The Paper Caper

Chapter 1 & 2 continued

Read the beginning of the excerpt here

Either way, it would be memorable. And I would play a role in it.

A month ago, Ian McCullough had called and asked me to come by his office. Ian was president and head curator for the Covington Library and one of my oldest and dearest friends. He wanted to talk about the two workshops he hoped I would conduct as part of the Festival activities. Naturally, one of the workshops was all about bookbinding. The other was connected to my fledgling interest in paper arts. I was to give a workshop in the Children’s Museum on newspaper art. I agreed to that one immediately. It sounded like pure fun, especially since kids were involved.

“The bookbinding workshop is a little more involved,” he said, then told me that I was to refurbish, rebind, and re-gild a vintage edition of The Prince and the Pauper, one of Mark Twain’s many great novels.

Then he had handed me the book. It was a mess, to say the least. “I can barely read the title. The gilding is gone. These pages aren’t bad, but the whole thing is catawampus.” I held it up and we watched the entire book tilt dangerously. “And you’re only giving me four days to finish it?”

“Come on, you can do it in your sleep,” Ian had enthused. “First of all, the bones of the book are fabulous, and the rest of it will be, too, when you’re finished with it. And here’s the best part. We’re going to set you up in the main hall with a live audience. You’ll be holding court while you turn a pauper of a book into a prince.”

I had to admit it was kind of a clever play on words.

“You’re going to be on public display,” Ian had continued. “You won’t mind, will you? It’s going to be a very popular event. We’re setting up a few rows of bleacher seats for people to watch you work.”

“Good thing I’m not shy,” I had muttered. But seriously? Bleacher seats? In the main hall? This would be a first.

“You’re talking to yourself,” Derek murmured as we wound our way through the opening night crowd to find one of the three cocktail bars before the lines grew too long. “It’s a sure sign you’re nervous. What is bothering you?”

I frowned, a little annoyed to realize that I had an obvious “tell,” while I couldn’t read him at all. “You need to stop being so perceptive.”

“I beg your pardon, love.” He laughed, but quickly sobered. “Come now, darling. Are you nervous about this evening or about your bookbinding work this week?”

“Nervous? Me?” I thought about it. “Yes, I am. But it’s not about either of those things. And I’m too embarrassed to talk about it.”

He stopped me, holding my arms so he could study my expression. “Surely you can tell me.”

He was right again. I could tell him anything, even if it was humiliating. “Okay, fine. There’s a couple of things. First, I was thinking about the bookbinding job I’ve been assigned to for the Festival. It’s not exactly glamorous.”

“Glamorous?” Puzzled, he frowned at me. “But it’s what you do, darling. Your work is fascinating. And despite your choice of footwear, you do it better than anyone else in the world.”

I smiled and squeezed his arm. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome, but it’s simply the truth.” He gave me a quick glance. “So what are you really bothered about?”

My shoulders sagged. It was useless to try and hide my feelings from him. “Okay, here’s the deal. You know I really like Joseph and I’m totally psyched that I’m going to be working the Festival with him. Even if I’m not doing anything very glamorous.”

Derek ordered our wine and after leaving a nice tip, he handed me my wineglass. “Now, spill. Not the wine. Tell me what’s bothering you.”

I smiled again at that. “It’s just that, well, lately, wherever Joseph is, there’s Ella.” Which only made sense since Ella was Joseph Cabot’s wife. I winced. “I know that was a dumb thing to say.”

The couple had only been married for six months so yes, they were always together. I was being ridiculous, but really, did the woman have to be six feet tall and blonde and gorgeous? Did she have to speak with that sexy Swedish accent? And her wardrobe was to die for, seriously. Any time I’d ever seen Ella, she’d been dressed in some dazzling designer dress that could light up a room. I, on the other hand, while always presentable, was much more comfortable and happy in my blue jeans and Birkenstocks.

But that wasn’t the point.

Finally I admitted, “It’s demoralizing, but I can’t help it. I’m completely intimidated by her.”

He glanced at me sideways and nodded sagely. “So am I.”

“Oh, please.” I rolled my eyes. “I appreciate you trying to make me feel better, but come on. You’re tall, dark, and dangerous. The original international man of mystery. You carry a gun. Nobody intimidates you.”

He laughed. “She does.”

I stared at him for a long moment, realized he wasn’t kidding, and shook my head. “What is it about her? It’s almost indefinable. I mean, besides the looks and the hair and the attitude and…everything else. What is it?”

“First of all, darling, you are the most beautiful woman I have ever known.”

I almost choked on my Cabernet, and that would’ve been a real waste because the wine was really good. He eased my glass away from me while I took a minute to catch my breath.

“And you’re fun and you’re funny and smart, and simply adorable,” Derek said. “I love being with you.”

He had said lovely things like this to me before and they never failed to both thrill me and leave me tongue-tied. “Um, likewise,” I murmured, embarrassed now.

He chuckled at my words, but then glowered. “Ella is not fun.”

That stopped me. “What are you talking about?”

“The woman has no sense of humor.”

I stared at him until realization dawned. He was right. “Why do you think that is?”

“Among other things, there’s a language barrier.”

“But she speaks perfect English,” I said. “With a Swedish accent of course, but still, perfect.”

“Yes, she speaks our language and even understands it,” he continued, “but she doesn’t always comprehend the feelings and the meanings behind the words. She doesn’t understand nuance, so our humor goes over her head and confuses her. That’s why she comes across as so serious.”

“I’ve never thought about it that way.” I frowned. “What must Joseph think? He has a great sense of humor.”

He pressed his lips together. “Yes, he does.”

“But she wouldn’t think so because she doesn’t get his humor.” I crooked my head, thinking about it. “Wow. Now that you’ve said it, I’m trying to remember if she’s ever laughed at anything we’ve said.”

Derek glanced over his shoulder to make sure nobody was listening in on our conversation. “Joseph and I have actually had this conversation.”


“Yes. He says he didn’t marry her for her sense of humor.”

I grinned. “Okay, I can guess what he did marry her for.” But then I winced. “I shouldn’t have said that. It’s not fair. I know she has many lovely qualities. She’s beautiful and smart and she’s always nice to me.” So why was I so intimidated by her? I had to wonder.

Derek handed my wineglass back to me. “I agree she’s smart. And Joseph has made it clear that she does in fact have many other attributes that he finds appealing.”

I shook my head in amazement. “So you guys really have had this conversation?”

“Just so we’re clear,” Derek said, holding up his hand. “Joseph brought up the topic.”

I nodded. “I wouldn’t think you’d bring it up.”

“Absolutely not.” He sipped his wine. “It was the week before he married her. He asked for my opinion, but before I could give it to him, he forged ahead and gave me all the reasons why it was a good idea and why she was perfect for him. What could I do but agree?”

“Of course, you had to agree.” I took a sip of the cabernet. “You’re a good friend.”

“Perhaps a better friend would’ve told him what I really thought. But then we wouldn’t be friends anymore.”

“And that would be a shame.”

He looked over his shoulder. “We should change the subject before we’re caught out.”

“Good idea.” I held up my hand. “But before we do, I want to say again, that I think she is a really nice person at heart. She always has something kind to say.”

“That is true,” Derek murmured.

“If she were a witch, I would feel a lot better about my own feelings.” I said, frowning.

He laughed. “I actually understand that. And now, seriously, let’s switch topics.”

“Yes, please.”

We both glanced around the room, watching people enter the main hall and mingle with others. Everyone was looking glittery tonight which added to the overall good feeling about this unusual Festival.

A few years ago, many members of San Francisco’s book-loving society would show up to these events wearing unrelieved black from head to toe. The women had dressed like beatniks from the fifties with their skinny turtlenecks, black tights, and miniskirts. All that was missing was a jaunty beret. These days though, there were delightful bursts of color throughout the crowd and it brightened up the whole room.

Derek turned and gazed at me. “Tell me, what part of the evening are you most looking forward to?”

I smiled up at him. “The part where we go home.”

He lifted my hand to his lips and kissed my wrist. “Coming home to you is always the best part of any day.”

I leaned against him and laid my head on his shoulder.

“Darling,” he murmured. “Have I mentioned lately how much I love you?”

I eased back, checked my wristwatch. “It’s been a few minutes.”

“Then it’s well past time I told you again.” He gave me a brief but meaningful kiss. “I love you.”

“There you are,” Ian said, rushing over to join us.

“Here we are,” I said, welcoming the interruption by lifting my glass in a toast. “Good party, Ian.”

“Thanks, kiddo.” He glanced around anxiously.

“May I get you a glass of wine, Ian?” Derek asked. “You look like you could use one.”

“I totally could, but I’d better stay alert.”

“Why?” I wondered. “You’ve got everything wired down to the last little detail. What could possibly go wrong?”

“Are you crazy?” he hissed, and slapped my arm lightly. “Don’t jinx it.”

“Sorry.” I grinned, but as he continued to look around the room, I asked, “Who are you looking for?”

“The Swedish bombshell.”

Derek and I exchanges glances. “You must mean Ella.”

“No,” he whispered. “Her mother, Ingrid. Have you met her?”

“Not yet,” Derek said.

“Well, apparently she’s put herself in charge of tonight’s agenda.”

I gave him a quizzical look. “How did that happen?”

He glared at me. “She used to be a party planner in Stockholm. She wanted something to do.”

I pondered the situation. “That doesn’t make sense. Joseph would never give her that sort of responsibility, would he?”

“Not Joseph,” he muttered.

“Then who?”

He was still glaring. “Have you met Ella?”

“Ah.” I exchanged a quick glance with Derek. Apparently Ella’s ability to intimidate was far-reaching. “Joseph’s wife is formidable, to say the least.”

“You have no idea.”

I stroked his arm. “Just breathe.”

“What about Ashley Sharp?” Derek asked. “I was led to believe that Joseph had put her in charge of the Festival events.”

“Ashley is a complete wonder,” Ian agreed, nervously glancing around the room. “She’s excellent. Brilliant. But where is she?”

Derek pulled out his cell phone. “I haven’t seen Joseph yet, but I’ll be happy to call and ask him to straighten things out.”

“Would you?” Ian sagged with relief. “Oh, thank you, Derek. You’re my hero.” But his attention was suddenly diverted by some scuffle going on near the entryway. “Oh, God. I’ve got to go put out another fire.” And he darted away.

I watched him scurry off, then turned to see that Derek was still talking on the phone to Joseph.

As soon as he ended the call, I asked, “What’s going on? What did he say?”

“He very calmly said that Ashley Sharp is in charge of everything. Ella and her mother have nothing to do with any aspect of the Festival.”

“So why is Ian so upset?”

“I have no idea. And neither does Joseph.”

I frowned. “I hate to say it, but it sounds like Ella and her mother might be gaslighting Ian.”

“It’s possible.” He slipped his arm through mine and we began another stroll around the room. “Let’s keep an eye on things, shall we?”



“When I am king they shall not have bread and shelter only, but also teachings out of books, for a full belly is little worth where the mind is starved.”
—The Prince and the Pauper

Despite that one odd moment where Ian threatened to have a nervous breakdown over the possibility of Ingrid running the show, Derek and I managed to enjoy ourselves. We had been to dozens of opening night parties at the Covington over the years, for all sorts of literary festivals and events. It was good to meet new people and catch up with the old regulars.

These were book people, after all, and I loved them all. But maybe that was the wine talking. I was on my third glass.

I waved to an older couple who had just walked into the hall, but we were all too far away from each other to have any sort of conversation.

“There’s Doris and Theodore,” I said.

“They’re looking quite spry, aren’t they?”

I grinned. Doris and Theodore Bondurant were both in their mid-eighties and were indeed looking spry. They were Covington Library trustees and also served on the boards of a number of other charitable organizations. Together they were worth somewhere north of a gazillion dollars, but you’d never know it because they were completely down to earth, feisty and fun. The first time I met them was right here in this room at an event very similar to this one. Doris and I had hit it off immediately and since that time, she had hired me to work on a few dozen of her most cherished antiquarian books. Best of all, she had also recommended my services to many of her friends.

I waved to three women I knew from Bay Area Book Arts, or BABA, where I taught classes in bookbinding, letterpress, and papermaking. Then I spied Genevieve Taylor who owned Taylor’s Fine Books over on Clement Street. She often called with a book for me to refurbish and we had become good friends, especially after I solved a perplexing mystery for her a few years ago.

“Ah, there you are.”

We turned in time to see Joseph Cabot approach. He wore an elegant tuxedo and was accompanied on either side by his wife, Ella, and another lovely blonde woman. She was a slightly older version of Ella and I assumed it was Ella’s mother, although she looked barely out of her thirties. With two beautiful fair-haired women and the very handsome Joseph between them, they could’ve easily been walking down a red carpet somewhere in Hollywood or New York or Cannes.

We greeted Joseph effusively. I turned to his wife and smiled. “Ella, it’s good to see you.”

“And you, Brooklyn,” she said, beaming at me as she took my hand. “You look so pretty tonight, as always.”

With her soft Swedish accent, her speaking voice very nearly resembled a child’s song. I couldn’t quite describe it, but with her emphasis on certain letters and syllables in the words she spoke, it came across as charmingly old-fashioned.

“Thank you,” I said. And this was why I couldn’t hate her. She was just so nice and her smile was almost blinding. She seemed genuinely happy to see me and all I could do was smile back and return the compliment. “You look fabulous, as always. Your dress is stunning.”

It was sapphire blue with silver threads running through the fabric, and it hugged her slim waist like a caress. But she waved my words away. “You’re sweet.”

I stared up at her, still feeling intimidated despite my conversation with Derek earlier.

I mean, the woman towered over me! I wasn’t exactly short at five-foot-eight, plus the stiletto heels added several more inches to my height. But Ella Cabot was at least a head taller. Maybe more, since she was also wearing silver four-inch heels, which made her close to six-foot-four. She was slender and graceful with a peaches and cream complexion, big blue eyes, and all that lustrous blonde hair. Tonight it was brushed back from her face and tucked into a sleek French roll and held in place with a sterling silver comb. Loose tendrils framed her face and lent her sophisticated updo a sexy, flirty look that was almost too much for us mere mortals to take in.

And I really had to snap out of it. Ella was, in fact, a mere mortal, and it suddenly occurred to me that she probably could use a friend.

Ella turned and squeezed the hand of the woman on Joseph’s other arm. “Mother, please allow me to introduce our dear friends, Derek Stone and his wife, Brooklyn.” She looked back at us. “This is my mother, Ingrid Norden.”

Derek and I greeted the woman cordially and we all shook hands. “It’s very nice to meet you, Ms. Norden,” Derek said.

“So formal,” she said, batting her eyelashes. “Please call me Ingrid.”

He nodded. “All right, Ingrid.”

Seriously, these two women were blindingly beautiful on their own, but together they were a force of nature. Despite that, we all chatted easily for a few minutes. Then I happened to notice that Ian was stepping onto a small stage that had been set up at the other end of the large room.

Joseph noticed, too. He grinned and eased himself away from his wife and mother-in-law.

“Now that we’re all friends, I’m going to desert you. I have to go make a speech.”

“Break a leg, sweetest,” Ella whispered.

“Thank you, dearest.” Joseph kissed his wife’s cheek, then gave Derek a manly pat on the shoulder. “See you on the other side.”

“Good luck,” Derek said with a grin.

I watched Joseph stroll through the crowd, greeting people and giving the occasional handshake as he moved forward. Everyone seemed to like the man and I thought it had to be because of his admirable ability to make each person feel special in the few short seconds he spent with them.

I glanced at Ella in time to see her lean in close to her mother, listening as the older woman murmured in her ear. Her mother didn’t seem happy. The way she was whispering forcefully, it almost felt as if she was scolding Ella.

Ella, meanwhile, gazed casually around the room. Her mother continued her quietly intense rant, but Ella seemed to be ignoring her words.

As Ian took his place on the small stage, the crowd quieted down. “Good evening and welcome to our opening night gala in celebration of all things Mark Twain!”

After a loud round of applause, Ian described a few of the highlights of the five-day festival. “Tomorrow night, at a special private event, we’ll announce the winner of the Prince and Pauper look-alike contest.” He highlighted a few of the other festival events, including an evening of riverboat gambling for the grown-ups and for the kids, a fence-painting event at the Covington’s Children’s Museum.

“Every day we’ll be giving away cash prizes for all sorts of reasons,” Ian said with a sly grin. “And finally, on the last day of the Festival we’ll hold our first annual Jumping Frog Contest near the polo field in Golden Gate Park. Because what would a Mark Twain Festival be without a Jumping Frog Contest?”

People laughed, and Ian continued. “Be sure and check the Clarion website daily for all the latest festival updates and the list of daily prize winners.”

After some brief applause at the mention of prizes, Ian said, “And now I’d like to say a few words of introduction for a man who basically needs no introduction.” He smirked at his little joke. “But I really do want to take a minute and share just a few of the qualities that make this man so important and special to the Covington Library and to San Francisco. If you want the full resume, check his Wikipedia page, but I’ll start with a little known background story that all of us at the Covington especially appreciate because we’re all about books and reading. Many of you know about Joseph’s ‘Kids Read’ project, but there are a few details you may not be aware of. In the beginning, Joseph’s goal was to buy a book for every child in the city, because literacy is such an important component of one’s self-esteem. And think about this; how can you sell newspapers if people don’t read?

“But for Joseph, this wasn’t about selling newspapers. This was personal. He admits that he wasn’t much of a reader when he was young, except that he loved comic books. He especially loved to read about the superheroes and their constant fight for truth and justice.”

Ian glanced at the faces in the crowd. “But there’s something that Joseph never told anyone. He couldn’t actually read until he was almost ten years old.”

Some in the audience reacted with gasps of disbelief.

“It’s true,” Ian said. “The way he finally taught himself to read was through comic books. That’s pretty amazing, isn’t it?”

Along with the applause were a lot of admiring glances aimed at Joseph, who looked vaguely mortified by the flattering attention.

“Joseph’s love of stories has grown and evolved,” Ian said. “So much so that he recently told me that he reads at least one book a day.” Ian glanced around the room. “I mean, I like to read too, but that’s ridiculous.” He grinned and added, “And also commendable.” He paused again for the crowd’s reaction, then said, “Now I do have a point to this story. My point is that there are a lot of kids out there who wouldn’t think of picking up a book, but they’ll definitely pick up a comic book. And that’s how Joseph’s reading program began. And within a few years it’s become the biggest and most successful literacy program in the country.”

The applause made Ian beam with pleasure. “Everyone in this city is familiar with the other highlights of Joseph’s sterling resume, so I’ll just round it out by saying that while Joseph’s media empire is vast, it all begins with his newspaper, the Clarion. Like his hero Mark Twain, Joseph is a newspaperman. He also happens to be a brilliant businessman and a social media superstar, but most of all, he’s a wonderful friend and supporter of the Covington Library. Please join me in welcoming Joseph Cabot.”

The cheers and hoots were so loud that my ears were buzzing, but I was happy for Joseph. He truly was a local superstar.

Joseph stepped onto the stage and shook hands with Ian. Then Ian stepped down and Joseph moved to the podium. His speech was short, funny, and clever. He explained how his love for the works of Mark Twain first developed. “It all started with Tom Sawyer,” he began, and proceeded to charm the crowd with a story about his ten-year-old self getting lost in the cave along with Tom and Becky.

He took a moment to reiterate the list of Festival events, including the aforementioned Jumping Frog Contest in Golden Gate Park, the riverboat casino night at the Embarcadero, and a special event for children, namely, a chance to paint a fence with Tom Sawyer.

“I hope I’ll see some of you at the frog jumping contest. It’s going to be a blast, and remember, there will be prizes.”

The crowd cheered again, liking the thought of prizes.

“As you all know,” Joseph said, “the Festival committee has chosen a book to represent the Festival and we’re hoping San Franciscans have already downloaded it and are halfway through it by now. But just in case, all of our local bookstores are featuring the book at a nicely discounted price. Of course, that book is The Prince and Pauper.”

He had to wait for the applause to die down. This hall was filled with people who applauded for books. And prizes. You had to love it.

“Now you might think you know the basic story,” Joseph continued, “but there’s so much more to the book than you remember. So I encourage everyone in town to take the time to read it. And, shameless plug here, don’t forget to read the Clarion every day to find out what’s going on with the Festival. ‘Like’ us on all your favorite social media sites using the hashtag @TwainFestival.”

He glanced out at the crowd and grinned. “And for those of you who think I’ve completely lost my moral compass, I’ll remind you that everything we’re doing this week is in support of the Covington Library. That’s always our main goal.”

Applause broke out again and he held up his hand. “Almost forgot. Anyone with kids will want to check out some special programs going on this week at the Covington. Our favorite bookbinder and papermaker, Brooklyn Wainwright, is restoring a book before our eyes this week and she’ll also be working with the kids on newspaper crafts. Because we’re all about newspapers, right?”

“Right,” somebody shouted.

“So if you have a stack of Clarions sitting in your recycling bin, bring them to the Covington and Brooklyn will show your kids how to turn them into flowers and baskets and Christmas decorations and you-name-it. Her work is clever and fun.” He waved in my direction. “Thanks, Brooklyn!”

I was totally caught off guard, but managed to give a shaky wave in response.

I leaned against Derek. “That was so nice of him.”

He chuckled. “He’s a newspaperman to the end.”

“Okay,” Joseph continued. “Thanks for listening to my long-winded speech, thank you for your participation, and as always, thank you for your generosity.”

There was more handclapping and then Joseph added, “Sorry folks, but we’ve got one last announcement about the big contest the Clarion is sponsoring, and you won’t believe the grand prize we’re giving away. Here to give you a brief rundown is our events coordinator, Ashley Sharp. Please give her a warm welcome.”

A young woman jumped up onstage and Joseph gave her a high five as he walked off, accompanied by enthusiastic polite applause.

Ashley was barely five feet tall, but her personality made up for it. She was about thirty years old and very pretty, with long dark hair and big brown eyes that sparkled with humor. With the fervor of a high school cheerleader, she spoke quickly and excitedly about The Prince and Pauper contest.

“Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the last two months,” she said into the microphone, “you’ll have heard that we’re holding an amazing contest based on The Prince and Pauper. You all remember the story, right?”

She waited for people to chime in with “right!” Then she responded, “Right! So that inspired us to have a lookalike contest. But…” She held up her finger to emphasize her next point. “…with a twist! Instead of trying to find someone who looks like Mark Twain, we decided it would be more fun to find someone in town who looks like … Joseph Cabot!” The audience cheered loudly and after a moment she continued. “The Clarion took a poll a few months ago and believe it or not, Joseph Cabot is more popular than the mayor, the governor, and the manager of the Giants!”

There were more cheers and a couple of boos—the Giants were on a losing streak—followed by laughter.

“So, since everyone in town knows and loves Joseph, we thought San Francisco would enjoy the chance to find his doppelganger.”

“Quite a twist,” Derek murmured in my ear.

I gazed up at him. “Is that a little creepy or am I just being paranoid?”

“A bit of both, I believe.”

Ashley continued at the same fast pace. “Since we first announced the contest, we’ve received hundreds of entries and some of the people actually bear a slight resemblance to Joseph. These include six cats and two dogs, and I’ll share a secret with you. One of the cats has made it into the final round.”

That brought on another gale of laughter and she quickly went on. “And I don’t have to remind you that we’re giving away hundreds of prizes every day. But the grand prize winner? The person who looks most like Joseph? That person will receive … one hundred thousand dollars.”

The crowd erupted in more gasps and everyone began to talk at once.

“That’s enough money to kill over,” I whispered.

Derek shook his head. “Bite your tongue.”

I looked up at him. “Sorry. Couldn’t help myself.”

Joseph was standing near the edge of the stage and now he jumped up and rushed to the microphone. “What can I say?” he said cheerily, then pinched his cheeks. “Anyone with a face like mine deserves a break. Am I right?”

The crowd was eating it up and when Joseph and Ashley waved and walked off the stage, they kept the applause going for another full minute.

Joseph grabbed Ashley’s arm and pulled her through the crowd. Just as the audience began to engulf them both, I saw Joseph wrap his arm around Ashley’s shoulders and hug her effusively.

Ooh, boy, I thought. Hope Ella’s not the jealous type.

“Good heavens,” Ella said, her eyes wide. “He’s going to be smothered by that crowd.”

Ingrid gave her a pitying look and whispered, “Can you please stop being so stupid?”

My eyes widened and I looked at Derek. He had overheard the woman, too, but we did our best to pretend we didn’t. I sneaked another peek at Ingrid. She hadn’t bothered to conceal the scorn that accompanied her words. Ella didn’t seem to notice, or else she was careful not to show she cared.

That was probably the best way to handle the situation, I realized. My next thought was, I’m glad she’s not my mom. My mother would never have said something like that to any of us. Ingrid was the farthest thing from nurturing and I had no idea how to react.

That was because I had grown up with the world’s best mother, and now I was lucky enough to have the world’s best mother-in-law. When it came to parental love, I had it in barrels. But I understood what it was like to experience the opposite. My best friend Robin’s mother had rarely come home to visit, let alone shown any affection or concern for her daughter. Robin had tried to be strong, but that kind of treatment always left a mark.

I shook myself out of those thoughts and considered Ella. She had everything going for her on a physical level, but if her mother treated her like this on a regular basis, her life was far from the perfect picture she painted. She acted as though she didn’t care about her mother’s sharp words, but I couldn’t believe that.

I looked away from her in time to notice Joseph and Ashley approaching. They walked arm in arm in a way that I recognized as friendly and warm, but a quick look at Ella’s mother assured me that she didn’t agree. In fact, I was pretty sure there was smoke coming out of her ears. She was not happy to see this younger woman acting so cozy with her rich, handsome son-in-law.

Ella on the other hand, didn’t seem to notice or care. She dashed over to greet her husband and the event coordinator with a broad smile and she clapped her hands gaily. “You were both wonderful.” She turned to Ashley. “You are such a good speaker, Ashley. You made everyone feel excited about the festival and the contest.”

Ashley flushed with pleasure at the compliment. “Thank you, Ella. This is the best project I’ve ever worked on and I’m really grateful to Joseph for the opportunity.”

Ella patted her arm. “We’re equally grateful to you for your hard work and enthusiasm.”

I caught Ingrid rolling her eyes. She obviously disapproved of Ella’s effusiveness. Did she disapprove of everything her daughter did? Maybe she didn’t like Ella being so nice to a young woman who could turn out to be a rival for her husband’s affections. But she had to know that if Ella had reacted angrily and appeared jealous of Ashley, it would’ve been worse.

“Mother, dear,” Ella said brightly. “Let me introduce you to Ashley. She’s Joseph’s event coordinator and she’s doing such good work for the newspaper.” She turned to Ashley. “This is my mother, Ingrid Norden.”

Ashley inclined her head politely. “It’s very nice to meet you, Mrs. Norden.”

With her head held high, Ingrid nodded, queen to peasant. I found it impossibly rude, but Ashley took it in stride. In Ingrid’s defense, she was so tall that she would likely look down her nose at almost anyone. Ashley nevertheless won some points for ignoring Ingrid’s obvious ill will.

And again, Ella didn’t seem to notice, but I did. And I thought, Meow. Watch out for those mama claws.

I gave Derek a quick look and he winked at me in a way that told me he’d seen the same thing I’d seen and we would talk later. How could I not love a guy who picked up on the same vibes that I did?

But when I took another quick glance at Ingrid Norden, she was clearly seething, even more than she’d been a minute ago. I made a mental note to remind myself that when Derek and I finally did talk later, I would point out that if anyone died tonight, that woman would be my number one suspect. Because, seriously, if looks could kill, Ella’s mama would likely be arrested for murder.

© Kate Carlisle