Authors: Vanessa Gray Bartal
Tags: #cozy mystery
“Well,” her mother drawled, and Lacy’s heart kicked into overdrive. “What would you say if I told you we won’t be parted for long?”
Lacy shot Jason a look of panic and clutched his proffered hand. “Oh, are they coming back to Florida for another visit soon?”
“Not exactly. I’ve decided I need to see Riley’s marriage in person and judge it for myself.”
“How nice for her,” Lacy said. “So, you’re staying with Tosh and Riley?”
“Don’t be silly,” her mother replied. “I’m staying with you and Mom.”
Lacy had the same feeling she’d had while losing consciousness in the pool. Jason began rubbing soothing circles on her back. “Breathe,” he whispered. “You’re hyperventilating.”
“How long are you staying?” Lacy asked.
“For as long as it takes to assure myself everything is all right. Oh, and Lacy, we both know I can’t fit all my things in the guest room, so I’ve decided to take the big room. Have your things moved out by tomorrow, okay? We’re going to have so much fun! Love ya.” Her mom hung up before she could answer, which was a good thing because Jason had shoved a paper bag in Lacy’s face, obscuring her words.
“Sweetheart, what is wrong? I could only catch snatches of that. Are your grandparents okay?”
“She’s coming,” Lacy said between drags of the bag.
“Okay,” he drawled.
She shot to her feet, remembered her sore ankle, and sank back down again. She clutched his shirt. “Break up with me now. Save yourself.”
“I’m afraid I can’t do that. We’re sort of in this stuff together now,” he said.
“You don’t know what you’re saying.”
His arms slid around her and ran soothingly up and down her arm. “It’s going to be okay. I’m here for moral support. What’s the worst that could hap…”
She pressed her fingers to his lips, cutting off the flow of words. “I beg of you to stop asking that question.”
“My point remains. We have each other, and nothing is going to change that. Take a breath. Relax. We’ll handle it together.” His phone buzzed. He pulled it out and stared at it. “It’s a text from your mom.”
“What does she want you to do?” Lacy asked.
“She wants me to secretly remove all the chocolate from the house before she arrives, that way she won’t have to be the bad guy who puts you on a diet.”
Lacy took his phone and tossed it on the coffee table. “And so it begins.”
Thank you for reading the Lacy Steele Mystery Series. Look for the next book in the series,
Wedding Day of Murder,
coming Summer 2013. Keep reading for a bonus, hidden scene from
Arch Enemy of Murder.
Riley Steele had no idea what she was doing. The car smelled like blood, the man beside her was about two minutes from an anxiety attack, and she had inserted herself into this situation on purpose. Why? Why had she volunteered to drive Tosh home? She didn’t even like him. For a cute guy, he was really annoying. But there had been something in his expression that tugged at whatever humanity remained inside her as he stood in the doorway volunteering to drive Lacy to the hospital. Who does that? Who saves a guy’s life and then drives the woman who trampled his heart to the hospital? Tosh needed a niceness intervention. Riley was the person to give it to him, but not tonight.
“It’s there,” he said, pointing to a rundown little apartment that looked more like the setting for a Dickens novel than the home of a multi-millionaire with a trust fund. Maybe Lacy had been lying about that. Riley shook her head. Lacy never lied; she was too goody-goody. She and her sister were like that Frost poem—two roads diverged in the wood. Lacy stayed on the straight and narrow. Riley had definitely taken the road less traveled, the road where she put her needs ahead of everyone else and went after what she wanted with a vengeance. She did nothing different than most men did every day, but because she was a woman, she was perceived differently.
“Thanks for the ride,” Tosh said. He sounded shaky and unstable.
“It’s not over,” Riley said. She had to see him inside or risk having him keel over in the driveway. Grandma would never forgive her if anything happened to her precious pastor. Regardless of what everyone thought, Lucinda’s opinion still mattered to Riley. No one had ever been sweeter or offered her more unconditional love; she didn’t want to do anything to risk losing that. Of course Riley had also found that her grandmother had a lot of leeway in what she was willing to overlook. The whole Robert incident, for instance. Riley had been sure that Grandma would be angry. Lacy was, after all, the anointed favorite. But Lucinda hadn’t been angry. She had been understanding, sweet, kind, and forgiving. All of the things that made Riley feel bad if she let herself dwell on the situation too long. The fact that Lucinda wasn’t biologically her grandmother should have changed things, but it didn’t.
Now Riley had the added thoughts of adoption crowding her head, and it was too much. There was too much to think about so she didn’t let herself think about anything. She walked Tosh to his door. He fumbled with the key. She took it from him with a stifled sigh of impatience. Caregiving wasn’t her forte.
“Thanks,” he mumbled. He stumbled to the couch and sank down, staring blankly at the wall. Riley helped herself to his bedroom and rifled his drawers until she found a shirt. In here were a few signs of his wealth. The dresser, for one. It was solid wood and a name she recognized. She guessed that the singular piece cost more than a few months’ rent in Manhattan, and rent had been exorbitant. His clothes were another clue. They might not be the style she would choose, but they were good brands and quality material. She chose a warm-looking gray sweater and went back to the living room. Tosh was still staring at the wall. Riley thought he probably didn’t even know she was still there. When she began unbuttoning his shirt, he snapped to attention.
“Oh,” he said, jumping in surprise. He was going to resist, she could tell. She batted his hands away.
“Let me do it. Sit still.”
He complied. She pushed the shirt off his shoulders and experienced her own moment of surprise. The pastor had a fine physique. He was tall and lanky so she had expected him to be skinny. While he wasn’t exactly ripped, there was plenty of muscle definition to admire.
Some other time, perhaps,
she promised herself. Right now she had a goal of getting him properly dressed. She pulled the sweater over his head and allowed him to put his arms in unassisted. When he was done, he caught her wrist and clamped down.
“What if he dies?”
“Jason is not going to die,” she said.
“But he was so pale, and his pulse so weak. And the blood.”
“Yes, you mentioned the blood several times.”
“Lacy would be devastated.”
“Lacy can survive anything, believe me,” Riley said. She put her hands on his shoulders and gave him a little shake. “He’s going to be all right, thanks to you. You did a good thing; you saved his life.”
He shook his head vehemently. “I haven’t been nice to him. I mean, I’m supposed to be a pastor, an example of love and kindness, and…”
“And you sort of hate him,” she guessed.
He nodded. He looked so miserable that she smiled. Was he for real? Who in this day and age had such a tender conscience? Besides Lacy, of course, but Lacy’s conscience annoyed her. Tosh’s sensitivity was endearing. “Doesn’t the Bible say that God is jealous? And aren’t we created in his image? So wouldn’t our jealousy be natural? It seems to me that envy is worse, and you’re certainly not envious of Jason now.”
“Did you just spout theology to me?” he asked.
“You can’t sit third row left hand side in church week after week without learning a little something,” she said.
“I’ve never seen you there,” he said.
“I used to go every week. I don’t think I’ve been back since college.” Church made her feel bad. She tended to avoid things that didn’t feel good. “I’m going to throw this shirt away. It’s beyond repair.” She left to toss the shirt in the kitchen trash and returned with a warm dish cloth. “You have blood on your face.”
He took the cloth and made a few ineffectual swipes at his cheeks. “No, here.” She took the cloth back and cleaned his face. He was so tall that she had to stand to reach him properly. The blood was dry and she had to scrub at it. When she was finished, he was wearing an expression she recognized, one that told her he wasn’t thinking of prayer at the moment. Riley was exasperated. A few hours ago, she had looked really good. They had danced together at Lacy’s party, and she got nothing from him. Now her hair was wet from the shower, her face scrubbed free of makeup and covered in welts and bruises from the fistfight with Lacy, and
he found her attractive?
“You’re not quite right in the head,” she said.
“I know,” he agreed.
“I mean, how long have you been dangling from Lacy’s apron strings, begging for a scrap of affection, and now you’re worried about how she’s going to feel because her true love is injured.”
He winced. “First and foremost, Lacy and I are friends. I would worry the same amount for any of my friends.”
“You probably would,” she said. “There is something seriously wrong with you. You need to toughen up, or you’re going to spend the rest of your life in pain.”
“You think I need to be tough like you?” He was giving her a wry, amused smile now that annoyed her.
“What would you say if I told you that I think your tough girl act is a ruse?” Tosh asked.
“I would say you’re a loser for using the word ruse, and I would say you’ve taken a few too many blows to the head.”
“There’s a tender heart somewhere in there, I know it.”
“You see the best in people, much to your detriment,” she said. “People are selfish and cruel, myself included.”
“I think you’re fundamentally sweet.”
“I think you’re fundamentally stupid.”
He chuckled. She poked him. “I just called you stupid. You’re not supposed to laugh at that. What is wrong with you? It’s like you’re wearing this lens that makes you determined to see everyone as Mary Poppins, but you’ve got the wrong sister. Lacy is the one voted most likely to commit random acts of kindness.”
“And yet you’re the one who drove me home and cleaned me up,” he pointed out.
“A rare act of idiocy on my part, one I’m already regretting. You’re going to have to see the good in people on your own time. I have homes to wreck and villages to pillage.” She took a step away. He caught her wrist and tugged her back.
“No, stay. Please? I could use some company. We can watch TV. Or a movie.”
“I’ll only stay if you promise we can watch all the
movies in order.”
His face lit. “I love
“I know. That was me making fun of you.”
“Oh. Wow, you are kind of mean.”
She smiled and sat down. “You catch on quick, reverend.”
He turned on the television and started flipping through the channels. “You know, I wasn’t always a pastor. Believe it or not, I was kind of wild before.”
“Don’t tell me that you pulled those tags off sheets, the ones that say never to remove, because I’ll stand up and walk out right now.”
“Fine, don’t believe me. But I would wager that the stuff I did makes your shenanigans look like child’s play.”
“The fact that you call them shenanigans tells me you’re wrong,” she said. He shrugged and stared at the television, but she was intrigued. “So what did you do?”
“I can’t tell you.”
“Because you’ll probably take it as a challenge and try to outdo me.”
“It’s amazing how well you know me already,” she said.
“What do you want to watch?”
“Something with food.”
He arched an eyebrow at her.
“What? I can like food. Lacy hasn’t cornered the market on gourmet appreciation. The difference is that I look but don’t touch.”
He turned to the food channel and relaxed. The cupcake competition was on.
“This is my favorite show,” Riley said. “If I had a bakery, I would totally win this thing.”
“I could see that,” Tosh said. “And you would look good while doing it, too. You wouldn’t break a sweat.”
“Oh, Tosh, flattery will get you everywhere with me.”
They glanced at each other and smiled. The glance lingered and Riley looked away, flustered. She had never attempted friendship with a man before. Lacy was right; in her world there was either romance or not. This middle ground was confusing, but also sort of nice. What would it be like to have a friend like Tosh? To be able to be real with someone, to not have to keep up a façade that had become exhausting.
“So, um, Lacy mentioned you have a lot of brothers and sisters.”
“I guess that depends on your definition of a lot. We have more kids than your family, but less than the population of some towns in India.”
Riley laughed again, and that surprised her. She usually had to fake it with men. There weren’t many who she found genuinely amusing. Tosh was smiling, too. His eyes were brown like hers, but they were warm. They crinkled a little in the corners as if he laughed a lot and they became stuck that way. Riley’s heart actually fluttered. After so many men and so many games, she didn’t think it was possible to revert back to feelings she’d had when she was a kid, but Tosh was evoking that response now. She hadn’t been genuinely attracted to anyone in years, and now it was happening with her grandmother’s pastor. Where was she supposed to go with that?
“How are you?” Tosh blurted. “I just realized you’re sitting here with a bruised, cut face, and I haven’t said a word about it. I’m so sorry. Are you okay? Can I get you some ice?” He sat up and prepared to dart off the couch at a moment’s notice.
“I’m okay,” she said. “Really, it doesn’t hurt that much. Lacy hits like a girl.” She tried to smile and burst into tears instead. She put her hands over her face, mortified. She hadn’t cried real tears in…she couldn’t even remember how long. She didn’t know why she was crying now except that everything was so confusing and horrible. The fight with Lacy had been bad, learning her grandmother wasn’t her grandmother had been awful, losing her job, breaking up with Robert, facing an avalanche of debt…it was all too much.