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Bells jingled as I entered the Belgian Bean, a warm and cozy café filled with chatter and the aroma of freshly brewed coffee. The place was surprisingly busy for a cool spring morning in Blueberry Cove, Maine. Judging by the upscale outfits and unfamiliar faces, it appeared our coastal village was finally on the beaten track, even during the off-season.
My gaze skittered over the booths by the window, the line by the counter, and the tables in back. Where was Madison? Maybe I’d actually gotten here first, which would be a first—
An arm clad in fuchsia fleece shot up at the back table near the restrooms and I spotted my best friend, who was waving with a smile. Well, more like saluting wildly while bouncing up and down in her seat. But that was Madison Morris, always full of energy and enthusiasm, no matter how early the hour. Some people were morning people. Madison was one. I definitely was not.
Trying to suppress a yawn, I eyed the line of coffee carafes as I passed, tempted to pick one up and take it with me. Sophie Jacobs, another good friend and owner of the Bean, called from behind the counter, “Morning, Iris. I’ll be right with you.”
“Make it a double,” I called, grateful that fresh java would soon be on the way. Still smiling at Sophie, I edged around a chair blocking the aisle and accidentally kicked a customer’s leather messenger bag as a result.
A thin man with wire-rimmed glasses glared up at me before tugging the bag out of the way and stowing it under his chair.
“Sorry,” I said, but his attention was already on his tablet. He didn’t even glance at the Benedict Belgian he was shoveling into his mouth, a waffle topped with an egg, ham, and hollandaise sauce. Yum. Maybe I should order that.
“Can I help you?” he asked, jerking his head up again. His eyes were an icy gray, which suited his cropped dirty-blond hair and light tan. Not bad-looking if a little old for me, but he definitely had a stick up his—
“No, sorry. I was just…” I waved a hand and moved on, flushing at being caught checking out his meal, like some sort of culinary creeper. After skirting a group of lively older women wearing fisherman knit sweaters and L. L. Bean boots, I finally reached the sanctuary of Madison’s table.
“What was up with Mr. Prickly back there?” Madison picked up a huge mug, holding it in both hands. The bright jacket made her golden-brown skin glow, as did the matching lipstick and nail polish she wore.
“I kicked his bag. Which I feel bad about, since it’s gorgeous.” I sank into the opposite chair, arranging my full skirt under my hips. I’d sewn the fifties-style dress myself, a deep periwinkle blue trimmed in white at the short sleeves and neckline and topped with a vintage apron. With my black hair, blue eyes and pale complexion, periwinkle was a go-to color for me. And mid-century garment styles flattered my curvy figure, which was more Marilyn than Audrey, as in Monroe and Hepburn.
Madison crooked an index finger. “Stand up again. Are you actually wearing an apron? I know you’re opening a shop but—”
“It’s a bit much?” I obeyed and stood, even holding the frothy confection out with my fingers, the better for my friend to study it. The women seated nearby turned to look, so I spun to face them and smiled before plopping back down.
“It’s the one we used for the shop logo,” I explained. “Grammie suggested we start wearing aprons as often as possible. Free advertising.”
My paternal grandmother, Anne Buckley, and I were partners in Ruffles & Bows, a new Main Street business slated to open on Memorial Day weekend. Over the past five years, I’d built up quite a business selling aprons and linens online, both vintage and handmade originals. But now the local economy was booming, and it was time to take advantage with a storefront. Plus Grammie needed the distraction after losing her beloved husband Joe, my Papa, three months ago.
I crossed my fingers under the table, hoping our optimistic plans would pan out. Failure is not an option. My new favorite saying.
“Nice apron.” Sophie appeared at the table, tossing her blond braid back in a familiar gesture as she set a large mug in front of me.
“Do you want one?” I picked up the mug, eager for that first spectacular sip of latte. “I have several similar ones in inventory.”
Sophie, who wore jeans, a T-shirt, and a sturdy cook’s apron tied around her waist, shook her head. “I’d better not. It’d get demolished in here, for sure.” She held up one finger. “But maybe I could wear it at home. While Jake makes dinner.” This last was said with a sly grin. Her longtime boyfriend was a local lobsterman and complete sweetheart.
We hooted and cheered in response. “Not only is he hot but he cooks too.” Madison sighed. “I wish I could meet someone like him.” She wrinkled her button nose, brown eyes dancing. “After I get tired of keeping my options open.”
I shook my head, smiling with affection at my bestie since grade school. Madison resolutely refused to get deeply involved with anyone, ever since her first date at age fifteen. As for me, I longed for true love and all the trappings, even if that was mid-century old-fashioned—just like my clothing style.
Sophie glanced over her shoulder when something crashed behind the counter, then asked, “Want something to eat?”
“I’ll have the Benedict,” I said.
“Same,” Madison said. “We’re going over to the new shop after.”
“The new home of Ruffles and Bows.” It was a thrill to say the store name, which we’d brainstormed one winter day, sipping cocoa in front of the fireplace. Grammie suggested ruffles and I wanted bows, so the right name was finally born.
Sophie’s eyes widened. “It’s really happening. Congrats, Iris.”
I patted my handbag. “Keys are in here. We signed the lease with Parker Properties yesterday.” The property-management office was located in a nineteenth-century sea captain’s mansion overlooking the harbor. It had been lovingly restored, unlike our brick storefront on 33 Main Street, which needed tons of work.
Another crash echoed and Sophie glanced over again. “I’d better scoot. But good luck with the building. It’s a beauty.” She hurried off.
“A fallen beauty, for sure.” I picked up the mug and sipped, trying to ignore a growing knot of anxiety. Now that the moment was upon us, I was getting nervous. What if the store was a huge flop? Not only would I lose money, but Grammie’s nest egg was at risk as well. She’d insisted on investing a chunk of my grandfather’s life insurance.
“But the building has potential, right?” I asked Madison, needing a shot of reassurance.
“Tons of potential.” Madison pulled out her phone. “Did you see the page I made for display ideas?” Madison ran her own marketing company and her brilliant sense of design and good taste extended to interior design. She handed over the phone.
“There are some built-in glass cases and shelves already. Maybe I should paint them.” My memory of the former store was gloomy dark wood and a water-stained tin ceiling. Oh, and light fixtures hanging on wires. Those needed to go. Or be fixed.
“A fresh and clean look will really set off the fabrics.” Madison pointed to cabinets painted a pure, lovely white. “Keep the hardwood floor as is and add pops of color in seasonal displays.”
My excitement grew as I visualized the refreshed space. “I’m thinking of using old wardrobes and freestanding cabinets to add an antique touch too.” I planned to paint them a soft green, a favorite vintage color, or leave them natural.
“Perfect.” Madison leaned back to allow a server to place her breakfast on the table. “Thank you,” she told the young man, who had shorn red hair and an earring.
The server placed my plate in front of me. “Can I get you anything else?”
Madison looked around the table. “Hot sauce?” He pulled a bottle out of his pocket, handed it to her, and hurried away. “I’m going to make him smile someday,” she said, picking up the hot sauce and sprinkling it on her eggs.
“If anyone can, it’s you.” I shook my head at the offered hot sauce and picked up my knife and fork. Even Sophie, who ran one of the most popular eateries in town, had trouble finding good help. Frankly, I dreaded the thought of interviewing and choosing employees. I’d worked alone forever and wasn’t sure how to handle being a boss. Thankfully Grammie and I would be the only employees for a while.
One step at a time. Before we could even think about hiring anyone, we needed to clean and renovate the space and open the store. My heart gave a little dancing lurch when I remembered our after-breakfast appointment. I’d asked carpenter Ian Stewart to come along and give me an estimate. I wondered if he was still as good-looking as I remembered, ten years ago when we graduated from high school.
* * *
Ian Stewart is still drop-dead dynamite. He strode down the alley with an easy-hipped saunter, brown hair rumpled and a hint of scruff outlining his square jaw. Disreputable jeans encased long legs and a worn flannel shirt showcased muscular arms and chest. When my heart went into overdrive and my palms dampened, I realized I was in deep trouble. High school heartache, round two.
Madison’s elbow connected with my midsection and she made a wow face out of his view. When I didn’t respond, she frowned at me then gave him a little wave. “Hey, Ian. Perfect timing, we just got here.”
His answer was a white flash of smile that stole my breath. “Good to see you both. It’s been a while. I just moved back a few weeks ago.”
So did I, after a decade away. When Papa had a debilitating heart attack last fall, I insisted on coming home to help my grandparents. But could I simply say that? Nope. With my Sahara mouth, I couldn’t form a syllable.
While Madison chatted with Ian, hopefully covering my social ineptitude, I fumbled with the lock to the back door. The landlord had warned us it was tricky, and no kidding. The key would not move, which meant we’d have to replace the lock set first thing. On round three, I pulled the doorknob toward me before turning the key, a trick Papa taught me. The lock finally clunked and released.
I shoved the swollen door forward and stumbled into a small, square foyer that reeked of cat litter and bug spray. Ugh. I couldn’t see a light switch so I swept my hand over the wall, hoping for the best. Finally I connected and a dim overhead bulb came on, revealing a staircase with brown plastic treads to my left and closed doors ahead and to the right.
My heart sank. The place hadn’t seemed quite as depressing when we looked at it a couple of days ago. Were we so excited about finding a place that we made a hasty decision? No wonder the rent was so cheap.
Steps creaking on the floorboards behind me announced Madison and Ian. Madison’s lip curled as she glanced around. But she only said, “Which way to the storefront?”
Bless her for not stating the obvious. I hurried to the door straight ahead. “This leads into the shop. The other door goes into the stock area.” Which was equally as unappetizing as the foyer, I remembered, with its curling linoleum and tobacco-brown paint.
In the spacious front room, sunshine radiated through floor-to-ceiling windows, making dust motes float like dancers. Yes, the light illuminated the stained ceiling and battered wood floors and reflected off the cheap paneling crookedly installed on two of the walls, but the room was cheerful.
My spirits immediately lifted. Not only did the store enjoy an excellent view of the harbor, we had a personal connection to the space. In the late 1800s, this building had housed the Buckley Dry Goods Company. I was thrilled to follow in my ancestor’s footsteps as a store owner and hoped we’d be as successful.
“We need to get rid of the paneling,” Madison said, pointing. “Let’s find out what’s underneath.”
Before I could object, Ian strode across the floor and tugged on a panel already hanging loose. Underneath was cream-colored plaster, cracked in a couple of spots but otherwise in good condition. He ran his palm along the wall. “I think this will be fine with a little patching. There’s nothing like old-fashioned plaster for beautiful walls.”
Madison was already clicking her phone. “I’ll pick out some paint colors. Since this room faces east, we need something warm. Maybe a creamy yellow.” I looked over her shoulder as she pinned colors to a Ruffles & Bows inspirations board.
He tipped his head and studied the ceiling. “The tin looks to be in good shape. A coat of paint will do it. And those light fixtures look original.” Old-fashioned schoolhouse globes hung from slender bronze rods. One or two had wires showing.
“Oh, I like those,” Madison said. “Are they safe to use?”
“I can check,” Ian said. “Let me get my ladder.” Whistling, he disappeared into the back, heading to the alley where he’d parked his pickup truck.
While we waited, I gazed around the room, trying to imagine it furnished and full of inventory. “I’m thinking the checkout area can go there.” An attractive antique counter with carved trim stood near the back wall. It looked original, maybe left over from the dry-goods shop.
“It’s perfect.” Madison spun slowly in a circle, squinting in an expression I recognized. She was visualizing the room as it would be, not as its present dismal self. The way she often looked at me when we dressed up for the evening. “What are you doing on the other side of the archway?”
“The craft studio.” I flicked on the lights for the smaller side room, dark due to paper covering the windows. “We’ll put a few long tables for sewing machines here.” I demonstrated with a wave of my hands. “And in the back, create a cozy hand-sewing area with comfy chairs. A coffee cart too.” I pictured my orange tabby, Quincy, curled up on an armchair while keeping an eye on the proceedings. I planned to bring him to the store every day so he wouldn’t get lonely at home. He was used to “going to work” with me, which until now meant grabbing a cup of coffee and turning on the computer.
Madison nodded. “Great idea to offer refreshments. If I could sew, I’d definitely want to take classes here.”
I laughed. “I’ll teach you to sew whenever you want.”
“About the time I take you rock climbing.” Madison winked. We had a standing offer to help each other learn something we detested—Madison claimed to be all thumbs—or were deathly afraid of—in my case, heights. And hanging from ropes. “But I’ll be here a lot, working on your marketing and just hanging out.”
“We can let you do that.” I pictured happy groups of customers enjoying classes and working on projects while getting to know each other. Madison was great at smoothing social awkwardness and I welcomed her savvy, like just now with Ian, for example. I was such a dork sometimes.
A clatter from the back announced Ian’s return. He set up a tall stepladder under the worst fixture in the main room and climbed the steps. When he reached the top, the lights flickered and went out.
“What’d you do?” Madison called.
“Nothing.” Ian nimbly descended the ladder. “I didn’t even touch it, wouldn’t since the wire was live. Or it was.”
“Now what?” I asked. “Check the fuse box?” Living at my grandparents’ 1820 farmhouse had acquainted me with home repairs.
“Exactly,” Ian said. “Hold on. I’ll go get a flashlight.” Once again he left the shop.
I switched on my phone’s flashlight app. “I’m going to head down to the basement. Coming?”
Madison grimaced as she began scrolling on her phone. “No, thanks. I don’t do basements. I’ll keep working on decorating ideas.”
The landlord had said the basement door was somewhere in the foyer, now pitch-dark in the outage. Thanks to my phone’s pencil-point beam, I found it tucked under the stairs, the door significantly shorter than full-sized.
Opening the hobbit door revealed a narrow, rickety set of wooden steps descending into inky black. No handrail. Nice. My tiny light barely pierced the gloom as I took the first cautious steps. The mildew odor was much stronger down here, tinged with the distinctive odor of mice. Ugh. Hopefully I wouldn’t see any running along the pipes, which were right at eye level.
Step by step I went, testing each stair with my weight. So far, so good. But with my eyes focused on my feet, I didn’t see the spiderweb—until it draped across my face like a haunted-house facial. Sticky and clingy and creepy, maybe with a spider still attached.
Three things happened at once. I clawed at my face, dropped the phone, and lurched down the rest of the staircase. One foot hit air and I stumbled, landing with a sickening thud against what felt like shelves, judging by the sharp edges biting into my skin. Metal screeched across concrete. Objects thumped and crashed. Glass shattered.
“Are you all right?” Ian’s flashlight shone right into my eyes then jerked to one side. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to do that.”
“I think so.” With a shaky laugh, I pushed upright from a leaning position against the shelves. My arm and shoulder throbbed from hitting them hard, and so did my left ankle, twisted when I’d landed wrong. But I would live. “I hope my phone survived.”
Ian stooped and picked up my phone, his light swooping over the area where the shelves once stood. Something white caught my eye, amid crumbled rubble near the bottom of the wall.
A skull, its eye sockets deep and dark.
Copyright © 2020 by Elizabeth Penney