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Free Prequel: A Nosy Cat and a Girl on the Run Form an Unexpected Partnership in Crime

Read for FREE: Two Tickets to Paradise

Two Tickets to Paradise is the prequel to the Macey Malloy Mysteries Series. Macey risks her life when she’s embroiled in a brutal murder and meets her feline, crime-solving partner.

ONE

“Crystal claimed she smelled something burning in the office, but it was just an excuse to stick her nose in my trash can,” Becca Taylor declared, her twangy Eastern Kentucky accent stronger with her emotion. Beautiful in her anger, she glared across the gleaming table at her archenemy. Behind her, and framed by the uncovered conference room window, black clouds pregnant with snow ponderously rolled across the cold gray sky. Across the Kentucky college campus, bare trees swayed with the harsh winter wind next to the stoic brick buildings as students, bowed nearly double by their backpacks and the buffeting wind, scurried. Under the dim overhead light, the student worker’s dark sweater, black hair, and stormy expression matched the scene outside the conference room.

“I’d only get within smelling distance of your trash if I were afraid of burning alive,” Crystal Monroe argued, savagely mimicking her coworker’s Appalachian accent. Slim in her skinny jeans and the tight sweater the same pale yellow as her hair, she wrinkled her cute little nose. “You bring disgusting head cheese into the office and heat it up in the microwave,” she said, reverting to her own speech pattern with its soft tendrils of a Southern accent coiling around her words, “because you know the noxious fumes make me sick.”

“Crystal, don’t make fun of Becca’s accent,” I ordered. “Movies and television shows do enough damage when they portray the hill people as stupid, lazy, and drug users or dealers, or both. Don’t perpetrate the unfair stereotype.” From my deliberate position of power at the head of the table, I resisted the urge to sigh. Christmas was only weeks away. With her golden hair, angelic blue eyes, and pretty face, Crystal could have topped a giant Christmas tree. With her darker beauty, Becca seemed to represent the mystery of the season, with the secret shopping and hidden gifts. With their words, however, the women epitomized enraged Walmart shoppers brawling over goods on sale, not goodwill.

“That’s right, Crystal, you’re not allowed to mock me.” Becca crossed her arms. “I grew up on a farm, and I ate head cheese every day of my life. It reminds me of home, and it helps my anxiety.” She twisted toward me, excluding Crystal with the twitch of a thin shoulder. “It’s less disruptive than a comfort dog on campus, and just as medically necessary.”

“Medically necessary.” Crystal jerked in her chair. “Macey Malloy, as the Employee Relations manager and our supervisor, you have to ban head cheese in the office due to my medical sensitivity,” she insisted, her blue eyes blazing. “It’s a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act.”

“I don’t think a dislike of head cheese smell interferes with your life activities, or counts as a disability,” I said, my stomach lurching at the thought of a gruesome stew of animal parts bubbling in the office microwave. I glanced at my laptop. I kept a list scribbled on a post-it note stuck near the keys, specifically for times like this. Given my messy handwriting, it was effectively coded against unauthorized readers. I scanned the list:

Septic tank cleaner
Highway roadkill collector
Customer service representative
Walmart greeter
Telemarketer

Most of the time, I loved my role as the college’s Employee Relations manager. Some days, though, when I thought I couldn’t stand another moment in my job, I read through the list. The occupations were important ones, and I applauded the people who worked in them to put food on their tables. They just weren’t jobs for me.

I glanced at the list again. I’d read that Walmart was cutting its greeter jobs; I’d have to find a new occupation to replace it.

“You eat so many pig parts, Becca, you’re turning into one.” Her short blonde curls bouncing with her movements, Crystal snorted like an excited hog. “Did you understand that? I used your native language.”

Thinking that cleaning septic tanks might not be so bad, I strove for a courteous tone. “The fall semester ends in a couple of weeks, and so will your work assignments in the Employee Relations Department.” I wondered if the student workers recognized the irony of their failure to get along while working in a department that focused on employee relations. I pushed away the thoughts of dark septic tanks full of even darker waste that smelled worse than pig parts. “What would help you two work better as a team?”

“Please don’t suggest a teambuilding exercise in the forest.” Crystal groaned. “Those fell out of favor before I was born.” Her gaze raked my tobacco brown suit and white shell. “Not before you were born, Macey, since you look like my Nana. She agreed with me.”

“She can’t be older than forty, Crystal,” Becca argued.

I winced. I was thirty-one. I opened my mouth to get the meeting back to its purpose, which didn’t include a critique of my appearance.

“Her dark hair is pretty and shiny,” Becca said, “and the ends curl under nicely just above her shoulders. Her nose is a bit long, but it gives her face some character. Her mouth is a bit wide, but hey, it fits her face.”

“Enough,” I said. “Let’s get back on topic.”

“Macey is taller than average and has a nice figure,” Becca continued as if I hadn’t spoken. “You just have to dig for it under her clothes. Where they’re not baggy, they’re boxy, so it takes some work. Crystal, your Nana is senile.”

“Nana is not senile,” Crystal argued. “Besides, she wasn’t the only one who thought Macey dresses like an old lady. When I posted photos of Macey on social media, I got tons of comments from people who agreed with my grandmother.”

My stomach dropped into freefall. “I don’t want my picture online,” I said, my voice squeaky with fear. I pointed at the phone clutched in her slim hand. “Take it down. Now.”

Crystal ignored my demand. “My Nana said Macey’s clothes are by Alfred Dunner. She said the line consists of classic women’s clothes. You know what that means—-”

“Old lady clothes!” The two students chanted, their voices rising in triumph.

“We’ve strayed from the point,” I insisted. Yay, they’d found a point of agreement . . . boo, it was my dowdy clothes. I reminded myself that I’d purposefully shopped elbow-to-walker with the senior citizens in order to keep a low profile. Unfortunately, it didn’t help.

“Oh, yes, teambuilding in the forest,” Becca said. “It may have been before Macey’s time. But that’s not true of your grandpa-age boyfriend, is it, Crystal?”

Outraged, Crystal glared at Becca. “Be quiet.”

“You keep the relationship a secret. Why? Is it the age difference? Is it his position on campus?” Becca was sly with her secret knowledge.

“I don’t have a boyfriend on the down low.” Crystal clenched her small hands into fists.

“Enough about your personal lives.” I closed my laptop. “Let’s get back to repairing your work relationship.”

“No teambuilding exercises, Macey. I refuse to go out in the woods.” Becca shuddered. “Haven’t you watched any scary movies? The pretty girl always gets murdered.” She smirked. “At least you’d be safe, Crystal.”

The pretty blonde narrowed her eyes. “Let’s take you to the woods, Becca. You can hunt truffles!” She drew in air, emitting loud, juicy snorts.

Becca sprang from her chair and dived across the conference table, her fingers curved into claws.

As I inserted my body between Becca’s hands and Crystal’s throat, I decided that if I took a job picking up roadkill, I’d draw the line at pigs and truffle hogs. No porcine creatures.

TWO

A couple of weeks later, I sat in the campus chapel. I felt frozen in disbelief. Crystal was dead, and I was waiting for her memorial service to start. Anonymous in their heavy coats, jeans, and boots or sneakers, students filled the wooden pews behind me, and between me and the raised pulpit. Heavy drapes were closed against the wintery wind, with candles providing pale golden illumination. Near the pulpit, the large picture of Crystal was surrounded by more candles, the flickering light giving the illusion of movement in the dead girl’s beautiful features and short, golden curls.

A bright explosion of sound and white light at the pulpit caused everyone, including me, to gasp. When the hazy smoke cleared, the pastor stood at the pulpit as if he’d magically materialized from the smoke. The candles on the podium flickered, throwing the pastor’s thin face into sharp relief. His hair flowed to his shoulders, wavy and dark. In the dim light, he could have been a medieval monk, his eyes burning with religious fervor. His black cloak was tied at his throat. He raised his arms, the folds settling like wings at his sides.

I realized my mouth was hanging open. I closed it, wondering if the college’s administration knew how their campus chaplain was conducting memorial services. I shrugged. It wasn’t a religious college. The administration could simply turn a blind eye, happy the students received some form of pastoral services.

“Crystal Monroe is dead, murdered by an unknown assailant.” His voice was solemn, deep with grief and unhappiness. “The killer provided her with her ticket to Paradise.” The pastor talked about the dead girl’s impoverished childhood on the Ohio River, toiling in the sandy fields under the hot Kentucky sun alongside several generations of her family. He also talked about her studies at the college and her plans to be an interior designer. He didn’t refer to notes.

I tuned out the pastor’s words, silently mourning the loss of life and potential. Crystal had been difficult, argumentative, and confrontational. Time and experience could have softened her rough edges, teaching her empathy and kindness. Her murder had frozen her last acts in a form of stasis, taking away the chance for change. Becca was impacted as well, her own hostility and violent outburst entwined with her last memories of the dead girl, with no possibility of reconciliation. Years into the future, Becca might remember Crystal with feelings of regret, and perhaps, even shame.

Creepy organ music filled the small building. As the sound swelled, three women danced between the pulpit and the front pew. As they leaped with the grace of slim ballerinas, their long, filmy dresses whirled with their movements. They could have been young vampires, dancing for their dark, cloaked master.

The pastor bounded from the pulpit. He waved a torch behind the dancing ladies, punctuating their leaps with sweeps of orange flame. The organ music crashed in a final crescendo of power.

I shivered as I descended the stone steps in front of the chapel. I pulled my winter coat closer, realizing I wasn’t merely cold. I was seriously creeped out by the nontraditional pastor and his backup dancers. I automatically stepped along the sidewalk, crunching the last of the leaves in beautiful golden, red, and russet hues, and wondered about the strange service, and even stranger clergyman. I jerked in surprise when a tall figure blocked my path.

Ignoring the students veering off the sidewalk and into the dead grass and fallen leaves to get around him, the man held up one hand. “Macey Malloy?”

“Yes. What do you want?” Inwardly, I cringed. He looked vaguely familiar. I hoped he wasn’t the father of the dead girl, seeking comfort or a connection with me, his daughter’s supervisor.

“Why are you so defensive?” He raised his dark brows. “I need to ask you a few questions.”

Belatedly, I recognized him. Chief Zach Pickering was the head of the campus Police Department. Over the past year, I’d seen the handsome chief at various open forums, as well as on televised and streamed news conferences, usually after shocking incidents of violence on campus. After Crystal’s murder, I’d watched and listened as he’d addressed the shaken students in the auditorium. His solemn face and his hunter green uniform trimmed in gold had reflected both the private college’s school colors, and concern for the students. When I’d sighted him at a distance on campus, I’d felt his sizzling, almost animal attraction. I hadn’t imagined a face-to-face encounter under these circumstances.

“Ms. Malloy, Crystal Monroe worked for you before she was brutally strangled.” The lawman waited, his dark gaze fixed on my face. His black overcoat flapped in the wind, revealing his expensive dark suit and tie.

“I don’t like your tone,” I informed him. I wondered if he expected me to confess to the teen’s vicious killing. He didn’t seem as handsome now as he had in the auditorium.

“And I don’t care.” The police chief pulled his tablet out of his overcoat pocket. “There are red flags in your background, including your college roommate’s sudden, suspicious death nine years ago.”

The world tilted on its axis. I couldn’t let this man dig into my past. I opened my mouth, determined to allay his suspicions but not sure how.

“You don’t have a social media presence,” the chief continued, his thick fingers moving over the tablet. “Everyone your age posts pictures of themselves, their location at every moment of the day, inane comments like ‘Running late for yoga,’ and their bowel habits. Why can’t I find your social media footprint? What are you hiding?”

“It’s not appropriate to question witnesses outside the campus chapel immediately after the victim’s memorial service.”

Startled by the voice so close to my ear, I jumped and clutched my chest over my racing heart. The clergyman had materialized next to me. He was younger than I’d thought as I’d sat in the chapel; I doubted if he was more than twenty-five years old. He’d anchored his long hair back into a messy tail, leaving the clean lines of his face exposed. It was as pale as the white clergy collar against his black clothing and cape, fluttering in the bone-chilling wind. Black liner curled around his eyes like insect legs, and his lips were stained blood red. He smiled, revealing abnormally long incisors. I wondered if he really was a vampire.

“Why are you asking questions?” The pastor had to tip his head back to meet the chief’s angry glare. Under the black cape, his wiry body was stiff with tension. “You’re the chief, which means you’re the Police Department’s figurehead. You portray the image of campus safety from the security of a podium or your desk, not by working criminal cases. You have a legion of minions for that.”

“Stay out of this, Bible Boy.” The chief didn’t look up from his tablet.

The lawman missed the flash of anger on the pastor’s face, but I didn’t. I also noticed the signs of genuine grief etched in the corners of the clergyman’s dark eyes and his full mouth. “You must have known Crystal,” I said.

He ignored me. “Chief Prick” —-the pastor coughed-— “ering, take your questions away from my chapel. You’re emitting negative energy and upsetting the students.”

Chief Prick? I was shocked the clergyman had resorted to juvenile name calling. Of course, given the showy memorial service, he wasn’t a traditional clergyman. I frowned as his last words penetrated my surprise. The students who’d attended the memorial had filed out before me. Now, I watched the people moving around us. It was finals week on campus, the last days of school before Christmas. Stress was stamped on the students’ faces and their hunched shoulders. Most were bent over their phones. They weren’t paying any attention to us, let alone absorbing negative energy. They had enough of their own.

“It’s Chief Pickering.” The chief focused his intimidating stare on the clergyman. In contrast to his media clips, the lawman’s heavy features were belligerent, rather than comforting. His body language was aggressive, rather than protecting and driven. He was more thug than policeman.

One corner of the pastor’s mouth quirked upward, as if he’d pulled off an impossible Hail Mary and scored the winning point of the championship game. He turned to me. “Father Tyler Wallace.” He executed a dramatic three-tiered bow, ending nearly at my feet.

“I’m Macey Malloy,” I said, fighting the temptation to return the bow. “That was an—unusual service, Father.” I tried to think of something nice to say. “Crystal would have enjoyed it,” I finally said, remembering the teen’s rave reviews of House of 1000 Corpses and her dream of marrying Rob Zombie . . . in spite of his wife.

Father Wallace nodded graciously. “I graduated from this college with my bachelor’s degree in Theater Arts.”

That explains the showmanship, I thought.

“I later obtained my master’s degree in Divinity at Stansbury College,” the clergyman added.

The chief laughed. “Stansbury College bought that old no-tell motel out on the highway. Did your professors use the closed-circuit television system? They say when occupants watched television in their own room, they saw what was going on in the next room.”

Ew. “What do you want, Chief Pickering?” I asked, trying to blot out the mental picture.

“Becca Taylor tried to kill Crystal Monroe during a meeting,” he said, “and you didn’t bother to call the campus police. If you had, that girl would still be alive.”

“Chief Pickering, Becca didn’t try to kill Crystal.” When he opened his mouth to protest, I held up one hand. Any lingering feelings of attraction evaporated with my rising anger. “I hired them to work in the Employee Relations Department during the fall semester. They got real-life job experience in their field of study, and I got dirt-cheap labor. From the day they started working together, Becca and Crystal clashed. I tried to resolve the situation, but I couldn’t. After the confrontation, I referred them both to the student counseling office. If I’d involved the police, they’d have been expelled from school with negative marks on their academic records.”

“Because of you, Crystal wound up with more than a permanent blotch on her school record.” The chief slid his tablet into his pocket and stalked away. He disappeared in the tide of students.

THREE

As the last rays of watery, winter sunshine faded, I stood in the cold outside Crystal’s dingy off-campus apartment building, wondering for the umpteenth time what I hoped to accomplish. I’d checked the dead girl’s employment application, and I’d plugged her address into my car’s GPS before I could change my mind.

Now that I was here, what could I do? Earlier, I’d made it into the lobby by following a resident through the outer door. I’d found her apartment, but Crystal’s door was locked. Rather than stand in the dim, chilly hallway, I’d gone back outside.

I pulled my scarf tighter around my face and huddled in my coat. Movement in my peripheral vision caught my attention. I whirled as a figure disappeared around the corner of Crystal’s apartment building. The man had danced across the dry grass, his long tail of hair bouncing against his back, and his black leather jacket flapping in the cold wind. He seemed familiar.

Danced! It was Father Tyler Wallace. Why was he skulking around Crystal’s apartment building? I remembered the grief etched in his face and his hostility toward Chief Pickering. The police chief was an ass, but Father Wallace’s reaction was extreme. What if the clergyman had killed Crystal? What if it hadn’t been grief in his face, but the fear of getting caught?

I was being ridiculous, I chided myself. I’d built a case against the pastor built on his facial expressions, his attitude toward the chief, and his unexpected presence at Crystal’s apartment building. He could have business, pastoral business, in the building. He was in a public service job, providing counseling to needy students—-

Counseling! In my brain, my suspicions and my inner scoffing collided. The traffic in my synapses was as snarled as Louisville’s notorious Spaghetti Junction during rush-hour traffic.

I slammed on the brakes, my thoughts crashing and burning in a huge pileup. I’d sent both Crystal and Becca to the student counseling center. I knew the center routinely referred students to the chaplain’s office for further help and support.

My doubts evaporated. Father Wallace had returned to Crystal’s apartment building to erase any clues to his guilt. He could have dropped something, an object not easily traced to him that he had to retrieve before the police could figure out the connection.

I had to get in the building and stop the murdering pastor. I tugged my phone from my coat pocket. I started to dial 911. No. I broke the connection. He’d be gone before the police could respond. I had to get inside. Could I trick the building supervisor into unlocking Crystal’s door for me? Was it illegal to use a ruse to get inside?

Chief Pickering would love the opportunity to arrest me. I shuddered, and not from the cold. His reaction to me outside the chapel had seemed off-key. He was holding me accountable for the teen’s death, morally, if not legally. In hindsight, I regretted not reporting the confrontation between Crystal and Becca, but I’d also learned through the grapevine that Becca had an airtight alibi for the time period around Crystal’s death. Even if I’d reported it, I didn’t think it would have made a difference.

As I stared at Crystal’s windows, a light flashed on and off. I blinked, wondering if I’d imagined it. I saw another flash, quickly extinguished. I hurried to the outside door. In front of me, a woman bent over the lobby door, jangling keys. I slipped inside right behind her.

The hall was deserted. I touched Crystal’s doorknob. It turned under my gloved fingers.

FOUR

“Chief Pickering, what are you doing here?” My heart was still thumping like a wild thing in my chest.

The police chief stood over the dead girl’s things, her dresser drawers pulled open and her clothes strewn around the messy studio apartment. “I’m investigating her murder.” He faced me, his hands clutching filmy clothing.

A noise at the apartment door caused me to pivot. A large doggy door at the bottom opened. A black animal wriggled through the opening. “Is that a cat?” I approached. “He’s as large as a panther cub.” I bent over and stretched a hand to the cat.

The cat regally bent his head to sniff my fingers. He swaggered across the room. Each paw communicating attitude with a capital A, he was in charge. He stopped at Chief Pickering’s feet. He craned his neck and meowed, the rough sound a demand. He slowly reared up on his hind legs and dipped a huge front paw into the chief’s overcoat pocket. He withdrew an object and dropped it to the floor. He settled on his huge haunches and bit into it.

“Is that a cat treat?” I reached for the tag on the cat’s collar. “His name is Wicked, and he belongs—belonged—to Crystal Monroe.” I frowned and tilted my head to meet the lawman’s eyes. He flushed and looked away. “Chief Pickering, the cat knows you.”

“What?” The chief’s laugh was unconvincing. “I didn’t know Crystal or her cat. She was merely one of a horde of incoming freshman students.”

“The cat knew you had treats in your pocket. Crystal had a secret lover on campus, an older man in a position of power. You must be fifty years old. She was only nineteen—”

“Fifty!” His chest puffed in outrage, and his face reddened. “I’m only forty-nine!”

Wicked bumped my leg with his huge head. When I looked down, he lunged and growled at the police chief. He skittered sideways, puffing up, and his golden eyes round, with the pupils dilating. He hissed.

“What are trying to tell me, Wicked?” I sucked in a shocked breath. “Chief Pickering, you killed Crystal. Why? Were you afraid she’d tell people about your affair?”

“I had to kill her.” He was less upset about the murder than the age estimation. He moved toward me, still holding the gauzy material. “I told Crystal up front that the fling was just for fun. But the girl claimed she loved me. She wanted to go public, but I couldn’t let her. I’m in the running for the police chief job in Louisville. It means more money and power. She’d have ruined everything.” He pulled the fabric taut in his hands, testing its strength.

Keeping his wide body low to the ground, Wicked slinked, putting himself between me and the chief.

“Don’t come any closer,” I warned. “I’ll scream.”

He stuffed the fabric in his pocket, leaving an end trailing. “I want to date you, not kill you.” He sidled closer. His lips twisted in the parody of a flirtatious smile, but his eyes were as cold and empty as the morgue drawer waiting for my body. “You’re very attractive, Macey. Your eyes are dark and full of secrets, as well as surprises. I can tell you like me.”

My skin crawled. How could I ever have found him attractive? I shuddered. Now what? Pickering was going to kill me unless a miracle happened. I glanced at Wicked.

The cat seemed to catch my panicked gaze, as if he were trying to tell me something. He rolled his golden eyes and streaked to the door. He yowled.

The apartment door flew open. Father Tyler Wallace took in the situation at a glance. “I called 911.”

Chief Pickering pushed his coat aside and jerked a handgun free of its holster. It wavered between me and the clergyman. “You’ll both be dead before the police get here. I’ll tell them that Wallace admitted he’d strangled Crystal. He and I struggled with my gun, and he shot you, Macey. Easy peasy.”

Father Wallace stepped to the side, revealing two city police officers. “I didn’t say when I called 911.”

Chief Pickering forced a laugh as the grim officers approached him. “This is all a misunderstanding. I was telling them about a movie idea I have, based on Crystal’s death.” His eyes rolled. “Father Wallace has a degree in Theater Arts. I was consulting him.”

The officers closed in on Chief Pickering. When the head of the campus Police Department shrank from them, one of the officers patted his shoulder. “Come on, Pickering. We’ll just run to the station to get the facts on the record.”

The other officer looked from Father Wallace to me. He shook his head in regret. “Pickering will stick with his movie idea to excuse what he said. We need more.”

Pickering twisted away from the officers. “Idle talk, that’s all. This has been great fun, not to mention colorful background for the movie, but I have to get back to campus.”

“Wait,” I said. I dug around in my head, desperate for an idea. I came up empty.

Wicked leaped to his litterbox. I was surprised I hadn’t noticed it earlier. It was nearly the size of a claw-footed bathtub and took up the entire corner of the tiny apartment. I glanced at the cat. Given his size, Crystal had probably needed a snow shovel and industrial-sized leaf bags to take care of his waste. The cat emerged from the box with something dangling from his mouth.

I reached for the object. It was a flash drive on a chain.

“I met Crystal when she showed up at one of my support group meetings.” Father Wallace took the flash drive from me. “She’d seen my poster at the student counseling center. She told the group that she’d secretly recorded her sexual encounters with a man. She kept the recordings, intending to use them to keep him in line, but she was afraid to tell him that she had them.”

I glanced at Pickering. His avid gaze was fixed on the flash drive. He bent, as if to scratch his ankle. He straightened up, a small weapon clutched in his fingers.

“He has a gun!” I screamed.

Time seemed to slow down as I realized Pickering had to risk everything to get the incriminating flash drive. His face twisted in rage and hate, the chief was raising his weapon. The officers were reaching for their weapons, fumbling with the snaps. Father Wallace pushed me to the side, placing his thin body between Pickering and me.

The officers were not going to be in time to stop the chief.

A black blur flew through the air. It crashed into Pickering’s arm. He dropped the gun. One of the officers lunged for it, while the other policeman grabbed the chief.

FIVE

One of the officers handcuffed Pickering. Ignoring his guttural, incoherent protests, the officer stoically recited the chief’s rights.

I huddled on the lumpy couch next to Father Wallace, glad of his warmth. I cringed when the other officer loomed over me.

I straightened up, sorry to leave the comforting strength of the clergyman’s arm. “Yes,” I said, bracing myself for difficult questions. I had an irrational fear that the officer would ask me if I had felt attracted to the murderous police chief. Would it be perjury if I lied? Would he arrest me if I said no? Hysterical laughter bubbled in my chest.

“Why did the three wise men have ashes on their feet?” The officer glared at me, waiting for my answer.

“What?” I rose to my feet. I swayed like it was near closing time on ladies’ night. What did the question have to do with the murder? Was it a trick question?

“Because they came from afar,” the other officer answered, his fingers clamped on Pickering’s shoulder. Both officers laughed their heads off as they escorted the handcuffed chief from the apartment.

Father Wallace put his arm around my shoulders. “The officer was making a joke,” he explained. “Many Kentucky natives pronounce ‘fire’ like ‘far,’ so the reference to ashes on the wise men’s feet is funny.” He gently shook me. “Get it?”

My eyes filled with tears.

The clergyman touched my cheek. “The police have a very stressful job. Sometimes they use ‘gallows humor’ to help them cope. I’m sorry you’re upset.”

My cheek tingled under his gentle fingers, the sensation filling my chest and gut, curling with desire. His handsome face was very close, his dark eyes intent. I sucked in a breath with the epiphany: I was attracted to the clergyman. The lines and planes of his face were striking, his body lithe and fit as a runner, and he was compassionate. His sincere grief for a troubled girl had led him to investigate her murder.

I threw the brakes on my racing thoughts. My hidden past loomed over my present and future. I had a strong feeling this man was not available for a casual relationship. I couldn’t let him or anyone into my life for a real relationship, and I sensed he wouldn’t settle for less.

I forced back the tears and stepped away from him. “What denomination are you, Father Wallace?” I asked, eager to distract myself from my thoughts, as well as put distance between us. “Episcopalian?” I’d read that they were fairly liberal, but would they allow the pyrotechnics during a memorial service?

“I’m nondenominational,” Father Wallace replied, his mouth curving in self-deprecating humor as if he’d read my thoughts. “Please call me Tyler. Mine is a more laissez-faire approach, rather than a rigid religion based on rules.”

“The college’s administration is pretty conservative. They let you put on a show rather than requiring you to follow a more traditional path?” I winced, thinking I’d been too blunt.

“My surveys of the student population show a positive relationship between student retention and religious engagement.” Tyler shrugged. “The administration wants students to stay until they graduate. They even gave me a special effects budget.”

Tyler pursed his lips as he stared at the cat. “The feline has a great sense of showmanship. He flew through the air, stopping the chief in the nick of time. How could he have known to knock the gun from the murderer’s hand? I wonder if the cat had divine stage direction,” he added softly.

“You shouldn’t have thrown yourself between me and the chief’s gun. If he’d fired, the bullet would have passed through you. There’d have been two tickets to Paradise.” My knees suddenly weak, I sank to the floor. Wicked moved into my lap. His paws pressed into me, his weight comforting. He raised his head and licked my face. I hadn’t realized I was crying until he licked away the tears. I touched his soft, thick fur. I felt his big body vibrate with his purr.

His thin face soft with compassion, Tyler touched my shoulder. He reached for Wicked’s collar. “With Crystal gone, he’ll need a new home.” He unfastened it and glanced at the tag. “I don’t think the name Wicked fits him, do you, Macey?”

My shoulder tingled where Tyler’s hand had briefly rested. I resisted the temptation to touch the spot. My heart melted as I stared in his face, appreciating the clean lines and well-shaped mouth. I ordered my treacherous heart to shape up or ship out, not dwelling on where it would leave me if it chose the latter action. I’d already reminded myself that I had too many secrets, none of which I could share with this intuitive and intelligent man. I shored up my internal arguments with the age difference. Tyler was at least five years younger than me, perhaps as much as seven years. I glanced down at Wicked. In dog years, I was nearly a half century older than the handsome man. Talk about a freaking cougar; I’d qualify for mountain lion status if I acted on the attraction.

Holding the cat’s tag, Tyler waited.

Who was I kidding? It wasn’t the age difference. The problem was my past. I couldn’t change it, only hide it. I ruthlessly squashed my feelings of attraction and turned my attention to the cat in my lap. I frowned. There was something in the cat’s fur. I inspected my hand. Tentatively, I brought my wet fingers to my nose. “When he knocked the gun out of Pickering’s hand, he must have overturned an open soda can.” I cuddled the cat, parts of him oozing over my thighs. “You’re sticky, Wicked.”

“Sticky wicket.” Tyler smiled, the angles of his face softening in humor. “I have a feeling you’ll find lots of those with that cat.”

“What? You’re talking like he’s leaving with me. I can’t take a cat,” I protested. “I work long hours, I think my lease forbids it, and—-”

The cat relaxed, his weight heavy against my body. He raised a paw and gently patted my cheek, his golden eyes on mine. A tension I didn’t realize I carried eased a bit. Without warning, I wanted this cat with a deep longing that filled my heart.

“You need him,” the clergyman insisted gently, as if he’d read my thoughts. “The chief was right about one thing. You’re hiding something in your past. I’d go further and say you’re running from it, Macey. You don’t make friends, because friendship implies give and take. You won’t take, because you can’t give.”

The traffic sounds were muted. In the hallway outside the apartment, a door slammed. “I live my life my way,” I finally said.

“No, Macey, you’re allowing your past to define your present and your future,” he said softly. His dark eyes heated, warm with male appreciation. “That’s not a choice, it’s a default.”

Tyler was attracted to me, I thought with an inner jolt. He was also correct. I had no intention of telling him that he was right . . . or of acting on my own shiver of awareness of him. I stared down at the cat. “Sticky wicket,” I said, repeating his earlier words. I gazed up at the clergyman. “I’ll call him Wikket.”

Tyler nodded approvingly. “I like it.”

“But what about Crystal’s family? Won’t they insist on taking him?” I held my breath.

“Her family said he’s a brave and devoted cat. But he’s also headstrong and grumpy. The vet in Crystal’s hometown barred him from the clinic. The family asked me to find a home for him.” He touched my cheek, his fingers warm and gentle. “Wikket found his new home all by himself.”

The cat growled. He swiped a huge paw at Tyler’s fingers. Cursing with unexpected fluency for a man of the cloth, the clergyman drew back.

I watched drops of blood hit the floor. “Sticky wicket, indeed.” I sighed and moved the cat off my lap. “Let’s find the first-aid kit.”
I glanced over my shoulder at Wikket. I could have sworn the cat nodded his huge head in satisfaction.

Did You Enjoy Two Tickets to Pardise?

Two Tickets to Pardise kicked off Macey Malloy’s adventures with her crime-sovling cat.

Their adventures continue in Take the Body and Run.The Kindle Scout winner is about a hunted woman, a handsome lawman, a have fart machine-will travel doctor, and a crime-solving cat.

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Take the Body and Run FREE OPTIONS

The book is FREE through two options:

ONE: Amazon’s Prime Reading benefit is free for US and UK readers:
US: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01HC30YG2
UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B01HC30YG2

OR

TWO: Get the book free through Kindle Unlimited:
KU: http://viewbook.at/TaketheBodyandRun

Don’t Have Prime Reading or Kindle Unlimited?

The book is on sale for 99 cents for US readers only (limited time):

US Readers 99 Cents: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01HC30YG2

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Macey Malloy Series Reading Order

Macey Malloy and her grumpy cat Wikket first appeared in Take the Body and Run.

★★★★★
“TAKE THE BODY AND RUN is a fast-paced ride with a sparkling character and written in a new, original voice. This is a don’t-miss debut.”
-Carolyn Haines, USA Today bestselling author of Pluto’s Snitch and Sarah Booth Delaney

The series is fun to read in any order.

#0 – Prequel: Two Tickets to Paradise

Macey risks her life when she’s embroiled in a brutal murder, and meets her feline, crime-solving partner.

It’s FREE on my website (just scroll up to the top). It’s also included in Gone Cat and Other Stories.

#1 – Take the Body and Run – FREE Prime (US/UK) – FREE Kindle Unlimited – On Sale (US) for 99 Cents (Limited Time)

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The Kindle Scout winner is a “goofy thriller” about a hunted woman, a handsome lawman, a have fart machine-will travel doctor, and a crime-solving cat.

http://viewbook.at/TaketheBodyandRun

#2 – Take a Walk on the Dead Side – FREE August 12 – August 16, 2018 – Always FREE on Kindle Unlimited

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Macey and Wikket, her crabby cat with a nose for crime, plunge headlong into danger when a stalker targets an innocent college student. Terrified for the girl, Macey tries to help her, only to be trapped in the web of deceit with tangled links to missing women.

http://mybook.to/TakeaWalkontheDeadSide

#3: Take Her to the River

Take Her to the River Paperback-Final Revised

Macey has to keep her job, solve a murder, and find her missing friend, Leila. The investigation hurtles Macey and Wikket into a desperate killer’s path. Will they survive, even with Wikket’s unusual brand of help?

http://mybook.to/TakeHertotheRiver

#4: Gone Cat and Other Stories

In the prequel novelette Two Tickets to Paradise, Macey risks her life when she’s embroiled in a brutal murder and meets her feline, crime-solving partner. The novella Runnin’ with the Devil Cat resumes the story right after Take Her to the River. The action continues with the short story “What the Cat Dragged In,” and the novelettes Cat Scratch Fever and Gone Cat.

http://mybook.to/GoneCat

Feel Free to Contact Me

Email: jada_ryker@yahoo.com

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/jada.ryker.author

Twitter: @JadaRyker

To get updates on my books from Amazon: Click the link below. Then click the gold Follow button under my picture.

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