Muddy Waters by Maggie Toussaint

ISBN: 9781601548276
The Wild Rose Press

Trade Paperback
eBook

Copyright © 2010 by Maggie Toussaint

Chapter 1

“How’s my favorite southern realtor?”
Roxie Whitaker frowned at the slight. She wasn’t just a realtor, she was a broker.
A glance at the text window of the phone yielded “Restricted” as the caller’s identity. No help there. She had to wing it. “A good Tuesday morning to you as well. How may I help you today, sir?”
At his smug chuckle, her back teeth ground together. Whoever this was, he enjoyed teasing her. It wasn’t any of her friends here in Mossy Bog. There was something familiar about the voice though, some element of cultured refinement that came through loud and clear.
“Rox, Rox, Rox, I hated those property prospectives you sent me. I want the place on Main Street.”
Sonny Gifford. Her South Carolina customer. “I’m sorry 605 Main Street is not for sale, but I’m certain Marshview Realty can meet your property needs. Will you be down tomorrow or Thursday?”
“Can’t make it, chickie. Too busy, but I’m heading your way next week.”
“Great. Call me when you lock in the date.”
“The way I see it,” Sonny drawled into the phone. “The owner of the Main Street property should jump at my offer. I’ll pay top dollar for the place, say a hundred grand?”
Sometimes people assumed that due to her relative youth, she didn’t have a lick of sense. Sonny Gifford radiated that vibe. The hairs on the back of her neck ruffled. “That property isn’t for sale, Mr. Gifford, but I’ll relay your interest. If the owner wants to sell, we’ll move forward with a reasonable offer.”
Sonny huffed a few breaths into the phone. Would he hang up on her? Tell her he was taking his business elsewhere? Roxie hovered in a breathless void of uncertainty.
“What about personal handling?” Sonny’s voice roughened. “Couldn’t you be extra nice to him to soften him up? Bat those pretty eyes at him and jam a contract under his nose at the same time. Old guys love private, personal attention.”
Her jaw dropped. She tried to speak and no sound came out. Finally a squeak emerged. “Mr. Gifford. I’m appalled by your suggestion.”
“No need to get huffy. It wasn’t like I asked you to sleep with the guy to seal the deal.”
“Mister. Gifford.”
“It’s Sonny, and I’m kidding. We wouldn’t want to cross any lines here, now would we?”
“No. We would not.”
Silence filled the line. She still wanted to sell a property to Sonny, but she didn’t want to talk with him, think about him, or see him ever again.
“Perhaps I should speak with him,” Sonny said.
“You’re certainly welcome to explore that avenue.”
“From the tone of your voice, you don’t approve?”
A muscle twitched in her cheek. “Call me if you decide you want professional real estate assistance in Mossy Bog.”
She ended the call and glanced over at her associate, Megan Fowler. “That was weird. A buyer more or less suggested I sleep with a seller to get a listing he wants.”
Alarm flared in Megan’s eyes. She reached for the phone. “We should report him.”
“I know. But then he said he was kidding. Why would he even joke about such a thing?”
“Your client is an idiot. I’m calling the cops.”
Roxie couldn’t afford to throw away a single customer. “No need. He isn’t local. It’s the jerk from South Carolina. If he comes here again, I’ll make sure I meet with him in a public place. It isn’t like he propositioned me.”
“He wanted to pimp you out, which is far worse in my opinion.”
***
Wednesday’s Open House on Walnut Street netted a few curious neighbors but not one nibble on Naomi Thompson’s adorable cottage. Roxie hoped for more success when she repeated the Open House in two weeks.
Her shoulders sagged, and her fingers tightened on Miss Daisy’s steering wheel as she turned off Prospect onto her driveway that evening. A snail chewing his way through the marsh would have made more headway than she had this week.
Dusk had settled, lengthening the shadows in her yard. Once she stepped inside her house, there was dinner to fix, pies to bake for the animal rescue group, and then a quiet evening with the latest Alyssa Day book. The Atlantis theme of Day’s work drew her in hook, line, and sinker.
She shouldered her purse and locked her vintage caddy. A single woman living alone couldn’t be too careful, even here in friendly Mossy Bog. She took a misstep over the hose she’d forgotten to put away last night. Righting herself, she noted it was too dark back here.
Her back porch light was off.
A smidge of unease rumbled through her. Roxie peered into the deep shadows of her yard. Was there trouble afoot? The urge to run back to the safety of Miss Daisy grew from a faint whisper to a steady thrumming in her ears.
What was she doing? The crime rate in Mossy Bog was practically nonexistent. With that reassurance, her nerves steadied and logic returned.
Lights burned out all the time. She’d get a new bulb from the pantry and have it fixed in two shakes. Fortunately, she knew the traffic pattern of her ground-level porch by heart. In seconds she stood at her back door, feeling her way through her key set, searching for the key with a pointed head. Got it.
She fumbled for the knob, and the door swung open.
Fear bolted through her. No light. An open door. In one heartbeat she went from confident, assertive woman to scared out of her mind. Instinctively, she raced for the safety of her car. Locked Miss Daisy’s doors. Floored the vintage Cadillac out of the driveway. Only when she reached the lighted convenience store five blocks away did she reach for the phone.
Laurie Ann Dinterman, city police officer, met her in the parking lot a few moments later. Laurie Ann pulled up next to Miss Daisy, lowered her car window. Serious brown eyes peered from beneath the rim of her police hat. “What’s up?”
Roxie found it hard to steady her breathing. The lights seemed too bright. The ordinary noises of town were too loud. “Someone was in my house. They may still be in my house. I don’t know. I just had to get out of there.”
Laurie Ann frowned. “You all right? Did you see anyone?”
“I’m fine. Scared, but fine.”
“Did you see anyone?” Laurie Ann repeated.
“No. But I didn’t look either. I was so freaked out. I ran. I’m sorry I didn’t pay closer attention.”
“Was anything stolen?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t go inside. Just got out of there and called y’all.” Sirens wailed in the distance.
Laurie Ann nodded in the direction of the noise. “That’s my backup from the Sheriff’s department. You did the right thing to get out of there. We’ll check it out for you.”
Shivering, Roxie followed the police cruiser back to her place. She waited in Miss Daisy while the officers entered her house with guns drawn. Her beautiful cottage glowed in an unearthly blue wash of emergency lights. Seconds of her life ticked by, an eternity of staring at her house, her home, which had been invaded by strangers.
The world spun off center, and a heavy weight pressed on her chest. She gasped for air, realized she’d been holding her breath, and focused her thoughts on breathing.
Three cops emerged from her house. Robbie Ballard and Jink Smith waved as they hopped into their cruisers and left. Laurie Ann approached Miss Daisy.
“All clear.” Laurie Ann holstered her weapon. “No one’s inside your house now. You sure you locked the door this morning?”
Roxie nodded too fast. Her pulse raced in her ears. “I always lock it.”
The cop took a long breath. “The kitchen was ransacked. Other than that, it may be the tidiest house I’ve ever been in. Come inside and tell me if anything is missing.”
Heart pounding, Roxie eased inside the porch and kitchen. Laurie Ann was right. Her cookbooks had been thrown on the floor. Every drawer had been emptied, pots and pans pulled out of cabinets. She picked up her precious cookbooks and skimmed through the titles. She scanned the rest of the rubble. Nothing seemed to be missing. What was going on?
Dazed, Roxie slumped into a kitchen chair. “I don’t understand. Why did someone break in if they didn’t take anything?”
Laurie Ann started to say something, stopped, then spoke. “That’s why I asked if you’d locked up this morning. It could have been something simple like that. Just didn’t pull the door all the way shut as you hurried off to work and a kid got in here.”
“No way. Gran taught me to double check each time I lock a door. This place was locked up tight. I guarantee it. Someone must have broken in.”
“The thing is—” Laurie Ann leaned forward in her chair, interlacing her fingers on the table. “There are no signs of forced entry. If you didn’t leave the door unlocked, this intruder is very very good. To be honest, we’ve never had such a high caliber housebreaker here in Mossy Bog. There’s usually a broken window or something pried open. Crime always leaves a mark. And stuff would be missing – electronics, jewelry, art, fancy clothing, collectibles, guns, liquor.”
“I don’t own a gun, and there’s no hard liquor in this house. I don’t have any of that fancy other stuff either. I don’t understand.”
“Someone was looking for something. But we don’t know what it is. Worse, we have no evidence.”
“What about fingerprints?”
“Did you touch the doorknob?”
“Yes.”
Laurie Ann appeared to give the idea some thought.  “Nah…seems to me this kind of housebreaker would be smarter than your average bear. We’d need to call the state boys in to process the scene.” She looked at Roxie, still frowning.  “If you really want us to, we can dust for prints but it’s messy and my gut feeling is it won’t give us anything new.”
“I didn’t make this up.”
“No one thinks you did. We don’t know what happened. But you need to be safe and think safe. You want me to call Megan to come over and stay with you?”
Roxie rose with Laurie Ann. “No need. I’ll be fine. I’m used to being by myself.”
“I’ll patrol extra on your street tonight and leave word with the police chief for the other shifts to do the same. You have any other trouble, you call me, okay?”
Roxie locked up after the cop left. Walking through the house, she flipped on one light after the other. She hated the thought that someone had been in here, that someone had snooped through her things. Back in the kitchen she cleaned up the floor, stuck all the dishes and flatware in the dishwasher. She tried the porch light. It came right on.
Waves of fear lapped in her head. A nameless, faceless person had pawed through her things. A ghost of a person. Heart pounding in her throat, she shrank away from the window and called her best friend. “Can you and Dave come over?”
“We’ll be right there,” Megan said.
Roxie’s hand shook as she ended the call. Grabbing the butcher knife, she huddled on the floor to wait for her friends. Thoughts whizzed through her head like sheet lightning over the marsh.
Someone had been in her home.
Someone had opened locked doors without leaving a mark.
Someone wanted to scare her.
Someone had accomplished their goal.
***
By Friday, Roxie had her nerves under control. The break-in lingered in the back of her mind, but she wouldn’t let fear dictate how she lived her life. Today she could handle the ringing of a phone or a clump of Spanish moss swaying in the breeze.
With that mindset, she initiated an online property search. Too tacky. Too scuzzy. Too far out of town. Only one house in town was the same vintage her customer wanted, her own home on Prospect, and it wasn’t for sale either.
Roxie paged resolutely through the listings. Sonny Gifford wanted an older home, but it had to be on a main road. Location, location, location. How many times had Gran drilled those words into her as she’d learned the trade?
The office phone shrilled, and fear darted into her bloodstream. With a hand to her thumping heart, she answered the call. “Marshview Realty. This is—”
Megan’s anguished sob warbled through the line. “I can’t do this.”
Roxie leaned forward and gripped the phone tightly. The terror of Wednesday night hovered in her mind. “What’s wrong?”
“There’s too much to do. I can’t possibly pull this off by this evening.”
Wedding jitters. Nothing life threatening. “Everything was fine two hours ago. What happened?”
“These stupid tablecloths. That’s what happened. These wrinkles came over on the Mayflower. The more I iron, the worse they look. I’m all hot and sweaty from ironing. Why did I let you talk me into staging my own wedding?”
“Hold up. I didn’t talk you into anything. You wanted—”
“I know. I know. I made the decision to do all this.” Megan sighed. “But I’ve got a lot of whine left. Right this minute, I’d rather be drowning in debt than working my fingers to the bone six hours before my wedding. People will be here soon, and I’ll look like something the tide washed ashore.”
“You’re there alone? Where are your sisters? Where’s your mother? They’re supposed to be helping you while I man the shop.”
“It’s been a circus all morning. My cat stowed away in the trunk, got carsick, threw up on Mother’s dress. Felicity took the cat to the vet, and Courtney is with Mother.” Megan hitched in a breath. “My flowers aren’t here either. Where’s your brother?”
“Timmy’s not there?”
“No.” Muffled sobs filled her ear. “How can I get married without flowers? Brides are supposed to carry bouquets. All I’ve got is this iron. I’ll probably kill a bridesmaid or two when I chuck this sucker over my shoulder.”
“Take a deep breath. We can fix this. I’ll close the office early and pick up your flowers. Keep decorating the parish hall. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
“Why didn’t I elope?” Her friend sniffed loudly. “People who elope don’t have these issues. I’ve already drained three bottles of water. I’m going to swell up like a blimp, my gown won’t fit, and Dave will run screaming from the church.”
Roxie snorted with laughter. If Megan could crack jokes, things weren’t quite at the brink of doom. But where was Timmy? Had he overslept? She hung up with Megan and dialed her brother’s cell phone. It rang and rang until a recorded message announced his voice mail box was full.  Had something happened to him?
Of course not.  This wasn’t related to her intruder.  This was just par for the course.  She needed Timmy and he wasn’t available. How many times had this story played out in the last five years?
She’d catch up with Timmy later. Right now, she had a friend to rescue. She shut down her computer and grabbed her purse. She had keys in hand when a black SUV turned into her parking lot amid a swirl of autumn leaves. The tinted windows made it hard for her to see inside.
Through her glass storefront window, she watched as the vehicle halted under a moss-draped oak tree at the far edge of the parking lot. The driver appeared to be male, with a cell phone glued to his ear. Chances were it wasn’t one of their rental clients or homebuyers. They would have pulled up to the front door.
Could it be a new client? A real, live client?
Quickly, she dialed the Muddy Rose. “Jeanie, I need a favor, and I have to talk fast because a potential client just pulled into my lot. Can you deliver Megan’s flowers to the church?”
“I thought Timmy was on tap for that.”
“He’s not available. I was on my way when this car turned in. Can you manage?”
“It’ll cost you.”
“Name it.”
“I want one of your pumpkin pies, a loaf of your raisin bread, and you have to chair the vendor committee for the spring festival. Our first meeting is coming up soon.”
“Man. You’re a regular barracuda today.”
“One more thing.”
“More?” Roxie kept one eye on the vehicle in her parking lot.
“Show the buyer my cousin Brent’s house. He’s got a new baby on the way.”
“I’ll do my best. Let’s hope this buyer brought his checkbook. And, Jeanie?”
“Yeah?”
“I’m alone. If I don’t call back in ten minutes on your cell, call the cops.” She hadn’t felt completely safe since Wednesday’s break-in.
“Don’t worry, I’ll drive by there on my way to the church.”
Roxie ended the call, popped a breath mint, and stashed her purse in a desk drawer. Glancing down, she made sure there weren’t any cracker crumbs on her white blouse or khaki slacks.
The vehicle’s door opened, and a large black and tan dog charged out, circled the perimeter of the sunny lot and found a tree to bless. A whistle shrilled, and the German shepherd vaulted back in the Jeep Grand Cherokee.
Her heart softened.
She’d always wanted a dog.
A dark-haired stranger in snug jeans and a muscle-hugging black polo climbed down out of the SUV. A shadow of beard lent him a dangerous air that shot her pulse through with something besides fear.
Married, no doubt.
They always were.
Think positive. He might buy waterfront acreage. The commission from a sale like that would keep her afloat for another year. She prayed with all her might that Marshview Realty was the solution to his problem.
Warm Indian summer sunshine wafted in through the front door with him, along with a fresh woodsy scent. Nice, Roxie thought. Very nice indeed.
She glanced up at him, appreciating his height. At five-seven, few men in town were taller than she was. He looked six-two, easy. His angular face wasn’t handsome in the classical sense, but she found all those lines and angles interesting.
His dark brown eyes locked on her as he crossed the carpet. His sure stride made her wonder if he already had a property in mind. She loved customers who had done their real estate homework.
She beamed a welcoming smile. “Welcome to Marshview Realty. How may I help you?”
“I’m looking for Ms. Roxie Whitaker.”
His voice rumbled through her in a pleasing way. He knew her name? “That’s me. What can I do for you?”
He handed her a business card. Bold red letters proclaimed Team Six Security. Near her thumb was a simplistic outline of a house.
“I’m Sloan Harding. You wrote me about a property I own.”
Realization dawned. Not a client. A neighbor, of sorts. She drew in a shallow breath of appraisal. And what a neighbor. Too bad he lived in Atlanta.
“Thank you for coming, Mr. Harding,” she said, hiding her disappointment. “That water oak branch did serious damage to your roof. I’m so relieved you’re here. Have you been by the house?”
He nodded tersely. “The yard is very well maintained.”
“Oh.” Roxie chewed her lip, wondering how much to tell him.
“I wasn’t aware of an arrangement to care for the property,” he said. “I pay the taxes, nothing more.”
“Gran mowed your yard and weeded the beds,” she explained. “When I inherited her house and business, I, um, took on that responsibility as well.”
“Gran?”
“My grandmother, Lavinia Bolen.”
“Lavinia’s dead?”
Tears brimmed in her eyes. She blinked them away. “She passed away last year.”
He tucked his fingers in the back pockets of his jeans and seemed to be grappling with the news. Had he been close to Gran? Gran had barely mentioned Sloan Harding to her in the ten years she’d lived in Mossy Bog.
“How much do I owe you for mowing the lawn?” he asked.
Heat flamed her cheeks. She hadn’t done it for the money, but because it was the right thing to do. “You don’t owe me anything.” Coolly, she opened her desk drawer and extracted a page from his file. “Here’s a list of local contractors you can call for estimates.”
He took it and scanned the page. “Why are there plumbers and electricians on this list?”
“There may be other repairs needed. Your house has been vacant for thirteen years.”
“Thank you.” He frowned. “Are you always so helpful, Ms. Whitaker?”
“Call me Roxie, and I enjoy helping people.”
Her phone rang.
“Excuse me.” Please don’t let it be another wedding emergency, she prayed as she picked up the line. Instead her brother’s flat voice sounded in her ears. His problem hit her like a steamroller. She jotted down the information in a daze, then hung up the phone and sank into her chair.
“Is something wrong?”
“My brother. Timmy’s in jail.”
“What’s the charge?”
“Drunk and disorderly conduct.” Tears of frustration welled in her eyes. “Timmy and his college buddies were picked up early this morning.”
Her new neighbor handed her a tissue. “I wouldn’t worry. A night in jail builds character.”
She stared at him, stung by his judgmental tone. “Timmy could have been hurt, or worse, he could’ve hurt someone. He’s only nineteen years old. Where did he get the booze?”
“Really. I wouldn’t sweat it if I were you.” Her absentee neighbor edged toward the door. “I’m sure your brother will grow up to be a fine upstanding citizen. He’s got you.”
In agitation, Roxie dabbed at her tears. He was right. But she couldn’t very well dance at Megan’s wedding while Timmy was locked up in an Atlanta jail.
Wait a minute. Sloan Harding was from Atlanta. “Do you know anything about the jail Timmy is in? Are the cops well-trained?”
Harding’s lips quirked, and Roxie bristled. Did he think her questions were funny?
“No one has escaped from an Atlanta jail recently, if that’s what you mean,” he said. “You planning to bake him a cake with a file in it?”
“Of course not. Will they lock him up with hardened criminals?”
“He’ll survive.”
Timmy had sounded so defeated on the phone. “He told me not to come, but I should go anyway.”
“You going to yell at him about drinking?”
“Definitely. I can’t believe he was so stupid.”
“Then don’t go. Your brother knows what he’s done.”
If Timmy knew better, why did he keep making stupid mistakes? “He’s messed up before, but he’s never been in jail.” She waved the man’s business card at him. “Will you help me check on him? Maybe you have some connections? Someone who could give us inside information?”
For a long moment, she thought he would refuse. Then he unclipped his phone. “Where is he?”
She handed him the number she’d jotted down. Why couldn’t Timmy follow the rules like everyone else? Sometimes it was hard to believe they had the same DNA. The more responsibility she took on, the more Timmy shirked.
Her unexpected visitor finished his call and turned to face her. “They’ll hold your brother a few more hours, then he’ll be released. I imagine he’ll go home and sleep it off. You can fuss at him tomorrow.”
“He’s in good hands?”
“He’s fine.”
Relief made her lightheaded. Timmy wouldn’t be in jail much longer. That was good. He’d go back to his apartment and crash. Her free-spirited brother would survive.
But he wouldn’t be in Mossy Bog tonight. Which left her without an escort this evening.
Truthfully, going with Timmy wasn’t much better than going stag. Everyone in town knew how many dates she’d had in the last year.
She glanced at Sloan Harding. He wasn’t wearing a wedding ring. Unless she’d gotten her wires crossed, he’d been looking at her with interest, at least until Timmy had called.
She blurted the question before she talked herself out of it. “You doing anything for dinner tonight?”
“Dinner?” he asked, clearly startled.
A trickle of perspiration dampened her spine. His grimace kicked her in the gut. What had she done? Asking a perfect stranger to dinner was forward by anyone’s standards.
She swallowed hard, wishing he’d turn her down and leave. It was bad enough she’d pressured him to check on her jailbird brother. The silence stretched out like a sea of ocean waves between them.
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have put you on the spot like that. I apologize.”
He narrowed his gaze. “What’s going on?”
“Never mind.” Her stomach clenched. She dug her keys out of her purse. Time to get going. Time to put Sloan Harding in her rearview mirror. “I shouldn’t have mentioned it.”
He stepped between her and the door. “I’m available for dinner tonight.”
She shook her head. “I apologize. I don’t know what came over me. I’m not in the habit of inviting strangers to dinner. It’s just…I’m just…well, the truth is, Timmy was supposed to be my date for a wedding.”
His brow furrowed. “You need me to stand in for your brother?”
“You don’t even know Megan or Dave. I shouldn’t have said anything.”
“Please, explain.”
Roxie gripped her keys in both hands. “Really. It’s no big deal. I feel awful for mentioning it.”
“No problem. Tell me where we’re going for dinner.”
She gnawed on her bottom lip. “Are you sure?”
“Yes, but I don’t like to go into any situation blind. What did I agree to?”
She squeezed her eyes shut, digging deep for courage. She drew in a deep breath for good measure. “My best friend, Megan Fowler, is getting married tonight. You’re welcome to attend the ceremony, but coming to the dinner afterwards will be enough.”
“Fine. I’ll pick you up. Where are we going?”
“St. John’s Episcopal Church, on Main Street. It’s half a mile south of your house. The wedding is at six, and the dinner buffet is at seven-thirty. No need to pick me up because I have to be there at five. Could you meet me in the parish hall between seven and seven-thirty?”
“I’ll be there.”
“Thanks. I owe you big time for this.”
“I owed you for the yard work anyway. Let’s call it even.”
Roxie’s gratitude fizzled. One dinner date versus thirteen years of yard work? No way was that even.
Surprising her, he shot her a “gotcha” look, then chuckled in a way that ruffled what was left of her composure. “Don’t worry. I promise to be a full-service date.”  ❖
________________________________

Buy Maggie’s MUDDY WATERS at:
e-book: digital format at Wild Rose Press
trade paperback: Amazon   Wild Rose Press

___________________________________

Award-winning author Maggie Toussaint is published in romantic suspense and mystery. She writes of the South, of things which are hidden, of people who’ve lost their way.

Website: http://www.maggietoussaint.com/

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About Vicki Hinze
USA Today Bestselling and Award-Winning Author of 40+ books, short stories/novellas and hundreds of articles. Published in as many as 63 countries. Featured Columnist for Social N Worldwide Network and Book Fun Magazine. Sponsor/Founder of ChristiansRead.com & CleanReadBooks.com. FMI visit www.vickihinze.com.

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