Thursday, February 07, 2008
Valentine's Inn by Chris Grover
Fifth sample chapter from Enchanted Holidays - Valentine's Day - VALENTINE'S INN by Chris Grover
To Rianna Gordon's annoyance, the rain that started earlier in the morning had now turned to sleet. Pulling up the hood of her winter jacket, she shoved the copy of the developer's offer into the back pocket of her jeans and limped around the perimeter of the lakefront property, trying her desperate best to imagine what it would look like a year from now. After the inn her great-great-grandfather had built on the shores of Lake Ontario over a hundred years ago had been replaced with the condos and other facilities she'd seen on the developer's plans.
Provided, of course, she went along with those plans and agreed to sell Wilton Homes the property.
She sighed sadly, her gaze lingering on the familiar, large, gray fieldstone building with its high slanted roof of cedar shingles, the old-fashioned six-pane windows and solid wood doors. The summer she graduated from high school, she spent part of her vacation helping her Uncle Bill repaint that white trim around the windows. They also painted the solid wood doors a cheery apple red and for as far back as she could remember it had always been her job to keep a brilliant shine on the brass door fittings. This place had been her family's home for more than a century. All her childhood memories revolved around Valentine's Inn and the last thing she wanted to do was let it go. But there was no way she could keep it and that was that. The sooner she made up her mind about the offer, the less painful it would be.
The real estate salesman said Max Wilton had looked at several other properties in the area and was eager to make a decision, so he gave her exactly forty-eight hours from five o'clock yesterday evening in which to make up her mind.
Sell and the moment the sale went through and all the legalities were taken care of, Valentine's Inn would be bulldozed into extinction and she could buy that cute little cottage in the Muskokas. The one with its own private lake. The one that the owner was willing to-
"Hello? Excuse me, miss, could you please give me a hand here?"
Rianna turned, surprised to see a dark-haired man hurrying toward her from the direction of the lake. Tall, broad-shouldered and probably in his late forties, he appeared to be cradling something inside his black leather jacket.
"Help you with what?" She started edging back toward the inn. "You realize this is private property?"
"Yes, I know." He smiled, his dark blue eyes unexpectedly warm and friendly as he opened his jacket. "Actually, it's this little guy who needs your help."
221 Chris Grover
Against her better judgment, Rianna stepped forward to look and felt an almost forgotten stirring in the region of her heart. With both her life and her emotions in tatters, the last thing she needed was involvement with anyone or anything. But a small black kitten, its fur so wet and full of ice crystals it stood up in stiff points, was nestled against the man's chest.
"I found him a couple of minutes ago huddled under a bush. I think someone must have dumped him."
"Poor baby." Rianna reached for the kitten. Tucking him securely inside her own fleece-lined jacket, she headed for the inn. "We need to get you inside where it's warm and dry."
When she reached the large, old-fashioned kitchen that had once been the nerve center of the inn, she realized the man was right behind her. But it was too late for her to worry about that now. Anyway, a man who saved abandoned kittens couldn't be completely bad, could he? If the kitten had been warm and dry on a day like this, she might have reason to think he was using the animal as a ploy, but it wasn't and-
"Do you have something we can use to dry him off? Maybe an old towel?"
"Try those cupboards over there." She pulled off her stocking cap, then jerked her head in the direction of the far wall as she put the kitten down on one of the steel-topped counters and started checking him over for signs of physical injury. "As far as I know, whatever we have is in there."
The kitten gave a tiny plaintive meow and tried to clamber back inside her jacket. "And hurry up. Spiky here is freezing his tail off." The ice on the kitten's fur had started to melt. Grabbing a handful of paper towels from a roll on the counter, she tried to absorb some of the moisture as she continued checking the cat for injuries.
"All I could find are these." He dropped a couple of thin bar towels on the table. "Don't you have anything thicker?"
She pointed to an open door leading off the kitchen. "The living quarters are through there. Grab whatever you can find from the bathroom."
A moment later, he was back with two fluffy pink bath towels. "How is he?"
"Cold, wet and scared, but otherwise okay. At least as far as I can tell." Taking one of the towels, she rubbed vigorously at the kitten's fur.
"Maybe you should take him to a vet."
"Why didn't you?"
He shrugged. "I'm on foot and the nearest vet is at least five miles away. Anyway, I saw you."
"And the word ‘sucker' written on my back?" She smiled wryly.
He looked a little shamefaced. "You could've said no."
The kitten gave another small cry and made a weak attempt to struggle free. His fur was still damp, but he looked a little less bedraggled. Putting the towel she'd used aside, she quickly wrapped him in the dry one and picked him up. "There's milk in the
222 Valentine's Inn
fridge. Can you find a saucepan and warm some up? He might be hungry. And his fur is going to take ages to dry. How do you think he'd feel about my hair dryer?"
"Terrified, I would imagine."
After putting the milk on to heat, the man turned on one of the big restaurant-size ovens that lined one wall and pulled down the door. Positioning a kitchen chair in front of it, he beckoned Rianna over. "This will help to dry him off. Cats love the warmth."
As she opened the towel, the kitten immediately reacted to the heat by stretching out a paw and giving a faint but appreciative meow.
When the milk was ready, she dipped the tip of her finger in it and brought it close to his tiny pink nose. He sniffed at it a couple of times, but that was all. Curling himself into a ball, he closed his eyes and went to sleep.
The man frowned. "I guess he's not interested in milk."
"I think he's more tired than hungry. I don't have a lot of groceries. But there's canned chicken and canned tuna and also some bread. I'll let him sleep for a while, then try him again with something else later."
"You're sure he's okay?"
"His fur is still damp, but he's far from starving. Plenty of meat on his little bones. He could've gone for a walk and gotten lost."
The man's hair had started to dry and Rianna felt a stab of compassion as he pushed his fingers roughly through it in a vain attempt to control the mass of curls. Same problem she had when her hair got wet.
"By the way, my name's Josh. Josh Byford."
"Rianna Gordon." She hesitated. "It's none of my business, of course. And whatever the reason, I'm sure you have Spiky's undying gratitude for saving his life. But what were you doing out here? Miles from anywhere and in this awful weather."
"Walking. When I'm not working, I come this way most days. I love walking along the edge of the lake. Gives me a wonderful feeling of being halfway between heaven and earth." He smiled. "Hope that's okay with you?"
"Be my guest. You're the one who's likely to die from exposure. Not me."
He chuckled. "Don't worry, that's not going to happen. But since you brought the subject up, what's your excuse for being here? Have you bought the inn?"
"No. I inherited it from my Uncle Bill. He was my mom's brother."
A look of eager anticipation appeared on his face. "You mean Bill Valentine? That's great." He suddenly sobered. "What I mean is, I'm really sorry to hear he's gone, but glad to know the property will be staying in the family."
"You knew him?"
223 Chris Grover
"Of course. I worked for him here at the inn for several years. But after the fire, when he closed up and moved to Hamilton, I'm afraid we lost touch. So, now the place is yours. Does this mean you're going to fix the old place up and reopen?"
"Sorry, no. As a matter of fact, I'm thinking of selling. A developer wants the property to build a retirement community and I'm just camping out here for a couple of days while I make up my mind."
His eager expression changed to outright horror. "Why would you sell?"
"Because..." She took a deep breath and tried to stretch her injured leg without disturbing the cat. "There are a number of reasons. None of which I really want to go into."
"Your property, so it's your call. I suppose the new owner could always convert the inn into a clubhouse or something like that."
"If I sell, I understand the inn comes down to make way for a fitness center."
"But the inn is over a hundred years old. A genuine piece of Canadian history. If you need the money that badly, surely you can find someone interested in preserving it? If not as an inn, maybe as a restaurant? Even a bed-and-breakfast."
"From what the real estate salesman said, I was lucky to get this offer."
"I don't believe that."
"I do. The fire that forced Uncle Bill to close down ten years ago did a lot of damage. A complete refit would cost a fortune. Anyway, why do you care whether I sell or not?"
"Because I'd hate to see the place disappear unnecessarily. The worst damage is in the reception and lounge areas. I realize it wouldn't be cheap to fix, but surely not that expensive."
"Upstairs suffered a lot of smoke damage, so there'd be the expense of new furniture and linens."
"But the building is structurally sound."
"So the insurance company assured Uncle Bill. But after ten years, there's a great deal that would require either repairing or replacing. Probably cost two fortunes to get it even halfway back to its former state. Then, there're startup costs for inventory and supplies and all new furniture and accessories for the bedrooms and lounge area. And you can just bet the health authorities would insist everything here in this kitchen be ripped out and more modern equipment installed. It's hard to find anyone who has that kind of money to speculate with these days. And what about staff? Who would want to work out here? And where would the customers come from?"
"I'm sure you'd have no problem arranging a loan to cover all that. And people worked here before," he said stiffly. "I'm also sure some of the old employees would want to come back. As for customers, the inn is on the main Toronto-Niagara Falls highway. The dining room never lacked for trade before the fire and it wouldn't if you reopened tomorrow."
224 Valentine's Inn
"Sorry. That's not going to happen, so I won't start cooking," Rianna shot back unable to keep the sarcasm from her voice. What did Josh, whatever his name was, think he was up to trying to bully her like this? "In any event, I can't cook."
"Can't or don't care to?"
She stared at him in surprise. "Excuse me?"
"My mom learned from her mom. She loved to cook...especially for her family. Of course, I realize women today have cutting-edge careers and don't have time for old-fashioned domestic skills."
"If it's any of your business, I don't have a family. Not anymore. But I know how to turn on the microwave, plug in the electric kettle and fry an egg. And for one person living alone, that's bordering on culinary information overload, in my opinion."
"What do you do? I mean, do you have a job?"
"Not at the moment. But I'm... I was a lawyer."
"Was. Not disbarred or discredited, just was."
"As in disenchanted?"
"No. As in retired."
He looked at her for a moment then laughed. A deep, booming belly laugh that set her nerves on edge. "You can't retire at your age. You have to do something. Even if it's only to relieve the boredom of turning the microwave on and off and staring at the walls."
"Okay. So you're financially independent, you'll get a nice chunk of cash from selling the inn, then what happens next?"
"Why are you so concerned about me?"
"From the sound of it, I think someone needs to be."
She gritted her teeth and glared at him. "I intend to buy a winterized cottage on a remote lake in the Muskokas and read, watch TV and generally indulge myself. You have a problem with that?"
"Can't imagine it being much fun if you're by yourself."
Her leg was aching badly from being in one position for too long. Another legacy from the accident that the doctors said she had to learn to live with. She needed to stand up and walk around to relieve the pain. Getting to her feet, she handed him the sleeping cat. "Take care of Spiky for a minute. I have a cramp in my leg."
"I thought perhaps you'd injured it. I noticed you limping earlier."
"Actually, I broke it in a couple of places. But it's fine now, provided I don't sit in one position for too long."
On her second tour around the big kitchen with its long, central island, green-tiled floors and steel-topped counters, she noticed the sleet had changed to snow. Big fat
225 Chris Grover
flakes were whirling in the wind and covering the landscape with a mantle of white. She picked up the electric kettle she'd brought with her and filled it with water. She was being a lousy host and while Josh was hardly a guest, he had saved Spiky from certain death.
"Want a cup of tea?"
"I should be going."
"I don't think so. Have you looked outside recently?"
He went over to the window and grimaced. "When did that happen?"
"While we were talking. Where do you live?"
"A couple of miles east of here."
"Well, you can't walk that far in a blizzard. As soon as it eases up, I'll drive you."
"That won't be necessary. It's only a snow shower. We get lots of them this close to the lake. Wait an hour or so and it'll be like it never happened." He returned to the stove. "Think you can find a box or something to use for a cat bed? Put it here in the kitchen near the stove, where the little guy will be warm and comfortable."
And let him think he's found a new home?
"First, I'll make the tea, then I'll go look. I need to fix up a temporary litter pan for him as well. I noticed there's still some sand in one of the fire buckets. He'll have to make do with that until I go to the store."
(c) 2008 Chris Grover - Do not reproduce in any form without the permission of the author/owner.
If you like this sample chapter, you can read the rest and 5 other stories by purchasing a copy of ENCHANTED HOLIDAYS, available from Cerridwen Press http://www.cerridwenpress.com/ in both electronic and print.