“What?” Dad asks, the pinched look reappearing around his lips.

I let out a quick breath. “I’m not selling.”

Chapter Three

   Oh my God. I said it. Out loud. Each word. My breath comes in and out in fast spurts, and I’m getting light-headed—I might be delusional, too, because I swear I see my mom smile before she looks over at my dad and her expression changes into one of placid neutrality.

Dad glares at me. “You’re being emotional.”

“No.” I’m not hysterical. I’m not PMSing. I’m not speaking out of turn. I just have a little fight left in me after all. “Aunt Maggie willed the house to me. I’m keeping it.”

Tense? Oh, that doesn’t even begin to cover it. While my mom is the epitome of stand-by-your-man-no-matter-what steadfastness, my dad is nearly purple. My mom grabs his angina pills out of her purse and hands one to him. He takes it without a word or a drink of water. Once Dad’s color dials down from murderous to just completely pissed, Thad lets out a nervous chuckle and shuffles the papers on his desk.

“I’m afraid there’s quite a bit more to it than you may realize, Mallory,” Thad says once he finally looks back up from the file marked O’Malley house. “There is a sizable inheritance tax to be paid, as I mentioned already. And although the house was grandfathered into the development when the Huckleberry Hills subdivision was built around it, any exceptions to meeting the architectural and appearance standards of the association do not extend to the new owner. As such, you’d have a maximum of six months to bring it in line with the association’s expectations or lose the house, according to the agreement your great-aunt signed with the association.”

Six months. Half a year. Plenty of time. “I can do that.”

“Mallory Martin Bach, stop being unreasonable.” Dad sits down in his chair with a huff. “You know nothing about renovations. You haven’t even seen the state of the house. Besides, you can’t do this alone. You would need Karl to help you with something of this size.”

I wince at that—how many times have I not done something in my life because Karl told me I need him to help me with it, even though we both knew he had no intention of helping me? Too many to count—but not this time. Aunt Maggie wouldn’t have left me her house if she didn’t think I could handle it, so I am going to handle it. And show my parents—and Karl—that I don’t need him. More, I don’t need anyone.

Thad continues. “I must inform you that it is… Well, a fixer-upper is what I believe the realtors would call it. Remember, your aunt moved into the active-living residence a year before her death. No one has been in it since then. There are currently”—he looks down at a sheet of paper—“forty-seven HOA violations against it. Quite honestly, I believe there are more, but the HOA board took pity on your aunt. Now that it’s yours, my understanding is that they expect the changes to be made quickly or they will sue.”

I swallow. Okay, that doesn’t sound quite as promising. But Aunt Maggie wouldn’t have left me the house if she didn’t believe I could do it.

“And just how are you going to pay the taxes on it?” Dad asks. “You don’t even have a job.”

“I can get a job.” People do it every day—last two months evidence to the contrary, but I don’t mention that.

So what if I went from working for my dad part-time in college to working full-time in Karl’s law practice? I have two and a half years of law school and eleven years of experience running a legal practice. I have skills, just not the ones that people like my dad find important.

Dad throws his arms up in obvious frustration. “What you need to be focused on is getting Karl to take you back.”

I wince. It isn’t something he hasn’t said a dozen times this week, but still, it hurts.

My dad loves me and only wants what’s best for me; I know that. Sure, divorce is a four-letter word in my family, but really, that isn’t why he keeps harping on taking Karl back. I spent the better part of a decade showing everyone that my value began and ended with Karl’s accomplishments rather than my own. Why should I be shocked now that they consider my life worthless without him?

And for a moment—just a moment—I almost give in. I almost give up. On the house. And more importantly, on myself. But then I think about Karl’s smirk when I told him I wanted a divorce, the pitying looks on my parents’ faces when I showed up on their doorstep with three packed suitcases.

And then Aunt Maggie’s words.

Sweat beads at the nape of my neck, tickling my skin as I try to take slow and steady breaths so my stomach stops feeling like I’m skydiving instead of sitting in the probate attorney’s office, taking a stand for the first time in my life.

“I’ll figure it out,” I say, my palms sweaty.

“You need to sell, Mallory. It’s the right move,” Dad says, using the firm tone that means the discussion is over and his judgment rendered. “I know you loved your aunt, but you need to be logical.”

Logical. An interesting term. It’s the word Dad used when I said I wanted to get a Master of Fine Arts in photography. There’s no money in that—be logical, he said. So I went to law school instead and met Karl.

“I’m keeping the house.”

And I’m going to fix it up and fix my life in the process. Period. I can totally do this.

God, I hope so.

Chapter Four

   There’s no way in hell I’m going to do this.

Standing on the sidewalk outside of Aunt Maggie’s house is like taking a trip down memory lane, but the nightmare version of it.

Where once there was lush, neatly trimmed grass I ran around in barefoot while hopping through the sprinkler, now the grass is nearly a foot tall and strangled with dandelions. The trees and bushes were left to grow hog wild for who knows how long, like the yard is auditioning to be a set piece for Jumanji.

I eye the tall grass and shudder. There are definitely snakes somewhere in there, and I shuffle farther away from the grass onto the driveway that looks like protest art with cracks and crevices everywhere. Piles of leaves from last fall have been pushed up into the corners of the wide porch. And the porch swing Aunt Maggie sat on with me as she drank afternoon gin fizzes while watching the sunset hangs lopsided, swaying listlessly in the spring breeze.

But honestly, what really has me gazing at the house in shock is the giant tree limb currently laying in the vee of what used to be the wide wooden porch. It’s obvious a storm recently ravaged the neighborhood—well, if you look at Aunt Maggie’s house.

I glance around the neighborhood at the perfectly groomed lawns and realize whatever damage anyone else sustained was quickly swept aside and repaired, my aunt’s sad house the only evidence that shit happens in the world no one can control.