All Ruby Josen wanted was to get ahead in life. After a decade of lost relationships and missed opportunities, she's ready to move on and desperate to do whatever it takes to get out of her rut. When Ruby meets Bryce, a handsome stranger at the town's spring festival, his offer to turn fate to her favor seems too good to be true. But everything has a price, and Ruby learns that interfering with fate has bigger consequences than she realized. It leaves her to wonder who's really controlling her life and who - or what - Bryce really is.
“Please state your name for the record.”
Simone stared at the detective sitting across the table with suspicious blue eyes. “You know who I am.”
Detective Claire Barnes fiddled with the digital recorder on the table between them. “I’m reinstating the formalities. Please state your name.”
“Simone Dawkins,” she said, pushing a strand of dark brown hair behind her ear.
“Simone, I’m going to cut to the chase. Is there anybody with your company that had a grudge against you?”
Simone’s raised her eyebrows. “Me?”
“Yes. You or any of the employees at Goodard Graphics.”
Simone stared at Detective Barnes defiantly, pulling her tall, thin body up straight in the chair. “After all that’s happened, I think you know the answer to that question. I don’t understand why you’re being this way.”
Detective Barnes creased her brow, apparently confused. “I’m not sure what you’re talking about, so let’s get back to why you’re here. Now tell me, have you terminated anybody? Was anybody disgruntled? Were there any office politics that might have pushed somebody over the edge?”
Simone set her jaw. “Somebody just tried to kill me and it’s obviously tied to the other crimes in Tanger Falls. Now please, I need your help.” She reached for the coffee cup in front of her but accidentally crushed it, spewing brown liquid over the steel table. “Crap!” she shouted. “Do you have any napkins around here?”
“Forget the coffee; just answer the question.”
“No, this is a mess. We need to clean it up.”
“I don’t care about the coffee,” Detective Barnes said sternly. “This is the third crime on my case load in as many weeks. Now you’re saying somebody was trying to kill you. I think asking if anybody has a grudge against you is perfectly sensible. So tell me, Simone Dawkins, is there anybody that was pissed off enough to cause all of this chaos?”
Simone leaned back in her chair, sighing and running her hands over her face. “I can’t believe this. You keep going on as if you don’t know what’s happening.”
Detective Barnes glared at her. “I don’t know what’s happening, so please enlighten me.” She leaned forward. “This had to start somewhere. Where did it start, Simone? What set off this domino effect of madness?”
“I don’t know! Things were fine! Everything was fine until,” Simone broke off and her eyes widened in shock. “Oh God,” she moaned, tears welling in her eyes.
“What?” Detective Barnes said. “Please, anything helps.”
Tears rolled down Simone’s pale cheeks. “Three months ago.”
Detective Barnes stared at Simone waiting for more, but Simone sat silently, tears running down her cheeks. “Ok, this started three months ago? What happened?”
“Just one time, or was it several times over the past three months?”
A sob wracked Simone’s body. “It just kept going on and on and more people got involved. Before I knew it, everybody was tangled up in it.” She sniffed. “I didn’t mean for it to end this way. I never imagined that anybody would get hurt.”
Detective Barnes pulled a wadded tissue from her pocket and handed it to Simone. “Who did you lie to?”
Simone looked toward the ceiling, the tears in her eyes glinting in the harsh light of the lamp hanging over the table. “Everybody. But I underestimated one person I thought didn’t matter and, well, I was wrong. She does matter. And now she’s going to make me pay.”
Simone stared at Detective Barnes, a cold look in her eye. “Ruby Josen.”
Detective Barnes flipped through her notes. “I don’t understand. How?”
Simone shook her head. “I don’t know, but she’s the only one left. It has to be her. There’s nobody else left. I just don’t understand how she did it. I don’t understand how she knew.”
Detective Barnes flipped to a fresh page in her notepad. “Alright, let’s take this from the beginning. Tell me what happened.”
Ruby Josen wound around the people crowded at the end of the buffet table, trying to find a seat at one of the picnic tables while balancing a plate of barbeque, baked beans, green beans, and macaroni and cheese in one hand and a large cup of sweet tea in the other. It was a bright, clear day and Mr. Goodard, the CEO of Goodard Graphics, reserved the best picnic area next to the Smoky Mountain National Forest for the annual company picnic. Then again, beating out competition for the space wasn’t hard. Goodard Graphics did all the graphic design and advertisements for every business in the area, so everybody was willing to give up the prime space once a year to give the employees a chance to socialize and strategize for the remainder of the year. The main office was located in Knoxville, but the branch office in Tanger Falls, Tennessee, located just outside of Gatlinburg, brought in almost fifty percent of the company’s revenue. It made sense, considering tourism in the area around the National Forest. Their workload was consistently high.
“Hi neighbor, what’s up?” Denise Rockwell said, dropping in the seat next to Ruby. Denise was a graphic artist and looked every bit the part with her long brown hair, dark brown eyes, and bright clothes. Today she was wearing a bright yellow shirt and jeans held up by a white belt with so many metal loops that she would never make it through an airport metal detector. She was short and curvy, but she made up for what she lacked in size with an explosive personality and brilliant creativity in her design work. It’s why she was the most popular graphic artist in their office, and perhaps in all of east Tennessee. Denise was Ruby’s best friend and neighbor in the one and only apartment complex in Tanger Falls.
“Hi Denise,” Ruby said, brushing her long, blonde hair behind her ear. She peered at Denise with sky blue eyes over the rim of her sunglasses. “I see you’re trying to outshine the sun in your outfit today.”
Denise laughed as she sat. “And I see you’re trying to blend in,” she said, pointing at the long, brown dress hanging off Ruby’s tall, slim frame with her fork. “Why do you buy your clothes two sizes too big? Or here’s a better question: why are you sitting out here by yourself?” Denise asked. She motioned to head table with a plastic fork. “Why aren’t you up there with the senior staff? You should be hobnobbing with the folks from Knoxville. We only see them once a year.”
Ruby laughed. “You aren’t up there hobnobbing with anybody. You’re back here, the same as me. Besides, I’m not comfortable with that crowd.”
“Not comfortable with them? You work with Simone and Millie every day.” Denise stared at Ruby. “Wait a minute. Are you still miffed about being passed over for the executive secretary position a couple of months ago?”
Ruby slumped in her chair. “No, that’s the past and there’s no use dwelling on it,” she poked at her baked beans, “Millie isn’t nice to me. She’s a bully, and Simone doesn’t stand up for me. Ever since Mr. Goodard hired Millie as the executive secretary, it feels like they’re ganging up on me.”
“Are they still giving you problems?” Denise glared at Millie Banks, who was chuckling at the head table beside Mr. Goodard. A strand of red hair fell from her loose bun, dangling next to her porcelain skin. “I could snap Millie in half. She’s a stick.” Denise chuckled. “Five minutes in the sun will probably give her skin cancer. Those redheads burn easy.”
“That’s not nice,” Ruby mumbled.
“Sorry,” Denise said. “What’s the problem? Is she still claiming you’re rude to customers and messing up work? Because that’s total crap. All the customers I work with say you’re a ray of sunshine.” She took a gulp of her tea. “And why isn’t Simone sticking up for you? I mean, you guys got along great until Millie was hired. Did she flip on you or what?”
“I don’t know about Simone. As for Millie, you know we didn’t get off to a good start,” Ruby said. “She’s still mad about me about messing up the paperwork for one of the clients when she first started. She reminds me of that every chance she gets.”
“Ruby, everybody makes mistakes. That could have happened to anybody. And it was what, once in how many years?”
“Eleven years,” Ruby said.
“Heck, that’s the best track record I’ve heard of.” Denise paused to stare at Millie. “You know, I’ve heard a few of the graphic artists say she’s trying to change everything. A client called me last week and said they got their pre-production package digitally, and it nearly crashed their server because the attachments she sent were too big. I had to come to the office, print it out, and hand deliver it to the client at their office in Gatlinburg. Is Millie doing that a lot?”
Ruby nodded. “All the time. I tell her that she needs to talk to Mr. Goodard about these changes, or at least with the clients, but she does what she wants. She’s always telling me I need to be more innovative and fully embrace technology.” She snorted. “She talks to me like I don’t know what I’m doing, but I know more than she does. Heck, I’ve been grinding away as their receptionist since this office opened. I was more than qualified for that job, but they brought her in from out of nowhere.” Ruby sipped her tea. “I don’t get it. Simone said she’d give me a reference. I sure thought the business manager’s word would have weight.”
“Did you ask Simone about it?”
“No, I can’t do that. That stuff’s confidential. She can’t talk about the hiring process. Besides, she’s so distant these days between her divorce and training Millie that we don’t talk a lot. When we do, it seems like she’s siding against me. I don’t understand it.”
“Ruby, quit being a doormat. She promised you a reference. I think it’s perfectly appropriate to ask if she gave it.”
“I don’t know.”
“Just ask her. I’m sure there’s something she can tell you without violating any sacred policies. Maybe it will explain why she’s been so distant lately too.” Denise looked around and spotted Simone getting a tea refill. “Come on; let’s ask her now. The sooner you get answers, the sooner you can move on.”
“Denise, no!” Ruby said, but before she knew it Denise jumped from her seat and was chatting with Simone. She saw Simone pull herself up straight and look down at Denise, Ruby thought it was silly that Simone wore high heels. She was five foot ten and towered over most of the women in town, so it’s not like she needed extra height. Denise touched Simone’s arm as she leaned in to say something else. Simone shrugged and walked over to the table.
“I need to get back,” Simone grumbled. “I told Millie--“
“Have a seat,” Denise said sternly.
Simone stared at Denise for a moment, and then sat across from Ruby. “What’s on your mind?”
Denise poked Ruby in the arm. “Go ahead, ask her.”
Ruby sighed. “I was wondering. I mean, I know Mr. Goodard hired Millie for the executive secretary position a couple of months ago.”
Simone furrowed her brows. “This isn’t about you two fighting all the time is it? Because I told you, it’s time to overcome your differences and establish a professional relationship.”
“No, it’s not about that,” Ruby said. “I was just wondering.” She trailed off and looked around.
“Ruby, what?” Simone asked, irritated.
“A while back when you were taking applications for the executive secretary position, you said I’d be an excellent candidate for the job. You said you’d give me a reference for it too. I was just wondering; did you give Mr. Goodard that reference?”
Simone set her jaw and glared at Ruby. “I don’t recall saying any such thing.”
Ruby’s jaw dropped. “But you did! It was right after Valentine’s Day. You said Mr. Goodard wanted somebody experienced in that position and my long history with the company would make me the perfect candidate. And you did tell me to put your name down as a reference.”
“Oh that,” Simone looked around. “You misunderstood me. What I said was that I’d understand if you applied for the job and wished you luck. I never said you were guaranteed the position.”
“That’s not what I said.”
“And furthermore,” Simone said, cutting Ruby off, “I couldn’t be a reference because I’m your direct supervisor. That would be a conflict of interest.”
“No it wouldn’t,” Denise said. “It makes perfect sense. Besides, don’t people usually call the current supervisor when they’re interested in hiring someone?”
Simone continued to look away. “Perhaps.”
“Well, did Mr. Goodard call you after Ruby interviewed with him?”
Simone started to stand, but Denise reached across the table and grabbed her arm. “I asked you a question.”
Simone glared at Denise. “I wasn’t aware that graphic artists were familiar with office policies.”
“I’m familiar with more than you can imagine. Come on, Simone. It’s a simple question. Answer it and you can go.” She let go of Simone’s arm and nodded toward the head table. “I don’t think the ‘in crowd’ has missed you yet. Answer the question and we might let you get away before they see you consorting with the lowly staff members in the branch office.”
“Fine,” Simone said, glaring at Ruby. “The truth is that I’m not at liberty to say whether Mr. Goodard called me or what I said if he did. That’s confidential information and I’d be violating the law I answered it. So I’m completely within my rights to say it’s none of your business.” She stood. “I’m sorry you’re upset about getting passed over for the job. You were a good candidate, but Millie was a better candidate. Reality isn’t always nice and life isn’t fair. I understand if you if you decide to move someplace you feel is more appropriate for your skills. In fact, I wish you luck.” She glanced at her watch. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some people to speak to before I pick up my son.” Simone snapped.
“I thought Daniel rode the bus,” Ruby said. “Why do you need to pick him up?”
Simone glared at Ruby. “He had something after school today, ok?” She put her hands on her hips. “Is that all ladies?”
“Go on,” Denise said, waving her off. Simone stormed away from the table. “I hope she gets TMJ from clenching her jaw like that,” Denise grumbled.
“That’s not nice,” Ruby mumbled. She glared at Simone, who managed to recover from their conversation and put on a bright smile for Mr. Goodard in the thirty seconds it took her to reach the head table. “Thanks.”
“For what? That did no good. All we discovered is that Simone’s a liar.”
“So you believe what I said about her promising me a reference?”
“You’re one of the most honest people I’ve ever known. Now her,” Denise snorted. “I think all she just did was lie. She wouldn’t know the truth if it kicked her in the rear.”
Ruby snickered. “It’s good to know I’m not the only one who thinks that.”
“Oh, I think she’s an equal opportunity liar. That’s probably why her husband walked out on her. Did you hear about that? I heard he left her a note on New Year’s Day saying he resolved to correct the mistake of marrying her and start a new life. Things are never that abrupt unless something nasty happened.”
“Maybe,” Ruby mumbled. “Oh Denise, what am I going to do?”
“I don’t know, but maybe she gave us a clue.” Denise said. “You’ve been here a long time. Maybe it’s time to get out of this rut.”
Ruby threw her fork on her plate. “The opportunities to do that are limited in a small town like this one.”
“Well, you never know what tomorrow might bring. It could be a miracle.”
Ruby snorted. “Or a disaster, like the past five years.”
Denise patted Ruby’s hand. “Nothing last forever. Just wait and see. I feel things will change for you very soon.” She smiled. “And that could be good for all of us.”