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There was a skull in her rose bed.
Keely Schiffer swiped the hair out of her eyes, felt the damp, cool smear of fresh dirt she'd applied to her cheek in the process, along with the sensation of her insides starting to crawl. The shovel dropped out of her other hand.
That wasn't really a skull, was it? It was probably just a rock. A big one. With gaping eye sockets— that somehow she'd ended up about three feet back was a skull, a human skull. She should call the police. She hated calling the police. She'd called the police too many times lately. And they'd called her too many times to count. That's what happened when your husband had a lot of secrets you didn't know about and then got himself killed doing something stupid—
Oh, God. Was this another one of Ray's secrets? It was Ray who'd had the bright idea of digging up this bed. Plant some roses, he'd said. Then he'd dug the crap out of it, torn out the old boxwood hedges, and left it in a big mess last fall right before—
Keely staggered back a few more steps then forced herself to move forward again to the hole she'd dug. She stood on trembling legs, her heart beating fast. Do something.
It took her ten seconds to decide. As if there was a decision to make.
Thunder rumbled in the distance. A sudden whip of wind tore through the West Virginia mountain hollow, buffeting leftover dead leaves from winter across the short grass. Another spring storm was on the way. She wasn't going to get the gorgeous hybrid tea roses planted in time. She wasn't going to get them planted today at all, not until the police were finished…. And she'd been so looking forwardto this one day off to play outside in the dirt and sunshine. She looked back at the neatly lined-up roses, ready for planting. They had a short growing season here in the mountain region. She needed to get her bushes planted. That thought had seemed really important just about five minutes ago.
Her head reeled. She ran for the back door of the house, burst inside and reached for the phone. She punched 911 before the reality of the silent air hit her.
The phone was out.
The old house settled still and heavy around her. The farm was five miles outside Haven on a road so narrow, to pass another car one vehicle or the other had to pull over on the weedy shoulder. Sugar Run Farm had been in her family for four generations. It wasn't unusual for the phone to go out, storm or no storm. Inconveniences were par for the course in the boonies. There was no cell signal, no cable. They were lucky to have satellite TV. Dickie the mechanic provided personal service…. Including picking up his customers" vehicles on site then dropping them back off.
The windows on her ten-year-old Ford pickup weren't operating properly. Dickie had picked it up first thing this morning, promising it back by tonight. No phone. No vehicle. Not too big of a problem normally, especially on her day off.
Except for the skull in her rose bed and some really scary thoughts about how it might have gotten there.
But it wasn't an emergency, was it? It had been there since last fall…. Probably. And she'd been living right here all this time, sleeping soundly in spite of it. No reason for alarm now….
And yet, she was alarmed. Creeped out. She'd never minded being alone all the way out here.
Row after row after row of timeworn family photographs stared down at her from the parlor walls as she cradled the portable phone back on its base. Through the large front window, she could see the day darkening swiftly. Wind crackled through the leaves on the two maple trees out front. Rain poured down, then the house gave a sudden shake.
Something crashed in the kitchen.
She ran the short distance, pulse thudding. A large cookie jar shaped like a windmill lay shattered on the floor, jostled off the shelf over the cabinets. Staring down at the broken cream-and-blue ceramic jar, she realized something small and shiny sat in the middle of the shards.
She paused for a long beat, glancing up at the ceiling. Had a tree struck the house? Nothing else made sense…. Dammit, she'd have to go check, make sure there wasn't water coming into the attic just in case it had been a tree.
Glancing down again, she reached for the foil-wrapped box. She had a second's instinctive temptation to play the childlike game of shaking it lightly, trying to guess what was inside. Her chest tightened. It was silver Christmas wrap with a to neon-tone pattern of bells and ribbons, but the peeland-stick holiday label with the bright caricature of Rudolph the Red nosed Reindeer on one end said Happy Birthday, Baby.
In Ray's writing.
So like Ray to not buy any real birthday wrapping, just use what he found in the house then stick something of possible value where probably even he would have forgotten it.
So not like Ray to buy her a gift that he had to have wrapped six months in advance since he'd died last fall and her birthday was tomorrow….
A pounding had the small wrapped box falling out of her hand and rolling onto the shards. It took her a minute to realize the noise was coming from the door, not the roof. God, she was on edge.
Finding a skull in your rose garden did that to a person. She didn't know whether she wanted to laugh or cry at that thought. As for the gift from the grave from Ray…
That was just weird. And sad. She'd figured out a long time ago that her marriage had been a result of youthful stupidity. But she had loved him nonetheless, in the way you can love a troublesome child, and she was determined to forget and forgive and move on. She hadn't been a perfect wife, either—
Whoever was at the door banged on it again. Impatient. She ran across the slightly slanted parlor floor—the foundation of the one-hundred year-old farmhouse had shifted off-kilter more years ago than she knew about—and grabbed the handle. The carved wooden door swung inward, revealing a broad-shouldered figure, his profile shadowed on the porch overhang in the storm darkened afternoon. Rain splattered down behind the man, puddles already forming in the yard. A very late model, very expensive-looking, very not often-seen-around-these-parts sports car was pulled over and parked under the old oak by the cracked and crumbling concrete walk leading up to the house.
She found herself looking into the deepest green eyes she'd ever seen, fringed with incredible lashes. Near-black hair, on the long side, was plastered to his head, fanning the collar of his T-shirt. He hadn't escaped the burst of rain before he'd made it onto her porch.
He looked—and sounded—a little tense, even angry. Stubble shadowed his strong, well-defined jaw. He was dressed casually in faded jeans with a rip in one knee and a black tee under a leather bomber jacket, but there was nothing laid-back about his hard-edged demeanor.
He looked dangerous. And not in a good mood. A shiver rippled up her spine and she couldn't decide if it was trepidation or, shockingly, attraction.
"Yes?" And you are—
"Jake Malloy," he said without her having to voice that question. "I was up at the Foodway and they said you hadn't left the keys to the Evans house. I was under the impression they would be there for me to pick up. Today."
Now she knew why he was mad. She'd set up the rental last week when he'd called. It was her fault for forgetting to leave the keys as arranged. And very out of character.
"Spring fever must have taken over my brain. I'm so sorry—"
He cut off her attempt at apology. "And I'm wet, miles out of my way, and I have other things to do. Do you have the keys?"
Well, now they had established that he was an ass. Good thing she hadn't noticed that he was also heartthrob material, especially since she was all done with men anyway. Not that she didn't like men. She liked plenty of males, mostly the ones who were related to her and were under the age of twelve.And yet she found herself remembering that she probably had dirt smeared on her face and she definitely had dirt on her jeans and the bright-yellow Haven Honeybees high school booster club T-shirt she was wearing.
He was probably six foot two, which had the effect of making her feel unusually feminine and petite at her five foot eight. That's all it was. And there was that bad-boy heartthrob thing, of course, that made her think of mindless sex.
Mindless sex with a stranger. Hot and raw and wild. One fantasy before she died.
Her pulse raced a little. Stop it, she warned herself. Really, she didn't even like him so far and she was thinking about having sex with him? Was she losing her mind? She had enough problems at the moment without making any new ones up.
Like, that skull in her rose bed…. "I'm sorry," she repeated. He could be rude; she couldn't. She had exactly two ways to earn money since Ray died—she'd taken over the small Foodway store in town he'd made the monumental mistake and command decision to mortgage her inheritance against, and she also handled local leasing properties as a sideline. Well, she let one of the neighbors run cattle on the farm and put up hay twice a year. But that didn't cut it, with the farm slipping through her fingers because of the store's sliding profit margin since the big warehouse-style grocery outlet had opened in the next town over last summer. "I have the keys. I forgot to leave them up at the store. I'll get them. It'll just take a sec."
She left him standing there and ran back to the kitchen. "So what kind of work do you do?" she called back to him through the screen. She'd left the main door open. Maybe he couldn't hear her over the rain lashing down, but he didn't answer. She remembered asking him why he was coming to Haven when he'd arranged the lease. He'd changed the subject then. And now—
The keys were on a hook on the wall with a little paper tag that read Evans. The rental house was, in fact, straight across the road from the Foodway, so no doubt he was extra annoyed that he'd had to drive all the way out in the country to find her. Or he was just an impatient ass and if he wasn't pissed off about one thing, he'd be pissed off about another.
She headed back to the door. "What brings you to Haven?"
"Business," he said briefly.
"What kind of business?" Did she really want to know or was she just being passive-aggressive at this point? She wasn't really sure. He didn't want to tell her anything, she was sure of that.
"I need to get going if you've got those keys." She felt as if he'd smacked her hand. And maybe she just didn't really want him to go, even if he was an ass. She'd be alone again, just her and that skull and Ray's gift from the grave.
"Here you go." She leaned out between the doorjamb and the screen door just enough to pass him the keys. Their fingers brushed oh-so-briefly and she told herself to ignore the crackle of waking female libido that had no place in her life.