The good news: An ambitious real estate agent acquires a multi-million dollar, beach front listing. The bad news: There’s something hidden in the basement and a corpse upstairs.
Gwen Bishop, wife, mother, and struggling real estate agent, has two big fears: claustrophobia and being buried in suburban obscurity. When she signs her dream listing, a multi-million dollar beachfront property in Laguna Beach, California, she’s sure her problems are behind her. And they would be, if it wasn’t for the secret in the basement and the body in an upstairs bedroom.
When the crime scene tape comes down, Gwen enlists the aid of a handsome co-worker with a background in construction to help her ready the house for sale and bolster her flagging courage. But every time they’re ready to put it back on the market, something goes horribly wrong. Gwen must face old fears and new ones, temptations and buried truths, if she’s going to survive.
The wages of sin rock the glamorous world of high-end real estate — gripping and fast-paced!– Anne Cleeland, author of The Doyle & Acton Scotland Yard Series
There is something for everyone to relate to in this story. I was especially taken with how deftly the author took an all-too-common marital dilemma and challenged my knee-jerk reaction. A thoroughly enjoyable read that landed me firmly in the rapidly growing Greta Boris fan club! – Amazon Top 1,000 Reviewer
Ms. Boris is an immensely talented writer who seamlessly weaves a plot that pulls you in from the start. The character development was a key part of how much I enjoyed the story. –Brooke Blogs
About the Author
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A Margin of Lust
The Seven Deadly Sins (Book One)
By Greta Boris
Fawkes PressCopyright © 2017 Greta Boris
All rights reserved.
SOMETIMES IT'S BEST TO LEAVE A DOOR CLOSED. When I crossed the threshold of my father's house on Cliff Drive, it changed me. Some would say not for the better.
I could argue my behavior was justified. We all have the right to protect our property from thieves and swindlers. But, really, it came down to simple lust. I was captivated by possibilities, and I wanted everything. I should have known by the screech of rusty hinges that that door was better left shut.
I'd made an appointment to see the house as soon as it came on the market, about six months after my father's death. Sondra Olsen, local real estate agent, met me on the curb out front. She opened the gate I'd only passed through once before in my life. The old fig tree I remembered from that time was bigger now and mantled the courtyard like a vulture, obliterating the light and warmth from the late afternoon sun.
We traversed the walkway and came to the front door that had always been locked tight against me. She threw it open and ushered me in. The curved staircase that led to the part of the house reserved for the family--in other words, not me--rose before me without a barrier.
My initial feeling about Sondra was one of warmth. She and I were sharing in a momentous occasion. She dropped the drawbridge across the moat and invited me into the castle, so to speak. But as we toured the house, my opinion changed. Yes, she was pleasant, subservient even, but I began to see beneath the surface.
"It's a fixer, but it has so much charm, don't you think?" she asked with a dimpled smile.
"Yes to both."
"Come look at the ocean view."
I paused before I stepped into the living room I'd only seen in bits and pieces through doors and windows. I don't know what I thought I'd find inside; the meaning of life, some kind of Holy Grail maybe. "What do you think?" Sondra asked.
I couldn't speak.
It was a disappointment.
A huge disappointment.
It was much smaller than I'd imagined. The lack of furniture revealed nicked and scarred wood flooring. Blank dirty white walls framed the space. I didn't notice the cool breeze kissing my cheek until Sondra said, "Look at this view."
I walked through French doors onto a cement patio and looked down on the beach where I'd so often stood. How many nights had I made my way across the sand or the water, depending on the tides, to bathe in the light emanating from these very doors? How many times had I sat on the rocks that looked so small from this vantage point, straining to catch a glimpse of the family within? My family.
"Leaves you speechless doesn't it?" Sondra said.
I turned to answer her and inhaled sharply. She was caught in a beam from the setting sun, just like another girl on another day. Her hair glowed like gold around her head and on the shoulders of her sky blue dress. The vision only lasted for a moment. She turned and entered the house, and it was gone. But I recognized it as a premonition of sorts.
"The master bedroom has a terrific view as well. Is there a missus? She'll love it if there is. Very romantic." She led me toward the foyer. Before heading up, I noticed a short, dark hallway to the left of the staircase.
"What's down there?" I pointed.
"Believe it or not, that's the basement. Most California homes don't have them, but this house stands on top of a series of small caves that tunnel into the cliff. The man who built this place in the forties was a shipping magnate and a collector of art, furniture, all kinds of things. When he found out about the caves, he commissioned an architect to create a warren of storage rooms."
"Is there anything in the rooms?" I said.
"Probably, but don't worry. They'll be cleaned out before new owners move in."
"Can I see them?"
"The door is locked. I don't have a key." A cloud passed over Sondra's face as she said those words. She lied. It was my second clue. There must be a treasure within these disappointing walls after all.
"Let's go up, shall we?" She tilted her head and glanced at me from the corners of her eyes coquettishly, but it had no effect. She might as well have spit in my face. Unlike most men, I'm immune to the wiles of women.
I fingered the box cutter in my jacket pocket, then moved so quickly I surprised myself. I pulled her close and showed her the blade.
"Down," I said.
"In the kitchen. The ... the ... cellar keys are in the kitchen," she said.
We shuffled into that room like geriatric ballroom dancers.
"The pantry." She gestured with her chin toward a door. A round key chain with several keys hung on a hook inside. We stumbled back to the foyer.
I found the correct key after three tries, and we descended the steep cellar steps together. Dim yellow lights revealed a long hallway with doors opening off it every ten feet or so. I twisted the knob of the first door on my right and nudged it open with my foot. A moldy funk wafted out.
A single bulb hanging in the center of the room exposed stone walls, slick with moisture and the shadowy outlines of furniture. Old tables, chairs, desks, and bureaus were stacked and jammed into every corner. Nothing looked particularly valuable. Just old oak.
We moved to the next door. I opened it and saw a mountain of cardboard boxes moldering on a damp floor. I stood Sondra in front of me, close enough to reach her if she moved, and opened one with my box cutter. I pushed aside the dusty cardboard and saw something that looked like peeling skin. I hesitated, then reached in and lifted the object. It was a woman's purse; or rather it had once been a purse. I dropped it in disgust.
"I told you. There is nothing here but trash," Sondra said.
I jerked her forward. The possibility she told the truth angered me more than her attempts to get me to leave off my search. I threw open door after door. The farther we went through the basement, the more enraged I became. My dream, the thing I'd longed for all these years, was nothing but a graveyard of old, decaying junk.
Sondra struggled against me. "Let me go. I won't tell anyone about this. I promise. Let's just go--"
"Shut up." I tightened my grip across her chest and nicked the smooth skin of her throat with the box cutter. She tensed, but stilled.
We came to the dead end of the hallway. I could hear the faint sound of waves throwing themselves against the cliff walls like they were seeking entrance. I kicked open the last door. The heavy wood bounced off the wall behind it. I dragged Sondra into the room, thinking I'd kill her here. Here at the dead end of my hopes. It was the first time I killed a stranger, but I couldn't very well leave her alive after holding a box cutter to her throat.
I pushed the blade of my knife higher in its case. She began to fight in earnest now, scratching and biting. I threw her to the floor and fell on top of her. Her head slammed against the stone. She went limp.
As I sat panting, straddling her body, I saw it. Something glinted in the spill of light from the hallway. I stood to investigate. Joy dawned with realization. What was hidden here was better than I had ever imagined. It was an inheritance meant only for me. Maybe my father did think of me after all.CHAPTER 2
IT TOOK GWEN EIGHT PASSES to maneuver her Honda into a tight spot between a MINI and a Ford pickup. Cliff Drive in Laguna Beach bordered Diver's Cove, a popular dive beach in an even more popular tourist town. Parking was at a premium, but that wasn't the only reason it took her so long to settle in and turn off the ignition. Her excitement bordered on anxiety.
"Is this it?" Maricela said, awe creeping into her tone.
Gwen glanced at the elegant Mediterranean home she'd parked in front of. "No. It's at the end of the block."
She led Maricela up the sandy sidewalk until they reached a fence bulging from a jungle of vines and branches fighting to escape from the yard behind it. All that was visible of the house was a bit of gray, shingled roof rising above the fray.
Gwen directed her e-key at a lockbox hanging from the gate. "This isn't a mini-mansion like the rest of the houses on the street, but, hey, it's beachfront property."
The sound of the gate, hinges half-broken, scraping across the cement seemed louder than last time she was here. "It's been empty for a long time," she said, then mentally kicked herself. She'd done it again. She'd apologized for her multi-million dollar listing. This house, as dilapidated as it might be, was a game changer. She'd be damned if she was going to be embarrassed by it.
"The owner's father died about six months ago after living in a nursing home for years. She just inherited." Gwen picked her way up the broken walk around the gnarled roots of a large fig tree. Its fruit, in varying stages of decay, littered the ground.
"Have you already signed the listing agreement?" Maricela said.
"Yes, a couple of days ago, and it's already been shown. Sondra Olsen, First Team Realty, had somebody by yesterday. But I think I'll get more action if I spruce the place up a bit, which is why you're here." Gwen fitted the key into the front door lock and pushed it open. "I want your advice. Fiona, she's the owner, gave me a budget. It's not big, but it's something."
Gwen squinted into the dim interior, and her heart rate rose. It was an overreaction, but dark, enclosed places always made her nervous. Through the shadows, she could see a circular staircase dividing the foyer in two. A hallway opened to its left.
The hallway led to a basement of cave-like rooms. She'd never gone down to see them, and she wasn't planning to. Just walking past the entrance made her queasy. She planned to hire a cleaning crew to haul away the junk they were filled with. Milky sunlight beckoned from a room to the right of the stairwell. Gwen hurried toward it.
"Okay. This is nice." Maricela's voice echoed in the empty living room.
"Nice? It's fantastic." Gwen unlocked French doors that framed a panoramic view of the Pacific Ocean. The sight never failed to send a ripple of pleasure up her backbone. She'd been selling real estate for three years. Three years of tract houses in planned communities, attached townhomes, and condos. Then last week she got the call.
Fiona Randall, a woman she'd sold a three-bedroom to a few years back, had inherited the family home on the cliffs in Laguna Beach. This was a listing that made careers, moved agents out of the scrabbling masses and into the elite ranks of real estate brokers. Gwen had dreamed breaking into that echelon since she started in the business.
She and Maricela stepped outside onto a veranda of cracked cement and looked down onto a sandy beach. A crisp breeze carried the sounds of crashing waves, children squealing in the surf, and the clanking of diver's equipment. It was a symphony to Gwen's ears. She still had a hard time believing that she, Gwen Bishop, was representing oceanfront property in Laguna.
"Look. It has beach access." Gwen pointed to a rickety railing rising out of the ice plant at the end of the neglected garden.
Maricela folded her arms across her chest. "If you want to die young."
"I know. It needs a little work."
"This place needs more than a little work, chica."
"That's why you're here. You're a pro. If you had ten thousand to throw at it, what would you do?"
Maricela's dark hair reflected the sun as she shook her head. "I'd start by putting a barrier across the top of those stairs. If someone breaks their neck, it'll decrease the value."
"Sudden violent death has a way of doing that," Gwen said and pulled a pad of paper from her purse to make notes.
"Show me more," Maricela said.
Gwen reentered the gloom of the house and led the way through the living room to the foyer and up the carpeted stairs. "I've been looking at the comps, and nothing with beach access has sold for under twelve million in the past year and a half. Fiona has her hopes set on ten."
Talking about numbers like ten million and twelve million made Gwen feel like a child playing at real estate agent. When she was small, she had a toy cash register on which she rang up plastic food and empty cereal boxes. The prices she set then had no more meaning to her than the price of this house. There were too many zeros for it to compute. But, the zeros still made her happy.
A sweet odor, delicate at first, grew stronger with each riser until it overwhelmed the mold bouquet. "I'm afraid to ask what that smell is," Maricela said.
"Probably a dead rat in the attic. They love figs. I'll have it removed," said Gwen, keeping her voice cheerful. She needed Maricela's expertise. She'd been an agent for much longer than Gwen, and she was a successful one. She knew how to maximize a home's assets and hide its deficiencies. When she staged a house, it sold. But optimism wasn't on the short list of her wonderful qualities.
"I think you should get a cleaning crew, make the place smell better, and price it under market."
"Wait until you see the view from the master bedroom," Gwen said, ignoring Maricela's comment, and the reek in the air.
The hardwood floor groaned under their feet as they walked toward a room at the end of the hall. A triangle of light pointed outward from a partially opened door. She looked over her shoulder to monitor Maricela's reaction.
"Ta-da," she said and pushed the door ajar. Maricela's eyes widened.
"It's spectacular, right?" Gwen said still looking at her.
Maricela's jaw dropped, but nothing came from her mouth.
"You can see Catalina on a clear day," Gwen said.
Maricela's caramel skin turned ashen. The stench was worse here. Was it making her ill? Gwen looked into her friend's eyes. They were focused on a spot over her right shoulder. Before she could follow her gaze, Maricela pitched forward and gagged.CHAPTER 3
AN AMBULANCE AND THREE POLICE CARS, all with lights blazing, blocked the house on Cliff Drive. There was nowhere to park. Art threw the minivan into reverse and backed up, engine grinding, then made a three-point turn onto one of the perpendicular streets.
He circled the North Laguna neighborhood, tires squealing, four or five times before giving up and crossing Coast Highway. He found a parking spot in the Boat Canyon shopping center and jogged back to the mayhem.
Gwen had called him a half hour ago, not hysterical like most people would be, but cool and steady. She explained that she and Maricela had stumbled on a body in the same tone of voice she would use to dictate a grocery list.
Art knew from fifteen years of marriage; it was the calm before the storm. His wife often went "into character" when faced with uncomfortable situations. It was a technique she learned in method acting and now employed in life. She was probably channeling a detective or crime reporter, but at some point, he knew reality would come crashing in. He wanted to get there before it did.
He slowed his pace as he approached the emergency vehicles. Two officers, a male and a female, guarded the street in front of the house.
"Stay back, please, sir," the man said.
"My wife is in there," Art said.
The cop spoke into his radio. A few minutes later, a woman emerged. At first, Art thought she was young--too young to be the officer in charge. But as she drew close, he saw small crow's feet around her almond-shaped eyes. Her build and smooth complexion created the image of youth. She was slender, but well-muscled, with skin was so uniformly dark it looked like polished ebony against the white of her blouse
"I'm Investigator Sylla. And you are?" she said in a clip, British accent.
"Arthur Bishop. My wife, Gwen, she and her coworker found the body."
She nodded, and Art followed her into the house. He was hurried through an entryway, down a hall, and into a wide living room. The impression of the house was brief, but poignant, an Addams-family-goes-on-vacation kind of place. The woman ushered him out onto a sunny veranda, then turned and was swallowed again by the gloom of the house.
Maricela sat on the cement with a blanket around her shoulders sipping water from a bottle. Gwen stood with her back to him, looking out to sea. He walked up behind his wife and wrapped his arms around her. "You okay, honey?"
She nodded, but stepped out of his embrace. Apparently finding a dead body wasn't a sufficient distraction to end the frost she'd been leveling at him since their argument that morning. Now that he thought about it, her calm explanation on the phone might have been part of the same treatment. If there was one thing his wife was good at, it was maintaining a chill.
He decided to check on Maricela. She'd appreciate his concern. Her color wasn't good. Mascara streaked her cheeks. He squatted beside her and put a hand on her shoulder. She gripped it with damp fingers and held on tight. He was beginning to wonder how long he could maintain the position, his knees not being what they once were, when the detective came outside.
Excerpted from A Margin of Lust by Greta Boris. Copyright © 2017 Greta Boris. Excerpted by permission of Fawkes Press.
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