“The decomposing corpse churned with insect larvae. Inspector Stewart calculated that in a few short hours, most of the girl’s flesh would be eaten by—” He stumbled in the dirt; his nose buried deep inside the latest copy of NZ Inspector. The farm chores could wait. He had to know how the murder mystery ended. Leaning against a fence post, he thumbed to the last page and glanced down. A pink lump shaped like a horseshoe rested out of place near his wellie boots. “Gum, here?” Miss Walker hated chewing gum. He folded the detective magazine in half and shoved it in a back pocket. “That’s not gum. What the…?”
A row of dirty teeth embedded the object.
In disbelief, he bent over and examined the dentures. Miss Walker had all her teeth. The real ones. “Whose are these?”
His eyes followed gouges in the dirt that led to the barn. He left the teeth behind for the moment and cautiously tread outside the marks. Something or someone had left the trail along the ground. He stopped mid-stride. Should he stay and investigate or warn his boss?
Check on Miss Walker.
He broke into a dead run for the farmhouse, but as he sped up near the barn, a piss-awful smell hosed him. Pulling out his magazine, he covered his nose and mouth. Decay thickened the hot air. He opened the barn doors, gasped, and dropped to his knees.
“Bugger! Miss Walker’s horse is dead!” He checked the mare’s stall, but she was inside, alive, with her ears pinned back. “If it’s not Maggie, what—” He spun a quarter turn and stared at two human legs sticking out of the first stall.
Annalisse Drury’s brownstone gave her claustrophobia—and Boris a bad case of hairballs. Manhattan living wasn’t her thing anymore. The country was far safer for them anyway. She came to that conclusion by the time she’d accelerated her BMW toward the family farm in Goshen.
As she drove past stands of poplars alongside New York Highway 17, her thoughts took her deeper into the woods. A whitetail buck in his summertime rust coat darted out from a thicket of downed cedars. Annalisse swerved, giving the deer a chance to escape her grill. She slowed and recovered to the shade of shaggy maples, dirt raining on her new paint job.
Annalisse slammed the gearshift into park and leaned against the headrest, sweaty and agitated. She lowered the air conditioning and readjusted the rearview mirror, checking for traffic, wishing she’d hit the pillow earlier the night before. Her brown hair stuck to her head like an ill-fitting cap, lifeless. Swollen lids shaped her green eyes into bloodshot pools of uncertainty. A telltale sign of crying herself to a fitful sleep.
Over her home.
Over pressures at work.
Over Alec Zavos.
In record time, Annalisse arrived in her aunt’s driveway at Walker Farm, parked, then flexed tired muscles, setting aside her loneliness. She rolled down the window, releasing the stale air from her cramped quarters, and admired the farmhouse with its shed dormers and wraparound covered porch. The redwood swing Uncle Ted built for her aunt hung motionless in the overheated air. She and her aunt read historical novels there by the hour beneath hummingbird feeders with bright little birds buzzing about. Their favorite place to wait out a thundershower or enjoy a cool autumn day. As always, the memories of her uncle brought a tinge of sadness.
Country living held the promise of something better than skyscrapers and cold streets crowded with absentminded New Yorkers fascinated by their phones. The farm held her together. That, and Aunt Kate. This weekend would be an escape from Zombieland. With her aunt’s help, by the time she headed back to the City tomorrow, her teetering doubts about Alec would be resolved.
Her aunt influenced every major decision Annalisse had made since she arrived on Walker Farm at age thirteen. Kate would know if she should give Alec the shove.
Annalisse lifted her nose to the south wind just as it brought over a smell of decay. That kind of odor always unnerved her.
She shook it off and tugged her overnight bag out of the car and down the gravel path, reflecting on her life-changing trip to Greece last October. The week across the ocean brought Annalisse closer to Alec’s mom and gallery partner, Gen Zavos. Prior to the Zavos Art Gallery’s grand opening, their relationship was cordial but not close.
The terrifying event on the Zavos yacht and its aftermath brought Annalisse into his small family and Alec into a future she wanted with him. The undeniable connection between them made it easy to ignore the rumors and the tabloids—his escapades, his women, and his lavish lifestyle. The guy in Greece was the man she’d fallen hard for. She knew the real Alec, now drifting from her, and she desperately missed him.
Near the porch steps she pivoted toward the largest barn for the source of the stench. Movement at the fence line caught her eye, possibly a summer calf on the neighbor’s property—a rookie disaster to be sure. No self-respecting cattleman in upstate New York would calve in July with its bugs and humidity.
“May as well call the vultures with the breakfast bell,” she grumbled. The scent of honeysuckle from pots on the porch quickly replaced her concern for something dead nearby.
Annalisse batted away a swirl of stock flies near the threshold, stomped dust from her boots, and opened the farmhouse door. The kitchen embraced Annalisse in bright yellow and a gingham-curtain hug. Country comfort missing from her Manhattan two-story brownstone. She found her aunt at the gas range, wearing her checked apron.
Kate hunched over the stove in a stony trance, mesmerized by the flames licking at the bottom of her cast-iron skillet.
“Mornin’, lambie. Breakfast’s started—didn’t expect you this weekend.” She turned the bacon, not bothering to address Annalisse with her eyes. “I made waffles. Take them. I’ll make more.”
Annalisse breathed in heaven and sunshine through the bacon pops and smoky aromas while she waited for Kate’s usual cheerful banter.
“I left the City at seven. I should’ve called, but I had to get out of there. Have you seen Ethan today?” Annalisse dropped her suitcase by the door and gave her aunt a one-armed squeeze and a kiss on the cheek. A habit from living at Walker Farm as a teenager. Simpler times. A loving dose of reality Annalisse had longed for since moving to the Village.
“Ethan’s long gone. He’s out before dawn doin’ chores.”
Ethan Fawdray, fresh from New Zealand, had shown up on Kate’s doorstep looking for work the week before Christmas like a gift, when Annalisse’s desperation to find reliable, local ranch hands hadn’t turned up any prospects. Since he’d arrived in this country without family, Annalisse watched over him like a big sister. Ethan’s quirky, down-under speech and playful innocence lifted her spirits when she visited. Having Ethan help Kate with the livestock chores and tractor work put Annalisse’s mind at ease.
Light speared the crisscrossed windowpanes, temporarily blinding her. She cupped a palm at the glare and studied Kate’s movements and skin tone, wondering if her aunt had experienced another heart episode and was trying to hide it.
“Remember the time you left a raw pork roast in the car?” Annalisse pulled a chair at the family table and leaned around a vase of lilacs that propped an envelope. The return address belonged to a man she despised.
“Good heavens. Why bring that up?” Kate shoved bacon around the pan, the strips slapped mercilessly against the edges.
“The breeze outside. At first I thought something died.”
“Probably an old coon. Caught one stealing the barn cat’s food the other night. That pork shoulder scooted out of one of those slippery grocery bags. I always ask for paper, and that young man—”
“Auntie, you left meat in your SUV for two weeks. Totally wiped out the new-car smell. It took months for the stink to wear off.” Annalisse tapped the table end. “I could’ve sworn I caught a whiff of decomp outside. Tons of flies attacked me at the door. Does Ethan have sheep in the big barn?”
“Maggie’s in there.” The metal spatula pinged in the spoon rest as Kate spun around. “I didn’t leave it in the car. Moved through the meat aisle like a speed demon that day—in such a hurry I wasn’t sure I’d even bought the damned roast. What difference does it make now?”
“Is the mare all right?”
“We found her lame yesterday in that darn rocky pasture. Ethan says it’s a stone bruise.” Her sharpness sliced like a razor blade. “If you’re implying the mare’s dead in her stall, forget it. She’s fine.”
Her aunt’s hostility felt wrong and out of character even for one of her worst bad days. She couldn’t explain Kate’s crankiness unless health was a factor, or maybe Ethan had given his notice, and they’d be on the hunt for more ranch help? Annalisse hoped neither were to blame. Kate graciously found strength after Uncle Ted’s suicide. Annalisse admired how she rose above her resentment at being abandoned on a big farm, earning the respect of the community.
At seventy, Kate had survived a second heart attack, but the event had sapped her strength. With the farm in Orange County, an hour and a half from Annalisse’s brownstone, Kate’s heart was a constant source of worry. Her cardiac doctor made her give up the heavy chores and look for a ranch manager or face another shot at the Reaper. Aunt Kate gave in when she found Ethan, someone she could trust.
The passing of time had tamped down the heartache of losing so many in Annalisse’s family but was also a wake-up call to cherish loved ones.
“Let me help you get breakfast together. Sit, and I’ll finish. I’m numb from sitting so long.” Annalisse stood and rubbed her denim butt cheek.
Kate lifted her palm. “Stay put.” She checked the ceiling, moving her lips in a silent prayer before stripping her apron and tossing it over the back of a chair. “Not myself today, and I’m taking it out on you.” Kate reached her gnarled fingers across the hardwood table and patted Annalisse’s hand. “How’s that handsome Alec? Catch me up on the juicy details. I could use a good thrill.” Kate’s overplayed smile deepened the crags at the corners of her mouth.
“Thrilling would be a fun change.”
Annalisse hadn’t spent an entire day with Alec in weeks. Her Mondays through Fridays at the gallery consisted of working alongside his mother, Gen, as her antiquities appraiser. Annalisse’s work, although rewarding, played a poor second to hanging out with Alec at Brookehaven, his estate near the Catskill Mountains.
Before Alec, Annalisse appraised historical objects at her gallery with joy. Although every day was a new adventure to places she wanted to visit and cultures she found fascinating, Alec’s estate, his racehorses, and compassion for animals triggered Annalisse’s longing to be part of something bigger than artifacts and paintings.
To be with nature on a ranch.
A place like Walker Farm or Brookehaven.
“You have vacation coming soon, lambie. Don’t tell me he’s run off again.”
“Since Greece, he’s abroad three weeks a month. We’re more like casual roomies than a couple. I see more of his horses. At this rate, Alec can forget being a practicing vet.” Annalisse forced a laugh. “There are days when I ache to be near him and hear his laughter.”
“What’s stopping you?”
“His mother was spitting mad when he canceled our plans for next week. Gen closed Zavos Gallery for us. I wish I hadn’t been there to see them argue. Ugly stuff.” Annalisse met her aunt’s obsidian stare. “Am I better off without him?” She picked at a worn spot on the table, fighting tears. “Alec has the entire corporation on his shoulders. With his dad gone, he can’t let Gen down.”
“What are you going to do about it? I see how Gen dotes on you like a daughter-in-law. Alec’s existence is impressive, but is he the right one?” Kate tugged at the bobby pin securing her braid and snugly repositioned it. “You look like hell, by the way. How long since the two of you humped in the sack?”
Annalisse coughed on a gulp of too-hot coffee, burning the roof of her mouth. To Annalisse’s recollection, the last time Alec had initiated sex or been an eager participant escaped memory. Was it four months? Five? Looking back, Alec might have been trying to tell her he wanted an open relationship. Annalisse had assumed they were exclusive.
She looked down into her cup so Kate couldn’t read her eyes, but it was too late.
“It’s worse than I thought.” Kate huffed. “My girl, you’re pushing thirty. A man who leaves his gorgeous girlfriend alone, waiting for a glimpse of him, doesn’t deserve her. I had high hopes for you and Alec. Look at your ol’ aunt. Don’t wait around until my age. I’m way past catching the eye of a younger man.” A sigh escaped her lips.
Annalisse withheld a knowing smile. On Sundays, she’d hang back and watch distinguished widowers from Kate’s church, polished in their shiny ties and gelled hair, give her aunt the yearning once-over. When Kate took her hair out of braids, the silvery gray framed her cheekbones in the most attractive way.
The townspeople of Goshen had envied Kate and Ted’s idyllic marriage. Behind closed doors, things weren’t so perfect. When they were alone, the tension between them was a tightrope. The expert facade concealed the rift in their marriage.
Her uncle was the town’s go-to masonry guy—everyone’s friend—until he abandoned them six years ago. Had her uncle sought freedom or self-destruction when he jumped into the East River? Annalisse didn’t have the answer, but Kate might know. Her aunt had mentioned a suicide note.
Annalisse poked at the unsealed letter and slid it over to Kate. “Your son mails from the office these days instead of phoning?” Jeremy Walker’s attorney logo filled the upper quarter, matching his oversized ego perfectly.
Kate’s earlier stone face returned, but she made no movement toward the envelope.
“Auntie? What is it?”
In one jerk, Kate swept the envelope to the floor. “The little bastard’s selling the farm.”
“What?” Jeremy may as well have reached into Annalisse’s chest, wrenched her heart out, and mashed it in his fist. “In his dreams.” The chair scraped as Annalisse stood, pointing to the letter. “May I?”
She pored over the text, her hand trembling. His words were clipped and formal, as if written to a new client. Jeremy intended to put his mother out and sell the homestead, including the acreage.
“It’s not his to sell. Is it?” Annalisse verified the company header and Jeremy’s unusual choice for ink—his signature penned in light green flourishes, the color of dollar bills.
“My kids couldn’t give a rat’s ass about this farm. Jillian in her fancy glass house in Seattle. Grandkids I don’t see. Jeremy, so obsessed with making money he never broke a sweat on this place.” Kate’s wrist grazed her forehead. “You and me—we worked this farm. Lambed out the flock, worked the cattle on horseback, planted crops…” Her palm slammed the table with a crack. “Selfish little shit. Just like his dad.”
Annalisse put the letter aside. The earlier thorn in her aunt’s rear made sense now. She had to calm Kate before she had her third heart attack.
“Uncle Ted said he paid off the farm years ago. You’re the deeded owner of Walker Farm. Jeremy can’t sell it.”
“I wanted the farm for you. We love this place the same.”
Annalisse allowed Kate’s words to sink in. She’d daydreamed about taking over the farm after her aunt. “Jeremy has no legal rights here. Even if he could, why do this to his own mother?”
“He has the right. When Ted died, I almost lost the farm. I quitclaimed it to Jeremy. He insisted. It was the only way he’d loan me the money. Wish I hadn’t now, but it’s done. Remember those two horrible drought years? When you went away to college? Crop failure put the farm into serious debt. I went through my savings for tractor payments, feed, fertilizer—you name it. Banks weren’t making many farm loans after the crash. A single woman without a husband’s support was shit out of luck, so I went to my kid to bail me out.”
She and Kate had argued over admission to SUNY Community College versus a university. A commute from the farm to Middletown, twenty minutes away, was practical on many levels, but Kate had insisted Annalisse attend New York University for her art history degree. Walker money had covered four expensive years of NYU tuition. Money sacrificed when it was badly needed on the farm.
Annalisse crossed her arms, and her voice cracked. “I offered to use my inheritance to pay for college, but you wouldn’t let me.” She paced the linoleum, absently counting the squares. “I could’ve helped you.”
“Don’t be silly. That was your money left to you by your parents, God rest their souls.” Kate eyed the ceiling and made the sign of the cross. “Consider it a rainy day fund for when you start a family. You’ll need it, believe me.”
Annalisse shook her head. “Starting a family feels light-years away. When my parents’ house literally blew up, and I had nowhere to go, you and Unc took me in. I don’t deserve your farm. I’m an orphaned brat who’s burdened the Walker household for sixteen years.”
“That’s stupid talk! My sister’s daughter belonged with us. We would’ve taken Ariel, too, if—” Kate choked on the words she was about to say. “I’ve never regretted it. Not one single day.”
“Say that to Jeremy. He hates me. When I went from visiting cousin to permanent resident, he couldn’t wait to leave home. I’m the reason he’s turned on you.” Standing behind her chair, Annalisse massaged the knots in Kate’s shoulders to busy her hands. “It’s time I repay a debt. I have a little set aside over and above the inheritance. Everything’s yours. I don’t know how much you owe, but we’ll find a way to pay it and keep the farm. Jeremy can’t take it from you.”
She wrapped her aunt in an awkward embrace, catching the clean scent of Ivory soap. Annalisse couldn’t recall a single moment she’d hugged her own mother in the same way that came so easy with Kate.
Small shudders swept through Kate’s shoulders and skittered cold against Annalisse’s skin, raising chill bumps.
Her aunt existed for the farm and its animals. She’d wither and die if she were forced to live in town. Kate had suffered while Annalisse partied it up at college, oblivious.
“Jeremy owns everything?” Annalisse asked.
Kate gently tugged Annalisse out from behind her and motioned to the ladder-back chair across the table. “Until I pay him back. All legal and tidy, you know. He promised I could stay here, dammit. Ted’s gotta be shifting in his watery grave right about now. I’ll talk it over with Jillian. She’s gracing us with her presence this weekend.”
“Jillian’s here… in New York?”
“I doubt it’s a social call,” Kate said.
“We can fix this. You aren’t leaving.”
Family farms survive calamity all the time. They would too.
Kate leaned over to touch Annalisse’s fingertips. “However this turns out, I want you to know—your being here was a blessing, not a hardship. Don’t ever forget it. I love you like no one else can.” Kate straightened for a moment. “Now’s a good time to tell you something so you’ll—”
A figure raced by the window and clomped onto the porch, rattling the boards.
“Miss Walker!” Ethan’s voice and fist resonated off the screen door like a mallet pounding the house. “Are you inside?”
Kate darted for the door, slinging it open.
“What in hellfire’s the matter?” Kate pulled him by the arm over the threshold. “Get your wits together and tell me what’s wrong.”
Gasping and wheezing, Ethan bent over at the waist, his spiked hair dripping with sweat onto a dirty T-shirt. His skin had a gray-green hue to it.
“I’m feeling crook.” He crossed both hands over his stomach.
Annalisse brought a glass of water over to him. “Drink this. Slowly.”
He threw the water back in a few swallows, wiped his mouth, and nodded his thanks.
“Tell us what this fuss is about.” Kate folded her arms. “Calm yourself.”
“You need to see the barn. At first, I thought he was pissed or buggered, but the pong—”
“English, Ethan. Catch your breath.” Small cracks formed above Kate’s upper lip as she spoke.
“Something’s wrong with Maggie. I knew it.” Annalisse’s pulse ratcheted up along with her blood pressure.
Kate grabbed Ethan by the elbow. “Look at me. Tell us what happened.”
He opened his eyes wide and stammered, “There’s a… a dead bloke in the stall.”