Veni, Vidi, Vero

Very Vero #1

by Gretchen Rose

Smart and wickedly funny … a ribald, rollicking mid-life coming-of-age story.

When Tara discovers that her husband’s late nights in the city are hiding an affair with a younger woman, the illusion of her perfect little world is shattered in an instant. Determined to reclaim her dreams, she relocates to Vero Beach, a posh seaside community abutting the Atlantic. There, she purchases an older home on the barrier island, never imagining that this charming enclave hides a seamy underbelly where dark intrigue lurks.

... an intricately woven story of love, friendship, and metamorphosis

Retained as piano instructor to young Harry, Tara soon finds herself entangled in the affairs of his mysterious father, the wealthy tycoon, Nathan McCourt. As Tara's home is being renovated, a strange thing happens: she undergoes a transformation of her own. She is stronger, more confident, and happier than she ever imagined possible. Only one thing is missing from this rosy picture: the man of her dreams. It isn't until a category 4 hurricane blows into town, that all the divergent plot lines are knit up, and Tara finally gets her happily ever after.


Excerpt

Chapter One

 

As Luck Would Have It

 

“What numbers?” The slender, young man tamped down his impatience and turned toward the wraith at the breakfast table. She was gaunt with deep bags under her eyes, and her wiry grey hair was a tangle.

“Eric! Haven’t you been listening?” Caroline laced her coffee with Jim Beam. “I told you. I seen the numbers, clear as can be. One after the other—puffed up and cloud-like. Really weird. Then the dog barked and woke me, and I figured I’d best write them down.” She thrust a scrap of paper toward him. “It’s a sign, I tell you. I want you to play the lotto for me using these numbers.”

Eric sighed. “Okay, Mom.” He took the note from his mother’s gnarled hand and glanced at it briefly before stuffing it in his pocket.

Eric Brady was an obedient son. Two days later, he purchased a lottery ticket and played the numbers his mother had requested. While he was at it, he splurged and bought a couple for himself, even threw in a few scratch-offs, but they were duds. After that, he put the entire incident out of his mind.

Until now.

His eyes latched onto a newspaper someone had left on the coffee table in the break room. He flopped into a chair and reached for it. Might as well check out the winning numbers, he thought. When he turned to the inside page and scanned the results, a jolt of adrenaline coursed through his veins.

Suddenly light-headed, Eric dug the ticket stubs out of his wallet and sorted through them. “My God,” he breathed. The numbers his mother had insisted he play were the winning combination to a whopping twelve point two-million-dollar jackpot! Eric bolted to his feet, holding the ticket over his head. “Who-hoo!” he cried.

Then, through the wall of glass, he spied Rick Cochran rounding the corner, and Eric’s joy quickly morphed to panic. His boss was a jerk. There was something not right about the ex-G.I.

Eric was stuffing the chits into his wallet when Cochran charged in. “What’s up, Brady?” the stocky service manager growled.

“Not a thing, Maj.” Eric scrambled for a plausible excuse for his outburst. Glancing down at the newspaper, the answer came to him. “The Braves shut out the Dodgers,” he said, plastering a soppy grin on his face.

“Is that so? Didn’t take you for a big sports fan.”

“Oh, yes, sir. Big.”

“Well, keep it down, son.” Rick favored Eric with what passed as a smile, but it never reached his eyes. “Don’t be too long here.” Turning on his heel, he strode out the door leaving Eric weak-kneed and shaken.

* * *

Tara sat at her breakfast table listening to the rain pounding overhead. It rushed in waterfalls from gutters on the eaves, while thunder rumbled faintly in the distance. As she gazed out over her neatly landscaped, sodden yard, the worry, and self-doubt that persistently plagued her retreated.

She was safe.

Tara picked up her phone and scrolled through the headlines on mobile.nytimes.com. Try as she might, she couldn’t concentrate on the news. Instead, she keyed astrology.com into her browser where she found Today’s Birthday horoscope.

The security you thought you had

may turn out to be an illusion.

Tara’s brows knit.

During the year ahead,

you may find it necessary to rely on others and to stop taking your family members for granted.

“That’s a heck of a prediction,” she muttered, as she continued on to Sagittarius in hopes of better news. After all, her birthday fell on the cusp, between Scorpio and Sagittarius.

What lies behind is a small matter compared to what lies ahead, but what’s most important is what lies within. In the year to come, pay attention to your inner needs.

“That’s more like it.”

Birthday horoscopes were forgotten when her Yorkshire terrier commenced barking madly. Tara swiveled to see what the commotion was about, only to find Josh bounding into the kitchen with Chanel at his heels.

“Hey, little guy.” Josh bent to pat the Yorkie’s silken head.

“Good morning, honey.” Tara gazed at her son, marveling how, seemingly overnight, he’d grown from a child into a man. “Sleep well?”

“Uh-huh.” Josh surveyed the contents of the refrigerator. “I hope this weather clears. We’re scrimmaging this afternoon.”

“Shall I scramble up some eggs?”

“Nah.” Josh grabbed a Coke and crossed to the pantry. “I’ve got to run.” The sandy-haired teen dug out two granola bars and swung around to face his mother. “Hey, I almost forgot. Happy birthday, Mom.”

“Thanks, sweetie.”

Josh gathered up his bag and crossed to the side door.

“Wait.” Tara pivoted in her chair, and Josh turned back. “My car’s being serviced. Could you pick me up at church at five?”

“Sure, but how're you getting there?”

“Marguerite is taking me.”

“Gotcha.” Josh hefted his sports duffel. “I must say, old lady…” He arched a brow and struck a rakish pose. “You don’t look a day—”

“I know,” Tara interrupted, rolling her eyes. “Over forty. Very funny.”

She waved him off and headed upstairs, but the jangle of a mobile phone stopped her in her tracks. The distinctive chime told her it was Jack's, and Tara imagined how annoyed he’d be to have left this lifeline behind. The jazz riff ended, only to immediately resume. She dashed back down the stairs and found the phone on the kitchen counter.

“Hello, hello,” she said, but she was too late. The call had ended. Exasperated, Tara tossed the cell back onto the countertop.

She’d nearly reached the landing, when another ringtone sounded, signaling an incoming text. “Darn it!” Tara raced back down the stairs and picked up the cell. The message displayed on the screen was from a D. Shaw.

Tonight at 6?

A stab of fear pricked Tara’s heart. Jack had been short-tempered and distant these last few months. She’d chalked it up to stress. Could there be another reason? She did a quick search of Jack’s messages but found no saved texts from D. Shaw, and her hands stopped shaking. That didn’t keep her from jotting down the number on a post-it.

“Just might go on a fishing expedition,” Tara muttered. “See if there’s a ladyfish on the end of the line.”

* * *

Within the walls of the old, stone-faced cathedral, shadows collected in corners grimy with the dust of ages. On either side of the sacristy, the darkness was dispelled by tiers of votive candles—golden halos floating above myriad tiny flames. In the side chapels, where the images of saints were displayed, more candles flickered. The exotic smell of burnt incense perfumed the space and the stern faces of angels and martyrs, having been preserved in stained glass, glowed like jewels as they looked down upon the faithful.

Over it all the sweet voices of children wafted. The last chord of the hymn hung on the air before gradually dissolving into memory.

“That was very good.” Marguerite nodded toward the students assembled on the platform before her. Having been deprived of an outdoor recess, her choristers were fidgety and longing for dismissal.

“Daniel!” Marguerite waved her baton in the air. “Keep your hands to yourself and your eyes on the director, young man.”

Giggles and snatches of whispered conversation erupted. Marguerite rapped her baton on the music stand, and, with the thumb and index finger of her left hand, drew an imaginary line across pursed lips.

“Children, please. We're nearly finished.” Marguerite turned to Tara. “Play the alto line for us once again. Won’t you, Ms. Tara? Altos sing out,” she instructed. “Everyone else on melody. And a one, and a...”

Tara’s fingers moved effortlessly over the keyboard, plunking out the alto line. Furtively, Marguerite motioned to a pair of eighth-grade girls, and the two bolted from their seats and scurried through the door leading to the robing room.

Redirecting her attention to her remaining charges, the elderly choir director touched a finger to her lips, silently exhorting them to keep quiet. “That will do for today,” she said, raising her eyebrows in unspoken communication.

Hymnals slammed shut, dust motes danced in the air, and a cacophony of voices erupted. The children stampeded toward the door through which the older girls had vanished. Marguerite and Tara gathered up their personal belongings and followed on the heels of their students.

When Tara crossed the threshold, the children shouted, “Surprise, surprise!”

In the small room beyond, a card table had been set with paper plates and napkins, plastic cups and forks. The featured attraction, however, was a large, white sheet cake embellished with pink icing roses.

Marguerite warbled, “Happy birthday to you,” in her tremulous soprano, flapping her arms and encouraging the choristers to join in.

“What a surprise,” Tara fibbed. “I never suspected a thing.

“Who has the card?” Marguerite asked.

Daniel waved a large envelope in the air before presenting it.

After making a show of opening the card, Tara read aloud. “For all the joy you share, each and every one of us knows just how much you care.” She beamed at the children. “And look. You’ve all signed it.”

“Not me,” a masculine voice called from the back of the room. “I didn't sign it, Ms. Tara.”

“Josh!” Tara pivoted to face her son. His wavy head of hair glistened with rain, and his sweats were grass- and mud-stained. “Look at you. You’re soaked.”

Several other voices called out greetings. “Hey, Josh,” the children cried.

Suddenly, the air seemed charged with sexual currents. The pubescent girls tittered, casting sidelong glances at the good-looking teen who’d had the audacity to invade their sanctum.

Josh leaned indolently against the door frame, seemingly unaware of the effect he was having on the young ladies. “Aw, don't cry, Mom,” he teased. “Cut to the chase and slice the darn cake.”

“Joshua, mind your manners,” Marguerite scolded. “Have you forgotten you're in church? I'd expect you'd want to set an example.”

“Why would I want to reform at this late date?” Josh’s eyes twinkled, as he helped himself to a large slice of cake. “You know I was always the troublemaker, Mrs. Brock.”

* * *

Eric had all he could do to keep from walking off the job and never looking back. Then he’d think of The Curse of the Lotto, remembering all the previous winners who’d gone berserk, spent wildly, only to end up flat broke within years of striking it rich. He wasn’t about to make that mistake. You never know. He just might need a reference someday. He’d stuck it out, was at the wheel of a white LS Sedan when an irresistible urge to double-check the winning numbers came over him. He scanned the gargantuan lot, but it appeared empty. Eric pulled out his worn, leather wallet and withdrew the lottery tickets.

“You beauty,” he breathed, bringing the winner to his lips. A rapping on the passenger window and Eric’s head snapped up. It was Cochran.

Where had he come from?

“What the hell are you doing, son?” The service manager rotated a fist, indicating that Eric should roll the window down.

Eric’s eyes fastened on Rick’s steely blues. He crammed the lotto tickets into his pants’ pocket with one hand and powered the window down with the other, which was why he never saw one flimsy receipt separate from the rest and fall between the seat and the center console. “I was just going to drive this car into the bay before punching out.”

“You’re acting a little strange today. Everything all right?”

Eric’s emotions seesawed.

What a ridiculous question!

Everything was totally awesome and only going to get a whole lot better, but all he said was, “Fine, sir. Absolutely.”

“Then you wouldn’t mind working overtime tonight? We’re behind, and I want to get a couple more warranty jobs out the door.”

Eric groaned inwardly. He’d been counting the minutes, didn’t think he could contain himself a second longer, but he said, “Sure thing. I’ll just have to pop home for a minute to check on my mom.” He never noticed when another draft of air blew in, wedging the winning chit even farther down and out of sight.

* * *

“Thanks for the lift,” Tara said, as Josh pulled into the garage.

“You bet.” Josh put the Jeep in park, letting the engine idle. “I’m going to head back out. Supposed to meet up with some of the guys for a burger. You don’t mind, do you?”

“Not at all. I don’t feel like cooking.”

Chanel waited for her in the mudroom, and he barked a greeting. “Hey, little guy.” Tara massaged the little sentinel’s furry head. “Let’s get you some dinner.”

Once the dog had been fed, Tara did a quick check of her messages and voicemails. The first recording was from an eight hundred number, and she deleted it. The second was from Patty Meyer, and Tara chuckled at the sound of her friend’s flutie soprano belting out an off-key rendition of Happy Birthday.

The third and final message was from Jack: “Hi, babe. I think I left my cell at home. At least I hope so.” Tara smiled, but at his next words, her smile vanished. “I'm afraid I'm going to be late again. We’re entertaining clients from Korea. Sorry, birthday girl. I'll make it up to you tomorrow. I made reservations at the City Grill, and listen, don't wait up. I’ll catch a few winks on the sofa in my office and shower at the gym in the morning. Later, babe.”

Tara narrowed her eyes while digesting this news. It wasn’t unusual for Jack to entertain clients, but that particular task had fallen to him more often of late. Was he being honest with her or was there another explanation for his absences? Tara’s mind veered away from that horror. She sighed and squared her shoulders, resolving not to obsess over this unexpected development. She told herself there was probably nothing to it. It was her birthday, and she’d darn well have her own little celebration, pop up a bag microwave popcorn, uncork a bottle of wine, and treat herself to a generous serving of birthday cake.

It occurred to her that Pat was probably all alone, knocking around in that palatial manse of hers. On impulse, Tara barked into her cell, “Hey, Siri! Call Pat.”

In the next instant, her friend’s distinctive voice erupted from the speaker. “Happy birthday, girl.”

“Hi, Patty.”

“Why aren't you out celebrating?”

“It’s too wet, and Jack has clients in town. We have reservations tomorrow at City Grill.”

“Worth waiting for.”

“Yeah, but I was wondering. Is Cliff home?”

“Just what is it you want with my husband?”

Tara snorted. “I don't want him. I've got enough trouble with my own. I just want to know if he's there, dummy.”

“Call me up to give me grief, is it? Sticks and stones, girlfriend.”

“Is he?”

“No, Sherlock, he's not.”

“Good. Then you can come to my birthday. Girls night in.

“Twist my arm,” Pat said. “What's to eat?”

“How about I dig out some frozen chicken filets?”

“Whoop-de-do. You're really going all out, huh?”

“Let me sweeten the pot. I've got half a birthday cake from Piggly Wiggly, a solid block of saturated fat and refined sugar.”

“You have my attention. Got any booze?”

“Affirmative. All the fixings for my world-famous Cosmos.”

“I'll be there in about an hour. Why don't I pick us up some sushi? My treat.”

“Now you’re talking.”

 

"Veni, Vidi, Vero" by Gretchen Rose

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Women's Fiction
Romantic Suspense

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