It's release day for Renovation of Love!
This day has been a long time in the making. Lots of nervous and second guessing involved as I worked to put this series together, but I'm proud of the story and I hope everyone who reads it falls in love with not only Cynthia and Marcel, but also their small hometown.
Enjoy this excerpt:
The crunch of gravel filled my ears as I eased my 4Runner onto the long drive, flanked on either side by the mossy oak trees that led toward Aunt Drea’s house. The very house I’d inherited three years ago but hadn’t been back to. It wouldn’t be the same without my beloved aunt, and living over two thousand miles away made it easier to put it out of my mind.
Madison Island used to be home, and this place used to be my sanctuary. Funny how time changes things.
Memories of the summers spent here running around the five acres of land that backed up to the protected marshland flipped through my head. As I’d gotten older, I’d considered this home more than the actual house my parents had provided.
Because my career as a corporate marketing executive had been going well in Portland, I’d never imagined I’d return for more than a sporadic visit to see my aunt and friend. Even fewer after I’d moved Auntie Drea to Oregon with me. Unfortunately, a buyout and an “absorption of my position” abruptly sent me on this three-sixty life detour.
With a cloud of dust behind me and a hard screech of my tires, I came to stop in front of the large, three-story, weathered Victorian house, parking next to the sleek, dark blue Buick mini-SUV. Regina—one of my best and longtime friends—smiled brightly in my direction.
She exited her vehicle as I did. “There’s my girl,” Regina squealed, doing a jog hop dance move around her car to embrace me.
“Hey, hey lady.” I stepped back, holding my friend’s hands at arm’s length to look her over. I whistled through my teeth. “Whew, girl, you looking good. And pictures didn’t do the color justice.” I jutted my chin upward toward her hair.
The locs Regina had been growing for the last ten years were now colored a vibrant red, with her eyebrows matching. A bold look, but one she pulled off flawlessly.
“Thank ya, thank ya. Have I told you how happy I am you are finally bringing your ass home? Because I am. Yearly trips and video chats are not enough.”
“Yes, I know. You’ve only mentioned it a couple million times at this point.”
“Oh…” Regina ran back over to her car and returned with a lime-green box and travel coffee mug. She handed me the box. “For you.”
A large grin spread across my face. “Are those what I think they are?”
I lifted the lid and inhaled the glorious scent. Apple fritters. I loved those damn things. Like, more than I probably should. Throughout all my years in Portland I’d never found any that were even as remotely as good as the ones from Regina’s bakery. To be fair, there wasn’t anything I didn’t love from there, but the apple fritters were my absolute favorite.
“What better welcome home?”
“Gurl, I gained ten pounds just smelling them, but I’m going to enjoy the hell out of each one all the same.”
I glanced back at the foreboding house. I couldn’t believe I was here—and for good. After being downsized, I’d agonized over what was next for me. Initially, I was set on looking for a new position, but the low, burning anger at being let go after being loyal to my company for over fifteen years held me back. At forty-three, I’d been easily replaced by someone younger and with half my experience. And if that could have happened at a job I’d worked for years, the thought of putting in more of my time and energy at someplace new didn’t sit right with my soul. Not to mention ageism being alive and well. I was closer to retirement than most companies would probably like, on paper at least. Another hurdle I wasn’t sure I wanted to jump.
Regina squeezed my arm. “You okay?”
“Yeah…just, it’s a lot. All of it. My job, this whole plan, and that.” I pointed at the house. “It’s not going to be the same.”
“It’ll be something new, something fresh. You’re going to make her proud.”
The absentminded habit I’d formed over the last three years played out. Without much thought, I reached up to close my fingers around the gold cross hanging from my neck. It was the only piece of jewelry I wore daily. Something of hers I could keep close and draw on for strength when I needed it.
Aunt Drea had been everything to me. The mother I should have had. Unlike my real one, who spent every waking hour reminding me how great her life would have been under different circumstances. My aunt had been my confidant. My friend. My biggest cheerleader. Convincing her to leave this place and move to Portland where she could get top notch medical treatment and I could look after her had taken some effort, but in the end she’d conceded. Plus, it was my turn to take care of her like she’d done for me over the years since my own parents couldn’t be bothered. It’d been hard to watch her wither away as the cancer consumed her. She’d fought it to the end.
Being her only beneficiary brought up family drama like only deaths can, but in the end, my sorry-ass parents relented when they knew I wasn’t selling, and I sure as hell wasn’t letting them live here to ruin the place. Instead, I’d kept it empty for the last three years.
Regina had acted as caretaker. Her son had kept the grass cut before he’d moved, and she aired it out a few times a year. However, the neglect was starting to show. Some of the shutters were missing, the paint was peeling, and it looked like the birds had taken over the porch judging by the amount of deserted nests and poop. On top of the lawn being a bit overgrown.
I had my work cut out for me, but this place was going to be my new beginning. Something to call my own. And something I couldn’t be downsized out of after fifteen years of fucking loyalty.
Fishing the keys out of my pocket, I linked my arm with my friend and headed toward my new, old home. “Hopefully the power is on. I called last week to have it connected. Same with the water and gas.”
“I told you to stay with me anyway. Who the hell wants to live in a construction zone? You know I got the space, and since Darnell has moved out for college, the house is kinda empty. More so now that he plans to spend the summer with his girlfriend instead of coming home. Though I don’t tell him that. He already be expecting me to drive my ass to Atlanta to feed him. Like the meal plan I pay for isn’t enough.”
I laughed listening to her fuss about her son. It was hard to believe that he was grown now. Really made me feel my age thinking she had a nineteen-year-old out of the house and living on his own at Morehouse.
“You’re right, and I will be taking you up on it.” Just the idea of living in a mess of dust and debris was enough to make my sinuses act up.
I unlocked the door, and it opened with a soft swoosh. Dry leaves swirled on the hardwoods in the foyer.
Being back in this place released all the memories I’d kept stored. The grand entrance where we’d taken our prom pictures. The beautiful mahogany stairs with the hand-carved banister. The dark wainscoting lining the walls. Such a difference from my nine-hundred-square-foot, two-bedroom, modern condo with views of the city. It had been small and efficient. And just what I’d needed.
This house was filled with character, and warmth, and coziness that had been absent from my life for so many years. My place in Portland had been the exact opposite of everything I’d grown up around. I’d wanted it that way. To be different. To be new. To be me—or who I thought I’d wanted to be. However, stepping over the threshold let me know I couldn’t run from who I always knew myself to be.
But not. No calls from the kitchen asking if it was me or if I was hungry. No late nights watching TV eating stove top popcorn and drinking hot chocolate.
“Whew…it is a bit musty. Things have been busy at the bakery; I haven’t had a chance to get over here.” Regina headed off and started opening windows.
She went right toward the parlor; I went left toward the dining room. The furniture was covered with sheets. I hadn’t the heart to sell any items, so everything was still here. Just as Aunt Drea had left it after we’d packed her belongings and closed up the house.
My heart squeezed. Eventually I’d get used to her being gone. Today was not that day.
In the kitchen, I opened the window over the sink. Already the house was feeling cooler thanks to the breeze from the marsh. Twisting the faucet, the pipes creaked and groaned before water came sputtering out.
“Ew, that don’t look good,” Regina said, peeking over my shoulder.
She was right, the brown, rust color that came pouring out was troubling. It could be due to how long the pipes had gone unused, or it could mean an issue with the plumbing. Something I’d have the contractor inspect whenever they got here.
“Yeah, I’ll have it checked. What time is the first person due to arrive?”
Regina took a sip of her coffee and looked away. That was never a good sign and certainly meant she was hiding something. I’d leaned on her a lot during the move—having her research the zoning, getting the correct forms for applying for the business license—so I couldn’t be too mad if she forgot or didn’t have time to get the contractors set up. But my type A personality was a little pissed because I needed to get this started sooner rather than later. I knew this process could take months, if not longer, and I didn’t want to overstay my welcome at her house while this place was under renovation.
“What did you do? Or not do?”
“Nothing. You always thinking I did something.”
I arched a brow. Over thirty years of friendship meant I knew her all too well, even with thousands of miles between us.
“Because you always doing shit. Now, what’s with that face?”
She set her cup down on the dust-covered butcher-block counter. “Look, so, there is only one crew in this town that I like to work with, so…I may or may not have only contacted them for the job. But listen…he’s good. He’s done work for me at the shop, and at my house. Not to mention him and his company did all the revitalization work on the boardwalk shops. I know you haven’t been there in a while, but seriously our town is getting quite the facelift little by little. I wouldn’t set you up with just anyone.”
I crossed my arms and eyed her suspiciously. There was something to this, I knew it. “Okay, so how long you been sleeping with him?”
“What? Why…gurl, please. You wrong for that.”
“Am I? The way you are setting me up here means it’s something more than just a work thing. You are selling it too damn hard. So…”
She rolled her eyes. “I’m offended. I could just really like working with this man without knowing him in the biblical sense.”
“You right. You could just like his work, but that wasn’t a denial. That was more a maybe.”
She put her hands on her hips and frowned. “I’m not even going to dignify your statement. Anyway, he’ll be here in”—she checked her watch—“about right now. If nothing else, he’s always punctual. And if you’re nice, he might give you the friends and family discount.”
“Uh-huh, and I’m supposed to think you aren’t sleeping with him.”
She swatted my arm. But again didn’t deny it. I knew this woman, and there was a reason she wasn’t saying who he was, or why she was so gung-ho to have me use him. I mean, her house and shop did look great with the updates she’d done. The bakery had been in her family since her great-grandmother, and she’d worked to modernize it but still keep the history of the space. I’d let her secret guy have his time to give me thoughts and tomorrow I’d research a few others.
Having options was the right thing to do. I didn’t need just any old hack coming in, fucking up stuff, and then leaving the job undone. Or trying to price gouge me because materials might be harder to get because it’s a small town or some other such nonsense.
The sound of a car door closing made us both look toward the front of the house.
“Told you, punctual.” She picked up her cup and sashayed her ass out of the kitchen. She was out the door and I heard her greeting before I stepped over the threshold. “Hey, Marcel. How are you today?”
Who? Wait? This had to be a joke, right? But my eyes didn’t lie.
Her silver mug gleamed in the sun from the hood of her car, but it didn’t stun me as much as the action playing out. She wrapped her arms around his neck when he bent to give her a hug. This was her new guy? Her mystery man? I didn’t understand the burning jealousy that shot through me at the idea of the two of them together. It’d been over twenty years. And I’d lost any claim to him when I’d left, but still…my Marcel?
All ability to process thought ceased in that moment. I ground my teeth together and concentrated on taking steady breaths. Regina was one of my closest friends, if they were dating, she would have told me. But still…Marcel. Whatever they said I couldn’t hear over the ringing in my ears. I couldn’t move past the spot I’d stopped. She spoke, he smiled then looked up at me, and my heart jumped into my throat.
If ever there was a man that was the embodiment of tall, dark, and handsome, Marcel Lewis was him. Even twenty-five years later, the sight of him made my stomach flutter. His dark-brown skin shone in the mid-morning light. Gone were the black waves he’d spent way too many hours brushing so they’d looked perfect, and instead his head was bald. But the beard? He’d had one of those from the minute the first whiskers sprouted. Thick, full, and sprinkled with gray. Fully grown-up Marcel was just as fine as the teenaged one I’d left behind.
“Hey, Cyn. Good to see you.”
Fuck, even his voice. Deep, smooth, with a little gravelly undertone that always got thicker when he was being sexy. Or rather actually putting effort into coming off as sexy instead of his normal state of being.
I swallowed the dryness in my throat but couldn’t make my feet move. I shot Regina an “I’m going to kill you” look and worked to gather my thoughts. How could she spring him on me with no warning? Some friend she was. Irene would never do such a thing.
“This is new. I don’t remember you never having something to say.” He smiled again, but this time it was the one that had sent horny teenage me into a tailspin. The crooked, lopsided grin that got him out of more trouble than should have been possible.
I pressed my lips together and pushed down those thoughts. “Hey. I’m just…surprised to see you. Regina hadn’t told me who her contractor extraordinaire was.”
She again took a drink, glancing around and trying—but failing—to look innocent behind her mug, knowing she had done me wrong.
He looked down at her and chuckled. “Not much has changed with you two, I see.”
“Nope, she’s forever doing me dirty and claiming it’s for my benefit.”
“It is,” she cried. “Marcel is the legit shit when it comes to construction. You’ll be in great hands.”
Yeah…I remembered how great his hands were.
“Thanks, Gina,” he said and kissed her cheek.
That green streak roared to life again, and I stomped it down. My feet still refused to work, and I hoped my mouth wasn’t open when he strolled toward me. The jeans he wore sat right at his hips, loose, but not baggy. I didn’t understand why the slight rip at the pocket gave me a thrill, but seeing that white fabric peeking through had some ungodly feelings dancing a jig. A simple white tee was stretched across his chest and around his thick biceps.
Why did he still look so damn good?
I had to tilt my head up when he stood right in front of me. From a distance, I was already in awe. But up close? His rich chocolate eyes and full lips I remembered all too well were almost too much to process. Less than five minutes around him, and I was transported back to the past. Yeah, I was going to cuss Regina out after this. He opened his arms, and I shuffled forward for a warm but awkward hug.
“It’s been a long time,” he murmured.
Fuck, he even smelled good.
“Yeah, it has.”
When he pulled away, I couldn’t meet his eyes. We hadn’t had a conversation since the night before I’d left. Even when I’d come back for short visits, we’d not ran into each other. It had nothing to do with me trying to keep the places I went limited to narrow my chances. Or, at least, that was the lie I’d told myself.
But there was no getting around it now, thanks to my traitorous so-called friend.