Set on the North Coast of California this novel is about two women of different ages who fall in love despite doing everything to avoid emotional involvement. It's a positive, mature love story aimed at mature adults.
Gina pushed the battered green Beetle to the limit as she sped up the 101 to Eureka. She had left San Francisco just after dawn, and she wanted to be on the North Coast by mid-afternoon.
With each mile marker she passed, her heart seemed to pound more wildly and she fought a giant lump in her throat.
One thought, one question spurred her on. Would Valerie want her—would Val even speak to her—after all these months?
She didn’t know the answer. She didn’t know if she could handle a rejection, but she was going anyway. . .
As soon as Valerie shifted in the bed—her right arm now hanging over the edge—Sam’s big red nose pushed its way into her open right palm. Even with her eyes closed, she could sense the golden retriever’s tail wagging ferociously. Val had awakened late to one of those perfect Chamber of Commerce mornings, as winter sunlight crept through her bedroom windows to the east. Her western windows were open slightly, and she took a deep breath of the crisp air and imagined gentle surf caressing the shores of Humboldt Bay. This was going to be a beautiful day, she considered with satisfaction, and the perfect time for a romp along the waterfront.
Val changed her position to allow the big dog several sloppy chin licks and then grimaced.
“Okay, Samantha, that’s enough. You’re drowning me!”
She playfully pushed the dog’s big head away and climbed out of bed. Pulling on her sweats and Reeboks and corralling her shoulder-length honey blonde hair with a sweatband, she bounded down two flights of stairs alongside the retriever, grabbed Sam’s leash and the house keys from a table near the front door, and stepped outside to face the day.
After a mile trot down into Old Town, the pair ran another mile along the Boardwalk and a pedestrian walkway near the famed Carson House, a well-preserved Victorian mansion dating from 1885. Although it was early winter, on this sunny morning—rare for rainy Eureka—no one would know it. Both Valerie and Sam sniffed the sea air with contentment. Val found a Frisbee that someone had left behind. She picked up the abandoned toy and looked it over. The blue plastic disc seemed clean enough, so she tossed it for Sam. The female dog happily chased the Frisbee and quickly, tail in rapid motion, brought it back to Val as a present.
The two alternately walked and loped for more than an hour, at one point skirting two pre-teen girls who careened precariously on inline skates and one small boy on a skateboard. They, too, were enjoying the unusually fine morning. Exhausted at the end of their outing, Val and Sam worked their way at a much slower pace back uphill to the house. The older, two-story frame job with a two-car garage was a weather-beaten shade of brown with off-white trim. Beds of now dormant wildflowers lined the front walk, which was formed of rough-hewn stone slabs. Valerie noted that the front yard needed a touch up—even in winter weeds managed to grow—but she knew that she needn’t worry about it. Her lawn gal, Josie Turner, would be around sometime later to give the yard a good going over.
Val waved to Mrs. Schowalter, the stooped, gray-haired lady who lived next door. The elderly woman was out sweeping her front steps. Her miniature dachshund, Molly, watched her efforts from a safe perch on a porch loveseat. Valerie sometimes walked with Mrs. Schowalter and Molly, but when they did, it was out of friendship and had no real exercise goals. Molly and her mistress walked rather slowly compared to Val and Sam.
On days like this one, Valerie mused, she felt reasonably content. Perhaps she had made the right decision to move to Eureka, trading San Francisco’s crowded conditions, traffic, and polluted air for this quieter, if somewhat colder and wetter, northern California town. Eureka thought of itself as a small coastal city, but to Val it was a town, nothing more. However on this day that was enough. She was so glad the holidays were over—her first Christmas season since Doreen had died. Her first alone. She was relieved she had survived the profound sense of loneliness and loss during that highly-touted family time and could now look forward to the coming year.
While on the front walk Valerie leaned down to pick up the morning’s Times-Standard—a puny roll of newsprint compared to The San Francisco Chronicle and filled with announcements of local, not-so-thrilling events. She sometimes had to laugh at the flower shows, tea parties, bake sales, and other similar social activities, but the Eureka paper still had her favorite cartoon and the daily crossword puzzle. She would survive.
“Come, Sam,” she said, “How about some breakfast?”
Followed by the still-panting retriever, Valerie entered the spacious house. She passed through the wood-paneled dining room and into the kitchen, checked for messages on the answering machine atop the counter, then started the coffee maker and refilled Sam’s water bowl. She threw two slices of bread into the toaster, took strawberry jam out of the refrigerator, and filled Sam’s food bowl with a scoop of senior-formula kibble from a large bag in the pantry.
“We won’t worry about calories today, Sam,” Val mused, her hazel eyes dancing. She considered Sam as the dog slurped water noisily. She was pretty trim for a large, aging dog, but as for herself, at 51 she had begun to put on the inevitable middle-age spread. “I’m just pleasingly plump,” she suggested aloud to the retriever. Never overly athletic, Val still felt she had held her own pretty well over the years. And she wasn’t about to put herself through some wild dieting scheme or surgical procedure, like stapling her stomach, to lose a few pounds.
While Sam crunched away on her kibble until her bowl was spotless, Valerie slathered jam on her toast and spread the newspaper on the dining room table. Then she grabbed her cordless phone from the counter to return a call from her friend Lanie Olson. The two had planned dinner and a movie later that day.
Valerie dialed. “Lanie, are you up yet?” she asked, when she heard nothing but silence even though the receiver had been picked up. “It’s too beautiful to stay in bed all morning! Come on, gal, get going!” She laughed. “Are we still on for dinner and the movie?”
With an audible yawn, Lanie’s voice sleepily agreed. “Sure thing, girlfriend. Sorry. I was up late last night.” Still yawning she inquired huskily, “Did you find a roomer yet?”
Valerie frowned. “Not yet, but this is a Saturday. Maybe someone will call today. I hope so.” She paused to take a bite of her toast. “I’d sure like to get it rented in time to help make my mortgage payment.” She sighed. “Oh, well, something will happen.”
The two set a time to meet. Lanie would come to the house at 4 p.m. They’d walk on the beach, then grab a bite to eat, and hit a 7 p.m. movie at the local multiplex—one of two local film emporiums, the fancy one with stadium seating. Valerie smiled to herself. No funky art movie houses here. If they wanted art films, they had to get them from cable or Netflix.
Thinking of Lanie Olson always brought a smile to Valerie’s lips. They had first met in a local real estate office several months earlier, where Val had gone to sign paperwork for the purchase of her house. She had just put down her pen after signing several pages of legal documents. Her realtor had moved to a nearby copy machine when Valerie suddenly sensed someone looking at her. Feeling a tingling sensation in her back, she turned and looked into the flashing dark brown eyes of a petite, stocky-built woman wearing a western-style pants outfit. Their eyes locked for a moment, and the woman gave Valerie a grin. Val felt a bit embarrassed and turned away. She was relieved when the realtor brought her another pile of papers to look over. As she did, the petite stranger brushed by her and whispered, “Nice house you picked. I wish it had been my listing.” Valerie nearly jumped in surprise. The woman placed a business card beside her and said, “Give me a call sometime. We’ll have coffee and talk.”
Valerie had kept the card but knew she would never make the call. A few days later Lanie Olson showed up on her doorstep. Nonplussed at first, Val found the little gal, in her late 40s with short brown curly hair to match her chocolate eyes, hard to resist. “I can see why you are selling real estate,” she quipped. Lanie actually had been a new agent just beginning work with the broker. “Midlife change,” she admitted with a grin. Almost instantly, they recognized a shared kinship and became good friends, although Lanie was quite invested—meaning seven days a week invested—in making a success of the real estate game. The two kept contact by phone and enjoyed each other’s company when possible.
At this point, there had been nothing romantic between them. Valerie was still grieving for Doreen and wasn’t ready for sexual intimacy with another woman. When her mind could get around such subjects, she admitted that Lanie sparkled and was intriguing but questioned whether she would make a good partner. She felt sure that Lanie was attracted to her—in fact Lanie had kidded about it on several occasions—but Val was not about to encourage her. Thankfully, for the most part, Lanie had shown respect for Val’s devastating loss and resulting major life adjustment.
After she finished breakfast Valerie went out to the garage, which she had turned into a studio. She worked primarily in oils and sometimes in watercolor, and the large garage was a perfect place to work. Well not quite perfect. Her Volvo station wagon would probably rust, since it was parked in the driveway and often exposed to rain, wind, and ocean salt. The available natural light in the garage was not exactly a painter’s dream either, but she had made it work.
Sam sniffed around the concrete floor and then, as was her habit, curled up on an oval rag rug by Valerie’s stool as Val put some finishing touches on a painting she had started the previous week. The canvas depicted a coastal scene and featured a majestic lighthouse. She had sketched the natural setting by the ocean—the number of days at this time of the year when she could work outside was limited, so she made it a habit to start a work out of doors when weather permitted and then move indoors to flesh out the details. There was no lighthouse near Eureka that matched what she had in mind, so she used a photograph of another lighthouse along the California coast and sketched from that photograph, placing the lighthouse within her own landscape. Only the purists would know the difference, she thought to herself, and anyway as a painter she was far more impressionist than realist.
Valerie was so totally involved in her work that she was startled when the front doorbell rang. Sam jumped to her feet and began barking, and Val looked at her watch. 11:30 a.m. Hmmm. Could it be Josie, with a question? She had heard sounds outside a few minutes earlier that might have been Josie at work. Val put down her paintbrush, wiped her hands on a rag, and with Sam at her heels returned to the house. She walked into the entryway and opened the paneled front door.
A tall, slender young woman stood on the porch. She had a pale face ringed with stringy, long brown hair pulled into a haphazard ponytail, wore glasses with clip-on sunshades, and was clad in a white sweatshirt with “Arizona” written across the front in bold red letters. Faded jeans and rundown once-white Nikes completed the fashion statement. Behind her, Valerie noticed an unfamiliar green, rather battered VW Beetle parked across the street. She decided it probably belonged to her visitor, who stood holding a map in one hand.
“Yes?” A slight frown marked Val’s surprise at having an unexpected stranger on her doorstep.
“You have, uh, a room for rent?” the young woman asked. Her voice was low-pitched and hesitant.
“Yes, I do,” Val acknowledged. Perplexed, she still managed to remember her manners and motioned toward the inside of the house. “Would you like to come in?”
“Thank you.” With a quick nod the woman stepped into the tile-floored entryway, pulled off the plastic shades, and stole a quick glance around the areas of the house that were immediately visible to her. Sam had stopped barking when Val opened the door. She now sniffed around the unexpected guest.
Valerie closed the door and waved Sam away. “Enough, Sam.” When Sam backed off, Val turned to the woman. “How did you hear about my room?” she asked as she appraised the visitor. Although seeming hardly more than a girl—at least from Valerie’s perspective—the young woman had a surprisingly appealing quality, despite her rather sloppy outward appearance. A subtle energy radiated from her, and Val now noticed that the shades had covered intense blue eyes.
“At the community center, at Humboldt State.”
“But I gave only a phone number. How did you get the address?” Valerie tried not to be too sharp, but the edge in her voice was apparent anyway.
The young woman blushed with obvious embarrassment, her cheeks, ears, and neck turning bright crimson. “I’m so sorry. I suppose I should have called.” She swallowed nervously. “But I’m terrible with telephones. I need to see faces. So I asked the clerk where the house was located, and she was nice enough to tell me.” The words tumbled out. She was clearly very uncomfortable and shifted back and forth on her feet. “I guess she shouldn’t have, right?”
Valerie shrugged. “No, but I suppose it’s okay.” She suddenly chuckled. “You don’t look like a serial killer—or anything dangerous.”
The tension broke, and the young woman visibly relaxed. Her fidgeting ceased. “No, I don’t think so.” She risked a smile and extended a slender, yet muscular-looking hand. “I’m Gina. Gina Fortenham. I just got to Eureka, and I’m looking for a place to stay. Your ad made this house sound really nice,” she acknowledged.
“Oh, yes, thank you. Well, I’m Valerie Stephans.” Val put out her own hand.
As they shook hands briefly, Valerie noted the younger woman’s damp palm and tentative grasp. Their eyes met, and Val’s breath caught as she stared directly for the first time into the deepest blue pools she had ever seen. An image of the deep blue hues of Oregon’s famed Crater Lake crossed her mind. She gave a little cough and quickly looked away. Still unnerved by the unexpected intrusion and now those intense blue eyes, Valerie took a deep breath, trying to calm down before she spoke. “Well,” she finally said, with a sweep of her hand, “this is a three-bedroom house. There are two bedrooms on the second floor, with a shared bath, that I rent out. At the moment, both rooms are empty. Down here is a living room, a dining room, with the kitchen behind, and another small bath and the laundry room along the hallway. My room is on the top floor, in what you might call the attic.”
Valerie now noticed, as she waved her hand around, that her arm was covered with specks of paint. She flushed, realizing that she hadn’t taken time to thoroughly clean up before answering the door. She pointed to her smock. “I’m a painter,” she explained, “as you might guess by my somewhat colorful look. Hope I didn’t get you—.” She pointed to the paint spots on her arms and hands.
Gina shook her head. After a slight pause, Val swallowed and continued, “My studio is in the garage. Unfortunately, that means all the parking is on the street.
“There isn’t usually a problem,” she quickly added.
“That’s fine.” Gina offered a slight smile. “My Beetle is little. I can always squeeze it in somewhere.”
Valerie moved toward the stairs. “Here, I’ll show you the room that’s for rent.”
The two women mounted the first flight of stairs, Sam following on their heels. Gina’s hand trailed along the polished wood railing.
“I hope you like dogs,” Valerie said. “No allergies or anything?”
“I love dogs,” Gina said, “as long as they’re friendly. And no, no allergies.” Sam sniffed at her again, and she briefly offered the dog her open palm and then stroked the top of Sam’s head.
“The house is carpeted downstairs and on the stairways, but the rooms upstairs have hardwood floors. They can be chilly, especially at night. I hope you don’t mind that,” Valerie said.
“I like hardwood floors. They have a lot of character.”
Val noticed that Gina appeared pleased with the bedroom. It was the bigger of the two rooms available and was light and airy, with windows on the east and south. The bay was just visible in the distance over another rooftop. Furniture in the room was old and a bit dark but very serviceable. Across the hall the small bathroom featured a classic, clubfooted tub. Gina acknowledged that the tub was “very charming.”
Beginning to relax, Valerie warmed to telling about her home. “This is not a true Victorian, as several houses are in Eureka, but it is an older house, with lots of angles and steep roof lines and plenty of oak and redwood in the moldings and trim. The original builder put a lot of love into this house. It had two floors and a large unfinished attic at the top. But an owner at some point decided to convert the attic into a master suite with bath. That set of stairs at the back goes to the top.”
Gina gazed at the rear stairs with obvious curiosity, and Valerie surprised herself by offering to show her the room. “Come on up. It’s unusual, but I love it.”
The two mounted the second, less ornate flight of stairs to Valerie’s room, and Gina was clearly impressed. “Wow, you can get the sun from both the east and west and you can hear something. Is that the bay or the ocean?”
Valerie grinned with amusement. “Most likely traffic on the 101. But, I’ll admit sometimes early in the morning, when Old Town is still deserted or when the wind is just right, I feel like I’m hearing tide sound. Can’t prove it, but I love imagining it.”
The room had no regular corners because the roof line ran down almost to the floor on two sides. The area was spacious, however, and Valerie had decorated it attractively with white furniture and a bright blue comforter on her king-sized bed.
When they had returned to the main hallway below, Val asked carefully, “You said you are new in town. Do you have a job?”
“Yes,” Gina volunteered, her eyes now sparkling. “I start working tomorrow at Ritchie’s Grill on the 101 highway. I have a lot of experience waiting tables, so I’ll do fine there.” She patted her jeans pocket, pulling herself to her full height. “I have cash for a deposit, or whatever you require.”
“Where do you come from?” Valerie was almost sold but was still not certain how trusting she felt toward this person who seemed a tad unkempt and rather transient. And who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, she reminded herself, talk on telephones.
“I’ve been in Arizona for several years going to school, but I’m from the Midwest, originally,” Gina replied without defensiveness. “I’ve always wanted to be in California so here I am.” Apparently sensing Valerie’s uncertainty, she quickly added, “If you need references, I can get them. I have some phone numbers in the car for people I’ve rented from before. They’ll tell you I paid my bills and wasn’t any trouble.”
Valerie considered this option for a moment and then shook her head. She instinctively felt that if references were offered voluntarily, they would be good ones. “I don’t think that’s necessary,” she said.
There was one possible stumbling block left to cover. Val needed to get it over with. “Now my ad said that I’m renting a room. I’m not sharing the house. That means there will be no kitchen privileges, nor watching TV in the living room. I know that may seem harsh, but I do have a life of my own and I don’t want it totally disrupted,” she said, her jaw tightening. “And there’s no Internet here. I don’t even own a computer.”
Gina’s blue eyes widened just a bit but otherwise her face revealed no concern about these restrictions. “No problem,” she said quickly. “I’ll be able to eat dinner at Ritchie’s and I don’t spend much time watching TV. And if I need to use the Internet, I can take my laptop to a Starbucks. The room and use of a bath are fine. That’s all I really need.”
Still unsure of herself as a landlady—having had only one tenant before this—Valerie could not think of anything else to qualify Gina. When, after a second’s hesitation, nothing came to mind, Val capitulated. “Okay, then,” she said, “if you want the room, it’s yours.”
“Thanks.” Gina smiled with obvious relief. She quickly pulled out a roll of currency and peeled off several bills. “Here’s the first month—$300, right?—last month, and an extra $100 for a deposit. That’s $700, total.” She carefully handed the bills to Valerie. “I’ll be getting a local checking account right away, but I thought you might want cash at the beginning since you don’t know me yet.”
Val took the money, thumbed through the bills, and then nodded. It was a done deal. She shook Gina’s hand again, this time with relief. Then she remembered, “Oh, the keys.” Valerie went into the kitchen, cozy with its redwood cabinets and latticed glass doors. She took two keys from a drawer under the counter, returning with them to the hallway. “This one opens the front door,” she explained, “and this smaller one is for your room, for your privacy.”
“Thanks,” Gina said, looking carefully at the keys. “I’ll just get my things from the car.”
“Do you need help?”
“No, thanks. I don’t have a lot of stuff. I can handle it.”
A few minutes later, Gina came back into the house with a duffle bag over her shoulder, a box of books under one arm, and a laptop computer bag in her other hand.
Valerie stopped her at bottom of the stairs, offering her a receipt for her rent and deposit. “Oh, I forgot—that door over there,” she said, pointing, “goes to my studio. If you need anything or have a question and you can’t find me around, I’m probably out there. Please knock first, but don’t hesitate to come and get me.”
Gina nodded. “Just stick the receipt in this pocket,” she said, shoving one hip forward. Valerie flushed at the unexpected intimacy but pushed the receipt down into Gina’s rear jeans pocket. Gina smiled disarmingly. “Thanks,” she said and took her small number of belongings up the stairs to her new room. Val stood for a second watching her, noting her long legs, her nicely rounded butt, her bouncing pony tail. Valerie’s breath caught, and then she shook her head. “Not for you,” she murmured to herself as she refocused her attention on the painting project that awaited her. Sam, too, had watched Gina from the hallway but now wagged her tail and followed Val out into the studio.
Gina shut the door and leaned against it, eyes closed. “Thank you, God,” she whispered to herself. A place to stay, no more hunting, or worrying about where she would sleep tonight. She knew she had been very lucky.
She found her new abode roomy compared to the last tacky studio apartment she had rented in Tucson. She grinned as she dropped her box of books on the floor and tossed the duffle bag onto the queen-sized bed. This would do fine. Her new landlady, this Valerie Stephans, was an attractive older woman, yet she seemed a little uptight. Gina considered that briefly. Well, maybe there were reasons. Whatever they were, Gina figured she could handle the situation. She’d certainly known worse.
When she surveyed the room more closely, she felt satisfied that the oak dresser was large enough, the one bookcase would certainly hold her small treasury of paperbacks, and the little wood desk would work well for her laptop. There were even some hangers in the closet. She was thankful that, for the moment at least, the bathroom across the hall would be hers alone.
The large bed looked so good to her that Gina was tempted to just drop onto it and go to sleep. She was exhausted from a long drive before dawn, an interview at Ritchie’s Grill at 9 a.m., then the hunt for the women’s center at Humboldt State, where she had obtained a list of possible rentals. Then the tense initial encounter with Valerie.
Gina actually rolled the duffle bag off onto the floor and stretched out on the bed, luxuriating in the clean fragrance of lavender and comfortable support. It was a good bed, topped by a soft quilt with a brightly colored nautical design. She felt wonderful just lying there. What a relief to have a job and a place to stay, all in one day! Last night there had been so much freeway noise at the funky little motel where she had stayed somewhere north of San Francisco that she had slept little and was now bone tired.
After a moment or two she stirred reluctantly, uttering a deep sigh. She wouldn’t be able to sleep just yet.
No, she had to make this place hers. She had to become truly at home here, as quickly as possible. Winter darkness would come early. Tomorrow she would start the job at Ritchie’s, and she still had to go find something to eat before she went to bed. Another challenge, when she didn’t know Eureka at all.
Reluctantly letting go of the pleasure of lying across the bed, she sighed as she got up and opened the duffle bag, pulling out items and placing them in piles on the comforter. Underwear and T-shirts would fit in the drawers. Two pairs of jeans would go on hangers in the closet. One nice pair of pants and a jacket for dress, also to be hung up. A raincoat, a winter parka, and a fleece jacket to go on hangers. Two pairs of shoes on the closet floor. A couple of baseball caps to be put on the top shelf of the closet.
Then books in the bookcase. She had such a painfully small collection, not much to show for nine years of college and three degrees. She sighed. Oh, well. As she slipped them onto the shelves, she lovingly touched each volume—poetry by Sylvia Plath and Emily Dickinson, novels by Virginia Woolf, a slim tome on dreams by Sigmund Freud. Finally, a bound volume of her doctoral dissertation. All that work, only to end up a part-time waitress? In her exhaustion, she could hardly remember a line of Sylvia Plath’s beautiful poetry. Gina shook her head. Don’t go there. All this would end eventually and she’d find a way to use what she had learned.
The laptop went onto the desk. She looked inside the desk drawers and found that someone had left a notepad and pen. She grabbed both gratefully and made a list of personal items she would need to buy as soon as she got paid. First on the list would be toothpaste.
She put her ditty bag on top of the chest of drawers, leaving the bag open for the moment, so that her toothbrush could air out. She’d deal with the bathroom after dinner.
Gina finally stepped back and surveyed the room. Well, as much as she could be, she was here. In California, at long last. It wasn’t her life’s dream, San Francisco, but it was California. With a job and a place to stay. Her heart raced for a moment and she stopped and took several deep breaths. Calm down, she told herself.
As soon as she felt in control again, she grabbed her fanny pack from the rocking chair by the bed—it was nice that Valerie Stephans had put in the rocker and a floor lamp for reading. Gina quickly counted her money. She had placed some single bills at the center of her roll of cash before coming to this house. That way, when she peeled off the twenties to pay her rent, it would seem that she had plenty of money. Actually, after paying first month, last, and deposit, she only had a couple of twenties and a few singles. She wasn’t broke, but this cash would have to do until she got paid on her new job. So dinner this evening would have to be filling but cheap. Thinking of that, she’d better get going before she became even more famished and exhausted.
She picked up her blue fleece jacket as she exited the room and locked the door. Gina went quietly down the stairs, paying attention for the first time to the blue-green shag carpeting. It was brighter than most carpeting she had seen—which was usually tan, or beige, or even white. This shag was reminiscent of what, the late 1960s or early 70s? Definitely not current. But, so what? She decided that she liked it.
Valerie was in the kitchen talking on the phone. Not wanting to disturb her, Gina quietly let herself out the front door. She went across the street to the Beetle and retrieved an apple from the passenger seat. It wasn’t a lot and it was getting late, but this would have to be her lunch.
The pale winter sun had moved over to the west, and a crisp breeze had come up. Gina could smell the bay, even if she couldn’t see it from here. As someone who had always lived inland she had a real sensitivity to the unique smell of ocean air. She zipped up her jacket against the wind, pulled on a knit cap she kept in the pocket, and breathed deeply. Although it was radically different from Tucson’s dry air and perpetual sunshine, she felt she was going to like Eureka.
Which way and how to go? She was low on gas, so she left the Beetle. She wanted to see Old Town and explore the waterfront, so she headed on foot along the sidewalk, a gradual descent toward the 101 and the center of Eureka. Aside from her money issues, she needed to stretch her legs and get some fresh air. And, she thought, there would surely be shops along the waterfront where she could find a sandwich or pizza or something. She clipped off the blocks of pavement, her legs moving in a long, artless stride. As was her habit after extended periods alone, she talked silently to herself. “I’ve never lived on the coast, but I’ve always thought of myself as a coastal person. And here I am, finally, on the coast,” she said. Then she laughed. Gosh, she thought, if anyone heard her they’d think she was nuts. She smiled to herself at the thought.
As Gina had expected, she found Old Town intriguing as she gazed at the nineteenth- century architecture. She wished she had remembered her camera. Oh, well, another day. Then, several blocks down one street, she found a small eatery called Harborside Pizza. Inside she purchased one small thin-crust pizza, fully loaded with toppings. She needed to get as much nutritional value as possible, so olives, artichoke hearts, mushrooms, and hamburger. Her stomach would complain later but, as she pulled apart the slices covered with gooey melted cheese, she chomped down on the first wedge and loved it. She bought a Diet Coke and a bottle of water for later and took the pizza box down by the waterfront. There she found a bench and finished her meal, while watching small waves lapping at the Boardwalk pier. She knew nothing about ocean tides and currents, but the varying intervals between the waves fascinated her. She realized she could watch for hours. She’d have to ask someone or read a book so she could understand better how it all worked. She did know that Eureka was on Humboldt Bay and that the wave action here would subtle compared to the ocean itself, but still the tide was evident as she observed the water move against the shore.
Having satisfied her hunger and beginning to feel chilled as the winter sun gradually dropped toward the horizon, she allowed her mind to shift to the next morning. She would have to get something for breakfast. She had in her duffle bag a mug, a spoon, and a small electric rod with cord that could be used to heat water for tea. Since her student days she had always turned to it in a pinch. So she needed to find a little market somewhere. Looking up and down the street, she spied one. Perfect. At Sunset Market, she got a package of muffins, a bunch of bananas, a box of tea bags, and a jar of honey. That would do her for a few days. She was set.
As the shadows lengthened, Gina worked her way back up uphill toward Valerie’s house, which was now her house as well. Or sort of. A room, anyway.
When Valerie had first moved to Eureka, she had enough funds to put down a large chunk toward the purchase of her home, but she had little extra cash available for living expenses. Eureka, once a busy logging town, had fallen on less fortunate times and was re-inventing itself as a travel destination. Hence the galleries and shops in Old Town and the numerous Victorian mansions scattered throughout the city were central to the area’s financial health. But jobs weren’t terribly easy to come by, and Val had felt very fortunate to find part-time work in a local photography studio. She needed some predictable income to keep her afloat while she waited hopefully for the sales of her paintings. And, in the beginning, income from renters had also been only a potential.
She had felt especially lucky to find a job that fit into her life so well. Marlynda Cramer, who owned the studio, Portraits by Lyn, was good to her, allowing her flexible hours and tasks that weren’t too odious. Although their lifestyles were radically different—Lyn, as she told Val to call her, was married with three children—Valerie respected her creativity, liked her as a person, and felt that, in working for Lyn, she was helping another entrepreneur do her “life’s work.” In return Lyn had been sensitive to Val’s situation and her deep feelings of loss over the death of her life partner, Doreen Hawkins.
Val had spent this particular morning in the photo lab and was just now coming home for lunch, with the hope of having quality time in her studio during the afternoon. The Beetle wasn’t parked anywhere along the street, so she assumed that her new roomer had gone to work.
Once inside the house, she greeted Sam and then found several phone messages. She sat down at the dining room table to tackle her calls. The first one was, almost predictably, from Lanie. Valerie quickly autodialed Lanie’s number. “Hey, what’s up?”
“Nothing much on this end. I’m still sorry about Saturday,” Lanie said. The planned evening out had been cancelled at the last moment, when Lanie was asked by her boss to help prepare the contract on a house—tons of paperwork and a deadline.
“I didn’t get home until almost 9 p.m.,” Lanie explained, very apologetically.
“That’s okay,” Valerie said. “I’ve told you before that I understand about your work. You’re just getting started, and that has to be the most important thing for you right now. And by the way, the movie was very funny. I stopped for a pizza and, really, it’s fine. We’ll do it another time.” It was true that Valerie had been disappointed on Saturday when she found the message from Lanie, but after all they were friends, not lovers, and such things had to be understood.
Shifting focus for a moment, Lanie commented, “I called to see how you’ve come along with finding a roomer.” No matter the time of day, her voice sounded husky, as if she had just climbed out of bed.
“Oh,” Valerie replied, with sudden excitement. “Since we didn’t get together on Saturday, I couldn’t tell you that I rented one of the rooms. Would you believe some woman just showed up on my doorstep?”
Lanie quickly interrupted. “Is she, like, okay? I mean, how did she get the address? You were pretty careful about your listing.” Lanie clearly felt protective of Val.
Valerie grinned to herself. “I think it’s going to be fine,” she assured her friend. “She seems alright. Maybe a bit nervous and shy, but she has a car and a job lined up. She paid me first, last, and security, all in cash, so I don’t have to worry about having a check bounce.” She laughed out loud. “Just in time for the mortgage payment. Whew!”
Lanie groaned. “I know you need the money, but I hope this is a good thing. Does she seem independent, or like a kid needing to be adopted? You’re still vulnerable. The last thing you need is someone who’s needy, like that Debra.”
“Whoa!” Valerie exclaimed. “I know you’re watching out for me, and I know the last roomer didn’t go so well. But I set some firm boundaries this time—the room and bath and nothing else. It’ll be okay.” She didn’t really need to be reminded about her disappointing first tenant.
“Is she a lesbian?”
“Gees, Lanie, how would I know? I just met her.”
“Nice boobs? Nice buns? Surely you had time to notice that.”
“Beautiful blue eyes, athletic looking but skinny as a rail. Give it up, Lanie.”
“Okay. To be continued later. Gotta go. ‘Bye!”
Valerie hung up, shaking her head, and strolled into the kitchen, returning the phone to the cradle. Lanie must have been a bulldog in some other life.
After dealing with Lanie, Val decided the others would have to wait. She needed something to eat first. In the refrigerator she found the makings for a sandwich and some fresh fruit. She was always relieved these days to look in the refrigerator and see her own things, ordered the way she liked them, and not all of Debra’s stuff stuck in everywhere, overflowing the shelves. That silly woman had been a disaster—well, a disaster for Valerie, anyway.
She selected bread and leftover roasted chicken, along with cheese and pickles, and put them on the counter. A fresh orange would make a good dessert. She started the kettle for a hot cup of tea. Never having had a roomer before the “infamous” Debra six months ago, never having had to resort to such means to make ends meet, she hadn’t known what to do. Normally assertive but depressed after Doreen’s death, she’d been a pushover in this new role and Debra had taken advantage at every turn. Val had been lucky, so her friends had told her, to be able to get her out of the house after three months. Thankfully, the woman had found a boyfriend to move in with. Now here she was faced with a roomer again—and she probably still didn’t know what to do, but at least she wouldn’t make the same mistakes this time, that’s for sure.
Samantha had padded into the kitchen, toenails clicking on the floor, ever hopeful for a treat or tidbit to fall her way. Valerie ruffled the big dog’s silky ears and slipped her a piece of chicken. Sam gobbled it down, wagging her tail happily.
After her sandwich was made, Val considered returning the rest of her calls and then decided to wait until later in the afternoon. Although a gray day, the light was fair right now and it was a good time to work.
She took her food on a tray out to the garage, with Sam at her heels, and settled herself before her unfinished painting. Maybe she could get the shadings completed on the lighthouse this afternoon. She had a coat of off-white on the tower, and now she needed to add the shadows and imperfections to give it texture.
As she alternately worked and nibbled at her food, her mind drifted back to her conversation with Lanie, then to Debra, and then to this new roomer Gina. Why, she wondered to herself, would a woman in her 30s be wandering around the country, renting a room, with barely more belongings than she could carry in her hands? This way of operating was so different from Val’s experience—by her 30s she had had stable employment, a home, and a committed relationship. And was Gina a lesbian? Who knew? She didn’t wear a sign, for God’s sake. But those eyes were intense, such a deep shade of blue and so large! She probably had a nice body, sort of tomboyish with small breasts, but how would one know since Gina had so hidden herself behind those glasses, stringy hair, a shapeless oversized sweatshirt, and sloppy jeans?
Valerie stopped in mid-thought. This was leading nowhere. Thanks, Lanie! As long as this woman paid her rent and didn’t cause any problems, her life, whatever it was, was none of Val’s business. This kind of curiosity would only get her into trouble.
Pushing all thoughts of Gina aside, Valerie tuned the radio to a classic music station and went back to work.