. We had tea and kolaches on the porch." Her voice cracked. "I am not a good person. Six years. At least I sent cards. Big whoop, right?"
There was a long pause at the other end of the line. Finally, Miranda's father asked, "Miranda, is this going to be too much? You can stay with Farrah and me until you get things sorted. I just thought this would give you some time by yourself."
Miranda shuddered, imagining the stress of being around her father's self-assured "I've owned my own successful catering business since the day I graduated college" wife of eight months. At forty-one, Farrah Nolan was only fourteen years older than Mirandatoo young to be her stepmother and too old to really be a friend. Miranda dismissed that thought, musing that age had nothing to do with her feelings about the new Mrs. Timothy Nolan. Miss Virginia had been in her seventies when Miranda met her and their friendship had been instantaneous and solid.
"Thanks for the offer, but I wouldn't dream of invading your space. Y'all are newlyweds, after all! The good news is the piano is in tune, so I'm a happy singer. And as you might recall, Miss Virginia was a lady with eclectic tastesI may find riches here or at least a live cat or two. Are you sure all this is kosher? I mean, my living here before the will has been finalized."
"As far as I know, no one is challenging your inheritance," her father said. "If another claimant does turn up before or during probate, Dave will handle it." He paused before adding, "There are times I'm very glad I teach international law. I'd hate to have to tiptoe around the intricacies of estates and deal with irate relatives. The latter, thankfully, are non-existent in this case. Virginia was quite clear in her wishes. Dave told me that she left the house and all her worldly goods to you, Ms. Miranda Nolanand added a comment about your kindness to her over the years. You must have impressed the fool out of the lady when you were a kid." His voice caught. "I'm still grateful Virginia took over much of my nonexistent parenting."
Miranda closed her eyes for a moment, remembering the tall but frail woman who'd treated Miranda as if she were her own child.
"It's okay, Dad. You were going through a lot after Mom died. Miss Virginia saw a need and stepped in. She truly was family."
Miranda glanced around the living room and sighed, envisioning the hours of work ahead of her. "I have to say, this is going to be interesting. I'm about to dive into the history of the mid-twentieth century. I'm already in awe of these antiques. You should see the clocks. I've been in the living room less than ten minutes and I've already counted two grandfather clocks, three anniversary mantel clocks and some kind of weird pendulum thing a la Edgar Allan Poe. I can't wait for midnight when everything goes off at once."
"Mark 'em all down, Miranda. You need to provide as much info as you can to help out the executor, who'll be someone from the Brennan firm. Which reminds me, Dave said he'd be happy to send an appraiser or a Realtor at some point, but you might want to contact an antiques dealer if you already have someone you trust."
Miranda tripped over a heavy box but managed to hang on to the phone. "I do know someone but unfortunately, he's in Manhattan. That's okay. I'll get a better idea of who or what I need once I've taken a good tour of the entire house. There are probably hidden passages strewn with pots of gold. Or ghosts in every bedroom and of course the attic."
"Scared?" Tim teased.
"Nah. It's cool. Miss Virginia and I were good friends from the moment we met. If she pops out of the woodwork one night I'll ask her spirit to tea"
"She loved giving tea parties! For kids, anyway. I remember she'd invite you over and always send you home with a doggie bag full of fantastic cookies and little cakes. The woman was an amazing baker. I wonder if she was one of those culinary marvels who just sweeps into a kitchen and emerges with delicacies or if she had to dive through cookbooks and recipe files."
"Hmm. Now that would be a treasurefinding her recipe book. Tell Farrah if anything like that turns up, I'll give it to her. Anyway, I honestly don't mind being here sans companionship, unless creepy critters really do inhabit the woodworkand I do not mean Virginia's spirit or any other non-corporeal beings. I'm talkin' rats or mites. Or maybe I'll trip over a feline who deserted the old Caddy in search of tuna."
After a moment, Miranda's father coughed and completely changed the subject. He quietly asked "Not to sound like a nosy parent, but how are you feeling about the fiasco with Grant? It's only been a couple of days since you told me y'all broke up. Are you okay?"
He paused. "Are you up to telling me what happened?"
Miranda pushed a box of books off an armchair and then sank down into the soft cushions. "I'm fine. Really. Surprisingly, I'm more than fine. The basic story is that Grant Spencer chose the occasion of our closing night party for Illumination to announce that he had wonderful news. He's going to direct Topaz in Delirium."
"I remember you saying something about that a few months ago. He was sweet-talking the producer every chance he got, right?"
"Oh, yeah. But apparently he took it a step further. After I'd congratulated him on getting the gig he rather casually added that he was dating Cyan Marlowe, the college-age daughter of Tyrone Marlowe, who just happens to be the producer of Topaz in Delirium."
"Wait. Back that up."
Miranda could hear the mirth her dad was trying to hide.
"Did you say Cyan?"
"As in the inkjet color that always runs out first?"
Miranda laughed. "Precisely. Daddy Marlowe is Mr. Broadway Producer Extraordinaire. It's going to be interesting to see whose ego wins between Marlowe and Grant. Anyway, it struck me that my boyfriend was a toadwhich admittedly wasn't until after he broke up with mebut it still hit purty durn fast. I decided I'd be better off without a narcissistic, overly ambitious jerk who ruined the closing night party for me."
"Sorry, hon. Sounds like Grant brought tackiness to a new level."
Miranda sighed. "My only lingering question is 'what on earth did I ever see in him beyond good looks, charm and smarts and the theater mania we had in common?'"
Her refined and genteel father produced a distinct snort. "Well, having met the man, I'd add charisma to that list. I thought he was great for you and I'm generally a decent judge of character. I guess we were both deceived."
"Well, I'll just be more careful next time I'm attracted to someone and try to curb my impulsive heart. But I have to admit I'm really ticked Grant's directing Topazthere was a great part in it for me. Ah, well. Nothing to be gained by angsting over it all. I'll hang out here for a while, play Virginia's lovely piano and have a marvelous time sifting through her things. Maybe get some answers as to why she hid in this place for those seventy years."
"Now that would be a great mystery to solve. I remember hearing that she worked at one of the old department stores downtown back when they had their own tailors, but by the time we moved here she was taking in clothing at home and wouldn't leave the house. You practically lived at Virginia's 24/7, especially around Halloween."
Miranda sat straight up. "Halloween. Yes. Talk about memories." She closed her eyes, seeing herself as a little girl, dressed in a pink tutu and ballet slippers, ringing the doorbell of this very house and receiving a warm greeting from a tall, elderly woman with exquisitely refined features. Miranda could almost smell the scent of cinnamon-flaked cocoa and the chocolate cupcakes decorated in orange icing that had been sitting on a table in the living room. She could see Miss Virginia, dressed all in black, smiling, as she ushered the ballerina, the superhero and the astronaut inside for what had been Miranda's first Halloween mini-party.
"I was seven at the time. I remember you let the Shapiro twins be my escorts. That's how Miss Virginia and I first met." Miranda glanced at the corner of the room where Virginia's tea table still stood. She could almost see the starched doilies under the plates of goodies and Virginia's steady hand pouring homemade hot chocolate into cups for her Halloween guests. "Dad? Do you remember anything else about her life? Maybe some tidbit a neighbor let slip? I honestly don't recall her talking about her pastshe probably knew I was too young to care and most of the time I was rattling on about my dance recitals or school plays or " Miranda swallowed hard. "What a selfish little brat I was."
"Honey, you were young. No kid wants to hear the life story of anyone over the age of eighteen. Give yourself a break. She understood. Believe me." He paused for a moment then continued, "I heard that she bought the house in the mid-fortiesshe might've been a war widow. Then again I never heard anyone call her anything but Miss Virginia. And she definitely wasn't from Birmingham."
"That much I knew. She was Czech. I found out the first time she made kolaches for me and I became instantly addicted." Miranda could almost taste the fruit-filled pastries Virginia had baked on a weekly basis. "She was a great cook but I think she also dabbled in art. Or maybe she told me she'd been an artist's model? I'm not sure. She said she had a portrait of a child my age who had my 'impish expression.' But she never got around to showing it to me. I wonder if I'll finally get to see it."
"She also loved music and theater," Tim said.
"She did. I used to perform all my dance routines for her. I have this very clear memory of reciting and acting out the poem The Highwayman when I was in sixth grade. She thought it was a Tony-winning performance."