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Sneaking Around (Rumor Has It) by Stephanie St. Klaire (1)

CHAPTER 1

 

“We came as soon as we saw it. Are you okay?” a wide-eyed Libby asked Molly after setting several pastry boxes on the counter at Reading Grounds.

“See what?” Molly questioned. She gave Libby an odd side-eye glance as she began to sort the fresh pastries into the baked goods case she stood behind.

Molly Anna Sexton was new in town, and the proud owner of Pine Valley’s newest establishment, Reading Grounds, which served as a bookstore and coffee shop in one. Resting on the town’s busy Main Street, nestled at the base of the Pacific Cascade Mountains of Oregon, Reading Grounds was a popular place for locals and tourists alike.

Libby gave Molly a sympathetic look, picked up the laptop sitting on the counter, and gestured for Molly to meet her at the large semi-private table near the back. The table was already surrounded by a handful of the ladies who quickly took their seats as if they were assigned.

All eyes were on Molly as her jaw dropped and eyes widened, her expression washed in shock and surprise. She read the post. A post targeting her. Again.

“Oh no! How do I stop this…how do I stop her?” Molly asked, her words laced with concern, her hands holding her face.

Dead center, between Portland and McKenzie Ridge, you could find the quaint town of Pine Valley, known for its wine, spirits, and brews. It was small, part of historic Oregon, and full of old homestead charm with old traditions. Pine Valley was cute, charismatic, and…loaded with small town gossip.

“Kill her…” Brady offered as a sound solution with a confident shrug. Brady didn’t mince words, nor did she have a filter of any kind. As the town badass, known to take even the toughest of men to task when provoked, one had to assume she wasn’t entirely kidding, even if it wasn’t a realistic option.

Molly quickly fit in with the locals, establishing a weekly book club, which was really nothing more than a weekly girl’s gossip group. The gathering took place in a book shop, after all, so a book club it was deemed. The community was tight-knit. Everyone knew everyone, and newcomers were few and far between, so they stood out like a sore thumb — compliments of the town busy body who kept everyone in the loop on any and everything via social media. There was no anonymity in Pine Valley — or a hundred or so mile radius.

“Can’t kill her,” Molly replied with a nervous chuckle. “I’d never get away with it. It’d be posted all over social media.”

Shayna, the free spirit of the group, added, “I can ask Jasper. He’s a cop. Gotta be a loophole.”

The ladies nodded lightly with raised brows, as if it was a plausible idea worth considering. In a town the size of Pine Valley, three officers were more than plenty given the Mayberry feel — Jasper was the town Barney Fife.

“Why not kill her with kindness?” Libby asked.

Libby Shannon, owner of Savory Sweets Bistro, provided the tasty delectables Molly sold in her shop. She also provided the welcoming committee and new-found friends when Molly moved to town six months prior. The ladies were close, family even, and accepted Molly as one of their own — and they took care of their own. Especially now that Molly was under attack.

It finally happened. Evelyn fucking Shirley. The town busy body and know it all who kept tabs on everyone and everything in this town making it her civic duty to keep everyone informed of the opinions she held on such things. People feared her like the cranky mercenary granny she was. Evelyn was brutal, unrelenting, and nobody was safe — she had been known to make grown men cry and run people out of town with a single post on her Facebook page. Evelyn and her Facebook page, Rumor Has It, had more power than Jasper and his posse of lawmen, the mayor, and maybe even Jesus Christ himself.

“She’s Evelyn Shirley…kindness is fuel to her fire,” Shayna snorted. “Where does she find this stuff, anyway? It can’t all be real, can it?”

“Oh, this is real,” Molly chided between gritted teeth. “It’s very real.”

The women gasped, surprised by the admission.

“It’s not what you think,” Molly quickly corrected. “It’s…not…that,” she said, pointing to the computer screen.

Pine Valley’s first stripping book slinger. You know where to send the town’s men to “warm up” — and I don’t mean with a cup of coffee.

The picture was of Molly standing between several scantily clad women in what appeared to be a bar. Molly, although covered in a little more cotton than the others pictured, wasn’t exactly hiding her goods. Not her most flattering picture, but certainly not as scandalous as Evelyn Shirley suggested.

Libby scanned the store, taking in the crowd, and shared her observation. “It doesn’t seem to be hurting business. Look at this place!”

“They’re all men, Libby. I’ve been asked out six times and it’s only ten a.m. on a Monday. Now I know why!” Molly added.

It seemed Evelyn had another target: the town’s new girl. Molly shuddered at the now very public picture and snarky comment. It was clear to anyone who read Rumor Has It who Evelyn was outing…and taunting. It was as if she was daring Molly to do something, but what? Evelyn had an endless arsenal of bullshit and plenty of time to use it given how often she posted. Poking a bear was never a good idea.

“Jesus, don’t they work?” Brady asked, breaking the sudden silence. “Oh my God, isn’t that Shannon’s husband! I’m surprised Evelyn isn’t all over that!” Brady said in disgust, her own jaw dropped. She raised her phone and snapped a picture of sickening-sweet-Shannon’s husband, Chad. “I’m sending that to Evelyn.”

Libby laughed. “I can see the headline now, Pastor’s son-in-law, a two-timing sinner, not a holy rolling saint. Oh Lord!

The group snickered, each having been the butt of Evelyn’s antics a time or two…or ten.

“You can’t send that!” Molly scolded, reaching for the phone. “Isn’t he the youth group leader or something?”

“Yep.” Brady pulled her phone just out of reach as she finished typing her message to Evelyn. “All the more reason to send it. He’s holding a…gasp…sexy book. It’s smut!”

Shayna laughed. “I bet they have fun in the bedroom if that’s what he’s reading.”

“Hey, Christians have sex too, right?” Molly teased. “I’m guessing good sex. Don’t they have several kids? I’d say those books are working for them.”

Libby laughed. “You send that picture, Brady, and you may ruin their sex life.”

“Nah, they’ll just order them online or something. There’s some really good stuff in those books…like really good,” Brady offered.

Libby ducked her head in closer to the ladies, and whispered, “I’m just dying for him to put the book down so I can go see what it is. He’s been reading it since we walked in.”

“Libby! That’s so…personal. Besides, you’ll never unsee the visual…like ever.” Shayna laughed.

The group shenanigans fell to a screeching silence when Brady switched gears and addressed the real elephant at the table. No-filter-Brady didn’t leave anything to the imagination or for guessing — ever. “I didn’t know you were a stripper, kid. Props to you.”

Water shot from Molly’s nose when that which she was drinking took a wrong turn in an awkward attempt to avoid choking over the unexpected bomb Brady dropped. “I was not a stripper. I was a bartender. Those are the waitresses,” Molly defended, pointing to the girls in the picture with her. “They wore paint as shirts, literally body paint. I wore cotton shirts…big difference.”

All eyes were on her as Molly scanned the table. Either they weren’t convinced, or they wanted more. “The place is called Babes. Lots of men, hot girls, big tips. It helped me make my way to Pine Valley and Reading Grounds.”

“Hello, Hooters two-point-oh! You’re pretty hot under those glasses and baggy sweaters you like to wear. Dress like that pic and you’ll need to expand the shop! You’ll owe Evelyn a thanks instead of an eff-you,” Brady deadpanned.

“I’m perfectly content with being me. Now, if I can just get Evelyn to see the real me, and get off her radar, I’ll be golden.”

“Good luck. The woman is relentless,” Libby replied.

“I’ll take that luck. They don’t call her Evil Shirley for nothin’.” Molly shrugged.

 

 

Evelyn Shirley made the Grinch Who Stole Christmas look like a Whoville saving Superman. Ornery didn’t even begin to describe the character of this woman, nor did it define the utter disgust she sported. No, ornery was a compliment of high praise — the way she looked down her nose, harrumphs and pffts as she wandered by, and those beady, dark, soulless eyes could make the devil himself shiver.

Kindness, Libby mentioned. Kill her with kindness. Molly could do that, and found herself at the Savory Sweets Bistro where a little birdy had mentioned the next garden club luncheon would be held. Evelyn ran that garden club like it was her church and religion — she’d no doubt be there. Kindness. Could it be Evelyn Shirley’s kryptonite forcing that warm and fuzzy feeling that could melt the ice around her tiny, black, hardened, cantankerous heart and get Molly on her good side? If she had a good side. Only one way to find out.

“Hello, Evelyn. Lovely arrangement you’ve designed,” Molly said with a mega-watt smile. “Are all those flowers from your garden?”

Kindness was met with an eyeroll and an annoyed sigh. “Of course they are from my garden. I am the Garden Society Chairperson, and I do have award winning gardens. I suppose they don’t teach such posh and regalities at stripper school, dear.”

“I was a bartender. You know, at a bar, not a...” Molly paused and shook off the jab, not willing to be thrown off track so easily. With a deep, calming breath, she continued. “Anyway, I was thinking of putting something in the planters in front of the shop. What would you recommend?”

“Flowers? No strobe lights or flashing neon signs shaped like naked ladies?” Evelyn stood straight, hand dramatically grasping her chest as if shocked. “I know what kind of books you sell in there. I would recommend a nice shiny pole,” Evelyn shot back.

It was odd. When Evelyn was taking her low blows, she did it full of sugar and honey. She almost sounded nice, definitely sincere, especially if you could overlook the insults. That was the worst kind of jerk — the kind who could do it nicely and find pleasure in it. Evelyn Shirley was an asshole to the nth degree.

Cady O’Reilly stepped in with a sympathetic head shake and warm arm of support around Molly’s waist before she could fire back and say what she really thought about Evil Shirley’s fucking flowers and the dark, ugly place she could stick them. Just in the nick of time, Molly thought, catching herself.

Cady was like Glenda the Good Witch to Evelyn’s evil Witch of the West. She was of similar age, equally well known, but for entirely different reasons. Cady was from the deep roots of a well-respected family among distillers and brewers. O’Reilly spirits and ales were made up of all the good stuff, like Cady.

“You need a new plan, honey. I knew this one wouldn’t work,” Cady whispered, skirting Molly away.

“Then why didn’t you say anything at the book club meeting earlier? Spared me the venom?” Molly questioned, feeling a bit betrayed by the woman who had taken her in as something of a granddaughter.

“The ladies and I have a history with Evelyn that dates back decades. You have to experience it to believe half of what she does. Now, you have. What’s your next move?” Cady asked.

The ladies Cady referred to were her oldest, dearest friends who traveled in a pack, like an old lipstick-wearing, silver-haired-lady gang that hung out at the local beauty parlor. They were the senior women of Pine Valley, and more of a bitty brigade with their hands in every club and charity within driving distance — good, decent people you could count on for any and everything. Including getting even with Evelyn Shirly, it seemed.

Molly’s attempt at kindness now became a mission of if you can’t beat them, join them. The last thing she needed was to hand Evelyn some ammo on a silver platter. Game changer, kindness could suck it. Molly needed a new plan. If Evelyn still had so much contempt for Molly she would verbally attack her in public, then this was nowhere near over. Back to the drawing board, only this time, with Cady O’Reilly and her posse — Molly felt more confident with the bitty brigade in her back pocket.

 

 

A sullen look washed over Molly’s face as she hovered over her iPad. Seth Spangler couldn’t help but notice — just as he noticed everything Molly did — when he walked into Reading Grounds. Her demeanor captured his attention at first glance and had him meandering in her direction instead of through the aisles of books or the counter for his regular to-go cup of joe. Seth had been one of Molly’s first customers, one she enjoyed talking books with…when he talked.

“Hey there, what’s with the long face? Everything okay?” he asked, his tone and concern seeming genuine.

Molly turned the iPad around so he could see just what had her mood in the trenches. Evelyn Shirley. Again. A faceless photo of Molly accompanied yet another snarky Evelyn rant. Not only was Molly still on the witch’s radar, but she seemed to have pissed her off.

Something in the pew smells bad. We read the bible here, not mommy porn.

“Wow! That woman is ruthless. It seems not even church is off limits to her. I wonder who that is in the picture,” he questioned.

Seth was the epitome of tall, dark, and handsome. It didn’t hurt that he was incredibly fit and well mannered — the kind of stuff that made ladies weak in the knees. He didn’t know it, but being kind and easy on the eyes had Molly looking forward to his frequent visits. Seth was somewhat awkward and a man of few words, but his interest in books and fondness of Reading Grounds seemed to please Molly, which pleased him.

“It’s me. I don’t know if she thinks she’s doing me any favors by cutting off my face, but the mommy porn is a dead giveaway,” Molly snorted, anything but amused.

Eyes wide and voice low, Seth asked, “You sell…porn?”

His honest naivety came as a welcome breath of fresh air and earned him a sweet giggle. He smiled, not sure what was so funny, but he would take her smile and laughter as the alternative any day.

“No, I don’t sell porn. I sell romance novels, amongst everything else. Apparently, Evelyn considers it to be mommy porn.”

“Oh, romance…so it isn’t porn?”

“Of course not!” she spat in lighthearted offense. “It’s just as it states: romance. Sure, it may have a few bedroom scenes, but it’s purely romance, nothing more. The only disgusting thing about them is her assumption.”

“Oh! I had no idea. Clearly Evelyn hasn’t read one if she thinks that’s porn. Maybe she should…to lighten up,” Seth said with a smile and wink, earning him yet another giggle.

“Did you see her first post? She thinks I’m a stripper, hence the mommy porn. Apparently, I am here to scandalize all the mommies in Pine Valley.”

“You were a stripper?” he asked a little louder than he intended.

Seth found Molly absolutely stunning, even if she tried to hide her beauty beneath oversized glasses and bulky sweaters. She had rich brown eyes deep enough to swim in, and they matched her long dark locks he’d give anything to twirl his fingers through. She was petite in size, but curvy in all the right places — that was obvious no matter what she tried to hide under.

She was a classic beauty who turned heads and left men breathless, or in Seth’s case, speechless. No matter how much he practiced what he wanted to say, or how confident he was, the moment he saw her, he became a babbling idiot. He would ask her out just as soon as this spell she had over him wore off…he hoped.

“No!” she lowered her voice to a near whisper, bringing Seth out of his daydream and back to the conversation. “Before I came here, I worked several jobs. I saved every penny just to move to Pine Valley and open Reading Grounds. One of my jobs was at a place called Babes.”

“You were a Babe?” he questioned in surprise. Babe is what the waitresses and hosts were referred to as. The minute Seth said it, he regretted it. The only way he’d know that was if he’d been there. And Molly would know that.

An eyeroll and sigh later, Molly went on to tell him exactly what she was and was not. “I was not a Babe! I was a bartender. Since you’ve been there, you know, as a bartender, I was not walking around topless covered in body paint serving perverted men meals.”

With her hands on her hips, she continued to justify her stint there. “The schedule was flexible, and the tips were amazing. It helped me reach my goals, and I’m not ashamed of that, despite Evelyn trying to make me feel otherwise.”

“I’m sorry she’s taking out all her hostility on you. She tends to latch on to new people and put them through her own form of hazing. It’ll pass as soon as someone else does something to get her attention.”

“She is ruthless, though. I tried talking to her, and it was like talking to a pissed-off rabid porcupine with her quills aimed at me. I must have made it worse because this mommy porn thing popped up,” she admitted with a defeated shrug.

Seth mirrored her shrug. “Skunk.”

“Skunk?”

“Yep, pissed off rabid skunk… They leave a bad smell behind that’s hard to shake. Evelyn’s attitude definitely stinks and leaves a foul trail,” he said with a smile, proud of his silly analogy as it brought yet another grin to Molly’s face — even if he did sound ridiculous.

Seth’s attempts to lighten her mood with goofy, albeit sweet, chatter seemed to be working. He may have felt like an ass every time he opened his mouth and something stupid fell out, but Molly seemed to enjoy his kind of stupid. Seth hoped Molly looked forward to his visits and awkward conversation as much as he looked forward to seeing her.

Seth knew his demeanor was genuine and he was easy to talk to, mostly because he didn’t say much to begin with. Maybe that was enough for her, he thought. Seth convinced himself being a little quirky could be endearing, and his character was upstanding — that had to count for something. Having an honorable career couldn’t hurt either. He was the kind of guy you took home to meet the parents. At least he thought so. Girls liked that kind of stuff.

Sometimes, Seth wished he was there for more than just books and coffee, but he would take what he could get. For now. Until he could build up the nerve to ask her out instead of carrying on this stalker-like charade. He didn’t even like coffee.

“Thank you for listening. I feel better. You’re a good guy, Seth Spangler.” She wrapped her arms around him across the counter and gave him a sweet hug that he kindly returned. “So, can I help you find a book today?” she asked, remembering he was here for books, not to offer free counseling.

“Tell me about those romance books…mommy porn. Think I would like one of those?” He grinned and waggled his eyebrows, not quite ready to end their chat or for her smile to fade again.

“Oh, a funny guy. Just for that, follow me. I have just the book to start your romance collection with. Fifty Shades of…” her voice trailed off, words lost in the space, his focus completely lost in her eyes. He’d buy whatever she gave him every single time.

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