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A Crimson Homecoming:

A Payne’s Creek Romantic Suspense Serial, Part IV

Lil

The cookout was in full swing when Bryn’s yelling suddenly drowned out the music emanating from other side of Grammy’s swimming pool. “Look, asshole. Stay; don’t stay. I don’t really care. It’s not like you and I are really together anyway.”

Jake stood in front of her. He looked like the cross between a stunned witness crumbling under brutal cross-examination in a murder trial and a lovesick puppy.

Feeling his eyes on me, I looked over at Cooper and lifted my brows. He, too, was across the pool, so I couldn’t easily ask him what was going on. And that was assuming he knew anything. When Cooper closed his eyes and bowed his head, I realized he was clued in to the drama unfolding in front of the increasingly interested crowd.

It was a small town, and Jake Earlywine was Cooper’s best friend. And Jake wasn’t usually one for secrets when it came to girls. He’d dated pretty much everyone in Payne’s Creek at some point between childhood and now, including Bryn back when they were sixteen.

Jake stepped closer to Bryn and said something in too low of a voice for me to make out.

“There’s not a single person here who cares that I’m being loud,” Bryn said in answer, swirling her beer bottle in the air.

I didn’t think she was drunk. As far as I knew, she’d only had a couple of beers. I think she was just being loud. Bryn rarely held back any opportunity to raise her voice when she was angry, and she didn’t need an alcohol primer.

“Fine,” Jake yelled back. “Then I’ll be loud, too. I don’t want to leave, but I also don’t want to fight with you. If you don’t care that everyone here knows we’re sleeping together, then I don’t care either.”

A laugh bubbled up my throat and out. My eyes darted toward Grammy. She was flipping burgers wearing a hot pink and white checked apron that said “I feed all the fuckers” on the front of it. She turned, waving a spatula, and rolled her eyes at Bryn and Jake, then returned to her grilling. She was obviously not surprised by this turn of events.

“Then I want everyone to know that I don’t want you seeing other women,” Bryn announced, still yelling.

“Fine, then I want you to know that I haven’t seen another woman since I started seeing you.”

“Fine.” Bryn huffed out a breath.

“Fine,” Jake yelled back.

A smile slid across Bryn’s face. She slinked into Jake’s arms and kissed him like he’d just professed his undying love for her. This brought applause from the thirty or so guests gathered around the pool and patio—many of Grammy’s friends, including Cooper’s parents, the sheriff and his family, and others, some of whose names escaped me.

I laughed again, but then mentally added this to the list of things my best friend had been keeping from me. Just as quickly, I forgave her, because they really were cute together. And I was tired of being angry with everyone.

Cooper made his way around the pool and joined me. “I’m guessing by the look on your face, you didn’t know about the two of them ‘seeing’ each other.”

I shook my head.

“I wouldn’t have,” he added, “except that I walked in on them last week at Jake’s.”

I turned my head and looked up at him. “Walked in on them. As in?”

“Yes. And it was exactly as awkward as you might think, and I was immediately sworn to secrecy.”

“And we all know how good this town has gotten at keeping secrets since I’ve been gone.” I closed my eyes. “Sorry, that was a low blow.”

“I’ll forgive you if you’ll let me buy you a cheeseburger.”

“You mean one of my grandmother’s Payne’s Creek-famous burgers?”

“She’s practically my grandmother, too, you know.” As soon as the words were out of Cooper’s mouth, he grabbed my arm. “Please forget I said that. I don’t want that image in either of our heads because that would make us related, and I don’t want you having any sort of excuse when I get you to go out on a second date with me.”

I turned fully toward him. “Second date?”

“Yes, the first one is right now when I buy you one of those cheeseburgers.”

“Cooper, I—”

He placed a hand over my mouth. “Stop right there. I’m just flirting with you. I meant what I said—I do plan on taking you out on a second date—but for right now, don’t let this be anything more than me flirting with my high school sweetheart who has come back to town for a visit. Or whatever.

He said “or whatever” as if he knew something I didn’t. Like he knew that I had come back to stay but that no one had told me yet.

He offered me an arm. I stared at it, then met his eyes. With an uneasy smile, I slid my hand through it. “Fine. Besides, the least I could do is show you where Grammy hid the red velvet cake after we eat.”

“She hid the red velvet cake?”

“Yes. It always gets eaten too fast, and Drew and I talked her into putting this one back just for the grandkids and anyone we deemed worthy of a piece.”

“I promise I’m worthy,” Cooper said on a smile.

◊◊◊◊◊

Loaded with plates of food, Cooper and I headed toward Jake and Bryn, who were sitting at a picnic table with Sheriff Daniels and his wife.

After we all exchanged pleasantries, I leaned across the table to Bryn. “So… When you were going to tell me that you and Jake are a thing?”

“As soon as I knew.” She took a deep cleansing breath then spoke to me as if we were just starting a conversation. “Hey, Lil. So, apparently, Jake and I are a thing. Just this moment, we decided. In front of everyone at our grandmother’s spring cookout.”

Everyone at the table laughed. Cooper fist-bumped Jake as if congratulating him for winning the town’s charity golf scramble.

“Hey, Lil,” Sheriff Daniels said. “I don’t want to talk business tonight, but have you had any more trouble?”

I took a drink of my soda. “Not since someone slashed my grandmother’s tire yesterday.”

“I heard about that. I’m in contact with the police chief. Coop and I are going to work together. I want you to come down to the station tomorrow morning so we can get a timeline established. And I want you to make a list of everyone who knew you were coming to town and when they knew it.”

“I will. Thank you sheriff for sending officers by the farm throughout the day. It makes Grammy feel better.”

“Okay, that’s enough business,” the sheriff’s wife grabbed her husband’s arm. “How about you help me pick out some dessert before the kids eat it all.”

Sheriff Daniels and his wife gathered their dinner plates and headed off in the direction of the dessert table.

Cooper, who was already halfway through his cheeseburger, scooted closer to me. His leg rubbed up against mine, and I tried to pretend it was just because we were sitting closely at a picnic table, but I knew by the way he looked at me earlier, he wanted to touch me. I couldn’t deny that I craved the attention, even though I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was a bad idea.

“What about you guys?” Jake asked, pointing back and forth between us. “You seem awfully… close… this evening.”

Coop shot me a sideways look. The sun was just starting to set, so I was sure everyone saw my face redden.

After evil-eyeing Jake, Bryn said, “You really are clueless sometimes.” She got up and circled the table, then leaned down and gave me a hug. “I’m sorry about yesterday, and well, about everything.” She returned to her spot beside Jake, shaking her head at him.

“What? What did I say?”

“We talked a few things out,” I said. “We all go way too far back to stay mad at each other long.” I winked at Bryn, then took a bite of my burger.

Cooper placed his hand on my knee, and I sensed it was partly to comfort me and partly from a habit he hadn’t quite outgrown from years ago. It seemed natural to be here with him, sitting on Grammy’s back pool deck, even if the pool wasn’t yet open for swimming.

Jake let the subject of Coop and me drop, and the four of us ventured down memory lane, sticking only to the good memories of high school. Before long we were laughing so hard that Bryn nearly snorted beer out her nose.

We almost missed a murmur of whispers moving through the crowd like the first mosquitos waking from a winter nap. Then the sound of a particular female voice hit my ears the way a spring hailstorm destroys early spring crops. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it’s total destruction. “Well, well, well. Had I known I’d be greeted with a party, I would have worn something fancier.”

I reached down and grabbed Coop’s hand. “Please tell me that’s not who I think it is.” My eyes found Bryn’s. Her eyes held alarm and sympathy at the same time.

“Now where’s my Calla Lily?”

I turned slowly in my seat and stood. Coop grabbed my hand to steady me.

“What are you doing here, Linda?” Grammy asked as she exited the house. She was wiping her hands on a towel as if she’d just washed them. Knowing her, she had snuck inside to clean up a little while everyone was eating. The woman never stopped when she entertained her family and friends, and now she would have to face the one woman who had been the source of most of her heartache the last thirty years.

“Back off, mama. I came to see our sweet Lily.”

I’d dealt with enough of the sporadic appearances of the woman who claimed to be my mother off and on for nearly thirty years. I could handle this one. And if I could take some of the stress of one of these visits off of my grandmother, then I would do what I could.

Linda Thomas hadn’t lived in Payne’s Creek in more than twenty years, but she always knew how to make an entrance, and it was usually because she’d run out of money.

She wore skin-tight jeans with holes in the knees and a fitted tank top. A couple of long necklaces draped between her cleavage, and she wore too many rings to count. Her hair was platinum blond, the roots black. And as I walked closer, I noticed that her eyes appeared hollow, and there was a dark tint to the skin beneath one of them.

“There she is,” Linda said, stretching her arms out to me. “Come give your mama a hug, sweetie.”

I didn’t bother to look around the pool at Grammy’s friends, many of who were my friends, too. I hadn’t seen them in so many years, I’d lost touch, but I still felt the warmth radiating from them. It didn’t matter how long I’d been gone from Payne’s Creek, these people were more of a family to me than the woman who brought me into this world.

I felt the touch to the small of my back, and I didn’t even have to look to know it was Coop.

“I believe Grammy asked you a question.” I finally found my voice. “What are you doing here?”

“Is that any way to talk to your mama?”

“You’re not my mother, Linda,” I bit out. “And everyone here knows that. So answer the question. Why are you here?”

Linda straightened, and her face hardened. “Fine. You want to embarrass the woman that brought you into the world in front of all these nice people, have it your way. I’m here because I’m pregnant.”

Whispers and gasps erupted behind me.

“Pregnant,” I deadpanned. “And what? You want us to throw you a baby shower?”

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Drew sprint across the sidewalk toward Grammy, catching our grandmother just as she fainted.

◊◊◊◊◊

“Everyone back the hell up!” Bryn came through the crowd of people with a chair cushion and a bottle of water. “Give Grammy some room.”

Sheriff Daniels supported Grammy’s shoulders and helped her drink some of the water Bryn offered.

“I’m fine. Stop fussing,” Grammy pushed a couple of hands out of her face.

I grabbed Linda by the elbow and led her away from the party, around the side of the house, to the driveway. “Okay. You made your grand entrance,” I said when we were alone. “Now why are you really here?”

She laughed. “Did you see that?” she said. “That old woman went down like a sack of potatoes. To think she actually believed I was pregnant.”

I twisted my shoulder back the way a tennis player prepares to hit her forearm, but just as my flat hand was about to make contact with this vile woman’s face, Cooper came out of nowhere and stepped between us.

“Hey, hey, hey!” he said just as my hand made contact with his cheek, a sharp crack erupting like a book dropped onto hardwood floor. He stepped closer, wrapped his arms around me, pinning my hands to my side and backing me away from her. “You don’t want to hit her.”

“The hell I don’t,” I said, struggling in his arms.

Linda jerked back. “Did you see that? She almost hit me. I should press charges. My own daughter assaulted me.”

Amazing how it went from me almost hitting her to actually assaulting her.

I was breathing hard while continuing to struggle in Cooper’s arms. “That woman deserves everything she gets. Did you hear her? She’s not even pregnant.”

Coop loosened his grip. “Not pregnant.” He turned. “I took a hit for you.”

Linda walked up and cupped Coop’s reddened cheek. “You always were such a good boy. I always hoped my daughter would wise up and marry you.”

“Look, Linda. Maybe you need to just go. Come back in the light of day.”

“Or not,” I said behind Cooper.

“And you should probably call first,” Cooper added.

Linda leaned around Cooper. “I didn’t mean to start something, sweetie. I just wanted to talk to you. But I’ll come back tomorrow when you’ve decided to calm down.”

Coop sent me a warning look. I decided to listen and not say anything further.

Linda turned and walked in the direction of the road. That’s when I saw a yellow taxi with the engine running waiting in the turnabout.

When she was in the car, and the taxi pulled down the driveway, Cooper faced me. “You okay?” he asked. He placed his hands on my shoulder.

“No, I’m not okay.” I let my eyes look away from the taillights disappearing down the long driveway and toward Cooper. That’s when my mind fully registered what I had just done. “Oh, Coop. I’m so sorry.” I reached a hand and touched the side of his face. Even in the increasingly dark lighting, I could see that his left cheek was bright red.

He grabbed my hand and squeezed. “I appreciate the warm touch, but let’s hold off for now while the sting is still fresh.”

I pulled back my hands and covered my face. “I can’t believe I hit you.” I slammed my hands to my side, curling my fingers into fists. “But that woman makes me so damn angry,” I said through gritted teeth. “How’s Grammy?” I asked, my voice softer.

“She’s going to be fine. She worked herself too hard today. I think that and the shock of discovering that her forty-seven-year-old daughter was pregnant was just too much.”

Bryn and Jake joined us in the driveway. “Is that woman gone?” Bryn asked, then realized she was. “I know she’s your mother, but I’d love to smack her a good one right now.”

“I tried, but Mr. Hero here stopped me.”

“I thought she was pregnant,” Coop said.

“She’s not?” Jake said.

“Puh-lease,” Bryn said. “You fell for that pile of horse shit?” She put an arm around me. “Come on. Let’s get some dessert. I already discovered where you and Grammy hid the red velvet cake.”

When we reached the back patio, I saw that Grammy was already up and chatting with her guests. She spotted me and walked over. “I’m sorry.” She smoothed my hair. “Is she gone?”

I nodded. Grammy and I still hadn’t talked much since I found out she and Cooper had kept so much from me. “We’ll talk later.”

She returned to her friends. I started to follow Bryn inside to help her with plates of cake, when Cooper grabbed my hand and pulled me back and away from people. “How about you and I try to rectify this date by taking our cake and enjoying it on a blanket on the back of the farm. Just you, me, and the stars.”

“Now? With all these people here?”

“Yes. These people are either on at least their third beer or will be leaving soon. No one is going to notice if you and I sneak away.”

I smiled. “It does appear that I owe you one after you managed to get in the way of that slap.”

He lifted my hand and brushed a kiss across the palm of my hand that still radiated heat.

“Give me a few minutes to freshen up and grab some cake. I’ll meet you back out here.”

“I’ll get the blanket.”

I entered the house, and didn’t even acknowledge Bryn as I walked past her toward the stairs to the second floor.

As I passed through the piles of boxes in the dining room, it dawned on me that we still had so much packing to do to even consider moving Grammy out of this house I’d grown up in. As quickly as the thought had entered my head, I pushed it away. I wouldn’t let that, or angry thoughts of the woman who birthed me, ruin any more of my evening.

I pressed a hand to my heart. I never thought Cooper and I would openly spend time together on this visit home. I didn’t even know he was in Payne’s Creek. But it was a pleasant, much needed surprise with how everything in my life had been going lately.

I reached my bedroom, and as I pushed the door open, it was as if I had walked into the middle of a bad horror film.

Blood was splattered everywhere—across my walls, across the mirror of my dresser, across my bed. And from the small chandelier hanging in the middle of the room was the mangled body of a fox.

I let out a bone-chilling scream that I didn’t even know I had in me.

I stood there, paralyzed. I didn’t know what to do. I heard the thunderous steps behind me.

“Lil!” Cooper yelled from the bottom of the stairs. He was at my back before I could even answer. “Come on.” He pulled me away.

Grammy, Drew, and the sheriff came next. “What is it?” Grammy asked.

“Drew, take Barb back outside.”

Grammy crossed her arms. “You tell me what’s happened in my home right this instant, Cooper Adams.”

“It’s a dead fox, ma’am. Let’s let the sheriff get a crew out here to get what they need, and then we’ll have a team of people get out here to clean it up.”

We let Drew, Grammy, Bryn, and Jake handle the guests. Cooper pulled me out the door to the front porch, away from everyone. I scanned the fields in front of the house, and the ones I could see to the side, now dark.

“Cooper, this is definitely the work of someone mighty pissed off that I’m back in Payne’s Creek. And they’re definitely not happy that I’m near you.”

“Why makes you say that?” He framed my face.

“Don’t you get it? My books? The central characters are a fox and a rabbit. Anyone who knows anything about the stories knows that they’re about you, me, and the town of Payne’s Creek.”

 


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