Read Tell Me No Lies Online

Authors: Rachel Branton

Tags: #lds, #Christian, #karen kindgsbury, #Romantic Suspense, #ariana, #Romance, #Suspense, #a bid for love, #clean romance, #dee henderson

Tell Me No Lies (10 page)

“Forty-five thousand, then, instead of fifty,” I said.

“What?” He frowned and a deep crease spread over his brow.

“Playing newlywed for your ex wasn’t in the deal. Take it or leave it.” Five thousand would go a long way toward paying whatever expenses came from the Lover’s Lane Hotel and Chapel.

“Fine! Whatever. I don’t care about the money.”

Sure he didn’t. “I want it in writing.”

“Later. You’ll have to take my word for now.”

“The word of a convict.” My mouth took over for my brain, and I regretted the words the instant they left my mouth.

“I’ve never pretended to be anything I wasn’t. You knew what I was.” His face was expressionless, his eyes cold.

I shook my head. “No, I didn’t.” Somehow it hurt that I’d refused to believe the rumors, though they’d been true all along. Had the old ladies been telling the truth as well? In the face of what Mia had said, I didn’t know what to believe.

Mia cleared her throat in the doorway.

We had been talking quietly, our faces close together. I drew away, my face as red as Gage’s shirt.

“Sorry to interrupt.” The woman standing next to Mia was almost as tall as Gage. She wasn’t beautiful in the delicate way that Mia was, but she had classic features that turned heads—high cheek bones, large brown eyes, sculptured eyebrows, aquiline nose, and close-cropped, dark brown hair that followed the attractive curve of her skull. Arresting. Her face and exposed skin were deeply bronzed in a manner that I achieved only in my dreams.

Gage stood up to meet her, taking my hand and pulling me with him. “Bailey, good to see you.” He looked at me. “Honey, this is Bailey Norris, an old friend of mine. Bailey, this is my wife, Tessa Crawford.” He stumbled over the word “wife,” and I didn’t think it was in my imagination that Bailey cringed when she heard it. I wondered how much they’d been in love and who’d given up first because it was obvious something still existed between them.

“So the rumors are true.” Bailey walked into the kitchen with a sultry movement of long limbs. Her pants rode so low that a half-inch of her skin below her shirt was exposed as she moved.

I had to give those old ladies at the restaurant credit. They sure knew how to spread the word.

“All this time and only now you come back?” Bailey’s eyes barely flickered over me, as though I were nothing more than an inconsequential piece of luggage.

“I’ve been back before,” he said.

“Why didn’t you come see me?”

“We’d already said all we had to say.”

Gage was gripping my hand like a lifeline. I curled into him, telling myself that it was only to save my hand, but in reality I wanted to wipe that sneer off this woman’s face. I fit myself in the crook of his shoulder, placing my arm around his body.

“Gage, darling, it’s been a long day. I think I need a nice, hot bath after our long drive. Can you show me where it is?” I leaned over and kissed him. He was so tall, my mouth landed on his neck, but his other arm encircled me as I leaned toward him so it looked natural, as though I’d kissed him like that every day since last Thanksgiving.

I thought Bailey became a little pale underneath her tan. Behind her near the doorway, Mia was giving me a thumbs-up, though she couldn’t have followed half the conversation from her position. Maybe she could read the set of Bailey’s shoulders as well as I could.

“Please, Gage, I really need to talk to you for a moment. I promise I won’t keep you long.” Bailey looked regal now, and there was a hint of vulnerability in her bronze face.

“Okay.” To his credit, there wasn’t even a trace of long-suffering in his voice. Or maybe he was fooling himself that he wanted her gone. Whatever his real emotion, Gage took his arm away from me, and I felt a momentary jealousy before I reminded myself that he wasn’t mine, and I didn’t want him to be. He leaned over and kissed my cheek near my ear. “I’ll only be a minute.” I felt his breath on my skin, and there was promise in his voice that sent a wave of goose bumps down my neck and arm. A little overboard even as a show for his ex, wasn’t it? “I’ll be right out front if you need me.” He disappeared with Bailey, and I had to admit they looked good leaving together—a striking couple.

Mia was motioning me madly. “Come! Don’t leave him alone with her.”

“But she wants to talk privately.”

“So? You’re his wife. She doesn’t get to be private with another woman’s husband.”

I followed her out onto the porch, where a heavy wave of heat greeted us. Gage and Bailey were talking by the dirt road, her urgently, leaning forward slightly, and him with his arms folded across his chest. Bailey was too close to him, and again I felt that idiotic surge of jealousy. There was a pleading in Bailey’s demeanor, and I realized she probably felt much the way I had felt when I’d found out about Julian yesterday. Yes, that had to be it. Poor woman.

Their voices were low, and I couldn’t hear any words, but Mia was staring at them intently, her green eyes narrowed. “She is angry that Gage didn’t come for her after he got out,” she said. “That he stopped answering her letters. She said he told her he’d never marry, and what changed?” She paused a moment. “Can’t really see his mouth. Oh, he’s saying this is different.” She smiled at me, placing a small hand on my arm. “He must really love you.”

I felt guilty spying on Gage this way, but I knew if I were really his wife, this whole conversation with Bailey wouldn’t be happening at all without me right there. The nerve of that woman!

No. She had a prior claim. A real claim. I had none at all, and I didn’t want one. Why was that so hard to remember all of a sudden?

An old pickup came flying down the road and put an end to the conversation. A little boy jumped from the truck and waved. The truck moved on as the boy started up the walk, keeping a safe distance as he skirted Gage and Bailey. He was a beautiful child, his face closely resembling Mia’s. His dark hair was in need of a haircut, but the way it curled around his ears and the nape of his neck made me suspect that Mia simply couldn’t bear to cut it off. He would be a heartbreaker one day, even if he never grew to his uncle’s height.

“Dylan!” There was unguarded happiness in Gage’s voice.

The boy stopped and studied him. “Uncle Gage? Is that you?”

“Of course it’s me. How you been, buddy?”

“You look different.”

“You’ve never seen me without my beard. Come on. Take a look.” Gage took a few steps toward him and squatted down.

Dylan glanced across the yard at the porch and signed something to his mother, who signed back. He peered at Gage for a moment, a smile beginning on his narrow face. All reticence vanished as he dropped his backpack and threw himself into Gage’s arms. “You look young,” he said. “Not like yourself.”

Gage laughed and tickled him, the two collapsing onto the grass in a tangle of arms and legs. “I’ll show you how young,” Gage threatened.

Bailey shifted to avoid being hit by a stray foot, and as I studied her, I was surprised by the naked yearning on her face as she watched the two play. Her emotion pierced me. Nothing fake about it. I wondered if Gage felt the same—if he did, they belonged together. Maybe after all this was over, I could help them figure things out. Needles pricked my heart at the idea, but the logic was undeniable. Gage was doing me a favor, and it would only be right and noble and good to return it.

Of course forty-five thousand was a pretty good return on his “favor.” I tried to scowl when he glanced toward the porch, but the sight of him wrestling with his nephew was too engaging. Next year, I’d have my own niece or nephew. I couldn’t wait.

“Why didn’t you come and get me?” Dylan squealed through his giggles. “It’s so much cooler when you come on the bike.”

“I promise I’ll come as soon as my beard grows back.”

“Why not today?”

“Never mind.” Gage climbed to his feet and pulled Dylan up. “It’s for your own good. I’ll explain it when you’re older.”

The evasion didn’t fool this smart child. “I don’t care what anyone says, Uncle Gage. I know you didn’t hurt that man. Mom and me both know it. And I told that to Albert Mitchard, too. I didn’t care that he ripped my paper and called me a jailbird. He’s stupid, and everyone knows it.”

Gage suddenly looked weary. “Don’t defend me, Dylan. Let them say whatever they want.”

Dylan lifted his chin. “I won’t.”

“You will.” There was iron in Gage’s voice. The voice of a murderer?

“Nope, and you can’t make me.” The little boy reached out and slapped him on the leg without fear. “Tag, you’re it. Can’t catch me.” He took off across the yard, heading toward the back of the house. Gage grinned as he began pursuit.

I’d never seen him so happy—of course, I hadn’t seen his face without the beard until last night, so maybe he’d been happy all along and I didn’t know it. Dylan was right that he did look much younger, not even as old as the thirty-one years he’d claimed on the wedding license. Definitely a far cry from the forty I’d given him back in Flagstaff.

Mia started after them, and I began to follow, but an approaching Bailey waved me to a stop. “So,” she said, her eyes riveting on my blouse where I’d spilled the strawberries that morning. Trust her to find that flaw.

“So,” I repeated.

Her nostrils flared as she brought her gaze to mine. “I know something isn’t right here, and I’m going to find out what. Gage loves
me
and always will.” With that she turned and flounced away, her sultry movements replaced by a decided helping of pout.

“Okay, that was weird.” So much for wanting to help her.

I waited until she drove away before going to find Gage and the others. They weren’t in the small grassy yard when I arrived, but beyond it in a fenced patch of weeds. Dylan was sitting near the fence sprinkling something on the ground as a bunch of chickens clucked around him. In seconds the food was gone, but the chickens didn’t seem in any hurry to leave. One settled on Dylan’s lap and looked every bit as content as a dog while the little boy stroked her feathers.

I laughed for the sheer beauty of it all. Even better, I could see Gage bent over with his head and shoulders inside the chicken coop. He seemed to be raking straw from the floor of the small structure.

Mia drew up beside me when I entered the gate to the chicken yard. “My husband is not a big fan of chickens, but they are sweet creatures. My brother cleans out the pens a few times a year for us.” I could understand her words better now, even after the short exposure to her, but it was odd matching her uneven inflections with her lovely face—not that it detracted from the overall picture. In fact, the words added to her delicacy. That she could speak so well without being able to hear was nothing short of amazing.

“It’s good for Gage,” I said. “Gets him out into nature. Everyone needs a little time working outside.”

“But he is always outside. He works in the field a lot.” When I looked confused, Mia added, “For his job.”

Oh, yeah. I should probably know a little more than I did about his work. He’d mentioned something about field visits, but didn’t geologists mostly sit at their desks reading and writing reports? “Uh, yeah, but not with chickens. Speaking of which, I never saw any chickens that loving before.”

Mia laughed. “Dylan raised that one from a little chick. He loves it so much.”

We stood there watching the straw flying out of the pen and the hens clucking around Dylan, but my thought had returned to what Mia had said in the bedroom.

“Mia,” I said. She didn’t respond, and I remembered she couldn’t hear me. I touched her arm, and her face turned in my direction. “In the bedroom you said Gage went to prison to save you.” I don’t know what I was expecting. A confession maybe? She and young Dylan both seemed sure Gage was innocent. Was that because Mia knew something or because they wanted to believe? It could be like how Lily and I had kept expecting my mother to miraculously become a real mother to us. You blind yourself to the people you love. It hurt less that way.

“He didn’t tell you?”

“He doesn’t talk about it.” Which was true as far as it went because he hadn’t talked about the circumstances surrounding his sentence at all. I had the feeling that if I asked, he’d tell me again that it was none of my business.

Mia nodded as though she had expected as much. “I was there. A man was making trouble at the store where I worked. Gage tried to protect me, and they started fighting.” She shook her head. “So much hitting. Blood. They passed out. I went for help, but when we came back—” She broke off, her green eyes pleading. “When I came back, the fireplace poker was shoved here in the man’s head.” One hand fluttered to the back of her neck, her finger angling up into the skull to show the placement. “Gage was still unconscious where I’d left him.”

“Didn’t you testify to that?”

“I told the police, but this man had . . . hurt me the week before, and they believed Gage had acted in revenge. I wasn’t strong enough to use the poker, they said, and no one else had a motive.” She swallowed hard, her voice becoming softer and almost intelligible. “Sometimes, I think I did it. I was strong enough, no matter what they say. Gage knew I could have done it, and he thought I might be accused, and that’s why he didn’t fight the charges. But I
know
he didn’t do it. My brother could have killed that monster by accident or in self-defense, but he would never murder an unconscious man. But you know that, or you wouldn’t have married him.”

What she’d proven was that Gage might be guilty after all. I’d seen a hint of how responsible he felt for his sister, and the fact that she called the murder victim a monster meant he’d hurt Mia deeply. “There was nothing else? No other evidence?”

“Skeet—that’s the monster’s name—his wallet was missing. Never did find it. And I know he had money, a lot of money, because he showed me before Gage came.” She let out a sound that was somewhere between a hiccup and a sob. “The money was gone when we found the body, but nobody believed me.”

I wasn’t sure what to say to that because I didn’t know if I believed her.

“Maybe if I can find enough new information, they’ll reopen the case,” she continued. “This past year I’ve been volunteering at Sarah’s House—a place that helps women and children leave abusive situations—and so many problems I see there are because of alcohol and drugs. I started to think maybe drugs are why Skeet was murdered. He had drugs in his system when he died. The authorities said he was just a user, but all that money had to come from somewhere. He might have been selling drugs, and maybe that was why he was killed.”

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