pearl white peril
Hadley couldn’t be happier in Darlington Hills. She’s loving her new town, new friends, and new job staging rooms for photo shoots at a trendy home furnishings company—even though her boss is quick-tempered and rude. Everything seems perfect until Hadley finds a body in her boss’s kitchen and all eyes turn to him as the likely suspect.
Faced with the possibility of losing her job if her boss ends up behind bars, she starts asking questions around town in hopes of proving his innocence. But when Hadley’s questions strike a hot nerve with someone, she finds herself dodging escalating threats—all while working furiously to meet deadlines for her company’s first-ever printed catalog, prepping for the town’s annual Flower Festival, and navigating budding friendships with two town flirts, one of whom happens to be her boss’s brother.
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Two champagne-gold pendant lights, suspended directly above the kitchen island, cast a warm glow on the glossy marble countertops and subway tile backsplash. The all-white kitchen in the Walnut Ridge home gleamed with cheerful opulence despite the untimely arrival of a mid-morning storm. Persistent waves of rain thrashed against the window above the sink, almost drowning out the angry chants of protestors in the backyard.
I approached the counter space between the stove and refrigerator and adjusted the items on a woven rattan tray, moving the stack of salad plates in front of the wooden cake stand and vase of lavender hydrangeas. The plates were part of the company’s new Stantonville dinnerware set, and it was best to put them in the spotlight.
I turned around and surveyed the room. “Hey, Terence,” I called out over my shoulder. “Can you please move the middle barstool a smidgeon to the right? I need it centered between the other two.”
Terence Holt wiped his palms against his jeans as he walked from the adjoining breakfast room toward the island. “You got it.” He slid the low-back stool toward its neighbor then raised an eyebrow at me. “Good?”
“Yes, thank you. You know I couldn’t do this without you. Everything looks perfect.” Terence and his crew were the company muscles, doing everything from moving furniture and painting walls to hanging drapes, shelves, lights and artwork. They transformed rooms within the Walnut Ridge home two, sometimes three, times a day, making them look completely different. And fortunately, Terence was a pro at interpreting words like ‘smidgeon.’
He tapped his knuckles against the white marble. “You’d better hope the rain lets up. What’s on the other side of that window is just plain ugly. We might as well be taking photos at night, it’s so dark out there.” One of his braids fell in his face, but it didn’t seem to bother him. The sides of his head were shaved, but the top held a thick stack of long black braids, which he usually tied back with a band.
I grinned and joined Terence by the stools. “Nah, don’t worry about the storm. The graphics team can spiff up that window faster than you can say Photoshop. They’ll make it look like the clear-sky spring day we should be having right now.” The day’s forecast promised a full day of rain, and we couldn’t afford to delay the photo shoot.
It was early April, and Walnut Ridge’s first-ever printed catalog was scheduled to arrive in mailboxes throughout the country on July 1. The tight deadline meant long workdays, including most Saturdays. We had started staging rooms and shooting pictures several weeks ago and we had at least five more weeks to go for the first issue.
But I didn’t complain about the long hours. I loved nearly every aspect of my new, never-dreamed-it-could-happen-to me job.
“There you are,” said a voice behind me.
Terence and I turned as Vincent Weatherford, owner of Walnut Ridge Furniture and Decor, pushed his way past a tower of plastic storage bins and stepped into the kitchen. In a pressed blue dress shirt buttoned nearly to the top and well-worn dark blue jeans, his style wavered somewhere between smart and casual without directly hitting the trendy smart-casual look.
When Vincent started Walnut Ridge six years ago, customers could only order from his company’s website. But when every southern woman became obsessed with his furniture and decor, Vincent decided to escape the digital confines of his website and mail monthly catalogs to customers. He moved from Baltimore to Darlington Hills, Virginia last year and bought a seventy-year old classic southern home with a wraparound porch, columns, and black shutters that contrasted nicely with the smooth white siding. His was one of the larger homes in the ritzy, heavily wooded North Hills neighborhood.
Vincent’s gaze settled on Terence. “Don’t you keep your phone on? I’ve been looking for you the past five minutes. I should have known Hadley had ensnared you in conversation. I need you to go do something about them.” Vincent jerked his head toward the kitchen window. Half a dozen drenched protestors held soggy posters condemning the new catalog for killing trees. It was the same group that had been protesting outside, more days than not, for the past several weeks. Two men blew into long plastic noisemaker horns, while Sonya Bean, the leader of the six, shouted into a white bullhorn.
Terence, who was a month away from graduating from Old Dominion University with a psychology degree, was certainly the most qualified person on Vincent’s payroll to try to reason with the protestors, but I guessed Vincent picked him because he was also the most physically intimidating, with his six-three frame and bodybuilder biceps.
“Go tell them I’m calling the cops if they don’t get off my lawn,” Vincent said. “They’re going to destroy the grass.”
Terence nodded and started walking toward the kitchen door, which led to the backyard.
“Remind them they’re on private property,” Vincent called after him. “Make sure they move to the street out front, or better yet, help them find their way out of this neighborhood.”
“Help them find their inner child,” I teased. “Go make Freud proud.”
Laughing, Terence stepped out into the downpour.
Vincent’s eyes swept across the kitchen. “How much more time do you need to finish staging the kitchen? Rachael is wrapping up photos in the entry hall, and her crew is shooting this room next. You did see today’s itinerary, right? It said kitchen photos at 10:30 a.m. It’s 10:15 now, and you clearly have a lot more work to do.”
I straightened my back. “Actually, I’m done with the kitchen. I just finished arranging the Stantonville plates—”
“Done?” Vincent’s eyes were wide. “I’m putting the kitchen on the cover of my new catalog. For some people, this room will be their first impression of Walnut Ridge. I cannot have them thinking I sell soulless junk. This kitchen should scream contemporary southern, but right now it’s more of a sad whimper. Give me some warm dashes of color, Hadley. I need a kitchen that begs for lively Sunday brunches with maple pancakes and griddled country ham. This room should be so southern that it conjures Scarlett O’Hara herself and makes her cry tears of sweetened peach iced tea. Can you do that for me?”
I forced myself to hold his gaze while I took a slow, steady breath. “Of course.” I strode toward the storage bin marked Serving Dishes and removed a small glass bowl. Tucking it under my left arm like a football, I moved across the kitchen to Vincent’s refrigerator, scanned the well-stocked shelves, and removed five lemons from the fruit drawer. I set the bowl on the counter by the sink, stacked the lemons in a pyramid, then swung around toward Vincent, my wavy ponytail whipping across my face.
“There,” I said.
He brought his hand to his face and massaged the gray and black bristles of his goatee. In the weeks since I had moved to Darlington Hills to work as Walnut Ridge’s interior designer, I had learned Vincent was never pleased with anyone’s work initially, no matter how good it was. He first ridiculed it and then educated us on how we should have done it. But I tried to not let his criticism bring me down; he was probably just nervous about his first catalog.
The deep creases between Vincent’s eyes softened. “This is more like it. It’s sophisticated yet sensible. Go tell Rachael we’re ready to shoot the kitchen.”
The back door opened and a soaked Terence walked through, followed by an older man, perhaps in his sixties, wearing a red raincoat that looked about three sizes too large for his slender frame. Next to me, Vincent swore.
The man’s eyes fell on Vincent. “You are in a heap of trouble, Mr. Weatherford. Don’t think just because you aren’t responding to my violation notices that I’m going to back down.”
“You can’t walk into my house whenever you’d like,” Vincent said. “We’re in the middle of a photo shoot. If you have an issue with my business, get in line. Go make yourself a sign and join the tree-loving group outside.”
The man flipped back his jacket hood, revealing frizzy silver hair. He marched toward Vincent and me. “I don’t care about trees. I care about rules. And as a new resident of North Hills neighborhood, you are required to abide by the rules set forth by the homeowner’s association. Pursuant to Article Twelve, Section Four in the HOA’s governing covenants, residents are not allowed to run a business from their home without prior approval.”
My mouth fell open. Vincent hadn’t gotten approval to run his business from his home?
The man glanced at me and gave a curt nod. “Willy Ellsworth, president of North Hills HOA. I assume you work with Mr. Weatherford?”
Before I could respond or offer my hand to introduce myself, Willy returned his fiery eyes to Vincent. “Given the nature of your business and the fact that you did not seek prior approval, I can assure you my board will not allow you to conduct your business in our upstanding neighborhood. We will take action against you, Mr. Weatherford.”
Not good. If the HOA forced Vincent to cease business operations, we wouldn’t finish photos for the catalog in time. Or worse, Vincent would be forced to move and I might not have a steady job anymore. Although my plan for moving to Virginia involved starting my own interior design consulting business, at the moment I needed the steady income from Walnut Ridge. So far I’d completed only one client job in Darlington Hills. It was a one-week project I’d snagged while I was here for my job interview with Vincent.
It hadn’t ended well, to say the least. I most definitely would not be doing any more work for that client.
Vincent took a step closer to the man. “I am well aware of your HOA rules. You don’t think my attorney reviewed them before I bought this house? Unfortunately for your HOA, its covenants do not give your board any real enforcement power. It’s all in the fine print, Willy, and my attorney will be happy to spell it out for you. My company is one of the south’s top home furnishing companies, and my neighbors are thrilled to live next to Walnut Ridge’s new design home. Besides, it’s not like I’m throwing wild parties every night.”
“You’ve had a twenty-foot moving truck parked in front of your house for the past month,” Willy said, his voice rising. “Not to mention all the parked cars in front of your home these days, and those hideous storage sheds in your side yard, which are visible from the street. Your neighbor, Mrs. Feldman, says her five kids can’t ride their bikes in this cul-de-sac or play in their front yard because they’re scared of that rowdy gang of protestors causing such a hoo-ha in your yard. Your business is a nuisance to this neighborhood.”
There was a flicker of light outside, followed immediately by a fierce clap of thunder. The house went dark.
Vincent grumbled, casting an angry look out the window. But as fast as the electricity had cut off, it came back on—except in the kitchen and breakfast room.
Vincent stormed into the breakfast room, looking toward the dining room in the front of the house. Willy and I followed him. “Where did Terence go? He was just in here. Someone needs to go flip the circuit breaker for the kitchen lights. We have a photo shoot in here in less than fifteen minutes.”
“He probably went to dry off,” I reasoned, turning toward the garage. I could flip the breaker as easily as anyone else. But before I reached the door, one of Terence’s guys, Josh Finney, walked into the kitchen carrying a can of paint.
“Go take care of the lights,” Vincent barked. I was surprised he hadn’t used the opportunity to flip the breaker himself as an excuse to dodge Willy.
Instead, Vincent widened his stance and faced the older man. “You will leave my home immediately or I will take action against you,” he said, punching his words out like a series of rapid, powerful uppercuts. “Do I make myself clear?”
I flinched. Vincent could be moody and condescending, but I’d never seen him act like a rabid Rottweiler before.
Willy removed his raincoat and reached into the front pocket of his shirt, then pulled out an envelope folded in half. “This is a cease and desist letter, curtesy of your neighborhood HOA, which by the way most certainly does have the power to enforce its rules.”
Josh popped his head through the doorway and checked the overhead lights. “No good. I flipped the breaker but it didn’t do anything. Must be some sort of electrical issue.” With his smooth platinum-blonde hair, tanned skin and paint-streaked sleeveless T-shirt, he resembled a twenty-something-year-old version of Hulk Hogan, only about a quarter of the wrestling star’s size. His circa 1980s clear plastic-rimmed eyeglasses had a small smudge of paint on the right lens, and I had to use all my willpower to not march over and clean them myself.
Vincent checked his watch, then dismissed Josh with an impatient flick of his wrist. “Of course it’s an electrical issue. You’re the handyman; go fix it. Find Terence and get him to help if you can’t do it.” He stared out the breakfast room’s three-panel bay window and shook his head. “This home has been one nightmare after another. It was a junkhouse before I got my hands on it, and despite all the money I dumped into it, this place continues to show its ugly bones.”
“I can’t believe old Ms. Henkle sold it to you,” Willy said. “Considering the price you paid and my dealings with you thus far, I presume you intimidated her into selling.”
Vincent yanked the envelope from Willy’s hand and tossed it on the breakfast table. “Intimidated? No. I charmed that deed out of her hands.” He laughed. “It didn’t take much. She probably hadn’t been charmed in years.”
Terence moseyed back into the breakfast room, his face dry but his solid white T-shirt and blue jeans still soaked. He glanced up at the lights, then looked to Vincent for an explanation.
“Lights out, Josh can’t fix it,” Vincent said.
“I tried the breaker and nothing happened,” Josh explained, his shaky voice obliterating his Hulk Hogan facade. He came and stood next to Terence. “But I can go take care of it.”
Terence smiled appreciatively. “Thanks, man, but I want you to finish painting the dining room and then move on to the game room. I’ll go check it out.”
Dropping his eyes to the floor, Josh spun on his heels toward the kitchen.
“Dude. Other way,” Terence said, one corner of his mouth lifting into a smile.
Josh shook his head and turned around, revealing already-reddened cheeks. “Right. I get turned around in this place.”
“Hadley, tell me the upstairs bedroom is ready for photos,” Vincent said. “I don’t have time to wait on the lights. We need to keep things rolling. We’re finishing everything on today’s itinerary even if it means working until midnight.”
“It’s ready,” I responded, thankful I had stayed late last night to stage the room. Whether or not Vincent would think it was ready was another consideration.
“Terence, go fix the lights,” Vincent instructed. “Hadley, follow me upstairs and grab Rachael’s crew on the way. Willy, you have ten seconds to leave my house. You will hear from my attorney.”
“I’m not going anywhere until you read and acknowledge this cease and desist letter, Mr. Weatherford.”
Vincent grabbed the envelope from the table, ripped it in half in one dramatic motion, then threw it back on the table. Grunting, he turned and walked toward the entry hall. I followed, stopping only to ask Rachael to move her team and equipment upstairs.
I caught up to Vincent at the top of the stairs just as he turned toward the bedroom. “I put some fresh peonies on the nightstand, and I had wanted to add a stack of books with blue spines to complement the cool tones in the Calypso rug, but I couldn’t find any in your storage sheds. Do you have any in your bedroom?” Vincent was an avid reader, so there was a good chance he had a few books in his off-limits personal living area, which consumed about half of the home’s upstairs space.
The graphics team, which worked remotely from its Detroit office, could easily superimpose a stack of books, but Vincent required all photos to be authentic—wallpaper, paint, and all. He wanted everything to be perfect. Because not only would these photos be printed in the catalog, they would also live in the products section of the company’s website. He had never hired an interior designer to stage his furniture for professional photo shoots before, and now he hoped to take Walnut Ridge to the next level.
Vincent stopped walking. “Probably, but I’m not wasting time on that right now. Next time, try the attic. There’s a bunch of junk in there from the woman who used to live here. I haven’t gone through it but you might find something useful.”
Vincent held up a finger, then dug his hand into the back pocket of his jeans and pulled out his vibrating phone. After glancing at the screen, he closed his eyes for a long beat, then brought the phone to his ear. He listened to a deep voice on the other end, clenching the phone so hard his knuckles turned white.
“I don’t want any more delays,” Vincent snapped. “You need to take care of it this morning.” The deep voice continued talking, but Vincent pulled the phone from his ear and hung up.
“Contractor?” I asked.
He resumed walking, his eyes set on the open door in front of us. “No.”
I didn’t press him to elaborate. It wasn’t my business who was on the phone.
Rachael and her crew joined us a minute later, set up their tripods and spotlights, then began shooting the room. After they photographed the bedding collection I had arranged last night, I replaced it with the Augusta Rose duvet cover and matching shams, which featured roses embroidered with stitching several shades darker than the rest of the pink cotton fabric. The extra-thick synthetic feather insert gave the duvet a nice full shape, and the two additional inserts I hid under the Augusta Rose duvet made the bedding look downright plush. To balance the angular lines of the tufted headboard, I’d placed a round mirror above the nightstands on both sides of the bed.
Rachael flitted around the room, snapping photos from every vantage point possible. She reminded me of Tinker Bell with her asymmetrical pixie cut and spry movements. Leaping from the floor to the chair to the rug to the linen-covered bench at the foot of the bed had never looked so easy. Rachael’s two assistants, Silent Kyle and Harry the Hummer, worked alongside her.
Vincent remained quiet as we worked. Not once did he criticize my design choices or tell Rachael how to do her job. He spent more time checking his phone than watching the activity in the room. His eyes followed the photographers without seeming to focus on them. I wondered if Willy had gotten to him, or if the person he had spoken with on the phone had upset him. Or maybe he was just tired. The hypnotic drumming of the rain against the roof and window, interrupted only by the soft clicks of cameras and Harry’s soft humming, was enough to put anyone to sleep. It made me want to slide under the stack of warm duvet covers and take a nap.
The harsh screeching of Sonya’s bullhorn interrupted my mid-morning nap fantasy. In the front yard, just below the bedroom window, Sonya and her cohorts from the Forest Action League resumed chanting the same words they had chanted for nearly two weeks: “Stop the madness and insanity; kill the catalog, not the trees!”
Their yelling was irritating, but I sympathized with their concerns. I couldn’t count the number of catalogs I had thrown away because they weren’t relevant. I hoped Walnut Ridge’s marketing agency would mail its new catalogs to only the most promising customers.
“If they want to stand in the rain all day and die of pneumonia, that’s their business,” Vincent said. “But we don’t have to listen to them.” He propped his phone on a metal stepstool near the door and tapped the big orange play button on his screen, dragging the volume slider all the way to the right. Classical music replaced the chanting instantly, and we enjoyed two entire minutes of a lively piano concerto before a rapid sequence of thwacks interrupted the music.
We all rushed to the window, just as a grapefruit-sized mud ball slammed against the glass.
“They’re digging holes out there,” Vincent shrieked. “That mud is from my flowerbeds.” He made it to the bedroom door in several large steps. “This madness is going to stop right now. Keep shooting, I am not letting this delay us.”
The spirited pounding of Vincent’s feet on the stairs was a well-timed accompaniment to the rising crescendo of the classical ballad playing on his phone, punctuated by the swift slamming of the front door.
Rachael and I exchanged eye rolls. Someone yelled below us, but the loud music made it impossible to hear what they were saying. The mud ball assault stopped, and I continued fluffing pillows while Rachael’s team snapped away. We finished with the Augusta Rose bedding collection and I went into the room’s walk-in closet to retrieve the third and final bedding set that Vincent wanted to include in the catalog. The third set was my favorite and I intended to buy it for my bed once I earned a few paychecks from Walnut Ridge. The soft gray comforter featured evenly spaced pinch pleats, which gave it more depth and texture than any other comforter I’d seen.
“What are you doing?” Rachael asked. She was folding up a tripod. “We need to head downstairs for the next photo shoot.” I could barely hear her over the music, but I didn’t want to touch Vincent’s phone and risk adding to his anger. “We’re done in here.”
“Vincent wants photos of all three bedding collections,” I said, trying to raise my voice loud enough for her to hear me without sounding like I was frustrated. I avoided conflict like I avoided paisley prints and linoleum flooring. Pulling the folded itinerary from the side pocket of my navy tailored skirt, I pointed to the line on the paper that confirmed my belief.
Rachael nodded with a smile. “Yeah, but he told me yesterday he only wants us to shoot the first two bedding sets. Why don’t we wait for him to come back up? Should be any minute now.”
I frowned. It seemed like Vincent would have told me about the change yesterday before I steamed the comforter and matching pillow shams. “Hold tight, I’ll go ask him.”
I hurried down the stairs, opened the front door, and stood on the covered front porch while I scanned the yard. Other than an abandoned “kill the catalog” poster by the base of the sprawling oak tree, there were no signs of Vincent, Sonya, or the other protesters. A gust of wind swept a torrent of rain toward the patio, peppering me with cold water. I retreated into the Walnut Ridge home and moved through the family room toward the back door in the kitchen.
A new musical number from Vincent’s phone echoed throughout the house, which felt hollow without its typical swarm of frantic workers. I checked my watch. The Walnut Ridge crew stopped work at noon every day, honoring their lunch hour as if it were a religion. But it was only 11:30 a.m., too early for lunch.
Curious about where everyone was, I continued exploring downstairs. I stepped into the sunroom, then swung an immediate right through the arched doorway into the dark kitchen. Without the warm glow from the pendant lights, the marble countertops reflected only the dim light from the window above the sink, giving the kitchen a greenish hue.
The back door was open, sprays of rain blowing into the kitchen. Several steps away from the door, the tip of my right shoe kicked something soft. It took me a moment to realize the bright yellow object rolling across the wood floor was a lemon. It settled next to another lemon amid a mess of broken glass and water.
My eyes snapped to the counter space where the glass bowl should have been but wasn’t. Questions spun through my mind faster than I could process them. Had someone dropped the bowl of lemons? Why had they been moving it? Why would they leave them on the floor? I couldn’t imagine making such a mess and leaving it for someone else to clean up. Who would do that?
I closed the back door, then picked up the two lemons near my feet, careful not to touch any glass, then reached for a third lemon that lay by the cabinet under the sink. I spotted another pop of yellow to my right, turned and reached for it, then whipped my hand back so fast I whacked it against the cabinet.
The lemon was half-hiding behind a shoe that stuck out from one corner of the island at an angle that told me it was still on somebody’s foot. My heart launched into overdrive as I rounded the island.
I froze, unable to unlock my eyes from the wide unblinking ones of Willy Ellsworth, who was lying on his stomach with his head turned toward me. I dropped to my knees to check for a pulse, then bolted backwards when my eyes fell on the wooden knife handle protruding from his back.
I screamed loud enough to put Sonya Bean’s bullhorn out of business.