A Taste of... deadly act

Chapter One

Jessica Hilyard always thought that love was supposed to make people happy. Maybe it did. For some. But her? It scared her to death.

Especially being in love with someone like Brandon. A man who lived life to the fullest. A man who took joy in nature. Who took joy in her.

She jumped when a twig broke somewhere in the forest. A squirrel darted up a tree, and she laughed at herself. She really was a fraidy cat. And if she was going to continue dating Brandon, she’d have to get over it. Fast.

Jessica smiled, just thinking about the past few months with him. She’d gone kayaking and hiking, and she had even jumped off a cliff. Well, not much of a cliff. Her rock was maybe five feet above the water while Brandon’s had been more than twenty. Her stomach churned as she remembered the feeling of looking down into the icy depths of the river pool. Remembered how badly she wanted to turn away. How badly she just wanted to be home, in her little apartment where everything was nice and safe.

But she had jumped.

And even as the water closed over her head, and she kicked her feet to break the surface again, she had been laughing. Then she’d been in Brandon’s arms, and he was laughing with her, telling her how proud he was of her. So very proud.

He’d made love to her then, moving her swimsuit bottoms to the side before taking her against the very rock she’d jumped from.

“I’m crazy about you, Jessica,” he’d said against her mouth. “Come away with me. Let’s leave this town and live life to its fullest.”

She hadn’t said yes. But she hadn’t said no, either.

Could she?

Could she simply walk away from school? Her job? Her friends?

Her comfortable little life that seemed more glamourous on Instagram than it really was?

Another twig snapped, bringing her back to the present. Bringing her back to the now.

The present.

Not the past, where she had so much to regret. Not to the future, where she had so much to fear.

The now.

To Brandon, the man waiting for her down by the river.

Waiting for her answer.

“Say yes,” she murmured to herself. “And then tell him that you love him and will follow him anywhere.”

That was her plan.

To live.

Really live.

Life to the fullest.

With him.

She was still smiling as she stepped out from the woods, her breath coming heavier now. Not from the exertion of the hike, but from true excitement. Was this what freedom felt like? Freedom from mediocrity? From the shoulds that have weighed her down for so long?

Her smile grew even wider as she stepped onto the rocktheir rock. The rock that had changed everything. Her jump into a new life with a man she truly adored.

Brandon wasn’t there yet, but that was okay. She was early, always early. He, on the other hand, didn’t even own a watch.

But time wouldn’t matter where they were going. Time wouldn’t mean a thing.

Because they were going to write travel articles, making a living visiting one exotic location after another. “Jess and Bran in Wanderland,” Brandon had said with a laugh when she asked him what they’d call their blog.

She had to admitit was kind of catchy in the corniest way imaginable.

To her right, she noticed a red box tied with a golden bow. On the top was a label. Jessica. Open me and follow the instructions.

She would recognize Brandon’s handwriting anywhere, the ragged up and down slants of each letter reminding her of a heartbeat on an EKG tape.

She opened the box. Inside was a satin blindfold, and just looking at it made her insides twist. There was another note. Put me on and wait. You won’t regret it.

Regret.

Her smile faded a bit when she read that word. There was only one thing she knew she’d truly regret. Disappointing her family. Especially her sister. What would Miranda say about all this? Jessica was anxious, in both a good and bad way, to find out. But even if her sister tried to dissuade her from this journey, Jessica would go anyway.

She had to.

No. She wanted to.

Surely her family, her sister, would understand. Her friends. Her co-workers. They’d understand too.

And if they didn’t…?

She shook her head, shaking away any negativity.

“I’ll call Miranda tonight,” she murmured to the water flowing beneath her perch as she smoothed the blindfold between her fingers. Before putting it on, she lifted her face to catch the last bit of light peeking over the mountains.

It was so beautiful here.

Just as it would be beautiful all the places they would go.

Another twig snapped, but she didn’t jump this time. Instead, she placed the blindfold over her eyes, securing the elastic behind her head. Goose bumps raised on her arms as she felt Brandon approach her from behind.

“Yes,” she said to him before he could even ask. Even she could hear the joy in the word. “Yes to you. Yes to everything.”

Something cold pressed against her throat, the sharp edge piercing her skin.

“That’s my motto too,” a familiar voice said.

Before she could scream, the ability to do so was stolen from her as the knife sliced from ear to ear. It really didn’t even hurt that much, she thought, as she took a last leap from her rock—their rock—and the water consumed her for the last time.

Chapter Two

Oh, this isn’t good.

Kylie Hatfield squinted at her phone. Every little hair on the back of her neck stood at attention, an army of little soldiers telling her just how not-good this was.

Kylie might have only been working in a private investigator’s office for a month, but she’d already developed quite the spidey-sense when something was off. Her boss, Greg Starr, had unceremoniously informed her that she was too green for the serious cases. Sure, she might have had a teeny bit of an attention disorder, and yeah, sometimes she was too busy talking to actually listen to people trying to impart their words of wisdom to her, but that didn’t matter right then.

What mattered were the alarms going off in every cell of her body.

Jessica Hilyard’s Facebook profile was all sorts of suspicious. And the woman had been missing for over a week, or so her sister said.

Kylie leaned down, absently petting Vader’s head. The enormous Newfoundland mix had been Kylie’s for a little over a month, ever since she’d rescued him from the side of the road after witnessing some asshole run him over. Vader had mended well, but his sense of adventure and extreme drooling complex were the same as the first day she looked into his adorable eyes.

And he’d already turned into quite the detective dog too. She tilted the phone to him. “What do you think, boy?”

She’d never had a pet before Vader, but yes, she’d quickly become one of those owners who talked to her pet like he was a real person. He slept in her bed, went where she went. Basically, he was her 130-pound furry shadow.

As a bonus, if their first and only case had given any indication, Vader was proving to have way more of a spidey-sense than even Kylie possessed. She’d learned that firsthand.

On the very first day of her job at Starr Investigations, a scary looking woman had come into the office, needing immediate help. Since her boss had been gone, Kylie had taken on the job. After all, how hard should it have been to find a cheating husband and catch him in the act with his side ho?

Well, should seemed to be the operative word.

Kylie should have gone to the address her new client had given her, taken a few pictures and been on her merry way. But what actually happened was a totally different story.

In a nutshell, she’d found the man, thanks to the help of her newly adopted Newfoundland mix. The man had been naked in his bed, but with a snakebite wound for his only company. Again, thanks to Vader, Kylie had found the girlfriend, also with a snakebite wound, about a quarter mile from the cabin they’d rented for their tryst.

Kylie found out later that it had been the scary looking wife who’d drugged and sicced the copperhead on her husband and his girlfriend, then had grown a conscience and hired Kylie to find them before it was too late.

Although her first and only case had been scary, it had lit a fire in Kylie’s soul. Where once she’d floundered, wondering if she would ever find the right career, she knew what she wanted to do now.

If only her boss would let her.

Greg Starr hadn’t fired her after she’d gone galivanting all over the Smoky Mountains looking for the couple, but he hadn’t let her work on any of the other investigations either.

And Kylie wanted to work. She wanted to so bad that she could practically taste the “Kylie Hatfield, Private Investigator” license she’d one day hang on her wall. But first, she had to complete the billion hours of on-the-job training the state of North Carolina required in addition to her almost-Criminal Justice degree.

Vader lifted his furry head, looked at her phone, and…licked Jessica Hilyard’s smiling face, leaving his slobbery goo on the screen.

Well, he wasn’t always brilliant, but he was a true hero, her Vader. She’d taken to calling him Sherlock since the snakebite incident, in honor of his keen intelligence and bravery. She’d be his Watson any old day.

But today, as he munched on the milk bone she tossed him, Kylie knew she’d have to rely on her own intuition here. And something really stunk in Asheville. Because Jessica Hilyard’s profile, chock full of inspiring memes and interesting slow-cooker recipes and photos of the pretty blonde’s thighs on a lounge in front of the aquamarine waters of a pool, with Day off! Ahhhh as the caption, hadn’t been updated in nearly a week.

Jessica’s sister, Miranda, had been right to put a call in to Starr Investigations less than ten minutes ago. If Kylie’d had a loved one who’d simply dropped off the face of the earth like that, she’d have called for a private investigator too.

Kylie knew that her boss had wanted her to cool it. She’d been on Greg’s shit list ever since she inserted herself in that last ordeal with the jilted wife who’d nearly killed her husband with a copperhead snake. The husband’s lover hadn’t been so lucky and had succumbed to her wounds the next day.

Kylie had been too late, and she still hadn’t gotten over that fact. She also hadn’t gotten over how recklessly she’d behaved.

It was only out of sheer luck that Kylie’s stupidity hadn’t also gotten her killed, Greg had told her more than once. And she probably would have cooled it if every single pore in her body wasn’t screaming with curiosity.

“I know it killed the cat, but that’s why I’m a dog girl, right, boy?” Kylie said to Vader with a grin. She could swear he nodded.

Besides, it made sense, even if her thick-headed, stodgy old boss couldn’t see it. Greg didn’t have Facebook. In fact, in his mid-sixties and as crotchety an old man as you could find, he was pretty much against any innovations that had come out this century. Whether he would admit it or not, her boss needed her and her technological prowess. And Miranda Hilyard, Jessica’s sister, the woman she’d just gotten off the phone with, had sounded desperate for help.

Kylie couldn’t just sit around twiddling her thumbs. Not when people were in distress.

Especially when she saw that she and Jessica had a mutual friend. Bethany Gutierrez, whom she’d gone to UNC with a few years ago. They’d been in freshman dorms and rushed together, though Jessica’d chosen Phi Sig and Kylie had gone Delta Gamma.

It’d been a while. But from what she remembered, Bethany was cool and approachable. Kylie figured a friendly, totally innocent message to play catch-up wouldn’t get her in too much trouble. Especially since she was just doing some innocent groundwork to help Greg when he got back. Right?

Kylie opened up a chat message to Bethany and began to type before she could talk herself out of it: Hey! Your name just popped up, and I couldn’t stop wondering how you’re doing.

To her surprise, a return message popped up just seconds later: OMG Hi, sweetie! I miss you! How are you? You graduate yet?

Kylie gritted her teeth. After nearly six years, she should’ve put a couple of years between herself and college. But with six changes of major and a whole lot of uncertainty and soul-searching under her belt, at twenty-four, Kylie was still ages from obtaining a degree of any sort. But that was the beauty of text conversations. She could ignore that question, for now.

Hey, guess what? I think we have a mutual friend in common! Jessica Hilyard?

It seemed to take forever before a response popped up: Oh, yes. We’re all so worried about her. No one’s been able to get in touch with her for days. It’s just really weird.

Kylie took a deep breath and typed in: I can imagine! I really want to help. I know her sister Miranda is beside herself. Do you want to get together for lunch and talk about it?

Kylie smiled when Bethany responded: Would love to! xxoo

Her thumbs flew over the screen: Great! I’m free today if that works for you. Kylie looked down at Vader, knowing she’d need to take him with her. Want to meet at the Corner Café downtown?

When Bethany agreed to meet at one p.m., Kylie rubbed her hands together, a chill of excitement running down her spine. Nothing that had happened in any of her seven majors had ever made her feel so excited.

But no, this wasn’t part of the job. It really wasn’t. Just an innocent lunch date with an old friend to catch-up.

Grrrrr…

At Vader’s growl, the hair on the back of Kylie’s neck stood up.

“It’ll be okay, boy,” she soothed, scratching the spot that made his eyes roll back into his head. It wasn’t like she was launching her own investigation or anything. Not her. She’d totally learned her lesson on that front.

Her phone dinged. Another message from Bethany: So, your profile says you’re a private investigator.

Kylie groaned. She’d fudged on her profile because it sounded better than her real title, which was Assistant to the Private Investigator, aka Greg Starr’s gofer and filing clerk. Considering Greg was such a techno-dunce, she’d figured he’d never find out.

She typed in: Yes, I am!

Kylie watched the dancing dots, and then: That’s such an exciting job to have! Congrats! Have you got any ideas on what might have happened to Jessica? I know her family’s up the wall and would appreciate the help.

Kylie frowned, then picked up the phone and called her boss…again.

Again, no answer. In her month of working there, he had yet to answer her on his cell phone. She didn’t think he had much experience when it came to them. She pictured him on the road, wondering why the heck his pants were buzzing so much.

Well, Mr. Starr, I tried.

Which was true. She really had tried to call him, and phone records would prove it. Not that she was officially investigating anything. Just lunch with a friend. At least, she kept telling herself that as she locked up the office and walked the block to the café.

She’d picked the place because it had patio seating. She didn’t trust that she could leave Vader alone in the office and not return to a pile of chewed-up paper and other destruction. She’d made that mistake once with her little Mazda, and now she no longer had a headrest, and the whole passenger’s seat was a lumpy mess of stuffing she’d had to shove back in.

“What are you giving me that droopy look for?” she asked Vader as she pulled on his leash. He was dragging his feet. On their regular walks, Vader was usually up front, and she had to run after him full speed, until she not only lost her breath but her will to live. But now, it was almost like the enormous dog knew that Kylie was up to no good. “I’m not doing anything wrong.”

Did the big teddy bear of a dog just shake his head in disappointment?

“Hey. I promise to be good if you will,” she said, knowing she’d probably feed him half her meal under the table, like a total sucker. He might have weighed more than she did, but he still had those big, black puppy-dog eyes she couldn’t resist.

When she got to the Corner Café, she recognized Bethany at once, even though it had been a while since she’d last seen her. Her dark hair had blue streaks in it, and she had a model face with big black eyes that rivaled Vader’s for their intensity. She was also wearing ridiculously high heels on her small feet. If Kylie’d attempted to wear anything like that, she’d die after the first step.

Bethany was sporting a sleek, fashionable all-black outfit and carried a designer purse, which made Kylie think she must’ve been successful since leaving school. Or had charged all her credit cards to the max.

“Hey!” Bethany said, pulling Kylie into a one-armed hug. Bethany’s perfume was definitely too much of a good thing, causing Kylie’s eyes to water from all the competing scents on her.

Bethany had always been the high-maintenance type. Looked like that hadn’t changed too much. She looked at Vader and sniffed like she’d caught wind of something bad. “Guess we should get an outdoor table?”

Kylie’s college friend didn’t seem thrilled at the prospect, since it was kind of hot and humid outside, the norm for late August, but she had no choice. Kylie nodded, getting the distinct feeling Bethany wasn’t a dog person. Or an outside person. In fact, she realized she didn’t really know Bethany at all anymore.

“Sorry,” Kylie said as she motioned to the hostess. “I bring him everywhere. He’s very good.”

She wasn’t one-hundred-percent sure on that, though. He’d only been having obedience lessons with Linc Coulter for a month. Linc was practically mute, totally infuriating, but she kept him around because his Dog Whispering ways had saved her from hog-tying Vader to a post. Plus, he was quite dreamy in the looks department. Since she started the lessons, she’d been losing fewer and fewer things to Vader’s jaws, even though he still behaved like a total nutcase a lot of the time.

As if the dog knew that Bethany wasn’t a fan, he jumped up on her, nearly knocking her petite frame back. She rocked on those devastatingly high heels, like a Weeble, only saved by the presence of the hostess stand.

Kylie pulled Vader back and scolded him as Bethany wrinkled her nose and looked down at her black blazer, which had the faint outline of paw prints. When Kylie apologized profusely, Bethany said, “No, it’s fine,” even though she sounded more than a little perturbed.

The hostess guided them to a table away from the rest of the clientele, wisely, and Vader sat on her feet as she tied his leash to the armrest of the plastic chair so he couldn’t get away. He saw a squirrel in a nearby tree and whimpered, so Kylie fed him a couple of treats she’d packed in her purse, saying a quick prayer that it would be enough to get him to calm down.

“Don’t get any ideas,” she said under her breath to him, then smiled at her lunch date and ordered a lemonade.

“A Perrier for me. It’s very cool that you’ve been working as an investigator,” Bethany gushed as the waiter finished filling their water glasses. “I always thought you’d take the world by the horns and do something amazing with your life when you graduated.”

Kylie opened her mouth to make the correction that, technically, she hadn’t quite graduated yet, but Bethany kept gushing, so she decided that little detail wasn’t important.

“I was thinking about you just the other day. I was thinking that Kylie Hatfield is such a live wire. She has that spark, you know?”

Kylie smiled. “I could say the same for you.” It was a total lie, but it seemed wrong to tell Bethany that she hadn’t thought of her since the last time she saw her. “What have you been up to?”

Bethany scanned her menu. “Salad! I’m dying for a salad.” She closed it and heaved a sigh. “Well, nothing all that exciting, like you, unfortunately. I’m doing sales for Blue Oasis.”

Kylie raised an eyebrow. “Blue Oasis? You mean the bottled water company?”

“Yeah. Glamorous, right?” The sarcasm was profuse.

Geesh…kind of a sad-trumpets turn to her friend’s life. Bethany had always struck her as the type of person who’d find a gorgeous and successful husband the second she graduated and move away to live a fantastically sophisticated life in, she didn’t know, a villa in Tuscany or something.

“I like their water!” was all Kylie could think to say.

“I know, I do too. It’s totally spring-fed, none of this factory-purified shit, you know?”

Kylie nodded, losing interest as she always did when people discussed their boring jobs.

“God! I miss the old days. College was so much fun. Remember our candle ceremony? That was freaking wild. I don’t keep in touch with my sisters so much. Do you?”

Kylie stared at her. “Yeah. The old days. Seems like forever ago,” she quickly said. As much as she loved gossiping about old times, she was there for business. “I keep in touch with some of the Delta Gammas, yeah. So…about Jessica?”

Bethany immediately straightened, growing serious again. “Oh yeah, so, Blue Oasis. That’s how I know Jessica. She works as a part-time receptionist in the office. She hasn’t shown up there all week, and that’s totally not like her. Didn’t even call the boss to say she’d be out, so we’re all scratching our heads.”

Now, that was weird. “Wow. Really?”

Bethany nodded. “Sweetest thing too. Pretty. And ambitious. She was working days at the store and had been taking classes at night for a few years. Wanted to go into education. It’s not like her to go missing like that without a word to anyone. I mean, right?” She took a sip from her water. “Is that how you know her? From UNC?”

Kylie stared at her, momentarily confused, until she remembered that Jessica was supposed to be their mutual friend. “Um. Yes. Right.” Vader looked up at her, and she stroked his ears. Even he didn’t believe her. She found herself babbling on. “Wow, Jessica. She’s just great. So fun. Talk about a live wire, right? She had that spark too.”

Bethany’s eyes narrowed. “Um, not really. Total bookworm. Sedate. Well, maybe she was different when you knew her, but she’s a lot more reserved now. Very focused. Kind of shy. Keeps to herself a lot.”

“Oh. Right. Sometimes she could be closed off,” Kylie fudged and knew she should shut her mouth but kept rambling on. “Definitely reliable and responsible. Never missed an assignment from what I hear. Good ol’ Jessica.”

“Right?” Bethany nodded vigorously. “She never missed a day of work. Heck, she was never even late, always early. So, it’s super odd. And no wonder everyone’s freaked out, right? She just disappeared off the face of the earth.”

“Yeah, that’s very concerning,” Kylie said, trying to connect all the dots being hurled her way.

“I know. That you can see someone every day, and then, poof. Gone. Like, where did she go? Did she just have some kind of crisis and decide to quit life and move away? Is she laying in her apartment, dead from having choked on a potato chip? You just don’t know. We’re all kind of dying to find out.” She winced at her poor choice of words, and tears filled her eyes. “Sorry…I shouldn’t have said that.”

Kylie squeezed her hand. “It’s okay. I knew what you meant.”

Bethany dabbed a napkin at her eyes. “It’s just that we’ve all kind of been theorizing at work.”

“Yeah. You know if the police have been involved?”

Bethany nodded. “They have. They were around asking questions a few days ago. But I don’t know what they found. We all thought they weren’t being totally serious about it. I don’t think they suspect foul play. I think they think she just ran off. Even though we told them that behavior like that wasn’t like her at all.”

“Hmmm. So tell me. Did she have any boyfriends? Any weird co-workers hanging out near the office, wanting to talk to her?”

Bethany tilted her head, looking deep in thought. “Not that I can remember. She never mentioned anyone. But Jessica didn’t seem to be the type to have a slew of boyfriends.”

Kylie reached into her bag to pull out her phone so that she could start writing notes. Bethany’s eyes followed her closely, like she should’ve known those details if Jessica was, in any way, her friend. “I haven’t been in touch with her in a while,” Kylie said. “That’s how I knew she was missing. Her sister from Oregon called the office, wanting our help.”

“Miranda called you?” Bethany’s eyes widened. “Oh, she must be out of her mind with worry, huh? So, does this mean you’re going to take the case?”

Truthfully, from the first moment she heard about Jessica’s disappearance during that phone call, Kylie had been hooked. The case wasn’t hers to take, but that didn’t matter. She knew there was no possible way she’d be able to stop thinking about it. And she could stay on the periphery, do some digging without getting fully involved, right?

“Well,” Kylie began. “I—”

Vader jumped to his feet, ears perking up. His body vibrated with some emotion she didn’t understand. Kylie shuffled closer to him, remembering the training techniques Linc had taught her as she reached for Vader’s leash.

“Hold—”

But the dog let out a sharp bark and bounded away, causing the leash to burn a path over her palm. Vader then ran around her chair, effectively belting her in with his leash. That he was tied to the chair on which she was sitting didn’t stop him. “No, Vader!” she said as the fabric dug into her thighs. “Wait.”

She struggled to her feet, trying to get rid of the pressure, which happened to be the totally wrong thing to do, because the second she got up, he bounded over the railing, the chair flying out from under her. It jammed into her knee and knocked over the goblets of water as it flew between them, following Vader over the railing.

“Holy shit!” Bethany shouted as the upended glasses sent a cascade of water rushing over their lower halves.

Kylie yelped, stars flashing through her vision as she watched Vader bolt across the street, narrowly missing a car. The owner swerved, nearly jumping a curb, and laid on the horn.

Oh, for shit’s sake.

“Vader!” Kylie shouted, but he didn’t stop. As usual. He ran down an alley and disappeared, his leash and the plastic chair clack-clack-clacking after him.

She dropped the napkin on the table to swab up some of the water. It was like putting a bandage on a gaping wound. “I’m so sorry. He never does this,” she explained, apologizing again before screaming, “Vader!”

Bethany said nothing, just looked at her wet clothing. Kylie didn’t think she could have possibly believed her any less.

The waiter appeared. “Our chair—”

“On it!” Kylie cried, embarrassed to her core. “I’ll be in touch!” she called to Bethany as she threw her legs over the railing and set off to chase her crazy dog.

Again.

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Deadly Act by Mary Stone and Bella Cross

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