Jenn McKinlay

New York Times Bestselling Author

BARKING UP THE WRONG TREE

Chapter One

“I bet it’s a stash of yarn or maybe a collection of troll dolls and bingo daubers,” Carly Decusati said.
“Really? Your elderly neighbor leaves you something in her will and that’s what you think it might be?” Jillian Braedon, Carly’s best friend for life, asked her.
More accurately, Jillian asked Carly’s curvy backside as Carly was half wedged in the narrow closet in her bedroom with her trusty handheld vacuum, attempting to suck up the dust bunnies that had set up a warren in there.
“No, not really. I have no idea what she might have left me,” Carly said. “I mean Mrs. Genaro was my neighbor and I looked in on her and watched some television with her, but I didn’t really know her, you know? Honestly, I can’t believe she left me anything at all.”
“Maybe it’s diamonds, a priceless piece of art, or…”
“Her tea cozy collection,” Mackenzie Harris interrupted Jillian.
She was standing beside Jillie as they folded the mountain of clothes on Carly’s bed in an effort to fit them into the stack of empty moving boxes they had gathered.
“She didn’t—“ Emma Jameson protested but Carly interrupted.
“Collect tea cozies? Not that I’m aware of, but I think that’s a safer bet than diamonds or art.”
“Bummer,” Jillian said.
“Agreed,” Carly said. She wiggled backwards, just enough to poke her head out from around the doorjamb and turned to face her three childhood friends. She gave them a rueful glance and added, “That did not stop me, however, from spending a significant amount of time praying to the big guy that it would be enough cash to pay my rent so I can halt my move back to Bluff Point.”
“Is coming home to Maine really that bad?” Jillian asked. “You’ve been in Brooklyn for a long time, maybe now you’ll be happier at home like Mac.”
“Mac’s happy because she found a hot young veterinarian to warm up those frigid Maine winters,” Carly said.
Mackenzie turned a bright shade of red. Her summer romance with Gavin Tolliver had been the stuff of legends or at least really good chick flicks.
“Please, he’s still my baby brother,” Emma said with a frown. “Can we not use the word “hot” when describing him?”
“Sorry,” Carly said.
“But he is,” Mac said, giving Emma the side eye. “Totally hot.”
Emma rolled her eyes but she was grinning. As the only happily married one of their group, she had the matchmaker bug going big time.
“See? You have us there, your Maine crew,” Jillian said. “Coming home won’t be so bad.”
Carly looked at Jillian in confusion. “I’m sorry. You’ve met my family, right?”
“Yes, but—“
“No buts, I love them dearly, but they suck the soul right out of me,” Carly said. “You try being the fourth sister in brat pack of five. It’d make the sanest person cray cray.”
“I’m an only child, so I can’t really wrap my head around that. But you need to look at the bigger picture,” Jillian argued. “You’ve lost your job, you can’t pay your rent and all of your best friends are in Bluff Point, Maine. Clearly the universe is telling you it’s time to come home. Besides, don’t you want to spend more time with us?”
Jillian tipped her head to the side in a look meant to charm and disarm. Emma and Mac stepped up beside her and mimicked her pose. They were like a trifecta of pretty, exotic and lovely. Carly sighed. There was no way she could tell her friends the truth, that while she loved each one of them dearly, when she was with them she felt as if she should be carrying a bucket and mop.
The progeny of a black mom and a white dad, Jillian was tall and lithe with brown skin that glowed, big dark eyes, full lips, and a head of envious dark curls. If she wasn’t Carly’s best friend since childhood, Carly would have avoided Jillian like the plague of good looking that she was. Truly, no woman should ever have to stand next to a woman as exotically beautiful as Jillian.
Then there was Emma. Petite, blonde, blue-eyed, she looked like someone who was enchanted to life from an an old Disney animated film. If that wasn’t bad enough, she had a huge heart and a contagious laugh and made sure she milked every bit of awesome out of every single day. In other words, she was impossible not to love.
“If I can go home, so can you,” Mac said.
Carly frowned. Mackenzie was actually the worst of the three. Medium in height and build with thick, wavy brown hair that hung just past her shoulders and an ability to do mental math that left Carly dazzled, Mac was the sort of hot girl who had no idea she was hot, which was the absolute worst kind because Carly couldn’t even be mad at her for being hot since Mac didn’t know it herself.
Mac had a smile that lit up rooms and stopped men’s hearts. At least, it had pretty much stopped Gavin Tolliver’s heart. The man had been in love with her since he was ten years old and Mac had never caught on until just recently, yeah, because she was thick like that.
Being unfashionably short and voluptuous, with a hot temper that frequently beat out her common sense, Carly had always felt like the ugly stepsister when she was with her friends. She had never told any of them, of course, but going home and being with all of them again, yeah, it wasn’t really rocking her self-esteem.
A belch sounded and they all looked at each other. No one asked to be excused so it was pretty clear it wasn’t one of them which left…
“Tulip!” Mac cried her dog’s name. “Tulip, what have you gotten into?”
The retching noise started shortly after that.
“Oh, no! That’s her about to horp noise,” Mac said. She dashed from the bedroom out to the living room. “Tulip!”
“I’ll help!” Emma cried. She glanced at Carly, noting the alarmed expression on her face. “We’ll take her for a walk until it passes. We got this.”
Carly glanced at Jillian, who was obviously trying not to laugh.
“Can’t wait to see them with babies,” Carly said.
Jillian lost the battle and cracked up. When she was composed again, she looked at Carly and said, “And there’s that. You don’t want to miss any of the big life events, do you? It’ll be great being together again, I promise.”
“Hanging out with you will be a bright spot,” Carly said. “But the newly married Emma and the newly shacked up Mac are not going to be nearly as entertaining. Why is everyone suddenly hooking up? Don’t they know that these are the best years of our lives?”
“We’re thirty-two,” Jillian said. “I think it’s the natural order that we start pairing off and settling down.”
Carly fell backwards out of the closet. “Are you trying to tell me something? Oh, no, are you and Sam Kennedy a thing now?”
“What? No!” Jillian protested. “He was just my partner for Emma’s wedding. “We’ve become friends, good friends, that’s it.”
Carly narrowed one eye at her as if trying to determine whether Jillian was telling her the truth.
“I swear.” Jillian raised her right hand, forgetting that she was holding a pair of Carly’s pink underpants in her hand.
“Does holding a thong make it more binding?” Carly asked with a laugh. Jillian dropped the panties and frowned at her. “All right, but if I find out there’s been any hanky panky and you didn’t tell me…”
The buzzer on Carly’s intercom interrupted her. She glanced at the clock.
“Oh, that’ll be Mrs. G’s lawyer,” she said. “He’s disgustingly punctual.”
Jillian helped her to her feet. Carly stripped off her cleaning gloves and adjusted the red bandana she had used to tie up her long dark curls. With her Capri pants and plaid flannel shirt tied at the waist, she felt very much like a nineteen-fifties haus frau.
“Come on, I’d better let the little badger in before he starts buzzing every door in the building,” she said.
“You might try being polite to him, maybe he’s going to be your savior,” Jillian said.
“No way, he’s a lawyer, which in my experience means that this is going to cost me, probably in a pound of flesh,” she said. She paused and glanced at her reflection in the full length mirror, critically studying the generous tits and ass she’d inherited from Nana Decusati. “Then again, that might not be a bad thing.”
“Quit it,” Jillian said. She pushed Carly toward the front of the apartment. “You know you make men drool like fools with the power of the girls. Those boobies are like your superpower, able to knock grown men to their knees with a single glance of cleavage.”
“And that, my dear, is why you are my best friend,” Carly said.
She stood by her front door and hit the answer button on her intercom.
“Who is it?” she sang.
“Bartholomew Schuster.” The voice sounded high with a little nasal whine to it that reminded Carly of a mosquito.
“Come on up, Barry,” she answered. “Door is open.”
She buzzed him in and then unlocked the door to her apartment, leaving it ajar before she joined Jillian where she sat on a stool by the kitchen counter. They heard his footsteps on the stairs to her second floor apartment moments before he arrived. He was not a delicate stepper, Carly noted.
“It’s Bartholomew, Ms. Decusati,” he corrected her as he stepped inside the apartment. “Or you can call me Mr. Schuster if you prefer. Oh, hello.”
Barry froze in his tracks at the sight of Jillian. Carly glanced at her friend who was smiling at Barry as if she had just happened upon a cute little garden gnome. Barry was only an inch or two taller than Carly, making him pretty short for a guy. It was a good thing Jillian was sitting down or he’d have to crane his neck to see her. As it was, he looked simply besotted with her.
Carly tried not to dwell on the fact that she had met Barry once before and this had not been his reaction to seeing her for the first time. Then again, as she took in the short, paunchy, prematurely gray man in front of her, she did not consider this a loss.
“Barry, this is my friend Jillian Braedon and before you ask, no, she will not go out with you,” Carly said.
Jillian shot her a dark look and Barry blustered, looking indignant, which was how Carly knew that was exactly what he’d been thinking.
“I was not…I had no…” he said but Carly interrupted.
“Yeah, yeah, I have a lot of work to do to get my security deposit back on this place,” she said. “So, let’s make with the paperwork, already, unless of course you’re telling me that Mrs. Genaro left me a sizeable chunk of money which will allow me to keep my crib.”
Barry cocked his head to the side as if he wasn’t sure what she was talking about.
“You have a baby?” he asked.
Carly resisted the urge to smack her forehead with her palm. Barely.
“Let’s just get on with it, dude,” she said.
She figured he would consider “dude” even more appalling than “Barry”. She was right. Instead of correcting her, however, he simply sighed as if he were being forced to do community service helping the rude and sarcastic.
He opened his briefcase and pulled out a stack of papers. “It’s fairly straightforward. You sign these documents and the items she has bequeathed you become yours.”
“What are the documents for?” Jillian asked.
This earned her a beaming smile from Barry as if she was his favorite student in Estate Settlements 101.
“It’s mostly a formality,” he said. “The papers will signify that Ms. Decusati…”
“Ms. Decusati is my bossy older sister, call me Carly, or even better you can call me Sugar Pants,” Carly said. She wiggled her eyebrows at him.
Barry’s face flushed a shade of red found only on small, bitter root vegetables. Jillian pressed her lips together to keep from laughing. Carly punched Barry lightly on the arm.
“I’m just funning you, Barry,” she said.
He closed his eyes as if he might be able to click the heels of his high gloss Gucci loafers together and escape her. Yeah, that wasn’t going to happen.
“The papers are a written record of the transaction,” he said. He opened his eyes. “They will signify that you have agreed to accept the object Mrs. Genaro has bequeathed to you and that your association with our office is done.”
Carly wasn’t sure but she thought he looked a little more chipper at this news.
“Cool, where do I sign?” she said.
Barry put the papers on the counter in front of her. All of the lines requiring her signature had handy little fluorescent stickers with arrows pointing to the corresponding blank space. He pulled a pen out of his Armani jacket and handed it to her.
“Eager to be off the clock, eh?” Carly asked.
He ignored her.
“Don’t you want to read through those first?” Jillian asked. “There might be pertinent information in there.”
“Nah.” Carly waved her hand as she started signing. “I don’t have time, besides Mrs. Genaro was a sweet little old lady. We watched Dancing with the Stars together when she was feeling lonely, she had the hots for Bruno Tonioli. I’m sure whatever it is, it’s more a token of affection than a big cash payout.”
Carly looked at Barry. His face was a mask of benevolent innocence. That’s why she hated lawyers. You could never tell when they were hiding something.
“She wasn’t rich was she?” she asked. “You’re not holding out on me, are you, Barry?”
“Uh, no,” he said. “Her assets were minimal.”
Carly glanced back at Jillian. “See? Told you so.”
She signed the last spot and then handed Barry his pen.
“So hit me, what’d she give me?”
“One moment,” he said. He walked over to the door and stuck his head out into the hallway. “In here, please.”
Jillian and Carly exchanged an intrigued glance.
“Maybe it’s a piano,” Carly said. “I’ve always wanted a piano.”
“What if it’s a leg lamp?”
“From Fragile, Italy?” Carly asked. Then she started laughing. “Yeah, that’d be my luck.”
Two burly moving men, wearing brown coveralls, came into the apartment. One was carrying a large glass bowl filled with water and a very round goldfish, aptly named Goldie by Mrs. Genaro. The other one was carrying a large rectangular case with a fierce looking lizard in it. Spike, Mrs. G’s lizard. Carly felt herself start to sweat. What exactly had she signed?
The men set the pets down on the table and left the apartment. They didn’t shut the door, leaving Carly to believe there was more.
“Oh, no,” Carly said. She looked at Barry as the panic began to fill her insides like water on the rise. “She didn’t.”
“She did.” Barry looked smug.
“What?” Jillian asked. “What’s going on?”
Just then the men returned. One had a pretty golden retriever on a leash, the other carried a large rectangular object, draped with a cloth. The dog, Mrs. Genaro’s companion Saul, tipped his head to the side as if considering Carly. She ignored him, hoping with all of her might that there was a huge misunderstanding happening here.
The man set the big object down in the middle of the room and stepped back. Carly grabbed a side of the sheet draped over it and gave it a good yank. Sure enough, there he was in all of his green feathered glory Mrs. G’s beloved parrot.
“Hello, Ike,” Carly said. “Long time no see.”
“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” Ike squawked