When Hollywood A-listers swarm Bartell County for a celebrity funeral, Miss Lillian takes in a temporary houseguest. After all, Abby Ruth is away and her room is sitting empty. She’ll never be the wiser. But after the charming visitor leaves, Abby Ruth’s adored arsenal has also vamoosed.
Lil, Maggie, and Sera are in one hot mess trying to find the guns before Abby Ruth gets back. And when Abby Ruth divulges a heartbreaking secret, her friends are more determined than ever to catch the culprit themselves.
Only this time the gals have crossed the line into deeper, more dangerous territory than ever before. Will they recover Abby Ruth’s guns, or will they find themselves buried in a heap of trouble?
The six-shooter was pointed right at Sera, momentarily jolting her out of her sorrow.
Thank goodness it wasn’t a real gun, but a float-size wreath in the shape of a revolver, which might’ve looked right at home had she been back in California for the Rose Parade, rather than in Georgia with Lil and Maggie.
As Sera and her friends walked closer to the massive building looming in front of them, Holy Innocence Mausoleum looked anything but innocent today. A crowd was growing in the area surrounding the cannon-size handgun wreath. So lowbrow. Besides, hadn’t these people been taught never to point a gun? Even one made of flowers.
Sera lifted a handkerchief graced with tiny, hand-stitched hummingbirds on one corner to dab at a tear beneath her Miu Miu sunglasses. “I still can’t believe she’s gone.”
“I hate that these terrible circumstances brought you back to us.” Maggie grabbed Sera’s hand. “But it’s good to see you.”
Lil tugged at the peplum of her yellow suit jacket. “Look at all these people. I’ve never seen so many Western hats in one place. She was obviously loved by many. Bless her heart.”
“My goodness. Would you look at that wreath over there?” Maggie pointed toward a spray of all-white carnations with a fringed cowboy boot in the center. “Wish Abby Ruth was here to see this. She’d have loved it.”
Sera sniffed back a tear. “Only Abby Ruth would have expected that boot to be blazing red.”
Lil and Maggie both nodded, the tender thought lightening the heavy mood.
“It’s odd not to have her here,” Sera said. Standing tall and strong, Abby Ruth was always the one anchoring their foursome. Instead, Sera’s husband, Marcus, made up the fourth today. Well, he would be once he parked the car and caught up to them.
More floral arrangements stood nearly eight-feet deep along each side of the mausoleum’s entrance, giving the otherwise cold, harsh facade an inappropriately festive look.
“I know folks are trying to show their love and appreciation.” The words caught in Sera’s throat. “But she’d have hated the waste of all of these flowers. The money could’ve been spent on something that would help others.”
“Even if they were cheap sunflowers and alstroemeria, with so many, the money adds up quickly,” Maggie agreed.
“More than Summer Shoals raised at the last High on the Hog event,” Lil said with a quick tsk.
“Easily, and they’ll all be wilting and dying before sunrise,” Sera said. One more dreary sign of death, which seemed to be the subtitle in every direction.
The tiny pillbox hat balancing atop Lil’s freshly dyed blue-blond curls—a combo not too many people could pull off—gave the matriarch of Summer Shoals a look of royalty. A thin man with a bad highlight job darted out in front of them and snapped pictures, clearly focused on Lil, who looked like a Hollywood A-lister today.
“No pictures,” Sera said, waving the skinny guy away, a habit she fell back into so easily. “How are we supposed to mourn with these vultures all over the place? What was her family thinking with all this fanfare?” If she had to guess, they’d probably tipped off the paparazzi themselves.
Once the photographer moved on to another victim, Maggie said, “Everyone shows their love in a different way. Can’t really judge that, can we?”
Sera, Lil, and Maggie walked in lockstep. Three styles. Three sizes. But three women equally affected by today’s sad affair for their own reasons.
Sera was thankful that Lil and the other girls hadn’t pitched a hissy fit and thrown her out on her fanny when they’d found out the truth about her life in California. During the time she lived with them here in Georgia, she’d omitted the tidbit that she was the wife of Marcus Johanneson, one of the most influential men in the Hollywood film industry. A triple threat, Marcus had been an actor first, then he began directing and producing his own movies. Only a few people had a résumé as impressive as his. He had the magic touch when it came to selecting blockbuster movies, and everyone who was anyone wanted to be considered for one of his projects.
“There are so many people here.” Lil’s head swiveled right and left. “I think I saw Michael Douglas over there. Sera, tell me you’ve met him. Or even better, his daddy.”
“We’ve met.” Although Sera had told herself she’d never keep anything from her friends again, elaborating on the fact that Michael and Kirk were much more than business acquaintances didn’t feel appropriate.
Lil touched her heart. “I do love those men. I swear, I think they could wake up my last working hormone.”
Maggie nudged her best friend. “Lil, we’re not that old.”
Lil’s eyebrows danced. “That might be true, because I do believe that I’d be tempted to rise from the dead if all these folks showed up at my funeral.”
Sera would’ve never expected anything less than a standing-room-only, Hollywood-style full house for Jessie Wyatt. Even in death. Jessie might’ve been one of the most famous movie stars of her time, but to Sera, she’d been a dear friend. Since the day they’d met on one of Marcus’s movie sets, Jessie had been Sera’s lifeline and advisor during the tumultuous tides of her marriage.
Sera wished Finn, could’ve made it for the funeral. She would’ve simply said, “Lil, Maggie, Abby Ruth, please meet my son.” Then they would’ve been so taken with his good looks and charm that they would’ve easily forgiven her. And it would’ve kept her from having to explain yet one more thing that she’d hidden from her friends.
She shook back her long hair, chasing away the nostalgia and past mistakes to focus on today.
Although the interment would be inside the mausoleum, the family had opted to have the service outside. Probably a good decision with this many people in attendance, and the May weather was perfect for it. The crowd of thousands mingled close to the building. The mourners’ muted wardrobes were occasionally punctuated by a bright spot of white and fringe. One that couldn’t be ignored, because an entire group of women were dressed up like Jessie, in all-white cowgirl costumes.
“Mrs. Johanneson, excuse me.”
Sera turned to face another reporter with a cameraman hovering behind him. “Jessie starred in several of your husband’s films. Someone said that you two were very close. Could you comment?”
She sucked in a breath. “Jessie Wyatt was one of the most genuine people I’ve ever met. She was not only a friend but also a mentor. I’ll miss her terribly.” She lowered her head after her statement. Once, she and Jessie had spent three weeks together when Marcus was shooting in the wilds of Zimbabwe. If anything could bring two women from different generations close together, it was sharing toiletries in the jungle. And Jessie had been generous with not only hard-to-attain supplies but also advice and encouragement. A gift that had changed Sera’s life in so many ways.
The excited reporter closed in on her again. “Wasn’t Jessie from Macon? Why did they decide to bury her here in Myrtle Knolls?”
“Someone in her family can answer that. We’re here to honor the woman, not the location. No more questions, please. This is a difficult day for us all.” Sera raised her hand politely, and the reporter backed off. Automatically, she scanned the crowd for security. She’d learned to be sure she knew where help was in case the reporters got out of control. Happened all the time with Marcus.
Off to the far side of the funeral area, Teague Castro stood tall, wearing his Bartell County Sheriff uniform. His dark good looks and muscular build fit right in with this attractive Hollywood crowd. Myrtle Knolls wasn’t his jurisdiction, but that was the cool thing about small towns. The attitude of the residents was one of community and goodwill. Teague and his men were here to help keep things under control because it was the neighborly thing to do, something that would never happen in Hollywood.
Lil’s fingers dug into Sera’s hand. “Is that Luke Bryan?”
The reporter who’d still been hovering around must have heard Lil because he took off in Luke’s direction, waving over his shoulder for the cameraman to follow.
Whoomp-whoomp-whoomp. One look at the helicopter circling overheard told Sera the bottom-feeders who couldn’t score a press pass to the funeral weren’t letting that stop them. Paparazzi. Those fools would crash any event if they thought it would tantalize the public. The funeral location should’ve been kept under wraps, but with this many attendees and Jessie’s family’s propensity to blab, that had probably been unrealistic.
Sera and her little group finally made it close enough to get a glimpse of Jessie’s casket through the throng of family, fans, and A-listers, where a young preacher stood holding a leather folio.
“The deceased has often been described as a force of nature,” he said, his gentle but strong voice calming the crowd to an eerie silence. “She will be sorely missed by many, including the NRA, which she supported generously throughout her lifetime.”
A smile touched the corner of Sera’s lips. She should’ve thought to introduce Abby Ruth and Jessie. Those two would’ve gotten along like a house on fire. Then again, together they might’ve set the house on fire.
On her left, Lil squeezed closer to her. The older woman looked like a tiny Vienna sausage among a tall package of frankfurters.
Sera tapped the huge man in front of Lil on the shoulder. “Mr. Hogan, would you mind giving us a bit more room?”
He pulled his massive arms into his body and smiled down at Lil, his bushy blond mustache twitching to one side. “You want to climb up on my shoulders?”
“Lord have mercy,” she breathed, that little hat hanging on by a bobby pin. “No, thank you.”
“Let me know if you change your mind.”
Lil gave him a vague, star-struck nod.
The huge tan man turned to the side and ushered all three of them in front of him. A front-row view.
“If you’ll bow your heads and join me in blessing Jessie Wyatt’s soul so she may pass peacefully to the other side,” the preacher said. At the end of his prayer, multiple words rippled through the gathering.
Finally, the crowd pulled back, and Lil and Maggie worked their way closer to the casket.
Before Sera could move to join them, a warm hand brushed the small of her back. Marcus. There was a time when he’d led her into a crowded room with that gesture and she’d felt as if she was the most special woman in the world. Today, she wasn’t sure what his touch made her feel.
Still, she smiled up at her husband—as handsome as ever with his lean build and million-dollar smile. He’d aged gracefully with sexy silver lacing his hairline now. Had she caused those grays? He’d have worried about her even though he’d left her alone to find her way. He was like that.
“Did you get the car parked okay?” she asked him, her nerves insisting that she make small talk with her own husband. Her mind needed the break from the overwhelming sadness if only for a moment. “I thought you’d missed the service.”
“Sorry it took me so long. Ran into Sylvester Stallone on the way back from the lot and stood by him while the preacher was talking.”
Of course he had, because Marcus Johanneson was a magnet for Hollywood types, and a slew of them had shown up today.
“It was a beautiful ceremony.” He wrapped his arm around her. “How are you doing?”
She rested her head against his shoulder, needing his strength today. “It was lovely, made more so by how pretty it is here in Georgia.”
“But nothing can compare to you,” he said, dropping a kiss into her hair.
Sera reached for his hand and gave it a squeeze. Returning to her adopted state for Jessie’s funeral had been hard, but being back a few days, Sera knew this was where she belonged. Marcus seemed to want their marriage to return to the way it had been when they were newlyweds, before Finn came along, when she’d always been the one to mold to Marcus’s career, his life. Yet she yearned for her days back here in Summer Shoals, where she was simply Sera. No reputation. No money. No expectations.
Only Marcus wasn’t a part of that life, and she didn’t know if she could live here in the place she loved without the man she loved.
“Georgia, and Summer Shoals in particular, has become one of my favorite places in the world,” she said with complete honesty. Saying the words aloud seemed to give them wings but left her shaky. She needed to be away from Marcus for a moment to get her head together. “I’m going to go pay Jessie my respects.”
He dropped her hand. She regretted hurting him. But she needed a little more time and space to work out how she planned to go forward with her life. And her relationship with Marcus was still a work in progress. Jessie’s death made it even clearer that a person’s time on this earth was limited. Each day needed to be cherished.
A crush of people had quickly separated Sera from Maggie and Lil. So Sera tried to slowly edge her way around and was captivated by the elaborate casket spray. The blanket of the tiniest perfect bluebonnets, with Indian paintbrush tickling stalks of red clover, resembled a Texas sunset. Jessie hadn’t ever lived in the Lone Star state, but most people considered her the perfect Texas cowgirl. Funny how a fictional role could change the whole world’s perception of a woman.
Not only had someone spent a fortune on the out-of-season Texas wildflowers, but they’d also integrated Jessie Wyatt’s signature Wild West outfit of white leather into the flowers. And right on top were her famous deerskin gauntlets with fringe of gold and stones that had once been rumored to be genuine sapphires, rubies, and diamonds.
“Are they going to entomb her costume?” a woman next to Sera asked.
“Sure looks that way,” someone else whispered.
“But it’s a collector’s item—a representation of an important Hollywood icon. Seems like it would be better served in a museum somewhere.”
Sera couldn’t agree more. Especially the gauntlets, because although Jessie had owned several skirts and vests, only one pair of authentic gauntlets existed. One night over sangria at an after-party, Jessie had shared a secret with Sera. Those gauntlets were insanely valuable, given to Jessie by her husband as an anniversary present. Not that anyone else knew that. Rumors had been bandied about for a few years, but with some well-executed PR by Jessie’s agent, the gossip had eventually been written off as Hollywood lore.
The helicopter took another spin above, and camera lenses shimmered in the bright sunlight. Then more flashes and clicks came from beyond a private family mausoleum less than fifty feet away, just outside the funeral’s security perimeter. Entertainment rag reporters were wily and persistent.
Apparently, she wasn’t the only one to spot the intruders, because several Bartell County deputies raced off toward the culprits.
One of Teague’s guys hollered, “Y’all need to get on out of here. This is a private event.”
“Dude, this is a free country,” a so-called reporter yelled back. “Maybe I’m here visiting my grandma.”
“With that camera equipment? What? Were you planning to take family portraits?”
Sera tried to suppress a smile, because truthfully, those country boys weren’t prepared for the likes of ruthless paparazzi. They had no remorse and no manners. And if a story put them in the position to make a buck, they didn’t care one bit who they hurt.