A Bad Day for Scandal

A Crime Novel

Stella Hardesty Crime Novels (Volume 3)

Sophie Littlefield

Minotaur/Thomas Dunne Books

Chapter One
 

“I believe I’d like to stick my face right smack in the middle of your pie,” Sheriff Goat Jones said in his whiskey-over-gravel voice, causing Stella Hardesty to nearly drop the pan she was holding.
Instead, she glanced quickly around the kitchen to make sure they were alone and took a nervous step backwards, tripping over her mutt, Roxy, who was prowling for crumbs that might have fallen from the dinner dishes.
“Easy there,” Goat cautioned, his voice going even smokier. Without asking, he took the grasshopper mint pie—which Stella had carefully removed from its bakery box and planted in her mama’s old pie tin, to make sure that when the moment came to present her would-be boyfriend with his Saint Patrick’s Day dessert, he would be suitably impressed—and set it aside as though it were a plate of stale saltines. “You’re as skittish as a filly wantin’ broke.”
“Oh, my.” Stella managed to breathe shakily before Goat backed her into the corner of the countertop and settled his big hands on her hips. He let them slide slowly down to cup her ass, which she had jammed into a Spanx Hide & Sleek Hi-Rise Panty before slipping on the slinky purple faux-wrap dress that her daughter, Noelle, had given her as a surviving-being-held-at-gunpoint-together gift the prior fall. Stella was fairly sure she would enjoy the sensation of Goat’s strong fingers kneading her flesh if it hadn’t gone numb in its fierce polyester–Lycra prison hours ago.
She tilted up her face and let her eyes flutter closed and waited for what sure looked like it was about to be the third time the sheriff kissed her. She might be a bit long in the tooth to be called a filly—in fact, she would probably be on the glue factory side of midlife, in terms of horse metaphors—but if this law enforcement bad boy wanted to break her, well, sign her right up for being broke.
His hot, soft, gorgeous mouth had just brushed against hers when there was a clomping of heavy, clumsy feet and Todd Groffe’s disgusted adolescent voice cleaved through the beautiful moment like a split melon.
“Hey, get a room! There’s kids here!”
Stella wriggled out of Goat’s grasp, yanking at her skirt to make sure it hadn’t somehow followed her thoughts and slipped scandalously up her thighs.
“Todd,” she said as sternly as she could manage, “the sheriff was just helping me with—”
“I don’t guess you need to tell me what-all kind a help you was gettin’,” Todd snapped, hands fisted on his skinny hips. “Only you might just want to keep things PG in here for Melly and Glory.”
On cue, two little blond-pigtailed girls dashed into the room carrying a woven bread basket between them. Dinner rolls bounced and flew from the basket, causing Roxy to abandon her search for scraps under the kitchen table and lope across the room, ears flying. Her powerful tail whipped in delight, and as she skidded to a graceless stop, snout colliding midair with an escaped roll, she managed to take out both little girls at once. They went down in a heap of matching pink jumpers and blond curls and patent-leather Mary Janes, and sent up an impressive wailing duet.
“Now you done it,” Todd muttered as he stepped away from the fracas. “I just wash my hands of y’all. You’re gonna have to deal with Mom.”
Stella glanced at Goat and saw that his cornflower blue eyes glinted pure mischief. He managed to give her ass a surreptitious little squeeze just as the mother of the three children came dashing into view, which Stella figured was just as well, since her odds for getting any more action seemed slim. Her best bet now was probably to settle everyone’s nerves with dessert.
*   *   *
Goat helped serve while Sherilee Groffe got the kids sorted and soothed, and before too long, everyone had an enormous slice of pie in front of them. Saturdays usually meant a visit from Stella’s daughter, Noelle, who lived half an hour away in Coffey and often brought her brimming baskets of laundry and stayed for dinner. Saint Pat’s Day was merely an excuse to turn laundry-and-pizza night into a party, and Stella had fixed her mother’s corned beef and cut out paper shamrocks for the little girls to color. As for Goat, a recent easing of a tense situation in the sheriff’s department had given him his first free day in months, an opportunity Stella was not about to let slip by.
“I think me and Joy have something to say,” Noelle said as Stella slid into her seat. Twin pink spots stood out on Noelle’s smooth porcelain cheeks, and Stella smiled. She hadn’t seen the girl so happy in years, and since they’d only recently ironed out a few rough spots in their relationship, she had learned to cherish every moment they were together.
Tonight, Noelle had styled her short fuchsia hair, which she usually gelled into spikes, into a sort of 1940s starlet upswept do. Thick black eyeliner heightened the effect of a screen siren, as did the vintage empire-waisted dress that nearly concealed the trumpet vine tattoos that wound across her shoulders and collarbones. Stella sighed with happiness—her baby girl was looking as fresh and lovely as a ripe peach.
I ain’t got nothin’ to say,” the young woman seated next to Noelle said, blushing. Joy was a new friend—at least, new to Stella. Unlike many of Noelle’s friends from the salon where she worked, Joy appeared to have given about as much thought to personal grooming as Todd, and in fact, her plaid flannel shirt and baggy jeans looked like she might have borrowed them from the boy. “And I don’t think—”
“We’re gay,” Noelle blurted, beaming.
Joy colored even further. “Ain’t it a little early to be lettin’ that cat out of the bag?” she stage-whispered. “I mean, since you and I ain’t hardly—”
“Excuse me?” Stella asked, unsure she had heard right. As far as she knew, her daughter had always preferred men—just not nice ones. Noelle had an unfortunate track record of dating the sort of sorry woman-hurting scum that Stella routinely dealt with professionally, but after dumping the last in a line of such losers last fall, Noelle had seen the light and made a vow to be single for the rest of her natural life.
Noelle’s grin slipped a little. “What I mean is, we’re about to be gay. Mama don’t need to know the details,” she added for Joy’s benefit.
“Mrs. Hardesty, I’m real sorry, I sure don’t want to make you feel uncomfortable.” Joy didn’t quite meet Stella’s eyes. “I know it must be kind of a surprise. I told Noelle this is the kind of thing most folks like to hear in a private-type setting. I mean, my folks are still kind of getting used to the idea, and I told them I liked girls back in the third grade.”
“Oh, dear,” Sherilee said. “Todd, take the girls and watch some TV in Stella’s bedroom.”
“I know what gay is,” Todd retorted.
“What’s gay?” one of the twins piped up, taking a giant bite of pie, half of it tumbling onto her jumper.
“It’s where a couple a guys or a couple a girls—”
“Not that there’s anything wrong with it, of course,” Sherilee cut him off firmly.
Stella saw Todd wince in pain as his mother’s high-heeled shoe connected with his shin under the table. He sighed heavily and yanked his little sisters out of their chairs and dragged them, complaining loudly, down the hall.
“’Course, I’m bi,” Joy continued, taking a delicate sip of her coffee, which Stella had liberally spiked with Kahlúa. “I’m only, like, maybe a half or two-thirds or possibly three-quarters gay.”
Noelle shook her head in besotted amazement. “And ain’t that just a regular wonder, seein’ as you look gayer than anyone else I know.”
“That don’t really have all that much to do with it,” Joy said. “The face a person shows the world—why, it’s like a little window onto the soul. But maybe with curtains or miniblinds or something like that on it. That’s what I’ve learned about myself, anyhow.”
“Whipped cream?” Stella asked faintly. She was having trouble keeping up with the conversation, and she wasn’t sure she was up for further revelations at the moment, especially after having her make-out session with Goat cut short.
“I do have a strong feeling you’re my type,” Noelle said, ignoring Stella and gazing at Joy like she was a cupcake in a bakery window. “I think it’s safe to say I’m going to be the pretty one, and you’re the, you know.… Is it okay to say butch? I mean, I’m new at this—is that like an insult or something?”
“How long have you two known each other?” Goat asked politely. He didn’t look the least bit ruffled by the strange turn the conversation had taken.
“A little while,” Noelle said at the very same moment Joy murmured “Not long.” They looked at each other and giggled.
“Well!” Stella said brightly, trying to figure out some new direction to take the conversation. The effort was cut short by the ringing of her cell phone from where Stella had left it on the kitchen counter—Todd had set her up with some new screaming metal band’s latest abomination as her ringtone. “Excuse me.”
The phone was always on, charged, and at hand, because Stella’s side business, though secret, was never closed. Her clients were as likely to need her on weekends and in the dead of night as not. More likely, as a general rule.
“Stella here,” she answered, putting the phone to her ear and jogging down the hall to the bathroom, the only place she could be guaranteed a little privacy. As she pushed the door shut and locked it, a voice she hadn’t heard in years came on the other end.
“This is Priscilla Porter,” the caller said, managing to convey in those few syllables the sort of frosty condescension that implied she was doing Stella a favor merely by talking to her. “It seems I’ll be requiring your services.”

 
Copyright © 2011 by Sophie Littlefield