Remember what I said about too many projects? It’s one of the reasons 2022 is likely to be the year I don’t release a new novel. Anyway, here’s the opening of a new Onteora County Romance. Working title: Doors. (This makes five separate novel-sized projects on the anvil. Is there a twelve-step group for this problem?)
How It Began
From the moment he first demonstrated the ability to fold a towel, Paul Larsen’s parents put him to work in Larsen Hospitality, their modest but profitable bed-and-breakfast in Ogunquit, a town on the southern Maine seacoast. It had been the Larsens’ family business for several decades. The industry he displayed was one of the reasons the B&B did well.
Paul’s de facto indenture meant free time for his parents, albeit at the price of free time of his own. They appreciated his labors greatly. They said so often. They never bothered to take notice of his complete lack of friends, a social life, or any prospects for romance.
By the time he’d finished high school, Paul was habituated to those conditions. Ceaseless labor had been his lot since early puberty. He never complained. He saw no point to it. He didn’t even consider a college education; he went from graduation to full-time work at the B&B. It had become the whole of his existence.
On Paul’s thirtieth birthday, after an exceptionally busy vacation season, his parents made a stunning announcement: they had decided to retire. They’d purchased an oceangoing sailboat and were planning to spend their golden years sailing around the world, seeing the sights that forty-three years of unending toil had denied them. Larsen Hospitality would henceforward be his, to do with as he pleased. And so a few days later, they bade their son farewell, unmoored their vessel from its Kennebunkport dock, and jaunted off across the Atlantic, leaving Paul to do alone the work that had absorbed three people’s efforts.
The job taxed him severely. It left him perpetually exhausted, with little time for anything but work. He endured that status stoically until, in early May of what would be his third year alone, exhaustion compelled him to adopt an expedient his parents had never contemplated: he advertised for an assistant.
Assistant Wanted: Profitable Ogunquit bed-and-breakfast needs an assistant manager. Make no mistake, it’s hard work. Salary negotiable; hours definitely not! Interested persons should reply to this ad at firstname.lastname@example.org
Paul had no idea how many applicants his ad would attract, or of what sort. He was surprised on both counts.
The flood of replies to the ad proved a trying experience. Merely to read them proved taxing. The great majority of his respondents made demands he could not meet, whether for money, perquisites, or time off. These he answered with a brief demurrer. Others claimed experience that would qualify them for the management of a great hotel. At any rate, it would price them beyond his means. Those he thanked for their interest but expressed regret that the post he needed to fill was far beneath their attainments. Then there were the solicitations for get-rich-quick schemes and the invitations to invest in a “sure thing.” Those he ignored completely.
But early in the morning of the seventh and last day the ad was scheduled to run, he received a note that piqued him with its peculiarity:
Greetings! I have absolutely no credentials in hospitality, and no special knowledge of the bed-and-breakfast trade. However, I love the Maine seacoast, I’m energetic, and I’m willing to throw myself wholly into something I’ve never done before. I cook well and clean meticulously, I make a nice bed, and I fold sheets and towels into things of beauty. Are you willing to take a chance on a novice? Let me know at once at email@example.com, as I’ll only be here for another day or two unless you decide to hire me on the spot. Excitedly awaiting your reply!
The energy and candor of the note charmed him. He decided to reply with an invitation:
So you love the Maine seacoast and make a nice bed, do you? As no other applicant has even hinted at such exalted qualifications, I find that I must meet you. Larsen Hospitality is at 15 Blue Water Way in lower Ogunquit. If you can find your way here during business hours today or tomorrow, we’ll talk further. Regards!
Only an hour had passed when what seemed the answer to his prayers presented herself at his front door.
Paul was in the middle of making up one of his two luxury suites when his doorbell clanged the arrival of a visitor. He dropped a pile of fresh linens on the unmade king-size bed and hurried down the stairs to the front desk. The entrant upon whom his gaze landed immediately moved him to smile.
She was young and petitely pretty, not quite five and a half feet tall despite formidably high heels. She was platinum blonde, with a complexion to match, and had blue eyes gently crinkled at the corners. Her figure was trim but noticeably feminine. Her sleeveless yellow sundress and heels struck him as an odd choice for a young woman applying for a position in a demanding trade. Her smile hovered at the edge of intimacy, as though she were visiting a dear friend rather than reporting for a job interview.
I don’t think I’ll hold that against her.
“Good morning, Miss.” He circled the reception desk and offered her a hand. “Are you my correspondent cholm at onteora dot ny dot gov?”
Her smile brightened even further as she clasped his hand. “That I am. Carol Holm, at your service. Potentially, anyway.”
“Well, I am Paul Larsen, the owner-operator of this modest establishment, and I am pleased to make your acquaintance.” He indicated the stairs with a nod. “Would you care to accompany me on my rounds?”
“You’re making up rooms? You, the owner?”
He nodded. “I’m alone here. The job is running me off my feet. I am desperate for help.” He gave her a cocked eyebrow over a critical eye. “Would you be willing to demonstrate some of the skills you mentioned in your note?”
She chuckled. “Of course. Lead the way, sir.”
“Please call me Paul.”
“Thank you. I’m Carol.”
“Then let’s be off.”
Paul had never seen a fitted sheet folded with such precision, to say nothing of the gusto with which Carol did so. It looked straight out of a retail package, as did the other elements in the set. And yes, she did make a nice bed.
Though he’d expected only a demonstration, she proceeded to fold, stack, and store the whole of the pile of freshly laundered sheets and towels, humming softly throughout. At the completion of her labors, she closed the doors of the linen closet, turned with a flourish, folded her hands at her waist, and aimed a Well? glance at him. He shook his head.
“I didn’t expect such a display of skill,” he said. “Especially in a sundress and heels.”
Not that I’m about to complain.
“I didn’t have a business suit with me,” she said. “Until I saw your ad, I was just a vacationer from New York, wandering the shops and mourning my imminent departure.” Her expression sobered. “But I am interested in the position, if we can come to terms.”
“How have you been making your living up to now?”
“Civil engineering. I’m a town building code inspector.”
“Oh? Which town?”
“Oakleigh, in Onteora County. It’s a small town in a small county in a boring part of New York. Not quite in the Finger Lakes tourist zone, not quite on the wine trail, not quite in the Southern Tier—”
“Not quite anywhere at all?”
She grinned ruefully. “That’s about right. Nothing of importance. Just people, really.”
He grimaced. “I’m not an engineer and know nothing about it,” he said, “but I’m pretty sure you already make more than I can afford to pay you.”
Her pleasant expression didn’t even flicker. “Don’t worry about that. If you like me—”
“—I’ll be happy to talk terms. At least if I can live as well as work here.”
“You’re that eager to work in hospitality?”
“Paul,” she said, “I regard your opening as a wish come true. Not only am I in love with this area, I’m desperate to get out of my current job.” A shadow passed over her face. “There aren’t a lot of things I wouldn’t do to relocate here, and the sooner the better.”
Desperation’s a poor reason to do most things.
Do I care? To have her around…
He steadied himself as best he could. Her beauty, vivacity, and energy were compelling. Her appeal threatened to overwhelm his good sense. After only half an hour’s acquaintance, he was already imagining a relationship that would involve activities far distant from making beds and folding laundry.
Stay cool. You’re looking for an assistant, not a mistress.
“And you’re willing to work with a Dane?”
“Hm? Oh, Larsen, right.” She shrugged. “The Fredericks and the Charleses have been dead long enough, wouldn’t you say?”
He took a deep breath.
She’ll cut deeply into your own share. If you pay her decently, at least. And you know you will.
“All right,” he said. “Let’s have a little lunch and talk terms.” He glanced at his watch. It was a few minutes to noon. “Do you like Greek food?”
“Then let’s hit the takeout place on Route 1.”
They chatted amiably all the way to the restaurant, where he bought them each a gyro. They returned to the B&B and settled themselves at the kitchen table, where they ate and talked terms.
He was candid about his revenues and his expenses. He even offered to open his books to her before she need commit. She replied that she understood what paying her a decent salary, even by Maine standards, would do to his proceeds, but insisted that she would listen to whatever offer he felt he could make without taking or pretending offense. He nodded as if in acceptance, but kept his interior assessment to himself.
As they talked, his curiosity about why she was so desperate to leave her civil-engineering position rose ever higher. He told himself that it was her business and not his. Besides, if it were genuinely important, no doubt she’d tell him in her own time.
He emphasized the burdens of the trade: the need to be forever cheerful; the peremptory manner many guests have about their “needs;” the cooking and housekeeping chores and the constant scurrying after resources for them; and so on. None of it seemed to daunt her. She smiled and professed herself ready for the challenge.
He pondered whether he should mention the recent influx of persons with unpleasant ways and unfriendly agendas, but decided against it. At least they’d been relatively quiet during Maine’s “Vacationland” season.
He could have discouraged her, but he didn’t really want to.
Hesitantly, he made her an offer. It struck him as shamefully low, especially to a young woman employed as an engineer. Yet it was forty percent of his annual revenue net of maintenance and taxes, all he felt he could afford. To keep it from sounding like a prospect of penury, he threw in room, board, and the right to use either of the house vehicles. She accepted it without an instant’s hesitation, then added a question.
“Do you have WiFi?”
It set him back momentarily. “Uh, not a proprietary account, no. I use the coastal service, which is provided free of charge to local businesses. The signal is pretty reliable. Why?”
She shrugged. “To keep in touch with the world. I know I’ll be busy, but I’d like to be able to surf the Web now and then, keep up on what’s happening and, ah…stuff.”
Most people who settle up here are happy to keep ‘stuff’ away from them. It’s becoming a second job for a lot of us.
“News junkie?” he said.
“Yeah, sort of. It’s just…I don’t know,” she said. She looked away briefly. “It’s getting kinda dangerous out there. I’d rather know about what’s going on than not. Especially if there’s any chance it might come here.”
It’s already here. If I weren’t so desperate to have you here, I might mention it.
“I get it,” he said. “I should probably put some time into that myself.”
Her eyes twinkled. “We could do it together.”
“All right.” He extended a hand, and she took it. “Welcome to Larsen Hospitality, Carol. I hope you won’t regret this.”
“Thank you, Paul. I’ll do my best.” She rose and performed an elaborate upper-body stretch. The sight raised his heart rate by twenty beats per second. “When would you like me to start? I have to give two weeks’ notice back in New York, but otherwise, I’m free.”
“Could you be ready to start two weeks from tomorrow?”
“That’s fine. Would you show me my rooms, please?”
Damn, I forgot. “Sorry, I should have told you about that up front. I have a two-bedroom suite on the first floor. It’s the only space set aside for long-term occupancy. I’ll equip your bedroom door with a deadbolt lock so you can have privacy and security, and we’ll share the rest of the suite. If you’re still willing, that is?”
She pondered it briefly.
I hope that’s not a dealbreaker.
“That’s acceptable,” she said, “if you don’t mind sharing the rest of your living space.”
“I did it for most of my life.”
“Oh. Your parents?”
“Well,” she said, “I promise not to hector you about the hours you keep, or why it’s taking you so long to find a nice girl, get married, and produce some grandchildren.”
He laughed. “That will definitely be an improvement.”
His smile remained long after she’d left.
Sunday, May 17, 2037
Carol parked her Acura RDX in the rear lot between a sturdy-looking shed and Larsen Hospitality’s Ford Transit van and Volkswagen Jetta, hauled her suitcases out of the trunk, and trudged around the building to the front entrance. It lacked a few minutes of noon. She rang the bell once and composed herself to wait.
He’s probably pretty busy. He already had boarders two weeks ago. Peak vacation season is only a week away.
I’d better be ready for this.
The door swung open. Paul smiled down at her.
“All your worldly goods?”
She chuckled. “Not quite. I’ll have to go back to New York at least once to close some accounts and dispose of a few things. But here I am. May I get installed?”
“Of course.” He glanced down at her footwear and his eyes compressed in puzzlement.
“Do you intend to go through the work day in heels?” he said.
“It’s what I’m used to,” she said. “When you’re as petite as I am, heels are virtually a necessity.”
He frowned. “Necessity for what?”
“For being taken seriously.”
“Oh. Well, I hope you have some flats or sneakers, for walking around in the woods.”
He relieved her of her bags, ushered her inside, and led her to the owners’ apartment.
The suite was comfortable and reasonably spacious. The living-room furniture all looked well used but clean and well cared for. There was a bookshelf stereo and a flat-screen television of modest size. The floors were oak plank that had recently been refinished. The kitchen wasn’t overly large, but it appeared clean and decently equipped. She peered into the bathroom and saw nothing to disturb her. He noticed her inspection and nodded.
“We’ll be sharing that, I’m afraid,” he said.
“That’s all right, as long as there’s somewhere I can put a few toiletries.” She gazed around. “Which room is mine?”
He gestured down a short passage. “The door on the left.”
He opened the door, slid her bags inside, and stepped aside, gesturing that she should enter first. She noted the deadbolt lock set above the doorknob, stepped into the room, and smiled.
The weight of the door struck her immediately. It was far more massive than a conventional bedroom door, more of the sort found at the entrance to a home. The jamb was plainly made of steel. She turned and found Paul waiting impassively.
“This is an outdoor sort of door,” she said.
He nodded. “Steel frame and core. I, ah, had it installed last week. I’ll tell you about it later.”
The room was about twelve feet by eighteen. It contained a queen-size bed, a medium-size desk and a chair on casters, a long, low dresser, an armoire, a vanity, a half-empty bookcase, and a large closet with mirrored sliding doors. The walls were beige, as was the Berber carpet. Everything was spotlessly clean, including the windows. There was a faint odor of antibacterial cleaners and fresh paint.
“This is very nice,” she said. “I’d expected something more like a college dorm room.”
He waved a hand. “It was my parents’ bedroom.”
Oh? You didn’t take it for yourself?
“I see you’ve already provided a lock.”
He nodded and handed her a keyring bearing four keys. One was labeled FD. A second bore the legend Shd. The other two were unmarked.
“‘Front door’ and ‘shed,’ right?” she said.
He nodded. “The front door key also unlocks the door to our apartment.”
‘Our’ apartment. I like that.
“What’s in the shed?”
“A lot of stuff there’s no room for in here. I’ll show you later.”
“And these?” She indicated the unlabeled keys.
Two of them. “Are these the only copies?”
“No,” he said. “There’s one on my keyring, and there’s another in a safe-deposit box in town with all the spare keys.”
She peered at him dubiously. “Why do you have one?”
He met her gaze without flinching. “I’m unwilling to have a door in this building that I can’t open if I need to,” he said. “I solemnly promise you that I won’t use it unless there’s an emergency.”
“Well then,” she said, “since I’ll be sharing your duties, will I have a key to the lock on your bedroom door?”
“There is none,” he said.
“Hm? None of what?”
“There’s no lock on my bedroom door,” he said. “Have a look.”
He shrugged. “I’ve never felt I needed one.”
She thought about it.
“Okay. I guess I can live with that.” She hesitated. “May I have a look at your room?”
He shrugged. “Sure, if you like.” He waved her toward the facing door, a conventional interior door unlike the one on her room. She turned the knob and stepped inside.
It was only a little smaller than the room he’d assigned her, but its furnishings were markedly different. There was a full-size bed, a dresser, a small desk with a straight-backed chair, a quadricycle, and a pair of large bookcases filled to capacity. Once again there was a large closet with mirrored sliding doors. The walls were a pale green. A multicolored rug covered all but the margins of the floor.
She smiled. “You’re a reader.”
He returned the smile. “That I am.”
“Anything. Words in a row.”
She approached the bookcases. There were some novels in paperback whose titles she recognized, but most of the books were hardbound. The leather on them was visibly aged, though well preserved. She ran her fingers lightly over the spines. “These are old.”
“Do you collect old books?”
“Only to read.”
She stepped back, turned to face him again, and gave him a more thorough looking-over than previously.
He was of middle height and slender, with the build of a climber or a long-distance runner. His button-front flannel shirt was open at the collar. A hint of a gold chain glinted from the opening.
She could sense a wiry strength in him. Yet his carriage was without tension. There was nothing extraordinary in it, only a relaxed readiness for whatever might be required of him.
Appropriate to a hard worker. And a lot of other things.
I wonder if I’ll get to see what’s under those clothes.
She suppressed the flash of desire.
“Anything else I should know before I get busy?” she said.
“Are you trained in the use of firearms?”
What? “Why do you ask?”
He chuckled. “This is Maine, Carol. We have bears, moose, wolves, a few varieties of snakes, and other fauna. A lot of them aren’t friendly to human beings. They don’t always stay outside the city limits. There are some unfriendly two-legged creatures, too. And I won’t always be around. I wouldn’t want you to be defenseless if someone not so nice were to come calling at such a time.”
“So you have a gun,” she muttered.
“Several, actually. Four handguns, three shotguns, two semiauto rifles, and a bolt-action hunting rifle. I’ll see to it that you’re introduced to them properly.” He seemed to note the tension in her face. “Never fear. It’s not as hard or as dangerous as the TV shows make it look.”
I should have controlled my reaction. Now he knows I’m a tenderfoot from the city.
It’ll either be all right or it won’t. I’m here and I’m staying, come hell or high water.
“I guess I’ll be learning a few things,” she said.
“If you ever head into the forest,” he said, “you’ll be glad you did. Now, would you like to have a little lunch, or would you rather unpack first?”
She insisted on making lunch for them. “You haven’t yet seen my kitchen skills.” She waved at the dinette table. “Eat in here or the dining room?”
“I usually eat in here.”
She nodded. “Then go do whatever there is to do, and come back in half an hour.” He held up his hands in mock surrender, she went to the refrigerator to survey the contents, and he returned to dusting and tidying the guest rooms.
Almost exactly thirty minutes later a melodic cry of “Come and get it!” sang through the building. He turned off the vacuum, hurried to the kitchen, found that she’d set places for them, and took a seat.
She came to the table with a platter of enchiladas and refried beans. She set it between their places, seated herself, and smiled brightly at him.
“Let him serve himself who can?” he said.
He reached for the serving pieces and filled his plate. She did likewise.
The food was as good as it was unexpected. She’d filled the enchiladas with chicken and rice, and topped them with a tangy red sauce.
“This is really good. How did you whip it up so fast?” he said between bites.
“It’s not hard if the ingredients are to hand,” she said. “You had the tortillas. Everything else was straightforward. I pan-fried the chicken breast so I wouldn’t have to preheat the oven, but apart from that it was routine. I don’t cook fancy, but I do get it done.”
“Hey, simple and good are exactly right for a B&B. If the tourists want fancy, they can keep going up Route 1. There must be fifty restaurants within two miles of here. Anyway, I’m impressed.”
She winked and went back to her lunch.
After they’d finished and cleaned up, he took her to the reception desk and showed her what she would need to know to service their guests.
“Is that straightforward?” he said.
“Oh yeah. Except for learning how to tell an already-signed-in guest from a new arrival who needs a room and a key…and for this.”
He pointed at his hip. Her breath caught. There was a holster threaded onto his belt. The flap was closed over something heavy.
I didn’t notice that before. Was he wearing it while he showed me around? While we ate?
She straightened. “What should I know about this?”
“Just that’s its my policy to be armed whenever the doors are unlocked. You won’t be until I’ve fitted you for a gun and holster of your own and taken you out for a lesson or two. Until then if anyone or anything gives you trouble, just sing out. I’ll come running.”
Yes, Carol. He’s serious.
She met his eyes and nodded.
“Well, none of the current guests should be back before about three PM,” he said. “Until then anyone who comes through that door should be new. I’ll take the next shift here if you’ll finish the cleaning. Don’t bother with the bathrooms, I did them already.”
She grinned. “Sold!”
He fetched his current reading matter from beneath the counter and settled in to pass the time. She trotted up the stairs to the guest area.
She spent two pleasant, unhurried hours dusting and polishing the furniture in the guest rooms, appreciating their pine-paneled elegance, and accumulating a mental list of minor improvements to suggest to Paul when they sat down to dinner. When the guest rooms were as tidy and appealing as she could make them, she headed down to the residential suite and let herself into Paul’s bedroom, intending to vacuum, dust, and tidy it as well. In only seconds she concluded that no such effort would be required.
There isn’t a speck of dust on anything. The carpet practically glows. He must have cleaned up before I arrived.
Even the windows are perfect. What man his age does his own windows?
Is this natural for him, or was he trying to impress me?
It occurred to her that a habit of meticulous cleanliness might have come naturally to one who has worked in the hospitality industry all his life. She weighed that against the seemingly natural tendency of young American men to give little priority to such things in spaces that were theirs alone. It left her uncertain, though impressed.
Well, then I’ll do my room.
But upon a close inspection, she found that he’d left her nothing to do there, either.
Jane Austen was wrong. He doesn’t need a wife. Not for this, anyway.
What does he need? Anything?
She thrust the thought aside and glanced at her watch.
Three-fifteen and we’re done already.
She returned the cleaner’s caddy to its resting place and ambled out to the reception area. Paul was still immersed in his book. He looked up and smiled as she approached.
“All done?” he said.
“You didn’t leave me much,” she said, mock-accusingly.
“I didn’t want to scare you into running back to New York on your first day.”
“Well, you didn’t. But what should I do now?”
He shrugged. “Sit. Read. Think about what you’d like for dinner. Why not get more familiar with the place? Have a look in the shed, see if there’s anything in there that would make your life easier.”
“Okay.” She headed through the kitchen and out the back door.
Not that I can imagine it being any easier. But maybe he’s thinking of having me do more of the cleaning in the future. Possibly all of it.
The shed was moderately large and sturdily built. The padlock on the doors opened easily. She threw the doors open, peered inside, and gaped.
An overhead light had come on, seemingly in response to the opening of the doors. It revealed a cornucopia of neatly arranged, easily identified items of many kinds.
The upper back wall of the shed was covered with a pegboard. From it hung a broad assortment of carpenter’s and woodworker’s tools and accessories. On the waist-high cantilevered shelf beneath it was a pigeonhole cabinet filled with wood fasteners of every sort. Underneath the shelf stood a rack that contained an assortment of small pieces of wood, suitable for a variety of small repair tasks. A tin of turpentine and another of acetone sat near it.
Against the right wall stood a squat metal toolchest which proved to contain an impressive collection of mechanics’ tools. The top drawer of the chest was divided into small compartments bearing an assortment of metal fasteners and washers for them. The device next to it baffled her for a moment. When she spotted the small fuel tank at its base, she recognized it as a compact welder’s torch.
The pegboard on the left wall was festooned with unions, T-junctions, an assortment of valves, and several gauges of copper and PVC pipe. The workbench below it contained several drawers that offered up adhesives, solvents, plumber’s cleaning tools, a self-retracting snake, a roll of plumber’s tape, a roll of welder’s solder, and a pile of work gloves. The surface of the bench was laminated with a thick layer of some hard but transparent substance. Though the protective layer showed some scratches, scrapes, and pitting, the grain of the wood beneath was clearly visible. It had a simple beauty she wouldn’t have expected to find in a utility shed.
Leaning against the inner surface of the front wall was a painter’s ladder, a three-segment roofer’s ladder, and a folded vise-workbench of the popular variety. In the corners hung a corn-bristle broom, a plastic dustpan, a plastic bucket filled with assorted rags, and a second, well-laden cleaner’s caddy.
Everything was pristine, including the shed floor.
I’d bet my bottom dollar that he knows how to use it all.
She backed out of the shed, closed and locked the doors with a touch of reverence, and returned to the main building.
In the reception area she found Paul checking in a pair of guests, a middle-aged couple. He smiled and beckoned her forward.
“Mr. and Mrs. Morris,” he said, “this is Carol, my co-manager. If you need something and I’m not around, Carol will see to it.”
Carol smiled. “Pleased to meet you both. I hope you’ll enjoy your stay at Larsen Hospitality.” She extended a hand. The guests took and shook it in turn. “May I help you with your bags?”
Mrs. Morris smiled. “No need, we can manage.” They hefted their valises and headed up the stairs.
“Which room?” she murmured.
“Lux A,” he said. “That’s our icebreaker for the season.”
“Have they stayed here before?”
“What do they like for breakfast?”
He chuckled. “Whatever you care to make. They’re easy to please. That’s not going be the case very often, so be ready.”
“I will.” She laid a hand on his shoulder, causing him to start slightly. “From the shed I can see that you’re pretty ready yourself.”
He shrugged slightly. “I have to be. If I had to pay to have all that stuff done, we wouldn’t make a profit.”
“Do you hire anything out?” she asked delicately.
He grimaced. “High voltages and alternating current scare me.”
She smiled broadly. “Well, you won’t have to hire it out any more.”
His eyes widened. After a moment, he awarded her a slow clap.
She bowed. “Thank you, thank you. Now how about running me through the check-in and check-out procedures?”
“As you command!”
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