“The mac and cheese stinks tonight, Nellie” Jake Kelley’s shaggy silver brows came together as he watched for a reaction from his daughter.
“Thanks, Daddy. I’m glad you like it.”
Jake guffawed, causing Penelope’s head to snap back. “What’s so funny?”
“You didn’t hear what I said. In fact, you haven’t heard a word I’ve said since we sat down to supper.”
“You want to drive out to the old folks home after we eat?” She regarded her father with a mixture of affection and impatience.
“Sure, sure, whatever you want to do, darlin’. So what’s up?”
He raked the ceiling with his eyes. “Ah, and she finally heard me.”
“Stop it, Daddy.”
“You’re thinking about Sam, aren’t you?”
Penelope grabbed up her mostly uneaten dinner and flounced toward the sink where she scraped the food into the garbage disposal.
“Shouldn’t waste good food, Nellie.”
“I paid for it.”
Jake sucked air through his teeth.
“Sorry, Daddy.” She turned to face him, leaning against the granite countertop she’d had specially installed
a few years ago when she opened the bed and breakfast in the family home.
“What’s for dessert?”
“I don’t know. Ice cream, I guess.”
“Any apple crisp to go with it?”
“Maybe.” She stuck her head inside the refrigerator and scanned the shelves. “Here it is.” She loosened the plastic wrap on the bowl and shoved it inside the microwave. When she’d set the dish in front of her father, she sat down across from him and said, “I just can’t get it together, Daddy.”
“I know, darlin’. You had a bad time of it, running around like you did. Seeing Travis shot. Almost getting killed yourself.”
“I’m sorry he’s dead—that he died like that—but I’m not grieving for him.”
“Ex-wives can grieve for what might’ve been.”
“Not even that.”
“So it’s Sam after all.”
Penelope leaned her chin in her hand and thought of the man who, as a biker, had hit on her at the Sit-n-Swill and then enlisted her against her will to take care of her ex-husband’s current mistress who happened to be too interesting to a small-time drug cartel—or something. The truth never really came out, and she’d just had to live with it.
Last seen, he was driving away from the B&B after leaving her at the back door following a night of pure terror at Pembroke Point. A night in which Penelope felt sure she’d killed a man before he could kill her. She still struggled to live with the possibility.
In the months since Travis Pembroke was laid to rest beside his parents in the family cemetery at Pembroke Point, Penelope had thought of him often but without affection. Even his being the father of her only son, whom she adored, couldn’t wipe clean the soiled slate of their failed marriage.
But she’d thought of Sam, too, every day and every night, with a desire she’d never felt for her husband or any other man. The guilt her feelings engendered couldn’t be lessened in the confessional. Though she was sure Fr. Loeffler had heard it all, the private yearnings of a forty-nine-year-old salt-and-peppered pillar of the small community just might make things uncomfortable for both of them.
She jumped. “What, Daddy?”
“Supper was good. Dessert was better.” He took his dishes to the sink and came back to kiss the top of her head. “And you’re the best.” He glanced out the kitchen window. “Here comes Brad.”
Penelope couldn’t look at her son without seeing his father: six feet of handsome with curly black hair and dark eyes that crinkled at the corners the way Travis’s had done, melting her resolve to be a virginal bride. Sometimes she wondered about Brad. He’d dated a lot of girls, even Shana Bayliss who’d taken up with Travis not long before the fire at Pembroke Point.
Now he was seeing Abigail Talbot, the librarian hired to replace Shana. Even her name sounded prim to Penelope. As far as she knew, her son’s bachelor pad in the new Primrose Apartments on Magnolia Street was just that, and she couldn’t help but hope nothing in skirts had ever seen inside of it.
Brad, still sporting his badge, cuffs, and nine-millimeter Glock on his belt, stepped through the door. “Hey, Pawpaw. Hello, Mother.”
“Hey, Brad.” Jake slapped his grandson’s muscular shoulder inside the tan suede sport coat. “Nice threads.”
“You should get one yourself,” the younger man said. “Forty-nine-ninety-five on sale at Blass’s.”
“Maybe I’ll just do that.”
“Don’t go in and blessed ask for threads, Daddy,” Penelope said. “You just don’t look like a hipster.”
Jake’s bottom lip came out briefly. Then he grinned. “Guess you think I’d be more at home singing Young at Heart with Jimmy Durante.”
“He’s dead, Pawpaw.”
Jake pouted again. “I know that, Brad.”
Brad winked at his grandfather. “What’s to eat around here?”
Penelope pushed back from the table. “I’ll warm up the macaroni and cheese and smoked sausage, but Daddy finished up the apple crisp.”
Brad shrugged out of his jacket and dropped it over the back of a chair. “Sounds good.”
“So what’s new in town?” Jake asked and sat down again.
“You should know. I saw you having coffee at the Daisy Café with the Toney Twins this afternoon.”
“I mean underground. Picked up anybody recently?”
“Only Mrs. Lawson’s cat Chester. Charged him with loitering in front of the Garden Market and released him the custody of his owner.”
“That cat is going to get blessed run over if he doesn’t stop wandering around town,” Penelope said, setting a plate in front of her son. The word ‘cat’ brought Abijah, the massive orange tabby, down from his perch in the bay window. He curled around against Bradley’s ankles.
“Don’t do that.” Brad toed the cat away. “Chester’s got a few lives left, I guess, but I’ve warned Mrs. Lawson half a dozen times about getting a city license for him. It smells good, Mother.”
“It is good. Don’t let it get cold.” She went to the pantry and dug out a box of graham crackers and a bag of marshmallows. “I’ll make you some smores for dessert. You want one, Daddy?”
Jake shook his head. “It’s almost time for Law and Order. If Brad doesn’t have anything more interesting to talk about that Lucille Lawson’s cat, I’m going on.”
Brad held his napkin in front of his half-full mouth. “I was teasing, Pawpaw. I have something you’ll get a big kick out of. The Sit-n-Swill is going to reopen.”
“Hot dog!” Jake swung back his chair and plopped himself down. “The Sitton boy finally sold it, did he?”
“The Sitton boy is older than your grandson, Daddy,” Penelope said. “So who bought it, Bradley?”
Brad drained his glass of milk and held it out for a refill. “A couple from Fayetteville. Marion and Millie Dancer.”
“What kind of name is that—Dancer?” Jake asked.
“Marion and Millie?” Penelope asked without finishing her thought.
Brad scowled. “They’re a married couple about your age.”
“From Fayetteville, you say? Why’d they come here?” Jake leaned toward his grandson.
“Not sure,” Brad said, digging into the generous helping of macaroni and cheese. “But I did hear he used to design women’s clothes, and his specialty was lingerie.”
Penelope’s fingers tightened on a graham cracker, shattering it. “Lingerie? That’s the funniest thing I ever heard in my life.”
Jake smirked. “Where do you think yours comes from, Nellie?”
“From Walmart, and you have no business talking about a lady’s unmentionables, Daddy. So what does his wife do, Bradley?”
“She coached girls’ basketball in high school.”
“How’d you find out all this?” Penelope topped two graham crackers with a marshmallow and a square of chocolate and set the microwave for ten seconds.
“Parnell noticed the door open while he was on patrol and went to see if it was another break-in.”
“So he got it out of them.” She sat down and scooped Abijah into her lap.
“He didn’t get it out of them, Mother. They volunteered the information.”
“So when are they opening? I could go for a Reuben.” Jake smacked his lips. “And a beer.”
“They’ve got a lot of cleaning up and remodeling to do, but Parnell says they want to open by the first of the year.”
“Good luck to them.” The microwave beeped. Penelope took out the smores with one hand, balancing Abijah against her with the other. “Ready for these?”
“Somehow I can’t wrap my mind around somebody named Dancer running a bar.” Penelope let go of the laugh she’d been holding in. “Marion and Millie! Women’s lingerie!”
“Mother, it’s not that funny.”
She used a paper napkin to dab at the cheese under her son’s bottom lip. “It’s a blessed hoot. Wait’ll I tell Mary Lynn.”
When she went upstairs later, Penelope thought of all the things she hadn’t asked Bradley. He probably wouldn’t have told her anyway. Getting information from Detective Bradley Pembroke was like prying the rusted lid off years-old pickles. She wanted to know what he was thinking about doing with Pembroke Point. As Travis’s only son, he’d inherited everything—not a stingy amount.
Her mind fastened on the thought ‘only son’ which Bradley could no longer claim to be. There had been the other one, roasted in the fire that destroyed the gin. Travis said all he felt was relief since the young man had been trying to shake him down. And, he added, he was determined to hold onto everything for Bradley or die in the attempt. Maybe he had died in the attempt. He’d died, anyway.
There could be half a dozen of Travis Pembroke’s offspring running around out there somewhere. She’d always known it but refused to think about it. Now she tried to imagine them floating away as she added more bath salts to the tub and stripped off her jeans and sweater. Lowering herself into the warm water, she thought of that confused, terror-filled night at Pembroke Point when Sam’s arms had been as warm and comforting as the bath.
Darn you, Sam or Eldred Mooney Frish or whoever you are. Double darn you for getting me mixed up in that stupid mess. Sending me on the run with Shana, although it wasn’t really her fault either. I could’ve told her not to get mixed up with Travis, that it was bound to turn out badly. And it did. It sure did, for everybody, even me.
I can’t stop thinking about you, and for all I know, you’re going to be sent up the river for life. You probably deserve it. I kept thinking maybe you were one of the good guys. You almost had me convinced. And then you show up and haul me out to Pembroke Point and try to get me into my ex-husband’s bed, and I end up committing murder—at least I think I did. She crossed herself hastily. I think too blessed much. I need to stop. But how do I stop thinking about you and about what I did?
Thank goodness the story of that night never made the Bugle. Maybe nobody knew, not even Bradley. Sam as much as said there would be no bodies for anyone to find. The bayou’s proximity probably guaranteed that.
Later, she tried to read, but the words of John Grisham’s latest thriller ran together. She put it aside, turned out the lamp, and lay there listening, knowing she was straining for the sound of gravel against her window. For Sam.
Darn, darn, darn. I have too much time on my hands with nothing going on again until the Christmas Carousel Tour in December. After that, I won’t catch my breath again until June. It’s a good thing the Town Council voted to let the town have a break a few times a year. Or maybe Harry just couldn’t come up with more ideas.
She smiled into the darkness. Ever since Tobin Textiles pulled out of Amaryllis four years ago, Mayor Harry Hargrove and the Town Council had kept the town alive on tourist trade. Craft fairs, antique malls, sidewalk cafes, and festivals of every name and description. Corny maybe, but it worked. Amaryllis, Arkansas, population 5,492, had survived. She was the only B&B in town, and the nearest motel was on I-30 just outside Little Rock. So she’d survived, too.
Actually, she’d have survived no matter what. Travis Pembroke gave her a good settlement when the divorce was final, and a firm in Little Rock had it well-invested. She got a nice check the fifth of every month. Her father’s pension from the Garden Market Corporation and his Social Security check weren’t shabby either. He owned the house outright and paid the taxes and insurance without feeling a pinch.
They didn’t depend on Tobin Textiles for a living, but because Amaryllis was her home, when the pull-out threatened the entire economy, she pitched in with everyone else to make sure the safe, friendly place she’d grown up in survived for another generation. And it had—at least until the night of the fire which hadn’t quite managed to burn up everyone’s dirty little secrets. Hal Greene hadn’t played up the story in the Bugle, and tourists kept coming. But Penelope felt different now. Not so safe. Not so friendly. Not so content with her lot in life. Not since Sam.
Her eyes closed. Oh, Sam, who are you? Why did you come back that night? You even said you’d be back again. I just wish I wasn’t so blessed glad about it.
Penelope rolled up the last batch of icebox cookie dough at the same time Mary Lynn Hargrove, her best friend since high school, showed up and helped herself to a cup of coffee and a day-old pastry from Rose’s Bakery. “Did you hear somebody bought the Sit-n-Swill?” she asked. The silvery highlights in her dark curly hair caught the morning sun from the window above the sink and made her smooth cheeks look like ripened peaches.
“Bradley came by last night. He heard it from Parnell.”
“Harry met them. Their name is Dancer. Don’t you think that’s an odd name for somebody running a bar?”
“That’s what Daddy says.” Penelope secured the rolls of dough in layers of waxed paper and aluminum foil. “He’s a designer—the husband.”
“What does he design?”
“Women’s clothes, heavy on the lingerie.”
Mary Lynn sputtered into a napkin, but not before droplets of coffee spewed onto the cherry Danish. “That’s hilarious.”
“I think so, too. She coached girls’ basketball.”
“At least that’s a normal occupation.”
“And designing clothes isn’t?”
“Not for a man.”
“Some of the most famous designers have been men. Oleg Cassini for one.”
“Wasn’t he married to some movie star once?”
“Gene Tierney, I think. Anyway, I could name more.”
“Never mind. When are they going to open?”
“Bradley says there’s lots of cleaning up needing doing. The place has been shut down going on three months, and you know it’s been broken into at least twice.”
“I hope they paint that gosh-awful red bar.” Mary Lynn held out her cup for a refill.
Penelope poured herself a cup, too. “Poor old Roger.” She sat down across from her friend and hesitated between the oversized blueberry muffin top and half a peach kolache
“He got what he asked for, didn’t he?”
“We’ll never know for sure, I guess, but a little recreational pot wasn’t worth getting burned up for.”
“If that’s all he was buying, but like you said, we’ll never know for sure. If you ask me, though, they all need to be behind bars. The drug dealers, I mean.”
“You’ve got to catch them first.”
“Including that lothario who waltzed you and Shana out of town and ran you around like a couple of model cars.”
“I don’t think he was a drug dealer.”
“So what was he?”
“I don’t know.” But I wish I did. Penelope hurried to change the subject. “So tell me how things are going out at the old school.”
Mary Lynn wrinkled her nose. “It’s already damp and chilly inside that old place. And later on it’s going to be colder than a you-know-what in a you-know-what.”
Penelope smiled. “I know what.”
“I had some guy fill up the fuel tank. It wasn’t cheap, by the way, and now the boiler won’t come on. I’m going to need some heat upstairs soon if I’m going to get anything done.”
“What are you trying to get done first?”
“Just clean up that big room at the front. With the light from those tall windows, it’ll be perfect for quilting and crafting.”
“So what are you going to do for heat if the boiler won’t work?”
“I’m trying to find somebody up in Little Rock who knows how to work on one, but I’m not having any luck. So I guess I’ll either freeze or stop work after Christmas.”
“Harry would prefer option number two.”
Mary Lynn grinned. “Yeah. Did you hear Abigail Talbot has resigned?”
“No! Bradley didn’t say a word about it last night.”
“And guess what else? The library board is trying to get Shana Bayliss to come back.”
“She’ll never come back here.”
“Want to make a bet?” Mary Lynn narrowed her eyes.
“Why would she, with all the wagging tongues that would be only too happy to dredge up what happened with Travis?”
“Maybe for that reason.” Mary Lynn lifted her eyebrows in her ‘I know’ look.
“You can’t run away from things.” Mary Lynn nodded agreement with her own statement. “Besides, there’s Bradley.”
“No, there’s not.”
“You don’t think he’d take her back?”
“Just take my word for it, Mary Lynn, he’s done with her. Anyway, getting back to the school, you’ll need some long tables for that room.”
“Right. I went poking around in one of the storage areas, hoping something like that got left behind when they moved over to the new school, but I came up empty.” She frowned. “And something odd happened while I was in there. Promise you won’t laugh.”
Penelope made an exaggerated X on her chest. “Not if it’s not funny.”
“It’s not funny. When I was in the storage room, I thought I heard something.”
“That’s what I thought at first, but it was someone talking.”
“Not the mice, huh? Ghosts?”
Mary Lynn shivered. “Every time I go in that place, I get the feeling I’m not alone.”
“Maybe you’re not.”
“Now you’re making fun of me.”
“No, honestly. Lots of kids spend a good part of their childhood in that building. Maybe some of them didn’t want to leave.”
“I don’t believe in ghosts, and you don’t either. You shouldn’t anyway.”
Penelope licked some peach filling from her fingers. “Where were the voices coming from?”
“I don’t know. But they’re not going to run me off. I intend to get that old place in tip-top shape. There’s so much potential for community activities. I don’t know why someone hasn’t thought of it before.”
“Whatever. You know I’ll help you.”
“I’m counting on that. Mainly I’m just cleaning up right now, and then I’ll paint.”
“What about the plumbing? You know all those little ladies will have to go piddle two dozen times a morning while they’re quilting, especially if you keep the coffee going.”
“I thought I’d dig up the old privy.”
“Ha ha. Was there one?”
“The place was built in 1880, so I’m betting there were his and hers somewhere.”
“No, I didn’t go out looking for latrines! The bathrooms aren’t bad. I checked with city hall, and the plumbing was installed around 1920. Bob Nance said I’d have to get an inspector out there to see if it’s still tied into the city lines or on a septic tank.” Mary Lynn studied her friend’s face. “I’m worried about you, Pen.”
“I’m all right.”
“No, you’re not. It’s been almost five months, and that spark still isn’t back.”
“That go-get-‘em-I-can-do-it spark. The one that made you turn this place into a B&B. And before that, the one that made you go back to nursing school when Bradley started first grade. And leave Travis.”
“No. If you ask me…”
“If you ask me, that Sam person is behind all this. Did you maybe get the hots for him?”
Penelope jumped up. “No, and if I did, it’s none of your business.” She took their cups to the sink and rinsed them.
“You did. I knew it. Listen, I’m your best friend. Tell me about him.”
“There’s nothing to tell.”
“There’s nothing to tell.”
“What did he look like?”
Penelope’s shoulders slumped, as she leaned against the cabinet. From the window she almost could see him striding down the path to the garage the morning after the first night he’d spent in the front room. The night she’d patched the cut above his eyebrow and said it would leave a scar, and it had. Shoulders like a weight-lifter, hips like a jockey. She’d blushed then, and she blushed now. “He’s nice looking,” she said finally. “He looks older than he is, which is fifty if I can believe anything he says. Hair more salt than pepper, blue eyes, six feet something.”
“Stop it, Mary Lynn. He used to teach medieval literature somewhere back east.”
“Oh, my stars, an intellectual.”
“Sometimes I hated him, and sometimes I…” Penelope’s voice trailed off. “I wish I’d never laid eyes on him.”
“I wish you hadn’t either. I don’t like what I’m seeing. You need some new interests, Pen.”
“Well, helping me with the school for one.”
“I told you I would, but I’m not freezing my tookus off out there.”
“I’ll get the boiler working, I promise.” Mary Lynn snatched up the zebra-striped bag she carried everywhere in every season. “Travis Pembroke was a rotten rounder. You don’t need to go for number two.”
“Tell me about it.”
“Harry’s bald and got a paunch, and some people think he’s not the brightest bulb in the chandelier, but he loves me.” Mary Lynn bit her lip. “And I love him more than anything in the world. It’s just the two of us, but we’re enough for each other.”
“Harry’s a good man. He’s the reason this town is still alive.”
“Next to me, he loves Amaryllis best. It’s his home.” Mary Lynn put her hand on the doorknob. “Think about doing something, Pen. Anything to get you out from under this big black cloud.”
Penelope nodded. “Sure. And let me know when you want me to bring my arsenal of cleaning supplies and pitch in.”
She waited until Mary Lynn’s car backed out of the drive before she poured herself another cup of coffee and sat down to nurse it. Do something. Anything. Easier said than done. I do enough. I run this place, look after Daddy…well, maybe he looks after me as much as I do him, but it’s a full time job for both of us.
She glanced at the calendar from Roan’s Feed Store. Jake always insisted on hanging it in the kitchen because he liked the pictures of the horses and cattle. Just a little over a month until Christmas. I haven’t even started my Christmas shopping. I could do that. Go over to Little Rock and spend a day or so. I’ll stay in a hotel and shop by day and party by night.
Party. I’ll have a Christmas party. Lord knows we all need something to get us in the holiday spirit, even Bradley. He’s weighed down with making decisions about Pembroke Point, and now Abigail’s going. But good riddance. She wasn’t the girl for him, and neither is Shana. I wonder if Shana’s really coming back. It would be nice. We got kind of close while we were on the run. I sort of thought of her as almost a real daughter instead of a pretend one.
“Whatcha doin’, Nellie?”
“Hi, Daddy. You been uptown?”
“Find out what you wanted to know?”
“I’m a pretty good detective. Maybe Brad got it from me. When’s lunch?”
“You just ate breakfast two hours ago, Daddy, and I’ll bet you and the Toney Twins cleaned up a dozen doughnuts with your coffee.”
“Anymore coffee then?”
“In the pot. So what did you find out?”
Jake sat down and wrapped his hands around his favorite mug, the one with the English setters on the front. It had been a Christmas gift from his grandson the first year Bradley was allowed to shop by himself at the variety store. “Marion Dancer, better known as Mike, and his wife Millie roared up to the Daisy Café on a Harley.”
“Bikers? They’re bikers?”
Jake’s grin almost split his face. “Been all over the United States and Canada on that thing.”
“Well, not Hell’s Angels, that’s for sure.”
“You implied it, Nellie.”
“I did not.”
“Anyway, they’re good people.”
“Then I’ll invite them to my Christmas party.”
“You’re going to give a Christmas party?”
“I’m going to give one wing-ding of a party, Daddy.” Penelope got up. “I’m going upstairs right now and start digging out the Christmas decorations.”
That night, satisfied with the vision of neatly-stacked boxes of Christmas decorations lining the hallway, Penelope fell asleep as soon as her head hit the pillow. The insistent ringing of the phone by her bed jerked her from dreams of unpacking those old, well-loved decorations with two grandchildren, a boy who looked like Bradley, and a girl who looked like Officer Rosabel Deane.
“What?” she barked into the phone.
Her stomach knotted. “Sam? Where are you?”
“Just ask me how I am, and leave it at that.”
She struggled to sit up. “All right, how are you?”
“Good. How about you?”
“I was asleep.”
“No, you’re not. You’re probably doing time somewhere and picked the lock of the warden’s office to make this call.”
He chuckled. “How’s the knee? And those poor scarred feet?”
“You remember those. How nice. It’s been almost five months. I might’ve had both of them amputated by now.”
“Did you get a tetanus booster?”
“Yes. Where are you, Sam, or whoever you are?”
“Far, far away. So you’re in bed. I couldn’t get you there, but I can think about you there.”
“Stop it, Sam. That’s indecent.”
“Come on, Penelope, we’re both adults. It’s not like we haven’t both been around the block before.”
“In your case, according to you, several times.”
“I’m being nice. You’re the one thinking lecherous thoughts.”
“Look, the reason I called—outside of the lecherous thoughts, of course—was to give you some advice. Or rather, to give your friend Mary Lynn a little free advice.”
“How do you know Mary Lynn?” Silence. “Never mind, you know things.”
“Right. I heard she was renovating that old school near the cemetery.”
“She might want to back off a while.”
“It would be a good idea.”
“Just take my word for it.”
Penelope didn’t like the way his voice was making her tingle. “You’ll have to do better than that.”
“I can’t. But if she won’t call a halt, then you stay away from there.”
“I promised to help her.”
“It can wait.”
“I’ve got to go, Penelope.” He hung up.
She slid back down in bed, hugging the quilt to her chin. Of all the nerve! Take his word for it, my foot. But then, he does seem to know things, like he says. You’re a blessed nuisance, Sam. I wish I’d never laid eyes on you. I wish you’d never touched me… She shivered, and her bed felt suddenly emptier than it ever had before.