Preview of Chapter 1:
With the ties of her green apron flopping with each step, Annie Crawley rushes out of the Down Home Diner and quicksteps across the red brick street, just beating the traffic light. She swipes her mud-brown hair from her forehead, mouths “hi, Millie” at me, and plops on the other end of my bench on the courthouse lawn with a phone at her ear. Her place on the bench is perfect, because now I can eavesdrop. And judging by the angle of her brows over her nose, I certainly need to. If anyone can help her with whatever etched those stress lines around her lips, it’s me. Well, me and Emily Taylor. But Annie doesn’t need to know about Em. No one does.
“I don’t understand. What’s keeping you?” Annie says into her phone. Just last month, she showed up in town with one bag and a red pickup, both of which have seen better days. She got herself a job at the diner an an apartment at Lawn View—something else that has seen better days.
I don’t want to be too obvious about how far my ear is stretched in her direction, so I keep my eye on a yellow tabby sitting in the shade under the boxwood hedge outlining the courthouse. If I wasn’t busy stickin’ my nose into Annie’s business, I’d grab the long-handled fish net resting against my knee and go after it. That’s something else I do—catch stray cats, though I’ve never used the net.
“You lost it? How?”
The tabby’s ears prick forward at Annie’s raised voice. So do mine.
That did it. Annie’s shout sends the cat darting across the lawn and behind the courthouse’s air conditioning unit. But it’s not like he’s safe. I know where he is.
“How long will it take?” Annie rubs her temple. “I love you too. Bye.”
“Trouble?” I ask as she snaps her phone closed.
“That was my husband, Kyle.” The weak smile she gives me doesn’t erase the worry lines plowing across her forehead. “He was supposed to finish his job in Waco and join me here in Dogwood.”
“But . . . ?”
“But he closed our bank account and got a cashier’s check so we could open an account here, and he left it in the truck overnight and”—tears brim in her dark eyes, and her soft voice pitches to a high wail—“someone stole it!”
“No, the truck! Now he’s not just broke, he can’t even get here. Oh, Millie, what are we going to do?”
Fat teardrops dive down her cheeks and splash on her quivering lips.
I scoot over to her and wrap her shaking shoulders in a hug. Rubbing her arm, I let her cry until her nose is good and red and her eyes are puffier than plump pillows.
“I’m sorry.” She dabs at the wet spot on my shoulder. “I just miss him so much.”
“I know you do. It’ll be all right. You’ll see.”
She nods but doesn’t look convinced. In fact, she looks like a cat stole her ice cream. Well, good thing I’m here. I reckon this is a problem Emily can fix.
“The diner’s filling up again. I have to get back to work.” Still sniffing, she rises and smoothes the wrinkles out of her waitress uniform. “Come by after the rush, and I’ll fix you some soup.”
“Too hot for soup.”
She laughs. “A sandwich, then.”
Such a sweet lady.
I watch her cross the street, grab my tote and net, and get up from the bench. I’ve got a cat to catch.
No more than halfway around the courthouse building, my feet start hurting, but I glimpse a yellow tail between he air conditioner unit and the brick wall. The cat’s facing away from me, and in this stifling August hat, the AC fan is whirring loud enough to drown out my footfalls. I drop the tote and slip my net behind me. I don’t want to scare it and certainly don’t want to use the net if I don’t have to. Cats go bonkers when caught in the nylon and wear themselves out trying to get fee. I’ve never had to use it and don’t want to start now.
I get fairly close, drop to my knees, and start cooing at the critter. Maybe I can coax it out without having to chase it. Sometimes I can do that, if the cat’s not too wild. As I inch toward it, getting dirt and grass stains on my hands and knees, the back door to the courthouse pops open.
The noisiest gaggle of humans known to man swoops and clatters down the stairs, and the cat takes off.
I struggle to my feet to watch the commotion. Maybe some of these folks will head for the diner and leave Annie a big tip—
Heaven help me—there are journalists in the group! Press passes big as day displayed on their chests. One of ’em turns his camera toward me, and I skedaddle before it clicks. If he gets a picture at all, it’ll be a blur of floppy hat, orange t-shirt, and purple polyester pants.
Even that’s too much.