Read the first FOUR chapters of Engagement and Espionage!

Chapter 1

*Jennifer*

There’s no faking quality.

A thing was either high quality or it wasn’t.

I was convinced Mr. Richard Badcock’s organic, free range eggs were the highest quality anywhere in Green Valley, East Tennessee since Nancy Danvish had retired. Perhaps the whole of Tennessee. Maybe the southeast USA. For that matter, quite possibly in the entire universe.

They were the platinum-diamond Nobel Prize of eggs. Some were narrow, some were wide; some had sage green shells, robin blue, tawny brown, or snow white; some were even speckled. But all his eggs contained firm whites and the most gorgeous orangey yolks, brighter than orange sherbet—don’t get me started on the yolks!—that I’d ever seen in all my years of baking.

I didn’t take to broadcasting this much, mostly because folks already thought I was a little off, but I didn’t think anything I made tasted as good if I didn’t use Richard’s eggs. My creations lacked a richness, a texture, one I could only achieve with Badcock eggs. And that was fact.

Which was why I was currently up to my eyeballs in despair.

“What do you mean you don’t have any eggs?” I looked behind Mr. Richard Badcock, searching his huge gated lawn and fancy henhouse in the distance.

It had white gables and eaves, a hand-welded copper gutter, and a cedar picket fence.

My gazed shifted back to the man, moved over this new Mr. Badcock. I had no idea why he was behaving this way, but I couldn’t spare a thought to that. I was too much occupied by the great egg dearth of the decade.

“Just what I said, Ms. Sylvester. I’m plum out of eggs.” His voice was firm and hard and—if I wasn’t mistaken—laced with distrust. “But if you want some fresh chicken, we just butchered last—”

“I can’t put a chicken thigh in a custard, Richard!” I wailed, unashamed in my anguish, my teeth chattering in the early January cold snap. “It’s not a gelatin. Fat and meat and bones won’t do me any good.”

Mr. Richard Badcock sighed, his eyebrows tenting on his forehead in an arrangement of both compassion—finally—and helplessness. “I am very sorry, Ms. Sylvester. If I had some eggs, I’d give them to you.”

“I’m sorry too, but this doesn’t make any sense. You must have a hundred chickens back there, and—”

“We have sixty-one chickens.” He sniffed, looking down his nose at me, once again hostile.  “Unlike some folks, we believe our hens need space, autonomy, greens, and serenity to be good layers.”

Good lord, now I’d offended his serene layers.

“Of course, Mr. Badcock.” I tried to make my tone conciliatory. “And I can’t tell you how much I just love—and I do mean love—those eggs. Which is why, please pardon my outburst, I am feeling a great deal of desolation at the prospect of baking without your superior product.”

His shoulders relaxed, apparently mollified, and he quit peering at me, instead sighing for maybe the tenth time since I showed up. “Ms. Sylvester, there ain’t nothing I can do. I am sorry. But we had two unexpected—and very large—orders late last night. I’m cleaned out for at least two weeks, and—”

“Two weeks?” I shrieked, completely beside myself, and clutched my chest.

He sighed again, taking off his hat and wiping his brow with the back of his flannel-covered forearm, saying nothing. His old brown eyes moved over me with a look that seemed speculative, and I got the sense he was having himself an internal debate.

Meanwhile, I was going to cry.

I could feel it. The twinge in my nose, the sting behind my eyes, the unsteadiness of my chin. Nothing seemed to be going right. Usually, I could handle a string of bad luck, but I was exhausted from pulling so many hours at the bakery between Thanksgiving and New Year’s.

And I missed Cletus. So much. I’d barely seen or spoken to him, and we’d had zero alone time together since the end of November.

Being so close to tears at present was about a lot more than the unfriendliness of the farmer in front of me, withholding the output of his serene layers. It was just the final straw.

I couldn’t go two weeks without Badcock eggs. I couldn’t. Folks would remark. They’d notice. We’d be asked if we’d changed our recipes, and not for the better. Early last month, I’d gone three days without the eggs, using instead run-of-the-mill store-bought ones, and the church choir near pitched a fit about my coconut custard pie.

“It’s fine.” Mrs. Seymour—the pastor’s wife—had said to my momma. “But what I don’t understand is, why didn’t Jenn make it? We specifically asked for Jennifer’s coconut custard pie.”

My momma had hemmed and hawed and, in the end, she’d lied. She’d told them an under-baker `made it and had eventually given it to them for free.

The thing about the church choir was, it didn’t take much to get them to sing, if you know what I mean. In fact, one might even say they were gleeful about spreading unhappy news.

Therefore, once I did have the eggs, I made coconut custard tarts with shaved coconut and dropped them off—in person—to the Saturday choir practice. All had been forgiven and the Donner Bakery’s praises were sung once more.

But . . . two weeks? With the church picnic coming up? And the first round of entries for the state fair due next week?

Lord have mercy.

I swallowed my panic and nodded for no reason, blinking away the irritating tears. “Well,” I croaked when I found my voice, “I guess—I guess—”

Mr. Badcock made a clicking sound with his tongue. “Fine, fine. How about this?” His reluctance was obvious. The reluctance gave my heart hope. “I have four dozen eggs up at the homestead.”

“Oh, Mr. Badcock, I would—”

“Now settle down.” He lifted his hands, even the one holding the hat. “I’ll give them to you, for double the price.”

I swallowed again because that was a tough pill to swallow. Double the price? His eggs were already ten dollars a dozen. Part of me wanted to argue. I told that part to hush. Serene eggs didn’t grow on trees.

“O—okay.” I tried to smile but couldn’t.

“And from now on,” he continued sternly, “the Donner Bakery needs to preorder their eggs three months in advance, with a—uh . . . fifty percent down payment. That’s right, fifty percent.” He nodded as though agreeing with himself.

I found myself momentarily at a loss for words, not because these were unfair terms, but because Mr. Badcock had never expressed any interest in preorders or prepayments prior to right this minute.

Nevertheless, it took me less than a second to respond. “But of course. Absolutely, Mr. Badcock. In fact, I’ll be happy to place our order for the entire year right now.”

He blinked several times, visibly startled. “You would?”

“Yes. I most certainly would. I don’t want anyone’s eggs but yours.”

He blinked some more, standing straighter. “You wouldn’t?” His voice cracked like an eggshell.

“No.” On a whim, I reached forward and held his hand. He looked between my face and our joined fingers as I spoke from the heart. “Mr. Badcock, your eggs are. . . well, they’re magical. And I guess I should have told you prior to now, but all other eggs in comparison might as well be applesauce.”

Applesauce being the low-fat, vegan replacement for eggs in baking recipes. In other words, a sad and inferior imitation.

“Oh,” he breathed, blinking faster now. A bit of color touched his cheeks. “My goodness. I don’t—I mean, I don’t know what to say. This is all very unexpected.”

I released his hand, stepping away as he watched me retreat. “Just, thank you. Thank you for your eggs. Thank you for taking the time to raise those chickens right.”

“You’re welcome, Ms. Sylvester.” He sounded a bit dazed, but also proud.

As he should be. He should be proud of his serene layers.

“Anyway,” I laughed lightly. “Look at me, getting all emotional. Again, I’m sorry for my outburst. Should I send a check over? With the deposit for this year? Or how do you want to handle that?”

“Uh . . .” He glanced at the ground, looking like he was frantically trying to locate his scattered thoughts. “I guess, uh, a check is fine.”

“Glorious!” I clapped my hands together. “I’ll send my momma over on her way home from the hotel.” Hopefully, she wouldn’t mind.

Now he stiffened and his face blanched. “Your—your momma?”

“Yes.” I tried to give him a reassuring smile. It was no secret in Green Valley that my momma was as well respected as she was feared, especially with the local business owners.

“Mrs. Donner-Sylvester?” His voice cracked again, and he pulled at his open shirt collar like it was too tight.

“It’s just Ms. Donner now,” I reminded quietly. “The divorce isn’t anywhere near final yet, but she prefers it.”

“Oh, yes. That’s right.” Mr. Badcock pushed his fingers through his sweaty hair, frowning as he glanced down at his clothes. “What time would she be by?”

“About nine, I suspect. As long as that’s not too late or disagreeable to you.” Glancing at my watch, I saw it was now half past three. This egg encounter had taken much longer than I’d expected. I needed to get those four dozen eggs back to the bakery and in the fridge soon. Three new orders had come in—all for custard—and the way I made it, the mixture needed to rest overnight.

Plus, I couldn’t be late for the jam session, not again.

“Well, all right then.” Mr. Badcock, seeming both overwhelmed and resigned by the turn of events, motioned me forward. “Let’s go up to the house and get you those eggs.”

I followed dutifully, happy to have avoided a disaster.

At least, for now.

 

 

Chapter 2

*Cletus*

“What’s wrong?” Drew leaned toward me as folks closest to our makeshift stage swarmed around my brother Billy, chattering good-naturedly and getting on my last nerve with their vociferous compliments.

Mind, the compliments didn’t ruffle my feathers, it was the talking and ensuing racket that had my back up. If folks could’ve communicated their praise via some other means—perhaps via a silent handshake and shared stare of admiration, or a handwritten note showcasing their superior pen(wo)manship, or a mime routine with or without the painted on face, or an interpretive dance—I wouldn’t have cared. Mylar balloons with tidy messages were an underutilized yet readily available resource, for example.

A silence ordinance, that’s what we needed. A day where folks would be forced to keep their voice boxes on the shelf or else pay a fine. I made a mental note to discuss it with the mayor, he’d always been pragmatic about new revenue streams.

“Cletus?” Drew was still looking at me, one blond eyebrow lifted higher than the other.

We’d just finished the last stanza of “Orange Blossom Special.” I surmised my friend’s unbalanced brow and question were in response to the frown affixed to my features because I should have been pleased. I was not pleased.

I’d semi-coerced my brother Billy into singing with us. A rare achievement. Billy hardly ever agreed to lend his pipes to our Friday night improvising at the Green Valley jam session. Drew was on guitar, I was on banjo, Grady was on fiddle, and with Billy on vocals we sounded like one of those real, bluegrass studio bands.

Again, I should have been pleased. And yet, I was not pleased.

Jenn was late.

Correction, she wasn’t just late, she was late as usual on a night she’d promised to be early.

“It’s time to take a break.” I didn’t look at my watch again, I’d already read it ten times. “I need to make a call.”

Drew’s stare turned probing. Abruptly, his expression cleared. And then he smirked a little, in that very Drew-like way of his. Which is to say, his mouth barely moved.

“Ah. I see.” Drew nodded, returning his attention to his instrument, and plucked out a C followed by a G. “Where’s Jenn, Cletus?”

A person walked between Drew and I just as the quiet words left his mouth, the man sidestepping and almost knocking my banjo with his knee in his eagerness to reach Billy. Drew lifted the neck of his guitar to keep it safe, tracking the lumbering moron with his eyes.

Usually I’d take notice, add this person to my list of affronters as One who does not respect the sanctity of the banjo. But I didn’t, because I was fixating.

Billy had finished the song with flourish, which earned a happy gasp from the audience. They’d begun their applause before the strings had ceased vibrating. Several of the spectators had even come to their feet to whoop and holler their appreciation. I wasn’t surprised. My brother had a stellar voice, I mean cosmically good.

He should’ve been a musician. Or he could’ve been one of those engineer fellas with a mohawk on the TV, telling folks how rockets work. If he hadn’t had his leg broken in high school, he also could’ve been a pro football player.

But no.

Now he was the vice president in charge of everything at Payton Mills in the middle of Appalachia. And he’s probably going to be a state senator next. And after that, a congressman.

My expression of displeasure intensified. I was officially fixating on my misaligned hopes for my brother, determined to be irritated with his course in life since I couldn’t be content with my present circumstances.

She better not be working.

I swear, if that dragon lady mother of hers was keeping her late at the bakery yet again, I would . . .

I would . . .

I won’t do a thing.

Dammit.

I took a deep breath, scowling at the bright red theater chair in the front row. Next to it was a wooden chair that my youngest brother, Roscoe, would’ve called mid-century modern, or something hoity-toity like that.

“Where’s Jenn?” Drew repeated the question, apparently convinced the lumbering disrupter was no longer a threat to his instrument, his attention coming back to me.

“I don’t know, Drew.” I didn’t precisely snap at my friend; it was definitely more of a nip than a bite.

He ignored my hostility, strumming out a chord. “She working late again?”

“Apparently.” I said this under my breath.

It wasn’t my place to say anything to Diane Donner-Sylvester (soon to be just Donner) on behalf of her daughter. It was up to Jenn to stand up to her mother, set and enforce boundaries. Jenn needed to be the one to call the shots. I knew that. But I didn’t have to like it.

Maybe once we get married. . .

A smoky fire of restlessness rekindled in my stomach. Over Thanksgiving, we’d—

Well, I’d

Dammit.

The truth was, we’d discussed marriage once. Just once. I’d asked her while we’d been informal. She’d said yes. That was that.

But now it was January, and she hadn’t deigned to mention the wedding, or marriage. Furthermore, when she introduced me, I was a boyfriend.

Boy. Friend.

Now I ask, would anyone who’d met me ever use either of those words as a descriptor? Can you imagine? And would a boyfriend have five different engagement rings—all of superior cut, color, and internal flawlessness—sitting in his top dresser drawer, just waiting for the best opportunity to clandestinely ascertain her preference? When would she have five minutes to spare for such an exercise? I had no idea.

In her defense, Jenn’s busiest season was between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, and, unfortunately, her momma was going through a tough time. Diane Donner-Sylvester’s soon-to-be ex-husband—and Jennifer’s daddy—Kip Sylvester, was a sinister pain in the ass.

Thus, I did my duty as her betrothed and administered foot rubs and back rubs, completed her grocery shopping, maintained her homestead, car maintenance, and burdened her with absolutely no expectations.

That’s right. No expectations. Merely a heckuva lot of anticipation.

In the meantime, Jenn’s porch had received two new coats of lacquer, her shutters had all been cleaned, repainted, and rehung, I’d installed two ceiling fans in anticipation of the summer, and I’d replaced her garbage disposal.

But New Year’s was last week. I’d gathered all my anticipation and hopes, stacked them in a pile, and stapled them to today’s date on the calendar. She’d broken promises before, but that was all in the past, all forgiven and forgotten. Tonight was the night, our night. Finally. She was supposed to leave work on time, come to the jam session, and then we’d make up for lost time.

Sitting as straight as my spine would allow, I craned my neck, lifting my chin and peering at the back row of the room, specifically the seats closest to the door. My attention flicked through the faces there. Mr. Roger Gangersworth was wearing unsurprising overalls; Posey Lamont was wearing a bright pink shirt heavy with unfortunate plastic beading in the shape of a rainbow, except it was a calamitous arrangement of RYOGBVI instead of ROYGBIV; and Mrs. Scotia Simmons wore a sour expression indicative of a woman who’d lived a self-centered existence and was thusly dissatisfied with everything and everyone.

But there was no Jennifer.

I needed to get away from the crowd and their talking.

“Go on with the set if you want. I can jump back in when I return from making my call.” Standing, I placed my banjo in its case, and then leaned it against the back corner, away from the threat of any future lumbering morons.

“Fine. Once Billy’s fan club clears out, we’ll get started again.” Drew sounded unperturbed at the loss of my superior banjo skills, which meant he must’ve sensed the call was important. “Tell Jenn I say hi.”

I grunted once, in both acknowledgement and aggravation. Great. Now I had to remember to say hi to Jenn from Drew on the off chance she picked up her phone when I called. And if she didn’t pick up, I’d have to remember to say hi the next time I happened to see her.

Why did people do that? Send salutations through other people? I am not the post office, nor am I a candygram. Why not send a text message if one is so eager to impart a greeting? Why did I have to be a “hi” messenger? Another reason why a silence ordinance was needed. If today had been a no-talking day, the chances of Drew writing me a note, pointedly asking me to say hi to Jenn, would have precipitously decreased my chances of being an unwilling messenger.

You don’t write a note unless you mean the words. Not like talking. Folks often talk just to hear themselves, maybe because thoughts don’t exist inside their brains. Talking, I was beginning to suspect, was the root of all evil. The ease of it in particular was an issue.

Talk it out. Talk it over. Talk it through.

Useless.

If more folks thought it out, thought it over, and thought it through instead of talking, then the world would be less cluttered with opinions and assholes.

Navigating the room, I made a point to give Posey Lamont a wide berth, careful to keep my beard far away from her beaded shirt. The last thing I needed was a beard-tangle with an ignorant representation of the visible light spectrum.

Once free of the labyrinth, I strolled down the hall, aiming for the front door of the Green Valley Community Center and the parking lot beyond. It was cold, even for January, and the lot would likely be empty. My head down to avoid eye contact with passersby and hangers-on, I typed in my password and navigated to Jenn’s number.

I was just bringing the phone to my ear when I heard a woman shout, “Cletus!”

I halted, only because the voice sounded like Jenn’s, anticipation refilling my lungs. And there she was.

Well, more precisely, there was a version of her. She wore a blonde wig to cover her dark brown hair, a yellow dress with a brown collar and trim, and pearls around her neck and at her ears. Frustration grabbed a shovel and dug a deeper well within me.

Jenn jogged to me in high heels, rushing to close the distance between us while I stood stock-still, her expression a mixture of guilt and hope, a bakery box clutched to her chest. My eyes moved from the bakery box to her shoes. I released a silent sigh.

She must’ve just left work.

As an aside, jogging in high heels really should be added to the Olympics as a sport, but I digress.

When Jenn was about five feet away, her smile—looking forced, or pained, or worried, or some combination thereof—widened unnaturally and she said, “Hey, there you are.”

“Here I am.” I stuffed my hands in my pants pockets.

She stopped about two feet away, unable to come closer without moving the Donner Bakery box to one side, and that would have been awkward. It was a big box. I contemplated the big box, which was both a literal barrier as well as a figurative representation of what separated us.

A second ticked by. I felt her eyes on me, but she said nothing, maybe because I was glaring at the box. I didn’t want to be the first to speak. I was too persnickety to be trusted to talk—see? I knew when to talk, when not to talk. Why couldn’t other folks learn?

But then I remembered Drew’s request, and relented. “Drew says hi.”

There. That’s done. Message conveyed.

“Oh.” The word was airy, like she was out of breath. If I’d just jogged a hallway in high heels, I would’ve been out of breath too.

Another second ticked by, then another, and that deep well of frustration began to rise, reaching my esophagus and higher, flooding my chest with suffocating disappointment. And maybe a little bit of resentment.

Dammit.

I wanted to sabotage her mother. I wanted to intervene and free up Jennifer’s time for nonwork pursuits. All it would take was a few well-timed phone calls to the right people and then the problem would be solved.

BUT I WON’T!

I wouldn’t intervene. Modifying or ending lifelong habits—habits that have served me well and have been efficient mechanisms for achieving ends and aims—in an effort to be respectful of my lady love’s autonomy was perhaps the most maddening endeavor of my existence.

I felt her shift closer, and the movement drew my attention to her sweet face, pointed chin, and gorgeous eyes.

“Please don’t be mad.” The hope in her features was now entirely eclipsed by guilt. “I am so sorry. I would’ve been on time, but Mr. Badcock sold all my eggs to somebody. And then he was treating me like I was a person of suspicion, like he couldn’t trust me. Truth be told, he was downright hostile.”

What’s this? Hostile? A modicum of my frustration eased. I could do something about unwanted hostility from an egg farmer, that was actionable; whereas, forcing Jenn’s momma, Diane “Dragon Lady” Donner, to retract her claws of maniacal manipulation was not.

Stepping around the box, I came to her side, my hand automatically lifting to her back. “What did he say to you?”

Note to self, Richard Badcock, add to list: Maim for mistreatment of my Jenn.

“Nothing harsh.” She quickly shook her head, holding my gaze and allowing me to steer us down the hall, away from the entrance. “But I did have to convince him to sell me eggs again, and then he’ll only sell me eggs with an advanced and a deposit. And then, once that was settled, it turns out he did have a few dozen in his house, which he eventually gave me. But trekking up the hill and back down again took longer than I’d planned.”

I stopped in front of the door leading to the stage area of the old cafeteria and pulled out a key to unlock it, listening intently to her version of events while keeping an eye out for any passersby or hangers-on. I didn’t need folks following us or asking me how it was that I possessed a key.

“So when I got back to the bakery,” she went on, her words dripping with fatigue, “Momma was in tears, ’cause my daddy had just called. And you know he wants half the hotel and the bakery, so he was threatening her with that again.”

I grimaced, well aware of Kip Sylvester’s pattern of reprehensible behavior and what he was capable of. He’d popped up again this last week after being mostly gone for just about a month, making all kinds of threats.

“When she stopped crying, there was still the custard to make, and only four dozen eggs. After some fretting and discussing the issue with Momma, I decided it was best to go to the store and pick up a few dozen eggs there—since Blair Tanner had already left, I was the only one to do it—and use half Badcock eggs and half store-bought to get the most out of the Badcock four dozen. I’ll need them later this week.”

“Did you make the custard?” I ushered her forward and shut the door to the backstage area, tired on her behalf. Maybe I could do the shopping for the bakery for her? Stop by all her local suppliers so she didn’t have to.

Which, now that I thought about it, why the heck was she running all over town picking up supplies? Shouldn’t someone else do that?

“Yes. I made the custard, it’s sitting in the fridge, used the last of my vanilla. I’ll need to order more. I just hope no one realizes about the eggs.” She huffed an agitated exhale, allowing me to lead her through the darkness. She couldn’t see at all, and I—like all my siblings—could see tolerably well.

I took the infernal bakery box from her grip and set it on a nearby crate, and then brought her near a corner, leaning her against the wall. This particular corner was scarcely illuminated by a sliver of light coming in through the stage curtains.

The cafeteria was just beyond the curtains, and the loud buzzing of town gossip and chatter from earlier in the evening was now a low murmur of scant conversation. Most folks had moved on to the music rooms, likely because all the coleslaw had been eaten. As long as we whispered, we wouldn’t be overheard or noticed.

“Is everything settled? With Mr. Badcock?” I studied her expression, noting the grooves of worry on her forehead and the way she was twisting her fingers.

“I think so. Momma is going to drive out there tonight and drop off a deposit check, try to smooth things over with Mr. Badcock.”

“That was your idea?” I questioned, already knowing the answer.

It was a great idea, so of course it was Jenn’s idea. Diane Donner was one of the most powerful businesspersons in the region. A visit from Diane was a big deal indeed. As well, this would provide Diane a distraction from her divorce woes.

“Yes,” Jenn whispered, her eyes searching for mine, but seemingly unable to settle. My face must’ve been wholly in shadow. “We’re putting in an order for the entire year.”

“That’s good.” I nodded, but part of her story troubled me.

Why would Mr. Richard Badcock treat Jenn with even an ounce of hostility? It didn’t make any sense. Folks who knew Jenn—or of Jenn—considered her harmless, or less than harmless. A novelty, a local celebrity of no real substance or consequence, which was also how they saw me (minus the celebrity part).

I knew better. She’d revealed her genius to me last fall while proving to be the most brilliant opponent I’d ever faced, by far. She’d bested me. Consequently, having no choice in the matter, I’d promptly fallen in love with her and was now besotted. Obviously.

But back to Dick Mal-Rooster and his antagonism.

“Did he give a reason for his poor temper?” I asked, studying her.

The question seemed to agitate her, and she huffed, stepping forward and reaching out blindly. “Cletus, can we talk about that later? Where are you?”

My mental processes shifted gears away from her chicken troubles, and suddenly, the flood of disappointment returned, rose to my throat. I swallowed, stepping away from Jenn’s searching hands as I stuffed mine back in my pockets.

“Jenn—”

“I am so, so sorry, Cletus. I know I promised I’d be here on time, and I wasn’t here on time, and for that I’m sorry.” She found me, her hands grabbing the front of my shirt. Her warm palms slid over my chest, up to my shoulders, her arms twisting around my neck.

I braced myself for the feel of her body, but I was unprepared for the reality of it. Soft and warm and impatient, Jenn pressed herself to me in a way that felt at once impatient and content. Her lips brushed lightly over my neck, causing me to tense. But her hot tongue coming out to lick a path to my ear made me jump, every inch of me aware of every inch of her.

“I’ve missed you,” she whispered, a note of vulnerability in the words, her breath scorching as it spilled over my skin, a counterpoint to the disappointment still burning my chest. “Have you missed me?”

I was at once inebriated by her actions and incredulous of them.

“You know I have,” I answered gruffly, keeping my hands in my pockets for both our benefits.

Likely she didn’t want our first time together in over six weeks—and our second time together ever—to be me ripping off her underwear and taking her against the backstage wall of the Green Valley Community Center. Rationally, I knew this to be true.

Irrationally, however, I wanted to rip off her underwear and take her against the backstage wall of the Green Valley Community Center. I wanted to rip open the buttons of her dress and feast on her body, the smooth silk of her skin, while I filled her and claimed her and satiated myself with what would surely be an unrefined display of possessive carnality.

And also complicating matters, resentment lingered like a hangnail. Part of me wanted to punish her. I know that’s not noble nor gentlemanly, but I am neither noble nor a gentleman.

Yet, I was trying to be. For her.

Probably not a good idea to be intimate until such time as we—

Jennifer pressed her body more fully against me, one arm still hooked around my neck, a hand sliding dangerously lower, from my shoulder to my chest and stomach. I caught her fingers before she could slip them between us and cup me over my pants. Or inside my pants.

“Not a good idea.” My body shook, a surge of covetous mindlessness threatening to overtake my good intentions.

“It’s been weeks,” she complained between biting kisses on my neck, bringing my hand to her breast, pressing it there. “Don’t you want me?”

I choked on nothing but air. If she didn’t know how much I wanted her, then either she was stupid—which she wasn’t—or she was pretending to be in order to test my control.

“You’re asking me foolish questions,” I ground out, catching both her hands and holding them between us, forcing her to back away a step. “And you’re not foolish.”

I needed a minute.

“Then what’s the problem?” She pressed forward, not fighting my hold but feeling restless beneath my fingers. “Why aren’t you kissing me back? Why do you keep stuffing your hands in your pockets? Why won’t you touch me?”

Lost for words, I settled on whispering truth, “I’d like nothing more than to rip off your underwear and—”

“No need, I’m not wearing underwear.”

 

 

 

Chapter 3

*Cletus*

Jenn bent her head and placed a kiss on my knuckles.

Meanwhile, I needed. . . another minute.

What?

“What?” Equal measures of astonishment and lust drove away any of my remaining premeditated intentions, leaving me only with lust.

“I took them off in the car.” Her tongue licked the juncture between my index and middle fingers. “I know I’ve been working a lot and—oh!”

I backed her against the wall, tossing away her hands and clamoring for the hem of her skirt. Sliding my fingers up her legs as I lifted her dress, I groaned when I discovered no material at her hip or bottom. Since I already had a handful of her, I squeezed, resisting the urge to fall to my knees and take a bite of her perfect backside.

I’d wanted us to have privacy. I’d wanted to unwrap her. I’d wanted to take my time. I’d wanted conversation and kisses—many kisses—and a lot more light. Definitely more light.

I pressed my forehead against the cold wall, unable to resist touching her, slipping my middle finger into that hot, silky place.

Her breath hitched, her arms once again wrapping around my neck as her hips rolled forward into my hand. “Please, please.”

Damn, but I missed her. Her skin was heaven, her fragrance paradise, I was already drunk with it. Breathing heavy, wanting her all around me, in my lungs. I couldn’t think. I just wanted.

I took her mouth with mine, no preamble or gentle invasion, but a frenzy. She moaned. Jenn’s nails scratched down my shirt, her fingers shaking as they found my belt, tugging and pulling frantically while I greedily nipped and licked and kissed her jaw and neck, stopping at the fabric covering her breast to place a wet, biting kiss at the center, feeling her bead and stiffen beneath my tongue, and continuing to work her slowly with my fingers.

Her hands faltered as I devoured her collarbone and neck, preparing to lower to my knees, lift her skirt completely, take a bite out of that ass, and then spread her wide. My mouth watered.

But then her phone rang, and I froze.

Reba McEntire’s, “I’m a Survivor” chirped between us. That was her mother’s ringtone, the woman had programmed it into Jenn’s phone.

Squeaking, fumbling for the device, Jenn’s face was briefly illuminated by the small swath of light just before quickly rejecting the call.

“Don’t stop.” She reached for my belt again, this time completely undoing it, the button of my pants, and my zipper at world-record speed.

Her phone buzzed. Then it chimed. Then it buzzed and chimed two more times. Then it rang again. Reba.

Cursing, Jenn pulled the phone from her pocket, once again her face illuminated, murderous rage in her eyes. Her finger moved to the power off button, but then she blinked, hesitating. Her eyes widened, her body stiffened, and she gasped.

“Cletus!”

Something about her tone, like she was horrified, and maybe a little afraid, cut through the heavy haze of lust inertia, and my hands stilled. Shaking myself, it took me a few moments to realize she was showing me the phone screen, and another few to bring the content of the text messages into focus.

Momma: Jennifer Anne Sylvester, pick up your phone. If you’re with Cletus, I need his help. Please.

Momma: ALL THE CHICKENS AND ROOSTERS ARE DEAD! PICK UP YOUR DAMN PHONE!

Momma: I’m calling you in a second, pick up the phone. Mr. Badcock’s chickens are dead. All of them. I got here and he’s running around, deranged, yelling about his dead chickens! I called the police and they’re on their way. Please, please, please pick up the phone!

At some point, I must’ve taken the phone from Jenn and stepped away, because I glanced up upon reading the messages for the third time, finding the phone in my hand and Jenn fixing her skirt.

“This is nuts.” Her big eyes searched mine imploringly. “Who could have done this?”

I shook my head, having not yet managed to fully shift head gears—you know, from that head to the one on my neck—and my gaze dropped to the wet patch on the front of her dress just visible in the swath of light. My erection throbbed.

So we’re . . . not having sex?

“Why? Why would they do it? And WHO?” She snatched her phone back, her tone bewildered, distracted, and distraught. She was distraught because of the dead chickens, like any normal person would be.

I was distraught also, but my distress had nothing to do with farm animals.

“We have to go.” Jenn grabbed my hand and began walking toward the direction of the hall. Meanwhile, it took me until her hand found the door handle to realize my zipper and belt were still undone.

“This is crazy.” She paused as I zipped up, her tone halting and distracted. “Poor Mr. Badcock. And those poor chickens.” A sound of distress escaped her throat. “This is terrible.”

It was terrible.

And I was going to hell.

Because all I could think was, Talk about a cock block.

***

“How’d they die?”

Jackson James glanced at me. “According to Mr. Badcock, cervical dislocation.”

“You mean they were strangled?” I asked. We stood shoulder to shoulder in Mr. Badcock’s living room, Officer Jimmy Dale in the kitchen, pouring himself coffee while Officer Fredrick Boone hunted for clues outside.

Jackson tilted his head back and forth. “More or less.”

“I see.” I made a fist, narrowed my eyes. “A chicken choker.”

Jackson James immediately scrunched his face, his chin falling to his chest in a clear attempt to hide his laughter. Mr. Badcock lived in one of those houses that might also claim log cabin status, the rooms segmented with curtains or furniture instead of interior walls. I could see Officer Dale from where I was standing, also trying not to laugh.

“Talk about a clusterflock,” I added, nodding at the assertion.

Jackson covered his mouth with his hand and Dale did the same.

Me? I wasn’t in any danger of laughing. I never laughed at my own jokes, even if they were as funny and timely as this one.

But Jenn . . . Uh oh.

“It’s not funny,” she whispered harshly, stepping close to both of us and pausing on her path back to Mr. Badcock. “Someone losing their life’s work and livelihood is not something to laugh at.” Jenn turned her glare of disappointment fully on me, and it hit me like a punch to the stomach after drinking sour milk. “How would you feel if—if someone broke all your tools and you couldn’t fix cars?” Her glare cut to Jackson. “And you. Shame on you. You’re here to help. Have some respect for the badge you wear.”

“Sorry,” Jackson whispered tightly, his cheeks now tinged pink.

“You’re right. I’m sorry.” I nodded solemnly, clearing my features of expression while an odd sensation slithered into the vicinity of my chest. I had a notion that the sensation was guilt, but since I rarely succumbed to it, I couldn’t be sure.

“Where am I going to store all these chickens?” Mr. Badcock’s wayward anguish drew our collective attention to where he sat on the floral-patterned sofa. He held his forehead in one of his hands, the other gripped a baseball cap to the knee of his threadbare overalls.

Jenn and I shared a look—one which I knew meant she’d deal with me later—just before she turned on her heel and crossed to Mr. Badcock. She knelt in front of him, placing a hand over his gripping the hat.

“There, there, Mr. Badcock. We’ll—we’ll figure something out.”

“Sixty-one chickens is a lot of feathers,” Jackson said just loud enough that I could hear.

This wasn’t a joke, and his point was a good one. Plucking all those chickens without the aid of modern machinery was going to take a while, anywhere from five minutes to a half hour, depending on who was doing the plucking. Regardless, the task was much too cumbersome for Mr. Badcock to attempt on his own.

And it had to be done soon if he wanted to salvage the meat. An idea formed. . .

“Mr. Badcock, I think I might be able to provide some assistance.” I walked over to where Jenn was kneeling, and she turned her head, giving me a sidelong glare.

She hadn’t yet forgiven me for the chicken choking comment. Nevertheless, I would prevail in her good graces. Eventually.

“Huh? What?” The poor man glanced at me, blinking his confusion.

“Now, us Winstons, we know how to pluck chickens. My sister, Ashley, can pluck a chicken in two minutes flat. Why don’t I call my kin, and we’ll converge on your abode this evening. I’ll even have my brother Beau bring over our dipping pot and outdoor stove.”

“What’s that for?” Jackson asked from behind me. “You planning to make chicken soup?”

I slid my gaze to his and let him see my displeasure before answering, “No. Jack. You dip the bird into boiling water for a few seconds, to make the plucking easier.”

“But that only solves half the problem.” Mr. Badcock fretted, his face a grimace. “I don’t have freezer space for sixty-one birds.”

“There’s only forty.”Officer Boone’s young voice interrupted from the propped open front door. He was holding a notepad in his right hand, a pen in his left. I didn’t know he was left-handed.

“Forty?” Jenn stood and tilted her head to the side. “Forty what?”

“Forty dead chickens.” Boone looked to Jackson, who was technically the senior officer on the scene. “I only found forty chickens.”

“Someone stole twenty-one of his chickens?” Dale asked, bringing the coffee cup to his lips. “Why not just take them all?”

“Y’all can talk this over at a later date.” I lifted my voice. “Right now, we need to get the forty chickens outside plucked and frozen if we want to salvage the meat.”

“Like I said, Cletus.” Mr. Badcock rubbed at his forehead. “I don’t have space for that many chickens—not for sixty-one, not for forty.”

“How many do you have room for?” Jenn asked softly.

He shrugged, sniffling. “Maybe ten. I’m ruined.”

A charged hush fell across the room as we all stewed in Mr. Badcock’s despair, Diane Donner’s voice cresting and then fading away. I assumed she was outside talking to someone on the phone, not carrying on a one-way conversation with forty dead chickens.

Jenn’s eyes locked with mine, hers pleading and full of expectation, giving me the sense she expected me to swoop in and save the poor man from ruin. But what could I do? We didn’t have freezers at the auto shop, and—

Wait a minute.

I snapped my fingers. “Beau just fixed up two industrial-sized fridges that can also be converted to freezers. He donated them on behalf of Genie’s bar to the church.”

“Oh!” Jenn also snapped, her gorgeous eyes moving from me to Mr. Badcock. “That’s right. And I know those fridges are empty. With the church picnic coming up, they cleaned them out in preparation. Plus, I can store any overflow at the Donner Bakery, in the walk-in. There’s not much space, but I think we can find a few nooks and crannies.”

Mr. Badcock appeared to be undecided. Or overwhelmed. Or both. “I don’t know—”

“And you could probably sell a few to Mrs. Seymour, for the picnic. We could spread the word, so folks know to buy their hens from you—for the chicken salad, and fried chicken, and such—instead of the store. And I know my momma will buy some for the hotel. And I’m sure Cletus wants some too.” Jenn glanced at me beseechingly.

“I do?”

Her eyes widened meaningfully. I didn’t know precisely what the meaningfulness meant, but I did know—in general terms—I needed to agree with her.

“I mean, that’s right. I do.” I nodded once.

Jenn’s features brightened. She exhaled and gave me a small smile. “For some chicken sausage, maybe?”

Chicken sausage?

I didn’t grimace, and that was a miracle.

Chicken sausage was akin to turkey bacon, an abomination.

 

 

 

Chapter 4

*Cletus*

The chickens had been left where they died, scattered all over the inside of the henhouse, many still on their nests, a few out in the yard. As such, the first thing we did was round them up and put them in a pile on a tarp, set to one side of the big, fancy chicken coop.

Meanwhile, since neither Mr. Badcock nor any of us Winstons owned a scalder, Shelly and Ashley built a wood fire in Mr. Badcock’s bonfire pit, set an iron grill plate about three inches above the highest flame, and heated several gallons of water in our two big lobster pots. This took forever.

We used the time to set up chairs and tables around the fire and created an assembly line. Drew Runous was the only one I trusted to keep the water at the ideal constant temperature of 149 degrees, so he got the job of tying up the legs and dipping the chickens in the hot water. He passed them to either Ashley, Roscoe, Beau, or Billy—our four pluckers.

Since I was well acquainted with the butchering process and didn’t get queasy at the sight of innards and such, the birds were then handed to me. I cut off the heads and feet, cleared out the cavities, and saved the livers for frying and the remaining organs for gravy or stock. I then passed the carcasses and essential bits to Jethro and Shelly for final cleaning and wrapping.

“I can’t believe Mr. Badcock doesn’t have a motorized plucker.” Roscoe frowned at the chicken he was almost finished defeathering.

“He only raises them for eggs. I got the impression he never killed one before. He has a gravesite for the ones that have died,” Officer Boone said, flipping through his notepad.

“A gravesite?” I lifted an eyebrow, certain I’d misheard.

“Yep. In the past, if one of his hens died, he’d bury them. They all have little crosses. Hand carved.” Boone and I shared a look, and I suspected we were sharing the same thought. Who has time to hand carve crosses for chicken graves?

“The man really loved those chickens,” Boone added, like he was answering my unspoken question.

I knew Boone from around town, good fella, fair, smart, best investigator on the force. He was quiet unless he had something of value to say, and I appreciated this about him. He stood outside of the working circle next to Jackson James, but Officer Dale had left, offering to escort the Dragon Lady—er, I mean Jenn’s momma, Ms. Donner—back to her house and then Jennifer to the bakery.

“They’re pretty birds,” Ashley said with a sad sigh, studying the feathers she was plucking. “I should give him some of my hens.”

“Y’all only have six hens.” This protest came from Roscoe. “And if you give him yours, where are we going to get our eggs for Sunday breakfast?” Of course Roscoe was concerned with Sunday eggs, not Monday eggs, or Wednesday eggs. We only saw him on the weekends as he was still in veterinary school.

“Roscoe, did you know they sell eggs at the store?” Beau grinned at Roscoe, his infernal blue eyes sparkling even in the middle of the night. My redheaded brother had too much charm and charisma, and I suspected he’d been born with the innate ability to catch starlight and radiate it outward, or some such nonsense. “You just give the grocer your money, and then they let you take the eggs. A whole dozen at a time if you’re real nice.”

Roscoe chuckled at Beau’s teasing, which I noted. Roscoe didn’t chuckle, laugh, or otherwise seem amused by my teasing. I felt confident everyone would agree, my teasing was superior to Beau’s in both comedic timing and poignancy.

Masking my irritation, I glanced around the circle, my attention settling on Billy and his . . . What the heck was he doing?

“Have you seen those power plucker attachments for a drill?” Out of the corner of my eye I saw Jethro, my oldest brother, hold a lung scraper in his grip as though it were a drill. “It’s supposed to pluck a chicken real fast, save you from those nasty pin feathers.”

I shook my head absentmindedly, distracted by Billy’s slow plucking progress. He was older than me by a year, and the hardest working person I knew—aside from Jennifer—but he’d plucked just one chicken in the last half hour, and not for lack of trying.

Obviously sensing my attention, Billy asked, “Can I help you, Cletus?” He wore a small smile, but his baritone was as flat as a bookmark.

“What are you doing?” I continued surveying him from beneath lowered eyebrows and behind narrowed eyes, not disguising my dissatisfaction at his inefficient feather elimination technique.

He adjusted his grip on the bird and wiped a gloved hand on a towel hanging over his thigh. “Plucking this chicken.”

“That ain’t chicken plucking,” Roscoe muttered under his breath.

Loathe as I was to agree with Roscoe, I agreed with Roscoe.

“Leave him alone,” our sister Ashley called over. “Let Billy figure things out on his own. Besides, his fingers are too big for this kind of work. We’ll get these done, no problem.” She was sitting between Roscoe and where Drew—her not yet fiancé—dipped the chickens. Their lack of formal engagement was a source of great turmoil for me, but that’s not pertinent at present. It was warmer over there, but that wasn’t the reason we’d insisted she and Roscoe sit closest to the pots.

It was a little known fact that my sister was the fastest chicken plucker in Green Valley, maybe even all of Tennessee, and Roscoe was a close second. This was likely because they used to do it together when we were growing up. Giving them prime spots closest to the pots made the most sense.

“First of all, you’re supposed to start with the legs, move to the breast, leaving the wings for last,” I instructed Billy.

“Cletus. Leave Billy alone,” Ashley said again, making an irritated face.

“He needs to do it right, otherwise he’s just wasting his time and ours.” I held my sister’s stare, which grew increasingly peeved.

“Stop your meddling.”

“But if he would do it right—”

She made a frustrated sound, turning her attention back to the bird in her own hands. “You think you always know what’s best, and sometimes you don’t. Let him alone and quit meddling.”

Now I frowned at my sister, getting the sense she wasn’t talking about plucking chickens. Quit meddling? Not likely. She might as well ask me to make a batch of substandard sausage.

“Let me show you,” Roscoe offered gently, demonstrating on the chicken still in his hands, which was already good and thoroughly plucked. “A hen ain’t going to cooperate if you spend ten minutes plucking the wings. Get your fingers between the legs first.”

My brother Beau, sitting on Billy’s right, nodded at Roscoe’s advice.

I lifted my chin toward Roscoe. “Or between the legs and the breasts at the same time, if you got the skill, like Roscoe.”

“What do you mean? Cooperate? How can I get the hen to cooperate?” Billy affixed a mystified stare on his bird. “The hen is dead.”

“Listen, the point is, you pluck a bird when it’s wet and hot,” Beau said, giving the dead hen he was holding a saucy looking grin. “Everyone knows that.”

Ashley snorted, rolling her eyes.

Ignoring Beau’s miserable attempt at a double entendre, I refocused everyone on the task at hand. “In summary, if you dawdle with the big feathers at the wing, the bird will dry out, and won’t welcome a plucking. And you can’t get it hot, not if you want it to stay raw.”

Ashley snorted again, but this time her shoulders shook with unabashed laughter. Both Drew and Jackson, I noticed, watched her with rapt interest, slightly dazed smiles on their faces.

“You are exactly thirteen years old, Ashley Winston,” Billy grumbled, ignoring our advice and continuing to pluck at the wing.

“And you are too stubborn and serious for your own good, William Winston,” my sister tossed back at him good-naturedly. “Stop being an old man and have some fun for once. Live a little.”

“Now who’s meddling?” I said under my breath, earning me a glare from Ashley.

“Live a little? By plucking chickens?” Billy’s questions were monotone and likely rhetorical.

Beau, a big grin on his face, opened his mouth as though to respond, likely with another tasteless observation. Thus, I lifted my voice and spoke over him, “After we’re done here, Billy, I’ll need your help getting these birds into the freezer at the church. I don’t have the trunk space in my Geo.”

“Can’t, Cletus.” Billy removed several more wing feathers, tossing them into the paper bag between his legs. “I have a meeting in Knoxville tomorrow midmorning. I’ll need to head home in a bit to get some sleep. But you can take my truck if you want.”

“I do want. Thanks,” I said, shifting my attention to Beau. “That means you’re helping me load and unload.”

“Fine, as long as I can take a nap after in your room at the homestead.” The redhead shrugged, speaking around a yawn.

The homestead to which Beau referred was our family ancestral home, an old Victorian farmhouse with a wraparound porch Jethro was in the perpetual process of restoring for his pregnant movie star wife and their future seventeen children. Set several acres backing up to the Great Smoky Mountain National Forest, the house was worth restoring.

“What? Why sleep in my room?” I wiped the knife I was using off on a towel and searched the tabletop for the sharpener. Cutting all those heads and feet were making it dull.

“Your room is darker,” he said, like the matter was settled.

“But your room is empty of people whose name is Cletus, and my room is not.” Finding the whetstone, I slid it along the edge of the knife, frowning my most ill-tempered frown at my brother. Beau’s old room, which he used to share with his surly twin Duane before Duane ran off with his lady love to Italy, was untouched on account of Beau and Shelly having all but moved in together just before Christmas.

Seemingly unperturbed, Beau spoke around another yawn, “My room doesn’t have custom blackout shades on the windows. You want me to help you move the chickens in Billy’s truck? Fine. But then I sleep in your room after—where it’s dark—and you sleep in mine.”

“What about Shelly?”

“Shelly’ll go back to her place right after we finish here and can take the GTO. You don’t need more than me to help load up those chickens, and she needs her sleep. That okay, Shell?”

“Fine by me.” Beau’s tall, taciturn lady friend was using the lung scraper on a big, fat hen. She didn’t seem too happy about spending hours she’d usually be sleeping cleaning out chicken innards, but I suspected that had more to do with her soft heart toward animals than anything else. She fostered dogs, birds, cats, anything that needed fostering, and though she sought to hide it, I could sense the scene when she arrived upset her.

I didn’t get a chance to press the bedroom/sleeping arrangements issue with Beau because Ashley said to no one in particular, “What I find interesting is that these chickens weren’t decapitated.”

“What do you mean?” Boone asked, looking up from his notepad.

“I mean someone knew what they were doing, breaking their necks. Cervical dislocation isn’t a novice way of killing a chicken. Either the person works in medicine—veterinary or human—and knew enough about anatomy to know where to break, or the person is an old school chicken farmer and has done this before.”

“Why do you say ‘old school’?” Jackson was looking at Ashley with curiosity rather than his typical moony-eyed worship. We all knew he’d only stuck around so he could get a few moments basking in her presence. Jackson James had been ass above ankles gone over my sister since elementary school.

“Most chicken farmers these days use the cone, right? Subdues the bird, keeps them from moving around. But this guy—or lady—didn’t. Breaking the neck is a faster, less messy, quieter way of killing birds, if you know what you’re doing. But it also requires more strength, so it couldn’t have been a small person.” While she spoke, she stood, finished plucking her fifth chicken, and walked over to where I was busy at the butchering table.

“Unless they used the broomstick method.” Roscoe also stood, placing his plucked chicken next to Ashley’s.

“What’s the broomstick method?” Jackson asked, and I was reminded that Jackson’s family had never needed to source their own food. His father had been the sheriff of this county for as long as I’d been alive. They’d never had to worry about putting food on the table.

Roscoe reclaimed his seat. “Broomstick method is where you put the bird between your—”

“Do we really need to know?” Billy asked, making a face of distaste.

One thing was for certain, Billy would never be a farmer. The man could get lost in a sparsely wooded traffic circle. He’d never been friends with the outdoors, and he liked his custom cut suits too much to voluntarily dirty his hands with soil and livestock. Don’t get me wrong, he’d do it—like now—if he had to, and he wouldn’t complain either, even though he’d rather be anywhere else.

“No.” Ashley held out her hands to receive another chicken from Drew. “But Roscoe makes a good point. The broomstick method can be done by a smaller person. They wouldn’t need as much strength if they broke the neck that way.”

“Interesting.” Boone scribbled something in his notepad.

“Also, seems like it was maybe someone the birds were familiar with?” Ashley directed this question to Roscoe. “Since most of the chickens were still in their nests instead of fleeing to the yard.”

“Maybe.” Roscoe shrugged. “Or someone who is used to working with chickens and knows how to keep them calm.”

“Why would anyone do this?” Shelly frowned at the dead bird she was cleaning like it had disorganized her toolbox. In the five months she’d been working at the shop with us, I knew there wasn’t much Shelly loathed more than a disordered toolbox.

“That’s a good question.” Billy, finally finished with his second bird, brought it over to the butchering table. “Any ideas, Boone?”

“Hey now. We can’t share thoughts about an ongoing investigation,” Jackson spoke up, and all my brothers rolled their eyes.

“Does Mr. Badcock have any helpers on the farm? Part-time employees?” I directed my question to Boone as—despite Jackson’s temerity—Boone seemed to be the only one taking this investigation seriously.

Officer Dale hadn’t taken it seriously. Before he’d left to escort Diane Donner home and Jennifer to the bakery, he’d said, “Mr. Badcock has both the farm and his birds insured. Investigating this would be a waste of time, he’ll get back on his feet.” Then, nudging me with an elbow, added, “No harm no fowl. Get it?”

In case y’all were wondering, it is possible to tire of bird jokes. But I digress.

Regardless, on the one hand, Dale was right. Mr. Badcock could always buy and raise new chickens, using the insurance money to see him through. Why should the sheriff’s office spend valuable hours investigating the death of forty chickens and the abduction of twenty-one when there were much more pressing crimes deserving of their attention?

Boone shook his head, frowning at his notepad. “Mr. Badcock said he had some help a few years ago, but not anymore. Just him for the last seven years or so.”

A man and his chickens, alone, for seven years. No wonder he’d carved those crosses for their graves.

Mr. Badcock loved his chickens. The events of the evening had clearly been devastating for him. Jenn had tucked him in before she left for the bakery, promising someone would ensure the chicken maligner—whoever that might be—would be brought to justice.

Butchering Ashley’s latest fully plucked chicken, I didn’t attempt to mask my frown at the memory of her words. Jenn didn’t make promises lightly. If she promised Mr. Badcock the culprit would be discovered, then she meant it.

Even if she’d have to solve the crime herself.

** END SNEAK PEEK **

 

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**BLURB**

This book is best read after ‘Beard Science’, Winston Brothers Book #3.

Jennifer Sylvester made her deal with the devil . . . and now they’re engaged!

But all is not well in Green Valley. A chicken choker is on the loose, 61 dead birds most “fowl” need plucking, and no time remains for Jennifer and her devilish fiancé. Desperate to find a spare moment together, Jenn and Cletus’s attempts to reconnect are thwarted by one seemingly coincidental disaster after another. It’s not long before Cletus and Jenn see a pattern emerge and the truth becomes clear.

Sabotage!

Will an undercover mission unmask the culprit? Or are these love-birds totally plucked?

‘Engagement and Espionage’ is the first book in the Solving for Pie: Cletus and Jenn Mysteries series, is a full-length cozy mystery, and is a spin-off of Penny Reid’s Winston Brothers series. This novel is best read after ‘Beard Science,’ Winston Brothers #3.