Read One Foot in the Grove Online

Authors: Kelly Lane

One Foot in the Grove

A SHOT IN THE DARK

There it was again. That unnerving feeling that someone else was in the woods. I wanted to quell the wind and the cacophony of screeching critters so I could listen. But the howling storm was picking up speed and force. Was I lost? The moon disappeared again. It was pitch-dark. My sneakers were soaked through. My feet were wet, and my legs were spattered with mud.

If I could just find my way to the hundred-acre olive grove, I'd be safe and close to home, I thought. In the grove, there'd be a wide-open space cut out of the forest where young olive trees were planted together in rows. Twelve-foot swaths of dirt between each hedgerow of olive trees, with the drip irrigation hoses secured out of the way just a foot or so to each side of the tree trunks, made for a neat and orderly series of wide alleyways through the orchard. Moreover, Dad's young trees were pruned to no more than ten feet high to accommodate his adapted blueberry harvester that would mechanically gather olives in a few weeks. For me, all this translated into a grove of clear, flat paths that were perfect for running. Short trees would make it easier to see at night.

GRUMMPH.

That was definitely a gunshot . . .

An imprint of Penguin Random House LLC

375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014

ONE FOOT IN THE GROVE

A Berkley Prime Crime Book / published by arrangement with the author

Copyright © 2016 by Claire Talbot Eddins.

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.

eBook ISBN: 978-0-698-18003-1

PUBLISHING HISTORY

Berkley Prime Crime mass-market edition / January 2016

Cover illustration by Sarah Oberrender.

Cover design by Anne Wertheim.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

PUBLISHER'S NOTE: The recipes contained in this book are to be followed exactly as written. The publisher is not responsible for your specific health or allergy needs that may require medical supervision. The publisher is not responsible for any adverse reactions to the recipes contained in this book.

Version_1

For Wyatt and David

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

It's an understatement to say this book wouldn't have been written at all were it not for my literary agent, John Talbot. Thank you, John, for sharing your ideas, foresight, and trust in my abilities. You saw something in me that I didn't know was there. Through your inspiration, patience, and tutelage, I'm thrilled to discover my greatest passion in life as I take these first steps down a new and exciting path into the world of fiction.

To senior editor, Michelle Vega, I can't thank you enough for believing in the proposal that led to this series. Editorial assistant, Bethany Blair; copyeditor, Marianne Grace; production editor, Stacy Edwards; and publicity guru, Danielle Dill—along with the rest of the talented and hardworking team at Berkley Prime Crime—thank you for your expertise and support. Cover designer, Sarah Oberrender; and cover illustrator, Anne Wertheim, great props for your wonderfully whimsical and ever-appealing cover. Dolly gives it a five-woof rating!

For inspiring the series, kudos to the intrepid Georgia farmers who figured out how to resurrect the long-dead olive industry in the American Southeast. Many activities in the series rise up from stories shared by the folks at Georgia Olive Farms. Also, the Georgia Olive Growers Association has been a key source regarding olive tree farming. Additional thanks go to the staff at Oil & Vinegar in Charlottesville, Virginia.

I owe a great deal of gratitude to the Sisters in Crime Guppies group; I've learned so very much from the information shared by the many talented and generous members. Mary Buckham, your sharp eye and quick wit (and red pen) during your Guppy classes always hones my writing . . . and, still, I've got so much to learn!

Speaking of learning, it's been a
long
time, however, I'm indebted and honored to have studied under my mentor John Irving, who taught me the importance of humor, perseverance, and everyday observation; the lure of a great storyteller's voice; and the joy of following beloved and memorable characters as they come to life on the page.

Johanna Farrand, your kind nurturing over the years has not gone unnoticed. Thank you for believing in my success. Martha Austin, Bibiana Heymann, Jean Pearson, and Michele and Charles Pellham, thanks for the steadfast friendship, enthusiastic support, and putting up with my quirks and blathers. Conner Puryear, your reminder on a crucial day that there's
never
room for negativity opened my eyes. Ryan Taylor, seeing your eyes light up on the day you learned I was writing a book was inspirational!

Most important, Wyatt Morin and David Eddins, to whom this book is dedicated, from the bottom of my heart, I owe everything to you. I'm forever humbled and indebted to your everlasting love, patience, compassion, and encouragement.

C
HAPTER
1

Okay, I admit it. I was curious. I'd lagged a bit, stepping past the beauty shop doorway. Maybe I'd wanted to check out Tammy Fae Tanner. See who her clients were. Hear for myself what they were saying about me.

Shear Southern Beauty was the only salon in Abundance County, Georgia. It was the place where every woman in town had her hair and nails done. The place where each woman sitting in shop owner Tammy Fae's swiveling chair received an earful of her up-to-the-minute, down-home Southern dirt. And since my return home from New England a week earlier, I'd heard that all the pernicious drivel had been about me. So, naturally, I thought I'd check it out.

I'd gotten an earful.

Of course, Tammy Fae's animosity wasn't completely out of the blue. She happened to be the mother of Buck Tanner, the man whom I scandalously left standing at the altar, right before I ran out of town eighteen years earlier.

And I'd never returned.

That is, until another wedding-day blowout sent me packing from Boston.

Anyway, most folks weren't out and about on that steamy August afternoon in Southern Georgia. Like my dad always said, summertime in town was hotter than blue blazes. Only tourists, mostly Northerners on vacation, fanning themselves with their “Welcome to Abundance” pamphlets from the Information Booth, ambled under the tropical palmettos, past the Victorian buildings and quaint Main Street shops that showcased hand-painted signs, charming window displays, and perfectly potted plants along the brick sidewalk.

After delivering my dad's fresh olive oil to the Palatable Pecan restaurant, I picked up my dry cleaning and hustled a couple of doors down to Hot Pressed Tees, where, a few days earlier, I'd ordered some custom-printed shirts to promote my family's new olive oil business. Each shirt read
GEORGIA VIRGIN
across the chest, with
OLIVE OIL
in smaller letters above an illustration of an olive branch imposed over the state of Georgia.

“These look great, Tommy!” I said to shop owner Tommy Burnside. I threw my purse strap over my shoulder. “Hopefully, we'll sell out in no time.” I fitted the lid over the thin cardboard box of tees on the counter before loading up two more boxes of shirts in my arms. I tossed my plastic-bagged dry cleaning on top.

“Y'all have a real nice day, now,” said Tommy as he held open the door for me.

“Thanks!”

Stepping into the summer sultriness, I weaved in and out of tourists on the sidewalk as they rubbernecked and took selfies in the picture-perfect village. Then, I spied the open door at Shear Southern Beauty ahead.

I couldn't resist.

Slowing to a stroll and peeping around my armload of bagged clothes and boxed shirts, I stared into the bay window with the giant purple shears painted on the glass. Standing in the middle of her shop, fifty-something Tammy Fae Tanner hadn't changed much since the last time I'd seen her. That'd been at the wedding rehearsal party she'd hosted for
her engaged son and me—the night before I'd run out of town eighteen years earlier.

Petite, with brown cocker spaniel eyes, a turned-up nose, and perfectly curled, shoulder-length, whiskey-colored hair, the former Miss Abundance and presiding president of the Abundance Ladies Club wore a purple apron and held a big cup, slathered full of hair color. She stood behind a tall, slender woman who sat covered in a smock with purple flowers patterned over it. With her hair all spiky in foils, the woman looked like a metallic hedgehog. As I neared the propped-open shop door, I could hear their drawly voices tittering away inside.

“Sweet-talkin' thing'll
never
land a fella,” said Tammy Fae, slapping a blob of bleach on a spike of the hedgehog's hair. “Not the way she's carried on. Fancy that . . . runnin' away from
another
weddin'—and, in front of the whole world to see!”

The hedgehog giggled. “Even after a dog's age, she ain't changed a bit since high school.”

“Well, y'all just can't piss on a man's leg and tell 'em it's raining. No decent fella's gonna touch her with a ten-foot pole now.”

Tammy Fae loaded up another glob of bleach and spun the hedgehog in the swiveling chair toward the door. That's when I stopped short, recognizing the hedgehog. It was Realtor Debi Dicer. My old nemesis. Back in high school, the popular blonde, cheerleader, and student council president had looked over my shoulder and copied all my test answers in class. And she'd adored my high school sweetheart, Buck. Often, she'd followed him to Knox Plantation when he'd been visiting me.

“Y'all know, not a one of those three Knox girls can keep a man,” sniped Debi, looking down as Tammy Fae slathered more bleach on the back of her head.

“Back in my daddy's day, women like that would've been locked in the attic. The whole lot of 'em are pretentious, shameless tarts,” sniffed Tammy Fae. “Just like their mama.”

As I stood transfixed in the doorway, a young man taking
snapshots bumped my elbow. My plastic-covered dry cleaning slid to the sidewalk, right in front of the shop.

“Sorry, miss. May I help you with that?”

“No worries, I'll get it!” I whispered, shooing the man away.

Kneeling to pick up my big baggie of cleaned clothes, I tried to balance the tee shirt boxes in my arms, hoping Tammy Fae and Debi hadn't noticed me. Except, I'd unwittingly stepped on the corner of the plastic bag. I got all caught up in myself when I tried to pull the bag from the sidewalk and not drop the boxes.

“And if y'all ask me, she's the worst of the lot,” said Tammy Fae with a snigger. “Luring a man right to the altar, then shamelessly runnin' away. That hussy's stuck-up higher than a light pole.”

“For sure, that Miss Eva's got some kinda itch that needs scratchin'!” Debi chortled. “She just can't stop herself.”

Embarrassed at their words, I felt a rush of blood flush my cheeks. Still stooped over, I hurried backward, out of the doorway. Except, the hot plastic bag was caught on my sneaker, wrapped around and sticking to my bare leg under my cutoffs. My shoulder bag swung wildly, putting me off-balance.

“Goodness knows, her man antics and fame whoring are givin' Abundance a bad name. Folks in the ladies club are real upset about it,” Tammy Fae huffed indignantly.

“For sure, that minx has got some balls, settin' her foot back in this town,” laughed Debi.

“She's no better than a common criminal, comin' back to the scene of the crime.”

“It's just like my honey always says, ‘A leopard can't change her spots!'”

Finally, I snatched my dry cleaning from the sidewalk. Just then, the flimsy shirt boxes tumbled out of my arms, thudding and splitting open in the doorway. I looked up. The two women stared at me.


Bless her heart
, there she is!” hissed Tammy Fae.

I scrambled to hang on to my purse and dry cleaning
while seizing the torn boxes and spilled tees from the ground. Tammy Fae gave me that disdainful, if-looks-could-kill, Southern-woman stare. Debi plastered a big ol' pompous grin on her face.

“Eva Knox!” Debi flapped her hand to wave. “Bless your little ol' pea-pickin' heart! Tammy Fae and I were
just
talkin' about y'all. Weren't we, Tammy Fae?”

Tammy Fae's expression morphed from deadly stare to supercilious smirk.

“Imagine. Y'all comin' back to town, after
all
these years!” Tammy Fae sneered.

“Afternoon, ladies! So
lovely
to see you both.”

I scrambled to stand, squashing the battered boxes, tee shirts, dry cleaning, and purse to my chest. My heart raced, and my ears burned. I'd gotten a bigger dose of Southern scuttlebutt than I'd bargained for, and I'd made a fool of myself doing it. I was embarrassed to hear the things they'd said about me, and my family. And the duo had caught me snooping, to boot!

Mortified, I backed away from the doorway, onto the sidewalk. I couldn't escape fast enough. Hugging my disheveled armload, I racewalked past Beasley's Butcher Shop next door, and the Lacy Goddess Lingerie Boutique after that. I remembered how years ago, Tammy Fae had told her son, Buck, that a farmer's daughter wasn't good enough for him. Of course, somehow, the fact that
she
was a farmer's daughter hadn't mattered. She'd told Buck that I'd break his heart, like my mother had done to Daddy. And all through high school, and later when I'd gone to college and he'd waited, Tammy Fae had done her best to put the kibosh on her son's relationship with me. In the end, she'd gotten her wish.
So, why keep after me now?
I wondered if Buck Tanner was even around anymore.

I hurried across the boulevard to my car parked in front of Duke's Donut Shoppe. With a few minutes still left on the parking meter, I dropped the busted tee shirt boxes on the rear seat and yanked open the door of my green BMW 3 Series convertible—an engagement gift from my
last fiancé. I'd be damned if I'd ever give that louse the car back. I tossed my purse on the passenger seat and draped my bag of dry cleaning over it as I slid behind the wheel. The blistering black leather seat burned the backs of my legs. Should've put the top up, I thought. I twisted around to the back, yanked a new tee from one of the torn boxes, and shoved the shirt under my thighs. Popping on my sunglasses, Maui Jims—another gift from my ignoble ex—I noticed in the rearview mirror that my face was beet red. Equal parts heat and humiliation.

“Welcome home, Eva.” I rolled my eyes.

I turned the key, shifted into drive, and shot onto the boulevard, heading out of the village, toward home. As I cruised past one freshly painted, gingerbread-trimmed Victorian building after another, my strawberry-blonde hair whipped around my head, free and tangled in the hot summer wind. About a mile outside town, I passed a white farmhouse with painted gnomes on a dirt lawn with scraggly rosebushes under an ancient live oak tree. An American flag hung from a pole mounted to the porch, where old Mister Moody pushed himself up from a rocking chair and waved as I drove by. I tapped the horn and waved back. Mister Moody didn't know who I was. It didn't matter. He'd been on that porch, waving to folks passing by, since I was a little girl. It was one of the things that I loved about my hometown.

I took a deep breath. I was starting to feel better.

In fact, despite Tammy Fae's scurrilous beauty shop gossip—and the dubious future of my hair and nails, given that her place was the only salon in town—it felt darn good to be home. Back in Boston, the cost of living had been high. Winters had been long and cold. And friends had been few and far between. Most New Englanders were often too busy to chat as they blustered busily along crowded, noisy city streets. And, inexplicably, a woman with just a hint of a Southern accent didn't rank as being as “smart” or “industrious” as her Northern counterparts.

By contrast, Southern Georgia's Abundance County was a calm, bucolic place, with temperate weather and a
realistic cost of living. Folks, like Mister Moody, were always ready with a neighborly wave. And, more often than not, locals meandered and stopped on the sidewalk to chitchat, saying, “I reckon,” before sharing thoughts and a smile.

In Abundance, neighbors welcomed neighbors at their kitchen doors with just-made, warm peach pies and friendly embraces. On balmy summer evenings, verandas sheltered friends and families lounging in wicker settees, playing cards, sipping sweet iced tea. And always, it was about the food. Homemade, delicious, down-home cuisine. Fried, salted, sugared, buttered. It was all good.

My stomach growled as I contemplated the evening's menu at my family's Knox Plantation. Chef Loretta had planned to serve up pan-fried Georgia trout with cracklin' biscuits and a peach and pecan cake made with Daddy's Knox Liquid Gold Extra Virgin Olive Oil.
Yum
.

I was real proud of Daddy and his new olive oil business. After a series of droughts, a poor economy, and decades of crummy returns for Georgia farmers, a few years earlier, he'd almost lost the family farm. Then, he'd decided to try tapping into the huge, growing domestic olive oil market. Everyone knew that cultivating olives in Georgia was a risk—although Spanish missionaries had grown olive trees in the region five hundred years earlier, no one had tried or successfully grown olives on a large scale since Thomas Jefferson's day. And Jefferson's vision of olive trees flourishing throughout the American Southeast had never come to fruition, mostly because winters were too long and cold, even in the South. Still, thanks to Dad's painstaking research, new technologies, and improved cultivars, the oils made from his first crop had already garnered awards. In fact, his was the first-ever successful commercial olive operation in the Southeast. And it was my job to let the world know about it.

After my mortifying wedding-day blowout in Boston, Daddy had offered me a job as head of PR and guest relations for the family plantation. Also, behind the main plantation house, where I'd grown up—we called it the “big house”—
the tiny, antique cook's cottage was to be mine for as long as I wanted. And my dad had gotten my big sis, Daphne—who was running her own business, a guest inn at the big house—to spruce up the one-room cottage for me.

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