The yard was stunning with the cherry blossoms in bloom and the vines climbing the tethers of the wooden swing. Laci had loved the view from the deck so much with the hills in the background and the canopy of fragrant foliage that she’d spent six months painting a series just of the trees and the tree swing. Now however when she looked out all she could think about was a picture that her husband had taken of her on that swing with a punished bottom on display. It had been such a playful shot. In a bout of grief she’d deleted it, which she’d regretted almost immediately.
She hadn’t painted on the deck in forever. She’d stopped painting altogether really. Her life had changed in too many ways for her to get her bearings. She wasn’t just passively resisting her old routines and the usual way of life in Haywood Hills though. She’d been quietly rebelling for months. She had a terrible feeling that she was about to be caught.
Melody Turner, her closest friend in the community, had called and insisted on coming over immediately. Laci knew she should be cleaning the kitchen. There were stacks of unwashed dishes and a sticky patch on the floor from where she’d spilled some margarita mix during the impromptu party she’d thrown the night before. She’d known it was risky to let her artist friends from the city into the gated community, which guarded its privacy, but she hadn’t felt like leaving home and spending the night in a hotel.
This was part of her overall problem. She was trapped in a vicious cycle that had swallowed her up. Every day she woke thinking she was going to get her act together and get on with her life, but every day she ended up not getting fully dressed unless she was leaving the house. Every day she streamed Netflix and Hulu and surfed the net. Every day she avoided work on the long overdue paintings she hadn’t delivered for a gallery installation she’d set up.
She didn’t attend community meetings and events. Her neighbors let her wallow away her days without interruption because poor Laci had lost Colin, her husband and protector. They accepted that she wouldn’t be herself. They’d been understanding when she turned down invitations to engage in group play nights.
She sensed a shift though. The people who’d initially tried hard to connect with her had stopped reaching out and now occasionally gave her disapproving looks when they saw her driving out of the community. If Colin were alive, she would have been soundly punished. He would never have let her get so out of control, and honestly she wouldn’t have wanted to. She’d been happy with him. Now she was miserable.
The doorbell chimed, and Laci winced. She did not feel like talking to Mel who would no doubt be wearing peach lipstick and a spring dress covered in flowers.
Cut it out, Laci! she yelled in her head. She’s a great friend. Go answer the door.
Despite the urging she gave herself, she stood frozen in the hall for another five minutes, hoping that Melody would leave. Normally Mel would have, but this time she didn’t. She stood stubbornly on the step and resorted to loud, unladylike knocking. If her husband John had been there, Mel would’ve been over his lap with her lace panties around her knees in an instant in full view of the neighborhood.
Laci finally strode to the door, tucked her damp dark hair behind her ears, and smoothed down her vintage T shirt and jeans. She’d showered and put on clean clothes. The house was a little stale, but the windows were open. It would air out. Mel would not know how bad things were.
She pulled the door open.
Melody’s honey blonde hair was pulled back in a twist, and she wore a lemony T shirt dress and kitten heels. She looked fresh and pretty, which made Laci feel all the more wretched. When Colin was alive, Laci had been his baby doll and always dressed in pastels and frills for him. Lately Laci’s style had reverted to closer to the way she’d been before she met him. Except she wasn’t creative and edgy now, she was raw and ragged.
Laci had always been slim, but she’d been well proportioned with B-cup breasts and a high round backside. While grieving she’d lost about seven pounds and was bordering on being too skinny. She’d also let her natural dark brown hair grow out, so that the light brown color Colin had liked was only on the ends. She needed a haircut. She needed a lot of things.
“Lace, what took you so long? I thought you might not be okay. I nearly called John.”
Laci grimaced. That would not have been good. John was extremely strict, and he would have no problem causing trouble for Laci. He’d made it clear to her that he expected her to behave herself if she planned to stay living in Haywood Hills.
“I was taking a shower. Sorry, Mel. Come in. What’s up?”
Melody pursed her peachy lips and walked into the foyer. “Let’s sit down and have a cup of coffee.”
“I’m out. Really sorry about that. I might have a few teabags though, if you want that?”
Melody raised her brows. “I thought you had groceries delivered. That’s what you said you needed money for.”
Laci glanced down at her bare feet with their chipped black nail polish. “I didn’t end up calling to order groceries.”
“Because you had your creative friends over? What did you serve at your little house party that you didn’t invite anyone else to?”
Laci gave her a sheepish look. “You wouldn’t have had fun. We played music you hate and talked about people you don’t know.”
“And drank to excess? And smoked pot? And spied on the people in the closed courtyard?”
Laci sucked in a breath. “We didn’t spy. One of them wandered off, but I found him in time.”
“Was he filming and taking pictures?”
“No! There was one clip on his phone. I deleted it and went through everything to make sure. There are no pictures or videos, I swear. I made sure,” she repeated. “And I threw them out right afterward.”
“Well, people know. They know you brought strangers in and didn’t supervise their movements.”
Laci sighed. “Then I guess I’ll be called to the principal’s office and have to explain myself.”
“This is serious, Laci. They’re going to meet to discuss whether they’ll force you to leave.”
“They can’t force me to do anything. I own this house and the property.”
“There are legal protections in place for the community’s safety. Colin must have explained—”
“It’s my house! How dare they even think of trying to throw me out after everything that Colin did for this place.”
“I’m just telling you that people are angry and disappointed.”
“What people? John? The council? Did you tell him that you’ve been loaning me money because that prick Eric has me on a chintzy allowance?”
“Laci, don’t! You know Eric is just trying to do what Colin asked him to do. He was worried you couldn’t handle everything yourself.”
Laci knocked a glass vase full of flowers off the table. It shattered, and Melody skittered back. Eric Renard was the bane of Laci’s existence. At around six-three, he was about a foot taller than her and he always used it to his complete advantage, towering over her every time they talked. Also, he looked like he’d sprung from some aristocratic bloodline with his strong jaw, perfect posture, immaculate suits, and dark blue eyes. He was too damn polished. It made her want to mess up his hair and rumple his clothes. And every time she looked at Mr. Perfection it reminded her that some people weren’t lost and out of control and orphaned. Some people had gone to college and used big words and never put a foot wrong. Some people were high and mighty, and as far as Eric Renard was probably concerned, Laci was a little nobody and a troublemaker to boot.
“Oh, Laci, come on. What are you doing?” Melody said softly, looking at the mess the broken vase had made.
“I’m sorry,” Laci said woodenly. She glanced at the water dripping down the walls. What the hell was she doing? “I appreciate the warning, Mel. I really do. And all the help and support you’ve given me. Honestly, I don’t deserve you.”
Melody stepped forward and hugged her. “I know you’re still hurting, but please, honey, you have to let people help you. And you have to protect yourself and everyone else. You really must change what you’re doing, or I don’t know what will happen.”
Laci nodded, but she wasn’t really listening. She just wanted Melody to leave so she could go back to bed and forget about the mistakes she’d made and everything else.
Eric Renard ended his conference call when his executive assistant sent a text message that one of his neighbors wanted to meet with him.
His brows rose when he found Melody Turner sitting outside his office, completely on her own.
“Come on in, Mel. John didn’t tell me you were coming.”
“I didn’t mention it to him. He’s golfing with clients, and I didn’t want to interrupt. I’ll tell him tonight.”
“I don’t understand why you’re here though. You could’ve called, and I would’ve come by to see you guys at the house.”
“I didn’t think I should wait, Eric. It’s about Laci.”
Eric motioned for Mel to sit in the wingback chair and leaned against his desk, folding his arms across his chest. “Don’t tell me she sent you to negotiate with me. I already told her I’m not changing her allowance. Every bill is paid by the trust, which means she has no living expenses. Five hundred a week is plenty of money. If she wants more, she has to tell me what it’s for.”
Melody clasped her hands in her lap. “It’s not that. I know better than to try to talk to you about her finances since you explained everything to John and me a couple months ago.”
“So?” Eric asked, picturing Laci’s pretty face with her big brown eyes framed by long dark lashes and the dimple that appeared when she smiled. She’d been adorable as Colin’s baby doll, but these days she looked even better to Eric. She was sexy and intense with her nearly black hair falling across her face and the moody gaze that appeared whenever she looked at him. She spent a lot of her time playing a bad girl in need of punishment. His desire to give her exactly what she needed occupied his thoughts more often than not.
“I need to confess something.” Melody Turner’s cheeks were flushed, and the distress made her gorgeous. Melody was a little stiff for his taste normally, but there was nothing more tempting than a submissive about to confess a transgression. Too bad she wasn’t his to discipline.
“I’ve been loaning Laci money. Not a lot. Just a hundred dollars here and there when she runs out. You know she resents coming to you. She’s already struggling so much. I wanted to take some of the pressure off her and for her to feel supported. But I know it was a mistake. I think she’s been lying about what she’s been spending the money on, and I—I know you’ll hear, so I’ll just tell you. She had people over and lost track of them. One of them stumbled onto a scene in the courtyard. Laci swears she checked his phone and that there’s no photographic evidence, but Allison was in a very compromising position, and Stu and Ali are furious. Several people are.”
Eric clenched his jaw. During the community’s last council meeting, Laci’s behavior had been discussed. Eric and several others had thought it was time for someone to take her in hand, but other people had still been too sympathetic to agree to the need for action. Eric had argued that Laci might really be acting erratically as a cry for help. Colin had, after all, kept firm control of his former wild child of a wife. She had tolerated that well, far better than she was tolerating being left to her own devices.
“I’m afraid they’ll force her to leave Haywood. She doesn’t have anyone besides us. Not really. I know Colin was your friend. He’d never have wanted Laci to be turned out. You know he’d want you to intervene.”
“What does John say about all this?”
“John—I think John is getting really impatient with Laci.”
“You think? But you’re not sure because John doesn’t know all the details yet? He doesn’t know that you interfered with the financial support she’s getting?”
Melody swallowed. “I’m going to tell him. I was always planning to. I just hoped things would improve and then it would be less of an issue. I never expected her to do anything like this.”
“I’m sure you didn’t.”
“I’m sorry I interrupted your workday, Eric. I just thought—”
“You thought that you could appeal to me and I’d help her, even going as far as to protect her from the will of the others?”
“They’ll take your opinion into account above a lot of people’s because Colin put you in charge of the estate and asked you to guide her financially. I know she’s behaved terribly, but she could be brought under control. With her background, we can’t expect her to be good unless someone strong makes her. She’s out of control and still so broken-hearted.”
“It’s been a year and a half. She may still be grieving, but that’s no excuse for the way she’s acting. This is open rebellion. She’s testing us.”
“Yes. That makes sense. So you’ll rein her in? You won’t just cast her out?”
“That really depends on Laci,” Eric said.
“I’m sure she’ll be reasonable,” Melody said. “Eric, may I ask you for a favor?”
“Could you let me tell John about me loaning her money? He has such a lot on his mind today. I don’t think it’s a good time—”
“Melody, you know that’s not the way things work. I can’t be taken into your confidence on something you’re keeping from your husband. Tell him as soon as you get home, so that he hears it first from you.”
She looked crestfallen.
Eric understood that look. John would be disappointed in her for interfering, and the punishment likely wouldn’t be easy to take, but the community worked because the residents knew they could trust each other. That was why this latest stunt of Laci’s was serious. He would have to deal with her or there would be a whole other set of problems to deal with.