Tropical Rendezvous

Stephanie Bedwell-Grime

 

Chapter 1

A crash shook the floor behind her. Raphaella whirled to find a piece of the ceiling had given way, leaving her standing in a solarium instead of a bedroom. Above, palm fronds crashed together in the wind. Dark clouds scudded across a threatening sky. She’d have to take cover before the storm hit, which, in the tropics, could be very soon. She needed to shelter somewhere with an intact ceiling, which ruled out her present location.

Ella cast another nervous glance at the sky. Rain, especially a tropical downpour, would mean more damage to the already marginal property. Lightning flashed. Calling in someone to repair the roof right now would be just too dangerous. It would have to wait until after the storm.

A fat raindrop splattered her nose. The raindrop was swiftly followed by a torrent more. That was all the encouragement she needed; Ella fled down the long hall to the sweeping staircase.

Lightning sizzled again, casting the aging property in stark relief. She nearly stumbled on the stairs. Getting her feet under her, she raced for the sanctuary of one of the smaller main floor rooms. One that still had a ceiling.

Tropical rainstorms came frequently this time of year. She was told they usually blew over the island quickly, but the clouds that had been gathering all day looked particularly threatening. Ella ducked into a small bedroom. It was barely big enough to hold a bed and a dresser, but it did have a spectacular view of the ocean beyond through its one and only window. Angry waves gnashed the shore. She shut the drapes and huddled on the bed while the storm tossed sand and palm fronds at the panes.

She’d known it was hurricane season and that inclement weather would likely be one of the challenges she faced in this new job. She just hadn’t realized it would start the moment she arrived.

Ella put her hands over her head and crouched lower on the bed.

“We’re due for a spot of rain today,” the cab driver had told her when he dropped her off.

“A spot of rain” meant something completely different on the mainland than it did here. She should have taken someone more used to island weather with her. But she’d wanted to come alone to take in the property by herself, to feel the essence of the place before she made her recommendations. She hadn’t expected the storm to blow in so quickly. My proposal will change if the storm blows the roof off, she thought grimly.

Upstairs she heard another ominous crash. She had no idea what to do in a violent rainstorm. Was it like a tornado? Did you look for shelter at the lowest part of the house? She realized she just didn’t know. So she distracted herself by making a mental list of needed repairs for her report. Number one on that lengthy list was repairing the roof to prevent further property damage.

A flash of lightning and a long rumble of thunder stole her attention. She mentally revised the list. Number one, survive the storm. Number two, quit this job. The weather was unpredictable, and the property was in terrible shape. What the owner wanted was next to impossible. It might be better to level the property and sell the land to a hotel chain.

Still, the brief glimpse of the tranquil beach she’d seen before the storm blew in had entranced her. The property offered sweeping vistas of unspoiled beach. A virtually untouched paradise. Shaded verandas ringed the large house, giving ample space to enjoy that spectacular view. From an emotional standpoint, she could understand what the owner saw in the place. The old place tugged at her heartstrings. “I was beautiful in my heyday,” it seemed to say to her. “I could be beautiful again.” Practically though, the task was a lot more arduous. And not easy to accomplish in hurricane season. Ella shook her head. She had no experience under these conditions. She’d spoken to Mr. Kace, the owner, on the phone, but they’d not yet met in person. She wondered why he’d insisted on hiring her small company.

Whatever his reason, what he wanted couldn’t be done. She pulled her cell phone out of her pocket and gave it a hopeful glance. No service. Fine. As soon as she got back to her hotel, she’d call the mysterious Mr. Kace and tell him to find someone else.

A torrent of rain hit the wind, followed by another thump. I might be stuck here for a while, she thought with a deep sigh. Her determination to resign would have to wait.

So far nothing had gone right on this trip. Her plane from the mainland had been delayed. Once she’d landed on an island, she’d thought her trip was over. But it turned out another plane awaited her to take her to a much smaller island. Her luxury accommodations turned out to be little more than a bed and breakfast run by a reticent older couple.

The B&B did have a beautiful view of the beach, as well as a couple of deck chairs around the world’s smallest swimming pool. Turned out the rest of the island’s amenities were a bar by the docks and a general store, which also served as post office and travel agent.

But the B&B did have a landline. She’d use it to call in her resignation and then take up residence by that tiny pool while she waited for a flight in that barely air-worthy plane.

The proprietors of the bed and breakfast had introduced themselves as Hector and Flora. They’d fussed over her as though she’d been their only guest in a long time. They’d been concerned about the inclement weather, but she’d wanted to see the property right away. Eventually, they’d relented after insisting on calling her a cab, even though the property was accessible by a long walk along the beach. I should have taken their advice, Ella thought. Seeing the property could have waited until tomorrow. Right now she’d be safe inside a building with an intact roof instead of huddled in a strange bedroom.

The exhaustion of an early morning flight caught up with her. Ella nodded off, only to jerk awake a short time later. It took a moment to recognize her surroundings. A ray of sunlight streamed through the drapery. She stretched stiff muscles and got up off the bed.

A plume of dust glittered in the sunlight as she opened the drapes. The sun had moved lower in the sky, but it still shone brightly. Off on the horizon she spied a few dark clouds being driven from the sky by a light wind. If it weren’t for the palm fronds strewn all over the beach and the raindrops that gave everything a silver coating, she wouldn’t believe the storm had happened.

That kind of unpredictable weather would make construction a nightmare. Getting a construction crew to the island would be a bigger headache. Working in the tropics had seemed like such a great idea. She’d imagined having a bit of a holiday during the job, enjoying the sun and the sea. She could handle renovating a house. Even one that needed a bit of work, as her mysterious boss had put it.

But it was one house the size of a mansion that was missing a portion of its roof. The grounds had been left for the jungle-like vegetation to take over, and the job needed to be completed during hurricane season so it would be ready for the busy tourist season to follow.

I didn’t do enough research. I didn’t ask enough questions. She’d been so captivated by the thought of working in the tropics, of getting away from her problems, she hadn’t thought it through. Well, she was thinking hard enough now.

Ella left the bedroom and headed across the foyer to the front door. The wind had blown the door open, and a cascade of rain now pooled like a welcome mat. She couldn’t leave it there to do further damage, although that missing part of the roof had surely done enough. Before she left she’d have to speak with the owner and tell him if that was the only thing he needed to arrange before the day’s end.

She glanced around the foyer and found an old broom lying by the doorway. It had fallen over and was now sitting in the rainwater, but it would have to do. Picking it up, she began sweeping the water out over the front porch onto the ground. She’d do this one thing, and then it was back to the B&B and hopefully off the island.

A twig snapped nearby. Her head shot up. A tall man carrying a toolbox approached out of a grove of nearby palm trees. Ella leaned on the broom.

Wearing a pair of dirty overalls and not much else, he looked as though he’d crawled out from under a rock. He had a head of shaggy blond hair that brushed his shoulders, striking amber eyes, and a full beard. That beard must be hell in this heat. Maybe he needs it to cover something up. A facial scar, perhaps. Beneath the overalls, he was bare-chested, and he wore only a pair of black flip-flops, even though the beach was strewn with debris. Must be one of the locals, she decided. The couple who ran the B&B said no one except residents came and went much from the island.

“Quite the job you got there,” he said in greeting. He walked to the foot of the stairs and set down the toolbox he was carrying. Despite his shaggy appearance, he had a warm and friendly voice. Then again everyone who lived on a private island would tend to be friendly.

Ella smiled. “Well, turns out it’s not going to be my job.”

Was it her imagination, or did the corners of his mouth droop into a frown? Within that bushy beard she couldn’t tell. “No?”

She thought she detected disappointment in his tone, but maybe he’d just been hoping for work at the mansion during construction. Ella glanced up in the direction of the roof. “I think the job’s a little beyond my experience.” She heard the distinct sound of water dripping upstairs. “And my capabilities.”

He nodded to the broom she still had in her hands. “You seem capable enough. Most people would have left the water there.” He looked up at the roof. “After all, there’s probably enough of it upstairs.”

Ella shrugged. “No sense in making it worse.”

That made him smile. He had even, white teeth within that bushy beard. It contrasted with his scruffy appearance. “Ah, the place needs someone like you.”

She leaned the broom back against the wall inside. The man was still standing at the bottom of the stairs as if waiting for a response. She took a step down the front stairs. “Well, I’m not the woman for the job.” She glanced up at the facade of the old house, and for a split second, she imagined again how beautiful it must have been. Please stay, it seemed to be saying to her. She descended farther down the stairs, forcing him to move out of her way. When he didn’t stop her, she kept walking. “The owner will just have to find someone else.”

“The owner found the perfect person for the job.”

There was an air of command that hadn’t been in his tone a moment before. Ella turned and looked at him, expecting him to have suddenly morphed into a top executive or an army drill sergeant. But the same bushy-haired, bearded man in overalls stared back at her.

“The owner made a mistake,” she said and kept walking.

She promised herself she wouldn’t look back, but once she’d reached the beach, she couldn’t help giving the place one parting glance.

The full sunlight revealed its many flaws—that was for sure—but it also coated the place in a golden glow that got her imagination flowing again. It had a grandeur just not seen in modern buildings. The style could be imitated at best. This building possessed it in its soul.

Still, it needed someone far more experienced, someone used to working in crushing heat and tropical rain. She’d think about it once she got back to the B&B. Maybe over a cool drink things would seem clearer.

She was about to turn away and continue walking back along the beach to the bed and breakfast when she spied the scruffy man. Standing well back from the house, he was staring at it much as she had. She watched while he considered what he could see of the roof. Then with a sigh, he picked up the toolbox he’d left on the stairs and disappeared inside.

Ella found the owners of the bed and breakfast outside cleaning up the grounds. For an elderly couple, they’d made quick work of it. A pile of palm fronds was already neatly stacked. They’d gone on to cleaning the pool and straightening the patio furniture.

“That was quite a storm,” Hector said when he saw her.

“We were worried about you,” Flora added.

“No need, I was already inside when it struck.” Ella glanced at the blue sky. “Are they all like that?”

Hector paused in his pool cleaning. “Most of them are worse.”

“Now, don’t frighten the girl. Once she got a look at that house, she’s probably spooked enough.” Flora put another cushion on a patio chair and straightened, waiting for Ella’s opinion on the matter.

“You knew what kind of shape it was in?”

“Well, it is our next-door neighbor,” Hector said.

“Do you think there’s any hope for the place?” Despite her earlier comment, Flora had a wistful tone in her voice. The old house seemed to do that to everyone. It was as if it possessed a spirit that desperately wanted to be set free.

“Honestly, not much. It needs extensive renovations. Every square inch of the place needs some attention, most of all the roof. It would be far more cost effective to tear the place down.”

She heard Hector suck in a sharp breath behind her. Flora appeared as if she might cry.

A pang of guilt clenched Ella’s heart. She couldn’t fix the place. She should just go inside and tell Mr. Kace that before she dashed anyone else’s hopes.

She walked up the steps to the bed and breakfast. “I’m going to call Mr. Kace and tell him that right now.”

“Can’t,” Hector said from behind her. “Phones are out.”

Ella pulled her cell from her pocket and stared at it. Still no service. She tucked it back in her pocket and continued up the stairs.

“Let me fix you a cool drink,” Flora said, coming up the stairs after her.

“It’s okay. I can get it myself,” Ella said. “You have enough work to do.” She looked at the pile of palm fronds. “Do you need a hand?”

Hector had gone back to cleaning the pool. “Almost done,” he called. “Go have your drink.”

She glanced back in time to see the couple exchange a wary glance. She almost continued into the house, but then she thought of the scruffy man and his toolbox. “There was someone working on the house when I left.”

“Really?” Flora asked.

“Yeah, tall guy with a bushy beard in overalls.”

A puzzled look crossed the owner’s face.

“Does odd jobs, I guess,” Ella said.

Hector stopped his pool cleaning again. He shared another look with his wife. “I guess you could say that.”

She should ask, but then again, as soon as there was phone service, she intended to be off the job. She’d told the handyman. She’d told the owners of the B&B. She just had to tell her boss. She continued into the coolness of the house.

True to her word, Flora had left a pitcher of tropical punch in the fridge. The inside of the fridge still seemed cold, so if the power had been off during the storm, it hadn’t been off for long. She wondered what was wrong with the phones, but on the island, all the phone lines ran along old-fashioned telephone poles. It likely took only one of them to break to put the whole area out.

Ella sat at the long table in the dining room and stared out the window. Now that the sun was out, the damage looked even worse. Everything had that sodden look that only a ferocious downpour could give it. She looked in the direction the mansion stood even though she couldn’t see it through the row of palm trees that separated the properties. The foliage had been left to grow wildly on the other side, encroaching on the house even more.

She could just imagine the damage that much rain could do to the upper floor. Then again, this likely wasn’t the only rainstorm the building had endured since that part of the roof had collapsed. The image of the house in its heyday haunted her. She gazed out at the tree line and envisioned it neatly trimmed and the house freshly painted. The gardens would have been spectacular, alive with a riot of tropical color. Visitors would have relaxed on its wide porches, enjoying the ocean view or just enjoying a cool drink on a hot day. Cabanas would have been set up along the beach…

Ella took another long pull on her own beverage and glanced down at her phone. Still no service. She walked over to the phone on a small table by the dining room entrance and lifted the receiver. Nothing.

Well, if she couldn’t resign and she couldn’t call a cab to get off the island, she might as well enjoy her day here. She doubted that tiny plane would be flying in inclement weather anyway.

She went upstairs, unpacked a few essentials, and changed out of her grubby clothes.

Voices greeted her as she ventured back down the staircase. With all the windows open to catch the breeze, sound carried farther on the island.

“She wants to leave.” Ella recognized Hector’s voice. They were talking about her. She paused, her foot on the last stair, and listened to the conversation coming from the patio.

A long sigh. She heard the clink of ice cubes in a glass and then the sound of more liquid being poured. “They all do.” She thought she recognized the voice of the male newcomer, but she couldn’t quite place it.

“What if she’s right?” Hector asked. “It might be easier for everyone just to tear the place down.”

“No.”

“The land would still be a good investment.”

“It’s not about the money. You know that.”

“Well, maybe it should be about the money sometimes. If a thing can’t be done, then a thing can’t be done.”

“For enough money, anything can be done. We just need someone with the right…well, vision.”

“And do you think she’s the one?”

The question was punctuated by the sound of the glass being put back down on the patio table. “If she doesn’t get back on that plane.”

Hector uttered a grunt of agreement.

“I put a new tarp over the roof. The last one must have blown off.”

Ella tiptoed across the floor and looked through the open patio doors. She could see the handyman she’d met over at the old house. That’s who Hector was talking to. It sounded as if they knew each other, but that only made sense. On a small island, everyone knew each other. He probably did work at the bed and breakfast too. “I’ll give Mike a call later when the phones are back on and see if he can shore up that part of the roof. There’ll be less damage if we can keep the water out of the upstairs hall.” The handyman began walking back down toward the beach.

“That roof is like trying to plug a sieve,” Hector called after him.

He glanced back over his shoulder and uttered an ironic laugh. “Well, one hole at a time.”

“Wouldn’t hurt you to shave once in a while, either,” Hector added, but there was humor in his tone.

“You know I never shave on a sailing trip,” she heard the handyman say before disappearing down the beach.

Ella emerged onto the porch. Hector glanced up. “There you are. Might as well take it easy. All the phones are out, and no one’s going anywhere right now. Flora has mixed up a new batch of punch, and we’ve got the patio furniture put to rights.” He pulled out a chair for her to sit in.

“I really need to talk to Mr. Kace.”

“Well, the phones ought to be working in awhile. Small island, you know. Only a few people to do the work.”

She inclined her head in the direction of the old property next door. “Is that why the place was left to decline?”

Hector shook his head. He leaned on the rake he had been using before the handyman arrived. “Hurricane hit it a few years back. The owner didn’t have the money for the repairs, so it sat for a while before she sold it to—”

“Mr. Kace,” Ella finished. “Who has totally unrealistic expectations for the place.”

Hector’s face darkened for a moment. Then he gave her bright smile. “I think he’s just sentimental. It’s not such a bad quality.”

Ella couldn’t help smiling back. “No, it’s not. Does Mr. Kace have a personal connection to the house?”

Hector looked wistfully in the direction of the old house. “I guess you could say that. Then again, he’s got a connection to the whole island.”

That she hadn’t been expecting. She knew the wealthy and mysterious Mr. Kace had a home on the exclusive island, but his attachment to the property next door seemed unusual. “So it’s more than just an investment property to him.”

He glanced back at her for a moment and then picked up his rake again. “I imagine there’d be easier ways to make money.”

“And it’s rumored Mr. Kace has enough of that to begin with.”

Hector paused in his raking. “A lot of things are rumored about Mr. Kace.”

Ella picked up her glass and wandered to the row of trees setting the two properties apart. On the bed and breakfast side, the foliage had been well groomed. Not so much on the side of the old house. The jungle-like vegetation had nearly reclaimed the grounds. A swath had been cleared around the house to allow access for work crews, and someone had excavated the front path, but the whole place bore signs of long neglect.

Still, even with that one furtive glance, the place called to her. She could see why it had so attracted the elusive Mr. Kace, especially if he had a prior connection to the place. If he remembered it the way it had been, the pull would be even stronger.

She walked back to the table and put her glass down. Hector had finished raking and had started on cleaning the pool. Ella skirted the pool and took the stone path down to the beach.

“Don’t be too long,” Hector called after her. “We’re expecting more rain.”

She waved to show him she’d heard him and continued on.

With the storm only recently passed, the water was muddy and choppy. She took off her sandals and walked along the wet sand until she could catch an unimpeded view of the property.

A blue tarp covered the open part of the roof. Edges of the tarp flapped in the wind. It wouldn’t be much help in another storm like the one they’d just had, but it was better than nothing. The grounds looked even worse than they had before with all the debris the storm had churned up.

She picked her way along the path. Someone had gathered up the palm fronds and tossed them in a neat pile by the side. Likely the handyman. She’d heard him say he’d put the tarp on the roof. Ella stared up at the old house and sighed. Even with a bit of cleaning up and some first aid done to the roof, the place was a mess. She didn’t even want to contemplate how difficult it would be even to get the equipment they’d need to this location.

Still, that wasn’t her job exactly. All she had to do was to come up with a vision for the place. She’d have to oversee the work and keep the project on budget, but Mr. Kace’s people would do the rest. Ella found herself already reaching for the small sketchbook she kept in her back pocket. Might as well get started on the vision part.

It would be best to work with what was left of the original structure. She sketched the image that had been haunting her all day. In her rendering, she trimmed back the foliage and added sculpted gardens. She drew the house the way she could so clearly see it in her mind with all its grandeur and majesty.

Huge sweeping porches ringed the ground floor. She added double doors on the upstairs windows and gave them tiny balconies where a chair could be brought up to the open windows to enjoy the ocean breeze.

Ella sketched in an infinity pool that seemed to drop right into the turquoise ocean. She added tables with umbrellas to the patio in the garden.

It would be stunningly beautiful. She could imagine sitting on the patio of this exclusive resort enjoying a fruity drink and watching the sun set over the ocean. The balconies on this side of the house would enjoy spectacular ocean views, and on the other side of the house, she could add lush gardens overflowing with tropical flowers. The whole place would erupt in a riot of color.

She glanced up from the sketch to take another look at the house. It wouldn’t be easy, but it was possible. That’s more like it, the house seemed to be saying to her.

“Impressive,” said a voice from behind her. A deep, warm voice. For a moment Ella thought it was the handyman she’d heard talking with Hector, but when she turned, she found herself gazing into the eyes of clean-shaven blond man with penetrating amber eyes.