Death and relaxation, p.3
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       Death and Relaxation, p.3

           Devon Monk
 

  “Uh…explosives? No. One gun. That’s it, I swear.” She blinked hard and looked up at Chris, clearly confused.

  “She’s joking,” he said.

  I wasn’t, but Margot smiled, then laughed, snorting. Okay, maybe she was a little more than tipsy.

  Chris grinned down at her, then gave me the side eye. “Anything else?”

  I decided to give the poor guy a break. “I’ve seen enough.”

  “Good. Because I haven’t. Lock the door on the way out.” Chris slipped past me and flowed down the stairs like a professional trapeze artist.

  He jumped the short distance between the last step and the boat, landing with just enough momentum for him to wrap his arms around Margot, lift her off her feet, and carry her off in one smooth motion.

  Margot squealed, giggled, and then both of them were gone from view.

  I stood there staring into the darkness, listening to the rhythmic lap of waves, and suddenly felt more alone than I had in years.

  I dropped the hatch and dusted my hands.

  “At least someone’s having a good night.” I left the warehouse the way I’d come in, and locked the door behind me.

  Chapter 3

  I SAT outside the brewery, finished up my notes about the conversation with Chris and Margot, and debated driving to Ryder’s house. It was almost five o’clock on a Monday morning. He might be up already. Might be at work already. I could wait a bit and meet him at his office.

  Or he might be at home sleeping off his night at the bar.

  I flipped down my visor and stared at myself in the lighted mirror. Clear blue eyes with tiny flecks of green stared back at me from out of the smudges of too many sleepless nights. There was a little too much shadow under my cheekbones.

  “Dad wouldn’t have worried about waking up someone he needed to question. It doesn’t matter that he’s… It doesn’t matter that he’s Ryder. He’s a witness, so he gets treated the same as any other witness.”

  Mirror me looked as unconvinced as I felt. So I kept staring at her until she looked like the professional cop she was.

  Myra, Jean, and I had been training under our dad since we were eighteen. Which for me meant I’d been at this job in one form or another for eight years. I knew how to interview a witness.

  Pep talk over, I was soon parked in front of Ryder’s house, a nice two-story log cabin on the shore of Lake Easy, just east of town.

  Ryder had built the house, with its deck overlooking the lake, with his father before he was out of high school. His dad had moved to Florida just after that and given the house to Ryder as a graduation gift. Ryder rented out the prime bit of real estate for the six years he’d been in college, then for the two he’d lived in Chicago, working for an architectural firm.

  Ryder had a way with details, taking a big picture and a pile of random pieces and somehow making them all fit together like it was never a puzzle to solve in the first place. That quality and an artistic eye had landed him a job with one of the top architecture firms in Chicago.

  He’d come back to Ordinary a year ago with a client list of his own. I knew he had people wanting his work all over the Pacific Northwest, but he seemed to be trying to spend most of his time here, in his hometown, doing work for easily a third of what he could get paid elsewhere.

  I didn’t know why.

  He’d come back to town with a duffel bag, a career, and even though I had never admitted it to anyone, my heart.

  Ryder fit right back in to the small town pace and life, setting up shop out of a building on Main Street next to the town’s quilt shop and dinosaur museum. Not that Ordinary was on the edge of a building boom or likely ever would be. Vacationing gods liked to keep the town from growing too large.

  But that meant Ryder was out of town fairly often at other projects in the state. When our local paper had asked him why he hadn’t set up shop in Portland or Seattle, he’d just smiled and said he needed some time away from the big-city rat race and where better to get away from it all than Ordinary?

  The neighborhood was quiet at this hour. A few small windows lit up and birdsong began to stir the air. The scent of salt was fresher here, lake air swallowing it down to a sweetness that spoke of forest and shade and deep, clear water.

  I resisted the urge to check my hair in the rearview mirror.

  I hadn’t been sleeping well lately and a pot of coffee had replaced two of my three square meals.

  Dad would be disappointed in my lack of self-care. Maybe it was time to make some changes.

  I made a mental note to pick up some pastries on the way into the station. Pastries were always a step in the right direction.

  “All right, stop stalling,” I said to the thin air. “Let’s see if Ryder can corroborate Chris’s story.”

  I strolled up the concrete path to the porch. I hadn’t even put on deodorant or brushed my teeth this morning. I dug in my pocket for a mint then rang the doorbell.

  I bet I was just a vision.

  It took a second press of the doorbell before the door finally opened.

  “What?”

  Ryder Bailey was a fine-looking man. His dark hair, mussed from sleep and a five o’clock shadow did not take away from the well-defined muscles of his chest and arms. He had hard six-pack abs with a dusting of dark hair that led downward toward lean hips over bulging thigh muscles. His eyes were that peculiar mossy hazel that leaned gold, his dark eyebrows heaviest just to the middle of his eyes. His nose was straight and his hard jaw was balanced by lips that were thicker on the bottom than the top.

  So this is what he looked like when he woke up. Rumpled and sexy. His naturally tanned body was marked only by a few freckles, dark hair, and the tattoos. At twenty-eight, he was lean, muscled in a way that spoke of a very active life, or a lot of training, and absolutely gorgeous.

  What were his ex-girlfriends thinking, dumping him? If I ever touched him, if he ever even thought of me that way, I wouldn’t let him out of bed for weeks.

  I savored the details of him, the sepia tattoo of Leonardo da Vinci’s hand proportion sketch that capped his shoulder with the words NATURE NEVER BREAKS HER OWN LAWS scrawling an arc beneath it. The other tattoo: a drawing tool called a compass spread out in a V against his hipbone, one point pinned on a star of a constellation that licked across the lowest cut of muscle of his stomach.

  I looked a little lower and got more than I bargained for.

  Wow.

  “Laney?” he asked in sleep-dogged confusion.

  “Hey, Ryder,” I said, dragging my gaze up and trying not to grin. He was rubbing at one eye with the heel of his palm. “You’re buck naked.”

  His smile was slow, sleepy, and didn’t quite clear the glassiness out of his slightly unfocused eyes. Still, his gaze lit a fire that started somewhere down at my knees and stroked all the way up to my collarbones.

  “And you’re wearing too damn many clothes, Delaney.”

  Whoa, what? We were friends. Weren’t we just friends?

  “What did you just say to me, Ryder Bailey?”

  “That you…” His dog, a mutt named Spud that looked like a cross between a Chow and a Border collie, came barreling through the living room and licked his feet happily.

  Ryder’s eyes widened. Maybe in surprise. Maybe in horror.

  “I’m not asleep, am I?” Spud nosed up to lick one knee, making Ryder wince before the mutt ran over to lick my bootlaces.

  “Nope,” I informed him gravely. “You are all the way awake.”

  Now that was definitely surprise in his eyes. Before it could turn into embarrassment, it settled into a grin that was not nearly as abashed as it should be.

  “Well,” he said, not bothering to cover himself. “That’s awkward.”

  It took everything I had to keep my eyes up on his face, only his face. I bit the inside of my cheek and sang the alphabet song.

  I think he noticed my struggle. Fine laugh lines at the corner of his eyes deepened with his smile. “So
rry ’bout all this.”

  “It’s all fine,” I assured him, not bothering to elaborate on what I thought was fine.

  L-m-n-o-p.

  “So.” He bit his bottom lip.

  My eyes zeroed in on that motion, liking the look of his moistened lips curled at the edges in a smile.

  Q-r-s-t-are you just messing with me-v.

  I gave him a bland police chief stare, as if him being naked in front of me was just another boring part of the day job.

  I could tell from the lift of amusement in his eyebrows that he wasn’t buying it.

  W-x-y-and-z.

  “Give me a minute to drag on my dignity,” he said. “And my pants.”

  “I could come back later.”

  “Naw, you’re already here. Come on in. Do you want coffee?” He turned and walked off toward his room.

  No tattoos on his back, or at least none that I noticed. Too busy staring at that fine ass, thank you.

  “Laney?” he asked.

  Right. What had he been talking about? Coffee.

  “No thanks,” I said. “This won’t take long.”

  Spud couldn’t decide which human he wanted to lick the most. He gave my boot a last once-over, then barked and took off after Ryder, who shut the door in his face.

  Spud barked again, then lay down, licking the underside of the door, his curled tail thumping furiously on the floor.

  I clamped my palm over my mouth to smother my heavy exhale of laughter. Wow. For a day that had started out bad, it had just totally turned around.

  My chest fluttered as the images of Ryder, naked, played over and over in my mind.

  I took a deep breath. No laughing. No swooning either. Time to pull myself together and act like a cop.

  I studied the interior of the place.

  While the outside of the house was rustic logs, sturdy and just a little rugged, the inside was all sleek and modern. Black leather couch and wingback chairs took the center of the living room and adjoining sitting area that overlooked the big windows facing the lake. A gas fireplace took the corner of the far wall and clean white-shaded lamps strung across the high vaulted ceiling.

  Art on the walls was original oils and watercolors in stark black against white with single, bold brushes of color. I stepped a little closer to a piece that looked like a ship going down in a dark sea, the lighthouse a blind, useless eye in the storm. Ryder’s blocky initials linked together to create a small signature in the corner.

  There was a lot of power in that painting. A lot of pain.

  The house was a study of clean lines that anchored the negative space, furniture set to allow for a clear path to the deck and front and back doors, the open kitchen offering a clear view of most of the living area.

  A blueprint spread across the immaculate glass coffee table, round black stones from the beach pinning the corners.

  This wasn’t what I’d expect from a small-town bachelor. This was sleek, refined, and undoubtedly masculine.

  For just a moment I pondered how much of his life I’d missed. How much he’d changed since I’d known him. The high school boy with dreams in his eyes had come back a man with goals. I just didn’t know what those goals were.

  “So—” he called out from his room, “move it, Spud—what brings you by, Laney?”

  “I responded to a call this morning.”

  Spud rocketed out of the hall, claws clicking on the wooden floor as he hit the living room, carved a tight circle then skidded into my legs. He lifted his head so I could pet it without bending, and raced over to the fireplace, where he pounced onto a basket of toys.

  “So it’s work?” Ryder had changed into a long-sleeved Henley and jeans, but was still barefoot.

  “It’s work.”

  He dropped down on the couch, pushed one of the pillows out of the way, and extended one hand.

  “Have a seat.”

  When he smiled like that it was hard to remember work. Ryder might have been gone for a long time, but my fantasies of him seemed to have no expiration date.

  “I won’t be long, thanks.” I remained standing and pulled the notebook out of my pocket.

  “Where were you yesterday evening around six o’clock?”

  He frowned. “I’m a suspect for something?”

  “You might be.”

  “Pretty sure I haven’t broken any laws, unless indecency counts.” There was that smile again, tugging all the needs in me like unknotted strings.

  Okay, maybe he hadn’t changed all that much from the high school boy I had fallen for.

  Spud bombed back over, a stuffed moose in his mouth. He stopped at my feet, dropped it, and sat, tail wagging.

  I patted his head again and that seemed to be the signal he’d been waiting for. He bolted back to his toy box.

  “It’s not against the law to be naked on your own property,” I said. “As long as your neighbors don’t complain you’re in the clear. So where were you last night?”

  “Around six? Jump Off’s. Had dinner. Burger: double cheese, double onion, and a couple beers.”

  “No fries?”

  He shrugged.

  “Do you have something against fries?”

  “Does this crime involve fries?” He was still smiling. I was trying not to.

  “Answer the question, Mr. Bailey.”

  “I wouldn’t accuse them of murder, but it’s rather suspicious how many heart attacks they leave in their wake.” He raised one eyebrow.

  I nodded slightly. Well played.

  “Were you with a date?”

  “As in fruit?”

  “As in person.”

  Spud was back. Dropped a stuffed fish this time. I petted his head, and he was off.

  “Steve—a guy who wants me to convert a space in Tillamook—sat with me for a bit.”

  “How long did Steve stay?”

  “He left around eight, I think.”

  “And how long did you stay?”

  “One o’clock or so.”

  “Pretty late on a Sunday night.”

  “I didn’t have anywhere to be in the morning. What’s this about, Laney? What happened?”

  Spud arrived at a trot and dropped a cow at my feet. I knew the routine. I scratched behind his ears and Spud dashed off again.

  “Did you see Dan Perkin there?”

  He frowned and settled back a bit, his body relaxing into the couch, one arm out across the back of it, the other with his hand loose at the side of his leg. People who wore guns tended to do that: keep their hands clear so they could get to weapons in short order. Maybe the city boy did it to keep his cell phone hand free.

  “I saw him. He came in right after me. Yelled at Chris for a while.”

  “Did you hear what they were talking about?”

  “The same thing everyone is talking about—the Rhubarb Rally. You are starting to freak me out, Delaney. What happened?”

  “Let me finish and I’ll tell you.”

  “Is everyone okay?” Gone was the easy smile and easy body language, though he hadn’t moved. He was taut, alert, coiled to spring into action and fix whatever was wrong. I didn’t know how he did it. He hadn’t moved, and yet in the span of a breath he’d gone from easygoing to dangerous.

  It was sexy as hell.

  “Everyone’s okay,” I assured him. “No one’s hurt. Can you tell me anything specific you heard Dan and Chris say?”

  He ran one hand over his tousled hair and tipped his head to one side, finally bending his elbow and resting his head on his fingertips. “I wasn’t really paying attention. I tend to tune Dan out. He was angry. Demanded to see Chris. Chris didn’t seem upset—you know how he is.”

  I nodded.

  “He offered Dan a free beer. That made Dan angrier. I think Dan told Chris he was a liar, a cheater, and was trying to put him out of the running in the drink category by bribing judges.” He shook his head. “Why did they add so many new categories to the rhubarb contests?”

  “To
spark more community involvement. Which appears to have been wildly successful,” I said dryly.

  “I hate rhubarb,” he muttered.

  “So do I. But it draws people together to argue over family recipes and triples the business in town. That’s the foundation of a civilized world. Was that all you heard?”

  “There was some sort of dramatic accusation at the end of it all. Dan yelling that as God is his witness he would do whatever it took to keep Chris from winning the prize.”

  “And how did Chris handle that?”

  “He smiled and told him something like ‘good luck with that.’ No—he told him, ‘Bring it on.’”

  “Anything else?”

  “Like what? It would help if I had an idea what you think I might have heard.”

  I didn’t answer yet. “One last thing: did you see a woman having drinks with Chris?”

  “Blonde, mid-twenties, French accent? Wore a silk western shirt mostly unbuttoned and a lacy sort of thing under it. Um…wet designer jeans?”

  It was always interesting to see what details a person noticed. Apparently Ryder noticed underwear and designer labels.

  “Wet? Is that a brand?”

  “Wet as in water. I think I heard her say she got caught by a sneak wave along the jetty.”

  Well, that would explain why she was wearing Chris’s T-shirt on his boat.

  “You are a very observant man, Ryder Bailey.”

  “Habit of an artist. I like to people-watch. I saw her at the bar. I don’t know when she came in—eleven, maybe? But she was still there when I left. From the way she was flirting with Chris, I didn’t think she had plans to leave.”

  Spud made a whining sound. He was headed my way, but a lot slower than before. That was because he was trying to carry a stuffed whale the size of a couch.

  “And who’s a big ol’ show-off?” Ryder said to the dog.

  “That’s a…uh…big whale. Is he supposed to have that thing?”

  “Look at who took down the biggest whale in the sea for his new friend.” Rider sat forward and scratched at Spud’s head as he passed. Spud tried to bend in half so both his butt and head were available for Ryder’s strong scratches, but the whale sort of got jammed between the chair and couch and Spud had to straighten out and back up to get in the clear.

 
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