Authors: Ann B. Ross
Miss Julia Strikes Back
Miss Julia's School of Beauty
Miss Julia Meets Her Match
Miss Julia Hits the Road
Miss Julia Throws a Wedding
Miss Julia Takes Over
Miss Julia Speaks Her Mind
Miss Julia Stands Her Ground
Published by the Penguin Group
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First published in 2008 by Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
Copyright Â© Ann B. Ross, 2008
All rights reserved
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING IN PUBLICATION DATA
Ross, Ann B.
Miss Julia paints the town / Ann B. Ross.
1. Springer, Julia (Fictitious character)âFiction. 2. WomenâNorth CarolinaâFiction. 3. North CarolinaâFiction. 4. WidowsâFiction. I. Title.
813'.54âdc22Â Â Â Â Â Â Â 2007040506
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This is for Clare Ferraro, Carolyn Carlson and
Ann Day, my guardian angels. Thank you.
Running my hand down the placket of my dress to make sure I hadn't missed a button, I walked down the hall, through the living room and, at the sight of Sam, came to an abrupt stop in the dining room archway.
“What are you doing?”
Sam lowered the
and looked at me over his glasses. “Having breakfast, and good morning to you, Mrs. Murdoch.”
My eyes swept the table where another place was set and the sideboard where chafing dishes steamed from the sterno flames under them. “Yes,” I said with a distracted wave of my hand, “and good morning to you, too. Why are we eating in here?”
“I don't know, Julia. Lillian told me to sit in here, so here I am.” He gave the paper a quick snap and turned a page. “I always do as I'm told.” I rolled my eyes.
“Sausage and eggs're over there,” he said with a nod toward the sideboard. “It's clear and sunny, about fifty-eight degrees. No rain expected.” He looked up and smiled. “And my day just started when you walked in.”
“Oh, you,” I said, but I patted his shoulder as I went over to pick up a plate, giving thanks again for such a husband. Maybe some of his good nature would rub off on me.
Lillian pushed through the swinging door from the kitchen. “Thought I heard you in here,” she said, setting a basket of hot biscuits on the table. “Y'all mighty late this mornin'. I already got Lloyd fed and off to school an' Miss Hazel Marie, too. She helpin' with some little chil'ren's readin' lessons.”
“I guess I am late, what with the whole household being rearranged in my absence,” I said, somewhat crabbily since I'd not yet had my coffee. I put a spoonful of eggs on my plate and turned as Lillian started back to the kitchen. “Wait a minute, Lillian. What's gotten into you to serve breakfast in here? We've been eating in the kitchen for ever so long, and putting us in the dining room only means that many more steps for you.”
“No'm, it don't. It jus' mean I have my kitchen to myself like I like it, without nobody comin' over to get coffee or help theyselves, or help me out when I don't need no help. Ever'body keep gettin' in my way when I'm tryin' to cook. And 'sides, that little boy ought to be learnin' what a dinin' room is for, which is for dinin', even though you don't hardly ever use it no more.”
Well, that set me back on my heels, because she was right. A good part of my agenda for Hazel Marie's boy consisted of instructing him, by word and by example, in the finer things of life. Gracious living, along with observance of social and moral proprieties and conventions, was high on my list. And, assuredly, sitting down to a properly laid table in a restful environment would be considered an important part of anybody's idea of the decorous conduct of one's life. And, I conceded, it would be a welcome change from the usual hectic kitchen scene with everybody eating on the run, jumping up and down from the table and talking over each other.
“Well,” I said, “well, I expect you're right. Thank you, Lillian, this is certainly pleasant and quite proper, too.”
“Yessum,” she said, pushing through the door, “that's what I mean.”
As I took my place at the table, Sam gave me a sweet smile. He said, “Lillian keeps us on the straight and narrow, doesn't she?”
“Yes, she does.” I picked up my napkin, noting that it was one of my good linen ones. “I'm not sure I like it, though, since I should've thought of it myself. Is the coffee hot?”
“Hot as hell and black as night,” he said, lifting the silver pot from its trivet and filling my cup.
I had to laugh, although I'm not usually in a jocular mood so early in the day.
He refilled his own cup, then said, “Have you seen the paper this morning?”
“Why, no, Sam. You have it.”
“Well, so I do,” he said, as if he'd just noticed it in his hands. “Anyway, looks like our new mayor has taken the bit in his teeth. In spite of having run as a hometown boy, he's coming down clearly on the side of big-time developers. Listen to this, âI'm doing what I think is best for Abbotsville.' How do you like that?”
“What's he talking about?”
“Tearing down the old courthouse so some New Jersey developers can build on the site.”
“New Jersey! What're they doing in Abbotsville? I declare, Sam, I can't believe the mayor would be so foolish. He ought to know better.” Stirring cream into my coffee, I sighed and went on. “What do they want to build?”
“Condominiums. Eight floors of them.”
I nearly choked. “A
Why, Sam, there's not a building on Main Street taller than two stories. That thing would stick up like a sore thumb. The mayor is getting above himself. Nobody'll stand for it.”
“Well, I don't know.” Sam studied the article intently. “Says here that several Main Street merchants are all for it. They're figuring that condominium residents translate into downtown shoppers.”
“Yes,” I said, getting riled just thinking about changes to our town, “and where are they going to park? And what're they going to shop for? There's nothing on Main Street but antique shops and craft stores, and when you've seen one, you've seen them all. We have to do something, Sam. They'll destroy all that gorgeous landscaping the garden club put in, and the gazebo, Sam! We worked hard to make the grounds a showplace, put up all those plaques and markers and planted about a hundred azaleas. I can't tell you how many fund-raisers we had to have to get all that done. And now all those New Jersey people'll come in here and bulldoze everything, tearing down a historic landmark and throwing up something that'll look nice for about two years. Then they'll be gone with their profit and we'll be left to live with an eyesore and a blot on the landscape from then on.”
Envisioning what our small town with its three stoplights on Main Street could become, I said, “Why, Sam, they can't possibly consider tearing down the courthouse. We may have a new one a few streets over, but the old one ought to stay where it is. It's a stately building, and wasn't it built around the turn of the century? The twentieth century, I mean, which would make it about a hundred years old. So it's an antique and ought to be preserved and put to good use.”
Sam looked over his glasses at me. “I'm not sure it's quite that old, Julia. But what good use?”
“Well, I don't know,” I said, thinking about it for the first time. “I'd have to give it some thought. But there's plenty of space for meeting rooms. The garden clubs could use it and Scout groups and all kinds of civic and service clubs.”
Still intent on the newspaper, Sam mumbled, “They like to meet where they can get lunch.”
“Oh, I know,” I said, fired up with a new thought. “Archives, Sam! It's perfect as a place to keep historical records and, if you ever finish your legal history of the county, that could be in there, too. Wouldn't that work?”
“It might. Why don't you propose it?”
“Well, I just might.”
“Before you get too carried away,” Sam said, turning a page of the paper, “remember that the building's had problems for years. Every time the wind blows, the whole place begins to creak, and I always used to check the weather along with the docket. That's why the county built a new one, you know, too expensive to repair the old one. Uh-oh,” Sam said, sitting up straight. “Listen to this, Julia. Assured Estate Planners may be in trouble.”
“Who're they?” I asked, but I was barely interested, for my mind was still on the arrogance of our new mayor and how he might be brought down a notch or two.
Instead of answering, Sam turned a page and kept on reading. “Says here that the office has been closed for over a week and nobody's answering the phone. Investors haven't received their interest checks and can't find anybody to tell them why. That doesn't sound good.”
“It certainly doesn't. People ought to be more careful where they put their money.” I helped myself to another biscuit. “Pass the butter, please, Sam. But when you invest in a fly-by-night outfit, you have to take your chances.”
Sam was so wrapped up in what he was reading that he forgot the butter. “Not so fly-by-night, Julia, or at least it didn't seem so, considering who owns it. It's a fairly new corporation, but it's done well. Listen to this. One investor says he gave the company his entire life's savings, and he's not the only one. Looks like millions of dollars may be missing, and they're filing a complaint with the North Carolina Secretary of State's office, alleging fraud. That'll get some action, if they can find the owner.”
That got my attention. “You mean the owner's missing? Who is it?”
Sam looked over the paper at me. “Richard Stroud.”
I felt the bottom drop out. “Richard Stroud? You mean,
Richard?” No wonder the name, Assured Estate Planners, had sounded familiar.
Sam nodded. “It's too bad, Julia. I know how much you think of Helen, and she'll surely suffer from this, even if there's a good explanation.”
“Oh, Sam, she'll not only suffer, she'll be tarred with the same brush. I can't believe this.” Then realizing what he'd said, I asked, “What kind of good explanation?”
“He could be sick or away at a business meeting,” Sam said, but not with conviction.
“And his office help also sick at the same time or away at the same meeting? No, Sam, this is bad news for Helen.” As I swallowed hard, struggling to regain my composure, another thought occurred to me. “She's not missing, too, is she?”
“Doesn't say. Just that no one answers at the Stroud home. She's not mentioned at all.”
That was a relief, because a respectable woman like Helen wouldn't want her name to appear in a newspaper unless she'd been elected to an office, or won a blue ribbon at a flower show or been recognized for some honor. Or died.
But my relief didn't last long, as I thought of the consequences of Richard Stroud's sudden and unexplained absence. I rose from the table. “I'm going over to Helen's. She needs friends at a time like this.”
I stumbled away from my chair, anxiety flooding my soul, determined, though, to get to the bottom of whatever was going on. Helen was one of the most admired women in town and a dear friend of mine. I wanted to offer her what comfort and support I could, which under the circumstances might not be much. I didn't intend to mention it to her, because it would shame her beyond words, but if Richard Stroud had truly flown the coop, he'd taken some of my money with him.