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Exclusive Chapters 1-3: Deadly Delivery

Chapter One

This was something I thought I’d never do.

The biggest fake smile was planted across my face.

All the houses on Little Creek Road stood side by side and only on one side of the street, which ended in a dead end, making it easy to block off the top or the entrance for the block-party-style engagement party a few of my friends, who I lovingly called the Front Porch Ladies, decided to throw for me and my new fiancé, Mac Tabor.

The gold and silver balloons batted each other as the late-summer breeze toggled between each mailbox.

I snickered.

The colors reminded me more of a retirement party or one of those big birthday parties. Not the welcome-to-thirty-or-forty, but the big five-zero.

I’d passed that number, but something just felt silly about everyone making a fuss over me getting married.

Tendrils of heat rose above the grill while my dad tried his best not to burn the burgers. He was more of a frying guy.

Mac had bent down and picked up a bottle of beer from the cooler that was brimming with drinks. The ice that’d fallen out of the cooler melted into puddles on the ground.

Out of the corner of my eye, Mac wiggled the bottle, catching my blank stare.

“You okay?” he mouthed.

I nodded, turning my attention to the many friends and family members who were standing around in circles, some sitting on the hay bales Grady had brought over from the farm.

Screen doors creaked right before slamming shut as people came in and out of the houses. The noise brought me out of the deep thinking, and I realized just how ridiculous my thoughts were.

“It looks like you could use a little of this.” Iris Peabody walked up next to me with a bottle of champagne in one hand and two flutes intertwined in her fingers.

“You know I don’t drink.” Not that I didn’t drink ever, but not on a regular, even a monthly, basis. “Especially when Clara is here.”

Julia, my daughter-in-law, was sitting on Revonda Gail’s front porch steps. Revonda Gail was holding Clara while Julia was taking a much-needed break to sit and get off her legs. Julia was pregnant with my second grandbaby, and from the looks of it, the poor girl was about to pop any day now.

“Yep. You need it.” Iris wasn’t going to take no for an answer. She handed me both flutes and filled them up, letting the bubbly flow over. “Whoa.” She bent over and sucked the bubbles off one of them before taking it. “I don’t need to use my keen sense of knowing when something is wrong to see that something isn’t right with you.”

Iris had been my best friend since grade school. She had a really eerie sense of when things were going to happen, mostly bad. For instance, it was like when you thought of someone and suddenly they called you. She was the expert at such things and strangely able to sense when something was off.

“It’s super silly.” I lifted the glass up to my mouth to take a sip and give me a moment to process what I wanted to tell her. “Not to make a big deal out of it, but it all seems funny to have an engagement party at my age.”

“Your age?” She pretty much yelled with a laugh, making some people look at us.

“Keep your voice down.” With a forced smile, I waved at the folks gawking. I lifted the glass to my lips and said, “I know it sounds ridiculous. I said that.”

“It is ridiculous.” She swept her glass around with her finger pointing out at the people. “Alvie and Jenny Franklin are here, Audrey Rogers, Jigs Baker, Doc Olson, Matilda Garrison, Vivian, Sara and Larry.” Her eyes grew as she looked back at me. “Larry never comes to anything. Then we have Colvin, Gill, even your good old buddy Ranger and his wife.” She jerked around. “Oh, and Vince Caldwell. You love him, and he’s so happy for you. Besides, it looks like he’s getting along with all your hosts.”

It was funny seeing everyone here. Especially Vince. He was one of my mail-route customers who lived in the condos at the Sugar Creek Gap Nursing Home complex. He was a retired FBI agent and had been a great source of information for me.

“And that’s just to name a few.” She was right. “They all love you and are so happy you have finally, and at your age, found the true love and happiness.”

I started to open my mouth before she shushed me.

“Even Grady.” She knew I was going to say something about Grady and how I had worried about his acceptance of me marrying not only his father’s best friend, but also his mentor, who I had fallen head over heels in love with. “Of course he’ll always wish that son-of-a-gun dad of his was alive, but then you’d still be in a loveless marriage and Richard would be off galivanting with who-knows-who’s wife in some other town that you’d never know about.”

“I know, but there’s still that little twinge I get when I look at Clara and think that I bet Grady wishes his dad could’ve met her, no matter what kind of man he was to me.” I lifted the glass up and downed the entire contents. I held it to her for a fill-up. “You’re right. I do deserve this. I did a great job raising Grady, and now it’s time to enjoy my life.”

“Now you’re talking.” Iris was more than happy to fill my flute back up, and hers, too, while she was at it. “Now go mingle, and when you need a reload, just holler.” Iris winked.

I took Iris’s advice and walked around, swaying to the music coming from the huge speakers someone had put out on Mac’s front porch. I moved from group to group, telling everyone hello and thanking them for coming.

Along the way, I did pick up a few lost napkins and stuff them in my pocket. There was no way I wanted them to find their way across the street and into Little Creek, hence how the street got its name. My duck friend would try to peck at the paper, and I didn’t want to have to try to grab him up to take him to the veterinarian if the napkins found their way into his sanctuary. So it was best to just pick them up and let him feed on the daily duck pellets I threw to him while I was on my mailing route.

“Hey, pretty lady, are you single?” Mac asked, his breath hot against my ear.

“You’re too late.” I held my hand up. “I’m spoken for.” I leaned in and kissed him.

“Are you sure you’re okay?” he asked.

“How did I ever get so lucky?” Everything always seemed so right when I was with him. He not only took great care of me and my family, tending to all of our needs, but he also took care of himself.

He was in amazing shape with perfect biceps he credited Grady for, since Grady kept Mac on the volunteer staff for the Sugar Creek High School football team. Grady was the football team’s coach as well as a teacher at the school. Mac had really stepped up to the plate and given Grady the male figure he needed after Richard had died, though Mac had been in our life well before there was a Bernadette and Richard. He and Richard had been college friends.

“I’m the lucky one.” He lifted a hand and pushed my long auburn hair behind my shoulder. “Don’t cover up that beautiful face with your hair.” He had a gentle smile. “Are you going to wear it up on our wedding day?”

“I don’t give out secrets.” I blushed and took a big drink of the champagne.

“You better slow down. I don’t think I’ve ever seen you drink the bubbly before, and it might make you drunk.” His brows cocked.

“I’m good. I know my limit.” I was about to snuggle up to him before a woman I’d never even seen in Sugar Creek Gap walked up to us.

Being a mail carrier and from here, I knew practically every face in our small, cozy, and southern Kentucky town.

“Annabelle.” Mac recognized her instantly. “You came.” He sounded surprised.

“It seems like all the shops in town closed because of your party.” She smiled and looked between me and Mac.

“You better get used to it if you’re moving here.” Mac put his arm around me and pointed to me with the other hand that held his beer bottle. “This is my fiancée, Bernadette. Bernie, this is Annabelle Pascal.”

“Nice to meet you, Bernadette.” She had a brown bob and good features and was really fit. Seeing her flat stomach made me realize I wasn’t sucking in my gut.

“Bernie. You can call me Bernie.” I tilted my head and looked at Mac. “How do you two know each other?”

“Remember the lady who called about me doing some different styles of design?” He had me recall an event about a month ago when we were binge-watching a television show and his phone kept ringing and ringing. It would stop and ring again, from the same number. “This is her.”

“Oh dear, was I that eager?” she questioned with an enchanted laugh that made me and Mac smile.

Quickly I pulled my lips together into a line. My woman’s intuition clicked.

“She’s here to give a final approval on the plans, and I invited her to the party.” Mac had such a kind heart that I felt sometimes was too kind.

Annabelle put a hand on his chest.

“You didn’t tell me it was for your engagement.” She used her finger to give him a couple of taps before she removed her hand. “It seems like you got a good one.” She made her comment to me.

“The best.” I chugged down the rest of the champagne. “I need to go find Iris. Annabelle, it was nice to meet you. Have a great time at our party.” I threw in our party just so she knew exactly who he belonged to. “We will be cutting the cake soon,” I told him as I sucked in a little more.

Iris was sitting on Harriette Pearl’s front porch swing and talking away. Probably telling some sort of tale. The bottle of champagne was still in her grip, and I needed a refill.

“Well, I’ve gone from thinking I was too old to have an engagement party to wanting to drown out Annabelle Pascal.” I missed a step on my way up to the front porch and caught myself with my free hand.

“Goodness gracious, Bernie.” Harriette popped up to her feet. “Have you had too much to drink?”

She grabbed the sleeve of my shirt and tried her best to help me up.

“I’ve got it.” I didn’t want to take down my elderly neighbor. That would make a scene. “No. I know my limit.” I steadied myself and slowly made my way over to the swing. “Stop swinging,” I told Iris.

“I’m not.” She laughed.

“Fill me up.” I held the flute out.

“Dear, are you sure that’s a good idea?” Ruby Dean was sitting next to Iris. She put her hand on Iris’s forearm when Iris reached out with the bottle.

“It’s my engagement party. I’m celebrating.” I looked at Ruby.

“You’re what?” Ruby asked.

“Turn up your hearing aids!” Millie Barnes, another Front Porch Lady, yelled from the opposite side of the porch. “I don’t know why she bothers wearing them darn things.” She groaned and folded her arms across her chest.

“She’s fine.” Iris poured until it reached the brim.

“Who’s the tart?” Harriette Pearl threw a chin.

All of us turned around to see her referring to Mac and Annabelle.

“Annabelle something or other.” I tried to uncurl the snarl from my face when I said her name, but I just couldn’t seem to concentrate on all the parts that needed to relax. “His new client.”

“By the looks of it, she wants to be his new wife.” Gertrude Stone caused me to jerk around, and when I did, I dropped my glass, shattering it into several pieces.

“Up jumped the rabbit!” Harriette hollered and hurried over to clean up the big pieces. All the Front Porch Ladies and Iris took over and cleaned up the glass while I took a seat on the top step.

You know what they say about too many cooks in the kitchen? This was the case. Each one of them was fighting with the others to clean up the mess I made.

I noticed my parents had gone over to Mac and Annabelle. They all seemed to be having a lovely chat.

“I’ll be right back.” It took a second for me to get solid footing up underneath me so I could start my journey across Harriette’s lawn, out her front gate, and across the street, where Mac and Annabelle along with my parents had started a pickup game of horseshoes.

No one seemed to notice I was leaving or had left.

“What do we have here?” I asked my mom.

“Bernie, honey, have you had too much celebrating?” Mom nervously asked.

“Is your fifty-year-old daughter embarrassing you in front of Mac’s friend?” I swear it slipped out of my mouth.

“Annabelle is our first Airbnb client.” Mom gave me the mom look. “You know, because you helped us post the apartment.”

“I forgot all about that. Oh.” My lips formed a circle and dragged out a long sound.

My parents owned the Wallflower Diner in the middle of downtown, which was literally a street over, and they had a fully furnished apartment above it with two entrances, one from inside of the diner and one from the outside back alley, which I could see from here.

Richard and I had lived there before Grady. When Grady came along, my parents moved into the condos on the nursing home grounds so we could move into the family farm. When Grady got married, he and Julia moved into the apartment, and when Clara came along, I moved into the house willed to me by one of my mail carrier customers here on Little Creek Road, leaving the apartment vacant. It was a perfect little spot for an Airbnb, and Annabelle was their first customer.

“How ya doin’, Dad?” I asked my father, who looked mortified at my appearance.

“I’m good, dear. You seem to be enjoying your party.” He gave me a hug. “Good for you.”

I felt like a little kid looking at my father’s proud face as he saw his little girl snookered up on champagne.

“There you are.” Iris made me jump when she appeared out of nowhere. “I am going to take you to get some food.” She took me by the shoulders.

“There’s plenty of burgers,” Dad called after us.

“Please don’t make me eat one of his grilled burgers,” I pleaded.

“Don’t worry. I won’t. I had to get you away from that woman. I have a bad feeling about her.”

The wind swept up along my arm, teasing my skin, making the goose bumps crawl.


Chapter 2

The next morning, the pounding in my head didn’t stop with the few cups of coffee I’d chugged after I woke up and had a really hot shower.

“Do you have to purr so loud?” I asked Rowena, my orange tabby cat, before Buster’s bark to go outside sent me out of my skin. “Now I remember why I rarely drink.”

I walked down the hall with my empty mug and found Buster at the door in the kitchen, ready to go outside. It was our ritual for me to let him out one last time before I went to work, but today the last thing I wanted to do was walk around Sugar Creek Gap with what I regretted to be an apparent hangover.

“Go potty.” I opened the door and grabbed a paper plate with a piece of engagement cake stuck on the Saran Wrap. I opened the kitchen drawer to get a fork and sat down at the table, ready to take a big bite, but was interrupted when I heard a “yoo-hoo” coming from the backyard.

“Come on in.” I groaned after an electric pain shot straight to my head from yelling too loud. “Help yourself to a cup of coffee,” I told Revonda Gail. I knew it was her from the yoo-hoo.

“You look worse than I thought you would.” She dangled something in front of me.

I pulled back and blinked a few times.

“Can you see?” She bent down in front of my face, her cleavage nearly spilling over into my cake.

“I’ve got dry eyes. Comes with this.” I circled my finger around myself. “Old age.”

“You’re fifty. You aren’t old.” Revonda Gail stood in front of me with her shorty shorts on, her hair pulled up in her banana clip. “Take a few drops of my CBD oil, and you’ll be feeling good in no time. And don’t forget to drink plenty of water.”

She set the bottle on the table.

“Two drops.” She held up two fingers. “And you can do it every two hours. Remember. Two. Two.” She rotated her hand, two fingers sticking up in the air. “What’s up with the eyes? Not red from the hangover?”

“I’ve been having some dry eye issues. If I can just make it through the day and get to my doctor’s appointment this afternoon, I’ll be good.” I picked up the bottle of voodoo juice and tried to read it.

“Here.” Revonda snatched it out of my hands. “Open up.” She held the dropper over me, waiting for me to cock my head back so she could drop it in. “Like a good baby bird,” she teased and quickly squeezed the rubber ball twice.

I licked my tongue to the roof of my mouth a few times, trying to get the stuff down.

“You’ll be fixed up in no time.” She handed me the bottle. “You can do it again in two hours, and don’t tell my mom.”

“I can only imagine what Gertrude would say about this.” I was skeptical this stuff was going to do anything, but at this point, I was willing to do just about anything to get through the day.

“They are too busy talking about the new resident.” Revonda helped herself to a cup of coffee and let Buster in before she sat down. “Maybe you need to get a new work outfit.” The steam curled up around her face as her eyes pierced through it to take a look at my dowdy blue mail carrier pants and matching top.

“You can take that up with the postmaster general.” I took another bite of cake before I shoved it over to Revonda. “Another bite and I just might puke.” I stood up and sighed.

“Go on. I’ll be sure everyone is good for the day.” She used her hand to shoo me out of the kitchen and to the front door, where I grabbed my mail carrier bag before I headed out.

It was nice having Revonda Gail living next door. All the houses on Little Creek Road were original to the old mill town. The mill was located a street over on Main Street, where most of the businesses were also located. It happened to also be the second loop on my route.

History told about how men and women would travel the frontier and stop when they felt they could make a living. Sugar Creek Gap was an old mill town, and instead of building out on the land, they would build their houses next to their work. That’s why the houses on my street were located so close to the mill.

The houses sure didn’t come without issues. In fact, Mac owned Revonda Gail’s house. After she’d gotten out of the big house—mm-hmm, that was prison—she needed a place to stay, and she wasn’t about to move in with her mama, Gertrude Stone, who lived just a couple houses up. It was perfect timing.

Mac had remodeled the house, and Revonda Gail needed a place to live and made a great neighbor.

Just like today, she would make sure Buster got let out a few times, even though I did stop at the house on my second loop since I was the mail carrier for our street.

“Good morning, Bernie.” Monica greeted me like she was wondering how I was doing when I walked into the post office. “How you doin’?”

“I’m fine.” I fidgeted with the bag she’d already filled for my first loop of deliveries. “Looks like I’m going to have a busy day.” My eyes took in the other bags for my next two loops.

“It sure does.” Monica walked up and nudged me. “Do you need me to do anything for you today?”

“Thank you. You’re always willing to help, but I think I can manage,” I told her and noticed a bigger box than I normally carried waiting for someone on my third loop. “What’s that?”

“That’s a box of wine for Felix Mercer.” She looked around then whispered, “I heard he fell off  the wagon.” She wiggled her brow. “Poor guy.”

Back in the day, Felix Mercer had a very good job as a salesman. That was until he’d decided drinking liquor was his full-time job. It was sad seeing him fall into the drunken stupors. He’d been a really nice guy, but over the years the alcohol had turned his sunny disposition into doom and gloom, making him pretty unbearable to be around.

“Great.” I rubbed my head. “He’s the last person I want to see today with this massive headache I’ve got going. He’s mean and nasty. And I can’t believe he’s ordering liquor. It’s just a matter of time before he’s dead.”

“Don’t open up the package and do a little hair of the dog before you get this to him,” she teased and started to walk out of the sorting room. “I’ve got to get the front desk all ready. I’ll see you between loops.”

Monica was great. She had already sorted my route into piles with rubber bands around each customer’s mail, making it much easier for me. I threw them into my mail carrier bag and headed on over to my first loop, the Sugar Creek Gap Nursing Home.

There were two reasons why I delivered there first, besides just the fact it was located right behind the post office. One was because the mailboxes were communal and easy to open with a key. All the slots were one after the other, which made it simple for me to slip in their mail. The second had to do with the time of day and the customers’ ages.

It was too early for the residents to be awake, and if I was even an hour later, it would put me off my schedule, making my day longer, because if they saw me coming, they would stop me and talk.

I loved to talk, but not during work time. I loved the occasional catching up, or even just waving hello, but the residents at the nursing home loved to gab and gab about just about anything they could think of.

I knew it was because they were lonely or just wanted to see a friendly face, so that’s why I did volunteer there quite a bit and dedicated that part of my day to sit and chat.

The sound of chains hitting against themselves told me Vince Caldwell was already on the front porch of the main building of the nursing home. He was the exception to my theory about the residents sleeping in.

Since he was purely there for the convenience of living a simple life after retirement, he would come over to the main building every morning and grab his cup of coffee from the dining hall, along with the local newspaper, and work on the crossword puzzle.

“On time today.” He folded the top of the newspaper down before he placed it in his lap. “And you don’t look too bad for someone who tied one on last night.”

“It’s all a lie.” My finger circled my face. “I’m loaded up on caffeine and lots of makeup covering the dark spots that’ve settled underneath my eyes.”

“I got you a coffee just in case you did come on time.” He picked up the to-go cup of coffee sitting on the small teak table next to the swing. He patted the space next to him. “Take a load off.”

Not that I needed to rest my feet, since I’d just started my route, but it was nice to have a chat with Vince. He was very intelligent, and his background fascinated me.

“In my defense…” I took the coffee and sat down. I put my mail carrier bag on the ground between my feet before I took a quick sip. “I don’t drink a whole lot, so it didn’t take much to get me to that point. Was I that bad?” I grimaced.

“No. You were celebrating.” He turned to a page in the newspaper, snapping it taut. “They’ve got some great photos of the party in the society section.”

He handed it to me.

“Do I really want to see it?” I asked.

“Of course you do.” He snickered. He continued to talk, and I looked at the photos that were taken. “It shows you’re really enjoying your family and friends.”

There was a great photo of me talking to my parents. My mouth was open, my head flung back, and I was laughing. I loved having this photo with them.

“You look really happy,” he noted and pointed to one with me and Iris giving a cheers to each other.

The background of that photo wasn’t as blurred out as the other ones, and I noticed Felix Mercer was in the background. That struck me as odd. He had a beer can in his hand.

“What are you looking at so intently?” Vince asked.

“How on earth did you know I was doing that?” I asked and tried not to be so obvious at how closely I was looking at the photos.

“Former FBI. We are very well trained to read people’s body language.” His brows lifted as he leaned over to look at the paper. “Don’t tell me. Let me guess.”

I watched his eyes go from photo to photo before he poked the correct one with Felix in the background.

“Felix Mercer. Lives in the neighborhood in back of the country club just beyond the old mill. If I’m right, you deliver the mail in that neighborhood, so either you’re surprised he came after you invited him or you’re surprised he came because you didn’t invite him.” He shifted back to his spot and took a sip of coffee. “If I was investigating this photo, I’d see if there was a history of you being the mail carrier and him possibly having an issue with the mail carrier or the system. If that angle would turn up something, I’d see if there was any sort of history between the two of you.”

“What is this, an interrogation?” I smirked.

“Nope. Just if I were to show you that picture during an interrogation, I’d notice your reaction and start my investigation into why you were in my interrogation room in the first place.” His mind went in a million different directions with a simple photo. “So why don’t you tell me why you have such a reaction to him.”

“If you must know,” I took another sip, “I do deliver his mail. From years of doing so, I’ve seen him go in and out of rehab for alcoholism. When I went to the post office this morning, there was a huge box to be delivered to him. It says it’s from a winery, and I was a little taken aback. But now I see that he did show up to the engagement party, which I did just slip invites for into everyone’s mailboxes on my route. I had no idea he’d show up.” I handed Vince his paper back. “I certainly don’t think he needs to be drinking.”

Even though I did hear he’d fallen off the wagon, I wasn’t going to tell Vince just how much the photo did seem to bother me. I didn’t know Felix all that well, and Vince was right about one thing. Felix had filed a complaint about me to the postmaster when I had taken over the route. It wasn’t anything huge, just that he liked his packages hand-delivered, which meant I was going to have to come face-to-face with him today.

“You have a wonderful day.” I reached down into my bag and took out Vince’s rubber-banded mail pile.

“And what’s in here good?” he asked.

“I don’t know. Monica had already gotten all my mail together for me.” I was so grateful for Monica. She had always made my life so much easier, and on days that I needed it too. “Have a wonderful day.”

Vince was gone by the time I came back through after going to the mail room of the nursing home.

With my second loop in my bag, I was off to deliver to the downtown area and Little Creek Road.

The bright sun had quickly warmed up the late-summer day. It was going to be a scorcher. It was days like these that had me longing for autumn.

Autumn was one of my favorite seasons to work. The air was always crisp and fresh. There was a feeling of football in the air, which made me excited to see Grady in action with the Grizzlies. This year I’d heard he had a pretty good team on his hands, which made Sugar Creek Gap even more excited for the upcoming season.

The downtown businesses were on the left side of Main Street, and the old mill took up the entire right side.

I walked over the Old Mill Creek bridge that crossed over the creek from the mill that still paddled today, though it was purely for looks.

Once over the bridge, I stood where I started my second loop every morning, next to the post office and across the street from where I’d begin the rest of my morning route.

Eventually, I’d get to the small neighborhoods on the west side of downtown then make my way back to downtown, where I’d deliver all the mail to the business district of Sugar Creek Gap, which included the courthouse, doctors’ building, bank, and various other businesses. I liked to finish my day with a few neighborhoods just east of downtown that circled back to the post office.

The babbling brook trickled across the rocks as the old mill pushed the water down the creek, groaning like it was dying. We needed rain so bad that I swore the old mill was crying.

Social Knitwork was the first business I delivered to. It was our local yarn shop, owned by Leotta Goldey. She was a whiz with any sort of material. She was the go-to gal for anything that needed to be altered and lettered and had a monopoly on all things with names on them, including all the business she got from the Sugar Creek Gap schools and sports teams.

When I pushed through the door, the bell above it knocked against the glass. Leotta looked up.

“I’m shocked.” She gasped. “I thought I’d see Monica this morning.”

“I’m starting to get the feeling everyone is going to tell me that today.” I shook my head, almost embarrassed at how I’d let myself have a few too many flutes of champagne.

“Are you kidding?” She picked up the stack of outgoing mail she’d put in the small basket for me to get and handed it to me in exchange for her mail. “It’s refreshing to see you happy.”

“Little Clara makes me really happy.” Thoughts of my granddaughter were never too far from my mind and heart. “Can you imagine what the new baby is going to bring us?”

“Joy. Amazing joy.” Leotta winked. “Are you ready for tonight’s class?”

“Yes. Which reminds me, I have some items for you to embroider Clara’s name on for the upcoming football season. Can I bring those tonight?” I asked as my phone chirped a text.

“Absolutely.” She hurried over to a customer while I dug out my phone.

Grady always sent me a text in the morning. If he didn’t, he knew I’d think something was wrong and show up at his class to make sure he was okay. He never truly understood that a mother never stops loving her children until he had Clara. I thoroughly enjoyed watching him become a dad and was very proud of how he was a natural at it.

The next few stops were pretty much in and out. They were businesses, and most of the time they had customers inside, making it much easier for me to slip in and out.

The Wallflower Diner was a different story.

It was the diner my parents owned and dedicated their life to. They still worked it today, and my mama was still the main cook.

The bell dinged, and as usual, everyone turned around to see who was coming in.

“Mornin’!” I hollered with the stack of magazines, bills, and junk mail the diner got on a daily basis.

“Mornin’ Bernie,” echoed throughout the diner from the usual customers as I weaved around the tables to make my way back to the counter, where my dad was sitting with his pals.

Mama waved to me from the kitchen pass-through window.

“Did you see the paper?” she asked. Her hair was still nice and brown, giving me hope I wouldn’t inherit the gray hair my father had gotten in his fifties. Mama was a little plump around the waist and hips from all those years of good cooking for all the people in Sugar Creek Gap. The years had been kind to her. She had very few wrinkles and wore very little makeup. “I just love it! I’m going to have it framed.”

“Your mama has been showing everyone the picture of us.” My dad didn’t fool anyone. He was just as proud of the photo as Mama.

“Maybe as a good gesture, you should get it framed for her.” It was a suggestion since their wedding anniversary was coming up. “It’s something she wants, and you’re always grumbling about what to get her.”

“Yeah. Yeah.” He gave me the finger wave before he went back to solving the world’s problems with his buddies.

“Hi, dear.” Mama had come out of the kitchen with a sack full of something to go. She kissed me. “There’s some scraps for my grand-furbabies, and some biscuits for Gertrude. She’s only got a couple of jars of her homemade strawberry jam, so I’m giving her some biscuits in exchange for the jam. Be sure you tell her to bring them to class tonight.”

“I will.” I took the bag in exchange for her mail. “Looks like your Better Southern Living is here.”

“Oh, good.” Mama loved her southern magazines. “I can’t wait to see what they’ve got cookin’ in there.”

“I bet it’s nothing like you cook.” I have never tasted anyone’s cooking that could outdo Mama’s.

“You are the best daughter ever.” She sighed. “Have you heard anything from Julia?”

“No, why?” I asked.

“When she came in this morning before work, she said she was up all night with some premature labor pains, and I told her to take it easy.” Mama gave me the sideways look.

“Now, Mama, I’m staying out of her and Grady’s business.” I had to be straight with Mama. She loved to get into everyone’s business but with me doing the snooping. “If you want to know, you call them or walk over and see her.”

“A grandma’s job is not to meddle.” Who did Mama think she was kidding?

“No, you want me to meddle for you, and I’m not doing it.” I would so be seeing what was going on with Julia when I delivered the mail at Tabor Architects, Mac’s business.

“I’ve got to go. Lunch is going to be packed. Brown beans and cornbread.” Mama rushed me off.

“Bye, Daddy.” I leaned down, put my hands on his shoulders, and gave my dad a kiss on head.

He reached around and patted my hand.

I didn’t like hearing that Julia had some Braxton Hicks, if that’s what they were. My mama was right—I had a hard time staying out of Grady and Julie’s business. But if I didn’t force myself to, then they’d keep stuff from me, and I couldn’t have that.

“Julia?” I called after I walked into Tabor Architects and noticed she wasn’t at the desk.

Mac’s door was shut. Light filtered through the crack at the bottom of the door.

“Mac?” I opened the door and found Mac and Annabelle Pascal sitting on the small leather sofa. Their knees were touching, and a book lay on top of them.

“Bernie.” Mac looked taken off guard. “Excuse me,” he said to Annabelle and got up. “You keep looking at the lighting, and I’ll be right back.”

“Hi, Bernie.” Annabelle wiggled her fingers at me. Was it bad that I had an urge to break each one at the joint?

“I’m sorry if I interrupted.” I had no idea why I was apologizing, but it felt right.

“No. You’re fine.” He put his arm around me as we walked out of the office. “Are you okay? You look like something is on your mind. When I didn’t hear from you this morning, I figured you’d called into work.”

We stopped next to Julia’s desk, and he slid his hand along my cheek.

“I loved that you had a great time at our party.” He smiled and bent down to kiss me on the lips.

“I’m fine. I would’ve just left the mail on Julia’s desk, but Mom told me Julia was having some Braxton Hicks last night, and I wanted to check on her.” I sighed and handed the mail to him.

“I sent her home. She didn’t look well to me.” He gestured to his office. “After Annabelle picked out some lighting for the house, I was going to either stop by your house or call you to let you know.”

“Do you think I need to get Monica to finish my route and head out to the farm?” I asked since he’d actually laid eyes on her.

“Nah. I think she just needed some rest since she said she didn’t get any sleep last night. I won’t be surprised if she goes on bed rest.” Mac had really stepped up to the plate and been the replacement grandfather and dad Grady needed for his family.

“I love you.” It spilled out of me.

“I love you, and I can’t wait to get that ring on your hand.” He lifted up my left hand and kissed the engagement ring.

“We need to set a date.” I grinned, knowing he’d been hounding me for days.

“That has made my day. I can this afternoon. Courthouse?” he asked, knowing I’d say no way.

“Uh-huh.” I shook my head. “I want the world to hear me say ‘I do’ so they all know you’re off the market.”

“I want to hear it from you too.” He leaned down to give me another kiss. “Get to work, and I’ll get to work. See you tonight?”

“I have knitting class, but I’ll call you after.” I sighed and looked over his shoulder to where Annabelle was standing in the doorway.

“Bye, Bernie,” she called out after our eyes met. “Mac, I’ve found the perfect fixtures, and I think you’re going to love them.”

“Bye, babe.” He turned and headed back in the office, but not before I noticed Annabelle had put her hand on his arm as he shut the door.

My insides groaned.


Chapter 3


The third loop was going to be a little more difficult with me lugging around the box for Felix Mercer, so I skipped my usual start at the beginning of the street. Instead of making my way down to each mailbox, I headed straight to Felix’s house.

There was just one issue. Annabelle Pascal.

The house she was having Mac draw the plans up for was in this same neighborhood, in the same cul-de-sac as Felix’s house, but her house was going to sit on two lots, making her house the biggest one back there.

“Can you imagine what’s going to go there?” Bee Ellis, the neighbor between Felix’s and what will be Annabelle’s house, had come out of her house.

Water trickled from the spout of her little metal watering can she used to water the daisies she planted every year around the base of her mailbox.

I put Felix’s box on the ground.

“Mac is drawing up the plans, so I’m excited to see.” I rummaged through the mail bag to find her couple pieces of mail. “Here you go.”

“Thank you, dear.” She handed it back to me. “Can you just throw it out? All junk.”

“I’m sorry, I’m not allowed to do that.” It cracked me up. “You can open them and contact them to let them know to take you off their mailing list.”

“I just might do that. Oh, I’m sorry I wasn’t able to make it to the party. The paper did a good job highlighting it, and you look happy.” Playfully, she smacked my bag with her junk mail before she pointed it directly at me. “You deserve it.”

“I appreciate that.” It was no secret how devastated Grady and I had been when Richard was killed, and years later after we found out he had a whole secret family outside of ours, the community was just as shocked as me and Grady.

I’d moved on, and moved on with Mac.

“I’ve got to get this package to Felix.” I hoisted the package off the ground.

“What’s he got there?” Bee looked at it.

“I’m not sure.” Subtly, I slid my hand over the logo that was clearly liquor.

“I’m not sure he’s home. I’ve not seen him since he watered them plants and took off like a bat out of hell. Probably went down to Fern Creek Holler.” She let me know without telling me that he was, in fact, drinking more, since that’s what was down in Fern Creek Holler.

A gambling joint and some drinking.

“I’m more than happy to take the package and give it to him when he dries out.” She eyeballed the package.

She wasn’t fooling me any. Bee Ellis was more of a gossip than the Front Porch Ladies. The Front Porch Ladies were confined to the few houses on Little Creek Road, while Bee Ellis had an entire neighborhood to gossip about.

“Thank you. I’ll take you up on it if he’s not home, because I certainly don’t want to leave it on his porch or lug it around with me.” I headed on over to Felix’s house, leaving Bee next to her mailbox, watching me.

I rang the doorbell and waited. I rang it a couple more times, and when he didn’t answer, I walked back over to Bee’s and handed her the package. I wasn’t sure how long ago he’d left, but his front porch flowers and plants had just been freshly watered, like she’d mentioned.

Felix did have a green thumb and did take meticulous care of his plants.

“I’ll be sure to give it to him,” she said.

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