“It’s your job now to keep these crazies in line, Miss Turley.” Lenora Rice of Heavenly Acres dropped a heavy key ring into my outstretched hand. Her gaze raked over me. “You don’t look big enough for this job.”
“Call me CJ.” Excitement over my new position and beautiful home bubbled up like an Arkansas hot spring. I set down Caper, the spaniel-mix puppy I’d inherited and let her explore.
“I don’t need to call you anything. I’m outta here. Good luck.” The woman scrunched up her nose and turned away.
“Wait. Can’t you give me some pointers? What do you mean by crazies?”
“Oh.” She handed me a folder. “Here are the lists of renters and homeowners. Crazies? Like a bunch of twisted trees. You’ll meet all kinds. It’s up to you to monitor the grounds, see to repairs, collect rent and lot fees, etc. You’re like…a leasing agent. Yeah, like that. Good chance you’ll never see the owner. He’s a recluse. Make friends with the man in house number seven. Name is Eric Drake. He’s a park ranger and knows all there is to know about the area. There’s food in the fridge—not a lot, just the essentials—until you make it to the store. No cars in the community. Everyone has other means of transportation from the parking lot to their home. It’s a quiet place… most of the time.”
I glanced at the concrete path that circled the lake. “That’s it?”
“Yep. Might as well get settled and start meeting the kooks. Oh, and there’s been a rash of robberies. Might want to look into that.” She spun around, rushed to an older model sedan and sped away, leaving me standing with boxes piled around my feet. I heaved a sigh and regarded the green and white house the size of my parents’ bedroom that sat on wheels.
The fifth key I tried unlocked the door to my new home. I stepped into a bright and airy room painted white with green trim to match the exterior. A forest-green love seat sat across from an entertainment center that housed a small television with room for my books, thank goodness. A counter ran along one wall with a single sink and a two-burner stove. Under the counter were nestled a washer/dryer combo, a tiny fridge, and cupboards. A small door led to a walk-in shower and compost toilet. Stairs with drawers inserted into each step led to a loft where a queen-size memory-foam mattress took up most of the space. I could just stand in the center of my “bedroom.”
On each side of the bed were closets and drawers that extended from floor to ceiling. My tiny home had everything I needed. With a happy sigh, I headed outside to drag in my boxes. Soon I realized how small my space was as I struggled to find a place for everything, but somehow I managed. A bookshelf and pretty storage boxes at the foot of my bed would help, so I made a note to purchase those as soon as possible. Until then, I piled the boxes on their sides and used them in place of a bookcase.
I grabbed a protein bar from the food items I’d thought to bring, shut Caper up in the house since I couldn’t trust the little scamp not to get into trouble, and headed to a fairly new golf cart with bright red seats. The key hung in the ignition. Strange thing to do if robbers were milling around. Still, with a couple of hours of daylight left, I decided to drive through the community. I could meet those out and about, and the rest could wait until the next day. I clapped my hands, eager to get started, then headed down the path.
Trees lined my way with colorful homes appearing now and again. To my left, Lake Blue Waters, aptly named, sparkled in the late afternoon sun. Already peace started to erase the stress caused from taking care of a dying grandmother. I’d quit a job as a 911 operator to care for Gammy and when she died, I wanted something more…relaxing. When I’d spotted the ad in the paper for overseer of Heavenly Acres, I jumped at the opportunity.
“Hello.” I stopped the cart in front of a home the color of bananas with purple gingerbread trim. An elderly woman wearing the largest floppy hat I’d ever seen straightened from her bed of peonies. “I’m CJ Turley, the new overseer.”
“I’m Mrs. Snyder, you can call me Mags.” She pushed her hat off her face and narrowed her eyes. “How old are you?”
“Twenty-six. Why?” Strange question when you first meet someone.
“I can see you’re going to need my help. Why they hired a child is beyond me. I’m sure you’re aware we have a thief?”
“I’ve heard as much.” I grinned. “I’m happy for all the help I can get. Has anyone called the police?”
“That handsome park ranger is responsible for this community, for the most part. Good thing, because the local police department, which has all of three officers, isn’t worth squat. Come in and have a cup of tea.” She turned without waiting for an answer and disappeared into her home.
Shrugging, I turned off the cart, pocketed the key, and followed her into a house so reminiscent of my grandmother’s it brought tears to my eyes. Doilies and afghans covered every available surface. Family portraits filled the walls. She’d managed to cram so many treasures into the place it left little room to walk. A calico cat blinked up at me from the sofa. “Hello, gorgeous.”
The cat hissed and darted to the loft only to appear on a ledge that circled the home. She peered down at me with big green eyes.
“Callie isn’t friendly to strangers, but she won’t bite.” Mrs. Snyder fetched two mismatched tea cups, filled them, and handed one to me. “There’s sugar and cream on the coffee table.”
One sniff of the tea, mint green, and I knew I didn’t need anything added. “Cute home.”
“Too much stuff, but at my age, you don’t want to get rid of anything. I’ve lost a set of emerald earrings to that robbing scoundrel, so I’m relying on you to find them.” She slid sideways into a rocking chair across from me.
“What about the ranger?”
“Eric’s working on it.” She sipped her drink. “He’s a busy man, so don’t go bothering him.”
Yes, ma’am. “Can you tell me about the other residents?”
“Houses one through seven are owners, the rest renters and I think only ten, eleven, and twelve are occupied right now. You’re in number one, of course. There’s a young married couple in two that stay to themselves. Newlyweds.” She chuckled. “A middle-aged widower in three, a single harlot in four, a single mom in six, I’m in five, but you know that. It’s suppertime, so don’t go knocking on any doors. Wait until morning.”
Bossy woman, but I could tell we would be great friends. “I’m just getting acquainted with the area tonight.”
“Good. You have a head on your shoulders.” She stood and removed the cup from my hand. “My shows are on. See you tomorrow. I’m here to help.”
My eyes widened. “Of course.”
She rushed me outside.
Laughing, I resumed my ride around the lake, pleased with how orderly and kept up the yards were. The “harlot” in four was the only house that needed improvement. Weeds grew up around the tires of her red and white house, a few shingles looked loose, nothing that couldn’t be fixed. I’d approach the subject with her when I introduced myself.
Slowing down, I approached number seven, hoping to catch a glimpse of the handsome park ranger. The door opened, and he didn’t disappoint. A man who had to stand over six feet in his socks with hair the color of milk chocolate and eyes the color of coffee stepped onto a postage-sized porch. He leaned on the wood railing.
“Good afternoon.” I stopped. “I’m CJ Turley, the new overseer.”
“Eric Drake, ranger.” A dimple winked in his cheek. “You’re a lot prettier than Ms. Rice.”
My face flushed, and I patted my almost black hair, pleased I’d let it hang loose around my shoulders. I’d spent so much time caring for Grams the last five years, good-looking men were foreign to me, unless they were over the age of sixty. “Uh, thanks.”
“Where you headed?”
“Just getting familiar with the area.”
He hopped off the porch, wearing flip-flops on his feet, and climbed into the cart. “Then I’m the best guide you’ll get. Have you met anyone else?”
“Mrs. Snyder.” My hands trembled as I steered back onto the path.
“Crusty, lovable soul.” He placed his arm along the seat back. “I guess she told you about the other owners?”
I nodded, my mouth drying up as his fingers brushed my shoulder. He moved, and I sighed, silly enough to hope he’d put them back. “Anything I need to know about my job?”
“Do you know how to fix things?”
I grinned. “I do. My father treated me like a son. I can even rebuild engines, with the proper tools.”
“You sure don’t look like a boy.” He leaned over and peered at my face. “Grey eyes. I’d wondered.”
There went the dreaded flush again. Experience had taught me that my face was as red as a berry. I cleared my throat. “You’re a flirt.”
“Guilty.” He laughed, not seeming in the least bit embarrassed. “You’re a welcome sight, CJ.”
“I’m sure you see lots of sights in the forest.”
“Animals, not pretty girls. Stop right here. You don’t want to miss this.”
I obeyed. “Oh.” The setting sun kissed the lake with gold. Yes, I was going to like Heavenly Acres. Movement in the bushes to my right drew my attention.
A teenage boy jumped up, a red laptop under his arm, and darted away.
“Hey.” I leaped from the cart and gave chase. A yapping behind me alerted me to the fact Caper had escaped the house, unless… “That’s my laptop.” Would we catch the thief on the first day?
“Hold back.” Eric, now barefoot, bolted past me.
The boy dropped the laptop in a bush and dove into the lake. Eric splashed after him but gave up and trudged back dripping. “I guess we know who the thief is.”
I retrieved my laptop and dog, putting both in the golf cart. “I’ll have all the locks on the houses changed tomorrow.” I stared after the swimming culprit. “Have you seen him before?”
“No, but my guess is he came from the campgrounds across from us. I’ll ask around in the morning.” He swept Caper into his arms and climbed back in the cart, keeping my pup in his lap. Lucky girl. “Cute dog.”
“She’s a rascal. I inherited her when Gammy died.” I ruffled the dog’s head. That boy could have caused her to be lost, and despite the trouble she caused more often than not, I enjoyed her company. I stared across the lake. Eric wouldn’t be the only one asking questions the next day.
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