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Charlotte doesn't mind polishing silver, scrubbing toilets, or dusting bookcases--but she can't stand dealing with her rich clients' dirty laundry. And when it comes to the much-talked-about Dubuisson family, there's an awful lot of it--especially since Jackson Dubuisson was found murdered in his study.
Now this exclusive enclave is abuzz with all kinds of gossip--and some very sinister speculation. A chatty socialite keeps hinting that Jackson's extra-marital affair may have been the death of him. His mother-in-law--who's quite possibly senile--has revealed more of the Dubuisson family's secrets than Charlotte ever wanted to know. And then there's his widow, Jeanne. Charlotte refuses to desert her in her time of need--but suspects she may have something to hide. One thing is certain: someone wanted Jackson dead--and that someone is not coming clean. . .
Surrounded by possible suspects and hounded by a tenacious police detective, Charlotte wishes she could stick to her own policy of staying out of clients' personal business. Problem is, she's never been able to walk away from a mess. And this is the biggest one she's ever seen. . .
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"Nadia, it's okay. Just calm down, hon." Charlotte LaRue spoke softly into the telephone receiver as she interrupted the young woman's tearful tirade. "Believe me, I understand. I really do," she stressed. "Little Davy has to come first, and you can't help it if he's ill. But Nadia, dear, just this once, couldn't Ricco take him to the doctor? I know you need the money, and this will make two days this week you've had to miss work."
Charlotte drummed her fingers on the desktop while she listened to Nadia's string of excuses why her unemployed live-in boyfriend didn't have the time to take his own son to the doctor or stay with him that day.
With a sigh of frustration, Charlotte glanced at the clock on the wall. In spite of the clock being a silly cuckoo that she'd picked up on a whim at a flea market, it kept excellent time. And according to the time showing, she was going to be late if she didn't leave soon.
"Hmm, I see," Charlotte finally told Nadia, though she really didn't understand at all. "Don't cry, now. I'm sure things will work out. Just take care of that sweet little boy and let me know when you're free to work again."
Charlotte hung up the receiver and made a silent vow to have a real heart-to- heart talk with Nadia about her freeloading boyfriend. Charlotte had met Ricco Martinez on several occasions, and nothing about the man had impressed her. In Charlotte's opinion, the only reason Ricco Martinez stayed around was for the free room and board.
She'd often wondered why Nadia continued to put up with him, but the only conclusion she'd come to was that Nadia had convinced herself she was doing it for Davy's sake. What the younger woman didn't realize, though, and what Charlotte knew from her own personal experience, was if a boy was given enough love and attention, he could grow up just fine without a father, especially a no- account father like Ricco.
Yes, she decided. She definitely needed to have that heart-to-heart talk with the younger woman.
Charlotte flipped through the Rolodex near the phone and finally located the phone number of Janet Davis, one of the three women Charlotte employed on a temporary basis.
Janet answered on the third ring. "This is Charlotte, Janet. I'm so glad I caught you at home. I apologize for such short notice, but I hope you're free to work today."
Janet said she was free, and Charlotte quickly gave her the address of the client's home. "And Janet, Mrs. Dufore likes the ceiling fans dusted each time we clean her house. There's a small ladder in the downstairs storage closet you can use. She's also very particular about the shower in the master bath. Make sure you get rid of all the soap scum, especially around the drain."
Charlotte ended the conversation, grabbed her purse, and fished out the keys to her van. "Thank God it's Friday," she muttered.
Satisfied that yet another crisis had been averted and with one last glance at the phone as if daring it to ring again, she headed for the front door. "Bye-bye, Sweety Boy," she called over her shoulder. "Be a good little bird today and I'll see you later."
From his cage near the front window, the little parakeet's answer was to burst into a series of chirps and whistles that made Charlotte smile as she pulled the front door firmly shut behind her, then locked it.
The small Victorian shotgun double that Charlotte lived in was located on Milan Street, just blocks away from the exclusive, historic New Orleans Garden District. The hundred-year-old double had been inherited by Charlotte and her younger sister, Madeline, after their parents' untimely deaths, and each half included a living room, a dining room, a kitchen, two bedrooms, and a bath.
Unlike her sister, though, who had long ago sold her half of the double to Charlotte right after her first marriage, Charlotte had never felt the urge or the need to live anywhere else.
To Charlotte, the old Victorian double was more than just the home in which she'd grown up and raised her son. The location was perfect for her thriving, sometimes hectic cleaning service, since all of her clients lived in the Garden District.
Over the years, she'd thought about branching out, expanding her business to other parts of the city, but when it came right down to it, she couldn't imagine working anywhere else.
The old-world ambience of the Garden District, with its many huge, imposing mansions, several well over a century old, was like taking a step back in time. She loved everything about the unique neighborhood — its narrow streets and hundred-year-old moss-draped oaks that shaded them, the brick sidewalks, the formal gardens, lush with ferns, azaleas, palms, and other subtropical vegetation.
Compared to the rest of New Orleans, living near and working in the Garden District was like taking a breath of country air.
Traffic wasn't too bad until Charlotte reached the intersection of Milan and Magazine streets. Turning left onto Magazine was always tricky under the best of circumstances at that time of morning, for there was no traffic light and most of the traffic on the right side was flowing toward downtown. To make matters worse, a large delivery van was parked on the corner, effectively blocking sight of the oncoming vehicles.
When several minutes passed and traffic hadn't budged, Charlotte knew she was in trouble. She glanced around, looking for an alternative route, then groaned. Ordinarily, she could have taken one of the many side streets and avoided the congested area, but the closest one was blocked off by a crew from the Sewerage and Water Board, patching yet another part of the century-old underground drainage system.
In the thirty-plus years since she'd founded Maid-for-a-Day, she'd always prided herself on being thorough and punctual, something that she absolutely insisted on from the two full-time and three part-time women she employed. The one thing customers hated most besides a sloppy cleaning job was having to wait for the maid to show up. Thanks to Nadia, today looked as if it were going to be one of the rare exceptions to her rule.
Charlotte reached for her cell phone and punched out the number of her client, Jeanne Dubuisson. A bit embarrassed, she explained that she was stuck in traffic and would probably be a few minutes late.
By the time Charlotte parked her van on the street that ran alongside the nineteenth-century Greek Revival mansion belonging to the Dubuissons, she noted that even with the last-minute crisis with Nadia and the snarl of work traffic, she was only a few minutes later than normal. Not that Jeanne had any particular place to go. Certainly not to an outside job.
Jeanne St. Martin Dubuisson was wealthy in her own right, having come from an old, established New Orleans family, but Jackson, Jeanne's husband, was also one of the city's most prestigious attorneys. Jeanne could well afford to simply do nothing. If not for her invalid mother, she might have been tempted to join her socially prominent contemporaries who spent their days running from one luncheon to another or heading up notable charitable committees.
Charlotte preferred to use her own cleaning supplies when servicing a customer. From the back of the van, she selected the various cleaners and waxes she would need and placed them in the special carrier she used. She would have to make another trip later for the vacuum cleaner.
After locking the van, she approached the fence that fronted the Dubuissons' house. Made of cast iron and designed in the traditional cornstalk pattern, as opposed to the simpler wrought-iron designs, the fence was typical and almost exclusive to the Garden District. Beside the latch on the double-wide gate was a buzzer that Charlotte pushed. After several minutes, the lock clicked, and she opened the gate.
There were eight steps leading up to the lower gallery that bordered three sides of the old mansion. Charlotte paused on the seventh step.
"Now that's odd," she murmured as she turned her head slowly from one side to the other, her eagle eyes following the trail of debris that had been tracked across the normally fastidiously clean porch. Dried leaves, grass, and dirt left a trail clear across the porch, the same type of debris that she'd swept away on Wednesday, when she'd cleaned.
Oh, well, she thought. Nothing to do but sweep it all up again. Still puzzling about the scattered debris, Charlotte jumped when the front door suddenly swung open.
"Why, Miss Anna," she exclaimed. "What on earth are you doing home?"
Twenty-year-old Anna-Maria Dubuisson was willowy thin, with shoulder- length blond hair and startling green eyes, startling and exotic because of their deep emerald color, fringed by thick, sooty lashes. She was also tall, several inches taller than Charlotte's petite height of five feet three. In the six years that Charlotte had worked for the Dubuissons, she'd watched the gangly teenager grow into one of the most beautiful young women she'd ever met.
Charlotte narrowed her eyes. "I thought there was still another week before spring break."
Anna-Maria flashed her a mischievous smile. "Don't tell Mother," she said softly, "but I skipped out. She thinks I got special permission to leave early." She shrugged in a dismissive gesture. "I just had to come home, though. James's father is giving a small, intimate party tomorrow night for just family and a few select friends. James thinks that's it's a celebration for his sister." She lowered her voice. "It's all hush-hush, but he's pretty sure that Laura has been chosen as one of the maids for Rex next year, maybe even queen." Her eyes widened. "Can you imagine being Queen of Carnival?"
James Doucet was Anna-Maria's fiance, and it came as no surprise to Charlotte that James's sister might be chosen as a maid or even queen. Since James's father, Vincent Doucet, had reigned as Rex several years back and was prominent in the Krewe of Rex, it was logical that his daughter would be in line for such an honor.
"Since I don't have a thing to wear," Anna-Maria continued, "I came home early to shop." She glanced at her watch. "Oh, shoot, I'm already late. Got to run." She laughed, and with a small flutter of her fingers, she waved as she hurried past Charlotte. "I'm meeting Laura for breakfast; then it's shop till we drop. Oh, and by the way," she called out, "I love your new hairstyle."
Charlotte reached up self-consciously and smoothed back a strand of hair as she watched Anna-Maria skip down the front steps and disappear around the side of the house toward the driveway. Charlotte usually preferred a shorter, no-nonsense style, but it had been a while since she'd had time to get a haircut, and her hair had grown out longer than she normally wore it. Still, if Anna-Maria liked it a bit longer ... maybe ...
"Don't be ridiculous," she muttered. She wasn't some silly schoolgirl who had all the time in the world to fool with fixing her hair. Shorter hair was much more practical. Besides, she should just be thankful that she didn't have to bother with getting it colored as well as cut. She considered herself fortunate indeed that what little gray she had still blended with the honey-brown color.
Within moments, Charlotte heard the roar of a car engine come to life. When she turned back toward the door, Jeanne Dubuisson, dressed in a long silk robe and matching slippers, was standing in the doorway.
Unlike Anna-Maria, Jeanne's eyes were blue. Otherwise, in looks, she was simply an older version of her daughter. But in temperament, whereas Anna-Maria was still outgoing and passionate about life, Jeanne possessed a quiet, ageless sophistication that could only be acquired with maturity and time.
"Good morning," she said to Charlotte, sparing her a brief glance and polite smile. At that moment, her daughter's bright red Bimmer Roadster shot out of the driveway and into the street. Jeanne focused a hungry gaze on the retreating sports car. "She thinks I don't know that she's playing hooky, and I guess I should be upset with her. It's just that I miss her so when she's away," she said, her soft voice tinged with sadness. "I worry about her."
Charlotte nodded, fully understanding the emotions Jeanne was experiencing. "It's hard to let go," Charlotte told her gently. "It's been a while, but I remember well those first two years Hank went off to college. It's almost like a part of you is missing."
The sports car disappeared around the corner, and with a deep sigh, Jeanne turned her attention back to Charlotte. "And how is that son of yours these days? Is he still after you to retire?"
Charlotte grimaced. "Isn't that the most ridiculous thing you've ever heard of? My goodness, I'm only fifty-nine. The way he carries on sometimes, you'd think I was a ninety-year-old invalid."
Jeanne patted Charlotte's arm. "You hang in there, and don't you dare let him talk you into something you're not ready for. Just because he's a doctor doesn't mean he knows everything. Besides, what on earth would I do without you?" Jeanne stood aside and motioned for Charlotte to enter the foyer.
The grand foyer of the old home was a room unto itself, and unlike the mere sixteen-foot ceilings of the other rooms in the house, the foyer soared upward the full two stories. Placed along the walls were several gilded lyre-back chairs and an Empire chaise longue upholstered in red brocade with gold trim. An antique rug, worn thin from decades of wear and all the more valuable because of its condition, covered the wooden floor.
"Today why don't you start upstairs in Mother's room while I serve her breakfast," Jeanne told Charlotte as she pulled the door shut. "She's been so grumpy lately that I thought I would serve it out on the upper gallery so she could get some fresh air and a little sunshine."
Charlotte truly admired Jeanne as well as sympathized with her situation. Jeanne's mother, Clarice St. Martin, had suffered a debilitating stroke just before Charlotte had begun working for the Dubuissons. Clarice could have well afforded the best nurses and round-the-clock care that money could buy, and her condition had somewhat improved over time, but Jeanne had insisted that her mother move in with her so that she could personally care for her.
Charlotte could understand why Jeanne, or any daughter, for that matter, would want to ensure that her mother had the best of care. Even so, the whole situation still seemed a bit strange, especially given their financial means, and she couldn't help wondering if Jeanne had some kind of martyr complex.
"I already have Mother's tray ready in the kitchen," Jeanne said. "I won't be but a moment." She walked past Charlotte toward the entrance to the formal dining room that led back to the kitchen.
"Do you need some help with the tray?" Charlotte called after her.
"My goodness, no," Jeanne answered. "Besides, you've already got enough to carry."
Within moments, Jeanne reappeared with a large wicker tray. On the tray were several covered dishes, but it was the pink rose in a cut-crystal vase that caught Charlotte's eye.
"I see you've already been out to the garden this morning," she said as she followed Jeanne up the sweeping stairway. Though Charlotte knew that Jeanne hired out most of the yard work, one of the few self-indulgent activities she allowed herself was her rose garden.
"Don't I wish I could get out in the mornings," Jeanne answered, her tone wistful. "I really love gardening, and truly the best time is early mornings, before the dew evaporates and before it gets too hot. But lately Mother has taken to waking up so early, and what with Jackson working later, I've had to switch working in the garden to the evenings instead."
The stairway opened to a central hall on the second-story level, a hall similar to the foyer on the first level and wide enough for a claw-foot settee and a pair of pillar-and-scroll mahogany tables. Connected to the central hall were four large bedroom suites, each suite containing its own private bath.
Clarice's bedroom was the closest to the stairs. The old lady was still in bed, her television tuned to QVC, a popular shopping channel. She was dressed in her nightgown, just one of the many soft flannel granny-type gowns that she preferred to sleep in and lounge around in.
"Mother, look who's here." Jeanne set the tray down on the foot of the bed.
Totally ignoring Charlotte, the old lady pointed to the television screen. "Quick, Jeanne, look at that."
Jeanne didn't bother looking, but Charlotte glanced at the screen. A sparkling ruby-and-diamond necklace was being displayed.
"Wouldn't that look stunning on Anna-Maria? And rubies are her birthstone."
With an impatient shake of her head, Jeanne walked around to the side of the bed and pulled back the covers. "I don't know why you insist on watching those shows. Now, come along. I have a special treat for you today."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Maid For Murder"
Copyright © 2002 Barbara Colley.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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