After spending most of the day running errands, Hayley raced home so she could prepare Wade’s dinner. There really wasn’t any question what he wanted for his first meal.
Hayley’s blue ribbon country fried chicken.
She hauled a picnic basket out of the downstairs hall closet and found a red-checkered tablecloth to line the bottom. Then she carefully placed the still piping hot chicken fresh from the fryer onto a plate and put it inside the basket before covering it up with the cloth.
She had already prepared some macaroni and cheese, and sautéed carrots for a vegetable, and some fresh biscuits during her lunch hour, which were already in the trunk of her car. She also prepared a separate plate of chicken for the crew and placed that in the backseat.
She would have just enough time to drive the meal over to Wade at the hotel and get back home in time to make dinner for the kids.
When Hayley pulled into the parking lot, Billy Ray Cyrus, Wade’s publicist, was pacing back and forth in front of the entrance.
She smiled and waved at him as she got out of the car and retrieved the picnic basket from the back seat.
Billy Ray rushed over to her.
“Hayley, do you have a moment?” he asked breathlessly.
“Sure, if you help me carry Wade’s dinner inside.”
Hayley popped open the trunk, put the picnic basket down on the ground, and started handing Billy Ray plastic cartons of food. She was planning on arranging the food personally on Wade’s plate.
Presentation was important to her.
“Wade posted Mickey Pritchett’s bail,” Billy Ray said. “We’re expecting him back here anytime.”
“Mickey who?” Hayley had no idea who he was talking about.
“One of our roadies. I believe you met him last night at one of your local bars,” Billy Ray said, sniffing. “Smells delicious.”
“Thank you. Oh, right. Him,” Hayley said, scowling. “That guy’s a jerk.”
“I know. He can be a handful when he’s been drinking. Wade’s given him so many chances.”
“Why does he keep a guy like that around?”
“Wade was very close with Mickey’s father, Buddy. They grew up together in the Louisiana bayou. When Buddy died, Wade became a father figure to Buddy’s sons Mickey and Clarence. Clarence worked through his grief and got a scholarship to college but Mickey became lost and started rebelling. Caused all sorts of trouble. Whoring, thieving, vandalizing. His mother finally couldn’t take it anymore and, with a heavy heart, kicked him out. Poor Mickey had nowhere to go. So Wade took him in, and tried to teach him the value of hard work. He was hoping that by hiring him for this tour, well, it might straighten Mickey out. But obviously that hasn’t happened,” Billy Ray said, shaking his head.
“Why are you telling me all this?”
“Well,” Billy Ray said, taking Hayley gently by the arm, “I heard the man he assaulted was your brother, and I was wondering if you would consider talking to your brother and asking him to drop the charges. So long as Mickey makes restitution and pays for any damage he caused to the bar. We’ll deduct it from his paycheck every week until he’s all paid up.”
Hayley wasn’t inclined to help a foul-mouthed drunken idiot like Mickey.
“Wade sure would appreciate it,” Billy Ray quickly added.
The magic word.
“Sure. I can talk to Randy. I’m sure he doesn’t want to make a big deal out of this anyway.”
“Oh, thank you, Hayley, thank you,” Billy Ray said, relieved. “Mickey’s not such a bad kid. He just doesn’t know how to hold his liquor.”
“No problem,” Hayley said, filling Billy Ray’s arms with a tray of biscuits.
“Why don’t I run this inside and come back and help you with the rest,” Billy Ray said, turning on his heel and running into the hotel, balancing the Tupperware and trays piled high in his arms.
Hayley decided to get the basket of chicken inside quickly before it got cold. Leaving the car’s hatch open, she picked up the picnic basket off the ground and turned around, slamming into someone.
“Oh, I’m so sorry. I didn’t see you . . . ,” Hayley said, her words trailing off as she looked up into the man’s face.
It was Mickey Pritchett.
“Howdy, ma’am,” Mickey said with a drawl.
“Hello,” Hayley said coldly, liking him even less now that he called her ma’am.
“I just wanted to apologize for my behavior at the bar the other night,” Mickey said, taking off his hat in an effort to be more sincere.
“That’s all right, Mickey,” Hayley said, just wanting to get past him.
She made a move, but Mickey stepped in front of her, blocking her escape.
“There’s just no excuse for acting that way. I don’t know what got into me,” Mickey said.
“I’m sure it was at least eighty-proof,” Hayley said.
Mickey laughed. “Well, yes, ma’am, I reckon you’re right. I do love my whiskey.”
“Now, if you’ll excuse me . . . ,” Hayley said, making another attempt to get around him.
Mickey stepped in front of her again.
He stared down at her with those coal black eyes.
His smile was forced and unconvincing.
“Something sure smells good.”
“It’s Wade’s dinner. Fried chicken.”
“I’m not talking about the chicken, ma’am.”
She glanced around.
There was no one around in the parking lot that she could see.
He pushed in a little closer.
“Get away from me,” Hayley spat out under her breath.
“Now what happened to that small-town Yankee hospitality I’ve heard so much about?” Mickey asked, and then laughed.
He gripped her shoulders with his big hands. “Tour bus is parked right over there. Got a nice bed for two. Why don’t you and I go lie down and get acquainted over some of your fried chicken?”
Hayley pushed him back with all her might. But he was so much bigger than her, he barely budged.
He grabbed her wrist and she dropped the basket of chicken. He wrapped his free arm around her and pulled her into him so hard he nearly crushed her face against his chest.
She could barely breathe.
She tried nailing the heel of her shoe into his foot, but he anticipated the move and she missed and smashed her ankle against the pavement of the parking lot. Hayley struggled as Mickey started dragging her toward the bus. His giant, long thin fingers pressed over her mouth before she could scream. She started pounding him with her fists to no avail.
She was like a rag doll in his arms because he was so damned tall and strong.
And then, suddenly, he let her go.
Hayley stumbled back, nearly falling to the ground.
That’s when she saw Wade.
He spun Mickey around and delivered a roundhouse punch across his face. The sudden impact took Mickey by surprise.
His nose spurted blood.
He just stood there, in a state of shock.
Wade looked like he was going to explode, his face was so red. “That’s it, Mickey. Strike three! You are fired! You hear me? Fired! Pack up your stuff and get the hell out of here!”
“But, Wade, let me explain,” Mickey pleaded.
Wade charged him. “Don’t make me hit you again, Mickey. I said get out of here! Now!”
Wade turned to Hayley and said softly, “Are you all right?”
“I don’t know what to say,” Wade said to Hayley. “I knew Mickey could be a dumb ass, but I never thought . . . I never imagined he would ever try anything like this.”
“I’m fine. Nothing happened,” Hayley said, still a little shaken over the whole situation—and at the thought of not being able to fight Mickey off if Wade hadn’t showed up.
“I’m not leaving until you give me some traveling money,” Mickey said, his tone now more threatening.
Wade spun around. “I’m not telling you again, boy. You got five minutes to clear your stuff out of the hotel and leave.”
“Or what?” Mickey said, chuckling. “You’re getting up there, Wade. I’m younger. And stronger. You don’t think I can take you?”
Wade stood his ground.
He stared Mickey down.
Mickey shook his head. “I’m tired of you ordering me around, anyway.
Get me a water, Mickey. I need this shirt pressed, Mickey.
Just because you can carry a tune, you think you own the world. Well, the world doesn’t revolve around you, Wade Springer, and maybe it’s time someone brought you down to size.”
“You threatening me, Mickey?”
“I’m going to do more than that,” Mickey said, striding toward Wade.
Wade stepped in front of Hayley, protecting her.
“I’ll kill you before you get the chance,” Wade said.
His voice was low and even.
Hayley knew he meant it.
“You okay, boss?”
It was Curtis King. Wade’s bodyguard. Built like a Mack truck.
And at this moment, a gift from God.
Mickey stopped advancing on Wade.
He glanced at Curtis.
He might have been able to take down Wade.
Not in a million years.
“We’re fine, Curtis,” Wade said, never taking his eyes off Mickey.
“Yeah, no problem here, Curtis,” Mickey said. “Just going to pack up my stuff, since my services are no longer needed.”
And then he reached down and picked up Hayley’s picnic basket. He reached in and grabbed a chicken breast and took a big bite.
“Now that’s good chicken. You can consider this my severance pay” he said, before stalking off into the night carrying Hayley’s basket of country fried chicken.
“Should we call your brother’s fella and have Mickey arrested again?” Wade asked Hayley.
Hayley shook her head. “No. Let’s just forget the whole thing. Thank God you showed up when you did.”
Hayley was shaking.
She was fighting back tears.
Wade stepped forward and wrapped her in his strong arms and hugged her.
“I’m so sorry, Hayley,” Wade said. “This is all my fault. I brought Mickey here with me. I had no idea he was so out of control.”
Hayley rested her head on Wade’s broad chest.
She was feeling better already.
“You’re not to blame, Wade. You were just being nice. Trying to give him a break.”
As hard as it was to do, Hayley pulled away and smiled at Wade. “Now, I’m going to get out of your hair so you can enjoy your dinner.”
“You’re not going to join me?”
“No. I need to get home. Kids to feed. Column to write.”
“But you have enough food here to feed the state of Mississippi.”
“You should see what Billy Ray already took inside. I thought you might want to share it with your band and crew.”
“They’re out scarfing down mussels and beer at some seaside hangout. I’m here all alone,” Wade said, offering a pathetic, fake sad face.
Hayley wanted to stay.
But she was still shaken up by Mickey and feeling a little vulnerable and didn’t want to burst into tears and sob like a little girl in front of Wade.
No. It was best she go home.
There were still a couple more days left before Wade performed his two concerts and left town for good. Maybe she would have another opportunity to spend some more quality time with her country idol.
Hayley hugged Wade. “I’m going to go. Luckily I made some extra fried chicken just in case your crew wanted some.”
Hayley reached into the backseat of her Subaru and handed Wade a plate with tin foil wrapped around it. Then she handed him a plastic container. “And here’s some southern mac and cheese to go with it. I tried a new recipe so I’m curious to see if you like it.”
“I’ll be sure to report back,” Wade said.
She looked up at him and he was smiling down at her.
Wade leaned down and kissed her on the lips.
Their lips brushing against each other very gently.
Hayley was shaking again.
But this time, it wasn’t out of fear.
It was a good thing Wade was still holding her, because otherwise she would just have fainted dead away and probably chipped a tooth when her face hit the pavement.
There was an interminable silence before Wade finally spoke. “I sure hope that wasn’t out of line.”
“No, of course not.”
“You going to sue me for sexual harassment?”
Hayley laughed. “No, you’re safe.”
Wade looked out at the fishing boats rolling with the waves in the harbor as they stood in the parking lot of the Harborside Hotel. He suddenly seemed very shy and awkward. “I’m very attracted to you, Hayley. From the moment you crashed my hotel room pretending to be an entertainment reporter.”
“Don’t remind me,” Hayley said, cringing. “But Wade . . .”
“My least favorite word.
“It’s just that I’ve been seeing someone else.”
She couldn’t believe she was saying this to Wade Springer.
“And his name is Lex and he’s a good man,” she continued. “Actually, I’m not sure how serious it is or where we stand, but I need to figure that out before I start anything else.”
“That’s very admirable. In show business, we’re not as respectful of others when we see something we want,” Wade said, grinning. “I promise to behave.”
“Thank you,” Hayley said, resisting the urge to grab him and thrust her tongue in his mouth.
“At least, until you figure things out,” Wade said, giving her a wink. “Good night, Hayley.”
“’Night, Wade,” Hayley said, watching him turn around and amble inside the hotel.
God, look at that butt.
Definitely one of the seven wonders of the world.
Hayley reached into her pocket, fumbled for her car keys, and opened the door. She sensed someone watching her and turned back around.
It was getting dark outside and there was a light on in one of the rooms on the second floor.
A man stood at the window staring down at her.
It was Mickey Pritchett.
He was wearing a white wifebeater and a pair of blue jeans. He pointed at her with a chicken leg, which at this point was nothing but bone. He seemed to be sending her the message that they had unfinished business and that he was watching her.
He had a sick, evil grin on his face.
Hayley jumped in her car and drove straight home. She wondered if she had been mistaken not calling Sergio and having Mickey arrested for attempted sexual assault. If Wade hadn’t shown up when he did, she feared that’s exactly where it was heading.
When Hayley walked inside the house, Dustin was in the living room sitting in the recliner with the TV remote, channel surfing.
Hayley plopped down on the couch. “I have some extra chicken left in the fridge. I could make that chicken and stuffing casserole you like so much for dinner.”
“I already ate. I was starving when I got home. And Gemma made a salad because she’s dieting again. At least until ten o’clock, when she gets hungry and raids the fridge for cold leftover pizza.”
Hayley felt incredibly tired.
She stretched out on the couch.
Leroy scampered in and hopped up, snuggling in next to her.
Mark Harmon was on TV throwing out orders to his crack crime-busting team on a repeat episode of NCIS on USA.
Hayley’s eyes were heavy.
She couldn’t even focus on Mark’s chiseled, handsome face.
That had to be a first.
She always snapped to attention when Mark Harmon was on TV.
Wade Springer was definitely having a serious effect on her.
She ran her fingers through Leroy’s white curly coat of hair and then closed her eyes and fell into a deep sleep.
Hayley heard a loud crackling sound.
And then voices.
Then another crackle.
She slowly opened her eyes. It was pitch dark. Leroy snored softly, his head buried in her shirt. Dustin must have turned off the TV and gone to bed long ago.
She focused on the cable box clock.
It was 12:02
The crackling sound started again.
She slowly sat up, a little disoriented, gently lowering Leroy’s drooping head, which rested on her, to the couch.
She heard voices again. It was the police scanner she kept on top of the refrigerator in the kitchen. That’s what she was hearing.
Something was going on.
There wasn’t usually this much activity so late at night.
Hayley stood up and went into the kitchen, raising the volume on the scanner.
The dispatcher was talking to some officers. “We got a report of a vehicle on fire at Albert Meadow. Fire department is on the way.”
“Roger,” replied the officer. “We’re about two minutes away.”
“Make of the vehicle is a 2011 CJ Starbus. Looks like it’s one from the Wade Springer tour.”
Hayley grabbed her car keys off the counter and dashed out the door.
When Hayley arrived at Albert Meadow, a wide-open lawn and picnic area just off the town’s iconic shore path, the fire department had already doused the flames.
The tour bus was just a shell of itself, black and charred and smoking.
There were only a handful of gawkers since it was so late at night. Hayley assumed they all owned scanners like she did. The rest of the town was sleeping.
She saw Sergio conferring with the fire captain and a few officers poking around the bus, checking out the scene.
Hayley was stumped as to how the bus got to Albert Meadow and just how it caught fire.
Buses just don’t spontaneously burst into flames.
Did Wade know what was happening?
One of Sergio’s officers began cordoning off the area with yellow police tape.
So it was a crime scene. Sergio and the fire chief probably suspected arson.
“Didn’t expect to see you down here,” a familiar voice said.
It was Bruce.
Obviously there to cover the story for the paper.
“Any idea who set the bus on fire?” Hayley asked.
Bruce rubbed his eyes. He looked tired and irritated from having to be up so late.
“Nope.” Bruce sighed. “Might’ve been the body they found in the bus.”
“What?” Hayley said, twisting her head away from the smoldering, twisted-metal bus to look at Bruce.
“You didn’t hear? Cops don’t know yet if this was an accident, a suicide, or a murder. What they do know is somebody was inside the bus and he or she is now a smoking charred corpse. Forensics is on their way down here from Bangor.”
“Do they know who it was? Do they know anything?”
“Like I said, Hayley, the body’s burned up pretty good. There’s no way of identifying it yet.”
Hayley’s mind raced.
A dead body inside the bus?
Who could it be?
And how did the bus get here?
“Oh, I have heard one interesting rumor,” Bruce said, yawning. “I was eavesdropping and heard Officer Earl talking on his cell, and I could’ve sworn he said they found something in the corpse’s mouth and it looked like a chicken bone.”
Hayley’s heart nearly stopped.
She knew of two people directly connected to the tour who were eating chicken last night.
And Wade Springer.