Harlan MacKenzie shifted into park and gazed out the open window of his truck at the Big Purple House. His typical enthusiasm for tackling an historic remodel in the Copper Hills district wouldn’t materialize, and he couldn’t figure out why. Normally, he thrived on refurbishing the old homes in Joshua, Arizona. But this 1920’s mansion seemed blanketed by a dark cloud that obstructed his artistic vision.
Lilac Lane dead-ended at the cracked sidewalk in front of the imposing structure which stood at the base of Spirit Mountain. Although christened Lilac End when built in 1923, as long as he could remember, everyone called the home the Big Purple House. He cut the engine and sat a few minutes longer. He had to overcome this reluctance. The one bright spot might be consulting with the owner, Phaedra, on a regular basis, although the tension between them lately had him doubting they could be more than friends.
Quiet cocooned him. High above the town and insulated by mountains on the backyard side, the sparse noises from main street died before they could invade the neighborhood once populated by mining barons. The homes with wide yards occupied one side of Lilac Lane while the other side sloped down the mountain creating a spectacular view of the town and valley beyond.
He opened his truck door and stepped onto the sidewalk as he dug a silver key from his jeans pocket. Two steps connected the sidewalk to the walkway across the unfenced yard of dead grass. The walk and steps gaped with cracks and missing chunks of cement. Dangerous footing. Shading his eyes from the sun, he surveyed the roof. Too many loose tiles. The flat roof of the wraparound veranda couldn’t be seen, but he’d bet it needed reroofing also. At the end of the walkway, seven more steps, cracked but in better shape, brought him onto the veranda, railed with a picket fence effect.
As he ascended the steps, he fingered the key without any sense of the house it would unlock. Sidelight panels displaying dust-encrusted stained glass, flanked the peeling, white, front door. The worn brass doorknob poked from the middle, unusual by today’s standards but not for then. To the right, a brass mail slot with the initials JH embossed the tarnished cover. Classic and an original. John Hersey had built this house.
Surveying the exterior again, the door and windows, gave him nothing. Nothing more than it would give any onlooker. Repairs and paint needed. The original façade hadn’t been altered. That much he knew from years of experience. But where was the vision he normally embraced when met with the challenge of restoration? Where was his clear feeling? What reason could he have for the roadblock sensation that came over him when he set foot on the property? He curled his fingers around the key.
While waiting for the normal surge of inspiration before entering, he strolled the veranda in one direction until it ended a third of the way around at a long window where the wall jutted out farther. He couldn’t see through the heavy curtains, as opaque as the shroud over the house obscuring his perception. Retracing his steps to the front of the house, he tested the varnished wood planks of the floor by pushing his foot down hard with each measured footfall. Not much work would be required on the floor of the veranda, other than refinishing. Better condition than a couple of other houses he’d refurbished in this neighborhood. He stopped to listen, waited for the house to speak to him, but moved on when no clear communication came. Odd.
Past the front door, he continued around the other corner to the back of the house. Steps led down to the rear with a view of the mountains. He contemplated the sizeable property. The location at the end of the cul-de-sac allotted more yard than the other homes on this block. From this angle, he could see the tip of the J for Joshua painted on the side of Spirit Mountain. Instead of ruggedly beautiful as the Black Hills normally appeared, today the mountains hemmed in the yard like a barrier, making the property oppressive. He had no desire to investigate the rear of the house in that atmosphere.
He scratched the back of his neck, crossed his arms, and swiveled on his sandal heel to face the front and the view below. On the opposite of Lilac Lane, the land sloped downward to Clark Street where the historic Sacred Heart Catholic Church stood on the corner of the intersection of the two streets. Below Clark, Main Street embodied the heart of Joshua—restaurants, a couple of museums, several wine tasting establishments, gift shops, and historic sites. Beyond, he could see some of the town as it cascaded down the side of Spirit Mountain.
Old man Hersey knew how to pick a view.
The Verde Valley, green as the name implied, spread across the horizon. Only wisps of clouds littered the bright blue sky that met the red, sunbaked mesas beyond the green valley. He took a deep breath of clean mountain air. The air was clear, but the energy residing around this house still felt murky.
He jiggled the key in his hand. Maybe the fog surrounding inspiration would lift if he went inside.
Phaedra counted on him to make restorations before the new owner took possession. Whatever gnawed at his creative core had to be put to rest. Back at the front, he faced the door and decades-old paint. He admired the stained glass. A work of art. Surely the soul of such an old house could speak to him through the craftmanship of the fine details. He closed his eyes a moment but opened them and snorted. Not giving me anything, are you? When he finally touched the key to the lock, he took a deep breath to quell his reluctance to enter.
“Are you the owner?”
The voice jarred him, and he dropped the key. He whirled around and met the largest, violet eyes he’d ever seen. Then again, he’d never seen violet eyes.
“I’m sorry.” She laughed an apology. “I didn’t mean to startle you.”
“That’s okay.” He stooped to retrieve the key. His mind must really have been occupied to not hear the green Chevy Cavalier pull up and park behind his truck. “Can I help you with something?”
“I’m not sure. You seem to have a key to the house, although it looks vacant.” She squinted at the windows. “Are you the owner?” Her husky voice contrasted with the petiteness of her features.
“No. I’m the renovator. What’s your interest, if I might ask?”
“I’m an author. Nora Cook.” She offered her hand. “I’m writing a book on unknown historical homes of Arizona.”
“Harlan MacKenzie.” He shook her hand. “An author? Sounds interesting. How did you find the Big Purple House?”
The corner of her mouth twitched. “The Big Purple House. Appropriate. I saw it as I drove around. There’s no way to find these treasures other than hitting the road. Small towns or historical cities like Joshua are the best.” Her gaze swept his face. “And I meet the most intriguing people.” Thick lashes, a deeper shade of red than the full bangs and chin-length hair framing her face, blinked slowly.
Her obvious flirtatious gesture puffed his chest. You’re an easy mark, MacKenzie.
“Have you started work on this house yet?”
“No, as a matter of fact—” The white Jeep stopping next to the curb behind Nora’s car drew his attention. “Here’s the owner, for now anyway.” He waved to Phaedra when she hopped from the Jeep.
“Yep. She’s selling.”
The redhead’s eyes widened.
His lifelong friend traversed the cracked sidewalk in strappy, leather sandals, her tight jeans hugging long legs making her appear taller than her five-four height. Her appearance made the sunny day sunnier. When they were kids, golden braids bobbed on her shoulders. At forty-three, silvery-white hair fell to the middle of her back. She wore a flimsy, long-sleeved white blouse tucked in and belted. The swing of her hips caused a stirring he’d recently recognized as a whole lot more than friendship.
“Hey, there.” Phaedra greeted him, stepped past Nora, and smiled a question.
“This is Nora Cook. An author. Nora, this is Phaedra Halloway, the owner of the Big Purple House.”
The two women shook hands. If the writer hadn’t been in heels, he judged she would be the same height as his friend. But their physical appearances were as different as autumn and winter.
“Nora is interested in historical homes. She’s writing a book.”
“How interesting, but the house hasn’t been designated historical.”
“I’m not writing about designated homes.” The writer waved a hand in the air, pushing that point aside. “Anyone can find those.”
“Ah, so an off-the-beaten-path kind of tour book?” Phaedra tilted her head.
“Something like that. I’m particularly interested in homes that are in the original condition. Do you think this house has had any changes over the decades, like additions or, well, structural changes?”
“Doesn’t appear to.” Harlan answered as Phaedra shook her head.
Nora smiled all the way through her eyes as if that answer pleased her. “Harlan tells me you’re selling.” She didn’t speak directly to Phaedra but scanned the yard as if looking for a realtor sign.
Phaedra shot him a sideways glance, an apparent communication he couldn’t decipher. “I haven’t listed it. Someone made me an offer, and I decided the time is right to sell.”
“An offer. So, they haven’t actually purchased it yet.”
“No.” Phaedra crossed her arms over her chest. “I’m having Harlan restore the property first.”
“And no one’s living here now.” She slid her gaze, the purple glint fastened on him. “How long do you think your work will take?”
Phaedra’s brow wrinkled ever so slightly. Harlan guessed she wondered why this woman was so interested in the sale.
He opened his mouth to answer, but Phaedra jumped in first. “The buyer won’t be back for a couple of months, so we’re not in a huge hurry. Why do you ask?”
“I would just love to include Lilac End in my book.” She smiled at Phaedra and then dipped her chin in his direction. “I’m hoping you might be able to show me around. Give me some insight before the new owners move in.”
“How did you know the original name of my property was Lilac End?” Phaedra’s stance changed into a wide-leg planted posture. Her lips thinned.
Something bothered her.
“What? Oh, research. That’s what we writers do. John Hersey, the original owner, named it that in 1923. All of the mining moguls lived in this neighborhood.” She gestured with a sweep of her hand.
Harlan knew some of the house’s history, and some old-timers might remember. But Phaedra’s wrinkled brow and hesitation in responding told him she found this stranger’s knowledge odd.
“Are you going to be around for a few days, Nora? Right now isn’t a good time.” She sidestepped closer to him.
“As a matter of fact, I am.”
“Then maybe we can get back to you.” Her dismissive tone came through loud and clear. “Where are you staying?”
“At the Copper Line Hotel for the next few days. It’s on Bennett Street.”
“I know it.” Phaedra flashed her a quick smile that didn’t reach her eyes. “Harlan, are you ready for the early lunch I promised?” She looped her arm around his. A whiff of roses floated over him.
They hadn’t made lunch plans. For some reason, she wanted to dismiss Nora Cook, and he wasn’t about to dispute her. He’d known her long enough to know she had something on her mind. Besides, he always enjoyed time with Phaedra. “Sure am.”
Nora’s mouth briefly tugged in a pout, but she recovered with a flat smile. “That sounds great. I’ll continue my sleuthing around Joshua this afternoon.” She slipped a hand into a small pocket on her hip and pulled out a white card. When she turned her attention on him, she raised one brow and batted those thick auburn lashes over the intriguing violet eyes. “I’m in room five, but in case I’m not in, here is my cell number.” She tucked the card in his free hand. “So nice meeting you both, and I look forward to seeing you again.” With that, she carefully maneuvered the veranda steps in her heels. Only then did he notice the nicely rounded bottom and narrow waist displayed in a fitted blue dress.
“Oh, puh-lease.” Phaedra hip-bumped him. “Put your tongue back in your mouth.”
He choked on his own saliva. “What? I wasn’t.” But he had to laugh. “And what is this about lunch? I wasn’t even expecting you today.”
“I got hungry, that’s all.” She narrowed her eyes as she watched the writer close her car door.
Jealousy? Friends don’t get jealous, do they? “Yeah, well, I’m up for a break. Kind of hungry myself.” He pocketed the key. Walking into the Big Purple House could gladly be put off awhile longer.
A redhead? Really? Phaedra buckled her seatbelt as Nora Cook’s car disappeared around the corner in her rearview mirror. She didn’t know Harlan was a sucker for redheads. “She was a peculiar one.”
“You mean the violet eyes?” Harlan secured his seatbelt with a snap.
“What? No. And they were dark blue.”
“Blue?” He frowned. “Then what was peculiar about her?”
“You didn’t feel it? Her curiosity about when the new owner planned to move in for one thing. And how would she know the original name of the house?”
“She said research. She knew who originally owned the house—John Carl Hersey, millionaire gone missing. One of Joshua’s more famous mysteries. And I would think curiosity is part of being a writer.”
She darted a glance at him before she pulled onto Clark Street. She’d never wondered about his attraction to women. His neutral expression told her nothing. “There was something about her. Sneaky or hiding something.” And flirty, damn it.
“She seemed nice enough to me.”
“Nice enough ass anyway, huh?” It slipped out. Went right from thought to words. Her neck heated.
“What’s with you today, Phae? I’ve never known you to be jealous.”
“Why on earth would I be jealous?”
“I don’t know. How about you tell me.”
A tiny green-eyed monster did a happy dance on her shoulder. “I’ve had a shitty morning, that’s all.” But that wasn’t quite the whole reason. Why would he understand when she couldn’t get her own thoughts around her feelings? He was one of her two best childhood friends, but now a strange sort of chemistry brewed between them. And the round little butt he’d gawked at had her sorry about her recent addition of a few damn pounds.
“What’s wrong, Phae?”
“You wouldn’t understand. These jeans are a bit too snug and—and—oh never mind.” What in Hades was wrong with her? She needed a dam between her thoughts and her mouth.
“Too tight?” His chin dipped as if scrutinizing her legs. “Is this one of those is-my-butt-too-big moments?”
Close friend, yeah, but still a clueless man. I mention snug pants, and you mention big butt. “Do you remember the time in the third grade when I beat the tar out of you for making fun of my braids?” She pulled into a parking space in Upper Park and killed the engine.
“Remember it well.”
His deadpan response made her want to laugh, but she swallowed it and flashed him a glare.
“Got it.” He opened the door and met her on the sidewalk.
She wasn’t really mad at her friend—especially when he stood there, his chin tilted down and the slightest hint of a smirk, giving her his classic Harlan gaze. She couldn’t resist a truce in the form of a wink. Taking his arm for the half-block walk to Ghostly Goulash, she appreciated his solid, warm bicep under the cream-colored Henley with the sleeves pushed to the elbows. They trudged the slight incline in silence. Lately, the banter that had always been part of their friendship didn’t come as easily as it used to. Maybe because being just his friend no longer satisfied her. She wasn’t sure when she’d transitioned to thinking of him as an interesting man instead of a childhood friend. At times, an awkward schoolgirl with a crush took over her body, and she couldn’t figure out how to act toward him.
He edged in front of her to get the door and waited for her to enter.
When did he start with the differential actions like opening doors for her? And what in Hades was the tickle in her gut when he did? Not to mention noticing how great his legs looked in cargo shorts.
“You good with sitting on the covered patio?”
She brushed aside her musings. “You bet.”
After they ordered their burgers, Harlan frowned and cleared his throat. “Are you sure you want to sell? You wouldn’t want to move into the house yourself?”
Shrugging, she shook her head. “I like my bungalow in The Ravine. I don’t need a big house.” The overhead fans whirled, sending a couple of strands of hair across her face. She tucked then behind an ear.
“Wasn’t it your first home in Joshua?”
“Yeah, but I don’t remember much about living there. When my folks and I moved here, right after I was born, the Big Purple House was the only thing available and cheap as hell back then. The out of state owners had grown weary of keeping it rented out to hippies.” She spread her napkin in her lap. “Not sure you know the story.” She glanced beyond his shoulder as she spoke. From their perch on the side of the mountain, green shrubbery framed the three-foot high patio wall and posts with only blue sky beyond.
“Probably did at one time.”
His iced tea and her diet cola arrived. The waitress deposited them on the table without comment.
She called upon memories but also the explanations her mother gave her about the first few years of her life. “My father is the one who uprooted us to Joshua with some get rich quick scheme. When it didn’t pan out, he split. Left us high and dry as they say. Which really does describe being deserted in Joshua, doesn’t it?” She quirked a smile. Her mother always followed the men in her life, which never proved fruitful. “Mom eventually realized she’d make more money renting out the place, and she moved us to The Ravine.” Although not an actual ravine and situated north to south while the town ran east to west, it did sit lower than the rest of the town.
When she moved to The Ravine, the MacKenzie family lived down the block. Homes of various sizes and structural components, haphazardly strung along dirt roads, made up the neighborhood tucked below the Black Hills at one end and Joshua on one side. The area remained virtually unchanged from the late 1800s. When the mines ran too dry to support the town, the residents abandoned the area, and The Ravine lay dormant until the 1960s when hippies and artists descended on Joshua. “I can still conjure memories as far back as age four when I had the run of The Ravine with my two partners in crime, you and Magpie.”
“Here you go folks.” The waitress interrupted. “Condiments on the table unless there’s something else you need?”
“No, thank you.”
“Mom rented out the house for years.” She popped a fry in her mouth. “The year I moved back to Joshua, Mom succumbed to moving away with her new husband. She always gave in to the hubby. She gave me her cottage in The Ravine. I didn’t need the Big Purple House.”
“But with two girls, didn’t you want a bigger place?”
How bizarre they’d been lifelong friends, and yet he had so many questions. They’d lost touch during their college and baby years. When he returned to Joshua, years after her migration back, their friendship rekindled, yet they’d never visited those lost years. She’d have thought his sister, Magpie, would’ve kept him informed of her life happenings. Magpie kept her in the know about Harlan’s son and his wife’s death. But the sister and brother grew apart when their mother died, so apparently Mags didn’t keep Harlan updated on her. “When the last tenants moved out in 1999, I’d just had Poppy. Poppy’s father and I, well, we had our issues and worrying about the house wasn’t on my radar.”
Talking suspended while they ate for several minutes. Subdued chatter from the closest tables whirled around as if stirred by the overhead fans.
“Lilac End,” Harlan said. “Too bad the locals saw fit to rename it the Big Purple House.”
She snickered. “The renters painted the house purple in the mid-sixties. The hippies liked purple better I guess.” She sipped her diet cola. “I can’t remember the last time I was inside. How bad is it?”
He took a sudden interest in dipping his french fry in ketchup. “We’ll need a cement contractor to replace the sidewalk steps. Maybe repair or replace sections of the walk front and back.” Scooping the last of the ketchup with another fry, he kept his eyes averted. “The floor of the wraparound veranda is in decent condition. I might replace a board here and there, but refinishing will spruce it up. I haven’t been on the roof yet, but my guess is you need a new one. Of course, the whole house needs painting—”
“Tell me what I don’t know.”
“I, uh, haven’t been inside yet.”
She stopped chewing. His discomfort was obvious. “Why not? I gave you the key two days ago.”
“I went by that day, but I got a phone call and had to divert to the remodel below the switchback.” He washed down the fry with his last swallow of iced tea. “I’d only had time to walk about the outside this morning when you pulled up.”
“Morning?” She’d known this man all her life and could certainly tell when he fudged the truth. “The day’s half gone.” She wasn’t irritated. He’d get the job done on time, but her interest piqued at the reason for his hesitancy to begin the work. “Why the stall?”
He grimaced. “I’m not stalling.”
The waitress stopped at their table. “Anything more I can get you two?”
He shook his head and fussed with his empty iced tea glass, leaving her to answer. “We’re fine.”
“Then here’s the bill, but no hurry. Thanks for coming in.”
Once the waitress turned away, Phaedra thumped the table. “Harlan!”
He jerked his head up. “What?”
“If you’re too busy, say so. I can hire someone else.”
“Well, if you’d really rather hire—”
“Hell no, I’d not ratherhire someone—"
“Shh. I’m right here. You don’t have to yell.” He snatched the bill and pulled out his wallet. “Got it this time.” He stood as he tucked two twenties under his knife then shoved the chair under the table. “Ready?”
She followed him out, perplexed by his behavior. This man loved his work. An old house like hers, with origins dating back nearly a hundred years, should have him salivating. They’d have to see each other more often, outside the weekly hikes with Magpie or twice-a-month dinners at his dad’s. Most weekends, they met at the Apparition Room when Magpie sang. The outings were never one on one. Now they’d collaborate on the restorations. Just the two of them. She fell into step next to him. The decades of easy friendship they’d shared seemed anything but easy over the last year. Could that be her fault? Could she be forcing some sort of evolution in their relationship he didn’t feel? Her stomach churned her burger. She didn’t want to lose what they had…but she found herself so attracted to him lately.
They reached the car in silence. Standing on the passenger side, he studied her across the hood. “I’m sorry I’ve dragged my feet, Phae. The house holds challenges for me, and I want to get it right for you.”
“You’ve got time, but as I’ve heard, time is money. The work’s not really for me anyway. Annette just wants the property restored and livable. It’s been empty over twenty years. Could be creatures living in there. Who knows what condition the plumbing is in? She’ll be in Puerto Rico for at least two more months taking care of whatever wealthy people take care of before they make a major move. Didn’t she say once she moves to Joshua, she’ll know more about what changes she wants?”
“Yeah.” He moved to open the door.
She slid onto her seat and buckled before starting the engine. “Then schedule the work as you need to.” She backed out of the parking space. “What challenges, anyway? You haven’t even been inside.”
“I’ll let you know when I get it figured out.” He stared straight ahead, his voice firm, ending that line of conversation.
It’s not seeing me more, then, that has you in a foul mood? The house is the culprit?Curiosity tickled.
What aren’t you saying, Harlan MacKenzie?
Nora plumped the pillows against the headboard on the hotel bed, relaxed her back with her legs straight out, and set her glass of wine on the bedside table. She removed the wrapper from the sandwich she bought at the deli and took a bite. With a delicate touch, she lifted the nearly one hundred-year-old journal which had belonged to her great grandmother, Genevieve Jenkins, onto her lap. She’d read it cover to cover while lolling in jail for check fraud.
After her mother died, she had needed a few months of her mother’s social security checks to get on her feet. Having your husband dump you and steal your daughter away should count for some leniency. She would’ve paid it back eventually, once she found a job. Well, hell, she did draw a cracker jack public defender, or she’d have been locked away longer.
The old trunk she’d found in her mother’s garage contained bits of the lives of her grandmother and great grandmother. She had only vague memories of her great grandmother, GG, who died when Nora was seven. The journal proved to be a treasure. Gingerly, she lifted the cover and opened the book several pages into the book.
February 24, 1924
I like most of the girls I work with. Ma Betsy (she insists we call her Ma) takes care of us but won’t tolerate no shenanigans from her girls. I want to laugh every time she says that, but I’m not sure what her lack of tolerance might bring me. Today, Ma took us all to the visiting doctor at the Copper Line Hotel. He comes to town once a month. He checked us out real good. He was nice. Respectful like. But I get that pretty much from everyone, except from the bible ladies. And maybe some of the rich wives who live high up on Spirit Mountain. They won’t even set foot down on our street. Snobby witches. If only they knew about their husbands! But maybe they do. I don’t care.
Ma and the girls are more like family than those people I ran away from in Phoenix. Blood don’t always make people love you. Ruth and Margaret are going to throw me a party for my birthday next month when I turn sixteen. I can’t remember ever having a birthday party—blowing out candles and eating cake! I’m so excited already. I wonder if any of the customers will be invited. I hope not. My first birthday wish is to have a party with just MY FAMILY. Ma and the girls.
There’s a nice man I entertained two nights ago. I haven’t liked any of the men I’ve had so far, but this one was different. Most of the miners don’t even wash under their nails. The few rich men I’ve entertained have been weird with their sex requests. Not John. And he was in no hurry. He even told me to call him John. Most the men don’t much care what you call them. In fact, they don’t want to talk at all. John is very cultured and gentle. I heard Ma whispering to her friend Josie that she hopes John Carl Hersey tells his friends about our house. We need more of his kind of money, she said. I think he liked me too. He was very, what I am going to call, appreciative.
She closed the journal, took another bite of her hoagie then lifted her wine glass. John Hersey had stood on the veranda of Lilac End, right where she’d stood today. He’d descended the same steps on his way to meet GG. As she sipped her wine, a vision of what her relative looked like came to mind. From the back of the journal, she slipped out an ancient, cloudy, black and white photo. Young Genevieve Jenkins resembled Nora so much the image came to life, leaving her breathless as she stared at her GG’s face. From entries in the journal, describing her great grandmother’s hair as red and her eyes as deep blue, she could color the black and white photo in her mind. With one hand to her chest, and her gaze glued to the picture, she lifted the wine glass. Empty. She poured another. What the hell. Why not? This was a vacation—sort of—with a mission.
As she chewed the last bite of the sandwich, she wadded the wrapping and tossed it into the round metal can. With another thought, she set the journal and photo next to her and stood. After downing most of her drink, she slipped out of her clothes and reclined again on the bed. A nap sounded good, and she needed to think about the house, decide how to achieve her goal. Admittedly, she’d jumped off on her quest without much forethought. Now here, she had to get her bearings. With the last swallow of wine, her eyelids grew heavy. “Don’t worry, GG. I’ll think of something.”