To claim an inheritance that a mysterious stranger left her, Benni must delve into the secrets of her own past--and a place she once called home.
Read an Excerpt
"I have no idea who he is," I said. "Are you sure it's me?"
"Honey, unless there's another Albenia Louise Harper living in San Celina, California, I'm sure it's you," Amanda Landry said in her pecan-pie-for-breakfast Alabama drawl. Besides being my good friend and an extraordinary quilter, she was also the volunteer legal counsel for the Josiah Sinclair Folk Art Museum and artists' co-op where I was curator. "You are, without a doubt, an heiress."
"What do I inherit?" In the background, I heard another phone ring. She must have been calling from her office above the new Ross store downtown. "Do you want me to hold?"
"No, ma'am. I know who it is and I'm a-tryin' to hide from him."
I laughed and asked, "Who is it this time?" Amanda's love life was the only place in her life where her sharp intelligence and good sense completely and utterly failed her. Her wisest move so far was she had never married any of her unique and varied suitors. Yet.
"This plumb crazy public defender I went on one lousy date with, and now he thinks he's in love. Lordy, he showed up wearin' white socks with coral Hushpuppies. Coral! It looked like a couple of lobsters died on his feet. What was I thinking?"
"You weren't. That's the whole problem with you and men. But we'll dissect your love life later. Are you sure this is for real?"
"As real as your cattle brand, babydoll."
"Who is this Jacob Chandler? I've never heard of him."
"Look, I was justnotified by the deputy coroner early this morning myself. Too early. He interrupted an extremely pleasant interlude with Mel Gibson. At any rate, this poor old Mr. Chandler had a heart attack last night, that's all I know. Why don't you meet me at Liddie's around noon and we'll do this all official-like? Since you're the heiress, you can buy me lunch."
"Is there money involved?" Thoughts of the new one-ton truck I'd been eyeing at the Chevy dealership danced in my head. I'd given away my old Harper ranch truck to my brother-in-law last November and had been driving Gabe's restored 1950 Chevy pickup for the last five months. Being curator of the folk art museum as well as still working occasionally at my dad's ranch, I needed a vehicle I could use without worrying about scratching the paint. Not to mention one with a decent radio. Gabe and I had talked about buying another truck, and he was ready to write the check, but I'd wanted to buy it myself since he already carried more of the financial burden in our new marriage than felt comfortable to me. A sudden stream of guilt and shame washed over me. Someone had died, perhaps someone I knew, and the only thing on my mind was what I was going to get.
"There's a bank account," Amanda continued, "but I have no idea how much is in it. I drew up the will a few years ago and don't really remember how much this guy is worth. Don't get rid of that handsome hunk of Latino chauvinism yet. See you at noon."
When Gabe came in from his morning jog, he found me staring at the kitchen floor.
"What's wrong?" he asked, cocking his head and zeroing in with that pervasive gaze many cops pick up during their careers.
I looked up at him and smiled. "How was your run?"
He glanced at the cow-shaped kitchen clock. "Took a half hour longer than usual because Mrs. Potter down the street wanted to talk about whether or not we're going to have Mardi Gras next year and what was I going to do about the naked woman she saw at the last one."
"Naked woman? I don't remember any naked woman."
"I think she saw someone wearing one of those thong bathing suits as part of her costume and was duly shocked."
"Those things are gross, but are they actually against the law?"
He grinned. "Not in any place I want to live."
I rolled my eyes. "I'm assuming you didn't tell Mrs. Potter that."
"No, I told her I'd look into it and get back to her, though I don't even know yet myself if we're going to have Mardi Gras next year. All depends on whether the city council agrees to pay the overtime for my officers and reserves. I can't possibly squeeze the cost out of our budget, but they want both the city and the crowds downtown protected." He shrugged and dried his sweating brown face on a kitchen towel.
I gave his left biceps an encouraging squeeze. "It's only May first so you have almost a whole year to figure something out. And you will. You always do."
"Mrs. Potter's not so sure."
"But I bet you just smiled real pretty at her, and she was like putty in your hands."
He winked at me and didn't answer. My blue-eyed, part-Hispanic husband was a handsome man and was not above utilizing his physical attributes when it suited his purpose. But he was also a top-notch police chief and cared deeply about the people of San Celina. This kind of thing regularly happened to him when he was jogging, some citizen flagging him down, determined to relay some complaint or suggestion they felt he needed to know right now. He handled the interruptions with gracious aplomb, jogging in place and patiently listening to their often long-winded diatribes, promising to look into it and always keeping that promise. I was proud of my husband of fifteen months and the way he'd managed, after twenty years of working the roughest precincts in L.A., to adapt to the diverse society of our Central California coastal town with its cornucopia of city-fleeing retirees, rambunctious college students, traditional ranchers and farmers, oil workers, education professionals, and ethnic subcultures.
"Enough about me," he said. "I repeat, what's wrong?"
I opened the refrigerator and poured him a glass of grape juice. "What makes you think anything's wrong?"
He looked at me over his glass, his blue-gray eyes amused. My inability to hide my feelings had been a sore spot between us since we first met. Well, a sore spot for me. He found no end of amusement in it. I stuck my tongue out at him.
"Very subtle, chica," he said. "So, what's up?"
I considered making him suffer by not telling him, except I was dying to tell someone. "I'm an heiress."
"Who died?" He finished the juice in three gulps and set the empty glass in the sink.
"Someone named Jacob Chandler of Morro Bay."
"I have no idea. I'm meeting Amanda for lunch at Liddie's, and she's going to read me the will."
He gave a disbelieving grunt. "Are you sure this isn't a joke? You know Amanda." He and Amanda had a somewhat love-hate relationship because his sometimes cute, sometimes irritating male chauvinism alternately amused and annoyed her vehemently feminist sensibilities. They traded cop and attorney jokes like baseball cardseach trying to outdo the other. Deep down, they had a profound respect for one another, but they would rather have eaten worm soup than admit it out loud.
"I don't think so," I said, sitting down on a pine kitchen chair.
"So what did he leave you?"
"Apparently everything he owns."
"That's what I'll find out at lunch."
He frowned. "I don't like the sound of this."
"Sergeant Friday," I said, using the often appropriate nickname I gave him the first time we met, "it's Saturday. Take off the cop hat and quit worrying. He probably just left me his snowdome collection, or something equally strange, to display at the folk art museum."
"You're probably right," he said, pulling me out of my chair and against him. He smelled of clean, salty sweat and spicy deodorant. "So, Ms. Rockefeller, how about a little Mexican rhumba with the help tonight?"
"Sure, you know a young, sexy pool boy who knows how to dance?"
He untied my terry cloth robe and slipped his hands under my cotton tank top. "I was thinking some oak-grilled salmon and a midnight ride on the ranch. It's a full moon. They say it's good luck to make love under a full moon."
"Who says that?" I asked, giving a little shiver when his thumb probed the place on my spine he knew was my weak spot.
"You know, they do."
"Buy me Maine lobster, and I might consider it." I squirmed out of his arms and headed for the bedroom.
He followed me, hitting me on the back of the head with his damp, balled-up T-shirt. "Woman, you get more expensive every day."
I picked it up and threw it back. "And who knows, after this afternoon, you might not be able to afford me anymore."
I pulled on a clean pair of Wranglers and a white T-shirt while he took a shower. I was sitting at my antique vanity braiding my hair when he came out of our small bathroom and rummaged through our packed closet.
He pulled on new dark blue Levi's and a red polo shirt, toweling his shaggy black hair. "I'll be back from Santa Mafia by four. Think about that ride. I was up with your dad on Kenyon Flat last Sunday. The grass is as thick as a mattress." He gave me his sexiest smile.
Laughing, I wrapped a rubber band around the end of my braid. "Geeze, Friday, your subtle technique is so hard to resist."
Amanda was already waiting at our favorite restaurant, Liddie's Cafe, the only old-fashioned 24-hour cafe left in town. She waved at me from one of the red vinyl window booths. Seconds after I slid across from her, Nadine, Liddie's head waitress, walked up.
"Looky what the cat drug in," Nadine said. Her brown sparrow eyes glared at us from behind thick pink plastic glasses. She treated everyone from the mayor to the lowliest Cal Poly freshman with the same irritable disrespect. You put up with it or learned that your favorite pie was always out.
"How's my boy?" she asked me. She adored Gabe and made no bones about showing it.
"He's going to Santa Mafia today. Police business, I think."
"You tell him I have some fresh local raspberries I'm saving for his lunch Monday. Don't you forget, now."
"Nadine, I swear he's gonna leave me for you any day now."
"And he'd be better off by a long shot, tootsie." She licked her pencil and barked, "So, what'll it be, chickadees? I ain't got all day."
"Cheeseburger, Coke, and onion rings," I said.
"Heart attack special, got it," she replied, then looked at Amanda. "And you, Miss Fancy Pants Lawyer Lady?"
"Nadine, I swear I'd like to take you home with me," Amanda said. "You bring to mind my dear memaw back in Alabama, the Lord rest her cantankerous ole soul."
Nadine smacked Amanda on the head with her order pad, which was just the reaction Amanda was angling for. "Someone should wash that smart-alecky mouth of yours out with an old bar of Lava soap."
Amanda winked at me. "I've had some fellow attorneys say that very thing." Her wide mouth turned up in a glorious, toothpaste-selling grin that never failed to melt even the most cynical prosecuting attorneyproviding that attorney was male. "Chef's salad and an ice tea. With lots of ranch dressing. On the salad, not in the tea. Ma'am."
"I'll ma'am you," Nadine muttered, her back already to us.
"I love her," Amanda said, running her fingers through her thick, sherry-colored hair. "Think she'd consider coming to work for me?"
"You do like living on the edge," I said, sipping my water. "Forget Nadine. Who the heck is this Jacob Chandler, and what have I inherited?"
She pulled a sheaf of legal-sized papers out of her leather briefcase. "I'll tell you all I know, which isn't much." She laid the papers down in front of me and said, "Mr. Jacob Chandler of Morro Bay, California, died of an apparent heart attack last night, and you are his sole heir."
I thumbed through the papers which were full of legalese, then looked up at her. "Give me the Reader's Digest version."
"In a nutshell, you inherit his house in Morro Bay, all his possessions, and whatever is contained in his bank account at the Paso Robles Branch of the San Celina Savings and Loan."
"A house? And all his possessions? Who was he?"
"All I know about him is he came into my office when I first opened my practice and asked me to draw up his will. I didn't even know you then, so your name didn't mean squat to me. Frankly, I'd forgotten all about it until I was notified of his death by the deputy coroner. He apparently has no next of kin and is to be buried in a plot he bought some time ago at the Paso Robles cemetery. The mortuary address where they took his body is in there. Everything's been picked out and paid for. You just need to set a date for burial. I'm the executor, and they're waiting for instructions from me. And I'm waiting for instructions from you."
"This is so weird," I said, pushing the papers aside when Nadine brought our lunches. "I swear I don't know him."
Amanda searched the plates of food. "Where's my dressing?"
"You don't need it, missy," Nadine answered. "That blue suit of yours was looking a tad snug in the hips the last time you was in here." She swung around and stomped away.
Amanda sighed and dug into her salad. "I sure do miss my memaw."
"So, what do I do?"
She forked a slice of turkey breast. "You go check out your new house and then call a realtor."
"But I have no idea who this man is!" The thought of a stranger leaving me something as valuable as a house, not to mention all his worldly possessions, was intriguing, but also a little unsettling. I picked up the will again, trying to glean some answers from its neat black and white lines, but for all they told me, they could have been the phone book.
"Here's the house keys." Amanda pushed a set of keys across the table to me. They were attached to a small, hand-carved cowboy boot. I ran my finger over the intricately carved boottiny stars, roses, and horseshoes covered the shaft. SomeoneMr Chandler?was a very talented wood-carver. I peered closer at the key ring and looked up at Amanda in surprise.
"My name is carved on this!" Albenia was cleverly hidden in fancy script among the elaborate decorations.
"Looks like Mr. Chandler knew you," she said, grabbing one of my onion rings. "By the way, there's one little stipulation to the will."
"I knew there had to be a catch."
"To inherit his estate, you must reside in the house for two consecutive weeks starting the day the will is read to you."
"Alone. No overnight guests."
She laughed. "You said that already."
"You have to be kidding."
"No, ma'am, it's part of the will. If you don't comply, the estate goes to the Federal Government to help lower the national debt."
"What?" I squeaked.
"And before you ask, yes, it's all legal and above-board. There's nothing you can do except follow the will's instructions or let the money go to our wonderfully screwed-up government." She stole another onion ring and dipped it in the ketchup spreading across my plate.
I groaned. "Gabe is going to have a fit when he hears this. He was suspicious about it from the start."
"This truly is the weirdest inheritance I've come across in my entire legal career. Are you sure you don't know who this guy is?"
"Haven't a clue." I slipped the key ring in my purse and picked up my hamburger. "But you can be darn sure about one thing. I'm gonna find out."
Meet the Author
Earlene Fowler was raised in La Puente, California, by a Southern mother and a Western father. She lives in Southern California with her husband, Allen, a large number of quilts, and twenty pairs of cowboy boots.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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I love to read about Benni Harper! This book was great. It told more about her family. You get to learn some things about her mother. It's touching. You got to meet new characters & "go on location". I call it a must read.
Earlene Fowler doesn't need a murder to make her books great! Her characters are so alive, funny, sad, and human. She could leave out the murder and still have a great read. I hope she does a mainstream book one day. This book sends Benni to live alone in a house she has inherited from a man she doesn't know. She starts to find things in his home to indicate he knew, or at least, was someone who had been following her for a long time. That's all I'm going to tell you. The rest you can read for yourself. Run, do not walk, to the nearest Barnes and Noble and get a copy, it's great!
Once again Earlene Fowler keeps us intrigued and wondering until the end. You wonder as you read, who is the mystery man is. Several possible answers come to mind, but not the right one. I really enjoyed the book and stayed up late to finish it, because I had to know what happened.