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Feeding the Fire
“You know, there are days when I’d consider setting my house on fire if I thought that sexy thing would show up and save me,” Vera Reynolds declared as she eyed the passing fire truck filled with gorgeous firefighters.
Pepper heard a lot of things working at Curls, the only hair salon in Rosewood, Alabama. As in any small southern town, the beauty parlor was one of the best places to get the pulse on the local happenings. She didn’t need a subscription to the local paper. Frankly, anything Clark Newton reported in the Rosewood Times was old news to her by the time it hit the front page.
Pepper and her boss, Sarah Hudson, the owner of Curls, were always kept fully abreast of town gossip. If people didn’t sit in their chairs and talk about their own life’s drama, they’d come armed with information about someone else’s. At any point in time, Pepper knew all about the town romances, who was in a spat over property lines, who spent the night in the drunk tank of the local jail, and who had sabotaged a Rosewood Garden Club member’s prized fern.
It was a small town, low on actual crime but always high on drama. Although there was nothing she could do to keep from hearing the gossip, Pepper tried very hard not to spread it. She knew how easily it could come back to bite her. Instead, she liked to play the role of salon-chair therapist. They talked, she listened and made thoughtful noises while working on their hair.
But sometimes, like today, she just didn’t want to know. And since Miss Francine and Miss Vera always scheduled their appointments together, today meant double the trouble, and no escaping the gossip.
Instead of responding to Miss Vera’s declaration, Pepper worked at sweeping up the fine hair on the floor from Sheriff Todd’s trim. The man had almost no hair and yet he showed up for a cut every four weeks, like clockwork. Pepper felt bad actually charging the man.
“What sexy thing? Who was that?” Francine Doyle asked. “I can’t see out the window with this dryer over my head.”
“It was Grant,” Miss Vera said.
“Grant Chamberlain!” she shouted over the noise of the dryer as pieces of foil flapped in her hair.
Pepper winced at the sound of that name. Unlike Miss Vera, she had been dodging Grant Chamberlain since high school. The scrappy little freshman had had the nerve to ask her to the fall formal her junior year. He wasn’t even old enough to drive them to the dance, but that hadn’t stopped him. For whatever reason, he’d decided he wanted Pepper, and no matter how many times she told him no, he’d always come back around a few weeks later with another proposal.
Dating a Chamberlain might be a feather in the cap for most girls at Rosewood High, but not for Pepper. She’d tried to avoid that whole family, which wasn’t difficult considering they lived in the antebellum mansion on Willow Lake and she’d lived in a trailer off the highway. Life was hard enough being poor and unpopular. Dating a freshman her junior year would’ve earned her merciless teasing by the other kids at school. Even if he was a Chamberlain.
Pepper looked up in time to see Miss Francine’s lips twist into a grimace of distaste. “You are a dirty old woman,” she snapped. “That child is barely out of diapers.”
Pepper and Sarah shared a look of amusement but didn’t respond. Sarah returned to working on Miss Vera’s hair with an almost undetectable shake of her head. Pepper went into the back room to dump the dustpan and get fresh towels.
“He’s old enough,” Miss Vera muttered, turning back to look into the mirror. With one finger, she pulled at some of the wrinkles on her face, tugging until she looked ten years younger. “I’m just too old. Hell, I wouldn’t know what to do with a hard-bodied man like that if I had one sitting in my parlor.”
Pepper turned off the dryer and checked the foils in Miss Francine’s hair. The heat had helped the color process faster, and she was ready to have the dye rinsed out.
“And how would you know he’s hard-bodied, Vera?” Miss Francine asked on her way to the shampoo station. “Are you the Peeping Tom they’ve been talking about in the newspaper?”
“Very funny,” Miss Vera replied with a dry tone. “You shouldn’t joke about something like that, Francine. That peeper is serious business. There’s a pervert in our midst.”
“Have they caught the peeper yet?” Sarah asked.
“No,” Miss Francine said. “From what I’ve heard, Sheriff Todd has had seven reports of someone peering in women’s windows at night. My niece Olivia was one of the victims. I think she was the second one to report it. She said she was making a late dinner one night, looked up, and saw two eyes staring back at her through the kitchen window. Her back door wasn’t locked, either, because she had just let her dog back into the house. Whoever that was could’ve walked right in and done God-knows-what to her.”
“That’s awful,” Sarah said.
“It’s worse than that. She had closed up the flower shop for me that night and rode her bicycle home. She said that for the first time, she felt uncomfortable at night by herself, like there was someone watching her. She pedaled home twice as fast as usual, and then when nothing happened, she chided herself for being paranoid. But she was right—someone was watching her. They followed her home.”
“I didn’t know the peeper had been to Olivia’s.” Miss Vera’s eyes widened thoughtfully. “What did she do?”
Miss Francine shrugged. “Well, the cops couldn’t help much and she just didn’t feel safe, so she bought a shotgun and had motion-detector lights put up around the house. I think she may go back to driving her car to the shop and only ride her bicycle in the summer when the sun sets later.”
“That’s creepy,” Pepper said. It hadn’t really crossed her mind that the sleepy town she lived in could harbor someone dangerous. What crime they did have was usually a harmless teenage prank or a drunken brawl. Some days she even forgot to lock her door. She didn’t think something this bad could ever happen here. “I need to keep my curtains pulled. Or finally install some blinds.”
“You should,” Miss Francine agreed. “And I say all single women should invest in strong locks, a big dog, and a high-quality gun. But enough of that unpleasantness. I want to know how Vera got her secret knowledge about the hard body of Grant Chamberlain.”
“It just so happens that the fire station is across the street from Dotty Baker’s place,” Miss Vera explained. “Every Wednesday afternoon, she has me over for tea. We sit on the front porch, eat cake, and watch them wash the fire truck. If it’s warm enough out, some of them will take off their shirts.”
Pepper muffled a snort, thinking about those two leering at the firemen every week under the guise of having tea. “Ever whistle or catcall?”
“Dotty did once,” Miss Vera said with a look of irritation pinching her brow together. “It spooked them. They didn’t wash the truck for two weeks after that. At least, not at their usual time when we were watching. I took them a plate of cookies and apologized for her uncouth behavior. You know, since she had that stroke, she gets away with murder. Stroke, my foot. Her family wishes that was the cause of her big mouth. She’s always been like that. Anyway,” she continued, “they finally went back to washing the truck on Wednesday afternoons again, and I told Dotty to keep her big mouth shut after that.”
Miss Dotty had an appointment for her hair tomorrow. Pepper always enjoyed having her in the chair, but Miss Vera was right: Dotty told it like it was. Usually in the South, ladies danced around the more delicate subjects, especially in polite company, but not Dotty. She just laid it out there when no one else had the balls to say it. It made Pepper laugh.
“And why am I not invited to these tea parties?” Miss Francine asked.
“You’re always working at the flower shop.”
Miss Francine made a disappointed noise and crossed her arms over her chest. She owned and operated Petal Pushers, the local florist. You could almost always find her there, working on arrangements for anniversaries or sprays for Hancock’s Funeral Home across the street.
Pepper finished rinsing Miss Francine’s hair and wrapped her head in a fluffy white towel. That was fortunate, because Miss Francine couldn’t hear Miss Vera mutter under her breath to Sarah, “She’s also too judgmental. She’d take all the fun out of it. Old ladies like me have to get our kicks somewhere.”
By the time Pepper had Miss Francine settled in the chair, Sarah had steered the conversation in a new direction. “Have you ever considered dating again, Miss Vera?”
“Posh,” she grumbled with a dismissive wave of her hand. “Honey, I’m too old to start dating again.”
“I don’t think so. You’re still young enough to enjoy going out to dinner or a movie with a gentleman. Someone to go with you on walks through the park. Or maybe a little make-out session in the parlor,” Sarah added with a sly grin.
“Oh, Lordy,” Miss Francine groaned. “Can you even imagine it?”
“I can!” Sarah answered. “Grant Chamberlain might be on the young side for you, but there’s got to be some eligible men in town who would be more suitable.”
Miss Vera shook her head. “I know every man in this town and not a one of them could measure up to my Herman. We had forty-three wonderful years together before he had that heart attack. I think my time to wade in the dating pool is long behind me.”
“I don’t know,” Sarah argued. “You could start by dipping a toe in. I’ve seen Bert Swenson eyeing you at Sunday morning services.”
“Bert Swenson?” Miss Vera nearly choked, a red flush rising to her powdered cheeks. “Are you kidding me?”
“You know,” Pepper joined in, “I’ve noticed he always takes a second serving of your desserts at the community picnics.”
“Well, he shouldn’t,” Miss Vera snapped. “That man has put on at least thirty pounds since Margaret died. He’ll have the sugar diabetes before too long.”
Sarah put the last of the foils in Miss Vera’s hair and set the timer. “Maybe he just needs a good woman to take care of him.”
“Sarah, dear, I have spent my whole life taking care of other people. First my brothers, then my husband, then my kids, then my own parents. Now it’s the grandkids. I miss Herman, but I certainly don’t miss cooking three squares a day. Meat and potatoes. Every night. For forty-three years. Last night, I had a cheese sandwich. The night before, a can of soup. I haven’t washed a skillet in a month and I don’t mind a bit. A new man to take care of? No thanks.”
Pepper smiled, listening to Miss Vera’s tirade. She was protesting a little too much. Perhaps there really was some potential for senior romance in the air.
“Well, you know they’re talking about having a bachelor auction around Valentine’s Day.”
“I heard about that,” Miss Francine chimed in. “The fund-raising committee contacted me last week about sponsoring some flower arrangements and roses for the winning bidders. As though I’ll have spare roses around Valentine’s Day! Even if I did, my suppliers jack up the wholesale prices in February. They’re going to pay or they’re going to get some lovely red and pink carnations.”
Pepper frowned in confusion at Miss Francine’s long-winded complaint. Nearly a year ago, a tornado had whipped through Rosewood, wiping out the high school gymnasium and part of the football stadium. The town had rallied, organizing fund-raisers and even bringing Ivy Hudson, rock star and former resident of Rosewood, back to town for a charity concert. Sarah’s daughter had become a Grammy-winning performer with numerous albums and world tours under her belt. They had easily raised more than enough money to rebuild and modernize the school by having her come back. Pepper ought to know; she’d been on the committee.
But she hadn’t heard about this. She stopped going to the meetings once they started construction on the new gym. “Why is the fund-raising committee still trying to raise money? The high school is paid for.”
“Well, where there’s one tornado, there’s always another,” Miss Vera said with sage wisdom in her voice. “From what I heard, they’ve decided to continue planning community events to raise money for the future.”
“I think it’s just a good excuse to throw some parties and make money in the process,” Sarah said. “Although, when another tornado comes through—and one will—it might be nice to have some money put away for emergency relief.”
“But a bachelor auction?” Pepper said. “That’s just so . . .”
“Tacky?” Miss Francine offered.
“Yes, tacky, thank you. What single woman with any dignity is going to go to a party and buy a date for Valentine’s Day? Especially when you can have most of the men in town for a plate of fried chicken and a Bundt cake.”
“I don’t know,” Miss Vera said thoughtfully. “Depends on who’s for sale. If Grant Chamberlain is on the auction block, I might have to dip into Herman’s life insurance money. You know, for a good cause.”
Using her dead husband’s life insurance money to rent a boy toy seemed all kinds of wrong. Pepper doubted Miss Vera would go through with it, though. She talked big in the salon, but it rarely actualized in the real world.
“Might be fun to watch,” Sarah said. “They’re selling tickets for the event, so everyone contributes to the cause, whether or not you bid.”
Pepper got out her scissors and started trimming the ends of Miss Francine’s hair. Morbid curiosity might get her to the auction, but she wasn’t bidding. She was saving every penny she could for renovations to her house. A date for Valentine’s Day was fleeting. Her home was forever.
It had taken her five years to save up for a down payment on the tiny house just off the square in the historic district. Unlike many of the other houses in that area, it was just in her price range, but unfortunately, that was because it needed a lot of work. Since she’d moved in last summer she had gotten it to mildly livable.
If she was going to drop a couple hundred or even a couple thousand dollars for a man’s time, he would have to be an electrician or a plumber. Maybe a drywall guy. She certainly wasn’t going to waste her money on a hard body and a pretty face.
Besides, she’d already had Grant Chamberlain for free.
It had been an amazing night, one she would not soon forget, but she wasn’t stupid enough to repeat it. Grant was like one of the decadent fudge cakes in the windows of the bakery next door. You want a slice even though you know it’s bad for you. If you finally break down and tell yourself you’ll just take one bite, you find out it’s better than you ever imagined and you moan with the pure pleasure of the experience. You take another, and another, then you find you’ve eaten the whole damn cake. And when it’s over, all you’re left with is a righteous stomachache and pants that are too tight. From now on, temptation be damned—Pepper was on a diet.
“Pepper,” Sarah said. “I forgot to tell you. Ivy’s coming home in a few days to spend Valentine’s Day with Blake. She said she’ll be in town for a few weeks before she kicks off her North American tour. Maybe you two can go to the auction together?”
Pepper missed her friend since she went back to California last fall. Even though Ivy’s fiancé lived in Rosewood, they hadn’t figured out the logistics yet and were still living on opposite coasts most of the time. “That would be nice. Especially since I wasn’t able to see her when she came home over Christmas.”
Ivy had come home to spend the holidays with her fiancé, Blake Chamberlain, and her family, but Pepper had spent every spare moment dealing with her father’s failing health.
The day after Thanksgiving, her father had a stroke. The weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s were spent in hospital waiting rooms, doctors’ offices, and rehabilitation clinics in Birmingham. They’d finally gotten Dad home and able to get around, but he wasn’t 100 percent yet.
“How is your dad?” Sarah asked.
“Better. We’re still not sure if he’s ever going to be able to run the garage again. One of his mechanics has been helping my mother run the shop, but if he doesn’t make significant progress in the next few weeks, we might have to sell it.”
She’d hate to do that. Her father had worked his whole life to make his way up from a gas station attendant to running the family auto shop. Having their own business had allowed her mother to quit her job in the elementary school cafeteria and work as the receptionist for the garage. It had paid for them to move from their trailer into a real house. They’d do everything they could to keep the shop open as long as possible.
“That would be a shame,” Sarah said, echoing Pepper’s thoughts.
“I’m still hopeful. My brother just moved home from Huntsville, so that should help.”
“I thought I noticed someone renting the house on Morning Glory where the Rosewood Realty offices used to be. Is that where he’s setting up his practice?” Miss Francine asked.
“Yep, that’s Logan. That house allows him to live and work in the same building, saving him a lot of overhead. Plus it’s across from the garage, so he can run over there if he needs to.”
Speaking of Logan, she had to remember to take dinner over to his place tonight after the salon closed. She’d volunteered to help him unpack and get settled in his new place. Setting down her scissors, she pulled her phone out of her back pocket to set a reminder to call in an order to Pizza Palace.
“A pretty gutsy move opening a law practice in Rosewood,” Miss Vera noted. “The Chamberlains have had the monopoly on that for seventy years.”
“I’m sure there’s plenty of business for everyone,” Pepper replied before going back to trimming Miss Francine’s hair. Her brother practiced family law and could handle some minor civil or criminal cases if he needed to. Small-town lawyers had to be a jack-of-all-trades. She anticipated he would do good business here. There were certainly families in Rosewood that couldn’t afford the Chamberlains’ exorbitant hourly rate.
Like her own. She’d had her brother put together a will and living directive for her father after he fell ill, but other families didn’t have that luxury of a lawyer in the family. The Chamberlains’ firm charged prices that had made her head spin. The average family couldn’t afford fees like that, and yet, they couldn’t afford not to have the protection and peace of mind that a will or directive provides.
Pepper tried not to get pleasure from the idea of her brother chipping away at the Chamberlains’ turf, but it was hard not to hope for Logan’s success. Not everyone in town thought the Chamberlains were southern royalty. In her household, the name was rarely even spoken without her mother getting agitated and changing the subject.
“Anyway,” Pepper continued, “it’s not like Norman has a child in law school to take over the practice when he retires.”
Blake, the oldest Chamberlain, taught and coached football at the high school. Mitchell was in med school, and his twin, Maddie, worked at the bakery. Grant was a fireman and Simon was a cop. The youngest, Hazel, was still in high school, but somehow Pepper doubted that the bespectacled bookworm she saw around town would be interested in law.
“In a few years, we’ll be thankful we don’t have to recruit a law firm to come into the area. Not many up-and-coming lawyers are interested in leaving the big cities for a little place like this.” Pepper finally finished trimming Miss Francine’s hair. She set aside the scissors and ran her fingers through the damp strands. “We’ve just got to blow you out,” she said, “and you’ll be good to go.”
Pepper used the round brush to quickly dry and shape the older woman’s strawberry blonde hair into the style she preferred. The color was nothing like the original, but Miss Francine had told her that once she went gray, there was no reason she couldn’t change things up. She’d always wanted hair the same color as Ann-Margret and that’s what she got. Pepper sprayed her work with hair spray and spun Miss Francine to the mirror to admire her handiwork.
“Wonderful, as always, Pepper.” Miss Francine dug into her purse for her money, leaving her a generous tip. “Now, you mentioned going on vacation soon, right? It’s not going to interfere with my appointment, is it?”
Pepper was taking a week off work to get some things done around the house. She couldn’t wait to start getting her house into better shape. “No, ma’am,” she said. “I’m taking off the week of Valentine’s Day. You won’t be back here until the following week.”
“Okay, good,” Miss Francine said, getting up from her chair. “After the Valentine’s rush, I’m going to need a full day of pampering.”
Pepper arrived on her brother’s doorstep at five thirty with a pizza, a six-pack, and a box of cupcakes from Rosewood Bakery.
It took him a few minutes but finally the door swung open, revealing him to be covered in dirt and out of breath. There were flecks of dust in the brown waves of his hair and dark smudges along the square line of his jaw.
“Hey, sis,” Logan said, smiling.
“You look like hell,” she stated. “Did you get in a fight with a feather duster?”
“Something like that,” he admitted, taking a step back into the entryway to allow her in. “I made the mistake of pulling down the ladder to the attic. Apparently no one has done that in a couple, um, decades.”
“Lovely. You get in the shower and rinse off. I’ll have pizza waiting for you when you get done.”
“Thank you,” he said, leaning in to give her a kiss on her cheek. “Oops.” He reached out and brushed away the smudge he left behind. “I’ll be right back.” He turned and ran back upstairs.
Pepper shut the front door behind her and weaved her way through the piles of boxes and random furniture to the kitchen in the back of the house. Formerly a real estate office, the majority of the downstairs had been used as offices and conference rooms. She supposed her brother would do the same once he opened his practice. Tucked in the back, the kitchen was untouched.
It was also unrenovated. It wasn’t nearly as bad as Pepper’s house, but considering no one had used the oven here in twenty years, no one had replaced it, either. All the fixtures were old, the wallpaper dated. The only modern thing in the place was a Keurig coffee machine on the counter. Knowing Logan, that was the first thing he’d unpacked.
Pepper slid a box labeled “kitchen stuff” out of her way and put the pizza and drinks on the counter. She opened an empty cupboard, then another and realized he didn’t have any plates, cups, or flatware unpacked. She supposed that was the difference between her and her brother. Pepper didn’t cook much, but whenever she moved into a new place, the kitchen was the first thing she put away.
She hadn’t thought to ask for paper plates at the pizza place. They gave her napkins and twenty little packets of red pepper flakes, but no plates. Looking around, she eyed the different boxes and started opening ones that looked promising. In the fourth or fifth box, she found a stack of paper plates. That was all they needed. They could drink from the cans since they were still cold.
Pepper carried everything into the conference room to eat. Technically, it was the formal dining room, but it had a long table with rolling executive chairs, the far wall had a screen, and overhead, instead of a light fixture, there was a computer projector.
Logan joined her a few minutes later, clean and with damp hair. “Thanks for bringing food. I’ve had nothing but coffee and chips all day.”
“This is a nice setup,” she said, gesturing around the room. “Did you bring this with you?”
“No, it came with the house. They left this stuff, the chairs and coffee table in the lobby, and a big desk in the room I’ll use for my office.”
“Yeah. A few less things I need to buy.” Logan lifted a piece of pizza onto a plate and sat down. “Starting your own business isn’t for sissies. It’s hard to justify buying a flat-screen television for the lobby when I have no clients.”
Pepper passed him a soda. “You’ll get clients. You just have to open.”
Logan shrugged, taking a bite of his food instead of arguing with her. Pepper knew he was worried. Moving back to Rosewood and going out on his own was a big deal. Especially going up against competition like the Chamberlains’ firm. It was a risk, but she knew he did it for the family. He couldn’t sit idle in Huntsville while everything was falling apart at home.
“I went to see Dad today,” Logan said, changing the subject.
“How was he?” she asked. “The last time I was over there, he seemed a little sluggish. He was getting around okay, but you could tell it was a lot of work for him.”
“He was better,” Logan said. “That cane the doctor gave him helps. He came to the door to let me in, then walked with me to the garage to help me find some tools to work on the house.”
“I’m worried he won’t get the use of his left hand back,” Pepper said with a shake of her head. “He can barely hold a spoon without dropping it. I just don’t see him working on cars and handling heavy tools anytime soon.”
“It’s only been a couple of months. He’s going to therapy and he said that’s helping. You never know. We’ve got to take this one day at a time. He could be in there tinkering under the hood with Sean by summer.”
“You’re right,” Pepper said, trying to stay positive. She was usually an upbeat person, but it was hard to do when she was watching her family struggle. “On the bright side, now that Dad can stay home alone during the day, Mom’s able to go back to run the shop. It’s taken a lot of pressure off Sean. Now he can focus on fixing the cars and Mom can handle the customers and the phones.”
“I’m sure she’s happy to get out of the house. Of course, now I have to worry about her sneaking across the street to check on me all the time.”
“Ah, the downside to renting a house so close to the garage,” Pepper replied with a smile. “I’m sure she’d be glad to help you decorate.”
Logan groaned and rolled his eyes. “She’d want to cover everything with those doilies she crochets.”
Pepper chuckled, knowing he was right. She had a box with about fifteen doilies her mother gave her for her new house. It was currently collecting dust in the corner of the dining room, but so were most things.
“All right,” Logan said, pushing back from the table, “enough eating. It’s time to get some work done.”
“Fine.” Pepper sipped the last of her drink and followed Logan into the kitchen to throw out their trash. “I’ll start on the kitchen. Then you can spend all day tomorrow trying to figure out where I put things.”
Logan laughed. “Okay. Just don’t hide the K-Cups or you’ll get a desperate call from me at dawn.”