DISCLAIMER: The characters of Olivia Spencer, Natalia Rivera, Rafe Rivera, Frank Cooper, Buzz Cooper, Rick Bauer, Marina Cooper, Blake Marler, Ava Peralta, Jane, Greg, and Daisy Lemay are the sole property of Procter & Gamble, Telenext and CBS. They are being used for entertainment purposes only. No profit is being gained.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: All other characters and the story itself are my own creation, are entirely fictional, and are not intended to represent any actual person, living or dead. Any resemblance to any actual person or incident is purely coincidental and/or a figment or your own imagination, for which I cannot assume any responsibility. © 2009 Formerlurker. (In my fictional Springfield, Olivia never got a heart transplant or even needed one, although she does have health issues. Natalia never married Gus. In fact, Gus never even lived in Springfield and wasn't Alan's son. Frank and Natalia never dated, much less got engaged and almost married. Rafe never shot Jeffrey.)
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
The Summer House
Natalia stood looking down at me with a huge smile on her face. I was trying to decipher what was so amusing about the sight of me splayed out in a hospital bed with tubes sticking out from my body in every direction. "You do realize that if you succeed in making me laugh I'm going to pull my stitches, right?" I said. She composed herself then.
"I'm sorry Olivia, I'm just so happy that you're out of ICU and you're going to be okay." She actually did look really happy for me.
"You barely know me. Maybe when you get to know me better, you'll rethink that," I dead-panned. I could see her trying not to laugh, but Natalia chuckled in spite of herself. Ah! Vindication! I've still got it. I was rather proud of my ability to see the humor in almost any situation.
"That isn't funny, Olivia."
"Hey, you laughed, didn't you?" I looked at her and raised my eyebrows. Actually, I was touched that she cared enough about me to be happy that I was still alive.
"Right," Natalia replied, and then changed the subject. "Rick has given me strict instructions not to say anything to stress you, so I'm not going to say anything about business. You will just have to trust me that everything is running smoothly and your hotel will still be there, operating as usual, when you get out. Okay?"
"What choice do I have?" I sighed, resigned to be left in the dark. I wasn't really that worried. I don't know why, but I trusted this woman to handle things. There was a calm quality about her that I found reassuring. Even though I had just met her, there was something familiar about her that put me at ease. I didn't usually feel this comfortable with another woman. I generally preferred the company of men.
When I broke off from my own thoughts and realized she was talking again, Natalia was saying, "Jane wasn't available, so I have been staying in your suite with Emma. She is adorable. She knows you are in the hospital and that you are getting well and will be able to come home soon. She made a card for you and one for Dr. Bauer. Want to see?"
I smiled at her. Of course I wanted to see. "Please," I said, and she handed me the cards. They were very sweet. Mine said, "Get well, Mommy. I love you." She had drawn a picture of the two of us, hand in hand, and had drawn some fluffy clouds in the sky, and flowers at our feet. Rick's card said, "Thank you for fixing Mommy." The picture was of a man in a long coat and a stethoscope, and there were nondescript tools in his hands. One looked suspiciously like a pair of pliers, though. I was sitting on the table while Dr. Rick used his tools to "fix" me. That was about right. I laughed out loud at the picture, causing a sharp pain in my chest where Rick had made his incisions. "Ow!" I yelped. "Minimally invasive, hell!"
"Olivia, are you okay? Are you in pain?" Natalia stood up and seemed poised to call a nurse.
"Only when I laugh," I quipped, grimacing.
She rolled her eyes at me. "If you can joke about it, it must not be that bad."
"Oh, it's bad, but it really doesn't hurt too much when I'm lying still. It was this card. Look," I said, pointing to the card Emma had made for Rick. Natalia looked and started laughing.
"It looks kind of like he's performing a carburetor adjustment, doesn't it?" she laughed, pointing at the pliers. She was leaning down close to look at the card. I noticed her perfume and wondered what it was. It was really nice. I started to ask her, but then she looked at me and said, "Emma would like to come to the hospital to see you. I didn't say anything because I didn't know what you wanted me to tell her."
"I really don't want her to see me like this. I look weak and helpless, and Emma needs to know that I can always be there for her and be strong for her." Natalia looked as if she wanted to say something, but didn't dare. "What?" I asked her, "Tell me what you're thinking." She looked sheepish and uncomfortable. "Go on," I said, "I won't bite...much." I winked at her.
"Well," Natalia started, looking at the floor and hesitating. Then she looked as if she made up her mind and continued,"She's your child and you should do what you think is best for her. But, don't you think it might be good for her to see that even if you get sick, you will get well and strong again, so that she doesn't fear you getting sick? Otherwise, she's left with whatever is in her imagination about you being here, and the truth is probably a lot less scary."
That caught me off guard. I had never looked at it that way before. "You're right. I think she can probably handle seeing me smiling at her and being able to talk to her, even though I'm here, a lot better than what she must be imagining, if it's so bad that I can't even see her. How did you get to be so smart?"
"I'm not really. But raising Rafe on my own, I got the chance to spend a lot of time talking to him and being with him, and I saw things more from his perspective. Do you know when you will be released from the hospital?"
"Rick said three to seven days. They used a robot to help perform the surgery, so they didn't have to open me up. That means I can get out earlier. I need to get my cholesterol levels down so I don't have problems in the future. You know, you saved my life. I owe you."
"You don't owe me anything, Olivia. I'm just glad that you asked me to fill your prescription that day. If you hadn't..."
She looked down at me, and she seemed to have trouble making eye contact. I reached out for her hand and squeezed it. "Thank you," I said, and I meant it. "Bring Emma this afternoon when she gets out of school." She nodded. She had saved my life. She was also taking care of everything for me, including Emma, while I got better. I didn't like depending on anyone else, but for some reason, I knew it was okay to rely on Natalia. There was just that quiet strength in her. Maybe it was her faith. I had learned that there were two types of religious people those who wanted to appear good and devout, but really were hypocrites, and those who really were that good, who practiced what they believed but didn't put on a big show for the benefit of appearances. In my experience, there weren't a lot of the latter. I admired them, but I had no idea how they did it. I could never be that good. Of course, I would never pretend to be, either.
Natalia seemed nervous all of a sudden. She gathered up her things and mumbled something about having errands, and off she went. I watched her go and thought again how lucky I was to have her as an employee. I was also starting to consider her my friend.
I sat in my car in the parking lot of Cedars, trying to make sense of what had just happened. When she held my hand and looked in my eyes and thanked me for saving her life, all I could think about was how beautiful she was, and how strong, and how much I wanted to hold her at that moment. I was so happy that she hadn't died. If she had died, that beautiful little girl would have lost her Mommy. The thought of it brought tears to my eyes. I could tell how much Olivia loved that little girl, and how much Emma loved and needed her Mommy. Olivia really was amazing running a business and still being able to raise such a polite, delightful child on her own.
I started up the car and headed back to the Beacon. But as I drove, I remembered Olivia's smile as I came into her hospital room, and the sound of her laughing at Emma's card, and I felt a now familiar twinge in the pit of my stomach. Then I remembered the way her hand felt, holding mine, and I actually blushed. I didn't want to admit it, even to myself, but I knew that what I was feeling was more than just admiration. What is wrong with me? Just get over it, Natalia. This is not possible. It's a mistake. You cannot feel this way.
By the time I reached the Beacon, I had decided that I would try to avoid spending any more time with Olivia than necessary, at least until I got over whatever this was. Then it dawned on me that I was going to have to see her again ...today. I would be taking Emma to see her mother. I groaned at the thought. But a little part of me was secretly excited at the prospect of seeing her again. I decided to gather some of Olivia's personal items for Emma to take to her mother, to make her more comfortable during her hospital stay. Maybe if I focused my energy on that task, I wouldn't have time to think about anything...else.
I was standing on a balcony overlooking a meadow. The air was crisp and the leaves on the trees at the edges of the meadow were just starting to turn yellow and orange, their muted hues a promise of the brilliance that was to come. Warm hands suddenly covered my eyes, and I could feel the warmth of a body pressed against my back. Then soft lips grazed my ear with a whispered, "Guess who?" Before I could answer, I felt those warm lips against the base of my neck, and my knees went weak from the sensation. I turned and pulled her into my arms, my fingers sifting through thick dark hair. Her dark eyes were locked on mine, pulling me in. Then I felt her lips against mine, melting into mine, parting slightly, opening to me...
"Olivia...Olivia..." Someone was shaking me. Wait! Don't...
"Olivia, wake up."
I opened my eyes and saw Ava, standing next to my bed, looking concerned. "Are you okay? Should I call a nurse?"
"No. I'm...I'm fine. I was just having a little...whatever they're giving me is causing some very strange dreams." I winced a little at the thought. Not really 'strange.' More like erotic, and very...different. Then I reached out my arms to hug my eldest daughter, "Hi, you. When did you get here?"
"Last night...too late for visiting hours. I just got up about an hour ago. The time difference is killing me. You look pretty good for someone who almost died."
"Thanks. I think," I shot back at her, smiling.
"So how are you...really?"
"I'm pretty good...really. They used this new procedure so they didn't have to crack me open like a ripe watermelon. I should be good as new in a couple of months. But you know how doctors are...no stress, watch the diet, don't work too much, early to bed and all that crap...basically, no fun."
"They're not just trying to ruin your day, Olivia. You need to take better care of yourself. Now that you're getting..."
"Don't you dare say it," I cut her off.
"Okay, I won't. But you do need to take better care of yourself. I'd like you to be around to see your grandchildren, and Emma would like you to be there for her prom. Okay?"
"Right. Got it. I'm working on it."
At that moment, Emma ran into the room, with Natalia right behind her. "Speaking of Emma...here she is. Hi, Jellybean! I missed you." I held out my arms for a hug and Emma rushed into them, causing a stab of pain. I clenched my teeth so I wouldn't yell in pain. I looked at Natalia and Ava, and they could see the pain in my eyes, and the fact that I was struggling not to let Emma know about it.
When I followed Emma into Olivia's room, there was an attractive woman with short dark hair standing by her bedside. She was very stylishly dressed. Emma ran over to her mother. I saw what was about to happen, but it happened too quickly for me to prevent it. Olivia's face was twisted in pain when Emma hugged her tight.
"Emma, why don't you show your Mommy what you brought for her?" I suggested, knowing that Olivia would not want me to make Emma feel bad about hugging her mother. Emma ran back over to me to get the basket we had prepared for Olivia. She took it back and held it up so Olivia could see.
"We brought you something, Mommy. It's..." Emma forgot the next words we had rehearsed.
"something from..." I helped her.
"something from home to make you feel better," Emma finished, proud of herself.
Olivia smiled at both of us. "How wonderful. What's in here? Oh, my favorite shampoo and some nice soap, and here's my lotion, and chapstick, and some books, and a picture of Emma. How perfect. You know how to make me feel better, don't you Jellybean?"
Emma was beaming and nodding, "Yes. I want you to get all better so you can come back home."
"I want that too sweetie. I should be back really soon, just a few days. But I'm already feeling so much better now that I have these things, especially this picture of you so I can see you whenever I want." Olivia put her arm around Emma's shoulders and hugged her gently.
"Ava, this is Natalia. She is a new employee at the Beacon, and she has been taking care of Emma for me since I got in here, among other things. Natalia, this is my eldest daughter, Ava. I think you have already spoken on the phone."
'Yes. It's a pleasure to meet you in person, Ava."
"Likewise, Natalia. Thanks so much for everything you've been doing for my mother, and for Emma."
"Well, it's my job...and you're welcome."
"You have gone above and beyond the call of duty and you know it, Natalia. You didn't have to do half the things you have done for me. I really appreciate it," Olivia said, beaming at me. When she smiled like that her whole face lit up. She was such a stunning woman. Ava obviously took after her mother, and Emma would too, in time. She was already a beautiful little girl.
"Ava, would you take Emma down to the cafeteria and get her a snack. I want to talk to Natalia for a few minutes about business," Olivia said, smiling at Ava and Emma.
"Sure. Come on, Emma. Let's go."
"Bye Mommy," Emma said, a little reluctantly.
"It's okay, baby. You're coming right back. I just need a minute with Natalia." Emma's face lit up at that, and she took Ava's hand. When the door closed behind them, Olivia motioned for me to come closer. I did, and she took my hand in hers. I looked down at her hand holding mine. I didn't want to look at her, but she obviously was waiting for me to do so, and I forced myself to look into her eyes. That was a huge mistake. Her eyes were filled with tears and were a deep aquamarine green. I felt something catch in my chest. "Thank you, Natalia," she said, "Thank you for bringing Emma and for making the basket for Emma to give to me. That was such a thoughtful thing to do. I mean, you don't really even know me, and somehow you managed to pick out all the things that would make me the most comfortable here. How did you manage that?"
I felt completely flustered. I didn't know what to say. "I just guessed, really. ...I'm...I'm glad I got it right." Then I looked back down at our hands. She released mine and leaned back against her pillows.
"Well, you are a godsend, Natalia. I'm giving you a bonus when I get out of here. You deserve it."
"I didn't..." I was really upset by what she just said. It didn't even make sense. I was her employee and I needed the money, but for some reason, I felt offended that she would give me a bonus for taking care of her. None of it made sense. Why would I feel offended? "It wasn't...It wasn't about money," I said, and my voice was angrier than I intended.
"I'm sorry," Olivia looked caught off guard. Of course she was. "I didn't mean to offend you by..."
"No, I'm sorry. I don't know why I said that...You didn't offend me. Really." But I could see she didn't really believe me. "I'll go see if I can track down Emma. Visiting hours are going to end soon, and I know she'll want to see you before that." I smiled my best smile, hoping she wouldn't notice it wasn't real.
"Okay," Olivia said, frowning slightly, as if she couldn't understand what had just happened. I didn't blame her. I couldn't understand either. It just made no sense. What was the matter with me?
After talking to Greg and Janet, and seeing the financial reports for the hotel, I couldn't find one thing that anyone messed up during my hospital stay. Not one complaint from a guest, not one cancellation, nothing. Believe me, I looked for something. I was so out of sorts from my stay in the hospital that I was really craving a little confrontation to get me back in my groove. Going toe to toe with an employee or a vendor is like therapy for me. Being all cooped up in the hospital had made me cranky.
On the second day after I got out of the hospital, I was in the middle of a staff meeting when Rick popped his head into my office. "I'll be right with you," I told him, avoiding any eye contact. I hoped he would just get tired of waiting and leave, but there he was when I came out 20 minutes later.
"Hello, Olivia," he said silkily, "What were you doing in your office just now?"
"Just chatting with some of the employees. Why?"
"That's funny, because it looked suspiciously like you were working."
"That doesn't count as work. I do live here, you know. Where else would I be? I can't exactly hole up in my suite all day."
"I distinctly remember you promising Dr. Caine and me that you would not work AT ALL for two weeks. It has only been two days since you got out of the hospital, only a little over a week since you almost died. Or have you forgotten that?"
"No...I haven't forgotten. But I didn't think you meant that I couldn't even talk to my employees."
"If you are talking about the hotel, that is work. If you are talking about how the Cubs are doing, that is not work. This isn't a difficult concept, and I know you're a reasonably intelligent woman. The idea was to eliminate as much stress as possible from your life until you have a chance to heal a little bit."
"Frankly, I'm finding this conversation pretty darned stressful. That staff meeting was like a walk in the park compared to this." He had to see the logic in that, surely.
Rick walked over to the elevator and pushed the button. "Have it your way," he said. "I think I need to place a call to Dr. Caine. If you won't listen to me, maybe you'll listen to your cardiologist." Then he got on the elevator and the doors closed behind him.
When I got to the Beacon on Monday morning to start my shift, Janet told me that Olivia wanted me to see her in her suite at 9:00 a.m. I hadn't seen her since she got out of the hospital. Ava brought her back to the Beacon on Friday evening. I had the weekend off from the Beacon and put in double shifts at Company. I was starting to add to my savings for the farmhouse. I called Blake yesterday and she told me no one had made an offer yet. I asked her to let me know immediately if anyone did.
After Ava arrived, she stayed with Emma and I went back to my room at the boarding house. I had no idea why Olivia wanted to see me now, and it made me really nervous. It seemed like an eternity until it was 9:00 and I was standing outside Olivia's door. I knocked lightly on the door. Olivia must have been right on the other side, because she opened it immediately.
"Come in," she said, smiling at me, "I want to talk to you about something."
I walked into the suite, but I didn't really know if I was supposed to just stand there or sit down somewhere, or what. I must have looked as awkward as I felt, because Olivia immediately put me out of my misery. "Sit over here in my 'living room,'" she joked, holding both arms up to indicate the part of the room with a small sofa and chair and the fireplace. I sat down on the edge of sofa. I didn't lean back. I was much too nervous. Olivia sat on the chair.
"I have a little problem, and I wanted to see if you would be willing to help me," she started.
"Of course," I said, "Whatever you need." I felt my nervousness subside somewhat.
"Good. I was hoping you might say that," she grinned at me and raised one eyebrow. It made her look mischievous. "My doctor doesn't want me to work much for a while. I agreed to it, but I'm having some trouble living up to my agreement, because there are things that just have to be done. You know?"
"Well, yes, but if your doctor..." I started, but she interrupted me.
"What I really need is a personal assistant. Someone who will help me run the hotel, pick up my dry cleaning, pick up Emma and take her to school and her activities, keep up with my work calendar, schedule and manage my appointments, and in general be my go to person. I think you would be perfect for that job, if you're interested."
"I'm not sure if I have the background to do that kind of job. All I've ever done is work as a housekeeper and a server."
"Oh, but you do. You raised Rafe by yourself while holding down more than one job. I would say you have a lot of experience with organization and efficiency. Plus, you have already proven to me that you can handle the job, because you did it perfectly while I was in the hospital so perfectly, in fact, that I couldn't find one thing that got screwed up. I looked." Olivia nodded and winked at me. I felt a silly grin on my face and tried to get it under control. "I'll pay you the same salary I offered you for the Housekeeping Supervisor position, but you can start right now. In fact, you have to make a decision and start immediately, so I can keep my promise to the doctors. That is, if you want the job."
"Wow, that's ... really a nice offer...I don't know what to say."
"If I don't work out, can I get my housekeeping job back?"
Olivia laughed, "Hedging your bet, eh? Okay...if for some bizarre inexplicable reason this doesn't work out, I promise I will give you your old job back. Fair enough?"
"Yes," I said, shaking my head in disbelief.
"When do you want me to start?"
"I need to finish my shift or housekeeping will be short-handed."
"Oh...I already told Janet to get someone else to cover your shift, in anticipation that you would take the job," Olivia explained.
"You were pretty confident, weren't you?"
"Yes, I guess I was. So, here's a list of things for you to do to get started," she said, handing me a sheet of paper. "You should probably go to the dry cleaners first. I need my navy suit."
"I"ll get right on it," I said, standing and walking to the door.
"Here," Olivia said, holding out an envelope for me, "This is for you. If I'm not here when you get back from the cleaners, just hang the cleaning in my closet. Feel free to use your pass key any time I'm not here and you need to get in to do your job."
"Okay," I said, and hurried to get busy with my new job. When I was on the elevator heading down to the lobby, I opened the envelope Olivia had given me. Inside was a card. When I opened it, the first thing I saw was a check for $3,000, with "performance bonus" on the memo line. I nearly lost my balance. On the front of the card was a beautiful photograph of a rocky coast and a lighthouse. Inside, Olivia had written a note to me.
The sincerity of the words washed over me like a warm swath of sunlight on a cold day. Every time I thought I had Olivia figured out, she would find a new way to surprise me. I remembered my reaction to Olivia's original offer of a bonus, and felt a little ashamed of myself. Of course she would want to do something to thank me. It made sense, especially in her world, the world of business. It was ungracious of me to react to her offer that way. I was her employee, not her friend. It made sense that she would offer me a bonus for helping her. And just like that it dawned on me that what had bothered me about the bonus was my desire to be more than just another employee to Olivia. I really liked her and enjoyed her company. What I wanted was to be her friend. The idea left me feeling sad, but I reminded myself that I just got a great new position and a huge bonus, and it was pretty selfish of me to want more.
"Olivia, Dr. Caine and I would like you to take a little trip away from Springfield and the Beacon. You need to rest and recuperate, and you can't do that if you are at the Beacon. You can't resist working when you're there," Rick said, and Dr. Caine nodded in agreement. Olivia had gone in for a checkup. Dr. Caine had checked her stitches and asked her some questions, had looked over her chart and the notations the nurse who checked her vitals had just put there. Then Rick showed up, with a very smug expression on his face.
"I promise not to work. I hired Natalia Rivera to be my personal assistant. I'm relaxing. Really." But I could see from the looks on their faces that they weren't buying it.
"Olivia, this is serious," Dr. Caine said, "Your heart is just a muscle. You have injured this muscle and it needs to heal from that injury. If you don't give it the chance to heal from the trauma it has experienced, that can lead to more serious problems for you. The way to do that is to follow the protocol I have given you, but you don't seem to be able to do that, from what Dr. Bauer has told me."
"We just want you to get better, Olivia," Rick said earnestly. "Don't you want to get better?" I could tell that he really did care about me.
" I...want to get better. I do. So what is it you are suggesting I do?"
"I have a colleague who has a cardiology practice in the Blue Ridge Mountains. It's beautiful there, peaceful, quiet, nothing to do but enjoy the scenery, hike, fish, and rest. It's just what your doctors ordered," Rick said, smiling at me as he pointed to himself and Dr. Caine.
"But don't I need to come here for my checkups?" I argued.
"No. You just need to have a qualified cardiologist available to do that. It doesn't have to be me," Dr. Caine said. "I've talked to Dr. Henry in North Carolina and I've checked his credentials. He's a well respected, experienced cardiologist. He has an office in Asheville and another office in the little town of Highlands, North Carolina. It's a tiny town if you look at just the permanent residents, but there are a lot of wealthy people who vacation there every year, and some have vacation homes there. There are several world class resorts, excellent golf courses, five renowned restaurants that have prestigious awards. There is a five star resort nearby that has a number of small self-contained cottages. It would be a perfect place for you to recuperate. If there is any emergency, there is a hospital nearby. It's really the perfect location."
"If it's such a great place, I'll never be able to get reservations on such short notice." If there is one thing I know, it's the hotel business.
"I already reserved you a room. They had a cancellation," Rick countered. "Olivia, this is in your best interests. I'm not trying to make your life difficult. I'm trying to make it longer." He crossed his arms and stared at me.
"What am I supposed to do with Emma while I'm out relaxing in the North Carolina mountains?" I knew I had him there. I was feeling pretty smug.
"I thought of that," Rick smiled. "There is a great camp for girls a short drive from the resort. She can have the experience of a lifetime. Every kid should go away to camp in the summer."
"It's too late to get her in any camp for this summer," I reasoned.
"Dr. Henry's cousin runs the camp. They'll make room for her as a favor to him. Back there it isn't who you know. It's who you're related to."
"You've thought of everything, haven't you?" I was actually impressed. Rick had every angle covered. I knew when I was out maneuvered. I didn't like it, but I knew it. "How long are we talking?"
"Three weeks," Rick said.
"Do you have any idea what can happen to my hotel in three weeks?"
"And that attitude is precisely why you cannot stay here. You won't be able to stop yourself from working. Come on, Olivia, you and I both know how you are." I smirked at him and looked at Dr. Caine.
"I'm on board with Dr. Bauer on this one, Olivia. I strongly urge you to do this, for your own health. Your employees can take care of the hotel. This assistant you hired maybe she could handle things in your absence."
"She's not really experienced at running a hotel. Besides, I just hired her. She was a maid before that."
"Actually, Dr. Caine, I think Ms. Rivera should travel with Olivia. I don't want Olivia to hike off the side of a mountain or something and there be no one around to go for help," Rick quipped. "Seriously, Olivia, you do need someone with you. Maybe Ava could go."
"She used her vacation time to come out here and visit me. She has a new job. She can't take off three weeks for a vacation this soon."
"I have an idea," Rick said, "Take Ms. Rivera with you. She has already demonstrated that she knows what to do in an emergency. She can check in with whoever you leave in charge at the Beacon every couple of days, or they can call her if anything goes wrong. If something comes up that no one else can deal with, she can tell you about it and you can deal with it. Otherwise, she doesn't involve you. Do you trust her to do that?"
I thought about it. Natalia had saved my life with her calm cool head in a crisis, and her common sense. She took great care of Emma while I was in the hospital. She made sure that nothing went wrong at the Beacon. I guess I could trust her to tell me if anything happened that I needed to handle personally. I looked up at Rick, who was grinning like a Cheshire cat. It was a perfect compromise. We both knew he had won. I hated to concede, but I could actually see his point, which really irked me. "Okay, you win," I said, "But only if Natalia agrees. She may not. She has another job and her own child to raise."
"Fine," he said, "Agreed." He held out his hand to shake on it. I shook my head, chuckled and shook his hand. Dr. Caine insisted on a handshake too.
When I got back to the hotel from doing all the errands on Olivia's list, I went up to her suite to deliver her dry cleaning. I knocked on the door and Olivia answered. "Hi," Olivia said, "Come on in."
"Hi Natalia," Emma greeted me.
"HI sweetie," I said, hugging the adorable little girl.
"Emma, go finish your coloring in your room so I can talk to Natalia about some business. I'll call you so you can show her what you did before she leaves."
"Okay," Emma said as she hurried off to color.
"I finished the list you gave me. Was there anything else you needed?"
"Thanks, Natalia. I do have something more you can do for me, but you can't finish it today," she said. "My doctors want me to take a little trip to recuperate from my heart surgery...away from the hotel. They have this idea that I won't rest if I'm here. Anyway, would you be able to go with me for three weeks? It would be with pay of course, and I'll pay for your expenses. You would be working at your job on this trip, the same as if you were here." Natalia was smiling at me. "What?" I said.
"That explains it."
"Dr. Bauer called me a little while ago. He said if I would agree to go out of town and look after you for three weeks, he would check in on Rafe and clear things with Buzz for me. He said you would explain it to me. When I called Buzz about it, Dr. Bauer had already called him too. Buzz agreed that I can have the time off, and Rafe should be okay with Buzz and Dr. Bauer both checking up on him and making sure he doesn't get into any trouble." I was really amazed at how everyone was working together to make sure Olivia got well. There was no way I was going to let them down, and there was no way I was going to let Olivia down either. Rafe would be okay. "It looks like people really care about you, Olivia," I said, smiling at her.
"Well, Buzz does, amazingly, but Rick is worried I'll die and be a black mark against him."
"Oh, I don't really think..."
"I'm kidding. I was just joking, Natalia. Rick isn't exactly my friend, because he's best friends with Emma's father, Phillip, but he's a decent guy, and he's good at his job. In fact, I doubt he even likes me. But, he really cares about making people get well."
"So, where are we going?"
"Some place in North Carolina," Olivia said, "Rick wants me to go to a resort in the mountains and get some rest, do a little hiking, a little fishing, enjoy the slow pace. He thinks I need someone with me, to save me from myself, I suppose." She rolled her eyes. "We made a deal that if you would agree to go, you will be in contact with the Beacon and only let me know if something goes wrong and I need to take care of it."
"When do we leave?"
"Maybe we should ask Rick. He seems to have made all the arrangements for me already," Olivia pouted.
"Did you know that the largest private residence in the United States is in Asheville, North Carolina?" Natalia said, her eyes fixed on Olivia's laptop monitor.
I nodded. "Yes, the Biltmore House. I've seen pictures. What are you doing?"
"I was trying to book our flight to Asheville, and there was a link. The house covers 4 acres. Can you imagine? It's 175,000 square feet. That's just the house. I would hate to have to clean that," Natalia muttered, the edge of her mouth lifting slightly.
"Is that a joke?" I teased her. Natalia was such a serious type. She rarely cracked a joke, but I had noticed that she was loosening up a little. Maybe she just felt comfortable enough to be herself with me, finally. I know I have a reputation for being a bitch to work for, so it wasn't exactly surprising that she would have her guard up.
The deep dimples appeared as she smiled at me over the top of the monitor. "I'm not completely humorless, you know." She rolled her eyes at me, then continued, "Looks like the prices from Chicago to Asheville are very reasonable," she said. "You have some choices about flights. Do you have a preference for flight times?"
There was that smile again. She really should smile more. An idea popped into my head. "Yeah," I said, walking over and looking over her shoulder. "How about we get there a day early and take Emma to the Biltmore House before she starts camp? Think she'd like that?"
"I know she would. Are you kidding?" Natalia said. "But what about you, Olivia? It looks like a lot of walking. I mean...four acres? And that's just the house."
"You think I couldn't handle a little walking?" I had to defend myself, but in truth, I was not really sure I could do it. Dr. Caine wanted me to walk, but I got winded after walking around the block. I couldn't believe how much my heart problem had affected me. I used to be in such good shape.
"A little walk sure, but this would be a lot more than that. It's not just the walking, Olivia. I've been reading the website. There are stairs. But hang on. I want to check on something. Yes. Here it is. I thought I had seen something. 'Accessability'." Natalia clicked on a link.
"You mean like I'm disabled?" I didn't like the sound of that at all.
"Well you are disabled, Olivia. Temporarily," she said, matter-of-factly. Then she laughed. "Look," she said, pointing to the monitor, "It says that George Washington Vanderbilt decided to build his summer house in Asheville because he loved the scenery and climate. He called it his 'little mountain escape.' Ha! Little? So this was just his vacation home. I can't imagine what it would be like to be that rich."
"A summer house? Sounds...quaint. Sounds like it should be a cottage, not a castle, doesn't it?" I mused.
"Oh, wait. They do have an elevator on the first two floors, but you wouldn't be able to see the third or fourth floors or the basement because of the stairs. They also have wheelchairs available, but we need to reserve one because they have a limited number."
"Oh no! I am not using a wheelchair. I'm fine...I can walk. I don't need a wheelchair." Natalia looked at me, her eyebrows raised a little. I was ranting and she knew it. It was funny how she already seemed to understand my moods. She's a very perceptive person. Then I made a decision. I knew I couldn't climb stairs just yet, but that was no reason for Emma to miss an opportunity. "Look, let's go ahead and plan to go there. I'll use the elevator for the first two floors, and then you and Emma can do the rest of the house while I find some nice place to sit and wait for you. I'm supposed to relax. That should be relaxing, right?"
"The only problem is, our reservations for the resort don't start until the day Emma's camp starts, and they end when her camp ends. If we get there early, we'll need a place to stay for the extra night. They have package deals available where you can get tickets and reservations at a local hotel. Do you want me to book that online? You can save some money that way."
"Yes. Go ahead. But I want you to book us in first class or business class. I can afford it, and life is too short to be uncomfortable if you don't have to be." I was starting to get a little excited about this trip. Emma would have such a good time seeing a new place, a historic building, and going to her first sleep away camp. "You know, I really hate to admit it, but I think Rick was right. I could use some time away to relax. I've decided to embrace this trip, instead of fighting it."
Natalia turned and beamed up at me. "Olivia, if I didn't know better I would think you're getting a little excited about the trip."
"I am," I admitted. "I'm also looking forward to spending some time with you. I don't want to come off sounding all corny, but I feel as if we're destined to be friends." It occurred to me that I didn't have many women as friends, but I really enjoyed Natalia's company.
Natalia blushed and averted her eyes. Clearly, I had embarrassed her. Her reaction was confusing to me. She seemed to enjoy spending time with me. Why would my suggestion that we could be friends embarrass her? Was she worried about becoming friends with her employer. That made some sense. Actually, I should have thought of that myself. I felt a twinge of regret. I guess becoming friends with the boss could be awkward.
Why did I do that? All she said was that she wanted to be my friend. I was mortified that I had actually blushed and she had seen it. Whatever is going on with me has to stop. We're going to be spending three weeks together. I started looking for flights and tried to get myself back under control. Actually, I was looking forward to this trip. It would be a vacation for me, even if Olivia did say I would be working. Doing things for her didn't really feel like work. I enjoyed doing it.
I had never been able to afford a real vacation. I was lucky to live in Chicago, where there were things to do that didn't cost much. I had taken Rafe to Millennium Park, the Zoo, Sears Tower, and the Children's Museum. I tried to think of interesting, fun things to do that wouldn't cost a lot. We had a lot of fun together.
Olivia was still standing behind me, looking over my shoulder at the monitor. "Here," I said, "What about this flight? It will get us to Asheville at about 1:00 p.m. If you get the package for the Inn on the Estate, we can have admission to the House and Gardens during the entire stay. We can tour the House the afternoon that we arrive and the gardens the next morning. They have vans to take us on a tour of the gardens and grounds, but I think it would be easier on you if we don't try to do everything in one day. Does that sound like something you would like?"
"Yes. That's perfect," Olivia said. "Book two rooms at the Inn, and the first class flight to Asheville and it's a done deal. I can't wait to surprise Emma with this. She was already excited about going to camp."
"There's our last confirmation. It's done. That takes care of everything. Now we just have to pack. I can't believe we're leaving in only two days. What do you need me to do to get you and Emma ready?" I looked up at Olivia. She looked so happy. This trip would be good for her.
"Come by tomorrow afternoon, any time after 3:00. I'm not supposed to lift anything, so I'll need your help with packing. Other than that, you've done everything. Why don't you take the rest of the day off so you can take care of whatever you need to do before we leave? Everything is handled on this end, thanks to you."
"Thank you. I think I will do that. I need to spend some time with Rafe, since I won't be seeing him for three weeks. I can't believe it. My first real vacation since I was 16." I stood up and picked up my purse.
"Seriously?" Olivia looked at me incredulously. "You haven't taken a vacation in all this time?"
I stopped and turned toward her. "I always worked hourly and I couldn't afford to take much time off, because if I didn't work, I didn't get paid. I had to save my time off for taking care of Rafe when he was sick. I took Rafe to the park and the zoo and other places in Chicago. But I could never afford anything like this. Not even close," I explained to her.
"You know, I actually do have an idea what it was like for you. I grew up poor. I lived on an island. My father died when I was little, and when I was 16 my mother had a stroke and died suddenly. My sister and brother and I were left alone. At least we had each other, though." Olivia looked lost in thought. Her eyes were very sad. I had a strong urge to hug her, but I didn't want to do anything inappropriate. Instead, I reached out and placed my hand on her arm. She looked up at me then, and there were tears in her eyes.
"I didn't mean to bring up a bad memory for you. I'm sorry."
"No, it's okay. It was a long time ago. I'm not poor anymore. I was just thinking about...how everything changes...and people leave." Then she forced a smile, "Look. Don't mind me. I was just being a little maudlin for a moment. Hey, we're getting ready for a trip, aren't we?" She was smiling fully now, but I could see the sadness in her eyes.
"I know I'm technically working, but you have no idea what a treat this is going to be for me. Thank you. And just so you know, I'm looking forward to spending time with you, too." I was very glad I said it, because it caused her smile to fill her eyes. "I guess I'll see you on Wednesday afternoon, then. Call me if you need anything."
(Two days later.)
"Emma, help me look for the entrance to the Biltmore House. It's supposed to be on the left up ahead, according to the directions," I said, looking in the rear view mirror at the little girl in the back seat. She was looking out the window and was clearly excited. Olivia had asked me to drive. So far, she was being very good about following her doctor's orders, and that included not driving or doing anything stressful.
"There it is! I see it!" Emma exclaimed.
"Thank you, Emma," I said, turning left into the entrance to the Biltmore Estate. A few minutes later, we were driving slowly down a winding drive through trees and shrubs. There were flowers blooming on some of the bushes. Some were white, some a brilliant magenta, some a deep orange. "What kind of flowers are those?" I asked.
"Rhododendrons and mountain laurel," Olivia said. "I didn't realize they would be blooming so late, but I guess with the elevation, spring comes a little later here."
"I'm impressed," I said. Olivia knew so many different things. She was constantly surprising me.
"Hey, I've got skills. Right, Emma?"
"That's right," Emma chimed in. "Where's the house?"
"It will take a few more minutes to get there, Jellybean," Olivia said, chuckling. "This is a big place, isn't it? I was reading about this online. The forest we're driving through is all landscaped. It's all essentially part of a huge park designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the same man who designed Central Park in New York. You've been there, Em. Remember?"
"Yes," Emma replied, still focused on the spectacle outside her window.
"I'm impressed. You did your homework," I said.
"Mommy has homework?" Emma laughed. I could see her wrinkling her nose in the rear view mirror. She looked so much like her mother. They even had the same facial expressions and gestures.
"I like to have an idea of what to expect," Olivia replied. "So I did a little research."
"So you can be in control," I added.
"What's wrong with being in control?"
"Nothing. Don't get defensive. I didn't say it was a bad thing to be in control."
"Are you guys fighting?" Emma asked sweetly.
"No, Em. We're having a discussion. Natalia thinks I'm a control freak and I am pointing out the error in her position," Olivia said. I could tell she was being playful. Her tone was light and she had a twinkle in her eye that always showed up when she was teasing me.
"That's not quite right, Emma. Your mother was being defensive, and I was just explaining that control is sometimes necessary. Which is a good thing, because your Mommy does it so well." I smiled at the end of my little speech, and Olivia made a face at me.
"You guys are silly," Emma laughed. 'Hey, look!" The house had come into view. We had arranged to drive up to the valet parking in the front. They would park the car for us and pick us up later and take us to the Inn. "Wow!" Emma exclaimed.
"Wow is right, Jellybean. Look at that," Olivia said.
"It's so beautiful," I said, trying to pay attention to the car in front of me so I didn't bump it, and look at the house at the same time.
Stopping the car, I said, "Here we are. Ready to go inside, Emma?"
"Yes," she said, in awe. "Are you coming too?"
"You bet I am. I wouldn't want to miss this."
Sitting on a bench in the shade, looking out over the panoramic view from the balcony, I realized that I was pretty exhausted. It turned out to be a good thing that I couldn't do more than the first two floors. There had been so much to see on just two floors, and so much walking. I was tired, but it felt good to sit here and enjoy the view, knowing that Emma was having fun seeing the rest of the house with Natalia. Natalia seemed to be really enjoying herself. I had loved watching the awe and wonder on her face when she walked into each new room. She was ecstatic about the library, and seeing the chess set that had once belonged to Napoleon. She looked as radiant and as young as Emma. Emma clearly adored her. When they deposited me on the balcony, she had grabbed Natalia's hand, excited to see the rest of the house. This had turned out to be a really good idea. I sipped the water Natalia brought for me before they left to continue the tour. She was so attentive to my comfort, or maybe she was worried I had done too much. She looked a little worried when she left.
After sitting for a while, I got up and walked over to the balcony railing. There was a large patio below the balcony, and people were milling about. Some were walking out to the formal garden and pools. Some were headed to the conservatory. Beyond the conservatory, I could see the muted tones of the Blue Ridge Mountains. This was truly a beautiful place. I could see why George Washington Vanderbilt wanted to have a summer house here. Even though it was June, there was a slight breeze. It wasn't too hot, and the views were just spectacular. I could imagine the Vanderbilts sitting on this balcony, enjoying breakfast.
The time passed very quickly. "A penny for your thoughts," a soft voice behind me said, startling me out of my reverie. I turned around. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to scare you," Natalia said, looking at me with concern in her eyes. For a moment, all I could do was blink at her.
"You didn't. I was just lost in thought, imagining the Vanderbilts having tea on this balcony, looking at those same mountains that we're looking at right now."
"I can't imagine a life like this," Natalia said. "Emma, can you imagine living in a house like this?"
"I would need a map to find my room," Emma said, in awe.
Natalia and I both laughed at that. "I'll bet you would," I said. "What did you see on the other floors?"
"The kitchen is in the basement, and they have a swimming pool and a bowling alley."
"That's right, Emma. They put the kitchen down in the basement because it's cooler down there. This house didn't have any air conditioning. No one did back then."
"Didn't they get hot?"
"Yes, they did, and the women wore those long dresses and lots of layers, even in the summer," I said.
"Why did they do that if it was hot?"
"It was the style then, honey. Women liked to be in style then, just like they do now," I explained.
"What are we doing next?" Emma asked, excited.
"We're going to get Mommy's car and go to the Inn. Then we can see the farm before it closes." Natalia looked at me as if to be sure I approved of her plan. I nodded.
"Yay!" Emma exclaimed, dancing around a little.
"Yay," I imitated, bouncing a little. I glanced over at Natalia, and she was smiling at both of us. This friendship thing looked promising.
(The next afternoon.)
"Bye, Emma. Have fun," I called out to her. She was waving to us from the little enclave of girls, who would all be spending three weeks together in camp. Olivia and I had toured the camp when we arrived. Fortunately, it was part of the program, because Olivia would have insisted on doing it anyway. She is such a good mother, always protective of Emma. I looked over at Olivia. She had tears in her eyes. "She's going to be okay," I said, trying to reassure her.
"I know," she said. "I can't help it. It's my little girl's first real camp. Don't tell anybody I cried, okay?" She dabbed at her eyes.
"Your secret is safe with me." I smiled at her, and she laughed at how silly she was being. It was cute.
The camp was amazing. There were large dorm-like buildings with screens all the way around, and canvas flaps that could be lowered to block the wind or rain if necessary. Beds lined the walls inside. Six girls and one adult counselor slept in each building. Everything was very clean, but rustic. They had a large lake, with canoes and paddleboats. There were tennis courts, volleyball courts, a softball field, a riding arena and stables with horses, hiking paths, and a large club house where the entire camp could meet for meals and events. Emma was very excited. She made two friends almost instantly. She was such a social little girl. I guess growing up in a hotel, she had learned to make friends quickly.
Olivia and I got in the car and pulled away, with Olivia still waving at Emma from her window until she was out of sight. She reached over and squeezed my hand.
"Thanks," she said.
"You're welcome," I responded, glad that I could be there for her.
"So let's go see this resort Rick is so keen about, shall we?"
"I'm on it."
It wasn't far to the little town of Highlands, but I couldn't drive very fast, so it took a while to get there. The road was narrow and had a lot of twists and turns. On one side of the road was the side of the mountain, with an occasional waterfall. Ferns and rhododendrons grew on the steep incline, creating a lush, colorful display. On the other side of the road was a sheer drop to a rocky river bed below. The water was moving swiftly over the rocks in some places, slowly in other. Sometimes the river meandered far away from the road, and there was a carpeting of ferns between the trees that lined the river and the road.
"I'm starting to think that North Carolina is a truly beautiful place. Everything has been like a post card since we arrived," I said, in awe of the beauty all around me.
"I know. I was thinking the same thing," Olivia said.
Then we got to the sign announcing that we had reached Highlands. It was a very picturesque little town. Main Street was lined with shops and restaurants, and there were plenty of places to park. We were looking for the Inn.
"There it is," Olivia said, pointing. I pulled up in front and parked.
"This is really nice," I said, getting out of the car.
"It certainly is convenient to town. We won't have to drive anywhere if we don't want to."
"It's after 3:00," I said, looking at my watch. "We can go ahead and check in, if you want."
"Sure. Let's get unpacked and then I'd like to take a little walk to stretch my legs."
Rick had gotten us a two bedroom suite in one of the cottages. I had never stayed anywhere as nice as this, ever. I walked into the cottage, pulling Olivia's suitcase behind me. "Oh my. This is really nice." I looked at her. "This must be costing you a fortune."
"I isn't cheap, but look at it this way. The whole trip is a write off. The Beacon is paying for this trip. Plus, apparently Dr. Henry is very well known here. I got a huge discount, as a favor to him and because I was going to be staying so long. He sends a lot of business over here and they're repaying the favor. Does that make you feel a little more comfortable?"
"A little. It's just that I've never stayed anywhere this nice before. It's so elegant."
"They did a really nice job with it. The innkeeper told me that the whole place has been renovated recently."
"Let me get your bags unpacked and then I'll go get mine."
I unpacked our bags and put everything away, while Olivia sat on the little sofa and rested. She had done a lot of walking at the Biltmore House and I could see that she was tired.
"Traveling is hard, isn't it?" I commented. She nodded. "Would you like to take a nap for a little while?"
"No. I can do that later. I'm just getting my second wind."
"You need to be careful not to overdo."
"Yes, mother," Olivia teased, tossing a throw pillow at me.
"Hey. No fair."
"Let's go for a walk. I'm rested enough," Olivia said.
"Let's go then, but take it easy. Deal?"
'Deal," she said, reaching out and shaking my hand to seal it. Her smoky green eyes were playful. I shivered in response to her touch. "Cold?" she asked.
"No. It was nothing." But I knew better, and I tried not to think about it again. I need to get a grip, or its going to be a long three weeks.
"Hey! You're back," I greeted Natalia, who had just entered our suite. She had gone out to purchase some groceries and things we needed. I had taken a much-needed nap. Our walk down Main Street earlier had completely worn me out.
"You're awake," she said, her dimples erupting. "That wasn't a very long nap."
"It was a power nap. Short, but gets the job done. I have developed it into an art form. It comes from my days of hard partying. You didn't know me then. I don't think you would have liked me much."
"Oh, I'll bet I would have liked you," she said, smiling her charming smile at me. I wondered again how she had managed to stay single for such a long time with a smile like that. She was really a remarkably beautiful woman. Her looks were striking, with her shining dark hair and her perfect complexion, and those dimples to top it all off. Besides that, she was such a sweet woman, always considerate and in a good humor. Plus, she was smart and witty. I couldn't fathom why she had never married. I didn't really know that much about her, though. Maybe she had married and just hadn't mentioned it for some reason. I had told her about my past mistakes all five of them.
"Natalia, can I ask you a question as your friend, and not as your boss?"
"Okay," she replied, cautiously.
"Were you ever married?"
She laughed. "No, I never was," she said, still laughing, "What makes you ask?"
"Because you're a really attractive woman. I would have thought you would have had a lot of offers."
She blushed and hurried off to put away the bags of groceries in her arms. When her back was turned, she said, "I had some offers, but nothing I really considered."
Olivia totally caught me off guard with her compliment. Once again I found myself blushing because of her. I busied myself with putting the groceries away to allow myself time to regain my composure. Why was I always getting so flustered around her? I didn't have much time to think about it.
"Why not?" Olivia asked.
I walked back into the living room and sat down in the chair across from Olivia. I intended to take control of this situation. Olivia was not the only one who liked to be in control. "I take marriage very seriously," I said. "I won't marry someone unless I know it's going to be forever. Divorce isn't really an option for me. I figured I would wait for the right man to come along and sweep me off my feet, and it just never happened. Now I'm starting to wonder if it ever will."
"See, that is one of the differences between us. I'm always getting swept off my feet, but somehow I always manage to land on my ass. I've gotten married and divorced five times. Maybe I should have been a little more cautious, like you, but it's not really my nature. If I'm attracted to a man, I go after him, and I get him. Then I usually do something to ruin it. That's why I'm not in any hurry to get married again."
"What if you meet the love of your life? Would you get married then?"
"I'm not sure I would know if I did."
"Oh, I think you would know. I think it would be obvious," I said. I hadn't really thought about it before, but as I said these words, I realized that this was the reason I had never married. "You know," I continued, "I didn't marry Rafe's father, Nicky. We were so young, and Nicky didn't want to get married. Then he left me and Rafe for parts unknown. For a long time, I kept looking for another Nicky. He was my ideal love. But he really wasn't. He was just a sweet boy who grew up too quickly, and couldn't handle his responsibilities. I think I idealized that relationship because it was my first, and I was so young too. Maybe it made me feel a little less guilty to think that I had sinned with someone really special."
"Your faith is really important to you, isn't it?"
"Yes. It's helped me through the hard times."
"If Nicky came back into your life, and asked you to marry him, would you?" Olivia asked, a small frown knitting her brow.
"I don't think so. I've changed a lot since then, and I imagine he has too. You can't go back and recreate the past. But I'll always have a soft spot in my heart for him, because he was my first love."
"Yeah," Olivia said, and her mood was pensive. She seemed lost in thought.
"How about you? Do you have a soft spot in your heart for your first?" I asked.
Her eyes filled with tears, and she looked down at her lap, trying to hide that fact from me.
"Olivia, what is it?"
"Nothing. Let's talk about something else."
"It's not nothing, Olivia." I got up and walked over to her. I knelt down on the floor next to the sofa and put my hand on her arm. "Olivia, it's not nothing. Don't you know you can trust me?"
She raised her eyes and they were full of tears. The tears were flowing down her cheeks, and she wiped at them with her hand. I clasped her hand in mine, and waited.
"My first time was when I was 16 too. I went to a party and got drunk, and someone took advantage of me, while I was passed out. I ended up pregnant. That's how I got Ava. Later, I was arguing with my mother about it, and she had a stroke and died during the argument. I killed her."
"Olivia, you didn't kill her. She had a stroke. You couldn't have known that would happen." I was still holding her hand, and I reached out to stroke her hair, but she pulled back, avoiding the contact, so I dropped my hand. I felt so helpless. I didn't know how to make her feel better.
"I told her I hated her. Right before she died, I told her I hated her," Olivia said quietly, the tears flowing in rivulets down her cheeks.
"Olivia, your mother didn't believe you when you said that. Children say those things all the time and they don't really mean them. Mothers know that. I promise you, your mother didn't die thinking you hated her. If Emma told you she hated you, would you believe her." She paused and seemed to think about that.
"Probably not," she conceded. "I wish I could take it back, but I can't."
"I know. That's the thing about words. We can't take them back once we say them. But I am positive that your mother knew that you were just lashing out in anger, and that you didn't really mean what you said."
"How can you be so sure?"
"Because she knew you. Didn't she?"
"Yes, I guess she did."
"You have a temper, Olivia, and sometimes you say things in anger that you don't really mean. If I know that about you, and I just met you, I'm sure your mother knew it too."
Then Olivia held her arms out, wanting a hug, so I wrapped my arms around her and hugged her tight. She cried for a little while longer, her tears soaking into the shoulder of my blouse. Then she leaned back against the sofa. "I made your blouse all wet," she said.
"It'll dry," I said, smiling at her.
"Thanks," she said.
"Any time. Stay right here for a minute, okay?"
I went to the bathroom and came back with a box of Kleenex. I handed it to her and she grinned at me.
"I guess I must look like a mess, huh?" she said, blowing her nose in a Kleenex.
"Nah. You look cute with your nose all red," I teased her.
"Right," she said, "I look like hell."
"What do you say you get all dressed up and we go and get something to eat? Would that make you feel better?"
"I guess so. Where do you want to go?"
"Any place you would like."
"How about that Italian place down the street. I've been reading the reviews in the guest book. It sounds good."
"Perfect! I love Italian food."
I actually felt better after talking to Natalia about the rape and my mother's death. She has such a calming effect on me. I don't know what it is about her. I was looking forward to having dinner with her. As we were walking to the restaurant, I impulsively linked my arm through hers. "Thanks...for everything," I said to her.
"You're welcome, Olivia," she replied. But she seemed a little nervous and tense. Maybe she's afraid people will get the wrong idea about us. I removed my arm from hers and she seemed to relax a little. Okay. I guess that made her uncomfortable. It bothered me a little that Natalia might think I was into women and had been hitting on her.
When we went into the restaurant, the maitre d' was very charming. He welcomed us to the restaurant, asked our names, and showed us to a nice table in the corner. I flirted with him a little, just to reassure Natalia that she had nothing to worry about. He flirted back. He looked Italian, but he had an elegant, cultured southern accent. He introduced us to our server and left to attend to other customers.
Dinner was delicious. The wine selected by the sommelier was perfect with the food we had ordered, although I didn't have much because I was under the watchful eye of Nurse Natalia. Natalia finally relaxed and seemed to really enjoy the meal. When we left and walked home, she seemed totally like herself again. Maybe she was just hungry and irritable.
(The next morning.)
"I think I'd like to go on a hike today," I announced to Natalia as we were having a continental breakfast at the resort restaurant. I had slept soundly and with hardly any pain from the surgery.
"Wow. You must be feeling a lot better," Natalia said.
"I am. I woke up feeling really good for the first time since the surgery. I feel like some exercise is in order. Is this a perfect day, or what?"
"It is. The weather is just great here. I'll call your local doctor and ask him if there is any problem. If he says it's okay, we'll take a hike. Maybe he can suggest a good place," Natalia said, looking at her Blackberry for his number, which she had programmed in before we left. She got up and went outside to complete her call.
I waited, watching the people strolling by. One thing I had noticed since we got here was that no one seemed to be in a hurry. The relaxed pace of the people here matched their slow speech patterns, and made it easier for me to relax. It was a stark contrast to the hectic pace of life at home.
Natalia came back in and sat down. "Well, he said that you can hike as much as you want, provided that you take plenty of water with you, and stop to rest any time you feel winded. He said to listen to your body and let that be your guide. He also gave me directions to a good hiking trail that isn't too strenuous."
"Great. When do we leave?"
"Any time you want."
"Let's go," I said, anxious to enjoy the beautiful day.
We had been walking on the trail for a while when it seemed to branch off. "Which way should we go?" I asked Olivia.
"Let's go to the left," she said.
The woods were getting denser the further we walked, and soon I couldn't even see a path anymore. " I think we've lost our path, Olivia."
"Yeah. I can't tell where it is. That looks like a clearing up ahead. Let's go that way," she said, leading the way.
At one point we came to what appeared to be an old fence, but it was rotten and falling down, and we were able to cross it at a spot where it had fallen down completely. Up ahead was a clearing. The grass in the field was pretty tall. It was starting to get hot, and without the cover of the trees, the sun was warming us up quickly. I could hear heat bugs clicking. There was a large clump of trees and undergrowth in the center of the clearing.
As we got closer, Olivia pointed at the clump of trees and said, "What is that? It looks like an old barn or something is hidden in those trees up ahead."
When we got right up to the trees, we could see the sunlight glint off something in the thicket. "Did you see that?" Olivia asked.
"Do you mean the glare from the sunlight?"
"Yes. I think it might be glass."
I was a little leery about the thick vegetation, but Olivia plowed right in.
I waited and called after her, "Olivia, do you think we ought to do this. There might be snakes."
From inside the thicket, she called back to me, "It's a house. Come on. There aren't any snakes that I can see." I wasn't worried about the ones I could see, but I pushed the branches aside and followed her.
Once I got inside the thick bushes on the outside of the clump, I could see the house. It was quite literally falling down. The exterior walls were still standing, but the wood was long since bare of paint. There were small chips of paint here and there, but mostly the walls were a weathered gray. Olivia was standing next to a window, and was trying to peer inside. I say "trying," because the dirt and grime on the window was so thick that you couldn't see anything inside. But there was a cracked pane in the bottom left of the window, and a small piece of the glass was missing. Inside, a dingy, but formerly elegant lace curtain was moving slightly in the breeze. Then I noticed that there didn't appear to be a breeze anywhere else. The leaves on the trees overhanging the house were almost completely still. I chalked it up to my imagination, but it made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.
Olivia picked up a small stick and used it to push aside the curtain through the crack in the window pane. "Should you be doing that? Isn't that trespassing?"
"I didn't see any signs. Did you? Besides, does it look like anyone is living here?"
"No. It looks pretty deserted."
"Look," Olivia said, moving to one side so I could squeeze in next to her and peer into the crack. Inside was a room. It looked like it must have once been a parlor. The furniture was still in there. I saw an old davenport, that must have once been blue, but was now a dingy bluish gray-brown color. Everything in the room was covered in dust and cobwebs. There was a Victrola phonograph on one wall to the left. It was a large thing that had carved fretwork over rotting maroon velvet in the front. The top had rounded corners. The wood looked like oak under the layers of dust. Clearly, nothing in the room had been disturbed in a very long time.
"It's kind of spooky looking," I whispered.
"I think it looks like somebody just walked out one day and never came back," Olivia said in a normal voice. She was right next to me, and when she spoke I almost jumped out of my skin. Her voice sounded louder than it was in the hushed atmosphere.
I looked again. There was a book on the table next to the davenport, with a small glass next to it. A shawl was draped over the back of the davenport. It looked as if someone was reading a book and left suddenly.
"I wonder why they never came back to finish the book," I said.
"I wonder why no one else ever came back to clean it up and move the stuff out," Olivia said in response. "Surely there must have been someone who inherited this property. You would think they would have moved that stuff out a long time ago." She started to walk around the side of the house.
"Where are you going?" I asked her, following along behind her.
"I'm looking for a door. I'm going inside," she said.
"Olivia, you can't just go inside someone's house without their permission," Natalia was saying, following along behind me as I rounded the corner of the house, looking for a door. I wasn't really listening to her, although I realized she had a point. I knew I was probably trespassing. I don't know why, but I felt that I had to see what was inside that little house. Something was urging me, compelling me to go inside. It wasn't just curiosity about the room that looked like someone had just walked out one day and left, never to return, although I couldn't understand why no one came back to move out the furniture. No, it was something else that motivated me to get inside that house, and I didn't really know how to articulate it. I guess I just felt like I needed to know why the owner had abandoned the house so suddenly, and I thought the answer might be inside.
"I know a little about antiques, and a couple of those pieces in that room weren't cheap, even when they were new. Whoever lived here had money and could afford to buy expensive things to furnish this house. Why wouldn't the owners take them out if they weren't going to live here anymore? It doesn't make sense, Natalia." I stopped when I got around the corner, so abruptly that Natalia almost ran into me. The front porch was completely rotted and sagging away from the front of the house. There was no way to get up to the front door to try to open it. It was too high off the ground, and we would have to remove all the rotting boards of the porch first anyway.
"Okay, are you satisfied now? You can't get in. The door is blocked," Natalia said, gesturing toward the remains of the porch.
"We could move some of the boards out of the way," I suggested, knowing what her response would be.
"No, WE couldn't do that, Olivia. Have you forgotten already that you aren't supposed to lift anything." Natalia had moved to stand between me and the porch, as if block me from getting to the porch. I knew better, of course. I wasn't really going to do something that stupid. For one thing, I would never hear the end of it if I did it and anything went wrong. For another, I was feeling pretty tired already from the hike, and I knew I didn't really have the strength to move the boards. Natalia was staring at me, frowning, arms akimbo, waiting for some response from me.
"Fine, I agree. I know you're right. I'm not going to move the boards," I said, rolling my eyes in exasperation, and she smiled in satisfaction. "I'll see if there's another way in," I said, turning and walking to the left of the pile of porch boards. I turned and looked at Natalia. "Are you coming?"
"Do I have any choice?"
"Of course. Breaking and entering isn't in your job description," I teased.
"Are we going to be breaking and entering?" Natalia was serious.
"Probably not," I said, smirking at her. "With any luck we won't need to." I turned, but glanced back at her to see her reaction. She was looking at me with wide eyes and her mouth open a little. I started laughing.
"You think you're so funny, don't you?" She said as she followed me through the weeds and bushes on the corner of the house, around the side to the back. There was another porch on the back, but this one was enclosed. It had windows all the way around, and once had screens, but they had mostly rusted out, so that only remnants remained. The roof was sagging a little. The screen door was just the frame. Like the windows, the screens had long since disintegrated. It was unlocked, not that it mattered. Anyone could have unlatched the hook from the outside with the screens missing. I opened the door and tentatively tested my weight on the floor inside. It was covered with very old linoleum. It was so faded and dirty that you couldn't tell what the original color and pattern had been.
"Wait!" Natalia said, grabbing my arm. "If you insist on doing this, let me go first."
"Why?" I asked, looking back at her.
"The floor might be rotten. I'm lighter than you, and I haven't just had heart surgery. If anything happens...like me falling through the floor," she said, grimacing, "I could pull myself out...probably." She glanced over at the porch floor again and bit her lip. "You couldn't do it. Like you said, you don't have the strength. I do."
"Okay, you can go first, but go slowly and test your weight on the floor with each step."
"I will. I know. Believe me, I'm not going to take any unnecessary chances." Then she started laughing.
"What is it?"
"Oh...nothing. I was just thinking about how ridiculous that sounded, when I'm about to trespass in someone's house, that is probably going to fall in on top of me. I think I can safely say that most reasonable people would call that an unnecessary chance." She was still chuckling, and I started to laugh with her. Then she shook her head and took a deep breath. "Okay...here goes. You stay there until I make sure it's safe, okay?"
"I'll stay right here." I gave her the "OK" sign with my fingers.
Natalia held onto the door frame as she tested her weight on the porch floor. She bounced on the ball of her foot. There was some creaking of the floor, but it appeared to be pretty solid. "I think the linoleum may have protected it. It seems pretty solid to me, but stay there until I try the door." Then Natalia walked across the porch to the back door of the house. Amazingly, it opened. "It's unlocked," Natalia said, looking back at me and grinning.
"See," I said, "We're not breaking. We're just entering." Natalia shot me a look of annoyance. "Is the floor inside safe?" I asked.
"It appears to be. Wow! Look at this old kitchen," she called out from inside, her voice excited.
"I'd love to see it. Is it okay for me to come in?" I shouted, so she could hear me inside the house.
She popped her head out. "Be careful, but yes, you can come in now. And keep your voice down."
"Why? Are you afraid the squirrels are going to hear me?" I joked.
"Ha ha," Natalia said, grinning at me, as I walked into the kitchen and stepped back in time. It was a large eat-in kitchen with an oak pedestal table and four chairs in the center of the room. There was faded wallpaper on the walls, and it might have been yellow and a deep blue at one time. There was a kerosene lamp in the center of the table, and I didn't see any light switches on the wall. I also hadn't seen any overhead wires outside. The house obviously didn't have any electricity.
. "Look at this kitchen," she said. "The stove is amazing. It's a beautiful old wood stove, Olivia. People used to cook on this and use it to heat the kitchen in the winter."
"I don't know if I would call it beautiful. It's pretty filthy, actually." I walked over to the stove and looked at it warily, declining to touch it. It was covered in dust, as was everything else in the room. I looked around. There was a porcelain sink in a tiled cabinet on one wall, with a pump on one side. Next to it was an old wooden ice box, a big one with several doors. There was a window over the sink, but it was just as grimy as the others, and you couldn't see out very well. On another wall was a large Hoosier cabinet.
"Hey! Look at this old Hoosier cabinet," I said, pointing at it. It filled most of the wall. It was in two pieces, one on top of the other. The bottom part had two cabinets with doors and a drawer above each door. There was probably shelving behind the doors. On top of that was a white porcelain countertop with dark blue trim which jutted out. On top of that was a shallower piece with two doors and a pull down bin between them. It was used for flour and emptied through a chute on the bottom. There was a roll down door below to hide canisters and things when they weren't being used, and it was framed by a deco style arch. On each end was a tall cabinet with a single tall door, which probably hid more shelves.
"I know. Isn't it gorgeous?" Natalia exclaimed.
"It would be, if it was cleaned up a little. I know some women in Springfield who would kill to have something like this."
"Let's look at the rest of the house," Natalia said, her eyes shining.
"Oh? I thought you were worried about trespassing."
"We're in here now. We might as well see what's here," she said. "This is like taking a trip to a museum...a very dirty, dingy museum." I laughed out loud at that one, and Natalia grinned at me, her dimples flashing. She was finally starting to enjoy our little adventure.
"Let's go see what other treasures from the past we can find," she said, heading toward the only other doorway in the room. I followed her through a small butler's pantry, with floor to ceiling cabinets and drawers on both sides, and emerged into the room we had seen through the window. She was still testing the floor, but it seemed to be stable. There was some creaking but that was normal in a house this age. "I think the floor is still pretty solid, Natalia," I said.
"I think you're right. This house must have been pretty well built."
"There's the book," I said, pointing to the table next to the davenport. From close up I could see that the fabric had once been a rich dark blue. The shawl looked like wool, but the moths had gotten to it, and it was in bad shape. I didn't dare touch it. I was reluctant to touch the book, as if it would be somehow disrespectful. "I feel like it wouldn't be right to touch it," I said out loud.
"I know," Natalia said softly, glancing at me. "Can you see a title?"
"It's pretty dark in here. Hang on a sec." I maneuvered so that I wasn't blocking the minimal light from the two dingy windows. "God's Little Acre," I read aloud from the dust jacket.
"Look," Natalia said, walking over to the window with the broken pane. "It looks like there were curtains here, and they just fell apart into this pile at the bottom of each of these windows. You can see the rods where they were hanging. Now it's just the sheers left."
"That Victrola is a nice one," I said. I looked at the side where the dust hadn't settled. "It's quartersawn oak. Very nice." We couldn't see it from the window, but there was a fireplace on the wall opposite the Victrola. It had a simple, elegant deco oak mantel, and the hearth was glazed tiles. There was a metal box with logs and kindling next to the hearth, as well as a poker and bellows. There was a box on the wall next to the fireplace, and I would bet it contained matches. It looked like a strike plate was on the lid.
We were leaving footprints in the dust on the floor. I pointed to them. "I hope we don't find any dead bodies or the police might want to question us," I joked.
Natalia glared at me. "Don't joke about that, Olivia. Did it occur to you that we might actually find a dead body in here?"
"Well not until you mentioned it," I said, my stomach suddenly queasy. "But, that would explain why it looks like somebody just left suddenly, wouldn't it?" We both turned in unison and looked at the door into the hallway. I looked at Natalia. "After you," I said.
"Oh. Now you want me to lead the way, huh?"
"Well..." I raised one eyebrow and grinned sheepishly.
"Come on. We may as well look. Whoever it is will be nothing but bones by now anyway," she stated, matter-of-factly.
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