Belle on Wheels


Chapter 1

April Lucille Nugent Taylor Morse Throckmorton knew a lot of things. She knew that without a doubt, the greatest inventor in the world was Willis Haviland Carrier, who brought Floridians air conditioning. That shoes were the perfect accessory because no matter how much weight you gained or lost, you could always count on a fabulous pair of peep-toe pumps or kicky sandals to make your day. But there was one thing in particular that Lucy Nugent, watching a woman lever herself out of a rust-colored Honda Civic across the street from her Orlando boutique, knew at that moment for a fact.

“A woman that big shouldn’t be riding on retreads.”

Lucy peeked around as if her old friend Amy were in earshot. If she were, Lucy knew she’d get an earful for saying such an ungracious thing aloud.

“Lucy Nu-gent!” Amy would say in that “you-oughta-know-better” voice she seemed to have perfected. And she’d be right. Anyone who’d been married—and unmarried—as many times as Lucy really should be more charitable.

Lucy sighed and propped her head on one fist as the woman in question peeled her skirt away from her legs. She couldn’t help herself. It was only June, the sticky first act of Central Florida’s annual Tennessee Williams weather, and it was already hotter than hell with the thermostat turned up.

She watched the woman lock her car door and head across the shimmering pavement. A customer. Praise the Lord. Lucy straightened and smiled as the woman jingled into the store, froze, and closed her eyes, letting the air from the ceiling vent blow across her sweat-beaded face.

Lucy knew that feeling well. It had been a long, long time since she’d had to live without A/C, but she hadn’t forgotten any of the tricks she had to learn to survive the steam bath. She poured a tall glass of water from the icy pitcher she kept filled and ready behind the counter and held it out. “Welcome to GladRags.”

“Bless your heart.” She took several long, long swallows. “The air went out in my car a week ago, and I haven’t had the time to get it fixed.”

“You’re due for a treat, then,” Lucy said, taking the glass and setting it on the counter. “Was there something special you were looking for today?”

The woman frowned as she took in the colorful displays. Lucy often wondered what other women thought when they met her store for the first time. She had to admit herself that on first glance, nothing seemed to match. It was only when you took your time to explore that you understood what Lucy was going for with the overall store concept.

Dress-up time in kindergarten, but for grownups. Sequins and feather boas, naturally, for the more adventurous, but plenty of other temptations for those who weren’t as flamboyant. Racks of batik dresses, no two in the same exact pattern. Decadent silk kimonos to wrap a woman in luxury when she needed it, or to slide off in one fluid rush when the time was right. Evening dresses guaranteed not to show up on anyone else at the party. Whimsical, bright-colored sportswear. Hats of all shapes, funky jewelry, beaded bags, and shoes ranging from carefree flip-flops to aggressively sexy fuck-me pumps. And tucked in the back corner, a rainbow of vintage cocktail dresses that were Lucy’s pride and joy. Everything singular and fun and carefully selected, with little niceties like crystal glasses of ice water in the summer or stoneware mugs of mulled cider in the winter to make her customers want to linger and play for a long, long time.

Lucy could tell that Mrs. Retread—she’d noted the woman’s modest wedding set when she took the glass of water—didn’t know where to start. She was fingering the sleeve of one of the kimonos, rubbing the fabric so gently it seemed as though she were afraid the brilliant green of the silk would transfer to her fingertips if she pressed any harder.

“It’s my fifteenth anniversary,” she finally said. “After that many years and four kids, I wanted something to make me feel gorgeous.” She let the sleeve drop. “But you probably don’t have anything in my size.”

“That’s where you’d be wrong,” Lucy said with a smile. She lifted another kimono off the rack and spread it across her forearm. “This one here is just your inch.”

The woman frowned and reached for the price tag. “And on sale,” Lucy supplied, remembering the retreads. She slipped the garment off the hangar and held it out invitingly. “Go ahead and try it on.”

Lucy arranged the silk folds over the woman’s shoulders and handed her the sash ends to tie. “See? And that coral color does wonders for your eyes and skin.”

The bell jangled again, calling Lucy’s attention to the door. In walked a familiar blonde bob. “Amy!”

“Hi, Lucy.” She slid her sunglasses onto her head and breezed toward the counter. “Don’t mind me, you two. I’ll just fix myself a glass of water.”

Lucy noticed Mrs. R. staring. That was easy enough to do. Amy Atherton was hard to miss, at nearly six feet tall. And since she had the best posture of any woman Lucy had ever met and a thing for heels, Amy towered over most people. Especially Lucy. Their height differential was nearly a foot.

“Don’t let all that blonde fool you,” Lucy said. “She’s actually kinda smart.”

“I heard that.”

“Lucy, is it?” the woman said, chuckling. “I’m Kendra.”

She gave Kendra’s offered hand a squeeze. “Well, Kendra, are you tempted enough? Should we wrap this up and give your husband a jolt? He’s not on heart medication, by any chance, is he?”

“Not yet.”

“He might need to be, if you surprise him with this.”

Kendra giggled. “Let’s hope it doesn’t go that far. Although a few palpitations might be nice.” She held out the kimono. “I’ll take it.”

“Good choice.” Lucy escorted Kendra over to the cash wrap and bumped against Amy’s mile-long thigh with one of her curvy hips. “‘Scuse me, Long Tall. I have business to conduct.”

Amy arched a perfectly-sculpted brow and stepped back to let Lucy get to the register. Lucy punched in the numbers, bumping the discount she’d been planning to offer up another ten percent. Folding the kimono between layers of silvery tissue, she tucked it into one of GladRags’ Art Deco purple bags and held it out.

“Kendra, you have a wonderful anniversary.”

“I will. You’ve made my whole day.”

Lucy and Amy watched her go, Lucy noting a bounce in Kendra’s step that hadn’t been there when she’d pulled up to the curb twenty minutes before. “I saw that discount,” Amy finally said after Kendra had restarted her Civic and driven out of eyesight.

Lucy shrugged, idly rearranging a basket of mirrored lipstick containers. “Marriage is the greatest.”

“Unless it’s one of yours, you mean.”

“Hey, I resemble that remark.” The two women traded a smile. Amy, like their other college roommate Rebecca, had stayed married to her college sweetheart since just after graduation, but Lucy had reverted to her maiden name not long after Husband #3, gajillionaire Hamilton Banks Throckmorton IV, died in the arms of his taut, blonde personal trainer. Seems squat thrusts between the two weren’t shared only in the gym.

“Have you heard from Becks today?” Amy asked.

“Nope. Should I have?”

“She said something about coming by, which is why—” Amy broke off, looking intently out the window. “Speak of the devil.”

The two women watched their friend attempt parallel parking—Becks’s woefully bad driving had been a source of amusement since their freshman year—and leaned against the counter to wait.

“Two tries,” Amy said.

“Three,” Lucy countered. “If I’m right, you’re buying lunch.”


On a good day, Becks and her much-maligned minivan were on poor terms. Parallel parking made it worse. After one attempt that ended with the nose of the van pointed toward GladRags’ front door and another that left it both crooked and three feet from the curb, Becks finally edged it into place.

Becks slammed the door and stalked across the street. “Good Lord, it’s hot,” she announced without preamble when she made it inside. “Agua, please.”

Amy had a glass ready. “Here.” She waggled the empty pitcher and said, “Let me go fill this so we can catch up.” She disappeared into the back.

“You owe me,” Lucy tossed at her.

“I know.”

“Y’all aren’t betting on my driving again, are you?” Becks asked, plopping her bag on the counter.

Lucy snickered.

Becks sighed. “Have I told you lately that I hate you?”

“Not in so many words.” They exchanged a smile.

“How’s business?”

“Deader than hell,” Lucy said. Becks had crowned her comfortable cargos-and-a-T-shirt look with a ponytail again, which was a shame. Lucy’s light brown curls and Amy’s perfect blonde bob looked downright pitiful next to Rebecca Leyland’s honest-to-Pete hair commercial mane of chocolate brown waves. “I did just sell someone a silk kimono, though.”

“Good for you,” Becks said, taking another sip.

“She double discounted it,” Amy informed her as she emerged from the back.


“It was her anniversary,” Lucy explained. Okay, just because she was a three-time failure in the marriage department, that didn’t mean she didn’t respect the hell out of women who’d figured out how to make it work.

“You’re sweet to do that,” Amy told her, her well-modulated politician’s wife voice holding just the edge of disapproval. “But you’ll never make any money if you keep giving away your stock like that.”

“She’ll be fine, as soon as the estate clears probate,” Becks reminded her. “Speaking of that, have you heard from the Dragon Spawn lately?”

Lucy rolled her eyes. Becoming Mrs. Banks Throckmorton IV would have been so much more pleasant if it hadn’t been for his she-devil of a daughter. “Jill’s attorney has been racking up the billable hours. He wants to schedule another deposition.”

“Why?” Becks asked. “The man dropped dead while screwing his trainer. You’d think even the Dragon Spawn would throw you a bone for putting up with him.”

“Then you don’t know the Dragon Spawn. She won’t be satisfied until all of it’s hers.” Lucy shrugged and set down her glass.

The bell over the door jingled again. “Hey Leo,” Lucy said, holding out her hand for the day’s mail. A telltale navy blue line arrowed down the back of the older man’s blue uniform shirt. “Amy, pour the nice man a glass of water.”

Amy complied and handed it over. He drained the glass in two long gulps. “Thanks.”

“Anything fun in there?” Becks asked, nodding toward the stack of mail.

“Only if you think pizza coupons are fun.”

“Then no,” Lucy finished. “Thanks, Leo.”

“My pleasure. Ladies.” He nodded and left.

“Highlight of my day, lately,” Lucy quipped as she shuffled through the mail. The usual. Bill, bill, overdue bill, pizza coupons, junk, more junk—wait a minute. Her fingers stilled on a square white envelope. Reunion Committee, the return address read. The computer-printed address label was twenty years out of date. Lucy Nugent, at an address she’d left in her rear-view mirror long ago. Blue ink slashed through the label, nullifying it, with PLEASE FORWARD and the store address written in neat script. Her sister Denise’s script, Lucy recognized. “Oh, my God,” she whispered.

“What?” Becks’s voice held a note of alarm. “Bad news?”

Lucy frowned. “I’m not sure.” She flipped the envelope outward so Amy and Becks could see. “This came to the house.”

“Why would Abby forward that to the store?” Amy asked. Unlike Lucy, who preferred a little chaos in her life, her daughter Abby was meticulous about everything.

“She didn’t,” Lucy said, cognizant of the weird combination of deadness and wonder in her voice. “My sister Denise sent this. It came to my father’s house.”

“Oh, my God,” Amy and Becks echoed. The lifelong friendship they’d forged during their years as college roommates had been seasoned by all kinds of weird and painful tempering, much of that supplied by Lucy’s father. Paranoid and alcoholic, Gerry Nugent hovered like a bad dream over Lucy and her siblings to this day. After their respective high school graduations, they’d all fled their small town like they had demons on their tails, Rudy to Atlanta, Ray to Texas, Denise to Pensacola. Lucy was the closest in distance—Pine Grove was a forty-minute drive from Lucy’s Mathews Park driveway—but the furthest in style. She’d rarely spoken to her siblings over the years, though her photo Christmas cards covered with pictures of Abby arrived mostly on time, and as far as Lucy’s father was concerned, she was dead to him the minute she accepted the scholarship that took her to Interlachen College.

“Uppity bitch,” he’d growled at her, reeking of cheap beer and badly needing a shower. “Think you’re better than me, do you? Then go to your rich-ass college, and don’t bother coming back.”

For once in her life, Lucy had taken her father at his word. To this day, they’d barely exchanged a hundred words. Neither had Denise, come to think of it, which made this sudden appearance even weirder. What in the world was Denise doing in Pine Grove?

Lucy stared at the invitation. Becks and Amy stared at Lucy. Amy finally broke the awkward silence. “Well, aren’t you going to open it?”

Lucy lifted a jeweled hair chopstick out of the dragon-painted brush jar near the register and slit the envelope open. “Oh, man,” she said. “We’re going back to the future.”  Lucy pulled the invitation out, sprinkling magenta Mylar confetti on the counter, and flipped it over. All three women laughed. It was a bad high school dream, all right. Black and white checkerboard border, bored Patrick Nagel-style girl staring off to the left, one sleeve of her loose raspberry sweater sliding off her impossibly pale shoulder. Magenta lettering across the bottom proclaimed “Celebrate our 25th!”

“It’s an invitation to my 25th high school reunion,” Lucy said.

“They’re not expecting you to dress like that, are they?” Amy asked.

“God, I hope not.”

“Then you should go,” Amy urged. “You missed the other two reunions, right?”

Missed them? More like avoided them. When Lucy moved on, she moved on completely. No messy ties to the past, no emotional weirdness, just a clean new start and a fresh horizon. When Gerry Nugent declared her dead to him, Lucy upped the ante by declaring all of Pine Grove dead to her. It was still there, of course. Not that she’d been back.

“I don’t know,” Lucy said. “I haven’t kept in touch with anyone from high school. They’ve probably forgotten all about me.”

“You’d be surprised,” Becks replied, shaking the ice in her glass. “If your school’s anything like mine, they’ll make name tags with your yearbook picture on them, and everyone spends the first night staring at everyone else’s chest and laughing at how different you look.”

Amy laughed. “Right—like the hot quarterback who now sports a combover and a beer gut and the gorgeous head cheerleader who’s now actually normal and fun to talk to, since she’s no longer so freaked out about her social life.”

“Hmm.” Lucy pulled out a folded paper listing all the reunion weekend activites: a Friday “Sunglasses at Night” cocktail party at a downtown watering hole, a family picnic in the town square Saturday afternoon, and a fancy awards dinner on Saturday night in the reception room at the golf club. Pretty standard stuff, if you had a standard Pine Grove upbringing. But if you were Lucy Nugent…

Becks had that teacher tone in her voice again. “Luce, you owe it to yourself to go. Aren’t you the least bit curious about what’s happened to everybody?”

Everybody? Not exactly. “Honestly, no. It’s been so long, and I’ve done so many things since then…” Lucy’s voice trailed off, and she shrugged. “They didn’t miss me at the tenth or the twentieth. I don’t imagine there’s a huge clamor for me to reappear at this late date.” She look another look at the invitation and quirked a smile. “Fun concept, though.” She scraped the confetti into her hand, then flipped it and the invitation into the trash.

“Today’s trip down memory lane is now over. Please return your seatbacks and tray tables to their full upright positions.” Lucy peered out the window to the stuffy, deserted street. Not much happening until the heat broke. The shopping public wouldn’t miss her if she gave herself a break. She flipped the “Open” sign dangling from the door’s push bar over to the “Back in…” clock and said, “Lunch. And Amy’s buying.”


Lucy glanced over to the driver’s seat of her Honda Element and smiled. Abby, Abby, Abby. Her baby girl, nearly grown up and driving to her first SAT. Lucy studied her daughter’s serious profile. Abby’s brows knit over her narrowed hazel eyes, squinted against the brightness of the sun. The oven of the day had been turned on, but it wouldn’t reach full heat until after Lucy picked up her daughter at noon.

“So, you ready?” she asked.

“It’s just a test, Mom,” Abby said. She pursed her lips, concentrating on her driving. Even this early on a Saturday, streets were busy with SUVs full of families headed to the Farmer’s Market and cars packed with teenagers on their way to the beach.

“I know, but it’s the SAT. Nobody would blame you for feeling nervous.”

Abby shrugged. Lucy marveled at her poise. Even as an infant, Abby had been remarkably self-possessed. Given the turbulence in Lucy’s personal life, her daughter’s calm acceptance of the world’s stresses and pitfalls had been a wonderful blessing. Her life had been so different from Lucy’s—full of tension, dominated by the high-wire act of keeping her outside shell perfect so no one spotted the disintegrating core.

A sharp bark from the back seat coaxed a smile from Abby. “Munch, you doing okay?”

Lucy looked back at their dachshund, Baron von Munchausen. Front paws propped against the door, Munch was currently drawing abstract patterns on the inside of the window with his long, black nose.

“Munch knows it’s a big day,” Lucy teased.

“Munch probably thinks you’re taking him to the vet,” Abby shot back. She executed a neat left turn into the front drive of the high school and pulled over to the curb.

Lucy let out the breath she didn’t realize she was holding. “Got everything?”

Abby shifted the car into park but left the engine running. She dragged her black canvas tote into the front and looked inside. Lucy grinned at the record album sleeve tucked into the clear vinyl pocket on the side of the tote. Since the only record albums in the house were from Lucy’s high school and college collection, Abby’s choices were a constant reminder of days gone by. Today’s choice: Rio by Duran Duran. The grinning Nagel babe on the cover reminded Lucy of that ridiculous reunion invitation.

That ridiculous invitation you yanked out of the trash can the minute Amy and Becks left the store yesterday, she scolded herself. Coward.

Abby tucked a strand of streaky brown hair behind her ear and started pawing through her tote. “Mechanical pencils, extra eraser, pens, calculator, water bottle, registration ticket.” She looked up at Lucy. “I’m ready.”

“You’re almost late,” Lucy said, pointing at the clock. “Get in there and knock ‘em dead.”

Abby nodded and impulsively squeezed Lucy into a hug. “Love you.”

“Love you too, sweetie.” Lucy resisted the urge to rub circles on the back of Abby’s pale green hoodie like she used to when Abby was a little girl. She knew the gesture would be for her own comfort today, not her daughter’s.

Abby got out of the car and strode down the sidewalk, slim legs in jeans to combat the polar setting of the school’s air conditioning, feet in flip-flops, hair gilded from the bright sun. She was so young, so full of life. So different from Lucy, who was feeling every one of her forty-plus years, watching her baby girl blossom into an independent young woman.

They warned her it would go fast, the time would fly. But you don’t realize how fast it’s going when you’re up to your chin in sprained wrists and outgrown shoes and dirty clothes all over the floor and forgotten homework projects. You just slog through the work and keep putting one foot in front of another. Then one day you end up where you are, wondering where the hell everything went.

“What are you looking at, dog?” Lucy asked in a mock-angry voice, dashing a tear from her face with the edge of her fist. I’m too young to feel this old. Munch responded with another sharp bark. “Come on up here and ride shotgun, then,” she told him.

By the time Lucy slid into the driver’s seat, Munch had settled into her abandoned spot and propped himself against the dash, his long body stretched between the seat and the shelf above the glove box. She nudged Munch’s paws off the dashboard. “I’d move if I were you, buddy. We’re going for a ride.”

She took another glance at the clock on the dash. Not even eight a.m. Her stomach growled. Fine, then. Something for breakfast. One large iced tea and a biscuit from the Chick-fil-A later, she’d managed to kill fifteen minutes of the four hours it would be until Abby finished testing.

She stole a glance at her purse. The checkerboard border of the invitation peeked out from between the envelopes and bank slips where she’d shoved it. Pine Grove. The life she’d left behind.

She’d missed two reunions already with no ill effects and no lingering curiosity over what might have been. Lucy figured that her father had tossed them in the trash. If it weren’t for Denise’s intervention, she wouldn’t have heard about his one, either. All she had to do was ignore it. She’d be none the wiser, and life would lurch along like it had been since Ivy died.

She slipped the invitation out of her purse. The Nagel babe hid secrets behind her sunglasses. Abby knew she was projecting, but she couldn’t help herself. She’d be crazy to do what she was thinking now. Better to go home, maybe do a little laundry before it was time to pick up Abby after the test. Sweep up the dog hair. Work on her business plan.

Lucy shifted the Element out of park and headed back up the road toward the house. She was only a little surprised when, instead of turning down her street, she roared by and drove out the highway toward Pine Grove. The town she left behind her. For the first time in years, it was on her horizon.