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"Mommy, can I pull this one?"
Four-year-old Randi Cooper squatted on her plump haunches and closed her fingers around a handful of Queen Anne's lace, ready to tug it out of the soil.
''Nope, punkin. That's a flower.''
Maureen looked around and then gestured at a weed.
''Here, my big helper, pull this one out instead.'' Randi closed both fists around it and gave a determined heave. The weed burst out of the ground, showering Randi and her twin sister, Robin, with soil. Randi lost her balance and fell backward, spread-eagled, landing in the bed of black-eyed Susans. She lay on her back, squinting blue-green eyes against the warmth and intensity of the early September sun, giggling up at her sister and mother.
''Look at me,'' she crowed. ''I fell down and got all''
''Dirty,'' her twin sister supplied. ''You got dirty. Get up, Randi.'' Robin scowled at her twin and did her best to haul her to her feet. ''You're smashing all of Mommy's flowers.''
''It's okay, they'll grow again.'' Laughing, Maureen dusted off the girls' blue shorts and matching shirts, admiring the way the sun picked out rich red highlights in their thick mass of curling chestnut hair. She gave each a smacking kiss on tanned, satiny cheeks, her heart swelling with love for her beautiful little daughters.
''Gardening with you guys is definitely an adventure. Let's go pick some tomatoes. We can have them in sandwiches for lunch.'' The kitchen garden was overflowing with autumn's bounty, just as the wild-flower seeds she'd planted so haphazardly last spring had turned into this glorious and amazing array of bee balm, black-eyed Susans, clematis and sunflowers.
It was Maureen's first attempt at gardening, and the results amazed and delighted her. Her brother, Clint, had warned her several times, his eyes twinkling, that she was never going to impress an eligible suitor if all she talked about was the size and abundance of her tomatoes and zucchinis.
Maureen smiled good-naturedly whenever Clint talked about suitors, but the truth was, there was a sore place in her heart when it came to men. She'd decided that marriage wasn't something she'd try again anytime soon, and as for romanceshe was far too busy with the twins and the bed-and-breakfast she and Clint ran to even think about it.
Most of the time.
''Let's go pick tomatoes,'' Randi reminded her, tugging at her hand, and Maureen led the way to the vegetable plot. Its relatively small area overflowed with beets, carrots, immense and colorful summer squash, snap beans and four huge pumpkins, the twins' pride and joy.
Maureen had promised the girls that she and Clint, helped by Clint's son, Keegan, would carve the pumpkins into amazing jack-o-lanterns, come Halloween.
The rich soil here in the Berkshires allowed even a novice to produce a quantity of produce that would feed several families well for months. Maureen often wished she could give some of her lavish autumn bounty to old friends in New York, but she didn't go to the city anymore, even though she'd lived there for years. In so many ways, it wasn't a safe or healthy place for either her or her twins.
With the girls' enthusiastic assistance, she picked three fat tomatoes and a handful of fresh basil, remembering that the extent of her gardening in New York had been limited by the size of her tiny balcony.
Moving here to Cooper's Corner, the small, sleepy village in the Berkshire Hills of Massachusetts where she had spent the early years of her childhood, had been good for her and her babies, she mused, grinning as the twins plucked yet another fat, ripe tomato and then shared bites from it, dribbling warm red juice down their chins and making appreciative noises.
''As usual, you guys are gonna need a bath before lunch.''
Maureen savored the sunshine on her bare legs, the rich odors of loam and green things growing all around her, the sound of her daughters chattering to each other. This morning, life was good.
She'd had her share of problems since she'd made the move, but a morning like this reinforced her conviction that this was the place she was meant to raise her girls and live out the rest of her life.
''Aunt Maureen?'' The kitchen door of the old farmhouse burst open and another tousled chestnut head appeared.
''Some people just came,'' Maureen's thirteen-year-old nephew, Keegan, announced. ''Some guests just arrived,'' he corrected with a grin that revealed straight white teeth still too large for his adolescent features. It was Friday, a professional development day for teachers, so Keegan was home from school.
''See, Aunt Maureen? I remembered this time.'' He gave her a cheeky salute and she laughed. She d corrected him numerous times, insisting that he use the proper terminology for the guests who came to stay at the Twin oaks B and B.
As well as his shining head of dark reddish-brown hair, Keegan had Maureen's and Clint's jade-green eyes, and his gangly frame already indicated that he'd be tall like the Coopers. Clint was six three, and Maureen, at five eleven, still endured comments from her brother about being the shrimp in the family.
The dramatic line of Keegan s square jaw and the distinctive shape of his ears, however, came from his mother, Kristin. Maureen felt a twinge of sorrow even now when she thought of Kristin Cooper.
Clint s beautiful young wife had died suddenly almost three years ago, but Clint had recently found a new love. He and Beth Young, the local librarian from Cooper's Corner, were married a week ago, right here at Twin Oaks, and were away having fun on their honeymoon. Maureen was thrilled for her brother.
''I took the guests into the living room and told them I'd come and get you,'' Keegan reported.
''You are such a fantastic butler,'' Maureen teased, grinning at the way Keegan rolled his eyes. She rubbed at her bare knees, making a halfhearted effort at dislodging the dirt and grass embedded there, then gave a quick brush to the seat of her shorts and gave up. Guests at the Twin Oaks B and B just had to get used to a hostess wearing stained denim shorts and a generous helping of soil on her knees.
As she made her way up the deck stairs and into the newly renovated kitchen, she mused that she certainly preferred good, honest, earthy dirt to the nasty human sort she d dealt with on a daily basis during her years as a New York police detective. And she'd choose denim shorts and a casual T-shirt any day over the jacket that disguised the .38 special she'd carried in a shoulder holster all those years.
She quickly washed the grime off her hands at the sink and glanced up at the antique wall clock she d found at an auction. It was nine forty-five. The Joyces were early, but there were no other guests at Twin Oaks at the moment, so their room was ready.
''Keegan, be a sport and keep a close eye on those rascals for me, okay?'' Force of habit made her go to the door and carefully scan the back yard. Although it was open all around, Twin Oaks was set on a hill with rolling countryside behind it. No one could approach the house without being seen. She knew she was being overcautious, but Maureen didn't like having the twins out of her sight.
Her policing days might be over, but the instincts she d developed during her years as a detective were alive and well. There d been too many unexplained and dangerous incidents in the past months to allow her ever to fully relax.
''Sure thing, Aunt Maureen.'' Keegan headed out, calling to his cousins.
''Kee-gan, Kee-gan.'' Both small girls came racing over to their adored older cousin, tugging at his hands.
''Let's play hide-and-seek, Keegan.''
''Not again." With a martyred sigh that Maureen knew was phony, Keegan agreed. He doted on Randi and Robin, and was always agreeable to a game.
Maureen heard him call, ''Okay, I'm it. I'll count to fifty. You two better make fast tracks.''
The sound of her daughters excited squeals and giggles as they galloped off to find a place to hide made her smile as she hurried through the kitchen and down the hall to greet the guests.
Maureen thought again, as she did so often these days, how comforting it was to have her brother, Clint, and her nephew living here at Twin oaks with her. Being a single parent wasn't easy, and having family around was a blessing. The move from the city had been good for Keegan as well as her daughters.
And now there d be a new aunt for the twins to pester, once Clint was back from his honeymoon with Beth. The more family the better, Maureen thought, smiling a welcome at the tall, thin couple perched side by side on one of the overstuffed sofas in the gigantic living room. The Joyces looked a bit like storks, and they were dressed in matching khaki pants and white cotton shirts, with identical blue trainers on their feet.
What was it that made long-married couples begin to resemble each other? Maureen wondered. Would it have happened to her and Chance if
''Harry and Lydia Joyce? Welcome to Twin Oaks.'' Maureen accompanied the greeting with a wide smile and a firm handshake for each of them. ''I'm Maureen Cooper. We ll take care of the registration and then I'll take you up to your room. But first, would you like a glass of apple cider? One of our neighbors makes it from his own apples.
''Why, how nice. We d love some, thank you. Lydia Joyce had a lovely, melodious voice.
Maureen went into the kitchen, found the jug of cider in the new oversize refrigerator and brought a tray with tall, iced glasses.
Harry and Lydia thoroughly enjoyed the cider. They wanted to know what kind of apples it had been made from, what the pressing process was, and whether or not any preservatives had been used.
Patiently Maureen answered their questions, and for the next half hour she went through the familiar business of checking her guests in and making certain they felt welcomed, pampered and very much at home. She didn t rush the process. That was another of the perks of running her own business.
Her time was her own, to spend as she chose. And she d chosen, with Clint away, to accept only single bookings, even though it was leaf-peeper season. When he returned, the B and B would be filled to the rafters, but for now, the Joyces were the only guests.
''Time out.'' Keegan made the hand sign that he'd taught the twins. Red-faced and breathless from running, the two girls threw themselves down on the grass.
''It's too hot, Keegan,'' Randi declared. ''I'm sweating.
''Can we have some juice?'' Robin asked hopefully.
''And cookies.'' The girl's big treat each day was one of the giant chocolate chip cookies Keegan s dad made. He d left a big jar of them on the kitchen counter before he left, promising the twins that by the time they were gone, he and Beth would be back.
''I'm going inside to the bathroom, and then I'll bring us a drink,'' Keegan told the girls, making his way into the house. ''You guys find somewhere good to hide and stay there till I look for you, okay?''
They chorused agreement, and he went inside, peeking at them through the window. He knew exactly where they'd go, and grinned as he saw them hightail it to the old wooden shed at the far side of the garden. His aunt used it for tools, and the door was standing open. Just a week before, she'd put an automatic lock on the outside. He watched as the twins went inside and slammed the door behind them.
He raced for the bathroom. He didn t want to be too long, in case they tried to get out and got scared, but at least he knew they were safe for a couple of minutes.
Ten minutes later he came out, balancing juice boxes for them and a soda for himself on a tin tray. He had the key to the garden shed in his pocket, and he d raided the cookie jar. He dumped everything on the last of the steps leading up to the deck. Nearby was a small wooden table set with toy cups and saucers from the twins tea party earlier that morning. Matching brown teddies sat patiently waiting for Robin and Randi to come back and play.
''Now, where did those girlies go?'' Keegan crooned in a loud voice. ''I guess I ll just have to eat all these cookies myself. Yum, yum, yum.''
He waited a moment, knowing from past experience that the twins would start hollering from inside the shed at the slightest mention of cookies. Maureen was strict about their diet, and the cookies were a special treat.
Maybe they didn't hear him, he decided, when several moments went by with no sign of either of them.
''Randi? Robin?'' He made his way toward the shed. ''Where are you, you rascals?''
Keegan ambled through the garden, grinning.
''Are they hiding in these sunflowers? Nope. I'll bet they're in the toolshed''
He came to an abrupt halt at the door of the shed, unable to take in what his eyes were seeing. His mouth went dry and his heart suddenly began to hammer against his ribs. It couldn't be. It wasn't possible
The heavy wooden door was wide open. The sturdy lock Maureen had installed was lying on the ground. It had been cut through. He stepped inside.
''Randi? Robin?" His frantic voice rebounded inside the small, hot space. The wheelbarrow, the spades, the rakeall the gardening tools were there, but the twins were gone.