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A Portrait Of A Kiss

This excerpt is unedited.
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CHAPTER 1

The most compelling blue eyes David Schaeffer had ever seen trailed his movements from bed to dresser and back.  He just wished their intensity wasn’t paint on canvas.

“Who’s the gorgeous movie star?”  He grinned across at Loretta Moore.  “He certainly brightens the decor.”

The executor of his aunt’s estate followed his gaze.  “Oh, that’s Brian Terhune.  He was the last of the original family who built this property to live here.  The Terhunes owned it for generations.  When Brian died it passed to a distant cousin over in Wiggins, Mississippi, who sold it.  The place has had quite a few owners since then.”

And now it was his.  He grinned up at the portrait.  “I like his smile.”  And his eyes, deep blue as the sun on the Tensaw River outside his window.  The painting fit the big old house with its enclosed dog-run breezeway running through the center of the first and second floors. 

Like the house, this Brian looked to be a magnificent and graceful example of the South.  Pale blond hair with just a hint of wave and porcelain skin stood out against the dark background.  David couldn’t look away from the patrician features, that faintest hint of a smile curving full lips, lending warmth to what could have been a very cold and forbidding countenance.  As it was, he felt drawn to the man, sensed that Brian would have been someone he could have connected to.  Of course, the broad shoulders in a dark suit and the breath of hard chest hinted at under the pale shirt didn’t exactly distract from the appeal.  “Now that’s a fine-looking man.”

A mildly frustrated sigh came from Loretta’s lips.  “And here I was all ready to say this is my last duty as executor and I’d be very happy to show you around town.”  She shook her head full of springy blond curls and grinned.  “It’s always the cute ones.  I thought an ex-cop would be safe.”

David grinned though the painting still held a fair portion of his attention.  “Sorry.  Having a badge doesn’t make you straight.  It just makes you a lunatic.”  He forced himself to turn to her.  “I wouldn’t mind accepting that offer.  Will it help if I promise you I like girls, too?”

She had a nice laugh, low and musical.  “Well, in this small a Southern town it’s either a girl or that painting, even now.  We’re still a bit... behind the times.  I don’t believe anyone will give you grief about it, just no one will jump up and volunteer to keep you company.”  She held out her hand to him.  “Come on, David, I’ll buy you lunch and introduce you around a bit.”

Her fingers were warm against his palm and he couldn’t help but note how cute a smile she had.  Flirting with her felt good, natural even, but his gaze went back to the painting as she led him from the room.

*          *          *

The wind sighing in the tall pines matched the one filling the emptiness of his bedroom.  Cold eyes watched as this David person held the car door open for Loretta, shutting it with exaggerated grace before striding across orange-red gravel to climb into the driver’s seat.  Another interloper.  Someone new to upset what little peace he had.  Someone to remind him of the pain and agony that kept him here.

Anger roiled up, bitter on the tongue.  Why couldn’t they just leave him alone!  Wasn’t that all he’d ever asked?  The strangling sense of being trapped, surrounded by hatred and distrust wrapped tight about him.  He could feel it suffocating him, rising up and filling his mouth with the green, muddy taste of river water.  He’d done all he could.  He’d sacrificed all he could; what more could they want from him?  Why wouldn’t they go away?  Did they enjoy watching him suffer?

Hatred for their cruelty gnawed at his insides, needle-sharp accusations biting into his vitals.  He couldn’t exist like this, constantly sickened by their rejection.  They destroyed his small bit of sanctuary, robbed him of the little comfort he had just by being there.

Well, he’d driven away interlopers before.  This one wouldn’t be any different.  He’d drive the man away.  Maybe then he could rest.

*          *          *

“You did say local.”  David grinned over the rim of his iced tea.  “Can’t get much more down-home than this.”

Loretta answered the smile with one just a touch too bright.  “So I hear.  I’ve lived here my whole life.  I don’t really notice until someone says something.”

He nodded his understanding.  “In Satsuma the local place to eat was called Bailey’s.  It’s amazing how similar it is to this.”  His gesture took in the worn ambiance of a diner that had seen better days but also far worse ones.  The floors of The Shrimp Basket were worn but the cash register new, its computer screen a little jarring amid the clutter of mints, gum, and trinkets for sale.

She laughed.  “To hear your aunt tell the tale, when she first retained me to draw up her will, you had no conscious memory of Satsuma.  You took off for Raleigh and never looked back.”

“Oh, I looked back.  I just didn’t dwell on it.  I had a decent job.  The law keeps you busy so you don’t have a lot of time to think about the past.  And I had some friends.”  He glanced out the window at the cars zipping down the highway headed to or returning from Gulf Shores and the snowy sands of Pleasure Island.  “Raleigh was good to me but it never really felt like home.”  He let his grin show his wry acceptance of fate.  “I suppose I’m a country boy at heart.  Big city might be stretching it for Raleigh but it’s more city than I want to deal with.”

“Country boy with a thing for Southern Gentry.”  She grinned as he wrinkled his nose at her.  “Legend has it Brain Terhune’s more than just a painting hanging over the master suite’s fireplace, by the way.  As with all proper Southern estates, yours comes with its very own ghost story.  And ghost, so they say.”

“That very pretty man is my ghost?  Cool!”  David laughed aloud at her expression.  “Hey, if I have to be haunted, at least it can be a good-looking ghost.”  He paused, brow wrinkling.  “He is a good-looking ghost right?  Nothing grisly like running around without his head or anything?”

“Far as I know his head is still attached.”  She paused as the waitress brought two specials, baskets piled high with fried shrimp, hush puppies and coleslaw.  “It’s a sad story, as usual.  He was sort of the town outcast.  All his aristocratic background and wealth didn’t mean much to folks who considered him...”  Her gaze shifted down to her lunch.  “... unnatural.”

Unnatural.  In towns like this that meant one of two things.  “So was he a pedophile or was he gay?”

“Not a pedophile.”  That mildly frustrated expression crossed her face again.  “But in 1956 there wouldn’t have been much difference.”

 Ah.  Some things never changed regardless of how much he wished they would.  The past so often held ugliness.  “Well, looks like the ghost and I should get along just fine since we already have so much in common.”  Okay, that sounded a little too bitter for even semi-serious conversation.  And things had changed since ‘56.  Back then he wouldn’t be having this conversation.  Not in a diner full of people who might overhear.  Or maybe not even with a sympathetic lady lawyer.  “Hey, what could be better for me?  A handsome non-headless ghost who’s into the same things I am.”

 Loretta met his gaze again and smiled.  “True.  Only you didn’t also have the whole town after you for killing a young couple out of jealousy.”

“Good lord, Loretta, are you spinning that old tale again?  You’re going to scare the man off.”  A robust man in a sheriff’s uniform strode up to them, genial grin well in place among the laugh lines gracing his fair skin.

She answered the grin with one of her own.  “Oh, I doubt that.  Lawmen don’t scare easily, do they?”  She winked.  “David, this is our local protector of the people, Sheriff Robert E. Coons.  Rob, this is David Schaeffer, late of the Raleigh police department.”

“And Adele Schaeffer’s nephew.”  Coons held out a broad hand.  “Your aunt was one fine lady.  And she baked the best pecan pies in the whole county.”

“That she did.”  David took the proffered hand, appreciating the firm but controlled grip.  The sheriff didn’t feel the need to exert his machismo and impress with a crushing handshake.  David liked that.  “I hope it’s among the recipes she left me in that box in the kitchen.  It would be a hit with boarders.”

“Yeah, Loretta said you were planning to open up for tourists.  Be a good thing here to have something that feels like us instead of that monstrosity going up on the south edge of town.”  Coons grinned at a man sitting over at the counter.  “No offense, Denis, but that sketch looks like it ought to be in Vegas, not Bay Mignon, Alabama.  We ain’t that much on glitz.”

 Loretta’s mouth drew up in a moue and she joined the sheriff in looking at the older gentleman in a gray summer suit.  “I’m not sure a luxury hotel is us, either.  It looks like it should be down at the beach.  Too much for thirty miles inland.  How’d you ever convince someone to build this far up the highway, Denis?”

“Talent, my dear.  Raw talent.”  David caught the trace of French roots in the man’s high nasal tone.  Mincing, his grandmamma would have called it.  Showing off for the local bourgeois is how he’d put it. 

“Well I’d feel better if you took that talent on up to Atmore.  They have that Indian reservation.  You can build all the hotels and casinos you want to for them.  I prefer places like David’s.”  Loretta’s mouth held distaste and her blue eyes sparkled a bit too brightly.

“Dilapidated old Southern mansions with a stigma hanging over them like yesterday’s chitlins?”  Pale grey eyes in a smooth face peered down a generous nose.  “Indeed, I can see the appeal.”  The man rose with a fair amount of grace for his age and approached the table.  “Denis Piedalue.  Adele should have taken my more-than-equitable offer for the place.  It needs far too much work for the few guests you’ll have.  The offer still stands, by the way.  You could turn a nice little profit and build from scratch if you wanted.”

The handshake left David wanting to reach for a napkin.  Too limp, too... something.  He’d figure it out.  He had enough years in homicide to read people.  “But a new place wouldn’t have the same feel.  I like old.  And I like preserving the past.  There’s something about knowing where you come from.  David Schaeffer.  But somehow I think you already knew that.”

“Mr. Schaeffer.”  That prissy tone sent a weird vibe through his gut.  “Quaint as Southern ghost stories may be, the sordid tale of a young man willing to murder over his unnatural lust for a man already engaged to a sweet girl is hardly the sort of breakfast conversation I expect you want for your guests.”  A shudder moved across stooped shoulders.  “That house is best razed to the ground.  I have said it for years now.”  Piedalue pulled out a starched handkerchief and dabbed it unnecessarily at his nose.  “If you’ll excuse me, I have an appointment with my very lucrative investors.  Miss Moore, Sheriff.”

Sheriff Coons waited until the older man had exited.  “Don’t pay Denis much mind.  He’s just pissed off that Adele wouldn’t sell to him.  He wanted river-front property for a water park.  Without your aunt’s place, the deal fell through.  I guess he’s hoping to resurrect the plan if he can get you to sell.”

A water park.  In Bay Mignon?  This quiet paradise?  David felt a shiver of his own.  “I didn’t move back from Raleigh just to let a bunch of noisy tourists take over the place.  I like it quiet.  Denis can take his offer and shove it…”  He grinned at Loretta.  “Back in his wallet.”

She laughed, ringlets bouncing.  “Oh, honey, you so belong here.  And you’re going to have to let me convince you I’m so much more appealing than that dusty old painting.  Dinner?  A movie?  We’ll have to drive all the way to Mobile for a movie.”  She waggled an eyebrow.

“Maybe in a few days.  I’m still getting unpacked.”  She was cute enough.  And fun.  And… obvious.  Much as he liked her, he’d had a lot of obvious in Raleigh.  A little mystery appealed right now, even if it was just a painting and an old ghost story. 

In fact, it appealed more than he expected.

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Copyright © 2006 T.D.McKinney. All Rights Reserved.