Cheri on top, p.1
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       Cheri on Top, p.1

           Susan Donovan
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Cheri on Top

  Dedicated with love to my friend Kris Larson Fagre. I’m so glad you weathered your storm.


  The author would like to thank Arleen Shuster for being my road-tripping BFF in North Carolina and in life; Becky and George Fain for graciously hosting us at the Inn at Iris Meadows in Waynesville, NC; Sean Lewis for tidbits from the world of small-town newspapering; Chad Smith, for helping me rediscover my “one percent”; and Celeste Bradley and Darby Gill for pulling my threads in the nick of time. Because of all of you, this book is a book and I’m still smiling.

  “Storms make trees take deeper roots.”

  —Dolly Parton


  Title Page




  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  Chapter 18

  Chapter 19

  Chapter 20

  Chapter 21

  Chapter 22

  Chapter 23

  Chapter 24

  Chapter 25

  Chapter 26

  Chapter 27



  St. Martin’s Paperbacks Titles by Susan Donovan

  Praise for the Novels of Susan Donovan


  Chapter 1

  The phone rang out like an air-raid siren, causing Cherise to nearly dump her ramen noodles onto the dining nook floor.

  “Woo-hoo!” her roommate shouted from the plastic lawn chair in the living room. “I hope it’s Tampa Electric—I was starting to worry they just aren’t into us anymore!”

  Cherise set her bowl on the dinette table and blew on her burning fingers, chuckling at her friend’s sarcasm. Everybody had their own way of dealing with stress, she supposed. Candy’s was sarcasm. Cherise preferred cheap carbohydrates. Who could say which was better?

  “I made a good-faith payment on the electric bill just last week,” Cherise told her roomie as she headed toward the kitchen wall phone. “This is probably Bank of America.”

  “In that case, the suspense is killing me. Will this be in reference to your grossly overdue account, or mine?”

  The ringing continued to ricochet off the studio apartment’s bare walls.

  “Don’t answer it,” Candy suggested.

  “Ignoring them only makes matters worse.”

  “I’m not sure that’s possible.”

  Cherise peered at the caller ID, and took a step back in astonishment. She’d expected to see the words “Incomplete Data,” the euphemism for collection agencies and accounts receivable departments from Memphis to Mumbai. Instead, the caller ID display read “Newberry, Garland.”

  She snatched up the phone. “Granddaddy?”

  “Hello, Cheri! How’s my favorite redheaded Southern belle today?”

  Cherise blinked. The sound of her childhood nickname spoken in her grandfather’s North Cack-a-lacky twang left her breathless. She turned in time to see Candy run into the kitchen, looking as scared as Cherise felt.

  How had everyone back home heard what happened? Their bankruptcy paperwork hadn’t even been filed, and Cherise and Candy had sworn they’d never breathe a word to anyone back in Bigler.

  Oh, God. This was bad.

  “Did I lose you, darlin’?”

  “Granddaddy Garland? Is that you?”

  He laughed. “Of course it’s me, silly.”

  “Did someone die?”

  It wasn’t that Cherise hoped anyone had passed, but she prayed there was a reason for her grandfather’s call—other than the obvious.

  He laughed. “No one I know of, but I’m hangin’ on to life like a hair in a biscuit, myself.”

  “Don’t say that!” Cherise tried to ignore Candy’s interpretive dance of anxiety. Her friend was now waving her arms in circles over her blond head while twisting her face into a series of panicked expressions.

  Cherise placed her hand over the receiver. “I don’t know yet!” she whispered, gesturing for Candy to give her some space. “Just calm down and let me find out what’s going on.”

  Candy retreated to one of the dinette chairs, where she propped her elbows on the table and let her head fall to her hands.

  “Uh, hi again, Granddaddy,” Cherise said. “So, Aunt Viv’s okay? Tanyalee’s okay? You’re not ill or anything?”

  “Everyone’s fine. You’ve been on my mind lately, is all.”

  That was a fib, of course. The Newberrys didn’t just think about each other out of the blue, and they sure as hell didn’t call each other on a lark. Cherise’s nuclear family had blown up a long time ago. Her extended family went for long periods without communicating. The Newberrys were estranged in addition to being just plain strange. So that meant only one thing: somehow, the family had found out what happened down here in Florida and Granddaddy was calling to get in his “I told you so”s.

  He cleared his throat.

  Here it comes.

  “I suppose I should just fess up, Cheri. I’m calling you for a particular reason. You got to promise you’ll hear me out.”

  They know.

  Cherise sighed heavily and leaned her butt against the refrigerator. She knocked the back of her head repeatedly against the freezer door, dreading the lecture that was about to come, a lecture that was wholly unnecessary. Anything Granddaddy Garland could say to her she’d already told herself many times during the last nine months.

  Fourteen million dollars’ worth of real estate had slipped through her fingers, and she had no one to blame but herself. She’d been imprudent and selfish. She’d been materialistic and shallow. She’d allowed possessions to define who she was. She’d been drunk on greed and easy money and she hadn’t exactly shared her bounty with the less fortunate. She deserved whatever misery had befallen her.

  “Cheri, sugar, I want you to take over the Bigler Bugle for me. I want you to run the family business. I want you to come home.”

  Cherise straightened and pulled away from the fridge, not quite certain she’d heard correctly. “Excuse me?”

  “Don’t tell me to go suck eggs quite yet, darlin’. I know we haven’t been close, but you’re the logical choice. I’m near on eighty, and everything’s changing far too fast for me to keep up.”

  She gulped.

  “The paper’s circulation is in the toilet and I’ve had to lay off nearly half the employees. Ad revenues are down. The technology is mystifying to me. I want the comfort of knowing the Bugle is in capable Newberry hands when I go to meet my maker. That means you, my darlin’ girl.”

  Cherise slapped one of those capable hands to her forehead in disbelief. “But what about Tanyalee? She still lives in Bigler, doesn’t she? She’d be interested, wouldn’t she?”

  It took a few seconds before her grandfather responded. “Your sister’s talents lie elsewhere, bless her heart.”

  Cheri bit her lip, trying not to laugh at that classic example of Newberry-style diplomacy. Indeed, Tanyalee’s talents were legion, and occasionally illegal.

  “Besides, you’re the only one in the family with a finance degree.”

  And without a criminal record.

  “You would make an excellent publisher.”

  Cherise glanced at Candy, now staring with huge blue eyes, waiting for news. Cherise quickly gave her a thumbs-up to assure her friend that from what she could te
ll, no one back home had a clue that they’d lost everything.

  Candy clasped her hands as if in prayer and raised her eyes toward the ceiling.

  “Granddaddy?” Cherise asked. “Why me? Why didn’t you just ask, well, you know—” It was embarrassing that she was incapable of saying her ex-brother-in-law’s name aloud. Ridiculous. She was thirty years old. Yes, J.J. DeCourcy had been her first love, but it wasn’t like she had any claim to him. Nor would she want any, she reminded herself. The sweet and funny kid she’d known had become a cruel man with a tendency to lie and cheat, a man who had treated Tanyalee like garbage. But all that pregnancy-wedding-divorce chaos had ended more than five years ago. J.J. DeCourcy meant nothing to her. So of course Cherise should be able to say his name.

  “Why haven’t you asked him to run the paper?”

  “You’re referring to J.J.?” her grandfather asked.

  “He’s a real journalist, right? And I thought he was the trustworthy type—you know, at least when it comes to his work.”

  She heard her granddaddy take a deep breath. “I love Jefferson Jackson DeCourcy like a grandson and I always will. He knows this newspaper inside and out. I’ve asked him to stay on as managing editor.”

  Cherise rubbed her eyes. This was getting worse by the second. Granddaddy was asking her to be J.J.’s boss?

  “I need my own flesh and blood in the publisher’s chair, Cheri. You know the Bugle is your birthright. The paper was started by our family right after the great unpleasantness.”

  “Yes, I know,” she said, shaking her head. Over a hundred and forty freakin’ years have passed since the end of the Civil War! Say the words! Just say the freakin’ words!

  But no, that wasn’t the way things were done back home. Euphemisms were big in Bigler.

  “It’s the state’s only surviving daily this side of Asheville,” he added, as if she didn’t know.

  “I remember, Granddaddy.”

  “Your father had just taken his rightful place as publisher when—” Her grandfather’s voice began to crack, which was something Cherise had never heard from him before. But he caught himself. “You’re my only hope, Cheri girl. Please at least say you’ll consider it.”

  Cherise looked around the depressing studio apartment she’d been sharing with Candy for the past six months, and had to ask herself, what, if anything, is left for me in Tampa?

  Their on-paper residential and commercial real estate fortune had vaporized. She’d had to walk away from the mortgage on her own four-bedroom, three-bath home in Harbour Island. The Audi had been repossessed. The Miu Miu bags, Dolce & Gabbana sunglasses, and Stuart Weitzman peep-toe booties had found new owners via eBay. And Evan, the beautiful, go-all-night man-boy she’d shared two years of her life with, had turned out to be as shallow as piss on concrete and had hit the road at the first sign of insolvency.

  This meant the only thing in Tampa that mattered to Cherise was Candace Carmichael, her lifelong best friend and business partner, who remained at the dinette set with her eyes heavenward, no doubt thanking the gods that no one back home had gotten wind of their spectacular fuckup.

  “Maybe you could take a sabbatical of some sort from your business down there,” Granddaddy said. “I know you have a successful life in Tampa. But would you at least consider my proposition? At least give it a try?”

  Just then, the call waiting cut in. Cherise checked the display. “Incomplete Data” was on the line.

  “The lake house is rightfully yours, so you could move right on in.” Granddaddy paused. “After a good sweeping-up, anyhow. And I’ll pay you fifteen hundred a week to start.”

  Her heart began to pound. Fifteen hundred a week? That was three times what she made at the temp agency!

  “Oh, and of course Aunt Viv will set you up with some home cookin’ until you get settled. I know you were never a big cook.”

  Cherise took a sideways glance at her bowl of ramen noodles, a staple she bought in bulk for five cents a pack at the Dollar Store. True, cooking wasn’t her thing, and that had never been a problem when she was dining out every night. But nowadays, she never “dined” at all, not out or in or anywhere in between. Her meals were consumed at the secondhand walnut veneer dinette set and consisted of freeze-dried noodles, canned goods, and off-brand frozen entrées.

  Suddenly, visions of Aunt Viv’s thick-sliced country ham began to dance in her brain. Her stomach clenched. She pictured a big slab of crumbly, hot, cast-iron-skillet cornbread slathered with sweet butter. Her head throbbed. She saw a helping of heirloom green beans cooked to desiccated perfection with onion and bacon. She began to get light-headed from hunger.

  “I know how you’ve always loved Viv’s sweet potato and pecan casserole.”

  Cherise gasped at her grandfather’s cruelty! That was so unfair …

  “And of course, there’s her banana puddin’.”

  Cherise pursed her lips in anger as the breath sawed in and out of her nostrils. Clearly, her grandfather could be downright ruthless. Like all the Newberrys.

  “Well, whad’ya say, darlin?”

  “Uh…” Cherise glanced at Candy. Of course, the two of them would have to talk this over before Cherise made any decisions. They’d been a team since fourth grade. Maybe she could convince Candy to go back home to Bigler with her, just temporarily.

  She put her hand over the phone again. “He wants me to run the Bugle!” she whispered to Candy excitedly. “Do you think you might ever consider—”

  A look of horror spread over Candy’s face.

  “Never mind,” Cherise said, returning her attention to the phone call. “I can’t make you any promises, Granddaddy, but I’ll think about it. I’ll get back to you.”

  Crafty old coot, she thought, hanging up on her grandfather and the anonymous bill collector in one motion.

  Why did he have to go and mention the banana pudding?

  Chapter 2

  “DeCourcy. Get your butt on over here.”

  J.J. dragged his attention from the drama unfolding in the drained lakebed and glanced at his grumpy friend, Cataloochee County Sheriff Turner Halliday. “Any sign of a body yet?” J.J. asked him.

  Turner shook his head sharply. Then he gave a wide swipe in the air with his fingers, motioning for J.J. to walk with him. That kind of body language told J.J. all he needed to know. His best friend was not just irritable, he was downright pissed, which wasn’t his style. J.J. and Turner had been buddies since kindergarten, and he could count on one hand the number of times he’d seen his laid-back friend in such a state.

  “What’s up?” He joined Turner near a grove of trees on the east bank of what was once Paw Paw Lake. Turner set a slow walking pace, and J.J. matched it. “Everything all right?”

  Turner didn’t look him in the eye. “Give me twenty-four hours before you go putting any details in the paper. That’s all I’m asking.”

  “Say what?” J.J. gave a dismissive snort and stopped in his tracks. “You’re joking, right?”

  Turner ignored him. “We don’t know what we’re looking at yet. Since there’s a remote chance were going to find a body, the FBI is on the way. This could turn into a huge fuckin’ mess.”

  Well, that certainly explained the bad mood. Turner got testy when the Feds came to town and treated him like some backwoods bozo. Regardless, J.J. decided to point out the obvious. “It’s already a huge fuckin’ mess.”

  Turner kicked at the red dirt, saying nothing.

  “And you and I both know what we’re looking at here.” J.J. crooked a thumb over his shoulder. “A big-assed hydraulic winch is about to rip a 1959 Chevy Impala from the bottom of Paw Paw Lake, and we’re going to discover it’s been the secret underwater tomb of one Barbara Jean Smoot for the last four decades. Remote chance? Come on, now. We’ve finally found our ‘Lady of the Lake.’”

  Turner looked up and narrowed an eye at him. “Sounds like you already wrote your damn story, DeCourcy—pretty words and all. I guess the fa
cts don’t even matter to you.”

  “Whoa!” J.J. held his palms out in surrender. “Hold up, Turner. This is the biggest mystery our town has ever laid claim to, and I’m watching it unravel with my own two eyes. It’s my job to report what I see today for tomorrow morning’s edition. Same as always, man.”

  Turner’s laugh was tinged with sarcasm. “What you see is a vehicle of unknown age and make that’s turned up in the mud at a construction site. Period.” He scowled at him. “But go ahead. Write about Barbara Jean Smoot tomorrow if you want. I’ll look forward to reading your front-page correction the day after that.”

  “Uh-huh.” J.J. tipped his head and studied his friend. Turner was mean as a sack of rattlesnakes today. J.J. had seen him go through hell and back since June died, but that was a personal tragedy of the first order. His wife was only twenty-five when she was killed in a car crash four years ago, driving home to visit her folks in Chicago. But J.J. couldn’t recall ever seeing Turner this jacked over work.

  Unless …

  “So this is personal,” J.J. said. It wasn’t a question. “Mind telling me how?”

  Turner looked up at him, his hazel eyes smoldering. “Forget it.”

  “Tell me.”

  Turner sighed. “Barbara Jean was a pretty white girl who disappeared on a rainy night in June of 1964, right? The only person who ever claimed to know anything was a black man. And, as you might recall, Bigler wasn’t exactly a hotbed of racial harmony in those days.”

  J.J. widened his eyes at the understatement.

  “You know who that witness was, right?” Turner asked.

  “Sure. A man named Carleton Johnston.”

  “Do you know what happened to that man?”

  “As a matter of fact, I do,” J.J. said. Just that morning, when police scanner chatter began buzzing about a possible vehicle found buried in the mud, J.J. asked a reporter to pull a slew of old news clips from the Bugle microfiche archives. Carleton Johnston was described as an out-of-town visitor who claimed he’d seen a white man jump from the passenger side of a car just before it drove off the pier into Paw Paw Lake—with someone slumped at the wheel—then watched the man scurry off into the woods. Johnston said he couldn’t swim so he ran to get help. Less than a month later, it was reported that Mr. Johnston passed away of natural causes at his home in Charlotte, and no one was ever charged in connection with Barbara Jean’s disappearance.

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