She’s a stranger living in his house. He has no plans to come home.
It’d be the perfect set-up, if only they weren’t falling in love...
Free-spirited Nora never expected Melbourne to be her forever home.
But when her landlady, Clancy, passes away, she agrees to stay until Bennett, Clancy’s grandson, can return to Australia.
Over long-distance calls with him, Nora soon realizes that, while Bennett may be her polar opposite, he’s just as lost, emotionally, as she is.
Still, when they finally meet, it’s the incredible spark between them that truly stuns her.
Could he give her the forever home she actually needs—with him?
I dedicated this book to a concept that has been bandied about quite a bit these past months: Home.
Working from home. Being stuck at home. Forced to stay at home. Unable to go home. Home has loomed large in our lives of late, and rarely with a positive spin.
But for me, my home is a sanctuary. It’s my happy place. It’s my bliss. During these strange times, I have made every effort to keep it that way; steadfastly, deliberately, as my young family and I snuggled in together to see out the storm.
It’s no wonder then, that as I wrote this story, it became an ode to ‘home’. As I mention in my dedication, by that I don’t mean the roof beneath which we sleep, but the people, the music, the memories, the aromas, the stuff that makes us feel safe, and comfortable, and most ourselves.
Nora, our heroine, has never really had a home, and made it her mission to keep it that way. She won’t miss it if she’s never had it! Our hero, Bennett, on the other hand, is all but convinced he’s made a new home for himself on the other side of the world from where he grew up. It takes a big, beautiful, worn-around-the-edges terrace house in Melbourne to show these two very different, very stubborn, people how wrong they both are.
Wherever you are in the world, snuggle in, as Nora and Ben discover what it means to truly feel at home.
Face tilted to the bright spring sky, Nora Letterman absorbed her daily dose of Melbourne sunshine as she moseyed her way along the beaten-up Fitzroy footpath.
A tram rattled past, rails screeching, sparks shooting skyward from the wires overhead, drowning out the music playing through Nora’s earbuds. She danced out of the way of a smiling couple as they all squeezed between a lamppost and a young girl walking four small fluffy dogs.
As moment’s went, it was pretty perfect, actually; one of a zillion, lovely mental keepsakes she’d tuck away for when she left this little pocket of wonderfulness behind.
Which she would do. Any day now.
The eighteen months she’d spent there the longest she’d stayed in one place. Ever. And she loved it dearly. But at her core, Nora was footloose and fancy free. It even said so, in faded, scrawling script on the inside of her right arm, alongside a delicate dandelion, petals breaking away and drifting with the breeze.
Nora looked back over her shoulder as Christos the fruiterer threw her a mandarin, which she swiped out of the air. Spinning to walk backwards, she put a hand over her heart.
Christos called, “The Tutti Fruiti website is such a hit, Nora. Lots of compliments from customers, which I accept on your behalf. Are you sure I can’t pay you in fruit?”
“Not unless the phone company accept payment in kind,” Nora called back.
Christos grinned. Then he shot her a salute before turning to flirt with the next customer.
Cheeks full with smiling, Nora meandered on, absorbing the cacophony of sensory delights that made this patch of Fitzroy infamous; incense and coffee, flowers and pre-loved clothes, street art and graffiti, multi-cultural foods and the lingering scent of smoked herbs that might or might not be legal.
Sure, there was a chain chemist or two along the strip, an American burger behemoth on the corner, but for the most part the shopfronts were generational, mum and dad stores, or young entrepreneurs stepping out into the fray. People having a go. Which was why she’d fit in so quickly.
The fact that so many of them had readily snapped up the services of The Girl Upstairs - Nora’s fledgling online-creative business - for a website dust off, virtual assistance, or a vibrant social media overhaul was yet another reason her time in this place had been so golden.
Gait loose, mind warm and fuzzy, her time her own, Nora slowed outside of Vintage Vamp.
Misty, the elegantly boho business owner who’d refused to hire Nora as she believed the internet would cause the downfall of civilisation, mumbled under her breath as she reworked a clothing rail full of brightly-coloured kaftans flapping in a sudden waft of breeze.
“Hey, Misty!” Nora sing-songed.
Misty turned, her eyes lit with genuine fondness, before she remembered herself and frowned. “Thought you’d have left us in your dust by now.”
Nora rolled her eyes. “Do you really think I’d go without saying goodbye?”
“Good point, little miss sunshine. Not a chance of that. Now, help me. Do I retire these things?” Misty waved a hand over the colourful kaftans. “Or leave them here, in memory of our Clancy?”
As one, both women blinked, breathed out hard sighs, then looked across the road, to the row of terrace houses on the far corner.
Some facades were overgrown with weeds, paint peeling, fretwork rusting; the tenants mostly students and artists who gravitated to the area. Other properties had been meticulously renovated till they were worth an utter mint. But Nora and Misty’s gazes were caught on the cream-and-copper-hued terrace house right in the middle.
Neither dilapidated, or pristine, ‘Thornfield Hall – as it had been lovingly dubbed by its long-time owner - was tidy and appealing. It was also the house in which Nora had been lucky enough to live as the single upstairs tenant for the past year and a half.
Its downstairs sitting room was well-known around the area as a safe, warm space for book clubs, widows’ groups, a widows’ book club. Always open for a quick coffee, a listening ear, a place to grieve, to vent, to go for laughter and company.
Though it had gone quiet in the days since Clancy Finlayson – eighty-something, raucous, divine, and the owner of Thornfield Hall - had fallen ill. Then passed away before any of them had had the chance to ready themselves for the possibility.
“Any news?” Misty asked. “About the new owner?”
Nora shook her head. “Still no word.”
It was all anyone had asked since Clancy had passed.
Knowing Clancy, the house might have been left to some distant relative, or the local puppy shelter.
While Nora had kept Clancy company during her final days at home, she had no more of a clue than anyone else. She’d focussed, as she always did, on the good not the bad, the happiness not the suffering; reading Jane Eyre aloud, telling funny stories she’d picked up in the neighbourhood, playing Clancy’s favourite records and making sure Clancy’s hair and nails were en pointe.
After Clancy passed, the lawyers had been frustratingly tight lipped about it all, citing ‘privacy laws’, and Nora didn’t know where else to turn.
Which was how she found herself in her current state of limbo; ready to move on, but unwilling to walk away and leave the beautiful old house untended, abandoned to fate, local squatters or graffiti gangs.
There was also the fact that she’d promised Clancy as much.
In those quiet, final hours, with Nora no longer been able to hold back the ache that had been building inside of her from the moment Clancy had announced she was sick - her insides crazing faster than she could mentally patch up the damage – in a rare fit of poignancy she’d promised Clancy that she’d take care of her beloved house till the new owner took over.
Clancy might not have been lucid, might not have heard a word, but Nora had been on the receiving end of enough broken promises in her life, a promise from her was as good as placing her beating heart in someone’s open hands.
So she would stay. Bags packed. Money put aside to cover her interim rent. Ready to hand the house keys to the new owner the moment they showed their face. And only then would she move on, leaving behind nothing but warm feelings and pleasant memories.
After all Clancy had done for her, was the very least she could do.
Misty cleared her throat, and shook herself all over. Pathos not her natural state of being. “Loved the woman to bits, but I’m never going to move these damn things without her.”
Nora dragged gaze and thoughts back to the rack of floaty, wildly-coloured garments now flapping in a growing breeze. The Melbourne weather having turned on a dime as it tended to do.
“May I?” Nora asked, bringing out her phone to take a photo.
Misty waved a whatever hand Nora’s way.
Nora stood back, found the best angles and took a slew of photos which she’d edit, filter, tag and post later on her The Girl Upstairs pages, which had gathered followers like lint on felt from near the moment she’d set them up as a showcase for her clients, and this place. If a half dozen kaftans weren’t snapped up within the day she’d eat her shoes.
Then, thus distracted, she was too slow to move when Misty grabbed a moss green kaftan with hot pink embroidery and purple fringing, and thrust it up against Nora’s person. “You must have it. And when you wear it, you’ll think of Clancy.”
Beneath the sway of the lurid pattern, Nora’s hemp platforms poked out from under her frayed denim flares. If she ever wore such a thing, she’d more likely be thinking she looked like a seventies boudoir lamp.
Nora caught Misty’s eye, and the gleam of commerce within, then handed over the twenty bucks anyway. It was Nora’s mission in life to leave any place, conversation, moment brighter than when she entered it and if selling a kaftan made Misty feel a little happier, then so be it.
Kaftan draped over her arm, Nora backed away. “Friday night drinks?”
“If you’re still here.”
“If I’m still here.”
With that Nora waited for a break in the meandering traffic and jogged across the road.
When she reached the front gate of Clancy’s old house, she ambled up the front path; past the Japanese myrtle, to the front patio, its fretwork dripping with jasmine, pale green buds just now starting to show. The elegant façade a little worn around the edges, but strong and purposeful, like a royal family who could no longer afford servants, but still wore tiaras to dinner.
Using her key, she jiggled the old lock till it jerked open, then stepped inside.
Dust motes danced in the muted afternoon sunshine pouring through the glass panels in the front door. In the quiet it was easy to imagine Clancy’s Chloe perfume on the air, Barry Manilow crooning form the kitchen speaker, the scent of Clancy reheating something Nora had cooked on the beautiful old converted Aga.
A slice of sadness, of loss, whipped across her belly, so sudden, so sharp she let out a sound. Her hand lifted to cover the spot but it took its sweet time to ebb.
This… This was the biggest reason why she had to get the house sorted and move on as soon as possible. As strongly as Nora believed in the deliberate collection of happy moments, she’d made a concerted effort in her adult life not to put herself in situations that might bring on sadness, emotional pain, the sense of missing something, or someone.
Connections, friendships, traditions felt nice, superficially, but they were so dangerous. They made a person feel as if such things might actually last. Shuffled from foster home to foster as a kid, promises had been made, hopes raised, then summarily dashed, again and again.
There was no room for hope, or guilt, or expectations, or regret; not if she wanted a happy life. That lesson had been learned, until it was as indelible as any tattoo. And Nora really, truly, deeply wanted a happy life.
And so she woke up smiling, worked hard, kept little in the way of possessions, was nice to people and expected nothing in return, so that when she moved on, no part of her was left behind. Only a fond lustre, like the kiss of the first cool breeze of autumn at the end of a long summer.
The sudden clackety-clack of toenails on hardwood floor split the silence. Then stilled. Snapping Nora back to the present.
“Magpie?” she called, her voice wavering just a smidge. “Pie?”
Pie was a bad-tempered, one-eyed, silky terrier; the latest in a long line of dogs Clancy had fostered in the time Nora had lived there. He’d been due to go back to Playful Paws Puppy Foster Home around the time Clancy had passed. But after hearing the news, they’d said it was no rush getting him back.
This wasn’t their first rodeo.
So, she not only stuck looking after a house that wasn’t hers, but also a dog that didn’t much like her. Which mucked with her head more than she liked. This better get sorted and soon.
Nora reached slowly into her tote for the baggie of dried meat she’d picked up at the whole foods market. “I got you a little treat, Pie. Want some?”
She earned a distant growl for her efforts, before the flap of the doggie door gave her reprieve.
Stepping deeper inside the house, her foot caught on the mail that had been slipped through the mail slot in the front door.
A couple of department store mailers, Clancy’s subscription to Men’s Health magazine (for the articles), and an official-looking envelope. The latter was thick, and yellow, the Melbourne office of a London law firm etched into the top left corner.
And it was addressed to Nora.
Heart kicking till she felt it in her neck, in a flush across her cheeks, Nora moved to the steep stairs leading up to her first-floor apartment, and sat, popping her tote and new kaftan beside her. Then she opened the envelope without ado.
As expected, it was news of Clancy’s will, as it pertained to one Nora Letterman.
She knew nothing would be left to her; she’d made Clancy promise after the older woman had made noise about leaving her a sideboard she’d admired. Unless it would fit in her rucksack, it would only be a burden. From what Nora could ascertain from the legalese, Clancy had listened. Apart from a few charitable bequeathments, the house and everything Clancy owned, had been left to one Bennett J Hawthorne.
An answer. Finally!
Though while she felt the expected relief, hot on its heels came a wave of uncomfortable tightness in her belly.
Bennett J Hawthorne. Bennett. It had to be Clancy’s ‘adopted grandson’ who, from the little Nora had gleaned, had lived with Clancy from when he was quite young.
Poor guy. What rotten news. And to find out his adoptive grandmother was gone while so far away. Actually, where was he again?
The dozen odd times his name had come up – how serious he was a boy, a cosmic counterpoint to Clancy’s vivacity, or how bright considering the number of Mathletics tournaments he’d won - someone had always called shoosh, or changed the subject, so she’d never heard the story behind the ‘adopted grandson’ moniker. Since mere mention had always made Clancy maudlin, which was the opposite of Nora spreading sunshine wherever she went, and in her experience ‘family’ was as often considered a dirty word as not, she’d happily let it be. And never thought more of it.
Now she wished she’d pressed. Just a little.
Rubbing a finger and thumb over her temple, she searched her memory banks for the times she’d heard mention of his name.
Once a month or so, Clancy would answer the phone, her face pinched, her shoulders tight, and she’d quietly take the phone to her bedroom. One of those times Nora had heard Clancy say, “Bennett” just before the bedroom door snicked shut.
Was that it?
Then it hit her.
Deep into night, near the end, perhaps even the very last time Clancy had been in any way lucid, she had muttered, “Ben.” Then, louder, more insistent, “Ben? Is that you?”
“Ben? Ben who? Would you like me to find him?” Nora had asked, not realising at the time Clancy had meant Bennett, the prodigal, hush hush ‘adopted grandson’. “Ask him to come?”
“No,” Clancy had shot back, her face twisting as if in pain. “Leave him be.”
Leave him be. As if asking a guy to take the time to visit his ailing grandmother was too great a burden.
Nora shifted on the stair, the skinny plank of wood with its threadbare patch of old carpet biting into her backside. Her initial feelings of ‘poor guy’ having morphed into ‘what the heck?’
This was the person Clancy had left her beloved Thornfield Hall to? Seriously, what kind of man treated a person that way? Never visiting, calling but rarely. Especially someone as vibrant and loving and wondrous and accepting as Clancy?
Nora allowed herself a rare moment of indulging in feeling all the feelings - the gutting sorrow, the flutters of rage - letting them stew till they coagulated in an ugly ball in her belly before she sucked in a deep soothing breath and reduced them to a simmer.
It took longer than she’d have liked to let it go. But she managed. Letting go of ugly feelings was something she’d long since learned to do with alacrity and grace.
Happiness over suffering.
This was the news she’d been waiting for, unexpected outcome or no. Bennett Hawthorne could come and grab the keys, she’d politely talk him through the vagaries of the old home – the upstairs window that had been painted shut, the noisy downstairs pipe, the wriggly front door lock – then she could draw a nice clean line under what had been a wonderful chapter of her life.
Before the place got its claws into her any deeper. Before this pile of bricks, this street, these people, began to feel like something as insidious and treacherous as home.
Nora lifted the papers in her hand, flipped the page and read on, hoping to find a timeline as to when Hawthorne might finally show up so she could be ready.
Until she reached a section that left her a little stunned, as if she’d been smacked to the side of the head.
While the house would go to Bennett Hawthorne, Clancy’s will also declared that one Nora Letterman aka The Girl Upstairs had the right to stay on in the house for a period of up to two months from the date of Clancy’s death.
A cleaner would be paid for by the estate. All upkeep and utilities as well. And Nora was not to pay a cent of rent.
The house was not to be open for inspection, put on the market, or in any way renovated during the time Nora was in residence.
She was – of course - welcome to leave sooner if she desired. But the rooms were hers, for two months, if she needed them.
All of which, apparently, suited Bennett Hawthorne, as the reason the letter was from the Melbourne office of a London law firm was because the guy was London-based and thus would not be able to inspect the property in person any time soon.
“Oh, Clancy,” Nora breathed out; the letter falling to her knee, gaze lifting to glance into the kitchen.
The kitchen said nothing in return. Though, in the silence, the clackety clack of tiny doggy claws echoed somewhere in the big empty house.
Clancy knew Nora was a wanderer. They’d often chat about where Nora might end up next; Clancy wistfully sighing over Nora’s stories of camping out on other people’s sofas, slinging coffees in a train station café for a day in order to be able to afford the fare to get her to the next place, as if that life was something to aspire to rather than a case of needs must.
So what had she been thinking, sneaking this into her will?
Nora felt the slightest twinge tugging on her watch-out-o-meter, as if she’d somehow found herself swept up in some larger plan. But she quickly shook it off. Clancy didn’t have it in her to be so manipulative. She’d been good, through and through. The best person Nora had ever known. And she was gone.
“Damn it.” Nora rubbed a hand over her eyes, knees juggling with excess energy as she mentally gathered in all the parts of herself that were threatening to fly off into some emotional whirlwind.
Breaking things down into their simplest forms;
Clancy was simply being kind.
But staying was impossible.
So this Bennett guy had to come back. Now.
Irresponsible or no, on the other side of the world or not, whatever the story, he was one of Clancy’s people. And Clancy never gave up on her people. He’d know what this house meant to his grandmother. And would take care of it.
While Clancy had loomed large in Nora’s life these past months, had treated her with such kindness, respect, and fierce support, she wasn’t family. So, it was actually none of Nora’s business.
Ignoring the latest twinge that brought on, Nora grabbed her phone and searched for ‘Bennett Hawthorne’, but she had no clue what he might look like. Since he was adopted, she couldn’t even look for a similarity to Clancy. A plethora of images and articles popped up, all the same, most regards the sweet-looking, elderly mayor of some small town in America who’d tried to make it law dogs could legally marry one another. Ah, algorithms.
Figuring it mattered little, the guy was who he was, she popped her phone away, grabbed the legal letter, took it upstairs, turned her Taylor Swift play list up nice and loud, and emailed the lawyers.