Authors: Vanessa Gray Bartal
Tags: #cozy mystery
Tosh slipped his arms around her and pulled her gently against his chest. “It’s okay, Riley. It’s going to be okay.” His hand ran soothingly up and down her arm, and that made her cry harder. When was the last time anyone had held and comforted her this way? Not since her dad, not since she was a little girl. In relationships, she was always the strong one, always the mastermind and manipulator. She hadn’t needed comfort because she had been in control. Now everything was wildly out of control but she actually believed Tosh when he said everything would be okay.
Eventually her tears came to an end. She tipped her face up to look at Tosh. He was smiling at her in a gentle way that threatened to wring more tears from her overworked ducts. “Would you believe me if I said I faked those tears in an effort to trap you into comforting me?” she said.
“No, but why would you be embarrassed over tears? I cry all the time. The other day at the coffee shop, the person behind me made a snide remark, and I went to my car and cried.”
He was lying, but he made her smile. “I don’t usually like nice men,” she said.
“I could punch you in the stomach if it would put you at ease.”
She laughed and sniffed, and then she kissed him. There was no warning for either of them. One minute she was sitting motionless in his arms, and the next she pounced, pushed him against the couch, and began kissing him with all the confused emotion that had been building inside her for so long. At first he was stunned, and then he responded and—surprise!—he was really good at it. Riley lost her head completely. She had no idea where she was or what she was doing. She who was usually a meticulous planner when it came to men barely even had any idea who she was kissing until he pushed away from her and tumbled off the couch.
“I’m so sorry,” he said.
It took her a minute to come back to earth. When she did, she aimed for nonchalance. “Having a man apologize for kissing me makes me feel really good about myself as a woman.”
He smiled and her heart flipped. “I’m not apologizing because I kissed you; I’m apologizing because I had to stop.”
“Oh.” She wasn’t sure where to go with that. She wasn’t sure about anything. In fact, she was terrified. “I should go.” She stood and ran away so fast that she forgot to close the door. The last thing she saw as she drove away was Tosh standing in the doorway, his hair a tousled mess, and his face a combination of surprise, desire, and anxiety.
The next morning, Riley went to church. Her grandmother took it as a sign of Riley’s concern over Jason’s wellbeing. “He needs all the prayers he can get right now,” Lucinda said as she gave Riley’s hand a loving pat.
“Jason, right,” Riley muttered. It wasn’t that she didn’t care how Jason was faring; it was more that she was certain he would be all right. Everything always worked out for Lacy; her devoted love interest wouldn’t kick it because that would mean Lacy would have to suffer and the universe didn’t work that way.
No, the universe had it out for Riley.
Lacy’s so sweet. Lacy’s such a good writer. Lacy’s so smart.
She had heard the comparisons her whole life. By the time she was in first grade, she was already sick of them. No matter what she did, she was never good enough to erase Lacy’s indelible impression. Since she was naturally athletic and Lacy wasn’t, she thought sports would be a way to outshine her sister. Then in the fifth grade her gym teacher had spent the entire period telling her Lacy horror stories.
Lacy fell out the window and landed on her head. Lacy got stuck at the top of the rope and we had to call the fire department. Lacy broke her toe while standing still.
Even when she was better at something, she hadn’t been good enough. And then one day while watching her sister walk down the hall alone, her head in a book so deep that she ran into the wall, Riley had an epiphany. Teachers liked Lacy, but other kids didn’t. She didn’t really have any friends. She wasn’t popular. Boys didn’t look at her or flirt with her. That realization had been Riley’s ticket out of comparison town. She could be popular. She could have friends. Guys could like her. She could be everything Lacy wasn’t.
For a long time, the system had worked perfectly. Lacy could be the reigning queen of Nerddom for all Riley cared. Her sister was happy with her books, movies, and music. She cared more about making first chair in clarinet than she did about being asked to prom. Riley overtook everything else. She became the most popular, the most sought after girl in school. Lacy might have the market cornered when it came to Grandma and their dad, but Riley was indisputably her mother’s favorite. Things were all right.
And then Lacy stabbed her in the back again. Riley would never forget the moment she realized her world had turned upside down. She was in college and Lacy came to see her cheer. Her sister was always nauseatingly supportive. While Riley had never read anything Lacy wrote or taken any pride in her sister’s academic achievements, Lacy was always front and center cheering Riley on. During halftime, Lacy had run up to give Riley a hug.
“You were on television, Riley! Dad is going to flip. I’m so proud of you.” Lacy had squeezed the breath out of her before running back to her seat.
“Whoa, was that your sister?” one of the assistant coaches said. “Holy mother of hotness. Can I get her digits?”
Riley had done a double take. Was he referring to Lacy? And, just like that, the scales fell off and she saw the changes in her sister for the first time. Lacy was no more a chubby, frizzy-haired, bespectacled geek. She had finally turned into a butterfly, a stunningly beautiful butterfly. To make it worse, her hair was naturally red. Men had a thing for red hair. How was Riley supposed to compete with that? From then on, her anger and thirst for vindication had been unquenchable. Taking Robert, though not necessarily a premeditated act, had felt good. But the good feeling had been temporary. Robert was a schmuck. But at least she had seen Lacy defeated. She had left her high-paying Manhattan job and returned home in shame. Then, because it was Lacy, going home had turned wonderful, too. Not only did Lacy have two men panting after her, but she had inherited a million dollars, a million dollars that she wouldn’t share, a million dollars that should have been half Riley’s anyway.
Church had a neutralizing effect on her seething anger. Maybe it was the hushed atmosphere. Maybe it was her grandma’s sweet face, or maybe it was Tosh in clerical robes smiling at everyone who entered. His eyes fell on her and his smile froze and faltered before being quickly recovered.
“Welcome,” he said. He took her hand and gave it a squeeze. Though it was the same word he said to everyone else, Riley took it to heart. She did feel welcome, at least by him. For the first time, she actually listened to the sermon. Maybe it was her imagination, but Tosh seemed to look everywhere but at her. When the service was over, she followed her grandmother to her group of friends. As Riley had guessed, they were picking apart the sermon.
“I thought it was lovely,” Lucinda said.
“You always say that,” Rose boomed. Her eyes rested on Riley with the same sort of scrutiny that TSA scanners at the airport gave to gun-shaped bags. “What brings you here today, Riley? Have you developed a sudden interest in our pastor?”
“Yes,” Riley said. “In fact, we made out last night on his couch.”
The group of women made a collective “tsk” sound. “I don’t understand your sense of humor at all. Lacy doesn’t make jokes like that.” Gladys said.
“Lacy doesn’t know what she’s missing,” she said. She glanced at Tosh from the corner of her eye. Why had her sister chosen Jason? They weren’t suited for each other. She and Tosh had much more in common. Did opposites attract? In Riley’s experience, that was just a saying. Opposites argued. Like should be with like. Why, then, did she find herself gravitating toward Tosh? No one could be more opposite from her than he was.
She and her grandmother ate a solemn lunch. Mr. Middleton,
, was checking on Lacy, who hadn’t returned from the hospital. Riley wanted to ask Lucinda what it had been like to adopt her mother, why she hadn’t told anyone for so long, why Lacy was her favorite, how she had fallen in love with Mr. Middleton, and a thousand other things. But she didn’t. Lucinda didn’t like to talk about things, and neither did Riley. She accused Lacy of being remote, but she was equally as guilty. Most things were better left unsaid. Since she had been home, she’d had a lot of time to think and reflect on her life. Most of it left an unsavory taste in her mouth. When she moved on, she vowed to settle down a little bit. She could have fun without selling pieces of her soul. When she learned the story of her biological grandmother, Barbara Blake, she had seen too much of herself in the other woman’s story. That wasn’t how she wanted to die—alone and living off the largess of some man.
After lunch, Lucinda went to her room to rest. Riley paced restlessly around the house. What was she still doing here? Lacy wasn’t giving her the money she needed. Besides, if she continued to stay, she would continue to be in her sister’s shadow—a place she had vowed never to be again. Lacy had cornered the market on this place. Riley needed to go somewhere new, someone where people had never heard the name “Steele.” Maybe she would go to Florida and spend some time with her parents. Her dad had said they wouldn’t give her any more money. Her mother disagreed, just one of many areas of dissension between them. While Riley was pretty sure her dad wouldn’t relent, she knew he wouldn’t kick her out of his house. Maybe she could live with them for a while and work somewhere. If she offered to work out a payment plan with her creditors, she could avoid jail. Even though pending fraud and theft charges hung over her head, she had a good relationship with her previous employers. She could talk them out of pressing charges if she promised to pay them back and made good on her word.
Yes, she would go. She would sneak out now while everyone was preoccupied with Lacy and her latest life crisis. There was no need to say goodbye to Lacy who would only feel relief at her departure. A quick goodbye to Grandma and Mr. Mid—
I should say goodbye to Tosh.
Strange how yesterday she hadn’t felt she owed him anything, and now she somehow knew it would hurt him if she left without a word. Maybe she was growing because she found that she cared about his opinion of her.
Showing up at his house uninvited seemed too much like throwing herself at him. She arranged an overflowing plate of food and left before she could change her mind. The plate of food wiggled precariously as she held it with one hand and knocked with the other. It was a few minutes until he answered the door. When he did, his hair was tousled, his clerical collar askew.
“Do you sleep in that thing?” she asked as she stared at the collar.
He righted it and offered up a sheepish smile. “No, but usually when someone stops by on a Sunday afternoon, it’s church business, so I throw it on before I answer the door.”
“Sorry I woke you.”
“I’m glad. I didn’t mean to sleep. I somehow dozed off. Sundays induce narcolepsy in me.”
“Happens to the best of us,” she said. Awkward silence descended between them. “Food.” She shoved it at his hands.
“Thank you,” he drawled. Clearly her arrival was as odd and unexpected as the food. “Come in.” He turned. She followed him inside and closed the door. “So, thanks for coming to church this morning.” He set the food on the kitchen counter.
“I’m beginning to understand the perils of trying to be a pastor who dates. That line was lame.”
“That wasn’t a line. I’m genuinely glad you were there. It’s a pastor thing. We say we don’t play a numbers game, but we do. Every warm body in the pew is another mark in my plus column. Don’t judge me for my lack of depth.”
“I enjoyed it. Maybe I’ll go to church wherever I end up.”
“That sounds suspiciously like a goodbye.”
“It is. This place is…there’s too much Lacy.” He and Lacy were friends, but she didn’t think she could stand it if Tosh defended her sister.
“Sometimes I feel the same way,” he said. He smiled.
“Maybe you should run away with me. You could start a new church and I could plan parties. It would be epic.”
“That sounds like a well thought out plan.”
Riley laughed. “I’m usually a meticulous planner. Despite my carefree image, I don’t make a move without analyzing it first. So to not have a plan feels…” tears rushed to her eyes and she tried hard to push them back. “It feels really bad.”
Tosh put his arm around her and herded her to the couch. “You need to talk. Listening is my specialty. Spill.”
“I messed everything up, and you have no idea how hard it is for me to say that.”
“I think I probably do.”
“Yeah, probably. You seem to get me. Not many people do. I thought I was ready for marriage with Robert, but he turned out to be a first class idiot. Then I got into some trouble.”
“What kind of trouble?”
“Financial trouble. It was stupid, okay? I know that now. I took out some loans and ran up credit card debt. Everything is due at once. Lacy won’t give me the money. My parents won’t give me the money. Grandma probably would, but she doesn’t have it. I want to do better, but how can I prove that when no one will give me a chance? And I could get arrested. I could go to jail. I would be a felon, and none of that bothers me as much as the fact that you’ve seen me cry twice. I never cry, not really.”
“I know. You’re very brave. You’ve got the whole world on a string, everything in place just like you want it, only now the string is starting to fray. Things are falling apart, and you don’t know why.”
“Do you really not know why, Riley?”
She twisted her fingers together in her lap. “It’s because I manipulate everything. I’m a taker. Lacy’s a giver. It’s why people like her better. I know I’m not a nice person. Maybe I could be better. Maybe I could be nice someday, but not while I have the threat of prison hanging over my head.” Even though she was being more real than she had ever been with anyone, she didn’t think he would judge her. His heart was pure; she had never met anyone like him before.