Lily Schuster was two days on the job as a county deputy serving Moonstone, Wisconsin, when she got a call about a trespasser--digging for a giant beaver the size of a bear and scaring a lavender chicken.
Surely cleaning a nineteenth-century building in ninety-degree August heat had given her delusions.
She pulled her strawberry blonde hair off her perspiring neck and into a ponytail, then called her friend Kirsten Van Brocklin. They'd met in a Spanish class in Chicago a year ago.
Both women had been at crossroads in their lives, trying to leave dark shadows behind. Ironically, both had reasons to look to Moonstone, which sat on the shore of Lake Superior, for the answers they needed about their pasts. Kirsten's secret was exposed only a couple of months ago when she'd moved back to her roots in Moonstone to become a chef. In an almost unbelievable turn of events, Kirsten also became mayor--and last weekend, Mrs. Jonathon Van Brocklin--after foiling the tycoon's topless fishing tour business.
Amid the wedding hubbub, Lily had read in the local newspaper about a special crime-fighting grant for rural northern Wisconsin. The feelings of revenge she constantly battled coursed through her veins again. Lily, who at thirty-four had no desire to return to the spotlight on the West Coast that had nearly destroyed her family, begged Kirsten to put in a good word for her. Lily got the job.
At Lily's mention of Tootsie Winters, who had called about the animals, Kirsten burst into laughter on the cell phone. "Watch out. This could be one of Tootsie's famous tests. When I was new, she pointed out all my so-called faults, such as my straight hair."
"Your hair was a problem?"
"Too straight, too white-blonde. That's Tootsie's way, pointing out the 'too's' in life. She and her husband Bob moved out of town last month to be closer to the docks over in Port Cliff where Bob runs his touring yacht. It used to be the topless fishing tour boat. He was mayor until the flap over the nude fishing gave him a heart attack. I'm betting Tootsie still wants the spotlight on her."
The mention of a spotlight sent sour panic into Lily's stomach. The one thing she needed most in life was to be taken seriously. Just once would be nice. "I'm supposed to be catching criminals, not chickens."
The cell phone practically vibrated from Kirsten's laughter. "Walk carefully around Toots...as if on egg shells--lavender egg shells!"
After goodbyes, Lily grimaced at the dirt on her yellow Green Bay Packer t-shirt and denim shorts. She dared not even brush at things. Who knew what microorganisms dwelled in a building constructed over a hundred years ago as a sundries store for lumberjacks. She moaned at her chipped manicure. A good manicure was a remnant from her past, but she didn't care. Even a woman deputy could be feminine. She needed to change clothes--and nail polish--so she looked professional for...a beaver-loving man and lavender chicken. And what was that about a nude fishing tour? What has Kirsten gotten me into?
Lily rushed about looking for her badge and handcuffs amid the junk she and Todd had brought up from the mouse-infested basement.
"Have you seen the handcuffs, Todd?"
Todd Arneson had walked in yesterday, a lanky, freckle-faced fourteen-year-old who was bored with summer. He had one week before school started. He was also six feet tall, so this morning she put a broom in the hands of "Tom Sawyer" and set him to wiping spider webs off the tin ceiling. With her grumpy boss coming for his first inspection next week, she was grateful for Todd's help, but he also proved mischievous.
He grinned down at her from the ladder. "Maybe your cuffs are in the basement."
Yesterday he'd gotten her twice with a cry of "Mouse!" She shuddered. "I'm not going down there again until we do something about the mice."
"I could bring ya some rat poison. Mom buys it in bulk for our motel."
Todd looked slap-happy as a naughty puppy. She admonished, "And I suppose you have a big fat rat for a pet. Now cough up the handcuffs."
He tossed them to her. "Is it really a giant beaver? Can I come along?"
"No." Lily used her handkerchief to swab a gob of spider web off the handcuffs. She put the hankie into a box with other rags to be washed, found her badge on top of the report she'd been reading about rural meth labs, then raced upstairs to her apartment to change.
Moments later, she headed out into the hot sun baking the sidewalk. She wore her brown uniform baseball cap, brown pants and short-sleeved shirt, with a fresh hankie tucked inside a pocket and her badge shined to match the sheen of her black shoes.
Todd scrambled after her. "Hey, you're bitchin'."
"Watch your language, kid." She hid a smile. It still thrilled her to see her reflection in the mirror, the cap brim just so over her eyes, hair out of sight, the yellow county logo with green pines on the sleeve.
She unlocked her side of the gray Honda Civic.
"Is the beaver alive?"
"He died some time ago," she said. "Now get back to work, please."
"Will there be maggots? If you have maggots you can tell how long somebody's been dead. I can help you figure out how long the beaver's been croaked."
Tow-headed Todd, who tugged playfully at the locked door, reminded her of her brother at that age, ready to embrace any adventure. Oh, how she missed that. Because of her brother she'd changed her life and career, starting over in her thirties. "Just this once you can go along."
* * * *
Tootsie Winters, a stout, silver-haired woman wearing a matching top and shorts sporting red cherries, charged over as Lily got out of the car. The Winters' place, a few miles southeast of Moonstone, was a patch of sandy land carved from tall pine forest that abutted a marsh behind the peeling yellow house and weathered outbuildings. The humid marsh air feathered into the clearing carrying the scent of decaying leaves, pine needles, and...chicken crap.
Lily gaped at the ball of flyaway lavender fluff sitting contentedly in the crook of Tootsie's arm. Lavender fluff covered most of the chicken's unusual black legs. Even among all the fowl of San Francisco's Chinatown, Lily had never seen such chickens.
Todd laughed. "Looks like a hat."
Tootsie's scowl took the edge off Todd's fun. She pointed to a wire fence enclosure the size of a three-car garage. "See what he's done to my chicken yard? He's like a crazed rooster scratching about."
Several fluffy chickens of various colors--red, white, gray-blue, black--moseyed about a man hip deep in a hole tossing dirt. The chickens with their strange legs looked like can-can dancers wearing black tights and fuzzy pantaloons. They appeared to vie for the man's attention. Lily could understand why. Her hand slipped inside a pocket to worry the hankie she always carried. She might need it to mop up her drool.
From this vantage point, he wore nothing but a bronze tan on well-defined back and shoulder muscles. The sun had lightened strands of wavy, chocolate brown hair that fluttered on his neck in the breeze. She understood the hens' urge to do-si-do up to him. She touched the badge on her pocket to quell her unprofessional reaction, but the dang shield vibrated from her ragged breathing.
Tootsie ranted on. "My prized chickens will fall in that hole. And why in heaven's name aren't you wearing a gun? My husband leaves me alone in the woods and this galoot needs to be warned. Where's your taser? Let's taser him. You look about as authoritative as my silkies."
Silkies? Was the woman talking about her underwear? Lily asked, "Who is he?"
"Marcus Linden. University big shot. He had a piece of paper he contends is a permit to dig here for beaver bones he says are ten thousand years old."
The lavender hen clucked at Todd. "She bite?" Todd asked.
"Heaven's no, not silkies. They love being petted, don't you, Lulu?" Tootsie said, stroking the chicken. "She's my prize. Lavender hues are the rarest. Had to drive down to Iowa for her." Tootsie handed the "hat" over to Todd.
Lily strode toward the chicken pen to meet the professor.
Once inside the gate, she picked her way around chicken poop landmines. "Hello?" She ducked to avoid flying dirt. She checked her shoes. So far, their polish remained pristine. "Mister Linden?"
Dirt smudged most of his body, though it didn't hide rippling biceps and forearms glistening with sweat.
Another shovel of dirt landed too close to be a mistake.
She leaped to the side, landing in chicken poop that spurted like gray toothpaste up the side of a black shoe. Her stomach twisted. "Do I need to arrest you?"
When he looked up, she was the one arrested by earthy brown eyes shaded with thick lashes. He cocked his head, challenging her with a sweeping smile that manacled her in place. "Arrest me. I'd be honored to spend some time with you."
She had a full view of a six-pack that led to low-riding denims. His gaze traveled up her form-fitting uniform, making the day hotter, making her grateful for chest pockets that covered up her body's surprising reaction. His large palms wrapped around the shovel handle, the fingers playing it, as if itching for another type of action.
Okay, he was an oaf, but she'd still be in college if her professors had looked like this guy.
She mentally slapped herself. He was acting like the same uber-smart, but smart-alecky, playboys hand-picked by her mother for Lily. She stepped back. Carefully.
"Get out of there," she ordered, looking down at him in the hole, her thumbs hooked at her pockets to keep her hands from shaking.
His demeanor shifted like the sun ducking behind a cloud. "I have a right to dig here, little lady."
He wasn't getting points for calling her "little". She tapped the badge on her shirt pocket. "Deputy Schuster. I'd like to see your permit and I.D., please."
"Pat me down." He raised his arms. "Deputy...Schuuuu...ster."
He said her name as if blowing her a kiss. Lily's throat went dry, but she had the urge to kick chicken poop at him for his insolence. "I need to see your permit."
He made a grand show of slipping his hands into all the pockets of his denim jeans, the jeans shifting low enough to make her swallow at the tiny stripe of soft-looking hair that trailed from below his belly button into the white band of his underwear.
"I forgot," he said. "Left everything in my cooler over there."
Oh great. She'd have to touch that red thing covered with dirt and chicken crap.
Inside the large, red soft-sided canvas cooler, she riffled through a messy microcosm of his life. She found a fat file labeled "Casteroides ohioensis", a calculator, bags of dirt samples and stone arrowheads, a cell phone, a GPS device, an old-fashioned compass, two salted nut rolls, a clear plastic container of...live, wiggling maggots.
She wrenched her hand back. Hearty laughter behind her made her grit her teeth.
"Need some help with my Maggie gals?"
She shuddered. The man names maggots! She retrieved a brown wallet from under the maggots.
His driver's license said he was six-two, twenty-nine, and mighty handsome with shorter cropped hair and the layer of dirt washed off. It was the best license photo she'd ever seen. His birth date made him a Taurus, a bull--bossy and stubborn. But she noted he was willing to donate his organs. That softened her toward him. But only a little. He'd be donating them sooner than he expected if he didn't cooperate. The thought renewed her sense of authority.
She took a folded blue paper from his wallet. "This permit is for the Wallenkamps' property, not Winters."
"The Wallencamps gave me permission. This was their land before they sold it to the Winters a month ago."
Now what? One glance back at the scowling Tootsie made Lily crouch down near the edge of the hole, her heart thundering. "Please, just come with me. Make it look good or that woman's going to cause us both huge headaches."
His firm lips wiggled inches from hers, making her swallow an unbidden itch to lean into what he was offering.
He swiped at sweat ebbing down his cheek, leaving a muddy streak. "No." He resumed digging.
Crap. Didn't her uniform mean a thing? The shiny badge? Even the red, black, and white fuzzy chickens wearing their pantaloons meandered up to peck at her uniform's brown fabric. When a white fluff ball settled between top of her shoes as if they were a nest, Lily grimaced.
Her nearly naked professor smirked. How do you shake a sleeping hen off your shoes? "I'll buy you lunch if you get this thing off me and come with me now."
"Deal. I'm starved." He climbed out of the pit to tower over her, holding out both wrists. "Handcuff me. Take me and have your way with me."
With the chicken nesting on her shoes, she couldn't move. Marcus Linden's aura smelled of salt, earth, and a sexiness that discombobulated her. All that was left for him to do was paw the earth like a Taurus bull. She stood like a frozen fool, a true rookie. Sweat poured down her spine, itching her back.
Fortunately, Todd yelled for her. "It's Kirsten on yer cell. She says some old fart's in bed with two women! And they're trying to kill each other. Come quick!"
Tootsie raced into the yard to pick up the white chicken. "Oh, honey, let me help you." She was talking to the hen, Lily noticed.
Marcus Linden winked. "Let's hold off on the handcuffs until later. You might need them for this next guy."
When the smug Mr. Linden turned back to his dig hole, Lily reacted by slapping handcuffs on him. It surprised even her.
"Hey!" he yelped.
"Hey, yourself. Get in the car."
Tootsie said, "Now that's more like it, Deputy."
Although Lily had control over Marcus, he smiled down at her with eyes shimmering. Lily's heart banged so hard against her ribs she was sure the badge was dancing. She stuffed him in the back seat of the Civic, along with a black t-shirt she'd spotted hung through a hole in the chicken wire fence.
From the shotgun seat in front, Todd asked Marcus, "Are you dangerous?"
"It seems I am to the female of any species."
"The Dep's okay. She hates mice. And getting her nails dirty."
"Todd!" Lily snapped at him, starting the car, spraying sand and red dirt behind them as she pressed the accelerator hard.
Marcus chuckled from the back. "You got Tootsie good. The white chicken, too. She looks pink now."
Lily died inside. She dared not even look in the mirrors. If any of this got back to her boss... She let Todd do the talking while she barreled down the road in the Honda.
Todd had twisted around in his seat belt. "You use maggots to clean bones?"
Marcus launched into a story about some zoo's buried hippo nearby that was being cleaned with maggots so the skeleton could be used in a zoology classroom. Lily could sense he was purposely trying to gross her out. She gritted her teeth, clinging to the steering wheel all the way into Moonstone, focusing on her chipped manicure.
Her nose wrinkled at the faint smell of chicken poop she'd forgotten to wipe off her shoes.