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Dead Before The Wedding

 

Ruby Blaylock

Dead Before the Wedding

A Carly Keene Cozy Mystery

[_
p=. First published by JB Woods in 2015

Copyright © Ruby Blaylock, 2017

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, scanning, or otherwise without written permission from the publisher. It is illegal to copy this book, post it to a website, or distribute it by any other means without permission.

This book was professionally typeset on Reedsy_
_Find out more at reedsy.com _]

Contents


  1. Chapter 1
  2. Chapter 2
  3. Chapter 3
  4. Chapter 4
  5. Chapter 5
  6. Chapter 6
  7. Chapter 7
  8. Chapter 8
  9. Chapter 9
  10. Chapter 10
  11. Chapter 11
  12. Chapter 12
  13. Chapter 13
  14. Chapter 14
  15. Chapter 15
  16. Shell’s Secret Recipes
  17. Other Books By Ruby Blaylock

1

h1=.

Keith Urban was singing to her, soft and romantic, and she hoped that his wife didn’t mind. But when he leaned in to kiss her, it was a bit more than she expected.[_ You’re having a dream,_] Carly Keene thought, as she rolled in her bed to hit the snooze button. As much as she loved the delicious private concert in her head, she wasn’t quite ready to climb out of bed and face the day.

Keith leaned in still closer. He was just as pretty as he was on television. His lips were soft, sweet, and wet. Why was he kissing her eyes? And why was he licking her?

Despite wanting to stay in bed and be licked by a hot country music star, Carly opened one eye. She was rewarded with another lick, but not from Keith Urban. This hunk was shorter, hairier, and he was drooling like a maniac. She closed her eyes and covered her face. She groaned at the thought of having to wake up and face the day. She longed to pull the covers over herself and just stay in Dreamland. However, one chunky, drooling Blue-tick, beagle cross had other plans, and Carly found herself fighting off the affections of her goofy, overweight dog.

“Aww, Bo! Get off the covers!” She pushed the big, affectionate dog away, guiding him off the bed. Looking for dirty paw prints on her quilt, Carly wondered if her best friend and housemate Shell had already let Bo outside to ‘take care of business.’ One look at him prancing around her bed told her the answer was ‘no.’ She shuffled down the hall, then down the stairs, and opened up the door leading to the backyard. The dog bolted from the house with such speed it made her head spin. Her backyard was definitely the place for him right now. It was fenced in, so she let Bo go do his thing while she made her way back up to her room.

The hardwood floor was cool and comfy on her feet. It was nearly mid-May, and Carly knew that the heat wouldn’t hold off for long. Summers in the small Georgia town of Parker’s Mill could be brutal, but she loved waking up on these cool mornings, knowing that the day would heat up soon enough. She dug through her closet, looking for her favorite pair of jeans.

It was Saturday, and she had a photo shoot at the park later on. She thought about grabbing her cowgirl boots but hesitated. She didn’t want to worry about mosquito bites on her legs but she wondered whether boots and jeans might get too warm later on. Compromising, she grabbed a cute pair of sandals and put those to the side with the rest of her clothes while she jumped into the shower.

Ten minutes later, a perkier, fresher-feeling twenty-six-year-old emerged. Carly took just enough time to dab foundation on her face and dab on some mascara, then she pulled her chestnut hair into a neat ponytail and headed downstairs towards the heavenly co-mingling scents of coffee and bacon. Shell was definitely up already and filling the house with her signature scent—food.

Carly was glad to have her best friend living with her. She imagined this big old house would feel awfully empty without her. Shell could certainly fill up a space, that was for sure. Her personality was loud and warm, which made the bubbly blonde popular with most who met her. Carly’s best friend was her opposite in so many ways, but she complemented Carly’s calm, quiet nature perfectly.

When Carly had come back home to Parker’s Mill from college with an English major and no real job offer in sight, she’d been utterly relieved when her parents had suggested she take over living in her Great Aunt Trina’s old house. Trina had been one of Carly’s favorite eccentric old relatives, and although there were still a few oddballs hanging around the old family tree, Trina had been special. She’d been the one who had introduced Carly to her passion and current career, photography.

Aunt Trina’s house had always been filled with photographs of family members and places she’d traveled. A spinster her whole life, Trina had been everything Carly had wanted to be when she grew up. Her aunt had traveled around the world, taking photographs for newspapers and magazines as a freelance photographer. Later, Trina had spent her years volunteering at the elementary school, helping the little kids with their reading and art projects.

Trina’s house would have been too big for a single woman, but she’d always had it full of people, from her own nieces and nephews to the children of the neighborhood and their mothers, who often looked to Trina for advice or a friendly ear to confide in. When she’d died just a few years ago, Carly had been heartbroken but had been thrilled to find out that her family was keeping the house in the family, and she was even happier to find that she’d be taking care of it.

Carly had moved into the rambling two-story house and brought Shell with her. The two of them lived like a little old married couple, minus the cuddles on the couch or bickering over breakfast. So far, they’d gotten on like a house on fire, and Carly was grateful to have her best friend living with her, especially when that best friend happened to be a neat freak with a serious baking habit. They occasionally discussed the idea of renting out one of the two spare bedrooms in the house, but since Carly had never actually gotten around to clearing out the spare rooms, it had been little more than idle chatter between the two friends.

Shell Summers was in the kitchen when Carly came down, expertly flipping pancakes with one hand while pouring coffee into a mug with the other. She had such a look of concentration on her face, that Carly couldn’t help but giggle. The sound broke the bubbly blonde’s concentration, and her pancake fell onto the floor.

“Well, shoot, Carly…that one’s yours!” Shell tried to give Carly her version of the evil eye, but to Carly, it just looked like Shell was straining to break wind. Carly couldn’t help but grin.

Carly glanced at the tall stack of pancakes already on the table and shrugged. “Guess Bo will be eating pancakes, then. It’s not like we’re gonna be able to eat all these.”

Shell wiped her hands with a dish cloth and pulled her chair out from the table. She had an exaggerated look of disappointment on her face. “Well, somebody’s got to eat them. You sit down and get to eating before that dog of yours smells this bacon and busts his way in here.”

Carly drizzled pancake syrup over her pancakes and poured some half-n-half into her coffee. It tasted as good as it smelled, and before she knew it, she’d emptied the cup and cleaned her plate. Feeling a little too full, she leaned back in her chair for a minute. “Shell, you’re going to have to stop cooking for me. I’m gonna get fat, and then you’ll have to roll me out the door to my photo shoots.”

Shell eyeballed Carly’s slim, athletic figure. “Oh, lordy…you got enough room to spare. I’m the one who oughta be watching her figure.”

Carly rolled her eyes. “Shell, you’ve been tiny since we were kids. I don’t think that’s going to change after one plate of pancakes.”

Shell pondered that thought for half-a-second, then replied, “Well, in my line of work, gaining weight is an occupational hazard, and I don’t want to end up like my Mama’s cousin Charisse, so I’d better stop eating and get to cleaning!”

Carly cringed. Charisse was a bit of a running joke in Parker’s Mill. Shell’s mother’s cousin, god rest her soul, had been nearly five-hundred pounds when she died. Carly had it on good authority (Shell’s mom, Jean, told Carly herself) that Charisse had suffered from some sort of thyroid disorder, but that didn’t stop people in town from using her weight as a lesson against gluttony.

Charisse had been so big when she died, the county coroner had needed to take off a section of her roof and lift her body out that way. Carly shuddered at the thought and pushed her own empty plate further from her on the table.

“Well, well, well, Miss Shell,” Carly sang, “I do believe it’s time for me to get going. I want to make sure I get the early morning light and skip the late morning heat.” Carly stood up and stretched.

“Who are you shooting today?” Shell asked, pushing her leftovers into the trash with a fork. Carly cringed. She loved photography, and adored the work that she did, but hated the fact that it sounded like she went off and did something violent every time she photographed a client.

“I’ve got Amy Thompson and Danny Mosier, they’re doing a pregnancy session.”

“I didn’t even know they got married,” said Shell, putting her plate in the kitchen sink.

“Yeah, well, they didn’t, I don’t think. I guess they’ll do that after the baby comes.” Carly didn’t have any hangups about having babies out of wedlock, but she couldn’t help but think that the couple would have their hands full trying to plan a wedding with a new baby to care for.

Carly grabbed her camera bag from the table in the hallway just outside the kitchen. She checked it quickly to make sure that she had her spare battery pack and lens, then turned back to her best friend. “I should be finished by lunchtime. You can leave Bo out until then if you want, and I’ll just run back by here and put him up.”

“Okay,” Shell answered. “Have a good day at the office!”

“You, too!” she replied, heading for the door.

Carly grinned. She guessed she was one lucky girl to be able to make a living doing what she loved. She wondered briefly if she’d be any happier if she’d ended up taking a teaching job over in the next county, but put that thought out of her head quickly. She loved her crazy schedule, which allowed her time to help Shell out at the bakery in town, and she loved the fact that she got to capture some of life’s greatest moments for the people in Parker’s Mill.

Carly stepped out into the May sunshine. Crickets were chirping and the birds were singing loudly. She walked over to her old blue Chevy truck and put her camera case and purse inside, and pulled a rawhide chewy treat from the glove compartment box. Closing up her truck door, she went over to the fenced-in section of her yard and waved the treat at her dog.

“Alright, Bo. Here’s a little treat for you…now no digging holes while Mama’s gone!” She tossed the chew to her hyper dog, who snatched it up, tail wagging and rump hitting the ground where he stood. His eyes seemed to say, “Of course, I’ll be good,” but Carly knew better than to believe that. Bo had dug more holes in her yard than a gopher rat, and she was worried that it was just a matter of time before he figured out a way to dig under the fence.

“Bye, Bo.” Carly headed back to her truck, climbed inside, and cranked up the radio. Country music blasted from the speakers as she started the engine and pulled out of the driveway, heading left to go towards the city park and meet her photography clients for their morning photography session.

2

h1=.

Carly’s truck rolled through the quiet streets of Parker’s Mill, stopping at every traffic light and stop sign by memory. She’d lived in the small town her entire life, apart from the two years she’d gone away to college at UGA. She’d enjoyed school, but two years had been more than enough for her to be away from her family and friends. She’d even taken her first two years’ worth of classes at the small State college over in Dalton because she’d been anxious about living out on her own.

Now that she was a little older, Carly sometimes thought about traveling, maybe seeing some of the big, wide world beyond the blue Georgia skies she’d grown up under. Breathing in the scent of honeysuckle, she realized that her small town was pretty idyllic, even if it was a tad small. The only problem with its near-perfection was that it could sometimes feel as though nothing ever happened in the sleepy little town.

Her truck turned down Main Street, where the town was slowly waking up to the gorgeous Friday morning. Carly passed the post office, just opening up for business. The bank would be opening soon, and the local business owners were probably all having coffee at the Chow Time, eyeballing the clock and killing time until they could scoot on over and get their banking done.

Online banking was still regarded with high suspicion among some of the older business owners in Parker’s Mill, and Carly knew that the social opportunities that the local bank provided were highly valuable to those looking to network in the small town.

Sweets & Eats was almost smack in the middle of Main Street, perfectly situated to catch most of the foot traffic that the busiest street in Parker’s Mill received. The bakery was owned by Shell’s parents, who had officially retired in January and were now taking some time to do some travelling of their own. Shell’s younger sister, Mandy, was away at college, so that left Shell to run the business pretty much on her own, and Carly had stepped up to help her best friend out.

As it turned out, Shell was a natural at running the business, and Carly enjoyed helping her out. For the longest time, it felt as though they were two girls playing grownups, waiting for their parents to tell them that they were doing it all wrong, but now the girls managed the small bakery like a pair of professional business women. Of course, all the free baked goodies sweetened the deal, and Carly still had plenty of time to run her small, but growing, photography business, so it really was the ideal situation for the friends.

A friendly face and a wave caught Carly’s attention. It was Pete from Chow Time, no doubt hoping to catch a glimpse of Shell on her way into work. Carly grinned and waved back. He is so infatuated, she thought, and sighed. If only she could be sure that her friend had the same feelings, it would be perfect.

Carly turned onto the road that led into the park and grimaced at the giant block of chipped concrete that still sat on the corner. At one time, a lamp post had been situated in that concrete block, but the city removed it, leaving just the concrete. Its only purpose, Carly thought, was to sit there and taunt her, since she’d hit that block not once, but twice, when she was in high school. The first time, it had been broad daylight, and she’d swerved her truck to avoid hitting a dog that had run in front of her truck.

The second time, she’d been driving home at night, not used to driving in the dark, and clipped it turning the corner. She guessed maybe the city had kept it to teach young drivers not to turn corners too sharply, but the visual reminder, and the dent that remained in the front of her beat up old truck, hurt her pride every time she saw them.

The park was quiet at this time of the day. Carly knew that in an hour or so it would be full of the stay at home moms and their little kids, looking for a way to burn off some energy and give the weary moms a break before lunch time. There was one lone jogger, enjoying what was sure to be one of the last cool mornings as summer took hold of the town.

Carly parked up and grabbed her camera bag and spare tripod. She always kept one with her, just in case. She kept one in the truck, two at home and one at Sweets & Eats, in case anyone ever wanted their cake photographed. Some of the bigger cakes that Shell had made rivaled anything Carly had ever seen on those fancy baking shows on reality television and Carly wanted to make sure that there was a living record of her friend’s talents somewhere to be found.

Carly’s camera bag felt a little off balance this morning since she’d finally cleared out the extra lenses and filters that she’d been carrying around for the last few weeks. This photo shoot would be short, sweet and simple. The expectant couple had been hesitant about booking the session, since they’d made it clear that money was a problem for them, but Carly had gone to school with Amy and Derek, and they were good people. She planned on charging them for her smallest package, on principle, but would be throwing in quite a few extras as an early baby shower gift.

She had just reached up to move the bag higher on her shoulder when Carly was knocked off balance, her feet tangling up with a bundle of fur and a loose, flapping leash. She tried to stay on her feet, but failed, landing on her butt with a thud, and found herself being covered in dog kisses for the second time that morning.

Carly put her hands up, trying to stand without breaking her camera or hurting the dog, an extremely friendly chocolate lab named “Betty Sue,” if her name tag was to be believed. She finally managed to get to her feet, and took hold of Betty Sue’s leash before the dog could run off again. Grabbing the dog’s hot pink collar, she checked its tags for a phone number or owner’s name but didn’t see any.

She was about to call her cousin, Brandon, who was a police officer for the Parker’s Mills police department, so that he could send over animal control, when a tall drink of water ran up, waving frantically and gasping for breath.

“Please…don’t call animal control! This,” he panted, trying to regain his composure, “is my dog.” He took a long, deep breath, and continued. “She had me running since Main Street. Must’ve seen a darn squirrel or something. My name’s Tucker, Tucker Gaston. Thank you for catching my dog, Miss…”

Carly’s eyes grew big for just a second, then she pulled herself together. “I know who you are, Tucker. I’m Carly Keene, we went to the same high school.” Carly prayed that he would not mention the fact that she’d gone out on a date with Tucker’s attractive, but obnoxious, twin brother, Larry. Carly had thought that Larry was just adorable until he’d opened his mouth and turned out to be the cutest, most chauvinistic pig she’d ever had the misfortune of meeting.

If Tucker remembered her, he didn’t let on. Good, thought Carly. [_I can live without that part of my past being dredged up. _]With his sandy brown hair and soft blue eyes, Tucker was, she thought, even better-looking than his twin. She hoped that he didn’t have the same fabulously horrible personality.

Carly situated her camera bag on her shoulder and glanced at her cell phone. She would be late if she wasn’t careful, and that was not like her at all.

“Thank you, again, Carly Keene…Betty Sue here just does not know how to listen.” He held out his hand. “Would you like me to help you carry that? It looks heavy.”

Carly found herself wanting to smile and considered handing the bag over just so she’d have an excuse to stay and talk with Tucker for just a few more minutes. He seemed like a nice guy, and lord knows there weren’t a lot of those running free in Parker’s Mill these days. His hair was slightly tousled, and his face was still flushed from chasing the dog, but he still managed to look pretty gorgeous in a guy-next-door kind of way.

I’ll bet he has six-pack abs under that shirt, she thought, then pushed the thought away. She wasn’t at the park to flirt with guys who couldn’t handle their pets; she was here for business. Smiling, she shouldered the bag more securely. “It’s alright, Tucker. I’d better be going. I’m meeting someone here, a client, to take some pictures. I’m a photographer.”

Just then, Betty Sue pulled up sharply, her brown ears cocked and her whole body straining to pull away from her owner. “Aww, she’s seen that squirrel again!” Carly laughed and patted the dog’s rump. “She’s a hyper one, isn’t she?”

Tucker groaned. “You don’t even want to know. I just picked her up from the vet’s office because I thought she ate my spare set of house keys.” He pulled her leash, and she relaxed some. “The x-ray didn’t show my keys, but there was a weird little blob that looked an awful lot like a ping-pong ball in there.”

Carly wasn’t sure whether to cringe or laugh. Tucker was nothing like his brother, but it had been a long time since high school. Maybe they’d all grown up a little.

“Thanks again for catching Betty Sue, Carly. I’m just on my way to take her home before I drop off some medicine for one of our customers.” Carly almost didn’t notice the name tag Tucker was wearing.

“You work over at the Shop N’ Go pharmacy, don’t you? I knew I’d seen you somewhere before.” Besides when I dated your brother, she added, in her head.

“Yeah, I deliver medicine to some of our older customers who can’t get out much. That is, when I’m not chasing my dog all over town.” Tucker laughed nervously and cleared his throat. “It was nice seeing you, Carly Keene.”

“Yeah, it was good seeing you, too, Tucker. And it was nice meeting you, too, Betty Sue,” Carly said, rubbing the dog’s ears. She watched the pair walk away, then hurried over to the gazebo where she’d planned to meet with Amy and Derek.

Amy and Derek were a cute couple, and pretty photogenic. It was easy for Carly to get plenty of good shots, and a few that she was sure they’d treasure forever. Amy’s growing tummy and a few humorous props supplied by Derek (the mock oven he’d held in front of his fiance’s baby bump had been her favorite) made the session fun and fast.

Carly chatted with them easily, catching up on what they’d been up to since high school. Sometimes, Carly wondered what life would have been like if she’d settled down and gotten married to the first boy that proposed to her, but since that had been Jack Dawson and they had both been seven years old at the time, she was pretty sure that relationship wouldn’t have worked out.

Carly took a quick look at the images of the little family in her viewfinder. They did look so happy, and seemed to be excited about the future. Carly felt a little pang of envy looking at the photos. Marriage would be nice, she mused. Maybe have a few little kids…but she pulled herself up short of feeling sorry for herself. Carly had decided a long time ago that she did not want to be married and having kids just for the sake of it.

When Carly finally settled down, it would have to be with ‘the one.’ She wasn’t going to settle for good enough, because she wanted great, just like her parents had. They’d been married for thirty years and they still made each other giggle. Carly didn’t need perfection, she just needed her perfect match, and then life would be, well, perfect.

Carly loved photography for many reasons, but one of them was the fact that looking through her lens let her see a situation clearly, without distraction. Looking at the little family in her camera viewscreen, she could see happiness and love. She couldn’t see the worry in their faces when they went home and wondered how they were going to afford a new baby, a wedding and everything a growing family needs.

Carly realized that looking at life through a lens was somehow cheating because real life was messy and not at all neat like her photographs. Still, she felt that everyone deserved one moment of clarified joy that they could keep and cherish for their whole lives, and that’s why she’d decided to become a photographer.

Goodness knows the pay wasn’t always great, and the long hours she’d spend editing these photos were way more than the amount of money she’d earn from them. But the look on Amy and Derek’s face was priceless, and she wanted them to have something positive and joyful to hang on to if the future got scary and stressful.

“I think that’s it, y’all,” she said, switching off her camera. Amy and Derek seemed relieved, and Carly could tell that the pregnant woman was beginning to feel the heat of the day creep up on them. “Now, I don’t let anybody see these til they’re perfect, so you just go on home and sit tight. I’ll call you when they’re ready, and we can sort out prints.”

Amy and Derek thanked her, and headed off towards their car after hugging her way too many times. Carly knew she had some great shots, and would enjoy editing these. She put her camera back in the case and headed for her own car, looking out for any wayward dogs as she went. She kind of wished she’d taken down Tucker’s number. She hadn’t been on a date in a long time and found herself somewhat endeared with Tucker and Betty Sue.

Well, she did know where he worked, and that was something. As Carly started her truck, she made a mental note to herself. I must drop by that pharmacy and pick up some sunscreen because it’s been getting kind of hot lately.

3

h1=.

Michelle Summers, or Shell, to her friends, had always been a keen baker. Ever since she was little, Shell had followed her mother around the kitchen, mixing, pouring and stirring everything her mother would let her, and eventually she learned most of her mother’s techniques by heart. This had made her a very popular girl in school when she would bring in cookies or cupcakes to surprise her teachers or friends.

Shell was a born nurturer, but thanks to a knack for picking the wrong guy every time, she currently found herself with no one other than Carly to care for. Unless you counted Shell’s cat, Mr. George, named after the colorful eighties pop star because of his funny little eyes that made him look as though he wore a hefty dose of eyeliner.

Shell spent her days taking care of Sweets & Eats, the bakery that her parents owned and used to run, until their retirement in January, when they had left Parker’s Mill for a year of traveling the country in their RV. Some girls may have felt put upon to be asked to take care of an entire business practically by themselves, but at twenty-six, Shell felt it was high time that she settled down and found herself a career, and running the bakery seemed like as good a choice as any.

Besides, she loved to bake and chat with everyone that came into the little bakery. She’d made a few changes to the place while her parents were away, putting a couple of small bistro tables and folding chairs in front of the display case. That way, people could come in and grab a snack, and enjoy some good gossip before they left.

She’d also installed one of those small refrigerators that she kept full of sodas and little cartons of milk because you never knew when someone would want a glass of milk with their brownie or cookies.

The other change that she’d made was that she’d hired Carly, at least unofficially, to help out while her parents were away. The bakery didn’t stay busy constantly, so Shell could manage most days on her own just fine, but it was nice to have the company when times were slow and great to have an extra set of hands when the pace picked up.

Today was a slow day, but Shell knew that it would pick up because Friday afternoons were always busy. She’d usually have a few bank employees drop by to pick up some snacks for their breakroom sometime around noon, and Melvina from the post office would probably stop by and get some cupcakes for her grandbabies. Usually, most of the items in the display case would be gone by the time she closed up the bakery on a Friday night, and she’d have several dozen cupcakes, muffins and assorted baked treats in the kitchen, waiting to be brought out on Saturday morning.

Shell was wiping down the counter for the third time that day, meticulously scraping away at a few specks that she was sure no one else could see, when the little bell above the door jingled, and Carly walked in carrying two large coffee cups full of coffee and a white shopping bag.

“Did you stop by Chow Time first?” Shell quizzed her friend.

“Uh-huh. Got you a little something, courtesy of Pete.” Shell blushed. Pete Wellesley owned the little diner down the street, and he was always sending them free coffee and food. Carly insisted that Pete had a crush on Shell, but she doubted it. He was just being nice, she told herself. He couldn’t possibly be interested in her; they had practically nothing in common, apart from a love of cooking.

“How did your photo shoot go?” Shell changed the subject before Carly could even sit the coffee on the counter. She watched as her friend pulled open the plastic bag she’d been carrying, and pulled out two white Styrofoam takeaway boxes. She could smell the grilled cheese sandwiches before the boxes were even opened, and her mouth began watering.

“Fine, it was good. Amy and Derek are a cute couple, and I’m sure that baby’s going to be just adorable.” Carly sipped her coffee, a wistful look in her eyes.

“Do you get the impression that we’re the last girls in town to get married and have babies?” Shell bit into her gooey grilled cheese, and wiped the edges of her mouth.

“Nah, Shell. We’re not the last, we’re just the smart ones. The way I see it, there is no need to rush off into marriage and babies. That just ends badly, and you know it. Besides, we’re not the only ones who aren’t married yet. You’ll never guess who I ran into today, and he didn’t have a ring on his finger.”

Shell sat up and leaned in closer. Gossip was her favorite food, and gossip about her old school friends was her favorite flavor. “Who on earth did you run into today?”

“Well, actually, his dog ran into me. Do you remember Tucker Gaston? He was the nicest one of the Gaston twins?” Carly didn’t want to remind Shell that she’d gone out with his brother, but she didn’t have to.

“Eww, yeah. His brother was Larry Gaston, that pig. You went out with him once, didn’t you?” Shell crinkled her nose up like she had just gotten a whiff of something rotten.

“One time was more than enough for me. He was so sexist and full of himself, I think he’d probably been better off just dating himself.” Carly took a sip of her coffee and remembered her one and only date with Larry Gaston. It had been a trip to the movies, where they sat through some macho action movie for two hours, then he’d tried to make out with her in his car before dropping her back off at home. Apparently, his charm only extended as far as asking a girl out, because, on the actual date, he’d definitely been the opposite of charming.

To be fair, they had both still been in high school at the time, but Carly’s “bad choice of boyfriend” alarm had been going off like crazy after that first date, and she always sort of felt that she’d dodged a bullet by not opting to back for a second one.

“I wonder what lucky gal wound up with Larry for a husband, that is, if he’s even settled down.” Shell threw her empty Styrofoam container in the trash as the bell over the door began to jingle.

The blonde that walked in the door seemed like a stranger to Carly and Shell at first. Her bleached hair was teased and sprayed into place using what looked like more hairspray than Carly had ever used in her life. The hairstyle wasn’t the only thing that was big about the woman. Her choice of clothing was loud, to say the least, and her makeup was something straight from the eighties.

Yoga pants clung tightly to a generously sized derriere, which Carly couldn’t help but notice when the lady turned to unhook the handle of her purse from the door handle. She was wearing an oversized, low cut sweatshirt that had its sleeves cut off, and a pair of neon yellow bra straps could be seen hugging her curvy shoulders.

Hot pink lipstick, loads of eyeliner, and the brightest blue eyeshadow known to man created an effect that was slightly retro, and completely unnatural. This lady does not read Vogue, thought Carly, but she smiled politely. Big Hair smiled back, but it didn’t look genuine.

“Well, ladies, it is getting hot out there!” Big Hair sashayed into the room like a big neon sign, practically blinking in her brightness. “But it’s so cool in here, I might just have to stay for a while!” She stepped right up to the counter and plunked her purse down firmly. Looking back and forth from Shell to Carly, she laughed loudly.

“Well, shoot! Y’all don’t remember me, do you? It’s Mona, from high school.” Carly looked at Mona, then at Shell, who seemed to be straining to put the brightly colored face and name together.

Then it clicked. “Mona Durham?” Carly remembered only one Mona ever in her lifetime, and it was not the same person she saw standing in front of her. Mona Durham had been a skinny, quiet kid who followed her and Shell around the playground in elementary school, and who had been too shy to ask anybody to prom. This could not be the same person.

“The one and only, but soon to be Mona Gaston, sugar! I’m getting married in three weeks, and that’s why I popped in here, I need a cake. But enough about me, how on earth are you two? Shell Summers, I knew you were here working for that sweet mama and daddy of yours, but I didn’t realize Carly worked here, too. I thought you went off to college to become a teacher or something.” Mona’s smile strained on her face. It was so fake, Carly wondered how she kept from losing it.

“Oh, yeah, I went to college but decided to come back here and open up my own business. I’m a photographer, and I just help out here when Shell needs me.” Carly felt weird telling Mona this. They had never been friends in high school, and she didn’t think Mona was really that interested in being friends now.

“Well, ain’t that perfect! It just so happens that I need a photographer for my wedding pictures, so you are hired. I know you’re good because you took all those pictures for the yearbook, didn’t you? I need you to come over to Moore House in a couple of weeks and get some shots of me and my fiance. Larry’s just dying to get hitched, and we’ve only gone and picked out the most romantic place in town to get married.”

Carly was sure that her mouth was hanging open, but when she went to close it, nothing happened. She swallowed quickly, then grabbed her coffee and sipped it, the cup barely hiding her astonishment. Shell wasn’t so subtle.

“Oh, my gawd…Mona Durham, we were just talking about him! We were talking about how Carly went out with him that one time…ain’t it funny how life happens, huh? Well, congratulations!”

Mona’s smile slipped for a moment, and her eyes flashed, a hint of jealousy played in Carly’s direction. “Yes, well that was an awfully long time ago, now, wasn’t it? Now me and Larry are as happy as can be, and we are planning the biggest wedding ever. His construction business is just booming after that tornado over in Catauga county, and he just stays busy, making that money.”

Neither of the girls responded so Mona kept talking. “I’m gonna need a big old cake. I want at least three tiers, four if you can get them all on there. My colors are pink and brown, and I want a white cake with a cream filling, lemon will be fine. Now, I know it’s short notice, but I’d also like special cake toppers if you can get them. I need the groom to have a little hammer, and the bride to be wearing zebra print, to match my dress.”

Carly wondered whether Mona had actually stopped to breathe during that whole speech, while Shell wondered if she was being serious, or completely out of her mind.

“Well, my goodness, doesn’t that sound like a lovely cake? I’m sure we can whip something up for you…” Carly tried to stop Shell before she could respond, but the feisty blonde was too quick for her.

“Now, hang on, Mona. Four tiers are just too many for this short notice, and I don’t have a clue where we’d find those cake toppers. Pink and brown, I can do. Did you want pastel pink or dark pink?” Shell was trying to hold her own in this confidence contest, and doing a pretty good job at it.

Mona turned her fake smile up a few kilowatts. “Why light pink’ll do just fine, and three tiers will have to do, I suppose. But, do try your best to find those little cake toppers. Maybe you can find them online on eBay or something.”

Shell pulled out a pad from underneath the counter and began writing down Mona’s details, getting her phone number in case she needed to call her. Carly gave Mona her business card so that she could arrange to meet later to discuss the wedding photos and schedule a pre-wedding walk-through, since Moore House was a large venue. She wanted to have a good idea of the layout before the big day, so she could get the best shots.

“Ain’t it funny,” Mona purred, looking, Carly thought, entirely too proud of herself for someone who was marrying Larry the louse. “I mean, here we are, me marrying Larry after you dated him in high school. What a small world…”

As Shell handed Mona her receipt, the bride-to-be shouldered her purse and issued a reminder. “Make sure I get this cake on time, sugar. I want my big day to be perfect, and since we’re having the wedding at Moore House, I need you to be sure you’ve got everything you need to get all my photos done. I want before shots, indoor photos, outdoor photos, the works. Money is no object.”

Carly wondered why, if Mona had so much money to throw around, she didn’t invest some of it in a better wardrobe and makeup lessons.

As the door shut behind Mona, Shell let out a dramatic breath. “Oh, my gawd…do you believe all that? And how on earth did she get her hair so big? I mean, the eighties just called, and they want their Aquanet back.”

Carly giggled, unable to stop herself. “What a pair. I mean, Larry’s bad, but Mona, well, she takes the cake. I’m guessing she thinks her poop don’t stink these days, for some reason. Did she win the lottery or something?” If her memory served her right, Carly remembered Mona as being from a very poor family. If Mona was really having her wedding at the historic Moore House, which had a waiting list over eighteen months long and a four-figure deposit, she must have come into some serious money.

Shell closed her little notebook with Mona’s order in it and grabbed the cloth she’d been using earlier. Wiping down the counter again, she quipped, “I’m not sure where she’s getting the money from, but I do know one thing. There’s going to be one heck of a white trash wedding up at the big house in a few weeks, and you couldn’t pay me money to hang around and see what kind of craziness happens at the reception!”

Carly agreed and wondered what she’d gotten herself into when she had taken on the job of photographing the wedding of the town’s worst womanizer and the hurricane that was Mona Durham.

4

h1=.

On any given Saturday morning, the Chow Time restaurant is as busy as it gets. The simple little country-style diner can often be found packed with people who could very well cook their own breakfasts, but who preferred food prepared by Pete Wellesley and his group of merry chefs. Pete was a great cook, for sure, but it was his charming personality and kind heart that really brought the residents of Parkers Mill in to eat.

Carly was in Chow Time early this Saturday morning, not for food, but for a fresh cup of Pete’s coffee. She supposed she could just bring a coffee pot into Sweets & Eats, but it just wouldn’t be the same if she couldn’t stop by and chat with Pete and his customers a little, which she did most mornings. She and Shell had become such regular customers that Pete seldom charged either of the women for coffee anymore. In fact, Pete often had two to-go cups waiting, filled with coffee prepared just the way each woman liked it.

Carly preferred hers white with no sugar because she liked the taste of coffee when it had a little bitter bite to it. Shell always had three sugars and cream, because, she’d told Pete, “coffee should complement the cake,” which she loved to eat with her morning brew.

Carly smiled at Pete as she walked in the door, and went straight to the counter where two white to-go cups sat waiting. “Pete, you’re spoiling us.” Carly smiled and pulled a small white box out of her large purse. Sitting it on the counter, she watched as the man’s eyes lit up like candles.

“Well, it looks like you girls are the ones spoiling me. What’d she send this time? Cupcakes, or muffins?”

“Neither. She’s trying her hand at pastry-making. Those are something French, but I can’t remember what she called them. Macaroonis or something like that…”

Pete grinned even bigger. “Macarons. They’re one of my favorites. You tell Shell I owe her dinner for this.” He sniffed the box, then pulled one of the light, cream-filled cookies out of the box and put the entire thing in his mouth. Rolling his eyes back in his head and exaggerating a look of bliss, he chewed, swallowed and sighed. “I haven’t had these in years…when did she start making pastries?”

“Just recently. She wants to add some new stuff to the menu. I think she’s trying to impress her parents enough to let her take over the business permanently.” Carly shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t know why she doesn’t just go out on her own and start up a brand new business. It’s not like there’s a whole lot of competition around here, and Sweets & Eats is popular enough for two locations.”

Pete wiped the crumbs from the corner of his mouth and sat the remaining cookies under the counter. Running his hand through his fiery red hair, he reminded Carly of a little boy who’d just been given cookies before dinner. Pete was always just so open, so present, it kind of unsettled her. Could anybody really be that genuine, or did he just have a knack for making you feel that way?

“Please tell Shell I said thank you, and extend my offer for dinner.” He cast his eyes down for a minute, then leaned in closer to Carly. “Is she seeing somebody at the moment?” He seemed to want to ask something else but stopped himself.

“No, she’s not. And you should ask her out. You are a nice guy, she’s a great girl, and y’all are the best cooks this side of Alabama.” Carly sighed. “You like her, I think she likes you, but neither of you will do a thing about it.”

Pete blushed. “I don’t know if she likes me. She’s nice, but she’s nice to lots of people. I’m not even sure I’m her type…”

“Oh, for Pete’s sake, Pete! You and Shell are a real pair! I tried to tell her I thought you two should go out, and she said the same thing. Y’all may be geniuses in the kitchen, but you’re a pair of dim bulbs when it comes to romance.” Carly smiled, and Pete chuckled.

“I guess you’re right. Maybe I’ll call her, or come by the bakery sometime.”

“Make it sometime soon. Don’t wait for her to fall for some loser with a motorcycle and a bunch of tattoos.” Carly said it with a laugh, but Pete’s face dropped. “What’s wrong, Pete? What did I say?”

“Oh, it’s, uh, it’s nothing. It’s silly.” Pete hesitated. “I have a tattoo.”

Carly felt her face turning bright red.

“And a motorcycle.” She wanted to crawl underneath the floor and hide.

“Oh,” she began, “I, well, I didn’t mean…”

“Gotcha.” Pete’s expression was deadpan. “I don’t really. I just wanted to see you blush.” Carly didn’t know whether to laugh or hit him, so she did both.

“You are not right, Pete Wellesley. But, you are perfect for Shell.” Carly picked up her drinks and turned to go when she noticed a familiar face sitting at a table by the door. Tucker Gaston was eating from a plate filled to the brim with food, and he seemed to be relishing it.

“Well, howdy, stranger. Fancy bumping into you here,” Carly laughed, and Tucker gestured to the empty chair across from him. “Well, just for a minute. I’ve got to get back to Shell and the bakery.”

Tucker swallowed the bite of the egg he’d been chewing. “You work at Sweets & Eats? I thought you were a photographer?”

“I am, but I don’t get enough work to pay the bills, so I help Shell out in the bakery. You remember Shell, don’t you?”

Tucker grinned. “Of course, I remember Shell Summers. I sat behind her in history class our junior year. She never stopped arguing with the teacher about how wrong it was that women were treated so bad in history. She was always a firecracker, that one.”

Carly laughed. “Yeah, she got in trouble because she refused to do the essay about women’s role in the civil war because she said it was sexist and racist.”

Tucker nodded his head. “Well, she has a point…” He took a sip of his drink and checked his watch. “I’m just keeping an eye on the clock,” he explained. “Gotta be at the pharmacy in half an hour.”

“No Betty Sue this morning? She must be behaving herself, then?” Carly grinned, remembering the boisterous lab from the park.

“She’s probably eating my shoes right now,” he replied. “I’ve taken her to three different obedience classes, bought every toy the pet store has, and still she destroys everything. It’s driving me crazy.” He looked at Carly with his big blue eyes and reminded her of a puppy himself.

“Maybe she’s just lonely. Don’t you have a fenced in yard? Maybe if you left her outside for a little while when you go to work…”

“No good,” he interrupted. “The fence doesn’t go all the way around, so she can get out. Until I get a chance to fix it, she’ll just have to stay inside.”

Carly thought for a second, then offered a solution. “I have a fenced in yard and a bored hound dog. Has Betty Sue been spayed?” Tucker looked confused, so she went on. “You could bring her to my house if she gets on with other dogs. My dog, Bo, is a big old sweetheart, and he’s lonely, too, since his brother died.”

Luke had been just as big and goofy as his brother, and it had broken Carly’s heart when he’d died suddenly last spring. The vet had told her that it was likely a heart condition that had killed the big dog, and she had mourned him for a long time, but not as much as Bo had mourned his brother. The police actually sent an officer out to make sure that somebody wasn’t hurting the poor dog because he had howled nonstop for two days, until he lost his voice and just lay there, looking sad.

He’d eventually perked up, but he still wasn’t his old self. Carly hoped that maybe Tucker would bring Betty Sue over because it might just make her dog happy again.

“I could try her with him. She’s pretty good with other dogs, and that might just keep her out of trouble for a bit.”

Carly reached into her purse and pulled out a small silver box full of cards. Each one had her telephone number and email address, plus a little camera and her web address printed neatly on one side. “Here’s my number, just call me when you want to bring her by, and you can leave her for a few hours. If she does okay, you can leave her with Bo when you go to work.”

Tucker took the business card and put it in his pocket. “Are you sure about that? I mean, won’t that be a lot of work for you?”

“Nope. I won’t be there. I’ll probably be at Sweets & Eats, but I have a secret set of eyes I can keep on them.” She pulled out her smartphone and tapped it a few times, then turned the screen so Tucker could see it. “I had cameras put in last May when all those houses were getting vandalized. My cousin is a police officer, and he got me a discount on the security stuff.”

Tucker looked at the phone, and he could clearly see a chunky hound dog ambling around a patch of dirt, chewing on a rawhide strip. “Good looking dog. Good quality on that camera, too.”

“I like it. It makes me feel more secure, especially with just us girls living there.” Carly immediately realized that she probably shouldn’t be telling Tucker that. He didn’t seem dangerous, but you really couldn’t tell these days. Her cousin, Brandon, would kick her butt if he knew she’d just told someone she barely knew that she lived alone with her best girlfriend and a fat hound dog.

Changing the subject, Carly mentioned Mona’s visit to the bakery, and she was surprised to see Tucker’s face darken. “I really don’t care what my brother is up to, and as for that woman he’s marrying, I think she’s a money-grubbing floozy. They’re made for each other.”

Carly was a bit shocked to hear Tucker’s condemnation of his brother and Mona, but she guessed she could see his point. Still, she didn’t think she’d ever talk that way about family. She was close to her brother, even though she hardly saw him anymore since he’d moved to Atlanta. Growing up, he’d been like a best friend, and she couldn’t imagine not getting along with him.

“I don’t mean to sound harsh, Carly, but my brother is no good. He treats women like they’re disposable, and honestly, I don’t see any reason why he’s marrying Mona. I mean, it’s not like she’s the prettiest girl in town, or the richest.” Or the smartest, Carly added in her own head.

“I just wish my brother would grow up and stop messing with people. Even Mona Durham deserves better than that.”

“Maybe, this time, it’s really love,” said Carly hopefully. “Some people just take longer than others to grow up. Maybe your brother’s getting tired of running around, and just wants to settle down. I can understand that. Being single has its own pressures, as I’m sure you know.” Carly smiled, but it didn’t reach her eyes. She really shouldn’t have brought up being single, because it could just open a whole other can of worms.

She was just about to say something about how she needed to run on along to the bakery when a voice cut through the air just above her ear.

“Larry Gaston, you jerk…how can you show your face in here, with another woman, no less?! You said you were gonna call me, you liar! Do you think it’s funny to just mess with a girl’s feelings and [_never _]call?!” Carly turned to see a pretty blonde woman standing behind her. She was angry and upset, and obviously confused about who she was speaking to.

“I get it. You were just slumming when you were hanging out with me. I see you’ve cleaned yourself up, trying to look respectable, I imagine. But a haircut and a change of clothes don’t change anything. You can put a suit on a pig, and it’s still just a pig, Larry!”

Without warning, and before Tucker could explain that she was wrong about his identity, the woman reached over and slapped him hard across the face. “That was for standing me up, and for never calling me. And don’t you ever call me again!” The two of them watched as she turned and marched back out the front door of the diner. Tucker spoke first.

“Well, he’s done it again.” He rubbed his cheek, which was now turning a deep shade of pink that might just leave a bruise.

“Oh, my goodness…she called you Larry! Does she think you’re him? How messed up is that?”

Tucker shrugged his shoulders. “Actually, it happens more than I’d care to admit. At least this one just thought I was him. He’s also dated girls and told them he was me. Try explaining that when some random woman comes up to you in the grocery store and smacks you. I oughta put out a blanket restraining order against every female within ten miles of here, just so I’m safe from my brother’s conquests.”

Carly was gobsmacked. She couldn’t believe that someone would actually do that to their own brother. “Man, I am so sorry that your brother is such a piece of work,” she offered. “But gosh, I dodged a bullet there, then, didn’t I? I guess he and Mona will be a fine pair after all.” She glanced at her phone, checking the time. “I’d better get this back to Shell before it’s stone cold. It was really good talking to you again, and I meant what I said about your dog. Bring her on over anytime.”

Tucker smiled and gave Carly a little wave. “I think I’ll do that. Thanks for the chat, Carly. And for not judging me based on my brother’s crappy taste in women.”

Carly laughed. “Well, I did date him once, remember? That doesn’t say a lot about my taste in men, I guess.” Although it’s certainly improved since then, she thought.

“Naw, you were just a kid then. You grew up. I just wished he had.” Tucker took a sip of his drink. and wiped his mouth. “Hey, I’ll walk with you if you want. I’m headed that way, going to work and all.”

Carly grinned. “I’d like that just fine, Tucker Gaston.” As they walked out the front door of Chow Time, it seemed to Carly that the day was starting off pretty fine indeed.

5

h1=.

Carly reached the bakery about five minutes before it was due to open, but she knew there was no rush. Shell would have everything in perfect order, her compulsion for neatness and organization was almost as strong as her baking abilities. For as long as Carly could remember, Shell had been this way, but she was also spontaneous and a little bit bolder than Carly had ever been, and in some ways this is why Carly suspected that they had become such good friends all the way back in elementary school.

Sure enough, Shell had the display cases filled, the daily specials board proudly announcing the fact that macarons were on the menu, at least for this week, and the bakery was sparkling clean. Carly felt a little bad about cluttering up the counter with the cups of coffee, but before she’d even set them down, Shell had produced two plates and a platter of muffins.

“Bout time you got here…I’m starving to death!” Shell grinned and gestured to the muffins. “I want to try these for myself before I sell them. It’s a new recipe I came up with, blueberry and pomegranate muffins. Tell me what you think.”

Carly took a seat on one of the two bar stools that were kept behind the counter and grabbed a muffin. It smelled divine and tasted even better. Somehow, the combination of super-sweet blueberries and slightly tart pomegranate worked together perfectly. She could even taste a tiny hint of lemon in there, and knew immediately that these would be a big hit with the breakfast crowd.

Almost as if on cue, the doorbell jingled, and Tiffany Lewis, a teller from the bank, walked through the door. “Morning, y’all. They just sent me over here to grab some breakfast. I hope you’ve got fresh muffins!”

Shell smiled back at Tiffany and offered her a muffin from the plate in front of us. “Here, take one of these, on the house. They’re new, so I don’t have many, but if you like them, I’ll whip you up a batch and send them over later. We’ve also got our regular ones if you prefer them.”

Tiffany took the muffin and broke a piece off, sniffing it heartily before popping it in her mouth. “Mmmm…my goodness…you’ve outdone yourself this time, Shell! This is just the best muffin I’ve ever tasted… How long did you say it would be before the next batch is ready?” Tiffany must have been hungry, Carly thought, because the muffin was practically gone.

Shell reached underneath the counter and pulled out a cardboard muffin box. “I’ll have you a batch over within the hour, but take some of these lemon and poppyseed ones for your boss. I know he loves these, and that way you all can have some left over for afternoon snacking.”

Tiffany handed Shell her credit card, and Shell processed the payment, then handed over the card and the receipt. “Well, I will get those over to y’all in a jiffy!” Shell was beaming with pride as Tiffany walked out the door. “I am just thrilled that those are proving to be so popular! You’ll never guess what my secret ingredient is…”

Carly winced. She’d been fooled into eating all kinds of strange things over the years, thanks to Shell’s adventurous nature in the kitchen. Granted, not all of them were bad, but sometimes, when Shell announced her ‘secret ingredient,’ Carly felt a little queasy. She still remembered the strange concoctions she’d tasted over the years as Shell had used her as a ‘guinea pig’ for her culinary creations.

Shell seemed to be waiting for an actual guess, so Carly tried. “Is it carrot?”

“Nope. I meant it, you’ll never guess. Oh, I’ll tell you…it’s kale.” Carly crinkled up her eyebrows.

“Kale? You mean like the green stuff? I didn’t taste it at all.” Carly was genuinely, pleasantly surprised.

“You’re not supposed to, silly. I’m creating a range of ‘sneaky’ treats, so people can get a few extra vitamins in their treats. I’m thinking of calling them ‘Shell’s Sneaky Treats.’ What do you think?”

Carly thought it was a great idea, and told her friend, “I think it’s an awesome idea. I know a lot of parents who would love that idea. Kids already love your cakes and muffins, just don’t tell them that they’re healthy.” Carly laughed.

“Well, I guess I’d better scoot on back in the kitchen and get that batch done for the gals at the bank.” Shell practically bounced off the stool and into the back of the little bakery, happy to be doing what she was so good at, and what she so much loved to do.

Enjoying the quiet of the empty room, Carly checked her phone to see what time it was. She was surprised to see a text message from a number she didn’t recognize. When she opened it, she couldn’t help but smile. A picture of a cute chocolate lab filled the screen, with a message beneath. “Betty Sue says thank you for offering up a play date.” Carly saved the phone number and created a new contact for Tucker. She was trying to think of something witty to say in response when the bell above the door jingled again.

Carly looked up, but before she could even open her mouth, Mona Durham started talking, loudly. “Where is he? Is he in here? Is he in the back there with that blonde bimbo?”

Carly was shocked, confused and a little bit ticked off. Just who did this woman think she was, barging into the bakery and shattering her peaceful morning to smithereens?

“Mona, who are you talking about? Where’s who? Who’s who?” Carly stood up, which was a good thing because Mona was now looking over behind the counter, and heading for the kitchen. “I know he’s around here somewhere because his truck is parked out in front of your store!” Carly intercepted Mona’s approach and blocked her from getting behind the counter.

“Mona, I don’t know what you’re talking about, but I cannot let you back here. You’re not even wearing a hair net!” Carly was wondering if she’d have to tackle Mona to get her to stop, and she didn’t relish the thought. Mona was a little shorter than Carly, but she was stocky, and she was spitting mad about something.

Suddenly, Shell appeared in the doorway, wielding a rolling pin and covered in flour. Her hands were bright red and purple, probably from the pomegranates and blueberries, Carly thought, but it looked an awful lot like blood on Shell’s small hands. The effect was pretty scary and enough to make Mona pause.

“What the heck is going on out here? Mona Durham, why on earth are you up in here, causing all this chaos?” She tapped the rolling pin against her hand for dramatic effect. “If this is about your wedding cake, you might want to rethink your attitude, missy. With your wedding so close, I’m the only person in town who can get it ready for you in time.”

Mona stepped back just a half step. Her face was red, her eyes looked a little like she’d been crying, but Carly couldn’t be sure. Chest heaving, Mona began speaking.

“I’m looking for Larry. He was supposed to meet me today for a suit fitting for his tuxedo, but I can’t get ahold of him. His truck is parked outside of your bakery, so I thought…”

Shell glared at Mona. “Oh, my lord! You thought he was in here, probably out in the kitchen making eyes at me, is that right?” Mona nodded ever so slightly, but kept her chin up, trying to regain some pride. She had to have been aware that she looked a little crazy right now, but it didn’t seem to phase her.

“Well, he ain’t in here, Mona Durham. You’d better calm yourself down before you do something stupid.” Shell’s look softened a little, and Mona replied.

“I’m sorry for upsetting you, Shell. But I’m just so mad…he knows he’s supposed to be meeting me for that fitting. He went out last night with some of the guys on his crew. I bet he’s too hung over to show his sorry face.” Mona gave Shell a quick look all over, trying to confirm whether the flour-covered woman was actually telling the truth. Catching a glimpse of her reflection in the display case, Mona seemed to suddenly notice her own disheveled appearance and smoothed her hair a little.

Carly tried to look outside the bakery window, but couldn’t see anything behind the blinds. “Mona, we haven’t seen him, but if we do, we can give you a call, if you want.” She walked over to the window and opened the blinds slightly, revealing the black bumper of Larry’s truck. She wondered how long it had been sitting out there. She certainly didn’t recall seeing it on her way into the bakery.

“Mona, guys do stupid things sometimes.” Shell had dropped the rolling pin to her side and was trying to change the tone of the conversation. “He probably just doesn’t realize how important this fitting is to you. Planning a wedding is hard work, and with y’all having it up at Moore House, you must be swamped with getting things ready.”

Carly noticed that Mona had calmed right down. Shell had a way of soothing wild beasts, it seemed.

“Here, sugar. You sit down here and have a muffin. I’m sure he’ll be along, tail between his legs, in no time.” Carly admired Shell’s patience. If it were her, she was sure she would have used that rolling pin by now, and not on any pastries.

Mona straightened, her face hardening. “No, thank you, Shell, but I must be going. Fitting or not, I have a great many things to contend with before the wedding, so I need to be going. You just make sure that cake is ready on time, and you call me if you see my fiance.” She aimed this last comment at Carly, who forced a smile and nodded her head. Then, like a whirlwind, Mona spun on her heels and left the bakery.

“That woman is something else!” Shell waved her rolling pin in the air dramatically, and flour floated gently in the air in front of her. “She’d better watch it, or I might just have to add something extra to her wedding cake.”

“Maybe you should add some Xanax because she seriously needs to chill out,” agreed Carly. “What’s with the rolling pin? Last time I checked, muffins didn’t require a rolling pin.”

Shell laughed. “Oh, I just grabbed this for dramatic effect. The thing is, when I did, I spilled flour all over myself. I must look a mess!”

“You look like the mad baker of Parker’s Mill,” Carly laughed and peered out the window at the woman walking away from the bakery. “I guess I feel a bit bad for Mona. I mean, her own fiance doesn’t bother showing up for his tuxedo fitting. That can’t make you feel too appreciated.”

“Aw, he’s probably sleeping it off somewhere. Sounds like Larry might just have a little problem,” Shell said and mimicked taking a big drink from an invisible bottle. “Though, if I was marrying Mona, I’d probably be driven to drink, too.”

Carly noticed the side door of the hairdresser’s across the street swing open, and out popped Larry, checking the street surreptitiously before he stepped outside. A pair of hands reached out and grabbed him, followed quickly by a head of long, red hair. A very pretty redhead planted a lingering kiss right on Larry’s mouth as Carly watched.

“Oh, he’s been sleeping it off, alright. Looks like he’s been sleeping it off with a redhead from the beauty shop across the road.”

Shell nearly tripped over her own feet in her hurry to get to the window. “Oh, my god! What a piece of crap that man is! I mean, missing your tuxedo fitting because you’re cheating on your fiance, well, that’s pretty low.”

She made it just in time to identify the redhead. “I know who that is,” she cried. “That’s Darlene Chambers, she cut my hair once. She stank of cigarettes.” Shell shuddered from the memory.

Carly stepped back from the window, pulling Shell with her. “I don’t want him to see us,” she explained, though it really didn’t matter if he did or not. He probably had no idea that Mona had been in here looking for him. Carly felt sorry for Mona. She may be an irritating person, but nobody deserved to be cheated on by their fiance.

“Do you think we should tell Mona what we saw?” Carly didn’t want to be the one to call her, but she didn’t feel right keeping it to herself.

“Are you kidding? She knows what kind of guy he is. You can call her if you want, Carly, but I wouldn’t want to be within a mile of her when that conversation goes down.”

Carly thought for a minute, then replied. “I guess you’re right. I just hope Mona knows what she’s getting when she says ‘I do’. He’s obviously not looking to change his ways by getting married.” Carly couldn’t understand how someone could claim to love a person, then cheat on them with anything that moved.

The thought that Tucker couldn’t be more unlike his brother crossed her mind, and she blushed for even thinking about it. Why on earth should she care what Tucker’s dating habits were? After all, it wasn’t like she was going to be asking him out anytime soon.

Carly resumed her place on the stool behind the counter and picked up her phone, where Tucker’s contact information was still displayed. Then again, she thought, who knows? She was smiling slightly as she closed his contact details, and wondered vaguely what the more respectable Gaston twin was doing later that week.

6

h1=.

The following week was pretty uneventful around Parker’s Mill. Shell and Carly dropped off Saturday’s leftover muffins for the church’s weekly coffee morning, where Mona’s wedding was mentioned, but not discussed in detail. Apparently the ladies at the church had a little more tact than the ladies at the bank, because come Monday morning, Tiffany was back, talking about how the bank employees had all seen Mona storming off down Main Street after her visit to Sweets & Eats.

Tuesday and Wednesday brought a couple of photo shoots at the Senior Center. Carly loved doing these types of photo shoots because they were not only simple and straightforward, they were genuinely rewarding and fun. The Senior Center was the local meeting place for active senior citizens, and occasionally the city sprung for activities and trips for the local elderly residents. This week, Carly was taking fake “vacation” photos with a very unrealistic beach background and lots of silly props from the discount store.

The photos would be free for the members of the Senior Center, but the Center had paid Carly a tidy sum to take, edit and process the photos. She had a place that she ordered her prints from over in Jackson, Mississippi, that always delivered great results. Carly suspected that the only reason she was asked to take the photos and had been paid so well was that her grandfather had been a regular at the center up until his death five years before. He’d been very beloved, and Carly had gone with him on more than one occasion as his ‘date’ for center functions.

Carly had doted on her grandfather and had been devastated when he’d passed away peacefully in his sleep. He was a real character, and a woman chaser, up until his last day on Earth. Carly remembered how he used to constantly try out cheesy pickup lines on the ladies who waited tables at Chow Time. Everyone in town had loved her grandfather, and it was sometimes hard to believe that he was gone.

Thursday had been slow at Sweets & Eats, so Shell had spent most of the day working on that monstrosity of a wedding cake for Mona and Larry. Carly had admired the persistence that Shell had put in, spending hours online and finally tracking down the odd little wedding cake toppers that Mona had requested. Sure enough, she’d found them on eBay.

The cake itself wasn’t so bad. Shell had managed to get three tiers, plus a tiny fourth tier about the size of three cupcakes, put together after all. Shell had confided that the top tier was, indeed, three cupcakes, but some clever frosting hid that fact and kept it all looking good. The bottom three tiers weren’t frosted yet because the wedding was still over a week away, but Shell did a trial run with the stacking, and it looked pretty impressive.

Carly was licking the frosting off one of the top-tier cupcakes (it was just a trial run, after all) when the doorbell jingled. She glanced up, expecting to see one of the employees from one of the businesses on Main Street, but instead she saw a timid-looking redhead with big green eyes.

“Hey, there,” Carly offered, “what can I get for you?”

The redhead hesitated, then walked up to the counter. Carly couldn’t help but notice how pretty she was, with all that coppery red hair and pale skin. She was wearing the prettiest shade of burgundy lipstick that would have undoubtedly looked too loud on anybody else, but that seemed to suit this young lady just fine.

“Excuse me, miss, but I was wondering if you’ve seen a man around here? I mean, I’m looking for someone, and his truck is parked outside of your store.”

Carly frowned. This was getting to be a little too familiar. She walked over to the window and peered behind the blinds. Sure enough, Larry Gaston’s pickup truck was parked out front, with Larry nowhere to be seen. [_Doesn’t he ever go to work? _]Carly suspected he was working all right, working on the gal over at the beauty salon.

“Oh, shoot, hon, no…I didn’t see him park that there. He doesn’t usually come in here anyways, he just parks there because it’s…convenient.” Carly tried to keep her face neutral, but she was pretty disgusted by Larry’s behavior. If he was still running around on Mona, this marriage was doomed before it started.

“Well, miss…”

“Carly, Carly Keene.” Carly reached out to shake the girl’s hand and noticed that her eyes were red and a little puffy. She definitely had a case of the ugly cry-eye going on, and Carly only hoped that it wasn’t because of Larry.

The redhead took Carly’s hand and shook it timidly, and spoke again. “My name’s Tina Nicholls. I’m looking for Larry Gaston, that man that owns the truck. Does he ever come in here?”

Carly shook her head no, then replied, “Sorry sweetie, he hardly ever comes in here. And, I can’t say I’m too disappointed. He’s not the greatest guy I know.”

Tina blushed, and looked away. “Yeah, don’t I know it. If you see him, will you tell him to call me? He has my number.”

Carly thought for a second. It really was none of her business, but she didn’t think Larry ought to be calling any other redheads, especially when his wedding was so close. Tina probably ought to know about the wedding. It might just change her mind about needing to talk to Larry.

“Tina, hon, he’s getting married soon. Are you sure you can’t wait to talk to him until later on?” Carly tried to give her a look that said ‘and by later on, I mean never’, but she wasn’t sure how effective it was.

The redhead spoke again, this time, with a fire in her eyes. “Yeah, I’d heard that. He’s marrying Mona Durham. He was with me before her, but things got…messy. He’s not a great guy, but I need to talk to him.”

Carly decided to press further. Something about Tina just seemed too sweet and innocent to be saddled with a problem like Larry. “He’s really not worth bothering over, sweetie. I don’t think he’s changed his ways, even with getting married and all.”

Tina sighed. “I wish I didn’t have to talk to him. I don’t want to try and get back with him or anything if that’s what you’re thinking. It’s just that, well, I need to talk to him about something really important, and he needs to know about it before his wedding.”

Carly was about to reply when Shell walked out of the kitchen. “What’s this about Larry? What’s he done this time?”

Carly introduced Tina to Shell and explained why Tina had come looking for Larry. “Oh, my lord…that man is too much. I would say that I’m sorry we haven’t seen him, Tina, but my mama always told me not to tell lies. If I were you, I’d run as far and as fast in the opposite direction of that man as was humanly possible.”

Tina apparently decided that it wasn’t worth arguing about, and changed the subject. “Um, while I’m in here, could I get a couple of those little cupcakes there, in your case? My little boy just loves those.”

Shell reached in and picked out two white cupcakes that were covered in colorful sprinkles. Tina reached for her wallet, but Shell stopped her. “Don’t worry about it. You take those on the house for your little one.”

Tina tried to refuse, but Shell simply put them in a pastry box and sealed them with a big smiley face sticker. “It is too slow in here today, and these will just go stale unless somebody eats them. You forget about Larry. Honestly, you seem like you’re way too good for him anyway.”

Tina grabbed a pen from her purse and a napkin from the counter. She wrote something on the napkin and held it out. Handing it to Carly, she asked, “Will you call me if you see him, or will you give him my number, in case he’s lost it?”

Carly sighed. Tina was obviously a hopeless case. She forced a weak smile and pocketed the paper with Tina’s number on it. She didn’t say anything but gave a little nod, which was enough for Tina.

Carly and Shell watched the pretty young redhead walk out the door, then Carly spoke. “I kinda feel sorry for her. Do you think she’s desperate or something? I mean, she’s pretty, I’m sure she could have any number of guys hanging around her. Why on earth would she still want Larry Gaston?”

Shell shrugged. “I have no idea. That man must have something special hidden away somewhere,” she sighed. “I just don’t see it.”

“He is definitely a ‘player,’ that’s for sure. I wonder how many girls he has going at one time? And how many have been silly enough to fall for his crap?”

“Well, Carly, you went out with him once. What made you fall for mister McDreamy?” Shell jibed.

“If I remember correctly, Shell Summers, I lost a bet with you and he was the punishment.”

“What did we bet on?” Shell asked.

“You bet me I wouldn’t go out with him if he asked. If I had said no, you were going to make me try those spinach and rhubarb pudding popsicles.” Carly shuddered at the memory, and Shell laughed.

“Well, the joke’s on you, because those things were delicious!” Shell flipped the lock on the front door and headed for the cash register. “Let’s get on out of here and go get something to eat. I’m in the mood for pudding now.” Both girls giggled and started closing up the bakery. Carly wondered if Tina would try and find Larry. She hoped that she wouldn’t, but part of her hoped that Larry got exactly what was coming to him. That man had been breaking hearts and taking names for far too long. She was certain that it was all just a matter of time before Larry Gaston’s game was well and truly up.

7

h1=.

Friday morning, Carly and Shell rode into work together because the air conditioning in Carly’s old truck was playing up and it had turned a shade hotter than the girls were used to. It was already starting to get humid at 10:00a.m. when they opened up the bakery, and Shell had proclaimed that maybe it was time they started selling ice cream right along with their cakes and brownies.

“You’re just looking for an excuse to eat ice cream,” Carly quipped as she refilled the napkin dispenser that sat on the counter.

“Shows what you know, Carly. For your information, I don’t need an excuse to eat ice cream. It’s one of the major food groups, you know.” Carly groaned at her friend’s humor. How the heck could she eat so much junk food and still stay so small?

The rest of the day was fairly uneventful. Fridays were often hit and miss, at least in the early part of the day. In the afternoons, it tended to pick up a little bit, especially when the other businesses on Main Street closed. Many of the business owners and their employees stopped by the bakery before heading home, grabbing cakes and cupcakes to enjoy later. Some ordered ahead of time, but many were just impulsive shoppers, stocking up on snacks for the weekend.

Shell usually kept her display case fully stocked on Fridays, because whatever didn’t sell on Friday evening went like hotcakes on Saturday morning, when the casual shoppers strolled down Main Street looking for a bargain. The small bistro tables and chairs she’d put in stayed pretty busy on Saturdays, but on Fridays, not so much.

Carly killed some time on slow days by bringing in her laptop and editing photos. Shell had suggested that they offer free WiFi to the customers, but Carly wasn’t sure it was worth it. As busy as the bakery could get, most people didn’t stay long enough to need WiFi. Besides, Carly was sure that Shell’s parents would never go for that, and they’d be back just before Christmas.

This particular Friday, Carly had been editing some of the Senior Center photos, making them as perfect as possible. She wanted to capture every twinkling eye and mischievous smile because she knew too well that these might be some of the last professional photos that the Center’s members ever had taken.

After working on the photos for a few hours, she and Shell had played a rousing game of tic tac toe on a napkin, then “sampled” the brownie bites that were in the display case. Glancing at her phone, Carly was relieved to find that it was 5:30. They’d be closing in half an hour, and she was bored senseless after having a whopping total of three customers come in all evening. She guessed that today’s lack of customers had something to do with the gray, overcast skies outside.

It looked as though the skies would open up at any minute and unleash a fury of rain on everyone. “It sure looks like a storm is coming,” Shell commented.

“I hope it holds off til we get home. I don’t want a wet dog all over the place when I go let Bo in.” Carly hoped that if it did rain before she got home, her big, dumb dog would have the sense to get under the awning on the back stoop, but she doubted it. He loved rolling around in the mud and rain more than any dog she’d ever seen. He and Betty Sue would make a pretty funny pair, she reckoned.

Shell had grabbed a broom and was sweeping invisible dirt off the impeccably clean floor, so Carly grabbed a cloth and wiped the invisible dust off the counter they’d been sitting at. Closing time couldn’t come fast enough today.

The jingle of the doorbell brought both girls to a halt. Expecting to see Tiffany, from the bank, or one of the other business workers from Main Street, they were surprised to see Larry Gaston stumble through the door. He opened the door a little too hard, and the handled banged against the wall, making the doorbell jingle again.

“Well, hey there pretty ladies! Y’all ain’t closed yet, are you?” Larry’s voice was slurred, and Carly could tell right away that he was drunk.

“We’re about to close…which one are you?” Shell was looking at Larry like some sort of specimen on a petri dish, trying to figure out which of the Gaston twins she was about to have to fuss at.

Carly stepped up. “Larry, can we help you?” Her tone implied that she’d be ready to help him back out the door, but not much more.

“Why, yes, you can Carly. I need,” he stepped towards the counter and stumbled slightly, “a birthday cake.” He had reached the display case and was kneeling down with his face pressed right up against it. Shell’s mouth curled in annoyance and she made a mental note to bleach the case after Larry left.

“Well, Larry,” Shell ventured, trying to sound polite but managing only to sound strained. She really didn’t want a drunk Larry Gaston drooling all over her bakery. “We don’t have any cakes ready just this minute. It’s closing time, and we’d have to sort that out for you in the morning when you’re feeling a little better.”

“I feel fine!” he snapped, then began laughing a crazy, wailing laugh that turned into some sort of ugly crying. Carly hated seeing men cry, but Shell was matter-of-fact.

“Well, alright, then. You go on home and come back tomorrow, then we’ll sort your cake out.” She was trying to guide him back to the front door when he saw the two tables and chairs. He made a beeline for them and sat down in the closest chair.

“Ain’t you gonna ask me who it’s for?” he asked, catching his breath. When neither girl asked, he huffed and slammed his palm down on the table. “It’s for my son,” he said loudly, waiting for a response.

“Well, I didn’t know you had a son,” Shell ventured, her curiosity piqued by this interesting bit of knowledge. For just a half-second, she forgot about trying to get Larry out of the bakery, and focused on trying to get him to tell her more. Unfortunately, Larry was pretty inebriated, and from what the girls could work out from his drunken mumblings he had just spent a few hours drowning his sorrows, and celebrating the discovery that he was a father, down at a bar across town.

His truck had been parked out in front of the bakery all day, and he’d had one of his buddies drop him off so he could pick it up. He’d seen the bakery and felt compelled to come in and get a cake for the son he had never met. Carly was flabbergasted. Shell was fascinated.

“Who on earth is the mother?” She had gone behind the counter and grabbed a carton of milk, trying to sober Larry up enough to make some sense. He looked a sad sight sipping milk from the small carton, so she stuck a cupcake in front of him, too. Carly couldn’t help but think that the whole scene looked like the saddest birthday party ever.

“It’s a girl I used to date, before Mona. I hadn’t talked to her since we broke up a couple of years ago. Well, since about three or four years ago.” He fiddled with the cardboard milk carton. “I didn’t know she was pregnant. She never even told me. How was I supposed to know I had a kid out there? God, if Mona finds out, my marriage is gonna be over before it even starts.”

“Are you sure it’s your kid?” Carly didn’t really like Larry, but she couldn’t stand the thought of someone lying to him just out of spite. He might be a pig, but he didn’t deserve to be lied to.

“She…she showed me his picture. Looks just like me. He’s just turned three, and we broke up just over three years ago. She didn’t date much before she met me. I don’t reckon she dated anybody else, but I don’t know. What am I going to do?” He pulled out a photo of a cute little boy with red hair and freckles. He did sort of favor Larry, but Carly knew you couldn’t be sure just by looking at a photo.

“I guess you’ll need to take a paternity test. That’s the only way you can be sure, and if she’s lying, you won’t have to ever tell Mona.” Carly was trying to be helpful, but Larry wasn’t reassured.

He had started crying again, and Carly glared at Shell. “We need to get you on home, Larry,” Shell offered, trying to get hold of the situation. She leaned over behind his back and whispered to Carly, “Hey, call Tucker. He can come get this mess…we’ve got to close up and get home before the storm hits.”

Carly nodded and pulled her cell phone out of her pocket. She pulled up Tucker’s number and hit the call button.

“I don’t need my stupid brother getting involved in my business. I can drive myself home.” Larry started to stand, but stumbled and fell back into the chair. “Just lemme finish my drink, and have something to eat.” He reached over and patted Shell’s bottom. “Hey, sugar, you got some food here? Maybe we can go back to your place and eat something?” Larry’s inebriated eyeballs rolled up and down the whole of Shell’s petite frame, and he grinned at her lecherously.

It took all the self-control Shell had not to knock Larry flat out on his drunken backside. “You will keep your hands to yourself, Larry Gaston, or I will introduce you to my rolling pin and the sidewalk. Now sit your drunk self down and wait for your brother to get here, or I will call Mona myself and tell her all about her new stepson and that redhead you’ve been dating across the street.”

Larry put his hands in his lap like a child who’d just been reprimanded by his mother. Carly heard Tucker’s voice on the phone and exhaled sharply. She hadn’t even realized that she’d been holding her breath.

“Oh, hey, Tucker. I’m so sorry to bother you, but could you come by Sweets & Eats real quick? We’ve sort of got a problem.” She hesitated. “It’s Larry. He’s here, and he’s…well, he’s drunk. I don’t think he should be driving home. Do you think you could come and get him?”

Carly could practically hear Tucker’s jaw clenching on the other end of the line. “I wouldn’t ask, but I didn’t know who else I could call. There’s something going on with him, and I can’t call Mona.”

Tucker sighed. “Yeah, Carly, I’ll come and get him. I’ll be there in five minutes, tops.” He hesitated for a second, then added, “Thanks for calling me.”

Carly felt bad calling Tucker, but she was not going to let Larry get behind the wheel of his truck when he was drunk. The last thing she wanted was a dead groom or worse, for Larry to hit someone while he was trying to drive home.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do.” Larry had started his self-pitying tirade again, and Carly was going to do her best to try and ignore him. She just had to put up with it for five minutes…

“Well, Larry, I hate to say it, but don’t you think you brought it on yourself? I mean, you spend every day running all over creation with half the gals in town, and you’re only now worrying about Mona finding out? Are you sure you even want to get married?” Shell sat down in the empty chair and crossed her arms in front of her. “You don’t seem to be the settling type.”

Larry blushed, and stared at his cupcake. “Mona’s alright. I mean, since the wedding stuff has started she’s been kinda bossy, but I think that’s what I need. I need somebody strong like that. Plus, she helps me with my business. She’s got me organized. I can’t throw away this relationship like I did the others. Lord knows, she’d probably kill me if she found out I had a kid with my ex.” He tried to chuckle, but it came out as a gulp. Carly felt a little sorry for him because she could very well see Mona trying to kill Larry over something like that.

A clap of thunder made them all jump, and then the doorbell was jingling. Carly realized that she’d forgotten to lock it after Larry came in, and she turned to see Tucker standing in the doorway, a scowl on his face and raindrops on his shirt. His look softened when he saw Carly, and she walked over to him quickly to explain the situation.

“He’s been out drinking, and he came in here looking for a cake because he said some girl told him he has a son.” Carly was surprised that Tucker didn’t react when she told him what Larry had shared with them.

“I know. I mean, I know who the mom is because I saw her a while back.” Tucker looked a little sad. “I asked her if the baby was his, and she told me no. I didn’t think she would lie about that, but I guess she just didn’t want Larry around. I can’t blame her, he was pretty crappy to her when they broke up.”

Carly took a deep breath. “Whoa. You mean he really does have some kid out there, and he’s only just found out? Who’s the mom?” Tucker’s expression got a little guarded, and she regretted being so nosy. Carly agreed that Larry could be a real piece of work, but she didn’t understand how someone could just wait for years before telling their ex that they were a father. She was starting to get the feeling that she’d walked into a bad episode of the Jerry Springer Show.

“You probably don’t know her. Her name’s Tina, and she’s really not a bad girl. I mean, she’s always been nice to me, and she never even made a fuss when Larry cheated on her. She just…kinda faded into the background. I guess she can’t stay in the background anymore if she’s got Larry’s kid.” Tucker seemed sympathetic to the woman, so Carly figured she couldn’t be all bad. After all, Tucker seemed to be a decent guy, and Carly figured he wouldn’t have pushed her for the truth since he knew how irresponsible his brother really was.

Carly felt bad for Tucker, and a little sorry for this Tina person. She had a nagging feeling that she did know her, but couldn’t place exactly how or where. The name just felt so familiar, but she couldn’t figure out why, at least not with the problem of getting Larry out of the bakery staring her in the face.

“I’d better get him home,” Tucker gestured towards his brother. “It’s gonna be raining cats and dogs out there in a minute.”

“Yeah, I’ve got to be up early…oh, shoot!” Carly slapped her forehead. “I’m supposed to be doing a pre-wedding walk through with Mona and Larry over at Moore House in the morning. Can you please make sure somebody gets him up and over there? Mona will be out for blood if he bails on her for that.”

Tucker grinned. “Yeah, I would not want to be around if he didn’t make it for that,” he chuckled. “Mona’s a total bridezilla. I don’t know what he sees in her.”

She watched as he dragged his brother out the front door and piled him in his car. Carly turned to clean the table, but Shell had already done it and was spraying the display cabinet with bleach spray. “That man is disgusting. It would serve him right if Mona found out about this. I mean, does he think he’s going to be able to keep it a secret? This town is too small for that.”

Carly agreed with Shell. She was surprised that Larry’s ex had managed to keep the baby a secret for this long, and she was a little disturbed that Tucker had kept the fact that Larry’s ex had given birth to a baby a secret from his brother. She couldn’t tell if he had done it to be kind to the mother, or to spite his brother. The more charming of the two twins suddenly seemed a little less perfect, and maybe a hint more sinister.

She reached into her purse to grab her keys, then remembered that she’d ridden with Shell. Her hand brushed a crumpled up piece of paper, and she pulled it out to throw it away. Expecting to see a receipt or piece of junk mail, she was slightly surprised to see a napkin, then she remembered the red-haired girl from the day before.

She opened the napkin, and her mouth fell open. Tina Nicholls. “Oh my gosh, Shell!” Carly stared at her best friend for a second, then shook her head. “I know who Larry’s baby mama is.”

From the look on Shell’s face when she saw the napkin, she remembered the redhead, too. “Well, shoot. Ain’t this a fine mess he’s got himself into?”

Carly felt bad, and she almost wished that she didn’t know the woman whose child had such a pig for a father. _Well, Tina Nicholls, I guess you found Larry after all. _

8

h1=.

Moore House was a big, beautiful plantation-style home on the outskirts of Parker’s Mill. Carly had wanted to shoot a wedding there ever since she’d started taking photos professionally. She was in love with its elegant columns and long covered verandas. The home had belonged to some affluent son of the south before the Civil War, but when Sherman had blazed his way through the state, it fell into disrepair.

She reckoned it was a miracle that the place was still standing. Although it had only been mildly damaged in the fire, according to the historians that led a tour of the place once a month, it had been vacant for some time. Various local families had tried to keep it up, but eventually the Georgia Trust had intervened, and now the home was used strictly for state functions and private parties, apart from the monthly tours.

Carly parked behind the three-story antebellum house and walked around to the front, her camera hanging from her neck and her camera bag swinging loosely from her hand. She glanced at her phone and verified that she was early. She’d told Mona 9:00 am, and it was barely 8:30. That should give her enough time to figure out the best place to do the group photos and other outdoor shots.

She strolled across the perfectly manicured lawn. It was still wet from last night’s downpour, but it would be dry soon enough. Today was supposed to be a scorcher, so there might even be another thunderstorm later on in the day. She was glad they’d decided to do this early because Saturdays were fairly busy at Sweets & Eats, and she didn’t want to leave Shell there all by herself, though her BFF would undoubtedly claim she could do [_everything _]single-handed.

Carly peered through her camera and snapped a few pictures of the front of Moore House, then she zoomed in and took a few of the gorgeous pink and white roses growing along the front. This would be the perfect place to get married. She could see its appeal to the marrying kind in Parker’s Mill, but she knew it came with a steep price tag. Again, the question of how Mona planned to pay for having her wedding here came to mind.

According to the house’s website (which seemed so odd for a historic building to have), its rental fees started at $6000. Carly could never see herself spending that much on a wedding, let alone a wedding venue. She was a firm believer in keeping control of her finances, and spending that much money on one day of your life just didn’t seem to sit right with her.

Carly glanced up in time to see the door to the house open silently, and she watched as a redhead stepped outside, accompanied by an elderly man and a small child. Carly’s eyes widened. It was Tina Nicholls, and the child was obviously Larry’s son.

Trying to make herself look invisible, Carly began walking back towards her car, fiddling with her camera so she wouldn’t make eye contact with Tina. It didn’t work.

“Hey, wait a minute!” Tina sounded like she was running. Carly slowed, then stopped.

“Hey, Tina, how are you?” She smiled, but Carly was pretty sure it didn’t quite seem believable. She didn’t want to be rude to Tina, but she didn’t really want to get caught up in all that drama this morning, especially since Mona and Larry were due to show up any minute now.

“Carly, isn’t it?” Tina had caught up with Carly pretty fast. The little boy was standing beside the older gentleman, looking up at him with great affection. Tina noticed Carly looking at her son. “He just turned three, but he’s big for his age. And smart. I just came by to get some money from my dad, he works here.” Carly nodded and smiled again, more genuinely this time.

“He’s precious. Your son, I mean, not your dad.” [_Oh, lord, Carly, just stop talking. _]Carly glanced at her phone quickly. “Hey, Tina, I don’t mean to be rude, but I’m meeting some clients here any minute now.”

“Yeah, I know.” Carly stopped in her tracks. Here comes the drama, she thought. “My dad had to come in early to get the inside organized in case they want to go in and take some pictures. It’s a small town, and I know it’s not every day your ex-boyfriend and baby’s father marries the girl he cheated on you with at a big old mansion.”

Ouch. Tina’s vitriol was admirably contained, and Carly was impressed that she wasn’t foaming at the mouth by now. “Tina, you know it’s not a good idea for you to be here when they arrive. I mean, Mona is not a nice person.”

Tina shrugged her shoulders. “I’ve stayed hidden for long enough. I don’t care one bit about Larry Gaston or Mona, for that matter. In fact, he could drop dead tomorrow and I wouldn’t shed a tear. But, I need him to see his son. I need him to acknowledge him, and I need him to support him.” Tina didn’t seem to be bitter, Carly noticed, but more beaten down than anything.

“Are you sure that this is the best place and time for that? I mean, he’s about to get married. Couldn’t it wait for a couple of weeks, and then you could all three sit down and work something out?” Carly couldn’t really imagine that scenario working out well for anyone, but it had to be better than the drama that was going to unfold when Mona showed up and found her fiance’s ex with his child waiting to have a friendly chat.

“I can’t afford to keep a roof over our heads, Carly. I can’t work full time and take care of Tyler, and my dad’s barely able to work enough to support himself. It’s past time that Larry steps up and starts taking care of his son. I mean, it’s not like he’s broke. He may have gotten a discount on this place, but it was still more money than I’ve seen in a long time.”

“How do you know he got a discount? Have you been seeing him again?” Carly was beginning to think that she was being played. Were Tina and Larry still a couple?

“God, no. I wouldn’t take him back if he was the last man on earth. But I know about how he’s been doing so well with his business. And I know about the discount because my dad told me. Like I said, it’s a small town.” Carly guessed it wasn’t hard to see that business had been good for Larry, especially since he was driving that brand new truck. Construction had been plentiful since that tornado had done so much damage just a few miles away from Parker’s Mill last year.

Tina sighed. “Look, all I want is for him to acknowledge Tyler, and pay child support. I’m not even asking for backdated support, though I probably should. I mean, how could he not have known that Tyler was his kid? He looks just like him.”

Carly glanced over at the little boy, who was pushing a little red Hot Wheels car across the steps of Moore House. Lost in his own imagination, there was no denying that he bore a strong resemblance to the Gaston men. Apart from his red hair, which he obviously got from his mother, he had the same piercing eyes and strong bone structure that Larry and Tucker both shared. Carly’s thoughts drifted to Tucker and the fact that he’d known about Tina’s child this whole time.

“Why didn’t Tucker say anything to Larry about Tyler? I mean, he told me that he knew about him for a while now.” Carly really wanted there to be a noble explanation for Tucker’s deception, because he seemed like such a nice guy.

“Because I asked him not to. And I lied about Tyler not being Larry’s son.” Tina looked ashamed, but only for a moment. “I tried real hard to not ask anybody for help. But, my dad’s been getting older and his health ain’t so good. My mama passed when I was just little. I can’t hold down a full-time job with no reliable childcare, so I’m at the end of my rope.” Tina’s eyes moistened, and her voice choked up just a little. “I know I messed up, but Tyler shouldn’t have to suffer for my stupid mistake. I mean, it’s not like he asked to be born.”

Carly did feel sorry for Tina. How many other girls had fallen for Larry’s quick charm and smooth charms? For all she knew, he could have a string of babies out there, and not even know or care. But, she had a job to do and being a professional meant protecting her clients’ privacy, regardless of how much she disliked them.

“You know,” Tina continued, “sometimes I wished that it was Tucker I’d met instead of Larry. I mean, he’s so sweet and kind, not like his brother at all. If I had dated Tucker, we might even be the ones getting married right now, instead of Larry and that trashy thing of his.”

Carly felt heat rise on the back of her neck. She couldn’t imagine that Tina would ever be Tucker’s type, but then again, what did she really know about him? Sure, he was friendly to her, but apparently he was very nice to all the girls he met, especially the ones his brother had dated. Carly began to feel just a little defensive about her friendship with Tucker, and her clients’ photo shoot.

“Tina, I can’t allow you to be here when they get here. I mean, I know I can’t stop you, but I really have to ask you to think about this. They are getting married. This is meant to be their special day that they are planning for, and I know it’s just a walk-through, but it’s important to them, and…”

“And their happiness is more important than my son getting three meals a day. I thought you were different, Carly. I thought you’d understand my situation, but I guess I was wrong.” Tina’s words stung Carly. Of course, she would never want Tina’s little boy to go hungry, but Carly’s hands felt tied, and she couldn’t see a way of helping Tina that didn’t involve invoking Mona’s wrath or Larry obnoxiousness.

Carly felt a tug on her camera bag and looked down. Tyler’s big blue eyes stared back up at her, reminding her again of Tucker and his brother.

“What’s that?” he asked her, pointing to her camera.

Carly knelt to the little boy’s level and smiled. “It’s a camera, cutie. I take pictures of people with it.”

“Can you take my picture?” Tyler’s little face was too cute for Carly to say no, so she quickly lifted her camera and snapped a couple of shots. She’d just have to be careful not to let Larry and Mona see those. He was an awfully adorable little kid, and Carly was pretty sure that Larry would have a hard time denying that he was Tyler’s father, but she was worried about how Mona would react.

“Okay, I get that you need to talk to Larry, but I don’t think it needs to be in front of Mona and Tyler. I mean, Mona may get ugly, and that’s not something little Tyler needs to see.” Carly checked her phone. It was now nearly ten minutes after nine, and they could arrive here any second.

She glanced around nervously, half expecting to see Mona’s big, blonde head strolling around the corner any time now.

“I won’t cause any trouble, I promise. But I’m not leaving here unless they throw me off the property or until Larry knows exactly what his son needs.” Tina crossed her arms defiantly, her red hair sparkling slightly in the sunlight. Carly had to hand it to her, she was sure one determined little mama bear, willing to take on the beast that was Larry Gaston, and his hench-woman wife-to-be, too.

Carly realized that arguing with Tina wasn’t going to work. Sighing, she sat down on the top step of Moore House and waited for the inevitable storm that was brewing to finally reach a full head. This was definitely going to be one interesting walk-through, and she considered the very real possibility that after today, her services as a wedding photographer would no longer be needed, or wanted, by Mona and Larry.

9

h1=.

Cicadas were getting busy, making the music that was the usual soundtrack for a hot Georgia day. Their grating call irritated the young photographer. It was just a constant reminder that the day was ticking by and her time was being wasted in utter discomfort. Carly checked her watch again. Nine-thirty had come and gone, and she was beginning to more and more uncomfortable, both physically and mentally.

She began to feel sweaty, sitting outside in the humid summer morning. Carly finished the last of the soda that she’d brought from her truck. She had walked back to her truck, followed dutifully by little Tyler, and grabbed a Dr. Pepper from the cooler she always carried with her for her shoots. She’d also grabbed a pack of cheese crackers from the glove compartment box and offered one to Tyler, who was fascinated by Carly’s camera. The crackers were long gone, but the boy’s fascination clearly remained as he eyed her camera closely.

“Maybe I’ll get him a little camera, you know when Larry starts paying child support.” Tina leaned against the far left column on the stairs, her arms crossed defensively across her chest. Carly could tell that she was not going anywhere anytime soon.

Twice she’d seen a car pull up to the entrance to Moore House, and twice they’d driven on past. Carly had always hated a confrontation, and the apprehension that she felt had her stomach in knots. Carly knew she had to head this off before it became a real showdown between Mona and Tina.

She’d tried to call Mona twice, but got no answer the first time, and a busy signal the next. She didn’t have Larry’s number, but figured he was probably on his way to pick Mona up anyway, and might not answer his phone if she had been able to call him. Shoving her phone back into her bag, she wracked her brain trying to think of who might know what on earth was keeping her clients from keeping their appointment.

The idea of calling Tucker hadn’t even entered her brain until little Tyler patted her on the leg and cried “woof!”. The toddler’s pretending to be a dog reminded her that she had Larry’s brother’s number in her phone, and he’d surely know where the tardy Gaston brother could be found, considering he’d given him a lift home the night before.

Pulling out her phone, Carly pulled up Tucker’s number and pushed the little green ‘call’ symbol. Putting her phone to her ear, she waited to see if he’d answer. After carrying his very drunk brother away from the bakery the night before, she wondered if he’d bother taking her call. He hadn’t seemed too happy about getting involved in his brother’s business, and he might not want to get caught up in today’s mess, either.

“Hello?” Tucker sounded surprised when he greeted her. “Carly? Is that you?” For a brief second, Carly wondered how he knew that it was her on the line, but she remembered giving him her card so that they could arrange a playdate for their dogs. She was relieved that it seemed he’d actually put the number in his phone, then she was annoyed with herself for being so relieved.

‘Get a grip, Carly’, she thought to herself. “Hey, Tucker, I’m so sorry to bother you right now, but I’m in a real pickle.”

“Aren’t you supposed to be taking pictures right now?” Carly thought she sensed a tension in Tucker’s voice, a hint of resentment coming through his usual friendly demeanor.

“Well, that’s just it. I was supposed to meet Mona and Larry here ages ago, but they haven’t turned up yet.”

“Huh.” His monosyllabic answer wasn’t quite what she expected, so she pushed a little more.

“Tucker, do you know where I might find your brother or his fiance right now? I wouldn’t even be bothering you, but Tina Nicholls is here, and…”

“What?” Tucker seemed to be trying to stop himself from laughing. Carly didn’t really see how laughter would have been an appropriate response to the situation, but she could appreciate the humor. After all, it wasn’t every day that a guy’s fiance and baby mama showed up at the wedding venue to plan out the rest of his life for him.

“Oh, shoot. I would not want to be there when Mona does arrive. Well, no, maybe that would be some funny stuff…oh, heck, I’m sorry Carly. I guess you don’t really want to be mixed up in all their dirty laundry.” Tucker’s voice grew a little more serious. “I didn’t think Tina would try something like that. I mean, it’s not really her style to be confrontational.”

Carly was well aware that Tina could probably hear every word of her conversation, and she winced when she told Tucker that Tyler was there, too.

“Aw, man…this could get ugly. Do you want me to come on over and help keep the peace?”

“No, but I think somebody needs to find out where Larry and Mona are. I don’t have Larry’s number, and Mona isn’t answering her phone.” Carly wondered briefly if the two of them weren’t holed up somewhere, fighting over Larry’s lack of respect for Mona. She didn’t want to see that woman unleash her full fury on anyone, not even Larry Gaston.

“Look, he just lives like five minutes from Moore House. He lives up on Oakmont Lane, just off of Highway 480. I can run over there and check his house for you. I would call him, but he left his phone in my car last night. I found it this morning, dead as a doornail.”

Carly thought about it, then replied. “No, I think I can find his house. Just give me the address and I’ll put it in my phone. You may want to stop on by here anyway, if you’re not busy, just in case Mona shows up while I’m gone. I wouldn’t put it past her to pick a fist fight with Tina, and that little boy really doesn’t need to see something like that.”

Carly took the address from Tucker, who agreed it was best if he just came and waited nearby in case the missing bride and groom showed up and things turned ugly. Placing her phone in her back pocket, Carly turned to Tina and spoke.

“I guess you heard all that, right? Well, I’m going to go see if I can find out what’s going on with Larry and Mona. You need to either stay here or go on home and keep out of her way. I mean it, Tina, she’s not going to be nice when she sees you, and your little boy does not deserve to see his mama get yelled at by the likes of Mona Durham.”

Tina opened her mouth to respond, but Carly stopped her. “I have your number and I will call you if I need to.” Hurrying down the steps of Moore House before Tina could protest, Carly felt the dread settle in a little deeper.

“What have I got myself into with these people?” she asked herself aloud, under her breath, as she put her old truck in reverse and began to follow the map on her cell phone

Larry’s driveway was empty, and for a moment, Carly thought that maybe he had gone and picked Mona up after all. Then she remembered the fact that his truck was probably still parked outside the bakery, and she felt a little foolish. Probably Mona had come by his house just minutes before, cussing him out and making him suffer for his drinking session the night before. She shuddered at the thought of walking in on them in a full-blown argument, but got out of the truck and went to the door just the same.

Oakmont was a quiet little street, full of single family homes and wide, open spaces. Larry’s home looked to have been built somewhere in the late 50’s, with a cheerful brick facade and wrought iron railings on the porch. It definitely didn’t seem like the kind of house that would belong to a guy who rented out Moore House for a wedding, Carly decided. Still, she supposed that some millionaires lived in very modest accommodations, preferring to save their money instead of showing it off in fancy houses.

The lights were off, but Carly decided it was best to knock and make sure the house was as empty as it looked. She knocked once, and the door gave slightly, making her jump. Pushing slightly, the unlocked door swung open to reveal a dark interior. Carly wondered why on earth Larry would just leave his door unlocked and leave home. Crime may have been rare in Parker’s Mill, but it still happened, and Carly thought anyone who left their doors unlocked were looking for trouble.

“Larry…Mona…are you in there?” Carly pushed the door open fully, hesitating. She didn’t want to go into an empty house that she didn’t belong in, but something just didn’t feel quite right to her. She began to think that she should have taken Tucker up on his offer to come here instead of her. Hesitantly, she stepped inside. She immediately realized that something just wasn’t right about the place. Glancing around, she tried to decide what it was that made her so uncomfortable.

The house was messy, but not abnormally messy for a bachelor, she supposed. She stepped over a pile of dirty clothes as she moved towards the interior of the house, and she realized that not only was every light off in the house, the clocks had stopped, too. The face of the microwave clock was black, and so was the one on the coffee maker; she could see these easily enough out past the living room in the small, open space.

Then, she realized that it was hotter in the room than it should have been. No electricity. ‘Maybe that’s why I couldn’t reach Larry. Maybe he’s at Mona’s still getting ready because he lost his electricity last night.’ Carly thought that was a very rational explanation, but something still didn’t feel right. “Larry, if you are here, let me know.” Carly felt a little creeped out by the empty house, but she was determined to make sure he wasn’t just passed out in some corner, sleeping off the night before.

Carly found herself practically tiptoeing through the living room and into the kitchen, where the light was better. A sink full of dirty dishes that would probably begin stinking, later on, greeted her, and she wondered if Larry had any food that might spoil in his refrigerator. Then, she noticed something that made her cringe.

An empty wine bottle lay on the floor, still intact. Had Larry really kept on drinking last night? He was probably too drunk to even notice his electricity was off. She was about to lean down and pick it up when she noticed two wine glasses on the counter. One of them was mostly full, and the other had burgundy lipstick on it.

Mona did [_not _]wear burgundy lipstick, but Tina did. “Oh, crap, Tina. Did you come here last night looking for this scumbag?” Carly knew she was talking to herself, but figured the empty house wouldn’t judge her for it.

Carly was beginning to distrust the redhead’s motives. She claimed to not want anything from Larry, except for child support, but drinking wine with her ex was not exactly ‘having nothing to do with him.’ Stepping over the wine bottle, Carly proceeded back into what looked like Larry’s bedroom.

The curtains were drawn, and it was darker in here, but Carly could clearly see that the bed was empty. The room was quiet, and Carly didn’t feel right standing in Larry’s bedroom when he wasn’t at home. She was just about to leave when she heard a noise that sounded like water running. It was coming from the bathroom, so she walked over and called out. “Larry, are you in there?” No answer came, so she pushed open the door.

The sink was running as though someone had washed their hands and forgotten to turn it off all the way. As she reached over to turn it off (purely out of habit, she couldn’t stand to see water being wasted,) Carly’s eye was drawn to the bath and the very obviously dead body of Larry Gaston. He was fully clothed, and fully dead, judging from the way his eyes were open and his jaw was slack. He looked like he might have been just relaxing there peacefully, floating in the bath, except for the fact that an electric heater was also occupying the space in the tub, its plug still plugged into the wall above the sink. Stopping herself from touching the sink’s faucet handles, she reached into her pocket instead and pulled out her phone.

“Hello, police? Can you get officer Brandon Sparks on the phone for me? I’d like to report a murder.” Carly walked very carefully out of the bathroom and back into the living room, feeling quite proud of herself for remaining calm enough to think to call her cousin, the police officer. Then, she stepped outside and took a deep breath. Her hands were only shaking a little when she climbed back inside her truck to wait for Brandon to arrive, and by the time she saw his blue lights flashing, she was shivering in the ninety-degree heat, cold from the shock of having just seen her client’s dead body in his bathtub.

10

h1=.

Cradling a hot cup of coffee in her hands, Carly went over her story with Shell for the third time. “I don’t think I’ll ever get that image out of my head,” she admitted, describing the way she’d found Larry floating in his bathtub.

Brandon had arrived within minutes, bringing two other deputies with him. After making sure Carly hadn’t touched anything, it had taken him all of sixty seconds to confirm her suspicions about the body in the bathtub. Larry had been murdered, alright. No one used a space heater in the middle of summer, but that was apparently the cause of death for Larry when one had been plugged in and tossed into the tub with him.

“Oh, my goodness,” exclaimed Shelly yet again, shaking her head. “I mean, it’s just shocking. Well, I mean, you know…” Shell couldn’t help herself, and giggled nervously at her punny exclamation. “I wonder if the police have any suspects yet.”

Carly realized that Shell was dying to know whether Brandon had told her if they knew or suspected who had killed Larry, but she also knew she couldn’t just go around blabbing her mouth about it. For all she knew, Larry’s killer could be someone she was all too familiar with, and she didn’t want to think about the fact that one of her friends or clients could very well be capable of cold-blooded murder.

Tucker had arrived at Larry’s house before Carly had been cleared to leave, thankfully without Tina tagging along. He’d seemed genuinely concerned for Carly when he’d heard that she’d discovered the body, which had made her feel somewhat relieved. She was beginning to like the idea of Tucker worrying about her just a little, and she had thought vaguely that maybe there could be more to their friendship than she realized.

However, Tucker’s reaction to news of his brother’s death seemed a little less emotional. In fact, from what Carly could tell, he’d hardly gotten upset at all. It was almost as though he expected to hear bad news about his brother, and his lack of concern or surprise gave Carly a chilly feeling.

The mystery of where Mona had been was also solved when Brandon called her to check on her whereabouts. Carly could hear Mona screaming at her cousin through the phone, demanding to know what was going on and where her fiance was. Carly flinched as she watched her cousin delicately handling Mona’s verbal assault, then deftly advised her that a car would be collecting her for questioning about her fiance’s disappearance.

Brandon had confided in Carly that he’d been surprised that Mona had bothered to answer the telephone. “After all,” he’d noted, “Mona certainly looks like an obvious suspect. I mean, did you know she screamed at some bank teller on the street just for talking to Larry last week? That woman is a ticking time-bomb, just waiting to explode on somebody.” Carly could believe it, though she couldn’t imagine that anyone who’d just killed their fiance would bother answering a phone call from the police.

“Besides,” Brandon had mentioned, “It looks like Mona might’ve been there last night after all.” He’d been referring to finding the two wine glasses that Carly had pointed out when she had been questioned, but Carly knew something that her cousin didn’t, and had felt obliged to relate the information about Tina Nicholls and her penchant for burgundy lipstick.

All that had seemed like ages ago, though in reality it had only been just over two hours since Carly had arrived at the bakery. She’d tried to get back to business as usual, but that was impossible since every other customer seemed to already know about Larry’s death and the fact that Carly had been the one who’d found him. News traveled fast is a town as small as Parker’s Mill, and Carly realized that soon enough everyone would know just how Larry had died, and they’d know that Carly was the one who had found him.

Just after one o’clock, Brandon Sparks walked into Sweets & Eats and gave his younger cousin a hug before ordering a couple of turtle brownies to go. “Man, I’m so sorry you had to see all that,” he said comfortingly. “I mean, I know that guy was a jerk, but nobody deserves to be fried like that.” Smiling flirtatiously at Shell as she handed him the brownies, he confided, “We did talk to Mona and it looks like she was at home the whole time this morning. She said she thought you all had a wedding thing this morning at ten. Was that right?”

Carly shook her head. “No, it was supposed to be at nine, but I wouldn’t be surprised if she got that wrong. Why wasn’t she answering her phone, though?” Carly had tried several times, and if Mona had answered, she realized that she may have never had to see Larry’s body at all.

Brandon shrugged. “Who knows? She probably couldn’t hear it for yelling at somebody…that girl likes to holler, don’t she?” He chuckled slightly, then continued. “You might like to know, we cleared Larry’s brother. I mean, I guess he wasn’t much of a suspect, but since he was the last person to see Larry last night, we had to look into it.”

Carly wondered exactly how Brandon had ruled Tucker out so quickly, but she trusted her cousin’s detective skills and was relieved to know that Tucker wasn’t a suspect. “Thank you for sharing that, Brandon, but it’s really none of my business. I mean, we’re just friends, and I didn’t think he was the murdering type, anyway.”

“Come on, cuz, I know you like him. Or, at least, I know he likes you. I could tell by how concerned he was about back at Larry’s place. He seems like a good guy, unlike his brother. You could do worse.” Brandon grinned and hollered back into the kitchen, where Shell tried not to appear to be eavesdropping. “Go on and tell her to ask him out, Shell. You and her and him and Pete could do a double date.” After managing to embarrass both girls in one fell swoop, Brandon took his brownies and headed back to the police station.

“Well, I guess it’s good to know that Tucker’s not a suspect anymore.” Shell realized that her eavesdropping had pretty much been given away by that statement, but she was unashamed. “He’s a good guy. You two should definitely go out, I mean, once this is all over.” She had already started wiping down her counter for the twentieth time that day when the doorbell jingled again. Glancing up, Shell whispered, “Well, speak of the devil!”

Tucker looked as though he could really use a stiff drink, but all Carly had to offer was a glass of milk and a brownie. “Hey, Tucker. How are you holding up?” Carly tried a half-smile but felt like it just didn’t seem right to smile at someone who’d just lost his brother and been considered a suspect in his murder, at least for five minutes, anyways.

“I’m alright,” he sighed. “I just wanted to check on you, see how you’re doing. And, I guess I wanted to thank you for calling the police. I mean, who knows how long Larry would have been there if you hadn’t…”

“Oh, Tucker, don’t…I mean, someone would have known something was wrong. Larry was a pretty popular guy.” Carly certainly knew a few ladies in the town of Parker’s Mill that would miss Larry’s attentions.

“I saw them bringing in Tina when I left the station. I guess since she’d been looking for him to talk to him about her son, she was a suspect, too.” Carly winced when Tucker told her this. The police probably wouldn’t have even had to question her if Carly hadn’t mentioned the lipstick on the glasses. Carly liked Tina, despite her poor choice in men, and she hated to see that little boy without his mama, even for a few hours.

“I kinda wanted to see the little boy, you know, since he was probably Larry’s and all. Tina said her daddy was keeping him, but I know her dad, and he really is in no shape to look after a little kid. I hope they don’t keep her down at the police station for too long.” Carly couldn’t help but feel like Tucker was taking Tina’s plight just a little too close to heart.

Carly realized that if Tina had indeed been at Larry’s house, she could have been the person who killed him. She hadn’t seemed like someone who was unhinged, but Carly guessed you couldn’t really ever tell about some people.

“What do you think will happen now that Tina can’t prove Larry was the dad? I mean, she won’t be able to get any child support from him.” Tucker seemed genuinely concerned about Tyler and his mother. To Carly, this was both touching and a little disturbing. Why did he care so much about someone that had dated his brother? As if reading her mind, Tucker replied, “I know I sound obsessed. I mean, don’t take this the wrong way, but I don’t care too much about Tina, but Larry was my only sibling. I won’t ever have any other nieces or nephews from him, and I guess I just kind of like the idea of being an uncle for the little guy.”

Carly’s heart softened. Tucker was beginning to seem unbelievably wonderful. Maybe it was time to think about getting to know him a little better. “Well, you know that they can do DNA tests even after the father has died. If Larry really is Tyler’s dad, Tyler would be his legal heir and would receive any inheritance that Larry left behind, even if it’s a small one.”

Tucker’s eyes widened, and he shook his head. “Well, I’ll tell you one thing, it wouldn’t be a small one.” He glanced around and leaned in closer to Carly. Shell leaned in, too, and the other two blushed slightly, both having forgotten their friend was even in the room. “Larry told me that Mona made him take out a big, fancy insurance policy before they even booked the wedding venue.”

Both Carly’s and Shell’s eyes got big at this news, and Shell’s mouth fell open. “Did you tell the police that, Tucker? I mean, don’t y’all realize that this makes Mona a big time suspect?” Shell dropped her cloth on the counter. “If she took out some big policy on your brother, then murdered him, she cannot get away with it.”

“Hold on, Shell, don’t go jumping to conclusions. I mean, maybe Mona was just looking out for Larry’s best interests by getting that policy.” Carly really did want to see the best in people, even Mona. “Maybe she was trying to protect his business in case of his death.”

“Maybe she was trying to protect her pocketbook in case she got tired of his cheating.” Shell crossed her arms and continued. “This is important, because if Mona did kill Larry, she should not be able to get away with it.”

Tucker spoke up. “I told the police everything I knew about the insurance policy, and I reckon they’ll ask Mona about it. I guess we just have to wait and see what they turn up, and we can tell Tina about it when she comes back from the station.” Tucker put his hand on Carly’s arm gently. “I hope you don’t mind, I told her she could meet me here and I’d give her a lift back to get her car at Moore House. I guess the police just picked her up after they spoke with us. I’m sure she’ll be relieved to get back to her dad and little boy.”

Carly did mind, just a little. It bothered her that Tucker had any sort of feelings for Tina, though she reminded herself that since she and Tucker were just friends, he could certainly have feelings for anyone that he wanted to have feelings for. Biting back her jealousy, Carly replied, “That’s fine. You can hang out here as long as you like. I’m just going to help Shell get everything ready for closing this evening, and then I’m going home and having a long soak in the bath.” She regretted saying it as soon as it left her lips, but Tucker just smiled vaguely, and Shell just giggled at her verbal faux pas.

For an uncomfortable hour, the three of them tried to make small talk, ate too many of Shell’s latest weekly special (petit fours,) and enjoyed more coffee, courtesy of Pete. Tucker had just checked his phone for the time for what seemed like the millionth time when Carly’s phone rang, punctuating the tense air with its vibrant trill.

Answering quickly, Carly found herself nodding, emitting an occasional “uh-huh,” and ending the conversation with an “okay, thanks.” She seemed shocked when she ended the call. “That was Brandon,” she explained. “They’ve arrested somebody for Larry’s murder.”

Tucker stood up, and Shell came to attention. “Who?” they both asked simultaneously.

“Tina Nicholls. Brandon says they’ve arrested her on suspicion of murder, and she’ll be held at the police station until they can prove or disprove otherwise.”

Tucker’s mouth fell open in disbelief, hurt and surprise twisting his face. He looked like he’d just been punched in the gut, but Shell simply shook her head. “Well, I declare! I guess she won’t be needing that ride, now. Why don’t we just call it a day,” she suggested, pulling the shade in the window and flipping her sign to CLOSED. “I think we’ve all had just about enough drama for one day.”

Neither Tucker nor Carly could argue with that, and the three of them looked pretty worn down as they left the cheerful little bakery on Main Street to go home and process all that had happened that day.

11

h1=.

Carly couldn’t sleep well that night, but she thought it was understandable, given the circumstances. Even when she finally managed to put the gruesome image of Larry Gaston’s lifeless body out of her mind, she couldn’t help but wonder if Tina was really the man’s killer. Something just nagged at her, playing in her mind so that she couldn’t sleep. She couldn’t believe that Tina had stood and talked to her, practically begging Carly to arrange for a meeting with Larry, if she’d just murdered him the night before.

Of course, she reckoned that there was always the possibility that Tina was the quiet kind of crazy, the kind that snapped and went postal, then calmly went about her business as though nothing had ever happened, but Carly just didn’t get that vibe from the lonely single mother. After all, she seemed so loving and devoted to little Tyler, and she’d been insistent that she was only after Larry for child support. Why would she kill her only hope of getting financial support for her little boy?

Carly lay in bed, thinking these things as Bo howled in the night. I really do need to get him a friend, she thought to herself and made a mental note to call Tucker in the morning to arrange for a puppy play date. After some time, she finally fell into a fitful sleep, and thankfully had no dreams.

The next day was Sunday, so Carly and Shell completed their weekly ritual of dropping off the leftover baked goods at the local ladies meeting at Parker’s Mill Baptist Church. The girls rarely stayed for the service, mostly because the congregation’s average age was somewhere north of retirement but this side of the Pearly Gates. Sometimes they did attend the ladies meeting, where many women from the community gathered to sip coffee, eat the treats from the bakery and spread a little good-natured gossip.

Today, Carly was in no mood to stay and chat. She knew she’d be the center of attention because Larry’s death was front page news. After breezing in and out of the church with a polite hello and goodbye, the girls headed over to the bakery to whip up a few batches of cupcakes and muffins for the next day.

Carly tried to help Shell with the process, but she usually stayed at home on Sundays, working on photo editing. She’d planned on working on any photos from the walk-through today, but since the only pictures she’d taken were of the exterior of Moore House, she really didn’t have a lot to do. Here at the bakery, she thought she might just be more of a hindrance than a help.

“Hand me that sugar, please, honey.” Shell was so stereotypically southern, Carly wondered what someone who didn’t understand the southern dialect would think when they heard her talk. “Now, if you’ll hand me two eggs, I’m gonna whip this batch of muffins up lickety-split. I wanna get on out of here a little early today so I can catch up on my shows.”

Carly laughed. Shell’s “shows” were daytime soap operas that she recorded on their DVR. Shell had watched the same melodramatic, poorly acted soaps since they had been in high school. “Why do you keep watching those things? You know they’ll rot your brain.”

Shell cocked her head and gave Carly a “what do you mean” look. “Like those reality tv shows are any better. Hmmph. If you ask me, we need more fantasy and escape on television, not reality. I mean, you’re supposed to be entertained by television, not confused about what’s real and what’s not.”

“But, it’s not like the storylines ever change, Shell. I mean, you can stop watching those things for years, then pick right up where you left off, only with younger actors and better makeup.” Carly loved teasing her friend about the shows, but she was guilty of watching them every now and then when they were both home and Carly had nothing better to do.

“That’s not true. Right now there’s a very good storyline going on. There’s a man with an illegitimate child who won’t acknowledge that he’s the father, just because he doesn’t want the baby’s mama to get her hands on his money. But, the guy’s wife just found out, and she’s plotting to kill the old man and blame it on the mother of the illegitimate child. I mean, that’s a pretty creative storyline.”

Carly stopped stirring the batter that she’d been preparing to pour into a pan. “Shell, that’s it.”

Shell looked confused. “What’s it?”

“Do you realize you just described Larry Gaston’s situation perfectly? I mean, I can’t say for sure that Mona is trying to frame Tina, but don’t you think that everything else sounds like what’s happened between Larry and Tina? How did the character in the show frame the other woman?”

Shell’s eyes got big. “Oh my gosh! Hey, you’re right! But I haven’t got that far in the show yet. He’s still alive, or he was in the last episode.”

Carly realized that the soap was not exactly like Larry and Tina, but there was still something about the murder that just didn’t sit right with her, so she’d look for inspiration wherever she could find it. Maybe the silly soap opera could help her figure out what it was that was driving her so crazy and keeping her from getting a good night’s sleep.

“Well, let’s finish up here so you can go watch those shows,” quipped Carly. Who knows, she thought, [_maybe I’ll figure out what it is that isn’t quite right about this whole situation. _]

Carly struggled to wake up the next morning, due in no small part to the fact that she’d sat through an entire week’s worth of hour-long episodes of ‘Love and Life’ with Shell. They’d stayed up late, munching on junk food and obsessing over whether the characters in the show were anything like the real-life people they knew. Unfortunately, the marathon soap opera viewing did nothing to help Carly figure out if Tina really was guilty or not.

On the show, the wife had planted a pair of underwear belonging to the mistress at the scene of the crime. Funnily enough, the character that had been killed (by being shot and poisoned) had also had a twin. In fact, Carly suspected that the wife had actually killed the twin and that the storyline would take a predictable twist sometime around sweeps season.

After a quick shower, Carly dressed and rode with Shell to the bakery, where they hardly had time to flip the open sign before people were showing up. Tiffany came over from the bank to get muffins and Carly’s opinion of why she thought Tina would have killed her baby daddy and potential cash cow. Melvina from the post office stopped by for a dozen cookies and a chat about how violent Parker’s Mill was becoming. She reminded Carly and Shell that in her day, no one locked their doors and no one threw electric heaters into bathtubs with people in them.

Both girls were getting a little tired of the questions, but there was no doubt that Larry’s murder and Carly’s discovery of his body was good for business. When they finally got a lull in customers, Shell sighed. “Whoo, what would we do if it was this busy every day? I’d have to hire more help.”

Carly agreed. “Yeah, maybe I should go looking for dead bodies more often.” The girls both giggled a little too loudly. They realized that it wasn’t right to laugh at anyone’s death, but the tension had been too thick in the little bakery for the past two days, and it was time to try and lighten the mood just a little.

Halfway through the day, things had settled down considerably in Sweets & Eats. Carly had brought out her laptop so she could get a little work done during the downtime at the bakery, and Shell was cleaning a few drops of dried batter off the base of her large silver mixer. Carly knew that Shell wouldn’t rest until the stainless steel appliance sparkled like a mirror. The thought that Shell might just actually have OCD had crossed her mind on more than one occasion.

“Hey, Carly,” Shell called, pausing in her cleaning long enough to look over at her friend. “We still have Mona’s cake back here.” The realization made Shell wince. “Oh, gawd…you don’t think she’ll come in here asking about it, do you? I mean, I’d just rather not have to deal with that whole sideshow.”

Carly thought for a moment, pushing her hair back behind one ear. “Well, I wouldn’t call her, if that’s what you’re asking. I’d give it a few days anyway, then you can send her a message if you need to. Did you take a big deposit?” Carly knew Shell would have taken her standard fifteen percent, non-refundable deposit, but she wouldn’t be surprised if Mona had insisted on paying more than that. She’d paid Carly half the cost of the photography package up front, even though Carly rarely asked for more than a ten percent deposit.

Carly sighed. “I’ll have to call her, too, but not today. I need to give her deposit back, but I really don’t want to have to talk to her. I may just see if I can put the money back in her bank account.” Carly had noted that Mona’s check was from the bank across the street, which happened to also be the bank where both Carly and the bakery held accounts. In a small town like Parker’s Mill, it was easy enough to find out who banked where and pay someone back by simply having the teller deposit it into the account for you.

The bell over the door tinkled and Carly looked over to see who was coming in for a sweet treat with a hefty side of gossip. She smiled when she realized it was Tucker, with both Betty Sue and Tyler in tow.

“Hey, Carly, can I just sit Tyler here while I tie Betty Sue up outside? I don’t figure Shell would be too happy with having a dog in the bakery, but I couldn’t leave her. She chewed up Tyler’s Power Ranger and ate two pairs of my socks in the last 24 hours.”

Carly nodded and smiled, then came out from behind the counter and around to where the little boy was standing. “Hey, Tyler. Remember me?” Carly ruffled the little boy’s hair and wondered why on earth he was here with Tucker instead of with his grandfather.

As if he had read her mind, Tucker slipped back into the bakery and walked over to where Carly and Tyler were standing. “I’m treating Tyler here to one of Shell’s famous chocolate chip cookies. His granddad isn’t feeling too well, but he said that Tina’s aunt is driving down from New York to help out. I just felt bad for him, and today was my day off, so I thought I’d get him out of the house for a little while.”

Carly thought that Tucker was awfully sweet for thinking of Tyler during all this chaos that had been taking place, but then she realized that Tyler was Tucker’s nephew and his last real link to his twin brother. “Would you like a chocolate chip cookie, Tyler?” Carly stooped down to his height and smiled brightly. Tyler was very quiet today, not like he’d been when she’d first met him at Moore House. Poor little thing, she thought, he’s probably missing his mama like crazy.

Tyler shrugged, but Shell was already heading over with a plate full of cookies and a carton of chocolate milk. “Come here, sugar. Let Aunt Shell get you a snack.” Shell seemed like a real natural with kids, and Carly was sure that she’d make a great mom someday.

“Have you heard anything else about Tina?” Carly was hoping that Tucker would have news that she didn’t, though it was very unlikely since her cousin had promised to call if any new evidence came in.

Tucker shrugged. “Nothing yet. But, I just don’t see how she could have murdered Larry. She’s just not that sort of person. And she wouldn’t do anything that would get her taken away from Tyler.”

Carly noted that Tucker seemed to know an awful lot about Tina, but then again, he had been around when Tina had been dating his brother, so he probably knew her better than anyone else at this point.

Carly and Tucker continued to chat, discussing what little they both knew about the case against Tina, when Tyler piped up, “I need to go potty.”

Shell didn’t miss a beat, and had the little boy up in her arms and headed off to the bathroom within seconds. “She doesn’t want any accidents, I guess,” Carly ventured. She could only imagine how much cleaning Shell would do if that happened.

“Yeah, he’s a great kid. This has been hard on him, I think.” Tucker glanced around the bakery and seemed to be suddenly aware that they were alone. He smiled nervously, and Carly tried not to laugh. It was hard, though, because she couldn’t help but think that Tucker looked an awful lot like little Tyler had when he’d first walked into the bakery, shy and a little lost.

She didn’t have long to consider the similarities between the uncle and nephew, because just then the doorbell jingled again. This time, the guest was not so happy to see Carly, and judging by the look on her heavily made-up face, Mona Durham wasn’t too happy to see Tucker, either.

“Carly, I need to talk to you about something.” Mona simply walked up to the counter and sat her purse down heavily, probably for dramatic effect, thought Carly. Excusing herself from Tucker, Carly walked over to where Mona was standing. She considered talking to her from behind the counter but changed her mind at the last minute.

[She probably wants me back there, _]Carly thought[, so she can feel superior. Well, that’s not going to happen. _]“Hey, Mona. How are you holding up?” Carly was trying to be sympathetic, but Mona’s brusque attitude made it difficult.

“Well, I’m about as good as a girl whose fiance was murdered by some scheming Jezebel can get if you must know!” Mona’s nostrils flared, and she glared at Tucker. “I mean, I’m practically a widow, and then I find out that she’s got some little brat and says it’s Larry’s. Hmmph. Shameless hussy, that’s what that girl is.” Mona tilted her head back, looking down her nose at Tucker. “She’ll get what she deserves in prison, I’m sure. And child services ought to just go on and take that kid. I mean, apparently she left it with her daddy, who I’ve seen and who is as old as the hills.”

Carly could see Tucker’s face getting red, and his hands had curled into fists. He probably hated Mona pretty hard right about now. To his credit, he managed to maintain an otherwise calm appearance, not unlike a skinny Buddha in blue jeans and an Old Navy t-shirt.

“Mona, what did you need to see me about?” Carly was determined to change the subject because buddha boy didn’t look like he could stay calm and quiet for long.

“It’s about my money. I paid you a huge deposit for my wedding photos, and now I won’t be needing them, but I will need my money. After all, I have so many costs to cover, what with the funeral and all. And I’m going to need that deposit back on the cake, too.”

“Well, I’ll be happy to get you the deposit for the photos. I was just going to drop it into the bank for you, but I can just write you a check right now.” Carly was glad to at least have that errand off her to-do list.

“I’d prefer cash.” Mona put her hands on her sizeable hips and explained, “I have to go out of town to take care of some of Larry’s business, god rest his soul, and I didn’t want to have to fool with cashing a check.”

Carly glanced at Tucker, whose expression clearly stated that he didn’t believe Mona’s audacity any more than Carly did. “I guess I can run over to the bank and cash a check,” Carly offered, “but it’ll be a few minutes before I can leave.”

Mona was about to say something when the sound of little feet running on the floor distracted her. Tyler came barreling into the lobby, grinning from ear to ear. “I cooked! I did mixing!” Shell followed behind, laughing.

“I let him push the button on the big old stand mixer back there. He got such a kick out of it…” Her laughter trailed off when she saw Mona, and she stopped just behind the counter.

Mona just glanced at Tyler at first, but when Tyler called out to his uncle, recognition flared in her eyes. “What on earth are you doing with that woman’s brat?” She probably meant for this to come out in a roar, but her face was contorted with anger, and it seemed to be choking her. She took a deep breath and spun around towards Carly. “I’ll bet you think this is funny, don’t you? That little brat is nothing but a painful reminder to me, but you wouldn’t care, would you?”

For half a second, Carly wanted to feel pity for Mona. But just then, Tyler walked over to Carly and tugged on her arm. He whispered something and pointed to the keychain hanging from Mona’s purse. Carly leaned in to listen to him, and she was just able to make out the words “Can I” from his little whispers.

“Can you what, sweetheart?” Carly was blatantly ignoring Mona’s fiery stare, and Tyler reached up again, pointing at Mona’s keychain, which was glittery and sparkly, perfectly attractive to little kids and trashy women.

What happened next happened so quickly, Carly barely had time to think about it. As Tyler’s little arm hung pointing in the air, Mona snatched her bag violently off the countertop, clutching it towards her ample bosom and spilling half the contents onto the floor in the process.

“Will somebody get this little brat out of here? Look what he made me do!” Mona was making a big show of her predicament, and Tyler looked like he was about to cry.

Hugging Tyler defensively, Carly chided, “Mona Durham, don’t you yell at this baby! Look, I can help you pick this up…” Carly nudged Tyler towards Tucker, who looked like he was ready to blow a gasket. Carly shook her head in an exaggerated NO and turned back to Mona, who was frantically grabbing at the things that had fallen out of her purse.

“You just leave my stuff alone, Carly! I don’t need you sticking your nose into my personal belongings like you stuck your nose into Larry’s!”

Carly stopped with her hand hovering over a tube of lipstick that had landed by her foot. She looked Mona dead in the eye and questioned her. “What is that supposed to mean?”

Mona dropped a pack of gum and a tube of mascara back into her cavernous purse, and snarled, “I’m just saying it’s pretty strange you went to Larry’s that morning. I mean, what were you planning on doing when you got there, huh? Maybe you were having an affair with him, too. In fact, how can anybody be sure that you didn’t throw that heater in the bath with him?” If Mona was trying to shock everyone in the room, it was certainly working.

Carly stood up, eye to eye with Mona, and calmly retorted, “You know full well what I was doing at Larry’s house. You’d better be careful with your accusations, Mona. There’s a whole lot of ugly that could come out in the police investigation. People talk, and I’m sure they’re wondering why you wouldn’t answer your phone when I tried to call you that morning.”

Carly thought she saw a flicker of something in Mona’s eyes, a flash of anger fuelled by hate, but something else, too. Mona glared at everyone in the room. “Like I told that half-wit cousin of yours, my phone was on silent. I had the ringer turned down so my mama wouldn’t be bothered by the ringing since she was sick that day.” Yeah, thought Carly, sick of having you live at home with her.

Mona shoved her arm through the strap of her purse. “Well, I did not come here to be insulted or assaulted by that little brat,” she hissed, pointing at Tyler. “You can just deposit that money into my bank account after all. But do it today. I will never set foot in this crappy little bakery again, and you can be sure that I will tell all my friends how rude and disrespectful that you are.” Mona glared at everyone one last time, then she stormed out the front door, slamming it shut behind her. The glass shook in its frame, and the bell jangled wildly.

“Well, I never!” Shell walked over to Tyler and knelt down beside him. “Did that mean old witch scare you, Tyler?” The little boy had tears in his eyes, and he nodded his head. “Well, you come on with Aunt Shell and we’ll go pick you out a little cupcake. What do you think about that?”

Tucker walked over to Carly and gave her an unexpected hug. “What was that for?” she asked.

“It was a thank you. Thank you for standing up to that woman when she got so ugly about Tyler. I’m embarrassed that I didn’t say something. I mean, I am his uncle and all, but I guess I’m still getting used to that fact.” Tyler looked as though he regretted not speaking up when Mona had been in the bakery, but Carly knew that it would have been pointless.

“Don’t feel bad, Tucker. If you had said anything to her, it would have just made things worse. I think she can’t stand the fact that you look just like your brother. Maybe it just brings back bad memories for her. Or, maybe she is just a mean old witch.” Carly let out a half-chuckle, glad that the mean old witch had left without further incident.

Carly felt her chest relax. She hadn’t realized just how tense she’d been the whole time Mona was in the bakery. She felt something in her hand and realized that she’d picked up the lipstick that had fallen out of Mona’s purse. Well, she thought, [_there is no way I’m chasing her down to give her back a tube of lipstick. _]

She walked back behind the counter, and started to toss the tube into the trash, but something stopped her. [I wonder what shade of violent pink this tube is? _]Flipping the lipstick upside down, she read the name. _Blushing burgundy. “Hmmm,” she said to no one in particular.

“What?” Shell and Tucker responded in unison.

“I never took Mona for a ‘blushing burgundy’ kind of girl.” Carly opened the lipstick and twisted it up. It was practically brand new, with just a hint of having been used maybe once or twice. It was also the exact same shade that Tina Nicholls had been wearing every time Carly had seen her. Putting the cap back on the tube, Carly reached under the counter and grabbed her purse.

“Where are you going?” Shell asked, licking cupcake frosting from one finger.

Carly wrapped the lipstick in a paper napkin and placed it carefully in her purse. “Hold down the fort, you two. I’ve got to go see a man about some lipstick.”

12

h1=.

Brandon Sparks listened intently as Carly explained her theory about the lipstick, and she handed it over to be checked for fingerprints. “Forget fingerprints,” Brandon said, dropping the tube into a plastic evidence bag, “we can check for traces of DNA on this. If Tina or Mona applied this lipstick to either of their lips, I’ll know within a week.”

“A week?” Carly looked frustrated. “That’s too long. I think Mona’s planning on leaving town soon, maybe even today. She told me she had to go out of town to take care of some of Larry’s business, and she was looking to get her deposit back on the wedding photos and cake.”

“So? There’s nothing illegal about getting a refund for wedding stuff when the groom kicks the bucket before the I do’s.”

“She wanted me to pay her in cash.” Carly put her hands on her hips and planted her feet firmly, defiance in her eyes. “Brandon, I know there must be something you can do. I mean, if you don’t have enough evidence to keep Tina, you have to let her go, right?” Carly wasn’t letting her cousin brush her off with police procedure.

“That’s the problem,” Brandon said. “It looks like we do have evidence that Tina was in Larry’s apartment some time before he was killed.”

Carly was floored. “What evidence? What do you mean?”

“Well, we found her driver’s license on the floor by the front door. I doubt she even knew she’d dropped it because she tried to tell us it was in her wallet the whole time. We looked, to humor her, and she seemed shocked that it was gone. Then she asked if she could see a lawyer.”

Carly could tell that her cousin genuinely believed that he had Larry’s killer in the cell in the back of the small jail, but Carly just couldn’t be sure of that. “Listen, I don’t know why or how her driver’s license wound up there, and she may well have been dumb enough to go over there, but I really, truly don’t think that Tina Nichols killed Larry.”

“Why do you even care so much, Carly? I mean, it’s not like Tina means anything to you. And if you ask me, having her locked up in here takes out the competition for Mr. Sensitive, what’s-his-name…” Brandon grinned watching his cousin blush.

“I don’t see her as competition, Brandon. I see her as a single mom with a little boy that needs her. Maybe I’m wrong, and she did do it, but what if I’m right, and Mona gets to walk away? If Mona killed Larry, she cannot get away with it.” Carly prayed and hoped that she was right, even if she had lied about Tina not being competition. Darn her cousin for hitting on the one nerve she just didn’t need to be exposed right now.

Brandon gestured to the bag containing the lipstick. “Well, if this gives us any further evidence, you realize it could go both ways. It could make Mona look mighty suspicious, but it may not necessarily prove anything. And, it could confirm that Tina wears burgundy lipstick, which won’t get her out of jail.” Brandon grinned, and Carly wanted to smack him. How could her cousin joke over something as big as a person’s freedom?

“Yeah, Brandon, and it could free her, too. If that lipstick on those wine glasses match this lipstick, and the lipstick matches Mona, then…”

“Then we still only have circumstantial evidence, unless we find fingerprints on the heater from the bathroom.” Brandon stopped grinning. “I do know how to do my job, cuz. I may not have been the straight-A student that you were in school, but I do know how to catch bad guys.”

Brandon could tell Carly was getting frustrated, so he continued, “If we can get a confession out of whoever’s DNA matches both the lipstick and the wine glasses, we have a solid case for conviction, even without the fingerprints on the heater. I won’t just leave Tina locked up without investigating every fact and piece of evidence. I’ll make sure the right person goes to jail for this.”

Carly knew her cousin would keep his word. If anyone in town valued justice more than Brandon, she didn’t know them. She just wished that she could get Mona to confess to having been at Larry’s house the night that he died. And she just needed to find out why Tina [_had _]been there. Once she had those two pieces of information, Carly was sure that she could get to the bottom of the mystery behind who killed Larry Gaston.

“Brandon,” she asked cautiously, feeling her brain begin to form a plan, “Does Tina have to stay in jail? I mean, if she made bail she could get out, right?”

“Yeah, technically, but she’s already said that she can’t afford bail money. I mean, it’s only ten thousand dollars, but for her, that might as well be ten million bucks.”

“What if I post her bail? Can she get out then?” Carly definitely had a plan forming in her brain, and Brandon could tell.

“What are you planning, cuz?”

Carly bit her bottom lip in concentration. After a few seconds, she replied, “I think I have a plan, and I think I can get your confession. If we can make Mona mad enough, she’ll lose it completely, and I think she’d totally confess to the murder.”

Brandon frowned. “And how do you plan on doing that?”

“If I tell you, you have to help me do it.” Carly realized that she couldn’t legally blackmail a cop, but she figured her cousin might just be up for her mission once he heard the details.

“Well, okay, but if we get into trouble, I’m calling your mama,” Brandon grinned, and Carly began to explain the plan she had to solve Larry’s murder once and for all.

13

h1=.

It had taken Carly all of twenty minutes to come up with Tina’s bail money, but it had taken her twice as long to convince the pretty redhead to commit to Carly’s plan. After she had explained to Tina why she’d bailed her out of jail, and convinced her to help, Carly had gone back to Sweets & Eats for a little ‘come to Jesus’ meeting with Tucker.

“Tucker, Brandon told me that he has proof that Tina was at Larry’s the night he was killed. Did you know this?”

Tucker seemed blindsided by Carly’s question, and it took him a second to reply. “Well, I didn’t want to say anything to you, because I thought you’d get mad. And I didn’t want to say anything to the police because I was afraid that Tina would get into trouble.”

“She’s already in trouble, a whole lot of it,” offered Shell, who was coloring the pages of a coloring book with little Tyler curled up in her lap.

Carly continued her questioning. “How do you know she was there? Just what exactly is going on between you and Tina? And, you are aware that not telling the police that Tina was there makes you and her look as guilty as sin, not to mention the fact that it’s illegal to leave stuff like that out of your conversation with a policeman?” The look on Carly’s face told Tucker that anything other than the complete truth might just be bad for his health.

“She was walking up Main Street when I was putting Larry in my car. I tried to tell her that he was too drunk to talk to her, but she wouldn’t listen. She insisted I give her a lift to his place so she could talk about him paying child support for Tyler.” Tucker sighed. “I really tried to make her wait and talk to him later, but she got in my car and wouldn’t get out. There’re not many things that will rile Tina up, but when it comes to Tyler, she’d probably kill someone to keep him happy and safe.”

Carly felt a sudden twinge of panic. If Tina really was the mama bear-type that Tucker was describing, could she be certain that her plan would even work? She began to have doubts about Tina’s innocence, and Tucker continued. “I dropped Larry off, and she followed me into the house. She pulled out her wallet and started showing him all these pictures of Tyler.”

Carly guessed that had been how Tina’s license had ended up on the floor of Larry’s house. It probably fell out when she took out the photographs.

“But, I took her home. She realized pretty quickly that Larry was in no shape to talk to her that night. She said she’d just come back the next day, but I guess she didn’t get the chance. I left my brother alone that night, and he was alive. I put him into bed fully dressed, took Tina home, and that was it.” Tucker waited for Carly to respond, then he added, “There’s nothing going on between Tina and me if that’s what you’re asking. I was just trying to help keep the peace and maybe do the right thing by my nephew.”

Carly believed Tucker. It all sounded very plausible, but when had Mona come by Larry’s house? And why would she murder her fiance just days before they were due to be married?

This is where Carly’s plan would reveal everything if it worked. “Okay, Tucker, I’m sorry I had to give you the third degree, but I need to be one-hundred percent sure that Tina is innocent before I go through with what I’m about to do.”

“Well, if she’s one-hundred percent guilty, you owe me a big chunk of change.” Shell gave Carly a look that was meant to be threatening, but that came across as mildly annoyed. She had put up half of Tina’s bail money using money from the bakery, and Carly and Tucker had split the rest between them. Carly was well aware that all three of them stood to lose a lot of money if she was wrong.

Carly was relieved that Tucker and Tina’s relationship was strictly platonic, and she believed him when he said that he felt that she was innocent. Her plan hinged on that one small detail, because if Tina was guilty, Carly would be helping her to get away with murder.

“Okay, here’s what I plan to do. But, I’ll need your help, both of you, and it may not work, so we have to be prepared for that, too.” Carly couldn’t believe that she was about to tell her best friend and the guy that she kinda-sorta had a crush on all about how she was going to set up a sting operation on the woman who had just yelled at them all a little earlier.

“I’m going to bring Tina here, to Sweets & Eats, and then I’m going to call Mona and have her pick up her deposit.” Carly waited to see what kind of reaction she’d get from her friends, and she wasn’t surprised when Shell was the first to respond.

“She will flip her lid! Oh, my gosh…you do realize that Mona [_hates _]Tina? I mean, she hates everybody, but she really hates Tina. Shell paused, then continued. “I don’t want any fighting going on in here. My mama would kill me if I get the placed all smashed up in some white trash cat fight.”

“Oh, I don’t think it will come to that. And, I’ll have Brandon waiting across the street, so if there’s trouble, he can be here lickety split. I just think we need a catalyst, something to set Mona off so she’ll confess to killing Larry.” Carly just hoped her plan would work, because if it didn’t, it could make it harder for her cousin to get to the bottom of who actually killed Larry.

“I’m not sure this is a good idea.” Shell seemed genuinely worried about the whole situation, and Carly couldn’t blame her. After all, they would be inviting a whole lot of trouble in here, and pouring gasoline on an open flame when Mona saw Tina in the bakery.

“Okay, well what if you just take little Tyler down the street to see Pete? I bet he’s getting hungry, and you can’t just keep stuffing him full of cookies. Tucker, would that be okay with you?”

Tucker nodded, then said, “Yeah, I think that would work. It looks like he’s attached himself to Shell pretty good, so I think he’d like that.”

“And take your time,” Carly suggested. “Maybe head over to the park or up to the toy store over on Dixon Street. I want to make sure Tyler is nowhere near here when Mona gets here.”

The petite blonde nodded in agreement and then scooped Tyler up in her arms. “How about we go get us some chicken nuggets? You like those?” Shell grabbed her purse from behind the counter and automatically asked, “Y’all want me to bring you something back?”

Carly couldn’t eat if her life depended on it right now. She shook her head and smiled at her best friend. “No, thanks…I think my stomach is too tied in knots. You go enjoy talking to Pete.” Carly watched Shell blush, then head out the door.

“Now what?” Tucker leaned against the wall looking about as tired as Carly had ever seen him look. She realized that his brother’s funeral would probably take place within a couple of days, but his killer was still on the loose. She was determined to fix that.

“Now, you go over to the jail and pick up Tina. I’ve already explained everything to her, and Brandon’s keeping her there until you pick her up. Then you guys will come back here, and Brandon will get into position across the street.” Carly realized that she’d been spending too much time around her cousin, and she was starting to talk like a police officer. “I’ll call Mona and tell her to come here and get her money.”

“What if she says she can’t come? What if she thinks something’s up?”

“Why should she suspect a thing? I’ll just tell her that Shell had to go run an errand and I can’t leave the bakery, but that I have her cash. That’s all true, isn’t it?” Carly had stopped by the bank and taken out the cash to give Mona for her photography package, and Shell was on an errand to feed one hungry three-year-old, so she wasn’t lying.

“Alright, then. I guess I’ll go get Tina and meet you back here.” Tucker glanced over his shoulder as he walked out the front door.

“I’ll be waiting,” Carly replied, hoping that this didn’t just blow up in all of their faces.

14

h1=.

Mona arrived sooner than Carly had expected her to arrive. Tina and Tucker weren’t back yet, and the first words out of Mona’s mouth didn’t make Carly think she could stall her with small talk.

“You got my money, Carly?” Mona wasn’t looking too pleased when she asked, and Carly knew that she had to do something to keep her in here long enough for the others to arrive if she ever hoped for a chance of a confession. Beneath the counter, Carly quietly clicked the record button on a digital recorder that Brandon had given her.

“Hey, Mona,” Carly said in a sympathetic tone, “I’m sorry things got so out of control earlier. I had no idea Tucker would bring the little boy in here. I know I was probably rude to you earlier…”

“Darn right, you were rude! I mean, I’ve just lost my fiance, and here you go waving that kid in my face. Who says he’s even really Larry’s son? I bet that Tina Nicholls is just sniffing around for some money. She probably heard that Larry was doing well with his business, and thought she’d just take that right out of my pocket and put it into hers.” Mona scowled.

Carly thought it was odd that Mona had considered Larry’s money to be hers, especially since they weren’t even married. “I guess when you put it that way, yeah, it seems awfully rude of me.” Carly reached for her purse and glanced at the recorder to make sure the little green light was all lit up. Certain that the conversation was being recorded, she continued. “I’ve got the money that I owe you, but Shell didn’t have hers just yet. In fact, she’s gone to run some errands, and she’s probably getting it for you right now.” Carly hated telling that little lie, but she knew it could buy her some time.

“Here, Mona, why don’t you sit down and have a piece of cake, on the house. It’s real good…” Carly drawled. “Chocolate and cream, one of Shell’s best yet.” Carly brought the cake from the display case before Mona could reply. It was a good-looking cake, and Carly could see that Mona was tempted. Slicing into it, Carly watched Mona’s eyes sparkle greedily. She cut a thick wedge of the gooey dessert and placed it on a paper plate, handing it to Mona with a smile.

“I think you’ll love this. And here’s a little milk to wash it down.”

Mona eyed Carly suspiciously, but took the cake and sat at the little bistro table. “I guess I can stay for a few minutes,” she said. “But Shell needs to hurry back because I have to go out of town to take care of some business.”

“I know you said something about that earlier. Something for Larry’s business, wasn’t it?” Carly knew she had to tread carefully, or Mona could just blow up again and leave without giving anything away at all.

“I helped him run things before,” Mona replied. “I have to keep them going now, and there’s insurance stuff to deal with. I can’t bury him without making sure I have enough money to cover the expenses,” she explained.

“It was such a shock, finding him that way.” Carly looked Mona in the eyes as she spoke. “Have you ever seen a dead body before? It’s not like it looks on TV.”

Mona stared back. “I have seen one or two, back when I used to work in an assisted living facility.” Carly cringed at the thought of Mona taking care of defenseless elderly people. Mona forked a chunk of cake into her mouth and washed it down with milk. “You get used to it after a while, I guess.”

“Did you and Larry date for a long time before he proposed?” Carly changed the subject, hoping to probe Mona a little more about her relationship with Larry and his relationship with Tina.

“I met him a little over three years ago. He was such a charmer, he swept me off my feet.” Carly doubted that she meant that literally, as Mona was definitely of a sturdier build than Larry had been.

“You know, I went out with him once in high school, but we just didn’t click.” Carly watched for signs of jealousy, and Mona’s suddenly tense face told her that she was pretty jealous of even his past flames.

“Well, that was before I met him. He never mentioned it to me.” Mona wiped her mouth with a paper napkin.

“And I guess he dated Tina just before you,” Carly pushed, watching Mona’s jaw clench.

“Don’t even speak her name. She was nothing to him, just some good time girl that didn’t have the sense to use birth control. I don’t even believe that her kid really is Larry’s. And, talk about stupid! I mean, who asks somebody to pay child support and then fries him in the bathtub?” Mona pushed her chair back and stood up. “Well, she’ll get what she deserves. That floozy is going to rot in jail for the rest of her life.” The smug look on Mona’s face made Carly feel sick.

“I don’t have time to wait on Shell. Just give me the money you owe me, and have her stick hers in my bank account.” Carly felt herself start to panic. She had to keep Mona here just a little longer if she wanted a chance to clear Tina’s name.

Just then, the bell over the door jingled. Carly glanced over at the door and saw the cavalry coming.

“I don’t believe it!” Mona yelled. “Who let you out of jail, you little floozy?”

Tina squared her shoulders and stared Mona dead in the eyes. “They don’t keep innocent people locked up, or haven’t you heard?” Tina seemed more confident than Carly had ever remembered seeing her. “By the way, Mona, I hear you’ve changed your lipstick recently. You might want to reconsider because blushing burgundy really isn’t your color.”

Carly watched the color drain from Mona’s face. Mona glared at Tina, then at Carly. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Now, just give me my money and let me get out of here.”

Carly crossed her arms and cocked her head to the side. “What I can’t figure out,” she said to the trio standing in front of her, “is why Larry had a space heater in his bathroom in the middle of summer. I mean, I’ve heard of cold-blooded people, but that seems a little odd to me.”

Carly could see a vein beginning to bulge on Mona’s right temple.

“And why he was in the bath, fully clothed, well, that seems most peculiar.” She watched Mona’s fists clench. Changing tactics, she continued, “It must have been such a blow for you when you found out about little Tyler. I mean, if he really is Larry’s son, he’ll be the one who inherits any money Larry left behind.”

Mona growled, “That little turd ain’t getting a penny of Larry’s money! I know that little Miss floozy over there thinks she’s gonna be rich just because she got knocked up, but she’s dead wrong.” Mona turned to Tina and got right up in her face. “You won’t see a penny of that insurance money, I’ll make sure of that.”

Everyone but Mona looked shocked at her mention of an insurance policy. Finally, Tina lost it. “Why would you kill him?! He gave you everything you ever wanted, and all I wanted was for him to give a little bit to take care of his son. Now my boy will never know his father.”

Mona stepped backward. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said, a slightly confused look on her face. “I’m leaving, Carly, give me my money.”

“Oh, it’s all about money with you, isn’t it?” Tucker had been silent this whole time, and Carly had nearly forgotten that he was there. “Was that all my brother was to you, just a paycheck? Are you really that shallow, did you really just kill him for money?”

“No, I…” Mona stammered. “Let me out of here.”

“Mona, I’m still confused. Did you go all the way to Larry’s house in the middle of the night just to kill him, or were you hoping to bring Tina down, too? I mean, it was a cute touch, putting her shade of lipstick on the wine glasses. And you even drank ‘her’ glass, too. But poor, drunk Larry didn’t even get to taste that wine now, did he?” Carly felt a little bit like the lady police officer on Law & Order. She could see Mona breaking down in front of her, but she knew she needed more.

“Why on earth did you go and kill your cash cow, Mona Durham? I mean, you could have milked that poor sucker for years.” Carly just hoped that the digital recorder was getting every word of the conversation.

“You have no idea! You all stand here so high and mighty, but you don’t know what I put up with! That ‘cash cow’ was my fiance, and he cheated on me. And it wasn’t the first time!” Mona spun around to face Tina once again. “That teller from the bank told me…she told me he was seeing some red-headed girl and he was meeting her here nearly every day. It didn’t take much for me to put two and two together. I know you thought you were going to get him back from me, but it’s too late for that now. If I can’t have Larry, no one will.”

Mona seemed to be coming unhinged right in front of them. “I deserved better. I am sick and tired of being someone’s second choice. I might not be as pretty as you, but I’m smarter. I figured out how to get you out of the picture once and for all.”

Carly’s heart leaped. “So, you killed Larry just to keep Tina from having him?” She knew it was a long shot, but if Mona answered, it could be the confession they needed.

Mona turned back to Carly and grinned. “Well, now, Carly, don’t go putting words in my mouth.” She looked a little too crazy for Carly’s liking, and suddenly Carly was glad to know that her cousin was just across the street with a gun and a pair of handcuffs. “I didn’t say that I murdered Larry, but I am going to kill this red-haired little witch.” Mona spun around and dove straight for Tina, arms outstretched and claws bared.

The two women tussled for a moment before Tucker could get them apart. He had just pulled Mona off of Tina when the door opened and Brandon came running in. Without hesitation, he grabbed Mona’s wrists and cuffed them.

“What are you doing?” Mona screamed. “You let me go! You should be arresting her for starting all this!”

“Now, you just calm down, Mona. Ain’t nobody wants to hear your special brand of crazy right now. You just settle down and we’ll get you into a cozy little cell for the evening.” Brandon looked over at Tina. “She did just threaten to kill you, right?”

Tina nodded. “Well, good. We can add attempted murder to her list of charges.” He opened the door and whistled, bringing two deputies into the crowded lobby of Sweets & Eats. “Take her outside for a minute and hold her. I’ve gotta read her her rights, but first I want to talk to my cousin.” As the deputies took Mona outside, Brandon walked over to Carly. “Did you record all that?”

“I think so.” Carly pulled the recorder out and handed it to Brandon. It was still recording.

Switching off the machine, Brandon congratulated her. “You did a good job. I’ll take it from here.”

Carly was heartbroken. “But, I didn’t get a confession. Tina’s still going to jail, and now Mona knows everything we do about the murder. I think I’ve just ruined your chances of ever getting her to confess.” Carly felt sick to her stomach. She looked over at Tina, who was trying to calm down after her near-fight with Mona.

“That’s alright,” Brandon reassured her. “You don’t need her confession. I got a call from the crime lab, they got a whole bunch of fingerprints off of that heater. Most of them were Mona’s mother’s prints. It turns out that heater came from her house. She had no idea that it was even missing.”

Carly’s eyes widened in realization. “Do you have Mona’s prints on there, too?”

“I wouldn’t be arresting her if I didn’t,” Brandon smiled. “I told you, I’m good at my job.”

Carly watched her cousin walk out the front door of the bakery. “I am so glad that you are, cousin.” She breathed a sigh of relief, filling her lungs with air and letting it go again. Then, she pulled out her cell phone and dialed Shell’s number.

“Shell, you can come on back. I’ve got a mama here who really needs to see her little boy right about now.” As Carly ended the call, she realized that it was past time for the bakery to close. She walked over to the front of the store and flipped the sign to ‘CLOSED.’ If anybody needed any baked goods now, they would just have to come back tomorrow.

15

h1=.

A week had passed since all the excitement had taken place at Sweets & Eats, and the little bakery had never been busier. Of course, most people really came in for the latest gossip on Larry’s murder and Mona’s arrest, but everyone left with one of Shell’s delicious creations.

This week’s special was morbidly appropriate. ‘Death by Chocolate’ was basically a double chocolate chip brownie that was drowning in chocolate sauce and topped with whipped cream. The simple, but sinfully sweet, dessert was flying out of the display case as fast as they could fill it.

Carly had gotten used to the attention, and her detective skills hadn’t gone unnoticed. Not only had she seen a sudden uptake in photography bookings, but the local newspaper had also called and asked if she’d like to fill in for one of their regular photographers who had gone on an extended medical leave.

Thrilled to have a chance to take advantage of her passion for both photography and her community, Carly had taken the position and was looking forward to tackling her first assignment.

The bell over the door jingled as Carly was filling the display case with chocolate death. She looked up and saw Tucker standing in the doorway. “Hey, Tucker, what’s up?”

He walked over to the counter and leaned over it slightly to get a little closer to Carly. “Nothing much. I just wanted to say thank you, again, for helping Tina.” He seemed a little sad, and Carly wondered whether something had happened to Betty Sue. She felt bad that they hadn’t managed to get the dogs together for their doggie play date yet.

“How are Tina and Tyler doing?” Carly hadn’t seen either one since Mona’s arrest.

“They’re good. Actually, they’re going up north, all of them, even Tina’s dad.” He paused, and Carly realized why he was so sad. “They’re going to move in with Tina’s aunt up in New York.”

“Oh.” Carly didn’t really know what to say. “That’s a shame. I know you really became attached to Tyler. Maybe you can still keep in touch.” She wondered if it was wrong to feel happy that Tina was leaving town, even if it meant Tucker was losing contact with his only nephew.

Tucker shrugged. “Maybe.” He straightened back up and cocked his head to the side. “Do you want to go do something this weekend? I mean, with the dogs.” He seemed suddenly shy, and Carly had to stop herself from giggling.

“Sure, I’d love to.” She pushed the last dessert onto the shelf of the display case and slid the door closed. She thought for a moment, then said, “How about Sunday afternoon around 2:00? You could meet me here, out front.”

Tucker’s face lit up. “Sure, that would be perfect. Maybe we can take the dogs over to the park for a little bit.”

Carly grinned. “Okay, but you’d better watch out. Betty Sue’s not the only one who goes crazy for those squirrels.”

“I’d better get back to work,” Tucker said. “I just wanted to come and say hi. I guess I’ll see you on Sunday.”

“See you then,” Carly replied, and watched Tucker walk out the front door.

“I knew it.” Shell’s voice nearly gave Carly a heart attack. She hadn’t heard her walk out from the back of the bakery, and Carly wondered if her friend had been listening the whole time.

“You knew what?” Carly was blushing, and she hoped Shell didn’t notice.

“I knew those two would get together eventually. I mean, they’re made for each other.”

Carly was confused. “What? Who do you mean?”

“Well, Betty Sue and Bo, of course.” Shell laughed, “And any fool could have told you that Tucker would ask you out eventually. He just took his sweet time doing it.” Shell picked up her cleaning cloth and started wiping the fingerprints off of the display case.

Carly laughed. Tucker may have taken a little while to ask her out, but in her opinion, that just made the whole relationship a little bit sweeter. “I do think I like that boy,” Carly confided to Shell. “Now, let’s get this place ready to close. I have another date tonight,” Carly stated.

Shell’s eyes got big. “With who?”

“With you, on the couch. I’m dying to find out what happened this week on ‘Love and Life.’”

Shell flicked the cleaning rag playfully at her best friend. “And I thought you’d had enough drama for one week,” she laughed.

“Well, I guess it just goes to show that you never can tell what you’ll like until you try it.” Carly sat back on the stool behind the counter and smiled. She couldn’t wait until Sunday. She had a feeling that she was going to like spending time with Tucker very, very much.

Shell’s Secret Recipes

Here are just a few of Shell’s favorite recipes from the story that I thought you’d love!

Pete’s Favorite Macarons

Ingredients:

  • 3 egg whites
  • 50 grams of granulated (white) sugar (This is ¼ cup, but it’s best if you weigh the dry ingredients!)
  • 200 grams of confectioners (powdered) sugar (1 ⅔ cup)
  • 110 grams finely ground almonds (1 cup)
  • Food coloring paste (optional)

Filling:

Any frosting you like, or you can make one by thoroughly combining:

  • 1 stick soft butter
  • ⅔ cup confectioners (powdered) sugar
  • ⅛ teaspoon of vanilla extract
  • 2-3 drops of food coloring (optional)

To make the Macarons:

1: Start by beating your egg whites in a mixing bowl until they start to look foamy. (This works best in a stand mixer!) Once you see foam, beat in the granulated (white) sugar until you get pretty, glossy peaks.

2: Sift the powdered sugar and almonds together, then fold them quickly into the egg white mixture, using the minimum amount of strokes to mix them (around 30). You want to keep the air in them so they’ll be light and fluffy! You can also add the food coloring if you want to make them super pretty!

3: Use a piping bag to test your batter. Squirt a little out on some wax paper and see if it keeps its pointy peak or if it flattens. You want it to flatten, so you’ll have a cute rounded top. If it doesn’t flatten, gently fold your batter just a little more and try again.

4: Once it holds the right shape, pipe the mixture onto a cookie sheet covered with lightly greased parchment paper or a lightly greased silicone cookie sheet. Make little rounds, about an inch apart. Then, let them sit at room temperature until they form a slight skin on top.

5: Heat your oven to 285 degrees Fahrenheit (140 degrees Celsius). Bake the cookies until they are set but not browned. Let them cool completely before filling them.

Fill them with cake frosting, or whip up a batch of buttercream frosting.

In a mixing bowl, combine one stick of softened butter, ⅔ cup confectioners (powdered) sugar, ⅛ teaspoon of vanilla extract and a few drops of food coloring, if desired. Mix it until it’s smooth, and put it between two macaron cookies for a delightful treat!

Double Chocolate Chip Brownies

(Death by Chocolate)

These are the basis for Shell’s “Death By Chocolate” recipe that was at the end of “Dead Before The Wedding.”

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups semisweet chocolate chips
  • 1 stick (½ cup) butter (cut into pieces)
  • 1 cup white (granulated) sugar
  • 1 ¼ cups of all-purpose flour
  • ¼ teaspoon baking soda
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • ½ cup chopped nuts (optional)

1: Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (177 degrees C)

2: Grease 9×13-inch pan or pyrex dish.

3: Melt half of the chocolate chips and the butter in a saucepan over low heat, stirring frequently to keep it from burning or clumping.

4: Once it’s smooth, take it off the heat and add the eggs, flour, sugar, baking soda, and vanilla. Mix well, then add the remaining chocolate chips and mix some more. You can also add the nuts now if you want.

5: Pour mixture into the pan and bake for around 18-22 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean but sticky. Cut into squares and serve with ice cream or chocolate sauce and whipped cream.

Other Books By Ruby Blaylock

Carly Keene Cozy Mysteries

  • Dead Before the Wedding
  • Gravely Dead
  • Love, Death & Christmas Cookies
  • Can’t Beat a Dead Horse

Rosewood Place Mysteries

  • Bodies & Buried Secrets
  • Corpses & Conmen
  • Greed & Deadly Deceit

Hedgewood Sisters Paranormal Mysteries

  • That Witch Doesn’t Kill You…

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www.rubyblaylock.com


Dead Before The Wedding

Life in a small town can be murder... Meet Carly Keene. She's a professional photographer, part-time bakery employee, and a small town girl who loves everything about her hometown, until she discovers that there's a murderer on the loose. Parker's Mill has a killer in its midst. The sleepy little Georgia town is full of quirky characters, but one of them is a stone-cold killer. When Carly discovers the body of one of her photography clients in his bathtub, fully clothed and snuggled up to a space heater in the dead of summer, she knows something's not right. The dead guy had some secrets. One of which just happens to be a secret love child, and another is a redhead who smokes too much, which wouldn't be a problem if he hadn't been engaged to a brassy blonde with eighties hair and a heck of a mean temper. He also has a gorgeous twin brother who knocks Carly for six when she realizes that she might be falling for him. Can Carly figure out who really killed Larry Gaston before the cops nab the wrong person? Or will she let his handsome twin wander off into the sunset with one of the dead guy's former conquests? Get cozy with the characters in this small town as Carly fights for justice as sweet as the chocolate cake at the Sweets & Eats bakery! **Includes two recipes straight from the book!**

  • Author: Ruby Blaylock
  • Published: 2017-04-04 03:35:15
  • Words: 33514
Dead Before The Wedding Dead Before The Wedding