The Guests on South Battery (7 page)

I followed closely behind her. “This is a huge decision, and something that involves a lot of thought. I want you to mull it over for a couple of days, and then we'll talk.”

She stopped and faced me. “I don't like old houses, and seeing this hasn't really changed my mind. I'm ready to list it as is.”

I could feel Sophie's gaze boring into the back of my head. “I know, and I understand your point of view. I really do. I just want you to
consider Button Pinckney. She entrusted this house to your care for whatever reason, but I'm sure she didn't make her decision lightly. That's something you need time to think about.”

Her narrow shoulders sagged. “Fine. I'll think about it. But I can tell you I won't change my mind.”

We headed toward the stairway and once again I had the sensation of being pursued and another of being pulled back. I stared straight ahead, trying to see but still aware of the wall that was apparently interfering with—if not totally blocking—my sixth sense.

Halfway down the stairs, I heard the sound again, something tinny and metallic, but this time it sounded more like words. Neither Jayne nor Sophie appeared to have heard it, so I kept heading toward the door, almost as eager as Jayne to close the door behind us.

It wasn't until I was relocking the key in the lockbox that I realized that the doll had spoken, but it wasn't a nursery rhyme. It had been the unmistakable two words that I was unfortunately growing accustomed to.
Go away.

CHAPTER 6

“A
re you ready?” Jack asked as he opened the door to the nursery, where I'd been dressing the twins in preparation for our meeting with Jayne.

“Almost. If you can put on JJ's shoes, that would be helpful. I've already put them on twice and he keeps taking them off.”

Jack approached us where we sat on the floor and leaned down to kiss me and squeeze Sarah's cheek before hoisting his son in his arms. “Hello there, big man.” He frowned at the miniature loafers. “I don't blame him for not wanting to wear those things. His feet are round blobs with toes. How about those awesome soft high-tops I bought him?”

“They don't go with his outfit,” I protested, watching as Jack opened the closet door as if I hadn't said anything.

“Do you remember where you put them?” he asked, his voice muffled.

I bit my lip, wondering if I should tell him that I didn't know. But I was familiar with where every sock, hair bow, and diaper cover was kept—thanks to a spreadsheet I'd developed—and Jack would know I was lying. I sighed. “They're still in the box, on the top left shelf underneath the mini Van Halen T-shirt and faded baby jeans.”

“Well, no wonder you forget to put these on him if they're tucked way out of the way. I'll put them in the front so you can't miss them.”

I refocused my attention on placing two red bows in Sarah's hair. It was unfair that she should have thicker and prettier hair at one year than I had ever had, but I knew it was from her father's DNA. Even as he was approaching forty, Jack's hair was as thick and abundant as it had been when he was a teenager. I'd probably go bald before he lost a single strand.

Sarah sat with a straight back and her small, plump hands resting in her lap as she stared up at me with her big blue eyes. Sarah was so much easier to dress than JJ, actually enjoying it when I brushed her hair or put on a new pair of shoes or a dress. JJ was lucky he wore more than just a diaper, as dressing him was like wrestling with an octopus. Being a perpetual charmer, he always made sure to give me a hug and a kiss when I'd reached my limit so that I quickly forgot how annoyed I was.

JJ gurgled happily as Jack fastened the Velcro of the high-tops on his small feet, kicking out his legs twice to show his pleasure. “See? He loves them,” Jack beamed as JJ began his litany of
dadadadadada
. His other favorite word was “car,” which he helpfully pointed out whenever he saw one. He'd yet to say “mama,” but I still held out hope. Sarah, in the meantime, had mastered both parents, as well as the names of every family member and all three dogs. The only name she appeared to get stuck on was that of my cousin Rebecca, preferring to stare mutely or burp.

Jack frowned. “Matching outfits again?”

I finished with the little elastic band on the hair bow and stood, Sarah in my arms, admiring her smocked dress with the white Peter Pan collar that I knew would remain pristine until we removed the dress at bedtime. It matched the cute short suit her brother wore, right down to the collar that would be hopelessly stained if not completely torn off by the end of the day. “They were until you switched JJ's shoes.” I thought for a moment. “Maybe I should put Sarah's tennis outfit on her, since apparently we're now going with a sports theme.”

Jack firmly grabbed my elbow and led me from the room. “They're fine, Mellie. They're perfect.”

He stopped in the doorway and leaned in to kiss me, making me forget whatever it was that we'd been discussing. The doorbell rang and he lifted his head. “We'll continue this later. Right now let's all be on our best behavior so we make a good impression.”

“Shouldn't she be trying to impress us?” I asked as we made our way down the stairs.

“We've passed that point, Mellie, don't you think?” His voice held a note of desperation. “The doorbell's working again at least, so I'll take that as a good sign,” he said optimistically.

Mrs. Houlihan, with the two puppies nipping at her heels, had already opened the door and was taking Jayne's coat by the time we reached the foyer. Jayne hung back in the vestibule, looking smaller than I remembered, her face showing her uncertainty. She wore a pale blue sweater and neatly pressed navy pants, her only concession to fashion a pair of pearl earrings.

I handed Sarah to Jack, who easily balanced a child in each arm, then held out my hands to the visitor. “Jayne,” I said. “I hope you found us all right.”

She took my hands and nodded, looking around her with wide eyes. “I did, thank you. I didn't realize . . . I mean, you said you'd inherited your house. I guess I just didn't realize it was so . . .”

“Old?” I completed for her.

She have me a half grin. “Yeah. Something like that.”

Mrs. Houlihan picked up Porgy and Bess and retreated to the kitchen while General Lee made his grand entrance by strolling sedately from the drawing room. I watched with surprise as he sat at Jayne's feet and licked the top of her shoe, something he never did with strangers. “Come in,” I said, pulling her forward. “As you can see, we have a pretty full house.”

As soon as she caught sight of the children, her entire demeanor changed from jittery awkwardness to what looked a lot like pure joy. “Oh, this must be JJ and Sarah.”

Before I could introduce her to Jack and the babies, JJ grinned and held his arms out to her. He was never shy around strangers—especially
women—but this was the first time I'd seen him choose
anyone
over his father.

Jack looked as surprised as I was and quickly relinquished the little boy. Sarah, never one to be left out, reached for Jayne, too, and was soon happily ensconced in Jayne's other arm.

“I guess they like you,” I said. “Come into the drawing room, where you can sit down. Their weight seems to double every five minutes.”

She sat down on the sofa I indicated, placing each child on a knee, and immediately began a slow bounce, not fast enough to jiggle plump cheeks, but just enough motion to keep them happy. Ignoring me, General Lee snuggled up against Jayne's feet.

“This is my husband, Jack Trenholm,” I said after everyone was settled. I half expected Jack to desert me, too, and find an available corner of the couch near Jayne.

“It's a pleasure to finally meet you,” Jayne said, her earlier nervousness replaced with a sure confidence that I found promising.

“It's good to meet you, too.” A small frown furrowed his brow. “You look vaguely familiar. Have we met before?”

She smiled patiently. “No. I just have one of those faces, so I get that all the time.”

He nodded, but I could tell he wasn't completely convinced. “Must be. So.” He clamped his hands over his kneecaps in what I'd come to recognize as his serious stance. “You're a professional nanny looking for a job.”

“Yes, I am. I'm new to Charleston and I would like to continue with being a nanny. It's something I really like, and it's something I'm good at. I've always enjoyed the company of children—of all ages.”

“And you had a lot of practice growing up in foster care.”

I shot him a warning glance, wondering why he'd chosen to bring up her childhood. We'd already gone over the questions we were going to ask, as well as topics to be covered. Her childhood wasn't one of them.

“That's correct. I made the choice to find a way to be happy in what could have been very unhappy circumstances. Besides taking care of
the physical needs of my charges, I try to instill that philosophy in them. That there's always a way to look past the bad to see the good.”

“That's very optimistic of you.”

Her cheeks flushed, and I noticed for the first time how pretty she was.

Jack nodded. “You have some very glowing references from previous employers. Very impressive. But we have a few questions that weren't covered.” He cleared his voice and I had the distinct impression that he was deliberately avoiding my gaze. “How do you feel about lists and schedules in terms of child-raising?”

I sat up, not having anticipated this question.

“They're very effective,” Jayne said.

I sent Jack a smug smile.

“When they make sense,” Jayne continued. “If it's nap time, but the children are engrossed in a book, or a puzzle, or studying butterflies in the garden—really, anything that absorbs their little minds—it makes sense to adjust the schedule. They'll be ready to give their minds a rest and sleep better if I let them play a little longer.”

“But—” I started.

“What about clothing? What is your theory on dressing small children?”

Jayne smiled warmly at the toddlers on her knees, their dark heads resting contentedly against her chest. “Sarah and JJ look adorable—I especially love JJ's high-tops. Their outfits today are certainly appropriate for parties, or church, or any special occasion. Of course I will defer to the children's parents, but my own philosophy is clothing that is comfortable and stretchy—and easy to get in and out of. Not to mention cleans up well.”

“But—” I started again.

“When can you start?” Jack interrupted. “We'll pay you fifteen percent more than your last employer, and that will include room and board until your permanent living arrangements are decided. We'll give you a generous vacation schedule, as well as most holidays off unless you choose to work.”

I stood suddenly, startling the dog and both babies so they all stared at me with the same wide-eyed look of surprise. “Actually, we have a few more questions, don't we, Jack? And I think we should discuss further before we make any firm arrangements. . . .”

Jack stood, too, then gently took my arm. “Will you excuse us for a moment?”

He pulled me out to the foyer and set both hands on my shoulders. “We have Mary flippin' Poppins sitting in there, and I'm afraid if we let her leave this house without a job offer she can't refuse, somebody else will snap her up. She's perfect—she's qualified, has great references, you like her, and I like her. Heck, the kids already like her and did you see General Lee? When does he ever act like that with strangers? I trust his judgment on people more than I trust my own.”

“He likes Rebecca,” I said.

“Yeah, well, that's because she's related. He feels obligated.”

“Jack. These are our children. Shouldn't we at least interview more people?”

“We could, but you and I both know we will never find as good a candidate as Jayne. I think she might even last more than a month.”

“But what about her comments about schedules and clothing? I don't think . . .”

He put his finger to my lips, silencing me. “She seems solid and sensible, and very accommodating. I'm sure we can compromise. But please, Mellie. Let's restore order to this household. Because if I don't get these revisions done before the next century, there might not be another book.”

I stole a glance toward the drawing room. “Are you sure?”

“Almost as sure as I was when I decided I loved you.”

He was using his blue eyes to his advantage, but I enjoyed it too much to care. “Really?”

“Really,” he said, sealing the deal with a soft kiss on my mouth.

“All right, then. Let's go hire a nanny.”

We started back, but Jack paused when his phone vibrated. “I've got to take this—it's my agent. I shouldn't be long.”

“Good news?” I asked. Things had been touchy since Rebecca's husband, Marc Longo, stole Jack's book idea—the story of a disappearance and murder that had happened in the twenties in
my
house—and made it into a runaway bestseller and Jack was dropped by his publisher as a result.

“I have no idea. I'll let you know.”

I nodded, then returned to the drawing room. JJ was sound asleep on Jayne's shoulder, softly snoring and drooling on her blue sweater, while Jayne, Sarah, and General Lee were all staring at the corner of the room. I turned my gaze to see what it was, praying it wasn't another palmetto bug lying in wait to torment me or Nola.

The air shimmied, like fish scales right under the water's surface, undulating and sparkling. I held my breath, watching as it faded quickly, almost as if it had never been. I would have thought it was my imagination if not for the lingering scent of roses.

I turned back to Jayne, who was reaching down to scratch General Lee behind the ears, something else he never allowed strangers to do. “There must be a bug or something in the corner. I couldn't see what it was, but I don't have my glasses on. I'm squeamish about bugs or else I would have gone in for a closer look.” She grimaced.

My gaze settled on Sarah, who was now frowning at the corner, looking as if somebody had just taken away her favorite toy. “I'll tell Jack to pull back the curtains. We have an exterminator, but sometimes bugs will get in anyway—even in January.”

Sarah reached for me and I lifted her, pressing my nose into her soft hair and holding her close, thinking of every other reason in the world for her interest in the far corner of the room than what I was afraid it could be.

“I'm sorry to just walk in, but the doorbell's not working again and nobody heard me knock.”

I looked up to see my mother, looking as beautiful and elegant as ever. She'd already removed her coat, but her gloves remained on her hands. “Hello, Mother,” I said as I approached to kiss her cheek. Sarah, recognizing the woman who spoiled her without censure, immediately leaned into Ginette's arms.

“Come meet our new nanny,” I said, leading her to Jayne, who was trying to stand without jostling the sleeping baby. “Assuming she's agreed to take the position, that is.”

Jayne smiled. “Yes, of course. You're more than generous. And your children are just darling.” Her gaze traveled behind me, and her smile faltered.

“This is my mother, Ginette Middleton. Mother, this is Jayne Smith, our new nanny.”

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