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Maggie Moves On

Chapter 1

“Did you consider just setting a pile of money on fire instead?”

“Har har, smartass,” Maggie quipped over Aerosmith wailing through the speakers.

She was used to Dean’s overprotectiveness toward her home renovation budget and his consistent mistrust of her ability to turn nightmares into dreams.

The house rose in front of them through the rain-slicked windshield as the truck squeezed through the overgrowth on both sides of a rutted lane. Three stories. A massive porch that disappeared around one side. Shingles and carved wood with several layers of peeling paint battled it out to draw the eye first.

But nothing could compete with the turret. Part of the porch on the first floor, it became a balcony on the second. The third and final level was closed in with rounded windows and a needle point-tipped roof. The view from up there was one she predicted that even the pragmatic Dean would get excited about.

He flopped back in his seat and shook his head. “This better be the first and last time you buy a property sight unseen.” His voice was its usual morning rasp when Maggie dragged him out of bed too early for his liking.

The property wasn’t exactly unseen, but she doubted the truth of it would make her business partner feel more confident. “I saw pictures,” she argued instead.

“I saw the same pictures and distinctly recall trying to talk you out of it.”

“Whine later,” Maggie told him as she slid out from behind the wheel. The ground was soft and wet beneath her work boots.

What had once been an elegant, treelined drive was now an overgrown trail. The neglected trees and shrubs seemed determined to force the property’s surrender to nature.

But the house? Well, there was magic here on this bluff. She could feel it shimmering just beneath layers of rotting wood and what was most likely lead paint. Like a buried treasure waiting to be unearthed.

Maggie cocked her head and studied the exterior. Rain pattered off the bill of her cap.

Whimsical maybe. Dilapidated definitely.

“We’re not in Oregon on the beach anymore, Toto,” Dean said, eyeing the monstrosity.

“No, we’re not,” she agreed, tucking her hands into her coat pockets and wishing she had the keys. She’d closed the deal on her last flip, a charming beach bungalow, a handful of days ago. With the largest check to date burning a hole in her pocket, she’d packed up and hit the road, heading east for the new adventure.

“What the hell is it even?” he asked, zipping his vest to his chin. “What’s it doing here?”

The fact that the once-grand fever dream of a mansion didn’t fit was precisely what she loved best about it. This part of Idaho was full of timber cabins, smart lakeside cottages, and a tidy downtown of kitschy brick and clapboard buildings. But here, surrounded by mountains and aspen and river, the Queen Anne Victorian reigned over it all.

Proudly, unashamedly different, the old Campbell place had claimed this spot on the bluff without regard to any other outside forces for well over a century. She’d have bought it even without the house tangling up briefly in her own history.

“It was originally built by Aaron Campbell for his wife, Ava, allegedly a romantic at heart,” she said, warming to her topic.

“Oh goodie. A lecture.”

“Mr. Campbell’s family owned jewelry stores and a timber operation in the area.”

“Must have been a lot of money in murdering trees,” Dean mused as he tested the first step leading to the porch.

“Actually, Campbell’s money came from the fifteen Western novels he wrote.”

He groaned. “I hate it when houses have backstories. It makes you spend more.”

“Mr. and Mrs. Campbell spent four years building this place, making sure every inch of it was perfect.”

“And then they died tragically of typhoid and lead-based paint?” he guessed.

Maggie gave him a playful shove and danced up the steps onto the porch. “No. They lived happily ever after for forty-plus years, giving generously to the town. Raising a family. Throwing spectacular parties.”

“And then they died.”

“And then they died—romantically—a few months apart. The house was passed down through the generations—some with better taste than others. When the family money ran out after a few generations, the house was donated to the town in the 1980s.”

“What did the town ever do to them?” Dean quipped. He gave the porch railing a shake and shot her a smug look when two of the spindles fell to the ground.

“I can fix that,” she said with confidence.

“The town turned it into the Campbell House Museum and ran it for just over a decade. Which is why the place comes chock-full of family artifacts.”

“Don’t even ask me to run the cash box at the yard sale, Magpie. I’m busy that day.”

“Come on. It was cute when you haggled with the church bingo lady in Aberdeen. The viewers loved it.”

She cupped her hands to one of the dingy front windows and peered inside. Wallpaper. Gloriously hideous pheasants in blue and gold climbed the walls of the den like an invasive ivy. Her fingers itched to touch it. It was so aggressively eye searing it might actually work. There were a few pieces of art, including what looked like a portrait hanging above a blackened fireplace. She gave the glass another swipe with her wet sleeve but only succeeded in smearing the layers of grime.

“Speaking of, when are you announcing this new ‘guaranteed to bankrupt you and lose all of your followers’ project?” Dean asked, clomping down the steps.

In Maggie’s opinion, the man spent entirely too much time thinking about numbers. Budgets, YouTube subscribers—all 900,000+ of them— and advertising dollars. But that was why they worked so well together. Dean obsessed over numbers on the page while she turned disasters into dream homes.

She followed him around the side of the house to the uneven stone terrace that stepped down from porch to ground. The whole thing needed re-laid. “We’ve still got three episodes banked on the beach bungalow. But I’ll start teasing this place on Instagram.”

He tripped, stumbled, and then kicked at the offending stone that caught his shoe.

“Wait until tomorrow when the place is ours and there’s insurance before you fall and break your face,” she advised.

“What the hell is that?” he demanded, gesturing toward the concrete monument.

Maggie grinned. “A fountain.”

Four nearly life-sized stone horses stood in the center of the base. One pawing the air, the others frozen mid-gallop. “That looks like the four horses of the apocalypse guarding a community-wide West Nile virus infection waiting to happen,” he said, eyeing the foot of black, murky water and debris clogging the fountain’s pool.

Despite the snarky, uncaffeinated grump show, she could tell he was starting to thaw…marginally. Dean had a soft spot for the quirky. Which was why he’d tolerated Maggie for so many years.

“Tell me they piss water.”

“I’m sure it can be arranged,” she mused.

He grunted and continued across the terrace toward the backyard.

“That’s a sizable problem,” he observed, coming to a stop.

She ducked around him and eyed the fir tree that leaned lazily against the back of the house. That hadn’t been in the pictures.

“I can fix it,” she chirped, already picturing a bench or chair reclaimed from the wood.

And she would. Maggie Nichols had yet to meet a challenge that she couldn’t conquer. Her real estate picks had gotten progressively more dilapidated, and while they briefly gave Dean bouts of acid reflux, he always came around. Especially at closing when keys were exchanged for big, fat checks.

“The whole budget’s gonna go to landscaping,” he complained.

“Dean, Dean, Dean.” She sighed. “When are you going to start trusting my vision?”

Identifying potential had never been in the man’s skill set. But she didn’t hold it against him…at least, not anymore.

“This is going to be the one, Magpie,” he insisted, nudging a damp fern with the toe of his boot.

She flashed him a smirk. “You think this place will be the one I can’t finish?”

“I am absolutely certain you’ve bitten off more than you can chew. Eighteen rooms. I read the listing. There are outbuildings, which judging by this wreck, are going to be hovels. There’s no way you can do this. And none of those rabid followers of yours are going to tune into a project this big. It’ll be weeks of just hauling out god-awful carpet and scraping wallpaper. How the hell are you going to keep their attention?”

“You do realize you say that every house, don’t you?” She nudged him in the direction of the bluff, and together they circumnavigated the terrace and crumbling fountain.

“Seriously. I have concerns about your decision-making. Are you having some kind of mid-life crisis? Couldn’t you just buy a convertible and get a new haircut? Maybe date another guy who still lives with his mom?”

“You’re mean when you haven’t had enough coffee,” she complained as they stepped over a log into a small thicket of briars and brambles. “Besides, I told you Bobby looked older than he was when he turned his hat around backward.”

“You and the backward hat thing,” Dean groaned. “Ouch! Thorn!”

“It’s not a thing. I just happen to find cute guys in backward ball caps attractive.”

“And how old was Backward Hat Bobby again?” he pressed, feigning a faulty memory.

“Twenty-four.” A mere decade younger than herself. “And don’t even get started on the robbing the cradle bit. Dudes go for younger women all the time. Besides, it was fun while it lasted.” Fun while it lasted applied to all of Maggie’s relationships. That particular one had lasted exactly as long as it had taken her to realize her cute California flirtation lived in his parents basement while he “figured out” what he wanted to do with his environmental science degree.

“I have no problem with you dating guys ten years younger…if you were fifty and they were employed and had their own place. And knew what dryer sheets are for.”

“I never should have told you about that,” she grumbled.

“You know what I think?”

“No. But that’s never stopped you from telling me before.”

He paused dramatically. “I don’t think you believe in love and romance and happily ever after.”

She eyed him. “Oh? And you do, pot?”

“Listen here, kettle. I am a jaded man. A realist. A cynic, if you will. You buy hovels like this and turn them into castles. You should believe in romance. You should be dating and falling in love and settling down and giving me weekends off.”

“Ah. Now I get where this is going. You’re Danny Kaye-ing me,” she said, referring to White Christmas, a holiday movie she’d tried to dislike over the years and never quite succeeded.

“I always thought of myself as more of a Bing Crosby than a Danny Kaye,” Dean sniffed.

“Listen Bing, Danny, or whoever the hell you are, I’m not in one place long enough to even learn a guy’s favorite beer let alone sexual position or 401k balance.”

“But you could be. You could take time off between houses. You could take a vacation and fall in love with your scuba instructor.”

“Or here’s a thought. I could renovate this house, make it beautiful, and we could make an obscene amount of money.” It’s what they did and how she earned the freedom and financial stability she’d always craved.

“You already have an obscene amount of money,” he pointed out.

“I think our definitions of obscene are pretty far apart.”

“Check your statements and get back to me. You’ve leveled up and haven’t noticed yet.”

“Do you want a raise? Because I’ll give you a raise if it stops you from whining all the time.”

“I don’t want more money—I mean, I wouldn’t say no to it. But I want more time. You should too. What’s the point of making all this money and running your own business if it means you can’t enjoy it.”

“I do enjoy it,” she argued. “I love what I do.”

“Well, you better because it’s going to take you six years to finish this place.”

“Three months,” she insisted. Then caught his skeptical look. “Fine. Four tops.”

“You pay me to be practical,” he reminded her as he carefully removed a briar that had attached itself to his sleeve. “It’s impractical that your only days off are the ones you take driving between houses. You can’t keep this up forever.”

“Practical concerns noted. In the meantime, you trust me to have vision,” she said, blazing a trail through underbrush toward the one thing that would shut him up.

“Vision. Not hallucinations.”

She said nothing and pointed to the rocky edge of the bluff.

His brown eyes widened. “Oh. Shit.”

“Yeah. Oh, shit.”

They stood shoulder-to-shoulder and looked across the rolling foothills and canyons spread out before them. The Payette River zigged and zagged below, green and fast with snowmelt. The town, compact and cozy, was tucked into a hard bend to the north. The lake beyond fed the river and the tourism that coaxed travelers off the beaten path, away from the jagged mountain peaks and ski resorts and into Western Idaho.

“Figured we’d open up the view a little bit,” she said, still looking out over miles and miles of rugged country. “Thin out the vegetation. Maybe take down a couple of the trees.”

“The budget isn’t big enough,” Dean said, recovering himself quickly. He wasn’t a romantic who could be charmed with breathtaking views and historical charm. But at least she knew he was willing to flirt with the value of a multi-million-dollar view.

“We could double our money here,” she said, tempting him with his language of love.

“Double? Ha. First of all, you have to decide what’s the absolute minimum to get this beautiful and market-worthy. Then you being you have to decide how much over that you’re going to run amok. Then we’ll have to pull a buyer who wants a seven-figure mausoleum in Where The Fuck Are We, Idaho, out of our asses.”

She clapped him on the shoulder. “That’s the spirit. Oh, and Kinship.”

“Kinship what?”

“Kinship, Idaho. That’s where the fuck we are. Now, if I promise to buy you two huge coffees when we go into town, will you be a good boy and get your fancy drone out?”

Grumbling, he left her there and picked his way through nature. “I hate thorns!” he called over his shoulder. “Son of a—”

She snickered when his dark head disappeared into a wet bed of tall ferns.

“Watch your step,” she sang out too late.

“I’m not too fond of you right now!”

While her partner swore his way back to the truck to unpack the drone, Maggie faced the house. With her thumbs hooked in her pockets and rain dampening the short ponytail pulled through the back of her hat, she studied it. Three sprawling stories. Eighteen rooms. Four fireplaces. Not nearly enough bathrooms.

The paint, at least six different colors that she’d counted, was peeling. The yard had been eaten by weeds and overgrowth. What looked like a very healthy crop of poison oak climbed the north side of the house that faced the detached carriage house.

The front porch looked like it was a good four inches lower on the right than it was on the left. The warped front door was way too small for a house so grand.

She felt the rev in her blood. The low hum of excitement of a new challenge, an adventure at the starting line. It was like finding a secret treasure in a ruin. Only the ruin was the treasure. And her favorite part was excavating it piece by piece. Restoring old charm and adding new world function. Every project was someone’s dream house. And she did what she could to bring it into being.

But this place, the Old Campbell Place—capitalized like a proper noun, as it had been dubbed for over a century—would be special. It already was. And it was even better than she’d remembered.

She waited until Dean had grumbled his way around to the back with his toy before taking out her phone and lining up a selfie with the house behind her.

It was tradition. Every project. Just her and the house at the very beginning of their journey together. She’d never shared any of them. It felt too personal, as if she were standing in front of her own dreams and asking them to come true.

“Closing’s not until tomorrow, Magpie,” Dean said, coming around the side of the house. “Still have time to change your mind.”

She heard the hope in his voice and grinned. “Nice try. This is happening.”

He heaved a heroic sigh. “Fine. I have a couple of local trades lined up tomorrow after settlement. Figured you’d want to get started on the estimates right away.”

“You figured right. Come on. Let’s get you some caffeine so you can be nice. Maybe they’ll let us check in to the hotel early.”

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