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DON'T THINK. Just do it and get out.
Taylor Dundee sucked in a deep breath of mountain air, waited a moment, then shoved the key into the lock.
Six months later and she still got that empty, gutted feeling whenever she thought about sorting through her mother's things. Taylor steeled herself against the heartache, turned the knob, then slowly pushed open the door and stepped inside.
The lingering scent hit her first. Apples and cinnamon. Every day when she'd come home from school, the house had smelled as if there was something baking in the oven.
Sunlight and shadows played over the pale green overstuffed sofa and love seat. Her mom's paintings hung on the walls, the scrapbooks she'd made were stacked on the table, along with a dried floral arrangement and the pottery her mother had fired in a kiln in the back.
It was almost as if Margaret Dundee was still there. But she wasn't. Her mother would never be here again. Taylor swallowed over a lump in her throat. Tears welled behind her eyes. She blinked them back. It would be so much easier if the dull ache in her chest would go away. Somehow she had to do this. Just do it and go.
Maybe if her mom's death hadn't been so sudden, the accident so strange . She simply couldn't understand how her mother had missed a turn on a road she'd driven hundreds of timescouldn't understand why her mother was on the road at two in the morning or why she'd called earlier that day to tell Taylor she had to talk to her.
From the coffee table, she picked up one of the ceramic miniatures that her mother had so carefully crafted, holding it in the palm of her hand. A littlegirl, kneeling in prayer, every tiny feature hand painted. Her mom had said she'd patterned the figurine after Taylor as a child when she'd kneel by her bed to say her prayers.
She closed her hand around it, then stuck it in her Taylor Made purse. She headed for the kitchen to make coffee. Leaving Phoenix at five that morning to beat the heat, she'd been too preoccupied to stop for breakfast. It had taken all the courage she could muster to finally go home to her mom's. Several months later than she should have. She ran some water in the coffeepot. As she shut off the faucet, she heard a thump.
She froze. There was a loud scratching sound. Then nothing.
Maybe it was a tree branch scraping the house or a squirrel on the roof. Nothing bad ever happened in Prescott, Arizona, right? Taylor edged down the hall.
Reaching the open door to her mother's bedroom, she gasped. The dresser drawers were pulled out, some upside down on the floor. The sheer white curtains floated high on the summer breeze through the open window. She swung around, making sure she was alone.
Something moved to her left. Her heart leaped as a blur of silver and gray streaked across the room and landed on the windowsill. "Oh, jeez!" The neighbor's calico hissed and arched his back like a Halloween cat. Adrenaline pumped through Taylor's veins. "Dammit, Lion, you scared me half to death. Shoo. Go home. Scare someone else." Taylor pulled out her cell phone and then tapped in 911. "There's been a a break-in at 7508 Kokopelli Drive," she said and started for the front door.
"Your name, please?"
"Taylor Dundee. My mother's house has been broken into. Everything's a mess."
"Is anyone there? Are you in danger?"
"I don't think so. Not as far as I can tell, anyway." For all she knew, this could have happened right after the funeral. Wasn't that when thieves and scam artists preyed on unsuspecting families?
"Your phone number, please."
She rattled off the number as she walked past her mother's office, stopped and took a quick glance inside. Papers everywhere. File drawers ajar. But the computer was still on the desk.
Taylor glanced from one side of the room to the other. Though it was a mess, nothing appeared to be missing.
"Can you please send someone now?" The vandals might be long gone, but as far as she was concerned, the police couldn't get there fast enough.
"I'm getting the information into the system as we speak, ma'am. They're already on their way."
"Thank you," Taylor said, then hung up. Who could have done this and when? The obituary had been in the paper, thieves could have watched the house and realized it was empty, taken advantage of the opportunity.
She thought about checking the other rooms, but decided against it. It had been twelve years since she'd gone off to college and the last she knew, her old room was still the same as when she left a constant reminder of her depressing high school years. If someone had trashed it, that was fine with her.
The floor squeaked behind her. A hand landed on her shoulder and she swung arounda scream in her throat.
She took a deep breath. The man looked to be about her age, thirty maybe a little older.
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to scare you," he said.
"What do you want?" She moved to the side, keeping the window in her mother's room in mind as an escape option.
Tall, dark hair She'd seen him somewhere before. He had to be someone from town, but she couldn't place him.
"I'm Jack. Jack Parker," he said. "The door was open."
"Do you know my mother?"
"No, I don't."
She felt dwarfed by him, he was a head taller, over six feet. "Then what are you doing here?"
"I came to see your mother earlier, but I discovered from a neighbor that she, uh, passed away," he said gently.
"I'm sorry. You have my condolences."
Taylor hitched herself up. He didn't seem dangerous, but there was no way to know. "I called the police. They'll be here any second," she said.
His forehead furrowed as he glanced toward her mother's office. "I think the police are a little too late." He stepped around her, still assessing the situation. "Did you check the rest of the house?"
"Why did you want to see my mother?"
He turned to face her. "It's business."
"It's six in the morning. You have strange business hours, Mr. Parker." She took another step back toward the living room and the front door.
"Actually I hadn't planned on talking to anyone right now. When I was here before, a neighbor said I should get in touch with you. I was out for breakfast and drove by on my way to the hotel. I wanted to leave a note for you to contact me when it was convenient. But I saw the open door and got concerned." He peered behind her. "I just wish I'd come earlier. Caught whoever did this."
He had a smooth speaking voice with an accent like Abigail, Taylor's neighbor in Scottsdale who'd grown up in Texas. He was also quick with answers. "Well, as you can see, this isn't a good time."
He gave her an apologetic look. "Right, and I'm sorry about that. I can come back another time but maybe it would be better if I waited with you for the police."
He wouldn't stay if he'd had anything to do with the mess. "Thank you, but it's not necessary."
He didn't make any move to leave, so she asked, "What kind of business? Did my mother sign up for some bookof-the-month club and forget to pay the bill?" She was trying to lighten things but instead it probably came off as flip. It was true though. Being an artist, her mother had no head for business and frequently forgot what she called "the unimportant things."
He smiled, and she relaxed a little. If it weren't for the intense green eyes, his olive complexion and dark hair would make her think he was Italian, or Hispanic maybe. Handsome and very sexy.
Not that it mattered. She wasn't in the market for sexy or anything else.
"It's a bit more complicated than that," he said, frowning and gesturing toward the living room. "Did you check in there?"
"I came in that way. But" She waved a hand at her old room. "I didn't look in that room."
He strode past her, glanced inside and said, "No mess." He smiled reassuringly.
"Good," she said, then headed back down the hall toward the living room. Sweat dampened the back of her neck under her hair, and she felt her camisole top sticking to her back like a second skin. "What did you mean?" she asked over her shoulder. "More complicated than what?"
"It's about an old crime I'm looking into."
She stopped abruptly and turned. He was so close behind, he stumbled into her, then grabbed her by the shoulders to steady them both.
"Looking into?" She gave him the once-over. In jeans, a Houston Astros T-shirt and cowboy boots, he didn't look like a police officer. And the Mickey Mouse watch on his tanned wrist wasn't exactly cop attire, either.
He took out an official-looking ID from his back pocket. "I'm with the Houston Chronicle, and I'm writing a story about a crime that occurred thirty years ago."
Texas. She'd been right. "What does that have to do with my mother?"
"I wanted to ask her some questions."
"And, obviously you can't do that."
"Can we sit?" He walked slowly toward the couch.
"Maybe you can help by telling me some things about her."
An alarm went off inside her. "No. I can't do that," she said without hesitation. He could be a serial killer for all she knew.
"Mind telling me why not?" "Because I don't know you, Mr. Parker. I'm not going to share information about my mother with a stranger."
He crossed his arms and shifted his weight from one foot to the other. "I understand. If you let me explain, you might think differently."
His earnest tone gave her pause. The police were on their way, so "I don't know what you think my mother could have possibly known about your story, but okay. Explain."
The okay was barely out of her mouth before he launched into it. "Thirty years ago your mother worked for a wealthy family in Houston where the crime was committed. I wanted to talk to her about some of the people she'd worked with, but since that's not possible now, I started wondering if maybe your mother ever mentioned any of them to you. And, if so, what she might have said about them."
Taylor's mother had never mentioned living in Houston, much less working for someone where a crime had been committed. "When did you say this happened?"
"Thirty years ago."
"Who was the employer? What happened?"
He clenched his hands. "The employer was Seymour Hawthorne, a prominent citizen in Houston. His wife, Sunny Hawthorne, was murdered and a lot of money and jewelry were stolen."
"But I think you've mistaken my mother for someone else. My mother never lived in Texas. And, believe me, if she'd known about something as serious as a murder, she would have mentioned it to me some time in the past thirty years."
He frowned. "Your mother never said anything about working for the Hawthornes?" "I've never heard a word. I think you might need to do more research to get your story straight." She raised a brow.
He didn't bat an eyelid at her assessment. He didn't head for the door, either. And in a way, she didn't mind. Having someone there delayed her from sorting through her mother's things.
"That's what I've done, Taylor. A lot of research and it led me here. I'm certain your mother knew the Hawthornes very well. She lived with them and I believe she knew something about what happened that night."
Taylor's skin prickled at the way he'd so casually used her first name. As an advertising/marketing major in college, she knew salespeople did that all the time to make them seem more personable and to develop a quick intimacy. She knew all the tricks. Unfortunately, she wasn't always this good at spotting them. Her ex-fiancé, Reed, had been an expert in the art of manipulation.
"Well, I don't know what else to say, except that my mother never mentioned anything."
Parker came over and stood in front of her. "How about Margot Cooper? Is that name familiar?"
"No." Taylor shook her head. "Why?"
"Well, Margot Cooper worked for the Hawthornes and the night of the murder, the same night the money and jewels were stolen, she disappeared."
Taylor pinched the bridge of her nose. "I'm not making the connection. Do you think my mother knew this person?"
At her question, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a photograph. "This is Margot Cooper."
Taylor glanced down. Her heart stopped.
He handed her the picture. "It's thirty years old, but I'm sure you can tell who it is."
Taylor's hand shook as she clasped the photo. The resemblance to her mother was uncanny. In fact, Taylor remembered seeing a similar photo. She turned it over, squinting to read the faded writing on the back. It looked like Mar something and Cooper. "Where did you get this?"
"In Houston. It's from an old personnel file." Taylor's heart pounded. Texas again. But she would know if her mother ever lived in Texas. They were close. As close as a mother and daughter could be. She would know.
"I can see the similarities, but this isn't my mother."
One side of his mouth lifted slightly.
She couldn't tell if it was a condescending smile or not, but it made her blood rush in anger. What he was inferring was ridiculous. "I'm done talking, Mr. Parker. Now, please leave." Taylor walked over and held open the front door.
He started to go out, but stopped in the doorway. "They arrested someone for the murder, but the money and jewelry were never found. The police thought Margot Cooper might have known something about those things because she disappeared that same night. They looked for her for a long time. Eventually, when they had no new leads, they stopped the investigation."
He stared at Taylor. "People don't disappear for no reason, Taylor."
Her head started to pound. "So, you're saying my mother was not only using an alias, but she was a thief as well?"
"No," he said softly. "And I'm sorry if it sounded that way. What I believe is that your mother knew a lot of the people in the householdand others who came and wentand maybe she knew something that could be important to the case, and maybe sometime in the past thirty years she'd said something to someone that might give me a clue. Since you've spent the most time with her, I was hoping you might give me some insight."
She heard the plea in his voice. This was obviously important to him. But surely he could write his story even if he didn't talk to Taylor.
"She may have said something that you wouldn't even think is significant," he continued before she could get in a word. He reached out and picked up the photo of Taylor and her mom on the table next to the door. He studied it briefly, then set it back. "You know, from the damage to this house, I'd say I'm not the only one who wants to know something about your mother."
The thought that someone had been in the house creeped her out. "If you're trying to scare me, it's not working."
He tipped his head toward the entertainment unit in the living room. "I'm telling you to be careful. They weren't looking for electronics."
Yeah. She'd already realized that.