Family Jewels:Rose Gardner Investigations #1(10)

By: Denise Grover Swank

His question about bowled me over. “Uh … maybe.”

He gave me a look that told me my acting skills were subpar. “I hate to leave Fenton County right now, but my lead has suggested Ronnie’s about to skip out of New Orleans. I need to catch him before he disappears again.”

“What’s going on here that has you concerned?” I asked, but common sense told me it had something to do with James.

“There are some rumblings in the criminal underworld. Rumor has it that someone new is making a power play for Malcolm’s position.” He tilted his head as he studied me, his face becoming a blank slate. “But from the look on your face, you already knew that.”

“I’m not sure I should confess to anything.”

Anger filled his eyes. “Are you questioning people for him again?”

I shook my head. “No. He won’t let me near his life.”

Joe looked shocked, and I couldn’t decide if it was because I hadn’t gotten offended by his question, that James was trying to protect me, or that I was admitting my involvement. Maybe all three. “Stay away from Skeeter Malcolm, Rose. If you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time, you could end up as collateral damage.”

I watched him closely. Six months ago, he would have barked this as a direct order, expecting me to blindly follow. But now, it seemed like a request—one friend pleading with the other to use her common sense. “Thanks,” I said. “But you really don’t have anything to worry about. I haven’t seen him in weeks, and we never meet up near his business.”

He nodded and started to say something, but the door to the coffee shop burst open, and Neely Kate stomped out with her coffee cup, which was encased in a pink knit coffee-cup sleeve. “I can’t believe this place!”

It occurred to me she’d been in there an unnaturally long time. “What took so long?”

“They made my drink completely wrong the first time, so they had to make it again.” She shook her head and looked up at Joe. “And here I thought we were getting a little sophistication in our town. Just goes to show you that you can’t make a Coach purse out of a goat tail.”

Joe opened his mouth to say something, but he must have thought better of it because he closed it the very next moment. Smart man.

“Where’d you get the cute sleeve for your cup?” I asked.

She put a hand on her hip. “Funny thing. Bernadette said she’d give it to me if I promised to just take the too-hot coffee and leave.”

Joe shook his head, wearing an ear-to-ear grin. “I need to get back to work. I’ll see you ladies tonight.” Then he kissed Neely Kate on the cheek and headed across the street to the courthouse.

I couldn’t stop thinking about his lead on Ronnie. Had Ronnie really run off with another woman? Could Neely Kate handle it if he had?

Chapter 3

My stomach flip-flopped as I pulled my truck into the parking lot of the hardware store. “I’m not sure I should go in there.”

“What are you talking about?” Neely Kate said as she checked her lip gloss in the sun visor mirror. A light rain hit the windshield. “I thought we agreed to put that nonsense behind us.”

I pointed toward a particle board sign spray painted with something that looked like a rose with a poorly drawn face in the middle. A red circle surrounded the design, and the slash down the middle had been painted with particular gusto. “Then why is that there?”

“Oh, that was some of the kids they hired to take care of the greenhouse. They were just foolin’ around.”

“Is that supposed to be me?”

She returned her tube of lip gloss to her bejeweled purse. “Yeah, but it’s no big deal.”

“How can that be no big deal?”

“They made it back in March. It’s early June. They’ve totally forgotten about it.” She turned to look at me. “You’ve been wanting to paint the kitchen—how about we pick out a color while we’re here? They can’t get mad if you’re a paying customer.”

I had half a mind to stay in the truck, but truth be told, I didn’t trust her to talk to Raddy without me. I wanted to hear exactly what he wanted before we took the “case,” although it felt ridiculous to call looking for some jewelry a “case.” Then there was the fact that Raddy Dyer had apparently been involved in multiple domestic violence altercations. There was no way I wanted to work with him if he was a threat.

Neely Kate hopped out and popped open her umbrella. She came around to the driver’s side to share it with me, but I waved off her offer as I got out. A little rain couldn’t do much more damage at this point. Casting a glance around us, I asked, “Are you sure they’re open? There’s hardly anyone here.”