CUT TO THE CORPSE
“Did you see that?” Marie Porter hissed at her twin.
“I’d have to be stone blind not to,” Ella hissed back. “Can you believe it? Bold as brass, right in the middle of the town green, what is that boy thinking?”
“It’s not what he’s thinking, it’s what he’s thinking with,” Marie said.
Brenna Miller glanced up from the display table where she was arranging a new shipment of handmade papers. Purchased from an artist in the Berkshires, these were fine papers that had been hand dyed in rich jewel tones of ruby red, sapphire blue and emerald green. Brenna had been wondering if she could use them to decoupage a small jewelry box she had picked up at a yard sale last week, but her contemplation had been repeatedly interrupted by the elderly twins ongoing dialogue.
The Porter sisters, Marie and Ella, were standing in front of the large bay window of Vintage Papers. They had their noses pressed to the glass and were leaning so far forward that Brenna’s view of the town square was obscured by their pear shaped backsides. Ella wore a day-glow yellow T-shirt with matching walking shorts and Marie wore a neon green version of the same. When she looked at them, Brenna could swear she felt her pupils dilate.
She glanced across the shop at her friend Tenley Morse, the owner of Vintage Papers. Tenley had been Brenna’s best friend since their days at Boston University more than ten years ago. Tenley met Brenna’s gaze with a sympathetic wink, letting Brenna know she was not alone in her exasperation with the elderly twins.
Having lived in Morse Point all their lives and with age seventy knocking on their door with a firm fist, Marie and Ella considered themselves the town’s resident historians, everyone else considered them the local blabbermouths.
“If he puts his tongue any deeper into her mouth, he’s going to give her a root canal,” Ella said.
“I was kissed like that once,” Marie sighed. “By John Henry.”
“Hunh,” Ella grunted. “Too bad he thought he was kissing me.”
“He did not,” Marie huffed.
“He did, too,” Ella returned. “You stole him and you know it.”
Brenna stepped forward and wedged herself in between the two ladies, pushing her auburn head in between their curly gray ones. She was afraid they were about to come to blows over the legendary John Henry, it had happened before, and it behooved her to protect Tenley’s shop from harm for job security reasons if nothing else.
Marie and Ella continued to scowl at each other around her, but Brenna didn’t budge.
“Is that Jake Haywood with Tara Montgomery?” she asked. “I heard they got engaged.”
Both ladies were immediately diverted.
“Last week,” Marie confirmed. “I was at Totally Polished getting a manicure when I heard Margie Haywood tell Ruby Wolcott that Jake even called Tara’s parents and asked permission.”
“And they gave it?” Tenley asked from across the room. Her blue eyes were wide with surprise.
“Apparently, little Miss Tara gets what little Miss Tara wants,” Ella said. “And now she wants Jake.”
“You mean “for now” she wants Jake,” Marie said.
“Well, she’d better be sure, because if he marries that girl, it’s forever,” Ella said. “There has never been a divorce in the Haywood family.”
“Nope, they’re like swans, they mate for life,” Marie agreed. Her voice sounded wistful, and Brenna had to admit that nowadays that did sound rare and romantic.
Brenna glanced out the window. Jake Haywood wore gray coveralls smeared with grease, tan leather work boots and had a red rag half hanging out of his back pocket. By contrast, Tara wore a Juicy Couture summer sundress that was buttercup yellow and sported a charming bow in the front. Her feet were encased in matching yellow ballet flats and her long blonde hair was held back by a wide white headband.
Jake nuzzled her neck but when she would have pressed herself against him, he held her back in an obvious attempt to keep her dress free from his grease stains. She tossed her long blonde hair over her shoulder and giggled up at him and the young man, who Brenna had thought so serious, well, at least he had been when he fixed the brakes on her Jeep last month, grinned down at the delicate girl before him with his heart in his eyes.
Brenna sighed and then realized that Ella, Marie and Tenley had sighed at the exact same moment.
As they watched, Tara took three steps back from Jake and then leapt into his arms, giving him no choice but to catch her. Accepting defeat in the battle to keep her dress unmarred, Jake held her close and kissed her with a thoroughness that left Brenna breathless.
She quickly looked away, feeling as if she were intruding on the young couple. She glanced at the others, judging by the flush on everyone else’s cheeks, she knew she wasn’t the only one effected.
“Ladies,” Brenna said. They paid her no mind. “Ella! Marie!” she snapped, forcibly drawing their attention from the young couple.
“What?” Ella snapped, her reverie broken.
“It’s rude to stare,” Brenna said.
“Rude? I’ll tell you what’s rude. Jake was a perfectly well-mannered boy until she came around,” Marie said with an indignant sniff. She sounded jealous.
“She being Tara?” Brenna asked. “What’s wrong with Tara?”
“She’s not from around here,” Ella said, as if that were explanation enough.
“Neither am I,” Brenna reminded them.
“That’s different, dear,” Marie said comfortingly. “Last April, when you solved the mayor’s murder, you proved you’re one of us. Besides, Tenley Morse is your friend and her family founded Morse Point.”
“You can’t get a better recommendation than that,” Ella concurred.
Brenna glanced over her shoulder at Tenley, who was hiding her laughter behind a large book of wedding invitation samples.
“Be that as it may,” Brenna said, “I don’t see what’s wrong with a little kissing between engaged persons. In fact, I think it’s sweet.”
As the three women glanced back out the window at the young couple, Nate Williams strolled by. His feet faltered when he saw the three of them pressed against the glass. His gaze met Brenna’s and the corner of his mouth turned up in a small smile. She had no doubt he was amused to find her wedged between the Porter twins like a slice of olive loaf between two slices of rye. She would have shrugged but her arms were pinned to her sides.
His silver gaze glinted as he made his way towards the door of the shop. The jangle of the string of bells on the door made the twins hop off their perch to check out the new arrival. They fairly lit up at the sight of Nate, who was known to be reclusive and seldom darkened the door of any store other than the grocery.
“Hi, Tenley, ladies,” he said, acknowledging Ella and Marie. “I was wondering if I could borrow Brenna for a bit.”
“Hi, Nate,” Tenley answered naturally, as if it weren’t at all unusual for Nate to be in her shop. “Go right ahead. Just have her back in time to teach her class.”
“Will do,” he said. “Brenna?”
She could feel the Porter sisters’ matching inquisitive gazes boring into her back as she slid out of the window and walked toward the door where Nate waited.
“Don’t tell me my rent is overdue,” she joked.
“No, but I do have some landlord-tenant business to discuss with you,” he said. He looked serious and Brenna felt a flicker of doubt ignite inside of her.
Nate Williams had once been a world famous artist, who abruptly retired from the New York art scene ten years ago. He had relocated to Morse Point, Massachusetts after his retirement, and other than being the chief suspect in a murder investigation three months ago, he had managed to live a very quiet life here. He owned several cabins on the shore of Morse Point Lake, one of which Brenna had been renting from him for a little more than a year.
“Is something wrong?” she asked as she followed him outside.
He led the way down the sidewalk, away from the big ears of the twins. Brenna matched his longer stride and waited for him to explain.
At the corner, he turned to face her. His slate gray gaze was as intense as ever, giving Brenna the impression that they were completely alone as opposed to standing on a busy street corner.
“Did you catch the game last night?” he asked.
She might have known. He wanted to talk baseball. Nate was a devout Yankee fan, while Brenna was a card carrying member of Red Sox Nation.
“Talk to the hand,” she said and put her hand up between them. She turned and resumed walking. She figured she may as well grab a latte at Stan’s Diner while she was out and about.
“Oh, what’s the matter?” he asked. “Is the taste of defeat a little bitter?”
“It was only the first game in the series,” she said. “There are two to go, and I’m quite sure I’ll be the one gloating then.”
“Gloating?” he repeated. “I’m not gloating.”
“Oh, please,” she said, pulling the door to the diner open, “If you looked any more smug, I’d think you batted in the winning run yourself.”
Nate grinned, and Brenna felt her pupils dilate again, but this time in a good way. With his perpetually tousled brown hair, sharp masculine features and lean runner’s build, Nate Williams was the best looking bachelor in town. Hands down.
Okay, maybe her friend Tenley would argue that Matt Collins, the bartender at the Fife and Drum, was the hottest single man in town, but for Brenna, it was Nate. Too bad he seemed to see her as just a friend.
She took a seat at the counter and Nate sat beside her. She was surprised. Nate didn’t come into town often and when he did, he didn’t linger.
“So why were you and the Porter twins plastered to the window?” he asked.
“Jake Haywood and Tara Montgomery,” she explained.
Nate looked bewildered, so she spun on her stool and pointed through the window to the young couple now walking hand in hand across the town square.
“And they would be of interest because…?”
“She’s not from around here,” Brenna explained. She was glad to see that Nate looked as confused as she had once been.
“Can I take your order?” Marybeth DeFalco asked from behind the counter.
“A latte, please,” Brenna said. “Heavy on the froth.”
“I’ll have the same but little to no froth,” Nate said.
“But that’s the best part,” Brenna said.
“Not if you’re a man,” he said. “Men don’t do froth.”
“Fine, can I have his then?” Brenna asked.
Marybeth studied them for a moment. She had been giving the Porter twins a run for the money in the gossip race, mostly, because she was married to Officer DeFalco, a local cop, and was therefore privy to inside information. Brenna knew Marybeth was sizing up the situation and trying to choose the best way to determine what Brenna and Nate were doing together. She decided to cut Marybeth off at the knees.
“Separate checks, please,” Brenna said with a small smile. Marybeth nodded with understanding.
Nate gave her a look.
“What?” she asked. “Did you want to be served up as the latest dish?”
“Huh?” he asked.
“You really need to get out more,” she said. “If you buy me a cup of coffee, the whole town will be speculating as to whether we’re dating.”
“And why do we care what other people think?” Nate propped his chin on his hand as he studied her. She could tell by the crinkles in the corners of his eyes that he found this conversation amusing.
“Let’s just say that I don’t want to be in Tara Montgomery’s shoes,” Brenna said.
“Why? What’s wrong with her shoes?” he asked. “Broken heel?”
Brenna grinned. He was teasing her by being deliberately obtuse, and it was charming. Still, just because Nate didn’t care what anyone thought of him, didn’t mean Brenna was about to let herself become an over-mined vein of gossip for Morse Point.
She’d had more than her share of attention when she’d first arrived in town. She was just beginning to feel accepted, and she wasn’t about to blow it by drawing attention to herself.
“Tara is from Boston,” she explained. “She’s marrying a local man, and the residents are still undecided if this is a good thing or not.”
Nate spun on his chair to look out the window. Tara and Jake were still holding hands as they walked down the sidewalk towards the garage where Jake worked.
Haywood Auto, owned and operated by Jake’s father for the past thirty years, was where everyone in town took their cars. Everyone had a John Haywood story.
Lillian Page, the town librarian and mother of five boys ages 2 to 12, had recently raced into Haywood Auto, convinced her minivan was about to blow up because it was making scary knocking noises. Turned out it was marbles in the gas tank. John got the marbles out and only charged her ten dollars because he said it was worth the laugh as she chased the boys around the garage, threatening to send them to their room for so long they’d think they were mattresses.
John Haywood was everyone’s favorite mechanic, and his son Jake was following in his father’s footsteps. Or at least he was, until he fell in love with Tara Montgomery.
“I don’t see how it’s anyone’s business,” Nate said. “If they’re happy, people should just butt out.”
“Damn straight,” a gruff voice said from behind them.
Brenna spun around to see Stan, the owner and cook of Stan’s Diner, standing behind them with their lattes. Stan was a beefy, red-faced man, who had retired from the U.S. Navy twenty plus years ago and still looked as if he’d be more comfortable with a rolling deck under his feet instead of solid linoleum flooring. He was an artist in the kitchen, however, and today he had shaped the froth on Brenna’s latte into a five petal flower sprinkled with nutmeg.
“Thanks, Stan,” she said. He nodded and she realized that the two words he’d just uttered were the most conversation she’d ever gotten out of him.
Stan lumbered away and Brenna turned back to Nate. “So, tell me, what really brought you into town?”
“You, actually,” he said.