By: L.M. Pruitt

“You always did have the weirdest sense of humor.” If her uneasy smile was any indication, she still wasn’t entirely sure if I was joking but she wasn’t willing to pass up a sizable commission. She shifted her focus back to her computer screen, tapping a few more keys before clearing her throat. “You said either four or five bedrooms, didn’t you?”

“I’d prefer five but I’ll settle for four.”

Her mouth thinned some and I knew it was the comment about ‘settling’. Darlene Tibbets hadn’t been as bad as some of the people in Cotton Creek when I was growing up but she’d always been a firm believer in people knowing their place. It was clear she thought I was stepping too far out of mine. “I’ve got two with four bedrooms and one with six bedrooms.”

“Six?” I frowned. “You’re not talking about the old Fisher place, are you?”

“As a matter of fact, I am.” She lifted her chin and sniffed much the same way Tammy had done last night. It didn’t impress me any more with her than it had with my niece. “I know it’s a bit old-fashioned but—.”

“How much?”

She blinked. “Excuse me?”

“How much?”

The price she quoted was steep, especially considering the age of the property, but not so steep the kids and I would be living off Ramen and Chef Boyardee while I tried to make the mortgage payments. I nodded and stood. “Let’s go look at it.”

“Right now?” Darlene stared at me, dumbfounded. “This minute?”

“You said it yourself—the kids and I are practically sleeping on top of each other. The sooner we find a place, the sooner we can move, the sooner we can stop living in each other’s pockets.” I raised my brows. “Unless you or the owners are opposed to a quick sale.”

“Oh, no, no, no, honey, not opposed at all.” She hit something on the keyboard which set the printer to whirring as she scrambled to her feet, tugging her jacket down over her stomach. “You know how I feel about the customer always being right.”

“Great.” I beamed at her. “Let’s go.”

THE OLD FISHER place had been empty for the better part of twenty years, closed up since Annebelle Fisher had finally had the decency to shuffle off her mortal coil after nearly a hundred years of making every person in Cotton Creek miserable. The only reason it hadn’t been broken in to and vandalized was the very real and legitimate fear her ghost would rise up and smite down the offender. The only reason the entire building wasn’t falling in on itself was Mrs. Fisher had had the foresight to set up a trust to make sure basic upkeep was provided.

Still, standing on the sidewalk, staring at the house through a wrought iron fence which had clearly seen better days, I couldn’t help but think either Mrs. Fisher hadn’t left enough money or somebody needed to be shot.

The house wasn’t exactly on its last leg but it was very, very close.

“I’m going to want to see the maintenance records for the entire time the house has been in trust and then I’m going to want them verified by a third party.” I glanced at Darlene, not surprised at the look of disapproval on her face. “That won’t be a problem, will it?”

“I don’t see why.” She pulled a massive keychain out of her purse, shoving a key which looked as if it went to the gates of Hell in the lock. She shoved the gate open with her shoulder, both of us wincing at the groaning squeak. “Just needs a little oil.”

“I’m sure.” I held my tongue as we made our way up the cracked walkway, tucking it in my cheek when we reached the steps, the first one creaking under our combined weight. “Let me guess? A few nails?”

“It’s an old house.” If her lips got any thinner, they’d disappear in her doughy face. “You have to expect there to be a few issues.”

“Actually, I don’t, but we can leave that discussion for after I view the house.” I nodded at the door. “Shall we?”

While she fumbled with the keys, mumbling something under her breath about ungrateful heathens, I braced myself for whatever disaster I’d find on the inside. I’d already decided to buy—one, the kids and I needed the room and two, it would annoy the hell out of everyone in Cotton Creek, whether they knew me or not. What I wanted to know was how much ammunition I had to talk the estate down to a decent price and how much of a loan I was going to have to take out to do renovations.

Because, damn it, I wanted to be able to control my air conditioner with my phone, too.