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The House on Sugar Plum Lane
By JUDY DUARTE
KENSINGTON BOOKSCopyright © 2010 Judy Duarte
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe vintage Victorian house, with its dingy gray walls and faded white shutters, stood as a battered monument to days gone by, to family secrets silenced by the passage of time.
Which meant what? Amy Masterson asked herself as she sat curbside in her idling Honda Civic and studied the three-story structure where her mother's biological family had once lived. That her search began and ended here?
She shut off the ignition, grabbed her purse from the passenger seat, and climbed from the car. Then she headed toward a cracked concrete walkway littered with leaves from a massive old elm that grew in the front yard.
A FOR SALE OR LEASE sign sat by a weathered picket fence, but she couldn't imagine anyone wanting to invest in a home like this. Not unless it was a crew of handymen with more time than they knew what to do with.
She paused long enough to note the neglected structure that loomed before her, its windows shuttered tight from the ravages of wind and rain and sun. She did her best to look beyond the chipped, cracked, and faded gray paint of the shingled exterior, as well as the once-white gingerbread trim now yellowed with age, and tried to imagine what the house had looked like in the fall of 1966, when her mother had been given up foradoption as a newborn.
But Amy had always been more practical than her mom, more realistic, so she wasn't having much luck looking past the neglect. In fact, any imagination she'd been able to conjure gave way to an eerie and inexplicable sense of grief.
Not just for the house, she decided, but for the family who'd never known the baby girl who'd grown up to be a loving wife and mother, a talented pianist, and an amateur artist who'd died before her time.
Amy continued up the sidewalk, where the smell of dirt and decay mingled with a hint of rain in the autumn air.
Several old newspapers lay water damaged and unopened on the porch, but she stepped over them as she made her way past a well-worn wicker chair to one of the narrow windows that flanked the front door. There she cupped her eyes and peered through the dust- and grime-shrouded glass.
There wasn't much to see on the inside, just an umbrella stand and an antique table with several photographs resting on a crocheted doily.
From what she'd gathered in her research, Eleanor Rucker, who had to be well into her eighties now, still owned the place. But she certainly wasn't living here any longer.
Had she died, taking the secrets of the past with her?
Amy pushed away from the window and straightened. She'd come too far to turn around and go back home to Del Mar without any more answers than she'd had when she started out that afternoon.
But now what?
As she walked across the lawn and along the side of the house, the overgrown blades of grass tickled her ankles. The plants and shrubs that grew along the property line were as shaggy and neglected as the rest of the landscaping.
She rounded the corner to the back of the house, unsure of what she was trying to find. A clue, she supposed, as to why her mother had been given up for adoption. And maybe, in the process, she'd get a feel for the kind of people the Ruckers were-or had been.
Warm and friendly? Cold and withdrawn?
Her gaze fell on an overgrown rose garden at the back of the yard, withered and dying. It must have been pretty in its day, when whoever had lovingly tended it by pruning and fertilizing the plants had taken time to sit upon the wrought-iron bench that rested under the shade of a maple, to feel the warmth of the sun, to inhale the fragrance of the colorful flowers.
On one rather large and unruly bush, a single yellow rose still bloomed, providing a hint of what the garden could produce with a little TLC. Mindful of the thorns, she plucked the flower, its stem scrawny and easily torn away from the branch, to take back to her house and put in water. Something told her the gardener wouldn't mind.
Then she turned her back on the deserted rosebushes and made her way toward what she guessed might be the kitchen window.
At five feet four, she wasn't tall enough to see inside, so she searched the grounds until she found something on which she could stand.
Near a gardening shed, which was even more dilapidated than the house, she spotted an old wooden crate. She carried it back to the window, turned it upside down, then used it as a step so she could peer through the glass.
An olive green refrigerator and a bulky old white stove, the kind June Cleaver might have used, took up one wall, while a small wooden table and four chairs adorned the other.
A teddy bear cookie jar sat on the counter, and she couldn't help wondering if it had ever been filled. If so, what kind of treats had Mrs. Rucker made to keep in it? Homemade oatmeal or chocolate chip? Maybe she only purchased the packaged kind sold in grocery stores.
Susan, Amy's mother, had what she'd called "an incurable sweet tooth" and had always favored snickerdoodles. For that reason, Amy had surprised her with a homemade batch of the sugar- and cinnamon-covered cookies just a couple of weeks before she died.
"They're wonderful," her mom had said. "Thanks, honey." Yet because of the havoc the cancer and chemo had wreaked on her appetite, she'd only managed to eat a couple of bites.
Odd how that particular memory would cross her mind now, Amy thought, as she returned to the front yard, where she glanced again at the Realtor's sign: FOR SALE OR LEASE.
She owned a townhome in Del Mar, which was part of the pending divorce settlement, so she certainly didn't want to buy or rent another place. But perhaps she could feign interest in order to get a tour of the interior. It was the least she could do for her mom, who'd been determined to uncover her roots and to meet her birth family.
So Amy reached into her purse, pulled out her cell, and dialed the Realtor's number.
When Ronald Paige, the listing agent, answered the phone, she introduced herself and said, "I was driving on Sugar Plum Lane and spotted your sign in front of an old Victorian. Is there any chance that I could take a look at it now?"
"Sure, but I'm clear across town. At this time of day, it could take me a half hour to get there. Do you mind waiting?"
"Not at all." Her mother had waited for years to uncover clues about the woman who'd given her up. What were a few minutes now?
In the meantime, she returned to the front porch and took a seat in the old wicker chair, which creaked in protest of her unexpected weight. She'd no more than stretched out her legs and placed her hands on her knees when a boy riding a bicycle slowed to a stop near the walkway. He wore a green T-shirt with a Star Wars stormtrooper on the front and a pair of faded black jeans. She guessed him to be about ten or eleven.
"Are you going to move into this house?" he asked.
Oh, no, she wanted to tell him. She owned a nice little two-bedroom townhome with an ocean view, a place where the homeowners association made sure the grounds were parklike and the buildings stayed in good repair.
Instead, she said, "I'm thinking about it."
"You got kids?" he asked.
"A little girl. Her name's Callie, and she's five."
"Oh." His expression sank, as though a girl in kindergarten didn't come close to being the kind of kid he'd been asking about.
Still, she welcomed a human connection to the house, to the neighborhood, and said, "My name's Amy. What's yours?"
"Danny." He nodded toward the blue Victorian next door. While not one of the newly refurbished homes on the street, it was still in much better shape than Mrs. Rucker's. "I live over there."
She nodded, as though he'd imparted some information she'd have to file away.
"Do you know anything about the people who used to live here?" she asked.
When he didn't elaborate, she prodded a bit. "Were they nice?"
"It was a she. And yeah, she was really nice. But she went kind of crazy."
That wasn't a good sign-genetically speaking. "What do you mean?"
"She got old." He shrugged and threw up his hands in a you-know-how-it-is way.
Was he talking about Alzheimer's or dementia or something else?
"It's like her brain wore out and quit working," he added. "One day, she came over to our house at lunchtime, but she was still wearing her nightgown, and it was all dirty and torn. She hadn't combed her hair, and it had stickers and leaves and stuff in it. We think she was down on the Bushman Trail."
Amy didn't question his use of the word "we." Instead, she asked, "The Bushman Trail?"
He nodded to the left again, toward his house and beyond. "That's what me and my friends call the canyon over there. It runs between our houses and the park."
She imagined he was talking about a common area, a preserve of some kind, and a place where the neighborhood children hung out and played.
"Ellie was all crying and scared. And so my mom called the police."
Amy stiffened. "What happened to her?"
"She said her house was surrounded by hippies. And that they were piping marijuana smoke into her vents, trying to get her hooked on drugs."
"Was someone bothering her?"
The boy-Danny-shook his head. "Nope. The police checked it out, but they didn't find anything wrong. And they didn't think anyone had hurt her. But they took her to the hospital. And that's why she doesn't live in this house anymore. She can't be left alone."
"Well," the boy said, "I gotta go." Amy offered him a smile. "It was nice meeting you, Danny."
"Yeah. Same here."
Then he pedaled down the street.
Amy settled back in her seat and waited. About twenty minutes later, a white Ford Explorer drove up and parked behind her Honda. The driver, a tall, slender man in his late forties, climbed out and made his way toward her.
"Ms. Masterson?" he asked, reaching out a spindly hand. "Ron Paige."
"Call me Amy," she said, trying to shed any association with Brandon. Then she placed the rose on the dusty, glass-topped wicker table next to her, stood, and closed the gap between them. "Thanks for making time to show me the house."
"No problem." He led her to the front door, where he fumbled with the lockbox. "I hope you can overlook the yard. I just got this listing last Monday and had planned to hire a landscaping crew to come out and clean it up. But, well, my wife and I had a baby a couple of days later, which set me back at work."
"Congratulations," she said.
"Yeah, well, it's number three for us. So it's not that big a deal."
Her heart tightened at the comment. She knew how hard Grandma Rossi had tried to have a child of her own, how crushed she'd been with each miscarriage, how blessed she'd felt when she'd finally adopted Amy's mom, Susan. Babies had always been considered special in the Rossi family.
In fact, that was one reason it had been difficult for Amy to understand why her mom would be so desperate to find her biological family, when the people who'd raised her had been so kind, so loving.
"I can't explain it," her mom had said when she began the search. "The urge I have to find them-not just my birth mother, but the family-is almost overwhelming."
Amy hadn't understood her mom's quest back then, but she felt compelled to honor it now-as a tribute, she supposed.
"Here we go," Ron said as he opened the door and stood back to let Amy enter first.
When she stepped through the threshold and onto the hardwood flooring, the scent of dust and memories accosted her, as well as the hint of herbs and spice.
For a moment, she took another whiff, trying to detect a scent that could be marijuana, which she'd had more than one occasion to smell in the dorm hallway when she'd attended Cal State. She came up blank, though, and was almost disappointed that she couldn't give Mrs. Rucker's story a little more credibility.
"Are you interested in a purchase?" Ron asked. "If so, I'm sure we can have it emptied for you by the time escrow closes."
Amy scanned the living room, where a brown tweed sofa was flanked by two plants that had died from lack of water. She spotted a fairly new television, an antique piano that took up the east wall, a hand-carved fireplace mantel that bore family photos, and a beige recliner.
A worn leather Bible sat on a lamp table, next to a china cup and saucer. She couldn't help noticing a slight stain in the cup that had once held a brown liquid, and she wondered if it had been coffee or tea. Not that it mattered.
Still, Mrs. Rucker had left some of herself behind, and Amy found herself curious about the woman's preferences, by the things she'd chosen for comfort.
As the Realtor continued to give her a tour of the house, both upstairs and down, Amy felt compelled to spend more time in each of the rooms than was appropriate, even if she'd truly been in the market for a house.
For the strangest reason, she'd been intrigued by the choice of wallpaper, by the plaques and pictures that adorned each room, by the handmade quilt that had been draped over the double bed that appeared to be the one in which Mrs. Rucker had slept.
As they returned downstairs, Ron paused at the bottom landing and placed his hand on the banister. "The owner's grandson was going to fix up the place and pack up his grandma's belongings, but he had a heart attack a week or so ago. I told the family that I'd line up the workers for them, but like I said, I've been playing catch-up ever since the baby was born. But I'll try to make some calls as soon as I get back to the office. Just try to imagine the place after we power wash the outside, mow the lawn, and trim the shrubs."
Ron was being incredibly optimistic. It was going to take more than a couple of days to get this house and yard whipped into shape.
They walked outside, and she waited as he secured the lock. Again, she glanced at the weathered structure, its shutters closed tight, its story silenced.
"What happened to the lady who used to live here?" Amy asked, hoping for a few more details and an adult version of the story.
"From what I understand, she's living in long-term care."
Amy paused a beat, struggling with an idea that was brewing, a wild thought, actually, yet one that suddenly held a lot of merit. She had an opportunity to spend some time in this house, if she acted quickly. But it would cost both time and money.
Somehow, that didn't seem to matter.
"I'd like to sign a lease," she said. "And it would be great if I could have the house furnished. So you can leave it as it is."
"I'll talk to Mrs. Davila about that. She's the owner's daughter. It was her son who had the heart attack, and so she'll be making the decisions now."
Would Mrs. Davila be Barbara Rucker, the woman who'd given up Amy's mother for adoption? Or was she a sister or another relative?
"You know," Ron added, cocking his head to one side. "The more I think about it, the more I like your offer. It's possible that Mrs. Davila will go for it, too. Otherwise, she'd have to conduct an estate sale or put everything in storage. And from what I understand, she's pretty worried about her son's medical condition, so this house is the least of her problems."
Amy tried to conjure some sympathy for the Ruckers and the Davilas, but she couldn't quite pull it off. She might have biological ties to the people who'd once lived in this house, but unlike her mother, she'd been able to completely embrace the Rossi family as her own.
"When would you want to move in?" Ron asked.
"As soon as possible. In fact, I'd be willing to carefully box up any of Mrs. Rucker's personal belongings so Mrs. Davila won't have to bother with it."
Ron stroked his chin, the wheels clearly turning. "You know, under the circumstances, she might really appreciate that. It's possible that she'd even be willing to give you a discount on the rent. Let me call her and get back to you."
"That's fine." Amy gave the man her telephone number. She probably ought to mention something about having a child and a small, well-behaved cocker mix that was housebroken, but she wasn't really going to move in.
As Amy and the agent returned to their respective vehicles, she paused beside the driver's door of the Honda Civic and took one last look at the tired old house.
If only the walls could talk, people often said.
Maybe, in this case, they would.
The call came in later that evening, while Amy and Callie were having dinner in the kitchen.
Excerpted from The House on Sugar Plum Lane by JUDY DUARTE Copyright © 2010 by Judy Duarte. Excerpted by permission.
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