“No problem, Bob. I’m leaving now.”
“Good. Stay out.” He grumbled under his breath, shoving his keys in his pocket. “Your family’s driving down the property values—you hear?”
I crossed my arms, my cinnamon fingers twisting in the sleeve of my shirt. “Property values are only low because the store burned down, right Bob?”
He sneered at me, staring only at the bobbing, ebony spiral curls cascading over my shoulders. The headband kept them at bay—for now.
Bob shuffled off the curb, tripping over what remained of his sobriety. “This town was better off fifty years ago…maybe you ought to remember that.”
I preferred to think fifty years ago my grandparents opened their very own business in the town—an instant success thanks in part to Nana’s secret fudge recipe.
She used maple-glazed walnuts.
Made all the difference.
My phone buzzed. The screen read Rayna Insurance, but I doubted the caller was giving me good news. One perk of having my best friend working in at the town’s insurance company—at least Delta could answer questions about settlements and police reports in a timelier manner than her boss.
“Josie-Posie!” Delta achieved a level of hyper I couldn’t fathom without coffee. I figured she was born without wings. Most of the town considered her a manic little pixy; the rest of us knew when to swat her away. “How’s life in the newspaper business?”
It wasn’t so great actually. I treaded a thin line between honesty and hedging, but after today, I fell headfirst into the thorny bushes.
“It’s…” I shrugged. “I don’t think Sean expected me to work there for a whole year—even part-time. He’s a saint for giving me the job, but…it doesn’t feel temporary anymore.”
Delta’s sunshine faded. “Need some wine?”
“I’d rather make some chocolate.” I kicked the patch of grass that was once my stainless steel counters. “Or one of my giant cinnamon rolls. Or…or that vanilla bean ice cream with the butter-rum topping…”
“You’re giving me cavities over here.”
“Dentists loved me.”
“Believe me, no one is more upset about losing your candy store than Dr. Thomas.”
Except me. Except Granddad. Except the rest of the town who ran out of charity only a week after the fire—once the borough peeked in the sewer and saw all re-hardened chocolate clogging the sanitary system. Then the only solace the town received was that justice had been served.
The fire was no accident, but the man they jailed for arson was completely and totally innocent.
A year had passed, and I was no closer to finding the truth. Unfortunately, the legal system didn’t overturn sentences on a hunch, even in Saint Christie. It wouldn’t be safe for any of us until the real criminal was behind bars.
Delta sighed. “Twenty minutes before I can head out. Want to meet me for a drink?”
“Got a hot date?”
Hell no. My last flame was hot enough, and I still burned myself on the embers that remained.
“Not exactly. I have…I have a job. Kinda.”
“Oh! Someone order a cake?”
“Yum. What’s the event?”
I wasn’t proud of it, but money was money…even if it came from him.
“Nolan Rhys hired me to bake cookies for his campaign fundraiser.”
The connection crackled, and Delta must have slapped her hand against the console to take me off speakerphone. I held the phone away from my ear, anticipating her screech.
“You’re baking for him?”
“I refused him. Twice. But…then he offered double what the job was worth.”
“Why would you ever work for him? Tell that asshole to send one of his assistants or trained monkeys to the store for some Oreos.”
If only. I had almost been one of his assistants. It would have paid more than my part-time job piecing together ads and answering calls for the Saint Christie Reporter, but I swore a year ago I’d never entertain any offer from Nolan Rhys again.
But…that was before the insurance money dried up. Before Granddad got sick.
Beggars could be choosers only until they were responsible for someone else who required more help. A year ago, I would’ve baked ten dozen cookies into ash and delivered a sack of cinders just to spite Nolan. Unfortunately, a thousand bucks sounded good. We needed everything we could get, especially since Granddad wasn’t getting better, and the nurses at the assisted care facility warned he might never come off the oxygen.
“It’s a paycheck,” I said. “Besides, it’s still good publicity. Everybody will be at his damn rally, and they’ll all be hungry. It’s like…an advertisement for the graduation parties coming this spring. I can remind people that I freelance.”