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This Bitter Treasure

Audrey discovers pain and torment mixed among the art and antiques in a dying woman’s home. As she uncovers the Eskew family’s secrets, she is compelled to defend the defenseless, no matter the risk to herself.

Read Chapter 1

Tuesday, September 6.

It’s my favorite day of the year.

No, it’s not my birthday. Or my anniversary. Sean and I don’t have one…yet.

It’s the day after Labor Day this year. The recognized end of summer.

The first day of school.

I haven’t set foot in a classroom for over ten years, but this day still feels like the beginning of a new year. A time to start fresh, learn something new, leave last year’s mistakes behind. And heaven knows there has been a raft of them.

I look down and admire my feet in my cute ankle boots. What’s a new school year without a new pair of shoes? They’re much trendier than my usual footwear. But September is a time to reinvent myself.

Maybe I’ll sign up for a yoga class. Or learn to knit with Natalie, my dad’s new wife. Nothing as demanding as what Ty is doing right now. Or Jill.

Of course, there’s the whole matter of learning how to be a member of the Coughlin family: a wife, a daughter-in-law, a sister-in-law. That’s reinvention on a much bigger scale for an only-child bachelor-girl like me.

I glance at my cell phone: disturbingly blank.

“Why do you keep checking the time?” Adrienne asks. “Your appointment is at two; you won’t need more than fifteen minutes to get there.”

“Appointment? Oh, I’d forgotten about that.” I’m still not used to seeing Adrienne sitting at Jill’s desk. I try not to get wistful thinking about my former assistant enrolled in graduate school at NYU. I miss her terribly, but I’m excited for her and I know she’ll do great. It’s Ty I’m worried about. “I’m thinking about Ty. His first class is almost over. I’m dying to know how it went. Do you think I should call him?”

Adrienne shakes her head. ”Wow, Audrey—I didn’t peg you as the kind of mom who hops in her SUV and follows the school bus on the first day. Did you pack a heart-shaped note in Ty’s Elmo backpack?”

The vision of Ty in an Elmo backpack, even at age five, cracks me up. “I see him as Power Rangers all the way.” But even though Adrienne is right that I’m being ridiculously over-protective, I know that Ty has been very nervous about his debut as a college student. He’s been out of the classroom for more than five years. Twice in recent weeks he’s tried to defer his enrollment at Palmer Community College to the spring semester, claiming that Another Man’s Treasure Estate Sales is too busy to spare him. But no one he knows—not me or Adrienne, or his cousin Marcus or his grandmother—would let him off the hook. So today’s the day—Intro to Statistics, 20th Century Art, and Writing Skills.

“I think he said he had the art class first. That’ll just be looking at slides. How hard could it be?” Adrienne squints at her computer screen, putting the finishing touches on a flyer she’s designing for our next estate sale.

“It’s not just the classes, it’s the whole scene. You know, the other students.”

Adrienne chokes on her green tea. “Audrey, the man is six-one, a hundred and ninety pounds. He survived a year in Rahway State Prison. You honestly think someone’s going to bully him at Palmer Community College?”

I turn away. Adrienne means well, but she doesn’t know Ty the way I do. Of course, no one he meets on campus would dare mess with him physically. But Ty is much more sensitive than his impressive physique would lead you to think. He’s keenly tuned to other people’s reactions. He senses disdain, has a divining rod for condescension. He’s worried that he’s not up to this challenge, and even more worried that the students and professors will immediately perceive his weakness.

And Ty does not like feeling weak.

I can relate.

But Adrienne’s right. I can’t call him after every class like some hysterical helicopter mom. Luckily, he was away for Labor Day weekend, so he’ll have to stop by the office on his way home to pick up last week’s paycheck. I’ll debrief him then. I return to my Accounts Payable to keep myself busy until my afternoon appointment to provide an estimate at a house in Melton, one of Palmer County’s priciest towns.

Soon Adrienne rises to retrieve something from the printer and I catch a whiff of her expensive perfume. Adrienne has raised the style quotient of our office by about a thousand percent. The Tory Burch flats she wears cost more than what I pay her for a week of part-time work. But I don’t have to feel guilty for her paltry pay. Adrienne’s Wall Street husband, my future brother-in-law, is her family’s support. Adrienne begged for the job when Jill announced she was leaving, and the rest of the Coughlin clan chimed in loudly that working as my assistant was the perfect solution for both of us. Adrienne would have a job to put her talents to good use. Her husband and his parents would be satisfied that the job is flexible enough so the kids wouldn’t suffer. I would get an over-qualified marketing expert who had once worked in the corporate world.

And Sean would look good for bringing a wonderful woman like me into the family.

So hiring Adrienne became my first test of Coughlin solidarity. In the face of that much pressure, could I behave rationally by interviewing a range of candidates and choosing the most qualified? I soon realized that when the Coughlins set their minds on something, resistance is futile.

“How’s this for Saturday’s sale?” Adrienne slides a colorful flyer in front of me. She’s obviously spent a lot of time on it. Too much time. The net result is quite pretty, but too cluttered to be legible from a distance. And printing up fifty of these will use up half the expensive ink in our printer. I feel a bead of anxiety-induced sweat trickle between my breasts. Telling Adrienne’s she’s done a project incorrectly is not a management task I relish.

“Uh, it’s lovely, but…”

Adrienne’s eye’s narrow. “But what?”

“Well, you’ve used a lot of colors, and some of these design elements make the text hard to read from a distance.”

Adrienne’s mouth tightens. “I think it’s foolish to scrimp on printing costs,” she sniffs. “You’ve got to spend money to make money.”

Spoken like a woman who’s used to spending money that other people earn. “True, but remember the flyers are just a small part of every sale’s marketing plan. Spending more on them isn’t the best use of our promotional budget.”

Adrienne snatches back the flyer. “Well, if what I’m doing isn’t important, why did you ask me to do it at all?”

I take a deep breath. Adrienne’s only been on the job for two weeks, and we’ve already had a few of these contests of will. I cannot let her intimidate me. She may have better clothes sense and better decorating sense than I do, she may have once worked for Estee Lauder, but I know how to run my business.

I hand her the flyer. “Fewer colors. Bigger type.”

Before she can respond, I grab my messenger bag and head out for my appointment.

Out on the sidewalk, I feel like kicking myself. If I head to Melton now, I’ll be forty-five minutes early for my appointment. I’m such a ridiculous coward! I stand up to Adrienne, then run away because I can’t bear to sit in the office with her while she sulks. I’m not cut out for dealing with high-maintenance women.

I guess I may as well stop by Caffeine Planet for a latte to kill some time. As I walk the few blocks to my favorite coffee emporium, I mull my management problem. The thing about Adrienne is she doesn’t need to work. People who are desperate for a job to pay their bills listen to their bosses. People who want a job as a distraction from shopping and redecorating don’t. But I have no one but myself to blame. In the heady first weeks of my relationship with Sean, I wasn’t rationally analyzing pros and cons. Life was nothing but sunshine and roses. What could go wrong with hiring the wife of Sean’s brother? Why not ingratiate myself with my new family by providing the perfect part-time job that everyone agrees Adrienne needs?

I’m still madly in love with Sean. His sister-in-law…not so much.

I turn the corner to North Main and the cheerful blue and green Planet sign beckons me. When I open the door, I’m bowled over by the wonderful aroma of rich, strong coffee. Who couldn’t love this? You really have to wonder about people who say they don’t drink coffee. I place my order for a medium latte, which at the Planet is just that—none of this bogus venti, grande nonsense—and make a little chit-chat with the baristas. I know them all by sight, if not by name. Instead of moving over to the coffee delivery area, I decide to pop back to the restroom while my drink is brewing.

A woman with a dancing toddler is ahead of me.

“Momeee, I have to go-o-o-o ba-a-a-d.”

“Just hold it for a second, honey. We have to wait our turn.”

The little girl, already low to the ground, crouches and peers under the two stall doors. She points to the stall on the right. “A lady is sitting on the ground in there. She shouldn’t do that because the floor is yucky, right Mommee? Right?”

The mother and I exchange a glance, but at that moment the door of the stall on the left opens, and the mom herds her daughter in. I crouch down and look under the other door.

I see a pair of crumpled, blue-jean clad legs. One bare foot is visible.

Between two toes protrudes a hypodermic needle.

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