“Too soon after the ordeal with the fire.”
“She probably never fully recovered the first time.”
Genny heard bits and pieces of conversation as she drifted in and out of sleep. She was in her own bed, surrounded by her favorite comforter and the faintest whiff of leather, pine, and wood smoke. A smile touched her slack lips. Cutter.
When she awoke again, sunlight was streaming through her window. Her feet felt heavy and her head felt light. She jerked upright, trying to see the clock.
“Whoa, there, girlfriend. Settle back down.”
“Derron? What—What are you doing here?” she asked. Her tongue felt fuzzy and thick, and there was an odd taste in her mouth. It tasted almost like a weed of some sort. The kind that grew in the woods, not the kind that people smoked. She peeked beneath the covers and found her feet wrapped in heavy bindings.
“We’ve all been here. I finally convinced that hunk of a boyfriend of yours to go to work. He was making me depressed, drooling over you the way he was. Brash has been in and out. He’s no better,” Derron lamented. “Looks at Maddy with those adorable puppy-dog eyes of his. Reminds some of us schmucks that we still haven’t found that someone special.” He wallowed in self-pity for a full two seconds before rambling on. “The twins came by before school, and Blake offered to stay home and sit with you, as long as he could leave for football practice. Granny Bert was here. She force-fed you one of her God-awful smoothies with some magical herbs she swears will make you right as rain, whatever that means. Put some salve on your feet and said if you stayed off them for eight hours, you wouldn’t have a single blister.”
That explained the horrid taste in her mouth. Genny smacked her lips, trying to dispel the after effects of one of Granny Bert’s notorious smoothies.
“Eight hours? But I have to go to work!” She sat forward again, her head spinning. Probably another side effect of Granny’s herbs.
Maddy appeared in the doorway with a fresh glass of iced water. “Here, drink this. And you’re not going anywhere before noon.”
“We have everything covered.”
“But this is going to be a crazy busy day. It’s Thursday, isn’t it?” She wavered for a moment, uncertain of how long she had slept. When Maddy nodded, she continued, “People always flood into town. They love the way the cheerleaders and the band and the football players all walk through both towns, meeting up at a central point to have a huge community pep rally. It has such a small-town feel to it. They love the bonfire, and the speeches by the players, and the whole corny, wonderful thing. I can’t just lay here in bed. The café is going to be packed today!”
“You’re telling me,” Derron said, propping his feet onto the edge of her bed. “I might
need some of Granny Bert’s wrappings, myself. I swear I feel a blister popping out on my twinkie.”
At Genny’s confused look, Maddy supplied, “In a Pinch to the rescue. Turns out there’s not much this man can’t do. Who knew he was such an excellent server? Your customers loved him.”
“I don’t know how you do it, girlfriend, staying on your feet all day,” Derron said. “I only covered the breakfast crowd and I need a soaking footbath.” He shrugged. “The tips were nice, though. And I did get one phone number from a prospective hottie, so it’s all good.” He flashed his charming smile and batted his eyes in exaggeration, making both women laugh.
Genny rearranged her pillows and propped against the iron headboard. “So what happened with Pembrook? Did you give him the brush-off?”
Derron hefted a dejected sigh. “Turns out, I didn’t need to. Obviously, he was just using me to get to you. He was the one to ditch me, the minute we left the tea.”
“Wait, wait, wait,” Maddy broke in. She stared at Derron. “You know Pembrook?”
They caught her up to speed on yesterday’s events. The whole time they discussed the sordid details, Genny rubbed the offended hand he had held. Her skin still burned at the memory. The faint bruise still lingered.
“So if Pembrook was with you,” Maddy said, trying but failing to keep the censure out of her voice, “he couldn’t have been the one to set the fire in your yard.”
“Hey, don’t judge. I had no idea,” Derron defended himself. “Do you have any idea how hard it is to meet someone around here? Even the hottie at the café was from out of town. It’s hard, dollface, let me tell you.”
“Focus, Derron. As hard as it is to imagine, this isn’t about you.” Maddy wrinkled her nose to soften the harsh reality.
“But Maddy is right, you know,” Genny said. “Unless Pembrook snuck out of your house, set the wreath on fire, and then snuck back inside, without you ever knowing any of it, he couldn’t be our little fire bug.”
“Didn’t you two already tangle with one fire bug recently?” Derron muttered. “Can’t you find a new mode of torture?”
“I prefer none at all, thank you very much,” Genny said. “But I didn’t go looking for this. It found me.”
“When did this all start?”
As Genny gave him a brief run-down, Maddy pulled out her notes to make certain she had the details right. She was still working the case, even if the men did try to take over.
“So you got the first phone call when they aired the episode about ripping out the back porch and making a new laundry room.”
“Complete with all new Valco appliances,” Maddy whipped. She had heard the sponsor’s name so often, it was now second nature to her. That wasn’t just a large capacity, front-loading washing machine. That was a Valco Mega-Wash in aged copper, model number J105F-3C.
“Yes, that sounds about right,” Genny agreed.
“That was the episode where Cutter tracked cow mess across your floor. He took one look at your face and went to get the broom. Then he came over and brushed a kiss across your cheek.”
Genny shook her head in rebuttal. “He didn’t kiss me.”
Derron shrugged his petite shoulders. Despite his slim build, muscles rippled with the action. The man definitely worked out. “Sure looked that way on camera. And the next week, when you got another call, they were highlighting the upstairs laundry room.”
“The Valco Elite Wash in brushed stainless, model number J207-3S,” Maddy murmured.
“What are you, a walking catalog for Valco?” Derron smirked.
“What are you, a walking time-line for Home Again?”
Derron sniffed. “As I was saying, that was the episode where you and Cutter were at a ballgame, sharing a plate of nachos. He smeared a little on your cheek and then tried to lick it off. A little racy for a high-school ballgame, but made for good television.”
“He was just goofing off!”
“Yeah, but he was wearing that blue paisley cowboy shirt of his. You know the one,” he said, throwing Genny a pointed look.
Yeah. She definitely knew that shirt. She threw off a layer of covers, just thinking about how Cutter looked in that shirt.
Derron was on a roll. “The night after the big ‘new possibilities’ episode, the one where they introduced the first Gennecut hashtag, someone set off the alarm at the café. The night of the birthday party, when everyone knew you went with Cutter, someone snooped around your house. The night of the auction, when Cutter dropped five grand just to outbid another suitor, you had a phone call. The next day, they left you a message on the dumpster. Then Tuesday rolled around again and—”
“Yeah, yeah, I get it,” Genny said. “You think this is about me and Cutter.”
“Well, he is the hottest stud in town.” He shot an apologetic look toward his employer. “No offense, Brash deCordova is one fine specimen of a man in his own right, but Cutter is closer to my age. And I’ve always found firemen particularly hot.”
“It makes sense,” Maddy said thoughtfully, chewing on her pen. “Not about you — because, again,” she pointed out, “this isn’t about you— but about Cutter being the catalyst. And since the whole Gennecut thing broke, things have definitely escalated.”
“You’ve become cruel, dollface,” Derron whined. “Now that you’ve found your knight in shining armor, you forget the rest of us are still out there looking. Except Genesis, of course. I’d say she has definitely found her knight in shining armor. Did you see the way he tenderly brushed the hair out of her face? Gives me goosebumps, just thinking about it.” His slim shoulders shimmied as his blue eyes glazed over.
Ignoring his theatrics, Genny considered the new possibility. “So this could be someone obsessed with Cutter?”
“Maybe,” Maddy said. “Or maybe they are obsessed with you, and see Cutter as a threat.”
“My gut still says Pembrook is behind this.”
“One thing I’ve learned from working with Murray Archer— and with Brash — is
that you should never assume something because it is the most obvious answer.”
“Granny’s favorite saying,” Genny murmured with a nod.
“Exactly,” Derron pitched in. “To assume makes an ‘ass’ of ‘u’ and ‘me.’ No assuming, girlfriends.”
“So who else could this be?” Maddy asked, studying her notes.
“Barry?” Genny suggested. “He’s picked up the pace of his insults. He’s mentioned Tommy a few times recently. And of course there was that reference to white trash, the same message that appeared on the trash bin and the burning wreath.”
“But why would he do such a thing, especially after all these years?”
“Who knows? The man is mental. He still holds a grudge against you because you come from Juliet Randolph’s lineage, even if not by blood. He comes from Naomi’s side, so in his twisted mind, there should still be a feud between you, even after a hundred years. It stands to reason that he would still hold a grudge against me, twenty years after Tommy’s death.”
Genny’s eyes fell to the covers she twisted in her hand. Her voice dropped. “He blames me for it, you know.”
“Like you said, the man is mental. No one in their right mind could possibly blame you for Tommy’s actions, Genny.”
“Maybe I did give up too easily,” Genny whispered, doubting herself for the millionth time.
“He knew what his options were,” Maddy reminded her softly. “He knew what he was doing when he drove into the path of that truck.”
For once, Derron remained silent. His eyes darted back and forth between the two women, following every word, even when he did not follow their meaning.
“But it could be Barry, hell-bent on settling a grudge,” Genny insisted. “Maybe he sees my relationship with Cutter as an insult to Tommy’s memory. Maybe he thinks if Tommy couldn’t find happiness, neither should I.”
Madison studied her friend for a long moment. “Is that what Barry might think, or what Genesis might think?”
In answer, Genny scrunched her eyes and waved off a fresh sting of tears. She very deliberately changed the subject. “So who’s at the café now?”
Derron looked down at his watch and flew to his feet. “Oops. That would be me. Thelma called in everyone she could think of, but she was still short-handed from noon to two. I told her I would come back in.”
“Thank you, Derron. You have no idea how much I appreciate it.”
“No problem, girlfriend. It’s sort of fun,” he admitted, dropping a kiss onto her forehead. “Take care of yourself and maybe you won’t have to drink another smoothie.”
A shudder moved through Genny’s shoulder. “Lordy, I hope not.”