Excerpt from CHRISTMAS AT THE HUMMINGBIRD HOUSE
Wreaths were hung, trees were decorated, lights were strung. Gingerbread baked in the oven and wassail simmered on the stove, filling the air with the aroma of Christmas spices. Every surface sparkled. Fires were laid in each guest room, awaiting only the strike of a match, and the London Symphony Orchestra’s recording of The Nutcracker Suite wafted softly from speakers throughout the public rooms. A framed copy of the dinner menu was artfully placed on every dressing table, and on each bed, in a leather bound commemorative folder, the day’s agenda was printed in scroll font on heavy vellum paper. No detail had been overlooked, from the cut-glass canisters in the bathrooms filled with lavender scented cotton balls, to the fragrant basket of evergreens and cinnamon sticks that flanked the front door. This was the moment everyone at the Hummingbird House had been working for, planning for, and waiting for all year. Their Christmas guests arrived today.
Gift baskets filled with hand-poured chocolates, local cheeses, preserves, water crackers and a bottle of Ladybug Farm wine were thoughtfully placed in each guest room—with the exception of the room the two teenage girls shared, whose basket contained a bottle of sparkling cider—along with complimentary wineglasses etched with hummingbirds, a corkscrew tastefully imprinted with the name and phone number of the B&B, and of course, a copy of the Geoffery Allen Windsor book. Hand-loomed Christmas stockings, one for each guest, were hung above the fireplace in every room, specifically designed to coordinate with the mantelscape, of course. The bins were filled with firewood, the walk was so thoroughly swept it practically gleamed, and even Mother Nature had cooperated with a delicate frosting of snow that dusted the winter lawn and the holly bushes like confectioner’s sugar. Everything was perfect. They were ready.
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And see how it all began with THE HUMMINGBIRD HOUSE
Excerpt from The Hummingbird House:
Of Vice and Men
By Paul Slater
After twenty three brilliant, flashy, and often outrageous years with you, Gentle Reader, the time has come for me to say goodbye to In Style and all it entails. We’ve laughed together, we’ve cried together. We survived mom jeans, Cuban heels, and Kim Kardashian together. But now the voice of adventure calls me in a different direction, and I know your best wishes for a safe passage are with me as I sally forth to boldly go where no self-respecting style guru has gone before.
It’s been three months since I left the hustle and bustle of the big city for the bucolic pastimes of the Shenandoah valley, and I’m often asked what I miss the most. The traffic jams on the Beltway? The gangland shootings that dominate the nightly news? The clever cocktail conversations of Washington’s finest, those silver-tongued devils to whom we are eternally grateful for putting the hustle into the term “hustle and bustle”? Or perhaps simply the vastly underestimated delights of really reliable Internet service?
The answer, my friends, is none of the above.
Here in the country we watch the sunsets instead of musical theater. The musical stylings of the chickadees have replaced concerts in the park and we attend county fairs instead of the opera. Fusion cuisine may be a bit hard to find, but farm fresh produce is on every corner. The Manolo Blahnicks have been traded for gardening clogs and Fashion Week for the Founder’s Day Parade, but life has never been richer.
“I certainly hope you don’t expect to support us with that drivel,” commented Derrick, reading the computer screen over Paul’s shoulder. His arms were filled with folded towels—half aqua and half peach, six hundred thread count, finest quality Egyptian cotton --and his reading glasses had slipped down to the tip of his nose. He was, in fact, wearing gardening clogs.Paul scowled at him briefly. “I’m experimenting with a new style.”
“So I see. If you don’t mind a suggestion…”“I do.”
Derrick lifted an eyebrow and used his index finger to push his glasses back onto the bridge of his nose. The tower of aqua and peach towels tilted precariously. Paul sprang up to help him. “Sorry,” he said, transferring half the stack into his own arms. “I don’t mean to be cranky.”
“My suggestion was going to be,” replied Derrick archly, “that you turn your considerable talent for the written word into producing advertising copy for our brochures. We’re supposed to be running a business here, you know. By the way, the towels arrived. Gorgeous or not?”
“Gorgeous,” agreed Paul, admiring them. “You didn’t forget the white ones for the ladies to remove makeup, did you?”
“Shipping separately.” Derrick nodded toward the cursor still blinking on the screen. “Where’s the ‘vice’ part?”
Paul sighed. “Still looking for it.”
“Aren’t we all?” The muffled sound of a car door slamming reached them through the tall, wavy-paned window of the small office, and Derrick’s face brightened. “That must be the girls. Bridget is bringing three dozen eggs and Cici promised to look at the leaky faucet. I ordered two cakes for tomorrow’s brunch, too, and Lindsay is bringing another landscape. I’m going to try to get Bridget to help with the demi-glace for the pork loin while she’s here. Come give us a hand, will you?”
Paul glanced thoughtfully back at the half-empty screen of the laptop. “Maybe I’ll start a blog,” he said.
“Boys!” a voice called from the kitchen door. “Are you here?”
“Be right there, sweeties!” Derrick paused at the doorway to glance back over his shoulder.
“Right,” said Paul. “Coming.”
But he lingered in the office as Derrick hurried away, gazing at the words on the screen. “What do I miss?” he muttered. “My life.”
He used his elbow to close the laptop without bothering to save the document, then he went to put the towels away.
The lodge had begun its life, as far as anyone could tell, as a one-room way station for travelers in the days of rutted wagon roads and horse drawn carriages, serving cold ale and hot stew, along with a straw mattress on the floor if you didn’t mind sharing with six other men, for twenty five cents. A bath was extra. Paul and Derrick had scoured the countryside antique shops for a tavern sign from the era, but the best they could do was a hand-painted wooden livery sign that harkened from a hundred years later, which they hung from the arch of the twig pergola that led to the herb garden.
When the Dry Creek gold mine opened in the 1830s, the lodge added a second story and another wing to accommodate the miners who flooded into the county to try their luck. A full course meal was offered every Saturday and Sunday night at the wide-board table in the dining room, and it became so popular that extra tables had to be set up on the porch in the summertime to accommodate the townspeople who drove out for the meal. The mine played out, and the lodge descended into the ignominy of a private home for a decade or two. Then came the Shenandoah Valley Railroad and the rooms were once again filled with the bustle of travelers and the aromas of good sturdy food. Derrick had salvaged a wooden bench from an old railroad station in Pennsylvania to commemorate the era, and it now welcomed modern day guests in the entry hall of the lodge.
The provenance of the lodge became muddled during the early part of the twentieth century, but there was a picture of it in the archives of the local paper when it opened its doors as the Blue View Motor Court in 1955 and again as the Heavenly Hash Diner in 1968. Paul had found a set of chrome stools with red vinyl seats from an old diner in Georgia, had had them beautifully restored by an acquaintance of his from Washington who just happened to own an auto-body repair shop, and had them bolted to the floor around the stainless steel island in the kitchen, almost as they might have been in the sixties.
The building was occupied by a group of lawyers in the eighties, stood empty in the nineties, and fell into disrepair until a private party undertook the task of restoration at the turn of the twenty-first century with the idea of turning it into a bed and breakfast. The result was a long rambling structure embraced by a wrap-around porch with peeled-log support posts, tall narrow windows, and a mixture of log and lap siding stained a nature-loving brown. There were seven airy guest suites, each with a door opening onto the shady porch, and each door was painted a different color—bright fuchsia, canary yellow, cobalt blue, emerald green, purple, tangerine, watermelon red. It sat in the midst of a tangle of wildflower gardens accented by twisted laurel arbors and colorful folk-art bird feeders, and was surrounded by the flowing vista of lavender blue mountains. It had functioned as the Mountain Laurel Bed and Breakfast for a mere six months before Paul and Derrick came to stay there with the idea of retiring in the Shenandoah valley and building their dream house. They were immediately drawn in by the funky charm of the place, the quiet evenings, the lush gardens, the comic antics of the warrior hummingbirds, and grew enchanted with the life of ease and hospitality offered by life at the B&B. When the opportunity arose to purchase the property and become the permanent proprietors and gracious hosts of what was now known as The Hummingbird House they did so without hesitation.
They were only now beginning to realize they had not entirely thought this through.
Of course there had been renovation and redecorating to do, and one could not accommodate paying guests while construction was going on. They had made a point of continuing to open for the Sunday brunch that had been popularized by the previous owner, and they always had a waiting list for reservations, but they both knew that was due mostly to the fact that their friend Bridget did the cooking. The art gallery that Derrick had established in the front of the house always saw a lot of traffic on Sundays, and their friend Lindsay, an amateur artist of considerable talent, helped keep the display interesting by rotating her own paintings through the collection each week in keeping with the current theme. The one thing they hadn’t really given much thought when they purchased the place was that older homes, particularly ones that are open to the public and required to meet certain health and building codes, demand a good bit of maintenance, and the only thing either one of them knew about maintaining property was how to dial the handyman’s number. Fortunately, they now knew how to dial the number of their friend Cici, who had restored a hundred year old mansion practically single handedly, and who knew more about nail guns and ratchets and pipe fittings than either of them was likely to learn in a lifetime.
If the truth be told, they never would have made it this far without the help of the girls, and that was why, seeing them all gathered in the kitchen now with very determined looks on their faces filled both Paul and Derrick with an uneasy dismay. They didn’t like to admit it, even to themselves, but they each had known this moment was coming for some time now.
Paul rubbed his hands together in false enthusiasm as he came into the kitchen, declaring, “Ladies, you’ve never looked more lovely! Lindsay, new shoes? Bridget, darling, love your hair! That shade is definitely you.”
Lindsay glanced down in confusion at her worn, if freshly laundered, plaid sneakers, and Bridget gave him a skeptical look. “It should be,” she said, touching her short platinum bob briefly. “It’s the same color I’ve used for thirty years.”
All three women had passed their first blush of youth decades ago, but all three still had legs that could wear shorts without embarrassment, and glitter polish on their toenails when the occasion called for it. The edge might have fallen off their fashion sense since they had abandoned the suburbs for the country, but they weren’t exactly attending society parties every weekend, either. Even with their hair tied back against the warm midsummer day and their tee shirts less fresh than they might have been six hours ago, Paul’s compliments were not entirely insincere.
Paul brushed a kiss across Cici’s cheek. “Cici, you look—“
“I look like I spent the morning pulling weeds and the afternoon setting Japanese beetle traps in the orchard,” she interrupted impatiently. “We need to talk.”
“Will you look at these eggs?” Derrick put in cheerfully, trying to postpone the inevitable. He carefully transferred the eggs from their padded basket to a big yellow bowl on the countertop, fussing over them as he might a flower arrangement. “They’re as pretty as Easter eggs. Brown and green and turquoise… what do you call the green ones again, Bridget?”
Bridget forgot her stern demeanor and agreed happily, “They are pretty, aren’t they? And the yolks are as bright as butter!” She started helping unpack the basket. “Now remember, fresh eggs don’t have to be refrigerated, so these will do just fine until morning on the counter. In fact, if I were you…”
Cici spoke over her. “Let’s all sit down, shall we?”
Paul looked at Derrick. Derrick looked helplessly back. Like guilty children, they went to the table by the window where they took their family meals, held out a chair for each of the ladies, and then took their own seats. Cici took a breath.
“Boys, you know we love you,” she began, “but we have to have a talk.”
Derrick smothered a groan. “No good thing has ever happened to me after those words.”
Paul gave Cici his most endearing smile. “Oh-oh. Have we over-imposed ourselves upon your good natures?”
“Oh, no of course not!” Bridget exclaimed, but Lindsay silenced her with a sharp and meaningful look.
“The thing is,” Lindsay said carefully, folding her hands atop the table, “we know it’s hard getting settled into a new community, and that you never would have made the move if it hadn’t been for us, and we love having you here, we really do. But— ”
“But we can’t keep running over here two and three times a day,” Cici interrupted impatiently. “We’re spending more time taking care of your place than we are our own. We have our hands full working to get the winery off the ground—“
“And I’m trying to open my own restaurant,” Bridget put in.
“And I’m supposed to be planning my wedding,” added Lindsay, “on top of everything else. It’s not that we mind helping out—“
“Yes we do,” Cici corrected her flatly, tossing her an exasperated look.
“It’s just,” continued Lindsay deliberately, “that we’re worried that it’s gone beyond helping, and is bordering on enabling.”
Derrick looked at Paul with a touch of horrified embarrassment. “This is an intervention,” he said.Cici sat back and folded her arms. “Exactly.”
A beat passed while they absorbed this. Then Paul glanced at Derrick uncertainly and said, “I don’t suppose this would be a good time to mention the loose floorboard in the powder room.”
Cici lifted her eyes to the heavens and blew out a breath that ruffled her bangs.
Bridget reached across the table and squeezed Derrick’s hand, her gentle round face filled with compassion. “The Bed and Breakfast is yours now. You have to let it be yours. Take over, be in charge, make some decisions.”
“We’ve made plenty of decisions,” Paul objected. “We decided to completely redecorate the public rooms.”
“And expand the art gallery,” added Derrick.
“And enclose the side porch to enlarge the dining room.”
“And you did a fine job with all of that,” Bridget assured them. “Everyone loves the new glassed-in dining room.”
“But who was over here every day helping you paint and strip wallpaper and move furniture?” Lindsay pointed out.
“And who was it who called the contractors and supervised the workers while you two were busy ordering Battenberg tablecloths and shopping for mismatched Havilland?” Cici put in.
Paul and Derrick exchanged a look that was both abashed and distressed. “They’re right,” Paul told his partner. “We’ve been fiends.”
Derrick turned to Cici. “We used you outrageously. Can you ever forgive us?”
Cici shifted her gaze toward Lindsay in a mini-eye roll, but her lips quirked with repressed amusement. “You’re not fiends,” she admitted, “and you’re forgiven. But…”
“But,” Lindsay interrupted firmly, “it’s time you started doing things for yourself. How can you make this place your own if you don’t, well, own it?”
“And when are you going to open for business again?” Bridget added. “You’re missing the height of the tourist season.”
“We are open for business,” Paul objected. “This is the most popular place in the county for Sunday brunch.”
“It’s the only place in the county for Sunday brunch,” Bridget said. “And what I meant was, when are you going to start renting the rooms? That’s what a bed and breakfast does, you know.”
“A bed and breakfast also offers breakfast every morning,” Paul said, “and I really only know how to make three things.”
“Two,” Derrick corrected, and Paul frowned a little. “Of course, I only know how to make two as well.”
“One,” Paul corrected.
They looked at each other for a moment, and then Derrick said, “We’re not nearly ready to open to the public yet.”
Paul added, “We haven’t even started redecorating the guest rooms, and the entire second floor has to be remodeled…”
“Who knows what we’ll even find when we get up there?” put in Derrick with a shudder. “We opened the door once and saw a spider the size of a puppy. Slammed the door closed and taped it shut.”
“Not to mention the spa,” Paul said, “which we haven’t even started yet. Frankly, it’s going to be rather more expensive than we’d planned, so it may take awhile.”
“It would be a great deal more affordable without the Roman baths,” Derrick pointed out smugly. “And I told you, one massage room is plenty if we intend to put in the steam room as well.”
At Bridget’s raised eyebrows, Paul explained, “Not Roman baths, just a simple hot tub. And I might have said something about a small waterfall.”
Derrick looked self satisfied, but said nothing.
Cici, Lindsay and Bridget were also silent for a moment, but the look that passed between them spoke volumes. Finally Lindsay said, “You know, boys, considering the way your house-building project turned out, it might be a little too soon to take on a major construction project like a spa.”
Derrick winced and Paul deliberately looked away. It was, in fact, too soon for them to even talk about that fiasco.
Lindsay said, “The guest rooms don’t need redecorating. They’re gorgeous. Everything is gorgeous.”
“They’re fine, I suppose,” admitted Paul reluctantly, “if not entirely to our taste.”
Bridget said gently, “Sometimes you can wait so long for everything to be perfect that nothing ever gets done.”
Cici said, “Guys, I really don’t know what the problem is. The place was in perfect operating condition when you bought it and it was full almost every weekend. It’s the only really nice overnight accommodation within an hour’s drive and it could be a gold mine for you. You just need to open.”
Lindsay squeezed Derrick’s hand. “All we want is for you to be happy. But how can you know if you’re going to be happy here unless you actually try?”
Paul said worriedly, “I just don’t think we’re ready.”
“Then get ready,” exclaimed Cici, exasperated.
“We have plenty of towels,” Derrick pointed out helpfully.
“We don’t have a staff,” Paul protested.
“All you need is a housekeeper,” Lindsay said.
“And a cook,” Bridget added quickly.
“Most people,” Cici pointed out, “go into the bed-and-breakfast business because they want to do it themselves.”
Paul looked at Derrick. “That’s exactly why we wanted to do it,” he agreed. “Only…”
“Only,” Derrick said, “I think we rather imagined ourselves more in the roles of genial hosts.”
“ Patrons,” agreed Paul. “Maître d’hôtel. “Reminiscent of the grand houses of Europe.”
The three women exchanged a look, the corners of their lips tightening in a mixture of resignation and repressed mirth. Bridget stood and kissed Derrick atop his head. “We love you. I’ll put the cakes in the refrigerator. And,” she added sternly, “hire a cook.”
Cici dug a tool of out her pocket and handed it to Paul. “This,” she told him, “is a wrench. It’s used to fix leaky faucets. Come on, I’ll show you how.”
Paul meekly followed Cici from the kitchen and Lindsay turned to Derrick. Her tone was a little apologetic. “Are we still invited for brunch tomorrow?”
Derrick looked at her hopefully. “Do you know how to make a pork loin?”
“You know what the difference between men and women is?” declared Cici, flinging herself into the front porch rocking chair.
She was so distracted that she let the screen door bounce closed behind her, and Bridget, who followed with a tray of lemonade and cookies, caught it with her toe. “Well, for one thing, men usually hold the door.”
“Oh, Bridge, I’m sorry.” Cici leapt up again and held the door. There was a faint cloud of anxiety in her eyes as she added, “Do you think we were too hard on them?”
“Too hard on who?” Lindsay came down the stairs, smelling of a delicate floral body wash and wearing a loose print maxi-dress with no bra, her hair pulled back and damp around the edges from her shower. The day was done, the chores were completed, they were at home with each other, and comfort was the order of the day. She grabbed a cookie from Bridget’s tray before she took her own rocking chair, swinging her legs up onto the porch rail.
“The boys,” Cici said. She moved some magazines off the white wicker table between the chairs to make room for the tray.
“I wasn’t,” Lindsay replied easily, biting into the cookie, “but you were, definitely. These are great, Bridget. Lemon drop, right?”
“I doubled the recipe,” Bridget said, pouring the lemonade. “I’ll take the boys a batch tomorrow.”
“Good idea,” said Cici. She handed a glass of lemonade to Lindsay, and took one for herself, along with two cookies. “I never knew of a problem a lemon drop cookie couldn’t fix.”
Lindsay tasted the lemonade. “Nice,” she said. “Different.”
Cici sipped and agreed, “It’s a good day for lemonade.”
Bridget poured herself a glass. “It is a nice change, isn’t it? I used a fresh basil simple syrup.”
The other two women tasted again and murmured their appreciation.
Sometimes it seemed like only yesterday that the three of them had shared a cul-de-sac in the suburbs of Baltimore and Paul and Derrick had been their neighbors. It had in fact been four years since they had stumbled upon the old brick mansion in the Shenandoah valley and decided to try their hands at bringing it back to life. What they had imagined to be a quiet retirement clipping roses and drinking tea from patterned China cups in front of the fire had in fact turned out to consist of a dawn-to-dusk labor of love, replacing rotting timbers, pulling weeds, hauling fence posts, fighting potato bugs and planting a vineyard cutting by cutting. Now they shared not only a home, but a life, and Paul and Derrick-- perhaps the most unlikely candidates imaginable for the rigors of rural living-- were once again their neighbors.
A slow and lazy dusk settled over Ladybug Farm and the three women, as they had done every evening since they had moved into the old house, settled into their rocking chairs to watch the sun set and solve the problems of the world. Usually their refreshment of choice was wine, but after a hot day working in the vineyard they had decided the lemonade would be a refreshing break from the ordinary. A light breeze stirred the air beneath the shade of the wrap-around porch, rustling the fronds of the ferns that hung in evenly spaced baskets around the porch and sending of them to turning lazily. As the light took on the purplish shadows of evening across the wide expanse of meadow that stretched before them the sheep huddled into their night time knots and the shoulders of the mountains that stood guard over them became muted with the deep greens and shadowy blues of another ending day. Through the open windows they could hear the sounds of Ida Mae, who had been taking care of the hundred year-old house almost as long as it had been standing, rustling around in the kitchen, closing down old day and preparing for a new one.
“So,” said Bridget, settling into her chair with a cookie and a glass. “What’s the difference between men and women?”
“This I’ve got to hear,” murmured Lindsay.
Cici ignored her. “Men expect everything to be easy,” she answered. “They’re programmed that way from birth. All their lives they have some woman taking care of them, doing things for them…”
“That’s because, most of the time, it’s easier to do it ourselves,” Bridget pointed out.
“Learned helplessness,” said Lindsay, who had taught third grade for twenty-five years. “It’s sweeping our society, like ADHD. Only you don’t get it from Red Dye Number Seven or early childhood immunizations. You get it from well-meaning mothers.”
Cici have a decisive nod of agreement. “I’m not saying it not our faults,” she said. “I’m just saying men, as a gender, have an entirely different attitude about adversity than we do.”
Bridget sniffed with laughter. “Anybody who’s ever taken care of a man with a head cold can testify to that. A woman could go through twelve hours of labor while having both wisdom teeth extracted without making half as much fuss.”
Lindsay and Cici raised their glasses in a toast to that.
“Women, on the other hand,” Cici went on, “expect life to be difficult. We don’t even bother to complain until things start approaching impossible.”
“And we get it done anyway,” said Bridget.
“Look what we took on with this house,” Lindsay said.
“Broken plumbing, trees crashing through the sunroom…”
“Sheep storming the front porch, a sink hole in the back yard…”
“Rattlesnakes, fires, blizzards…”
“Not to mention the ordinary painting and refinishing and patching and rebuilding,” Bridget said.
“The chicken coop, the goat house…”
“The winery,” Lindsay added, and they all nodded, impressed with their accomplishments.
“And did we complain?” Cici demanded.
They thought about that for a moment, until Bridget finally admitted, “Well, maybe a little.”
“All right, a little,” Cici conceded. “But we never gave up.”
“Talked about it a few times,” Lindsay reminded them, and Cici frowned, annoyed.
“The point is,” she began.
“The point is,” Bridget spoke over her, “We got it done. Women always get it done.”
“Right,” said Cici.
Lindsay raised her glass. “To women who get it done.”
The three clinked their goblets and sat back, sipping lemonade and munching cookies.
“Good lemonade,” Cici said.
“Just tart enough,” added Lindsay.
“Hits the spot,” agreed Bridget.
They rocked for a moment, looking at their glasses.
“It’s nice for a change,” Lindsay said.
“Just the right amount of sugar,” Cici said.
Bridget put aside her glass. “ I’ll get the wine,” she said.
“I’ll get the glasses.” Cici followed her inside.
“The corkscrew’s on the counter,” Lindsay called after them.
Evening at Ladybug farm had begun.
The Hummingbird House is available October 10, 2013
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