Everybody Knows…

Chapter One

“Did you get the picture I sent, India? Doesn’t Sunnyside look like a Norman Rockwell painting? With newer cars, of course.” Harper Simmons had fallen in love with her new hometown the second she’d rolled into it. After pulling into a quaint corner gas station, she’d snapped a shot of the picturesque town square and called her mother to gush.

“Yes, very charming.” India Lawrence’s dry tone expressed more than her words.

Harper’s uber-sophisticated, stylish mother might use the word “charming” as a compliment when referring to vintage clothing or antique furniture. Having her refer to any Midwestern location as “charming” was the verbal equivalent of boring, outdated, and provincial. Sort of like the black-and-white saddle shoes of real estate.

“From the gazebo to the barber’s pole, darling, it looks like everything you ever wanted.”

“And you disapprove.” Harper braced herself against letting her footloose mother’s opinion dampen her own. India might never understand Harper’s desire to put down roots.

“Where’s the Nordstrom? The Sephora? The Starbucks?”

“That’s the whole point.” Fanning herself with her hand, Harper ignored the almost audible frizzing of her hair in the ungodly heat. “Nothing here is like Chicago, New York, LA, or any other place we’ve lived. It’s unique and original with its own personality.”

After confirming that gas was chugging into the tank of the Infiniti hybrid her biological father had gifted her with, she crossed over to an old-fashioned red refrigerator box attached to the side of the building. Lifting the hinged lid, she smiled down at the neat rows of Coca-Cola bottles and inhaled the cold air that blasted out. Two grubby boys rode up on bicycles to make a purchase. She gave them a little wave and stepped aside.

Redirecting her focus to the movie-set perfection of her newly-adopted hometown, she itched to get settled in Sunnyside and be on a first name basis with the locals. Although her library contract with the town only obligated her for two years, she’d soak up the ambience for as long as she could.

“It’s not my style, but I see the appeal,” India admitted. “For you. Just remember, it might turn out to be more Amityville than Stars Hollow.”

“Right.” Harper dropped onto a wooden bench outside an open garage bay. Inside, a pair of denim-covered legs and booted feet stuck out from under the front of a car. Pink impatiens gasped for water in a large planter beside her. “I’m well aware that Sunnyside isn’t the set for a feel-good fictional television series.”

“If you prefer a page from reality, it won’t be like Nana’s hometown of Elbow Creek, Pennsylvania, either.”

Ah, now that was a low blow. Harper rubbed her forehead, fighting off the onslaught of memories and emotions that India’s words conjured. She had adored her grandmother, but spending childhood summers in her care had been a bag of mixed blessings. “I had some good times there.”

India sighed. “Just remember how deceptive pretty exteriors can be.”

“Yeah, that lesson has been permanently seared into my brain.” Sometimes even the most beautiful facade had a dark and sinister underbelly.

“Don’t repeat my mistakes.”

Or the ones Harper herself had made. But this was her new beginning. Her fresh start. “I won’t.”

Having hammered home what passed as her motherly advice, India finally acquiesced. “As long as you’re happy, dear, I’m happy for you.”

“I’m optimistic. And I’ll visit you and Fiona as often as I can, wherever you’re headed to next. As long as it’s reasonably close to a modern airport. I’m not putting down at another dusty airstrip in the middle of Pango-Pango to bring you a pair of must-have earrings for the latest cover-girl-on-a-beach photo.” Harper hoped the chuckle turned her words into a tease instead of a warning.

“Your years of running errands for me are over, but I’ll miss having you pop in and out.”

Harper’s heart spasmed with a pang of melancholy. It wasn’t that she didn’t love her mother and sister and some of the things they loved—like great clothes and fabulous footwear—but she wanted something more. Something of her own. A sense of belonging, which she intended to pursue here in Sunnyside.

“I’ll be the one with the permanent address. You and Fiona should come visit me.” She imagined her stylish mother and head-turning sister feeding the pigeons on a park bench. That would probably result in a full-blown traffic pileup—if such a thing was possible on these quiet streets.

On second thought, maybe a visit by the très chic duo wouldn’t be a good idea. At least, not until she secured her own position in town. No point in inviting negative comparisons.

“We’ll see.” India was frequently hard to pin down. “I’ll be in Milan in August, then Fiona will join me in Paris for September. If you could come for a few days, it’ll be just like old times.”

“Maybe.” Harper could be vague, too, when it suited her. “I imagine I’ll be busy trying to get the library open before the deadline.”

“Have you seen it yet? Or your new place?”

“Not yet, but a member of the town council is meeting me at the house at six to show me around.” As her stomach rumbled, she hoped the meet-and-greet with Malcolm Newcomb included a meal. Now she regretted skipping lunch, but on the drive down, she’d been too excited to stop.

The gas nozzle glugged to a halt, and Harper glanced around. No credit card slot, and no one to take her payment. Maybe in this part of the world the customer was expected to make the trip inside. Boy, no trust like that around Chicago. Gazing about, she couldn’t even spot a security camera to record drive-offs. She returned to her car to retrieve her wallet. “I’d better go.”

“Wait, sweetie!” India ordered. “What are you wearing?”

The question generated a reluctant smile. In her mother’s opinion, all would be right with the world if only everyone was always fashionably attired. But even the famous stylist would approve of her daughter’s fashion-forward choice for today. “That Belinda Diego dress you sent last week with the Pedro Garcia sandals.”

“Excellent. Colorful. You’ll be the envy of every woman in that backwater town.”

“Not really my goal.” But the kick-ass outfit went miles toward boosting her confidence.

“Hair up or down?”


India tsk-tsked her disappointment. “You’re in the Midwest. It’s July. It’s a sauna there. Did you use anti-frizz cream?”

“My hair looks fine.” Bending over, she checked in the side-view mirror to see how much damage the oppressive heat and humidity had caused. She smoothed the unruly strands with her palm. “I’ve gotta go.”

“Okay. Love you.” They exchanged their traditional air kisses along with promises to talk again soon.

A grizzled guy with sprinkles of gray in his flat-top stood in the station office door glaring at her while he wiped his hands on a rag. A blue work shirt displayed a gas company logo on the sleeve and the name “Al” was stitched over the chest pocket.

“Hey, you,” he barked as Harper tossed her iPhone into the car. “Gonna pay for that gas or gab on your cellular phone all night? It’s closing time.”

As if on cue from some invisible Our Town stage manager, joyful church bells chimed the hour.

“I’ll pay now.” Hoping to put her best Pedro Garcia-shod foot forward in this first encounter with a Sunnyside resident, she beamed a smile his way and reached into the Infiniti to grab her purse. “I didn’t realize you closed this early. There’s no sign posted with the hours.”

“Everybody knows what time we close.” He moved into the building and stood behind a well-worn counter with a punch-key cash register. Circa 1950, like almost everything else in the room. He accepted her credit card and ran it through a manual imprinter.

“Fair enough,” Harper said with a little laugh. “But I’m new here and not up to speed on the insider info yet.”

The small space reeked of dust and oil. Harper half-expected to spot a tattered Marilyn Monroe poster prominently tacked on the wall behind him. Instead, a framed family photo held the place of honor. A younger, sunburned Al, a sturdy woman with a wide smile, a freckle-faced boy, and a preteen girl with braces posed in front of a lake.

That kind of heartwarming family group was so outside Harper’s experience, it momentarily stabbed her with a twinge of longing.

The picture India displayed of her two daughters showed a gap-toothed and smiling Harper holding the angelic-looking Fiona’s hand on a runway in Milan. Gianni Versace stood behind them with his hands on their shoulders. Harper assumed India was more sentimental about her late mentor than she was about her daughters.

And as for Harper’s father—well, she couldn’t imagine he had any pictures of her tucked among the photos of his “real” family in his stuffy Baltimore office.

“You the owner here, Al?” She shoved aside her emotional baggage in favor of embracing her future.

“Yeah.” He squinted. “Why?”

“I’m Harper Simmons.” She extended her hand for him to shake. He looked at his own hands, grimy with the day’s work, and shook his head. Realizing her faux pas, she tapped the top of a Chicago Cubs bobble-head doll as if that had been her intention all along. “As the new library director, I hope to get to know everyone sooner or later.”

Shoving the credit card receipt toward her, he shifted the bobble-head out of her reach. “Well, Harpo, make it later for me. I gotta get home to dinner.”

“It’s Harper.” She cheerfully emphasized the second syllable and ended on an encouraging smile, more than a little used to people getting her name wrong on the first try.

When he just gazed at her blankly, she acknowledged the fact that she wasn’t receiving the warm welcome she’d anticipated.

It stood to reason that some people would take longer to warm up to her than others. Clearly, Al would take longer. Every community probably had a town crank. Just unlucky that Sunnyside’s official grump owned a gas station on the main street through town, and she happened to run into him before she met anyone else. He was probably a sweetheart under that Oscar-the-Grouch exterior.

“I’m from Chicago, and I’m a Cubs’ fan, too.” Giving it one more try, she nodded toward the bobble-head.

“Good for you.” He inched the figure even closer to his side of the counter.

“You and your family should stop by the library when it reopens,” she suggested.

“We ain’t much for reading.”

“We’ll have all kinds of new programs. For all ages. Maybe your kids—”

“They don’t have much spare time.” Standing by the door, he checked his watch again.

As a dismissal, the stance was pretty effective. Sensing any delay on her part would alienate him further, she shelved her campaign to be voted Friendliest Newcomer and headed back to her car.

Time to see her new house!

Following the GPS commands to turn here, here, and there, she arrived at Oakley.

At the first sight of her new street, she abandoned any pretense of worldly sophistication and giggled. Out loud.

Space. So much space. Especially after the skyscrapers of Chicago that blocked the sun and the sky and made her feel smothered and boxed in. Here on this street, in this town, she’d have plenty of breathing room.

Tall trees shaded wide sidewalks. Big yards swept in front of an eclectic mix of houses. As she crept along the street watching for her house number, she noticed a few lawns with “For Sale” signs. A bicycle rested on its side in a driveway. A child’s lemonade stand had closed up shop for the night. Oscillating sprinklers tic-ticked across dry lawns. Overflowing flower pots squatted on porches. A lawn mower roared to life nearby, although just thinking of mowing in this heat had Harper breaking out in a sweat.

She wanted to stop and snap pictures, but there’d be plenty of time for that later. Right now, she was on a mission to find the house she could turn into a home.

Searching for the house number on the right, she zeroed in on a sturdy Craftsman up ahead. The wide front porch, leaded glass transom window above the door, and dormer windows on the second level welcomed her to her new world, erasing and replacing her less than satisfactory encounter with Grumpy Al.

She rolled closer to a monster-sized red truck parked at the curb. A broad-shouldered male in a red baseball cap, blue T-shirt, and jeans rested on her front steps. Leaning back on his elbow, he took a bite out of a big red apple. Long legs stretched down three steps to the sidewalk, where they crossed at the ankles. All-in-all, he made a stunning porch ornament. But if she remembered correctly from her Skype interview with the town council, he wasn’t Malcolm Newcomb. In the history of the world, no one named Malcolm had ever looked like that.

Suddenly, as if a starting pistol only he could hear had been fired, he launched himself off the porch and tossed the apple aside. Crossing the yard in a few long strides, he propelled himself into the street—right in front of her car! With his hands outstretched, he motioned for her to stop.

She stomped on her brakes.

The car jerked to a halt, sparing that outstanding body. Thank heavens. She’d been going so slowly that the tires didn’t squeal, skid, or swerve, but still… Shaken and stirred, she took a deep breath, pushed the door open, and leaped from the vehicle.

“What in the hell was that?” Shoving her sunglasses to the top of her head, anxiety burst from her mouth. “You ran right in front of me. You could’ve been killed!”

With barely a glance in her direction, he held up his index finger and moved toward the sidewalk. A shaggy puppy sat on its haunches, wagging its tail and lolling its tongue out of the side of its mouth. In one swoop, he scooped the critter up and settled it in the crook of his arm.

“Oooh, a dog, how cute.” Her pulse raced. “Where did he—she—it come from?”

“From the Dempsey house.” He nodded at a place behind her. “I couldn’t take the chance you wouldn’t see her.”

“Oh, my God, I didn’t. I’m so sorry.” Planting her palm on her forehead, she felt a little faint at how close she’d come to killing the tiny creature. She—the woman who believed in the sanctity of life in all forms, who didn’t eat meat, and couldn’t bring herself to kill spiders or snakes or even mosquitoes—had almost hit and killed a dog. Her empty stomach executed a triple somersault.

The man had lost his baseball cap when he’d charged in to save the shaggy blond puppy. The hero of the moment had the sort of honey-brown hair that streaked light in the summer but probably deepened to pecan in the winter. It had a natural tendency to curl around the edges and an obvious absence of styling products. Even two weeks on the wrong side of a mediocre haircut, something about the untended thickness made Harper itch to thread her fingers through it.

The dog rescuer towered a good half foot above her. She looked up, intending to thank him for his intervention, but an immediate zap of attraction sent shock waves zinging through her.

Really, he had the kind of face that grabbed hold of a girl’s attention and gave her naughty bits a good shake. Harper felt hot and cold and breathless, all at the same time. The moment hung suspended in the late afternoon sunlight, a moment that went on forever or flew by too fast, she wasn’t sure which. She tried to memorize the essence and texture and feel of it to hold it close and examine later.

The guy was handsome enough to look right at home in a Ralph Lauren print ad, but so much more… real. Genuine. Strong, but sensitive. Rugged, but brooding. Devastating, but wary.

Nothing about him signified artificial enhancement. Backlit by the setting sun, his profile as he bent his head to soothe the small animal revealed a scar that curved along his chin, smile lines at the corner of his eyes, and an honest-to-God tan—no bronze spray-on for this hunky hero.

Under normal circumstances, she wouldn’t have been susceptible to this unsophisticated variety of hot-hot-hot. After all, she’d spent most of her formative years sharing hair and facial tips with GQ male models. And Harper knew better than to be sucked in by a handsome face and killer body. Still, any girl would pause to appreciate natural beauty when she saw it.

And she’d never seen one of those too-gorgeous-for-his-own-good magazine models move that fast for anything less than free drugs, free sex, or free designer clothes. Certainly not to protect an innocent animal.

“I’m sorry.” She shook herself, trying to get a grip on her emotions and return to reality. “I didn’t see her at all. You prevented me from committing involuntary manslaughter—or in this case—dogslaughter.” She offered a small smile, but his expression revealed no appreciation for her attempted humor.

The dog’s protector looked up and perused her with eyes that flared with heated interest and desire before retreating into cool deliberation. To be fair, since she’d been within inches of turning him into road kill, the heat she’d detected could have been more annoyance than interest or desire. But she didn’t think so.

With the full force of his attention turned her way, his appraisal caressed her from the top of the new auburn highlights/mink lowlights she’d splurged on right down to her Pretty-In-Pink painted toenails and all points in between. She basked in another moment of clarity when everything seemed bright and shiny and new. With infinite possibility.

Right up until he shook his head in disgust.

Disgust? She straightened her shoulders indignantly. Really?

Okay, so maybe she’d glorified and magnified her reaction to him. Or his reaction to her. Or both. And even though her hair was frizzing up like a Brillo pad, she didn’t usually generate disgust. Disappointment or disinterest maybe, but not disgust.

But then he blinked and his expression transformed into cool neutrality. Hopefully, it was the disgust she’d imagined, not the interest or desire.

“I intentionally threw myself in front of your car, but here comes the person who’ll demand an apology.” He shrugged. “Brace yourself, this isn’t going to be pretty.”