There's a case of spring-cleaning fever going around New Orleans's historic Garden District, and it's keeping Charlotte LaRue--proprietor of Maid-for-a-Day--plenty busy. Especially when what's supposed to be a simple housecleaning job ends in a grim discovery--and things start to get real dirty real fast... Charlotte has just about had it with her sister Madeline. She's put up with her simpering sibling's selfish demands and snide comments for years, but when Maddie turns on her own son and his new bride, Charlotte's really steamed. She thinks Daniel and Nadia make a beautiful couple--and Nadia's little boy is just as cute as can be. And now that Nadia's abusive ex-boyfriend seems to be out of the picture--no one's seen the cad in ages--the new family's future looks as bright as a freshly Windex-ed mirror. But years of polishing, scrubbing, and dusting have taught Charlotte that it's only a matter of time before things get messy. Sure enough, when she pays a visit to a wealthy client's lavish mansion, an urn breaks open--and human bones spill out. A little snooping turns up a driver's license belonging to Nadia's no-good ex. Could the bones be his, too? Before she knows it, Charlotte's up to her elbows in the kind of dirty business that doesn't pay the bills... "Full of warm southern charm, this one's a good way to fight the winter doldrums." -- Publishers Weekly "Interesting characters and a suspenseful mystery combine for an enjoyable and surprising novel." -- Romantic Times
Release date: January 1, 2005
Publisher: Kensington Books
Print pages: 288
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No sooner had the thought entered Charlotte’s head than the sound of the front door opening and closing reached her ears. Seconds later, her sister breezed into the kitchen.
“Here you go.” She handed Charlotte a loaf of French bread. “I figured one loaf would be enough, and it’s fresh. Still warm,” she added.
“One should be enough,” Charlotte murmured. “Thanks, Maddie. You’re a lifesaver. I still can’t believe I forgot to buy bread.”
Madeline shrugged. “No big deal.” She walked over to the stove. “Umm, that’s gumbo, isn’t it?” She peered into the huge pot and sniffed. “Chicken and andouille?”
Charlotte nodded as she slid the long loaf of French bread out of its paper wrapper. “Not exactly traditional Easter Sunday fare, but I didn’t get a chance to shop for a ham. Or bread,” she added with a grin. “And since I already had all the ingredients for gumbo ...” She shrugged. “Got it started before church this morning. Besides, it seems to me, if I remember right, chicken and andouille is your favorite.”
Madeline laughed. “And it seems to me, if I remember right, that’s because it was the only kind of gumbo you ever made. Really strange,” she added, “considering we live in a city known for its seafood.”
“Only kind I could ever afford to make,” Charlotte shot back. Placing the bread on a cookie sheet, she began slicing it into pieces, careful to slice only about two-thirds the way down. “The ingredients for the seafood kind—even in New Orleans—were too expensive on my limited budget.” She quickly inserted a pat of butter in between each slice, then slid the bread into the oven to melt the butter.
What she could have pointed out but didn’t was that the reason she’d had to be so thrifty was partially her sister’s fault. Years ago, after Madeline’s first divorce, she’d become so depressed that she’d been unable to function on a day-today basis. She and her two young children had moved in with Charlotte, and for months, Charlotte and her maid service had been the sole provider for all of them as well as for herself and her own son.
“Whatever,” Madeline quipped.
Charlotte glanced out the window into the backyard, where the rest of the family and their friends had gathered to watch three-year-old Davy, the son of one of her employees, hunt for Easter eggs. “Correction. Make that the only kind I can still afford,” she added with a grin. “Our family is growing by leaps and bounds.”
Madeline followed her gaze. “Bite your tongue. Only my Judith and Daniel, and your Hank, qualify as family” She waved her hand toward the window. “Those others don’t qualify—not yet, thank God. They’re just—just what? What do you call grown girlfriends and boyfriends anyway?”
“I believe the term now is ‘significant others,’ ” Charlotte answered.
Madeline rolled her eyes. “Oh, pu-lease, give me a break. Yuck!” She shuddered. “Anyway, whatever they are, it looks like they all showed up today—all except for that Billy character that Judith’s been seeing.”
“She could do worse,” Charlotte pointed out. A whole lot worse, she thought. But Charlotte didn’t dare say so. Madeline didn’t know about Judith’s affair with Will Richeaux, thank goodness, and Charlotte wasn’t about to be the one to tell her, especially now that Judith had come to her senses and ditched him. But if Madeline had known, Charlotte was sure she would have changed her tune about Judith’s relationship with Billy Wilson in a heartbeat. Even now, months later, the thought of how Will Richeaux had duped Judith still made Charlotte see red.
“Do worse?” Madeline repeated, then made a face. “I don’t know how. This Billy character isn’t even a detective like Judith. He’s just a plain old street cop. I tell you, Charlotte, I shudder every time I think that she could end up marrying another cop. One cop in the family is plenty, thank you very much.”
Though she was sorely tempted, again Charlotte didn’t dare comment. The last thing she wanted was to get into an altercation with her sister, especially today. Along with Christmas, she considered Easter to be one of the most important holidays they celebrated. Besides, arguing with Madeline was like arguing with a brick wall.
Madeline turned away from the window and walked over to the oven to check on the bread. “By the way,” she said, “just why isn’t this Billy character here today?”
“Judith said he had to work,” Charlotte answered.
Madeline grunted. “Just as well,” she retorted. She faced Charlotte. “Maybe Judith will come to her senses. One can always hope. Besides, she can do a lot better than someone like him.” Without missing a beat, Madeline launched into yet another complaint. “And then there’s that son of mine. Why on earth is Daniel still fooling around with—”
“Don’t ‘now, Maddie’ me! Ever since he started hanging around with that woman who works for you, I never see him anymore, not without her and that brat of hers tagging along.”
“Madeline, shame on you. Little Davy is a precious little boy. And ‘that woman’ has a name. Nadia—”
“Yeah,” Madeline interrupted. “And that’s another thing: both this Billy character and this Nadia have the same last name. Makes me wonder if there’s some kind of weird conspiracy going on. Now wouldn’t that be just my luck?” She glared at Charlotte. “Well? Are they? Are they kin to each other?”
Charlotte sighed. “No, according to Nadia they are not related. Just because they have the same last name—”
“Yeah, yeah.” She waved a dismissing hand. “Okay already.”
“One more thing, Maddie. Nadia Wilson is one of the finest young women I’ve had the privilege to come in contact with.” Charlotte grabbed an oven mitt. “And hardworking to boot,” she added. “Now here—” Charlotte removed the warmed bread out of the oven, and gingerly placed it into an oblong bread basket that she’d lined with a clean hand towel. She folded the edges of the hand towel over the bread, then handed the basket to her sister. “Take this to the table for me, and please try to be nice. If not for Daniel’s sake, for my sake.”
“Well, at least your Hank had the decency to pick a woman who didn’t already have a kid. I’m not ready to play grandma—not by a long shot. And when I do become one, I’d rather the little rug-rat was my own flesh and blood.”
The sudden urge to slap the living daylights out of her spoiled, selfish sister was so strong that Charlotte grabbed hold of the cabinet. “What a mean, hateful thing to say. You should be ashamed.”
“Ashamed! For what? For telling the truth? If you ask me, telling the truth is a lot better than being a hypocrite about it.”
“Nobody asked you,” Charlotte retorted through gritted teeth. “And if being charitable and kind are hypocritical, then I’d rather be a hypocrite any day than a selfish witch.”
The stunned look on her sister’s face would have been comical if Charlotte hadn’t been so angry. So much for avoiding an altercation, she thought irritably, but then her sister had always known exactly which of her buttons to push.
In an effort to calm herself, Charlotte breathed deeply and counted to ten. Releasing her grip on the cabinet, she turned to her sister. “Maddie, all I’m saying is—”
“I think you’ve said enough.” Madeline glared at her for several seconds. Then she rolled her eyes upward and shrugged. “Maybe we both have,” she muttered.
Charlotte figured it was as close to an apology as she would get. She sighed. “For once you’re right,” she finally relented in an effort to keep the peace. “I’m afraid we’ll just have to agree to disagree. Truce?”
Albeit grudgingly, Madeline nodded. “Truce.”
“Good. Now if you’ll put that bread on the table, and”—Charlotte motioned toward the refrigerator—“get the stuffed eggs out of there while I put the ice in the glasses for the tea, I think everything will be ready.”
Madeline headed for the refrigerator, then frowned. “Why haven’t I seen these before?” She pointed at the snapshots that were held in place with magnets on the refrigerator door. “They’re from your birthday party, aren’t they?”
“Yeah. I keep meaning to put them in an album,” Charlotte answered. “And you haven’t seen them because I just got around to getting copies made from Hank’s negatives.”
Madeline stared at the snapshots. “Well, it took you long enough. Your birthday was months ago. Guess the wait was worth it, though. These are really nice, especially this one of you and Judith.” Madeline shook her head. “It’s just too weird: she’s my daughter, but, I swear, the older she gets, the more she looks like you.”
Will wonders never cease? Charlotte thought, too surprised by Madeline’s admission to do more than just stand there and stare at her. Over the years, people had said as much. And while it was true that she and Judith both had the same dark blond hair, the same petite body build, and even the same sky blue eyes, the whole issue had always been a sore point with Madeline. Secretly, Charlotte had been pleased and flattered by the comparison, but because Madeline had been so touchy about it, Charlotte had learned to hide her feelings.
A few minutes later, Charlotte called everyone inside, and once they had all gathered around the table, she nodded at her son. “Hank, would you please say the blessing?”
“Sure,” he answered.
The second that Hank ended the blessing with “Amen,” Daniel cleared his throat loudly and held up a hand to get everyone’s attention. “Hey, everybody, hold up a minute.” He stood. “We have an announcement to make.” Reaching down, he scooped little Davy up into his arms, then held out a hand to Nadia as she pushed out of her chair to stand beside him.
It was more than evident to Charlotte that “we” included all three of them. And from the sober look on her nephew’s face, she knew that something big was brewing besides the pot of gumbo still simmering on the stove.
In Daniel’s day-to-day life as a highly respected attorney, he was always serious and focused, but when he was around family, it was rare that he was ever serious about much of anything. He’d always been the clown in the family, and Charlotte had her own homegrown philosophy about that. She figured that his clowning around was his way of compensating for being so totally rejected by his father at such a young age after his parents’ divorce.
When Daniel pulled Nadia closer, a smile tugged at Charlotte’s lips. They made such an attractive couple. Nadia’s dark hair and exotic looks were a contrast yet a perfect complement to Daniel’s dark blond hair and fair completion. They were both tall, but while Nadia was model-slender and feminine, Daniel personified rugged masculinity.
After all these months, was he finally going to do it? Charlotte’s insides suddenly felt jittery with excitement. Had Daniel finally asked Nadia to marry him?
Charlotte’s gaze slid downward, seeking the ring finger of Nadia’s left hand. No help there, though. Nadia’s hand was hidden inside the pocket of her skirt.
When Daniel cleared his throat again, it suddenly dawned on Charlotte just how nervous he was. But why on earth would he be so nervous if he was just announcing their engagement? Unless ...
At the exact moment that Charlotte realized what her nephew’s big announcement was really all about, Daniel said, “Just thought I’d better let you know that as of day before yesterday, Nadia has become the newest addition to our family. She’s now Mrs. Daniel Monroe. And, furthermore, just as soon as I can finalize the adoption, Davy will become my son.”
Charlotte heard her sister’s horrified gasp of disbelief, but, thankfully, the cheering and clapping of the rest of the group smothered Madeline’s less than enthusiastic reaction.
Suddenly, Judith stood. Slapping her hands on her hips, she faced her brother. “How dare you!”
The whole room abruptly grew quiet, as if, along with everyone there, it was holding its breath.
“How dare you sneak off and get married without me being there,” Judith told him sternly. Then she grinned, and tears sprang in her eyes. “But even if you are a dirty rotten sneak, I still love you and can’t think of anyone I’d rather have for a sister-in-law than Nadia.”
“Thanks, sis. And you’ll be happy to know that just as soon as we can arrange it, we plan to have a big blowout reception to celebrate with the family and our friends—probably around the first of April.”
Judith shook her finger at him. “Still not as good as being there for the wedding, but I guess it will have to do.” With a big grin, she hurried around the table and hugged Daniel first, then Nadia. “Congratulations, you guys.” With a teasing smile and a wink directed at Davy, Judith reached up and gently pinched his cheek. “And I can’t think of anyone I’d rather have for a nephew, either,” she added.
Still beaming with genuine happiness for her brother, Judith turned to Charlotte. “Hey, Aunt Charley, now I can have a favorite nephew, too.”
Everyone roared with laughter—everyone but Madeline, Charlotte noted. Daniel and Judith were Charlotte’s only nephew and niece, and for as long as any of them could remember, it had been the family joke that Charlotte always referred to both as her favorite nephew and favorite niece.
Hank, his friend Carol Jones, and Charlotte quickly joined Judith and offered hugs of congratulations. The only person conspicuously absent from the group huddled around the beaming couple and little boy was Madeline, who remained seated at the table.
Though Charlotte could understand her sister being disappointed that Daniel had eloped without telling her, that was no excuse for her being so rude and hurtful. She eased away from the group and walked over to her sister.
“Don’t do this, Maddie,” she murmured. “I know you’re disappointed that none of us were invited to the wedding ceremony—I am, too—but I’m sure they had their reasons. Please don’t make a scene. Don’t ruin this happy moment for them.”
Charlotte might as well have been whistling in the wind for all of the attention that her sister paid to her pleas. Without a word to anyone, Madeline pushed out of her chair and stomped out of the room. Seconds later, they heard the front door slam, and within moments they heard the roar of a car engine and the squeal of tires.
Nadia stared up at Daniel. “I told you she would be upset. I’m so sorry, honey.” She buried her crimson face against his shoulder, but not before Charlotte saw the tears spilling down her cheeks.
After Madeline’s abrupt departure, the food could have been dust as far as those who were left at the table were concerned. Little Davy’s excited chatter was the only thing that kept the meal from being eaten in complete silence.
As soon as the meal was over and the table cleared, everyone said subdued good-byes, then left—everyone but Judith.
“Why, Aunt Charley?” she demanded as she followed Charlotte back to the kitchen. “Why does my mother have to be like that? Nothing’s ever good enough for her, and nothing any of us does ever pleases her.”
Charlotte had begun loading the dishwasher but paused. “I know it seems that way, hon, but—”
Judith threw up her right hand, palm out, and shook her head. “No buts, Auntie. It doesn’t just seem that way. It is that way, and no use you making excuses for her.”
As much as it pained Charlotte to admit it, Judith was right. But an admission of the truth out loud would be even more painful for Judith, so Charlotte lied. “To be honest, hon, I don’t know why she acts that way.”
Long after Judith had left, Charlotte remained at the open front door and stared at the empty driveway with unseeing eyes as pangs of guilt about Madeline battered her conscience.
It had all started with the death of their parents. Charlotte had been only twenty to Madeline’s fifteen when their parents had been involved in a fatal accident. She’d been much too young to take on the responsibilities of caring for a teenage sister as well as her own infant son. Indeed, she’d been too overwhelmed to do anything but get through each day as best she could, and she’d overcompensated by indulging her sister and giving in to her every demand.
Charlotte stepped back inside the house. It had taken her years to finally come to terms with the guilt she felt about Madeline, years to finally realize that as a grown woman, Madeline was ultimately responsible for her own spoiled, selfish actions.
But old habits were hard to break, and even now Charlotte couldn’t decide whether she should phone Madeline and try to placate her or simply leave her sister alone and mind her own business.
“Well, what do you think I should do, Sweety?” She directed her question to her little parakeet whose cage hung on a stand by the front window. “Should I call her or not?”
For an answer, the little bird gave a squawk and pranced back and forth on his perch.
“Humph. Should have known better than to ask you. Probably wouldn’t do any good to call her anyway.” Charlotte closed and locked the door. “More than likely she wouldn’t listen. And that’s a shame—a crying shame. Anyone with half a pea-brain could see that Daniel, Nadia, and Davy are a perfect match.”
Still debating whether to call her sister, Charlotte walked over to the sofa and sat down. Suddenly, she stiffened and went stone still.
What about Ricco Martinez, the man Nadia had lived with, the father of her son? It had been a year since Ricco, without a word to anyone, had simply disappeared one day. What if, after all this time, he suddenly decided to show up? What then?
Charlotte normally avoided scheduling herself to clean for clients on Thursdays, reserving that day so that she could run errands and catch up on the bookkeeping for her maid service. Thursday was also the day that she took care of her own housecleaning chores. By the time Thursday rolled around though, she was more than ready for it, but for other reasons. She was exhausted. Marian Hebert, the client she worked for on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, had suddenly decided that in addition to Charlotte’s regular chores, all the baseboards in her house needed scrubbing and all of the closets needed cleaning out.
Bitsy Duhe, her client on Tuesdays, also had had additional chores for Charlotte. Bitsy had decided that every window in her house needed cleaning, which meant taking down all of the drapes, then putting them back up once she was done.
Charlotte figured it was spring fever. But who could blame them? Springtime in New Orleans was so brief, and the cool nights and humidity-free daytime temperatures such a rarity, that everyone who lived in and around the Crescent City made the most of the pleasant weather.
Under normal circumstances, Charlotte could have coped with the hard work. She’d had to work hard all of her life. But she hadn’t felt well at all, not since Sunday. All week long she’d kept telling herself that if she could just make it until Thursday, she could rest up, and then she might be able to make it through Friday, her last scheduled workday for the week.
It had been several months since Charlotte had discovered that she was a borderline diabetic, and most of the time she kept the disease under control with her diet and a tiny pill she took each morning. But, for whatever reason, her blood-sugar level had gone from one extreme to the other over the past three days.
“Probably just stress,” she murmured as she gathered her dirty clothes from the hamper in the bathroom. She’d read that stress wasn’t good for a diabetic, and being at odds with her sister had always stressed her out.
If nothing else, Madeline could be mule-headed stubborn when she chose to be. None of the phone calls that Charlotte had made to her sister during the week had been answered or returned. All she’d gotten was her sister’s answering machine. She’d even tried calling Madeline at the accounting firm where she was employed, but she’d been told that Ms. Monroe was in a meeting and couldn’t be disturbed.
At first Charlotte had figured that Madeline was still pouting about Daniel’s marriage announcement and simply didn’t want to talk about it. But it had been over three days now without a word from her, and Charlotte was beginning to really get aggravated ... and angry.
Knowing her sister as she did, Charlotte figured that Madeline had somehow gotten it into her head that Charlotte was at fault for Daniel’s relationship with Nadia. And maybe, in a teeny-tiny way, she was.
It had been almost a year since Nadia had come to her in tears because Ricco, her live-in boyfriend and the father of her son, had been arrested as part of the gang that had been stealing cemetery artifacts. Nadia had needed legal expertise that she could ill afford, and Ricco’s court-appointed attorney had been next to useless. Charlotte had solicited Daniel’s help on Nadia’s behalf, so, in essence, she had brought the two of them together.
But that was all she had done. Once Daniel had secured Ricco’s release from jail, without a word to anyone, Ricco had abruptly disappeared. What had developed between Nadia and Daniel afterward had been totally their own doing.
In the laundry room, once Charlotte had measured out the laundry detergent, she dumped it into the washing machine, then turned the machine on. Most of the time she waited until the machine com. . .
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