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Arsenic in the Azaleas by Dale Mayer (1)

Chapter 1

Day 1, Wednesday: The First Day of the Rest of Her Life…

This is what she’d come to? A thirty-five-year-old soon-to-be divorcée, penniless, living in her grandmother’s dilapidated home? Doreen Merriweather—back to Doreen Montgomery now—parked her aging Honda Civic in the driveway of what was her new residence in the Lower Mission area of Kelowna, British Columbia. And stared.

Goodness. This was not how she remembered the house. It was just another lump to take in a long line of lumps she’d already taken.

She blew the errant curls of blond hair off her face. The warm spring sunshine highlighted the two-story house’s ancient clapboard siding, windows in desperate need of cleaning. Shutters in need of paint or repair, and a roof more covered in moss than shingles. It had a lost-in-time and forgotten-by-the-world air to it.

She could relate.

For just a moment she allowed herself to wallow in self-pity. Her previous home had been an eight-thousand-square-foot mansion in West Vancouver with an in-ground pool and four staff to look after it and her soon-to-be ex-husband—and now Doreen’s younger replacement. A smart Barbie doll of twenty-eight. A very smart Barbie doll, as Doreen had found out belatedly.

“Just be grateful you have a home at all,” she reminded herself. “Without Nan giving this place to me, we’d be on the street at this point.” Feeling better, she turned to her pedigreed basset hound, Mugford Horace III, but Mugs to her, and said, “Right, boy?”

He gave her a droopy-eyed look.

“I know. You’re not impressed either. Still, it’s what we have, and we’re thankful for Nan’s generosity.” Just because Doreen’s life had changed, didn’t mean she wasn’t up for the challenge. She knew there would be days when it would all seem to be too much. But she should be used to that as it described most of the last six years of her marriage anyway.

Doreen had signed the separation forms some two weeks after her husband had asked her to leave their house and their marriage. Right before Thanksgiving, in fact. On her lawyer’s advice, Doreen signed the divorce settlement papers as well—to have it all over with, even though the divorce couldn’t be filed until after she and her husband had been separated for a year. This way offers minimal emotional pain for you, Doreen. You can move on without having to revisit the painful time in your life.

Only, shortly after signing all those papers, Doreen had found out that her divorce lawyer was her husband’s lover… Yeah, life’s a bitch.

And so was her divorce lawyer.

She hadn’t figured out what to do about it yet—if anything. Part of her wanted to walk away and leave him to his money—and new girlfriend. Another part of her wanted to fight him tooth and nail and take the house right out from under him.

But how?

She had no money. Or connections. And although her lawyer was as crooked as they came, how did she trust another one to help her right the wrongs done?

Money bought people. And apparently their loyalty too. She couldn’t afford to lose any more of either.

Mugs nuzzled her hand. She shook her head, bringing herself back to the present, sitting in her car still parked outside her grandmother’s house. Doreen’s new reality. She pulled the keys from the ignition and exited her car.

She walked up to the front door. Her grandmother—Nan as she preferred to be called to avoid the old-age stigma surrounding “grandma” and all such other labels—had said the keys were atop the doorframe. Doreen reached up and found the key ring, and, with relief, she unlocked the door, pushing it wide open.

For better or for worse, this was the first day of the rest of her life.

Pulling her phone out of her suit pocket, she dialed Nan’s number. “Nan, we’re here. Just wanted to let you know.”

“Thank you for calling, dear.”

Doreen heard a rustle on the phone, like Nan covering up the speaker, then she called out as if to someone else in the room, “She’s just arrived. A few minutes before noon. Write that down.”

And that made no sense. While Doreen was still trying to figure out what her grandmother meant, Nan was talking to her again. “Glad you made it safely, dear. Now make a cup of tea and settle in. We’ll talk tomorrow when you’re rested.” Just at Doreen went to hang up, Nan said, “It’s lovely to have you close. I’ll get Marge to stop by in a few days. She’s gone on a holiday so perfect timing, dear.”

Click.

Doreen hung up, shaking her head. Nan was still as quirky as ever. Who was Marge? She wracked her brain looking for a mention of that name and drew a blank. She’d find out later. She had more pressing problems right now. She headed back to the car, to her faithful pet. “Come on, Mugs.” She opened the passenger door and waited for him to jump down. He raced across the lawn, his nose down, big floppy ears bouncing with every step.

“Mugs, over here.”

He woofed and raced behind her toward the front door.

With him at her side, she stepped across the doorway. She was immediately hit with that lovely aged smell that came with the ancient house.

Knowing her circumstances, Nan had convinced Doreen to move into her house with her until a spot opened up at Rosemoor then she could have the house all to herself. Unexpectedly, a spot opened up and Nan had moved in before Doreen had time to adjust her plans. Doreen had been living with friends—or their empty apartments—since leaving her old home. The last place had belonged to a woman she’d been close to. Unfortunately she hadn’t realized that without the husband, the prestige, the money… the woman no longer considered Doreen a friend. And her hope that this woman’s brother, a lawyer, could help her fix her divorce mistake went out the window.

She’d overstayed her welcome waiting for him to get back into town. Only to realize he’d been in town the whole time and was waiting for her to leave… she’d left the next day.

As part of Nan’s decision to live at Rosemoor, she had also decided to give the house to Doreen, Nan’s only living relative, so she’d always have a home to live in.

And Doreen was incredibly grateful to have it. She walked to the nearest window in the living room and pushed it wide open, letting in some springtime air, then went to the next room, the formal dining room. It had been a long time since she’d been in the house, and her present reality warred with her past memories.

There was just something about the house of an older person who had lived in it for the last forty-odd years. The living room and dining room overflowed with furniture, all covered in brightly colored afghans. The walls were full of mementos, the shelves full of knickknacks. Decades of items that added joy to Nan’s life.

Her gaze roamed the small space, made even smaller by the clutter. In the ensuing weeks Nan had been gone a fine layer of dust had settled over every surface… It would take hours to clean all this…

It would take more time to declutter this place, and Doreen would feel terribly guilty if she disposed of anything without Nan’s permission.

Nan might love all these mementos, but Doreen felt claustrophobic with all the large dark furniture crammed into the front two rooms. She walked through to the kitchen and stopped. It was cute, quaint and old. Still, if it functioned, it was more than she had otherwise. She opened the back door and stepped out onto the porch that ran along the back of the house. Outside she found the rear garden, rioting in color and completely overwhelmed with knee-high weeds and out-of-control bushes.

As her gaze wandered the length of the gardens she gasped in delight. “Oh, boy, Mugs,” she said. “We have our work cut out for us here.”

Yet the gardens thrilled her. Gardening was her thing. During her former life she directed gardeners to do the work. Anytime she’d managed to get her hands dirty, she’d been reprimanded because the cuts from the thorns would mar her skin and digging in the soil would break her nails.

She glanced down at her self-manicure. In no way did they resemble the perfect nails she used to show off. “Well, they’ve already taken a beating, so what’s another one.”

Mugs stood in the rear doorway and sniffed the air. When a growl came from deep inside his chest, Doreen hurriedly stepped back and peered around the doorframe. While the house fronted a cul-de-sac and sat in the middle of the circle with neighbors on both sides, the backyard went on seemingly forever. Even at the half-collapsed fencing at the back of Nan’s property, more land flowed beyond, unmarred by buildings.

“What’s the matter, Mugs?” Doreen glanced around nervously. He obviously took well to his new role as protector.

Before this, she’d never paid attention to his heavily wrinkled eyebrows that shifted and moved when he was upset. He really was a watchdog. And something out there bothered him. Feeling a little spooked, she caught him by the collar and dragged him inside and closed the door.

“First thing we need to do is unload the car. Then I want a cup of tea. Afterward we can explore.”

She returned to her car. Emptying the contents from the back seat and the trunk of her Honda to the concrete driveway, she stood amid her measly pile of belongings and shook her head. After fourteen years of marriage, she was reduced to five suitcases and two carry-on bags. What a change. Resolutely she grabbed several of her suitcases and took them up the front porch steps and into the house.

She dropped them at the bottom of the staircase. She didn’t even remember how many rooms were upstairs from her last visit, years ago, to see Nan. Wouldn’t matter now. Nan could have knocked down walls and made two bedrooms into one for all Doreen knew. She wondered if a usable bed was to be found in any of them.

She collected the rest of her luggage from the driveway and added them to the growing pile inside. Afterward she retrieved Mugs’s food and water dishes from the front passenger side of the car. On her last trip, she collected his bag of assorted dog food and treats, then made a clean sweep of the Honda’s interior to make sure she hadn’t left anything behind. She locked the car, walked inside, and shut the front door.

She leaned against it and studied her new home.

Nan had said something about looking after her Maine coon cat that generally lived outside. So far there had been no sign of it.

“Oh.” Doreen brightened. “Mugs, is that what you smelled out back? Was it the cat?” She walked to the back door again and opened it. “Hey, kitty, kitty. This is your home, kitty, but Mugs lives here now too.”

Mugs growled. Then came a howl and a hiss, before a screaming cat ripped inside the house between Doreen and Mugs. Instantly the dog barked and gave chase. Standing with her back to the rear doorway, in her three-thousand-dollar Chanel suit she had traveled in, Doreen watched as her professionally pedicured dog happily chased the crap out of the ragtag cat that looked to be almost bobcat size.

What the heck had Doreen gotten herself into?

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