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"I bought the Blue House."
Ignoring the delicate drone of the lunch crowd at the Tea and Trinkets Tearoom in Shreveport, Louisiana, Lola Nelson waited for the reaction from her friends, Chloe Simons, Emma Strickland and Shelby Harold.
It hadn't been easy keeping this a secret for over a month now. But buying the Blue House was a huge thing. It was the first truly real thing Lola had ever done on her own, and on impulse, without advice from anyone else.
Not even her three closest friends.
These four were known as the Beach Bunnies. Lola had christened them that years ago, when they'd all admitted at a women's beach retreat on organization and efficiency, that they hated dust bunnies, but they loved the beach. Although other friends had come and gone, these four had been fast friends for over fifteen years and they never kept secrets from each other.
Well, maybe one or two.
Which was why Lola had been dying to tell them her big news for weeks now. She'd purposely invited them here to one of their favorite eating spots to do so, since she was pretty sure they would all be extremely upset with her for holding out on them in the first place, and she figured they wouldn't make a big, loud scene in such a dainty little place. She hoped.
Lola liked to play her cards close to her chest, and in this case, she'd done something completely out of character and impulsive. And she'd needed time to find her bearings before revealing this latest escapade.
From her friends' gasps and shocked expressions, she'd say she'd hit the mark. Their expressions went from surprised to confused to suspicious without skipping a beat.
Emma put down her forkful of pasta salad and stared across the Victorian-themed table at Lola, her brown eyes widening. "What did you say?"
"Are you deaf?" Chloe asked Emma, fingering the gold Monet slide necklace hanging at her throat. "Lola said she bought a blue house." Then she glanced at Lola, then back at Emma, her green eyes filling with acknowledgment. "Uhoh. She bought the Blue House on the beach in Gulf Shores!"
Emma took a sip from her glistening crystal glass of raspberry iced tea. "I don't believe it." She eyed Lola as if searching for signs of a fever. "Did you really?" Before Lola could answer, Emma looked over at Shelby. "Do you believe her?"
Wishing Shelby Harold would say something—Shelby didn't hover or question too much; she was quiet and dependable and perfectly blunt—Lola innocently took a sip of her hot tea and looked away. It was hard enough telling them her big news, let alone having them think she'd gone off the deep end.
But maybe she had finally cracked.
Shelby stirred Sweet'n Low into her own tea, then without answering Emma's question, gave Lola a curious stare. "When did you decide this?"
"About six weeks ago." Lola looked at her three best friends, thinking they reminded her of a group of flower blossoms. Emma had shaggy auburn hair and big brown eyes and Chloe had short red hair and bright green eyes. Shelby's softly highlighted hair was a mixture of silver and brown, while her eyes were a delicate hazel. Dressed in the usual bright spring sweaters and tailored slacks, they brought Lola a certain comfort and security, just like her butterfly garden at home.
But right now, they were all watching her with that worried, curious, concerned expression she'd come to expect since her husband Kent had died six months ago. Outside the broad restaurant window, the April sunshine zinged by with a carefree clarity. Spring was coming to northwest Louisiana and that meant the Beach Bunnies' annual trip to the Gulf of Mexico. They'd been making this trip in one capacity or another every spring for over fifteen years. But this year—this year Lola would make the trip as a widow. That sounded so staid and sad.
A widow. "I don't believe it," Emma said again, waving a hand in the air, her voice carrying across the intimate little restaurant to raise the primly arched eyebrows of some of the high-end patrons.
"Well, you can take it to the bank," Lola replied, fingering the strand of pearls Kent had given her for Christmas way back about twenty years ago. "I did it. And...since we've already scheduled our trip, we just need to cancel the condo reservations. We'll be staying at the Blue House."
She smiled at that, since she'd dreamed of doing that very thing for years. "I want y'all to go down there with me to look the place over and to help me redecorate. You know I have all these ideas for that house."
"We've all had ideas for that house," Emma said, going quiet, which was rare for her.
Lola knew Emma was remembering the many times they'd walked the beach to stand and stare up at the huge blue Victorian structure with the rounded, white-columned porch. And now Lola Nelson owned it. She looked over at her friends again, hoping they hadn't noticed the lines of fatigue underneath her Mary Kay concealer. Grief and secrets put a real strain on a woman.
Emma gave Lola a knowing smile, a bit of hope in her eyes. "Well, leave it to you to get the biggest house on the beach. I mean, you already own the biggest house in our subdivision." She grinned, then stuck out her tongue.
Lola lifted her cup of lemon-mint tea. "That's me, sister. Got to have the biggest and the best." But her smile didn't quite make it to her eyes. She hoped this house would bring her out of her depression.
Emma nodded, her auburn bob fluttering around her face. "And now, you have the means to get the job done, too."
Shelby just sat there with her Mona Lisa smile, her dark eyebrows slanted up. Lola knew Shelby would have questions later.
Chloe dived into her low-fat chicken-salad plate, then spoke to Emma. "I reckon so. With the money from her self-help and devotional books and the fortune Kent left her when he passed, well, I'd say she can buy as many beach houses as she wants." She nodded with confidence toward Lola. "Right?"
Lola stared at her own strawberry-and-walnut salad. "I guess so."
"Then why aren't we happy?" Chloe asked, putting a hand on Lola's. "Are you all right?"
"What if I'm just grasping at straws?" Lola asked, determination forcing back the tears. "I miss Kent so much."
Chloe patted her hand. "You have to get through this in your own way, I reckon. And I think having this house to fuss over might just do the trick." With a grin, she added, "This is sure a nice surprise. We're going to a different spot in Gulf Shores. So Shelby, get out that two-hundred-dollar bathing suit you bought on clearance for ten bucks at Dillard's last fall. You can wear it at the Blue House."
Shelby nodded, then groaned. "I still need to lose about ten pounds."
"Oh, honey, don't we all?" Chloe asked, waving a hand in the air. "We can worry about that later, though."
Shelby was always ready to travel or shop, Lola thought, but since she'd retired from teaching kindergarten, Shelby had limited her travels to the annual beach trip with the girls or following her stockbroker/land development husband around the globe. In doing so, she'd eaten all sorts of great and exotic foods and gained a few too many pounds, according to her, anyway. But then, they were all beginning to put on nice middle-aged spreads.
"How'd you do it?" Shelby asked. "I mean, how you'd get the house? And keep it a secret? You never keep secrets from us."
Lola took a sip of her hot tea, the guilt of her omissions shining like a spotlight over her head. "I get lonely late at night, so I get on the Internet. I was checking places to stay down there this year and y'all know I always have to do a virtual tour of the Blue House when I'm looking for rental property at the beach. And lo and behold, it was up for sale. I got so excited, then I got depressed. Then I got hopeful, and I got determined. The asking price was fairly reasonable, and I got them to come down off that."
"Define reasonable." Emma had sold real estate before opening an eclectic boutique not far from the tearoom. Lola figured she was feeling a little left out, since she hadn't consulted Emma on this buy.
Lola lifted her bejeweled left hand. "Don't worry, I did my homework, and I remembered everything you've taught us.
It's in need of some tender loving care, since it's been sitting empty for a while now. But nothing I can't handle."
"And you need this to distract you," Shelby said. It was a statement. Shelby did that. She made statements. In this case it was the truth.
"I did need something," Lola admitted, the emptiness inside her gnawing at her stomach.
Emma bobbed her head, her gold hoop earrings shimmying. "When your spouse dies—or leaves you the way mine did—not even one of Lola's bestselling books can help." She gave Lola a stern look. "You've helped a lot of people, but it's hard to help yourself. Go ahead, admit it."
Lola didn't want to delve too deeply into her own depression. Not just yet. "I'm beginning to see that." She searched Shelby's face, needing honesty. Shelby would be straight with her. "Do you think I made a mistake?"
Shelby took a long sip of her tea. "You have been down all winter."
Another statement. "Yes," Chloe agreed before taking a bite of her cantaloupe and melon, oblivious to Shelby's quiet observance. "And we all know how Lola cures the blues."
"She buys in high volume," Emma finished, just as clueless as Chloe. "And this buy just about tops the cake."
"It definitely beats all the designer shoes in her big closet," Chloe said, her green eyes full of mirth.
"Not to mention the purses," Emma retorted.
Lola frowned over at them. "Why do y'all do that? Talk about me right to my face as if I'm not sitting here?"
"Better than to your back," Chloe said with a returning frown of her own.
"Good point," Lola replied. Then she looked down at her plate again, her appetite gone. "I can't believe I bought that house." When she glanced back up, she did manage a smile.
"So, will y'all go with me and help me redecorate it?"
"I'm in," Chloe said, holding up her glass of Coke.
"You know I'm in," Emma said, grinning. Shelby gave Lola a long, scrutinizing look. "I think it'll be good for you, and all of us. I wouldn't want to miss out on this."
"We have to celebrate," Chloe suggested, motioning for the waitress. "I've got a million things to do back at work. But first, I'm thinking I need me a piece of that Godiva chocolate pie."
Emma checked with Lola. "We're not dieting today, agreed?" Lola realized she'd been holding her breath. Now, she let out a sigh of relief. Even if her friends had concerns or qualms— she wasn't usually this impulsive—they would support her. "No, we're celebrating. We finally nabbed that house."
"We'll get two slices and split it four ways," Emma said, grinning.
"The pie?" Chloe teased, her square-shaped face turned up like a petunia. "Or the house?"
Emma thought for a minute, her teeth working her lower lip. "Hmm, a beautiful house sitting by the ocean? No, we can't let Lola go down there all alone. That is a big house, after all. But we can't help you pay for it, either. Especially not me. I'm a struggling single mom, after all."