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Authors: Katherine Hall Page

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Will and Sophie had limited themselves to two of the many gatherings they'd had invitations for and the Beauregards' was one. Will had wanted Sophie to see the rooftop garden atop a beautifully restored nineteenth-century house in the Victorian part of the historic district. It had been lovely, but even lovelier to get home for some rare quality time alone.

Sophie was about to say something to the effect that it had been a great party, but Miss Laura in typical fashion continued to talk. “Of course Will won't be any freer after New Year's than now. The case won't be wrapped up, so it will just be you and me, sugar.” She'd linked her arm through Sophie's and they'd entered the dining room as BFFs to all appearances.

Sophie shook off the jealousy that was threatening to creep
over her like poison ivy. It was unlikely that Laura knew anything more about Will's work than Sophie. She was just being, well, Miss Laura.

Randy leaned back in his chair, the picture of a man who had consumed a very satisfactory meal. “Wasn't just taking in the poinsettias at Saint John's I heard, Sophie. Next day was First African Baptist, I believe. You need to hit Temple Israel, too. Oldest in Georgia and one of the oldest in the country, period. Don't skip the Unitarians, the Jingle Bell church, since you're on a religious kick.”

How did Randy know she had gone to First Baptist with Lydia? Ruth had probably mentioned St. John's. Savannah was feeling smaller and smaller. Sophie kept her tone light. “I do mean to see everything in town, including the places of worship, but a Jingle Bell church is a new name. I'll add it to my list.”

Patty Sue, flushed from preprandial cocktails served in front of the largest Christmas tree Sophie had seen in a private home, and the excellent burgundy that had liberally accompanied dinner, spoke up. “I'll bet you've always thought ‘Jingle Bells' was written up north, but it was written right here! Just before the war. James Pierpont might have been born a Yankee but he was the music director of the church; his brother was the minister. James even served in the Confederate army!”

Sophie assumed when Patty Sue said “the war,” she meant the Civil War, although in Patty Sue's mind it was the “War of Northern Aggression.”

“That's fascinating. There wouldn't have been much snow to dash through, though!”

“It's a pretty church,” Will said. “We'll go there soon. Pierpont composed the carol when the church was on its original site at Oglethorpe Square. The church fell on hard times with a dwindling congregation—abolitionists not being real popular. It was sold and moved to Troup Square. The Unitarians, merged now with the Universalists, were able to buy it back in the late 1990s.”

Sophie smiled proudly at him. “If the PI thing doesn't work out, you could certainly be a tour guide.”

“That pretty much applies to any real Savannahian,” Will said. “But I'll give it some thought. I'd like to drive one of those horse-drawn victorias.”

They moved out to the back veranda for coffee. The weather was so mild Sophie didn't need the jacket she'd brought. She leaned back against the soft cushion on the wicker armchair and felt herself relax. It was hard to believe that a short while ago she'd been almost desperate to spend Christmas in Connecticut. Now she was looking forward to her first one here surrounded by her new family.

She hadn't been able to get time alone with her father-in-law to talk about family history, but it didn't seem so important anymore. Her eyelids felt heavy and she heard Will say, “Y'all have put my bride to sleep! Time to go home.”

“For some shut-eye, bro?” Randy teased and everyone laughed, including Sophie. Maybe shut-eye later, but that was not what was on her mind now.

As they were leaving, Gloria said, “You'll need to squeeze Laura in. She came with Randy and Carlene, but they're staying on to pick me some more holly and mistletoe for our Christmas Day open house.”

Will had told Sophie that Christmas Day would mean a pleasant round of open houses at all the family's friends.

“No problem,” Will said, and the three headed for the sports car. The sports car that was built for two.

“I'll get in the back,” Sophie offered nobly.

“I wouldn't dream of it,” Laura objected. “I'm so much smaller than you are!”

It was true that Sophie was taller—a good match for her over-six-foot husband—but the remark made her feel like a giantess, a freak.

“No,” she said firmly. “You sit in front.” And proceeded to squinch into the tiny space.

Conversation was impossible, as Laura had insisted Will put the top down. “I just love to feel the wind in my hair!”

As they drove into town Sophie realized that Laura must have moved while Will was in Atlanta, moved quite close to them. She expected Laura to give him directions. Not necessary. Will drove up to her door and helped her out like the gentleman he was.

He knew exactly where Laura Belvedere lived.

It was the last Sunday in Advent. Since they would have Christmas dinner in Norwell with Tom's parents as always, Faith had prepared an early version.

Today's service had been lovely. The choir outdid themselves, and humming “Once in Royal David's City,” she put the finishing touches on the plum pudding she had been aging for weeks and carried it into the dining room. Amy followed with the hard sauce. The pears and Stilton were already on the festive table. The main course had been goose with all the trimmings. The Millers and Ursula had joined them. Faith had invited Millicent as well, but had been rather abruptly turned down, as Millicent was “too busy.”

Tom had given Faith a full report of his visit after revealing Millicent's odd query. They'd discussed its meaning. What person Millicent respected could possibly have been lying to her for years? Tom had been struck by how ill Millicent looked, as Faith had been. “As if she'd suddenly aged ten years overnight and lost twenty pounds.” He'd also noticed the dust and disorder, which, given the state of his study with its piles of books and papers, was something out of the ordinary as well. Faith was afraid Millicent would be offended if she took a full Christmas dinner over later—“not a charity case”—but she would pack up a large portion of the pudding sans the hard sauce. Millicent was an ardent member of the W.C.T.U., and Carrie Nation was one of her heroes.

Amy and Ben cleared the table while the adults moved into the living room, where Tom lit the fire he'd laid in the fireplace and
Faith served coffee. She started to turn on some lights, but Ursula stopped her. “It's so lovely with just the tree and the fire. We can imagine ourselves back when the parsonage was new.”

“Would there have been a tree then?” Sam Miller asked. “I thought the custom started later. Wasn't it introduced by the minister at the Follen church in Lexington who originally came from Germany?”

“Yes—some thirty years before the Civil War. The church sells trees every year, and some people refer to it as the Christmas Tree Church,” Tom said, poking the fire. “Think I'll add another log.”

Pix and Faith exchanged a look. They had had many discussions about the male love of all things pyrotechnic, as well as an innate penchant for chain saws. Oh, Faith thought with a stab of regret that was becoming all too familiar, how can I leave my best friend? She quickly quelled the feeling and concentrated on the happiness in the room.

Tom sat down next to his wife. “Christmas Eve: the pageant, the early family service, and then the late one, plus Christmas morning. We're getting close to the finish line!”

Everyone laughed, and Ursula commented dryly, “One would think you didn't enjoy your job, Reverend.”

“Oh, I do, I do. But it's like what Faith always says when we're the ones giving a party. Lovely when it's over and can be contemplated instead of planned.”

There was more laughter and Tom got out some Rémy Martin along with the bottle of Cockburn's port that he kept stocked for Ursula. He had just filled his own snifter when the phone rang.

“I'll get it,” Faith said. “And it better be someone with a good reason.” She kissed the top of her husband's head as she went past. She knew how tired he was.

“Hello?” She was surprised to hear Millicent abruptly ask for Ben after a hasty “Hello, Faith.”

“Of course, I'll get him.” Millicent was never one for chitchat, so Faith didn't extend their conversation and called, “Ben, it's for you. Miss McKinley.”

“I'll take it in the kitchen,” he answered, and she put the receiver down when she heard his voice.

She returned to her place next to the fire and picked up her glass. “It was Millicent. And she very specifically asked for Ben.”

“Maybe she wants to contribute to the French class travel fund,” Pix offered.

Millicent was not known for this sort of largesse. The group as a whole looked skeptical.

“I'm sure Ben will let us know,” Ursula said. A worried look had appeared on her face.

The conversation was a short one and Ben came bursting through the door. “Miss McKinley wants me to go over and help her. It's not too late. I said yes. Okay?”

“Help her do what?” Faith asked.

“She wants me to bring my laptop and teach her how to Google.”

C
HAPTER
7

There was a moment of silence, then a wave of conversation swept over the room. “A laptop? How would Millicent know about one, except possibly as a type of colonial desk?” Pix wondered aloud. She was drowned out by several other voices, all saying “Google?” in various tones.

“Are you sure she said ‘Google,' Ben?” Tom asked and was quickly followed by Ursula. “She may have meant ‘gaggle,' a ‘gaggle of geese,' although why she would need you to come over for that I can't imagine.”

Ben was standing patiently by the front door. “She said ‘laptop' and ‘Google.' So, can I go?”

Permission given, Ben left, and after some further discussion of what certainly was the most curious bit of news to strike Aleford in many a moon, the guests left as well. Tom went to pay a call on a parishioner he sensed was feeling more than the usual holiday blues, and Faith decided to get a start on wrapping gifts. This activity usually took place in the early hours of Christmas morning when the rest of the family was dreaming of sugarplums. It was the first leisure time ever available in the hectic week before, and she had come to like it, pouring herself a glass of wine while
listening to the carols she'd loaded on her iPod. The only drawback was how early Christmas morning dawned, although the kids slept later now.

Even though the dinner had been hearty enough to satisfy most hunger pangs until the next day, Faith knew both Tom and Ben would be asking what was for supper, and in fact those were the first words out of Ben's mouth when he came through the door after his time with Millicent. Faith was prepared, but first went over to Amy, who was curled up in front of the fire reading a book for English class, Lois Lowry's
The Giver
. It was one of Amy's favorites, and Faith had been pleased that the teacher had assigned it. One person at the school who was on Amy's wavelength.

“Are you hungry? Would you like a cup of soup? It's split pea.”

“No thanks, Mom, I'm good.”

Faith didn't correct her grammar—the description was too apt and tugged at Faith's heartstrings as she went back into the kitchen.

After putting a large bowl of soup on the table in front of Ben and a pastrami sandwich similar in size to those at New York's Carnegie Deli, Faith pulled a chair close to her son's. “So, what was all that with the laptop and Google at Millicent's about?”

Ben put his spoon back in the bowl. “Mom, I promised Miss McKinley that I wouldn't discuss her affairs with anyone, not even my parents.”

Faith was pretty sure this was a direct quote and was annoyed.

“I'm sure it can't be anything much, sweetie. And I am not going to tell anyone else. Parents are exempt from the secret rule. You remember this from when you were much younger, right?”

Now Ben looked annoyed. “It's not that kind of secret, and there's nothing involved that you or Dad should worry about. She's paying me for my time and this constitutes Computer Guy/Client Privilege. Good soup.”

Faith pushed the chair back, stood up, and went to check on Amy. Now that she thought of it, Amy hadn't eaten all that much
at dinner. She'd helped Faith make most of it and that may have been why. Faith often found that after preparing all the food, she wasn't hungry.

“Computer Guy/Client Privilege!” she said over her shoulder to her son as she left the room. “What is she paying you? Fifty cents an hour?”

“No. She offered five bucks, and I got her up to seven.”

Truly something very weird was going on behind the McKinley white picket fence. And Faith intended to find out what it was. This was definitely beginning to feel very Nancy Drew. Not
The Secret of the Old Clock
, Faith laughed to herself, but
The Secret of the Old Crock
.

The next morning Amy didn't get out of bed. Unlike her brother, who had his alarm set at ten-minute intervals before he managed to get up, Amy was always up as soon as the clock buzzed, often before it did, to be first in the bathroom they shared.

“I don't feel well, Mom. I think I have a temperature.” She coughed very convincingly, sounding like a five-pack-a-day smoker.

“I'll get the thermometer,” Faith said. She was afraid this would happen. If Amy didn't go today, they would have an even bigger problem—school phobia.

She tucked the thermometer under her daughter's tongue and, noticing that the light on Amy's bedside table was on, sat down on the rocker that was still in the room, the rocker that Faith had used to lull both babies to sleep.

“Faith,” Tom called, “I can't find a clean collar!”

“I'm sure there's one in the top left-hand drawer of your bureau.”

“I looked and there aren't any. I guess I can take yesterday's from the hamper.”

Faith dashed out of the room. It would look clean—she didn't recall that Tom had spilled gravy or hard sauce on himself—but it would give off a vibe, and all those handmaidens of the Lord,
aka female parishioners convinced their beloved reverend was ill served by his flighty wife, would get some sort of inkling. They had uncanny powers.

The collars had been pushed to the back of the drawer and Faith was back soon, but not soon enough. Amy had obviously held the thermometer to the light. Faith shook it down and said cheerfully, “Absolutely normal, darling. Now hurry up or you'll miss the bus.”

Waving from the door as her daughter trudged down the front walk, Faith felt as if she were seeing Marie Antoinette off in the tumbrel. Two and a half days to get through and then the nice long vacation. She poured some coffee into a travel mug and headed for the catering kitchen. They had a big luncheon today, the D.A.R.'s annual holiday party, “Back to the Past.” The Masons kindly let the group use the Masonic Hall, a larger space than the meeting room at the library—appropriate, as fourteen presidents had been Freemasons, most especially Washington. Today's D.A.R. was not the one that barred Marian Anderson from performing in 1939, and Faith was looking forward to the event. Many of the women would be sporting period dress from different eras in American history.

The menu represented a similar nod to the past and was an homage always to Fannie Merritt Farmer's 1896 classic,
The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book
. Each year's committee gave Faith a menu drawn from the book, which she followed with a few tweaks here and there. Faith had the 1915 edition, which she treasured for the photographs, especially those in color that created a rainbow of hues never seen in nature. They were starting with Poinsettia Salad—a whole tomato cut into eighths, seeds removed, and spread out to resemble petals. Faith mixed fresh chèvre with the mashed cream cheese called for, adding the specified French dressing sparingly and more of the finely chopped parsley and green pepper that transformed plain French dressing into “Martinique” Dressing. This was followed by soup—the ladies liked a soup course, and today's
was Cream Chestnut. Faith roasted the chestnuts before cooking and sieving them. The main course was Chicken à la King (Faith always wondered which one—a Louis?) in puff pastry—vol-au-vents. Not cafeteria Chicken à la King—no hint of library paste and plenty of mushrooms. And yes, the pimento strips as well.

Fannie Farmer was dubbed in her own time and since as “The Mother of Level Measurements.” Not a bad way to be remembered with its reassurance for the ages that if you followed her recipes all would be edible. Faith had always hoped that one of the committee would request the cookbook's Canapés à la Rector for the social hour that started the festivities with Mocktails, especially Virgin Marys and Shirley Temples. The ecclesiastical canapé recipe called for strips of stale bread covered with caviar on the toasted side and three sections—the middle with finely chopped cucumber pickles, one end with finely chopped red peppers, and the other with a piece of anchovy fillet. The women always opted for toasted almonds and cheese straws, however, as they didn't want to get too full.

And they were surely saving room for dessert. The first year Niki didn't get the dessert memo, or ignored whatever it was, and made a chocolate Bûche de Noël with hazelnut cream filling, the individual slices crowned with tiny marzipan Golden Eagles holding a sprig of holly. Forever after, that was the desired dessert.

They'd arrived at this point in the job now, and Faith could begin to relax. The ship had been launched, stayed afloat, and was now steaming off into the sunset. The ladies were still having a very jolly time as the servers poured coffee. Faith heard one of the older members say, “What the heck. Make it regular! I've had enough decaf to last the rest of my life.” It seemed hair was about to be let down and there hadn't been a drop of alcohol except for the rum truffles also being served now.

She felt her phone, which she'd tucked into the pocket of her checked chef trousers, vibrate. A surreptitious glance sent her scurrying into the kitchen. It was Amy's school.

“Hello, Mrs. Fairchild?”

“Yes. Is everything all right?” She didn't recognize the voice. It was a woman, not good old Tony the principal.

“I'm Eleanor Woodward, the school nurse, and I'm afraid you have a very sick girl here. She's running quite a high temperature and I'd advise you to get her to your doctor immediately. She has been crying, apparently someone said something to upset her, but that wouldn't account for this spike, and she seems to have a very bad cough.”

“I'll be there right away.”

Faith went to tell Niki and the others. Grabbing her coat and purse, she said, “Please make my apologies to the chapter president and the committee who organized this. They're having a carol sing soon, but you should be able to clear everything except the coffee and cookie plates.”

“Go, don't worry.” Niki gave her a little shove toward the door and then a quick hug. “And you shouldn't be too hasty at kissing Mother of the Year good-bye. Everybody does stuff like this.”

Maybe, Faith thought. But it didn't help. She'd sent her seriously ill daughter to school and hadn't believed her. Amy might be coughing, but Faith was choking on guilt.

Will is like one of those puzzle balls she used to get as a favor at childhood birthday parties, Sophie thought. When she'd get it home, she'd carefully unwind the thin strips of crepe paper, revealing tiny charms or other surprises before reaching the solid small ball at the center, which was good for playing jacks. Maybe all married, or other, couples went through this getting-to-know-you process—the unwinding—but it seemed a bit more complicated in her case.

Last night he had tried to explain about the jewelry even though Sophie had said it was fine and not to worry about it. She didn't need expensive pearls and diamond brooches or whatever else was in the safety-deposit box. That kind of jewelry would cause her to worry about losing it if she did wear a piece, she insisted.

Will had listened and said, “I
want
you to wear them. I don't really know what I was thinking, or not thinking. I just forgot about them. Really. Until Dad said something, it hadn't occurred to me that I should have given them to you when we got engaged. I'm sorry, Sophie.”

She'd repeated what she had said, and it had all ended most satisfactorily in bed where he'd murmured, “You don't need anything to add to the gem I have right here.”

Smiling, she'd started to slip into a deep sleep when he'd added, “'Fraid Atlanta is going to take longer than I thought, honey. After New Year's I won't be back for a while.”

Laura had been right.

This morning Will was up early but delayed his departure to go to the bank with Sophie. “I want to make sure you can access the box. I'm assuming you can, since we added you to my account. Maybe you can find something to wear Christmas Eve. It would please Dad—and me, too. I won't be back until late on Wednesday, so we can't do it then.”

There had been no problem at the bank, and Will gave her a hasty kiss, telling her to have fun. Sophie had an appointment with a new client scheduled and she had a call she needed to make, but she sat down with what seemed like an extremely large box just to hold some jewelry and unlocked it, carefully removing some documents on top. One appeared to be a will. Sophie wished she had more time to go over everything. She was curious about where the money Laura said Will had inherited was. Sophie had been keeping track of their monthly statements, and they had a healthy balance in both checking and savings, but nothing like the kind of money the Realtor had hinted at.

The box was filled with velvet-covered and leather cases. Some looked quite old. Sophie pulled out several that were large enough to hold the pearl necklace. She had already decided that she would wear it Christmas Eve. The first box did not hold the pearls but
a beautiful diamond and sapphire Art Deco necklace. It must have been Will's great-grandmother's. Aurora and Paul's mother? Another box contained a tiara, surely the one Will's mother was wearing in her wedding photo. Sophie picked it up. The delicate diamond leaves and rosebuds sparkled in the light. There was a separate chain of small diamonds, and Sophie realized the tiara could also be worn as a necklace. Would it bring up too many sad memories for Will and his father?

She put it back. The pearls were in the next case and they were extraordinary, perfectly matched, and Sophie thought they must be natural, not cultured. A bit looser than a choker, the three strands met in front, held together by an exquisite ruby clasp surrounded by diamonds. She put the necklace on, and it fit as though it had been made for her, the clasp at her collarbone. Yes, she would wear the pearls—and after quickly searching through some of the other boxes, she found a Tiffany Jean Schlumberger ruby-enameled gold and diamond bracelet that she was sure had been worn with the pearls. The reds were an exact match.

Sophie didn't know how dressed up she should be for the Christmas Day open houses, but she tucked a lovely wide flat gold collar and diamond earrings shaped like half moons into her bag as well. A bag that would not be leaving her side until she could get back to the house and think of a secure hiding place. Definitely not under her lingerie or in the toes of her shoes. Or even the freezer. Faith had told her she hid her good jewelry in Ben's Legos—a pack rat, he still had a container of them. The one time the Fairchilds were robbed, the thieves hadn't even gone into the kids' rooms.

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