Picking up his phone, he scanned recent calls. His thumb hovered over her number. Then, slowly, he laid it back on the desk.
He needed more time.
“God, please keep her there,” he whispered.
Joy read through the book twice, the last time without crying. She forced herself to get out of the house, to start her life over — again. She had no intention of leaving here the way she had left Charlotte. It wasn’t necessary. Robert was gone, and she felt happily lonely here. She smiled wryly. Those words didn’t normally go together, but they were both true. She was lonely, but not devastated. And she was happy here at the Inn. Happy with her life. Robert infuriated her, but she felt a closeness to him, especially at the end. He had been loving, gentle, accepting, almost not the same man.
Then he walked out. His loving behavior had been an anomaly after all and she mourned what might have been.
For a week or so.
She wasn’t back to life before Robert Benning, but it had cleared her mind of Charlotte, South Carolina. The Pennsylvania countryside enjoyed a few days of late winter sunshine, and she took advantage of it, walking around town and even helping Ivy around the Inn. She was quickly falling in love with the simple, quiet life of this small community.
On one of her trips to town, she gathered the courage to go in the bookstore. His poster had been removed, but the display of novels still dominated the shelves. She lingered, browsing and touching the book covers. She knew he had never touched these books, but they brought comfort.
She sighed and walked on over to the market, purchased the items Ivy needed, and slowly made her way back home. She stood at the foot of the steps looking up at the house. Home. A strange feeling came over her. Home? Had she been there that long? It was only three months since the evening she drove into the parking lot and into the lives of these people who had become her friends. And Robert. She walked up the steps, and into the parlor. She could still feel his presence. She wondered what had happened to him and why he left so abruptly. She would probably never know.
She took the bag into the kitchen and began putting things away. Over the last few weeks, she and Ivy grew closer, at first discussing Robert’s book. But Ivy loved hearing Joy’s stories. Joy was even more interested in the history and culture of this part of Pennsylvania and Ivy was steeped in the traditions and lore. Their friendship deepened from customer to companion. She sat, talking with Ivy, who kneaded bread for a large pot pie, the delicious aroma filling the kitchen.
Joseph sat at the large oak table with a mug of steaming coffee, working on the books for the inn and the farm. The windows were open, sounds drifting up pleasantly from the barnyard. He stood up, stretched, and began closing the windows. “Getting colder.”
It pained her to watch this beautiful young couple struggle so much just to make ends meet. There had not been any tenants except her and Robert for the last several months, and now Robert was gone. She decided at that moment to make a difference in their lives the way they had in hers.
She walked around the table and sat down beside Joseph, pointing to the ledger. “May I?”
He closed the book and shook his head. “No, this is my responsibility. And you are a guest.”
“Joseph, before I decided on journalism, I thought I would try accounting like my dad. I didn’t really like it, but I learned the basics.” She put a hand on his. “I can do this even faster with the technology available to me. Will you let me help you?”
He frowned but didn’t say anything. Clearly, he didn’t like accounting.
She tried a different tactic. “I tell you what. What about we work out a deal where you give me room and board in exchange for me helping where I can?”
Ivy sat on the other side of Joseph. “You could spend your time working outside. The work you love.” She smiled at her husband, her eyes twinkling.
“Please, just think about it, Joseph. I’m bored out of my mind and I need to find a job anyway.” He was quiet, watching Ivy.
The next morning she went to the kitchen early looking for an apron. If she couldn’t help Joseph, she was determined to help Ivy, just to keep busy. She should get dressed and drive to Philadelphia and make contacts at some of the stations there. But, she didn’t want to. She simply didn’t want to. She wanted to continue using her talents, yes, but not the way she had. There must be something else.
Ivy came in carrying a basket of wet laundry. She set it on the bench. “Let’s have some coffee.”
After their first cup and a little small talk, Ivy sighed. “About last night. Joseph and I talked about it and he is willing to let you take over the reservations and books for the Inn. He won’t hear of you working in the house, and he won’t take money from you.”
“No, that’s all he’s willing to accept. Joy, it’s his way. We see things differently from the way you’re used to.”
She studied Ivy, then nodded. She would rather take his offer than look for work. “Okay. But is he willing to sit with me and listen to some of my ideas?”
Ivy stood up, lifting the basket of clothes. “That will be for the two of you to work out.”
After a long discussion over supper that evening they worked out a plan. When Ivy and Joseph went to their room, Joy curled up in front of the fire with a cup of tea, smiling. For the first time in many weeks, she had a purpose.
First thing next morning she took pictures of the Inn, highlighting the quaint locale and the personality of the hosts. She wrote a piece about the charm of staying on a working farm and how it felt as a guest. She set up a website, even though it had been hard to sell Joseph on the idea. He was skeptical but she was determined to show him the benefit, especially since he wanted to increase their exposure to other areas of the country. It took time and more than a little persuading, but he finally gave the job to her to do as she saw best. Only with the understanding they would sit down together once a week so he could keep up with the progress.
She had discovered several booths at Market that made handmade soaps, shampoos, even quilts, and pillowcases. When she presented the idea of using local suppliers for soaps in the rooms, Joseph had jumped on the idea, buying handmade soaps from a widow in town. It wasn’t long before they were helping others by buying from the locals, providing their guests with a touch of the area’s charm.
She bought all of Robert’s books and added other historical novels and area biographies to a small library in the sitting room for guests to borrow. Her personal copy of Disappearance lay on the small table behind the desk. She wondered where he was now. None of them had heard from him since that January afternoon. There was still an emptiness in her heart when she thought about their last day together. She wished she could change it. She longed to go back and change her words, her reactions. Did he feel the same?
She stood up in front of the computer and stretched. He probably never even thought about her, or, if he did, it was with contempt for her — brand of sarcasm. She sighed. She felt she had changed over the last few months. She was not out to prove anything anymore, just help this special couple establish a good business. She wasn’t sure she wanted to return to the spotlight again. Maybe she could support herself by helping others succeed.
As she went over the arrivals for this weekend and printed out a copy for Joseph and Ivy, she realized all five remaining rooms were booked. That was the first time since she’d been here. She hung the copies on their respective clipboards and went to find Ivy. After looking over the occupancy chart she sat down, looking overwhelmed. Joy offered to go to the market for supplies so Ivy could continue making preparations. Ivy sat down, regained her composure, and made a list of supplies needed to prepare for so many guests. Joy headed toward town, thinking about a way to order and have supplied delivered. She would have to think it through before presenting it to Joseph.
When she was ready to turn in that Wednesday evening, she checked the guest list to see who would check in tomorrow. There was only one. Bob Charles. He had requested room 207. Her heart jumped to her throat. That was Robert’s room, and this man had requested it. That seemed odd. She pulled up the reservation to see if he had any special requests and noticed that he had booked the room for a month. She sat back, staring at the screen. She wondered if he knew Robert, and maybe Robert had suggested the Inn and that particular room. Maybe another writer? A smile tugged the corners of her mouth. She would check the bathrooms before turning in and be sure they were well marked. It would be a good idea for the weekend anyway. She put the books away and turned off her computer. The electric candle was plugged in and shown through the window like a beacon.
She slept soundly through the night, dreaming she heard the sounds of voices and footsteps in the hallway, but they faded away as she drifted into a deeper sleep. The next morning she booted up the computer, made sure she had plenty of brochures to area tourist spots and added a couple business cards to a holder on the desk. Ivy placed homemade goodies on the table in the sitting area, covering them with a blue-domed glass lid, a period piece from the Pennsylvania Dutch country.
She grabbed a Boysenberry scone and headed out the door in search of small white vases. Joseph had finally given his okay for her to add a few local touches to the guest’s rooms. The first batch of soaps had been delivered yesterday. She’d lost on the shampoo and conditioner, but he had given her a lot on the other touches.
She came in and went directly to the supply closet she’d cleaned out upstairs and cleaned the vases and put water and stems of dwarf Asters in each one. Then she selected bars of soap and placed them in each room and the bathrooms.
Just as she put the basket back in the closet she heard the bell over the door chime. It must be Mr. Charles. She smiled, removing her apron as she took the steps two at a time. Without looking toward the desk, she turned to hang her apron on the coat tree. “Good afternoon. You must be…” She looked up, speechless, staring into familiar brown eyes. “Robert?!” She struggled to get her brain to think, fumbling for words. “Do you have a reservation? No, you don’t, because I don’t have one for you.” She looked toward the computer behind the desk, her hands trembling. “We’re full for the next several days unless I missed something.”
He reached over and put his hand on the computer, brushing hers, sending a tingling sensation up her arm. “Joy, I have a reservation. Bob Charles.”
“Bob Charles?” She looked at the screen then back to his face.
He grinned. “Well, that is my name — just not all of it. I was afraid you’d run if you knew it was me.”
Her face felt flushed, her body hot. She breathed deeply, slowly, not looking at him. But his presence overwhelmed her senses. She could feel his eyes on her, watching her, trying to judge her feelings. She wasn’t even sure of her feelings right now. His hand still rested on hers on the mouse. Slowly, she pulled it back and wiped them on her slacks. They were sweaty and shaking. She glanced at him, handing him a key. Quietly, she said, “Why don’t you go up and settle in while I get you squared away here. Oh, and be warned, we’re full starting tomorrow through the rest of the week.”
Without saying a word, he picked up his bag and climbed the stairs. She couldn’t concentrate. Her heart was pounding in her ears. What had just happened? It seemed a lifetime since he’d driven out of the parking lot and out of her life. A thought came into sharp focus. He left once. He would leave again.
So why come back?
Slowly, Joy’s life has changed from who she thought she would be to become a less self-centered person, focused on helping others. Being happy without the public identity, and devoting herself to a simpler life. How many of us have realized the joys of a simple existence?
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