Skeleton's Key

By: Stacy Green

She would save Ironwood.

She wiped her face once again and checked her reflection. Her fair Irish skin was no longer pink, but her hair was still flat from the humidity. Quickly, she dug a brush out of her purse, dragged it through her hair, and pulled it into a loose ponytail. That would have to do.

An Adams County Sheriff’s cruiser was parked in the winding drive in front of what was obviously the carriage house. Single story, moderately maintained, a few flowers out front. Lived in.

The flowers.

Her attention was drawn back to the sprawling house. Well-kept blooming rosebushes surrounded the front of the house, and sweet jasmine peeked out from the bottom of the bushes. A mint julep plant adorned the side of the house, its rugged foliage neatly trimmed. Two large planters loaded with azaleas marked Ironwood’s entrance.

Someone else loved this place, too.

The front door, partially shaded by the portico, swung open. A tall man stepped outside wearing a sleeveless shirt and dark cargo shorts. Standing well over six feet, he was broad shouldered with just the right amount of muscle in his bare arms. Tanned skin, long legs, and chestnut colored hair that could use a trim.

He strode down the steps toward her car. This must be Cage. She reached for the door handle, ready to greet him with as much friendliness as she could muster. The door didn’t open, and she realized it was locked. She fumbled for the button in the unfamiliar car.

He was at her door now, squinting in the window, a tight smile on his face. Dani snapped the door handle at the same time as he grabbed for it, swinging the door into his outstretched hand.

He stumbled back, shaking his fingers. “Damn.”

“I’m sorry!” She stood on rubbery legs, immediately tearing at the heat. “Oh God, it’s hot.”

He grunted and then stuck out his hand. “Welcome to Ironwood. I’m Cage.”

“I’m so sorry about your hand.”

“‘S’all right.” Cage shifted his weight, brushing his hair off his forehead. “Let me get your bags for you.”

“If you don’t mind, I’d love to get inside the house.” She shaded her eyes to gaze at Ironwood. “I just can’t wait any longer.”

Cage cocked his head, staring down at her as though he were trying to decide if she were worthy to enter. She didn’t break eye contact and tried to smile, but she was pretty sure the heat made her look like a mangy stray dog.

“Go on ahead, then.”

She forced herself not to sprint to Ironwood’s front steps. There was nothing like walking into a pre-restored historical home for the first time. She’d entered her first when she was fifteen, and had been in countless others since then, traveling throughout Midwest for her internship and later career. No matter the state, every one breathed whispers of the past in Dani’s ear. Instead of crumbling foundations and cracked walls, she saw decades of life, family hardships, and strength. Instead of a money-sucking eyesore, she saw something to be cherished: a living structure waiting to be rescued.

She loved every home she’d ever worked on, but Ironwood was personal. The grand old home represented everything Dani loved about her mother and the promise she’d made to move on with her life. Stopping in front of the bottom step, she swallowed the hard lump in her throat and tried to will the stinging tears not to fall.

Close-up, the house looked even more dismal and haunting. Weather had scrubbed off massive sections of paint, and several of the porch spindles were rotting. The portico’s floor looked worn through in some places, making it impossible to tell what the original color had been. But she saw beyond all that–saw the beauty of what had once been.

She saw home.

“I haven’t been able to do much to the outside.” Cage stood beside her. “Spent most of my time getting the inside cleaned out. Church didn’t want to give any money toward upgrades so—”

“I’m glad they didn’t.” Dani knew her words were coming out too fast, but she couldn’t slow down. “That’s the biggest mistake made with these old homes. So many of them are gutted of their original designs. Old windows replaced with new, supposedly more efficient ones.”

“Why is that a mistake?”

“Because these houses aren’t made for the new windows. There is so much cost to fitting the old sills for modern windows, the energy savings are eaten up. It’s better to restore the old ones.”

He flushed and looked away.

“Did you replace any of the windows?”

“Not yet. But it was on my list.”

Dani breathed a sigh of relief. “Good. Less mistakes to fix the better. What about the interior? Is everything still the same as the pictures I’ve been shown?”

“Yes ma’am. Majority of the woodwork is all original. Some is in pretty lousy condition, though.”

“That’s okay. As long as you didn’t mess anything up, I can work with it.”

Irritation flashed across his face. “No ma’am, I sure didn’t.” He strode up the sagging porch steps leaving Dani behind. She hadn’t meant to offend him. She just got so excited about restoration, and she’d encountered so much damage by well-meaning amateurs over the years.