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"Is that a dead rat?"
"Yeah, that's a big ol'dead rat. Or a small dead cat. It's kinda hard to say at this point."
The first voice, which belonged to Billie Phillips, was undeniably female, although she sounded like an excited preadolescent boy at the moment. "That's really gross! That was one bigA rat," she said with a whistle. "What else are we going to find?"
The second voice was the deep, amused one of her brother-in-law, Nick Hunter. "This house has been empty for a long time, so we're liable to find rats, cats, possums, bats and a bunch of drug paraphernalia. Just watch where you step," he cautioned.
They were looking over a house that she desperately wanted to buy. It was a three-bedroom brick bungalow in a part of Chicago that had seen better days. The house had fared much worse than the neighborhood, however. It had passed through many owners and tenants and it was currently a mess. It was by far the worst house on the block and there was a lot of work to be done to it to make it livable, which was why Billie wanted to get her hands on it. She'd been working with Nick at his construction business for over three months and she was eager to take on more responsibilities. Nick was mostly into commercial construction, but he did do some residential work. That was where Billie's main interest lay and she was dying to get hold of a house like this. Her passion was home renovation, and as she'd been telling Nick, there was no better way to learn the business of flipping houses than by actually flipping one. And this semidilapidated house was just the place to begin, she thought.
Billie's eyes were shining with anticipation and her face was flushed with pleasure as she carefully followed Nick's lead in exploring the deplorable house. Despite wearing jeans, construction boots, a thermal undershirt and a plaid flannel shirt with a parka on top, she looked adorable. Nick glanced at her and laughed.
She looked at him quizzically. "What's so funny?"
"You," he told her. "You've got soot on your nose, dirt on your jeans and cobwebs in your hair. You sure don't look like a big-time international model now," he teased her.
Billie wrinkled her nose at him. "That's because I'm not. I have a few shoots left to fulfill a couple of contracts, but after that I'm done with prowling the runway and tooting my booty up in the air to show off some ridiculously priced shoes or whatever," she said, and then grunted as she used a crowbar to pull up the floor tile in the bathroom. Nick had shown her how to look for mold and water damage and she was going after it like rat terrier.
"I liked modelingit was fun. But I was doing it for the money and for no other reason. This is what I want to do, Nick. I want to take old houses and make them wonderful again. Oh, dang, is that mold I smell?" She straightened up from her semicrouched position and took a good long sniff. "Cat pee, more like," was his laconic answer.
"You might have a diamond in the rough here, kid. With the right plan you can turn this old place into a showpiece. We need to check out the basement first, though."
"Nick, I really appreciate you taking so much time with me. I've learned so much over the past few months I even amaze myself. I couldn't do this without you," she said.
Nick took the end of her long braid and shook it, dislodging a large fuzzy spider from its length, which he prudently didn't mention. He didn't think she'd get hysterical, but he wasn't going to chance it. "Quit thanking me! You're my family now. How could I not help my little sister? Besides, I stand to gain from this partnership, too. These are the kind of projects I've thought about but never really had the time to do. We both stand to do very well on this, Billie."
They had reached the kitchen and the door that led down to the basement. She was about to fling open the door when Nick held out a cautioning hand. "Hold on. Cover up your head before we go down the stairs. Let me go first, because there's no telling what's down there."
Billie was heeding his words but she was sniffing the stale air with a frown. "Man, it really reeks in here! Is that what serious mold and water damage smells like?"
"It can. Look, you stay right here. I'm going down first," he said in the authoritative voice she knew meant business.
It was fruitless to argue with him, so she stood back with her arms crossed for more warmth. Chicago winters were brutal and even now, in the middle ofApril, it was still cold.When Nick opened the basement door Billie fell back and covered her nose and mouth. The funk that raced out of the cellar was indescribable. Nick frowned and shook his head, covering his own mouth and nose before going down the stairs. He was back upstairs in less than a minute with a tense, angry look on his face. Without saying a word he guided Billie out of the house to his truck. Once she was seated he went around to the driver's side and pulled out his cell phone. He made a terse call to 911 and looked at Billie with a grim smile that held no amusement.
"We're gonna keep looking for a house to buy. There's a body in the basement."
"Ewww," Billie said. "That's horrible!" She whipped out her cell phone and punched the button to autodial a familiar number.
"Who are you calling?" Nick demanded.
"Dakota, of course. If I don't call her we'll both be in trouble and you know it. An investigative reporter needs to know this stuff before anybody else," she reminded him.
Nick was making a grotesque face. "You Phillips women are something else. How you can be so beautiful and look so ladylike and be so tough is beyond me. My gorgeous wife is going to come over here and start poking around in that filthy basement like it was a jewelry store, isn't she?"
Billie flashed him the smile that had earned her millions of dollars. Even with the smudge on her face and a long fuzzy spiderweb still attached to her hair, she was glorious. "Welcome to the family, Nick," she said with a grin. "Life is never, ever dull with us."
He leaned back in the driver's seat to wait for the police to arrive. "I can see that," he mumbled, and pulled his cap down over his green eyes.
By that evening there was no trace of the tom-boyish person who'd accompanied Nick that morning. Billie was at her sister's house dressed to the nines to attend a formal open house with Nick and Dakota. Nick had to express his admiration and astonishment at her transformation.
"I don't know how you pulled it off, but you sure do clean up good," he said as he gave her a kiss on the cheek. "If somebody saw you this morning they'd think you were a totally different person tonight."
The events of the morning didn't show at all in her current appearance.After the police arrived and took their statements, they had lingered at the scene to see if Dakota would show up, and sure enough, she'd arrived and charmed her way into the house. Nick had been both amazed and appalled that even after making a minute inspection of the grisly remains, his intrepid wife had been able to join them at one of the diners she loved and eat a full breakfast. Nick had sipped a cola while watching the two Phillips women chowing down like they didn't have a care in the world and remarked once again that they were in a class by themselves. They didn't seem to hear him because Billie was busy telling Dakota how there were towels and old rags crammed under the basement door in the house.
"Nick says it would have smelled a whole lot worse if they hadn't done that," she reported.
"Can I have some of your grits?"
"Help yourself, but I want a piece of your turkey bacon. And he's right, it would have stunk all to be-damned if the killer hadn't tried to stop the airflow a little. Real nasty piece of work, that was." She noticed that Nick wasn't eating.
"Aren't you hungry, honey?"
He shook his head. "Most people really don't like to eat after they find a dead body, baby."
Dakota didn't look embarrassed in the least. "You get used to it," she said with a shrug.
"Like I said, you two are something else," he said dryly.
And Billie was indeed looking like one in a million for the event they were attending. She had gone to her temporary home, which was the brownstone that Dakota owned and had sublet to Billie when she'd married Nick. After a quick shower and shampoo, she'd deep-conditioned her hair and let it air dry before finishing it with a blow-dryer and hot curlers to set a head full of curls that she finger-combed into a tumbling mass. Her makeup was artfully applied and subtle, but it made her features unforgettable. Instead of wearing a simple black dress, the goto frock of most fashionistas, Billie was wearing a cerulean-blue dress in silk jersey that was deceptively plain. It was an unassuming little frock with a modestly scooped neck, long sleeves and pleats across the bodice. From the front it looked almost girlish, but the back of the dress was bare to the waist. The blouson skirt ended above her knees and it had a band that drew the eye directly to her fabulous legs. She was wearing black Chanel peep-toe pumps and sheer silk hose. Her only jewelry was big, gold, hoop earrings and a wide, gold, bangle bracelet. Nick grinned at his new sister-in-law.
"You're gonna have the men eating out of your hand, little sister. I'm'a have to keep my eye on you or there's liable to be a riot," he told her with a fond note of teasing in his voice.
"I never really wanted anyone eating out of my hand," she returned with a grin. "It sounds kind of unsanitary to me. Besides, the main reason I'm going to this soiree is because I want to meet Jason Wainwright. Anyone who's done as much in real estate as he has is someone I want to get to know," she said. "He's been in every business publication I can think of and every article about the future of residential real estate, blah-de-blahblah-blah. He's supposed to be the end-all and beall of real-estate sales in Chicago and I want to know his secrets." She sat on the sofa to stroke her sister's cat, Cha-Cha. She was a big Somali cat who preferred men, but showed affection to the few women she liked. Luckily Billie was one of those women.
"Whose secrets? Jason Wainwright's?" Dakota had joined them in the living room at last and her entrance was worth the wait, to judge by the smitten look on her husband's face. She and Billie looked a lot alike. They both had beautiful caramel skin, thick black hair and strong, sculpted features. Dakota was tall, but at six feet, Billie was taller. And Dakota had a figure that Billie envied. She always said that Dakota was built like a real woman. She had an awe-inspiring bustline, a small waist and womanly hips with big curvy legs. Billie always felt kind of bony and boyish around her big sister, but she knew better than to complain because Dakota would fuss at her about her self-esteem if she did. Besides, her long slender frame had earned her big bucks as a top model, so she would have been a real hypocrite to whine about it. Still, with Dakota looking so fabulous in a violet crepe dress with a halter neck and a plunging neckline, it was hard not to glance at her own small breasts with sheer dismay.