Can't Forget You
Return to Love Book 3
Copyright 2014 Jasmine Haynes
“I'm used to Jennifer's erotica (writing as Jasmine Haynes), which I thoroughly enjoy. This one is a humorous romantic mystery, with a few interesting elements thrown in. Do you want to know what a dog is thinking? How about a house that fixes itself and dispenses pages of a journal on an "as needed" basis? Or a romance that is strictly NOT erotic? Can't Forget You has all of these things. Here's something you need to know about Jennifer Skully/Jasmine Haynes. She can really write - no matter which genre she chooses.”~ The Book Sage
Welcome back to Cottonmouth!
There’s something very special about the house Maggie grew up in. It’s sort of...alive. With a mind of its own.
And it has plans for the people living there now.
All Maggie Halliday has left after the divorce is the family dog and the home her grandmother left to her when she passed away two months ago. Maggie’s got no other choice but to run back to her hometown of Cottonmouth, California, only to discover her high school sweetheart, Cooper Trubek, is living in the house, along with four other boarders for whom Maggie is now responsible. And according to Nana’s will, Maggie can’t kick any of them out.
Unless one of them commits murder.
Still grieving for her grandmother and trying fix up the house that seems to be falling down around her, Maggie’s got more trouble than she can handle. Then things go from bad to worse when Samson the dog starts digging in the basement…
Her ex-husband got the new wife, the new baby, the house, the SUV, and their daughter Evie’s undying devotion.
Maggie Halliday got the dog.
“You’re such a good dog. What would I have done without you?” she crooned as she stroked Samson’s snout. Along with his snub pit bull face, stout bulldog body, and Australian shepherd markings, Samson had the sweetest of natures.
Maggie rolled down the windows to let the October breeze waft through the old minivan’s interior. At noon, the air was warm, but it carried the promise of a cooler season. She’d parked beneath a massive oak along a tree-lined lane on the outskirts of Cottonmouth, the hometown she hadn’t visited in twenty years. Less than three hours north of San Francisco, Cottonmouth was a lifetime away.
Across Garden Street sat the weathered Victorian house of her childhood. White shutters had aged to gray, and the roof was minus some shingles, like a faded old lady caught without her dentures. Crab grass, weeds, and gophers had long since choked the lush lawn out of existence. To the left of the front steps, the porch sagged, the support column sinking beneath the overhang’s weight. Its chains broken, the porch swing lay forlorn beneath the dining room window. The paint was peeling, and the dormer windows in the third-floor attic looked as if they’d been sealed shut with time and rot.
A man appeared around the corner of the house, a tool belt at his waist, a stack of two-by-fours balanced on his shoulder. She hadn’t ogled anyone in more years than she could count, but there was something about him. The T-shirt molded to his chest and the jeans hugging his thighs started a flutter low in her belly.
Dumping the wood on the scrubby earth, he went down on one knee to shove what looked like a car jack under the edge of the porch. As he cranked the handle, the sagging support column rose, lifting the overhang. When it was level, he nestled a wooden square between the base of the column and the concrete it rested on. The repair was a stop-gap measure in a slow decline that brought an ache to Maggie’s heart. The house was all she had left of her grandmother.
A black Lexus purred to a stop on the gravel shoulder behind her. Maggie waited for the lawyer to get out of his car. Stacked in the back of the minivan, the detritus of her life obscured most of the view out the back window. Boxes and suitcases filled with clothing, photos, kitchen gadgets, an ancient computer, and other odds and ends were all she’d claimed from her marriage.
The door of the Lexus banged shut. Samson chuffed like a steam engine. He didn’t like loud noises, hated to be yelled at, and was afraid of strangers—at least for the first fifteen minutes. After sniffing feet, pant legs, and various body parts, be they private or otherwise, he was friends for life.
Except for Ray, Maggie’s ex-husband. Samson had cowered before Ray from the moment she and Evie brought the pound dog home. Ray hadn’t even yelled at him yet. Ray Halliday wasn’t an animal person. He said they were too hard to control. Then again, Ray wasn’t a people person either. They were also too hard to control.
Maggie scratched the dog’s ear. “Be a good boy,” she crooned, then climbed out of the van.
Elton Cook was tall, gaunt, and pasty-faced. He’d have made a perfect undertaker. Or a cadaver. Instead, he’d been her grandmother’s lawyer, looking as ancient when Maggie was a child as he did now.
An oak branch scratched the top of his gray hair as he stared at the crabbed lawn, the missing shingles, the sagging porch, and the handyman shoring it up.
“This isn’t possible.” He turned to Maggie, eyes deep and dark in his skeletal face. “Right?”
She guessed what he was driving at. “You didn’t hire the handyman?”
Maggie certainly hadn’t. Her grandmother had died two month ago, leaving Maggie the house and the boarders living inside it. She blinked away the pain at the renewed sense of loss. Officially divorced for six months, a week ago Maggie lacked even a home—the dingy apartment she’d been living in didn’t count. Ray had bought her out of the house, but with the second and third mortgages they’d taken out for remodeling and Evie’s college fund, there hadn’t been much equity to distribute. The trust fund her grandmother had left for maintenance wasn’t going to cover all this. And though she’d gotten money out of the divorce settlement, it wouldn’t last long if she had to spend it on house repairs.
“It didn’t need a handyman a month ago.” Elton Cook whispered, as if the house itself might overhear and fall down as a consequence.
In Maggie’s estimation, it had needed a handyman for a long time. Turning it into a boardinghouse obviously hadn’t earned enough for all the necessary repairs.
“I’m sure my grandmother did the best she could.” A hole opened wide in Maggie’s chest as she thought of all the lost years she’d let build between her grandmother and herself.
“No.” Elton flapped bony fingers. “You don’t understand. She had it painted last year. Then there was the new septic installed nine months ago, and she sodded the entire lawn afterward. There wasn’t a weed in sight when I was out here in the middle of August.” A month and a half ago, two weeks after her grandmother passed on August first.
The handyman hammered at the base of the column, the afternoon sun shining down on his hair in an odd halo effect. In the van, Samson whined. He needed a potty break.
Elton Cook stuck his hand out, straight-armed, a key ring jangling in his fingers even as he eased closer to his Lexus. “I have to go.”
Maggie made a side shuffle to close the distance between them. “You could come in.”
“There isn’t any need.” Mr. Cook took a giant spread-eagled step in the opposite direction.
“Shouldn’t you at least introduce me to the tenants?”
“I’m sure you’ll do fine on your own.” He jingled the keys when she didn’t take them.
“I don’t even remember their names.”
“Hopefully they do.”
Maggie grabbed her grandmother’s keys before he dropped them. Mr. Cook skipped sideways the rest of the way to his car as if he were afraid to turn his back on the house. It might be time to let his son take over the law firm.
“Don’t forget,” he called. “You can’t put them out unless they don’t pay rent or they get arrested and accused of murder.”
“Can’t forget that,” she muttered to the cloud dust he left behind as he peeled out. She’d inherited her grandmother’s house as well as the boarders living there. They could miss six monthly rental payments before she could kick anyone out. Unless they tried to kill her first. She’d have to read the will again; had it said get arrested and accused of murder or was that an either/or?
She tipped her head and gazed across the street. The house and its tenants might actually be worth it if she got the handyman, too.
She was forty, divorced, and it was high time she had some fun, right? Opening the van’s door, she snapped her fingers. Samson hit the ground running. He squatted on the edge of her new yard and christened the dirt for what seemed like a full minute as Maggie crossed the road. Despite being male, Samson was a squatter, not a leg-lifter. Ray said that made him a wuss. Maggie thought it demonstrated he was an individualist.
“Guess your dog didn’t see the sign on the lawn?” The handyman’s voice was deep, the kind of voice you felt vibrating on the inside.
Maggie stared at the crab grass, the weeds, the gopher holes, and the dirt. “We didn’t notice a lawn,” she answered, perfectly serious, not a funny-bone in her body.
He pointed to the marker, a picture of a dog squatting, the universal red not circle over its behind.
“Ah, that’s it. He doesn’t read sign language.”
His lips moved, but he didn’t crack a smile, and Maggie resisted pointing out that it was her nonexistent lawn. After all, he’d fixed the column so the porch no longer sagged. For that, he deserved a thank you. She shaded her eyes from the sun pouring over the roof, opened her mouth to offer it…
And looked up into the face of the man she should have married instead of Ray.