Magnolia Moonlight ~ Chapter One
by Mary Ellis
Nate Price sat down to breakfast that morning a happy man.
What was there not to like about life? The sun was shining.
Heâd just run four miles along the levee in his best time
yet. There were fresh blueberries and candied pecans in his
bowl of cereal. And he had married the prettiest girl ever
to graduate from their high school. Lifting the spoon to his
mouth, he crunched into his whole grains and soy milk with
âCould you pour that into a to-go cup, honey? I need a ride
to work today.â Isabelle entered their tiny kitchen on
stiletto heels in a faint mist of sweet perfume. In her silk
dress with her long hair coiled into a knot, she looked like
an investment banker or college professor.
Nate peered over his coffee mug. âItâs cereal with milk, not
a breakfast shake. Whatâs with the snazzy get-up? I thought
Realty World agents were required to wear their lime green
blazer at all times. And why do you need a ride when you own
a perfectly good Prius?â
âThere should be a limit on the number of questions before
nine a.m.â Leaning over for a kiss, Isabelle grabbed his
bowl of cereal and dumped it into a plastic tub. âTake your
spoon. You can eat while I drive.â She filled her travel mug
Nate crossed his arms and made no effort to move.
âOkay, you win.â Isabelle held up her index finger. âFirst
of all, my blazer isnât lime. That particular shade of green
is called âkelly.â Second, Mr. Randall told his agents to
wear their Sunday best, no blazers today. Weâre attending a
symposium on mortgage finance at the Grand Hotel. Me? Iâm
going for the free lunch.â She winked a magnificent green eye.
âYou usually fill up with a side salad and breadstick.â Nate
snapped a lid on his mug and reached for his keys. âAnd now
for the million-dollar questionâwhatâs wrong with your car?â
âRemember that little knock in my engine? The mechanic said
I would need a new transmission soon, and that was four
thousand miles ago. Yesterday I could barely hear the radio
over the knocking.â She shrugged.
Nate halted midway through the doorway. âYou should have
told me sooner, Izzy. What if you had broken down coming
home from an open house? Those country roads donât have
She slipped an arm around his waist as they walked toward
the car. âWeâre saving for our honeymoon and to buy a house.
Our budget canât stretch any thinner.â
âTwo working people need two vehicles. With two hundred
thousand miles on that car, Iâd say you got your moneyâs
worth. Nothing lasts forever.â Nate opened the driverâs door
âWell, finances are just a bit tight. You know I loved
moving from Germantown to slower-paced Natchez, but fewer
people mean fewer sales, and less expensive real estate
means smaller commission checks.â She climbed into his SUV
and tugged down her skirt.
âItâs nobodyâs fault. Itâs just life, my sweet bride,â Nate
said around a mouthful of mushy cereal.
Isabelle backed down the narrow driveway between the
neighborâs picket fence and her row of azaleas. âHow can I
still be a bride when our second anniversary is in two
weeks? Iâm just another old married woman.â
âNot to me youâre not.â Nate kissed her cheek. âNew rule.
You stay a bride until after the honeymoon, even if weâre in
She laughed, a sound that never failed to warm his soul.
âMaybe we should forget our dreams and go to New Orleans for
a few days. We could stay at Nicki and Hunterâs apartment
while theyâre in Europe. They have offered the place more
Nate tipped his bowl to drink the milk. âNope. Iâm not
honeymooning in the French Quarter. I lived there for years,
remember? Letâs buy a used car with what I squirreled away
for the trip and use your next commission check for a
honeymoon. Saving for a new house will remain on track.â
âGood idea. Weâll qualify for a senior citizen discount by
then.â Isabelle accelerated on an open stretch of road.
âMaybe we should put a bid on the place we rent. How much
could the landlord want for a nine-hundred-square-foot,
Nate slid the empty bowl under the seat. âYou have
illuminated the fly in your ointmentâone bedroom.
Call me crazy, but someday I hope weâre surrounded by dozens
of mini Nathaniel and Isabelle look-alikes. Weâll need lots
of bedrooms so when they cry at night my dutiful wife can
hurry down the hall while I get my beauty sleep.â
Isabelle shot him an evil glare. âThere are so many things
wrong with that mental picture that I donât even know where
to start. But because weâre almost at work, weâll continue
this discussion at supper. Whose turn is it to cook?â
âDefinitely yours. Iâm hoping for a nice steak grilled to
perfection over hardwood briquettes, and maybe fresh
asparagus with a tangy hollandaise.â He leaned back and
closed his eyes.
âNope, itâs your turn. So Iâll expect my usual burger,
charred to a crisp, with baked beans and bag salad.â
Isabelle turned into Realty Worldâs parking lot, the largest
real estate brokerage firm in Natchez. âGood grief, look at
the cars already! Letâs hope these are all eager buyers with
excellent credit scores.â
Nate jumped out and jogged to the driverâs side. He had only
enough time to wrap his arms around his wife when Izzyâs
boss interrupted them.
âGood morning, Mr. Price. Iâm glad you dropped Isabelle off
today.â Mr. Randall, looking professional in his
charcoal-gray suit, approached from the back entrance.
No lime green blazer for the big shot. âCould you
step inside for a few minutes? I need another manâs opinion
on something. You know how these women love to gang up on me.â
âSure, I can spare a few minutes. In fact, I have all the
time in the world.â
Nate had finished his recent missing person investigation by
locating the twenty-year-old woman in Las Vegas. The girl
had agreed to call her parents but refused to come home. She
was making too much money dealing blackjack to go back to
selling cosmetics at the mall. And a suspected philandering
spouse turned out to be someone moonlighting at a second
job. The husband had planned to surprise his wife with an
anniversary cruise down the Danube River. Nate felt so sorry
for the guy that he had cut his usual fee in half. The
agency had a corporate fraud case in New Orleans, and the
suspected misuse of a power of attorney case in Vicksburg,
but no new Natchez cases. He needed some more work soon, or
he would be twiddling his thumbs.
âGood. I love having you around.â Isabelle beamed as she
reached for his hand. âBe sure to compliment Mary Jo on her
new hairdo,â she whispered. âChopping off that ponytail was
However, once they entered the building, Nate had no
opportunity to assess Mary Joâs coiffure or do much of
âSurprise!â Shouts from at least three dozen people nearly
blew the roof off the one-story building.
Dumbfounded, Nate and Isabelle gazed around a sea of
familiar faces. Not only had every real estate agent beaten
Isabelle to work, but Nateâs new employees and his assistant
were part of the crowd, along with his partner from New
Orleans, her husband, and most of their friends. âGood
grief,â he muttered. âThereâs my Aunt Rose. Whatâs going on?â
Isabelleâs astonishment rivaled his. âMy aunt and uncle from
Clarksdale are here. I havenât seen them in two years.â
In a flurry of backslapping, handshaking, and cheek-kissing,
Mr. Randall herded Nate and Isabelle toward the conference
table. But instead of scratch pads, pens, and printouts of
recent listings, it was covered with pink paper, confetti,
and bright streamers. A weighted cluster of helium balloons
offered sentiments of âBest Wishes,â âCongratulations,â and
âBon voyage?â Nate asked no one in particular. âThe only
place Iâm going is my office.â He tightened his arm around
Isabelle as though they were surrounded by dangerous people
instead of their closest friends and relatives.
âWeâll just see about that.â Michael Preston, his newest
employee at the agency, clamped a hand on his shoulder.
Then his partner, Nicki Galen, stepped front and center.
âYouâre not really setting sail, but I needed a short phrase
for taking a trip.â She rocked on her heels, snickering.
âThey put me in charge of the balloons.â
Nate narrowed his gaze at her. âWhat are you doing in
Natchez? I thought you and Hunter were vacationing in France
or Switzerland, someplace hoity-toity.â
âNobody says hoity-toity anymore, cousin. Anyway, we flew
back early when we heard about the party. Pretty nice
balloons, no?â Nicki winked mischievously.
âCheck out the cakes,â a voice called. The crowd shuffled
them toward the table, where decorated cupcakes spelled out
Happy Anniversary. In the center one giant cake had
been emblazoned with, Have fun, Nate and Izzy. A
small white envelope protruded from the frosting.
âWhat is going on?â demanded Isabelle, as though beset with
the same sense of peril. She leaned into his side as the
crowd shouted several commands:
âOpen the card!â
âPack your bags!â
âStop looking so scared!â
Nate plucked the sugar-coated envelope from the frosting.
âFine, but I have one question. Donât any of you
people have work to do?â
Receiving only laughter in response, he ripped open the
envelope, licked his fingers, and scanned the single sheet.
Then he handed it to Isabelle, his mouth agape.
âWhat it is?â She read key phrases aloud. âThree weeks in a
luxurious beachfront mansion in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi.
Breakfast served on the porch each morning, afternoon
refreshments on the lawn, true Southern hospitality. Walking
distance to shops, restaurants, and the marina. Porch swing,
free use of bicycles, Wi-Fi, and two bedrooms.â
âTwo bedrooms?â Michael scratched his head. âIs
someone planning to join them on their honeymoon?â
âThatâs in case they have a loverâs quarrel.â A disembodied
voice floated from the back of the room.
Nate recognized the voice of his Vicksburg based PI,
Elizabeth Kirby. âYouâre here too?â He feigned annoyance.
âDoesnât anyone put in an honest dayâs work anymore?â
âNot when we needed to take matters into our own hands.â Mr.
Randall squeezed in between Nate and Isabelle. âWhen it
became clear you two were never going to take a honeymoon,
your fellow agents and Nateâs employees took up a
collection. Then your cousin shook down your friends and
relatives and fattened the purse.â Randall drew a second
envelope from his pocket and handed it to Isabelle. âWe were
able to upgrade you to a suite, and thereâs enough spending
money for lunch, dinner, dolphin-watching excursions, and
several bottles of suntan lotion.â
Isabelle looked ready to faint. âI-I donât know what to say
other than thank you from the bottom of myâŚour hearts.â
Teary-eyed, she turned to her husband.
Clearing his throat, Nate had his own lump of emotion to
swallow. âWe were just discussing a honeymoon this morning.
Your generosity and thoughtfulness are overwhelming. As soon
as we get a break in our schedulesââ
âOh, no,â interrupted Michael. âThatâs not how this works.
Read the fine print. We have prepaid three weeks during
prime season on the gorgeous Mississippi coast. Clear your
calendars because your honeymoon begins on Sunday.â
âThis Sunday?â Isabelle clutched her throat as
though choking on a fishbone.
âYep. You two lovebirds leave in three days.â Nicki picked
up a cupcake and took a bite. âI would start packing if I
âBut we need to look for a used car for me.â Isabelle
sounded more like a child than a woman in her thirties.
Marie, Realty Worldâs assistant, took hold of Isabelleâs
hand. âYouâll only need one vehicle while youâre at the
beach, and there will still be plenty of used cars here when
you get back. Iâll make sure your open houses or house
showings are covered by other agents. Iâll bet theyâll even
pass any commissions on to you.â She scanned the room,
honing in on Isabelleâs fellow agents.
âOh, no,â Isabelle protested. âI could never let anyoneââ
âNonsense,â said Marie. âYou can return the favor sometime
down the line. And when this partyâs over, you and I are
going to Victoriaâs Secret and Bath and Body Works, my
treat. Now letâs have something to eat.â Marie grabbed two
cupcakes and handed one to Isabelle.
For the next thirty minutes, Nate ate sweets, drank bad
coffee, and listened to advice from well-intentioned
friends. He heard about every Gulf Coast landmark,
restaurants worth the money, which fishing charters knew the
best spots, and how to avoid sand fleas. His Aunt Rose
provided tips on foot massage that made him blush. Nicki
snapped a picture each time he took a bite of cupcake. And
his cousin assured him she would watch the paper for great
deals on used cars.
Finally, his two employees approached from the sidelines. âI
hate to break this party up, but shouldnât we be getting to
the office?â Michael took Nateâs empty coffee cup and plate
of cake crumbs. âWe have a pile of cases to sort through at
Nate smiled with gratitude at the ruse. Michael was the last
person one would expect with aspirations of becoming a PI,
but if sheer determination and willpower were indicators of
future success, someday he would be one of the best.
Unfortunately, it wouldnât be any day soon.
Michael had spent his high school and college years with his
nose in a book or staring at a computer screen. Nerd. Geek.
Egghead. The terms for studious types might change from
generation to generation, but the personality remained the
same. These men didnât hunt, fish, pump iron, or race
custom-built cars on dirt tracks. Instead, they made their
fortunes with Internet start-up companies, investment
banking, or, unfortunately, cybercrime. Michael might be an
untrained PI, but in this day and age, he already possessed
skills Price Investigations needed.
âLet me just say goodbye to our host,â Nate murmured to the
pair. He walked over to a little group of people by the
window. âThanks for organizing this party, Mr. Randall.
Isabelle and I will never forget everyoneâs generosity as
long as we live.â He extended his hand to the distinguished
âWe all cherish Isabelle at Realty World and were happy to
Elizabeth stepped forward. âWeâre glad you included us. I
donât know what weâll do while Nate and his wife are basking
in the sun.â
âDonât believe a word of it,â he said to Randall. âThese two
wonât even know Iâm gone.â Then Nate turned to address the
crowd. âThanks, everyone, for the incredible gift. Be
prepared for tons of pictures when we get back.â After more
handshaking, Nate finally shrugged into his sport coat,
waved at his wife, and headed for the door. Across the room,
Isabelle was surrounded by women, all talking at the same time.
Outside in the parking lot, Nate sucked in a deep breath.
âWow, I sure didnât see that coming.â
âHaving lots of friends comes in handy.â Michael was still
staring at the back door in amazement.
âYeah, but what goes around comes around.â Elizabeth clucked
her tongue. âYou and Isabelle will be invited to every
graduation, bar mitzvah, baptism, and retirement party for
years. Not to mention forced to buy raffle tickets and Girl
Scout cookies until you drop over dead.â
Nate laughed. âYou two sure have different perspectives on
group fund-raising. Thanks for getting me out the door. Not
that Iâm not grateful, but that kind of party can last for
âThereâs only so much smiling one face can handle,â said
Michael shook his head. âOn that note, Iâll take my leave. I
have a class on Mississippi gun laws starting in twenty
Nate watched him putter away in his fuel-efficient car
before turning to his other employee. âBeth, why arenât you
in Vicksburg? Donât tell me you drove here for a going-away
party. You could have sent your ten bucks through the mail.â
She chuckled. âFor your information, boss, I chipped in
twenty-five. But your cupcake send-off isnât the sole reason
Iâm in Natchez.â She stared at the road even though Michael
was long gone. âMy mother asked me to come home for Pastor
Deanâs funeral. Sheâs worried there wonât be enough mourners.â
Nate slicked a hand through his hair. âYeah, I heard about
that. But considering the number of Baptists in town, there
should be a good turnout. Isabelle and I will be there
because she attended Calvary while growing up. Now we go to
the nondenominational by the freeway.â
Beth shrugged. âWeâll see how many folks show up. Some
members might boycott because the preacher offed himself.â
âWhat?â Nate was shocked by her insensitivity.
âSorry, that was crude. I meant to say some might hold it
against Reverend Dean because he committed suicide. A man of
God isnât supposed to take his own life.â
âWhat are you talking about? The paper said he had a heart
condition, so I assumed that was the cause of death.â
Beth hiked her purse up her shoulder. âNot unless a bad
ticker made him climb a stool with a rope around his neck.â
Nate shuddered. âThat is just awful, especially for whoever
âMy mom said it was his wife. Alice Dean was always nice to
me. I used to babysit for their little girl.â Despite her
earlier detachment, Bethâs eyes filled with tears.
âWell, for sure Izzy and I will be there tomorrow. Thank
goodness we donât leave until Sunday.â
âI sure am a downer today. When youâre about to leave on the
best vacation of your life, Iâm talking suicide and peopleâs
fondness for being judgmental.â Beth swiped at her tears.
âGo to the office and clean off your desk. Tell Maxine to
clear your calendar and hold your calls. Donât worry about
me and Wonder Boy. Weâll hold down the fort while you and
Isabelle have fun in the sun.â
âYou do have a way with words, Ms. Kirby.â Nate climbed into
his SUV and lowered the window. âWill I see you at the
âI donât know. I left Vicksburg at four this morning and
drove straight to the party. I havenât been home yet. Canât
wait to see what else Mom has in store for me. My bedroom is
probably exactly how I left it.â
âYouâll always be her little girl. So youâre willing to stay
in town while Iâm gone? Michael isnât ready to be on his own.â
Beth looked everywhere but at him. âIf thatâs what you want,
Nate, but I would prefer to go to the funeral, eat a chicken
salad sandwich, and get out of Natchez as fast as I can.â
He started the engine. âYour case in Vicksburg should be
wrapping up by now. I thought you had plenty of evidence to
present to the DA.â
âTrue, but Iâm working on a lead for new work. Iâd love to
stay where I am. That town has grown on me.â She started to
âAny new cases had better come with a fat retainer. I know
youâre living as cheaply as you can, but I canât afford to
set up a Vicksburg office.â
âMaybe if IâŚâ
âNo, Beth, I need you in Natchez. We can talk about this
when I come back, but right now I need to find a Panama hat
and new flip-flops. The beach and my lovely bride are
calling. Isabelle and I will see you tomorrow at the
funeral.â He drove away to end the argument.
Beth Kirby was a great PI, but at times she could be like a
dog with a bone.