What was she doing here?
Good grief, she couldn’t be here. Yet, there she stood, plain as day. Why, of all places, was the woman in Even? Was she trying to get them killed?
Fear and dread collided and pumped a massive dose of adrenaline through Rose Green. Her fingers tingling, her heart thumping against her ribs, she pulled her phone from her pocket, speed-dialed her brother, then whispered to avoid being overheard by the other diners in the busy Main Street café. “Jackson?” Rose’s gaze never strayed from the beautiful blonde woman she’d met as a redhead not three months ago.
“Hey, sis. How are you?”
“At the moment, I’m at Danny’s Diner having a heart attack.“ One more shock would do it. Her heart would crack her ribs and bust her chest wide open.
“You and Matthew at odds over having a baby again?”
Of course, Jackson would go there. It was barely seven in the morning and she was having coffee at the diner instead of at home in her kitchen. “We are, but that’s not why I’m calling.”
Two men entered and headed to a table near the front window. Both were in their sixties and a little slump-shouldered. The shorter of the two shuffled his steps. No threat there, yet Rose remained hyper-vigilant.
“This time, are we for or against you having one now?” Jackson asked.
Rose frowned, a little miffed he wouldn’t see it. “This time, he’s for, I’m against, but that’s beside the point.” Couldn’t her brother hear her anxiety? Evidently not, but he had been driving all night. Safer to travel under the cover of darkness…
“Switched sides again, huh?”
“We both did.” Her patience snapped. “Jackson, would you forget the baby debate? I said, I’m having a heart attack.”
“I heard you,” he barked back, then hesitated. “Oh, that isn’t over whether or not to have a baby?”
She couldn’t blame him for his confusion. The debate had been raging back and forth between Matthew and she for the last six months. It had almost become a friendly war with all their switching sides and everyone they knew weighing in. “No, a baby has nothing to do with this heart attack.” Though the debate likely would incite one of its very own.
“Well, what’s wrong then?” Jackson asked, then before she had time to answer ran another question to her on its heels. “You haven’t been spotted…?”
“Not yet but, as we speak, we’ve got a disaster in the making.”
His tone dropped low, hushed and simmering. “What’s wrong, Rose?”
Finally, her baby brother had tuned in. “You remember that woman you brought to the house last Christmas?”
“That’s the one.”
“Sure, I remember her—”
Rose cut him off. She needed verification—the sooner, the better. “Did you really take her to Dixie and then to…” Rose dropped her voice even more, cupped her hand over the phone and then whispered, “Sampson Park?”
“You know I did. I told you so myself. Why?”
Rose’s stomach dropped to her knees. She skimmed the diner, gauging to be sure the senior men seated at the next table for their daily prayer meeting were talking to each other loudly enough to cover her voice. This morning, they were debating signs of the Second Coming. “Well, apparently she’s missed a step in her instructions on staying dead.”
“She’s here, Jackson—alive and well and above ground.”
“I’m looking right at her.” The object of Rose’s worry smiled and filled coffee mugs for the two men seated near the front window. How could she be so cheerful? It wasn’t natural anytime, but under the circumstances…
“What’s she doing there?” Jackson asked.
He had to be kidding. “Well, aside from waitressing at the diner, I do not know. Since you brought her into our world, I hoped maybe you could tell me—”
“You’re sure it’s her. Caroline Branch Easton is waitressing at Danny’s Diner in Even?”
He muttered, “Holy—“
“There’s nothing holy about it. The idiot woman is going to ruin everything.”
Beneath the table, Rose rubbed her Grant half-dollar so hard its ridges felt almost smooth. “Between learning the funeral home business, making connections and getting all the licenses and everything in order, I just last week got my garden planted, and Matthew finally had time to paint the kitchen, which is why I’m at the diner this morning having coffee instead of at home.” Rose again cupped the phone and dropped her voice another decibel. “If I have to die again and move already, I’m going to be seriously ticked-off, Jackson Lee Grant.”
His whole life, she’d reserved that middle-name warning for only his most serious offenses, and she meant for him to know this woman’s sudden appearance on Rose’s turf was deadly serious.
“Did you talk to her?”
“I said hi.” Rose sipped from her steaming coffee cup and watched Caroline wait on two of the regulars from the auto shop down the block. Billy Joe Baker and Dean Hester sat grinning, clearly enjoying their conversation with her. Considering Billy Joe never smiled much less grinned, she obviously had a knack for engaging conversation.
“Something’s bad wrong, Jackson,” Rose said. “When she poured my coffee, she looked right through me. The woman didn’t have a clue who I was.”
The worry Rose felt penetrated, and her brother’s tone sobered. “Did you call Miss Emily?”
That very thought had crossed Rose’s mind. “I’m not exactly able to do that, being in a public place with the wrong phone.” He knew as well as Rose one only called the Sampson Park matriarch using one’s dedicated phone. “I didn’t expect to walk in here for coffee and see a ghost, you know?” Rose let her exasperation show. “You brought her here and now she’s going to fool around and get us all killed again.”
“Calm down, and don’t borrow more trouble than we’ve already got,” he said. “There’s likely a reasonable explanation. Let me call Miss Emily and see what’s up.”
“There’s nothing reasonable in her risking our futures. She’s got to get out of here before—“
“Don’t jump the gun, sis. We don’t know what’s at risk yet,” he cut in. “I’m only about ten minutes out. Hang tight, and don’t let Caroline out of your sight.”
“You need not worry about that.” Rose wouldn’t shoot her, but if she had to hold her at gunpoint, she wasn’t above it. “Whatever brought her back here, we’ve got to resolve it fast. Our first funeral is in a few hours.”
“It’s not yours or Matthew’s, is it?”
Hadn’t she just told Jackson if they had to die again and move so fast she’d be ticked? Rose’s temper spiked but, lucky for her brother, empathy also did a slow roll through her. He was upset about this news, too, and rightly so. Rose tempered her response. “Not this time. Carl Wooten’s heart gave out. But with your friend here, we could be next. Or you.”
Jackson’s tone soured, went deadpan flat. “I’ll call you right back.”
Rose ended the call then dropped her phone into her shirt pocket. The object of her anxiety, wearing jeans, sneakers and a Dixie Darling t-shirt, came up to the table, carrying the coffeepot. “Refill?” She smiled.
“Please.” Rose looked her right in the eye. She might be a blonde now instead of a redhead, but she was definitely the same beautiful woman Jackson had transported from Dallas and brought home to Christmas dinner. Testing the waters, Rose said, “You look so familiar to me.”
There was a hope and eagerness in her voice that sent cold chills up Rose’s spine. She swiped her auburn hair back over her shoulder and nodded. “What brings you to Even?”
Caroline glanced around then bent low and whispered a warning. “Another time. I have to tell you something.”
“Expect a little trouble at Carl Wooten’s funeral. The locals are bent out of shape and plan on showing you they’re not pleased.”
“About what?” Rose asked.
“Carl selling the funeral home to you instead of to a local then dying as soon as your training was done.” Her gaze shifted uneasily. “Just thought you’d want to know. It’s ironic that Carl’s would be your first solo funeral.”
It was. “Surely they don’t think we wanted Carl dead.” He had been and would have remained a tremendous asset to them, particularly when their mentor, Paul Perini down in Dixie began sending them special clients.
“They haven’t gone that far. At least, not that I’ve heard. They’re just saying letting outsiders in brings Even bad luck.”
Rose had expected a little of that kind of thing. Change always upset some. But to stir up trouble at a lifelong resident’s funeral? She couldn’t see that. Carl had been a pillar of the Even community his whole life. “I appreciate you letting me know.”
“We outsiders have to stick together.”
Rose didn’t know what to do with that. Did the woman remember Rose, then? Probably not. Yet her call had been accurate. Unless your kin have been in Even for three generations, you are an outsider. At least, you are unless an outsider who didn’t live in Even at all messes with you. Then you are a local. That mentality might seem a little twisted on the surface, but it had been one of the reasons Matthew and she had chosen to settle in the one-street, two-traffic-light town. It shielded its own. In their new enterprise, that shielding was vital for them.
“Caroline.” Danny, the owner and cook, yelled from the kitchen. His apron had grease splatters across the chest that gave his wife, Hazel, fits. Hazel liked things nice and neat and her whites spotless. Everyone in the county with a stubborn stain called Hazel for a remedy to remove it. “Order’s up.”
Rose’s insides froze to ice. Caroline. Same name. Yet zero recognition. What had happened to her? And why had she come back here?
“Coming,” Caroline called out over her shoulder then turned back to Rose. “Excuse me. Can’t serve the prayer breakfast group cold food.” Her eyes twinkled. “They’ve got consequential connections.” Turning on her sneaker-clad heel, she rushed to the kitchen pick-up window.
A guest in Rose’s home three months ago and today the woman truly didn’t know her from Adam? How could that be? Something had to have happened to her. Something bad.
Figure this out and do something, Jackson. Fast.
Rose sipped from her freshly filled cup, inhaled the steam and hoped it soothed her, though, truth be told, anything soothing her right now seemed impossible. Whatever this sudden appearance was about, it was suck-lemon-bad trouble. Only a fool wouldn’t know Caroline’s presence in Even could wreck a lot of lives—and deaths.
In Dallas, in Dixie, at Sampson Park, and in Even.
Why hadn’t the woman had the good sense, or the mercy, to stay down and dead?
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