I always loved waking up to warm sunshine peeking through the curtains and the cheerful sound of birds chirping. Like right now, as I extended my arms out with my head on the soft pillow. It only took a nanosecond to realize I should not be seeing the sun stretch across the entire windowsill at this time of the morning.
No! Late again! I couldn’t believe it. Every time I had something important to do, I’d lie awake at night with anticipation and stress. Maybe I fell asleep, but the fitful sleep ebbed and flowed, leaving me exhausted.
Similarly, the next morning when the alarm went off, I’d be so deeply asleep the buzzer couldn’t wake me. I swear my subconscious sabotaged me.
A glance at the clock confirmed what I already knew, so with some hot words, I bolted from the bed and grabbed my clothes. I jabbed one leg after another into my pants and hopped to the bathroom while trying to yank them up. Not even bothering to button them, I brushed my hair with one hand and my teeth with the other until that didn’t work. I had to settle for a crazy bun and clean teeth.
I needed mascara, or else I’d look like I was twelve. That slowed me down. Then it was a mad dash for my shoes and purse. I had a house showing in under an hour.
I ran down the stairs like a horse galloping out of the stall, still trying to button my pants.
“Stella? Is that you?” Mom called from the kitchen.
I still wasn’t used to her living with me. I sped into the room where the scent of pancakes and coffee filled the air. Mom stood by the stove, stirring a pile of scrambled eggs in the pan.
Long story short, she’d spent my formative years in prison. In the time since she came to live with me, she’d made me breakfast every single day. I couldn’t help but wonder if it wasn’t her way of trying to make up for lost time.
“How’d you sleep?” Vani smiled.
“Good. And you?” I searched for my colossal travel mug in the cupboard. Coffee was like mascara. Had to have it. “Breakfast looks amazing, but, I’m sorry. I’m already late to a showing.”
“Oh.” Her lip dipped with disappointment, and her spatula stopped moving.
I felt terrible. “Could you save it for me for later? I’ll be back in a few hours, and I’d love this for lunch.”
She lifted one shoulder. “These won’t be good later.”
“Maybe call Oscar over. Or Uncle Chris!” I suggested as anxiety started to strangle me. I really had to go.
“You think they’d want to come by?”
“Definitely. Give them a call.” I kissed her cheek. “I’ll see you later!”
With that, I ran out the door and down the sun-splotched stairs to the car.
I worked for Flamingo Realty, and I was finally getting some respect. It wasn’t going to go over well if I was late for Uncle Chris’s most important client.
Mr. Hardcastle owned one of the most prominent land development companies in the state. As a real estate mogul, he wanted a private showing to see the Madison Estate. The house wasn’t even listed for sale at the moment, making this what was known as a pocket listing, which had fallen into Uncle Chris’s lap. The property was worth somewhere in the neighborhood of fourteen million dollars, which would be my biggest deal, if I could cinch it. It was obvious why I couldn’t sleep last night.
I shifted the car into gear and stared over my shoulder to back out. Actually, I knew another reason why I’d been so late. My toes curled as I remembered my evening with Carlson. My hunk-a-hunk. I don’t even know how I got so lucky to have him.
At least that’s how I felt about him today. If someone had asked me last week, I might not have sounded so nice. I’d have been super irritated with him because he left my books out in the rain. So there’s that.
At the stoplight, I pulled the mirror down and stared at my reflection. Lovely. It was pretty apparent that I’d just rolled out of bed. My messy bun had slowly slid to the side of my head, looking all too similar to the second scoop on an ice cream cone on a July afternoon. This wasn’t going to work.
I put in a call to Mr. Hardcastle. His assistant answered it. How did I know? Because he said, “This is Andy, Mr. Hardcastle’s assistant.”
“Hi, there,” I said. “I’m so sorry, but I’m stuck in traffic right now. I might be a few minutes late.”
Andy lowered his voice, which now sounded horror-filled at my predicament. “We’ve almost arrived. I’ll tell you right now he won’t be happy. His time is priceless.”
I winced. “Got it. I’ll be right there.”
And I meant it. Except I took a slight detour at the local drug store. Inside, I grabbed a brush and deodorant and a compact of what Maybelline called Racy Face cheekers. After paying for it, I dashed to the bathroom to fix myself up a bit. The pink blush helped to bring me back from looking like an extra from the Walking Dead.
Six-and-a-half minutes later (I know because I was eyeballing my watch the entire time), I’d made it back on the road and headed that way. I sipped coffee, feeling more secure. That’s what it was all about, wasn’t it? Confidence. Fake it until you make it.
And, today, I was going to fake this. I mean, make it. Either way, I was determined to get this sale.
Luckily, I didn’t encounter any real traffic, which would have been pretty uncommon for this sleepy town. Madison Estate was located way up in the mountains in a very regal resort. I drank my coffee, cautioning myself it might be a while before I saw a bathroom as I sped along the road.
The beautiful scenery could be on a picture postcard. Fresh deciduous trees shaded the route this sunny day, with a few fallen leaves littering the pavement. The road hugged the side of the mountain that overlooked a very private lake. The dark water reflected a blue sky as boats dotted its surface. I wished I was out there now, bobbing around. The people who lived here were lucky.
I pulled up to a gate and punched in the code Uncle Chris had messaged me the night before. The gates swung open with nary a sound, and I drove into what felt like another world.
The houses here were gorgeous. I passed mansion after mansion, each one seemingly in competition with the next, what with their pillars and hedges, fountains, and six-car garages. The road slowly led to the top of the mountain where the houses mysteriously remained out of sight down long, manicured driveways.
The road narrowed and started down the other side of the mountain. There were no houses this way, just lush trees that gave way to smaller trees. Sandy mounds prickled with stubby bushes came into view.
I took the next left, onto a road that was fully fenced on both sides. It dead-ended at yet another gate. The rustic gate seemed out of place compared to what I’d recently passed through, and I had to climb out of the car to open it. I shoved the metal frame back and stared from the post. The driveway, all hemmed in with wild shrubbery, curved out of sight. I couldn’t see if Mr. Hardcastle had arrived yet.
A breeze came from across the water and felt especially cold. I shivered and hurried back to the car.
The driveway was lengthy. After another couple of minutes, the house finally came into view.
I felt a jolt of surprise. The tiny building looked like a humble pool house compared to the mansions I’d already passed. Weathered gray shakes covered the sides of the house, while green metal made the roof. A stone walkway led from the dirt driveway to a covered porch.
Yet, this was the place. Although the house was small, the value was in the land. And it was right on the beach of this huge lake.
The client’s very expensive silver Range Rover was parked in front of me in the narrow driveway. I pulled in behind it and rolled to a stop.
I glanced at my watch and saw that, miraculously, I was only two minutes late. I grabbed my sweater and climbed out.
The waiting vehicle’s tinted windows made it impossible to see inside. It felt rude to approach and tap on the window, so I walked over to the large porch and waited.
Nothing happened from the car. Was the client angry over the delay? Maybe preparing to leave?
I turned toward the lake. Well, they wouldn’t be escaping easily since I’d essentially blocked them in.
I heard a car door open and then quickly slam shut. I spun back to greet Mr. Hardcastle.
Confusion made me squint my eyes. If it was him, then he was a very thin, young man with bright blue eyes behind wire glasses. His steps were jerky. I wondered if his mannerisms came from being so bean-pole-like. Maybe he felt nervous.
Still, he had a handsome quality about him, and he certainly was polite. “Miss O’Neil?” he called with a quick smile as he approached.
“Yes?” Something was up. He couldn’t be Mr. Hardcastle, could he? Were billionaires nervous?
“I’m Andy. I spoke to you on the phone. Mr. Hardcastle would like me to view the house for him.”
“Oh, I see.” I knew that wasn’t necessarily unusual. A lot of people had their assistants vet houses for them. But did they wait in the car while it happened? I glanced at the Range Rover and waved.
I couldn’t see a response through the tint, so I turned my attention back to Andy and gave him a big smile. “Well, come on. Let’s check it out.”
We started the tour, which took no time at all with a house less than two thousand square feet. In the midst of the walk-through, it occurred to me that Mr. Hardcastle might be interested in the house for someone else. But Andy didn’t give any details, other than to say the place was nice.
At the door, we said goodbye, and then he buttoned the front of his jacket and headed in his gangly fashion to the Rover. It was all very anti-climatic. I locked the door and wondered if Mr. Hardcastle wouldn’t come out after all.
I didn’t have long to wait for my answer. Andy leaped out of the car like a swarm of hornets was hot on his heels. He stared wildly around, his glasses knocked askew. Then he caught my eye and shrieked hysterically. “He’s dead!”
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Hi, there! I'm CeeCee James, USA Today bestselling author who loves to write cozy mysteries that connect with the heart.