Sneak Peek: Fixer Upper

My latest novel, FIXER UPPER, is available now on Amazon. City girl Hannah lost herself gradually, in pieces. It takes moving to the country – and meeting rough, seductive Avery – to find herself again.

Read the first chapter below.

Avery Blake realized too late that her pickup truck wasn’t the best-equipped vehicle to transport fragile, old Nora Grayson. First of all, the cab was about two feet higher than Nora could even lift her leg at the age of eighty-four. Avery had to take her by the arm to steady her and then more or less heft her into the seat, noting the papery quality of Nora’s skin and worrying that she would hurt her with this motion.

Secondly, there was no good way to secure Nora’s oxygen tank and keep it from rolling across the bench seat, so Avery had to keep one hand on the steering wheel and one on the portable oxygen. This task was made all the harder by the fact that Avery hadn’t thought to clear out the tools that were always banging around in the foot wells – she really should have planned this outing better, but who plans for a funeral?

She was just thinking that she should have forked over the cash to have Nora transported in some kind of medical van when they pulled into the driveway of Nora’s old house. The trip from the nursing home back to Nora’s place – right across the street from Avery’s house – had been mercifully short, but the journey to the funeral home would be a longer one and Avery wasn’t looking forward to juggling the oxygen tank and her octogenarian neighbor – along with her meds and the packrat purse she’d brought along with her – thirty more miles down the road.

“We’re home,” she said to Nora as she parked the truck and jumped out. Avery walked around to help Nora down, glancing at the house as she went.

It was an old Victorian house with peeling yellow clapboard and lots of ornate details that had been succumbing to dry rot in the years that the house stood empty. Avery spent a lot of time on her porch in the summers, and therefore a lot of time watching the gradual decay of the house across the street. She wasn’t sure she wanted to bring Nora back here and let her see what had become of it, but Nora insisted. She wanted to find something of Minnie’s to remember her by, and Avery knew Nora’s good-for-nothing kids couldn’t be bothered to bring her here. They weren’t even going to the funeral.

Avery helped Nora down, leaving the oxygen tank momentarily behind and letting Nora lean heavily on her arm as they made the short walk from the truck to the house.

“It’s not very pretty anymore, is it?” Nora asked, sounding a little winded as they reached the top of the three creaky steps onto the porch. “Just like me, old and decrepit.”

“Stop,” Avery scolded, patting Nora on the back of her hand. “It just needs a little love.”

The foyer was dark and Avery could see the dust stirring in the air as their steps disturbed it from the floor. It was hard to believe that Nora had only been gone two years – the house felt ancient and forgotten, and the sheets that had been draped over the furniture had a thick layer of dust on them.

“Do you know what you’re looking for?” Avery asked.

There were a lot of dusty sheets in the living room alone – Nora lived here almost fifty years, first with her husband and then with Minnie, and that was a lot of years to fill a house with the kinds of knickknacks and tchotchkes that she figured Nora would be looking for now. The funeral was in two hours, and Avery was starting to wonder if they had enough time for this detour after all.

“I think there’s something in our bedroom,” Nora said, and her voice was so frail that Avery had no idea how she could possibly make it up the stairs, let alone endure the next few hours. Minnie had been everything to her and they spent the last fifteen years inseparable until Nora’s kids split them up. Nora made a move for the stairs and Avery took her elbow.

“If you tell me what it is I can go up and get it,” she offered.

“Thank you, dear,” Nora said, “but I’m afraid I’ll only know it when I see it.”

“Let me help you up the stairs, then,” Avery said, walking beside her as they took them one riser at a time.

With Nora’s limited strength, it felt like climbing Mount Everest and Avery thought it might be easier to carry her on the way back down. She couldn’t weigh more than ninety pounds dripping wet. When they finally reached the landing, Nora gestured for Avery to wait in the hall.

“Do you want me to hold your bag?” Avery asked, reaching for the large purse slung over Nora’s shoulder that she hadn’t stopped clutching since Avery picked her up from the nursing home.

“No,” Nora said. “It’s not a burden.”

“Okay,” Avery said, watching Nora shuffle over to a closed door near the end of the hall. “Holler if you need me.”

Nora disappeared into her bedroom, the door swinging almost shut behind her, and Avery stood around in the hall. There was an antique oak credenza opposite the bannister, covered in a thick layer of dust just like everything else, and a mirror that was starting to lose its silver hung above it.

To kill the time, Avery walked over to it and blew a cloud of dust off the glass, stepping out of the way while it settled. Then she stepped back in front of the mirror, inspecting her short, nearly black hair, normally untamed and falling across her forehead, to make sure it was still neatly slicked back. She straightened the tie around her neck and brushed away the wrinkles that had worked their way into her jacket and pants on the ride over.

***

Nora went into her bedroom, putting her hand on the dresser by the door for support. Walking through the house and seeing everything covered in sheets had been hard enough, but looking at the bed was something different entirely. She walked over to Minnie’s side – always on the right – and ran her hand over the blanket, smoothing it out.

Minnie always made the bed as soon as they got out of it in the mornings, and turned it down meticulously each night. It even used to irritate Nora the way she tucked the sheets so tightly under the mattress. Nora preferred to give her feet a little more freedom to roam in the night… but oh, what she wouldn’t give to feel the tightness of the sheets around her toes now.

A plume of dust rose into the air as she tidied the bed, reminding her that it had been two full years since she last slept in it, and three since she shared it with Minnie.

Nora turned away from the bed before the tears had a chance to come. She went back to the dresser by the door. It was covered with a sheet like most everything else in the house, and the top of it was lumpy since whoever closed up the house hadn’t taken the time to pack away the knickknacks before covering the furniture. Nora carefully lifted the front of the sheet, more dust flying into the air, and revealed a collection of figurines on top of the dresser, exactly the way she remembered them.

They were Florence ceramics and most of them belonged to Minnie. She started collecting the little ceramic women during the war, while she and Nora were raising their families and their husbands were fighting. The figurines had been an occasional splurge to balance the pressures of working and homemaking and child rearing, and they always lit up Minnie’s face whenever she showed off her latest acquisition.

A few of them belonged to Nora, though. Minnie had gifted them to her at a time when symbolic gestures were all they could share, and they continued to mean a lot to Nora. She wanted to bring them with her to the nursing home, but she couldn’t bear to separate them from the rest of the collection.

Now, she picked up a figurine in a full-length pink dress and a bonnet decorated with gold foil accents – her name was Clarissa, according to collectors – and wrapped it carefully in a kerchief she brought with her. This was the very first figurine Minnie ever gave her, and it always held a special place in Nora’s heart. She tucked it into the bottom of her purse, and then she pulled a small leather journal out of her bag, tucking it into the top drawer of the dresser beneath a pile of neatly folded slacks where she hoped it would be safe.

Then Nora opened the bedroom door and announced into the hall, “Okay, dear, I’m ready. I appreciate your patience with an old woman.”

***

The funeral was small, primarily attended by Minnie’s children and grandchildren. They all thanked Nora for coming out to pay her respects to an old friend, and Avery watched her face carefully for a reaction.

She didn’t think she could stand it if she lost someone as close as Minnie had been to Nora and no one even acknowledged her grief, but Nora seemed to take it in stride. They’d hidden their relationship for so many years, Avery figured she was just used to playing the role of the best friend. It was more than

Avery would have been able to do.

Nora held it together like a real trooper through the entire funeral service, watching solemnly as the casket was wheeled down the aisle toward the altar and dabbing delicately at the corner of her eyes while the priest spoke. Avery was standing by with tissues and the oxygen tank and a supportive hand if need be, but Nora turned out to be a lot stronger than she looked.

She didn’t really break down until they lowered poor Minnie into the ground.

The cemetery was wet with last night’s rain and Nora clung to Avery’s arm as they walked to the grave site. She thought it was just that the terrain was rough going and Nora’s modest one-inch heels were sinking into the earth with every step. It wasn’t until the priest said his final prayer over the casket that she realized Nora was clinging to her because Avery was the only thing keeping her from collapsing.

A small yelp, something like a wounded animal would make, came from Nora’s lips while everyone else crossed themselves and muttered an amen, and then Avery felt Nora’s weight pulling on her arm as her legs went to jelly.

She dropped the oxygen tank to the wet grass and held onto Nora, keeping her on her feet and holding her tight for support as she sobbed. Most everyone headed back to their cars after the casket was lowered, a few of them looking at Nora with a mixture of pity and confusion, and Avery felt the urge to lash out at them rising up in her throat.

Who the hell were they to stare at her grief?

Move it along, asshole, she wanted to growl when their eyes lingered on Nora, and Avery held her tighter to keep her from the realization that she’d become a spectacle for them.

When they got back to the truck, Avery practically carrying Nora across the grounds, she carefully looped the oxygen cannula over Nora’s ears and brought it to her nose. Avery gave her a few minutes to settle down before starting the journey back to the nursing home, and the way Nora’s face was twisted into a physical manifestation of the pain of losing Minnie really ate at Avery.

In a million years, she couldn’t be as strong as Nora had been that day, or as tenacious as she’d been in her love for Minnie all her life. If this was the heartache people signed up for when they fell in love, she didn’t want any part of it.

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