Authors: Sally John
“Eliana, you are the one who has made such a difference. This shop is Crabtree and Evelyn, a Galena boutique,
a country general all rolled into one. It's such a pleasure just to walk in here. I love being a small part of it.”
Lia waved her hands, clearing away the praise as she would smoke clogging the air. “Enough of the mutual admiration society. I just needed to emote at the end of a very satisfying week. Now, go, so I can finish up. I don't want to miss my first pork chop dinner and country western dance!”
Anne smiled and stepped out the front door. “All right. See you at seven. Maybe we can talk about a raise!”
Lia laughed as her friend began weaving her way through the throngs of people meandering on the street. Along the front of the shop, two blocks of Fourth Avenue were barricaded to traffic for the festival. Just the other side of it, the town square called Franklin Park was lit up like a Christmas display with white lights strung through the picnic pavilion and trees. The band shell glowed like an enormous jewel in one corner. Another corner resembled a miniature carnival midway. In the center of the square, surrounding the fountain, a myriad of booths and tents housed arts and crafts. The air was heavy with enticing scents and sounds.
The phone rang at the back of the store as she shut the door. She dismissed the fleeting thought of letting the machine pick it up. Her business was to serve Valley Oaks. Sometimes that meant taking a doctor's prescription after hours. Once this summer she had even delivered medication to a distraught mother with an ailing baby and a traveling husband.
“Valley Oaks Pharmacy. This is Lia Neuman.”
There was no reply.
She heard it thenâ¦Someone's faint breathing.
“Who is this?”
“No!” she cried. She punched the asterisk button, the six, then stopped. Why waste the money? The call would be from a cell phone, untraceable.
Her hands shook and the receiver missed its mark, crashing to the floor. She grabbed it and slammed it on the hook.
Anger somersaulted over fear, and then fear over anger until she felt only a mass of roiling emotions. Fear won out.
Lia ripped off her lab coat, smacked her hand over the light switches, ran upstairs, grabbed her keys, raced back down, missed the last two steps, and tumbled to the floor. Tears sprang to her eyes. “Oh, dear God! Don't let this happen!”
Anger got the upper hand again, and she sprang to her feet, straightened her denim skirt, and tightened her ponytail. “Nelson will not control me. He
. Lord, cast him from the face of the earth!”
Fear nipped at Lia's heels as she scurried across the street. Chatter, shouting, laughter, carnival music, and squeals from the ferris wheel filled the evening air. How would she ever find Chloe in all the ruckus?
More than likely the youngsters would gravitate to the carnival area. She hurried to the far corner, her heart beating erratically. The rows between game booths and rides were chock-full of kids of all ages, walking, standing, running, shouting, laughing. She studied the faces passing by. “Lord, please help me find her.”
A hand touched her shoulder.
She whirled around into a brown uniform.
“Lia. I guess you couldn't hear me calling you.”
“Cal! Have you seen Chloe?”
Lia swiveled her head, eyes sweeping the area. “I must find her. She's here with Anne Sutton's daughters.”
“They'll turn up eventually.”
“I can't wait until
He gently grasped her hands and lowered his face, forcing her to stand still and meet his eyes. “Lia, what's wrong?”
A wave of fear constricted her throat. “I can't find her!” she choked.
“Is she missing?”
Lia struggled, fighting for control.
“Was she supposed to meet you?”
“It's not six-thirty yet.”
“But I need to see her
“She's fine. The Sutton girls are dependable. She'd stay in the square with them, wouldn't she? She's new here. I'm sure she'll stick close.”
Lia's knees wobbled. She gripped his hands that still held hers and drew strength from his calm solidity. “But kids will be kids.”
“And this is where the action is, where they'll hang, in the middle of this crowd.”
A blonde appeared at his side. “There you are, Calhoun!”
He straightened, dropping Lia's hands. “Tammy. Hi.”
“Hi yourself, big guy.” The young woman stretched on tiptoes and planted a kiss on his cheek.
Lia willed herself to stand still and act normal. Cal was right. The children would stay put.
The stranger tossed her white-blonde shoulder-length hair and pouted glossy mauve lips. “I wanted my little nephew to meet you, but he's over there on the merry-go-round.”
“I'll be working here all night. Catch me later. Have you met Lia Neuman yet?”
“No,” she turned toward her, “but my mother has told me all about you.” Her tone had gone flat.
Cal said, “Lia, this is Tammy Cassidy.”
It took her a moment to respond. “Oh! You're Dot's daughter! Nice to meet you finally.” Her voice was tight. She felt the polite faÃ§ade slipping.
Tammy shook her outstretched hand. “Likewise, I'm sure.”
“I have to go.”
As she turned away, Cal called, “I'll keep an eye out. Where are you meeting?”
“At the pavilion.”
Again Lia scrutinized each passing youngster. The garish lights and music compounded the frantic beating of her heart.
“Tammy, I can't hold hands while I'm on duty.” Cal untwined his fingers from hers.
“Well, you were holding hands with
“Who? Lia? I was trying to calm her down. She was spinning around like a chicken with its head cut off.”
Tammy squeezed his forearm. “My hero with the beautiful green eyes. Saving a damsel in distress. What was her problem?”
“She can't find her daughter.”
“Oh, yeah. Mom told me she had a
. And no
“Kind of like half the world. Tammy, I need to move on. I hope you're not staying late and driving home in the middle of the night.”
“Twin Prairie is only 23 miles down the road.” She fiddled with a button on his shirt. “Of course, you could invite me to stay in town.”
“I'm sure your mother would put you up.”
She slapped his chest. “Oh, you! Whenever you're wearing that uniform, you just tune me out.”
He heard the hurt beneath her exasperation. “Tam, it's a discipline thing. If you're not a damsel in distress, I gotta move on.”
She stomped her foot on the ground. “I
in distress! I miss you!”
Cal laughed and walked away. “See you.”
He strolled through the crowd, studying the faces. Some of the kids were familiar to him, the older ones because they'd been in trouble, the younger ones because they were children of his classmates. That fact always brought him up short. He couldn't imagine having kids already. Come to think of it, he couldn't imagine having a
, let alone kids. He and Tammy were on the same wavelength with that concern. It was one of the things he liked about her. Right after her looks.
She was a lot younger. They hadn't known each other growing up in Valley Oaks, but he knew she had won different beauty pageants, county fair queen kind of stuff. She could have been a model, but instead settled in Twin Prairie where she taught preschool. She was good-looking.
Speaking of looks, what did Lia's little girl look like? Would he even recognize her? She had been asleep that night. He knew her hair was shorter than her mom's, but just as black. When he had laid her down on the bed, he noticed her creamy skin, like her mom's. What was it called? Porcelain. That was it, like dolls. Two china dolls plunked down in the middle of Valley Oaks.
Cal made his way to the picnic area. Long lines of people stretched from the food tent, eager to get the town's famous grilled pork chop sandwiches. He greeted folks, rounded the end of the lines, and spotted Lia in the nearby playground, kneeling before a dark-haired little girl and hugging her tightly.
Well, that situation was resolved. Apparently the new pharmacist was a little high strung when it came to her daughter.
That niggling corner of his mind stirred. What was it? Yeahâ¦that was itâ¦the outdated alarm system. And the back door's flimsy lock. Apparently Lia wasn't overly concerned when it came to home security. But wasn't that and the kid's security one and the same?
Hmm. Something didn't jibe here.
Tony popped the last of his pork chop sandwich into his mouth. They certainly did know how to cook around these parts, he had that to say for them.
He chided himself for the uppity attitude. Not everyone south of Chicago was a closed-minded bigot who thought a whining voice set to twanging guitars was music. Take Izzy, for instance. Though unsophisticated, she had gone to college and was bilingual and bicultural. No, he had to admit that the majority of Valley Oaks residents he had met so far weren't the stereotype he imagined. Homemade and maybe a bit hokey, but decent and open. Only those three men in the cafÃ© the other morning displayed true redneck colors. They drove big ugly trucks, spoke loudly, chewed loudly, and teased the waitress mercilessly. From their undisguised scrutiny of his person, he figured their notion of him was highly suspect. He did what he could to display his own rendition of machismo, winking and smiling at the waitress before making a mental note to leave his Gucci loafers at the motel from now on.
He looked across the picnic table where Dot Cassidy sat, dabbing daintily at the cole slaw dressing at the corner of her mouth. She was older, attractive, and no doubt a knockout in her younger years when the platinum didn't come from a bottle. The tone of her eager friendliness, though, led him to believe that she was the town's leading gossip who bent stories as easily as she batted her mascara-laden eyelashes. Her husband probably drove one of those big ugly trucks.
Tony gave himself a mental shake. He was a journalist. Professionally, he needed an unbiased posture when researching a story. Even if he threw out three-fourths of what Dot told him, there would be useful nuggets. He focused on her again, shutting out the noise and bright lights of the Valley Oaks annual ritual called the Autumn Faire. “Excuse me?”
“I was wondering if you would use my name.” She pulled a compact from her purse and proceeded to apply another layer of bright pink lipstick.
“Yes, Mrs. Cassidy. Unless you want to remain anonymous.”
“Tony, please! I told you to call me Dot. And my goodness, no, I don't want to be anonymous in something the whole nation's going to read!” Although no one was sitting near them, she leaned across the table and lowered her voice. “Now, I don't like to say anything derogatory about Brady, but the guy is not perfect. Nobody is. Did you know his dad was married to Gina Philips' mother? We were all in the same high school class.”
“Wait a minute. Brady's
“Well, not exactly. It happened way before Neil married Barb and they had Brady. The Olafssons are rich farmers, so he was a spoiled kid. Had the money and the looks to get away with anything. He sure could play basketball.” Admiration slipped into her voice. “Made the state all-star team his junior
senior year. No one's done that before or since.”
If I hear that fact one more timeâ
“What I'm saying is, life came easy for him. He got everything he ever wanted.” Dot's smile bordered a smirk. “Except Nicole Frazell. She hightailed it out of here, leaving him high and dry and out a $10,000 ring.”
“He was engaged? When was this?” Tony jotted down the name in his small notebook.