Man killed with skeleton.
Avalon Lynch scrambled down the tree. Fifteen feet to the ground. Ten feet. Bits of black bark heralded her descent, tugged at her artfully tattered skirt and chewed holes in her fishnet stockings. Ignoring her pounding heart and sweat slick palms, she toed down the trunk to find a footing on the last branch.
When she discovered who had put the skeleton in the tree, she would curse them until their descendants evolved.
Of course, she might have to stand in line behind the man. The man. Balancing on the thick tree limb, she dried her palms on her skirt. Perhaps he wasn’t dead. Perhaps he was just stunned. She glanced up through the branches of the dead oak. Old Reidon had been wedged about twenty-five feet up. Twenty-five feet times gravity would give her the force behind the crash. Lonnie chewed on her bottom lip. Well, it would if she could remember if the conversion factor from feet to meters. Still, Old Reidon couldn’t weigh that much. He was made of the new lightweight plastic, much better and more durable than the old skeleton. In fact, the impact hadn’t damaged the bones at all.
The stranger was another matter.
“Enough, Lonnie. Geez, if cowardice is going to become an integral part of your character after thirty-four years, you might as well just donate your spine to medical science now.”
Coward. She shrugged off the slander. Okay, so she’d skipped town before giving Orren an answer to his marriage proposal. That didn’t make her a coward, did it? She’d always faced the consequences of her actions before.
Which is why you’re up a tree now, instead of down on the ground, tending to the man you bombed with a skeleton? Broken broomsticks, when had her conscience become so acerbic?
Exertion burned along her thighs as she squatted then gingerly plopped her behind onto the branch. Tufts of dead grass beckoned from five feet below. A crow hopped into her landing space and pecked at the ground. Her grease-filled lunch threatened to shoot out of her stomach. Five feet. Four inches less than her modest height, yet a daunting distance when hovering above the earth.
Bark confetti rained onto the ground as she shifted on her perch. She’d have to jump sometime—her victim needed first aid. The breeze carried his low groan to her. At least, he wasn’t dead. Unconscious, not dead. Not that she’d actually believed manslaughter was an appropriate punishment for cowardice. Jumping Jack-o-lanterns. That nasty noun had popped up too often today.
So she’d left—but she always returned to Pumpkin this time of the year. In fact, her vacation request had been in her personnel folder since she’d started working at the Prior-Tea Clinic. Orren’s proposal and her departure was a simple case of bad timing. It most certainly did not indicate any invertebrate tendencies on her part.
“Caw. Caw.” The crow cast a yellow-eyed glance at her before hopping away.
Now was not the time for self-analysis. The man was hurt, and she just might remember enough of her first aid training to help him.
Lonnie pushed off the branch. Her landing rattled up her bones and out her skull. Knees complained as she straightened—she would feel her daring rescue of Old Reidon in the morning. As for the stranger, he was feeling her rescue of the skeleton now.
She stepped into her boots. Their buckles slapped worn leather as she circled the trunk.
“I hope you got ID, buddy.” The throaty growled stirred the hair on her arms.
What was so appealing about a deep baritone? Sure, that velvet rasp was a real asset for phone sex operators and jazz singers but put it on a priest, a teacher or a doctor…
Lonnie stopped as her heart picked up tempo. Orren Prior was a doctor. A doctor with a normal male voice. A doctor with good looks, old money and an older family name. With those assets, he didn’t need a voice like liquid chocolate. And he certainly didn’t need her.
So why had he asked her to marry him?
“And wipe that grin off your face.” The sinful voice truncated her speculation. Bones rattled like chips in a soothsayer’s cup as he shook his attacker. “Assaulting a peace officer is a serious offense.”
Lonnie palmed her giggle. Not many men would have a sense of humor after being knocked unconscious by a skeleton. Unconscious? Brain trauma. Concussion. What other horrible repercussions could result from the skeletal walloping.
“Are you all right?”
Startled, the man bounced on the ground. After stuffing the skeleton behind his back, he turned to face her. Cobalt blue eyes flicked over her with the precision of a laser.
“I just had the wind knocked out of me. Have you been standing there long?”
“Don’t worry,” Lonnie resisted the urge to squirm. She hadn’t done anything wrong, precisely. Old Reidon plunging on top the man’s curly brown head was an accident. “I won’t tell anyone you were consorting with a skeleton.”
White teeth flashed in his tanned face. He settled the skeleton next to him and wrapped his arm around the bony shoulders. “Alas, she’s not my type. I prefer someone with a little more meat on her bones.”
Interest flared in the blue depths.
Lonnie clasped her hands together. She was practically an engaged woman, would be engaged if she had answered Orren. And she wasn’t flirting. She was simply sharing a laugh over the absurd situation.
“I believe weight to be the least of your problems.” She squatted before him. Evenly dilated pupils focused clearly on her lips. She could probably rule out a concussion. A wisp of Old Spice aftershave teased her. Her nose twitched. The clean scent hinted at subtle layers waiting to be discovered. She should keep him under observation, maybe even overnight observation. Just in case.
“You willing to share my problems with me, honey?” The right corner of his mouth lifted, propping up the dimple in his cheek.
Honey. Chocolate. Rich, decadent and forbidden to anyone on a diet or almost engaged. Regret swung across her shoulders as she pulled back. If only she’d given Orren an answer before she left. A no would have allowed her to flirt with Mr. Sinful and a yes…
She stuffed away the useless thoughts. “Old Reidon is definitely a man, not a woman.”
“How can you tell?” Brown eyebrows met over his aquiline nose. “I mean without the obvious, er…” Embarrassment darkened his cheeks.
“The obvious?” Amusement trickled through her. Such chagrin over the simple mention of body parts. Her gaze flicked over him. Not that his weren’t a fine example of his gender. Broad-shouldered and narrow-hipped. Waves of muscle played over bones. A fine example of manhood, indeed.
He cleared his throat and stared over her shoulder. “The obvious plumbing facilities still intact.”
“His pelvis.” Her gaze dropped. Gurgling goo, his zipper was going to pop. She forced her attention back to his face. “A man’s and a woman’s pelvis are different.”
His gaze slid down her shoulder to linger over the area in question. Desire cast heat across her flesh. This was no clinical observation; this was her treacherous body layering innuendo onto a scientific explanation.
“A woman’s hips are wider, flared to cradle a baby and…and a man.”
Images flickered inside her skull, an 8mm film of skin and passion. Lonnie shook her head, scrambling the thoughts. What was she thinking? Fantasizing about a total stranger. A good-looking stranger, true, but she might be an engaged woman, an almost-wife. She cleared her throat and straightened. Whatever spell he had cast over her would have to be broken. She needed to think clearly—without phermones, animal musk and that bulge in his pants distracting her.
“It would be easier to explain if I laid a man and a woman side-by-side.”
“Oh, I think I can appreciate the difference.” The dimple flashed again, there and gone, there and gone, as if he were trying to mesmerize her. “Although if you feel the need to instruct me further, I won’t complain.”
He pressed his hand to his chest, swept those blunt fingers over firm muscle.
Her breasts tightened. His actions were suggestive but tame compared to the minefield of sexual implications in his statement. Delightfully sinful; decidedly taboo. Lonnie ignored the smile tugging on her lips. She had only one weapon in this game: innocence.
“Unless you’re planning to consort with any more skeletons, I don’t think you’d need a crash course in anatomy.” Science tackled his sensuality. It was for the best, Lonnie.
“I didn’t plan on this one.” He blinked, banking the interest blazing in his eyes. “I don’t suppose you saw who did it? Attacked me with this skeleton, I mean.”
“Attacked you.” She clasped her hands behind her back, milking her fingers. Attacked was such a harsh description.
“Don’t worry, I can protect you. I’m a peace officer.”
“Protect me?” Crime statistics flipped through Lonnie head. Jumping Jack-o-lanterns, this was Pumpkin not Phoenix. Crime didn’t exist in her hometown. Or did it? Her parents had insisted she attend the community meeting at the Between the Towns Gospel Church, yet hazing between the feuding communities was good fun, not criminal. “From what?”
“The Prankster. This is the second time one of his tricks has almost resulted in an serious injury.” He rubbed the back of his head and stared up at the tree.
The Prankster. Unease feathered across her skin. Everyone knew that things heated up between the two towns as soon as the temperature dropped. Still, her mother had warned her that something seemed different this year. A new malevolence had descended with the autumn mist.
Except The Prankster wasn’t responsible for the skeletal attack. She was. Confess. Now, before his theories grew out of hand.
“Perhaps I should check you out.” His blue-eyed gaze returned to hers. “Your injuries, I mean.”
“Huh, yeah.” He twisted on the ground, presenting her with his back.
His silky hair slid between her fingers. Nice hair. No broken skin. I wonder what kind of conditioner he uses. A little red patch here. Nothing fruity but definitely spicy.
Air hissed through his teeth. “You have a nice goose egg back here.”
“Thanks for not using any fancy medical jargon.” He brushed her hands aside and cupped the swollen skin. Pain laced the grin on his lips.
“About this prankster—what has he done, exactly?”
“Little things at first. Stole a few signs. Changed Happy Halloween to Happy Holidays, switched poinsettias for pumpkins, Santas for scarecrows.”
Lonnie smiled. All standard issue in the Holly High bag of tricks. All met equal retaliation from the Pumpkin Predators when the Christmas season rolled around.
“It was, until the Frankenstein monster machine began arcing and snapping. Someone had messed with the electrical system. Sparks flew—literally—and caught a hay bale on fire.” He stared into space. “Thank God, someone thought to try out the thing before opening the Haunted House. As it was, the mayor got himself a nasty burn on his arm when he shut the power off.”
Mayor Russell. Tutmoses Russell, her old high school beau and captain of the Predators football team, was now mayor of Pumpkin. Not that his election to office was a surprise. Most nominees had to be coerced, bribed or tricked into running for the position. Lonnie tucked her hair behind her ear. No, what surprised her was that Tut, a diehard Pumpkin native, had hired an outsider to keep watch.
“At least, he has you to investigate.”
“Not quite.” Muscle bunched against his clenched jaw. The man pushed off the ground to sway on his feet.
Lonnie followed him up and steadied him. Corded muscle tensed under her touch. She waited for him to pull away, reject her assistance. He didn’t.
“No one from Holly’s set foot inside Pumpkin for almost a century.”
She blinked. From Holly. From Holly. She snatched her hand off his arm. The only thing worse than an outsider was someone from Holly. How could this be? He didn’t have reindeer antlers on his head or sleighbells around his neck. And if he’d jumped out of some bad kid’s closet on Halloween, their fathers would be running for the shotgun for an altogether different reason than slaying the scary monster.
“You’re from Holly?” she croaked.
“Born and raised.” Pride glistened on his face like an oil slick on the ocean.
Lonnie’s stomach bucked. She had dropped Reidon on a resident of Holly. And not just any resident of Holly—its peacekeeper. No one on either side would believe it was an accident.
“You’ll love Holly. It’s a quaint town, lots of charm and character. I would be delighted to—”
“Nicholas!” A man’s voice boomed across the clearing, strong and authoritative. Lonnie swallowed a groan. Her day was going from boiling caldron to bonfire near a stake.
“Nicholas Dugan, where have you gone to?”
Dugan. Every child in Pumpkin knew the name of the boogeyman. It was the Dugan. A whimper squeaked through her tight throat. She had conversed with a Dugan from Holly. All of her ancestors were clawing their way out of their graves to curse her. She had to get away; she must get away.
She stepped backwards, tripped over Old Reidon’s boney arm. A hand wrapped around her elbow, pulled her forward.
“Over here, Father Bean.” Disbelief spread through her. The serpent actually beamed at her. Could he really not know who she was? “You’ll like the Father.”
She shook off his touch. If he didn’t know now, he would soon. Father Bean had been determined to mend the rift between the two communities since his Volkswagen van broke down outside the towns in 1972.
Lonnie stumbled backwards; her shoulder slammed into the tree trunk. Cinders and snakes. The stupid skeleton seemed to have wrapped itself around her feet.
“Ah, Nicholas, there you are.” Father Bean pushed aside the branch of weeping willow, waddled through the white picket fence and trod onto the dead grass. “I believe you would serve the communities better inside the church. Indeed, I must insist—” He faltered midstep. Brown eyes widened in surprise as they gazed at her.
“Father Bean, allow me to introduce my savior, Miss…”
“Lynch.” Lonnie hefted the skeleton off the ground, tossed him over her shoulder and strode toward the clergyman. The priest would protect her from the Dugan.
“Avalon, child.” Father Bean’s brown robes swept over the grass as he strode forward. Strong arms wrapped her in his embrace. Incense wafted off him, mingling freely with the pungent fragrance of homegrown Mary Jane. “It is good to have you home.”
“Father.” Lonnie returned his embrace, resisted tugging on the gunmetal ponytail winding down his back. No one knew what denomination had ordained the aging draft-dodging hippie, but everyone respected his calling. Besides serving as preacher and justice of the peace, he was the only mediator the two feuding towns respected. And she would need a mediator. A Holly jail cell was no place for a witch.
She slipped out of his hug and faced her victim. “It is good to be home.”
“Home?” The sexy baritone rumbled like thunder. “You mean you’re from around here. No, let me guess.” Fists landed on his hips. “You’re from Pumpkin, aren’t you? Of course, you are. With a name like Lynch, you wouldn’t be from anywhere else.”
“Nicholas, do stop harassing the girl.”
His gaze slid from her to Old Reidon. A heartbeat later, light flared in his eyes. He had made the connection but leapt to the wrong conclusion. Lonnie raised her chin and met his accusing stare. Father Bean would help her with the Dugan.
“You dropped the skeleton on me.”
She squeezed her eyes closed as he reached for her. The Christmas Curse—one touch from the Dugan, and every time you opened your mouth Christmas carols would pour out.
“You won’t be able to stop yourself.” Her father’s voice rang in her head.
“Is there a cure, Daddy?” Her five-year-old self asked.
“Only for good little witches.”
The Dugan’s touch was soft—a gentle tug on her hair and it was over. She peeked through her lashes. A black twig spun in his fingers.
“Admit it, that’s why you just happened to be on hand. Isn’t that right, Miss Lynch?”
Had she been cursed? Lonnie filled her lungs. She wouldn’t know until she answered him.
“Don’t go getting a wedgie over it.” Relief shook her legs. She hadn’t been cursed.
“I’ll take that as an admission of guilt.”
“It was an accident.” Lonnie turned to face Father Bean yet kept the Dugan in her peripheral vision. He may not have cursed her, but his family was guilty of a far greater transgression. “I saw old Reidon sitting up in the tree and thought to get him down. I guess The Prankster must have struck again.”
“Nice story, lady. But how are you gonna explain it if the only fingerprints on him are yours and mine?”
“I imagine you’ll find several people’s prints on him.”
“Yeah, well, there are your other talents to consider.”
Other talents. Witchcraft. Lonnie straightened. Was history about to repeat itself? Was a Dugan about to publicly out another witch?
“Just what are you accusing me of?’
“Never let a Pumpkin-eater miss a chance to stir up the rivalry.” He unsnapped the handcuffs from his belt. “Lots of folks would be real happy to know I caught The Prankster. I knew it had to be a Pumpkin-eater.”
“You’ve obviously drunk too much spiked eggnog, pinecones-for-brains. I just got back into town.”
“You heard her admit it, Father.”
“Yes,” the priest sighed. “I heard her admit that Reidon was in the tree and that she dropped him on you when she went to rescue him.”
She dodged left and crashed into the Dugan’s chest. Cold metal wrapped her right wrist. She jerked away before he closed the other. The free handcuff slapped her forearm.
“It was an accident.”
“That is quite enough, you two.” Meaty hands clamped down on her shoulder.s She was turned and propelled through the gate. “This is God’s yard and you will not fight on it.”
“Yes, Father,” Lonnie agreed.
“Yes, Father,” The Dugan repeated.
“Now, I must say—”
“Lonnie!” The screech disturbed the pigeon’s parading across the green grass. “Lonnie Lynch. I never would have believed it if I hadn’t seen it for myself.” Primary colors swirled around the thin woman sailing past picnic tables laden with baskets, platters of delicacies and bowls of food. “Guess I should have read my tea leaves after all.” Gold bracelets, hoop earrings and rings jangled to a stop as their owner folded Lonnie into a welcoming hug.
“Honey.” Lonnie shrugged off her cousin’s embrace. Excitement sparkled in the kohl-rimmed eyes staring at her and curved the scarlet lips. “How have you been?”
“Not as good as you.” Honey’s gypsy outfit floated around her like a rainbow haze. Crimson nails drummed her cocked hip as her gaze slipped off her cousin. “Mm-mm-mm. Are all men in the valley so delectable?” Bracelets jangled as she pinched Lonnie’s arm. “I can’t believe you waited three whole months to shackle yourself to this one.” She flicked the handcuff dangling from Lonnie’s wrist. She licked her lips as she strolled around the Dugan. “Tell me, sweetheart, are there more like you at home?”
“What?” Nicholas jumped as if pinched. And knowing Honey—Lonnie fought to keep the smile off her face—he probably had been. “I am—”
“He’s not Orren, Honey.” Lonnie pulled her cousin out of harm’s way. His touch may not have cursed them but one never knew what could happen if The Dugan was riled. “I left Orren in Phoenix.”
“Well, she tried to, anyway.”
Orren Prior, only son of the founders of the exclusive Prior-Tea Clinic, strode onto the grounds of the Between the Towns Gospel Church. His designer silk shirt and soft wool trousers flattered his gym-toned body and exuded money. Lonnie shook her head. If someone had told her ten months ago that people could smell like money, she would have laughed. Ten months and one day ago, she hadn’t worked for the Prior-Tea Clinic, hadn’t known a clinic could resemble a five star resort, that check-ups routinely lasted ten days or that breast lifts were emergency surgery. And the money coming in would soon quadruple thanks to the multimillion dollar additional wing dedicated to holistic and naturopathic medicine.
“Orren!” Lonnie clasped her hands behind her back. Small wonder the Dugan hadn’t used the Christmas Carol Curse—he had a more diabolical revenge up his sleeve. She bared her teeth at him and turned to greet her almost-fiancé. “What are you doing here?”
She smoothed her costume over her hips. Spiders and frog’s lips. She hadn’t meant to sound so annoyed but what could he expect. Irritation wiggled over his face before he smiled. His smile was as fake as hers.
“I guess you wouldn’t believe that I was just passing by?” He frowned as his gaze raked her from head to toe. The ragged dress, the buckled shoes and funky stockings could only add up to one thing—witch.
“Out here?” She resisted the urge to squirm. This wasn’t the Inquisition. This was the twenty-first century. She was a doctor, a scientist researching at a prestigious clinic where vain clients valued reputation over skill. Orren’s family clinic and Orren’s clients.
“Yeah, well.” A cloud scuttled across his sky-blue eyes. Options considered and dismissed. His jaw tightened. A shudder rippled through him. He had made a decision. “Penny told me you’d come home for a family emergency, and I thought now would be a good time to show my future in-laws what a great husband I’d make for their only daughter.”
“Oh, how wonderful,” she lied. Lockjaw couldn’t stop the office gossip from spewing her venom. As for Orren…
Her insides writhed like snakes in a sack. His presence was a harbinger of things to come. But were those things good or bad? She was afraid she’d find out all too soon.
“Aren’t you going to introduce us?” An elbow poked her in the back.
“Honey, this is my…” Lonnie swallowed the title fiancé. She hadn’t given her answer yet. “This is Orren Prior. Orren, this is my cousin Honey O’Bitz.”
“O’Bitz.” Orren moved closer, smooth as a panther on trapped prey. “That’s an unusual name.”
“They’re all unusual in Pumpkin,” The Dugan piped up.
Lonnie edged him out of their group. “And the only other people worth introducing are Father Bean and Old Reidon.” She held out the skeleton’s hand.
“Father.” Orren nodded to the priest then, ignoring the skeleton, faced The Dugan. “I suppose you have a son running around, and the only way anyone can tell you apart is by the quaint country tradition of tacking an ‘old’ on your name.”
“No.” The Dugan smirked as they shook hands. “No son, no fiancee and no quaint country tradition. My name is Nicholas Dugan. I’m the peace officer of Holly.”
“A Dugan.” Honey sidled behind Father Bean.
“Holly?” Orren managed an artfully confused look. “I thought you hailed from Pumpkin, Avalon. Isn’t that where this family emergency thing occurred?”
“I do hail from Pumpkin.” Interest sharpened his features. “And … and…”
“Holly and Pumpkin are sister cities.”
“Stepsister cities,” The Dugan interjected. “One ugly—”
“Nicholas.” Father Bean laid a hand on The Dugan’s shoulder. “There is strife between the two towns despite their founding by the same wagon train.”
“And your mother?” Orren waved away the town’s history. “I assume you are here to see she gets transferred to a more modern facility?”
“I—” For an instant, Lonnie’s mind blanked. Why would she want her mother in a facility? Family emergency. Orren’s earlier words surfaced. “My mother isn’t ill.”
“No, she isn’t, and the only family emergency is the town feud.” Father Bean nodded to the people streaming out of the church in to neat, well separated line. “Things have escalated this year.”
“The Prankster has injured two people.” The Dugan glared at her.
“Injured?” Dollar signs flashed in Orren’s eyes.
“It was a simple bump on the head.” Lonnie ignored her maybe-fiancé. He may own the clinic she worked at, but she was on vacation and in the midst of proving her innocence. “You didn’t even require a Band-aid.”
“I might have a concussion. Old Reidon might not look like much, but he packs a wallop being hurled from a tree.”
“A man was thrown from a tree?” Orren gasped.
Lonnie stared at the sky. One Mississippi. Two Mississippi. Legend hadn’t magnified the Dugan gift for exaggeration. “Old Reidon slipped from my grasp when I was up a tree.”
“You climbed a tree?” Orren planted himself between her and The Dugan. “Where is this Reidon fellow now?”
“He’s the bones,” The Dugan snapped
“The skeleton is Reidon?” Orren deduced.
“Yes,” she hissed. Pickled toads, Orren hadn’t seemed this dense in Phoenix. She had to get him to return to Phoenix. She needed time to think. “Now that all the introductions have been made—”
“Not quite.” A hand was shoved between her and Orren. “Tut Russell, mayor of Pumpkin. Did I hear you say you are engaged to our Lonnie?”
“Avalon and I are to be married in the spring.” Orren preened under the official attention. “Mother has a list of dates the country club is available, and we’ll need to let the wedding planner know so she can arrange the theme. Do you have a preference?”
“Jailhouse Rock comes to mind,” The Dugan snickered.
“I am not The Prankster.”
“Of course, you’re not,” Tut barked. “Who would even suggest such a thing?”
“Someone with pinecones for brains.”
Her friends turned to the only one from Holly in their group.
“I see more of my flock has come out into the pasture.” Father Bean wedged himself between the citizens of the two towns.
“Now seems like an opportune time to announce the apprehension of the Prankster.”
“Allow me, Nicholas.” The priest beamed.
Betrayal whipped through Lonnie. The clergyman couldn’t really believe she was responsible for the tricks. Sure, she’d done her share of mischief in the past, but she had been out of town for this latest batch.
“Be my guest, Father.”
The priest clasped her hand and gently squeezed it then turned to face the crowd spilling onto the lawn. “Ladies and gentleman, I believe I have the perfect solution to our problems.” He shoved her forward, The Dugan kept pace.
“You gonna perform a weddin’ ceremony, padre?” A voice wheezed from the quieting mob.
“I have another union in mind, Mr. Henderson.” Father Bean smiled down at her. “The Montagues and the Capulets have joined forces.”
“Who’s he talking about?” whispered a voice to her left.
“Shakespeare, you idiot. Romeo and Juliet.”
“I know who they are, just don’t know who Monty Cue and Caplet is?”
Father Bean raised his hands, and silence once more cloaked the crowd. “Nicholas Dugan has agreed to represent Holly in the investigation of the recent troubles. We all know the Dugans are good people, one of the founding families of our community. We are fortunate that he has spent the last three years as Peace Officer, as well.”
“Now see here.” Tut jostled her shoulder as he moved to stand in front of the priest. “We are not going to take the word of a Pine—er, person from Holly. It’s their kind behind these pranks.”
“You calling us liars, Pumpkin-eater?” A dark-haired man shoved to the front of the crowd.
“If the sanctimonious bull fits.” Tut shoved out his chest and raised his fists to his waist. She’d bet the farm her old beau could take the newcomer—Lonnie slipped her hand through Honey’s—but a little magic never hurt. Rumbling rolled through the crowd. More flesh appeared as sleeves were rolled up.
“People, people—settle down, please,” Father Bean soothed. “No, Tutmoses, I don’t expect you to take Nicholas at his word. That is why Avalon Lynch will be his partner. You don’t have a problem with Lonnie, do you?”
“Uh, no.” He blinked. “No problem with Lonnie.”
Lonnie nodded. She had a problem with this little assignment. Scratch that. She had a big problem with being paired with The Dugan.
“Good. I expect both sides to give our investigators your full cooperation.”
“But, Father, she—”
“She has just arrived back in town after a year’s absence, Nicholas,” the priest informed.
“Deer droppings.” The Dugan kicked the ground.
“Do I have the town representative’s approval?”
Mutterings filled the air. Say no, Lonnie begged. Don’t let a Dugan into Pumpkin. Fear rumbled through the townsfolk. For the first time in her life, she wondered what the folks in Holly had said about them. Were Pumpkin residents the equivalent of the Grinch or Scrooge? And how would they feel about one in their town?
“Good.” Father Bean clapped his hands. “Now that is settled, I think we should save our lovely picnic from the flies. God’s peace be with you.” He blessed them all before turning away and heading toward the heavily laden tables off to the side. “Honey, a word with you, please.”
Lonnie watched her cousin trail after the priest. What did he want with Honey? No way to find out unless she eavesdropped. Her feet turned her in the proper direction. A hand stopped her from moving.
“This is your family emergency, Avalon?” Scorn dripped from Orren’s well-modulated voice. “A prankster? Don’t you have any lawmen to do this sort of thing? I mean, you are hardly qualified to handle this sort of affair. For Christ’s sake, Avalon, what if word reached Phoenix. Do you have any idea how it would look?”
Lonnie swatted at a fly buzzing by her head. When had a cyclone sucked up her life in its destructive vortex? More importantly, how was she to make it stop?
“I’ll tell you how it would look.” Orren’s blunt fingers punched the air next to his head. “People will say—”
“Nicholas Dugan! What is the meaning of this?”
Nick resisted the urge to hide in the crowd. He was thirty-three, long past the age where he was accountable to his father. Except…
Except he would always be his father’s son.
“Have you lost your ever-loving mind?” Anger darkened his father’s already ruddy complexion. “Volunteering to go into that…that place”
Nick swallowed the denial. He hadn’t exactly volunteered to go. And yet, he couldn’t quite regret Father Bean’s nomination. He, Nicholas Dugan, was to be the first adult resident of Holly to set foot in Pumpkin in almost a hundred years. Maybe he could even discover the truth behind the rift in the communities. He hitched up his pants. After he got to know the delectable Miss Lynch a little better.
“Now, Burl…” His mother skidded to his father’s side.
“This is not a ‘now Burl’ moment, Mattie.”
“I know, dear. I know,” she soothed.
“Then you know why the boy can’t go.”
Nick ears twitched. They were going to try to talk him out of seduc—er, investigating. “Well, I don’t know, and since this ‘boy’ is thirty-three perhaps he’ll go anyway.”
“Nicholas, that is no way to speak to your father.”
“Oh, so you two did notice me standing here?” He cleared his throat. He was a man, not a child being deprived of candy. “From the way you two carried on, I thought maybe I had accidentally activated my cloaking device.”
“You’d be wishing for a lot more than an infernal cloaking device if you set foot in Pumpkin.”
“Gee, Dad, I left my phaser cannons and quantum torpedoes in my other saddlebags.”
“This is not the time for levity, son.” His father’s hands wandered over his barrel chest. “Your rash actions could have consequences far beyond this generation. Solid sugar! What if the next bride doesn’t survive?”
Nick scratched his head. “Bride? Survive?” Had he missed part of the conversation? “What are you talking about?”
“The curse, boy.” His father wiggled his fingers inside his breast pocket and pulled out a piece of paper. “The curse.”
“Curse? What curse?”
“The reason why no one in Holly has set foot in Pumpkin for almost a century,” his father pronounced, handing Nick the piece of yellowed paper.
Brown letters marched across the torn and crumpled parchment.
A broken heart is not the only harm a Dugan can do.
Love will raise an ill wind whenever souls mate.
With a spoken vow the only safe harbor.
A pentagram was stamped at the bottom. A witch’s mark. A witch’s curse. The hair rose on the back of his neck. Lonnie Lynch was a witch. Sweat stung his eyes. She’d also paid particular attention to a certain piece of his anatomy.
“Is something going to fall off?” He casually cupped his hands in front of his pants zipper.
“Fall off. Break. Explode.” Burl shuddered. “The curse didn’t specify what tragedy would befall the Dugan women.”
Nick relaxed his guard. Women, not men. The curse would affect his niece and… “Mom?”
“Sure. Well, your mother survived.” His father paled and ran a finger between his collar and neck. “Barely.”
“Egypt survived as well.” His mother hugged his father. “We had hoped that time had lessened the efficacy of the spell, but surely you understand why you can’t go over there and stir things up again.”
Nick stared at the paper. A curse on the women of his family. His resolve hardened. He had to protect his niece. She was just a child, an innocent and those…those witches had cursed her.
“This is the reason for the split between the towns.”
“Of course, it is. Look, son, I know you’re proud of your job, but you simply must not do this. Let someone else. Tell Father Bean you changed your mind.”
“I could write you a note,” his mother offered.
“Father Bean is not going to accept a note from my mother. This is my job, not a grade school assignment.” Nick folded the paper with the curse and tucked it into his pocket.
“He’ll understand. Your grandfather filled him in on everything when he first came here.”
“He knows about this curse?”
“Of course, he knows about the curse,” his father chided. “What have we been talking about these last fifteen minutes?”
Nick slid his hand over his empty handcuff loop. Finding the Prankster would provide the perfect cover to find out who had cursed his family. As for his seduction of Lonnie…
“Do you know who cursed the women?”
“Not the women, son. One of those blasted witches cursed my Granddaddy Dugan. Turned every male offspring into a homicidal maniac every time we lust—er, meet our future mates. It’s like a force from beyond the grave takes over and tries to kill our intended using our bodies.”
“One of those witches?” His new partner was a witch. One of hundreds, if you included the entire female population of Pumpkin. He had to find a way to narrow the list. Motive. Motive tended to be quite specific.
“Pumpkin’s full of them.”
“Why what? Curse us?” His father scratched his head and shrugged. “Why do elves make toys? Because it’s what they do. And witches curse people because it’s what they do. And they enjoy their job just a much as the elves. If not more.”
“So you see why you are going to march right over there to the good Father and tell him you’ve changed your mind.” His mother snuggled closer to his father. “You un-volunteer.”
Nick shook his head. He was going. His family needed him.
“I’m a peace officer. I need to go and find out who is responsible for these pranks. If they continue through Halloween our Christmas season is going to be a nightmare.” Warmth blazed up his arm.
“What is that?” His mother pointed to his arm.
Nick looked down. One shackle of his handcuffs circled his wrist. His warm wrist. “What the heck!”
“Don’t worry, Nicholas.” Father Bean wiped the chicken crumbs from his mouth as he waddled over to them. “It’s just a simple binding spell. You and Avalon will be no more than twenty feet from each other at all times during your investigation.”
“Twenty feet!” He couldn’t go home. Neither could he do a little late-night snooping.
“Yes, well, it will allow for a little privacy, but as neither side is very trusting…” Father Bean shrugged apologetically. “I believe you two could end this feud business, once and for all.”
“That’s all very well you for to say,” Burl Dugan growled. “It isn’t your family tree threatened by the chainsaw.”
“Why can’t he stay in Holly and investigate?” His mother wrung her fingers.
“Because the trouble is in Pumpkin.” Father Bean offered her a gingersnap. “He’ll be fine. The mayor has guaranteed his safety. Well, Nicholas, are you up for the challenge?”
“What about the witches?” Burl Dugan prodded. “It was a coven what did the dirty deed.”
“I’m ready.” Nick stared at the cuff one last time. Curses, witches, pranksters and Lonnie Lynch—autumn in Rim Country was never dull.