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For the first time in her life, Willa is free to do as she pleases. No longer under the control of her domineering father, she seeks solitude in the Rhode Island house bequeathed to her by her aunt. But her newfound peace is soon disrupted when her well-meaning friends enter her name in a raffle for a total home makeover, and Willa wins.
Socially awkward by nature, Willa balks when she learns that the remodel will be featured as an episode for a new television reality series starring two brothers—local general contractors, Joe and Tony Rossetti. Determined to honor her aunt’s memory, she eventually agrees to move forward with the project.
When she opens her front door to the brothers on the first day of shooting, she will soon discover that she has opened the door to a man who could fulfill all the yearnings of her secret heart.
If Ever I Fall
Copyright © 2015 Sophia Renny
“You need to get out more.”
Willa raised her eyebrows. “I go walking every day unless the weather is horrible. Do you think we’ve seen the last of the snow yet?”
Collette gave her a look. “Stop trying to change the subject. You know what I’m talking about. You’ve been here for over three months. One trip to Newport and another to the home show is not going out.” She emphasized the last two words with finger quotes.
It wasn’t the first time Collette had commented on Willa’s social life, or lack thereof. Yet, despite her next-door neighbor’s aggressive but well-meaning interference, Willa always found it difficult to take offense. How could she when the scolding was spoken with the accent of a fifty-five year old native Rhode Islander? Willa had fallen in love with the unique, non-rhotic accent within hours of moving to the Ocean State. If she attempted to capture the sound of Collette’s voice on paper, it might look something like this: Stahp trying to change the subject. Ya know what I’m tawking abowt. You’ve been heah for ovah tree months. One trip to Newpawt and anothah to the home show is naht goin’ owt.
“I’m a California girl. Once the weather warms up…”
“When I was your age, I went out almost every night. Mercy, Audrey and I went clubbing every Saturday. The doormen knew us by name.”
“Yeah. Mercy.” Collette gave a wicked chortle, reminiscing. “Her father would’ve had a heart attack if he’d found out. All that money he spent to put his kids through Catholic school. What a waste.”
The older woman set down her coffee cup with a bang and wagged one finger at Willa. “There you go, changing the subject again. I’m dead serious about this, Willa Cochrane. You’ve been holed up in this place for too long. I think you’re getting too comfortable being inside. I get the reasons why. I really do. But everyone’s starting to talk.”
“The girls. The neighbors. Jeannie Clark was asking about you the other day. She says you’re inside all day. It’s not healthy.”
Now Willa felt a stir of irritation. “Why should I care what the neighbors think? What business is it of theirs how I choose to spend my time?”
Collette put up her hands in defense. “That’s just the way it is around here. We’re not like you Californians with your fences and gates. We look out for one another. Everyone loved Pauline. You’re her niece. Of course they’re gonna look out for you, care about you.”
Willa stood abruptly, snagged Collette’s half-empty coffee mug along with her own and carried them to the sink. She stared out the kitchen window. It was looking to be a clear day for a change, not a cloud in sight. “I’m going for my morning walk,” she threw over her shoulder, her tone firm. “Do you have to work at the library today?”
“No. I have the next two Saturdays off.” There was resignation in Collette’s voice, though her expression was kind when Willa pivoted toward her.
“I’m heading up to Dave’s,” Collette announced, pushing her chair back from the table. “They have chicken thighs on sale this week. Need anything?”
“No, thanks. I took care of my weekly grocery shopping yesterday. See?” Willa said with a lightness she didn’t feel, “I actually got in my car and drove somewhere.”
“Not the same thing, hon.” Collette sent her a wave before heading for the front door. “It’s supper and a movie night at my place tonight. The girls are coming over. Six o’clock. See you then.” And she was out the door before Willa could say yes or no.
It had been bitter cold with a light snow falling when Willa had arrived in Rhode Island the first week of January. Never having driven in snow before, she quickly changed her mind about renting a car, instead taking a taxi the surprisingly short distance from T.F. Green airport to her aunt’s home in Conimicut.
She’d been seven years old the one time she’d traveled across the country with her father to visit Aunt Pauline. Her father had stayed the night of their arrival before leaving his only child in the keeping of his older sister while he spent the summer traveling through Europe.
Willa’s recollections of that summer were fuzzy, but she did remember this: walking along the beach at Conimicut Point—just as she was doing now, twenty years later.
It was the first Saturday in April and, at just after nine o’clock in the morning, already showing signs of being the first warm day since Willa had arrived in Rhode Island. Warm meaning that the temperature might venture above fifty degrees Fahrenheit.
The winds were calm, but she kept her hands tucked deep inside the pockets of her jacket as she took what had become her customary route, first heading along the beach on the northern shore that was flanked by the mouth of the Providence River on one side, beach homes on the other. When that portion of the beach was no longer accessible, she turned around, continuing at a brisk pace beyond her starting place, heading westward toward the point where—when the tides were low—a narrow sandbar jutted outwards, aiming for the Conimicut Lighthouse, a structure that had marked the entrance to the Providence River from Narragansett Bay for well over a century.
Surrounded by water on three sides, Conimicut Point offered pretty views of Barrington and Bristol to the west, the taller buildings of Providence visible to the north, and Patience and Prudence islands to the south. Sometimes, when it wasn’t too windy, Willa would walk the sandbar as far as she dared, stopping when the water began to overlap its banks. Collette had warned her not to walk out too far; the currents were strong and unpredictable in this place where the bay met the river.
The tide was high this morning. A cargo ship slogged through the channel, making its way toward the Port of Providence. Willa watched it for a while, taking deep breaths of the briny air. Other than an old man she’d glimpsed walking his dog in the grassy park area, she appeared to be the only person out this morning.
She embraced these moments. The calm, the quiet. The lack of urgency. There was nowhere that she had to be, no lectures to give, no papers to grade, no research to be done, no colleagues to impress. None of that mattered now; perhaps it never would again.
There was just this: the sand, the water, a lighthouse, a clear blue sky.
She contemplated her day. Maybe when she returned from her walk she’d bake some cookies to bring to Collette’s tonight. Then she might watch a couple more episodes of Lost; she’d started that series on Netflix last week and was already on season four. She hadn’t made up her mind yet on which series to watch next. Downton Abbey? Grey’s Anatomy? Scandal? So many choices for a girl who hadn’t been allowed to watch entertainment television while in her father’s house. As she’d grown older, she’d been so immersed in her studies and work that she simply hadn’t had time.
Now she had all the time in the world.
And those were just the television shows. She’d watched at least one movie every day throughout the cold and gloomy winter months. How decadent it was to burrow inside her down comforter and immerse herself in the magic of movies. She watched anything and everything but found herself drawn towards the chick flicks, both classic and modern. She was fascinated by the lives the female characters led, the way they dressed and behaved, the way they interacted with the male characters.
Was that what her life could have been like? Was that how she could be living now?
She didn’t dwell on those questions for long. She didn’t like to think about most things, period, other than the simple, mindless pleasures that now occupied her days.
Still, as much as she’d fought against it, her peace of mind was disturbed by Collette’s words from earlier that morning. Until now, Willa hadn’t given a second thought to how outsiders might interpret her behavior since she’d moved into the neighborhood. For the first time in her life, she was officially on her own, beholden to no one. Selfish as it might appear, she’d only wanted to focus on herself, in a way she’d never been able to do before. Why should she feel guilty about that?
She was supposed to be in mourning, after all. She was a young woman who had lost both her father and her aunt—her only family—within the last six months.
She’d scarcely known her aunt. She hadn’t seen Pauline Cochrane since that long ago summer. Other than the annual exchange of birthday and holiday cards—sent through her father—Willa hadn’t communicated with her either.
As for her father…
The profound relief she’d felt when she’d been informed that her father had died… She could never share that with anyone.
The instant Dean Stone had left Willa’s office after conveying the news of Derek Cochrane’s passing, Willa had vaulted from her chair and spun in circles around the room, arms outspread, palms up, fingers tingling. The pressing down feeling she’d carried with her since she was five years old evaporated instantly. It was as if she’d been a marionette affixed to taut strings all those years, performing to the puppeteer’s tune. Those strings had been severed at last.
Euphoria had crashed into uncertainty all too quickly. She’d collapsed to the floor in a corner of her office, hugged her knees against her chest and slowly rocked back and forth. She might have been freed from her father’s restraints, but now she wasn’t sure how to move forward on her own. It was as if her limbs were unable to carry her without those controlling strings attached.
In the days that followed, throughout the funeral arrangements and the ceremony itself, one thought had gained momentum and clarity until it had consumed her every waking moment: she needed to go somewhere, anywhere, far away from the classes, the research, the books, the academia that she’d grown to hate.
Out of the blue came a letter from a law office in Warwick, Rhode Island, informing her of Pauline Cochrane’s passing, and that she, Pauline’s only living relative, was named sole beneficiary of her aunt’s estate.
Willa would have liked to have left her job immediately, to hell with the repercussions. But there had been contracts to wade through, obligations both verbal and written, many of them commitments her father had made on her behalf without her knowledge.
When it was over, once she’d been able to pack up her belongings and ship them to her new home, once she’d closed the door to her office for the last time, she’d felt physically and emotionally exhausted, more tired than she’d ever felt in her life.
All she’d wanted was rest and quiet. And these past few months in her new home had provided just that. It was absolute heaven. Doing nothing. Thinking of nothing. Just sleeping, baking, watching movies and television, taking long walks.
A simple, logical self-analysis told her that she was going through the stages of grief. It was perfectly normal to isolate herself from her loss. But only Willa knew what she was truly mourning: the loss of her own self, the loss of the little girl she could have been, the young woman she might have been. She hadn’t reached the anger stage yet, and she didn’t think she was depressed. She could spend days analyzing the dichotomy of her emotions, the sense of freedom and peace juxtaposed with feelings of loss and regret. But she didn’t want to.
Maybe she was becoming a recluse.
Leave it to Collette to pry open Willa’s cocoon; the woman had been blunt and brash from the moment Willa had met her.
Through her aunt’s lawyer, Willa had learned that Collette Fournier had been Pauline’s next-door neighbor for over twenty years. She’d been appointed by Pauline as executor of Pauline’s estate. Communicating through the lawyer, Willa had notified Collette of her plans to move into the house and what day she’d arrive.
As soon as the taxi had pulled into the narrow driveway on that cold evening back in January, a short, plump woman wearing a purple coat over hot pink snow pants tucked inside winter boots came trudging through the snow that filled the side yard between Pauline’s home and a smaller, single-story cottage next door.
“You must be Willa,” she hollered as soon as Willa opened the car door. “I’m Collette Fournier. Great to meet ya! Come on. Let’s get your things and you inside the house. It’s freezing out here. Hey, Brian. How are ya? How’s your ma?”
The older woman chatted amiably with the taxi driver as she helped him hoist Willa’s two heavy suitcases from the trunk and then led him towards Pauline’s house. Willa, with her shoulder bag slung over one arm and her smaller carry-on in tow, followed them with tentative steps as they took a brick pathway along the left side of the house. She could tell that the pathway had been shoveled recently, but the freezing temperature had already iced over sections of the fresh batch that had since fallen.
Willa had never walked on snow before. She’d had the foresight to purchase boots with treaded rubber soles, but she wasn’t confident on whether or not they’d work on ice. She stuck to the edge of the pathway where the snow was deeper.
Collette chortled from where she stood on a wide brick doorstep. “Not used to snow, are you,” she said, not unkindly. “I’ll show you how to walk on it tomorrow.” She returned her attention to the taxi driver as he came back outside. “Thanks, Brian. Say ‘hi’ to your ma for me.”
“I will. See ya, Collette.” He gave Willa an amused smile and a head nod as he sidled past her.
Willa was aware that her cheeks were red from both cold and embarrassment when she finally reached the doorstep. Collette leaned against the glass-paneled storm door, holding the main door open with one hand, beckoning Willa to move faster with the other. “Come on in, hon. I turned the furnace on high this afternoon. It’s nice and warm for ya.”
“Thank you,” Willa murmured as she stepped into the house and wiped her boots on the braided rug in the entryway.
Collette hurried in behind her, shutting both doors firmly before stomping her feet on the rug and briskly rubbing her hands together. “Don’t worry about taking off your boots. No fancy floors in here. You can put your pocketbook there if you like.”
Pocketbook? Collette pointed at Willa’s shoulder bag and then at a small table to the left of the door. Willa set her bag on the table, her carry-on beside her suitcases. As she removed her gloves, she took inventory of her surroundings.
Directly ahead, a narrow carpeted hallway led to what appeared to be the kitchen. An arched doorway to her right opened into a small, dark-paneled living room that was occupied by one lone armchair, an ancient television on a metal stand and a cluttered assortment of odds and ends: mismatched side tables, a bookcase crammed with books, newspapers and magazines, a curio cabinet containing a hodgepodge of items in need of dusting. There was a closed Dutch door on the far side of the room.
“That leads out to the front porch,” Collette explained, tracking Willa’s appraisal. She pointed to their left. “In here’s the dining room. Hasn’t been used in a while.”
Willa had only a few seconds to note the dusty oblong wooden table and chairs, the heavy red velour curtains framing a wide picture window. Collette scooted in front of her and, with a wave of her hand, beckoned Willa to follow her down the hallway. “She spent most of her time in the front room and her bedroom these last couple of years.” Collette pointed to two closed doors on the right. “This goes to the laundry room. That one goes upstairs. There are two bedrooms up there. You stayed there that time you came to visit. Do you remember?”
“No. None of this looks familiar to me yet. But I don’t remember it being so cluttered. I would have remembered that much, I think.”
Willa’s father had been obsessively neat. It couldn’t have been like this that day before he’d left for Europe; he wouldn’t have stayed the night otherwise.
“Your aunt was eighty-three years old. She wasn’t untidy. She just couldn’t keep up with things these last couple of years. I came in twice a week to dust and vacuum. After…” There was a slight catch in Collette’s voice. “After she passed, I wasn’t comfortable touching her things. They belong to you now.”
“You’ve been her neighbor for a long time,” Willa said, keeping her tone neutral, uncomfortable and unfamiliar with showing emotion.
Collette paused outside an open doorway. She pulled a tissue from her coat pocket and dabbed at her eyes. She gave Willa a wobbly smile. “Twenty-five years. We moved next door right after we got married. My ex-husband and me. Pauline took me under her wing when I needed her advice. She was a wonderful lady.”
Hesitantly, Willa placed her hand on the older woman’s arm. “Thank you for being her friend and for watching out for her. I… I wish I could have known her better than I did.”
Collette wadded up the tissue and stuffed it back in her coat pocket. She straightened her shoulders and sniffed. “She never blamed you for that, Willa. It was that brother of hers. Your father… Ah, well, water under the bridge, she used to say. Here’s her bedroom. I put fresh sheets on the bed this morning.”
The bedroom was almost as cluttered as the living room. There were clear, well-trod walkways from the door to the bed and from the bed to the bathroom. The bed itself—a wooden four-poster antique monstrosity—took up most of the floor space. Matching nightstands, a dresser and a wardrobe occupied the remainder. The walls were done in the same dark panels as the living room. Heavy drapes blocked the one window.
“I vaguely remember this bed,” Willa said. “She would read me stories here sometimes. But the room was different then. Lighter. Warmer.”
“It was summertime. She would’ve had the windows open.”
Willa shivered. “Did she…?” She couldn’t finish the question.
“Die in here? No. She was in the hospital. She had a stroke, but it was pneumonia that got her at the last.”
“You said there are two bedrooms upstairs?”
“Yes. But it’s too chilly up there, hon. Those are just for the summertime.” Collette heaved a deep sigh, her eyes scanning the room. “It is a little depressing in here. The winter makes this house seem dark and cold. It was meant to be just a summer cottage.” She jerked her chin in the direction of the kitchen. “Come on. I’ll make us a pot of tea. That’ll warm us up.”
Willa glanced at her watch. It was only six-thirty in the evening, but it felt much later. She’d been up before dawn to catch a direct flight out of San Francisco.
Her aunt’s home did feel dark and cold and it smelled musty. That only added to the tired, depressed feelings that assailed Willa as she followed Collette into the kitchen.
The moment she stepped into the kitchen, her spirits lifted. She remembered this room. She remembered sitting in that breakfast nook in the corner while her aunt baked delicious things. She remembered the pale blue appliances, the yellow linoleum floor, the white cupboards and countertops, the pretty flowered curtains above the porcelain sink. Taking up the entire width of the far wall was a massive built-in cabinet. She guessed it was either oak or walnut. The lower portion was split into four sections of drawers. Open shelving framed a center cupboard in the upper portion; the cupboard had pretty stained glass doors.
She’d enjoyed spending time in this cozy room. She latched on to that memory, unaware until that very moment that she’d been questioning her impulsive decision to move here since stepping inside the house.
Maybe she could rig up some kind of cot and sleep here in the kitchen…
As if reading her thoughts, Collette said, “You don’t have to stay in this house for the winter, you know. Your aunt had an apartment built above the garage five years ago. It was designed for year-round use.”
Willa paused in removing her coat. She gave the other woman a puzzled look. “Why did she do that?”
“Because she wanted to. She had the same tenant since the apartment was built, but Stacy left back in October. Got married. Moved to Vermont.”
“I see. Was my aunt…struggling financially?”
“Not at all.” Collette moved about the kitchen, filling a kettle with water, opening a cupboard to retrieve a tin canister. She pried off the lid and poked her finger inside. “Do you want chamomile or peppermint?”
“Chamomile would be lovely.”
Collette shot Willa a crooked grin. The older woman had removed her coat and knit cap, revealing a mop of curly silvery blond hair above a cheerful broad face that hinted at Slavic ancestry. Polish, perhaps? Willa wondered.
“Listen to you,” Collette said. “You sound so educated and proper. Your aunt told us about how wicked smart you are.”
Willa turned away before Collette could see her grimace. She hung her coat on a wooden peg next to the back door before walking over to the breakfast nook. She slid her hand slowly across the wooden surface that was worn smooth from years of use. Then she sat down on one of the cushioned benches. She watched Collette as the other woman set out coffee mugs and spoons. “I like your accent,” Willa said.
Collette gave her an offended look. “What accent? I don’t have an accent.”
Willa felt her face turning bright red.
Then Collette hooted with laughter, her own cheeks flushing rosy red, her blue eyes crinkling at the corners. “Ha! I fooled ya,” she teased, adding an even thicker layer to her accent. “You should see your face. I’ve gotta share that one with the girls.”
“My best friends. Audrey, Mercy and Shirley. I’ve known Audrey and Mercy since grade school. I met Shirley a few years ago through a volunteer program at the public library—that’s where I work part-time—and brought her into the group. We’re all the same age. Shirley’s divorced, like me. She lives in Cranston. Mercy’s married, has two kids in college. She and Don live in North Kingstown. And Audrey’s single and lives in Providence. She lived in the city—New York—for the last thirty years. Moved back here about a year ago.”
The tea had finished brewing while Collette had been talking. She filled the two mugs and brought them over to the table. “That’ll do ya. Do you want milk? Sugar?”
“This is fine.”
Collette scooted onto the bench across from Willa. She wrapped her hands around her tea mug, her smile touched with sadness. “I used to come over here every afternoon that I wasn’t working. Your aunt loved her teas. Her father was British you know.”
“I’m afraid I don’t know much about my family’s genealogy.”
“Not to worry. Pauline had it all written down. She liked to show me her photo albums. The older she got, the more she talked about her childhood. Her mother was French-Canadian. She came to Rhode Island when she was sixteen to work in a textile mill in Woonsocket. She met your grandfather at a dance.” Collette took a sip of her tea. She rolled her eyes. “Pauline told me that your father was embarrassed that his mother was what he called low class. She was a factory girl. Your grandfather came from the British upper class. Pauline said your father couldn’t wait to move away after he graduated from high school.”
Willa gazed into her tea, avoiding the other woman’s probing eyes. “I’m glad she kept track of our ancestry. Sometimes I’ve wondered about it.”
Collette leaned across the table, compelling Willa to look at her. “Listen, hon,” she said, giving Willa a straightforward look. “In case you haven’t noticed yet, I can be pretty blunt with my speaking. My ma calls it ‘brassy’. The older I get, the less I care about people being offended by what I say or do. I can tell you’re not used to that. That’s why I’m warning you. The girls are just the same. Well, Mercy can be a bit of a prude. She can’t help it; that’s how she was raised. But give her a couple of glasses of wine, and she’s a little devil.”
Willa was startled by her own laughter; she couldn’t remember the last time she’d laughed about anything. “Thanks for the warning,” she said. “You’re right. I’m not used to that. I don’t think I’ll mind. But let’s agree not to speak about my father. It’s too soon.”
“Fair enough,” Collette said with a smile, looking relieved. “Good. Now. You were asking about Pauline’s financial situation. I have all the paperwork over at my place. We can go through that tomorrow. But she was doing just fine. About six years ago she thought she might move to one of those assisted living places. Then she changed her mind and had the apartment added in case she needed to hire a live-in caretaker. But she was in pretty good shape right up until she had her stroke. I think deciding to stay here kept her going. She loved this neighborhood.”
“How long did she live here?”
“Technically, it’s been her home since she was born. It was the family’s summer cottage. She and your father were born and raised in Providence. Her father gave this place to her as a wedding gift.”
Willa frowned. “I thought she’d never married?”
“She was engaged. Her fiancé was killed in a boating accident a week before the wedding. She moved in here anyway. I don’t think she ever got over his death.”
“You mean… She was alone all those years?”
Collette grinned. “Well, I wouldn’t say that. Not from the stories she shared with me. Your aunt was a beautiful woman. Like you, if you don’t mind me saying. There were men in the picture through the years, but she told me that her independence was very important to her. I don’t think any man could match up to her fiancé. He was her soul mate.”
Willa’s sudden yawn startled both of them. “I’m sorry,” Willa said, covering her mouth. “It just hit me how tired I am.”
“It’s been a long day for you. Did you have something to eat on the plane? I put a chicken casserole in the fridge.”
“Thank you, but I’m not hungry.” Willa stood up from the table. “I’d like to see the apartment. Would you mind showing it to me now?”
“No problem. You might as well bring your overnight things with you. I’m guessing that you’ll want to stay there. When spring comes, I’ll help you get this house opened up and aired out.”
Bundled up in her coat once more, on the verge of exiting the house, Collette turned to Willa and said, “You don’t remember me, do you. But I remember you. You were a funny kid. When all the other kids in the neighborhood were playing outside, you’d be sitting on the front porch, lost in your books.” Her mouth quirked in a reflective smile. “Your aunt had a hammock strung between the two silver maple trees in the backyard. I could see you from my kitchen window. You’d just lie there sometimes, so still you were like a statue, just looking up into those trees. It was almost like you were counting all the leaves on the branches or something.”
“No kidding!” Collette laughed, looking a little awestruck. “I think that hammock’s still around. You’ll have to dig it out this summer.”
Willa felt her features relax, a vision of lounging on the hammock beneath the shade of those beautiful maple trees capturing her thoughts. “I will definitely do that,” she said, hearing the wistfulness in her own voice.
Collette tilted her head to one side. “You know, Willa. I was kind of surprised that you decided to move here without seeing the place first. And in the wintertime, too. You chose the worst time of year. But I guess if you’re looking to escape from something, or to discover something about yourself, this is just as good a place as any.” Leaning forward, she gave Willa a quick, impulsive hug. “Welcome to the neighborhood.”
Copyright © 2015 Sophia Renny