PEARLS GONE WILD
Style in a Small Town Mystery #6
Paperback ISBN: 9781939197283
eBook ISBN: 9781939197290
Amateur sleuth Samantha Kidd's life is finally on track. It's her normally cultured friend Cat whose life has lost its luster: eight months pregnant and abandoned by her husband the week before Christmas. She ropes Samantha into helping at her boutique, but a string of jewelry thefts threatens her business. And when Cat's husband is found strangled with pearls inside the shop, the last thing she's concerned with is profit.
Samantha tries to get a bead on the killer, but when the suspects all clam up, she's left tangled in knots. Add in an unexpected proposal, a flirtatious friend, and a brand new detective, and this is bound to be Samantha's wildest adventure yet.
Pearls Gone Wild is the sixth romcom novel in the Style in a Small Town cozy mystery series. If you like determined sleuths, romantic drama, and hilarious circumstances, then you’ll love Diane Vallere’s zany mystery.
The bead goes on in Pearls Gone Wild!
1: Men are Rats
“Men are rats!” Cat said. She threw a dinner plate into her kitchen sink, and it shattered on contact.
“They’re not all rats,” I said.
“Name one who’s not a rat. Go ahead, name one.” Before I had a chance to answer, she continued. “My husband is a rat. His bosses are rats.” She grabbed another plate. “My brother is kind of a rat, don’t you think?”
“Cat, I don’t think it’s my place to say whether or not your brother is a rat.”
“He’s a rat, trust me. You don’t know because you chose Nick instead of him.” She brought the dish down against the sink. It bounced off, unbroken. She looked at it, confused, and then turned it over and looked at the bottom. “Corelle. Well, that’s not satisfying at all.” She tossed it onto the counter, where it skidded until hitting a loaf of bread.
Cat Lestes was a local boutique owner, a friend, and one of those people who make you constantly feel rumpled because they’re always immaculately dressed. I’d never seen so much as a hair of her striking red, asymmetrical haircut out of place…until tonight. Her husband spent more than half of his life on the road, and as if that hadn’t been enough space, he’d told her earlier this evening that he needed a break. It turned out his definition of “break” differed from hers; he was moving out. Considering Cat was eight months pregnant, George’s timing seemed suspicious.
“I’m pretty sure George is just going through a phase. Like last month when you said you wanted to run away and join a convent.”
She picked up a mug and shook it at me. “Nuns don’t have to deal with swollen ankles.”
I stepped forward and put my hands on her wrists. “He didn’t cheat on you, he didn’t ask for a divorce. He’s just asked for some space. He was probably thinking about the baby and about how his life is going to change.”
She glared at me for a moment and then deflated like a balloon twenty-four hours after a twelve-year-old’s birthday party. Her normally size-two frame shrank, causing her pregnant belly to protrude. It looked like a tiny nerf basketball had been strapped to her waist under her chocolate-brown knit dress.
“There are times to think about making more money and there are times to be there for your wife,” she said. “He should have known that.”
I pried the mug—the next about-to-be-broken item in her arsenal—from her grip and set it on the counter and then wrapped her in a hug. Cat was like me in that she wasn’t particularly touchy-feely, but at the moment we both needed it.
When we pulled apart, I pointed to the living room. “You go sit down. I’ll clean up in here.”
“It’s my mess,” she argued.
“Let me do this for you.”
She nodded and left me alone with the broken dishes. Cat lived in a split-level house in a residential neighborhood in Wyomissing. Her neighbors were in the post-retirement, 65+ range and were friendly but not nosy. I often thought of myself as a woman who lived alone in a house probably too big for one person, but even before Cat’s marital troubles, she’d been in a similar boat because of her husband’s travel. Except now she had a baby on the way. I couldn’t begin to imagine the pressures she felt.
As I collected pieces of broken dishes and glass from the floor, I heard what sounded like the local news coming from her TV. These days it was mostly stories about the weather or the occasional car theft from one of the malls in the area. Thus represented the city of Ribbon, Pennsylvania, where we split our time (and our residents) between do-gooders and criminals. At least that’s how it seemed since I moved back two years ago. And here I’d thought trading New York City for small-town life would lead to a more peaceful existence.
Cat’s proclamation that all men were rats landed on deaf ears thanks to my relationship with Nick Taylor. While her husband had let her down at a time when he should have been there for her, my love life was chugging along, hitting all the right notes.
Nick was a local shoe designer who kept an apartment in Italy, and shortly after my birthday in May, he’d left to meet with the factories about his upcoming collection. Our relationship was not without problems—many of which explained why we’d broken up once since making the shift from business colleagues (nine years) to on-again, off-again couple (two years)—but ever since I’d saved his father’s life, Nick seemed willing to overlook the problems (inconveniences?) that came with dating me. And I understood the needs of his business and that spending six months out of each year in Europe was part of his life. But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t looking forward to Nick coming home for the holidays.
I found her broom and swept the broken pieces of china into the dustpan and then into the trash. Cat’s kitchen—her whole house—was usually immaculate. I did a double take when I saw two errant grape tomatoes and a scattering of green peas in the dustpan. Maybe her housekeeping skills were relaxing, but at least she was still keeping up with her daily vegetable intake. That put her one step ahead of me.
“Stupid bastard!” Cat yelled from the living room. Moments later, there was a thud.
I dropped the dustpan and broom into the sink and ran to the living room. Cat was on the floor with her feet splayed out in front of her. Her dress was hiked up to her hips and between her knees was a partially empty bowl. Across the room, popcorn was scattered around the base of the TV.
“What’s wrong? What happened?”
She pointed to the screen. “The news is doing a profile on the rat. ‘Local businessmen do good.’ That’s a joke. He didn’t do any good by leaving me. Just because he’s helping his company hand out free ornaments tonight doesn’t make him a saint. It’s Christmas. Where are the stories about stolen cars and thefts at the mall? Where are all the shady Santas?”
I leaned forward and plunked the remote from her hand. “Are you okay?”
“Retail. Holidays. Pregnant. Rat husband. Keep up, Sam. I thought I could rely on the news to match my mood, but no. It’s like they got tired of reporting on all of the retail theft, so they’re looking for feel-good stories. The rest of the year, it’s all politics, hate crimes, and misdemeanors, but when I need it? ‘Local businessmen do good.’ And these people call themselves reporters.”
I sat down next to her. “Where are they—your mall?” Cat’s boutique, Catnip, was in the Ribbon Designer Outlet Mall. “Is it a special shopping night? Are there discounts?”
“It’s the lighting of the mall Christmas tree. Kenner & Winn are the hosts—that’s the company George works for. If George was a good guy, he’d be here, not at a party handing out baubles. The news should focus on the stores, not the vendors. We’re the ones who make it through the battleground of December shopping so people can have presents under the tree. But we’re like the elves. Totally under appreciated.” She threw another fistful of popcorn at the TV.
I bent down and corralled the spilled popcorn into a pile, and then, using both hands, transferred it onto a Glamour magazine that Cat had left open to the “Fashion Don’ts” section. I set the magazine on the coffee table and spun around to face her.
“I know this is going to sound strange coming from me, but I think you need to calm down.”
She stared at me but didn’t say a word. “I know you’re mad at George, and I understand why. But you can’t let that anger spill onto everything else. Didn’t the doctor warn you about your blood pressure?”
“Yes, but it’s not like I can sit around and relax. Not now. There’s going to be another mouth to feed, and I don’t trust that rat to do the right thing. Employee turnover is at an all-time high. I tried to hire extra staff to take some of the pressure off me, but as soon as I train one person, another one quits. Yesterday one of my associates resigned at the end of her shift. She got an invite to go skiing for the holidays and is leaving tomorrow. I didn’t even get two weeks’ notice. Honestly, what is wrong with people? I told her I was surprised she even bothered to show up, and you know what she said? She wanted to make sure she got her last paycheck.”
“That’s not very professional. I hope she doesn’t want a referral.”
“People don’t think of retail jobs as professions. It’s what they do while they figure out how to do what they want to do. It’s frustrating.”
“You need to cut yourself a break. My vacation just started. I’ll help out whenever I can, but now is not the time for you to try to be superwoman.”
My work history post moving back to Ribbon had been spotty (at best). Earlier in the year, I’d been gainfully employed at Retrofit, a start-up e-zine that showcased current fashion trends and how they correlated to fashion history. My boss’s big dreams of expansion had had disastrous results, and Retrofit was on its way to becoming yet another casualty on my resume, until an unlikely savior stepped in: Tradava.
Tradava was a mid-range retailer that actively pursued their share of the entry-level trend market. Their partnerships with design competitions and museum exhibits had kept their name in the news and their affiliation with mid-range fashion present. Their desire to produce a glossy magalog—a cross between a catalog and a magazine—led to a bit of creative thinking, and some smart person at the top of the food chain made the decision to buy Retrofit and bring us into the advertising fold.
Which meant I still had a job. Not just any job, either. One with health benefits and a 401K of my own. In the three months after my probationary period ended, I’d had a full blood workup, a physical, and an assortment of exams that covered the parts of me that needed to stay in working order. If medical came with a customer punch card like the sandwich shop, I’d be due for a freebie any day now.
I picked up the remote and cued up the guide. “Let’s find something else to watch to distract you. Look—Dial M for Murder is on. Are you feeling Hitchcocky? Or maybe we need a rom-com.”
“I think you’re right,” she said. She put her palms on the sofa behind her and slowly lifted herself off the floor and onto the cushion. She smoothed her red hair with her hands and then stood. “A distraction is a good idea.” She crossed the room and picked up her handbag and then pulled out a laminated card and waved it at me. “You feel like a party?”
“You didn’t say anything about a party when you invited me over.”
“That’s because when I invited you over, I didn’t know we were going.”
“Where are we going?”
“There. To the party. I should be there, not him. I’m the one who buys their product and sells it in my store. I want him to look me in the eye in a public place and let everybody know what he did.”
“But I thought you said Kenner & Winn were jerks?”
“They are. And tonight they’re the jerks who get to be the target to all of this misplaced anger.”
I didn’t get up. “Five minutes ago, you were breaking china. Maybe you need to sit still for a couple of minutes—”
“If everything had gone according to plan, I was going to be in the middle of a romantic dinner tonight. But I’m not. That doesn’t mean I have to sit here like a big fat blob. I can have a life too, right?”
I looked down at my outfit. Navy sweater and blue camo pants. At least my boots had heels. “I’m not dressed for a party.”
“You look fine,” she said, providing further evidence that she wasn’t exactly herself. Under normal circumstances, Cat had choice things to say about my occasional desire to shop the Army-Navy store (because blue camo is totally fabulous even if a non-hormonal Cat wouldn’t agree).
“I think it would be better if we stayed in.” I pulled my phone out of my handbag. “Pick out a movie while I call Nick. I’ll make you a fresh bowl of popcorn when I’m done.”
I slipped from the living room into her den. “Hey, Kidd,” he answered.
“How’s your Friday night?”
“Touch and go. I’m at Cat’s. She’s…her husband…things aren’t great right now. I’m acting as a calming force.”
He laughed. “You’re about as calming as a bed full of itching powder.”
“I resent that!”
“Just saying you’re not known for your ability to relax.”
“I can relax as well as the next guy,” I said. “What about you? Packing? Your flight takes off in a couple of hours, right?”
“Change of plans,” he said. “There’s a problem at one of the factories, and I can’t leave yet.”
“You’re not flying home tonight?” My positive outlook waivered. I wanted to feel all the things you feel at the beginning of a relationship, but I couldn’t help wonder if, ten years down the line, Nick would be restless just like Cat’s husband. “Is it a big problem?"
“If I want to stay on production schedule with my new collection it would be best to fix it in person.”
“Have you told your dad?”
This past May, Nick’s life had been flipped on its head when his dad, recovering from a broken hip, moved in with him. In addition to the newly negotiated domestic situation, it had brought Nick and I closer. I’d learned a multitude of quirks about him that raised eyebrows. He learned the truth about my daily caloric intake. And yet, we were still together.
“Tonight’s his poker night. It violates the rules of their game to use cell phones.”
“Sounds like you’re going to come home to cheap beer and stale chips.”
“You fixed the chip situation with the golden Chip Clip you gave him the last time you were over. It’s his favorite thing in the house.”
“See? There is no limit to the problems I solve.”
“Kidd, there’s something I have to tell you. I told a friend to crash here while I was gone, but now that I have to stay, well, I didn’t expect to have a roommate.”
“Two bachelors in Italy. Should I be worried about you cruising for Italian women?”
“Kidd, she’s not a bachelor. She’s—the friend—is Amanda Ries.”
If I’d been standing in Cat’s kitchen, I might have picked up that unbreakable piece of Corelle, thrown it onto the floor, and then stomped on it a few times. Instead, I stood up and punched the hunter green leather chair behind the desk.
“Kidd, you know she’s just a friend.”
That wasn’t the point, and I knew it, and I was pretty sure he knew it too. “I think I hear Cat calling me from the living room. I have to go.” I hung up before he had a chance to reply.
When I returned to the living room, Cat was sprawled out on the sofa. The screen saver for The First Wives Club was on the TV. The remote control dangled from her hand. I took it and clicked off the TV.
“Get your handbag. We’re going out.”
“What changed your mind?”
“Turns out you were right. All men are rats.”