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Authors: Victoria Pade

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BOOK: On Pins and Needles
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And it was with the hope that that was true that she forced herself into motion and went to the kitchen.

 

It took nearly forty-five minutes for Megan to get the sandwiches ready. The search had left her kitchen in as much disarray as the rest of the house and she had to clear space among the dishes, pots and pans, utensils, and even food stuffs that had been left out of cup boards, drawers and pantry to litter the counter tops and kitchen table.

But even after making room to prepare their food there still wasn't anywhere to eat it so, when she
finished, she decided they'd have to dine picnic-style in the living room, around the coffee table.

With that in mind, she piled everything on a tray and pushed through the swinging door that connected the kitchen to the living room.

Josh was already in the living room, pushing the sofa against the wall facing the front door and the picture window. It was the last of the furniture to be put back where it had been and once it was he took a quick scan of the room.

“All done,” he announced just as Megan set the tray on the coffee table. “Upstairs and down. I think I have pretty much everything in order again. Except the books in that case in the upper hall. I thought you'd probably rather put them in whatever order they were in before and I didn't know what that was.”

“I'll do it later, when I put things back in the drawers and clean the kitchen,” Megan said. Then, glancing at the tray full of food, she added, “I thought we could eat in here.”

“A picnic,” he said as if he'd read her earlier thoughts.

“Mmm. The kitchen is in pretty bad shape.”

“Sorry. But I think eating in here is a great idea anyway. I like things casual.”

Megan knelt on the floor between the coffee table and the couch to set out the two food-laden plates, silver ware, napkins and tall glasses of iced tea.

“Cloth napkins aren't too casual, though,” Josh observed as he sat just around the bend of the oval table, also on the floor, with his back against the sofa and one
leg bent at the knee to brace his forearm while his hand dangled over his shin.

“We don't use paper napkins. Cloth can be washed and reused. It's better for the environment,” she explained.

“Ah.”

He didn't say more on that subject and Megan appreciated his restraint.

“Big sandwiches,” he said then, nodding toward his plate as he used his free hand to flip open the cloth napkin and lay it across the thigh of the leg he had extended out in front of him.

“The bread is seven grain, homemade,” Megan explained. “Inside yours is a grilled portobello mushroom, tomato slices, roasted red peppers, artichoke hearts, black olives, onion, sprouts and a little vinaigrette.”

Some thing about that made him smile at the same time his brow wrinkled up. “I'd have been happy with meat and mayo. This sounds like more trouble to go through than a sandwich deserves.”

“Try it,” she urged.

He looked skeptical but in a more con genial way than he had the day before when they'd talked about acupuncture. Still, he didn't dive in, though. It took him a moment of eyeing what was on his plate before he picked up one half of the three-inch-high sandwich. Then he gave it a meager taste, as if it might bite him back.

Megan waited for the verdict, watching him chew and pleased that it was with his mouth closed and without so much as a crumb on his supple lips.

Then he swallowed and his eyebrows rose. “It's good. Almost tastes like a steak sandwich.”

Megan felt as if she'd finally won one small victory. She stretched out her own legs so she could sit more comfortably on the floor, too, and finally began to eat her own food.

“You told me what was inside
my
sandwich,” Josh said then. “Does that mean there's some thing different in yours?”

“Turkey, ham and bacon,” she answered with a straight face once she'd swallowed her own bite.

His responding expression was exactly what she'd been going for and she laughed at him.

“I'm kidding. Mine is the same as yours. Want to see?”

He grinned at her joke. “Last time a girl asked me that she wasn't talking about what was between two slices of bread.”

Megan laughed at his innuendo but didn't give him the satisfaction of a comment.

Josh ate more sandwich, a few potato chips, and then poked his chin at the room in general. “Did I get the furniture pretty much back where you had it?”

Megan glanced around just to be sure. “Close enough.”

“I didn't think I'd have a problem, that I'd just follow the marks on the floor. But there were other marks, too, so I wasn't sure in some spots. Looks like you did some rearranging when you moved in.”

“We did.”

“Seems better than it would have been if I'd followed the old marks. More open. It has a nice feel to it.”

“Feng shui.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Feng shui is an ancient philosophy.”

“An ancient philosophy of home decorating?”

“It's all about opening things up so there's a free flow of energy. When there's a free flow of energy you feel better and when you feel better everything is better. You said yourself that the room has a nice feel to it.”

“You really believe that putting furniture in certain places will change your life?” he asked.

“I believe that anything that makes anyone more comfortable and content is a good thing. Even if that's all it does.”

“Ah-ha! Then you admit it doesn't have any magical powers.”

“I'm not admitting anything. I'm saying that if that's the least it does, it's worth it.”

“And I suppose that crystal mobile you have in the corner over there is for a reason, too?”

“It helps direct the energy. Plus, I like the way it looks.”

“Now that's some thing I can under stand.”

“So it's not mumbo-jumbo.”

He had the good grace to laugh. “Yeah.”

Megan just rolled her eyes at him.

“The sandwich was great, though,” he said with a nod toward the plate he'd emptied several minutes earlier. “I never would have tried it on my own but I liked it.”

“Even though there was no meat and mayo?”

“Even though.”

“You get points for owning up to that, anyway.”

He laughed again and Megan realized she was coming to like the sound of it. Probably too much.

“I didn't know you were keeping score,” he said. “But I'll bet I can use all the points I can get.”

“As a matter of fact,” she teased.

“And I should probably leave while I'm ahead,” he added, pushing himself to his haunches and standing from there.

Megan found herself awash in disappointment that he was leaving. But that fact alone—that she was disappointed—was enough to warn her she'd been enjoying his company too much. So, rather than protest, she stood, too, to walk him to the door.

“Oh, I almost forgot,” he said along the way. “Did you try to reach your parents?”

Back to business. That was really disappointing.

“I put in the initial call this morning but it may be days before the connection can be made. All I can do now is wait for them to get the message and do a ship-to-shore call or dock some where.”

They'd reached the front door by then and, with one hand on the knob, Josh turned to face her. “I need to hear from them as soon as possible. I hope you left that as part of the message.”

“I did. But I think you need to be exploring other possibilities.”

“What makes you think I'm not?”

“Oh, please. You have your sights set on them. Just because they don't live like most people and they're a
little more radical than the average Mr. and Mrs. John Q. Public you believe they're automatically guilty.”

“Right. It doesn't have anything to do with the evidence.”

“Evidence or not, you need to be investigating other people.”

“Do you have someone I should put on the suspect list?”

“No. I'm just saying that you have an obligation to keep an open mind, and I don't think that's what you're doing.”

“So you're doubting my objectivity?” he said, but without any signs that that disturbed him.

“Yes, I am,” she confirmed. “I'm worried that you've tried and convicted my parents already and that's that—you aren't even looking anywhere else.”

“I wouldn't want to
worry
you,” Josh said as if their entire conversation was amusing him. “Maybe you should tag along as I investigate just to make sure I leave no stone unturned.”

If that was a challenge it was one she was going to take. “Maybe I should.”

She met his midnight-blue eyes with her own and their gazes seemed to lock.

“You're welcome to,” he said more seriously, his voice deeper.

“Then I will,” Megan told him, her tone suddenly softer for no reason she could fathom. “When?”

“This case is all I'm working on. I'm going out to do inter views with your neighbors tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow is fine. We could even do your acupuncture in the morning before and then head out.”

That made his handsome face scrunch up and he broke off eye contact in the process, as if she'd suggested some thing un bear able.

“Maybe you're just afraid of the needles,” Megan said then, goading him.

But it only made him chuckle once more. “Good bedside manner.”

This time Megan had the grace to laugh before taking a better tack. “Give it a try. Just see if it doesn't work. I'll even make a deal with you—if it doesn't you don't have to pay me for the testing or the treatments.”

His striking eyes caught hers again and there was pleasure in them that told her he was enjoying this as much as she was.

“Okay, deal,” he agreed. “Tomorrow morning, first thing.”

“And then I'm tagging along from there on your investigation.”

“I wouldn't have it any other way,” he said as if he were humoring her.

With everything settled and planned he should have left then. But he didn't. Instead he stayed there, still looking into her eyes.

And as they had the night before, thoughts of him kissing her popped into Megan's mind.

She told herself that really
was
crazy. That it was the very last thing she should be thinking about.

But there it was just the same. The thoughts. And worst, the wish that he would….

Then it seemed as if he actually might. It seemed as if he was leaning towards her a little. Maybe bending down.

She didn't mean to, but she tilted her chin ever so slightly upward and if he intended to kiss her, she would have been ready for it.

But then all of a sudden he straightened away from her and opened the door. Almost startling her because that was not what she was expecting.

“I'll be at your office at nine,” he announced, his voice slightly husky, slightly gruff.

“I'll be there,” Megan assured him, falling short of strengthening her own tone because she was still lost in what now seemed to have been merely imaginings that he might have been on the verge of kissing her.

Then he went out the door in a hurry, closing it behind him as if any less determined exit might not have been successful.

And Megan was left staring at the oak panel.

Staring at it and reaching a single hand to press her palm to it as if it were Josh's chest.

This will never do,
she told herself, knowing without a doubt that she shouldn't be feeling what she was feeling or thinking what she was thinking.

But knowing it without a doubt and stopping it were two different things.

And she just couldn't stop thinking about what it might have been like if he
had
kissed her.

And wishing he had.

In spite of everything…

Chapter 4

B
Y THE TIME
M
EGAN
opened the office the next morning she had a new determination about what could and what could not go on between herself and Josh Brimley when she saw him again.

No more noticing how great-looking he was. No more flirting or encouraging banter that brought out his quick wit. No more getting lost in the effects of his simmering sexuality. And definitely no more thinking about him kissing her. Or wishing he would.

He was a status quo kind of guy and no one knew better than she what that translated to in regards to a relationship with someone like her. It was some thing she needed to avoid at all costs. More so because of the whole criminal investigation he was engaged in.

What was between them had to be strictly business and nothing more.

Of course what was between them being anything more was quite possibly only in her imagination anyway. Which made her reaction to him even worse.

It chafed that she'd been ready to let him kiss her the evening before and he hadn't. But it was a sign she
needed to pay attention to, she told herself for the gazillionth time since hearing his car drive off last night. Yes, it had seemed as if he might have been going to kiss her but even if that was the case, he'd stopped himself. Probably because, despite a little temptation, he wasn't interested in her as anything more than the daughter of his prime suspects. And that was some thing she'd better not forget.

Not that she was any more interested in him than he was in her, because she wasn't. She didn't know what had gotten into her these last two evenings as he was leaving but now that she knew those bizarre musings about kissing sneaked up on her, she was going to be on guard against them and make sure that it never happened again.

She really, really had learned her lesson with Noel. Opposites might attract but even when they did, it didn't work out in the long run. It was the things people had in common that bound them together. Differences only tore them apart.

And Megan couldn't go through that again. Not even for a big, strap ping, exception ally handsome guy like Josh Brimley.

No, she'd been down that road and at the inevitable end of it was too much pain. Pain she'd never put herself through again.

And that was all there was to it.

So it was good that he hadn't kissed her. It was good that he probably wasn't interested in her. It was good that she could head off whatever unwanted thoughts and images came into her own head from here on.

Because she and Josh Brimley were just not meant to be. She was sure of it.

She was going to make sure of it.

If it was the last thing she ever did.

That's how determined she was.

 

At the stroke of nine o'clock Megan was ready and waiting to do Josh's acupuncture.

But Josh didn't show.

He still wasn't there at nine-fifteen. Or at nine-thirty. Or nine-forty-five.

By ten she was convinced he wasn't coming at all and she began to think his agreeing to do the acupuncture before the two of them went out to talk to her neighbors about the skeleton had been a ruse. That he'd agreed to it exactly for this purpose—to get her to sit there and wait for him while he went on his inter views alone.

She was working up a full head of steam about being duped when the phone rang and Josh's voice came in answer to her, “Bailey Holistic Center.”

“Megan? It's Josh. Look, I'm sorry I missed our appointment but there's been a change of plans for today.”

“Oh?” she said icily, certain he was on the verge of telling her he'd had second thoughts about her over seeing his investigation and had gone out alone.

“I'm stuck at the office. Apparently word got around over the weekend about the grave in your backyard and I have a whole slew of folks already lined up to tell me what they think they know about it. It looks like I'll have
to stay here all day and hear 'em out just in case there's some thing to what some of them have to say.”

“Are you just making this up to get out of the acupuncture again?”

“You're welcome to keep the rest of our date today and come over to see for yourself. You can sit in on this stuff if you want to. But no, I'm not just pulling your leg to get out of the acupuncture. I'm swamped.”

Megan's head of steam diffused and she fought the ridiculous skitter of some thing sensual that went through her at the thought of Josh
pulling her leg
in a more literal sense.

“So that's where you are? At your office? You haven't been out talking to people without me?”

“I haven't been out at all. I stopped in here on my way to your office to check on things, see if I had any messages, and there was already a whole group of people waiting for me. More have shown up since then and I've given up thinking I'm getting out of here any time today.”

“And I can sit in on the inter views?”

“Be my guest. Millie is trying to get some kind of order going right now and then she'll start bringing them in. Come on over if you want.”

“I'll be right there,” she said without hesitation. “Don't talk to anybody else until I am.”

She heard him laugh slightly. “Yes, ma'am,” he said facetiously.

But Megan was in too much of a hurry to make amends for her tactless command. She was anxious to
get to his office before he inter viewed more people than it seemed like he already had.

So, rather than addressing her lack of tact, she merely hung up and charged out of her office.

Of course even as she did she didn't admit to herself that a large part of her eagerness and excitement was due to the fact that she was about to get to see Josh again.

But some where around the peripheries of her mind she knew it anyway.

 

Center Street was lined on both sides by picturesque old buildings that housed shops and small businesses. Some were clap board, some brick. Some were one story, some two, and a few three. All were lovingly kept up and adorned with personal touches like bright blue awnings or gingham curtains in the windows or flower pots on the sills.

These quaint establishments ran the length of Elk Creek's long main thorough fare until it turned into a circle drive around the town square. Then the buildings were larger and more austere—the tall steepled church, the red brick Molner Mansion that was now the town's medical facility, and the court house.

Like the Molner Mansion, the court house, too, was a red brick building. It stood a stately four stories high and was the site of the public works department, the post office, the mayor's office, the court, the city council meeting place, the sheriff's office and the jail—all two cells of it.

As Megan cut across the town square to get to the court house she could already see people standing in
clusters around the entrance. It was as if the discovery in her backyard had prompted a social event.

Her approach caused a ripple of whispers—most of them about who she was—followed by silence as all eyes turned toward her.

Megan ignored her on lookers and went straight to the court house door. When she reached it one man opened it for her and she murmured a thank-you before going inside.

There were even more people filling the building's lobby, nearly surrounding the central information desk, standing around like reporters waiting for a news-break.

Their reaction to her was much the same as their outside counter parts and again Megan paid them little attention as she went to the sheriff's office—the first door on the left.

The small, stark office was also jammed from the door to the reception counter that cut the room in half. Behind the counter an extremely short, chubby woman with pewter-gray hair was shouting over the voices.

“Josh'll see you all in time. Just take one of these numbers I'm writin' on these pieces of paper and wait your turn.”

“Are you Millie?” Megan asked when the older woman at tempted to give her a number.

“'Course,” the woman answered as if it were a silly question.

“I'm Megan Bailey,” Megan said, hoping she wouldn't have to insist on seeing Josh out of turn.

She didn't. Millie did a double take, then said, “You can go on in.”

“Thanks.”

Megan squeezed through the crowd to get around the counter, into the clear space that ran from the back side of it to a gray metal desk she assumed was Millie's. The desk stood directly in front of a door where
Sheriff
was lettered on the glazed glass in the upper half. Megan knocked on the wooden frame that surrounded it.

“Yeah,” came the impatient call from inside.

Megan opened the door only enough to slide through it before closing it again behind her.

“Be with you in a minute,” Josh said from where he was standing at a file cabinet in the far corner of the room, looking through the top drawer.

His back was to her and since he didn't so much as glance over his shoulder to see who had entered his office, Megan was left with the rear view of him. Which meant impressively broad shoulders encased in another crisp uniform shirt, a torso that narrowed in a sharp V to his waist where his shirt was tucked into tight jeans, and that Greek god derriere that she suddenly imagined naked.

If anything was worse than imagining him kissing her, it was imagining his bare rear end, and Megan shuddered slightly at her own impropriety, yanking her gaze away and forcing herself to study the spare office instead.

His desk was an old wooden schoolteacher's desk with a plain, functional vinyl chair behind it. There was that sole gray metal filing cabinet he was still rifling
through, two visitor's chairs in front of the desk, and an over stuffed tan sofa against the opposite wall. And that was about it. There weren't any pictures to corrupt the eggshell paint and the floor was covered by a serviceable indoor-outdoor carpet of industrial blue.

He did have a big window, though, that Megan guessed would look out onto Center Street if the blinds hadn't been pulled—probably to keep the gathering of towns folk from watching what was going on in the office today.

Josh finally turned away from the filing cabinet.

He was freshly shaved and Megan caught a whiff of his after shave. But she tried not to notice how nice it smelled. Just as she tried to stick to her guns about so many other things when it came to him. Like how exception ally well put-together were the sharp angles and planes of his face. Like how tall and straight he stood. Like the fact that his eyes were piercing, and that merely being in that small room with him—even for the reason she was in that small room with him—made her feel more alive, more centered, more content, more complete…

Back to being crazy, she thought, working hard at regaining some semblance of her sanity.

“Good morning,” she said in belated greeting then, her tone business like.

“Is it still only morning? Feels like I've already been here for hours.”

“Have you seen that many people?”
Without me,
she wanted to add but she didn't.

“Half a dozen or so.”

“Have they told you anything I should know?”

“Most of them were more interested in what they could get out of me in the way of gossip than in telling me anything.”

“And the ones who had some thing to say?” Megan persisted.

He gave her a sly smile and answered with a question of his own, “Are you sure your parents are alive and well and the same people they were before you left Elk Creek?”

“Excuse me?”

“So far some of the theories I've heard are that your mother did in your father and ran off with another man, and that your father did in your mother and ran off with another woman.”

“No, they're definitely alive and well and the same people they've always been.”

“And seeing as how the skeleton is human we can rule out Merle Sutter's claim that your folks stole his blue-ribbon-winning horse Matilda, killed her in some heathen ritual—his words—and buried the bones in the yard.” Josh scrunched up his handsome face, scratched the nape of his neck and said, “You can see how my day's gone so far.”

“And there are so many more waiting to talk to you.”

“Don't remind me. I think somebody declared today a holiday and forgot to tell me. Half the town seems to have taken the day off just to come in and solve this mystery for me.”

“Only half?” Megan joked.

“Maybe two-thirds.”

Josh seemed to actually see her for the first time then, giving her the once-over from top to toe to top again. “But you're looking like a little ray of sunshine,” he said with a note of appreciation in his tone.

Okay, maybe she
had
paid particular attention to her appearance today. But not because of Josh, she'd assured herself. She'd opted for the bright yellow jumper that went over a white, long-sleeved under-dress because she hadn't wanted to meet her neighbors for the first time in so many years not looking cheery and put-together. And yes, she'd coiled her hair into a knot on the back of her head and jabbed two ornate chop stick-like skewers through it because she thought it gave her a somewhat more professional look. It hadn't had anything to do with Josh.

Even if he had popped into her mind a time or two—or three or four—along the way…

“I didn't want to look sloppy,” she said in answer to his ray of sunshine comment.

“You definitely don't look sloppy. You look nice.”

“Thanks,” she said, wishing that didn't please her as much as it did. “Shouldn't we get started?” she asked when he went on studying her as if he'd for got ten that he was here to do a job and there were a lot of people waiting to see him.

“Sure,” he said with what seemed to be a jolt out of some sort of reverie. Then he nodded toward the visitor's chairs. “Why don't you pull one of those around to the corner back here so you can see who I'm talking to. And I think we'd better set some ground rules.”

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