For the third day running, Theodora marched into the Liberty Post unannounced.
Finishing the article, Birdie tried to plaster on a pleasant expression. Feeling anything but heartache was unimaginable now that Hugh had moved out. Amazingly the news hadn’t been broadcast across town, at least not yet.
An impenetrable air surrounded Hugh when he arrived each morning for work. He remained cordial, but it was clear he wasn’t ready for a discussion; which made finding a way to repair their relationship impossible. Would he soon ask for the engagement ring back? With nervous movements Birdie twirled the one-carat solitaire on her finger as Theodora approached.
For a woman past her eightieth birthday Theodora took the center aisle at a fast clip, her gaze gleaming with approval as she surveyed her surroundings. The newsroom was still coming together, the desks neatly arranged in two rows and some of the hardware—computers, printers and scanners—still in boxes.
Snoops and Blossom had marked out territory in the second row, giving their desks an adolescent air with mason jars brimming with colorful markers and a candy jar filled with a variety of sweets. Both girls were too young to officially hold a job at the Liberty Post. They certainly didn’t have scheduled hours. But their contribution, after school and when they wandered in during the weekends, was welcome. The girls’ parents had assured Birdie and Hugh that payment out of petty cash was fine for a couple of twelve year olds.
Snoops peered around the side of her iMac. “Hi, Mrs. Hendricks.” The girl fiddled with her eyeglasses. “Do you have time to, uh, look at my story?”
“Happy to.” With barely a nod in Birdie’s direction, Theodora brushed on past.
Birdie spun around in her chair. “Snoops, you don’t write articles for the paper. You handle tech.”
“I’m practicing, okay? Someday I will have an article worth publishing.”
Theodora stood behind the chair as Snoops typed madly, her fingers lifting only to snatch a chocolate from the small pile she’d heaped beside the keyboard. Yesterday had been the same, with Theodora appearing in the afternoon and showing an interest in the girl’s stabs at composition.
Since when did Theodora dole out lessons in copywriting?
Usually she stuck to nagging Birdie or Hugh about covering some impossibly dull local event like the church social or the latest gossip at the 4-H Club. The scuttlebutt was usually of earth-shattering importance, like Sam Smith’s secret blend of feed for raising prize-winning hogs.
Blossom hopped out of her chair and went to Snoops’ desk. She murmured in Theodora’s ear, her hands slicing the air. A prickly sensation darted up Birdie’s neck.
“Okay, what’s going on?” she asked Theodora. “I get the feeling you’re leaving me in the dark about something.”
Theodora jauntily adjusted her felt hat, the silk roses bouncing. Today she’d paired up a vintage herringbone jacket with a flowery skirt and ankle boots of black leather. She looked like a cross between Sherlock Holmes and a biker chick.
“Secrets?” Her eyes flashed. “You think we’re the ones keeping secrets?”
She probably meant the tiff with Hugh, a topic they would not discuss if Birdie had her way. “Don’t change the subject. You’ve stopped by three days in a row. It’s not because you miss my company. You’re never this sociable.”
“Don’t sass me.” Theodora peered at the stairwell leading to the second floor. “Is Hugh upstairs? Taking a nap?”
“He doesn’t nap.” Not that she knew for certain. Maybe he was out drinking every night and catching a few Z’s in the afternoons at the Perinis’ house. A single guy, all over again.
“Is he out on an interview?”
“I don’t know, Theodora.” Tracking his whereabouts was impossible now that they were barely speaking. “If I had to guess, he’s probably out on a story. He lives for ink.”
“Cut the crap. You know what I’m really asking. Has he moved out?”
“I’m sharing that information on a need-to-know basis. You don’t need to know.”
“Yes, I do. I’ve been looking at invitations and whatnots—thought I’d host a wedding this summer, something nice in Liberty Square. If he’s flown the coop, you might as well spit it out before I waste too much money.”
The announcement caught Birdie off-guard. Theodora had planned to host the wedding? The generous offer was totally unexpected.
The prospect dampened Birdie’s already low mood. It was just like Theodora to fling impatient questions then follow up with the sweetest generosity. Not that her kindness would amount to much. Eyes downcast, Birdie ran her finger around the diamond sparkling on her finger with heaven-sent promise. She didn’t deserve something so beautiful, not after the way she’d treated Hugh. In fact she didn’t deserve Hugh, a man who’d waited for her to set aside the bad habits she’d learned as a child in a family of swindlers. Maybe she shouldn’t wait for him to ask for the ring back. Should she return it with a heartfelt apology for taking everything he’d offered for granted?
Blossom wandered up. “Mrs. Hendricks, give Birdie a break.” The girl rested a hand on Birdie’s shoulder in a touching demonstration of solidarity. “Can’t you see you’re upsetting her?”
“It’s all right, kiddo,” Birdie murmured. She gave Blossom a quick hug. To Theodora, she said, “Hugh is staying at Blossom’s house. Anthony offered a guest bedroom. I don’t know how long Hugh plans to stay at the Perinis’. Needless to say, I don’t think I’ll hear wedding bells anytime soon.”
“He moved out or you threw him out? The way you two fight, anything is possible.”
“I didn’t want him to go.”
She’d been stunned by his decision. Her inability to see how unhappy he’d become probably meant she was dumb and ungrateful. In retrospect, it was amazing he’d considered marrying her at all.
“Wipe your tears away, Birdie. He’ll be back,” Theodora said. For a long moment she wrapped herself in a brooding silence. She appeared to come to a decision, her mouth working as she mumbled incomprehensible words. At last she added, “He won’t stay at the Perinis’. He knows you need protection. This afternoon he went to talk to the police. If you haven’t seen him, I’m guessing he’s still there.”
Something worrisome swirled through the air, a portent of bad news. The hairs on the back of Birdie’s neck bristled. “He’s interviewing someone at the police department? About what?”
“Not an interview—he’s getting their advice on how to protect you if your mother comes to town.” Reconsidering, Theodora added, “When she comes to town.”
All thought evaporated from Birdie’s head. Then her mind rushed forward with a tumult of emotion.
No, it wasn’t possible. Her mother wouldn’t risk coming here.
Years ago she’d made powerful enemies in Liberty after she’d swindled retired banker Landon Williams out of several hundred thousand dollars. Everyone within a fifty-mile radius knew the story of how Landon had been broken by his love for the conniving woman who simply vanished one day. No one would roll out a welcome mat if Wish were foolish enough to return. Except the police, with handcuffs at the ready.
Throughout Birdie’s childhood, her mother had neglected to reveal that Landon was her biological father. In the last six months, he’d become a cherished part of Birdie’s life; a sweet-spoken man who offered quiet counsel on how to grow the Liberty Post when he wasn’t plying her with lavish dinners at his mansion near Lake Erie. She dreaded the thought of how the news of her mother’s reappearance might increase the depression that had stalked him for years.
There was a bigger problem. Last year Wish had sent Birdie to Liberty with the clue passed down in their family for generations, Liberty safeguards the cherished heart. At the time, they hadn’t known if the stories were true.
Supposedly their ancestor Lucas Postell had sent the freedwoman he’d loved from Charleston, South Carolina to an unknown northern state to live until The Civil War ended and he could rejoin her. Birdie had not only discovered that Justice Postell had carried two bags of rubies on her journey north. She’d also found Justice’s descendants—Theodora and the Hendricks clan. Birdie was now as close to them as she was to Landon. She’d do everything in her power to protect them.
Her heartbeat quickening, she began pacing before her desk. “My mother heard about the rubies. On the Internet, in a news story—somehow she knows. She’ll want the gems, and a way to punish me in the bargain.”
Theodora went to her. “There’s no sense in working yourself up into a panic. If she steps one foot in Liberty, we’ll be waiting.”
“Hugh is asking law enforcement for help?”
“He’s filling them in. The State Troopers put out an APB. Our local boys are also on the lookout. You needn’t fret. Everything that can be done is being done.”
The news made her unaccountably cold. “What makes you think my mother is coming here?” She rubbed her arms with brisk movements.
“What a foolish question! We’ve caught her red-handed. She’s been poking around in the Liberty Post’s computers like a nasty dog. Snoops says she hacked the system.”
The explanation didn’t make sense. “My mother is clueless when it comes to computers. She’s better at the traditional con, like bilking seniors out of their retirement funds or taking advantage of rich, lonely men.”
Snoops piped up. “She’s the best hacker I’ve ever seen. If she isn’t the one messing around in our files then she hired someone really good.”
“She doesn’t trust anyone. I can’t imagine she’d hire a computer hacker to take the lead on a job.”
Usually her mother hired stooges for small roles in a con but never for something this big. She was suspicious and greedy, incapable of sharing something as valuable as the rubies she evidently planned to steal. If that was her real goal.
Theodora rubbed her chin. “What makes you sure Wish can’t hack a computer?”
“She never learned how to use the simplest programs or navigate the Internet. She hates computers.”
“And you believed her? Lord above. Wish Kaminsky wouldn’t think twice about lying to her own child. By my reckoning, she purposely kept you in the dark.”
Birdie was still digesting the truth of the assessment when Hugh strolled in with the leather briefcase he stuffed full with his laptop, a tape recorder and other tools of the writing trade. He looked haggard, the dark patches beneath his eyes deeper than they’d been yesterday. Her heart lifted as he pivoted in her direction, her smile wide and welcoming. But her emotions sank as he caught himself and retreated. The urge to rush into his arms nearly sent her across the newsroom.
He stowed his briefcase beneath his desk. “So they’ve told you?” he asked her.
“About my mother? Yes.”
“This morning a report came in from Atlanta PD. A woman fitting Wish’s description used a fake credit card for a stay at a local hotel.”
Birdie shrugged off the news. “Lots of women fit my mother’s description.” She wasn’t yet prepared to believe her mother would follow her to Liberty, the only home she’d ever known. “We shouldn’t jump to conclusions. Why do you think it was her?”
“The woman was dressed as a maid in the hotel. She pilfered half the rooms on the third floor, taking everything from jewelry to cash lying around. According to Atlanta PD, the heist took fifteen minutes or less.”
Birdie bit her lower lip. “My mother is fast.” Once during childhood, she’d watched her mother push her way into a crowd of women at a department store cosmetics counter. She’d made off with four hundred dollars in less than fifteen minutes.
Blossom wrinkled her nose. “What does Wish look like? I mean, when she’s not wearing a disguise.” She hugged her purse, a leather envelope of bright pink, to her chest. “Maybe I should camp out in my bedroom for a week or two. Who needs school when someone as scary as Birdie’s mom is on the prowl?”
Hugh chuckled. “I think you’re safe, kiddo. If you’re wondering what Wish looks like, she could pass for Birdie’s twin. Hard to tell she’s twenty years older.”
“She’s big on protecting her assets,” Birdie agreed. “I’ll bet she still works out and schedules spa visits between scams.”
“She’s a consummate actress. Why wouldn’t she take her ill-gotten gains and splurge at the spa?” Dropping the subject, Hugh approached Snoops. “Is there mail?” he asked her. “I have an hour to dig through it.”
Snoops turned on her printer. “We got seven more responses this morning.”
Another prickly sensation warned Birdie there was more they hadn’t shared.
She’d had enough bad news for one day. At this very moment her mother was probably heading toward Liberty in a state of fury because a treasure had been found. But Birdie hadn’t returned to her mother’s side, and the prospect of losing out on something like a cool two million in rubies would make Wish intent on revenge at Birdie and the owner of the second bag of gems—Theodora.
“Let me have the names,” Hugh was saying. The printer beside Snoops desk whirred then spit out his request.
Birdie snatched the page from his hand. “I’m officially at wit’s end. Tell me why we’re collecting names.”
“I thought they got you up to speed.” He gave Theodora an appraising glance.
A fiery impatience sizzled up Theodora’s nearly five-foot frame. “Blast it all, Hugh—I didn’t mention the bounty hunters. What, with you and Birdie on the outs and that demon of her mother sure to come to town, I thought we’d given her enough shocks for one day.”
“You’re hiring bounty hunters to track down my mother?” Birdie laughed shortly. “You’re joking, right?”
Theodora shimmied her narrow shoulders. “We’re going after big game, aren’t we? Of course we need hunters.” Mischief sparked her smile. “Welcome to my safari.”
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