An amusing, at times strident narrative voice drives Pollero's third Palm Beach puzzler (after 2008's Knock 'em Dead). Pert paralegal Finley Anderson Tanner is stunned when her divalicious mother, Cassidy Johnstone, sells her the beach-front house once owned by Finley's late beloved stepdad, Jonathan Tanner, for $25,000. Discouraged by the renovations needed on the property, Finley finds support from such friends as interior designer Sam and annoying if hunky PI Liam McGarrity. Nothing prepares her, however, for the literal skeleton in the closet-the remains of a girl clutching a medallion Finley gave Jonathan when she was a child. Finley's frantic efforts to stay romantic and fashion forward while seeking to identify a homicide victim and catch a nefarious killer make for a jittery mix that doesn't always jell. (Mar.)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Fat Chanceby Rhonda Pollero
Finley Anderson Tanner just landed a quaint new cottage on posh Palm Beach. Not bad for an underachieving, sample-sale-shopping paralegal -- until she finds the place in shambles. She should have known better than to accept her overbearing/b>
The difference between the wrath of God and the wrath of your mother is that eventually God forgives you.
Finley Anderson Tanner just landed a quaint new cottage on posh Palm Beach. Not bad for an underachieving, sample-sale-shopping paralegal -- until she finds the place in shambles. She should have known better than to accept her overbearing mother's offer to sell her a house unseen at a bargain-basement mortgage rate. Good-bye Rolex dreams. At this rate, she'll be shopping designer outlets forever.
When Finley discovers a skeleton in her new closet, right where her Jimmy Choos should be, a total home renovation is the least of her worries. Sure, she knows how to catch a crook, but when a girl's sandwiched between sexy P.I. Liam McGarrity and her hot new boss, defense attorney Tony Caprelli, she can only be headed for commitment. To an institution. With her fabulous (but slightly more successful) friends to keep her sane and her interfering mother out of town, Finley vows to get this bad guy -- and decorate her new house -- even if she has to pay full price.
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The difference between the wrath of God and the wrath of your mother is that eventually, God forgives you.
The only smell better than Lulu Guinness perfume is eau d' new car. I breathed in a long, slow, steady stream of the leathery scent as I steered my brand-new BMW 330Ci off the Brauman Motorcars lot. My was a bit of an exaggeration. Technically, the lovely new car belonged to BMW Leasing Corporation, but that was a minor detail. One I was happy to ignore as I weaved through the late morning traffic on Okeechobee Boulevard.
The timing was perfect. The cherry red car was exactly what I needed to lift my spirits. I was in a funk after the whole Patrick breakup disaster, so when the dealer called me yesterday, I didn't waste any time arranging to take next-day delivery.
Like everything in life -- a little bad came with the good. Though my previous car was totaled through no fault on my part, I still had to fork over nearly fifteen hundred of my own dollars on the new lease. Luckily, I had cash in the bank. Less than a week ago, I deposited a big check. But not before I scanned it, saved it, and turned the image into a self-congratulatory screen saver on my home and office computers. Hey -- it's not like the law firm of Dane, Lieberman, and Zarnowski cuts a check payable to me in that amount every day. No, this was a freak occurrence. A signing bonus of sorts. Or, as I like to think of it, twelve thousand ways for my boss to announce to the world that Finley Anderson Tanner is a valuable asset to the Palm Beach legal community.
The check represented the negotiated dollar amount it had cost Vain Victor Dane, Esquire and Asshole Extraordinaire, to make amends for firing me. My shoulder muscles pinched at the mere thought of my employment lord and master. Don't get me wrong, I like my job at Dane, Lieberman, and Zarnowski. Okay, so like might be a bit strong. As an estates and trusts paralegal, I get to do a variety of different things, which makes it mildly interesting. What makes it a great deal more enjoyable is that I have the autonomy to come and go almost as I please.
I "please" a lot.
The very nature of my job requires me to be out of the office often. Is it a crime if I happen to take the occasional detour into Nordy's on the way back? No. The real crime would be missing out on a sale for the sole reason that I was chained to my desk. It's a nice desk, by the way. At least it is now. In the last year, I've done pretty well in the struggle up the corporate ladder department. Well, if you overlook the arrested, jailed, hospitalized, almost killed, and fired -- twice -- bumps in my career path. None of those things was my fault. Mostly they weren't my fault. Okay. Some of them weren't my fault.
Turns out, I have a knack for ferreting out murderers. Okay, so knack might be a bit of an overstatement; it's more along the lines of..."there but for the grace of God I didn't end up dead." But you get the gist.
Multitasking, I eased onto I-95 north while simultaneously skipping through the newest playlist I'd created for my iPod. It was my iPod too, as of the fifteenth of the month, when I made the last payment. So budgeting isn't my strength, but I have found ways to cut corners. Secret ways. Hopefully they'll remain secret. Not even my closest friends know that my precarious financial situation has forced me into the underground world of outlet shopping. My wardrobe is a testament to factory damage and slightly irregular.
I tensed as I steered onto Blue Heron Boulevard in record time. I was on my way to Iron Horse Country Club. It's a small, private club nestled behind one of the hundreds of manicured entrances and manned security gates dotting Palm Beach County. Most people are invited to lunch with their mothers. Not me; I get summoned. On elegant stationery, no less. I could easily picture my mother in her penthouse, seated at her expensive French desk, gold pen in her perfectly manicured hand.
I'd dressed carefully for my command performance. I'd chosen a vintage suit in mint green that I'd found at a church thrift store. Not any church sale, mind you, but the semiannual sale at Bethesdaby-the-Sea, the church in Palm Beach where the rich and famous worshipped. The pale color accentuated the fleck of green in my otherwise blue eyes and my pay-for-it-later tan. I'd added a white BCBG cami with mint trim. I'd slipped on a pair of white Steve Madden wedges I'd picked up at a cool 70 percent off, thanks to a small smudge on the patent leather on the side of the left shoe. Since this was lunch at a country club with my mother, I not only had to wear green -- the color she prefers -- but I also had to do the required hair thing. I was prepared. I had a mother-of-pearl clip at the ready.
My mother's membership at Iron Horse was part of the spoils from one of her divorces. Clicking my fingernail against the walnut-grained steering wheel, I tried to recall which husband had been the avid golfer. As I drove under a canopy of banyan branches, I inhaled the crisp, summery scent of freshly mowed grass filtering in through the vents. For some reason, the homey smell reminded me of the only man my mother had married for true love. Thinking about Jonathan Tanner caused my heart to twist inside my chest. He died almost fifteen years ago and I still miss him. I was two when he adopted me, and I couldn't have asked for a better father. I loved him and he loved me. Which probably explains why I don't have daddy issues.
Amazing considering I was a teenager when I found out the truth. Well, the half-truth. My mother had always told me that Finley and Anderson were family names. That part was true. What she'd neglected to explain was that they were the family names of the two men she'd been sleeping with when she'd gotten pregnant with me. As far as I know, neither man ever knew about me. And I have no burning desire to go on some sperm donator search.
I considered it once. I was online, killing time before swooping in on a last-minute eBay auction for some links for my build-it-from-scratch Rolex project, when a pop-up ad flashed, promising to find anyone anywhere in twenty-four hours or less. I thought about it for a nanosecond, then decided I truly didn't want to know.
I did, however, want those gold links, but I was outbid at the very end of the auction by someone with the screen name JulesJewels.
I pulled up in the horseshoe-shaped drive in front of the massive, pillared building. I grabbed my purse and my hair clip, then reluctantly handed my keys to the valet, a kid barely old enough to drive. Then I sprinted up the front steps.
Luckily for me, The Clubhouse was a completely inappropriate name for the large, lavish, two-story building. The first floor included a gym, a spa, locker rooms, steam rooms, a lap pool, showers, and twenty-four-hour a day attendants. Upstairs, there was a long polished bar and two dining rooms.
Thankfully, the ladies' room was on the way to the restaurant, giving me an opportunity to slip in and twist my hair into a subdued style that would not inspire my mother's ire. I paid a lot of money to highlight my blond hair. It seemed like a waste to hide it, but the alternative made me decide to be wasteful.
With my hair secured, I smiled briefly at the mute attendant standing in the corner. It seemed to startle her, possibly because the snobbish members treated her as if she'd been invisible.
My palms began to sweat as I walked on the plush carpet, past the sparsely populated bar toward the restaurant. The seven or eight men at the bar were dressed in the horrid ensembles golfers tended to fancy. Guess no one told them that no man looked good in plaid pants and an Easter-egg-colored shirt.
As I approached the maitre d' of the less formal dining room where lunch was served, I could smell the sumptuous scents of various foods. My stomach went from clenched to growling in record time. The dining room was huge, with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the golf course. The table settings, like the window treatments, reinforced the Iron Horse train theme. The maitre d' knew me on sight and simply said, "Welcome back, Miss Tanner. Please follow me."
My mother looked up instantly and shot me a disapproving glance. I took my seat, then a waiter appeared and flipped my napkin onto my lap.
I took the menu he handed to me, and he offered to give me a minute. "You look lovely, Mother. Is that a new dress?" I try, I really do. But cracking through the cement of my mother's emotions is like adding another face to Mount Rushmore using nothing but a dull spoon.
Thanks to good genes, regular Restylane, and minor plastic surgery, my mother was a fifty-year-old with the face of a thirtyfive-year-old. To her credit, she worked out with a personal trainer when she was in town, maintaining her size 2 body. Since the average age of the other people in the dining room was somewhere between sixty and ninety, she stood out from the crowd.
She would have anyway. My mother was a striking brunette who carried herself like the budding star she'd once been. All that training hadn't gone to waste. Her regal persona had easily evolved from opera diva to country club diva. Other than eye color, my mother and I didn't share much in the looks department. Or the temperament department. Or, well, any department.
"You're late. As usual," she said. "I don't know why I bother to make the effort to always arrive on time when you're invariably late, Finley."
In less than five seconds, she'd fired the first shot. This did not bode well for me. "I don't know either," I replied. I wasn't being facetious. I had no idea why she didn't just show up fifteen minutes later than whatever time she told me. We'd arrive at sort of the same time, and everyone would be happy.
The hovering waiter returned at the subtle wave of my mother's hand. "What are the specials?" she demanded.
The guy rattled off the specials. Which, by the way, were always the same on Thursdays. And why she asked I have no idea. Regardless of the specials, she always ordered the same thing.
"You had me at deep fried," I smiled at the waiter and added, "I'll have the tuna egg roll, then coconut shrimp, extra mango relish, with French fries, please."
My mother snapped her menu closed, glaring at me as she ordered a small chef salad, no egg, no cheese, no ham, no dressing.
"Finley," she whispered in that disapproving tone she considered reasonable just as soon as the waiter was out of earshot. "Keep eating like that and you'll be as big as a house. How much weight have you put on in the last two months? Ten? Fifteen pounds?"
"Four," I said, struggling not to grit my teeth. "Ninety-six more and I'll be eligible for gastric bypass."
Arching one perfectly shaped brow disapprovingly, my mother shifted against the back of the richly upholstered chair. Discreetly, she glanced around the dining room, husbandseeking radar on full alert.
Not for me, of course. In my mother's eyes, I was a lost cause, twenty-nine going on pointless. Conversely, she was on the prowl for husband number six. She'd been seeing a doctor for a couple of months, but she liked to hedge her bets.
"Don't be flippant, Finley. Your sister's wedding is just weeks away, and how will it look if you eat yourself out of your maidof-honor dress?"
"I'm a size six, Mom. Hardly Jabba the Hut."
"Lisa is a size two. I'm constantly puzzled as to why a woman whose prospects of marriage are diminishing rapidly wouldn't make every effort to look her best. To be honest, Finley, you've let yourself go. And what's this I hear about you not bringing Patrick? You can't attend the wedding without an escort. What will the St. Johns think of us? What exactly did you do to drive him away?"
As usual when I'm with my mother, I have fascinating and quick internal comebacks. But I'm not dumb enough to say them aloud or tell my mother the real reason Patrick and I split. The facts wouldn't matter. Not with my mother. She'd simply accuse me of being at fault, commitment-phobic, irresponsible -- take your pick -- then send Patrick some sort of fruit basket to apologize for my poor behavior.
Absently, I flipped the butter knife back and forth against the crisp linen tablecloth. "We decided to see other people." Partially true.
When Cassidy Presley Tanner Halpern Rossi Browning Johnstone, former rising star of the Metropolitan Opera, got curious, she was like the proverbial dog with a bone. "That's ridiculous. The only time people say that is when they already have another person to see. Is that it? Did you cheat on Patrick?" She put her hand on her throat. "Oh, Finley, tell me you didn't cheat on him with that rental cop."
That "rental cop" was Liam McGarrity. Tall, dark, yummy, still-involved-with-his-ex-wife Liam McGarrity. "He's a private detective, Mom. Not some mall security guard."
"He might as well be," she argued. "You've gotten into quite a few mishaps thanks to that man."
I really wanted to stick a fork in my eye. Thank God our lunch was arriving and I could eat instead of resorting to selfmutilation. "I solved two murder cases," I reminded her, quite proud of myself, even if she wasn't.
"Which you have no business doing," she said as she picked up her fork. "If you really wanted to do some good, you'd have gone on to law school and worked within the system. Look at your sister. You don't see Lisa getting mixed up with uneducated riffraff."
I love my sister. I really do. If only she weighed three hundred pounds, screwed up once in a while, and sat around watching TV all day while eating bonbons. Then I'd love her even more. I couldn't compete with my sister on any level. I stopped trying when I was five. "She's a pediatric oncologist, Mom. I don't think there's a lot of riffraff in peds intensive care."
"Don't take that tone with me," she warned. "Not when I'm about to do you a generous favor."
My definition of a favor and my mother's definition of a favor were completely different animals. In fact, I had no doubt that if asked, my mother would claim that commenting on my weight was an amazing act of kindness. As were her constant taunts about my failure to measure up in comparison to my sister. Lisa is my younger sister. She is faultless to a fault -- if that's even possible. She's a successful doctor who's about to marry into one of Atlanta's wealthiest families. Hell, by the time she's thirty, Lisa will have discovered a cure for cancer and donated her findings for the betterment of all mankind. Me? My life has been reduced to surfing eBay and watching What Not to Wear marathons.
Being an estates and trusts paralegal serves its purpose. I make enough money to pay rent, the minimum balances on my credit cards, and make my car payments. I got fired while investigating the Paolo Martinez murder, but since my invo vement brought some heavy-hitting clients to the firm, Vain Victor Dane had no choice but to rehire me. I didn't go cheap, either. I negotiated a twelve-thousand-dollar bonus for myself, and, with luck, my credit application at Barton's jewelers will be approved and I'll soon be the proud owner of a ladies' pink oyster face Datejust Rolex. The watch retails for thirteen-eight, so I'll only need a two-thousand in-store credit to swing it. I'll miss the hunt for parts on eBay, but I'll have the watch of my dreams. Guess once I have it I'll have to find another hobby.
"Sorry," I muttered, leaning back so the server could put my second course in front of me. "Thank you." I swallowed only one bite of my fried shrimp when I noticed my mother's fork still hovering above her untouched salad. I did a little mental calculation: napkin in lap -- check. Fork in correct hand -- check. Feet crossed at the ankles -- check. I met her gaze. "Is something the matter?"
"Aren't you going to ask me why I invited you to lunch on a Thursday?"
If my memory served me correctly, it wasn't exactly an invitation. But I knew nothing would be gained by pointing that out. "Sure. Why did you need to see me today?"
Reaching into the large Chanel tote tucked next to her chair, my mother produced a neatly folded, multipage document with a pale blue cover. Dramatically, she laid it on the table, then slowly slid it in my direction with the tips of two manicured fingers.
Resting my fork on the edge of my plate, I took the papers, unfolded them, and felt my breath catch in my chest as I read the caption: contract for purchase. Scanning the first paragraph, I blinked twice, then read the words again. "You're selling me a house?"
"Yes. It's a property Jonathan and I owned. It was his wish that you have it."
"He died fifteen years ago," I said. If it was Jonathan's wish for me to have it, I asked myself, still a little stunned, why was my mother making me buy it?
"Yes, and I have been waiting for you to show some responsibility before giving the property to you."
"This isn't a gift," I said as I read the terms. "You're selling it to me."
"People rarely appreciate what they get for free. I'm transferring the house to you at well below the appraised value," she pointed out. "The lot alone is worth a fortune. I'm selling it to you for twenty-five thousand."
My mother wasn't given to random acts of kindness. There had to be a catch. "I don't have twenty-five thousand dollars."
"How much do you have?"
In the bank or in outstanding loans? Admitting to the former would be less painful. "I've got twe-ten thousand dollars saved." Close enough to true. I'd gotten my bonus check on Monday, and other than the car lease, I hadn't spent a penny of it in four days. That was saving. Kinda.
"You can give me that as a down payment, and I'll hold a mortgage for the other fifteen."
"Why what?" she asked as she elegantly lifted a fork full of lettuce to her lips.
"If you've had this property for years, why sell it to me now, and why offer to let me make payments for the outstanding fifteen thousand?"
My mother's face pinched with impatience. Well, the parts that hadn't been Botoxed pinched. "Most homeowners carry a mortgage, Finley. It's far better than paying rent. In the end, you will have something to show for all those monthly payments."
The tiny hairs on the back of my neck prickled as I read the address. "The house is on Palm Beach. Nothing there costs twenty-five thousand dollars."
"The house might need a little work. There is some hurricane damage."
I looked up and met her gaze. "How much hurricane damage?"
"I'm hardly a contractor, Finley."
"If I give you all my cash, how am I supposed to fix hurricane damage? Or pay the taxes? Or the insurance?"
"If you don't want it..." Her voice trailed off.
"Of course I want it. I'm just a little confused. What's the catch?"
She shrugged slightly. "No catch. Well, except for paragraph eleven."
Moistening my fingertip, I quickly turned to that section. "If I ever want to sell the property I can only sell it back to you for the original purchase price?"
"It has sentimental value. It was the first piece of property Jonathan bought when he came to Florida. Oh," she added, smoothing a lock of chestnut-colored hair off her chemically wrinkle-free forehead. "And paragraph twelve."
Reading further, I discovered that in the event I sold the house back to my mother, I'd forfeit any money paid to her, as well as a one-time assessment of 5 percent of the appraised value of the home. "So, worst-case scenario, if I decided I didn't want the house, I'd lose my ten-thousand-dollar deposit plus whatever mortgage payments I made plus another however much for the assessment?"
She shook her head. "Conservatively, we'd be talking about an additional fifty to one hundred thousand. But that would only be an issue if you reneged on the deal prior to paying off the purchase price or -- "
"Or if I die first. Obviously, the house would be yours free and clear in the event of my death. That's in paragraph seventeen."
This is the point in the conversation when I'm supposed to cry, "No, Mom, don't die!" but the best I could muster was a slight tilt of my head. Thank God this conversation wasn't being taped. No court in the land would acquit me if she suddenly croaked. I didn't want her to die, but I did want to know what was behind this unexpected show of generosity. "I'll have one of the attorneys look at this when -- "
"I'm afraid I need your decision now."
I blinked. "Right now? Why?"
"The house has been vacant for about six months."
"Vacant? Who was living there?"
"Do you remember Melinda Redmond?"
My mother nodded. "She rented the house after she had her epiphany."
"Fifteen years ago Melinda decided to get out of advertising and devote herself to children. Can you imagine?"
Yes, Mom. Some people actually like their children and don't see them as disappointing burdens. "That's quite a change."
Sighing heavily, she said, "Melinda paid more attention to those children than she did to caring for the home. I had no choice but to ask her to leave."
"You evicted a foster mother?"
She nodded. "Yes. Which has created this opportunity for you, Finley. And a responsibility. Given the fact that you just tossed aside your future with Patrick, I need you to demonstrate that you're capable of taking on responsibility. Of making important decisions."
"This is an important decision," I agreed, wishing I'd ordered something a lot stronger than iced tea. "One I shouldn't jump into without thinking about it."
"What is there to think about?" she countered. "I'm offering to sell you a home in a prime location on the beach at a fraction of its fair market value. I've already spoken to your bank, and they'll give you a home equity loan for any repairs with the house as collateral. In the event you fail to meet your obligations, I've agreed to guarantee the loan. All you have to do is sign some papers at the bank. I've arranged for a line of credit up to two hundred thousand dollars. I will cover the taxes and insurance until you pay off the fifteen thousand dollars you owe me. That payment is set at two hundred fifty dollars per month. Since I have a long-standing relationship with the bank, if you borrow the maximum amount I've guaranteed, you're looking at a combined monthly payment of about seventeen hundred. How much is your rent?"
"So," she said smugly. "For two hundred dollars a month, you're actually working toward owning a sizeable asset."
I felt a vine-covered pit opening beneath my feet. I smelled my own fear. My mother never gave anything without weighing her options. If it was good for my mother, it was bad for me. I knew that. It was a given. But, damn. The offer sounded so tempting. I could find two hundred extra dollars a month. Right?
A homeowner. A house right on the beach. The payments sounded doable. The sell-back terms sucked, but if I took her up on her offer, I wouldn't want to sell the house back to her.
Run away, I told myself. "I-I know."
"I'm your mother, Finley. Are you insinuating you can't or won't trust me?"
Yes. "No, of course not. But I'd like to have Becky take a look at the contract." Becky was a contracts attorney at Dane, Lieberman, and Zarnowski and one of my best friends.
"I want this resolved now, Finley. Accept my generous offer, or don't. Make up your own mind."
Oh, boy. "Okay. Where do I sign?" Becky didn't trust my mother any more than I did. And she wasn't going to be happy that I'd contractually bound myself to buying a house without her going over the contract with a lice comb first.
"Then let's get Julianna over here." My mother raised her hand in the direction of the maitre d'.
"She works here at the club. She's a notary. Philippe can be a witness."
I heard the sound of a train barreling over me, and my mind flashed an image of my body flattened on imaginary tracks. I'd come to Iron Horse Country Club for a simple lunch, and in under an hour, I was signing a contract and writing a check.
An hour later, still dazed, I walked into the lobby of Dane, Lieberman, and Zarnowski. Margaret Ford was planted behind the horseshoe-shaped mahogany reception desk, Bluetooth tucked behind her right ear. She glanced over at me, then made a production out of checking her watch. Yeah, yeah, like I needed her snarky expression to tell me I was twenty-seven minutes late getting back from lunch.
"Messages?" I asked.
I turned and headed for the elevator. Other than arranging for a site appraisal on the Melanie Dryer estate, my afternoon was pretty light. By the time I reached my office on the second floor, I was dying to get a look at the house I'd just bought.
The faint scent of lavender from a plug-in air freshener mingled with the strong aroma of coffee. After dropping my purse in a desk drawer, I filled my mug with the dregs from the carafe and navigated my way to a satellite photograph of Chilian Avenue. I was still having a hard time wrapping my brain around the idea that I was the owner of a home on Palm Beach.
My fingernail tapped impatiently on the arrow key, annoyed that the satellite photo was so fuzzy. All I could really make out was a basic outline. The roof of my house was approximately one-tenth the size of the garage on the neighboring property to the left. And smaller than the pool of the house to the right.
So what. It was right on the beach, and it was mine. Well, mostly mine.
As much as I wanted to race out and see the house, I decided it should be a celebration. And who better to share my newfound land-baron status with than my nearest and dearest? I emailed Becky, Liv, and Jane, sure that if I called them I'd spill my guts and spoil the surprise. In less than five minutes, I had confirmations from all three.
I called the appraiser, then devoted my attention to surfing for decorating ideas. My friend and neighbor, Sam Carter, is an interior designer, and he would probably cut off my fingers if he knew I was picking colors and furnishings unsupervised. His disdain wouldn't be wholly unwarranted. The décor in my apartment lingers somewhere between yard sale and college dorm. Sam was at some home show in Vegas, but I was sure that once he saw the house, he'd have strong opinions.
Hell, I wanted to see the house. Glancing at my Kuber watch, I pressed my lips together. It was only a few minutes after three. Drumming my fingers on my desk, I glanced at my open case files, deciding which one I could use to my best advantage. There was no way I could get past surly Margaret and her file room flunkies without a viable excuse.
Margaret's been stationed at that desk for twenty-five years -- probably one of the things that's made her so bitter. That and she resents the fact that I make more money than she does. In Margaretville, lawyers should earn the big bucks and the rest of us should be paid according to seniority. Coincidentally, that would make her the highest paid non-attorney member of the staff. But I was the one with the degree. And I was the one who'd just brought five new clients to the firm. As far as I was concerned, she could go suck her Bluetooth.
With a draft of the Jessup estate accounting tucked into the pink alligator leather tote I bought as a consolation gift after my last confrontation with Patrick, I scooted my chair back, clicking the button on the wireless mouse to hibernate my computer, and made a stealthy exit.
"This is yours, Finley?"
It was hard to hear Becky Jameson's voice over the excited thudding of my heart in my ears as I closed the car door. The magnitude of this moment made it hard for me to remember how to breathe normally.
The idea that I was a homeowner before I hit the big three-o qualified as a major milestone. And not just any home. My new abode was a darling cottage on the north end of Palm Beach. The Palm Beach.
"Yep," I said as I hoisted my tote and purse higher on my shoulder.
Becky lingered by the car, whistling softly as she gave the exterior a once-over. "What's the catch?"
I believe those were my exact words.
Becky's tone echoed the uneasiness knotted in my stomach. We'd been friends since college, so like me, she was stunned when I told her that my mother had sold me the house for a fraction of its value. "The contract she had me sign was really straightforward," I insisted. I had the five-page document tucked inside my tote.
I focused, transfixed, on the tidy turquoise cottage with a small front porch and coral accents that, as of a few hours ago, was my new address. Like Weezie Jefferson, I'd moved on up. The Palm Beach address was a huge step up from my apartment in West Palm. Under normal circumstances, it was also far beyond my meager means.
Becky slipped her sunglasses down on the bridge of her perfect nose and gave me one of those "I'll bet" looks. She was a little miffed that I'd made my first real estate transaction without so much as calling her for advice.
Which I would have done if my mother hadn't put a ticking clock on the transaction.
"Are we going in?" Becky asked as she moved around the front of her car toward the house.
"We have to wait for Liv and Jane."
Becky lifted her auburn hair off her neck and twisted it into a messy knot. "Great. You get a house and I get heat stroke."
"Let's walk around back," I suggested.
The small yard circling the building was landscaped, and the grass was freshly mowed. A small, uneven stone pathway led around the side of the single-story home. Someone had recently planted white flowers in the flowerbeds that rimmed the house. Hopefully that someone would keep it up, since I have the blackest thumb in all of south Florida. I didn't make eye contact with the plants, afraid they'd pick up on my botanical death ray and die on the spot.
Other than a cement slab, the backyard was nothing more than a glorious slope of sand leading straight into the Atlantic Ocean. The surf lapped softly on the deserted shoreline, sending a cooling, salty breeze to greet us. I slipped off my shoes and felt the cool, fine-grained sand beneath my feet. Besides a few clumps of sea grass, nothing impeded my glorious view. On either side of my beach -- I paused to repeat that in my head: my beach -- the neighbors had privacy fences with some sort of vines growing over them for aesthetic purposes. I didn't care; the small red flowers perfumed the air, enhancing the whole experience.
"This is my sand," I said as I wiggled my toes.
"I'm pretty sure the sand belongs to the state," Becky remarked, hooking the straps of her wedges over one finger.
Unlike me, Becky didn't have to resort to online auctions and outlet shopping. Thanks to her JD, she earned a decent salary. "Want a roommate? This view is incredible," Becky sighed. "This place has to be worth a few million, easy."
True. It was one of the few prime beach-front cottages still standing. Most of the small lots in Palm Beach had been gobbled up by developers. Cottages like mine -- I got a rush just hearing that thought in my brain -- were practically extinct.
"You could flip this place and -- "
"No, I can't," I explained. "That was one of the provisions my mother put into the contract."
"You can't sell it?"
I shrugged. "I can, but only back to her. Apparently she has a deep emotional attachment to this place even though she never lived here. She had the same tenant for most of the past fifteen years, but six months ago, Melinda left. It's been vacant ever since."
"Melinda? You knew the tenant?"
"Kinda," I said, shading my eyes as the sun behind me painted the surf gold. "She was Jonathan's assistant in New York and then somehow went from that to fostering kids. My mother didn't give me the details, just that she evicted her."
"That's cold," Becky remarked without surprise. "Where is your mother now?"
I turned and looked at my friend. "How should I know? And what difference does it make?"
"None, I guess. But I'm having a hard time with the notion that your mother just had you write a check and handed you the keys? No warning, no nothing?"
I shrugged. "A random act of kindness. Who cares what her motives are? Bottom line? I have a beautiful, three-bedroom oceanfront house."
"What other restrictions did she put on the sale?"
I waved my hand dismissively. "Just general stuff about maintaining it properly, blah, blah, blah. Oh, and" -- I lowered my voice, hoping it would drown in the sound of the waves -- "I can't borrow against it for anything other than maintenance and repairs."
Becky shook her head. "She dangled the bait and you impaled yourself on the hook."
"Look around you," I said. "I could work for the next gazillion years and I'd never be able to afford this place."
"Can you afford the taxes and the insurance?" Becky countered.
"I don't have to until I've paid off fifteen thousand I owe my mother. Can you go pull the wings off a different butterfly?"
Becky raised her hands in surrender. "You're right, I'm sorry. This is a huge thing, and I'm sorry for pissing on it."
We started back toward the house. "How much do you think a total face-lift will cost?" I asked.
"How much have you earned in the past nine years?"
"You're still pissing."
Olivia Garrett and Jane Spencer were walking up the pressed concrete driveway as we came around the house. Liv was balancing a champagne bottle and a picnic basket. Jane raced toward me, grabbing me in a tight hug that lifted me off the ground. Jane's very athletic. In fact, we met at the gym. We pretended to be friends so we could take advantage of the two-for-one special. The friendship had lasted. The gym membership, at least for me, had been a one-visit thing.
Jane is an accountant who looks more like one of the Pussycat Dolls. Her hair is long and dark. Her smile is brilliant, and she has a body that looks better than the airbrushed models in fashion magazines.
Liv owns an event planning business with her partner, Jean-Claude. She's as smart as she is beautiful. There's something exotic about her features that makes men literally stop dead in their tracks. If I were a lesbian, I'd definitely go for Liv.
Spreading my arms, I said, "Welcome to Chez Tanner."
"Oh my God!" Liv gushed.
"It's perfect!" Jane practically squealed before covering her mouth with her hands. "I hear the ocean. I'm so jealous, I hate you," she added, and then she looped her hand through my arm. "Finley, this is so great."
As we walked to the front door, I felt my pulse quicken again. I fumbled inside my purse, feeling for the loose key I'd carefully tucked into the side pocket. My hand was actually shaking as I inserted the key, then I heard the unmistakable click of the dead bolt sliding open.
As soon as I pushed open the heavy teak door, I was slapped in the face with the foulest odor in the history of stench.
"What is that smell?" Becky gagged.
The alarm chirped seven times before I pressed the code to disarm it. Not an easy task, given the fact that my eyes were burning from the rancid fumes and I suddenly realized that my bare feet were wet. Looking down, I realized that I was standing on moldy, squishy carpet that was foaming as if having some sort of convulsion.
From the outside, the cottage looked fairly pristine. The inside looked like a scene straight out of Extreme Makeover Home Edition. Exposed wiring hung from the ceiling. Not a light fixture to be seen. Probably a good thing, since the standing water would have conducted current and we all would have been electrocuted.
I wondered if my mother had actually evicted Melinda or if she'd left of her own volition. Probably the latter. The house looked as if nothing but cursory repairs had been done in the three years since back-to-back-to-back hurricanes had slammed into Palm Beach.
"What is that?" Liv asked through her fingers, pointing at the wall.
Some sort of brown gunk dripped from the bowed ceiling until it met a furry patch of black mold leeching up from the mildewed carpet.
"It's alive," Becky mocked in a horror flick impression. "I can't believe a tenant put up with this."
Neither could I. Bravely, I walked through the living room toward double glass doors. My fingernail polish chipped as I battled the latch to unlock, then push open, the door. Blissfully, fresh air whooshed though the house, allowing us to stop using our hands as protective masks.
Sucking in a deep breath, I turned to see that I was standing in the center of a breakfast nook. I was no expert, but I was fairly sure the grout between the ceramic tiles covering the floor wasn't supposed to be black. Nor was the kitchen counter supposed to have a crack in the granite that looked a lot like the San Andreas Fault. A grimy square outline marked where a stove had once been connected. Three of the cabinet doors were missing, as was the refrigerator.
Liv said, "Who would let a piece of primo real estate like this go to hell in a hand cart? Sorry, Finley, but this is a dump."
"A dump smells better." Becky's voice was muffled by the hand she still had clamped over her nose and mouth.
"The mold might be toxic," Jane suggested somberly.
Crying seemed like a good idea. "I hope it kills me quickly," I said, hating that my voice cracked.
"Hang on," Becky said, coming over to put an arm around my shoulder. "It's still a beautiful location. It just needs some TLC."
"Are you on LSD?" I asked. "The whole place has to be gutted."
"And?" Becky prompted.
I blinked a few times, my mind in hyperdrive. She was absolutely right. I started looking around. Really looking. If I started from scratch, I could turn the place into my dream house.
"I could make this whole back wall doors and glass," I said, excitement budding in my stomach. "A sleek kitchen with a wine chiller."
"You'll need a lot of wine to forget about the mold," Jane said. "How could anyone live here?"
I shot her a stern look. "I don't know, but I guess that's why my mother arranged for my bank to give me a home equity loan for repairs. I knew there was a catch. I feel like a fool."
"Don't," Becky said. "Look on the bright side. The place has potential. Forget the mold for now."
"You're right. I can get rid of the skanky carpet. Hardwood floors, maybe?" Leaving my shoes, tote, and purse on the counter, I went off to explore.
My friends followed along, crouched behind me so that we looked like the Tin Man, the Lion, and the Scarecrow on their way to see the great and powerful Oz. There was a small powder room off the hallway. The toilet bowl and sink were missing. "At least I won't have to pay to have them removed," I said, thinking aloud. Farther down the hall I found two small bedrooms opposite one another. There was another bathroom, sans shower stall. The master bedroom was at the end of the hall.
"It's small," Liv said. "How many foster children lived here at one time?"
"No clue," I answered absently. "I can take down this wall," I suggested. "Combine the master bedroom and one of the other ones. I can build a killer closet and maybe do a spa bath."
Jane wandered over to the accordion doors lining one wall. As soon as she touched the scratched knob, the door fell off its tracks. The closet was narrow, and the rod was missing. She laid the cheap door on the floor, stepped over it, and walked into the adjoining bathroom.
Coming up behind her, I placed my hand on her hip and moved her to one side. It looked like something you'd find in a youth hostel. Tiny tub, sink affixed to the wall. Mirror hanging above the chipped sink and a toilet sandwiched in between. There was a narrow rectangular window mounted in the shower stall near the ceiling line. Judging by the blistering of the plaster, I was already resigned to the fact that it leaked.
"So," I said as I rejoined Liv and Jane in the bedroom. "I guess I'll need a Home Depot credit card."
"No," Jane scoffed. "You need an Extreme Home Makeover." Her green eyes glinted mischievously. "The team can do the house and I'll do Ty Pennington. Deal?"
"I get Ty!" Jane called as she headed back toward the smaller bedrooms.
"Was that champagne you brought?" I asked Liv.
She nodded. "And some fruit and cheese. I didn't bring an ice bucket because I thought -- "
"C'mon," I interrupted, leading Jane and Liv back down toxic alley to the kitchen. "You coming?" I called to Becky as we passed the smallest bedroom.
"Be right there."
So what if my new house was uninhabitable? It didn't have to stay that way. I had my apartment, so it wasn't as if I'd have to sleep in moldville. "Sam will help."
"We'll all help." Liv started gathering up the picnic basket, and I grabbed the champagne. "Jane, run out to my trunk and grab the blanket. We can have drinks on the beach."
Jane half-ran, half-hopped across the living room mush, muttering curses as she went.
I heard a loud bang and yelled, "Becky, what are you doing?"
"Trying to open the frigging closet in here," she called back.
"Leave it. We're going out to the beach."
"I can make this work," I told Liv a few minutes later as I twisted the metal net off the top of the champagne bottle. Using the hem of my skirt, I eased the cork loose without losing a single bubble.
"Nice," Liv complimented as Jane arrived and spread the blanket on a level patch of sand.
Looking back at the house, I had a zillion ideas running through my head. Okay, so I was discouraged, but I was also excited by the challenge. "I wonder how much it will cost."
"Won't be cheap," Jane said as she held up a flute for me to fill. "But you can't go wrong."
She shook her head. "It's location, Finley. Since you barely paid anything for the property, whatever you put into this place, you'll get back at least fifty times over. Palm Beach real estate is a great investment. If this place was built prior to 1929, I can even help you apply for some tax deferment programs and rehab grants."
"You'll need a contractor," Liv said. "Though I'm all for calling in Ty Pennington."
"I'll keep that in mind."
"Get a hot contractor," Jane insisted. "You don't want some old, fat guy with a bad comb-over and his butt crack showing."
"To Finley's new status as a land baron. And to hot contractors," Liv said, raising her glass.
"Shouldn't we wait for Becky?"
"Naw, we'll just refill our glasses."
I grinned at Liv, enjoying the soft tickle of the dry champagne as it washed over my tongue. "The lease on my apartment isn't up for another three months. Think that's enough time?"
"Probably not. You need to talk to someone who knows construction," Jane said. "What about Liam?"
"He's still on my To Be Avoided list."
"I thought what he did was gallant," Liv sighed, then popped a grape into her mouth. "Any other guy would have screwed your lights out."
I wish. My cheeks felt warm. I'm not sure whether it was because I was imagining Liam and myself together or remembering that he'd declined my offer to do just that. "Sam probably knows someone."
"True, but I doubt he knows anyone as hot as Liam McGarrity."
"Sure he does."
Jane shot me a glare as she reached for a wedge of cheese. "Heterosexual hot guys."
Liv reclined on her elbows, her gaze fixed on the house. "Are you going to name it?"
"The house. People on Palm Bach name their houses. You know, Hidden Palms. Restless Waters. Something beachy and pretentious."
"You really think I need to call my house something?"
Becky rushed out and said, "This place is a crime scene."
"It is not. It just needs a redo."
"No," Becky said in a single, clipped syllable. "I mean it's an actual crime scene."
"So someone stole the appliances and some of the fixtures. It's not like -- "
"No, Finley! Call the police. I just found a dead guy in the closet."
Copyright © 2009 by Rhonda Pollero
Meet the Author
Rhonda Pollero is the USA TODAY bestselling author of four previous Finley Anderson Tanner novels: Slightly Irregular, Fat Chance, Knock ’Em Dead, and Knock Off. A perpetual student with six degrees from seven colleges, studying everything from sociology to forensics, to history, to law, and just for fun, culinary arts, she lives in south Florida with her family.
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