> “My nephew, Howard, just loves children.”
Spring comes late to New England. Snow lingers in isolated patches. Trees begin their greening hesitantly, tiny closed buds of leaves against naked branches. Early blooms of color burst from the earth’s womb. The air is fresh with promise.
B.J. tossed open her window with a flourish and welcomed the early breeze into her room. Saturday, she thought with a grin, and began to braid her long, wheat-colored hair. The Lakeside Inn was half-full, the summer season three weeks away, and if all followed her well-ordered plans, her duties as manager would be light for the duration of the weekend.
Her staff was loyal, though somewhat temperamental. Like a large family, they squabbled, sulked, teased and stuck together like mortar and brick when the need arose. And I, she mused with a rueful grin, am head counselor.
Pulling on faded jeans, B.J. did not pause to consider the incongruity of the title. A small, childlike woman reflected in her glass, curves disguised by casual attire, braids hanging impishly astride a heart shaped, elfin face with huge smoky eyes dominant. Her only large feature, they swamped the tip-tilted nose and cupid’s bow mouth and were prone to smolder or sparkle with the fluctuations of her mood. After lacing dilapidated sneakers, she jogged from the room, intending to check on breakfast preparations before stealing an hour for a solitary walk.
The main staircase of the inn was wide and uncarpeted, connecting its four sprawling stories without curve or angle, as straight and sturdy as the building itself. She saw with satisfaction the lobby was both tidy and deserted. The curtains were drawn to welcome the sun, needlepoint pillows plumped, and a vase of fresh wildflowers adorned the high, well-polished registration desk. The clatter of cutlery carried from the dining room as she passed through the downstairs hall, and she heard, with a long suffering sigh, the running argument between her two waitresses.
“If you really like a man with small, pig eyes, you should be very happy.”
B.J. watched Dot shrug her thin shoulders with the words as she rolled a place setting in white linen.
“Wally does not have pig eyes,” Maggie insisted. “They’re very intelligent. You’re just jealous,” she added with grim relish as she filled the sugar dispensers.
“Jealous! Ha! The day I’m jealous of a squinty-eyed little runt . . . Oh, hello, B.J.”
“Good morning, Dot, Maggie. You rolled two spoons and a knife at that setting, Dot. I think a fork might be a nice touch.”
Accompanied by her companion’s snickers, Dot unrolled the linen. “Wally’s taking me to a double feature at the drive-in tonight.” Maggie’s smug statement followed B.J. into the kitchen, and she allowed the door to swing shut on the ensuing retort.
Unlike the casual, old fashioned atmosphere of the remainder of the inn, the kitchen sparkled with twentieth century efficiency. Stainless steel glimmered everywhere in the oversized room, the huge stove attesting that the inn’s main attraction was its menu. Cupboards and cabinets stood like veteran soldiers, walls and linoleum gleaming with fresh cleaning. B.J. smiled, pleased with the room’s perfection and the drifting scent of coffee.
“Morning, Elsie.” She received an absent mutter from the round woman working at a long, well-scrubbed counter. “If everything’s under control, I’m going out for a couple of hours.”
“Betty Jackson won’t send any blackberry jelly.”
“What? Well, for goodness sake why not?” Annoyed by the complication, B.J. plucked a fresh muffin from a basket and began to devour it. “Mr. Conners always asks for her jelly, and we’re down to the last jar.”
“She said if you couldn’t be bothered to pay a lonely old woman a visit, she couldn’t be bothered to part with any jelly.”
“Lonely old woman?” B.J.’s exclamation was hampered by a mouthful of muffin. “She runs more news items through that house of hers than the Associated Press. Blast it, Elsie, I really need that jelly. I was too busy last week to go listen to the latest special bulletins.”
“The new owner coming Monday got you worried?”
“Who’s worried? I’m not worried.” Scowling, she confiscated another muffin. “It’s simply that as manager of the inn, I want everything to be in order.”
“Eddie said you were muttering and slamming around your office after you got the letter saying he was coming.”
“I was not . . . muttering. . . .” Moving to the refrigerator, B.J. poured a glass of juice and spoke to Elsie’s wide back. “Taylor Reynolds has a perfect right to inspect his property. It’s just, blast it, Elsie, it was all those vague comments about modernizing. Mr. Taylor Reynolds better keep his hands off the Lakeside Inn and play with his other hotels. We don’t need to be modernized,” she continued, rapidly working herself up into a temper. “We’re perfectly fine just the way we are. There’s not a thing wrong with us, we don’t need anything.” She finished by folding her arms across her chest and glaring at the absent Taylor Reynolds.
“Except blackberry jelly,” Elsie said mildly. B.J. blinked and brought herself back to the present.
“Oh, all right,” she muttered and stalked toward the door. “I’ll go get it. But if she tells me one more time that Howard Beall is a fine boy and good husband material, I’ll scream. Right there in her living room with the doilies and chintz, I’ll scream!”
Leaving this dire threat hanging in the air, B.J. stepped out into the soothing yellow sunlight.
“Blackberry jelly,” she mumbled as she hopped on a battered red bike. “New owners with fancy notions. . . .” Lifting her face to the sky, she tossed a pigtail behind her shoulder.
Pedaling down the maple lined drive, quicksilver temper ebbed, her resilient spirits were lifted with the beauty of the day. The valley was stirring with life. Small clusters of fragile violets and red clover dotted the rolling meadows. Lines of fresh laundry waved in the early breeze. The boundary of mountains was topped by a winter’s coat, not yet the soft, lush green it would be in a month’s time, but patched with stark black trees and the intermittent color of pines. Clouds scudded thin and white across the sky, chased by the teasing wind which whispered of spring and fresh blossoms.
Good humor restored, B.J. arrived in town with pink cheeks and a smile, waving to familiar faces along the route to Betty Jackson’s jelly. It was a small town with tidy lawns, picket fences and old, well-kept homes. The dormers and gables were typical of New England. Nestled like a contented cat in the rolling valley, and the brilliant shimmer of Lake Champlain to the west, Lakeside remained serene and untouched by big city bustle. Having been raised on its outskirts had not dulled its magic for B.J.: she felt, as always when entering its limits, a gratitude that somewhere life remained simple.
Parking her bike in front of a small, green-shuttered house, B.J. swung through the gate and prepared to negotiate for her jelly supply.
“Well, B.J., what a surprise.” Betty opened the door and patted her gray permanent. “I thought you’d gone back to New York.”
“Things have been a bit hectic at the inn,” she returned, striving for the proper humility.
“The new owner.” Betty nodded with a fortune teller’s wisdom and gestured B.J. inside. “I hear he wants to spruce things up.”
Resigned that Betty Jackson’s communications system was infallible, B.J. settled herself in the small living room.
“You know Tom Myers is adding another room to his house.” Brushing off the seat of an overstuffed chair, Betty shifted her ample posterior and sat. “Seems Lois is in the family way again.” She clucked her tongue over the Myers’ profligacy. “Three babies in four years. But you like little ones, don’t you, B.J.?”
“I’ve always been fond of children, Miss Jackson,” B.J. acknowledged, wondering how to turn the conversation toward preserves.
B.J. braced herself not to scream and met the bland smile, calmly. “We’ve a couple at the inn now. Children do love to eat.” Pleased with the maneuver, she pressed on. “They’ve simply devoured your jellies. I’m down to my last jar. Nobody has the touch you do with jellies, Miss Jackson; you’d put the big manufacturers out of business if you opened your own line.”
“It’s all in the timing,” Betty preened under the praise, and B.J. tasted the hint of victory.
“I’d just have to close down if you didn’t keep me supplied.” Gray eyes fluttered ingenuously. “Mr. Conners would be crushed if I had to serve him store-bought goods. He simply raves about your blackberry jelly. Ambrosia,” she added, relishing the word. “He says it’s ambrosia.”
“Ambrosia.” Betty nodded in self-satisfied agreement.
Ten minutes later, B.J. placed a box of a dozen jars of jelly in the basket of her bike and waved a cheerful goodbye.
“I came, I saw, I conquered,” she told the sky with audacious pride. “And I did not scream.”
She twisted her head at the sound of her name, waving to the group playing sand lot ball as she pedaled to the edge of the field. “What’s the score?” she asked the young boy who ran to her bike.
“Five to four. Junior’s team’s winning.”
She glanced over to where Junior stood, tall and gangly on the pitcher’s mound, tossing a ball in his glove and grinning.
“Little squirt,” she mumbled with reluctant affection. “Let me pinch hit once.” Confiscating the boy’s battered cap, she secured it over her pigtails and walked onto the field.
“You gonna play, B.J.?” Suddenly surrounded by young bodies and adolescent faces, B.J. lifted a bat and tested it.
“For a minute. I have to get back.”
Junior approached, hands on hips, and grinned down from his advantage of three inches. “Wanna bet I strike you out?”
She spared him a brief glance and swung the bat to her shoulder. “I don’t want to take your money.”
“If I strike you out,” he yanked a pigtail with fifteen-year-old audacity, “you gotta kiss me.”
“Get on the mound, you apprentice lecher, and come back in ten years.”
His grin remained unabashed, as B.J. watched, stifling a smile as he sauntered into position. He squinted, nodded, wound up and pitched. B.J. swung a full circle.
She turned and scowled at Wilbur Hayes who stood as umpire. Stepping up to the plate again, the cheers and taunts grew in volume. She stuck out her tongue at Junior’s wink.
“Strike two!” Wilbur announced as she watched the pitch sail by.
“Strike?” Turning, she placed her hands on her hips. “You’re crazy, that was chin high. I’m going to tell your mother you need glasses.”
“Strike two,” Wilbur repeated and frowned with adolescent ferocity.
Muttering, B.J. stepped again into the batter’s box.
“You might as well put the bat down,” Junior shouted, cradling the ball in the mitt. “You’re not even coming close to this one.”
“Take a good look at the ball, Junior, ’cause it’s the last time you’ll see it.” Shifting the hat lower on her head, B.J. clutched the bat. “It’s going clear to New York.”
She connected with a solid crack of bat and watched the ball begin its sail before she darted around the bases. Running full steam, head down, she heard the shouts and cheers to slide as she rounded third. Scott Temple crouched at the plate, mitt opened for reception, as she threw herself down, sliding into home in a cloud of dust and frenzied shouts.
“Out!” Scrambling to her feet, she met Wilbur’s bland blue stare, eye to eye and nose to nose. “Out, you little squirt, I was safe by a mile. I’m going to buy you some binoculars.”
“Out,” he repeated with great dignity, and folded his arms.
“What we need here is an umpire with two working eyes.” She turned to her crowd of supporters and threw out her hands. “I demand a second opinion.”
“You were out.”
Spinning at the unfamiliar voice, B.J. frowned up at the stranger. He stood leaning on the backstop, a small lift to his well-formed mouth and amusement shining from his dark brown eyes. He pushed a lock of curling black hair from his brow and straightened a long, lean frame.
“You should have been content with a triple.”
“I was safe,” she retorted, rubbing more dirt on her nose.
“Out,” Wilbur repeated.
B.J. sent him a withering glance before turning back to the man who approached the heated debate between teams. She studied him with a mixture of resentment and curiosity.
His features were well defined, sculptured with planes and angles, the skin bronzed and smooth, the faintest hint of red in his dark hair where the sun caught it. She saw that though his buff-colored suit was casual, it was obviously well tailored and expensive. His teasing smile widened at her critical survey, and her resentment deepened.
“I’ve got to get back,” she announced, brushing at her jeans. “And don’t think I’m not going to mention an eye exam to your mother,” she added, giving Wilbur a final glare.
“Hey, kid.” She straddled her bike and looked around idly, then smiled as she realized the man had grouped her with the teenagers. Restraining her smile, she looked up with what she hoped was the insolence of youth.
“How far is it to the Lakeside Inn?”
“Look, mister, my mother told me not to talk to strange men.”
“Very commendable. I’m not offering you candy and a ride.”
“Well.” She frowned as if debating pros and cons. “O.K. It’s about three miles up the road.” Making her gesture vague, she finished with the obligatory codicil. “You can’t miss it.”
He gave a long stare into her wide gray eyes, then shook his head. “That’s a big help. Thanks.”
“Any time.” She watched him wander toward a silver-blue Mercedes and, unable to prevent herself, called after him. “And I was safe. Absolutely safe.” Tossing the borrowed hat back to its owner, B.J. cut across the meadow and headed toward the inn.
The four stories of red brick, with their gabled roof and neat shutters, loomed ahead of her. Pedaling up the wide, curving drive, she noted with satisfaction that the short cut had brought her ahead of the Mercedes.
I wonder if he’s looking for a room, she thought. Parking her bike, she hauled out her treasure of jellies from the basket. Maybe he’s a salesman. No, she contradicted her own thoughts, that was no salesman. Well, if he wants a room, we’ll oblige him, even if he is an interfering busybody with bad eyes.
“Good morning.” B.J. smiled at the newlyweds who strolled across the lawn.
“Oh, good morning, Miss Clark. We’re going for a walk by the lake,” the groom answered politely.
“It’s a lovely day for it,” B.J. acknowledged, parking her bike by the entrance. She entered the small lobby, and moving behind the front desk, set down the crate of jelly and reached for the morning mail. Seeing a personal letter from her grandmother, she opened it and began to read with pleasure.
“Get around, don’t you?”
Her absorption was rudely broken. Dropping the letter, she lifted her elbows from the counter and stared into dark brown eyes. “I took a short cut.” Unwilling to be outmatched by his height or faultless attire, she straightened and lifted her chin. “May I help you?”
“I doubt it, unless you can tell me where to find the manager.”
His dismissive tone fueled her annoyance. She struggled to remember her job and remain pleasant. “Is there some problem? There’s a room available if you require one.”
“Be a good girl and run along.” His tone was patronizing. “And fetch the manager for me while you’re about it. I’d like to see him.??
Drawing herself to her full height she crossed her arms over her chest. “You’re looking at her.”
His dark brows rose in speculation as his eyes swept over her incredulously. “Do you manage the inn before school and on Saturdays?” he asked sarcastically.