For the Birds – Denise Grover Swank

hadn’t intended to start off my day with a hostage negotiation, much less for it to happen at my landscaping company. “Just put the gun down, and nobody gets hurt.” “But he took Mr. Bearington!” my niece Ashley said, pointing a water gun at her brother. Her cheeks were flushed and her eyes had filled with tears. “He’s going to rip his head off!” “No, he’s not.” I turned to her brother, then said with forced patience, “Mikey. Give the bear back to your sister.” “He’s not just a bear, Aunt Rose!” Ashley protested, waving the pistol. Lord only knew where she’d gotten it . probably from my best friend Neely Kate’s desk drawer. “He’s Mr. Bearington, and Mommy gave him to me before she left.

” Before my sister Violet left for Houston for chemo and a bone marrow transplant. She was finally coming home this afternoon, and everyone was on edge. The kids hadn’t seen her in over three months. The last time they saw her, she’d just been through an aggressive round of chemo, and they’d had to wear masks and gowns whenever they were near her. Both kids had returned with nightmares. I knelt down in front of my two-year-old nephew, who eyed me with distrust—not that I was surprised. I hadn’t seen much of him or Ashley in the last six months, and six months had been a quarter of his life. Mike had asked me to keep my visits with them to a minimum. He’d claimed that seeing me reminded them that their mother was gone. I’d agreed to it in the beginning, but something felt off. His parents were out of town this week, which had made me the most logical person to watch the kids while he flew to Houston to bring Violet home, but he’d seemed reluctant to accept my offer. “Ashley loves Mr.

Bearington. Don’t you want to give him back to her?” His tiny brow furrowed and his lips puckered as he shook his head in defiance. “No.” I narrowed my eyes at him as I tried to figure out how to handle the situation. I could just reach out and take the bear from him, but I was hoping to reach a more diplomatic solution. The jingling bell on the front door of my office alerted me that someone was walking in, but I was too invested in my battle of wills with a toddler to greet them. “This looks like a standoff—and I would know.” The voice unmistakably belonged to Joe, my best friend’s brother. I turned and saw him standing in the doorway in his sheriff’s uniform, his broad shoulders filling the space. Though I was exasperated with my nephew, Joe’s grin was contagious.

“What seems to be the problem here?” he asked, walking in and closing the door behind him. “Uncle Joe,” Ashley said as she ran for him and wrapped herself around his leg. “Mikey won’t give me Mr. Bearington.” Uncle Joe. The name caught me off guard. Ashley had started calling him Uncle Joe last summer, while he and I were dating, and she’d kept it up because he’d lived next door to my sister for a while after our breakup. He leaned over and cupped her tiny shoulder with his large hand. “Let me see what I can do. I’m pretty good with negotiations.

” Joe grabbed my desk chair and rolled it in front of Mikey and took a seat, making him closer to the boy’s height. “Hey, Mikey. Remember me?” Mikey glared up at him and shook his head, clutching the bear tighter. Joe grinned. “That’s okay. It’s been a while, but you and I go way back.” Joe leaned closer and lowered his voice. “It just so happens that I know your favorite ice cream used to be strawberry. Is it still strawberry?” Mikey’s eyes widened in surprise, and he nodded. “If you give Ashley back her bear, I’ll take you over to Dena’s cupcake shop and get you some ice cream.

What do you say to that?” “I’d say that’s bribery,” I said. “And it’s only ten in the morning.” Joe glanced up at me, his eyes twinkling. “You’re just sorry I thought of it first.” I tried to glare at him but couldn’t quite pull it off. “Okay. Maybe.” Joe turned back to Mikey and gave him an intent look. “What do you say, big guy? Ice cream?” Mikey nodded and shoved the bear at his sister, who clutched it to her chest and buried her face into it. “I’m not sure I should ask,” Joe said, “but how’s babysitting going?” I laughed.

“Pretty much what you’re seeing. Lots of crying and obstinance.” Joe grinned. “And how are the kids doin’?” “Ha. Ha.” I swatted his shoulder. “You think you’re so funny.” Joe turned to Ashley. “I am funny, aren’t I?” She slowly shook her head. “No, Uncle Joe,” she said, her tone solemn.

He laughed. “No? Then it’s obvious you haven’t spent enough time with me lately.” Just as obvious that they hadn’t spent enough time with me. Or their mother. In any case, they were here now, and I was pretty sure they were acting out due to nerves. Ashley’s mouth tipped down. “My mommy’s coming home today.” If Joe was surprised by her subdued tone, he didn’t let on. “She’s been gone a long time, huh?” She nodded, then just as quickly gave Joe a pouty face. “Can I get ice cream too, Uncle Joe?” Joe grabbed her and pulled her into a hug, tickling her belly.

“You could have had ice cream if you’d said I was funny. Now . ” She squealed and giggled, and then Mikey felt left out and grabbed Joe’s leg, and Joe scooped him up into his other arm. A wave of nostalgia washed through me, and I caught Joe’s equally subdued gaze. He’d always been amazing with my niece and nephew when we were together. But Joe had more cause to be melancholy than I did. As obvious as it was that he’d make a great father, over the past year and a half he’d lost two babies by two different women . and neither one of them had been me. My niece and nephew were no doubt a bitter reminder of what could have been. But as quickly as his sadness appeared, he pushed it away and flashed a smile.

“Aunt Rose,” Joe said, “can you leave the office to go get ice cream?” I grimaced. “Can you either take the kids or bring the ice cream back to them? I’d like to call Neely Kate. She’s still not back yet.” Joe’s jovial expression slid right off his face, concern filling his eyes. “Where’d she go?” “She was going to talk to a potential client about a design, but she should have been back by now.” His eyes shuttered, and he was Chief Deputy Simmons now. “How long ago was she supposed to be back?” After finding out that Neely Kate was his half sister in February, Joe had taken his new role as a brother to heart. “An hour ago,” I said, waving him off. “I’m sure it’s nothin’.” “Not necessarily.

” He set both kids on the floor and stood, walking over to me. “That’s why I’m here. To find out what you know about what’s goin’ on in the criminal world.” The hair on the back of my neck stood on end. “I know you’ve had ties to Skeeter Malcolm,” he added. I crossed my arms over my chest. “That was in the past.” His eyebrows rose as his gaze pierced mine. “Rumor has it you had dealings in the criminal world only a few weeks ago.” My mouth dropped open.

“And what do you know about that?” “I know that you took a meeting with Malcolm, Wagner, and Reynolds at the Putnam Industrial Park.” I tried to hide my surprise. The only way he could know about that meeting was if someone had talked. I’d bet my farm that it hadn’t been one of James Malcolm’s men, but I didn’t trust Buck Reynolds or Kip Wagner any farther than I could throw them. Still, if Joe knew about it, I saw no reason to hide it from him. “I did.” “As the Lady in Black.” It wasn’t a question. “I was doing my part as a concerned citizen to keep peace in this county.” His lips pressed together in a tight line, and several seconds passed before he said, “You have to see that you’re playin’ with fire.

” “I’m not playin’ with anything anymore,” I said with a hint of attitude. “I’m done with that world.” Joe didn’t look convinced, not that I was surprised. My alter ego had wreaked havoc on my life, so I’d hung up my hat as Lady in February. But I couldn’t pretend I hadn’t liked pulling her out of mothballs weeks ago. Unfortunately, James Malcolm, king of the Fenton County crime world, had double-crossed me during that meeting, and I had neither seen nor heard from him since. I was starting to think I might never hear from him—a thought that had me vacillating between “good riddance” and a hopeless feeling of loss and regret. He lowered his voice. “I know you were meeting over that damned missin’ necklace.” “The only thing I’m gonna tell you is that the matter was resolved and peace was restored.

” “You sure about that?” he asked in a dry tone. “Uncle Joe,” Ashley said, tugging on his arm. “You said we could get ice cream.” “I sure did,” he said, bestowing his bright smile on her. “But Mikey’s taken off his shoes. Why don’t you help him get them back on so we can walk across the town square?” I started to protest that Mikey had his shoes on—I’d put them on myself—when I saw his little bare feet. He’d tucked his shoes under my desk. I resisted the urge to sigh. I’d been watching my niece and nephew for the past two days, and it had been nonstop action. Since Neely Kate lived with me in my farmhouse, I couldn’t help wondering if she was staying away for longer than necessary to catch a few moments of peace.

As soon as the thought crept into my mind, I chased it away. Neely Kate had loved every minute of having Ashley and Mikey around, but she had seemed a little sad this morning. Neely Kate and Joe had both lost babies before they were born. She had miscarried her twins last January, and the doctor had told her she’d probably never have more children. If there was ever a woman who was meant to be a mother, it was my best friend. Spending two days with my niece and nephew had likely broken her heart. But at the moment, I was concerned that Joe was questioning peace in the county. Ashley scrambled under the desk to get Mikey’s shoes, and I took advantage of the few moments of reprieve. “What do you know that you’re not telling me?” “Seems like you’re in a better position to know than me,” he said. I shook my head.

“I wasn’t lyin’. I haven’t heard a peep about that world since that meeting.” He studied me as though deciphering whether I was telling the truth. Finally, he said, “There’s some rumblings goin’ round. Something about Skeeter Malcolm’s brother.” “Scooter?” I asked in surprise, then shook my head. “He has nothing to do with that world. Bruce Wayne said James refuses to let him take part.” Joe looked surprised that I was talking about it so freely, but Joe knew the higher-up politics of the county criminal world. I saw no point in beating around the bush.

“Scooter’s missin’.” “What?” I said louder than intended. “What happened?” “Hell if I know.” Then he cringed and glanced back to see if the kids had noticed his swear. They hadn’t; Ashley had returned to playing with Mr. Bearington, and her brother was now playing with the Velcro straps rather than putting the shoes on. Joe leaned closer and lowered his voice even more. “It’s not like Malcolm filed a missing person report.” “No, I guess not,” I said with a frown, my imagination working overtime. “So how do you know about it? I take it you have some super-secret source since you knew about the parley from a few weeks ago.

” “Parley?” he asked in surprise. I gave him a smug look. “I guess you don’t know everything.” I looked up into his worried brown eyes. “I told you. I worked out a peace agreement over the necklace. James invoked parley to discuss it.” “Well, I’m not so sure it worked,” Joe said, “because Scooter’s missin’, and word has it that one of Malcolm’s rivals took him.” “Which one?” I asked. He gave me a look of disgust.

“Exactly. The man has more enemies than I can count.” He eyed me with suspicion. “You really didn’t know?” “No.” Nevertheless, I was worried. While I’d never met Scooter, he was a close friend of my business partner, Bruce Wayne. And James . he had to be beside himself with worry. Scooter was a simple man, not capable of the machinations that could help him escape a kidnapper’s grasp—and everyone who knew him said he was as kind as he was uncomplicated. But I couldn’t concern myself with James.

He’d made it clear he didn’t want me to. “With Neely Kate’s and your connections to the underworld and Scooter missin’ . ” My heart lodged in my throat. “I should be careful.” Ashley tugged on Joe’s arm again, and Mikey, who’d finally stopped playing with the shoes and put them on, tugged on the other. “Come on, Uncle Joe. You can talk to Aunt Rose later,” Ashley said, trying to strongarm him toward the door. “We have to get ice cream before Mommy comes home.” “Ice cream,” Mikey said, pulling on his other hand. I swallowed my worry and forced a smile.

“You know Neely Kate—she’s gotten distracted by something. I’m sure she’s fine. Go ahead and take them to Dena’s, and I’ll call her and see what’s keepin’ her so long. I’ll have an answer by the time you three get back.” “Okay,” Joe said with a concerned look. Then he pretended to let the kids pull him to the door. “Call me if you find out anything alarming.” I grabbed my phone off my desk and pulled up Neely Kate’s number. When she didn’t answer, I told myself not to panic. There could be half a dozen reasonable explanations, but I was worried nonetheless.

Joe was right. We’d inserted ourselves into the Fenton County crime world with that parley, and we hadn’t even bothered with a disguise—we’d gone as ourselves. Yes, I’d attended as the Lady in Black, but this time I hadn’t been wearing any kind of veil or mask. Besides, Neely Kate hadn’t been herself over the last few days. And after her disappearance last week, that had me worried. N C H A P T E R 2 eely Kate had run off to Ardmore, Oklahoma, where she’d lived with her mother before Jenny Lynn Rivers had dumped her, at age twelve, on her grandmother’s doorstep in Fenton County and had never come back. After her high school graduation, Neely Kate had returned to Ardmore and stayed for nearly two years. She rarely talked about anything to do with her mother, who’d never contacted her after abandoning her, or Oklahoma. While I knew she was deeply ashamed of her previous life, I wasn’t sure why. I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that Neely Kate had been abused, but I didn’t know any details.

I’d respected her privacy, knowing how much it hurt her to discuss it, but now I wondered if that had been a mistake. Kate Simmons, Neely Kate’s newly discovered half sister, had been sending her letters in the mail, and although my best friend refused to tell me any details, I knew Kate was holding something over her head. So Neely Kate’s sudden trip to Oklahoma hadn’t come as a total surprise . but her companion had. Jed Carlisle. Jed was James “Skeeter” Malcolm’s right-hand man. He’d acted as my bodyguard last winter, so I trusted him implicitly. I was grateful he’d been with her, but I couldn’t help wondering how they had ended up together in the first place, and she refused to tell me. I could have asked James, but my pride insisted that he had to come to me first. Neely Kate had returned after two days, apologizing for taking off and assuring me that everything was okay.

She said she’d taken care of everything—and she’d left it at that. So why did she still seem distracted and on edge? The bell on the office door jingled, and Neely Kate walked into the office. She was wearing her favorite blue dress, the one I’d told her made her eyes look like the summer sky. I placed my hand on my chest and said, “Oh, thank God.” She shut the door behind her and moved closer. “Why do you look like that?” Fear filled her eyes. “Oh, my stars and garters. Did something happen?” I closed the distance between us and pulled her into a hug. “No. I was just worried.

I tried to call you and you didn’t answer.” “I was at that landscaping appointment.” “I know . ” Now that the initial relief had worn off, I was struck by her appearance— mussed hair, pink cheeks, and bright eyes . a look that seemed to seesaw between happy and sad. I hadn’t thought much of her wearing the dress today since we were throwing Violet a welcome home party this afternoon, but now I wondered if there were other reasons. “I didn’t think I’d be gone so long.” She pulled away and looked around the office. “Where are the kids?” “Joe came by and took them to Dena’s for ice cream.” “It’s not even lunchtime.

” I shook my head and grinned. “He bribed them to stop fighting.” She laughed. “So that’s the key. Have you heard anything from Violet or Mike?” “No. Not yet, but I don’t think their plane has landed. The plan for the party hasn’t changed, as far as I know.” Neely Kate shook her head. “I still can’t believe Mike went to get her. Are they moving forward with the divorce?” “I’m not sure.

Vi said they’ve been talking on the phone after she talks to the kids. In fact, she’s goin’ home with them after the party.” “I’m surprised he’s so willing to forgive her,” Neely Kate said. “He seemed pretty pissed at her last fall.” “Thinkin’ someone you love is gonna die probably changes things,” I said absently, shocked when an image of James surfaced in my head. If Scooter had been snatched—or, worse yet, killed—the perpetrator had done it to hurt James. Which meant James wasn’t just hurting; he could be in danger too. Not my concern. Then why did my heart seize up and make it difficult to breathe? I sat in my chair. “I was concerned because Joe told me something worrisome when he came by.

” Her eyes widened. “Oh?” “Scooter Malcolm is missing.” “Oh.” Her voice had lowered an octave as she walked over to her desk and set her purse in her drawer, avoiding eye contact with me. “Wait. You knew?” I wasn’t necessarily surprised. Neely Kate knew just about everything that was going on in Fenton County, let alone Henryetta—a fact she was downright proud of, which made her behavior all the stranger. “I’d heard.” “Why in Sam Hill didn’t you tell me?” She looked up at me with contrition in her eyes. “Jed told me the day we came back from Oklahoma.

That’s why we returned so suddenly.” I gave myself a tiny shake, suddenly confused. “You told me you came back because you’d finished up your business.” She walked over and sat on the edge of my desk, her eyes pleading with mine. “I did. But we also found out that Scooter was missing, and Jed was eager to get back.” “Why didn’t you tell me?” I repeated, trying to keep the hurt out of my voice. She grimaced. “Because of Skeeter. I know you and him .

” “Scooter’s disappearance has nothing to do with my feelings for James Malcolm.” “Are you sure about that?” she asked quietly. I wanted to say yes, but it would have been a lie. Still, this was far bigger than my fight with James. “How is Bruce Wayne taking this news?” “I’m not sure he knows. In fact, I’m surprised Joe knows. Jed says Skeeter’s keeping it quiet.” I blinked. “Says? As in you’ve talked to Jed about Scooter this week?” Guilty surprise washed over her face, like she was a teenager who’d gotten caught sneaking out of the house. “Yeah.

” I started to ask her why she hadn’t told me that either when the front door opened and Joe walked in with Ashley next to him and Mikey on his hip. Each child had an ice cream cone. Neely Kate hopped off my desk and spun around. “What are you thinkin’ feedin’ them ice cream practically for breakfast?” she asked with a laugh as she walked over to him and reached for Mikey. I knew a stalling tactic when I saw one, but I decided to allow it. If there was anything to tell, she certainly wasn’t going to share it in front of Joe. “I don’t think we should get ice cream on Aunt Rose’s pretty clothes.” I was wearing a new outfit Neely Kate had persuaded me to buy—a full pink skirt with a large floral pattern, but it was the top that really pushed me out of my comfort zone, which was most likely the main reason she’d convinced me to get it. The white shirt had a slightly off-the-shoulder neckline that plunged into a deep V in both the front and back. It was completely impractical for work, but I didn’t have any site visits planned for the day, and we were planning to close the office when we went to the nursery for Violet’s welcome home party.

My nephew held out an arm and she scooped him into her arms as Joe said, “It held off World War III for a good half hour. I was just doin’ my part to save humanity.” “Oh really?” she asked with a grin. “So why do I see some strawberry ice cream at the corner of your mouth?” His eyes twinkling, he licked the corner of his mouth. “I was trying to save my uniform. It’s hot out there.” “I can’t believe Dena served them ice cream,” Neely Kate said, shaking her head. “She’s pretty strict with her no ice cream until after noon policy.” “She didn’t want to give us any,” Ashley said between licks of her chocolate cone. “She only agreed when Uncle Joe said he’d go to the carnival tonight.

” “Why would Dena care if Joe went to the carnival tonight?” I asked and instantly regretted it. “Oh.” She’d asked him to go with her. Joe grimaced and used the napkin in his hand to wipe Mikey’s face as he quickly changed the subject. “Is Maeve still expecting us all at the nursery at a quarter to one?” “Yeah,” I said, feeling awkward. The only woman Joe had been with after our breakup was his long-time, on-and-off-again girlfriend, Hilary, and even then, he’d been pressured into it. As far as I knew, this was the first time he’d agreed to go out with someone with actual girlfriend potential. I hadn’t thought much about Joe not dating. He’d been through a lot over the last year and a half. In February, he’d killed his father (to save me), his sister had been arrested for killing Hilary and their unborn baby, and he’d found out that Neely Kate was his half sister.

One of those things would have been enough to throw a man for a serious loop, let alone three. Maybe he was finally ready to move on, which was a good thing. I wanted Joe to be happy. Still, there was no denying the thought of seeing him with someone new made me feel slightly uncomfortable. “Then maybe we’ll see you there,” Neely Kate said. “Rose and I are goin’ too.” Joe looked a little uncomfortable too. It was obvious he’d like to be anywhere other than standing in my office talking about his date with his sister and ex-girlfriend. “Well,” he said, running his hand over his head. “I need to talk to the prosecutor and tie up some things before I see you at the nursery.

” He bolted out the door before we could say anything else. “Hmm . ” Neely Kate said, watching him jaywalk across the street. “What do you make of that?” But the tone in her voice suggested she knew exactly what to make of it. “It’s not any of my concern.” And it wasn’t. My biggest concern at the moment was breaking the news about Scooter to Bruce Wayne. He’d be joining us at the party, but I didn’t want to wait. Which made me even more surprised that Neely Kate had held out on us for so long. I grabbed my purse and stood.

“But there’s something that is. I need to go see Bruce Wayne at the job site. Can you watch the kids?” She caught my short tone. “Yeah.” She set Mikey down on the floor and moved toward her desk. “Bruce Wayne doesn’t have the altered plans for the Greens’ backyard. He’s not supposed to get to it until tomorrow, but would you drop them off just in case?” “Of course.” She dug through a stack of documents on her desk, then handed me a paper. I reached for it, but she held on and looked me in the eyes. “I’m sorry, Rose.

” “You should have told me, Neely Kate.” “It wasn’t for me to tell. Jed asked me to keep it quiet, so I did.” “Even from me?” I asked, the pain clear in my voice. “And how many secrets have you kept from me?” she asked without a hint of malice. “How many secrets have you shared with Skeeter Malcolm that you never once considered sharing with me?” I sucked in a breath. “And before you try to deny it,” she said, her tone picking up some heat, “don’t forget about those Tuesday night meetings you refused to tell me about.” I’d been meeting James every Tuesday night for months right up until our falling out three weeks ago. Neely Kate had known about the arrangement, but I’d never acknowledged it. “You’re right.

I’m sorry.” Her gaze still held mine. “I wanted to tell you about Scooter, but I couldn’t. I kept my word. Just like I’m sure you kept yours.” She was right. About all of it. I’d kept more secrets from her than I could count. And they were all tied to James Malcolm. Why did it feel like everything tied back to James? “Well, we’re not mixed up in the Fenton County crime world anymore, so no worries about keeping secrets.

” I snatched the paper from her, kissed Ashley and Mikey goodbye, and headed out to my truck. It wasn’t until I was halfway down the street that I realized Neely Kate hadn’t agreed. B C H A P T E R 3 ruce Wayne was working on a yard in a neighborhood south of town, so the fifteen-minute drive gave me plenty of time to think. It shamed me to think I’d let James get between Neely Kate and me. I’d kept his secrets and then some—unquestionably. What had he ever done for me? Treated me with more respect than any other man in my life. When he saw me, he didn’t see the weak and naïve woman Joe had met over a year ago while working undercover. And he didn’t see the woman I’d been with my boyfriend Mason, intelligent but in need of protecting. James was the first man who’d challenged me to think myself capable of so much more. He’d helped me create my alter ego, the Lady in Black, and then encouraged me to meld the strong, take-charge woman I became while wearing the veiled disguise with the woman I was to everyone else.

In turn, I’d helped him see something in himself: the good man behind the criminal. He owned a diner that was losing money, but he kept it so he could continue to employ a kind woman from his childhood . and because he liked the pancakes. He was intolerant of violence against women and children and came down hard on anyone who disobeyed his decree. His legitimate businesses made him more than his illegal enterprises, but while part of him wanted to try the straight and narrow, he maintained his position to ensure none of the sociopaths waiting in the wings took over. James Malcolm and I had become friends, and we’d both shared things with each other that we’d never shared with anyone else, so I’d believed our Tuesday night meetings—which had consisted of sitting on the back of my truck and talking about what was going on in our lives for an hour or more—had softened his heart. All of which had made the pain of his betrayal so much worse. The parley I’d set up had been between James and his adversaries, Buck Reynolds and Kip Wagner. Neely Kate and I had been looking for a necklace for her “friend,” only to discover he’d stolen it from Buck Reynolds. No surprise, Reynolds had wanted it back.

James had hoped to prevent that, suspecting that his challenger planned to sell the necklace to finance his bid to take over the county crime world. I’d set up the meeting to return the necklace in exchange for peace in the county. Except James had never intended to cooperate—his intention had been to use the meeting to force their surrender. It wasn’t actually his plan that had upset me—I might have even gone along with it. It was the fact that he hadn’t trusted me enough to tell me the truth. After everything we’d been through together. A tiny voice in my head said he’d orchestrated this. That he’d wanted me to get pissed enough to write him out of my life. I’d suspected for some time that he had feelings for me, but at first it had been a moot point. I’d been happy with Mason. Then Mason had left, and I’d spent months recovering from our breakup. Several weeks ago, I’d finally admitted to myself that I was attracted to James, drawn to him like a moth to a flame. And while the one time we’d kissed had been hotter than any kiss I’d ever experienced in my life, James had pushed me away and declared it impossible. If his enemies caught word that he had feelings for me, I would become his greatest liability. If he’d admitted his feelings for me and made them public, would I be missing now instead of Scooter? I turned into the neighborhood where Bruce Wayne and his crew were working, then pulled my truck in behind my business partner’s truck after I found the house. Bruce Wayne and his four-man crew were hard at work digging a trench to lay the foundation for a small wall at the edge of the front planting bed. Bruce Wayne looked up when he saw me walking toward him and did a double take. I used to work on the job sites with him until we started getting more business. Now I focused more on creating designs and estimates, though I still liked to get my hands in the dirt. “Rose,” he said, shielding his eyes to watch me approach and taking in my outfit with a grin. My usual uniform was a lot less fancy: T-shirts and jeans or shorts. “I know you’re not here to work. You checking up on me?” I forced a smile. “You’re too good to warrant checking on. I’m glad I had the foresight to make you a partner instead of an employee. Otherwise, you might have left and stolen all my business.” He grinned. I handed him the paper. “Neely Kate said you needed the revised plans for the backyard.” He took the paper and scanned it before folding it up and stuffing it into his back pocket. “Shouldn’t be a trouble.” He paused and then said, “But I know you didn’t come down here just to give me this. I’m not scheduled to get to their backyard until tomorrow. Is this about Violet?” “No.” I glanced at the guys working with him. “Can I borrow you for a moment?” Worry filled his eyes. “Yeah. Sure.” He told the men something in Spanish, then followed me to the shade of a maple tree ten feet away. “What’s up?” he asked. “It’s about Scooter Malcolm.” The blank expression on his face confirmed he hadn’t heard. “What about him?” “He’s missing.” He swallowed and glanced over at his crew. “For how long?” Why hadn’t I pinned Neely Kate down and gotten more information? “I don’t know. At least since late last week.” “What happened to him?” “Honestly, Bruce Wayne, I’m not sure. Joe was the one who told me. He was surprised I didn’t know.” “You’re still havin’ your spat with Skeeter?” he asked, his gaze still on his men. “I’m not havin’ a spat with Skeeter Malcolm,” I protested, my voice rising a little. I took a breath to settle down. “This has nothing to do with me and everything to do with Scooter. Joe thinks someone snatched him.” Bruce Wayne didn’t respond, but his eyes hardened and he gave a sharp nod. “What do you think?” I asked. “Was he prone to running off?” He shook his head. “No.” “When was the last time you saw him?” That got his attention. “Are you investigatin’?” he asked, lifting an eyebrow. “What?” I asked in surprise. “I’m just askin’.” He gave me a sharp look. “Why would I be investigatin’ Scooter Malcolm’s disappearance? I don’t even know him, and James Malcolm and I are no longer friends or associates.” “Huh.” “What’s that mean?” He shook his head and gave me an ornery grin. “It’s in your blood, Rose Gardner. You can’t help yourself. Neely Kate wants to investigate something, and you dig in your heels and pretend you’re not interested, and before you know it, you’re takin’ over the case.” “I do not.” He tilted his head. “Which part?” Dang it. “Well, I’m not investigatin’ Scooter Malcolm’s disappearance. Sounds like a dangerous venture. Besides, I’m sure James Malcolm will manage just fine without my help. There can’t be too many suspects.” While Joe had claimed James had more enemies than he could count, the truth was that most were too afraid of the judgment they’d face should their coup attempt fail. As far as I knew, there were only two men who had the guts, and they’d both sworn to me that they wouldn’t try to take over James’ kingdom. Still, words were cheap to some people—Wagner and Reynolds would be the first place I’d start. If I was looking for Scooter . and I definitely wasn’t. “Just call me curious,” I found myself saying. “When was the last time you talked to him?” “A few weeks ago. At the pool hall.” James’ pool hall. “We got together to shoot some pool and catch up. He had a new girlfriend, and he wanted me and Anna to meet her.” “Scooter had a new girlfriend? Who was she?” Funny, I’d never heard anything about Scooter dating anyone—James still seemed to think of him as a kid—but he was in his thirties, so it stood to reason he’d have a significant other. “A woman he met at Walmart. He’s working there now.” Bruce Wayne cracked a hint of a grin. “In the lawn and garden department. He jokes that he’s our direct competition.” “Did he or his girlfriend have any connection to Rayna Dyer? She worked in housewares.” Poor Rayna had been caught up in the necklace mess. Her ex had hidden the stolen necklace in with the rest of her jewelry, and her father-in-law had killed her while looking for it. Bruce Wayne seemed caught off guard. “I don’t know.” He paused. “You think this might have something to do with that missing necklace?” I shook my head. “No. I don’t know. I don’t see how it could, but it is a coincidence.” “True.” Then he gave a little shake. “Jeanne. Jeanne Putnam is his girlfriend.” He turned serious. “So you are investigatin’?” “No. I guess I just can’t help askin’ questions. I think I’ll leave it to the big boys to duke this out.” James would have the same short list of suspects as I did, after all. It was definitely time to change the subject. “If you want to talk or anything . just let me know. I know he and David were the only ones to stick with you during your arrest and trial.” He nodded, but his face was a blank slate. He hated any mention of his arrest for murder. He’d lost his family over it, even after I’d helped prove he was innocent, and the whole incident had hurt him deeply. He was part of my makeshift family now. The group I’d inadvertently cobbled together over the last year or so. “I’ve got to get back to work,” he said. “I’ll try to make it to Violet’s party as close to one as I can make it.” “Okay.” When he started to walk away, I reached out and pulled him into a hug. His body stiffened—he’d always been reluctant about hugs—but then his body relaxed and his arms wrapped around me. “Thanks for comin’ by to tell me, Rose. It means more than you know.” “Of course, Bruce Wayne.” I gave him a squeeze, but my head began to tingle just before I dropped my hold. Everything went black, and I knew I was about to have a vision. The visions had been a part of my life for as long as I could remember. They were always glimpses of other people in the future, from inside their heads. I was outside and I/Bruce Wayne lifted my hand to wipe my brow. I scanned the horizon to study the brewing storm clouds. “Let’s get this wrapped up before the storm hits.” Then, just as suddenly, I was back in the present saying, “You’re gonna try to beat the storm.” I cringed. For most of my life, I’d hated my visions. They were unpredictable, often uncontrollable, and a huge invasion of other people’s privacy. They’d also saved my life and the lives of some of my loved ones. My acceptance of them was a work in progress. “A vision?” Bruce Wayne asked quietly, and I nodded. He was one of only a handful of people who knew the truth. I could usually play the visions off, and if people noticed the visual cues that I was having one—like the dilated pupils and the fact I completely zoned out for a couple of seconds—they usually just wrote it off as strange or quirky behavior. The fact that I uncontrollably blurted out something about whatever I’d seen was a little harder to explain away, but I’d had plenty of practice. About a year ago, I’d started forcing visions, which had come in handy in investigations. I’d noticed a decrease in spontaneous ones since then, but some still slipped through. “It was nothing important. Just that you were trying to finish up and pack up before a storm hit.” He gave me a warm smile. “Thanks for the heads-up.” With that, he went back to his crew and didn’t waste any time before getting back to work. His crew respected him, partially because he was a level-headed boss, but also because he never asked them to do anything he wasn’t willing to jump in and do himself. I was lucky to have him as a business partner, and I knew it. I hopped into my truck to head back to the office, but it was just past eleven, so I decided to stop by Homer’s Diner and pick up some lunch for Neely Kate and the kids. As I headed inside to order, it occurred to me that I was just half a mile from the Henryetta Animal Clinic. I’d been on three dates with Levi Romano, the new veterinarian, in the past three weeks. Up until now, Levi had done all the pursuing, but maybe that should change. He was totally into me—and not afraid to let me know it—and better yet, he was about as far removed from the criminal element in Fenton County as I could get. Considering that my last two (and only ever) boyfriends had been a sheriff deputy and the county assistant D.A., and that James was the acting crime boss, a vet was a welcome change. Besides, I was looking good today. No need to let it go to waste. I placed two separate orders—one for Levi and one for the rest of us—then headed to the animal clinic, my stomach a ball of nerves. Levi’s receptionist, Mary, hadn’t liked me from the start, but in fairness, she’d had to wade through a crush of women who were eager to get a date with the most eligible bachelor in Fenton County. I’d hoped Mary would become nicer once she realized that Levi and I had been on a few dates, but if anything, she’d gotten meaner. I walked into the clinic, and while the waiting room was empty of both patients and their owners, I was greeted by the commingled smells of wet dog and perfume. Mary, who looked to be in her forties, was dousing the space around her desk with a spray bottle from Bath and Body Works. She took one look at me, and her resting bitch face turned into a full-blown scowl. “You don’t have an appointment.” “I know. I’m just here to bring Levi lunch.” “Dr. Romano,” she corrected with a glint in her eye that suggested she’d fight me over it. “Okay . Could you tell Dr. Romano I’m here to see him?” “Noooo . You don’t have an appointment.” I dug my phone out of my pocket and sent Levi a short text. LOOK İN YOUR Seconds later, one of the exam room doors opened and Levi appeared in the doorway holding a kitten in his hand. His face lit up. “Rose!” I smiled, feeling a little giddy at the sight of him. Levi Romano had earned his Most Eligible Bachelor status with little effort. He was very good-looking. His brown hair was just long enough to run your hands through—if I were tempted to do such a thing—and his warm brown eyes and dazzling smile made me feel like I was the center of the universe. It helped that he was tall and his shoulders filled out his lab coat quite nicely. It was no wonder every woman in Fenton County was interested in him. Well, almost every woman in the county. While I could appreciate the view and Levi was a very attentive, charming man, I didn’t feel that spark . and I really, really wanted to. This moment of giddiness was the first time I’d had a physical reaction to him, which made me feel hopeful that it would come in time. Bringing him lunch had been the right decision. “Hey, Levi. I hope I’m not interruptin’ anything.” “Not at all. Ms. Jergins just dropped by so little Oscar could get his shots.” “I won’t keep you,” I said, lifting the bag with the Homer’s Diner logo in my hand. “I was in the area, so I thought I’d bring you lunch.” His eyes lit up with happiness, but it faded slightly as he walked out into the waiting room, the kitten still in his hands. Goodness, the man belonged on a calendar. “You have no idea how thrilled I am to see you, but I can’t get away for another hour.” “Oh, that’s okay.” I waved a hand in dismissal. “I can’t stay. I’m just the delivery person.” He stopped in front of me, close enough for me to notice how good he smelled despite the fact that he’d been handling animals all day. His gaze dropped to my exposed chest, but it lifted to meet my eyes just as I was starting to feel self-conscious. “You have no idea how happy I am to see you,” he said in a lowered voice. “After our last date, I was certain you were giving me the brush-off.” The date had gone well, but he’d leaned over to kiss me after parking next to my truck in front of the landscaping office. I’d panicked and turned my head at the last minute, then dashed out of his truck so quickly he was still leaning in for a kiss when I slammed the door. I gave him an apologetic grin. “I know. I’m sorry. I told you I’m still workin’ through some things from my previous relationship. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all.” The last thing I wanted to do was hurt him. He didn’t need to be at the mercy of my issues. “No.” He put his hand on my arm, cupping it lightly while still holding the kitten in his other hand. “I knew what I was getting into. I told you that I was willing to take it slow.” His brow lifted. “We’ve been taking it slow, right?” “Yeah, but you just said—” “What I just said doesn’t matter.” “Of course it does! Why on earth would you want to keep seein’ a woman you think is about to give you the brush-off? He laughed. “Oh, Rose. You have no idea how refreshing you are. I like that you keep me on my toes.” I cringed. “You’re makin’ me sound cold.” “No!” He shook his head. “That’s not it at all.” He pressed his lips together, looking thoughtful, then finally said, “You know Mary fields off a few women who make appointments just to see me . ” Mary snorted from her desk. “A few?” Levi rolled his eyes and glanced over his shoulder. “Isn’t it your break time, Mary?” “No,” was her curt response. “Take one anyway,” he said good-naturedly. He grinned at me as she grumbled her way up out of the chair. “Here. Take Oscar back to the exam room, will you?” He handed the kitten to her, and if looks could kill, she would have committed a violent double homicide on the spot. I was a little worried about Oscar, truth be told. After she disappeared into the back, Levi grabbed my hand and tugged me over to sit in one of the waiting room chairs. “Rose, I like you. A lot. You’re different from the women I usually date. I know that we’re taking this on a day-by-day basis, and I’m okay with that. Are you?” “I am, but I want you to know that I didn’t bring you lunch to string you along,” I said, feeling guilty. He took the bag from my hand and set it on the chair next to him. “No, I am thrilled you brought me lunch. Not only do I love Homer’s Diner, but you took time out of your busy day and thought of me. That’s enough for me right now.” That made me feel better. “I want to go out with you again,” he said. “What do you say? How about tonight?” “Neely Kate and I are goin’ to the carnival tonight. I’m not a huge fan, but I promised.” It occurred to me that he might think it was another brush-off, so I added, “Would you like to come with us? I don’t think she’d mind.” “To the carnival?” “Yeah,” I said trying to sound nonchalant. “You don’t have—” Levi leaned forward and gave me a soft kiss, then sat back and grinned. “I would love to go to the carnival with you and Neely Kate tonight.” I paused, completely caught off guard by his kiss. We’d been out three times and this was the first time he’d kissed me. I took a second to process my feelings. Something seemed off, and I realized what it was: I felt that I was cheating. But cheating on whom? Mason? We’d been broken up for nearly six months, and his mother had told me that he was dating a bit in Little Rock. Cheating on James? I nearly laughed. We’d never had anything approaching a relationship, so cheating would be impossible. The man in front of me was every woman’s dream. I was crazy to think of giving that up. I just needed to get used to the idea was all. I waited for Levi to acknowledge our first kiss, but he just sat there and grinned. I needed to pull myself together. “Are you sure you want to go?” I asked. “I’m sure the carnivals in Kansas City would make this one seem lame.” “You could ask me to a monster truck rally, and I’d jump at the chance.” He leaned closer and whispered, “And I hate monster truck rallies.” “Don’t feel like you have to say yes, Levi. We can go out another time.” “I want to spend time with you, Rose.” He squeezed my hand. “The more time we spend together, the better we’ll get to know each other . and the easier it will be for me to win you over.” A huge grin spread across his face. “Besides, it will be good practice for me to get ready for the county fair next month. I’ve been asked to judge some of the 4-H animal entries. I’ll feel better if I know what kind of crowd I’ll be dealing with.” I laughed. There was a feline screech in the open exam room, and little Oscar streaked out through the door. Levi stood and flashed me a grin. “Duty calls.” His receptionist came running out of the room with a scratch mark on her cheek. “Come back here, you little devil!” Levi pulled me to my feet and gave me a tiny push toward the door. “Go. Save yourself.” I laughed and was about to leave, but a brightly colored flyer on the bulletin board caught my eye. There was a photo of a vibrant green parrot against a white background, and huge black letters above and below him exclaimed: Lost Parrot $500 Reward I moved closer to get a better look at the smaller text at the bottom of the flyer. Talking parrot last seen on Saturday morning in Henryetta Park. Squawker loves carrots, Wheel of Fortune, and long walks in the park. Was the owner looking to find the parrot or to get Squawker a date?

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