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    Synopsis

    Life comes with stipulations. If you want to fit into last year’s swimsuit, you can’t eat ice cream and a Gennydoodle cookie after every meal. If you want to go to Heaven, you can’t raise Hell on Saturday night and show up in the church pew on Sunday morning, hungover and reeking of cheap perfume. And if you want your hundred-year-old mansion completely updated and remodeled for free, you have to sacrifice. Stipulations, my child. - Granny Bert Cessna

    Now that Madison Reynolds has agreed to be part of a reality-television home remodeling show, she barely recognizes her own life. The show is an instant success, bringing cameras and reporters right to her doorstep, eager to chronicle her every move in the small Texas town.

    With In a Pinch Temporary Services hovering on the thin line between prosperity and extinction, Madison takes on another quirky case, this one concerning a property dispute. Complications turn a simple mission into all-out danger, and once again Madison finds herself embroiled in an intriguing mystery.

    Between her cantankerous grandmother, a moody teenage daughter, an ever-starving son, townspeople eager to grab their fifteen minutes of fame at her expense, and a mother-in-law appalled by her undignified foray into the public eye, Madison had her hands full, long before the skeleton was discovered. Now work is interrupted at the Big House, ghost stories abound, more secret passages have been unearthed, and someone is trying to scare her away from her new home.

    What she needs is another session of Brash deCordova’s unique ‘river therapy’… not to mention the kiss that eludes them with frustrating regularity.

    What she gets is another round of stipulations and complications.



    Chapter Ten

    Her ankle protested when she tried getting out of bed the next morning.

    “You, my sorry friend, are getting too old for this,” Madison reminded herself aloud.

    Beside her, Bethani groaned in her sleep. She mumbled some incoherent reply before turning over to slumber in undisturbed bliss.

    Poor baby. She needs her own bedroom.

    Not for the first time, Madison thought their current living arrangements lacked much to be desired. She knew it was difficult for a teenage girl, sharing a bedroom with her mother.

    Soon, she reminded herself. Soon, we’ll each have a room of our own.

    Madison flexed her swollen joint as she mentally reviewed her itinerary for the day. Mail invoices for jobs completed. Write Derron’s paycheck and hope it didn’t bounce. Go to Blake’s baseball tournament at eleven. Again at three if they won. Make a date with a bottle of wine and a good book. Hmm, not too bad of a Saturday.

    She limped down the hall and into the kitchen, where Granny had a pot of coffee brewed and waiting. She inhaled with satisfaction and smiled. “Good morning.”

    Her grandmother harrumphed. “We’ll see if you’re still saying that when you get a glimpse of the morning news.”

    The smile melted away. “Please, not before my first three cups of coffee.”

    “Then you’d better drink fast,” the older woman advised. She nodded to the small television on the counter, where a shot of the Big House filled the screen. She hit the remote to turn up the volume.

    “Do you believe in ghosts?” the woman on the screen asked. “It’s not Halloween, but sources in Juliet, Texas tell us that the historic home of the town’s namesake has seen a recent infestation of so-called ‘haunts.’ If you recall, a little over a week ago, a skeleton was discovered in the basement of the old mansion. No word as of yet whom the skeleton belonged to, nor whether an actual crime was believed to have been committed, but these new disturbances have shut down restoration efforts while police investigate. According to our sources, odd things began happening around the so-called Big House shortly after the skeleton was discovered. Urban legend has it that the old house is haunted, and this week, ‘ghosts’ have started to appear. The one-hundred-year-old mansion is the centerpiece for the new season of HOME TV’s popular Home Again television series, and will introduce a new format for the network’s top-rated show. The network says the new format will merge home restoration with reality television, giving viewers an in-depth look at what remodeling is like on a day-to-day basis. The first episode is set to air in just a few days, but no word yet on how long the ghosts will spook away cameras. And speaking of ghosts… In Detroit, a …”

    Granny muted the volume as the picture flashed to another story.

    “Great,” Madison muttered. “Just great. Now we’ll have ghost chasers underfoot and séances set up on the lawn.”

    “Don’t look now, but there’s already a van out on the curb. Ghost Buffers, I believe it says.”

    “Five minutes,” she mumbled. “Five minutes was all it took, and my nice little Saturday is shot to smithereens.”

    “The stipulations of fame, my dear. The stipulations of fame.”

    ***

    The cameras followed her to the baseball tournament.

    Maddy sat quietly in the stands, watching as the rest of the spectators made fools of themselves. By the time she came back for the three o’clock game, the number in the stands had doubled. People sported handmade signs and silly hats, anything to snag the cameras’ attention. Cheerleaders appeared, decked out in their cutest outfits, eager to cheer their team on to victory. Never mind that it was the first baseball game they had attended this year. What better time to support your team than when you could appear on national television? A portion of the high school band showed up, blaring their horns and beating their drums in an off-balanced rendition of the school song. Countless of people stopped to greet Madison with enthusiasm, the very same people who snubbed her on the street when the cameras weren’t rolling. And all around her, the air buzzed with talk of ghosts haunting the Big House.

    A news crew conducted interviews under the bleachers. They snagged people as they went to the concession stand to get their cheese nachos and overpriced soft drinks, speaking with anyone willing to share their version of local legend. The team from Ghost Buffers handed out stickers and ghost-figure balloons, along with advice on how to best protect people’s home from ghostly infestations. A preliminary assessment was only $49.95, but if the home team won today, they were offering a one-time discount of twenty dollars off. Another camera from Home Again took it all in, gathering plenty of footage for their ongoing background story.

    Overall, there was a festive spirit in the air, more like that of a carnival than of a high school baseball game.

    Perfect, Madison bemoaned silently as she went to her car. My life has become a carnival sideshow. She pretended not to notice Myrna Lewis waving at her with a fake smile plastered across her round face. The woman never came to games, and she was never friendly to Madison. Funny, how the chance to be on television could change all that.

    “At least we won. And Blake made two homeruns, right there on camera,” she muttered aloud. Glimpsing Sadie Bealls getting into her truck, Madison’s lips dipped downward. “Not that it will make the cut. I’m sure they’ll be much more interested in how Sadie once saw a ghost float through the window of the Big House, right as she was driving down Main Street. My son played brilliantly, but that won’t make the news. No, sir, not when they have some really juicy news, like the time Dolly Mac Crowder was having tea with Miss Juliet and saw a saucer float through the air. That, I’m sure, will make the headlines.”

    When her phone binged with a message, she saw a link to another news story that ran this morning on a Dallas station. After mentioning the ghosts, the commentator rehashed discovery of the skeleton, and showed an unflattering picture of Madison from that day, huddled beneath the old pecan tree, her face pale as death itself. He went on to mention that she was the widow of Dallas’ own Grayson Reynolds. Viewers might

    remember the investigation that surrounded Reynolds Investments and his sudden death last November in an automobile accident.

    “It was so kind of everyone to send me the link,” Madison grumbled, erasing the message with a jab of her finger. “This is only the fifth person to do so. Not a single one of them bothered to call after I left Dallas, yet they all are sweet enough to send me this link. So thoughtful.”

    By the time she wove through traffic and pulled onto the road, Madison’s nerves coiled into a tight knot. Her plan was to go home, open that bottle of wine, and have a nice, quiet evening to herself. No phones and no television. The twins were both spending the night with friends and Granny had Bingo. With any luck, she might salvage what was left of the day.

    The dream of a peaceful evening died a quick and sudden death as her phone rang. When she saw the caller ID flash across the screen, she took it as an omen.

    “Mother Reynolds, what a surprise.”

    Her mother-in-law had not called in weeks. If she put her mind to it, Madison could probably count on one hand the total times Annette had called since Gray’s death. Two hands would cover the past twenty-four months. Which suited her just fine.

    Madison’s relationship with her mother-in-law had always been strained. Annette Reynolds had lofty plans for her only son, and they had not included a headstrong college girl with no pedigree. Much to her dismay, Grayson married the girl and brought her home to Dallas, where Annette was forced to act the proper mother-in-law. She dutifully included Madison in family events. Made certain she was in the highly commissioned family portrait. Introduced her to the cream of Dallas elite and secured her placement into all the social clubs and organizations. Bought her expensive gifts at Christmas and on her birthday. But the one thing Annette never quite mastered was the way her lip curled downward, each time Madison referred to her as ‘mother.’ And from the wedding day forward, anything that went wrong had been ruled Madison’s fault.

    Not bothering with niceties now, Annette charged into the reason for her call. Her tone was accusing. “Is it true? I’m hearing sordid reports about you being on television!”

    Not certain if her horror related to the ghost sightings or the scandalous fact that her daughter-in-law was the star of a reality show, Madison hedged. “Oh? What exactly have you heard?”

    “Why, it’s all over the Dallas stations. You have been implicated in some sort of murder mystery, and it is hardly the first time! You have only been there four months, Madison, and apparently, this is the third scandal you’ve been involved in. What sort of environment have you taken my grandchildren into?”

    “And we’re all doing fine, Annette, thanks for asking.”

    “You do not have to be snide, Madison. It hardly becomes you.”

    Madison could picture her mother-in-law, sitting on one of her plush designer sofas, most likely in the salon, as she preferred to call the pretentious room. Perfectly coiffed hair, tinted a flattering shade of pale gold, sprinkled with just enough silver frosting to look natural. Impeccable makeup. A neat and stylish wardrobe. Madison could also envision that sharp patrician nose undoubtedly stuck into the air. Even now, the disdainful sniff carried over the airwaves.

    “And you have not answered my question. It is bad enough that you took the children away from us and everything that was dear and familiar to them. Their home.

    Their friends. Their school. You dragged them to the ends of the Earth, to some backwoods town in the middle of a cotton field, and now I am learning that there is a decided criminal element there, with which you are apparently quite familiar! I must insist that you bring the children back immediately. They can live here at Ivy Hall.”

    She was spoiling for a fight. That was the only explanation for the haze of red appearing before Madison’s eyes. After a stressful week filled with pranks and ghosts and elusive journals, a ridiculous day filled with posturing fans and phony friends and pushy reporters, and a long history of snide remarks and ridicule from a woman who presumptuously named her four-thousand-square-foot home Ivy Hall, Madison was primed for a fight.

    Maddy whipped the car onto the side of the road. She ignored the car behind her. Let them blare the horn. She shoved the gearshift into park and prepared for battle.

    Out of respect for her husband, Madison had never confronted Gray’s mother head-on. She stood up to the other woman in her own quiet, dignified way, admittedly allowing small matters to slide in the name of family unity. Throughout the course of her marriage, Madison had learned to choose her battles wisely.

    But Gray was gone. There was no family unity left.

    And, yes, she was spoiling for a fight.

    Madison kept her voice deceptively cool and steady. “First of all, Annette, I did not take the children away from their home. The bank threatened to do that, when your son failed to make the mortgage payments on time. I was fortunate to get out from under the staggering debt he left me with, even though I sold our home at a loss.” The coolness sharpened into frost. “You remember the house, don’t you, Annette? I wanted the smaller, more affordable one in another neighborhood, but you insisted we needed a house befitting Gray’s status as an up and coming ‘mover and shaker,’ I believe you called him.”

    “Grayson was a brilliant businessman. The markets turned on him, but he would have seen his way out of the slump. I’m certain it was only temporary. And he chose that house, not me. I merely put him in touch with my agent.”

    “We both know you pushed him into buying it, Annette. Not that it mattered in the long run. The children and I were forced to leave Dallas because your son left us penniless when he died. I brought them back to my hometown, where we would be surrounded by true friends and family. Yes, it is a small town, but I prefer the word quaint over backwoods. And it’s hardly the ends of the Earth. We are three hours from Dallas, Annette, not that you have bothered to visit. And by the way, I’m not the one living in a gated community, locked away with alarms and deadbolts because I don’t trust my own neighbors.”

    “I have some of the finest neighbors in the city,” Annette sniffed. “Pillars of the community. Lawyers. Judges. A Congressman. Highly respected business people.”

    “And I live in the same house as the former mayor of Juliet, a pillar of our community.”

    “Hardly the same caliber of people,” Annette intoned stiffly.

    Even though her mother-in-law could not see her, Madison smiled. “I agree wholeheartedly. There are few people in this world with the honesty and integrity of my grandmother.”

    Annette ignored the comment and continued with the tenacity of a bulldog. “Dead bodies, Madison? Ghosts? Whatever have you gotten yourself involved with? Are my grandchildren in danger?”

    “Of course not, Annette. I would never let anything happen to them, and you know it.”

    “And yet you somehow think it is acceptable to parade them across national television?” Her voice dripped with drollness. “A reality show, Madison? Whatever were you thinking?”

    Ah, she should have known. Annette disguised the reason for her call as concern, but the truth was that she was appalled to have members of her family associated with something as tawdry and undignified as a reality television show. As if what your son did was dignified, Madison snorted to herself.

    Her voice was amazingly calm as she replied to her mother-in-law. “I was thinking that I needed to provide for my children, since your son did such a poor job in that department. Did you know our new home is larger than yours, Annette? A historical landmark, in fact. It’s being completely renovated and restored, at absolutely no cost to me.”

    “There is always a cost, Madison. I think your children’s safety is far too high of a price, don’t you?”

    “If you are implying that I have put the twins at risk by being on television—”

    “I am not implying anything. I am saying it outright. There are vile sex offenders in the world, Madison. Pedophiles. And yet you choose to parade your innocent children in front of them, right there on the television screen for the entire world to ogle. Charles and I will not stand for it. I insist that you end this ridiculous nonsense this instant.”

    Her control began to slip. Madison’s voice wavered ever so slightly, anger causing her growled words to tremble. “You and Charles have no say-so in the matter.”

    “I believe a judge may see things differently.”

    Madison clutched the steering wheel with enough force to turn her knuckles white. The blood draining from her face surged sure and strong throughout her flushed body.

    “Are you threatening me, Annette?”

    “Of course not, Madison. I am merely expressing concern for my grandchildren. Naturally, Charles and I want what is best for them. We happen to believe that we could provide a much more stable and secure environment than the one they currently live in. I urge you to allow the children to come live with us, in the manner in which they are accustomed.”

    “My children have always lived in a home filled with love and warmth. That is the manner in which Blake and Bethani are accustomed.”

    “You must consider what is best for them.”

    “I always consider what is best for my children.”

    “Charles and I can provide for their needs, Madison. If they have fallen behind in their studies, we can hire private tutors. They will be up to task in no time. I’m certain we could use our influence and have them accepted into Wiltshire Academy.”

    Madison’s lip curled in distaste. “And I’m sure you would hire a five-star chef to prepare their meals and a maid to prepare their rooms and a chauffeur to drive them back and forth to their fancy school.” Her voice took on a hard edge. “Allowing employees to

    raise your children may have been good enough for you, Annette, but it’s not good enough for me, and it’s certainly not good enough for my children. They deserve better. They deserve home-cooked meals and a mother who is there for them.” Feeling particularly malicious, Madison hit below the belt. “Having had neither himself, that was something Gray insisted upon when we started our family.”

    After a sharp intake of breath, Annette repeated, “Consider what is best for the children, Madison. You are practically living in squalor, and now you have sold your soul to national television. Why, you might as well have prostituted yourself!”

    The haze of red thickened. It’s true what they say. The vague thought registered somewhere in her rage-filled mind. I can literally feel my blood boiling. Lordy, I hope I don’t have a heart attack, right here on the side of the road.

    Madison chose to ignore the inflammatory remark. She could have said something like ‘Your son might have preferred that. Perhaps then he would not have cheated on me.’ It might even have been true, but she refused to dignify the horrendous insult with a reply. Instead, she concentrated on what was important: Bethani and Blake. Madison’s voice trembled with the rage that built inside her.

    “The children have names, Annette. Not once during this conversation have you referred to them by name. Not once have you asked how they were doing, how they are adjusting without a father. That’s because they are nothing more to you than a possession, something pretty to set upon a shelf and look at once in a while, something to show off to your friends and neighbors while you play at being a grandmother.” Madison stopped to pull in deep, ragged breaths, as spent as if she had fought a physical match.

    “Why you —”

    Accustomed to having the upper hand, Madison knew her mother-in-law could not abide dismissal. That knowledge became her most powerful weapon. Before the other woman could launch a counter-attack, Madison delivered her final punch.

    “Goodbye, Annette.” Madison ended the call with a decisive click.

    She sat on the side of the road for a long moment, knowing she was unfit to drive. She tried deep breathing techniques. She tried counting to ten. Fifty. She tried running her hands through her hair until it spiked it all directions. She tried massaging her neck and tense shoulders. Her hands still trembled on the wheel.

    After only a moment’s hesitation, she picked up her phone and made a call.

    “Hello?”

    The deep voice warmed her. She spoke quickly, before she lost her nerve. “Does your offer still stand?”

    “Offer?”

    “You once offered me use of your thinking spot. Does the offer still stand?”

    He countered with a question of his own. “Have you had supper?”

    “It’s barely five o’clock. Why are you asking me about supper?”

    “Have you or have you not eaten this evening?”

    “No, Brash, I haven’t eaten,” she replied testily.

    She heard the smile infuse his deep voice. “I’ll pick you up in thirty minutes. And don’t spoil your appetite.”

    “Brash, what does —”

    “Details, Maddy. Let me take care of the details.”

    Details.

    A smile touched her lips. She liked details.

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