Karen Pullen is the author of the Stella Lavender Mystery series as well as numerous award-winning short stories. She also runs a bed & breakfast in Pittsboro, North Carolina. Learn more about her and her books at her website.
Fern’s Old House
My new book, Cold Heart, finds Stella Lavender, State Bureau of Investigation Special Agent, continuing to work nights, buying drugs from paranoid drug dealers. But the physical danger and necessary betrayals are getting to her. When she sees a chance to work homicide, she’ll always take it. One afternoon she gives a hitchhiking teenager a ride to her babysitting job and together they find a gruesome murder scene. Stella joins the investigation, of course. But that’s as much as I’ll reveal, since this post is meant to have a decorating theme. Let’s put the “mystery” story aside and give you a peek into a subplot.
Stella’s grandmother Fern needs help. Fern’s house is falling down.
Small white farmhouses with tin roofs dot the North Carolina countryside wherever remorseless development hasn’t yet razed, paved, and commercialized. Functional, never showy, they’re often dilapidated, with a sagging porch and rusty roof. Such is the house that Stella was raised in by Fern, a free-spirited artist with male admirers wrapped around every one of her paint-stained fingers. Fern did her best. But fine art doesn’t command high prices in central North Carolina, and so Stella grew up in poverty, and she still can’t afford the expensive repairs Fern’s house needs.
Stella knows Fern’s porch steps are soft and the balusters rickety. Indoors, she sees the strategically placed buckets. But it takes a plumber who’s helping with a collapsed sewer line to insist something needs to be done, pronto.
Somehow (read the book!) Fern comes up with the money for repairs. Stella and Fern hire a contractor (a high school crush of Stella’s) who turns the old farmhouse into a beautiful place:
… my car rolled smoothly down Fern’s long lane, now evenly graded and covered with a layer of gravel. Someone had whacked down the brambly blackberry bushes but left the azaleas, blooming profusely in every hue of scarlet, pink, and purple. The lane curved around a stand of black walnut trees. And there was the new porch. Gone were the two-by-four barricades blocking off rotted steps, the buckets to catch leaks. The once-sagging floor was level and painted dark green. The porch rail and balusters gleamed shiny white, and two fans swirled lazily from a sky-blue ceiling, pushing a breeze down onto white rocking chairs. Pots of red geraniums decorated the steps. The scene lacked only a dog and a pitcher of lemonade, and I had brought the dog.
The lemonade was inside on a new red countertop. Fern spun with open arms. “Ta da!” She’d sewn herself a sundress in the same apple green as the kitchen walls. Tied round her waist was a black and white scarf in a checkerboard pattern matching the new vinyl floor. But the most amazing sight was the new stove, an ordinary four-burner gas stove. I felt like kneeling and kissing the little glass rectangle in the oven door, caressing its knobs, fondling each burner.
“I know, I know,” Fern said. “You like the stove.”
“I want to marry that stove.” I gave her a long hug, ignoring the complaints from my aching rib… “Show me the rest,” I said.
I oohed and aahed over the smooth, golden boards of the refinished pine floor in the living room, admired the gas-log fireplace. Fern pointed out the floor vents that would carry cool air into the room come July. “Of all the changes, that’s my favorite,” she said. “No more noisy window units!”
The second-floor bedroom used to be mine. I’d spent my childhood there, dreaming, dozing, peeling away layers of floral wallpaper. At fourteen, in a decorating frenzy, I’d painted over the entire mess in bubblegum pink, found a remnant of black carpet for the floor, and tacked an Indian bedspread to the ceiling to hide water stains. Pink, black, and batik.
Now, I couldn’t believe it was the same room. The walls were smooth and pale blue, with creamy white paint on the trim and beaded-board ceiling. Sunshine poured through newly glazed windows. Above the bed hung Fern’s painting of my old toys.
... Money can buy happiness. The improvements had entirely changed my perspective on Fern’s living out here by herself. No longer would I worry about Old Ironsides blowing up, or an AC window unit frying the knob-and-tube wiring, or food poisoning from egg salad stored in the old refrigerator that shuddered at the end of each cooling cycle. Fern wouldn’t step through a rotten porch floorboard and snap her ankle. She would be warm in the winter and cool in the summer. For a few moments I forgot about my case and savored a rare peace of mind, purchased for only twenty-eight thousand dollars.
|Rosemary House Bed & Breakfast|
I love the idea of renovation, modernizing an old home, restoring it to beauty and comfort yet keeping its original features. My love for old houses was one of the primary reasons I bought an old house in Pittsboro, NC and turned it into a five-room bed & breakfast. Some of the problems with Fern’s house were exactly those my B&B house had: blocked sewer line, space heaters and window units; rotten porch floor; leaks in the roof. Repairing those problems didn’t make it pretty, but they had to be fixed before we painted and decorated.
As Stella’s creator, I wanted to give her problems like those we all have–money, family, relationships. So, writing what I know, I created a falling-down farmhouse and worries about her grandmother, but then, taking pity, I gave her and Fern the resources to improve their lives. You’ll have to tell me whether it’s a satisfactory home reno! How about the color scheme? What’s your favorite part?
Giveaway: A randomly selected commenter will receive a signed proof of Cold Heart. Be sure to check back next Wednesday night to see if you won, as I will need contact information.
Stella Lavender returns in a darkly delightful page-turner. As an undercover drug agent, Stella works nights, buying drugs from paranoid drug dealers. But the physical danger and necessary betrayals are getting to her. When she sees a chance to work homicide, she'll always take it.
One afternoon Stella gives a hitchhiking teenager a ride to her babysitting job in a wealthy neighborhood. Horror awaits them—the father lies dead in a pool of blood, and his toddler is missing. The puzzle quickly grows when a dizzying array of suspects provides more questions than answers.
Cold Heart draws the reader into Stella's dangerous world as she rummages through every strata of society in her relentless and sometimes unconventional pursuit of a cold-hearted murderer who won’t stop at just one victim.