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The Belle and the Beard
Author: Kate Canterbary








To be clear, I never truly believed she was breaking into the house.

Anyone would have questions if they saw a strange woman walking up to a vacant house with a crowbar and power drill in hand. I was reasonably curious about the situation.

But I didn't assume she was a burglar. I didn't assume a damn thing. I just wanted to know what was going on over there.

If there was anyone guilty of assumptions, it was my brother. Ash reveled in figuring everything out before anyone else. Big on having the right answer, he was.

"There's a person breaking into the house next door," he called from the front door in lieu of any proper greeting. "Were you aware of that?"

I didn't look up from the newspaper. It didn't hold much of my interest but the meeting I was about to have with my brother promised to hold even less. "Was I aware of an in-progress felony? No."

Ash set his laptop bag on the chair across from me at the kitchen table and gave me a slow-blinking stare that explained he didn't appreciate my response. Even if I hadn't known him for the past thirty-six years, I would've known that. My older (by twenty-nine minutes) brother was an easy read.

"I don't appreciate that response." He glared at me as he rounded the table and selected a glass from the cabinet. "Anyway, don't you think we should check it out?"

"And skip our monthly discussion of my business accounts?" I closed the newspaper, folded it in half. There was nothing going on next door. Nothing ever went on over there, not anymore. "I didn't realize your brain knew how to generate that as an option."

He elbowed the refrigerator shut as he shook a bottle of cold brew coffee. "We'd check out the crime in progress first, review your statements after. Obviously."

"Obviously." I pushed away from the table, strolled to the front window to get a better look at the alleged burglar.

The bungalow next door, the only other house at the bottom of this dead-end street tucked into a shady edge of Wompatuck State Park, looked as forgotten as it'd been for a couple of years, since Maureen "Midge" Misselbush passed away. The paint was peeling and the wood trim was surrendering to woodpeckers and rot. On the opposite side, the back door had been boarded up since a tropical storm that blew through last year left the glass shattered. The curtains were drawn and the windows gave off the dim, milky haze of abandonment. Save for the diehard hydrangea bushes and several trees now sliding into the gilt of autumn, the place was a ghost town.

Midge would've hated that. She would've been out there on her rickety, rusty ladder, scraping away the paint and then sampling ten or twelve new colors before banging on my door to announce she was sticking with the same "good old-fashioned gray" she'd always used.

I didn't see anyone though I couldn't get a good look at the front door from this angle. The car parked half in the driveway, half in the street, coupled with the broad daylight, suggested this burglar wasn't aiming for stealth. More than likely it wasn't a burglar at all. Probably a salesperson or someone following bad directions. Maybe a mixed-up address issue. No one veered down the dogleg bend of this street otherwise.

See? No assumptions. Never did I assume.

"Since when does anyone use an old-as-stones Volvo station wagon as a getaway car?" I asked.

Ash came up beside me, iced coffee in hand. "Valid point." He jerked a shoulder up. "Still strange. Definitely looked like that person was trying to get the door open."

We stood together, staring at an empty house and a parked car, and said nothing for a minute or two.

"How long has it been? That it's been vacant?" he asked.

"About two years."

"Long time."

I nodded. Midge didn't have much family and they didn't live here in New England but it annoyed the shit out of me they hadn't bothered to visit since her death. Hell, I'd been the one to board up that back door after the storm.

"I wonder who is paying the property taxes." Ash would wonder this. That sort of thing dawned on him. It did not dawn on me. "Probably the estate. Do you know who the executor is?"

I shook my head. "Nope."

"Nothing's happening here. No breaking and entering, no robbery. I don't have time to watch the grass grow. Let's deal with your finances."

Staring out the window while waiting for nothing to happen was far preferable to any discussion of finances, ever. Even with my brother, the accountant. I knew it was a privilege to say I didn't care about money and I was fortunate the demand for arborists was reaching all-time highs but having a booming business didn't mean I wanted to talk about business. "Can you give me the quick rundown and call it a day?"

"I mean, yes, of course, I can. As always, I'd rather you know something about your most recent profit and loss—"

"Because you think I'll do something with that information?"

Ash ran a hand down his face. I smothered a laugh. I hated talking business but I loved the opportunity to bust my brother's balls. As the youngest of a set of triplets, it was one of the few privileges bestowed upon me. It was my birthright to rile up Ash and our sister Magnolia every chance I got, regardless of our age.

"Will you alter your day-to-day work as a result of last month's P&L? No. Your overhead is extremely low and your revenue streams are stable, which makes a fine case for keeping your focus on the tree doctoring rather than the accounting."

"I enjoy when you make my arguments for me," I said.

"Will you take last month's P&L as further evidence that you should consider Magnolia's partnership proposal which would open you up to greater—"

"Hold that thought."

My hands braced on the window frame, I leaned toward the glass to watch a white woman walking toward the Volvo. But to say she was simply walking was a gross understatement. This was striding, each step purposeful and sharp, as if she wanted the earth to know she wasn't about to repeat herself. Energy radiated from her, far from warm but not exactly cold either, and it was clear she could stomp one of those pretty high-heeled shoes, crack open a chasm deep enough to fully digest those who got in her way, and be finished with them without getting so much as a smudge of dirt on her hands.

I couldn't tell you the color of her hair or eyes, or anything about her body, but I knew everything about her from the way she walked.

And that did something to me. Something I couldn't explain. I couldn't even begin to examine the rattling, rumbling hum it ignited inside me.

I gestured toward the woman. She wore a dress that looked like an artifact from the 1950s. "Is that your burglar?"

"I think so."

Jabbing a finger in her direction, I continued, "What kind of burglar is that?"

"I'll admit she appears to be an unorthodox burglar." He edged closer, his shoulder bumping mine as he shifted. "What is she carrying? Is that a tire iron?"

"No, that's a crowbar and—oh, for fuck's sake—a power drill." I took a step back, reached for the doorknob. "Let's go. Come on. Let's see what this is all about."

My brother fell in step with me as we reached the end of the driveway where a dense row of roses separated my property from Midge's. "What's the plan here?" he murmured, still clutching his iced coffee.

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