In book 11 in the series, Tess fills in at the post office after the woman who took over her route broke her leg. While on route for the first time in a year she discovers that her father has left her brother Mike with a baby to hide and protect. Tess has never really been one to go all gooey over babies but when she discovers this particular little darling in need she enlists Tony's help to make sure she is well hidden and to look for the babies mother.
Meanwhile Tess's mother has a new boyfriend her father isn't too happy about and Mike has a new murder to solve.
Release date: April 20, 2021
Publisher: Kathi Daley Books
Print pages: 140
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The Baby Plan: A Cozy Mystery
Monday, May 17
“Morning, Hap,” I greeted Hap Hollister, the owner of the only hardware store in my hometown of White Eagle, Montana.
“Tess? Tilly? What are the two of you doing delivering the mail?”
I set the pile of bills and letters I’d brought on the counter. “The woman who took over my mail route when I quit so I could work with Brady at the shelter fell and broke her leg. My old boss called me, desperate for someone who knew the route and was willing to fill in until something could be worked out, so I assured her that I would be happy to come back on a temporary basis.” I popped the lid off the jar of butterscotch candy and plucked out a piece. “I love my job at the shelter, but I’ve really missed stopping in to chat with everyone along the route I’d traveled five days a week for so many years.” I opened the wrapper and popped the candy into my mouth. “And I really miss my daily butterscotch with you. I wasn’t planning on returning to the post office this summer, but to be honest, I find that I’m excited about filling in for however long they need me.”
“Well, I’m sorry to hear about Hannah, but I’m happy to see you. Hannah is nice enough, but she isn’t you. How’s married life treating you?”
“Fantastic. Can you believe it will be a year in just six weeks?”
“Almost a year already; that is hard to believe. Seems like yesterday you were hemming and hawing over whether you really wanted to go through with the whole thing.”
I had to admit that I’d been leery about taking such a big step, but looking back over the last year and the total peace I’d found knowing that Tony and I would be together forever, I had to wonder why I’d ever hesitated. “I never really wavered over my decision to marry Tony; it was the whole wedding thing that had me running scared,” I admitted. “But in the end, I took some advice from my brother, and Tony and I sat down and talked about things. We decided what we wanted, and we did it our way.”
Hap plucked a piece of butterscotch candy out of the jar for himself. “How is Tony? I haven’t seen him for a spell either.”
“He’s doing really well, actually. It was hard for him when his grandmother died, and I know our trip to Italy last fall was an emotional one for him, but we both ended up having a wonderful time. He seemed a bit more settled and at peace by the time we got home.”
“Glad to hear that. I understand that game series Tony developed with Shaggy is selling like hotcakes.”
“It’s doing very well. I wasn’t sure how it would be working with someone who tends to fly by the seat of his pants, but Shaggy has turned out to be a dependable business partner for Tony.”
“Are they planning on developing a game three in the series?”
I shrugged. “Maybe. Right now, Tony is working on software for another client, but maybe when he’s finished with that. For the time being, he’s keeping an eye on the animals and holding down the fort while Tilly and I make our rounds.”
Hap smiled, his eyes crinkling in the corners. I could see that he was as happy to be able to catch up as I was. “How’s that new puppy of yours? Kody, if I remember correctly.”
“Kody is doing great, but he’s not really a puppy any longer. He graduated from search and rescue training and has been on several rescues now. Each time I take him out, he seems to do better and better. I’m really happy with his progress.”
“Does he get along with the other animals?”
I nodded. “Tony’s dog, Titan, adores him as does Tilly, of course. Tang and Tinder were somewhat leery at first, but the cats are used to him now, and everyone is getting along. Do you have any outgoing mail today?”
He set a pile of letters on the counter before glancing out the window that looked out onto the street. “I guess if you’re going to come back to your old job for a spell, you picked a good time of year to do it. The weather has been just about perfect.”
Hap wasn’t wrong. The temperatures in May and June were generally about as perfect as they could be. Not too hot. Not too cold. The flowers were blooming, and the birds were singing. I’d always loved having a job where I was outdoors for most of the day during the spring and autumn. The hot days of summer and the freezing days in the winter were another matter entirely.
“It is a beautiful day,” I agreed.
“I was thinking I might even take my sandwich out to the front bench once lunchtime rolls around. Not only does eating out on the sidewalk give me a chance to catch some rays, but most days, a lot of interesting folks stop by to chat.”
“I figure you’d have your share of chatting from the customers who come in.”
He shrugged. “I do like to visit with my customers, but not everyone needs hardware or home goods. For example, Bree was out for a walk a few days ago, and she sat and chatted with me while I ate. That sister-in-law of yours looks like she’s about to pop.”
“She has another month before the baby is due, but with her small frame, she really does look big.”
“Have they chosen a name yet?” Hap asked. “I meant to ask her when she stopped by, but I forgot about it until after she left.”
“After a lot of back and forth between Bree and Mike, I think they decided that Bree would name the girls, and Mike could name the boys since they couldn’t agree on names.”
“And what name did Bree chose?”
“Isabella, although the plan is to call her Ella.”
“Isabella. That’s real pretty.”
“It was Bree’s grandmother’s name, and she always liked it. Mike was less thrilled than Bree with Isabella, but he’s okay with Ella, so I think they reached a good compromise.” I picked up my mailbag that I’d placed at my feet while we were chatting and slung it over my shoulder. “While I’ve enjoyed talking to you, I really should go. I’ll be back by tomorrow.”
“Have you been by to visit Hattie?” Hap referred to his wife, who owned the bakeshop down the street.
“Not yet, but I’m heading in that direction.”
“She’s going to be tickled to see you. She often comments about how much she misses seeing your smiling face every day.”
“I miss her too. It will be good to catch up.”
After I left the hardware store, I headed toward the five and dime. After that, I’d stop by my best friend and sister-in-law, Bree Thomas’s, bookstore, and then I’d catch the furniture store and the new juice bar after that. I’d cross the street to Hattie’s place and then hit Sisters’ Diner, the restaurant my mom owned with my Aunt Ruthie. Mom would be as surprised as anyone to see me. She had a new man in her life who had been keeping her occupied lately, so we hadn’t chatted as often as we once had.
“Morning, Bree,” I greeted the expectant mother, who appeared to be as shocked as Hap had been when she saw me.
“Tess, what are you doing delivering the mail?”
I explained that the woman who took over my route had broken her leg and my agreement to fill in for the time being.
“That’s great,” she said, rubbing her belly. “Not that Hannah broke her leg. That’s terrible. But I know you’ve been missing everyone, so I’m glad you have the opportunity to come back for a few weeks.”
“I have been missing my business owners,” I agreed as I set a stack of mail on the counter. “Luckily, Brady didn’t really need me for the next few weeks since we’re between training classes, although I may have a conflict if there’s a rescue. It is spring, however, which is usually a slow time for rescues since the snow’s melted and we don’t have cross country skiers getting lost, and the campers who show up in the summer aren’t here yet.”
“Hopefully, everyone will be careful, so you don’t end up with a conflict.”
I noticed Bree flinch. “How are you feeling?”
“Okay.” She sighed. “Tired. I know I have another five weeks to go, but I really can’t wait for this little darling to get here.”
I had to admit that given her huge belly and small frame, Bree looked really uncomfortable. “I thought you were going to cut back on your work hours.”
“I am. My new assistant manager, Josie, will be in this afternoon, so I only plan to work half a day.” She pushed her hands into her back to relieve the tension.
“I know this is the tough part, but it will be over soon.” I tried to sound encouraging.
“Actually, this is a breeze compared to months and months of wondering whether Mike and I would ever be able to conceive. I know I complain sometimes, but the truth of the matter is that I’m loving every single minute of being pregnant. Of course, I won’t complain if Ella decides to come early.”
I hoped for Bree’s sake that her daughter would arrive early. She’d been so thrilled to finally conceive after trying for so long, but she’d had a tough time of it as well.
“Do you have any outgoing mail?” I asked, realizing that once again, I’d chatted for longer than I should have.
“Yeah. Hang on. It’s in the outgoing mail tray in the office.”
“I’ll get it,” I said. “You should sit down. It won’t be good for you or the baby if you overdo it.”
“Yes, Mom,” Bree teased but did as I suggested.
“Speaking of Mom, have you talked to her lately?” I asked after I returned from the office where I’d emptied the outgoing mail tray.
“She came by yesterday to show me the material swatches she’d selected for the comforter she’s making for the baby. We chatted for a while. Mostly about paint colors and preschools.”
Bree nodded. “Apparently, it’s never too soon to look into your child’s education. She came armed with a handful of pamphlets. Sometimes I think she’s more excited about this baby than I am.”
“She is pretty excited about being a grandmother,” I agreed. “It’s odd in a way. On the one hand, she’s really excited about having a grandbaby, but on the other hand, there are times when I feel like she’s the one who needs to grow up.”
“I feel like Mom has been acting like a teenager ever since Theo came into her life. I know it isn’t my place to judge, but it’s unsettling.”
“Theo does tend to bring out the spontaneity in your mom,” Bree agreed. “Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.”
“Isn’t it?” I asked. “Don’t get me wrong. I want Mom to be happy, and it does seem that, other than my father, she tends to be drawn to younger men, which I suppose is fine, but lately, I feel like I need to keep an eye on her to make sure she doesn’t do something stupid.”
“Like what?” Bree asked.
“Like use half her savings to buy a boat for a man she’s only known for a month, especially when she hates to be on the water.”
“Yeah. I guess the boat is a Theo thing.” She rested her hand on her belly and then continued. “But maybe he’ll be good for her. She does seem happier since they’ve been dating, and I understand that she’s planning to spend time on the water with Theo once the temperature warms up a bit.”
“She did mention that she planned to overcome her fear of the water, and she does seem happy,” I had to agree. “I guess we’ll see how this whole thing plays out.” I looked down at Tilly, who’d decided she needed to nudge me along by putting her nose in my hand. “We really need to go, but I’ll be doing this route for a couple weeks, if not longer, so I guess I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“I look forward to it. Let’s get together for dinner this weekend and really catch up.”
“Why don’t you and Mike come to our place, and Tony can cook. I don’t want you overdoing it.”
“Sounds good to me. Something rich and Italian on the patio overlooking your lake sounds like heaven, even if I can’t have any of Tony’s expensive wine.”
After I left the bookstore, I headed toward the furniture store, but before I could even make it to the front door, I received a text from my brother, Mike. The police station was only a few doors down and not all that far out of my way, so I decided to head there next and then double back to catch the businesses I’d missed once I talked to Mike. When I walked into the White Eagle Police Station, I found Mike holding a crying baby.
“You have a baby,” I said, stepping into the room.
Mike held the baby out to me. I reached my arms out, accepting the infant, who, based on his or her red face and teary cheeks, had been crying for quite a while.
“Where exactly did this screaming bundle of joy come from?” I asked as I put the baby on my shoulder and gave him or her a jiggle. I’d seen this move work on TV, but this particular baby was having none of it.
“Dad dropped her off,” Mike answered, looking more than just a little harassed.
My mouth fell open. “Dad was here?”
Mike nodded. “He came in, handed me the baby, told me that she was in danger and that I should protect her until he could come back for her, and then he left.” Mike put his hands over his ears. “What am I going to do?”
I knelt down on the floor so that Tilly was at the same level as the crying infant. As I had hoped, the baby seemed calmed by the presence of the dog, and she stopped screaming, at least temporarily. I let out a sigh of relief as the baby stared at Tilly, who seemed to be delighted with the attention.
“Tess, what am I going to do?” he asked again.
“I guess you’re going to take her home and protect her as Dad asked you to.” I smiled when Tilly licked the baby’s hand, which made her smile. “Are you sure he didn’t say anything more than what you told me?”
“I’m sure. Dad popped in, handed me the baby, and then snuck out the back. Once I got over my complete shock, I texted you.”
“So he was just here?” I was disappointed that I’d missed him.
“He just left.” Mike frowned. “How did you get here so fast? I just texted you.”
“I was just a couple doors down, talking to Bree.”
It was then when he noticed the mailbag for the first time. “You got your route back?”
“It’s just temporary.” I briefly explained about the broken leg my replacement had suffered.
“She seems to like you,” Mike said as I cooed at the sweet little thing in my lap.
I ran a finger down the baby’s cheek. “She sure is cute. Does she have a name?”
“Dad didn’t say.”
I helplessly watched as the baby’s lower lip formed a pout, and she began fussing again. “What are you going to do?”
“I realize that Dad asked me to take care of this baby, but I don’t know how to take care of a baby. Maybe you should take her.”
I shook my head. “Oh, no, you don’t. I don’t have any more experience with babies than you do.”
“Please, Tess. I can’t take care of her, and Bree is already on overload.”
“Yeah. I thought about Bree right off, but then I remembered how tired she looked.” The baby started crying again, so I stood up. “Maybe she needs to be changed. Or fed. Did Dad leave any sort of supplies?”
“Yeah.” Mike reached behind the counter and set a diaper bag on the counter. “Have you ever changed a diaper?”
“No. Have you?”
He shook his head.
“It can’t be all that hard,” I said, laying the baby down on the counter and opening the top of the diaper bag. Luckily, the diaper bag not only contained diapers and wipes but a bottle and baby formula as well. “I’ll change the diaper, and you make the bottle.” I held it up along with the can of formula. “The instructions are on the can.”
Mike reached out and turned toward the backroom where the microwave was kept.
“Where are Leonard, Frank, and Gage?” I asked when Mike returned, realizing for the first time that the office usually occupied by Mike’s two assistants and his dog was totally empty.
“Leonard is at the groomers, Frank had a doctor’s appointment and won’t be in until after lunch, and Gage has the week off.” Mike frowned at me as he looked at the bottle in his hands. “Does this look right?”
Actually, it didn’t, and I was about to say as much when Bree walked in.
“I was just thinking about…” she paused mid-sentence. “You have a baby.”
“Not me,” I quickly said. “Mike has a baby.”
Bree turned and looked at Mike.
“It’s not mine,” he said, defending himself. “Dad dropped her off.”
Bree crossed the room and picked up the baby, who was once again screaming at the top of her lungs. She gently rocked her, whispering into her ear, and miracle of miracles, the baby settled right down. “Maybe you should back up a bit, but first, let’s get this little darling changed and fed.”
Mike and I happily turned things over to Bree. Once the baby was changed and the bottle prepared correctly, Bree settled into the chair at Frank’s desk and began feeding the little girl.
“Okay,” she said once things were under control. “From the top, and don’t leave anything out.”
“There isn’t much to tell,” Mike said. “A short while ago, I was sitting at Frank’s desk, looking over incident reports when Dad walked in with the baby in his arms. Naturally, I was shocked to see him, so I hadn’t even managed to squeeze out a hello, when he handed me the baby, telling me that she was in danger and that I should hide and protect her. He then set the diaper bag on the counter, promising to return for her as soon as he was able to. Before I had a chance to ask any questions, he was gone.”
“Dad does seem to have the disappearing act down to an art,” I said.
“And that’s it?” Bree smiled at the baby as she suckled the bottle, seemingly quite content. “He just blew in, handed you this baby, and left?”
Mike nodded. “That’s exactly what happened. What are we going to do?”
Bree frowned. I could tell that she was thinking of offering to take the baby herself, but she had been having a difficult enough time as it was, and I knew that her doctor had warned her to take it easy.
“I’d take her, but I really need to get back to my route,” I said, realizing that I was going to have to skip lunch as it was in order to catch up. “Maybe I should call Tony. I bet he’s good with babies, and he’s home this week, so it shouldn’t be a problem for him to keep an eye on her. Plus, our place is isolated, so if the baby really does need to be hidden, she should be safe out there at the lake with Tony and the dogs.”
“That’s a good idea,” Mike said.
When Bree looked conflicted but didn’t object, I realized how concerned she really was about her health in general and the health of her baby.
“Josie is coming in to cover for Bree this afternoon, so maybe Tony can pick the baby up now, and then Bree can go out to the house and check on things once her assistant gets there,” I suggested, knowing that until Bree knew that the baby was settled, she would never walk away.
“Bree?” Mike asked. “Is that okay with you?”
She nodded. “Yes. Part of me wants to take care of this little darling myself, but I have been tired, and I don’t want to overdo it. Tess is right; Tony will be good with her.”
“I’ll head home as soon as I’m done with my route. Mike can come by as well, and the four of us can discuss the situation and come up with a plan.”
Bree hesitated and then nodded. “Okay. Call Tony. If he can come and get her now, we’ll do it your way.”
After a bit more discussion, Mike decided that he didn’t want Bree driving all the way out to our place on her own, so Bree called Josie to come in early, and then Mike drove Bree and the baby up the mountain to our home on the lake. Tony, of course, was more than happy to help in any way needed. I figured that once Mike got Bree and the baby to Tony, the two of them would be able to figure out what to do.
I’d been hoping to have more time to stop and chat with folks along my route since I was excited to see friends I hadn’t seen in months, but the way things were working out, I was really going to have to hustle in order to get finished by dark. I figured I’d just offer everyone a brief canned speech about being behind schedule, and then I’d promise to spend more time with my favorite merchants when I came back around tomorrow.
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