Eve Jensen was now past the point of no return and standing in front of the historic Owl’s Roost Inn. The wisdom of accepting ownership of The Roost, a business in which she had no experience, was pale in comparison to her decision to bring her cousin, Tess, along in the venture.
“What were you thinking?” Tess said, shaking her head, taking in the woods, the rustic building, the absence of civilization as she knew it.
“There wasn’t much to think about,” Eve said polishing off the last two Oreos from a gas station snack pack and wiping her hands on her shirt. “I was fired from my job due to a ‘corporate takeover’, my boyfriend thought it was time to ‘see other people’, and worst of all I’m ‘pushing’ thirty. It was fate that Fannie died, and I inherited her inn. Now here we are.”
Eve was 5 foot 8, with hazel eyes, chestnut colored hair. Tess was petite, blonde and recently divorced… for the third time.
“Where we are is hillbilly hell.” Tess pointed back toward the woods that ran along the far side of the parking lot. “I’m willing to put money down on Bigfoot living in there. Bigfoot!”
The Owl’s Roost Inn bordered the Nantahala National Forest, filled with maples, oaks, poplars and almost 88 miles of the Appalachian Trail. It was late September and the trees were still full of leaves and had yet to start changing color.
“That’s crazy talk,” Eve said. “Bigfoot lives in the Northwest. This is Western North Carolina. There’s no Bigfoot in the woods. Just bears. And snakes. And raccoons.”
Eve’s eyes focused back on the the Inn. She had done some research online before leaving Boston and knew that The Roost consisted of two main buildings and two detached cabins.
The cabins were located on the far side of the Inn. The Bluebell cabin had a guest room upstairs and another one downstairs. The Ginseng cabin was divided in half, so that both guest rooms would have a downstairs and an upstairs.
The large building on Eve’s left was the original Owl’s Roost Inn, dating back to the early 1800s. It had four guest rooms on the first floor, four rooms on the second and one in the attic. The second, newer building, on her right had been built to match the original. A breezeway, with a pitched roof reminiscent of a covered wooden bridge, connected the two.
The newer building housed reception, the kitchen and a large great room that doubled as dining. A two-bedroom, owner’s apartment was located upstairs and the only living quarters in the new addition.
A man in his early 30s, with dark, wavy hair and dark eyes exited the building. He made his way across the gravel parking lot toward Eve and Tess.
“Whoa,” Tess said under her breath. “Did you inherit him with The Roost, too?”
He wore Carhart cargo pants and a tight T-shirt that showed off toned muscles. A tool belt hung low on his hips and made him all business when he walked.
“Welcome to The Owl’s Roost,” the man said, extending his hand toward Eve. “You must be the new owner. I’m Elphin Leeks, handyman for The Roost.”
Elphin Leeks didn’t just have a complete socket wrench set and the knowledge of how to use them, he also had a secret. Five years ago, Elphin needed a place to hide. The Inn was fairly small and secluded, with almost 100 acres of forested land surrounding it, most of which abutted National Forest. He had known the previous owner, Fannie Nielsen, for most of his life and trusted her implicitly. She was an excellent judge of character, and never said no to anyone in need. It didn’t matter if the one in need had two legs, or four, or not-a-leg-to-stand-on. What was originally supposed to be a month or two of Elphin fixing broken fence posts and cleaning gutters had turned into years, and now Elphin’s secret was deeply embedded into The Roost.
Unfortunately, a few months ago, Fannie had moved on to a better place. With no children of her own, she left The Roost to her best friend’s granddaughter, Eve. Elphin hoped it wasn’t a mistake, or his days at The Owl’s Roost Inn were numbered.
Eve took Elphin’s outstretched hand. “Yep, I’m Eve. This is my cousin, Tess.”
Elphin looked back at The Inn. All the buildings had stone bases, wide wood plank siding, and cedar shingle roofs. “The Roost is pretty amazing,” he said. “You’re lucky to have inherited her. Come take a look at the view from the deck, then I’ll show you around the main building, and help bring your stuff up to the owner’s apartment.”
Eve, Tess and Elphin walked across the gravel lot, to The Inn. It was an easier walk for Eve than Tess. Eve was dressed sensibly in jeans, a hoody and running shoes. Tess had no sensibility whatsoever. She chose to wear a short, ruffled skirt, a pink knit sweater and shoes she hoped would make her appear taller. Due to Tess’s petite size, much of her wardrobe came from children’s departments.
Eve and Elphin passed through the breezeway, and onto a deck that spanned the length of both buildings. It was lined with wooden rocking chairs and small tables. The railings were made of intertwined branches. Below the deck, a sloping field had been cleared to give a spectacular 180-degree view of the mountains. An oversized stairway flowed from the deck down to a stone walkway leading to the two remote cabins.
“The Owl’s Roost sits at almost 4500 feet,” Elphin said. “That’s the Plott Balsams and Great Smoky Mountains National Park you’re looking at. On a clear day, you can see all the way to Clingman’s Dome.”
The view was magical. There were at least seven layers of tree covered mountains, framed by blue sky. If there were houses on any of the mountains, Eve couldn’t see them.
She turned to look for Tess who wasn’t nearly as taken with the scenery. She was on her knees, near the reception entrance, beating some unfortunate creepy crawly creature into the afterlife with her open-toed, platform, wedge.
“Is she okay?” Elphin asked.
“She’ll be fine. Tess was born and raised a city girl. The whole nature thing is a bit disconcerting to her.”
Elphin nodded his head like he understood. They walked back to Tess, and Eve helped her up.
“Don’t worry,” Elphin said. “It’s not nearly as rustic as it looks. All The Roost’s bathrooms are ensuite and modern. There’s even wi-fi.”
Tess slipped her shoe back on and looked up toward the heavens in relief. “Hallelujah!”
Elphin held open a door that had “reception” burned into its wood, in block letters. Eve and Tess passed through, and entered a cozy, rustic lobby. Near the door, walking sticks lined a wall next to a wooden bench. Above the walking sticks hung a bulletin board with bear safety pamphlets pinned to it. Directly across from the entrance was reception’s check-in desk, with a live edge wood counter. To the right of the desk was a hallway, and to the left was a door that read “employees only”. The door gave access to the back of reception, and an office.
“You’ll find a narrow stairway at the back of the office,” Elphin said. “The stairs will take you up to the owner’s apartment.”
They followed the short hallway from the lobby to the great room. It was filled with tables and comfy couches. A large, two-sided, stone fireplace dominated the middle of the room. Vintage prints of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Blue Ridge Parkway hung on the walls. Bookcases were filled with books and maps for hiking and exploring the area. Floor to ceiling, paned windows lined the wall on the far side, giving a stunning view of the surrounding mountains.
“This room also serves as the dining hall,” Elphin explained. “Not sure what you have planned, but Fannie mostly did buffet style. A continental type of breakfast and a simple, southern comfort-food dinner. Guests could request a paper bag lunch, if they were going to spend the day hiking. Cookies and iced tea were usually set out during the day.” He pointed toward the back corner of the room. “The large swing doors will take you to the kitchen. It’s been recently renovated and has a door that exits close to the parking lot, for deliveries.”
“That’s Tess’s department.” Eve said. “She’s going to run the kitchen.”
Tess’s second husband, Jack, had been the chef at his own restaurant. Eve was banking on Tess having picked up some sort of knowledge about cooking and serving during those two years with him. Lord knows she hadn’t picked up any housekeeping skills throughout any of her three marriages. The latest divorce papers referred to Tess as a “domestic nincompoop”.
“The residents and staff will be happy to hear we have a chef,” Elphin said. “It’s been mostly hotdogs and Fruit Loops since we lost Fannie.”
Eve leaned in a bit. “Residents?”
“Residents. Long term guests.” Elphin shrugged. “Depends on how you want to look at it. On the plus side they are steady income for The Roost.”
“What’s the negative side?”
Elphin smiled. Eve wasn’t sure if it signaled charm or trouble. “They expect coffee every morning. There are only two of them, and for the most part they’re easy. I’ll make sure you meet everyone. Vincent Blair lives in a downstairs unit of the building next door. He’s 64, retired, and has been here three years. He had some sort of agreement with Fannie for room and board. I’m sure you can find it in the books. Julie Spartan lives in the attic unit of the same building. She’s in her thirties and currently living off a trust fund. She’s been here almost a year. For staff there’s Todd and Irma Jones. Todd is in charge of housekeeping and Irma helps in the kitchen. They’ve been working here for about two years and live in one of the units in the Ginseng cabin.
“If you should ever need me in the middle of the night, I live in the upstairs half of the Bluebell.” There was the smile again. “The owner’s apartment is upstairs, in this building. There are two bedrooms. Plenty of space if you’re going to be roommates. I’ll help you bring your things in and show it to you. It’s pretty nice. Todd made sure there was fresh bedding and towels this morning.”
Eve was having heart palpitations. She was moving into full on panic mode. She hadn’t planned on anyone actually living at The Inn. She had planned on having at least a couple of weeks to figure things out.
“Thanks. I think we’ll be fine unpacking and settling in on our own. I’m not sure how much Fannie told you about me. To be honest, I never really knew Fannie. She was my grandmother’s best friend. Or so I was told. And to be even more honest, you should know I lack a certain amount of experience in the hospitality and service industry.”
Elphin’s mouth dropped open. He blinked once. “How much experience are you lacking?”
“Well, I did waitress for a year in college.”
Eve waved her hands. “Don’t panic. I have my Masters from B.U. I worked in accounting for two years, but I couldn’t take the cubicle and I really couldn’t take Jeremy Farfel.”
“What was wrong with Jeremy Farfel?” Elphin asked.
“He was a mouth breather. Can you imagine spending all day in a windowless cubicle trying to concentrate on math listening to MWEHHH… MWEHHH? It was maddening! So, I found a job in marketing. I’m actually surprisingly good at it, and I had that job up until they fired me.”
Elphin was speechless. Unfortunately for Eve, Tess was not.
“That’s nothing,” Tess said. “On the same day Eve got fired, her boyfriend dumped her with a Dear John letter supposedly written by his cat.”
Eve’s eyes went to slivers. “I hope Chowmein chokes on his cat food.”
Elphin couldn’t believe what he was hearing. The girl was a mess. Totally desirable, but a mess.
“I can do this,” Eve said. “I promise. I just need some help getting started. I didn’t know there were already people living here. And this clearly isn’t Boston. And I just need someone to let me know the schedule and what needs to be done and when. I’m good at organizing, I’m great with lists and I can manage money.”
“Fair enough,” Elphin said. It wasn’t as if he had any other options. “Tess, let me know if you need help in the kitchen. When it comes to meals, the residents and staff can fend for themselves until you get settled. Guests have been cleared out until we get closer to Halloween. I’ll meet you both in the orchard at seven, tomorrow morning. We’ll start picking apples, so Tess can get going on pies. The locals…”
Tess had her hand up. “I’m sorry. Did you say pie and pick and seven a.m.?”
“Yeah. The apple harvest is a big deal for The Roost. A lot of locals will venture up the mountain to buy whatever you make. Apple crisp, apple turnovers, apple pie, and if you want to, we can even make a little apple cider.”
Tess’s face had glazed over.
“You can make pie, can’t you, Tess?” Eve asked.
“Huh? Oh. Yeah. I love pie.”
Elphin hung his thumbs in his tool belt. “Fannie left all of her recipes in a big book in the kitchen. Just in case you don’t want to use your own.”
“Probably a good idea to not change things up. Right, Tess?” Eve said.
“Right. People don’t like change. Change bad.”
It was time to hurry the niceties along, Eve thought. “Okay, so seven a.m. apple picking. Feels very fallish. We’ll see you then.”
Tess and Eve watched through the large windows as Elphin made his way to the Bluebell cabin. He stopped when he reached the stairs leading up to his unit and looked up at them.
Eve and Tess waved.
“Do you think he’s onto us?” Tess asked.
* * * *
Elphin climbed the stairs and entered his loft apartment. It had exposed wooden beams in the ceiling, a kitchenette, big bed and a small sitting area with a corner, stone fireplace. Tall, narrow windows looked out over the mountains and the field below.
He removed his tool belt, went straight to the mini fridge, found a cold bottle of beer, popped the top and downed half of it. What had Fannie been thinking leaving The Owl’s Roost to Eve Jensen? Actually, he suspected he knew exactly what Fannie had been thinking. Fannie loved a risk, and Eve Jensen was a risk worth taking, just like he had been. And the more he thought about Eve, because it was hard not to, the more his confidence rose in her and the less panicked he felt. Okay, so she clearly knew nothing about running an inn, but she seemed smart and enthusiastic. She claimed to be organized and capable of keeping the books, and he suspected she had one or two more skills there waiting to be discovered. If nothing else, the next few months at The Owl’s Roost Inn were going to be fun.
Elphin stared out his window. If it doesn’t go right, he thought, I’m going to miss this view. So will the rest of the Roost’s residents and staff, because I’m going to have to find them new homes.
Eve left the main building a little after 6:30 the following morning and made her way down the dark driveway to the orchard. She had two stainless steel to-go tumblers of coffee in her hands. The stars were just beginning to fade in the sky and the air was cool. In half an hour or so the sun would begin to rise, and by noon the day would be sunny and warm.
A pair of small, stationary headlights shone in the distance. When Eve got closer, she could see it was a small utility vehicle with a cart attached. Elphin was unloading empty, wooden crates. He was wearing his usual Carhart cargos and t-shirt, this time with an unzipped hooded sweatshirt on top.
The orchard was surrounded by a tall wooden, split rail fence. Green moss and pale lichen clung to a weathered entrance gate that had been made out of fallen tree branches from the forest. The gate was currently open, giving easy access. Rose bushes flanked its sides. Inside the orchard, ladders capable of reaching the highest apples, were already setup next to trees.
“Good morning,” Eve called out. “I brought coffee.”
Elphin put the last crate down, looked up and smiled when he saw Eve. She was wearing fitted jeans, low trail hikers and a bright orange and black jacket with thumb holes. She must be a runner, he thought.
“Thanks,” he said. “You’re out early. Where’s Tess?”
“She’s not really a morning person. But she promised she would meet us in the orchard before noon.”
The smile widened.
Trouble, Eve thought. That smile is definitely trouble. “I met Julie Spartan this morning while I was making coffee. She seems nice.”
“Did you ask if she wanted to pick apples? She was really into the pear harvest.”
“No. She was collecting maps and books of the area. Said she wanted to go on a long hike today.”
“It’s going to be a perfect day for it.” Elphin took a sip of coffee, lost in thought for a beat over the idea of Julie Spartan researching the area. “It’s also going to be a great day for apple picking.”
“Is there anything I can do to help?”
“That’s the great thing about The Roost. Help is always needed.”
Eve and Elphin spent the rest of the morning picking apples from the trees and placing them in large crossbody bags. When the bags became full, or too heavy, they transferred the contents to the crates. The crates were carried out of the orchard and placed in the utility vehicle’s wagon.
At noon they decided to break for lunch. Three-quarters of the orchard had been harvested, Eve’s back was killing her, and the novelty of fall apple picking had worn off. Luckily her hands didn’t hurt bad enough that they would keep her from ringing Tess’s neck.
They drove the utility vehicle back to The Inn and began the task of unloading apple crates and carrying them into the kitchen through the delivery door. Tess was standing in the kitchen at a large, metal, counter height worktable. Next to her was a tall, beautiful woman, mid-30s, bold makeup and jet-black hair pulled back tight in a bun. Both Tess and the woman wore aprons. Tess’s apron was covered in flour, much like her face and hair.
“Darlink!” The woman said to Tess. “This is pastry for eat. Not board of card for box. Roll thinner!”
“Hey, Irma,” Elphin said as he put his crate down. “I see you guys got an early start on the pie making fun.”
Elphin put his arm around Eve’s shoulders and led her over to the table. “Irma is The Roost’s kitchen helper, and a trained pastry chef.
“Irma, I’d like you to meet The Owl’s Roost Inn’s new owner, Eve Jensen. If she’s half as good at running The Inn as she is at picking apples, we should all be just fine.”
Irma tilted her head toward Tess. “If this one twice as good at pie as wearing fashionable, yet inappropriate shoe, we still be screwed.”
“Aw, thanks.” Tess said, looking down at her flour covered, pink sequined, platform sneakers. “I even got them at half price.”
Irma finished kneading her dough into a perfect ball, turned her head towards Eve, and nodded slightly in acknowledgement. “Please meet you.”
“Same here. Wow. A pastry chef. Where did you work?”
“Cruise ship. Where I meet husband, Todd. Nyet! Nyet! Nyet! Roll circle, not triangle.”
Elphin took a step closer to Eve. “Maybe you want to stay and help with apple peeling. I can handle the last of the trees.”
Eve nodded. “Probably a good idea.”
“It can’t be bad idea. You! The Tess. Off dough. Peeler and bowl at end of table. Peel apple. Cut pieces. Put in bowl. Boss lady, apron on hook. You make flaky pastry with me.”
Eve and Tess washed their hands, Eve put on an apron and they went to their new stations.
Irma gave Eve some basic instructions on size and thickness of crust and handed her a ball of pastry dough. Eve rolled out the dough, praying she wouldn’t get nyetted.
“Nyet! The Tess, you are insulting apple.”
“Listen.” Tess said, hands on hips. “I Googled apple pie last night. This was how they cut them on YouTube.”
“Maybe in Los Angles where skinny, beautiful peoples full after one bite. This mountain pie. Peoples put in fork, pulls out apple.” Irma went to a drawer and rummaged through it. “Ahah! Magic slicer of apple.” She held up a simple round device that cored and divided all at the same time. She gave it to Tess to try.
In one quick push Tess had a perfectly cored and sliced apple. Her eyes glassed over with joy. “Greatest… invention… ever.”
“Yes. Yes. Now you do job good.”
By the time the sun had set, Irma had left, and Eve felt like she could sleep for a week. Tess had moved from crust to apples to assembly and was now in her element, bedazzling. She was cutting out tiny leaves and making berries out of leftover dough. She was doing basket weaves and perfect pie crust pinches.
Eve left Tess in the kitchen, trudged upstairs to their apartment, kicked off her shoes and instantly fell asleep on the bed. Tomorrow she would have a relaxing day of going over finances and learning the ins and outs of operating an inn.