Twenty-six—that was the number of windows across the front of this house. Four—it had four chimneys. Abbey had only just counted them all as the enormous, Georgian revival–style mansion came into view at the end of the mile-long driveway. She’d had to be let in via an intercom at a pair of iron gates bigger than her apartment build- ing. As she’d snaked along the property in her car, miles of perfectly manicured grass—green, despite the winter weather—stretching out on either side of the drive, and the James River angrily lapping on the edge of the property under the winter clouds, her hands had begun to sweat. Abbey had always been impulsive, even though she’d tried very hard not to be, but she’d done it again.
She’d dressed up. Abbey wasn’t used to dressing up. Nor- mally, she had on scrubs at work, and on her off time she wore hoodies and jeans. But this was a business meeting, and she’d wanted to look prepared; however, nothing had prepared her for what was in front of her now. She shifted her portfolio case on the seat of her car to keep it from slip- ping onto the ﬂoorboards. It was a gift from her gramps and had sat empty until now.
You can do this, she said to herself as she tried to keep the seatbelt from wrinkling her clothes. You’re gonna have to do this. You made your bed. Now you have to lie in it.
The owner of this home was in a league beyond com- prehension. He was the grandson of a woman named Caro- line Sinclair for whom Abbey cared. Caroline lived in a small cottage on the edge of the Sinclair property, and Abbey had always reached her cottage using a private side road. The estate was so large and wooded that the cottage seemed to be all by itself; the main house wasn’t even vis- ible. Caroline had explained that she wanted it that way.
“If Nick is making me live on the property, I want to at least feel that I can come and go as if it’s my own residence. I don’t want to live out back of the house, or something demeaning like that. I want my own place, not a guest quarters.”
Abbey had gotten the job caring for Caroline while working at an upscale retirement home. Nicholas Sinclair had called to ask if they had a service for in-home nurses. When she’d said that they didn’t, he’d offered to pay her more than what she was making there to care for Caro- line at home, because he didn’t want to put her in a facil- ity. Caroline had mentioned that her grandson, Nick, had a “big house,” but this kind of wealth was something out of a storybook.
As Abbey looked at the house, it shed new light on Caroline’s quirks—the way she’d held the thick mug that Abbey had gotten her for her birthday as if it were a delicate piece of art, the straightness of her back when she sat on the edge of her chair, the manner in which she nodded and said “thank you,” for the smallest of things. It was all clear now. What had seemed like generally polite behavior had actually been the behavior of a privileged
upbringing. Abbey had never met Mr. Sinclair face to face. She’d always just provided Caroline’s current health sta- tus and data from her tests via phone—usually leaving a message—and he’d mailed her paychecks. She wondered if she’d notice the same small indications of wealth when she met him.
Abbey parked her car in the large circular drive and turned off the engine. Snowﬂakes dotted her windshield as she took a peek in her rearview mirror to be sure she was as presentable as possible. She dabbed on some lip- gloss quickly and dropped it into her handbag. With a deep breath, she got out of the car, her heels wobbling slightly with her nerves. Hoping the snow wouldn’t begin to pile up when she was inside, she clicked along the brick patio- sized pathway to the front steps. With every stride, she could feel the crescendo of the pounding in her heart.
She stopped between two urns, each one contain- ing a spruce tree the size of her Christmas tree at home, and pressed the doorbell. The double doors in front of her were so ornate and grand that she almost feared what was behind them. What was she thinking, telling Caroline she’d do this? Was she out of her mind?
The door opened, and, standing in front of her, was a short man wearing a charcoal gray suit and a red tie, his hair balding on the top. Abbey had heard about Nick Sin- clair from the other nurses at the retirement home. They’d described him as tall, quiet, handsome—gorgeous, one had said—with dark hair and perfect clothes. While there was nothing wrong with the man in front of her, he was a far cry from the description she’d received.
He smiled, his lips pressed together, and took a step back to allow Abbey to come in, the large door closing behind her as she entered the home.
She refocused on the man. “Hello. I’m Abbey Fuller. You must be Mr. Sinclair? ”
“No, ma’am. He’ll be with you shortly.”
Wow, she thought. He doesn’t even open his own doors. Her eyes moved around the space, taking in everything that surrounded her. The ﬂoor was a white-and-slate-colored mar- ble, with matching columns that looked as though they were holding up the entire second ﬂoor. The upstairs ran along an oval balcony that completely circled the room. The space in that one room was the size of the house where she’d grown up. It was so grand that it had to have three massive chandeliers to light it, but the windows spanning every surface were large enough that the natural light coming in was plenty.
“Follow me, please,” the man said as he led her across the marble ﬂoor, between the two wide, curving staircases ﬂanking each side of the room, and through an ornate doorway with more pillars on either side, the woodwork all painted cream to match the walls. Each piece was carved into swirling perfection that rolled to a peak at the top of the doorframe. The more she walked, the more nervous she became.
Her breath caught, and Abbey swallowed to cover it up as she entered the next room. A wall of windows on the east side offered an almost blinding white light from the clouds outside. The grass had been dusted with snow in just the amount of time she’d been in the house. In front of the win- dows sat a black grand piano, the top propped up, the keys so shiny she could see the reﬂection of the panes of glass on their surfaces. On the south side of the home another wall of windows stretched to the top of the thirty-or-more-foot ceiling and overlooked the grounds. The walls had intricate woodwork framing their surfaces, the color between the woodwork matching the blue of the rug.
The man had walked over to two facing cream-colored sofas that seemed so comfortable that she wanted to snug- gle up on them with a blanket and read. Their billowy cushions were juxtaposed to the formality of the blue and cream patterned rug that extended the entire length of the ballroom-sized space, and the general emptiness and ster- ile surroundings. He gestured for her to take a seat.
Abbey’s eyes could not stay still in this room because she’d never seen anything like it in real life. It was such a stifﬂy styled room, yet those sofas were sitting at one end, and she wondered if anyone had ever sat on them.
What kinds of things would someone do in a room like this? Did Nick Sinclair play piano? Had he ever played for anyone before, or was it just a prop, a piece of furniture?
She sat down and the man left her alone with her thoughts, having never even introduced himself. Abbey put her hands on her knees as she sat on the edge of that gorgeous sofa. How impressed must Caroline have been with her decorating skills to suggest that Abbey decorate this mansion for her grandson? She couldn’t even allow her pride to slip in because the whole situation was so bafﬂing to her. She was shaking—partly from nerves and from the fact that the house was just slightly colder than she found to be comfortable. She shivered outwardly. The snow had really started coming down now in the few minutes she was there, already covering the ground outside. The scene played out before her through the towering windows, like a movie. Her mouth was so dry at this point, she couldn’t even lick her lips, and she worried that her lip-gloss wouldn’t last.
If Abbey had to sit there much longer, she would explode— she needed to talk, have some kind of interaction—so she stood up to try to burn off her nervous energy. Her heels tapped on the marble ﬂoor that ran along the edge of the rug, and made hollow clicks that echoed throughout the room. “Rug” was not the best term for this piece. It was half the size of a football ﬁeld, it seemed. Her back to the room, Abbey looked out through the windows and, when she realized what was out there, she had to consciously keep her mouth from hanging open.
Covered in snow were tennis courts, a brick gazebo as big as a four-car garage, and, off in the distance, closer to the river, was an Olympic-size swimming pool. As she looked out at the grounds, the cold of winter seeping in through the icy glass in front of her, she wondered what Nick could possibly be doing. Why hadn’t he greeted her when she’d arrived? Did it take him that long to walk from wherever he was in the house? She’d left a message, as he’d directed, and told him she’d be there at two o’clock. She’d just expected him to answer the door.
“Hello, Ms. Fuller,” she heard the words echo across the room.
Abbey turned around. As she ﬁxed her eyes on him, she had to work to keep her breath from coming out in ragged, nervous jerks. He was gorgeous. He was probably the most handsome man she’d ever seen. He had on navy trousers and a buttercream sweater with a thick collar that made the icy blue of his eyes visible even at a distance. His hair was perfectly combed, not a strand out of place, and his face looked soft, as if he’d just shaved a few min- utes before their meeting. Perhaps that was what he’d been doing . . . Abbey shook the thought from her mind.
“Hello,” she returned. She wanted to walk toward him, but she didn’t trust herself in heels, and she worried that she might fall. He crossed the room and stopped in front of her, giving the two of them a large amount of personal space. He held out his hand in greeting, the starched cuff of his button-up shirt peeking out from underneath his sweater. She shook his hand.
“It’s nice to ﬁnally put a face with the voice,” he said. “Shall we head into my ofﬁce?” He moved aside so that she could step up next to him. “We can discuss the details of your employment more easily there.” He smiled. It was a pleasant smile, but it didn’t seem to sit comfortably on his face.
They walked along the corridor, a lofty area so wide and open that it couldn’t possibly be called just a hallway. It, too, was quite empty—no pictures, no accent tables, nothing. Abbey was shocked at the lack of decorations. The house was so cold and unfriendly that it made her wonder about Mr. Sinclair. Was he as cold as this house? They ﬁnally stopped outside what looked like Nick’s ofﬁce.
“You can just call me Abbey,” she said, gripping her portfolio case to keep her hands steady.
He smiled down at her.
“Did you just move in? ” she asked out of curiosity. There was nothing in this home to suggest that it was regularly lived in. There were no photos, no memorabilia anywhere—not a thing to tell her about who he was.
“No,” he said, sitting down behind a shiny desk with a mahogany ﬁnish. His chair rolled on the slick marble ﬂoor beneath it. Then, he made eye contact. “My grandmother tells me that you are a very good decorator,” he said, offer- ing that manufactured smile again. This time, Abbey could almost tell that he’d practiced it. Was he used to having to smile when he really didn’t want to? She wondered what he looked like when he laughed—really laughed. What would his mouth do then? Would he keep still or throw his head back? Would she be able to see amusement in his eyes?
She sat down in one of the leather chairs facing his desk and crossed her legs at the ankle. With a tiny breath to steady herself, she put her portfolio case on her lap and unzipped it. She’d taken a few photos of her best decorat- ing and had them blown up to a larger size for her presenta- tion. “I’ve never had a project this size,” she warned. What she really wanted to tell him was that the only decorating experience she’d had was when she’d decorated his grand- mother’s cottage because Caroline didn’t have the ability to paint and decorate herself. Abbey had worked hard to make her presentation professional, and there was a lot rid- ing on this. She had Max to think about.
Abbey’s son, Max, was in ﬁrst grade. He needed lunch money, school supplies; he was on neighborhood sports teams. There were things she had to pay for if she wanted Max to have a regular childhood. Her poor judgment with his father had been her fault, not Max’s. And the fact that her grandfather needed medicine that she had to help her mother pay for—that wasn’t Max’s fault either. Her son deserved nothing but the best, and she was going to give that to him, even if it meant that she went without. And she had before. Abbey had gone nights with no dinner, skipped parties with her friends, and lived on meager funds so that Max would never know that he was any different than anyone else. Secretly, she worried about him. Would he wonder why he didn’t get beach vacations with his family? Would he wish that he could have big birthday parties with all his friends? She fretted about it all the time. And this was her chance to do something great for his future.
“I’m not concerned about any lack of experience. You come highly recommended by my grandmother, and she’s hard to please, so I trust you’ll do just ﬁne.”
She pulled back the ﬂap on her portfolio and retrieved the ﬁrst photo from it, turning it around for him to view. “I have experience decorating in a small variety of styles . . .” she said apprehensively. She’d practiced her presentation last night a hundred times but it was quite different with Nick’s eyes on her. “As you know, this is a picture from your grandmother’s cottage. I thought I’d start with hers ﬁrst, since you could envision the before and after . . .”
He cleared his throat. “You don’t need to sell me,” he said. “I’m already hiring you.” He offered a pleasant expression, and it was clear from his face that her presenta- tion was over.
She slid the photo back into the case and closed it.
“Are you planning to charge a ﬂat rate per square foot, or would you prefer a salary with a decorating budget? ” he asked.
“Uh-mmm . . .” Abbey chewed on the inside of her lip, trying to scramble for an answer. She didn’t know. She didn’t have a clue. She’d only ever been a nurse. The idea of how to charge him hadn’t even crossed her mind. That thought alone was unsettling enough to cause her chest to burn with anxiety.
Abbey had gone online during a few of her breaks, ordering things that were more extravagant than she’d ever bought, but she knew just how to place them to give them life in Caroline’s cottage. She’d done it as a favor to Caro- line, but she hadn’t made any money doing it, and it never occurred to her to ask for any. She realized that she hadn’t thought this through at all.
“I, uh . . .” She felt ridiculous that all she could produce were unintelligible sounds. Get a grip! she scolded herself. Answer him! This was too big a leap for her. She wasn’t a decorator. She’d always dreamed of being one. She had ﬁles of magazine clippings just in case she ever won the lottery and was able to buy what she really wanted for her and Max.
Her passion for art ran deeply through her—she painted, she could draw, she saw art in everything—but when it had come down to it, she’d had to choose the career that would be the least amount of risk. She’d had to pick something that would provide for Max. Because of that, she’d gotten a nursing degree as quickly as she could. It gave her steady income. She’d taken as many classes as the local commu- nity college allowed, and she’d done nothing but study so that she could get her degree. Abbey still believed there was art in everything; she just didn’t always have time to notice it anymore.
As she sat across from Nick Sinclair, she felt very small, heat ﬁlling her cheeks. She blinked to keep the tears at bay. Never had she come to tears about anything before now—not even raising Max alone. She’d always been able to handle it. So why was she about to cry now? Abbey tried not to process the answer, but it was bubbling up: She knew her artistic talent was that one piece of her that she could always hold on to when she’d lost everything, hoping that one day she could tap into it. It was the only thing besides Max that she was proud of. Now, ﬁnding herself out of her league, she didn’t want anyone telling her that it wasn’t good enough because that would crush her.
And the last thing she wanted was for Nick to think less of her, but she didn’t know a thing about how to charge him for this job or the etiquette in a business relationship like this. She felt guilty charging him at all.
Abbey was silent, still trying to formulate an answer while not giving away how she was feeling. She didn’t know what to say, so she just sat there, inwardly screaming at herself to say something. “I’ll do it for free if you’ll let me take photos for my portfolio when I’m ﬁnished,” she said ﬁnally.
Then, his light blue eyes changed as he looked at her. He looked curious, and there was a gentleness in his face that she hadn’t seen until right then.
“My grandmother has wanted me to do this for a while. Before she was set on having you do it, she’d even called around and given me quotes. I’ve had quotes for upward of a hundred ﬁfty thousand dollars, so, with that said, I won’t let you do the job for free. My grandmother might disown me if I did. Why don’t we settle for seventy-ﬁve thousand dollars to decorate the whole house? ” He searched her face for a reaction. “And that will be your salary. Then, I’ll buy whatever you need in terms of furnishings.”
Abbey blinked to keep her eyes from popping out of their sockets. Seventy-ﬁve thousand dollars? That was three years’ salary for her, and she was about to make it in a matter of weeks. All of a sudden, she felt light-headed, her excitement swelling up inside. This could change everything. With money like that, she could pay for extra childcare—private sitters when she needed them. That would take the burden off her mother, who was caring for her grandfather and watching Max. She might even be able to get Gramps that medicine he needed so badly.
“Does that suit you? ” he asked. “Are you okay with those terms? ”
“Yes.” She couldn’t say anything more than yes. Her emotions were getting the better of her. She wanted to get up and hug him and tell him what a Christmas miracle that money would be for her and her family. She wanted to thank him for being so generous despite the fact that, clearly, she was inexperienced.
“Great.” He stood up and walked around to her side of the desk. She followed his lead and stood, tucking her portfolio under her arm.
He was so close that she caught his scent, and it caused a tickle in her chest. Abbey had never smelled cologne that good before, and she wondered what it was that he was wearing. Had she ever even heard of it? It was probably very expensive.
“Let me show you the rooms that you’ll be decorating,” he said, distracted, as he pulled out his phone and put it to his ear. She was glad to be up and moving again, and hoping to have a normal conversation, but he was already barking into his phone. “I don’t care how much it costs,” he said. “It’s a car. Just buy it . . . I’d like it detailed and cleaned before it leaves the lot this time.” After a minute’s more conversation, he ended the call and responded to her obvious interest. “I collect cars—mostly Ferraris,” he said, with an air of pride.
“Cars? ” she asked. Max collected cars, but she won- dered if he might be talking about a slightly different kind. “There’s a Lamborghini that’s up for auction—very limited number of them. I’ve got someone bidding for me and I’m trying to manage that while I show you around.
She stared up at him long enough to realize that it was becoming awkward, so she looked down at her feet. Her grandfather couldn’t even buy the medicine he needed and this guy was wasting money on luxury cars.
“You need more than one car? ” she asked.
He looked at her, the skin between his eyes wrinkling as if he were trying to make sense of what she was saying. “I collect them. I don’t necessarily drive them.”
“Where do you keep them? ”
“I have a garage on the property. They’re displayed there.”
She knew that her face was showing her distaste, and she couldn’t straighten it out no matter how hard she tried. She had no right to offer any opinion about what he did with his money. “So who comes to see them? ”
He eyed her again. “No one,” he said, his voice sounding slightly exasperated. “I collect them for my own amusement. No one else’s.”
She was quiet after that; the idea of all that money sit- ting somewhere in a garage helping no one had silenced her. “Basically, you’ll be decorating all the rooms except for
a couple. I know that’s a big job . . .” He looked down at her as they walked, changing the subject. Had he been able to interpret her opinions? “And you’ll have only a short time to do it.” He stopped, so Abbey did too. “I have family coming and I’m having a Christmas party. I want you to make the house look lived in.”
A punch of laughter rose in her gut, but she cleared her throat to remove it. She remembered the ballroom with nothing but a piano and a set of ﬂuffy sofas, and thought to herself, How can I make a room like that look livable?
If she’d chosen to be a full-time decorator instead of becoming a nurse, Abbey would take something like a cozy corner nook, paint it a warm color, add a pop of white furniture, and ﬁll it full of bookshelves. She’d arrange the books on the shelves between knickknacks from various locations around the world that her client had gotten on his travels. She’d even drape a snowy-white throw across the arm of the chair and add a ﬂoor lamp for ambience. That would look lived in. This house was like a museum. It was too big to make it even seem like someone would live in it. But then, her thoughts went to Nick. He lived here. And as far as Abbey could tell, he lived here all by himself.
Caroline had never mentioned a family when she spoke of her grandson. She’d only said that he needed help with his home because he was too busy working to do anything with it. How sad to have to walk these giant hallways alone.
They rounded the corner and headed up a curling stair- case to the second ﬂoor. Everywhere she looked, she saw lofty ceilings and balconies. It made her feel the need to take a deep breath to release the growing tension she was feeling about this job she’d taken.
All the doors to each room were shut, which was odd to Abbey, but then again, perhaps it was hard to heat such a large house. He stopped at the ﬁrst one and opened it. It was another colossal expanse of space with vaulted ceil- ings, ornamental woodwork, and more chandeliers.
“This is a bedroom,” he said as she walked around the room, snapping photos of walls and architectural features. She looked up at the intricate crystal chandelier above her, with its strands of diamond-like jewels dripping down, and took a photo. “There are eight bedrooms in total. I’d like each room to feel distinct, yet consistent with the style of the home. What you do with them is up to you. I trust you.” Abbey dragged her hand along the ornate woodwork in the recessed doorway, noticing how the patterns in the wood emerged from under the thick coats of shiny white paint. She’d keep that, she decided. She imagined Georgian- style furniture to maintain the integrity of the home, but with a few present-day traditional accents to make the look current. In such a large space, she’d want to focus on breaking the room up into smaller pieces—perhaps put a sitting area at one end of the bedroom. The key was to make this cold house seem warm and more personal. The walls needed neutrals but in inviting colors like light but- tery yellows and subtle mint greens, rather than just plain white. She jotted down notes in the notebook that she’d included in the front pocket of her portfolio.
They opened the next two doors, and he explained the purpose of each room. She wrote down where the light came in and areas on which she wanted to focus. When they came to the fourth door on the hallway, he skipped it and walked ahead, his thoughts seemingly preoccupied all of a sudden. It was subtle, but she’d noticed. What was behind that door?
“Did you want me to see this one? ” she said, stopping in the hallway and pointing back to the closed door.
“No,” he said. “I won’t need you to decorate that room. It’s ﬁne.” He walked ahead and opened the next door. It was just like the others.
“I’m sorry.” She stopped him right there in the hallway. She was going to have to really make sure he understood if she ever wanted to feel comfortable in his presence. “I must drive home the fact that I haven’t ever had a decorat- ing job of this magnitude. Ever. I’ve only done the cottage for your grandmother and I’ve decorated my mom’s house. I’ve never even been in a home on River Road before.”
Everyone in the vicinity of Richmond knew where River Road was. It was more than just a road; it was a landmark, a stretch of real estate showcasing Richmond’s ﬁnest. “I mean, my mother’s house is nice. She’s on the corner of Maple and Ivy Streets,” she kidded, trying to joke about the insigniﬁcance of where her mother’s house was located. Clearly, he didn’t get it. Maple and Ivy obviously didn’t have the same impact as River Road. Her joke had fallen ﬂat.
He stared at her, as if waiting for something more. “What I’m trying to say . . .” She swallowed. “What I’m
wondering is . . .” She didn’t want to not take the job. But telling him the truth was the right thing to do. “I’m inexpe- rienced. With all the money that you have, why don’t you just hire an experienced decorator? ”
He was silent a moment as if he were trying to get his answer just right. “I mean no disrespect,” he said. “This was my grandmother’s idea. She thinks I need to make this house presentable for my family and friends when they come for Christmas. I agree, to a certain extent. And I think the emptiness bothers her in general. The problem is, I only want to make her happy. I don’t care enough about it to spend time searching for a decorator. I just want it done, and if she thinks you’re the person to do it, then so be it.”
So he didn’t care that Abbey wasn’t a seasoned pro- fessional. He didn’t care about any of it. Any feelings of achievement she’d had by securing this job came crashing down. He was telling her loud and clear that it wasn’t about him trusting her abilities; it was just something to tick off his list. Nick turned and headed down the hallway again. Trying to look on the bright side, Abbey walked along beside him, thinking of all the possibilities.