Gone Pearls

Gone Pearls sees Unlucky Lizzy tagging along as Fortune infiltrates a group of wealthy visitors to Sinful in order to clear her friend Ally of an accusation of stealing a valuable pearl necklace. Explosive fun is in store as Fortune’s sidekicks, Gertie and Ida Belle, turn into boar hunting guides, and, along the way, Lizzy meddles in Fortune and Carter’s love life. Here’s an excerpt:

 

Chapter 1

The car lights were bugging me. I was sure I’d left them on when I’d parked outside a charming little place called Francine’s Café, that Sunday morning.

So even though the aromas wafting from the kitchen made me want to plant my butt in a chair and stay there forever, shortly after I’d entered the restaurant, I was back outside, heading for the Bentley.

The car was a beauty and I was still in wonder that I got to drive around in that stately, old gem. It belonged to my employer, Thomas Wilder, who’d recently inherited it as part of a large estate just outside the tiny town of Sinful, Louisiana.

I blew out a loud breath in relief when I saw the car lights were off. It would have been a sin to have let the batteries run down while I gorged on whatever delights Miss Francine had to offer. I had no clue where to find a mechanic if the car had stalled.

I had not visited the town apart from the time I’d spent at my new best buddy’s place. She was a librarian whose real name was Sandy Sue Morrow, but she preferred to be called Fortune.

She was like no other librarian I’d ever met. No, not the quiet, retreating type, this one. A couple of weeks earlier, I’d seen her wrest a gun from a man and tackle him to the ground. The guy, who was a distant relative of Mr Wilder’s, had tried to kidnap my boss in order to steal some of his valuables.

In saving Mr Wilder, Fortune had also saved my job, which I desperately needed, having landed in Sinful both broke and broken-hearted. Thanks to her, I was working as a researcher, helping Mr Wilder with a book he planned to write about the adventurer who’d left him the place.

I stood before the Bentley and began to wonder whether I’d have the chance to drop by Fortune’s Victorian mansion when I was startled by a loud bang. I looked up just as the door swung in on itself at the Baptist church down the road.

Speak of the Devil…my friend, Fortune, dashed out onto the steps.

A split second later, another door banged.

The sound came from the church opposite Fortune’s church. A short, dumpy woman in a tan pants suit and ugly trainers darted out the entrance.

With determined looks on both their faces, as if their lives depended on it, the two came pelting down the street, in my direction.

For the first few seconds, it was amusing to watch.

Then panic hit me.

What were they running away from?

My deductive powers kicked into high gear. I instantly understood the situation: there’d been an attempt at exorcism…and it had gone horribly wrong!

Fortune, the other woman, and whatever imp they were fleeing would be upon me within the next few seconds. I had to get away from there quick!

I flung my hands in the air – because this is an essential part of my sprinting technique, second in importance only to screaming at the top of my lungs – and took off down the road.

I didn’t get very far…because who was I kidding? I’m a big girl. There’s lots of me, and I mean lots. I’m curvy and luscious. But curvy and luscious don’t help a girl much when her life’s in danger and she needs to run faster than an ostrich on steriods issued by the Russian athletics federation.

If I was to survive this, I had to flee on wheels.

I spun around and dashed for the Bentley. With trembling hands, I unlocked the driver’s door. I flung it open, and then flung myself inside, losing a shoe in the process.

Breathing heavily, but feeling somewhat safe, I peered out the window at Fortune and the other woman as they came thundering down the road.

To my utter surprise, they didn’t go past me. Instead, Fortune – followed by the tan pants suit – took a sharp turn and burst into the door of Francine’s.

The two of them stopped stone cold.

Then they turned to each other with jaws dropped and what looked like shocked expressions on their faces.

 

****

 

What do you mean there’s only seventeen left?”

Miss Tan Pants Suit was livid. The question exploded out of her mouth with such force, I almost ducked for cover as I entered the restaurant.

Fortune’s expression had turned from shock to disappointment. I followed her sad eyes and Miss Tan Pants Suit’s scowl to where they were directed.

In the middle of the empty restaurant was a very ancient lady and two other women in their early twenties. All three were draped in jewelry and wore silk and satin dresses with expensive-looking froufrou. They leaned in toward each other, chatting among themselves, completely unaware of the hard stares they were attracting.

This is an outrage,” Miss Tan Pants Suit fumed.

Sorry, Celia,” Francine said in the kind of tone a kindergarden teacher might use with a hyperactive child, “but you know the rules in here. It’s first come, first served, and these guests beat you to the punch.”

Both Fortune and old Tanny Pants, aka Celia, groaned.

Fortune said, “We’ll take all the banana pudding that’s left, Francine. Unfortunately, that’ll still leave us short of one dessert.”

Celia stamped her foot and folded her arms. “But how could there be only seventeen banana puddings left? There’s only three of them at that table.”

Francine shrugged. “Only three now. Ally will be by shortly to add another table and some chairs. Apparently, there’s more of their group coming.”

Francine, whom I’d met earlier when I had entered the restaurant, gave me a nod. “Not so?”

That’s right,” I said. “The men in the group should be here any moment.”

Lizzy!” Fortune’s eyes lit up when she heard my voice and turned to me. “I haven’t seen you in a while.”

I had to scuttle past Celia, who remained planted in our way even as she saw me moving toward Fortune. My librarian buddy and I hugged and did the air kisses thing.

When we pulled apart, Fortune knitted her brow. “So are you here with these banana pudding snatchers?”

I nodded. “There’s a whole party of seven visiting Mr Wilder.”

Thomas has that many guests over? I thought he was a shy man.”

I think he’s too shy to tell them he doesn’t want them here. He’s virtually gone into hiding and has me shuttling them around.”

A sudden, shrill exclamation from Celia blasted into my eardrum.

Ahah! So that belongs to you then?”

She jabbed her stubby fingers accusingly in the direction of the Bentley.

It belongs to my boss,” I said. “But if you’re asking if I parked it there, then the answer is yes. What’s it to you?”

I didn’t like the tone in which she had asked the question, and, apparently, she didn’t appreciate the tone in which I delivered my reply. She huffed, turned on her heels, and stormed toward the door.

Unfortunately, at that very moment, Gertie was just about to step inside. Gertie was one half of a pair of geriatric women of surprising energy and stamina, and enthusiasm for adventure, who had helped Fortune in nabbing Mr Wilder’s assailant.

She and Celia were mere millimeters away from colliding at the entrance of Francine’s.

Gertie hopped to her left to avoid the spill. But Celia apparently had the same idea. Her ugly sneakers squeaked as she shimmied to her right. Finding themselves right smack in each other’s faces again, Gertie and Celia shifted their weight to the opposite leg – both at the same time.

The third time this happened, Gertie lifted her enormous handbag in a way that made it look like a formidable weapon.

Get out of my way, Celia,” she yelled. “Don’t make me do something for which I’ll have to beg the Lord for forgiveness so soon after church.”

I’m in your way? I think it’s more like you’re in my way.”

From what knew of her, I was certain Gertie could win at staring down old Tanny Pants. But apparently the masses lined up outside Francine’s had no patience for such a game at the moment.

Clear the doorway, Celia!” a voice cried.

Hey, move it along,” someone else said.

People are starving out here,” another person yelled to a chorus of grumbles in agreement.

Apparently concluding she was no match for a hungry mob, Celia stepped aside, brushed past Gertie, and elbowed her way through the waiting diners.

Talk about Miss Congeniality,” I said.

That was Sinful’s mayor-elect,” Fortune said.

My jaw dropped. “You’re kidding!”

Unfortunately, she’s not,” Francine sighed.

Oh my goodness,” I said, “I’m so embarrassed for this town.”

Believe me, you’re not the only one,” Fortune said.

 

Chapter 2

Ida Belle, Fortune’s other geriatric helper in taking down the man who had attacked my boss, arrived shortly after. She and Gertie invited me to join their table. Apart from Fortune, I sat with seventeen sprightly, sparkling ladies whose collective ages added up to one billion and forty-seven.

They made up a group called the Sinful Ladies Society of which Ida Belle was the ringleader and Gertie was second lieutenant, apparently. They had ways of finding out everything about everybody and means to make things that they wanted to see happen actually come to pass. These women were the real power and authority in the town, I was made to understand.

I’m so glad to join you,” I said, “because I wasn’t sure whether I was supposed to sit with Mr Wilder’s houseguests.”

Gertie stared at me. “Why do you say that?”

Well I’m just Mr Wilder’s employee, and those are rich people.”

Don’t matter how much money they’ve got, they’re still just like you and me,” Gertie said. “They go to the bathroom every day just like you and me – unless, of course, they’re constipated. There’s no reason for you to think that you couldn’t sit with them.”

I nodded at Gertie’s deep wisdom.

So tell me about the hurricane that touched down the other day,” I said.

Fortune raised her eyebrows. “You weren’t here for it?”

No. I missed it because when I told Mr Wilder that my wallet with my driver’s license had been stolen sometime before, he sent me back to Philly to get all my papers replaced.”

Gertie smiled. “Don’t try to play you weren’t here. You were the cause of all the trouble.”

I laughed. “See how bad my luck is? Just when I think I could feel welcome in a nice, little town, a hurricane with my name comes blasting through it, causing havoc.”

Yes, Lizzie did quite a job on this town,” Ida Belle said. “There was actually a fair amount of damage. But no one was hurt, not by the hurricane, at least. Most of the town took refuge in the churches.”

That sounded like such an adventure to me. “You mean, like with candles and sleeping bags?”

Yes, almost everybody gathered together to keep safe in the basements of the churches,” Fortune said.

So did you and that cute Deputy Charming share a sleeping bag?” I winked at Fortune and giggled.

Immediately, her body stiffened. Her expression changed to one that clearly did not invite further discussion.

Oh, oh. What a faux pas by Big Mouth Lizzy with her big-city attitude! Silly me, I forgot that I was in a small town in the South and that these folk were a bit more conservative. My joke must have embarrassed Fortune, as it would have conjured up an image of intimacy between her and that tall, handsome deputy.

I quickly changed the subject.

So, Mr Wilder’s guests are down here on a hunting trip,” I said. “I heard them talking about going after wild boar. They’ve got some high-priced expedition lined up.”

Just then, the two younger ladies got up and walked hurriedly toward the bathroom. Their finery stirred up quite a debate among the Sinful Ladies Society. Some were in awe and others frowned on the ostentatious display.

Shortly after, the men of the visiting party entered and headed straight for the table where Mr Wilder’s elderly guest sat. Their arrival prompted a waitress to emerge from the kitchen and quickly make her way to the group.

Fortune leaned over to me. “That’s Ally, my friend whose peach cobbler you enjoyed so much.”

I must meet her and thank her on behalf of my taste buds,” I said.

Who are those people?” Ida Belle said. She knitted her brow as she eyed three of the men taking a seat as a fourth hovered around the elderly lady.

Your tone doesn’t sound too hospitable, Ida Belle,” Gertie said. “For a minute there, I thought I was listening to Celia talking.”

Well, who can feel warm and fuzzy about obviously rich strangers who waltz in and deprive long-standing members of Sinful of their banana pudding?”

Gertie shook her head. “Much as I hate to be on the same side with Celia in anything, I’m with you and her in resenting outsiders upsetting the balance of the Banana Pudding War.”

So there are eighteen of us and only seventeen banana puddings to go around,” Ida Belle said. “Who among us will go pudding-less this morning?”

Fortune looked around the table and sighed. “Well, by virtue of seniority, that would be me.”

Hey Fortune,” I said, “Mr Wilder’s guests had ordered a banana pudding for me. You can share mine.”

She brightened. “Thanks. The day just got a whole lot better.”

Ida Belle looked at me. “My sentiments about outsiders excluded present company, of course.”

I nodded.

Ida Belle tilted her head in the direction of the table. “But I still want to know who these invaders are.”

The short man who looks as if he’s around Mr Wilder’s age is a childhood friend of his, David Daly,” I said. “The old lady is David’s mother and the gray-haired man with the handlebar moustache is some poorer relation of hers. He’s a former Navy man who still likes to be referred to as a commander. The tall, dashing man is called John and he’s the boyfriend of David’s cousin, Anna.”

Just then the young women returned to their seats. “The younger, plain girl with the short black hair is Anna,” I said. “The other woman, the pretty blonde, is Julia, and she’s engaged to David.”

And who’s the guy in the gray flat cap and tweed jacket who’s hovering around the old lady?” Fortune said.

At that moment, the man looked over in our direction, waved to me, and began walking over to us with his hands shoved in his pockets.

I’ll introduce you,” I said.

Hello, Washington.” He beamed. “Looks like you’re in nice and snug with the locals.”

Ladies,” I said, “this is Harry. He’s an English butler. He’s the real deal, as in born and bred in the land of the Queen.”

You’re rather a long way from home, aren’t you?” Ida Belle said.

I go wherever Mrs Daly goes. For a ninety-year-old, she’s quite the adventurer still.”

Harry, you might want to try spending some time with Gertie and Ida Belle so you can pick up some Southern recipes,” I said to him. Turning to the Sinful women, I said, “Harry is a marvel in the kitchen. Can follow any recipe to perfection.”

Oh, can you now?” Gertie said.

Absolutely! It’s a must. Even if she’s dining in, Mrs Daly likes to savor the local delights wherever she travels. Keeps my wits sharp to have to keep up with her demands.”

He winked. “But I have a trick. Usually, I add my super secret ingredient to a dish. I’m sure it’s what brings me all the compliments.”

I’m going to get that super secret ingredient out of you before you leave this town,” I said.

Harry laughed. “Not a chance, Washington.”

With his hands still stuffed in his pockets, he bent his wrists and looked down at his watch.

Well, I must be off for my stroll now if I’m to have any chance of getting a good look at the town.” He bowed.

You’re not having breakfast?” I said.

Oh no. Mrs Daly kindly offered me a place at their table, but there are boundaries, you know. Can’t get too familiar with your employer now. It’s just not the thing to do.”

Couldn’t agree with you more,” I said.

He bowed again and left.

I’ve convinced him to make me a pecan pie,” I said. “He’s the only one among the lot I wish wasn’t leaving in the next few days.”

Careful Lizzy,” Fortune said. “I think I might be hearing some romantic notes in your voice.”

I couldn’t help but giggle. “Okay, I admit it. The route to this woman’s heart is her stomach, and he’s well on his way.”

Then a thought crossed my mind and involuntarily I frowned.

Now what’s gone and darkened your mood?” Fortune said.

I’m just thinking about what Harry said about not getting too familiar with your boss….”

Might you be referring to yourself and Thomas?” Fortune said.

I nodded.

How come you’re referring to him as Mr Wilder, now, whereas before, you called him Thomas.”

He told me to call him Mr Wilder, much to my relief, of course.”

Why do you say…,” Fortune began, but her question was drowned out by Ida Belle’s laughter.

When she contained herself, Ida Belle pointed out the window. “I’m looking at Celia coming down the street like a raging bull. And she’s dragging poor Carter behind her.”

I perked up at the thought that Fortune’s loverboy would arrive soon. The two of them looked so good together, and I’m such a sucker for a sweet romance.

I couldn’t understand why Fortune suddenly dropped her eyes to stare at the table as she clasped her fingers tightly.

The door suddenly banged open and the Sinful mayor-elect burst into the restaurant, with Deputy Carter LeBlanc close on her heels.

There she is!” Celia flung her hand in my direction and pointed right at me. “Arrest that woman!”

Everybody turned to our table, including Mr Wilder’s guests.

I had no clue what I’d done to deserve this, but I saw my dreadful future flash before my eyes. I would be dragged out of the restaurant in handcuffs — kicking and screaming, of course. I wasn’t going without a fight. Then I’d be thrown into a cell and I’d most likely lose my job because Mr Wilder wouldn’t want a jailbird at his house or driving his Bentley.

A fainting spell was quickly coming on.

Gertie put a comforting hand on my shoulder and stood up as Celia and Carter approached.

What’s this about, Celia?” she said. “What’s the charge?”

I have witnesses,” the mayor-elect said. “She confessed to driving that Bentley.”

So?”

It’s Sunday!” Celia shouted. “It’s illegal to drive on Main Street on a Sunday.”

Get out of here,” Gertie said. “That’s not what the law says.”

Says who?”

Go back and check the laws, Celia. It’s only illegal to drive on Main Street on a Sunday when church is letting out. And from what I saw, the Bentley was already parked and was totally stationary when church was letting out.”

The mayor-elect huffed.

Gertie glared at her. “You owe this nice, law-abiding, young lady an apology, Celia.”

Old Tanny glowered at me, lifted her chin, turned on her heels, and stormed out.

Sorry about the trouble,” Fortune’s deputy lifted his hat and said to me.

He shifted his eyes for half a second to Fortune, who was still concentrating on the pattern of the tablecloth. Without saying anything more, he turned and left.

Fortune’s and the deputy’s behavior struck me as odd for lovebirds. But then again, I thought that perhaps things had got so hot between them that they probably would have been all over each other in public if they had allowed themselves to look at each other. Southern manners had got the better of them, I thought.

Why is it illegal to drive on Main Street on a Sunday when church is letting out?” I said.

I got a long history about Francine’s banana pudding and the rivalry between the church luncheon groups who had to set their best runners to race to the restaurant because there weren’t enough of the delicacies to go around.

I also got an earful about how I’d upset it all by arriving before everyone else with Mr Wilder’s houseguests.

Don’t worry,” I said. “It won’t happen again. These people are leaving after the hunt in a day or so and they’ll never have this effect your Banana Pudding War again.”

 

Chapter 3

Hey, Fortune, do you think you could swing by Mr Wilder’s place?”

I wondered whether she could hear the nervousness in my voice. I’m terrible at masking my feelings. I’m the last person anybody should ask to be the bearer of bad news, and this was no happy call that I had to make the morning following our brunch at Francine’s.

Sure, not a problem,” Fortune said, brightly. “I could come by maybe late this afternoon.”

Can’t you come now?”

Well, Ally’s got the morning off and she’s fixing up some hamburgers now. Gertie and Ida Belle are on their way over to join us.”

You’re having hamburgers for breakfast?”

Sure, why not?”

Well, nothing’s wrong with that, if that’s your fancy. But you can have a hamburger breakfast party any other day you choose. What I’m calling about is important. Can’t you come now?”

Actually, we’ll be eating burgers every day. We’re trying to work our way through all the red meat we stashed in my freezer because of the hurricane.”

I groaned.

What’s up?” Fortune said.

Something awful has happened and Mr Wilder doesn’t want the police involved, so he asked me to call you.”

Does it have to do with his guests?”

Yes. And Ally too. ”

What does Ally have to do with Mr Wilder’s visitors?”

I don’t want to say too much over the phone. You never know who’s listening in on our call.”

Now you have me curious. I’ll be over as soon as I can get away.”

 

****

I showed Fortune into Mr Wilder’s study, where he sat pensively.

So I’ll get straight to it,” he said. “Mrs Daly’s pearl necklace has gone missing.”

And Mrs Daly is the matriarch of this group?” Fortune said.

Yes, the mother of my childhood friend, David.”

When did she discover that her pearls were gone?”

She hasn’t.”

What?”

She doesn’t know anything about this yet,” Mr Wilder said. “I’m hoping we can recover the darn thing and give it back to her without her ever having to find out her pearls were gone.”

So how did this happen?”

Mrs Daly lent the necklace to David’s fiancée, Julia. The old lady is very generous with Julia as she’s going to inherit all of her jewels anyway.”

So Julia lost her future mother-in-law’s necklace?”

No, she didn’t.”

Julia didn’t lose the pearls?”

No, David’s cousin, Anna, did.”

How does that work?”

Julia let Anna wear the pearls, yesterday.”

Okay, so the necklace went missing when they were in Anna’s possession,” Fortune said. “What does this have to do with Ally?”

Anna believes the pearls were stolen.”

No, you don’t think….”

Fortune stared at Mr Wilder, who stared back at her matter-of-factly.

I shrugged and nodded. “That’s why I didn’t want to say anything over the phone.”

This doesn’t make any sense,” Fortune said. “Why are you accusing Ally of stealing somebody’s pearls?”

I’m not accusing anyone of anything.” Mr Wilder stood up. “However, Anna is sure the necklace disappeared at that place in town that Elizabeth took everyone to, yesterday.”

Francine’s?”

Yes. Elizabeth came back raving about some dessert they had….”

The banana pudding,” I said.

Actually, it seems to have been a hit with everyone,” Mr Wilder said. “Anyway, at breakfast this morning, Julia mentioned that she’d need to put the necklace back with Mrs Daly’s things, and that’s when Anna realized it was gone. She’s been avoiding returning to the subject with Julia ever since.”

Yes, but why blame Ally?”

Anna is quite convinced it was the waitress who took the necklace. The waitress was the only stranger anywhere near their table and Anna thinks she had ample opportunity.”

Well, I’m not convinced of Anna’s reasoning,” Fortune said. “I know Ally. This is not something she would do.”

Yes, Elizabeth told me the waitress was a friend of yours. That’s why I called for you instead of the police. If the police get involved, then this thing is likely to get into the papers, and then everyone in this town will be talking about it. That won’t be good for your friend’s reputation, would it?”

Are you concerned about the publicity that would fall on Ally or yourself?”

Mr Wilder remained quiet.

Fortune continued. “I seem to recall that you try to avoid calling attention to yourself as much as possible. These are your houseguests. If this gets into the news, then the media are quite possibly going to talk about the house these visitors were staying at, and, of course, the homeowner.”

Mr Wilder’s brow became furrowed. “Does it matter whose privacy is more important to me? Word about this getting out would simply be rotten business all round.”

Fortune cleared her throat. “I know Ally’s innocent,” she said. “But you’re right. Just being thought of as a suspect can put someone’s name under a cloud forever, even if they’re eventually proved innocent.”

I’m in no position to say whether Anna’s wrong and you are right that your friend is innocent,” Mr Wilder said. “But if Anna is right, I’d like for you to convince your friend to give back the necklace. All will be kept quiet if the pearls are returned safely.

And if you’re right, you can find out what really happened to that necklace and prove your friend’s innocence. You’ve convinced me totally of your capabilities. I’m alive today because of them. So I’m willing to pay handsomely for you to investigate this.”

Mr Wilder pulled open a drawer of an antique desk and took out a checkbook and a pen.

Fortune batted the air. “Put that away, Thomas. I will investigate this. But I’m doing so only to save Ally’s name. I don’t need any payment.”

Have it your way,” Mr Wilder said. “But even if I’m not paying, I would still like you to agree to one condition.”

What’s that?”

I appreciate that since your friend’s reputation is at stake that’s something of a motivation for you to do the investigation. But it also poses a conflict of interest, because you want to protect her. So I trust you will understand when I say I’d like to have your investigations monitored, just so I can be certain that I receive all the facts you uncover.”

That’s an unnecessary precaution, but I have nothing to hide.”

Good. So you won’t mind then, if Elizabeth joins you as you look into this?”

I raised my eyebrows.

None at all,” Fortune said.

Mr Wilder turned to me. “So, Elizabeth, what do you say? Will you be willing to act as my eyes and ears in this matter?”

Ha! That had to have been the most unnecessary question ever asked in the entire history of the human race.

 

Chapter 4

We found Anna, The Accuser, upstairs in her bedroom. Although bright sunshine streamed through the windows, she swanned around in a long, embroidered dressing gown, which looked like it cost ten times my entire wardrobe.

Really, ladies, I can’t understand why you want to talk to me,” she said. “I just want to get back to sleep until this is over. I’ve already told Thomas all there is to know.”

Fortune smiled patiently. “It would be a great help if we could find out exactly what transpired.”

Anna shook her head. “I told Thomas this little, private investigation of his is unnecessary. All that’s required is to let the police question that waitress and make her return the necklace. I promise no charges will be laid.”

Did you see the waitress take the necklace?”

Of course I didn’t. I was in the bathroom with Julia when it was nicked.”

How come you left the necklace unattended?”

I suppose Julia would say that it was because I just wasn’t thinking. But, the truth be told, it was because of my allergy.”

Your allergy?”

Yes. There’s some jewelry I can’t wear. I itch and sometimes I break out in rashes. I quickly found out this necklace was one I’m allergic to.”

The missing pearl necklace?”

Yes. Almost as soon as I took it out of its box and put it around my neck, I began to feel the irritation here.” With her index finger, she traced a semi-circular line on her chest, from collar bone to collar bone. “But vain, silly me, I still tried to wear the thing all morning. However, by the time we were seated in the restaurant, my allergy was raging. So I took the necklace off and rested it in my handbag.”

And then what happened?”

Well, almost as I did, Julia squealed. She said the table must not have been cleaned properly and she thought she had put her hand on something nasty. She’s particularly sensitive about germs, you know. She picked up her purse and headed for the bathroom, so I pulled my purse out of my handbag and followed her. When we returned, the men had already arrived, and the waitress was there, and as we got caught up in breakfast, the necklace didn’t cross my mind again, until this morning when Julia mentioned it.”

Anna paced the room. “It’s one of the worst pieces this could happen to. It’s really expensive. It’s got South Seas cultured pearls and has a pavé diamond clasp in eighteen karat white gold.”

Anna plopped down on the bed and shook her head. “This is ruining my trip. This morning, I pretended to have a headache so I could back out of a car ride with Julia and Mrs Daly.”

So you can’t bear to face them, can you?” Fortune said.

Julia mostly, now that it looks like I’m so unworthy of her trust. She’s been so good to me. I like her a lot and I’m glad David has chosen her to be his bride.”

Why do you say that?”

She’s good for him. Because of her, he’s finally given up his wild ways. And he’s good for her, too. Before she met David, some guy named Robert Jenkins broke her heart. When we’re not traveling like this, she tends to nap a lot during the day, and I’ve heard her call out his name several times in her sleep.”

Anna sighed and stared dreamily out the window. “Unfortunately, I know all too well what heartache is like. I spent too many years on the love roller coaster – until John came along.”

The young woman’s eyes brightened as her boyfriend’s name rolled off her lips. “He’s a dreamboat. He’s a theater actor, you know. The one thing that saddens me is that he and Julia don’t get along. But she doesn’t know him like I do. He’s very ambitions, you know. She thinks he’s no good for me. She’s so protective. Like the big sister I never had.”

Anna’s face turned serious. “That’s why you must get that necklace back from that waitress, immediately. I don’t want this to be something that comes between Julia and me.”

****

Francine’s was quiet at mid-afternoon, with only one table occupied by a couple of stout men with very obvious potbellies, who were ravishing their lunches. Fortune led the way to a table in a far corner. After a while, a young woman with dark hair came through the kitchen door and bounced over to the male diners.

Fortune waved at her. Eventually, she came over to our table.

Ally,” Fortune said, “this is Lizzy, who I told you loved your peach cobbler.”

I nodded. “It made me ready to go down on bended knees. But Fortune told me she’d already beaten me to the marriage proposal.”

Ally threw back her head and chuckled. “Gosh, and I’m still just learning.”

Well,” I said, “you’ve already got what I’d call a ‘sweet hand.’ You’ll have customers breaking down the doors when you set up shop.”

I sure hope so. Anybody can open a bakery, but only the best stay in business, and I want my shop to be the best it can be.”

Fortune pulled out a chair and patted the seat. “Can you spare a couple of minutes?”

Ally looked around. The portly men were deep in conversation. Outside, one or two people walked by, but it didn’t look like Francine’s would be getting any more customers anytime soon.

Ally settled herself. “Actually, it’s good to be off my feet.”

Fortune’s face went serious and she rested a hand on Ally’s shoulder.

I’d like to ask you about that party of strangers that you served, yesterday.”

What about them?”

Saw anything unusual?”

Ally scrunched up her mouth and drew back her head. “No.”

Did anything out of the ordinary happen at any time while you were serving them?”

Ally looked up at the ceiling as if it was a screen on which her entire memory of Sunday morning was being replayed.

Not that I can recall.” Her eyes brightened in a big, curious expression. “What’s up?”

Fortune glanced at me and took in a deep breath.

Did you notice a necklace laying about anywhere?”

A necklace? No. What? Did one of those fancy ladies lose a necklace?”

Fortune nodded slowly.

Ally leaned in closer to Fortune and me and rubbed her hands. “Oh boy! That’s going to be the gossip of the town for a good four or five months straight, I’d say.”

Yes, that’s exactly what I’m afraid of, Ally, because it’s not good news for you.”

Me?”

Ally looked from Fortune to me and we both nodded.

She tilted her head and raised her eyebrows. “What does those ladies losing a neck–”

Her jaw dropped and both her hands flew up to cover her mouth.

No!” Ally said when she caught her breath. “They’re not seriously thinking that I took their necklace, are they?”

Unfortunately, that’s exactly the case,” Fortune said.

 

End of sample.

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