The riches that mean most to Teresa “Toots” Loudenberry are the loving friends and family she’s accumulated over the course of a life well lived. And now that her daughter, Abby, has married her beau Chris and settled down near Toots in Charleston, life is even more satisfying than the delicious pralines sold at Toots’s bakery, The Sweetest Thing.
Abby isn’t the only one enjoying a little romance. Toots’s friendship with Dr. Phil Becker has grown unexpectedly close . . . and that brings both joy and complications. As a distraction, Toots throws herself into helping Abby and Chris open an animal rescue shelter on their estate. But life takes a serious turn when two young children disappear after visiting The Sweetest Thing. Toots immediately enlists Ida, Sophie, and Mavis to help in the search. As they draw closer to the culprits, they realize the stakes are much higher than they ever could have imagined . . .
Praise for Fern Michaels and The Godmothers Series
“Whoever thought the ‘golden years’ were boring never met the Godmothers.”
—RT Book Reviews
“Michaels’ engaging version of the Golden Girls.”
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About the Author
Hometown:Summerville, South Carolina
Place of Birth:Hastings, Pennsylvania
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"Simpson ... No, I meant Clay," Abby said more to herself than to the FedEx guy who waited as she signed for the delivery. He raised his brow in question.
"I'm recently married," she explained. Well, not that recently. They'd just celebrated their first wedding anniversary last month.
"Congratulations," the FedEx guy said before taking his computerized clipboard from her before jogging back to his delivery truck.
Must have a lot of deliveries, Abby thought as she struggled to drag the large box inside the front corridor of her new digs, though one could hardly call this twelve-thousand-square-foot mansion "digs." The old plantation home had been in Chris's family for over two hundred years. Her mother had lived here briefly when she was married to Garland, Chris's father, who was her mother's fourth husband, Abby believed, but she hardly remembered the plantation. She'd been in her first year of high school when they had moved here and had spent more time hanging out with her girlfriends than she had at home. Garland Clay hadn't lived very long after marrying her mother — poor old soul — but he'd been a kind and decent stepfather. Her mother said that he was her second favorite out of her eight husbands — the first, of course, being Abby's father, John Simpson. Abby didn't really have too many memories of him. He'd been killed in a car crash when she was five. Her mom had hired Bernice as an assistant/housekeeper/ babysitter, and later the two women had become the best of friends. They'd moved from New Jersey to Charleston. Abby had spent most of her life in the South, save for the few years she'd spent living in Los Angeles. She still had her little ranch house in Brentwood, though she'd recently rented it out to a young couple who'd just had a baby. A little boy, if her memory served her right.
Her life had been running at maximum velocity since she and Chris married last April. After being kidnapped by Rag, Rodwell Archibald Godfrey, the former owner of, and her boss at, The Informer, Abby's passion for tabloid news had fizzled like stale ginger ale when she became the news herself. Though she still had a hand in the inner workings of the paper, Abby's heart wasn't in the business anymore. Not just because she knew her mother had secretly purchased the paper, when Abby told her they were about to go under. No, it was more than that: The chase. The interviews. And, even more than anything, the shallowness of what she actually wrote about had jumped up and kicked her between the eyes. It wasn't important. Any way you looked at it, it was simply silly trivia. It just didn't matter in the grand scheme of things, such as hunger, war, and natural disasters. Entertainment it was, but Abby had to admit — though she would never voice the thoughts out loud, especially to her mother, whose love of the tabloids hadn't decreased one bit since her abduction — most of it was exaggerated. Halftruths, actors' and actresses' lives pumped up to appear as though they were the chosen ones. Life was perfect if you were lucky enough, smart enough, and had the talent to achieve the glorified interpretation of what it was like to live the life of a celebrity in Hollywood. When speaking to or writing about an actor or actress, Abby always had to remind herself to be politically correct when using those words, as they were gender specific. According to her writings, and those of a hundred others, to have the opportunity to glimpse the life of a celebrity from the inside was quite exhilarating, and those who were granted an inside peek were also privileged. She'd had that attitude from the time she was a little girl, no doubt something inherited from her mother. Not any longer. Though writing was in her blood, and the desire to continue to do so would always be a part of her, she didn't care about Hollywood and all the glitz and glamour. Those few hours spent locked away in that awful, hot, dark closet had opened her eyes. She'd made a promise to herself then. If she survived, she was going to take life more seriously. And she had, she thought as she pushed and shoved the heavy box down the long corridor that led to the kitchen. For the past six months, much to her mother and godmothers' delight, she'd spent every waking moment decorating and refurnishing the Clay Plantation. Inside the heavy box was an antique oak bench from a church in southern Georgia, which dated back to the early nineteenth century. Her mother had insisted she purchase it for the kitchen; Toots told Abby that someday she would have children, and this bench would be the most perfect place for them to sit if they were being punished. Abby had laughed, but secretly, she agreed. She imagined a towheaded little boy, with scraped knees and soulful blue eyes, begging her just to let him play one more round of Mario Brothers before he went to bed. And maybe a little girl with wispy curls and pillowy cheeks sticking her tongue out when she thought her mother wasn't looking.
"The heat is getting to me," she said to herself as she ripped the packing tape off the top of the box. Hundreds of Styrofoam pieces shaped like peanuts scattered across the newly shellacked oak floor. She heard Chester, her dog-child, who just so happened to be a German shepherd, making his entrance as his nails clicked against the floor. He trotted across the large room to see what all the commotion was about.
"Ruff!" Chester barked softly. Abby knew this as his "I'm just curious" bark.
She reached across the bench she'd hefted out of its carton to scratch Chester between the ears. "According to Mom, this thing here" — she knocked on the bench for emphasis — "is going to be something of a discipline seat."
The big shepherd tilted his head to the left, contemplating her words as though they were pearls of wisdom fallen from the heavens.
"I don't get it, either, but it is what it is," Abby said as she continued to remove bits and pieces of plastic wrap and little balls of Styrofoam from the antique bench. She did get it, she thought, but she wasn't quite ready to say the words out loud. She needed to give them time to percolate in her brain, then bubble and simmer a bit before she actually said them out loud. And to Chris, she couldn't forget him. He was her husband. Just the thought of him made her grin from ear to ear. Her fondest wish had come true, and here she was actually living smack-dab in the middle of what she once thought to be an impossible dream. She and Chris had married, and their life, so far, had been one helluva blast. Though she sometimes missed Los Angeles and the excitement, it never lasted long enough to have an effect on her. Her life in Charleston was as close to perfect as one could get. At least she thought so.
Apparently, Chester agreed. "It's a cool place to be, Chester."
Again, the dog barked, in complete agreement.
Chester now possessed acres and acres of land to run on, and zillions of squirrels to chase. Plus, who knew what lurked beneath the dark water of the pond just south of the main house? Abby still had a hard time referring to her house as the main house. It dredged up memories of times that were best forgotten. Yes, this was a plantation home, she knew, but she hated to think of it as a place that had once housed slaves. No way, not now. A dozen small buildings that once housed the many slaves and their families were situated where you couldn't actually view them from the main house, but Abby knew they were there. Chris didn't like them, either, but he wouldn't tear them down, because they were part of his historic home. Together, they hoped to put the buildings to good use.
She and Chris had discussed it at great length, and both agreed they wanted to help those in need. With the $10 million she'd received from her mother as a wedding gift, plus the monumental inheritance Chris had received when they married, they had way more than enough funds to work with. Chris took care of the documentation they needed to establish a nonprofit foundation. All they needed now were volunteers, and they could begin. She planned to get her mother and the three g's to the table and share the idea with them. Of course, her mother would start asking 10 zillion questions about her and Chris's plans for a family, and she would tell her they had all the time in the world to start a family. Well, maybe not all the time in the world. She wasn't getting any younger.
Abby grinned. Why did her thoughts continue to stray down this path? It must be the bench and her mother's suggestion, she thought, as she continued to ball up the plastic wrap and toss it aside.
Being only children themselves, both she and Chris wanted a large family, but neither had pinned down a certain time. Abby figured, if it happened, fine; if not, then that was fine, too. Frankly, she thought at her age she'd probably have to go the in vitro route, and she would if it were needed. But until then, she planned to enjoy the privileges of married life. Often and heartily. She shivered at the thought.
Chris was all she'd ever dreamed of, and then some. Sometimes she still felt like this was a dream and she would wake up, back in Brentwood, with Chester nuzzling her neck. The image brought forth a toothy grin. Yeah, Chester would always be her main man. He'd practically saved her life; and for that, she loved him even more. The big dog had become quite attached to Chris in the past few months. There were many mornings when Abby awakened, only to find she'd been deserted by her hubby and her best friend. My boys, she thought as she wiggled the bench over to a large rug.
Once she had the bench properly positioned on the rug, she pulled the rug slowly to the kitchen, careful not to tip the bench on its side. Once she had it in place, she took her iPhone from her pocket and snapped a quick picture, sending it to her mother's cell phone. Her mother was a pro when it came to decorating, and she truly appreciated all of her suggestions.
Seconds later she heard a ping coming from her cell phone. Her mother. The message:
Perfect. Needs occupants.
Abby grinned. Since she and Chris had gotten married, her mother and godmothers never missed an opportunity to let her know they would love a grandchild. Abby texted back: In due time.
Her mother's response: Only takes nine months.
She quickly replied: I'll tell Chris. We so enjoy the practice!!! That was sure to keep her mother quiet for a few minutes.
Chris needs to spend more time with you, Toots texted back.
Abby's fingers raced across the touch screen: Enough, Mom. I mean it. She added three smiley faces, just so her mother would know her text message wasn't meant to be sharp. Actually, Abby didn't mind her mother's constant urging, but it just seemed like that's all she and the three g's talked about since she and Chris got married. Well, that and the redecorating, plus Sophie and Goebel's plans for the future, Ida's conceit, Mavis's love life, and Bernice's main man, Robert, who was obsessed with finding new recipes. Her mother was careful to keep her and Phil's relationship to herself, telling them it was no one's business. They had all agreed to leave it alone for the time being.
Chester chose that very moment to jump on his hind legs and scratch at the back door. "Hey, pal, what's this? You've got that fancy doggie door Chris installed if you need to go out."
Curious to see what Chester was so anxious about, she peered through the small pane of glass above the door.
What she saw caused her to laugh out loud.CHAPTER 2
"I'm assuming she thinks I'm at home," Toots said to Mavis. Each held a small dog in her arms. Mavis held her beloved Coco, a demanding Chihuahua who insisted on being treated as though she were a member of the royal family. Toots had a death grip on Frankie, the adorable dachshund Phil Becker had rescued from her former neighbor, the now-deceased Mrs. Patterson.
She had an agreement with Dr. Phil Becker, whom she'd met at the hospital when he'd saved Bernice's life. While he was at work, saving lives as a top-notch cardiac surgeon, Toots insisted he drop Frankie off at her place. She feared that the little hound, who had had major back surgery last year, would try leaping on and off the furniture if he was left unattended. Now Coco and Frankie were practically inseparable, and Toots and the good doctor, too. He'd told her of his future plans last night, and she'd been in a mental frenzy since. She needed something to take her mind off him, and seeing her daughter always cheered her up.
With a rare free afternoon, Mavis decided to accompany her on a spontaneous visit to Abby's. Now that Abby was just a few blocks away, Toots and the three g's saw Abby all the time, much more than when they were all living in Los Angeles. Since Abby had returned to Charleston, Chester had gotten used to seeing Coco. When a few days went by without a visit, Abby told them, Chester acted depressed if he didn't see Coco, his "doggie love," as they now referred to her.
"So much for a surprise visit," Toots said when she spied Chester and Abby peering out the window of the back door.
"You should have told her you were practically in her backyard when you were sending her all those text messages," Mavis informed her.
Toots rolled her eyes. "You're no fun since you've turned into a skinny, successful entrepreneur," Toots shot back, smiling.
Five years ago, Mavis had been a heart attack waiting to happen. More than a hundred pounds overweight, she spent most of her days in her little Maine cottage in front of the television, with ice cream and potato chips for company. Toots had sent Mavis, Sophie, and Ida, her three dearest friends, airline tickets to Charleston right after her eighth husband Leland's funeral — rather, event — as she referred to the funerals of all her husbands. They'd made the trip, and life had been one great big whirlwind ever since.
Toots remembered picking Mavis up at the airport in Charleston and barely recognizing her. Being the take-charge person she was, Toots immediately insisted Mavis visit her longtime physician and friend, Dr. Pauley, for a complete checkup. Toots had told her she had best get a handle on her health now, before it was too late. It didn't hurt that she'd added that if Mavis wanted to live long enough to see her goddaughter marry and have a family of her own, then she'd best get her act together ASAP.
Mavis took her advice to heart. She shed her bad habits like dirty clothes, and lost more than a hundred pounds. Now Mavis was an inspiration to all of them, though Toots was not going to tell her this again. She was becoming almost as conceited as Ida. Secretly, Toots was extremely proud of her, and on occasion told her so. Mavis was the Goody Two-shoes in the group, and it was difficult to say anything negative about her now that she'd changed her wicked eating habits. She wasn't like Sophie, who, like herself, chain-smoked and cussed at every opportunity, or like Ida, who was just a plain uptight old bitch and full-time slut. No, Mavis was good and decent. Not to say Ida and Sophie weren't, but Toots could bad-mouth them without feeling the least bit guilty. Mavis simply inspired goodness in all those around her.
Before they even made it to the back door, Abby released Chester, who sprinted toward them like an athlete running in a marathon. He stopped as soon as he saw Coco and Frankie. Frankie wiggled free from Toots's grasp, and Coco practically flew to the ground. The three canines licked and sniffed before deciding it was okay to follow the humans inside.
"See what I mean?" Abby said as she stood aside, allowing them to enter. "When he sees Coco, he goes nuts. And Frankie, too. I'm surprised Chester isn't jealous of the little wiener. I think they're both head over heels in love."
Coco growled as though she knew they were discussing her love life.
"She loves Chester, too," Mavis said matter-of-factly, as though they were discussing humans. "I believe Frankie qualifies as her BFF," Mavis added.
They laughed as they discussed the animals who were like family to all of them.
"That's cool. Right, Frankie?" Abby said as she closed the back door.
The little doxie gave a low, manly growl.
"They really do understand me. I swear they're more intelligent than some of the people I know!"
"Like Ida?" Toots teased.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Classified"
Copyright © 2013 MRK Productions.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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