A Taste of... deadly lies
The colors weren’t right.
Frustrated, Arnold Jennings tossed the pallet of paint onto the long table at his side. They hadn’t been right for days. Maybe he needed a rest.
Sighing in frustration, he gingerly sat down on his favorite stool, remembering fondly all the times he and the love of his life, his wife of sixty-
The memory made him smile.
He’d been a lucky man.
Well, in the early days.
He’d found the perfect girl, and she’d said yes when he asked for her hand. She’d supported his art. He smiled bigger, settling more comfortably on the worn seat beneath his tired behind. Oh, how Emma had supported him.
“Naughty girl,” he’d call her when she’d seduce him from his work.
It was a wonder that they hadn’t had a brood of children, birth control being so unreliable back in those early days.
The smile slid from his face as memories of the miscarriages, one after the next, forced their way into the present. All boys,
Seven of them, all now lying under their little markers in a row at the Jennings family cemetery.
Each loss made him paint harder. Each painting gave him an escape from the crushing blow.
There’d been no escaping the pain for Emma, so no matter that he’d have preferred a small cabin in the woods, he commissioned this home to give her something to do with her time. To distract her. Allow her to give birth to something that didn’t give her sorrow.
The house should have been overlooking some estate in France, grapes growing so near you could reach out the window and pluck them off the vines. Not in some small North Carolina town.
He didn’t care.
Emma loved the design, and what Emma wanted, Emma got.
She flew all over the world selecting tapestries and carpeting and stone.
Slowly, she began to smile again.
And three days after they’d moved into their new home, he convinced her to allow him to paint her again. It had been years since she’d felt free enough to do so.
Her body had changed. Four of the pregnancies had lasted
She’d never been more beautiful to him.
And he’d painted her with an exhilaration he hadn’t felt in so many years.
She’d come to him then, just as she’d done in the earlier years of their marriage. They’d made love on this stool, and weeks later, they learned of another pregnancy.
They dared not hope. They didn’t even select a nursery from the vast number of rooms in their stately home. They chose no name. Essentially, they didn’t speak of the pregnancy at all.
Until Emma’s water broke in the middle of one winter night.
A blizzard had been raging all that day, and their doctor had assured them that the chances of Emma going into labor were slim. They had been three weeks from delivery
But go into labor, she did.
With more than a foot of snow outside, there was no hope of getting to the hospital or of emergency personnel to get to them. It was good that they hadn’t allowed themselves to become excited about the impending birth because, as they spoke of their situation, gathered necessary implements to help them, neither expected a good outcome.
Arnold just hoped he wouldn’t also lose his wife.
Emma’s pain had been terrible, and it had been the first time Arnold had been witness to any of the births. He thought she would surely die of it. He wanted to run, to drink himself into a stupor.
But he was all she had.
The Christmas holidays had just passed, and
And to their amazement, a baby girl had slithered out into Arnold’s hands. To their further amazement, the child opened her eyes and then gave a hearty wail.
He hadn’t known what to do, but some primal instinct kicked in, and he cleared the baby’s mouth and nose before putting the child on her mother’s chest. She soon began to suckle. The beauty of the memory played in Arnold’s mind in vivid detail. He remembered the color of the first rays of sunlight peeking through the drapes. But most of all, he remembered Emma’s smile.
“Noel,” Emma said. “Can we name her that?”
Emma could have named her anything. “Yes, my love. Noel Joy.”
It had only been a suggestion, but even as it left his mouth, it felt right. Emma beamed at him.
“Yes, Noel Joy.”
Three years later, Noel became a big sister, to another girl child
Summer Hope came out screaming and lived life just as loud.
His younger daughter had had a plan. Law school. Run for
Her journey to that goal had been as rocky as her own mother’s had been. Miscarriages. Stillbirths. Then Nathaniel Gabriel Jennings-Jennings came into their world.
Noel had married a Jennings. No relation, if you please. Her younger sister had insisted she keep her maiden name, as repetitive as it was. Women’s independence and all that.
Over the years, Nathaniel became Nate and his surname trimmed down to a single Jennings.
Life had been good.
Until it hadn’t.
Until the morning they awoke to a policeman at their door, giving them the terrible news that their daughters were dead, burned alive in a chalet in Maine, where they’d gone on a joint vacation.
Nate had survived, which had been the only glimmer of light left in their world.
But Nate had changed.
No longer the well-loved smiling teenager, this new Nate never smiled and only came out of his room when forced. When he learned that he wouldn’t be getting all of his inheritance in one lump sum, he’d been so angry. Scary angry. He’d broken priceless artifacts in their home, ramming his fist through dozens of Arnold’s paintings.
Both Emma and Arnold had feared for their very lives.
Sloane, their butler, had called for help, and
He’d come home even more different. Not so angry, exactly, just withdrawn.
They hired tutors in which to homeschool him, as he refused to go to school.
They tried therapist after therapist, prescription after prescription.
Eventually, Nate found his own type of drug, and by the time Arnold and Emma learned of what he was doing to his body, it was too late.
They’d lost it all. The babies. The daughters. Now, the beloved grandson
But they had each other.
“That will be enough,” Arnold told Emma one chilly spring morning.
It was just one
They had become almost like robots for a while, but slowly
Over time, Arnold threw himself back into his painting again, and Emma threw herself into her charitable work. She even hired an assistant to help her, which had pleased Arnold to no end.
Soon after that, Nate reappeared in their lives.
He was clean and
And he was. For a while.
A knock on the door startled Arnold from his ruminations, and he pushed to his feet, his knees cracking and popping as his weight left the stool.
“Come in,” he called.
The door opened and Arnold smiled as a tray brandishing a pot of tea appeared, along with his favorite cookies. “Thank you, Sloane.”
The butler inclined his head. “Anything else, sir?”
Grabbing a cookie, Arnold waved the manservant off. “That will be all.”
Arnold was adding milk to his tea, a habit he’d picked up when he and Emma had visited London nearly five decades ago, when a voice startled him.
His heart pounded in his chest. He raised a hand to rub at the spot as he turned and faced his new visitor. “What do you want?”
He hadn’t meant to sound so snappish, but he deplored when people went sneaking about. And he deplored how scared he’d been for those few seconds.
Arnold rubbed at his chest again, willing his heart to quiet its frantic movement.
“I need a loan.”
Arnold scoffed. “Another one? Didn’t I just give you a loan last month?”
“It wasn’t enough.”
Shaking his head, Arnold went to pick up his tea again, giving himself time to think.
How had it come to this?
The pleading in the tone had the opposite effect than he was sure
Sweat bloomed on his brow, trickled down his back. His chest began to throb, air refusing to fill his lungs.
“Call the doctor,” he said, clutching at his chest.
A laugh was his only response.
More panicked now, Arnold knew he had to get downstairs. He had to get to Emma. A phone.
Pushing past his visitor, he stumbled through the door and into the hallway.
Pain seized him, almost taking him to his knees, but he refused to go down so easily.
Making it to the bannister, he flinched as a hand came down on his shoulder. “Give me the loan, and I’ll help you.”
With as much strength as Arnold could muster, he pulled away, and began his descent down the stairs.
A foot appeared.
He saw it because he’d been watching his own feet as he held on to the railing.
Arnold gasped, and he supposed that he
While all the world thought how blessed the Jennings were, Arnold knew that was yet another lie.
Arnold wanted to warn Emma, tell her
But he was falling even as the thoughts crossed over his mind.
It seemed to take a long time to get to the bottom. His paintings flashed across his vision, the colors blurring together.
And as he lay at the bottom, his eyes fastened on Emma. He’d painted that one before their children’s deaths. She looked so beautiful. So free. Gazing at her brought him solace.The pain was incredible but mercifully short as darkness stripped him of even that small comfort.
Five years later…
Hunt, peck. Hunt, peck.
Life with one working hand, for lack of a more appropriate word, sucked.
Alone in the office of Starr Investigations, downtown Asheville’s premiere full-service private investigations establishment, Kylie pushed back from the typewriter and stretched her aching back. She had a pile of background check chicken-scratch notes she’d taken over the phone that she’d been trying to transfer to some semblance of an orderly report, but her little injury was kind of getting in the way.
Little injury. Ha.
She had a gunshot wound in her shoulder. Thirty-eight caliber passed clear through the muscle.
Yeah, she was badass. That’s how she rolled.
Except now. Now that Greg Starr, her boss, had resigned her to office work. Now, in her little cardigan, ponytail, and comfy shoes, she looked about as badass as Big Bird.
Hopefully, that was just temporary.
Not that she wanted to field bullets on a daily basis, but she definitely didn’t want to be chained to this desk either, with Greg’s easy-listening Muzak piping through his boom box to keep her company. She probably looked like the world’s youngest senior citizen now, jamming out to Enya.
Greg had said the exclusive desk work was “until her injury healed,” but she worried that he was trying to keep her out of trouble. She frowned. He even made her turn down the robbery case for a sweet little lady who’d called the other day.
That still made her mad.
Weeks ago, Greg promised that he’d train her to be more of a private investigator like him, instead of just his lousy assistant, but one really couldn’t be a PI while sitting behind a desk. The fingers of her lame hand itched with the desire to blow this joint and get back into doing some meatier things.
Like, bringing down serial killers. Oh, yeah. That was another badass thing she’d done.
This woman, the Spotlight Killer, had terrorized the entire country, wreaking havoc from Texas to North Carolina, until Kylie Hatfield, badass extraordinaire, stepped in and ended her reign of terror. Or something like that.
Kylie’d actually heard that on an episode of Nightline. They’d made her seem so fearless, but…the truth involved a lot more of her cowering and shaking and nearly peeing her pants.
She looked down at Vader, her goofy Newfoundland, and ruffled his fur. She couldn’t have done it without him. Him and Lincoln Coulter, her real badass of a…
Whatever he was.
She wasn’t really sure. He was more than her dog’s trainer, that was for sure, since they were…intimate. Boyfriend sounded so sixth grade. They hadn’t really defined it. Fuckbuddy? It definitely seemed like more than that. The last night she’d spent with him, she was pretty sure the “L” word was about to slip out of his mouth. She’d put a stop to that, real fast. Because…love. No thank you. She knew what happened when love and commitment came along. A big ole bunch of nothing.
So, what was he to her?
Significant Other? Man? Man Candy? Male Accessory? What?
Whenever she thought about it too hard, it made her head hurt. Besides, maybe they were nothing now. It’d been three days since she’d last seen him, and she hadn’t gotten so much as a text. Of course, he was notoriously awful when it came to texting. Or communicating with anything not a canine.
Still, she smiled, thinking of him. He was so damn…yummy. Yummy and hard and hot and sweet, even though it was a challenge to get him to say more than two words on a good day. He was definitely that strong, silent type.
AKA, the opposite of Kylie.
She, like her mother, could carry on a conversation with a wall. That’s what made her and Linc so good together. She was her, and he was the wall. Seriously. The man didn’t have an ounce of fat on him.
Just then, Vader licked her hand, reminding her to stop grinning goofily and get back to work on the nightmare of notes she had before her. The hunting-and-pecking was definitely taking its toll. Her eyes crossed.
She’d been working on reports all morning and only completed three of the fifteen she had to do. Her doctor had told her that she should have a full recovery, but that she should take it easy and keep her arm in the sling, but she wasn’t exactly good at listening to him. She would never win any awards for patience.
As she was sitting there, floating away on another daydream that involved Linc—their most recent foray into his barn had been particularly hot, even though she still had the scratches on her butt from the hay to show for it—the door opened and her boss walked in, holding a big bouquet of irises.
“For me?” she asked, patting her chest and batting her eyelashes.
Greg grunted a, “Yes,” and laid them on her desk.
Really? She’d only been kidding. Her boss wasn’t exactly the bright ray of sunshine and liked her only about fifty percent of the time. But he did have a soft side. She smiled and leaned over to sniff the flowers.
“Aww…they’re beautiful, thank you! What’s the occasion?”
He shrugged as she winked at him and went to get a vase in the kitchenette. “Thought your desk needed some brightening up.”
That was bunk. Her desk was plenty bright, what with the photos of her mom and Vader, a funky, hot pink modern-art balloon-dog sculpture, a little African violet plant, and her big smiley-face mug. It was the rest of the place that looked morbid. He was just feeling guilty that she’d ended up shot, even though more than two weeks had gone by. He was blameless, though. She’d told him that, a million times.
Told him that she had a knack for getting in trouble and it had nothing to do with him, since he hadn’t even wanted her on the case to begin with. But Kylie could tell Greg still felt bad about it. He didn’t say as much, but she had a suspicion he thought of her as the daughter he never had. Though, maybe he did have daughters? Greg was a little tight-lipped about his personal life. She’d been trying for weeks to set him up with her mom, but it was like lassoing a mountain and bringing it downtown.
“You finish those reports?” he grumbled when she started to arrange the flowers in the vase.
“My five fingers are working as fast as they can,” she said brightly, wiggling them for him. “Everything seems to be taking twice as long. Can’t imagine why.”
He gave her his droopy bloodhound frown. “Well. Just stick with it. You finish the report on the Spotlight Killer case?”
She nodded. “On your desk.”
He went around and opened the file, reading it over. “What the hell is this? ‘Lincoln Coulter heroically burst into the shed, growling fiercely, with no regard to his own personal safety?’”
She nodded. “What’s wrong with that?”
“It sounds like you’re trying to write a romance novel. Just the facts, Kylie. I know that man of yours is dreamy, as you kids call it, but keep your personal feelings out of it.”
Dreamy? She wasn’t a member of the Brady Bunch.
She shrugged and slunk down in her chair. “Too much? I thought I was keeping my feelings out of it. I refrained from calling the killer a total psycho bitch, didn’t I?”
“Great. But your objectivity still needs a little work. Coulter arrived on the scene. That’s it.” He motioned to the file folders behind her. “When you’re not busy, take a look at some of the ones I’ve written. God knows, after decades in the business, I have enough of them. Learn, short stuff.”
Kylie sighed. Well, there went her idea of spicing the job up a little by adding flair to the reports. “Fine.”
He sat down in his chair and leaned back, yawning. “Any messages?”
She shook her head.
He sighed. “Any messages you’re hiding from me because you want to meddle in the case first?”
She gave him an innocent look. “Who do you think I am?”
He smirked at her. “A pain in the ass?”
Okay, so he had her number. Kylie’d been hired at the end of the spring as his secretary, but she wasn’t really good at sticking within that role. She’d already gotten herself embroiled in two cases which had started out as messages for him. It was all her fault. She was just too curious. Too excited. Too itchy for adventure to sit behind a desk, typing a bunch of crap and doing what voicemail could easily do, when there were actual wrongs out there that needed to be righted.
“Really. No messages. I haven’t even gotten a phone call since that sweet little Emma Jennings called the other evening, needing our help.”
She still couldn’t believe he wouldn’t let her take that case. Her shoulder was practically one-hundred-percent better now. She shrugged, hiding the wince. Okay, maybe seventy percent better.
“All right,” he said with a suspicious lilt to his voice, sitting down in his chair and fishing out an orange to peel.
She finished arranging the flowers and sat back down at the typewriter, wondering if Greg would ever step into the present and get a computer for this place. He’d told her the day before that he’d just gotten a fax machine last year. In return, she’d told him she was surprised he could find a fax machine since no one used them anymore. It was funny watching him try to use it. Like a Neanderthal trying to work an iPhone.
Ten minutes later, Kylie looked up from the six words she’d had the heart to type and saw him staring at her contemplatively. “What?”
He pointed to the report. “And I quote, ‘The killer stalked the young private investigator mercilessly, leaving her no choice but to put an end to the horror.’ Really?”
She rolled her eyes. “Okay, okay, I know, just the facts. It may sound a little like a Masterpiece mystery, but you asked for details. And it makes the work fun. It’s so dull, otherwise.”
“Yeah, yeah. But there are so many things wrong with this, beyond that excessive prose. One: You’re not a PI. I just made you my assistant. I’m training you. But nearly getting offed by a serial killer doesn’t change the fact you don’t know what the hell you’re doing. And two…” He threw a hand against the report. “This is serious shit, short stuff. She stalked you to this office and she followed you to your apartment.” He was dead serious now. “Shit, Kylie. Why didn’t you tell me any of that before she tased your ass and shot you in the shoulder?”
Kylie shrugged. “She actually tased my neck.”
Greg scowled at her.
She worried her bottom lip. She’d actually forgotten that her boss hadn’t been privy to most of what was happening with that case, but she’d kept him in the dark because she’d known he’d strip the case from her quicker than she could blink if she’d told him. “It’s okay. I survived, didn’t I?”
“Barely,” he muttered, dropping the report and closing the folder. “Look, Kylie. Consider this your first warning. I hired you to be my office girl, and I’ve told you time and time again that that’s your first priority. If you feel the need to spice up the reports, spice them up. But don’t pull shit like that without telling me.”
She frowned. “First warning? What does that mean? Is that like…probation?”
Greg threw up his hands. He was the easiest boss around, really. Maybe too easy. Hated a lot of rules. Expected her to govern herself. She probably wasn’t the best employee for that kind of arrangement. She had a knack for getting into sticky situations when left to her own devices.
“Call it what you will, but the fact is, you’ve been getting your cute little ass in too many jams since you started working here, and I don’t want to see you get into one you can’t pull yourself out of.”
She pouted. Probation. That made her sad, especially since she’d been busting her butt to do well at this career. “You know I do all the filing and answering phones and menial stuff fine. And I can’t help it if—”
“You can. You choose not to. Your handling of the menial shit around the office is acceptable. It could be better.”
“It could be, if it didn’t bore me to freaking tears,” she muttered under her breath. Like she really cared that the R-S-T filing cabinet was overflowing while the U-V-W-X-Y-Z cabinet had barely anything in it. She was pretty sure that “filing” was the definition of insanity.
“Even so. It’s your job. Your job is not getting shot at by serial killers. I’ve told you this before, but you don’t seem to listen to me. You need to concentrate on your job.”
His voice was harsh. Harsher than she’d ever heard it. It sounded like he was at the end of his rope. She sat back, stricken. She didn’t know what to say.
It was a rare moment for her, not to know what to say, and clearly, Greg felt bad about it. He started to backpedal. “It’s not glamorous, but it’s essential to the day-to-day operations of this business. I’m out a lot, Kylie. I need this help to keep my little outfit chugging along, shipshape.”
Kylie had the urge to give him shit, but then she glanced at the pretty flowers and swallowed that back. He suddenly looked a lot older than his sixty-some years, his salt-and-pepper hair sticking up and baring the receding hairline he usually kept it combed over. She hated to think she was contributing to the graying—or losing—of his hair.
So, she nodded. “Okay. If you say so. Even if the mundane stuff drives me insane, I will stick to it. No life-or-death stuff. I promise.”
She crossed her heart for good measure.
“Good.” He reached for his old blazer and straightened his tie. “I’ve got a meeting with Impact again. More workers’ comp surveillance crap. See? I have my own shit to wade through. But that’s why they call it work. If it was fun, they’d call it…fun. You’ll be good?”
She gave him her brightest smile. “Always!”
He rolled his eyes. She swore she saw him lose some hair on the way out the door.
She kept plugging away at the report, feeling uneasy and depressed. She didn’t do well with mundane. And this was the first time Greg had really, seriously, slapped her hand. Probation. Meh.
She’d failed at so many career starts in her life, and she didn’t want to fail at this one, because this one, she actually liked. She’d changed her major half a dozen times before deciding to give up on college for a while and take this summer job. After the summer, she’d decided to keep with it.
This was the first thing she’d ever done in her adult life that felt like it could be her real career. It was more than like. She loved investigations. She wanted to keep this going, because she knew she’d be good at it.
And Greg was right. All jobs had bad parts. If she wanted to enjoy the many perks to being a private investigator, she just needed to learn how to stomach the bad moments.
When Greg left, she went to his old boom box and turned the radio off of Smooth Muzak 106, to a pop station, jamming out to some 5 Seconds of Summer as she tried to finish the report. After about a half hour, she’d broken a sweat, but still hadn’t finished the damn report.
She draped herself over the typewriter, playing dead, and wondered if Greg would allow her to hire an assistant. This was cruel and unusual.
Her phone started to ring, and she pounced on it, eager to do anything but this infernal report. It was her mom. Kylie answered, ready to have a good, long conversation with her, like she usually did. The two of them were pretty chatty together, even though they spoke nearly every other day.
“Oh, honey. Did I catch you at a bad time?”
“No. I’m at work, but you know,” she leaned back and gave the typewriter the middle finger, “it can wait. What’s up?”
“I just miss my little girl. How’s the shoulder? I thought you’d want to come to dinner again?”
Kylie smiled. She liked cooking almost as much as she liked filing. Most of the time, her dinners amounted to stale cereal, but it was even worse now. Now, she had less of a reason to want to cook, being mostly one-handed. All these things she’d thought were simple, like brushing her teeth or driving down the street…were pretty hard. She’d pretty much lived at her mom’s for two weeks after her injury, and she’d eaten nothing but fast food in the three days she’d been back at her apartment. “Aren’t you getting sick of me?”
“My only daughter, the light of my life? Never!” her mother cried in her usual dramatic fashion. “Anyway, I’m making lasagna, your favorite.”
Mmmm. Her mother’s lasagna. Her mouth started to water, since all she’d had all day was a bag of chips and a Diet Coke. And it wasn’t like she had anything else to look forward to. In fact, since that little roll in the hay—literally—three days ago with Mr. Strong and Silent, she’d been pathetically unsocial. All the friends who’d had her phone ringing off the hook, wanting to know the deets about the serial killer, had pretty much gone back into the woodwork. No, for the last few days, it’d been her and Vader against the world.
She trailed off when she peered out the window and glimpsed Linc walking down the sidewalk, toward the building in the dying light of day. Speak of the devil. God, he was a hot devil. He had Storm, his dog, with him and was just kind of loping down the street unassumingly, like he wasn’t God’s gift to women.
She ignored how her heart picked up speed. “Um. Actually. L—”
“You can bring him too. You know I’d love to see that hot hunk of yours.”
That hot hunk had a name, but she wasn’t sure her mom remembered it. All she’d ever called him was The Hunk. Her mom was right…he was a hunk. Tall, broad-shouldered, tanned, with chocolate brown eyes Kylie’d drowned in numerous times…his entire body was chiseled and strong and well…intimidating. Where she played at being a badass, Linc was as badass as they came, and he had numerous battle scars all over his body to prove it, every one of them infinitely lickable. He just oozed pure male sexuality, so much that her tummy tightened more with every step he took.
Kylie watched him, entranced, until it finally hit her, just what her mother had said. Had Kylie even finished saying Linc’s name? How did her mom do that? Sometimes, her mom’s psychic connection to her daughter was completely freaky. Or maybe her mom had a psychic connection to Linc.
The very first time she met him, she’d practically jumped into his arms and proposed on Kylie’s behalf. Then she’d proceeded to tell him all about Kylie’s lack of love life. Embarrassing? Hell yes.
Hmmm. Would she risk a replay of that embarrassment for epic lasagna? It was a close call.
“I’ve got to go,” Kylie murmured as he started to open the door, pulling the phone from her ear.
“Is that a yes or a no?” rushed out of her mom’s mouth before Kylie could end the call.
“It’s an, ‘I’ll call you back,’” Kylie said, hanging up and wiping her chin discretely to make sure it was dry. She fluffed her hair, sat up straight, and tried to act as if the movement didn’t cause her a little twinge of pain.
“Why, hello stranger,” she said when he appeared, cringing as she realized all her efforts to sound sexy just made her sound like a goober.
But him? With his muscles bulging beneath the arms of his rolled-up denim shirt, which was open at the throat a little to reveal a flash of his hard pecs… He was sex. Pure, blatant sex.God, how the hell did he do that to her? How the hell did he get better and better looking every day?
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