“Well, I have to go. I don’t want her to see me leave and think I’ve lingered for any unsavory reasons.”
Michael followed him to the door. “I’ve missed something, haven’t I? I’ve never seen you like this. Is there something else going on?”
Josiah shook his head, turning away because he wasn’t sure if he could read Rutherford’s expression correctly. “You’re imagining things.”
He left the inn quickly without looking back and never saw Michael Rutherford shake his head in dismay before shutting his door.
Eleanor circled the room again and then finally allowed herself to gingerly sit on the edge of a chair cushion embroidered with a rose pattern. It was all she could do to just be still and absorb the small wonders of a room that radiated cheerful comfort. After weeks of accepting peeling paint and lifeless, cold walls, this was nothing short of a miracle.
Chintz-covered chairs and thick wool rugs in muted colors bespoke of a home more than mere rented rooms. A smaller alcove held the four-poster bed with ruffled bed curtains and a plump feather mattress that promised the best sleep she’d had in ages. There was even an arrangement of dried summer blooms by her bedside to alleviate the press of winter. Linen doilies graced every chair, and glass curios sat atop the little table. And like something from a nostalgic dream of cozy warmth, there was a small sitting area by the fireplace where Mrs. Clay had told her as she stoked the fire that Eleanor was welcome to take her meals privately, if she wished.
“Not as fancy as some, Miss Beckett,” the woman now announced, her hands folded in front of her as she surveyed her offering. “But I do pride myself on a tidy and well-tended establishment. The Grove sits on a quiet-enough street, and I confess, I love every creaking board of her.”
The inn boasted country Tudor charm, and Eleanor had been entranced from the start, but the plump and matronly Mrs. Clay made the Grove a dream to her. Instead of suspicious questions about her lack of luggage or odd arrival in the middle of the afternoon, Eleanor had been swept upstairs in the warmest of welcomes. It made her curious what Mr. Hastings had said in making the arrangements—she wasn’t sure of the details as he’d gone in ahead of her while she’d waited in the carriage. Mr. Hastings had indicated he wanted to make sure a suitable room was available before bringing her inside to protect her fragile sensibilities. While she’d have argued the point in different circumstances, her bruised spirit had allowed him to see to everything on her behalf this time. But now that she was inside the Grove, Eleanor wondered what she might have missed in the negotiations.
I was just hoping for a bed. But this! This is …
“This room is perfect for a lady and very quiet at this end of the floor,” Mrs. Clay spoke, as if finishing Eleanor’s thought. “There’s just two apartments, and Mr. Rutherford is notoriously shy—don’t let the man’s size fool you! Agentle giant, that bloke, and my favorite tenant, I must confess. When Tally accidentally dropped a can of fireplace ashes in his room and the bucket just about exploded a cloud of ruin over everything the man possessed, do you know he didn’t even fuss? Not one unkind word to my poor Tally! We bashed his cushions for weeks, and I swear every once in a while I still see little puffs of gray whenever I walk over those carpets.” Mrs. Clay sighed. “Bachelors are usually such trouble, but I’m just letting you know that Mr. Rutherford is no such man and my very own dear mystery, so please don’t pay him any mind.”
Eleanor nodded, trying to follow the wonderful patter of Mrs. Clay’s speeches. “Yes, ma’am.”
“Upstairs are my more temporary guest rooms, tourists and the like mainly, but they’ll use the west stairs off the common room, and as you saw, the stairs at this end of the inn are much better situated for you. And, of
Todd Strasser, Sammy Yuen Jr., CRAIG PHILLIPS