The Lady Next Door
by Lois Carroll
Mystery, blood and mayhem fill this romantic intrigue!
After the death of her husband, Karn Winters seeks a fresh start in life with her young son. With the help of an attorney friend, Bart Sinclair, she purchases a beautiful country home for a very low price. Bart helps Karn move into the house she thinks is perfect, but she still wonders why it was priced so low.
After playing in the backyard, her son talks about the lady next door and the little trucks she gave him to play with. Only some of the trucks have blood on them. And there is no lady next door—that house is vacant.
Feeling unsafe in her new home, Karn wonders what is lurking in the lush woods behind their backyard fence.
Release Date: August 18, 2020
Genre: Romantic Suspense
A WHITE SATIN ROMANCE
“You're gonna love this house,” the realtor told Karn Winters as she and her young son Gary walked into the two-story four-bedroom home. “It's really big and beautiful with a huge yard, and it's for sale at a bargain price.”
“It certainly looks good, but I don't understand why the price is so low. How come they are practically giving it away?”
If the realtor replied, Karn couldn't hear it. The woman had walked ahead into the living room to point out the fireplace and the French doors that led out to the big backyard. Karn and Gary followed.
“These rooms are huge. I'm no expert, Mrs. Carson, but it looks like it's in good shape,” Karn said, returning to the foyer.
“Oh, it is—ready to move in,” Mrs. Carson said proudly as she followed.
Karn felt a frown tug on her eyebrows. “If it's in such good shape, why did the owners want to move out?”
The realtor shrugged but turned away. “I guess they wanted to live in the city, not here on the outskirts of a small town.” She turned back and smiled. “But it's such a beautiful country lane, with only a few houses in sight. It's the perfect peaceful place to live.”
Karn smiled but kept an eye on her four-year-old son, Gary, who bounded from one room to the next and then took off up the wide stairs that led from the foyer to the second floor. As he sailed by her, the realtor drew in a quick breath and frowned.
“He won't hurt anything. Don't worry,” Karn assured her.
“Well, the house is empty. There's not much he could get into, I guess,” she said with a little laugh.
They walked across the foyer into the formal dining room and on into the kitchen and family room that stretched across the back of the house from the living room. Drawn to the large windows in the back wall, Karn's smile broadened.
“This is a nice big yard with lots of room for Gary to play.” She stepped out onto the patio that stretched nearly the length of the back of the house. A large gas barbeque was built in not far from the kitchen door. Near that were a wrought iron table and chairs that would be ideal for eating outside plus two matching reclining chairs with a small table between them. “They left all the patio furniture? Is it included?”
“Yes, I guess it didn't fit in their new place,” Mrs. Carson replied vaguely.
Karn's gaze swept over the green carpet of grass that needed mowing to the tall wood fence that circled the yard. “Oh, and a custom built swing set, and is that a sandbox too?”
“Yes, they had it made just the way their children wanted it.”
Karn shook her head. If the house and play area were perfect, she didn't understand why they would move away. And why practically give the house away? Isn't there something wrong with it? It seemed to be too good a deal, but she couldn't see anything wrong with it.
“Where does the gate in the back fence lead to?” Karn asked.
The realtor dismissed the subject with a wave of her hand. “It just goes into the woods, but this property ends at the fence line.” Without missing a beat, she added, “Let's go see the upstairs.”
The woman acted as if she wanted to get out of the backyard, but Karn figured she was worried about what mischief Gary could be getting into upstairs alone. But instead of following her to the stairs, Karn quickened her step through the kitchen into the family room where she looked around. There was plenty of room for Gary to play there when he couldn't be outside. She smiled. That would leave the living room uncluttered with his toys.
Before Karn caught up to the realtor, they heard Gary screaming upstairs. Karn took off at a run, passing Mrs. Carson on the way up the stairs.
“No, you can't have it,” Gary was shouting. “It's mine. You said it was mine, and you can't take it back.”
Leaping up the stairs two at a time, Karn called out, “Gary? Where are you? Gary?”
“Mommy, Mommy,” Gary called back. “She won't give it back to me.”
Karn followed the sound to a small bedroom on the far back corner of the house. She found Gary sitting on the wall-to-wall carpeting near the window. She ran to his side and dropped to her knees. “What's wrong, honey? Did you hurt yourself?”
“Is he okay?” the realtor asked a little breathlessly from the doorway.
“I want my truck back,” Gary whined. “She said I could have it and then she took it back.”
Karn pulled Gary to his feet and was about to hug him when she noticed his hands. She lifted them in hers for an inspection. They were dirty with fresh soil.
“Oh, dear. How did you get so dirty in here?”
“I got dirty driving the truck,” he explained simply. “It was all muddy.”
Karn pulled a tissue from her purse and wiped his hands. “There, now you stay with Mommy and don't touch anything. We just have a few more rooms to look at and then we can leave. So no more running off on your own.”
“But I want my truck back,” Gary whined as Karn took his hand when he didn't follow her.
Not understanding, Karn frowned. Gary hadn't had a truck with him, and there was no one else in the house. What was he talking about?
Looking out the window on the side of the house, Karn saw that the home next door, about half a city block away at the end of the lane, was clearly visible. She was disappointed to see the landscaping overgrown and the patchy lawn left to the weeds. One window on the near side of the house had apparently been broken and boarded up with plywood. It didn't look like something she wanted to live next to. She sighed. If that house meant this neighborhood was going downhill, she'd have to keep looking elsewhere for a house for her and Gary.
“No one lives next door?” Karn asked the realtor.
“Ah, no, not anymore. They didn't pay the taxes and the county recently took it over. Now they will clean it up and sell it. But there are houses across the street back toward town a ways with families living in them, so you won't be all alone out here, if that's a worry.”
Mrs. Carson added a little laugh that was a more nervous than happy sound. The realtor smiled too, but Karn saw no warmth or sincerity in her expression either.
“Gary is too young to go down the street to a friend's house, but if there are children his age in the houses toward town, we could work something out, I suppose.”
Karn walked on to see the master bedroom and bath on the front of the house. “This is so big. The whole house is wonderful.” She shook her head and laughed. “I keep thinking it's all too good to be true.”
“Come on,” Gary urged, pulling on his mom's hand before Mrs. Carson could reply. “Aren't you done? Let's go.”
“Okay, honey. But first, let's go find a room that you could use for your bedroom if I bought this house,” Karn replied. “I'll bet the others are bigger than the end one where you were playing.”
A bright smile grew on Gary face as he pulled her very deliberately to the back of the house and into the opposite corner room. “This is the one I want.”
Obviously, a child's room before, a patterned wallpaper border of animals and dolls marched around at the ceiling and the walls were a pale pink.
“But I want to pick out the animals to go around the ceiling if I sleep here, okay?” Gary asked.
“You mean a wallpaper border of animals?” He nodded. “Sure. We'll find a paint and wallpaper store right in town. We could easily do that.”
“I don't want any dolls on my walls,” he told her in no uncertain terms. She smiled at the cute frown on his face.
“No, and I bet we could find a better color than pink to paint the walls for you too,” Karn suggested with a laugh.
“How about red?” Gary asked, his face animated with excitement at the prospect of a dream come true. “I love red.”
Karn laughed. “That might be a little too much, but we could find a border to put around the room that has red in it. Then I can paint the walls with a lighter color that would coordinate with it.”
“I want animals and…and fish,” Gary replied, his expression wide-eyed just thinking about the possibilities.
Karn looked out the window over the double garage to see down the street toward town. She noted the other houses on the opposite side of the street that Mrs. Carson had mentioned, but they were definitely too far away for Gary to walk to alone at his age.
After checking the size of the large closet, she crossed to the windows that overlooked the backyard. She saw that the fence gate by the sandbox was ajar. That latch would have to be checked. She certainly didn't want Gary going out into those woods alone. Taking his hand again, they walked back to see the fourth bedroom next to the one Gary had picked out.
“This will be a nice room for Grandma and Grandpa to sleep in when they come visit us,” Karn said to Gary. “But it needs painting like most of the house,” she told the realtor who waited for them in the hall. “I would have to say that I don't agree that the house is move-in ready.”
The realtor leaned in the room and looked around without a comment. Karn wondered why she was deliberately ignoring her statement.
“There is an attic area above this floor,” the realtor explained as they walked back down the hall and pointed at the structure on the ceiling. “It's accessible by that ladder that pulls down when you want to use it.”
“I don't think I can even reach that to pull it down,” Karn replied.
“Well, unless you have a great deal to store, you'll probably not need the space. All the rooms have nice large closets.”
Karn wondered why there were no regular stairs to the attic. The house was big enough to accommodate them. But the realtor was right. She and Gary didn't have so much that they would need the attic for storage. She would get it all inspected though.
“Come on, Gary. Let's look some more downstairs.”
As they were walking back down the stairs, Gary muttered, “I'm not going to let that lady come into my bedroom again.”
Karn did not understand what he was going on about some lady in his bedroom because no one else was in the house. She didn't think he could mean the realtor. And a dirty truck? She was certain that he had not brought any toys with him because she made him leave them all in the car. Shaking her head, she chalked it all up to a young child's imagination and his knack for getting dirty.
Turning to Mrs. Carson, she asked about the annual property tax on the house. “Selling our present house would pay for it, but I'd still have to maintain it.”
The realtor had records of previous taxes paid and showed them to Karn. She drew in a big breath.
“The taxes seem high for a house selling at this price,” Karn said with a frown.
“You can check with the county assessor, but I think that when it sells at this lower price, the taxes will have to go down. They may slide back up though when the property value goes up again to where it was. This could turn into a lovely neighborhood full of houses. There is an empty lot between you and the house at the end of the street and several lots on the other side before the bend in the street toward town too.”
There was so much for Karn to consider. Could she afford this? She hadn't thought she would need to get a job again until Gary was in school all day. Savings and her late husband's life insurance should be enough to make that possible if the taxes were lowered with the sale. But did she want to be surrounded by houses being built? She smiled at the possibility. Gary would love to watch that.
Karn took a deep breath and let it out slowly, trying to relax. Buying a house was harder than she thought it would be. Her husband Martin had died over a year ago after a long battle with cancer that had been diagnosed just a few months after Gary was born. Before his death she had given up her job as a CPA and devoted over a year to his care as he went through one treatment after another. They all failed to save him. His passing devastated her, but she had to think of Gary. She had to do all she could to help him past the loss of his father. Just three then, the boy easily created imaginary playmates when he played alone, but she was happy to see he also played well with other kids like at the park. Her goal now was to help Gary past the loss of his father while remembering him, and to give him a normal life suitable to a child his age.
With Gary already four, it was time to move out of their house in the city with all its reminders of Martin. It was time for them to move on to begin anew. She wanted her son to have space outside with grass and trees to play in, not city sidewalks where she could never leave him alone. She wanted him to breathe fresh air, not car exhaust.
Well, she decided, she'd never find a better house at this low a price.
“I like this house, but of course I would want to get it inspected,” she said.
The realtor's face brightened. “You mean you're really interested?” she asked with a startled expression on her face.
“That almost sounds as if you can't believe I could be interested,” Karn replied with a laugh. “Is there something about the house that I should know that would make me not want to buy it? Something that you're not telling me?”
“Oh, no,” the realtor replied quickly with a laugh that Karn frankly though sounded nervous. “I don't know anything wrong with this house and it's a wonderful buy at a bargain price.”
“Who lived here before? It wasn't a gangster who left with the FBI chasing him, was it?” Karn joked.
“Oh, no, a nice family lived here. They had two children, a boy and a girl. They moved out nearly a year ago. I don't know where they moved. I never heard.”
“But the house is in good condition and the lot is huge. Why didn't it sell before now?”
The realtor shook her head and turned to walk toward the front door. “I think this house didn't sell because until recently they were asking more than people wanted to consider paying for it. But as you say, it's in great shape, and now that they've lowered the price, it's a real bargain.”
“Okay, if you say so. Well, I know an attorney who has an office just a little ways back toward the city. He was a friend of my husband's. Except for a few moments at the funeral, I haven't talked to him in a couple of years since before my husband got ill. I'll have to look him up and see if he can help me get it all arranged.”
Gary pulled on her hand to get her to move to the front door. “Can't we go now?”
The realtor opened her briefcase and pulled out papers clipped together, which she handed to Karn. “You can look these over,” she said. “Everything you need is here.”
Karn glanced at a few of the pages. “Yes, and my attorney will want to check this purchase contract and everything else too. He must know of someone reliable who will inspect the property for me.”
“Good.” Mrs. Caron's smile definitely grew. “You have my card. Just call me or have the inspector call me. I'll be happy to meet him here and let him in.”
Karn thanked her and they all walked to their own cars parked next to each other in the driveway. Minutes later, she and Gary were seated in the ice cream shop in the small suburban shopping area about fifteen minutes from the house.
While Gary enjoyed his chocolate ice cream cone with sprinkles, she searched her cell phone for the attorneys' offices. She smiled when she found his name right away. Bartholomew Sinclair. That had to have been his father's name too. Why else would someone give a baby that label? He must have taken a lot of teasing about his name, she thought as she punched in the number and made an appointment with his secretary to see him the next morning. His office was another fifteen minutes toward the city, not far from where she and Gary lived now. He said he didn't mind coming to their present house the following afternoon to talk. Karn thought that was good because it wouldn’t interfere with Gary's afternoon nap. With him asleep, she could give the papers to Bart and learn what she had to do without interruption.
* * *
“Mommy, there's a strange man at the door,” Gary called.
Karn hurried to the front door and opened it after checking through the spy hole. Living in the city made her cautious about who came to their door and why.
“I'm really not all that strange,” the attractive tall man with chocolate brown hair said with a grin on his face.
“Come on in, Bart,” Karn said with a welcoming smile. She'd always called him Bart. She could never call him Bartholomew. His eyes were what Karn remembered the most. They were the same warm color of his hair.
“Who's he?” Gary asked with his typical bold curiosity as the man, dressed in a three-piece suit and tie, stepped into the foyer.
Karn picked her son up and swung him onto her jeans-clad hip. “Gary, this is Mr. Sinclair. Mr. Sinclair was a friend of your daddy's, and he's a friend of mine too. He's an attorney, just like your daddy was. Bart is helping me buy the nice big house we looked at for us to live in.”
Bart extended his hand for a manly handshake with the child who eagerly complied. “Nice to meet you, Sport. I was here the other day, but you were asleep.”
“Did you really know my daddy?” Gary asked, jumping on to the next idea that popped into his head.
“You bet I did. We went through Cornell Law School together. We were good friends. Marty was a good man.”
Gary frowned suddenly and looked down at Karn's shoulder. He fiddled with the hem on the short sleeve of her knit top. “He got sick and died when I was little,” he told Mr. Sinclair in a small voice.
“I know and I'm sorry. I miss him.”
“You miss him too?” the child asked eagerly as he turned back.
Bart nodded. “I used to see him on business in the city often, and again every year at our Cornell reunion. I was even at his wedding. That's when I first met your mommy, and then we would meet again at the reunions when she went with your daddy.”
Gary turned to his mother. “Did I go too?”
Karn shook her head and laughed. “No, honey. In fact, I didn't even go the last one. It was too soon after you were born for me to go. I couldn't bear to leave you with a sitter for the whole weekend.” She hugged her son and kissed his temple. Gary struggled to get free of so much hugging, and she set him down on the floor.
“Now can I go back out and play in the backyard?”
“Sure, but stay close to the house, okay?” Gary ran off and Karn turned to Bart. “I'm so glad our backyard is fenced in here. In the new house it's fenced too.” She laughed. “If we get there. Anyway I won't have to worry about him playing out there by himself.” She closed the front door and locked it—a habit she'd always had living in the city.
“Karn, you've had enough to worry about the last few years. It couldn't have been easy to care for Marty when he was so ill at the same time as you were raising a little boy.” He leaned his briefcase against the wall beside the front door.
Karn was relieved to finally be able to talk about her late husband without tearing up. “I think the year I spent watching him die firmed up my resolve to move to give us a new start. I want Gary to play and be happy again without thinking of Marty being so ill. The sad memories in this home haunt both of us.”
“I think a change will be good—for both of you too.”
She sighed with relief that they didn't have to talk more about it. She felt that he understood.
“Would you like a cup of coffee?” she asked with the beginnings of a smile.
When he nodded, she led the way into the kitchen.
“I have to tell you that the events of the past few weeks have been surreal. I can't believe you found a house inspector who could do the job the same week we looked at it.” She laughed lightly as she poured two mugs of coffee from the pot she had made for her breakfast.
“I'm glad he found nothing wrong except a rabbit's warren under the bushes at the end of the back patio.”
She nodded and handed him a mug, pointing to the sweetener and offering milk. He declined both.
“He said they seemed to be creating some havoc with the landscaping plants.”
“I could remove them for you,” he offered. “I'm sure they could have a good home in the woods behind the back fence.”
Karn shook her head and gestured to him to sit at the table with her. “I thought Gary might get a kick out of seeing rabbits hopping across the lawn. But if I see too much damage to the landscaping, I may take you up on your offer,” she told him with a smile.
“Any time,” he said with a laugh before he sipped his hot coffee.
“But it sounds like you know the house. I don't remember mentioning the woods behind the back fence.”
“Oh.” He shook his head and set his coffee down. “I went out when the inspector was there. I wanted to make sure he did a thorough job for you.”
Karn smiled, appreciating his extra concern. “Thank you, Bart. That's very kind of you.”
“No problem,” he replied easily. “And now this house is sold?”
She nodded with a smile. “I got a full-price offer within a week. I almost wished I had put a higher price on it, but I decided that the relief of having it sold was better than any additional money I might have gotten. We've already started packing, although one of us doesn't take that task seriously.”
They laughed lightly and each took a sip of coffee. Bart had previously explained all the details of their house sale as well as the purchase of another and the role of the bank in bridging the two sales. He promised to help her with each step of the way.
“I don't know what I'd do without you, Bart,” Karn blurted out. “I have worried about making a mistake and doing something wrong or forgetting to record something that will make this dream move turn into a nightmare.”
He laid his hand over hers in an assuring manner. “I'm happy to help. I don't want any nightmares for you either. And hey, I can even help with the packing.”
He withdrew his hand when Gary bounded in the back door before Karn could reply. “I'm thirsty.” Karn went to the fridge for a juice box.
“Your mom tells me you've already started packing up your toys. That's smart, Sport,” Bart told him.
Her son grinned. “I put them in a box,” he said with a shrug. “But then sometimes I take them out again to play with them.”
“There's a whole house to pack so we can move, Gary. Can't you play with the toys that we haven't packed yet and leave those in the box?” Karn asked as she handed him a juice box.
Bart laughed at the idea with Gary. “The ones in the box are the best ones to play with.”
“Yeah, I like them best,” Gary told him. Bart chuckled at his admission.
Karn liked hearing Bart's deep laugh. It had been a long time since she'd heard much laughter in any pitch.
Bart looked back at Karn. “Seriously, I can help you with the packing if you like,” Bart offered again.
“Careful what you volunteer for,” she told him laughing. “I haven't started on the kitchen or dining room. We have a lot of boxes to pack.”
“And a big beautiful house to move into,” he remarked. “I can be here Saturday and work with you all weekend, okay? I can even bring lots of newspapers to use to wrap things with. I keep forgetting to put mine in the recycling bin so I have quite a stack.”
“That would be wonderful. The moving company is going to wrap all the furniture, but I told them I'd pack everything else. Everyone I know who has let the movers pack everything has tales to tell about never finding things.” They laughed. “I'll be glad when the moving is over, and we're in the new house,” Karn told him.
“Well, as soon as you close on the house, you can move in. It will be yours.”
“My plan is to do that because it gives me a chance to have the new house really cleaned well from top to bottom before our furniture gets there. I've already booked the cleaners so I hope nothing holds the closing up.”
“It'll be fine.”
“What do you think, Gary? Would it be fun to sleep on an air mattress on the floor until your bed gets delivered?” Karn asked her son.
“We would be camping inside the house. That's funny,” Gary replied with a giggle.
“Hey, if it rains, you won't get wet,” Bart replied with a shrug. “That would be good, wouldn't it?” Gary laughed.
“My juice is gone. I'm going outside again, okay?”
After Gary went out again, Karn and Bart talked about the remaining details of the house purchase. When they finished, Bart walked with her to the front door to leave.
Karn felt like everything was going smoothly—a good feeling. She felt more confident that their life in the new house would be just what she had hoped it would be.
“I can't thank you enough, Bart. I shudder to think what state I would be in now if I didn't have you to help me each step of the way.”
He grinned. “Hey, that's what lawyers are for.”
“Yeah, but you're doing so much more like coming to pack boxes.” She smiled. “Thank you.” She stepped closer and rose on her toes to kiss him on the cheek.
At the same moment, he turned his head so that his lips met hers. When he lifted his head after a moment and smiled, she realized that she felt like smiling too.
“Should I apologize?” he asked softly. “I know you didn't intend to kiss my lips.”
She shook her head. “No.” This was the only man she had kissed in over a year since Marty died. But then even stranger, was the fact that she liked kissing him. She might even like to do it again.
“See you Saturday,” he said with a smile as he went out the door. She was still too stunned by the kiss and her reaction to it to say anything.