Small Town Rumors Page 1

Author: Carolyn Brown

Genres: Romance , Fiction

Chapter One

Jennie Sue Baker could almost hear the rumors buzzing around the small town of Bloom, Texas, when she stepped off the Greyhound bus in front of the Main Street Café that Monday at noon. On a slow day, gossip hung over the town like smoke in an old western honky-tonk. On a good day, in the opinion of the community, it obliterated the sun.

Today would definitely be a good day for Bloom, but to Jennie Sue, the target of all those rumors, it would be downright miserable.

She wiped sweat from her brow and then picked up the single suitcase that the driver set out on the sidewalk beside her. Glancing around as the bus pulled back out onto the highway, she expected to see her mother’s pearly-white Cadillac parked nearby, but it wasn’t anywhere in sight.

She set the suitcase down and seriously considered sitting on it. It wasn’t her mother’s fault—not really, because she hadn’t called her until an hour ago, and Charlotte was never on time for anything except her hair appointments. That was because the beauty salon was the breeding ground for the best talk in town.

Well, her mama had better hurry, because Jennie Sue Baker sitting on a suitcase on Main Street would stir up more than anything the beauty shop could dream up.

The smell of greasy burgers, bacon, and fries wafted across the street from the café. Her stomach reminded her that the package of crackers from a vending machine she’d had for breakfast had long since disappeared. Dragging her suitcase across the street, she was so focused on the café that she didn’t notice the vehicle pulling up to the curb only a few feet from her. When the driver honked, she jumped and glared at the car before she realized that it was her mother. She couldn’t see Charlotte’s face through the tinted windshield, but she could sure enough feel the icy-cold aura coming from the car when she opened the back door and shoved the suitcase inside.

“I’ve come up with a perfect story,” Charlotte started the moment that Jennie Sue was buckled up.

Jennie Sue wasn’t surprised at the first words out of her mother’s mouth, but she was disappointed. “Hello to you, too, Mama. It’s really good to see you. You look as beautiful as ever. Has it really been six months since I’ve seen you?”

“Don’t sass me,” Charlotte snapped. “We talk and text every week. And speaking of the last time I saw you, it doesn’t look like you’ve done anything to lose that extra ten pounds you’re carryin’ around.”

“I’d been in the hospital. Besides, I like food,” Jennie Sue said.

“Evidently,” Charlotte sighed. “Do you like looking like a homeless woman, too? When word gets out that you came in on a bus dressed like that, I won’t be able to hold my head up.” She eased the car out onto the street. “I bet Cricket was watchin’ from the café. Nothing escapes that girl’s eye.”

“I’m not a movie star, Mama, and I didn’t see any paparazzi fighting to get pictures of me. This is Bloom, not Los Angeles. I’m not that important.” She shifted in her seat. “So Cricket is still working at the café? She was working there when we were in high school.”

“In this town you are, and yes, she is. She don’t seem to have much ambition except when it comes to spreading gossip. Her brother, Rick, came back to Bloom a couple of years ago after the army. Folks say he’s pretty scarred up from a bomb that went off close to him. Now he’s just a farmer.” Charlotte slapped the steering wheel. “Dammit! There’s Amos closing up the bookstore. He’s probably on his way to the library to open it up this afternoon. And he carries tales to Lettie and Nadine Clifford.”

“They are still alive? Aren’t they over ninety?”

Charlotte nodded. “I think one of them is ninety and the other one is a little younger, like eighty-seven or eighty-eight. But, believe me, they’ll both live to be a hundred and spread chitchat every day of their lives, especially if it has anything to do with me or my ancestors. Those old biddies should have died years ago.”

It would be easier to alter the way the wind blew on any given day in West Texas than it would be to ever get Charlotte to change her mind, so Jennie Sue shifted the subject. “Okay, Mama, what’s this perfect cover story?”

Charlotte turned down the lane to the Baker estate. “You are only here on a visit. Percy is out of the country with his job, and your little sports car is in the shop for repairs. It’s simple, but I think it will work. No one needs to know that Percy left you or that you had a baby—or worse yet, that you’ve been holed up like a hermit since then.”

“That’s partly right. I am just here for a short while. I’ve gotten my degree and now I’m ready to work. I’m going to ask Daddy for a job,” she said.

“The hell you are!” Charlotte’s voice got shrill like it did just before she went into one of her famous fits.

“Yes, I am, and if he hasn’t got one for me, I’ll put out résumés and find one somewhere else. And, Mama, why not just tell the truth when someone asks? That’s what I plan to do. I don’t care what people think or say,” Jennie Sue said.

“You most certainly will not!” Charlotte fumed. “I’m going to have to ease into this to keep my name out of the mud.”

Jennie Sue could feel a headache coming on strong. She pinched the bridge of her nose with her thumb and forefinger. “It’s going to come out eventually, Mama.”

“Keep your hands away from your nose. If we’re careful, no one will know. We covered up all that about the baby last Christmas, and that was bigger than this. Where are the rest of your things?” She glanced at the single suitcase in the back seat.

A pang of guilt stabbed Jennie Sue in the heart. She hadn’t stepped up and taken charge of her stillborn child’s funeral like she should have done. She’d let her mother railroad her into not having a service, and she hadn’t even been to Emily Grace’s grave site. This was the first time she’d been back.

“That’s all of it in the back seat. The feds only allowed me to take one suitcase full of personal clothing, and they went through every item to be sure I wasn’t sneaking anything out that could be sold later. The apartment, my car, and the furniture are frozen until they locate Percy, which I doubt they’ll ever do,” Jennie Sue said past the lump in her throat.

“I thought when you signed the divorce papers, you kept your apartment and your car. And he was supposed to be giving you an alimony check,” Charlotte said.

“Turns out everything was still legally in his name. The last two alimony checks bounced. I had a few dollars put away in a savings account, but that dwindled pretty fast.” When her mother parked the car in front of the house, Jennie Sue tried to distract her. “What happened to Lester? That’s a new gardener over there.”

“I hated to let Lester go, but he’d gotten too old to keep up with the grounds. This new kid is right out of college, with a degree in architectural horticulture. He’s a big flirt, too, so you stay away from him. God almighty, the gossip would be devastating if you even looked at him cross-eyed,” Charlotte said.

Jennie Sue ignored her. “You haven’t gotten rid of Frank and Mabel, have you?”

“Lord, no! I couldn’t live without Mabel. She’s my right arm. She’ll be excited to see you, but stick to the story, even with her. Those damned Clifford sisters are her cousins, and she tells them stuff behind my back.” Charlotte got out of the car and tossed the keys at an elderly gray-haired man who came out of the garage. “Dust it off, Frank. There was construction going on down the street from the beauty shop.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Frank grinned at Jennie Sue.

In a couple of long strides, she crossed the distance between them and wrapped the old guy up in a fierce hug. “I’ve missed everyone so much.”

“Not as much as we have you, girl. And I got the first hug. Mabel is going to be so jealous.” He stepped back. “Bet you surprised your mama. How’d you get here? Fly into Dallas? Nicky, would you get that suitcase and take it inside for Miz Jennie Sue?”

“I came by bus and I believe I did surprise her. She was at the beauty shop when I called. And thank you, Nicky. We haven’t met.” She stuck out her hand to shake with him.

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