The first in a brand-new cozy series from Diane Kelly
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
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.
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
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-
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
Mom tilted her head. “Too busy to study for your real
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
Threats and Opportunities
The three boys ventured out of their bedrooms, half awake
and half dressed. They glanced about as if unsure where to
“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
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
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
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
I met him at the front door and extended my hand. “Hello,
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
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
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
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
“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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