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Authors: Jennie Bentley

Fatal Fixer-Upper

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FATAL FIXER-UPPER

JENNIE BENTLEY

A Trapestry

For a second I was too shocked and astonished to react, and then I threw myself at the door. 'Shit!' It isn't a word I use often, but the circumstances seemed to demand it. I added a few more choice curses as I hammered my fists against the reinforced steel. Nothing happened; not that I had expected it to. 'Hello?' I tried. 'What's going on?'

There was no answer. I had no idea whether he could hear me or whether he'd left after shutting me in. I certainly couldn't hear him. Was he standing just outside the door, listening to me freak out, or already calmly going about his business? 'Shit!' I said again. It seemed to sum up the situation nicely, even if my voice was shaking . . .

FATAL FIXER-UPPER

JENNIE BENTLEY

THE BERKLEY PUBLISHING GROUP

Published by the Penguin Group

Penguin Group (USA) Inc. 
Hudson Street, New York, 

New York , USA

Penguin Group (Canada), Eglinton Avenue East, Suite , Toronto, Ontario MP Y, Canada (a division of Pearson Penguin Canada Inc.)

Penguin Books Ltd., Strand, London WCR RL, England

Penguin Group Ireland, St. Stephen's Green, Dublin , Ireland (a division of Penguin Books Ltd.)

Penguin Group (Australia), Camberwell Road, Camberwell, Victoria , Australia (a division of Pearson Australia Group Pty. Ltd.)

Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd., Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi— , India

Penguin Group (NZ), Apollo Drive, Rosedale, North Shore , New Zealand (a division of Pearson New Zealand Ltd.)

Penguin Books (South Africa) (Pty.) Ltd., Sturdee Avenue, Rosebank, Johannesburg , South Africa

Penguin Books Ltd., Registered Offices: Strand,

London WCR RL, England

FATAL FIXER-UPPER

A Berkley Prime Crime Book / published by arrangement with the author Copyright © by Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Interior text design by Laura K. Corless.

All rights reserved.

BERKLEY® PRIME CRIME

Berkley Prime Crime Books are published by The Berkley Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.,

Hudson Street, New York, New York . BERKLEY PRIME CRIME and the BERKLEY PRIME CRIME design are trademarks of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.

PUBLISHER'S NOTE: Neither the publisher nor the author is engaged in rendering professional advice or services to the individual reader. The ideas, projects, and suggestions contained in this book are not intended as a substitute for consulting with a professional. Neither the author nor the publisher shall be liable or responsible for any loss or damage allegedly arising from any information or suggestion in this book.

Acknowledgments

This book would not have come into being without the help, support, and encouragement of a lot of people. Great big thanks to the following: My brilliant agent, Stephany Evans. She is one of a kind, as an agent, a writer, and a human being, and I'm so lucky to have found her.

My wonderful editor, Jessica Wade. She could have entrusted Avery's story to someone else, but she chose me. I hope I've made her proud!

My publicists, Leslie Henkel with the Penguin Group (USA) and Tom Robinson with Author and Book Media. This book would be nowhere without them! Fellow writers Tasha Alexander, Diana Killian, and Hank Phillippi Ryan. They've been incredibly generous with their time and advice, in addition to being the kind of writers, and the kind of women, I want to be when I grow up. Jamie Dierks, my critique partner. Without her, this book wouldn't be what it is.

My buddies at the ITW Debut Authors. They've all, individually and together, helped me make it through the year in one piece. Robert Czapliewicz, handyman
extraordinaire.
He has helped me renovate every house I've ever owned and taught me everything I know about Doing-It-Myself. My first grade teacher, Mrs. Fullman. She told my parents I'd grow up to be an author. It took a while, but look at me now!

My friends and family, near and far. Especially, my husband and my two boys. They're perfect and beautiful and the best family anyone could wish for, and they deserve far more than thanks, both for being who they are and for letting me be who I am.

1

The letter from Aunt Inga arrived, as the saying goes, a day late and a dollar short. Or not a whole dollar, exactly, but Aunt Inga must have missed a few of the recent postal increases, because the stamp was short by several cents, and that was probably why it had taken the letter almost two weeks to get from Maine to New York City.

The mailman arrived just as I was putting the finishing touches on the hand-printed and hand-sewn upholstery I had created for a reproduction Gustavian love seat I was getting ready to put in the display window of Aubert Designs on Madison Avenue in New York City. (Gustavian furniture is a sort of simplified, Scandinavian rococo, FYI.) I'm the resident textile designer for Aubert Designs. Philippe Aubert designs furniture—high-end, handcrafted, reproduction furniture. My job is to enhance Philippe's creations with my own custom-designed fabrics. He's been on something of a Gustavian kick lately, and the piece I was working on had the distinctive arched and scrolled backrest and carved giltwood frame. My fabric, by contrast, was hip and modern, with a pattern of overlapping lipstick kisses in three shades of pink. Gustav was probably rotating in his grave, and Philippe hadn't been too positive about the idea either, when I'd first pitched it to him. But I was happy to see that the lipstick kisses looked just as good with the curved gilt wood as I had hoped.

Just as I was putting in the last few stitches, the door opened, and the mailman walked in. He looked from me to the stack of mail in his hand. 'You Avery Marie Baker?'

I jabbed the needle into the underside of the love seat, where the mark it made wouldn't be noticed, and got to my feet. 'I am. What have you got?'

He extended the other grubby hand. 'Postage due. There's only a thirty-seven-cent stamp on this letter.'

'Oh. Sure.' I dug in a pocket of my jeans and came up with a dime. 'Keep the change.'

'Too kind.' He pocketed the dime and shuffled out after handing over the stack of mail. I dumped the rest on Tara's empty chair—she's the receptionist—and sat down on the lipstick-upholstered love seat to open my letter. The envelope was ecru and thick; it looked like it came from the kind of old-fashioned correspondence set people used back in the days before telephones and e-mail took over the world. The letter seemed to have originated somewhere in the state of Maine, and my name and address were written in a shaky, elegant hand with what looked like real ink. The kind that comes out of a fountain pen. I slit the envelope open with a pair of upholstery shears. Philippe would have objected had he seen my cavalier use of his tools, but he'd gone to lunch (without me), so I did it anyway. It beat getting up to look for a letter opener; especially on Tara's desk, which looked like a whirlwind had blown past it. Whatever else Tara had going for her—as if I didn't know— she wasn't much of an office manager.

There was only a single sheet of writing paper inside the envelope, also thick and ecru in color. The message was short, dated two weeks ago, and written in the same shaky hand as the outside of the envelope:

My dear niece,

I trust this finds you well and that you are happy inyour life in New York.

You may be surprised to hear from me after all thistime. That is, if you even remember visiting me when youwere a child.

I am writing in the hope that you might be able to
fi?
ndthe time to come to Water
fi?
eld to see me sometime soon?As I attempt to put my affairs in order before my lifedraws to a close, there are things I feel compelled toshare with you. It is time for secrets to be told, for thetruth to come out, and wrongs to be put right.Your affectionate aunt,

Inga Marie Morton

Bayberry Lane

Waterfield, ME

I was still sitting on the love seat ten minutes later, lost in thought, when the door from the street opened, letting in the aroma and miasma typical of New York City, no matter the time or season. Along with it came Philippe Aubert, resident genius, my boss—and boyfriend.

Philippe, as you've probably gathered, is French. Aggressively so. He keeps his wavy brown hair long enough to pull back into an artistic ponytail when he's working, and when he's not, he keeps it confined by that most French of French headgear, a beret. Today, he was dressed in skintight leather pants and a black leather blazer, with a flowing white poet shirt, open halfway down his muscular chest. On anyone else, the getup would have looked ridiculous. But Philippe looked good enough to eat, like he had stepped off the cover of a romance novel, and I resisted the temptation to pinch myself to make sure I wasn't dreaming.

'Hello,
chérie
.' He sauntered over and bent down to greet me. His lips tasted of wine, and he smelled of musky aftershave. I was just a touch breathless by the time he straightened up and looked around. 'Where is everybody?'

It took me a second to get my voice to cooperate. 'Tara went to lunch. Just after you. And Kevin is delivering the checkered fainting couch.'

'Ah.' Philippe grimaced. The checkered fainting couch was a sore subject.

A fainting couch is perhaps more commonly known as a
chaise longue
, a long chair in French, or a lounging chair in good old-fashioned English. They've been around for millennia; Ramses the Great and Julius Caesar used to lie around on chaise longues, nibbling on grapes and being fanned by slaves. In more recent years they have been used primarily by women, since until just a hundred years ago or so, women's stays were often too tight to allow them to bend comfortably. Instead, they'd recline, fanning themselves and trying to keep from fainting. Philippe's couch was a reproduction of a rococo chaise longue, but as with the love seat, I had prevailed upon him to let me cover it with a less historically accurate fabric. Once he'd come back to his senses, he tried to back off of the promise, but it was too late. The couch was upholstered in eye-popping shades of bubblegum pink, lemon yellow, and orange, with black trim and tassels, and to Philippe's shock and my decorously hidden delight, someone had purchased it the very same day we put it in the display window. Some woman walking by on the street decided she just had to have it, and now Kevin was off delivering it to its new home. Even with the money in the bank, however, Philippe wasn't entirely convinced that letting me cover it with harlequin-patterned candy colors had been the right thing to do.

The bell above the door jingled again, this time admitting Tara. She's a leggy blonde in her early twenties, with straight, baby-fine hair and round blue eyes, and she resents the fact that I'm romantically involved with Philippe. She also resents the fact that I'm a designer, while she's a receptionist. I'm not sure which she resents more, but I know for a fact that she can't stand me. Her look when she came in and saw me suggested someone sinking her teeth into an apple and finding a worm. When she looked at Philippe, however, her expression changed to one of adoring hero worship. 'Hi, Philippe,' she breathed.

I rolled my eyes and turned my attention back to the love seat, but not before I had seen Philippe wink and ask her if she'd enjoyed her lunch. Tara giggled, 'Oh, ye-e-es!'. . .

Work got under way after that, and it wasn't until that evening that I had a chance to tell Philippe about my summons from Aunt Inga. To my surprise, he was a lot more excited about it than I was. 'Who knows,
chérie
?' he said, with one of his Gallic shrugs, 'maybe she is planning to make you her heir.'

We were sitting across from each other at a romantic table for two at Le Coq au Vin, a tiny hole in the wall on the UWest Side. I snorted into my glass. 'And maybe not. I don't really remember meeting her, so why would she leave anything to me?'

'Why would she ask you to visit?' Philippe asked reasonably.

I shrugged. 'I have no idea, but when I get home tonight, I intend to call my mother and ask her. Mom was a Morton before she married, and she grew up in Maine. That's where the letter came from. Aunt Inga must be one of Mother's relatives.'

'Does your mother's family have money,
mon amie
?'

I shook my head. 'None that I know of. We aren't poor, but we're not rich, either. My grandfather was an accountant, I think. I have no idea what Aunt Inga is or was. We don't stay in great touch with that side, but if there were millionaires in the family, I'm sure I would have heard.' I wouldn't still be renting an apartment, for one thing. I'd own a beautiful little condo in the West Village instead.

'Still,' Philippe said, tapping his fingernail gently against the side of his glass, 'it would not hurt to go see your aunt,
non
?'

'I suppose not,' I said unwillingly, 'but I'm not going to go up there to try to insinuate myself into her will, if that's what you're thinking.'

'Of course not,' Philippe agreed, looking at me with soulful blue eyes, 'but aren't you the least bit curious,
chérie
? What big secret could your aunt have that she wants to share with you? In person, not in a letter. What confession could she want to make that she doesn't want to take to the grave?'

They seemed like rhetorical questions, so I didn't bother answering. 'I thought you'd tell me you needed me here,' I said instead. I was a little hurt, frankly, that he hadn't. 'With the big commission for the Hamiltons coming up at the end of the week, and everything.'

'The Hamiltons' dining room set is finished,' Philippe assured me, with a wave of his hand as if to shoo it away.

'Any last-minute repairs or adjustments, Tara can do.'

'Tara.'

My tone must have been weighted, because Philippe smiled. 'Do not be jealous,
ma petite.
It does not become you.' He leaned across the table to put his hand over mine.

'Of course not.' I smiled back, linking my fingers through his. I knew I had no reason to be jealous. I just didn't like the way Tara was always making eyes at him. That wasn't my gripe at the moment, though. 'It's just that she's not a designer, Philippe. And I'd hate for her to do something to ruin all our hard work. The Hamiltons' dining room set is going to be beautiful, but not if Tara attaches any loose trim with black thread and those enormous stitches of hers.'

Philippe took his hand away and leaned back in his chair again. 'I will take care of Tara while you're away,' he promised. 'Are you ready to go,
chérie
?'

'Go?' I repeated, surprised. Philippe is never the one who wants to go. He's always happy to socialize into the wee hours. Leaving a restaurant before dessert and coffee is unheard of.

'Calling your mother is more important than cake,
chérie.
' He hustled me out of the restaurant and down the sidewalk. 'Your
pauvre tante
, she is up there in Maine, perhaps old and sick, and you are stuffing your face instead of arranging to go see her.'

'I wasn't stuffing my face,' I protested. I never stuff my face. I'm short; I have to watch my weight, or I'll end up looking like one of those Weebles, as broad as I'm tall. Nevertheless, he did have a point, so when he walked me to the door of my building and declined my invitation to come up for a cup of coffee, I masked my pout as best I could and headed upstairs by myself. After kicking off my shoes and curling up on the couch (oyster silk blend with black piping, printed with cross sections of enormous black and green kiwifruit), I grabbed the phone and dialed California.

'Oh, yes,' Mother said when I had told her about the letter I'd gotten from Aunt Inga. 'It's just a few weeks since she wrote me to ask for your address. I gave her your work address in case she wanted to send a package. The perils of living in a building without a doorman. Why I remember—'

I interrupted her. 'So you know her?' I admit it, I'd been halfway expecting my mother to tell me that we had no Inga Morton in the family, and that someone was playing a joke on me.

'Of course I know her, dear. She's my aunt.'

'I thought she was my aunt.'

'She's both of our aunts,' Mother said. 'Her father and my grandfather were brothers, I believe. That would make her my aunt, and your great-aunt once or twice removed. Something like that.'

'How old is she?' If she was a contemporary of my mother's grandfather, then she had to be a hundred, at least. No wonder she was worried about her life drawing to a close.

Mother thought for a second. 'Ninety-eight last September, I believe.'

'And you stay in touch with her?'

'I try,' Mother said, 'although she hasn't made it easy, poor dear. She's a bit of a recluse, you understand. Doesn't like people, not even family. Not that one can blame her, considering what some of the family is like.'

'I beg your pardon?' I said.

Mother ignored me. 'I guess she must have had some sort of life when she was young, but for as long as I've known her, she's been standoffish, to say the least. Other than a card every Christmas, she never reached out to us. The last time I contacted her was last summer, when I invited her to The Wedding.'

The Wedding—capitalized—had been hers, not mine, as perhaps it should have been, given our respective ages. I'm thirty-one and have never been married, due to a series of unfortunate love affairs in my early and mid-twenties. I had to kiss a lot of frogs—or at least men who looked like them—before I found Philippe.

But I digress. My mother is fifty-six, and this was her second marriage. After my father passed away, Mother stayed single for years, putting me through high school and college. It's only in the last few years that she's started dating again. Three years ago, she met a wonderful man named Noel, and last year they got married in a sunset ceremony on the beach in California. I'd been there for the wedding, of course, as maid of honor, but I couldn't remember seeing Aunt Inga. Or more accurately, I couldn't remember seeing any little old ladies I didn't know shuffling through the sand. I said as much.

'Oh, she couldn't make it,' Mother explained. 'At her age, I guess I can't blame her for not wanting to drive to Portland to get on a plane, then flying across the country. But she sent a card and a set of the prettiest antique lobster utensils I've ever seen. Fit for a queen!'

'That was nice of her,' I said. 'I guess people eat a lot of lobster in Maine.'

'Maine lobster is famous,' Mother agreed. Even after all these years, she pronounced it with the native Mainer's dropped r:
lobstah
.

BOOK: Fatal Fixer-Upper
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