Following the walkway toward the carriage house, he spotted someone next to one of the many flower beds dotting the grounds; a tall woman, lowering a crate of blooming plants to the ground, displaying a nicely rounded derriere and long legs encased in faded jeans. Slowing his stride, he watched her straighten, place her hands at either side of her waist and heave a sigh. When she turned toward the open rear doors of the nearby van, he waved.
“Good morning! Need some help?”
The woman, her face shaded beneath the brim of a worn straw hat, appeared to take his full measure before answering. “No, thank you.” She continued to watch his approach, squaring her shoulders.
Holding out his hand, he smiled, discreetly making his own survey. “Peter Kosten.”
Pulling off a grimy glove, she extended her hand. “Tess Weldon. Welcome to Walnut Lodge.”
“Thank you. I was planning to look you up later.”
“Were you?” Was it his imagination, or was there an uneasy hitch in her voice?
“Your desk clerk, Cami, said I should.” He’d obviously caught her at a bad time. Her shuttered gaze made him feel awkward. “To discuss my plans with you. Please excuse me. I’ve interrupted your work.”
She seemed to shake herself back to the moment. “No. That’s all right. Cami mentioned you plan to stay with us for a while.” Turning her back to him, she hefted another crate from the van and started toward the flower bed.
“Here. Please let me.” When he stepped in her path, their eyes met. For just a moment, he thought she might refuse his help, but she muttered her thanks and turned away. “Do you do all the gardening yourself?”
“Only the flower beds and containers. Someone else takes care of the rest.”
He placed the crate beside its mate, brushing soil from his hands as he stood. “Still a big job. I gathered from Cami you are both owner and manager here.”
“That’s right.” She set to work, stabbing her spade into the dirt. “I hope the carriage house will meet your needs.”
“It will. It’s quite spacious. I plan to bring my drafting equipment when I come back from St. Louis. Other than a few personal items, I think I have everything I’ll need here. Is there a meal plan?”
Drawing a breath, she launched into what he realized must be a litany she’d repeated countless times. “Breakfast is included with your room, served from six to nine every day. The dining room is open for lunch Monday through Saturday from eleven to two. Dinner is by reservation, seven nights a week starting at five. Sundays we offer brunch and dinner. Maid service every day, laundry and dry cleaning as needed. There’s a business center with internet access in the library and a fitness room in the cellar.” She stopped digging and stared at the horizon. “I think that covers it. You’ll find a list of amenities, including a room service menu, in the desk drawer in your room.”
The breeze caught her hat, flipping it across the flower bed just out of reach. Her attention now on retrieving it, she turned away with an exasperated groan.
Feeling duly dismissed, Peter wondered what he’d done to offend this woman. “Thank you. I look forward to my time here.” He studied her profile as she prepared to go back to work, caught off-balance by something he hadn’t seen until now. Without the hat, her features came into sharper focus; deep blue eyes shaded by dark lashes, honey-colored hair, streaked with subtle highlights, twisted in a thick knot at the back of her head, a dusting of faded freckles on porcelain skin. Something warm and familiar washed over him before he shook free of the sensation. “I should clean up. I was planning to take a drive, check out the area.” Unaccountably breathless, his heart beginning to hammer, he turned toward the carriage house. Across his field of vision, broken images flashed like fireworks. He wondered vaguely if he was having some sort of attack.
Behind him, he heard her say, “Have a nice afternoon.” Why hadn’t he listened before? He would have known immediately if he’d paid attention to her voice. Slowly, as though wading into the surf, he returned to her side, peering down into her face. “Katie?”