The difference between the wrath of God and the wrath of your mother is that eventually, God forgives you.

 

CHAPTER ONE

            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’d needed to lift my spirits. I’d been in a funk since the whole Patrick break-up 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’d 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’d deposited a big check. But not before I’d scanned it, saved it and turned the image into a self-congratulatory screensaver 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. 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 overlooked 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, more along the lines of . . . ‘there but for the grace of God I didn’t end up dead.’ But you get the gist.

            Multi-tasking, I eased on to 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’d 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 on to 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.

            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 just 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. Almost fifteen years since he died 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 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 on 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, and 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 front of the club, reluctantly handed my keys to the valet, a kid barely old enough to drive, and sprinted up the front steps.

            My mother, I’m certain, had arrived a few minutes early, and shot me a disapproving glance as I took the chair the waiter pulled out for me, and flipped my napkin onto my lap.

            I took the menu he handed to me and asked him 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 a spoon.

            “You’re late. As usual. I don’t know why I bother to make the effort to always arrive on time when you’re invariably late, Finley.”

            “I don’t know either.” I wasn’t being facetious. I had no idea why she didn’t just show up fifteen minutes later than whatever time she’d told me. We’d arrive at sort of the same time, and everyone would be happy.

            The hovering waiter returned at the regal summons from my mother. “What are the specials,” she demanded, ever the diva.

The guy rattled off the specials. Which, by the way were always the same on Fridays. And why she asked I have no idea. She always had the same thing.

“You had me at deep fried.” I smiled at the waiter when he’d finished indulging my mother 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.

No fun.

            “Finley,” she whispered in that disapproving tone she considered reasonable just as soon as the server 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. Discretely, she glanced around the dining room, husband-seeking 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 likes 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 maid of honor’s 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 speak 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 for the Metropolitan Opera got curious, she was like a 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 drew her hand to 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 self-mutilation. “I solved two murder cases,” I reminded her, quite proud of myself, even if she wasn’t.

“Which you have no business doing,” 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 riff-raff.”

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 bon-bons. Then I’d love her even more. I couldn’t compete with my sister on any level. I’d stopped trying when I was five. “She’s a pediatric oncologist, mom. I don’t think there’s a lot of riff-raff 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 gesture 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. I don’t know if it is, but I do know that she’s a successful doctor 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 reruns of The Sopranos.

Being an estates and trusts paralegal serves its purpose. I make enough money to make my rent, my car payments and pay the minimum balances on my credit cards. I got fired investigating the Paolo Martinez murder but since my involvement 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’d miss the hunt for parts on eBay, but I’d have the watch of my dreams. Guess once I have it I’ll have to find another hobby.

“Finley!”

“Sorry,” I muttered, leaning back so the server could put my second course in front of me. “Thank you.” I had swallowed only one bite of my fried shrimp when I noticed my mother’s fork still hovered 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 Friday?”

As my memory served, it wasn’t an invitation so much as a command. But I knew nothing would be served by my 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, multi-page document with a pale blue cover. Dramatically, she laid it on the table, and 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, and 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 things they’re given 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?”

            “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 carry a mortgage?”

            “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 her chestnut colored hair off her botoxed 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 five 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 twenty-five thousand for the purchase price 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 what?”

            “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?”

            She nodded. “This is an opportunity, 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 putting in some thought.”

            “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 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.

A homeowner. A house right on the beach. The payments sounded do-able. The 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 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 maĒtre’d.

            “Who’s Julianna?”

            “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 the contract and writing a check.

            An hour after that, still dazed, I walked into the lobby of Dane, Lieberman, and Zarnowski. Margaret Ford was planted behind the horseshoe shaped mahogany 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?

            “No.”

            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 lavendar 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 last remnants from the carafe and navigated my way to a satellite photograph of Chilian Avenue on my computer. 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 on 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 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 under five minutes, I had confirmations from all three.

            I called the appraiser and then devoted my attention to surfing for decorating ideas. My friend and neighbor, Sam Carter is an interior designer and he’d probably cut off my fingers if he knew I was picking colors and furnishings unsupervised. His distain isn’t 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’m sure once he sees the house, he’ll have 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 cases, 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 the draft of Jessup estate accounting tucked into the pink alligator leather tote I’d 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’d 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 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 modest 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 was landscaped and the grass freshly mowed. A small, uneven stone pathway lead around the side of the single story home. Someone had recently planted white impatients 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.

The surf lapped softly on the deserted shoreline, sending a cooling, salty breeze to greet us. I slipped off the really cute pink Betsey Johnson heeled thongs I’d gotten on an eBay auction and felt the fine-grained, cool sand beneath my feet.

“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 J.D., 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 remaining cottages still standing on the prime beachfront. Most small lots 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 fifteen years but a few months ago the woman left or died or something. It’s been vacant ever since.”

            “And she 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.

            “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 the taxes will be?”

            “How much do you earn in a year?”

            “You’re still pissing.”

            “Sorry. Let’s hope taxes fall under the definition of maintenance.”

            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’d 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, was a one-visit thing.

            Jane was an accountant who looked more like one of the Pussycat Dolls. She has long, dark hair, a brilliant smile, and a body that looked better than the airbrushed models in fashion magazines.

            Liv owned 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 was 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 toward the front door I felt my pulse quicken again. I fumbled inside my purse, feeling for the lose key I’d carefully tucked into the side pocket. My hand was actually shaking as I inserted the key, then heard the unmistakable ‘click’ of the deadbolt 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 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 Green Acres. 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.

            “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.

            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 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 Andres 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, “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 hated 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 hyper-drive. 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.

            I shot her a stern look. “Forget the mold for now. Hardwood floors, maybe?” Leaving my shoes and tote, and purse on the counter, I went off to explore.

            My friends followed along, crouched behind me 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.

            “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’m already resigned to the fact that it leaks.

            “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?” 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 past the smallest bedroom.

            “Be right there.”

            So what if my new house was uninhabitable. I 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 to 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 though 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.”

            “I can’t?”

            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.”

            “Really?”

            “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?”

            “Name what?”

            “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, “The 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.”