“How long would he stay?” I say.
“Just one night,” Dane says. “He’d arrive late and leave early the next day. After the first couple of years, I knew the routine like clockwork. I’d have the gate open and waiting for him when he got here, and then I’d close it back up when his car drove by the next morning.”
“Did he ever tell you what he was doing here?”
“He never volunteered, and I never asked,” Dane says. “Didn’t seem to be any business of mine. And not that yours is, either, but I gotta ask—”
“What the hell I’m doing here?”
“I was going to phrase it a bit more delicately, but since you put it that way, why the hell are you here?”
Dane shoots a glance toward the back of my pickup. Hidden under a canvas tarp are boxes of supplies, several tool kits, and enough power tools to supply a minor construction site. Table saw. Power saw. Drill. Sander. All that’s missing is a jackhammer, although I know where to get one if the need arises.
“I’m here to check out the house, renovate the parts that need it, and prepare it for sale.”
“The house is in fine shape,” Dane says. “The foundation is solid, and the structure’s sound. It’s got good bones, as they say. It could use some sprucing up, of course. Then again, so could I.”
He gives me a sly, self-deprecating grin, making it clear he knows how handsome he is. I bet he’s used to making the women of Bartleby swoon. Unfortunately for him, I’m not from these parts.
“Do you think the house can sell?” I reply, all business.
“A place like that? With a bit of mystery surrounding it? Oh, it’ll sell. Although you might want to be careful about who you sell it to. Most folks here wouldn’t be too pleased to see it turned into a tourist attraction.”
“The citizens of Bartleby hate my father’s book that much, do they?”
“They despise it,” Dane says, hissing the word like it’s a bad taste he wants off his tongue. “Most folks wish it had never been written.”
I can’t say I blame them. I once told Allie that living in the Book’s shadow felt like having a parent who committed murder. I’m guilty by association. Now imagine what that kind of attention could do to an entire town, its reputation, its property values. House of Horrors put Bartleby, Vermont, on the map for all the wrong reasons.
“And what about you?” I ask Dane. “What’s your take on my father’s book?”
“Don’t have one. I never read it.”
“So you’re the one,” I say. “Nice to finally meet you.”
Dane grins again. This time it’s genuine, which makes it so much nicer than his earlier effort. It shows off a dimple on his right cheek, just above the edge of his stubble.
“Not a fan, I take it,” he says.
“Let’s just say I have a low tolerance for bullshit. Especially when I’m one of the main characters.”
Dane leans against the patch of stone wall next to the gate, his arms crossed and his head tilted in the direction of Baneberry Hall. “Then I guess you’re not scared of staying all alone in that big house up there.”
“You’ve been inside more than I have,” I say. “Should I be?”
“Only if you’re afraid of dust bunnies,” Dane says. “You said you plan on fixing the place up. You have any experience with that?”
The irritated prickle returns, itching the back of my neck. “Yeah. A bit.”
“That’s a pretty big job.”
There’s more to the sentence, the unspoken part left dangling like an autumn leaf. I know what it is, though. Something vaguely sexist and patronizing. I get it all the time. Constant questions that would never be posed to a man. Am I skilled enough? Strong enough? Capable enough?
The rest of Dane’s sentence, when it finally drops, turns out to be only slightly more egalitarian.
“For just one person, I mean,” he says.
“I can handle it.”
Dane scratches his chin. “There’s lots to do inside. Especially if you really intend to trick it out for resale.”
That’s when I realize he isn’t completely being a sexist jerk. He’s also, in a roundabout way, asking for a job.
“You have experience in home renovation?” I ask.
“Yeah,” Dane says. “A bit.”
Hearing my own answer thrown back at me is more amusing than annoying. Clearly, Dane Hibbets and I have underestimated each other.
“It’s my main gig,” he says. “General contracting. Home repair. Things like that. But business lately hasn’t exactly been booming.”
I take a moment to size him up, wondering if hiring Dane will be more trouble than it’s worth. But Allie was right—despite my knowledge and skill, I will need some help. Dane’s been inside Baneberry Hall. He knows the place better than I do. And if my father thought him good enough to keep paying him, then it might be wise to do the same.
“You’re hired,” I say. “I’ll pay you a fair wage for working on the house. When I sell it, you can claim the lion’s share of the work. Might help get you some new clients. Deal?”
“Deal,” Dane says.
We shake on it.