Becky motioned for John to enter the house, and then closed the door behind him. She had no idea that she was grinning from ear to ear, but she did have a sense that she might be blushing.
“What are you doing here?” she asked as her smile grew.
“I stopped in town for gas and toiletries on my way to my hotel,” the handsome stranger began to explain. “Don’t worry. I planned to stop at the diner in the morning for my favorite omelette.”
“Well, as long as we cleared up that very important bit of information, why don’t you come in and sit down while you tell me the rest?”
Becky led the way to the living room, and motioned for John to sit. He chose the couch where Paige normally sat, which allowed Becky to take her usual seat.
“I picked up the paper, saw your ad, and thought you might get a kick out of a somewhat familiar face popping in to look at the room,” John continued once he was situated on the couch.
“But how did you know it was my ad?” she asked intrigued.
“Small town,” he replied. “How many Becky Rileys could their possibly be?”
She giggled. She wasn’t sure why she did that, but something about this man made her feel giddy. She made a mental note to get a grip.
He smiled. “How many times should I point out this is a small town? Of course, the news outlets did hourly remotes from your front yard and driveway every day for about a week when your husband’s indiscretions first surfaced.”
Becky blushed and buried her hands in her face. She wasn’t truly embarrassed, but it wasn’t exactly a joy to be reminded of those times.
“I need a drink.”
Before John could say anything, Becky got up and vanished. She quickly returned with a wine bottle and two glasses.
“Believe it or not, there was a time when opening a bottle of wine was a challenge,” she stated as she placed the glasses on the table, withdrew a corkscrew from her pocket, and promptly removed the cork from the bottle. “Needless to say, those days are long past.”
She poured wine into both glasses, and handed one to her guest, before returning to her seat with her own glass in tow.
“Thank you,” John said before taking a sip. “I really hope my stopping in like this isn’t an inconvenience. I just had a sense the ad might have brought out the town’s zany underbelly, and I figured you could use a break. Plus, I had to jump at the opportunity to see you again.”
Becky blushed a deeper shade of red than the liquid in her glass.
“I bet you say that to all the small town women you charm on your treks across the country,” she countered with a confidence she did not know she had.
The wine was definitely helping.
“I can assure you there isn’t a woman in every port,” he remarked with a charming smile. “I very much keep to myself, so it was a pleasant surprise to want to actually chat up the attractive stranger I met after accidentally stealing her post-run resting place.”
Becky waved him off. “You have an answer for everything, don’t you?”
Now it was John’s turn to blush. “I get the feeling I’ve created a perception of me that is far from the truth. I’m sorry for having disturbed you.”
He got up and placed his wineglass on the table. Becky immediately leapt to her feet.
“You haven’t,” she insisted. “I mean, you haven’t disturbed me or created a false perception. I’m just not used to this. I don’t talk to strangers. After all I’ve been through, though, I’m trying to open myself up to new experiences. One of which is apparently inviting handsome strangers into my home…”
John smiled. “Not to split hairs, but I’m technically not a stranger. We shared a moment by the waterfall the other day if you recall. And must I point out that the mere act of placing an ad to rent out your spare bedroom requires you to invite strangers into your home? Of course, I can’t speak to how handsome any of the others were or might be…”
Becky chuckled, and the tension quickly abated.
“Shall we try this again?” she suggested. “You’re interested in renting my spare bedroom?”
She sat down, and he quickly followed suit.
“Yes, I am,” he replied as he reached for his wine. “I spend so much time driving across the country, and every once in a while, it would be nice to spend a night or two in a warm, comfortable house, rather than in another cold, drab hotel or motel room.”
Becky held up her free hand to stop him. “Hold up. You drive everywhere? Why don’t you fly?”
John shivered at the mere mention of air travel. “I hate flying. I’d much rather take my life into my own hands, driving at sea level, than put it into the hands of a total stranger, thousands of feet about the surface. Far too many things can go wrong in that second scenario.”
He took a long sip of his wine as if to show just how much stress flying caused him.
“What exactly is it that you do for a living?” Becky asked. “And what’s your last name? I’m going to need to know something about you before I can consider you as a tenant.”
Becky made it sound like a joke, but she was serious. Why she’d thought renting a room out to strangers would be easy, she’d never understand. It was probably the wine’s fault.
“I’m John Smith,” he replied. “Born into anonymity with such a name, and happy to keep it that way. I’m what you might call a fixer. I work for a very well known company that makes its money by forever expanding and buying up other companies. My job is to travel to our various offices and fix whatever might be wrong.”
“That is sometimes as simple as replacing outdated machinery, or installing more efficient workflows. Often times, however, it means figuring out who needs to be replaced and then staying on to keep things running smoothly until I can hire the replacement.”
“Wow,” Becky said with a whistle as she polished off her wine. “That does sound both interesting and stressful. Definitely not something I’d be able to do.”
John got up, took the bottle, and refilled Becky’s glass.
“Because of the nature of my job, I never know where I’ll be and for how long,” he continued once he was seated again. “I also have to be concerned about privacy. Former employees are never thrilled with me for letting them go, and current employees are always fearful that I might be arriving and putting their jobs in jeopardy. The competition is also after me in hopes of either poaching me, or getting their hands on my confidential records, which, were they to fall into the wrong hands, could be the downfall of my employer.”
“And I thought keeping a diner running was hard!” Becky quipped.
John chuckled, and for the first time, took a look around to familiarize himself with his surroundings.
“This is why I’m looking for a situation like this, Becky,” he said suddenly getting all serious. “There are only so many hotels and motels where I can stay, and each time I check into one, I have to worry that the staff might have been bribed to tip off someone about my arrival, or to try to look through my things when I’m out of my room. You understand, right?”
“I do have first hand experience with having my privacy totally disregarded,” she replied with a sigh.
“So that’s why I’m interested in renting your room,” John continued with a smile. “You seem very trustworthy, and I don’t think anyone would ever come looking for me in the private residence of the only person in Lightning Bug Junction whose life has been splashed all over the news for the public to see. It’s quite brilliant if I don’t say so myself.”
They both laughed at that one.
“I’m not sure how serious you are about people coming to look for you,” she commented. “Would that really be a problem?”
John shook his head. “It shouldn’t be. All I ask is that if anyone ever did, you deny ever having seen me. This also means you can’t tell anyone I’m renting the room, including your friends. I’d ask that you pull the advertisement immediately, and if anyone asks, just say you had second thoughts about opening your home to a total stranger.”
Becky sipped her wine and took a moment to reflect on how well he seemed to have thought this out for someone who had only just seen her ad that evening.
Then again, when you had a job like his, you were probably always planning for such contingencies.
“I suppose I could fib to my friends…”
“Okay, I can see you have a moral dilemma with that,” he replied as he pulled an envelope out of his jacket pocket and place it on the table next to the bottle of wine.
“Your ad says you’re asking $500 a month. That’s six months up front with an extra two thousand dollars thrown in for any inconvenience you might experience from having to tell a white lie to your friends, or dealing with anyone who comes asking after me. I also noticed a two car garage in back, and would like some of that extra money to go towards renting out one of the spaces so I can keep my car out of sight whenever I’m here. What do you say?”
Becky stared at the envelope.
“There’s five thousand dollars in there?”
Becky immediately did some quick mental calculations about how badly she could use that kind of money after Jake had cleared out their joint bank account.
“And you swear to God you’re not doing something illegal?” she asked hopefully.
“Cross my heart and hope to die,” he promised. “If cash makes you uncomfortable, I can have my company cut you a check, but then we’d have to come up with a cover story for why you’re making that deposit. I’d rather my staying here remain a secret, and cash is a lot less likely to draw any attention.”
Becky just nodded. It was a lot to process.
“One last thing,” John added. “I have a few bags I’d like to leave here. Just some personal stuff like clothes and mementos from home that I like to keep with me, but I’m always worried will get lost or stolen when I drag them from state to state with me. They won’t take up much room.”
“This is a lot to process, John,” she finally admitted. “When do you need an answer?”
He shrugged. “I’m headed to the West Coast after breakfast, but if you need more time, I should be passing through here again in a few weeks. Like I explained earlier, I never know for sure how long an assignment is going to take..”
Becky nodded again and took a long sip of wine.
“Have you had dinner yet?” she asked.
John was not expecting that question. “No, I was going to grab something at my hotel…”
“Why don’t you come back in an hour for dinner?” she suggested. “I was going to make my famous chicken parm. I do my best thinking when I’m cooking.”
“That would be great,” John replied.
“Bring whatever it is you want to store here, so if I do say yes, you don’t have to make another trip,” she suggested. “And you can park in the garage so no one sees that you’re here.”
“Okay then,” he said with a smile as he stood.
Becky grabbed the envelope off the table, and then rose to hold it out to him.
“You should hold on to this until I make up my mind,” she said.
John shook his head. “I trust you. If you decide against my offer, I’ll take it after we eat.”
“Looking forward to dinner,” Becky said with a smile as she led the way to the front door.
TO BE CONTINUED…