Smoke & Secrets

Book 1 – The Vices Series.

Coming early February 2017.

Arson. Secrets. Betrayal.

He’s home to shed his destructive past. She’s here to make him atone for it.

Ross Stevenson has inherited an empire and the destructive baggage to go with it. He’s back in Sharpsville, Kentucky to get rid of both and get back to his life.

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But a series of deliberate fires injures an old friend, and he’s forced to stay until the arsonist is brought to justice.

Dr. Mel Hathaway hasn’t come back to Sharpsville just to run the ER. She’s also there to investigate her father’s mysterious death on Stevenson land years before. It turned her life upside down, and it may not have been an accident.

Mel and Ross appear to have nothing in common. She despises everything about him, especially how his family makes its fortune, and she’s stirring up trouble in a place where he’s important, whether he likes it or not.

She’s also digging up secrets that should stay that way. But he can’t leave her alone. And she doesn’t want him to. As the fires get more destructive, Ross learns more about Mel’s past. The evidence is mounting against her, and she may have a motive.

Mug in hand, Mel stumbled down the hall to the emergency department break room and the gut-busting coffee. It seemed entirely wrong that she should already be back at work again. Somebody stole some hours while she wasn’t looking. Yep. Ross Stevenson stole them.

Another night of imaginings. She had to stop this.

Armed with caffeine, she walked up to the charge desk to scan the case board. Sitting on it was a bouquet so large it had to be stepped around to get behind the desk.

“Wow. Whose birthday, Sarah?” she asked one of the older nurses as she maneuvered around it.

“We were wondering if it was yours, Dr. Hathaway. The flowers are for you.” Mel turned back to see several nurses now standing around her. One of them eagerly held out the envelope.

“No. Not my birthday.” Mel took the envelope and stared at the flowers. It was enormous, roses and stargazer lilies, hydrangeas, freesias, ranunculus–her favorite–and even birds of paradise. No telling what it had cost. It stole her breath, which was exactly what it was designed to do.

“You’ve got some admirer, Dr. Hathaway,” another of the nurses said. She was going to kill Hamilton. Big, showy, extravagant. She tore open the envelope. This was so like him.

I apologize.
Please have dinner with me anyway.
Ross

Mel took a step back as a thrill raced through her. Dammit. She had no business reacting that way.
“Ross. Stevenson? OMG, he’s gorgeous!” one young nurse said, reading over her shoulder. “He’s always in those society pictures, but he’s even better in person.” The nurse fanned herself.

“Yeah, a different girl every time,” one of the other nurses said. Too many to count, thought Mel. Not that she’d looked on the Internet.

“I wonder where he gets the energy,” an older nurse cackled.

Enough of this. “Hand me the first chart, please.” Mel tossed the envelope in the trash and pocketed the card as she headed down the hall.

“Do you think she’ll go?” Mel heard someone whisper behind her. Great. Now she was going to be the subject of hospital gossip.

She might be able to avoid him, but not his flowers. Mel knew she had to thank him. It was the courteous thing to do. Which meant she’d have to talk to him before she was ready. He knew it too. That’s probably why he’d done it.

The coward in her wanted to write a note. A note would be perfectly appropriate. Gift, note.
What to say. “Dear Mr. Stevenson.” Best keep it formal.

Thank you for the lovely flowers, but they were not necessary. All the flowers in the world could not make up for forcing my mother to sign that agreement.”

“Dear Mr. Stevenson, Your family treated my mother and me like we were problems to be made to go away, and we never recovered. Thank you for the flowers.”

“Dear Mr. Stevenson, how could you make my mother sign that Hold Harmless agreement? You practically made sure we were penniless. I appreciate the flowers.”

“Dear Mr. Stevenson, I hate your guts. The flowers are lovely.”

Sincerely, Mel Hathaway.

Yours truly, Mel Hathaway, M.D. Very truly yours, Dr. Mel Hathaway.

Regards, Mel Hathaway, M.D.

No, she’d call him. She would not take the coward’s way out. And she’d tell him what he and his family had done all those years ago and what she was going to do about it. Or no, not yet. He could just be surprised.

She pulled the phone and his business card out of her white coat pocket, dialed. Ignored the uptick in her pulse.
“This is Ross Stevenson. Leave a message and I’ll get back to you.”

Good. She didn’t have to talk to him. “This is Mel Hathaway. Thank you for the flowers. They weren’t necess–”

There was a beep on the other end. She looked at the phone. A number she didn’t recognize. “Hello?”

“I’m glad you liked them.”

Mel inhaled sharply, and her pulse went up a notch again. Dammit. “Yes, they are beautiful.”

“I wanted you to know the way you cared for Mike was truly exceptional. I know he appreciates it. And as his friend, I do too. And I wanted to apologize for cornering you that way. You are right. Using those tactics was low. Again, I am sorry.”

“Seeing Mike get better is it’s own reward. And no, I won’t have dinner with you.”

“May I ask why not?”

“Like I said, it’s not appropriate. And I’m totally not interested.”

“What do you have against me?” His voice had softened.

Mel gritted her teeth. “Your family grows and sells a substance that causes cancer. I’m a doctor. My job is to heal people who’ve been harmed by what you sell. In a nutshell, you make people sick. I try to heal them.”

There was a pause, and she knew the arrow had struck. “We have nothing in common, Ross.”

“Which will make for interesting dinner conversation.”

Mel smiled in spite of herself. She was softening, she could feel it. “The answer is still no.”

There was a pause. “I’ll keep asking.” She could hear a smile in his voice. Mel’s breath caught, and one of those hot waves ripped through her.

When she hung up it occurred to her that now he had her phone number.

Ross kindly consented to answering questions and telling us a little bit about himself.

Q: What is your name and where are you from?
A: My name is Ross Stevenson, and I was born and raised in Sharpsville, Kentucky.

Q: Sounds like a small town.
A: About forty thousand people. Everyone helps everyone else, and this way of life seems to be dying. And it’s a shame. People are more real when they have to live close together.

Q: What impression do you make on people when they first meet you? How about after they’ve known you for a while?
A: I’ve pissed off more than one person in my life by not pulling any punches and not tolerating BS. People tell me I should smile more. And not cross my arms in front of my chest as much. As for people who’ve known me awhile, I hope they think I’m dependable and trustworthy, and I can be counted on when the sh— um, you-know-what hits the fan. And I can crack a joke. One joke per day, they tell me. Somebody evidently kept count. Probably Leo.

Q: Who’s Leo?
A: My best friend.

Q: We’ll get to him in a minute. But first, if you had a free day with no responsibilities and your only mission was to enjoy yourself, what would you do?
A: Get up early, go for a run with Burley, my dog, head to Lester’s for his gut buster breakfasts and diner coffee. Then I’d come home, either watch the game on TV—

Q: Big screen?
A: There’s another kind?

Q: Is that your joke for the day?
A: No. Seriously, is there a kind besides big screen TV?

Q: What kind of game?
A: Kentucky basketball. There is no other game. And since my little brother is on the team, I never miss one. Anyway, either I watch a game or ride my bike on the back country roads, take a look at our crops, stop off for some pecans or whatever’s in season at the roadside stand on Highway 36.

Q: What kind of bike?
A: Triumph, 2009 Café Racer.

Q: Badass.
A: I’ve heard that.

Q: Then what?
A: Maybe visit an old friend, give his daughter a ride.

Q: On what?

A: The bike. She’s nine.

Q: Then?
A: Dinner with an old friend, probably a steak on the grill. A glass of wine or a beer and watch the sun go down over the stream in my back yard. A little more reading, then bed.

Q: Alone?
A: It’s not the worst thing in the world. My lifestyle requires me to get up early. But if I find myself with a beautiful woman at bedtime, that’s perfectly okay.

Q: Is that your one joke today?
A: Probably. The world will end if I crack another. Don’t tell Leo about this. He’ll give me sh—grief about it.

Q: Do you cuss?
A: Oh yes. Frequently. Just not in front of people I don’t know well.

Q: Because?
A: I was raised that way. Gentlemen didn’t cuss. Not where anyone could hear them. My mother washed my mouth out with soap. Frequently.

Q: What do you read?
A: History, civil war and WWII, Grisham, Pat Conroy, Stephen King, Annie Proulx, Faulkner, Michener when I can get through it. I can’t always.

Q: What’s your idea of a good marriage?
A: Affection, mutual respect, concern for the other person, intelligent conversation, love. If and when the right woman comes along, I will be willing to do anything to make her happy, even if she fights me on it. And lots and lots of really good, sweaty sex. I would worship a woman’s body as much as I would appreciate her mind.

Q: That’s aggressive for a man who considers himself a gentleman.
A: The two are not mutually exclusive. When I am interested in a woman, I let her know. As I said, no BS.

Q: How do you do that?
A: Strategically.

Q: Do you think you will find someone to marry?
A: I really don’t think so.

Q: Why not?
A: My lifestyle is hard on relationships. I won’t put a woman through what it takes to be with me.

Q: But you just said you let a woman know when you are interested.
A: Just because you ride the rollercoaster doesn’t mean you want to stay on it forever.

Q: What are you most proud of about your life?
A: Becoming my own man, regardless of what my father wanted me to do or what he thought. It’s a platitude but it’s not as easy as it sounds.

Q: What are you most ashamed of in your life?
A: I’m not going to answer that.

Q: You sure?
A: Yes.

Q: Why not?
A: If I’m ashamed of it, it goes without saying that I’m not going to spill.

Q: If you could spend the day with someone you admire (living or dead or imaginary), who would you pick?
A: FDR or Winston Churchill, it’s a toss-up. When the world really needed true, gutsy leaders, they delivered. Adolph Rupp, the first great basketball coach at the University of Kentucky.

Q: Anybody else?
A: My brothers. I don’t see them nearly enough.

Q: Do you think you’ve turned out the way your parents expected?
A: No. Maybe my mom, bur certainly not what my dad had hoped.

Q: What do you believe about God?
A: He values doing the right thing, and mercy.

Q: What do you suppose God thinks of you?
A: I hope God thinks that I do what I can to help people, that I’m dependable, that I do what I think is right regardless of the consequences.

Q: Is there anything you’ve always wanted to do but haven’t done?
A: Ridden my bike on the highway known as Tail of the Dragon in North Carolina. Three hundred and eighteen curves in eleven miles. That would be a challenge. And amazing.

Q: What would happen if you did it?
A: And didn’t get my butt killed? I’d buy everyone in the biker bar at the end of it a beer. And then ride it again.

Q: What’s the worst thing that’s happened in your life? What did you learn from it?
A: When my mother died. I was fourteen, my brothers even younger. Dad became bitter and withdrawn, and he never really came out of that. I had to become a parent to my brothers for awhile. I resented him for that. What did I learn? Life isn’t fair. You have to keep going.

Q: Tell me about your best friend.
A: Leo? Leo Diamond. His mother was a Baptist preacher’s daughter, his father was a Rabbi. Neither were good parents sarcastic and jaded as they come. He seems like he believes in nothing and that nothing is sacred. Not true. Not even close. And a better friend you’ll never find. Just don’t tell him I said that. He’ll crow about it for weeks.

Q: How did you meet?
A: First grade. He put dish soap in the drinking fountain and blamed me. I punched him. We both got sent to the principal’s office. Mrs. Dunn was big on “talking things out.” We sat there for half an hour not saying anything. Finally we discovered we both liked Transformers and mayonnaise sandwiches, and that was it. He’s been my best friend ever since.

Q: Who spoke first in the principal’s office?
A: Leo did, of course. He never is at a loss for words.

Q: What do you like about him? What does he like about you?
A: He’s the cynic where I’m a bit more optimistic. But he still lightens me up. He’ll tell you the apocalypse is coming and crack you up while he’s doing it. He always has my back, as I have his. What does he like about me? I’m steady and honorable. And I make him look funny because I’m the straight man. And I think he thinks I’m too uptight and don’t cut loose enough. He thinks I need to get laid more.

Q: Do you?
A: This is one of those “have you stopped beating your wife” questions, isn’t it?

Q: What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done to someone?
A: Put a truckload of manure in a guy’s Porsche convertible. Leo helped.

Q: Why did you do it?
A: He tried to cheat my dad in a business deal. He was a real tool anyway. Never did get the smell out of his car. He had to trade it for a Honda Civic.

Q: What would you like it to say on your tombstone?
A: Loved by some, respected by all.

Q: Describe your ideal mate.
A: Sweet, warm, intelligent, always sees the humor in things, caring, must love children and must love dogs. Hopefully loves basketball, but not necessary. Pretty would be great. Curvy. A lot of women are too skinny.

Q: What are you most afraid of?
A: An illness or an accident making me unable to make a difference and becoming a burden to those I love.

Q: What’s the most important thing in your life? What do you value most?
A: My family, those I love. I value honesty above all.

Q: What do you like best about yourself? Least?
A: My perseverance and my feet. They’re too big.

Q: Another joke!
A: No, my feet really are too big for the rest of me.

Q: You know what they say about men with big feet?
A: We’re not even going there.

Q: How do you feel about your life right now? What, if anything, would you like to change?
A: I’m very frustrated. I want to get rid of the business I inherited, but the process is slow and complicated, and many people depend on me for their livelihoods, so I owe them something. Damned if I do, damned if I don’t. It’s not a good place to be.

Q: Are you lying to yourself about something? What is it?
A: That I don’t care if I ever find a mate.

Q: What did you have for breakfast?
A: In Kentucky I have country ham with red-eye gravy, eggs, grits and homemade biscuits.

Q: Sounds coronary-worthy.
A: Oh, it is. That’s the beauty.

Mel reluctantly consented to answering questions and telling us a little bit about herself.

Q: What is your name and where are you from?
A: Melody Hathaway, and I was born in Sharpsville, Kentucky. When I was little my father died in a fire, and we had to move to Memphis, Tennessee so my mom could work in her cousin’s restaurant.

Q: It sounds like it was a bad time in your life.
A: It could have been better. Okay, yeah, it sucked.

Q: What impression do you make on people when they first meet you? How about after they’ve known you for a while?
A: That I’m efficient. And that I’m efficient.

Q: No, seriously.
A: I am efficient. When they get to know me maybe they also think that I’m good natured and a caring person. That’s the goal.

Q: You’re a doctor. You’re supposed to be caring.
A: You’d be surprised how many aren’t.

Q: If you had a free day with no responsibilities and your only mission was to enjoy yourself, what would you do?
A: First, coffee and a nice chair with my feet up enjoying a pretty view or a good book. Maybe a little Sudoku. Then a long walk, maybe popping into a little shop or two, lunch at a cute place with lots of sweets, then a movie or horseback riding—

Q: Do you have a horse?
A: No. First, no money for one. Now, no time. But I love them, and being as I live in Kentucky, I do like a good horse race.

Q: Then what?
A: A nice dinner out or staying in, a glass of good wine—

Q: White or red?
A: Pinot Noir if it’s red, Riesling if it’s white. But I’m not picky. If someone offers me wine, I’ll drink it.

Q: Riesling? That’s unusual.
A: It isn’t served much. It’s too sweet for many people. Which is why I’ll drink whatever.

Q: Then what?
A: TV, preferably something British.

Q: Game of Thrones?
A: Yup.

Q: Who is your favorite character?
A: I’m not going to say. They’ll die. And popcorn with it.

Q: Butter?
A: Lots. And I don’t share.

Q: Anything else?
A: A hot bath, then bed.

Q: You live in Kentucky. Do you like basketball?
A: Um…

Q: That’s a no?
A: No, that’s an Um.

Q: Would you do any of this with anyone?
A: Yes, if anyone was around. I’ve moved around, and I haven’t always had time to cultivate friendships.

Q: You’ve worked with doctors.
A: And your point is…

Q: Have you ever been attracted to one?
A: Not so much.

Q: Would you do any of these things in your perfect day with a man?
A: That would be nice.

Q: Do you read? If so, what do you read?
A: British history, literature, and romance.

Q: Names?
A: Kristan Higgins, Lisa Kleypas, Jodi Picoult, Zadie Smith, Jojo Moyes, Sarah Addison Allen, Elizabeth Strout. Sharon Kay Penman and Hillary Mantel.

Q: No men?
A: Jonathan Safran Foer, Pat Conroy, Hemingway.

Q: What’s your idea of a good marriage?
A: Love. Lots of it. Working together for a common goal, respect, affection, humor. I want to feel cherished. And I would make him feel the same. And handsome would be nice.

Q: Rich?
A: I’ve known rich men. They’re almost always jerks.

Q: Sex?
A: Definitely. Preferably all over the house.

Q: What are you most proud of about your life?
A: Overcoming the obstacles in my life to become who and what I am.

Q: What are you most ashamed of in your life?
A: My engagement. The fact that I got engaged, and who I was engaged to.

Q: Care to elaborate?
A: No.

Q: If you could spend the day with someone you admire (living or dead or imaginary), whom would you pick?
A: My mom. I miss her.

Q: Do you think you’ve turned out the way your parents expected?
A: I hope so. I hope they are proud of me.

Q: What do you believe about God?
A: That he can be rather arbitrary sometimes.

Q: What do you suppose God thinks of you?
A: That I do whatever I can to make people feel better and to not be frightened. I’m an ER doctor. I treat many frightened people.

Q: Is there anything you’ve always wanted to do but haven’t done?
A: I would like to go to France. The history, the art, and the food. Own a horse and have enough time to ride him. Ride him in Wyoming. Shop Rodeo Drive, and have enough money to do it.

Q: What would happen if you did it?
A: I could maybe swing France, and I’d love it and gain fifteen pounds. And Wyoming, but with somebody else’s horse. The rest, maybe one day.

Q: What’s the worst thing that’s happened in your life? What did you learn from it?
A: When my father died, and we had to move. And I learned that God is arbitrary.

Q: Tell me about your best friend.
A: I don’t really have one. I’d like one. We could do sleepovers and drink too much wine and sing terrible songs from the eighties.

Q: What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done to someone?
A: I told Raymond Tuttle he was an a**hole. It was the second grade. I got in trouble.

Q: What happened?
A: I got sent to the principal’s office. He asked me to say I’m sorry. I wouldn’t. He sent me home for the rest of the day. My mom grounded me for a week.

Q: Why did you do it?
A: Because he was. He was a bully. Still is, I understand.

Q: That’s it?
A: I told my fiancé to f*ck off.

Q: That’s not so bad.
A: Tell him that.

Q: That’s two instances of cussing. Do you do it a lot?
A: I work in an emergency room. It happens. Outside of work I only do it when I’m upset.

Q: What would you like it to say on your tombstone?
A: She did all she could for as many as she could. And she was a good daughter.

Q: Describe your ideal mate.
A: Handsome–okay, I said it. Solid and dependable, warm, muscular—shallow, too, I know. Hopefully loves children. Someone who smiles a lot.

Q: What are you most afraid of?
A: Dying alone.

Q: What’s the most important thing in your life? What do you value most?
A: Making life better for others, and I value kindness above all.

Q: What do you like best about yourself? Least?
A: I like my hair. It’s dark red. Shallow, I know. Least? I’m pushy sometimes. I have to be, but still.

Q: Do you think men have a problem with pushy women?
A: Yes, sometimes. It is what it is.

Q: How do you feel about your life right now? What, if anything, would you like to change?
A: I’m lonely. I try to hide it and compensate with other things. I would like a best friend.

Q: Are you lying to yourself about something? What is it?
A: Why would I tell you that?

Q: What did you have for breakfast?
A: Yogurt and coffee. And a Tootsie Roll.