Thursday, October 8, 2015

Sweet Tea and Secrets (An Adams Grove Novel) by Nancy Naigle Excerpt

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This edition of Sweet Tea and Secrets has been revised and includes new scenes.

When beloved town matriarch Pearl Clemmons dies on a warm June afternoon, the folks of Adams Grove, Virginia, can hardly believe it. Sure, Pearl was eighty-five years old, but everyone—particularly her granddaughter Jill—just assumed she would live forever. Now Jill must return home to settle Pearl’s estate, comfort a town in mourning…and face Garrett Malloy, the man who broke her heart years ago.

Making matters worse, a string of break-ins at the Clemmons place has Jill and the rest of the town on edge. She can’t imagine what Pearl possibly could have had that is worth stealing. But when Jill’s safety is threatened, she and Garrett must join forces to unearth Pearl’s secrets before someone else—someone dangerous—gets there first. Garrett may have been the last man Jill wanted to see, but now, she may not want to let him go.


Jill Clemmons started each day with Grandma Pearl’s favorite quote in mind: Live your life in such a way that every single morning when your feet hit the floor Satan shudders and says, “Oh shit, she’s awake!”
Still in her jammies, Jill breezed into the kitchen after a perfect night’s sleep, which was rare for a night not spent in her own bed. She’d probably still be asleep, but a spicy aroma had teased her awake. The closer she got to the kitchen, the better it smelled.
Aunt Milly stood in front of the stove, already coiffed right down to her red-orange lipstick, her signature color. Even with the frilled apron over her outfit, she looked way too thin for an active lady in her eighties.
 “Good morning.” Jill took an exaggerated whiff. “Now, that’s home cooking.” The smell had Jill’s stomach growling a complaint for hurrying back home from Savannah to Virginia. She hadn’t had anything to eat since lunch yesterday.
“Was that your stomach?” Milly spun toward the doorway and waved a metal spatula with an outdated avocado-green handle in the air. “Lordy goodness. You probably haven’t had a good meal in way too long.”
“I don’t get much of this kind of cooking. That’s for sure.”
“’Bout time you got up. I thought you might miss out on breakfast. Are you living on a city clock these days?”
“I wish that were the case.” Jill helped herself to a cup of coffee. “Bradley has an alarm set for everything from getting up in the morning to when to go to bed and everything in between. I never knew anyone so regimented.”
“That man is a wee bit uptight, you know? You don’t need alarm clocks if you’re following the sun.” Aunt Milly pushed the sausage around the well-worn cast-iron skillet. “Never knew Pearl to ever use a clock to tell her to get up. You either, before you up and left town.”
“True.” Jill leaned against the counter and took a sip of her coffee. It was hard to believe it’d been nearly a year since she’d packed all her stuff in Piggly Wiggly bags, loaded her little red pickup, and moved to Savannah for her job with the Kase Foundation. Until then, Jill had never thought she’d live anywhere but Adams Grove, yet on the rebound from Garrett Malloy, moving had been one of the biggest perks of the job. The only downside was being away from Pearl.
“I’m so glad you could make it back for the surprise party. I was worried with it being so close to your big shindig that you wouldn’t come.” Milly planted a lipstick kiss on Jill’s cheek.
“I wouldn’t miss this for the world.” Jill stopped short of telling Aunt Milly about Bradley stomping around mumbling complaints about her dropping everything to make the trip up and putting the Kase Foundation event at risk, even though she was in charge of the event timeline. Aside from Bradley’s foul mood, the Kase Foundation wouldn’t suffer one bit by her being gone for one day. He hadn’t been supportive. Not as a boss or boyfriend.
Jill pushed those thoughts aside and slid into one of the chrome-legged chairs around the orange-and-white Formica kitchen table. “Do you think we’ll surprise Pearl today?”
“It’s two weeks before her birthday. You’d think that would be surprise enough.”
That had been Bradley’s big heartburn. He didn’t understand why she couldn’t wait and celebrate Pearl’s birthday on June 27, her real birthday.
“That grandmother of yours is near impossible to keep a secret from. It’s the thought that counts, though.” Aunt Milly cracked two eggs into the hot grease.
“So you think she knows?”
The eggs snapped and popped as they crisped in the hot grease. “I didn’t say that. You never know with Pearl. That gal has her thumb on the pulse of this town.”
“Always has.” The thought of the calorie-laden breakfast worried Jill a little. She had to squeeze into the formfitting gown she’d picked out for the fundraiser soon, but saying no to her tummy now would just be plain cruel. Plus, Aunt Milly had gone to a lot of trouble.
Milly slid a plate in front of Jill, then took off her apron and hung it on a hook next to the refrigerator. She glanced at her watch. “It’s almost nine fifteen.”
“I was a sleepy head,” Jill said.
“You probably needed this break. Pearl tells me about everything you’re working on. I don’t know how you do it all.” Milly stretched out her arms for a hug, and Jill gave her a long squeeze.
“Okay, sweetie, eat up. I’ve got to get my rear in gear to put on that Academy Award–winning act to get Pearl over to the church on time. Pearl wants to stop at the yarn shop on the way, and you know there’s no rushing her once she’s got her fingers in those bins. I can stall, but I can’t rush her. If I rush her, she’ll definitely get suspicious.”
“You’re so right. I’ll lock up when I leave. Thanks for the lovely breakfast. You’re too good to me.”
“Of course I am. I’m your favorite aunt.”
She was her only aunt—and not even a real aunt, at that. Milly had been Pearl’s best friend for as many years as Jill could remember. “Good luck. I’ll see you there.”
Milly grabbed her purse off the hall table and headed for the door, waving a bony hand in the air as she slammed the door behind her.
Jill swept the last corner of her toast into the yolk and sausage grease on her plate. One quick pass over the kitchen and everything was back to normal. She washed and dried her dishes and put them back in the cabinet, then went to her room to get packed and ready to go.
She checked herself in the full-length mirror in Milly’s bedroom, then gathered her tote bag and headed to the car. Her brand-new car was covered in dust from the drive down the dirt lane. Bradley would freak if he saw it today. He’d talked her into getting the fancy BMW to replace her truck. It wasn’t important to her, but he hadn’t been a big fan of her truck being parked in front of the house. Tired of hearing his complaints, she let him have his way. After all, you have to have some compromise in a relationship, and the kind of car she’d drive didn’t seem one to go to the mat for.
Her sporty car hugged the tight curve on Old Horseshoe Road way better than her truck ever could. Honeysuckle reached across the ditch bank, making the road feel isolated. As she neared the side entrance to the church, she couldn’t see any other cars at the church building. Maybe we will pull off the surprise. Gravel crunched beneath her tires as she pulled into the back lot to park among the dozens of cars already there. Jill grabbed a bag from the passenger seat and headed for the door.
A pretty blonde girl Jill didn’t recognize swung the door open as she approached and rushed her inside. “We’re trying to be sure Pearl doesn’t sneak up on us.”
“Good thinking. Here’s hoping for a miracle.” Jill raised her crossed fingers, then turned her attention to a banner that read, Happy Early 85th Birthday, Pearl. Silver duct tape secured the sign to the wall above a long table filled with home-baked casseroles and desserts.
Bright balloons flanked the banner, and so many soared above the chair-of-honor that they threatened to lift it right off the floor. The thought of her tiny grandmother whizzing around the room above all the guests made Jill laugh.
A stove-sized box heaping full of nonperishables was set up near the cake. The food drive was Pearl’s pet project for the community, and the cans, a perfect gift. Jill hitched the bag up on her hip to add the canned goods she’d brought to the pile, then set a brightly wrapped package next to the cake.
Mac’s Bakery had outdone themselves. This cake had those food show creations beat hands down. The three tiers together stood over two feet tall. The top layer looked just like one of Pearl’s award-winning chocolate pecan pies, the bottom layer like a knitting basket full of colorful fondant-wrapped balls of yarn. Knitting needles rose high above them, both with a blue ribbon the size of a dinner plate attached. Just like the one Pearl had won last year. That honor would be up for grabs at the annual Festival Days Bake-Off on Fourth of July weekend. Everyone in the county vied for the coveted award, but Pearl’s pie had won the last three years in a row.
The room buzzed with excitement. Jill took pictures and exchanged hellos with old friends she hadn’t seen since she moved away.
“They’re here!” someone shouted.
Suddenly, the room went dark and a hush settled.
Jill wondered how good an idea it was for fifty people to yell “surprise” at an eighty-five-year-old woman. But then, Pearl wasn’t your average old lady, either.
Aunt Milly chatted loudly with Pearl in the kitchen. Everyone listened intently for the magic moment. Then, 3-2-1, the door swung open.
Pearl’s mouth dropped wide.
“You little devils.” Pearl wagged a crooked finger across the crowd of friends lined up in front of her. “You sure know how to scare the puddin’ out of a gal.”
Everyone cheered. Jill hung back, taking in the pleasure of seeing Pearl revel in everyone’s delight. She still had her doubts that Pearl had been surprised, though.
“Oh my, is this…?” Pearl headed straight for the bin of food. “It is! You know the way right to my heart. This will feed so many.” Her eyes twinkled as she turned around. “Thanks, y’all. All y’all.” She swept a tear from the rim of her glasses. “So much.” She scanned the large group of friends, and then her eyebrows shot straight up.
“Surprise.” Jill opened her arms, enjoying the sparkle in Pearl’s eyes.
Pearl marched over to Jill and kissed her on the cheek, leaving a bright-magenta smudge that Pearl quickly rubbed in with her thumb. Like always, she followed up with a kiss on the other cheek to make them match.
Jill hugged Pearl. “It’s so good to see you.”
“I knew it was going to be a perfect day today. There was only one contrail across the sky when we drove up.”
“I didn’t even notice, but that is good.” Jill and Pearl had made it a practice to count the condensation trails behind the jets that soared across the sky. With Richmond, Norfolk, and Raleigh all being about the same distance from Adams Grove, it was a rare and lucky day when there were less than three or four. “Carolanne sends her best. She’s in California on business, and from there, she’s going to Hawaii with some friends from work. I told her you’d understand.”
“Of course I do. She’s such a thoughtful one. And such a dear friend to you. How long will you be staying?”
“I have to head back after the party.”
Pearl raised a penciled brow and tsked. “My goodness. That’s a quick trip, but I’m delighted you’re here now.”
Jill reached for Pearl’s hand. “I miss you like crazy. I promise I’ll be back once this fundraiser is behind me. I can’t wait to spend some time with you.”
“I’d love that,” Pearl said. “You coming back for a nice long visit—that’s the best gift you could give me.”
Jill lifted two plastic champagne cups of sweet tea from the table. She took a sip from one and handed the other to Pearl. “Not as good as yours,” she whispered.
“That’s because we know the secret.” Pearl turned her attention to the voices blending into the best round of “Happy Birthday” ever. Only two candles stood tall on the cake. An eight and a five.
Pearl blew out the two candles. “I appreciate the consideration with the two candles. Eighty-five flames would likely set off the sprinkler system, and that’d be a mess.” Everyone cheered as Pearl picked up the knife. “This cake is almost too pretty to cut.”
“I’ve got pictures,” Jill said, raising her camera. “Dig in.”
“Don’t have to tell me twice.” Pearl cut the first slice, and everyone lined up to get a piece of cake. “You know how I love my sweets.”
A loud knock from the fellowship hall door caused a pause in the festivities.
“We locked that so you wouldn’t sneak in on us,” someone shouted. “I’ll get it.”
Pearl plopped a piece of cake on a small plate. “That’s probably Garrett. I asked him to come help move tables. I thought we were setting up for a reception.”
Jill swung around to face Pearl. “That’s not why you invited him, is it? You knew I was coming.” Jill watched for a reaction, but Pearl busied herself with the cake, avoiding eye contact.
As Jill turned to walk away, Pearl grabbed her wrist.
“Oh, come on, dear,” she pleaded. “It’s my birthday. You two have to talk eventually. What better time than over cake? It’s a party. Wait right here.” Pearl scurried toward the door.
Jill knew surprising Pearl would be tricky, but she’d never considered that Pearl might be the one tricking her.
A warm rush heated Jill’s cheeks. Maybe she was overreacting. Maybe it wasn’t even him. Maybe it was just someone who was late. A singing telegram. A stripper. Anyone but Garrett.
She sucked in a breath as the door opened and hoped for the best.
All six-foot-something of Garrett Malloy filled the doorway. His hair was a little shorter than it had been a year ago. His skin was tan, and she knew he was going to tug off his sunglasses and tuck them into the neckline of his light-blue golf shirt before he even made the move. Why does he have to look so good?
Her heart pounded so hard the room began to swim. Doggone him and that perfect smile. She turned and hightailed it down the hall to the sanctuary without looking back until the door clicked behind her.
Out of breath, she stood clutching her chest.
She might have to talk to Garrett someday, but it wasn’t going to be today. The sound of rustling fabric rescued her from the thought of him. When she looked up, a bleached blonde in an unfortunate red hoop-skirted bridesmaid dress stepped out of the choir room. A young man wearing a tuxedo T-shirt emerged behind her. Both froze when they saw her standing there.
“We just…We were getting something for the bride. She left something back here.”
I bet. Like what? Your virginity? Jill rolled her eyes. “In church? Really?”
The two hurried out, slamming the door behind them.
Jill lowered herself onto the back pew and gazed at the huge white ribbons adorning the first few rows.
The wedding she’d always dreamed of in this beautiful church would never happen now. The day she and Garrett pinky swore their lifelong commitment under the monkey bars in the fourth grade, she’d started filling notebooks with wedding details. She’d even sketched out the fancy five-layer cake she’d have Mac create just for her. Okay, so the plans gained a lot more class and dignity over the years, but it all started back then.
Delicate pink rosebuds and soft green buttercream vines would climb layers of shiny white fondant to a topper of double hearts made of sugar pearls. Her bridal bouquet would consist of long-stemmed flowers bundled by a flowing pink ribbon so light that the air would catch it and twirl it with each step she made down the aisle.
All those sugarplum dreams were history now. Just like her relationship with Garrett.
She squeezed her eyes closed and shifted her thoughts back to Bradley. He’d been dropping hints that something big was about to happen, and she was sure he was going to pop the question, but he’d made it clear that his wedding would be quick and simple, preferably on a beach. The dress she’d dreamed of for her wedding day wouldn’t do well on a beach. Sand and salt water would ruin a beaded satin gown in a hurry, and she wasn’t about to spend that kind of money and then ruin her dress, even if Bradley would.
A cool hand rested on her shoulder. She turned to see Pearl standing there.
“You missed him,” Pearl said, sliding into the pew next to her.
Jill flattened her sweating palms against her pants. “I’m done missing him.”
Pearl harrumphed. “I guess Milly was right.”
“About Garrett? I’m glad someone finally believes it’s over between the two of us.”
“No. Not that. Milly says you’re pigheaded.”
“I am not,” Jill said.
Pearl shrugged. “Yes, you are. Oh, don’t go looking all offended. Sometimes that’s good.”
Jill sat back in the pew.
“Not good this time, but sometimes.”
“I’ve moved on.” Is there anything that’ll convince you it’s over with Garrett? “I think Bradley’s going to propose?”
Pearl let out a loud sigh. “Oh, honey, don’t do something crazy. You don’t want to marry Bradley Kase. I know I introduced the two of you, but he’s not right for you as a husband. You’re not in love with him. You’re in love with the idea of being in love and married.”
“Bradley is a good man, and the Kase Foundation does wonderful work.”
“Love’s kind of like sweet tea. The secret is all in having the patience to let it steep. Really, you barely know him.”
“He’s good to me,” Jill said.
“Don’t confuse material things for love, honey. I know you and Garrett went through some tough times. Trust me, I know about the challenges true love brings, but you two are meant to be.” She tapped the top of Jill’s hand in time with each syllable that followed. “Better to fight for what you really want than to be left wanting what you didn’t fight for.”
Jill laid her head on Pearl’s shoulder. “Your matchmaker radar is off kilter when it comes to me and Garrett. He didn’t want a partner. He wanted to plan his future down to the minute with a money-back guarantee before he would even think about taking one step forward. That’s not what marriage is about.” She couldn’t tell Pearl what Bradley had told her about Garrett or about the accusations Garrett had made. There was no sense dragging Pearl into that drama. Especially not a year later.
“I seem to remember someone else wanting things her way, too.”
“Was I supposed to wait forever?”
Pearl patted Jill’s hand. “Here’s the good thing about the future. It comes one day at a time. Follow your heart each day. You’ll get where you’re supposed to go.”
“I love you, Grandma Pearl.”
“Aw, honey. You haven’t called me that in years.”
“I know. I’m suddenly feeling like a little girl again.” She’d only been seven when her parents died and Pearl added the role of parent to that of grandmother. Grandma Pearl was more special than a grandma could ever be. And Pearl was a precious treasure to most people in this town.
“Forgive me for the stunt with Garrett?” Pearl asked.
“You know I can never be mad at you.”
“Good, and when you come back, I’ll tell you the story of all love stories. You think you and Garrett had problems…” She ran her hand along Jill’s cheek. Her voice softened. “Sometimes love requires great sacrifice, dear.”
Stories. Pearl had a million of them, and Jill had a feeling Pearl made up most of them to suit her point, but it didn’t matter. They were always spellbinding.
Jill stood. “Come on. Let’s go back to your party.”
They walked back to the fellowship hall and filled plates with homemade goodies before sitting at one of the tables with a crowd of friends gathered together to celebrate.
Aunt Milly rushed toward them with her camera. “There you two are. I need pictures.”
Pearl tucked a raw broccoli floret behind her ear and leaned in with a huge smile.

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