Willow Love spun around at the sound of the familiar voice, her long blonde hair swirling around her face. She inclined her head in greeting. “Hello, Mr. Steel.”
He scowled as if she had been rude to him which she hadn’t. If she didn’t feel so sad she’d give him a piece of her mind he wouldn’t soon forget. Hmm. His swarthy skin looked darker than the last time he came to visit. It went well with his cobalt eyes. Too bad that dreadful scowl ruined his appearance. Otherwise, he’d be a handsome man.
“What are you doing at Steel Park?” he demanded. “My aunt is dead, and I thought I’d made it clear your services are no longer required.”
Willow bit back the sarcastic words that she wanted to hurl at him. “So you did, but Henry Breckinridge Miss Mary’s lawyer called and asked me to attend.”
He snarled under his breath and indicated that she should precede him onto the porch of the pleasant Georgian style home.
Steel Park was the country home of the Steel family who had made a fortune in replacement windows, not steel as some people guessed. Miss Mary and her nephew Ben were all that remained of the family, at least they had been. Ben was the only Steel left now.
Henry Breckinridge met them in the foyer beside an old-fashioned aluminum Christmas tree and shook both of their hands. “Thank you for coming. If you’ll join me in the study we’ll get started.”
Breckinridge took a seat behind the desk, so both she and Ben Steel sat in the two leather chairs drawn up in front of the desk. A pang shot through Willow. Miss Mary had had both of the chairs recovered shortly before she died, but she’d never gotten to enjoy them.
The lawyer cleared his throat to get their attention. “First of all, let me offer my condolences to you both. Miss Love, you took care of Miss Mary for a long time so I know you miss her. Mr. Steel, Miss Mary was your only family so I can imagine how lonely you must feel.”
She and Steel both nodded in acknowledgement.
“With your permission,” Breckinridge began, “I’d like to read Miss Mary’s will now.”
Ben Steel frowned. “As you pointed out, I’m the last of the Steels, and I see no need to have my aunt’s caretaker sit in on the reading of the will.”
A faint smile crossed the man’s face. “You will.”
He read through a lot of legal stuff that meant little to Willow before he got to the important part. ‘To my nephew Benjamin Steel I leave all my worldly assets with the exception of Steel Park and all of my jewelry. I leave the home and jewelry to my very dear friend Willow Love.’
Willow burst into tears while Ben’s expression would have made a nice Halloween mask. He started to speak, but Mr. Breckinridge cut him off. “We’re not finished yet. There’s more.”
Willow wiped her eyes. More? What else was there to say?
Mr. Breckinridge cleared his throat again. ‘These bequests are contingent upon one condition, namely that both Ben and Willow spend one week together either at Steel Park or a location of their own choosing. If they should decide not to comply with my condition, my entire estate is bequeathed to my cat Lionel, and at his death the money goes to the ASPCA.’
Ben’s face had reddened under his dark tan. “That’s ridiculous!”
“Your aunt didn’t think so,” Breckinridge pointed out.
Steel turned a burning gaze onto Willow. His voice was soft, menacing. “Did you put her up to this?”
Willow closed her eyes and swallowed hard before her anger was under control enough to speak. “Your Aunt Mary was a saint, Ben Steel. I loved her as much as if she’d been my own grandmother. Do you think I took advantage of a sick, old woman to steal property rightfully belonging to you? If that’s what you think, I’m glad you didn’t come to visit Miss Mary as often as you should. You’d only have upset her with your ridiculous…”
Ben sprang from his seat. “Not another word! I don’t have to stand here and be insulted.”
He strode out of the office and slammed the door behind him.
Mr. Breckinridge sighed. “Don’t worry, Miss Love. He’ll be back. Ben was always a little on the volatile side, although to be fair, I guess he was upset. I’m sure he didn’t see this one coming.”
“I don’t care if he comes back or not. Is this the first he knew about the provisions of the will?”
Mr. Breckinridge nodded.
“Then why did he take such a dislike to me? From day one he was angry at me.”
“I don’t know. I guess you’ll have to ask him.”
Ring. Ring. Ring. Willow sprang from the shower and raced for the phone. Ring. Ring. Ring. “Hello!”
“This is Ben Steel. If you want to honor the terms of my aunt’s will, I’m willing.”
Willow drew a deep breath as she stepped out of her rental car. The cold air in the North Carolina mountains smelled so fresh and clean. She hadn’t wanted to let Ben pick the place for their ‘vacation,’ but she had to admit he’d done a nice job. Just as she raised her hand to knock, the cabin door flew open. “Come in,” Steel said, the scowl on his face telling her that he was still unhappy about spending this week with her.
He stood aside and she stepped into a wonderland. The entire back wall of the cabin was made of glass and allowed an incredible view of the little village nestled at the foot of the mountain. “It’s so beautiful!”
He pursed his lips. “There aren’t any shopping malls or night clubs in the village. I don’t even know if there’s a movie theater.”
“Do you like to shop and go clubbing?”
He blinked. “No.”
“Neither do I.”
Without comment, he reached for her bag. “I’ll show you to your room.”
If anything the view was even more spectacular from the upstairs deck. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. For the first time since Miss Mary’s death, her shoulders had relaxed a little.
They dined that evening at a little barbecue house at the foot of the mountain. Had the fresh, mountain air made her so hungry, or was the food just that good? Willow couldn’t say, but Ben was chowing down just as she was.
She glanced around the room, admiring the rustic decor. “Have you been here before?”
He nodded. “I love it here. This is one of the few places where I can relax and just be me.”
“Your work is stressful?”
“Yes, it is. I employ hundreds of people across the Southeast. If I do a good job running the company, they keep their jobs and are able to pay their bills.”
His hateful personality had kept her for guessing that he cared about his employees. “I guess it is a big responsibility.”
Ignoring her comment, he changed the subject. “What are you going to do now that my aunt is gone?”
“I’ll find someone else who needs a care giver. In fact, I already have a lead on a long-term position. The guy’s a veteran who was paralyzed in Viet Nam.”
She shook her head. “I doubt it.”
“Why are you bothering with him if he has nothing to give you?”
Willow rose to her feet. “I’ll wait for you in the car.”
To his credit, he looked taken aback. “Oh, sit down and finish your dinner.”
“I have finished.”
He opened his mouth to speak, but she ignored him and left the restaurant. Going hungry was better than spending time with this surly, unpleasant man.
The next day they decided to go skiing. “I love it,” Willow said. “My grandfather owned a cabin on a mountain top in Tennessee, so we spend hours playing in the snow.”
By the time they made it to the ski slope, the sun reflected off the snow like a million diamonds, and Ben had forgotten to scowl at her. He gestured toward a small office building. “I’ll get our tickets.”
Ben got in line, and Willow sat down on a bench to watch the group lined up to catch the ski life. The teenagers whooped and hollered with high spirits. She smiled at them, remembering her own exuberant teen years.
A man and woman and two small boys who’d just left the ski lift walked past her. All of them were laughing and chattering as if they’d had a wonderful time. They hadn’t gone more than a few yards when the mother’s wallet fell from the pocket of her jacket. Willow thought she’d stop and pick it up, but she didn’t. In fact, the children were running and dragging their mother right along with them. Uh oh. Willow scooped the wallet up and darted after them. “Wait, you dropped this.”
The woman clasped the wallet to her and hugged Willow. “It isn’t the money I’d have missed,” she said. “It’s the credit cards, insurance stuff, and driver’s license.” She fumbled in the wallet. “All I have is fifty dollars.” She extended the money to Willow.
“No, I don’t want any money. I’m just glad I could help you.”
“No, honestly, I didn’t do it for a reward.”
“Well….thank you. I hope your vacation is lovely.”
As she turned around, she saw Ben Steel staring at her. He had a funny look on his face, but she had no idea what it meant. “Did you buy our tickets? Are we ready to go?”
Ben ignored her question. “I saw what you did.”
She shrugged. “So? Wouldn’t you have done the same?”
“Okay, that’s it! I’m not moving one inch until you tell me what you have against me. I’m sick of your snide, rude comments. What’s the matter with you, anyway? Your aunt was one of the nicest ladies who ever lived, but you…” She drew a deep breath. “You are an uncouth bully.”
His face flamed. “You may have pulled the wool over my aunt’s eyes, but I know exactly what you’re all about, and I heard it from your own lips.”
Steel grabbed her arm and dragged her to the side. “You’d been working for my aunt maybe a week when I decided to check up on you. You seemed on the up and up, but I wanted to check anyway. I loved her even if you don’t seem to think so.”
Willow jerked her arm away. “So you decided to check on me. Big deal. I’ve got nothing to hide.”
“I think you have a lot to hide. You’re just very good at hiding it.”
Willow shook her head in hopes of clearing it. “I have no idea what you’re talking about, and I care even less. I’m going home. Let the cat have Miss Mary’s estate. I don’t want it bad enough to spend another minute in your presence, you jerk.”
She took two steps before his hand closed around her arm again. “Oh, no you don’t. You wanted to know what I had against you, and I intend to tell you.”
She stared at him until he dropped her arm. “Hurry up and say what you want to say. I’m going home.”
“Right after you went to work for my aunt, I was on the way to her house and stopped by the flower shop to buy some of her favorite roses.”
“Orange roses. Miss Mary loved orange roses.”
He nodded. “That’s right. They were always her favorite. Anyway, while I was waiting for them to arrange the roses for me, you and a man came into the shop and started looking around. I guess it was wrong of me to eavesdrop, but I wanted to know what kind of things you said when the Steels weren’t around.”
Willow clenched her fists and shoved them into her pockets just in case she decided to belt him one. She refused to say another word to him.
His face looked dark now for sure. “Do you want to know what I overheard?”
“Not in the least.” Oops, she hadn’t intended to speak to him again.
“I can still quote you word for word. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, and frankly, it’s still hard to believe anyone would be so callous and cold.”
“That’s enough!” she hissed. “If you try to stop me from leaving, I’ll press charges against you.”
As she walked away, he followed, but at least he had the sense not to touch her. “’I don’t like the old girl, but I’m going to make friends with her anyway. I have plans that can’t come to pass until she’s my friend.’ Remember saying that?” His lip curled. “I knew then that you were up to something. I guess you did get what you want, didn’t you? My aunt left you her house and jewelry.”
“What’s the matter?” he taunted. “Cat got your tongue?”
Her nose went into the air. “No indeed. As it happens I do remember that conversation. The man I was speaking to is my brother, Nigel Love. Nigel operates an animal rescue not far from Steel Park. The two of us had met to discuss fund raising strategies, but nothing we said had anything to do with your aunt. The old girl I was referring to was a German Shepherd who’d been abused to the point that she didn’t trust anyone. Nobody liked her because she had gotten downright mean.
“I didn’t care if she was. My plan was to rehabilitate her and send her to a forever home, but I had to win her trust first.” A faint smile curved her lips. “She lives ten miles away in Easley and has a family that loves her.”
When she finally looked at Ben he had a sick look on his face. “I…I’m sorry. I don’t know what else to say.”
She shrugged. “It doesn’t matter now.”
“I bet Aunt Mary would disagree.”
“Don’t you know why she put that ridiculous condition in her will?”
Willow shook her head. “No.”
“It’s because she wanted the two of us to get together. Think about it. There’s no other reason. She always did think she was a good matchmaker.”
She sighed. “Oh well, it’s too late now.”
“Is it?” His voice sounded eager now. “Let me make it up to you. Stay for the rest of the week, and let’s see what happens. Aunt Mary would want that.”
Yes, she probably would. Was it possible that she and Ben Steel had a future together? Willow’s natural optimism reasserted itself. Only one way to find out. “Okay,” she agreed, “but if you say one more negative word to me, Lionel will be one rich kitty cat. And that’s a promise.”
He laughed and lit up his face. “You have my word. No more negative comments.” He indicated the crumpled tickets in his hand. “Want to go skiing now?”
“Well, we do have tickets.”
Epilogue: From the Fairfield Times
Mr. and Mrs. James Love are pleased to announce the engagement of their daughter Willow Lynn to Mr. Benjamin Frank Steel, son of the late Harold and Frances Steel. The bride is employed by Happy Barks Rescue, and the groom is the president and CEO of Steel Windows. A December wedding is planned.
Copyright December 24, 2014 by Elaine Cantrell