Piper had no intentions of getting involved, but undercover cop Joel Stevenson, inadvertently challenged her. And, well, she had no choice, did she?
Piper and the spaniel Daisy, a surprise birthday gift and a bit of a diva, begin to investigate and are soon caught up in more than they are prepared for. Joining forces with Joel and his K-9 partner, Scout, they work to solve the murder-before Piper becomes the next victim.
And while Piper is looking for the murderer, she is also adjusting to her mother and mother-in-law as neighbors while getting her photography gallery ready to open. It might turn out to be more of an adventure than Piper is prepared for.
Grab a copy and find out if Piper makes it through her first adventure!
Release date: June 24, 2019
Print pages: 391
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Victoria LK Williams
Piper Avery groaned out loud and let her head fall into her hands in frustration. Sitting on the table in front of her was a neatly typed letter, and although it wasn't pink, she knew what it meant.
But as disturbing as the piece of paper was, it wasn't the reason for her groan. Lifting her head back up, she looked at her phone sitting on the table next to the letter and read the text message one more time. Unfortunately, it still said the same thing it had a minute ago, and she groaned out loud again.
Thankfully, her groan was drowned out by the laughter from the table next to her. It was a busy time of day at The Eatery, a popular lunch spot, and she’d been lucky to grab a table. The restaurant was packed with men and women from the nearby office center, all busy talking and trying to eat a quick lunch.
Her attention was diverted by a brightly colored envelope placed on the table from behind her. Okay, that was strike three. The envelope most certainly contained a birthday card. The last thing she needed to be reminded of right now was that her 50th birthday was upon her.
Piper looked up as her best friend sat down next to her, her long dark hair pulled back in a hair clip, her slim figure sporting a pencil skirt, and her dark tan shown off by her white blouse.
"Oh, come on Piper, it’s just another day. Turning fifty is not that big of a deal."
Piper attempted a weak smile at her friend. She knew the woman was right; it was just another day, just another number on the calendar. But there was something ominous about that age, and suddenly she felt a little bit older than she had the day before.
"From now on, I can call you an old lady and get away with it,” teased her friend.
"Like you have so much experience, Courtney. You're only a month older than me. And I seem to remember you had a major meltdown on your fiftieth birthday.”
"And don't you forget it. I'll always be older and wiser than you. I've been telling you that since we were teenagers." Waving off Piper’s last comment, she continued with a wicked grin. “There was no meltdown. Your memory’s playing tricks on you—comes with the old age.”
That got a smile out of Piper, and she looked at her best friend whom she'd known for far too many years and shrugged her shoulders. With lifelong friends, words were often not necessary, and the two women were as close as sisters.
"You're right, Courtney. Besides, it's really not my birthday that has me in a tizzy. Look at this."
She shoved the letter across the table as her friend sat down across from her and watched her read it.
"Well, that stinks,” Courtney said. “But, let’s be honest. Since the company bought you out, you've kind of been expecting this. The new owners have drained all they can out of you, and now it’s time to let you go. Big deal. Take the money and run and enjoy your life."
"I know you're right, and secretly I have been expecting it, but it still hurts. I built the business up from nothing. Granted, I did sell it, but I really thought I would be needed longer than six weeks." Piper picked up the brightly colored envelope in front of her and burst out laughing at the comic verse inside the card.
"Leave it to you to find the perfect card. Thanks, I needed this. You always seem to know just what to say or do, Courtney."
The two women exchanged knowing looks. A card could only say so much, but their years of shared experiences together said a lot more.
"I’ll give you your gift tonight at Mooney’s."
Piper shook her finger at Courtney. “I thought we decided we weren’t exchanging birthday gifts anymore."
"Yeah, like you remembered that on my birthday. Anyway, you were expecting the pink slip, and you knew it was your birthday. What else is bothering you?"
Piper looked back at the phone and groaned again. Courtney was right; it was the text message she'd received that was bothering her the most. Without saying a word, she slid the phone over to her friend, watching to see how Courtney would react when she read the message.
"Oh my God, they didn't!"
"Well, it looks like they did. My life is over. I'll never have another minute to myself."
Courtney looked back at the phone as if she couldn't believe the message. She read it out loud to further prove it really was there.
"Great news! We just signed the paperwork on the house across the street. We're your new neighbors! We’ll fill you in on all the details tonight. Love you and happy birthday, your moms."
Courtney tried to hold back the laughter, and as a result, a loud snort erupted. Piper looked at her with disgust and grabbed her phone back.
“Just remember, they’ll be sticking their noses in your business too,” Piper said. “Remember? You’re currently my house guest.”
As fast as her friend’s laughter had started, it ended with a gasp. Eyes wide, Courtney looked at her friend.
In an instant, it became clear to Courtney that she would also be in the line of fire of the mothers’ meddling.
Then, with perfect timing that came from years of saying the same catchphrase, they spoke out loud as one:
They were silent for a moment, each of them contemplating what was in store for them.
“You couldn’t talk them into a nice condo across town?” Courtney finally asked.
“I wish. Honestly, I didn’t think the mothers were serious about moving in together. Neither has been having any financial problems that would cause this. They’re acting like they’re back in their college days when they shared a dorm room.”
“Well, seriously, they might be lonely,” Courtney said. “I mean, each of them had huge houses that they lived in alone. And they are always together. I guess it makes sense.”
“But across the street? What grown woman wants her mother and her mother-in-law living that close?”
Walking into Mooney’s was always like an assault on Piper's senses, and tonight was no exception. Standing in the doorway of the beachside bar and grill, she couldn't help wrinkling her nose as the mixture of scents engulfed her. Beer mixed with suntan oil, along with the delicious smell of pizza and burgers frying on an open grill. It should have been offensive, but it wasn't, at least not to Piper. It was just part of Mooney's atmosphere. The dim light was brightened with tiki torches and Christmas lights strung all over the inside of the rooms. One of the local bands was playing, and the spotlights were shining on the small stage. People shouted over the sound of the music and laughter filled the air. As she looked around, she heard her name called out, and she turned to watch the owner of the bar walk towards her.
"Busy night, Mooney."
"Yes, this time of year they always are. Thanks to our tourist friends."
They shared a laugh, as Mooney engulfed her in a bear hug. Then he stood back and tugged on her hair, an old habit of affection.
"Happy birthday, Frosty. Courtney has the backroom set up for you, and there's already quite a crowd back there."
Piper smiled back at her old friend, taking in the flowered shirt and cargo shorts, his standard uniform of the day. His balding head showed signs of sunburn from days spent fishing in the hot Florida sun, and the tan lines were visible on his muscled arms as he pointed towards the back of the bar.
Piper rubbed the smooth surface of his head, a response she always gave in return for the tug of her silvery hair. Mooney had been tugging her pigtails since she was a little girl when she would come in with her dad after a day of fishing. Her dad would always treat her to a virgin daiquiri while he downed a couple of cold beers to chase off the salt and the heat of being out on the ocean. He’d been gone for years now, but Piper still came to Mooney’s to celebrate the ups and downs of life and to just relax and enjoy the company of all her friends, who also considered Mooney’s their local hangout.
"Thanks, Mooney. Are my mothers here yet?"
The older man laughed at the expression on her face, but he knew exactly who she meant.
“The Mothers” was a term Piper and her late husband had concocted to classify their mothers. The two women had been college roommates, and they'd never broken off their friendship. It delighted them when their children had gotten married, and to keep things simple, they were always referred to as “The Mothers.” Even Piper's friends referred to them as her mothers. They had to. The two women involved themselves in Piper's life so much, and that included her friends and extended family’s lives, too. There wasn't much "The Mothers" didn't know about Piper's life or the community, for that matter.
"Not yet,” Mooney told her. “You’ve got a little break before they get here. Go on back and enjoy yourself while you can. You know what it will be like when they get here." The two shared a smile, and then Mooney moved away to answer a question from one of his barmaids.
Piper headed to the backroom, dodging a tourist with extended arms, no doubt exaggerating his fishing catch from earlier in the day. Everyone at Mooney’s seemed to be in good spirits, and that was the way he liked it. Laughter and talk almost drowned out the band playing. As Piper walked, she noticed a few people she knew and smiled a greeting to them. Then she saw a man sitting quietly in the corner by himself, nursing a beer. He was an older man with a slightly balding head, glasses taped together at the nose piece and a pointed goatee. There was something familiar about him, but Piper couldn't quite place it. Before she could give it any further thought, she heard her name called out from the background, and her attention was diverted.
As if a magnet pulled her head, Piper looked at the table that held the cake and a pile of gifts. She was searching for a large round box, distinctive in shape. She knew exactly what it was when she saw it. For as long as Piper could remember, there had always been a large box sitting next to her birthday cake. She knew she would find a fantastic hat inside that box, and nestled under the hat was sure to be a pair of shoes to drool over. As a child, the hat and shoes had been cute and fun. When she hit her teen years, the cute sandals had turned to high heels and had remained that way ever since. The hats had gone from being sweet to sassy and frivolous. Her father had started the tradition when she was just a child and when she got married her husband continue the tradition. Twenty years ago, when her husband passed away, her Mothers had taken over. There was a wall at her home that was lined with hats she'd saved from over the years. The shoes had come and gone, but not the hats. She breathed a sigh of relief when she saw the box as if something magical had happened. She had always felt her birthday wouldn't be complete without a hatbox, or that something would go horribly wrong. Piper wasn't sure why she felt this way, but she was relieved to see the box.
"There's the birthday girl."
Cheers rang out as someone noticed Piper walk into the room and she was quickly engulfed in hugs and good wishes.
Piper wandered around the room and chatted with friends until the arrival of another batch of guests appeared at the doorway. This was the group that held a special place in Piper's heart. Courtney came in first, giving her a big hug and tugging on her hair just like Mooney had done. Tonight, Courtney had dressed up in honor of her friend's celebration, a cute summer dress with her hair pulled up off her shoulders in a loose ponytail. She didn't look anywhere near fifty years old, any more than Piper did. Courtney was pushed out of the way, and she didn’t complain, letting the next two women gush over Piper. It was “The Mothers." Piper returned hugs, shaking her head at the constant chattering the two women never seemed to stop doing. One would start a sentence, and the other would finish it. Sometimes it was nerve-racking, but tonight it felt comfortable.
"You look wonderful tonight, Piper,” Piper’s mom said. “Happiest of birthdays."
The more distinguished-looking of the two women kissed her left cheek and tweaked her nose as only a mother would dare. The second woman kissed her right cheek, needing to stand a little bit on her tiptoes to reach.
"You know, if you didn't wear those high heels all the time, I wouldn't have to strain to reach you,” Piper’s mother-in-law teased. “Happy birthday, dear."
The two women were quickly swallowed up by the crowd. Everybody knew her mothers and wanted to say hello. When the two women moved off to talk to some of Piper's friends, Piper noticed a fourth woman standing in the doorway. She couldn't help the huge grin that spread across her face, and she held out her arms for the older woman with the pixie haircut to receive her hug.
"Charlotte, I had no idea you were coming! I’m so happy to see you. Are you spending the night?"
Charlotte Potter returned Piper's hug as she answered with a laugh. "I had to be here for my goddaughter's fiftieth birthday. You couldn't have kept me away if you tried. How are you, sweetie? A little stressed tonight? Surely you're not worried about turning fifty?" A sly grin crept across Charlotte’s face and she nodded her head towards Piper’s mothers. "Or maybe you're worried about your new neighbors?"
"Oh, you know me so well. I'm not really worried about the neighbor issue; everything will work out, I'm sure. It was just a little bit of a shock this morning, on top of everything else."
"Yes, Courtney told me about the job situation on the way over.” Charlotte paused. “I need to talk to you after the festivities are done. Seriously talk, Piper."
Piper gave a short nod. She knew that tone of voice and understood the conversation wasn't going to be able to be avoided. Giving her godmother a quick kiss on the cheek, she waved to someone else who was coming in the room and excused herself.
The next few hours went quickly, filled with laughter, drinks and good food. Conversations ranged from jobs to the weather. Piper was pleased when she saw some of her coworkers come in and relieved that none of the new management showed up. It would be just like them to feel like they were entitled to attend her party.
When the gifts were opened, Piper found a wide range of gifts, from gag to sentimental gifts. When the hatbox was opened, she lifted a pretty straw hat with a wide brim and a black bow out of the box and found a beautiful pair of teal high heels, her favorite color. The fun polka-dots that ran across the shoes made her smile. Things were beginning to wind down when Courtney pulled her aside and asked her to sit in a quiet corner with her eyes closed for just a moment. She ran out of the room, passing Mooney, who had come in to share in the festivities. A few moments later Piper could hear oohs and ahhhs and wondered what was going on.
"Piper, open your eyes."
Piper did as her friend commanded and slowly opened her eyes to find sitting in front of her, at attention, a beautiful cocker spaniel. The dog wasn't a puppy, but Piper could tell she wasn't very old either.
She looked at Courtney with confusion. "What's this all about?"
"Okay, just hear me out. You've always said you wanted a dog but couldn't have one because your job was so demanding. Well, that's changed, hasn't it? This is Daisy. She is a year old, fully trained, and desperately needs a home. Her owner just passed away, and I thought of you right away. The two of you would be a perfect match, Piper. What do you say, do we give her a try?"
Piper looked at her friend, dumbfounded. This was the last thing she’d expected to receive for her birthday. Courtney was right. She had wanted a dog for about forever, but she never would've gotten one for herself. But now, as she looked at the sweet little dog in front of her, her heart melted. Especially after Courtney's explanation.
As if the dog knew that she needed to make a connection with Piper to find a home, she stood up and walked over to sit right at Piper’s side. In one slow, hesitant movement, she put her paw on top of Piper’s shoe, as if claiming her.
That was all it took. Piper's heart melted, and she bent over to look the dog directly in the eyes. The two seemed to silently communicate with each other, and then Piper looked back up, grinning.
"As usual, Courtney, you found the perfect gift. Thank you so much. Daisy will be a great addition to the household."
A cheer rang up as everybody realized Piper was going to accept the dog. For her part, Daisy just looked around at the others in the room rather disdainfully, as if she were royalty. But when she turned her head to look back up at Piper, her tail wagged. She was accepting Piper, just as much as Piper was accepting her.
Piper stood in front of the open refrigerator door trying to decide if she was hungry for breakfast, or if it was just a habit she was going through. The banging on the back door broke her out of her reverie, and she glanced at the clock on the kitchen wall, frowning as she wondered who could be here this early in the morning. Tying the robe tighter around her waist, Piper walked to the door and looked out. She grinned when she saw her godmother staring back through the glass at her. Throwing open the door, she welcomed the older woman with a hug.
"I should've known it was going to be you, Charlotte. Only you would knock on my back door at seven o'clock in the morning. Come on in, I was about ready to make some coffee. You up for a cup?"
"That would be lovely. And seven o'clock isn't all that early. If you were still sleeping, then it was time for you to get up."
Piper smiled at Charlotte’s retort; she'd heard it many times growing up. Moving over to the cupboard to grab the fixings for a cup of coffee, she stepped on a dog toy, which reminded her of her new housemate. She looked over at the dog bed and saw Daisy raise her head to see what was going on. Since it didn't involve her directly, the dog put her head back down, content to just watch.
"How's Daisy fitting in?” Charlotte asked.
"Surprisingly well. She seems to consider this house her little kingdom. Of course, the mothers helped create this mess. Did you know they came over before they came to the party and set up a dog bed in each major area of the house? And there's toys and treats and fancy bowls for her too."
"Yes, they told me all about it. They had quite a good time doing it too. I hope you realize it's just a taste of what it's going to be like with them living across the street."
Piper groaned out loud. She couldn't help herself.
"Please, don’t remind me. The two mothers, together in one house? I don't know. It's going to be interesting, to say the least."
Charlotte laughed out loud as she accepted the cup of coffee Piper handed to her. She'd been friends with the two women across the street just as long as they had been friends with each other. In fact, they had all gone to college together, and she clearly remembered the unique friendship the two of them had even then.
"Well, I didn't come here to talk to you about your mothers’ new home. That's something you're going to have to work out between the three of you. I want to talk to you about what you're going to do with all this free time you have in front of you."
"Oh, you heard about that already? I was gonna call and talk to you about it. I know we expected it, but it still hurts. I feel like I’ve been kicked to the curb."
Charlotte pulled out a chair and sat down at the kitchen table. Motioning for Piper to join her, she pulled some paperwork out of her large handbag and set it on the table in front of Piper.
"I can't say that I'm surprised. Our lawyer indicated this was going to happen. That's why I had him put in a few clauses. I know you read everything over, but selling your business was a big deal, and I don't think you may have caught on to some of the little details the lawyer made sure to put in there. Details that are very much to your benefit."
Piper looked at her godmother with her eyebrows raised and pulled the paperwork in front of her to look it over, her curiosity aroused. Not giving Piper a chance to read the paperwork, Charlotte began to explain what was on her mind.
“When you opened that ad agency, you used a lot of your own photographs, and over the years we've made sure they were always copyrighted. However, when you sold the company, you did not sell the copyrights to your photos. This means the new owners are essentially going to need to purchase a license to use them in their ads. And we have set up some very high prices for the use of those photographs."
"You're kidding me! I never thought about that. I know ninety percent of the photos used, especially in the early days of the business, were from my own collection, but I never thought about the copyright. Charlotte, are you sure about this?"
"Absolutely. I'm protecting your interests as well as mine. Don't forget in the beginning when you opened the ad agency, I was your backer."
"How could I ever forget? I never would've gotten the business off the ground without you. And you know how grateful I am,” Piper added.
“Oh, pish-posh. I'm not worried about that, but I have a proposition for you. I want you to give it careful consideration, I think it's a perfect fit for you."
Piper looked at her godmother, curious. Charlotte was known for backing small companies—she was a philanthropist who loved to help small businesses, and she always seemed to pick winners. Piper was very interested to hear what her godmother had to say.
"Do you remember when you came to Citrus Beach and helped us by taking pictures of the new preserve Megan Cassidy was undertaking? Your pictures were fantastic, and she was able to use them to help promote the opening of the preserve and get funding to keep it going. You've proven over and over again that photography is your true love. Now I want you to use it as an artist."
“I'm sorry, I'm not sure I know what you mean. Yes, I remember Megan and I remember the fun I had at Citrus Beach taking those beautiful pictures. Megan and I have kept in touch, and she's told me that she's been able to reuse them repeatedly for promotions. I'm thrilled that she was able to use what I provided. But I don't do artists stuff—"
Charlotte shook her head and held up her hands to stop Piper from saying anything more.
“But that's just it, Piper, you don't see what you're capable of doing. I want you to take your photography to a whole new level, and I'm willing to host an art show for you. I've purchased a new piece of property down here, and I'm trying to get the area to have a more artsy feeling to it. Featuring your pictures in a gallery would be the perfect way to start. And you won't be tied down setting up the gallery; I've already got that all figured out. All I need you to do is take the pictures. I believe in your talent because I've seen what you can do."
Piper was silent. She didn't know what to say. She'd never considered using her photography skills for anything more than snapping shots to be used in the advertisements she placed through her ad agency. But now the agency was gone, and maybe Charlotte had a point.
"I can see you're interested,” Charlotte said. “How about if you and I have a late lunch and go down to the gallery so you can see what I'm talking about? In the meantime, you’ve already got your camera equipment, and I’m sure a backlog of photos. Just let me know what else you need to start this venture up. I'll do everything I can, you know that.”
Before Piper could answer a voice from behind her chimed in.
"It's a perfect solution. Piper, you need to show your work. You're so talented. What do you have to lose?"
Courtney had wandered in, hearing the voices and curious as to what was going on so early in the morning. She agreed wholeheartedly with Charlotte and had been pushing for Piper to do more with her photography for years. But her friend had always used the excuse of being too busy with work.
Now she didn't have that excuse.
"Good morning, Courtney. I hope we didn't wake you up," Charlotte said.
"’ Morning to you too, Charlotte. No, it's hard sleeping in somebody else's house. I find I hear every little noise. I’ll be so glad when the renovations are done in my house, and I can move back.” She reached over and grabbed herself a cup of coffee before she turned to her friend and continued. "Not that I'm not grateful, Piper. Besides, I'm over here all the time anyway. But it's just not the same as sleeping in your own house."
The other two women agreed with her, and since Piper seemed open to the idea of a photo gallery, they sat down and began to make plans.
"Charlotte, this is a treasure. How did you ever find this place?”
Piper stood in the middle of an empty room, looking around at the wall space and the beautiful windows that would entice customers in. Her mind was already going in different directions as she envisioned what the possibilities would be.
"I've had my agents looking for a couple of different property types. I believe this one is perfect for my hopes for you, Piper."
Charlotte couldn't hide her satisfied smile as she watched her goddaughter look around the room. Whether Piper knew it or not, she'd already made the decision to go ahead with Charlotte's plan. The older woman knew enough not to say anything, to just sit back and let Piper's thoughts take her down the avenue Charlotte had just opened for her.
Piper wandered over to the front windows, pleased they went from ceiling to floor. Not only would they let in natural light, but the windows would also be perfect for putting easels with pictures and portraits on them for customers walking by to see. The color inside must be muted; right now it was some kind of a yellow color, which would not play well with photos. She was looking for a more neutral cream to play off the colors she knew she would be capturing.
There, she'd gone ahead and admitted her acceptance to herself. Charlotte's plan was a good one, and she was more than up for the challenge. Piper always loved a good challenge; that's why she had entered the advertising industry. This would be much more low-key and not anywhere near as stressful as her previous job. As Courtney had told her this morning, she had earned the right to go after her dream.
Charlotte came to stand next to Piper and put her arm on her shoulders, hugging her close.
"It really is perfect, Charlotte. And I love the loft upstairs. It's perfect for a desk and office equipment. I can set up my computers and work from here on the photos I take."
"I know, I fell in love with the loft too. You know, there's a cozy spot up there for a dog bed, too."
Piper laughed out loud and glanced down at Daisy, who was sitting patiently by the window watching people walk by. The dog seemed standoffish to other people, but she never left Piper’s side, seeming to know that Piper was the one who had taken her in. She wasn't mean or aggressive to other people; she just knew who her favorite person was. It didn't hurt that Piper was the one feeding her, either.
Piper took a deep breath and seemed to hold it for a second before letting out the air with a noisy sigh. Her life was going to change with her decision, but neither of the women could know just how much her love of photography would bring not only joy but evil in its purest forms: murder.
“Okay, let's go for this. Where should I start first?" Piper waved her arms around her as if encompassing the whole building and then turned to Charlotte, waiting for her answer.
"Well, you can decorate it yourself, or I have an interior decorator who could help,” Charlotte said. “I’ve got a cleaning crew coming in as well. Basically, all we need are your pictures to put on display. So, I guess the first thing that you need to do is get out there and start taking some snapshots."
"If it's the same decorator you used up in Citrus Beach, I would happily put all this in her hands. Do you think Megan would be willing to do some outside pots of flowers for me?"
"Yes, and yes. Why don't you let me set this up so you can get to work on getting your pictures? Valerie is the perfect person to get this project done for you. You know her work and, to be honest, I clued her in on what was going on, so she's already cleared some time for you. With that in mind, do you think we could shoot for a gallery opening in five or six months? Will that give you enough time to get everything framed and ready for display?"
Piper nodded, not even bothering to tease her godmother about planning ahead. She was already forming in her mind where she wanted to start. There were a couple of nature paths close to the ocean that she loved taking pictures from. But she didn't want to do just nature photos. She'd always wanted to wander down to the local market and snap pictures of the stalls, vendors and tourist shopping. This was her opportunity. She was thinking so fast and furious that she didn't hear when Charlotte told her she was going to head out. She gave a start when Charlotte tapped her on the shoulder, bringing Piper out of her daydream.
"You might need these." Charlotte held out a set of keys. "I'm going to leave you here. I have a few things I need to do, and then I'm going to get the wheels rolling with Valerie. I'll get in touch with Megan for you, as well. I’m meeting your mothers for dinner tonight. Why don't you join us?"
Piper took the keys and agreed to meet her godmother later that evening. Giving her a quick kiss on the cheek, Charlotte left, and Piper couldn't help but do a quick little twirl around the room. Her actions caused Daisy to look up and bark, thinking something was going on.
"Come on, Daisy, let's go check out that loft and see where we will put your bed."
Calling to the dog, Piper hurried up the stairs. She stood at the top of the landing and looked down at what would soon be her gallery. She hugged herself. In six months, this would be filled with pictures and patrons.
Grabbing her cell phone, she started taking pictures so that she could show Courtney.
"Piper, what a surprise to see you down here. I'm guessing Charlotte has let you in on her little secret?"
Piper was locking up the gallery when she heard a woman's voice. Looking down the sidewalk, she saw her friend waving to her. Missy Taylor was the local realtor and, judging from what she just said, she had been the one to sell Charlotte the gallery.
"Yes, I just met with Charlotte."
"This is great. My office is right here too. It looks like I'll get to see more of you from now on."
By now Missy had reached Piper's side, and she put her hand out for Daisy to sniff. Once the dog had given her approval, she gave the dog a pet and then looked back up at her friend.
"When Charlotte told me what she planned for this space, I was thrilled. It’s just what the area needs. We're also getting a new bistro, and the bookstore is giving themselves a makeover,” Missy said. “Did you know the Town Council is talking about cordoning off this section and making it a street fair type of area? With the big parking garage at the end of the shops, it is perfect for this area. It's exciting to see the changes coming, and I’m so thankful Charlotte has taken on the promenade as a project."
“She’s taken on the promenade?”
“You didn’t know? Charlotte bought the entire shopping development. She has lots of big plans to revive the whole area, making it a destination spot for both the locals and tourists. The woman is a visionary.”
"That sounds like my godmother,” Piper said. “She said she had a little project. I'm glad I'm going to be part of it. Listen, I'll catch up with you later. I'd like to take Daisy for a short walk, and then I want to go get my camera."
The two women shared a hug and parted ways. Piper and Daisy walked the short distance to the parking garage where they had left the car. Piper dropped off her tote bag and then they turned and made their way towards the beach. Piper was curious to see how Daisy would react to the waves, but she didn't need to worry as the dog seemed to take it all in stride.
They walked along the beach for a short time, and then Daisy and Piper headed back to the parking garage. The entire time they’d walked, Piper had been planning where she was going to go to start her new venture. This time of day she needed to go someplace that could supply shade to get the right lighting for her pictures, and she knew of a small park not too far from the house that would be perfect.
When Piper arrived at Mooney’s to meet her mothers for dinner, there was a breeze coming off the ocean, cooling things down. The women decided to sit at one of the outside tables and enjoy the tropical atmosphere. Piper's mother gave her a hug and then turned to the waitress who was walking towards them, with menus in hand.
"We'll need a table for six, dear. Maybe somewhere a little quiet. Possibly one of the back corners?" Ava said.
"Of course, right this way please." The waitress took her request in stride and led them to a quiet corner. There they would still be able to see the ocean, but because of the wall jutting out from the building, it gave them the feeling of a private room. Promising to get their drinks, the waitress left their menus and went off to wait on the next couple.
"Who else is coming, Mom?"
"We ran into Courtney and told her to meet us here for dinner, and of course Charlotte's going to be joining us." Piper’s mother-in-law was the one to answer.
"That's only two.” Piper narrowed her eyes. “You two aren't trying to set me up with a date again, are you?"
The two mothers laughed, and Piper's mother explained that they had also invited Charlotte's decorator to join them.
"We talked her into helping us with our new house while she's helping you with the gallery. Oh, I can't wait for you to come over and see the house."
Piper inwardly groaned. She had almost forgotten about her mothers living across the street from her, but it came to slap her in the face right now.
"When do you close on the house?"
"We did that this morning. We’re all ready to move in but wanted to decorate before we do. I think we're looking at maybe two to three weeks before we move into the house. That should give you a little time to get used to the idea of us being so close." Piper's mother added, reading her daughters reaction like an open book.
"It's not that I don't want you living across the street from me, it's just going to take a little getting used to. I'll say it right now: there must be boundaries, girls. You have your life, and I have mine."
The two older women exchanged a look, and Piper wondered what was going on. They didn't explain, so she let it ride, thanks to the arrival of Charlotte and Valerie. A few moments later, Courtney rushed to the table with an apology for being late.
"You're not late. We all just got here. Settle down and catch your breath," Piper said
Charlotte introduced Valerie to the others, and in no time the six women were happily talking about paint colors and furniture. It wasn't until after they finished eating that Charlotte turned to Piper and asked her how her day had gone.
"Did you dig that camera out and get started?"
"Yes, I got some great shots of the kid's playground. I think that's what I want to do – candid photos as well as landscaping. I'm not sure I'm up for portrait photography, but I love the candid shots I got today. So many happy faces. It's infectious, you know. Tomorrow I plan to get up bright and early and get down to the market. There should be a lot of people and places to snap some pictures of."
The other women at the table grinned back at her, pleased to see her so animated about her photography.
When it was time to leave, Charlotte handed Piper a large packet of paperwork as they were walking out of the restaurant.
"This is all about the sale of your business, the ownership of the gallery, and the startup of your new business. Our lawyers have looked over everything very carefully.” She paused to make sure she had Piper’s attention. "Let's just say this. With what the ad agency is going to be paying in royalty fees for your pictures, your old boss might have been better off to keep you on staff and continue to pay your salary. The new owner is definitely not going to be happy when he gets his first bill. So be prepared; the agency is either going to fight it or beg for you to come back."
And with that Charlotte gave her a kiss on the cheek and left with Valerie, the mothers following close behind. As they walked away, Piper turned and looked at Courtney shock clearly written on her face.
"Did you hear that?"
"I sure did. Karma is a great thing, isn't it?" Courtney laughed.
Piper agreed with her and then asked if she was heading home from the restaurant.
"Nope. Got a date, and this one looks like it has potential. So, don't wait up for me. If you're getting up to go to the market in the morning, I probably won't see you until tomorrow afternoon. Oh, by the way, I met up with Tessa. You remember how you used to babysit her? Anyway, she's doing odd jobs so I gave her our number and thought she might be able to help you out. One of her odd jobs is dog walking. She said she'd call you tonight."
"It's a great idea. I'm still getting used to having Daisy around, and I'm not sure how well she'll behave if I take her out on photo shoots."
Courtney didn't stay much longer. She was meeting her date for drinks at a different restaurant downtown, and she needed to get there. Piper hugged her goodbye, warning her to be careful. A moment later, she was by herself, and she leaned over the railing to look out to the ocean. The stars were coming out. It was a beautiful evening, and she sighed contentedly. After a few moments, the sound from inside the bar at Mooney’s disturbed her peace, and she decided to head home.
Piper arrived home to a quiet house. This was nothing unusual. In fact, she was used to it, being on her own for years. Both her sons had grown up and moved away, and she sometimes marveled at just how quiet the house could be. As if the dog could read her thoughts, Daisy wandered out from wherever she had been sleeping, tail wagging to greet Piper.
"Hello, Daisy, how was your day?"
As Piper said the words, she marveled at how people seemed to automatically talk to their dogs as if they expected the animal to answer. And here she was, doing the same thing. The only thing was, Daisy looked as if she wanted to answer.
Piper made her way into the kitchen, making sure that Daisy had food and water and then grabbing a soda for herself out of the fridge. Wandering over to the bay window, she looked out to the river that ran along her property line. Piper loved this view; it had been a deciding factor when she and her husband had bought the house years ago. Sitting down in the soft cushions of the window seat, she patted the spot next to her, inviting Daisy to jump up. Piper stroked the dog's silky ears and remembered what Courtney had told her the night before about Daisy's history.
Daisy was about a year old, and she had been trained and well cared for by an older woman who’d died suddenly of a heart attack. The women's children wanted nothing to do with keeping the dog and when Courtney heard about Daisy's predicament she immediately thought of Piper. Piper was alone at the house most of the time. Yes, Courtney was here now, but she wouldn't be for very much longer. Her condo was almost finished, and she was anxious to get back home. Courtney had worried about Piper selling her business. It had been her stable point for most of her life, and she had concerns that Piper might become depressed. Daisy and Piper were a perfect fit for each other, she reasoned, and without a second thought had taken the dog off the hands of the deceased woman’s children.
"Courtney did us both a big favor, didn't she Daisy?" Piper whispered as she stroked the dog’s silky fur coat.
They sat together, watching the boats go up and down the river for a while until the phone rang and broke the silence. It was Tessa calling as promised to find out if Piper would need her services to walk Daisy. After a few moments of catching up, they settled on some timeframes for Tessa to pick up the dog, and then they said goodbye.
"You'll like Tessa, Daisy. She's a good kid, and I know she loves dogs. I can remember babysitting her. Jeez, I can't believe she's old enough to be doing summer jobs before she goes to college. Well, let's go to bed. It's been a long day."
But Piper didn’t go to bed. There was something she wanted to find first. Pulling a couple of boxes from under her bed, she lifted the lids, sorting through the masculine items. It had been a long time since she’d sifted through the personal items that her husband, Bill, had treasured. Silly things that reminded her of when they had first met, and then started dating. Many of the items had gone to her two sons, but she had held on to the trinkets as if they would bring the memories closer. Picking up a small yo-yo, Piper smiled as she remembered the hours her husband had spent trying to master it, trying to impress her. She’d never told him that her father had taught her many tricks with the toy. Instead, she enjoyed his efforts and the joy when he finally mastered the simplest of tricks.
She had almost made it to the bottom of the first box when she found a medal he had won for a cycling race. Tears came to her eyes as she remembered how much he had loved to cycle. The same love that had taken him from her by the careless act of a driver.
Stuffing the medal back in the box, she jerked the lid back in place and pushed the box under the bed as far as she could.
It took her a moment before she could open the second box. Her tears turned to a sad smile when she saw what she was looking for sitting right on top of the other items. It was an old camera. One of the very first to use digital photography, Bill had been so proud of it and had big plans to use it to capture the family vacations and activities of the boys. It was still in the box it had come in. Her husband had never had the opportunity to use it.
“It’s been sitting here for all these years. You knew someday I’d need it, didn’t you, my love?” Piper whispered into the room as if there was another person there.
The marketplace was everything Piper had hoped it would be. The early morning light was perfect for snapping pictures, but even more important was the color and bustle of the people at the market.
Pushing her hat back so it wouldn't interfere as she focuses the lens, she snapped a couple more pictures. Piper had been at the market for over an hour and been able to capture shots of the vendors opening their stalls and the first early-bird shoppers. The late morning shoppers weren't as focused on what they needed as they were more meandering, enjoying the atmosphere of the open market.
She heard laughter and turned, her attention caught by two children picking apples and oranges off the open stall of the fruit seller and sneaking them into their mother's basket. It looked like they thought they were getting away with something, but Piper noticed the mother calmly reaching into the basket and placing the fruit back on the vendor's table. It was a great game, and the children seemed highly amused, giving Piper some great candid shots.
The smell of strong coffee caught her, and she headed towards the vendor who was selling freshly brewed morning nectar.
"One large, please."
Piper ordered as she dug into her pants pocket for some money. She thanked the vendor and then wandered over to a small bench where she could sit down and enjoy her drink.
Settling herself down on the bench, she crossed her legs and swung her feet, an old habit left from her childhood. She couldn't help smiling when her eyes caught sight of the teal heels on her feet. They’d been the perfect birthday gift, and she was happy to be wearing them along with her new hat, its brim ideal for shading her eyes as she took pictures.
Piper took a sip of her coffee as she looked around, recognizing a few people as they walked by. She said hello to those she knew and smiled greetings to anyone who smiled at her. It was one of those days when everybody seemed in a good mood and friendly.
"Do you mind if I sit here for a moment?" a soft voice asked.
"Of course not, make yourself at home." Piper smiled at the young blond woman who sat down next to her.
"It's a glorious morning, isn't it? I love coming to the market on days like this, don't you?" asked the woman.
Piper nodded in agreement, still sipping her coffee. The young woman looked around, content to just sit, and Piper appreciated the silence. After a few moments, Piper finished her coffee and got up to leave. The young woman looked up at her and wished her a good day.
"You, too. Maybe I'll see you around," Piper answered with a smile.
Before the other woman could answer Piper, they heard shouting from down the street, and their attention was drawn to the commotion.
They were too far away to hear the words, but they could easily see what was going on. It was apparent two men were intimidating a third. The two were young and well built, and Piper couldn't help but feel the aggression coming off of them. The third man was older, with glasses, a goatee, and a balding head. The way he was dressed reminded Piper of an old professor she had in college. He was clearly upset, and he was shaking his head in answer to something they said.
"Oh my goodness, that doesn't look good," said the woman next to Piper.
"No, it doesn't. You'd think somebody would butt in and put a stop to it. Or at least call for help."
Piper kept a close eye on the man, ready to call for help if she had to. But as quickly as the commotion started, it ended. One of the younger men put his arms around the older man and laughed.
"Well, at least it ended friendly."
Piper agreed, but she had an uneasy feeling. On instinct, she picked up her camera and took a couple of shots. There was a nagging feeling in the back of her head that she had seen the older man before. But she had no idea where. Before she could think any more of it, the second man put his arm around the older man from the other side, and the three of them walked off in a staggering type of stance. As she watched them move away, Piper noticed the red shoes on the older man, and they took her by surprise. They didn't seem to fit in with the rest of his appearance.
"Are you a photographer?"
Piper glanced back at the woman standing next to her and smiled. What had happened down the street was over.
"Yes, my name is Piper Avery. As a matter of fact, I'm opening a gallery soon."
"How exciting. My name is Celeste, and I work at the bookstore. But I come here every morning before I go to work. It always seems to invigorate me, getting me ready for the day. There are some days I really need it. The bookstore can be pretty slow in the middle of the afternoon."
Piper joined her laughter, and the two women chatted for just a moment more, and then Piper went on her way, promising to stop by the bookstore soon. Without even realizing it, she was heading in the direction of where the three men had been.
Piper arrived at the same spot where the men had been standing and looked around curiously, but there was no indication of why they might have been arguing. Everything seemed normal. Piper gave a shrug of her shoulders as she looked at her watch and realized she needed to get moving. She'd arranged for Tessa to bring Daisy over to Mooney’s and she didn't want to be late.
Piper had been ready to start walking when she was almost knocked down on her fanny by a young man hurrying out of one of the shops. He grabbed her arms to steady her and, in the process, hit her with the backpack he had in his hand.
"Oh, I'm sorry. I was in a hurry and didn't see you. Are you all right?" the man asked
"I'm fine, thank you. Really, it's okay, there's no need to be upset."
Piper could see the man was upset and flustered, so she hurried to put him at ease. After all, she wasn't hurt; it had just been a little jostle.
"I really am sorry. I should've been paying more attention."
But even as the young man said the words, he was searching the crowd around her as if looking for someone. He seemed at a loss, and Piper asked if he was all right.
"Yeah, I just... I don't know, I guess I'm looking for somebody, but I'm not sure who. Anyway, if you're okay, I'm gonna go ahead and head out on my way."
Once again, Piper assured him she was fine. She watched as he turned and walked back into the shop, turning his head from side to side, as if continuing to look for someone or something. The young man was the age of her sons but seemed completely opposite of her boys. They were confident and sure of themselves, but this young man appeared at a loss. His clothes were slightly rumpled as if he’d thrown them on in a hurry. She couldn't help but notice the smear of jam on the front of his wrinkled polo shirt.
Before she could say anything more, he was gone, and she shrugged her shoulders, moving off to head towards Mooney’s where she was meeting Tessa.
By the time Piper arrived at Mooney’s, Tessa was already there, playing with Daisy down on the beach. Piper grabbed one of the tables pushed along the railing of the boardwalk and waved to Tessa to let her know she was there. As a waitress ran by, Piper ordered two drinks and asked for a bowl of water. The waitress was used to this kind of request. Mooney was all too happy to let people bring their pets to sit on the boardwalk.
The waitress brought the drinks as Tessa and Daisy made their way from the beach up to the boardwalk.
"Oh, that lemonade looks wonderful. Thanks, Piper."
The young woman had pulled her long, curly brown hair, up into a ponytail while she had been on the beach, and now she released it from the clip, letting it fall down her back. She didn't even bother to sit down. She just reached over and grabbed the lemonade, drinking most of it in a couple of gulps.
“Daisy was a gem this morning. She’s so well-behaved. Listen, I gotta run, I’m meeting some friends at the library. I'll be back this evening to take her for her evening walk if you still want me to."
"Yes, I think we better stick with the schedule that we set up. I have a feeling I will be tied down at the gallery this evening. As a matter of fact, why don’t you bring her over to the gallery when you’re done walking her?"
Tessa agreed with Piper’s suggestion, telling her she was curious to see the gallery anyway. Tessa finished her drink, waved goodbye to Piper and gave Daisy a final pet before hurrying off to meet her friends.
Piper was in no hurry to leave, so she settled back to enjoy her lemonade and look around. The afternoon clouds were beginning to form, and she noticed the beach was emptying quickly. Most people knew storms came in quickly, and they could be intense; it was best not to be sitting on the beach. Since Piper was protected from the overhang along the boardwalk, she didn't worry about it, and Daisy lay contently at her feet.
By the time Piper had finished her lemonade the beach was empty, leaving only the umbrellas standing up. She knew Mooney would be sending somebody down to close the umbrellas as the wind began to pick up. The sting from the sand blowing was making other people leave the boardwalk as well, but Piper merely adjusted her hat to protect her face. She wasn't ready to go yet.
The first drops of rain came fast and furious, but the shower only lasted for about ten minutes. It was a pretty typical afternoon shower. The heat built up all day until the clouds couldn't hold it any longer and then they released the rain, and then the process started all over again.
"That was short-lived. Daisy, do you think we should head home?"
Daisy looked up at the sound of Piper's voice but didn't make any move to get to her feet. The dog was obviously quite comfortable. Piper laughed at Daisy and mentally agreed with her that there was no reason to hurry anywhere.
Looking out across the beach, she realized that not all the umbrellas had been folded down and the wind had knocked a few askew, putting them at odd angles. One umbrella, in particular, caught her attention.
Something was sticking out from it, but she couldn't quite make it out from a distance. Picking up her camera, she looked into the viewfinder, using it to zoom in on the object under the umbrella. She adjusted the focus, and the first thing she noticed was red shoes sticking out from the protection of the umbrella. Red shoes and khaki pants.
"What in the world?"
Piper couldn't understand why somebody would've sat out there during the short shower unless he'd fallen asleep. But they would've had to be in a deep sleep to not notice what was going on. She couldn't see any more than legs and the feet. Shrugging her shoulders, she figured it took all kinds and started to put the camera back down. As she moved with the camera still to her eye, she saw something else red, and it wasn't the shoes. There seemed to be a puddle of red seeping through the khaki pants and onto the sand.
First, she didn't realize what she was seeing, but then Piper figured it out. She put the camera down and grabbed her phone, dialing 911 as she got to her feet. Yelling for Mooney, she hurried down the boardwalk to the stairs leading to the beach. Whoever was sitting under that umbrella was in distress and needed help.
Her voice must've conveyed the urgency and when he came running Piper pointed to where she was going. Mooney didn't hesitate, following her and Daisy down to the beach. When they reached the umbrella, Mooney was slightly out of breath from the exertion.
"Oh. My. God,” gasped Piper.
The two of them stared down at the man under the umbrella. The stain on the beach was more significant than it had looked in the viewfinder of the camera. The man's eyes were open as he stared out to the beautiful ocean in front of him, not seeing a thing.
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