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penny-3d-book-smA Penny For Her Heart
New Indie Novel

Synopsis

Two Friends. Two Dreams. One Nightmare.


Vanessa Johnson Rossi's dream is to work in the White House. Not as the leader of the free world, but as chief of staff, overseeing the executive office of the president. As an assistant working at Buderwood Hills City Hall, she finds herself getting closer to realizing her dream when a plum position becomes available that would put her a step closer working directly for the mayor who has personal connections to the White House. But Vanessa’s hopes are dashed when her best friend, Penelope Newhouse, lands the coveted job. However, when Vanessa discovers Penelope murdered less than a hundred feet from the office she dreamed of occupying, her disappointment turns into devastation.
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Detective Rachel Storme and her team are put on the case and she soon finds herself delving into the underbelly of politics in search of the killer. The clues point to a litany of suspects, including the mayor. As usual, Detective Storme is determined to solve this case—a case so chock-full of dark and sinister twists and turns, it has her questioning her own competence.




Excerpt:

Chapter 1
Vanessa

Standing over him, I watch his hairy chest rise and fall, wondering what time he got home last night. My gaze shifts to his blue, Gas Company coveralls strewn over the upended coffee table. I pick them up and glance at the name embroidered over the pocket—Vincent Rossi. When I drape them on the arm of the sofa, his keys fall onto the hardwood floor, causing him to stir. Squinting, he peers up at me. “Morning.”

A knowing smile lights up my face while the sight of us entangled in the throes of passion on the coffee table last night floods my mind. “Good morning.” He sits up and neatly folds the gingham blanket that was covering him. I avert my gaze, not wanting to see his muscular legs. I feel him willing me to look into his big brown eyes that are screaming let’s pick up where we left off, but I focus on his unruly brown hair instead  

“What’s funny?”

“Your hair. Why didn’t you come to bed when you got home? Were you and Fred able to take care of the refinery leak?”

“Yeah. It was a cinch. In order for the customer to keep gas flow, we used the standby run as our primary feed to the customer. Then we took the primary run out of service for repairs. And I slept on the sofa because I didn’t want to wake you up. I didn’t get in until close to three. I hate being called out. Especially when we’re trying to get pregnant.  Woman, you make me crazy,” he says, undressing me with his eyes. “Where are you going?”

 “I’m going into the office,” I say, picking up his keys and tossing them to him.

He puts the keys and the blanket to the side. With a sly grin on his mustachioed face, he gets up from the sofa and approaches me, moving gingerly as though he’s walking through a minefield. “Why are you wearing your Buderwood Hills City Hall hat?”

“Because I’m having a bad hair day.”

 He removes the cap and runs his thick fingers through my mane. “I like it when you wear your hair fluffy like that. You remind me of a young Pam Grier. You go, my little Trojan,” he says, tugging on my cardinal and gold hoodie. “Who knew a small-time guy from Philly could land a big-time city girl like you.”

“Okay, small time guy. This big city girl needs to keep it moving. I have a lot to do.” I snatch the cap out of his hand and return it to my head.

“But it’s Saturday and I’m not on call anymore. Stay home so we can have some fun.”

“I know what day it is, sweetie. And in less than three months, it will be Election Day.”

“How long are you going to be?”

“Just a few hours. I’ll be back before noon. Why don’t you straighten up this place while I’m out, and I made you breakfast? It’s in the oven. It’s not as good as your culinary delights, but I think you’ll enjoy it.”

“You’re the best, Nessa. That’s just why I wish you would leave that job and show ‘em all what they’d be missing. What’s the point of being loyal when they’re not? Penny isn’t as half as good as you are, and you’ve worked there twice as long. There’s something really wrong with that picture.”

“Don’t start, Vince.” I grab my phone off the mantel and shriek when my political junkie mug filled with I voted buttons, and other unknown debris, nearly crashes to the floor. I catch it just in time and set it next to the snapshot of my parents ogling each other. Before I can turn away, my eyes lock onto the photo of me wearing a Vera Wang wedding gown and Vince in a tuxedo, refusing to smile. My love life is definitely on point. Now my career—that’s a whole ‘nother story.           

“I love you, baby,” Vince says, planting soft kisses laced in morning breath on my face. “By the way, I haven’t heard from Harold. He probably hates my idea.”

“Give him time to get back to you. I know he was in court all day yesterday. Be positive.”

“Okay.”

“I love you.” I grab my purse and head out with Vince hard on my heels.

“Be safe, baby,” he says, through a loud yawn.

“Eat and go back to bed, Vince. Turn off all the phones and get some rest.”

He nods and shuts the door. I stand on the stoop, taking in the fresh air. The neighbor’s roses remind me that Valentine’s Day is in a couple of weeks. I wonder how Vince is going to top the billboard he rented last year wherein he professed his love for me for the whole country to see. It got national coverage. And it took him six months of overtime to pay for it. I saw it on the way to work and nearly had an accident. It was amazing. I still get chills thinking about it. Maybe I’ll plan a romantic trip for us this year. Getting in my BMW, I play out our rendezvous in my head. The reporter on the all-news station I’m tuned to brings me back to reality. There’s no way I’m going to be able to leave town—at least not until June.

Longtime Republican operative Ryan Myer said in a press conference yesterday that he believes he can win the Buderwood Hills mayoral race in May. If his prediction is correct, he will unseat the much-loved incumbent, Jefferson Birdwell. Based on recent polls, Myer may be onto something. But the other two candidates in the race have their own opinions about who will win in May. Mark Stalworth’s campaign manager all but laughed at Myer’s prediction and Debra Sloan, who’s also rising in the polls, says 2017 is the year of the woman. She believes she’ll be the first female mayor of Buderwood Hills. In other City Hall news, Mayor Birdwell’s chief of staff, Anita Gray, was seen having what appeared to be an altercation with her assistant at a city council meet—

I turn off the radio, and Vince’s words resonate in my head and my heart. What’s the point of being loyal when they’re not? Penny isn’t as half as good as you are, and you’ve worked there twice as long. There’s something really wrong with that picture.

 My eyes sting when I think about being passed over for the promotion that everyone, including me, knew I had in the bag. But Penny was selected to be Anita Gray’s assistant and now they’re having public fights. Nonetheless, I’m happy for her. She’s on the fast track. And I’m still stuck working for the deputy chief of staff. Maybe I should go back to school for my master’s.

Penny doesn’t have a master’s degree. “But she has pouty lips and huge boobs.” Those are the words of her haters. It’s not Penny’s fault she won the genetic lottery, and I’m not blind to the fact that her looks had something to do with her getting the position working for Anita and getting a coveted slot in the political science class at USC that was taught by a former senator, as well as the best dorm, not to mention her being sought after by some of the hottest guys at USC and a few girls. But as the cliché goes, all that glitters isn’t gold. “Anita Gray is a first-class bitch.” Those are Penny’s words. How ironic. The job that pays fifteen thousand more a year than what I’m currently making and that would put me a step closer to working directly for the mayor, is the job Penny loves to hate.

I shake those thoughts while I drive out of my Culver City neighborhood. After about twenty minutes, I reach Buderwood Hills—population 62,000—home to the rich and not so famous. It’s Buderwood Hills— not its neighbor—Beverly Hills. Actually, there are a few celebrities who live here. One was murdered last year. I remember how crazy it was in the mayor’s office when Lauren Waters went missing. Shaking my head, I read the signs stuck in the manicured lawns on the back street I take to get to City Hall. A Jeffrey Birdwell in the Hand is Worth it to Buderwood Hills, Vote Yes on Proposition 51, Don’t Stall on Voting for Mark Stalworth, Ronald Reagan…Ooops, Ryan Myer for Mayor, Debra Sloan Slays in 2017. “Who comes up with these vapid slogans?” I ask, pulling into the parking lot.

My cell phone rings and I answer, always happy to hear from my only sibling. “Hey, Harold. What’s up?”

“I was just following up on Mom and Dad’s wedding anniversary party. When are you able to meet?”

“I’m not sure. We have time though. It’s not until July.”

“Right, but we need to rent a venue and we can’t wait until the last minute to do that. I want to really do it up. And we have to go over the menu.”

“I feel the same way, but give me a minute. Things are really busy here with the election coming up. Let me check my calendar.”

“Oh, speaking of the election, I saw your girl and Anita almost go to blows on the news yesterday.”

“Yeah, Penny told me about that. Anita is—”

“A bitch on wheels,” he says, cutting me off. “I told you she was a terror back at Stanford. You should be glad you’re not working for her.”

“That’s what Penny says. Harold, I have to go. I’m at work.”

“On a Saturday?”

“Now you sound like Vince. It’s a lot going on. Unlike the mayor’s first run, he has serious competition now—cutthroat. Everyone is stressing out and his campaign consultant is driving us all crazy. I’m just trying to stay on top of things. I don’t want anyone to have an excuse to pass me over for any other opportunities that may come up. I would like to become chief of staff at the White House before I’m fifty, and every promotion I get, and every person of influence I impress, can get me just a little closer to my goal, Harold. And you know Vince wants a baby so—”

“Take a breath, Vanessa. I think you should get out of that small pond called Buderwood Hills City Hall and take that community organizer position I told you about and get your law degree. That’s how Barack did it.”

“I’m not trying to become the president. I want to manage the president and his office, and one lawyer in the family is more than enough.”

“Spoken like a true Johnson,” he says, chuckling.

“I’m a Rossi now.”

“Speaking of which, tell Vincent I got his message about the restaurant. I need time to go over his proposal.”

“That’s good to hear. He thought you had already read it and hated it. I’ll talk to you later, and I’ll call you as soon as I can get a look at my calendar. And don’t worry about the menu. Vince is going to do the food.”

“Sounds like a plan, little sis. Love you.”

“Love you, too.” I used to hate it when he called me little sis, but now that I’m in my mid-thirties, it’s like music to my aging ears. Getting out of the car, I pause when I see Penny’s always spotless Lexus in her personal parking spot. One of the perks of being the chief of staff’s assistant. There are only a few other cars in the lot besides Penny’s and mine. It’s a little after 8:30 a.m.—too early for anyone with good sense to be at work on a Saturday. The other diehards are at the campaign office. I like it when it’s quiet. I guess Penny’s trying to make up for the sick day she took last week. I give her USC alumni license frame and personalized plate a gander and head into the office, wondering how long she’s been here. The weekend security guard, on his cell phone, gives me a perfunctory nod while pacing in front of the building. I walk by him, and do a double-take when I see the diamond stud in his ear. I wonder if it’s real. Now standing at the entrance, I refocus and thrust my keycard into the employees only security slot. The glass door parts and I make my way to the lobby. I get in the elevator and in less than a minute I make it to the third floor.

The door opens and I head toward the inner sanctum, aka, the office of the mayor and his regime. I meander through the corridors, passing empty offices, glancing at plants, family photos, calendars, name plates, coffee mugs, and an assortment of items people keep on their desks to give the workplace a homely feel. Now at my cubicle, I place my purse in my bottom drawer and power up my computer. While it’s booting up, I make my way to Penny’s office that’s right outside Anita’s office. I look at the camera on the ceiling, wondering if my picture is being taken.

“Penelope,” I say, laughing to myself. She hates being called that, but I’m in a playful mood. I press the cherry wood door open and stop in my tracks. “What…the…OMG,” I say, staring at the empty pizza box on the desk and Penny’s red bottom shoes and black blazer she had on yesterday strewn across the floor. Did she do an all-nighter? I thought she was going out with Stan. I pick up her blazer and drape it over the back of her chair, surprised it’s on the floor. Penny is the posterchild for neat freaks, a world class germaphobe. Animal hair, dust, you name it can render her helpless. I look up at her computer monitor that’s gone to sleep. Then my gaze shifts to the photo of her and her fiancé Stanley. They’re almost as cute as Vince and me. They both have sandy brown hair and green eyes. They look more like brother and sister than a couple. Stanley where is your wife to be?

 I go to the kitchen only to find it empty. Then I head to the restroom. “Penny are you in here?” I ask, stepping into darkness and then turning away. She wouldn’t be using the restroom with the lights out. But a little voice inside my head urges me to reach for the light switch. I do so and recoil at the sound and feel of coins under my Ugg boots. I turn the light on and look down at the floor that’s covered in pennies. “Who the hell put pennies on the—?”
 
 
 
 
 

Chapter 1

 

She’s not dead.

        I sit bolt upright in bed, my heart pounding, and my mind racing with thoughts about my twin. I pull my knees to my chest, wrap my arms around them, and rock back and forth. The movement calms me. When I turn toward my nightstand, my gaze locks onto the clock. It can’t be one-thirty.

        The doorbell rings, followed by muffled voices filtering through my bedroom door, most likely my parents, and whoever’s visiting. Curious, I get up, open it, and am nearly knocked to the floor by my mastiff. He greets me with hugs and licks.

        “Good afternoon to you, too, Pepper. Mommy loves you. Yes I do, sweetie.” He barks and makes a run for my bed.  I sit next to him and smooth my hand over his soft coat of thick, shiny tan fur. “I had a dream about Melissa, Pepper.” I look into his eyes, wondering if he would have loved my twin as much as he loves me. High heels clicking on the other side of my

Thomas / Missing Melissa / 2

 

bedroom door interrupt my thoughts.

“Happy Birthday, Maddie,” Ruby says, sashaying her way into my room. “Are you just waking up?”

I feel a flush spreading over my face and neck, surprised she’s already here. We hug and so much love oozes out of her I get choked up. There’s nothing like a BFF.

Before I can get a word out, Pepper barks. Ruby and I crack up. “Pepper, what are we going to do with this woman?” Ruby asks. He raises his ears and tilts his colossal head. More giggles.

There’s always laughter when Ruby comes around. The kind that makes you pee your pants and get raccoon eyes. I step back and stare at her regal face.

“What’s wrong with you, Maddie?”

“Nothing’s wrong,” I say, flopping down onto my bed. “I’m surprised you’re here already, and yes, I’m just getting up.”

 Squinting, she gives me that look. It’s the one I get when she thinks I’m keeping something from her. Next she’ll be planting her hands on her slender hips. I knew it. I swear she could be a model. Five-foot eight, a whole three inches taller than me, almond-shaped eyes, legs that go on forever.

“When did you get here?”

“An hour ago,” she says, patting her afro.

“An hour ago? I thought that was you ringing the doorbell just now.”

Thomas / Missing Melissa / 3

 

“No, I’ve been here. That was your grandmother. I was downstairs helping your father with his desktop computer and his new Dumbphone.”

“Wow, I wish I had known, I would have come down and saved you.”

“No worries. Your mother finally got him to give me a break and then she sent me up here to wake you. Maddie, we all know you like to get your beauty rest, but damn, it’s almost two. Your party starts in an hour.”

“I know. I didn’t sleep at all last night. It was almost six by the time I finally got a little shut-eye.”

“I can tell. Your baby blues are red. Have you been crying?” she asks.

“No,” I say.

“Then what’s going on?”            

“I guess I have a lot on my mind. It’s June, but it feels like December. You know with graduating last month, the upcoming move, starting my new job in a week. And I feel so old.”

“Madeline Louise Patterson, you’re twenty-two, not ninety-two! Since when is twenty-two old?”

“I know but—”

“We’re grown now. We asked for this,” she says, towering over me, looking at me with her ‘I got your back’ smile. “It’s all good. Remember when we were in the tenth grade how we used to fantasize about being grown-ass women, being able to stay up all night, screwing good-looking guys, and marrying rich ones?”

Thomas / Missing Melissa / 4

 

“Yep, I sure do,” I say, rising. “But…”

“But what?” she asks.

“Melissa’s still alive.”

“What do you mean, she’s still alive?”

“She’s alive. I had a dre—”

“Don’t do this, Maddie. Not today. Let it go.”

“I knew you were going to react like that,” I say.

Before she has a chance to go off on me, I run into the bathroom, lock the door, and slip out of my tattered sweat pants and favorite UCLA jersey. Entering the shower, I turn the faucet on full blast. I ignore Ruby who’s now on the other side of the door, probably with her hands on her hips, calling out to me.

“We need to talk, Maddie. Right now. Get out of the shower right now, please.”

“I can’t hear you,” I say, reaching for my favorite shampoo.

“Madeline Louise Patterson, open this door right now.”

The water rains down on my head, soaking my hair, and I sing Pharrell’s “Happy” because I am happy. Melissa’s alive. She’s not dead. I know I’m not supposed to believe that. I’m supposed to believe the investigators, the reporters, the naysayers, the nosey neighbors, the psychics, the pundits, all those people nineteen years ago and several years after, that gave up on the little three-year-old girl who was driven away by the bad guys, never to be seen again. I’m supposed to believe my parents and my best friend that Melissa’s dead.

Thomas / Missing Melissa / 5

 

I shut my eyes and concentrate. Why can’t I remember the day she was taken? It’s always bits and pieces. Like a puzzle. I see my mother’s face, her smile, her eyes. She’s wearing a coat and so are we. Our matching red and blue jackets with the hoods trimmed in fake fur. I see Melissa’s mouth. It’s open wide and she’s crying. Everything is meshed. Our SUV, our car seats. I press on my head trying to remember, but I can’t.

The dream I had last night or I should say this afternoon, wasn’t the first dream I’ve had about my sister, but it’s the first time I’ve dreamed about her being an adult. All the other times she was still three. I used to have other dreams, too—dreams about people coming in and out of our house. Strange men in suits and ties, wearing big guns and badges. Men and women with cameras and microphones, gawking at me, pointing at me. Sometimes my dreams were nightmares starring my parents. My father falling over drunk, slurring his words, hitting the wall until his fist bled. My mother, comatose, out of it, a bag of bones, hopeless, helpless, barely alive. Everything is jumbled and mixed up, dreams, real life. I can’t put it together.

While getting out of the shower and drying off, the silence gives me pause. “Ruby? Pepper?” Wow, I was on one. I totally forgot about Ruby. That’s what happens when I start focusing on Melissa. I’m not supposed to focus on Melissa. I’m supposed to take care of myself, my life. That’s what I’ve been told, and believe you me; I have worked hard to do just that. But it hasn’t been easy. How can you forget about a part of yourself? It’s like asking a leg amputee to forget about his or her legs.

I unlock the bathroom door and step into my empty bedroom. Ruby and Pepper are gone. I hope Ruby’s not pissed with me, but I didn’t want to get into it with her. I can’t stand it when

Thomas / Missing Melissa / 6

she tells me to not go there. To let it go. To be grateful I’m still here and that God has His reasons.

My eyes lock onto the wall near my bedroom door that’s covered in family photos that make me all misty-eyed, especially the baby pictures. The crazy photos I have with Ruby lift my spirits. We took some kick-ass graduation pictures. I laugh out loud at the one where Ruby’s pointing to her head and rolling her eyes. COMPUTER GEEK is scrawled across the front of her black cap.

I enter my walk-in closet that’s filled to the brim with clothes and shoes. I check out the red dress section. Yep, I’m anal like that when it comes to my wardrobe. I rifle through my favs. I had thought about wearing pants, but Ruby’s got a thing about dresses, and I want to get on her good side. I’m going to need an advocate when I tell my parents I want to reopen Melissa’s case.

I set the dress to the side, brush my teeth so well, my dad would be proud, blow dry and style my hair, and put on my makeup. By the time I choose the perfect red shoes, and am dressed, it’s almost three. Sizing myself up in my standalone mirror, I smooth my hand over my dress and toss my hair over my shoulder. Sighing, I take in my room. I’m going to miss it. I’m going to miss this house.

“Maddie! Where are you? Your guests are arriving.”

My face breaks into a huge smile when I hear my mother’s voice. I’ve always loved her voice. It’s so melodic. I go to my door, open it, and say, “I’ll be down in a minute, Mom. In a minute.”

“Okay, hurry. There’s someone here who’s dying to see you. You’re going to be so

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surprised.”