The Devil in the Deep South by Amy Craig
General Release Date: 12th January 2021
Word Count: 90,241
Book Length: SUPER NOVEL
CRIME AND MYSTERY
Taylor envisions her small-town Georgia bookstore as a community gathering place. When a tornado destroys the historic brick building and much of downtown Ronan, an Atlanta bigshot brings in heavy equipment to clean up the mess. Torn between her loyalties to the town and her desire for the executive, she picks up the pieces of her life, but rebuilding Ronan requires more than lumber and nails.
Hardened by the Army, losing his brother and industrial competition, Christopher knows he’s leading another man’s life, but Taylor convinces him to reconsider his future. He’s determined to have her by his side, but he can’t imagine living in her backwoods town.
Reader advisory: This book contains mentions of fraud, a past instance of domestic violence, a scene of public sex and an instance of attempted vehicular manslaughter.
“O beautiful for spacious skies…” Taylor Lenore sang along with the first-grade class occupying her bookstore. Rows of eager children filled the community space. Their seersucker shorts, ruffled cuffs and monogrammed collars reminded her of her idyllic childhood, and she loved Ronan’s tiniest performers as much as she loved books.
The pudgy kid in the front row stuck his finger up his nose.
She stumbled over a verse but continued singing. Watching the kid made her nose itch, but she kept her hand pressed against her side, wrinkled away the sensation and exaggerated her participation. “From sea to shining sea!”
The kid sneezed and sent a green glob flying across the open space. The emission landed in front of the audience of grinning parents, doting grandparents and special guests.
Clapping, she rushed forward and placed her shoe over the snot. “Fabulous! Aren’t they just the sweetest?”
The audience lowered their phones, clapped and nodded.
The children shuffled on the risers.
She scanned the crowded store, but everyone looked happy so she exhaled. After her engagement to Josh had fallen apart, returning to Ronan felt like a smart move, but she’d struggled to envision her future. Her mother Nancy wanted to coddle grandbabies and her father Jack wanted to protect her. She wanted to go to bed each night knowing she made a difference in her tiny corner of the world. Maybe she should let the kid wipe up his own snot. She glanced at her shoe and smiled. We all have room to grow.
Looking toward the pastry case, she sought out Plucky’s encouragement. Her friend wore her shiny black hair cut in a chin-length bob. Long bangs swept over one eye like a brush of feathers tinged with blue. I liked the pink tips better, but she never could settle. Plucky’s response to the performance would tell her whether the bookstore had displayed Ronan’s germ-caked darlings to their full advantage.
They tried. Taylor swallowed and raised her eyebrows.
Plucky mimed gagging herself.
She slashed her hand across her throat. I get the point. I tried to do a good thing!
With a wink, Plucky turned back to the pastry case.
Clapping her hands together, Taylor turned back to the parents who were gathering their things. She inclined her hands toward the first-grade teacher’s black curls. “I just want to say that Mrs. Jenkins did an amazing job teaching the kids. I never knew that song had so many verses.” Avoiding her mother’s gaze, she extended her hands toward the children. “Y’all are so impressive!”
Her mother, the elementary school librarian, stood near the nonfiction section. Plastic reading glasses hung from her neck, and a soft purple cardigan accented her bright-blue eyes. Risking a glance, Taylor saw her raise her chin. She caught that fib about the song all right. I sang every verse at my first pageant. Brushing her bangs out of her eyes, she ignored Nancy’s reproach and focused on the stars of this show. “Kids, thank you so much for coming to our little bookstore and brightening our day.”
Mrs. Jenkins squeezed the shoulders of two first-graders. “Thank you for having us. The auditorium intimidates some of our special friends, but everyone loves Ronan Reads.”
She clasped her hand against her chest. If the elementary school wanted to utilize her space for a spring performance, who was she to turn away the free publicity? “Why, thank you!” She let the performance’s spirit wash over her and exhaled. Nerves kept her on edge, but the little darlings charmed her. “Plucky has cupcakes for the kids and coffee for the adults. Everyone, please stay and visit.”
The students leaned toward the sweets.
Mrs. Jenkins smiled. “Go, you little hellions! You earned it.”
The orderly rows dissolved into chaos. Elbows flew, and several children stepped on their classmates’ toes.
Holding the tray of cupcakes like a shield, Plucky skewed her mouth and turned her head to the side.
“Me first!” the pudgy kid yelled.
His suspender-strapped belly strained his shirt buttons, but he made his way across the room with admirable speed. A muscled little bruiser overtook him, snatched the first cupcake and shoved the icing into his mouth. Taylor covered a laugh.
“That one was mine!”
The children crowded around Plucky.
“Charles Brannon hit me!” a girl cried.
“C.B., mind your manners.” Mrs. Jenkins’s sing-song voice cut through the noise.
Charles Brannon mumbled an apology, but he gave his classmate side-eye.
Taylor sympathized with the girl. The first time she’d called that kid ‘Charles’, he’d shaken his head and turned his brown doe-eyes to his mother. “It’s okay, Mama. She doesn’t know me yet.” The mixture of innocence and sincerity charmed Taylor, but she wondered if the little tyke would throw her under the bus for a slice of cake. Today’s kids were so much worldlier than the kids from her dirt-tinged, polyester youth. Good thing I didn’t call the little tyke ‘Charlie’. Trusting Plucky to handle the first graders, she turned from the fray and keyed up the music.
Housed on the main floor of an old, three-story brick building, Ronan Reads offered everything from thrillers to obscure local publications. Online sales kept the balance sheet healthy, and a casual space in the middle of the store let customers read, nibble cookies or linger over free Wi-Fi.
She envisioned the bookstore as a gathering place and a hotspot for book releases. After a year of business, her dream felt naïve, and she struggled to keep the store afloat in the digital age. Sparrow County’s population topped sixty thousand, but only a few thousand people lived within the city’s limits, and even fewer of them cared for books. Bankers and health-care workers toiled away in the Historic District, but Thirsty Thursday remained an Atlanta gimmick. Given free time, Ronan’s residents spent their hours praying, gossiping or binging television shows. Taylor could never pin down the right order.
Nancy walked up to her side. “How many verses does that song have, Taylor Lenore?”
She swallowed and met her mother’s gaze. “Three?”
Nancy raised an eyebrow.
She focused on the children’s shrieks and laughter. Despite Nancy’s public-facing job, she was an educator and an introvert who hid behind picture books and manners. Once strangers broke through her prim exterior, they found a loyal woman who loved her job. Taylor loved her, too, but she never had the luxury of distance. “I wanted to flatter the kids for a job well done.”
“Do they look like they need your flattery?”
She considered the kids wreaking havoc in her store. Two boys finger-painted chocolate icing on the floor and a pair of girls chased each other with napkins. Their parents clustered around the coffee urn and exchanged pleasantries over cream and sugar. They might not need my flattery, but I’m going to need a few hours to put the store back together. “No, they’re doing just fine without me.”
“Those who flatter their neighbors are spreading nets for their feet,” Nancy said, quoting the Bible.
After two-and-a-half decades of experience with Nancy’s wisdom, Taylor wisely nodded. I love Jesus, but the Bible doesn’t get into detail about running a bookstore, balancing the bottom line and maintaining the goodwill of the online community.
Nancy pushed her glasses up her nose and picked up a new release. She flipped through the first few pages. “You did good hosting the concert, but you don’t need sweet talk to turn a profit.”
Setting her phone on the table, she let a playlist direct the tracks. “Mama, I’m running a business.”
Nancy looked up from the book. “Goodwill will come back to you in spades.”
She frowned. “I don’t recognize that verse.”
“I made it up.”
Exhaling, she met her mother’s gaze. “Mama, please…”
“Is this book any good?” Nancy asked.
She considered the question. Llama Serenade was the story of a couple who abandoned their one-bedroom apartment in New York City for seventy-five acres in Flagstaff, Arizona. In poetic, reverent detail, Bunny and Brunswick Kissimmee explored their relationship with the llamas they raised, the land they owned and the clothing-optional hot tub parties they hosted in the desert. “I’m not sure ‘new-age mecca’ is quite your style.”
“People have alienated themselves from the animals that feed them.”
Her mother raised chickens but not the kind kids cuddled for backyard photo opportunities. “True.”
Nancy turned to the back cover. “Whew. Twenty-four dollars. The authors think highly of themselves.”
“Publishers set the price,” Taylor said. “You know you get a twenty-percent discount.”
“You’re a good girl.” Nancy tucked the book under her arm and walked toward the coffee urn.
About the Author
Amy Craig lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana USA with her family and a small menagerie of pets. She writes women’s fiction and contemporary romances with intelligent and empathetic heroines. She can’t always vouch for the men. She has worked as an engineer, project manager, and incompetent waitress. In her spare time, she plays tennis and expands her husband’s honey-do list.
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