First chapter of new book, Sinfully Delicious (set one town over from Hemlock Cove) available for free
“Stormy, you have three orders stacked. Get a move on.”
My uncle Brad peered through the window between the order wheel and spice rack and caught my gaze.
“Did you hear me?” he pressed when I didn’t immediately respond. “All of these are your orders.”
I glanced at the jumble of plates and sighed. They claim you never forget how to waitress; it’s like riding a bike. They’re right. I remembered all of my shortcuts from when I was a teenager. Unfortunately, I was severely lacking in the speed department, and it was beginning to show. Apparently that was going to take some dedicated concentration.
“I’m on it.” I transferred the first two orders to the same tray and shifted it to carry with my left arm. “I’ll be back for the other order in a second.”
“Hurry up.” Brad’s gaze was serious as he regarded me. “It’s not even the lunch rush yet. You need to get it together.”
“I said I was on it,” I snapped, agitation coming out to play. It was my first day on the job — er, well, it was my first day back on the job — and I was still bitter about the turn my life had taken. That wasn’t my uncle’s fault, of course. That didn’t mean I wasn’t keen to lash out at someone, though, and turning my frustration inward was no longer an option because I was already bruised and battered from all the internal loathing I’d unleashed on myself. “I’ll be right back.”
I swung through the double doors that led to the cafe side of the restaurant and headed to my table. Two women, both in their thirties and with sleeping babies in car seats propped up next to them on booth benches, stopped talking as I approached. It was obvious they’d been gossiping and didn’t want me to overhear. I was fine with that. There’s little I hated more than gossip.
Okay, that’s a lie. I love gossip. Still, I didn’t recognize the women, and it’s only fun to gossip if you know who is being talked about behind his or her back.
“Grilled chicken salad, no croutons, and ranch on the side,” I announced, delivering the first plate. “Toasted tuna on rye, two extra pickles on the side,” I said to the other woman as I slid the plate in front of her.” I kept my smile in place, even though it was a chore, and glanced between the women. “Do you need anything else right now?”
“I think we’re good,” the brunette replied as she unfolded her napkin. She was slim, had the sort of glossy hair I always dreamed about, and cast me a cursory dose of side eye. “You look familiar. Do I know you?”
“I don’t know.” I’d been dreading this part of my day. When people started realizing who I was, the questions were bound to start flying fast and furious. “Who are you?”
“Sarah Bollinger, but that’s my married name. I used to be Sarah Harris.”
I did a double-take. “Seriously?” She didn’t look even remotely the same as when I’d left. She’d been four years ahead of me in high school, which meant we didn’t hang out or even really know each other. She’d been popular, though, a cheerleader, and everybody knew her. “I thought you were living in East Lansing these days.”
Sarah’s nose wrinkled as she looked me up and down. “That’s where I went to school.”
Right, on a volleyball scholarship. Shadow Hills wasn’t known for producing world-class athletes, but Sarah was one of the few who managed to parlay meager talent above the net into a full education. She was essentially the epitome of the standard Shadow Hills teenage dream. That didn’t explain what she was doing back here now. “And you’re back here visiting?” I was hopeful that was the case.
She shook her head. “No. I went to school in East Lansing and then returned home. I worked in the feed and seed with my parents for a year or two before meeting my husband.”
And that’s when my hope fled. “You married Danny Bollinger?” That was disappointing. He’d been hot when I was in middle school, quarterback of the football team. All the girls threw themselves at him. Shadow Hills was basically one stereotype heaped on top of another stereotype, and Danny hadn’t escaped the curse. Now, fifteen years after his graduation, he was fifty pounds overweight, about a pound of hair lighter, and he spent all his time sitting at the front coffee counter talking about his glory days with the other men who lived and worked in town. He’d been parked in what I assumed was his regular spot when I showed up for my first shift.
She nodded and smiled. “Yes, he’s the love of my life,” Sarah said blandly, her tone telling me she would happily pack up and run should the chance arise. Danny was apparently nobody’s happily ever after, which was probably to be expected. “I still don’t know who you are.”
The time I’d been dreading had finally come and I wanted to find a hole and crawl inside to hide. I’d made a promise to myself, though. I wasn’t going to run from this. It was only a temporary solution after all. I wasn’t back in Shadow Hills forever.
Except you are, a weak voice whispered in the back of my mind. You know that as well as anybody. You took your shot, made it for five seconds, and now you’re back. There’s no escaping this town.
I brutally shoved the voice out of my mind and pasted what I hoped could pass for a friendly smile onto my face. “Stormy Morgan.”
Realization dawned on Sarah and I didn’t miss the hint of triumph that managed to push through even as she wrestled to hide her glee. “Right. I should’ve recognized you. I saw you on television when you were doing the rounds on all the news shows years ago for that book you wrote. What was it again?”
“Death of a Small Town,” I gritted out. She darned well knew the title. Heck, everybody knew the title. It was set in Shadow Hills, for crying out loud. The book put the town on the map for a full year — before everyone forgot about it and I faded into obscurity.
“Yeah, that was a big hit, right?” Sarah’s expression was encouraging, but I knew better. She wanted to hear the sad tale of my fall from grace. She wanted to hear how I got one book contract and sold hundreds of thousands of copies and then flopped with my second book and the publisher dropped the option on my third. That was the reason I was back in Shadow Hills. Everybody was going to want to hear that story.
“It did okay,” I replied evasively, shifting the tray. “I really need to deliver this order. I’ll be back to see if you need anything else.”
Sarah beamed at me. “Maybe when you come back we can catch up. I’d love to hear about the time you spent in New York.”
I had no doubt that was true. “I really spent only a few months in New York. I was in North Carolina after that ... and Savannah ... and New Orleans.” Basically anywhere I thought I could find inspiration for my second book, I silently added. “I have to get back to work. It was good to see you.”
I was grateful that the women on the other side of the cafe, the dinner side that boasted salad and soup bars, were older and didn’t appear even mildly curious about who I was, or why I was delivering their cheeseburgers and fries. They were in their sixties and deep in conversation, talking about some incident that occurred at the senior center the previous day.
“I’m telling you she’s a cheat,” the woman with the platinum blond curls hissed, barely sparing a smile for me as I delivered her food. “She has hand signals she shares with Marla. That’s how they always win the weekly euchre tournament.”
The other woman gasped in surprise, which quickly turned to outrage. “That makes so much sense.”
I checked to make sure their beverages were full and then disappeared back into the kitchen to claim my last order. Brad was busy talking to the dishwasher, a kid from the local high school I didn’t recognize.
“The Democrats want everyone to be on welfare and the Republicans want everyone to starve,” Brad explained to the hapless teenager, who looked confused by my uncle’s filibustering. “You have to decide which one you believe in more and then go with it.”
I’d barely spent any time with my uncle before reporting for my first shift, but one of the first things I’d noticed about him was he’d suddenly developed an interest in politics. When I was a kid, he was all about peace, love, and understanding. Now he was all about political shows and arguing simply for argument’s sake. As far as I could tell, most of what he said was complete and total nonsense. He couldn’t even pick a side to land on when it came to these arguments. He bagged on both sides.
“You should leave him alone,” I instructed Brad as I collected my plates. “He’s a teenager. He doesn’t want to hear your bitter old guy shtick. He’s still dreaming of getting out of this place.”
“Oh, I’m going to get out of this place,” the teenager intoned, his eyes lighting with excitement. “Two more years and then I’m out of here. I’m going to college at Central Michigan and then I’m going to find an actual city to live in.”
“One that has more than one stoplight and actually has a fast-food restaurant, right?” I asked, thinking back to the things that were important to me when I was his age.
He bobbed his head excitedly. “Exactly. I want a Taco Bell, people. Is that too much to ask?”
His enthusiasm made me smile — and then frown. I’d wanted a McDonald’s. Who doesn’t love those fries? I’d been so excited when I got to college and could eat fast food regularly. That lasted only a few weeks, though. Then I missed the food at the cafe. Of course, I wouldn’t admit that to anyone.
“Well, good luck.” I swooped out of the kitchen just as my uncle was explaining proper military strategy from the Republican point of view, and I delivered the food to a corner table in the cafe. The men waiting on their burgers started inhaling the food, as if they hadn’t eaten in weeks, and I left them to it. I saw Sarah trying to catch my attention and flashed her an apologetic smile before crossing over to my grandfather. He sat at the coffee counter, alone, reading his newspaper as he ate chili over a bed of onions — with a fork.
“How can you eat that?” I complained as I moved behind the counter and grabbed the pot of coffee to top off his mug. “I mean ... that’s like all-day heartburn right there. It’s gross.”
Grandpa glanced up from his newspaper and regarded me with unreadable eyes. In the years since I’d left, his hair had thinned some and grayed at the temples. His face had a few more lines. Other than that, he looked mostly the same.
He also acted the same.
“Do I comment on your meals?”
I shook my head. “No, but we haven’t had many meals together since I got back. I expect that to change because you comment on everything.”
He chuckled. “You haven’t been around for any of the family dinners,” he countered. “You even missed last night’s meal, which was a welcome home dinner for you, so that was a ballsy move. Your mother was mad, by the way.”
As far as I could tell, my mother was angry about everything these days — especially the fact that I was working in the family restaurant again. She couldn’t understand why I didn’t get rich off the one book that sold well, enough to live comfortably forever. When I explained that’s not the way it worked, her response was that I should’ve tried to sell a second book. I told her I did, but it didn’t sell. Her response? “Well, you should’ve tried harder.”
That was two weeks ago and we hadn’t spoken since. I’d made my move to Shadow Hills, taken over the apartment above the restaurant, and seen almost everybody in my family during the intervening days. There was still no sign of my mother. It was too much to hope she wouldn’t speak to me for the rest of her life. She would be back, there was no doubt about that.
“Isn’t my mother always ticked off?” I asked, grabbing a rag from the small sink and wiping down the counter. I felt the need to stay busy. If I didn’t, my mind would start to wander, which was the reason I was living on four hours of sleep a night these days. I couldn’t stop running what had happened through my head. How could I get everything I ever wanted and then lose it in a few short years? It would’ve been easier if I’d never been published.
“It seems so these days,” Grandpa confirmed. “She told me to fire you, by the way.”
I was stunned. “What? Why does she want you to fire me?”
“Why do you think?” His eyebrows hopped with amusement as he dropped the newspaper. He was one of the few people I knew who still insisted on regular delivery even though the local newspaper was so thin you could read it in five minutes. “She believes that you’ll write another best-selling book if I fire you.”
“Yeah, unless I starve first.”
He smirked. “She doesn’t understand what happened. I think perhaps that’s because you’ve never taken the time to explain what happened to her.”
Oh, well, of course he would think that. “Why is everything always my fault?”
“You make an easy scapegoat,” Grandpa replied without hesitation. “No one is at fault in this particular situation. You got lucky with that first book. You didn’t get lucky with the second. Maybe, after taking a little downtime and getting some perspective, you’ll get lucky with the third.”
I narrowed my eyes to blue slits. “What makes you think there will be a third book?”
“We didn’t raise you to be a quitter. Your mother may be a hippie-dippy freak, but she’s a hard worker. She owns her own real estate business now, which is something to be proud of. Your father is a hard worker, too. You always worked at the restaurant, even when you hated it. I don’t expect you to suddenly give up on your dreams now that things have gotten rough. You’ll put it back together.”
He sounded sure of himself, which only served to annoy me. “It doesn’t feel like anything is coming together right now,” I argued. “It feels as if everything has fallen apart and I’m sitting on the edge of a cliff, ready to fall off at any moment.”
“And people say your second book lacked dramatic tension.” He shook his head.
I glared at him. “You’re not funny.”
“I think I’m hilarious.” He patted my wrist and then turned back to his chili and onions. “You need time to absorb what happened to you, Stormy. You’re still young. You haven’t lost the dream forever. You’ve simply misplaced it for now. You can get it back.”
That felt unlikely. “I don’t know many literary agents willing to accept submissions from waitresses,” I muttered.
“Then don’t tell them you’re a waitress. Tell them you’re a princess or something. I know, tell them you’re a witch. Witches are everywhere now.”
“A witch? Stormy the witch? That’s just ... way too much.”
He smiled. “And somehow I think it fits.” He inclined his head toward the swinging doors, to where Brad’s head poked between the opening. “I think your uncle wants you.”
I scowled as I turned my gaze in that direction. I used to think the worst thing in the world was working a shift with my grandfather. I would gladly take it today if it meant I didn’t have to listen to Brad’s nonsense. His political conspiracy theories were starting to give me indigestion. I was running on caffeine and nerves as it was. “Do you need something?”
He nodded. “I’m out of pickles.”
I waited for him to continue. When he didn’t, I shrugged. “So what do we do?”
“They’re in the storage building behind the restaurant,” he replied. “You need to get them.”
“Why do I need to get them?” I was feeling petulant, in no mood to be ordered around. “Why can’t you get them?”
“I’m the chef, which means I’m in charge of the kitchen today. As my underling, it’s your job to do as I say.”
I wasn’t a fan of the word “underling,” but when I turned a questioning look toward Grandpa, I found he’d already disengaged from the conversation and was again reading his newspaper. Apparently I was on my own. “Fine. I’ll get the pickles.”
I muttered a series of nasty words as I cut through the kitchen and headed for the back door. There were two exits, one close to the steps that led to my apartment and the other by the industrial-sized freezers. I sidestepped two of my cousins smoking by the steps and went out the other door.
I was lost in thought, my mind jumbled with my new reality, and made the mistake of not watching where I was going. I stepped in a puddle, skidding a good two feet before I found pavement again. The alley between the restaurant and storage building was wide enough for a semitruck to park for deliveries, but that wasn’t a benefit now as I stumbled four hard paces to keep myself upright, stopping only when I crashed into the storage building.
“Ow.” I rubbed my elbow as I turned to see where the water had come from. The first thing I realized as I studied the area was that it wasn’t water I’d slid in. It was something else. Something red.
My mouth went dry as my eyes drifted to the crumpled form resting in the puddle. The older man in mismatched socks wasn’t moving.
I opened my mouth to scream for help but I couldn’t find my voice. I tried again but nothing.
All that time I stared at the body, willing it to move. This had to be a mistake. Perhaps my uncle was explaining his political views on crime. After a good three minutes, I realized this wasn’t a joke gone awry.
It was something much, much worse.
Note: You can preorder the book here. It will be in KU and hits the seconds Tuesday in April. https://www.amazon.com/Sinfully-Delicious-Broomsticks-Grill-Mystery-ebook/dp/B0838QN99Q/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=Sinfully+Delicious&qid=1585142505&s=digital-text&sr=1-1
When I was a kid, I was torn between whether or not I was going to grow up and be the Incredible Hulk or Wonder Woman. I flirted with being a Jedi Knight for awhile, but I wasn't up for the intense travel associated with the gig. In my teens, I settled on being a writer -- although I had no idea the effort that would entail.