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Authors: Marianne Stillings

Sighs Matter

BOOK: Sighs Matter
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SIGHS MATTER

 

MARIANNE STILLINGS

 

 
 

For Sharon

 

 

You knocked on my door and invited me
to your birthday party, remember?
You said you wanted to get to know me better,
because I seemed so . . . normal.
Thank you for sticking around all these years,
even after learning the truth.

 

Sliding her arms around his neck, she kissed him back, letting him do with his hand whatever he wanted.

And what he apparently wanted was to get her naked.

In seconds her blouse was open, her bra unclasped, and Taylor’s mouth was on her. Claire felt her head spin as hard need took hold of her.

“Tell me what you like,” he whispered as he bit the lobe of her ear. “Tell me what you want.”

“Listen to me,” she panted. “Please. I have to tell you . . .”

“What?”

“I had fun with you today,” she said,
her voice low and husky. “I enjoy your company—”

“Same here.”

“But . . .”

He eyed her. “But we’re not going to have sex,” he finished for her. “Are we?”

 

Surveillance
Sir Lancelot’s secret lookout.

 

August
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.”

“Gag me.”

“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?”

“Nothing.”

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?”

“Yeah.”

“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.”

“What do you think? Is the Lancaster woman in any kind of danger? Is Claire?” His heart skittered a little at the thought.

There was a moment of silence, then, “I hope not, but from what I’ve read so far, I just don’t know.”

Down in the barnyard, Claire finished loading boxes, then twisted, raising her arms in a lazy stretch. As she did, the screen door at the back of the house eased open, and for a moment, Taylor expected to see a man emerge, a boyfriend maybe. His fingers froze on the binoculars.

But it wasn’t a man who appeared, just a mostly white calico cat. Taylor resumed chewing his gum and relaxed his grip on the binoculars.

He’d forgotten about her snooty cat. The feline in question slinked down the steps, blinking as though the sunlight were a personal affront.

What in the hell was that damn thing’s name? Princess? Fluffy? Happy? Dopey? No, wait. Those were dwarfs. It was Ag-something. Agatha? That was it.

“. . . going to be okay with this,” Soldier was saying, “since it’s Claire, and you two have a sort of a history?”

“Not a problem.”

“You’re
sure
.” Soldier’s voice carried a note of caution in it. “Because Betsy and I, well, we thought maybe you and Claire—”

“Been there, done that, bought the T-shirt, bad fit, donated it to Goodwill. The end.”

“Well, as long as you’re sure,” Soldier drawled.

“I am. Tonight, e-mail me what you can on Mortimer.”

“Copy.” There was a hint of defeat in Soldier’s voice. Then, “Okay, apparently this whole thing got started from a tip. A woman. She called from a pay phone in Port Henry, wouldn’t give her name.”

“Mrs. Lancaster?”

“Possibly, but there’s no evidence to support it. However, if this woman’s accusations are valid, Mortimer’s involved in conspiracy, fraud, maybe even homicide.”

“They’re playing our song.”

“Yeah,” Soldier said. “Let’s see if we can catch this guy with his hands in the cookie jar before somebody gets hurt. Uh, Tayo?”

“Yeah?”

“If you ever
do
want to talk about it . . .”

“I won’t.”

As Taylor jammed the cell phone back in his pocket, Claire shoved the last box farther into the bed of the truck and brought the tailgate up, slamming it so hard, the screech-and-bang echoed through the clearing to where he lay hidden in the high grass on the hill behind the farm. Turning, she went back into the farmhouse.

In the time he’d been flat on his belly watching the place, the sun had rolled down from the top of the sky and into the August mist drifting above the horizon like a windblown veil. It was a nice summer afternoon, just the kind of day a man liked to spend lying naked on cool sheets—with a woman.

Speaking of whom, the kitchen door swung open, and Claire stepped out, walking down the steps to the truck. She tossed her leather handbag through the open window and onto the passenger side, then removed her hat and set it in the huge wheelbarrow resting under an apple tree near the driveway. When she turned in his direction to fluff her hair, he finally saw her face full on.

He shook his head and snapped his gum.

Yeah, it was a damn good thing he was over her, all right. As a professional, there was no way in hell he’d let his personal feelings interfere with a case, especially when it could turn deadly. Claire and her aunt deserved his vigilance and instincts because the women were probably unaware of Mortimer’s proclivities, and with so much at stake, it put them in a world of danger.

Claire set the last cardboard box next to the first three she’d plopped onto her best friend’s Oriental carpet, then eased back and let her body settle into the velvet cushions of the camel-back sofa.

“There you go, my dear,” she said to Betsy. “These old books and magazines should keep you company on those long nights when your husband leaves you to go traipsing all over the Northwest looking for bad guys.”

Claire watched as Betsy McKennitt, radiant in her eighth month of pregnancy, surveyed the four boxes next to the coffee table. Moving her swollen body toward the adjacent wing chair, she attempted to sit, but given her advanced state of pregnancy, performed what appeared to be some kind of reverse-thrust docking maneuver.

Resting her hands on her tummy, she huffed out an exhausted breath and panted, “No lung . . . capacity. I’ll be glad when the baby drops . . . so I can breathe . . . again.”

She moved her right hand around to her lower back as she stretched the left toward a pink Depression glass candy dish sitting on the coffee table. Stirring the peanut M&M’s noisily with a straight index finger, she finally found the one she wanted, plucked it out, and tossed it into her mouth. Munching happily, she glanced at Claire. “Cute earrings. Are they new?”

Claire’s fingertips went to her earlobe as she tried to recall which pair she’d put on that morning. Ah, the beaded dangles. “Thanks. They’re my new faves.”

Betsy tossed another candy into her mouth. “What do you have now, like ten bazillion pairs? You are such an earring slut.”

“Pity me.” Claire sighed. “I’m an addict. Some women collect shoes, some collect handbags, some collect men. Me, I’d sell my body for a cute pair of earrings.”

“You staying at your aunt’s farm tonight, or going back to Seattle?” The candy dish rattled again.

“Going back.” Claire glanced at the clock on the mantel. “It’s almost six,” she said, thinking of the three-hour drive that lay ahead of her. “I’m not on rotation at the hospital until Tuesday, so I’m taking advantage of the weekend off and painting the master bathroom. Once the roofers come next week, the Seattle house will finally be ready to put on the market.”

Since she didn’t live there—and hadn’t for twenty years—and since Zach certainly never would, what was the point in hanging on to the old place? She’d only kept it this long because she couldn’t bear to relinquish the part of her childhood the house represented. The part when she’d been young and innocent, had a whole family, and had known no fear.

But she was older now, maybe old enough to let her parents, and her memories, finally be at rest.

Betsy crunched another candy. “New topic. How’s your love life?” Betsy’s hazel eyes narrowed on her.

“What love life?”

“Guess that answers that.” She searched the bowl of M&M’s, snared a red one. “It’s Friday night, Dr. Hunter. You’re young and beautiful, and very, very single.” She sent Claire a look of exasperation. “Any men in your life at all, even in your wildest dreams?”

“If there were, you’d be the first to know.”

Her friend’s lips quirked into a wry grin. “Maybe you should try one of those online things. Don’t they have one for doctors? Hot-docs-dot-com or something?”

Claire snorted a laugh. “I’m not a hot doc, and I think those sites are, well, not for me is probably the most diplomatic thing I can say.”

“But aren’t you looking for one? A hot doc, I mean?”

“I’d have more luck with a hot dog,” she said dryly, “if you get my drift.”

Betsy snorted. “Oh, come on. You’re just not trying hard enough. Men fall all over you. I’ve seen it happen.”

BOOK: Sighs Matter
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