Thirty-Six and a Half Motives Page 1

Chapter 1

Sometimes life gives you what you want, but it comes at a price you didn’t want to pay. Five days had passed since I’d spoken to my almost-fiancé Mason, and I was sure I’d lost five pounds.

“Did you starting writing up the Westfield proposal?” Neely Kate asked from her office chair. My best friend hadn’t been working very long at my landscaping office, but she was catching on quickly. I’d already taught her how to write up estimates.

I leaned my shoulder into the frame of one of the large windows at the front of the office, keeping my gaze on the courthouse. Mason was probably inside, filling in for the Fenton County District Attorney, who had been arrested and removed from his office two days earlier. While Mason hadn’t yet decided if he planned to stay in Fenton County, Neely Kate had heard that he’d been moved up to his old boss’s position.

I wanted to tell him congratulations. I wanted to know how he felt not only about the D.A.’s arrest, but also about the arrest and arraignment of J.R. Simmons—the man whose shadow had loomed over us for months. But I couldn’t ask. Mason now knew that I was the infamous Lady in Black, and he was taking some time to work through my betrayal.

While he hadn’t called, he had sent me a text asking if I was okay.

I had wanted to text back: No. Nothing is okay without you.

Of course, he knew that already. He knew my heart was broken, and in all fairness, his was broken, too. But I wouldn’t lie to him—not anymore—so I’d said the only truthful thing I could come up with that didn’t sound desperate or whiny.

I’m here.

Neely Kate’s voice snapped me out of my thoughts. “Rose.”

I slowly turned my head to look over my shoulder at her. “What?”

She stood and grabbed our coats off the coat tree, then stooped to grab my purse off the floor. “We’re getting out of here.”

I turned away from the window. “No, you’re right. I need to finish that estimate.”

“I can see how determined you are to get to it,” she said dryly, “while trying to sprout X-ray vision to catch a glimpse of Mason in the courthouse.”

I considered protesting, but what would be the point? She knew me too well. Besides, anyone with half a brain knew there was no arguing with Neely Kate.

She handed me my coat. “Come on.”

I took it from her and slipped my arms into the sleeves. “Where are we going?”

“You’ll find out when we get there. You’re driving.”

“Like that’s a surprise,” I grumbled. “Your car’s still broken down.”

As soon as the words left my mouth, I regretted them. Neely Kate’s husband was a mechanic, and her car was a piece of junk he’d babied way past its expiration date. But he’d left her a little over a week ago, and as far as I knew, she’d only heard from him a couple of times. She refused to discuss it.

“Neely Kate . . . I know you don’t want to talk about Ronnie, but since Mick Gentry is dead . . . Ronnie’s free of him. Why is he still in hiding?”

I’d been shocked to learn that my best friend’s husband had sworn his loyalty to a criminal who was trying to take over the Fenton County crime world. It was yet another thing Neely Kate refused to talk about. “He says everything in the underworld is still shaken up.”

Was it? I hadn’t talked to Skeeter Malcolm, the Fenton County crime lord, since we’d pulled off the sting that had ended in J.R. Simmons’s arrest. There should have been numerous charges, but so far the only ones filed were murder in the second degree and assault. The murder charge would be hard to evade, considering multiple witnesses had seen J.R. stab Skeeter’s rival, Mick Gentry. The assault charge came from J.R. slashing my arm with a knife and holding the knife to my throat. Joe Simmons, J.R.’s son and my former boyfriend, but more importantly the current Fenton County Chief Deputy Sheriff, had assured me more charges were coming. The murder charge would hold him until they could build a more solid case against him.

But while Skeeter had faced his old mentor and won, I was certain he considered his win a disgrace. Rather than face J.R. head on, like he would have preferred, he’d let me try to trick J.R. into admitting to a few of his many crimes, including concocting false evidence to suggest that I’d hired someone to kill my mother. The significance of what Skeeter had done for me had finally started to sink in over the past few days. He’d overlooked his own pride—and risked his reputation—to save me.

And I had given him nothing in return.

One more thing to toss onto my enormous pile of guilt.

Nevertheless, I had figured his position in the crime world would be safe now that his chief rival was dead—but apparently I’d been wrong about that, too.

“Do you want me to talk to Jed?” I asked Neely Kate. “I can get him to talk to Skeeter about Ronnie.”

“No.” Her tone was blunt.

“Don’t you want to have this all settled?”

She gave me an emotionless stare. “I’ve filed for divorce.”

“You did what?”

Neely Kate shook her head and opened the door, flipping the sign in the window to Closed. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

“But . . . how . . . ?” I stammered, completely flabbergasted. “When? You didn’t even tell me.”

“I talked to Carter on Monday.”

“Carter Hale? But he’s a defense attorney.” He was my defense attorney. Or at least he had been before the charges against me were dropped.

She gave me an irritated shrug. “He says it’s a simple enough case. Plus, he’s going to give me a discount.”

My eyes narrowed. “What kind of discount?”

“Never you mind about that,” she grumbled as I followed her out onto the sidewalk before locking the door behind me.

I turned to face her and took her hand in mine. “Neely Kate. Don’t rush into anything. You need to let this sit for a bit. You’ve been through so much the last few weeks—your miscarriage, Ronnie leaving . . . Just take a breather before you make a decision like this.”

Her face hardened. “Why? Are you tired of me living with you?”

“What kind of nonsense is that? I love having you there, but it seems selfish. I’m lonely for Mason . . .” My voice trailed off as my thoughts once again shifted to Mason. We weren’t married, but we’d been living together. Had he already decided to leave me for good? Was he just waiting for the dust to settle before he gave me the news and came to get his stuff?