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Asking For Trouble Millie Criswell Take a cozy bed-and-breakfast, a missing guest and a mysterious stranger…throw in a pile of bones, a past-due bank loan and the cops…and it's no wonder innkeeper Beth Randall needs a vacation from her life!Her dizzy aunts mean the world to Beth, but could their dabblings in the occult have finally gone too far? Now handsome Dr. Brad Donovan has arrived on her doorstep looking for his missing father-last seen here at the Two Sisters Ordinary. Sure, Beth would love to explore the sudden attraction between them-but not if it means implicating her family in murder! Dating the doctor could be fun, but it's probably just, well…asking for trouble. Praise for the Work of Millie Criswell No Strings Attached “The popular and funny Criswell turns in an enjoyable light romance.” —Booklist “Criswell offers another great blend of romance and laughter.” —The Best Reviews Body Language “For an amusing and heart-warming story, be sure to check out Body Language.” —Romance Reviews Today “An entertaining…second chance at romance starring a delightful protagonist…. Readers will enjoy this love at the UN tale.” —Harriet Klausner, reviewcenter.com “Simply a joy to read.” —Kathy Boswell, The Best Reviews Everyone loves Millie! “For charming, outrageous fun, read Millie Criswell!” —New York Times bestselling author Carly Phillips “A book by Millie Criswell is better than chocolate. Don’t miss it!” —USA TODAY bestselling author Leanne Banks “Romantic comedy has a new star, and her name is Millie Criswell.” —New York Times bestselling author Janet Evanovich Also by Millie Criswell From HQN Books No Strings Attached Body Language Other Millie Criswell books from Harlequin Suddenly Single Staying Single A Western Family Christmas “Christmas Eve” The Pregnant Ms. Potter The Marrying Man The Wedding Planner Asking for Trouble Millie Criswell www.millsandboon.co.uk (http://www.millsandboon.co.uk) To Karen Solem Thank you for your kindness, generosity of spirit, support and most of all, your brilliance! CONTENTS CHAPTER ONE (#u114026bd-3069-5d4b-b236-af0e5a4e31a9) CHAPTER TWO (#uef3de35a-91ef-5a6e-85f8-854edcf60c5a) CHAPTER THREE (#ue79fd104-ac28-5937-a487-e37f6b6a9565) CHAPTER FOUR (#ue59b00ab-8b09-541b-8c8a-89a1bb1fac51) CHAPTER FIVE (#uf6faf71e-6d54-54cd-99c0-9df6a8dc65f7) CHAPTER SIX (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER SEVEN (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER EIGHT (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER NINE (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER TEN (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER ELEVEN (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER TWELVE (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER THIRTEEN (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER FOURTEEN (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER FIFTEEN (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER SIXTEEN (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER SEVENTEEN (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER EIGHTEEN (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER NINETEEN (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER TWENTY (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER ONE IVY SWINDEL WAS ADDICTED to porn. While most seventy-eight-year-old ladies were crocheting afghans or sipping tea from china cups, Beth Randall’s great-aunt was viewing Internet pornography. The fact that the spinster’s father had been a Methodist minister and the old lady still referred to sex as “matters of the flesh,” made her behavior seem outlandish, if not downright abnormal. But then, no one ever accused Ivy or her younger sister, Iris, of being normal. And at any rate, Beth considered normal to be highly overrated. “I found the most interesting Web site this morning,” the older woman stated at breakfast, blue eyes sparkling, and grinning like a naughty schoolgirl. “It’s called ‘Balls of Steel.’ Isn’t that colorful?” Since Beth assumed the Web site had nothing to do with bowling or baseball, or any other kind of vertically played sport, she smiled tightly. Her focus shifted to her great-aunt Iris. She felt somewhat relieved that the woman’s only addiction seemed to be Earl Grey tea, though she did harbor a worrisome fascination with witchcraft, which had the gossip-mongers in town working overtime. But even that didn’t seem nearly as disturbing as the one Ivy had for naked men. Her great-aunt had never admitted the reason she was so fascinated with male genitalia, but Beth suspected it had something to do with her desire to recapture her youth. The old woman had been the wild child of the Swindel family, and the bane of her father’s existence. She had never lacked for male companionship, or so she claimed. Ivy had admitted in a roundabout way that she’d sown her share of wild oats—a shocking concept in her day and age, when women were expected to be circumspect and ladylike—but had never found a man she deemed worthy enough to marry. Apparently, Ivy was still looking. Since that fateful day last year when Beth had given Ivy her old computer and she’d discovered the Internet, Ivy had become fascinated, then obsessed, and finally incorrigible, not to mention unrepentant, about visiting pornographic Web sites. And no matter how many times Beth had teased, cajoled and begged her not to, Ivy hadn’t listened. Fortunately, she seemed interested only in naked men, nothing more sordid. One had to be grateful for small favors, if one had an elderly aunt into porn. Beth placed a plate of hot scones, fresh from the inn’s kitchen, on the small round mahogany table in her aunts’ suite of rooms on the fourth floor. Sipping the hot tea, she felt lucky to have these wonderful ladies in her life. The Two Sisters Ordinary, named in honor of her aunts, had been the Swindel sisters’ former home. Iris and Ivy had encouraged Beth to turn the historic Victorian into an inn so that others might enjoy it. She, in turn, had given them a life estate. As was her usual custom, Beth proceeded to fill her aunts in on the day’s upcoming events. “We have a new couple checking in today. The Rogers are from Columbus, Ohio. He’s a dentist. They’re coming to celebrate their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary.” “How wonderful! Will they be staying long?” Aunt Iris asked with no small amount of enthusiasm. Her aunt was an intriguing mixture of Mary Poppins and the Wicked Witch of the West and was quite possibly the most upbeat person Beth had ever met, though she was a stickler for the proprieties. Good manners were expected, as was circumspect behavior, which usually created problems where Ivy was concerned. Ivy Swindel didn’t know the meaning of the word circumspect. “Just two days, possibly three,” she replied, hoping for three because she needed the extra money. “Is the man well endowed?” Ivy wanted to know, leaning forward to stare intently at Beth, who bit her lower lip to keep from laughing. “All the young men on the Web sites I visit seem to be. I do hope so. Maybe we can get those Chippendale dancers to come stay at the inn. Wouldn’t that be lovely? I’ve been saving my dollar bills, just in case.” Iris gasped. “Sister, shame on you! What kind of talk is that, and in front of your niece? Children have very impressionable minds. I’ve told you that numerous times.” At thirty-four, Beth didn’t think her mind was all that impressionable—warped, maybe; confused, at times; filled with self-doubt, always—she had her ex-husband to thank for that. Greg Randall’s constant criticism and verbal abuse had taken its toll. “You’re so stupid, Beth! Why the hell did I ever marry you? If I want your opinion, I’ll ask for it.” “I haven’t met Mr. and Mrs. Rogers yet,” Beth explained. And she certainly had no idea about any of her male guests’ physical attributes, nor did she want to know. “This is their first visit to the inn.” And would probably be their last, if Ivy started staring at the poor guy’s…um…equipment, and she wasn’t referring to dental drills. It was hard to believe that this male-nudity-addicted spinster was the same sweet old lady who used to read bedtime stories to her. “I’m also expecting a young honeymoon couple to arrive at the end of the week,” she announced. “Joan and Charles Murray are from Virginia. They sounded very nice on the phone.” “Oh good, that’s sure to liven things up around here. Put them in the room with the big brass head-board, so we can—” “Ivy Swindel!” Iris shook her head in warning. “Merciful heavens! That will be quite enough. What would Papa think to hear you say such things? I’m sure he’s rolling over in his grave at this very moment.” Looking hopeful, her older sister grinned. “Do you think so?” Sniffing the air several times at the acrid odor filling the air, Beth scrunched her nose in distaste. “What’s that awful smell?” The lemon sachet, which usually permeated the large suite of rooms, had been replaced by something that smelled suspiciously like marijuana. Not that she’d ever smoked the potent weed, but her ex-husband had indulged, from time to time. “Incense, dear. I’m trying out a new incantation and thought it would help set the mood.” “Iris is trying to raise the dead.” Ivy grinned, which increased the multitude of wrinkles on a face that looked like a well-traveled road map. “I told her to start with Phinneas Pickens. That old coot could use some resuscitation. Why, I ran into him at the bank the other day and he pretended he didn’t remember that I’d taught him eighth-grade English. Can you imagine? The man must be senile.” Iris was trying to raise the dead? Why on earth would she want to do that? Beth decided she might have to reconsider which aunt was the nuttier of the two. “Maybe Mr. Pickens is growing a bit forgetful,” she offered, glancing at the ormolu clock on the mantel and knowing what she’d suggested was very unlikely. The man had a mind like a steel trap. “At any rate, he’ll be here soon to inspect the inn for the loan I’ve applied for.” And she had no doubt he’d remember every debt she owed. Beth wasn’t sure what she would do if she didn’t get the additional funds or how long she could keep operating the inn. Business had been slow these past six months. And though she had bookings for the upcoming Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, she wasn’t sure the revenue would be enough to sustain her through winter, when tourism slowed down in the rural Pennsylvania township. Mediocrity received its share of snow, but it wasn’t reliable enough to base an entire industry on; and so the skiers and snowboarders went farther north, leaving only the die-hard antique lovers and Civil War buffs to spend tourist dollars in the quaint community. “I wish we were able to help out more financially, Beth dear,” Iris said, biting her scone daintily, and then wiping crumbs from her lips with an embroidered napkin. “We never meant for this house to become a burden when we gave it to you. Did we, sister?” Ivy shook her head. “Don’t be silly. I love this house. But it takes time to grow a business. There were repairs and alterations that needed to be done before we could open as an inn. This relic is a century old, after all.” Iris still didn’t look convinced and Beth patted her hand reassuringly. “You’ll never know how grateful I am that you and Aunt Ivy chose to share your home with me. I don’t know what I would have done if you hadn’t made the offer. You’ve always been there for me.” Their generous gift had been a godsend to Beth, whose life had fallen apart after finding out that her husband of three years had been having an affair with one of his coworkers. Greg was the athletic director for Mediocrity High School and head coach of the Miners football team. Penelope Miller, his paramour, was a physical-education teacher who coached girl’s basketball and soccer. Beth supposed their pairing had been inevitable. She’d never shared her husband’s enthusiasm for sports, while her husband’s lover fit his fantasy image of a female jock to a tee: big boobs, long legs and no brains, or at least none Beth could discern. What seemed disastrous at the time had actually turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to her. Greg’s nasty moods and the venom that spewed forth from his mouth were now Penelope’s problem to deal with. They deserved each other, as far as Beth was concerned. Unwilling to turn tail and run after her husband’s affair had become public knowledge, Beth had focused all of her energies on opening the inn, which had given her a chance to regain her self-worth and sanity, and a reason to get her life back in order, which hadn’t been easy on many levels. But she was determined to succeed. “This house was just too much for a couple of old ladies to manage,” Ivy admitted. “And you love this Victorian as much as we do, so it seemed only fitting that you should have it. We wanted the house to remain in the family, and you’re the only family we have left, aside from your mother, who is quite content with her life in California.” Thank God for that! Beth loved her mother, but she didn’t like her very much and had no intention of living any closer to the woman than three thousand miles. Margaret Shaw had a nasty disposition and made everyone around her miserable. Beth had thirty-four years of good reasons to dread her visits, which fortunately were few and far between. They argued over the most trivial things whenever they were together. Margaret took great delight in telling Beth in excruciating detail every little thing that was wrong with her. And she had a very long list! “This house was the best part of my childhood and holds so many wonderful memories.” “You mean like the time you tried to help Elmer Forrest paint the front porch and ended up dumping a whole gallon of paint on his boots?” Ivy laughed and Beth smiled. “Mr. Forrest wouldn’t talk to me for months after that.” “Elmer felt badly about his behavior after we explained about your parents’ divorce.” Thinking back to the heartache her parents’ divorce had caused, Beth sighed. She’d often wondered if she’d been the cause of their breakup, but her aunts had assured her that Margaret and Melvin Shaw’s failed marriage had been due to her father’s wandering eye. She hadn’t fully understood what that meant until the day her mother had explained in graphic, horrifying detail just what her father had done, shattering her childish illusions about a man she had worshipped and adored. “My dear, are you all right?” Iris asked, her brow creased with worry. “You look positively glum.” Forcing a smile, Beth nodded, picking up the thread of their conversation. “Once I get the loan I’ll be able to finish the landscaping and pay off the bulk of the debt I’ve accumulated trying to bring the inn up to code, which is why I intend to bribe Mr. Pickens with a jar of your damson plum jam. Mrs. Pickens is wild about it.” Ivy pursed her lips. “Humph! If you ask me, Finnola Pickens thinks too highly of herself. She was a very poor student—didn’t know a verb from a preposition, as I recall.” Neither did Beth, but she wasn’t about to admit that to the former schoolteachers. English, and grammar in particular, had never been her forte, though she adored reading, especially romantic novels. At least relationships in romance novels always worked out; they were required to have happy endings. Too bad real life wasn’t like that. “We don’t think you should show Mr. Pickens the cellar, dear. It’s so cold and musty down there. We think it would be best if you just ignored it completely. Don’t we, Ivy?” Iris appeared uneasy as she glanced at her sister, twisting her napkin into a tight knot. “It’s so damp down there,” Ivy agreed. “And you know how much you dislike it.” Dislike wasn’t quite the word Beth would have used. Hated. Despised. Abhorred. Those words fit so much better. “True. But I’m desperate. Don’t worry. I’m taking Buster with me for moral support.” Aunt Ivy tsked, and then shook her head. “But you’re terrified of the cellar, and that dog is useless as a watchdog. Why, he practically licks Mr. Jessup to death every time he brings the mail.” Buster was no Lassie, that was certain, but the black Labrador was the only good thing she’d gotten out of her divorce settlement with Greg, and Beth loved him. He’d given her unconditional love, something she’d never received from her ex—or any other man, for that matter. “Don’t worry. We’ll be just fine. I’ll be back up later this afternoon to let you know how my meeting with Mr. Pickens went. Until then, try to stay out of trouble.” The two old ladies glanced at each other before breaking into a fit of giggles. HER RIGHT HAND TREMBLING over the rusty handles of the root cellar’s wide double doors, Beth felt her heartbeat crashing against the walls of her chest like a wild hummingbird and nausea rise in her stomach. Fearing eruption was imminent, she breathed deeply several times to calm herself. No way did she subscribe to that whole “when the going gets tough” scenario. She’d never gotten over her fear of the dark, dank, spooky place. Not after accidentally being locked in the cellar at the age of six by her aunts’ cleaning lady. But dammit! Mr. Pickens would be arriving at any moment to make his inspection and she needed that jam! Beth might be chicken, but she wasn’t stupid. At Buster’s morose whine, she inhaled deeply, and then swallowed with some difficulty. “We’re going, we’re going. Just be patient.” But she couldn’t get her feet uprooted. Her legs were shaking so badly the soles of her tennis shoes had attached themselves to the lawn like Mrs. Abernathy’s ugly pink flamingos next door. “I can do this!” A familiar feeling of panic started setting in. “Just pull the doors open,” she told herself. “You haven’t got all day.” Buster barked, apparently agreeing with her. “Oh, shut up! Who asked you?” Clasping sweaty fingers around the handles, she pulled up, holding her breath and praying the ghost of alleged murder victim Lyle McMurtry wasn’t waiting on the other side to grab her. Feeling something furry on the back of her leg, she screamed, but then realizing it was only the dog, she frowned at the grinning animal. “Stop that or you’ll make me pee my pants!” As she threw open the doors, Buster rushed in ahead of her, and Beth pointed the flashlight down the stairwell of the cellar, which smelled like hundred-year-old onions, despite the fact that none had been kept there for years. Wrinkling her nose in disgust, she took her first faltering step. “I can do this! I can do this!” Think of that woman from Tomb Raider, who ventured into scary places and kicked everyone’s butt. The wooden step creaked, and she halted in midstep, her heart pounding loudly in her ears. She was tempted to flee—so much for Tomb Raider—but knew she couldn’t. Her aunts were counting on her to get that loan. Where would Ivy and Iris live if she lost their house? Where would she? Directing the narrow beam of light into the darkened room, she scanned the area, hoping she wouldn’t discover a nest of spiders, or worse, rats hovering on the hand-hewn beams overhead. If there was one thing she hated worse than spiders, it was rats—big black ugly rats with skinny pink tails and gnawing sharp teeth. Suddenly something scurried across her foot and she jumped back, nearly losing her balance. The flashlight flew out of her hand and dropped to the earthen floor with a thud. “Oh hell!” In its beam she saw the small, hideous face of a rodent, its whiskers twitching and tiny feet pawing at the metal stick. “Shoo!” She clapped her hands loudly to scare it off, hoping upon hope that it was the only one she would find. The hell with Lara Croft; Beth was no Indiana Jones! The inn’s cellar had a rather nefarious reputation. It was rumored that a man named Lyle McMurtry had been murdered in it over fifty years ago. To make matters worse, the alleged victim had once been engaged to Beth’s great-aunt Iris, which made the eccentric old woman and her sister suspect to the residents of Mediocrity. Everyone in town knew that Iris and Ivy were inseparable; where one went, the other followed. Did that include murdering former fiancés? A chill went through Beth, but she shook off the ridiculous notion that her aunts might be murderers and that McMurtry’s ghost might be lurking about. Picking up the flashlight, she continued her surveillance. Row upon row of her aunts’ preserves, pickles and canned goods lined the rickety old shelves that were nailed to the walls of the room. A vintage 1950s rusted lawn mower and other assorted gardening utensils hugged one corner, and crates and boxes of every size and shape imaginable were stacked six feet high, making Beth aware of the fire hazard they presented. The ancient dwelling, though up to fire code, would go up like a tinderbox if those cartons ignited. She made a mental note to discard them as soon as she could make the arrangements. Grabbing a jar of damson plum jam off the shelf, she dusted it on the leg of her jeans, calling out to the dog, but he refused to come. “Buster, Buster, where are you?” She didn’t intend to spend one more minute than necessary in the bowels of the Ordinary. “Let’s go, boy. I’ve got a treat for you.” But still the dog refused to heed the command. Cursing softly beneath her breath, Beth moved cautiously toward the other end of the cellar, directing the shaft of light to reveal an old wooden work-table. There, resting on top was a small metal camp shovel. She searched her memory, finally remembering where she had seen the tool before. It had been the day her aunts had been arrested for shoplifting from Herb Meyer’s Hardware Store. On a whim Aunt Ivy had secreted the shovel beneath her coat to see if she could get away with stealing it. She hadn’t. And it had taken all of Beth’s persuasive powers and a promise to buy all of her gardening implements from Meyer’s Hardware, even though they were twice as expensive as Builder’s World, before the man agreed to drop the charges. Guiding the beam of light to her right, she discovered Buster frantically clawing the earthen floor. “Stop that, you naughty dog!” Concerned the inquisitive pooch might accidentally expose and damage some old water pipes—a repair she could hardly afford—she moved closer to investigate. “What’re you doing, Buster? I told you we have to leave. Now!” Flashing the light on the dog’s find, she gasped when she saw what looked to be a large, dirt-encrusted bone and stared in openmouthed horror as Buster’s digging produced more skeletal remains. She inched closer, unable to take her eyes off the ghastly discovery. “We don’t think you should show Mr. Pickens the cellar, dear. It’s so cold and musty down there. We think it would be best if you just ignored it completely.” Her aunts’ emphatic insistence that Beth avoid the cellar came flooding back and she started to get a really bad feeling in the pit of her stomach. It might have been the four scones slathered with strawberry jam that she’d eaten that morning, but she didn’t think so. She clasped her churning stomach, feeling as if she was going to throw up or faint—she couldn’t decide which—and inhaled deeply. Why had her aunts advised her to avoid the cellar? It was pitch-black. The flashlight, waving up and down because her hand shook so badly, didn’t shed much light or meaning as to what exactly she was looking at. Or maybe it was the fact that she didn’t want to believe what she was looking at. She grasped it tightly with both hands to steady it, and herself. What were those bones doing in her cellar? And who had put them there? Her aunts were the only ones who ever ventured into the bowels of the Two Sisters Ordinary on a regular basis. They were fond of canning applesauce, putting up jams and jellies, and they stored the canned goods in the cellar, where the temperature was cooler. “Iris is trying to raise the dead.” “Lyle McMurtry.” Beth whispered the name, then shook her head. The possibility was just too ridiculous to consider. Or was it? CHAPTER TWO BETH CONTINUED to gape at the bones, and what she was thinking was…well, unthinkable. Iris and Ivy had been acting stranger than usual of late, if that was possible. The old ladies had a reputation for eccentric behavior, and for being a bit off their rockers. She couldn’t deny that they were both somewhat addled. Shivers of foreboding tripped down her spine as she tried to decide what to do about the bones. After a few moments, Beth came to a decision: They had to be reburied. If anyone else found them, it would reflect very badly on her aunts. But what if they’re guilty? What if Iris had done away with Lyle McMurtry and then had enlisted the aid of her sister to bury the poor guy in the cellar, as everyone suspected? As hideous as that thought was, it had to be considered. If she reburied the bones, she’d be an accessory after the fact. Hiding evidence was a crime, not to mention immoral. But what other choice did she have? The old ladies were already suspects. Sheriff Murdock had made no secret that he thought they were responsible for McMurtry’s disappearance. And she was responsible for them. They’d always been there for her; she couldn’t abandon them now. Picking up the camp shovel, she set to her task, vowing to get to the bottom of the mystery, and knowing that until she did, the bones would have to remain hidden. It might not be the wisest decision, but it was the best one she could come up with at the moment. Beth knew she should go to the sheriff and report her find. But how could she? The whole scenario sounded crazy. And a reinvestigation into a fifty-year-old matter could jeopardize the lives of her aunts. Innocent people were convicted every day of crimes they didn’t commit. As nutty as the old women were, she loved them dearly and had to protect them, which is why she couldn’t go to Iris and Ivy with her suspicions. It would hurt them tremendously. But what if they’re guilty? She couldn’t think about that now. The officer from the bank was due to arrive at any moment. Once Mr. Pickens completed his inspection of the inn she would sit down and think long and hard about what she was going to do. But she wouldn’t mention them to anyone. If Mr. Pickens found out about the bones, she could kiss her loan goodbye. The wind whipped a spindly pine branch against the narrow dirt-covered window and Beth nearly jumped out of her skin. But no wonder she was nervous. She had a pile of buried bones in her cellar and a couple of loony aunts who were looking pretty guilty of a fifty-year-old crime. Feeling chilled to the bone—poor choice of words—Beth proceeded with her task. A few moments later, a glimmer beneath the worktable caught her attention. Dropping the shovel, she moved toward it, kicking the dirt with the toe of her shoe until the object was revealed. The gold locket was tarnished and appeared very old. She picked it up and, using her thumbnail as a wedge, attempted to pry it open. The lid finally popped to disclose two small black-and-white photographs. One was unmistakably her aunt Iris, looking young, radiant and happier than she’d ever seen her. The other was of a handsome, smiling man Beth assumed was Lyle McMurtry. She stared at the locket in disbelief, shaking her head at the full import of what she’d just discovered—another piece of incriminating evidence. Was this proof positive that her aunts were somehow involved? The locket was obviously her aunt Iris’s, and now here it was at the scene of the crime, if a crime had actually been committed. Not only was she hideously lacking Lara Croft’s chutzpah, she apparently had little of Nancy Drew’s flair for mystery, either. Dropping the piece of antique jewelry into the front pocket of her jeans, she got down on her hands and knees and began clawing the earth in the same fashion the dog had minutes before. She was filled with apprehension and dread, worrying and wondering what other items she would find that might shed light on what had occurred in this basement so long ago. At first, her search came up empty and she breathed a sigh of relief. But then, just as she was about to give up, she spotted something white. Yanking hard to free it, she discovered a piece of old linenlike material. There appeared to be splotches of dark brown covering it. Blood? She swallowed hard. Paint? She prayed fervently, unwilling to take the chance it wasn’t connected. Beth gathered up the remaining pieces of material, which looked to be part of a man’s shirt, and placed them in the ground with the bones. She had just dropped the last shovel of dirt onto the makeshift grave when the doorbell chimed. If she didn’t get this mess sorted out quickly, Mr. Pickens could become the next victim. After all, Aunt Ivy had seemed rather irritated with him. Okay, so maybe I’m overreacting. Surely there had to be a simple explanation for everything that had happened. She was too young to be an accessory to murder. And with her coloring, she would look awful wearing one of those hideous orange prison jumpsuits. “I DON’T SEE WHY I had to leave school before Thanksgiving break. It’s only a week away, and Missy Stuart’s invited me to her slumber party. Now I’ll miss out. And everyone’s going to be there.” Out of the corner of his eye, Brad Donovan studied the sullen face of his twelve-going-on-thirty-year-old daughter while still managing to keep his eyes fixed on the traffic ahead. Congestion on Interstate 95 was always a nightmare at this time of morning. He’d wanted to leave late last night, but had been faced with one medical emergency after another. First, Bobby Bartley had fractured his clavicle playing baseball, then he’d had to perform an emergency tracheotomy on a fifteen-month-old infant, who’d swallowed a piece of Lego toy that had lodged in his windpipe. So now he was doomed to sit in traffic and listen to Stacy whine for the next several hours. “I’ve already explained, Stace, about Grandpa’s disappearance. It’s not like him not to call or let us know where he is.” “He sent you a postcard.” The postcard from the Two Sisters Ordinary was the only clue he had to his father’s last known whereabouts. When he didn’t receive a call back from the innkeeper after leaving several messages, he’d decided to drive to Mediocrity and see for himself if the inn’s proprietor could shed light on his father’s disappearance. It wasn’t like his dad to cut off all contact with his family. Robert Donovan was organized, punctual and thoughtful. The old man had lived with him and Stacy since Brad’s mom passed away eight years ago. And though he seemed to have adjusted to life as a widower, to giving up his independence somewhat, Brad sensed that all was not well. His father had been morose lately. Brad had done his best to compensate, to offer companionship and support, but it hadn’t been enough. Six weeks ago, his dad had packed up his ancient Chevy Impala and announced quite unexpectedly that he intended to visit the Pennsylvania countryside, along with a few Civil War battlefields. Brad had offered to go with him, to make a family vacation out of the trip, but his father had been adamant in his refusal—almost rude, come to think of it. It was obvious the old man wanted to be alone. But why? “Gramps probably just found some other stupid battlefield to see,” Stacy pointed out, before opening her purse and taking out a tube of bright red lipstick. She applied it meticulously, blotting the excess, while viewing herself in the vanity mirror, her head tilting from side to side. Stacy was growing up too fast. Since her mother’s death four years ago to ovarian cancer, the young girl had turned from a downy chick into a fledgling swan, and Brad was often at a loss trying to figure out how to handle the difficulties of puberty and adolescence. The first bra and menstrual period had been traumatic enough, but now it was makeup, loud music and boys. Eight years of medical school and a pediatric residency hadn’t prepared him for being the father of a pre-teen girl. He and Stacy hadn’t been communicating very well lately, and he wasn’t quite sure how to remedy that. If he objected to the clothing she wore or the TV programs she watched, she called him old-fashioned. If he suggested that she spend more time on her homework, Stacy accused him of being overly critical—“in her face,” as she put it. It was extremely frustrating for a man who had chosen as his vocation the care and nurturing of children not to be able to figure out what was ailing his own daughter. “Do you think I’m pretty, Dad?” The question came out of nowhere, as they often did, and Brad downshifted the BMW into third gear before answering, ignoring the honking horn of the minivan behind him. “You’re beautiful, Stace, just like your mom. I’ve told you that many times.” “Then how come Billy Carson said I was flat-chested and needed breast implants and that my front teeth were spaced too far apart?” Billy Carson of the spiked green hair had little room to talk, but that had never stopped the loud-mouthed delinquent from giving his opinion. He was one of Brad’s patients, but that didn’t mean he had to like the kid, especially now that he knew he’d been staring at his daughter’s chest. Little pervert! “I doubt very much if Billy even knows what breast implants are. And you’re not flat-chested, just slower to develop than some girls your age.” He could tell she wasn’t happy or convinced by his explanation, so he added, “In case you haven’t noticed, all the top fashion models are pretty sparse on top. It’s the look these days.” “Yeah, it may be the look, but boys still like girls with big boobs.” So did men, but Brad wasn’t about to point that out to his impressionable young daughter. “I think you’re going to like the inn where we’ll be staying. It looks very quaint from the postcard.” Wrinkling her nose in disgust, she replied, “It’s probably going to smell old and musty, like Grandma Ruth’s house used to.” “Grandma was a bit old-fashioned, I guess. But there’s always something to be learned from an older person.” “Then how come you’re always telling Gramps how to do stuff? Maybe his way would be better than yours.” Before Brad could muster a suitable response about his responsibilities as head of the household, his need to have order and complete control, Stacy had put on her headphones, popped a wad of gum into her mouth and tuned him out, which was probably just as well. It would be difficult to explain his need for normalcy and sameness since his wife’s death. He really didn’t understand it himself. He just knew that he needed his routine, his life, to remain uncluttered and uncomplicated. Carol’s death had turned his world upside down. He’d never realized, until she was gone, the depth of despair he was capable of, the gut-wrenching emotion, the emptiness inside him. For months after her death, his life had been chaos and confusion. Now that things were almost back to normal he wanted it to stay that way. And driving to Pennsylvania in search of his errant father was not what he considered normal, or the way he wanted to spend his free time. And neither was dealing with rude country-inn owners who didn’t return phone calls. “I’LL BE IN TOUCH about the loan, Beth. And please thank your aunts for the jam. Mrs. Pickens will be delighted.” After the banker disappeared down the front steps, Beth slammed the door shut and leaned heavily against it, breathing a deep sigh of relief that the inspection was finally over. Mr. Pickens’s visit had gone on a lot longer than she’d anticipated. The man had been disgustingly thorough. He’d stuck his head in every oven, freezer and refrigerator, flushed toilets, turned faucets on and off, and she fully expected him to don a pair of white gloves to see if she had dusted the furniture that morning. She hadn’t. But the worst had come when he’d ventured into the cellar, poking around at every little thing. She’d held her breath, waiting in fear that he would discover the bones and shirt, but fortunately the banker had found nothing amiss. The grandfather clock in the foyer gonged four, and Beth knew her aunts would be expecting her to join them shortly for their daily ritual of afternoon tea, and to give them a full accounting of her meeting with the banker. She had just turned toward the stairs when a knock sounded at the door. Thinking Mr. Pickens had forgotten something, Beth rushed to answer it. Opening the door, she stared at the dark-haired man standing on her porch. He was tall and looked to be in his mid-to-late thirties, judging by the crow’s feet appearing at the corner of his eyes. The stranger smiled, and she caught a glimpse of perfect white teeth. The man’s parents had obviously spent a fortune on orthodontics when he was a kid. The money had been well spent. He was very good-looking, but then, he probably knew that. Most handsome men did. “Mrs. Randall?” “It’s Ms. Randall. Can I help you?” she asked, and it was then she noticed the young girl standing next to him. The dislike in her pretty blue eyes gave Beth pause. Most people waited until after they’d spoken to her before deciding they disliked her. “I hope so. I’m Bradley Donovan.” She held out her hand. “Welcome to the Two Sisters, Mr. Donovan.” When he clasped her hand, she looked up to find that hundred-watt, hundred-thousand-dollar smile shining down on her and felt its warmth. “Actually, it’s Dr. Donovan. I’ve left several messages on your answering machine regarding my father, Robert Donovan. He was a guest here some weeks back and now he’s missing.” Beth’s heart began to pound. She remembered Robert Donovan. He’d played cards with her aunts on several occasions. She swallowed. Two gentlemen who’d been in contact with her aunts were now missing? She didn’t like the odds. “When I didn’t get a response I decided to come in person to see if you could shed any light as to my father’s whereabouts. My daughter and I are very worried about him.” Preoccupied with Mr. Pickens’s visit, Beth hadn’t had time to return his calls. “I’m afraid I can’t be of much help, Dr. Donovan. I remember your father, but I have no idea where he’s gone.” “I’m not worried about Gramps,” Stacy Donovan blurted. “Just you are, Dad. I figure Gramps has gone off to visit some stupid battlefield. You worry too much. Chill, okay?” “I’m sure you’re right,” Beth said, holding out her hand to the girl who responded by smacking her gum loudly, a sound only slightly less irritating than fingernails raking a blackboard. “I’m Beth. And you are?” The girl hesitated a moment. “Stacy Donovan. My dad made me come here. I didn’t want to. This place smells really old, like dead people live here or something.” The kid had a good nose; she’d give her that. “Apologize to Ms. Randall at once, Stacy.” “That’s okay. It’s not—” “Sorry.” The young girl’s apology lacked conviction. “Come in,” Beth said, remembering her manners and leading them into the front parlor. It was a cozy room, decorated in rose-and-green-floral chintz; the walls were painted a warm buttery yellow, with pretty lace curtains hanging at the double-hung windows. “Actually, Stacy, this house is really old, over a century old, as a matter of fact. And the smell you’re referring to is probably the incense my aunt is burning upstairs. I’ll speak to her about it. I’m not crazy about the smell, either.” Her gaze lifted to the girl’s father, and Beth had the strangest sense of coming home as she stared into Bradley Donovan’s warm, comforting eyes. She shook her head to dispel the notion. “I’m very sorry about not returning your phone calls, Dr. Donovan. I’m not usually so inconsiderate, but I had several pressing business matters to attend to and forgot to check my answering machine.” Not to mention, there’s a pile of buried bones in my basement, which may or may not belong to Lyle McMurtry. And for all I know, your father might be down there, too. Seating himself on the colorful sofa, Bradley Donovan yanked his daughter down beside him. “My father left our home in Charlottesville about six weeks ago. I know he stopped here because I received this postcard.” He removed the card from his pocket, handing it to her; she recognized it at once. “We give these postcards to the guests. They’re in all the rooms. But I can’t recall anything unusual about your father’s departure. Perhaps my aunts know something. They may have spent some time with him. I really can’t be sure. I was just on my way upstairs to visit them when you arrived. I’d be happy to ask.” Momentarily appeased, he nodded, and then went on to talk about the attractiveness of the inn, the traffic he’d encountered on the interstate, and the weather. Though she did her best to listen intently, nodding at the appropriate times, she found herself oddly mesmerized by the color of his blue eyes. Beth had met many men since her divorce and had never given a hoot about the color of their eyes, or any other part of their anatomy, for that matter. Her relationships hadn’t lasted long enough to find out if size really mattered. Unfortunately, Stacy Donovan’s eyes were shooting daggers at her. If looks could kill, Beth would have been buried in the cellar, right next to whoever was down there. “The woman thinks you’re hot, Dad. Let’s get outta here.” Brad flashed his daughter an annoyed look. “That’s enough, Stacy! What’s gotten into you today?” “I do not!” Beth shook her head in denial, her cheeks flaming bright red. “That never entered my mind.” Nor would it. Fool me once was her motto. The doctor looked amused by her discomfort, and his dimpled grin made her eyes widen. “I’m sure it didn’t, Ms. Randall.” Assuming a businesslike posture, she folded her hands primly in her lap. “Will you need to book a room, Dr. Donovan? I have several vacancies at the moment and can accommodate you.” He nodded. “I’m not sure how long we’ll be here. I need to make inquiries about my father, talk to the local authorities, that sort of thing.” The authorities! Beth swallowed her fear and forced a smile. “I can put you and your daughter in a lovely twin-bedded room on the second floor. It has a view of the pond.” “That’ll be just fine. And call me Brad.” “Hope our room’s not next to yours!” Stacy told Beth, her pert nose wrinkling in disgust. “I don’t want you bothering my dad. He doesn’t like women.” Beth’s right eyebrow arched, her attention shooting to the doctor, whose face was turning all sorts of interesting colors. “Oh? Well, I—” “Stacy doesn’t know what she’s talking about.” His daughter opened her mouth to say something else, but he cut her off. “Go out to the car and get your bag. Now!” The girl heaved a dramatic sigh and sulked off. Beth wasn’t sorry to see her go. She didn’t have a great deal of patience when it came to children, especially mouthy, gum-smacking teenagers. Unlike most women, Beth had no desire to have children. Her childhood had been so unhappy, her marriage such a disaster that she didn’t feel qualified to dispense motherly advice. She enjoyed being an independent businesswoman with no husband to dictate and no children to tie her down. “Don’t pay any attention to Stacy, Ms. Randall. My wife died four years ago, and she hasn’t adjusted very well. My daughter sees every woman I meet as a threat.” Beth smiled in understanding. “No problem—and it’s Beth. I was twelve once, much to everyone’s horror.” And she’d grown up without a father since the age of ten, so she understood the girl’s need to keep her dad close. Their eyes locked and held for a brief moment, making Beth’s heartbeat quicken, then the front door opened and Brad’s daughter returned, breaking the spell, which relieved her to no end. She was already up to her armpits in complications; she didn’t need another one, especially a handsome doctor with a missing father! As she ushered Brad and his daughter up the stairs to their room, Beth wondered what she was going to tell the man about his father’s disappearance. Obviously, her suspicions about the bones in her basement would not—could not—be a topic of discussion, not if she wanted to keep her aunts safe. She felt the weight of the locket burning into her flesh, a painful reminder of gruesome possibilities. Despite her best efforts not to, Beth found Bradley Donovan quite likable. He seemed kind and caring, and she couldn’t help but notice how muscular his body was, how blue his eyes were. Of course, Greg was handsome, too, and he’d turned out to be the world’s biggest rat bastard. “Handsome is as handsome does,” her aunts were fond of saying, and she wasn’t about to forget that lesson. Besides, she needed a man in her life right now like she needed another dead body in her cellar. CHAPTER THREE “OH, THERE YOU ARE, Beth dear. Ivy and I were wondering what was keeping you so long. The tea is getting cold.” Just the good doctor and his nasty daughter, she was tempted to say, trying hard to remember that she’d once been a pubescent child with a big mouth. Though she was positive she hadn’t been as rude as Stacy Donovan, who had seen fit to flip her off when her father’s back was turned. The young girl had passed annoying and was heading straight for unlikable. And though she knew there were reasons for her behavior, Beth had a difficult time accepting them. “Sorry I’m late. Some unexpected guests just arrived—a Dr. Donovan and his daughter. I’ve been getting them settled in their room.” “I saw them out the window when they drove up,” Ivy stated, perching primly on the edge of the red velvet settee and crossing her ankles, looking like everyone’s idea of the perfect granny and making it hard to believe that the old lady had a salacious side. “The man is quite handsome. You’d be wise to take notice, Beth. It’s been a while since you’ve indulged, if you get my meaning, and he looks to be very well—” “Aunt Ivy!” She held up her hand to cut off whatever suggestive comments her aunt was about to make. Beth had enough problems at the moment; she didn’t need a matchmaking old lady meddling in her affairs. “I’m not interested in Dr. Donovan, or any man, for that matter. I’ve told you both countless times that I’m content as I am. Besides, Brad Donovan’s daughter hates me, so there’s not really much point in pursuing any fantasies about him, if one were into fantasies, which I’m not.” She lived vicariously through the heroines in romance books and movies. It would have to be enough. Ivy smiled smugly, not believing a word of her niece’s protestation. Pouring tea out of a pink-flowered china teapot into three matching cups, Iris glanced up, eyes widening in surprise. “But why does the girl dislike you, dear? She doesn’t even know you.” With a lift of her shoulders, she tried to explain. “Stacy lost her mother a few years ago. Apparently, she feels threatened by other women, sees them as competition for her dad’s affections, which is totally ridiculous where I’m concerned, because I have no designs on the man.” “Tsk-tsk. That poor child.” Ivy took the cup of Earl Grey her sister handed her. “She’s undoubtedly lonely. I’ll make it a point to befriend her. Maybe Stacy likes computers. I’ll be sure to ask her the first chance I get. We can go online and—” “But no pornography! You must promise, Aunt Ivy,” Beth said firmly. “Most—” normal teetered on the tip of her tongue “—people don’t think as liberally as you do about these kinds of things.” “Of course not!” Her aunt looked insulted that Beth would even suggest such a thing. “Though I don’t know what all the fuss is about. There are statues of naked men in museums. Why, there’s even one in the center of the town common. Nudity is a very healthy thing. If I were a bit younger and less wrinkled, I’d be tempted to join one of those nudist colonies. I think it would be a very exhilarating experience. I might just do it one of these days anyway.” The image of a shar-pei came to mind, but Beth blinked it away. Iris’s mouth fell open, and then recovering, she said, “That statue you speak of, sister, is a copy of the David by Michelangelo. It’s a famous work of art.” “I’ll say it is. That David was no slouch. Makes me want to travel to Italy to check out those Italian men.” “Do either of you know anything about Robert Donovan’s whereabouts? Where he might have gone after leaving here?” Beth interrupted, though she doubted the new topic would be any safer. “I was hoping he might have told you something during your visits.” The two women’s faces reddened simultaneously and their eyes widened before exchanging what Beth construed to be guilty looks, even as they shook their heads in denial. “Why, no, dear.” Iris smoothed the skirt of her print dress with quick, nervous movements. “We didn’t associate with Mr. Donovan all that much. Did we, sister?” Ivy shook her head. “No. Not at all.” “But I thought you played bridge with him a few times. I distinctly remember you telling me that.” Her suspicions continued to grow. The old women were hiding something. Dead bodies, perhaps? Bonnie and Clyde. Iris and Ivy. It didn’t have the same cachet to it. But still… “Dr. Donovan is here to search for his father. He’s very worried about him, says it’s not like him to go off without leaving word.” Ivy scoffed. “Oh, I’m sure he’ll be just fine. After all, Robert—” Her cheeks filled with color at the slip. “I mean, Mr. Donovan is a grown man who undoubtedly knows his own mind. Young people should give older folks more credit for being capable. Why, you’d be surprised what we can do when we put our minds to it.” Thinking back to the shovel, bones and locket, Beth had no doubt about that. “Are you sure you’ve told me everything? It’s very important that you confes…confide in me, if you know anything.” “Of course, dear,” Iris answered in wide-eyed innocence, quickly changing the subject. “Now, why don’t you tell us about your meeting with Mr. Pickens? I’m just dying of curiosity, and so is Ivy.” Heaving a sigh, Beth knew she’d get no more information out of the two old ladies today. They could be as stubborn as lint on black socks when they put their minds to it. Though she went on to reveal the details of her meeting with the banker, Beth couldn’t shake the feeling that Iris and Ivy knew more than they were saying, which didn’t bode well for her peace of mind, not when there were bones buried in her basement. “I HATE LYING TO Beth, Iris.” Ivy wrung her hands nervously and paced across the colorful Aubusson carpet her ancestor Isaac Swindel had brought over from England when he’d made the trip to the colonies with William Penn. “She’s going to be madder than a flea-infested dog when she finds out what we’ve done.” Uneasy at her sister’s prediction, for she knew it was true, Iris said, “Now, sister, you know it can’t be helped. We don’t want to involve Beth and get her into trouble. It’s best to keep our own counsel, as we’ve already discussed. Besides, keeping information from someone to protect them isn’t really lying—it’s being responsible.” Blue eyes filled with uncertainty, Ivy pinched the bridge of her nose, trying to ease the pain centered there, and nearly dislodged her wire-rimmed glasses. “I’m going to take some Excedrin and rest a bit before dinner. I feel a headache coming on.” “All right, dear. I’m going to try that incantation one more time. I must be doing something wrong. It’s just not working like it should.” “Maybe you should add some Viagra to your potion. It supposedly raises quite a few…er…things.” “Ivy Swindel! You are shameful.” The old woman smiled. “Yes, I know. But at my age I have every right to be. Life should be fun when you’re as old as I am. In fact, I’m thinking about forming a chapter of that Red Hat Society here in Mediocrity. It’s for women over fifty. They wear red hats, purple dresses and have oodles of fun. I may even let you join…or not,” she tossed out before disappearing. Iris shook her head and had just opened up The Wicca’s Guide to Potent Brews when she felt someone’s eyes upon her. She and Ivy rarely closed the door to their suite of rooms; they were the only inhabitants on the fourth floor, so it seemed unnecessary. Her niece had insisted that they were too trusting of strangers and that someday one of the guests would walk off with their antiques and cherished possessions. But so far that hadn’t come to pass, and Iris was doubtful it would. Beth tended to be distrustful of people because of her unhappy childhood and the way her former husband had treated her. Not that Iris could blame the poor child. Greg Randall had proved to be a womanizing scoundrel. Still, it was Iris’s belief that one had to have faith in the good of mankind. Glancing over her left shoulder toward the open door, she found a young blond girl framed in the doorway and knew immediately that she was Bradley Donovan’s daughter. “Hello?” She smiled in greeting. “Are you lost?” The child, who was attired in jeans and a bright pink sweatshirt adorned with red hearts, shook her head. “Nope. I just wanted to see what was up here. I’m staying at the inn with my dad.” Apparently the sign stating Private Residence hadn’t deterred the inquisitive child. “Come in. You must be Stacy Donovan. My niece, Beth, has told me a bit about you.” Nodding, the child stepped forward somewhat tentatively and looked about at the heavy upholstered furnishings, red velvet drapes and ecru lace curtains hanging at the windows, then pulled a face. “This is really old stuff. Reminds me of my Grandma Donovan’s house. At least you don’t have those plastic things covering your lamp shades.” Shutting the book, Iris seated herself on the wing chair fronting the fireplace and motioned for the girl to sit down. “I don’t get many visitors your age, and I always enjoy talking to young people.” She missed her days of teaching school for that reason. “No wonder no one visits,” Stacy said, sniffing the air like a bloodhound. “It stinks in here. What’s that smell? It’s, like, totally gross.” Taken aback by the girl’s bluntness, a soft blush touched the older woman’s cheeks. “I’ve been burning incense.” Clearly impressed, the girl’s eyes widened. “Cool. Do you smoke pot?” Iris clutched her chest, looking horrified. “Heavens, no! Do you?” “Nah. My dad would kill me. Besides, marijuana can be addictive and lead to other drugs. My dad’s a doctor, so I know a lot about stuff like that. So how come you’re burning incense?” “I’m trying out a new incantation.” Stacy glanced at the book on the table. “Are you a witch or something?” Iris smiled. “There’re some around here who would say so.” “Cool.” “Would you like a cookie? I have some Fig Newtons left.” “Gross. I hate those.” Then noting Iris’s disappointed look, Stacy remembered her manners, adding, “No thanks, I mean.” “Tell me a little bit about yourself and your grandmother, Stacy. Do you visit her often?” Iris had always wanted children and grandchildren. But that had not been possible, not after…She pushed the painful thought away. Plopping down on the lumpy chair, Stacy pulled a used wad of gum out of her pocket and unwrapped it, then stuck it in her mouth. “My grandma died when I was young, my mom, too. I just have Dad and Gramps now, only Gramps is gone. Missing, my dad says. He’s real worried about him.” Pop! Smack! Pop! The older woman held her tongue at the annoying sounds the child was making and replied, “Yes, my niece informed me of that, as well. I’m sorry to hear about your mother, dear. It’s never easy when someone we love dies and leaves us.” Iris glanced toward the window, lost in thought for a moment, and then looked back to find the young girl’s eyes filled with tears. “Mom had cancer. My dad took her death really hard. I used to hear him crying at night. It was kinda weird to know that he cried, too. I thought I was the only one.” Iris’s heart went out to the poor child. It was clear Stacy was still grieving, and she knew what that was like. “I lost someone I loved, too. It was a long time ago, but his memory still lingers in my heart.” As did the pain of his duplicity. “Your husband?” The older woman shook her head. “Lyle and I were never married, though we’d hoped to be one day. It…it just didn’t work out that way. Sometimes God has a different plan for us, and there’s nothing we can do but accept what He hands us.” And try to go on. But that’s never easy. Especially not when your life is destroyed by one single, impulsive act. “Yeah, that’s what my dad told me. Was your boyfriend cute? Most of the good-looking guys at my school won’t give me the time of day. I think it’s because I’m flat-chested.” Leaning forward, Iris swallowed her smile and patted Stacy’s knee. “You have plenty of time for that sort of thing, my dear. You should enjoy your youth. You only get one go-around. I used to tell my niece that very thing when she would get impatient about growing up. But as you can see, Beth’s turned into a fine woman.” The young girl looked as if she wanted to dispute that opinion. “I guess.” “And to answer your question, Lyle was very handsome—the handsomest man in Mediocrity.” She smiled softly at the memory of dark hair and eyes as blue as her own. “Would you like to see his picture?” “Sure.” Reaching into the drawer of the leather-inlaid mahogany drum table situated next to her chair, she pulled out a silver-framed photograph, handing it to her. “This was taken over fifty years ago, right before we were to be married.” The young girl studied the smiling man in the black-and-white photograph. He looked as if he hadn’t a care in the world. “He’s pretty good-looking, but not as handsome as my dad. All the women think he’s hot, including your niece. But Dad’s not thinking about getting married again. He still loves my mom.” She said it with conviction, as if uttering those words would make it so. Taking the photo from the girl’s hands, tears blurred her vision as Iris gazed upon the man she loved and had thought to share her life with. But Lyle was gone, as were her girlish dreams of happily-ever-after. Gone, but not forgotten. Never forgotten. “He was a good man, in so many ways. We shared some wonderful times together.” Unable to disguise the emotion she felt, Iris could see she was making the girl uncomfortable and smiled apologetically. “I’m sorry. I tend to reminisce, to think about the past and what could have been, and it saddens me. It’s part of growing old, I guess.” “Don’t be sad.” Stacy reached out, taking the old woman’s veined, liver-spotted hands in her own small soft ones; her unexpected kindness touched Iris. “At least you still have his memory. My dad says whenever I’m sad about my mom I should think about all the good times we shared, the places we visited, the books she read and the songs she sang. They’ll always be with me, if I keep her memory alive. And I intend to.” “Your dad sounds like a very wise man. I’m looking forward to meeting him.” “He’s okay, for a dad, I guess.” She rose to her feet. “I’d better get going. Dad’ll be mad if he wakes up from his nap and finds me gone. He worries about me.” Iris nodded in understanding. “Come back and visit again, Stacy dear. I’d like to introduce you to my sister. I know Ivy would love to meet you.” “Is she a witch, too?” “Heavens no!” Iris shook her head and smiled. “Ivy has other interests.” Which would no doubt get her sister into trouble one day. After promising she would visit again soon, the girl departed. Iris clutched Lyle’s photograph to her chest and heaved a deep sigh of yearning. It was hard growing old alone. But then, except for Ivy, she’d been alone most of her life. There’d been no man after Lyle McMurtry. In her heart and soul, they would always be one. Nothing—not time, distance or death—could dissolve a love such as theirs. If only Lyle had been wise enough to see that. Things could have been so very different. LORI COOPER WAS THE new head chef at the Two Sisters Ordinary and Beth felt extremely fortunate to have her working at the inn. The woman had shown up on her doorstep one day last September, asking if the inn needed a cook. It had been quite a fortuitous moment, for she’d been about to place an ad for a chef in the Philadelphia Inquirer. The capable, creative chef had worked in some of Philadelphia’s finest restaurants, cooking alongside some very accomplished chefs after completing her training at the Culinary Institute of America in upstate New York. Though she hadn’t provided references Lori appeared to be honest, and her skill in the kitchen certainly backed up her claims, so Beth had no reason to doubt her. Still, there was an air of mystery about Lori. The petite, dark-haired woman seemed unhappy, and she wondered if her heart held heavy secrets. Beth had caught her looking nervously over her shoulder a few times, as if expecting someone to pop out of nowhere and steal her away. Beth knew chefs tended to be high-strung, but Lori seemed more so than usual. The grand opening of the inn’s restaurant was scheduled for Thanksgiving Day, and Beth and her chef were working hard to get the kinks out of the menu and to finish the hiring and training of the kitchen and wait staff. The two women were seated at the butcher-block table in the kitchen, evaluating the dishes Lori had prepared for this evening’s meal, which the inn’s guests had seemed to enjoy. They had filled out evaluation cards and rated the meal very highly. Brad Donovan had written Excellent across the bottom of his card, which pleased Beth greatly. “The duck was a big hit. I think everyone liked the bing cherry sauce you served with it. And the rice pilaf was delicious, not to mention the pecan tarts. I’m going to get fat having you around.” Her chef smiled. “Then we should definitely keep duck on the winter menu, along with rack of lamb and scallops of veal. If I can find a good supplier for Dover sole, I’d like to include that, as well.” Making a few notes on the legal pad in front of her, Beth paused and looked up. “Are you going to be able to get the truffles for the stuffing?” Taking a sip of the Diet Coke that was never far from her reach, Lori replied, “Yes, but they’re going to be expensive. I guess I could leave them out and substitute something else, if you’d rather not spend the additional money.” “Go ahead and order them. I want the grand opening to knock everyone’s socks off. We already have quite a few reservations from Mediocrity’s finest. Mayor Lindsay is going to be here,” she explained, “and so is Hilda Croft, from the historical society, so we’re sure to have a good turnout. Good word of mouth will help business during the off season when there are fewer tourists around.” The stuffing recipe was one of Lori’s favorites, though she couldn’t take credit for it. That honor belonged to world-renowned chef Bill Thackery, her former colleague. Though Bill might be absent, the one thing that wasn’t was his prized recipe collection, which she had lifted prior to leaving Philadelphia, along with his favorite set of Henckels knives. No doubt he was more upset about losing his knives and recipes than losing her. Leaving Bill hadn’t been an easy decision. He’d been her mentor, teaching her the finer points of culinary artistry, and she admired him greatly. But Lori felt she needed to get out from under his thumb, to establish herself as a chef in her own right, not just one of Bill’s protégés. Though she counted him as a friend, she just couldn’t work with him any longer. He’d grown demanding and unreasonable, wanting everything to be done his way and stifling her creativity until she wanted to scream. They bickered constantly about the correct way to do just about everything, like what ingredients to use in chili, the proper temperature for roasting duck, how much yeast was required when baking bread. You name it, they argued over it. In fact, they had argued bitterly the night before her departure over a duck pâté that Lori had created. Bill had pronounced it “bland.” She’d stolen his knives and recipes for revenge. The competition to outdo each other had finally gotten to Lori, who had decided one morning that she’d had enough, that it was time to make a break and get her own career off the ground. The Two Sisters Ordinary would give her that chance. Lori hoped Bill didn’t hate her too much. She still felt guilty about leaving him the way she did, with no note or explanation. But she figured he owed her for years of hard work and loyalty. The recipes and knives were a fair punishment for his obnoxious behavior and nasty disposition. She just prayed he wouldn’t be able to track her down, because Bill Thackery did not like to be crossed. “Is everything all right? You look upset. I meant what I said about the truffles. Just go ahead and—” The dark-haired woman shook her head, smiling apologetically as she grabbed the edge of the table and pushed to her feet. “It’s not the truffles, Beth. I’m just tired. If you don’t need me for anything else, I’m going to my room and relax for a while.” “Of course. If you like, I can fix breakfast in the morning, so you can sleep later.” Beth wasn’t a fabulous cook like Lori, but she was proficient enough to slap bacon and eggs together. “That’s not necessary. I’ll be fine by morning. But thanks for the offer.” Concern creasing her forehead, Beth watched her chef disappear and wondered, not for the first time, what was bothering the young woman. She didn’t have time to ponder the possibilities, because the door from the dining area to the kitchen swung open and Brad Donovan entered. He’d changed since she’d seen him at dinner and was now wearing jeans and a blue polo shirt. The jeans had been ironed, as evidenced by the perfect crease dissecting the pant legs. Good grief! What kind of a man ironed jeans? A man who was a perfectionist and wanted everything just so—a man used to genteel living, gracious surroundings and having a perfect wife—a man who was reserved, anal and her total opposite. Still, the dimples in his cheeks when he smiled were awfully cute, and he had a way of looking directly into her soul—as if he knew exactly what she was thinking—that made her totally uneasy. “Hope you don’t mind, but I’m taking you at your word and making myself at home. Stacy wants a glass of milk, so I told her I’d bring one up to her when I retired, if that’s okay with you.” “Of course. I’ll get it for you.” She made to rise, but Brad placed his hand on her shoulder and pushed her back down gently. His touch made her jump. “Please don’t!” She shrugged it off. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean—” “Forget it, okay?” Beth had overreacted, but she didn’t like to be touched in a proprietary way, not after Greg. “I’d like to join you for a few minutes, maybe beg a cup of coffee, if I’m not disturbing you. Adult conversation’s been at a premium at our house lately.” With an understanding smile, she pointed at the coffeepot. “Help yourself.” “Thanks.” Fetching two mugs, he filled them with freshly brewed coffee and carried everything to the table, sitting down beside his hostess. “You’re not disturbing me,” she said. “I’m just going over some menus.” “Your chef’s terrific. I loved the duck. Very moist. And the skin was crisp, just the way I like it.” “Thank you. My hope is to have one of the finest restaurants in the area. And with a chef as excellent as Lori I think I’m on my way.” “Without a doubt. So why did you decide to become an innkeeper? It seems an odd profession for someone so young. I always think of innkeepers as old married couples who crochet doilies, chop firewood and wear red-and-black-checked shirts.” Laughing, she sipped her coffee and started to relax. Brad Donovan was very easy to talk to and seemed genuinely interested in what she had to say. “I’m not as young as you think,” she said, explaining about her aunts’ decision to give their house to her, and hers to turn it into an inn. “When I divorced my husband I was at loose ends. The inn gave me something to focus on. And I love everything involved in the operation of it. It’s quite a challenge, but also very satisfying knowing that my guests enjoy what I do for them.” “I guess having people around all the time keeps you from getting lonely. That was the hardest thing for me after my wife died. I never realized how lonely being all alone could be.” He stared thoughtfully into his coffee. “How did she die?” He looked up, his eyes filled with sadness. “Ovarian cancer. By the time Carol was diagnosed, it was too late. The cancer was too far gone.” “I’m so sorry. That must have been very difficult for you, especially with a young daughter to care for.” “It hasn’t been easy. But Stacy keeps me focused on what’s important. And I try not to dwell in the past.” It was clear he was still in love with his dead wife, and that said volumes about the kind of relationship they’d had. Beth had been deprived of that deep connection, that death-till-you-part kind of love in her own marriage and envied those who had it. Though not enough to ever look for it again. “I don’t get lonely very often,” Beth said. Though sometimes at night when she lay in her cold bed, she yearned for a warm body to snuggle with. Buster came close to fitting the bill, but it wasn’t quite the same. “I have my aunts, the guests, people around me all the time and, of course, my dog, so I’m rarely ever alone. There are times when that can be frustrating, like when I’m all set to watch a movie and I get interrupted.” “I can’t remember the last film I watched. It’s not as much fun now that Carol’s gone. And Stacy’s taste is so different than mine. I like the old black-and-white films, but she won’t watch a movie if it’s not in color.” “I guess kids Stacy’s age like movies where everything gets blown up. My best friend, Ellen, is the same way. She’s a huge Bruce Willis fan and doesn’t understand the simplicity and humor in a classic film like The Philadelphia Story, which she thinks is boring. I love the classic films, too. I’m very addicted to my video and DVD collection.” While Beth went on to discuss a Humphrey Bogart/ Lauren Bacall movie she’d watched recently, Brad listened intently, surprised by the primal reaction he was having to her infectious smile, the sound of her voice and the sparkle in her big green eyes as she extolled the virtues of Bogart’s abilities as an actor. Beth Randall was a very attractive woman. He’d thought her cute at first glance, but he could see now that she was so much more. Brad hadn’t felt such an overt response to a woman since he’d met Carol at med school, and he was stunned by it. Of course, Beth and Carol were nothing alike. Carol had been a cool blonde, with pretty cornflower-blue eyes and a conservative air about her—the typical Southern belle. Beth, on the other hand, had massive amounts of coppery hair that tempted a man to run his hands through it. She was relaxed, casual…. “Is something the matter, Dr. Donovan? You keep staring at me as if I’ve grown another nose.” She reached up to touch hers, hoping it wasn’t dripping. “No. In fact, your nose is very cute.” She turned fifteen shades of red, feeling the heat of embarrassment all the way down to her toes, which she was curling and uncurling under the table. “Thank you.” “I was wondering if you’d mind answering some questions about my father’s stay here.” The question took Beth off guard and her stomach knotted. She tried to remain poised and nonchalant, schooling her features to reflect that. “I’m afraid I don’t have much to add right now, Dr. Donovan.” “It’s Brad, remember?” “I haven’t had a chance to speak to my aunts,” she lied. “But I will. And soon.” “Do you think they know something? It seems whenever I bring up my father’s disappearance you get nervous.” He stared intently at her, wondering if she knew more than she was saying and hoping she didn’t. “Nervous?” Beth laughed one of those Katharine Hepburn ha, ha, ha laughs. Only hers didn’t come off nearly as innocent or flippant. “Don’t be ridiculous. I’m just tired. I’ve had a long day. So if you’ll excuse me.” Before he could utter another word she bolted from the kitchen with lightning speed, not remembering about the milk for Stacy until she’d reached the haven of her room. But she had no intention of going back down. There was no way she was going to face him again. Not until she knew who was buried in her basement. CHAPTER FOUR AUBREY FONTAINE PRIDED himself on having an uncluttered mind and a reasonably fit body, though his penchant for sweets, especially Krispy Kreme doughnuts, rendered him somewhat overweight. Still, for someone nearing fifty he wasn’t in bad shape. A man used to giving orders and having them obeyed, he wasn’t accustomed to performing mundane chores, doing his own laundry, cooking meals or cleaning his apartment. He had a staff to do that. So, as he stared at the stacks of cardboard boxes, piles of old newspapers and magazines, and an assortment of what he considered first-rate junk that he’d found lying about his deceased mother’s spare bedroom, Aubrey was not pleased about completing the menial tasks before him. Isabel Fontaine had died from colon cancer five days before—a blessing, since the old soul had suffered cruelly toward the end. And though he’d done what he could to ease his mother’s pain—excellent doctors, full-time duty nurses and a private room at the hospital—in the end it had all been for naught. Money couldn’t save his mother. Only God could do that, and He had chosen not to. Brushing impatient fingers through his thin graying hair, Aubrey heaved a sigh. He didn’t have time to deal with this right now. He was a busy man, had a corporation to run and important financial deals in the works. He made money from investing, not from performing the duties of a garbageman. But he’d promised his mother on her deathbed that he would go through her private papers and attend to dispersing what little money she’d saved to her cousins, and that’s what he intended to do. Isabel had been a good mother, if a somewhat distant one, and Aubrey would honor her memory and do what he had promised. A man was only as good as his word. His many business dealings had taught him that. One didn’t get to be a successful CEO of a company without having some integrity. Of course, he never allowed that integrity to interfere with making money. An honest man could still be successful; he just had to be smarter than the competition, and he had to be willing to look opportunity in the face and jump on it. Aubrey never allowed anything to interfere with making money. Removing his suit jacket and tie, he set them on a nearby chair, rolled up the sleeves of his custom-made shirt and began wading through the mess, tossing old magazines and newspapers into the trash receptacle, and then removing his parents’ old clothes that he’d found hanging in the closet. Chester Fontaine had died of a heart attack when Aubrey was twenty, and he gathered his father’s suits, shirts and ties and added them to the pile he would donate to the Good Will, or one of the veterans groups. Aubrey had never served in the military—a bad back had designated him 4F—but he always tried to do what he could for those less fortunate than himself. Besides, he needed all the write-offs he could get. Damn bastards at the IRS always had their hands in his pockets. His cell phone rang. His assistant was on the other end, and she sounded frantic. Though extremely competent, Myra Lewis leaned toward hysteria, which he found annoying and very nonproductive. “Tell that asshole Connors there’ll be no deal unless he meets our terms,” he told the high-strung woman. “For chrissake, Myra, I’m not running a charitable organization! He either takes what I’ve offered for the property or the deal is off. Do you understand?” She stuttered that she did, and he clicked off, shaking his head in disgust. He couldn’t get through an hour without that cursed cell phone ringing. For all its convenience, the damned invention definitely had its drawbacks. In the old days, a man could escape from the office and steal a few hours of peace and quiet, now he just carried it with him. Call forwarding, e-mail, photographs…There was no end to what those blasted phones could do. Turning his attention toward the window and the small maple desk sitting beneath it, Aubrey heaved a sigh, dreading what came next. He switched on the metal lamp, sat down and began sorting through the clutter. In the center drawer he found his mother’s bank-book resting on top of her insurance policy. He was stunned to discover that she had nearly eight thousand dollars in savings, most of which he had provided over the years, to supplement the pittance his father had left. “Well, well, Mama, you are full of surprises,” he muttered, knowing how happy her vulture cousins would be when they discovered how thrifty Isabel had been. As primary beneficiary of her insurance policy, Aubrey stood to inherit a tiny bit more—ten thousand dollars, which would just about cover the cost of her funeral and burial. Tossing the policy aside, he pulled out a brown leather portfolio buried at the bottom of the drawer and opened it to discover several yellowed newspaper clippings from The Mediocrity Messenger. He’d never been to Mediocrity, but knew it was a small rural town about a three-hour drive from where he presently resided, in a suburb outside of Philadelphia. Aubrey didn’t do rural. He was a city boy, through and through. The smell of cow shit gave him hives. The first clipping was about a historic house that was owned by a family named Swindel. Searching his memory, he tried to remember if his mother had ever mentioned the name and was fairly positive she hadn’t. He prided himself on remembering names and minute details. It was essential in his business. The little things, the seemingly unimportant things that could make or break a deal, were what counted. And he didn’t lose many deals. The owner of the house appeared to be a member of the clergy. The paper referred to him as the Reverend Swindel of St. Mark’s Methodist Church. Aubrey didn’t believe in organized religion or luck. Smart people made their own luck. And as far as religion was concerned, he didn’t need some pious man of God pointing out his sins. He knew full well what they were; he just opted not to atone for them. Setting that clipping aside, Aubrey picked up the next, torn from the society pages, and read: “The Reverend and Mrs. Josiah Swindel are pleased to announce the engagement of their daughter Iris to Lyle McMurtry, son of David and Louise McMurtry, of the town. A spring wedding is planned.” It was dated May 1952. “I know you had a reason for saving all this junk, Mama, but I have no idea why.” He was about to replace the clippings when he noticed the corner of an official-looking document peeking out from some old letters she had saved. Curious, Aubrey scanned it to discover it was a birth certificate. He spotted his name at the top of the document, which was odd because his birth certificate presently resided in a safe-deposit box at Merchants Bank. The certificate read Aubrey Swindel, not Fontaine. More than a little confused, his eyes widened as he read the names typed beneath his: Mother’s name: Iris Swindel. Father’s name: Lyle McMurtry. Swindel. As the meaning became clear, his face turned an ugly shade of purple. “Sonofabitch!” He’d been deceived. His whole life had been nothing but one goddamn lie after another. “Jesus H. Christ, Mama! You really put one over on me, didn’t you, you sly old bitch?” He continued staring at the document in disbelief. “How could you have deceived me like this, made me feel like such a goddamn fool? Are you having a good laugh over this? Are you, Mama?” Aubrey hated surprises and he’d just been handed a whopper. No wonder the old woman had insisted he look through her papers. She wanted him to find this, wanted him to know that he’d been adopted and who his real parents were. “But why didn’t you just come out and tell me? Why did you hide the truth all these years?” Because he’d been born a bastard, that’s why. But then, there were those who’d been calling him that for years. Crumpling the paper, he tossed it against the wall, and then kicked the garbage can so hard it upended, the contents spilling everywhere. He shouted every vile epithet he could think of at his parents, or the people he’d thought were his parents. He wasn’t sure of anything anymore. When his temper cooled, curiosity began to get the better of him. Why had Iris Swindel and Lyle McMurtry given him away? Why hadn’t they wanted him enough to keep him? Was he so unlovable, so hideous a human that even his own mother hadn’t wanted him? He needed answers to his questions, and the only way to get them was to go to Mediocrity and see if his birth parents were still alive. If so, they had some explaining to do. HARD WORK AND KEEPING BUSY had always helped Beth clear her mind. Her aunts were fond of saying that idle hands were the Devil’s playground. To keep her mind off the problem in her basement, she’d decided that picking pumpkins and gourds from her garden would serve her quite nicely. Beth was tired this morning; she hadn’t slept very well the previous night. Thoughts about dead men buried in her basement and dreams of Dr. Bradley Donovan finding out about them had crept into her subconscious. Counting sheep hadn’t helped and neither had studying the numerous holes in the ecru lace canopy over her bed. When she had finally drifted off, Beth encountered bright blue eyes, dimpled cheeks, muscular arms and strong hands capable of healing. And she spent a great deal of time wondering what it would be like to be held in those arms, to feel Brad’s hands healing her aching body and ailing heart. To dispel those provocative but totally unwelcome thoughts she had tried thinking about Greg, the disastrous marriage they’d had, his infidelity, and all the misery that being involved with a man had caused her. But she knew deep down that Brad Donovan was nothing like the duplicitous, uncaring and judgmental Greg Randall. That would be like comparing a Boy Scout to Hannibal Lecter. Greg had chewed up her heart and spit it out when it was no longer palatable, and he hadn’t even bothered to wash it down with a nice glass of Chianti. Based on what Brad had said about his marriage to Carol, she didn’t think he was capable of such cruelty. Of course, he was still a man and that said a lot about why she needed to keep her distance. Not to mention that his father might still be an unwilling guest in her establishment! The ground was cold where she knelt in the dirt, pulling weeds from between rows of vegetables and gathering up the items she needed for her autumn display. She looked up at the clear blue sky, the sun’s warmth feeling glorious on her face. “It’s a pretty day, isn’t it, Buster boy?” she said to the dog lying next to her, who thumped his tail in agreement. Placing several small pumpkins in the wicker basket, she cocked her head when she heard someone approach. The animal rose to his haunches and then wagged his tail as the visitor drew near. Shielding her eyes, Beth glanced up to find Stacy Donovan standing over her. Though she smiled in greeting, she was not in the mood to spar with the ill-tempered young girl this morning. “What’re you doing?” the girl demanded, bending down to pat the dog, who responded by licking her hand furiously, making Stacy giggle. It was the first time Beth had seen her smile, and it transformed her pretty face. “I’m gathering pumpkins and gourds, which I’m going to use to decorate the front porch.” Beth always festooned the house for the various seasons and holidays, autumn being one of her favorite displays. She used corn husks, scarecrows and pumpkins to adorn the porch and handrails. Admittedly, she was a bit behind schedule this year. Stacy made a face. “That’s stupid. Why would you want to do that?” “So the inn will look pretty. Would you like to help?” The offer was pure reflex, not an actual desire to have the kid around. When Stacy shook her head, Beth almost breathed a sigh of relief. “I’m bored, but not that bored! Besides, my dad’s paying good money to stay here. Why should I do your work for free? I’m a guest.” “You said you were bored, so I thought you might like something to do, that’s all. You’re certainly not obligated to help. Don’t you like decorating for the holidays? It’s one of my favorite things to do.” A haunted look in her eyes, the girl shrugged. “I used to before my mom died. Dad doesn’t bother with it now. We didn’t even put up outdoor lights last Christmas. And he bought a fake tree. We never had a fake one when Mom was alive. She hated them.” “I see.” “No, you don’t! You don’t know what it’s like to lose a mom, so don’t say you do.” Rising to her feet, Beth dusted off her jeans and tried hard to keep her temper in check. The child was like a wounded animal, striking out at everything she came in contact with, and she had to keep reminding herself of that. “You’re right. My mom’s still alive and living in San Francisco, but my dad left when I was ten, so I think I know a little something about losing a loved one.” The child’s expression softened momentarily. “Did he die?” She shook her head. “My parents got divorced. But my dad may as well have died because I haven’t seen him in many years.” Her mother had chased the man away with vile invectives and threats of public humiliation. And even if her father had deserved Margaret Shaw’s wrath, Beth still blamed the woman for forcing him out of her life. But she blamed her father even more for never contacting her or making the effort to see her. She considered his behavior cowardly and unjustified. Beth had often wondered if her father had remarried and started a new family, if he had other children to bestow his love and affection on. The notion had bothered her a lot at first, but now she’d grown indifferent, though there were times, if she allowed herself to think about it, it still hurt. She had given her heart to two men, and they had both crushed it before abandoning her. She didn’t intend to make that same mistake again. Stacy scoffed. “That’s not the same. My mom’s never coming back. You’ve got a shot at seeing your dad again.” Beth thought that highly unlikely but chose not to argue the point. “You miss your mom a lot, don’t you? Your dad said—” Blue eyes flashing angrily, Stacy balled her hands into fists. “You stay away from my dad! He’s not going to marry anyone, so don’t get any ideas. A lot of women have tried to get him, but he loves my mom and no one else.” “I can assure you, Stacy,” she began, taking a deep, calming breath, “I have no desire to marry your dad, or anyone else, for that matter. I was married. I’m divorced now. It was a painful experience and not one I wish to repeat.” “I can see why your husband left. You’re not very pretty, or smart.” As if slapped, Beth rocked back on her heels, not knowing how to respond. She’d been plagued with self-doubt for years, and the mean-spirited comment hit a little too close to home. “Has anyone ever told you that you’re not very nice?” Looking somewhat stunned, the child stood there, her face expressionless, except for the red blush staining her cheeks, making Beth wonder if she was sorry for what she’d said. “Don’t tell my dad what I said, okay? He’ll be mad, and I’ll get grounded.” “I’ll think about it. But only if you promise to think before you speak from now on. Words can be as painful as bullets. I’m sure you know that.” Junior high and high school had a way of humbling even the most brazen, outspoken child. There was always someone bigger, meaner and mouthier to bring you down to size. Stacy was going to find that out the hard way, if she hadn’t already. Running the toe of her white leather Nike back and forth in the dirt, Stacy finally nodded, agreeing in a small voice, “All right.” “Speaking of your dad, does he know where you are?” “I told him I was going for a walk. Besides, he’s busy right now and doesn’t want me around.” “I doubt that. What’s he doing?” “He’s sitting on the front porch talking to your aunts. He thinks they might know something about Gramps’s disappearance.” A panicked feeling swamped Beth, and she swallowed. “Really?” The last thing she needed was for Brad Donovan to interrogate her aunts. There was no telling what the old ladies would say, or if they would incriminate themselves about what was down in the cellar. Why did Bradley Donovan have to come into her life right now? It was very inconvenient, and not just because of the probing questions he asked about his father’s whereabouts. Brad was making her feel things she had no desire to feel. Sexual attraction, physical awareness, giddiness and stupidity were feelings she couldn’t allow herself to experience right now. Would never allow herself, she amended. She had too much at stake. “I’d better go check on my guests. And I do need to get that porch decorated.” “Can Buster come with me on my walk? I won’t go far.” Buster, who was wagging his tail and running circles around Stacy, seemed overjoyed with the idea; though Beth knew he wasn’t likely to hang with the child long. When it came to adventure the dog had a mind of his own. “All right. Just make sure he doesn’t go into the pond. Buster loves the water, but it’s too cold this time of year, and he might get sick.” As soon as both girl and dog took off across the field, Beth grabbed her basket and made a beeline for the front porch, praying Iris and Ivy were behaving themselves. What were the chances? She broke into a run. “WOULD YOU CARE for more apple cider, Dr. Donovan?” Iris asked. “Our niece makes the best hot cider in the world. She uses real cinnamon sticks, not the powdered stuff.” Brad smiled at the two women, who were seated in the white porch rockers on either side of him, looking as if they’d just stepped out of a flower garden. Iris’s dress was adorned with pink cabbage roses, while Ivy sported blue forget-me-nots. Their snow-white hair reminded him of tufts of soft cotton. They were sweet, if not a bit odd. “No, thanks. It was good, but I think I’ve had my fill. Umm, I was wondering if you ladies would mind answering a few questions about my father. I’m really quite concerned about him. He’s been missing for several weeks and it’s not like him not to contact me.” Brad had called his service for messages and checked his voice mail at home, but there had been no word from his father. Exchanging a weighted look with her sister, Iris took a moment to consider, before asking, “What kind of questions, Dr. Donovan? As I told my niece, we didn’t know your father well. He wasn’t here that long, if memory serves.” “Sister has the worst memory,” Ivy explained with an embarrassed smile, making Brad wonder if he was ever going to get any information out of the two old ladies. He’d been sitting on the porch with them for twenty-five minutes. They had discussed everything under the sun except his father’s whereabouts. He couldn’t help thinking they knew more than they were saying. And that went for their niece, too. Every question he asked had been dodged, dismissed or just plain ignored. The old ladies weren’t very good liars, and neither was Beth. Everything she thought was reflected on her pretty face. He was certain, especially after her abrupt departure last evening, that she was covering up something, for someone. “How did my father seem when you spoke to him? Was he upset, angry, confused? It would help if I knew his state of mind.” He prayed his dad hadn’t been despondent. That was the one thing he worried about. Before leaving for his trip, Robert Donovan had been depressed. And though Brad had suggested that he seek professional help, perhaps get a prescription for antidepressants, his father had flatly refused, claiming there was nothing wrong with him that fresh air and a change of scenery couldn’t cure. “I found Robert to be terribly unhappy,” Ivy confessed, confirming Brad’s worst fear. “After talking to the poor dear, Iris and I were determined to help him solve his problems in the kindest way we knew how.” “Ivy!” Shaking her head, Iris shot her sister a warning look, then pasted on a smile when Brad glanced over at her with a questioning, almost frightened look. “I’m afraid Ivy is prone to exaggeration, Dr. Donovan. You must excuse her.” “What do you mean, the kindest way?” he asked. “You’d better explain what you mean,” he said, staring at them intently and watching as the two sisters squirmed restlessly in their seats. It didn’t look good. The more the old ladies talked, the more off-kilter they seemed, which was a nice way of saying they were a few slices short of a loaf of nut bread. “My niece has conversations with herself. Did you know that, Dr. Donovan?” Iris asked, handing him a plate of scones. “Care for another?” She smiled sweetly. “No, thanks. Now, about my father—” “We’re worried Beth will never find another husband,” Ivy added. “She’s always reading those romantic novels and watching old movies. She simply adores Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn. She lives in a fantasy world, if you ask me.” She tutted. “Not good. Not good, at all.” Distracted by the woman’s comments, Brad took a moment to digest the information. “Really? I wouldn’t have guessed that about her. I mean, I knew Beth liked old films, but she seems very well grounded. I’ve never heard her talk to herself. Does she do that often?” “Oh, yes,” Iris offered, “all the time. And sometimes she answers herself.” Brad’s eyes widened. Did insanity run—gallop?—in the family? “My niece suffered an unhappy marriage. I think she’s looking for a knight in shining armor to whisk her away.” Ivy placed two scones on her napkin before continuing. “Most young women these days aren’t prepared for the harsh realties of life.” “Now, Ivy, I think you’re being unfair,” her sister said “Beth does a wonderful job of running this inn.” “Yes, and it’s a safe place to hide, isn’t it? I don’t think it’s quite natural for a woman Beth’s age to be holed up with a couple of old ladies, morning, noon and night. She should be out enjoying herself. I just pray that being married to that awful Greg Randall hasn’t turned her against men and into a…well, you know.” Brad’s mouth fell open. Beth might be a great many things, but a lesbian? He doubted that very much. In fact, the idea seemed quite preposterous. “Ivy Swindel! What a ghastly thing to say.” The old woman shrugged. “I call them like I see them.” When Brad turned to wave goodbye to the Rogers, who were off on a sight-seeing trip, she smiled and winked at her sister. Checking her wristwatch, Iris frowned. “I wonder what’s been keeping Beth? She told me she wouldn’t be out in the garden long.” “Shall I go and look for her?” Brad suddenly felt the need to escape. He had just asked the question when the object of their discussion came bounding out of the house, slamming the front door behind her and carrying a wicker basket filled with pumpkins and gourds. Beth’s cheeks were rosy and her hair something of a disaster, but her smile was as radiant as ever. “Good morning, everyone! Sorry I’m late.” “Have you seen Stacy, by any chance?” he asked, trying to ignore the way his gut clenched at the sight of her. “I don’t want her wandering off. She’s not familiar with the area and might get lost.” “Yes, we spoke a few minutes ago.” She explained about Stacy taking the dog for a walk. “Don’t worry. She’ll be fine. I used to roam all over this place when I was young.” “Dr. Donovan’s been inquiring after his father,” Iris informed her niece. “We didn’t tell him very much. We couldn’t.” “I’m sure you were as helpful as you could be,” Beth said, silently thanking God that her aunts had the presence of mind to keep quiet. “Yes, some of your aunts’ comments were very enlightening.” Brad’s comment gave her pause. She sensed a change in his demeanor from last night. He seemed a tad more reserved, not quite as friendly. Or maybe it was just her imagination, which had been in overdrive lately. And after Stacy’s cruel comments, she was admittedly feeling a bit sensitive about things. “My aunts can be quite talkative when they put their minds to it. Can’t you, dears?” The two women burst into giggles, then stood. “We’ll leave you to entertain Dr. Donovan, dear,” Ivy stated, casting her sister a meaningful look. “Iris is anxious to try another incantation. She’s trying to raise the dead,” the older woman explained to Brad, who nearly tipped his rocker backward into the front window but caught himself just in time. Feeling her cheeks warm, Beth told her aunts, “You’d better go upstairs and rest. It wouldn’t be good to overtire yourselves.” She smiled apologetically at the handsome doctor, wondering what he must be thinking. Her aunts sounded like a couple of nuts. They are a couple of nuts! She had no sooner formed that thought when out of the corner of her eye she spotted Buster dragging a large bone onto the front lawn. “Holy hell!” She covered her mouth when she realized she’d spoken her thoughts aloud and glanced at Brad to see that he had heard her. Damn! She was really having a bad day…make that year. “I beg your pardon,” Brad said, staring at her strangely. “Nothing. I’ve…I’ve got to see about my dog. He’s gotten into…something…the garbage…yes…the garbage. Buster, shame on you!” The cellar doors were warped and didn’t always shut properly. What if Buster had gotten back in? Good grief! What if Stacy had seen Buster dig up the bones? What if she told her father about them? Vaulting over the porch railing effortlessly, as if she’d been doing it most of her life—which, of course, she had—Beth rushed toward the dog, knowing something had to be done about the bones buried in the cellar. Right now! Before Dr. Bradley Donovan insisted on having them all committed to the hospital for the—criminally?—insane. CHAPTER FIVE BRAD HAD BEEN THINKING about Beth all day. Though her strange behavior that morning had given him pause, he knew his obsession was much more than that. He was attracted to her—to her crooked smile, the way her nose crinkled when she laughed, the way her butt looked so damned appealing in a pair of tight jeans. He was attracted and that confused the hell out of him—his father’s disappearance and her possible involvement in it, notwithstanding. They really had very little in common. She was his total opposite, in every way imaginable. She seemed to live for the moment, while he planned everything out to the last detail. He’d already purchased the funeral plot next to Carol’s and had begun saving for Stacy’s college education. He was a stickler about his clothes; she seemed indifferent to what she was wearing. She always looked nice, just not coordinated. So what did he find so compelling about her? Beth was passionate about what she loved—the inn, her aunts and her desire to make something of herself. And he admired that about her, made him wonder if she’d be just as passionate with him in bed. He thought so. There was a lot of untapped desire in Beth; he could feel it. She wasn’t afraid of hard work. He’d seen her up at dawn, helping out in the kitchen or readying guest rooms when the hired help needed assistance. And she was kind. The times he’d seen her interact with Stacy she’d shown patience and caring, even when his daughter didn’t respond in kind. The back screen door banged, and he glanced over to find Beth hauling bags out to the garbage cans. “Need some help?” he asked as he approached. She gasped loudly and clasped her throat. “You startled me. You shouldn’t sneak up on someone like that. I could have had a heart attack.” “I’m sorry. I just thought you could use some help.” He nodded at the plastic garbage bags and shook his head. “Shouldn’t you use some ties at the ends? You’re going to spill whatever’s in there into your cans. It’ll make a disgusting mess.” He couldn’t hide his abhorrence, which made her smile. “I let the garbageman worry about that. What are you, the garbage police? And what are you doing out here? It’s cold, in case you haven’t noticed.” “I was going to walk down to the pond before turning in. Care to join me?” She hesitated. “I don’t know. I—” “Come on,” he urged, taking her hand. “Looks like you could use a break. You work too hard.” Her hand fit perfectly in his and he squeezed it. She didn’t object and followed his lead. “There’s no one else to do the work, if I don’t,” she explained. “There are some days I wonder why I bit off so much, then others when the very idea of owning this place energizes me and makes me happy.” “I feel the same way about my practice. It’s tiring as hell sometimes, but yet so rewarding.” “I can’t even imagine what it must be like to save someone’s life.” He smiled and pulled her down beside him onto a fallen log. “It’s like no other feeling in the world. And it makes all the years of study and hard work worth it.” “I know what you mean. This place is everything to me. I never thought I could do it. My self-esteem was pretty much shot after my marriage ended. And I’m not really sure I had much to begin with.” “You don’t seem insecure at all.” “My mother was very strong-willed and made me feel as if I could never do anything right. I met Greg Randall in college, and his attention bolstered my flagging ego, so when he finally asked me to marry him, I jumped at the chance to defy Mother and get out from under her thumb.” He nodded. “I take it things didn’t work out the way you expected.” She sighed. “Marrying Greg didn’t solve any of my problems. If anything, it made them worse. Rather than stepping out from behind my mother’s shadow, I was swallowed up by my husband’s lifestyle and overbearing personality. “When his infidelities surfaced, my insecurities and self-doubts magnified. And it took years for me to realize that I had married Greg for all the wrong reasons and that I wasn’t as stupid and worthless as I’d been led to believe. “For the first time in my life, I feel like I’m succeeding, doing something important with my life. I’m not an extension of anyone else, but my own person, and I like the person I’ve become.” “I like the person you’ve become, too, Beth.” He wrapped his arm about her and this time she didn’t pull away. “Thanks for sharing your story with me.” “I’m sorry. I don’t know what made me go on like that. Maybe I’m more tired than I thought.” “Or maybe you just needed someone to talk to. I’ve found myself in that same boat many times.” Beth turned in his embrace and looked up at him. There was yearning in her eyes, but also fear. He wanted to kiss her, to take her burdens away, but he knew she would never allow any man to do that. She was proud, and he was still confused, more now than ever. PHINNEAS PICKENS HAD BEEN the loan officer for Mediocrity’s only bank for over twenty years and was a well-respected member of the community. He was meticulous, almost persnickety about his dress, and it was his habit to wear three-piece suits to work. In the front pocket of his vest he carried a gold watch with a long gold chain that had once belonged to his grandfather. It was his habit to check that watch every fifteen minutes to make certain he remained on schedule. Punctuality was a virtue. Phinneas’s mother had impressed that upon him at the tender age of six when he’d arrived home late for dinner one evening and had his backside thrashed as a result. He’d never been late again. The banker had many routines, and he followed them without exception, almost religiously, in fact. On that sunny afternoon he found himself dining at Emma’s Café on Main Street, where it was his habit to eat lunch five out of seven days a week without fail. Tuesday was meat loaf day and Phinneas loved Emma’s meat loaf. In fact, he loved everything Emma Harris cooked. His wife’s cooking left a lot to be desired, and that was putting it mildly. Finnola couldn’t boil water without burning it. He loved his wife, but he hated her cooking. Across the table from the loan officer sat Seth Murdock, the town’s sheriff and one of Phinneas’s closest friends. He was a tall man, almost six foot three inches, with an appetite for food that equaled his passion for fishing. His uniforms were specially made for him by Mrs. Murdock to accommodate his large girth, which increased on a weekly basis, due to his fondness for beer and beer nuts. “Had to inspect the old Swindel house yesterday,” Phinneas informed the sheriff between bites of mashed potato, savoring the lumpless creation beneath his tongue and sighing in appreciation. Finnola’s potatoes had lumps the size of small boulders. “Beth’s applied for a loan to finish up the repairs on the inn. She’s got her work cut out for her, that’s for certain.” The sheriff shook his head. “Throwing away good money after bad, if you ask me. Never could abide those two old gals. My daddy never trusted them, and I don’t either.” He forked a Brussels sprout and continued, “If you ask me, they did away with Iris’s fiancé all those years ago. The man just up and disappeared, and I’d bet money the old witch and her sister did him in. They probably boiled him in oil and cast some spell on the poor guy. Daddy was sure of it, but he didn’t have any evidence that could prove their guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Maybe one day I will.” Phinneas nodded. “I feel uncomfortable around those two, and that’s a fact. Why, just the other day I saw Ivy Swindel at the bank. I did my best to avoid her, but, of course, that’s like trying to avoid getting wet when it rains. That woman is always flapping her jaw about my schooldays, saying what a terrible student I was. It’s very annoying, not to mention totally untrue. I was an excellent student.” His indignant expression softened when he added, “But I don’t hold anything against their niece. Beth’s a good woman and has worked hard to make something of herself, after that miserable episode with Coach Randall.” He shook his head. “Such a shame. The man was a fool.” “I hear what you’re saying, but I’ve always subscribed to the adage, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. I’d bet money that Beth knows more than she’s saying. After all, she’s lived with those two old hags for years.” “But how could she? Beth wasn’t even alive when Lyle McMurtry disappeared.” The sheriff shook his head. “Don’t know. I just feel it in my gut.” He patted his protruding belly. “Damn good meat loaf.” At the next table, Brad sat quietly eating his turkey sandwich. He had dropped Stacy off at the movie theater an hour ago to catch a matinee and had come into the café to grab a bite to eat, though the food at the café wasn’t nearly as good as the inn’s, he’d discovered. He hadn’t meant to eavesdrop, but when the sheriff had mentioned the Swindel sisters and Iris Swindel’s missing fiancé, his interest, as well as several red flags went up. Someone by the name of Lyle McMurtry was missing; so was Brad’s father. Was there a connection, or was it merely coincidence? He decided to find out. Turning in his chair, Brad tapped the burly sheriff on the shoulder. “Excuse me, Sheriff. I’m Dr. Bradley Donovan from Charlottesville, Virginia. I couldn’t help overhearing your conversation about the Swindel sisters.” Конец ознакомительного фрагмента. Текст предоставлен ООО «ЛитРес». Прочитайте эту книгу целиком, купив полную легальную версию (https://www.litres.ru/millie-criswell/asking-for-trouble/?lfrom=334617187) на ЛитРес. Безопасно оплатить книгу можно банковской картой Visa, MasterCard, Maestro, со счета мобильного телефона, с платежного терминала, в салоне МТС или Связной, через PayPal, WebMoney, Яндекс.Деньги, QIWI Кошелек, бонусными картами или другим удобным Вам способом.
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