Chapter 1 – The Comb-Over
I hoped this wasn't a sign.
Lightning streaked across the sky, and thunder crashed right above the house, as I blindly tried to get dressed. It was already after sunset and really cold outside, and the lights were out due to the storm, so the house was all kinds of dark and spooky. As I dug through my closet for something to wear to my meeting, I wondered…what did one wear for this sort of thing, anyway? I wished we were meeting during the daytime, but like me, the gentleman I was meeting had obligations during the day and could only meet me this evening. I finally dragged on the first pair of jeans I found that fit and wriggled into a sweater I dug out of the back of my closet, hoping the two would somehow coordinate. However, knowing my luck, and my wardrobe, that probably wouldn't be the case. But I was already running late, so I didn't have time to find a flashlight right now.
I grabbed my purse and scrambled out to my truck, climbing in while trying not to get too drenched. The hood of my coat blew off, letting my hair get soaked and messing up what effort I had put into it. Now, I looked like a damned drowned rat. Ha, try saying that ten times fast! There wasn't much I could do about it given the weather, though, but it still bugged me. I was a cosmetology graduate for heaven sakes, I was supposed to look polished and all put together. Right now, however, I looked like a stray cat trying to climb out of a well. That was going to make a great impression, I mumbled to myself sarcastically.
I drove the hour to Port Angeles, traveling along the darkened streets toward my meeting, trying to avoid the potholes in the road that would surely mess up my alignment again. I couldn't afford another round of auto repairs right now. School had taken a large chunk of what was left of the money from my parents' insurance, once I had paid off Charlie's house and all their outstanding bills after they had died. That had been two years ago, on a night just like this, that it had happened…
I had been living in Arizona with my mother since my parents' divorce, but I came back to visit Charlie pretty regularly. He was the town's Chief of Police and was really busy, but he always took off time for my visits, and so we were close. I nearly lost it the day I got word that he had been injured in the line of duty during a drug bust. I had offered to come back to Washington and stay with him while he recuperated and help him out after he finally got out of the hospital, which was anticipated to be over Labor Day weekend. He had been shoved down a flight of stairs, so his injuries were pretty bad and would have him out of work and in rehab until after the New Year. The plan was for me to stay until Christmas, and then go back home after Charlie was able to fully care for himself again.
Right before I was to leave for Charlie's, my mom had met Phillip. Theirs was a whirlwind romance, and they ended up driving to Vegas and getting married after only having known each other over a weekend. Mom was happy, though, happier than she had been in ages. Phil was apparently good for her. Despite having been divorced when I was just a baby, she and Charlie had remained somewhat friendly, and so they made plans for mom and her new husband to come up with me to Charlie's, when he was released from the hospital, so they could spend my fifteenth birthday with me and get me enrolled in high school. They were also going to help me get Charlie to his rehab appointments that first week, until I could get my permanent Washington driver's license.
I'd always had excellent grades and had been advanced in school at an early age. I was actually two years ahead of my peers, so I was scheduled to enter Forks high school as a senior when school started up again. I was only going to be there for the fall semester, graduating in December, and then I was supposed to return to Arizona.
I never made it.
Charlie's initial rehab session had been scheduled late that first evening, and so, mom and Phil went to pick him up, while I finished making dinner. They never made it home. All three of them were killed instantly, when a huge truck skidded on the rain-slicked highway, hitting them head on. My whole world was shattered that night.
Having no other relatives alive, I became a ward of the state. Charlie's best friend, Billy Black, stepped up and managed to get them to let me stay with him and his son, Jacob, and Billy helped me to get Charlie and Renee's affairs settled. Phil had an older daughter from a previous marriage who said she would handle everything in Arizona. She handled everything alright. She stripped the house bare, taking every last thing inside it, including things that had belonged to my mother's family for generations. She had either sold or traded everything away for drugs before I could do anything about it. The only reason she didn't get away with selling the house itself was because it was only in my mother's name, since they had never had a chance to change it. Phil had been a nice guy, but apparently, that was where it ended.
Charlie's life insurance policy wasn't very much, and our house in Arizona sold way below market value due to the crappy economy and the stripped-down condition of it, so I didn't have much to work with after everything was paid off. I decided I wanted to keep Charlie's house, and once I was able, I would move back there and stay a while, until I knew what I was doing with my future. After earning my high school diploma, and getting fed up with fighting off Jacob's unwanted advances, I filed for emancipation. At the age of sixteen, I was deemed an adult and was on my own.
I moved back to Charlie's house, and with a couple of small scholarships and a plan in mind, I dipped into my meager inheritance and went to cosmetology school to learn a trade I could do, until I could achieve my ultimate goal. While I finished that training, I got a job at a salon in town as an apprentice to earn extra money. Working in a salon was not my first choice of careers, but I had a knack for it, and the tips were decent, so I went with it as a means to an end. I then enrolled in college in Port Angeles to become a physical therapist, while going to an accelerated night school program to become a certified massage therapist. I figured I could make decent money being able to perform full spa services as soon as I graduated, and I would be able to comfortably support myself, until I finished my PT degree and could work in the medical field.
It had now been five years since the accident, and even armed with a degree, it had been difficult to find a doctor's office that would hire me because of my age. I was actually accused of lying on my resume, and another time, they thought I didn't understand the difference between a massage therapist and a physical therapist, because I had stated I had degrees in both. I was still no closer to leaving Forks, at least not any time soon. I wished Charlie and Renee were here to see me now, though. Of course, they would have probably been happier if I had still been going to school out east at some fancy Ivy League university that cost more per semester to attend than Charlie made in six months, but at least I had done something with myself besides drop out of high school and settle for living on the rez with Jacob and Billy. That would have been Jake's preference, to keep me there, barefoot and pregnant by now.
Today, I was taking a huge step. At just twenty-one years of age, I was heading out for a meeting, where I would potentially become a business owner. I was meeting a Mr. Cullen to negotiate investing my talents and remaining money into a new salon he was planning on opening near the downtown area. Apparently, the place had once belonged to his grandparents, who were a barber and a beautician, and it needed a little bit of updating. He assured me it was completely doable, though, and I would have great access to clientele who worked around there and would appreciate my services and pay well for them.
I turned down the street of the address I had been given. I knew there were several hair salons in the area, but Mr. Cullen had a vision of a state-of-the-art spa that offered cutting-edge services to a growing customer base. It had all sounded so wonderful. However, as I parked my truck next to a small silver car in front of the two-story building with the address he had given me, my mouth fell open in shock.
Was he serious?
I could see someone through the filthy windows pacing back and forth inside, and I assumed it was Mr. Cullen. There was a dim light shining behind him from what looked like a camping lamp, and I could see he was quite tall. I slowly got out of my truck and walked to the door, pulling it open and gasping. The place was almost indescribable. It looked like I had stepped back in time to the 1940's, and World War II had been raged right here in this little shop from the looks of it. The place was a disaster.
The man who had been pacing looked up at me, and had I not been so shocked, not to mention pissed, I would have found him extremely attractive.
"Ms. Swan, thank you so much for coming. I-" he started, but I cut him off.
"A little updating? You've got to be kidding me!" I growled at him. "I've seen tamer looking haunted houses!"
I turned on my heel, ready to stomp my way back out the door, when he caught my elbow.
"Please, wait!" he said in a begging voice. "Please, just hear me out. I'm sorry if I seemed to misrepresent things, I really didn't mean to mislead you, it's just that…this place means so much to me, to my family," he said, sounding so genuine. "Can we please just talk?"
I finally turned around and looked at him in the dim light of the camping lamp. He looked like he was on the verge of tears, and being the sucker I was for a sensitive guy, I nodded. I was still seething, but I was starting to calm down some.
He pulled out a large, long roll of papers and unfurled it in one of the old pink chair seats, pulling the camping lamp a little closer, so I could see it was a set of blueprints and some sketches.
"My grandparents opened this shop in the early 1960's. They put every dime they had into building it and getting it off the ground. They spent their whole lives here and passed down their passion for this place to my father and then to me. I played here as a child, and all my best memories are here. When I was born, my grandmother retired, so she could watch me during the day while my parents worked. She recently passed away and left me almost enough money to save this place.
"I own the property outright, and there are no liens or back taxes owed on it. It's all clear and ready to be renovated. As you can see, the place hasn't been in business for almost fifteen years," he said, gesturing around the room. "As bad as it looks now, the underlying structure is amazingly still very sound and just needs some minor repairs. The worst of it is cosmetic. I've consulted a contractor, an interior designer and an architect, also known as my brother, Emmett, my sister, Alice, and my mother, Esme Cullen, and they've drawn up some plans for improvements. That's where you come in," he smiled sheepishly.
"I'm not a wealthy man, Ms. Swan, just your average guy. I can foot about a fourth of the costs up front with what savings I have set aside, and I can get another fourth of it financed on my own; it's that last half that's the holdup. I know it doesn't look like much now, but I know it could be. I just need someone who's willing to see beyond the broken tiles, dirt and dust to help me get it off the ground again; someone who has a dream and a vision and is willing to work hard and take a chance."
He walked up to me slowly, and the intensity of his gaze had me spellbound. "Are you that someone, Ms. Swan? Can I count on you to help me bring this place back to life?" he asked, and his deep voice cracked on the last word. I was frozen in place, held there by his mesmerizing, hopeful eyes and his intoxicating smell.
I could only nod yes.
"Great!" he clapped enthusiastically, breaking the spell. "I have the contracts right here. Give them a once-over, and then let me know when you're ready to sign," he said with a wide grin, shoving a large envelope into my hands, before he clicked off the camping lamp and ushered me out the door. He quickly hopped in his car and was gone around the corner before I could even blink.
I stood there in the downpour, stunned at his rapid change of demeanor. My mouth was still gaping after him as he drove away, while the icy rain drenched my hair yet again.
What the hell had I just agreed to?