Authors: Sheila Dryden
OTHER BOOKS BY
For my friends Lynda, Liz and Debra because your ongoing encouragement and enthusiasm has given my words wings.
“What on earth have I done? I must be crazy.”
She was here. She stopped but didn’t turn off the engine to her SUV, just put her foot on the brake and gawked at the sign that hung haphazardly from an archway supported by two rock posts on either side of the gravel driveway. The sign said ‘Wildwood Lodge’. It was weathered and looked like it might fall at any moment. The knot that had formed in her stomach earlier in the day tightened just a little more.
Uncle Max must have named the place Wildwood because of the oak trees that were native to the area. There were some pretty wild and gnarly looking specimens on the property as she recalled. It was a good name. She would keep it. Lexi summoned up what was left of her courage and put the vehicle in gear and started up the driveway. When she pulled to a halt a few hundred feet later, she was not prepared for what she saw. This was definitely not the log house they had visited when she was a youngster. It looked like a hotel. When she’d spoken with Mr. Beatty, her uncle’s lawyer, he’d told her that Max had done some renovations and she had been hopeful but she had not been prepared for this.
Pulling the keys from the ignition, she put her hand on the door handle and paused for a moment. She was a bundle of nerves but it was now or never, she told herself. You are here and you best get out and take a closer look at your new home. There was no turning back now anyway. She had made a commitment, given up everything to come here, so like it or not she was here to stay. She hoped things looked less run down on the inside, than they did from out here.
Lexi climbed out of the vehicle, reached back in to grab her purse then strode purposely across the parking area and gazed up at the sign ‘Wildwood Lodge’ before going up the stairs onto the porch. It was a huge porch, running the entire length of this massive log structure. Lexi walked over to the main entry, a double door. She clutched a single key, in a hand which was now shaking.
It took a little fiddling but she got the door unlocked and with an ‘It’s now or never’ pushed it open. There was a huge foyer which opened directly into an enormous great room, to her right. To her left, there were two other doors. Straight ahead a wide stairway went up to the second floor. Lexi decided to look at the lower floor first. Furniture that had been covered with sheets loomed like ghosts in the darkened room so Lexi searched for a light switch, found several in a row and flicked a couple of them on. A large fixture made of antlers illuminated the great room space reasonably well. She flicked another switch and a bunch of recessed lights came on. The space was caverness.
The two story vaulted ceiling was clad in wide pine boards with large beams interspersed every ten or twelve feet. Windows that spanned two stories covered most of the front wall and a massive stone fireplace, the adjacent wall. There was a balcony, which must be the upstairs hallway, overlooked the room. She felt more comfortable with the lights on so continued across the space to the dining room area which was located under the second story with only about a twelve foot ceiling here. Another large antler fixture hovered about a massive dining table. From here she passed through a swinging door and found the kitchen. There were some very industrial looking ovens, a very large cook top and a double refrigerator as well as many feet of cabinetry and counters.
Delight spread across her face in the form of a dimpled smile. This was not at all what she had been expecting. It was so much better. These appliances looked like new and it was clear they had had little if any use. Relief began to spread through her body and she did a little twirl in the middle of the room.
Lexi went back out to the great room. Looking at the balcony above, she could see doorways on the upper level. Bedrooms she supposed. She walked back to the entry and climbed the staircase to the second floor. Uncle Max must have been in good shape if he did this a few times a day. Lexi’s long slim legs took the stairs two at a time. There were four doorways on the left side of the wide hallway and she could see down to the great room to the right. At the end of the hall there was right turn. Lexi tried the first door. The room was large, had a king bed with a rustic log headboard. There was also a bathroom. There were a couple of occasional chairs and a smaller chair and a desk. The next room was the same and so was the third. Lexi was beaming. This was so much more than she had hoped for.
The lawyer said Uncle Max was planning to sell the property and tried to talk Lexi into selling before she had even seen the place. She told him no but he had mentioned it again when she’d picked up the keys today. He said he had a buyer who was really motivated and she should really think about it. Again, she told him no.
Lexi wondered why her uncle had never followed through on his plans and opened the place. He had obviously invested a lot of money here. The fourth door was a large storage closet. She would look at that later. She turned the corner and there were five more doors. All the rooms were basically the same, a bedroom area, a bathroom and each had a balcony and a fabulous view of the vineyards on the adjacent property. She moved on to the last door and this had clearly been the room that Max had occupied.
Lexi was shocked. Photos in pretty frames lined every surface in the room. Lexi’s stomach did a little flip flop as she realized that nearly every one of them was of her. There were a dozen or so of her with Uncle Max, taken on their visits to the Lodge. Then, there were photos of her in high school and even one of her graduation from Culinary School. Since her family had stopped coming and even communicating with Max after that, how had he got these pictures? Had her mother sent them?
She examined the earlier photos that included Max. He had been a very handsome man, as her father was, but he’d had the same deep dimples and blonde hair that Lexi had, while her father was dark haired. There was a picture of her father and mother and Max when they were very young. Her mom and dad were looking straight at the camera smiling while Max’s head was turned to the side and he was looking at them. Then there were a dozen pictures of Lexi with Max from each of their annual visits here. After that there were just pictures of Lexi because their visits had stopped. It was so surprising to her to find these photos and to know that Uncle Max must have really cared for her and she’d had no idea.
Lexi decided that she best continue her tour as it was now early afternoon and she still had to unload her vehicle and then go and shop for some groceries. She headed downstairs and to take a quick look at the rest of the main floor. There was a large office, two more bathrooms clearly one was meant to be a men’s and one a ladies. There was also a big storage/utility room and a laundry room with large industrial machines and a few regular ones. Everything looked like it had been completed years ago but had never been used, except for the office. There were papers and memorabilia so Max had definitely used this space. She would need to sort through this over the coming days and weeks. Thinking that, the dimples appeared again. For better or worse she was home now.
Lexi remembered a few little cabins that had been there from the beginning. She and her parents had stayed in one of them each year when they visited. She headed back out to the front porch and then took the path to the right to see if they were still there. There were four in all and she looked in the windows of each one since she didn’t have keys. The keys must be somewhere in the office and she would find them later. Again the furniture was covered with sheets and it looked like the cabins had not been occupied in years. How sad it was she thought.
There was so much to do out here in the Napa Valley, lot of places to go hiking and with an abundance of vineyards, visitors could take wine tours. There was even a pond on the property and Lexi remembered fishing there off a little dock and catching a trout. This must have been what Max had in mind when he expanded the house into the large lodge but why hadn’t he followed through. It was all very puzzling but finding out the answers to these questions was going to have to wait.
Lexi needed to settle in and go and get some groceries. She headed back to the lodge and went upstairs to pick out one of the bedrooms for herself. She found bed linens and towels in the storage closet and there was a vacuum cleaner as well. Putting her shoulder length blonde hair into a ponytail with an elastic band she pulled from her pocket, she set to work. She uncovered the mattress and made the bed up with the sheets and blankets she had found. Then she did some dusting and ran the vacuum around. Not perfect but it would do for the night. She could do a more complete cleaning later.
Lexi returned to the main floor and opened the front door to go and bring in her suitcase and ran straight into a man. She let out a startled squeal.
“Hello,” the man said stepping back. “Sorry if I scared you.”
“Ya think?” Lexi replied putting a hand to her chest to try to slow her rapidly beating heart.
He was tall and dark haired, dressed in blue jeans and a jean jacket and he removed a cowboy hat and smiled, looking her up and down in a way that made Lexi feel like she had just been undressed.
“Hello Lexi,” he said turning his attention to her face. “Good to see you again.”
“Hello,” she said warily, the dimpled smile from earlier now replaced with the reserved expression she normally wore, “do I know you?”
“Carter, Carter Monroe,” he said, his brown hair was thick and wavy and curled a little around his ears. He had two or maybe three days growth on his face and his piercing blue eyes never left hers. “I’m or should I say I was Max’s neighbour. You and I met when we were kids.”
“Oh, I see,” Lexi said self-consciously tucking a piece of hair that had fallen out of her ponytail behind her ear.
She put her hands in her pockets lest they start fidgeting. She knew perfectly well who he was and the man was just as good looking as the boy had been.
“I’m sorry I don’t remember you,” she lied. “I just arrived and was checking out the place.”
“I know,” he said. “Saw the dust from your vehicle going up the driveway a little while ago. Thought I may as well come over and say hello and bring Tucker along as he more n likely will show up here eventually.”
“Tucker?” Lexi asked.
“Max’s dog,” Carter replied. “I just assumed you’d be keeping him.”
“Well… gosh I don’t …I mean I’ve never had a dog,” Lexi stammered. “I don’t really know anything about dogs.”
“Well Tucker will be no problem. He is pretty well trained and he’s not likely to wander off. Since Max died the barn is the only place he seems to want to be. I’ve had to come over and fetch him back at least two dozen times since I started taking care of him.”
“I don’t understand,” Lexi said. “Why does he want to be in the barn?”
“It’s where Max died,” Carter said. “Sorry I just assumed you knew.”
“Oh,” Lexi said and fell silent.
“Well,” Carter said, “I’ll go let Tucker out of the truck so you two can get acquainted.” With that he turned and headed down the steps.
No one had mentioned a dog. Uncle Max must have got the dog recently because he hadn’t mentioned him the last time she saw him. Of course that had been almost three years ago and they hadn’t really talked much. He told her that he’d done some work to the place and clearly that had been a bit of an understatement. Max had turned up for her Mom and Dad’s funeral and Lexi had been very surprised to see him. She hadn’t seen him since that last visit here when she was twelve. Lexi and her Mom and Dad had made one of their annual visits but something had gone terribly wrong and there had been an awful fight between Uncle Max and her father. She remembered the yelling and her mother had been crying, but no one would tell her anything. They had never come again. Things had really changed for Lexi after that.
Despite what she’d said, she remembered Carter very well. She was surprised he remembered her because back then he had just ignored her. He was the much older boy who lived next door and was so drop dead gorgeous that Lexi had fallen head over heels for him. She remembered him alright but she wasn’t about to give him the satisfaction of knowing that. She walked down off the porch just as Carter let a large brown dog out of his truck. The dog was wagging his tail but rather than greet Lexi he just headed towards the barn.
“See what I mean,” said Carter.
The dog sniffed at a fence post near the barn and lifted his leg, then used his nose to nudge the barn door open and disappeared inside. She and Carter followed and when they opened the door, Tucker had laid down on the floor in the centre of the barn.
“He fell from up there,” Carter said, confirming her assumption that he had fallen from the loft right above the spot where Tucker lay. “I came over looking for him because I wanted him to look at one of my horses that had gone lame, found him near death, Tucker by his side.”
“Oh my,” Lexi said. “That must have been awful for you.”
“Yes, it was,” Carter said. “Known Max my whole life, still can’t reconcile how it happened. Max wasn’t a careless man. Makes no sense why he was up there in the first place and how he would have let himself fall. Coroner looked for something that might have caused him to lose his balance or become dizzy and fall but found nothing.”
“All I was told was that it was an accident.” Lexi said. “And that he had left the property to me.”
“Well I guess there wasn’t much else to say about it,” he said.
“I suppose,” Lexi said, feeling awkward.
Carter turned and started walking back towards his truck. I best let you get yourself settled,” Carter said. “I’ve got a mat and a bag of food and a couple of bowls in the truck for Tucker. I’ll get them for you.”