I closed my eyes, breathing the clean fall air, still tinged with the warmth of the fading summer. And I nearly ran smack-dab into the large Civil War reproduction cannon sponsored by the Sugarland Heritage Society. In my defense, it hadn’t been there yesterday.
The lawn outside the library—heck, the entire town square—had been transformed.
With good reason.
Today was the first day of the annual Cannonball in the Wall Festival.
As far as parties went, Cannonball in the Wall Day was right up there with Christmas, Easter, and the biscuits-and-gravy breakfast at Lulabelle Mason’s house.
This year would be even better. A History channel documentary crew had rolled into town to film the celebration, and it seemed every man, woman, and child from four counties had descended on us like bees to honey butter.
“Melody?” I called, spotting a blonde with a ponytail through the crowd. I strained to get a better look. “Melody!” I waved.
The woman turned and I realized it wasn’t my sister. This perky blonde was an actress I’d seen on television. I didn’t know whether to be impressed or frustrated.
I’d told Melody I’d meet her near the library, but that was before we realized what a spectacle this year’s event was going to be. It might take a bit to pick her out of the larger-than-usual crowd.
I ran a hand along the gun barrel of the old cannon, over the layers of caked-on paint, warm from the sun. During the war, Tennessee was one of the most divided states in the nation, and our boys had gone off to fight on both sides. That left the town vulnerable when the Yankee army came through in 1863. The local militia fought to keep everyone safe, but our homes and businesses were on fire all around them. We thought it was over when the Yankees got their cannon up and shot straight into the town square. Wouldn’t you know it, that ball did not explode. It lodged deep in the wall of the Sugarland Library for everyone to see. That small victory gave our ancestors the extra bit of spit and vinegar they needed to drive the invaders out and save our town.
The preacher at the time declared it a miracle. While I wasn’t so sure faulty explosives qualified as the hand of God, the entire town had assembled to celebrate every year since. We’d come together—people of all different backgrounds and walks of life—and we’d saved the place we loved. The Cannonball in the Wall Festival reminded us to be grateful for that.
A smile tickled my lips and I couldn’t help but gaze at the rusting iron cannonball still embedded in the white limestone near the foundation of the historic library.
Soon everyone would know our story.
“Five dollars for a picture with the cannonball,” barked a scratchy voice to my right.
I turned to find Ovis Dupre’s thin, bent frame nearly on top of me. The old man didn’t understand the concept of personal space. Instead, he drew even closer with his vintage Polaroid.
“No, thank you,” I said, doing my best to duck around him while taking care to be kind. He meant well. Besides, I couldn’t afford to alienate any of my neighbors after a recent event had left my reputation a little questionable.
But Ovis was eighty if he was a day. And he did not get subtleties at all.
He lowered the camera to reveal the bushiest pair of silver eyebrows south of the Mason-Dixon line. They stood out starkly against his mahogany skin. “Pretty girl like you deserves a picture,” he said quickly. “Five dollars.”
Ahem. Problem was, he’d trapped me between the cannon and the crowd, and I didn’t have five dollars to spare. Not after the incident involving my ex-fiancé. I’d managed to avoid selling my house—barely—after my ex-almost-mother-in-law had forced me to pay for the wedding she’d orchestrated, the one that didn’t happen. But I’d had to empty my savings and sell most of my furniture. I scarcely had enough left for the things that really mattered, such as food.
Ovis cocked his head. “All proceeds go for historic preservation,” he added, as if the cannonball needed my five dollars more than I did. “Did you know my great-great-granddaddy stood in almost this exact spot when he helped save Sugarland?”
He was good. If I’d had the five dollars, I would have produced it right then. But I didn’t.
The entire town knew my predicament, but they didn’t realize I was so strapped that I’d been forced to eat Royal beef ramen noodles for breakfast this morning. And for dinner last night. I’d kept those sorts of details to myself, along with the fact that I couldn’t have preserved my own slice of Sugarland history, the historic home my grandmother had left to me, without the help of Frankie, the gangster ghost I’d grounded in my grandmother’s heirloom rosebush, and Ellis Wydell, an unexpectedly sweet man who was tall, gorgeous, and very much alive.
To tell you the truth, I still didn’t know what to do about either one of them.
“I’ve got it,” said a familiar voice.
“Ellis?” I turned and saw my recent partner in all things spooky. He wore a Sugarland Deputy Sheriff’s uniform and a smile that showed off the dimple in his chin.
I shot Ellis a bright smile as he slipped a five into a box marked “Historic Preservation.”
Ovis captured my grin with a sharp click.
“Thanks for that,” I said to the deputy sheriff.
He shrugged a broad shoulder. “I saw a damsel in distress.”
Ovis watched us for a moment too long as he pulled the Polaroid photo from the camera. Ellis stiffened, and I fought the guilty flush that crept up my cheeks. We’d have to be careful how friendly we appeared together. Hardly anyone knew how close we’d grown after our recent adventure, and if any man in this town was off-limits, it was Ellis Wydell.
He was the brother of my ex-fiancé, the middle son of the woman who would give her eyeteeth to ruin my life. And even though I was highly intrigued by the black sheep son of the Wydell family, events like today had a way of reminding me of my place.
I turned to the elderly photographer. “I saw some people earlier with commemorative picture holders. If it’s not too much of a bother…”
Ovis appeared pleased that I’d noticed. “I was just about to get you one.” He weaved through the crowd toward a nearby table while I took a second to admire the scenery right in front of me. I’d almost forgotten how tall Ellis was, and how well his uniform fit over those work-sculpted muscles. He still had a slight scar under his eye from when he’d saved me from a killer. If anything, it made him even sexier.
“I see you’re working today.”
He gave a sharp nod. “Crowd control.” He glanced over his shoulder at the reenactors lounging on the lawn. “Plus the Yankees have been drinking since ten o’clock this morning.”
Oh my. “I suppose you can’t blame them.” Everyone who was anyone wanted to play a town hero in the reenactment. But the militia parts went to the older families in town, the ones with ancestors who fought. Anyone whose family had settled here less than one hundred and fifty years ago had to play the part of an invader. On television, no less.
“Poor Yankees,” Ellis mused. “It must be tough to lose every year.”
Yes, well they should have thought about that before they shot at our library. “Your mother has to be loving this.”
He shook his head. “She’s convinced the family story is Hollywood material.”
“More power to her,” I said, meaning every word.
My ex-almost-mother-in-law may be slightly evil, but this time was using her power and sizable fortune for good. She’d formed a film production company dedicated to promoting the history of Sugarland, and her family’s legacy, of course. So far, she’d managed to attract today’s documentary crew, and also finance an independent movie about the skirmish that forever entrenched the cannonball in the wall. Filming would start next week.
That kind of national recognition would do the town good. Plus, the more she focused on her family’s fame and glory, the less time she had to meddle in my affairs.
Ovis handed me the picture, complete in its commemorative cardboard Cannonball in the Wall Day frame. I was stunned to see how happy I looked.
“For you,” I said, handing the picture to Ellis. He had bought it. Plus, I sort of wanted him to have a picture of me.
He took it gallantly, but I saw how the tips of his ears reddened.
I was glad to see I wasn’t the only one who might need to work on reining things in.
Blood-curdling screams sounded from across the square, and from behind city hall, I heard shouts: “The Yankees are coming!”
Ellis checked his watch. “Twenty minutes early. Somebody needs to get them under control.”
“Hop to it, lawman.”
He shot me a wink and left to go check out the action while I wondered for the hundredth time whether I’d been blessed or cursed.
I also wondered if anyone besides Ovis had noticed me talking to the good-looking sheriff.
Melody made me jump when she drew up behind me and whispered in my ear. “Boo.”
My hand went to my chest. “Can’t you just say hello like everyone else?”
“So you’re saying that scared you?” she asked, her blue eyes twinkling. “Impossible. Not after—”
“Never mind,” I said quickly. “I’m just glad you found me.” Melody and Ellis were two of the very limited number of people who knew about my ghost-hunting skills, and I intended to keep it that way. “Besides, I’m finished with that business.” I wanted to forget about haunted houses, hidden passageways, and buried secrets. “The ghosts of Sugarland have caused me too much trouble.”
Little did I know, they’d find me soon enough…