lemon yellow lies
Darlington Hills, Virginia is a little slice of southern heaven, and there’s no place Hadley would rather be after a painful breakup with her locally famous boyfriend, whose face is plastered on every street corner in New Orleans. Fleeing the big city, she travels to Darlington Hills for a job interview, family time with her favorite aunt, and a break from the sad reality of her now-single, party-of-one status.
But when Hadley serendipitously snags a last-minute interior design gig and her client’s fiancée goes missing, she feels more than a little responsible for the woman’s disappearance. Driven by a guilty conscience, Hadley searches for answers while trying to stay focused on her ultimate goal of acing the interview and landing her dream job. Turns out that isn’t so easy, with distractions like the dimpled Officer Appley and the mounting danger that has befallen the idyllic small town.
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I didn’t typically force my way through locked doors, and certainly not those belonging to clients.
Today, however, was an exception.
Pulling apart the long handles of the bolt cutters, I positioned the twin steel blades on either side of the padlock’s rusty shackle. Cutting through locks was a skill set I didn’t like to brag about. As an interior designer, it made for lousy résumé material and bred unnecessary trust issues.
“You grab the left handle, I’ll grab the right,” I told my new friend Erin, who stood next to me at the door to my client’s backyard shed. “On the count of three, we’ll push the handles together and see if we can pop this baby off the latch. One, two—”
We both started pushing, too eager to get inside the shed to wait for the count of three. Grunting and panting, thrusting and writhing, we strained to close the bolt cutters.
Breaking and entering was hard work.
There was a loud clank as the blades sliced through the shackle. I tossed the bolt cutters to the ground, removed the broken padlock and slid open the latch, then gripped the handle and lifted the roll-up door.
The thin metal curtain rumbled as it coiled around the overhead bar.
I nodded at Erin. “We’re in.”
Stepping inside the pool equipment shed, I surveyed its contents. Directly in front of me was the filtering unit, which sat next to the heater and a small pump.
Erin nudged my arm. “Hadley, look. In the corner.”
I followed her gaze to a jumbled heap of pool floats.
“I call dibs on the pineapple!” she declared, lunging for the pile and grabbing the float. Erin ran past me and out of the shed. Seconds later there was a splash, followed by a squeal.
I browsed the medley of pool noodles and fruit-shaped floats. It made me smile to imagine my client, the charming Kent Reading, sunbathing in his pool on a giant strawberry. I also imagined how grateful he would be when I told him I’d removed his padlock and replaced it with a new one. Kent had misplaced the key to his old one and couldn’t access the floats or, more importantly, pool equipment.
Deciding on the watermelon float, I pulled it from the pile and dragged it out to the pool. It was Thursday, and I’d been working diligently the past four days to furnish Kent’s outdoor living space by Monday—all while he was in Philadelphia on a business trip. He was hosting a surprise birthday party for his fiancée in less than two weeks, and had decided at the last moment his backyard just wasn’t good enough for her.
Kent had shown me photos of design styles he liked, but he didn’t care to be involved in the selection of furnishings. He only had two requirements: provide enough outdoor seating for at least twenty people, and create a tropical oasis that would dazzle his fiancée.
In record time, I created 3D design renderings of the space, and after receiving Kent’s two-word ‘looks good’ approval in an email, I found and ordered all of the furniture and decor. A contractor finished repainting the pool equipment shed yesterday, and the furniture was scheduled to arrive over the next two days. Everything was on track to finish by the time his fiancée returned from New York on Monday.
Now it was time to relax.
Lifting the pitcher of strawberry lemon mojitos I’d made, I filled my glass and topped off Erin’s, then set them in a floating drink holder.
I dipped my toes into the pool. Despite the unseasonably warm early-March weather, the water was chilly. But I didn’t want to pass up the opportunity to swim in Kent’s resort-like pool to save myself from a few goosebumps.
I flopped onto the bright red watermelon float and tilted my face to the sky, soaking up every last delicious drop of the waning afternoon sun.
Palm trees lining the pool extended high above the backyard. Underneath the canopy of rustling fronds, everything was quiet and still. A natural stone cabana, complete with an outdoor kitchen, fireplace, and big-screen TV, sat between the pool and back of the house. The cabana had plenty of room for tables and chairs, but at the moment was empty. It was a blank slate, ready to be filled with all the new furnishings I’d ordered.
“This is the life, isn’t it?” I said to Erin, who was splayed out on the inflatable pineapple. Reaching for the floating drink holder, I grabbed my strawberry lemon mojito and took a long sip.
“Yes, but unfortunately it isn’t my life.” Laughing, she flipped over onto her stomach and looked at me through thick-rimmed sunglasses. “Or yours.”
I grinned. “It is for one week. Seven glorious days of pretending this house and pool are mine.” I lived in New Orleans but traveled to Darlington Hills, a small town nestled in the middle of the Virginia Peninsula, last weekend for a job interview at Walnut Ridge Furniture and Decor, a popular online home furnishings company.
My interview ended up being postponed until Saturday, but I serendipitously snagged the redesign project during brunch on Sunday when I met Erin. She owned the Whisks and Whiskers Cat Café, which had delicious coffee and adorable cats running around that were available for adoption. Erin had introduced me to Kent, her boyfriend’s boss, who asked if I was interested in taking on a small-scale project with a tight deadline.
Before I was even two-thirds the way finished with my vanilla latte and eggs benedict, Kent had hired me to not only redesign his patio, but also to stay at his house while he was out of town so I could work around the clock and take care of his dog.
I had planned to stay the week with my aunt, who lived on the west side of Darlington Hills, but the housesitting gig came with some appealing perks, like extra money and free use of his pool.
If nothing else, the project was a good way to pass the time before my interview on Saturday, which I was already nervous about. Getting hired at Walnut Ridge was a key step in my plan to move as quickly and as far away from New Orleans as possible. I was like a fugitive, running from a bad breakup and broken heart.
A car door slammed somewhere in the neighborhood and the poolside serenity was disrupted by high-pitched howling. It was Kent’s little pouf ball Bichon dog, Chip, who stood rigid by the side of the water. Kent had said he couldn’t board Chip because he was a nervous dog. Apparently by ‘nervous’ he meant profoundly anxious and high-strung. The poor dog got worked up whenever the microwave oven dinged.
Erin sat up on the float, fluffed her long blonde curls, and adjusted the strap of her barely there bikini. Erin was a year shy of forty and anything but shy in a swimsuit. Her toned tummy told me she did far less sampling of Whisks and Whiskers’ sweet treats than I would do if I owned a café.
“That darn yipper-yapper can’t go five minutes without fussing,” she said, frowning at Chip. “This is why you won’t find any dogs at Whisks and Whiskers. I’d have to change the name to Whisks and Whiners. Or Barks and Bites.”
“How about Forks and Fleas?” I added, laughing.
Chip paused his howling and looked at me. As usual, one of his eyes was closed as though it had gotten stuck while winking.
“Chi-ip,” I sang, stretching his name into multiple syllables. “Calm down, boy. Everything’s fine.”
The back door to the house opened and a tall young woman stepped outside. She wore a corporate-esque pantsuit and had a bright yellow dress slung over her forearm. Chip turned his nose to the sky and resumed howling.
“Chip! Get back inside,” the woman shouted. “How did you get out—” She froze when she saw me. “Who are you? What are you doing here?”
I considered asking her the same questions, but the keys dangling from her pinkie finger told me she’d probably let herself in legally.
“What’s going on?” she demanded. You two are trespassing on private property. I’m calling the police if you don’t explain why you’re in Kent’s pool on my floats.”
“I’m Hadley Sutton with Hadley Home Design,” I said, using the most chipper, non-criminal sounding voice I could summon. Even though we had a perfectly legitimate reason for being in Kent’s backyard, I didn’t want the police to come out. Talk about a bad first impression among locals and potential clients. If I moved to Darlington Hills, I wanted to start out with a clean reputation and police record. “Kent hired me to redesign his outdoor patio.”
The woman lifted her eyebrows. “I’m Marian Koh, Kent’s fiancée.”
“Oh! You’re back early,” I said. “Kent told me you would return on Monday.”
I glanced at the yellow dress draped over her arm. It made sense she was his fiancée. Kent had asked me to include yellow accents throughout the patio area because it was her favorite color. Per his guidance, I was incorporating multiple splashes of yellow around the pool area: patio sun umbrellas, throw pillows for the large sectional sofa, and the recently painted pool equipment shed.
Marian looked like she belonged with Kent. He was in his mid-forties, with deep green eyes, an athletic build, and thick brown hair that was graying near his temples. Marian was as glamorous as he was charming. She wore four-inch heels, form-fitting black slacks, and a lacy silk shirt that peeked out from under her suit jacket. Her shoulder-length, zero-frizz brown hair was several shades darker than mine.
Marian narrowed her eyes. “Kent didn’t tell me about any upcoming redesign projects.”
Say what? Kent had said Marian’s birthday party was a surprise, but I couldn’t believe he hadn’t told her about the changes he was making.
Marian surveyed the backyard, then whipped her head toward me. “You broke into the shed?”
“Kent misplaced the key, so I bought a new lock before we popped off the old one,” I explained as I slid off the float. Despite Kent’s generous offer to use his pool, I suddenly felt like an unwelcome guest. It was clear Marian didn’t want us in the pool on her floats. I hoped Erin would follow my lead and get off the pineapple.
“He didn’t misplace the key,” Marian said, then held up her set of keys. “I have it right here. The last time I flew to New York, Kent and his buddies went for a swim and popped two of my floats. This time I took the key with me.” Marian scrunched up her face. “And please explain how you ‘popped’ off the lock. You didn’t damage the shed, did you?”
I held up my hands as if surrendering. “No, I borrowed bolt cutters from my aunt.” I had swung by her house this morning after buying a new lock and grabbing a coffee at Whisks and Whiskers, where I invited Erin to join me for an afternoon swim. “Aunt Deb owns the mini storage facility just south of Bonn Creek. She’s the one who taught me how to use bolt cutters. You wouldn’t believe how many times a week she has to use those suckers to cut through locks on sheds. Her tenants make a sport out of losing keys.”
The incessant tapping of Marian’s pointy-toed heel on the stone pavers made it clear she didn’t care how many people lost their padlock keys. “Why is the shed yellow?” she demanded. “What was wrong with the red paint?”
I sighed. Kent had wanted Marian to be ‘dazzled’ by the redesign, but so far it appeared to be more of a fizzle. “I’m including yellow accents throughout the pool area because Kent said it’s your favorite color,” I explained.
Holding her dress up by its coat hanger, Marian shook it angrily. “Just because I own one yellow dress, he thinks it’s my favorite color. Red is my favorite color, ladies. Red. I do not want this backyard drowning in yellow paint.”
“It’s nothing we can’t change,” I said. “I’ll call the painter tonight and ask him to come out tomorrow and redo it. Would you like to go to the paint store with me to select the specific shade of red?”
“No. Leave it. I don’t care anymore. I will change what I want when I have time, but I’m not bothering with this right now.” She turned around and gazed at the empty cabana. “Where did all the furniture go?”
“Kent arranged for a Salvation Army truck to pick everything up two days ago,” I said. “Don’t worry, the new pieces are supposed to arrive soon.”
“Who selected the new furniture? Kent? You?”
I nodded, seeing where this was going. There was a good chance Marian would have wanted to help make selections. After all, it would soon be her backyard as well.
I pointed to pitcher on the side of the pool. “How about a strawberry-lemon mojito? I made them this afternoon. And I’d love to show you the furniture I’ve ordered. If there’s anything you don’t like, we can cancel the order and find something you’ll be happy with.” I was certain Kent wouldn’t mind, now that Marian knew about the redesign.
Her face pinched as she squinted at me. “No, I don’t want a mojito. Do you know how much sugar is in those things? And if you truly are Kent’s new interior designer, please explain to me why you’re in the pool right now instead of doing your job.”
I understood she was upset Kent hadn’t told her about the new furniture, but now she was being just plain condescending. I inhaled deeply through my nose, taking a moment to remind myself it was in my best interest to remain professional.
“Kent asked me to house sit—and dog sit—while he’s away,” I explained. “There are a lot of moving parts to a project like this and he wanted to make sure I was available to work around the clock.” I gave myself a mental pat on the back for sounding far more patient that I felt. Yay for self-control.
“You’re staying here?” Marian shrieked. “Tonight?”
“I’ve been here since Monday. Kent said I’m welcome to use the pool during downtime.” He had told me to make myself at home and use anything—TV, entertainment system, kitchen appliances. He had even stocked his fridge with essentials he thought I would need. His house was essentially my house this week. “I assure you I’m working diligently on this project.”
“Stop right there,” Marian said. “I don’t care what Kent said. I can see he and I are not aligned on appropriate boundaries for our work staff.”
Erin signaled Marian with a wave. “Hey there, Marian. I’m Erin Blakely. My boyfriend, Rhett, works for Kent. I have heard so much about you. I’ve been hoping to meet you soon. Congrats on the engagement, by the way.”
Erin’s words were terse, her tone insincere. It was clear she was put off by Marian’s rudeness.
Marian glared at us with folded arms, but Erin continued. “Anyway, Kent recently told my boyfriend he’s looking to change things up back here, and I’m the one who recommended Hadley. Give her a chance.”
Thankfully, Erin didn’t mention she only met me five days ago.
Marian huffed. “Change things up, huh? Tell me, ladies, don’t you think this is something I would like to help decide?”
“It’s not too late,” I reassured her again. “I can log onto my laptop right now and show you everything I’ve ordered.”
“Don’t bother. Finish your little project, and if I don’t like it I’ll hire my own designer and redo everything when I move in. I don’t have time to mess with this right now. I just swung by to get my dress and take it to the dry cleaners, but I should probably burn it so Kent can get it through his head that yellow is not my favorite color. I want the two of you out of the pool and out of the house in ten minutes.” Her eyes boomeranged between Erin and me as she spoke. “Get your stuff together and leave.”
I returned my drink to the floating drink holder and paddled myself toward the pool stairs. “Come on,” I whispered to Erin. “Time to go.”
But she stayed on the pineapple, aiming a cold stare at Marian.
I turned back to Marian. “I don’t want to stay here if it makes you uncomfortable, but someone needs to take care of Chip.” At the mention of his name, Chip’s howling intensified. “Kent told me Chip has difficulties staying away from home.”
“I’m well aware of Chip’s issues,” she snapped. “I swear to you, when I move in, this dog is going to practically live at doggy daycare. He will have no choice but to get over his kennel anxiety. I refuse to be around this needy little rat all day.”
Ouch. Poor Chip. I walked around the pool, picked him up, and held his shaking body against my chest. “Will you be able to stay here with Chip tonight since you’re back in town early?”
Marian’s lips parted, but she remained silent. She rattled the keys in her hand, as though reminding herself she had some place she had to be. A small keychain that looked like a dog dangled from her set of keys. How ironic, considering how much she seemed to dislike Chip.
Finally, Marian puffed her cheeks out and sighed. “I haven’t moved in with Kent yet and I’m not taking the dog back to my house. You can stay here tonight and I will make other arrangements for Chip. Tomorrow night you will sleep at your own place. Understood?”
I nodded. “Or if it’s easier, I can call Kent and ask if there’s a neighbor who can—”
“No. Don’t. He has an important business function tonight and I don’t want you stressing him out.” She turned abruptly and headed for the back door, clipping her heels against the smooth travertine pavers.
Chip continued fussing until Marian went inside the house and slammed the door. His body relaxed instantly in my arms.
I set him down. He pranced around the pool, wagging his tail and holding his head high. It was as though he were doing a victory lap after scaring Marian away with his ferocious barking.