The Thing About Trouble-Excerpt
Book One: A Crystal Lake Novel
All Cam Booker wanted was a cold beer, a hot burger with fries, and a couple of hours in front of his new flat screen television. The burger and fries he’d picked up from the Coach House on his way home from work. The beer and TV, well, that was about one minute away. He nodded to his neighbor Mrs. Eddy as he pulled into his driveway and cut the engine of his truck. The old lady was on her porch waving frantically, and with a frown he grabbed up his takeout and headed toward her.
It was hot, early August, and dusk was falling. Barely a breeze ruffled his hair as he made his way across the lawn. His dog, a rescue mutt named Rufus, followed behind him and he told the animal to wait at the bottom of the stairs as he looked up at Mrs. Eddy. She’d always struck him as the nervous type and the black and white dog was on the big side.
“Everything okay, Mrs. Eddy?” She was dressed in one of those tent dresses a lot of the older ladies favored, and this particular one was black with huge yellow and white daisies splashed across every single inch. It would be hard on his eyes if he wasn’t so concerned about the expression on her face.
“Oh, Cameron. Thank goodness you’re home.” The woman looked on the verge of tears and he took a few steps up. “I’ve been knocking on your door since they arrived and I swear I was about to call the police.”
Now, there were a few things that got Cam’s back up. First off, he hated it when anyone called him Cameron. Mainly because the only time his full Christian name was used, was when his mother was giving him crap for something. But Mrs. Eddy could call him whatever she wanted. The woman was on the back end of eighty and had earned the right.
However, the police were something else entirely. He’d had run-ins here and there, mostly dumb teenage stuff, but the last one damn near ruined his life.
“Police,” he said taking one last step up until he stood on the porch. His six-foot three-inch frame towered over the smaller lady and he gave her some space, not wanting to make her uncomfortable.
“Why yes,” she said as she fidgeted with the neckline of her tent dress. “I didn’t know what to do and it was getting late. I wasn’t sure if you were coming home or not. You young folk sure do like to burn the candles at both ends. I swear it was nearly three in the morning when you pulled in last night.”
Great. Now the old lady next door was keeping tabs on his comings and goings. He wondered if Mrs. Eddy was in cahoots with his mother. Lord knows Lisa Booker was way too invested in his private life. Though, ever since the thing they never really talked about happened, he supposed it was to be expected.
“Sorry if I woke you,” he said, shifting his weight.
“Oh you didn’t,” she replied, pursing her lips and looking past him. “Your dog did.”
He held up his takeout at the same time his stomach rumbled. He was tired as hell. On the cranky side and all he wanted to do was flop on his sofa and not think about the big job on Monday, or the fact that Bluebell Barnes was already a thorn in his side and he hadn’t even broken ground yet.
“It’s late, Mrs. Eddy and I kind of need to eat so…”
“Oh,” she looked startled. “Right. Okay let me go get her. I left her in front of the television.”
“Get her?” He didn’t understand and stared after the woman as she shuffled back inside, nodding her head, and mumbling to herself. She didn’t bother to answer Cam and he was left on the porch scratching his head. He knew Mrs. Eddy was on the eccentric side, but this took the cake.
He swore under his breath and turned around, the smell of greasy fries damn near making his mouth water. It had been a long week and he’d spent most of today, Saturday, finishing a job for his brother, and playing phone tag with the most annoying woman in Crystal Lake. Bluebell Barnes was like a sex toy on steroids. Tall. Blonde. Stacked. Her mouth alone had fueled more fantasies than he cared to admit to.
But she was also cold and prickly and hard to read. She’d hired his company to do a complete renovation of the back yard of her palatial home on the lake. It was the biggest, grandest structure in Crystal Lake, and she lived there alone with a cat. His job was to design new decking, new gardens, shrubs and trees, and a new pool. It was a huge undertaking and he’d been ecstatic to land the winning bid. But that was before he’d actually met the woman—all negotiations had been done through her business manager.
He was feeling good about things until she’d walked into his office this morning looking sexier than any woman had a right to at eight am. Dressed to the nines in an outfit that didn’t belong anywhere near Crystal Lake (head to toe Gucci) she dropped a file on his desk and told him she had issues with some of the plans. Plans they’d already agreed to. Plans the budget was based on.
“We’re all set to go for Monday,” he’d replied, keeping his tone light. He smiled at her, waiting for it…that moment his invisible tether snagged Bluebell and reeled her in. Cam wasn’t an asshole, but he’d learned early on how to use the charm he’d been born with. Charm his mother said shone out of his butt like a beacon from heaven. She said the moment he was born he smiled and every single person in the delivery room had sighed. Ninety-nine percent of the time he turned on the tap and it worked. But from the looks of things, today was gonna fall into that one percent category.
Bluebell stared down at him and shrugged, that mouth of hers wet and shiny with gloss he bet tasted like strawberries.
“I didn’t make the plans. Jason did.”
Jason was the estate manager Cam had dealt with.
“I fired him.”
Just fucking great.
From that moment his morning had pretty much went into the toilet and every time his cellphone rang and he saw her number, his dislike for the woman increased tenfold. If he said black, she said white. If he suggested a right turn, she was heading left. The job was going to be one hell of a nightmare, and with a start date on Monday he was more keyed up than he should be.
Which was why all he wanted to do was get his butt onto the sofa and watch something mindless on Netflix.
“Here she is.” Mrs. Eddy’s voice tugged him from his thoughts. Cam turned around and frowned because he’d forgotten why he was on her porch in the first place. He smiled at her, an automatic gesture, but the smile soon faded.
A little girl held on to Mrs. Eddy’s hand as if it were a life line. She had big hazel eyes, and her curly black hair was pulled up into pigtails. One drooped and was in danger of falling out altogether. Her caramel colored face was round with a smudge on her cheek, and her little mouth was tight as she gazed up at him. Dressed in a pair of ratty shorts that had seen better days, and a faded black Kanye West T-shirt, she looked like an exotic wilted flower. A Band-Aid on her knee was falling off, and she clutched a small stuffed animal close to her chest.
He’d know the kid anywhere.
“Tawny,” he said, clearing his throat a little. “I…” Shocked, he looked at Mrs. Eddy for help, but the woman only shrugged and handed him an envelope.
He set down his takeout and tore open the envelope. He didn’t recognize the writing, but it clearly belonged to someone elderly—the elegant cursive penmanship was a dead giveaway.
I’m writing to you on behalf of someone who thought the world of you. It’s a damn shame she didn’t think more of herself. Iris passed away last week. She’d fallen back to her old ways and unfortunately the life she chose took hers in the end. I was able to talk to her before she passed, and it was her wish that you look after Tawny. I’m too old and too broken to raise a young child. Sorry to say Iris’s demons are ones she came by honestly. Her strongest desire is one I share. That this precious child grow up away from the life she chose. Iris told me that where you live is like heaven on earth. She said it was God’s garden.
Tawny needs a strong hand and lots of love, and Iris knew you would provide it. I’ve included a notarized letter with her last wishes along with a check. It’s not much, but it’s all Iris had. You have my phone number if you need anything. Please know if there were another way I wouldn’t put this burden on you. But the only other option is the system and we both know Tawny would never survive and bloom the way she deserves.
It’s true that one cannot choose one’s own parents and I’m afraid our Tawny has had much to deal with. I hope and pray you can give her the life Iris knew she could have.
Best wishes and much love from Iris,
Cam read the letter over again. And again. Then he pulled out a legal looking document, scanned its contents, and then the attached check made out to him. Seven thousand, nine hundred and forty-three dollars. The sum of Iris Parson’s life.
He wasn’t sure how long he stared down at the check but eventually his vision blurred and a small voice made him jerk his head up.
“Is that your doggy?”
He looked into those small trusting eyes. Hell, what five-year-old took traveling across the country and spending time with complete strangers in stride? It had been over a year since he’d last seen her and panic bloomed in his chest as he stared down at a little girl with nothing. A little girl whose mother had entrusted her life to him.
Who the fuck did that? Anger punched him hard and he had to work to keep his voice gentle.
“Do you remember me, Tawny?” he asked carefully.
“Mama’s friend.” She nodded slowly and whispered. “Cam.”
“Yeah.” He looked up to Mrs. Eddy for help. “Who brought her out here?”
Mrs. Eddy sighed. “A younger man. He said he was a friend of the mother’s and was doing her a favor. I didn’t get so much as a chance to ask him any questions, but he was sort of a rough fellow if you get my meaning. He asked if you lived next door and I said yes. He dropped off the child and her bag and said to give you this letter when you got home.” Her brow furrowed and she clutched at her chest. “What’s going on Cameron? Who is this little girl?”
“I’m Pepper,” she said indignantly, looking at them both with an expression so fierce, Cam had no words.
“Pepper?” he asked when he found his voice.
The little girl ignored him and pointed. “Is that your doggy?” she asked again.
He nodded. “His name is Rufus.”
“I like doggies. Can I pet him?” She didn’t wait for Cam to answer and yanked her hand from Mrs. Eddy. Before either adult could do anything, she bounded down the stairs and wrapped her scrawny arms around the big dog.
“Good Lord,” Mrs. Eddy said taking a step forward. “That dog is ferocious.”
“Rufus won’t hurt a flea.” Cam watched them for a few moments, his mind whirling in a thousand different directions.
“What are you going to do with her?” Mrs. Eddy asked. “She seems like a sweet little thing. Is her mother…”
Cam shook his head, mouth tight as a wave of sadness rolled over him. Iris had captured his heart for a small moment in time, and in those brief months he’d glimpsed the woman she could become if not for the drugs she worshipped.
“Is she yours?”
“What?” He turned back to Mrs. Eddy. “No. She’s…not.”
Weariness creeped across her face and she shivered. “I really am tired, Cameron. It’s not every day I’m required to entertain a young child.” She nodded to her right. “That’s her bag.”
Cam followed her gaze and his gut clenched at the site of a small pink backpack. “That’s all she’s got?”
“I’m afraid so.”
Again, panic bloomed in his chest and for one second he was blind from the strength of it. What the hell had Iris been thinking? He didn’t know shit about caring for a little girl. Hell, he was thirty and had just gotten his own shit together. He was tired and cranky and…
“Am I going to live with you?”
Cam gave himself a mental smack. What he was, was nothing compared to what this little girl had been through. He thanked Mrs. Eddy and grabbed Tawny’s pink backpack. He would take her to his place and figure things out in the morning.
He guided her across the yard but she skipped ahead of him, following Rufus blindly. He wondered at that. Were all kids that trusting? He met up with them on the front porch of his modest bungalow. He’d bought it the previous fall and had spent his spare time doing renovations. Nash had helped when he could and they’d finished just a few weeks earlier.
Cam unlocked the door and followed Rufus and Tawny inside. He set down her bag and for a moment didn’t say anything. How could he? There were too many questions and none of them were appropriate for a little girl. Tawny girl scratched at the scab on her knee and then turned in a full circle.
“This is pretty,” she said.
“Thanks.” He’d knocked down walls, added windows, and made the space open concept. The kitchen, dining room and living room were all one big bright space, with two bedrooms and a bathroom at the back of the house. The basement was a work in progress, but his office was down there along with his workout gear.
Cam watched her walk toward the large leather sofa in front of the massive flat screen that was his pride and joy.
“It’s clean and smells nice.”
Again, what five-year-old noticed things like that? A five-year-old with nothing, that’s who. The thought was sobering and he offered a smile. “Let’s get you some food and then look at that scrape on your knee.”
Tawny looked down at the stuffed animal in her hands. “Am I going to live with you?” she asked again, before turning those big eyes on him.
He gave an honest answer. “I don’t know, Tawny.”
“My mommy died.” Her bottom lip trembled and it took everything Cam had, to keep his cool.
“I know. I’m real sorry.”
She shrugged and he couldn’t help but notice her little bony shoulders. “Gammy said she was sick and that now she’s in heaven with the angels.” Her eyes widened. “Gammy said that she’s my angel now. I think she’s the prettiest angel in heaven.”
He nodded, unable to form words and led the little girl to the long harvest table that took up most of the space in his dining area. He grabbed the burger and fries from the kitchen counter along with a plate. He reheated the food and set it in front of her, then filled a tall glass with the last of the milk.
His own hunger long gone, Cam cracked open a beer for himself and sat at the island in the kitchen. He watched a hungry little girl devour the food on his table and wondered what was going through her mind. She was probably scared. Hell, he would be if it were him. She didn’t say a word when she was finished and after a few moments he realized she was asleep. Her little head had fallen forward, her chin nearly on her chest. She still had a few fries in her hand, and the other clutched the stuffed animal. Her one pigtail had finally given way, and the one side of her head was a mass of springy curls that fell past her shoulder.
She looked so small at the big table.
It was the saddest thing he’d ever seen.