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Thank you for being so unbelievably supportive, receptive, and complementary of Part I of A Crimson Homecoming. I’m not going to have a big introduction this week, except to say, I hope you enjoy part II of the story. I sure was surprised at the turn the story took as I was writing.
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On to the story…
A Crimson Homecoming:
A Payne’s Creek Romantic Suspense Serial, Part II
Bryn’s Coffee House and Diner was hoppin’ Thursday morning. I paused just inside the door. After first scanning the length of the counter, I turned and nodded at a select group of Payne’s Creek’s more mature men having one of their “meetings” to solve all of the town’s problems. Seven of them had pulled up chairs around a table for four. They were doing nothing more than having morning coffee and most likely debating items of global importance: the likelihood of the University of Kentucky Wildcats having a winning football team next fall or which thoroughbreds were likely to make it into the field of horses running in this year’s Kentucky Derby. Or they could be talking politics, in which case I would definitely stay clear.
“Hey, Coop.” Bryn, owner and queen of hospitality in Payne’s Creek, whizzed passed me with a handful of menus, but continued to talk over her shoulder as she returned the menus to a stack on the other side of the cash register. “You need help finding a table this morning?”
I spotted Jake at the far end of the counter. “No, thanks. I see my partner in crime for the morning.”
Before I could take a step, Bryn jumped in front of me with more energy than anyone should have this early. “So, you saw Lil.” A grin played with the corners of her lips, punctuated with a dimple on one side.
“Are you seriously fishing for gossip about your cousin?”
Her face softened, and she frowned. “Of course not.” She crossed her arms, still refusing to let me pass. She was an impressive businesswoman, but she was equally impressive at handling people in her personal life. “Sorry. It was the wrong approach. I just hadn’t seen you since Lil arrived. And… I’m worried about her. She’s not talking much. And did you notice how skinny she was?”
It had been three days since I stumbled upon Lily Thomas in trouble on the side of the road. And three days since I’d had a decent night’s sleep. “Yes, I saw her. No, I didn’t notice her weight.” That was a lie. Though Lil still had beautiful curves in all the right places, she had looked a little thin. But I had chalked it up to the fact that I hadn’t seen her in a while.
“I’m just worried about her, that’s all.” Though Bryn and Lil were first cousins, they were also best friends. Before Lil had left for New York, they were inseparable. And I got the impression they probably still talked often if not daily.
“What I did notice was that someone did a number to your grandmother’s back door. Anything new on that front?” All I knew was that the town gossiped about it for barely twenty-four hours, and when the sheriff’s office didn’t feed the story with any new information, the story got replaced with something else.
“Cool. Change of subject. I get it. You don’t want to talk about Lil.”
Bryn and I stared at each other for several beats. Years of law enforcement experience, including intensive interviewing training, taught me the power of remaining silent to elicit valuable information.
“Fine,” she sighed when I still hadn’t spoken. “But why are you asking me about the blood? Shouldn’t you hear before I do? You are the police, after all.”
“I wasn’t there answering a call. I only gave Lil a lift. The sheriff’s office is in charge. They’re not likely to call Payne’s Creek Police Department for help.”
Bryn lifted a carefully sculpted brow. “Right. Okay. Sure. Have you forgotten who you’re talking to? I know for damn certain you didn’t deliver my cousin to a house freshly christened by a bucket of blood, then just forget about it.”
I swallowed a sigh. “There’s no news yet. As soon as the sheriff knows anything, I’ve been told he would call me.” I placed my hands on both of Bryn’s upper arms, lifted her off of her feet, rotated her ninety degrees to the left, and promptly placed her back on solid ground. “Can I go have breakfast now?”
“Yes, you may.”
“Thank you.” I dropped my hands.
Before I could turn and walk away, she added, “But just so you know, Grammy is having one of her infamous cookouts Friday. She’ll be expecting you there.” Bryn’s lips turned up in a sly smile.
“I’ll be there. Are you and your grandmother ready to come clean with Lil? Tell her that you’ve known I’ve been back for more than six months?”
I got the satisfaction of seeing Bryn’s smile fade as I turned and made my way to a spot at the counter beside my best friend since third grade. Though the satisfaction was short-lived. I would not enjoy seeing Lil upset.
Jake Earlywine was the town attorney in Payne’s Creek. He dealt with one side of most divorces, property disputes, DUIs, and many other general legal matters. Before becoming an attorney, he starred at quarterback of both Payne’s Creek High School and the University of Kentucky. He was kind of a hero around this town, which was laughable because I knew what kinds of things he and I did as kids. We were lucky to never find ourselves in need of an attorney like him back in high school.
“Bryn giving you trouble this morning?” he asked when I sat.
I gave a short wave to Tricia behind the counter. She was already on her way with a mug and a pot of coffee in her hand. “Not too much.”
“What can I get you boys, today?” Tricia asked while she poured the coffee.
“I’ll have the Bluegrass BLT,” Jake said.
I glanced at the large chalkboard on the wall with the menu. “I’ll just have the eggs and toast. Thanks, Tricia.”
“When you gonna go out with me, Tricia?” Jake asked.
She glanced down the counter uncomfortably at Bryn, then turned back to Jake. Setting the coffee pot to the side, she leaned across the counter to get close to Jake, revealing just a hint of cleavage below the “V” of her shirt. “As soon as you stop watching every move Bryn makes each and every morning you grace us with your presence.”
Tricia simply backed away, smiling. “Those orders are coming right up.”
After getting a chuckle out of Tricia calling Jake out on his “secret” relationship with Bryn, I took a healthy drink of my coffee.
“You can’t do a damn thing in this town without everyone knowing,” Jake said.
“Lil’s back,” I said while staring straight ahead, letting the conversation take on a more serious tone.
Jake turned. “I heard. Does she know what happened?”
“She must not. She didn’t say anything, and her family has been terrified to come clean since they’ve kept it from her for the past six months.”
“Why do you think they kept quiet? Or better yet, why didn’t you tell her?”
“She’s got a nice life in New York. A career she loves. A boyfriend, last I heard. She’s happy. Why screw that up?” Of course, that was assuming that news about me would mess things up for her. Pretty arrogant of me to think she’d come running home because I’d had a rough patch. Not to mention, I didn’t want her seeing me like that. “We were both better off keeping news about me on the down low.”
Lil left Kentucky for New York after landing a contract from a major publishing house to write and illustrate a series of children’s books. I kept up with her the best I could by following her on social media, and I, of course, read every book she wrote. Lil mastered a rare blend of top-notch talent with both her writing and illustrations.
“Are you sure she’s happy?” Jake asked. “I heard she doesn’t know how long she’s planning to stay in Payne’s Creek.”
I looked at Jake. “I thought she was only here to help her grandmother move. A week or so.”
“I think that’s what she told everyone initially.”
“Has that changed? Did Bryn say something?”
Tricia delivered our food and poured more coffee, giving Jake a chance to pretend to be preoccupied with doctoring his coffee with cream.
We ate in silence for several minutes before I finally asked, “What did Bryn say?”
“It wasn’t so much as she said anything specific. I just know Bryn’s worried about Lil. And then with what happened out there. Any news about where all that blood came from?”
“No, but I plan to follow up with Sheriff Daniels today.”
The door chimed at the other end of the counter. “Looks like he’s going to make that easy.” Jake nodded toward the door.
I turned to see Sheriff Daniels walking our way.
“Sheriff.” Jake nodded. “It’s going to be a busy day in court. Your deputies were productive over the weekend.”
“They always are. Crime always surges on the weekends, especially with the rise in temperature.” Sheriff Daniels slid into the seat beside me and flagged down Bryn for a cup of coffee.
“Can I get the two of you anything else?” Bryn asked Jake and me.
“You can walk me out,” Jake said as he tossed his napkin on his plate. “I’ll catch you later, Coop. Sheriff.”
“How are you doing, Cooper?” Sheriff Daniels asked.
“Can’t complain,” I said.
“They still got you out on patrol?” he asked, but didn’t really give me time to answer since he already knew. “Aren’t you bored?”
“Why would I be? I answered a 9-1-1 call the other day. Old Mrs. Daily reported that someone broke into her car in the middle of the night.”
“Oh yeah? What did they get?”
“Thirty-two dollars worth of adult diapers.” When Sheriff Daniels turned to me and smiled, I nodded. “I’m just stating the facts. It’ll be in the paper this week if you don’t believe me.”
“Oh, I believe you. I don’t want to, but I do.”
The sheriff’s phone chimed from his left hip. “Sheriff Daniels… Yes… A what? Instruct Miss Thomas not to touch anything. I’ll head that way.” He replaced his phone.
“What is it?” I asked trying to keep the panic out of my voice at the sound of Lil’s last name.
“Actually I came by here hoping to catch you. Had a favor to ask of the Payne’s Creek PD. Already spoke with the chief. He said he’d be fine with you helping the sheriff’s office with something.”
“Does it have anything to do with the call you just got? With the blood you found out at the Kaufman house?”
“As a matter of fact—”
I stood and tossed some money on the counter. “Then let’s go. You can tell me on the way.”
“You’re telling me that the blood on the doors came from a rabbit?” I asked. I sat in the passenger seat of Sheriff Daniels SUV. “How is that possible?”
“I said it was rabbit blood. How many rabbits? We’re not sure.”
“It would take several to produce that quantity of blood. It would be no small feat to produce that much blood from rabbits.”
“Someone went to a lot of trouble.” I stared out the window as Sheriff took the winding road out to the Kaufman place at a fast clip. “This was intentional.” I turned and studied his profile. “You think someone was targeting Barb?” I didn’t know a single person in Payne’s Creek that didn’t love and respect Lil’s grammy, but I also knew that people didn’t always have to have a hateful reason to stir up trouble.
“That call I got just before we left Bryn’s? That was Drew Kaufman. Said someone sent Lil a package.”
“Lil? What kind of package?”
“Let’s just wait and take a look. I don’t want to speculate without seeing what we’re dealing with.”
“You said the sheriff’s office needed a favor? Why am I here?”
“Coop,” he started. He had one arm stretched out across the steering wheel, while the other rubbed the whiskers on his cheek. “You and I go way back. I promised your mom and dad I would do right by you if you came to me looking for advice when you came home.”
“But I didn’t ask,” I pointed out.
“No, you didn’t. You always were stubborn. Insisted on finding your own way.”
“I mean no disrespect, but—”
“I know you don’t. And I figure you’ll find your way again eventually, but I’ve been watching your career. You’ve got amazing instinct. You know how to read people. And you know how to work a case.”
“I appreciate that, but—”
“Listen to me, boy,” he interrupted me again. “I know you’re one hell of an investigator, and I would give you more time to find your way since you’ve been home, but we need you now. I’m afraid Lil needs you.”
“What are you not telling me?” I attempted to keep my tone even, but I was definitely working up a little anger. I lowered my right hand beside my leg and opened my fingers wide before curling them into a tight fist.
“I called Drew yesterday. When I told him about the mess being rabbit blood, we discussed possible motives for someone wanting to deface Barb’s home. Coming up short, he mentioned something that got my hackles raised.”
“You know that Lil’s luggage didn’t make her flight from New York, right?”
“Yeah. She mentioned it.”
“Well, the luggage was delivered yesterday just before I called Drew. And there was a message on it.”
“What kind of message? Damn it, Sheriff, spit it out.”
“The word ‘slut’ was painted on the outside of her suitcase, and her night clothes inside were shredded.”
“In a town where news spreads like wildfire, why is this the first time I’m hearing of this?”
“They really wanted to keep it quiet. Lil’s very embarrassed by it. And we, of course, wanted to keep it quiet until we knew more.”
I stared out the window again, processing this information. “What did the airport say?”
“They had no explanation. I mean, anyone could have grabbed her suitcase as it came around the carrousel and then disappear into a bathroom. She’d think it hadn’t arrived and file a complaint. When she was gone, the thief would reappear with the bag—after already scribbling the message—and toss it back on the carousel. Or maybe they took the suitcase outside the airport, searched through the contents for something and shredded the clothes, then returned it later.”
“Has anything turned up on the airport’s security feeds?”
“And now she’s received some sort of package?” I asked as Sheriff turned up Barb’s driveway.
He’d barely stopped the vehicle before I was half way out. He quickly grabbed my arm to stop me. “Look, Coop. I love you like a son. We go way back. I also got a soft spot in my heart for Barb and Lil, who Barb practically raised. But you and Lil have a history. If this isn’t something you think you can keep a clear head about…” He left the statement open-ended.
I stared across the seat at him. Studied his worried eyes. “If Lil’s in trouble, I can either work the case alongside you, or I can do it on my own.” When the sheriff didn’t let go of my arm, I added, “I’ve loved Lil most of my life. Just because we’re not together doesn’t change that. I’ll keep a clear head.”
He nodded. “I’d rather have you on my team.”
“Then let’s go see what’s in this package.”
We stood in Barb Kaufman’s kitchen, staring into a box on Barb’s counter.
The kitchen smelled of cake that was now cooling on the stove. Red velvet if I had to guess, my favorite of Barb’s. The delivery had obviously interrupted Barb’s baking.
Lil leaned against a counter on the opposite side of the kitchen. Her hair was thrown into a messy, low ponytail, and she wore minimal makeup—a look I imagined she wore when she was working on her drawings or writing. She hugged one arm across her ribcage while chewing on a nail on her opposite hand. She stared straight at the box as if willing the contents to magically disappear.
With gloved hands, I lifted the object out of the box: a white and gray domestic rabbit mounted on a piece of raw wood, a nice piece of taxidermy. Protruding from the rabbit’s chest was a small paring knife, not the finishing touch you’d expect from your local taxidermist.
“We’ll dust for fingerprints,” Sheriff Daniels said.
I turned the rabbit around, examining each side. “There won’t be any.”
“Why not?” Lil asked. It was the first time she’d spoken since the sheriff and I had arrived. Her face was pale, and I was noticing in the light of day just how thin she looked. Bryn had been right.
“Just a hunch. Taxidermists wear gloves when they work, and there are few places on this where fingerprints could collect.”
“What about the knife?” Drew asked.
“We’ll dust for them, of course, but—”
“No one’s going to send this kind of sick gift in the mail and tell us who he is.” Barb moved in and wrapped an arm around Lil’s shoulders. Barb might be a seventy-eight year-old grandmother, but she stood strong. Her hair was cut in a stylish bob and colored blond. If I hadn’t known Lil’s poor excuse for a mother, I would think Barb was Lil’s mom. She definitely played the part more than Lil’s mom had.
Lil shrugged away from Barb’s touch. “I’m sorry, Grammy. I just don’t need someone feeling sorry for me right now.”
“Lily Marie Thomas, that wasn’t me feeling sorry for you. That was me letting you know that you’re not alone.”
Lil’s face fell. “I’m sorry.” Tears touched her eyes, but she quickly blinked them away. “What now?” She looked from the sheriff to me.
“Where’s your suitcase?” I asked.
Her eyes widened, and she shot a dark look at the sheriff. “You told him?”
“He’s the best detective we’ve got in this town,” Sheriff Daniels defended.
“But he’s not a detective,” Drew said. “Are you sure he can handle this?”
“Drew,” Barb’s tone was one of warning.
“What? Am I supposed to just stand here and act like because Cooper and Lil were a thing when they were kids that he’s the best option for protecting her now? Are we just going to forget what happened to him?”
“What is he talking about?” Lil asked. Her eyes darted to mine. She pushed off the counter. A little color returned to her cheeks.
“It’s nothing, sweetie,” Barb said and moved closer to Lil, but she didn’t try to touch her this time.
“Look,” Sheriff Daniels started. “Cooper has experience with some tough investigations. He does good work, and I would trust him with my life. So far, I think someone is just trying to scare Lil. This is just petty prank activity. But I think Cooper should look into a few things before we write this off as such.”
Lil’s eyes narrowed in on me with a look of steely determination. Memory of the connection we had when we were younger flooded back. No one could see straight through me or read what was on my heart the way Lil could. Damn it I wanted to put my arms around her right now and tell her everything was going to be fine. And I could have punched Drew for minimizing the connection Lil and I once had.
I knew I was going to have to come clean with her, and when I did, she was going to be pissed. At me. At her grandmother. At her cousin and best friend.
Hopefully, she would forgive them for keeping my secret. But I would never have forgiven myself if my circumstances had pulled her back to a town she had run so fiercely from. She deserved to follow her dreams and find happiness.
She took a step toward me, and I knew she was going to demand the truth right then and there. She would want to know why Drew doubted my abilities before she could trust me to look into what was happening to her now.
But instead of asking me, she turned to the sheriff. “I would be very thankful, Sheriff, if you and Cooper looked into who might be doing these things. But you’re wrong about one thing already.”
The little hairs on the back of my neck rose when her voice cracked slightly. I reached out a hand to touch her arm, but she retreated away from me.
She rotated her shoulders back and swallowed hard. “These aren’t petty pranks. They’re just three incidents in a long string of threatening messages directed at me.”
I narrowed my gaze.
Barb let out a gasp. “Sweetie? What are you saying?”
She hugged herself with both arms. I watched how pain etched into the creases forming between her eyes as her brows pointed in.
“Lil?” I said. “Is someone stalking you?”
“Yes. And it appears he’s followed me to Kentucky.”
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