Home > The Santa Suit

The Santa Suit
Author: Mary Kay Andrews

 

Chapter 1

 


“There it is!” Ivy Perkins pointed at the weather-beaten sign hanging from a dented mailbox nearly obscured by a stand of overgrown dead shrubbery. “Four Roses Farm, Punkin. See it?”

She slowed the Volvo carefully, mindful of the sheets of black ice covering the road.

Punkin barely raised his muzzle from the passenger seat. He’d been dozing since they’d passed through Charlotte, where the steady rain had transitioned to sleet, lulled to sleep by the rhythmic swishing of the windshield wipers and the cheery Christmas music streaming from the Volvo’s radio.

The farmhouse driveway was more potholes than paving, and as the car bumped slowly up the narrow stretch, Ivy was adding “new driveway” to the list of home improvements she’d been mentally composing since departing Atlanta in the pre-dawn gloom.

Her heart began to race as the house came into view. There was the front porch she’d been dreaming of. Complete with a row of rockers! Four narrow brick chimneys rose from the corners of the single-story wood-frame house, which meant four fireplaces. Ever since she’d spotted the house in the online real estate listings, she’d been picturing herself seated in front of a cozy fire, in the parlor, sipping hot cider. Okay, to be honest, she pictured herself sipping a good Cabernet. Punkin’s bed would be pulled close to the hearth. She would start listening to classical music. And learn to knit. Or crochet. Maybe both.

As she got closer, she noticed the porch seemed to—no, it definitely did have a major sag in the middle that hadn’t shown up in the online photographs. And that white paint? Unless the light here was very bad, the color that best came to mind was more curdled buttermilk than white. But all of her online search engine words had very specifically consisted of “old” and “white” and “farmhouse.”

She added “paint” to the list of home improvements.

The bumpy ride roused Punkin from his nap. He was sitting up now, alert, tail thumping on the leather upholstery.

She glanced over at him. “What do you think, Punkin? Not really white, but it’s definitely old, and since we have almost two acres of land, I’d call that a farmhouse, wouldn’t you?”

He thumped his tail again. She would take that as a yes.

Ever since the divorce, she’d taken to talking out loud to the mostly English setter rescue. And not just “good boy” when Punkin completed his business on their walks, or an occasional “who wants a treat?” No, she was having full-on, meaningful conversations with a dog. An exceptionally intelligent, intuitive dog, but still …

The driveway ended abruptly in front of a small red structure with more peeling paint. “Look, Punkin!” Ivy squealed. “There it is. Our barn! We have an honest-to-goodness barn!”

Parked directly in front of the barn was a black Jeep. And leaning against the hood of the Jeep was a lanky man dressed in jeans, boots, and a plaid lumberjack-type coat. “Who’s this?”

Punkin let out a low-throated grrr.

She pulled up in front of the Jeep and got out.

“Hi,” she said, eyeing the stranger warily.

He had thick butterscotch-colored hair sticking out from beneath a baseball cap and the beginnings of a beard, and he didn’t seem at all fazed by her presence here. “Hey there,” he said lazily, not bothering to move.

“Can I help you?” Ivy said.

“That depends.” He was looking at her car, which was packed to the roof with her belongings. Punkin was straining, scratching at the window.

“Depends on what?” she asked impatiently. She would not be intimidated by this intruder.

He held out a ring of keys. “On whether or not you’re Ivy Perkins. If you are, I thought you might want the keys to your new house.”

“Oh.” Ivy looked around the yard, which was decidedly more bedraggled looking than the real estate listing photos. “I was expecting the real estate agent.”

“You got him.”

“Wait. You’re Ezra Wheeler?”

“Correct.”

All of her communications with the agent had been conducted through emails or text messages. Ivy had pictured a kindly white-haired gentleman in a bow tie and sweater-vest. Not this …

“You were expecting some old geezer, right? Nobody under the age of seventy is named Ezra these days. What can I say? My mom thought she was birthing a sea captain.”

“Doesn’t matter,” Ivy said. “So. This is Four Roses Farm.”

“Yup.”

“What happened to all the hollyhocks? And the delicate pink roses clambering over the porch railing and the blue hydrangeas?”

“Huh?”

“The pictures from the real estate listings. Everything in those photos looked so lush and green and vibrant.” She gestured at the brown, stubbled yard and the colorless, skeletal bushes. “I don’t even see one rosebush, let alone four.”

He rolled his eyes. “Those photos were taken in the summer. When the house was first listed. And now, it’s winter. Win-ter.”

Ivy didn’t like his patronizing tone. Like he was explaining the seasons to a toddler.

“Also, the Four Roses is a reference to the owners—well, former owners now—Bob and Betty Rae Rose, and their two daughters, Sandi and Emily Rose. Get it? Four Roses.”

“I thought the seller’s name was James Heywood,” Ivy said.

“Yes,” Ezra said. “James Heywood’s late wife was Sandi Rose Heywood, who inherited this place from her parents, Bob and Betty Rae, who are now deceased. I guess those were roses growing on the porch railing, but since it’s December, I’m thinking they’re, like, hibernating or something. I’m no gardener, so I can’t be sure. Okay? Are we good?” He glanced at his watch, signaling his eagerness to be done with this annoying buyer.

“Fine,” Ivy said, holding out her hand for the keys.

“I’ll have to unlock the front door for you,” Wheeler said. “The lock is old, like the house, and it’s kind of tricky.”

“Thanks, anyway. But I’m sure I can somehow muddle through a lock all by myself,” Ivy said, her tone deliberately frosty.

“Suit yourself,” he said, shrugging. “Congrats on the house, by the way. I left you a little housewarming gift on the kitchen counter.”

 

* * *

 

As soon as she opened the Volvo’s passenger door, Punkin was off like a shot. He raced to one of the bushes bordering the porch and christened it before returning to Ivy’s side as she dragged a suitcase up the porch steps.

The first thing she noticed about the porch itself was that the worn floorboards seemed to bounce slightly with every step she took. Did that mean she had foundation issues? She sighed and for the first time felt a twinge of regret that she hadn’t actually toured the 106-year-old farmhouse in person before making her offer.

There were six keys on the ring Ezra Wheeler had handed her, none of which was labeled. Ivy tried four different keys until she finally managed to fit a black, old-timey-looking skeleton key into the front door lock. She held the egg-shaped doorknob firmly in her left hand and managed to make a quarter turn with the key. She turned the knob, but the door didn’t budge. She pushed against the doorframe, sending a shower of pale blue paint flakes down the front of her jeans. Nothing.

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