Chapter 5: Past history
Opening the trunk of her car, Cassie retrieved two flashlights and handed one to Margo.
“I wish I could give you a full tour, but we can’t go inside the house. It’s not safe. The best we can do is peek in through the porch windows. According to the listing agent, all kinds of critters have most likely taken up residence inside. It’s difficult to see much with the dirty windows and overgrown brush along the sides and back blocking out the sunlight.”
“Yes, Blanche, critters. As in snakes, possums, raccoons.”
“Nice. Well, all the tall grass and weeds and the threat of critters certainly explain the dress code you set. When you said to dress casually, this is not at all what I imagined we’d be doing this morning,” Margo remarked. “We’ll probably end up with poison oak. And won’t that be lovely!”
Cassie frowned, disappointed her friend’s positive attitude had lasted only a few moments.
“Poison oak is a concern, hence the full clothing. So, what did you imagine we’d be doing?”
Margo shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t know. Blueberry picking, horseback riding, grape-stomping—anything but this.”
“Ha!” chuckled Cassie. “I can see you picking blueberries! And you don’t need boots to stomp grapes. That you do in your bare feet.”
“Yes, so you do. Why anyone would want to do either and end up with stained hands or stained feet is a mystery to me. Talk about ruining a perfect pedicure. Now, the horse-back riding I could handle. I’d look good riding high on top of a nice stallion.” Margo pushed her shoulders back and her chest out.
“I’m not touching that one,” Cassie replied, shaking her head. “Can we get back to the house? Just look at it, Margo, and tell me what you see.”
Margo focused her attention on the house. “I see a two-story, wood-frame house almost swallowed up by nature after years of neglect. I see old wood weather-stripped of most of its paint, shutters hanging on for dear life, a roof that probably leaks when it rains, a second story balcony railing ready to crumble at the slighted touch—”
“Yet that same railing has endured years of wind, rain, even hurricanes, and still stands,” Cassie interrupted. “And those shutters have hung on for dear life through the same conditions. Now let me tell you what I see.”
“I’m all ears.”
“I see what it once was and what it can be in the future. I see a restored two-story plantation home with grand columns glistening in fresh, white paint, with black shutters gracefully flanking crystal-clear multipaned windows. I see a deep green, luscious lawn and pink-blooming azaleas surrounding the foundation that will give Augusta Pines a run for its money. I see massive Boston ferns hanging all along that covered veranda. And huge pots of geraniums exploding with red blooms placed on each side of the door, with plaques hanging above them that say 'Welcome.' Most importantly, I see the two of us relaxing on the veranda in white wicker chairs, sipping on mint juleps while guests come and go.”
“Sounds like a beautiful place, my friend. Throw in a young, hunky lawn man mowing that grass, and I’m right there on the veranda with you.”
“Of course,” Cassie replied, smiling. “That’s a given.”
Flipping her flashlight on, Margo replied, “Let’s have that peek inside.”
Beaming, Cassie turned hers on as well.
“Be careful where you step on the porch, too, or you might fall in. Some of the wood looks pretty rotted.”
They headed to the front steps, working their way through the tall grass and weeds. Once on the weather-beaten raised porch, the two women moved carefully, putting their faces close to each of the four large, dirty, multi-paned windows and flashing their lights inside.
“It’s gross inside. And outside,” Margo complained as she used her flashlight to knock away cobwebs from the window determined to stick to her clothing.
“Yes, it is. But try to see past the filth and the deterioration.” Flashing her light upward to the ceiling, Cassie continued, “Look at crown molding and that gorgeous chandelier—”
“The one with cobwebs just like this hanging from it?”
Cassie sighed. “Margo! You are hopeless.”
“Sorry. I don’t mean to be negative. I guess I don’t have the vision you do. The chandelier is beautiful.”
“There must be similar ones throughout the house. And who knows what other marvelous accents and finishing touches.”
“Okay, I’ll give you that. But there are plenty of other old mansions and plantation homes on the market in need of repair. What is the attraction to this particular place other than wanting to save it? Are you sure it’s even worth saving with all it would require to do so?”
“I think it is. For starters, the location is good, right between the two biggest draws for tourists—Oak Alley and Nottoway Plantations. And others.”
“But there are numerous plantation homes in the area that offer over-night lodging, including those two,” Margo reminded her.
“Yes, but most are not true B&B’s. They’re tourist attractions, with formal atmospheres and expensive dining facilities. I want this to have the historical atmosphere, but more casual, cozier, with reasonable rates and good-homestyle meals. The seller’s asking price is reasonable, depending on the cost of the restoration. And it has a cool history. It’s even haunted,” Cassie added with a mischievous grin.
“Yes, haunted. As in ghosts. Or at least one.”
“And that appeals to you?”
“You are strange, my friend. So, fill me in on the history, and this ghost.”
“I will. Let’s drive to Vacherie and have coffee. We have time to kill before we meet with a contractor later this morning.
“What a quaint little cafe in a quaint little town,” Margo commented as she and Cassie settled in a booth inside a coffee shop in Vacherie, a small community nestled among cane fields along the west bank of the Mississippi River.
“Careful, Margo, your snootiness is showing,” Cassie teased.
“No, not at all. It’s fine. It’s no Starbucks, but it will do. And I'm not snooty.” Glancing around the small room, she continued, “At least we blend in with the locals.”
Cassie smiled. “That we do.” After a quick review of one of the menus tucked between the napkin dispenser and salt and pepper shakers, she added, “Coffee’s a lot cheaper. I bet the buttermilk pie is good. Let’s have a piece with our coffee.”
“Works for me.”
Once the ladies received their order, Cassie began sharing the information she had found in her research of the abandoned mansion.
“It was built in 1840 as part of a small sugar cane plantation owned by a gentleman named Henri Aime. Following the Civil War and the economic hard times caused by the war, the Aime family was forced to sell the estate in the late ’60′s. Successive owners tried to keep the business going until a virus in the early 1900′s wiped out the sugar cane industry.” She paused to take a bite of her pie. “This is good!”
“It is,” Margo replied. “Now keep going. I want to hear about the ghost.”
Cassie chuckled. “Patience. I’ll get there in due time. I was saying—the mansion sat abandoned until 1924 when it was purchased, restored, and modernized by a prominent New Orleans surgeon by the name of Charles Savoy. Dr. Savoy bought the mansion as a place for his family to get away from their small home in the French Quarter. When he retired several years later, he and his family made it their permanent residence. His wife died five years later. He continued to live there after his children grew up and had families of their own, passing away in his bed in 1960, I think.
“His eldest son took over the mansion a few years later, but he and his family only lived in it a few years. The son’s wife insisted that old man Savoy haunted the house and she refused to continue living in it any longer. The mansion finally sold something like five years later, but the new owners were said to be haunted by Dr. Savoy’s ghost as well, and the estate was left to sit and decay.”
“That’s all quite interesting,” Margo commented. “You have done your homework. I do understand why you want to do this, but I’m still nervous about the idea. I love you; you know that. I think you might be getting way over your head with this.”
“Perhaps. But what do I have to lose?”
“A whole hell of a lot of money, for one thing!”
“So what? It’s only money, something I have plenty of thanks to Aunt Sissy. And I’ll receive a nice lump sum from the settlement with Phillip once the divorce is final. I think it was meant to be. I mean, think about it—the timing of the inheritance. I think it’s what Aunt Sissy would want me to do.”
“You think your Aunt would want you to buy that rundown, abandoned house, and gamble all the money she left you in a risky idea of turning it into a Bed and Breakfast? Seriously, Cassie?”
“I think she would want me to do something different, to take a chance. You know what she used to tell me when I was a little girl?”
“She used to say ‘your dreams can never come true unless you have the dream in the first place.’ Well, I have a dream to take this abandoned mansion and turn it into something special. I think she would be pleased with that.”
“What if it fails?”
“Why do you think it will fail? Because I’m a failure, so anything I try to do will fail as well?”
“No, of course not. Don’t be ridiculous. You are not a failure. You didn’t fail at your marriage, Phillip did. I only want to be sure you understand the risk you might be taking buying this place. So, tell me about this contractor we’re meeting.”
“Well, I already talked to two other contractors on the phone. One said he didn’t have time to take on such a project right now. The other suggested I bulldoze the house and build from scratch. I don’t want to do that. The gentleman we’re meeting with today is local. His name is Jacob Miller, forty-two years old, comes highly recommended. He was pleasant on the phone, seemed interested in the project, suggested we meet at the site, and he’d take a look.”
“Is he married?” Margo asked, pushing her empty plate to the side.
Cassie laughed. “What difference does that make? You have a one-track mind, don’t you!”
Margo shrugged. “I just asked.”
“Well, I didn’t. And it wasn’t part of Mr. Miller’s bio on his webpage, so I have no idea. You’ll have to ask the man yourself.”
Flipping her hair back, Margo said, “I might do just that. We’ll see what he looks like first.”
Jacob Miller arrived on time, driving a recent model Chevrolet Silverado pickup truck. Margo and Cassie were waiting for him on the steps leading up to the front porch of the mansion.
“I’m Cassie Monroe, this is my good friend, Margo Cox,” Cassie said by way of introductions. “Thanks for meeting us here, Mr. Miller.”
“Nice to meet you both,” he said extending his hand to first Cassie and then Margo. “Please, call me Jacob. So, you want to turn this into a Bed and Breakfast, Ms. Monroe, is that right?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Do you have ideas on how much a project like that will cost?”
“No, I don’t, Mr. Miller. That is why you’re here.” Cassie had her defenses up; she wasn’t in the mood for someone else to tell her how foolish her idea was.
“I drove out here yesterday and had a look around. I can’t give you any numbers until I’ve had an opportunity to do a full inspection inside. And the place would have to be cleaned out first.”
“I understand that. I just wanted to hear your thoughts, and if you were even willing to take on such a project.”
“You haven’t purchased the place yet, is that right, ma’am?”
“That is correct. I haven’t.”
“So, Jacob, how does she go about getting it cleaned out?” Margo asked.
“I can take care of that, ma’am, but she would need to purchase the place first.”
“So, you are saying Cassie would have to own it before she can find out what it would cost to renovate it?”
“Yes, ma’am, I’m afraid so.”
Margo turned to face Cassie. “That’s quite a risk, Cassie. Are you sure you want to do that?”
Turning her attention from Margo back to the contractor, Cassie asked, “What are your thoughts, Mr. Miller? Do you think it’s a worthy project? Is it worth saving?”
“Sure it’s worth saving. It depends on your budget, of course, and how much you want to invest in it, how elaborate you want to go with the renovations. Do you have experience designing or running an inn? Will anyone else be involved, a spouse or other investor?”
“No, I don’t have any experience. Is that necessary for you to take on the project?”
“No, not at all. I was curious. I have a great architect who can work with you on the design.”
“Cassie mentioned that you are local. Does that mean you and your wife live in the area?” Margo asked.
Cassie rolled her eyes at her friend. Real subtle, Margo.
“I’m not married, ma’am,″ Jacob replied.
“Oh, how interesting. Neither am I. And please—Margo, not ma’am.”
Cassie cleared her throat. “Can we get back to the subject at hand? If I decide to make the purchase, how soon could you get started cleaning it out, and then give me an estimate?”
“Business is pretty slow right now. I can get started with cleanup as soon as you give me the go ahead.”
“Then I will be in touch with you as soon as I make my decision. Thank you for meeting with me.”
“I’ll look forward to hearing from you,” Jacob said as he and Cassie shook hands. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a business card and handed it to her. “If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to call, anytime, and be sure to check out my portfolio on my webpage.”
Cassie watched him as he returned to his truck and drove away. Then she turned to her friend, who was watching him as well, her head tilted, eyes wide.
“Are you for real?”
“What? The man is gorgeous! Those blue eyes and cute little dimples. And the way he looks in those jeans. Yum! Bet he’s even more impressive out of them.”
“You are disgusting! Is that all you ever think about—sex?”
“Oh, get off your damn high horse, Cassie. Don’t tell me you didn’t find the man attractive.”
“I didn’t notice. I was too busy trying to do business with him.”
“Bullshit. You could use some sex yourself. How long’s it been? Five months? Why didn’t you tell him that no spouse would be involved, that you’re in the middle of a divorce? And why were you so damn stuffy with the 'Mr. Miller' crap? Lighten up!”
“Because I didn’t see that my marital status was any of his business, and I don’t want to 'lighten up'.”
“Well, if you’re going to be working with the man, I think it might become his business. You are going to hire him, aren’t you?”
“I’m going to think about it some more before I decide. As you keep saying yourself, it’s a risk.”