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Authors: Victoria Pade

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BOOK: On Pins and Needles
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“Suit yourself,” was Megan's curt reply.

But for some reason, her response seemed to amuse him. He was fighting it, but a smile tugged at the corners of his mouth just the same.

“Are we getting defensive here?” he asked then.

“Since you seem to want to treat me like some kind of criminal, I guess
we
are, yes.”

He shot a glance at the wrist of the hand she was using to grasp her teacup and said, “I don't see any hand cuffs and I haven't hauled you into the station. How am I treating you like a criminal?”

“Your attitude.”

“My attitude. My attitude is that I've just found a
body buried in your backyard and I have some questions about it. I don't think that's unreasonable.”

“I haven't lived here since I was twelve years old. What do you expect me to know about it?”

“Twelve years old, huh? My brother Scott is thirty and he was in your class in elementary school. That'd mean you and your family moved away eighteen years ago, right?”

“Has the interrogation begun?”

That made him chuckle. Clearly at some point he'd begun to enjoy himself.

“I don't think this could be considered an interrogation. But that
is
one of my questions, yeah.”

“Eighteen years ago—yes, that's when my family left Elk Creek,” she supplied what was no secret. “What month?”

“June. Right after school let out for the summer.”

“What do you remember about that time?”

Megan rolled her eyes. “This is just silly.”

“Humor me,” he suggested, his tone cajoling now.

She took a deep breath and decided it wasn't going to do anyone any good to go on being hostile. Besides, Josh Brimley was getting too much pleasure out of it and she didn't want to contribute to that.

So, after a sigh, she said in a calmer tone, “What I remember about June, eighteen years ago, is that I didn't want to leave. That my parents had turned an old school bus into a mobile home so we could live on the road going from one cause to another because they'd decided that being here was basically living with their heads in the sand and they couldn't go on doing that when there
were so many social and environmental in justices that needed to be ad dressed. They wanted to be active, not passive, and that meant not staying in Elk Creek.”

“How about the exact month you left? Do you remember anyone being around besides your mother and father?”

“My sister.”

“Anyone besides your mother, father and
sister?
” he amended.

“No.”

“Think about it.”

“I don't have to think about it. I don't remember anything except not wanting to go.”

Josh Brimley's navy-blue eyes stayed on her, as if he knew better and would stay in a stare-down with her until she told him the truth. But that
was
the truth—she didn't recall anything but being miserable at the thought of leaving her home to live in a bus and be taught by her mother rather than staying in one place and going to school like everyone else.

Maybe her continuing silence finally convinced Josh that she didn't have any more to say on the matter because after a few moments he seemed to decide to make an attempt at sparking her memory rather than merely waiting her out.

“What about friends your parents might have had or maybe an uncle or a cousin? Do you remember anyone like that being around?”

“Neither of my parents have a brother and even if they did, both their families steer clear of them because they
think my folks are lunatics. And as for friends, what I
do
remember was that there weren't a lot of people around Elk Creek who my parents were close enough to to call friends. Their friends then and now are other people like them.”

“Okay, they didn't have a lot of friends around town—that's one thing more that you've remembered than you had a minute ago. Keep thinking about it. Did they maybe have a visit from a friend from some where else? Maybe who was here and then gone just before you left?”

“I don't remember anyone. It was a long,
long
time ago. Do you remember who might have been around your house when you were twelve? Who your parents hung out with? Go ahead, June, eighteen years ago—tell me what you remember about it.”

Josh held up both hands, palms outward as if to ward off an attack. “Okay, point taken,” he conceded.

“Finally,” Megan said on another sigh.

“But I'm going to need to talk to your folks,” he said then.

“I know you'll probably see this as my being uncooperative,” she prefaced. “But talking to my folks is easier said than done. They're on board a ship off the coast of Peru trying to stop the dumping of waste solvents. It isn't as if I can just pick up the phone and reach them.”

“How can they be contacted?”

“There's a number I can call to have word sent out to the ship and then my parents will have to contact me when they can.”

“Then that's what you'll have to do.”

Just like that, Megan thought. He gave the order and she was supposed to follow it.

But she'd had a lifetime of role models who bucked authority at every turn and it wasn't easy for her not to follow in those same shoes. Some thing about just the way he'd given the order made her feel contrary.

“I don't see why I should have to bother them,” she said. “My parents didn't have anything to do with whatever happened here any more than I did.”

“There's someone buried in your backyard,” Josh said with forced patience, explaining the obvious and then adding to it. “And in the grave, along with the skeleton, is a news pa per dated June, eighteen years ago. That puts the time of death at the exact month, the exact year that your parents high tailed it out of town. Those are a whole lot of reasons why I need to talk to them.”

“They didn't
hightail it out of town.
They left because of a strong social con science and a belief that they could make a difference in the world. Nowhere in that are they the kind of people who would bring harm to another human being, let alone bury them in their backyard and
hightail it out of town.

“Even good people can do bad things under certain conditions, Megan.”

She tried not to like the way her name sounded being said by that deep voice of his for the first time.

“My parents don't do bad things under any conditions. They wouldn't even hurt a fly. In fact, if one gets indoors, they chase it around until they can catch it in a cup and set it free outside. They've pro tested for the rights of people who are being abused or neglected or
treated in any way unfairly. They're
against
doing bad things.”

“I under stand that it's impossible to believe the worst of your own family. But the fact is, someone was buried in your backyard at the same time your parents opted to take to the road. Now that may be circumstantial, it may be purely coincidental, but I'll still need to talk to them about it.”

“Without condemning them with premature conclusions,” she said as if it were a condition she was applying.

“I'm not condemning anyone and I don't have any premature conclusions. I'm just beginning at the be ginning.”

She couldn't refute that reasoning, even though the contrary part of her still wanted to. Besides, she knew when she'd lost a fight.

But that didn't mean she was just going to roll over without getting a little some thing in return.

So she said, “Say please.”

“Say please?” he repeated, sounding partially amused again and partially in disbelief of what he was hearing.

Then he leaned across the corner of the table, putting his extraordinarily handsome face within inches of hers. They were almost nose to nose and he was near enough for her to smell the lingering scent of his after shave and a sweet ness on his breath as he said, “In case it's escaped you, I'm the law around here. I don't have to say please when it comes to this. If you don't do what I tell you to
do I can charge you with obstruction and put your little fanny in jail.”

Megan angled her chin upward in answer.

It was an act of defiance. But what she hadn't factored in was that that act of defiance also accidentally put her mouth in close proximity to his. So close that it suddenly occurred to her that he could kiss her without much more effort.

And the trouble with that realization was that once it was there in her head, it left her unable to think about anything else.

Until she reminded herself that they were in the middle of a tug-of-war.

“Say please anyway,” she insisted.

Josh smiled. A slow, lei surely smile that was oh-so-sexy and made her wonder if he'd just read her thoughts.

Or maybe he was on the verge of arresting her and looking forward to it.

Then he said, “Please,” in a husky whisper that gave her goose bumps.

She rubbed her arms as if she'd caught another chill, worried that he might see the goose flesh.

“I'll do what I can,” she finally conceded as if she didn't have a single other thing on her mind.

But Josh didn't back away even after he had her word. He stayed leaning across the table.

And the longer he did, the more those thoughts of kissing gained strength. Strength and potency and vivid ness as she began to wonder what it might be like to have him actually do it. To have him kiss her…

Then, abruptly, Josh stood and went to the door.

Megan didn't move to follow him, to walk him out, because she was struggling to regain the equilibrium she seemed to have lost in those thoughts of him kissing her.

“I'll need to talk to your parents right away so make sure you get on it ASAP. Please,” he added with the hint of yet another smile.

“I'll put in the initial call tonight,” she told him without a fight this time because she was locked in her own internal battle against this wholly in appropriate and unwarranted reaction to the man.

“Thanks,” he said. “I'll be in touch.”

Oh great, now she was thinking about him
touching
her, too….

Megan managed a nod as she watched his big hand close around the knob to open the door again.

Then, as if he'd just had a flash of memory, he said, “Don't do anything to the grave site. I'll need clearance from forensics before it can be tampered with or filled in.”

Once more Megan nodded, not speaking as she marveled at all he was still inspiring in her even now.

He hesitated a moment as if he had something else to say. But in the end he went out the way he'd come in, closing the door behind him and leaving Megan alone in the kitchen again.

When she was, she breathed another sigh, this one a deep sigh of relief to be out from under the powerful effects of his presence.

And that was when rational thought kicked in again.

Was there anything dumber than getting carried away by a man who not only thought she was some kind of oddity, but who also seemed to think her parents were capable of some thing as awful as killing someone? she asked herself.

No, there wasn't anything dumber than that.

But that's what had just happened, hadn't it? In the middle of him questioning her and trying to find information that in criminated her family, she'd been imagining Josh Brimley kissing her. Josh Brimley who had accused her of practicing hocus-pocus and voodoo.

It was worse than dumb. It was insane.

And it wasn't going to happen again, she told herself firmly.

Josh Brimley was not just some nice guy she'd met in passing. In a way he was the enemy and she'd better not lose sight of that fact.

She'd better not lose sight of what kind of man he was.

Because while she might have faith that she could win over Elk Creek's citizens to the benefits of acupuncture, she knew better than to put any effort whatsoever into trying to convince a man who viewed her as an oddity that that wasn't what she was. And when that man also suspected her parents of a horrible crime on top of it, she really knew he was someone to stay away from.

The trouble was, loitering around the edges of her mind was the last view she'd had of Josh Brimley walking out the door.

The view of a rear end to die for.

And no matter how hard she tried, she couldn't shake off her appreciation of that….

Chapter 3

“W
HEN'RE YOU GONNA DO
somethin' 'bout them allergies, boy?”

Josh held up his hand in acknowledgement of his mother speaking to him as he sneezed three more times. Merely walking into the kitchen the next morning and being in the proximity of the mudroom where his brothers hung their work coats was enough to send him into a paroxysm of sneezing.

When it finally subsided, he said, “I don't have the time to do some thing about it now.”

He hadn't told even his mother about his appointment the previous day with Megan Bailey and her needles. And certainly now there were more important issues that needed to be dealt with.

“You got in awful late last night and you're up even earlier than usual this mornin',” Junebug observed then, as Josh poured himself a cup of coffee. She sat at the kitchen table with her own mug and the romance novel she read a few pages of each day since she was up before the news pa per arrived.

“Something's happened,” Josh answered as he joined
her. Then he went on to explain the discovery of the grave on Megan Bailey's property.

When he'd given his mother all the details—except for the fact that he'd been about to undergo acupuncture when Burt Connor had found him—Josh said, “Anything you remember about the Baileys from way back?”

Apparently there was, because Junebug turned down the corner of one page in her book and closed it as if she knew she wasn't going to be reading any more of it.

“Not likely to forget those people,” she told Josh then. “They weren't like anybody else around these parts.”

“I know they're environmentalists,” he supplied.

“If that's what you call it. Most folks called it rabble-rousin' and trouble-makin' and worse. They turned that farm of theirs into one of them communes for a while before they had kids. There were rumors of free love and drug-takin' and who knows what all goin' on.”

“Really?” Josh said, interested to hear what his mother was saying. “What happened after they had kids?”

“No more communal livin' with the slew of long-haired, smelly sorts they had there before. But even after that they'd let just any passerby into their house. It's one thing to be neighborly and friendly and hospitable to folks if you know 'em or if you know somebody else who knows 'em. But the Baileys, they'd take in vagabonds and riffraff, anybody.”

“Do you remember anyone like that in particular? Around eighteen years ago?”

Josh's mother was an enormous woman—six feet tall and three hundred pounds. Her hair was pure white and
she wore it pulled into a bun on the top of her head, leaving every inch of her meaty face exposed for the look she gave her son that said he was out of his mind.

“Do I remember who might have been hangin' around the Bailey place eighteen years ago? 'Course not. It wasn't like I visited with 'em. They alienated them selves from folks around here.”

“How did they do that?”

“Mostly by not eatin' meat.”

“A lot of people don't eat meat,” Josh pointed out, suppressing a smile at his mother's horror at the very notion.

“Not back when they were around. But even then nobody woulda cared what they ate or didn't eat except that they made it known that they objected to the raisin' of animals for food. That didn't make 'em popular in ranch country. Plus they picketed around town and made more'n one scene at Margie Wilson's Café and over at the Dairy King. Then there was some vandalizing of the slaughter house that every body knew had to be them even though the sheriff at the time couldn't prove it.”

Junebug paused a moment, as if some thing had just occurred to her.

Amidst more sneezing, Josh hoped for a breakthrough, some flash of memory about someone or something that had gone on at the Bailey place eighteen years ago.

But that wasn't what he got. Instead his mother said, “Come to think of it, it doesn't really fit that they'd be involved in hurtin' a person when they were so set against
any harm comin' to any livin' thing. They thought eatin' an egg was a crime against nature.”

“That's what their daughter says about them, too.”

“Pretty girls, those Bailey daughters. I saw 'em in town the other day. Which of 'em were you talkin' to?”

“Megan. The one Scott knows.”

“The acupuncture one?”

“Yeah.”

That's all he said—
yeah.
And some thing about it was enough to raise his mother's bushy white eyebrows.

“What about the other one? Did you do any talkin' to her?” Junebug asked as if she were testing him.

“I didn't meet the other one. She didn't come home the whole time I was at their place overseeing the removal of the evidence.”

“But you liked the acupuncture one well enough.”

It was a statement of fact, not a question, and even though Josh was a grown man his mother still surprised him with how easily she could see through him.

“I didn't find anything to dislike about her,” he answered, making sure to sound completely noncommittal. “But my job isn't to like or dislike her. My job is to find out how and why someone was buried in her backyard eighteen years ago, the same month her family moved out of Elk Creek.”

A slow, knowing grin spread across Junebug's face. “Oh, you liked 'er all right.”

Josh just rolled his eyes and forced the subject back to the matters at hand. “What about anybody around here disappearing suddenly, eighteen years ago? Do
you remember anything like that? Maybe someone connected with the slaughter house? Or to some thing else the Baileys were opposed to?”

“Nah.” Junebug confirmed what Millie had told him the night before about the lack of missing persons cases in town. “Besides, if somethin' like that had ever happened 'round here there'd still be talk and you'd of heard it already yourself.”

That was true enough. Stories in Elk Creek were told over and over through generations.

“But if the Baileys took in passers-by,” Josh reasoned, “there could have been someone there who no one else knew or took notice of. Or would have thought twice about when they weren't around anymore.”

“S'pose so. Here today, gone tomorrow, there were a lot of folks like that with the Baileys. But then there's always been ranch hands or crop-pickers who've come in and left again without much ado. It's just that the Baileys were the only ones to open their doors to even the disreputable sorts who happened through.”

Josh nodded, taking a mental note of the picture his mother was painting of the Baileys and realizing that it didn't make his job any easier.

Then he said, “And there isn't anything else you can think of that might help?”

Junebug shrugged her beefy shoulders. “Sorry.” Then, as if that were far less important than the interest she thought her son had in Megan Bailey, she said, “Maybe you ought to try that acupuncture for your allergy.”

Josh pre tended that was the farthest thing from his mind.

“Couldn't hurt,” Junebug persisted.

“Having needles stuck in me? What about that do you think couldn't hurt?” he scoffed.

“They say it's painless.”

“Who says?”

“I've just heard. Besides, you could stare into that Megan Bailey's pretty face and I'll bet you wouldn't even feel the pain.”

“I have an investigation into an eighteen-year-old crime on my hands. I don't have time for whatever it is you're tryin' to encourage here.”

“Investigatin' a body in her backyard'll give you the chance to see 'er. Talk to 'er. Get to know 'er. Havin' her do acupuncture, that would be another way. You keep to yourself too much ever since Farrah did wrong by you. Time you get out there again.”

Josh finished his coffee and took his cup to the sink. “I think for now I'll just tend to business, if that's all right with you.”

Junebug didn't say another word as Josh suffered through one more sneezing attack.

But once it was over and he headed out of the kitchen to get to work, he caught her smiling that knowing smile again.

Only this time it irritated him to no end.

 

“How did a Ladies' League meeting and dinner turn into some thing that kept you out so late I fell asleep waiting for you?” Megan asked her sister Annissa when Annissa got out of bed at eight the next morning and
came into the kitchen where Megan was having tea and toast.

“Didn't you get the message I left on the answering machine?” Nissa countered with a question of her own.

“I got it but all you said was you'd had a good response to the chair massages and didn't know when you'd get here. What exactly does that mean? The Ladies' League had you doing chair massages until after midnight?”

Nissa laughed as she made herself a cup of herbal tea. “No, but I was a big hit there. So big that Kansas Heller suggested that if I was interested in drumming up even more business I should take the chair to her husband's honky-tonk one night and do a few free massages there, too. You know, The Buckin' Bronco, over by the train station? She said I'd be introducing the massages to a whole different con tin gent and broaden my customer base. I thought she was right and that I should strike while the iron was hot, so when she offered to take me over right then, I accepted.”

“And you were a big hit there, too,” Megan guessed.

“I handed out every card and coupon I had with me and then started writing our office phone number and the ten-percent-off deal on bar napkins. And all the while I talked about the good acupuncture can do, too. I know it was unconventional but I really think I drummed up some business yesterday and last night.”

“Great.”

Nissa moved to the kitchen sink to set the tea ball in it to drain just as Megan said, “I had a pretty amazing night myself.”

“What in the world…”

Nissa wasn't commenting on what Megan had said. Megan knew that her sister had just caught sight of the crime scene tape around the hole that stood between the house and the dilapidated barn out back. It was the opening Megan had been waiting for and she finally filled Nissa in on the events of the previous evening.

When she'd finished, she said, “Do you remember anything unusual about the time just before we left here? Anything that might help identify who the man was or what happened to him?”

Nissa shrugged and shook her head at once. “No. I remember the two of us crying because we didn't want to go and not liking the idea of living on a bus, but that's about all. It was a long time ago.”

“My point exactly! But Josh Brimley refuses to see that.”

“And he's convinced Mom and Dad had some thing to do with whatever happened?” Nissa asked, referring to that portion of what Megan had told her.

“So convinced that if they were here now I think he'd have them locked up already,” Megan confirmed.

“That's just crazy. They wouldn't hurt anyone.”

“Also what I told him. His only answer was that it's hard for people to believe the worst of their family.”

“That's true, but still, Mom and Dad wouldn't hurt a flea, let alone another human being.”

“Josh Brimley isn't going to take your word any more than he took mine.”

“Did you put the call in to Peru?” Nissa asked as she
came to sit at the table with Megan, in the same chair Josh Brimley had occupied the evening before.

The same chair Megan had spent too much time this morning staring at and picturing him in the night before. All handsome and muscular…

And suspicious. Don't lose sight of
that,
she told herself.

“I called the number the folks gave us if we needed to reach them,” Megan said when she'd leashed her thoughts. “But there's no telling how long it will take to get the message out to them and arrange long-distance ship-to-shore contact. The person I spoke to warned me that it could be days.”

“I don't suppose the sheriff will be happy to hear that.”

“You can bet on it.” Of course he
had
shown a little pleasure in certain things the previous evening, but none of them had had to do with being denied his requests or a delay in doing his bidding.

“Had you done his acupuncture before all this happened?” Nissa asked then.

“No, he was in the process of telling me that he thought it was hocus-pocus or voodoo or some thing.”

“Ah, he's one of those.”

“It didn't bother me at first. I thought he was just being honest about his skepticism, and that I'd win him over. But later… Well, he made me mad with his barely veiled accusations of Mom and Dad, and I changed my mind.”

Nissa laughed. “It bothered you belatedly?”

“Some thing like that. But by then everything about him bothered me.”

“Oh?” There was a lilt in her sister's tone that made Nissa seem more interested in that than in anything else they'd been talking about. “What else about him bothered you?”

“His tunnel-vision. His close-mind ed ness. The fact that he has a basketful of preconceived notions about me and acupuncture and our whole family—including that Mom and Dad could be murderers, of all things. He's definitely what I swore to myself I'd never get involved with again after Noel, that's for sure.”

“Were we talking about you getting involved with him?”

“No, I'm just saying—”

“But obviously the thought occurred to you.”

Her sister knew her too well and Megan realized there was no sense in denying that the vague thought of some fleeting kind of involvement with Josh Brimley had flitted through her mind.

“Okay, maybe, just in passing,” she conceded. “He's a great big, good-looking guy. It would have occurred to anyone.”

“So you
were
attracted to him.”

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