* * *
Pepper’s phone rang for the fourth time in fifteen minutes. She frowned and ignored it—again. The number was restricted, so she never answered, and they never left a message. But now they were beginning to piss her off. The calls had started the day after the cassette tape had been delivered. The person called three times a day, then four…now it was escalating.
“Pepper!” Hank snapped. “Where the hell is your head, girl?”
Pepper glanced at him through the food window and shook her head. “Sorry, Hank.”
He muttered something under his breath and pushed a plate through the window. Pepper picked up her order and set it in front of her customers, forcing a smile and counting the minutes to the end of her shift.
* * *
Five Weeks ago
Pepper was late. She’d promised Sam she’d help her pack for her trip, but work was crazy. She pulled into the driveway of the Moore house and set the brake. Her car was about ready to die, and she prayed it would last long enough to put her plan into motion.
She found the door unlocked and let herself in. Sam’s parents rarely locked the house, a habit that made Pepper uncomfortable.
Stepping into the foyer, she called up the stairs. “Sammi!”
“Up here.” Samantha peeked over the hallway railing. “You look like you’re dressed for World War Two.”
“You like?” Pepper rested a hand on her hip and chuckled. “It’s laundry day.” She had pulled her hair into a messy bun and wrapped a bandana around her head, forties style. To top it off, the only thing she had clean was an old pair of overalls and a T-shirt.
Samantha’s mother leaned over the railing as well. “Come on up, honey, and I’ll check on dinner. Will you join us?”
“Yes, please! Thanks, Mrs. Moore.” Pepper waved her letter in the air as she jogged up the stairs, two at a time. “You’re never going to guess what’s happened!”
Samantha laughed. “You won the lottery and are going to join me in Scotland.”
Pepper bobbed her head. “Yes.”
Samantha snorted as she made her way back into the bedroom. “You’re funny.”
“No, seriously. Not the lottery, per se, but I got into MGA.”
Pepper handed her the notice. “I auditioned for MGA. In Edinburgh. They accepted me. I’ve committed to their one-year advanced course.”
“MGA?” Samantha skimmed the letter. “Performing arts? Seriously? Pepper, this is a lot of money. How are you going to pay for this?”
“I have almost eight thousand saved.”
“To train Jonesy for the trials!”
Pepper waved her hand dismissively. “Trials, shmials.”
“I thought winning the Olympics was the most important thing in your life. Or at the very least, getting away from your mother while you’re training him. Jonesy’s the reason you haven’t dated or done anything outside of school or work for three years.”
“Priorities change, I guess.” Pepper smiled. “And, technically, I will be getting away from her…all the way across the ocean.”
“What about Jonesy? You were essentially the midwife to his mother. You’ve raised that horse since birth.”
Pepper faltered. She’d need to figure that out. But she would. “It’s just a year. I’ll have no problem finding a nice young girl to look after him for me.” She swallowed hard as she thought about her rescue dog. “And Mom can look after Rover.”
“Pepper.” Samantha handed her back the letter. “What’s really going on? You’ve always said that acting and singing was for fun and would never take priority over becoming a vet. I’m still not clear on how you’d be able to finish veterinary school and train for the Olympics at the same time…but then, you’re the dreamer.”
“You make that sound like it’s a bad thing.”
Samantha shook her head. “Not at all. I envy it and you know it. Spill.”
“I can’t just want to join my best friend for an adventure in a land full of sexy men?”
Samantha smirked. “You assume all Scottish men look like Ewan MacGregor.”
“And you assume they all look like Gobber the Belch.”
Samantha giggled. “Is it weird we went to see How to Train your Dragon and we don’t even have kids?”
“No, because we took Chelsea’s kid as a cover…she got a free afternoon, and Chase got to see a movie with his favorite spice.”
“Okay, you have me there, but still, what’s really going on?”
“Nothing. Really. My mom’s just driving me crazy.”
“You’ve been home for less than a month,” Sam pointed out.
Once Samantha moved out of their rental, Pepper did too. She hated living alone and couldn’t really afford it, so she’d moved back in with her mother out of desperation.
“I know,” Pepper admitted. “At least she passes out drunk more nights than most, but still, I probably should have stayed at our place.”
“I’m the one who can’t stand the thought of living alone. It’s not your fault. But I do need to make a change.”
Samantha sighed. “Yeah, you should get out of there, but don’t you think this is a bit drastic?”
“Nope, not at all. I just want to go somewhere there’s no drama.”
Samantha laughed. “So you’re going to drama school.”
Pepper had to give her that. Her friend was entirely too logical sometimes. “How about we halt this fascinating conversation and I’ll help you finish packing?”
“Okay, okay. You’re off the hook for now. Just give me some notice before you arrive. I’m assuming I’ll have to find a two bedroom place to rent, huh?”
“I’ll take the couch,” Pepper said. “I’m not picky.”
Samantha choked in response. “Says the woman with champagne taste on a beer budget.”
“Oh, I at least have enough to spring for the sparkling wine.”
* * *
Four Weeks Ago
“Bye, Hank,” Pepper called as she closed her locker, grabbed her purse, and started toward the door. “See you tomorrow.”
“Don’t be late, girl.”
“I won’t,” she said…but she probably would be. She hadn’t slept through the night in almost a week. The barrage of mysterious calls, combined with her mother’s drunken middle-of-the-night tirades, made it impossible.
She headed toward her car, keys at the ready, and unlocked the door. As was her habit—after watching yet another horror flick alone—she checked the backseat and then jumped inside and locked the door. She hadn’t received anything from her secret admirer in three days, and instead of that making her feel better, she was more nervous than ever.
Her phone rang. She picked it up and saw Dalton Moore’s name on her screen. She almost ignored it. Almost.
“Hey. I can’t believe you answered the phone.”
“Me neither,” she grumbled.
“Is there anything I can do to make you forgive me?”
Dalton Moore was Samantha’s brother and the man Pepper had sworn never to speak to again. He was a playboy of the worst degree but in a moment of weakness, he’d convinced her to give him a chance and they went out on a series of dates. Just as she’d started to give him a piece of her heart, she’d walked in on him “enjoying” his receptionist…on the desk in his office.
The worst part of it was she couldn’t tell Sam. Her best friend never even knew they’d dated, and now she couldn’t share her heartbreak with the one person she had always told everything to.
Pepper sighed. “I’m not mad anymore, Dalt.”
“I wish I could explain.”
“I’m sure you do. But you said you can’t, so let’s just leave it, okay? I’m heading home, so I need to hang up.”
“Can we have lunch next week?”
“Maybe.” She turned the ignition. “I gotta go. ’Bye.” She hung up and rubbed her forehead. Lord, she was tired. Her phone rang again and she answered it. “Dalton, seriously, we’ll talk next week.”
A hiss came over the line and then, “It’s not Dalton.”
Pepper went very still. She swallowed. “Um, sorry, I think you might have the wrong number.”
“I don’t have the wrong number,” the low voice came.
She didn’t recognize the man’s voice…she could only tell he was southern because of his thick accent.
“I’m a little disappointed in you, you know,” he droned.
“Excuse me?” she snapped.
“I sent you several gifts and you threw all but the cassette tape away.”
She’d forgotten about the cassette.
Crap, it must be in my other apron. How did he know?
“I don’t know who you are, but you must have the wrong number—”
“I don’t have the wrong number, Pepper. Don’t hang up.”
“Because if you do, bad things are going to happen.”
“Oooh, I’m scared.” She snorted. “Listen weirdo, I don’t know who you are, but you need to quit harassing me. If you don’t, I’ll call the authorities. I know people.”
She didn’t really, but it sounded good.
He laughed. “Like your friend, Dalton Moore? He’s not a real man…not like me.”
He knows Dalton’s last name? WHAT?
“And if you even think about talking to Samantha Moore, I will kill her,” he continued
“I’m hanging up now.”
She did and shook her head. The guy was obviously a kook who had too much time on his hands. She couldn’t believe he’d actually got in her head. Tonight, she planned to have a glass or two of red wine and sleep like a baby.
* * *
Pepper stood in Jonesy’s stall and ran the brush over her beloved Arabian’s neck. “Who’s my good boy? Hmm?” Jonesy nudged her with his nose and she giggled. “Okay, okay. You did well today. You deserve a peppermint.” She dug in her pocket and pulled out the treat. Jonesy took it gently from her palm, nodded his head, and took his time with his favorite candy.
“It’s time for you to go to sleep and me to go home.”
Jonesy let out a quiet whinny. Pepper called it his “growl.” He did it whenever she said or did something he didn’t like—at least, that’s what she told everyone. She was convinced he knew what she was saying. Her phone pealed in the quiet and she squeezed her eyes shut, hoping it wasn’t her “friend.” It was Sam.
“Thank God,” Samantha said.
Pepper’s heart started to race. “What’s wrong?”
“Pepper, I’m in trouble.”
“Why, what happened?” she squeaked.
“I think I might be falling in lust,” Sam said.
Pepper started laughing and nearly dropped the phone.
Pepper patted Jonesy’s nose and stepped out of his stall. “You totally freaked me out! I thought you were really in trouble!”
“I’m sorry. I just don’t know what to do. I’ve never ever felt this way before.”
“I know you haven’t.” Pepper laughed again. “Who are you lusting over?”
“Not the hottie on the plane?”
Samantha had told her about Cole something or other, the cute guy she’d sat next to and Pepper had secretly hoped she’d have as much luck as her friend did when it was her turn to leave.
“Who? Oh, no. He’s cute, but nothing compared to my boss. Pepper, he looks like he stepped off the cover of a romance novel and on top of that, he has this incredible voice. He’s Scottish, but there’s something else there. If Alexander Skarsgård and Craig Ferguson had a baby, he’d sound like him. And his name’s Kade, for freak’s sake. Kade! Did his parents do that to ensure every woman on the planet would want to procreate with him?”
“Long hair ala Brad Pitt in Legends?” Pepper asked, hopeful.
“Think Keith Urban.”
“Ooh…even better.” Pepper bit her lip. “Holy cow. I might need to push my flight up.”
“I’m losing it, Pep. Seriously, I think this might have been a mistake,” Sam continued. “I think I should come home.”
“Don’t you dare!” Pepper snapped. “You might be shy, Samantha Christene Moore, but you are no coward. Plus, this is your dream job.”
Sam sighed. “I know, I know. I just don’t know what to do. You know my rule.”
“No mixing business with pleasure, yeah, yeah,” Pepper droned. “Maybe throw that rule in the air and shoot the hell out of it.”
“That’s not a good idea.”
Pepper rolled her eyes as she leaned against the stall door. “How do you know? Take a chance for once, Sam. What’s the worst that could happen?”
“I could lose my job.”
“One you don’t actually need, right now anyway. You have money saved, so if you had to come home and look for another job, you could.”
“True. I just don’t know if I feel that brave.”
“Brave, schmave. Does this fall into the category of being hit by a bolt of lightning wrapped in a rainbow?”
Sam giggled. “Oh, Pep. Yes. Really, you should have been an ad-man.”
“Let me tell you what you’re going to do. You’re going to throw caution to the wind and embrace whatever comes your way. Especially, if it’s some hot Scottish guy.”
“Pepper, he’s not interested in me,” Sam complained.
“How do you know? He could be feeling the same thing you are.”
“Ever the romantic, I see.”
Jonesy peeked his head out of the stall and nudged her shoulder. Pepper grinned and stroked his nose. “Do me a favor.”
“What?” Sam groaned.
“Just go with it. If it’s meant to happen, then let it happen. Fall in love if you can.”
“No! Falling in love with your boss is about as useful as a screen door on a submarine.”
Pepper drawled in her best southern gal accent, “Well, shut my mouth. I mean, even a blind squirrel bumps into an acorn now and then.”
“Pepper, stop. I just need to know what to do until you get here.”
Pepper chuckled. “I just told you.”
“You’re no help.”
“Okay, how about this?” Pepper secured Jonesy’s lock. “Try to get a glimpse of him naked. Maybe he’s a troll under his clothing.”
Sam giggled. “Oh, Pepper. I miss you.”
Pepper nodded. “Just about nine weeks now, my friend. I’m counting down the days.”
“Okay, I just put Jonesy to bed in his stall and now I need a glass of wine and a long hot shower to wash the horse off me.”
“In that order?”
“Maybe I’ll start and end with the wine.”
“Nice. Thanks for the pep talk…pun intended,” Sam said. “I’ll Skype you over the weekend unless I have another crisis.”
“Sounds good. Love you.”
“Love you too.”
Pepper hung up, kissed Jonesy one more time and headed to her car. She arrived to find her back tire flat. “Great!”
She was the last one in the barn tonight, which wasn’t unusual, but it was dark and she hated to bug the owner. With a groan, she pulled out her phone, found her Triple A card, and dialed their number. The operator said it could take up to an hour for a tow truck to come and asked if she was in a safe place to wait. If she wasn’t she should call 9-1-1. Pepper assured her she was safe and that she’d just wait by the car.
Pepper sighed and got into the car. She hated waiting. For anything. Technically, she could change the tire herself—Samantha’s dad had taught both of them basic car care when they got their licenses—but she didn’t “do” manual labor…or grease. Not to mention, a migraine was approaching and she was out of pain meds.
Luckily, she’d downloaded the new album from Fallen Crown. She hadn’t had a chance to listen to the whole thing yet, but it was her favorite band and this was the perfect opportunity to immerse herself in the music. She dropped her head onto the headrest and settled in to wait. She was three songs in when a knock at her window elicited a quiet squeal, but her heart calmed when she saw who it was. Mario Hernandez was one of the best-looking men she’d ever met. Tall and muscular, the native Mexican had been living in Savannah since he was a teenager and working at the ranch for almost as long. Now thirty-five, he was married with two kids and was the go-to trainer for the rich and influential. He’d been training Pepper for two years in exchange for light bookkeeping and administrative duties. The arrangement was working out perfectly for them both.
“Hey, Rio.” She opened her door and stepped out. “What are you still doing here?”
He grinned. “I could ask you the same thing, but it’s not quite midnight, so you’re still within your timetable.”
She snorted. “You’re funny. Uh, my tire’s flat. I’m waiting for the tow truck.”
He frowned. “No need for that. I can change it for you.”
“Don’t you need to go home?”
He sighed. “Anna took the kids to her mom’s for the week. I’m joining them over the weekend, but for now, I’m trying to distract myself.”
She grinned. Mario loved his family and they adored him right back. Pepper grabbed her keys and opened the trunk. “Okay, then distract away. The tire’s in here. Thanks.”
Less than thirty minutes later, Mario was setting the flat in the trunk just as a truck made its way up the road.
“Oh, crud. I forgot to cancel the tow truck,” Pepper said.
“Why don’t you head home, and I’ll talk to the tow guy,” Mario offered. “You have to work tomorrow.”
“So do you,” she pointed out.
He chuckled. “Ah, but I need a distraction, remember?”
“Right.” She climbed into the car and cranked the window down. “Thanks for everything, Rio.”
“See you tomorrow for your lesson. Get some sleep.”
Pepper waved and headed down the driveway, past the truck and toward home. She was halfway home when her phone rang. “Hello?”
“Why did you let the Mexican fix your car, Pepper?”
It was him.
“I warned you, Pepper. Do you remember?”
“What? I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“You are not behaving the way you are supposed to. You are going to need to learn to obey me, Pepper.”
“Excuse me? You haven’t told me anything. Not that I’d listen if you did. I’d highly suggest getting back on the crazy train and head on out of town.”
“And I’d suggest you listen to me or you’ll be in trouble, Pepper.”
“You better leave me alone, or I’m calling the cops.”
“Call them, Pepper. They won’t find me.”
Pepper shook. He was creepy as hell, and not just because he said her name after almost every sentence.
“Look, I don’t know what you want. Just tell me and I’ll see what I can do,” she said.
A sardonic chuckle sounded through the phone. “I want you, Pepper. It’s always been you.”
“Well, you can’t have me. Just leave me alone!”
“I will have you, Pepper. One way or another.”
“Creep!” She hung up and glanced in her rearview mirror. Maybe he was following her. She decided to take the long way home, just in case. She arrived at the badly in need of repair box her mother called home, and parked in the driveway. She shook off her impending sense of doom and made her way inside.
She closed the front door and frowned. Her big black lab usually met her at the door.
“Rover,” she called.
She sighed. Her mom probably locked Rover outside when she went out with Jeff, the new “sweet, but misunderstood” ex-con who’d swept her off her feet.
Her mother’s cat, Morris, was pacing the length of the sliding glass door and meowing. Pepper dropped her purse on the kitchen counter and, after grabbing a dog biscuit, made her way to the door and opened it. “Rover?”
She flipped the outdoor light switch, but nothing happened. “Wonderful.” She couldn’t see much, even the moon was hiding from her, so she flipped on the lamp inside the door. Rover was lying on the concrete patio slab next to his dog house.
“Rover? Hey, buddy, why aren’t you in your cozy bed?” She knelt beside him and her stomach turned. “Rover? Come on buddy, you need to wake up.” She tried to roll him over, but he was heavy and limp. She continued to try to wake him, but the reality was that her beloved dog was dead. As the tears streamed down her face, she sat back on her heels and let the stress of the evening cover her.
Her phone buzzed in her pocket and she answered it. “Hello?”
“It was a painless death, Pepper.”
“What?” she squeaked.
“Next time, maybe you’ll listen to me, hmm? I warned you that something bad would happen if you didn’t do what I said. This time it was your dog, Pepper. Next time it might be your mother. Or perhaps even Jonesy…although, I think I’ll leave him until last and make you watch.”
“Why are you doing this to me? What do you want?”
“I want you, Pepper. I have always wanted you.”
“I don’t even know who you are!”
He chuckled. “Oh, you will. But in the meantime, we should really get to know one another, hmm? We’ll start slow. Answer my calls. Every time, Pepper. Understand? Do as I tell you and as you earn my trust, you’ll be rewarded.”
“And if I don’t?”
“Don’t push me, Pepper. One of the things I like most about you is your will, however, your mouth has gotten you into trouble, and I think we need to work on that. Now, bury your dog. I’ve taken the liberty of digging a grave in the corner of your yard.”
Her blood ran cold. “What?”
“I know you like to be taken care of, my love. I’d never make you do manual labor.”
Pepper swallowed. “Leave me alone.”
“I can’t do that, Pepper. Take care of your animal before he starts to decompose and I’ll call you in the morning before your shift at the diner. I’d like you to wear that pretty blue scarf you wore to the airport. This will show me you’re willing to do as you’re told.”
The phone went dead.