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Authors: Janet Evanovich & Charlotte Hughes

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ALSO BY JANET EVANOVICH

 

ONE FOR THE MONEY

TWO FOR THE DOUGH

THREE TO GET DEADLY

FOUR TO SCORE

HIGH FIVE

HOT SIX

SEVEN UP

HARD EIGHT

VISIONS OF SUGAR PLUMS

TO THE NINES

 

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TEN BIG ONES

(COMING SOON IN HARDCOVER)

 

 

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Janet

Evanovich

and Charlotte Hughes

 

 

 

St. Martin’s Paperbacks

NOTE:
If you purchased this book without a cover you should be aware that this book is stolen property. It was reported as “unsold and destroyed” to the publisher, and neither the author nor the publisher has received any payment for this “stripped book.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Copyright © 2004 by Evanovich, Inc.

 

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10010.

 

ISBN: 0-312-98330-1

EAN: 80312-98330-7

 

Printed in the United States of America

 

St. Martin’s Paperbacks edition / April 2004

 

St. Martin’s Paperbacks are published by St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10010.

 

10  9  8  7  6  5  4  3  2  1

 

 

 

 

 

Many thanks to Jen Enderlin aka SuperJen for giving us a great book idea! Special thanks to Eric Hughes for coming up with the title for this book.

 

 

CONTENTS

CHAPTER ONE

CHAPTER TWO

CHAPTER THREE

CHAPTER FOUR

CHAPTER FIVE

CHAPTER SIX

CHAPTER SEVEN

CHAPTER EIGHT

CHAPTER NINE

CHAPTER TEN

CHAPTER ELEVEN

CHAPTER TWELVE

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

EPILOGUE

CHAPTER ONE

 

 

 

JAMIE SWIFT HAD BEEN IN THE NEWSPAPER BUSIness long enough to realize it was a lot like being a waitress. You had to meet the needs of those you served—the rich, the poor, the in-between, even the crazies who complained no matter what you did. And like a waitress, you had to hope the tips were good. A big tip could make all the difference. A big tip in her case meant headlines, and she was in the business of finding headlines. But they didn’t come easy in a small Southern town where life was, for the most part, uneventful, even predictable. She had to scramble for newsworthy events.

So here she was, once again, sitting at her desk, sifting through stories, looking for a new slant or an idea to make it more interesting to the reading public. She was so intent on what she was doing that she jumped when someone tapped on her door.

Sixty-year-old Vera Bankhead rushed into Jamie’s office and closed the door behind her. “You are
not
going to believe this!”

Jamie glanced up. “What is it?” she asked, straightening in her chair and trying to work the kinks out of her neck from sitting in one position for so long. She had come in early, hoping to work undisturbed. “You got a good tip for me?” she asked the woman before her. “Give me a headline, and I’ll kiss the ground you walk on.”

“This is even better.” Vera paused, as if to add a little drama to what she was about to say. The hairpins had popped out from her gray beehive hairdo, and her glasses were askew. She shoved them high on her nose and glanced about as if to make certain they were alone. She eyed the large plate-glass window overlooking the courthouse square where automatic sprinklers were doing damage control to a parched lawn brought on by a record-breaking July heat wave. Vera marched over and snapped the blinds closed.

Jamie arched one brow. “This must be big.”

“It’s bigger than when Lorraine Brown caught her husband doing the nasty with Beth Toomey on a sofa in the back office of the VFW Hall.”

“Wow. Wasn’t she jailed for going after them with a letter opener?”

“Yeah, and Tom refused to bail her out until she signed an agreement stating she wouldn’t do him bodily harm afterward. She kicked his butt anyway the minute they released her.”

“So tell me.”

“You’re not going to believe it,” the woman repeated.

“Vera, out with it already!”

Vera held up a white paper sack. She reached into it and pulled out a brownie. “Taste it.”

Jamie’s mouth watered at the sight of the chocolate goodie. “I really shouldn’t. I’ve already had three doughnuts this morning. I can barely button the top of my jeans.”

Vera gave her
that
look, the one that said she wasn’t going to take no for an answer. And Vera could be fierce. Although she still worked as Jamie’s secretary, fear and intimidation had prompted Jamie to promote her to assistant editor of the
Gazette
, as well. That and the fact Vera carried a .38 Smith and Wesson in her purse. Jamie was almost sure she wouldn’t pull it on her; Vera was the closest thing she’d had to a mother, but it was best to humor her.

“Okay, okay.” Jamie reached for the brownie and tasted it. “Yum, that’s good.” She finished it off in three bites.

“Do you feel any different?” Vera asked, eyeing her closely.

“Yeah, I want another one. I can always buy larger jeans.”

“This isn’t just
any
brownie,” Vera said in a conspiratorial whisper. “There are rumors floating around that Lyle Betts is putting aphrodisiacs in them.”

Jamie arched one brow. Lyle Betts owned Sunshine Bakery, and was considered a pillar of the community. He was president of the Jaycees, coached Little League, and played Santa Claus for the children’s unit at the hospital every year. “No way,” she said.

Vera crossed her heart. “As God is my witness.”

Jamie pondered it. Vera was a strict Southern Baptist; she only lied when absolutely necessary.

“Do you have any more?”

“Yeah, I bought extra. I figured we should do a little experimenting. We’ll eat a couple more, and then compare notes.”

“Oh, Lord,” Jamie said, as Vera divvied them up. The last thing she needed was to start feeling horny. It had been three weeks since she’d laid eyes on sexy and mysterious Maximillian Holt, the man who blew into her life from time to time just long enough to turn her world upside down and inside out. The same man she had already voted most likely to climb beneath the sheets with first chance she got.

“I’ve already had three,” Vera said, “and I don’t feel a thing except for a little indigestion. Chocolate does that to me.”

“I’m sure it’s just a bunch of hype to sell brownies,” Jamie said, hoping she was right. Lately she’d been having X-rated dreams where she and Max played starring roles. They did things she was certain were illegal in most states.

“And get this,” Vera said. “Maxine Chambers quit her job at the library and just opened a lingerie shop right on Main Street. And guess what she named it? Sinful Delights.”

Jamie couldn’t hide her surprise. She couldn’t imagine the prim librarian doing such a thing.

“And that’s not all,” Vera went on. “Folks say she’s got a whole display of unmentionables hanging in her window where God and everybody can see them. She just undraped it today. Elbert Swank said his jaw fell open so hard when he saw them that he almost lost his dentures on the sidewalk out front. I would have given anything to see that.”

“A new lingerie shop,” Jamie mused. “Imagine that.” She tried to keep her excitement at bay. Beaumont needed a good lingerie store, a place where cotton panties and practical bras weren’t the order of the day.

“Of course I got my information secondhand so I’ll have to get over there and check it out personally. You know how I am about getting my facts straight.”

“Maybe she’ll advertise with us,” Jamie said. “We can always use the business.”

“Oh, pooh. We’re going to make money on that new personals section you started. How many people have written in so far?”

“We must have about ten total; seven from men, three from women. Pretty good for a small-town newspaper, don’t you think?” Jamie had hoped the ads would bring in well-needed revenue and attract more readers. It was too early to tell, but she remained confident.

“I’m keeping my fingers crossed,” Vera said. She stepped closer. “One ad in particular caught my attention,” she almost whispered. “It was in yesterday’s paper. The heading read ‘Ready, Willing, and Able.’ Sounds like a winner to me, seeing as how most men in my age bracket have a little trouble in the
able
department.”

Jamie laughed out loud. “Vera Bankhead, I am
shocked
!”

Vera grinned. “Hey, even a woman my age has needs.”

“Perhaps you should respond to the ad.”

“What if he’s ugly? You know I can’t abide an ugly man. Maybe you should give me his name first.”

Jamie shook her head. “You know the ads are strictly confidential.”

“I’ll bet I could figure out who he is. I know everybody in this town.”

Which was why Jamie had insisted on handling the personals section, she reminded herself. She kept the ads locked in a file cabinet in her office. As much as she loved Vera, it was a well-known fact the woman was the biggest gossip in town. Jamie shrugged as though it made no difference. “I would see that your letter reached him.”

“I’ll have to think about it.”

Jamie sighed wistfully. “Well, one thing is certain. Love is definitely in the air in the town of Beaumont, South Carolina. I think it’s romantic.” Jamie had only recently come to realize just what a romantic she was, and she knew Max Holt was responsible. She had begun to daydream about their relationship, had begun to wonder where it was going. She wanted him in her life permanently, and that scared the hell out of her.

“Sounds more like L-U-S-T to me,” Vera replied. “It’s the heat. Everybody in town is acting strange. If they start eating these brownies, they’re going to be out of control.”

Jamie didn’t want to talk about lust because, once again, it brought Max to mind. Max, who was too gorgeous for his own good and knew it. Max, who clearly lusted after her but kept his true feelings to himself. Not that she didn’t have a bad case of lust, as well; it’s what drew them together like iron shavings to a magnet, what made her skin literally ache for his touch.

It had been that way from the moment they’d first laid eyes on each other, when Max had come to Beaumont to aid his brother-in-law, now the mayor, in an attempt to clean up town corruption. Max had ridden in on his white horse, or in his case, a two-million-dollar car with enough technology to run a small country. Max’s investigation had dragged Jamie right into the middle of it; she’d found herself dodging bullets from hit men, almost getting blown to smithereens by a car bomb, and landing in the path of a monster-sized alligator.

Okay, so maybe she was exaggerating the size of the alligator, but all alligators looked big when you were treading water and happened to be in their path.

Most women with half a brain would have grabbed their purses and said, “See ya,” but not Jamie. She had followed Max to Tennessee to find the person responsible for hiring the hit.

Simply put, Max was a philanthropist with brains and money, and as long as there was a cause or an injustice, he would be there, come hell or high water.

“My stomach feels funny,” Vera said. “I think I ate too many brownies.”

Jamie looked up. “Yeah?” She wouldn’t tell Vera she was having a bad case of butterflies. The woman would attribute it to the brownies, but Jamie knew better. She was thinking about the last time she and Max were together in what could only be described as a compromising position. Sooner or later, things were bound to come to a head.

She and Max couldn’t go on this way forever, but she was afraid to hope for more. She could fantasize all she wanted about a lasting relationship, but Max did not impress her as a man who could be tied down to any woman for very long.

“It’s probably all in my mind,” Vera said. “Lyle Betts most likely started the rumor just to get people into his bakery.” She glanced about the office. “Where is Fleas, by the way?”

“Huh?”

“Are you even listening to me? Where is your dog? You know, that ugly hound you bring to work with you every day because he sulks if you leave him at home?”

“He’s at the vet. And he’s not ugly.”

“I hope he’s getting his anal glands expressed. I can’t live with that flatulence problem much longer.”

Jamie had
inherited
Fleas, a wrinkled, forlorn-faced bloodhound some weeks back. At the time she had desperately needed a vehicle, and, trying to save money, had bought a rust bucket of a pickup truck. The car salesman, who claimed the dog was attached to the truck, had knocked fifty bucks off the price of the truck as an incentive for her to take the dog. They were bonding rather well, or at least as well as could be expected with a dog that had chronic gas.

“He’s being neutered today,” Jamie said. “Poor thing,” she added. “I’ll bet Dr. Adams has his nuts on a chopping block as we speak.”

Vera shuddered. “I don’t even want to think about it.”

They were interrupted when someone tapped on the door. “Pardon me,” a female voice said.

Vera and Jamie glanced toward the door. Jamie felt her jaw drop to her collarbone. Vera gaped, as well.

“I’m sorry to disturb you,” the woman said, “but there was nobody out front.”

Jamie continued to stare. The woman had coal-black hair that fell to her waist. Sparkly blue eye shadow colored her lids, and her lashes were long enough to paint the side of a barn. “May I help you?” Jamie managed.

The woman stepped into the room. Her skirt was short and tight; her low-cut blouse, emphasized perfect oversized breasts. Jamie decided either God had been very generous in the boob department or the woman was stuffed to the gills with silicone.

“My name is Destiny Moultrie,” she said in a husky voice. “I’m here about the job.”

Vera tossed Jamie a suspicious look. “What job? You’ve decided to replace me, haven’t you? You’d rather have some Elvira–Erin Brockovich look-alike with big knockers sitting out front.”

“I don’t know anything about this,” Jamie said, holding out both hands. She looked at the woman. “What job?” she asked, echoing Vera’s question.

“The advice columnist. You’ve been turning it over in your mind for weeks.”

“I have?”

Vera looked at Jamie. “You have?”

Jamie shifted in her seat. “Um, well—”

“You never mentioned it to me,” a very peeved Vera interrupted. “You’ve always come to me with your ideas.”

The woman looked from Vera to Jamie. “I didn’t mean to cause friction. Perhaps we should discuss this in private, Miss Swift.”

Vera took offense. “
Miss Swift
doesn’t keep secrets from me. I know more about what’s going on around here than anyone else.” She tossed Jamie a dark look. “At least I thought I did.”

Jamie couldn’t mask her confusion. “Vera, please, not now.”

But Vera was not deterred. “First, you take the personals section away from me because you don’t trust me, and now
this
. I should quit. I should hand in my resignation and go on one of those senior citizens’ cruises that serves seven meals a day. I could meet a nice widower, and sow a few wild oats. I still have a few oats left, you know.”

“Vera—” Jamie fought the urge to crawl beneath her desk. They were acting anything but professional. But she knew better than to argue. In Vera’s mind, Jamie was still an unruly kid who’d never been properly disciplined by her father.

“Seven meals a day?” Destiny said. “That’s a lot of food. I would bust right out of my clothes.”

“You’re
already
busting out of your clothes,” Vera said. She turned to Jamie. “On second thought, I’m
not
quitting, because I’ve been here longer than anyone, and I’m
not
going to risk losing my benefits. Furthermore, you
can’t
fire me. It was your daddy, God rest his soul, who hired me, not you.” She gave a huff and marched from the room, but not before slamming the door behind her.

“Uh-oh, I blew it,” Destiny said.

Jamie turned to her visitor. She was intrigued. “Please sit down, Miss Moultrie,” she said, using her professional voice. She smiled serenely, as though it were an everyday occurrence for her secretary to pitch a fit. Okay, so it
was
an everyday occurrence, she reminded herself. Vera was probably out front right now polishing her .38.

“Please call me Destiny,” the woman said. She took one of the chairs directly across from Jamie’s desk. “I’m sorry for barging in like this, but I sensed you would be making a decision soon, and I wanted to be the first to apply.”

Jamie merely looked at her.

“You
have
been thinking about starting an advice column, right?” Without warning, the woman smacked her forehead. “Oh, man, I hope I’m not in the wrong place.”

“The wrong place?” Jamie realized she was repeating a lot of what was being said.

Destiny pulled out a small notebook and flipped through several pages. “Is your middle name Leigh?”

Jamie nodded. “Yes. It was my mother’s first name.” Now why had she gone and given out personal information to some stranger she’d probably never see again?

“Yeah, I know about your mother. She walked out when you were still in diapers.”

Jamie arched both brows. “Excuse me, but I don’t see the point of all this.”

Destiny looked up. “Sorry. I shouldn’t have mentioned the part about your mother. I know you still find it painful at times.”

“What else do you know?”

“There’s an old tire swing hanging in your back yard, am I right?”

Jamie snapped her fingers. “I’ve got it. You’re a private investigator, aren’t you? Who hired you, and for what reason?”

“No, I’m not. Just answer this one last question. Do you have a bar of Dove soap in your lingerie drawer?”

Jamie felt the color drain from her face. “Who are you? How do you know about the soap?”

“I just do.”

Jamie leveled her gaze at the woman. Her astonishment had an edge of anger to it. “Tell me more about the soap.”

“Are you sure?” When Jamie nodded, she went on. “The scent reminds you of your mother, even though you remember little else about her.”

Jamie felt the goose bumps rise on her arms. She was quiet for a moment. “I’m going to ask you again. How do you know this?”

The woman sighed. “I’m psychic. Sort of.”

Jamie did a gigantic eye-roll. “Sort of? What does that mean?”

“I have visions, and I’m right a lot of the time, unless I’m under a lot of stress, then I might make a mistake now and then. It’s a simple case of performance anxiety; sort of like sex. But I get it right more often than not.”

Jamie sighed. It was really turning out to be a weird morning. First Vera with her brownies, and now she was conversing with a woman who claimed to be psychic. She had time for neither because she had to concentrate on getting a newspaper out. “Miss Moultrie, um, Destiny—”

“I’m working on getting better,” Destiny said. “I practice every night.” She paused. “You don’t believe in psychics, do you?”

“Not exactly.”

“See, I knew that.” The woman licked the tip of her finger and drew a short imaginary line in the air as though marking her success. Turquoise rings circled every finger, bracelets jangled on her wrists. “There are a lot of phonies out there. Some claim to be one hundred percent accurate. There’s no such thing.”

“I wasn’t, um, looking for a psychic. Just an advice columnist.” There. She’d gone and admitted it.

“You’ve already got ‘Dear Abby.’ ”

“My column was going to be for locals only. To sort of complement—”

“Your new personals section,” Destiny said. “People would be more intrigued by a psychic. And I’ve got the perfect name for it. ‘The Divine Love Goddess Advisor.’” She pulled out an envelope and handed it to Jamie. “Why don’t you look over my résumé and give it some thought. I wouldn’t be able to start for a day or two since I just moved here and have to unpack. But I travel light.”

Jamie shifted uneasily in her chair. “Why Beaumont, South Carolina?” she asked. “This town isn’t exactly a booming metropolis. And the
Gazette
is rather small.”

“I was sent here for a reason,” Destiny said. “I’d never even heard of this place, but it came to me in a vision. So I used a small pendulum, and Beaumont came up on the map. I had to use a magnifying glass to see it, but now I’m sure I’m in the right place. Well, pretty sure.”

Jamie simply nodded. She figured it was best to humor the woman until she could get rid of her.

Destiny smiled. “I know it’s a lot to take in, but you can rest easy, my column will bring in many new readers.”

“You know this for a fact?”

“Yep. I also have a very good feeling you’re going to hire me. This interview is just a formality.”

Jamie had no intention of hiring her. The last thing she needed was some kook working for her. “I’ll have to think about it. I’ll keep your résumé on file in the meantime.”

“I know you have doubts,” Destiny went on as though she hadn’t heard. “And I don’t blame you. This newspaper is very important to you after what you’ve been through. You’ve struggled for so long to keep it going. I admire your tenacity, Jamie, but you have to stop comparing yourself to your grandfather.”

Once again, Jamie felt the tiny hairs on her arm prickle. “What do you know about my grandfather?”

“He started this newspaper from nothing and did extremely well. He passed it on to your father when he died, but your father didn’t fare so well. He never wanted to be a newspaperman to begin with.”

“You’re pretty good,” Jamie said, “but this is a small town where everybody knows everybody’s business. You’d only have to ask around to get your information.” Even as she said it, she wondered how the woman had found out about the soap in her dresser drawer. She decided to humor her. “While you’re at it, tell me this. There’s this man in my life.”

“Yeah, I know all about him. He sort of saved your behind when you had financial problems so he’s a silent partner. You’re afraid of falling in love with him, but I would advise you to follow your heart.”

“How does
he
feel?” Jamie surprised herself by asking.

Destiny looked thoughtful. “He’s hard to read.” Suddenly, she sneezed.

“Bless you,” Jamie said.

Destiny’s eyes watered, and she sneezed again. “You’ll have to forgive me. This always happens when I start picking up on stuff. Do you have a tissue?”

“Don’t you know?”

“Look, I can’t be expected to know
everything
.”

Jamie reached into her side drawer and pulled out a small box of tissues and handed it to her, just as Destiny let out another sneeze.

“I have to go before it gets worse.” The woman stood and wiped her eyes. “Oh, by the way, I’m not going to charge you for my services. I’ve been married five times so I get plenty of alimony. This is just a hobby.”

“Five husbands, huh?”

Another sneeze. “Yeah, and I’m not even forty years old. A girl has to work fast to rack up that many husbands in such a short period.”

Jamie sat back and studied her. “Didn’t you know the marriages were going to fail?”

Sniff, sniff, sneeze. “I was in love with them at the time, so what could I do? How about you call me when you’re ready for me to start? My new number is on my résumé.” She made for the door, and then paused. “This man you’re thinking about?”

Jamie remained silent.

“He’s going to be back in your life very soon.”

Jamie perked. “And?”

“Fireworks.”

Jamie arched one brow. “Fireworks?”

Destiny smiled. “Fireworks.”

 

 

CHAPTER TWO

 

 

 

VERA EYED DESTINY SUSPICIOUSLY AS SHE STEPPED into the reception area. “It was very nice meeting you, Vera,” Destiny said, dabbing her nose with a tissue. She sneezed several times as she made her way toward the front door. She opened it, and then turned. “By the way, I’m sorry you’re having car trouble.”

Vera hitched her chin high. “Excuse me? There’s not a darn thing wrong with my car.”

Destiny shrugged. “Whatever.” She hurried out.

“What was all
that
about?” Vera demanded when Jamie stepped out of her office. “Am I fired?”

“Don’t be ridiculous, you’ll still be here when I’m dead and gone. I was thinking about starting an advice column now that our personals section is doing so well.”

“Why wasn’t I told?”

“Because I haven’t made up my mind.”

Vera frowned. “Then how—”

Jamie was beginning to feel weary. “Destiny Moultrie is psychic. Or so she says.”

Vera pursed her lips. “Oh, good grief, you don’t believe in that hocus-pocus, do you?”

“She was very convincing, but, no, I think it’s all a crock.” That didn’t mean she didn’t feel uneasy about some of what Destiny had told her.

“Hogwash, that’s what it is,” Vera said. “And that woman needs to get on allergy medication. One of these days she’s going to sneeze too hard, and those T-I-T-S are going to pop a button, and somebody is going to get hurt.”

 

JAMIE WAITED UNTIL AFTER LUNCH TO CHECK ON Fleas. The vet’s assistant assured her the surgery had gone well. “You can pick him up in the morning,” she said. “We’ll give you a list of things to look out for during his recovery. You’re going to have to make sure his stitches don’t pull free, and he’s not going to be able to go for walks for about ten days.”

“That shouldn’t be a problem,” Jamie said, “since all he does is eat and sleep.”

Jamie hung up a moment later. Stitches? Recovery? She did a mental eye-roll as she imagined Fleas lying on her sofa with an IV of ice cream dripping into his veins. Once again, she reminded herself she was not the perfect pet owner. But what could she do? The animal refused to eat the healthy dog food she bought for him. He preferred cheeseburgers, fries, butter pecan ice cream, and Krispy Kreme doughnuts. And Jamie, who practically lived on junk food, ate the same things.

She told herself that despite their bad eating habits, as best she could figure, they were close to getting in the four food groups.

 

THE REST OF THE DAY PASSED QUICKLY FOR JAMIE, approving layouts for the newspaper and getting it to print. She had begun working for her father at the newspaper—performing small jobs after school like emptying wastepaper baskets and keeping pencils sharpened—since first grade, earning three dollars per week. Looking back, she realized he’d preferred bringing her to the office instead of leaving her with a baby-sitter.

As she’d grown, so had her duties, and, until she’d gone off to college to study journalism, she’d worked in every department, earning little money but loving the work so much that she would have done it for free. She’d earned extra cash by selling subscriptions, which her father claimed she had a knack for, what with her big blue eyes, blond hair, and winning smile.

“You’re like your grandpa,” her father had told her not long before he’d died. “You’ve got ink running through your veins. You love this newspaper as much as he did. You’ll do well by it.”

Jamie smiled fondly at the thought, the good old days, when she and her father had worked side by side in order to make deadlines. And thinking of her father brought Destiny Moultrie to mind once more. The woman was about as strange as they came, but just thinking about all she’d known of Jamie’s life gave her a bad case of heebie-jeebies. Jamie’s father had
not
wanted to be a newspaperman, and the paper had suffered as a consequence. Jamie had begged and pleaded for permission to leave college in order to relieve him of some of the work, but he had absolutely refused to let her quit. Somehow his staff, all of them as devoted as Vera, had been invaluable in seeing that the paper made it to print on time.

Jamie couldn’t help but wonder how Destiny had managed to get as much information as she had, but she knew there had to be a logical explanation. There were gossips in town who would be only too happy to share what they knew.

Except for one thing, she reminded herself, the soap in her drawer. That couldn’t be explained.

 

JAMIE AND VERA HEADED OUT THE FRONT DOOR shortly after five P.M. Jamie lingered beside Vera’s car, in no hurry to go home to an empty house. She hadn’t realized just how much she’d come to depend on Fleas’s company.

“You headed any place in particular?” she asked Vera as the woman slid into the driver’s seat of her old Buick.

“We usually have church on Wednesday night,” Vera said, “but we’re having Vacation Bible School so that’s out. Maybe I’ll bake a cake for my sick neighbor. What about you?”

“Oh, I’ve got a million things to do,” Jamie lied. “You know me, busy, busy.” Jamie tried to think of what she could do to pass the evening.

Vera closed her door and rolled down the window. “This car is hotter’n Hades. Next car I buy is going to have a decent air conditioner.”

Jamie continued to stand there. “Well, then, you have a nice evening.”

Vera nodded, stabbed her key into the ignition, and turned it. Nothing happened. “What in the world? It was running fine this morning.” She tried again. The car didn’t respond.

“Uh-oh,” Jamie said. “Sounds like you’re having car trouble. Sounds like the starter.”

Jamie’s eyes widened. The two women locked gazes. “Uh-oh,” she said.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Vera said, as if reading her mind. “It’s just a coincidence.”

 

.  .  .

 

AN HOUR LATER, JAMIE LED VERA INTO HER GARAGE where a red 1964½ Mustang convertible sat. With the exception of the color, it was an exact replica of the one Jamie had received from her father as a graduation present years before, only hers was white. Even though she’d spent a lot of money maintaining it, she still drove it with pride and wouldn’t have thought of replacing it. It was in that very garage that Jamie had helped her father rebuild old cars, and each time he sold one, he’d tucked the money into her college fund.

Vera stepped up to the car and ran her hand along the hood. “It looks like it just rolled off the showroom floor. Are you sure Max won’t mind if I borrow it? I mean, he bought it for you. It was a gift.”

Jamie shrugged. “He only bought it because it was his fault mine was riddled with bullet holes.” Luckily, it had since been repaired.

Vera shook her head sadly. “Do you know how strange that sounds? How many people send their cars to a body shop with bullet holes? That is precisely why I think Max Holt is the wrong man for you. I appreciate what he did for this town, but trouble seems to follow him everywhere.”

Jamie figured it was best not to get into a debate with Vera over Max. Not that Max couldn’t charm Vera’s Hush Puppies right off her feet, mind you, but nobody had ever been good enough for Jamie as far as Vera was concerned. It didn’t matter that Max was filthy stinking rich and turned every female’s head between the ages of eighteen and eighty; he was a moving target for con men, bad guys, and the mob.

What Jamie also wouldn’t tell Vera was that Max was more dangerous to her heart than any other body part. The three weeks she’d gone without seeing him seemed like forever. She knew he was a busy man—his company, Holt Industries, had offices all over the world—but surely he could have found time to pick up a telephone.

“So, you wanna take it for a spin?” Jamie said, chasing Max from her thoughts.

Vera opened the door. “Oh, Lord, it’s a stick shift. I haven’t driven one of those in years.”

“All you need is a little practice.”

Twenty minutes later, they were cruising Main Street with the top down, Vera grinning like a sixteen-year-old who’d just gotten her driver’s license. “Hey, I’m pretty good at this,” she said, shifting the gear into first after pausing at a stop sign.

Jamie grinned, as well. “See, I told you you’d pick it up in no time.”

Vera glanced at her. “I don’t look silly, do I? I mean, me driving around in such a snazzy car at my age. I’m no spring chicken, you know.”

Jamie looked at her. Vera’s beehive had already lost its hairpins and fallen to her shoulders, but the excitement in her eyes made up for her mussed hair. “You look great. And, no, you do not look silly.” If anything she looked younger.

The woman hitched her chin high. “I want to take it around the courthouse square again. Maybe I’ll see somebody I know.”

Jamie smiled at Vera’s enthusiasm. She had to admit it was more fun riding around town with her than sitting home alone worrying about Fleas.

Vera circled the square. The downtown area had received a face-lift in the past couple of years. Each shop owner had painted his or her store in what was referred to as an historic color. They’d added awnings and massive flowerpots out front, hoping to draw business from the strip mall on the outskirts of town.

Jamie knew the town well. Despite changes to the outside, the Downtown Café still served the best coffee in town, and she knew the regulars who gathered first thing in the morning for the $2.99 breakfast special of eggs and bacon and the best homemade biscuits she’d ever tasted. There was Coot Hathaway’s doughnut shop where you could buy glazed doughnuts straight from the oven and sticky buns that stuck to the roof of your mouth and chocolate mocha doughnuts that were her personal favorite. And nobody made better sandwiches than Donnie Maynard, who owned the local sandwich shop. He bought his bread fresh from Sunshine Bakery, and his meat-loaf sandwiches, served cold, always drew a crowd. He used a secret ingredient that he swore he would take to his grave, and no matter how hard folks tried they couldn’t figure it out.

The courthouse square was as quaint as it had been in Jamie’s younger days. People still fed pigeons or read the daily newspaper or gathered in small groups to catch up on the latest gossip. The Garden Club had replaced the old shrubbery with new—in late spring, the azaleas blazed with color in every imaginable hue. Fall brought with it colorful mums, and pansies were planted in winter. Even the bandstand had been given a fresh coat of white paint.

“Oh, look!” Vera said. “There’s Robyn Decker and Betty Hamilton from my Sunday school class. Wait’ll they get a look at me in this hot car.” Vera braked and tapped the horn several times, and the women looked up. They gaped in surprise and hurried over. Both wore lightweight jogging outfits and sneakers.

“Vera, is that you?” Betty said. She was tall and slender and wore a mop of short gray curls that had obviously been sprayed into place because not one strand strayed.

“What in heaven’s name are you doing in that car?” Robyn asked. Her hair was the same light gray, on the frizzy side, tucked back with hair combs. She was on the heavy side. A sheen of perspiration coated her forehead.

“I’m taking a test-drive,” Vera said, winking at Jamie. “Ya’ll want to cruise with us?”

The two women looked at one another. “Sure,” Betty said. “It’s too hot to try to get our exercise.”

Jamie had to agree. Not only was it hot, the humidity hung over the town like a woolen blanket. She got out of the car, and pulled back the seat so the two women could climb in. “Fasten your seat belts,” she said, once they’d settled themselves and Jamie reclaimed the front seat.

“You sure you know how to drive this thing?” Robyn asked.

“Vera drives it like a pro,” Jamie told her.

They shot off, and the women in the back seat giggled like teenagers. “Hey, maybe we can pick up some guys,” Betty said.

Robyn Decker gasped. “Why, Betty Hamilton, I don’t believe what just came out of your mouth. You know we can’t fit any men into this back seat, what with the size of my rear end.” More giggles.

“Holy marolly,” Vera called out. “There’s Maxine Chambers’s new store.” She whipped the Mustang into a parking slot directly in front.

All four women leaned forward as if trying to get a closer look from where they were sitting. Finally, Jamie opened her door.

“Where are you going?” Vera asked.

“I want to check it out.”

Double gasps from the back seat. “What if somebody sees you?” Betty said.

Jamie shrugged. “Aw, come on, ladies. The ground is not going to open up and swallow us just for looking.”

“I don’t care if the ground does swallow me up,” Vera said. “I figure it’s worth it.” She pulled the seat forward, and the two in back reluctantly climbed out.

All four women hurried to the front of the store and gazed at the window display.

“Oh, my,” Betty said. “I can’t believe a proper Southern woman like Maxine would fill her window with unmentionables. What are our young people going to think? It might be dangerous. It might raise the testerone level in some of the boys, and that could spell trouble.”

“Testosterone,” Jamie corrected. “And I seriously doubt it’s something they’ve never seen before. You know how inquisitive boys can be.”

Vera eyed the merchandise. “I don’t think I would even know how to wear some of this stuff.”

Jamie perused the items in the window, making a mental list of what she planned to buy. “Maybe Maxine provides a list of instructions.” But she was as surprised as the others that Maxine Chambers would actually open a sexy lingerie shop. Maxine had always been on the prudish side.

“What are those lacy things hanging over there?” Vera asked. “Between the garter belts and the see-through bras.”

Jamie followed her gaze. “Those are thong bikini underwear.”

Vera arched both brows. “They don’t look as though they would do much good in covering your behind. Why, if a cold wind blew up your skirt—”

“Oh, Lord, ya’ll are
not
going to believe who is heading our way,” Robyn said.

Betty turned. “Oh, heavenly days, it’s Agnes Aimsley and her grandson. The jig is up.”

Jamie turned as Agnes, frail and white-haired, inched her way toward them. Her sneakers looked out of place with her prim dress. The man beside her, a twenty-something preppie type, had her arm tucked through his protectively. His brown hair was cropped short, and he wore oversized tortoiseshell glasses that had gone out of style long ago.