Timeless Spring

"Chances Are" by Lisa Plumley

For a ghost town, the community of Landslide, Arizona, had a whole lot of people in it.

And every last one of them was outside enjoying the gorgeous, not-a-cloud-in-sight springtime afternoon...right smack in the middle of the street.

Must be spring fever, Haley Madison decided. She stared at the crowds of tourists wandering happily down the two-lane blacktop in front of her Jeep, then eased her grasp on her steering wheel. She wasn't getting anyplace in this melee. Not to the restored Chance mansion she'd glimpsed at the top of the winding street, not to her appointment with the curator who maintained the house, and not to the Podunk restaurant her photographer had recommended for lunch, either.

Worst of all, she would not be getting to the bathroom she'd desperately needed to visit since beginning the two thousand foot ascent into the mountains that Landslide had been carved out of in the late nineteenth century.

Haley bit her lip and scanned the shops lining the street, hoping against the odds to see a nice, familiar, fast food joint-or anyplace else that looked as though it might have an easily accessible public restroom. Instead, she realized that in Landslide, apparently, nothing was easily accessible.

Crowded, yes. That, the place managed quite nicely. Tumbledown, too. Crumbled brick buildings nestled cheek and jowl with clapboard Victorian houses, most of them renovated to house gift shops and restaurants. Other, homelier buildings leaned into the jagged mountainside looming behind them, their windows shuttered with nailed-on plywood. Boulders, yellow-blooming creosote bushes, and walnut trees with dark gnarled trunks and budded new leaves filled the spaces in between.

There wasn't a single pair of golden arches among them.

Haley scrunched her nose and tried to think of something-anything-besides her need to relieve herself of the gobbler gulp diet soda she'd picked up in the Verde Valley and downed during the long drive up the mountainside. At the time, a nice big caffeine jolt had seemed like a good idea, considering the late night she'd spent with her laptop, Chance family genealogy notes, and the lonesome half of her hotel room bed. Now she just wished she'd searched harder for her usual morning pick-me-up of a double latte-a small one.

Finally the clump of tourists parted, streaming toward the sidewalks on either side like fanny-pack-toting trout. Haley nosed her Jeep forward. Behind her, the driver of the yellow Volkswagen beetle that had chugged noisily up the mountain in her wake accelerated, too. She eyed it curiously in the rear view mirror. Since leaving her hotel room this morning, she'd seen at least eight such vehicles, all of them headed toward Landslide.

Obviously, they knew something about the town that she did not.

Which was saying something, Haley figured as she stepped on the brakes again a short way down the block to let a family cross the street. In the three months since Mrs. Maxwell Chance had hired her to research and write her husband's family history, she'd probably found out just about everything there was to know about Landslide.

The Chance family had founded the town, and their mining interests had allowed it to prosper well into the twentieth century. Everything she'd read had suggested it had become a ghost town, but the determined Mrs. Chance had refused to believe anything her husband's family had touched would dare to be less than prosperous, even a hundred years past its prime.

It looked as though she'd been right.

Rats.

Haley frowned through the windshield at the thriving tourism surrounding her and felt herself growing instantly poorer. Whatever had possessed her to make a bet with Mrs. Chance? The woman couldn't possibly have known, from her estate in Connecticut, what Haley would find in the wilds of Arizona. Yet she'd been sure enough of her husband's famed-and reputably inherited-golden touch to wager the cost of first-class plane fare on it.

Maybe the rich really were different. Haley wouldn't know. At the rate her genealogy service was growing, she wasn't in danger of a sudden transformation herself.

The family in front of her finally reached the sidewalk. The mother, keeping her gaze on the popcorn vendor Haley assumed was their destination, struggled to push her balloon-bedecked baby stroller onto the curb. Before she'd so much as hefted an inch, the father crouched slightly to help her, being careful not to upset the little boy riding on his shoulders.

The child shrieked with delight at the movement and clutched his small, chubby hands harder onto his father's head. Their joined laughter carried clearly on the buttery popcorn-scented breeze, wending its way through Haley's rolled-down window...and going straight into the lonely, shuttered parts of her heart.

The ache she felt should have been familiar by now. A childhood spent the way hers had been should have made her immune to wanting what she knew she'd never have. But somehow Haley couldn't shake the longing. It felt as much a part of her as the sudden prickle of tears she felt welling behind her sunglasses did. She blinked them back, swearing beneath her breath. When would she quit being such a soft touch-especially for lost causes?

The yellow Volkswagen driver blared his horn. The sound jolted her upright, heart pounding. Haley glared into the rear view mirror and was aghast at the line of cars-Volkswagens, all-piled up behind her on the twisty road.

"Hey, toots!" Mr. Yellow VW leaned out his driver's side window, sporting a brown beret and a tie-dyed T-shirt. "Move it or lose it."

"I'm already losing it," Haley mumbled to herself. Too much more of this poor-me routine, and she'd never get down to work on the Chance book. Her business was all she had. If that went down the tubes, she didn't know what she'd do.

But she knew what she wasn't going to do. She wasn't going to meet the Chance mansion's curator with red-rimmed eyes, windblown hair, and an urgent need to visit the ladies' room. Some distraction was clearly in order.

"Go around." She stuck her arm out the window and waved the line of cars past her. For Mr. Yellow VW's benefit, she pointed toward a nearby parking space in front of a white-steepled building sporting a Heavenly Eats sign. "I just needed that parking space."

His expression told her he thought she needed more than a convenient place to park. Revving his engine, he led the motorcade past her and up the steep-sloped hill beyond.

Haley sighed and squeezed her Jeep into the parking space she'd seen. Time to get to work.

~ ~ ~

By the time Haley pulled into the parking lot outside the hilltop Chance mansion, it was nearly sunset. A few hours spent wandering the streets of Landslide had yielded several pages worth of notes, a number of snapshots, and miles of ambience to be recorded later during her usual laptop-and-Letterman writing routine.

With a satisfied smile, she hauled her bulging tote bag from the Jeep's passenger seat. Juggling it and her car keys, she slid from the driver's side door, then stepped onto the nearly-vacant paved parking lot. She hoped she wasn't too late-the brochure she'd packed had said that house tours were only available until seven o'clock.

She closed the Jeep's door and pushed her key chain button to activate the alarm. Its beep echoed along the mountainside, shrill and strangely out of place in the dusky stillness of early evening. Now that the sun had slid behind the mountains that sheltered the town, everything felt cloaked in quiet, and much chillier than before. Suddenly, she wished she'd thought to wear something warmer than the khaki pants, white knit tank top, and white men's-style linen shirt she'd shrugged into this morning. Who'd have thought Arizona in springtime could hold surprises like this?

Shivering, Haley hugged herself and stepped over the concrete marker bordering the adjacent parking space, headed for the edge of the pavement to see the view.

Below the plateau the house and parking lot had been constructed on, the shops of Landslide glowed with lighted signs and the occasional flicker of neon. Further down in the Verde Valley, headlights skimmed along the ribbon of highway leading to and from the town. Beyond them, orange sunlight slid down the face of the distant mountain range, chased by lengthening shadows.

She could see why Matt Chance, the patriarch of the family, had chosen such a setting for his house. The view was spectacular.

So was the house itself. Turning to face the two-story, creamy adobe structure, Haley put on her best business demeanor and shrugged her bag higher on her shoulder. There was nothing like seeing the places where her genealogy subjects had lived to add authentic atmosphere and a personal touch to her books. Clients ate up that stuff with a spoon, historical idiosyncrasies and all.

Truth be told, Haley did, too. So whenever possible, she finished up the writing of a family history with visits to any family residences that had withstood condo-izing and freeway expansion. Luckily for her, thanks to its remote location in the mountains, the Chance house had escaped both fates.

She walked up the paved pathway, approached the impressively carved entry door, and took a deep, anticipation-filled breath. This part of her research always thrilled her. There simply wasn't anything else like it. Okay, Mr. Chance. Time to uncover all your secrets.

Inside, the foyer-turned-museum office was filled with brochure-packed racks, a desk and guestbook, garish fluorescent lights, and the kind of silence that told her the last tour of the day had already started.

Rats.

By the time she'd caught up, the group was filing through the floral-wallpapered upstairs hall. The curator's voice filled the space all the way to the high arched ceiling.

"After Eugenie Chance's death," he said, leading the group along the threadbare carpet runner, "her husband, Matt, retreated from the active social life the couple had enjoyed. In later years, he became something of a recluse, turning the upstairs bedrooms you see on either side of you into hotel-style guest rooms for visiting mining officials and state lawmakers."

Haley leaned toward an open doorway, barely catching a glimpse of one bedroom's sage green painted walls, four-poster bed, and ornate picture rail and moldings before the tour moved on. At this rate, she wouldn't remember a thing about the house. She'd definitely have to make a return trip tomorrow.

"And although she succumbed to the smallpox epidemic that swept the Verde Valley in late 1892, until then, Eugenie Chance enjoyed an active life with her two children and, of course, her husband. She and Mr. Chance were famous for their luxurious parties on the house's full-length terrace overlooking the valley. A true golden couple of their time."

At the head of the seven or eight tourists with him, the curator gestured toward an open doorway. Peering over the head of the woman in front of her, Haley saw that he'd indicated the last room at the end of the hall.

"And like most couples of this period," he went on, "Eugenie and Matt Chance had separate bedrooms."

He stepped aside to allow the tourists to enter the room, and his voice turned muffled. "As you might have guessed, this particular room belonged to the lady of the house. Furnished with no expense spared, it's a beautiful example of exactly how far a man will go to please the woman he loves-a sentiment no less true in the 1890s than it is today."

The women in the crowd murmured and smiled. Every one of them looked smitten. Probably at the notion of a man who'd actually undertake decorating in the name of love, Haley guessed. The men she'd known would have slept on old beach towels before braving the linens section of a department store. Curious to see what lovestruck decorating had wrought, she nudged forward and ducked inside the room.

It took her breath away. The curator's voice carried on, describing the furnishings and architectural details, but all Haley could do was stare in wonder. Fine linen and lace abounded, in gorgeous pastel tones that contrasted perfectly with the glossy cherry wood furniture. Light from the chandelier reflected off pictures of the Chance family arrayed on the fireplace mantel. It sparkled from the silver hairbrushes and crystal bottles on the vanity. It cast everything in such warmth that the chill she'd felt earlier seemed to melt away beneath it.

The curator was right. This room had been decorated by a man in love. A man who'd go to any lengths to please his woman.

A man like Matt Chance.

Haley sighed and ran her fingers over thick cushioned velvet rope that separated the viewing area from the rest of the bedroom. What would it have been like, to have been loved so deeply? Even now, she could almost feel its presence in the room. Fanciful as that sounded, there was something...elemental about a love like that. Something she'd always craved.

"As you can see," the curator said, "this portion of the house is especially well-preserved. After his wife's death, Matt Chance closed and locked this room, and it wasn't opened again until his passing several years later. Old-timers rumored that he died of a broken heart."

"What a shame!" cried the woman beside Haley.

"Absolutely tragic!" said another.

More murmurs of agreement were heard, but Haley's wasn't among them. Tragic, yes, to have loved so strongly and lost. But also, it seemed....

"Romantic." She whispered the word, thinking of the enigmatic man whose life she'd been studying for the months leading up to her visit. "Really, really, romantic."

They just didn't make 'em like they used to, she decided as the rest of the group shuffled out of the bedroom and returned to the hallway beyond. The sounds of the curator guiding them toward what had to be a servants' staircase at the rear of the house grew fainter, until all that remained were Haley, the enchanted bedroom of Mrs. Chance, and that red velvet dividing rope.

She stroked it once more, feeling the tender nap of the velvet rise beneath her fingertips. She chanced a quick glance over her shoulder. Everyone had continued with the tour; she was alone. Sadly, Haley let her gaze rest on the marble-fronted fireplace, then raised it to the family photographs arranged above it.

She closed her eyes.

Please, she thought. Just once, let me feel that kind of love. I know I don't deserve it. But I don't even need very much. Just a little love is all I'm asking for.

She held her breath...and waited.

(end of excerpt)

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