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KND Freebies: Save 75% on captivating novel TREASURE ME by Christine Nolfi in today’s Free Kindle Nation Shorts excerpt

***2012 Finalist***
Next Generation Indie Awards
and 88 rave reviews!

Treasure Me is a real gem…”

 Discover its sweet and sassy mix of mystery, romance and comedy for 75% off the regular price!

Treasure Me (Liberty Series)

by Christine Nolfi

4.5 stars – 88 Reviews
Text-to-Speech and Lending: Enabled
Here’s the set-up:

Petty thief Birdie Kaminsky has arrived in Liberty, Ohio to steal a treasure hidden since the Civil War. She’s in possession of a charming clue passed down in her family for generations: Liberty safeguards the cherished heart.

The beautiful thief wants to go straight. She secretly admires the clue’s author, freedwoman Justice Postell, who rose above the horrors of slavery to build a new life in Ohio. As Birdie searches for the treasure she begins to believe a questionable part of the story: a tale of love between Justice and Lucas Postell, the French plantation owner who was Birdie’s ancestor.

If the stories are true, Justice bore a child with Lucas. Some of those black relatives might still live in town. Birdie can’t help but wonder if she’s found one—Liberty’s feisty matriarch, Theodora Hendricks, who packs a pistol and heartwarming stories about Justice. She doesn’t know that an investigative reporter has arrived in town to trip her up—as will her conscience when she begins to wonder if it’s possible to start a new life with stolen riches.

Yet with each clue she unearths, Birdie discovers a family history more precious than gems, a tradition of love richer than she’d imagined.

5-star praise for Treasure Me:

“Loved it!!! Story line was great, a fun and mysterious plot, great romance. Will be reading more of this author…on to the next one! Sweet!”

“With romance, buried treasure, suspense and drama, Treasure Me is fantastic! … Great character development, excellent dialogue and a solid plot set the tone for this lively and entertaining tale…”

an excerpt from

Treasure Me
by Christine Nolfi


Copyright © 2014 by Christine Nolfi and published here with her permission

Chapter  1

“Where are you? Give me back my wallet!”

From somewhere inside Birdie Kaminsky’s apartment, the man in blue pinstripe stormed through the rooms like a long distance runner stoked on Red Bull. Flinching at the fury in his voice, she dangled from the window ledge and stared with wide-eyed fear at the pavement three stories below.

The man was seventy years old if he was a day. He probably worked out, which explained how he’d pursued her up three flights of stairs and made it into her apartment before she locked the front door.

Old men and their treadmills. It was something she should’ve considered before she’d picked his pocket on her way home from a light day of breaking and entering.

Birdie tried to ignore the sickening whoosh of fear zigzagging through her body. Her teeth were chattering, so she clamped her mouth shut. Three stories above terra firma made a straight drop a stupid idea. Like any good thief she was agile. But the last time she’d checked she hadn’t sprouted wings. If she let go of the windowsill and took the plunge, she’d break her legs.

“Where are you hiding? You aren’t taking my money, do you hear me?”

Something crashed to the floor inside her apartment, the sound too close for comfort. Had it come from the hallway that led from the closet-sized living room to the pea-sized bedroom? With any luck, Marathon Man would stop in the bathroom to check if she was hiding behind the shower curtain.

She gasped as her hold on the windowsill loosened. “Oh, shit!”

Pressing her long legs forward, she flattened against the building’s brick façade. To her left, the drainpipe snaked down to the street. Reach for it and risk falling? Today was her thirty-first birthday and therefore a lucky day. On the other hand, her landlord had threatened to evict her this morning if she didn’t make good on her rent and a demonic old geezer was pounding on the bedroom door she’d had the sense to lock before she’d stupidly made her escape.

The window on the other side of the drainpipe slid open with a bang! Fear scuttled her heart. Mr. Chen stuck his head out and relief swamped her.

“Birdie! What happened?”

“Uh . . .”

Another wave of fists pounding and Mr. Chen’s mouth formed an O. “Is it the police? Did they threaten you? You didn’t squeal on the Poker Kings, did you?”

Mr. Chen held Poker Kings, a Tuesday night game, in his apartment. He did a great job of seeding his hand with Aces and he was always worried the cops would find out. Birdie figured he should worry about the other tenants learning he was fleecing them. The overworked Lexington Police Department had bigger fish to fry.

She smiled at him gamely. “Um, Mr. Chen, could you help me out? I’m gonna fall if you don’t.”

“Oh. Right.”

To her surprise, he jimmied a brick from the wall. Then another. When he’d finished, he grabbed her left foot and steered it toward the handy inverse steps he’d created. Stretching to the drainpipe, she grabbed hold then started toward his window. For all she knew, he hid his ill-gotten poker winnings behind the bricks.

No matter—his thieving heart was her salvation. She shimmied toward him with her pulse rattling inside her skull.

When she reached his window he helped her through and into the kitchen.

The fragrant scents of ginger and garlic mingled in the air. A wok sat on the counter. Evidently Mr. Chen had been preparing an early dinner while she’d been chased upstairs by the man whose pocket she’d picked.

Ignoring the rumbling in her stomach, she darted through the apartment. In the living room she found Mrs. Chen seated in the shiny new wheelchair Birdie had snagged from an assisted living facility last month. It hadn’t seemed fair for Mrs. Chen to spend hours on the phone, arguing with bureaucrats in her broken English. All she’d needed was a new set of wheels. Birdie was familiar with the pricey new facility—she’d eaten a free lunch in the cafeteria on more than one occasion. So she’d dolled up in a tight-fitting nurse’s uniform and set out to snatch a wheelchair.

She’d marched right into the lobby, cornered a hunky security guard lounging by the front desk, and announced she needed to assist a woman who was having trouble getting out of her car. All too eager to help, the security guard was still checking out her ass when she rolled the wheelchair out to the parking lot.

Dismissing the memory, she paused before the wheelchair. “Good afternoon, Mrs. Chen.”

“Birdie, hello. You stay for dinner?”

“Naw. I have to leave the city.”

“For good?”

“My time in Lexington is up.”

“You a crazy white girl, but we miss you.” Mrs. Chen thrust out her lower lip. “Wish you stay longer, steal a car for Yihung. His Buick is a beater.”

“I’ll grab him a Mercedes the next time I’m in Kentucky.” Regret sifted through her and her fingers were stinging, too. Hell, her thumbs were bleeding—she nearly had lost her purchase on the windowsill and plummeted to the ground. “You take care of yourself, okay?”

Mrs. Chen glanced at the ceiling, where pounding footsteps sounded. “You got money?” When Birdie started rifling through the pockets of her army surplus coat, the woman reached for the purse she’d left on the couch. She handed over a wad of bills. “Not much. You take.”

“Mrs. Chen . . .”

“Take!” The woman’s dark eyes snapped. Mr. Chen came into the room and she looked up at her husband. “Make her take my dough from bingo. I only give back to St. Vincent’s Church if I keep.”

There wasn’t time to argue. Birdie took the cash. Then she sighed at the sight of the large Mason jar in Mr. Chen’s hands, the one he sat beside his chair on Tuesday nights. Quarters, nickels, dimes—his poker winnings over the last few weeks. His generosity was sweet, but she couldn’t possibly lug a gallon jar to the Amtrak Station without drawing stares.

“Mr. Chen, I can’t—” She cut off when he opened a pocket on her oversized coat and poured in coins. She found her voice as he moved to the other side, to weigh her down equally. “I won’t be able to run if I’m lugging this much cargo.”

“With legs like yours? You can run, Birdie. Now go. I’ll keep the man upstairs busy. It’ll give you time to get away.”

“You’ll do that for me?”

“Sure I will.” Mr. Chen bounced his gaze across the pockets adorning her army coat. “Have you got the story with you?”

She’d placed the newspaper clipping from the Akron Register in a Ziploc bag for safekeeping. It was stashed in a zippered pocket above her heart.

Mr. Chen was the only person she’d shown it to. She didn’t trust anyone else in the building, not with a potential windfall at stake. Every family had a legend or two, and while Birdie’s clan also possessed stories of prison breaks and deals gone sour, a yarn from the Civil War probably didn’t amount to much. It was also possible her mother, who was an expert at deceit but an amateur with the truth, had pruned important facts from the story. She wasn’t above playing Birdie like a mark if it suited her purpose. And a tale of lost treasure, hidden away by a freedwoman when Abe Lincoln was in office, seemed more like a fairy tale than anything else.

But on the chance the newspaper article led to something of real worth, Birdie kept the clipping on her at all times.

She made a tapping motion over her right breast. “I’ve got it.” When Mr. Chen nodded with satisfaction, she added, “Thanks for taking care of the guy upstairs. Oh. Give this back to him.”

She pulled the man’s wallet from her army coat and flipped it open. Jackpot—four hundred dollars was inside. It was more than enough to cover a quick grab-and-dash excursion to Ohio.

Pocketing the bills, she thrust the wallet at Mr. Chen. “Gotta go.” The ceiling above them quaked. “I’ll call sometime next week to see how you and Mrs. Chen are doing.” She gave him a quick hug, then dashed out of the apartment.

A blast of November wind nearly took her off her feet as she headed down the street. The Greyhound station was only three blocks away. It was no problem to hoof it.

Thirty minutes later, she was elbowing her way through the crowded aisle to a seat in the back of the bus. The floor was wet with a slushy snow-rain mix. Somewhere up front, a baby’s wail cracked the air. Newspapers rustled and someone popped open a can. As the bus lumbered from the station, she glanced out of the window at the buildings streaming past, a few parking lots, then they were outside of the city with the rolling Kentucky hills turning white beneath the falling snow.

She pressed her face to the window and blew out a breath. A moist haze settled over the countryside reflected through the glass. Sunlight pooled in orange puddles beneath the hills as the blue of night bled into the horizon. It would be dark soon, and her muscles were leaden with exhaustion.

Staying in any town for too long was never a good plan, but she’d really taken to the Chens. She didn’t relish the possibility of never seeing them again. Mrs. Chen had taught her how to fold dumplings so the papery skins resembled tiny kites and Mr. Chen had become an unexpected confidant. The minor criminal tendencies that lured him to the card table enabled him to accept, if not admire, her larger transgressions. Their daily conversations about Mrs. Chen’s cardiovascular health and the gossip they shared about the other tenants had provided an endearing constancy. It had been some time since she’d stayed in a city long enough to learn her way around, let alone make an acquaintance. Friendship was rare, a gem she unearthed when the Chinese immigrant lobbed questions at her every time he found her creeping down the hallway.

It might be several years before Birdie risked another friendship. By necessity, a thief avoided the gummy substance of relationships. Familiarity was dangerous leverage in an alliance if one member made her living slipping wallets from pant pockets and lifting bills from unattended purses. The threat of prison time plagued her and she’d tried to go legal.

Learning the knack was impossible.

Summoning up her mother’s lessons required less discipline. In a busy department store, she’d dart through the mysterious contents of a purse swinging from a woman’s shoulder while its nearly unconscious owner wandered through the silks and taffetas. She didn’t consider her targets ‘marks’ as her mother did. Rather she viewed the unlucky souls as members of a separate tribe. Her greatest shame came not from the money she took but from the personal mementos that found their way into the pockets of her coat: a crumpled grocery list, the cheery newsletter from an elementary school. A photograph of a family pressed close together before a mantle festooned with greenery.

Of course, she’d taken nothing from the Chens except their unprejudiced affection. For the space of nine weeks they’d been everything to her. Pulling her collar up to her ears, Birdie rocked in time with the rumbling bus. The loneliness she wore like a second skin became unbearable. She began chewing her nails.

Across the aisle, a man with a beard was devouring a cupcake with brown frosting. It dawned that her birthday was nearly over. Thirty-one years old . . . most women were settled down by now with a husband and children. Not that she understood much about family life. Her mother, the notorious Wish Kaminsky, never stayed long with any man. She’d dragged Birdie from state to state as if they could live with their roots sheared off or flourish without a sense of permanency.

The bus shook and bumped down the highway. Her mood sinking, Birdie slid low in her seat. Cupcake Man leered at her with dots of icing on his teeth. Curling her body toward the window, she drew out the Ziploc bag and unfolded the newspaper clipping with exquisite care.

Second Chance in Small-town America. A journalist named Hugh Schaffer had written the article. It was a nice feature with several photographs of the restaurant, The Second Chance Grill. The restaurant’s owner had sold off everything she owned to save a local girl with leukemia. When the story broke last summer, Birdie watched the coverage on the national news. She thought nothing of it until her mother, Wish—who’d recently landed on the Fed’s radar and was now scamming her way toward Mexico—mailed off the paper before hopping a bus in southern Ohio.

The article told of an auction at the restaurant. Once people learned the proceeds would be used to save the sick girl, every last item was returned.

Including a Civil War-era portrait in a shadowbox frame. Bringing the article close, Birdie gazed intently at the photograph.

Curiosity swirled through her. No, she wasn’t responsible for the slaves her French ancestors had owned in the dawning years of the new republic. She’d only traveled through the South a few times and had never set foot on a plantation. Houses outside suburban Charleston now sat on the thousands of acres once owned by her forebears, the illustrious Postells. It was only fitting that their mansions had burned to the ground during the Civil War. Like slavery itself, they’d gone to ash.

Still, the story of a singular love had traveled down through the generations alongside the tales of slavery. Love between a plantation owner, who was Birdie’s ancestor, and the beautiful slave who’d comforted him after his wife’s death. The slave became a freedwoman and traveled north with riches given to her by her beloved. According to legend, the treasure had been stashed away for all these years.

Was any of it true? Birdie wasn’t sure. The bits and pieces of lore gleaned from her mother never gave enough detail to tell.

In one of the Akron Register photographs, The Second Chance Grill’s buxom chef stood in the foreground. But it was the portrait, clearly visible behind her, that gripped Birdie’s attention.

Is the woman in the portrait the freedwoman Justice Postell?

She knew enough American history to realize a daguerreotype of a black woman, taken in the mid-1800s, was unusual. The dress she wore was elegant, the collar tightly ruffled with tiny beads—like pearls—scattered across the bodice. Could a freedwoman have owned a dress so luxurious? The portrait seemed to confirm the stories passed down in Birdie’s family of how the plantation owner sent the black slave, Justice, north to freedom with hidden fortune. Once free, Justice became a successful businesswoman and wealthy in her own right. After she’d escaped slavery in South Carolina, where had she gone? In what state had she lived? The answer was shrouded in history.

Still, Birdie wouldn’t have believed she was actually looking at a portrait of Justice Postell if it weren’t for Hugh Schaffer’s article. The feature seemed to unravel some of the mystery behind a scrap of parchment her mother kept in a safety deposit box in Santa Fe. Wish swore the parchment had once belonged to Justice and was a clue to the location of the treasure.

Liberty safeguards the cherished heart.

The parchment had been passed down through generations in Birdie’s family as the once-proud plantation owners bred low and became a family of con artists and thieves. The cryptic message was never decoded.  During those infrequent times when Birdie and her mother landed in the same city—and if they were getting along—they’d stay up late drinking Rum and Cokes and theorize about the meaning behind the words.

Every snippet of family lore agreed on one fact: Justice never sold whatever she’d carried north to freedom. Gold bullion? Antique French jewelry worth thousands on today’s market?

Liberty safeguards . . .

So many guesses, and Birdie had never fully believed any of the stories. Until now.

The town where the portrait resided was Liberty, Ohio.

* * *

“Don’t even start with the excuses, Hugh. You’re fired.”

Trapped inside the glass-walled office, Hugh Schaeffer planted his feet before the City Editor’s desk and tried to get his bearings. Outside in the newsroom, journalists and copy editors were hard at work. He would have been too, if Bud Kresnick hadn’t confronted him the moment he stepped off the elevator and ordered him into the corner office.

It was just like Bud to incinerate a relatively happy Monday by leveling threats. ‘Relative’ being the operative word. Hugh’s latest live-in love, Melissa, had moved out of his apartment, taking his flat-screen TV with her.

Women, the thieving witches, always took something on the way out. His flat-screen TV. His microwave. Last March, Tamara Kelly made off with his entire sound system including the speakers he’d installed in every room of his condo. From the looks of the plaster, she’d used a blunt spoon to dig them out.

The weaker sex, my ass. Every last member of the pilfering sex should be banished to the seventh circle of hell.

Hugh grappled for a sense of calm. “You don’t want to fire me.” His trusty intuition warned that this time the City Editor would make good on the threat. “I’ll work late. Move up the deadlines, pile on the work—I’m your man.”

“Bullshit. You missed another deadline.”

“An oversight.”

Bud folded his hands over his expansive gut. “I went to press with a hole on page one. Know what I filled it with? Page four fluff. A ribbon cutting ceremony that’ll make me the laughingstock of every respectable paper in Ohio.”

“It won’t happen again,” Hugh said, thinking, this is the third deadline I’ve missed this month.

It wasn’t his fault. Melissa had been spilling tears across his apartment, in some sort of premenstrual funk over the sculpture she couldn’t finish.  She blamed his vibes, claimed his energy was dark and repressive and his inability to commit thwarted her creative flow. He’d vacillated between consoling her and camping out in front of the tube to watch the Browns lose to the Steelers, with a six-pack at his elbow.

On the other side of the desk, Bud wasn’t buying. “You’ve got an addiction, pal. Now it’s cost you your job.”

Hugh glowered. “I’m not a heavy drinker. Not anymore.”

“I’m talking about women.”

He flinched. “Okay—you’re right. I need a twelve-step program.”

“You also need a job since you’re no longer employed by the Akron Register.” When Hugh grumbled a protest, Bud waved the words away. “Listen, I was excited when I hired you. I knew you’d been thrown off four other newspapers. I also knew you’d once been a fine investigative reporter, one of the best in the state. I even felt bad last summer when I gave you the Liberty gig. You’re a cold-hearted bastard, and writing cotton candy prose must’ve nearly killed you.”

Which was true. Writing an upbeat feature about the money raised to pay for a kid’s bone marrow transplant wasn’t exactly Hugh Schaeffer material. No one had been gunned down at close range or absconded with thousands of dollars of public money. There was no sexual impropriety in high office to report or juicy grist about a corporation dumping some toxic stew into Lake Erie.

But he’d taken the assignment without complaint because Bud wanted to punish him for missing yet another deadline. Not my fault. Hugh was between live-in lovers at the time. When he met Zoe, a vivacious personal trainer, he left the article on union corruption in limbo.

Dodging the thought, he stuffed his pride. It was time to grovel. “If you fire me, there isn’t a newspaper in Ohio that’ll put me on the payroll. Not with five strikes against me.” Nervous tension wound through his muscles—this would be the end of his career. What would he do? He’d be a failure, a has-been—he’d be pathetic. “I’ll do anything. Give me one more chance.”

At the desperation in Hugh’s voice, Bud lowered his brows. But the City Editor surprised him when his expression softened. “Maybe you should try therapy.”


Bud slowly rubbed his chin. “Seriously, pal. Get a therapist. Talk about it.”

“Talk about . . .” A sense of foreboding crept into his blood.

The members only club of newspaper editors was so tight knit, it was nearly incestuous. Had Bud heard through the grapevine about Hugh’s involvement in the Trinity Investment scandal? Ancient history, but it was the kind of archeological dig that could bury a man for years.

Fourteen years had passed since he’d written the article that derailed his life. Had Bud learned the sordid details from a colleague? The article, written when Hugh was a rookie, brought him perilously close to his subject. Naïve and eager, he plunged into the murky world of celebrity when he was too young to comprehend the danger. Had he loved the celebrated philanthropist, Cat Seavers? Impossible to recall—the intervening years had washed away the particulars of his emotional state even if they hadn’t absolved him of his sickly remorse. Her death and the subsequent uproar nearly destroyed him. He sought absolution in drink and women. He survived, barely, and his journalistic style became edgier, more in-your-face.

When he couldn’t find his voice, Bud said, “What are you, two years away from forty? All you do is chase tail, which has me thinking you aren’t chasing so much as running.”

“I’m not running from anything,” Hugh replied with enough heat to nearly convince himself. But if the City Editor had been a goddamn mystic he couldn’t have been more accurate.

“Tell you what.” Bud turned toward his computer and navigated through the Internet. “Remember those websites for the Perini girl? The ones where people donated cash for her bone marrow transplant?”

“Of course.”

“They’re still up, bringing in money.”

“She had the operation months ago.” Hugh’s inner antenna went on alert. Why were people across the country still making donations? Blossom Perini was on the mend. “What’s her father doing with all the cash?”

“Gee, Hugh, I don’t know. Think he’s funneling greenbacks into a vacation condo?”

“Could be.”

“Lots of good people donated money for the girl’s medical expenses. A real shame if Anthony Perini misappropriated the funds.”

Hugh’s brain whirled. “He could be doing anything—investing, buying cars—I’ll bet he’s already put thousands in his 401k, the bastard.”

“You tell me.”

“Okay, I will.” It might take a few weeks to uncover the scam, but if it put him back in Bud’s good graces, what the hell.

“But don’t tell me on my dime because you’re fired. You want to do some digging? Do it without an expense account from the Akron Register.”

Stunned, he let out a gargled laugh. “You’re telling me to spend a few weeks in Liberty without a paycheck or an expense account? Are you shitting me?” How much did he have in his checking account—a thousand dollars? Saving for a rainy day had never been his style. “If you want me to jump through hoops, I will. But not without greenbacks to make the gymnastics palatable.”

“Then forget it. I’m cutting you loose.”

The irritation churning Hugh’s gut mixed with fury. “That’s it? I’m fired unless I dig up dirt without pay?” Which wasn’t the worst of it. Liberty was a time warp from the 1950s. They rolled up the sidewalks and turned out the lights at 9:00 P.M. No nightlife, nothing. “You think I’m so desperate I’d consider it?”

Bud picked up a pen and rolled it between his thumb and forefinger with galling disinterest. “I have work to do.” He turned back to his computer. “And stay away from women while you’re in Liberty. Who knows? You might produce decent copy if you give your gonads a rest.”

“What sort of asshole demands work without pay?”

“Watch it—”

Hugh placed his palms on the desk. “I won’t do it.” Scowling, he leaned close. “You got it, Bud? The answer is no.”

Chapter 2

Shivering on the cobblestone walk outside The Second Chance Grill, Birdie took stock of the small town.

Liberty Square was stirring to life beneath a slate colored sky. Bands of gold poked through the clouds to illuminate a scene from a bygone era, the brick buildings iced with snow and the cobblestone walks gleaming and wet, as if each shop owner on the Square had hurried out in the dawn chill with a broom and good cheer to sweep the place clean. In the window of the florist shop, bouquets of yellow daisies and shell pink carnations framed a poster from the local Girl Scouts for the father and daughter Princess Ball, to be held on Saturday night at the United Methodist Church. Cars drove by slowly to avoid the pedestrians dashing across the street, a few women with their children bundled nicely in heavy coats and thick scarves, and three elderly men with their bristled cheeks glowing in the frigid breeze. In the center green, business types in long coats streamed into the brick courthouse anchoring the north end of the Square.

An unsettling déjà vu gripped Birdie. This was her first time in Liberty . . . and yet it wasn’t. She felt as if she’d been here long ago, the memory nearly a dream. The storefronts hemming in the large rectangle of the center green, the imposing brick courthouse—it was all intensely familiar. As was the restaurant with patriotic bunting festooned in the picture window, the door attractively painted Wedgwood blue.

Had she visited Liberty during her long-ago childhood? Uneasy, Birdie silently ticked off the elementary schools she’d attended, the entire depressing list. None were in Ohio.

Shrugging off the sensation, she entered the restaurant. Many of the tables were occupied: more business types, a few women with kids and several elderly couples. The counter’s barstools were filled, and a waitress with a bad dye job dashed from one customer to the next.

Where was the picture of Justice? Birdie scanned the cluttered walls. The restaurant was like a museum of Americana, with pewter sconces competing for wall space with gilt-framed portraits and paintings of Colonial America. To her left, a businessman rose from his table and strode out, leaving his half-eaten omelet and his toast untouched. Birdie slipped into his seat. Snatching up the toast she ate quickly, her gaze bounding across the museum of artifacts on the walls. An odd feeling tugged again and she whirled, as if to catch someone watching her.

No one noticed her . . . and the portrait of Justice was nowhere in sight.

The feeling of being watched wouldn’t abate and she hurried back out with the last of the man’s toast. It was early enough to wander around Liberty without drawing stares so she strode to the back of the building. The alley lay silent beneath the soft-falling snow.

The building was large, three stories in all. Through the windows above, a swath of darkness filled the second and third floors, as if they were rarely visited and largely forgotten, and she wondered if the upper floors held nothing but supplies for the restaurant. The safest place to break into a building was usually in back. She didn’t relish the thought of staying in the town any longer than necessary, and now was as good a time as any to check the place out. There was only one door, with an old-fashioned lock. She sorted through the pockets of her coat and found the two-inch file she kept on hand for this sort of occasion. The lock gave, and she dashed inside.

Noise from the restaurant’s kitchen carried down the hall, a burst of impatient conversation and the clatter of pots. She skirted away from the commotion and up the shadowed steps. The second floor’s narrow hallway led into a sea of black, the carpeting underfoot nothing more than waves of grey, and she stumbled forward in search of light. The corridor opened into a cozy reception area.

The walls carried the sharp scent of fresh paint. The seating arrangement appeared new. A big cutout in the opposite wall revealed a receptionist’s desk on the other side. Nearing, she peered inside. By the phone, a stack of business cards read, Dr. Mary Chance – Family Practice.

She recalled the contents of the newspaper article. The good doctor had inherited The Second Chance Grill and resided in Liberty for just a few months when she took up the cause of paying for Blossom Perini’s bone marrow transplant. Among the other antiques auctioned off then returned, the picture of a freedwoman had probably seemed insignificant. Wandering into the reception area, Birdie hoped that no one would notice when the portrait—and its hidden clue—disappeared altogether. Once she knew the portrait’s location, she’d break into the building at night and carry it off. Given all the stuff in the restaurant, the loss would surely go unnoticed.

Satisfied with her plan, she studied the pretty green carpet underfoot. Two examination rooms lay ahead, and both were neatly filled with sparkling medical instruments and gleaming jars of cotton balls. Even here, the scent of new paint was strong.

Medical care wasn’t something a drifter got much of, and she’d always been grateful for a hearty constitution. Life on the road meant head colds went untended and a sprained ankle was bound with tape stolen from the nearest drugstore. She frowned at the memories and the accompanying heartache. Even as a child she’d understood that complaining broke an unspoken rule. Her mother worked her scams from city to city, luring a man with her beauty, after which she’d take her ill-gotten gains and her kid and move on. Birdie saw the world as a kaleidoscope of people and events, a swirling mass of excitement that ended as quickly as it began.

She’d spent her childhood like a novice standing backstage in an adult play trying to learn the lines of her mother’s script. When brought onstage she was the adorable tot of a woman down on her luck and in need of a man’s protection. A certain type predictably fell for the trick, the sort of mark who joined civic groups and wore a conservative suit. There were always men to be had, innocent stooges with pathetically gallant natures.

Remembering those years feathered sadness across her heart. The child she’d been had bobbed her pigtails engagingly whenever the man called her sweet baby. She’d smiled, but her pleasure was never sincere, except for that one time when she was three or four years old, too young to understand the mistake of loving a man caught in her mother’s web.

She’d paid dearly for the error.

Paw Paw.

His name, the city where he’d lived, the lines composing his face—time had erased the particulars save the affectionate timbre of his voice. If she saw him on the street today she wouldn’t recognize him.

He must have been wealthy, because her mother had stayed in his city longer than usual while the temperature ground down to the single digits. Freezing rain hung from the fir trees like diamonds scattered amid the greenery and Birdie recalled a fever that left her dazed. Paw Paw, worried, took her to an emergency room where she was treated and released. He bundled her off to a house he must have rented on their behalf, the place so clean it looked new and the bed impossibly soft.  He spent hours playing Go Fish with her while she recovered. The cards were made of a heavy stock easy for a child to handle and printed with vivid scenes of marine life Birdie found mesmerizing.

The cards, now worn a tired grey, were mere scraps of fleeting joy tucked inside her coat.

Drawing out of the troubling reverie, she left the office and retraced her steps down the stairwell.

* * *

Settled on a plan, Birdie left the Square and found a small hardware store a few blocks away, where she bought a pen flashlight and extra batteries, and a bag of potato chips to hold her over. She was still stiff from the long bus ride and spent the next hour strolling the streets of pretty houses. There had to be a cheap motel somewhere, even in a town as small as this one, but she couldn’t find it. When her toes went numb inside her boots she started back up the hill to the Square. By the time she returned to The Second Chance Grill half of the breakfast customers had cleared out and she was able to grab a stool at the counter.

With renewed energy she surveyed the walls bursting with Americana, the large painting of George Washington astride a white horse, the brass sconces that might’ve been crafted in Williamsburg during the Colonial period. There was also a portrait of a man in a frock coat. Next up were a series of porcelain figurines she guessed were Pilgrims. Where was the portrait in the shadowbox frame? Frustrated, she slipped out the article from the Akron Register and examined the photo with painstaking interest, the heavy-set cook in the foreground and the portrait—it had to be of Justice—in the background. Had the photo been shot in the restaurant’s kitchen? Was the portrait, a key to untold riches, hanging by the stove or a sink full of dishes?

“Do you need a menu?”

Startled, Birdie swung back around. “Yeah. Great.” Stuffing the article back into her pocket, she gave the waitress, who looked about twenty years old, the once-over. “Nice hair.”

The waitress’s bubble gum-colored lips eased into a smile. “I was experimenting. Something went wrong.”

Way wrong. The young woman may have started on the highlighting highway toward blonde but she’d veered off on the lime green exit. Her close-cropped hair bore a definite green hue on top of the sunny yellow color. Then again, she was young enough to pull it off.

The waitress tipped her head to the side. “I’m Delia Molek. Are you new in town?”

Birdie hesitated. She didn’t have a story down yet. Was she visiting relatives? Just passing through? “Yeah, I just arrived,” she hedged. “My name’s Birdie Kaminsky.”

“Cute name. And don’t worry. All the publicity about Blossom has brought lots of newcomers to town. You aren’t alone. Liberty is growing for the first time in years.”

“Where’s the hotel?” Birdie peered over the heads of diners, and out the large picture window. “I didn’t see it on my way into town.”

Delia snorted. “Are you kidding?” She slapped a menu down in front of Birdie, who’d suddenly lost her appetite. “If our population mini-boom keeps up, maybe we’ll get a movie theatre. But a hotel? I wouldn’t hold my breath.”

“Where do people stay?”

“With relatives, where else?” The waitress rolled her tongue inside her delightfully plump cheeks. “Don’t you know anyone around here?”

Since when was that a crime? Of course, Birdie usually scammed her way through cities.  In a small town, a new face stood out. Cops in the sticks were best avoided and the neighbor next door might notice an afternoon burglary.

“I don’t have any relatives in Liberty.” The scent of bacon frying in the kitchen brought her hunger bounding back. After she ordered, she asked, “What about apartments? Is there a place I can rent by the week?”

“Mary’s place is available. It’s on the second floor, right above us. But I think she was hoping to rent by the month. If I were you, I’d grab it. There really isn’t anywhere else.”

She’d already canvassed Dr. Mary’s new office upstairs—the door in the hallway she’d passed must’ve led into the woman’s apartment. “Why is Mary renting her apartment?”

“She got hitched to Blossom’s dad. Real spur of the moment.”

“How much is the monthly rent?” After Delia told her, Birdie frowned. “That seems awfully steep.”

“Trust me—there’s nowhere else.”

Which was a hassle since Birdie had no idea how long she’d be staying. She still had to locate the portrait of Justice. According to family legend, there was a clue attached to the picture, which led to the mysterious treasure. Of course, it might all be a tall tale. She might spend time in Liberty spinning her wheels for nothing.

While she ruminated, Delia returned with a plate of eggs, sunny side up, bacon, and a side of wheat toast. After the waitress poured coffee, she said, “So. Do you want to check out the apartment?”

“I don’t need a tour of the place.” Like it or not, she’d have to pay a month’s rent. “I’ll move in right after I finish breakfast.”

“I’ll tell Finney.” Delia jerked her chin toward the swinging door, and the kitchen beyond. “She’s the cook—a real nice woman as long as you don’t piss her off. She’ll ask for references.”

“What kind?”

“The usual. Your last three places of employment, and the names of everyone you know in town.” The waitress misread the horror on Birdie’s face and quickly added, “It’s not a big deal. Use me as a reference. We’ll tell Finney you’re a friend of the family.”

The offer would’ve been suspect if it weren’t for Delia’s wide-eyed cheer. Stuck in this desolate town, surrounded by snow-covered cornfields, the waitress had probably lost half of her girlfriends to marriage and the rest to civilization. Yet the offer wasn’t enough to put Birdie in the clear. She didn’t have anything resembling an employment history. Stumped, she bit into her toast to stall for time.

When the silence grew daunting, she said, “My job history is a little sketchy.” Delia puffed out her lower lip in what appeared to be a show of empathy. Emboldened, Birdie corralled her scattered thoughts and devised a plausible story. “I’ve been traveling. In Europe. I worked in a shoe store in London and a travel agency in Rome. Short gigs, but they paid for my Eurail pass.”

Delia fiddled around inside her blouse and withdrew a stick of gum from her bra. “Sweet. I’d love to see Europe.”

“I’ll tell you everything once I’m settled in.” She sensed triumph as the young woman’s expression lit up. “I mean, Finney won’t mind calling overseas to check my references, will she?”

“She’d make me walk to London to check you out before she’d pay for an overseas call.”

“Then I guess I’m screwed.”

“No, no—we’ll think of something!” Delia raked her fingers through her hair. “There must be a way to get around the references.”

Birdie was about to wholeheartedly agree.

Her optimism died when, from behind, a man said, “Delia, don’t bother. You can’t lease the apartment to her. I’m taking it.”

Chapter 3

The angel in the army jacket swung around on her barstool and gave Hugh a look that needed no interpretation.  Pure unadulterated loathing. He was out to steal her new digs in town. Evidently, she wasn’t pleased.

Which was her tough luck. He needed a base of operations. It might take weeks to write an exposé about Anthony Perini’s misuse of the money pouring into the websites for his daughter’s medical bills. Those bills no longer existed. The dirt Hugh planned to dig up would make for journalistic greatness. Best of all, he’d get reinstated at the Akron Register.

He shrugged off her ire when Finney Smith, who’d presumably heard his voice, barreled from the kitchen and hurried around the counter.

“Hugh! What are you doing here?” The cook caught him in a bear hug, greasy apron and all. “Why didn’t you tell us you were coming? Are you writing another article about Blossom? Oh, wait until Mary and Anthony find out you’re back!”

Her excitement barely registered. The angel, with her white-blonde hair and eyes he’d swear were violet, hadn’t stopped glaring at him. Then she spoke.

“Wait a second. You’re that Hugh?  The journalist from the Akron newspaper?”

Of course she knew who he was. The article he’d written about Blossom had been circulated far and wide. But the angel wasn’t a local. He’d met nearly everyone in town last summer when he wrote the article. Not this woman. She was stunning, if bizarrely dressed in a combat coat that must have pulled duty in WWII. She was the kind of long-legged beauty whose thighs could put a man in a hip-hugging lock sure to send him into bliss.

You need to give your gonads a rest, remember?

“Hugh Shaeffer.” He stuck out his hand, which she ignored. “I’m sorry about taking the apartment.”

“You’re not sorry. You look pleased, asshole.”

“Nice mouth.” Nice lips, actually—her language he could do without.

“Glad you like it.” She turned back to Delia, who was snapping her gum and watching their verbal tussle. “He can’t have the apartment. It’s mine.”

He turned to Finney and launched into a smooth series of lies. “Listen, I promised my editor I’d stay in Liberty until the feature’s written. I’m doing a nice follow-up on Blossom.”

Finney planted her hands on her hips. “Whatever you need, Hugh. Mary has no use for the apartment. She moved in with Anthony right before they left for their honeymoon.”

“Honeymoon . . . Mary and Anthony?” If Anthony was AWOL, Hugh couldn’t grill him about the websites until he returned. “When did they get married?”

“Last Sunday. Damn if we all weren’t surprised.”

“Where’s Blossom?”

“Meade is staying with her at the house. I don’t think you’ve met Meade.” Finney grunted. “She’s a real piece of work, all pomp and circumstance. The queen of cosmetics—she owns a company in Beachwood. I’m hoping Blossom will torture her and hide the evidence. I love that child.”

Hugh barely heard the comment. The commando angel was digging bills out of her pocket in an attractive and growing state of agitation. “I’m taking the apartment,” she announced, sorting the cash. “Delia, let me give you the rent.”

Which was when Hugh realized she wasn’t carrying a purse. He’d never before seen a woman without her everyday gear—a purse slung over her shoulder or a bag so large it could hold his golf clubs. And there was something else, something about her that put his inner antenna on alert. He got the sudden premonition, the one that always started his thoughts whirling. There’s a story here.

While he tried to get a handle on what had sent up his antennae, Delia approached the cook. “Finney, she was here first. This isn’t right.”

The angel hopped off her barstool. “Not right at all!” She softened her tone as she cornered Finney. “Here’s my rent—and an extra fifty dollars. No. Make it a hundred.” She thrust the wad of bills into the cook’s eager fist.

Hugh began perspiring when Finney stared at the money in a sort of rapture. Hell, if they got into a bidding war, he’d be broke when he did move in upstairs.

“I’ll pay two hundred over the asking price,” he said.

“Then I’ll pay three hundred.”

Finney whistled. “Oh, my. Now I’m in a real quandary.”

Delia tugged on her sleeve. “Uh, Finney . . . ”

“Not now! I’m working through my quandary.”

The waitress tugged harder. “We’ve been running the ‘Help Wanted’ ad for three weeks now, haven’t we? The only applicants have been teenagers. You’ve turned them all away.” She winked at the flustered commando. “Her references are good as gold. She’s an old friend of the family. I’ve known her forever.”

The cook ran her fingers through her brassy blonde hair. “It’s true I can’t afford another hormonal teenager. All they do is break dishes and flirt with the customers.” Finney sized up the angel. “I suppose you’re old enough to be responsible, miss. I’ll let you share the apartment with Hugh if you promise there’ll be no misbehaving . . . and if you’ll wait tables.”

Hugh shouldered his way between the cook and Delia. “Hold on. I didn’t agree to share the apartment.” Until he was reinstated at the Akron Register, he was done with women. The commando angel was beautiful and hostile, a perverse combination sure to test his self control. “You can’t do this. I need the apartment.”

“And I have a business to run. I need a waitress to help Delia and that fool Ethel Lynn.” Finney planted her hands on her hips and regarded the woman. “Well, miss? Do we have a deal?”

The angel shrank back as if she’d seen a rat scuttle past. “You mean I’d be waiting on people. Taking orders and stuff?”

Delia nodded eagerly. “We could sure use the help.”

Hugh almost pitied her when she opened her mouth then closed it again. Finney, who also seemed to sense her distress, said, “We’ve been shorthanded for months. And Hugh’s a big reporter so he gets first dibs on the apartment. He made our town famous, didn’t he? Now, I can make him share the place with you. It’s unorthodox, but seeing the two of you don’t particularly get along I’m sure there won’t be any shenanigans. Even so, if you can’t wait tables you’ll have to find somewhere else to stay.”

The woman chewed on her lower lip. “I guess I can help you out,” she finally said.

“How many hours a week do you want?”

“How many do I have to take? I don’t have to work full-time, do I?”

Delia plunked her elbows on the counter. “Not if you don’t want to! Part-time is great.”

After they discussed hours, Finney returned to the kitchen with a load of cash—inspired by her negotiating skills, she’d hit up Hugh too. She was whistling off-key as the door swung shut behind her, leaving an uneasy silence in her wake.

Delia poured coffee and Hugh murmured his thanks. The angel glared at him with enough ire to melt sand into glass. Her fury was amusing—and damn enjoyable. Worming your way into a woman’s good graces was an interesting challenge when she wanted you dead. Maybe he’d luck out and get some angry sex before she unpacked the kitchen knives.

Basking in her growing hatred, he slid onto the barstool next to hers. “Since we’re stuck together, what’s your name?” he said, thrilled when her gorgeous eyes flashed a deepening violet. If he brought her to full rage she’d probably resemble Helen of Troy. “We don’t have to split the rent fifty-fifty. I’ll talk Finney into giving some of your money back. I’ll pay sixty percent, you’ll pay forty.”

She gave him a look that implied she was thinking about knocking him off his barstool. Then she surprised him by saying, “Let’s try this—seventy-thirty. You’re a hotshot reporter. You probably earn six figures. I’m a part-time waitress who only makes—” Digging into her breakfast, she looked at Delia. “What’s my hourly wage?”

The waitress told her in a quick, grateful voice. Nodding with satisfaction, she threw her attention back on Hugh.

There was a whole forest fire in those violet eyes, the sort of feminine hostility a man could wrap around himself like a warm blanket of succor. Hello, Helen.

He dragged his attention back to his coffee. You’ve sworn off women, remember?

Then his trusty antenna went back on alert. He immediately understood why. The angel, still nameless, couldn’t keep her eyes from straying to the walls of the restaurant. A reporter’s inbred curiosity shivered through his veins.

She was searching for something.

* * *

“Blossom! What did you do to my dog?”

Flinging off the blankets, Meade Williams stormed to the door and yanked it open in the hopes of finding her quarry on the other side. In the corner of the guest bedroom her miniature poodle, Melbourne, yipped wildly.

The red plaid bows behind his ears were gone, no doubt snatched by the devilish thirteen-year-old she’d agreed to patrol for several days. Worse still, a gooey substance dripped from his toothpick-sized legs. Beneath the goo, his white fur was covered in an art fiend’s metallic . . . sparkles. And Blossom Perini was nowhere to be seen.

Mad with rage, Meade scooped up Melbourne and stalked down the second floor hallway of the Perini house. Why, why, why had she agreed to watch Blossom while the kid’s father and new stepmother were on their honeymoon?

Not long ago she’d wanted Blossom’s father, Anthony, for herself. She’d foolishly underestimated what it would be like to raise his daughter in the bargain, especially after the media coverage launched Blossom’s story onto the national news. The teen’s successful battle against cancer was heartwarming, to be sure, but no one who knew her personally would describe her as a saint. Of course, folks across America thought Blossom deserved a halo—as did Dr. Mary Chance, Liberty’s only town doctor and the unlikely owner of The Second Chance Grill. Mary connected with the girl in a way no one else did. Perhaps she even enjoyed the more devilish aspects of Blossom’s personality.

Meade flew down the stairwell with Melbourne bouncing beneath her arm and yipping all the way. It was truly unbelievable how she and Mary had gone from being rivals for Anthony to the best of friends. On second thought, maybe it wasn’t surprising. They were two professional women who had discovered a mutual love of tennis and a nearly frenzied devotion to Royal Doulton china. They’d been on a shopping expedition in search of porcelain figurines to add to their respective collections when Mary made the request: watch Blossom during the honeymoon.

Meade stormed into the kitchen. She should have said no.

At the stove, Blossom serenely flipped pancakes. By the back door her golden retriever, Sweetcakes, sat at attention. The rotten dog sized up Melbourne then ran her tongue across her snout.

“Oh, no you don’t, Sweetcakes.” Meade opened the door to shoo the dog out. “If you frighten my baby he’ll piddle all over the floor.”

Blossom gave an elaborate sigh. “Your dog doesn’t piddle—he’s marking his territory. Only this isn’t his territory. You should have his thingies removed.”

“I’ll do nothing of the sort.” Meade spun around to face the teen. “You’re in hot water, young lady. Why do you keep terrorizing me? And what did you put on Melbourne?”

Shrugging, the girl flipped another pancake. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“I’ve had it—”

“Seriously, Meade. Chill. Want some coffee?”

The aroma wafting from the sweetly percolating pot was enticing. “Did you lace it with arsenic?”

Blossom slid a stack of pancakes onto a plate. “What’s arsenic?”

The kid knows how to Google. Don’t give her any ideas. “Never mind.” She sat and lowered Melbourne to the ground. He trotted toward his food bowl shedding sparkles in a happy trail. “You’re giving my dog a bath after we finish breakfast. Are you listening? You need to be punished.”

“I get to bathe the gerbil?” Grinning, Blossom set the pancakes before Meade. “No problem, muchacha. I’ll take care of your dog.”

“Forget it. I’ll bathe him.”

“No, really, I’d like to.”

“Cut the crap. You’d like to feed him to Sweetcakes.”

“Okay—you got me.” Blossom set a cup of coffee before her. “Drink. Grownups never make sense until they’ve been dosed with caffeine.”

Meade grudgingly brought the cup to her lips. Heavenly. How did a thirteen year old make coffee so divine? But then, Blossom Perini was full of surprises. She’d managed to beat leukemia, hadn’t she? Looking at the girl’s corkscrew curls and rosy cheeks, it was hard to imagine she’d ever been ill. Yet she’d nearly died of leukemia before the bone marrow transplant saved her life. And that was the real miracle, wasn’t it? Blossom’s new stepmother, the valiant Dr. Mary Chance, had only been in town for a few months when she found out about the girl’s struggles. When it became clear there wasn’t money enough to pay for the bone marrow transplant, Mary placed all of the antiques in The Second Chance Grill on the auction block. The restaurant, which first opened in the mid-1800s, was the city’s oldest historical treasure and much of the furniture, artwork and other decorations were worth thousands. People arrived from all over Ohio to put in bids.

Everything sold quickly, only to be returned once word got out as to why Mary was raising the money. Then the story exploded on the Internet. Websites sprang up, donations flowed in, and Blossom was soon on her way to recovery.

The phone rang, pulling Meade from her musings. Blossom sprinted across the kitchen. She exchanged pleasantries with the caller then handed over the receiver. “For you.”

Not a call from a client, surely. Business colleagues wishing to reach her cosmetics importing company knew to call the office in Beachwood. Worry clenched her stomach. She’d only given the Perinis’ number to one person.

Rising, she moved from the table for privacy. “Dad? What’s wrong?”

For several minutes, she listened to his latest tale of woe. She’d hired a gardener to winterize the landscape surrounding her father’s estate, a move that had seemed sensible—until now. “Dad, the gardener isn’t peering in the windows. You’re being paranoid.” The anxiety in her voice brought Blossom near. “Yes, I’m sure the gardener isn’t spying on you . . .”

Ten minutes and much cajoling later, she finally hung up. Unsettled, she set her plate in the sink. There wasn’t time this morning to drive out to the estate. She had to get Blossom off to school and leave for work.

From behind, Blossom asked, “Is everything okay? You look sad all of a sudden.”

Her voice held sudden compassion, and Meade managed a smile.  “I’m fine,” she lied.

“What’s wrong with your dad?”

“Nothing.” Another lie, but there wasn’t an easy way to describe chronic depression to a child. “He likes to worry.”

“Can’t your mom calm him down?”

“My mother died a long time ago.”

“It’s tough to be without a mom. Even for someone as old as you.”

Meade crossed her arms. “I’m forty-one—not exactly ancient.”

“Yeah, but it’s hard anyway.”

The girl’s voice wavered, and guilt washed through Meade. It was common knowledge that Blossom’s mother had run off when she was a toddler. Which might explain why the kid got into so much trouble. Not that Meade wanted to find patches of Melbourne’s fur on Sweetcakes’ snout, but still.

She flicked Blossom’s chin. When the girl brightened, she said, “Can we call a truce until your dad and Mary get back from their honeymoon? I’ll stop making comments about your table manners if you’ll take my dog off death row.”

“Can I think about it? I’ve been working on the other tricks up my sleeve.” Then Blossom surprised her when she added, “But hey, if you need to talk, I’ll listen. I know what it’s like to worry about a parent. Before Mary snuck into my dad’s heart, I worried about him all the time.”

Sorrow engulfed her. Mental illness wasn’t simple, and it encompassed more than worry. Guilt, for one. A feeling of helplessness. And loss—certainly loss, of the man who’d once fathered her with gentle grace and rapt attention.

“Blossom, my situation is different.” It was the most simple explanation she could muster. “My dad has . . . problems.”

Concern puckered Blossom’s brows. “He sounded confused on the phone. He must be pretty old, right?” She slipped her hand beneath the curly mass of her hair and tapped her temple with charming concern. “Is it his head?”

More like his heart, but there was no way to explain. “He’s not senile, if that’s what you mean.”

She stared at the girl who liked to torment her, a teenager who suddenly looked older, more compassionate. Then Meade’s vision began to blur and anguish filled her soul.

She looked out over the years and saw the lake. How she’d stood on the pier with desperation churning her blood and her throat hoarse from arguing. The waters were frighteningly calm beneath a sky thick with clouds. The wind rose up. The air pressure sucked the wind into a fulcrum and Meade, with a mariner’s eye, looked north. Canada lay on the other side of this, the shallowest of the five Great Lakes. The waters of Lake Erie were warm, too warm, and autumn’s first blast was barreling down from the north.

Please don’t go out on the lake. There’s a small craft advisory, a storm coming.

But her mother wouldn’t listen. Cat pressed the envelope into Meade’s palm, the photographs that held proof of their ruined lives, and climbed into the skiff. Two boxes lay astern. No doubt Cat, always dramatic, planned to dump their contents into the waters. It never oc

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