Ten years ago, Summer Butler was television’s most popular teenage sleuth. Since then, she’s hit—what gossip sites just love to call—the gutter. Nearly bankrupt, betrayed, estranged from her greedy mother, and just about unemployable, she’s coaxed into that desperate haven for has-beens: reality TV.
Winging it as a faux PI, she’ll solve off-the-cuff mysteries in her hometown of Sweet Briar, Alabama. For added drama, there’s police chief Luke Montgomery, inconveniently Summer’s first and only love.
It’s when Summer stumbles upon a very real corpse that Darling Investigations takes an unexpected twist. The growing list of suspects is a big draw to viewers, but the reality is that Summer doesn’t know whom she can trust. Someone has written this killer new scene especially for her, and unless Summer gives the role everything she’s got, it could be her last…
“We have every right to be here!” a woman shouted, raising her sign. A Lab-mix dog sat at her feet, and each time she lifted up her sign, she yanked his leash tight. “And just because you don’t want them here doesn’t mean you can make us leave!”
“That’s right!” another woman yelled. “It’s our God-given right to assemble.”
“You’re blocking the sidewalk, Sonya,” the police officer said with strained patience. “You can assemble, but Hugo’s pissed because people can’t get around you to the barbershop.”
Sonya’s righteous anger faded some. “Oh.”
He made a sideways motion with his hand. “Now if you’d just clear a path for the passersby, you would make my life a hell of a lot easier.”
His voice was familiar, and horror washed through me when I realized why. It just figured that the first person I’d run into was my old boyfriend.
This was not how I wanted him to see me again . . . in yoga pants and a T-shirt stained with coffee from when the plane had hit a pocket of turbulence. My hair wasn’t so bad, but I wasn’t sure my breath was ready to be up close and personal. Not that we would be getting up close and personal, of course.
The women had noticed I was standing to the side. Letting out squeals of excitement, they rushed at me, signs raised like they were going into battle. Luke spun around to face me, surprise filling his eyes, and the women pushed him toward me in their eagerness to greet me.
The dog had burst forward in excitement the second his owner joined the surge, and he ran around our legs, wrapping the leash line around them and pulling us closer together.
I started to lose balance and fall forward—straight into Luke’s broad chest. He was losing balance too, and it became painfully evident we were going to crash into the brick building. Wrapping his arms around me and pulling me closer, he twisted and slammed into the wall, taking the brunt of the impact on his right shoulder and side. He’d gripped me tightly enough that I only crashed into the muscles on his arms.
I stared up at him in disbelief, unable to breathe.
In all the ways I’d imagined seeing him again, this particular scenario had never come to mind.
I would have recognized him anywhere . . . same dark-brown hair, same dark-brown eyes. He seemed taller now. His shoulders were broader, his arms thicker. He’d had a commanding presence when we were teens, but now he demanded attention, and damned if I didn’t comply.
“You okay?” he asked, concern in his eyes.
“Yeah,” I said, caught up in nostalgia.
Luke Montgomery had been my first love. My only love. I’d known losing him would hurt, but I hadn’t expected it to hurt for so long. Seeing him face-to-face, it was impossible not to think about those lazy summer nights wrapped up in his arms, staring into those eyes . . .
My body responded to him the way it always had—a combination of comfort and passion I’d never found with anyone else. The way he was holding me close suggested he felt the same way.
“I heard you were still in Sweet Briar,” I said softly.
But then a slight hardness crept into his eyes, layered with something even worse: disappointment. “I always told you I wanted to become a cop and stay in Sweet Briar.”
A sad smile lifted my lips. “Sometimes we say things when we’re kids . . . but then reality sets in.”
“That’s you, Summer, not me. When I say something, I mean it.”
There was nothing I could say to that. I’d been young and naive and stupid. Maybe I deserved his contempt.
“Summer!” the women shouted, shoving papers and pens in my face. “Will you sign this for us?”
I’d completely tuned out the fact we’d been surrounded by a mob of about ten women, but they’d all watched our reintroduction with keen interest, as if my life had already become an episode of reality TV.
“How about I get untangled first,” Luke said, trying to bend down to unwrap us. “Fredericka. This is your doin’! Take care of it.”
Fredericka was still gawking at us, but she finally had the sense to make her dog stop running around, and between her and the other women, they worked us free from the leash line.
“Jesus Christ, Tony!” Lauren shouted from the doorway of the office. “Are you seriously telling me you didn’t get a single minute of that on film?”
I could see her through a gap in the women, along with a glimpse of a man holding a camera.
“Ladies!” Lauren shouted like a PE teacher in a dodgeball game gone awry. “While I’m sure Summer is eager to see you all again, I really need her to get to work.” She waved her hands in a shooing motion. “Go on, now. Go on.”
The women sent her scathing looks, but they didn’t seem to hold Lauren’s bitchiness against me as they dispersed.
“Stay strong, Summer!” one woman said.
“Welcome home, Summer!” another woman shouted.
I thanked them as they wandered off.
Fredericka left with a wave after getting the last of the dog leash free, and as soon as Luke was no longer forcibly attached to me, he took off down the street. He didn’t once look back.
I wasn’t going to think about him either. Right.
About the Author
Denise Grover Swank is the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today bestselling author of the Rose Gardner Mystery Series, the Magnolia Steele Mystery Series, The Wedding Pact Series, The Curse Keepers Series, and others. She was born in Kansas City, Missouri, and lived in the area until she was nineteen. Then she became a nomad, living in five cities, four states, and ten houses over the course of ten years before moving back to her roots. Her hobbies include witty Facebook comments (in her own mind) and dancing in her kitchen with her children (quite badly, if you believe her offspring). Hidden talents include the gift of justification and the ability to drink massive amounts of caffeine and still fall asleep within two minutes. Her lack of the sense of smell allows her to perform many unspeakable tasks. She has six children and hasn’t lost her sanity—or so she leads you to believe. For more information about Denise, please visit her at www.denisegroverswank.com.