Meet Grace’s free spirited aunt, an aging hippie who hasn’t forgotten how to party hearty.
After the fuss had subsided and the cops had zoomed away, Grace permitted Nick to drive her home and escort her to the front door, mainly because her legs kept folding. Flashing a bright smile, intended to reassure him she had no intention of sneaking over to the security kiosk as soon as his back was turned, she slipped inside. With a jaunty wave and a nod, she closed the door, silencing his orders to stay safely inside. One way or another she intended to watch the video while Nick was at his meeting.
With the abrupt release of tension, adrenaline after burn struck with a vengeance. She remembered the symptoms from the last time she was shot at—clattering teeth, trembling that wouldn’t quit, legs that refused to obey her brain’s commands. This time, she knew enough to sink into a chair before collapsing. Murphy must have sensed her mood because he scooted straight upstairs, probably to burrow into the off-limit territory of her bed.
While she waited for the weakness to subside, she congratulated herself for holding it together throughout the shooting and its aftermath—the initial shock of realizing she could have died, then the 9-1-1 call, followed by the hunt for the bullet, which Nick had found embedded in the wall. During the police debriefing, she’d kept her cool while Nick denied having enemies who might want to take him out, a little too strenuously, in her opinion. Then again, who’d be dumb enough to shoot out a window in broad daylight? Consensus was that the shooter must be a kid messing with daddy’s gun.
She wasn’t one hundred percent convinced but hey, what did she know? Men in blue were on top of things. Nick, apparently unconcerned, had hustled off to prepare for his meeting, and here she was, wasting her narrow window of opportunity by having a delayed stress reaction.
She needed to pick Auntie Beth’s devious brain for ideas.
Once her nerves settled down, Grace tottered into the kitchen on rubbery legs. At the sight of a well-padded figure draped in psychedelic polyester, an involuntary smile curled her lips. Auntie Beth was bellied up to the counter, stirring vigorously.
Her aunt’s fluffy white curls scraped into a pony tail, angelic expression, and bright green eyes surrounded by a network of fine lines hoodwinked most people into believing the aging hippie was the guileless, grandmotherly type who thrived on baking pies, packaging potpourri, and reading fairy tales to small children.
Grace knew better. In her opinion it was reasonable to ask her more-or-less permanent house guest to lock the back door at bedtime, quit smoking illicit substances, and walk Murphy every day, preferably accompanied by a pooper-scooper.
So far, she was batting zero on all counts.
Auntie Beth scraped out a mass of brownish glop onto a pan of what appeared to be brownies. Grace’s mouth watered. Chocolate would finish off her recovery nicely. She moved forward.
Auntie Beth’s radar must have been working overtime because she whipped her head around and studied her niece. “Why are you walking all funny like that?”
“Am not,” Grace said. She would not reveal that she’d been shot at.
“Yes you are.” Auntie Beth’s eyes narrowed. “You let Nick jump you.”
“I don’t blame you in the least, dear. Any woman in her right mind would kill for a chance to jump a stud muffin like Nick. No wonder your legs are rubbery.”
Grace wondered how Nick would enjoy being called a stud muffin. “Nothing happened.”
“Then why are you doing the post-nookie shuffle?” Auntie Beth’s eyes gleamed. “Here’s a little tip, dear. After a long dry spell, you need to ease gently into the horizontal boogie.”
Grace swallowed a moan. “Nothing remotely resembling a boogie happened, either horizontal, vertical, or upside down.” She changed the subject. “What are you doing?”
Auntie Beth stirred hard, avoiding eye contact. “Making brownies.” She gave Grace the full impact of a round-eyed gaze. “Tomorrow’s my turn to host the Canasta Crones. My goodness, those women are power eaters.”
Another adrenaline rush at the thought of the Crones restored strength to Grace’s legs. “Food consumption would drop if your buddies smoked less weed and played more cards.”
Sunlight turned Auntie Beth’s white hair into a halo of deceptive innocence. Guilt stained her cheeks brilliant pink. “I have no idea what you mean.” Her gaze slid to the back door as if contemplating a quick breakaway.
Grace glanced at her watch and sighed. Although time was zipping along, keeping her favorite relative on the straight and narrow was more urgent. She stepped between Auntie Beth and freedom. “I know what happens at your so-called card nights.”
Auntie Beth moistened her lips. “Are you talking about old Trudy’s medicinal marijuana? It’s the only thing short of surgery that’ll ease the pain of her arthritic knee.”
“Hmmmm. And I don’t suppose you smoke any yourself.” To speed things along, Grace ejected the beaters from the hand-mixer into the sink. A splash of foamy backwash dripped off the counter and onto the floor.
Auntie Beth sidestepped the puddle. “You seem a tad tense, dear. Hot sex should have mellowed you out.”
Grace wiped her hands on a dishtowel as she issued an ultimatum. “No more marijuana, or the Crones will have to find another place to play cards.”
“A toke or two would loosen you up.”
Blood rushed to Grace’s head, blurring her vision. No wonder Dad had asked his sister to pack her bags and leave his house. Maybe it had been a mistake opening her home and her heart to her free-spirited aunt. Since Grace didn’t trust herself to speak, she stuck two fingers into the frosting, scooping up as much as possible, and popped the mass of goop into her mouth.
Molars tingled, taste buds quivered. When her jaws unlocked, the chocolaty mass melted on her tongue. She closed her eyes to savor the bliss. Somewhere nearby, a choir of angels sang a rhapsody. Ragged nerve endings stretched, unsnarled, relaxed. Endorphins pulsed through her system bringing tidings of goodwill. The urge to throttle her aunt faded.
Chalk up another life saved to the velvety magic of chocolate.
She opened her eyes in time to hear Auntie Beth say, “Is anything wrong, dear?”
Her aunt’s voice coupled with the sugar hit jolted Grace back to reality. She didn’t know how much time she had before Nick’s meeting ended, so she shelved the lecture in favor of describing the salient points of her morning. She skipped the shooting part and wrapped up with Nick’s promise to find the dogs and his refusal to let her watch the video.
When she stopped talking Auntie Beth gave her a searching stare. “What will you do?”
Grace shrugged. “I need to see that video. Ruby-Pearl might return early. I can’t twiddle my thumbs waiting for Nick.” Since she was running out of sensible options, she said, “I want you to create a diversion while I sneak in and watch the footage while Nick’s at his meeting.”
Auntie Beth’s eyes crinkled. “Bitchin’.” She plunked a handful of cutlery in the sink, and faced Grace, her eyes alight. “I was born to create diversions. Donnelly women are known worldwide as women of action.”
“There’s one minor issue.” Grace wiped the counter as she spoke. “By now, Nick’s already phoned Milt—that’s the day guard—to warn him not to let me in.”
Auntie Beth raised her head, looking remarkably like a setter on point. “Are you talking about the new guy Nick hired a couple of months ago? Milt Brozowsky? Can’t be a day over sixty-seven, white wavy hair, great pecs?”
“Sounds about right, but I can’t vouch for the pecs.”
Auntie Beth bared small white teeth in a vindictive smile. “I can.” She slammed a drawer shut. “I dated the rat-fink five times, even let him score a home run. Dumped him last week when I learned he was two-timing me with a slutty widow, Leona Finkelstein, from Sea Isle City. Trudy saw them having dinner together.”
“More like totally pissed off.” Auntie Beth reached for a small bowl containing candy-coated nuggets and scattered them over the frosting. She cracked one with her teeth and crunched. Her eyes narrowed to tiny slits. “I’d like to squash him like a bug.”
Auntie Beth gave a wide, toothy smile. “This calls for ultra-devious diversionary tactics.”
A trickle of worry fluttered down Grace’s spine. “What do you mean?”
Auntie Beth’s grin widened. “Let’s call it a surprise. Meet me at the security kiosk in, say, one hour.”
Auntie Beth gave it some thought. “Okay. I’m a real fast worker when motivated.”