Eaves of Destruction
I really love my job. But I've got to admit, some days are better than others.
I've been working on construction sites since I was eight years old and my father started taking my sister Chloe and me to work with him. Our mom had died a month earlier and it just made sense for Chloe and me to hang out with Dad after school instead of going home to a big, sad, empty house.
Chloe and I had thrived around the construction workers, who took us under their wings. They bought us little pink tool belts and hard hats and showed us all kinds of cool stuff to make. The first time I used a stud finder, it was a revelation. And when one of Dad's brawny carpenters demonstrated the joys of the common socket wrench to me, I was seriously hooked. I soaked up everything the guys taught me, from laying tile to hanging drywall. And I knew what I wanted to do with my life.
Then, six years ago, Dad suffered a heart attack. Chloe had finally gotten her big break in Los Angeles and was working on a home-makeover TV show, so Dad asked me if I would be willing to take over Hammer Construction. I didn't have to think twice; I said yes. And ever since then, I'd been living the dream. Each day presented a new and exciting challenge.
But every once in a while, I would find a fly in my personal ointment, so to speak, and get a client who was, frankly, horrible. Petsy Jorgensen was one of those clients. She was the quintessential "client from hell." Having to work with Petsy was almost enough to make me wish I had become a barista. Or a brain surgeon. Or a hobo.
It was a glorious spring morning following weeks of rain. We had desperately needed the rain, of course, so nobody had complained too much. Still enough was enough, and all of this lovely sunshine was like a miracle. I had driven over to Cranberry Circle with my foreman, Wade Chambers, to talk to the homeowner about some work she wanted done to her beautiful Victorian home.
In a town where one Victorian mansion was more sumptuous and ornate than the next, the Jorgensen house was the pinnacle of elaborate, gracious excess. It stood at the end of the cul-de-sac on a large plot of land surrounded by several homes around the same age, and six newer Victorian-style homes that had been built with love by my father's company to blend in with the originals.
I took a lot of pride in those homes, and now that I was working on the two most beautiful old Victorians in the circle, I wondered, could I get any luckier?
The Jorgensen house was a classic Queen Anne design with a three-story tower to the left of the wide wraparound veranda, three chimneys, and multiple gables and dormer windows, all topped off by a lovely widow's walk that spread out from the top-floor tower across the pitched rooftop.
I couldn't wait to see the inside of this house.
"Hello, I'm Shannon Hammer," I said when a well-dressed woman opened the front door. "This is my foreman, Wade Chambers."
"It's about time you got here," the woman said, swinging the door open wider. I'd never met her before and now I knew why. We clearly didn't move in the same social circles—if her initial attitude toward us was any clue. She actually managed to look down her nose at us, which was a real feat, seeing as both Wade and I were taller than she was.
She was thin and beautiful in a Jackie Kennedy sort of way, with dark hair worn in a stylish bob and great taste in clothes. But she had hard blue eyes and frown lines that were starting to dig deeply enough into the sides of her mouth that you could someday plant corn there. "I'm Petsy Jorgensen."
I brushed aside her previous comment implying that we were late—in reality we were five minutes early for our appointment. Stepping into the surprisingly large two-storied foyer, I gazed around, taking in the artistry of the heavily carved newel post, the dark wood paneling, the polished handrail, and the unique spiral balusters that graced the wide staircase straight ahead. I blinked up at the dramatic crystal chandelier hanging from the center of an elaborately gilded ceiling rose and had to smile. This house was a gem.
"What a beautiful foyer," I said, admiring the scrollwork on the corbels that extended out from either side of the archway leading into the formal dining room to our left.
"Yes, yes, of course, but I'd prefer to cut the chitchat. I don't have time for it." She spoke in a clipped way that sounded very much like Queen to Peasant. "Follow me." She walked into the dining room and we trailed behind her.
If I hadn't already fallen in love with the house, I might have turned around and walked out. Life was too short to deal with deliberately rude people. I was good at first impressions, and while Petsy Jorgensen was "ice princess" beautiful, she was a socially incompetent, angry, impatient woman. I wondered whether it would be worth our time and energy to continue with the interview, but I decided to keep going for now. Maybe she was just having a bad morning.
Petsy strode toward the opposite wall and gestured down at the dark wood wainscoting that circled the large, elegant space. "Will you just look at this?"
I did as she asked and knelt down to get a closer look at the wainscoting. It was actually made up of individual wood panels fitted together, each about three feet tall by two feet wide. A lovely sculpted grapevine pattern, accentuated by birds and the occasional flower, wove itself across each panel. The carvings were wonderful. Some nineteenth-century craftsman had worked his butt off to create these beauties.
"It's a gorgeous room," Wade said.
"Very funny." Petsy scowled at him. "If you can't see that it's a disgusting mess, then I'm not sure you know what you're doing." She looked at me. "All I want to know is, can you fix it?"
Before I could answer, she jabbed her finger in my direction. "And don't lie to me. If you can't do it, I want to hear you say it, because I'll have to hire someone more capable immediately."
I took in a slow breath, let it out, and managed to smile at her. "I can guarantee you won't find anyone more capable than me and my team. But if you would prefer to make a change, now is the time to let us know."
She pressed her lips together in a tight frown. She didn't like being pushed. Funny, because I didn't, either. After a few long seconds, she nodded briefly and waved at the damaged walls. "Fine. Go ahead. Let me know what you think."
I nodded, satisfied that she knew where we stood. Deliberately taking my time, I walked to another panel section and hunched down to study the grapevine pattern more closely. My stomach dropped as I noticed all the tiny holes that had been drilled into the wood.
"Wormholes?" I whispered, and shivered involuntarily. I hated seeing the damage that woodworms could do to a beautiful piece of wood. But besides the wormholes, there were also large chunks of wood missing in the bas relief images of the birds and grapevines. In some spots the grapes were cracked, and some leaves were completely gone. Several of the frolicking cherubs had fractured noses and a few birds were missing parts. Woodworms hadn't done that damage. It looked more like the work of some destructive humans. Had someone been playing bumper cars in here?
I could fix the carvings, but it would take time. The wormholes were more problematic. While plenty of people liked that worn, rustic look, there was always the possibility that the little buggers were still living in the wood. They would keep drilling, and eventually the entire wall of wainscoting would collapse.
I moved on to examine the next panel. It was just as bad. I checked a few more. Same problem. How had that happened?
"Well?" she asked in a demanding tone, as though I'd taken too much time inspecting the wood. I hadn't taken more than a minute or two, but I supposed Mrs. Jorgensen was a busy gal.
"Yes, of course I can fix it," I said. I can fix anything, I thought. Even your stupid wormholes. But I again pasted a smile on my face, and added, "I'll be happy to do it."
"Good," she said. "Because I'm sick of looking at it."
"How did all this damage occur?" Wade asked.
She rolled her eyes. "My husband let his bratty little nephews loose in here a few years ago and they destroyed everything. I'm absolutely certain it's the reason we didn't win the grand prize last year."
First of all, unless the kids really had been playing bumper cars, I couldn't believe a couple of them could've caused this kind of wholesale damage. Maybe a nick or two here and there, but not all of this destruction. And those wormholes weren't caused by kids. So was Petsy just kidding us? Or was she lying about the source of the damage? I shook my head. Why would she lie about something like this?
Second, not that it mattered in the current scheme of things, but Petsy's husband, Matthew, was a good friend of my father and a really nice guy. Would he have allowed his nephews to tear this room apart? And while we were on the subject of Matthew, how in the world did he put up with his wife's crabby moods?
And third, the grand prize she was talking about was the large cash award given each year by the judges of the Lighthouse Cove Victorian Home and Garden Tour. There were dozens of lesser prizes given out as well. It was exciting to see how prestigious the annual tour had become, but now it seemed as if half the town was willing to sell their souls for one of those impressive awards.
Apparently Mrs. Jorgensen fell into that category.
I hunched down to take one last look at the woodwork. I wasn't about to call Mrs. Jorgensen a liar, but there was no way a couple of kids had wreaked all that damage.
I stood up and met Wade's gaze. I could tell he wasn't happy. In fact, he looked more than ready to blow off this job and I was pretty close to following him. But I rarely turned my back on a challenge, and there was Matthew Jorgensen and my father's friendship to consider. So in that moment, I doubled down on my decision and turned and faced Mrs. Jorgensen.
"I assume you also want to get rid of the wormholes," I said, pulling my tablet from my bag to take notes.
"What a ridiculous thing to say. Of course I do."
I thought of Dad and took a few deep breaths. "Fine. The wormholes will be easy enough to fix. But the missing pieces of the carvings will be more difficult and time-consuming."
Her eyes narrowed. "What do you mean, time-consuming? Can you do it or not?"
"I told you I can do the work, but it could take a while."
"You have four weeks."
I breathed in and out, hoping I could maintain my calm outer shell. "I understand you want it done before the Home and Garden Tour, but my team and I have other jobs we're working on this week. We'll have to start here next week."
"What? But that only gives me three weeks." She sighed. "All right, fine. But I insist you work for me exclusively."
"That's not going to happen," I said genially. "But as far as the time frame goes, I would suggest that rather than repairing each panel individually, which could take a month or longer, there's an alternative that I—"
"But I was promised—"
"Let me finish, please," I continued softly, trying to remain serene in the face of her impatience. "If you'd care to consider it, we can replace the panels with beautiful wood onlays in a similar style to your grapevine pattern. We would stain them the same rich color and you would never know the difference."
"Onlays? I don't like the sound of that."
"I can show you some beautiful pieces that would be perfect in this room. I've got a website you can look at to see if—"
"What do you mean, a website? What are wood onlays?"
"Let me show you." Turning my tablet around for her to see, I clicked onto Victorian Home Works, a website that displayed beautifully sculpted onlays in different sizes and patterns and designs in every type of wood imaginable. You could find almost anything and it was all very high quality. I skipped to a page showing hundreds of different pilasters, pediments, ceiling roses, cornices, corbels, and crown moldings.
I explained that this company specialized in both inlays—which were designs carved straight into wood—and onlays, which were pieces designed and carved separately and then applied to smooth wood or walls. There were scrolls and shell patterns with fancy flourishes; all sorts of fleur-de-lis patterns; roses with leafy froufrous; fan shapes and stylized pinecones. There were even carved bows with ribbons dangling off to the sides. And there were grapevines of every size and style. And all of these were offered in maple, cherry, and other hardwoods.
"As you can see, your choices are quite varied."
She shook her head in disbelief. "But these things are . . . why, they're . . . they're fake! I want someone who will actually come into my home and do the work. Someone who knows how to carve the designs into the wood. Why would I use this company and cheat myself?"
I was about to laugh—until I got a better look at her horrified expression. "Let me assure you that this is a perfectly acceptable way of creating the look you want. The pieces are manufactured in England."
I covertly rolled my eyes as I said the words. As if something coming from England made it more legitimate? But for some people, that fact made all the difference.
"Everyone in my industry uses these products," I added.
"Not in my house," she said, sniffing with contempt. "I was told you did custom wood work. Is that true or not?"
"It's true," I said mildly, although I was getting fed up with her attitude. I could tell that Wade was fuming.
"Then that's what I want. I won't accept anything less. No cheating." I wouldn't have thought it possible, but her frown lines deepened.
"It's not cheating, Mrs. Jorgensen," I said through clenched teeth. "But never mind. I'm happy to do the sculpting work for you. But as I said, it's expensive and time-consuming. I just wanted to offer you an efficient alternative in case you didn't want to pay for the extra—"
"I thought I made myself clear," she said. "I want to win this contest at all costs. Money is not part of the equation. I want quality work."
"And you'll get it, I promise you." I gave her another big smile—fake!—and made a mental note to ask Dad just how close his friendship with Matthew Jorgensen was. Because if they were just casual acquaintances, putting up with this woman was not worth my aggravation.
She glared back. "I certainly hope so." She huffed impatiently as though she were dealing with recalcitrant children. "And don't forget, I want my orangery built in plenty of time for the Tour."
"I haven't forgotten." How could I? Our original purpose in taking the Jorgensen job had been to construct a charming Victorian orangery on the side of her house where French doors led to a small, flower-filled yard.
I had thought an orangery—or greenhouse, or solarium, or conservatory, or whatever you wanted to call it—would be a fun challenge for me and my crew guys to tackle. Petsy had already ordered the massive kit from England and it was now sitting in her backyard, waiting to be put together.
"I've already pulled the permits for the orangery construction," I continued, "so that won't hold us up. But as I explained earlier, my team has a full schedule this week, so the earliest we can get started on your orangery is next Tuesday morning at eight o'clock. And I can begin the wainscoting repair at the same time, if that works for you."
"I'm not happy with the idea of waiting, but I suppose I'll have to. Please be on time."
"Of course. I'll drop off the contract tomorrow afternoon."
"My husband will sign it and write you a check." With that, she turned abruptly, walked out to the foyer, and disappeared through a door, her high heels tapping furiously against the polished wood floors as she moved.
Apparently we were dismissed.
"I guess we'll show ourselves out," I muttered.
Wade turned and looked at me. "Shannon, she's awful."
"Maybe we shouldn't have shown her the website."
"We always show clients that website. It's beautiful and most people love it." He blew out a frustrated breath. "Of course, most people are smarter and nicer than this one."
It wasn't often that Wade said something harsh about a client, but I couldn't blame him for feeling that way.
"Funny how she'll buy a mail-order orangery kit," I mused, "but when it comes to wood paneling, she insists on having the so-called real thing."
I took one more glance around the dining room. In Petsy's defense, the wainscoting panels were exquisite. Or they would've been if they hadn't been allowed to disintegrate over the years.
Under ordinary circumstances, I would've loved to immerse myself in the Jorgensens' woodworking job. But my guys and I were swamped with work. It didn't make sense to spend my time doing this when I could spread out and do six different jobs and accomplish a lot more.
Especially when this particular client had such a lousy attitude!
As we walked to the front door, I shook my head. "Fake onlays. Give me a break."
"She's a piece of work, for sure."
"Maybe I should've explained that the original Victorian decorators cheated all the time."
"Not sure it would've helped," Wade groused, then broke into a grin. "Wait'll she finds out about the polyurethane corbels we're using in her orangery."
Horrified, I looked up at him. "Oh God, don't tell her."
"Believe me, I won't say a word. All I need is for her to come at me with a frying pan, yelling, Fake! Fake!"
I shouldn't have laughed, but I couldn't help it. It was so unreasonable. Nobody could tell the difference, and the polyurethane pieces were so much lighter and easier to work with than the old plaster forms.
What she didn't know wouldn't hurt her, I decided, as I walked over to my truck and unlocked the door.
After climbing up to the passenger seat, Wade pulled out his tablet. "Since you're going to be stuck on this woodworking job, we'd better work out a new schedule."
Grumbling, I shut the door and started the engine. "What we really need to do is hire another carpenter."
© Kate Carlisle
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