Just because, and just because it’s summer, I’m sharing with you the first seven chapters of a novel I started writing last July. This was a “just for fun” novel. I was between books, a little burned out on Napoleonic spies, waiting to hear back from publishers about the 1920s book– so it seemed like a good time to try something completely different. Like a contemporary romance novel.
For the next seven weeks, I’ll be posting a chapter every Saturday, like an old time serial novel. I hope it amuses you as much as it did me!
Without further ado, here’s Chapter One of DARE ME:
“Omigod! You’re Kristy Dare!”
“No I’m not.” Kristy slapped down a blue paper carton of skim milk, two limp bananas and an improbably brown loaf of mass produced whole wheat bread on the Qwik-Mart counter.
She looked longingly at the stack of Reeses’ Peanut Butter cups, the supersize packs, piled up between the Twix and the Snickers. The Twix she could resist, but…. She hadn’t had a peanut butter cup since 2005. So much melty, chocolatey peanut buttery goodness.
Resist, she told herself. Resist. Your body is a temple.
Oh, hell. If her body were a temple, it was the kind with cranked lintels and moss growing out of the fallen pillars.
She added the orange package to the pile. As vices went, Reeses was the least of her worries.
The store clerk had a stud in her left nostril and another in her tongue, a fact of which Kristy was aware because the clerk’s mouth was hanging open. The stud made a clicking noise against her teeth as her lips reconnected.
“Get out!” she lisped. “You totally are. I mean, your hair’s a different color, and you’re, like, old, but—this is SO cool.”
Thirty-one was not old. “Do you have plastic bags?”
Without taking her eyes off her, the clerk began to pile Kristy’s items into a white plastic bag with blue and red lettering. Kristy heard a squish as her milk landed on top of the whole wheat bread. Not like the bread had been much to begin with, anyway.
“This, is like, so awesome. I loved you in What A Girl Needs. But didn’t you, like, go over a cliff or something?”
Okay, enough was enough.
Kristy jammed her Walmart knock-off Ray-Bans over her eyes. “No speaka da English.” She grabbed the plastic bag by its handles and slapped a twenty on the counter. “Keep the change.”
“Thanks! I mean—wait!”
Kristy was already out the door.
The parking lot felt like a thousand degrees, heat rising off the tarmac. She’d always thought of the North East as a chilly place. Apparently New York in August had other ideas. The thermometer on the dashboard of the car claimed it was ninety-five degrees. Kristy believed it. Collapsing into the car, she dumped her groceries on the passenger seat, slammed the door behind her, and kicked the vehicle into gear. The roar of the air-conditioning drowned out the whistling in her ears.
BUST-ED, announced the B-52s in her head.
Bang, bang, on the door, whatever. This was the first time she’d been back in the good old U.S. of A since—well, since. She’d been away for five years. She’d thought that would be enough. Unfortunately, there seemed to be long national memory, at least when it came to washed up child stars. History and math, not so much. Former tabloid queens? Instant recall.
Kristy backed out of the Qwik-Mart parking lot, air-conditioning fogging the windows. The sky was hazy with heat. Through the glass windows of the Qwik-Mart, she could see the girl at the counter already on her cell phone, undoubtedly tweeting Kristy’s coordinates to all fifteen hundred of her closest friends.
Whatever, Kristy told herself with false bravado. Let the poor kid get her vicarious thrill. Most of her friends would probably think she was making it up. A Kristy Dare sighting in the back edge of nowhere New York? Puh-leeze.
Kristy flipped on the radio. News. Weather. Static. More static. Someone exhorting her to let Jesus into her heart. Oh, right, it was a Sunday, wasn’t it? She’d lost all track of time. An oldies channel. NPR. Avril Levigne, crooning about being anything about ordinary, please.
Kristy punched the off button. She didn’t need anyone to tell her about being anything but ordinary.
It was one of those beware of what you wish for things. Fame, money, tabloid covers. She could teach a class on those. There had been so many that she’d lost track of them. She’d been impregnated by alien babies, kidnapped by Elvis, had a threesome with Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie (yeah, if only), and been converted to Christian Science by Tom Cruise.
And all that before she was old enough to vote.
Anything but ordinary, yeah, but after twenty-odd years of notoriety, Kristy would settle for being able to buy a carton of milk without censure. She’d been a child star by eight, a public train wreck by twenty-five. At thirty-one, she just wanted a little peace and quiet, a little breathing room to try to figure out what on earth she was going to do next.
She hadn’t reckoned on last month’s disaster.
Breathe, she reminded herself. Breathe. She’d failed out of yoga, but she still had the pants. She could feel the ancient elastic at the waistband of her yoga pants crackling as she sucked air into her diaphragm, trying to achieve some level of zen. Or, if not zen, at least basic functionality. Right now, she needed to figure out where she was going, and not in the metaphorical sense. Her quick escape from the Qwik-Mart had thrown off her GPS, which was now recalculating… recalculating…. Oh, for heaven’s sake, the town was smaller than your average mall. How much recalculating could there be?
Pulling into a postage stamp-sized parking lot, Kristy angled the GPS towards her. She’d turned off the sound somewhere around Fishkill. The woman’s electronic British voice enunciating “missed turn; missed turn” was beginning to piss her off. She’d amused herself for the first hour by pretending she was in a James Bond movie, but that had palled after a bit.
According to the GPS map, the layout of Philips’ Falls, New York was deceptively simple. One main artery ran all the way down to the river, bisected midway through by train tracks. If she took a left from the FoodTown, which was just on the town outskirts, in Philips’ Falls’ version of urban sprawl, she would hit the main street.
The main street was helpfully called Main Street.
Once on Main Street, she was looking for Fine Street, which dead ended in a curve called—okay, the curve didn’t really have a name. But, if the map was to be believed, the road stopped there. Beyond it was nothing but river and hills, undeveloped land.
Either that, or the mapmakers had just gotten bored and gone home.
The sign at the entrance to Main Street read “Town Speed Limit: 15 miles”. Kristy obediently shifted into turtle mode. The last thing she needed was a ticket for speeding. Not that it would be her first, but she intended to be in and out of Philips’ Falls as quickly and painlessly as possible. No need to antagonize the natives.
Kristy decided the Qwik Mart clerk didn’t count.
Cruising down Main Street, Kristy checked out the ancestral turf. If someone had tried to describe this place to her, she would have snorted in disbelief. Places like this didn’t really exist; they were the product of Hollywood stage sets and wishful thinking. The town was all squeaky clean, Norman Rockwell tied up in a big, velvet bow. There were trash cans, artfully constructed out of bent wood slats and iron rings, placed every three yards, keeping the streets tidy for the good citizens of Philips’ Falls. Kristy wondered what they did with litterers. Put them in the stocks?
A cloth banner, hand-lettered in dark blue paint, announced that the annual St. Mary-in-the-Fields summer fair was due to take place on August 19th, “rain or shine!” Other signs, propped where stray travelers from the interstate might see them, reminded citizens that there would be Mozart by the river at five o’clock on summer Fridays and the Farmer’s Market would be up in the infirmary parking lot on Saturday afternoon.
Aside from churches, a fire station, and an office with “Attorney at Law” written on the window in fancy swirly letters, Main Street appeared to be largely populated by antique stores—Kristy counted fifteen in between the Presbyterian church and the fire station—and sweet shoppes. The extra “e” was for extra shoppes. There was a bake shoppe and an ice cream shoppe and a flower shoppe and a specialty chocolate shoppe, now with more cacao per ounce.
The bake shoppe purported to purvey lattes. Kristy made a note of that. Nice to know that novelty caffeine had penetrated even the wilds of Nowhere, New York.
Kristy could practically hear the slogan. “Nowhere New York: it’s Nowhere you want to be.”
Okay, so maybe she wasn’t going to be hired by the town tourist board. But at least she’d kept her sense of humor. Such as it was. It was one of the few things Martin hadn’t managed to embezzle.
Kristy slowed for the turn onto Fine Street, braking as a family with a baby carriage made their way across the street.
Ah, Martin. Her beloved former agent, who loved her, as he claimed, like a father. She hoped he was enjoying himself in Tijuana on her dime. In fact, she hoped he enjoyed himself right into assorted venereal diseases, liver failure, and a raging case of sun poisoning. Burn, baby, burn. Or, as she remembered from the poolside of Martin’s Malibu home, peel, baby, peel. With six ex-wives to support and expensive taste in hookers, she should have realized that his fifteen per cent wasn’t enough for Martin. Unfortunately, by the time she had sobered up enough to add two and two and come up with zero, Martin had already siphoned off most of her ready cash to a bank account on an island far, far away.
Not that she’d noticed. She’d gone blithely on, trusting that it was all still there, tied up in what Martin euphemistically referred to as “investments”. He had done it very cleverly; there had always been money placed for her in an account for when she needed it. As for the rest, it was earning interest, doing whatever money did—or so Martin had assured her, and she had believed him, because she had never had to do otherwise. By the time it occurred to her to ask what any of those investments might be, Martin was gone.
She could just see him lounging on a beach somewhere, all in white, like Fantasy Island, pasty face blotchy with sunburn, a grass-skirted woman bending over to murmur, “Another pina colada, Senor Scumbag?”
She wondered what he was calling himself these days. Asshole Scumbag might be accurate, but it lacked a certain degree of anonymity. Senor Smarmy?
To be fair, he’d been an excellent agent throughout her checkered career. He’d negotiated deals that had made casting agents weep, parlayed her Mouseketeer cuteness into music deals and movie roles. He’d dropped his other clients to manage her and her alone—although that management hadn’t extended to supervising her after hours entertainment. A certain amount of notoriety helped movie tickets sell.
It was only after she’d been dragged kicking and screaming to rehab that he’d begun dipping into the till, tentatively at first, and then more and more. She’d always been vague about money—why be anything else when there had always been enough? It wasn’t until she’d tried to transfer money from her savings account to the Account Out of Which She Lived that she found out the hideous truth, that everything was gone.
Except for a house in a small town in upstate New York.
Pulling into a side street, Kristy unfolded the lawyer’s letter. “Dear Ms. Green,” it began. Green was her legal name, the name she’d gone back to when “Dare” became a synonym for “Disaster”. Not only was it her real name, she had no doubt it pissed her father off like crazy. He’d been very specific about disowning her. She was an embarrassment, a mistake, a blot on the family escutcheon and he didn’t want her anywhere near him, his second wife or their two precious children. He’d be apoplectic to hear that she’d gone back to his name.
There was always a silver lining.
Rather like this house. She hadn’t paid much attention when the letter had first arrived. She’d been visiting her friend Emma in Florence, after a stint in Honduras helping to build low income housing. She hadn’t been much use with a hammer, but everyone agreed she was very good at the comic relief and she mixed a mean virgin pina colada. She’d been in India before Honduras and Costa Rica before that, with a trip to Iceland in the works. What she had missed out on in formal education, she was determined to make up in life experience. She had the money and she had the time. A house in upstate New York, left to her by a great aunt she had never known, had been low on her list of priorities.
Emma, always a romantic, had exclaimed over the possibilities; attics stuffed with family treasures and possibly family skeletons. Kristy had told her she’d read too many Barbara Michaels novels, besides, she’d deal with it when she got back from Iceland.
That was when she’d tried to withdraw the money to pay for—well, to pay for expenses—and discovered there wasn’t any there. She’d consulted lawyers, of course. They’d shaken their heads and looked grim. They’d spoken about shell companies and dummy accounts and the difficulties of extradition, spewing out legalese like ticker tape at a parade. Martin knew his stuff—of course, he did; that was why she had retained him—and he’d hidden his tracks so well that it might take decades before they were able to untangle it, much less force him to disgorge.
Disgorge. And what a charming image that was. Kristy could think of an equally apt, if slightly more colloquial, term: screwed. Which was what she was.
As improbable as it was, this legacy from Great Aunt Ada was all she had left.
The houses on Fine Street matched their name. Kristy felt her spirits begin to rise as she drove slowly down the block. Unlike the narrow townhouses on Main Street, these were mellow old Victorians, each on its own half-acre plot. The houses were set well back from the street, landscaped with flowering bushes and trees that real estate agents would describe as “mature”. Half a million, maybe? Kristy had done some quick scrounging around on the internet, trying to get a sense of local prices. Philips’ Falls was a little too far out from New York to command top dollar, but it was still an attractive prospect for someone looking for a weekend house.
She didn’t need a fortune, just enough to cover expenses and keep her afloat while she tried to figure out a career path. A career path that didn’t involve pole-dancing. Unfortunately, the job options for washed up child stars with a high school education seemed to involve either sequin G-strings or a side order of fries.
“Why not go back to college?” Emma had suggested.
There was a certain irony to taking career advice from a professional art historian—a job with earning power roughly equivalent to flipping burgers—but Kristy had to admit Emma had a point. If she realized enough from Aunt Ada’s house, she could tide herself over while taking classes. This time, she wouldn’t take any chances. She would do something nice and safe and sensible. Assuming, of course, that there was anyone out there willing to hire the artist formerly known as Kristy Dare.
She’d cross that bridge when she came to it. If the houses on the street were this nice, what must the capstone house be? According to the letter from the lawyer, the Tarrant house sat alone on a cul de sac at the end of Fine Street, where it had been since some enterprising ancestor had made a killing in the munitions business—no pun intended. It sounded like old man Tarrant had been the local equivalent of a robber baron.
A robber baronet?
Kristy reached the end of the block and navigated the slight turn into the cul de sac. And stopped short. In the middle of the street.
Forget Tara, she had inherited the House of Usher.
It took Kristy a moment to realize she was sitting stock still in the middle of the street with the engine running. She pulled the car over to the side of the road, turned off the engine, and sat, and stared.
The house had once been white with black trim, but the white had grimed and the black had faded until both were a dingy gray. The gutters were sagging and the paint of the shutters was peeling off in long, curling strips. A loose shutter flapped in the breeze, banging listlessly against a section of peeling paint. It looked a bit like Miss Havisham’s wedding cake, if wedding cake were square, large boxes stacked one on top of the other: a broad first floor, a smaller second floor, and a strange little cupola thing, with a rusty weathervane sticking up out of the top. The weathercock had lost his tail-feathers.
The house looked scabby. Scabby and shabby. If Kristy were picking a place for kids to boycott on Halloween, this one would be it. She could just see the double, double, toil and trouble in the backyard while Casper the Friendly Ghost twined his way around the cupola.
It was set well back from the street. That much of what she had imagined proved to be true. The lawn sloped sharply upwards from the sidewalk. Someone had carved out a section and put in a set of steep stone steps, ascending from the curbside to a coyly curving stone path that led to the front porch of the house.
Moving very slowly, Kristy let herself out of the car and stepped out into the August smog. The heat haze shimmered around the house like smoke.
Kristy wrinkled her nose. Seriously, could it get anymore gothic? All she needed was a madwoman, gibbering in the attic.
Oh, wait. She was the mad woman. Right.
She picked her way up the stone steps. They were cracked, but still navigable. There was no fence or gate. Maybe people didn’t do that here? Or maybe Aunt Ada just hadn’t had anything worth stealing. The walkway was crumbling, weeds growing through the cracks in the stone. The lawyer said Aunt Ada had died six months ago; she clearly hadn’t been doing any gardening for some time before that.
Two stone lions guarded the porch steps. “Hello, to you, too,” said Kristy, heading past them on her way towards the door.
There was a stained glass fanlight, so grimed as to be nearly opaque, and a knocker shaped like a lion’s head. The brass ring had been jammed into its snarling mouth. Kristy ignored it and went straight for the knob. It didn’t budge.
Kristy swiped the damp hair away from her face. She wasn’t sure why this should surprise her, but it did. Somehow, she’d thought she’d be able to walk right in. Maybe because in the movies, people in small towns never locked their doors? She tried it again. Still no good.
The lawyer had said something about providing her with the key. She probably should have written back to him, shouldn’t she? She’d been so busy planning creative ways to murder Martin that everything else had fallen by the wayside. She was pretty sure that law office on Main Street must be his. She was equally sure that, on a Sunday, it would be closed. This wasn’t LA; people didn’t work around the clock here.
Which left her with two choices. She could get back in the rental car, drive into town and try to find someplace to stay, or—she could show a little enterprise.
After all, Kristy told herself, it didn’t count as breaking in if the house was legally hers.
A path twisted around the side of the house. Kristy followed it, searching for means of egress. Or was it ingress? She’d spent a lot of time over the past few years reading, trying to make up for her lack of formal education, but she still spent most of her time feeling painfully ignorant.
Whichever one it was, there wasn’t one. The house’s stone foundation raised it above ground level, putting the windows an uncomfortable six or seven feet above the ground. She’d need a grappling hook to get in there. The walkway brought her around the house, past what must once have been a formal garden of some kind, with the remains of a pergola and the fragments of a path, to the back of the house.
This area appeared to have been better maintained. There was an herb garden to one side, overgrown but still recognizable, and wide brick patio, set with stone urns and benches. At the far end of the patio sat a little house, a simplified miniature of the main house, but for the two broad arches in the middle. The Victorian equivalent of the two car garage? It must once have been a carriage house, but it had obviously been extensively renovated since. The arches had been filled in and there were windows in the middle of them. The blinds had been left up. Kristy caught a glimpse of hardwood floors and a beige sofa.
Part of the main house? Or sold off? She would have to ask the lawyer when she saw him tomorrow. In the meantime, she had a house to break into.
There was a back door, a little gnome hole of a door, set into an extension that jutted out on one side of the brick patio. It was also locked.
What was with all this locking? Weren’t they supposed to be open-doored and trusting in places like this?
On plus side, the windows were lower here on the north side of the house, echoing the slope of the land. This had to be the service side. There was no pretty path here, just a utilitarian driveway that ran straight down the side to the little house out back. The windows were only about five feet up. Standing on her tiptoes, Kristy could get her elbows onto the ledge. And if she could get her elbows up….
Kristy did a little jog from foot to foot, warming up. She stretched her arms over her head, feeling her sweaty tank top stretch with her.
Okay. She could do this. As long as she could get the window open, she could haul herself up on the ledge and propel herself through.
She’d done it in one of her later movies. Malibu Confidential. It had been a sort of Charlie’s Angels meets Degrassi High—and, according to the critics, compounded of the worst parts of each. It had been universally agreed, though, that she looked pretty hot in her bikini, which was a good thing, since she’d worn it for the whole, damn movie. There was nothing like scaling a wall with nothing between you and the brick but a wisp of spandex. She’d had brick-burn for days.
Fortunately, Great Aunt Ada’s house was nice smooth boards rather than brick. And she was wearing yoga pants and a tank top rather than a string bikini. She’d hated that string bikini. It had an annoying way of coming untied. Someone—Kristy had her suspicions, but they had never been proved—had found the outtakes reel and posted the choicer bits on You Tube. She had seen enlarged (and, she was pretty sure, photo-shopped) versions of her breasts as email forwards for months thereafter.
What in the hell was the national fixation with celebrity boobs? Hers weren’t even particularly opulent.
Using righteous indignation as a spur, Kristy shoved against the sash, grunting a bit as the warped boards rasped against flaking paint.
“Come on…. You know you want to….”
The damn thing felt like it had been glued in place. Sweating and cursing, she managed to coax it about a foot, at which it stuck and refused to go further.
Fine. That should be wide enough. She’d shimmied through a space smaller than that for Malibu Confidential. She’d had to wiggle through, shaking her stuff for the audience all the way.
Kristy hoiked herself up on the window ledge, wishing she’d kept up with her yoga. This had been a hell of a lot easier ten years ago. Of course, then, she’d also had crew hovering around in the background to discretely give her a leg up if she needed it. Back when it was still a privilege to be stepped on by Kristy Dare.
Through the open window, she could see that the room was some kind of parlor, crammed with whatnots and knick-knacks and dusty rubber plants. There was a chair in front of the window, round-backed with a padded back and seat. Kristy would have preferred a sofa, but she’d take what she could get. She hoped it was sturdy. It was going to have to bear one hundred and forty sweaty pounds of aging pop icon.
There was no way she was twisting herself around to get a leg over. She’d have to go in the way she had in Malibu Confidential: head first.
She levered herself up and maneuvered her head and shoulders through the gap, muscles she’d forgotten she had protesting. She could feel the waistband of her yoga pants scraping against the flaking paint of the window sill. She could do this; she could do this. She’d done it ten years ago; she could do it again.
She’d forgotten one crucial thing. She’d weighed thirty pounds less ten years ago.
Her butt bumped up against something, hard. Kristy could feel the sweat trickling up her back, all the way up her spine to her neck, her tank top damp with humidity and anxiety. She tried to control her breathing the way the yogi had taught her, but she’d been tossed out of the ashram after three days for improper cell phone use. And, besides, she defied the yogi himself to stay zen with the blood rushing towards his head, his t-shirt hiked up, and his butt stuck in a window frame.
This was so not good.
She levered herself forward, but no matter how she jiggled, it was a no go. Her backside wouldn’t go through. She did, however, managed a clear a great deal of old paint from the window frame—and a few square inches of skin off her stomach.
Maybe she should have waited and gone to the lawyer’s office tomorrow.
She braced her hands against the chair, trying to use it to gain enough leverage to push herself back out again, bass-ackwards as one of the gofers used to say. The chair rocked back and forth and then went over, taking with it a vase from a side table. The crash seemed to exho in Kristy’s ears.
She hoped that hadn’t been valuable.
Maybe it wasn’t an echo after all. Kristy heard footsteps, slap, slap, slapping against the gravel driveway. She didn’t know whether to be grateful or alarmed; grateful, because dying of slow starvation stuck in a window with one’s butt in the air really wasn’t a way she wanted to go; alarmed because, well, she was stuck in a window with her butt in the air.
There was a time when reporters would have paid thousands of dollars for a shot like that.
She pedaled her legs wildly, trying to gain some sort of momentum, trying, by sheer force of will, to propel herself either into or out of the room, she didn’t care which, just so long as, please God, she didn’t look like an X-rated Winnie the Pooh with his head stuck in the honey jar.
No go. She felt a flip-flop go flying, landing with a plop somewhere behind her, just as a very unfriendly male voice demanded, “What do you think you’re doing?”
To go to Chapter Two, just click here….