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Welcome squads. They’re either overjoyed to see you, want to dangle you from the highest branch, or are the harbingers of bad news. Considering the group awaiting Jonah and me after our brief trip to an interstate baking fair were some of the people we loved most in the world, I crossed my fingers it wasn’t option two. That left one and three, and while I was pretty sure they were truly happy to see us, there was a worrying transparency to those overbright smiles that were leading me to that third option.
Tiny, the huge mixed-breed creature we called our dog, was the only one displaying any kind of normal behavior. Normal for her being slobbering all over us, whining sweet nothings, and pressing in so close as we walked that she nearly toppled me over.
Meanwhile, three of the four humans waiting for us in the vast family-room-cum-kitchen of my renovated farmhouse—currently adorned in paper heart banners and cute bunting—were peppering us with questions about our trip as they hustled us to one of the sofas facing the blazing fire. We were barely settled before Tiny stretched herself across both our knees, bossing us with grunts, nudges, and wriggles until we were positioned precisely for her comfort.
Midge, my best friend and housemate, broke away from the huddle to snatch up a tray already set up with coffee cups and midafternoon sweet snacks. Fiona, Jonah’s mom, followed a moment later to grab the steaming coffeepot. His dad, Clay, made his way to stand by the fourth member—the only one who hadn’t made any effort to fuss; the only one yet to say a word—and the one in the group who was currently making my stomach swirl with a mix of anxiety and curiosity.
Sheriff Frank Kinnead was a family friend, and if ever extreme patience became a competitive sport, he’d be declared national champion. At least with regard to his dealings with me and my insatiable curiosity and talent for finding trouble. He wasn’t a stranger to either this kitchen or the one in Fiona and Clay’s elegant bed-and-breakfast in town, but this time he stood out like a sore thumb bearing a neon bandage.
I shot a glance toward Jonah who raised his eyebrows in return. Good. It wasn’t just my overactive imagination this time. But, bad because something had obviously happened in our absence. In four days? Come on! Really? And right now, in the lead up to Valentine’s Day? Surely the sweetest season of all?
Somehow we’d managed to make our diaries align and Jonah was able to come with me to a Kansas baking fair. It had been full-on and we’d barely had time to draw breath the whole time we’d been gone, but I’d come home brimming with ideas and a trunk full of new equipment. Hopefully I’d get to play with them a little bit before the craziness of the Valentine’s Day celebrations really set in.
As the mayor’s wife and Airlie Falls living treasure, Fiona ran regular craft and produce markets to benefit the growers and artisans of our area, and this was our first market of the year, and also one of our biggest. Tourists would flock, and if previous markets were any indication, my From the Hart baked goods stall would be inundated. Between it and the cafes I provided desserts to, I was kept very busy, though thankfully, having three ovens, multiple freezers, plus a godsend of an assistant in Ally, I was able to stay ahead.
The four days hadn’t really been much of a break, but for me, having been involved in a nasty murder case just prior to the holidays, it was an opportunity to clear my head of all that.
As for Jonah, my cowboy-slash-builder and (brand-new) fiancé, he’d gifted his boys—the guys who worked for him in his building business—a few days’ vacation due to them having volunteered to help with emergency repairs around town after unexpected storm damage, and that meant we could make it work.
Despite the workload it would bring, I, as a newly engaged woman and a hopeless gushy romantic, had been excited that our trip would segue into my first proper Valentine’s Day celebrations. For me it was perfect, but now looking at the faces surrounding us I sensed perfect drifting away.
“Time out.” Jonah’s voice broke through the bustle and everybody immediately stilled. “I’m guessing we didn’t win the lottery while we were away but something else did happen, right? And Frank? I’m also figuring you haven’t turned up here for cheesecake.” He eyed the white chocolate and raspberry pie they’d obviously removed from my freezer earlier. “Well, not just the cheesecake. So let’s just spit it out.”
I braced myself as Frank’s mouth scrunched into its habitual kissy pose. It always signaled he was thinking, and I wished he’d think faster. Finally, that mouth opened. “I—”
“They found a body.” Wha… My eyes swung to Fiona who’d hijacked his speech.
“A murdered body.” They slid to Midge.
“In Jonah’s backyard.” Back to Fiona.
In unison Jonah and I both swung back to Frank who was shaking his head at the other two women in the room. “Anything else you’d like to add?”
Both clamped their lips but neither looked contrite. In other circumstances, I might have giggled at the expressions on the faces of my two best friends, but this certainly wasn’t a giggling moment. In fact, my head was still trying to comprehend.
One look at Jonah told me he was just as confused. “Whoah… We need to back up, here…”
Our words hit the air at the same time; the fact that neither of us was very eloquent being testimony to how this had shaken us.
Frank cocked an eyebrow. “Ladies? I assume you won’t mind if I take over now?” Not waiting for a reply, the sheriff nodded slightly in my direction. “In reply to you, Rosie,” he began, addressing my garbled queries, “the what, I think you already know, the why is something we all want to know—and the how? Well, in fact I was going to ask Clay to fill you in on that seeing as how he’s the one who found the body when he went to check on those mamas and their calves in Jonah’s house-corral.”
Without conscious thought, my hand went to my mouth and my eyes flashed straight to Jonah’s dad. Clay, the town dentist, who also happened to be the mayor, was in his early sixties and with his height, broad shoulders, and shock of thick white hair had always reminded me of Howard Keel in his older years. My gran and her cronies had been great Keel fans, a fifties film and Broadway star who’d charmed them from the silver screen with his looks and deep rumbling voice. Jonah was a cookie cutter image of his dad, right down to the voice, but as strong as they both were, finding a dead body can be a huge thing to deal with. I knew firsthand how that felt and my heart went out to him.
He cleared his throat. “Tiny and I went out to your farm yesterday, Son, to do as Frank just said. It’d rained a bit earlier in the day and the wind had come up, so I decided to check around. Make sure everything was secure.” He leaned across to pat the now-snoozing dog. “It was Tiny here who found the body. She ran ahead, around to the paved patio area just off your deck at the back. I could see some of the paving stones were rough, not lying flat. I’d never noticed that before. Something had grabbed Tiny’s attention as well, because she started pawing at the ground and those big paws of hers unearthed one of the stones. I went to push it back into place and noticed the earth under it was freshly dug. That was odd so I stepped back and finally noticed all the residue of fresh earth—mud by that stage—scattered around. I saw too, that many of those stones were uneven like they’d been packed in quickly. And loose! Now those stones have been down for years and they should have been bedded in as hard as rock.”
It was easy to follow where this was going. “You moved some?”
He nodded at my question. “Yes, Rosie, I did. Moved a few, scratched at the earth with my hand. It looked like something had been buried but,” he shrugged, “I don’t know why because it makes no sense, but I guess I was expecting something a kid would do.”
Frank rested his hand on Clay’s shoulder for a second and took over. “It was gruesome, there’s no doubt. It was a human foot Clay saw and that’s when he called me. Would have given any man a shock and there’s no shame in that.” He cleared his throat again. “We’ve removed the body and we’ve poked around a bit. Haven’t found anything yet. I’ve left Bobby Don and one of the new deputies out at the scene. They’re looking around for anything that might help but so far they’ve come up blank.”
“Male or female, Frank?” I asked.
“Male. Around forty-five to fifty, I’d say at a guess. Well dressed. No identification, of course. As a matter of fact…” He reached into his jacket pocket and removed a photograph. “This won’t be pretty folks, but I still need you to take a look and tell me if you recognize him.”
Jonah shook his head and then slipped an arm around my shoulders before passing the photograph to me. “Never seen him. Sorry.”
“Me either,” I added. “He’s not someone I’ve ever seen around town. And I can’t remember seeing him at any of the markets but then again with the hundreds of people we attract it’d be impossible to say he’s never been there.”
“So, you’re saying,” Jonah began again, “that this murder happened while we were away?”
Frank nodded. “We think, based on the state of the body, plus the fact that Clay hadn’t noticed anything amiss the day before, that this happened night before last.”
Jonah shook his head and I knew what he was thinking because I was thinking the same thing. Why bury the person there? “I don’t get it,” Jonah said, his confusion gaining momentum with each word, “what would be the purpose of burying someone in my yard? Right near the house? I mean, I live on a property of thirty acres. There are more remote places just a hop, skip, and jump away. Places you’d probably never find a body at all. And twenty miles down the road is Salvaje State Forest! Surely you’d choose there! Even my nearest neighbor’s property is a better proposition seein’ as it’s so overgrown and untended. Why not there? Why not somewhere where there’d be less likelihood of the body being found?”
“All good questions, young Jonah. And hopefully before long we’ll have answers,” Frank replied.
“Unless the person was murdered right there and it was easier than trying to move the body?”
A gleam flickered ominously in Frank’s eyes. “Now Rosie. Remember—this is a police investigation and it has nothing to do with you. We can take care of it without your help, young lady.”
Gently prodding Tiny, Jonah pushed to his feet. “I need to get back to my place.”
I followed his lead. “I’ll come with you.”
“We’ll all go,” Fiona declared.
Midge settled onto a stool at my outsized kitchen counter and reached for her laptop. “Actually, I won’t go this time. I’ve been out there already and have some photos. Keep me posted, yeah? But right now, I’ve got some stories to finish.”
We all understood. As owner and managing editor of our local weekly newspaper, The Airlie Falls Gazette, Midge Moylan was always under the pump. With a story like this breaking, she might even put out a special edition. It helped with syndication as well.
Frank leaned down to scruff Tiny’s head. “And if you don’t mind keeping Tiny here with you Midge, I’d be mighty grateful. She might be the heroine of this story but I’d prefer we do the investigatin’ without her help from here on in.”
End of Excerpt