Chapter Excerpt

In a battle between Betty Boop and multicolored hearts, Nina Wentworth decided it was going to be a Betty Boop kind of day. She pulled the short-sleeved scrub shirt over her head and was already moving toward the bathroom before the fabric settled over her hips.

"Don't be snug, don't be snug," she chanted as she came to a stop in front of the mirror and reached for her brush.

The shirt settled as it should, with a couple of inches to spare. Nina breathed a sigh of relief. Last night's incident with three brownies and a rather large glass of red wine hadn't made a lasting impression on her hips. She was grateful, and she would repent later on an elliptical. Or at least vow to eat her brownies one at a time.

Ten seconds of brushing, one minute of braiding and her blond hair was neat and tidy. She dashed out into the hall, toward the kitchen where she grabbed her car keys and nearly made it to the back door. Just as she was reaching for the knob, the house phone rang.

Nina glanced from the clock to the phone. Everyone in her world--friends, family, work--had her cell. Very few calls came on the antiquated landline, and none of them were good news. Nina retraced her steps and braced herself for disaster. "Hello?"

"Hey, Nina. It's Jerry down at Too Good To Be True. I just opened, and there's a lady here trying to sell a box of crap, ah, stuff. I think it's from the store."

Nina closed her eyes as she held in a groan. "Let me guess. Early twenties, red hair with purple streaks and a tattoo of a weird bird on her neck?"

"That's her. She's glaring at me something fierce. You think she's armed?"

"I hope not."

"Me, too." Jerry didn't sound especially concerned. "What's her name?"

"Tanya."

If Nina had more time, she would have collapsed right there on the floor. But she had a real job to get to. A job unrelated to the disaster that was the family's antique store.

"You let your mom hire her, huh?" Jerry asked.

"Yes."

"You know better."

"That I do. I'll call the police and ask them to pick up Tanya. Can you keep her there until they get there?"

"Sure thing, kid."

"Great. And I'll be by after work to pick up the stuff."

"I'll hold it for you," Jerry promised.

"Thanks."

Nina hung up and hurried to her car. After her cell connected to the Bluetooth, she called the local sheriff's department and explained what happened.

"Again?" Deputy Sam Payton asked, his voice thick with amusement. "Did you let your mom hire this employee?"

Nina carefully backed out of the driveway. Jerry's humor she could handle. He'd lived here all his life--he was allowed to tease her. But Sam was relatively new. He hadn't earned mocking rights.

"Hey, tax-paying citizen here, reporting a crime," she said.

"Yeah, yeah. I'm writing it down. What'd she take?"

"I didn't ask. She's at the pawn shop. Too Good To Be True."

"I know it," Deputy Sam told her. "I'll head out and see what's what."

"Thanks."

She hung up before he could offer advice on hiring policies and turned up the hill. The morning was clear--odd for early spring in the Pacific Northwest. Normally the good weather didn't kick in until closer to summer. To the west, blue water sparkled. To the east was western Washington.

As she climbed higher and higher, the view got better, but when she parked across from the three Queen Anne houses at the very top of the hill, pausing to enjoy the spectacular combination of sky and ocean was the last thing on her mind.

She hurried up the steps to the front porch that was both her boss's home and her office. Dr. Andi, as she was known, was a popular pediatrician on the island. Make that the only pediatrician. She'd moved here a year ago, opened her practice in September and had been thriving ever since. She was also a newlywed and, as of two months ago, pregnant.

Nina unlocked the front door and stepped inside. She flipped on lights as she went, confirmed the temperature on the thermostat and then started the three computers in the front office.

After storing her purse in her locker, she logged in to the scheduling program and saw that the first appointment of the day had canceled. Andi would appreciate the extra time to get herself moving. She was still battling morning sickness.

Nina did a quick check of her email, forwarded several items to the bookkeeper/office manager, then walked to the break room for coffee. Fewer than five minutes after she'd arrived, she was climbing the stairs to her boss's private quarters.

Nina knocked once before entering. She found Andi, a tall, pretty brunette with curly hair, sitting at the table in the kitchen. Her arms cradled her head.

"Still bad?" Nina asked, walking to the cupboard.

"Hi and yes. It's not that I throw up, it's that I feel like I'm going to every single second." She raised her head and drew in a breath. "Are you drinking coffee?"

"Yes."

"I miss coffee. I'm a wreck. I need to talk to my parents about my ancestors. Obviously I don't come from hardy stock."

Nina took down a mug, filled it with water and put it in the microwave. Then she collected a tea bag from the pantry.

"Not ginger tea," Andi said with a moan. "Please. I hate it."

"But it helps."

"I'd rather feel sick."

Nina raised her eyebrows.

Andi slumped in her seat. "I'm such a failure. Look at me. I'm carrying around a child the size of a lima bean and I'm throwing a hissy fit. It's embarrassing."

"And yet the need to act mature doesn't seem to be kicking in."

Andi smiled. "Funny how that works."

The microwave dinged. Nina dropped the tea bag into the steaming water and crossed to the table.

The eat-in kitchen was open, with painted cabinets and lots of granite. The big window by the table took advantage of the east-facing views in the old house. The mainland shimmered only a few miles away.

Andi had bought the house--one of three up on the hill--when she'd moved to Blackberry Island. Undeterred by the broken windows and outdated plumbing, she'd had the house restored from the framework out. During the process, she'd fallen in love with her contractor. Which had led to her current tummy problems.

"Your first appointment canceled," Nina told her.

"Thank God." Andi sniffed the tea, then wrinkled her nose and took a sip. "It's the ginger. If I could have tea without ginger I think I could get it down."

"The thing is, the ginger is the part that settles your stomach."

"Life is perverse like that." Andi took another sip, then smiled. "I like the shirt."

Nina glanced down at the pattern. "Betty and I go way back."

One of the advantages of working for a pediatrician was that cheerful attire was encouraged. She had a collection of brightly colored fun shirts in her closet. It wasn't high fashion, but it helped the kids smile and that was what mattered.

"I need to get back downstairs," she said. "Your first appointment is now at eight-thirty."

"Okay."

Nina rose and started toward the stairs.

"Are you busy after work?" Andi asked.

Nina thought about the fact that she was going to have to go by the pawn shop and pick up what Tanya had tried to sell, then spend several hours at Blackberry Preserves, her family's antique store, figuring out what had been stolen, then tell her mother what had happened and possibly lecture her on the importance of actually following up on a potential employee's references. Only she'd been lecturing her mother for as long as she could remember, and the lessons never seemed to stick. No matter how many times Bonnie promised to do better, she never did. Which left Nina picking up the pieces.

"I kind of am. Why?"

"I haven't been to Pilates in a week," Andi said. "It's important I keep exercising. Would you go with me? It's more fun when you're along."

"I can't tonight, but Monday's good."

Andi smiled. "Thanks, Nina. You're the best."

"Give me a plaque and I'll believe it."

"I'll order one today."

Nina counted out the number of happy fruit and vegetable stickers she had. Just enough, but she would have to order more.

Since opening her practice, Andi had started a program of inviting local elementary school classes into her office as a field trip. Kids learned about a basic exam, were able to use the stethoscope and check their weight and height in a nonthreatening atmosphere. Andi's goal was to make a visit to the doctor less stressful.

Nina handled the scheduling and conducted the tour. Each student left with a small goodie bag filled with the stickers, a small coloring book on different ways to exercise and a box of crayons.

Normally the gift bags were filled by their receptionist before the event, but she had forgotten the stickers last time, so Nina had taken over the task.

She was in the middle of lining up the open goodie bags for quick filling when her cell phone buzzed. She pulled it from her pocket and checked the name, then pushed speaker and set it on the break-room table.

"Hi, Mom."

"Sweetheart! How are you? We're fine, but you were right, as you usually are."

Nina grabbed crayons from the big bag of them on the chair. "Right about what?"

"The tires. That we should have replaced them before we left. We had snow last night."

Nina glanced out the window at the sunny skies. She could see a few clouds pilling up against the horizon. Rain later that afternoon, she thought.

"Where are you?"

"Montana. It was coming down like you wouldn't believe. We had about four inches, and the tires just couldn't handle it. We skidded off the road. We're fine now. Bertie found a Les Schwab store and the man there was just as nice as the one back home."

Nina sank onto the only free chair in the break room. "You were in a car accident?"

"No. We skidded. Not to worry. We're fine. The new tires are very nice. We went to several estate sales and more antique stores than I can count. We're filling the van with so many beautiful things. You're going to love what we've found."

She kept talking. Nina closed her eyes and rubbed her temples, telling herself that her commitment to eat her brownies one at a time had not made any reference to wine, and when she got home that night, she was taking a bath and having a glass. Then she'd have her breakdown.

Bonnie Wentworth had given birth to her oldest at sixteen. She hadn't settled down when she'd become a mother, and she sure wasn't settled now. Bonnie and her partner, Bertie, traveled the country on "buying trips" for their antique store. Antique being defined very loosely in this case. Junk was probably more accurate, but even Nina avoided the "j" word as much as possible.

She drew in a breath as her mother talked about a handmade doll Bertie had found.

"Mom, Tanya was caught trying to sell inventory to Jerry this morning."

Bonnie paused. "No," she said, sounding stunned. "I don't believe it."

Nina resisted the need to point out that Bonnie never believing it was the main problem.

"This is why I want to do the interviewing. Or, if not me, then at least let Bertie do it."

"Are you sure she wasn't selling something of her own?" Bonnie asked. "She seemed like such a nice girl. I hate to think of her doing something like that."

"Me, too. You know this means the store's closed." Again.

There was silence. "Do you want us to come back? We could be there in a couple of days."

"No. I'll find someone."

Nina knew that if she asked, her mother would come home and run the store while they found someone. But then Nina would feel guilty, like she did now. And for the life of her, she couldn't figure out why.

"Sweetheart, you take on too much."

Nina opened her mouth and closed it. Right. Mostly because no one else was here to do it. "Mom, it's fine. But we need someone in the store who's responsible and can work without stealing."

"You're right. There must be someone, and I'm sure you'll find her."

"I will. Did you call on the roof? Is the guy coming out to fix it?"

"I did call." Her mother sounded triumphant. "It's taken care of."

"Great. Thanks."

"You're welcome. I love you, sweetheart."

"I love you, too, Mom."

"I'll call in a few days. By then we should know when we'll be home. Bye."

Nina heard the click and knew her mother had hung up. Before she returned to the goodie bags, she called the local paper.

"Hi, Ellen, it's Nina Wentworth."

The old woman cackled. "Let me guess. You need someone to work at Blackberry Preserves. I have the information from the last ad, which is the same as the one before and the one before that. Want me to run it?"

Nina glanced out the window again. The storm clouds were closer. She could see a bit of the Sound and wondered if she got on a boat right now, where she would end up.

"That would be great," she said instead. "Thanks, Ellen."

"You know, Nina, you've got to stop letting your mama hire people for that store."

Nina tightened her grip on the phone. "Yes, I know."

Nina stared at the items in the box. The candlesticks were silver and actually worth something. There were also several pieces of jewelry, a few with gems. The painting was a cheap reproduction and worth less than the frame, but still...

Jerry nodded as she inventoried the haul. "I was thinking the same thing," he told her. "How could a girl smart enough to know what to steal be dumb enough to come to me? Why didn't she just drive over the bridge and head toward Seattle? Another forty minutes in the car and she could have had the cash and been on her way."

"That's exactly what I was thinking," she admitted. "But I'm glad she was impatient. Was Sam Payton by?"

"Yup. He took pictures. He said he needs to know what the candlesticks are worth." Jerry, a chubby, balding man in his sixties, nodded knowingly. "If it's over five grand, then Miss Tanya has committed a Class B felony. If she gets the maximum, it's a ten year prison sentence with a twenty thousand dollar fine."

"You're very knowledgeable about felonies and the law."

"In my business, it pays to know that sort of thing."

Nina picked up the box of items from the store. "I'm going to have to call Sam, aren't I? He's going to tell me I can't sell these until the case against Tanya is settled, right?"

"I wouldn't be surprised," Jerry told her.

Great. So the only items of value in the store were now going to be held hostage. She started for the door. "Thanks, Jerry."

"You're welcome. Hire better people."

"I'll do my best."

He buzzed the door so she could get out.

Nina crossed the small parking lot and opened her trunk. As she walked around to the driver's side, she felt the first drops of rain.

Although the house was only a few blocks away, she was going to have to go by the store and put up a sign explaining it would be closed for the next few days. She should also see what else might have been stolen. This may not have been Tanya's first attempt. Tomorrow she would talk to Sam and find out what charges were being brought against the former employee.

Nina started her car and headed for the bay. Blackberry Preserves might not be classy, but it had a killer location, right across from the small beach. In the summer, there was lots of tourist traffic, which was what helped the business survive the slower winter months. But this time of year--

Two things happened at once. The rain went from light to pounding, and her car engine died. Completely.

Not sure what to do, Nina steered to the side of the road and pulled onto the shoulder before she lost all momentum. After putting the car in gear, she started it again, or tried to. The engine turned over, but wouldn't catch. She checked the fuel, and her tank was just over halffull. What on earth?

Excerpted from Evening Stars by Susan Mallery
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