For the Birds:Rose Gardner Investigations #2(2)

By: Denise Grover Swank

Joe turned back to Mikey and gave him an intent look. “What do you say, big guy? Ice cream?”

Mikey nodded and shoved the bear at his sister, who clutched it to her chest and buried her face into it.

“I’m not sure I should ask,” Joe said, “but how’s babysitting going?”

I laughed. “Pretty much what you’re seeing. Lots of crying and obstinance.”

Joe grinned. “And how are the kids doin’?”

“Ha. Ha.” I swatted his shoulder. “You think you’re so funny.”

Joe turned to Ashley. “I am funny, aren’t I?”

She slowly shook her head. “No, Uncle Joe,” she said, her tone solemn.

He laughed. “No? Then it’s obvious you haven’t spent enough time with me lately.”

Just as obvious that they hadn’t spent enough time with me. Or their mother. In any case, they were here now, and I was pretty sure they were acting out due to nerves.

Ashley’s mouth tipped down. “My mommy’s coming home today.”

If Joe was surprised by her subdued tone, he didn’t let on. “She’s been gone a long time, huh?”

She nodded, then just as quickly gave Joe a pouty face. “Can I get ice cream too, Uncle Joe?”

Joe grabbed her and pulled her into a hug, tickling her belly. “You could have had ice cream if you’d said I was funny. Now . . .”

She squealed and giggled, and then Mikey felt left out and grabbed Joe’s leg, and Joe scooped him up into his other arm.

A wave of nostalgia washed through me, and I caught Joe’s equally subdued gaze. He’d always been amazing with my niece and nephew when we were together. But Joe had more cause to be melancholy than I did. As obvious as it was that he’d make a great father, over the past year and a half he’d lost two babies by two different women . . . and neither one of them had been me. My niece and nephew were no doubt a bitter reminder of what could have been.

But as quickly as his sadness appeared, he pushed it away and flashed a smile. “Aunt Rose,” Joe said, “can you leave the office to go get ice cream?”

I grimaced. “Can you either take the kids or bring the ice cream back to them? I’d like to call Neely Kate. She’s still not back yet.”

Joe’s jovial expression slid right off his face, concern filling his eyes. “Where’d she go?”

“She was going to talk to a potential client about a design, but she should have been back by now.”

His eyes shuttered, and he was Chief Deputy Simmons now. “How long ago was she supposed to be back?”

After finding out that Neely Kate was his half sister in February, Joe had taken his new role as a brother to heart.

“An hour ago,” I said, waving him off. “I’m sure it’s nothin’.”

“Not necessarily.” He set both kids on the floor and stood, walking over to me. “That’s why I’m here. To find out what you know about what’s goin’ on in the criminal world.”

The hair on the back of my neck stood on end.

“I know you’ve had ties to Skeeter Malcolm,” he added.

I crossed my arms over my chest. “That was in the past.”

His eyebrows rose as his gaze pierced mine. “Rumor has it you had dealings in the criminal world only a few weeks ago.”

My mouth dropped open. “And what do you know about that?”

“I know that you took a meeting with Malcolm, Wagner, and Reynolds at the Putnam Industrial Park.”

I tried to hide my surprise. The only way he could know about that meeting was if someone had talked. I’d bet my farm that it hadn’t been one of James Malcolm’s men, but I didn’t trust Buck Reynolds or Kip Wagner any farther than I could throw them. Still, if Joe knew about it, I saw no reason to hide it from him. “I did.”

“As the Lady in Black.” It wasn’t a question.

“I was doing my part as a concerned citizen to keep peace in this county.”

His lips pressed together in a tight line, and several seconds passed before he said, “You have to see that you’re playin’ with fire.”

“I’m not playin’ with anything anymore,” I said with a hint of attitude. “I’m done with that world.”

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