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Happy Tuesday! Sorry for the delay, but a new couple of chapters are ready below, and Coop’s and Lil’s relationship is heating up. it’s a shame I had to cut off this chapter before… well… you’ll just have to read, and then be patient for the next episode.

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A Crimson Homecoming:

A Payne’s Creek Romantic Suspense Serial, Part VI

Cooper

I probably should have gone home and taken a long nap after Barb and Drew returned from their errand. I could really have used some sleep before Lil and I went on our date.

But I really wanted to stop by the taxidermist’s farm.

I drove along the long, gravel lane leading to Otis Jett’s house, careful to miss potholes formed during the long winter. When I reached the house, two pit bulls and a Great Dane that closely resembled a small horse came flying out of a barn in the back to greet me. They looked happy enough, but I still got a little nervous when I came face-to-face with dogs I didn’t know.

When I spotted Otis, also coming from the barn, I slowly pushed my door open and stepped out of my vehicle.

“Well if it isn’t the prodigal son,” Otis said. He wore a khaki apron with pockets and a pair of dirty jeans. No shirt. Dark chest hair peaked out above the apron, and his balding head glistened with sweat. “What the fuck do you want, man?”

Otis Jett and I went all the way back to grade school. He spent most of his time picking fights and trying to get expelled from school, while I did neither.

“Hey, Otis. What have you been up to?”

He put his hands on his hips and looked around. “You’re looking at it.” His stomach stuck out like someone who’d had way too many beers in the last ten years.

I followed his gaze and noticed grass growing tall around some old, rusted equipment in the yard where he’d mowed, but not followed up with a weed trimmer. There was a brush pile well to the left of the barn where it appeared that he was planning to burn an enormous bonfire to get rid of the property’s detritus. Beyond that was a pile of additional rusted out equipment and junk, including an old car that didn’t look like it had run since the fifties.

“I was wondering if I could ask you some questions,” I said.

“Is this in an official capacity?” Otis was no idiot. And he had a record. Mostly misdemeanors and a DUI, but he’d been given plenty of warnings in his lifetime.

“Afraid so.”

“Are you reading me my rights?”

“Do I need to?” Why did everything have to be so hard with some people? I sighed. “Look, we can do it here or down at the station. It’s your choice. But at this time, I’m just looking for information. Hoping you can help me.”

“Look, Dude. You can start with telling me what it’s about, but you’ll have to do it in the workshop. I’m behind on a project.”

I followed him into what I had mistaken for a barn when I first drove up. Now that I was closer, it was more of a shed, and apparently it was his taxidermy workshop. I swallowed my gasp when I took in the plethora of dead animals displayed around the shed. The heads of deer, cows, and other large animals were hanging high up on the walls. Smaller animals—fox, turkeys, a bobcat—were displayed in their entirety on shelves. I even saw a rabbit that was similar to the one Lil received with a knife in its chest. “How’s business?” I asked, taking it all in while Otis proceeded to clean up after a recent project.

“Are you in the market?” He smiled, revealing a mouthful of crooked teeth stained with tobacco.

“For a stuffed animal? No.”

“Stuffed animals are for little kids. This here is art, man. And they’re called mounts.” He chuckled as he tossed things into a large garbage can lined with a plastic bag.

“Opinions vary, I suppose,” I managed, then realized this could take forever if he kept evading questions, so I decided to be more direct. “Have you sold any ‘mounted’ rabbits recently.”

“Of course. Easter was a few weeks ago.”

“What did you do with all the blood from the rabbits?”

His eyebrows pointed inward. “Why the hell would you ask that?”

“Just answer the question, please.” My patience was wearing thin for this man.

“I don’t know. It was months ago when I mounted my supply of rabbits. It’s not currently small game season. But typically, I throw it out.”

“Small game, so no fox either?”

“Nope.” He now stood with his arms crossed. “Why don’t you tell me what this is about. Seeing as your questions are kinda fucked up and all. Though suddenly I’m no longer worried that I’ve done anything wrong.”

I didn’t have the energy to try and figure out what he meant by that. “Someone splashed rabbit blood all over the back of Barb Kaufman’s house. Later, someone sent one of her granddaughters a stuffed rabbit mounted on wood identical to the animals on your shelves.” I left out the detail of the knife being stuck in the rabbit’s chest.

“You think I’d pull some crazy shit like that?”

I looked around his shop again. “Like I said, I’m just looking for information. Have you handled the body of a fox recently?”

“I’d have to check my records, but I can’t recall anyone ordering a fox.”

“This one wasn’t stuffed. It was just drained of all blood. The blood was used to decorate a bedroom.”

“Look, Cooper, taxidermy isn’t for everyone, but I don’t break the law in my business. I got nothin’ against that family. Besides, fox trapping season was several months ago. Same goes for rabbits. But if you’re looking to know who purchased mounted rabbits from me—off of my website or in person—I’d be happy to provide you with a list. They’ll mostly be people far away. I don’t actually sell that many locally. I mostly sell online and then ship them.”

“Yes, if you don’t mind, I would like that list.”

“Give me a day, and I’ll get it over to you. Should I send it to the cop shop?”

“That would be fine.”

I left Otis Jett a little frustrated. I no longer thought Otis had anything to do with the supply of blood thrown all over Barb’s house. No way he was that good of a liar. But that meant someone else had gone out and killed what forensic specialists predicted to be at least ten rabbits to produce that much blood, and at least one fox. And there just weren’t that many places around Payne’s Creek to do such a thing if you didn’t already have land to do it on.

 

Lil

Bryn climbed the stairs of her apartment over the coffee house a little after six. She didn’t typically work this late.

“Where’ve you been?” I asked.

“Meeting with the accountant about my tax situation.” She walked straight past me, pulled a glass down from her cabinet, and proceeded to pour herself two fingers of bourbon. Actually, two thumbs was a more accurate description.

“That bad, huh?”

She swallowed a sip, closing her eyes as the bourbon hit her throat. When she looked at me again, she nodded, then she gave me a once over. “Wow! You look amazing!” She’d just noticed me for the first time, apparently. “Are you wearing lipstick?”

I waved a hand at her. “Stop.”

“Turn around.”

I did as ordered. “Is it too much?”

“Are you asking me if skinny jeans and that sexy top are too much for a date?”

“No, I’m asking you if I look like I’m trying too hard for dinner with a friend at his house.”

Her brows shot up as she swallowed another gulp of bourbon. I wanted to tell her it was a downright sin to gulp good bourbon, but she looked like she wouldn’t care.

“Have you been to Coop’s house?” she asked with a hint of mystery to the question.

“No.” I looked at my watch. “That’s strange. He was supposed to pick me up fifteen minutes ago.”

“Have you called him?”

I didn’t want to appear nervous or desperate or any other emotion that he could read into. “No. I’m sure he’s just running a little late. He’ll be here soon.” I looked at my watch again.

“Call him,” she said a little more urgently.

I reached for my phone and called Coop. I stared at Bryn as the call went to voicemail. “He’s not answering.” Then I remembered just how tired he was earlier that day and how little he had slept the night before. “What if he changed his mind?” I asked Bryn with what I was sure was a look of pure disappointment and fright. I was under no illusion that Coop and I were going to ride off into the sunset, but I also didn’t think I could take that hard of a rejection.

At the same time, it was probably for the best.

“Is that what you want?”

I stiffened. “Why would you ask that?”

“Because I know you. You’re talking yourself out of going on a date with Cooper Adams. The same Cooper Adams who has loved you since we were kids. The same Cooper Adams who has wanted nothing but the best for you ever since you left town for New York. He wanted to go after you then, and I’m going to venture to guess that he’s looking for a chance to figure things out with you—to see if there’s still hope for the two of you.”

Coop had pretty much said the same thing to me. And he had seemed excited to have a date with me.

“Don’t wait for him to pick you up,” Bryn said. “Go to him. I know there’s a lot of shit going on in your life right now, but if I had a man like that wanting to cook me dinner, you wouldn’t see me standing in the middle of your apartment second-guessing things.”

“You do have a guy like that,” I reminded her.

“Oh yeah.” She looked down at her watch. “Speaking of, I need to change.” She looked back at me. “I’m begging you. Go.”

“I don’t even know where he lives. He never told me.”

“What?” She asked, surprised. “You don’t know?”

“Know what?”

“I swear I wasn’t keeping this from you on purpose. I just assumed he told you.”

“Told me what?”

“He bought the old Kuster place.”

“He did what?”

◊◊◊◊◊

During the drive out to the Kuster farm, I reminisced about how much that farm had meant to Coop and me as kids. Mr. Kuster was a widower who hosted an annual picnic every Fourth of July. Coop and I shared our first kiss behind one of Mr. Kuster’s barns one holiday celebration, creating our own fireworks. We professed our love to each other behind that same barn less than six months later on a snowy Christmas Eve.

And then that fateful night in June, twelve years ago, we shared a very special night together, just before both of our lives would be changed forever.

I pulled up in front of the two-story clapboard house. It had a circular drive and a beautiful covered front porch. The house’s siding had been replaced with low-maintenance cement siding in the color of gray, white trim, and black window sashes. It still looked like a southern farmhouse but with a contemporary, urban flair. And I loved it.

Coop’ SUV was parked outside. I pulled up behind it and shut off my engine. I thought about calling him again, but now I just wanted to know why he had decided he didn’t want to have dinner with me.

I marched up his porch steps and knocked loudly on the screened outer door. My heart beat wildly with anger, and I wondered if I had the right to be this angry.

After several seconds of silence, I rapped the door again. I thought I heard movement, then my phone buzzed in my pocket. Just as I pulled out my phone and saw that it was Coop, the door swung open. He stood there, holding his phone to his ear, and stared at me.

He lowered the phone. “I’m so sorry.”

As the apology rushed out of his mouth, I noticed his disheveled hair. “You look like you just woke up.” I turned and gestured toward my car. “I can go if this isn’t a good time.”

He reached down and grabbed my hand and pulled me inside. “Are you crazy? Of course I want you to stay.” He glanced the length of me and then landed back on my face. “God, you’re incredible.”

“Thank you,” I said. I found it difficult to keep eye contact. I was unbelievably nervous–something to do with the idea that I thought he no longer wanted to see me.

I stood there in the foyer and looked around. The two front rooms were void of any furniture. Drop cloths were spread over what appeared to be heart pine floors. “You bought the Kuster place?” I turned my head to meet his gaze.

“I wanted to tell you the other day, but it just didn’t seem like the right time. It’s a work-in-progress.”

I walked further down the hallway. “I love what you did to the outside.”

“It had to be done. The old siding was rotting, and—”

His words cut off when I faced him again.

“You don’t want to hear this.”

“No, I do. It’s just—”

“You’re pissed.” He ran a hand through his hair. “And you have every right to be. When I left you earlier, I went over to Otis Jett’s place to ask him about his taxidermy business, then I went to the grocery to pick up some things to make dinner with. I meant to take a short nap, and I guess—”

“I’m not angry, Coop. I do have a lot of questions though. For starters, what did Otis say?”

“Nothing very helpful.” Coop gave me a run down of what he learned from Otis.

When he had finished, I hesitated, but then asked, “Do you still want to cook me dinner? Or should we reschedule. You’re obviously exhausted. And you’ve been working. And—”

He smiled at my rambling. “I’m not tired now. I’ve been looking forward to having you alone all day.” He grabbed my hand and pulled me toward the back of the house.

When we reached the kitchen, my breath caught. “Coop, this is beautiful.” Though the front interior of the house still needed work, the back of the house was nearly finished with a large open room that included the kitchen, a dining area with a long farm table, and a living area.

Everything was decorated in shades of gray to match the exterior of the house, and the windows along the back invited the outside in. It was still daylight; the sun was low in the sky and bathing the back of the house in golden light.

“Thank you.”

“When did you have time to do all this?” And how had he had the money for all of this?

“Mr. Kuster was a huge help to me when I returned home. I didn’t need the money, but I did need the work. I wanted to stay busy while I worked through a lot of issues. I wasn’t sure if I would ever return to law enforcement, but I was sure that I wanted to throw myself into some productive labor.”

I thought about how hard I had worked to help Grammy pack up her dining room today. I had lost myself in the project, and had almost lost track of time when I realized it was time for me to shower and be ready for Coop.

“Anyway, the contractor renovating this house hired me on. We were in the middle of finishing up this kitchen when Mr. Kuster suffered a massive heart attack.”

“He died?” I asked. I placed a hand over my heart. “I hadn’t heard that.”

“Oh, no. He’s fine. Made a full recovery. But he decided he no longer wanted this big ol’ house and all the land to take care of, so he moved to Florida to be closer to his brother. And I bought the house and land from him.”

I smiled, studying his face. He was obviously very proud of the property, and I could see the excitement in his face. “I’m so happy for you, Coop. I know how much you loved this place.”

“We loved this place,” he said, turning to face me. “If I’m remembering right, we loved this farm. Which was why you were headed here the other day after you discovered the truth about me.”

I turned from him and stared out the back windows. He was right. I loved everything about this property. It held so many special memories.

“Red or white?” he said behind me.

I spun around. “I’m sorry?”

He held up a bottle of red wine. “We’re having lasagna. It’s in the fridge; I just need to stick it in the oven when we’re ready. Would you like red or white? I have a chardonnay chilling in the fridge.”

“Oh. Red, thank you.” I crossed my arms and studied him as he opened the wine. Letting it breathe, he retrieved a couple of wine glasses from a nearby cabinet. “When did you have time to make lasagna?” I asked.

His eyes lifted, and he smiled. “Confession. Mom came over earlier and put it together for me so that I could get a nap before I came and got you.” His face fell. “I’m really sorry I overslept.”

“It’s fine.” I waved a hand.

He poured a glass and brought it over to me. “Enjoy this while I go fix my hair. And yes, I realize that sounded like a girl, but I can tell I have bed head, and I’d like to splash some cold water on my face.”

I watched him go while taking a sip of the lovely cabernet, and I couldn’t stop the ache in my heart as I thought about all the changes that had occurred in his life, and how those changes didn’t include me.

Cooper

I was so angry with myself for falling asleep. How was I supposed to win Lil back at this rate?

Instead of simply splashing cold water on my face, I took a world record-breaking shower and changed clothes. When I returned to the kitchen, I was refreshed and definitely more awake. And I was ready to have a long-overdue conversation with Lil about what happened to us all those years ago. But Lil was gone.

Worried she’d changed her mind, I called out for her, but there was no answer. Then I saw her. She was on the back porch, staring toward the barn off to the right—the same barn that held so much meaning for us.

Allowing her a couple more minutes with her thoughts, I turned the oven on to preheat. I then lit the pillar candles I had purchased earlier that day. They glowed softly in the shadows of the evening as the sun set lower in the sky behind the house. When I felt that I had set the scene, I poured myself a glass of wine and ventured out to join Lil.

She was standing at the railing of the back porch, still staring across a field that separated the house from the barn. Standing behind her, I placed a hand on her shoulder. She flinched, having not heard me approach.

“I’m sorry,” I said softly.

She turned. I was standing so close to her that I could hear the quickness of her breath at having been surprised. Blonde wisps of hair blew across her face, and I badly wanted to tuck it behind her ear, but I was afraid to touch her—afraid that she might pull back.

“Why did you purchase the Kuster place?”

It was a simple question with a complicated answer.

I lifted my head and looked over her shoulder at the setting sun. I could just see the shadowed outline of another farmhouse in the distance, my closest neighbor. When I looked at her again, she was waiting patiently for an answer.

“Some of my happiest memories were on this farm.” This time, when hair blew across her face, I did use my fingers to brush it back and tuck it behind her ears.

“What about the Bureau?”

I shook my head. “No. That part of my life is over. Actually, the police chief and I met this morning, and he’s offered me a detective position with the Payne’s Creek Police Department whenever I’m ready.”

“Really? Is that what you want to do?”

“I’m still considering it. I’m taking one day at a time.” I pulled back from her a couple of steps, unable to stand that close and not touch her. After I took a sip of wine, I continued. “Working with Sheriff Daniels on what’s going on with you, though, has dredged up all sorts of memories.”

“I’m sorry.”

I angled my head. “Don’t be sorry. It’s time I worked through the things that happened in the past. Working on this has also shown me just how much I like working in law enforcement, doing detective work. I’m good at it.” I shrugged. Before I would let her respond to that, I motioned for her to follow. “Come on, let’s go put the lasagna in. I promised you dinner.”

She followed me into the house. After I had slid the lasagna into the oven, I looked over at Lil. She was standing in the candlelight, and she couldn’t have looked more beautiful.

“Coop, I don’t want you to think that the past twelve years have been easy on me. I’ve been to several therapists, and spent countless hours of sessions trying to work through what happened to me.”

I rounded the island and took the wine out of her hand. After sitting the glass beside mine on the counter, I pulled her into my arms. “I’ve wanted to tell you for so long just how sorry I am that I wasn’t there for you.”

She started to pull back, but when I held tighter, she relaxed into the hold and lay here head against my chest. “I don’t want you to be sorry. We were young, and what happened the night that man tried to kidnap me was not either of our faults.”

“But if I hadn’t talked you into sneaking out of the house to meet up with me—”

This time she did pull away, but only a little. She placed fingers over my mouth. “I have never held you responsible for that night. Not even when it happened. That night—the night you and I spent in each other’s arms out by that barn—is, to this day, one of the happiest moments of my life. Why do you think I still go there to sketch or write when I’m in town?”

I shrugged, unable to answer her for fear of letting too much emotion seep into my voice. She was so strong. She had been strong the night it all happened, too. The night she left me, after we had made love under the stars, she’d stopped to get gas. She paid, and was on her way back to her car, when another car—a dark sedan, according to several eyewitnesses—sped into the station and screeched to a halt between Lil and her car. A hooded figure burst from the car, punched Lil and stuffed her unconscious body into the trunk. The entire abduction took less than ten seconds. It was thought at the time that a gang of men looking to traffic middle class teenagers had come into the Central Kentucky area and targeted young women from small towns such as Payne’s Creek.

I thank God every day that Lil woke up soon after being knocked unconscious, and she had been resourceful enough to find the latch for the trunk. She was able to escape the trunk and run before the man who took her got too far out of town. Not all girls captured around the same time were that lucky.

“You and I were rock solid back then,” she said as if remembering something specific.

“No we weren’t,” I said softly. “If we had been—if I hadn’t been such a coward—I wouldn’t have allowed the distance to grow between us before we both went our separate ways.”

“Coop…” She let out a sigh, then cupped my cheek with her palm. “You were no coward. You went immediately to Grammy and confessed that you had convinced me to sneak out. Facing Barb Kaufman could not have been easy.”

“I can’t believe you can joke about it.”

“Only after hours and hours of therapy. Not to mention the amount of money one has to throw at therapists before you can bring humor back into a horrible situation.”

I let out a poor attempt at a chuckle.

Lil smiled. She exuded warmth. “Neither of us can deny that that night changed us. I still hold dear my memories of how in love we were. But we were kids. We just weren’t mature enough to weather that extreme of an event without damage.” Tears formed in her eyes. “Hell, Coop. I have done nothing but compare every relationship I’ve ever had to my time with you.”

“Oh, Lil. And I’ve done nothing but regret letting you go off to New York when we were eighteen, and not fighting harder to make you stay. And I’ve regretted every year that I’ve let pass that I didn’t go chasing after you.”

“We were different people after that night. And we’re different people today.”

She was right about that. The question was: Would we ever be able to get back what we had then? I was willing to fight for the love I felt then—the same love I feel now, but have always been terrified to express. I simply didn’t think I would be able to recover if she didn’t return it. “I would like the chance to get to know you again—the woman you are today.”

Her lips lifted at the corners. She glanced around the room that had grown increasingly dark. Her face was glowing beautifully in the candlelight. “That’s why I’m here.”


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