A Taste of... deadly silence
Patricia Hastings fixed her traditional white nursing cap over her stick-straight blonde locks before jumping into her little Dodge Dart. The cap was vintage, worn by her mother and grandmother before that. She didn’t want a new one. She loved that her cap had been witness to so many years of helping others.
Sipping at a cup of coffee, she turned up the radio loud, grooving to Captain and Tennille’s “Love Will Keep Us Together” as she headed out onto Rural Route Three toward the little town of Jolivue, Virginia.
As she drove, she patted her fringed bag, making sure she’d remembered the card to go along with the New Mother diaper basket she gave all of her patients. In the card, she’d written, Best of luck to one of my favorite new mothers. Please don’t hesitate to call me should you and your beautiful daughter ever need anything!
Under that, she’d written her home phone number, which she rarely gave out. Her patients usually called her through the Staunton Midwife Service, which was customary procedure. She’d also stuffed a bigger pile of diapers in the basket than usual. She had a feeling this client would need the extra supply, and she couldn’t deny that she’d miss this client more than her others.
Maybe it was because Renee Best, the spunky little kid, reminded Patricia of her own daughters, now grown. Poor Renee. Not yet twenty with no husband, no money, no support system, but so strong and brave. The young woman had an uphill battle in front of her, for sure, whether she realized it or not. Being left by one’s significant other with no means of support would unhinge anyone, let alone a nine months pregnant, hormonal mother-to-be.
But not Renee.
Every time Patricia stopped by for one of Renee’s prenatal check-ups, Renee would welcome her with a big hug, put a kettle on for tea, then the two would talk like old friends. She lived in a rust-trap of an old trailer, right off the highway, probably not the best place to raise a child. She was always alone. And yet every time Patricia showed up, Renee would be there, belly a little bigger, excited to show off some new find she’d gotten at the thrift store or crocheted herself.
A nurse midwife for twenty years, Patricia had seen all kinds of cases, but never anyone so excited to be a mother as Renee. A small blessing considering the hard road ahead of her, the delivery had gone like a dream. No complications whatsoever. Six hours of natural labor, and out popped Lyra Rose. It was women like Renee who made Patricia love her job.
And the baby? Adorable. Healthy, chubby, a regular Gerber baby, but with a halo of inch-long red hair the color of a new penny. Patricia had never seen any mother look at any baby with as much love as Renee had, the first moment she was placed into her arms.
Patricia smiled as she pulled off the two-lane highway, onto the dirt road leading up to the trailer park. She’d become a midwife because she loved helping women with what many would consider the most important day of their lives.
And she cared for all her young mothers. Sometimes, too much. Goodbyes were always hard on her heart, but she couldn’t stay in their lives forever.
Her kids said she always had trouble with the moving on. It was why she still hadn’t thrown out her daughters’ stuffed animals and kept each of their rooms untouched, looking exactly as the day they flew the nest, even though they’d been out of the house for years.
But she loved babies and children, couldn’t wait to have her own grandkids. Maybe, one day, she’d get a letter from Renee, thanking her for her friendship through this difficult time. Maybe she’d learn one day that little Lyra Rose had become a success and gone on to do great things. A doctor. A famous actress. Maybe she could say, one day, that she’d played a small part in that. After all, one of the first babies she’d ever delivered was now a quarterback for James Madison University, and there was talk of him being recruited into the NFL.
All in all, a very good life. But she’d thought it would get easier, saying goodbye to the babies she delivered. Unfortunately, it never had.
The radio had just begun blaring the news of the day, the sensational story of how that heiress, Patty Hearst, had been captured and arrested for armed robbery in California. What a crazy world we live in these days, Patricia thought as she flipped the radio off.
As she neared the trailer park, she saw something she’d never seen in these woods.
Flashing blue lights.
A police car.
No, two of them. Three.
Born and bred in this small town, Patricia had never seen three police cars congregated anywhere in Jolivue. Were there even three police officers in Jolivue? Nothing ever happened here.
But something was definitely happening now. Something bad.
She slowed to a near stop, creeping down the curving dirt road. When a loud horn blasted behind her, she nearly bit her tongue in surprise as she looked in the rearview mirror to see a large white form with flashing red lights bearing down upon her.
One thought sprang to Patricia’s head. The baby. Lyra Rose is ill, or hurt, or worse.
Pulling to the side of the road to let the ambulance pass, Patricia decided this was all her fault. Renee was a new mother, had so many questions, and likely hadn’t had anyone to ask once Patricia had gone away. What if Renee had made an error of judgement? A serious one? And Patricia hadn’t been there to help her.
Patricia’s eyes drifted to the diaper basket, and the card she’d written out. Too late.
Maybe if she’d given it to Renee sooner, she wouldn’t have felt like she had to handle this all on her own. After the birth, she’d told Renee she would make herself available if she was needed. But Renee was a sweet girl, overly accommodating and always saying she didn’t want to be too much trouble. Maybe Renee hadn’t wanted to bother her?
And now…now something horrible had happened.
Patricia threw open the door to her Dart and rushed through the crunching leaves toward a small gathering of grim-looking police officers as the paramedics filed inside the rusty old Airstream trailer. As she approached, an older officer with a salt-and-pepper moustache and a tired face turned to her and held up his hands. “We’ll need you to stay back,” he said gruffly.
“Is Lyra Rose okay?” Patricia asked desperately, trying to peek over the officer’s broad shoulders to see the new mother. “The baby?”
“Baby?” His eyes narrowed as he studied her. “Were you friends with Miss Best?”
Patricia’s blood ran cold at the use of the verb tense. Not are. If she hadn’t been so alarmed, she would’ve explained exactly who she was, but instead she said, “Yes. Did something happen to her?”
He nodded. “I’m afraid so. There’s been a suicide.”
“Suicide?” Patricia said the word aloud to try to get it through her head. Not Renee. Not that peppy young thing who always had a smile on her face. “That’s not possible. I was her midwife. I delivered the baby two weeks ago. Everything was fine. It’s just…not possible.”
“I’m sorry. A neighbor reported not seeing her or her baby for a couple of days and asked that we check up on her. It appears she overdosed on prescription medication.”
Patricia recoiled. Prescription meds? How did she even get those? Renee had been insistent about natural childbirth. She didn’t want any medication in her bloodstream. “Prescription medication?” Patricia repeated.
“Yes.” His gaze grew even sharper. “As her midwife, did you notice any signs of postpartum depression? Did she talk to you at all about being sad or blue or wanting to kill herself?”
“N-no.” Her voice cracked, and she cleared her throat, swallowing down the tears threatening to take over. “Not at all. Not even once. She was very happy, and she was thrilled to be a mom. I didn’t have the slightest concern.”
“Well, how often did you visit with her?” he said, eyebrow cocked in doubt.
Patricia crossed her arms, suddenly cold on this warm autumn day. “Once a week. That’s per usual. If I saw any reason to visit more often than that, I would. But I had no reason to.” She still couldn’t get over the feeling that this officer was blaming her for missing key signals to Renee’s condition, so she added, “Look. I’ve been doing this for twenty years, and I’ve seen many women who suffer from postpartum depression, and I can tell you right now that Renee Best wasn’t one of them.”
“I see.” He sounded unimpressed.
Patricia sighed and looked up as the paramedics wheeled a stretcher toward the door of the trailer. “Where’s Lyra Rose?”
Ignoring her question, the officer pulled out a pen and pad and jotted something down. “What’s your name?”
“Patricia Hastings,” she murmured, watching as the paramedic went inside the small trailer. Her eyes trailed down to her feet, where she saw something pink among the leaf-cover. With her toe, she moved the leaves away and realized it was a little pink bootie that Renee had knitted for the child. She’d been so proud of them. She said it was her first knitting project, ever.
Patricia reached down to pick it up, then froze when the officer barked, “Don’t! Please, don’t touch anything. When did you see Miss Best last?”
“A week ago,” she said, desperation settling over her. She tried again. “Where’s the baby?”
He wrote something else down. “Where do you live?”
She sighed, getting annoyed. “I’m sorry. Am I a suspect or something? What’s—”
“No, Mrs. Hastings. These are just routine questions. Renee’s baby is missing, and as of now, you may be the last person who’s seen her.”
Patricia’s stomach dropped. “Missing?”
“There’s the possibility that the mother killed the baby prior to committing suicide. It’s often the case when someone feels hopeless. They may take it out on the innocent child. If that’s the case, she may have buried the child nearby.”
“Renee?” Patricia gasped as he rounded up a couple officers and asked them to search the vicinity. “Oh, no! Never!”
There were several other trailers around, all in various states of disrepair. At one of them, Patricia saw a couple of children’s faces peeking out from behind a dirty window.
“Loneliness often drives people to do terrible things,” he said, shaking his head with regret. “She clearly had money troubles and no way of supporting herself.”
“She may have been alone,” Patricia argued, her voice rising with each word, “but she wasn’t hopeless. She’d been so happy the last time I saw her. Yes, she might’ve been low-income, but she was really excited about her future, and she loved Lyra. The last time I spoke to her on the phone a few days ago, she was looking into subsidized daycares so she could start working again. She was looking forward. She wasn’t even a little bit sad about her situation.”
The officer shrugged. “I suppose you never can tell. She might not have appeared sad because she’d already made the decision to end it.”
So much was wrong with that, Patricia didn’t even know where to start. “No. That’s wrong.”
He gave her a look that said he was not amused and didn’t really care to hear her opinion. “I’m sorry, but you’ll have to leave now,” the officer said, pointing down the driveway. “We can’t have people uninvolved in the investigation loitering around here.”
She took a step back and started to turn, her mind still awhirl, when the paramedics appeared in the doorway with a stretcher containing the black body bag of the young mother. Nausea bubbled in Patricia’s throat as they wheeled it through a square patch of dirt. Only a week ago, they’d shared tea in the little kitchenette, and Renee had talked about how she was planning to make a garden for fresh vegetables so she could make her own baby food.
How could this have happened?
Patricia backed up, tripping over a tree root before righting herself and scrambling back into her car. As she turned the key in the ignition, she looked over at the diaper basket filled with the extra diapers and even a little bunny pacifier that Patricia had chosen just because Renee had loved the snuggly looking creatures.
Tears flooded her eyes, and by the time she’d made a three-point turn and pulled out onto the main road, she was sobbing. Those poor babies. The two of them. Renee was really just a baby herself. Naïve. Maybe she’d had a flash of clarity and realized just how hopeless her situation was.
But even if Renee was feeling hopeless, how could a mother kill a child? Or just abandon her somewhere? How could a mother not feel at least some motherly instinct toward a baby?
Patricia gripped the steering wheel tightly, knowing that she needed to only turn on the evening news to see how a mother could do such a horrible thing.
Not Renee. Patricia just couldn’t believe it. The moment she’d given birth, she’d cradled that baby to her breast and Patricia had seen them bond. That’s why none of this made any sense.
But how well did she really know the women whose babies she delivered? Even Renee. Seeing her a couple times a month didn’t make them best friends. Maybe there was a darkness within the young mother that Patricia hadn’t detected.
That just didn’t seem right, though. She thought she was a good judge of character. Renee hadn’t been even remotely depressed. And why would a woman care so much about not harming her child during her pregnancy and childbirth, and then kill the helpless infant weeks later?
Patricia reached over and rolled down the window of her car, grabbed her Virginia Slims from the glove compartment, and lit one up, her hands still shaking. She sucked on the filter, trying to calm herself, and blew out a cloud of smoke as she entered downtown Staunton, where she lived.
Stopping at a light, she set her cigarette down in the ashtray and pulled the card from the basket with the cute little chick on the front. Welcome Chickadee! the front proclaimed.
Reading her message inside one last time, she tore it in half, then in half again. She wiped at her eyes, tossing the papers to the passenger’s side of her car.
Rolling down her window for some much needed air, she froze, her ears picking up a sound. A baby’s cry. An infant, from the sound of it.
Patricia craned her neck to see an impeccably dressed woman in the passenger seat of the fancy sedan next to her. She was rocking an adorable little pink wrapped bundle to her chest, looking exasperated.
Patricia blinked. Then blinked again.
Was she going insane?
Because that little baby looked almost exactly like Lyra Rose.
Her eyes weren’t what they used to be, though. She waved away the cloud of thick cigarette smoke, softly pressed the gas, and slowly rolled up so that she was now in line with the window, striving to get closer. She leaned her head out the window so she could get even nearer.
Yes. It could be.
All newborn babies look the same, her husband, Al, had once said to her.
And while that was true—they all kind of looked a little pruny and odd—by their second week of life, they started to distinguish themselves. A week ago, Patricia had remarked to Renee that Lyra Rose had the perfect little nose, and what’s more…an adorable dimple in the center of her chin.
No question. This baby had that dimple.
And how many babies had dimples like that? Week old babies with perfect noses? What were the chances?
Lyra Rose also had one ear that was slightly smaller and stuck out more than the other. She’d recommended to Renee to get the baby’s hearing checked, because deformities of the ear often meant hearing issues. If Patricia could see both ears close enough to compare, she felt for certain she’d know.
And that hair.
If only the baby wasn’t wearing a little cap, she would know for sure.
When Patricia was practically hanging from her driver’s side window, the woman holding the baby noticed her. She smiled at first, but the smile soon faded as Patricia continued to scrutinize the child with narrowed eyes, willing the woman to turn the baby more fully toward her so that she could see both sides of her head.
Then, without warning, the driver stepped on the gas, and the car surged ahead, making a left turn, leaving Patricia at the green light. Behind her, a horn blared.
Heart pounding in her chest, she made the split-second decision to follow, nearly side-swiping another car as she swerved into the left lane, making the turn. More horns blared. As she followed the sedan, she told herself she’d just get one more glimpse of the baby, to be sure. The car was a late-model Buick, bright blue, and from what she could see, though her eyes weren’t so good anymore, the first digits of the license plate were W4B or WAB.
She tapped her trimmed fingernails on the steering wheel as she watched the car go into a place with a sign that said Yorkshire Terrace. Another new development that hadn’t been here a year ago. The shingled roofs of gorgeous new homes were visible among the trees.
Patricia turned in, following from a safe distance as she watched the car slowly make its way past children playing basketball in the street, their bikes strewn over the grass and sidewalks. The driver of the car beeped cheerily, waved, and said something to the kids as they passed. High-pitched laughter filled the air, and on the other side of the street, a child wheeled by on a tricycle.
About six houses in from the entrance to the neighborhood, the car pulled into the long driveway of a gorgeous, sprawling, brick-front split level. A dwelling that looked rather like the house in the Brady Bunch, that show Al was obsessed with.
As Patricia slowly inched by, the kids playing on the street regarded her like exactly who she was: a stranger interrupting their game. Once she passed them, she pulled to the curb and watched as the mother stepped out from the Buick. She was wearing a smart plaid dress and matching shoes, holding the baby in her arms. A well-dressed man in a striped tie came around from the driver’s side, and they started to walk up a flower-lined path to the front door.
Patricia sighed. They looked like the picture of the All-American dream, the pinnacle of human aspiration. Where the radio constantly blared about Patty Hearst and Watergate and Vietnam, all that was awful in the world…this family was everything that was right with it.
The baby couldn’t have been Lyra Rose. This had to just be Patricia’s imagination running away with her. Her grief was simply interfering with her logic.
She’d been watching too much Ellery Queen on television, Al would probably say. Had this well-to-do couple kidnapped the baby and murdered Renee? No. Of course not.
But Patricia found herself jumping from her car, nevertheless.
Until she made sure, absolutely sure, she would never sleep well at night ever again.
Skipping into a run, she made it across the street as the man and woman reached their front door. “Excuse me!” she called to them, stepping onto the sidewalk and starting up their wide two-car driveway.
They both turned. The baby cried harder, its little face bloodred now. The corner of the woman’s eyes wrinkled in recognition, and she clutched the baby closer to her chest. “Yes?”
“I’m sorry. I saw your baby back there, at the light,” she said, realizing she hadn’t come up with any story ahead of time. Obviously, they’d think she was insane. Or worse, a kidnapper. After all, she’d followed them. “And—”
“I know. I saw you in the car back there at the light. You…you followed us home?” Although the woman’s voice was more confused than accusing, she still snatched the screaming baby even closer to her chest.
“Well, yes,” Patricia said, blushing as she crossed over their manicured green lawn, hoping to get a closer look at the newborn’s ears. “I’m sorry, this is so presumptuous of me, but I’ve never seen such a beautiful child.”
The man smiled proudly, unaware of anything being wrong. He touched the baby’s red cheek, and the baby turned its head instinctively, searching for food. “Yeah, she’s a peach, isn’t she?”
“Oh, yes,” Patricia said, staring hard at the child. “What is her name?”
“Jennifer,” the woman said, her voice and body language still hesitant.
Right. Well, of course she wouldn’t be named Lyra.
“She’s…beautiful,” Patricia repeated, still trying to get a look at those ears. And the hair. But the baby was wearing a tiny pink beanie. If only she could… “Could I, perhaps, hold her?”
The couple looked at one another, and for a moment, Patricia thought they’d agree. The man opened his mouth, but the woman took a step back. “Oh, Frank…”
Finally sensing her concern, the man stepped in front of his wife. “You know, maybe not. Kid can be kind of skittish if she ain’t with her momma. You know how babies can be.”
Patricia shifted her eyes to the woman, who was staring at her cautiously. Was she the mother? She looked remarkably trim and well-rested for a woman who’d just had a baby, but some women were known for springing back like that.
“Oh. Of course.” She tittered a bit, rubbing her damp hands down the front of her uniform. “The bond between a mother and child is powerful.”
The man laughed and cleared his throat. “Well, yes. We were blessed to have Jennifer come into our lives just yesterday, so we’re still getting used to all of—”
Come into their lives?
“Was she adopted?” Patricia blurted, then quickly lowered her voice. She sounded like a maniac. “That’s so wonderful.” She desperately wanted to have a look under that hat. She craned her neck, noticing the bulge of the ear, but that didn’t say much.
If only you could talk, baby, you’d tell me. Did I deliver you?
“Well, it was nice meeting you,” the woman said curtly, turning her back to Patricia.
“Yes,” Patricia said reluctantly, taking a step back. “Best of luck with your precious new addition.”
“Thanks, ma’am,” the man said, giving her a hard look before turning toward his wife.
But she couldn’t bring her feet to move from the spot where they’d been rooted. She couldn’t simply walk away. The baby was the right age, the right sex, and she had the dimple. And she’d been adopted. That was enough.
“Actually…” she said loudly. The couple turned toward her. “I hope you…I mean, I’m not exactly sure how I should put this to you, but you see, I’m a midwife. And well, one of my clients was just found to have committed suicide, and her baby is missing.” She swallowed and motioned to Jennifer. “Your daughter looks very much like that child. Where did you adopt her from?”
“W-well, I-I-I…” the father stammered, his face reddening. “There’s got to be some—”
“It’s a very reputable agency!” the woman snapped, turning with the child to keep Patricia from looking at her. “I’m sorry, whoever you are, but you’re mistaken. And I want you to leave. Get off our property. Now.”
“Now!” The father barked, and Patricia apologized as he opened the door and allowed his wife to go in first. With a final glare, he stepped inside and slammed the door with a resounding bang. The moment it was closed, the lock clicked home.
Well, what could she expect? She’d all but accused them of stealing the child. If she’d been in their shoes, she probably would’ve reacted the same way.
She walked back to her car, and as she looked up at the house, noticed the vertical blinds dip in an upstairs room. They were watching her. On the street, the boys had stopped playing basketball and were now frowning at her like she was worse than a stranger—more like a criminal. Likely, they’d heard the whole tense exchange.
The boys weren’t the only ones watching, either. From a car parked by the sidewalk, someone stared at her, although she couldn’t see them very well.
Patricia hung her head, suddenly very embarrassed by her actions.
What was she doing?
Swiping a stray strand of her blonde hair back, Patricia gave the kids an apologetic wave that they didn’t seem to accept. She climbed into her car and willed herself to put the horrible day out of her mind. Al would be home from work soon. She needed to stop playing Columbo, get back to the house on the other side of town, and make him dinner.
She’d talk to Al about these things as they ate. He was usually her voice of reason. He’d be honest and tell her if she was flying off the deep end which, most likely, she was. She had a history of obsessing about things, especially anything related to babies.
But that sweet little baby didn’t leave her mind. She always thought it’d be hard to forget Lyra Rose, but now, she knew that as long as she lived, the memory of that child would be engrained in her mind. While she drove to the Safeway at the Staunton Mall, while she was loading the groceries for that evening’s dinner into the trunk, even when she started the oven for the pork chops, she was thinking of poor Renee and sweet little Lyra Rose.
She didn’t need to ask Al. She couldn’t let this go. She needed to do something. Just in case.
Even if she was mistaken, it was better to be safe than sorry.
She was putting the butter back in the fridge and had just made up her mind to go to the police with her fears when the doorbell rang.
She checked the clock on the kitchen wall. Five-thirty. They rarely got visitors on their rural street—even Avon ladies found it too remote to be worth it. This had to be Al. He had a terrible habit of forgetting his key.
She’d forgive him, though, since he was right on time. The pork chops were ready, just the way he liked them. With applesauce on the side.
Wiping her hands on the dishrag, she threw open the door to their modest little rancher. “Al, you’ll never believe what happened to—”
The two bullets that slammed into her chest rocketed her back into the wall. Her legs gave way, and she sank to the floor as two legs appeared in her line of vision.
She opened her mouth to speak. Say something. Anything.
Please, her mind screamed when her lips refused to work. Don’t. Please don’t.
But when she looked up, all she could see was the black barrel of the gun staring back at her.
“Please…” she whispered. “Please don—”
Kylie Hatfield Coulter looked at her husband of three whole months, her phone still pressed to her ear. His question was repeated on his face. The raised eyebrows, the inquisitive gleam in his eyes. The genuine curiosity and hope that she’d just landed a new case…a new, safe case.
But Kylie had a bigger question, a bigger curiosity, burning through her mind.
Sure, she’d love a big, fat, juicy case, safe or not. Her new role as an official—business card and all—private investigator was all well and good, but it usually involved dull day-to-day grunt work of conducting background checks and workers’ comp surveillance. Nothing too exciting. It was the big crimes that rarely happened that really got Kylie’s heart pumping. And, to be honest, the woman who’d just called sounded like she had a case that would get Kylie’s blood flowing.
She looked at the bathroom. The same bathroom she’d lost her stomach lining in just a few minutes ago before being forced to come out and take a phone call. The same bathroom holding a little stick she’d just peed on. The same bathroom that held the answer to the question burning in her mind.
Linc’s look of concern was a reminder that she needed to speak. She needed to tell him about the phone call she’d just taken. The new case. Something.
She needed to say something.
But before she could, one of the ten puppies playing and rolling around on the floor in delighted puppy glee squatted and a pale circle of puppy pee spread around him. Or her. Kylie still couldn’t tell them apart at first glance.
The word came from her mouth more sharply than she’d meant to say it, and all the puppies looked at her in abject terror. Feeling immediately regretful, Kylie picked up the guilty one and hugged him—or her—tightly, burying her face in the soft fur while Linc swiped a few sheets from the roll of paper towels they now kept in every room.
Wincing against the sound of all the barking, whimpering, yipping, and growling, Kylie looked around the squirming sea of furry puppies scattered about their living room as she wiped dog drool from her fingers.
If this wasn’t hell, it was pretty darn close.
Coulter Confidential, the new business venture she’d started with her husband, Linc, was anything but conventional, that was for sure. It was less of a private investigations firm, and more of a…madhouse.
But with this most recent bout of nausea, she had a feeling that it was about to get a lot madder.
She’d woken up with it, had some coffee and toast, and felt better. But now it was back. And that was not good. Not good at all.
“Let’s go, guys,” Linc said to the dogs, and they all scrambled after him as he led them to the fenced in yard.
“Guess what?” Linc said as the screen door slammed. A moment later, her beloved husband reappeared in their makeshift office area at the front of the house, where they had two desks arranged front-to-front, so the newlyweds could gaze lovingly at one another.
Though she really hadn’t been doing much of that lately. Right now, even Linc Coulter’s handsome face wanted to make her puke. “What?”
“Fixed the handle on your door.”
That was amazing. The thing had only been busted since the last case, when Vader chewed his way out of her Jeep to come to their rescue. “Really? Did you do it yourself?”
He nodded. “Wasn’t so hard.”
“Then I don’t know why it took you forever.” She tamped down the nausea and smiled at him sweetly.
He blew on his fingernails and pretended to polish them on his chest. “Pure genius takes time. How’s work in here going?”
She looked around at the accumulating pile of papers on her desk. “It’s going. The little monsters are at it, though, as usual.”
He shrugged. “That’s nothing new.”
“Did you train them at all today?”
“Best I can. Puppies are hard. They’re coming along, though. Slowly. But I can tell they’re smart. They just got a hell of a lot of energy. They’ll make good SARs, though, one day.”
Right. She knew that. Just now…they were a little hard to handle.
A lot hard.
Actually, everything was. New company, new puppies, new husband…and here she’d thought that once she got married, things would settle down. Instead, she felt like there was a knot in the middle of her chest, tightening every time a new wrinkle popped up. Right now, she was so wrinkly she felt like an old lady.
That wasn’t like her. She’d never been able to concentrate for long on one thing, but as she was ping-ponging around, she’d normally been so glass-half-full. So happy.
But now…it felt like her emotions were all over the place. Happy one minute, freaking out the next.
She didn’t need any more wrinkles to show themselves. And she wasn’t sure that Happy Kylie would ever come back.
Because of the summer heat, Linc had been walking around in nothing but gym shorts all day, and she had to admit, looking mighty fine doing it. They’d just celebrated their three-month anniversary, and she was still as excited to look at him as she ever had been. She laid a hand on her stomach to quell the butterflies.
Nausea climbed up her throat again, reminding her of what was waiting for her in the bathroom. Not that she needed a reminder.
He leaned back and placed his hands behind his head. “So, you going to spill about the case or what? I know I’m only the second in command around here, but I hate being kept in the dark.”
She balled up a piece of paper and threw it at him. “For the last time, you’re not second in anything. We’re equals in this venture. Remember? And I was just going to fill you in. That was Elise Kirby.”
His face darkened with confusion. “You say that name like I should know it.”
“Well, that’s because you should. Elise Kirby from the Sunset Diner? The waitress who always remembers that I want extra butter with my toast?”
He squinted at her. “I don’t even know you want extra butter with your toast. Is that a thing?”
She simply shook her head. Men could be so thick.
“Of course it is. They give you those tiny little pats of butter, and it’s never enough. You know I’m a butter fiend and—”
She stopped. Why was she arguing about butter with him when there was a pregnancy test cooling in the bathroom cabinet, waiting to reveal its contents? Did pregnancy tests go bad? If she waited too long, would it give her the wrong answer? But Linc was waiting on her to explain, so it wasn’t like she could just call a break and go check, especially considering she’d just been in the bathroom less than two minutes ago. If she hightailed it back there now, he was bound to get suspicious.
“Anyway,” she said, sitting on her hands to stop from fidgeting with them, “Elise says she wants to possibly hire me. She said something about a phony adoption agency, but I think she might be a little confused. Something about a baby she thinks is missing.”
“She seemed…” He touched the side of his head. “Am I right?”
Kylie nodded. Elise Kirby was what some people might call a little slow. It might have been an intellectual disability, but she also walked like she was moving through molasses, with a little bit of a limp. And when she spoke, it usually took her quite a while to get the words out.
“But she’s so sweet. I really like her, so I agreed to meet her this afternoon.” Kylie wiggled her eyebrows at Linc. “Now who thinks it was a dumb idea to put the ads for Coulter Confidential on their placemats?”
Linc raised his hand, grinning at her. “I still do. Just because some waitress hires you for what could or could not even be a case doesn’t mean that you’re going to recoup the three-hundred bucks a month you put into it.”
Kylie’s face pinched. She’d really been proud of that advertising coup, especially when she’d finagled an extra month free out of the ad exec. “You just wait. Anyway. We should probably clean up this sty before she gets here.”
“Wait.” He looked down at the balls of fur floating around like fuzzy tumbleweeds. “You’re meeting her here?”
“Yeah. She said it was a personal matter. She didn’t want anyone at the diner hearing about it.”
He considered this. “About an adoption agency?”
“Interesting.” He pushed up off his chair and grabbed a training leash. “Going to see if I can’t do some one-on-one training with Beatrice. She’s the most promising. If she gets it, maybe her siblings’ll fall in line.”
Kylie smiled wide at him, trying not to shoo him away. She was anxious to get rid of him because of what waited in the bathroom cabinet.
“Have fun,” she said to him, still sitting on her hands. Get moving, bud. I got things to do. Life and death things.
The second the screen door slammed, all the pups but Beatrice hustled back inside, yipping and sliding on the wood floors.She cursed, then rushed to the bathroom as if her pants were on fire. By then, she was sweating and nauseated again. A few more dry heaves later, she grabbed the wand, and saying a little prayer, raised it up so that she could read her future.
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