The Guests on South Battery (8 page)

Jayne extended her hand to shake and Ginette hesitated just for a moment before grasping the hand with her gloved fingers. “It's nice to meet you. I apologize for the gloves, but I have a condition where my hands are always icy cold. I rarely remove my gloves, even in the summer.”

“Please, no need to apologize. And it's a pleasure meeting you.”

My mother was still smiling, but her expression seemed strained. Jayne must have noticed it, too, because she said, “I have one of those faces. People always think they've seen it before. But I don't believe we've ever met.”

Ginette's expression relaxed. “Yes, that must be it. Are you from Charleston?”

“Birmingham. This is my first time here.”

Ginette moved into the drawing room and sat down in my vacated seat. Sarah's attention was immediately focused on her grandmother's jet-black onyx necklace. It had been a birthday gift from my father and had a stunning gold clasp in the shape of a sweetgrass basket. As soon as Sarah's small fingers wrapped themselves around the strands, her face broke out in a rapturous smile, almost as if the joy of the gift had transferred itself into her small fingers.

“Melanie told me that you've inherited Button Pinckney's house.”

JJ began to squirm and I took him from Jayne. She settled back onto the sofa while I remained standing, swaying gently. I tried to ignore the grandfather clock because then I'd know we were far off our nap schedule.

“Yes. And I'm sure she's told you that I have no idea why. Unless it was to punish me for something I'm not aware I did.” She gave a
halfhearted laugh. “It's in really bad shape. I doubt I have the energy or interest in restoring it. I'll probably take a loss and sell it as is.”

“Because you don't like old houses.”

Jayne looked up at her sharply. “No. I don't.”

Ginette regarded her for a long moment, making Jayne glance away. “I should get going.” She stood. “When would you like me to start?”

“Would two days work? That should give you time to check out of your hotel and settle in here. I'll have Mrs. Houlihan get your room ready. Would you like to see it?”

She shook her head, almost before I'd finished speaking. “I'll see it when I move in. I just have a suitcase, but I have more in storage. I can have that sent over whenever I figure out where I'll be permanently.”

“We do need to move ahead,” I said gently. “Sophie is dying to get her hands on your house, and has already started making phone calls to people who restored the Villa Margherita right down the street.”

“I really think I can give you an answer now, but I'm afraid it might not be the answer you want to hear.”

“I just want my clients to end up where they're supposed to be. I can handle Sophie's disappointment.” I tried to wipe the image of me in a turban on a flyer out of my mind.

My mother stood and approached us, Sarah still focused on the beads of the necklace. “Jayne, we've only just met, so I don't know you. But I did know Button very well, for a long time. I know she loved that house. Loved how she could touch the same banister and walk across the same floors as her ancestors had ever since the Revolution.” She placed her hand on Jayne's arm. “It was more than a house to her. It became the child she never had, and the only part of her family to survive. She would not have left it to you without serious thought or reason. I just want you to consider that before you make your decision. Maybe the time spent restoring the house will give you the time you need to find out why.”

Jayne took one long, slow breath. “Maybe I don't want to know.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

She shrugged. “It just seems that digging into her reasons would be ungrateful. And . . .”

I raised my eyebrows.

“And sometimes the answer you find to a question is something you wish you'd never learned.” She was silent for a moment as she watched Sarah's fascination with my mother's necklace. “But I appreciate your insight, Mrs. Middleton, and I promise to give this deep consideration.” Turning to me, she said, “I'll let you know when I arrive for work the day after tomorrow. Please tell your husband good-bye for me.”

“I will. And he's very intrigued by your story. As I mentioned, he'd be a good research resource.”

“Yes, thank you. I'll let you know.” She said good-bye to my mother and the children, then headed for the vestibule to put on her coat. I followed her to the door, waiting as she buttoned her serviceable navy wool peacoat.

I opened the front door, and she paused. “There's one more thing,” she said.

“Yes?”

“I'll need a night-light shining in the hallway. I have one for my bedroom, but I need one for outside my door.”

“All right,” I said. “That won't be a problem.”

“Good. And thanks again.” She said good-bye and walked onto the piazza and then out through the garden gate. I watched her leave, listening as her footsteps disappeared down the sidewalk, trying to think of all the reasons why a grown woman would still be afraid of the dark.

CHAPTER 7

A
s was typical in Charleston, bitingly cold winter days were often followed by much balmier weather that had us replacing our heavy coats with cotton sweaters. It was as if Mother Nature were teasing us, making us dream with an almost feverish anticipation of the upcoming season. Spring in Charleston was something out of a fairy tale, with every garden, window box, and planter spilling out with fragrant blooms in every shape, size, and color. The streets that were merely picturesque during the other three seasons became works of art in the spring—assuming one liked row upon row of old houses and couldn't see the shadows hidden behind their windows. But even I could almost forgive the hoards of tourists who flocked here for the spring tour of homes and gardens.

As I waited for Jayne's arrival, I sat in the back garden pushing JJ and Sarah in the little baby swings Rich Kobylt had made for them—including safety harnesses—and then strung from a low branch of the ancient oak tree that had probably been just a sapling when the house was built in 1848. Jack hadn't found it alarming that our contractor/plumber/handyman was considered a member of our family now and that he was making swings for our children. And helping himself to coffee in our kitchen and teaching tricks to our puppies. Porgy and Bess
knew how to roll over, shake a paw, and play dead. I wondered if all that time spent had been billable hours, but Jack wouldn't let me ask.

I was remembering my fortieth birthday party that had been set in this very garden, and humming the song “Fernando,” wondering if I was just imagining the children wincing when I tried to hit the higher notes. Whoever said that small children were accepting of our failings must not have actually known any.

Meghan Black, Sophie's grad student, had shown up each day to dig in the hole that had appeared in my garden. Sometimes she'd bring other students, but today she was by herself. She'd spread out a sheet on the grass onto which she'd place anything found in the hole, right next to a floral Lily Pulitzer insulated mug with a tea tag dangling from it. It sat next to a bag from Glazed Donuts on King, which I had to force myself from looking at because it made me salivate. She wore the pearls again, and a pear-colored Jackie O cardigan, but these were paired with jeans and Hunter boots in deference to the digging she'd be doing. Sophie had questioned the practicality of Meghan's clothing choices, but I had to admit that I liked this girl's style.

I stared uneasily at the hole. There was something there, something that hadn't been unearthed yet. But it would be. I felt it. There was just nothing I could do to stop it. It was like the sky before a storm, how you knew it would be a bad one, but you just weren't sure when you needed to seek shelter.

Barking from the three dogs came from the kitchen—the dogs being barred from the back garden until the hole had been filled in—followed by the sound of a shutting car door. I looked at my watch, seeing that it was time for my carpool partner to be dropping off Nola. I turned my head at the sound of giggling and spotted Nola, her best friend, Alston Ravenel, and a girl I hadn't met before emerging from around the side of the house. They all wore Ashley Hall uniforms and carried book bags, and each had that fresh-scrubbed look of youth and good health, their clear-skinned smiling faces completely alien to my own gawky teenage years. The one good thing about having absent parents during that time of my life was that there was no photographic evidence of my adolescence to haunt me into adulthood.

I waved them over and watched as Sarah smiled and gurgled at her big sister while JJ squirmed and reached for Alston, his girl crush. He had a thing for blond women and had been known to reach forward in his stroller at attractive strangers, pinching his fingers open and closed, demanding that they hold him. I tried to tell him it was cute while he was a baby but probably wouldn't be as tolerated when he got older. He didn't seem to care.

“Hi, girls.” I stood. “Did you have a good day at school?”

Nola leaned down to place a kiss on each baby's cheek before taking over the swing pushing. “It was great until pickup. Ashley Martin has her license now, so her parents bought her a Mercedes convertible. She made a big show of blocking our exit from the parking lot by putting the top down. Alston's mom was
so
annoyed. We told her that her SUV was bigger and should just run over Ashley and her stupid car.”

“It must be hard being fifteen,” I said with a smile. Although not as hard as it was being a fifteen-year-old girl's father. It was about to get interesting around here when it was time for Nola to start driving. And dating. I wondered if I should go ahead and schedule family counseling to make sure there was a spot open for us.

“And this is Lindsey Farrell. She lives over on Queen Street in the yellow Victorian.”

She shook my hand and looked me in the eye. “It's nice to meet you, Mrs. Trenholm. My mom says you probably won't remember her, but she went to USC with you. You were in the same art history class, I think.”

“What was her maiden name?”

“Veronica Hall. You did a project together on early American painters your senior year.”

I thought for a moment, only having a vague memory of the name and that project. “I don't think I remember her, but I still have my yearbooks, so I'll look her up. But tell her I said hello.”

“I will.” She smiled and I saw how striking she was. She had an almost elfin face surrounded by a cloud of black hair, and dark brown eyes that appeared black. But it was her smile that transformed her face from merely pretty to beautiful. It did nothing to disguise the aura of sadness
that seemed to permeate the air around her. I looked away, not wanting to see more than what I was prepared to.

“Hi, Meghan!” Nola shouted. Meghan looked up and waved back. Nola was fascinated with the older girl's passion for her chosen field of study, and hadn't even yawned during a lengthy explanation of the history of cisterns—both their construction and usage. I'd seen her sit at the edge of the hole in perfect silence while watching Meghan work, then taking an inordinate amount of time studying each small artifact that was placed on the sheet. I didn't understand the fascination, seeing it as the equivalent of watching grass grow, but as long as Nola's interest didn't slow down the excavation, I left them alone.

“Mrs. Houlihan baked brownies,” I said. “Flourless for you, and then regular ones with taste for the rest of us. They're on the stove if you and your friends want a snack.”

“Maybe I should try a flourless one,” Alston said as she swayed with a content JJ, his chubby fingers wrapped around strands of her long blond hair.

“Unless you're trying to punish yourself, I wouldn't,” I suggested.

She giggled, then carefully put JJ back in his swing. He began snorting his disappointment until Nola gave him a push on the swing and he was back to his burbling self.

“We have an algebra test tomorrow, so we'll bring our snack up to my room to help us study. Try not to disturb us, okay?”

“Okay,” I said. “The new nanny will be here soon. Will you have a few minutes to say hi?”

“Sure. Just text me and I'll come down.”

She and the girls said good-bye and left before I could ask if I could just knock on the bedroom door. As Lindsey turned to follow the other two girls into the house, I noticed something long and rectangular, like a narrow box, sticking out of her backpack. It looked like a board game, but the bottom was facing me so I couldn't see what it was. Nola wasn't into board games, as I was sure she and most of her generation were more into Facebook, Snapchat, and Twitter. I thought it was nice she and her friends were going a little retro.

JJ began to squeal and kick his feet while his hands opened and closed again in what Jack referred to as his crab imitation. I turned around to see Jayne coming from the side garden.

“Hi,” she said. “I took a guess that you'd be back here with the children taking advantage of this gorgeous weather.”

“Good guess,” I said.

She approached the children with a broad smile as if she really was happy to see them. But when her gaze settled on the hole behind us, she faltered. “What's all that?”

“Nothing you need to worry about—just keep the dogs and children away. It's an old cistern that was buried for a long time, and with all the rain we've had the earth sort of caved in. Sophie is sending some of her students to excavate it to see if there's anything of historical significance in it before I tell my guy to bury it again.”

“Oh,” she said, her forehead creased. “What are they expecting to find?” She definitely sounded worried, and I wondered if she'd read up on me and the house and its propensity to hide buried bodies.

“Just junk. Our construction guy says the ground is stable around the perimeter of the cistern, but if being out here makes you uncomfortable, we can go inside. I want to give you the tour and show you your room and the nursery and the children's spreadsheets. I purchased a small MacBook for you so that it's easy for us to keep track of their care. We can just send updated spreadsheets back and forth to track their outfits, food consumed, vocabulary word of the day, diapers changed and their contents—that sort of thing. I've also set up a Google calendar for their social lives—which includes birthday parties, trips to the beach, and museum visits.”

She didn't say anything for a moment, and it looked as if she was waiting for me to tell her I was kidding. I knew that expression because I got it a lot from family and well-meaning friends who didn't have a clue how to organize their lives or those of small children.

My phone rang and I suppressed a sigh as I recognized Suzy Dorf's number. I ended it and then before I could remember what we'd been talking about, I got a
ping
telling me I had a text message. I looked at it and tried not to squint to read it, despite the fact that I'd made the
font as large as it could go. So large, Nola suggested, that my texts could be read from outer space.

Have you heard about the new movie they're filming in Charleston? I have the scoop you might want to hear. And besides, you owe me an interview.

I began to respond with
Why would I owe you anything?
But after three failed attempts to make a capital W for the first word, I gave up. I didn't owe her anything, especially not a response to her ridiculous text. The previous year she'd printed the contents of an anonymous letter she'd received at the paper about buried bodies in my garden. The only thing I owed her was a wish that she'd become one of them.

“Sure. Let's go inside,” Jayne said. “I left my stuff on the front porch and can bring it in as soon as I know where to put it.”

I picked Sarah out of her swing and watched as Jayne lifted JJ. “Jack can bring your bags in when he gets home. Is it a lot?”

She shook her head. “No—just a regular suitcase. I travel light. Old habit to break, I guess.”

There wasn't any note of self-pity in her voice, but it brought back again the image of her as a baby being left on a church doorstep. It made me want to offer to redecorate her room in her favorite colors and furnish it with all the things she loved. Which was silly, really, since I didn't know her, much less her favorite colors. I might have moved around a lot with my military father, but I'd always had my own room that I'd been allowed to decorate, hanging up as many ABBA posters as I wanted. It made me feel sorry for her, for her less-than-perfect childhood that she'd managed to overcome. Maybe because I was now a mother, I saw a need to be a mother for those in need of one.

As we walked toward the back door, each holding a child, I made a mental note to start a spreadsheet to keep track of all the things we could do to make Jayne feel welcome and at home, then made another note to go online to see if I could find any ABBA posters she might want to hang on her walls.

We walked slowly through the house so she'd be familiar with it, pausing for a moment in front of the fireplace in the downstairs drawing room. “Have you had any thoughts on baby-proofing this room yet?” she asked.

“I've purchased all the corner protectors and cabinet locks but haven't had to use them yet. Sarah is very obedient and doesn't do anything once you ask her not to. And JJ prefers to sit and wait for someone to carry him to where he wants to go—preferably his dad, but if Jack's not available, then a female person. I have all the safety paraphernalia in a section of their closet upstairs with everything labeled so you can see what we have.”

“Labeled?”

“Yes. And I bought you your own labeling gun just in case I've missed anything. Actually, I haven't labeled the inside of their dresser drawers yet—so that can be your first assignment. You can do it while they're napping—JJ could sleep through a hurricane and Sarah has so much fun babbling to herself in her crib that she won't even notice you're there.”

She blinked a couple of times before smiling. “Of course.” We turned to leave, but she paused in front of the grandfather clock. “Is it broken?”

The pendulum was swaying back and forth, the familiar ticktock echoing in the room, but the hands of the clock were stopped at ten minutes after four o'clock. I looked at my watch just to make sure that I hadn't somehow lost track of time, something I'd been unfamiliar with until I met Jack. I stared at the time for a moment, something about it jarring my memory. I frowned. “That's weird. It's been working perfectly. I guess I'll have to call somebody.”

I showed Jayne the kitchen, where JJ started to clap his hands in anticipation of being fed. “He likes his food,” I said. “He'll eat anything and at any time, but prefers somebody else to feed him. Sarah is a good eater, but more selective and much prefers to feed herself.”

Jayne nodded. “It's good for them to retain their individual personalities. It's important that they see themselves as separate persons.”

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