Fans of bestsellers like In Five Years will fall for this unexpected love story about a
“This is awkward.”
The big blond man standing on my doorstep blinked.
“How are you, Lars?” I gave him my very best fake smile. “Nice to see you.”
“Susie. It’s been what…five, six months?” Setting down his toolbox, he gave me an uneasy smile. It was more of a wince, really. Because the last time we saw each other was not a good night. Not for me, at least.
“Something like that,” I said.
“This your new place?” He nodded at the battered arts and crafts cottage. “The office said you had some water damage you wanted to start with?”
“Yeah, about that. I was told Mateo would be doing the work.”
He gazed down at me with dismay. The man was your basic urban Viking marauder, as his name suggested. Longish blonde hair, white skin, blue eyes, short beard, tall and built. I was average height and he managed to loom over me just fine. In his mid-thirties and more than a little rough around the edges. Nothing like his sleek and slick bestie. An asshole whose continued existence I’d prefer to be reminded of never. But we don’t always get what we want.
I took a deep breath and pulled myself together. “Why don’t you come in and I’ll show you…”
“Don’t worry about taking your boots off. The shag carpet isn’t staying.”
Heavy footsteps followed me through the living room and into the dining room where we turned left to enter the small hallway. From this point we had two options, the bathroom or the back bedroom. We headed for the latter.
“The water was getting in through a crack in the window for who knows how long,” I explained. “I only inherited the place recently. There were all these boxes piled up in here. No one could even see it was an issue.”
“I spent the first month just sorting through things and clearing the place out.”
Beneath the window frame, a large stain spread across the golden-flecked wallpaper. As if it weren’t ugly enough to begin with. That was the thing about my aunt Susan; she wasn’t a big fan of change. The two-bedroom cottage had belonged to her parents and everything had pretty much been left untouched after they passed. Apart from the addition of Susan’s junk. Which meant that while the wallpaper and carpet were from the 1970’s, the bathroom was from the 1940’s, and the kitchen cabinets from the 1930’s. At least, that’s what I’d been told. The place was like an ode to 20th century interior design. The good, and the bad.
He got down on one knee, inspecting the damage. “The bottom of this window frame is warped and needs replacing.”
“Can you do that?”
“Yeah,” he said. “I need to have a look behind here. You attached to the wallpaper?”
He almost smiled.
“The sooner I can repaint and get new flooring down, the better.”
Nothing from him. A knife appeared from the tool box, sharp-pointed with jagged teeth. He punched the blade through the drywall with ease and started cutting into the wall.
“How is he?” I asked the dreaded question. Curiosity was the worst. “Enjoying London?”
“Yeah,” was all he said.
“And how’s Jane?”
“We’re not together anymore.”
Not a surprise. Lars went through various girlfriends during the year I’d been with what’s-his-face. Neither he nor his friend were down with commitment. Which was fine if you just wanted to have fun. But Jane was a keeper, smart with a wicked sense of humor. Lars definitely had a type. All of his girlfriends were petite, perfect dolls who behaved in a ladylike manner. The opposite of buxom, loudmouthed me.
He pried a square of drywall loose. “You thinking of living here permanently or flipping and selling the place, or what?”
“Great location. A bit of work and it’d probably be worth a lot of money,” he said, keeping the conversation on the business at hand. As was good and right.
Using the flashlight on his phone, he inspected the cavity. The man was all handyman chic. Big ass boots, jeans, and a faded black tee. All of it well-worn. And the way his blue jeans conformed to his thick thighs and the curves of his ass was something. Something I hadn’t meant to notice, but oh well, these things happened. Maybe it was the way his tool belt framed that particular part of his anatomy. For a moment, I couldn’t look away. I was butt struck. Which was both wrong and bad. It would not be smart for me to notice this man in the sexual sense. Though it was nice to know my thirst meter wasn’t broken.
I don’t know if Lars and I were ever really friends. We had, however, been friendly. Though that was romantic relationships for you. One moment you had all of these awesome extra people in your life and the next moment they’re gone.
I tugged on the end of my dark ponytail. An old nervous habit.
“At this stage, it looks like the damage is only superficial,” Lars said. “These two sections of drywall have to go. Once I’ve done that, I’ll have a better idea of what we’re dealing with.”
“But it wouldn’t surprise me if some or all of that one needs replacing too.” He pointed to the wall the bedroom shared with the bathroom. “See how there’s bubbling along the joins of the wallpaper there?”
“Do I have your approval to get started?”
None of this was exactly unexpected. Old buildings might have soul, but they could also have heavy upkeep. Renovations cost big bucks. While my savings were meagre, lucky for this hundred year old house, my aunt left me some money. Which was a point of contention for a few of my family members. Like any of them had time for Aunt Susan when she was alive. Besides being my namesake, she was also the black sheep of the family. A little too weird for some, I guess. But weird has always been a trait that I admired.
“I’m going to make myself coffee,” I said. “Would you like some?”
“How do you take it?”
“White. No sugar.”
“You’re sweet enough, huh?” And the moment those words were out of my mouth, I knew I’d made a mistake. Talk about awkward.
He snorted, then said, “Something like that.”
Lars didn’t mess around. By the time I returned, he’d removed the first two panels of drywall. Hands on hips, he stood staring at the interior of the wall with the problematic window. Mostly it looked like a lot of dust and a couple of cobwebs. But then, I’m not a builder. When I handed over his mug, he gave me a brief smile before taking a sip.
“How is it looking?” I asked.
“Your house has good bones.”
“As long as the damage on that wall is due to the moisture spreading from the window and not a leaky bathroom pipe, this should be pretty straightforward,” he said.
I’d taken over the main bedroom, but this room still held a lot of sentimental value for me. Whenever Mom and Dad were busy or needed a break from us kids, my brother would stay at a friend’s house and I’d be packed off to Aunt Susan’s—to this bedroom in particular. Which was fine with me. Andrew was an outgoing jock while I’d been kind of awkward. In this house, I was accepted for who I was. A nice change. With my parents divorced, growing up between three households and living mostly out of a school bag sucked. But Aunt Susan gave me the security that was lacking elsewhere.
“Is the floor okay?”
“Let’s pull up some carpet and see.” He set his coffee on the windowsill. Then, knife back in hand, he got busy with the shag. It was impressive how the tool became a part of him. An extension of his body. “You’ve got good solid hardwood under here.”
“Ooh, let me see.”
He tugged the tattered underlay back further. “Oak, by the look of it.”
“Wow. Imagine covering that beauty up with butt ugly brown carpet.”
“No sign of water damage. You were lucky.”
I smiled. “That is excellent news.”
“Now let’s see what’s behind this.”
I took a step back so he could start removing the next section of drywall. He had such big capable hands. Watching him work was pure competence porn. . As a mature and well-adjusted thirty year old woman, I definitely knew better than to have sexy times thoughts again. The best friend of my ex is not my friend. Confucius probably said that.
“Looks like there’s something back here,” he said, setting a panel of drywall aside.
“Something good or something bad?” I winced as a big hairy spider scurried out of the cavity. “Ew.”
“It’s just a wolf spider. Nothing dangerous.”
“But there might be more.”
Without further comment, he reached down and picked up a piece of paper. It looked old. Which made sense. Lord only knew how long it had been in the wall. It was kind of like opening a time capsule.
“What is it?” I asked, more than a little curious.
His gaze narrowed as he read, his forehead furrowing. Next his brows rose and his lips thinned. His expression quickly changed from disbelief to fury as he shoved the piece of paper at me. The open hostility in his eyes was a lot coming from a man of his size. “Susie, what the fuck?”
“Is this your idea of a joke?”
“No. I…” The paper was soft with age and the writing was faded but legible. Mostly. Superior Court of Washington, County of King was written at the top. There was also a date stamp. This was followed by a bunch of numbers and the words Final Divorce Order. “Wait. Is this a divorce certificate?”
“Yeah,” he said. “For you and me. Dated a decade from now.”
I scrunched up my nose and ever so slightly shrieked, “What? Hold on. You think I put this in there?”
“No,” he said, getting all up in my face. “I know you put it in there, Susie.”
“Take a step back, please,” I said, pushing a hand against his hard chest.
He did as I asked, some of the anger leaching from his face. Then he grumbled, “Sorry.”
“Why would you do that? Actually, it doesn’t matter. Find someone else for the job,” he said, gathering up his tools. “I’m out of here.”
“Can you just wait a second?”
Apparently the answer was no. Because the man started moving even faster. “I don’t know what game you’re playing. But I’m not interested in finding out.”
I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I did not put this in the wall, Lars. Think about it. You’re a builder. Had any of the wallpaper or drywall been disturbed in the last forty or fifty years?”
“You could have accessed it from the other side. I don’t know.”
“I didn’t even know you were coming here today.”
He grunted. “Only got your word for that.”
“And I’ve only got your word that you didn’t put this in in the wall for some stupid reason,” I said, thinking it over. How did that not occur to me? “Of course you put it there. I wasn’t the first one to have access to that space. You were. A quick sleight of hand is all it would have taken. This is so unprofessional.”
“Very nice. I’m sure you prepared that speech at the same time you planted it, knowing I’d inevitably be the one who first touched it.”
“And I’m sure you prepared that speech at the same time you planted it, knowing I’d suspect you.”
He glared at me. “Why the hell would I, Susie?”
“Why the hell would I, Lars?” I bellowed. “This is ridiculous. I just want my house fixed. That’s all. And I specifically asked who would be doing the job because I didn’t feel the need to see you again.”
With his back to me, he paused.
“No offense. But I knew it would be wildly uncomfortable.”
“Why’d you use the company I work for then?”
“Because I know they’re reputable and do good work. You yourself said that’s one of the main reasons why you’ve stuck with them. Because they don’t encourage you to cut corners or use shoddy materials and they treat their staff well. Also, they pretty much do everything. These things matter.” I raised a finger. (No. Not that one.) “Take car repairs for instance. Because I know little to nothing about cars, I get ripped off by repair shops—I’m sure of it. I didn’t want that to happen here.”
Another grunt. What an animal.
“I wish neither to marry nor divorce you, Lars. And I’m pretty sure the feeling’s mutual. So this piece of paper I’m holding in no way benefits me. Look at me. Am I laughing? No, I’m not. Nor am I enjoying all this drama. Confrontation stresses me the fuck out,” I said, my shoulders slumped. “I don’t know what else to say. This is ridiculous.”
“You already said that.”
“It’s worth repeating.”
He gave me a look over his shoulder. “If you’re messing with me…”
“I’m not. Are you messing with me?”
“Then what the hell is going on?” I asked the universe.
Without another word, he got to his feet and strode out of the room, heading straight into the bathroom next door. There he made quick work of checking everything. The tiling and paintwork, around the white pedestal basin, inside the mirrored cabinet set into the wall, and the end of the claw foot bath tub. Then he turned around, face set to cranky. “Access point for the attic?”
In no time flat, he had the ceiling hatch open and the ladder down. Then up into the darkness he went. His cell phone doubled as a flash light again.
“Lot of stuff up here,” he commented.
“That does not surprise me. My aunt was kind of a hoarder. Not as bad as the people on those TV shows, but…yeah.”
He sneezed. “A lot of dust, too.”
“Bless you. I haven’t even been up there yet,” I said. “Cleaning and clearing space out down here has taken all of my time.”
His big boots disappeared up the last rungs of the ladder while I waited below. After all, I’d only be in the way. It had absolutely nothing to do with my fear of creepy crawlies. Someone had to wait below with the weird ass document. The sounds of him stomping about and things being shifted came next. Something heavy was pushed aside. Something else fell and glass broke.
“Sorry,” Lars called.
“I’m sure it was nothing valuable. Hopefully.”
Then his face appeared in the dark hole overhead. “Looks like they built the attic to use as another bedroom or office at some stage. The floorboards and everything are tight. No real access into the walls below.”
“Plus there’s about an inch of dust on the ground and no sign of any footprints other than mine.”
“Good work, Nancy Drew,” I said. “Is the basement next?”
He gave me a flat, unfriendly look. “Yes.”
Maybe I’d be better off finding another builder. In fact, I knew I would be. Though it would only be trading one peace of mind for another. While Lars would no longer be in my face, I wouldn’t be able to trust the new builder’s work to the same degree. Which would be anxiety-inducing and possibly costly. Talk about a no-win situation.
Back into the dining room then through to the kitchen at the back of the house, we went on our not-so-merry adventure. I opened the door to the dingy staircase. “I like to call this the murder room. Dark, dank, dangerous. It’s got it all.”
No response from him as we made our way down. Tough crowd. It was just a basic concrete room with a boiler, laundry area, and more assorted crap. But the old boiler, the one before this one, used to make creepy noises. Hence my childhood fears of the basement. Helping with the laundry was always an ordeal. I usually avoided it by offering to do the dishes instead.
Lars began examining the ceiling.
“When did you find out you had this job?”
“Around eight this morning. The office called,” he said. “Mateo’s boyfriend got hit by a car riding to work.”
“Is he okay?”
“A few bumps and bruises and a sprained wrist.”
“Yeah,” he said. “The job I was on was close to finishing and they could spare me, so they asked me to come here.”
“What gets me is that the paper looks old. I mean, the way the text is faded and everything.” I carefully turned the certificate over in my hands. “I wonder if we could get it tested, somehow.”
He scoffed. “You don’t actually think it’s real?”
“I honestly don’t know,” I said. “What I do know is, if you didn’t put the certificate there to mess with me—and I guess I believe you when you say you didn’t—then I can think of no rational explanation for how it got there.”
He frowned harder and kept right on inspecting the ceiling. Even he had to admit that it was highly unlikely I’d put the decree of dissolution in the wall. Surely.
“Does your middle name start with A?”
“So the details are right, at least. No money judgement ordered. No real property judgement ordered. This marriage is dissolved. The petitioner and respondent are divorced. Not much information there to go on.” I chose my next words with care. “You know, my aunt, she was kind of eccentric. She was always burning candles and buying crystals.”
Looking back over his shoulder at me, he raised a questioning brow.
“The thing is, she used to talk to the house sometimes,” I finally said. “Like it was an actual living breathing entity. And yes, maybe she was lonely or a little strange. Please don’t say anything mean or dismissive about her.”
“I’m not going to say anything about your aunt.”
He didn’t even blink. “But it’s not supernatural, Susie. This was no ghost or spirit or whatever you’re suggesting.”
“Okay. Fine. I just thought I’d put that out there,” I said. “Did you find anything down here?”
“So now what?”
Face set, he walked over, staring into my eyes as if he could read my soul.
“I want to believe you when you say you had nothing to do with it. You always seemed like a pretty honest person to me,” he said. “A bit too honest, sometimes.”
“How so?” I asked, only mildly annoyed—although I was exercising great restraint.
“Some of the stuff you come out with sometimes is…unnecessary.”
“Let’s agree to disagree,” I said.
He shook his head.
“I would point out, however, that I’m not brutal. Ever notice how people who say they’re just being honest usually are?”
His nostrils flared on a deep breath. How that was in any way attractive I had no idea. Something must be wrong with me. Guess my vibrator was getting a little boring. Maybe it was time for me to get out there and meet some men. Then again, not dating for the rest of my life would also be great.
“For the last time,” he said, speaking nice and slow, “did you put that piece of paper in the wall?”
“No. I swear.”
“Fuck,” he muttered.
“Fuck,” I agreed.
He sighed. “Someone’s messing with us.”
“Correct me if I’m wrong, but I thought you just said that you couldn’t find any way for someone to slip the certificate into the wall,” I said, confused.
“I’ve got to be missing something.”
“I don’t know,” he said, voice thick with frustration.
“Let me think.” I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Why don’t we go pull off the other panels on that wall? See if they left anything else for us to find.”
He gazed off at nothing for a moment before nodding. “Good idea.”
Nothing about this made sense. I couldn’t think of anyone who might have put the divorce certificate in the wall to mess with me. The other thing was, I’d made the choice to not get married a long time ago. My parents divorced when I was five. They’d given up on having children about a decade before, when my brother arrived out of nowhere. They then compounded the problem by having me. I read a study once that showed that children of divorced parents are almost seventy percent more likely to have their marriage end in divorce. While I dreamed of finding The One, there would be no big white dress for me. And I didn’t need one. If love and commitment weren’t already present in the relationship, then a marriage certificate wasn’t going to fix a damn thing.
It took no time at all for Lars to remove the next section of drywall in the second bedroom.
Nothing. Just more dust and cobwebs. But as for the third…
“There’s a hole down at the bottom of this one,” said Lars, bending to inspect the drywall. The hole was about the size of his hand and cunningly hidden behind a flap of wallpaper.
“Notice how the carpet is darker?” I asked, pointing. “There used to be a set of drawers here. No one would have even known the hidey hole was there.”
He cut into the drywall once again, revealing the house’s insides.
“Bingo,” muttered Lars.
“What is it?”
He brushed off the front of the magazine. “Porn.”
Sure enough, a blonde hippy wearing a sheer floral dress contemplated her toes on the cover. Bet she had natural bush and everything. And good for her.
“Playboy. April 1972.” I inspected the thing. “Oh, good God. Do you know what that must be? My father’s teenage masturbation material!”
He bit back a smile. “Probably.”
“At least the pages aren’t stiff.”
“That’s not funny,” I said, tossing the magazine onto the ground. “I need to go bathe in bleach.”
He returned to the wall. “The drywall is well-attached to the studs. Not much room to slip anything through.”
“Studs are the pieces of wood making up the frame of the house?”
“Even if you could get your arm in the hole, I don’t see how you could get a piece of paper past the first stud, across the space between, then past the second stud to place it where we found it.”
“No.” He scratched at his short beard. Or maybe it was long stubble. “I’m out of ideas. How about you?”
I shrugged and slipped the folded up certificate out of the pocket in my black cotton dress. Because in a right and good world, dresses should have pockets. “I can’t think of anything.”
“Why don’t I get back to work?”
“You’re really going to stay?”
His turn to shrug. Then he picked up his now cold coffee and downed half of it.
I smiled. “Okay. I’ll leave you to it.”
While the sawing and hammering commenced in the bedroom, I got busy with my own work. First I responded to comments on today’s posts. Defused an angry customer with a twenty dollar gift card. Then I started working on future promotions. Such was the joy of being a social media manager. I got to work from home the bulk of the time. But I had to be friendly, funny, creative, a problem solver, and available just about around the clock. My main clients were an organic and recycled clothing company, a fleet of coffee trucks, and an online menstruation products store. I loved my job.
By the time I took a lunch break several hours later, I was ready to return to solving this whole mystery divorce certificate thing. I was also ready to eat. “You hungry?”
Lars gazed up at me. “Starving.”
There was a certain satisfaction in seeing a man on his knees. Too bad it was only renovations-related. But I digress. “BBQ?”
“Let’s do it.”
Thanks to the magic of delivery, we were soon sitting on the front porch with our food in hand. It was a typical pleasant summer’s day. Blue sky, birds, the usual. The mountain was out which meant you could see Mt Rainier. Always a nice thing. While Seattle was known for its rain, we do get some good weather. And all of the wet meant the grass and trees were a shade of green I’d never seen anywhere else. The plot of land the cottage sat on was about the size of a postage stamp, but there was room for a small garden in the front and back. I’d killed more than my fair share of houseplants. Perhaps this was my chance to develop a green thumb.
“Thought of a few questions,” Lars said, piling up his fork with coleslaw. “Who’s visited since you moved in?”
“Didn’t we already establish that there was no way someone could have hidden the certificate without the drywall being removed?”
“Okay.” I took a sip of water. “It’s not like I’ve been throwing parties or anything. The place isn’t ready for that yet. My friend Cleo has been over a few times.”
He gazed out at the quiet street for a minute. “Don’t think I ever met her.”
“No, I don’t think you did either. And leaving that in the wall isn’t something she would do. It’s not even like I would have mentioned you to her.”
“You were the best friend. Not the boyfriend.”
“Women only talk about relationships?”
I wrinkled my nose in disgust.
“What?” he asked.
“That question was just so stupid I honestly don’t know how to answer it.”
He gave me a dour look.
“Women talk about a lot of things, Lars. I just didn’t particularly talk about you.”
“All right,” he said. “Who else?”
“Just my family.”
“Do they know about me?”
“Maybe I mentioned you in passing,” I said. “But certainly not to the degree that they’d feel the need to pull a stunt like this.”
“Is there anyone in your life who would?”
“I have an uncle who put fake dog poop in my shoe once. I was twelve at the time.” I wiped my mouth with the napkin. “But that’s about it as far as tricksters go.”
“What about neighbors?”
“What about them?”
“Do you know any of them?”
I shook my head. “Aunt Susan knew some of them, but…”
We ate in silence for a moment. Then he held up his half-eaten plate of brisket, coleslaw, and cornbread. “You want to swap?”
I passed over my pulled pork, mac ‘n’ cheese, and collard greens. No idea how it started, but swapping meals was something Lars and I used to do when we all went out to dinner. Double dating or whatever. We had similar tastes and this meant we could sample more of the menu. After all, who wouldn’t want to try two different desserts?
I tapped my fork against my lips, thinking deep thoughts. “Just to reiterate, no one knew you were coming here today before eight o’clock this morning?”
“Right,” he said.
“This is so bizarre. It’s like something out of a movie.”
He took a bite of cornbread and nodded. After he swallowed he said, “This isn’t the first time we’ve found stuff behind walls during renovations. Newspaper for insulation, tools that got dropped when the place was being built, old bottles from Prohibition, even.”
“One job I heard about, they found a gun and some money.”
“Wish we’d found money.”
“What would you have done with it if we had found ten grand?” he asked.
“Something frivolous. Like go to Paris or buy a pair of Prada heels.” I smiled. “What about you?”
“Nothing. Your house, your walls, your porn collection. The money is all yours.”
“Say we’d have split it down the line.”
“In that case, add it to the fund for my business startup.”
“How sensible and mature.”
“You say that like it’s a bad thing,” he said. “We’re old enough, we should have our act together.”
“I have a house.”
“Not because you saved up and worked for it.”
“Ouch.” I opened my eyes painfully wide. “I’ll have you know, I’ve been building up my business for years.”
“Sounds like I hit a nerve.”
“Oh, you think?”
He cocked his head, and didn’t say a word.
“You make me sound like some profligate,” I said.
“I didn’t mean–”
“Yes, you did. And it’s true, I enjoy pretty things, but I work damn hard for them. I invest back in my business often and my credit card and car are paid off in full.”
“Okay,” he said.
“Men like you do my head in. You know, you call yourself nice guys. So laid back and easy going. But then you sit back and judge the absolute shit out of people. And more often than not, those people are women.”
For a moment he just stared at me, then he sighed. “I’m sorry.”
“Yes,” he said. “You’re right. I was out of line.”
“I’m glad you see that.”
“You and I have a bad habit of rubbing each other the wrong way. Always have.”
“Guess we do.”
He shoved an agitated hand through his golden hair, pushing it back off his face. He had a nice face. High cheekbones and a sharp jawline. Too bad he could be an utter jerk. The Ex had a tendency to see things in black and white too. As if the world were full of absolutes. Small-minded people terrified me. Imagine thinking you already knew everything there was to know. That you were never wrong. How the hell would you ever learn anything new?
“I’m no longer wondering why we got divorced, at least.”
Lars did the raising one eyebrow thing again. “It’s not real, Susie.”
“I know, I just…” I watched a butterfly fluttering around the lavender plant by the front steps. “We don’t even have any chemistry.”
He paused. “I wouldn’t say that.”
“No.” And he said it so matter-of-factly.
My eyebrows all but kissed the sky. “Huh.”
“Not that it matters,” he said. “You dated my friend so there’s no way.”
“Ah, the bro code.”
“You dudes, you’re so principled. I love that about y’all,” I drawled.
The hint of amusement was back in his gaze. “Susie, in another life, if we actually got together, I honestly think we’d kill each other. Don’t you?”
And then he smiled. He had a great smile. Dammit. So maybe there was something there. Just not anything that would ever be acted upon. That much was certain.
“That’s wild,” said Cleo later that night on the phone. She was a photographer, and a kindred spirit. We met years ago through work.
“Do you think the house is haunted?”
“I love that you ignored logic and jumped straight to that conclusion.”
She laughed. “There’s a reason we’re friends.”
“I was thinking that the hole is a split in the space-time continuum.”
“That would work,” she said. “Though that would also require you to marry and divorce him at some point in the future.”
“Not if it was from a parallel dimension.”
“Okay. I’m buying it. Carry on.”
“You know, I tried to tell him it might be supernatural and he wouldn’t listen.” I lay back on my bed, staring at the ceiling. Plain white, thankfully. Unlike the walls and floors, it had escaped any ugly interior trends from bygone eras. The certificate lay on the mattress next to me. I had carried it around all day. As if the strange thing might disappear if I took my eyes off it. “Though the house isn’t haunted, that I’m aware of. I mean, it creaks now and then. But all old homes do that, right?”
“It’s not like I’ve sensed Aunt Susan’s presence or anything,” I said. “I think I’d like to see a ghost, but I’d also be terrified to see a ghost.”
“Maybe we should have a séance.”
“Knowing our luck, we’d accidentally open a portal to hell,” she said. “And my mama would be appalled we were messing with that sort of thing.”
“Right. No séance.”
“It’s certainly a very odd discovery.”
“Lars is convinced someone is screwing with us. Which is the most likely conclusion,” I said. “I just can’t imagine why.”
“You definitely don’t think he put it there when you weren’t looking?”
“No, I don’t.” I frowned. “At first, he was baffled like me, but then he was furious. Like I was playing a game or stirring up trouble. He was ready to walk out until I talked him down. Not that I actually want him here. I’ve only just gotten over his idiot friend dumping me in front of everyone that he knew. Having Lars around is not my idea of a good time. Too complicated. Too many memories. He basically called me fiscally irresponsible and immature today.”
“What a poopy head.”
“And if you wanted payback against your fool of an ex you’d do it in a mature and sensible manner.”
“Like egging his house or something.”
“Actually, that sounds fun. How are you doing in the condo on your own?”
“I’mturning your old room into my office,” she said.
“Josh wants to move in with me.”
“It would help with the rent,” she said. “And I don’t mind him.”
“Aw. True love.”
Cleo laughed. “Maybe. I don’t know. It’s a big step and I’m enjoying having the place to myself. After the divorce I didn’t think I’d want a man in my space again. Of course, I didn’t think I’d ever want to date.”
“There’s no rush.”
“No.” She sighed. “Guess we’re both divorcees now.”
“Sure. Sort of. Though mine is still out there lurking in the future, apparently.”
“You better have asked me to be your bridesmaid.”
A plaintive meow had me turning my head. “There’s a cat sitting on my bedroom windowsill staring at me.”
“Little pervert,” she joked. “Are you dressed?”
“He’s grey with pretty green eyes. I wonder who he belongs to,” I said as the animal sat back and starting cleaning its belly. “Oh, he’s a she. Thanks for the view, friend.”
“Probably belongs to a neighbor,” she said. “What did you find in today’s boxes?”
Cleo helped me unpack the first few weekends after I moved. We scrubbed and vacuumed and sorted. With Mom in Michigan with her new husband, Dad having moved to head office in Florida, and my brother in a state of woe over having been left out of aunt Susan’s will, Cleo’s been a life saver. Now that I’m on my own, I’ve been going through a box of Susan’s junk a day. Separating the important from the trivial, from the puzzling. Making way for the future by clearing out the past. That’s how I tried to look at it. The idea of this task had quietly terrified me for years, but now that I’m neck deep in it, it’s been bigger than I ever imagined.
“The one I opened had holiday and birthday cards from the eighties. A stack of projector slides from the seventies documenting family holidays. A pair of cracked white leather knee high disco boots, some cool and colorful plastic bead necklaces, and the ashes of a dog named Rex.”
“Rest in peace, Rex.”
“Amen. I wish she was here to tell me the stories behind some of this stuff.”
“At least now the main floor of the house is clear,” I said. “Anything that still needs to be sorted has been put down in the basement. Though there is the attic. I may just pretend it doesn’t exist.”
“That’s not a bad idea. We still on for lunch on Thursday?”
“Absolutely,” I said. “How are the shots for the florist shop coming along?”
“Should be finished with the final edits tomorrow. The client was happy,” she said. “You know, maybe whoever left the fake certificate in the wall will come forward. Point and laugh at you. That sort of thing.”
“At least then I’d know what was going on.”
“I watched this court room TV drama one time where they had a forensic document examiner,” she said. “They gave testimony about a birth certificate being falsified. Maybe that’s the sort of person you need.”
“Maybe. Or maybe one of the ghost-hunters from those TV shows.”
“Keep me updated,” she said. “I love a good mystery.”
To my great disappointment, no one has come forward to claim responsibility. Though it’s only been one day since we found it. And no more documents appeared while Lars continued working yesterday. Which was probably for the best. Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves might have been cool with sending messages through time in that movie, The Lake House, but I found the experience to be less romantic and more of a mind fuck.
Lars arrived bright and early the next day. He immediately got busy fixing the warped window frame. The man said few words, but whenever our paths crossed he gave me sideways glances. Super sketchy ones. And if he wanted to go back to doubting me about the divorce certificate then there was no way I would be making him coffee. We ignored each other until it was time for my lunch break.
Any other contractor/handyman I could have largely ignored and left to their own devices. But Lars existed in a gray zone. He sort of felt like a guest in my house rather than a worker, but not really. It was complicated.
“I’m making lunch,” I said. “Would you like a sandwich?”
“Fine,” I snapped.
You don’t mess with a woman when she’s pre-menstrual and hungry. Everyone knows that. Lars, unfortunately, was an idiot. Because he gave me another of those dubious as all hell sideways glances. The bastard.
“I can’t believe we’re back to this again,” I said, hands on hips. “Do you have something you’d like to say?”
“You’re sure about that?”
I smoothed down the front of my black tank top, and straightened the waist of my cropped jeans. The black polish on my toes shone bright, which did wonders for my confidence and looked great with my strappy flat leather sandals. “Let me guess, you went home last night and your little brain started working overtime. Where could the divorce certificate have come from? I didn’t put it there. Susie was the only other person present. It must be her. Burn the witch!”
He gave me a dry look.
“No one knew I was going to be here,” he growled. “It’s the only thing that makes sense.”
“Give me strength. No-one, including me, knew you were going to be here. And this leads you to believe I must have planted it. Where’s the logic in that?”
“It’s like they say on that TV show. If you rule out the impossible, then whatever’s left, however improbable, must be the truth.”
“If you really believe that, then pack your things and get out,” I said. “Ask your office to bill me for the work that’s been done. We’re through here.”
He froze. “Are you serious?”
“You bet your ass I am. I don’t need this tension in my life. In my home while I’m trying to work. If you honestly believe I’m up to something, that I’m trying to mess with you, then go.”
Today he wore a faded Pearl Jam tee which was kind of the uniform in this town. And he wore it well. “It’s like you said yesterday. Another builder might rip you off. Not do the work right.”
“What do you care?”
For a long moment, he just looked at me. Then he sighed. “I always liked you.”
I didn’t know what to say.
“Not like that.” He hung his head. “I just…this shit is wild. It makes no sense.”
“I agree. But how about instead of turning on each other, we do something constructive?”
I crossed my arm and leaned against the doorframe. “A friend gave me an idea about how best to ascertain if the document is real.”
I shrugged. “Fine. So we send it to the forensic document examiner and rule out the possibility.”
“But it’s not real. There’s no point.”
“Do you have any better ideas?”
“No,” he admitted, eventually.
“I already called them and got a quote. I’m doing it.”
“All right then.” His expression spoke clearly of the suffering he endured at the hands of womankind. “Whatever you want, Susie.”
“Good answer, Lars.” I gave him two thumbs up. “In the future, why don’t you just lead with that?”
In response, he cracked his neck. “I lied. I would like a sandwich.”
“Of course you would.”
“What are your plans for out here?”
We sat out back in the two old Adirondack chairs beneath the Japanese maple to eat lunch. The area consisted of a patch of grass and a collection of bright ceramic pots filled with various herbs, a tomato plant, green onions, beans, and lettuce. I hadn’t managed to kill them yet. Fingers crossed.
“I’d love a small fire pit,” I said. “Make it a nice space to hang out at night.”
He nodded. “What about the exterior?”
“It definitely needs a fresh coat of paint. I was thinking some shade of blue. That way if I do decide to sell, it has broad appeal.”
“Don’t look now, but we’re being stalked.” I nodded to the side of the house where the gray cat sat watching us.
Lars smiled and took a bite of his sandwich. Roast beef, mustard, cheese, tomato, and lettuce. Comfort food was the best. Then he tore off a bit of meat and tossed it to the feline. I’ve never seen an animal move so fast. Or look so happy.
The messenger from the forensic document examiner had already picked up the document. But it would be two weeks before her report on the divorce certificate would be ready. A bummer since patience had never been my thing.
“What’s the plan for removing the wallpaper and carpet?” I asked.
“Mateo and Connor will be on site tomorrow to help with those jobs. This afternoon I’m going to measure some of the siding that needs to be replaced. Maybe take a look at that front step that’s a little loose.”
“You’re a useful man.”
“So what have you done with your life in the last six months?”
“What have I done?” He raised a brow. “Let me think…worked on this cool houseboat that a friend bought. That was fun.”
“And I’ve been doing some hiking.”
“How athletic of you.”
“Went on a winery tour the other weekend. That was okay.”
“That sounds like a date,” I said. “Who’d you go with?”
“Just a friend.”
“And you’re such a friendly guy.”
He gripped the back of his neck. “I forgot how much you like to bust my ass.”
“Oh now, don’t feel special. I do it to everyone.”
“I don’t know. Seems like you were always pretty sweet to–”
“Do not say his name.”
For a moment, he said nothing. “What about you? What have you been up to?”
“My aunt passed soon after the last time I saw you. That was hard.”
“I’m sorry,” he said in a low voice.
I nodded. There were a lot of things you could say about losing a loved one. But there wasn’t a single word that would bring them back. “Work has been good. Busy. This place has taken up most of my time.”
“Must be strange, dealing with all the debris from someone else’s life.”
“It is,” I agreed. “There’s a lot of history here. I’m the third generation of our family to live in this house. No one but me is really interested in any of it. Guess that makes it easier in some ways, deciding what to do with it all. What to keep and what to rehome. But it’s sad too, you know?”
He just watched me.
“Are you close to your family?”
One side of his mouth turned upward. “Yeah. I’m the oldest of three. My sister’s married with two kids down in San Diego. I share a condo with my brother.”
“You live with your brother? I didn’t know that. Are you enjoying it?”
“I am.” He gazed around the little yard. “We have a couple of investment properties together. It’s all part of a business plan we’ve been working on for a while. Eventually we’ll get sick of living in each other’s pockets. But for now everything’s good.”
“That’s great. I’m glad.”
“Me too.” Something started buzzing and he pulled out his phone. The expression that crossed his face… I couldn’t read it. “Excuse me.”
Then he was up and out of his chair, walking away. “Hey, man. How’s London? What time is it over there?”
I stared at him as he wandered around the side of the house out of listening range. Not that I wanted to hear a damn word. Shame on me for relaxing for a moment and forgetting. Lars and the Ex were tight and had been since he moved in next door at the age of eight. No way could I ever trust someone who had such appalling taste in besties. It was a fundamental flaw in his character. There was no getting past it. Therefore there was nil chance I would ever marry or divorce him. Guess Lars was right about getting the document examined, after all. A total waste of time and money.
End of story.
Excerpted from End of Story by Kylie Scott. Copyright © 2022 by Kylie Breakey. Published by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A.
This is one of the best sort of friends, to best friends, to forever. That this reviewer's had the pleasure of for quite some time.
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