This can’t possibly be right.
A sickening wave of panic surged through Jenna as she parked in the driveway and stared at the old stone cottage. With trembling fingers, she opened the folder sent by the real estate agent. She rechecked the address and then studied the photo. No mistake. The snapshot, taken in the lush of summer with flowers in bloom and leafy trees promising peace and seclusion, displayed a quaint fieldstone cottage with a wraparound porch—not the drab, unkempt and almost forbidding structure that appeared before her.
Her heart pounded in her chest. Her throat closed around the cry that fought to escape.
My God, What have I done?
Her sister’s remarks haunted her. “I can’t believe you bought a house you’ve never seen, in a state you’ve never visited.”
Jenna had attempted to justify her actions. She had to get away. She needed to be on her own, take charge of her life. It sounded reasonable at the time but now she realized her mistake. She owned this neglected cottage, complete with overgrown shrubs, and a sagging porch, along with whatever other disaster waited inside.
She grabbed one of the boxes from the back seat and carried it to the porch. Before she could turn the key in the lock, the door squeaked open. She inhaled sharply and shoved the door open with the toe of her shoe.
“Hello? Anyone in there?”
Silence echoed through the empty house. She set the carton on the floor and flicked the light switch on and off—nothing. She had asked the real estate agent to have the power turned on. Obviously, they had a miscommunication.
She shivered as much from the damp chill penetrating the house, as from the overwhelming dread of her decision. Reality clamped over her as she stood in a dank cottage in a strange state, cold and alone. Jenna gasped as the air squeezed from her chest.
“Good or bad, I made my choice. No point wallowing in self-pity.” Her voice fell flat. As if talking aloud would rescue her from the disastrous decision. She focused on the fireplace in the living room. A fire should solve the heat problem and provide some light until morning.
She grabbed an armful of logs and kindling from the stack on the porch and dumped them in the fireplace. After adding wads of the packing paper from her carton, she looked around for matches. She found them in an ornate metal box attached to the wall next to the mantel. After more than a few attempts, she managed to ignite a blazing fire. The dreary room lit up almost instantly.
Jenna returned to the car for her suitcases. She pulled the three from the trunk holding her personal belongings and juggled them up to the porch. She nudged the cottage door open with her shoulder only to inhale a choking cloud of smoke. It reeked throughout the house. Bits of burned paper floated around the room. She let the luggage fall to the floor and dropped her arms in defeat. Black smudges appeared around her eyes as tears of frustration spiked down her face.
I must have been out of my mind to buy a place like this.
“Lordy, Ma’am, looks like you forgot to open the damper.” A wisp of a girl brushed past her. She dropped the basket she carried on the kitchen table and tended the fire. Jenna stood back, helpless as the child opened doors and windows before stopping to greet the new owner.
“You must be Ms. Mitchell. I’m Molly Keiffer.”
“Please, call me Jenna. You’re a life saver. How did you know…?”
“I’ve been watching. Mr. Grant told us you’d be here today or tomorrow. Gram sent me with something for you to eat until you had a chance to get to the grocery.” A smile broke out on Molly’s face as she added, “You’re gonna love Gram’s homemade soup.”
Tea bags, muffins and a small jar of honey also peeked out from under a blue and white napkin that partially covered the small wicker basket.
“This is a nice surprise. Will you join me?”
“No Ma’am. Gram told me not to be a bother and to come straight home.” Molly grabbed candles from a drawer in the kitchen. “You’ll probably need these and there’s an oil lamp in the bedroom.”
Jenna shook her head as the girl with the flame-red hair and freckles that scampered across her nose, darted around the cottage.
“I almost forgot. I’m supposed to tell you if you need anything, we live in the only other house on the lane.” Molly turned and ran out the door, her corkscrew curls bobbing in the March wind.
Jenna turned the tap in the kitchen.
At least the water works.
Feeling like a character from Little House on the Prairie, she filled a blackened teakettle and hung it on a swinging hook attached to the fireplace. While waiting for the water to boil she surveyed the mess and thought about the strange child. Thank goodness she came when she did.
The inside of the house gave the impression that the former owners had stepped out and planned to return any minute. An assortment of household items crowded every inch of the kitchen. A coffee mug sat on the table and a soiled dishtowel hung from the back of a chair. In the living room, personal belongings were scattered everywhere.
Aside from walking into the bedroom to get the oil lamp before it became too dark to locate it, Jenna didn’t venture through the rest of the house. She was cold, tired and thoroughly distressed.
The soup and a steaming mug of tea gave her a second wind. She unloaded the rest of her cartons from the car and attempted to organize her belongings. She pulled a few necessities from her luggage and stacked everything else against the living room wall.
It seemed to take forever to warm the cottage once the smoke cleared and she closed the doors. She gathered a worn afghan from the back of an old wooden rocking chair, wrapped it around her shoulders and sat on the couch. Mesmerizing flames flickered in the darkness. She melted into a fitful sleep, stirring with every unfamiliar noise the creaky old cottage had to offer.