addy, I’m not leaving here until you promise to give me another chance!”
I heard the man shouting all the way from the kitchen of my pizza parlor, A Slice of Delight. It was just ten minutes since we’d opened our doors for the day. I’d been hoping for a quiet shift, but it was clear that I’d have no such luck today. What was going on with my sister now, and who was yelling at her? Whatever was happening, it sounded as though she could use some help. Maddy usually handled the front dining room with no trouble, along with our two part-timers, Greg and Josh, but she was up there alone at the moment, and I needed to see if I could back her up, no matter what the circumstances.
As I hurried up front, I grabbed our security system on the way, an aluminum baseball bat we’d played with as kids. Thankfully, the dining room was empty except for Maddy and a man I thought I’d seen the last of years before.
“Grant, what are you doing here?” I asked as I pointed the business end of the bat toward him like a spear.
“Hello, Eleanor,” he said with that greasy way he had about him, lowering his voice and doing his best to smile at me. There was no love lost between the two of us, and I didn’t even try to fake a smile in return.
Years ago, Maddy had married Grant Whitmore on the rebound from a bad breakup, though I’d done my best to talk her out of it at the time. The man was almost a cliché: tall, dark, and handsome, a troubled loner that some women found irresistible. I wasn’t talking about me, but clearly, some women reveled in his attention. Maddy had fallen for him, and hard, until fourteen months into their marriage she’d caught him cheating with their next-door neighbor. It wasn’t all that surprising to me that Maddy had missed his mother more than she had her straying husband. She and her mother-in-law had formed a strong bond that had surpassed the marriage, and the two women had kept in touch long after the dissolution of Maddy’s marriage to the woman’s son.
“You didn’t answer my question, Grant,” I said as calmly as I could manage. “Why are you here?”
Maddy looked over at me and frowned. “I can handle this, Sis.”
“There’s no doubt in my mind that you can, but why should you have all of the fun? If it were possible, I might even like him less than you do.” I was normally a pretty level-headed woman, but this guy was on my Trouble list, a place that no one in their right mind would ever want to be.
Grant tried to wield his questionable charm on me. “Your sister is right, Eleanor. We don’t need your input. We’re doing just fine without you.”
That was the wrong thing to say to Maddy, and I knew it as I tried to suppress a smile. Grant realized it as well from the instant the statement left his lips, but it was too late for him to take it back.
Maddy answered, “Grant, I don’t need your support, your permission, or your acknowledgment of anything I say, think, or do. I threw you out for a reason, and if you think there’s a whisper of a chance you are getting back into my life, you are sadly mistaken. I’m happy, I’m engaged, and I’m well rid of you.” She looked at me, then glanced at the baseball bat still in my hands. “Could I borrow that?”
“By all means,” I said as I handed the bat to her. “But don’t hog all of the fun for yourself. I want a shot at him after you’re finished.”
“What makes you think that there will be anything left after I take my turn?” she asked with her most wicked of grins.
“Ladies, I can see that I’ve caught you at a bad time,” Grant said as he started backing slowly toward the front door. “There’s no need to resolve this all at once. There will be plenty of time. I’m not going anywhere. We’ll talk again later.”
“Or just maybe we’re finished here, once and for all,” Maddy said. “I meant what I said. There’s nothing left to talk about.”
Grant made his way to the door and then hesitated before leaving. “Madeline, you can protest all you want to, but I know there’s still a spark for me buried somewhere deep in your heart.”
“Grant, it’s amazing the number of things you think you know about me but don’t,” Maddy said. She suddenly lunged with the bat, grinned again, and he left quickly.
“What was that all about?” I asked her after we were sure he wasn’t coming back.
“What can I say? I guess I’m really just
irresistible,” she answered with a grin.
“Really? You don’t think there’s something else going on here?”
“Of course I do,” she replied. “Grant is up to something, and I doubt that it’s because he is in Timber Ridge to win back my heart. There’s only one way to find out, though. I’m calling Sharon.”
“Do you really think your former mother-in-law will tell you what her son is up to?” I asked as my sister got out her cell phone.
“Are you kidding? Sharon was hoping to lose him in the divorce instead of me.” Maddy listened to her phone for a minute and then hung up. “I got her machine; she’s not there. I’ll try again later. In the meantime, what say we put this behind us and get ready for our first customer?”
“Aren’t you going to call Bob and tell him what just happened?” I asked. Bob Lemon was a local attorney and, more importantly, Maddy’s fiancé. “I’ve got a hunch he might like to know that someone is trying to woo his betrothed.”
Maddy glanced at her watch. “Bob knows all about Grant, so there’s no way he’ll be threatened by anything my ex has to say to me. Besides, he’s in court right now. I’ll tell him this evening at the festival. I’m glad we’re closing the pizzeria at six so we can go this year, too.”
“Hey, we only have a Founders Day Festival once a year,” I said. “Besides, with all of the street vendors peddling their specialties, it’s not like we’d sell much pizza anyway. It was one of Joe’s favorite things about this place, you know.”
“Oh, you don’t have to remind me. I remember that crazy woodsman’s costume he wore one year. I thought Grizzly Adams had come to town.”
“My dear husband had a unique sense of humor, didn’t he?” I asked.
Maddy nodded and then stared at me for a few seconds before she spoke again. “You know, you aren’t nearly as sad as you used to be when you talk about him these days, Eleanor. Is it because David Quinton’s in your life?”
I thought about it and then admitted, “You’re probably right. Joe’s been gone awhile now, and I’m doing my best to let go of the pain of losing him and focus more on the wonderful life we had together. I admit that David has helped me do it.”
“By being in your life?” Maddy asked.
“Sure, that’s true in and of itself, but my boyfriend loves to hear stories about Joe, and some of the stunts he used to pull. I swear, I believe that the two of them would have been great friends if they’d ever had a chance to meet.”
have something in common,” Maddy said. “They both managed to fall for you.”
“And you can’t argue with good taste, can you?” I asked her with a smile.
At that moment, four older fellows came into the Slice together. To my knowledge, they’d never been in my pizzeria before, and judging by the way they looked around, it was a pretty sure bet. They weren’t exactly in their element.
As Maddy seated them, I asked, “What brings you gentlemen here on this fine and beautiful day?”
“They shut down the Liar’s Table at Mickey’s in Bower,” one of them said, clearly more than a little disgruntled by the fact. “We’re trying new places this week, until they’re finished remodeling.”
“Did you just say Liar’s Table?” Maddy asked. “What exactly does that mean?”
One of the men grinned at her as he ran a hand through his full head of silver hair. “It’s a time-honored name reserved for a group of regulars who tend to exaggerate their stories just a touch to make them a tad more vivid to the listener.”
“Exaggerate?” a shiny-domed companion asked. “That’s just about the nicest way of being called a liar I’ve heard yet.”
“Give me time, Jed. I’ll see what else I can come up with,” his friend replied.
“Don’t encourage him,” a third man said. As Maddy offered them all menus, he held his hand up and said, “Don’t worry about those; we know what we want. If this place is anything like the one I used to go to back when I had a full head of hair, give us a large kitchen-sink pizza and four sodas.”
“When did you start ordering for us, Henry?” one of the other men asked.
“Forget that,” Jed said. “I want to know how you can remember as far back as when you actually had hair.”
“Yeah. I resent the implication that I can’t make up my own mind,” the heretofore silent one chimed in.
Henry looked at them each in turn and then said, “Excuse me. I didn’t mean to be presumptuous. So, what kind of pizza would you three like?”
They mulled it over and finally decided that Henry had been right all along. After they placed their order, I went back into the kitchen to prepare it. Maddy and I liked fully loaded pizzas ourselves, using every topping we could get our hands on, so I could make one in my sleep. As it made its way through the conveyor oven we used, I had to wonder about Grant’s earlier visit to the Slice. Was he really there to get back in my sister’s life, or was there something more ominous behind his sudden appearance? I had to believe the latter, but only time would tell. I just hoped that he’d been bluffing when he said that he wasn’t going to give up easily.
Our lives were plenty complicated enough without having one of Maddy’s ex-husbands showing up and making trouble for all of us.
“It’s really beautiful, isn’t it?” I asked David Quinton as I held his hand later that evening when we first arrived at the festival.
The promenade where my pizzeria was located had been spruced up for the festival, with tiny white Christmas lights spread around the trees spaced throughout the broad brick square. Even the World War II cannon had pretty twinkly little lights on it, but the biggest center of attraction of all was the obelisk. With a shape that was a duplicate of the Washington Monument, it was a scaled-down version, an eighteen-foot-high memorial to the men and women who had founded Timber Ridge. Their names still dominated our town, with Lincolns, Murphys, Pen-neys, and even Swifts and Spencers spread throughout the region, and there were most likely more folks with ties to the original founders living all around me than otherwise. What I loved most about the focus on the monument to our heritage was that the gray sentinel was bathed in an ever-changing floodlight of colors, and I wondered how they’d managed it.
“Would you like to dance, Eleanor?” David asked me as we neared one of the two stages set up on opposite ends of the square. They were far enough apart to be isolated from each other for the most part, but every now and then music from the bluegrass musicians on the other side drifted toward the stage near us, where a cover band was playing some of my favorite songs from my youth, a soundtrack of my life growing up.
“Why don’t we get some barbeque first?” I suggested. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy dancing with my boyfriend, even if there was already a crowded floor of dancers, but it had been quite a while since I’d had lunch.
“I completely get the logic of feeding you first, but the offer’s open for the rest of the night,” he said with a smile. “But the next time, you have to ask me.”
“You’ve got yourself a deal.”
We made our way to one of the three barbeque sellers set up on the perimeter of the promenade, and I nodded to a few of my customers who were working behind the counter.
An older woman with a ready smile laughed the second she saw me approach. “Eleanor Swift! Who would have thought that I’d ever have the chance to serve you instead of the other way around?” Linda Tuesday said from behind the table.
“From those heavenly aromas coming from behind you, I wouldn’t suggest trying to stop me. Is your husband cooking tonight?” Linda’s husband, Manny, worked the pit at a barbeque place in Lincoln as his regular job, and he was a legend around our part for his skills in slow cooking.
“Try to keep him away from it,” she said with a wry grin. “That man was born with barbeque sauce in his veins, and a fondness for cooking perfect pork barbeque that goes beyond obsession.”
“And it’s a good thing for the rest of us,” I said. I didn’t even have to glance at the menu printed on bright green posterboard. “Linda, we’ll take two pulled specials, and do me a favor and sneak a bite of bark on my plate.” Almost as an afterthought, I turned to David and asked, “Oops. Is that all right with you? I get kind of carried away when I’m around barbeque this good.”
“Sure, it’s fine with me, but if you’re going to order for me, you’re going to have to buy, Eleanor,” he said with a grin.
“I like this one,” Linda said as she looked at David and added another burst of laughter. “This one might just be a keeper. Or is it too soon to tell yet?”
“He’s still on probation, but it’s looking good so far,” I said with a laugh of my own. Linda had that effect on me, and I always loved it when she came into the Slice.
“It’s good to know that I haven’t flunked out yet,” David said good-naturedly as he started to reach for his wallet.
“Hey, what do you think you’re doing, mister?” I said. “Put that away. This is my treat, remember?”
“Sorry. I forgot myself for just a second,” he said.
Linda dished us up two plates brimming with pulled pork barbeque, baked beans, potato salad, slaw, and a good handful of french fries. Except for the barbeque itself, the portions weren’t overwhelming, just a little more than a taste of each, but it was the only way you could get the full experience of the meal. We took our plates, along with the sweet tea that came with them, and found a bench that had just freed up under one of the nearby trees. Sitting spots were at a premium at the moment, even with the extra benches and chairs brought in just for the event, and we were lucky to grab one.
As we balanced our plates on our laps and began to eat, David took a bite of the barbeque, savored it for a few seconds, and then asked me, “What makes this so good? It doesn’t even need any sauce.”