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When Savannah’s real estate company, Lamont, Briggs, and Associates, finds itself embroiled in a closing scam, broker Timothy Briggs asks Savannah’s help in figuring out what happened and who’s behind it.
The task is a welcome distraction for Savannah, whose private life is rocky. Carmen Arroyo is in prison in Nashville, nine months pregnant, and no one knows whether the baby is Rafe’s or not. And while Rafe doesn’t seem too worried about it, Savannah can’t say the same.
Meanwhile, down in Sweetwater, Savannah’s mother Margaret Anne is hitting the brandy while trying to come to terms with her late husband’s love child and her best friend’s thirty-four year silence on the subject.
Between one thing and another, it’s all Savannah can do to keep everything moving along smoothly. The very last thing she needs is someone rocking the boat…
“Thank God you’re here!” Tim said.
I had just walked through the door of LB&A—Lamont, Briggs, and Associates, real estate company to the stars—and into my office, a converted coat closet off the lobby. Just enough time to hang my purse on the hook by the door and pull out the office chair, but not time enough to sit in it—and for Brittany, the receptionist, to beep the boss to let him know I had arrived.
“I’m sorry,” I said, since he was clearly distraught. I wasn’t really sorry, though, since I hadn’t done anything I needed to be sorry for. It’s not like I had an obligation to show up at nine sharp every morning. I was self-employed, not working for Tim. “What’s wrong?”
“Come into my office.”
He grabbed my arm and pulled me after him: out of the coat closet, through the lobby, down the hallway to the back of the building, and into his own office, which is the biggest and best in the firm, and approximately ten times the size of mine. Tim has enough room for several filing cabinets, a fancy U-shaped desk, and a fancier leather chair he inherited from our previous broker, Walker Lamont.
He closed the door behind us and pushed me toward one of the large visitors’ chairs. “Sit.”
I arched my brows, but sat. I’m going on seven months pregnant, so it’s always nice to get off my feet.
Tim, meanwhile, walked around the desk and got comfortable in Walker’s leather chair. “I wasn’t sure you’d come in today,” he told me.
Honestly, it had been touch and go. I had spent the best part of the last week in my hometown of Sweetwater, an hour and a little more south of Nashville. First for my mother’s birthday last week, and then because my husband, TBI agent Rafe Collier, had been involved in a gang war and had wanted me tucked away somewhere safe until it was over. But that issue had resolved itself yesterday afternoon, and since I’d had some things I needed to talk to Rafe about, I’d come home to Nashville.
“I’m sorry I missed the meeting,” I told Tim, in reference to the weekly sales meeting that takes place every Monday morning. “I would have been here, but I was still in Sweetwater yesterday morning. Family stuff.”
The last time Tim had asked for a one-on-one, it had ended with him firing me. He had taken me back a week or two later, after finding out that the person who wanted me fired had had ulterior motives for wanting me out of the way, but I admit I was a little leery of what might be going on. As a result, I was perhaps explaining a bit more than I should have been. My family stuff was none of Tim’s business.
“Is everything all right?” Tim asked.
He sounded concerned. It was a masterful performance. Once upon a time, Tim had gone to New York to try to make it as an actor on Broadway—and failed. At the moment, it was hard to see why. I knew he wasn’t concerned about me at all, but he sure sounded like he was.
And then the truth came out. “It isn’t Rafael, is it?”
Tim has a crush on Rafe. It doesn’t matter that Rafe is a hundred percent heterosexual and married, and that even if he weren’t, he wouldn’t swing Tim’s way.
But since I’m also crazy about Rafe and understand the sentiment, I refrained from rolling my eyes. “Not at all. Rafe’s fine.”
“Yes, he is,” Tim said, and smacked his lips.
This time I did roll my eyes. At myself. I fall for that one every single time. “What do you want, Tim?”
“Other than your husband?” Tim said. I opened my mouth, and he added, quickly, “A favor.”
“What kind of favor?” And if it had anything to do with Rafe, he could forget it.
He glanced at the door before leaning forward and lowering his voice. “This doesn’t leave this room.”
I leaned forward, too. I had to, or I wouldn’t be able to hear him. “What doesn’t?”
“What I’m about to tell you,” Tim said.
I sat back. “I’m not sure I can promise that. I mean, I have to leave the room. This is your office. I can’t stay here indefinitely. And when I go, whatever you tell me will go with me.”
“You can’t talk to anyone about it,” Tim said.
“Nobody? Not even Rafe?” Because I don’t like to keep secrets from Rafe. We’ve only been married a few months, and besides, nothing good ever comes from not telling him things.
Tim considered, baby blues pensive. “I guess you could tell him,” he conceded eventually. “He might be helpful.”
That sounded interesting. And maybe a little ominous, since my husband has spent the past ten years undercover, rooting out organized criminals of various sorts. Now he was supposed to be training the new TBI recruits and staying out of trouble, but it rarely worked out that way.
“Helpful with what?”
“We have a problem,” Tim said.
“We?” Because I knew I had problems, but Tim wasn’t part of any of them.
Uh-oh. “What’s happened? Is it Walker?”
A year ago, our former broker and founder of the company, Walker Lamont, went to prison for murder. Several counts of murder. Then, about six months later, he escaped and came after me, since it was my fault he was caught in the first place. He was supposed to be back in prison now, under much stricter guard, but under the circumstances, I might have reason to worry.
“He didn’t kill anyone else,” I added, “did he? Who’s dead?”
“No one’s dead,” Tim said. And added, “yet. But when I find out who did this…”
He leaned forward again. “This is between us.”
“And Rafe,” I said.
Tim nodded. “It’s about Magnolia Houston.”
Oh, God. Magnolia—whom I suspected was born Margaret, or maybe even Margery—was one of Tim’s clients. And when I called LB&A the real estate company to the stars, it was Magnolia I was thinking of.
Not that she’s that big a deal. Or only in her own mind, I guess. She’s a minor star. A very minor star. Maybe even a dwarf star. And I’m not referring to her stature.
She’s a singer. Country music. This is Nashville, and we get a lot of that around here.
What Magnolia is, is a YouTube sensation. First she did one of those TV talent shows, which she didn’t win, but she parlayed her fifteen minutes of fame into a career making and uploading YouTube videos. Those videos are popular enough to earn her a very healthy seven-figure income every year. Magnolia sings, she dances, she talks, and she comes quite close to taking her clothes off. Men love it. Women maybe not so much. She looks like a Barbie doll, with big boobs, a tiny waist, masses of bleached hair, and vacant, blue eyes. She can’t be much over twenty-five, either, which only makes it worse.
Sometime in the early summer, she had retained Tim to find her a mansion, something befitting her stature, or what she thought she deserved.
Now, mansions don’t come along every day, and Magnolia, for all her other failings, didn’t want a modern mansion, a subdivision McMansion. She wanted the real deal: a true antebellum like the one I grew up in, in Sweetwater.
The Martin Mansion isn’t for sale, but after a few months of digging, Tim came up with an alternative. He found an old lady rattling around in a decrepit antebellum farmhouse north of town, just off what used to be Buffalo Trail and is now Dickerson Pike. It had been in the family for generations, but Miss Harper was the last member standing, and the place was falling down around her ears. She had no one to help her fix it up, and no money to spend on it. But even so, she was a hard sell. All about how the place had been in her family since before the War Against Northern Aggression, and where would she go now? Tim had to sweet-talk and cajole for quite a while before she agreed to move, and Magnolia had to come up to the top of her budget for the run-down property. But the place had so much potential, and so much history she could wallow in, that it must have been worth it to her. She went under contract sometime in June, and seemed happy as a clam, even as she made plans to turn the mansion into some horrible hybrid of old and new.
Closing was supposed to have taken place last Friday, as I recalled. I had been out of town then, as well as through the weekend. Something must have gone wrong, and I only now heard of it.
“What happened? Did the place burn down? Did Miss Harper die, so the place is caught up in probate?”
“Nothing that simple,” Tim said gloomily.
Probate is nothing but simple. However— “Why didn’t you close?”
“Who said we didn’t close?” He shook his head, bright blond curls bouncing. “We closed, all right. Because it was a Friday, and because it was a lot of money, funding didn’t happen.”
I nodded. That’s not unusual. With the new settlement regulations, things take a little longer than they used to. And it’s not like one can just hand over a check anymore. One bank has to wire the funds to the closing company’s account, and then the closing company’s bank has to wire the money from there to the seller’s account. It can take time. But— “Surely that wasn’t a big deal. It wasn’t like Magnolia planned to move in over the weekend.”
She couldn’t, of course, since—if funding hadn’t taken place—the house hadn’t actually become hers. The funds have to be received by the seller before the deal is done. But I doubted she had planned to camp out there anyway.
Tim shuddered. “Of course not. She has months of repairs and renovations ahead.”
“And I can’t imagine Miss Harper minded two more days in the ancestral home.”
“She’s already out,” Tim said. “And into a facility somewhere.”
Well, good. As long as it was a nice place, she’d probably be better off there. It can be hard for these older people to take care of themselves at home when they’re all alone. And in a facility—as long as it was a nice one—she’d have medical professionals on hand if she needed them. She’d also be able to make friends and do things she wasn’t able to do now.
“You found her a good place, didn’t you?” When I first met Rafe’s grandmother, Mrs. Jenkins, last August, she had been cheated out of her home by another unscrupulous realtor—not Tim—and dumped in the Milton House retirement home. It was a horrible place, and as soon as Rafe could prove that he was her grandson, he moved her back into the house. And then, when he had to go out of town, and the live-in nurse he hired was murdered, and it became clear that Mrs. Jenkins wasn’t safe by herself, he moved her into a different home. This is a nice one, and they know how to deal with her increasing dementia, so we’ve left her there. She’s happy. She has company and people taking care of her needs, and she’s safe. In the old neighborhood, she’d wander off and get lost, and half the time she doesn’t know who we are, anyway.
“Of course,” Tim said, sounding insulted. “With the money she’s making from this deal, she’ll be set for life.”
Good. “So what’s the problem?”
Tim sighed. “Like I said, funding didn’t take place on Friday. Nothing unusual there.”
I shook my head.
“I didn’t give it any thought over the weekend. Took a trip to Atlanta, and didn’t worry about it.”
“I went to work on Monday, and everything was normal. Magnolia started work on the house, since she’d paid her money on Friday and we assumed funding had taken place.”
“On Monday around three o’clock, I got a phone call from Mr. Peretti.”
“Who’s Mr. Peretti?”
“Miss Harper’s closing attorney,” Tim said.
“She didn’t use DeWitts?”
DeWitt Title and Escrow is Tim’s favored closing company. They’re located right around the corner, and he recommends them for all his transactions. Most of his clients end up using them. Unless they have someone else they prefer to use, which must have been the case for Miss Harper.
“She wanted to use an old friend in Goodlettsville,” Tim said. “The same guy who made her will and looked over the sales docs for her. They go back a century or more.”
Surely not that much, but she had obviously trusted this guy. “What did he want? When he called?”
“To ask why he hadn’t gotten the wire transfer,” Tim said, “and to tell me that he’d been over to the house and had seen Magnolia’s crew working. He said they had to cease and desist until Miss Harper had her money.”
“But surely the transaction should have funded by three on Monday, if closing was Friday?”
A small delay was to be expected, but not something like that.
“You’d think,” Tim said. “So I contacted DeWitts to see if they’d wired the money.”
“They wired it Friday afternoon.”
The seller’s attorney should have had the money first thing Monday morning, then. Certainly by Monday afternoon, when he had contacted Tim. “Did you double check the wiring instructions? Make sure you’d written them down right?”
“He communicated directly with DeWitts,” Tim said, “but I made him give me the numbers anyway, and then I called DeWitts back to double check.”
Tim’s voice got tight. “They said I had emailed them a week ago to change the wiring instructions.”
“Of course I didn’t!” If it wasn’t quite a shriek, his voice got rather shrill.
I made sure mine was soothing. “But that’s what they said? That you’d contacted them to change the wiring instructions?”
“And you didn’t?”
“Of course I didn’t!”
I took a breath. And then one more. I had a feeling I knew where this was going, and it wasn’t anywhere good. “Where did they send the money?”
Tim shrugged. His usually smooth and elegant movements were sharp, jerky. “No one knows.”
“It’s too late to stop it?”
“Much,” Tim said bitterly. “That money was in Switzerland by midnight on Friday.”
“They sent it to Switzerland?”
“Probably not,” Tim admitted. “But they might as well have. We’ll never get it back.”
I swallowed. The words threatened to stick in my throat. “How much?”
Tim closed his eyes, like he couldn’t bear to look the facts in the face. “Half a million dollars.”
“In cash?” Who buys a five hundred thousand dollar house with cash?
“It’s Magnolia Houston!” Tim said indignantly. “Of course in cash!”
Of course. No mortgage loan for Magnolia. So it had been half a million in cash winging its way across the airwaves from one closing attorney to the other—and being intercepted midway and rerouted to Switzerland.
Or somewhere else. Someone else.
“Can you trace the account and get the money back?” Maybe whoever received it would be nice enough to return it. Or maybe it could just be quietly withdrawn from the account where it had ended up. The owner of the account might not even realize it was there.
“You’re missing the point,” Tim said. “This wasn’t an accident. Half a million dollars didn’t suddenly take a wrong turn somewhere and get lost. Someone sent DeWitts an email telling them to send the money somewhere else. And DeWitts did it, because they thought it was from me.”
“And now DeWitts are out five hundred thousand dollars.”
Tim nodded. “That they’re trying to pass off onto me, because of the email.”
Oops. “Do you have five hundred thousand dollars?”
“No,” Tim said. “And even if I did, I wouldn’t spend it on this. This isn’t my fault.”
“Whose fault is it?”
“DeWitts!” Tim said. “They should have checked with me before they changed the wiring instructions. Or checked with the seller’s attorney.”
“Why didn’t they?”
He shrugged again, helplessly this time. “I guess, since the email was from me, they just did what it said.”
“Because you bring them a lot of business.”
Tim nodded, looking sick.
“What’ll happen now?” I wanted to know.
Tim leaned forward. “That’s what I wanted to talk to you about.”
I had a feeling I knew where this was going, too. “What do you want me to do?”
“Figure out what happened,” Tim said.
“How do you expect me to do that?”
“I don’t know. Do… detective things.”
“I’m not a detective.” But that brought up a good question. “Have you called the police?”
“Of course not,” Tim said.
“Why not? Someone’s stolen five hundred thousand dollars. Why wouldn’t you report it?”
“Because the email came from here,” Tim said. “From inside LB&A. I can’t prove that I didn’t send it. I know I didn’t, but I can’t prove it. I can’t prove that anyone else didn’t send it, either. Someone did. Someone we work with.”
That was an uncomfortable thought. That someone we worked with, someone we saw every day, was capable of stealing five hundred thousand dollars. Of taking Magnolia Houston’s money and ripping off poor, old Miss Harper, who was now stuck in an assisted living facility somewhere with no money to pay for it.
And not only that, but was willing to implicate us—Tim and the company—in the scam.
“Who do you suspect?” I asked Tim.
He shook his head.
“Well, how do you know I didn’t do it?” Since he was asking me for help, I had to assume I was off the suspect list.
“You married a TBI agent,” Tim said, checking reasons off on his fingers. “Your best friend is a cop.”
My best friend was actually a housewife and mother in North Carolina, married to a plastic surgeon with a couple of kids in tow. But she was my best friend from high school. High school was a long time ago. So for all intents and purposes, maybe Detective Tamara Grimaldi was my current best friend. She’d been my maid of honor at the wedding, not Charlotte.
Funny, I hadn’t really thought of it that way before.
“And you come from a family of lawyers,” Tim added. “Your brother’s a lawyer. Your sister’s a lawyer. Your brother-in-law is a lawyer. Your father was a lawyer. Your grandfather…”
“I get it. And you’re right. I didn’t do it. I wouldn’t do it.” And not just because I’m married to a TBI agent, and my best friend is a cop, and I come from a family of lawyers. Stealing is wrong. Taking advantage of people is wrong. I was brought up to be better than that.
“So you’ll help me figure out who did?”
I guess I would. I didn’t honestly care a whole lot about Magnolia Houston’s half a million dollars—all she had to do was film herself in some risqué position and upload the video to YouTube and watch the dollars roll in to recoup it—but my heart went out to Miss Harper. After spending her life in the family home, taking care of it to the best of her ability, and then having Tim come along and convince her to sell it… well, the last thing she needed, was this kind of mess.
“Isn’t DeWitts insured against something like this?”
“I’m sure they are,” Tim said. “But they should have double-checked the email before paying out the money. Since they didn’t, the insurance company may refuse to pay. They pay for losses when it’s nobody’s fault, but this was gross negligence on DeWitts’ part. And that’s probably why they’re trying to pass it off onto me. Because the insurance won’t cover it and they don’t want to have to pay out-of-pocket.”
I nodded. “And if the insurance won’t pay, and DeWitts won’t pay, and you won’t pay—”
“I shouldn’t have to pay!”
“—and I’m sure Magnolia Houston won’t want to pay again—”
Tim shook his head.
“—then Miss Harper is the one who’s out of luck here.”
Tim nodded, trying not to look relieved. “So you’ll do it?”
“I have no idea what to do,” I told him. “I’m not an investigator. I don’t know where to start, or how to go on from there. But I’ll see what I can dig up. We can’t let that poor old lady lose her house and her money because some sleezebag thought he’d rip her off.”
Tim shook his head, looking pious.
I leaned forward. “So tell me who you suspect.”