A.J. had been living at the farm since her aunt’s death eight months earlier, and during that time she had come to love Deer Hollow. As she drove down the dirt track that evening, dust turning gold in the sunset, the car fragrant with meadow-sweet scents—and fried chicken—she was thinking of how very happy she was to be coming home.
Deer Hollow had been in the Eriksson family for generations, and although Diantha Mason had lived there many years, in most ways the 1920s farmhouse reflected the taste and attitudes of its previous owners rather than the famous yoga-guru. That was because, uncharacteristically, Diantha had submerged her own strong personality and preferences beneath those of her predecessors. She had left the house virtually untouched, and it retained all the original charming features such as gleaming wood floors, decorative moldings, and floor-to-ceiling stone fireplaces.
It had fallen on A.J. to renovate the less charming kitchen, replacing much of the old plumbing, adding new appliances and cherrywood cabinetry, which she had done following a small fire the previous fall. She had also installed a heated garage next to the house, and a breezy stone patio where, in warm weather, she did her morning yoga. The patio was also nice for dining al fresco, and she and Jake had already enjoyed a couple of summery evening meals beneath the flowering vines.
She rounded the bend in the dirt track and the house stood before her, white clapboard and gray stones surrounded by perennial flower gardens and fruit trees.
An unfamiliar blue sedan was parked in the front yard.
“Oh hell,” A.J. said. She was not in the mood for company, let alone someone offering to steam clean her carpets or save her soul—or vice versa. Of all the terrible timing! Five minutes later and she probably would have missed this caller.
But as she pulled up beside the sedan, she realized the occupant was not moving. In fact, the front seat had been tipped back in the reclining position and the driver appeared to be sleeping.
A.J. peered at him through the lightly tinted glass, and the hair on the back of her neck stood up.
She knew him.
In fact, once upon a time, and not that long ago, she used to be married to him. Andy Belleson, her ex-husband, was sleeping in her front yard.
tapped on the window and Andy jerked upright and blinked sleepily at her through the tinted windows.
“What are you doing here?” she demanded.
He opened the car door, and A.J. backed up as he climbed stiffly out.
“Hey,” Andy said. “I thought you were trying to get away from working late.” He moved to hug her.
She accepted it gracelessly. They had grown friendlier since Diantha’s death and A.J.’s move to Back of Beyond, but things were still not entirely easy between them. Not on A.J.’s end anyway, and she wasn’t sure that they ever could be, despite Andy’s desire to remain close.
He was smiling, though there was something not right in his face. She realized that it wasn’t a trick of the dying light—there was a bruise on his left cheekbone—and found herself unable to tear her gaze away. People always said they looked enough alike to be brother and sister, both tall and slim and chestnut-haired. A.J.’s eyes were brown and Andy’s blue, but they could still pass for kissing kin. And, in one sense, they had been kissing kin, if a decade of marriage counted for anything. They would still have been married if Andy had not discovered that he was gay.
Of course that wasn’t fair. Andy hadn’t
he was gay, he had just finally admitted it.
And that was the part that was hard to forgive, even while understanding that the last thing Andy had wanted was to hurt her. Or to hurt anyone. Which was one reason A.J.’s stomach did an unpleasant flip as she took in the bruise on his face. That hadn’t happened shaving.
“How’s . . . Nick?” she asked, trying for casual.
“Good,” Andy said quickly. Too quickly? “He’s out of town. Business.” He shrugged. Nick Grant, Andy’s new “partner,” was an FBI agent, and he traveled a lot. Something that did not make Andy happy.
A.J. asked, “And how
business? Your business, I mean.”
It used to be
business, but A.J. had sold her half of their partnership back to Andy after she had decided to accept Aunt Diantha’s gift of a new beginning.
“Business is good. Business has never been better.” And apparently this was not a source of joy, either.
“What happened to you?” A.J. questioned, abruptly out of polite conversation.
He laughed awkwardly. “I fell.”
A.J.’s internal alarm bells were ringing. But she was distracted by a familiar yowl. Peering into the back seat of the car, she spotted a pet carrier. A well-known, thuggish feline face was smooshed against the mesh.
“Lula Mae?” She stared at Andy and he smiled that not-quite-right smile again.
“I thought you’d like to see her again.”
“Well, yeah, but . . .”
“And she misses you.”
She reached in and hauled the carrier out. Lula Mae was small, sleek, and black. She had huge green eyes and a broad vocabulary for a cat—which she demonstrated long and loudly as A.J. lifted her out of the carrier.
“Oh, I’ve missed you, too,” A.J. told her, kissing Lula Mae’s nose. To Andy, she said, “I don’t know how Monster is going to feel about this.”
A.J. had inherited Monster, an aging golden lab, from Aunt Diantha.
“She can take him,” Andy said confidently. “My money’s all on Lula Mae, but maybe you better keep her in the carrier till you know for sure.”
Andy and Monster did not enjoy the warmest of relations, and Andy bearing cats was probably going to be even less popular, confirming all Monster’s deepest suspicions.
Lula Mae objected vociferously to being crammed back into her container. Andy took the carrier; A.J. retrieved her fast food dinner out of her car and led the way to the house. She could hardly fail to notice that Andy was limping as he followed her up the porch steps.
“How did you fall?” she asked.
“I just . . . did.”
He was so obviously lying she couldn’t seem to wrap her mind around it. She stared at him, and Andy said, “I wanted to ask a favor.”
They weren’t exactly on favor-asking terms. Well, that wasn’t quite true. Andy had expressed willingness to do A.J. any favor whenever she liked. A.J. was the one not yet truly at ease with the tentative truce between them.
She replied warily, “What’s that?”
“I was wondering if I could stay up here for a few days.”
He didn’t say anything, and she said, “Why?”
“I just need a little time to . . .”
She opened the door. Monster stood on the threshold wagging his tail. His dismay at seeing Andy was almost human. The tail stopped midwag and his ears flattened, his muzzle drawing back to show a little bit of his teeth. He said something uncomplimentary.
“Monster, no!” she said sharply.
She turned. Inside the carrier, Lula Mae was loudly offering her opinion of a dog with the manners of Monster. Andy had put a hand out to the door frame to brace himself from an anticipated onslaught from Monster. That gesture caught A.J.’s heart when she least wanted it to. Maybe there were aspects she didn’t know or understand about Andy, but she knew him well enough to gather that something was seriously wrong.
“What on earth—?” she began.
But Monster was already extending a curious nose at the window of the carrier. Lula Mae hissed with all the attitude of a full-sized cobra. Monster wagged his tail.
“Oh, Monster,” A.J. murmured. He just had a knack for falling for the wrong critters. But then Monster didn’t know he was a dog.
“His ass is grass,” commented Andy. “My little girl is going to whup him from here to eternity.” He seemed to have recovered his equilibrium, and A.J. pretended not to have noticed that odd moment when he reached for support.
“Monster, you goof,” A.J. said. She dragged him away from the carrier and Andy brought Lula Mae inside, following A.J. into the kitchen. Because she needed to say something—he had thrown her for a loop with his request— she babbled, “ This has been a terrible day. Nicole Manning is dead. She was murdered. I found the body.”
Had Nicole achieved “ The” status? Apparently she had. And of course Andy said all the right things. Andy always said all the right things. He listened with appropriate alarm as A.J. told him about being summoned to Nicole’s home and her reliving of those terrible moments when she had walked into Nicole’s office; he asked intelligent questions. He expressed shock and sympathy. And before long A.J. had told him everything and was offering to split her fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and coleslaw.
He grinned. “I notice you don’t offer your biscuit.”
“Keep your hands off my biscuits.”
He opened his mouth, but let it go, and A.J. was abruptly recalled to the situation between them. And reading her correctly, as he always did, Andy said seriously, “I’m not that hungry, but thanks.”
She studied him, frowning. It struck her that he didn’t look well: tired, pale—and he’d lost weight. He reminded her of the way she’d looked eight months ago when her life was unraveling around her. Although, being Andy, he hadn’t hacked his hair to pieces in defiance. He was still perfectly groomed. It was hard to picture a situation where Andy would not be perfectly groomed. Even in bed—well, perhaps better not to go there.
“What’s going on, Andy?” she asked. “Something is obviously wrong.”
He met her eyes. “It’s nothing. It’s just what I said. I need a few days to . . . work through some things. Clear my head. And I miss you. You’re my best friend.”
“Andy . . .” She sighed. “I don’t know if I’m ready to be best friends with you.”
He said stubbornly, “I stayed here after Di’s funeral.”
“I know, but . . .”
But what? But it was just so much easier to deal with the old pain by ignoring it? Forgetting it? Andy’s presence meant having to actively work at forgiving him, and that was hard. Forgetting was much easier than forgiving—forgiving was an on-going process that had to continue past the dramatic declarations of apology and absolution.
Real forgiveness meant allowing Andy to continue to be a part of her life, and A.J. wasn’t sure she had spiritually evolved to that extent. And she wasn’t sure all the yoga and tofu in the world could change that.
She chewed her fried chicken slowly. She couldn’t see his face as he fiddled with the door to the pet carrier. He lifted Lula Mae out and cradled her against his chest. Lula Mae put up with the cuddles for about three seconds and then wriggled free to investigate this strange new world. Monster immediately rose from his rug and came to investigate Lula Mae—whereupon the cat did her impersonation of a Hal loween decoration. Monster retreated, looking wounded.
“Do the police have any leads?” Andy asked, and A.J. was jerked back to awareness.
“I have no idea. It’s probably too soon.”
“It’s never too soon,” Andy scoffed. “ The husband or the boyfriend is always the primary suspect, right? Who was she living with these days—that director?” Before Andy had married a G-Man, he and A.J. had watched a lot of television—especially crime shows.
“J.W. Young. But he wasn’t there,” A.J. said.
he wasn’t there.”
“ True, but the house was full of people: servants, caterers, florists . . . me. Someone would have noticed if he’d been hanging around.”
“Not if he didn’t want them to notice him. Who knows the house and everybody’s routines better than him?”
A.J. said, “I’m trying not to take it personally that you are absolutely convinced that the husband would be the most likely person to want his wife dead.”
Andy grinned. “Boyfriend. Hey, I don’t make the TV shows, I just watch them. Anyway, my personal choice for prime suspect would be this red-haired woman with the scary taste in footwear. The one who you said looked familiar?”
“She did look familiar,” A.J. agreed thoughtfully.
“Could she be one of your students?”
A.J. shook her head, preoccupied with slathering honey over a biscuit. “I don’t have so many students that I wouldn’t recognize them on the street.”
“Are you still teaching dog yoga?”
“Doga. Yes, and don’t you dare laugh at me. I’m also teaching the Itsy Bitsy Yoga.”
“I’m afraid to ask.”
“Yoga for babies.”
Andy snickered. “You don’t even like babies.”
“I like babies! I just wasn’t sure . . .” A.J. stopped. This was veering into deep and dangerous water. “Anyway, I don’t have time to do a lot of teaching—which is pretty much a relief to everyone involved, me in particular. There’s a lot to do on the business and administrative end.”