Avery Baker was once a New York textile designer, but inheriting her aunt’s old Maine cottage has led her down a new career path—home renovation. Finding a property’s hidden potential has rewards and challenges—the rewards being fun with DIY, and with Derek Ellis, her hunky handyman. The challenges? A property fraught with crumbling walls, peeling paint, clues pointing to her aunt’s involvement with a missing local professor, and threats against Avery’s life. Can she finish the house—without getting finished off in the process?
Jennie gives an overview of the book:
The third oldest town in Maine turned out to be a pretty place, if one's tastes should happen to run to provincial towns on the outer edge of the back-beyond. Mine don't, but it was undeniably attractive, with its steep, cobble-stoned streets and mixture of Victorian cottages and stately Colonial and Federal style homes, interspersed with the inevitable weathered New England saltboxes. The air was fresh, too, with a hint of salt from the ocean. It looked like a nice place to visit, maybe even hang around for a day or two, but I wouldn't want to live there. There were no chic clothing stores, no theatres, no trendy restaurants, no Starbucks... just a bunch of houses, and the occasional antique shop or tea room, with names like The Ancient Mariner and Thea's Teas. All in all, too quaint for words.
The tinny, automated voice that had guided me onto the Cross-Bronx Expressway and all the way to Aunt Inga's house, finished the job by almost killing me just as I was getting to my destination. I was turning the corner of Outlook Avenue and Bayberry Lane, where Aunt Inga's house was, when suddenly a huge, black pickup truck erupted out of the cul-de-sac and almost clipped the front of my zippy, little convertible VW Beetle.
The driver of the pickup didn't even glance my way, and the windows were tinted almost as black as the paint itself, so I couldn't get a good look at him or her. There was a white magnet on the door, advertising some kind of business, but I wasn't able to read what it said. While I was still trying to catch my breath, the truck accelerated and disappeared down the hill toward the center of town. I watched the taillights glow red as it braked for a token tenth of a second at the four-way stop halfway down the hill. And then the sight of Aunt Inga's house blew everything else out of my head.
Mother's information about Aunt Inga had prepared me for the fact that the house would probably be in some need of repair. Aunt Inga was old, childless, reclusive, and not well off, so there had to be things - probably a lot of things - she wasn't able to keep up with. Things she couldn't do herself, and things she couldn't afford to pay anyone else to do, with no family around to help out. I expected an overgrown yard, a few loose roof shingles, overflowing gutters, and maybe some rotted boards. The reality was so much worse than anything I could have imagined, that for a second, I just stared, appalled.
The house must have been beautiful once. Like mother had said, it was a fairytale Victorian cottage with a tower and arched windows. Unless my mandatory architecture classes betrayed me, I was looking at a Second Empire Victorian. Basically an Italianate style, identified by a square tower, mansard roof, and tall, narrow windows, arched or rounded on top. Named for the reign of Napoleon III (1852-1870), Second Empire was the first true style of the Victorian era in the US.
Unfortunately, the wonderful house that mother remembered had deteriorated more than a little in the past 26 years. The windows were tall and narrow, four over four, but several of the panes were broken. The mansard roof was laid in an intricate flower pattern, but many of the old shingles were missing. The front porch looked like it was meant to be a pleasant, shady place to loaf on warm summer evenings, but at the moment the floor sagged ominously and looked none too safe. The paint had peeled and faded so far that it was impossible to guess the original color. And don't even get me started on the yard. Cultured heritage rosebushes were choked with weeds, and lilac trees were rubbing elbows with thistles. The small birdbath on the front lawn was almost invisible. The grass was easily a foot tall, obscuring the walkway from the sidewalk up to the front of the house. I couldn't tell whether I'd have to walk on brick, flagstone, gravel, or just plain packed dirt to get to the front door.
A ten-year-old Cadillac in immaculate condition sat at the curb, and because I was so busy looking at the house, I almost plowed right into it. Only the good Lord and quick reflexes saved me, but even so, the front bumper of the Beetle kissed the back bumper of the Caddy before I backed up again, to a decorous two-foot distance.
Swinging my legs out from the Beetle's interior, a little stiff after six hours behind the wheel, I shuffled carefully through the tall weeds along the invisible front walk.
The entrance to the house was inside the tower, in a dusky corner of the porch. The Victorian front door had a window in the top half, and while I stood there trying to decide whether I should knock or employ the ancient twisting doorbell, I went up on my tippy-toes and peeked through the window. And saw a pair of feet in black dress shoes and matching socks sticking out of a door halfway down the hall.
I’ll be the first to admit that I have a vivid imagination, honed by years of watching bad TV shows, and for a second or two, the world stood still while I tried to process the fact that there appeared to be a dead body in Aunt Inga’s house. Immediately, I was certain that the person in the black pickup had murdered my poor aunt – probably bashed her over the head with the proverbial blunt instrument – and left her to die on the floor. Why my elderly aunt should be wearing size ten dress shoes and charcoal gray trousers I didn’t really know, but I wasn’t thinking too clearly at the moment. I could feel the blood draining out of my head, leaving me lightheaded and dizzy. When I put a hand on the door to steady myself, it opened with a long, drawn-out squeal of hinges; the kind of sound you hear in horror movies.
I wasn’t sure whether to be relieved or even more surprised when the corpse moved. The feet disappeared, and a few moments later, a shocked face peered out into the hallway. I stared back, wide-eyed.
Whoever it was, it wasn’t my Aunt Inga. This was a man; old, but not as ancient as my aunt. He might have been around seventy or seventy-five, a spare man with gray hair combed over the top of his head, nattily dressed in a dark suit with a white shirt and a striped tie. There was dust on his knees. I tore my eyes away from it and up to his face. “Excuse me. My name is Avery Baker. I’m looking for my aunt.”
Jennie Bentley is the author of the new series of Do-It-Yourself Home Renovation mysteries from Berkley Prime Crime. As a realtor and renovator, Jennie has plenty of experience to draw on for lots and lots of books in the series!