A Case of Love

Excerpt of Golden Girls Series Book # 2

Chapter One

Twelve years ago today, Thea Cameron opened her café, Cinnamon. August 20 of 2004 marked the day when she stopped hoping to salvage her marriage. It became her Independence Day. No more hoping and no longer waiting for her husband’s approval! I don’t care anymore she told her friends then. And she didn’t—most of the time.

From then on Cinnamon became Thea’s symbol of liberation from her philandering husband. Nobody believed she would succeed. But she did. From the opening onwards the popularity of the café—and of her cooking—rose, and her confidence grew. The sign hanging on the baker’s bike outside read Cinnamon is twelve years old today! Celebrate with us, splurge out to prices of 2004, and have a dessert on the house.

Saturday morning crowds filled the cafés along Auckland’s Ponsonby Road. The Cinnamon was no exception. A row of tables on the pavement framed by a set of windows and an old-fashioned baker’s bike leaned against the wall with an enormous bunch of flowers peeking out of the basket. The first morning rush was over, but the Cinnamon still brimmed with clients coaxed out of their homes by golden sunbeams promising a splendid winter day.

It’s your delicious, homemade food and your passion for cooking, her friend Claudia used to say. Maybe. She was realistic. More likely it had to do with the atmosphere of serenity and peace she created when she turned the rundown, unpleasant New Zealand pub into a French Country style café, spreading abundant old-world charm with white lace curtains and tablecloths, antique crockery, and pink and red posies on each of the rustic tables. To celebrate her Independence Day today she decked out the whole place in pink and red.

She went inside and smiled. Aromatic whiffs of scrumptious bold coffee danced from the machine behind the counter and floated through the air. It was hard to miss the festive mood spread throughout the café.

“How may I help you, sir?” Thea stood in front of the glass cabinet. Shelves with delicious sandwiches and little cakes greeted customers. She looked up and straight into a black eye patch.

Pirates!

Everything she ever heard about pirates flashed through her mind. His dark brown hair showed generous grey streaks and framed a square face that was dominated by a nose broken at least once, going by the slight bend. A blue eye squinted under a bushy eyebrow.

She never saw a picture of a pirate with dimples, though, and he lacked the obligatory parrot and golden earring, too. In fact, nothing fitted the classic cliché. Not the tight-fitting jeans and the white t-shirt moulded to a muscular chest. Neither did the leather bomber jacket.

Should she tell him that his outfit is all wrong? She struggled not to smile at her mental image. He must have noticed her stare because he straightened to his full six foot something inches, tipped his head, lifted his eyebrows, and seemed to search for words.

“Please, take all the time you need to make your choice while I serve the other customers,” she said hoping he’d step aside.

“Thank you. I need to speak with the owner, Mrs Cameron.” His voice, deep, resonant, and commanding, fitted her first impression of him. A faint shiver ran down her spine. He might even have a Brig anchoring in the Harbour and sneak away with his booty under the veil of the night.

She smiled and smoothed her white apron. Her short, blond hair hugged her heart-shaped face dominated by a small button nose. Today, in their Independence Day outfit, she and her staff looked like cupcakes come to life with their red pencil skirts and pink blouses. She straightened her shoulders.

“I am Thea Cameron. Please, return around three o’clock when the rush is over. Monday morning after ten would suit, too. We are busy as you can see.” She kept her expression neutral and gestured at the twenty occupied tables and the long line of customers waiting for service. A waitress and a waiter rushed back and forth between tables, carrying trays stacked with breakfast dishes.

“You couldn’t have chosen a worse time.” She pointed at the long line of customers waiting behind him.

“My name is Mark Cheltham. I am a private investigator.” He handed her his business card and said with a friendly but determined voice, “I would like to speak with you about your husband.”

The unpleasant taste of bile rose in her throat. A PI? What had he to do with Graham? She sent him a quick once-over hoping for a clue, but his face gave nothing away. Typical pirate!

“Please, take a seat,” she pointed to a table marked reserved in the back of the café, next to her office desk. “I’ll be with you as soon as I can manage.”

She worked until no more customers waited in line and called into the kitchen “Barbara, could you take over the counter for a while?”

“Give me a sec to finish decorating this batch of cupcakes, Mum.”

Minutes later her daughter joined her. She took after her father. Where Thea was slim, petite, and blond, she had chestnut brown, long hair and a solid figure matching her five foot eight inches height. She smiled at her mother with sparkling green eyes.

“What’s the emergency?” She added a tray of pink cupcakes topped with a red and white hearts made of frosting to the displayed food. “For the Independence Day-lovebirds.” She winked and pushed a lock out of her face.

“There is a PI here who wants to talk to me about your father.”

Barbara’s eyes narrowed. “What on earth for? Can’t they let him rest in peace? Graham’s dead, for goodness’ sake. Doesn’t that put paid to any issues? At least the PI is not another phoney cop like the pushy guys that came in yesterday. I loved how you told them to take a hike.”

Grateful for her daughter’s support she exhaled, and some of the tension fell off her shoulders. “We’ll find out what he wants when I talk to him.” She started towards Mr Cheltham. Before she arrived, she spun around. “Table five outside is still waiting for their Bircher muesli.” She blushed, annoyed the PI’s unexpected presence rattled her so much, she forgot the customer’s order.

Thea walked over to the corner carrying two cups of coffee. Protected from view by a large Schefflera, her table doubled as her office away from home. He stood and pulled the chair back for her. A pirate with manners? Interesting. When she sat, he held her gaze with an expression of… was it sympathy?

“I am sorry to disrupt your busy morning. I’m afraid this is an urgent matter. Otherwise, I would return on Monday.”

She grabbed her hot cup and blew over its surface.

“Help yourself to the coffee.” She pointed to the small Sterling silver tray with a white sugar and creamer set in the middle of the table. “What is so pressing that you look me up on a Saturday morning when normal people still linger in bed reading the weekend paper? I buried my husband a week ago.”

“I was at the funeral. And I’ve read all the articles. I’m sorry for your loss.” He sipped his coffee.

Not again! She had enough of reporters on the hunt for another juicy story of her late husband’s affairs. “You must have a boring life. I didn’t take you for a Women’s Weekly fan.”

The smile he gave her spoke of pity and understanding. She needed neither and speared him with a glare. Why do people assume losing a husband is a bad thing? Not a day gone by in more than a decade she hadn’t wished Graham would disappear. Not dead, but no longer a part of her life. Even the tears she cried at his funeral were for her dad who died seven years ago. Him she missed. Her late husband? Not for a minute. That he ran the car off the road and killed himself with his latest fling in the passenger seat was poetic justice.

“I’m contracted by the Oceania Life Insurance to clear up a few questions. What can you tell me about Mr. Cameron’s last few weeks?”

She shot up an eyebrow. “You want information about my late husband’s affairs? You’re asking the wrong person. I stopped paying attention years ago. We shared the same house when he bothered to come home instead of sharing someone else’s bed. Maybe one of his secretaries can tell you more. I’m sure if you ring his office on Monday, they’ll help you further. It’s around the corner. A pleasant walk on a sunny morning.”

“Yes, I know where his office is.”

“If you’ll excuse me; I have work to do.” She stood but hesitated when his deep voice called her back.

“Your husband took out a three million dollar life insurance six weeks before the accident. I hoped you could tell me about it.”

She turned around. Three million dollars? That’s a crazy amount. She scanned the pirate’s face but he seemed serious. Frustration boiled up inside her.

“I have no idea. You must have the wrong man. My husband hated insurance companies. I’m sorry; I can’t help you.” She struggled to keep her feelings out of her voice. “One thing puzzles me, though. What was so urgent?”

“Someone claimed to be a police inspector and contacted the Oceania Life for information about the policy. They didn’t have a search warrant, so the OLI sent them away. When we checked their credentials, we found nobody in the police force with their names. OLI asked me to look into the situation for them. Whoever the people were, they could mean trouble for you and your daughter, Isabella, who is the beneficiary of the policy.”

She let out a sigh of relief. “That must have been the men who came in here yesterday. I sent them packing. Why didn’t you say in the beginning you looked for Isabella Cameron? That explains everything. You’ve got the wrong Cameron family. I don’t have a daughter by the name of Isabella. You need to go back to the drawing board and plug the holes in your research. Excuse me, I have work to do.”

He looked as if she told him Santa Claus cancelled Christmas for this year. She stopped a giggle pearling out of her mouth.

“Just as well you sent them away. They were fakes. I’ll take another look at my file and try to return later this afternoon.” He stood, searched for keys in his leather jacket and waved goodbye.

She watched him walking out and called after him, “No need to rush.”

“What did he want?” Barbara asked when Thea joined her at the counter.

“Mistaken identity. He looked for a child named Isabella Cameron.”

“Pity, he had a gorgeous ass.”

“Barbara!”

“Didn’t you see it when he walked out? His Calvin Klein jeans fitted like a second skin. And he has beautiful eyes—or at least one. I haven’t seen that kind of blue since Paul Newman died.” Her daughter had a dreamy expression that turned into a grin. “Lighten up, Mum. Just because Graham was a jerk, doesn’t mean all men are useless.”

“I am not about to test that theory. Better safe than sorry as they say. I’m not interested in men’s asses, whether they hide in designer pants or not.” She rolled her eyes at her daughter. “Can you take over now? I need to check on the Independence Day specials for lunch and want to finish my mock-up before the girls arrive.”

She went over to her office table and put the finishing touches to the cover of her new cookbook. Twenty minutes later the book was ready to go to the printer. She collated her notes and filed them into her foolscap folder when Mark Cheltham’s business card fell out. She picked it up and turned it around in her fingers. His visit disturbed her, even though she’d brushed him off. Doubts glared her in the face. Graham might have a daughter she knew nothing about. She tapped the edge of the card on the table. After years of humiliation she didn’t think he could still shock her. But a child? She hoped he’d rot in hell.

Even though she stayed in the marriage, she showed him she was not the fool he claimed her to be. He laughed at her for opening the café. But with the help of her friend Anna’s legal expertise, she took out the loan to buy and refurbish the old pub. Every one of her friends helped: Christine, Claudia, and Anna. Together they wrestled the run down tavern into a place fit for public use.

How many nights did she spend on her knees, scrubbing her anger into the wooden floor planks until they shone in their original glory? The battle became personal, and the Cinnamon became her statue of liberty. On Tuesday she will pay off the outstanding credit—years ahead of time.

A few stray rays of sunlight filtered through the lace curtains throwing geometric patterns of light onto the wall behind her table. Barbara appeared and placed a hot drink in front of her. “What’s up?”

“Just lost in thought. Thanks for the coffee. I’m finished. Tell me what you think.”

“I like it.” Her daughter studied the cover. “It’s hard to believe how you have transformed the old place and turned out these amazing cookbooks.”

“I have to thank you for that. You are the best thing that came out of that cursed marriage. I love you, my darling. Seeing you with Christopher and the kids makes me hopeful that not all is bad.” She gave Barbara a kiss on her cheek. “When you became my partner five years ago, I had time to focus on other things than running the café. Together we are a brilliant team.”

She felt something hard in her apron pocket and found Mark Cheltham’s business card. She took it, bounced it a few times against her pursed lips and threw it into the rubbish bin.

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