Introducing the first book in my Maddox Storm Mystery series. Murder, mayhem and romance with a dash of snarkiness and loads of laughs.
Now available on Amazon
All Maddox Storm wanted was to come home and hide from the world in peaceful solitude for a few short weeks. Oh, and give her soon-to-be ex cheating scumbag husband a fat headache while she’s at it. He hates all small towns, and Silver Firs in particular, with the kind of passion most men reserve for the bedroom.
So call it revenge, or call it poetic justice, but investing his savings in the town’s founding inn seemed like the perfect plan for all her needs.
But everything goes out the window when Maddox finds her arch-nemesis dead as a doormat in the kitchen downstairs.
Before she knows it, she’s embroiled in a murder investigation and tangling with the smoky-eyed detective on the case. Not that she doesn’t trust him to do his job, but he may not be quite as motivated as she is to bring the guilty party to justice. After all, she’s the one who unwittingly incriminated upstanding townsfolk and worse, she may be living under the same roof as a pair of unlikely murderers.
Extract from Chapter One...
I’d driven the road from Syracuse to Silver Firs plenty, but this was the first time I’d done it like this, feeling like a fugitive sneaking into my old home town. Technically, none of that was true. I wasn’t a fugitive, at least I didn’t think so, and I didn’t even have to drive through town. Hollow House stood a good half mile north of Silver Firs.
As soon as the tip of the lake came into view, doubt set in.
Who was I kidding? A half mile was peanuts when it came to the Silver Firs rumor mill.
I pressed the button to let the soft top down so I could glance up, directly into the cloud-streaked heavens.
“Three days,” I bartered, spitting strands of wind-blown hair out of my mouth. “Give me three days to chill out and I swear I’ll start going to church again. Every Sunday…”
I gnawed on my lower lip.
Best to be honest in cases like this.
“Every Sunday for three weeks. That’s one morning for every incognito day you give me. Not bad, huh?”
A measly cloud puffed across the sinking sun, casting a shadow directly over me. I decided not to take that as my answer and hit the gas. My little yellow bug left the ominous shadow in the dust, nearly overshooting the turn-off in the process. I stamped the brakes to cut a sharp right onto the packed dirt road that led up to Hollow House.
The Hollows were a founding family in the Finger Lakes region. The stately residence hadn’t exactly stood the test of time, but was still an impressive sight. Built in the Greek Revival style with wide front steps leading up to the recessed porch and flanked by enormous Ionic pillars. The North and South wings folded back, facing onto the lake and not visible from the driveway. Take away the latticed windows and the place would’ve been a dead ringer for a Greek Temple.
Up close, the extent of disrepair became evident. The white washed out of the peeling paint. Chipped woodwork. The gravel driveway wrapped around a patch of dry stalks choking on thriving weeds.
I was pretty sure there was a Hollow ancestor rolling over in a grave somewhere. First George Hollow had turned their beautiful legacy into a common lakeside inn and now he’d let it fall to rot and ruin.
I navigated around the weed patch and pulled up beneath a papery white beech near the foot of the stone stairs. A quick check in the rearview mirror assured me there was nothing I could do about my wind-massacred hair.
I took a deep breath of pine-scented fresh air to lace my bones.
“You can’t stop there,” called a croaky voice from behind.
I glanced over my shoulder to find the familiar sight of old Mr Hollow brandishing his polished cane at me as he limped out onto the porch. Some things never changed.
“Hello, Mr Hollow,” I shouted cheerfully as I climbed out of the car. “It’s me! Maddox Storm.”
“I’m not blind nor deaf and I still need you to drive around the side,” he grunted, but at least he brought the cane down to thump the spot beside him. “Can’t have you taking up parking space. The front’s reserved for guests.”
I looked around. The driveway did a wide loop with dozens of spots for cars to pull off beneath their own shaded tree. More to the point, there wasn’t a single car out front except for mine.
My gaze swept back to the rail-thin man.
Mr Hollow was as much a fixture in Silver Firs as the town hall, with his trademark cream linen suit, shock of white hair, thick-rimmed glasses and, as Nana Rose would say, that face as sour as the day he were born.
Nana Rose would also clip my ear if I showed anything less than the utmost respect for a man nearly three times my age, but I was not about to let grumpy George Hollow bully me.
We were business partners now.
That respect could flow both ways or not at all.
“I’ll move it later,” I called back, stooping over the rear door to haul my lumpy suitcase off the backseat.
Mr Hollow harrumphed. Or maybe that was a growl.
I glanced up into his scowling face and rolled my eyes. Seriously, considering I’d just wired a hundred and fifty grand into his account, you’d think the man could muster a tiny smile!
My clothes took up less than a fifth of the closet space. I snapped the battered suitcase shut and shoved it in along the bottom. I had a full set of designer luggage back at the apartment in New York City, of course, but I was an actress. Having a flair for the dramatic was my ‘thing.’ It seemed fitting to return home with only the battered suitcase (and however much I could stuff into it) that I’d left with four years ago.
Finished unpacking, I crossed to the window and flung open the heavy brocade drapes. My breath caught at the spectacular beauty of the sunset reflected off the tranquil surface of the lake.
As a stake holder in the inn, I got free board and beverages and I’d chosen a corner suite on the top floor of the south wing, much to Mr Hollow’s dismay. He’d wanted to tuck me into a drab single under the staircase, to save the grand rooms for paying guests.
And when they come, I’d informed him sweetly, maybe we could both move downstairs to the less desirable accommodations.
That had been a leading statement, but if I’d held my breath waiting for Mr Hollow to dispute it, I’d be blue-faced and dead by now. Mr Hollow had just grunted and left me to settle in. I hadn’t seen or heard anyone besides us as we’d walked through the house. Maybe they were out and about, enjoying our picture-perfect town. I hadn’t expected a full house, the tourist season didn’t really pick up here until the end of spring, but I hadn’t expected an empty house either.
My gaze settled on the fairytale castle directly across on the opposite shore.
It wasn’t dusk yet, but the place was lit up with the soft glow of a million candle-bulb lights that spilled out onto the manicured lawn.
Lakeview Spa Retreat.
The exclusive spa was a favorite getaway for celebrities and lured all the usual gawkers and stalkers, all of which turned a lucrative trade for Silver Firs in addition to the regular wine touring crowd. It had turned a lucrative trade for Hollow House, too, until the budget hotel Fortune Paradise had gone up.
That was also the reason Joseph McMurphy hated Silver Firs with a passion most men reserved for the bedroom. Oh, he hated all small towns, said they made him feel claustrophobic. But he had a special loathing for a town that thrived on invading the privacy of the rich and famous.
I’d taken it as a testament of his undying love when Joe had given in to me and agreed to hold our wedding in my home town last year. Hah! We should just have gone down to City Hall, squeezed an hour in somewhere between a dental checkup and a matinee show.
So call it revenge.
Actually, let’s call it poetic justice.
But I thought clearing out our joint bank account to buy a significant stake in Hollow House, the evil den (his words, not mine) that housed and fed all those celebrity gawkers, had a certain dramatic flair to it. Too bad Joe had been too occupied with Chintilly Swan’s generous assets to remember his scorned wife had full signing power on the bank account.
My purse squealed like a piglet in distress, sending me into a near-state of cardiac arrest.
I thumped my chest to get my heart beating again and rushed over to dig out my cell phone before the next squeal. I considered my options as I turned the volume down, but she wouldn’t stop until she’d reached me and then I’d get the third-degree. As good an actress as I was, not even I could lie my way through one of Mom’s inquisitions.
And if you’re wondering about my mom’s ringtone, just think of it as electrotherapy. A little pre-emptive heart shock did an excellent job of putting anything my mom had to say into perspective.
That squealing piglet had done wonders for our relationship.
I hit the answer button and pressed the phone to my ear. “Mom, how are you?”
“What on earth are you doing at Hollow House and what time can we expect you for dinner?”
See? My heart didn’t even stutter.
“Um…” I ambled toward the serene view outside my bedroom window and glared up at the deceptively innocent sky.
Half an hour, seriously? Guess who will be sleeping in on Sunday morning.
“You’ll have to apologize to Jimmy Balkin,” Mom twittered on. “I might have accused him of smoking some of those mushrooms he delivered to the big house but Belinda Mayer was out walking and she swore that was your yellow Beetle turning into the drive.”
“Uh, yes, but—”
“I’m so relieved you’ve come home. I’ve been desperate to speak to you since last night but your father absolutely put his foot down. The stubborn fool insisted I give you space and now you’re here and clearly the last thing you need is space.”
“Actually, that’s exactly…” Her words sunk in and my spine stiffened. They knew. How was it even possible? I hadn’t breathed a word to anyone, not even Jenna.
“Anyway, I’ve chicken hotpot on the go and it’s almost done. You won’t be long, will you?”
“I’ll see you in ten minutes,” I grumbled, giving in gracelessly.
Five of those minutes went to untangling the knots from my hair with a wide-toothed comb. I wasn’t in the mood to bother about appearances, but my mom could spin a life tapestry out of one bad hair day and I seriously wasn’t in the mood for that.
My phone went off twice before I reached my car. The whispered whistle of an arrow cutting through air was easy to ignore. The angelic melody of a Nightingale, however, was Jenna and best friends were forever. Unlike husbands, apparently.
“Hey, Jenna,” I answered.
“Hey yourself, Maddie Mad,” Jenna said in her sparkling voice. “I assume you were just about to call to let me know you were in town.”
“That depends on whether you’ve been smoking mushrooms with Jimmy or out walking with Mrs Mayer.”
“I probably shouldn’t ask— You know what?” Jenna caught herself. “I’m not going to. Miss Crawley shared the happy event on Facebook.”
I rolled my eyes as I slid behind the wheel and turned the engine. “I don’t know what to be more horrified by, that Miss Crawley is posting about me or that you’ve Friended her.”
Miss Crawley was an over-zealous snoop and a self-proclaimed spinster, although rumor had it there’d been a secret wedding back in the day.
“She always has the juiciest bits of news. I swear, that woman knows when you’re going to burp before you do. And…” Jenna groaned, “I’ve just heard myself. Okay, we’re forgetting this conversation ever happened and I’m un-Friending her first thing in the morning.”
“You see?” I pressed the button to raise the soft top and put my phone on speaker so I could talk while I reversed out from under the tree. “This is exactly why you should have run away with me to the city when you had the chance.”
“Your parents bought your bus ticket and covered your rent for the first six months,” Jenna scoffed. “I’m not sure that counts as running away.”
“I ran away.”
“Keep telling yourself that,” Jenna said. “So, I’m meeting Jack at Seefies after I close up. Do you want to meet me here or should I swing by your place on the way to collect you?”
“Raincheck?” I was dying to meet the new man in Jenna’s life, but I didn’t want to buzzkill their second (or was it third?) date. “I’ll be around for a while.”
“Did Joe come up with you?”
“No,” I said, a little too sharply.
Jenna never missed a thing. “Everything okay?”
“Not really,” I sighed.
“That’s it,” Jenna declared. “I’ll ditch Jack and—”
“No, don’t,” I said quickly. “I’d like to at least meet the poor guy before you blow him off and seriously, Jenna, I’m just going to crash early. It’s been a long day.”
It had been a long week.
“Oh, of course,” Jenna said, clearly thinking I’d just driven all the way up from New York.
I hadn’t. I’d been staying at a motel outside Syracuse these last two days, but I didn’t correct her.
We arranged to catch up over breakfast the next morning. When Jenna suggested the Silver Boat, a diner on the edge of town, I slyly countered with The Terrace at Hollow House to ease the cat halfway out the bag.
“Ha ha,” she snorted, with good reason.
Rumor had it the famous (around here, anyway) terrace restaurant had been closed since the French cordon bleu chef had departed in a snit last year. We couldn’t know for sure, since the restaurant had never been open for day traffic. No one was allowed past the reception desk at Hollow House unless you checked in for the night and the going rate was exorbitant.
“Did you hear,” Jenna went on, “George Hollow went to Little & Little in Syracuse, looking for outside capital? He probably wanted to do it on the hush hush, but how did he not know Miss Crawley’s niece works as a legal secretary for the brokerage firm?”
“Yeah, my mom mentioned something about it,” I said vaguely. “Anyway, I’m staying at Hollow House. I can’t promise you French cuisine, but I’ll see what I can do about breakfasting on the terrace. See you at about seven?”
“Wait… Back up. Say what?”
“I’ll explain everything tomorrow.”
“Don’t I get a hint?”
It wasn’t really a hint kind of thing, but that didn’t stop Jenna from making up her own hints as I cruised down the valley road.
“Your house has termites.”
“You’ve had another fight with your mom.”
“You’re down here for a dirty weekend with a delicious co-star.”
“No, no, and hell no.” I slowed down for the Brewer intersection on the edge of town. “Stop obsessing. Everything’s fine, I just needed my own space. Have fun with Jack and I’ll see you tomorrow.”
I ended the call and turned inland from the lake to skirt the town square, a pretty green that backed up onto the restaurants and quaint shops of the tourist zone. On the opposite end of the lawn stood the white-washed town hall that housed the mayor’s offices, the small library and even smaller police station.
The weather was unseasonably warm for this early in spring and folks were taking advantage of it before the sun blinked out completely for the day. An impromptu baseball game was in play, a handful of parents chatting or texting as they fielded, while their little tigers and tigresses exhausted their energy with an impressive record of home runs. The Blue Rinse Ladies were taking their evening turn around the green; I was surprised to see Beatrix Salmer without her walker.
The bandstand in the middle of the green drew my attention and a wave of nostalgia swept over me at the memory of my first kiss on a wintery evening. Snuggling up to Billy Dover with his coat wrapped around us both and a million diamonds twinkling down on us from a crisp black sky. The kiss had been a horrid mess, but everything else had been quite romantic.
I shook off the nostalgic feeling at my little detour down memory lane. Stupid. I’d been back for plenty of visits since I’d left. But I guess this was the first time I’d returned home with the intention of staying a while. Maybe the first time I’d allowed myself to admit how much I’d missed the place.
I’d never wanted to leave Silver Firs.
I’d even taken an on-line drama course after graduation. But the community theatre that leased the Presbyterian Church hall on Thursday evenings wasn’t going to launch my name in bright lights and that was the only showbiz in town. So I’d jumped onto a bus and chased my dreams. To Broadway, not Hollywood. They say cameras put on ten pounds and who needed that?
Anyway, I’d bussed tables at Caffe Laffe, attended proper acting classes and auditioned until my feet stained the streets of New York City.
Then one day Joseph McMurphy walked into my coffee shop, sandy hair flopping all over his cute puppy-dog face. I was struck, there and then. My heart stopped dead and never beat quite right again after that.
Back then, Joe was still a professor of English Lit although if you asked, he’d tell you he was a struggling writer. It took three weeks of dating and half a bottle of cheap whiskey before he’d finally admitted he had a legitimate job that paid the rent.
Six months later, we were married and I’d moved into his two-bedroom rent stabilized apartment. The year that followed had been utter bliss. We could do no wrong. Joe’s crime thriller got noticed and went to auction on a three-book deal. I landed a part on Broadway, a dramatic play called The Rambler about an abused husband, although the star of the show was his shrewish wife. I was only the understudy to Chintilly Swan, but she played the lead role and it was my first paying gig.
And then I walked in on Joe and Chintilly in her dressing room after that backstage party last Friday night and Ka-Boom!
So there it was, more than you ever wanted to know about me.
And here I was, my life packed up into a lumpy suitcase, my heart a barren wasteland and dry as a bone.
That wasn’t me being my usual dramatic self.
I actually hadn’t shed a single tear, not once since Friday night.
There was obviously something seriously wrong with me, but I wasn’t looking to fix it anytime soon. If I could make it through the rest of my life without crying a single tear over Joseph McMurphy, that would be better than chili corndogs dipped in vanilla ice cream.
I spotted my dad as I pulled up beside the curb outside our house. He was kneeled over a bed of churned ground, probably whispering sweet nothings to the bulbs he’d planted last autumn. He didn’t have a green thumb, but you had to give him a big thumb’s up for perseverance.
He glanced over, saw me stepping onto the sidewalk, and slowly pushed up from his knees. The worry creasing wrinkles around his eyes and his crumpled smile told me he knew exactly how bad my life sucked.
Without a word, I walked into his wide open arms and pressed my cheek into the comforting hollow of his shoulder.
He patted my back, his voice gruff, “I’m going to kill that Joe of yours.”
“Oh, daddy,” I said with a ragged laugh. “And here I thought not even you could make it better this time. But…”
I stood back to give him a warning look, because one could never be too sure when it came to Dad getting all protective over his baby girl. “You do know you can’t actually kill Joe? And you can’t kill Chintilly Swan either,” I thought it wise to add.
He tipped his head, scratching his beard. “What’s your co-star got to do with this?”
“I’m the understudy, Chintilly’s the star,” I explained for about the hundredth time. “I only get to go onstage if she’s run over by a bus.”
“Sounds like a co-star to me,” he insisted stubbornly.
I don’t know why I bothered. Besides, that wasn’t the part about Chintilly that needed explaining right now.
I folded my arms and grimaced. “She’s the one Joe’s having an affair with.”
“Sweet Mary.” The tan slid off my dad’s leathery face. “Joe’s having…” his voice dropped and I swear he aged a couple of years before my eyes “…an affair?”
Oh, okay… Crap! This was precisely the problem with small towns. You automatically assumed everyone knew everything and the next moment, everyone did know everything.
“I don’t understand.” I gnawed my lower lip, my voice growing squeaky as panic set in. “You said you’d kill him. Why would you want to kill Joe if you didn’t know?”
“He phoned here last night, looking for you,” Dad said. “Your mother talked him in circles until he finally confessed you’d left him. He didn’t say why and it didn’t matter. Whatever he’d done was bad enough to chase you off.”
“Well, that it certainly was.”
“Come here.” He wrapped an arm around my shoulder and we walked up the path. “Maybe it would be better if we kept this to ourselves, huh? Your mother doesn’t need all the gory details.”
I nodded and my spirit lifted for the fraction of a second it took me to remember that this was dad. He meant well, but the last time he’d kept a secret for more than two minutes was, like…never.
The rest of the evening proceeded pretty much as I’d feared it would.
Mom was impeccably attired, as always, in a flared daisy-print skirt and chintz blouse, modest two-inch heel pumps and an elegantly coiffed bun.
She took one look at Dad’s knee-soiled trousers and ordered him upstairs to change for dinner. She looked set to do the same to me, but finally only huffed a small sigh of disappointment and greeted me with a peck on the cheek.
I glanced down at my over-sized tee, faded jeans and beaded flip-flops as I followed her into the kitchen and kind of saw her point. But my tee hid the multitude of sins I’d indulged in this past week and the jeans were my favorite pair.
“You know, honey,” Mom said as she took the hotpot out the oven. “Marriage is all about compromise. Give and take.”
“Hmm…” I rummaged through the drawers for placemats and cutlery.
“Bless your father, but it’s a woman’s lot in life to give a little more and let men do the taking. It’s in our nature.”
I thought of how much Chintilly had been giving out and couldn’t disagree, so I bit my tongue and set three places at the pine kitchen table before plonking my butt into my usual seat.
The landline trilled in the hallway.
My eyes widened on Mom. “If that’s Joe, I’m not here and you haven’t seen me.”
“That’s not the way to handle it.” She stripped her oven gloves and started for the door. “You can’t resolve anything until you talk it out.”
The trilling cut off to the sound of Dad’s voice as he answered.
Mom turned back to me. “The problem with you kids nowadays is you’re too stubborn and proud to just have it out. A good old fashioned fight is like a colon cleanse, unpleasant but it does wonders for unclogging the marriage pipeworks.”
“Now there’s a picture I’ll never be able to un-see.”
Mom gave me a nonplussed look that made me wonder what pipeworks she thought she’d been talking about. Curiosity got the better of me and I was about to ask when Dad popped into the kitchen, freshly spruced in a pair of clean brown corduroys and a blue and white checkered shirt.
“That’s Miss Crawley on the phone, dear,” he told Mom. “She wants to know if you’ll be skipping Bridge Club tonight on account of Maddie’s unexpected visit.”
“The nosy bat.” Mom’s hands went to her hips. “You can tell Miss Crawley I won’t be coming, but I’ve already made the lemon meringue pie so she may as well stop by to collect it on her way. Not before seven, mind you, it won’t be set till then. And while you’re at it, you tell Miss Crawley she needn’t get any ideas about—” she noticed Dad had zoned out and threw her hands up. “Never mind, I’ll go tell her myself.”
She arched a brow at me, as if to say See, I give and give and never expect any help in return and marched out into the hallway.
Dad came over to the table with a wink and a half-fledged smile. “If we hurry, we can make it through to dessert before your mother gets back. Once those two get started on each other, there’s no stopping them.”
I chuckled at my co-conspirator and dished us each a generous portion of casserole. The tangy aroma of salsa hit my nostrils. My mouth watered and I grinned at Dad as we tucked in. Who said you couldn’t eat your troubles away?
I was considering the pros and cons of a second-helping versus dessert when Mom returned.
“That was quick, dear,” Dad mumbled around his final mouthful.
“I don’t have time to blabber with Miss Crawley when our poor Maddox is falling to pieces,” Mom said primly.
I pushed my plate aside and opted for a drastic change in subject matter. “What happened to Beatrix Salmer’s bad hip?”
Mom snorted. “The silly goose only went and got a hip replacement.”
“That doesn’t sound silly at all,” I said. “Life doesn’t end at the age of seventy.”
“But it is an indecent age to start new fashion trends.” Mom served herself a bird-like portion of chicken sans any layers of rice. “It won’t be long before they’re all prancing around like spritely teenagers and then where will we be?” She gave a little shudder and raised a dainty forkful of chicken to her lips.
I didn’t point out that I’d been a teenager not all that long ago and I’d never have been caught dead in a spritely prance. “Last I heard, hip replacements weren’t contagious.”
“Don’t be precocious,” Mom chided. “First Beatrix, then Elna and Martha. They should be ashamed of themselves.”
Thoroughly confused, I looked to Dad for answers.
“Jeremy Windsor bought the old Mason Creek place,” Dad supplied unhelpfully.
Wintery fingers caressed my spine. Probably a stray ghost from Mason Creek. We’d spent many an idle summer afternoon biking over to the crumbling Victorian just other side the valley, but to my knowledge no one had ever won the dare and crossed that threshold. What Mason Creek had to do with the current hip replacement fever, however, was beyond me.
“Jeremy Windsor?” I scratched my brain, came up empty. “Is he a newcomer?”
“An oldcomer,” Mom informed me. She put her fork down and fetched a copy of the Silver Firs Gazette, dated three months ago, I noticed, as she slapped it down in front of me.
A grainy black and white photo of a clean-cut handsome blond guy posing in the vintage Met’s button-down jersey splashed the front page.
I scanned the headline and the first couple of paragraphs.
HOMEGROWN METS SUPERSTAR RETURNS TO THE ROOST
Our very own Jeremy Windsor will once again grace our humble streets. He sold his successful sports agency earlier this year and is all set to invest his future in Silver Firs. Renovations are due to begin on Mason Creek in the summer and he hopes to move in before Christmas.
When asked the pertinent question, Mr Windsor had this to say. “It’s been nearly fifty years and I’ve had a good run. It’s time for me to settle down and I wouldn’t want to do that anywhere else but in Silver Firs.”
Inside sources confirm Mr Windsor has never been married. When asked if he’d left a sweetheart back home whom he hoped to settle down with, Mr Windsor had no comment.
I raised my head to look at mom. “Did you know him?”
“Apparently he left Silver Firs at the age of twenty-three, long before my time.” She stacked our empty plates and carried them to the sink. “So far I know, he hasn’t been back home since.”
I did the math, came up with nearly seventy-three years of age plus half a dozen spinster Blue Rinse Ladies. “For goodness sake, are you saying they’ve all spent the last fifty years pining for this guy?”
Mom turned from the sink. “Speaking of marriage—”
“It’s rude to interrupt, honey.”
“Marge,” Dad warned, “let the girl be. It’s not our place to interfere.”
“Oh, hush yourself.” Mom crossed her arms and frowned at him. “There’s a fine line between interfering and helping—”
“And you wouldn’t know what it looked like if it bit you on the—”
“Henry Jacob!” Mom gasped.
Dad dropped his shoulders, instantly contrite. “Sorry, dear.”
“All I’m asking is that you and Joe talk,” Mom said to me. “Before this little misunderstanding grows into a crater.”
“I know for a fact you made a second lemon meringue pie,” Dad deflected. “Don’t be shy with it, Marge, we could all do with some cheering up.”
“Maddox is too distraught to eat.”
My mom didn’t know me, not at all. “I’ve saved some space for pie,” I piped up eagerly.
Her eyes found mine. “Are you sure, honey? That poor Heather Ottenburgh withered away to almost nothing when her marriage fell apart last year,” she said wistfully, her gaze running down my over-sized tee.
I’d never be skinny and I’d learned to be okay with that. I tended to fluctuate between a healthy size ten and a slightly healthier size twelve, depending on my self-will power in any given week. I’d squeezed into my size tens this morning and unfortunately that was as much as I’d ever whither.
“There’s nothing wrong with Maddie’s figure,” Dad said thickly.
“Of course there isn’t,” Mom told him, then to me, “But even perfection can be improved on, that’s all I’m saying.”
Suddenly my jeans felt a size too small. I squirmed uncomfortably in my own skin, something I hadn’t done in years. Thanks, Joseph McMurphy, for that knock to my self-confidence. You’re the gift that just keeps on giving.
“Enough,” Dad barked, shooting up from the table to glare down on Mom. “This is the last thing Maddie needs when her husband has just left her for a younger woman!”
“Oh, dear.” Mom went white as a sheet and sank back against the counter. “Oh, dear, oh, dear…”
Dad dropped heavily into his seat and muttered a miserable, “Sorry, pumpkin,” to me.
“It’s okay, you held out longer than I expected,” I reassured him with a sigh. “For the record, though, Chintilly may be prettier and skinnier than me, but she is not younger.”
I wasn’t privy to her precise age, but I’d guess she was closer to thirty-four than my own twenty-four.
With one last, “Oh, dear,” Mom pulled herself together. She opened the fridge and brought out a pie dish topped with creamy peaks of meringue. Maybe she knew me better than I’d thought.
And if you’re thinking I’ve surely lost my appetite by now, then you’re not and never have been a comfort eater.
Mom served up the pie, waited until I’d savored my first bite, then she leant in across the table and clasped her hand over mine. “Are you absolutely sure Joe’s left you?”
I flicked my eyes toward the ceiling. “I’m not making this up, Mom.”
“I know, but could it just be a…a fling?” she said hopefully.
“Would that make a difference?” I spluttered. “Are you suggesting I go back to him and pretend nothing happened? I can’t. Even if Joe wants me back, I could never stay with him after this.”
“I suppose not.” Mom sat back and folded her hands on the table in front of her. “But you’re not considering divorce, are you?”
“Of course not,” I snapped sarcastically. “If I ever meet someone and fall in love again, we’ll just live in sin happily ever after.”
“Don’t use that tongue with your mother,” Dad admonished, taking an uncustomary firm stand. “And that’s enough, Marge. This is Maddie’s decision and we’ll support her no matter what she decides.”
He was right.
On both counts.
This was hard on Mom. ‘People’ did not divorce, at least not on her side of the family. “I’m sorry for snapping. You’re not the one I’m mad at.”
I loved my parents to bits, but they were best taken in small doses and preferably never at the same time as a crisis.
On that note, I forced out a smile and was about to say my goodbyes when I remembered we hadn’t even touched on the topic of Hollow House yet.
As much as I wanted to leave this conversation for another day, they were sure to notice when I left via the front door instead of up the stairs to my bedroom. If I couldn’t sneak in half a mile outside Silver Firs, there was no way in hell I’d be able to sneak out right beneath their noses.
I pushed my plate across to Mom and sighed. “I’m going to need another slice of pie.”
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