To help run the family peach farm during her parents’ absence, Nola Harper returns to her childhood home of Cays Mill, Georgia, and soon discovers that things back at the farm aren’t exactly peachy. A poor harvest and rising costs are threatening to ruin the Harpers’ livelihood, and small-town gossip is spreading like blight thanks to Nola’s juicy reputation as a wild teenager way back when. But Nola really finds herself in the pits when she stumbles upon a local businessman murdered among the peach trees.
With suspicions and family tensions heating up faster than a cobbler in the oven, this sweet Georgia peach will have to prune through a list of murder suspects—before she too becomes ripe for the killer’s picking…
About the Author
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Georgia Belle Fact #027: In the South, we greet one another with bits of juicy gossip, not some ol’ boring Yankee-like salutation.
I was idling on the corner of Blossom Street and Orchard, when the words came sailing through my open car window. “My word! Is that Nola Mae Harper I see?”
I snapped my head and squinted to the sidewalk where I spied the Crawford sisters sauntering along. I hadn’t heard my full name, let alone that drawl I’d taken for granted in childhood, for a long time. I shot them a quick smile and waggled my fingers before moving down the road. As I continued, I noticed more than just a few of the locals rubbernecked as I passed, the sight of me eliciting curious stares and sudden whispers. I could imagine the return of the Harper family black sheep was going to crank the village’s local rumor mill into full gear. Gee, it was good to be back.
They may have dubbed Georgia as the “Peach State,” but what they weren’t saying was my hometown of Cays Mill was the pit. I should know; I was born and raised in this two-stoplight town and had spent most of my adult life trying to shake its loamy soil from my boots. That’s why I surprised myself when home was the first place I thought of when my work situation took a turn for the worse. Then I really surprised myself when I agreed to spend time at home watching over the family’s one hundred–plus acres of peach farm while Mama and Daddy took their dream trip. But I guess I did owe them. Or so I’d been told—or had it implied in Mama’s southern sweet talk—often enough.
Truth be known, they had been the world’s best parents; and I, well . . . I hadn’t always been the best daughter. At least that was what my older sister, Ida Jean, kept telling me. Of course, maybe she had a point. She’d stuck around Cays Mill, married the banker’s son and was busy adding little twigs to the Harper family tree, a set of twins so far and another baby on the way. I, on the other hand, headed north of the Piedmont the first chance I got, took a job with a humanitarian organization and had been traipsing from one country to another for the last fifteen years or so, seeing the world or, perhaps more accurately, escaping from my own world. Heaven knows, if I hadn’t left Cays Mill when I did, hard telling what type of shame I’d have brought to the Harper family name.
Anyhow, it’d been almost three years since I was home last and it looked like not much had changed in town. The city building, still the most formidable structure in the area, occupied most of the town green and acted as an unsurpassable anchor for Cays Mill’s business section. Not that there were many businesses around these days. Like many small towns, the recession had hit our village hard. As I drove about the square, I saw more than a few vacant buildings, their empty windows only partially obscured under the bright awnings that served to protect the storefronts from the scorching Georgia heat. However, I was happy to see Red’s Diner was still going strong. A line was formed outside the door, probably the after-church crowd, heading in for Red’s famous breakfast hash, served with grits and a side of toast with—what else?—peach preserves.
At the next stoplight I stole a quick glance in the rearview mirror and swiped a short piece of cropped hair from my forehead, before gripping the wheel and turning off the square. I traveled southeast, winding my way a mile or so out of town, heading for the family farm.
If I had to describe Georgia, I’d say it was like a handmade quilt, tossed out all lumpy-like over the bed. The northern part of the state would be the biggest bumps, where the Appalachian hills offered a beautiful blue hue and the winding rivers ran through like errant stitching. Then came the Piedmont, with big cities like Atlanta and Columbus acting as the nubby knots holding the fabric and the batting in place. Next, the Fall Line, where the rivers made a showy descent like colorful fabric bargellos, cascading over rocks and flowing to the smooth coastal planes where scenic towns like Savannah provided a decorative binding, sealing the quilt’s overall beauty. My family’s little block of the fabric was located on the Fall Line, where the northern rivers dumped their sandy deposits, making soil conditions just right for growing peaches, which my family had done for as many generations as I could count.
Heading down the road out of town plunged me into the orchard area, where the sullenness of the weathered town stood in sharp contrast to the peach trees, standing row on row, like sturdy soldiers, their green uniforms shining in the Georgia sun, holding guard over this community. Even the late-August sun couldn’t extinguish the bristling green of the leaves, whispering their welcome to me in the light breeze.
Even though I’d all but had my fill of peaches during my youth, I had to admit my heart kicked up a beat in anticipation as I neared home. It’d been so long since I’d been back, and I was craving a little time at home with my family. So much so that by the time I passed under the gate that marked the entrance to Harper Peach Farm, I was practically giddy with excitement. Or sick with nerves; I wasn’t sure which. I couldn’t believe I’d agreed to take over the family farm for three whole weeks. Even though the last of the peaches had been picked, packed and transported out, taking care of the farm was a huge responsibility. Still, it was going to be good to be home for a while. At least until I figured out what to do about my job. I’d been beside myself ever since my boss told me they were downsizing and I’d been allocated to a desk job in Atlanta. A desk job! After all these years of fieldwork, they expected me to be satisfied twiddling my thumbs behind a desk. Not this girl. No way.
“Nola Mae Harper!” I heard my daddy yell from the deep porch of our two-story farmhouse. Seconds later, the slamming of the screen storm door yielded a stream of ebullient Harpers.
“Whoa! One at a time.” I laughed, embracing them warmly until I got to my sister, Ida Jean. Her hug felt stiff compared to the others. “Hello, Ida. You’re looking good.” I patted her expanding belly before turning to the oldest Harper child, my big brother, Raymond Junior—Ray to me, Bud to my parents and Raymond Harper II to his colleagues at the law firm. “I’ve missed you, Ray!” I buried my head in his chest, coming up for air to greet my sister’s twin girls, who danced about our legs. In true southern fashion, they were properly named Savannah and Charlotte. Although I could never tell which was which. In the three years since I’d seen them, with only occasional photos for reference, I was astounded by how big they’d grown.
“Your hair sure is short,” one of them said, gripping my legs, her eyes wide. I ran a hand through my dark cropped hair and chuckled. Both the girls were towheads—a combination of my brother-in-law’s blond hair and my sister’s light blue eyes. Typical little belles, they sported long curls that suited their sleeveless butter yellow sundresses and white sandals. By contrast, my khaki-colored utility shorts and black tank top, walking boots and knee-high socks—which all served me well in jungle situations—seemed apparently exotic to my nieces as their sparkling eyes took it all in. They possessed equal amounts of devilish energy that would be expected from any six-year-old, the problem being that with twins, the trouble was always times two.
Managing to break away, I headed straight for my parents, embracing Mama first. “Good to have you home, honey,” she said against my shoulder. I swear, she’d shrunk another half inch. Although the whole county knew better than to let my mother’s petite stature fool them. Della Wilkes Harper may be tiny, but she was a force to reckon with.
On the other hand, there was nothing small about my father. Daddy always loomed larger than life. Right then, he was hanging back, watching us with a grin spread wide over his face. I turned to him and held out my arms. He skipped forward, scooping me off my feet into a giant bear hug. “I can’t believe you’re finally home, darlin’. Now the party can get started!”
I peered over the top of his wide shoulders, ignoring the look of disgust on Ida’s face, and let my eyes roam the orchard line, where a white tent had been set up to accommodate at least two hundred guests. In my quick glance at the tent, it almost appeared as if miniature peach trees held up each corner, but before I could figure it out, Daddy had released me from his hug for a close-up look at my tanned face and short hair. With a tousle of my hair he gave a laugh, loving me in his own way, always accepting of me, no matter what. I felt tears start to well and knew coming home had been the right choice.
Besides, this trip was extra special. My parents were celebrating their fiftieth wedding anniversary and this “dream trip” of theirs was really a second honeymoon, or first honeymoon, since they never got to go on a trip after their wedding. Anyway, this evening’s party was sure to be a wingding. The trip had actually been a prize Mama had won for her peach chutney recipe in the National Condiments Competition, with the timing for the cruise set by the competition. Because no way would they have left at this time of year otherwise—the Peach Harvest Festival was only a couple weeks away. Since our parents had never, ever missed a festival, Ida had decided to give their anniversary celebration a peach festival flair, so they were technically not missing this year’s festivities either. I was anxious to see what she’d come up with. Knowing Ida, it’d be perfect.
Speaking of whom, as soon as Daddy swung me around to head for the porch, Ida started in. “It’s just like you to show up for the fun. Never mind all the work it took to get ready for this party.”
Aw . . . so that was it. “Sorry, Ida. I got tied up in traffic outside Atlanta. But I’ll do double the work cleaning up after the party. I promise.”
She harrumphed and stormed ahead, heading straight for the house. Mama waved away the bad air left in her wake. “Don’t pay any attention to her. She’s just exhausted. Hollis has been working long hours and the kids are wearing her out.” My mother had been making excuses for Ida’s behavior since we were children. I knew, on the other hand, that my behavior was always open for discussion. As if to prove that point, she looped her arm in mine and said, “Come sit awhile. I’ve made some tea; we’ll get caught up on all your latest adventures.” Which translated to: Come in and sit with me so I can pick apart your life and remind you that you should be settled down, married and having children by now.
I sent a pleading look Daddy’s way, hoping he’d rescue me from the pending lecture. Instead, he patted my back and shot me a half-apologetic look. “Go on ahead. Bud and I have a few details to tend to. We’ll have time to get caught up tonight.”
“Yes, come on, dear,” Mama insisted. “And don’t worry about your bags. Your brother will put them in your room. Won’t you, Bud?” She continued walking, not waiting for a response from Ray. Mama’s questions were never really questions, but orders laid out with the type of charm that only a true Southern lady could pull off. “We’ve kept your room the same,” she continued. “Even though you hardly ever come home anymore. Oh, and Hattie called. She’s so excited you’re back. Said she might stop by early to visit before the party.”
The thought of seeing Hattie again thrilled me. Her family used to live just down the road and she’d been my best friend all through school. There was a time when she, Cade—her older brother—and I were inseparable. A smile tugged at my lips as I remembered the trouble we’d get into and how much fun we had annoying Ida and her friends. Of course, thinking back to the scowl Ida had greeted me with, I figured I still annoyed her.
I opened the screen door for Mama and followed her in. “Are you excited for the party tonight, Mama?” I asked, glancing around with a happy feeling. Our house was exactly the same as when I left, right down to a lingering smell of fried chicken mixed with the faint scent of Daddy’s cigars. Today, there was also a little fruity smell mixed in. Ida must’ve been cooking up something peachy in the kitchen.
Mama nodded, motioning for me to sit at the dining room table as she headed for the kitchen. “Yes, I can hardly wait,” she said over her shoulder. After a few seconds, she came back through the swinging kitchen door with a couple glasses of sweet tea. “Your sister has really put herself out getting everything ready.” She took a sip of tea and swiped a napkin under her sweating glass before placing it back on the table. “I hope she’s not working too hard, with the baby so close and all.”
I looked away, feeling guiltier than ever for not coming home earlier and helping more with the party. I’d begged off on coming home a week earlier, claiming, correctly, that I had things to tie up at the Helping Hands International headquarters before I could leave. What I had to tie up was every string I could find to keep me out of a desk job—but to no avail in the end anyway. In retrospect it might have been more pleasant blowing up balloons with Ida. “I’m sure she’s happy to do it. Fifty years, Mama.” I patted her hand. “That’s something to celebrate.”
“Yes, it is!” she said, although I noticed her smile didn’t seem to reach her eyes.
“Are you worried about the farm, because I’m sure I can handle—”
“Oh heavens no! I know you’ll take good care of things around here.”
I studied her for a moment. Something was off. “Are you sad to miss the harvest festival? I know it means so much to you.” She and Daddy first met at the peach festival, and they’d never missed a single one in the fifty years they’d been married.
She tilted her head back and chuckled. My mama had a deep, raspy laugh that seemed too big for her tiny frame, but I never tired of hearing it. “How could I be sad when your sister has practically re-created the whole festival for tonight?” She leaned forward, eyes twinkling. “Oh, Nola. Wait till you see what’s she’s come up with. Why, the decorations, the flowers, the food . . . It’s all just divine.”
Boy, I owed my sister big-time. “I’m so glad, Mama. And I can’t wait to see Hattie. When did she get back?”
“A few months ago when her father took ill. He’s in the convalescent home east of town. Alzheimer’s, I think. That family’s had its share of trouble—that’s for sure.”
I dipped my eyes, running my hand over the marred top of our family table. Poor Hattie. I never understood how some people had to bear so much sadness while others seemed to breeze through life without a care. Maybe that was why I’d loved my job so much. It gave me a chance to try to right the off-balanced nature of life. Something I knew wasn’t going to be possible from behind a desk.
“You know, she’s started a dress shop down on the square,” Mama added, bringing relief to the downturn in the conversation.
My mood lightened. “A dress shop! Hattie?” Although I shouldn’t have been surprised. Hattie was always the epitome of southern fashion. “How about Cade?” I asked, wondering if he was still around.
“Cade McKenna? He’s still here. He started his own contracting business.”
“Really? He always did like building things. Do you remember that old fort we made over by the Hole?” The Harper farm included more than a hundred acres of land, most of which were planted in peach trees. The other part was wooded, with a branch of the Ocmulgee River cascading over large rocks and forming a deep, cool pool at the bottom. Growing up, we’d called it the Hole, short for the swimming hole. I’d spent many a hot afternoon cooling off there.
“Yes, you kids were always up to something.” She paused and took a long sip of her tea. I could hear Ida knocking around in the kitchen and wondered if she would join us soon. Mama swiped her napkin around the sweating glass again and continued, “You three were a menace. I had to keep a constant eye on you. Heaven only knows all the trouble you got into.”
I smiled, thinking she didn’t know the half of it. And, never would, if I could help it. “I wonder if Cade will show up tonight.”
She leveled her gaze on me, her blue eyes twinkling. “Of course he’s coming, dear. Everyone’s going to be here.”
• • •
My mother wasn’t exaggerating. In fact, the crowd started arriving early. It was only a little before five when I heard the first set of tires crunching on our gravel drive. Ray was already in position outside to direct the parking of the cars to strategically avoid a complete block-up of the property. Ida was no doubt directing everything downstairs. I was still in my room trying to decide between my only formal attire—a black halter-top dress, great for hot tropical climates, or a deep blue silk dress with long sleeves for countries with modesty codes—when a knock sounded on the door.
I looked up to see Hattie standing in the doorway. “Hattie!” I screamed, running to hug her. “You haven’t changed a bit.” She hadn’t, either. Hattie always looked like she’d just stepped out of the pages of a southern fashion magazine. Tonight was no different. She was wearing a cute little flowered sundress that barely glanced her knees and mid-calf rhinestone-studded cowboy boots. She even had her dark hair done up big, with a glitzy barrette holding back one side. I glanced down at the bed where I’d laid out my choices. Suddenly, neither dress seemed right. I was going to stick out like a sore thumb at the party.
“This suits you,” she said, reaching out and fingering my hair.
“You think? I cut it earlier when I went to Darfur. Long hair just didn’t work in the refugee camps.”
She sighed. “Well, bless your heart. I can’t even imagine. How long have you been gone this time? Three years?” she asked.
“At least. I don’t think I’ve seen you since your mama . . .” I let my words trail off. A few years ago, Hattie lost her mother to cancer. I came back to support her during that awful time, but since then, I’d let our friendship slip. “Hattie, I’m sorry I haven’t called more often. I haven’t been a good friend to you.”
She clasped my hands, squeezing tightly. “It’s just as much my fault. The phone line runs both ways, you know? And you were here for me when I needed it most. It’s just that after Mama passed, I lost my bearings.” Her eyes grew moist. “You know, Nola Mae, there’s just nothing better than a mama that’s always there for you. You remember that, okay?”
I swallowed hard, trying to understand her sorrow, yet not wanting to think too much about the day I might not have my own mother. I just couldn’t face the possibility of such significant grief. I reached out and hugged her again. This time when I pulled back she wore a happier look on her face.
“Well, let’s not dwell on all that,” she said. “What’s important is that we’re here now and are about to celebrate a happy occasion.” She glanced down at the bed. “Having trouble picking your dress?”
I fingered the silk dress. “I bought this on a whim at an Indonesian market a few months back, but haven’t worn it yet.”
“For heaven’s sake, why not? It’s gorgeous! The color is perfect for your blue eyes.”
“Really?” I stood and carried the dress to the mirror and held it in front of me. I wasn’t sure. I’d never really considered such things. Most of my time was spent doing things like roaming field sites in search of water supplies, teaching English to slum orphans and searching rubble for earthquake survivors—strictly jeans and T-shirt type of stuff. I was out of practice when it came to dressing up. Usually, I just applied sunscreen, threw on a baseball cap and got busy. “You really think this one looks good?”
Hattie slid into the mirror next to me. She fingered the fine silk embroidery of songbirds in gold thread that edged the sleeves and matched the flowered trim around the scooped neckline. “Yes, I do,” she said, brushing aside a piece of my wispy bangs. “Especially after I fix your hair and makeup for you.”
I giggled. “The last time you said that was right before senior prom. I had a date with . . . Oh, what was that guy’s name?” I’d stripped down to my skivvies and was pulling the dress over my head.
“Oh, that’s right. Was that night ever a disaster! Especially when”—I choked on even saying his name, as that night flooded back on me—“you-know-who showed up. He’s not still around here, is he?” I had a horrible vision of running into him at the party.
Hattie wheeled me around and started working the dress’s buttons. “Last I heard he was somewhere up by Macon. I haven’t seen him since I’ve been back, though.”
“Good.” I let the image of that night, the wonder of it at the time, the horror of it later, pass by. I’d left that behind me, I reminded myself. Forever.
“Well, don’t worry,” she assured me. “All that’s in the past now. And tonight’s not going to be anything like our senior prom. Fifty years of marriage! Can you imagine? What could possibly go wrong when we’re celebrating something so wonderful?”
I turned back to the mirror and smiled at my image. At the moment, everything did seem right with the world. My parents were celebrating their marriage and embarking on an adventure, I had three weeks to hang at home, rest and catch up with my best friend . . . and the dress did look darn good on me. “You’re right,” I echoed her sentiments. “What could possibly go wrong?”
Georgia Belle Fact #012: The reason Georgia women have such big hair is because all the gossip and secrets overflowing from their heads has to go somewhere!
I had to admit, Ida had done a wonderful job planning our parents’ party. The atmosphere did remind me of the peach festival, only slightly more refined. The most stunning feature was the columns that held up the massive tent. I’d been right at my first glance—they did look like miniature trees but with gigantic clumps of peaches topping each one, right under the tent’s white canopy. Each tent post had been wrapped in an oversized tube of cardboard that had been covered with crumpled tissue paper and painted brown to resemble the rough bark of a tree trunk. As I stepped closer, each peach cluster at the top seemed even larger, all fuzzy and blushed like the most perfect watermelon-sized peaches ever grown.
“Auntie Nola!” I heard the stereo echo of Savannah and Charlotte. “Aren’t they wooonderful?” Their giggles spoke of their participation in creating this miracle. As I inspected the “fruit,” the girls quickly related every step in the process of blowing up balloons, banding them with a string just tight enough to create a peach crease, flocking them with a fuzzy craft spray and then airbrushing them into the peachy hues with a sun-kissed blush. Mischievous laughs and twinkling eyes belied some trouble in getting the sprayed flock off their skin and off who knew what else. Yes, Ida, accomplished mother and craftsperson, had certainly outdone herself, especially considering the “helpers” she’d had on hand!
In the next heartbeat, the two scampered off, calling out to someone else, leaving me in their wake. I shook my head—the decorations were, in fact, wooonderful, but these little Southern belle nieces of mine were marvels. A moment of melancholy that I’d missed out on seeing them grow up, or on having any little ones of my own, prickled my skin. I rubbed my arms; I’d simply chosen another path.
I quickly glanced around at the rest of the affair. Ida had picked a beautiful, peach-inspired palette for the decorations, from deep crimson red-orange to pale yellow. I felt like I’d just stepped into the orchard at harvest time. I was glad she’d chosen to celebrate at the farm and not at the church hall or the local VFW. I was sure it cost a fortune to rent the three-tiered frame tent from as far away as Macon and the two hundred–plus chairs. But as I stood watching the sun set over the rolling peach grove, I knew there was no better place to celebrate this milestone than where my parents had built their life together.
I turned at the familiar sound of his voice. “Cade?” It’d been so long, I was caught off guard by his appearance. The three years since I’d seen him at his mother’s funeral had caught up to Cade McKenna. He still looked a lot like his sister: the same dark hair, chiseled features and large solemn eyes. Only his were dark brown, almost black, while Hattie’s were an unsettling blue-gray color. Now, though, his dark hair was prematurely tinged with gray and his eyes lined at the corners. I self-consciously touched my own cheek, wondering if the telltale signs of a decade and half since our high school days were visible on my face as well.
“You haven’t changed a bit,” he remarked, as if reading my mind. “Except your hair’s lot shorter.”
I chuckled and reached out with a hug, then quickly backed away. For some reason, our reunion felt awkward. Strange, because with Hattie it was as if we picked up where we’d left off. “It’s been a while, hasn’t it?”
“I’d say. Not since my mother’s funeral. But I’m glad you’re back, Nola.” He shoved his hands into the pockets of his jeans, his gaze moving to the ground, obviously feeling as awkward as I did.
I ducked my chin, trying to make eye contact. “Mama says you’ve started a contracting business.”
He nodded. “Yeah. Mostly remodels and repair work. There’s not much need for new builds in this area. But I’m doing okay. And what about you? Guess you’re still traveling and helping people.”
I had to smile at the way he simplified my job. Cade had always spoken in a direct, straightforward way. He had an easygoing manner about him. Just the opposite of Hattie, who was more of a little ball of energy. “Yup. I’ve spent most of my time traveling. Haiti, then a few months in Indonesia, plus a little time in Sudan . . . and if you think the summers are hot here in Georgia . . .” I rambled on. Cade nodded politely, but I knew I was probably boring him to death. I couldn’t help it; I loved my job. Well, at least the job I used to have.
“That’s great,” he jumped in when I finally came up for air. “How long are you going to stick around here, then?”
I hesitated. The day before I left headquarters up in Atlanta, I found out that I’d been reallocated from fieldwork to a position as an operations coordinator—with no chance of changing the minds of the bosses. Which meant I’d be stuck behind a desk planning relief efforts instead of actually providing hands-on help. I hated the idea of a desk job.
“Just until my parents return,” I finally answered, not wanting to go into too many details about my current dilemma. “I’ll be looking over the place for them while they travel.” My eyes swept over the view to where the land rolled away in a series of ridges and then eventually turned into the dense green wooded areas along the river bottom. I’d seen a lot of the world since leaving the farm, places and scenery that Cade could never imagine. Still, the fruit-filled hills of our farm always held a special place in my heart.
Cade moved to my side, his dark eyes also taking in the countryside. The conversation died away and we fell into an uncomfortable silence, punctuated by waves of clicking tree frogs as they got in the last word before the sun dipped below the horizon. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but for some reason, Cade and I no longer shared the same easy banter that we’d enjoyed as kids. Something was different about him. I stole a glance at his profile, trying to figure it out.
“What?” he asked, when he caught me looking.
“Nothing. I mean, is everything okay? You seem . . .”
He turned and faced me head-on. “I seem what? And what would you know about how I seem? We haven’t seen each other for three years. And you barely spoke to me at my mother’s funeral.”
I took a half step back and shook my head. Where is this coming from? “It didn’t seem like a good time to be all social, with your mama just passing and all.”
“Was that really it?”
I shrugged. I actually kept to myself whenever I came back to Cays Mill because I didn’t want to stir up questions. Questions about why I’d left so quickly right after high school. Of course, Hattie knew. But she’d never betray my secret, not even to her own brother.
He went on, “How come you don’t ever come home anymore?”
None of your business. “Oh, don’t be silly,” I finessed. “I’d come home more if I could. My work just keeps me busy, that’s all.” I held up my hands, palms out. “I’m home now, aren’t I?”
He studied me closely. “Yes, and I’m glad you’re back.”
Really? You don’t sound like it.
Behind us, clanking dishes signaled that people were heading to the buffet line. Not knowing what else to say, I started glancing about and noticed Ida glaring at me from across the room. She caught my eye and waved me over. I turned to Cade and touched his arm. “Duty calls. I’ll be sitting with my family for dinner, but I hope we can catch up some more.”
He laughed. “Don’t worry. Hattie is making enough plans to fill your social calendar for the next three weeks. Then there’s the Peach Harvest Festival.” I apparently had a blink-blink reaction at that, because he asked, “You’re not leaving before the festival, are you?”
I knew someone would ask me sooner or later about the festival. I needed to make up my mind if I was going or not. It wasn’t that I didn’t love our annual tradition, because I did. I had tons of fond festival memories. There was always a kids’ carnival, booths with folk art displays, great music and plenty of peachy food. My mouth watered just thinking about Harley Corbin’s famous funnel cakes topped with homemade peach sauce. Or the veterans’ local booth where they scooped hand-cranked peach ice cream. The festival was the biggest thing happening around these parts. That was the problem. Everyone would be there. Maybe even . . . Oh well, if I decided not to go, I could always fake some sort of illness. I put on my best smile. “Of course I’ll be there. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
He exhaled and grinned. “Good. Then I guess we’ll probably be seeing a lot of each other over the next few weeks.”
I met his eyes again. Whatever attitude he’d had earlier was gone. He seemed back to normal, almost like the old Cade I used to know. “I’ll be looking forward to that,” I said, thinking that the idea of seeing more of Cade McKenna might be fun after all.
• • •
“You’ve done a great job with this party. It’s unbelievable,” I told Ida after we’d settled around the table with our food. I glanced at the couple dozen tables covered in white linen and set with simple but exquisite place settings. Ida had designed the centerpieces with low arrangements of flowers in striking shades of peach: dark peach gerbera and pink-tinged carnations alternated with spiky peach-colored delphinium. She’d even used cotton bolls and bits of fig branches from the farm as fill-in. Next to each arrangement she’d placed framed photos of our parents’ wedding day, the old black-and-white images sharply contrasting with the colorful flowers. Above us, yellow paper lanterns cast a warm hue over the guests. I watched as Mama and Daddy mingled from table to table, practically glowing themselves as they worked the room and visited with their friends.
“Well, it was a lot of work,” she replied.
I was feeling entirely plagued with guilt. “I’m sure it was. I’m sorry I wasn’t here to be more of a help. I arranged to come back as soon as I could get away.”
“I understand. I really do.” She sighed. “It’s just that things have been stressful around here.” She pushed at her food, moving it from one side of her plate to the other, seemingly preoccupied.
I studied her more closely, my eyes sliding down to her pregnant belly. “Is it the baby? Is everything okay?”
“Oh, yes. The baby’s fine.” She leaned in closer. “It’s a boy,” she whispered. “But don’t tell anyone. Hollis wants to keep it a secret.”
I grinned, happy for her. With twin girls already, a boy would be a great addition. I glanced around. “Where is Hollis? I haven’t seen him.” Not that I had actually been looking.
She looked about nervously and tugged at the colorful scarf around her neck. I’d always admired my sister’s ability to pull together an outfit. Even seven months pregnant she looked great in a simple black dress paired with a hand-painted silk scarf. She must have been to the Clip & Curl recently, too; her hair was tinged with honey-colored highlights. “It’s hard telling,” she said, her face falling. “He’s been preoccupied with a big bank deal lately.”
“Oh, I see,” I said, understanding where the stress was coming from. No wonder my sister had come on so cold earlier. This party, her twins, the pregnancy . . . All that and Hollis had been busy with work and unable to help. Of course, the same thing could be said about me. I placed my hand on hers. “I’m sorry again. I should have come home earlier. It’s not fair that you’ve had to take on all this on your own.”
She looked up from her plate and squinted toward our parents, who were engaged in a lively discussion with Reverend Jones and his wife. “No, it’s more than that,” she started, but was interrupted by Hollis’s arrival.
He plunked down next to her and slid his plate onto the table. “Good food, honey,” he commented, placing a half-empty glass next to his heaping plate. He was probably drinking Peach Jack, a well-loved peach-flavored whiskey distilled right in our own county. I never really liked the stuff, but Daddy and Hollis seemed to have a taste for it. We seldom had a party without a bottle or two.
“Good to see you again, Nola,” he said, but I didn’t believe him. Hollis and I had never been on friendly terms—not since he made a pass at me the night before he married my sister.
“Hello, Hollis,” I replied, trying to inject a bit of friendliness into my tone. I searched the room for Ray, wishing he’d hurry up and join us. It was going to be awkward with just Ida, Hollis and me.
Not seeing him, I turned my attention back to my own plate. Ida really had gone all out with the food. With help from Ginny at Red’s Diner, she’d put together a scrumptious buffet: fresh greens with grilled peaches and a tangy peach vinaigrette, slow-roasted pork with the famous Harper Farm peach chutney on the side, and a yummy vegetable Napoleon made with fresh picks from Snyder’s farm down the road. Even Ezra, the owner of the local bakery, had risen to the occasion. He’d donated the most delicately decorated peach ruffle cake with tiny white sugar blossoms. It was almost too beautiful to cut.
That was how it was in small communities. Everyone came together for happy events, just like one big family. I’d seen that in villages in Africa too, and had admired it in places where sharing water became a life-sustaining gift. Guess I’d never really appreciated that same principle in my own hometown.
I’d just started on my salad, when a series of high-pitched giggles made me look up from my plate. Hollis was playing with Ida’s scarf, wrapping it around his hands suggestively while she tried to wrestle it back from him. “I think I’ll just hang on to this for later tonight,” he teased, sliding it into his pocket and shooting me a wink. I about gagged.
Thank goodness Ray showed up. “Hey, Hollis. Ben Wakefield is looking for you.” He sat down, digging into his plate of food like he hadn’t eaten for a month.
Ida groaned. “More business, Hollis? Can’t it wait until tomorrow?”
He gave her a quick kiss, grabbed his glass and stood. “Not if the bank wants to keep Wakefield’s newest deal. Don’t worry, though. I’ll be back in a jiff.”
No hurry, I thought, watching him disappear into the crowd.
Ida absently moved her hand to her bare neck. “Oh shoot, he still has my scarf,” she said, realizing her perfect outfit had been jeopardized.
Ray and I exchanged a half smile; Ida had always prided herself on being properly “put together.” Ray said, “Don’t worry, sis; he said he’d be right back. What type of deal is he working with Ben Wakefield, anyway?”
“Some sort of lumber deal,” Ida explained. “Ben Wakefield’s company has contracted with a developer in Atlanta and he’s trying to strike a bargain with a few local landowners to purchase their properties’ timber rights. Wakefield Lumber is using his bank to finance the deal. Hollis is expecting to be able to get a huge rate of return on the loan, plus a share in the whole thing.”
“You mean, like a profit share?” Ray asked between bites.
Ida shrugged. “Yeah, something like that.” She sighed heavily. “I don’t really understand all that’s involved. Only that it’s taking all of Hollis’s time these days. I’m sick of it. Actually, I’m sick of everything.” She stabbed at her pork, sending splatters of peach chutney in every direction. “Especially peaches!” she cried, then covered her mouth in shock. I could see tears threatening at the edges of her eyes. “Oh, I’m so sorry. Excuse me. I need to use the restroom.”
She stood abruptly, almost knocking over her chair. I also stood, meaning to go after her.
“Don’t,” Ray said, stopping me. “Let her have a little time alone. She’s upset, but she’ll get over it.”
I sat back down. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Mama and Daddy winding their way toward us. “I don’t get it, Ray. What’s going on around here?”
Upon seeing our parents, he plastered a smile on his face. “I’ll tell you all about it later. Now’s not the time.”
His words not only piqued my curiosity, but gave me a little shiver of dread. Although both feelings faded as the evening wore on and the party picked up with lively tunes from a local bluegrass band. Couples zigzagged their way toward a portable dance floor set up at the back of the tent. Ray joined in the parade, asking a family friend for a dance. I kicked back and watched them, breathing in the cool night breeze blowing through the open-walled tent. I saw my parents take center stage on the dance floor, starting things off with “Kentucky Waltz.” After a few refrains, other couples joined in the fun.
“How romantic.” Hattie sighed, taking over Ray’s abandoned seat. She was sipping on sweet peach tea, but knowing Hattie, it was probably laced with something a bit stronger.
“I know. I’m so happy for them,” I agreed. “And to think, in another hour or so they’ll be leaving for their cruise.” The plan was that Ray would drive them to Macon, where they’d catch the red-eye for Miami. From there, they were off for three weeks in the Caribbean.
Hattie started picking at a piece of untouched cake Ray had left behind. “Mmm . . . yummy.”
“Hey, there, Nola Mae.” We both looked up to see a few of the local gals. They passed by in a breeze of flowery cologne, dramatically flipping their well-worked tresses over their shoulders and looking down their noses at me.
Hattie wiggled her fingers and plastered a toothy smile on her face. “Hey, all!” Then to me she whispered, “Lawd, if that Laney Burns keeps teasing her hair like that, it’s gonna get pissed.”
I laughed, then sobered as I touched my own short crop. “I don’t quite fit in around here anymore, do I?”
“Like fitting in around here is all it’s cracked up to be. Don’t pay attention to those girls. They’re jealous because you’ve been somewhere. I had the same thing when I got back from the city.”
I nodded, still feeling a little deflated.
She patted my shoulder and changed the subject. “So, are your parents all packed and ready to go?”
I nodded. “I think they’ve had their bags packed for a week. Mama’s so excited. She’s always wanted to go on a cruise. They never had an official honeymoon, so I think this is her way of making up for lost time.” I looked around. “Where’s Cade?” I was secretly hoping he’d ask me to dance.
Hattie scanned the crowd. “There he is.”
I glanced to where she was pointing and saw Cade deep in conversation with another man. “Hey, who’s that guy he’s talking to?”
Hattie’s voice took on an annoyed tone. “That’s Ben Wakefield. He owns Wakefield Lumber Mill.”
I watched as Cade waved his fist in Wakefield’s face. Behind him, Hollis was watching the argument with furrowed brows. “Cade seems angry about something.”
Hattie pulled out a pink monogrammed hanky out of her bag, dabbed at her décolletage and sighed. “Oh, it’s a long story. I’ll fill you in later; now’s not really a good time.”
That was the second time that night I’d heard those words. First from Ray and now from Hattie. Something was definitely going on and I was eager to find out what. But before I could ask any more questions, a Hispanic-looking man swooped in and grabbed ahold of Hattie’s arm.
“Come dance with me,” he said, speaking with a slight accent.
Hattie popped up, wrapped her arms around his neck and planted a playful kiss on his cheek. “Nola, this is Pete Sanchez. Pete, Nola Mae Harper.”
Pete smiled down at me. “My pleasure, Nola.”
I simply stared, entranced by his devastatingly dark good looks, or maybe just taken aback by the way Hattie seemed to light up in his presence. She shoved him ahead and leaned down toward me, her eyes dancing wickedly as she mockingly fanned herself. “Oh my, I feel some serious sin comin’ on tonight.”
“I won’t wait around for you,” I said, laughing as I watched her catch up to Pete. The band was kicking things up a notch with a lively Hank Williams Jr. tune and couples were spinning crazy-like on the floor—most of them half-snookered by now. I looked back to where I’d seen Cade, but he was already gone. I sighed. Guess I wasn’t going to get that dance after all.
• • •
Before I knew it, the evening was nothing more than a fuzzy memory Ray and I were rehashing over our Monday morning coffee. “So, Mama and Daddy got on their flight okay?” I asked. We were standing in the kitchen, a plate of spiced peach muffins on the counter between us. Mama had cooked up a storm before she left. There was enough food stored in the freezer to feed me and probably half the county for the next three weeks.
Ray blew steam off the top of his mug. “You bet. You should have seen them when I dropped them off. They were acting like newlyweds.”
“Good for them. Have you talked to Ida yet this morning?” Ida and Hollis had taken the girls home early the night before. We’d made plans to start cleanup first thing this morning. The rental company was coming at nine to pick up the tent.
“No. I bet she’s exhausted, though.” He reached for a muffin.
Especially if she and Hollis played around with the scarf after the party. My stomach practically rolled at the thought. I pushed the muffins closer to Ray. Suddenly they didn’t look so appetizing. “I’m sure she is tired,” I agreed, rinsing my mug and putting it in the sink. “Hey, I’m going to get started on things outside. Maybe we can get a good bit finished before she gets here. I feel like I owe her for all the work she’s done.”
He shoved in his last bite and answered with a full mouth. “Sure. I’ll be out in a bit. I’ve got a few business calls to make.”
Ray was an attorney. A while back, he’d left a large firm in Atlanta and hung his own shingle in Perry, a town not far from Cays Mill. “Fine with me. Take your time, but later I want to talk to you about something you mentioned last night.”
He nodded, his shoulders slumping and a dark look crossing his face. Noticing his reaction, another sense of dread settled over me. I pushed it to the back of my mind as I headed out to the yard to get started on my to-do list.
I glanced around. What had looked so pretty the night before was simply an ugly mess this morning: dirty dishes, turned-over chairs, empty beer bottles . . . Worst of all, a strong breeze had blown in overnight, scattering debris throughout the orchards, and half of the oversized peach balloons had deflated into dehydrated versions of themselves. The wind must have caught the pile of paper napkins off the cake table. Branches, as far as I could see, were covered with bits of peach-colored paper. It looked like a group of errant teens had TP’d us with off-colored toilet tissue.
I groaned and headed back into the house, coming out a few seconds later with a handful of garbage bags and heading straight for the orchard. I figured I better get the litter that was the farthest out first before it wandered any more. The morning haze was just burning off as I started down the hill. Since peaches grew best in well-drained soil, our house sat on the highest point of our acreage, with the peach trees running in straight lines from every side of the house.
When I was young, I once tried to draw a picture of our house. I was disgusted when Ray teased me, saying it looked like a scared, pink-haired witch. Although, looking back on it now, that was exactly what it looked like. I’d drawn the house in the middle of the paper, with its high-peaked roof, which must have resembled a witch’s hat, and black windows—her menacing eyes, and the rows of pink-blossoming trees emitting from every angle like hair standing on end. I laughed, wondering if Mama had hung on to my artwork. If I got some time, I’d look through the boxes in the attic.
I kept on reminiscing as I snatched napkins off the branches and filled my bag. I was working my way through a row of late-harvest trees, mostly freestones, meaning they peeled away from the pit easily. My favorite was the O’Henry peach. As a kid, I used to climb the branches and eat them until my stomach hurt. I thought of how good a sweet, sun-warmed peach would taste about now, especially since I’d passed on the muffins earlier.
My stomach grumbled as I finished one row and cut through to the next. I reached up and plucked another napkin from a branch and surveyed the rest of the row. Down a ways, I spied someone sitting on the ground, propped against one of the trees. Obviously one of last night’s guests had had too much to drink and was sleeping it off. Well, of all things!
“Hey,” I called out, ducking under a couple more branches and heading toward the lazy drunkard. I had a thing or two to tell this guy. Only, halfway there, I stopped in my tracks. I recognized the man from the party. It was Ben Wakefield. But he wasn’t sleeping it off. His blue-tinged, open-eyed face was slumped to one side with my sister’s brightly colored scarf cinched around his neck.
Georgia Belle Fact #048: Down here, we can tell how classy a woman is by the height of her hair and the thinness of her brow.
Twenty minutes later, Sheriff Maudeen Payne’s cruiser came rumbling down our drive, gravel flying out behind her back fender like buckshot out of Daddy’s twelve-gauge shotgun. Ray and I were standing on the front porch, warily awaiting her arrival. “Just keep your cool,” he told me as she came to a screeching halt in front of our house.
I swallowed hard, watching Maudy throw open the cruiser’s door and step out with an air of pundit authority that practically made my toes shrivel. “Should we tell her about the scarf?”
Ray grabbed my elbow and leaned in toward my ear. “If she asks you, tell her the truth. Don’t try to distort anything in order to protect Hollis or Ida—do you understand?”
What People are Saying About This
“Cozy readers will savor every word of this peach of a mystery. Ms. Furlong’s turn-of-phrase is delightful, her characters are endearing, and the mystery will keep readers guessing until the very end. The Georgia Peach mysteries are loaded with Southern charm, sassy characters, and tantalizing recipes—a pure delight!”—New York Times bestselling author Ellery Adams
"Georgia belles can handle anythingincluding murderas Susan Furlong proves in this sweet and juicy series debut." New York Times bestselling author Sheila Connolly