ACT TWO (Magnolia Steele Mystery #2) releases September 13, but here’s a sneak peek at the first three chapters!
“What the hell are you doin’, Magnolia?”
My hand froze in midair, holding the pastry bag suspended over the tray of hors d’oeuvres. I brushed a stray hair out of my eyes with my forearm. “I’m doing what you told me to do. I’m filling the shrimp puffs.”
My mother put her hands on her hips and gave me her best How did I give birth to someone so stupid? look. I’d grown accustomed to it during my teenage years, but she’d dusted it off and used it more times than I could count over the last three days. “With buttercream frosting?”
I lifted up the bag and squirted some of the creamy filling onto my finger, then cringed after I tasted it. Definitely not cream cheese. “I must have grabbed the wrong bag.”
“Just how many people at the art gallery show are gonna want to eat Cajun shrimp puffs filled with buttercream frosting?”
The answer was so obvious I saw no reason to respond.
She moved closer to the stainless steel table, taking in the trays lined with savory pastries. “And just how many have you done?”
Yesterday she’d berated me for dawdling, so in the moments before she’d shown up, I’d been giving myself a mental pat on the back for picking up the pace. I cringed. “Almost all of them.”
Momma sucked in a breath and held it for three whole seconds, her face turning red, then flung her hand toward the front door. “Get!”
“Get out of here! Go! For three days I’ve let you work in the kitchen. For three days you’ve screwed up everything you’ve touched! Now get out of here so I can make them all over again.”
“Lila!” my mother’s best friend barked, slapping down the spoon she’d been using to stir a pot on the stove, and turned around. “Maggie’s tryin’ her best.” I’d never heard her use such a harsh tone with my mother, but then again, I could always count on Tilly to have my back.
“She’s a failure in the kitchen, Tilly. She’s hopeless.”
Tilly crossed her arms and gave my mother a disapproving glare. “Then we’ll find somewhere else to put her.”
“Where else are we gonna put ’er?” my mother asked. Her Alabamian accent was always stronger when she was exasperated—which, around me, was a lot. “Maybe we should dump all the folders she just organized in the file cabinets and let her file ’em again.”
Anger burned in my chest as I jerked off my plastic gloves and threw them onto the stainless steel table. “You know I’ve never been good in the kitchen. I’m trying the best I can!”
“It’s not good enough!” Momma shouted.
I tugged my apron strings loose, then ripped the apron over my head and flung it onto the table. “I never asked you for this job!”
“I’m leaving my half of this business to you!” my mother shouted. “You need to learn how to help Tilly run it!”
Before she died. She didn’t say the words, but we were both thinking them. In that moment, though, my temper eclipsed my grief over my mother’s death sentence. “Then maybe you should get my perfect brother to run it, because I quit!”
“Magnolia!” Tilly shouted in dismay.
But I was already making my exit stage left, stomping across the kitchen and through the swinging door to the reception area. I didn’t stop until I was on the sidewalk in front of Southern Belles Catering. Only then did I realize it was raining.
Of course, it was April in Middle Tennessee; it would have been more remarkable if it hadn’t been raining.
I ran toward the pizza restaurant at the end of the street, Mellow Mushroom, where I was supposed to meet my sister-in-law, Belinda, for lunch at noon. I was fifteen minutes early, but I was also newly unemployed. I might as well get a beer.
Moments later, I was sitting at the bar in the garishly decorated restaurant, staring at a mural of cartoonized famous musicians while I sipped a pint of Guinness. As I took the first sip, I lamented that my life had gone so drastically off course in one month.
Three short weeks ago, I had been poised to make my debut as the lead in Fireflies at Dawn, the hottest new musical to hit Broadway in a decade. But then I discovered that the director—whom I’d been living with—was screwing my understudy . . . and to say I didn’t take it well would be an understatement. The understudy and I got into a brawl onstage on opening night, much of which was captured on video and posted on the internet. People especially loved the part where Woman on a Train #3—aka my boyfriend’s new lover—ripped off the front of my dress and exposed my 34B breasts to the world.
After I lost my job (fired), lost my home (that asshole Griff kicked me out), and found myself destitute (said asshole had convinced me to sink most of my money into the musical), I had no choice but to max out my credit card on a plane ticket to Nashville, Tennessee, so I could show up on my mother’s front doorstep in Franklin. My welcome home had been bumpy, to say the least, and not just because it was my first visit in a decade.
“Hey, Maggie Mae,” a man said over my shoulder.
I turned around to find Colt Austin, fellow Southern Belles employee and womanizer—though not necessarily in that order—bestowing his sexy bad-boy grin on me. His short blond hair was styled, and he’d recently shaved the scruffy beard he’d been sporting. I thought he looked better clean-shaven, but I knew better than to tell him so. His ego was already a force to behold.
“Did Tilly send you to find me?”
“No,” he said, sitting on the empty stool beside me and snatching the glass from my hand. “I was thirsty.” He took a sip and grinned again, his blue eyes dancing.
“Get your own,” I grumbled, snatching the glass back and taking a healthy gulp.
“Had a run-in with Lila, huh?” he said, waving his finger at the bartender. She came running with a bright smile plastered on her face. Colt had that effect on women—unfortunately, he knew it. “Hey, darlin’,” he said, laying on the accent as thick as molasses. “What stouts do you have?”
The bartender batted her eyes and listed off his choices. Then they discussed which was her favorite and how long she had worked there, and by the time he’d finally settled on what to order, I’d nearly finished my drink.
Before she could walk off, I wrapped my hand around Colt’s arm and laid my head on his shoulder. “I’ll take another Guinness,” I said, making my voice sound sweet and light. “Put it on my sweetie Colt’s tab.”
The bartender shot me a glare before stalking off to get the drinks.
“What was that for?” Colt asked, leaning away from me. “I was about to ask for her number.”
I laughed and sat back up. “Just how many numbers do you have?”
He shot me a smug look. “I’ve got yours, so don’t laugh too much.”
“And we both know that’s because you needed it for work.” But that wasn’t all. Despite the hard time I was giving him, I considered Colt a friend. I knew I could call him if I needed help. Now that I’d decided to stay in Franklin for the indeterminate future, I’d need all the help I could get.
He snaked an arm around my back and graced me with his sexy eyes. “We can change the reason I need it.”
Things inside me began to stir, and it wasn’t the beer sloshing around in my empty stomach. I may have decided not to become involved with Colt, but I wasn’t dead. I was usually good at not letting guys affect me, but I’d let two men get under my skin since I’d come back to my hometown. Colt was not a safe bet. A good time, sure. But these weeks in Franklin hadn’t gone easy on me. I’d become a murder suspect on my first night in town, and no sooner had I cleared my good name than I’d found out about my mother’s terminal illness. Then there was the other thing . . . the one I still didn’t like to think about. The memories I’d zapped from my mind before running away from Franklin ten years ago had finally come back to me, but I had no clue what to do about it.
I was, simply put, in no shape for a fling. My heart was too raw. I couldn’t risk falling for Colt Austin, master charmer and—I was quite certain—lover extraordinaire.
I lifted an eyebrow. “And become lay number two thousand three hundred and sixty-seven?” I released a derisive laugh. “No, thanks. I have some self-esteem left.”
He covered his chest with his hand. “You wound me, Maggie.”
“I’m sure Mindy will help you through it.”
Shaking my head, I pointed to the bartender. “The woman you’re trying to lay. Perhaps you should have taken at least one glance at the name on her name tag instead of zeroing in on her cleavage.”
He shuddered, but his eyes twinkled with mischief. “So crass, Magnolia Steele. And here I thought you were a lady.”
I lifted my shoulder into a shrug. “Shows what you know.”
Mindy came back with our beers and gave me an assessing glance.
“I don’t want Colt,” I said. “He’s a free man.”
She gave me a dubious glare.
“No, really. You’re more than welcome to him. I’ve already used him up, and now I’m moving on to . . .” I spun on my seat, my finger extended as I scanned the quickly filling restaurant. My mouth fell open, and I found myself pointing at an older man with a pot belly and thinning hair. I recognized him from when I was a kid, but I hadn’t seen him in fourteen years.
“Him?” Mindy asked in shock. “You’re giving up this hottie for him? Why?”
“Because Colt has chlamydia,” I said absently as I hopped off the stool. “He’s a carrier.”
Colt quickly—and loudly—protested my statement, but I was too busy trying to determine if I’d correctly identified the man sitting alone at a table for two.
I stopped next to his table and hesitated. What if I were right? What would I do?
I was still working on my approach when he looked up and gasped. “Magnolia?”
I wasn’t surprised he knew who I was; the question was how he knew. The last time I’d seen him was when I was fourteen, and although I’d aged—barely!—I still looked a lot like I had as a teen. But the more likely reason he recognized me was that I’d made every gossip site and tabloid in the U.S., and Nashville had paid particular attention to the fact that I’d come back to Franklin to lick my wounds.
I could only imagine the attention I would have faced if my name had been released in connection with Max Goodwin’s murder. Thank God it hadn’t come to that.
“Mr. Frey?” I asked.
He rose from his chair and shook my hand. “Magnolia, I haven’t seen you in years.”
Precisely fourteen years and two months, in fact. The date he was referring to had been etched in my mind ever since.
It was the day my father had disappeared.
I’d had a dentist appointment that morning, and Daddy had taken me to his office for a little while. Something strange had happened right before he brought me back to school on his lunch break. Before we could board the elevator down to the lobby, a frantic Walter Frey, who had looked remarkably the same then as now, only with slightly more gray hair, had come barreling out of it. I remembered what happened next like it was yesterday.
Mr. Frey grabbed Daddy’s arm and said, “Brian, I have to talk to you now.”
Daddy glanced at me and stiffened. “I’m taking my daughter back to school, Walter. This will have to wait. I talked to Geraldo.”
“It can’t wait. He knows.”
Daddy’s face paled, and he stared at Mr. Frey for a couple of seconds before he said, “Are you sure?”
Daddy nodded, taking a deep breath, then letting it out. “We can’t talk now,” he whispered. “Even if Magnolia weren’t here. Meet me tonight at eight. You know the spot.”
Walter nodded, bouncing like a bobble head.
Daddy pushed Walter back onto the elevator, but instead of following him in, he reached out an arm and held me back.
“We’ll take another one.”
“Why was that man so upset? Who was he talking about?” I asked.
Daddy looked into my eyes, and I didn’t like what I saw in his gaze. Fear. “You forget what you heard, Magnolia. That was business.”
“Why would he be so upset over business?”
“I’m a financial planner,” he said. Another elevator dinged, and he led me into it. “People trust me with a lot of money. Sometimes it makes them anxious.”
“Do you ever lose their money?” I asked.
“Sometimes, but I try really hard to make sure they lose as little as possible.” He pressed the button for the lobby. “That’s why Mr. Frey was upset . . .” I could see the wheels turning in his head as he talked. “He heard that a stock was doing poorly.”
“But he said he knows,” I said. “That didn’t sound like a stock doing poorly.”
“It’s just business talk, Magnolia. You need to let it go.”
And I had, mostly because I worshipped my father and making him angry at me was the last thing I wanted. But I knew it wasn’t typical stockbroker stuff. Especially because he stopped by my room before he left that night to make sure I knew where his handgun was hidden. It was the last time I’d ever seen him.
The police had questioned Walter Frey based on my statement, but from what little I’d gathered, Mr. Frey had told the police the eight o’clock meeting had never happened, had never been discussed, in fact. The reason he’d come looking for Daddy that day was to discuss his Roth IRA account. The police had quickly dismissed Mr. Frey as a suspect or as a source of information.
His lies had infuriated me, but as Momma had so tactfully said, if given the choice, who would I believe? A flighty fourteen-year-old girl prone to drama or a respected real estate attorney?
Life had gone on after Daddy’s disappearance, and I was told to accept that there would be no answers. Anytime I brought it up, my mother told me I was too young to worry myself over such things.
Well, I was all grown up now and Walter Frey had fallen into my path.
It was time to get my answers.
I motioned to the seat in front of him. “Would you mind if I take a seat?”
He looked flustered. “I’m . . . uh . . . I’m meeting someone.”
Was he nervous to be talking to Brian Steele’s daughter, or to Magnolia Steele, naked internet sensation? The way he kept eyeing my chest told me he knew me as both.
I sat down anyway. “I want to ask you a few questions.”
He looked over his shoulder and then sighed and sat back down, placing his shaking hands on the table. “What about?”
His face paled, and he glanced over his shoulder again. “There isn’t anything to discuss.”
“Actually, there is—and you know it. You were supposed to meet my father the night he disappeared.”
“That was a long time ago, Magnolia.”
“And yet I still want answers.”
He finally met my eyes. “I told everything I know to the police.”
No use mincing words. “What you told the police was a lie,” I said, staring right back at him. “I want to know if my father showed up at your meeting that night.”
“There was no meeting.”
I leaned forward and lowered my voice. “Don’t lie to me, Mr. Frey. I was there that day. I remember you talking to my father. I know you were supposed to meet him at eight at the usual place.”
He looked torn, but I’d made it good and obvious I wasn’t leaving until I got what I wanted.
He cursed under his breath and then said, “I can’t talk about it here. Not right now.”
“You’re going to tell me what really happened. I’m not leaving until you do.”
“I told you I can’t talk now. I’ll talk to you later.” He sounded frantic as he looked over his shoulder again.
“You have to meet me tonight.” I looked out the window. “At the Embassy bar.”
“Fine. Eight o’clock. Now go.” Apparently that was his go-to time for meetings, but before I could say as much, he gave my hand a slight shove.
I had half a mind to be offended, but then I noticed a well-dressed middle-aged woman had walked through the door. She was the apparent source of his anxiety. I didn’t blame him—she reminded me of my elementary school librarian, Ms. Burke, who used to patrol the aisles like a storm trooper. Rumor had it an exceptionally rowdy boy had been thrown into “the hole” for misbehaving in the library. Though never substantiated, his story had put the fear of God into us, and the suspicious gleam in Ms. Burke’s eyes had offered little reassurance. This woman had that same glare.
I stood. “If you’re not there, I’ll come to your office tomorrow.” I gave him a tiny smile. “I know you’re a real estate attorney. You shouldn’t be too hard to find.”
The woman approached and stopped in front of me, looking me up and down with a pinched expression. “Are you here to see Walter?”
“I’m just saying hello. Walter and my father were old friends.”
She cocked her head slightly. “And who is your father, dear?”
Recognition flickered in her eyes. If she was Mr. Frey’s wife, I’m sure she would have remembered my father’s name. The police took Mr. Frey downtown to question him. Something told me that wasn’t a common occurrence for this man.
“I see,” she murmured, shifting the strap of her handbag on her arm. “If you’ll excuse us, Walter and I have a few things to discuss.”
“Of course.” I almost reminded Walter of our meeting, but I couldn’t see Mrs. Frey setting her husband loose to meet me. “It was good to see you again, Mr. Frey.”
He nodded slightly, then looked down at his clasped hands.
When I returned to the bar, Colt was waiting for me. Shaking his head and laughing, he said, “It’s a bad day when you strike out with an old guy, Maggie Mae.”
“Eww . . . that’s disgusting. He was a client of my father’s.” I picked up my beer and took a sip as I glanced back at Walter Frey’s table. My vantage point gave me a good look at the side of their table. The woman was leaning forward and—judging from the look on his face—giving him an earful.
“Didn’t your father run off when you were in middle school?”
I jerked my gaze back to Colt and asked defensively, “How do you know that?”
He held up a hand. “Whoa. Calm down. Tilly told me. What’s with all the antagonism?”
“Because unlike everyone else, I know my father didn’t run off with Shannon Morrissey.”
He paused. “Then who did he run off with?”
I looked into Colt’s eyes. “He didn’t run off with anyone. My father was murdered, and I’m pretty damn sure Mr. Antsy Pants knows what happened.”
Colt gave me a hard look. “You think that weaselly-looking guy killed your father? I hate to typecast, but he really doesn’t look like a cold-blooded murderer.”
“He didn’t do it.” I shook my head. “Or I don’t think he did. Look, all I know is that he was supposed to meet my father the night he disappeared. My father left for the meeting, but he never came home.”
“Magnolia . . .”
The pity in his voice did nothing to ease my mood.
“What are you doing here, Colt? Tilly did send you, didn’t she?”
“I heard all the shouting between you and your mother, so I decided to come check on you.” He bumped his shoulder into mine. “It can’t be easy going from living in New York City to living in Franklin. And then there’s dealing with your mother 24/7. I know I couldn’t do it.”
“I just feel so guilty,” I said, looking into my glass of beer. “I want to move out so badly, but I know I need to stay.”
He took a sip of his beer, then asked, “Why do you need to stay at your mother’s? Is it money?”
Well, crap. I’d almost spilled the beans on Momma’s cancer diagnosis, and she definitely didn’t want anyone but me and Tilly knowing (even if she didn’t realize my brother knew). While I felt guilty about leaving her alone, I didn’t know how much more I could take of being her houseguest and employee. Soon I might be tempted to finish her off before her cancer did.
“I have to move out.” I turned to look at him. “And I need another job.”
“Whoa. Don’t get crazy now. You’re working at the catering business.”
“I suck at the catering business.” I sighed as I rested my forehead on my hand. “The only two things I’m good at are waiting tables and working in the theatre. But the last time I worked as wait staff at Momma’s party, I became a person of interest in Max Goodwin’s murder. Besides, I’m the star of a very unfortunate viral video. I’m too much of a distraction for Momma and Tilly to let me out in the public eye.”
“There are plenty of other things you can do to help with the business. Look at me.”
I narrowed my eyes. “I see you there all the time, but I don’t see you doing a whole lot of anything. How do I get your job?”
He shot me a look of mock disgust. “I work. I bartend at events, and I help with loading and driving the van, as well as a host of other errands for the belles.”
“So what do you propose I do? I’m hopeless in the kitchen, and my history prevents me from waitressing.”
“Maybe you could work in the office.”
“I already got them caught up. Their whole system is digital now, everything from filing to appointments.”
“Well, you’re just too efficient, Maggie Mae. You need to slow your roll.” He waved his flattened hand in front of him as if he were icing a giant cake.
I lifted my eyebrows. “Slow my roll? What decade is this?”
He winked. “Sure. That’s right. You go ahead and deflect.”
“Deflect?” I shook my head. “You don’t seem like the kind of guy to say deflect.”
“And you’re still doing it,” he drawled. “Anything to take the focus off the real issue—your delusion that your father was murdered.”
I heard a gasp, and I turned to find my sister-in-law Belinda standing behind me, wide-eyed. “I had no idea your daddy was murdered. Roy told me that he ran off with a client’s wife and took a bunch of money with him.”
I wasn’t surprised to hear Roy was touting the company line. After all, he worked for my father’s ex-partner and appeared to be doing very well for himself.
“He wasn’t murdered,” Colt told Belinda, lowering his voice. “But for some reason, Magnolia thinks Elmer Fudd over there killed him.” He picked up his glass and stuck out his index finger to point to Mr. Frey.
“What are you doin’?” I asked, pushing his hand and making his beer slosh. “You can’t just point at him. That’s rude.”
“So you’re sayin’,” Colt said playfully, licking the spilled beer off his hand, “accusin’ him of murder quietly is polite.”
“I didn’t accuse him of anything,” I said defensively. “I only want to ask him some questions.”
Colt chuckled. “If you aren’t accusing him of anything, then why were you glaring at him so hard?”
I scowled. “I wasn’t.”
Belinda continued to watch our exchange with a look of shock.
Colt let out a pained sigh and then leaned closer to my ear. Whispering so my sister-in-law couldn’t hear, he said, “Maggie. I know what you’re goin’ through, but I’m asking you to think this over. If you start down this path, you’re bound to be disappointed.”
I leaned back and gave him a hard look. Was he speaking from personal experience? Colt was hiding something, but I didn’t know what. It didn’t seem right to ask since I had so many secrets of my own.
“I’m sure you’re wrong, Magnolia,” Belinda said. “I can’t see Walter Frey hurting a fly.”
I started to ask if she knew him, but she quickly changed the subject. “Colt, Magnolia and I are having lunch,” Belinda said. “Would you like to join us?”
He drained the last of my beer and set the glass down with a thud. “Nah. I’ve been eating too much Taco Bell lately, so I’m having a liquid lunch today.” He patted his belly. “I’m getting a little pouch, and I need to work it off.” He winked at me. “Call me later if you want to start a workout plan together.” Then he sashayed out the door.
“That man is something else,” I said, eyeing my now-empty glass with a frown.
Belinda watched me as she said with measured words, “Yeah, he is.”
I rolled my eyes. “I’m not interested in Colt Austin. I know my mother thinks I’m stupid, but I’m not that stupid.”
“He’s a good-lookin’ man.”
“A man who has slept his way through Middle Tennessee. No, thanks. That’s one lesson I’ve learned. Not interested.”
“Good,” she said. As we followed the hostess to our table, Belinda added, “Because I like Colt well enough, but I’m sure he’s a heartbreaker.”
“You’re preaching to the choir, sister,” I mumbled.
We took our seats and ordered a pizza, but I kept casting glances toward Walter Frey while we waited for our food.
Belinda leaned forward, worry filling her pale blue eyes. “Do you really think your father was murdered?”
I took a sip of my water. As tempted as I was to order another beer to replace the one Colt finished off, I knew it wouldn’t solve my many issues. “Do I believe Daddy stole all that money and ran off with Shannon Morrissey? No.”
She linked her French-tip-manicured fingers together and rested them on the table. “Roy’s told me that you and your father were very close.”
“Roy was talking about me?” Considering how much my brother hated me, he mustn’t have said anything good. In fact, after all of the nasty interactions I’d had with him since coming home, I couldn’t believe Belinda was here with me now.
She ran her finger down the side of her water glass, swiping at the condensation. She seemed to measure her words before she said, “He said you didn’t handle his leaving well.”
That was an understatement.
“He said that you saw your father’s abandonment as a betrayal.” Her eyes lifted to me. “A betrayal you couldn’t accept.”
The way she said it invited a confidence, and I wanted to confide in her. Belinda was pretty much my only friend in Franklin now—not counting Colt—but how much would she tell Roy? How much did I want him to know?
Maybe it was best if I kept my meeting with Walter Frey to myself.
“You’re right,” I said, glancing down. “I couldn’t imagine my father leaving me behind. Murder was the only way I could excuse it.”
Her hand covered my own, and I looked up into her sympathetic face.
“Oh, Magnolia. Of course you did. So why were you asking Walter Frey questions?”
“He knew my dad.”
She lifted her eyebrows. “So? I’m sure lots of people knew your dad.”
“He was supposed to . . .” I let my voice trail off, reminding myself that the less she knew, the better. I forced a smile. “You know, this is silly. You’re right. I should let it go.”
The waitress brought our pizza, which gave me a chance to change the subject after she walked away. “I need to find a job.”
Her eyes widened in surprise. “I thought you were working for Lila.”
“It’s not working out.”
Belinda picked up a slice of pizza. “I know Lila can be a difficult woman . . .”
“True, but I’m terrible. The only thing I’m good at is filing—which is all done—and waitressing—which I don’t dare do. I ruin everything I touch in the kitchen. I would prefer my last days with my mother to be as pleasant as possible, so I think it’s best if I find somewhere else to work.”
Belinda set down her pizza. “Your mother’s last days?”
Well, crap. My brother had let me know he was aware of my mother’s terminal cancer diagnosis. I’d just presumed he’d told his wife.
I had two ways to go about this—try to smooth it over with some lame excuse, or tell her the truth. Selfishly, I wanted to be able to confide in her.
“Momma is dying, Belinda.”
Tears filled her eyes. “Are you sure?”
I nodded. “I’m sorry. I was sure Roy told you.”
She dug around in her purse, retrieving a tissue. “No. I had no idea.” She looked at me as she dabbed the corners of her eyes. “Is that why you came back home?”
“No,” I said with a derisive chuckle. “I came home because of my walk of shame. I only found out Momma’s diagnosis the day Amy . . . died.”
The police had concluded that Amy, personal assistant to country singer mega-star Luke Powell, was guilty of murdering both Max Goodwin and Neil Fulton, an entertainment attorney. But her supposed motive was paper-thin—they claimed Amy had held a grudge against Goodwin because he’d wronged her when she’d first come to Nashville as a country singer. And Neil was guilty by association; he’d represented his sleazeball friend. The official story was that Amy had killed herself over the guilt.
But the more I thought about it, the less I bought it. Up-and-coming country singer Paul Locke had signed all his rights and money away to Max Goodwin, and a month before the murders, he had lost his legal battle to get them back. And of course Neil Fulton had represented Goodwin in that case too. Locke seemed to have the stronger motive.
I told myself that Amy’s death wasn’t my concern, but I couldn’t help feeling guilty that her death had exonerated me as a suspect. Still, I wasn’t about to tell Belinda any of that. Amy had been Belinda’s friend, and I hated to stir up more emotional trauma.
Totally clueless about my inner struggle, Belinda asked, “How much longer does she have? What does she have?”
“She refuses to give me many details. She said she has cancer in her blood and she’s known for a couple of years. They’ve told her she has three to six months left.” I paused. “Tilly’s the only other person she told, because of the business.”
“But you said Roy knows.”
“He told me he knew when I went to see him in his office. The day I was going to go back to New York.” The day my brother had attempted to bribe me with fifty thousand dollars if I left town and never came back. Which Belinda had admitted she knew about.
“How did he find out?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “But Momma didn’t tell him. She only wanted me to know because if I got on that plane, I probably never would have seen her again.”
“So you stayed.”
“I couldn’t leave. Especially after she gave me some very blunt advice about self-respect.”
Belinda smiled and wiped a tear off her cheek. “That sounds like Lila, all right.”
I studied her for a moment. “I’m not sure you should tell Roy you heard this from me. He obviously didn’t want you to know.”
But would she pay a price if he found out she was keeping a secret?
She nodded. “I’ll give it some thought.” Then she absently rubbed her forearm, confirming my concern. Her pink cardigan went to her wrists, and I couldn’t help wondering if it covered new bruises on my sister-in-law’s arms. I was sure my brother was an abuser, but I had no idea how to help Belinda leave him. She seemed determined to stay.
We ate in silence for a few moments before Belinda said, “Are you sure you want to get another job?”
“Yes. I love my mother, but at the moment, I want to strangle her—and I’m sure she feels the same way. We always butted heads when I was a kid. It seems we haven’t outgrown it.”
“Do you have anything in particular you want to do?”
I shook my head. “I’m not qualified for much. Waiting tables and working in a theatre, and given my notoriety, waiting tables seems to be out.”
Her lips pursed as she concentrated. “I’d hire you, but I just hired a part-time assistant.”
“I’m not sure I’d be a good assistant.” Besides, I was probably too jaded to work for a wedding planner. “And maybe it’s best if I don’t work for family.”
“Hmm . . . you could be right.” She let out a sigh. “What about retail work?”
“I’ve never done it, but I’m willing to try.”
“I know the owner of a retail shop downtown—they sell gift-type items but some vintage pieces too. It’s very unique and charming. Alvin’s business is growing, and I know he needs help.”
“No, just part time, but it’s a start. Maybe you could still work part time at the catering business. You know, do the office work and help load the van.”
She had a point. I would still be part of the catering business, but I wouldn’t be underfoot looking for something to do. “Would the owner be willing to work around my catering schedule?”
She smiled. “It can’t hurt to ask him. How about we walk down there after lunch? I’ll introduce you.”
It felt a lot like my mother walking me to kindergarten, but I really needed a job. I wasn’t about to blow off a good lead out of pride. “I still need a place to stay.”
“You’re moving out too?”
“It seems for the best, but it will have to be something close to downtown. I don’t have a car.”
She cringed. “That will be difficult. Everything downtown is pricey.”
“Then I’ll have to keep living with Momma for now. One step at a time.”
After we finished lunch, we walked down to Rebellious Rose Boutique and Belinda introduced me to Alvin Blevins, the owner of the store. He was a well-dressed and trim middle-aged man with shockingly dark black hair and piercing brown eyes that told me he didn’t miss much. It was obvious he loved Belinda—everyone did—and he offered me the job based on her recommendation alone. Did I dare risk working for someone who seemed so keenly observant?
“Can you start tomorrow?” he asked, glancing at a customer who had just walked in the door.
“Yes. Of course,” I said, surprised by how enthusiastic I sounded. One month ago, I was the lead in a Broadway musical. Today, I was excited over working in a gift shop.
“The pay isn’t much, and I can only give you about twenty hours a week, but I’ll try to work with your catering schedule.”
“Thank you,” I said, shaking his hand. “You won’t regret it.”
Alvin nodded. “Be here at ten and convince me that I won’t.”
Belinda and I went out onto the sidewalk. “When are you going to tell Lila?”
“I don’t know yet.” I wasn’t sure how she would react to the news about my second job, and I didn’t want to piss her off.
I needed her car tonight. I had a date with Walter Frey.
When Momma came home, nothing was said about the way I’d stormed out that morning, but I did tell her about my new job. She merely nodded and told me she thought it was a good idea since it was obvious I couldn’t cook to save my life. The business end was probably what I needed to know anyway, and it would be good for me to spend some time in the public eye in a harmless setting.
I hadn’t considered that part of it.
Then she went up to bed. She’d worn herself out in the catering kitchen, presumably remaking all those shrimp puffs.
The thought gave me a pang of guilt, but it did make borrowing the car easier; she’d never even know I’d left.
My stomach was knotted into a tight ball as I drove to the Embassy bar. I’d hoped to have more time to prepare my questions for Mr. Frey, but I decided I’d had fourteen years to prepare. I knew what I wanted to ask him. I just had to make sure I wasn’t so antagonistic he’d up and leave.
The day-long rain had let up, but the streets were still wet. The parking lot was full for a weekday night, but I found a space and crossed the parking lot toward the entrance.
I’d never been in the Embassy bar, but I’d always admired the outside décor when I was a kid. The outside reminded me of one of those old 1950s nightclubs. In my head, I’d envisioned moody, romantic scenes filled with men in black suits and women in low-cut, slinky dresses. What I found wasn’t anywhere close. The lights were dim and the place reeked of smoke. Several middle-aged men leaned on the bar, nursing their drinks, and a few middle-aged couples were scattered around the room. An older guy stood on a makeshift stage about a foot off the ground, strumming his guitar and singing a Johnny Cash song. But it was obvious I’d gotten there before Walter Frey.
At least I hoped he was coming.
I walked up to the bar, and the bartender—a thirty-something guy with a name tag that said Chuck—came over and shot me a grin. “The gentleman at the end of the bar would like to buy you a drink.”
Shrugging off my jacket, I glanced down at the group of men. An older man lifted his beer bottle and graced me with a semi-toothless grin.
“Yeah,” I said. “Tell Snaggletooth no thanks.”
He laughed. “Snaggletooth. For that, I’ll give you one on the house. What’ll it be?”
He wandered off to get my drink, and I turned around on my seat to scan the room and make sure I hadn’t missed Mr. Frey. Given how empty the place was, it didn’t take long to verify he wasn’t here.
Chuck returned, his grin even bigger. “Now Snaggletooth’s friend wants to buy you a drink.” He pointed to a bald guy next to the toothless guy.
The bald guy flashed me a big grin.
I picked up the beer and took a sip. Lord knew I might need more than one to get me through this night. “What is he? About seventy?”
“Eighty-two. He’s excited because, besides me, you’re the youngest person to walk in here in about six months.”
I laughed. “Lucky you.”
He leaned forward on his elbow, and a devilish grin lit up his face. “So what do I tell him?”
Shaking my head, I let out a sigh. “Tell him no. I’m not sure I’ll be here long enough to drink another. I’m waiting for a guy, and he hasn’t shown yet.”
Chuck gave me an appraising look. “He must be in the hospital with a coma. That’s the only reason I can come up with for a guy standing you up.”
I resisted the urge to roll my eyes. “It’s not a date. It’s more of a . . . business meeting.”
“What’s he look like? There’s a guy who came in ten minutes ago and immediately went back to the restroom. If it’s a business meeting, it might be your guy. Otherwise, no way.”
“Middle-aged guy, I think in his fifties. About my height with thinning light brown, graying hair. He has a sagging chin and a bit of a belly. He was wearing a white shirt and brown pants when I saw him earlier today.”
“Sounds like quite a catch.”
“I told you, it’s business. Not that it’s any of your business.” I added a bit of a sting to the last sentence, but Chuck only laughed.
“If it’s none of my business, then maybe I shouldn’t tell you that you’ve just described the guy who went back there.”
“Are you just shitting me?” I asked, skeptical.
He held up his fingers in the shape of a V. “Scout’s honor.”
“That’s the Vulcan sign for—never mind.” I set my purse on the counter and hopped off my stool, pointing to the hall. “That way, you say?”
He laughed. “You going to take your meeting in the bathroom?”
Ten minutes in the bathroom was a pretty long time for a guy. Maybe he’d gotten cold feet and needed a little encouragement. I took one more gulp of the beer. “If that’s what it takes.”
“I’ll keep an eye on your bag,” he said with a wink. He was grinning from ear to ear as I headed down the hall.
There were three doors on the same wall. The first two were marked as the ladies’ and the men’s restrooms, so the third one probably led to a storage room. The door at the end of the hall was marked exit. I debated what to do, but I had to know if Mr. Frey was even there.
I knocked on the door of the men’s room and called out, “Mr. Frey?” After he didn’t answer for several seconds, I knocked harder and said louder, “Mr. Frey? Are you in there?”
The door opened and an older man walked out. Looking me up and down, he said, “I’m not Mr. Frey, but I’d be happy to fill in for him.”
Ew. Gross. I forced a smile. “I’m looking for the actual Mr. Frey. Did you see anyone in there?”
Now what? I cast a glance at the door at the end of the hall. The words painted on it—emergency exit—seemed to mock me. I suspected Walter Frey had taken Door #4 and escaped. He’d ditched me.
But why? Why show up just to leave?
Oh shit. Something had scared him.
I pushed the back door open and looked around the nearly empty parking lot. The only two vehicles back there were a pickup truck and a dark sedan parked several spaces apart. But then something to my left captured my attention. Walter Frey lay flat on his back, his eyes closed and his jacket partially open to reveal his white shirt.
He didn’t answer.
The hair on my arms stood on end as I walked around the door and called out his name again. The sky was spitting a light drizzle, and I shivered as I moved closer, dread making my stomach clench.
“Mr. Frey, are you okay?”
I knew something was wrong with him, but while the last man I’d found flat on his back, Max Goodwin, had been stabbed in the chest, Walter Frey looked like he’d fallen asleep on the grass.
But as I crept closer, slowly inching my way around his side, the small hole in his left temple and the blood pooling on the rain-soaked ground told me I was wrong.
Walter Frey was dead.
The back door opened, and Chuck peeked his head around the corner. “Hey, Pete said he saw you go out the back door . . .”
I glanced over at him, and his eyes widened when he saw the figure splayed beneath me.
“Oh shit. Looks like you found him,” he said, his voice shaking. He looked liable to drop my bag, which he’d brought from the front. It was obvious finding dead guys behind his bar wasn’t a common occurrence for him. “Is he alive?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t check.” I dropped to my knees, sinking into the soggy grass, then placed a trembling finger on his neck as I searched for a pulse.
“So? Is he alive?” he repeated.
I shook my head, my stomach roiling as I stared at the blood still trickling from his head. I felt dangerously close to throwing up, but Detective Holden’s voice echoed in my head. He’d been pissed because Amy and I had almost vomited at the scene of Max Goodwin’s murder.
Detective Holden had been eager to pin the last murder victim I’d found on me. What if he did the same this time?
“Oh, my God,” Chuck said in a shaky voice. “What if the killer’s still out here?”
His panic was infectious, but logic told me that whoever had done this was long gone. Otherwise, I was fairly certain I’d already be dead.
I took several deep breaths, pushing back my panic and trying to figure out what to do. “I need my phone,” I said, settling my butt back on my heels. I felt too lightheaded to stand. This couldn’t be happening. Not again.
My memories of the murder I’d witnessed ten years ago, on the night of my college graduation, had only surfaced a few weeks ago—dredged up by my return to Franklin and the sight of Max Goodwin’s bloody body. Up until then, the only thing I’d remembered about that night was a sense of dread so strong it had set me running all the way to New York.
I held out my hand for the phone. Chuck’s reaction confirmed that he, at least, did not have a habit of stumbling upon dead bodies. “My phone. It’s in my purse. Pull it out.”
“Who are you going to call?” he asked, sounding nervous.
He grabbed my phone and handed it to me, still holding on to my purse. As I started to unlock the screen, I noticed that I had a text message from a blocked number.
If you’re digging into the past, be careful what you reveal.
I gasped and looked down at the bloodied man in front of me. Had he sent the message?
“Are you gonna call?” Chuck asked, sounding freaked out.
Of course, this wasn’t the first cryptic message I’d received since my return to Franklin. At first I’d assumed they were a practical joke, but then my memories of that night had returned. Now I knew they were something more—warnings from the long-ago murderer who’d chased me out of town. And he hadn’t just left texts . . .
I gave myself a mental shake. I’d figure out who had sent the text later. I needed to deal with this first.
“Yeah.” I pulled up my contacts and started scrolling, thankful I didn’t have to scroll very far. When he answered, I nearly cried with relief. “Brady?”
“I need your help.”
“Where are you?” His voice became stern and professional—very cop-like. “What’s happened?”
I glanced up at Chuck. Would my alibi be enough? I wasn’t quite sure I could trust Brady. A few weeks ago, I’d gone to the Franklin police station to report what I’d remembered about the night of my high school graduation. They had assigned Brady to talk to me. I’d realized it was a huge mistake before I started talking. They’d think I was crazy, plain and simple, and I had no concrete information to give them. There was no body, no open case, and any evidence had gone cold a decade ago. Besides, the murderer had threatened my family, and the texts I’d received since returning to town were proof he was watching me.
Brady had insisted on taking a walk with me—as my friend, not as a police detective—and I’d foolishly let my guard down. The problem was that he hadn’t realized my connection to the Goodwin case. Once he did, he told his partner all of the things I’d shared with them—things that made me look guilty of Max Goodwin’s murder. It had caused me a good bit of trouble, and while Brady hadn’t had much choice in the matter, I couldn’t help but see it as a betrayal.
What if he betrayed me again?
It was the worry in his voice that worked my tongue loose. “I’m okay, but there’s a man behind the Embassy bar. I think he’s dead.”
“Is there anyone else around? Are you in immediate danger?”
Was I? I glanced up at Chuck. “No. It’s just me and the bartender. He walked out right after I found him.”
“Keep everyone away and don’t touch anything. I’m less than ten minutes away.”
“Okay. Thanks.” My voice shook on the last word.
“You okay?” he asked quietly.
“No,” I said past the lump in my throat. Now that I’d passed over the mantel of responsibility to a professional, I was close to breaking into tears.
“I hate to ask you this,” he said softly, “but I need you to watch over the body and make sure no one disturbs the crime scene.”
“Yeah, of course,” I said, feeling close to vomiting again as I stared at the hole in Walter Frey’s head. “I’ll stay.”
“If it’s too gruesome, you can turn your back.” I was surprised to hear guilt in his voice.
“No,” I said. “I can do it.” I felt like I owed at least that much to the dead man in front of me.
Walter Frey was dead, and I was a hundred percent sure it was my fault.