Still muttering, Ella grabbed the mop in the corner and stumped over in faded house shoes and support hose to attack the puddle spreading on the linoleum beyond the small braided rug where Bailey stood.
Part Cherokee, part Negro, and part Bailey wasn’t sure what, maybe past slave owner as some of those men had sired offspring, Ella ruled the kitchen and most of the house. She wouldn’t allow a scrap of a kitten inside let alone a collie, and soft-spoken Aunt Meg deferred to her wishes. However, Ella insisted she knew her place and housed herself, Old John, and Rosa Mae out in the old kitchen behind the house, more of a cottage now, with a big hearth she put to use.
“No. Sorry. Lost track of time.” Easily done here.
Clucking disapproval, Ella helped Bailey struggle out of the too-big coat then hung her wraps from the hooks on one pale yellow wall. “Can’t stand about in them stocking feet. Catch your death.”
Ella snatched pink slippers from an assortment in the cupboard and nudged Bailey’s numb toes into the fuzzy footwear. She then inspected her as she might a stray dog, only a dog wouldn’t get this far.
“That mane of yours could do with taming, like a half wild pony.” She ran her critical gaze over Bailey’s frayed sweater and jeans. “Don’t you got nothing better to wear? Look like a bum coming round the house.” She sniffed. “Smell like one too.”
“I told you not to be burning that stuff. Set the house on fire next thing. And don’t you be thinking ‘bout coloring on them walls.”
A reference to Bailey’s bedroom murals at home. She’d had to begin somewhere with her art. No one accused Michelangelo of coloring on the ceiling.
“You go and git a nice hot bath and find something pretty to put on.”
She held up a righteous hand with the demeanor of a pastor about to deliver a sermon. “You’ll be glad enough to fix yourself up when you hear who’s coming.”
Bailey considered the muted excitement in Ella’s coffee-colored eyes. “Santa Claus?”
Ella cocked her gray head at a jaunty angle. “Better.”
“Than Santa? Who?”
Bailey’s heart lurched. “He’s back on furlough?”
“Nope. Called from the train station to say he’s home for good. Never said nothing before. Wanted to surprise Miss Meg.
He sure did, right enough. She’s bubbling over. Rosa Mae drove her into town to fetch him. What do you think of that, Miss?”
Quite a lot. Bailey’s mind swirled with images of Eric Burke before he’d joined the Marines and shipped off to Vietnam. Though on the serious side, he was gifted with flashes of wit and a smile that charged his average good looks with masculine glory…
…The news about Eric had made her momentarily forget the figure upstairs. “Which room are you putting him in?”
Ella reached into the cabinet for the shortening. “His own, of course. The white room.”
Old Southern homes had names, as did the rooms. Bailey slept in the yellow room across the far hall from the more austere white room outfitted with Eric’s school pennants, trophies, and other masculine decor. Aunt Meg was on the other side of Bailey in the rose room, its walls papered with flowers. A second hall ran past Bailey and Aunt Meg’s rooms and led to the stairs.
“What about the room at the end of the front hall? The one on the right?” Bailey didn’t know its name.
Ella shook her head. “No one uses that one.”
“That’s what I thought, but…”
“Thought I saw a light on in there a little while ago.”
She frowned. “Can’t. No one’s there.”
Which left Bailey to arrive at the only logical conclusions, either Maple Hill was haunted or she was losing her mind. She wondered if Eric would find her particular brand of insanity charming or downright weird, or whether he’d even notice her at all.~
*Ella was my dad’s outspoken housekeeper when he was growing up. She died before my time but I heard enough stories about her to feel like I knew her.