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Champagne Book Group

When Doll Reynolds buys a house and leaves her Blender friends behind, she faces more than their wrath when the evil homeowner refuses to leave

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Keegan Bay Park, Florida

     “I am not marrying Michael because I am still married to Barclay. Is that a good enough reason?” I shouted at my friend, Violet.
     Violet only smiled. “Calm down, Doll. You know as well as I that it’s time to do something with your life. It’s been over five years since Barclay went missing.”
     “You think I don’t know that? I count the days, the minutes, hoping every second he’ll walk through the door.” I wiped an unwelcome tear from my eye, finished my drink and headed toward the liquor cabinet.
     “Go ahead. Have another. And what will he find if he returns? You sitting here, feeling sorry for yourself. Drowning your sorrows in Scotch.” She pushed her stout body up from the chair near the bow window where we liked to have our afternoon “tea.”
     “You’re not leaving already? You’ve barely touched your drink.”
     “I have my Literacy Group at the jail tonight and I also need to feed John before he sets off for the theater.”
     “Oh, go ahead.” I waved my glass at her, splashing some of the precious liquid onto the floor. “Rub it in how busy you two are. Fine. I’ll sit here and enjoy my drink before I feed myself.”
     “You could join me tonight. The girls could use all the help we can give them. They’re incarcerated for the poor choices they made in their lives. It’s shocking how many of them are functionally illiterate. Imagine how thrilled they’d be to have a real published author to work with them.”
     I waved her off, sending more Scotch to the floor. “If they’re illiterate they won’t know about me. Just go. I’ll think of something. I had a new idea for a book, maybe I’ll work on that.”
     “What happened to the last one you started?”
     After sipping some of the drink I returned to the chair opposite where Violet had been. She stood to the side of it, ready to escape.
     “It didn’t gel.”
“Maybe if you wrote first thing in the morning…”
     “When I’m sober? Is that what you were about to say? Why don’t you and your cronies leave me alone? Go be goody-two-shoes at the jail and tell the people here in the park to mind their own business. They can play bingo and watch their game shows.” I turned my back on her, feeling lousy about the way I’d spoken.I felt her hand on my shoulder.
     “Look, Doll, I’m your closest friend in the park.”
     “Only because you’re the nearest year-round neighbor. Go away.”
     Her fingers tightened on my shoulder but she didn’t leave. I struggled to keep my face under control, fearing the tears would flow if she showed me any more kindness.
     “People have been talking to me about you. I remind them about your missing husband and they all say the same thing.”“I know. It’s time to get over it, declare him dead and move on with my life.”
     That word, dead, stuck in my throat. My eyes burned. She had to leave immediately or I would lose control altogether.
     “That’s right,” she answered softly as she removed her hand.
     I listened to her footsteps as she headed for the front door.
At that moment the kitchen door burst open.
     “Doll! You here?” Michael’s voice boomed.
     “Where else would I be?”
     “Afternoon, Violet, just leaving?” His heavy footsteps crossed the living room. He scrubbed his hand over my hair and then kissed me on the cheek. “Why are you crying?”
     “Goodbye,” Violet said. The door closed.
     “Don’t you ever knock before entering someone’s trailer?”
     “I did, and it’s a manufactured home, not a trailer. Are you going to turn around and be hospitable or do I have to get my own drink?”
     “Do what you like.” I turned around. He took Violet’s place in the chair. Like a pair of rotating therapists, those two.
     “I’ll skip it. New movie, want to go? It’s about Iran. I know you and Barclay lived there once.”The man was far too cheerful for me.
     “The subject of Barclay is not open for discussion. And no, I do not want to go to the movies tonight.”
     “All right then, what do you want to do?”
     “I want to be left alone.”
     “Can’t do that, Doll. How about marrying me then we can be alone together? You and me carousing the Florida waterways in my little boat.” He leaned back in the chair, placed his right ankle on his left knee, looking like he was prepared to stay.
     “You know I can’t marry you. I’m already married. How many times have we been through this? Besides, I’d lose Barclay’s Social Security.”
     “As if you need it after that huge inheritance.”
     Ignoring his reference to my new found wealth, I said, “I might after I buy a house.”
     “What house?” His foot thumped to the floor and he leaned forward.
     “I’ve been thinking about it. This trailer is far too small. Always has been. When we first bought here we both agreed we didn’t want to live in a trailer, but we couldn’t find a house we could afford. Now that housing values are down and I have the means, it’s time. Barclay will be so happy when he comes home to find we have a lovely new house that won’t blow away with the first hurricane.” The thought cheered me and I didn’t care what Michael had to say about it.
     “That’s a great idea, Doll. Where do you plan to look? Have you done anything about it yet? Called a real estate company? Will you sell this one or rent it out?”
     Taken aback by his enthusiasm, I remained silent.
     “Come on. I’ll help. You need something to keep you occupied and searching for a house and then getting it all fixed up…”
     “You mean instead of drinking alone every night?”
     “I didn’t say that.”
     “You didn’t have to. Violet told me people are talking. I don’t drink that much, you know. Only when people are around, so it seems like a lot.”
     “You might fool yourself, Doll, but you don’t fool me. I’m here often enough to see those bottles replaced too often. I’d be happy to go to an AA meeting with you if you’re worried about going alone.”
     “I don’t need AA. I don’t need you to go anywhere with me.” I stood up and stumbled into Michael as he stood at the same time. “I need to find a damned house!”
     He grabbed me and held me in his arms. In spite of my anger, his warm embrace comforted me. Michael was the only man in the park taller than I, and one of the few still fit and active. All the widows in the park wanted to marry him except me. I wasn’t a widow.
     A week later Michael and I had visited sixteen houses which almost fit my criteria and they were all in the right price range. Yet each one either had a significant drawback such as location, too small a garage, too large a yard or simply did not please me.We sat at a donut shop drinking coffee.
     “I don’t think you’re serious about this house business, Doll. Looks to me that you’re just filling your days.”
     “You don’t have to come with me, you know, though I enjoy your company.” He made me laugh. At every house, as I looked for the good, he pointed out the negative with humor, such as when we were at the most recent house he wondered how many roommates I wanted.
     “Roommates?” I asked as I wandered through a modern, plastic looking living room.”
     “Evidence of rats in the kitchen,” he called to me from that room. “And I saw two snakes in the back yard already and we haven’t even finished looking.”
     We scurried like the unseen rats from that one.“I’ll know it when I see it. You don’t have to come with me.” I picked up a cinnamon cruller and took a bite, feeling justified in eating it because of all the walking we’d done in our house hunt.
     “In spite of your fears about the park, and your house being a mobile home, it has been there for twenty years and not moved an inch during any of the hurricanes that blew through. You have a nice layout there with the three bedrooms. A nice lot and even three new houses in your cul de sac. Why not stay?” He dunked his donut, leaving snowflakes of confectioner’s sugar floating on top. “Plus,” he held up a sticky finger, “we have the marina and my boat close by.”
     “I want a real house."
                                                                          ~ * ~
     The instant I saw it, I knew my new address. Rex, my realtor, stopped in front of a house with an overgrown yard, majestic palm trees, and a welcoming, though leaf-strewn walkway leading to the front door. Beaming from ear to ear, I floated through the four bedrooms, the oversized living room, the updated and modern kitchen, and most of all the enclosed pool deck, landscaped as a tropical garden, a waterfall at one end of the pool and even a hot tub/spa surrounded by tropical foliage. The house enclosed the pool on two sides. The third side had a high fence separating the property from the neighbors. The fourth side faced the Halifax River. A large screen room covered the entire pool and deck. The area would be very private. “It’s on the waterway, too. You can motor across the river and be here in no time!” I said.
Michael folded his arms and studied the area beyond the landscaped pool. “Maybe,” he answered and then followed me into the bedroom that opened off the deck.“It looks like someone is still living here.”
I closed the door to a closet full of clothing.
“One of the heirs is living here temporarily to sell off the furniture and clear out the house,” said Rex.
     “Come check out these bathrooms. Three of them, one nicer than the other.”
     We finished the tour. “What next? I like this place, everything about it except the furnishings. They’re so wrong for such a Florida house.”
     He suggested an amount to offer, which I did. Then he explained the process. The seller’s agent would present the offer to the owners and the agent would get back to me in a few days. Which he did, two days later. The family accepted my offer and a closing date would be set.“This is an easy one,” he said. “It’s an estate sale and there’s no mortgage. The heirs want to get rid of it. They all have their own homes and have no need of another. They just want the money. We should be finished with the paperwork, title search, all that in less than a month. We’ll set the closing for thirty days from now, how’s that?”
     I shrugged. None of that mattered. “Fine, as long as the heir empties it by then.” Barclay would love this house. I knew it in my heart. I wrote out a check for a significant down payment, leaving a relatively small balance.“Come on.” I took Michael by the arm. “We have to call a meeting of the Blenders and let them know.”
     He didn’t seem as excited by the prospect as I did. The Blenders had become a close-knit group of friends last winter after we worked together for months to save the life of an infant who had been left in the park.
     Though my friends remained cool toward me, curiosity got the best of them so I drove them one at a time past my “new” house. During the first week, we saw no evidence of a pending yard sale. Maybe, I reasoned, she donated everything to charity. On Tuesday of the second week, three weeks before the closing, hand written signs appeared along the streets leading to the house advertising a giant estate sale. It was scheduled for Saturday only. Maggie, my stalwart Vermont friend from the park, was my guest du jour as we drove past the house. The grass stood at least a foot high. The shrubs looked scraggly. The hand printed sign belonged in a run down neighborhood, not this one. I felt embarrassed to show my new home to Maggie.
     “Don’t worry. I’ll bet it’s beautiful inside,” she said.
     “It is,” I insisted, now hardly remembering the location of all the bedrooms and bathrooms. The pool and deck area remained firmly imprinted on my mind. I couldn’t wait to move in and bask in the sun on the deck amidst all the lush plants. Maybe I’d even hire a houseboy to bring me my evening cocktail before he left after a day’s work maintaining the pool and grounds. I smiled at the thought of Barclay coming home and seeing me with a pool boy-groundskeeper.

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