book 1 in The Wells Brothers trilogy
A week at a dilapidated mansion planning the restoration of Victorian era gardens was a prime contract for landscaper Luke Wells. Finding his employer and her irritating, curvy niece already overseeing the packing of mouldering antiques and planning some ghost hunting was disconcerting.
The heat of desire, the emergence of a scandalous secret from the past…
Talk about unexpected…
With a sigh of satisfaction, Luke turned and surveyed the view. A lot of wilderness had taken over the once grand gardens, paths choked out with weeds, broken pieces sticking up and even some scattered around. But the bare bones were there, his practiced eye could make them out, and if he heard correctly there was supposed to be ponds as well. Dried up now, obviously, but the prospects were amazing.
Clapping his hands together, he rubbed them briskly. “Dog, a week of living in this place, soaking up the atmosphere, checking out the local library and online, exploring the grounds and drawing up plans is bloody awesome.” Dropping his sunglasses back onto his nose, he grinned widely. “Being paid to do this is icing on the cake.”
Retrieving the mobile from the handless holder on the dashboard, he slid it into his pocket before slamming the door shut and reaching into the tray of the ute for the small bag and duffle bag. The duffle bag contained clothes, the small bag his laptop, several sketch books and a couple of books on landscaping ideas. Anything else he needed he could buy in town.
“Hey, Dog! Fall in line.” He started crossing the ground towards the steps.
Dog looked at him.
Dog’s tail stopped wagging.
The tail drooped.
“Heel,” Luke said sternly, going up the steps.
Moping, Dog wandered up behind Luke to drop into a sulking squat at his feet.
“Don’t be such a wuss. You’re embarrassing me.” Pulling a big, old fashioned key from his pocket, Luke started to fit it into the rusty the lock only to frown as the door swung creakily open under his hand.
Placing the small bag and duffle bag down, he glanced around but nothing stirred on the veranda except for some material ripped half off a rotting cushion on a mouldering chair.
“Hello?” One hand on the door, he pushed it further open, listening intently.
He looked down at Dog. “This would be where you go in first.”
Dog looked from him to the door and back up at him.
“Now is not the time to hold a grudge. Move your arse, we’re going in.”
Tail wagging, Dog ambled past Luke to disappear into the gloom beyond.
Following, Luke stepped into a wide entry, only to blink in amazement as he saw through the opening to the big room beyond. Slowly, he took off his sunglasses.
“Holy cow.” Eyes wide, he walked through into the room and looked around.
Man, at first glance the place might be crappy with the wall paper peeling off the walls and the bits of furniture shabby and falling apart, but there was still a faded majesticness in the soaring ceiling and the wide staircase that went up the middle to the second floor to branch out either side. He caught glimpses of open doors on the second floor, old furniture on the landing, his gaze dropping as he walked into the centre of the massive room and turned around slowly, just taking it all in.
Several huge old paintings on the walls, what appeared to be red velvet curtains now faded and rotting against the windows, some old wooden furniture that had to be worth a small fortune if they were as old as they looked.
He was no antique expert, but some of this had to be authentic. He just hoped Mrs Arkwell had the brains to get it all checked out by a bonafide antique dealer. Maybe he’d mention it to her. If she wanted this place to regain its former glory and attract clients, then she should restore as much of the original furnishings as possible.
Dog was happily sniffing everything, tail wagging, going from one item to another, sneezing several times.
As much as he wanted to check out the grounds, Luke also wanted to check out the rooms. So much history, so much to see. Not that he knew anything much about historical houses, but it was intriguing nevertheless. When would he ever again get the chance to roam around an old mansion? Probably never.
Glancing around, he debated where to start. On either side of the huge room were several doors leading further into the house. Dog decided the direction for him when he suddenly lifted his head and trotted to one of the doors on the left.
Following him, Luke noted that oddly enough there wasn’t a huge amount of dust in the air. He’d expected cobwebs hanging from the ceiling and dust layering everything, but there were only a few cobwebs in a corner, and the dust… Frowning, he stopped to run a finger over an old table. A light dusting, not the heavy coverage one would expect of a derelict house.
Suddenly alert, he glanced around. Nothing seemed to be disturbed but now he had a sudden gut feeling he wasn’t alone, only to give himself a mental slap. Geez, his father had been here, and Mrs Arkwell had several times, she’d probably had someone come in and do a quick clean before he arrived. Obviously he was her guest in this place regardless of the fact it needed extensive work. The door lock was a prime example of deterioration.
Frown disappearing, he walked slowly along behind Dog while looking around. From the majestic hall he’d come out into a wide corridor that went for a fair distance into the depths of the house. The runner under his boots was falling apart, he’d have to roll it up and stow it safely away before he tripped on it one night and broke his neck. Having a modern ghost in a hundred and forty year old mansion just wouldn’t fit the atmosphere.
Grinning, he gave the old paintings on the wall and the figurines on the side tables a cursory glance, knowing he’d come back later for a more thorough look if the interest kept prodding at him. He wasn’t a historian, had no interest in antique values. It was plain old curiosity.
Another side door led to a surprisingly bleak hallway. The walls were a faded, dull cream, the floor plain wood. No paintings on the walls, it was as bland as sand. Speaking of walls, it didn’t have the nice finish of the main house, indeed, nothing had been done to make it nice. Serviceable, yes, and at that thought Luke realised he must be in the servants’ work areas, so the kitchen must be near. It seemed like servants back in the day weren’t considered to need comforts or nice work places.
Yay for modernisation. That, in turn, had him wondering just when the last owner had actually lived here, which gave him another pause.
Shit, the kitchen didn’t have just a wood burning stove, did it? Apart from BBQs, he didn’t do well with fire. Having to cook on a wood burner would result in no dinner or the mansion burned down.
A little perturbed, he caught sight of what appeared to be a kitchen and turned through the doorway to walk into the room.
It was large, a big table with chairs around it in the middle, cupboards and sink along one wall, an old ‘fridge, and a big stove he didn’t bother to check out – mainly because his mouth fell open as his attention was snagged by the figure leaning against the far wall sipping at a mug she held in her hands.
Dark red hair was pulled back in a ponytail, wild red curls spilling over her shoulders, dark green eyes surveying him a touch sardonically, one dark brow arched. The small, slightly tip-tilted nose had a sprinkling of freckles dusted across it, and the lush lips curved in a half smile.
There was no mistaking that generously curved figure poured into jeans. There was no mistaking the generous bosoms that pressed against the pale pink checked shirt with the sleeves rolled up shapely arms to below the elbows. There was no mistaking the bright pink sneakers on her feet which were crossed at the ankles. There was no mistaking the identity of the woman who shouldn’t have been leaning against the kitchen wall.
“Mikki?” What the hell…? Luke stared.
Lifting one finger off the mug, she gave him a little finger wave. “Luke.”
“What are you doing here?”
“Recruited by Aunt Elspeth.”
“Recruited? For what?”
She glanced around the room then back at him. “To help out here.”
“To help me?” Horror shot through him. “Are you kidding? What do you know about-”
“Settle down before you stroke out.” Mikki gestured to the room, mug still in hand, managing not to spill the drink. “I’m here to help her with the house.”
Dog, the traitor, bounded over to sit at her feet with his tongue lolling out and an eager look on his hairy face. When Mikki gave him a pat on the head, he almost dissolved into a puddle.
Still perplexed, Luke asked, “What do you know about old mansions?”
“I’m not here to fix it up, I’m here to help her check everything out and get things packed up.”
“Packed up?” Luke moved further into the kitchen. “What do you know about packing antiques?”
Mikki eyed him for several seconds.
Luke eyed her right back. Sheesh, he’d thought he’d have the mansion to himself for the week, now he had this irritating redhead coming and going.
At least, he hoped she’d be coming and going. Unease trickled down his spine. “You’re staying in town?”
“Nope.” A small smile played around her lips.
That unease just spread further. “You’re heading back to the city every day?”
The smile widened. “Nope.”
Oh, surely not. “Then…?”
“Roomie!” She practically beamed, those green eyes dancing.
Ah Jesus, it was worse than he’d thought. “You’re staying here?”
copyright Angela Verdenius 2016