FREE Online Read: Small-Town Secrets by Deborah Fletcher Mello

Happy Sunday! Today is the perfect day to relax with a good read…so why not visit Harlequin.com for one of our free online reads? Small-Town Secrets by Deborah Fletcher Mello features a blend of suspense and romance that you’ll love!

When a murder rocks a small North Carolina town, passions flare and old affairs are exposed as long-dead secrets come to light.

***

Not much got past forty-six-year-old Easter Starks, and from where she stood at the front of the room, there was very little that she missed. Caleb Bright had entered the small nightclub looking like death warmed over. She could tell it had been a few days since his last bath, and his clothes were well-worn and slightly tattered. As his gaze met hers, Easter gave him a slight nod and a smile. He stood for a moment and stared back, then he turned, moving swiftly to the other side of the room.

The waitress greeted him by name. Caleb snarled, gesturing as if he hoped to scare the young woman away. Instead, Jessy Lynn Palmer snarled back, her strawberry-blonde head jutting forward ever so slightly as she bared her teeth. Two picture-perfect rows of porcelain veneers that had cost her a year’s salary and a few weeks of discomfort gleamed back at him.

No one else seemed to notice the exchange that passed between the duo, or more aptly just didn’t bother to acknowledge it. But Easter saw, ever mindful of their contentious relationship. Caleb dropped into a wooden chair at the only empty table. A few brief minutes passed before Jessy sauntered slowly to his side to drop his usual bottle of Paddy Irish whiskey and a shot glass onto the tabletop before him. A grunt was the man’s only greeting, the perverse utterance his acknowledgement of gratitude for her service. Jessy said nothing at all as she spun around on her heels and headed back to her station behind the large oak bar.

A couple seated at the far end of the wooden structure gestured for a refill of their gin and tonics, pulling at Jessy’s attention before sinking back into a lust-filled embrace. Jessy seemed glad for the interruption, not wanting to have to speak to the man, who clearly had no interest in speaking with her.

The Black Bayou had filled quickly, the interior of the jazz and blues club nearing full capacity. Earlier that night, on stage, Easter had crooned a sultry rendition of Aretha Franklin’s “Baby, I Love You” through the room. The band behind her had been a quarter beat out of sync, but no one else noticed that, either. Easter had been the sole proprietor of the establishment for some twenty years or more. The stage gave her some place other than the Baptist church to showcase her talent. Singing was always a pleasant diversion from the business side of things.

As Jessy placed the two fresh drinks against the counter, the heavy door at the front of the old brick building swung open and then closed, a gust of cold air blowing Easter’s son, Caesar Starks, through the entrance. The young man eased his thick body inside, lifting a hand to wave toward the stage at his mother before shifting his stare toward Jessy. Watching as Jessy fluttered from one patron to another, Caesar grinned broadly, his white teeth a stark contrast against his deep, cherrywood complexion.

Caesar and Jessy Lynn had been best friends since the crib. Easter, Jessy’s surrogate parent and guardian angel, had often walked them both from the playground of Millbrook Elementary School to her front porch. Easter had been like a part-time babysitter while they’d waited for one of Jessy’s kin to come claim possession of her tiny body and take her home. Sometimes her family came, and most times, they didn’t. Either way, with Easter, Jessy had been safe and loved, and Caesar had been thrilled to have the little girl as a playmate.

The duo had been as close to inseparable as any two could be, the strength of their alliance raising many an eyebrow once they’d reached the cusp of puberty and then adulthood. Were it not for Easter, the friendship between them would have had to weather a mountain of small-town opinion. But the few who even ventured to raise an eyebrow now knew that it wasn’t worth the wrath of Easter Starks were she ever to catch wind of it.

Easter watched Caesar sidle up to the bar, pushing between the couple wrapped around each other and the old man who ran the BP gas station out on Route 70. He greeted Jessy warmly.

“Hey, girl. How’s it going?” he asked casually, his wide smile warming his face.

Jessy shrugged, popping the cap on a bottle of Heineken beer that she took a quick sip from before handing it over to the young man.

Caesar took his own large swig of the brew, swirling the cold liquid over his tongue. His eyes were still locked with hers. “What? You not talking?”

Jessy gestured in Caleb’s direction. Caesar turned to see where she stared. The old man sat hunched over the table, his shoulders rounded as if his whole body ached.

Caleb blew a soft sigh as he spun back around to face her. “Leave it alone, Jessy. Baby, he’s really not worth you getting upset over.”

“I know,” Jessy Lynn said as she wiped the bar down with a damp cloth. “I just don’t know why he has to come here every night.”

Easter moving to the bar interrupted their conversation. “You’re off work early, Caesar. Is everything all right, son?” Easter questioned.

“Yes, ma’am. I just came to walk Jessy home.”

Easter nodded her head approvingly, glancing down at the gold-plated watch on her wrist. “It is that time, isn’t it? Go on now, Jessy. This place will still be here tomorrow night. And the same drunk fools will be back here like clockwork.” Easing behind the bar to stand beside the young woman, Easter wrapped her arms around Jessy’s shoulders. “Don’t forget to get your tips, baby girl.”

Jessy giggled as she hugged the woman back. “What tips, Mama Easter? These folks don’t ever tip.”

“I know that’s right!” Caesar interjected, he and Jessy bumping fists.

Easter smiled. The two had both worked the bar since before they were legally able to get work permits. Both were now in their second year at the community college, Caesar studying business management and Jessy torn between pre-law and history. Despite their jest, the regulars tipped them generously to help them out. A thirsty patron was suddenly calling her name loudly. She shouted back, her voice breaking through the rhythm of the band still on stage. “Hold your horses, Alvin. I’m coming!” She paused to pull a warm palm through the thick length of Jessy’s hair. “Good luck on that exam tomorrow. You’ll do just fine, baby girl.”

Jessy smiled back as she exchanged the apron around her waist for the black nylon book bag that sat on the floor beneath the bar. “Thank you. Don’t let these fools give you a rough time, Mama.”

The older woman chuckled. “We all know better than that,” she said with a toothy grin, heading in the direction of the man named Alvin.

As Jessy moved to the middle of the room, Caesar pulled the book bag from her hands and tossed it over his shoulders.

“No, I can carry it,” Jessy said, reaching to snatch the bag back. “Give it to me.”

Something Caesar didn’t recognize crossed her face, a hint of fear edging into her expression. Her eyes, wide and bright, locked on the bag in his hands. His own gaze narrowed slightly, his brow raised. “I always carry your bag. What’s the big deal?”

Jessy didn’t respond, lifting her eyes to meet her friend’s. Theirs was a silent conversation that ended quickly. She shrugged her shoulders, the gesture dismissive as he wrapped a protective arm around her waist and guided her in the direction of the door.

A harsh slap against the back of Caesar’s head suddenly dropped him to his knees. A glass bottle shattering against the floor behind them resounded loudly in the room. Caesar heard Jessy screaming out his name. Caleb Bright stood staring down at what he’d done. Time felt as if it had stopped, resynced then started again before the man shifted his attention toward his daughter.

“What the hell…?” Easter started, turning toward the commotion.

The whole room spun around to see what had happened. The small band stopped playing, instruments shifting from sound one second to no sound the next. A series of whole and half notes hung in midair, suspended on the breath of air everyone was holding onto.

With one hand pressed to the back of his skull, Caesar jumped to his feet, turning to defend himself against another blow. Caleb stood with his hands clenched in tight fists at his sides, his ruddy face painted thick with emotion. Color had risen to the older man’s cheeks, a brilliance of red painting the usually stark, white canvas as Caleb struggled to speak. Words looked like they were trapped against his thick tongue and lost behind the line of his thin lips. Caesar moved as if to swing his own fists just as Easter stepped between the two men.

“What the hell is wrong with you, Caleb Bright?” Easter chastised. “I know you done lost your fool mind now. That’s my child you put your hands on!” Her hands were locked against her wide hips, pulling at the red silk dress she wore.

Standing behind her, Caesar raged, “I’m gon’ kill that fool, Mama! I swear I am!”

Easter tossed a look over her shoulder. “You’ll be doing no such thing. Go on now. Take Jessy home. Baby girl has classes tomorrow.”

Caesar lunged, his whole body pressing forward to get to Caleb. His mother’s glare held him back and stalled his punch. Ire billowed like an easy breeze between the two men. Neither was prepared when Jessy suddenly charged at the man, the palm of her hand connecting with the side of Caleb’s face in a thunderous slap that shook the man’s false teeth from his mouth, his dentures falling to the floor and sliding across the hardwood.

“I hate you! I wish you were dead!” the young woman shouted, frustration shaking her petite body as everyone stared at her in surprise.

Easter grabbed the girl by the waist and swung her back around into Caesar’s arms. “I said go on now! Jessy, you and Caesar go on home. Now!”

Rage shadowed the beauty in Easter’s face, and Jessy knew they’d be pushing the last of her buttons to stay one minute longer. Easter’s anger was well-known, and neither wanted to be on the wrong side of her wrath if she let go of her control.

Jessy grabbed Caesar’s arm, pulling him in the direction of the door. Jessy continued tugging him along behind her until they’d walked the three blocks up to Tryon Street and Mama Easter’s front door. It was only when Caesar had finished cursing Caleb, his mother and everything else he found wrong with the world that Jessy thought about her book bag. The carrying case was still lying where Caesar had dropped it—her books, homework and one hundred thousand dollars in cash, resting at her father’s feet.

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