We are preparing for the holidays at Casa Andrews and we will be a bit scarce over the holidays. Here is a small snippet of RUBY FEVER.
“Is it haunted?”
Oh, for the love of… “No, Arabella.”
My sister squinted at the monstrosity of a house growing closer as the SUV sped up the gently climbing driveway. “It looks haunted.”
“It’s not,” Bern said.
“How do you know it’s not haunted?” Leon asked from the back.
Because ghosts didn’t exist. “Because Trudy is a nice person, I like her, and she wouldn’t sell us a haunted house.”
“Yes,” Arabella said, “But did you ask if it was?”
“I did, and Trudy said no.” Our poor, long-suffering realtor had answered more bizarre questions in the last couple of months than she had probably done during her whole career.
My little sister whipped out her phone and bent her blonde head over it.
“I heard realtors have to disclose if the house is haunted,” Leon said.
I looked at Mom in the driver seat. She gave me an amused smile. No help there.
“Apparently only four states require you to disclose paranormal activity,” Arabella reported. “Nine states require you to notify the buyer if a death occurred on the premises. And Texas does neither.”
“There were no deaths on the premises. Nobody died in the house, so it can’t possibly be haunted.”
“How do you know nobody died?” Leon asked.
“Because I checked the records,” Bern rumbled.
Clearly, there were two teams in this vehicle: Team Facts and Team Facts Be Damned.
“What if they hid it?” Leon asked.
Bern gave his younger brother a look. When it came to uncovering facts, Bern had no equal. If there was a record of something and that record was at any point entered into a computer connected to the internet, he would find it.
“What’s that building?” Mom asked.
She slowed as we passed a large stone and timber pavilion on our right.
“That’s a wedding pavilion. The beam work inside is really pretty. I thought that if we insulated it properly, we could use it as our office building.”
Leon frowned. “You mean like a separate office building? One where we could conduct business and then leave and not be at work? People have such things?”
“Leon,” Mom said. “She spent the last two weeks trying to get this place inspected. She barely slept and barely ate. As I recall, none of you helped except for Bern. How about you holster that razor-sharp wit and try to be less you for the next hour?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Leon set up straight and appeared to look serious. It wouldn’t last, but it was a good try. My younger cousin was twenty years old and he showed zero interest in changing his ways. And that was fine with me. I liked Leon just the way he was.
“It’s big,” Arabella offered, looking at the walls. “Looks a bit like a Spanish fort with all the towers.”
“That’s a hell of wall,” Mom said.
The ten-foot-high stone wall was positively medieval in its thickness. It ensured that all you could see were the top floor on the main house and some red roofs, so on the drive up, the 21,000 square foot “mansion” appeared neat and orderly. But as soon as you drove through its massive gates into the 16 acres that made up its inner grounds, you realized that it was all a giant scam.
The driveway brough us to the arched entrance that cut through the wall. The huge gates stood open, and Mom guided the armored Chevy Tahoe through them and into the front parking lot on the right side. Alessandro’s silver Alfa Romeo already waited in one of the parking spots.
Arabella and Leon got out.
Bern leaned forward and rumbled, “I like this house.” He paused to make sure his point sank in and followed the others out.
I knew exactly why my oldest cousin liked it. The reasons were many but could be summed up by a single word: privacy.
Mom squinted at the two-story rectangular building in front of us. “What’s that?”
“’Cuartel,’” I said. “According to the listing documents.”
She raised her eyebrows. “Barracks?”
“Yes. The lower level has a kitchen, a mess hall, and an armory. The upper level has room for ten beds and a bathroom with four toilet stalls and three showers.”
Normally interpreting Mom’s hmmms wasn’t a problem, but right now I had no idea what she was thinking.
We got out of the car. My cousins and Arabella had walked across the parking lot back to the main driveway. Mom and I joined them. The gate was directly behind us. The parking lot and the barracks were to the right, and the driveway stretched deeper into the estate, rolling between rows of old oaks to a paved forecourt and the two-story Mediterranean-inspired mansion beyond.
“Nice driveway,” Leon said.
“Enjoy it while you can. It’s the only straight road in the place.”
We started toward the mansion. The dense wall of hedges framed the oaks on both sides, hiding the rest of the grounds. The tree limbs reached to each other above our heads and walking down the driveway was like heading into a green tunnel.
“How many acres did you say this was?” Mom asked.
“Twenty-three point four,” Bern said ahead of us. “Sixteen are walled in, the rest is deer fenced.”
“I saw a metal gate retracted into the wall when we drove in,” Mom said. “How is it controlled?”
“There is a guard room built into the wall. The gate can be opened from there, from the office in the barracks, and from main house.”
“Question!” Arabella raised her hand. “If we buy this, can I get a golf cart?”
“You can buy the golf cart with your own money,” Mom said.
The driveway ended and we walked onto the forecourt.
“The main house is five thousand square feet,” I said. “The bottom floor is split into two wings. Each wing has a master. Four bedrooms upstairs, all en suite.”
“Four bedrooms?” Arabella asked. “So, Mom and Grandma take the downstairs, and we take the upstairs?”
To say she sounded underwhelmed would be a criminally gross understatement.
“We could do that,” I said, “or we could live in auxiliary buildings.”
Arabella squinted at me. “What auxiliary buildings?”
I turned my back to the mansion and pointed with both hands to the sides.
The family turned around. On both sides of the driveway, separated by the hedges, lay a labyrinth of buildings and greenery. On the left rose a round tower three floors high. On the right, half hidden by landscaping, sat three two-story casitas, each sixteen hundred square feet, joined by a second-floor breezeway. Between them and us, lay gardens, benches, gazebos, and water features. Stone paths, designed by a drunken sailor, meandered through it all, trying to connect the buildings and mostly failing.
Leon spied the tower. His eyes took on a faraway look that usually meant he was thinking of flying ships, winged whales, and space pirates. “Mine.”
“It needs a bit of work.”
“I don’t care.”
Bern started off to the right.
“Where are you going?” Mom called.
She looked at me.
“He really likes the casitas,” I told her. “Runa likes them too.”
My oldest cousin and my best friend were slowly but surely moving towards marriage, and it was harder and harder to ignore Runa slinking to the bathroom across the hall out of Bern’s room in the morning.
I could relate. Both Alessandro and I wanted to stay together and both of us felt awkward about him moving into my room, so we settled for him staying in the side building and me keeping my window open. Him climbing in and out of the window was infinitely preferable to having to run the gauntlet of my family just to get to my door.
“Where am I going to stay?” Arabella asked. “Am I going to stay in one of the casitas?”
“I think they’re spoken for,” Mom said, watching Bern double time it down the path.
“There’s a shack in the back,” I told Arabella.
She marched around the house. Mom and I followed her along a narrow path, flanked by Texas olive trees, esperanza shrubs, still carrying the last of its bright yellow flowers, and sprawling clusters of cast-iron plants with thick green leaves.
“So Bern and Leon get their picks and I get the leftovers,” Arabella called over her shoulder.
“Yep.” I nodded. “You’re the youngest.”
She mumbled something under her breath. Torturing her was delicious.
“What did you say this place was?” Mom asked.
“A failed bed and breakfast. The first owners built the main house, the Tower, and the bigger casita. Then they sold it to a man who decided to make it into an ultra-secure “rustic” hotel for the magic heavyweights. His website called it ‘a country retreat for the Houston elite.’”
“He owned this place for about twelve years and turned into this, and when his business completely dried up, he sank the last of the money into that wedding pavilion we saw outside.”
“In for a penny, in for a pound?” Mom said.
To add insult to injury, the owner or someone he employed thought he was handy and did a lot of the renovations and maintenance himself. According to our building inspector, his handiness was very much in doubt.
His greatest failure wasn’t his eclectic taste or his haphazard home improvements, however. The previous owner simply didn’t understand the psychology of the magical elite. Weddings between Houses, the most powerful dynasties, served to cement their alliances. They didn’t want a neutral ground for their ceremonies. They wanted a public show of trust. And the visiting Primes didn’t trust third party security. They brought their own.
“How much does he want for this place?” Arabella asked.
“Ha! Ha. Ha.”
“That’s out of our budget,” Mom said.
“It’s not if we get a loan from Connor.”
“We can afford to put a third down,” Arabella said, “But this place isn’t worth twenty mil. I mean I don’t even get a house I get a shack…”
We turned the corner and the path opened, the greenery falling behind. A huge stone patio spread in front of us, cradling a large Roman style pool. Past the luxuriously large pool, the patio narrowed into a long stone path that ran down to the four-acre man made pond. Between the pool and the pond, on the right-hand side, stood another three-story tower.
Where Leon’s tower looked like something plucked from a Norman castle, this one could have fit right into the seaside of Palm Beach. Slender, white, with covered balconies on the top two levels and a sun deck on the roof, it had a clear vacation vibe. A narrow breezeway connected its third-floor balcony to the main house. Of all the places on the property, it was the newest and required the least amount of work to be habitable.
“Your shack,” I told her.
Arabella took off across the patio.
Mom and I strolled down toward the pond past the giant pool. The coping and the plaster were in excellent shape, but the water had gone green from neglect. It almost looked like a quiet corner of the Pit. I shivered. I still had the nightmares. Except now when I woke up, Alessandro wrapped his arm around me, and I snuggled into him and went right back to sleep.
“Can we really afford it?” Mom asked.
“Yes. We will put 25% down. It will need a lot of repairs, and our bills will go up. We’ll need to invest in some livestock for the agricultural exemption. The place already has solar panels, so we’ll be saving some money there, but we will need a yard crew and probably a maid service of some sort.”
Mom bristled. “I never needed maids in my life. If you’re old enough to have your own space, you’re old enough to keep it clean.”
“I agree, but the main house is huge, and we have the barracks and the offices. We are all going to be really busy. There will be an army of people to supervise, renovation decisions to be made, and we still have our regular caseload and then there is the warden business…”
Mom hugged my shoulders. “We’ll handle it.”
“Does that mean you like the house?”
Mom sighed. “I haven’t seen the house yet.”
“It’s … interesting.”
“I thought so. We can put it to a vote.”
Arabella burst onto the third-floor balcony. “Do I like it? No. I love it!”
Mom grinned. “Well, you got her vote.
Which team are you on?