Read Nothing but Trouble Online

Authors: Susan May Warren

Tags: #FICTION / Christian / Romance, #FICTION / General

Nothing but Trouble (18 page)

BOOK: Nothing but Trouble
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His face twitched, but apparently he had no intention of letting her mother
 
—or the threat of her mother
 
—drive him off the scent. “I know you took the truck, PJ. And I know you were at Hoffman’s house. And if I have to, I’ll prove it. But for now, please, please, listen to me.” His expression softened, and for a moment, guilt nudged away her smirk. “Stay away from this investigation.”

“You still believe Jack killed Hoffman?”

He went silent, and in those blue eyes, she thought she saw exasperation.

“Why? Just last night you said that you believed me.”

“I said that I would look into things.”

“Why are you trying so hard to make Jack the killer?”

Boone shook his head. “Oh, PJ, I’m not trying to make him the killer.” He sighed, turning away from her.

PJ studied his broad back, the way his shoulders had squared off, filled out.

“You remember when I beat up Gavin Barrett in tenth grade?”

“I remember you were really angry. You were covered in blood and it scared me.”

“Do you know why we fought?”

She shook her head.

“Because he said that my mother slept around. That I was
just the son of the town tramp.” His voice hit gravel as he spoke, and he didn’t look at her.

“Boone
 
—”

“No, PJ. You’re not stupid. You know who my mother was, what she did every day.”

PJ wanted to erase it all
 
—the tirades that suddenly filled her ears, the smell of his mother, a martini in her hand, sloppy, her voice too bright as PJ asked for Boone at the door. “Yes.”

“But you don’t know the truth.” He turned and met her eyes, and she saw the pain in his. “She married my dad because she was pregnant, and my dad was just stupid enough to love her, even if he didn’t know if . . . the baby was his. He saw her money and her status, and Grandpa got him a job at the country club. But everyone knew. Ask your mom; she knew. She knew that Gavin was right. I don’t belong with you . . . and I knew that from the very beginning.”

“That’s not
 
—”

He raised a hand to silence her. “I have a lot more to prove in this town than you do, PJ. You might have been labeled a troublemaker, but I was labeled trash.”

He let his breath run out of his lungs and stepped toward her, his hand touching her cheek, running down to her chin, lifting it. She recognized suddenly the boy she’d known
 
—part football hero, part bad boy, desperate to find acceptance.

No wonder he hadn’t stood up for her on prom night in front of the burning country club. He couldn’t even stand up for himself.

“Boone, I never, ever thought you were trash.”

He smiled, but it didn’t reach his eyes. “No. You didn’t, did you?” His hand slid down, ran a lazy finger around her
tattoo. “I need to prove that I can protect this town. That I can do this job.”

“Then find the real killer,” PJ said softly, cupping her hand over his on her shoulder. “Be that guy who doesn’t believe the worst in people.”

He studied her. Finally his grim look morphed into that slow, one-sided smile. “Okay, I’ll tell you what. I have the night shift on Friday. You go out with me Friday for an early supper and maybe I’ll listen to your list of suspects and motives.”

PJ wrinkled her nose at him. “Oh, you’re smooth, aren’t you?”

“You used to like that.”

Maybe she still did. “What if my mother finds out?”

He tugged on one red lock of hair. “I promise to behave myself.”

For Jack and Trudi’s sake, she’d already buttered a woman’s legs, humiliated herself on a golf course, and nearly been butted by a goat. She could probably sacrifice and spend a few hours with Boone. In the daylight. Only.

“All right. Friday, around three. But I have to be back by Davy’s bedtime, okay?”

Boone grinned and her knees turned the appropriate texture of blubber. “See you Friday, Peej. And, please, try and stay out of trouble this week.”

* * *

“I think that’s the last of it.” Elizabeth handed PJ the roll of packing tape.

PJ took it and unrolled it over the last of the boxes, this one full of clothes, from her prom dress to her graduation gown.

“Are you sure you don’t want to keep more of your old clothes?” her mother said, pulling out the vacuum cleaner from the hallway. “It seems that you’re giving so many of them away.”

“Where am I going to keep them?” PJ hauled the box into the hall, stacked it on three others. Besides, all this rummaging through and purging the past over the last two-plus days helped take her mind off crazy scenarios, like Tucker Hoffman breaking his father’s neck in a fit of rage and ransacking his house or Ben Murphy appearing on Ernie’s doorstep, as if to borrow sugar, and leaving his neighbor lying among the scattered mail. Did he toss the house in a desperate search for a measuring cup? Doubtful.

She was bright enough to see the holes in both those theories.

A good look at the facts pointed straight at Jack.

She was starting to hope that her crazy coin-conspiracy plot might be on target. Was it so far-fetched to think that Ernie lived a double life? He did know his history
 
—and what was with those pictures of him in ancient locations? More than that, he’d been killed up close, his neck broken, as if by a professional. But did she really want to believe an assassin was running loose around Kellogg? Like Boone had suggested, if Jack didn’t kill Ernie, then it could be that a killer still lurked somewhere in the city limits.

Much easier to reminisce about her old homecoming dress or the day she won the drama trophy.

Probably she could still win said trophy today.

“How’s Davy doing?” her mother asked, now spritzing the window with ammonia, wiping it off with a paper towel.

PJ didn’t look at her
 
—couldn’t. Not with the words
I got him kicked out of Fellows
sitting against her windpipe. She’d left him
 
—happily, it seemed
 
—with Baba Vera and the goat.

She still had time to plead her case with the director. Connie wasn’t due back for a few more days.

“I’m no longer bruised, if that’s what you’re asking.”

Elizabeth scrubbed the window until it squeaked. “Poor child. Never understood that it wasn’t his fault his daddy died. He keeps walking around expecting people to abandon him.”

PJ turned, just to confirm it was her mother speaking. Yep, she stood there in a pool of sunlight on the pink carpet, in her cleaning clothes
 
—a pair of designer jeans, an embroidered shirt, pearls at her neck, and her hair up in a scarf.

“You can handle it, PJ. He’s little. Just love him the way he is, and he’ll come around.”

“Love him the way he . . .”
What about being a Sugar? toeing the line?

PJ wandered down the hall looking at the assembled pictures, a montage of their family before and after her father passed away. She peered at one of all four of them in front of a brown station wagon. She had wild, curly blonde hair
 
—her perm days
 
—and wore her shirt with the collar up, sitting on the hood of the car, “peacing” the camera. Connie, more sober-minded with her glasses and dark hair, her long shorts and button shirt, stood with her arms folded.

PJ ran a finger over her father’s face. She could easily conjure up his hearty laugh when a joke found the right spot. “I miss Dad.”

“Yes, well, he was a good man.” Elizabeth set the window spray on the boxes and came over to stand beside her. “I remember how you were right after he died. So angry at the whole world. No one could talk to you. Sixteen is such a terrible age to lose a father. You were just trying to figure out how to sort out the voices around you, and you needed his. You wouldn’t listen to mine, so I would creep into your room at night after you’d fallen asleep and tell you how much he loved you, how he missed you too. I don’t know if you ever heard it, but I liked to think it helped.”

“Subliminal parenting, huh?”

Elizabeth smoothed her pants. “Well, I hoped somewhere in there you’d hear the truth.” She patted PJ’s shoulder, then moved back to the bedroom and flicked on the vacuum. Its hum filled the hall.

PJ wasn’t sure she’d ever heard the truth, but as she stared after her mother, she wasn’t sure if she wanted to hear it either.

Heading downstairs, she took a right and opened her father’s office door.

Her mother had clearly taken over. Strange, because in the two years PJ had lived here after that night when her father stumbled down the stairs, holding his chest, dying of a heart attack right before his family’s eyes, Elizabeth had never touched the room.

Now, although it still bore the masculinity in the dark-paneled walls, the slatted venetian blinds, the mahogany desk, the awards and investment books on the shelves, her mother had also added a basket of note cards and a pile of novels next to the leather cigar chair. A knitted afghan wadded up on the chair suggested she sat here often.

Even her dad’s smell, Old Spice and something she’d labeled as power, seemed diminished, filled instead with her mother’s Chanel, the fragrance of culture.

PJ wasn’t sure why she’d come in here. Maybe just to breathe in his presence one more time.

She turned to go and was startled by the two eleven-by-seventeen photos framed and hung on the wall opposite the chair.

The first showed Connie in her white angora sweater, leaning into the camera, her eyes soft, her lips red, looking elegant and adult.

PJ had hated that day. She’d arrived armed with her own outfit
 
—her letter jacket. Just because PJ had lettered in football didn’t mean that she didn’t deserve it. She’d gone to every game and kept those stats clean and neat.

And of course, her sophomore year, football kept her close to Boone. Perhaps Elizabeth knew that too, because it seemed her mother had hated the jacket from the moment her father gave it to her on her sixteenth birthday.

“I’ll allow two pictures, PJ. Two.” Elizabeth stood out in the hall for them.

Elizabeth had insisted she take her “real” senior photos in pink angora. She had put the hideous angora picture in the paper, on the invitations, displayed it at their graduation party.

But here on the wall, instead of the pink sweater that cast PJ’s skin red and blotchy, made her look comical, with her blonde hair long and flowy like she should be some sort of debutante, was the other photo of PJ, hands tucked into the pockets of her letter jacket, eyes sparkling, not a hint of demureness on her face, laughing into the camera.

“I liked that one better,” her mother said from the doorway.

PJ waited for something to qualify her statement
 
—maybe,
“Besides, the picture is in the office. No one can see it but me.”

But her mother just gave a nod. “I’m glad I told your father to buy that jacket. It’s the real you.”

PJ froze, replaying the words for herself. “What?”

But Elizabeth had turned away, leaving PJ to stand there alone.

She didn’t know how her mother expected her to hear some subliminal voice of truth when she couldn’t even figure out what she was saying out loud.

CHAPTER
FOURTEEN

Boone motored up around three thirty in his restored Mustang, a Nirvana song blaring on the radio. Yanking PJ back in time to rev up their past.

Regretting that she’d thrown her floral sundress in the thrift store pile back in Florida, PJ had managed to dig out a mint green, scoop neck dress with bell sleeves and a pair of pink flip-flops. She scored a long, appreciative look from the man leaning against his red convertible, arms clasped over his chest.

“Where’s David?” Boone asked.

“I dropped him off at my mother’s.”

“Oh, that’s great.”

“Calm down. Behave yourself and you’ll come out unscathed.”

“I think it’s too late for that.” He opened the door for her.

She put a hand on his arm. “She doesn’t know. Just thinks
I have some errands to do. And for now, that’s just fine.” After yesterday’s precarious conversation, she didn’t know what to tell her mother.

Or what her mother might be trying to tell her.

He said nothing as he closed the door behind her and climbed into the front seat.

They stopped by Sunsets for an early supper. PJ spent the first hour lawyering for Jack’s innocence, including hints at her conspiracy theory, and the possibility of an assassin right here in Kellogg, trying to hunt down the real Doc who had stolen the Nero coins from Rembrandt and finish the job.

It could happen, right?

Boone spent most of her tirade trying to balance the saltshaker on its edge in a mound of salt.

But when they stepped outside into the humid air, he stayed silent, his only hint that she’d even been talking to flesh and blood being the way he reached down and wove his fingers through hers.

She’d never forgotten the feel of his hands
 
—smooth, large, strong
 
—holding hers. She dug her bare toes into the warm sand as they strolled the beach, then the boardwalk to where he’d parked his Mustang. Screams of joy and splashing lifted from the melee on the beach, and PJ could feel the pull toward yesterday.

Whatever magic Boone wielded, it still worked.

“I have something you’ll like,” he said, opening the door for her. He’d taken down the top.

PJ leaned back, closing her eyes, letting the sun have her face. “I can’t believe you still have this old thing.” How many times had she found him on a Saturday morning, greasy to
his ears, the car jacked up, parts littering his parents’ garage? Good thing he’d also had his motorcycle. “It spent more time in pieces and in the shop than we did driving around in it.”

“She still has her clinks. Just put a new head gasket on a few weekends ago. And replaced the timing belt for the third time last year. Now I only drive her during the summers.”

“Sounds like a lot of trouble for a car you don’t get much enjoyment out of.”

Boone gave a laugh that sounded more like a grunt. “Who says I don’t get enjoyment out of her? I love her. Quirks and all. I’d never give up on this baby.” He patted the dashboard. “No matter how many times she leaves me stranded on the side of road.”

They pulled out of town, passing the high school and the local nursery stacked high at the entrance with pallets of bagged manure.

“Where are we going?”

“Just hold on, Sugar. We’ll get there.”

PJ smiled into the wind.

They turned in to the old drive-in, now gated with a long chain-link fence. A shiny security box sentried the door, and Boone keyed in a number.

“Where are we?”

Boone waited as the gate opened and then drove through. The gate closed behind them.

“Please tell me this isn’t a prison or something.” A shot rang out, and PJ jumped. “Boone!”

“Take it easy, PJ. They’ve turned the drive-in into a shooting range. Wanna learn how to shoot a gun?”

“A gun? I mean, I . . . maybe. I don’t know what my stand is on guns.”

“My stand is that they are weapons and shouldn’t be on the streets. But used in a controlled environment like a shooting range, it’s a fun sport.”

PJ’s stunt career had started with jumping from buildings, riding wild horses, rolling cars, and shooting blanks. It ended when the company she worked for wanted to set her afire.

She had history with fire.

However, the shooting fascination had stayed with her.

Another shot rang out, a pop that echoed against the far-off oak and poplar and a green fence that ringed the outer reaches of the forty-some-acre area. “Are we going to hit anyone?”

“I certainly hope not.” Boone parked next to the only other car
 
—a red Geo
 
—and climbed out, retrieving what looked like a briefcase from the backseat. He stopped. “Maybe I should rethink this. . . . You are in that pretty dress. . . .”

“Just show me where to suit up, 007.”

The old snack stand and picnic area had been revamped with shooting benches
 
—T-shaped cement tables with seats. A long yellow line ran down the center, about a foot behind the shooting area. PJ walked it, one pink flip-flop over the other, as Boone signed them in and checked out two vests and ear protection. Another man, down toward the end, sat on the bench, sighting his gun toward a target a hundred yards out from the gallery.

“Ever shoot a gun?” Boone plunked down the equipment.

“Not one with real bullets.”

He opened his briefcase. Nestled inside a grey cutout foam pillow lay a deadly arsenal
 
—three very lethal-looking shiny
guns. He picked up a small black one and handed it to her. Heavier than she expected, the power in its weight jolted her.

“It’s a .22 Ruger. And this one is a Springfield P9, CZ-75.” He pointed to a silver gun, worked it out of its nest, and pulled back the barrel. It rebounded into place. “It’s called a double action, single action.”

Boone seemed to be morphing before her eyes. His command of his weapons, his steady, low voice. The way his hands ran over the guns, knowing each part, an expert. This wasn’t the same reckless Boone who lived to terrify her as he gunned his motorcycle. This was a different Boone. A Boone a girl might be able to trust.

He eased the .22 from her hands and traded it for a lighter gun. “This is a .40 cal handgun called a Glock.”

She crouched in a cop show position, and Boone laughed. “It’s not loaded.”

“It’s lighter than I imagined.” She turned it over. “Where’s the safety?”

“It’s on the trigger. Don’t put your finger on it.”

“Oh, ha-ha.”

Boone gave her a half grin as he took the gun and loaded in a handful of shells. He chose a stand in the middle, taking one side. She took the other, pulling on her vest.

He handed her the Glock again. “Don’t put your bracing hand behind the other one or you’re liable to break your thumb when the hammer pulls back. Brace it underneath.”

She tried out that hand position, feeling like an action hero or a spy.

“Secure the handle into the web of your hand, as high as possible. That will control the recoil.”

Okay, so he really intended for her to learn something here. He moved behind her, slipped her ear protection on, and pulled her close to his chest.

It felt so familiar that PJ relaxed and set her feet.

He reached out and braced his hands on her arms, right above her wrists. Firm. Unmoving. Steady. “Now, sight your target between the notches on the top of the gun, and then squeeze
 
—don’t jerk
 
—the trigger.”

She inhaled a deep breath, let it out, and squeezed.

The shot surprised her, and if Boone hadn’t been holding her arms, she would have jerked back, hot with the adrenaline that surged through her. “I did it!”

“Not bad,” Boone said. “I’m seeing a future in law enforcement.”

She glanced at him, and he realized his words a second too late. “No, forget I said that. The last thing we need is you in police work.”

But he chased his words with a smile.

She shot again. And again. And got better with each shot. Boone reloaded and she nailed her target. Which, she had to admit, was his look of admiration as he finally stood back, past the yellow line, and let her reload and shoot all by herself.

They finished the last set of rounds. As Boone began to pack up, PJ noticed a familiar face. “That’s my mailman, Colin.”

Or maybe not, because as PJ lifted her hand to wave, he stared at her without reaction. “Maybe he doesn’t recognize me.”

“Not in that dress,” Boone said, snapping shut the briefcase. He raised an eyebrow, rich with suggestion.

“Boone, you promised
 
—”

He held up his hands in surrender. “Your mother has probably got us centered in her opera glasses as we speak.”

PJ laughed. “She just doesn’t want a repeat performance.”

His smile dimmed. He stepped close, running his hand down her bare arm, lighting it on fire. “Neither do I.” Then, just like she feared
 
—or hoped, perhaps
 
—he leaned down and touched his lips to hers. Sweetly. So unlike the Boone she’d known that PJ stood there, unable to move, not sure she wanted to.

Maybe they didn’t have to live in the past. Perhaps they could find a place, together, in today.

He raised his head, something tender, even unfamiliar, in his eyes. “Now I’m in real trouble, I guess.”

“I told you to behave yourself.” But her voice shook at the end.

“I have to turn in our equipment.” He walked away from her and disappeared into the office while she tried to get her feet back under her.

Boone took her hand again as they walked to the Mustang. He tucked the gun case behind the seat, and PJ leaned back, letting the air cool her as Boone pulled out onto the highway.

“Where are you taking me now?”

“I want to show you something.” Boone wore a secret in his expression, reminding her of those days when he’d pick her up after school, take her out to the lake or maybe on a ride on his motorcycle, and they’d end up making out at
 

“We’re not going to the hidden beach, are we? Boone?
Boone . . .

He slowed as he pulled into what had been the entrance to
an old fish market, now replaced with a sign that read Kellogg Park.

“You’re kidding. Someone bought this?”

“The town bought it. Decided the kids used it for skinny-dipping way too long.”

She didn’t follow with any personal reminiscence. “I suppose knowing all the old hangouts works really well for you now as a cop.”

“You suppose right.”

“You gotta cut kids some slack. Remember, we were just having fun.”

“Was it just fun, PJ?” He glanced at her.

She looked away, unsure what to do with this serious Boone.

They pulled into a manicured parking lot that rimmed the lake. Once a dirt lot with a trail leading to a hidden bay, now the place had been groomed and sodded, gracious elms and oaks trapping the shadows in their fragrant, dark leaves, picnic tables spaced wide apart next to dark grills. A family chased a Frisbee, a collie snatching it out of the air. The lake whispered against the shoreline. As Boone turned off the car, she saw a skateboarder push himself along the paved pathway.

“This is incredible.”

“Massive, actually. The last of the Kellogg line died a few months ago
 
—Aggie Kellogg
 
—but about six years ago, she decided to unload a good portion of her estate and gave a huge grant to the city to clean up the park.”

“Any reason why?” PJ got out of the car as Boone opened her door.

“Local buzz says there’s some family secret attached to the
old fish dock, but who knows. We’re just glad to have the park.”

He took her hand and they strolled into the park, their feet swishing through the grass. A squirrel ran down a tree, stared at them, and darted away.

“Hey, there used to be a trail here from the drive-in, remember?”

He squeezed her hand.

“Isn’t that dangerous
 
—to have the shooting range so close?”

“They shoot in the opposite direction from the park. But the city looked at that, yes. There’s an ordinance about when people can use the range
 
—not on Sundays and not after dark.”

“That’s Kellogg for you. Nothing good happens after dark, and don’t have too much fun on a Sunday.”

“I think that was your mother, Peej.”

She laughed. “My mother
is
Kellogg, Boone.”

He swung their hands between them. Then he pulled her to a picnic table and sat down on the bench.

The sun hovered over the waters of Kellogg Lake, gilding the wrinkles with golden frost. Overhead, wispy clouds swirled against the canvas of deep blue.

PJ perched on the tabletop. “Pretty.”

He took her hand again, traced a vein. “Okay, really now, why did it take you so long to come back?”

She’d known the question lingered out there, known it bothered him, known she owed him the truth. “Because I was afraid I wouldn’t fit in. That I’d come back and see the truth
 
—that I never belonged here. That the gap my leaving made was so small it simply closed up, and life went on as if I never existed.”

“Listen, George Bailey, the world noticed. I noticed. You left a huge gap.”

“Maybe for you
 
—”

“For everyone. Your sister, your mom, the town papers
 
—”

“Boone!”

He laughed. It sounded real and husky and seeped into her bones, warming her through.

“My sister maybe, but not my mom. I think my absence was a relief.”

“Are you serious?” His laughter vanished.

“I never fit into her world. Never really was a Sugar. I was never enough to earn her approval. I tried, but it didn’t work. So
 
—” she lifted a shoulder
 
—“I gave up.”

“And went out with me.”

She heard the unspoken words
 

the town trash
 

in his tone and wanted to cry. She saw him then, how he’d been as a boy, a wildness written in his eyes that seemed intoxicating. Now she saw him as he’d truly been
 
—his own saboteur. Maybe he did have as much to prove. Maybe he too was a returning prodigal.

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