Read Lead a Horse to Murder Online

Authors: Cynthia Baxter

Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Mystery & Detective, #Women Sleuths, #Detective and Mystery Stories, #Mystery Fiction, #Murder, #Private Investigators, #Women Veterinarians, #Long Island (N.Y.), #Horses

Lead a Horse to Murder (25 page)

BOOK: Lead a Horse to Murder
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Fortunately, it turned out to be the one person I
like
having grab me.

“I didn’t mean to wake you,” I told Nick, clasping my arms over his and leaning back so my head rested against his shoulder.

“Are you kidding? By this point, I’ve already forgotten what a good night’s sleep is.”

I hesitated, wondering if I dared to say what I was thinking. But the words started pouring out even before I’d decided. “It’s turned out to be a big change, hasn’t it? You going back to school, I mean. Bigger than we anticipated.”

“Yeah. It’s one of those things you think you’re ready for, but until it actually happens, you can’t really comprehend how it’s going to play out.” He sighed deeply. “I know it’s Saturday, but I have to head over to the library first thing. I expect to be there all day.”

“I figured. By the way, we have a dinner invitation for tonight, at Heatherfield.”

I felt his body tense. “Not another trip into a parallel universe, I hope?”

“This should be better than last time. Andrew MacKinnon’s having a birthday party for one of his polo players, Pancho Escobar, so I assume there’ll be a lot of people there. The food should be good, too. They’re barbecuing, Argentine-style.”

“Sounds like fun.”

“Speaking of fun . . .” I wriggled around so I was facing him. Our bodies still pressed together, I said, “You don’t have to go the library
immediately,
do you? We have to at
least
wait for the coffee to drip.”

“Mmm. It would be a shame to waste those five minutes, wouldn’t it?”

“Five minutes!” I slid my hands up under his T-shirt. “Give me fifteen, and I’ll really make it worth your while.”

“Deal.”

By the time we sat down to coffee—a full thirty-five minutes later, I noted with satisfaction—we were both feeling considerably better about our situation. But as Nick passed me one of the English muffins he’d just toasted, I noticed that his expression had grown tense.

“What is it, Nick?” I asked, trying to keep my tone light. Something about the sudden coolness in the air told me I wasn’t going to like whatever had caused it. The first thought that popped into my head was our unfinished conversation from the night before. I braced myself for a lecture on my unhealthy obsession with murder investigations.

Nick cleared his throat. “I’ve been thinking that, well, maybe it wouldn’t be a bad idea if—”

“Don’t tell me,” I interrupted tartly. “You’ve been thinking that maybe it wouldn’t be a bad idea if I kept away from murder investigations, if I simply kept my nose to the grindstone and concentrated on my veterinary practice. . . .”

He blinked. “Actually, I was going to say I’ve been thinking that maybe it wouldn’t be a bad idea if you and I moved in together.”

My mouth dropped open—literally. I quickly ordered myself to snap it shut. “You mean . . . but . . . wait, you’re saying that—”

He stood up, walked over to my side of the table and wrapped his arms around me. Lou immediately wandered over, wagging his tail and sticking his nose between us. “You know, Jess, you’re awfully cute when you’re flabbergasted.” He chuckled softly. “Have I ever told you that?”

“No. I mean, yes. I mean . . . let’s stop and think about this, Nick. I mean, living together is a big decision.”

“You know what?” he asked, gently rubbing my back. “Sometimes you think too much. In certain situations, it’s better to just go with what you feel.”

I wasn’t about to tell him that I was feeling pretty darn close to panic. While I’ve never thought of myself as claustrophobic, for some strange reason the walls of the room suddenly seemed to be growing closer and closer.

“I love you, you know,” Nick said. Somehow, he made the whole thing sound so simple.

“I know,” I said, trying to hide the fact that I was practically choking. Why hadn’t I left the front door open, to let some air in? “I love you, too.”

“And things between us have been going pretty well lately.”


Very
well,” I agreed.

“If you think it’s hard for us to find time together now, wait until my classes really get rolling. If you and I were living together, at least we’d see each other at breakfast every morning, and pass each other on the way in and out of the bathroom. . . .” He slid his hands under my shirt. The skin of his palms felt warm and smooth against my back. “And just think how nice it would be to snuggle up in bed together every night.”

The memory of the spectacular half hour that had led up to this moment was making it hard for me to think straight. “I know you said I think too much, but can I think about this?”

He looked startled. It clearly wasn’t the answer he expected. At least, it wasn’t the one he wanted.

He dropped his hands. “Sure.”

I could tell he was disappointed. And I couldn’t really blame him. Not when I’d let him down by not throwing my arms around him and exclaiming, “Yes! Yes!”

Then again, this wasn’t the first time Nick had asked a question I hadn’t answered correctly. A really
important
question.

His eyes didn’t meet mine as he sat back down in his seat, way over on the other side of the table. You’ve never seen anybody gulp down an English muffin and a cup of coffee quite so fast.

With equally impressive speed, he headed out of the cottage, stopping only to peck me on the cheek and mumble, “See you later.” And even though he left me standing in the doorway with a panting Dalmatian, a rawhide-chewing Westie, a cat who was rubbing against my leg and meowing for attention, a chameleon blinking lazily in her tank, and, just a few feet away, a macaw who was singing the pirate song Nick had once taught him, the cottage suddenly felt remarkably empty.

As soon as Nick’s car disappeared up the driveway, I sprinted across the yard to Betty’s house. There was something to be said for having your own personal therapist, fortune-teller, and surrogate mother right there on the premises.

Even though it was still fairly early, Betty greeted me at the door in full makeup, complete with lavender eye-shadow and crimson lipstick. Somehow, on her it looked good. So did the long, gold earrings which, upon close examination, turned out to be shaped like flamingos. For her casual morning at home, she was dressed in a mustard-colored caftan whose folds draped dramatically over her tiny frame. It was laced with shiny gold threads, making her look as if she’d just stepped out of the Casbah.

“Jessica, are you all right?” she greeted me.

“Yes. I mean, no. I mean—Betty, I could really use a cup of tea.” Actually, given the adrenaline rush I had on top of the caffeine buzz from my morning hit of coffee, tea was the last thing I needed. The same went for Betty’s secret ingredient. But it would give us a chance to talk.

“Coming right up.” Betty cast me a worried look. “I think I’d better make it a double.”

As I plopped down at the kitchen table and laid my palms flat on its surface, I saw that my hands were trembling. “I’m shaking,” I observed, surprised.

Betty glanced over from the sink, where she was filling the kettle. “Why am I sure that whatever you’re about to tell me has something to do with Nick?”

I didn’t blurt out the thought that popped into my head at that moment, that I’d long suspected she was capable of reading minds. At least,
my
mind.

But my news couldn’t wait for the water to boil. “Nick suggested that we move in together.”

Her eyebrows shot up so forcefully that her long gold earrings swayed from side to side. “Well, it’s about time. And I wouldn’t raise the rent, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

“That’s the least of my concerns.”

“Why don’t you tell me exactly what your concerns
are
?”

“Giving up my independence, of course! Sharing my space with someone else . . . with a man.” I swallowed hard. “Even if that man is someone as wonderful as Nick. I mean, the closets in that place are tiny, and . . . and the kitchen’s so small there’s barely room for one person to move around, much less two. And the dogs are used to running around as much as they want, jumping on the furniture and leaving their saliva-covered toys all over the place . . .”

“I think what we’re really talking about here is making a commitment,” Betty said gently.

“Well . . . yes.” I paused, thinking. “Of course, there are some practical reasons to go for it. For one thing, Nick is about to be evicted from his apartment. His landlord’s daughter is getting divorced, and she’s moving back home to that second-floor apartment. Then there are financial considerations. With Nick in law school full-time, he’s living off his savings. Saving money by sharing a place makes perfect sense.”

“That all sounds very practical,” Betty said, nodding. Her mouth drooped down just a little as she muttered, “
Too
practical.”

“Then there’s the fact that with Nick becoming a student again, we hardly get to spend any time together,” I went on. “He’s always in class or at the library or . . . or with that obnoxious study group of his. If we lived together, at least we’d pass each other going in and out of the bathroom every morning.”

“Not to mention snuggling up together in bed,” she interjected.

“That, too.”

Betty stood up and focused on retrieving the sugar bowl from the shelf above the stove. Without looking at me, she demanded, “Jessica, do you love Nick?”

“I—what?”

“You heard me. Do you love Nick?”

“Well, I . . . yes. Yes, I love Nick.”

“Do you love him enough that you believe, deep down, that there’s a good chance you’d be happy spending the rest of your life with him?”

I squirmed in my seat. “That’s the tricky part! Whenever I hear that phrase ‘for the rest of your life,’ I start to feel as if the entire room is—”

“Jessica, answer my question,” Betty insisted.

I took a large gulp of tea, largely to counteract the dryness of my mouth. “Yes,” I finally croaked. “I love him that much.”

“Then I believe we’ve answered the question.”

“You’re just like Nick! You both make it sound so simple!” I protested.

“It’s not very complicated,” she countered. “At least, it doesn’t have to be.”

She reached across the table and took my hand. “Jessica, you know what a romantic I am. I think you and Nick living together is an excellent idea. You’re both crazy about each other, and the two of you should be together. Sharing that cottage, where you already feel at home, would be a good way for you to get used to the idea of letting somebody into your life without feeling trapped.

“In my day, of course, the natural next step in a relationship like the one you and Nick have would have been marriage. It’s much better these days, when two people in love can take a less drastic step without raising too many eyebrows. Living together isn’t as big a commitment—but you’re right to give it serious thought. It’s definitely not something to take lightly.”

She paused to sip her tea. “Jessica, you know I absolutely adore Nick. And since I think of you as a daughter, I’d be tickled pink to see the two of you make a real commitment to each other. If you want my opinion—and even if you don’t—I think you should give it a try.”

Her answer didn’t surprise me.

Unfortunately, neither did my reaction to the idea of letting Nick get a little closer. Okay, a
lot
closer. Even scarier than the idea of sharing my closets was the idea of sharing my entire life.

Of course, there would be advantages. Logistical ones, but even more important, emotional ones. Nick and I would be getting even closer, moving our relationship to an entirely new level.

The problem was that I couldn’t simply focus on what I’d be gaining. What loomed even larger in my mind was what I’d be giving up.

My inability to embrace Nick’s latest idea about modifying our living arrangements resulted in a sort of— shall we say,
tension
between him and me. In fact, it quickly took on a life of its own. It sat between us like a cranky child as we drove along the Long Island Expressway that evening, heading toward Old Brookbury for Pancho Escobar’s birthday celebration.

“This should be fun,” I said with forced cheerfulness as I veered my red VW into Heatherfield.

“Yeah,” he said noncommittally, glancing up from the law book he’d been reading as I drove.

“It’s really nice that Andrew MacKinnon invited me,” I went on. “I mean,
us
.”

“Look, why don’t you get out here and let me park?” he suggested. “It’s a mob scene. Besides, you’re the one who’s friends with this crowd. I’ll catch up with you in a few minutes.”

“Sure.” I hopped out and followed the sound of laughter and clinking glasses, noting that tonight’s celebration was taking place right outside the stable. Much better than being inside, I thought, especially on such a warm evening. For the occasion, the courtyard that the three sides of the U-shaped building created had been turned into a party room. A “ceiling” had been created with strings of tiny white lights that crisscrossed overhead, while brightly colored paper lanterns added a festive look. A small group of musicians played tunes that were unfamiliar to me but which seemed to have a Latin flair.

I glanced around, noting some familiar faces. Andrew and Jillian MacKinnon. Diana Chase and Vivian Johannsen, standing together and looking as if neither had the slightest intention of ingesting any food this evening.

I turned my attention to the huge platters of food that were laid out on a long table. Guests were already crowding around the cheese plates and salad bowl. The bread, I noticed, was virtually untouched—no doubt the legacy of Dr. Atkins.

There was one exception. I wasn’t surprised to see that Callie had already staked out the food table and was busily loading poppy seed rolls onto her plate.

I was about to head over to say hello, in fact, when someone grabbed my arm a little more roughly than I would have considered neighborly. Glancing over my shoulder, I found myself face-to-face with Bill Johannsen.

BOOK: Lead a Horse to Murder
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