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Excerpt for The Celebration House Trilogy by , available in its entirety at Smashwords


ANNETTE DRAKE


THE CELEBRATION HOUSE TRILOGY

Copyright @ 2018 Annette Drake and Baskethound Books

www.Annettedrake.com

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever including Internet usage, without written permission of the author.

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters and incidents are either the production of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only and may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was purchased for your use only, then please return to your favorite ebook distributor and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

Editor: Leigh Michaels

Copy Editor: Dave Burton

Cover Designer: Elizabeth Mackey

E-book Formatting: Maureen Cutajar


Contents

Building Celebration House

Stay at Celebration House

Return to Celebration House

About the Author

Acknowledgements

Author’s Note


ANNETTE DRAKE


Building Celebration House is dedicated to the men and women to whom I provided cardiac nursing care for more than two decades. Your courage never failed to inspire me.


Acknowledgments

My sincere thanks to Leigh Michaels and Dave Burton, both of whom polished this manuscript despite my tight deadlines. Also, thanks to Rick McGowan for always saying yes when asked to read my early drafts.

Thank you to the members of my weekly (weather permitting) critique group: Sandy Mason, Sue Eller and Beth Camp. See you Wednesday.

A shout-out to Mary Rose Cole, Kathy Drake and Tonya Hayden, my loudest cheerleaders. Yes, I finally got it done.

Finally, my thanks to Chris and Jack. You two are my heart.


Prologue

Carrie Hansen checked her watch a third time. She yawned and rubbed her eyes. How much longer was this office visit going to take? After working a twelve-hour night shift, she’d come straight here from the hospital. She wanted to go home.

Glancing around the small exam room, Carrie wondered what the name of the shade of beige paint was that covered the walls. Sit and Wait Off-white, she thought, or maybe, Calm-down Cream. She refused to sit on the exam table with its crinkly paper. She’d sat on enough crinkly paper, so she occupied one of the two office chairs in the corner and stared at a poster that listed the symptoms of congestive heart failure. Fatigue? Check. Shortness of breath? You betcha. Swollen legs and ankles? Yep again. Damn. She had almost all of those symptoms.

When Dr. Henry Lionel, her cardiologist, entered the small exam room, his nurse, Beth Kozera, came with him. Carrie knew both providers well. Beth sat in the chair next to her. Dr. Lionel pulled up the rolling stool he usually perched on during their frequent visits.

Carrie’s pulse quickened; they never both came in during an office visit.

Dr. Lionel took off his eyeglasses and cleaned them with his tie, stalling.

Carrie blurted, “It’s bad, isn’t it?”

Neither nurse nor doctor said anything for a minute. Dr. Lionel put his eyeglasses back on and sighed. “It is, Carrie. I can show you the images from the echocardiogram, but here’s what matters: your ejection fraction has dropped again. Now, we estimate it’s about twenty percent. It was sixty after the transplant. The symptoms you report – fatigue, shortness of breath, difficulty lying flat – all point to one answer. Your new heart is failing.”

Carrie nodded. “I was afraid of that. What do we do now?”

“We contact the transplant team and work you up for another heart. At your age, you’re a strong candidate.”

“What’s Plan B?” Carrie interrupted.

“There isn’t one. We can adjust your medications, but it’s another transplant or…”

Carrie finished his sentence. “Or I die.”

Silence filled the small room.

“How long?” she asked.

He looked at her over his glasses and smiled. “C’mon, Carrie. You and I both have been asked that question time and time again by patients’ families. We both know there’s no answer. This is overwhelming news. Take some time. Talk to your parents.”

Carrie grimaced. “I lost my dad last year, just before I got sick. Now this. I’m not sure how much more news my mom and sister can take.”

“You need time to process this,” Beth said.

Carrie squeezed Beth’s hand. “Thank you. You’ve always been so kind to me. But maybe time is the one thing I don’t have.”

“We’ll start the process of getting you back on the transplant list today. I’ll call the surgeon myself,” Dr. Lionel said.

Carrie shook her head. “No. No. I won’t go through that again. I can’t. I’ve had enough of hospitals and doctors and surgery to last me – well, the rest of my life. No more.”

After she left the doctor’s office, Carrie returned to her small apartment. She shed her clothes and crawled into bed. Six hours later, when she awoke, she brewed a cup of tea and turned on her computer to comb through all the websites she’d already visited, looking for a kernel of good news. National Institutes of Health, American Heart Association, CardioSmart, and WomenHeart. Nothing.

She opened one of her favorite pages, IHeartOldHouses.com. She loved looking at the historic properties for sale. She clicked on the listing for Missouri and saw a new advertisement. Four bedroom, one bath, Greek Revival. A “project” home.

Carrie chuckled and clicked on the property. She scrolled through the photos that showed a home clearly in disrepair. When she saw the façade of the house, she gasped.

“Oh my God! I know this house.”

Carrie mapped it. Yep. It was on the same road where her grandmother’s home had been. That house was gone now, lost to land developers who had bulldozed it and turned the rolling farmland into another subdivision. But this house… this house needed saving. And so did she.


Part One


One

“It hasn’t been lived in for a while. It does have electricity, though,” the Realtor said, pushing a button on the switch plate. The weak overhead light sparked and, with a loud pop and a puff of white smoke, shorted out.

Standing in what she guessed was the front parlor, Carrie stepped to a large window and drew back the heavy moth-eaten curtains. Sunlight poured in, further illuminating the forgotten room. Thick dust covered every surface, including forgotten pieces of furniture left behind by a former owner. Over in a corner, Carrie saw a large rat inspecting her. His black beady eyes reflected the sunlight. His nose twitching, he stood on his hind legs to better study the newcomer.

Carrie turned back toward the large glass paned window. She rubbed a clean spot in the dust and looked outside. Peering back was an older woman with mahogany skin. She wore a long faded floral dress, and her hair was tied up in a scarf. She squatted to examine Carrie, who could see through the shimmering, translucent woman to one of the four massive porch columns behind her. The woman’s eyes grew wide when she realized Carrie saw her.

Carrie winked. “Boo!”

The black woman vanished.

Turning back to face the Realtor, Carrie announced, “I’ll take it.”

Carrie knew her older sister would call as soon as she found out about the house purchase. Melanie did not disappoint. She called the night the sale closed.

“This is insanity, Carrie!” she shouted. “Have you put down earnest money? Can you change your mind?”

Carrie pulled the cell phone away from her ear. “I don’t want to change my mind. And yes, I’ve bought the house. It’s too late.”

“If Dad knew this is what you would do with the money he left you, he would be so disappointed. Do you know how much you’ve upset Mom?”

“This is what I want, Mel.”

“Oh, great. Well, let’s be sure you get what you want. Never mind the rest of us.”

“It’s my life.”

“Have you talked to Dr. Lionel about this?”

“He knows. I called his office today to ask that my records be sent to my new cardiologist here.”

There was a long silence before Melanie whispered, “You… you can’t do this alone. You’ll never finish it.”

“I have to go. I’ll call you later. Give my love to Mom.”

“Carrie, we love you. Please come home.”

Carrie hung up. “I am home,” she said. She looked around the empty hotel room.

Melanie’s right. I won’t live long enough to finish restoring Stratton House. What have I done? I must have been crazy to think I could do this.

Her wristwatch alarm interrupted her thoughts. Time to take medication.

On the small faux marble sink top outside the even smaller bathroom sat an array of medicine bottles and her two-tiered pillbox.

Before her surgery, she had struggled to remember to take a daily vitamin. Now this drug regimen. She was an experienced critical-care nurse, but even she needed frequent reminders. Not easy when she was taking pills six times a day.

“You are a fool,” she said into the mirror, and smiled. Her outburst reminded her of one of her dad’s favorite sayings: “God looks after fools and children. I’m covered on both accounts.”

How she missed her dad. The loss was like an ache, a soreness that, just when she thought it was gone, crept back and ached again.

He grew up in Lexington, Missouri. Once a year, he’d bring his small family back to the Midwest to visit. Carrie thought during those trips, he seemed happiest. Content. Here was home. She remembered him telling her mother that he had no need for a map here; he knew every street in this small town thanks to a paper route he’d worked as a boy.

He always knew just the right thing to say to Carrie, depending on the occasion. When Carrie’s husband had declared he’d found his once-in-a-lifetime love with his twenty-two-year-old secretary and ended their marriage, her father had said, “I never did like that fellow. He was always putting on airs.”

Now, here she was. In Lexington, Missouri.

Is this an attempt to reconnect with Dad? Maybe. What would he say to me now?

Certainty arose within Carrie. Her voice was strong and clear in the empty hotel room. “He would say, ‘What are you waiting for? Get your butt to work!’” She chuckled. “Okay, Dad. I will.”

Using her inheritance, Carrie paid cash for the old house that hadn’t been lived in for nearly ninety years. That left about a hundred thousand dollars to spend restoring the three-thousand-square-foot house.

She hoped it was enough. That was all the money she had.

She had learned from the Realtor that Colonel Bartholomew Stratton, a wealthy horse trader from Kentucky, had built the house in 1845 on two hundred acres of land outside Lexington, Missouri. The colonel had moved north to further his fortunes by outfitting the wagon trains that rolled out of Independence. He had built the large house as a bribe to lure his wife, Virginia, north. She preferred the south with her extended family, but the bribe worked. After he wrote and described the high ceilings, the ornate walnut moldings, and the lush household furnishings, she had come, bringing with her their four young children and household servants.

The Greek revival house had always been called Stratton House. The family had lived there until the late 1800s. They survived the American Civil War, except for one son. When pioneers began to take trains west rather than make the journey with horse and wagon, the family’s financial health declined.

In the early 1920s, Colonel Stratton’s great-grandson lost the house in a poker game. The new owner, delighted with the history and tradition of the structure, poured money into it. He installed electricity and updated the plumbing to include the luxury of an indoor toilet. Unfortunately, he wasn’t always a lucky poker player, and sold nearly all the land, except the twenty acres closest to the house.

He died shortly thereafter, and when his wife followed a few years later, the house remained empty. At first, it was tied up in probate court – the poker player’s widow left no will – but then the townspeople lost interest in the house. There was no shortage of antebellum mansions around Lexington. During the town’s heyday in the mid-nineteenth century, much grander houses than Stratton House had been built.

But there was something else. The house itself seemed strange to townsfolk. There were whispers of lights going on and off, and tales of unexplained accidents.

A real-estate developer from Kansas City bought the house for delinquent taxes. When he inspected the property in person, he fell down the stairs and broke his leg. He told anyone who would listen that he’d been pushed, and put the house back on the market.

Teenagers gathered for drinking parties at Stratton House – until the night two boys dared each other to sit on the front porch and drink. With a few cans of courage already behind them, two pimply-faced youths strode up the brick walk, jumped over the waist-high picket fence, and made themselves at home on the front porch. Their friends shouted cheers of encouragement from outside the gate. The two boys sat there, grinning, and clinked their cans to toast one another. After a minute, they heard a loud whisper.

“Leave this place,” the voice said, like a mother scolding a naughty child in a church pew.

They glanced around the deserted porch. The wind whipped up, and the branches of the willow tree in the front yard beat against the wooden fence. One boy reached down for his beer can and felt grinding pain in his hand.

An old man glared down on him and dug the heel of his leather boot into the teenager’s fingers. “Get off my porch!” he screamed.

The two boys bolted from the house. The front gate wouldn’t open. The wind whipped the willow branches, striking the boys’ faces and necks. Finally, one of them kicked the latch and broke it. They ran to their pickups and drove away as fast as Chevrolet could take them.


Two

Carrie checked out of the motel. It was clean and convenient, but she wanted to stay at her house. She bought a sleeping bag, cot, propane lantern, and stove at a camping outfitter. She grabbed a few essentials at the Piggly Wiggly store and drove to her house.

After asking around at local lumberyards, Carrie hired a general contractor to oversee the extensive restorations. But she knew, before any work could start, she’d have to talk to the current residents.

Driving up to the house, she smiled. She loved the long driveway with its stately pecan trees on both sides. Behind the trees, the fences had fallen into disrepair. Just one more thing she’d have to fix. How am I going to fix everything?

Carrie parked her car next to the house and stacked her groceries and camping gear on the front porch. Seeing a small barn behind the main building, she decided to explore and see if there was room to park her car inside it.

When Carrie opened the door and stepped inside, sunlight streamed in through the dirty windows. Even though the barn had been vacant for years, the air smelled of hay and horses.

Looking to her left, she saw a man shaving. He’d glanced up when Carrie opened the doors, but returned his gaze to the small mirror tacked to the wooden beam. He was bare from the waist up. His chest was lean and muscular, with dark brown hair from mid-chest to his waistline. His arms were powerfully built, and his right hand was steady as he scraped the white soap from his angular jaw with a razor. His dark blue uniform pants with gold braid down the side were tucked into knee-high black leather boots. He stood at least six feet tall, and though Carrie hadn’t made her living in the carnival, she guessed he was probably younger than her, likely in his mid to late twenties. He peered at the small mirror, tilting his chin to swipe away the shaving soap. Carrie waited to speak until after he’d finished with the ivory-handled straight blade and dipped it into the basin of soapy water.

“Good morning,” she said.

His expression was an equal mix of surprise and annoyance. He dropped the razor and grabbed his shirt off a nearby nail. He turned his back to Carrie and pulled it on.

“You can see me, madam?” he asked, buttoning his shirt and stuffing it into his pants.

“Yes. Can you see me?”

“I can, but I believe I have the advantage. I’m dead. You are not.” He turned and glared at her. His eyebrows furrowed as though he wasn’t quite sure how they’d arrived at the point of introductions.

“I’m sorry to intrude. I’m Carrie. Carrie Hansen.” She extended her hand.

He reached to shake her hand, but his fingers passed through hers. They both jerked back.

“I’m sorry. I really didn’t mean to intrude,” she said.

“You surprised me. That’s all. We seldom receive visitors, especially living ones who can see us.” He put on his blue uniform coat and fastened the long row of brass buttons. “I’m Major Thomas Gentry, at your service.” He bowed.

“I’m sorry I startled you. I sometimes forget ghosts aren’t accustomed to being seen.”

His eyes narrowed and he frowned. “How may I be of service to you, Miss Hansen?”

“Where can I find Colonel Stratton? I need to speak with him.”

His dark blue eyes showed his increasing puzzlement. “The living do not go looking for Colonel Stratton. What business have you with him?”

“I bought this house, and I intend to live here.”

“You bought Stratton House?”

“And I need to speak with the colonel.”

Major Gentry shook his head as though to sort through the details. “Please forgive me. You bought Stratton House, you intend to live here, and you wish to speak with the home’s proprietor, Colonel Stratton?”

“I thought we’d covered that,” she said. “You don’t get many visitors, do you?”

“No. We don’t. Well, quite a turn of events. What an interesting day today shall be! Please excuse me. I shall locate the colonel on your behalf,” he said, and disappeared.

Carrie jumped when he vanished. “I’ll never get used to those quick exits.”

She opened the doors of the small barn and, seeing there was enough room, drove her car inside. She instinctively started to lock the doors, but realized her car was safe in an old barn in rural Missouri. She just hoped the structure wouldn’t collapse.

Using the skeleton key the Realtor had given her, Carrie jiggled the front door lock until it finally acquiesced. The door had warped with time and moisture, so she had to lean on it, but it swung open with a loud eerie squeak. She nearly fell into the foyer. The old screen door slammed shut behind her.

“Honey! I’m home,” she called. Her voice echoed through the empty rooms.

Carrie propped the door open with her sleeping bag and carried her gear inside. The few trips drained her, and she slumped on the next-to-bottom step of the huge staircase to catch her breath. She put her fingers to her wrist and felt her pulse. She took several deep breaths. When the dizziness and nausea passed, she stood.

A large hallway divided the first floor. On her left was the parlor, where she had seen the ghost during the visit with the Realtor. Next to that was a smaller room with pocket doors that opened to the main hallway. To the right of the front door was a small foyer and a grand staircase leading to the second floor. Past this sat the formal dining room and a huge ballroom with a large crystal chandelier.

Previous tenants had left behind pieces of furniture, covered by dusty white drop cloths. In the dining room’s far corner, Carrie saw the shape of a table. She pulled the cloth off and ran her hand along a cherry wood buffet table, amazed that such an antique had been abandoned.

All of the rooms had ornate moldings and high ceilings. At least twelve feet, Carrie guessed. The dining room had a tin ceiling, though it was falling in one corner. The woodwork was coated with dust, but beautifully made. The Realtor told her Colonel Stratton had hired craftsmen from St. Louis to carve the walnut molding and staircase spindles.

Carrie walked down the hallway and into the kitchen. Just off this area sat a back porch and two additional small rooms, which she guessed had housed servants. She returned to the kitchen where a rusty cast-iron stove took up most of the floor space. Next to that was a sink and a small antique ice box. She turned on the faucet, and a stream of brown, dank water trickled out.

“Gotta fix that,” she said.

She heard a man clear his throat, and turned to see Major Gentry standing in the open doorway. His large form took up nearly all the entry way. His blue gaze skimmed over her, and he tilted his head as though he couldn’t quite decipher this mystery in front of him.

Carrie blushed, surprised a stranger’s gaze should feel so intimate. She looked away before he did.

“Just checking the plumbing,” she said, trying to turn off the faucet. The knob came away in her hand, and the trickle turned into a torrent. “Oh, crap. Crap!” she said, desperately trying to put it back.

“If you thread it back on, you will be able to turn the water off,” he said, leaning over the sink but not touching her or it. Water splashed everywhere. Flustered, Carrie bent to see the threads on the pipe and slowly twisted the knob back onto the faucet. With a quick turn to the right, the brown water slowed to a trickle and then stopped.

“Thank you,” she said. “I’m not a plumber by trade.”

“I would not have guessed.”

Carrie jerked her head up to see if he was insulting her, but saw him hide a smile. Standing next to him, she could smell his shaving soap.

“Colonel Stratton will see you in his den, Miss Hansen.”

“Thank you. Um, where is that?”

“Allow me to show you.”

Carrie followed him out of the kitchen and back down the hallway. She realized she was half a foot shorter than her shimmering guide. His spotless uniform accentuated his broad shoulders, and his black hair just touched his collar. His leather boots clunked on the wooden floor. He stopped before the first door on the right and vanished through the thick wood-panels. Carrie waited in exasperation before opening the doors.

An older gentleman stared out the window. When he turned to face her, he scowled at her. He was several inches shorter than Carrie’s five-foot-seven frame, and much plumper. Long gray sideburns matched the tufts of hair around his receding hairline. He wore a brown woolen suit, complete with gold chain and watch. He cleared his throat and folded his arms. She had the distinct impression that he found her presence an irritant, like a visiting relative whose departure was much anticipated.

“Colonel Stratton? Hello. I’m Carrie Hansen. Thank you for seeing me.”

“What do you want, young woman?” he asked, peering over the spectacles perched on the edge of his nose. She didn’t know how a man this much shorter could manage to look down on her, but he did.

“There’s no delicate way to tell you this, so I’ll just be direct,” she said. “I’ve bought your house, and I intend to live here.”

“My home was never for sale. I own it. I built it. I shall live here for eternity. You have not bought my house. You have simply been swindled by those who lay false claim to it.”

She hadn’t expected such quick rejection. “Well, I guess you kinda have a point.”

“I do not welcome you here, nor any of your kind.”

“My kind?” she asked.

“The living. I speak of the living.”

“I see. Well, we have a problem then, because I did give the ‘swindler’ most of my money. I’ve hired a contractor to come into your house and bring it up to code.”

He turned his back to her and faced the window. Carrie frowned.

Major Gentry, leaning against a vacant wall, watched her with mild curiosity. He raised one eyebrow as though to say, “Your move.”

Carrie threw back her shoulders and continued. “My intention is to restore Stratton House to the grandeur it once had, and then open it to the public as a celebration house.”

“A what?” the colonel asked, spinning to face her. When she’d entered the room, his demeanor had been frosty. Now it turned hot. His face scrunched up and his mouth tightened.

She continued, “I want to make your house a place where people gather for weddings, anniversaries, birthdays, or class reunions. I want it to be a place where people celebrate the best days of their lives.”

“You seek my permission for strangers to traipse throughout my house? I would never allow that.”

Major Gentry could no longer contain a smile. He looked from Carrie to the Colonel, whose ears had turned a scarlet red, and whose lips disappeared into a thin line of disapproval. The major’s eyes seemed to encourage her.

“You don’t have a choice,” she answered.

“Of course I do!” the colonel sputtered. “I can make your life here miserable.”

“Yes, I don’t doubt that. I’ve heard the stories about Stratton House, about how the house is haunted with the famous ghost of the lady in white. Blah, blah, blah. Here’s the deal. You either work with me, or…”

“Or what?” He crossed the room toward her, stopping only a foot away. Even now, this short man looked down on her. How does he do that?

“Or I’ll have a bulldozer demolish this place. No two sticks will remain together.” She accentuated her threat with a bob of her head.

Colonel Stratton chuckled and looked at her with puzzlement. “How on earth could a bull dozing destroy my house? Young woman, you are bluffing. This home is a landmark.”

“This house is a dump,” Carrie retorted.

“How dare you! If you were a man, I’d call you out.”

“I wouldn’t answer if you did.” She walked to the window where the colonel had stood. She peered outside and, in her best couldn’t-care-less voice, added, “Or I could just burn it down. I’d only need a couple gallons of kerosene and a pack of matches. I’ll rebuild. I won’t have to worry about you anymore. I’m guessing your spirit is attached to Stratton House, so if the house is gone, you won’t be here to annoy me.”

The colonel was silent. She turned to face him, noting his glare and clamped mouth.

“Yes, I know how it works,” she said. “I know why you don’t leave this place. It holds too many memories, too many celebrations of your own life. You won’t leave voluntarily, but if I demolish the house, you’ll have no choice.”

“You would set fire to this magnificent home?”

The major narrowed his eyes and stared at her, as though eager to hear her answer to this question.

Have I taken my bluff one step too far?

“I would.” She tried to add a tone of compromise. “But I don’t want to. I want to spend the time and money to make Stratton House as beautiful as it was when you built it. I want to share it with people so they can celebrate the best days of their lives here. Young couples just starting out or couples celebrating decades of marriage. I want to make it a place people come back to throughout their lives.”

Carrie folded her arms. Colonel Stratton studied her, looking for any signs of weakness. She stood straight and tried to affect an air of confidence. Inside, anxiety rolled through her. She hoped she wouldn’t puke.

He said, “This concerns all of us, so I cannot speak until I hold a forum and come to a consensus with the others.”

“Fine. But I need an answer, and soon. It’s March now, and I want to open this place for summer weddings.”

A minute passed while the colonel studied her. “Should we decide to go along with this foolishness, what exactly do you expect of us?”

“To begin with, I could use your help restoring the house. I couldn’t find any photographs or drawings of how it once looked, so I welcome your suggestions.”

He said nothing.

“Then, when I open Stratton House, I ask that you be on your best behavior and not assault any of my guests, like Mr. Dearing.”

“Who?” the colonel bellowed.

“The man you pushed down the stairs.”

“Oh, him! He brought that on himself entirely.” The colonel’s face turned beet red again. “He was not here to restore Stratton House, as you claim to be. He was here to examine the woodwork so that he could rip it out and sell it. I could not allow that.”

Carrie nodded. “I didn’t know.”

“There are a good many things you don’t know.”

“I know I need an answer from you, and soon.”

“We shall meet in the ballroom. Afterwards, I will speak with you.” He turned back to the window. “You may leave now.”

“Before I go, Colonel Stratton, is there a bedroom I may stay in?”

“Yes, yes,” he said, waving her away. “The bedroom on the south side was my daughter’s room. You may stay there. Violet, my wife’s maid, will assist you.”

“Thank you,” she said, and left.


Three

Carrie spent the rest of the day wandering through the house. Surprisingly, she saw no spirits. She wondered about this, but not enough to seek out a second audience with the colonel.

Her exploring complete, she decided her first task would be to set up her bedroom. She was halfway up the wooden staircase when she heard a loud crack and her foot sank through rotten wood. Before she could regain her balance, her left leg dropped through the hole. She grabbed onto the banister.

“Gonna have to fix that.”

Carrie eased her leg from the deep hole, and, clutching the banister, navigated to the top of the stairs. As downstairs, a hallway ran the length of the house, with two bedrooms carefully laid out on each side. Not sure which was the daughters’ room, Carrie looked in each before finding the one she thought most likely. The wallpaper seemed more feminine, less formal, and the sun would shine through the south-facing windows. She brought up her cot and put it together, then rolled out her sleeping bag on top. The activity stirred the dust, so she opened a window to let in fresh air. The blind was an old-fashioned cloth shade. When she pulled the cord, it sprang up in the air and spun violently before stopping.

“They don’t make them like that anymore,” she said.

Cool wind blew in the open window, and Carrie took a deep breath of the fresh air. She crossed the hallway to another bedroom and opened a window there. The draft blew dust bunnies here and there and lifted the white sheets which covered the abandoned furniture.

She continued her tour. While there might not have been many human visitors, other guests had moved in. Mouse holes and droppings were in nearly every room, and a family of squirrels had made a cozy nest in a corner of the master bedroom. In the attic, she saw bat droppings.

Using the propane lantern, Carrie descended into the basement. Large spider webs covered nearly every window. Choking on the dust, she unlocked the coal chute and pushed open the small door. Sunlight and fresh air streamed in.

This is a magnificent house?” she asked, her voice reverberating against the stone walls.

Looking around the basement, she tried to assess the condition of the support walls, but she soon admitted she didn’t know what she was looking at. Her contractor, Walter Tully, would have to make that determination.

She walked back upstairs and into the front parlor. The drapes had been pulled shut, so she opened them. The brackets gave way and the curtain rod dropped like a stone, nearly hitting her. She jumped back in time.

“Nice. Maybe Melanie is right. Maybe this place is a dump.”

Sensing someone behind her, Carrie turned and saw the older woman she’d glimpsed through the window on the day she had toured the house.

“Hello,” Carrie said to the spirit.

“Hello, miss. Colonel Stratton wanted me to tell you that ’til he makes his decision, you not to touch nothin’.”

“Oh, well, please tell Colonel Stratton that any message he wants delivered to me, he can deliver himself.”

The colonel appeared. “Very well, Miss Hansen. Per my instructions, do not over familiarize yourself with my home nor its furnishings. It is most unlikely you will be staying.”

“You’d rather I demolish the place?” Carrie crossed her arms.

“You do not possess the courage to do such a thing.”

He circled her, scrutinizing her as though she was a horse he contemplated buying. Carrie pulled her fleece jacket closer, and pushed her blond hair over her shoulder.

“A lady does not go unaccompanied. How is it that your husband or father are not here with you? I prefer to deal with a gentleman.” He raised his chin.

“Colonel Stratton, you are a snob. I doubt you are aware of it, but this is the twenty-first century. My father is dead, and my husband left me for another woman.”

“I’m not surprised. Undoubtedly, she was younger and quieter,” he muttered.

“I heard that. I can hear you as well as see you, in case you want to know.”

“Why, of all houses, have you chosen mine? Why have you come here?”

“When I was a little girl, my grandmother lived near here. I would come and stay with her. We drove past this house on our way into town. Being with her was the happiest time of my life.”

“Buy your grandmother’s house then, and leave us in peace!”

“I can’t. They tore it down and built new houses. The closest I can come to being near her is this place. Why don’t you want me here? How am I bothering you?”

“You’ll change things. You’ll bring in strangers who will repaper the walls, move the furniture, and scuff up the floors.” He gestured around the room.

“You do know the house is full of mice and spiders.”

“Those things do not concern me.”

“Your staircase is about to fall in. Does that concern you?”

“It would be fine if people would stay off it!” the colonel yelled. Tugging at his vest, he continued, “I built this house out of brick and Missouri pine. It’s lasted a hundred and fifty years. It can last another century.”

“If you and the others welcome me here, I guess we’ll find out.”

“What is your meaning?” the colonel asked.

“The contractor I hired is coming to the house tomorrow to inspect it. He has an excellent reputation for restoring houses like this one. Restoring, not remodeling. After he tours it, he will give me an estimate of how much it will cost to repair Stratton House.”

“You would keep the original name?” he asked.

“Absolutely. Aren’t you even the slightest bit curious to hear what shape your house is in, structurally, I mean?”

“I’ve never been a carpenter. I leave that to those who practice that trade. I made my fortune selling horses.” He stood straight and threw his shoulders back.

A woman wearing a long dark burgundy dress over a hoop skirt appeared in the doorway. Her brown hair was arranged in an elaborate bun. A white shawl covered her shoulders. She wore no makeup, but had several golden bracelets on both wrists that matched her tiny bob earrings. Carrie smelled the faintest scent of lavender.

“Colonel, we have gathered in the ballroom and await you there,” she said. When she saw Carrie, she curtsied.

Carrie didn’t know if she should curtsy back. She wasn’t even sure how.

“Coming, dear,” he said.

“I don’t believe I’ve been introduced to our guest,” the woman said, a genteel drawl to her words.

“Such introductions are unnecessary until we decide whether Miss Hansen will be permitted to stay.”

The older woman said nothing, her hands demurely folded before her. She made no effort to follow the colonel when he started down the hallway. She gazed hungrily at Carrie, as though bursting with unasked questions.

The colonel returned. “I see now my error. Mrs. Stratton, this is our uninvited guest, Miss Carrie Hansen. Miss Hansen, this is my wife, Virginia Madsen Stratton.”

The colonel’s wife stepped forward. “What a pleasure to meet you, my dear,” she drawled with a warm smile. “I do so hope you’ll be comfortable while you’re with us.”

“Thank you. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mrs. Stratton.” Carrie returned the smile.

“We’re so delighted you are visiting us. It’s like a breath of fresh spring air. We haven’t had this kind of excitement in years. Won’t you please call me Virginia?”

“Please call me Carrie.”

“My dear, shall we go?” the colonel asked.

“It’s so nice to have somebody new to talk with, though I am uncertain as to how we are so fortunate to have this privilege.”

“That’s a long story,” Carrie said.

The colonel sighed. “Which we do not have time for right now. Mrs. Stratton, we must go. The others are waiting.”

Virginia shot her husband a glare, but smiled when she turned back to Carrie. “It’s a sincere pleasure to meet you. I hope we’ll find time to talk soon.” She stared at Carrie’s clothing and face as though drinking her in. She curtsied before leaving the room.

Carrie stepped outside onto the rickety back porch. Many of the boards were broken or black with rot. The back steps were missing. She hopped down into the dead foot-high grass and walked over to an old-fashioned well. She gave the handle a couple of pumps before it came off in her hand.

“Great. Gonna have to fix that too.”

To her right was the barn where she’d parked her car. A path led off to the left, and she could see the remains of a small brick shed, identical in color to the main house. She forced the door open. A bird flew out, startling her. She took several steps back when she saw wasps’ nests in the rafters.

Next to the shack, buried beneath the weeds, was the tell-tale hump of a root cellar.

“I don’t even want to think about going down there,” she said to herself.

“Used to be a right good cellar.”

Carrie turned to see the older black woman who had minutes before been in the parlor.

“My mama kept everything down there. Potatoes, beets, onions, and apples. Oh, Lord, but my mama could cook.”

“And did you learn her trade? Were you a cook too?”

“No, ma’am.” She sounded indignant. “I was a companion for Mrs. Stratton, and nanny to the Stratton children. I watched over them, loved them when they were babies as though they were my own. Lord, but I love babies. How I miss them!” She turned her head as though to listen. “Oh, I gots to go. Miss Virginia is calling me.”

She disappeared.

As the sunlight faded, Carrie carried the propane stove outside and lit it, then set a pot of canned soup on the burner to warm. She needed to eat when she took the bulk of her medicines.

It had been a mild winter so far, and the forecast predicted temperatures in the mid-40s, but still, that was cold. Carrie didn’t know if she could stay in a house without a working furnace. Maybe she should pick up a space heater.

She poured the steaming soup into a mug and, dinner in hand, tiptoed past the ballroom’s closed doors. She heard voices behind the dark wooden doors, including the colonel’s angry complaints and the deep baritone of Major Gentry.

Carrie made her way upstairs, avoiding the huge hole she’d made earlier, and into the little bedroom. With the daylight nearly gone, she lit the Coleman lantern. She changed out of her dusty jeans and pulled on sweat pants and a University of Washington t-shirt. She had just taken her first sip of the steaming soup when she heard a soft knock at the door.

“Come in.” Carrie looked up to see the older black woman materialize through the door.

“Excuse me, miss, if I startle you. I cain’t make things move, like the colonel does.”

“That’s all right. Please come in.”

“The colonel’s asking you to come downstairs. He says he wants us to hear from you what the plans are for our house.”

“I would be happy to,” Carrie said. She pulled on a thick UW sweatshirt and slipped on her tennis shoes.

“Are you dressing like that?” the woman asked, unable to hide her disapproval.

“I’m completely covered.” She looked down at her clothes. “We haven’t been properly introduced. I’m Carrie.”

“I know who you is, miss. I’m Violet.”

Carrie picked up the propane lantern. Downstairs, she opened the pocket door and stepped into the large ballroom. As she looked around the beautiful – albeit neglected – room, her breath caught. The water-stained walls were covered with a dark sage paper, offset by intricately-carved walnut moldings. The ornate chandelier tinkled and swayed gently with the breeze from the open door. By the light of the propane lantern, the chandelier looked like a million slivers of glass, all reflecting the lantern’s yellow glow. The pine floor gleamed, despite time’s neglect.

“Miss Hansen, we have asked you to join us so we might hear your proposal,” the colonel said. “I believe you know everyone here.”

“Not everyone, Colonel. I don’t know the young man in the back row.”

“Oh. That is Henry, Violet’s son. You remember Major Gentry?”

“Yes. Hello, Major.”

“Ma’am,” he said, bowing to her. When he straightened, their eyes met.

I don’t think I’ve ever had a man bow to me before today.

Carrie faced the colonel.

“Please explain your proposal as you described it to me this morning,” he said.

Carrie launched into her speech. She told them about her plans to renovate Stratton House and open it for weddings, engagement parties, birthdays, and other special occasions. She explained how she hoped to draw clients from Kansas City, people who wanted to get away from the traffic and noise of urban life. She said she had considered opening a bed and breakfast, but that required too much physical labor. If she opened Stratton House only for special occasions, she could hire temporary help.

“The wonderful side of this is that all of you will watch people experience the happiest days of their lives, like a young couple getting married or an older couple celebrating a wedding anniversary. All of us would be a part of that. The downside is that people, strangers, will come into the house for those occasions.”

The colonel harrumphed.

“I can’t do this without your cooperation. If lights come on mysteriously or visitors get pushed down the stairs –” she looked directly at the colonel – “people will be scared and won’t want to come here. So, before I start the restorations, I am coming to you, the residents of Stratton House, and asking you to help me.”

“And if we say no?” the colonel asked.

“I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it.” She bit her lip and scanned her audience’s faces for a reaction.

The colonel scowled at her before asking if anyone had questions.

“Will young’uns come here?” Violet asked.

“Yes. I’ve attended far too many weddings where children were banned. At Stratton House, children will always be welcome. Perhaps parents might choose to celebrate birthdays here.”

“The attic, that used to be my nursery,” Violet said. “That’s where I raised these folks’ children.”

“We could make that the nursery again when we remodel. I’m pretty sure the house needs a new roof, so we could insulate it, install air conditioning, and convert it back to a nursery. We could make it beautiful and decorate it for children with bright colors and toys. For the young ones, we could have a wall painted with blackboard paint they could draw on. For older kids, we could have a gaming system.”

Carrie saw only confusion on their faces. “Games,” she clarified. “We can have all kinds of games so children will want to come here.”

“What are your plans for the rest of the house?” Virginia asked.

“I have limited money, but my goal is to restore rather than remodel. I want it to be as beautiful as it was the day you arrived from Kentucky. But I’ll need your help. I don’t know what it looked like then, and I haven’t yet found any photographs, so I ask you to help me choose the color schemes and pick out the furnishings. I want to create an experience for our guests, but it has to be modern enough to be functional, especially the kitchen. We won’t provide food to guests, but caterers must have a commercial-grade kitchen.”

“I’m against it!” the colonel said. “Imagine strangers walking through our home as though we aren’t here. Who knows what kind of riff-raff she’ll bring in.”

“I think we should say yes,” the major said, pushing away from the window to face the group. “It’s time for something new to look at. Aren’t any of you bored with our little group? I, for one, like seeing new faces.”

He turned his eyes to Carrie.

Carrie flushed and her heartbeat raced. Why does he look at me like that? She turned her attention back to the colonel.

“Let us put this to a vote. All in favor of this ridiculous proposal, raise your hand,” the colonel said. He put his hands behind his back and looked down upon his seated family.

The major raised his right arm, and then, slowly, hesitantly, Virginia raised hers. Seeing her mistress’ decision, Violet raised her hand. She nodded at Henry to raise his. He did.

“Mrs. Stratton?” the colonel asked.

She jerked her hand down, like a guilty child who had just been caught. “I’m sorry, my love, but she’s offering to restore our home and invite guests here. I want that. They won’t be with us every day, just on occasion. I don’t see the harm.”

“And when they trespass on your children’s graves? What then, Mrs. Stratton?” the colonel asked.

Carrie stepped forward. “That will not happen. Certain areas of the estate will remain private, including the family cemetery. You have my word on that.”

The colonel snorted. “Your word! What is your word to me? I just met you today, and you threatened to burn down my home if I didn’t give in to your demands.” Seeing the startled expressions, he added, “Oh, yes. She forgot to mention that part of her proposal.” He smiled at Carrie as though he’d scored a great point against her.

The spirits turned and looked at Carrie.

She took a deep breath, and said, “That’s true. I said that. The colonel made me angry, and the words popped out of my mouth before I could stop them. If you are unwilling to cooperate with me and allow me to restore Stratton House, I could demolish it or burn it down. But I don’t want to do that. I come to you, open-handedly, and ask for your cooperation. We have an opportunity here to make something beautiful, something that will last beyond us. Stratton House has the potential to make memories for a lot of people, but not as it is now.”

No one said anything for a long moment.

Finally, Colonel Stratton spoke. “So, shall we recount? Those in favor of allowing the restorations, please raise your hand.”

Major Gentry alone raised his hand.

“Ha! Four to one. You shall not meddle with my house, as you do not have a majority, Miss Hansen.”

Violet and Virginia looked at one another, then Virginia said, “No, dear, I’m afraid she does.” Both ghostly women raised their right hands in unison. Violet nodded at Henry, and again, he raised his.

“Thank you. You will not regret this,” Carrie said, smiling.


Four

The next morning, at seven a.m. sharp, as Carrie drank coffee on the front porch, Walter Tully’s old pickup rattled to a stop in front of the Stratton House. The sun was barely over the horizon. The earth, warmer than the air, exhaled its white breath.

Mr. Tully was a portly fellow with salt and pepper hair that plopped down over his eyes. His jeans might have fit when he’d weighed fifty pounds less. A brown leather belt tried desperately to keep his pants up, but it was a losing battle. Mr. Tully’s brown eyes twinkled, and he spoke about Stratton House with admiration, as though it was an honor to work on the grand dame.

“Good morning, Miss Hansen. I see you’re an early riser.” He shut his pickup door and ambled toward the house.

“I’m anxious to get started. Can I offer you a cup of coffee?”

“I never say no to coffee.” The older man followed her inside. Mr. Tully glanced over every inch of the old house along the way. He followed her onto the back porch where she’d set up her propane stove.

She poured a cup of coffee into a Styrofoam cup. “Sorry, but I don’t have any dishes yet.”

“That’s all right, Miss Hansen, but I think you could probably use an electric coffee pot in the kitchen. The house does have electricity.”

“I was afraid to. I didn’t know what condition the wiring is in, and I worried I would start a fire.”

The two sat at a small table Carrie had set up. She explained that she wanted the work finished by early June to host an open house. She hoped to host weddings this summer.

Mr. Tully frowned and shook his head. “You know most brides book their venue six months in advance?”

“Oh. I hadn’t thought of that. I guess you’re right. Well, maybe in late summer or fall?”

Mr. Tully frowned. “That’s a difficult timeline. We’ll only make it if restorations go smoothly. Termites or dry rot, and the answer is no.”

“I know there’s a lot to be done. I just want it to happen sooner rather than later.”

While they sipped the coffee, they talked about costs. Mr. Tully said he couldn’t give her final estimate until he examined the house in detail and knew everything that needed to be done. He would also need estimates from the plumber and electrician he subcontracted. As for finishing the house, he could recommend interior decorators he’d worked with before, but she should ignore his own suggestions.

“I’m color blind. My wife lays out my clothes every morning,” he explained, chuckling.

“Shall we start?” Carrie asked.

They began their inspection in the basement. The wooden stairs creaked their age, but were solid. Carrie turned on the light she’d found yesterday – a single light bulb on a thick wire. Mr. Tully brought out his heavy-duty flashlight and examined the walls.

“When was it built?” he asked.

The colonel said, “We started in August of 1844 and finished the following spring.”

Carrie jumped and spun to face him, surprised that he’d just materialized out of thin air.

“Miss Hansen, did you hear me? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

“If only it were a quiet one,” she muttered. “Um, yes, Mr. Tully. I heard you. I think it was built in 1845.” She shot the colonel an annoyed look.

Mr. Tully scrutinized each wall for cracks or moisture. “They probably used slave labor.”

“I did not!” the colonel said, bristling at the suggestion. “I hired the best craftsmen in Lafayette County.”

“You know, I don’t think they did,” Carrie said. “If my research is correct, they hired skilled workmen.”

“Well, they got their money’s worth. That bricklayer knew what he was doing.”

“That’s a relief. I was worried about the foundation,” Carrie said.

“Don’t worry any more. These walls are solid. Worry about your furnace. Also, the electric circuitry is antiquated. The house will need to be completely rewired.”

The colonel sniffed. “I had nothing to do with that. That was put in by the riff-raff who followed me.”

Carrie struggled to follow both conversations at once, turning her head from one man to the other. She felt like she was watching a tennis match, and her player was losing badly.

“Miss Hansen, are you with me?” the contractor asked.

“Yes. Yes. I planned on rewiring the house. That’s why I was reluctant to plug anything in. I think the most recent owner had the house wired, but that was in the 1920s.”

“We’re walking through history here, Miss Hansen. You should feel proud of yourself for restoring this house.”

“Thank you.” She stuck her tongue out at Colonel Stratton.

The three of them climbed the stairs to the first floor and began a thorough room-by-room examination. Mr. Tully asked Carrie to jot down notes on a yellow legal pad. She welcomed the diversion; listening to both men talk at the same time overwhelmed her.

In addition to new electrical wiring, the house needed new plumbing, insulation, central air and heating, and a new roof. The kitchen needed all new appliances, and because the house would be used for public functions, the county health inspector would need to weigh in before any events could be held. He said the bureaucrat could be a real stickler for simple things like flooring and garbage disposal.

“Better stay away from carpet in the kitchen,” Mr. Tully told her.

“People put carpet in their kitchen? On purpose? Who does that?” Carrie asked.

“Carpet?” the colonel asked. “Does he mean carpetbaggers? What on earth?”

“No. It’s like rugs, but it stays down permanently. It can’t be picked up and shaken out,” Carrie told the colonel.

Mr. Tully crinkled his eyes and looked at her. “I’m familiar with carpet, Miss Hansen.”

“Of course you are,” she said. “I was just thinking out loud. I’m sorry. Please excuse me.”

“Anyway, it’s best to go with a vinyl or ceramic tile. You think I’m kidding, but I’ve seen the health inspector close down restaurants on account of their flooring.”

“No, I appreciate your input. I completely trust you,” Carrie told him.

“Let’s go look upstairs,” he said.

Bypassing the hole Carrie had made the night before, she and Mr. Tully slowly inspected each of the bedrooms, the sole bathroom and the balcony. Carrie scribbled more notes on the yellow pad. After Mr. Tully saw the bedroom where Carrie had set up a camping cot, he recommended that the first thing they should do was prepare a bedroom for her. She agreed. Her back still ached from last night’s adventure on the cot.

They crossed the hall and entered the master bedroom. It was noticeably larger, with an ornate art-deco ceiling light fixture. A small bathroom with a white porcelain sink and a claw foot bathtub was located just off the master bedroom.

“I think you should take this room,” Mr. Tully told her.

She looked around. “Where are the closets?”

“These old houses don’t have any. People back then didn’t own as many clothes as most folks nowadays, so they hung them in wardrobes.”

“I think I’ve seen those in antique stores,” Carrie said, nodding.

“I’d be surprised if any of the bedrooms have closets. Now, we could build them in, but that’s remodeling, not restoration. It’s your house. I’ll do whatever you want.”

She saw the colonel watching her from a bedroom corner. He crossed his arms and raised an eyebrow.

“No closets. I’m here to restore, not remodel.”

“I’m glad to hear that. I know this is your house, but I kind of feel like it’s going to be mine too, with all of the work I’ve got ahead of me.”

“Good, Mr. Tully. I want others to feel invested in Stratton House.”

They left the bedroom and made their way further down the hall. At the last door, Carrie flicked on the attic light and the three climbed the short staircase. The room looked completely different than when Carrie had toured it yesterday. All the boxes were stacked neatly against the south wall. The furniture was shoved to one side, and in the middle of the room sat an antique white wooden cradle with a rocking chair beside it. A cool breeze drifted through the open windows.

“Looks like somebody has been straightening up in here. Is that your work?” Mr. Tully asked.

“Uh, yeah. Yeah, I did. I thought I saw a bat, and I, uh, well, uh… ”

Mr. Tully shone his flashlight into the room’s corners and along the main beams. “If there were bats, I think they’re gone. What do you plan on doing with this room?”

“I want to make it into a nursery for my guests’ children. I thought it would be a nice draw to have a place just for the little ones, where they can run and play or nap. So, I want this room to be cool in the summer and warm in the winter.”

“We might need to add a window unit. It’s hard to keep these old houses cool, especially the attic,” Mr. Tully said. “But when we put on a new roof, we could add additional insulation.”

“That would be perfect. Thank you.”

As Mr. Tully turned to walk back down the short staircase, the rocking chair began to move, slowly, back and forth. He looked down on it.

“Must be the draft from the open windows,” Carrie said. She stepped over and stilled the chair.

“Sure. A draft,” Mr. Tully said.

“Should we go?”

Carrie followed him toward the stairs. As she reached to turn off the light, she saw Violet rocking in the chair.

Violet smiled and hugged herself, her eyes bright with anticipation. “This just gonna be wonderful, Miss Carrie.”


Five

When they returned downstairs, Carrie looked out the front window and saw a cherry red pickup, jacked nearly three feet off the ground. The chrome bumper and custom hubcaps gleamed in the sunlight. The back windshield was covered with a Confederate flag decal. Standing next to the truck was a young man in a white t-shirt and painted-on jeans. Carrie watched him flick his lit cigarette into the front yard.

“I think we have company, Mr. Tully,” she said.


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