Southwest of Love and Murder

Chapter One

Phoebe awakened sudden and breathless. Not slow like when the sheet tangled around her legs or when she needed a trip to the toilet in the gray fog of near-sleep. What noise had she heard that now wasn’t there? Perry rustled in his cage. She held her breath and listened, heart hammering her ribcage as her budgie rustled again.

Damn. Two nights in a row.

The covers slid away when she stood and slipped her feet into fuzzy flip-flop house shoes. Hesitating, she clenched and stretched her toes, clenched and stretched against the terry cloth. She closed her eyes to listen again. The pulse in her ears rang. She swallowed and concentrated harder.

A swish or whoosh sound, so slight she wondered if it came from inside her head—or her breath?

“Damn it,” she whispered, then stopped breathing and waited.

Only silence greeted her. That and the far-off bark of a dog.

She peered out her bedroom door. The streetlight on the kitchen side of the house lit the downstairs, throwing dim light up to the second story. Her slippers padded silently when she walked to the banister outside the bedroom. From there, she could gaze into the wide-open expanse of the downstairs area of her condo: living room, kitchen, and office nook. She scanned the surfaces, squinted into corners. All seemed normal. Breathing came easier, and she shook her head, turning back to the bedroom.

A full moon breached the bedroom curtains, lighting the way to the window overlooking the quiet Scottsdale, Arizona neighborhood. She stuck her face between the material and the edge of her second story window and scanned both directions along the street. Movement caught her eye. A car, lights off, drove east, but turned the lights on when it reached the end of the block.

Odd. Could it be an illicit visit from a secret lover? A thief on a getaway from the scene of the crime? A teen sneaking out for a little after midnight fun?

The curtain fell back into place as she faced into her room, paused a moment and heard nothing but her own light breathing. With a deep breath, her heart calmed and she shrugged off another night of interrupted sleep.

Before she climbed into bed, she stopped by Perry’s cage and drew the cloth cover back an inch. The bathroom nightlight spilled into the bedroom and through the cover enough to see his darkened shape. Normally, her bird slept soundly. His sleep must have been disturbed by the now nonexistent noise.

“Hey, fella, are we both hearing the same thing?” He puffed up a bit and tucked his beak farther into his neck feathers as if to tell her to shut up and go away. “Love you too, Perry.”

Back in bed, Phoebe considered lifting her laptop from the floor to pound the keys. Maybe she’d get sleepy. But she’d finished her current murder mystery, had hit the send button to her editor earlier in the evening, and didn’t feel like tackling the research needed for the next book.

She rolled to her side and pulled the covers over her head. The soothing scent of lavender from her warm skin filled the air beneath the sheet tent. Burying deeper into the pillow, her body relaxed.

Mason Meadowlark’s rugged face and cocky smile materialized behind her closed lids. A sigh escaped. She flipped to her other side. The memory of his kisses, his work-roughened hands gliding over her body, and his…

“Arghh!” She flipped back over and kicked at the covers. Why couldn’t she accept the encounter as a one-night stand and move on? It was enough to drive her crazy. Crazy described the night she’d met him—sneaking out of her best friend’s wedding reception with the brother of the groom. Wedding sex. A first. And since she’d not heard from him, didn’t expect to hear from him, letting it go should be easy. Then why did the damn man’s memory keep haunting her?

In seventeen years, she’d not been bothered like this. Getting rid of her cheating, son of a bitch husband at the tender age of twenty-two had liberated her. She enjoyed her free and easy life-style. Why some bowlegged, hunk of a cowboy from Chino Valley was stuck in her memory bank was annoying. There had been a few hunks in her life. Not smooth-talking cowboy hunks. She smiled. Her and a cowboy? Yes, her and a cowboy. His fingers undoing her braid, tangling in her long hair, and pulling it forward onto her breasts as he kissed the skin between her shoulder blades…

She didn’t stop the memory this time, but went with it. Played those couple of hours through her head and let the delicious memories lull her toward sleep.

****

“Good morning, Hazel.” Phoebe walked into the Lacy Latte, computer bag over one shoulder and purse over the other. Her bracelets clinked together when she adjusted the straps.

The manager-turned-new-owner of her favorite coffee café straightened the books on the table by the fireplace, stood, and waved with her greeting. “Hey, Phoebe. You’re a little late this morning. How’re you doing?”

“Ugh, tired.” The noise that woke her could be blamed, but thoughts of the sexy cowboy had left her wide-eyed for a while, too. She walked to the main counter and dropped her bag next to the register, nodded at the young woman on the other side, and leaned a hip against the wood while she added to Hazel, “Didn’t get enough sleep.”

“And why not? Couldn’t get that last chapter finished?” Hazel’s short, thick legs carried the elderly woman with a surprising lightness as she joined her.

“No, it’s done.”

She turned to the young lady patiently waiting for her order. “Could I please have—”

“The usual, Ms. Anderson?” the barista over behind the coffee machines called out.

“Oh, Joel, yes, please.” She cringed a moment, wondering if she’d gotten his name right. After all this time she should remember. Something about the guy didn’t stick, though, except he’d said he wanted to be a writer. Who didn’t? She always wanted to push the hair out of his eyes. He had to be at least twenty-five and the style, or lack of, seemed too young. She couldn’t see his nametag, but the smile on his face told her she hadn’t screwed up.

The girl behind the register bit her bottom lip, looking nervous. “Umm, sorry, what’s your usual?”

Before she could reply, Joel rattled off her standard order, “Caramel latte, extra hot in a ceramic mug. Blueberry scone.”

She’d been coming to the Lacy Latte for at least two years. If someone who barely registered with her knew her usual, she should question her own talents of observation. Had he worked here all this time?

The cashier flashed Joel a tightlipped scowl then turned to Phoebe with raised brows. “Is that what you’d like?”

“Yes, please.” Although, she ought to start skipping the scones. She patted her waistline. What the hell. One more day.

While she paid, Hazel lingered at her elbow, straightening the various baskets and biscotti jars on the top of the glass case housing the baked goods.

Phoebe picked up her order and her purse. It seemed odd not to see Lacy bustling about the café. Although Hazel hadn’t changed the Lacy Latte in any way, the place still missed the original owner. And so did she. She’d have to get to Flagstaff for a visit once her best friend and new husband, Chance, were back from their honeymoon and settled. She turned from the counter and walked through the light spilling across the bottom floor from the story-high windows topped with lace.

Hazel followed her to the base of the stairs leading to the loft where Phoebe spent at least three hours every morning, writing and consuming a couple of caramel lattes. The loft above had become her second office, bright with more lace topped windows, and decorated with scenic photos of Arizona on the walls.

“Did you hear about the murder on the Arizona State campus last night?” Hazel’s gray eyes glittered. The owner took joy in providing her with inspiration for her mystery novels.

“No, not yet.”

“Here.” Hazel snatched a newspaper off a side table. “Read this.”

“I’ll pull it up on the Internet. On campus, huh?” She paused with a foot on the first step. “Was the victim a student?”

“No, a professor.” The older woman slapped the paper against her leg. “I think his name was Carlyle.”

“Judas Priest.” A ripple coursed through Phoebe, and she gripped her coffee cup tighter. “Henry Carlyle?”

“Yeah, Professor Henry Carlyle. You know him?”

“I was married to him.”

****

Phoebe read the brief article again, Henry’s face staring at her from beside the three-paragraph report on her computer screen. A cold chill raced down her spine. She took a gulp of the hot latte as if needing the caffeine boost to jar her from her mesmerized state.

The details were sketchy but close enough. He’d been found late at night by the janitor in his university office, strangled. No sign of forced entry—exactly as she had killed him in her first novel. The novel that gained her an agent and kick started a career. She owed her success to her low-down weasel of a husband who’d slept with every co-ed that would ever lift her skirt for the handsome professor. He’d even cheated on their wedding day. And so, she’d written the novel and killed him off—safer than committing the crime.

But someone had actually done it.

Gooseflesh rippled her arms. She exited the article, leaned back in her chair, and rubbed at the chill. A shiver shook her body.

Grabbing the near empty latte cup, she stood and circled the table twice, her long, gauzy skirt rippling around her ankles. She stopped and gulped the last sip then continued the circular pacing. Henry had often worked late. Although he talked of keeping his door locked to discourage unscheduled student drop-ins, who knew what his habits were after all these years? Scheduled appointments were mostly the female kind who liked to lie across his desk or straddle him in his chair like the one she’d walked in on seventeen years ago. She snickered bitterly; he should never have given her a key.

The old bitterness stopped her in her tracks. Henry was dead, just as she’d written. How…odd.

Phoebe took a deep breath and returned to her chair in front of her computer. Stupid coincidence. 

Best to get back to work and stop obsessing over this. She opened the rough notes file of her work in progress, but the words blurred with the prickles of guilt tightening her temples, the beginning of a headache.

There was no reason to feel responsible. Just because she wrote something, didn’t make it happen. There would be at least thirty more people in graves if she possessed that kind of curse.

The headache pinched. She rubbed her temples and stared at the blinking cursor. Poor Henry. Yes, she hated him, or had, but not enough to really wish him dead.

Wishing someone dead. Maybe an angle she could use. She typed a few sentences in her rough notes for the next book, shaky fingers making typos. Without warning, tears welled in her eyes. This was what came from sleep deprivation and memories of the past.

“I took the liberty of bringing you another latte.”

Startled by the voice, her hands jerked, clanking her bracelets against the laptop.

“I’m sorry. Did I interrupt your train of thought?”

She shook her head and swallowed down the melancholy. “No, Joel, that’s okay. But you didn’t have to.”

He hesitantly shuffled closer, his black high tops silent on the wood floor. A black vest hung loosely over the Lacy Latte T-shirt on his tall, thin frame as he hovered. He extended the fresh cup. “It’s slow downstairs, and I knew you’d be ready for your second cup. No trouble for you, Ms. Anderson.” When he picked up the empty mug, his smile covered the bottom half of his face as wide as the Cheshire cat. His dark eyes remained smile-free but glistened. “See? I knew you’d be ready.”

She took the full cup from his hand. His eagerness to please was complimentary, if a bit over the top. “If you know my habits so well, I think you’d better start calling me Phoebe.”

He twitched, blinked rapidly, and stammered. “Th-thank you.”

“It’s just a name, Joel.”

“I’ve read all your books,” he blurted then drew back.

“Thank you.” A lover of murder mystery, young enough to be impressed with a published author, and he wanted to be an author, too. That explained his nervousness. “You write, if I remember correctly.”

His mouth opened then closed. He gulped air and lost a shade of color in his face.

She cast her gaze on her latte to relieve the embarrassment for the guy, took a sip of the fresh coffee, and waited. He continued to lurk, silently.

“Joel, what are you doing?” Hazel reached the top step and paused. “Lydia needs a barista, remember?”

Narrowed eyes sent one message while his smile sent another.

“S-sorry, Hazel.” He took a step backward, squared his shoulders and found his voice. “Just taking care of an important, regular customer.” He passed her and headed downstairs.

Hazel shook her head. “I guess I should reward such enthusiasm.” She chuckled then sobered. “You okay, honey?”

Phoebe’s unease must’ve showed on her face. “I’m bothered, Hazel.”

“I’m sorry if he pestered you. I’ll have a talk—”

“Oh, no, I didn’t mean him. He’s odd but…no, I meant Henry. Real murder, someone I used to know, has me a little shook up.”

“I bet.” The café owner put a hand on her back and rubbed in a circle. “And you’re tired after working so hard on your book. Not getting enough sleep.”

“Two nights in a row I’ve been awakened and had trouble getting back to sleep. Noises in the night. Maybe my own murder stories are getting to me.” She crossed her arms over her chest and slumped in the chair. “And now this. I feel all jittery.”

“You should take some time off.” Her friend put hands on her ample hips.

“I’d like to get out of town for a while. Change of scenery.” An idea crossed her mind and sent flutters through her stomach. “You know, I do need to do some research for my next book. Some time on a ranch is warranted, and just might give me a break from night noises and big city murder.”

“A ranch. Great idea. Handsome cowboys to distract you.” Hazel clapped her pudgy hands and laughed.

She laughed with her. Hazel could always be counted on to come up with the man angle.

“Where do you think you’ll go? Montana? Wyoming?”

A handsome cowboy crossed her mind. The brother-in-law of her best friend would surely be open to allowing her to use his ranch for research. After all, they were…acquainted.

“Not that far away. Right here in Arizona, actually.” She looked at her wristwatch. Not yet eight. If she called early enough… “I think I’ll see if a certain person I know who owns a ranch in Chino Valley would like to have a house guest for a couple of weeks. Starting tonight.” The tension drained from her shoulders as Mason’s smile came to mind.

“I can see by the look on your face you aren’t talking about a cowgirl certain person.”

“No. Definitely not.” She cupped her latte in both hands, the warmth of the liquid matching the sudden heat between her thighs.