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Bellamy, Loudon County, Virginia
When the telephone rang at seven-thirty on Tuesday morning, Richard Desmond feared he'd hear an unwelcomeat that momentNew York accent on the other end. He'd spent the last twelve days wrangling around his latest contract tangle with his agent.
Storey Newburn, high-powered and much-envied in the literary world, couldn't understand why Rich, after the stunning success of his last two works, would balk at this latest offer. So what, he'd asked, if they wanted Rich to incorporate occultic elements in his next mystery play? So what if they insisted on some titillating sex scenes? These ingredients added to his already proven recipe would secure his place with the greats of the twentieth century and move him to the top as the first great of the twenty-first.
Rich's spirit staged a revolt every time he considered his situation. As a Christian, he couldn't see how these so-called improvementsaccording to the powers-that-bewould honor anyone, much less God.
His head ached and his body creaked from hours of scrunching in his office chair until the wee moments of the morning, trying to reconcile his faith and his career.
When he finally picked up the receiver and heard Bellamy police officer Cecil Wiggon's voice instead of Storey's, he knew nothing good would come of this call either.
"That you, there, Rich?" asked the cop.
In spite of his troubles, and seeing as he lived alone, Rich grinned. "As usual, I'm the only one here. How can I help you?"
Silence ensued. Then, "Well ... uh ... ya see ..." Another silence followed.
From their childhood days together, Rich remembered why the school bully had stuck Wiggon, a tall, earnest boy, with the nickname "Wiggly" way back when. Rich had hated the embarrassment and blush that appeared each time the mean-spirited nickname was used. He'd always stood up for his friend, even though Wiggon's occasional waffling did frustrate him.
"Hey, Wiggon, just spit it out so we can get it over with."
"You're right. My news ain't good, an' I hate to be the one to tell you, but it can't be helped. You'd best be getting on down to the station here. Your mama's got herself in a bucket of trouble."
"Mama?" Rich asked. "Did she run another stop sign? The last time she did that was five years ago, right after Dad died. I can't imagine what would make her so careless"
"She's gone an' got herself arrested," Wiggon blurted out.
"What? Are you sure you're talking about my mother? Mariah Desmond?"
Wiggon huffed in his ear. "Of course, I'm sure. Mizz Desmond was my Sunday school teacher near as long as a coon's age. She's here, an' she's in an ugly situation. I'm ... scared for her."
Rich rubbed his brow where the headache intensified with each word Wiggon uttered. "What are the charges?"
"Ah ... er ... well ... you see, it's big stuff. I mean, the Secret Service agents were the ones"
"The Secret Service? The guys who guard the president?"
"No other Secret Service I know."
"This can't be. Not my mother. You know her, Wiggon. All she ever does is sell her" Rich winced in discomfort, as always"merchandise, go to church and Bible study, and hang out with her Garden Club. She's a sweet old lady, an innocent among innocents."
"Humph! I dunno about those Garden Club ladies. An' your mama was thick as thieves with Miss Louella when she did her thing at her place. I dunno about all that ‘innocent among innocents' stuff."
"Come on, Wiggon. They didn't wind up arrested during Miss Louella's home restoration, if you'll remember. Now you're telling me my mother's run afoul of the law, and you're hedging about the charges. Tell me what they are."
"Well ... we can start off with credit-card fraud, conspiracy to defraud, grand theft, racketeerin', an' a couple of other biggies."
For once in his life, Rich was rendered mute. He, who was reputed to have a gift for words, for a turn of phrase, a brilliant way with the English language, couldn't dredge up a single syllable in response.
Then, "Mama? Racketeering? Theft? Fraud?"
Except Wiggon wasn't laughing.
Oh, Father God, help me here. I don't know ... anything.
Tamping down the fear that threatened to bloom, Rich called upon his last bit of strength. "Have you spoken with my sister?" he asked.
Wiggon cleared his throat. "Ah ... well ... you see ... the Cap'n felt it'd be better if he told Reenie. So, she's been called, only not by me."
Rich groaned. "Then you're right. I'd better get down to the station straightaway. Otherwise, who knows what mess of trouble you'll have on your handscourtesy of the Desmond females."
"Ain't that the truth?"
Maureen Desmond Ainsley had been ... predictably unpredictable since she'd raced to life six weeks prematurely. From the moment of her birth, she'd managed to keep the Desmond household in a constant uproar as they muddled through her childhood and adolescence. Matters grew worse after she made friends with the redheaded girl next door, Larkspur Bellamy.
Rich shuddered at the memory of years made miserable by the two of them. Especially Lark. He'd come to think of her as a bad case of arthritis. Not bad enough to kill you, but bad enough to make your days a pain.
Well, there was, of course, the matter of his prom. Just
the thought of that night made Rich's cheeks blaze. When Suzanne Crandall, his date, had come down with mono seven days before the dance, he'd decided to ask shy, sweet Mercy Appleby instead. He knew none of the other guys would ask her, and he'd always admired the quiet girl's sharp mind. Mercy had been thrilled by his invitation, and he'd known he had made the right choice.
Naturally, he'd said nothing at home. He hadn't wanted Reenieor Larkto get a whiff of what had happened. His caution, however, had made no difference.
The snoopy redhead had found out about Suzanne's illness and told everyone he'd be escorting her insteada notion concocted by none other than his little sis, who'd wanted nothing more than a romance between her big brother and her best friend. To make matters worse, Lark had shown up at the dance, mad as a red cape–teased bull, demanding to know why he hadn't come for her.
The brash teenybopper's words and the spectacle they'd brought about had shocked and hurt Mercy, who hadn't known she was Rich's second choice. And Rich's kind gesture toward a friend had become something to cringe over, even this many years later.
He also remembered Lark's embarrassment, not to mention the pride she'd donned as she left the dance, her cheeks scarlet in her otherwise white face, her chin tilted skyward.
He'd sighed in relief when he left townnot to mention Lark and Reeniefor the University of Virginia. He'd felt the same way later, when Lark went to college in Baltimore, and more recently, two summers ago, when he'd walked Reenie down the aisle and placed her hand in that of brave-heartedor insane, depending on how you looked at itSeth Ainsley.
Now with Mama in trouble, who knew what Reenie would do? Especially since the equally erratic, dogged, and truly frightening-in-the-quirks-of-her-fertile-mind Lark was back in town.
"Ah ... Rich?" said Wiggon.
"OK, OK. Let me hang up, and I'll be right there."
"Well, that wasn't what I was gonna tell you, but yeah, get on down here. Your mama's gonna be needin' you. And your bankbook. Bail's gonna be sky-high. If the judge even says OK."
Rich's horrible morning turned into a black nightmare, promising only to darken as the day wore on. "Lord," he asked as he hung up, "what more do you have in store for me?"
It sounded like a woodpecker boring for lunch in a tree. Larkspur Bellamy buried her head in her pillow, too tired and too deep into dreamland to figure out what the sound was. But then the chatter grew more insistent, more immediatelouder.
"Lark!" called a voice from far, far away. It sounded like ... her sister Magnolia. But it couldn't be. Maggie was busy with her pooch, her much-loved fiancé, Clay Marlowe, and her newfound career as business manager of Marlowe Historical Restorations.
"Would you pleeeeease open this door?" the voice begged in a distinctly Southern, super-sweet drawl. "I've been knockin' longer'n Noah sailed around with his critters, and you know you can't shake me off as easy as a dog does a flea by a long shot!"
Lark bolted upright, her heart beating faster than the woodpecker had pecked. As she fought to catch her breath, she realized she was where she'd crashed, oh, about two hours and forty-eight minutes agoin her own bed.
Yawning, she dragged herself out from under the covers, tugged her Mighty Mouse sleep shirt kneeward, and trudged down the stairs to open the front door.
Maggie, Lark's junior by two years, marched into the house, lurching and stumbling uncharacteristically.
Lark yawned again, then mumbled, "Whatchadoin' here so early?"
"Why, honey, it's not early a'tall. I'm on my way to the office, you know."
Lark slumped into the vast wing chair across from the sofa Maggie occupied and tried to focus. Her effort didn't work. She rubbed her eyes, but it seemed that her dreams hadn't faded with her sleep. Something brown and furry and snuffly with saggy wings crawled across Granny Iris's antique Tabriz. She closed her eyes, and the seductive lure of sleep crept over her again.
Maggie would have none of it. "Larkspur Bellamy! What would Granny say about your behavior? Why, here I've come bearin' a gift, and you fall right asleep on me. Where are your manners?"
Lark winced and cracked open one eyelid. She'd been up all night compiling the latest issue of Critic's Choice, her recently launched-to-much-success literary criticism magazine. Her sister's shriek hurt.
"Keep it down, willya? I just put the magazine to bed."
"And you, too, it would seem."
"Mm-hmm ... so, if you don't mind, I'm going back where I belong. In bed."
"Not yet, you don't. I have a present for you. I know how lonesome I was until I met my Clay, and I also know what a difference Buford made in my loneliness."
"Ah, Mags," Lark groaned, "I don't want your dog."
"I wouldn't dream of givin' you my darlin' puppy. That's why I brought you your own. Here."
Before she knew what was happening, a weight landed in Lark's lap and a rasping slurp scraped her cheek. "What in the world ... ?"
"Meet your new dog," said Maggie as she smartlyand wiselyhurried to the front door. "Enjoy him!"
Lark wrestled with the ... thing in her lapa dog, as Maggie had said, droopy and drippy, at thatand yelled, "Get back here, Squirt! You can't just dump an animal on me like this. What am I going to do with it?"
The door opened with its characteristic squeak. "How many times did Granny Iris warn you about name-callin', Larkspur Bellamy?"
"About as many times as she warned you about calling me Radish-top."
Stepping out to the porch, Maggie sniffed. "Well, I'm not callin' you that now. And as far as your dog goes, Lark, all you need to do is love him. He'll do the rest. The Lord bless you this day, sis."
"Wait!" Lark cried as the door clicked shut. The squirmy critter in her lap slithered off and began to howl mournfully, tugging on the leather leash Lark had grabbed when Maggie had thrust it her way.
To Lark's amazement, the pooch sniffed the Tabriz, then, nose to the ground ... er ... rug, took off in Maggie's wake. The animal yowled again, snuffled the floor some more, then scratched at the door, determined to follow her sister.
Lark had never owned a pet. Camellia, the youngest of the three Bellamy sistersBellamy's Blossoms, as everyone in town called the three florally monikered siblingswas the one who'd brought home every stray that crossed her path. Lark had been too busy planning, plotting, thinking, imagining.
What was she going to do with the pooch?
And why did lousy, sleepless nights always end in weird ways for her? Did this doggy encounter mean the rest of her day would follow suit?
As she yawned again and held tight to the leash, the phone rang. "Hello?"
"Lark?" asked her best friend, Maureen Desmond Ainsley, in a shaky voice. "Lark, is that you?"
The dog wailed. Reenie's voice dropped to a whisper. "Are you all right? Do you need help? Should I call the cops?"
That was all she needed, professional bloodhounds to go with her ... what was the thing, anyway? Beagle? Nah, too big, no patches. Bassett? Not that miserable looking.
"Lark. Are you there?" Panic shrilled Reenie's voice. "What have they done to you? You can tell me. I'll help."
Lark blinked to full alertnessat last. "No, no. I'm fine. This is just Maggie's idea of a joke. A bad one. I'll tell you all about it later. I'm all right, but you sounded terrible a minute ago. What's wrong?"
"Oh, Lark. The worst thing's happened. An' you're the only one who can possibly help." Reenie's mellow Southern accent ate up letters at a ravenous pace. "You have to investigate this an' get to the bottom of ever'thin'. I simply cain't bear to watch 'em lock 'er up an' throw 'way the key."
Lark blinked. First the woodpecker, then Maggie and her beast. Now Reenie at full throttle. On only two hours and forty-eight minutes of sleep. "Slow down, willya? Who's going to lock up whom and throw away what key?"
"It's ... it's Mama, Lark. She's been arrested."
Now Lark knew she was dreaming. The whole thingMaggie, mutt, and Maureen's callwere mere morsels of her overworked imagination. If she pinched herself hard enough she'd surely wake
"Ouch!" Later on she'd have a bruise on her forearm.
"I just knew that awful noise meant trouble," Reenie said. "I'm comin' straight over, an' helpin' you with whatever's goin' on."
"Hang on, willya? What about your mom? Or didn't you call with some crazy story about her in jail?"
"Oh. Well. Yes, I did, but if you're in trouble, we have to get you out of it 'cause you're the only one who can help Mama. She's in jail 'cause the Secret Service nabbed her. You've got to find out why they're framin' her, an' for whose sake."
Lark thought this over. "Your mother's really in jail?"
"What've I been tellin' you, Larkspur Bellamy?"
"Where is she?"
"At the Bellamy police department."
"Did you call a lawyer?"
"Of course, Lark. I'm not that dizzyno matter what Rich says."
As usual, Lark's cheeks burned at the mere mention of handsome Rich Desmond, on whom she'd had a monumental and embarrassing crush from the moment she met him in elementary school to the day she left Bellamy after graduating high school. A very public, object-of-everyone's-comments crush. "Does he know?"
"The chief said Wiggon would tell Rich."
"Will he be at the station?"
"Come on, Lark, mah big brother doesn't bite. An' besides, it's for Mama."
Lark had always loved gentle, sweet, cheerful Mariah Desmond. For the lady who'd taken her under a loving wing after the deaths of her parents, she'd swallow her dread of coming within ten miles of Rich Desmond. But only for Miss Mariah. "Oh, all right. Hang up so I can get dressed. I'll be there in five."
"Thank you, thank you!"
After Lark hung up the phone, two things happened. The dog at the end of the leash bayed loud enough to blow out her eardrums, then had a very wet, acrid-scented "accident." Right on the beautiful oak floor of the Bellamy family's ancestral home.
Yep. The day was shaping up in its usual, crummy disaster-after-the-sleepless-night way. And as had often been the case, Lark, the oldest sister, had to clean up the mess.
Even when the greater mess wasn't one of her own making. Or even of her sisters' makingthis time. It was a bona fide imported catastrophe, likely to hurt a woman Lark had always loved.
With Rich Desmond thrown into the mix, Lark suspected the worst was yet to come. At her expense.
Rich ran up the cement steps of the Bellamy PD, convinced Wiggon had made a mistake. Or something.
No way could his mother be in jail. Even the mention of Mariah Desmond's name and racketeering in the same breath proved the questionable condition of Wiggon's brain.
Still, a corner of Rich's mind hadn't quit piping up during his split-second shower and the run into town. What if Wiggon's right? it had asked. What if Mama has been arrested? What if something's gone wrong somewhere?
To his relief, even that corner of his mind wasn't stupid enough to consider Mariah Desmond breaking a law. It all had to be a mistake. One he'd straighten out. Quickly.
With a prayer for strength, Rich pushed open the finger-smeared glass door and stepped into the main lobby of the age-and-exhaust-darkened brick fortress. Thoughts of his mother foremost in his mind, he didn't notice the tarp spread on the floor to his right. He did, however, hear the warning from above. "Heads up down there!"
Looking ceilingward, he found Horace Hobey, the best masonry contractor in the county and probably well beyond, perched on a scaffold, repairing the mortar of the faded-to-pink inside brick wall. "Hey, Hobey! How're you doing?"
"Praise God, just blessed to bits, son. 'Bout you?"
The reason for his presence at the station wiped the smile right off Rich's face. "Not so good. Wiggon says Mama's been arrestedif you can believe it."
"Izzat how come Mizz Mariah came in here with that stream a'suits awhile back?"
"According to Wiggon."
Hobey waved a trowel tipped in glop. "That boy's got honeybees hummin' in his head. Ain't no way Mizz Mariah's done nothin' wrong. Why, your mama's a true saint."
"Thanks. But remember, Hobey, she's buddies with Miss Louella and the rest of the Garden Club."
Hobey's broad ruddy face turned puce all the way past
his nonexistent hairline. "I tell you, son, them gardener ladies do come up with some wild notions, all right. Why,
I was fit to be hog-tied over that bidness at the Ashworth Mansion."
"Exactly. And Mama was right in the thick of it."
"Hmm ... seein' as that's the case, well then, Wiggon might have hisself a point there. Who knows what kinda trouble Mizz Mariah mighta got herself into now?"
A terrifying thought struck Rich. "Was Louella Ashworth with Mama?"
"No sir," Hobey said, dabbing mortar between two bricks. "Ain't seen no other wimmen but your mama an' them police ladies we got us these days. Miss Louella's done learned her lesson, she says. Why, she gave her testimony at church last Sunday. Spoke real pretty about all the good Lord's taught her through that craziness at her house."
Rich grinned, picturing the scene. "I went out of town last weekend. Too bad I missed that service. I'll bet the Bellamy Community Church was sizzling."
"Bunch a red-faced wimmen there at the BCC, all right. But God taught 'em all but good. An' your mama was one of 'em, I'll tell ya. Blushin' an' praisin' God for his mercy and forgiveness. Still ... maybe Wiggon ain't wrong. Maybe your mama's done gone an' got herself in trouble again."
"That's what I'm afraid of." Rich sighed in resignation. "There's no getting around it. I'd better see what's happening. Will you be at tomorrow night's Bible study?"
Hobey turned away, his shiny pate reddening again. "Ah ... well, I'm a mite busy tomorrow nightall Wednesday nights for a spell, so I ain't signed up for this new study. II'll see you 'round town, though. God bless you, an' see what's what with your mama, OK?"
Bewildered by this normally straightforward man's strange and evasive response, Rich nodded. "The Lord's blessing on you, too, Hobey. Take care."
"Oh, hey," added the older man. "Since we're speakin' on trouble, how 'bout that Larkspur Bellamy? Can you believe she's come back home? Moved into her Granny Iris's house againsmack next door to you. An' her a famous newshound an' all."
Rich didn't answer. His thoughts on Lark Bellamy, her return to town, and especially her news-sniffing talents weren't the kind he wanted to share.
Hobey went on. "There's some what say that there new magazine of hers is some kinda right smart bit of work, but the ones I take a gander at don't make much sense. Wadda you make of her comin' home to do her magazine here instead of in Baltimore?"
"Oh, the magazine's good," he said, making his voice light and relaxed, "as good as her reporting was. Lark's smart, all right, but you're right about another thing, too. She's trouble, and I refuse to think what kind she'll dig up now that she's back in town."
The mason's deep-set eyes twinkled. "You reckon she's still sweet on you?"
Before he could swallow the words, Rich fervently said, "Oh, Lord God, no."
Hobey gave one of his booming laughs. "She's right pretty, though. With them green eyes an' red curls of hers, why, she's near as pretty as an angel."
"One with her halo throttling her. Trust me, the woman's trouble, and I want nothing to do with her." He gave his friend a farewell salute. "I'm off to see about Mama."
"The Lord go with you," Hobey answered, turning back to his mortar and bricks.
As Rich stepped up to the main desk, the brass-and-glass front door banged against a wall, startling him.
"Hey!" bellowed Hobey.
"Watch out," called a frighteningly familiar female voice. "Coming through!"
Refusing to turn and find what he'd hoped to avoid, Rich gritted his teeth and closed his eyestight. Trouble had just stormed the Bellamy Police Department.
A clackety skittering, snuffling, and panting, plus a cacophony of rushed footsteps, grunts, and desperate "hold ons" approached. He'd known it would sooner or later come to this, but he'd prayed for it to be later. That prayer hadn't been answered.
Marshaling his patiencenot to mention his strengthRich said, "Hello, Lark. What brings you down here today?"