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By Marianne Stillings
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2006 Marianne Stillings
All right reserved.
Sir Lancelot's secret lookout.
Port Henry, Washington
Blue sky . . . treetops . . . straw hat . . . breasts.
With a touch of his index finger, he caressed the knob as though it were the soft curve of her shoulder. After a brief mental tussle between his half angel, half devil conscience, both sides concluded it wouldn't harm the taxpayers any if he allowed himself a moment or two of reverent reflection on the wonders of . . . nature.
Detective Taylor McKennitt popped his gum, then fine-tuned the focus on his binoculars. Under his breath, he murmured, "Claire Hunter, you are still one very fine-looking woman." He grinned and blew out a short breath.
Thank God he'd gotten over her. A lesser man would have been captivated at the sight of her in those blue jeans and white knit top. But Taylor had moved on. She was no longer his almost girlfriend but simply an assignment, and he was free to appreciate her attributes from afar without getting his knickers in a twist.
Good thing, too, since he hadn't anticipated seeing her here. Originally, his intent had been simply to check out the farm, see if all the ducks were in order, so to speak. He'd expected to catch a glimpse of Sadie Lancaster,Claire's aunt, but not Claire herself; not today, anyway.
He sharpened the image, and his grin widened. Damn, he loved this job.
Shifting position, Taylor jammed his hand under his jacket, into his shirt pocket, and withdrew his cell phone, punching the autodial with his thumb. As he waited for the call to ring through to his brother, Claire turned, bent, and lifted a cardboard box.
Taylor's gaze followed her every move as his mind drifted to the night they'd spent together eight months ago. He felt his chest warm remembering what had happened between the two of them, and the sultry, sensuous things she'd whispered to him in the dark . . .
". . . hit by a bus, or just plain stupid?" His brother's impatient voice jolted Taylor out of the land of ancient history.
"Sorry," he growled in response. "I'm working. Got a little . . . distracted."
"So, what's the haps? Where are you?"
"Doing a little recon." Since the recon had morphed into ogling his brother's wife's best friend, Taylor felt it best to keep the details and the locale to himself. "Where are you?"
"On the road," Soldier said. "Spent the day at the precinct in Seattle gathering all the data I could on our new case. Heading north on 101 now. ETA in Port Henry's about fifteen-thirty."
Taylor checked his watch. "That's in an hour. You stopping by the PHPD, or going straight home?"
"Straight home into the arms of my beautiful wife."
"If only," Soldier said dryly. "Mostly I need to mow the lawn before it gets dark. Hey, you staying with us tonight? We can start going over these files. Betsy's getting your usual room ready."
"Can't do it until tomorrow night," he said, his eyes locked on Claire. "Today, uh, threw me a few curves. I'm hip-deep in forms and figures, and looking a little behind." He adjusted the focus as she turned around.
"Sounds like you're looking at a righteous bust," Soldier quipped.
Taylor snapped his gum and smiled. Yeah, I'd like to stay on top of this one, he thought but did not say. Banter and innuendo with his brother were one thing, but this was Claire . . .
"Listen, Jackson," he said instead. "I've got to hand my cases off to Atherton and Stewart and meet with the lieutenant, so I won't see you until around noon tomorrow."
Detective J. Soldier McKennitt -- Jackson, to his brother -- gave a grunt of acknowledgment.
Taylor popped his gum and peered through the binoculars as Claire carried a cardboard box to the faded green Ford pickup parked in the barnyard. She set the box inside the bed of the old rattletrap, leaning in to adjust its position.
"Speaking of good-looking women," Soldier said. "How you doing in the girlfriend department? Been seeing anyone special?"
As he watched, Claire continued loading boxes into the truck, unaware that Taylor's eyes followed her every move.
"I'm seeing someone special right now," he muttered under his breath, his gaze held in thrall by the woman whose fawn brown eyes had mesmerized him the day they'd met, and whose fire had turned to ice the morning they'd parted.
"What was that?"
With a hard blink, Taylor filed away his memories of that night with Claire in the mental folder marked "Finished Business" -- in front of the time he'd paid back Ronnie Sherwood in the second grade for a black eye, and just behind the day he'd discovered Paula had been unfaithful . . . the first time.
With renewed enthusiasm, Taylor said, "You picked up all the case files?"
"Tell me a little about Mortimer. What exactly are we dealing with here? Any Feds looming on the event horizon?"
As Soldier began addressing the details of the case, Taylor listened while he carefully scanned the scene below.
The Lancaster farm was set in a deep and lush little valley that cupped Claire in its rustic hand. The centerpiece of the tableau was the century-old two-story farmhouse. Faded blue with peeling white trim, it matched the barn standing back against a cluster of towering firs. In the yard between the two buildings, a trio of brown chickens bobbed and pecked at the hardpan, while an enormous goose waddled about, beak in the air, honking orders to the indifferent clouds.
That was the extent of her protection? Three chicken dinners and a goose-down pillow on the wing? No other houses or farms close by. Not a good thing for two women alone.
". . . but no FBI," Soldier was saying. "After you and I go over the case files, we can talk to Mrs. Lancaster, see if she knows anything."
Excerpted from Sighs Matter by Marianne Stillings Copyright © 2006 by Marianne Stillings. Excerpted by permission.
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