“Toto, looks like we aren’t in Kansas anymore,” I say to Charlie, my Cavalier King Charles spaniel, as I drive the rental Cadillac through downtown Copper Creek. On Main Street, quaint brick buildings with ground-level stores catch my eye.
It looks like something straight out of a postcard.
Truth? I’ve never been to Kansas. Or even a small town.
Unless a five-star resort counts as one.
Charlie barks from the passenger seat, accompanied by ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” piping through the car speakers. I’ve been singing and bopping along to the movie soundtrack ever since we left Billings Airport.
“What do you think?” I ask him. “It’s not quite Beverly Hills, is it?” No expensive boutiques, no posh spas, no restaurants boasting world-renowned chefs.
No dance clubs with exclusive guest lists.
From what I’ve seen so far, the closest thing the town has to a dance club is a building with a neon sign proclaiming that it’s Joe’s Bar.
It looks like something straight out of a movie.
My phone rings and I accept the call.
Drew’s voice streams through the car’s speaker. “Kate, what’s this craziness about you going to Montana?”
That would be brother #1: Andrew. And no, you aren’t allowed to call him Drew.
“Hi to you too, Drew,” I say, and I swear Charlie chuckles.
Even though I can’t see him, I can guarantee my brother is rolling his eyes. He does that a lot around me.
“Why on earth would you go to Montana?”
“The real question is, why wouldn’t I come here? The air is clean and the mountains are majestic.” Yes, I read that in a brochure about the area.
I haven’t been out of the car yet to judge if the part about the air quality is true, but the brochure got it right about the mountains.
“You shouldn’t be there on your own.”
“I’m not on my own. Right, Charlie?”
Charlie barks in reply.
“That dog won’t be able to keep an eye on you and help you when you get yourself into trouble.”
“Yes, because I’m such a rebel, always getting into trouble,” I say with a laugh. “News flash, Drew—I’m a big girl now.”
“You’re a woman with a permanent limp.”
“What does that have to do with anything?” It’s the same argument I’ve had to deal with from my family since the accident eleven months ago. They seem to think I’m no longer capable of doing anything on my own.
When the limp strategy doesn’t work to get me on the plane back to LA, my brother tries Plan B. “You should be here, attending charity events with Lucinda.” Our stepmother. “It’s a golden opportunity to find the man who will one day take care of you.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, I have to let you go, Drew. I have an incoming call from Chauvinists Unite. They want to interview me about your membership application.”
“I’m serious, Kate.”
“Me, too.” Plus, I’ve long since realized that men aren’t interested in me, because of my limp. It’s a dark mark against me: I’m flawed. Broken. No longer perfect.
Oh, well. What’s a girl to do?
Other than hang up on her brother—which is what I do after saying a quick “Good-bye.”
A minute has barely passed before the phone rings again. I quickly glance at the screen, accept the call, and turn off Main Street. “Hi, Tiffany.” My best friend.
“Please tell me it’s not true?” Her tone drips with feigned horror.
“What’s not true?”
“That you’re in a hick town somewhere in Montana, packing up your crazy great-aunt’s house.”
“Yep, that pretty much sums it up—except my great-aunt wasn’t crazy.” Charlotte is my deceased great-aunt from my mother’s side of the family. “She just didn’t share our families’ sentiments about living in Beverly Hills.”
Story has it that she moved here in her twenties because she craved adventure.
That, and because she wasn’t interested in marrying the man her parents had picked out for her.
Have I met her?
Once, when I was nine years old. She visited us but hadn’t been back since. And Copper Creek isn’t exactly on the family-approved list of vacation spots.
Not even close.
“But why do you have to do it?” Tiffany asks. “Couldn’t you just hire someone?”
That’s a definite no. My family can’t afford to risk a stranger stumbling across some buried family secret that we’d rather remain buried.
And who knows what I’ll find in Charlotte’s house.
But I’m not admitting this to Tiffany.
A man’s voice can be heard in the background on Tiffany’s end. At the familiar low rumble of his voice, the equally familiar sensation of porcupine quills prickles deep in my chest and my gut.
Tiffany replies to whatever he asked her, but this time her voice is muffled.
She’s your best friend. She couldn’t help who she fell in love with. The words keep repeating themselves in my head, with the enthusiasm of a cheerleader hyped up on too much sugar and caffeine.
Granted, it would have been better if Mathew had at least been honest with me and ended our relationship first…and if Tiffany had waited until after he and I broke up before having sex with him.
You know what else would have been a fantastic idea? If I had listened to his housekeeper when she warned me he was too busy to talk to me. Instead, I raced upstairs, eager to share my good news with him, found him in bed with Tiffany, and then fled like a criminal caught at a candy-store crime scene.
And while we’re adding to the list of great ideas, grief-stricken me shouldn’t have hightailed it out of Beverly Hills in my cute Mustang convertible, so I could lick my wounds in private. Then I wouldn’t have been in the wrong place at the wrong time when the delivery truck lost control on the highway. It wouldn’t have totaled my poor baby, and my leg wouldn’t be badly damaged.
Yes, in retrospect, I should have listened to my great-aunt Margie that morning when she warned me that, according to my horoscope, my luck was about to change.
She might have had a point there.
“Darling,” Tiffany says, her voice like maple syrup on grilled salmon. “I have to go now. Mathew and I have one of those horribly boring charity events tonight. We promised his mother that we would attend. She’s going to introduce me to some important people in the art world.” Tiffany fake air-kisses me through the phone and hangs up.
The charity event she’s talking about? It’s the Reach for the Stars Fundraiser to help kids in low-income families achieve their full potential. I was involved with the planning, but since it was a romantic couples-only event and I had no one to go with, I opted for an early departure to Copper Creek.
“Hey, don’t look at me that way,” I say to Charlie. “She and I have been friends forever. She made a mistake, which is why I chose to take the high road and forgive her.”
Twenty minutes later, I travel along the neglected driveway leading to my great-aunt’s house. It’s not so much the road that’s neglected as the grass. It’s at least thigh-high.
My gaze moves from the overgrown grass to the house that appears just as ill-kept—and my stomach free-falls. “It looks haunted.”
Charlie barks in agreement.
“I wonder how easy it is to sell a haunted house. Do you think there’s a big demand for them?”
Do you think the ghost will have a problem with me living here for the next few days?
And the biggest question of all: how easy will it be to sell a house that clearly needs work done? I don’t know about the inside, but the outside is a mess. The large wooden structure is begging for a new coat of paint, the shutters have to be replaced, and the roof has seen better days.
“Maybe the interior looks better.” Optimism plays bedfellow with my tone.
Charlie doesn’t respond.
I park the Cadillac behind a small, older-model blue vehicle and climb out. A painful cramp from being cooped up for so long seizes my left thigh—but it’s nothing compared to when I take a step.
My leg buckles under my weight, and I grab the door to keep myself upright.
Charlie scrambles onto the driver’s seat and whimpers at me.
“I’ll be fine,” I say, doing my best to reassure him. Charlie isn’t a fan of me being in pain. “My leg is just a little grumpy right now, but it’ll be a happy camper in a few minutes.”
All right—happy might be pushing it, but a girl can hope.
Charlie cocks his head to the side as if trying to decide if he believes me. Then he hops down from the seat, sniffs the ground, and wanders off to find somewhere to relieve himself.
“Don’t go on the grass,” I tell him. “Otherwise I’ll never find you again.”
I smooth down the silk organza skirt of my pleated pink floral sundress, which I’ve paired with my raspberry ballet flats. Dolce & Gabbana meets Tory Burch.
I’ll admit that I look better suited for a garden party with royalty than…than this place. But it’s one of my favorite outfits.
The sound of creaking wood pulls my attention to the house. Two women my great-aunt’s age are now standing on the porch that extends along the front of the building. Both are wearing jeans and T-shirts. Both are smiling at me.
I smile back at them. They’re nothing like my grandmothers. These two look like they could be a lot of fun. My grandmothers? Not so much.
And in case you’re wondering, sliding down the banister is not considered ladylike. Wow. Who knew?
Of course to my grandmothers, partying with your friends at the latest IT dance club is also considered unladylike.
“You must be Kate,” the taller, slightly heavier woman says. “I’m Meg, and this is Tilly.”
I take several steps forward, my gait slow and robot-like. “It’s nice to meet you. I hope you haven’t been waiting too long for me.” The stiffness in my leg lessens with each step, and I climb up the stairs without too much grumbling from my muscles and bones. Charlie joins me.
“Not at all. Anyway, here are the keys to the house.” Tilly passes me said keys.
A phone rings from Meg’s oversized, faux-leather purse by some unknown label. She answers it. “Oh. Is everything all right…? Okay…I’ll let her know.”
She ends the call. “That was Sophie West, Pine Meadow Ranch’s brilliant horse trainer. Or as the Daniels brothers like to call her, their horse whisperer. She’s unable to show you how to tend to Lady and Scoundrel, but one of the Daniels brothers is coming in her place—”
I put my hand up to stop her flow of words. “Lady and Scoundrel?”
“Yes, Charlotte’s horses.”
I can feel a slight frown form between my eyes. “Horses? No one said anything about horses.”
“Yes, Charlotte loved to ride, and she taught riding lessons. But now that she’s no longer with us, someone needs to take care of them. Anyway, as I was saying, Noah is the youngest and is still single. But I’m working on that.” She winks at me, and Tilly chuckles.
I’m not paying much attention to what she’s saying. My mind is still stuck on the previous part of the conversation. “What do you mean, someone needs to take care of them?”
I retreat a step, ready to flee home, but my flat heel catches on the raised piece of the wooden porch.
Sending me tumbling backward.
© Stina Lindenblatt 2019