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Over the past two months, I’ve been talking to Frank a lot. He doesn’t answer back, of course, because he’s dead. The conversations are mostly in my head. Mostly. Except when I get maudlin and start wondering out loud why he left me waiting and wondering and hoping for nine years only to turn up dead in the end.
I’d held out hope all these years because I believed that when I stopped expecting him to walk through the front door of the home we had bought together, that would the day I quit believing in him.
I guess the joke is on me. Not that Frank would purposely string me along. He was a great guy, and he certainly wouldn’t have chosen this ending. But I’m still working through why he could appear to me in the park a week before the officials showed up at my door.
I’m still trying to come to terms with how I could have expected something for so long, yet when the official word finally came, it landed like an unexpected punch to the gut that flattened me.
“Why, Frank?” I ask as I adjust the pearl necklace that I am wearing tonight to the Hemlock Ladies League Harvest Moon Gala. “If you could show up then, why not years earlier?”
He doesn’t answer, of course, and I suppose that’s a good thing. If my dead husband starts answering my questions, it will signal a whole new level of trouble.
Right before I saw Frank in the park, I had been edging toward moving on with my life. I had even dipped my toe into the pool of possibilities. Okay, so I’d kissed Jackson Bradley. Maybe that was more than testing the waters.
But while this definitive word on my husband’s fate should’ve set me free to move on, to explore the feelings that have developing between Jack and me, it set me back.
I felt guilty. Like I’d been caught cheating. Even though all I’d done was kiss Jack.
Even though I’ve waited a long time to take our “friendship” to the next level—as chaste as it is.
I’ve been so rattled by seeing Frank and the subsequent official word that they’d identified his remains, I pushed Jack away.
When I tell him I need time to figure things out. Jack says he understands. He says he’ll give me space, but he’ll be here for me when I’m ready.
So how do I repay his kind understanding? I stop returning his calls and texts. I stop going across the street to the Briar Patch Bakery where I used to go every morning to write two pages on the cozy mystery series I’ve been developing. Where Jack would saunter in every morning just as I was closing my laptop and we would have coffee and conversation.
It started when I asked if I could pick his brain about police procedure for my stories. Gradually, our morning coffee meet-ups morphed into something more personal. Nothing inappropriate, of course. After all, we were in public. But a chemistry brewed between us and developed into an emotional closeness.
It’s been two months since we’ve spoken. I am 100 percent to blame for that because I’m the one who has been avoiding him.
The Hemlock fall celebration kicks off tonight with the Harvest Moon Gala, a black tie soiree. The Family Fall Festival in the park is tomorrow. It’s open to the entire town of Hemlock. But tonight’s dinner dance is a bit more exclusive because it is a fundraiser for The Hemlock Library.
Jack and I had talked about attending the gala together, but after everything happened, we didn’t firm up our plans. I was more than happy to stay home, but my daughter, Jenna, is one of the cochairs of the committee this year, and since her boyfriend, Ian McCoy, will be out of town at a law conference this weekend, she asked me to be her date.
She’s worked so hard on the festival, and she has been so good to me, so patient, I figure the least I can do is come out and support her tonight.
Now, here I am at a community event in my strapless navy blue gown and pearls. Honestly, I can’t remember the last time I wore heels in public.
After I walk into the Hemlock Inn in those strappy heels, I’m hit with a ridiculous wave of emotion. I shouldn’t be here. I fight with the urge to turn around and leave, but, before I can figure out what I want to do, Jenna sees me across the crowded ballroom and waves. She looks lovely in her pink tulle gown. Like the fairy princess she always wanted to be when she was little. The light color of the gown contrasts with her dark hair and brings out the excited blush of her cheeks. Her approach to grieving the loss of her father has been different from mine. She has stayed so busy that she hasn’t had time to mourn.
Then again, she was seventeen when Frank went missing. Not that she gave up on her father, but let’s say after nine years with no word from him, she was more realistic that the odds of him returning alive were not in our favor.
Tonight, I hope she needs my help with something—anything—because I need something to do other than standing there feeling out of place.
There is a flurry of excitement in the ballroom—convivial sounds of friends meeting; people floating from station to station bidding on items in the silent auction. On the stage, someone makes last-minute adjustments to instruments that belong to the semi-famous, one-hit wonder band ShakesPierre, who will perform a live acoustic concert tonight. Somehow, Jenna was able to book them for the entire weekend because the lead singer, Pierre Von Strussen, has been a college friend of Jenna’s best friend, Tess Harrison, who also happens to be Jenna’s cochair for the weekend.
Tess and this Pierre guy may have dated at one point. I don’t know the full story, but I do know that Jenna has been able to secure them as the entertainment for both tonight’s dinner dance and tomorrow’s fall festival. A two-for-the-price-of-one bargain.
“Mom, you look beautiful,” Jenna says as she leans in and gives me a quick squeeze. “I’m so glad you’re here. Are you having fun?”
“Fun?” I smooth my hands over the skirt of my gown. “I just got here. But everything looks great. Can I help you with something?”
Anything? Please give me a job.
“No, everything is handled. Val is coming tonight. Go find her and have fun.”
I affix a smile to my face and hope it doesn’t fall, the same way I hope my false eyelashes stay in place and my heel doesn’t get caught in the hem of my dress and cause me to make an indecent public spectacle of myself.
Someone calls Jenna’s name.
“I’ve got to run, Mom,” she says. “We’re at table seven. I’ll meet up with you there.”
I scan the ballroom for my friend Valorie Anderson, but I don’t see her. I called Val yesterday to see if she wanted to arrive together, but she works in real estate and had a late appointment on the schedule. She still isn’t here. So I walk around, saying hello to people I know and checking out the silent auction items, looking for things I can’t resist.
There is a weekend stay at the Hemlock Inn, the host venue of tonight’s soiree. Various and sundry manicures, pedicures, haircuts, and colors. There is a certificate for an oil change, another for a security system, and an offer to cater a dinner party for ten, complements of Tess Harrison, owner of the Briar Patch Bakery, who is just starting her own catering company. Jenna has donated party-planning services from her company, Champaign Weddings and Event Designs. I’ve contributed a sizable gift certificate to my shop, Blissful Beginnings Bridal Boutique, since I wasn’t sure how many bidders would be in the market for a wedding gown and bridal accessories. My boutique also carries eveningwear, so a gift certificate gives the winning bidder choices.
I place bids on several items that don’t have any takers as of yet. I figure it will get the party started, or at the very least I will end up with a sixty-minute massage for a steal. Can’t beat that.
“Finding anything good?” Finally, Val appears beside me. “You look gorgeous, Mads.”
She leans in and kisses my cheek, then she picks up the pen and raises my bid for the massage by five dollars.
“If this weren’t for such a good cause, I might be mad at you for trying to outbid me.” I take the pen and up the ante another ten dollars.
I also give her the stink-eye.
“Well, it is a fundraiser,” Valorie says. “It’s for a good cause. Are you here solo tonight?”
Unless you count the ghost of my late husband, who seems to follow me everywhere these days. I nodded. “Why do you think I called you yesterday? I wasn’t looking for a third wheel.”
Val scoffed. “I’d hoped your plans might’ve changed and you found a last-minute date to this shindig.”
“Jenna is my date. Even if she wasn’t who would I come here with besides Jack? And asking him would feel awkward after two months of radio silence on my end.”
I make a face at her, but the look on her face—like she has heartburn or something equally unwelcome—suggests she isn’t kidding.
“What is it?” I ask.
She glances around the ballroom before she lowers her voice. “Jack is here with a woman I’ve never seen before. He wouldn’t bring a date, would he?”
I tried to ignore the way her words Jack and date pierce through my ribs. “If he did, good for him.”
Despite how I try to fool myself, the thought of him being here tonight with someone else makes me feel… It makes me feel. And I’m not ready to feel.
I can’t stop my gaze from meandering around the ballroom.
“Did you see this?” Valorie asks. “The singer from ShakesPierre is giving away a pair of the bedazzled high-top tennis shoes from the line he’s designing.”
We silently regard the way the shoes sparkle and glitter under the ballroom lights.
“I wish I’d known about these before tonight, I would’ve worn them rather than heels,” Val says. “My feet are already killing me.”
She starts to pick up one of the shoes, but the pair is attached by a plastic tie and tethered to the stand. Even so, there’s still enough give that she shoes fall over on their side, and I can make out the loopy signature of Pierre Von Strussen, lead singer turned shoe bedazzler.
“I guess they don’t want to take a chance that people will try them on.”
I chuckle at the thought of someone hiking up their ball gown to try on the shoe. The image is so Cinderella meets Shoe Carnival.
“Are you going to bid on them?” I ask.
Valorie shrugs and writes down twenty dollars. “Why not? It was good of him to donate a pair for the cause. Even though sparkly sneaks are the last thing I need, it would be embarrassing if no one bid on them.
“Oh, speaking of things I do not need, Derry’s Donuts is offering a dozen donuts a week for a year. Did you see that?”
“No, but I haven’t made it around to that side of the room yet.”
I suddenly feel riveted to the spot, afraid I may run into Jack and his date if I venture out.
“Did you bid on the donuts?” I ask Valorie.
“Of course I did.”
“Good. If I get over there, I’m going to up-bid you on that one, too.”
“Well, if you do that, when I win, I won’t share,” she says as she bids ten dollars for a manicure.
When she puts the pen down, Pierre Von Strussen, the flamboyant designer of the shoes materializes seemingly out of nowhere.
“Ladies,” he says. “Allow me to introduce myself. I am Pierre Von Strussen.” He places one hand over the middle of his maroon and black velvet smoking jacket and folds his lanky body into a deep bow. After he straightens, he preens for a moment, as if he expects us to fangirl and fawn over him. With his unruly dark hair, his intense, thick-lashed eyes, he looked like the love child of Freddie Mercury and Russell Brand. Or maybe Desi Arnaz, because despite his… flair for the unusual, Pierre Von Strussen is a good-looking guy. I can’t help but wonder if he had been prone to such theater when Tess knew him in college.
“At least someone in this joint has taste.” He straightens the shoes on display case, regarding his as if he is examining a masterpiece. “I was beginning to think no one was going to bid on these lovelies.”
He has an affected way of talking that is reminiscent of movies of the 1930s and ’40s when actors sounded vaguely British.
“The night’s early,” Valorie says. “I’m sure people are still making the rounds of the silent auction items. But if I do end up being the only bidder, then lucky me.”
I nudge her. “Earlier, someone reminded me that this is a fundraiser.” I pick up the pen, prepared to up Val’s bid by five dollars. “To that end, I will do my duty.”
Pierre suddenly puts his hand over mine. “You’re Jenna Bell’s mother, aren’t you?”
“Guilty as charged,” I say.
“You have a lovely daughter, Mrs. Bell.”
I can’t decide if he sounds like Eddie Haskell or someone’s seventy-five-year-old grandpa? “Please call me Maddie.”
“Okay, you have a lovely daughter, Maddie. And I hear that you have an equally lovely boutique here in town.”
“Well, I don’t know that my shop is as lovely as my daughter, but I’d like to think the place has charm.”
“So I’ve heard,” he says. “Before I leave town with the band, I’d like to talk to you about a potential business opportunity.”
“What kind of business opportunity?” I ask, bracing for a multilevel marketing pitch. Because what sort of business opportunity could a rock star shoe designer offer a small-town bridal shop owner?
He raises his head and looks down his aquiline nose at me. “I happen to have an opening in this region for an exclusive distributorship for Pierre Von Strussen Enterprises. I need someone who has the reputation of being an influencer, if you will.”
Valorie snort laughs. “Yes, our Maddie is quite the influencer.”
I can’t look at her. If I do, I’ll start laughing.
“Are we talking shoes or music?” I ask.
“Shoes and general fashion, of course. I doubt you know much about music. Am I correct?”
I raise my eyebrows. “Mr. Von Strussen, I own a bridal boutique. It’s hardly the perfect market for your tennis shoes. Even as lovely as they are.”
“And this, madame, is hardly an ordinary tennis shoe.” Again, he adjusts the sneaker on the display cube, moving it this way and that. “I happen to have it on good authority that demand for my brand will soon outweigh the supply. I am potentially offering you a ground-floor opportunity.”
“Is that the Pierre Von Strussen?” says a woman who is clutching a piece of paper in one hand and a pen in the other. I know most everyone in Hemlock, but I don’t recognize her.
Pierre turns around and simpers. “The one and only.”
“Oh, it is you!” the woman says. “I am your biggest fan. I can’t believe you’re here. May I please have your autograph?”
This is the opening I need to make my escape, but as I start to walk away, Valorie leans in and whispers, “Don’t turn around. Jack and his date are coming this way.”
Of course, that’s exactly what I do. I can’t stop myself from glancing over my shoulder. Our gazes lock. He smiles and nods, then leans in to hear what the beautiful blonde on his arm is saying.
“Let’s go bid on those donuts,” I say to Valorie.
End of Excerpt