Cover: Married to the Mop by Barbara Colley

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Title: Barbara Colley's Excerpts

Married to the Mop
by Barbara Colley

 

Chapter One

 

“Is this Charlotte LaRue with Maid-for-a-Day?”

Charlotte barely suppressed an impatient groan. Why, oh, why had she answered the phone? She should have ignored it, or, at the very least, she should have checked the caller I.D. before answering it.

Besides, today was Sunday, for Pete’s sake; she didn’t work on Sundays. She figured that if even the good Lord Himself had seen fit to rest one day a week, then who was she to question His wisdom?

But ignoring a ringing phone had never been easy for her. She had always been just a bit superstitious that the very call that she ignored would be an emergency call informing her that something had happened to a member of her family.

So, now that you know it’s not, just hang up the receiver.

The temptation was strong, but she just couldn’t do it. With an impatient sigh, she finally said, “Yes, this is Charlotte.”

“Charlotte, my name is Emily Rossi, and I need your help.”

Charlotte sighed again and drummed her fingers on the desktop. The one thing she didn’t need was another customer. As it was, she had more work than she could handle. Besides, any minute now her family would be coming through the door expecting Sunday lunch, and she still needed to carve the roast and put the food on the table.

Be nice, Charlotte, her conscience chided. Hear the woman out. You can always say no.

Charlotte took a deep breath. “What kind of help do you need, Ms. Rossi?”

“Just the general stuff, you know--dusting, vacuuming, mopping.”

Charlotte glanced down at the envelope in front of her on her desk. The return address on the envelope belonged to Cheré Warner, one of her full-time employees. She’d received the envelope Friday, but hadn’t opened it yet, and, in fact, had put off opening it, dreading the contents, since she was fairly certain that it contained Cheré’s resignation letter.

Charlotte tapped the envelope with her forefinger. Then there was Nadia. In addition to being her nephew Daniel’s wife, Nadia was also another full-time employee. Any day now Charlotte expected to get a resignation letter from Nadia as well. Not that Charlotte blamed either of the women for her decision.

Cheré had been slowly but surely working her way through college. She’d graduated from Tulane in December and had been actively seeking other employment that fit her business degree.

Nadia was still on maternity leave, but she’d been dropping hints about staying home with her new baby permanently instead of returning to work. And why not? As a well-respected attorney, Daniel made more than enough money to support his new family.

Charlotte had figured that she and Janet Davis, her only part-time employee, could pinch-hit for a while, filling in for Cheré and Nadia until she found replacements for the two women. Anticipating the resignations, she’d gone ahead and placed an ad in the newspaper in hopes of hiring another full-time employee. As a result, she’d already received several résumés that looked good. Even so, she still had to interview them and . . .

“Ms. Rossi, I’m really sorry. Right now I’m booked solid and am shorthanded. I just can’t take on any new clients.”

A frustrated sound from Emily Rossi whispered through the phone line. “Not even temporary ones?” she asked. “I’m not looking for full-time, permanent help,” she hastened to add. “Only temporary help, just a few days, until Jennifer—she’s my regular maid--can work again. My friend Bitsy--Bitsy Duhe--says you’re the best in the city. She’s had a family emergency—Jennifer, not Bitsy—and she isn’t sure when she can come back to work.”

When Emily Rossi paused, Charlotte frowned. Either the poor woman was on the verge of a nervous breakdown or she was as scatterbrained as Bitsy.

“Sorry,” Emily finally said. “I’m probably not making sense. It’s just that I’m at my wits’ end, and Bitsy, bless her old heart, assured me that not only were you the best, but you were trustworthy and-and discreet.”

Discreet? Charlotte had to bite her bottom lip to keep from laughing out loud. She supposed she should be flattered, and she would have been had the compliment come from anyone but Bitsy. Bitsy Duhe was the worst gossip in all of New Orleans and didn’t know the meaning of the word discreet.

“You see,” Emily continued, “my husband and I are giving a Mardi Gras party Friday night. We thought that would be the best time since the Endymion Parade and Ball is Saturday evening, and of course no one wants to miss Endymion. Of all times for Jennifer to take off, this is the worst. Not that she can help it,” Emily hastened to add. “Believe me, I understand about family emergencies. I’ve had a few of my own. Anyway, I only need you to come in on Thursday, half a day on Friday before the party, then clean up on Saturday and possibly Sunday after the party. Hopefully Jennifer will be back by the following Monday. And before you say no, I’m prepared to offer you two hundred dollars a day for all four days. Even the half day,” she added.

Charlotte blinked and her breath caught in her lungs. Two hundred dollars a day? Emily Rossi had to be desperate indeed to offer that kind of money. Talk about an offer hard to refuse.

After Charlotte remembered to breathe again, she once more glanced down at the letter on her desk. “Ah, you did say ‘temporary’?”

“Yes, just those four days. Really, just three and a half days,” she added quickly. “Eight hundred total. So, do you think you can do it?”

Charlotte’s mind raced. If, as she suspected, the letter on the desk was Cherè’s resignation and if Cheré gave the requisite two-week notice, then Charlotte figured that she could do it. She’d already resigned herself to the fact that once Cheré left she’d have to give up her own two days off each week until she could find a replacement. Working for Emily Rossi just meant giving them up earlier than she had planned.

Taking the temporary job would also mean that she’d have to work for almost two weeks straight, but it wouldn’t be the first time she’d done so and she was sure it wouldn’t be the last. Besides, she could use part of the money to finally buy paint for her house. The outside of the century-old Victorian double was beginning to look a bit shabby, and she’d been intending to repaint it now for the past two years. Any money left over could be added to her retirement account.

“Hello? Ms. LaRue? Are you still there?”

Emily Rossi’s words were barely above a whisper, and the desperation in her tone tugged at Charlotte’s heart. She’d been desperate a time or two in her life as well and knew how it felt.

“ I’m still here, Ms. Rossi.” Charlotte swallowed hard. So much for just saying no. She’d always been a sucker for a sob story. Yeah, and the money ain’t bad either. Ignoring the irritating voice in her head and telling herself that the money was not the only reason she was going to accept the offer, she said, “Okay, Ms. Rossi, what’s your address? And what time would you like for me to be there on Thursday?”

“You’ll do it? Oh, thank you, thank you! And please, just call me Emily.”

“Okay, Emily, but only if you call me Charlotte. Now, what’s that address?”

You’re such a hypocrite, Charlotte. Again Charlotte ignored the pesky voice and scribbled down the address and time. After once again reassuring the poor woman that she would be there on Thursday morning, she hung up the receiver.

Charlotte stared at the small stack of file folders she’d placed on the corner of her desk. Good thing she’d run that help-wanted ad, she decided. Now all she had to do was find a time to interview the prospects she’d chosen from the responses she’d received.

Two hundred dollars a day. Unbidden, Emily Rossi’s offer came to mind again, and Charlotte’s gaze slid over to the envelope from Cheré. Ignoring the letter wasn’t going to make it go away. With a sigh, Charlotte picked up a letter opener and the envelope, slid the tip of the opener beneath the flap, and ripped it open.

Maybe she was being a bit of a hypocrite about the money, but so what? For more years than Charlotte wanted to count, she had worked in the exclusive, historic Garden District, one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in New Orleans. Her regular clients paid her well, but this was the first time that she’d ever been offered that much money just to clean someone’s house. With a shake of her head, she pulled out the one page letter from inside the envelope and began reading.

Just as she had thought, Cheré was giving notice, but only one week’s notice. According to the letter, she’d been hired by an accounting firm in Atlanta and would be reporting to work in two weeks. When Charlotte read the last two lines of the neatly typed letter, her throat grew tight and tears blurred her vision.

I love you, Charlotte, and I’ll miss you. You’ve been like a mother to me, and I’ll never forget all that you’ve done for me.

Though Charlotte had often thought of Cheré as family, until now she had never realized that the bright, energetic young woman had considered her family as well.

Outside, a car door slammed.

Charlotte’s gaze flew to the window. “Oh, no,” she whispered. They were here and she wasn’t ready. Charlotte dropped the letter and hurried to the front window. Peeking out of the window, all she saw though was her neighbor across the street.

“Whew! False alarm, Sweety Boy,” Charlotte told the little green parakeet inside the birdcage next to the window.

The parakeet squawked and chirped as he sidled over to the edge of the cage. Charlotte smiled. “Yeah, yeah, what do you care, you little scamp?”

Turning away from the cage, she hurried back to the kitchen. For years she and her sister Madeline had taken turns hosting the family for lunch after church services on Sunday morning; it was a tradition that they had started when their children were young, and surprisingly enough, even now that their children were all adults, everyone usually showed up.

The family was growing by leaps and bounds, she thought with a smile as she grabbed two hot pads. From the oven she removed the huge roast she’d baked earlier that morning before she went to church, and carried it over to the kitchen cabinet. With her son Hank’s recent marriage to Carol, her nephew Daniel’s marriage to Nadia, and her niece Judith’s ongoing relationship with Billy Wilson, and NOPD patrolman, not to mention Daniel and Nadia’s two little ones, her sister Madeline and herself, the body count was up to ten.

Charlotte gingerly peeled back the foil from the steaming roast. Using an electric knife, she began slicing it. Everyone in the family had a partner now, everyone but Madeline . . . and everyone but her.

Unbidden, bittersweet memories of the past tugged at her emotions. She’d been engaged once, but thanks to Vietnam, the love of her life had not come home alive. But she’d had one night with him, the night before he’d left, and she would forever be grateful for it. Without that one night she wouldn’t have the precious gift of her son, Hank, who had proved to be the joy of her life.

A commotion at the front door jerked Charlotte back to the present.

“Mom?” a deep voice called out.

“Speak of the devil and he shall appear,” Charlotte murmured. And from the sounds of things, everyone else was following close behind.

“In the kitchen, son,” she called out.

 

Minutes later, the women were scurrying around setting out the food on the kitchen table buffet-style. From the living room, Charlotte could hear the rumble of male voices where the men had congregated. Charlotte would have loved to be a fly on the wall to hear what they were talking about.

With Hank being a doctor, Daniel a lawyer, and Billy a policeman, Charlotte couldn’t help but wonder just what the three men had in common to talk about.

Then she heard the distinct sound of the television, and she rolled her eyes when she recognized the voice of a well-known sports announcer followed by the roar of a crowd.

Of course. What else? She had all but forgotten that today was Super Bowl Sunday. Too bad the New Orleans Saints hadn’t made it to the Super Bowl, she thought. At least this year they had made it to the playoffs though, but only by the skin of their teeth.

At that moment Nadia’s four-year old son Davy burst into the kitchen. “Aunt Chardy! Mommy! Daddy Danol says I can eat in the living room with the guys and watch football.”

Charlotte smiled at the little boy. “Of course you can, honey. After all, you’re one of the guys too.”

Nadia laughed as she swung baby Daniella, the newest member of the family, up onto her shoulder to burp her. “Guess that means us girls have to stay holed up in the kitchen.”

“Mommy! Girls don’t play football.”

Nadia smiled at her little son indulgently.

Judith walked over to Davy and knelt down in front of him. “Girls may not play football,” she said tapping him on the nose with her forefinger, “but this girl likes to watch it.”

Davy placed his hands on his hips and frowned. “Aunt Jude, I know you a police ‘tective, but Daddy Danol says it’s a guy thing.”

Judith laughed. “That’s de-tective, you little scamp, but even girls like football too,” she said as she stood.

The little boy puffed up his chest. “Daddy Danol says one day I can play football too.”

“Humph! We’ll see about that,” Nadia and Madeline said at the same time. Then everyone laughed, and even though Charlotte was sure that Davy didn’t quite understand why they were laughing, he laughed too.

Nadia smiled at her little son. “Sweetheart, I think Aunt Chardy is ready for everyone to come into the kitchen for blessings and lunch. Would you like to go tell the guys it’s time to eat?”

Davy’s face brightened, and with an excited yelp, he ran out of the kitchen.

Minutes later, everyone gathered around the kitchen table. Charlotte smiled and nodded at Hank. “Would you say the blessings, son?”

Hank grinned. “Sure, Mom.” He wrapped his arm around Carol and pulled her close to his side. “Before I do though, Carol and I have an announcement to make.” His gaze held Charlotte’s and a mischievous look glimmered in his eyes. “Mom, how would you like to be a grandmother?”

Charlotte took a quick, sharp breath and tears stung her eyes as she glanced from Hank’s smug expression to Carol’s beaming face and back to Hank. “For true?” she exclaimed, her heart pounding with joy.

Both Hank and Carol laughed and nodded. “Yes, ma’am,” Hank responded with pride. “Carol is pregnant.”

Suddenly, cheers, laughter, and heartfelt words of congratulations erupted around the table as everyone took turns hugging Hank, Carol, and Charlotte.

A few minutes later, when everyone had quieted down again, Hank said, “Now, if everyone would bow their heads . . .”

Long after everyone had finished eating, had cheered for their favorite Super Bowl team, then went home, Charlotte wandered around in a daze.

“Finally,” she whispered, savoring the warm feeling within while she stared out of the front window at the sun sinking behind her neighbor’s oak tree. After so many years of longing to be a grandmother, she was finally going to have a grandchild.


On Tuesday morning, after she’d brushed her teeth, Charlotte stared at her image in the mirror above the sink as she applied her makeup. A grandmother. She was going to be a grandmother.

Charlotte tilted her head and narrowed her eyes. Did she look like a grandmother? She reached up and smoothed makeup across her forehead. Thanks to good genes, there were only a few wrinkles there. Her finger slid down to trace the ones near the outside corners of her eyes. Only a few there too.

After a finishing touch of lipstick, she picked up the hairbrush and began brushing her hair. Again, thanks to good genes, what little bit of gray she had blended with the honey-brown color.

Charlotte frowned when several strands refused to be tamed into submission. Her usual short, no-nonsense style had grown out a bit longer than she liked. She’d have to add a note to her to-do list to call her hairdresser for an appointment. Meanwhile . . . She picked up a can of hair spray and aimed the spray at the errant strands, then using her hair pick, she held the wayward strands down until the spray dried.

Finally satisfied and deciding that she was being silly about the whole appearance thing, she rolled her eyes and left the room. Who cared whether she looked like a grandmother or not? Certainly not the baby. That baby wouldn’t care what she looked like as long as it got lots of love and affection from her. Besides, she had work to do, and standing around worrying about her looks wouldn’t get it done.

Outside was a cold, drizzly day as Charlotte climbed in her van and drove to Bitsy Duhe’s home. Bitsy’s home was a very old, raised-cottage-style Greek Revival and was located on the same street where famed vampire novelist Anne Rice had once lived before she moved to California.

As usual, Bitsy, with her gray-blue hair and dressed in one of her many flowered dresses, was standing on the front gallery waiting for Charlotte to arrive.

Charlotte unloaded her supply carrier and vacuum cleaner, locked and slammed the rear door of the van, then trudged up the narrow sidewalk toward the porch. “Good morning,” she called out to the tiny birdlike woman as she climbed the steps. “And where is your sweater?” she added. “Aren’t you cold?”

“Oh, Charlotte, I’m too excited to be cold. You’ll never guess what’s happened.” In true Bitsy fashion she rushed on without giving Charlotte a chance to answer. “Bradley has made arrangements for me to fly to California and stay with him for two whole weeks.”

Charlotte figured that if she stopped on the porch to talk they would both end up catching a chill, so she headed straight for the front door, knowing that Bitsy would follow. Only when they were both inside did she respond. “Bitsy, that’s wonderful news.” She set the vacuum cleaner down in the center hallway. “When do you leave?”

Bitsy grinned from ear to ear. “Day after tomorrow. Can you believe it? In just two days I’ll be in sunny California, and I’ve got a million things to do before then.”

Charlotte was truly glad that Bitsy was going to visit her son, especially after the last time Bradley had paid a visit to his mother. At least now Bitsy didn’t still think that her son was trying to put her away into a retirement home.

Bitsy frowned. “One of the things on my list is to get that girl you use to do my hair. What’s her name again?”

“Valerie.”

Bitsy nodded. “Before you leave I need you to write down her name and phone number. I want the works this time—a haircut and a permanent.” She patted her blue-gray hair. “And I suppose a little color wouldn’t hurt either . . .” With a thoughtful frown she turned her hand palm up, curled her fingers, and stared at her fingernails. “And maybe even a manicure.”

For the remainder of the day, as Charlotte cleaned, Bitsy followed her around chattering about her upcoming trip and all of the things that she hoped to see and do. Charlotte’s only reprieve was when the phone rang and when Bitsy’s soap operas came on.

By the time Charlotte was ready to pack up and leave that afternoon, she could feel the beginnings of a headache coming on.

“Now you won’t forget to check on my house for me, will you?” Bitsy asked her for what Charlotte figured was the umpteenth time.

“No, ma’am,” Charlotte reassured her as she knelt down to rearrange her cleaning supplies in the supply carrier.

“You do still have that key I gave you and the security code, don’t you?”

Charlotte nodded. “And I have Bradley’s phone number and his cell phone number on my notepad,” she added, anticipating Bitsy’s next question. Charlotte stood. “By the way, I want to thank you for referring me to Emily Rossi and for the kind things you said about me to her.”

Bitsy waved a dismissing hand. “No problem. Everything I said is true.” Suddenly her face collapsed into a frown and she slowly shook her head. “That Emily is such a nice young woman,” she said. “And I’m glad that you agreed to work for her. She hasn’t had an easy life, you know. Her parents died when she was young, and she was raised by her grandmother. Then, when Emily was a senior in high school, poor Thelma—Thelma was her grandmother—anyway, Thelma passed away, God rest her soul, and Emily came to stay with me. It was the least I could do what with Thelma and me being best friends and neighbors for all those years. Why, even after Emily graduated and went off to college, she still came back and stayed with me during holidays and the summers.”

A sad little smile pulled at Bitsy’s lips. “Why, she’s been like a daughter to me—at least she used to be. Of course I don’t see her near as often as I used to, not since she married Robert.”

Charlotte suddenly went stone still. Then she swallowed hard and a feeling of foreboding came over her. “Robert? Emily’s husband’s name is Robert?” she asked Bitsy. “The Robert Rossi?”

Bitsy nodded, and a sudden chill settled in Charlotte’s stomach.

 

Chapter Two

 

“Now, Charlotte, just get that look off your face. You shouldn’t believe everything that you hear about the man. I know what people say about Robert,” Bitsy continued, “about him being a Mafia don and all and about him being so much older than Emily. Of course he is almost fifteen years older, but so what? My late husband, rest his soul, was ten years older than me.”

Bitsy waved her hand. “And that other business—you know—that gossip about Robert’s first wife and children disappearing.”

Though Charlotte knew she would regret asking, the words just popped out. “’Disappearing?’ I don’t remember anything about that.”

Bitsy sniffed as if it were no concern at all. “Well, there’s two versions. Some say she ran around on Robert, got pregnant by her lover, then took the two kids and ran away to South America with him. Of course others say that Robert had her and the baby murdered and stashed his two children away in a boarding school. But that’s all just a bunch of mean-spirited gossip--a bunch of hooey, if you ask me. Besides which, Emily is a sweet, kindhearted person, and she wouldn’t have married Robert if she thought for one moment that he’d done half of what he’s been accused of doing.”

Charlotte shuddered. She couldn’t believe that she hadn’t made the connection when she’d first talked to Emily, couldn’t believe that she’d actually accepted a job working for the Mafia. It was well-known that Robert Rossi was one of the wealthiest, most ruthless Mafiosi in the country.

And what if Bitsy was wrong? What if the rumors were true and he had murdered his first wife? After all, he had been the primary suspect in the murder of Roberto Rossi, his own father, and that wasn’t just gossip. In fact, it had been all over the television news and in the newspapers for weeks. Even the national media had picked it up. Of course, in the end, the courts had been unable to prove Robert’s guilt and he’d been acquitted.

Charlotte shuddered again. Emily might be sweet and kind, but according to everything she’d ever heard about Robert, he was anything but. Regardless of Bitsy’s rose-colored opinion of Emily, Charlotte figured that either Emily was blind, deaf, and dumb, or she just flat-out didn’t have good sense for marrying Robert Rossi in the first place. Charlotte also figured that she’d just made a huge mistake agreeing to work for Emily.

“Besides,” Bitsy went on, nothing was ever proven about his father’s murder. As for his wife and children, you and I both know that anything could have happened. Just because they disappeared doesn’t mean he had them killed.”

A shiver ran up Charlotte’s spine. If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck.

“But I guess I should warn you of one thing,” Bitsy said.

What now? Charlotte wondered.

“Because of the ugly rumors connected with the family, there will probably be bodyguards all over the place. Don’t be surprised if you get frisked before you’re allowed inside the house. Humph!” Bitsy made a face. “Why, last time I visited Emily, they even frisked me.” She suddenly chuckled. “Can you imagine anyone thinking that I could be some kind of hit woman?"

Only if your mouth counts as a lethal weapon.

Charlotte winced and was immediately sorry for the unkind thought. Bitsy was a terrible gossip but she was also a lonely old lady who had nothing better to do with her time.
“ Thanks for the warning,” Charlotte said with a forced smile. Since she figured she’d had enough gossip and enough of Bitsy for one day, she picked up her supply carrier and vacuum cleaner, then set out with purposeful steps toward the front door. “Have a good time in California,” Charlotte called out over her shoulder as she hurried out. Despite Bitsy’s flattering recommendation, Charlotte suddenly wished that the old lady had kept her mouth shut and never mentioned her to Emily Rossi.

 

Excerpt from Married to the Mop
Copyright 2005 by Barbara Colley

Kensington Publishing
January 2006
ISBN:
0-7582-0764-6


Excerpt Index: newMystery: Dusted to Death | Wash and Die | Scrub-a-Dub Dead
Maid for Murder | Death Tidies Up | Polished Off | Wiped Out
Married to the Mop | Women's Fiction: Rachel's War


 


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