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Life in Chapel Springs (Chapel Springs Saga Book 4)

By Ane Mulligan

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"I have loved you, so I continue to show you my constant love." Jeremiah 31:3

Chapter 1

The morning fog was as thick as the pea soup Great-aunt Lola used to make. Claire hated that soup then and she didn't much like this fog now. A tourist could get lost and walk right into the lake on a day like this. She swished her hand back and forth in an impotent attempt to dispel it. It was a good thing Chapel Springs was small and she knew its topography like she knew her own face. Visibility was down to five feet if that. In the distance, the foghorn on Henderson's Island blew a warning.
Why couldn't this morning be like yesterday? The sun had peeked over the horizon and risen a quarter of its girth by the time she'd reached the boardwalk. Its golden rays had danced on the waters of Chapel Lake, sparkling like the sequins on a wedding dress.
Mist-laden air filled Claire's lungs as she made her way down the boardwalk. Why was she in such a dark mood? She should be happy. The next wedding would be for her twins, Megan and Melissa. They'd dreamed since childhood of a double wedding and God had kept their dream safe. She glanced up toward the fickle sun, or where it should be if she could see it. The weather and the town had better be perfect for their nuptials. It was only three and a half months away. There wasn't much time left.
Despite the fog, the bells above the door at Dee's 'n' Doughs jingled a cheery welcome. Her BFF Patsy waved from their favorite table by the window. Since Chapel Springs had become "the" vacation spot in the Southeast, they didn't often get that table and had to sit in a back corner of the bakery.
Claire returned her wave and went to the counter to select her breakfast. A mocha sounded good and … she let her gaze move from left to right over Dee's concoctions. There were raspberry Danish, cheese Danish, apple fritters, and oh, there was that pear tart Patsy loved. She moved past the pear and over the bagels. Her eyes and her appetite stopped on the bear claws. Bagel versus bear claw. Almond paste inside Dee's flaky pastry topped with a light glaze of icing versus blueberry bagel. No contest.
She grinned at Trisha Halloran behind the counter. "I'll take the smallest one you've got. I can't afford to gain any weight between now and the wedding."
"I shrank all the calories just for you." With a pair of tongs, Trisha picked up the bear claw and laid it on a plate. "Here you go."
Claire thanked her, got her coffee, and joined Patsy. She hung her turkey tote on the back of a chair and slid into place. Designer Chartreaux Katz had licensed a few of Claire's whimsy vases to make as totes, and the gobbler that beaned Avery Chandler, the art critic and now her agent, had become legendary. Avery even carried one. Claire loved the totes and certainly didn't mind the extra money she made off them.
Settling into her chair, she turned to Patsy. "I've got something for you. My daughter-in-law sent it."
Patsy set her coffee cup down. "Which one? You do have two, you know."
"Sandie, of course. Costy doesn't have babies, yet."
"Well, what is it?"
Making Pat-a-cake wait another moment, Claire took a bite of the pastry, then wiped her hands on a napkin. She reached into her tote and pulled out a stiff envelope, handing it to Patsy. "It's copies of their family portrait session. The twins cooperated and the photos are adorable. We want you to choose one and paint it."
Patsy's eyes lit up. She pulled the photos from the envelope, alternately "oohing" and "ahhing." Charlie, Sandi and their twins, now eleven months old, were dressed alike in white oxford shirts and jeans.
Patsy finally slipped them back into the envelope. "Where did Sandi get those shirts for Micah and Michaela?"
"She ordered them online. Aren't they darling?"
"The first grandbabies." Patsy frowned. "How'd we get old enough for that?"
"Count, girlfriend. We're fast approaching forty-nine." Claire wrinkled her nose.
"Oh, hush. I'd convinced myself I'm still thirty-nine."
Claire snorted and pulled off another piece of pastry. It was as delicious as it looked. "I have a theory about that." She popped the tidbit into her mouth and savored it. "We hit our stride as individuals somewhere between thirty-five and thirty-nine. It tends to stick." She followed the bear claw with a sip of mocha.
"Hmm, interesting theory, O Wise One." Patsy laid the envelope beside her on the table. "I think I know which pose I'll use for the portrait, but I'll study them again in the studio."
"Which one?"
"Nope. I'll make that a surprise for all of you." Patsy grinned.
"Did I tell you Micah has nicknamed his sister?"
Patsy blinked and tilted her head. "How did he do that? He's only babbling."
Claire laughed. "Prepare to be impressed. Little Micah babbled then clearly as anything said 'Aela' and reached for his sister. Sandi and Charlie have started calling her Aela now."
The bells jingle-jangled and the pastor's wife, JoAnn, came through the door, followed by Ellie, their town librarian. Before the door fully shut, Carin and Lacey entered. Claire was glad to see those two had struck up a friendship. Both being writers, they reminded her of herself and Patsy, although theirs was a new friendship. Hers and Patsy's went all the way back to very early childhood. She glanced at her Pat-a-cake. Claire couldn't imagine doing life without her best friend.
As their friends joined them, she passed the photos around the table, asking each to chime in on their favorite pose. Naturally, they all had a different opinion.
Kelly Appling breezed in the door, a stream of fog clinging to her heels. She was one of the most beautiful women Claire knew. Her milk chocolate complexion was flawless. She could have been a model, instead of owning a gift shop and heading up the community theater. After getting a to-go cup of coffee, she stopped by their table.
"Are y'all coming Thursday night for auditions?"
No way would Claire get onstage. "I'm only coming to paint flats." She took a long sip of her coffee, giving Kelly the evil-eye.
A wicked gleam entered hers. "But Claire, sugar, Lacey wrote a part that has your name all over it."
"Why? You've already got enough comedy in this play."
Kelly laughed. "I'm teasing you, although I still think you should take a role sometime. You'd be good, Claire."
The woman was a good director, but she sure overestimated Claire's talent as an actor. "Thanks but no thanks. I'll stay backstage. Hey, just where are we supposed to do all this? You aren't going to Pineridge, are you?"
"No." Kelly looked pleased with herself.
"Well? Where are we going then?"
"The theater."
But the— "The renovations are—"
"In the lobby. The engineer looked over the stage and everything is good. It passed. There're some small structural things to fix, but they're doing that during the day. They finished the wiring yesterday. So we're okay to be there at night."
"That's great. Then we can build the flats and paint." Claire made a note to tell Joel what they were doing tonight.
"Seth'll be there too," JoAnn said. "My husband has decided to try out. He thinks it would be good for people to see their pastor supporting it."
Claire gaped at her. "Really? Our pastor in a play?"
"Why not?" Carin asked. "Is there a reason he shouldn't?"
JoAnn shook her head. "Of course not. Lacey's mysteries are good family entertainment."
Still, it would seem strange to see the pastor as someone else.
JoAnn rose, and as she and Kelly left, Patsy nudged Claire. "I thought you said you'd try out if I would."
"Yeah, well, that was in a weak moment. Besides, you're not trying out. And I've asked Mel to help us paint." She turned to their tiny librarian, who was fostering their employee. "Ellie, you don't mind if she helps, do you?"
"Not at all. She has a special heart for the old place."
They all laughed, and Ellie leaned forward in her chair. Being as petite as she was, her shoulders touched the table. "Guess who has already passed her GED."
"Mel? Really? Wow. Barely educated and brilliant." Claire breathed on her fingernails and rubbed them against her shirt, grinning at her friends. "I knew it. So now what?"
Ellie sat back and folded her hands in her lap, clearly pleased with Mel's development. "I'm enrolling her in the summer semester at Pineridge Community College. I've also—" she looked around the room and lowered her voice, "hired a detective to find her daddy. I want to adopt her, and I'll need his release."
Adopt her? That was great but what if—"Her daddy may want to keep her if he finds out how smart she is. And from what she's told Joel and me about him, he's a scoundrel who'd use her intelligence to commit crimes."
"I'd already thought about that, Claire. That's why I'd like to get this done quickly."
Patsy dunked a piece of Claire's bear claw in her coffee. "He hasn't found out about her being gainfully employed by us, yet. You're probably okay."
"I'm not leaving anything to chance." Ellie wrinkled her nose. "I'll find him and do what I have to for him to allow me to adopt her."
"When's the tattoo removal?" Claire was glad when Mel told her she wanted to get the tattoo removed from her face and neck. They were pretty dark, and she didn't mean the color.
"Her first appointment is Friday." Ellie's forehead pinched. "I hear it takes several treatments. I hope she gets the results she wants. That tattoo isn't that old."
"Does that make a difference?"
Ellie nodded. "It can."
Always the author, Carin pulled out a little notebook and jotted down something.
Claire had never seen her without it. "The funny thing is, I've gotten to where I don't notice it, anymore. What? Close your mouth, Patsy, before you catch a fly."
Coffee shot out Ellie's nose. She wiped it, alternately coughing and laughing. "I don't notice it anymore, either, Claire."
"I do. I don't judge her, but I can't help it if I notice it. Uh, Ellie?" Patsy tapped her finger against her jaw, and Ellie wiped off the drop of coffee. "Got it."
"We all know you love her." Claire patted her BFF's hand. "I guess it is more noticeable since all the rest of her Gothness has been put away."
"Lacey, since the remodeling is only in the lobby area, will the grand reopening be soon?" Carin asked.
Lacey lowered her eyes. "The designs are ready but haven't been approved yet."
Her voice was so soft, Claire could hardly hear her. "How long will that take?"
Lacey raised her gaze to Claire's then quickly dropped it again. "A couple weeks."
Claire lifted an eyebrow in question at Carin. Hadn't their friendship helped Lacey with her shyness? Was she the only one who saw the need of Lacey learning some—
"Lacey, we need to give you lessons in being assertive." A foot connected with her ankle. "Ow." Claire glared at Patsy. Maybe she was right, though. Poor Lacey looked so horrified, Claire was ready to kick herself. Still— "Then what about Toastmasters? Oh, don't look so frightened. When we start producing more of your plays, the news will want interviews. It would help you get over your shyness."
Ellie nodded and pumped more coffee into her cup from the thermal pot on the table. "I've got some information about the chapter in Pineridge if you're interested."
Lacey shook her head in fast tight shakes. "No. Thank you. I've got to get to work." She pushed her chair back so fast it nearly fell over. She hurried to the door, and disappeared into the fog.

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