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The results are in from last week, and WOW! is this story setting up to be exciting! As I’m sure you figured out last week, but the choice you made after Part IV will take several episodes to unfold.

In today’s episode, I have set up the story to unfold in such a way to reveal what you chose last week. I believe every suspect has been introduced in some way. I can’t wait to hear your theories.

Okay… Let’s get to it.

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A Crimson Homecoming:

A Payne’s Creek Romantic Suspense Serial, Part V

Lil

“Sit,” I ordered Bryn. I picked up the pot of coffee and poured it into a mug that said, “It’s OK if this is whiskey. I’m Irish-ISH.”

“I should be serving you coffee after last night’s bloodbath in your bedroom.”

“I need to stay busy,” I said. “Besides, you sling caffeine all day long.” Truth was, I was trying hard to think about anything other than replaying that gruesome scene. Seeing that dead fox hanging from the light in my bedroom… and all that blood. I turned back to the coffee pot. With my back to Bryn, I closed my eyes tightly for a second while trying to erase the macabre image. When I opened them, I poured myself a mug of coffee. My mug had a drawing of a rooster and the word “cocky” on it. All of Bryn’s coffee mugs were a hodgepodge of humor, and many of them were completely inappropriate for her quaint diner.

I turned back to her and smiled, but I was positive it looked forced.

She took a sip of her coffee, eyeing me over the mug. “You sleep okay?”

I shrugged as I dumped cream and sugar into my mug. “I slept enough. I’m fine.”

She continued to stare at me, concern etched in the lines across her forehead. “Why don’t you just plan on staying with me while we get Grammy packed up. The house will be a mess while we work, so you and I can come back here at night and spend some quality time together after a long day of helping Grammy.” Bryn owned the building containing her coffeehouse and lived in the loft apartment on the second level.

“I’ll think about it.” I glanced around the loft. “Drew really did a great job up here. It’s hard to believe this space is in our little town of Payne’s Creek. It feels much more New York City than Small Town USA.”

“My brother is definitely talented. I wish Grammy had let him do some things to her house. I hate that she felt she had to sell because she couldn’t keep the house up.”

“Why didn’t Drew buy Grammy’s place?” I asked. “He’s always loved it. And he’s obviously in Payne’s Creek to stay.”

“He has tied up all his money into his construction company,” Bryn said. “And with it being new, he didn’t feel like he could take on the responsibility of that large of a mortgage. Just not good timing.”

“You think my mother knows that Grammy is selling?” I asked.

“I don’t know. Could that be why she’s back?” Bryn sat up straighter. “I hope she doesn’t think she’s entitled to some piece of the pie. Grammy is the youngest seventy-four-year-old I’ve ever known. She’s in perfect health. If Linda thinks she’s going to waltz back into town and stake some claim to an inheritance that doesn’t even exist for her…” She let her voice drop off, but I could tell she wanted to say more.

“You tell me if you hear anything,” I said. “I will not let that bitch hurt Grammy in any way.”

Bryn laughed, practically choking on her coffee. “I don’t think I’ve heard you call someone a bitch since Tabitha Wilkinson at your junior year homecoming dance.”

“Well, Linda deserves it. And so did Tabitha when she tricked Cooper into believing I’d left the dance, then tried to talk him into dancing with her.”

“The look on her face when he told her that there was no way in hell he’d ever dance with her. And that he was leaving to find you.”

“Good times, for sure.”

Bryn’s doorbell chimed and I straightened. I was so jumpy. I still couldn’t be sure that the person who had been stalking me had followed me all the way from New York. Not to mention, my stalker had never done anything near this brazen. However, I was definitely on edge.

Bryn reached a hand across the counter. “It’s okay. It’s probably just Jake on his way to work.”

I let out a breath. “He doesn’t have a key?”

She got up and was crossing the loft to the intercom. “We haven’t quite gotten that far. I’m being very careful this time. That dickhead broke my heart when I was a junior in high school and he was getting ready to leave to play football for UK.” She pressed a button at the top of the stairs. “Who goes there?” she asked.

“It’s Coop.”

Bryn looked over at me and waggled her eyebrows. “It seems it’s a different gentleman caller.”

I waved a hand. “There’s nothing going on between Coop and me.”

She crossed her arms. “Nothing at all? If I ask him, will he say the same thing?”

“We’re just friends. Now let him up.”

“Lil says you can come on up.” She pushed another button, and I heard a click of the door in the distance. She returned to the island and after sitting, picked up her mug. “You know I’m not buying that horseshit you’re peddling, right? Have you two hooked up since you got to town?”

My heart skipped a beat thinking about the moment Coop kissed me out at the Kuster place. I took a drink of coffee, attempting to hide my embarrassment.

“Oh my goodness. You have!” Bryn said way too loud as I heard Coop’s footsteps reach the top of the stairs.

I made a slicing motion across my throat, then quickly folded one arm while taking a drink and admiring the way Coop looked. He was wearing jeans and a white t-shirt; his brown hair was wet and flipping up at the ends. He appeared to have just showered, and he was carrying a bakery box. He truly took my breath away, and I wasn’t sure at all what I was going to do about that.

He paused at the top of the steps and glanced back and forth between Bryn and me. “What are you two talking, or should I say gossiping, about?” He smiled like he wanted in on the joke.

Bryn didn’t even try to hide her ridiculous grin. It was as if she’d just caught Coop and me in bed.

“That reminds me,” I said before Bryn could say anything else. “Bryn… Coop tells me he walked in on you and Jake last week. So, how is it that Coop got to know about you and Jake, but I didn’t? Anything else you keeping from me?”

Bryn’s smile faded. “I thought we already covered this. I was planning to tell you. I was waiting for you to get to Payne’s Creek to tell you in person, and I kind of wanted to have one or five drinks first so that I could tell you how happy I am, before the inevitable warning about how he broke my heart once upon a time.”

“I wouldn’t have—”

She held up a hand to stop me. “I still expect you to give me that speech. Later. But no one knew about us, and Coop was sworn to secrecy. We hadn’t planned on him knowing.”

“You guys should lock your door,” Coop said. He crossed the room and set the box on the counter.

Bryn got up and took her mug to the sink. “I’m going to get to work before I get into more trouble.”

Bryn gave me a hug. She was two years younger than Coop, Jake, and me, but she was always the mothering type. “You call me if you need anything today.”

“I’ll be fine. After a quick trip to the sheriff’s office, I’ll be at Grammy’s all day.”

“I’ll see you out there later.” She turned to Coop. Placed a manicured hand against his chest. “Watch out for her.”

“Will guard her with my life.” It sounded like a light statement, but I knew he was serious.

“And tell her that she needs to stay here instead of out at the farm,” Bryn called as she made her way down the stairs and out.

When Bryn was gone, Coop turned and lifted the box. “I brought your favorite.”

I smiled. “No you didn’t.” I slapped at his arm. “Really? Are those country ham and chive scones from Missy’s?”

“Yes they are. You’re the only chick I know who hates sweets for breakfast.”

“Have a seat. You want some coffee?” I walked to the cabinet and pulled a couple of plates down.

“Would love some.” Coop took the seat that Bryn had vacated.

“Why are you in street clothes? Not working today?” I set the plates beside the box and turned to get Coop some coffee.

“I worked last night. And I’m helping the sheriff today.”

I paused mid-pour of his coffee. When I had processed the statement, I finished, then delivered the mug to Coop. His mug said: “Have a nice day,” but when you tipped the mug up, there was a hand on the bottom of it flipping you off. I loved Bryn’s sense of humor. “What do you mean you worked last night?”

“I had the night shift,” he said like it was nothing.

“You were at Grammy’s last night.”

“I worked after that.”

“When was the last time you slept?”

He took a drink of the coffee, closing his eyes as he swallowed. “Damn, that’s good.” When he opened his eyes, he met mine. “I’m fine. I slept yesterday before the party.”

“Why are you working patrol anyway?” I asked. “You never really said.”

“I’m staying busy while I figure things out,” Coop said.

I angled my head, studying him. “Figuring things out, huh? I definitely know what that feels like.” We both seemed to let the subject go. Too early in the morning for a talk about futures mired in uncertainty.

“Where’s Jake?” he asked. “Did he stay here last night?”

“No. Told Bryn he had a headache. He actually looked pretty miserable.”

Coop’s brows pointed inward. “He’s had quite a few of those lately.”

“Hasn’t he always had headaches? I seem to remember him having them the last year of high school. Didn’t he get knocked out at a football game?”

“Yeah. He got a pretty good concussion our senior year.” He reached over and pulled a couple of scones out of the box.

I smiled. “I can’t believe you remembered Missy’s Scones.”

“Of course I remembered. I remember everything, Lil.”

I met his gaze mid-bite. I hadn’t wanted to admit that there was still something between us, but I knew he was right. There was definitely unfinished business between us. He wasn’t the only one who remembered.

He set his coffee down. Sliding off of the barstool, he made his way to the other side of the island and stood in front of me. Lifting both of his hands, he ran fingers down both sides of my face, starting at my temple and brushing hair off my face and tucking it behind my ears. “I’m trying so hard to give you space, but I just can’t. And I really wanted to spend time alone with you last night before all hell broke loose.”

My mouth went dry as his hands moved to my shoulders and then slid down my arms until he grabbed my hands. I ran my tongue across my lips and tried to swallow against the dryness.

“Go out with me tonight,” he demanded.

“Coop… I…”

“It’s the boyfriend, isn’t it?” He stepped back.

Without thinking, I reached a hand and grabbed his. “No! It’s not that…”

He stopped and leaned forward again. “What is it then?”

I kept my eyes on his. “There’s just so much going on in my life right now. I’m not good company.”

“Go to dinner with me. Give me one night. If what was once between us is truly dead, we’ll know. And if that’s the case, we can at least clear the air enough to be friends. We go way too far back to not at least repair our friendship.”

He had a point.

He stepped closer and slid a hand to the back of my neck. “But for the record, I don’t think the thing between us is anywhere close to dead.” He was leaning in, his lips close to mine, when Bryn’s doorbell chimed.

Coop touched his forehead to mine and sighed. “I’m going to kill whoever that is.”

He withdrew his hand from my neck and walked over to the intercom. “What?” he barked, and I chuckled.

“It’s Jake.”

“Come on up so that I can kill you.”

Jake climbed the steps. “Well, good morning to you, too! Is Bryn already gone?”

“Yeah,” Coop said, then put his hands on Jakes shoulders and turned him back to the stairs. “She’s long gone. You can find her at the diner.”

Jake ducked away from Coop’s touch. “No. She’ll already be working. I’ll just have a cup of coffee here.” He crossed the room, and I just smiled.

Coop glanced at me. His face softened when he saw my grin. This isn’t over, he mouthed.

“What were the two of you up to before I walked in?” he asked, leaning against the counter with his own cup of coffee. Before either of us answered, he spotted the box on the island. “Oh! Did someone bring breakfast?” He crossed to the box and saw the scones. “Perfect.”

“You’re an ass, you know that, right?” Coop asked.

Jake lifted his head. “Why? Did I interrupt something?”

“No. You didn’t,” I laughed. “I have to get to the sheriff’s office to make a statement.” I left the room to retrieve my purse from the bedroom. When I returned, I asked Jake, “How’s your head, by the way?”

“Oh, it’s much better, thanks.”

Coop stepped to me and placed a hand on my waist. “You ready?”

“Why? Where are you going?”

“I’m going with you to the sheriff’s office.”

“Why?”

“If you have to ask, then you’re not taking this stalker thing very seriously. We’ll talk about it on the way.”

Cooper

“Let’s start with: Who all knew that you were coming to town?” Sheriff Daniels asked.

I sat beside Lil, hoping to put her at ease while the sheriff asked her a series of questions. I also made notes in an attempt to form my own theories. The sheriff’s officers had gathered evidence out at Barb’s after both bloody incidents, and they had gathered information from the airport regarding her luggage being tampered with and evidence surrounding the slashing of Barb’s tires, but so far, nothing pointed to who might be harassing Lil.

“Well, not many people. Grammy, of course. Bryn. Drew.” Lil began listing the people who she’d told she was heading to Kentucky, ticking them off on her fingers. “My agent. My ex-boyfriend Wynn—”

“Ex-boyfriend?”

Lil slid a glance my way. “Yes.”

“What about the current boyfriend?”

“There is no current boyfriend.”

“But you said—”

“You made assumptions. I didn’t correct you.” Her eyes widened to say: Are you sure you want to question me about my love life at the sheriff’s office?

“Never mind. Who else knew?”

“That’s it, as far as I know.”

“Not Coop?” Sheriff Daniels asked.

“No,” Lil said. “I didn’t even know Coop was in Payne’s Creek, so…”

Ouch.

Coop shook his head. “She’s right. I had no idea.”

“That’s good. I want Coop involved in the case, and it’s good if he’s completely off the list of possible suspects right from the beginning.” Sheriff Daniels made a note on his legal pad. “Tell me about the stalker in New York.”

“It started out with small notes from someone online. A private message on social media. A personal note through my website contact form. Those sorts of things. They seemed like harmless notes at first. “Like, ‘I saw a video of you. You’re so pretty.’ Or, ‘I hope to see you at your next signing. I’d like to take you out after.’”

“And did anyone ever reveal themselves at a signing?”

“No.”

“I’ve been to one of Lil’s signings,” I said. “Security is shit at those things. If someone had wanted to hurt her, they could easily have done so.”

Lil shifted in her chair. “There shouldn’t be any reason to need security at a children’s book signing.”

“You said the notes started out harmless,” Sheriff Daniels continued.

“Yes, then I started getting anonymous letters in the mail, and gifts delivered to my building.”

“What kinds of gifts?”

“I’ve received candles, bath salts, and, umm, lingerie.”

“Some asshole was sending you lingerie?” I couldn’t stop my voice from climbing. “Did you call the police?”

“By the time I was getting notes with the bubble bath and lingerie, asking me to please post pictures using these items, yes, I reported the items to the authorities.”

“What did the police say?” I asked.

Lil angled her head toward me. “That New York is a huge city with murders, rapes, and muggings happening every hour. That when someone actually shows up and threatens me, then I should let them know.”

“They did nothing?”

“Not nothing. They took my statement and started a file. What could they do? I have screenshots and photos of everything that’s ever been sent to me. I gave them copies of it all.”

This explained why Lil seemed to be taking everything in stride. She’d lived in New York City where a little harassment wasn’t the top news story. But I wasn’t taking things in stride. Shit like this could escalate too quickly. I’d seen what can happen.

Sheriff Daniels leaned back in his chair and steepled his fingers. “It’s quite a leap from receiving notes and gifts in New York to having animal blood thrown all over your grandmother’s house. Does this feel like the same person to you?”

Lil shrugged. “I would have said no, but the last communication I received in New York arrived through the mail the day before I flew to Payne’s Creek. It was a letter telling me that he or she wished that I would change my books so that the main characters were a rabbit and a deer instead of a fox. They stated I had gotten my entire children’s series all wrong, and I needed to fix it.”

“Did this strike you as threatening?”

Lil shrugged. “Not really. I get emails all the time asking me to change something in my stories. It’s hard to please every reader.”

“Do you ever make changes based on emails you get?”

“Of course not. Once it’s published, the story has been edited and is exactly the way I wanted it to be.”

“When was the last time you spoke with…” Sheriff Daniels looked down at his notes. “Wynn?”

“The morning I left.”

“Was this conversation a friendly conversation?”

Lil smiled uncomfortably. “Not exactly. I’d received notice that my publisher would not be continuing my series.” She looked down at her hands. “Wynn thought I should stay and take meetings with other publishers who might be interested in picking up the series. When I told him that I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do regarding the series, and that I was going to Kentucky, he got angry.”

“I thought you said you were broken up,” I said.

“We are, but Wynn is still my publicist. He is partly responsible for the way my children’s series took off the way it did.”

“So there’s no reason he would want you to change the storyline?”

“No,” Lil said.

“Any reason he would paint the word ‘slut’ on your suitcase?” I asked. “Did you two have a bad breakup?”

“If you’re asking if I cheated on Wynn, the answer is no. Wynn and I disagreed about the direction of our future together. He wanted to get married. I didn’t.”

It was like someone took a knife and stabbed it through my heart, and twisted it forty-five degrees for good measure just thinking about some asshole trying to marry my Lil. I shifted in the chair and squeezed the pressure point between my thumb and forefinger, attempting to calm myself down. I had no right to be this upset, but I still found myself wondering if she’d considered the proposal. How long had it taken her to turn him down?

Sheriff Daniels made another note, then stood and reached a hand out to Lil. “I think we have enough to chew on for now,” he said.

Lil stood, as well, and shook Sheriff Daniels’ hand.

“Lil, I don’t want to scare you, but this isn’t New York, and I don’t like people in my town making threats against my citizens. And while you’re in Payne’s Creek, your welfare is partly my responsibility. I want you to call me or Coop or the station if you see anything out of the ordinary. Got that?”

“I will, Sheriff. Thank you.”

Lil exited the room and came face to face with the Sheriff’s secretary, Ima Jean. “Oh my stars! If it isn’t the world famous author. Lil Thomas, what brings you to town?”

Knowing Ima Jean would keep Lil busy for a few minutes, I turned back to the sheriff. “What are you thinking?”

“I think that’s a very small list of people who knew Lil was coming to town.”

“Agree,” I said. I glanced down at the list. “And throwing blood all over the back of Barb’s house was well-timed.”

“What’s your gut telling you?” he asked.

I glanced out the door to make sure Lil was still busy with Ima Jean, then turned back to the sheriff. “I think I want to rule each of these people out. I also want to make a stop over to Otis Jett’s place, see what our neighborhood taxidermist has been up to. See if he’s had any big spenders come by his place lately purchasing rabbits or foxes.”

“That’s a good idea.” He tapped his pen against the pad of paper, then looked up at me. “Tell me, you know anything about Drew’s feeling about Barb looking to sell the house?”

“I haven’t heard anything.”

“Don’t go spreading this around, but someone heard Drew mouthing off late last night up at Boone’s Brewery. Seems he’s not all that keen on his grandmother selling the house before he’s had a chance to purchase the property.”

“You think he was just blowing off steam? I got the impression that Barb offered to sell it to him, but that they both agreed that it just wasn’t the best idea for him.”

“Yeah, but it sure would delay the sale if a prospective buyer heard someone was throwing blood all over everything. Barb is going to have to redo that bedroom as it is. Buyers have walked away from home sales for much less.”

“So, you think that maybe the messages sent to Lil might be unrelated to the blood strewn over Barb’s house?”

“I’m just trying to see all the possible angles.”

“I’ll have a talk with Drew. See what I can find out.”

“Sounds good.”

I turned to go join Lil when Sheriff Daniels called my name again. I turned back.

“I don’t have to remind you that something mighty strange was going on here not six months ago. Nor do I need to tell you that the sheriff’s office is taking this threat against Lil very seriously until someone is behind bars. Maybe it’s a stalker trying to scare Lil, maybe it’s something more. Either way…”

“No, sir. You don’t have to remind me. I appreciate all the help I can get to keep Lil safe.”

◊◊◊◊◊

I drove Lil out to Barb’s after leaving the sheriff’s office.

“You aren’t saying much,” Lil said beside me.

I reached over and grabbed her hand. I didn’t want tell her how I had unofficially become lead investigator into whoever was harassing her, and that my gut was telling me that this was way more than some overenthusiastic fan trying to scare Lil. I also didn’t want to tell her—yet—that she would not be left alone until I figured out who was doing this. “I was thinking about where we’re going to have our second date.”

“You still sticking to the claim that last night was our first?”

“If you have some stupid rule that you’re not going to kiss me until the second date, then absolutely.”

“I seem to remember that we already shared a kiss since I’ve been back.”

“Good point. Then, you can number it however you’d like.”

I pulled up the drive to Barb’s. Barb was throwing some things in the back of a pickup truck. “Is that Drew’s truck?” I asked.

“Yeah. Looks like it.”

“Hey, y’all,” Barb said when we got out. Drew came out behind her. “We’re about to take a load of trash to the dump.”

“How long will you be?” I asked.

Barb gave her granddaughter a kiss, then looked at me. “Twenty minutes. Why?”

A couple of beats passed as I searched for the right way to phrase what I wanted to say.

“He’s scared to leave me alone,” Lil said before I could answer.

“That’s not—”

Lil held up a hand. “It’s okay. It’s fine.” She turned back to Barb. “You two go ahead. I’ll fix Coop a sandwich.”

I nodded. “That’s all I wanted anyway,” I joked.

“Drew nodded in understanding from the other side of the truck. “We won’t be long. I need to get back to the job site.”

When they drove off, I grabbed Lil and pulled her close. “You’re just going to have to understand that I’m a little nervous about what’s happening, and while we figure this out, you’re going to have to let me be a little overprotective.”

“Just as long as you don’t mistake what’s happening now for what happened all those years ago.”

I leaned in and kissed her forehead, then put an arm around her. “Come on. We can plan out our date over that sandwich you just promised.” After so little sleep the last two days, I was running on fumes and there was no way in hell she was going to bait me into a conversation that dredged up that tragic night twelve years ago.


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