A Little Vice in Paradise

Very Vero #2

by Gretchen Rose

It is 2008, Florida’s housing market has tanked, and Andrea Nelson is terrified. A single parent, she’s been juggling the balls in the air for so long, somehow managing to pay all the bills—but now? With no foreseeable source of income, how will she afford her daughter’s pricey school for the developmentally challenged and fund her mother’s upkeep in the familial enclave that is falling into ruin? Andrea has but one prospective client, the mysterious tycoon, Daniel Armstrong, and he is proving difficult; none of the luxury properties she shows him meet with his requirements. Desperate to sell a property, she shows him Casa Rio, her mother’s oceanfront estate, and he falls in love with it. Heartbroken at the thought of having to relinquish Casa, Andrea begins the process of letting go. Little does she know she has more to fear, that a maniac is stalking her daughter.

Retained as piano instructor to young Harry, Tara soon finds herself entangled in the affairs of his mysterious father, the wealthy tycoon, Nathan McCourt. As Tara's home is being renovated, a strange thing happens: she undergoes a transformation of her own. She is stronger, more confident, and happier than she ever imagined possible. Only one thing is missing from this rosy picture: the man of her dreams. It isn't until a category 4 hurricane blows into town, that all the divergent plot lines are knit up, and Tara finally gets her happily ever after.




It was after six, Friday, the end of another grim workweek, and Vero Beach was sweltering at a sultry ninety degrees. But that’s not why Andrea Nelson was hot under the collar. She was a Florida girl. Cool and dry behind the wheel of her gorgeous, new automobile, she was ruing the fact that she’d ever leased the damn thing. How was she to keep up the payments on the ridiculously expensive Benz with no source of income in the foreseeable future?

As she turned onto A1A, Andrea thought about the torturous phone calls she’d fielded—since the Dow took its historic plunge—from realty clients who were desperate to sell their properties or who’d gotten cold feet and walked away from good-faith deposits. It had been another tough slog in a long succession of brutal days. She had but one prospect, and that was a long shot. Andrea had never been more terrified.

She willed herself not to obsess. Some things were simply beyond her control. The weekend stretched before her, and Andrea was ready to kick back with a glass of wine and lose herself in Debbie Macomber’s newest release, to forget all about her troubles and the housing bust. When she pulled up onto her driveway and spotted the battered Jeep Safari parked there, she knew that wasn’t going to happen anytime soon. A glance back at the curb confirmed her fears; the trashcan she’d put out in the morning was conspicuously absent. 

Damn it! Would that man never let her go? 

Before closing the garage door, Andrea loped to the mailbox to retrieve her mail. When she found it empty, her anger notched up a level.

She burst through the door only to find her mail strewn on the kitchen counter and Derrick sprawled on the sofa. To make matters worse, Beau—the little traitor—was curled up next to him. Andrea slammed the door, and Beau vaulted off the sofa and trotted to her. His little pink tongue was curled over his muzzle, and it was clear to see he was eager for a cuddle, but Andrea was having none of it.

Derrick pretended not to notice her irritation. His eyes remained glued to the ballgame airing on ESPN as he grabbed the half-empty bottle of beer from off the coffee table and took a swig. “Hey babe, your mother called.” Slyly, he ventured a glance in Andrea’s direction. “How come so late?” 

Andrea’s patience was worn to a thread, and her frustrations came pouring out. “What are you doing? How did you get in? You can’t come sneaking around here.” At the sound of Andrea’s raised voice, the cairn terrier hunkered down and slunk out of the room.

Derrick straightened in his seat and swiveled to face her, a bemused expression on his face. 

Andrea knew him so well; she could read his mind. This man-child thought she was being overly dramatic—some hormonal thing. Which only infuriated her more.

“Baby, come on,” Derrick soothed, but his words were drowned in Andrea’s tongue-lashing.

“Don’t baby me,” Andrea snapped. “This is my house! You are not allowed to waltz right in and make yourself at home whenever you please. Haven’t I made that clear?”

“Please, don’t be that way,” Derrick wheedled. “I wanted to see Maddy... and you.”

“You know the custody terms. Madison’s all yours tomorrow.” Andrea swooped in, snagged the beer bottle from Derrick’s grasp, and crossed to the kitchen sink. As she poured out the contents, her eyes flicked to the counter where her mail was scattered.

“And you have no right to go through my mail. I could take out a restraining order, have you arrested. Is that what you want?” Andrea pivoted and glared at her ex.

Derrick unfolded his lean frame and came to his feet. “I thought we agreed to be nice to one another. For Maddy’s sake.”

“Nice is one thing.” Andrea thrust a palm before her to keep him at bay. “Breaking in is another. Now go.”

Before Derrick could react, the front door flew open, and in walked the child of their union. At the sight of her mother and father—together at home—the teen’s face lit up. In an instant, Andrea’s ire was replaced with regret. How could she be angry in Madison’s presence? The kid wanted nothing more than for her mom and dad to reconcile. Poor thing.

“Daddy!” Madison crossed to Derrick, her arms outstretched.

“Look at you, Maddy.” Derrick held the girl to his chest. “You get prettier every day, honey.”

He was right, Andrea thought as she watched Maddy dissolve in her ex-husband’s embrace. That fact brought her no joy. With her mass of sun-tinted hair and gold-flecked eyes, Madison looked like a young ingénue—wholesome and heartbreakingly beautiful. And that would have been fine had the girl not been developmentally challenged. How was she ever to protect this innocent creature?

“Hi, Maddy,” she said, tamping down her fears. “I didn’t hear the bus pull up. How was kickboxing?”

Madison disentangled herself from her father’s arms, and Derrick flopped back down on the sofa. “Hi, Mom. It was good. Watch this.” She struck a pose, balled fists before her face. “Ha!” she exclaimed, executing a swift kick.

“Wow! Impressive,” Andrea said as the girl fell into her father’s lap.

“What’s up, Daddy?” Madison gazed into Derrick’s eyes, twisting a lock of his long, thinning hair around her finger.

Damn. The child is a natural vixen.

“Nothing. Just wanted to see my girls, is all.” Derrick eyed Andrea warily.

“I’m starving.” Madison turned to Andrea. “What’s for dinner?”

“Dinner?” Andrea shrugged. “Gee, I don’t know. I just walked in the door myself. What are you hungry for?”

“Pizza,” Madison and Derrick chorused.

Andrea rolled her eyes. Her ex-husband wasn’t a bad man, and he adored his daughter. But Derrick had never grown up and wasn’t about to. He was nothing but a great big kid, someone else for her to help support and care for. Andrea sighed. “Okay, pizza it is.” She’d been spared the ordeal of preparing a meal, and for that she was grateful. “South Beach or Davila’s?”

Later the same day, Andrea sat at the kitchen table with her phone to her ear. “Derrick said you called, Mom.”

“Hey, Andy. Yeah, that man of yours and I spoke at length.”

“Humph,” Andrea snorted. “He’s not mine anymore.” Margaret Sheridan’s throaty voice, with its barely perceptible southern drawl, had its usual soothing effect on her. What would she ever do without Mom, Andrea wondered, at the same time dreading the day when she would have to do that very thing? “He’s a piece of work all right.”

“Has he gone?”

“He and Maddy are walking Beau. The poor dog is conflicted. He’s crazy about Derrick, but every time he comes around, I go off on him—Derrick that is—and Beau skedaddles under the bed to wait it out. He’s not good with confrontation.”

“Who is, darling?”

“Aw, Mom, I don’t know. What the heck am I going to do about Derrick? How am I ever supposed to get a new life, if I’m forever stuck in the old one?”

“We’re always stuck in the old one. There are no clean breaks, my dear.”

“Some people seem to make them.”

“They’re not evolved. Caring beings…care. They don’t just dispose of people when their warranties expire. Divorce is like Velcro.”

“Velcro. What?”

“You try to rip it apart, but there’s never a clean break. Each little cog gets stuck in a depression and holds on for dear life. It’s a messy business.”

“That’s encouraging.”

“How are you, sweet?”

“This recession is killing me. Our sales have stagnated. I’m getting beat up daily at the office. On top of that, my boss’s new assistant has taken an instant disliking to me, and she’s making my life a living hell.” Andrea put a palm to her temple and exhaled, but her pity party lasted only an instant. “I’m okay,” she said, straightening her spine and putting a smile in her voice. “I got a call today, a potential buyer.”

“Wonderful! Tell me about it.


The next morning, Andrea was more nervous about a showing than she’d been in a long time. It was 2008, and the housing bubble had burst. She had nothing going but this one, enigmatic client, and she needed to put her best foot forward and sell him.

The traffic light at the intersection of A1A and Beachland Boulevard changed to red, and she flipped down the visor and gazed at her reflection in the mirror. It was high time she broke down and had some fillers, she thought, maybe a little Botox—get rid of those worry lines.

And no more crying in your pillow, girlfriend, her inner voice admonished, or you’ll have to lift those sagging eyelids, as well.”

Andrea was fully aware of the sobering fact that she was selling good taste to mega-millionaires—little Ms. Vero Beach, with plenty of class and no means. She had to look the part, and it was all so expensive—clothes, car, hair, nails, on top of Maddy’s school, the mortgage, food, and lawn maintenance. The list was endless. And now her mother’s place, the familial estate, factored into the mix.

She couldn’t fault her dad. Dr. John Sheridan—a general practitioner beloved by patients and family alike—had been an astute businessman. He’d provided for her mom and the kids, setting up trust funds and insurance policies. But who would have thought he’d pass away at the ripe old age of forty-nine, and that the biotech meltdown in the year 2000 would ravage his well-laid plans?

The rambling, two-story house on Greenway Drive in Old Riomar was paid for in full, but Margaret was years behind on the property taxes, a sum now higher than the cost of the original structure. After years of neglect, the roof needed to be replaced, the stucco redone, the kitchen and baths completely renovated, and the overgrown landscaping tamed. The entire two-and-a-half-acre parcel demanded a thorough makeover. Andrea figured it’d cost about nearly two million to bring it up to speed. Or they could sell it for a song and install Margaret in one of those high-priced retirement communities. One way or another, she knew she had to make a decision about Casa Rio.

The light turned green, and Andrea drove past the offices of Heller, Ivan, and Cain, the most highly respected law practice in Vero. The esteemed firm occupied a stately, three-story edifice set upon a prime corner location. She cast an admiring glance at the attractive structure, and a sense of pride washed over her. This was where Prestige Realty entrusted its escrow accounts, such a solid and trustworthy institution.

* * *

Andrea had gotten it all wrong. Behind that grand exterior—one which spoke of strength and permanence—a maelstrom was brewing. Never mind that the reception area and inner halls, with their elaborate moldings and elegantly wainscoted walls, exuded grace and refined elegance. Forget the fact that the interior atmosphere was typically hushed and solemn so that, upon crossing the threshold, one almost felt as though they’d entered a place of worship. Because, in a way, they had. Here, billable hours were venerated. Lawyers and their clerks went about their daily activities placidly. Perhaps Valium was dispensed through the water fountains. Who knew? But today was different. Today, all hell had broken loose in the corner office of senior partner, Floyd Heller, Esquire.

The charmed life Floyd had led was kaput. But Floyd wasn’t Carla’s only worry. It was her predicament that weighed heavily on her mind, her culpability in his madness.

“Jeez, what did I tell you?” Floyd bellowed, pounding a meaty fist on his walnut desktop. “Move the Griswold money over into the O’Keefe account.”

“I did that, Floyd,” Carla swiped the back of a hand across her damp upper lip. “But we’re still short.” The middle-aged brunette finger-combed a lock of hair away from her flushed face. “And there’s not enough in the checking account to make payroll.”

“How much are we short?” Heller bounded from his chair and began pacing.

“Twenty... thirty thousand. I don’t know. Maybe more.”

The stocky attorney stopped beating a path on his Wilton carpet, pinched his nose, and appeared to calculate in his head.

Carla’s heart was pounding in her chest. No job was worth this amount of stress. Early retirement was looking damned good about now.

“Is that all?” Heller planted himself before his assistant, and she cowered before him. “That’s doable,” he said.

“It is?”

Suddenly, the attorney seemed to take notice of Carla's agitated state, her trembling lower lip and wild eyes. “Hey, hey,” he said, waving his hands before him. “Calm down.” 

Floyd let his paws gently come to rest on the troubled woman’s shoulders. “There now,” he soothed. “Come here and take a load off.” Floyd led Carla to a guest chair in front of his desk, indicating that she should sit, and the flustered woman fell into it.

“I’m sorry. I was merely venting,” Heller soothed. “It’s going to be okay. We’ll be fine.”

“Really?” Carla croaked. “We will?” She desperately wanted to believe Floyd’s lies but was no longer capable of maintaining that fantasy. She knew this pyramid scheme she’d helped construct was on the verge of collapse.

“Sure, sure.” Floyd plastered an insincere smile on his face. “Just transfer what you need from my personal checking to cover the difference in the O’Keefe account. Tell bookkeeping to print the employee checks as they always do. Let me know what that comes to, and we’ll transfer that amount into the firm’s checking account. I’m expecting escrows from two of Sally Bray’s clients this week, and then we’ll be flush again. No worries. This is just a little tight spot. It’s not like we haven’t had them before, you know.”

“You’re right, but—”

“No buts about it, Carla. Make the calls. Then take the rest of the afternoon off, why don’t you? Treat yourself to a mini-pedi at Tootsies. Put it on my account.”

“Okay, Floyd,” Carla said. But she knew Floyd had finally gotten them in too deep.

It had all started innocuously enough, the little discrepancies, the deceptions and the cover-ups. “Just have to tide things over,” Floyd had said the first time they’d come up short. And she’d agreed. Surely, every company deals with such things from time to time, she’d told herself when she’d first learned that Floyd was robbing Peter to pay Paul, borrowing from escrow funds to pay his household expenses.

Floyd was a good man, a family man, and a solid citizen. He contributed generously to a host of charitable organizations, attended Sunday services at the Community Church, and had no vices that she knew of except, perhaps, for a fondness for a tumbler of Maker’s Mark at the end of a long hard day. And who would begrudge him that? Carla had stood by her man, Floyd being the only one she had. She’d been loyal, true blue—in good times and in bad. But now she was ready to cut and run. There was only so much standing by a girl could muster. At some point, when the earth was sliding out from under one’s feet, they had to jump off in hopes of landing smack dab into a new reality. Carla was praying for that second chance.

"A Little Vice in Paradise" by Gretchen Rose



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Women's Fiction
Romantic Suspense

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