Laura Wilson delicately dipped her tiny paintbrush into the small pool of black paint in the little container on her work desk.
For the last fifteen minutes, she had been trying to ignore the pounding music coming from overhead.
No. That was not true.
It wasn’t hard for her to ignore the pounding music, which really didn’t bother her. It was her grandfather’s irritated scowls, muttered words, and jerky movements which had been getting worse and worse that had really been bothering her.
She shifted in her seat, holding the paintbrush still while she did.
Each piece of the handmade, handcrafted, personalized wooden doll people had to be perfectly done, with attention to the minutest detail.
It was what made her grandfather’s shop in Blueberry Beach famous all over the eastern United States.
If her grandfather ever got set up online, he could be famous all over the world.
Her grandfather muttered again, growling, and stood up from his stool where he was working on carving the details of the latest miniature piece he was creating.
She was not as good of a carver as her grandfather, but she was a better painter.
The familiar heavy, lead feeling settled deep in her chest, and she fought the temptation to lay her head on her desk.
The exhaustion that she’d been fighting since shortly after her husband cheated on her and left was taking a hold.
Carefully cleaning her brush and putting the lid back on the small container of expensive paint, she stood wearily and looked at the clock.
Just ten AM.
Alessandra and Grace were still in school, in third and first grades respectively, and they wouldn’t be home for another five hours.
It felt like the morning had already lasted forever, but no matter how short it had been in reality, Laura needed a nap.
The stress from waiting on the possible eruption from her grandfather was far worse than the thumping of the music and occasional banging on the floor. It sounded like the new tenant had his volume maxed out and was dancing with fifty of his friends directly above them.
The vibrations actually were a little bit of a problem. The work they were doing was very exact and needed to be just right.
But her grandfather had always been easily irritated and prone to eruptions. His shop, Blueberry Beach Doll Shop, might not have been the best place for her to come to rest and recover, but it was the only place she could think of. She hadn’t wanted to raise her children in the city anyway, and Blueberry Beach was perfect for kids.
Her grandfather picked up a stack of papers then slammed them down with a sharp slap and another growl.
It was funny, seeing how he was almost deaf anyway, that the noise would even bother him. Half the time when she spoke with him, he didn’t hear what she said, but apparently, he could hear every note of the music. Or every drumbeat, since there didn’t seem to be too many notes.
She chuckled to herself as she wiped her hands down her apron, then untied it and laid it over the back of her chair.
She had trained as a classical cellist but was very grateful that she’d also taken business classes in college, graduating with a dual major, since her classical music training had never earned her a full-time wage.
It just made her a music snob. She sighed, straining her shoulders then taking a step and putting a hand on her desk.
“Grandfather?” she said, trying to infuse confidence in her voice.
When she was younger, he could intimidate her. Now that she was older…he still could. But she tried to pretend he couldn’t.
Her grandfather grunted. She took that as a, “What?” and continued. “I’m going to go upstairs and speak to your new tenant. I’m sure he doesn’t realize how his music carries.”
She hadn’t actually seen the new tenant. Her grandfather had taken care of signing the lease and all that while she had been busy with her children a week ago.
She hadn’t been out much, because of her exhaustion, and the man had managed to move in without her ever running into him.
She did know that it was a man, because of what her grandfather said, and she assumed he was an older gentleman, with no children, although she couldn’t specifically remember Grandfather saying that.
If she had all of her old energy, she would have been in touch with her friends here in Blueberry Beach, especially Anitra and Zoriah, when she’d moved back to town. As it was, she hadn’t even made it to the diner.
“He’s going to get kicked out if he doesn’t keep that stuff turned down. How’s a man supposed to work when he can’t hear himself think!” her grandfather said roughly, his irritation obvious in his choppy movements and the set of his bristled jaw.
“I’m sure he doesn’t mean to, Grandfather,” Laura said, unwilling to agree to repeat her grandfather’s words to the man upstairs.
A particularly loud thump echoed through the small store. Just after that, the bell above the door rang, announcing customers.
Her grandfather turned toward the doorway that led into the shop showroom, which was quite small although beautifully arranged.
Normally, her grandfather was very nice and an actual grandfatherly type, and she always appreciated his words of wisdom, of which he had many.
But when he was irritated, like he was now, his temper seemed to be something he couldn’t control.
“I need to see to the customers,” Grandfather said, his words slightly modulated as he seemed to gather himself and put on his salesman persona before heading toward the front doorway while Laura turned toward the back.
Her grandfather had been very patient with her exhaustion and her constant need for naps and the fact that she didn’t put in a full eight hours every day. More like four.
Of course, he could double his output now that she was here since she could do almost everything he could. The position she filled wasn’t one that just anyone could do, although in the summer, he could often get art students from college to do some of the less detailed work.
Often, he had out-of-work artists working for him, but an artist couldn’t really make a living in Blueberry Beach, and they soon left.
Laura moved down the hallway toward the back stairs. She and her grandfather lived behind the shop, where he had a kitchen, dining room, and living area, plus the upstairs which was separated into three bedrooms on one side and the tiny, two-bedroom apartment she was going to visit now on the other. The quarters were small and cramped, and if she was going to stay in Blueberry Beach, she really should find a place of her own.
She couldn’t think about that, because she had no idea what she was going to do and no energy to try to come up with something.
Pausing at the bottom of the steps to take several breaths and to tell herself that she could do it, she tried to push aside the exhaustion that made her limbs feel like lead and her body feel like standing alone took superhuman effort.
The idea of climbing the stairs was almost too much. She closed her eyes and said a quick prayer, and then lifted her foot and focused on taking one step at a time. She was out of breath by the second step, but she made it to the top.
Doctors had not been able to figure out what was wrong with her and had finally just diagnosed stress.
Having her husband cheat and leave, then losing her job and severe worry about the custody of her kids—which had turned out to be for naught—had emotionally devastated her, and she supposed what she was experiencing was a nervous breakdown in old-fashioned language.
The doctors had simply advised her to rest and keep her life as stress-free as possible.
She’d also tried to eat healthy and do something normal, even if it was working for her grandfather. At least she was working. At least with Grandfather, she could pretty much set her own hours.
Reaching the top of the stairs, she stood on the landing, giving herself a minute to catch her breath.
She didn’t wait long before knocking on the door. The sooner she got this over with, the sooner she could go lie down.
Not that she was sleepy, and she probably wouldn’t sleep. She was just…exhausted.
She had to knock three times before the music abruptly shut off, and shortly after that, the door yanked open.
Wherever she’d gotten the idea that the new tenant was an older gentleman had been wrong.
That was her first thought as a large, athletic-looking man scowled down at her.
His t-shirt bulged over a big chest and biceps, and his tanned face held a sheen of sweat. His athletic shorts stopped at his knees, revealing firm calves. He wore the fanciest-looking athletic shoes she’d ever seen.
He was the kind of man she’d always tried to avoid, and he was just her age if she was any judge.
There might have been a little bit of gray at his temples, and his face looked weatherworn, his eyes wise if surprised and slightly narrowed, as though wondering what in the world would make her interrupt him.
Of course, avoiding this kind of man and marrying Christian, her ex, who was the opposite of everything this man was, hadn’t worked out too well for her, either.
Christian had been shy and serious with a distinct lack of confidence. Laura had been attracted to him, she had to admit, mostly because of the fact that no one else would be. She wouldn’t have to worry about sharing or about him leaving her or not appreciating her.
Of course, when she’d helped him build his business, and he’d become extremely successful, all that had changed, and he’d been pretty quick to find other women who would stroke his ego and do his work, and eventually, he’d dropped Laura.
Loyalty. She should have looked for a man with loyalty.
Maybe that made her wiser, but it didn’t make her any more eager to jump back into a relationship with anyone.
She put everything she had into her marriage and into the business they built together, where basically they’d developed ways for people to pay venders online and sold software that went along with that. They’d made a lot of money, but she’d been blind to the fact that her husband had become less like the man she married and more like the men she had avoided for the very reason of what had happened to her.