Front Porch Promises #1
June 15, 2013
Indie Published
Available in: e-Book, Trade Size (reprint)

A Place to Call Home

STARTING OVER

After serving six years in prison for the false charge of manslaughter in the death of his wife, Kurt Jansen must overcome a world of bitterness if he wants to start a new life. But his first priority is securing a restoration job to pay a private investigator to find the real killer and a lawyer to get his kids back.

Hiring a convicted wife-killer isn’t what kind-hearted Molly Finnerty bargains for as part of the prison ministry she supports. However, she begins to believe Kurt’s claim of innocence and gradually finds a great deal to like about him—perhaps more to like than she should.

Can they overcome the past and find forgiveness and love?

Originally published April 2013 in eBook.

Chapter One

Kurt Jansen sat in his rusty, red pickup and stared at the Victorian house surrounded by tall pines and bare-branched hardwoods. Faded black shutters hanging cockeyed by a single hinge and peeling white paint on the clapboards testified to many years of neglect. The place didn’t look much better than the penitentiary where he’d spent the last six years, but it was better than staring at prison bars.

The structure painted a picture of his life. A life in disrepair.

He stared at the photo in his hand. His heart twisted as he viewed the innocent faces of his two children. He vowed to put aside all the bitterness and anger left from his unjust incarceration in order to get this restoration job. This was the first step to seeing his children again. He put the photo back in his wallet.

Approaching the house, he wondered whether the inside looked as bad as the outside. Outward appearances didn’t always tell the whole story, in houses or in lives. Piles of melting, dirty snow lay alongside the lane, sidewalk and in the shady parts of the surrounding acreage. Despite his vow, his heart felt like the snow—cold and corrupted. Resentment and despair still hovered in the dark corners, even though he’d prayed to God to take them away.           

Stepping onto the wooden porch, he let the vision of an elderly lady with white hair, glasses and sensible shoes flit through his mind. The image suited the proprietress of the future Hawthorne Valley Inn of Hawthorne, Massachusetts. Was she the answer to his prayers? Even though he prayed, he still wasn’t sure whether God answered prayers.

The floorboards creaked as Kurt stepped toward the door. He wanted to pray that the Lord would help him get this job, but he couldn’t bring himself to voice the words. Instead, he released a harsh breath and rapped his knuckles on the weathered wood of the warped screen door. It rattled in the frame.

Moments later, the inside door opened. A tall, slender young woman, dressed in blue jeans and a gray sweatshirt spattered with several colors of paint, answered the door. She stared at him through the screen with wary, pearl-gray eyes. “May I help you?”

Her throaty voice reminded him of a female disc jockey who played love songs on the radio late at night. Curly strawberry-blonde hair framed her face and fell to her shoulders. A sprinkling of freckles across her nose made an attractive face strangely youthful, and yet, he sensed she was older than she appeared. He figured she was only a little younger than his thirty-two years. Somehow she seemed familiar, but he didn’t know why.

“I’m Kurt Jansen. I’m here to see Molly Finnerty.”

“I’m Molly Finnerty.” She squinted as she continued to view him through the screen. “Are you the one that Steve Barnett sent about the restoration work?”

“Yes.” Kurt tried to reconcile his mental image of Molly Finnerty and the woman standing before him. He had gotten it so wrong. What had Steve said to leave the impression that the woman he was meeting was someone’s grandmother rather than a beautiful young woman? If he got the job, this glamorous woman, disguised in jeans and a sweatshirt, would remind him every day of all he had lost. This wasn’t what he’d expected or wanted. But he needed a better job. “You’re the Molly Finnerty who’s planning to make this house a bed-and-breakfast?”

“That’s me. Were you expecting someone else?” She raised her eyebrows.

“Just someone much older. That’s all.” Forcing himself to smile, he pulled an envelope from his pocket and held it out. “Steve sent this with me. Did he talk to you?”

“Yes, Steve mentioned that you’d be coming by.” She opened the screen door and stepped aside. Taking the envelope, she smiled in return. “Come in and get out of the cold. I suppose Steve’s been making me sound like an aging widow again.”

“He didn’t say you were aging, but I have to admit that his saying you’re a widow made me think I’d find you in your rocker with a cane nearby.” Kurt walked through the doorway. The smell of fresh paint permeated the room.

“I’m not in the geriatric crowd yet.” Closing the door behind them, she laughed.

The pleasant sound of her laughter echoed off the bare walls and floors of the empty rooms and drew Kurt’s thoughts away from her and toward the interior of the house. Plank hardwood flooring, in desperate need of refinishing, ran throughout all the rooms within his sight. A staircase rose along the foyer wall to a landing. A small round stained-glass window overlooked the landing where the staircase turned at a ninety-degree angle and continued to the second floor. The banister needed work as well. On his right, decorative columns separated the foyer from the living room with a fireplace on the far wall.

“Well, what do you think?” Molly’s sultry voice brought his attention back to her.

He looked her directly in the eye. “I’d like the job.”

She stared back at him, her gray eyes not giving a clue as to what she was thinking. “And why should I hire you?”

He wanted to blurt out. Because I need this job.  But he managed to conceal his desperation. “I’ve done several restorations of Victorian houses. I have some photos of my previous work. Would you like to see them?”

“Yes.”

“Great. They’re out in my pickup. I’ll get them.” As he moved toward the door, he let a sliver of hope settle in his heart.

“While you’re gone, I have a phone call to make.” She pointed to the deacon’s bench sitting near the front door. “You can wait here, if I’m not done when you get back.”         

“Sure. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

Kurt stepped outside. What had Steve told her? Even if she didn’t already know his recent history, she would certainly find out. He headed for his pickup and hoped the quality of his work would outweigh his past.

###

Molly stared after Kurt as he left the house. At five foot eleven, she stood eye to eye with most of the men she knew, but she’d had to look up at Kurt with his handsome face and sandy blond hair. His startling blue eyes had held a haunted expression when he’d gazed down at her as if she were some kind of apparition. Was it because he’d expected someone much older?

She smiled to herself, thinking that she’d expected the same. A man with decades of woodworking experience. Kurt couldn’t be much older than she was. Although she was only thirty years old, she sometimes felt like the aging widow he had expected. Her life had been filled with more than her share of tragedy. 

Going into her office on the left side of the stairway, she closed the double doors. She plopped onto the chair behind her oak roll-top desk that sat between the two windows with a view of the side porch. She ripped open the envelope and pulled out a single sheet of paper. Steve’s scrawled handwriting covered the page. When she took in the meaning of his words, a lightheaded feeling came over her. The note fell from her hand. She reached for the phone. This time Steve was asking too much.

She punched out Steve’s phone number, then listened to the ring while she tapped the fingers of her free hand on the arm of the chair. When she heard his hello, she launched into her speech. “Steve, what do you think you’re doing sending this Kurt Jansen over here? I can’t have him working for me or living in my carriage house apartment. I just can’t.”

“It’s nice to hear from you, too.” She heard the chuckle in Steve’s voice and imagined that his plump round face sported a smile.

“I’m sorry, but this note you sent with him doesn’t exactly inspire my confidence in the man.”

“Hey, Moll, you wanted someone who could help you with that house. Kurt seemed like the answer to your prayers.”

“With you everything’s an answer to prayer.”

“Personally, I think that’s a good way to live. Seeing everything that happens as though God’s hand’s in it somewhere.”

“Sometimes that’s hard to realize. So don’t make me feel guilty.” Molly twisted a piece of hair around her index finger.

“If you feel guilty, it’s not my fault.” Steve’s voice still held a hint of amusement.

“You should be the one feeling guilty for not telling me in the first place that he went to prison for manslaughter in the death of his wife.” Molly took a deep breath. “Please, don’t make me do this.”

“I’m not making you do anything. Kurt has the skills you need, and you have a job and a place for him to live—two things he needs.”

“You’re asking me to deal with a violent man—a man responsible for his wife’s death. I don’t need another one of those in my life. It hits a little too close to home.”

“I know. At first I hesitated to send him your way…,” Steve’s sigh sounded loud and clear. “But he’ll be able to restore that old house and build your shelter for battered women.”

“Isn’t that a little ironic? A man with his background working on a shelter for battered women?”

“Maybe, but personally, I think he’s telling the truth when he says he’s innocent.”

“Aren’t they all?” Molly couldn’t keep the sarcasm from her voice. 

“He’s served his time, and he deserves a break just like a certain young woman who needed help not too long ago.”

Molly leaned her head back and stared at the ceiling. How could she say no when some of Steve’s friends had been her lifeline at the time of her own arrest? She released a harsh breath. “This is different.”

“Yes, but there’s a lot that’s the same.” Steve’s voice held a serious note. “Just think it over. Pray about it.”

“Okay, but I didn’t claim to be innocent.”

“But you did claim the same need for help.”

“That’s true.”

“When I found out about his restoration work, I thought you and he were a perfect match. The way I see it, you two need each other. I’m telling you again. I believe his story.”

“What makes you so sure?” Molly rubbed her fingers across her forehead in an effort to ward off the headache this conversation triggered.

“I met his mother while he was in prison. Talking with her convinced me his story’s true.”

“Why doesn’t he live with her?” Molly asked in frustration.

“She died early last year after a long battle with cancer.”

“Oh.” Molly wasn’t sure what else she could say. Was Steve’s assessment correct? Over the past few years she had come to know him as a man with a great deal of wisdom and compassion. “I don’t know, Steve. Besides, my own concerns, I’ve already heard a few comments in town about my employing parolees even when their crime was petty theft. What will people here say when they find out I have a man convicted of manslaughter working for me?”           

Molly knew Steve would be rubbing a hand over his balding head as he contemplated her question. “If I thought he’d harm you or anyone in that town, I wouldn’t have sent him to talk with you.” 

“I don’t know what to think.”  

Steve cleared his throat. “Listen, Moll, if you ever have any trouble with folks in that town because you’re helping parolees and ex-convicts, send them my way. I’ll talk to them.”

Molly heard the front door open and close. Kurt had returned. “Steve, I’ve got to go. I’ll take everything into consideration before I make a decision. Say a prayer for me.”

“I always do.” 

“Thanks.” Molly gently hung up the phone. Taking a deep breath, she prepared to deal with the giant of a man who had the talent to make this her dream house, but a past that alarmed her. 

###

Kurt sat on the deacon’s bench with the photo albums on his lap. The muffled sound of Molly’s voice filtered through the closed doors. Then there was silence. The doors opened, and she stepped into the foyer. The worry in her eyes told him that she knew.

Standing, he wanted to take away her apprehension. Should he bring up his past or wait for her to ask? Waiting would definitely be easier. He hated talking about it. He hated thinking about it. He hated the way it had ruined his life. Besides, what could he say that would ease her concerns?  Kurt offered her the albums. “Well, here they are.”

She glanced at them, then back at him. “Let’s go into my office. We can look at them there.”

He made no reply as he followed her. At least she wasn’t sending him away. As he entered the room, he took in the dark oak paneled walls with the rich patina. Shelves full of books lined two walls. Three leather wingback chairs surrounded an Oriental rug near the fireplace on the wall opposite the door. In sharp contrast to the rest of the house, this room gleamed from floor to ceiling.

“Who did the restoration in here?” Kurt asked.

“The previous owners.”

“Why didn’t they finish the project?”

“They were a relatively young retired couple who also wanted to make this a bed-and-breakfast, but during the course of the remodeling, the man had a stroke. They decided to sell.”

“How long have you been working on this?”

“Since last fall. I’ve owned the house for about a year, but I needed to tie up some loose ends before I started full time with this. I’ve done a lot of work myself with help from some of the people Steve has assisted in his prison ministry.”

“Is that why Steve sent me your way because he knew you’d give me a job?” Kurt asked.

“Just because Steve sent you doesn’t mean you automatically have the job. If I think you’re the right person for the job, I’ll hire you.” A warning glance supplanted the earlier apprehension he’d seen in her eyes. “Steve just sets up the interviews.”

Kurt hoped he hadn’t overstepped his bounds, but at least she didn’t seem afraid of him anymore. Maybe he had imagined it all. Paranoia had been his constant companion since he’d been released from prison. He wondered whether he’d ever shake it. Could he go about business as though he was any other craftsman, not one who had been recommended by a man who ministered to prisoners and ex-convicts? “I understand. Let me show you my work.”

“All right. Let’s sit over here.” She motioned to the uncomfortable looking sofa covered in red velvet.

He loved Victorian houses and their marvelous woodwork, but he hated the furniture that went with them. The sofa seemed more suitable for viewing than for sitting. As he settled his large frame onto the delicate-looking sofa, he hoped he wouldn’t break it.

After he had opened one of the albums, he glanced up to see Molly still standing there. The wary expression in her eyes told him she realized she would have to sit next to him. He hadn’t imagined her previous trepidation. He wanted to tell her he wouldn’t bite, but he didn’t think she’d take kindly to the joke. What could he do to put her at ease?

Even though Steve had helped Kurt turn his life over to God, Kurt still had to tamp down the anger that surfaced whenever he faced the way people would view him for the rest of his life unless he could find the person who had killed his wife. Where had God been when he’d been sent to prison for something he didn’t do? Would he ever know the answer? His mind buzzed with the unfairness of it all, but he couldn’t let his thoughts take him to that dark place—the place where hatred and revenge ruled. Each day he struggled to keep his mind focused on something other than the injustice he had suffered.

Maybe he could offer Molly an out. “You can take these and examine them at your leisure, then get back to me.”

She continued to watch him, almost as if she was gauging whether he’d attack. “No. No, let’s look at them together now. Pictures without a commentary will mean nothing to me.”

“Okay.” He hated feeling as though he was under a microscope like some specimen in a lab. Would everyone view him this way? He might as well be Hannibal Lecter searching for his next victim. Is that what she saw when she looked at him? The thought sickened him.

“Fine.” She sat on the edge of the sofa as if poised to run at any moment.

“These are before-and-after photos of restorations I’ve made in both Colonial and Victorian houses. I’ll answer any questions you have.” He pointed to the first page and glanced at her, but her eyes were trained on the album. 

She studied the page filled with pictures, then turned to the next page. Without warning, she took the album from him and put it on her lap. Her fingers caressed the pages. He noticed the little paint splatters dotting the back of her hand—a sign that she wasn’t afraid of hard work.

Wonder crept across her face. “Oh, these are magnificent. The changes are amazing. Will mine come out like this?” She turned to him. For the moment, she seemed to forget that he was some kind of monster.

“Yeah.” Hope filled his heart.

“You did these?”

“Uh-huh.” This time her question and her skeptical demeanor shattered his optimism. She couldn’t forget what he had supposedly done. She couldn’t reconcile his work with the criminal she perceived him to be. He wondered about his chances of getting the job when she obviously didn’t trust him. Was this the first time she had interviewed someone who had been convicted of a violent crime? He couldn’t let negative thoughts take over. He had to fight for what he wanted. “I can do this here, too.”

“Let me show you around.” She took the album and stood up. “I’ll tell you what I have in mind.”

“Okay.” Kurt followed her into the foyer. He wasn’t sure what to make of her sudden enthusiasm. His emotions of the past half-hour resembled a roller coaster ride. 

She walked over to the stairway and ran her hand along the banister, then looked at him. “What would you do with this stairway? I really like this one you did here.” She pointed to the page she had opened in the album.

Kurt stepped closer as he gazed at the picture. For the first time, he smelled her perfume or maybe it was her shampoo. The scent reminded him of the lilacs that grew in the yard of his house—the one he used to own. He didn’t want to think about the past and all that he had lost. He needed to put his mind on something else. Remembering hurt too much.

Trying to forget the past only made him more aware of Molly. The soft curve of her cheek peeked out from behind her silken hair that gleamed under the foyer chandelier as she leaned over to study his photo album. For a moment, he had the urge to reach out and touch the reddish-gold strands. The combination of red and gold reminded him of a sunset. He shook the thoughts from his head. He didn’t want to feel anything, but her nearness reminded him that he hadn’t touched or held a woman in a long time. He didn’t need these feelings now. Not ever. The pain ran too deep.

“Well, what do you think?” Her question brought his thoughts to an abrupt halt.

“I can do whatever you want. We can work with what’s here, or I can get new railings and spindles if these are in bad shape. As long as you want to pay the price, the sky’s the limit.”

She continued to study him as though she was contemplating his response. Putting her free hand to her forehead, she turned abruptly and walked into the living room. She held the album out in front of her as she stood near the fireplace. She tapped the open page. “I want this in here. This one with the mirror.”

Kurt went to stand beside her. He studied the fireplace and imagined the possibilities. “Do you also like the detail work in this picture on the mantel and the surround?”

“Yes, that would be wonderful. Her voice held a trace of excitement.

Kurt turned and walked toward the decorative columns that separated the living room from the foyer. Touching them, he glanced at her. “If you like, we can put the same detail in the columns and put rosettes at the corners of all the doorways and windows.”

“That sounds lovely. And in here is the dining room.” She stepped through a double doorway. “You see the pocket doors?” She pulled one of them out.

“Yeah—,”

“I want to keep these.” She pointed to the windows on the right side of the room. “And I want to put French doors there instead of a window so I can serve meals on the porch in the summer. Can you do that?”

Kurt smiled inwardly. Her passion for this project had made her forget everything except her vision for this place. “Like I told you before, I can do just about anything you want as long as you want to spend the money.”

Hesitating, she glanced down at the floor, then raised her gaze to meet his. “Can you work up an estimate for me?”

He couldn’t mistake the expression in her eyes. She looked as though she had just made a pact with the devil. “Are you sure?”

“I didn’t say you had the job. I just want you to give me an estimate as soon as possible.”

“Okay. I’ll give you a call when I get it done. Then we can go over it.”

She handed him the album. “Do you have my phone number?”

“I can get it from Steve.”

“Let me give you my card. Then you’ll have all of my contact information.” She headed toward her office.

Kurt followed, feeling better about the whole situation. Maybe things would work out after all, but at the same time, he had his reservations about working for this woman. He worried that she would always see him with a jaundiced eye. Could he learn to deal with it?

When they reached the office, she opened a drawer and pulled out a card. Turning, she handed it to him. As he took it, their fingers brushed. He didn’t miss the awareness that sparked between them. A physical attraction—that’s all it was—an appreciation for a good looking woman. But it made him wary.

“Thanks.” He quickly stuffed the card into his shirt pocket as he tried to cover his own unease. “I’ll need to do some measuring before I leave.”

“I’ve got a tape measure right here.” She reached into a cubbyhole on the desk and laid it on the nearby table. “Here you are. Measure away.”

He took the tape measure and left the room, wondering whether she had purposely not handed it to him in order to avoid further contact. He spent the next half hour measuring and recording the size of each room and all the parts for which he would need to buy materials.

When Kurt finished, he stuck his head around the doorway to Molly’s office. She sat bent over at her desk while she went through some papers. The sight of her made his thoughts race. Could he put together a proposal that would satisfy her? Would she always look at him with a hint of fear in her eyes? His insides churned. He wanted this job—the perfect fit for his skills. Did he dare pray about it? He wasn’t sure God was listening.

When he finally settled his emotions, he stepped into the doorway. “I’m done, so I’ll be on my way. I’ll get that estimate to you as soon as I can. Thanks. You won’t be sorry if you hire me.” 

“Just one thing before you go.” She got up from the desk and followed him to the front door. “Could you give me the name of someone for whom you’ve done a restoration? Your pictures are wonderful, but I’d like to have a reference also.”

Kurt’s heart sank. He wasn’t sure anyone would give him a good reference. He slowly shook his head. “I don’t know. I’ve been in prison for six years.” He ran his hand across his brow. “When I was convicted most people turned their backs on me. I don’t know what they’d say now.”

“Won’t they give me a straight answer on the work you did for them?” she asked.

“I hope so. I can give you one name. Harold Sullivan. He lives right over the town line in Brookston. I don’t know his number, but I’m sure you can find it. That’s the best I can do.”

“Thank you.” She gazed at him with understanding and sympathy for his dilemma. “I’ll be waiting to hear from you.”

“As soon as I prepare my estimate for the job.” He stepped outside.

As he walked to his pickup, he didn’t dare look back. Was she watching, or had she simply closed the door behind him? He didn’t want to know. After getting into his vehicle, he sat there for a minute and stared at the house. It didn’t appear quite as bad now that he’d seen the inside. Maybe his life was like that, too. The hope God put in his heart would make his circumstances look better.

He would get this job.

More money in his pocket meant that he could hire a private investigator to help him find the person who had killed his wife and a lawyer. Getting his kids back depended on it.

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