WHAT WAS I thinking? Zane had never even stepped foot in the old building before he’d decided to leave North Carolina and take the job at the boutique architecture firm in downtown Cleveland. But since his second cousin, Ralph Carver, passed away and left the house to him and his sister five years earlier, Zane had dreamed about the place. After his last relationship had tanked like all those before it, those vivid dreams and the feeling of belonging that accompanied them seemed like good enough reasons to pick up and leave Raleigh. If he’d been in his right mind, Zane probably would have considered hiring a lawyer to challenge the restriction on the deed that the property could not be sold or transferred to someone outside of the family, and sold the place. He was well off, but his sister could certainly use an infusion of cash.
The photographs Jim Robinson, Ralph’s executor, had sent along with the deed to the house showed a huge crack in the foundation on the building’s side, crumbling sandstone cornices over the downstairs windows, and a downed tree blocking the front walkway. Fortunately, Ralph’s will provided money to restore and maintain the brownstone. As his suitcase wheels clattered up the smooth sandstone steps, Zane was pleasantly surprised to see the place was in really good shape. The tree had been removed and the stone railings repaired.
Zane smiled and ran a hand over the patinaed lion’s head knocker on the wooden front door. He’d thought the repairs were mostly meant to bring the property up to code, but the work done on the front of the house was amazing. The shutters were properly hung and painted in a chocolate brown that drew attention to the gorgeous old bricks. The foundation had been repainted a soft tan, and no evidence of the cracks he’d angsted over remained. The tension in Zane’s gut eased as he realized his diamond wasn’t as rough as he’d expected.
He fumbled in the pocket of his thin jacket for the key, shivering as another gust of icy wind blew across the deserted street and gathered snow and bits of ice that stung his cheeks. He forced the key into the lock and tried to turn it with numb fingers. The damn thing stuck. He jiggled it back and forth. Still nothing. He tried again, this time moving it as he pushed on the door.
The lock turned and the door flew open. Zane fell onto the hard tile floor and banged his left elbow.
Faraway laughter floated in the open door on another gust of wind. Zane took a deep breath, got to his feet, and retrieved his bag. He closed the door and leaned against it, soaking wet and shivering. His cell phone buzzed in his pocket. He pulled it out and tapped the screen.
“Ren, I told you I’d call when I arrived,” he said.
“You were supposed to be there six hours ago,” his sister said. “I got worried.”
“I got delayed in Atlanta. They had to deice the plane.” He wouldn’t tell Ren about his near misses moments before. He didn’t want to worry her.
“It snowed in Atlanta?” Ren loved snow, although they rarely saw it in their hometown on the North Carolina coast. “Lucky. It’s just raining here.”
“I don’t consider a six-hour layover in Atlanta to be good luck.” Zane rubbed his elbow and winced.
“It’s an omen.”
“Not a good one.” Zane looked around. Someone had left the hallway light on, casting shadows over the freshly painted walls of the entryway. “And speaking of which,” he continued in a voice that reminded him of their mother, “if you were so worried about me, why didn’t you text me while I was sitting in Starbucks waiting on the crew to arrive for my flight?”
“How much snow do you have?” Ren asked, her voice bright with excitement.
“Here?” Zane glanced out the window. “Five, maybe six inches.” He wondered vaguely if there was a shovel in the garage out back.
“When can I visit?”
Zane smiled. “Give me a chance to get settled in? At least get the guest bedroom put together so you have a place to crash.”
“’Kay.” Ren sighed through the receiver. “But you know I can help if you need me.”
“I… um…. There’s something I, ah, saw,” Ren said. “You know….”
“In the cards?” Zane shook his head. Ren had always been obsessed with the supernatural. Recently she’d taken to reading tarot. They were both twenty-seven, Ren older than Zane by about four minutes, but she still acted like an overgrown kid. Ren had barely managed to finish high school, where Zane had gone to college and graduate school. Polar opposites and best friends.
“Lara said she’s worried about you too.” Lara was the clerk who worked with Ren at the tiny comics and games store in downtown Wilmington. “The Tower is the harbinger of danger, chaos, destruction, and change. It means you—”
“Let it go, Ren. I know you worry, but it’s just an old house.”
Ren remained silent.
“Look, I’m beat,” Zane said. “I’ll call you tomorrow. Give Lara a hug and tell her not to worry.”
“’Kay.” From the tone of her voice, Ren was unconvinced. “But—”
“Love you, Ren.”
“Back at you.”
Zane disconnected the call and shoved the phone back in his pocket.
The Tower. Harbinger blah, blah, blah. Total bullshit. Besides, change was a good thing, wasn’t it? The engineering job at McHugh & Weston Architects was exactly what he’d always hoped for, and leaving his cheating ex-boyfriend had given him the kick in the ass to take a chance on leaving North Carolina.
He ran a hand through his damp hair and unzipped his jacket. The caretaker Jim had hired to keep an eye on the place while it was empty had left the heat on, and the house smelled clean.
In the dim light, the stairs looked even steeper than in the photographs. Instead of threadbare carpet, polished brass stair rods anchored a wool runner to each step. Zane lovingly ran his hand over the curved banister at the bottom of the steps. The wood was perfectly smooth, surprising given the place was more than a hundred years old.
He hung his jacket in the front hall closet and glanced in the direction of the kitchen. He’d make a trip to the corner grocery store and stock up on cleaning supplies and food in the morning. He didn’t even want to think about how disgusting the fridge might be.
He made his way upstairs with his bag. He couldn’t find the switch for the overhead light in the master bedroom, but in the dim glow of the small lamp by the bed, he saw that the room was clean. The furniture had been dusted and polished. The new mattress set and bedding he’d ordered had arrived and had been set up. He probably had the caretaker to thank for making the bed.
He washed up and brushed his teeth in the master bath, happy to discover that the water heater had been turned on. He dried his face on a towel he found hanging by the door, changed into sweats, and slipped under the fluffy down comforter. The pillows felt like heaven. He closed his eyes and fell asleep a moment later.
ZANE WOKE to the smell of coffee and baking bread. He’d been dreaming of breakfast. Eyes still closed, he yawned and stretched. Then he realized he really did smell breakfast. Jim had mentioned the caretaker might stop by. But breakfast?
His stomach growled. Time to get your sorry ass out of bed.
He opened his eyes and looked around. The heavy brown drapes drawn over the windows made the room darker than he expected. He fumbled for the table lamp and blinked as his eyes adjusted to the light. The siren call of coffee too much to ignore, he slipped out of bed and walked barefoot from his room to the top of the stairs.
Plates clinked and the whistle of steam from a kettle sounded as he reached the bottom of the stairs. In the sitting room near the front door, the fireplace had been lit. The sweet smell of burning wood made him smile. Zane rounded the corner to the kitchen and found the table set for one. A french press filled with coffee waited next to a pitcher of steaming milk.
A tall man with curly red hair bent down and retrieved a pan from the oven. He wore a simple white apron over a pair of gently worn Levi’s and a pressed button-down shirt.
“Hello?” Zane ventured.
The man looked at Zane and smiled, his green eyes bright with pleasure. “I hope you slept well,” he said and set the pan on the stovetop. He then piled several muffins into a basket already half-filled with bread and placed the food on the table.
“I…. Wow. It smells amazing.” Zane looked around. The remodeled kitchen sported sleek tile walls, slate countertops, and stainless metal cabinets, not to mention stainless appliances and a professional-grade oven and stove. Ralph had clearly been better off than Zane realized.
“I’m Kit.” The man smiled and offered Zane his hand.
“Zane,” he said and shook Kit’s warm hand.
“I’m glad you’re finally here.” Kit smiled and tiny lines gathered at the corners of his eyes. In the bright morning sunlight, his hair looked like fire against his pale skin and flush of freckles. “Hot milk and a teaspoon of sugar, right?”
“In your coffee.”
“Thanks.” Zane watched as Kit filled a mug. “But how did you—”
“I made blueberry and chocolate-chip muffins,” Kit continued, undaunted. “There’s also some baguette if you’d prefer. I know how you like it when it’s hot.”
“I do.” Zane was too tired to wrap his brain around how Kit knew this. Maybe he’d mentioned it to Ralph. Zane remembered telling him he’d lived in France for a year during college.
“I put jam and butter on the table, but if you prefer honey, I can get you some.”
“No, this is perfect,” Zane replied. He took a sip of his coffee and moaned with pleasure. “Really perfect.”
“I’m glad.” Kit turned and went to work on something by the stove.
Way too adorable for his own good. Zane brushed the thought away and said, “I didn’t realize when Jim said the house had a caretaker it meant a full breakfast and personal service.” Zane offered Kit what he hoped was an appreciative smile.
“The attorney handling Ralph’s estate.”
Kit looked momentarily confused, then said, “Oh, right.” He laughed and gestured to the table. “Please, have some breakfast, before it gets cold.”
“Thanks.” Zane took a drink of the orange juice and sighed. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d had fresh squeezed.
“Did Ralph tell you about the… house?” Kit asked as Zane drank.
“The house? No. I mean, I knew he’d left the place to me and my sister,” Zane explained, “but I had no idea he’d done all this work on it. From the photos Jim sent, I figured I’d be doing some serious remodeling. But it looks incredible.” If he’d realized just how incredible the place was, he might have considered moving sooner.
“Oh. Sure. Ralph did a lot of work on the place.” Kit nibbled his lower lip, reminding Zane of a child who wanted to please a favorite teacher. A little strange, but endearing. “Did he tell you about me?”
Kit’s face fell.
“But we didn’t talk much,” Zane said quickly, hoping he hadn’t hurt Kit’s feelings. “I’m sure if we had, he’d have mentioned you.”
“Oh. Right. I’m sure he would have.” Kit picked up a towel and folded it neatly.
Zane wondered what Ralph might have said about Kit. Zane’s family had always referred to Ralph as a “confirmed bachelor.” Had they been more than friends? He debated whether to ask but decided to let it go. He’d bring it up again later, when Kit seemed less nervous. And when he could focus on something more than the charming company.