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“I’d like you to stay a little later today.” Roscoe Tremaine leaned heavily on his walker. “I need you and Wink to witness some legal papers. That okay?”
Crystal Ward resisted the urge to groan. Her day had already been long enough. An early meeting with a prospective client wanting to declutter the attic in her three-story home had been followed by a dirty garage reorganization, both squeezed in before a late, hasty lunch. She couldn’t even remember what she’d eaten. She had been in Roscoe’s overheated kitchen for two hours, mostly on her feet, sorting through and packing a lifetime of kitchenware. It was almost four and her children would be home soon. They both had keys, but still…
“Legal papers?” she asked, stalling.
Roscoe gave up standing and eased himself onto one of the round-backed chairs at the table where Crys was wrapping glassware. Watching him favor his right hip, recently replaced after a fall, softened her heart. Roscoe wasn’t just a client of her Organizing Chicago business; he was a neighbor and a special friend.
“New will. My attorney’s coming at five.”
“But your family—”
“Yeah, they’re still coming, but they won’t stay long. Never do. And after I tell them I’m cutting them out, they’ll disappear faster than a fart in a tornado.” He lowered his voice. “But I don’t want them to know I’m changing the will today. None of their damn business anyhow.”
Crys’s hands stilled on a half-wrapped wineglass. She should mind her own business, but this was Roscoe. “You’re cutting them out of your will? Did something happen?”
“You don’t approve.” He folded his hands on the table. His knuckles were raised knots on the weathered bark of his thick fingers. “Something you want to say?”
“It just seems extreme. You only have the one brother, and Arthur cares about you. He stopped by just yesterday to see how you were doing.” She hadn’t yet met the two nieces.
“Artie’s done well enough for himself. I’m still leaving him this property, in case I croak before it sells, but that’s it.” He flexed the fingers of his arthritic right hand as he massaged it with his left. “As for those two girls of his, they’ll inherit from him when he passes unless they piss him off.” His thick brows lowered. “They’re not getting anything from me. And whichever one of them is trying to hurry me into my grave for my money is in for a rude awakening.”
The doorbell rang before Crys could ask why he thought someone was trying to kill him.
“That’ll be them,” Roscoe said, pushing himself upright. “I’d appreciate it if you’d stay, Crys. I need you and Wink to have my back when I tell ’em.” His faded blue eyes twinkled beneath bushy gray brows. “Three against three. Sounds like fair odds to me.”
Crys resumed rolling the wineglass in paper. Roscoe would never beg or even say please, but he’d come as close as he ever would to asking for help. She glanced at the clock on the wall. An extra hour or so wouldn’t kill her. Adding the glass to the cardboard box, she rose to text her son that she’d be late.
The older niece, Gayle DeGrassy, nodded curtly at Crys when Roscoe introduced her. Dressed in washed-out jeans and a pullover sweater the color of raw oatmeal, Gayle had brown hair flecked with gray that she’d pulled back into a ponytail. She wore no makeup and no jewelry, other than plain silver hoop earrings.
“You brought your girl,” Roscoe said with a frown. “Hilary,” he added as if the name had just occurred to him.
“Of course I did. We both wanted to see you, Uncle.”
“Huh.” Roscoe’s eyes narrowed at his teenaged great-niece. Hilary DeGrassy’s checked school uniform was the only conventional part of her appearance. Her straight dark hair was shaved above one ear to reveal multiple piercings. Longer locks fell from a side part to the top of her other ear. She lingered near the front door, talking to Wyatt “Wink” Keller, Roscoe’s home health care aide.
“Hilary!” Gayle said sharply. “Come say hello to Uncle Roscoe.”
The girl gave her mother a resentful look and stalked over to shake hands with Roscoe. Wink’s amused gaze met Crys’s, and he winked at her.
“Dad’s coming from his office,” Gayle continued in a voice better suited to an auditorium stage. “I had to pick up Hilary at school. Mel must be running late, as usual.”
“You win the prize for being first. Go in the kitchen and see if there’s anything there you want before Crys here gives it all away,” Roscoe said, rubbing his ear.
“You know I don’t have a place of my own anymore, Uncle. I have a whole set of dishes in storage along with pots, pans, and every utensil known to woman. The last thing I need is more stuff.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t have gotten divorced. Could’ve saved that money you’re wasting on that storage locker.”
Gayle jerked her head back as if she’d been slapped. “How I spend my money is my business, Uncle! As soon as I have my own place, I won’t need a storage locker. And I’m not going to discuss Nick other than to say he was the one with the brilliant idea of taking out a second mortgage. The house sale after we divorced paid off his debts but left me with nothing to show for fifteen years of marriage. Nothing!”
Other than your daughter. Hilary had plopped down on the sofa. Her half smile seemed more amused than hurt. That didn’t stop Crys from being angry at her mother for being so insensitive.
Turning her gaze to Wink at Roscoe’s side, Hilary crossed her legs and poked her lips out in a pout. If it was an attempt to flirt, her effort was wasted. Wink’s attention was on Roscoe, who was turning his walker around.
“Suit yourself,” Roscoe said to Gayle over his shoulder. “I need to take a piss before the others come.” He shuffled toward the bathroom. Wink followed him, placing an encouraging hand on the older man’s shoulder.
There was no point in standing around. “Are you sure there’s nothing in the kitchen you might want?” Crys asked Gayle. Her gaze turned from mother to daughter to include Hilary in the offer. “Maybe something to remind you of your aunt Joan?”
“There’s nothing I want from this place,” Gayle said. “I just want to get this over with. I wouldn’t mind some water, though. Why on earth does he keep it so hot in here?”
Crys didn’t bother answering. Roscoe was nearly eighty and felt the cold more now that he was less active.
In the kitchen, Crys returned to the table to resume working as Gayle rinsed out one of the crystal tumblers waiting to be packed. A moment later, Hilary drifted in through the open doorway. She watched the wrapping process for a moment, but when Crys smiled at her, she wandered to the open shelves on the wall next to the table. Reaching up with both hands, she removed the delicately painted green teapot in the center of the open shelf.
“I think I might take this.”
“What on earth do you want with a dusty old teapot?” her mother said. “Put that back.” Gayle took another sip of water and then hefted the tumbler in her hand. “Ugh. These glasses are so heavy. I don’t know who would want them. Mel sure won’t.”
“Hopefully they’ll find a good home somewhere,” Crys replied offering no sympathy. There were lighter glasses waiting to be packed that Gayle could have used. “Would you like some water, Hilary?”
“No.” When her mother cleared her throat, the girl added, “Thank you.” Hilary set the teapot on the table. She removed her crossbody bag and dropped it into the nearest chair.
Leaving her glass in the sink, Gayle sat in the seat across from Crys and crossed her legs. “Uncle Roscoe said you’re a professional organizer. I thought he was paying a neighbor to do his packing.”
“That’s right. I live behind him, but I have a professional organizing business. It’s more than packing. I’m helping him go through his belongings and determine what he wants to do with them.”
“At least he’s finally made up his mind to move into assisted living.”
Crys replied with a noncommittal “Yes.” Hilary was now standing in front of the refrigerator. With a glance at her mother’s back, she opened the door and began to examine the contents. Or maybe she was trying to cool off. Crys was tempted to join her.
“I work, too,” Gayle continued defensively. “I can’t take care of him, not that he’d want me to.”
Her daughter snorted.
“And you’re not much help, missy,” Gayle said, turning around to catch Hilary feigning an innocent look a second after she’d closed the refrigerator door. “You could be doing this on weekends and earning some pocket money. If I’d known the old skinflint was going to hire help, I would have volunteered you for the job.”
“Weekends are when I work at the bar.” With a toss of her head, Hilary turned her back to them and walked past the sink toward the stove, trailing her fingers along the edge of the Formica countertop.
“The Ice Cream Bar,” her mother clarified for Crys. “Anyhow, now’s your chance to talk to Uncle Roscoe about your plans for the future before the others arrive. That was the whole point of picking you up early from school. He should be out of the bathroom by now. Be sure to tell him—”
Three clicks were followed by a whoosh. A flame leapt from a gas burner on the stove. Hilary jumped back with a nervous giggle.
“Shut that off!” Gayle said, rising. “Geez, sometimes I swear you act like a five-year-old.”
Hilary twisted the knob and the fire disappeared.
“Go on,” Gayle told her daughter. “Talk to your uncle now before the others come.” She made a shooing motion with her hand when Hilary groaned. “You’ll be glad you did when he pays for your college education. You know I can’t afford a day’s tuition, much less four years, and as for your father—” The doorbell diverted her conversational direction midsentence. “That had better be Mel.”
Hilary peered out into the living room. “Dad’s here, too.”
“What?” Gayle hurried past her daughter into the other room.
“Dad’s right behind me, if that’s who you’re looking for,” the new arrival said a moment later. Her voice was smooth jazz to Gayle’s heavy metal but carried easily into the kitchen. “Brandon wanted to have a word before they came in.”
“Why did you bring your husband? This is family business.”
“Excuse me? Brandon is family. Just because you no longer have a husband—Oh, speak of the devil. Hello, Nick. Long time, no see.”
Paper rustled near Crys distracting her from listening to Gayle’s angry greeting to her ex.
“Thanks, Hilary. You don’t have to do that.”
The girl shrugged and tucked the ends of the paper neatly inside the bowl of the glass she’d just wrapped.
“You don’t want to talk to your uncle?”
“Would you? Old people are pretty gross. Besides, Mel and Brandon are here now. Grandpa and Dad, too. Everyone wants his money, you know.”
TMI. Crys didn’t want to know about Roscoe’s finances, although she had been surprised that he had chosen to move into one of the more expensive assisted living campuses in Chicago. The idea of him being wealthy wasn’t really surprising. He and Joan were childless. They had lived simply in this two-bedroom bungalow for thirty years. The kitchen and bathroom had never been remodeled, but Roscoe had kept the house in good repair. According to Connie, Crys’s neighbor, the couple used to drive to Florida for ten days every January, and that trip had seemed to be their only extravagance. Roscoe probably had built up a good nest egg, and his only brother and nieces were his apparent heirs.
Or they had been. Any minute now Roscoe would be telling them of his plan to change his will. Crys wiped sweat from her forehead with the back of her hand. Staying had been a mistake. Roscoe might enjoy being the bearer of bad news, but she didn’t want any part in his big reveal. Didn’t Roscoe realize that he was going to further alienate his nieces and possibly his brother? This was a terrible idea. And what had he meant about someone hurrying him to his grave?
“Hilary!” Gayle’s shout from the other room startled Crys and provoked a dramatic sigh from her helper. The girl placed the goblet she’d just wrapped into the box and muttered something that sounded suspiciously like bitch before she rose and hoisted her bag over her head.
Not my child. Crys pretended she hadn’t heard.
“Hilary! Hi, sweetie.” The woman who had nearly collided with her helper as she entered the kitchen looked like a Barbie doll version of her sister—curvier, blonder, and more stylishly dressed in a green wool dress and knee-high brown leather boots. Carrying a plastic-wrapped tray of cheese and crackers in one hand, she reached for Hilary with her free arm for a quick hug that her niece only tolerated for a few seconds before breaking free and leaving them.
“Hello there.” The woman set the tray on the kitchen counter. “I’m Melanie, Roscoe’s niece. I thought we might want some refreshments for afterward.”
Crys introduced herself. She knew this woman. Different clothes, less makeup…
“Didn’t you come to the self-defense class at Kimball Martial Arts last month?” Melanie asked.
“That was me.” Of course. That was where they’d met. So much for hoping that she would never encounter any of her classmates again.
Melanie’s lips twitched. “That class was very…instructive. Especially the last day.”
Heat rushed to Crys’s already warm cheeks.
“Our instructor was quite a drill sergeant, wasn’t he?” Melanie continued. “How can we forget slap, slap, slap, eyes, eyes, eyes—”
Overcoming her embarrassment, Crys chimed in. “Knees, knees, knees!”
They both laughed. “Let’s hope we never have to use it, although it will be a long time before I stop hearing his voice in my head,” Melanie said. She fussed for a moment with the plastic wrap on the tray. “So you’re the neighbor Uncle R hired?”
“That’s right. I’m a professional organizer. Your uncle hired me to help him sort through his belongings and prepare for his move.”
Melanie flashed her a quick smile. “I’m so glad you’re helping him. There’s not much worth keeping here, is there? He and Aunt Joan pinched pennies until they squealed and never changed anything.” She gazed around the dated kitchen, which was tiny by modern standards. “Dad said Uncle R is moving to Mill Brook. I thought for sure he’d choose somewhere cheaper, like one of the places Dad suggested.” She lowered her voice. “Poor old Uncle R is in for a shock when he starts rubbing elbows with that Mill Brook crowd!”
Crys smiled. “More likely, the Mill Brook crowd will be in for a shock meeting your uncle, but he’ll be fine. I can’t believe you’re Roscoe’s niece, and you’re the artistic one, aren’t you? Your uncle told me you painted the picture in his bedroom.”
“That was a while ago,” Melanie said.
“It’s beautiful! And I love the landscapes in the living room. The colors are so vibrant.”
Melanie stepped closer. “Thank you. Actually—”
A sharp rap at the back door made them both jump. Melanie waved at the man peering in the glass and hurried to let him in. Next door, dogs started barking. Crys hoped Roscoe didn’t hear them. He had called the police several times already in his ongoing feud with the Dashells, the couple next door with two vocal terriers.
The man who entered the kitchen along with a welcome rush of cool air appeared to be in his mid-forties. The sports jacket he wore under his open camel coat and his pressed slacks were more Brooks Brothers than J.C. Penney’s.
“What were you doing in the backyard?” Melanie asked.
“Your dad said there’d been a leak in the basement. I was just looking around to see if I could spot where it might be coming from. Nothing I could see.” He ran a hand over his thick, wavy brown hair and gave Crys a broad smile. “You’re not a long-lost relative of Roscoe’s, are you?”
“Brandon, meet Crystal Ward. She’s helping Uncle R move.”
“He’s not taking kitchen stuff with him, is he?”
“No, silly,” his wife said. She turned to Crys. “What is he doing with it?”
“He’s donating most of it. Of course, if you or your family want anything—”
Brandon laughed. “Not likely, although maybe he should have someone come in to see if this old crystal has any value. Did he have an appraiser look at any of this?”
“Not as far as I know,” Crys said. Her spirits plummeted as she pictured having to undo her packing.
“Roscoe was pretty tight. It’s probably not worth much,” Brandon decided, glancing at the remaining glassware on the table. “Nobody wants this old crap anymore, especially not us, right, honey?”
“I don’t need anything,” Mel said, touching her husband’s arm. “I have all I want, although I might take the paintings, if he’s just going to toss them out.” Her jaw tightened for a moment. “Thanks, Crys, for mentioning them. Say, you might be interested in the Art League’s exhibit next Thursday.” She pulled a card from her shoulder bag. “I have some watercolors in the show, and there will also be a lot of other artists’ works. I think you’d enjoy it.”
“Hers are the best,” Brandon said in a stage whisper.
Crys took the card. “Thank you, Melanie. I would like to see more of your—”
“Mel? Brandon? There you are.” Arthur Tremaine was still in his business suit. Taller and about ten years younger than his brother, he was also more polished than his sibling. “Roscoe’s ready for us. Crys, he wants you to join us as well.”
“I’ll be right there.” She glanced again at the clock on the wall, although only ten minutes had passed since she’d last looked at it. Her gaze dropped to the shelf below the clock. There was a gap where the green teapot had been. It was no longer on the table, either. Hilary must have taken it despite her mother’s disapproval.
One less item to pack. Crys stood and drew a deep breath. As close as her home was, it had never seemed so far away.
End of Excerpt