Whiskey and Tonic

By Nina Wright

Chapter One

"This isn't a tonic. It's toxic," I rasped, setting the glass down so hard that its contents splashed onto Mother Tucker's bar.

"Tonics aren't supposed to be tasty," Odette intoned. "They're supposed to cure what ails you."

"Who said anything ails me?"

My top salesperson gave me a look that could freeze lava. Then she took a sip of her chocotini and waved toward the bar crowd.

"Shall we take a poll? Ask whether anyone here thinks Whiskey Mattimoe needs a tonic?"

Talk about a set-up. Odette's mellifluous voice can compel complete strangers to do her bidding. I've decided that her velvety Tongo accent is the reason she sells more real estate than anyone else in west Michigan. That plus the fact that she pretends not to understand the word no.

"No," I said emphatically. "We don't need a poll."

"True. Your misery is obvious." Odette shoved the vile cocktail toward me. "It's a traditional African tonic. Drink up."

I eyed the sparkling contents suspiciously. "Your people drink this?"

"No. Your people drink this," she said.

"I don't have people in Africa."

Odette narrowed her eyes. "Of course you do. How else did so many of my people end up here?"

Embarrassed, I held up the glass and peered deep into it.

"Okay. Why do 'my people' drink this in Africa?"

"For the malaria."

I put the glass down. "There's no malaria in Magnet Springs."

Odette sighed heavily. "Then what is your problem?"

Good question. It was officially spring. The days were getting longer, warmer, and sweeter smelling. Daffodils and crocuses were blooming. People were starting to smile again. Some were even falling in love. Or at least lust. Not with me, though. And therein lay my problem: I wasn't getting laid.

"Uh-oh," Odette murmured. "Are you wearing the camisole?"

Following her gaze, I immediately understood the question. Handsome Nash Grant, the lust of my life, was entering the bar. For my birthday, two weeks earlier, Odette had tried to boost my bland beige wardrobe by giving me a black silk and lace camisole. With it she had included these written instructions:

Wear at all times. Be prepared to peel off whatever you put on over it.
Remember: You can't go wrong in a black camisole.
Well, you can, but you'll thank me later.

In case I missed the point, she had added a simple equation:

Black Camisole = Sex Appeal
You need it.

Now, reflexively, I yanked my camel-colored mock-turtleneck over my head. I had it almost all the way off before I remembered that my sexy black camisole was in the laundry hamper at home . . . and I was wearing one of my oldest yellowish-white bras. In public. In front of Nash Grant.

Odette gasped in horror at the same instant I realized my gaffe. Fortunately, my head was inside my shirt. Even though the whole room could see me, I couldn't see anybody. Whiskey the Ostrich. Who says denial is a bad thing? When my exposed torso felt a chill, I began fumbling for my sleeves. I seemed to have lost one. The sweater rolled back down, but only my left arm slid into its rightful place. Still groping under the fabric with my right hand, I reluctantly opened one eye.

"Hot flash?" teased Nash Grant in his soft Mississippi accent.

"Not yet!" I replied indignantly. "I'm only thirty-four!"

He laughed. "That makes you officially the youngest grandma I know."

"Step-grandma," I corrected him gravely. "I'm young enough to be Avery's sister."

"Of course you are." Nash made a mock bow, the bar lights glinting off his thick walnut-colored hair. If I hadn't been tangled in the straightjacket of my shirt, I might have swooned.

"Do you need a hand there, Whiskey?" he asked. "You seem to be missing one."

Before I could answer, Nash deftly reached under my sweater to connect my right arm with my right sleeve. He guided the entire limb safely home. A delicious tingle shot through me; I knew my face was flushed.

"Thanks," I mumbled.

"My pleasure. Any time." Our gazes locked just long enough for his coppery eyes to penetrate mine. I was sure he saw clear through to my brain waves, which were screaming, "I want you bad!"

Nash said a few things to Odette. Then he was gone, moving along the bar to shake hands and trade pleasantries with other patrons. He didn't help anyone else put a shirt on, however.

If only Nash weren't the father of my late husband's grandchildren. Bottom line: If only he weren't determined to make up with my late husband's daughter. Nash and Avery had produced twins as the result of a one-night stand. She expected me, Leo's widow, to finance her new family since her kids were Leo's heirs. But Nash was determined to do the right thing. On sabbatical from the University of Florida, where they'd met, he tracked Avery down. She and the twins were living with me; now Nash was courting her. Under my roof.

"Where's the camisole?" Odette hissed.

"Waiting to be washed. You should have bought me two."

"You can afford a second. I suggest you buy it tomorrow. And start wearing it in public! You need to replace the image of that hideous brassiere now burned into our retinas. . . ."

Walter St. Mary appeared on the other side of the bar. He glanced from my beverage to me. "You've hardly touched it! I thought the Leprechaun made you do it."

"The what?"

"The Leprechaun. Where I come from, that's what we call Irish whiskey and tonic. It's been known to make a few lasses take off their shirts." Walter winked.

"It didn't—I didn't—." I gave up.

Mother Tucker's proprietor checked his watch. "They're crowning Miss Blossom at 2:30. Isn't your office intern one of the contestants?"

"Faye Raffle," confirmed Odette. "She's going to win. I've got fifty dollars riding on it."

I turned to Odette in disgust. "You bet on a beauty pageant?"

"I bet on our office intern. If Faye wins, I'll donate the money to her college tuition fund. So will everyone else in the office."

"There was a pool? Why didn't I know about it?"

"Try reading your office bulletin board."

"Jonny's one of the judges," Walter said, referring to his partner in both business and real life. "Rico Anuncio was supposed to be on the panel, but he didn't return from his cruise in time. Jonny's nervous about making the right choice. He's never had mainstream taste in female beauty."

"I'm sure he'll do fine," I said as I handed Walter my credit card. "I'd trust his taste over Rico's any day."

Odette snorted in agreement. She and I disliked the flamboyant owner of the West Shore Gallery. The previous fall Rico had threatened us with a frivolous lawsuit, for which we weren't yet ready to forgive him. We'd enjoyed every day he was gone on his round-the-world cruise. My secret hope was that he'd fall in love with an exotic person or place and forget all about returning to our town. Odette would be more than happy to get him an astonishing price for his Magnet Springs home. Rumor had it that he was due back soon, however.

While Walter processed my plastic, I asked Odette, "Do you really think Faye can win? I hear Tammi LePadanni's daughter's drop-dead gorgeous."

Tammi LePadanni was a part-time agent in our office. In other words, a hobbyist. I kept her on staff for one reason only: She was a doctor's wife; ergo, she knew rich people.

Odette made a rude raspberry noise. "You're forgetting the Q-and-A portion of the competition. Tammi LePadanni's daughter couldn't speak a declarative statement at gunpoint."

"Really?"

"Really. You've got to hear her to believe it. Everything from her Angelina Jolie lips sounds like a question." Odette glanced at her diamond-studded wristwatch. "The fun starts in five minutes. Let's go!"

I hastily completed my credit card receipt to include the usual 25% tip for Walter. Since he never charged me full price for anything, I was always trying to say thanks.

"What's Tammi LePadanni's daughter's name?" I asked Odette. "Don't tell me it rhymes, too."

"Brandi LePadanni. Feel a kinship to the girl?"

"I don't drink my name, and I hope she doesn't drink hers," I quipped. "Especially since she's under age."

"And is Whiskey your real name?" Odette asked innocently.

"You know it isn't. Are you saying Brandi's a nickname, too?"

"Short for Brandolina. Awful, isn't it? Tammi's parents loved Marlon Brando."

"Then why not name her Marla? By the way, I've met Dr. LePadanni. He looks like late-stage Brando. Wonder where the daughter got her good looks. Mom's no beauty queen, and Dad's a real barker."

"Speaking of canines," Odette said, "what's the latest on yours?"

I cringed as I always did at the mention of Abra. The Afghan hound was my late husband's legacy and, second only to my real-estate business, my biggest headache. Aside from her penchant for stealing purses and other forbidden treats, Abra was high maintenance in the extreme. Just grooming her long blonde tresses required more time and patience than I was born with. Add to that her propensity for escape. And for consorting with criminals.

"Last I checked, Deely was installing a mesh cover over the kennel," I said. "And laying concrete along the fence line. Hopefully that will contain the bitch."

"Which one?"

I grinned. I'd hired Deely Smarr, fondly known as the Coast Guard nanny, to assist my shrewish stepdaughter and her infant twins, but the capable woman was also babysitting Abracadabra. She had the perfect background for the job: Military Damage Control. An expert at fixing boats, guns, and assorted life forms, Deely had only one flaw that I could see. She was a founding member of Fleggers—a.k.a. Four Legs Good—a radical animal rights advocacy based in Ann Arbor. Deely believed that animals, including Abra, were our equals. A terrifying premise. Nonetheless, she understood that the general public needed protection from my dog.

Odette and I were crossing Main Street toward Town Square where Miss Blossom was about to be crowned when we spotted my office manager Tina Breen. She was easy to spot because she was jumping up and down and waving her arms.

"Whiskey! Oh my God, Whiskey!" Tina shrieked in her dentist's drill voice. "Abra is loose again! She stole Miss Blossom's tiara!"

That was a big deal. In fact, it was a felony.

Magnet Springs has been a tourist town since before the Civil War. As a result, our long and convoluted history has spawned many an insane tradition, one of which is this: Miss Blossom is annually crowned with a tiara made of solid gold and emeralds, a bequest from the obscenely rich widowed mother of the first Miss Blossom. Legend has it that back in 1847, Mrs. Slocum Schuyler was so proud of her beauty queen daughter that she commissioned a tiara. Upon her death, Mrs. Schuyler bequeathed the tiara to the village of Magnet Springs expressly for the coronation of all subsequent Miss Blossoms. We've been obsessed with safeguarding the damn thing ever since.

"Look!" screeched Tina Breen, pointing across Town Square. Sure enough, there went my big amber dog, a glistening green crown gripped in her pearly whites.

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