Coming December, 2013 from Meg Silver
EXCERPT: The Nights Of Yes
Carmen Lowell watched the descending numbers above the elevator doors. Her mother stood beside her dangling a pair of frilly gift bags from dainty fingers.
“Why not?” Mom complained. “You don’t want the company to celebrate your birthday?”
“Did the company celebrate your birthday? Or Gran’s? Or any of the million other relatives who work there?”
“That’s different. None of them are about to become the new chief operations officer.”
Carmen squeezed her eyes shut and tried to ease the tension from her shoulders. She had fled St. Charles, their home town, to spend Labor Day weekend working on the house she renovated in her precious free time. The soon-to-be-vacated COO office was the number one reason she wanted to get away.
“Nothing is for certain,” Carmen said. “Gran has never told anyone outright that she’ll name me as her replacement.”
Mom clicked her tongue. “Don’t be ridiculous. Of course she’ll name you as her replacement. Everyone knows it.”
‘Everyone’ knew no such thing. Gran had scheduled a meeting with Carmen for early Wednesday morning, six days from now. The official announcement would come immediately afterward. Though the chain of events seemed obvious enough, Carmen wouldn’t jump to conclusions the way Mom had.
The elevator dinged. When the doors parted, pandemonium awaited on the ground floor of Parr’s Lakeside Lodge. Carmen had stayed here the last two weekends while her project house underwent some critical repairs. This weekend, she could only get a room for tonight. The rest of the weekend the Lodge was booked to capacity.
Carmen paused to let a family pass with a brass luggage trolley while Mom gawked at the Lodge’s wooden rafters. This was not a faux rendition of a log structure to impress the city folk. This place was the real deal, more than a century old. Heaps of railroad money had built the hotel during a mining boom. Wooden beams as big around as basketballs supported a roof fit for a cathedral.
They headed for the Lodge’s restaurant, a popular place with its indoor and outdoor seating. Both gave incredible views of the lake and a solid wall of pine trees on the distant, opposing shore.
Carmen and her mother squeezed into a corner of the restaurant lobby to wait. It didn’t take long for Carmen to spot a familiar face: Todd Parr, the Lodge’s owner. In his mid-sixties, Todd was quite handsome for an older man with his ultra-white hair cropped short, and blazing blue eyes in a tanned face. To hear tell, he also owned a major chemical company in Elmdale. The Lodge sat on the city’s outskirts.
Carmen liked Todd. He’d introduced himself last weekend, and said he helped out his staff on busy weekends. She watched him flit from table to table, talking and laughing with his guests. When he finally made it back to the lobby, he zipped behind the hostess podium to look over the seating chart.
He glanced up, looking for someone, and caught sight of her instead. They talked in an impromptu sign language from there. She held up two fingers. He pointed to her mother with his brows raised. She nodded and put up both hands to let him know they were in no rush.
Mom had migrated sideways to peer through a huge paned window. “What a gorgeous place. I’m not sure I like the look of those clouds, though.”
Carmen leaned over to have a look. Only a sliver of sun remained above the horizon. Some time since they’d arrived, dark thunderheads had billowed up in all directions.
“They said it was supposed to stay hot and humid this weekend. Looks like we’ll have weather.”
“Just what you need,” Mom muttered. “I can’t believe you’re staying at that house all weekend with no electricity or cell signal.”
Carmen defended herself. “I’ll be fine. I’m used to it, and I came prepared.”
“It’s not safe. What if there’s bad weather?”
“Mom. Chill. I’m not twelve years old anymore. I can take care of myself.”
“Did they at least get the water hooked up?”
“Yes. I talked to the plumber and she should have all the bathrooms back in working order by tonight or early tomorrow.”
“Well, that’s something anyway,” Mom said. “No land-line telephone or Internet?”
“Not yet. Neither company can make it out to check things over until next week.”
“Great. I don’t know why you picked such an anti-social hobby.”
“Flipping houses does not make me anti-social. In fact, I met the neighbors out at the flip house last weekend. They’re very nice people.” They were a married couple in their eighties, but she kept that part to herself. “And look who’s talking? Because when you say ‘anti-social’ you really mean ‘My God, she’ll never get married.’ And when was the last time you went on a date?”
Mom went stiff and prickly as a chimney brush. She had not dated anyone since Carmen’s father. Nicolas Clemente was subject non grata, even twenty-nine years later.
As per usual, Mom sidestepped the topic. “I’ll never understand your hobby. How unsentimental do you have to be to sell a house after working so hard to make it better?”
“They’re just houses, Mom. Not homes.”
Out of the corner of her eye, Carmen spotted yet another familiar face she’d met last weekend, this one far younger than Todd or the flip-house neighbors. The man was a couple years older than her, at a guess. He had also been staying at the Lodge the last two weekends. Quiet, but gorgeous. Tall with a strong, lean body, pine-green eyes and brown hair lightly kissed with sun.
Todd, taking pity on his only guests who dined alone, had introduced them. Mark Rhodes was his name. Though quiet, it turned out he wasn’t shy by any means, just reserved in his manner. She had no idea what he did for a living, but both times she’d seen him in the restaurant he’d had his head buried in a laptop computer, working on something or other.
Right now, he had the computer tucked under his arm. As a chronically busy person herself, she recognized the pained look on that handsome face. He had hoped for a quick bite to eat and a quiet booth to work in, only to be met with noise and delay.
Feeling merciful, Carmen caught his eye and motioned him over. He let his shoulders sag to show relief at finding refuge in all that chaos.
He excused his way through the crowd. “Jeez. I guess when Todd says it’ll be busy, he’s not kidding.”
“I guess not. Are you on your own again?”
“Oh.” Carmen remembered her manners. “Mom, this is Mark Rhodes. Mark, this is my mother, Beth Lowell.”
Mark held out his hand to shake, but not before a quick raise of the eyebrows. No one ever believed Carmen and her mother were related, let alone parent and child. Mom was five-foot-nothing, a wispy little thing with miles of platinum blond hair and enormous blue eyes. She favored long skirts, cardigans and pastels and generally reminded Carmen of powder-pink tissue paper.
Carmen, meanwhile, had collected all her traits from the Clemente end of the gene pool. She stood five-foot-eight and had black hair and black eyes. Abuelita Clemente had blessed her with golden skin, generous curves and pretty features. Not a tissue or pastel in sight. She preferred neutral browns and reds and blacks. She was still wearing the outfit she’d worn into work early that morning, a moss-colored cashmere tank, slightly darker pencil skirt and pearls.
Mom smiled at Mark’s confusion at the lack of resemblance. “She favors her father.”
“She must. Wow. I would never have guessed,” Mark admitted. “Sorry. Was that rude?”
Carmen watched something rare occur. Mom, of a rather dreamy, artistic disposition, rarely noticed people, let alone chatted with them. But she must have taken to Mark the same way Carmen had. Mom laughed and reassured him.
Mark nodded at the gift bags in Mom’s hand. “I’m not intruding on anything, am I?”
“It’s Carmen’s birthday. The more the merrier.”
“Hey, happy birthday,” Mark told her.
The faint but genuine smile in those grayish-green eyes drew a sultrier response from Carmen. Delicious, this one. Well-spoken, well-mannered. She would swear he was executive material if not for the clothes. His jeans, t-shirt and hiking boots looked too broken-in for the weekend warrior type.
She liked that. She also liked what he’d done last weekend—or rather what he hadn’t done. Plenty of sparks had flown between them, but Mark hadn’t flirted, merely melted her with a couple stares that lasted a few seconds too long. He hadn’t even asked for her number, and that was a nice change of pace.
Definitely interesting. If not for the COO decision hanging over her head like a shiny, razor-sharp guillotine, Carmen might want to know him better.
A sinking feeling settled onto her shoulders. Come Wednesday morning, her life and schedule could change significantly. There would be almost zero time to spare for friends and family. None whatsoever for an affair, no matter how tempting the lure.
Todd, the Lodge owner, came into the lobby and motioned them forward. “We’re ready for you.”
He led them through an obstacle course of tables and patrons to a booth up against the outside wall.
Todd disappeared again while Mark asked, “You don’t mind if set up the laptop? I’m testing some software and need to keep an eye on things.”
No one objected. Carmen, who had been wondering what kept him glued to the computer, was happy to have some curiosity relieved. Software testing. Which made him intelligent and that much more attractive. She had a hard time dragging her eyes off him when Mom set the gifts on the table.
“Here,” Mom said. “Open your grandmother’s present first.”
Carmen cringed. Gran was a bit of a tyrant. God knew what could be in the gift bag. Hopefully nothing too embarrassing.
The bag was red, covered in the family keepsake-company’s logo: gold embossed stars. Whatever Gran had packed in there had some heft to it. Inside she found two small boxes wrapped in layers of protective bubble-wrap.
She unwrapped the first box to find a letter-sized envelope folded in half, along with a small snow globe. The globe itself was no bigger than a golf ball. Inside was a limited edition Lowell Keepsakes logo star and a swirling field of red glitter.
The snow globe’s base sported a brass plaque engraved with an inspirational saying that had suddenly begun to sell like mad after years languishing in the archives: Goals before guys.
Sure, rub it in. Carmen looked up at her mother. “Why is she giving me this?”
“Open the envelope.”
Carmen did, and found a royalty statement plus a check for five-hundred dollars and change. “I still don’t get it.”
“Well, it’s yours, darling. You were the one who came up with the saying.”
“Yeah, about a hundred years ago when I thought I knew everything. And I only said it to avoid that guy Gran wanted me to date. I certainly didn’t expect to earn royalties from it. Can’t we put this in the employee fund or something?”
“I’ll let you two slug that one out. What’s in the other box?”
They were interrupted by a harried waitress wanting to take their orders. Carmen and Mark both ordered burgers. Mom ordered the walleye.
Once the waitress scurried off, Carmen unwrapped the second gift, a half-inch-thick slab of rose quartz etched with another slogan that made Carmen laugh out loud.
Family should always come before career… unless your family needs stuff like food and shelter.
Mom snatched it from her hand with an irritated click of the tongue. “Oh, for heaven’s sake. That horrible old bat.”
Carmen laughed harder. The Lowell family came complete with internal politics. Gran and Mom occupied opposite sides of the aisle on every issue.
She looked at poor Mark, who had no idea why she was laughing. She asked, “Regret sitting with us yet?”
Muttering, Mom set the plaque down on the table top and slid it toward him.
Mark read the slogan, and shrugged a shoulder, nodding. “Yeah, pretty much.”
Which made Carmen laugh all the harder.
“What?” he inquired.
Mom let out a put-upon sigh before explaining. “It’s a thing between my mother and me. I put through the first half of that inscription for approval, and she rejected it. She sent the proposal back to me with the snarky half added on.”
Mark snorted a laugh, and flipped the plaque over to see the huge Lowell Keepsakes sticker on the back. “You work for Lowell Keepsakes?”
“We are Lowell Keepsakes. Our family owns the company.”
“Lowell,” Mark repeated. “I just read something about your industrial division, the part that manufactures synthetic sapphire. You just signed a ton of contracts to make unbreakable cellphone screens.”
Impressive. Everyone recognized the Lowell Keepsakes brand. Not many drew the connection to Lowell Industrial, the division that would make the family billionaires within the next three years.
Mom smiled, pride radiating from every pore. “The cellphone screens were my daughter’s idea.”
“Not true,” Carmen said. “Many companies have tried to develop a sapphire screen.”
Mark set the plaque back down in front of Carmen. “But you were the first to perfect a process that kept the cost competitive. Quite a feat of engineering. Cost control, too.”
“That’s my daughter. In a company positively dripping with sentimentality, she’s the bastion of hard science and pragmatism. Mind you, the industrial division is just a pit-stop on her meteoric rise toward operations officer.”
Carmen felt herself tense up again. She understood that her mother was proud, but did she really have to gush about it constantly?
Mom, oblivious, dug into the other gift bag and came out with a card. The envelope, naturally, bore the Lowell Keepsakes logo on its flap. And judging by the excited light in Mom’s eyes, she must have designed and printed the card herself.
Indeed she had. Carmen quietly cursed her mother’s fascination with social media while she read the card’s front. A picture sat dead center, a meme of a wildly popular cat that always looked as if it were scowling. Mom had used her dodgy photo-editing skills to superimpose Carmen’s frowning face over the cat’s.
At the bottom of the picture, a one-word caption shouted NO in huge, blocky white capital letters.
Inside the card it said What do you get for the girl who says no to everything? Her own birthday meme! Love, Mom
Carmen, who secretly loved the card, looked across the table at the offending parent. “I do not say no to everything.”
“Yes, you do. You’re addicted to the word no.”
“Since when? When was the last time I said no to anything?”
“You mean today? Let’s see. I asked if you were excited about the COO job, and you said no. Then I asked do you want help with the house you’re working on? No. Do you want a birthday cake? No. A birthday party? No. Will the company pay for an espresso machine in the art department? No. Do you want to go out with that handsome man in the sales office? No, no, no.”
“Oh, come on. Can you be any more embarrassing?”
“Well, he’s a very nice young man.”
“Who says ‘sammich’ instead of ‘sandwich’.” She looked to Mark for acquittal. “I hate that.”
Mark held his hands up. “Don’t look at me. I’m the innocent bystander.”
Mom persisted. “And what about that attorney who kept coming to visit you? He seemed nice. And absolutely gorgeous to look at.”
“You mean the one who liked the Lowell money a lot more than he liked me?”
“You never told me that,” Mom said. “I suppose you’re right. Things are different for you than when I was coming up. The money probably makes a social life a lot more treacherous.”
“Changing the subject now. And don’t complain about how much I love the word no. No keeps the company from hemorrhaging money whenever you creative types get ideas.”
“Such a buzzkill.” Mom turned to Mark. “So what about you? What do you do?”
Mark answered with a wry expression. “CEO. Guess that means I play for Team No, too.”
Carmen laughed again. “Go Team No!”
“Figures,” Mom muttered. “What company do you work for?”
“Runlight Industrial and Technologies. We’re based over in Amhurst.”
“Seriously?” Mom gaped at him.
Carmen stared, too. Runlight was a multinational company into everything from electronics to utilities and natural resources. To think she dreaded taking on a responsibility the size of Lowell. Runlight made it look like a lemonade stand in comparison.
Now that she thought about Runlight, though, she remembered reading a recent article about internal shenanigans. Someone had been fired, making the CEO extremely unpopular with upper management. Did that mean Mark was the subject of all that ire?
She hoped not. This quiet, reserved guy who sat with them now hardly seemed the hard-ass power-monger type.
Even if he was, Carmen would be the last to pass judgment. She knew what it was like to say no to family and friends. In fact, the reason Gran considered her for the company’s most powerful office was her ability to say no when it mattered. She knew that responsibility came with a price of ticking off her family and friends in favor of protecting the family’s livelihood long-term.
Mark ran his finger over his laptop computer’s trackpad and clicked to minimize a window. Now that Carmen knew who he was, his software testing turned far more interesting. Runlight funded major research and development into things like quantum computers, biological transistors and nanotechnology. If not for Mom, Carmen would poke and prod until he explained what he was testing.
Mom asked Mark, “So what brings you to Elmdale? Business?”
“Personal business. There’s an auction just north of here I wanted to hit late tomorrow. I thought I’d hit some of the mining exhibits on my way.”
“You be careful. The traffic on Route 50 gets horrendous with all the boats and tourists. Carmen said it was horrible already last weekend. I can’t imagine what it’ll be like with a few thousand people trying to get in and out of all the boat landings up there.”
Mark asked Carmen, “You fish?”
“No. I’m working on a house not far from one of the bigger lakes. Can’t miss the place. It’s the driveway with the huge towers at the entrance.”
Recognition brightened Mark’s features. “I saw those the last time I was here. I thought that was a quarry or something.”
“Used to be, a long time ago. The quarry is spent now, and long since filled with water. Someone built a house overlooking it all, way back when. They call it—quite anti-climactically—Quarry House. It’s an interesting place, though, and still in decent shape. Needs a lot of cosmetic work.”
“It also needs electricity and phone service.”
“You stop. It’s pretty hard to keep an eye on weather forecasts without electricity or Internet or even a radio.”
“There’s a radio on my MP3 player. I won’t be completely cut off from civilization.”
Their waitress appeared to set steaming hot plates before them. The chitchat turned back toward Lowell. Mom told Mark about the art department, and how she’d been working there all her life. She even told him about the design archive, an annex of the art department, where they kept samples of best-selling or other noteworthy keepsakes produced over more than a hundred and twenty years in business.
Carmen had a love-hate relationship with the design archive. She’d spent a lot of time there, growing up. She privately called it the most confusing room on earth.
That, too, she kept to herself. Mom was having fun doing the talking for once. She so often sat quietly, retreated into her own world, that it did Carmen good to watch her enjoy herself.
Mark earned even more points asking the right questions and making Mom laugh. Something must be horribly wrong with the women in Amhurst to leave this guy unclaimed.
Then again, he seemed painfully down-to-earth. He probably spent the majority of his waking hours at work, too.
When they finished eating, Mom leaned forward to fish under the table for her gift bag. “I saved the best for last. Open your gift, and then I need to hit the road.”
Mom handed over the gift bag, this one metallic bronze with metallic gold ribbons and bows. One of this year’s best-selling wrap styles, of course. The bag itself was big. The box inside was light, and only a hair larger than a sheet of printer paper.
From the moment Carmen opened the box and saw the laminated eight-by-ten photo inside, she could hardly breathe. Her favorite book-and-movie franchise. Heck, half the world’s favorite franchise, The Fornax Reach. The photo was a publicity still of the ensemble cast, and the picture was covered in autographs.
Captain Ronin Darmo had signed. First Officer Triss Nesicon. All the other crew members. Even the villains had signed.
Beside her, from Mark, she heard, “No way.”
Her thoughts exactly. She looked up at Mom in wonder. “How did you ever get all those signatures?”
“I didn’t. I bought the print from the studio, and sent it to one of the publicists to see what they could do about getting an autograph or two. They recognized the Lowell brand name and the rest just sort of snowballed and took on a life of its own. The actors made sure the print got sent to everyone, and that everyone signed.”
Still breathless, Carmen leaned back against the booth. She collected Fornax memorabilia with a fanatical dedication that Mom usually made fun of, and now her parent had contributed the collection’s most prized piece.
“I don’t even know what to say. This is… Wow.”
Mom almost gave her a heart attack by plucking the laminated photo from her hand. “You’re missing the best part.”
She flipped the photo over to show an illustration on the back. Someone with a fine hand had drawn a map of the route the starship in the series took from one far-flung galaxy to another. Each galaxy bore a different design. Beneath the drawing was a handwritten note from the notoriously reclusive director. Live beyond your reach. Thanks for being a fan, and her signature and the date, just four days ago.
Carmen clapped her hands over her mouth.
“No way,” Mark repeated.
“Don’t tell me,” Mom said. “You’re another Fornax fan, too.”
“Rabid. I’m so jealous right now.”
Turning to him, Carmen raised her brows. “Which is your favorite book from the series?”
The next fifteen minutes evaporated. Carmen loved the Fornax series, and loved to talk about it. Though it was never difficult to find people who shared the same interest, discovering Mark Rhodes was also a fan and also a collector was more fun than usual. Gone was Mark’s reserved manner. The man opened up like window shutters. Suddenly the pine green eyes were alive and alight as they laughed and traded quotes, and complained about the fans who complained about every little thing and came up with crazy conspiracy theories.
Mom loved the conspiracy theories, too. She joined in to talk about a hotly contested, unresolved love story between Captain Darmo and Triss Nesicon. Their unfinished story had led to more fan fiction and fist fights at fan conventions than any other plot point.
Mom believed the captain would eventually admit how much he loved his first officer. Carmen and Mark and a majority of the fan base believed that even if Captain Darmo did love Triss, he would never let his personal feelings come between him and his ship.
Carmen and Mark examined the drawing on the back of the picture, marveling at all the detail put into the galaxy symbols.
Carmen didn’t notice how quiet it had gotten beside her until Mom cleared her throat. “Um, I hate to break up this beautiful geek-bonding moment, but I really need to get going.”
Carmen immediately got up to give Mom a hug. “Best birthday present ever. Best Mom ever, too. I love you. And thank you.”
Mom squeezed her back, laughing. “You’re welcome. I’m glad you like it, and I love you, too.”
Next came a stern admonishment to be careful out at Quarry House, and to venture back toward the road where she had cell signal to check in.
“Frequently,” Mom told her. “Else I’ll worry all weekend. And don’t forget about the weather, either.”
“I won’t. Sheesh.”
“Don’t sass. Sorry I can’t stay to visit a little longer.”
“Yes, I am.” Mom leaned closer to whisper. “And so is Mark. Wouldn’t kill you to say yes to that, would it? Holy moly, he’s a hottie.”
“Mom!” Carmen complained. “Scarred for life.”
Laughing, Mom let go. She stepped nearer the table to shake Mark’s hand, uttering all the right things with effortless charm.
Carmen wished she’d inherited that trait once Mom had gone. Aside from the movies or business, she had no idea what to talk to Mark Rhodes about.
Mark, unfortunately, picked the one thing she didn’t want to discuss. He asked whether she was really rising toward COO of Lowell.
“I don’t know. There’s supposed to be an announcement Wednesday morning.”
“You don’t sound real enthused.”
“If I’m named, I will be. The problem is I really love the industrial side of things. I’d happily stay there until I retire. What about you? Are you happy at the helm of Runlight?”
“Yes, though I won’t say it’s always a great time, stuck as the captain of Team No.”
She picked up on some tension at the end of that statement. Probably his internal struggles with management were just as fun as they’d sounded in those articles.
“No, it’s not always a great time, is it?” she soothed.
Another silence threatened. This time Mark ended the gap with another question. “So what’s with the house flipping? What got you started on that?”
“Necessity. I had the worst time finding a house I liked back home in St. Charles. Finally this gorgeous cottage opened up close to work, but the place was completely trashed. I had to wait so long for contractors to even give me estimates that I finally did a lot of the work myself. I guess I fell in love with the process. It’s a fun hobby. It occupies my weekends, with the added bonus of giving Mom and Gran something to fuss and complain about.”
A slow smile pulled at the corner of Mark’s mouth again and she found her eyes drawn to the motion.
Lord, he had a nice mouth. And could he be any more attractive? A smart, polite, gorgeous Fornax fan. If only she were free to act on the warming, quickening sensation tingling away inside.
He drew the conversation back around to The Fornax Reach series, confessing that he owned many of the original model-miniatures used during filming.
“It’s nice to talk about this,” he said. “Everybody at home would give me no end of crap about my collection if they ever saw it.”
Carmen snorted a laugh. “Yeah, I get that from my grandmother a lot, but she doesn’t really disapprove. She just wishes I’d spend my spare time producing great-grandbabies instead of flipping houses and collecting action figures and fictional weapons.”
“You have weapons, too?”
Another half hour evaporated while they indexed their many plastic and metal treasures. Most of Carmen’s weapons were the blunt-force type but Mark preferred the more exotic electrical versions. On screen, they looked like lightning strung between two jump-rope handles. Which naturally led to a debate over how effective those weapons would be in the vacuum of space, and how likely they were to injure the user along with the intended target, but how they were infinitely more realistic than weapons from other sci-fi franchises they loved.
When their waitress popped over to see how they were doing, Carmen held her hand over her wine glass. She really needed to get away from Mark Rhodes. He was hot, and he loved Fornax. It wouldn’t do to get too interested in a guy she could not fit into her life, no matter how much she might like to.
She told the waitress, “Nothing more for me, thanks. Hangovers and sledgehammers don’t mix.”
Mark declined another beer, too. She caught something on his features. Relief. He seemed relieved she’d refused. Which did nothing to explain why he asked another question.
“What are you doing with sledgehammers?”
“The last owner put up a couple walls that need to come down. No big deal. Anyway, I’d better call it a night so I’m rested up. You don’t mind if I desert you?”
Now she got a slight frown. God, this guy was confusing.
“Not at all,” he said. “I appreciate the company. And happy birthday.”
After a quick thank you, she fled.
She escaped to her room where she sat on the end of the bed and spent a few moments fretting over Mark Rhodes and his mixed messages.
Afterward, she let it go. Maybe someday she would be free to chase and be chased. She’d already tried and learned the hard way that avoiding relationships sure beat the heck out of watching another promising start die slowly from neglect. And it wasn’t as if she ever lacked for company when she could make the time. She had great friends, and an even greater family stuffed with more nieces, nephews, cousins, aunts, and uncles than she could count. Toss in the house flipping, and she was content.
She did miss sex. A lot. Vibrators and dildos drained away the excess sexual energy well enough, but they couldn’t fulfill every need.
Her imagination chimed in with an unfortunate but enthusiastic clip of Mark Rhodes wielding said toys.
“Not helpful,” she muttered.
Forcing herself off the bed and away from the spicy visuals, she took an extra-long and less-than-warm shower filled with thoughts of all the work awaiting her at Quarry House.
She was still pondering what sort of flooring to put down on the second floor when she finally drifted off.
She dreamt of Mark in the shower with toys.
In the morning, looking forward to an early start, she checked out of the hotel and headed up Route 50. Barely past dawn, the rural highway swarmed with traffic. An endless string of headlights streamed in both directions as the fishing crowd vied for public access points to the west. That side of the road was solid trees broken up by one huge lake and several small ones.
The view was different to the east. Over there, decades ago, mining companies had found valuable stone and ore. Hundreds of square miles around Quarry House and points northeast had been cleaned out. Afterward, the mining companies put a great deal of effort into reforming the land to attract and sustain wildlife. Huge mounds of tailings formed hills, some nearly as tall as mountains. Wide expanses of water stretched between some mounds. Others harbored thick hand-seeded forests that had since spread uphill and beyond. The area around Quarry House was so thickly wooded in places that she feared she might have to bring in a logging company to cut the house some elbow room.
She caught sight of the twin metal-lattice towers marking the end of Quarry House’s driveway. The two sixty-foot towers were a remnant of the quarry days. They were rusted, utilitarian and not the prettiest structures ever built. Radio towers, the Realtor had explained. Carmen didn’t want to tear them down. From all accounts, the towers were a local landmark. Hikers, boaters and pilots used them as a directional bearing. No one could give driving directions in the area without referencing the towers.
Maybe she would wuss out and leave the decision up to the future buyers. In the meantime, she had ideas about adding some details that could make the towers less of an eyesore. She’d have to see where she stood, budget-wise, after next weekend when the electrician could finally come in and finish some repairs.
She slowed and turned between the towers. The gravel driveway remained in great shape despite encroaching brush and trees. She really ought to have something done. The trees were like a wall, and so close to the road the drive felt claustrophobically tight. At the very least, she should cut the chaos back far enough to let in some sun. That way, grass seed might actually take. She might even get wildflowers.
The drive went on for about an eighth of a mile before widening into a turnaround. A detached garage stood off to her left. Straight ahead lay the fathoms-deep lake that had once been a quarry, and to her right loomed the house. Such an unusual structure, it had captured her interest the moment she’d stumbled across the listing online. A modern three-tiered layout, its bottom-heavy design sat diagonally on the shore of the quarry. The ground-floor patio ringed the lake-side of the house, concealing pilings that braced the structure onto solid granite beneath the water’s surface.
Floor-to-ceiling windows lined the east and south sides of the house. Up top on the third floor a southern-facing balcony stretched far out over the water like the neck of a swan.
The view up there was crazy. She could see for miles, but the pilings holding up the balcony itself were exposed. She was considering concealing them in stucco-covered concrete to match the rest of Quarry House. Yet another decision she would have to make after the electrician finished their work.
Carmen parked her truck in the garage and let herself into the house. She entered into a nicely informal mudroom. Benches lined both sides of the wide, all-white entryway. Beyond, to her left lay the kitchen, dining area and the sliding-glass doors that let out onto the patio.
Straight ahead was the staircase leading up to the next floor. Past the stairwell and to her right, massive utility and storage areas extended deep into the hillside of mine tailings.
Her focus today would center on the kitchen. Some vandal had added two walls to cordon off the dining room. She planned to start her day bashing down the obstructions and let some natural light back into the kitchen.
Next on the agenda would come the rest of the ground floor walls. Right now, every inch was coated in nasty mauve and ivory bamboo-patterned wallpaper. It looked sort of like uncooked bacon, only far less appetizing.
One floor up was a narrower story occupied by a second, wide-open living area overlooking the lake. The rest of the floor held multiple bedrooms and two more bathrooms. Finally on top came the narrowest floor taken up by the master bedroom and bath.
She carried her bags upstairs. The house had been unoccupied for nearly a year before she’d bought it. Time had done some damage, and she’d spent her first three weekends readying the top floor and kitchen so she could stay here while cleaning and refurbishing the rest of the place.
After setting her stuff next to the unglamorous mattress set she would sleep on, she headed into the bathroom to test the plumbing. The plumber had left a note to say that the bathrooms were finished but the kitchen would take more work. The sink was cracked and the plumbing beneath it would have to be replaced.
So much to do. She unpacked her kit first, setting a couple battered old towels and washcloths on the bathroom vanity. Toiletries next before putting sheets and a blanket on the mattress. With nowhere else to put them, her clothes stayed in a duffel.
As settled as she ever planned to be, she hurried back outside to the garage where she stored most of her equipment and supplies. She hauled plastic sheeting and cardboard inside. The sheeting she hung up to contain the dust. The cardboard she placed on the floor to protect the dining room’s original, gorgeous oak flooring.
Two more trips brought the shop broom, lantern and sledgehammer inside. Anxious now to get started, she picked a starting point in the middle of one wall between studs, drew a ceremonial X in black marker, and hefted the sledgehammer up over her shoulder.
It landed with a satisfying—and jarring—smash, and the morning passed in a haze of destructive bliss. The cleanup dominated a sweltering afternoon. She made trip after trip to the contractor’s bin with loads of demolished wall and stripped electrical debris.
Without electricity, lunch and dinner were sketchy affairs. Come dinner time, she was overheated and grubby. She had planned to head into town for a meal, but contented herself instead with a protein bar, some canned pineapple, trail mix and bottled water. She brought the Fornax picture inside to keep her company while she ate. In honor of her new prized possession, she listened to the audio version of the first Fornax book on MP3 while examining the galaxy map more closely.
After clearing away the scant dinner mess, she left the picture on the table but continued listening to the story. Earbuds in place, she attacked the hideous wallpaper near the front windows as the sun began to set.
An hour or two passed while she worked by lantern light. She would have given anything for electricity so she could run the air-conditioning, or at least a fan. Side windows let in a slight breeze now and then, but the night air remained heavy with heat and humidity. Open windows only made the indoors worse.
She finished one wall in the dining room and decided to skip the kitchen. Too hot in there. She moved into the hallway running beneath the stairs between kitchen and utility areas. The nearby storage area felt like an icebox in comparison. Tired by then, her rhythmic motions while painting wall-paper remover over bacon, and then peeling and scraping, became relaxing. Mesmerizing, almost.
She lost all track of time, scraping away and listening to Fornax. Early on, Captain Darmo had only just met his new first officer. Scorching sexual tension ensued, and the Captain reacted badly. Given any say in the matter, Darmo would have sent Triss straight back to Command to avoid the distraction. Luckily Triss was the former mistress of High Commander Rousche, and also a damned fine officer. She stood her ground and quickly proved her worth.
Only a flickering, fading lantern battery brought Carmen back to reality.
Just in time to have the crap scared out of her by Mark Rhodes.