THE HUSBAND QUEST

The Luchettis Book #4

 

 

     “All of your money is gone.”

   Thinking there must still be water in her ear from taking a shower that morning, Jillian Hart tapped the side of her head. “I’m sorry? I didn’t catch that.”

   “Your money is gone.” Her late husband’s lawyer, Jay Daggett, spoke slowly, as if she were a half-wit.

    Sadly, Jilly often had to act as if there wasn’t a brain in her head. Men liked that, especially older, wealthy men. Her specialty.

   “My money has gone where?”

   “Into someone else’s bank.” Daggett, a short, stout, balding man of indeterminate age, shuffled his papers and put them in his briefcase. “Actually, several some-ones.”

   “Get it back.”“I can’t. Henry owed everyone in town. His reputation kept them from collecting while he was alive and there was a possibility of his recouping the losses. However...”

   Jilly was drawn to the peaceful, panoramic view of the ocean visible from her house on Laguna Beach. “Now that he’s dead, they want their money.”

   “Yes.”

   Her fourth husband, Henry Duvier, had died of a heart attack only a week ago. Considering he was eighty, that wasn’t a surprise.They’d been married five years—longer than any of her other marriages. Jilly had been fond of Henry, enjoyed his company and that of his friends. She’d hoped his assets would allow her to remain a widow for at least a year or two—something she’d never been able to do before.

   Jilly turned her back on the ocean. “So you’re telling me Henry’s money is gone.”

   Daggett shook his head. “Everything. You’ll need to be out of this house by Friday.”

   Not her beautiful beach house. She loved the sand, the surf, the endless expanse of blue. How would she sleep at night if she couldn’t hear the soothing cadence of the water nearby?

   “This makes no sense. Henry was a very wealthy man.”

   “Until he decided to become a movie mogul.”

   Jilly had known Henry’s fascination with in Hollywood would bite him on the butt someday. Unfortunately, she seemed to be the one feeling the teeth.

   Henry’s ancestors had begun Duvier Publishing back when Gutenberg was a pup. Henry had spent his life making the family business even more successful. Then, when he was in his seventies, he’d sold out to a German conglomerate and retired to California.But a lifetime of being a workaholic did not a good retiree make. Never having spared the time to create a family, Henry was not only bored, he was lonely. Which was where Jilly came in.

   Some called her a gold digger; the society pages referred to her as a woman of means; the tabloids had long ago labeled her a serial bride. Jilly was both all and none of the above.

   “There was just that one movie,” she said.

   Daggett peered at her over the rims of his glasses. “There were three.”

   In the manner of trophy wives, she was not expected to meddle in Henry’s business affairs. She’d been in charge of his loneliness; his Hollywood friends had taken care of the boredom.

   Henry had always wanted to be a producer. All he’d produced had been bombs.

   “He used his money on Aliens Are Easy,” Daggett continued. “Mortgaged everything for Gunfight in Cleveland. Your funds went into the Beverly Hillbillies Return.”

   Annoyance and disappointment flooded Jilly. She and Henry had made a good marriage, one based on trust and affection. But she should have followed her mother’s advice and stashed her personal hoard in Switzerland. Instead, she’d let Henry manage the fortune left to her by husbands one, two and three. It had hardly seemed fair to deny him access to her money when she had access to his.

   Fair? When had life been fair?

   She’d been dragged from town to town as a child, on the whim of her mother’s husband of the moment. Genevieve Hart had married once for love. Love had gotten her a child and poverty when her husband skipped off with every penny they had. He’d gambled it away, then promptly gotten himself shot by someone he couldn’t pay.

   Jilly had been five at the time, but she remembered the overwhelming sense of panic that pressed down on them, the countless times they’d had nowhere to sleep but the street, nothing to wear but the clothes on their backs, not a thing to eat but what they could beg or steal. She would not be in that predicament again.

   “Is there anything left?” she asked.

   “Just the Inn at South Fork. In Arkansas.”

   “Arkansas?” Her voice reflected the horror that was no doubt all over her face. “Why on earth would Henry buy something there?”

   Daggett glanced at the single paper he’d left out of his briefcase. “The inn was supposed to be the setting for the hillbilly movie.”

   “And?”

   “They never used it.” He tilted his head. “I’m not sure why.”

   “The vultures couldn’t leave me the villa in Tuscany?”

   “They devoured that first. I suspect the inn wasn’t worth the trouble.”

   “Great,” she muttered.

   Daggett shrugged. “Take it or leave it.”

   Jilly snatched the paper from his hand. “I’ll take it.”

   What choice did she have?

* * *

   Jilly sold the engagement ring and wedding band from her third—or had it been her second?—marriage and bought a plane ticket to Little Rock. Then she rented a car and drove northwest—for a helluva long time—over roads that looked like something out of Deliverance. She kept expecting to hear banjos strumming behind the thick, green foliage that lined what passed for an Arkansas highway.

   On the map, the drive to South Fork appeared to be a pleasant three-hour tour. In reality it took six hours over twisting, hairpin curves. She nearly ran over a skunk, two opossums, a raccoon and what she hoped was a dog but had a sneaking suspicion was a very large and well-fed coyote. She could have sworn she saw an alligator in one overgrown, flooded ditch. But she was too far north for alligators, wasn’t she?

   Jilly shuddered. She wouldn’t last long in a place like this, and she knew it.She might have been born poor, but she hadn’t spent a night outside a mansion or a five-star hotel since her mother had discovered her one true talent.

   Genevieve Hart was a very good wife. She was beautiful, street-smart and savvy. She could be whatever a man wanted her to be.Her first husband had been a traveling salesman, the next a lawyer, followed by a doctor, then a CEO. At the moment, Genevieve was in Belgium on her honeymoon with a Polish count, and unavailable to help her destitute daughter.

   “The one time I call her, and she’s off becoming Countess Blah-blah-blah.”

   Well, she’d just have to handle things on her own. Drive to the inn, take a quick peek, then find a real estate agent, sell the albatross and use the money to fund another husband hunt.

   Jilly sighed. She’d been anticipating some time alone. Since the age of twenty-two she’d been a wife. Before that she’d been preparing to become one.

   Jilly had left her mother’s house to attend the top boarding schools, then gone on to Vassar, every move calculated so Jilly could make the best possible marriage—over and over again. Because there were three rules the Hart women lived by:Never, ever marry for love.Poor men are for play; rich men are for keeps.Old men are like fine wine. Once tasted, they don't last very long.

   Jilly didn’t believe in love. Love was for suckers and imbeciles. She’d never met a man she needed anything from beyond the answer to two important questions. How much was he worth and what decade had he been born in?

   A sign popped up at the side of the road. Squinting against the descending sun, Jilly could just make out the faded letters: South Fork, Arkansas—Unincorporated.Were those bullet holes in the sign post? It flashed past too fast for her to tell.

   “Couldn’t be,” she assured herself. “What did that sign ever do to anyone?”

   She had no more time to ponder as South Fork seemed to appear out of nowhere. She was reminded of the musical Brigadoon, one of Henry’s favorites. The town had popped magically out of the mist every hundred years.

   Jilly had never cared for that movie. She didn’t understand magic or mystery. Why waste time on something that wasn’t real?However, South Fork had the same mythical aura as Brigadoon. At the foot of the Ozark Mountains, the sleepy little hamlet was frozen in a bygone century.

   Jilly slowed her rented Volkswagen Beetle—her mother would have a cardiac arrest if she saw Jilly driving such a bourgeois vehicle, but Jilly thought it was cute—and meandered down what appeared to be the only street in South Fork.

   About ten buildings composed of graying wood made up the town. Each one had a sagging porch with a hand-painted sign perched on top that stated its purpose in the scheme of life.Hillburn’s General Store. Joe’s Barbershop. Washington Primary School. The Main Street Tavern. United Baptist Church. The South Fork Jail.

   She found it amusing, or maybe just sad, that the tavern stood right next to the church and the jail bordered the school. Perhaps the folks of South Fork merely found it convenient.

   The only people on the street were a trio of old men gathered around a barrel on the porch of the general store. A game of checkers appeared to be in progress.

   Were they kidding with this? She felt as if she’d stepped into Henry’s hillbilly movie.

   Jilly parked in front of the store and clambered out of the car, which wasn’t easy, since she’d worn her best summer suit and favorite Italian shoes. The three-inch slings and knee-length, sea-green skirt were not conducive to exiting a compact car gracefully. Without air-conditioning, her suit jacket, though stylish, was far too heavy. Thankfully, she’d worn a gray silk shell underneath. When she became desperate she could always ditch the jacket.

   The two men playing checkers didn’t even glance her way. The third, who had been observing them, now observed her.

   Jilly plastered on her most charming smile.

   The old man smiled back. He had no teeth.

   Jilly’s expression froze.

   “Oh.” He cackled. “Forgot ’em agin.”Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a set of dentures, popped them into his mouth and clicked them together with a wink. “We don’t get many visitors round here.”

   “Uh, yes, well . . . I’m wondering if you can direct me to the inn.”

   That got the attention of the checker players. The one on the left jumped up so fast he knocked the board off the barrel.“What’s that?” He cupped a hand to the side of his head.

   “The inn!” her toothless friend shouted. “Turn on your hearin’ thingee!” He slapped his own ear for emphasis.

   “Damn thing makes the flies on the wall sound as loud as semi trucks,” the man grumbled, but he fiddled with the plastic in his ear just the same.

   “Did ye knock over the board?” The second checker player squinted and began patting the top of the now-empty barrel. His Coke-bottle glasses remained perched on top of his shiny dome.

   “If ye put on your spectacles, ye could see.”

   “Haven’t been able to find ’em since this mornin’. I swear they walk away on me sometimes.”

   “They walked onto the top of yer head today.” The denture wearer rolled his eyes at Jilly. “No fool like an old fool.”

   “I can beat him with my eyes closed.” The sight-impaired man retrieved the glasses and settled them on his beak of a nose. He glanced at Jilly. The thick lenses magnified his eyes like Mr. Magoo’s. “Well, ain’t you a sight?”

   She wasn’t sure if that was a compliment, but she beamed at him, anyway. Couldn’t hurt.‘The inn?” she repeated. “I’m afraid I only know that it’s near South Fork.”

   The three men peered at one another, then back at her. Their smiles became frowns.

   “You don’t want to go there.”

   “Why not?”

   They exchanged glances again.

   Jilly was starting to get nervous. Had a tornado carried the place away? What would the land be worth? From what she’d seen so far, not much.

   “You just don’t.”

   “I own the inn. I need to take a look before I put it on the market.”

   “You’re going to sell?” Toothless asked. “Good luck.”

   “Is there some sort of problem?”

   “You might say that.”

  Exasperated, she sighed. “What is it?”

   “No one’s been able to stay there overnight for years.”

   Jilly had visions of bats in the bedrooms, skunks in the kitchen, holes in the roof.

   “Sorry to tell ye this, ma’am, but the inn is haunted.”

   They nodded solemnly, as if they’d just said her best friend had died.

   Jilly burst out laughing. Towns appearing from the mist, ghosts at the inn. What next? Unicorns playing peek-a-boo behind the trees?

   Their grave expressions gave way to confusion. “What’s so funny?”

   “There’s no such thing as ghosts!”

   The old men’s eyes met, and together they shrugged.

   “Well,” the one who did most of the talking drawled. “She is from out of town.”

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