For the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing the first seven chapters of a novel I began, just for fun, last summer. If you didn’t catch Chapter One last week, you can find it here.
And now… Chapter Two! In which we meet the hero of the piece….
The last thing Jack Vallenti expected to see on his way back from a run was a pair of legs sticking out of the window of Ada Tarrant’s house.
He stumbled on the gravel of the old driveway, recovered himself, and blinked. It was so damn humid that it was beginning to look like a steam room, not to mention the sweat dripping down into his eyes and clouding his vision. He could barely see the hills on the other side of the river, masked in a purple scrum of clouds and mist. He’d known it was a stupid day to go for a run, with the heat index way up in the nineties and the air so thick you could hardly gasp. But he’d needed out. Just out. His ancient Corporate Challenge T-shirt was plastered to his chest and his throat felt like someone had just gone over it with a paint-scraper.
Christ, he needed a bottle of Gatorade. Or something.
He’d pushed himself harder and farther than usual, even though the weather was suboptimal. Suboptimal; suicidal; six of one, half dozen of the other. His usual run was seven miles; he’d gone nine. It wouldn’t have mattered if it had been raining frogs. Today of all days he’d just needed to get away, to lose himself in the mindless demands of physical exertion, one stride after another, breath in, breath out, no thoughts other than whether he could make it that extra mile. Or extra two miles. He was winded, he was wiped, he was ready for a shower.
And, apparently, he was seeing things.
Stumbling to a halt, Jack swiped the sweat out of his eyes with the tail of his shirt, wincing at the grit and the salt. He braced his hands on his knees, breathed in deeply, and looked again.
Yes, those were indeed a pair of legs sticking out of Miss Ada Tarrant’s parlor window, female legs, bared to the calf where a pair of loose-legged gray sweatpants had ridden up to the knee. One foot was bare; the other still sported a black plastic flip-flop.
What the—? Jack strode forward, fatigue lost in sheer surprise. As he approached, the legs began kicking, rapidly.
“Hey!” he said, but the owner of the legs was too busy flailing to hear him, jack-knifing up and down like a fish on the line.
He’d told Miss Ada that it was a bad idea for the house to sit empty for too long, but this didn’t look like any squatter he’d ever encountered. For one thing, they were generally much better at actually getting into the house. A sneak thief, looking for valuables? They didn’t have much trouble with drugs in Philips’ Falls, but they were near enough to Poughkeepsie to get occasional fall-out. Only someone monumentally strung out would have made such a complete hash of a simple break-in.
They said druggies and madmen had unnatural strength. From the look of the legs, Jack was pretty sure he could take her.
Jack dodged a flying flip flop. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“Washing my hair,” snapped back the female in the window. She sounded neither drunk nor high, just massively pissed off. “What does it look like I’m doing?”
Aside from a rather bizarre bump and grind?
“I’d say it looks like breaking and entering,” he said, in his best Gregory Peck in the courtroom voice.
“Breaking, yes,” said the voice from the window. “Entering, sadly no. Want to make yourself useful and give me a shove? Or would you rather just stand there and stare at my ass?”
Personally, Jack thought the ass option sounded rather good. It was an exceedingly attractive example of its kind, despite the fact that the sweatpant things she was wearing bore the inscription “Wide Load”. False advertising, there.
Although, vis-à-vis the window, it might have had a point. The woman was well and truly wedged.
“If I give you a shove,” he said, “you’re liable to go landing on your head. I’m going to grab your legs and try to ease you back out this way, okay? Ouch!”
One of her kicking feet hit him in the solarplexus. He could only be glad it hadn’t been a foot lower.
“Sorry.” She didn’t sound sorry. But she did stop flailing.
Jack positioned himself to one side, and got a good grip on her thighs. “Once you’re on the ground,” he said ominously, “we can discuss what you were doing in there.”
“It all began on a farm in Mississippi….” The voice floated out from inside the window.
“What?” Jack stopped mid-tug.
“Never mind. Less talking, more pulling.”
She was surprisingly imperious for a trespasser. “Hey, just be glad someone came along in time to get you out.” Her sweat pants slipped alarmingly as he pulled.
“Hey!” she yelped. “No undressing me.”
“I’m trying not to,” he said between gritted teeth. “Your pants appear to have a different agenda.”
“Er, yeah,” she said, rather breathlessly, which wasn’t surprising, given that her diaphragm was being compressed against the window sill. “The elastic’s been kind of—ouch!— going.”
She shut up as he gave another tug and her breasts scraped over the edge of the sill. He juggled his grip, trying to brace her so she wouldn’t bang her face against the woodwork. A belly-button ring scraped against the skin of his arm as he eased her out. He could feel himself losing his grasp as her weight shifted. Her top had ridden up, and her midriff was slippery with perspiration.
His hand accidentally grazed the underside of a boob, and she let out a muffled, “Hey!”
Someone was definitely not wearing a bra. “Sorry,” he said, in a strained voice. “I’m just trying not to drop you.”
“It’s okay. You can let go now. I think I’ve—oof!—got it from here.”
She wiggled her bare feet towards the ground, groping with her toes until she had a firm foothold.
Jack let go and stepped back as she maneuvered her head out from under the sill, moving very, very slowly. His hand still tingled where he’d accidentally touched her.
Maybe his sister-in-law was right; he really did need to start getting out more. He should not be this turned on by a sweaty trespasser with an attitude problem.
Even if she was a hot trespasser.
Of course, the hot body might come with a pig-ugly face. From the back, all he could see was a tangled mess of dark hair, with a black plastic clip sticking up out of it like the crest on a rooster. She cursed as the clip bumped the window sash, undoubtedly taking some hair with it. He’d put her 5’6”, 5’7”, not small, but not tall, either. The sweat-soaked sweats clung to her like a second skin, big patches of darker gray making interesting patterns along the backs of her thighs. Her tank top had bunched up just below her breasts.
Above the drooping waistband of her pants, he could just make out the top end of a tattoo done in dark blue ink.
Before he could figure out what it was, she was out. She yanked her top down so hard he could see the straps stretch and only then turned around, swiping the hair out of her face.
Flushed would be an understatement; she was bright red from hanging upside down, face shiny with sweat.
She looked weirdly familiar, but Jack couldn’t place why. It wasn’t what one would call a pretty face, per se. Her cheekbones were too wide, her mouth too full, her nose a perky ski-slope. Her brown eyes tilted up at the corners, and there was a beauty mark just to the lower left of her left eye.
“Whew,” she said, and yanked the clip from her hair, turning upside down to shake her hair out before swooping back up again, twisting her hair up and around as she did. She closed the teeth of the clip around it, so that some of it stuck straight up and the rest fell backwards over the clip.
“Thanks for helping me out there,” she said airily. “Much obliged.”
“Anytime.” Jack moved to block her path. “Want to tell me what you were doing climbing in the window?”
She folded her arms across her chest and gave him a look, like a defiant teenager caught out after curfew. “I forgot my key.”
“Right,” Jack said. “Sure. Do we need to go discuss this down at the station? I’m sure the cop on duty will be very interested in helping you find your key.”
Actually, the cop on duty was his brother Sam, and he’d be more interested in getting home in time for his four year old’s bath, but that was okay. If you ignored the whole brother bit, it sounded sufficiently intimidating.
The trespasser wasn’t intimidated.
“Oh for the love of—“ She rolled her eyes heavenwards and swallowed whatever it was she had been about to say. “Look, this is all very good citizen of you, but it’s totally unnecessary. I own the place. Such as it is.” She glowered at the scabby window-sill. “Stupid hunk of house.”
“You own it,” repeated Jack. His brain felt as muggy as the air. Very, very slowly, the penny began to drop.
“Lucky me, right?” She regarded the ancestral home with a marked lack of favor. “So you can just go back wherever you came from and not worry about a thing. It’s all entirely legal. Not particularly attractive, but legal.”
Jack registered the cadence of her voice, but he didn’t pay any attention to the actual words. He was too busy putting the pieces together. No wonder she looked vaguely familiar….. And then there was the nonchalant assumption of ownership, the California accent, and, yes, now that he looked for it, a bit of a family resemblance.
“Wait,” said Jack slowly. “You’re her. I mean, she. I mean—”
An expression of intense annoyance crossed the woman’s face. “Oh, I know what you mean,” she drawled. “Don’t I know.”
Six months he’d been trying to get in touch with her, six months of wasted time. And here she was, completely unannounced, trying to wriggle through windows. On a weekend. Jack flapped his damp shirt, trying to cool down. “Why in the hell didn’t you answer any of my emails?”
“You are Kristy Green, right?” If it was anyone else trying to climb into the house, then they really did have a problem.
But the woman just seemed too disorganized to be any kind of crime. Even the reference to her name seemed to fluster her. “Am I—? Um, yeah. Yeah, I am.”
“I’ve been trying to get in touch with you for months.”
The woman held up a hand. There was a thin, woven bracelet around her wrist that moved as she moved. “Stop. Pause. Let’s start over. Who are you? Other than the neighborhood watch.”
“I’m Miss Ada’s lawyer.” He held out a hand. “Jack Vallenti. I’m the guy whose letters you’ve been ignoring.”
Ignoring his outstretched hand, Miss Ada’s niece took her time looking him up and down. She took in his sweaty Corporate Challenge T-shirt, his bare legs, his battered sneakers. “You don’t look like a lawyer.”
This from a woman he had met with her butt sticking out a window.
“You don’t look like a legatee. Why didn’t you answer any of my letters? I had a hell of a time tracking you down.”
About a half of the letters had come back, marked Return to Sender. The emails had bounced. At least, most of the emails had bounced. There were a remarkable number of Kristy Greens out there. Jack had received one “piss off”, one invitation to be someone’s brother in Christ, and the offer of a bank account in Bangkok.
He knew one wasn’t supposed to think ill of the dead, but there had been times he would have loved to have told Miss Ada what he thought of her disposition of her estate. After years of promising the property to the Philips’ Falls Historical Society, she’d gone and left it all, kit and kabooble, to an heir no one knew and no one could find.
Jack had spent agonizing hours trying to explain to agitated delegations from the Historical Society that, no, “as good as promised” was not a legal category, and, no, just because the damn heir hadn’t shown up and no-one seemed to know how to locate her did not mean that the PFHS got the house by default. It just didn’t work that way.
His not to reason why, his just to fulfill Miss Ada’s final wishes, however half-assed they might have been.
Miss Ada’s chosen legatee, source of hours of headache and reflux, shrugged, completely unconcerned. “I’ve been traveling. I only got your letter about a week ago.” She thought for a moment. “Two weeks ago.”
Jack did his best to swallow his annoyance. She had no way of knowing, after all, that her house was under siege by the PFHS. Although she might have if she’d bothered to answer his damn letters.
In the most reasonable tone he could muster, he said, “If you were planning to come out here, why didn’t you let me know? I could have brought the keys.”
She looked over her shoulder at the window and muttered, “That would have been way too easy.”
Despite himself, Jack grinned. “Would you like me to show you an alternative way in, or shall I give you a boost back through the window?”
“The alternative,” she said firmly. Folding her arms across her chest, she gave him a lofty look. “Sorry. Only one grope per customer per day. You’ve used up your quota.”
Jack resisted the urge to apologize. After all, it wasn’t like he’d meant to grab her boob. It had just been there.
Clearly, they both needed to get a grip. Not that kind of grip, he hastily amended. The mental kind. They were both hot, sweaty, and flustered. Jack tried to think of how this meeting might have gone differently if it had occurred in his office, rather than beginning with a case of highly scenic breaking and entering.
“Shall we start over?” he said. “Hi. I’m your aunt’s lawyer. So nice to finally meet you. Would you like to see the house?”
Kristy’s face relaxed into a smile. Or, really, more of a lopsided grin. “Hi, lawyer. Nice to meet you, too.”
They formally shook hands in the middle of the driveway. It was, Jack reflected, one of the more bizarre business meetings of his experience, him half-naked in gym clothes with his hair still damp with sweat, his client in clingy sweats that still appeared to be having some issues with gravity. The drooping waistband followed the very feminine swell of her stomach and curve of her hips.
She gave her pants a hitch and Jack realized he’d been staring in a very unprofessional way.
“So,” said Jack quickly. “You’re here to see the house.” He gestured Miss Ada’s heir back around to the front of the house, where the stone lions looked with distaste upon their dishabille.
Kristy looked back over her shoulder at the street. “Don’t we have to go back to your office for the keys?”
“Nope,” said Jack. “Watch and learn.” Reaching into the left-hand lion’s mouth, he extracted two acorns, some leaf mulch, an angry spider, and the spare key.
Kristy scowled at the lions. “Of course. Naturally. It would be.”
Jack scrubbed the leaf mold off on his shorts and held up the key. “Do you want to do the honors or shall I?”
She waved a hand. “Go right ahead. Knock yourself out.”
Heat and humidity had warped the old boards of the door. Jack gave it a firm shove. It finally gave way, pushing with it four months’ worth of accumulated junk mail.
Kristy wrinkled her nose. “What’s that smell?”
It took him a moment to realize what she meant. He was uncomfortably aware that his twenty-four hour deodorant was not necessarily living up to the manufacturer’s warranties. He could practically feel the stink waves coming off him like Pepe le Peu.
“Is that cat piss?”
“Um, yeah. Probably.” Jack gave silent thanks to old Miss Ada’s cat. “If I’d known you were coming, I would have sprayed some Lysol.”
Kristy hunkered down on the matt, shoving aside the miscellaneous ShopRite flyers and Macy’s catalogues. “Here, smelly kitty, kitty. Yo, kitty!”
“The cat’s not here anymore. No one was going to leave an animal by itself in an empty house, especially,” said Jack pointedly, “when we couldn’t find the legatee. Tabitha was adopted after Miss Ada’s death.”
“Tabitha?” Kristy levered herself slowly back to her feet, shoving loose strands of hair back behind her ears. “You’ve got to be kidding me. Seriously. The tabby cat’s name was Tabby Cat?”
“Only to her close friends. What can I say? Miss Ada had an… interesting sense of humor.”
He could see her taking in the hallway, with its odd hodge-podge of items. “I can believe that.”
It was, to say the least, an eclectic collection. Miss Ada had been a born packrat, her own saving tendencies exacerbated by a century and a half of accumulated family clutter. Pencils stood in a fluted flower vase on the hall table and a brass statue of Shakespeare bumped shoulders with a dingy, plastic model of Mickey Mouse.
According to the PFHS, under all that junk was a perfect model of mid-nineteenth century village Victorian just waiting to blossom into beauty. Jack had to take them at their word. He’d only ever known the house as a model of late twentieth century dereliction. Miss Ada hadn’t done much in the way of upkeep for a long time, first due to lack of inclination, and later, lack of money.
Well, now it was her heir’s problem. As he had repeatedly told the Historical Society.
They were not going to be thrilled to hear about Kristy.
“Wow,” said Kristy. Taking a deep breath, she turned back to Jack. “I should probably get my bags. They’re in the car.”
“You’re planning to stay here?” He’d assumed it was a day trip, for viewing purposes only.
“Is there some reason I shouldn’t?” Beneath her defensiveness, there was a genuine question.
Jack braced an arm against the door jamb. “The utilities are still on and the phone should also be working… but the place has been closed up for months. Wouldn’t you be happier at a hotel?”
“Me? No,” she said with false heartiness. “I live for mold and mice. Bring it on.”
Jack followed her down to a beige Honda. She popped the trunk and hauled out two battered canvas hold-alls, printed with a pattern of interlocking initials.
Automatically, Jack reached out to take them from her. “There’s a bed and breakfast in town. It’s high season, but they might have a room.”
“Don’t be silly. I’ll be fine here. Look, I just need someplace quiet. It’s been a weird few months. And, hey, it doesn’t look like it gets more quiet than this!”
As if in contradiction, thunder rumbled over the hills.
“Heat storm,” said Jack, wondering what she meant by “weird”. Weird could cover a multitude of disasters. Home loss. Job loss. Divorce.
Jack glanced sideways at Miss Ada’s heir, who was squinting up at the storm clouds. Maybe not divorce. There was no sign of a wedding ring on her finger, no pale patch where a ring used to be. He should know. Those things left a long shadow, the skin retaining the memory long after the actual object was gone.
At a guess, she’d lost her job, probably her house as well. A lot of people had gone under during the recession. That would explain the lack of a fixed address, the worn clothes, the sudden eagerness to claim her inheritance.
As they made their way down the path, she asked, with false casualness, “This inheritance. What exactly are we talking about here?”
Jack set her bags down just inside the front door. “The house, the contents.” Ms. Green looked askance at the plastic Mickey. “Miss Ada also left a small bank account.”
She played with the thread bracelet on her wrist. “How small is small?”
That depended on her definition of small. “There was just over six thousand dollars in it at the time of her death.”
“Oh,” she said.
“According to her wishes, half went to the ASPCA, half went to her sole surviving relative.” The PFHS had been pissed about that, too. “After the bequest to the ASPCA, you have about three thousand bucks. If you come to my office tomorrow, I can give you the exact amount and we can take care of the paperwork.”
He wished he could tell her it was more. She looked as though she needed it, if her desire to save on the hotel bill was anything to go by. Throwing out a bone, he said, “There’s also the rent from the carriage house.”
She perked up slightly. “You mean the little house in the back? I’d wondered about that.”
He nodded. “That’s been going into escrow for you. The rent is a thousand a month,” he added, before she could ask. “Your tenant is perfectly happy to continue the arrangement if you are.”
“I’d never really thought of myself as a landlady.” She made a mock-alarmed face. “I hope he doesn’t need his plumbing repaired or something like that. I’m not much good with a wrench.”
“Don’t worry,” said Jack blandly. “I hear your tenant’s reasonably competent.”
“No orgies? No wild parties?”
If only. If she was volunteering….
“Not that I’m aware of.”
Kristy leaned against the door frame. Her hair was clinging in dark scraggles to the sides of her face. She pushed them back behind her ears and looked at him quizzically. “Who’s my tenant?”
Jack gave her a twisted grin. “I am.”
To proceed to Chapter Three, just click here….