Frost Under A Bright Moon (A Short Story)
I wrote this holiday short story in one day as part of a writing camp exercise. The prompt was to write a scene or story based off a song. Although it was September, the song that happened to be in my head was a classic Christmas carol. (Guess which one...)
“And how do you like the chowder, sir?”
Winston looked up from his bowl and smiled politely at the waiter. “Very nice, thank you.”
“It’s horrid,” Stephanie barked. “Look at it, he’s barely touched it. Take it back to the kitchen. Win, what do you want instead?”
Winston cringed at the use of the old nickname. He looked at the waiter, pointedly ignoring his sister. “Please don’t bother. The chowder is wonderful.”
The waiter, a young college kid, offered an uncertain, “If there’s anymore I can do…” which trailed off as he caught Stephanie’s glare.
“Thank you,” Winston said, spearing a fried clam on his fork and popping it in his mouth. The chowder really was exceptional. Made of a rich buttery lobster reduction sauce with battered and fried clams, it was just the sort of thing that Winston’s personal trainer would call ‘heart disease in a bowl.’ He’d have to spend extra time at the gym tomorrow. He wasn’t even that hungry, but it was worth it to keep Stephanie from sending it back to the kitchen.
“Why do you do that?” Stephanie asked as soon as the waiter was out of earshot. “Always favor the little guy as if you think you’re some kind of Robin Hood come to save the poor. Do I dare ask what your tip rate is?”
“I just like the chowder.”
“Come on, Win. Let’s be honest about why we’re here. You can’t keep acquiring these failing companies and trying to resuscitate them back to life. I don’t care how moving their sob stories are. We’re bleeding in so many places right now, the dam is about to burst.”
“Now you’re just mixing metaphors, Stephy.” Hey, she’d started it with Win.
“I don’t care about metaphors,” Stephanie said, lowering her voice so Winston knew she was really angry. That was fine. Winston was angry too. Angry that Stephanie had dragged him out of the house the day after Christmas to have an intervention of sorts in a public place, instead of taking the time to sit down and really hear Winston’s side of the story. She never cared about Winston’s side.
“What I care about,” Stephanie continued, punctuating her words by gesturing to her heart, “is our future. Both of ours. Winston Kingsley, you’re so worried about trying to save everyone, but who is going to save you from yourself? You’re squandering our parents’ fortune and it’s going to be your own kids who pay the price when there’s no legacy left for them.”
Winston’s chowder curdled in his stomach at her false air of concern.
“Well, since I don’t have any kids, that’s one less thing to worry about. But someday if I do, I hope I can leave them a legacy they can be proud of. And not because my wealth will open every door they can ever imagine, but because I’ve used that wealth to make the world a better place. That’s why I take risks to save companies that can make a difference in this world. Sure, there might not be a lot of ROI with nonprofits who offer mental health services to homeless vets or promote free trade in sub-Saharan Africa, but if can give them a chance to make life better for people on the fringes, then I’ll cheerfully go bankrupt in order to sleep well at night.”
Stephanie’s cheeks flushed beneath her perfect makeup. “Fine. Do your little Mother Teresa act. But I won’t let you take the rest of us down with you. Consider that a threat.”
With that, she dropped her napkin in her chair and stalked away.
Winston sighed. Christmas was always a tough time of year, what with the anniversary of their parents’ death on Christmas Eve. Their private jet had gone down over the Rockies ten years earlier and things between Stephanie and Winston had never quite been the same. Stephanie had thrown herself into work, quickly taking over the reins and pushing the company to new heights. But Winston had found that financial success hadn’t brought healing for him. In recent years, he’d turned to small struggling companies with grand ideals and anemic budgets who could benefit from a partnership with someone with deeper pockets.
But Stephanie….the more Winston drifted from her father’s original vision for the company, the more she tried to bring him in line. He should have known better than to meet with her tonight.
“I should have known better than to meet with her tonight,” he complained to Erica over the phone as he settled into his car’s heated leather seats. It was times like this that he was grateful to have a skilled driver so he didn’t have to be the one with white knuckles navigating the slushy roads. Snow had been falling steadily all evening and the later it got, the fewer cars were out helping to keep the roads clear.
“You just let the Christmas cheer get to you,” Erica said, and he could hear the smile in her voice through the car’s internal speakers. “It happens to the best of us.”
Winston snorted. “I don’t think I’ve ever been accused of having an excess of Christmas cheer. Speaking of, how was your Christmas?”
“Very merry, sir. We’re taking the kids sledding tomorrow as soon as the plows get out.”
Winston leaned his head back and watched the snow swirling in the glow of the street lamps. Once he would have thought it was a magical scene perfect for snuggling in front of the fire with a hot drink and ridiculously fuzzy socks. But he was going home to an empty apartment that still bore the signs of his pathetic Christmas — a few unopened gifts from friends and colleagues piled around a pot of bamboo next to his indoor fountain.
It was a dismal prospect.
“What’s the latest with that Hartfield something or other?”
“The house for troubled teens?”
“Yeah, that one.”
“As far as I know, nothing has changed. She refuses to sell. Keeps insisting that it’s worth saving the old place. I tried to explain that you’d be willing to help her find a better facility that’s up to code and less expensive to maintain. She’s pretty sure you’ve got a hidden agenda and until she figures out what that is, she’s not budging.”
Winston straightened, an idea forming in his mind. “What’s the address to the house again? It’s on the east end of town, right?” He scanned the street signs coated in a fine layer of snow.
“It’s less of an address and more of a description. GPS was useless trying to find it, but I can tell you how to get there.”
“Great, I’ll patch you through to Mike.”
“Mr. Kingsley, you’re not going to visit Vivian Portman tonight, are you?”
“I’m in the area. Sort of. And it’s not even seven yet.” His sluggish brain was coming alive with purpose.
“It’s the day after Christmas. Don’t you think you oughta make an appointment during regular business hours?”
“Call ahead if you like. I want to see this place for myself.”
“If you say so, sir. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you if they don’t exactly have the welcome lights out for you.”
The lights draped over Hartfield House looked warm and welcoming as Winston’s car pulled up the driveway. Red, green, and white, the Christmas lights outlined large bay windows and festooned an upstairs balcony. They held the haphazard air of being hung by someone with more spirit than experience, but through their outline Winston could just discern the features of the large house as they approached. It could have been charming if it had been properly maintained. As it was, it had an air of aged neglect.
Remnants of a fence had been overrun by blackberry bushes and covered under a mound of snow. The dirt driveway was pocked with potholes that the snow obscured so Winston had no warning until he was tossed about like a bag of chestnuts.
“Apologies, sir,” Mike said over the speaker.
“It’s all right,” Winston said, reaching for handholds to give him some semblance of control over the jostling.
They pulled up to a stop in front of a staircase that was so covered in drifted snow Winston gingerly tested each step before putting any weight on it. They creaked ominously and he skipped the last one to hurry onto the porch. Less snow had accumulated here, blown in from the gusting wind, but the porch was still slippery and Winston shuffled across it awkwardly.
The front door was lit by one brave light bulb couched in a cheap fixture missing one of its glass panes. The door itself was beautiful solid wood with stained glass panes lining either side, clearly original to the Victorian-era house. A metal knob like the end of an old skeleton key sat in the center. Cautiously, Winston reached forward and turned it. A loud clanging ring sounded inside the house, like an old-fashioned telephone from the movies. Smiling at the novelty, Winston brushed snow out of his hair as the door opened, accompanied with sounds of a scuffle.
“Stop it, Willow!”
“Vivian asked me to open it!”
Two girls looked up at Winston and their argument died. The taller one looked to be maybe 14, and she expertly elbowed the shorter one out of the way without a word.
“Good evening,” Winston greeted. “I’m looking for Mrs. Portman.”
The younger girl snickered. The taller one smiled, but it wasn’t friendly. “And who are you?”
“My name is Winston Kingsley. I’m a business associate of Mrs. Portman and happened to be passing by.”
“Were you then?” A woman stepped into the dark entrance hall, backlit against the light so Winston couldn’t see her face. “No one ever ‘passes by’, especially on a night like this.”
A gust of wind coughed snow through the open doorway and onto the wood floor. The taller of the two girls was wearing only short sleeves and shivered.
“May I come in?” Winston asked. “I hate to stand here with your door wide open heating the whole outside.”
“We can’t even heat the whole inside, Mr…what was your name again?” the woman asked without making a move to welcome him in.
“Kingsley. Winston Kingsley.” Apparently Erica had decided not to call ahead after all?
“Kingsley. As in Daddy Warbucks Kingsley? Sorry, we’re fresh out of tap-dancing little redheads.”
The girl holding the door stifled a laugh.
“If I’m Daddy Warbucks, then who does that make you? Miss Hannigan?” He offered the quip with his most disarming grin.
It fell flat on the floor. The younger teen’s eyes widened in surprise. For three heartbeats, the lonely potted bamboo plant didn’t seem so unwelcoming anymore.
Then the woman guffawed and stepped forward to the door. “I’m sorry, that’s about all I can manage of the stern headmistress routine.” As she drew near, the porch light illuminated a smiling round face with cheerful eyes. She wore a soft turtleneck sweater bedecked in sparkling snowflakes. It was hideously garish, but she wore it effortlessly and unashamed.
“The Daddy Warbucks reference just seemed too perfect,” she continued. “Though you really shouldn’t be here, Mr. Kingsley. I told your secretary that I’d be happy to make an appointment to show you the place, but just dropping in like this unprepared makes us feel like we’ve been caught with our pants down.”
“You’re Mrs. Portman?” Winston asked, intrigued. With a name like Vivian, he’d assumed the proprietress was old enough to be his mother. But she was young and had a sharp intelligent look in her eyes.
“Yes, and no. Miss, not Mrs. Married once, but Portman is my father’s name, not his. Come on in, Mr. Kingsley. I suppose we might as well have a chat. But don’t you need to turn off your car?” she asked, looking over his shoulder at the driveway.
“No, I won’t be long. And Mike will want to keep it running so it stays warm.”
“Yes, my driver.” Winston said it without thinking, but she looked at him with bemusement.
“Ah yes. Of course.”
Somehow, he felt like she was laughing at him. He didn’t know why, but again wondered if an appointment in town would have been a smarter idea.
Well, you’re here now. Might as well make the most of it.
“I suppose since you’re here, we might as well make the most of it,” Miss Portman said as she led him through the dark entrance hall. He sensed a cavernous staircase off to his right and a smudge of light overhead hinting at upstairs rooms before following his hostess into a room on the left.
It was a family room of sorts, with mismatched sofas and sagging bean bags arranged around the room. A TV sat on a stand in one corner with some kind of period drama paused on the screen. The two girls who had opened the door flopped down on one of the couches and started the film again. Old 70’s era paneling lined the walls, draining the meager light from two floor lamps, but the coffered ceiling spoke of grander days in the room’s history. The floor was covered in shag carpet the color of moss, and Winston found himself wondering what sort of original floors slept beneath layers of bad decisions.
The clear pride and joy of the room was the large Christmas tree that stood in front of the bay windows. Winston moved toward it involuntarily, examining the tiny white paper fans and lacy angels adorning its branches.
“We make the decorations ourselves,” Miss Portman explained warmly. “Every year the girls design the tree and we work for a solid week after Thanksgiving to turn their ideas into reality. Every time I’m blown away at what they come up with.”
“These girls stay with you over the holidays?” Winston asked. “I thought this was a temporary place for them to land for a while.”
“It is,” Miss Portman said. “We have six girls home with their families for the holidays. Some will come back when the Christmas spirit wears off. Others will decide they’re ready to try a fresh start home.”
“But not these two?” Winston asked, nodding toward the two on the couch with blankets piled on top of them.
Miss Portman shook her head with a smile. “These two are here to stay. My nieces who put me on this path in the first place.”
Winston wondered what had happened to their parents, but didn’t want to ask. He thought of his own parents’ death and couldn’t decide if it would have been better or worse for people to have to ask instead of it being plastered all over the news.
“I’m guessing it’s pretty spendy to heat the place,” Winston observed, thinking of Miss Portman’s earlier comment about the heat. “What’s your electric bill run, Miss Portman?”
“Well, aren’t we getting personal?” she replied, her brown eyes shining with humor. “If we’re going to go to that level, then I guess we’d better at least be on first name basis. Please, call me Vivian.”
Winston extended his hand. “Then you’d better call me Winston.”
“Not Daddy Warbucks?”
“Please, no.” Vivian’s hand was cool in his and brought him back to his line of questioning. “I don’t mean to be intrusive, but I’ve heard about your work and would like to help. And it seems like the first place to start is finding you a location that can actually keep you warm in the winter.”
Vivan’s smile cooled and she dropped her hand. “I appreciate your offer of help, Winston, but we aren’t interested in finding a new location. This isn’t a facility. It’s our home. And yes, it would be nice to have central heat and — ”
“Wait, you don’t even have central heat?” Winston looked toward a corner where stood an old cast iron stove. He’d foolishly thought it was just a decoration.
“What, do you think that stove is just for decoration?” Vivian laughed. “It’s our only heat source. This whole drafty house is warmed by one tiny little stove. We keep the upstairs closed off as much as possible to trap some heat downstairs so there’s somewhere we can go without freezing. I’ve talked to some contractors about what it would take to install central heat. It’s…beyond exorbitant.”
Winston ran a hand through his hair damp from the snow. “I can imagine. It would be far cheaper to raze this house to the ground and build a new, energy-efficient one in its place.”
Vivian winced. The older of the two girls looked at him in alarm.
“Mr. Kingsley,” Vivian said with a tone of long-suffering. “I understand that from your perspective, the cheapest option makes the most sense. But the work I do isn’t about saving money. It’s about saving girls. It’s about taking teens who are only one bad decision away from disaster and giving them hope for a new life. This house has character. Sure, it’s been abused over the years, but beneath the paneling and this horrendous carpet is a sturdy home crafted with love that’s outlived little nobodies like you and me for over one hundred years. This means something to the girls. It shows them what it means to be resilient. To rise above whatever life has thrown at you and remember who you are underneath.”
“And it makes for a wicked haunted house at Halloween,” one of the girls on the couch piped up.
A smile pricked the corner of Vivian’s mouth. “That too.”
Winston thought about his lifeless apartment and for a moment envied these girls and their drafty old house. But before he could say anything more, an insistent buzzing from his phone drew his attention. It was Mike. With a flush of guilt he realized that he’d already stayed much longer than he’d planned. He moved to the bay windows to look out on the drive and could barely see the headlights of the car. In the beams of light, the snow was piling alarmingly fast.
“If we don’t leave soon, sir, I’m afraid we won’t make it home,” Mike said.
“Of course, I’ll be right out,” Winston answered. He slipped his phone into the pocket of his coat and looked for Vivian. She was stoking the stove, and even with the door wide open, Winston could scarcely feel the heat from where he stood. He hated the thought of leaving her and her nieces to endure a long night in the cold. And what if they got snowed in?
“What if you get snowed in?” he asked. “Do you have a way to get out? Do you have enough dry wood to tide you over if it’s a few days before plows get all the way out here?”
For the first time that evening, a flash of worry appeared in Vivian’s eyes. But she quickly masked it and said breezily, “There are three of us and we all know how to wield a shovel if it comes to it. But you’d better get out of here or you’ll be using it yourself.”
He noticed that she hadn’t answered his question about the cold. He made a mental note to have Erica call first thing in the morning and check up on them. He’d send a plow out himself if he needed to.
“We’re not damsels in distress, Winston. Trust me. We’ll be fine. Thank you for stopping by.”
There was nothing more to be done. Winston felt helpless trying to help someone who didn’t want his help. It was maddening. But he obediently said goodbye and ducked out into the snow. Alarmingly, his earlier footsteps were already obscured. The snow piled at least a foot deep, thicker in drifts. The door to the car almost skimmed the top of the snow when he opened it and dove inside.
“Sorry, Mike,” he said, brushing snow off his coat. “I didn’t realize how late it was.”
“It’s really coming down, sir,” Mike said, his voice calm and unruffled as if nothing could get in his way.
Nothing except drifts of new snow packed in around the tires.
Mike put it into gear but the car didn’t respond. The unmistakable thrum of spinning tires made Winston’s heart sink. Not with desperation or fear. Just good old-fashioned embarrassment.
He got out of the car and shot a glance at the bright bay windows, hoping Vivian and her girls weren’t watching.
After thirty minutes of rocking, bracing, digging, and trying every conceivable way of freeing the car, Winston sighed. His hair was plastered with snow and sweat trickled down his back. But his legs and feet were freezing and wet.
“If it weren’t so dark, we might have a chance of getting it free, sir,” Mike said. “But as it is, we’re going to run the gas tank dry and will have a harder time getting it going tomorrow. I’ll call and see if Javier can bring the truck.”
Winston bit back a curse. He didn’t want Mike to think he was annoyed with him. It was his own fault for having this hare-brained idea in the first place. Shoving his frozen hands into his pockets, he stalked back up to the porch.
The door opened before he could reach for the bell.
“Come in, you damsels in distress! Did you turn off your engine this time? I hope you don’t expect Mike-the-driver to spend the night in the car.” Vivian greeted them with two insulated coffee cups. “Oh hello, you must be Mike-the-driver.”
Winston sheepishly kicked snow off his leather shoes as best he could and took the outstretched cup gratefully.
“Sorry. I know this is a huge pain. Someone should be coming to pick us up within the hour. Is it all right if we leave the car until morning?”
“I’m sorry, sir,” Mike interrupted, putting his phone away. “Javier says highway 14 is closed. He won’t be able to make it until morning.”
Winston tried to swallow the mortification he felt as he turned back to Vivian.
She took one look at his expression and laughed. “I’ve got plenty of extra blankets and the Ikea couch is a sleeper. Just know that I take safety very seriously and if either of you leaves this room during the night I will skewer you with an ice pick.” She said it with a smile, but there was an underlying menace to it that Winston respected.
“Of course, Miss Hannigan,” he replied. He took a sip of his coffee and nearly spit it back out again. It wasn’t coffee.
“You don’t like hot chocolate?” Vivian snickered.
“No, it’s fine. I just thought…”
“I swore off coffee after the divorce,” Vivian said lightly. “My anxiety didn’t need the supercharge. But I’m betting you need the heat on your insides as much as you do outside.”
Winston tried again and this time with adequate warning he could enjoy the thick sweetness. He stood in front of the stove, wondering how long it would take his clothes to dry. His jeans were wet from the knees down and he could barely feel his feet. But he didn’t want to strip off his shoes and socks in front of Vivian. That was one social faux pas too far.
The girls — Willow and Iris were their names, he learned, which he thought far too ethereal for the sassy teens — helped Vivian dig up quilts from somewhere and set up the pull-out.
“I’ll be happy on the couch, sir,” Mike said as soon as they were alone.
“Nah, take the bed,” Winston insisted. “It’s my fault that we’re in this mess in the first place. Besides, I’m not ready to go to sleep just yet.” Instead, Winston pulled out his phone and looked through his email for the thread about Hartfield House. Erica had sent him land records, court documents, anything and everything related to Vivian’s venture as a business. But Winston wanted to know more about Vivian herself.
Unfortunately, Erica hadn’t sent much more than a basic bio. Vivian had two graduate degrees, one in history and one in business. She’d had a successful career as a recruiter for a Fortune 500 company before suddenly walking away from it all to purchase this dilapidated Victorian fixer-upper and turn it into a sort of halfway house for troubled teens. But why? This was the question that kept him from sleep until the door opened and a flashlight blinded him full in the face.
“Sorry,” Vivian whispered, dropping the beam as she moved toward the desk. “The power’s gone out and I keep spare batteries in here. I was hoping I wouldn’t wake you. Do you always stay up past 1 in the morning?”
Guiltily, Winston switched off his phone.
“Sorry,” Vivian repeated, sounding embarrassed. “It’s not my business what you’re doing on your phone in the middle of the night — “
“No!” Winston said, feeling himself blush. “It’s not anything like that. I’m not a perv, I promise. I just…” What could he say? I was Googling you? How would that not sound creepy?
“It’s fine, you don’t owe me an explanation. I really don’t want to know.”
Awkward silence fell, broken only by Mike snoring softly in the sofa bed.
“Sorry, Vivian. Please don’t take this the wrong way. I was just doing a little research on this place. On you and…I was just trying to figure out your story.”
Vivian stopped near the open door. The flashlight was pointed at the floor, and Winston couldn’t see her expression. “Well, you could have just asked. It’s not really worth keeping you awake all night.”
Winston felt another wave of embarrassment. “I was trying not to be intrusive.”
“By Googling me?” Vivian snorted. “Thank you. I feel so respected.”
Best not to mention the legal documents Erica had sent him.
“Well, that hot chocolate gave me killer heartburn so I won’t be going to sleep for a while. Might as well answer your questions and save your battery life.” Vivian sat on the other end of the couch and Winston threw her a blanket. He got a glimpse of soft minky pajamas before she bundled up against the cold. Then she shut off the flashlight and the only light in the room came from the snow glow outside.
“All right, Winston Kingsley. What do you want to know?” Vivian asked in a low voice.
“Why do you do this? Why did you leave a successful career to run a charity like this which is this close to bankruptcy and then reject help from someone willing to help you turn it around?”
Vivian answered with a long exhale. “Well then. That’s quite a few questions. I’m sure in the morning I’ll think of a better answer, so just keep in mind this is my 1:30 brain talking. The short answer is that I got burned out and wanted to take things a little slower. And when my sister passed away and I was best suited to take in her girls, this seemed like a perfect opportunity.”
Winston mulled that over. “And the long answer?”
At this, Vivian’s voice hardened. “The long answer delves deeply into the psyche of a girl with a single mom addicted to drugs and left basically to raise herself and her sister, who put herself through college by working two jobs and applying for every scrap of scholarship money she could get her hands on, then became a successful executive rubbing shoulders with people who think deprivation is having to go a couple of days waiting on a phone upgrade, while seeing her sister sink further and further into depression and feeling powerless to help her in spite of all her degrees and career achievements. Oh yeah, and throw in a failed marriage to a narcissist as the cherry on top.”
It seemed that the room grew colder with her words.
“I’m sorry, Vivian,” Winston said, chagrined. “I don’t really have a right to ask these questions. You’re clearly a very intelligent and talented woman who knows what she wants. I just want to understand why you won’t accept my help in making it happen.”
Winston sensed Vivian shifting at the other end of the couch and when she spoke there was an tone of quiet intensity that belied the fact that she was little more than whispering.
“Okay, but see, I have a question for you. Why do you want to help? What do you get out of it? If there’s one thing I learned in my corporate career it’s that there’s no such thing as no-strings-attached when a big powerful company wants to come in and bail out a small struggling entity. I can’t even figure out how you heard about me, and your secretary didn’t give me a good answer when I asked. So what is your story, Winston Kingsley? Why do you care?”
It was almost the same question Stephanie had asked earlier at dinner. But coming from Vivian it didn’t carry the same weight of criticism. Instead, she seemed genuinely perplexed.
Winston hesitated. He wanted to word this just right. The longer he spent in Vivian’s company, the more he wanted to impress her. But not in the way someone like Stephanie would be impressed. Not with a shallow veneer, but genuine authenticity. But how to articulate his motivations?
“1:30 standards still apply, right?” he asked.
“Well, it’s probably closer to 2:00 now,” Vivian agreed.
“By all accounts, I’ve lived a charmed life,” Winston began. “I get it. A man like me should never have any reason to complain about anything, right? But I can’t help that. I had no more control over who my parents were than you had over yours. And by the time I got out of college I was sick and tired of hearing about Privilege with a capital P like it’s some kind of dirty word. It seemed that the only circles where I had power were the ones that disgusted me the most. The circles that I wanted to be a part of, the conversations that mattered the most to me — they rejected me because I hadn’t any credibility. I couldn’t possibly understand the issues they were grappling with because of my background. So I decided to embrace my privilege and use it to help in the only way they would let me. With my money. Erica is always on the lookout for good causes to help, both close to home and globally. I do what I can, chipping away at my father’s empire little by little until my sister is about ready to kick me out of the business entirely.”
“Can she do that?”
“What, kick me out? If she can get enough of the board of directors to agree, sure.”
Now it was Vivian’s turn to be silent as she processed what he’d said. Winston marveled at how much easier it was to say these things under cover of darkness. It was highly inappropriate and probably good that Vivian was rejecting his business offer so that they wouldn’t have a professional relationship after this. These were not the kinds of things you disclosed to someone you were negotiating with. But it felt good, and for the moment, he wasn’t sorry.
“So you’re really just a good guy who has a lot of money and wants to use it to help people?”
Winston smiled at the skepticism in her voice. “I’d like to think so, yeah.”
“Huh. Next thing you’ll be telling me is that you have a pet unicorn.”
“Well, I usually save that for the second date,” Winston quipped, then cringed. Why did he say that? This wasn’t a date! At least it was dark so she couldn’t see him blushing.
Fortunately she just chuckled. “Mr. Kingsley, you’re making me blush,” she said drily. “I didn’t think — ”
All at once the house shook with a terrific boom. The ceiling overhead groaned and someone screamed upstairs. Winston jumped up, his heart racing. Vivian was already halfway to the door when her flashlight flicked on. Winston untangled himself from his blanket and ran after her, tripping over an end table in the dark. He vaguely heard Mike rising out of his bed to follow.
The stairwell was drafty with frigid air and Winston immediately wished for his warm blanket as he followed Vivian up to the second story. At the top of the stairs, Willow and Iris stood with wide eyes blinking against the beam of the flashlight.
“Are you okay?” Vivian asked. They both nodded shakily and reached for a reassuring hug.
Behind them, a door hung open and Vivian swore softly as she swept her flashlight over the room. Part of the ceiling had caved in, and a pile of snow-covered rubble filled the room, covering a queen-sized bed with the heavy duvet thrown back.
Winston knew immediately this was Vivian’s room, and as their eyes met he knew she was thinking the same thing. What if she hadn’t been downstairs talking with him? With the rush of adrenaline that comes from a near miss with catastrophe, Vivian immediately went to work assessing the damage with her flashlight. The air was already icy cold and snow was coming in through the large hole. Nearly a third of the ceiling had collapsed, covering the bed, knocking pictures from the walls, and Winston could just make out the remains of a lamp and bookcase in the corner.
With a yelp, Vivian ran to the bookcase, slippers crunching on broken glass.
“Leave it, Vivian,” Winston warned. “It’s not safe. Let’s wait until morning when we can see better.”
“Not my books! They’ll be ruined if we wait!”
Another flashlight turned on next to Winston as Willow and Iris joined Vivian. With a sigh, Winston asked, “Do you have a lantern or candles? Something we can use to light the room?”
Within minutes candles were flickering around the room and the girls had found two more flashlights for Winston and Mike. Carefully, with frozen fingers that felt blunt and stiff, they looked through the pile of books and handed them to Willow and Iris to carry downstairs. Winston held in a smile as he noticed a cover with a man and woman in business attire titled, The Hating Game. With another titled The Undomestic Goddess, he couldn’t help himself. He turned it over to surreptitiously read the back cover before Vivian saw what he was doing.
“Hey! I see what you’re doing.” Vivian glared at him from her where she knelt near the bed, pulling out books that had spilled underneath.
Winston grinned, holding up another one by the same author. “It’s all part of my research,” he said smugly.
“Don’t judge,” Vivian snapped. “We’re overloaded on estrogen in this house.”
There were others, of course. Jane Austen was to be expected, but Haven Kimmel was a surprise. Robin McKinley and Ellen Raskin piqued his interest further. By the time he got to Stephen King, Winston sat back on his heels.
“What?” Vivian asked, flashing her light at him.
Winston shook his head. “I’ve just always thought you can tell a lot about a person by what books they buy. Especially if they want to save them in the middle of a snowstorm.”
Vivian cocked her head at him. “And what books would YOU save in the middle of a snowstorm?”
Winston considered this. He thought of his secret stash of vintage Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries and smirked. “I prefer Audible.”
“No fair!” Vivian laughed, and tossed a handful of snow at him.
Chuckling, Winston resumed his work, but at the same time covertly tried to get a better look around the room. He couldn’t see much, but he got a glimpse of bed linens in a delicate rosebud pattern, white painted furniture with elegantly turned legs, and a subtle striped wallpaper pattern. Before the ceiling avalanche, it must have been a cozy room that would bring a smile to your face just stepping into it. So different from Winston’s designer apartment that had about as much life as a magazine spread. Come to think of it, his decorator had featured it in a major interior design magazine.
Yet another detail of his life to keep from Vivian.
With the last of the books spread on the hearth, Vivian stoked up the fireplace and they all took turns huddling around it for warmth. The candles had been moved downstairs so the room glowed with a soft orange light, and someone produced another round of hot chocolate from the kitchen.
“Girls, you’d better spend the rest of the night down here,” Vivian instructed. “I don’t want to take any chances with that roof.”
“You’re lucky you weren’t in bed,” Iris commented.
“Yeah,” Willow said meaningfully. “So lucky. Why were you out of bed anyway?”
“Very funny. Get your sleeping bag, smart alec.”
With the excitement of the night behind them, it didn’t take long before the girls were both burrowed in their sleeping bags and snoring. Winston moved to the window next to the darkened Christmas tree and looked out on the night.
“It’s finally stopped snowing,” he observed. Even the clouds had cleared, revealing a pristine moon shining brilliantly. The snow glowed with reflected moonlight, smoothing out all the rough edges of the world.
Vivian stepped up next to him, standing close like a friend. “It’s so beautiful. There’s nothing like a fresh snowfall. I can’t even be angry that there’s literally a ton of it sitting in my bedroom right now, officially solidifying the end of Hartfield House.”
Winston looked at her and frowned. “You don’t have to give it up, you know. The work you’re doing matters. I’d be happy to help you get back on your feet.”
Vivian wrinkled her nose. “No offense, Winston. I do think you’re a nice guy and all. But I mean it about the strings attached. I know you mean well, but I don’t want to be beholden to you. I had a specific dream for this place and if I have to surrender it to you and let you make the business decisions, then it’s not my dream anymore.”
Winston felt a flare of annoyance at her stubbornness, but it was tempered with grudging respect. “So what will you do?”
Vivian sighed. “Probably sell it at a loss. Insurance will help with some of the repairs, but you’re right. I’ll never be able to make this a sound venture with a house like this sucking me dry. It’s a shame, because the bones are sound. They don’t build homes like this anymore. I just have to get used to the fact that whoever buys it will probably raze it like you said and build some cardboard mcmansion in its place.”
“I’m sorry,” Winston said, and he didn’t just mean about Vivian having to give up her dream. He meant for not fully respecting the vital role the house played in that dream.
Taking a risk, he reached out an arm and placed it around Vivian’s shoulder. She didn’t pull away, just leaned in next to him. They stood there in comfortable silence, and Winston felt a wave of something indescribable. Something he hadn’t felt in years. Something that felt like home.
At last, he spoke. “You know, it just so happens I’ve been looking for a real estate property to invest in. A fixer upper with real curb appeal potential. Preferably with a lot of history and tucked in an out-of-the-way place. You wouldn’t by chance know of anything, would you?”
Vivian looked up at him and her soft brown eyes glinted with the reflected snow glow. She smiled. “You know, I might have just the thing.”