Authors: Dana Mentink
Gotta get away for a while. Take care of each other. I’m sorry. Daddy
A “while” had stretched into days, then into months and finally years, with only occasional phone calls and quick visits, their father’s behavior growing more and more bizarre with every passing year. His last text to Cy was six months ago, indicating he was in the Southwest fossil hunting in the desert with a bunch of college kids. It did no good to remind him he was an insurance investigator, not Indiana Jones. He’d lost something when their mother died, and Rosa was sure he would spend the rest of his life trying to find it.
Bitsy should have called social services back then and reported Manny Franco for abandoning his kids. Her salesman husband, Leopold, was a constant traveler and a man who was never able to keep money in his pocket. Bitsy was responsible for a dilapidated inn with virtually no help from Leo. Even when he’d died five years ago, there had been no financial relief, no life insurance to ease Bitsy’s bottom line.
Even so, because she’d been a friend to Katy Franco all those years ago, instead of making that call to social services when Manny left, Bitsy had brought the twins to the Pelican Inn and sold her car to pay for their necessities. Rosa swallowed a sudden lump in her throat as they drove up the winding road that led to the top of a bluff overlooking the ocean, the location of the rustic inn.
The old, gabled structure still sported the same faded yellow paint, accented by window boxes spilling over with crimson geraniums. White-painted trim and a pelican weather vane on the peaked roof added to the charm. Rosa inhaled a deep lungful of sea air as she got out of the car. Heavenly. Could there be a more soothing place than the Pelican?
A thrill of unease shivered through her, upsetting her moment of bliss. She peered around the tiny parking area, looking for a car that might be driven by Bitsy’s nephew. A silver Mercedes and a dusty motorcycle occupied the lot under the shelter of a Monterey pine. “What if Pike’s here?”
“He’s busy with his law firm,” Cy said, handing over Baggy. “Besides, if he saw you, he’d probably run like a scalded cat. You remember the scar on his lip?”
She felt a flush crawl into her cheeks. “Who knew lips would bleed so much?” Rosa recalled a few of the “situations” she’d run into with Bitsy’s nephew Pike, a man at whom she would cheerfully hurl a tureen of her aggressive marinara sauce if given the opportunity. The memories were surprisingly vivid and painful. The feeling rose up strong as an ocean wind, the knowledge that she was nothing more than an awkward girl with her nose pressed to the glass, looking wistfully at the life she was not a part of. An outsider. Always. She wondered if Pike had heard about her expulsion from law school.
“If he shows up to bother you, I’ll take care of it.”
Cy was the gentlest person she knew, but he would always have her back. She swallowed a lump in her throat and shook away the thoughts. “Let’s go talk to Bitsy. I’m dying to see her, and we’ve only got three weeks to get this pelican whipped into shape.”
Cy surveyed the peeling paint on the shutters and the clinging scalp of ivy that adhered to the gutters with the tenacity of Super Glue. A redwood railing flanked the narrow steps that led to a front porch complete with cozy love seat and a tangle of climbing hydrangeas framing the charming nook. “Three weeks and five thousand dollars. It’s going to be a stretch,” Cy mused.
“It’s what we’re good at, remember?” Rosa tucked Baggy under her arm while Cy carried a bunch of yellow daisies they’d purchased. A widow for going on five years now, Bitsy deserved long-stemmed roses, dozens of them, but for now daisies would have to do. Rosa marched up the flagstone walk, doing mental gymnastics as she went. “We’ll want to capitalize on the view from the sitting room and we can draw attention to the exposed beams in the kitchen by painting the walls a light color.”
Something scuttled across the roof overhead, but she ignored it in the rush of excitement she felt. She raised her hand to knock, but the door flew open before her knuckles made contact with the old wood.
“Rosa, sweetie! Cy!” Bitsy cried, drawing back suddenly the way people generally did when they got an eyeful of Baggy. “Is that...a dog?”
“Probably,” Rosa said, shifting Baggy to the side and allowing Bitsy to wrap them in a double hug. “He was left in a bag at the pet store where Cy works part time. He doesn’t smell, and as far as I can see he’s house-trained.”
Bitsy laughed. “Better than some men I used to date way back in the day, before I married Leopold. You two look smashing.”
“Not as smashing as you,” Rosa said, trying to keep from tearing up, her voice muffled by Bitsy’s denim shirt. It wasn’t idle flattery. Bitsy was still tall and regal in spite of her nearly seventy years. Her hair shone white-blond in the buttery afternoon sunshine, cornflower-blue eyes as sharp as they’d ever been, her features enhanced by a touch of satin lipstick and artfully applied powder.
She pulled the twins to arm’s length. “Imagine you two staying at the Pelican again, but now you’re all grown up.” Her eyes filled with a mixture of pleasure and something Rosa thought for a moment was pain. “Come in, come in.”
They entered the familiar sitting room that featured a fireplace with a rustic pine mantel. It was crowded by two flowery stuffed chairs and set off by a honey-colored, planked floor. Bitsy’s collection of antique salt shakers was displayed on a corner shelf, meticulously free of dust. There were new drapes, expensive and overly ornate to Rosa’s eye.
“Hasn’t changed much, has it?” Bitsy sighed. “I guess that’s why you’re here.”
“I can’t believe we were chosen.” Rosa wanted to pinch herself. She was here in the old inn that held such bittersweet memories, and now she would be breathing new life into the place, repaying the woman who had breathed new life into her and Cy. “Where should we start? I’ll need to make sketches, consult with you on some color palettes, and we can come up with a common vision. I’m...”
Bitsy laughed. “Time enough for that. Maybe we should get you settled in first. I’ve closed the inn to guests for a few weeks. There weren’t many anyway, so it should be quiet.”
“We don’t want to...” Rosa’s words trailed off as a loud thump sounded from the roof. A slithering, scraping noise followed, and Bitsy’s face creased in consternation.
“What was that?” Rosa asked, already headed for the front door.
“Honey, there’s something you should know....” Bitsy called after her.
Rosa pushed the door open anyway, startled as a man dropped off the roof right in front of her.
the man sprawled on the steps. First his eyebrows lifted in surprise, and then they lowered into a glare of unmitigated hostility, probably the perfect match to her own.
Bitsy pushed past Rosa. “Are you okay, Pike?”
“Fine, fine,” he said. He stood and unbuckled the tool belt from around his waist, brushing twigs and leaves from his jeans, spilling nails onto the ground. His forehead furrowed as he stared at Rosa. Her brain made note of his thick hair, now cut in a spiky, modern style, the slight dimple in his chin, his broad shoulders and lean physique. Her heart added its own observation: the arrogant arch to his eyebrow, his hands propped in irritation on his hips, the annoyed quirk of his full lips.
“What are you doing here?” they both articulated in unison.
Pike blinked. “Bitsy owns the place, remember? I’m a relative.”
Of course he would lead with that. He was blood. She was an interloper, a squatter on Bitsy’s generous affections.
“So what’s the deal, Rosa?” Pike demanded.
Slowly, Rosa turned and leveled a look at Bitsy, the picture of innocence.
“Isn’t this the oddest coincidence?” the older woman asked.
“Bitsy,” Rosa began sternly.
Cy inserted himself between them and shook Pike’s hand. “Hey, man. Good to see you.” He stared Pike full in the face, a man’s way of sizing up a potential enemy, Rosa knew.
Pike smiled, cordially. “You, too, Cy. Still hanging out with your crazy sister?”
Cy opened his mouth to answer but Rosa cut him off.
“Crazy?” she asked, lips twitching. “I wasn’t the one who just fell off the roof.”
“For your information,” Pike said, “I had it all under control. I didn’t fall, just skidded a little.”
“Uh-huh,” Cy said.
Rosa pressed her brother’s arm. “I need to have a private word with Pike.”
“Okay. I think I’ll just go, er, sand something, then.”
“Let me show you where I keep the sandpaper, Cy,” Bitsy said gaily.
Before Rosa could get a word out, Bitsy vanished into the house with Cy. “I’ll talk to you later, Aunt Bitsy,” she grumped before turning back to Pike. “So, you were telling me why you’re here, Pike.”
His eyes narrowed. “First off, Bitsy is my aunt, so I don’t really need a more compelling reason than that. Second, the roof isn’t getting any younger, as you might have noticed, so I was doing some repair work at the request of Aunt Bitsy. Therefore...”
“You can drop the lawyer shtick.” He did it intentionally, to remind her again that she’d left law school while he’d sailed through on his way to a lucrative career that afforded him expensive, albeit attractive, haircuts and a silver Mercedes. He probably ran in the same legal circles as Foster Pardee, the man who’d used her. Her gut tightened. “I have as much right to be here as you do,” she couldn’t help adding.
“I didn’t say otherwise.”
“No, you wouldn’t actually have the guts to say it to my face, would you?” she snapped, heart slamming into her ribs. “Back in high school you made sure everybody knew my family and I didn’t belong in Tumbledown.”
His eyes flashed. “I didn’t need to tell them. They all knew once your mother...” His words died away as a look of horror flickered in his brown eyes. “I didn’t mean that.”
She tried to get a breath in past the pain in her chest. “Oh, I think we both know exactly what you meant.”
He looked down at the ground, and she heard him expel a breath through his teeth. “Your father tried to ruin my family. I had a right to be angry.”
“He was doing his job,” Rosa said.
“And I was doing mine, defending
She glared. “By humiliating his enemy’s daughter.”
Pike started to answer, then closed his mouth and fixed his gaze on a spot somewhere over their heads.
Rosa’s skin felt hot, as if she’d swallowed some incendiary drink that burned past her heart deep down into her stomach. “Maybe,” she managed, “we should keep our families out of this.”
“Excellent idea,” he barked.
A man in his mid-forties sauntered into the yard sporting a long ponytail draped over his shoulder and carrying a large wicker basket.
“Hello, Rocky,” Rosa said. He was an ever-present fixture at the inn for a long as Rosa could remember. Rosa had lived with Bitsy until she turned twenty, her brother leaving the year before. Had it really been sixteen long years since she’d moved away from Tumbledown? Her visits to Aunt Bitsy had become less and less frequent the more drama and stress filled her life.
Rocky was a veteran of the early days of the Persian Gulf War. He was a quiet man, and he could get anything to grow. Hydrangeas in a kaleidoscope of colors, daylilies, azaleas, spring bulbs.
Rocky lowered the basket to the ground while he dredged a stick of gum from his pocket. Then he flashed Rosa a peace sign, picked up the basket and continued toward the coop.
Rocky’s silent greeting was not a shock, at any rate. And she couldn’t argue that he’d been a loyal helper to Bitsy, especially after Leopold’s death.
“Look out for the loose board,” Pike called after him. Pike’s attention swiveled back to Rosa. “So, why are you here?”
“We’re redecorating the inn for Bitsy.”
Pike groaned and closed his eyes for a moment. “Oh, man. You two are the Dollars and Sense outfit that’s competing in the contest? I thought Bitsy changed her mind about all that.”
“Yes, Cy and I happen to be the owners of Dollars and Sense, and we won the chance to participate. Furthermore, when we’re finished, the Pelican will be the hottest destination in Tumbledown. We’re going to turn this place around.”
His eyes widened. “You can’t do that.”
It was her turn to gape. “And why not?”
“Because the inn is...”
A crash came from the chicken coop, followed by an all-out cacophony of squawks and clucking. Puffs of feathers floated out of the opening.
“I’ve gotta go help Rocky.” He turned and jogged away.
“But why can’t we remodel, Pike?” She called after him. “Pike?”
Bending his tall frame, he disappeared into the clucking chaos.
Rosa did some deep breathing to try to keep her emotions in check. Pike’s presence brought up all the angst she’d left behind years before. He was her high school enemy and, worse yet, a lawyer. She wondered if it had been a mistake to come back to Tumbledown.
At the moment the only thing she knew for sure was that she did not want to have another confrontation with Pike until she had better control of what came out of her mouth. She headed back inside the inn, confusion and determination warring inside her.
Bitsy stood with a cowed expression, hands folded. She gave Rosa the “little girl lost” look that Rosa had seen her employ a number of times on susceptible individuals. “How much trouble am I in, exactly?”
Rosa sighed. “I know he’s your nephew and you are required to love him. You’re biologically related and all.”
“And I love you, too, Rosa, and I’m your aunt, biology or not.”
Rosa blinked hard, irritated to find tears gathering. “You should have told me he was here.”
“I know, but I thought you might not come, and this is the chance of a lifetime, isn’t it?”
“And you forgive me for not telling you everything, right?” Bitsy moved close and put her smooth fingertips under Rosa’s chin, lifting gently. “Please tell me you can forgive me.”
Like a little girl, Rosa found she could only answer by throwing herself into Bitsy’s arms and snuffling against her shoulder, clinging to her until Cy ambled into the room, stopping uncertainly in the doorway.
Bitsy released Rosa and rubbed her hands together. “Tell you what. Why don’t you two put your bags up in the attic? It isn’t included in the contest.”
Cy nodded, impressed. “You know a lot about the details.”
“One hears things,” Bitsy said. “Now up to the attic with you.”
“It’s not necessary,” Rosa said, thinking she would rather have a sandpaper facial than stay in a place where she was likely to run into Pike. “We can easily find a hotel.”
Bitsy’s lip twitched. “If you so much as suggest a hotel again, I’ll be forced to puncture your tires.”
Rosa’s mouth fell open and Cy laughed. “Don’t mess with a woman who knits.”
Bitsy’s eyes sparkled. “Crochets. And I’m determined when I know what’s best for all concerned.”
Rosa and Bitsy trekked up the rickety stairs, single file, until they reached the attic, which was redolent with dust and a faint fragrance of the sea. The twin beds perched against the walls, just as they had when she was a teen, looking drastically smaller to Rosa’s adult eyes. Memories flooded through her.
She pictured the stacks of decorator magazines, dog-eared and marked, that she used to pore over in that tiny space, dreaming of bright, shining places where happy families lounged in comfort and style. Her foot found the white stain on the floor, a souvenir of the giant solar system she’d painstakingly painted on the wall before coming to her senses and covering it all with a cool blue tint.
Why had Bitsy ever allowed the solar system monstrosity in the first place? Rosa sneaked a look at Bitsy’s worn face. Because Bitsy was a stalwart defender of every one of Rosa’s dreams. She’d been the only one besides Cy to whom Rosa spilled her truest feelings after her humiliating exit from law school.
And now it was Rosa’s turn to do the same for Bitsy, to transform the Pelican into the jewel of the coast, no matter what Pike thought.
She carefully set Baggy down and threw open the faded curtains that covered the round window, the room’s most precious feature. The view had not changed. Framed by the branches of a cypress tree that thrived just outside the window, the Pacific Ocean danced in an endless rhythm against the cliffs below. Rosa swallowed a lump in her throat, momentarily letting go of her worries: the teetering business and the rent due at the end of the month. “I’m so happy to be here.”
Bitsy squeezed her shoulder. “And I’m thrilled to have you back.”
“Oh, look.” Rosa pointed at the crawling waves. “There’s Larry’s fishing boat. I can’t believe he’s still sailing. He must be close to ninety by now.”
“Well, some things never change.” A tone of uncertainty crept into Bitsy’s voice. “Then again, some things do.”
“Is everything okay?” Rosa studied Bitsy closely. The woman was thinner than she remembered, her skin more wrinkled and her eyes shadowed.
“Fine, fine,” Bitsy said. She gazed out toward the ocean. “Still the best view in the house.”
“Second best.” Rosa looked out at the worn shingles on the peak of the jutting room fondly known as Captain’s Nest. The panorama from that room was truly unbeatable. As far as Rosa had ever known, though, Captain’s Nest was stuffed from floor to rafters with boxes, rendering it unusable. Even in her time growing up at the inn, the Nest was kept secure. She’d only managed to sneak in a few times when the door was left unlocked. “So you don’t get hurt,” Bitsy said many times. Not anymore. It would be the highlight of the inn, the charming nautical nook that levered the Pelican above the competition.
“Do you have a place we can store the boxes?”
Bitsy blinked. “What boxes?”
“The ones you keep in Captain’s Nest. We’ll need to get them out so we can paint, maybe do some rough texture.”
“No,” Bitsy said firmly.
“No? Well, we can find someplace else to store things temporarily.”
“No, I mean no one is going in that room.”
“But it’s the gem of this inn.”
Bitsy shook her head, lips pressed together. When she answered, her voice was low. “That room is off-limits. No one is touching Captain’s Nest.”
Rosa could not believe what she was hearing. “Bitsy, we won’t change anything without consulting you, I promise.”
Bitsy took Rosa’s hands and pressed them. Her palms were cool, the fingertips almost icy. “No, honey. No one goes in there.” Without waiting for Rosa to respond, Bitsy turned on her heel and left.
Rosa watched Bitsy go, her gait as strong and sure as it had ever been. Bitsy had an iron resolve that Rosa had witnessed firsthand many a time, but in this circumstance, there seemed no reason for such a reaction. Captain’s Nest was off-limits? Still? Puzzling over it, Rosa returned to the foyer to find Cy peering at a newspaper.
“Do you think Bitsy is okay?” she asked her brother.
Cy didn’t look up from his paper, his knee bobbing up and down. “Of course. She’s the same as ever. There’s an estate sale two blocks from here.”
Rosa tried for a firm tone. “It’s not a good time. We’ve got to meet with the
people, and for some reason Pike doesn’t want us to...”
Cy had the same glazed-over expression he got whenever he was about to embark on a decorating treasure hunt. His uncanny nose for a bargain had netted them everything from a Japanese tobacco box to an exquisite Persian rug he bought for pocket change. “Bitsy heard they might have clocks. A clock would look completely amazing in the sitting room.”
Rosa sighed. Cy was a kind of decorating history savant. He’d been completely obsessed with clocks ever since he’d read that Thomas Jefferson designed the Great Clock in the front hall of his Monticello mansion.
“All right,” she said, hiding a smile. “But if you come back with a clock connected to a Chinese gong that chimes the half hour...”
“Jefferson’s clock chimed on the hour, not the half,” he fired back. “Did you know that gong rang loudly enough for field hands to hear it three miles away?”
“Yes, Cy. You mentioned that a time or two.” She grabbed her keys. “I’ll drop you on my way to the magazine, but remember we’ve only got five thousand for the whole place.”
“Caviar decorating on a bologna and cheese budget. I got it.”
She shot a glance into the backyard as they left. No chicken sounds, but no sign of Pike, either. She wondered how he’d squeezed his strapping six-foot-three frame into the coop.
Shaking off thoughts of Pike, she headed for the parking lot.
* * *
leaped from the moving car at the entrance to the estate sale, Rosa drove down Highway One, once again drinking in the vast ocean and the wheeling scores of seagulls and terns. If she hadn’t been on her way to a meeting, she would have pulled the elastic from her ponytail and let the glorious wind have its way. Instead, she kept her speed steady and professionalism intact as she made her way to the
headquarters in Cliffside, some twelve miles north of Tumbledown. Once there, she was ushered into the neat but ordinary office of Wanda Elliot, coordinator of the contest.