Family Jewels:Rose Gardner Investigations #1(9)

By: Denise Grover Swank


“Sounds good,” Joe said. “I’ll tell Maeve she can take a night off from bringing me food.” The owner handed over Joe’s coffee next, and Joe shot a look at Neely Kate before ushering me toward the door.

“Hey!” Neely Kate protested. “I ordered my coffee first!”

“This ain’t Little Rock,” Vance said with an exaggerated drawl. “We’re not used to those newfangled drinks.”

“You have ’em right on your board!” Neely Kate protested as she pointed to the sign. She didn’t seem to notice when Joe and I slipped out the front door.

“What’s up?” I asked when we were on the sidewalk outside. An awning protected us from the slight rain.

“I may have a lead on Ronnie.”

I gasped. “But you just said—”

“I know. I didn’t want to say anything in front of Neely Kate.”

My nose scrunched as I studied him. “So why are you telling me?”

“I need to know why she’s really trying to find him.”

“Does it make a difference?”

“It might,” he said carefully.

“Oh.” He looked so worried that my heart went out to him. “Joe, she knows he was up to something underhanded. You don’t have to worry about upsetting her.”

“And I also know she thinks he’s dead. But what if she finds out he’s not?”

I blinked in surprise. “Where do you think he is?”

“New Orleans.”

“You’re kidding. What on earth would he be doing there?”

“Shacking up with a woman.”

I felt lightheaded. “Oh.”

“It’s nothing solid, but my gut says there’s something to it. Enough that I’m going to go down there to check it out myself.”

“Can you do that?”

“Not officially, but I can take a couple of days off and go ask some questions.”

My stomach twisted and my voice cracked. “Joe … you just got back to work.”

“Yeah, I know,” he said. “But it’s Neely Kate. I owe her.”

“No, Joe. You don’t owe her anything.”

A surprising fierceness filled his eyes. “I owe her this and so much more.” He paused and took a deep breath. “You didn’t see her, Rose. You didn’t see how broken Neely Kate looked after my shitty sister got done telling her that her mother hadn’t wanted her … that she wished she’d never been born. I swore to God I’d never let her feel unwanted like that again.”

I gasped. “You two went to see Kate at the psych ward?” His sister had been hospitalized back in February, after she’d orchestrated the showdown that had ended in the death of her father, J.R. Simmons, among other casualties. Life had embittered and twisted her, and I didn’t like the idea of her being anywhere near Neely Kate.

His mouth sagged. “Neely Kate didn’t tell you?”

“No.”

He turned to face the courthouse and scrubbed his hand over his face before turning back to me. “I thought she told you everything.”

I paused. “We each have our secrets, I guess.” More so than I liked. Especially since I’d sworn to myself I was done with secrets. Mostly.

He gave a hurried glance toward the coffee shop door, then said, “She asked me to take her to see Kate in Little Rock. She wanted to know how Kate had figured out that our father was her father too. Kate told us, but being Kate, she made sure to hurt Neely Kate in the process. Neely Kate held it together until we got back in the car, and then she just lost it.” He swallowed. “She’s been through hell, Rose. Her own mother … the abuse …”

I hid my shock. Neely Kate had told me her mother had literally dumped her as a preteen on her grandmother’s doorstep, but she’d told me nothing about her life with her mother. I was surprised and a little hurt that Joe seemed to know more than I did.

“I can’t let people continue to hurt her,” Joe said. “So if she wants that asshole out of her life, I’m going to help her make it happen. I plan to serve Ronnie the divorce papers myself. And maybe deliver my own personal message along with them.”

Tears swelled in my eyes, and I wrapped my arms around his stiff shoulders. I pulled him into a hug, holding my coffee cup out so I didn’t drench his back. “I knew you’d be good for her. Thank you.”

He leaned back and smiled. “No. Thank you for convincing me to pull my head out of my ass and talk to her.”

“I know you’re trying to make up for hurting her, Joe, but honestly, she just wants you.”

He nodded, then glanced around before turning back to me. “Are you still in communication with Malcolm?”