April 23rd, 2019
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HOPE ON THE INSIDE

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House-Flipper Mystery #1
St. Martin's Paperbacks
February 2019
On Sale: January 29, 2019
368 pages
ISBN: 1250197422
EAN: 9781250197429
Kindle: B07FGX2TG7
Mass Market Paperback / e-Book
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Ripped Bodice

The first in a brand-new cozy series from Diane Kelly set in Nashville—where the real estate market is to die for.

WILL THIS KILLER DEAL LEAD TO A DEAD END? Meet Whitney Whitaker. A hopeless romantic when it comes to real estate, she knows what it takes to find—and flip—the home of one’s dreams. A fixer-upper is like catnip to Whitney: she can’t resist the challenge of turning an eyesore into a priceless work of art. So when one of her clients decides to liquidate a crumbling property, Whitney seizes the opportunity to purchase it for a song. But soon a curious incident of the cat in the night-time leads to a change in tune. . .

Sawdust is the name of Whitney’s cat—of course. Whitney’s passion for gut-renovation may be a mystery to him but one thing Sawdust knows for sure is this: Dead bodies don’t belong in flower beds. So why is there one in this new, albeit old, house? Now it’s up to Whitney, along with the help of hot-and-cold Nashville Police Detective Collin Flynn, to find the truth about what happened before the mortgage property forecloses and Whitney loses her investment. . .and maybe her own life.

Excerpt

Chapter One

Deadbeats

Whitney Whitaker

I grabbed my purse, my tool belt, and the bright yellow hard hard I’d adorned with a chain of daisy decals. I gave my cat a kiss on the head. “Bye-bye, Sawdust.” Looking into his baby blue eyes, I pointed a finger at him. “Be a good boy while Mommy’s at work, okay?”

The cat swiped at my finger with a paw the color of pine shavings. Given that my eyes and hair were the same shade as his, I could be taken for his mother if not for the fact that we were entirely different species. I’d adopted the furry runt after his mother, a stray, had given birth to him and two siblings in my uncle’s barn. My cousins, Buck and Owen, had taken in the other two kittens, and my aunt and uncle gave the wayward mama cat a comfy home in their hilltop cabin on the Kentucky border.

After stepping outside, I turned around to lock the French doors that served as the entrance to my humble home. The place sat in my parents’ backyard, on the far side of their kidney-shaped pool. In its former life, it had served as a combination pool house and garden shed. With the help of the contractors I’d befriended on my jobs, I’d converted the structure into a cozy guesthouse—the guest being yours truly. It had already been outfitted with a small three- quarter bath, so all we’d had to do was add a closet and kitchenette.

Furnishing a hundred and fifty square feet had been easy. There was room for only the bare essentials—a couple of bar stools at the kitchen counter, a twin bed and dresser, and a recliner that served as both a comfortable reading chair and a scratching post for Sawdust. Heaven forbid my sweet but spoiled cat should sharpen his claws on the sisal post I’d bought him at the pet supply store. At least he enjoyed his carpet-covered cat tree. I’d positioned it by one of the windows that flanked the French doors. He passed his days on the highest perch, watching birds flitter about the birdhouses and feeders situated about the backyard.

At twenty-eight, I probably should’ve ventured farther from my parents’ home by now. But the arrangement suited me and my parents just fine. They were constantly jetting off to Paris or Rome or some exotic locale I couldn’t pronounce or find on a map if my life depended on it. Living here allowed me to keep an eye on their house and dog while they traveled, but the fact that we shared no walls gave us all some privacy. The arrangement also allowed me to sock away quite a bit of my earnings in savings. Soon, I’d be able to buy a house of my own. Not here in the Green Hills neighborhood, where real estate garnered a pretty penny. But maybe in one of the more affordable Nashville suburbs. While many young girls dreamed of beaded wedding gowns or palomino ponies, I’d dreamed of custom cabinets and built- in bookshelves.

After locking the door, I turned to find my mother and her back-and-white Boston terrier, Yin-Yang, puttering around the backyard. Like me, Mom was blond, though she now needed the help of her hairdresser to keep the stray grays at bay. Like Yin-Yang, Mom was petite, standing only five feet three inches. Mom was still in her pink bathrobe, a steaming mug of coffee in her hand. While she helped with billing at my dad’s otolaryngology practice, she normally went in late and left early. Her part-time schedule allowed her to avoid traffic, gave her time to take care of things around the house, and spend time with her precious pooch.

“Good morning!” I called.

My mother returned the sentiment, while Yin-Yang raised her two-tone head and replied with a cheerful Arf-arf! The bark scared off a trio of finches who’d been indulging in a breakfast of assorted seeds at a nearby feeder.

Mom stepped over, the dog trotting along with her, staring up at me with its adorable little bug eyes. “You’re off early,” Mom said, a hint of question in her voice.

No sense telling her I was on my way to an eviction. She already thought my job was beneath me. She assumed working as a property manager involved constantly dealing with deadbeats and clogged toilets. Truth be told, much of my job did involve delinquent tenants or backed-up plumbing. But there was much more to it than that. Helping landlords turn rundown real estate into attractive residences, helping hopeful tenants locate the perfect place for their particular needs, making sure everything ran smoothly for everyone involved. I considered my self to be in the homemaking business. But rather than try, for the umpteenth time, to explain myself, I simply said, “I’ve got a busy day.”

Mom tilted her head. “Too busy to study for your real estate exam?”

I fought the urge to groan. As irritating as my mother could be, she only wanted the best for me. Problem was, we didn’t agree on what the best was. Instead of starting an argument I said, “Don’t worry. The test isn’t for another couple of weeks. I’ve still got plenty of time.”

“Okay,” she acquiesced, the two syllables soaked in skepticism. “Have a good day, sweetie.” At least those five words sounded sincere.

“You, too, Mom.” I reached down and ruffled the dog’s ears. “Bye, girl.”

I made my way to the picket fence that enclosed the backyard and let myself out of the gate and onto the driveway. After tossing my hard hat and tool belt into the passenger seat of my red Honda CR-V, I swapped out the magnetic WHITAKER WOODWORKING sign on the door for one that read HOME & HEARTH REALTY. Yep, I wore two hats. The hard hat when moonlight as a carpenter for my uncle, and a metaphorical second hat when working my day job as a property manager for a real estate business. This morning, I sported the metaphorical hat as I headed up Hillsboro Pike into Nashville. Fifteen minutes later, I turned onto Sweetbriar Avenue. In the driveway of the house on the corner sat a shiny midnight blue Infiniti Q70L sedan with vanity plates that read TGENTRY. My shackles rose at the sight.

Thaddeus Gentry III owned Gentry Real Estate Development, Inc. or, as I called it, GREED Incorporated. Okay, so I’d added an extra E to make the spelling work. Still, it was true. The guy was as money-hungry and ruthless as they come. He was singlehandedly responsible for the gentrification of several old Nashville neighborhoods. While gentrification wasn’t necessarily a bad thing—after all it rid the city of ramshackle houses in dire need of repairs—Thad Gentry took advantage of homeowners, offering them pennies on the dollar, knowing they couldn’t afford the increase in property taxes that would result as their modest neighborhoods transformed into upscale communities. He’d harass holdouts by reporting any city code violations, no matter how minor. He also formed homeowners’ associations in the newly renovated neighborhoods, and ensured the HOA put pressure on the remaining original residents to bring their houses up to snuff. These unfortunate folks found they no longer felt at home and usually gave in and moved on . . . to where, who knows?

When I’d come by a week ago in a final attempt to collect from the tenants, I’d noticed a FOR SALE sign in the yard where Thad Gentry’s car was parked. The sign was gone now. Had Gentry bought the property? Had he set his sights on the neighborhood? Time would tell, I supposed.

Turning my attention back to the task at hand, I pulled to the curb next door and glanced at the rental house. While I’d fought a groan minutes before when conversing with my mother, I let out a big groan now. The place bore the tell- tale signs of having hosted a raucous Halloween party last night. Wispy fake cobwebs hung from the porch railing. Disposable cups littered the yard, scattered among novelty gravestones. A plastic skeleton lay in the neglected flower bed, a bony arm cradling an empty bottle of Jack Daniel’s Old No. 7 Tennessee Sour Mash Whiskey.

As my eyes took in the place, they caught movement at the house to the left. The sixtyish woman who lived there peeked out the window, her faded strawberry curls filling the glass. When I raised a hand in greeting, she let the curtain fall back into place rather than return the gesture. Whether she was unfriendly or embarrassed to be caught spying, I wasn’t sure.

I climbed out of my car and walked up to the small porch of the stone cottage. An ornate iron knocker graced the front door, the face of the mystical Celtic Green Man deity carved into the metal as if he were keeping watch on the world with his deep, all-knowing eyes. The Green Man, which featured carved leaves about his face, symbolized rebirth. The embellishment was an intriguing touch, both decorative and functional. I raised the knocker’s ring and tapped it against the plate. Knock-knock-knock. When no response came from inside. I lifted the ring again, using it more forcefully this time. KNOCK-KNOCK-KNOCK. Still no answer. The Green Man stared at me, as if to ask What now?

“They’ve left me no other choice,” I told the knocker. I’d have to barge in.

I pulled my oversized, crowded key ring from my purse and fingered through the keys. Nope. Nope. Nope. There it is. I stuck the key in the door and took a deep breath to steel myself. Evictions were the worst part of my job as a property manager. Someone always ended up shouting or begging or crying. Often that someone was me. My heart broke when landlords ran out of patience waiting for past- due rent and forced me to put a struggling family or an elderly person with a fixed income out on the streets. Fortunately, the deadbeats du jour were a trio of spoiled college kids from wealthy families. Judging from the smell of the place as I opened the door, as well as the bottles and greasy boxes littering the floors, they’d used the rent money their parents had sent them to buy pizza and liquor instead. Several boxes from a mail-order electronics company sat about too, one of them containing a receipt for a two-hundred-dollar virtual reality headset. Needless to say, my heart wasn’t breaking this morning. My nose, on the other hand, wriggled involuntarily in protest. The place reeked of stale garbage and beer and young males teeming with testosterone. Ew.

You’d never know it to look at the place now but, prior to the current tenants moving in, the house had been freshly painted inside and out and the wood floors had been refinished. Rick Dunaway, the property owner, was exceedingly cheap when it came to his rentals. I’d managed to convince him to have the house painted and the floors refinished, but only after agreeing to bill him solely for the supplies and do the work gratis myself with the help of my cousins. Call me a pushover, but I didn’t want Home & Hearth to gain a reputation as a manager for slumlords. I wanted to be proud of the properties I managed. Of course, there wasn’t much to be proud of here now. The walls bore smudges and spots. One wall was freckled with small holes around a hand-drawn bulls-eye that had served an improvised a dart board. A dart hung from one of the holes. Graffiti covered the rest of the wall, doodles in permanent marker all over it. Several fist-sized holes pocked the drywall. Hmm.

I stepped into the small hallway to the left, and addressed the three closed bedroom doors. “Rise and shine, boys! Time to pack up and move out!” Actually, that time should have come weeks ago, but the eviction process in Tennessee required a thirty-day written warning, then a court hearing and delivery of a formal eviction notice.

I strode about, snapping photos with my cell phone to document the damage. In addition to the walls, the floors were a wreck, scratched and scraped and warped where beer and sodas had been spilled and left to soak into the wood. Refinishing these floors had been backbreaking work, and now I’d have to do it all over again.

I closed my eyes and sighed. If I passed my upcoming real estate exam and became an agent, I could leave property management behind. The work paid peanuts, and dealing with problem tenants and penny-pinching landlords was a hassle. Still, I loved the part of the job that involved fixing up properties, turning eyesores into dream homes. After working with owners to set a budget and choose the paint and materials, I’d oversee the contractors, make sure the projects were completed correctly and quickly. As a skilled carpenter, I often did the work myself, earning extra bucks to add to my savings and keep my spoiled cat in tuna treats.

When I finished taking photos in the living room, I ventured into the kitchen. Cheese-n-grits! Dirty dishes towered in the sink, while trash and food scraps overflowed the garbage can. Flies buzzed about, enjoying the buffet the boys had left for them. Not to be outdone, a quartet of cockroaches feasted on goo on the countertop, stimulating my gag reflex. Uck. Should’ve worn a hazmat suit.

I turned and headed to the bedroom doors, throwing them open. When sounds of protests came from the bedrooms, I put a quick end to it. “Out of bed now!” I hollered. “Y’all have one hour to get your things out of here before I’ll toss whatever and whoever is left out on the lawn.” It was bluster, of course. Carpentry work had given me some muscle, but not enough to lift a full-grown male. With that, I walked out to the front porch where the air was fresher.

Chapter Two

Sunbathing

Sawdust

The small home Sawdust shared with Whitney had French doors in front. The doors faced east, letting in the glorious morning sunshine. Sawdust rolled a quarter turn from his back onto his right side as the sun rose and the sunbeam shifted. He purred in contentment. The only thing that would make this moment better was if Whitney was home.

Sawdust adored Whitney, had since the moment she’d first picked him up, tiny and terrified, in her aunt and uncle’s barn. She’d given him a comfortable, if small, home, and all the toys and treats his furry heart could desire. He only wished she wasn’t gone so much. He missed her when she wasn’t there. His tinkling-ball toy and the birds outside the window only distracted him for so long. He’d discovered that taking a nap made Whitney’s absences pass quicker. He closed his eyes and began to doze, dreaming of the time when his mommy would return home.

Chapter Three

Threats and Opportunities

Whitney

The three boys ventured out of their bedrooms, half awake and half dressed. They glanced about as if unsure where to start.

“I’d suggest one of you go rent a truck,” I called through the open front door. “The other two can start packing.”

A beefy, dark-haired boy with scruffy stubble on his face cut me a look so edgy and sharp I could’ve whittled a stick with it. “You’ll be sorry you put us out,” he hissed. “Mark my words.”

The punk outweighed me by a good hundred pounds. Though my stomach clenched in fear, I mustered up every inch of my height. “Are you threatening me?”

Before he could respond, one of the other boys muttered, “Chill, Jackson. You don’t need anything else on your record.”

Jackson has a record? He hadn’t had one when the boys moved into the place. Home & Hearth ran a background check on every prospective tenant before renting to them.

“Fine,” Jackson spat, searing me with another look even as he backed away.

The sullen boys put on shoes and shirts. Jackson left to round up a moving truck, while the other two loaded what they could into the trunks and backseats of their cars. When Jackson returned, they loaded the larger pieces of furniture into the truck, while I carried out lamps and kitchen chairs and other smaller pieces. Not that the boys deserved my help after freeloading and trashing the place, but I wanted to move the process along so I could perform damage control before Rick Dunaway arrived. He’d be none to happy about the condition of his property.

As soon as the boys drove off, I went into whirling dervish mode, moving about the place at a frenzied pace, wiping down countertops and gathering trash. A few minutes later, as I went to wipe down a windowsill in the living room, I spotted Rick Dunaway’s silver Mercedes parked in the driveway. Moving closer to the window, I saw Dunaway standing on the lawn, speaking with Thad Gentry. Both wore well-fitting suits, probably custom tailored. But while the men shared a sense of style and a take-no-prisoners approach to real estate, that’s where their similarities ended. Dunaway’s DNA had made him tall, and his time on the country club’s tennis courts had made him tan and trim. Gentry, on the other hand, was short and stocky, his cinder block physique a tell-tale sign of deals made over dinners of steak, baked potatoes, and whiskey. Dunaway sported slicked back, too-dark-to-be-natural-at-his-age hair. Rather than trying to hide his silver strands, Gentry had embraced the timber wolf tones, going so far as to grow a groomed goatee. He looked like a refined mountain man, if there was such a thing.

Seeing the two titans of real estate in a direct confrontation made me curious. Unfortunately, the glass prevented me from hearing their conversation, and their practiced poker faces gave no clue as to the topic of their discussion, either.

Dunaway turned to the house and caught me watching them out the window. But rather than hide like the neighbor had done when I’d spotted her, I raised a hand and offered a forced smile. Dunaway turned back to Gentry and concluded their conversation before heading across the yard and storming up the porch.

I met him at the front door and extended my hand. “Hello, Mr. Dunaway.”

He ignored both my hand and my greeting. Instead, he looked past me into the house, his eyes flaring. “It looks like they held a rodeo in there! How could you let this to happen?”

My ire rose, my body temperature rising along with it. He seemed to have forgotten that I’d advised him against renting to college students, even if he could charge them more collectively in rent than a single family might be willing to pay. But he’d ignored me, choosing short-term profits over long-term stable income.

“As soon as the rent was late,” I reminded him, “I took action. I did all I could, as quickly as I could, while complying with the law.”

“The law,” he scoffed, waving a hand with a telltale pale strip around his ring finger where his wedding band used to be. “If I’d been the one handling things, these boys would have been on their way weeks ago.”

And I wouldn’t have to stand here and listen to you belittle me. Even so, I couldn’t very well share that thought with him. Landing Rick Dunaway as a client for Home & Hearth had been nothing short of a coup. I’d heard through the grapevine that Abbot-Dunaway Holdings was looking at outsourcing management of the company’s residential investment properties, and I’d decided to take a chance. After all, the worst he could do was say no, right? I’d put together a proposal that included bios for Mr. and Mrs. Hartley, the owners of Home & Hearth, as well as one for myself. I’d used the skills learned in my college marketing classes to sell our services, promising that if he chose our humble real estate firm to manage his residential properties, he’d be our number one client and receive top-notch service, his calls answered 24/7. The pitch had worked. He’d chosen Home & Hearth over a dozen other contenders, all larger firms with more impressive portfolios.

Dunaway walked into the house and stalked into the kitchen, noting the dripping faucet, the missing cabinet doors, the broken window held together by duct tape. He stomped back across the living room and into the bath. Like the window, the toilet seat had been patched with duct tape, and so much mildew had grown on the shower curtain it appeared to have a five o’clock shadow. At least the claw foot bathtub appeared undamaged. The classic fixture looked deep and inviting. Someday, when I had a house of my own, I’d have a tub like this installed.

Dunaway opened the cabinet under the bathroom sink, revealing a plastic bucket lodged under the P-trap. Murky water filled half the bucket. Looked like the pipes had a leak. The boys hadn’t submitted a repair request. Not surprising. They probably hadn’t wanted me to come by and discover the damage they’d caused. I emptied the bucket into the tub and stuck it back in the cabinet.

The bedrooms had fared no better. The folding shutter-style doors on the closets were missing slats and had been pulled out of their tracks, and the blinds on the windows hung askew. The switch plates in two of the rooms were cracked. All of the doorstops were gone, allowing the inside door handles to punch holes in the drywall.

When Dunaway finished his not-so-grand tour, he threw up his hands, the shiny Rolex watch on his wrist giving off a glint as his shirt cuff slid back. “I’m done!”

Uh-oh. Is he firing me? Ending his management contract with Home & Hearth? I gulped to clear the lump of fear in my throat. “What are you saying, Mr. Dunaway?”

He turned to face me full on. “I’m saying I’m putting this place up for sale.”

“Selling the house?” My hand reflexively went to my chest in relief. “That’s all?”

His brows drew inward. “What else would it be?”

I shrugged sheepishly. “I thought you were firing me.”

He bellowed a laugh. “As hard as you work, Whitney? I’d be a fool to get rid of you.”

Thank goodness! I exhaled in relief. Dare I tell him I’d be taking my real estate exam very soon and ask him to give me the listing? Or would that be taking things too far?

My mind performed some quick math computations. Smaller properties in the Belmont-Hillsboro neighborhood sold for around half a million dollars on average. If I could snag the listing, I’d be entitled to 3% of the sales price as the seller’s agent, or at least $15,000. Whoa! It took me six months to earn that much as a property manager. Houses in this neighborhood moved fast, too. With its prime location and historic appeal, the house would practically sell itself—especially if the interior were renovated to provide modern conveniences while preserving the charming midcentury details. Go for it, Whitney. “I’ll be getting my real estate license soon,” I offered tentatively.

“You want it, then?” Dunaway asked.

“The listing? Of course!”

“No. Not the listing. The house. I want to get out from under it right away and I’m in no mood to waste time or money fixing it up. Thad Gentry bought the house next door and just offered me four-hundred and fifty grand for this place, as-is.”

So that’s what they were discussing outside.

“I’d rather not sell to him,” Dunaway added. “Gentry’s been a thorn in my side since I got into this business. He’s outbid me several times, cost me some good deals. If you want the house, I’ll let you have it for four hundred. You could work your magic and flip it for a nice profit.”

My mouth gaped. I’d been excited about the prospect of earning $15,000 on the house, but if I bought it at the discounted price he was offering, I could net an easy seventy grand or more after fixing it up. Besides, the fact that Thad Gentry had been interested in the house said a lot. Everything that man touched seemed to turn to gold. “This seems too good to be true!”

“Chance of a lifetime,” he concurred. He stared me in the eye. “Look. I like you Whitney. You’ve got grit and gumption. Heck, you remind me of myself at your age. Besides, I need some ready cash. My wife’s divorce attorney is taking me to the cleaners. My attorney is, too.”

My mind spun like a circular saw. Still, as much as I wanted to jump on the offer, there were several ducks to get in a row first. Financing. Insurance. An inspection to make sure I knew exactly what I was getting myself in to. An old house like this could become a money pit if it had latent problems. Not that I expected any. Despite the cosmetic issues, the house appeared to have good bones. I’d also need to run the proposition by Mr. and Mrs. Hartley, the owners of Home & Hearth. They hadn’t bought and sold houses on their own account in the past, but that didn’t mean they wouldn’t want to seize this opportunity themselves.

“How long can you give me?” I asked.

“Twenty-four hours,” Dunaway said. “Then I’m putting it on the market. Drop an earnest-money check for two grand by my office today. It’ll need to be a cashier’s check. I need to know you’re serious.”

“I am,” I said. “I’ll get right on it.”

I stuck out my hand again. This time Dunaway took it, sealing our deal with a firm shake.



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