Sarah Tucker’s hands shook with anger as she fumbled the keys into her gift boutique’s lock. Bad enough the bus driver stopped beside a puddle the size of Crater Lake, which she cleared despite the restrictions of her skirt and pumps, thank you very much. But when that headbanger in the heavy metal-blasting SUV had sped through the muddy water, any satisfaction at her nimble footwork disappeared in a dousing of muddy water.
The cheerful jingle of the door chimes did nothing for her mood. Sarah rushed to her small office behind the glass sales counter and shrugged out of her coat to assess the damage. She dampened some paper towels and daubed at her mud-spattered shoes and stockings. She couldn’t go home and change and the last thing she wanted was to appear at the bank this afternoon looking like she needed a loan. If you needed money, you couldn’t get it, but if you had it, they’d give you whatever you asked for.
Enough negative thoughts. Sarah hung up her keys and tossed her instant soup packet into the basket by her coffeepot. Another gourmet lunch. At a knock on the door, she checked her watch. It wasn’t quite ten, but she’d open for a possible sale. Patting her windblown hair into place, she hurried to the front door.
Christopher Westmoreland stood there, looking impeccable as always. No headbanger would dare splash water on his perfectly creased black trousers. His strawberry blond hair wouldn’t dare blow in the wind.
“Chris. What brings you to town?” She stepped back into the store and toward the register. “I’m getting ready to open, but if you need anything, I’ll be glad to get it for you.” As if he’d actually buy something.
“Not today. I’ve got some appointments over in Salem. Thought I’d say hello before I head out.” He strolled to the counter and leaned over its glass top, close enough for Sarah to smell his sandalwood aftershave and the cinnamon gum he chewed. “You haven’t returned any of my calls. I know things have been tough since David…died. I only want to help. Why won’t you let me? For old times’ sake, if nothing else.”
Memories of David flooded back. It had been over a year, but the pain lay just beneath the surface, waiting to engulf her. She shoved her emotions back into that metal strongbox in her brain, slammed the lid and turned the key. She was no longer Sarah, David’s wife. Or Sarah the daughter, or Sarah the high school sweetheart. She was Just Plain Sarah.
Sarah met his pale green eyes, the ones she’d found so irresistible in high school. “We’ve been through all this before. I need to do it on my own. I can manage without your money.” Even though he’d promised ”no strings”, Sarah knew if she took a dime from him, she’d be attached with monofilament line. The kind that cut when you tried to break it.
“Are you sure? You look like you haven’t slept in a month. And your hair. Why did you cut it all off?”
“Well, thanks for making my morning.” Sarah fluffed her cropped do-it-yourself haircut. “It’s easier this way.”
“How about dinner tonight? Come on, Sarah. We’re friends, right?” His eyebrows lifted in expectation.
Dinner with Chris or five-for-a-dollar ramen noodles at home? Accepting dinner wouldn’t be selling out, would it? “Maybe. Call me later, okay?”
“Great. See you later, then.” He turned to leave.
“I said, ‘maybe’, remember?” Sarah walked him to the door and flipped the sign from “Closed” to “Open”. She rearranged the crystal in the front window to catch the light and dusted the brightly colored pottery, shifting a pot, turning a vase so its pattern was visible from the street. Once she was satisfied with the effect, she meandered through the shop, adjusting animal carvings and moving a display of stationery to a roll-top desk.
An hour later, Sarah refused to let the lack of customers bother her. Easter was approaching, then Mother’s Day and people would flock to That Special Something in droves to find that perfect gift. Maybe not droves. She’d settle for a trickle right now.
The door chimed. Sarah assessed the well-dressed woman who had entered the shop. Probably in her sixties, with a large designer purse draped over one shoulder. A hat with ribbon trim and black leather gloves made her a bit old-fashioned and out of place for the tiny Oregon town. Sarah gave the woman her biggest smile and stepped out from behind the counter. “Good morning, ma’am. Welcome to That Special Something. Are you looking for anything in particular?”
“My niece is getting married. I thought I might find something out of the ordinary here.” Her voice was clipped, with a touch of sophisticated arrogance that said she was used to getting her way.
“Unique gifts are my specialty.” Sarah motioned to a display of crystal. “Perhaps she’d like these hand-painted wine goblets? Or some of these Egyptian perfume bottles?”
“Thank you. I’ll browse for a while, if you don’t mind.”
“Take your time. I’m Sarah. Feel free to ask any questions.” Fighting the urge to follow her customer around, Sarah retreated and let the woman roam the shop.
The way Chris had referred to David’s death churned through her thoughts. That horrible pause. The same one everyone else used. But Sarah knew it had been an accident. David would never commit suicide. This afternoon, she’d get a loan from the bank and rehire the private investigator or find a better one. The investigator would get the police to reopen the case and they’d find out it wasn’t suicide. Then she’d get the insurance money, which would pay off the loan and the shop would be safe from foreclosure. It all made perfect sense. And maybe it would take away some of the guilt.
Sarah dragged her thoughts to the present, straightened her shoulders and found her professional smile again. Her customer was studying some silver picture frames. Expensive ones. She thought about how hard it had been to get Anjolie to display her work in the shop, that her work was too good for a mere boutique. She telegraphed mental messages to her customer—Please, show Anjolie she was wrong. Buy one. Buy six.
The woman set the frame down and turned away.
Sarah wouldn’t let her disappointment show. “Can I show you something else?”
The woman strolled back and fingered the frames again. “You know, I like this one.” She picked up the most expensive one, the one with the lacy pattern of roses and leaves. “And I think I’ll take the matching vase over there.”
Not good to let a customer see you jumping up and down clapping your hands. Instead, Sarah called up her most professional tone. “Excellent choices, ma’am. Would you like them gift-wrapped?”
“No, thank you. But if you have boxes for them, I would appreciate it.”
Sarah ducked beneath the counter for the boxes, calculating what the sale would mean to her bottom line. When she rose, she stared into a gun barrel.
Sarah’s mouth went dry. Her knees wobbled and she grabbed the edge of the glass, transfixed by the gleaming metal.
“I’m sorry, my dear.” The woman’s voice seemed to come from nowhere. “I’m a bit short at the moment, but I do want these lovely things.” She slid the picture frame into her purse.
“What?” The word came out as a hoarse croak.
“I believe you heard me.” Keeping the gun trained on Sarah, the woman stepped around the counter. “Unlock the register…Sarah, is it? I could use a little spending money.”
Time froze. Sarah glanced toward the street, but saw no one who could have heard her scream, if she’d even been able to get a sound past the tightness in her throat. There was a pair of shears in a drawer, but the woman was standing in front of it. Not that she’d have the nerve to stab someone holding a gun. The woman leaned over Sarah, her breath smelling of peppermint. Sarah felt the press of cold steel against her back.
“Now,” the woman said. “Slowly.”
“I will. Please. Don’t hurt me.” Barely able to get the key into the lock with her trembling fingers, Sarah did as the woman asked. At least there wasn’t much in the drawer. Sarah watched the woman empty the register of all but a single twenty-dollar bill.
“You see, I’m not leaving you penniless.” Without lowering the gun, the woman backed toward the door. “I don’t want to appear greedy, but I think I’ll take a few of these animal carvings, too. Give my compliments to the artist.” Still training the gun on Sarah, she set the vase down on the display table and filled it with the small wooden creatures. “Have a nice day.” She picked up the vase and backed out the door.