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By Janet Evanovich, Charlotte Hughes
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2009 Evanovich, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Destiny Moultrie's long black hair hung like a silk curtain on either side of her face as she gazed down at the dainty palm she held, studying each line and crease carefully. "You're going to meet a tall, dark, and handsome man —"
Annie Fortenberry snatched her hand away. "Oh no, you don't. You're not saddling me with a ... a man!"
Destiny arched one brow. "You don't like men? They come in handy on cold winter mornings."
The petite woman sitting across the antique Pennsylvania farm table, which seated twelve, nodded, and a thick strand of copper hair fell across her forehead. She raked it back, and it disappeared into the tousled mop that barely grazed her shoulders and gave her a girlish look, even at thirty. "You're right," she said. "On cold winter mornings when you don't want to leave your warm bed and haul the trash to the street. That's the only thing a man is good for."
"Then I probably shouldn't tell you the rest. The really good stuff."
"Good stuff?" Annie's green eyes registered interest. She could use some really good stuff in her life. She offered her hand once again.
"It says the sex will be dy-nuh-mite!"
Annie reclaimed her palm and looked at it. "Where does it say that? You made that up."
"The Divine Love Goddess never makes up stuff."
Annie glanced up and noted the serious expression on Destiny's face. Despite the early hour, the woman's makeup had been artfully applied, emphasizing deep-set indigo eyes and high cheekbones. Annie wondered how long it took Destiny to achieve that look. Her own makeup regimen took all of three minutes, beginning with a light foundation to tone down her freckles and ending with a quick swipe of her mascara wand. "Hmm," she said, taking care to hide the doubt in her voice, even though her friend Jamie Swift had claimed Destiny was the real thing. "Very interesting."
Destiny suddenly sneezed. "Uh-oh. I can tell I'm close. I always start sneezing when I'm on to something."
"Good sex, huh?" Annie said. "Jeez, I might have to reconsider. As long as I'm not stuck with him for the rest of my life," she added, wishing she were really more sophisticated and open to casual sex. Instead she followed Dear Abby's advice that couples should be in love before crawling between the sheets together. Abby obviously didn't have this hormonal thing going on that made Annie think about sex a lot.
Destiny sneezed again. "Wow, that was a big one. Either I'm right on-target or I've got a cold. There was a draft in my bedroom last night."
Annie stood and hurried to the kitchen counter, where she kept a box of tissues. She plucked several and handed them to Destiny, who dabbed her nose. "I'm sorry you became chilled last night," Annie said. "It has been so warm this winter that I haven't bothered to turn on the heat."
Which was true. Beaumont was experiencing record-high temperatures for February, and it wouldn't be long before everything was in full bloom. New shoots had already begun pushing their way up through the dirt, and Annie had spied teeny buds on the large peach tree out front. But the old antebellum mansion–turned–bed and breakfast nestled between massive, centuries-old live oaks permitted little sunlight. That, combined with the West Indian coral stones from which the house had been built, kept it a good ten degrees cooler inside than out.
Destiny propped her elbows on the table. In the next chair, an aging overweight tabby cat named Peaches uncurled and stretched before dropping to the floor with a thud. She walked over to her empty food dish, stared for a moment, and then turned to Annie as if to say, What's with it?
"The, um, draft in my room last night had nothing to do with the temperature," Destiny said. "There's a spirit in this house."
"Oh yeah?" Annie cocked one eyebrow.
"A ghost," Destiny said. "A dead person, in this case a woman, who for some reason is still hanging around."
Annie didn't know how to respond, so she said nothing.
Destiny shrugged. "It happens to me all the time. Dead people latch on to me like flies to molasses."
Peaches made a guttural sound deep in her throat and gave Annie what she referred to as the evil eye. The cat raised her paw and whacked the plastic dish hard. It skidded across the floor and hit the wall.
"Your cat is hungry," Destiny said.
"She has already eaten," Annie replied. "Just ignore her."
"You've never seen the spirit?" Destiny asked.
"I don't believe in ghosts."
"I'll bet you've felt her presence. A sudden drop in temperature or a feeling of being watched?"
Annie's look was noncommittal, but she remembered instances, a brush of cool air against her arms or the back of her neck, guests complaining of missing items that usually showed up in unexpected places at a later date, plus sounds in the night. "I think you have to be open to that sort of thing," she said. "I'm not."
Destiny didn't look convinced, but she didn't push. "So, do you want me to finish your reading? Find out if you're going to enjoy the Big O anytime soon? Or multiples thereof," she added.
"I don't like to brag, but my own personal record is five."
"He was young and good-looking, and we had this chemical thing going. Not to mention the fact he was slow handed, and pushed all the right buttons, if you get my drift."
"Sounds like a keeper to me." Annie hadn't had her buttons pushed in a long time.
"Which is why I married him." Destiny sighed. "It didn't work out."
Annie knew Destiny had been married five times but was currently single. Until a couple of months ago, the woman had enjoyed a hot-and-heavy romance with a hunk named Sam, but she'd pulled back when he began using the M word. Destiny had no desire to marry anytime soon.
"So why did you divorce this guy if he was so good in the sack?"
"You still have to be able to talk to a man at the breakfast table, and he wasn't very bright. As time went on, my passion dwindled."
Annie hadn't felt passionate about anything since Jiffy Peanut Butter came out with a reduced-fat variety. "That's too bad," she said.
Peaches began swatting the cabinet door where her food was stored. "That's it," Annie said, getting up from the table. She picked up the cat and lugged all twenty-two pounds of feline and fur to the back door. Peaches hissed. "Go catch a mouse," Annie said, and put her out. "That cat has one goal in her life, and it's to drive me crazy."
"She's uneasy because of the spirit. Cats sense these things."
Annie shook her head. "She's always been snooty and difficult, but my grandmother adored her. Unfortunately, the cat has never liked me."
"She needs to meet a nice tomcat."
"Too late. She's been spayed."
"That explains her sour moods. A good roll in the hay works wonders."
"Well, the only male I'm looking for at the moment is my worthless handyman, Erdle Thorney," Annie said, "but I don't have to be psychic to know that he's laid up drunk somewhere. Wait till I get my hands on him. I'm going to hog-tie him and kick butt."
"Some people like being tied up," Destiny said, studying her nails, "or so I've heard."
Annie grinned. "I don't think we're talking about the same thing." She couldn't help but like the quick-witted, free-spirited woman who had become something of a celebrity since starting her column in the Beaumont Gazette less than a year ago. Destiny used her psychic powers to give people, mostly the lonely-hearted, guidance and direction. She stood out in a crowd in her outrageous clothes, which included leather, fake fur in an assortment of colors, and plunging necklines that emphasized perfect oversize breasts. Annie would have given her grandmother's sterling silver to know if they were the product of good genes or a boob job.
"If this Erdle person isn't doing his work, why do you keep him?"
"I sort of inherited him, as well as that crazy cat, after my grandmother died. He lives upstairs in the carriage house out back. He's supposed to do the yard work and repairs around here in exchange for free room and board. I hate to fire him, because he's worked here since I was a kid. He knows there is going to be a big wedding here in two weeks, and that I want everything to be perfect."
"I wouldn't worry about it," Destiny said. "Jamie says your parties and weddings are beautiful. I think it's amazing you're able to provide all that and run a bed-and-breakfast."
Annie smiled at the compliment. "I do a lot of juggling, but I enjoy it. This wedding will be special to me since I've known Jamie for so long. We met shortly after she took over the Gazette. After her father died," Annie added, remembering how Jamie had struggled for years to keep it afloat before taking on a silent partner. That partner had been none other than multimillionaire investor, technological genius, and philanthropist Max Holt. In less than a year they had turned the Beaumont Gazette into a top-notch newspaper and watched subscriptions triple.
In their spare time they had cleaned up town corruption, avoided being killed by hit men and a crazed swamp dweller, and brought down two top Mafiosi.
Despite it all, Max and Jamie had fallen in love and had chosen Annie's home in which to be married. Max and Jamie preferred small and simple to the pomp and fuss of a celebrity wedding that would create a media circus. Which was why the wedding was so hush-hush; even the guests had been sworn to secrecy. Annie hoped they were able to pull it off. She was determined to give Max and Jamie a wedding they would remember for the rest of their lives.
A storm had passed through several nights before, littering the yard with leaves and branches, and Erdle was AWOL.
The rain had seeped through the ballroom windows where Max and Jamie's wedding dinner was to be held, damaging the wood floors and drawing attention to the fact that the floors desperately needed sanding.
And Annie had little spare time on her hands, what with cleaning and cooking three meals a day for her full-time tenants and preparing for a luncheon, a baby shower, and a dinner party all scheduled for that week. Not that she was complaining; that's what kept her bills paid.
Annie's tenant, Theenie Gaither, came down the back stairs. She wore a simple blue housedress, ankle socks, and white sneakers. Her short blue-gray hair, which she had washed and styled once a week at Susie Q's Cut and Curl, had been sprayed so heavily that tornado winds would have snatched her head off her shoulders before mussing her hairdo. "Good morning," she said in a light, fruity-textured voice. She glanced at Destiny, and Theenie's smile faltered briefly as she took in her breasts. "Do we have a new guest?"
Annie introduced the women. "Destiny will be staying with us for a while," she said. "There was a fire in her apartment building late last night, and the residents were forced to evacuate until a building inspector checks it out."
"They think it was faulty wiring," Destiny said. "My landlord is so cheap he won't do anything to the building unless he's forced."
"Oh my," Theenie said, looking at Annie. "Is the wiring okay here?"
"Yes, Theenie," Annie said, knowing the woman tended to fret over every little thing. "Guess what?" she said, hoping to redirect Theenie's thoughts before she found something else to worry about. "Destiny works for the Beaumont Gazette. She's the Divine Love Goddess Adviser."
Theenie looked impressed. "I thought I recognized your name. I read your column every day." She headed toward the automatic coffeemaker, where Annie had already set out her favorite mug. "I assume Destiny knows about you-know-what," she said, glancing at Annie, who nodded in response.
"I think it's very romantic that Max and Jamie are going to be married on Valentine's Day," Destiny said.
Theenie gave a shiver of delight. "We're all so excited! I can't wait until I'm allowed to tell my friends at the beauty parlor. They will be so envious. And Jamie is going to be a beautiful bride."
"Jamie's the one who told me about this place," Destiny said, "and I'm glad she did. It's so ..." Destiny paused as if trying to come up with the right word. "Unique," she finally said.
Annie laughed. "Outlandish would better describe it," she said, "but it was my grandmother's dying wish that I not sell it or make cosmetic changes." She gave an eye roll.
"I wouldn't change it, either," Destiny said. "I think it's quaint."
"It grows on you after a while," Theenie said. She carried her mug to the table and sat next to Destiny. "No offense, but are you really psychic? I mean, there are a lot of phonies out there."
"I'm the real enchilada," Destiny proudly stated.
"Oh my! Wait until Lovelle finds out. She lives here, too, but she's in New York City visiting her daughter." Theenie leaned closer. "But then you probably already know that," she said in a hushed voice. "I'll bet you even know what street her daughter lives on." She didn't give Destiny a chance to reply. "Tell me, do you sense anything strange going on in this house?"
Destiny opened her mouth to respond but was cut off when Annie bolted from her chair. "I just heard a car pull into the driveway," she said. "I'll bet it's Erdle." She raced to the window. "Yep! Boy, is he in trouble!" She opened a drawer and pulled out a large rolling pin.
"Uh-oh," Theenie said.
Annie threw open the door. "Wait till I get my hands on that man!"
Theenie jumped from her chair with the agility of a woman half her age. "Now, hold on, Annie," she said. "Let's not do anything rash."
But Annie was already gone.
Wes Bridges parked his Harley in front of the massive three-story antebellum mansion and stared at it for a full minute before he thought to cut his engine. "Damn!" he said, climbing from his bike. "Now that's something you don't see every day."
He took in the four-column portico, each fluted column adorned with plump gold cherubs. Lavishly carved dentil molding ran beneath the eaves, and wrought-iron balconies sprouted from every window, designed in curlicues and rosettes. The look was repeated in the fanlight of what appeared to be an extra room or attic gable that made up a partial fourth floor. Gray moss clung to the live oaks and shuddered in the breeze, and a large tree, currently bare, stood to one side. An elaborate fountain dominated the front yard, spilling water onto yet more cherubs, all naked, some performing what appeared to be sexual acts.
"Interesting," he said, noting a sign out front that read: The Peachtree Bed-and-Breakfast. Vacancy.
"Perfect," he said. Wes pulled off his helmet and took the walkway toward the house, admiring the expansive piazza, which looked as if it could accommodate at least one hundred guests. Antique wicker settees and rockers with fat floral cushions offered seating and a great view of the marsh and the bay beyond. Pots of pink and white geraniums softened the look of the coral stone exterior.
Wes paused at an ornate door and studied the solid brass knocker of a naked man and woman embracing. One side of Wes's mouth turned up. Beside the door, an iron plaque dated the house back to 1850. Instead of using the knocker, he rapped on the door and waited. He was about to knock again when he suddenly heard a man cry out several times. It seemed to be coming from the back of the house.
Wes cleared the front steps, rounded the house, and raced up the driveway, following the sounds of loud, anxious voices. He paused at a waist-high wrought-iron gate and stared as an attractive redhead in jeans and a long cotton shirt chased a disheveled middle-aged man across the yard, a rolling pin poised in her hand.
"Run, you lazy good-for-nothing drunk!" the woman yelled.
The man ducked behind one of several oaks shading the backyard. "Put that thing down, Miss Annie!" he cried. "You're liable to hurt somebody."
"Damn right!" she said.
"Please don't hit him," a gray-haired woman pleaded from the back steps of the house. Beside her, a woman with long black hair and large breasts cheered Miss Annie on.
"Give him what for, Annie," she said laughingly.
The redhead chased the frightened man around the tree several times. She slammed the rolling pin against the bark twice, missing the man by a good twelve inches. Nevertheless, he continued to duck and run. "Help!" he cried. "Somebody save me!"
"Oh, for the love of —" Wes leaped the fence and ran toward the two. "Lady, stop!" he shouted.
Annie darted around the tree once more as Erdle tried to maintain a safe distance, all the while crying out for help. He ran pretty fast for someone who'd just come home from a three-day drunk, she thought. She could see the fear in his eyes as she smacked the tree again with her rolling pin. She had no intention of actually hitting Erdle, but she wasn't about to let him know that. She was so intent on her chase that she paid no heed to the chorus of voices behind her.
Excerpted from Full Bloom by Janet Evanovich, Charlotte Hughes. Copyright © 2009 Evanovich, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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