Bidding War Break-In A Lily Sprayberry Realtor Cozy Mystery

Bidding War Break-In A Lily Sprayberry Realtor Cozy Mystery

IN A SMALL TOWN, EVERYONE IS IN YOUR BUSINESS

When Bramblett County Realtor Lily Sprayberry puts her deceased client’s townhome, the last in a sought after mixed-use development community, on the market, she winds up in the throes of a bidding war.

Knowing a portion of the money will go to a scholarship in her client’s name, Lily schedules a realtor only open house to raise the bids even higher. But on the day of the event, she discovers the home’s been vandalized, and every potential offer is taken off the table.

Someone is out to stop the sale, and ruin Lily in the process.

With her reputation hanging by a thread and the community up in arms, Lily sets out to fix things, and lands right in the middle of a hot mess of vandalism, lies, theft, and cheating. Lily soon discovers that some people don’t want their secrets known, and they’ll do whatever it takes to keep them under wraps.

Available on Amazon.

Read Chapter One of Signed, Sealed and Dead A Lily Sprayberry Realtor Cozy Mystery

Read Chapter One of Signed, Sealed and Dead A Lily Sprayberry Realtor Cozy Mystery

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Signed, Sealed and Dead

A Lily Sprayberry Realtor Cozy Mystery

Chapter One

 

Small town folk don’t always take care of their own.

“It’s perfect.”

I swiveled my head toward my best friend and business partner, Belle Pyott. “What—oh, my gosh. It is.” I gawked at the large, framed painting. “Carter would love this.”

“Uh, obviously. Why do you think I’m putting a hold tag on it?” She stuck a pink sticky note on it with a hold for Belle Pyottlabel already applied to it.

“How many of those did you make?”

She shrugged. “I don’t know, maybe fifty or two hundred?”

“Bless your heart, you’re so cheap.”

“I prefer to think of it as thrifty.” She wiggled her head. “Or efficient. Yes, efficient.”

“Belle, the community sale hasn’t even started yet. Technically, we’re supposed to be making sure everything is ready to go, not shopping, and you’ve stuck, what, at least ten of those sticky notes on items already? That’s cheating.”

She stuck another one on a gray pillow with white script that read, Welcome Home. “It’s more like seventeen, and it’s not cheating, it’s supporting a good cause.”

“You have a problem.”

“If we end up buying a flip, we’re going to need things to stage the place anyway, so consider this a business opportunity.”

She did have a point, but I wasn’t going to give her credit for it. We’d been discussing the possibility of purchasing a house and flipping it, but it was just a discussion, nothing serious, to me at least, so snatching up décor at the community sale and fundraiser for the Bramblett County High School sports programs for possible staging was a reach, and a big one at that.

I chastised myself for searching the rest of the items in that particular section for the flip after she mentioned it, but I couldn’t help myself and continued doing it anyway. I found myself scanning over the other over-sized portrait and wondering if Carter would like one of Michael Jordan, too. I ran my finger across a wooden vase, fought the urge to pick it up and lost.

The chips on the top made me wonder about its story. How old was it, and what hidden secrets did it hold? Who’d first bought it, or was it ever even bought? I flipped it over and read the small engraving on the bottom. Handmade by JC. Who was JC? A professional vase maker, maybe, or perhaps just someone who’d lived in Bramblett or nearby and made vases for a hobby? The wood was white hickory, that much I knew. I’d spent years sitting on my front porch whittling the stuff with my father and brothers, so I’d recognized it immediately. I glided my hand along the smooth surface, wondering who had touched it before me, what their lives were like, who they loved, what had mattered to them.

So much had happened recently, and it had touched my heart in such a profound way, I’d changed, or at least, I felt as though I had. And that little vase represented something more significant to me than just a knick knack. It was a piece of someone’s life, their history, maybe even their soul, yet there it sat, in the Bramblett County High School gymnasium on a cold and rainy Saturday morning along with thousands of other items, ready to be sold to a stranger, for a measly two bucks.

“Hey, may I have one of your stickers, please?”

Belle chuckled. “I knew it.”

I didn’t argue. I placed the sticky note on the vase. I didn’t want or feel the need to explain that I wasn’t saving the vase because of a possible house flip, but for myself, because I felt a need to save the vase to retain its integrity and value, to appreciate its history. I couldn’t quite make sense of it myself, so how could I explain it to Belle? Instead, I smiled, and let her think she was right. “Hey, I’m going to go find Carter and let him know about the painting. I’d rather not keep it on hold if he doesn’t want it. It’s a big ticket item.”

The painting, one of the football greats, Walter Payton, was a dark wood framed thirty by forty inch of his upper body, mostly his head and shoulders, but with his trademark number, 34, well displayed on the side of his shoulder. Even though I was born and raised in Georgia, and my loyalty was to the University of Georgia Bulldogs, I didn’t dislike professional football, but I didn’t much care about it either way. I understood the impact of the late Walter Payton, though, and how people from all parts of the country loved him.

Carter Trammell was a recent real estate client and a new friend for both Belle and me. He’d moved from Chicago and into one of the recently built condos on the old Redbecker property a month before taking a position at the high school as both a teacher and the new head of the lacrosse program. The position also included the varsity head coach position, which, from what I’d heard, was a big deal.

Lacrosse was a growing sport in the South, and highly competitive from what he’d said, and the school paid a lot of money to bring on a coach with actual playing experience. Mike Longley, the previous coach, and the assistant varsity football coach, had his knickers in a knot because of it, too. At least that’s what I’d learned through the grapevine, and by grapevine, I meant the local gossip shop, Millie’s Café, and the head gossip herself, Millie, the café owner.

One didn’t have to be the county sheriff to find out relevant information in a small town, or like me, date one either, at least not in Bramblett County, Georgia. In Bramblett County, Georgia, when someone needed to know something, they just had to grab a cup of coffee or an iced tea and a freshly made scone and chat up Millie, and they’d get an earful of the who’s who and the what’s what.

And that was that.

But a word to the wise, don’t ever call Millie a gossip, not if you ever planned on sticking around town. Crossing Millie was like crossing a railroad track when two trains were heading toward each other, and standing there like a deer blinded by headlights. You just had to be crazy to do it.

The school principal stopped me on my way to Carter’s office. “Hey, Lilybit, how’re things shaping up?

Everyone in town that knew me growing up called me Lilybit. I wasn’t a fan, but I’d learned to deal with it. My brothers had started it, and though most people thought of it as a term of endearment, I’d considered it more of a, look there’s little Lily who’s still a kid and hasn’t grown up, kind of thing. I was almost twenty-seven, owned my own real estate business, and I had worked hard to establish myself as a professional in the community. Being called Lilybit seemed so unprofessional. It yanked my cord at times, but I did my best to let it go. “Looking great, sir. We should be ready when the doors open.” I checked my iWatch. “In twenty-two minutes.” I wave of panic rushed through me, though there was no reason for it. The event was set. I’d been a part of this for three years in a row already, and it had been going on for as long as I could remember before that. It would be fine, and I knew that. “Have you seen Coach Trammell? I wanted to run something by him.”

“Not recently, but I’m sure he’s around here somewhere. Have you checked his office?”

“On my way there now, thanks.”

The high school was one of the older buildings in the county, but with the recent growth in suburban Atlanta and the surrounding counties, Bramblett had seen a surge in new residents, too. Our small county had a twelve percent population increase over the past year, which of course, was great for businesses, including real estate, but change didn’t come easily to the people of my small community. One of the benefits, though, was the planned and already completed upgrades to the high school.

I walked through the backside of the gymnasium and straightened my shoulders as a feeling of Bramblett County Bulldog pride came over me as it always had when I saw the hard work of the Bulldog athletes that came before and followed after me displayed on the gym walls. The rows of regional and state championship banners for basketball and cheerleading hanging from the white and red painted cinder block walls showed true sportsmanship and dedication.

A nightmarish image of my sweaty gym uniform, the one our evil gym teacher, Mrs. Settles, God rest her soul, picked out, came rushing back to me. I despised that thing. Somewhere in her late sixties when I was a freshman, and entirely out of sync with anything in fashion, Mrs. Settles fought for the old-school gym uniforms and won. I spent my freshman year in a one piece jumper style, zip up gym uniform with horizontal stripes. Our particular colors were light blue and white, but Mrs. Settles called it sky blue, like the crayon, as if that made it any less horrifying. My mother, for reasons I’d yet to understand, had saved her gym uniform and had we been the same size, would have offered hers because it was the same exact one.

The exact same one.

Bad gym uniform fashion aside, I’d had such fun there with my friends cheering on the basketball teams and being a part of pep rallies for the football teams. Mostly, I cheered for my boyfriend, Dylan Roberts, who, as fate would have it, was my significant other again, too.

I found Carter next to the front side of the bleachers in a somewhat heated conversation with Ginnie Slappey, the lacrosse booster club president. They stood face to face, barely inches apart, so I scooted off to the side and did what any polite person would do; I gave them a moment to finish their conversation.

Carter whispered, but his tone was forceful, and I watched the veins in his neck bulge. “You fix it, or I’m going to the principal.”

Ginnie touched the finger where her wedding ring should have been but wasn’t. She must have forgotten to put it on that morning because if her marriage had hit a tough spot, the rumor mill would have already processed that tasty bit of information and spit it out within seconds of it happening. The skin around her eyes tightened, and I knew then something was up. She hadn’t just forgotten her ring. How she’d kept that secret must have taken a miracle. “I just need a little more time to take care of a few things, Coach. Please.”

“Two days, Ginnie. You hear me? Two days.”

I didn’t want to just walk up unnoticed, so I coughed as I stepped out from behind the bleachers. The two of them separated as I approached, and both smiled like they’d been best friends for years. “Hey Carter, Belle found this great painting of Walter Payton. It’s pretty big, but we thought it would be perfect for your family room wall. Do you want to come take a look?”

His eyes shifted to Ginnie’s. He spoke to me, but clearly, he was talking to her. “Sure. We’re done here.”

“But Carter, we still need to talk about—”

“I said we’re done here.”

Ginnie nodded, and as she walked away, I couldn’t help but wonder what their argument was about. We walked back to the community sale and the table with the painting, chatting along the way. “Everything going okay with the new job?” It wasn’t exactly what I wanted to ask, but I didn’t want to be nosy.

He nodded. “So far, so good. Can’t officially start coaching just yet, but I do have the team coming in for workouts in the mornings a few times a week, and I’m observing their box lacrosse games, so I’ve got an idea of their strengths.”

“Box lacrosse?” Lacrosse was utterly foreign to me. Back in my day—that wasn’t something I was accustomed to saying since I hadn’t yet reached thirty—lacrosse wasn’t a school sport, or even one played anywhere in the South as far as I knew.

“Indoor lacrosse. It’s basically the same but still a bit different than field lacrosse.” He sort of smiled, but more to himself. “So, really, it’s not the same, but it’s the same concept.” He laughed. “You just have to know the sport to get it.”

I nodded. “Ah, got it. I guess. Maybe.”

“You really don’t know anything about lacrosse, do you?”

“Not a thing.”

“Why don’t you come to a game? We’ve got one this evening. It’s fun to watch. I promise you’ll love it.”

His face lit up when he saw the painting. “Is that it?”

I nodded. “Do you like it?”

“It’s perfect.” He flipped over the tag and grimaced. “Ouch. That’s a lot on a teacher’s salary.”

“Don’t sweat it. Belle is a wiz at negotiating at these things. Trust me.”

He tapped the pink sticky note. “She’s already got it saved. Is that for me?”

I nodded. “I’ll let her know you want it. What’s the minimum you’ll pay?”

He shrugged. “It’s for a good cause, and you did get me a good price on the condo.” He rubbed his stubble-free chin. “You know what? I’ll pay the seventy-five.” He patted his flat stomach. “I can afford to go without a few beers for the rest of the month anyway.” He removed his wallet from his back pocket and searched the area for someone to pay.

“Oh, you can’t buy it just yet,” I explained how the sale worked. “You take one of those stickers over there.” I pointed to the sold stickers. “Write your name on it, stick it on the item, and when the sale officially opens, you can take it over to the registers and pay. If you want to negotiate, you’ll have to come back and do that with the person who’s selling the item individually.”

“Got it.”

“If you see anything else you like, I’d mark it quickly because as you can tell, Belle’s got her own personalized hold stickers so she can negotiate her own prices once the sale officially starts. I think she got here late last night to check everything out.”

He laughed, but cut it short when I didn’t laugh, too. “You’re serious, aren’t you?”

“The woman doesn’t play around when it comes to saving money. The county commissioners asked her to review the annual budget before it was approved for 2019.”

“Seriously?”

I crossed my heart.

“Wow.”

“You have no idea.” I checked my watch. “Oh, wow. I have to run. Fifteen minutes till blast off.”

“About tonight, you really should come.”

“I’d love to. Text me the details.”

“Will do.”

* * *

“I can’t believe I let you drag me here.”

Belle tapped the ignition button on her car, and the engine shut off. “Come, it’s not as bad as it seems. Consider it a diamond in the rough.”

“I’m not sure that’s the right comparison I’d make. How are we supposed to get inside, squat jump over the holes in the steps?”

“Well, you haven’t gone to spin class a lot lately, so…” She let that dig trail off for full effect.

“I’ve had a pulled calf muscle because of the dog you got me for my birthday. The dog I didn’t want, remember?” A twinge of guilt pinched my heart for bad mouthing Bo, my Boxer mix, and the sweetest dog ever. Ugh. Bo was the bomb, and I was a horrible person for using him as a guilt weapon like that. I apologized to my smelly buddy, even though he wasn’t there.

“And you’re a better person because of him.”

“That’s not the point.” I stared up at the monstrosity of a house, or what was left of the house, in front of us. “This is practically a teardown. We’d have to start from scratch. That’s a little more than I’d planned. Not that I’d actually planned any of this.”

We’d spent a few nights munching on potato chips and M&Ms, chatting about buying a fixer-upper, maybe doing some of the work ourselves, but definitely hiring out most of it, and selling the property. Belle had thoughts of owning a bed and breakfast or becoming the next Chip and Joanna Gaines, minus the Chip part, but neither of those options worked for yours truly.

The metropolitan Atlanta area had spread far and wide, and counties like Dawson, just one county over from Bramblett, was quickly becoming a hot spot for families that wanted the comforts of small town life with the convenience of suburbia. Bramblett hadn’t been hit quite yet, but some of the locals feared it was coming, while others prepared for the excitement of the possibilities.

Belle and I had researched those possibilities, noted the trends, and saw the potential. We expected growth, but nothing compared to what counties like Dawson and Forsyth had experienced. Bramblett was just too far north of Atlanta, and the state’s infrastructure couldn’t support the increased volume, not without substantial improvements, anyway, and those weren’t even yet planned. I was happy to know our county would stay a close-knit community with a small town feel indefinitely.

Belle groaned. “Look at those columns though. Aren’t they beautiful?”

I gazed up at the long abandoned Civil War era home. “They are, but I don’t think it’s the right place for us. And we agreed we both need to be one hundred percent in to do this, remember?”

She nodded, and as she did, she pressed the start button on her car. The engine hummed back to life. “On to the next property we go.”

“Hey, Carter asked if we’d like to go to a box lacrosse game tonight. You up for it?”

She backed down the long, gravel driveway. “He asked us, or he asked you?”

“Well, technically he asked me, but we’re a team, so that means us.”

“Did you mention you’d ask me to go?”

“I can’t remember. Why?”

Belle turned left onto Highway 369 and headed further away from town. “Because if you didn’t mention me, then I don’t have to go, and I won’t feel bad about it.”

“You’re so going now.”

“I have to wash my hair.”

“Honey, that don’t work with me, and you know it.”

“Do my nails?”

“You get manicures.”

“Pay my bills?”

“It’s the digital age.”

“Take out the garbage?”

“They don’t collect on Sunday.”

“Walk the dog?”

“He’s my dog.”

She pounded her steering wheel with her fist. “I don’t know a thing about lacrosse. Why doesn’t he coach football? That’s a sport I know.”

“He’s our client and our friend. Besides, he’s new in town. It’s a nice thing for us to do.”

“I know. It just sounds so intimidating.”

“What does?”

“The game, or learning it, I mean.”

“It’s not that hard to understand,” I lied. “It’s kind of a mix of hockey, soccer, and basketball, but you know, different.”

“Bless your heart, you don’t have a clue either.”

“Not a bit.”

“And it sounds boring.”

“How would you even know that if you don’t know a thing about it?”

She ignored me.

“Well?”

“Fine, I don’t know that, but I couldn’t think of anything else to say.”

“You are a hot mess for sure.”

She made another left and pulled off onto a dirt and gravel mixed road. There were so many potholes, my voice sounded the way it did when I was a kid and I talked into a fan, vibrating and humming. “Where are you taking me now?”

She pointed ahead and to the right. “There.”

I glanced at a white mini-mansion. “Uh, no. You might as well turn back around and go home.”

“What? Why? I love this place.”

“We talked about this already.” I crossed my arms over my chest. “I’m not backing down on this one.”

“But it’s a true antebellum style home, and you love them.”

“I do, but it’s not a flip. These homes don’t sell well, and you know that.”

“But it would make a perfect bed and breakfast.”

“Belle, I’m not opening a bed and breakfast.”

“Can we just look inside? Please? Just for fun?”

“Fine, but just for fun.”

The sprawling mini-mansion must have been a looker during its prime, but it was way past its prime. What was left of the place was a skeleton of its past, like a dead tree in the woods left to rot through the seasons until it became a pile of dust and dirt. Only the house wasn’t a pile of dust and dirt just yet. The wide front steps and large round columns with intricate carvings on their tops framing the base of the front porch needed work, but still held their historic beauty, and showed that once upon a time, someone had loved the home enough to pay attention to detail. The wrap-around front porch with its mini columns serving as banisters was the perfect match for the civil war era home, and it didn’t take much of my imagination to picture the daily happenings of the people that had once lived there.

I saw children playing with wooden blocks and cards like in old Southern movies. I imagined debutantes in fluffy hoop skirted gowns with big bows, flitting around the porch, laughing and drinking from expensive crystal, at least until the war. During the war soldiers had stolen most everything, they’d taken to hiding what they treasured, or sold what they needed to for money, and women made due with what they’d had. They’d made their own dresses from drapes, bed covers, and other materials. They’d lost so many of their belongings, things they’d never recover. Even as kids we’d find things buried deep in the ground, things the women hid from Union troops—silver, china, family photos, things they cherished but never came back for, or maybe couldn’t come back for.

I had to admit, the home kidnapped my heart at first sight, but that didn’t mean I wanted to own a bed and breakfast. Just the thought of that made my pulse increase, and I started to sweat.

“So, what do you think?” Belle draped her hand along the old stair railing. “Isn’t it amazing? I mean, seriously. Think of the history. We could restore it to its original design, and it would be incredible.”

All I saw were debt collectors knocking on that beautiful door, not guests. “Exactly where do you think the money for this would come from?”

She sighed. “I’m not sure, but I’m sure we could finagle it somehow.”

I headed toward the door. “When you figure that out, I’ll come back.” I glanced at my iWatch. “In the meantime, we have a lacrosse game to get to.”

She lagged behind me dragging her feet like a child in a toy store during the holiday season. “But you have to admit it’s beautiful.”

“Yes, it is, but I’m a real estate broker, not a bed and breakfast owner.”

“You’re right, but gosh, I really love the idea.”

“In theory, it sounds great, but in reality, I’m just not the bed and breakfast owner kind of person.”

“I’m probably not either, but couldn’t we own it and have someone else run it?”

“Did you answer one of those internet scams where the person wanted to leave you all of their money and it actually worked or something?”

She laughed. “I wish.”

“Then, no, we can’t own it and have someone else run it.”

Pop a Squat with Millie from Millie’s Cafe!

Hold on there, sweetie, that’s an expensive skirt you got on, did you get that at Macy’s? I’ve been at the one down in Atlanta, at the Lenox Mall, but I don’t go there no more. I hear the traffic is terrible out there, and I don’t do city traffic anymore. Nope. Let me wipe the chair off before you pop a squat.

There, that’s better.

Okay, Lily and Belle, they’ll be here right quick, but Lily told me you’d be here before them. They’re finishing up with a client. She asked me to get you one of my secret recipe raspberry scones and a mocha latte. You’ll love ‘em. You want that scone warmed? It’s a bit chilly out there this morning. I can heat it for you.

I’m Millie. See that sign above the door? I own the place, that’s why it’s called Mille’s Café. Been in town here since the day I was born, but I won’t tell you how long that’s been. A lady never reveals her age.

You have any questions about anything in Bramblett County, you just come to me. Millie’s is the place, and I’m not talking just about breakfast and lunch or sweet tea and coffee. Millie’s is the town spot for information, too.

We don’t gossip here in Bramblett because that’s ugly, gossip. We might talk a bit about our folk and what we’ve got going on, but we don’t like to get ugly. Though I will say when those few murders happened, we did talk a bit about those. Now, don’t you worry your pretty little head about them murders. They weren’t that big of a deal. Well, I mean, murder is a big deal, but they weren’t Lily’s fault or anything. Just because she found the bodies doesn’t mean her job is cursed or that she is. I mean, they were her clients and all, but that was just bad luck on her part. It wasn’t because they were her clients.

You okay? Let me get you a glass of ice water. You sit and relax. Like I said, Lily and Belle will be here right quick.

The Scarecrow Snuff Out A Lily Sprayberry Realtor Halloween Novella

The Scarecrow Snuff Out A Lily Sprayberry Realtor Halloween Novella

It’s fall, y’all and it’s time for the annual It’s Fall Y’all Festival in Bramblett County Georgia!

And that’s a big deal!

The It’s Fall Y’all Festival is the biggest festival in the tri-county area, and everyone in Bramblett County is geared up for a great time!
Pumpkin carving, bobbing for apples, a petting zoo, and of course, a good old-fashioned BBQ are just a few of the events scheduled at Abernathy Farm.
But the big event, the one Lily Sprayberry is most excited about, is the haunted corn maze.
When bad things happen to scarecrows scattered throughout the maze, county residents run screaming, threatening the success of the festival. Determined to figure out what’s going on, Lily decides to check it out for herself and fears the corn maze just might actually be haunted.

Available on Amazon here

Signed, Sealed and Dead A Lily Sprayberry Realtor Cozy Mystery

Signed, Sealed and Dead A Lily Sprayberry Realtor Cozy Mystery

Small town folk don’t always take care of their own.

As Bramblett County, Georgia realtor Lily Sprayberry preps for the annual community yard sale fundraiser, she discovers the body of the newly hired lacrosse coach lying in the high school gym.

At first, all signs point to natural causes, but when Lily finds an empty syringe lying under the bleachers, the coroner decides the coach was murdered.

Lily learns the coach wasn’t liked by the lacrosse parents, and when word got out about his murder, the state athletic association suspended the program entirely.

When a few of the lacrosse moms decide to take matters into their own hands, they threaten someone close to Lily—her county sheriff boyfriend and his reelection status–by bullying Lily herself.

And soon, Lily’s had enough. As she searches for answers, she’s dragged deeper into an angry mob of high school sports parents all seeking revenge and gunning for their kids to sign with the most elite schools offering the best scholarships.

And some of them are willing to do whatever it takes, including murder.

When the killer figures out Lily is close to cracking the case, things take a dangerous turn, and Lily’s life is on the line. Can she save herself, or will she be the next victim in Bramblett County?

Available on Amazon here

 

Unexpected Outcomes Coming in October!

Unexpected Outcomes Coming in October!

Angela, Mel, and Fran are Back for Another Exciting Adventure!

                 When a frantic 911 call stumps a suburban Atlanta police department, psychic medium Angela Panther steps in to assist. With the help of her best friend and celestial super sleuth mother, Angela soon realizes things aren’t as they appear. Now Angela must choose between trusting her instincts or following the clues. If she chooses wrong, she won’t be crossing the dead over to the other side, she’ll be one of them

Unexpected Outcomes will be available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle, and paperback via all other online outlets. Read for free on Kindle Unlimited. 

__________________________________________________________________________________

Mourning Crisis

Mourning Crisis

Book Six in the Sweet Promise Press Funeral Fakers Series

Mourning Crisis, is available for pre-order now!

Nothing will bring your acting career to a crashing halt like literally crashing through the stage floor. But that’s exactly what happened to Mayme Buckley. Now she just wishes she could turn back time. Unfortunately, doing so means moving back home with her 90stastic parents and taking whatever bit part the town of Asheville is willing to throw her way. Hopefully without any injuries this time!

First up, the role of Professional Mourner, and this time her leading man is a dead guy. Despite a performance worthy of a Tony, Mayme’s captive audience have…. questions. Like how could the cantankerous supervisor of the town’s moving company land a hot fiancee like Mayme while he was alive? And was his death really an accident?

Mayme’s not too sure, and It’s up to her to find out. Otherwise, her newest role of a lifetime just may lead her six feet under. Find out whodunit in this hilarious mystery series filled with fake tears and a very real body count…

Pre-order Mourning Crisis from Sweet Promise Press on Amazon

 

Read Chapter One Now!

CHAPTER ONE

The repetitive clanking and rattling of my Mazda Tribute’s engine started somewhere around the ninth hour of the eleven plus hour drive—not including stops to potty and eat—from Brooklyn, New York, my former residence, to Asheville, North Carolina, my hometown and soon-to-be home once again. I couldn’t drown out the slow, agonizing death of my nearly antique clunker with the speaker of my ancient iPhone, so instead, I stuffed my one working earbud into my right ear and concentrated on the music.

Chris Stapleton’s voice almost matched the beat of my SUV’s dying engine. Almost.

My mind flashed back to the day I got old Mary, as I called my Tribute. I remembered the scowl on my face that fateful day when she was a young, fresh, already teenaged baby SUV sitting in my parents garage with a big yellow ribbon wrapped around her middle.

The right side of my upper lip twitched just as it had that day. “You want me to drive that?” I cried.

“What’s wrong with her, Mayme?” Daddy asked.

“Her? You mean it? It’s old. I can’t show up at school in that. Everyone will laugh at me.”

“You don’t want her? Fine. We’ll take her back and get you that ugly thing.” She waved her hand in Daddy’s face. “What’s it called, Bobby?”

“The PT Cruiser?”

“Yes, that one. You want that ugly old thing?”

I crinkled my eyebrows together and stared at the ground. “No.”

“Well then, you might could show a little respect and gratefulness for what the good Lord puts in front of you now, you hear?” Momma stomped off and slammed the door behind her. That’s what my mother always did when she was mad, stomped off and slammed doors.

I shook the memory off like I’d just been caught in an unexpected rain shower walking around in Brooklyn and sought cover underneath an old metal awning.

I wasn’t looking forward to returning home. Not only would I have to eat crow until the sun went down and rose again every single day for a week–at least when it came to Momma—but I’d have to listen to her telling me why moving to the city to be an actress was the worst idea ever and that I should have just stayed home and worked for Daddy at his plumbing business taking orders and filing papers until I got my associates degree at the community college and found me a nice man to marry like any good, respectful daughter would do. Blah, blah, blah. Momma never intended to be cruel, and most of the time she wasn’t, but her life lessons always came out that way.

If my car engine wasn’t on its last leg, the fear of her I told you so’s would have had me doing a one-eighty and heading straight back to New York City to give that actress thing another go. Maybe. Except that my engine wasn’t just on its last leg, it was actually crawling and dragging that last leg pathetically behind it, begging me to please, for the love of God, put it to rest, and I’d all but been banned from Off-Broadway because I was the biggest loser of the whole shebang in all of history, and for the rest of eternity, too.

Okay, maybe not the biggest loser and not of the whole shebang in all of history, but it sure felt that way when you were finally given a part big enough to have your name in big, bold print on a marquee and you blew the whole thing in the first scene on opening night by crashing through the stage floor, butt first—to which the newspapers reported—

Actress’s Plus-Sized Booty Bombs Off-Broadway

Hit and Career with a Bang!

Who even wrote headlines like that? Seriously? I’d thought of at least a hundred better versions on the drive back to Asheville.

Rising Star Drops Booty Bomb Through Off-Broadway Basement

And then there was another version…

Off-Broadway Play Twerked by Booty Incident

Perhaps they could have chosen something along a little less trendy like…

Booty Fall Bottoms Out Bad Play

Okay, so maybe they weren’t a whole lot better, but at least they didn’t focus on my dead career, just my big booty.

Being a down on my luck, or more like a never really got started, Off-Broadway actress was hard enough, but falling from not-even-close-to-grace and having it splashed across every newspaper in New York City and the international film industry was both a career killer and an ego crusher. Truth be told, I wasn’t sure which hurt more, but I knew crawling home with my tail between my legs and listening to my mother and her I-Told-You-So speech would send my already teetering ego right off the edge of security and into the pit of low self-esteemdom.

Plus-sized actress.

I topped out at five feet two inches and one hundred and thirty-seven pounds. That, depending on where I shopped, ranged from a size six to a size eight. It was 2018. Twiggy was out, and curvy was in, so whatever reporter came up with that career-killing headline needed psychiatric treatment or a pop on the forehead.

I voted for the second, given by yours truly, of course.

I wasn’t even thirty, just barely past twenty-five, an actress never gave her real age, at least that was what the late Marilyn Monroe always said, and my career was toast. Burnt, crisp, toast.

I turned left onto my parents street and eased to a crawl. Find your happy place, Mayme, I repeated under my breath. Daddy will be happier than a pig in mud to see you. You know that. He never cared what you did as long as you did it with all of your heart. Momma, most of the time she just didn’t know what happy was, and if someone tried to show her, she’d tell them they were wrong, and go on her way being her normal self.

Three long, relaxing breaths in through the nose and out through the mouth, at least I thought that’s what I’d learned in that Pilates and yoga class I took in New York, and I was good to go. I pressed the gas pedal just enough to give my old girl a little push, and she clanked and rattled the rest of the way to home-sweet-home with a cloud of white smoke puffing out of the engine as she did.

Daddy sat on the front porch with a stick and a knife in hand, whittling away. When he saw the familiar blue of my Tribute pull up, he pushed up his Carolina Panthers baseball cap and smiled. I’d forgotten how much I missed that smile. Seven and a half years without a single trip home for a visit was a long time to be gone.

He waddled up, favoring his left leg as he always did, and opened my door for me. “Looks like you got yourself an engine problem.”

I stepped out and hugged him tightly. “Oh Daddy, I’ve missed you so much.”

He hugged me back. “My sweet Meme, it’s good to have you home.”

My mother walked out onto the front porch with two pies in hand. Their fresh from the oven scent wafted toward me. I knew right away she’d made both pumpkin and apple crumble, and I had to dig my feet into the driveway to stop myself from running to snatch them from her and gobble them down.

“Well now, don’t just stand there Bobby Joe Buckley, get her bag and bring it on in.” She held out the two pies, one in each hand. “Mayme, I made your favorites. Pumpkin and apple crumble. Though from the looks of you, I don’t think you’ve been starving living up with the Yankees.”

Daddy smiled but gave his eyes the teeniest bit of a roll. “Now don’t you listen to your momma. You know how she is. All bark and no bite.”

“I know, Daddy.”

He hobbled around to the back of my car, his limp more prominent than when I’d left. “Let’s get your bags and get you settled right quick and have ourselves some pie out by the firepit. It’ll be like old times, what do you say?”

He stretched strong arms to open the hatch, but I sprinted to the back of my car before he could and pushed his hands away. “Daddy, don’t do that.” I nudged my head toward the back window. “I brought everything I could fit into the car, and I don’t want it all toppling out and falling onto the ground, so I’ll just get it later.”

My mother hollered from the front porch. “When do you expect the movers to get here?”

I yelled back. “Movers?”

“With your furniture and what not?”

“Momma, what you see is all I’ve got.”

“What about your furniture? Your bed linens? You didn’t bring your china in your car, did you? If so, I sure hope you packed it good. Used that bubbly stuff. We get it at the thrift shop all the time. When people bring in their stuff, lots of times it’s wrapped up in that bubbly wrap, and when Leonard isn’t wasting time busting the bubbles to scare off the birds trapped in the storage room—‘cause he does that and thinks it’s funny, but it ain’t—we mark it for sale for a couple pennies, and it sells like hotcakes.”

Momma didn’t get her southern on twenty-four-seven, only when she was tired, angry or nervous—which come to think of it, was probably most of the time. But, I suspected my return home likely garnered a little bit of all three for her. I knew she brought out the tired in me. “It’s bubble wrap, Momma, and I don’t have a need for it. I really just brought my clothes and makeup and a few odds and ends.”

“Well, what’d you wrap your china in then, sugar, or is the movin’ company bringing that down?”

“Momma, I don’t have me a moving company, and I definitely don’t have any china.” Why would I eat Spaghettios off china when regular dishware worked just fine? I didn’t have the guts to tell her I’d left that stuff with my roommate. I’d left all of my limited kitchenware and what little furniture I’d had with my roommate. We’d tried to tie my mattress to the top of my Tribute but it fell off somewhere along Morgan Avenue, and I’d just kept driving, too embarrassed and frustrated to pull over and do anything about it. As if I could have on my own anyway, but I wasn’t worried about littering. It was Brooklyn, after all. A check in my rearview at the stop sign a few feet away, and three guys had already grabbed it and were carrying it to a walk up. Mattresses weren’t cheap, and if one dropped in front of you, literally, it was pretty much a miracle from God.

I popped open my back hatch, slowly opened the door, steadying myself in case a random bag came tumbling out, which thankfully, none did, so I grabbed three bags, each labeled with masking tape and numbered one, two and three. I’d meticulously marked everything in my vehicle and organized it all so I could access it according to what I’d need when I arrived home. The three bags were all I’d need until the next afternoon. Actually, they were more than I’d need, but I would be able to unpack some, feel like I’d been at least partially productive, and appease my mother if that was even possible.

My mother wasn’t some old Catholic school nun threatening to beat me with a whip for not showing my work. Honestly, she wasn’t a horrible person at all, she just lacked that down-home, southern motherly gene practically every other mother in every town in every state across America had. I’d once called her the female version of Squidward, but the joke was completely lost on both her and my father.

I gave my father a bag because I knew he’d want to help and headed up the front porch steps and straight into a time capsule that landed me smack dab in the middle of 1994.

My maternal great-grandmother Annabelle Foster, affectionately known to everyone as Granny, had passed away in late 1993 when I was just a year and a half old. When she died, she left my mother a large sum of money, and instead of putting that money toward retirement or in an IRA account like my father strongly advised—I knew this because I’d heard the story over and over and over—Momma used the cash to redecorate the entire house, except my room, which, she said, had just been done when I was born. She loved the décor so much, she’d kept it for the past twenty-six years.

My room though, she’d allowed me to redecorate at twelve, from the lovely Holly Hobbie décor of the 70s she’d loved and thought her baby girl wouldn’t find at all alarming or scary in the dim light of a nightlight.

I had nightmares of dozens of those Holly Hobbie dolls holding their little bouquets of flowers, only it wasn’t actually bouquets of flowers but knives or other kitchen utensils worthy of killing me, chasing me around my locked bedroom. Just the memory sent chills up and down my spine.

Walking back into the foyer of my childhood home felt like I’d never left. The mingling pumpkin and apple smells, both lingering under a stronger scent of cinnamon and nutmeg danced under my nose and tickled my taste buds. My mouth watered and I really, really wanted a piece of pie, or more like two pieces of pie, because Momma made the best pies ever.

The old and worn wall to wall beige carpet suffered an ill-fated disease along with the rest of the décor Daddy liked to call Stubborn Momma Syndrome or SMS for short. The rug, however, got the brunt of the illness. Daddy said Momma had wanted a whole lot of flash for her cash, so she went for the cheapest carpet she could find, and twenty-six years later, it showed. Regular walking paths had worn down to the tread in the front entrance and created a line to the family room and kitchen, where the carpet did end but met the large, matching twelve by twelve beige kitchen tiles. Just a shade lighter than the rug when I moved, they were now at least three shades lighter. The carpet, stained and deeply ingrained with dirt and God only knew what, was in worse shape than my Tribute’s engine, and that said a lot.

I winked at Daddy but spoke to Momma. “I see you haven’t changed a thing.”

Daddy laughed. “Don’t think we ever will unless we decide to sell the place and a realtor makes us, and then I’m not even sure your momma will.”

“Why fix something that ain’t broke?” She waved her hand at my bags. “Just carry those on up to your room.”

I wished I’d gotten my mother’s cleaning gene, but I hadn’t. Her cream colored—which she believed match the beige carpet—curtain and identical valances with the muted floral print didn’t have a speckle of dust on them anywhere and not one hair from neither Duke nor Buster, Daddy’s hunting dogs, either. The dogs, who weren’t allowed in the house until they’d retired from hunting two years ago and became old beige rug potatoes, were plumper and rounder versions of their younger selves, and I had a strong feeling Momma spoiled them rotten with people food and lied about it. I turned my head and sniffed around wondering if I could smell either of the stinky hounds anywhere, but the place smelled too much like the pies for me to notice. I even bent down to pet the pooches and sniffed them, and all I got was a whiff of cinnamon and nutmeg, and a few sweet puppy smoochies, too.

Momma was a cleaning machine.

I tossed my purse onto the blue and beige floral print couch and smiled, knowing I’d get a what for in three…two…one!

“Don’t you dare leave that there. Just because you’re an adult doesn’t mean the rules don’t apply to you, Mayme.”

“I know, Momma. I’ll get it when I go to my room.”

“You bet you will. I didn’t raise you to be a slob.”

“But you know I take after Daddy.”

“Bless your heart. I tried to fix that before you moved.”

Daddy winked at me. “Fix that? That’s the best part about our little angel.”

“Our little angel could use a membership at one of those Jazzercise studios. I think there’s one in Arden. Is that one still open off Sweeten Creek Road?”

“I don’t know, sweetie. I might could check if you’d like.”

“I’m not going to Jazzercise, Momma. It’s not in my budget.”

“I could probably help you with the cost,” Daddy said.

I glared at him. “Daddy, please. Don’t encourage her.”

He raised his hands in surrender. Daddy always surrendered to Momma. I figured true love was like that, but I didn’t know from my own experience.

“We could help you with the cost,” Momma hollered from the back porch where she’d gone out to set the table. “Might be easier to find work if your clothes didn’t fit so tight.”

I dropped my eyes to my black yoga pants and XL royal blue Off-Broadway sweatshirt that hung off me like it was supposed to. “I’m in a baggy sweatshirt and yoga pants, Momma.”

“It is what it is, and that’s all I’m saying about that.”

The news played on the big, clunky TV sitting in its squared off hole inside the outdated, boxy, knotty pine entertainment center Momma hadn’t allowed me to touch until I was twelve. The more I thought about it, the more I came to realize twelve was a defining year for me in Momma’s eyes. I was able to make decisions for myself, touch things she’d considered valuable, and stay home alone.

“Pine is soft. You touch it, and it can scratch and dent, and nobody wants damaged looking furniture. It’s for the poorer people,” Momma whispered. Momma always whispered when she said something she knew was ugly as if whispering it would make it less so.

Whatever did she think about the stuff now?

I pressed my lips together to hold back a smirk. If my mother ever traveled to the big city, she’d have the shock of her life. Her antiquated style was so outdated it was retro. Only she wouldn’t know what that meant. “Momma, you do know sponge-painted walls are passé, right?”

She snarled at me. “I like my walls. And those fancy interior designers on those decorating shows don’t call them sponge painted anymore. They call them faux painted, and you know that is special and high design. And I’ll have you know, faux is French.”

Yes, and it meant false, but I didn’t have the heart to tell her that.

She walked to the kitchen, opened the oven and removed two more pies, placing them on cooling racks on the counter. I skipped over to them and inhaled their glorious cinnamon and pumpkin smells.

“Go and make sure your daddy isn’t trying to get the rest of your stuff from your car. You know how he is, and he don’t need to be doing all that heavy lifting with his bum leg. Can’t get him to go to the doctor and it’s just getting worse.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

As I headed toward the front door, she hollered to me, “I’ll cut you a piece of pie. Which do you want, the pumpkin or the apple?”

I skipped back to the kitchen, a big smile draped across my face. “How about a small piece of both?”

She gave me a slow once over. “Mayme, honey, how about just one piece?”

The smile waned but didn’t disappear. I loved her pie. “I’ll take pumpkin. Extra whipped cream.”

“Pumpkin, no whipped cream, it is.”

“One is fine, but make it a big one.”

She shook her head and laughed.

* * *

My bedroom was another trip through time. Momma hadn’t changed one thing since I’d left. My pink and green striped sheets and matching comforter still dominated the color scheme, and my once favorite but now too young for me glow in the dark stars still covered the ceiling like a clear night sky. I couldn’t believe they’d stayed up since I’d turned sixteen. My twin hot pink blow up chairs, however, they hadn’t fared so well. Sitting half-filled in their respective corners like shriveled grapes heading into their future lives as raisins. I felt sorry for the poor things. They’d had a good run but really needed to be retired to the garbage dump.

Next to one sat an old-fashioned bicycle tire pump and a note from Daddy that read, “I tried, but I can’t find the holes. Maybe they’re just old and tired like your daddy.” A teeny tear formed in my left eye. The thought of my daddy being old hurt my heart.

He’d always been a robust and booming pillar of strength in my eyes, but the years I’d been gone hadn’t been kind to him, and I noticed the fine lines on his face were deeper, his shoulders weren’t as broad, his stride not as confident, and his presence not as bold. The commanding man that once walked into a room and demanded attention was now more subdued, less sublime. Was it real? Was Daddy less Daddy because he’d aged or was I the one who’d aged and just saw him as he truly was, just a man, not a God-like figure that practically walked on water for the little girl that loved him like no other?

I rushed upstairs and unpacked one bag of clothing and then Momma called me down for pie and pot roast. Daddy had thrown a pile of leaves and wood into the brick and stone firepit he’d built on our back porch, and I inhaled the scent, and every memory that came with it before I even got halfway down the stairs.

We sat outside on the back porch and ate under the Asheville night sky just like the old days, and I was instantly transported back in time again.

Fall nights sitting outside, enjoying that very same thing, roasting marshmallows, staring up at the night sky, Daddy picking at his fiddle and Momma singing one of her favorite southern hymns. I’d always sing along, but Momma had a voice no one could match. She sang like an angel.

I’d forgotten how gorgeous and calming the sounds and sights of North Carolina, and Asheville, in particular, were at night. In the city, I considered it a miracle if I caught even just a small glimpse of a star or planet. With the smog and city lights, seeing even a touch of the universe was nearly impossible, but in the French Broad River Valley of the Appalachian Mountains of Asheville, the view was as clear as the day was long and almost endless. Growing up, there were nights when we all sat outside on the very same porch, breathing in the crisp, dark, smoky scent of burning leaves as we gazed upon that brightly dotted sky, connecting the dots into pictures and sharing them with each other.

“Look Meme, it’s a baseball cap,” Daddy would say, taking my hand and mapping out the cap with my fingertip.

My heart warmed from the memory.

“Meme, why don’t you say the blessing?” Momma asked.

I hadn’t said the blessing since I’d left home, but I went ahead and did it. Some things were like riding a bike.

She smiled when I finished, and Daddy dug into his roast like he hadn’t eaten in months.

Momma wiggled her fork at Daddy, but she smiled while doing it. “Now Bobby Joe Buckley, where’s your manners?”

He immediately slowed down and chewed with less vigor.

She flipped her fork and poked it into a piece of roast and then popped it into her mouth. Forgetting her own manners, she chewed and talked to me while she did. “So, Gladys over at the Walmart says the Biltmore is hiring for the holidays. You might could go by there and apply.” She sipped her sweet tea. “And if that doesn’t work, there’s always room for you at the thrift shop, or Daddy might could use the help answering phones and filing and such at the shop. Those plumbers could use someone keeping them in line, right honey? I looked online, and there’s still time to apply for the next semester at Blue Ridge Community College in Flat Rock. It’s not that far of a drive and you might could take some online classes. Except maybe typing.” She glanced at Daddy. “Do they still teach typing, Bobby?”

He shrugged. “Don’t know the answer to that one, darlin’.”

I finished chewing my bite of pork roast before I spoke. Hopefully, my chewing hid the disdain for continuing my education pooling in the pit of my stomach and working to shoot up my throat. “Momma, you know college isn’t my thing.”

“Sweetie, that was eight years ago. You gave that acting thing a shot, and it didn’t work. It’s time to take life serious now.”

That acting thing? That acting this was actually my life’s passion. “I am taking life serious now. Acting is what I do, Momma. I’m planning to go to the three Asheville theaters in town and see what they’ve got going on. My agent—” I didn’t mention that my agent was actually my former agent because I knew that would start an entirely different conversation I wasn’t prepared to have, “said it might be a good idea to ease back into acting through one of them. Maybe even work for the theater or volunteer if that’s all that’s available.”

Momma set her fork and knife down on her multi-colored floral print plate. “Sweetie, you sat in a chair in the middle of a stage and broke through the floor on the opening night of—what was it called? Don’t knock it till you ry it?”

I laughed. “If You’ve Got It, Flaunt It.”

“Sugar, we’re at the dinner table, don’t be sassy.”

“I’m not being sassy Momma. If You’ve Got It, Flaunt It is the name or was the name, of the play.”

Her eyes shifted to Daddy and then back at me and then she stared at her plate. Everyone was silent for a moment, and then Momma said, “Well, bless your ever-lovin’ heart. You did exactly what they said. I don’t know what the fuss is all about then. Maybe you flaunted it a bit much by dropping it a little too low, but us Buckley’s, when we do something, we do it up right, don’t we?”

“I think maybe you mean she did it down low, honey,” Daddy said. Well, he laughed as he finished the sentence.

I’d tried to keep a straight face, but it was hard. “Wow, y’all are great at supporting your kid. Thanks, tons.”

Momma rubbed my shoulder. “You might wanna rethink that piece of pie, sugar.” She winked at me.

“I have. I’m definitely having two pieces now.”

“You know what you need?” She wiped her mouth with her napkin. “One of them electronic step trackers. We’ve got a few of them at the thrift shop. I might could get you one if you’d like.”

“Uh, thanks, but I’ll pass on that one.”

“Anna.” Daddy eyed her. When she glanced up at him, he told her to hush.

“What? She’s my daughter, and she needs to know the truth. If her momma can’t tell her it, who can?”

“The truth about what?” I asked.

“Honey, maybe it’s time to give up on this dream of acting. I read an article recently. Did you know that over ninety percent of people that go to Hollywood and New York don’t make it? They end up back home and look at you. Look where you are.”

“Momma, I’m not ready to give up on my dream. Not yet. I have to at least give it a shot. If that doesn’t work, then I’ll try something else.”

“That sounds like a mighty fine plan, honey,” Daddy said.

“Don’t you think you already gave it a shot?” she asked.

I wiped a tear that had mysteriously fallen from my eye. “I’m not ready to give up yet.”

“Okay then,” she said. “If you’re not ready, then we’ll move on to plan B, whatever that is.” She smiled and went head down into her roast like she hadn’t just attempted to crush my dreams.

We finished eating, and I helped Momma clean up and then while Daddy checked out my Tribute’s engine, I retrieved the rest of my belongings and began the daunting, humiliating process of recognizing my failed attempt at an Off-Broadway career and moving back in with my parents.

* * *

Daddy had somehow stopped the clanking and banging in my car, though he said only by the grace of God, and he wasn’t sure how long the reprieve would last. I pulled together a mildly conservative, by New York standards at least, semi-professional outfit, and hit the road bright and early the next morning looking for work. Momma had already left for her shift at the thrift shop. She said they’d had a busy day the day before and needed to inventory everything to maximize the Thursday crowd. Apparently, Thursday was the day the Goodwill nearby put out their new arrivals, so the local thrift stores did the same to compete. Thankful she wasn’t there to give an opinion on my outfit of choice, I slapped on the rest of my makeup, piled my long semi-curly blonde highlighted hair on the top of my head in a messy but stylish bun and headed out the door.

Daddy hollered from the opened garage. “Knock ‘um dead sweetie, or is it break a leg? I’m not cool with your actor talk.”

“Not saying cool with would be a good place to start, but otherwise either would work.” I blew him a kiss.

“Oh, I left you a little something in the glove compartment. Don’t spend it all in one place.”

“You didn’t have to do that,” I said, though I was grateful for the gift.

“’Course I didn’t, but I did anyway.”

“Well, thank you. Love you.”

“Ditto.”

Saving the cash he’d surprised me with, I used the last of my available credit on my only open card to fill my tank and drove on a wish and a prayer to the first theater in town.

Walking into the small community theater set my heart rate scurrying into overdrive. I held my chest, confident it would burst out and flop onto the floor in a bloody mess. That would be a real bummer for getting a job, I thought.

I expected to be nervous, but I hadn’t realized I’d plunge into a full-blown panic attack with sweaty palms and jittery nerves. Every hair on my arms rose to attention like little soldiers prepared for battle, and the tips of my fingers tingled so much I had to shake them to regain feeling. I couldn’t erase the thought of jazz hands and had to stop myself from laughing at the images of the lousy internet memes dancing around in my head.

I concentrated on my surroundings and remembered what my high school drama teacher taught me. “Even the biggest, most popular actors suffer from stage fright. Just pretend you’re them.”

So, I walked over to the theater’s main office and knocked on the door like I was Idina Menzel.

I knew the minute the theater manager opened the office door from the expression on her plastic-surgery-gone-wrong face that she’d recognized me immediately. Giving me the once-over with her steely green eyes in that snobby way New Yorkers did, I wondered why she wasn’t still in the city. Everyone that had previously worked in New York theater had a story. Their level of snobbiness was determined only by the intensity of angst and trepidation attached to their account, or at least the drama to which they portrayed it. If someone’s mother was sick and needed care, that was one thing. Crashing through the floor butt first on the opening night, well, that entirely different. I didn’t play my sorry excuse for angst and trepidation off like it was the worst thing to ever happen to me, because the truth was, it wasn’t. At least I hoped it wasn’t. I walked in proud but humbled. Head up, shoulders straight, smile bright, eyes widened, and scared out of my flipping mind. I hoped my teeth chattering didn’t distract her too much.

Her eyes traveled from my black Michael Kors slingback pumps, the most expensive shoes I owned, up to my slathered on Bobbi Brown makeup, judging and critiquing every inch of me, every inch of the way. “You’re that girl that went butt-first through the stage floor, right?” She’d chewed gum while she spoke and popped a bubble at the end of her sentence.

“The floor was in disrepair, and there was rotting wood the theater should have dealt with.” I replied with the canned speech my former agent had created before she’d dropped me like a dead carnival goldfish swirling down the toilet.

“Perception is reality, honey.” She walked back around her desk and sat. She waved toward the chair on the other side of the desk, signaling for me to take a seat, too. I took that as a good sign. “What brings you to Asheville?”

“My parents are getting older, and I figured it was a good time to come home for a bit.”

“Blackballed, I take it?”

I shrank an inch in seconds flat. “Basically.”

“It’s a hard-knock life, acting.”

“My agent thought it might do me some good to try local theater back home. You know, reestablish myself again.”

“Your agent hung around?”

I shook my head.

“Not surprising.” She opened her desk and took out a pack Virginia Slims cigarettes. “You mind?”

I did, but I wasn’t about to say so. “No, not at all.”

She placed the thing between her lips and held a lighter to its tip. When it ignited, she drew in from it and did whatever it was smokers did. At least when she exhaled the smoke, she turned her head to the side. I still smelled the stale, offensive used ashtray smell that reminded me of my Uncle Jimmy’s house before my aunt forbade him to smoke inside. At least she didn’t blow it directly in my face. “Listen, babe, here’s the thing. I got a theater to run, and it’s got to make money, or I don’t keep my job, you see what I’m saying?”

I had a mind to get up and leave right then because I knew exactly what she was saying. “Yes, ma’am.”

“I can’t be having no washed-up-before-she-even-got-started wannabe actress starring in any of my performances. You know? It just ain’t good for the theater.”

“Do you really think the good people of Asheville know what happened in New York? And more importantly, do you think they care?” She wasn’t from North Carolina. The people in town were the forgiving and forgetting kind.

Asheville people weren’t New York City theater people. Not that people that went to the theater were terrible people because they weren’t. The critics though, they were rough.

“I’m not talking about the audience, I’m talking about the actors. They’re not going to want to work with someone with your…” Her eyes searched the room as if they could find the right words hanging from a nail on the wall somewhere. “Someone with your credentials.”

I struggled to stay still and had to force myself to not let my foot tap on the floor. “I can respect that. Perhaps there’s something else I can do, something behind the scenes, for now, that would allow me to earn their respect and then I could ease into a role when you feel the time is right?”

She leaned back in her chair and puffed on her cigarette. “Oh girl, I think you need to face the hard truth. When you shattered that floor, you shattered your acting career too. It’s over. Move on.” She hiked herself from her chair and walked to the door. “I hate to be the one to have to say it to you, but if I didn’t, someone else would, and I got a feeling they wouldn’t be as gracious.”

She considered that gracious? A runaway bull from a rodeo was more gracious than that. I had half a mind to tell her that, too, but I didn’t want to make my situation worse. “Thank you for your time,” I said and tucked my tail between my legs as I sulked back to my car.

Feeling sorry for myself, I decided to use some of the cash Daddy gave me and stopped at a Chick-Fil-A for a quick snack. The Chick-Fil-A lines in New York were ridiculously long, and sure, the company professed to selling their signature sandwich at one location every six seconds, but the Asheville location made New York’s locations seem almost barren in comparison. I passed the first one and drove straight to the one on Hendersonville Road instead.

I realized my mistake when that line went out the door and wrapped around the building. Only a few miles from the Biltmore Estate, I assumed practically every tourist that had children and didn’t want to pay to eat at the estate decided to stuff their kids’ mouths with chicken biscuits.

I gave up and waited out the line. Experience had taught me it moved fast anyway, and I couldn’t afford to waste my gas on driving to another location.

As the line moved, I scanned the internet on my cell phone. Okay, so, I Googled myself, hoping some of the trash talk had died down and praying I would be able to move forward instead of on like Miss Ashtray Licker had suggested.

I jumped and almost tipped over onto the person in front of me, a scrawny old man thinner than a toothpick, which I would have likely crushed with my rather voluptuous bosom when someone tapped my shoulder from behind. The toothpick man would have either died from a voluptuous boob crush, or a heart attack caused by the thrill of said voluptuous boob crush. Okay, maybe that was a bit of an exaggeration, but actors had a flair for the dramatic.

“The line’s moving lady. If you’d look up from your phone every once in a while, you might know that.”

I swiveled backward and stared into a metal Asheville Police Department badge. I bent my neck back and groaned. “Lovely. Just what I need.”

A smile hijacked the tall man’s face. “Mayme Buckley? Well, isn’t this a blast from the past. How ya doin’?”

The annoyance I’d just felt disappeared when I zoned in one the scrumptious face of my high school crush. The one and only Christopher Lacy.

Hold up. My ill-tempered attitude nudged the high school Mayme begging to break free from deep within me. You really want to see this guy right now, cranky Mayme thought?

As if my day wasn’t already bad enough. On a scale of bad to falling-through-a-stage-floor-really-stunk-but-not-as-bad-as-seeing-my-high-school-crush-at-the-lowest-point-in-my-life bad, well, I stuffed high school Mayme back where she belonged, deep in the bowels of my—not the bowels, but deep inside the pit of my soul, and groaned. I wasn’t prepared to run into anyone from high school, let alone someone I’d swooned over for four years straight. Someone that didn’t know I’d existed.

“Hey, Chris.”

He yanked my arm and flung me out of the line. “Here, I got this.” Dragging me to the front counter, he chatted up the little old lady pulling chicken mini’s from the warmer. “Stella, this is a high school friend of mine. Grab her whatever she wants on me, will ya?”

“Sure, sugar. Whatever you want.” She smiled at me. “What can I get you, honey?”

“Uh, just a four-piece and a Diet Coke. Thank you.” I backed away and listened as Christopher Lacy, the boy I’d crushed on all through high school, ordered his breakfast. He moved back to me and winked. “Sometimes it pays being a dick, as in detective.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Oh, I was going to say, that sounded offensive.”

He laughed. “I know, that’s why I clarified. I learned that lesson the day I was promoted.” He pointed to his badge. “Major crimes unit, Asheville PD.”

“Oh.” I blushed.

He smiled. “Cute.”

“What?”

“The pink color your cheeks get when you’re embarrassed. Did that in high school, too.”

He noticed that in high school? Wait, he noticed me in high school?

Stella hollered to him, and he grabbed our breakfast.

He held the tray with our food. “Got time to sit and catch up?”

“Uh, sure. I guess.” I had all the time in the world. I just wasn’t sure I was capable of verbally expressing that, or anything else much over a grunt or cavewoman speak for that matter.

Christopher Lacy wasn’t just some guy from high school. Christopher Lacy was the guyfrom high school. The most popular guy of my graduating class, for starters. The star of the football team, the president of the student council, the star of the lacrosse team, the valedictorian, and the one boy I’d had the biggest crush on for four years running. I might have mentioned that a time or twenty, but when it came to Christopher Lacy, I lost track of pretty much everything. He also dated the most popular girl, of course. Caroline Hartford.

Blech.

I never quite understood the allure of the infamous Caroline Hartford. Was it her long, stick straight, overly processed, bleached blonde hair? Her perfectly applied matte lipstick accentuating her already plump, luscious lips? Perhaps it was the mountain-like breasts she barely covered or the legs-to-her-neck—which, I knew, went against the mountain-like breasts comment, but a jealous girl didn’t require logic. Whatever it was, her rude and holier-than-thou attitude erased any positive personality traits that allowed her such high popularity status, in my book anyway.

The fact that she treated me like something that fell off the turnip truck after it rolled in a pile of manure left sitting in the hot sun for hours, aside, she just wasn’t that nice of a person in general. And even though Christopher Lacy hadn’t known I existed—or so I’d thought—he’d never been unkind to me, so what he’d seen in her was lost on me.

Christopher took a sip of his coffee. “So, what’re you doing back in town? Last I heard you were making it big in New York.”

I tried not to choke on the partially chewed chicken mini sliding down my throat. “Things don’t always go as planned, I guess.”

“That’s too bad. Out of everyone in our class, I always thought you’d end up a star.”

I coughed on the mini with that shocker of a statement. It took me a good few seconds, but I swallowed it down without making a complete fool of myself.

He jumped from his seat across from me. “You okay?”

I nodded. “Went down the wrong pipe.” My voice was scratchy and deep, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t like the sexy sound of it. I sipped my Diet Coke. “You thought I’d become a star? I’m surprised you even knew who I was in high school.”

He laughed. “Of course, I knew you. When you got the lead in the fall play our senior year, I practically had to restrain Caroline from hunting you down and—” His eyes wandered off, and he watched a teenage boy with a flat-billed baseball cap stuff a handful of sugars into his pocket. He held up his left forefinger. “Give me a minute.” He stood and sauntered over to the kid.

I couldn’t hear what he said, but the boy stuck his hand back in his pocket, removed the sugars and placed them all back from where they came. Christopher then lifted the boy’s hat and put it in his hand. He said something else to the boy, and the boy nodded, kept his head down, and left the restaurant.

“Sorry about that. Kids lack respect these days, and when I see them behaving that way, I have to right it.”

My whole body tingled. He hadn’t changed one bit and was absolutely the last thing I needed to focus on at that moment.

“Anyway, I knew you. We had some friends in common, but Caroline viewed you as a threat, so I kept my distance out of respect for her.” He rolled his eyes. “Guess I did a lot of things for that girl I regret now.”

“You two aren’t together anymore?” I regretted the question the minute it left my lips.

He snorted. “That ended years ago. Last I heard she married some businessman and moved to Atlanta.” He wrinkled his nose. “I feel sorry for the guy, but I hope they’re happy.”

“I take it it didn’t end well, then?”

“Most things that end don’t usually end well now, do they?”

I nodded. “That’s a pretty true statement.” Wow. Good looking, a detective, so obviously, brave, and wicked wise, too. I’d just landed a front seat in hottie heaven right there in an Asheville, North Carolina Chick-Fil-A.

He handed me a napkin. “You got a little drool or something on the corner of your—”

I yanked the napkin from his hand and swiped it across my mouth, utterly horrified at the thought of drooling in front of him.

It hadn’t phased him one bit, or if it had, he just let it slide right over him. He glanced at his watch. “I hate to cut this short, but I’ve got to get to the station.” He took his wallet from his back pocket and removed a business card from it. “Here’s my card. If you ever need anything, give me a call. It was nice catching up.”

I stared at the card and then up at him. “Yeah, uh…thanks for breakfast.”

He smiled and headed to the door.

Shell-shocked, I couldn’t finish the last of my four chicken minis, which was a real bummer because those things were full of buttery goodness. And they were free. As a former starving Off-Broadway actress and a recent starving unemployed person in general, I shouldn’t let any food go to waste, so I wrapped the chicken mini, all one inch square of it, in a napkin and stuck it in my purse.

My high school crush had just bought me breakfast and given me his business card. While that didn’t sound like a big deal, given the recent grievous self-esteem beat down, small wins mattered, and to high school Mayme Buckley, that wasn’t a tiny win. That was the Daytime Emmy Award right there.

I changed my mind about saving the mini, figuring it would be a hard lump by the time I remembered I’d kept it, which could possibly be years, and dumped it in the garbage and then headed to the next community theater, confident my newfound confidence would shine through the holes of my self-esteem like little beacons of light. Or maybe like one of the Light Brite paper designs I’d made as a kid. I wasn’t sure which, but I hoped for something positive. I was determined to find an acting job to jump start my all-but-dead acting career.

Four hours later that new-found confidence deflated worse than my 90s blow-up chairs. I wound up with my figurative tail tucked between my legs and one expensive heel broken and limping out of a local temp employment agency with a brand new night job opening and separating mail for a large medical insurance company claims department.

I’d start that night at eleven o’clock. Momma thought it was perfect, which confirmed for me it was the worst job ever. I’d work through the night and have plenty of time to take classes at the community college to better myself. Apparently, I didn’t need sleep. I couldn’t complain too much though. It was a job, and it paid sixteen bucks an hour. Well above what I thought I deserved for sorting mail, and I could watch movies or listen to books on audio while doing it, so when I put it in perspective, it wasn’t all that bad.