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Sunday, December 30, 2018

A taste of "Renovating the Billionaire."

   The bus ride to the prison in Fishkill and back provided reading time for Jess Lennox. She settled into a window seat and prepared to read. A man slid in next to her. Jess pulled the book closer. Feeling his stare, she squeezed up against the glass.
   “You visiting a relative?” he asked, eying her up and down.
   She nodded. The last thing she needed was some chatty, middle-aged man hitting on her.
   “My wife. Shoplifting. Minimum security.”
Jess ignored him and kept reading.
   “It gets lonely with her gone,” he continued.
Anger bubbled up in her chest. Damn it! She worked hard, and this trip once a month was her only time off.
   “Your boyfriend in the slammer?” he asked.
Her patience evaporated like water boiling on the stove. Jess slammed the book shut and faced the insensitive clod.
   “My mother. She’s in for murder. She killed my father. They say murderous tendencies run in families,” she said, shooting him the meanest glare she could muster.
   The man paled, nodded once and pushed to his feet.
   “I can see you don’t want to be disturbed,” he muttered and headed for another seat. Jess smiled and opened her novel If I Loved You.  Totally absorbed by the story, tears formed in her eyes as she identified with the trials the characters endured.
   Jess ate up love stories from the library by the dozen. Romance books kept her believing that things could work out, that life could get better—and happiness did exist. When the bus pulled up to the Pine Grove stop, she scooted past the annoying man, down the steps, and ran for her car.
She stowed the book in the glove compartment until her next visit and put the vehicle in gear.
    The story stuck with her. What would she do if she ever met a man like Chaz Duncan? Would she even recognize his good heart under his arrogant attitude? With a short laugh, she figured she wouldn’t. Jess hated egotistical men, men so in love with themselves they couldn’t see anyone else.
   She’d only met one man who had cracked her hard veneer. Chip Matthews won her heart in high school. He’d taken her virginity then, too. But she didn’t care. He had provided respite from the anger, fighting, and hostile atmosphere in her home. He’d been her refuge.
   Pulling into the parking lot of Java the Hut, she turned off the car and plucked a dollar bill from her purse. Inside, an iced coffee-to-go waited on the counter. Marge, the waitress, looked up. Jess picked up the paper cup and slid her buck across the shiny Formica. She shot a small smile at the older woman and headed back to her vehicle.
   Next stop, the old mansion on Route 113. She turned on the radio and cranked up the volume to banish the reality of how many more trips she’d make to Fishkill over the next fifteen years. Taking the winding road that hugged Cedar Lake refreshed her spirits.
   There it was, in all its glory. Way below ramshackle, the 1825 four-story mansion stood with whatever pride it could muster. All the windows were broken and there were bare spots on the roof, including one large hole—providing entry for a variety of wildlife.
When she was only eighteen, Jess had stumbled on the house and fallen in love. Minnie West, the old woman who owned it, had invited her in for tea and cookies. Jess gained entry to every room by volunteering to sweep and dust. Including bathrooms, there were forty rooms in the mansion.
   The third floor resembled a rabbit warren of tiny rooms only big enough for a single bed and small dresser. Jess guessed those were the servants’ quarters. At the end of the floor was the longest staircase she’d ever seen. It went straight down from the top floor to the kitchen.
   Minnie chatted about the history of the house and how, years ago, she’d raised her nephew there. The older lady didn’t go on much about him, and he never visited—at least not when Jess was around. As time went on, Jess noticed the house sink further and further into disrepair. When she asked Minnie about it, the woman had explained.
   “Oh, I have money, but I spend it on saving animals. A house is just a thing. Animals are alive. So many need help, you know. I do what I can. I give to several shelters.”
   While Jess agreed with the worthiness of the cause, she doubted the wisdom of putting it ahead of upkeep for the old house. Years passed, and Jess had less and less time for visits. Providing for her brother and herself had become more than a full-time job. She and Minnie lost touch.    
After studying cooking in high school, Jess had become a pretty fair baker. She eked out a meager living baking and selling her pies to restaurants, shops, and hotels. She conjured up a dream of buying the fixer-upper from Minnie for a song, repairing it, and running a bed and breakfast.
  One day while spying on his big sister, Will had discovered her secret. He promised not to tell anyone and vowed that he’d fix it. He told her that new paint, hammer, nails, and a ton of elbow grease could restore the splendor of the mansion. Jess believed every word.
From that day on, they had shared the secret.  Jess sold her cakes and pies while Will did odd jobs and a bit of carpentry when he could get it. They worked toward making the dream come true.
   When Minnie got too old to take care of the place, she moved to an assisted living facility several counties away. Year after year, Jess spied the weather-beaten for sale sign staked in the front lawn.
From time to time, a real estate agent brought someone by, but they left quickly. The only one with a vision for the decrepit house, Jess smiled every time a car carried away someone shaking their head and wrinkling their nose.
   A few pangs for the dotty old woman who had lived in the mansion tweaked Jess’s heart. She’d waited patiently for the old woman to put the building up for sale at a rock-bottom price.
   Now thirty, with Will a sturdy twenty-five, she figured they were ready to take on world’s biggest renovation and make her dream come true. Even after such a long wait, Jess had never given up on her dream. She simply baked her pies, did odd jobs for folks in town and kept house for her and her brother. They put away a few bucks when they could and waited.
Today she circled around back, eying the snarled weeds, wiry brambles, and tree stumps in the backyard. Jess planned where she’d plant her garden. Fresh veggies and herbs would make her food better than anyone’s for miles.
   She found a patch of grass and lay down, staring at the pitched roof and the top floor that, in its day, had cooks, butlers, and maids filling its rooms. As she picked at a weed, she made a mental list of the seeds and plants she’d buy when the place was hers.
   The clouds cleared, and the sun shone down. Jess believed in guardian angels. How else had she and Will survived without parents these past twelve years?
   She glanced around. Something wasn’t right. Jess sat up. What was missing? The “for sale” sign had disappeared. She picked up her phone and called her brother.
   “Haven’t you heard? Old Minnie West finally kicked the bucket,” he said.
   Jess put down her phone. Did this mean that her time to buy the place had come? If that was true, where was the sign?

To find out what happens next, pre-order the book, releasing on January 15, here: