Rockport Maine: Present day
My footsteps pounded against the wet sand, ragged breath pulled at my lungs, my heart a violent pulse in my ears. Every muscle within me screamed to stop, but I kept going, pushing myself beyond my threshold. The cool mist from the ocean slapped against my face as I ran along the beach, the crash of the waves drowning out my tumbling thoughts until there was nothing left but blissful, empty silence. As always, my legs eventually betrayed me, buckling under the burden of my exhaustion, and forcing me to a halt.
I clasped my hands against my knees, gasping for air as the wind pulled at the loose strands of my hair, tossing them wildly about. I gazed out into the reckless, turbulent water as the tall figure of a man in a suit approached from the shoreline. His choice of attire was rather peculiar, like a misplaced apparition among the jagged landscape of rock and water. The wind whipped against his dark hair as he came closer, walking at a brisk pace with a look of deep contemplation etched upon his face. He greeted me with a nod as he passed, his eyes flickering over me briefly. The unexpected intensity of his gaze caused my skin to abruptly prickle with heat before he continued down the long stretch of empty beach; the fog curling around him like a shroud.
My eyes followed the outline of him until he faded from view, and I was once again the centerpiece of my solitude, alone on the beach. The breeze chilled my damp skin, and I wrapped my arms around myself, staring out into the water as if the depths held the answers to the unyielding weight of all my reflections.
With shaky legs, I turned and trudged through the sand, making my way across the parking lot and toward the quiet of downtown. The crash of the waves in the distance soothed me. I loved these moments, the encapsulated hush of early mornings before the bustle of the day descended upon the streets. The seclusion filled me with a deep sense of serenity that pulled at the threads of my restlessness.
Arriving at my office, I slipped my key into the lock. November had found its way in, creeping through the cracks of the windows. It was chilly and dim as the morning sun struggled to pierce through the fog outside, bathing the room in a muted tone of gray. I flicked on the heat and retreated to the bathroom where I turned on the utility shower, shedding my sweat-soaked clothing upon the floor. The warmth of the water cascaded down the length of my body in rivulets, washing away the residue of another night riddled with unsettled sleep, tangled in dreams that slithered their way beneath my sheets, uninvited and full of questions.
After changing into a fresh pair of clothes from a bag I kept in the back of the storeroom, I nestled my feet next to the old baseboard heater beside my desk; it’s comforting rhythm ticking like a metronome below me. Drying off my hair with a towel, I ran a comb through the long, tangled strands, enjoying the stillness which filtered through the unadorned white walls and sat with me like a familiar friend.
I leaned back in my chair, looking out at the quaint shops that lined the sidewalks across the street, optimistically displaying various trinkets and beach souvenirs within their front windows in the hope of luring in meandering tourists. The unpretentious air and welcoming sincerity of the locals had been what first drew me to this small-town years ago as I fled from the stifling cacophony of the city. The quiet here stilled the persistent racing of my heart, while the expansive horizon spoke to me of potential and new beginnings as if the endless churning waves could wash away the ties that bound me to my past.
The sound of the door opening interrupted my musing as the familiar, pale blue uniform of our local mailman came into my peripheral view.
“Good morning, Jezebel.” His chipper tone was filled with an enthusiasm I struggled to reciprocate.
I looked up at him with a tight smile. “Hi, Jonathan.”
Slowly, he shuffled through his stack of envelopes and placed a small pile on my desk. His eager gaze fell on me, appearing to search for an opening to conversation. “So, do you have any plans for this weekend?” He flashed me a wide grin. With his deep brown eyes and sun-kissed hair, he was nice to look at, and I knew he was used to attention from women; all my employees fawned over him. I figured he viewed my reserve as some sort of challenge.
I shook my head. “Nope, no plans. I’m just looking forward to some quiet.”
Jonathan had been persistently dancing around me for years, dropping hints with casual invites out to lunch and drinks after work. But the idea of going out on a date with him and his impatient excitement, saturated with forced witty banter and vague innuendos, filled me with exhaustion.
A harsh ring pierced my thoughts. Jonathan’s eyes flickered over me while I sifted through the papers that littered my desk, throwing him a polite but dismissive wave goodbye as I found my phone.
“Jezebel’s cleaning. How may I help you?”
Jonathan nodded, a twinge of rejection hovering in his gaze before he softly closed the door behind him.
After a long pause, a deep male voice filled the receiver. “Is this Jezebel?”
“Yes, this is she. How may I help you?” I tapped my pen impatiently against the faded grain of the desk, the week’s shift sheet spread out before me as I glanced out the side window. The view of the New England coastline engulfed in early morning mist always had a way of helping me find my center.
“I am seeking a house cleaning service.”
“And what type of cleaning are you looking for?”
“I am not entirely sure.”
Something about the rich, formal tone of his voice drew me in, his words tinted with the hint of an accent that sounded faintly Italian.
“Okay, that’s fine. If you’d like, I can swing by your place to appraise the scope of work needed and then draw up a price bid for you. I happen to be free this afternoon. Does twelve-thirty work?”
“That sounds good. My house is the one upon the bluff. You will not be able to miss it. I look forward to meeting you, Jezebel.” There was a sudden click, then the line went dead.
I stared at the phone in my hand for a moment. The old colonial house which sat perched atop the bluff overlooking the ocean, had been boarded up and unoccupied for the last hundred years, if not more. According to the local lore, nobody knew who owned it, but every decade or so, workers would arrive and meticulously restore the house. I had always found it beautiful, filled with silence and rich secrets as if it were some beacon keeping sentinel over the water. My mind brimmed with curiosity at the prospect of finally getting a chance to see inside the place.
That afternoon, I drove past the sleepy storefronts of main street to the outer edge of town, past the docks, and toward the jetty where the sea caressed the cliffs. The slate gray sky framed the stormy ocean as icy fog snaked its way along the rocks jutting sharply out of the water. I flipped on the classical station, the deep mournful tone of the cello which always seemed to fill me with an undefined longing, spilled from my speakers, matching the mood of the sky.
I turned from the main road onto a narrow, winding driveway. As I pulled up to the house, I saw a man looking out toward the watery horizon from his perch upon the balcony. With his hands tucked into the pockets of what appeared to be an expensive suit, his eyes lay fixed on the water as the wind swept through his dark hair. My pulse quickened with a rush of surprise as I realized this was the person that I had seen on the beach during my morning run.
The strong breeze pulled at my clothes as I stepped from the car, pushing the unruly strands of my hair away from the grasp of the wind. As I approached the front door, the man turned in my direction, his eyes locking with mine from above.
I shot a friendly wave up at him, calling above the roar of the surf. “Hi, I’m Jezebel.”
After nodding in greeting, he disappeared from my line of sight. A moment later, the door swung open, and he stood before me. “August. It is a pleasure to meet you.” His firm handshake engulfed my fingers in his warmth, and a small current passed through me as our skin touched. It was a feeling unfamiliar and a bit jarring, causing an indistinct stirring within me. His eyes were a deep blue gray, reminiscent of the ocean, a startling contrast against his dark features and faint olive complexion.
“Welcome, Jezebel. Please come in.”
I followed him into the house, my eyes glancing over the tall windows covered in heavy burgundy drapes which framed the walls of the interior.
“Let me give you some light.” He stepped past me and drew the curtains open. The room flooded with a pale overcast glare.
“You know, I think I saw you out on the beach this morning,” I said as I threaded my fingers through the tangled curls of my hair.
August turned from the window. “Yes. You were running.”
He regarded me with a look of curiosity. “Do you always run like that?”
I furrowed my brow at him. “Like what?”
A small smiled slipped past his lips. “Like someone is chasing you.”
I chuckled awkwardly and shrugged. “Yeah, I guess I do.”
I stepped closer to the window, taking in the expansive view that stretched before me like an endless sea of deep blue. “This place is so beautiful. I’ve never understood why it’s been empty for so long. Did you just buy it?”
“Oh. Renting, then?”
“Something akin to that.” As he spoke, he glanced out the window, seeming to be lost momentarily in thought.
The long pause that ensued made it clear he was not going to offer any more information. I tentatively retrieved my notepad from my purse, my eyes flickering in his direction. “So, I’m just going to do a little assessment of the house, if that’s okay with you?”
August nodded, watching me in silence as I took in the surrounding room, the directness of his gaze rattling my composure. The house had the familiar damp and musky smell from years of the ocean’s spray, which battered the foundation and seeped in through the cracks. The windows held a faint opaque film of salt that I knew from experience no amount of cleaning would remove.
Thick canvas cloth covered the furniture, antique paintings framed in embossed gold designs lined the walls, and a grand piano stood in the far corner. Intrigued, I stepped closer to one of the oil renditions I was familiar with; a Rembrandt that depicted the tragic story of Lucretia. The woman sat with a gold cord held in one hand and a dagger in the other. A faint line of blood ran down the middle of her dress, her life draining away. The visceral expression of sorrow and betrayal portrayed within the depths of her eyes had always haunted me, it was as if she was staring into my soul, pleading for redemption.
“I take it you recognize one of those pieces?”
I turned to find August close enough that I could detect the faint, rich aroma of earth and pine on him, reminding me of the forest. He regarded me with an intensity that made my heart race. Unaccustomed to the potency in which he looked at me, warmth rose to my cheeks.
“I do. Was the previous owner a collector?”
“Perhaps he was.” A hint of secrecy played in his voice, sparking my interest as he turned and strode toward the dining room. “Please, come with me. I will show you the rest of the house.”
I followed him into the warmth of the kitchen. A beckoning aroma of spices drifted through the air and my eyes glanced down to a pot that sat simmering on the stove.
“Minestra di ceci,” August said as he leaned against the doorway, watching me. “It is an Italian dish consisting of chickpeas.”
“Well, it smells delicious.”
He nodded with a faint smile and then motioned for me to follow him up a flight of stairs. We came to a large room lined with floor-to-ceiling windows. A sliding glass door led onto the balcony where he had been standing when I arrived.
In the corner of the expansive master bedroom, stood an old wooden desk. Papers lay askew and stacked in precarious piles on the worn mahogany wood. A sizable, ornate four-poster bed, draped in a lush, silk-like fabric of muted brown tones, imposed itself against the far wall. If I were to lie down upon it, the view would surround me.
August stood quietly by the window. His rugged masculine beauty, tinged with something sensual and vaguely ethereal, presented a striking combination that I found captivating.
He glanced over at me with an expression of faint amusement, as if he had stumbled into my thoughts for a moment, causing my entire body to course abruptly with heat. I cleared my throat nervously, and with my notepad in hand, I slipped back into the comfort of my professional business persona. Scanning the room, I calculated formulas of space and cost on the white-lined paper, all the while trying to ignore his lingering gaze.
“So, it looks to me like you will need a move-in restoration, followed by weekly upkeep? Depending on your living arrangements, of course.”
“If you insist. You are the professional.”
I turned to him. Although the light streaming in behind him illuminated his silhouette and gently obscured his face, I could detect the slight hint of a smile.
“All right, then. I will make out a work order and have one of my cleaners come out as early as next week. What day works best for you?”
“If you do not mind, I would prefer it if you were the one to come every week.”
His request was a bit odd, and I struggled with my response. Why did he want me in particular?
“Well, I generally manage the administrative details these days.”
“I will gladly pay double.”
I ran my fingers along his mahogany desk, picking up a thick line of dust. I took a moment to study an antique vase of leaded crystal, which held an array of fountain pens, each tip etched in gold.
The years I spent being shuffled around from one foster home to another during my youth were lonely and painful, but they had given me keen instincts. I had grown to trust my senses, the acute feelings that enabled me to gauge a person’s intentions. It was these same instincts that had kept me safe on more than one occasion. This man radiated complexity. But underneath his slightly brusque exterior, I could detect a gentleness there, and I felt no risk with him, only a deep, probing intrigue.
Aware that my business could use the extra money, I considered his proposal. Each year the flood of vacationers served as the lifeblood of our tiny company. But once they retreated to the city at the end of the season, leaving a hush to settle over the town, winter closed in with its icy grip and customers slowed to a crawl.
“Well, I suppose I can make some accommodations.”
“Good, I will walk you out,” he said as he slipped past me and headed silently back down the stairs.
The chill of the wind mixed with salty mist struck my face as August walked me to my car. Dark clouds hovered ominously above the angry sea; the horizon outlined in gray.
“Looks like a storm is coming.”
He simply nodded in reply, his expression unreadable as he watched me fumble around in my purse, looking for my keys. I glanced up at him, flustered by the potency of his eyes, which made me feel as if I were a butterfly pinned beneath cloth. It filled me with a conflicting mixture of reluctance and curiosity.
“Can I ask you something? Why is it you want me specifically for this job?”
My pulse quickened as August leaned in close, almost as if he were about to whisper a secret into my ear, the strands of his dark hair touching my face like a soft caress. I shivered against the eager wind and took a small step back, alarmed by the sudden proximity of him.
“If you must know, I feel very drawn to you. You have a receptive mind, and I know that you can be trusted.”
The tenderness that hovered in his eyes coupled with his candid words seized my breath for a moment; it was unexpected and a bit eccentric, causing my voice to waver in reply. “And how would you know that?”
August’s gaze held mine as if he were peering into my soul, stripping away at the residue, and leaving nothing behind but the exposed marrow. No man had ever looked at me this way before. It was overwhelming but at the same time, deeply entrancing.
“Just a feeling I have.” His words were like a slow and silky caress. “Will next Monday evening around six work for you?”
I tucked away a strand of hair that had blown into my face, caught off guard by his request. “Oh, I’m sorry, but any time after five is outside business hours, I’m afraid.”
“Well, then I suppose five it will have to be then.” A small smile stretched across his face, his gaze warm and open as he leaned past me and opened the car door. “It was very nice meeting you, Jezebel.”
There was something in the way he said my name, a soft undercurrent of such concentrated intimacy it caused a flutter inside me.
“You, too,” I said as I slipped into the driver’s seat, surprised to find my limbs shaky. August stood there and watched me while I started the engine, the wind dancing wildly against his clothes. I took a deep breath, putting the car into reverse, filled with an undefined sensation that coiled around me like electricity. When I looked back out the window, he had retreated from view.