Penelope placed her sweet tea and salad on an out-of-the-way table in the mall food court and wrestled her packages into the extra chair. Then she slid into the other one and leaned on her elbows. Why do I do this? It’s a madhouse in here this time of year with all the back-to-school shopping, and being Saturday just makes it worse. She sipped her tea and glanced around. Mothers with children and teens formed double lines at all the food booths. Babies in strollers screamed because of the noise, the heat, and probably their overdue feeding times. She closed her eyes. I could’ve waited on this trip to Little Rock. I could’ve shopped online. So what if I pay a little more in shipping to avoid all this?
She’d just slid a plastic fork out of its wrapping when her cell phone rang. “Penelope, where are you?” Cold fear knifed through her at the sound of Shana’s eerily flat voice.
“I came over to Little Rock this morning. What’s wrong?”
“We just got a call from the FBI agent in charge of the kidnapping.”
Penelope’s heart lurched. “They found Tabby?”
“No. They found her grandparents—murdered in the house they’d rented near Lake Como in Italy. Tabby wasn’t there.”
“Murdered? Gone?” The fork spun out of Penelope’s fingers.
“It looks like a robbery gone wrong.”
“But do they…I mean…”
“They don’t have any idea where Tabby is…or even if she’s still alive.” Shana’s voice broke then. “They won’t say it, but they’re just looking for her…for her little body.”
“Hush! Don’t even think it!” Penelope stood up and began to pace back and forth.
“Peter’s…I’ve never seen him like this. Losing Tabby is like losing her mother all over again.”
“He has you now.” Why did I say that? She’s right. Bethany was his first love.
Shana seemed to read Penelope’s mind. “Bethany was his first love, and Tabby’s living proof of what they shared. I’ll always understand that.”
“It was a stupid thing to say. I’m sorry. Look, what can I do?”
“There’s nothing anyone can do. I just wanted you to know.”
“Have you called Ivana? Or Mary Lynn?”
“I called you first.”
“Do you want me to call them?”
“No, I’ll take care of it.”
“Look, Shana, I’m done here. I’ll be home in about an hour.”
“I’m in Russellville with Peter. He’s finishing a job here. The agent called his cell.”
“Shana, it’ll be all right. I’m sure of it.”
For a moment Penelope thought Shana had hung up. Finally, “You’re the only one who’s sure of anything then. I’ll talk to you later.” The line went dead.
Sam sat at the kitchen table reading Wednesday’s Bugle. “When did you get here?” Penelope asked as he got up and took her armload of packages.
“About an hour ago. Jake said you’d gone to Little Rock.” He took her face in his hands and kissed her.
“Why are you here this time?” She slipped out of his arms and went to the refrigerator for a bottle of water.
“Does there have to be a reason?”
“There usually is, and it’s not me. Listen, Shana called and…”
“I know about Tabby’s grandparents.”
Penelope closed the refrigerator and leaned against the door. “I won’t even ask how.”
“I couldn’t tell you anyway.”
“That’s why you’re here then. So what do you think? Shana said it looked like a robbery gone wrong.”
He shrugged. “It could be.”
“And they took Tabby for insurance?”
“And they’ll get rid of her when they don’t need her anymore.”
Sam didn’t reply.
She held the cold plastic bottle to her forehead. “Dear God.”
Sam crossed the kitchen and took her in his arms again. “I’ll be here a few days. I guess you have an empty room since it’s Saturday, and the place is empty.”
Penelope nodded. “Nothing until Fall Festival in October.”
His arms tightened around her. “I wish I could tell you everything will be all right.”
She slumped against him. “Nothing will ever be all right again. Never.”
Jake suggested the Sit-n-Swill for supper. When Penelope said she didn’t feel like being around people, he said, “Honeychild, sitting at home brooding isn’t going to help that little girl. It’s not going to help Shana and Peter either. You’ve got to be the strong one.”
“I’m tired of being strong, Daddy.”
He sighed and caressed her shoulders. “Some people are meant to be that way, and you’re one of them. I don’t know what I’d have done without you all those months your mother was sick…was dying. You kept me going.”
“You think it was easy for me?”
“I saw it eating at you, but I needed you, Nellie. We both did.”
Sam shifted in his chair. “A beer and a Reuben sounds good to me.”
“I don’t care.” Penelope’s head went down on her arms. “I just don’t care anymore.”
“I’ll go change my shirt,” Jake said.
When he’d gone, Sam circled the table and lifted Penelope to her feet, cradling her in his arms. “Nell, Jake’s right. Shana and Peter are going to need the people around them to hang together.”
“Why does it always have to be me? I’m tired.”
“I’m tired, too.”
Penelope pulled back to look at him. Expressionless eyes in a face more lined than she remembered from even a few months before, told her he meant what he said. “Why, Sam?”
“Story for another time,” he said.
She placed her fingertips on his face and began a futile effort to smooth the lines. “I’ve always taken you for granted, haven’t I?”
“I think you see me as more than I am. Nobody has all the answers, Nell.”
“Not even a guy who knows things, huh?”
“Not even him.” He kissed her. “I come back here to hold you and take in some of your strength. Then I go back out there and try to do the impossible.”
“What’s the impossible?”
“A lot of things. Almost everything.”
They sprang apart as Jake came back to the kitchen. “Don’t mind me,” he said. “I see nothing, hear nothing, speak nothing.”
“You’re a fraud, Daddy, and you know it.”
He grinned and reached for his new hounds tooth driving cap on the rack by the back door. “Let’s get this show on the road.”
Millie Dancer dropped into the fourth chair at their table as Hank Williams mourned his love’s cheatin’ heart. “I stopped by the B&B this morning. Your watch cat showed me his fangs.”
“Abijah has definite preferences.”
“He prefers nobody comes in and out except you. Anyway, I wanted to run an idea by you.”
“Shoot.” Penelope dipped into the basket of chips in the middle of the table.
“Well, I know Prissy Pendleton is doing a Fall Extravaganza to incorporate Halloween and Thanksgiving—though I’m not sure how the two can mesh. Anyway, I was thinking of having a Halloween party at the Sit-n-Swill. For adults, of course.”
“No, although I think the people who’d come would be those who patronize us regularly.”
“They haven’t been around in a while, but I’d advertise, so they might show up. They don’t usually cause any trouble. It’s not a real rough bunch anymore. I was thinking of a costume contest or maybe showing a horror movie. We might even tell ghost stories.”
“Vincent Ives still haunting your fireplace?”
Millie laughed but didn’t meet Penelope’s eyes. “You know he’s not.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, I’m sure. So what do you think about the party idea?”
“Halloween is on a school night this year, you know.”
“That’s the whole point. The trick or treating will wrap up early, and the party can start later but not too late.” Millie leaned toward Penelope. “See?”
“I guess so.”
“I can’t think of anyone with small children who would come anyway—except for Harry and Mary Lynn. I’m still getting used to thinking about them as parents.”
“They’re still getting used to being parents.” Penelope snickered. “There’s a reason God gives children to the young.”
“They’re doing all right, aren’t they?”
“Sure, they are. The girls are settling in, but it’s not like starting with a clean slate.”
“Ellie still has to testify against her uncle or whoever Archie is, doesn’t she?”
“Cousin. Yes, unfortunately it’s still hanging over her head, and until it’s done and over, she’s not going to move on completely.”
“I thought maybe Mary Lynn would put both of them in school in town when school started this year.”
“They’re more comfortable in familiar surroundings, and besides, Evie soaked up kindergarten while she was there unofficially last year, so she’s unofficially in first grade.”
“I don’t really understand that.”
“The Possum Hollow school flies under the radar in a lot of ways. They make decisions based on what’s good for the individual student. Nobody in town asks any questions.”
“I guess that’s all right.”
“It’s worked so far.” Penelope studied Millie’s eager face. “You don’t know about Tabby Taliaferro, do you?”
“No! Did they find her?”
Penelope looked around to see who else was in the bar, but it was still relatively empty, so she gave Millie the story in a few well-chosen sentences.
“Oh, no! Oh, that’s awful! Poor Shana and Peter.”
Penelope opened her mouth to say more, but Sam caught her eye and shook his head almost imperceptibly.
“The FBI hasn’t given up, haven they?”
Penelope shrugged. “I hope not.”
“Another beer, Jake?” Sam asked.
Millie scooped up the empties. “I’ll get them.”
“The less said, the better,” Sam said when she’d disappeared behind the bar.
“I understand, but she had to know. Everybody’s going to know sooner or later.”
“It’s so darned unfair!”
An unfathomable sadness filled his eyes. “Yep, that’s what it is.”
“Let me know if I can help with the party,” Penelope said to Millie as they left.
“I will. And tell Shana when you talk to her that Mike and I are praying for Tabby.”
“Thanks, I will.”
Jake went to his room as soon as they got home, but Sam took Penelope’s arm and guided her toward the dark stairs. “We’ve got to quit meeting like this,” he said as he settled onto the third-from-the-top step and circled her with his arms.
“I don’t care where we meet as long as we do it,” Penelope murmured, leaning against him and wishing her heart didn’t always speed up when he touched her.
“I wasn’t criticizing what you said to Millie tonight.”
“I know, and I agree with you—the less said, the better.”
“Right. I remember once seeing an old poster from World War II in a magazine. It said ‘Loose lips sink ships’.”
“You like history?”
“Well, I majored in it.”
“How did you end up teaching medieval history?”
“When I did my graduate work, I specialized in that time period. Don’t ask me why, but it fascinated me then. I wrote my dissertation on the different levels of knighthood.”
Penelope squirmed around until she was facing him. “You’re Dr. Sam?”
He repositioned her in his arms. “Yeah.”
“So what you’re doing now, whatever that is, is totally opposite of what you planned?”
He put his lips against the nape of her neck. “The road of life has a lot of twists and turns, Nell.”
“I can’t argue with that.”
He reached under her collar and felt for the locket chain. “Still wearing this, huh?”
“I never take it off.”
“I meant it, you know. Mae hyn yn fy annwyl. ‘This is my beloved.’”
“I tell myself that when I can’t sleep at night.”
“When you can’t sleep at night?”
“I think about you all the time, Sam, especially when you’re not here. I worry about you.”
“Don’t.” His warm breath on her neck made her tense briefly.
“That’s blessed easy for you to say. I think about you leaving and never coming back. I’d never know what happened to you. I don’t want to live with that.”
“You won’t have to.”
“You’re sure of that, are you?”
“As sure as I can be.” His hands slid from her shoulders down her arms and back up, but they didn’t stray. “Nell, just hang on for a little longer.”
He turned her toward him and began to kiss her, but he didn’t say he wanted her. She wondered if the omission was significant. Much later, when they parted at the top of the stairs, he seemed to be drinking in her face, as if he were memorizing every feature. Then he touched her cheek gently and walked away.
Despite all indications he’d be staying a while, Sam was gone the next morning, and he hadn’t left a note. Before early Mass started, Penelope knelt and tried to pray the rosary, but her mind kept drifting to Sam. I can’t stand this much longer. Sam comes, he goes, Tabby’s gone, and I’m supposed to be strong for everybody. Nothing makes sense anymore.
On Monday morning, she stopped by the police station on her way to see Shana at the library and confronted her son in his office. “Bradley, I know you can’t answer me, but I’m going to ask you anyway. Who is Sam, and why does he seem to know everything that’s going on?”
Detective Bradley Pembroke rolled a ballpoint pen between his fingers and didn’t meet his mother’s eyes. “If you know I can’t answer you, why are you asking?”
“He magically appeared at the B&B Saturday while I was in Little Rock, said he already knew about Tabby, and indicated he’d be here for a few days. Sunday morning when I got up, he was gone. He didn’t even leave a note.”
“Would it help if I said all that’s news to me?”
“I don’t know. He says you’re a good cop, and for what it’s worth, I agree with him.”
“Thank you, Mother.” His face lit up.
“Is he a good cop?”
Bradley’s eyes dropped to his desk. “I can’t answer that.”
“Yes, you can, but you won’t. It’s all right. I understand. At least, I think I do. But all this is eating me up. Daddy says I’m the strong one, but I’m not. And Sam says he comes to get some of that strength, but I don’t really believe him.”
“One of these days, he’ll leave and never come back, and I…”
Bradley reached across the desk and touched her arm. “He won’t do that if he can help it, Mother.”
“I never knew where your father was or whose bed he was in, just that it wasn’t mine. And now I know he’s out at Pembroke Point for all eternity, but it doesn’t make me feel any better.”
Bradley’s eyes met hers. “It doesn’t make me feel any better either, but I’ve moved on. You have, too, I hope.”
“I thought so. It’s just that I don’t know what I’m moving on toward. I’m glad you have Rosabel.”
“She’s the best thing that ever happened to me.” The stern detective voice softened.
“I know it.” She stood up. “I’m going over to the library to see Shana.”
“Rosie’s going to go by before her shift.”
“I like the way you’ve all become real friends, you and Rosabel and Peter and Shana.”
“That’s part of the moving on, I guess.” He leaned back in his chair. “You’re all right then?”
“I’ll make Swedish meatballs some night this week if you and Rosabel want to come for dinner.” She waved over her shoulder as she left his office.
Penelope found Shana shelving books in an empty library. “We’re hanging in there,” Shana said. “What else can we do?”
“I don’t know.” Penelope toed a step-stool closer and sat down. “I wish there was something somebody could do.”
“Sam said to say as little as possible to anybody.”
“Sam? How is he involved with this?” But as soon as the question was out, Penelope knew the answer.
Shana shoved another book into place on the shelf. “He came by Sunday morning and…”
“So that’s where he went.” Penelope’s stomach rolled.
“Are we on the same page here?”
“He was at the B&B when I got home Saturday, and he already knew about Tabby. He gave me reason to believe he’d be here a while, but when I came down on Sunday morning, he was gone.”
“He showed up at our place around nine-thirty and stayed about an hour.” Shana leaned on the book cart. “Maybe I shouldn’t have said anything.”
“Do you think he’s FBI?” Penelope asked.
“Peter sort of leans that way.”
“So why did he come if he’s not officially involved in the search for Tabby?”
“He asked a lot of questions about the Bainbridges. Peter couldn’t answer all of them, and he’d already told the FBI agent in charge of the case everything he knew.”
“But Sam asked different questions?”
“I’m not sure. I wasn’t there for the first interrogation or whatever you want to call it. We weren’t married then, remember, and I drove up when I got off work that day. The FBI agent had come and gone. He talked to me later.”
“So what’s Peter’s take on Sam?”
“He thinks he’s undercover FBI.”
Penelope put her head in her hands. “That’s what I was afraid of.”
“It makes sense when you remember things he did and said when he stashed us in Eureka Springs after the fire at Pembroke Point.” Shana emptied the cart of its last book. “Come on back to the desk. I made coffee.”
“Bradley knows more about Sam than he’s telling me.”
“Well, he can’t, can he? I mean, if Sam really is undercover, and Brad knows it, he can’t let it out.”
“I guess not.”
Shana poured two cups of coffee and handed one to Penelope. “He did say…maybe I shouldn’t tell you this, but I know you won’t repeat it.”
“Of course not.”
“He said if Tabby had been…killed…they’d have found her by now.”
“So he thinks she’s still alive.”
Shana hesitated. “He said he’d read the Italian police report and agrees it was a robbery gone wrong. But he says what’s missing is interviews with the staff—a cook, a maid, a gardener, and a chauffeur—and he thinks that’s strange.”
“They might have seen something?”
“No—he doesn’t think Tabby was ever at the villa, and he doesn’t understand why the police haven’t pursued that.”
“I don’t understand how he got hold of that blessed police report so quickly.”
“None of it makes sense, Penelope.”
“For what it’s worth, I’m glad Sam’s involved.”
“I guess I am, too. He did keep us alive in Eureka Springs, didn’t he?”
“The jury’s still out on that one,” Penelope said, thinking of the anti-climactic night at Pembroke Point following her return to Amaryllis. “Look, next time Peter stays over, give me a call, and I’ll make something special for supper.” She hugged Shana. “Sam’s on the case, and I’ve got St. Jude busy, too.”
“The patron saint of hopeless causes.”
“Before you panic, just remember he always comes through.”
Shana’s eyes filled. “I hope so. Peter and I are just hanging on by our fingernails.”