Julia Ramsey, an art restoration technician with Art Revived, has a weakness for coffee, beautiful art, and widowed Darius Holcombe. Her attraction doesn't seem to be returned, however, and she self-consciously chalks it up to her plus-sized frame.
Darius Holcombe is finally starting to think about another woman for the first time since his wife passed away. Unfortunately, he doesn't quite know what to do about it. Julia Ramsey is smart, gorgeous, and way out of his league.
A relationship seems hopeless until Julia meets Imogene and Herbert who offer sage advice and a little push in Darius' direction. The trouble is they're figures in an 18th century painting she's restoring--a painting with a haunted past.
J.D. Thompson is an administrative assistant living in Pennsylvania, USA, with her husband, two “almost grown” children and a fluffy dog who sheds way too much.
A breast cancer survivor, she writes for motherswithcancer.com, a website that advocates for and supports women who are struggling with cancer treatment and parenting. She also enjoys speaking at various events and has a passion to educate women on the myths and truths about breast cancer.
While most of her writing is non-fiction, she keeps her creative edge by writing short stories, along with plays and skits for children’s programs and camps.
You can read her “mundane ramblings about a whole lotta nuthin’” at http://jenstersmusings.com
“Dang, it’s cold,” Julia Ramsey muttered as she let herself in the offices of Art Revived, the art restoration company she’d worked for since graduating college four years ago. It was early spring and the mornings near the river in Little Rock were still cold and damp. She smiled and greeted the receptionist as she peeled off her gloves and coat.
“Your drug of choice is brewing as we speak,” Amanda said. “I know how difficult it is for you to get going without your cuppa joe.”
“God bless you, my child,” Julia said over her shoulder as she strolled back to the office she shared with the other technicians. She set her purse down at her work station and made her way to the kitchenette. As usual, she was the first one in other than Amanda. She poured her morning brew, added a touch of sweetener, and headed back to her domain. As she passed the desk of another technician, Darius Holcombe, she stopped to look at the framed photograph sitting there.
It must be wonderful to be so in love like that, she thought as she gazed at the picture of Darius and his wife, Sara. They wore matching aloha shirts and were hugging each other while smiling for the camera on the top of a volcano in Hawaii. And so terrible to lose that love. Sara had died of cancer almost three years before, and Julia was certain Darius missed her every day.
As she returned to her desk, she thought about Darius. He was handsome, tall, and had thick brown hair. It never seemed to be quite brushed, and when you added to that his dark-rimmed glasses and white lab coat, he resembled a mad scientist. Though Julia preferred to think of him more as Clark Kent. A quiet man, he was very kind and every inch the gentleman. Definitely somebody I could fall in love with.
She shook her head to erase the unsolicited thought and took a sip of her coffee. Like that would ever happen. First of all, he was gorgeous and she was...well...not. She was very aware of the fact men, especially handsome men, preferred women who were thin and looked like a model. And second, he was still madly in love with his wife. “Two strikes, you’re out,” she muttered.
“Actually, it’s ‘three strikes, you’re out,’” John said as he walked to his desk. “And when did you take such an interest in baseball?”
“I’ll have you know I played softball all through my teen years, and played fast pitch in college. I was very good.”
“Yes, well, you weren’t that good if you didn’t even know the rule was three strikes and not two,” John teased. He managed to duck the paper ball Julia lobbed at him. “And with that kind of throwing, it’s obvious you weren’t the pitcher.”
“No, I wasn’t. I either played second base or shortstop. And I know you won’t believe this, but my softball skills landed me a scholarship.”
“Wow,” Darius’s soft voice said behind her. “You must be really good.”
Startled by his quiet entrance, she spun around, giving him a proud grin. “Yes, I am. Even if Doubting John doesn’t believe me.”
“That’s Doubting Thomas, Julia.” John sighed, sounding exasperated. “Don’t you know anything?” This time he didn’t see the paper ball until it hit him square between the eyes.
“Guess I could have been a pitcher.”
The morning passed without incident as Julia perused photographs of damaged paintings and other pieces of art. She itemized the necessary repairs for each one and wrote out her estimates. When she returned from lunch expecting more of the same, Amanda informed her Marlon Carter, the owner, needed to see her. Switching directions, she strode to his office and knocked on the opened door as she stepped inside.
Darius and Marlon were closely inspecting what appeared to be an antique painting resting on an easel. When Darius noticed Julia standing in the doorway he jerked upright, almost knocking the painting from its stand.
Marlon watched him with laughter in his eyes. “Now don’t go adding any more damage to the painting. It’s bad enough as it is.”
Watching Darius, Julia was put in mind of the proverbial deer caught in the headlights. Sort of that ‘oh no, here she comes again’ look of desperation. Her smile faltered. She had no idea why he was so shy around her. She knew he was a quiet person, but he didn’t seem to have that same reaction to anyone else. The thought that he might just plain not like her caused a stab in her chest, but she shook it off.
She took a deep breath, plastered the smile back onto her face and turned to Marlon. “You wanted to see me?”
“Yes, I did. I bought this painting at an estate sale this morning and I would like you to restore it for me under Darius’ supervision.”
Brushing aside her hurt, she walked to the painting to get a good look at it. Marlon and Darius parted to give her access. Just at a glance, she placed the work of art at late eighteenth, possibly early nineteenth century. It was a large painting of a lush and green English garden. In the forefront was an arbor with roses climbing the trellises on either side, and a beautiful, Rubenesque woman sitting on a bench within the arbor. She held a rose in her hand and stared lovingly at it. To the side of the arbor, but behind so as not to be noticed by the woman, was a man whom Julia assumed to be the gardener. He was staring lovingly at the woman.
“Oh, Marlon. It’s magnificent. I would love to work on this painting.” Remembering Darius’ strange behavior, she turned back to the men. “As long as Darius doesn’t mind.”
“Uh, no. Of course not,” Darius stammered. “Um, well, Marlon. Julia. If you’ll excuse me,” he said as he backed his way out of the office. He missed the doorway, running into a small table and nearly displacing the potted plant on top. Twisting around to scoop it up before it fell, he placed the plant back on the table and ducked out.
Julia watched after him and frowned. Marlon, on the other hand, just laughed. “I’m not sure which to believe about him. That someone so talented can be so clumsy, or that someone so clumsy can be so talented.”
Julia gave him a wan smile before turning back to the painting. “I’ll be happy to take it to the lab right now. I’m very anxious to get started.”
“Don’t be in too much of a hurry. I would guess Mr. Holcombe will be back within the next minute or so when he realizes he left you with the task. He may be a klutz, but he would never dream of having a lady carry such a large painting anywhere. Besides, I need him back here so I can tell you two a little bit about the painting. Not as if I buy any of that mumbo jumbo, but I thought you might find it interesting. Who knows? Maybe it will help in the restoration.”
Before he even finished his sentence Darius came walking in and Marlon gave Julia a conspiratorial wink. Darius seemed a little more composed than he had just a few minutes before. “I came back to get the painting so you wouldn’t have to carry it, Julia,” he said to her with a smile.
She smiled back. “How very gallant of you, Mr. Holcombe.”
“I was hoping you’d come back,” Marlon said. “I wanted to tell you about the painting before you start working on it. It’s a rather remarkable tale actually.” He walked around his desk and indicated the two chairs facing it. “Please. Have a seat.”
Darius waited until she was seated and Julia’s heart fluttered a little at such chivalry, even though she knew he treated all women the same way.
Marlon leaned on his elbows over the large mahogany desk and looked more like an excited child than a professional art collector and restoration expert. He smiled mischievously and his eyes twinkled as though he had a wonderful secret to share. “I bought the painting at the estate sale of Bob Hollingsworth.”
“I read about him in the paper. Wasn’t he an eccentric multimillionaire?”
Darius nodded. “Yes. I read about him too. The paper said his death was ‘shrouded in mystery,’ but it didn’t explain.”
Marlon snorted. “Mystery my great aunt’s bunion. The man was one hundred and four years old. The only mystery is how he lived that long. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if he had instructed his lawyers years ago to put that in the paper whenever he died. It would be just the sort of thing he would have enjoyed.”
“So what’s so special about this painting?” Julia asked.
“Well,” began Marlon. “As you said, he was an eccentric. He was quite interested in the occult and all things otherworldly. Just about every piece of furniture and bric-a-brac and objet d’art at the sale had ghostly tales about them. Some of the stories were terribly fascinating.” He leaned back in his chair to open his desk drawer where he started rummaging around. Darius and Julia waited for him to continue.
When it appeared he wasn’t going to say any more, Darius cleared his throat. “And what was the story behind this particular painting?”
Julia eagerly nodded and leaned in closer.
“Oh yes,” said Marlon as he pulled a pack of gum out of the messy drawer. He offered some to Julia and then to Darius, who both declined, opened a piece for himself and started in again. “The mystery surrounding the painting isn’t very clear. He bought it in the nineteen forties while he was visiting Europe and the British Isles. He was told by the antiquities dealer in London it had come to him from a large country estate in the area of Bristol. It had been commissioned by the lady of the same estate sometime around eighteen hundred or so and passed down through the years. Supposedly she had been married off to the lord of the manor without her consent and he was a cruel and domineering man.
“After years of isolation and loneliness, she requested he allow her to commission a painting for her room, which he never entered. It seems he was feeling generous that day because he allowed it and this was the painting. The rumor around this piece is that she befriended the characters on the canvas and,” he paused for dramatic effect, “they reciprocated this friendship.”
Julia sat back at this last statement, skeptical. “Do you mean to say they talked back to her?”
“Well, that’s the story Mr. Hollingsworth was given and he fell for it. According to the lawyer for the estate sale, however, Mr. H. was rather disappointed because they never deigned to hold a conversation with him. Never thought for a moment the poor woman was just dotty from her miserable existence and only imagined they were speaking to her.”
Both Julia and Darius turned around to look at the painting. “I just wanted you to know what the story was in case you hear voices while you’re working,” Marlon joked behind them. They all laughed, but Julia couldn’t deny the shiver that ran down her spine as she stared at the fetching woman in the picture.
Once in the lab, Darius set about photographing the painting while Julia began cataloging the damage. “So do you still play?” he asked while aiming the camera for another shot.
“Play what?” Julia asked, a bit surprised.
He stopped taking pictures and looked at her. “Softball.”
“Oh. I play women’s softball for my church in the spring and we have a co-ed team in the fall.”
Darius chuckled. “I don’t suppose that’s quite the same as playing fast pitch for a college team, is it.”
“Hardly. But it’s still a lot of fun.”
It was nearing five o’clock when Darius shot the last frame. “I’m going to run this by the one-hour developers on my way home tonight and I’ll pick the pictures up tomorrow morning.”
She looked up from her seat at the worktable and nodded. “I’m going to hang out here for a little while longer and try to get the cataloging done. I’ll just see you in here in the morning.”
Unloading the camera, he took the film and left with a, “See ya.”
While Julia was working, Amanda popped her head in the lab. “Everybody else is gone, and I’m getting ready to go. You leaving any time soon?”
Julia shook her head. “No, I think I’ll stay and work a little. Just lock me in when you leave.”
“Will do. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
When she was alone, Julia quickly finished her cataloging, straightened the file, and then went to inspect the painting more closely.
Whether it was single living or a personality trait, Julia couldn't say, but she had a tendency to talk to herself when she was alone. She also had the habit of answering. So it wasn't out of the ordinary when she began talking to the painting, completely forgetting the story she had been told.
She peered intently at the woman. “You put me in mind of an Imogene,” she said. “I see you have a ‘robust’ figure, just like me, but you’re a remarkably beautiful woman. And I can tell by the way...” she paused as she regarded the man with a frown of concentration. She suddenly smiled. “Yes. I can tell by the way Herbert contemplates you he thinks so too.” She looked to Herbert again. “Don’t you, old chap?”
Checking the clock on the wall she decided it was time to leave. “I need to stop at the store on my way home, so I suppose I’d better go. I’ll be back in the morning though, and we’ll make you gorgeous!”
The following morning, Julia deposited her stuff at her desk as usual, but instead of heading for the coffee pot she went straight to the lab. “Good morning, Imogene. Good morning, Herbert,” she said with a smile. “I’m sorry I’m not going to be able to work with you this morning. I’ve got to get my other tasks wrapped up. But I’ll be in here this afternoon to start work.”
“And have they answered you yet?” Darius’s deep voice said behind her.
Julia jumped and whirled around, clutching her chest in an effort to slow her racing heart. “Darius! I didn't hear you come in.”
“Of course you didn't. You were too busy chatting with the painting. So are the rumors true, then?”
Julia was confused for a moment and then understanding dawned. “Oh. Yes, well, nobody has answered me other than myself. I was just explaining to them,” she indicated Imogene and Herbert, “that I have other duties to keep me busy this morning, but I’ll be in this afternoon to begin. They haven’t objected, so I guess they don’t mind.”
Darius laughed. “I’m glad to hear it. Do you think we could meet in here about four o’clock to discuss our plan of attack?”
“That would be perfect. It should give me enough time to get my other stuff done,” she said as she walked toward him.
He watched her come closer, and when she was no more than six feet away his demeanor abruptly changed. He nervously began pushing at the bridge of his glasses as though they were slipping down his nose.
“Okay, then. I, uh, I’ll just, um, see you in here then.” Quickly turning, he darted out the door. Julia hadn't missed the fact his easy manner was altered by their proximity.
“Yeah, you must really repulse him, Julia,” she muttered. She castigated herself for letting the thought depress her. She knew there would never be anything between them, but couldn't they at least be friends? His behavior around her was so odd. One minute he was ‘normal’ and teasing, just like any other friendly relationship. And the next, he couldn't wait to get away from her. His aversion to her was going to make working together difficult, never mind what it was going to do to her heart.