Signal Press / eBook: 9781942052708/ $2.99 US
Trade Paperback: 9781942052715 / $14.99 US
Thursday, 2 January
Something was buzzing…
Bettina’s eyelids, still heavy with sleep, refused to open. Still, she tried to lift herself up—
But something held her across the waist: an arm.
At the thought of him, she sank back into the mattress. Bliss filled her heart.
I am loved, she thought.
Yes, Daniel Warwick adored her, despite catching her in a lie, or even seeing her at her crankiest—okay, admittedly, at her outright bitchiest.
Suddenly, a second terrible realization brought tears to her eyes:
Art is back in my life.
Her husband had embezzled a portion of the life savings from many of San Francisco’s wealthiest and socially connected families before taking off for parts unknown. He returned on New Year’s Eve, however, and made her an offer she found hard to refuse: If she’d go with him, somewhere far beyond the long arm of the law—and far from the strong arms of Daniel Warwick, the Federal Prosecutor heading up his investigation— she could have half of all he’d stolen.
It would mean that, once again, their five-year-old daughter Lily’s future would be secured.
It also means that for the rest of my life, I will be his pawn, Bettina thought.
As an enticement, Art left her with a key. He claimed it was to a safe deposit box that held a list of locations around the globe where he had stashed millions in embezzled cash.
She tried to stifle her groan, but it was too late. In response, the arm around her waist inched forward. She patted it gently—
This isn’t Daniel’s arm.
This realization jerked her awake. She flipped over—
Only to discover she’d been snuggling with her full-blooded Tibetan mastiff, Prince Vsevolod Ivanovich.
The dog’s eyes were filled with the adoration she’d hoped to find in Daniel’s. As Prince Vsevolod yawned loudly in her face, she resisted the urge to gag, muttering, “My God, Prince Vsevolod! Your breath could wither a rose bush!”
“Yours could too,” Lily said, staring at her mother from the room’s other twin bed.
Bettina’s heart leapt in her chest. The child already suspected the growing attraction between Daniel and her mother. Had Lily walked in on him before he left?
Well, at least she hadn’t seen Art…
Or had she?
To cover her shame, Bettina grabbed her cell phone. Its clock read eleven-fifteen. At least it had stopped buzzing with calls and texts—none of which she felt like answering now. After she composed her lips into a smile, she turned back to Lily. Still blushing, she asked, “How long have you been here?”
“Off and on since yesterday morning.” A tiny frown line creased Lily’s brow. Bettina sat upright. “You mean it’s not New Year’s Day?” “Oh, no, Mummy! That was yesterday. I came in several times to shake you, but you told me to leave you alone. Don’t you remember?” Lily’s concern at what she presumed was her mother’s forgetfulness revealed itself with trembling lips. “Are you ill? Is the baby sick too?”
“No, nothing of the sort! I guess my body needed the extra rest.” Ha! If only a deep sleep could wipe away her problem with Art, Bettina thought. “Are we alone?” She steeled herself in anticipation of Lily’s answer.
The little girl shook her head adamantly. “Of course not!”
“Who else is here?” Bettina flinched at the urgency in her own voice.
“Hera, of course! Since Grandmother is in Montecito through the weekend and I refused to leave you alone, Hera thought it best to sleep in the first-floor guest room.”
“I would have been okay alone,” Bettina muttered.
Lily shook her head adamantly.
“You cried in your sleep about…Daddy. Why?” She stared deep into her mother’s eyes, as if she hoped to find the answer there.
“Thinking about him doesn’t make me happy,” Bettina admitted.
Lily nodded. “Does thinking about Mr. Warwick make you happy?”
“Yes.” Bettina couldn’t lie to Lily. “But…I don’t think things will work out between us.”
“Because of Daddy,” Lily rightly deduced.
“Yes… No, not necessarily.” Bettina shrugged. “All of life is timing. I don’t think the timing is right for Daniel and…us.”
“Us?” Lily echoed. “You mean, you and me?”
“But of course.” Bettina went over to Lily’s bed and sat beside her. Putting her arm around her daughter, she replied, “Everything I do is with you in mind. Your best interests come first, always.”
“And when I grow up, I’ll take care of you,” Lily vowed.
“Ha! I’m too big a burden for anyone.” Despite the obvious truth in her declaration, Bettina forced a smile onto her lips. “No need to worry. I’ll make sure you won’t have to.”
“But, I do worry,” Lily’s eyes grew big at another thought. “You don’t always know what’s right for you. How will you know what’s right for me?”
Bettina’s smile faded. “Well, thank you for that show of support.”
“I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings, Mummy. But I don’t ever want to lie to you”—again, she scrutinized her mother—“and I’d never want you to lie to me, either. I’d…I’d find it hard to love you if I couldn’t trust you.”
The severity of Lily’s warning was not lost on Bettina. A knot rose in her throat. “You’re right. Okay then, truth—and trust—will be our bond.”
“Good!” Lily threw her arms around her mother’s neck. “Now I can love you, for real.”
For real? “Ah…good. Glad you’re now going to give it your all,” Bettina muttered. She stood up. “School isn’t until Monday. What would you like to do today—”
The shrill buzz of her cell phone started again.
“Mother of God,” she muttered. “Who has been calling all morning?”
Lily leapt up to get the phone. She glanced down at the Caller ID. “It’s Oliver’s father—again.”
“Again? My God! How many times has he called?”
The little girl scrolled through the phone’s archive “Six… No, seven times.” She held out the phone to her mother.
What the hell? Sighing, Bettina clicked the receiver. “Speak, Brady.”
The severity in his mistress’s command sent Prince Vsevolod Ivanovich scurrying into his punishment corner. Even with his nose stuck snug against the floor’s wood molding, he howled, indicating his total submission.
“Hush!” Bettina whispered to the dog.
“Your hound from Hell, I presume,” Brady snorted. “Speaking of which, where the hell have you been?”
“It’s a holiday, remember?” Bettina did nothing to stifle her yawn.
“Not when there’s money on the table,” he countered. “What? …Money?”
Yes, that got her attention. “Speak!”
Dutifully, Prince Vsevolod howled again. Bettina covered the receiver with her hand. “Not you,” she admonished the dog. “Shut up!” Back into the receiver, she purred, “And you were saying?”
“On a lark, prior to Christmas, I put out a few feelers on your Bum-Free Zone app. Well, apparently, the concept hit a few hot buttons,” Brady explained. “It’s worked to our favor that San Francisco’s mayor hasn’t a clue on how to address the city’s homeless problem. All morning long I’ve been fielding texts from venture capitalists. We’ve had a couple of bites.”
Securing investors for her mobile application would assure Bettina the financial independence she craved. No longer would she have to rely on her dwindling Connaught trust fund. And, like a phoenix, her social standing, scorched from her soon-to-be ex-husband’s recriminations and shame, would at last rise again.
Best of all, life as a fugitive with Art would be avoided.
Anxiously, she murmured, “You’re a true Machiavelli. Now, what can I do to move things along?”
“I’m glad you asked. I’ve assembled a couple of people who can crunch the numbers based on the data you’ve been gathering, so email me whatever you’ve collected to date.”
“My…data? But…it’s not anywhere near complete! My God, I haven’t even pulled together the city’s statistics on its pravum populi.”
“I flunked Latin. Can you say it in plain English?”
Bettina sighed. “In a word: degenerates.”
“The term you’re looking for is ‘the city’s homeless’,” he chided her.
“Comme çi, comme ça,” she countered coolly. “French, which I presume you also flunked. Translation: I haven’t had time to gather sufficient reconnaissance.”
“No time like the present,” he replied briskly. “Look, don’t worry about the amount. My guys are pros at making mountains out of molehills. As for the app, the tech team has the protocol ready to test. Check your phone texts. I’ve already sent you the link where it can be downloaded. As of this moment, you’ve got one mission: find at least three subjects who we can track with the app.”
“If you’re asking me to hobnob with a few hobos, you can forget about it!” she growled. “Can’t you send one of your ‘pros’ to do that, too? I’m the company’s visionary, remember? The big picture person—”
“Yeah, okay, I’ll be sure to put that on your business cards. More importantly, you’ll need to do a stellar sales pitch regarding your subjects, so knowing a few intimately is a good idea—by Monday. Our first meeting is at ten o’clock, with AOZ Venture Capital. We have a second, at the Beidecker Group, at two.”
“Both meetings are on Monday? Have you forgotten that the club meets on that day as well?” Bettina was referring to the Pacific Heights Moms & Tots Club, of which she was the founder and its titular leader.
“You’ll have to skip it,” Brady insisted. “VCs have short attention spans, not to mention travel lust. They’d much rather fly to Katmandu and take a meeting with a monk who has a concept for a social media app than to sit still and listen to a socialite housewife in their own conference room. We’ve got their attention—at least for now. So go ahead and round up a few perfect examples. All you have to do is take the subjects’ pictures, upload them to the app, and between the GPS coordinates and our Facial Recognition software, we’ll be able to track them via satellite.” He paused, then added, “But we’ll still need names to go with the faces.”
“Are you insane? Most of these street urchins are loony tunes! It’s why they’re homeless in the first place. The last thing they’ll do is tell me who they really are!”
“Nicknames will do—you know, ‘Sneaky Pete,’ or ‘Ugly Betty.’ Um, wait! Stay away from anything negative. Go for names that are innocuous.”
“Look, Bettina, gotta go. I’m…being summoned.” The line went dead.
Bettina stared down at the phone, then tossed it away. Missing the very first meeting of the year would not set a good example for the rest of the members, let alone the Top Moms who supervised the other moms.
While rubbing the anxiety from her temples, it dawned on her that Lily was still in the room, watching her. Bettina twisted her grimace into a smile. “After breakfast, why don’t we go for a walk?”
“You mean lunch, don’t you? Breakfast was hours ago.” Lily pursed her lips. “Must we go out afterward? It’s awfully chilly.”
“Brunch then. And yes, a little fresh air afterward will do both of us some good. I’ve got to…find a few people.” If the only way to rid herself of Art was to track a few bums with Brady’s new little device, then so be it.
“You mean homeless people?” Lily asked. “Why does Mr. Pierce want you to…what did you call it, ‘hobo-nob’?” Bettina winced at her daughter’s mispronunciation.
“To hobnob means to mingle with; which, by the way, we will not be doing, except to ask a few hobos about their living arrangements. You see, Mr. Pierce has invented something that”—she paused as she considered a delicate way to re-word the truth—“well, let’s just say it helps people find their way home safely.”
“But, that’s the point,” Lily countered. “Homeless people don’t have houses.”
“At this point, neither do we,” Bettina reminded her. “That being said, the quicker we help Mr. Pierce track a few indigents, the sooner we’ll get out of your grandmother’s servant hovel.”
“It’s not so bad,” Lily insisted. “I like it here. I wouldn’t mind if we stayed here forever.”
“One way or the other, we’ll be leaving it,” Bettina muttered, more to herself than to Lily.
And, hopefully, not to some godforsaken island with Art. Or worse yet, in handcuffs, being led to some prison for aiding and abetting your deadbeat father.
There was a knock on the door. “Come in,” Bettina shouted, exasperated.
The door opened, revealing a mop of flowing gray curls: Hera’s. “Ah, you’re awake, finally! We were getting worried.” She nodded in Lily’s direction.
Bettina shrugged. “Yes, well, I explained to Lily that my body needed to catch up on some much-needed sleep. Now that I’m rested, I’ll grab a bite to eat—hopefully something other than your usual high-fiber teff mush—and afterward, Lily and I will take a nice walk.”
“We’re going hobo-nobbing,” Lily proclaimed.
Hera’s eyes narrowed. “What exactly is that?”
“You know—finding hobos!” Lily explained. “Mummy wants to help them find homes.”
“Oh, really?” Hera scrutinized Bettina carefully. “How very noble of your mother! She’s an inspiration to the rest of us.”
Hera’s sarcasm was not lost on Bettina. “We must all do our bit for those less fortunate,” Bettina muttered.
“Agreed,” Hera declared heartily. “In fact, I think I’ll join you. A good deed is always a great way to start a new year!”
Bettina shook her head. “No need. You know what they say: two’s company, and three’s a crowd.” The last thing she needed was for Hera to see her testing the Bum Free Zone app.
“They also say, ‘the more, the merrier,’ don’t they? I’ll warm up the teff! In fact, if there’s any left over, we can take it with us and hand it out to those who perhaps haven’t had a good meal in quite some time.”
Bettina had no doubt that all of it would be left over since she was adamant about not touching it. In fact, she was about to point out that teff would be classified as tasteless as opposed to good, when Lily exclaimed, “Teff! Yummy!” and started up the stairs after Hera.
Bettina sighed. There was nothing she could do but follow them. At this point, all she could hope was that Hera wouldn’t get the bright idea of turning the cabana house by Eleanor’s pool into the city’s newest homeless shelter.
Oh, my God! Mother would have a conniption fit!
Then again, maybe not. Hera had a way of wrapping Eleanor Morrow Connaught around her finger.
All the more reason to lose Hera on the less desirable streets of San Francisco.
As Bettina rolled out of bed, she felt something graze her neck.
On Christmas morning, she’d found it in a tiny box on the mantel. At first, she’d thought it was a symbolic gesture from Daniel, as if he’d left her the key to his heart.
She’d been dismayed to learn that Art had smuggled it into the house, claiming it opened a safe deposit box containing information about the cash he’d embezzled from his clients and their friends.
Now he used it to entice her to run away with him.
I can’t, she vowed.
All the more reason her scheme with Brady had to pay off.
10 minutes earlier…
“Mr. Pierce! I said Dr. Spruill will see you and Ms. Thornton—now!” the receptionist hissed to Brady Pierce.
To make her point, she bent down so that she was practically nose-to-nose with him, assuring them both that this time he couldn’t shoo her away as he had the last four times she’d said exactly the same thing.
Brady nodded hard like a bobblehead, but still growled into his cell phone: “So go ahead and round up a few perfect examples.”
Ally Thornton fought off the urge to snicker at Brady’s audacity. It was Brady’s idea that they seek couples counseling before they married. Grudgingly, she’d agreed to do so, if only to salvage the relationship. In the fifteen months they’d known each other, they had moved all too quickly from being acquaintances who’d met through his “wife,” Jade (really, his ex-wife, but no one involved with the Pacific Heights Moms & Tots Club was to know that prior to little Oliver Pierce’s acceptance into the very exclusive organization, along with his mother), to a delicate friendship forged before her fear of abandonment had her questioning Brady’s fidelity.
It was why they were in Dr. Spruill’s office in the first place.
“Look, Bettina, gotta go. I’m…being summoned.” He stood in order to bow grandly to the receptionist.
Unimpressed, the receptionist shook her head.
Ally caught her eye. She was shocked to see the woman’s piteous stare.
Ally wondered, who does she think she is, passing judgment on Brady?
Then it struck her: No, she pities me for being with him.
Well, she’s wrong, Ally reasoned. Sure, Brady can be a pompous ass at times, but he’s also sweet, tender, honest—
And the best father in the world.
In other words, he was the opposite of Ally’s father.
Except for the pompous ass part. It was something Ally could live with, as long as the rest of him stayed the same.
Taking his hand, she led him into the counselor’s office.
(c) 2017 Josie Brown. All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the publisher, Signal Press. (email@example.com)
What time is Bettina’s first apointment on Monday?
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