“He likes my body heat.” Mac held the snake toward Stella. “Want to pet him?”
She didn’t. Not. One. Bit. But the pride on Carson’s face made her feel like a slug for frightening him. This little boy had lost both his parents the year before. The least she could do was make him happy. And Mac’s grin was challenge enough.
“He’s not venomous,” Carson encouraged. “We only have three kinds of venomous snakes in New York: timber rattlers, copperheads, and the . . . What’s the other one, Uncle Mac?”
“Right.” Carson repeated the name one syllable at a time. “This is a milk snake. He won’t bite.”
Stella plastered a smile on her face, clamped her teeth together, and lifted her hand. Where to touch it? Venomous or not, she wasn’t going anywhere near its mouth. She settled on the tail and touched it with just the tips of her fingers. The skin felt like bumpy plastic. It didn’t move, but she thought three strokes were enough to satisfy Carson. The snake hadn’t been moist or dirty, but she wiped her hand on her slacks anyway.
Mac grinned, then cleared his throat and worked hard to straighten his face.
“Can I keep him?” Carson gently unwound the animal from Mac’s hand. It immediately curled around his arm. “My friend Bobby’s dad has a python he keeps in a fish tank.”
“Do you really think he’d be happy in a fish tank when he’s used to living out here?” Mac gestured to the woods behind the house.
“I guess not.” Carson sighed. “I’ll put him back in the meadow where I found him after I show him to Aunt Hannah.” He gave Stella a knowing look that said she hadn’t fooled him. “She likes snakes.”
Mac smiled. “Good decision and definitely what’s best for the snake.”
“You said we shouldn’t disturb the e-co-system if we don’t have to.” The boy whirled and bolted for the woods. Barking, AnnaBelle raced behind him.
Mac turned and took her hand. “Thanks for touching that snake when you clearly didn’t want to.”
“Snakes aren’t my thing, but I didn’t want him to be upset.”
“And I appreciate it.” Mac stepped closer. “You don’t like spiders or snakes. Didn’t you spend any time in the woods when you were a kid?”
“No. I grew up in Brooklyn. We didn’t move here until I was a teenager.”
“I could teach you to love camping.” His gaze dropped to her mouth.
God, she wanted him to kiss her. “Maybe you can.”
A car door slammed, and Mac moved backward. Damn.
She never tired of him kissing her. She might even let him take her camping.
A minivan had parked in the driveway not twenty feet away. How had Stella not noticed? She’d been too focused on Mac, that’s how.
Grant’s fiancée, Ellie, opened the vehicle’s sliding door and lifted a wiggling toddler to the ground. “Ready?” she called to Mac.
Mac crouched and spread his arms wide.
Ellie released the child. Chubby legs churned as she sprinted for him. He scooped her up and gave her a smacking kiss on the cheek. Looping her hands around his neck, she returned the gesture. The front door opened, and Grant stepped out onto the porch.
“Down.” Faith wiggled, and Mac set her on the ground. The second her bare feet touched the grass, she shot off for Grant.
“Hi, Mac. Hi, Stella.” Ellie closed the van door. She held a reusable grocery bag in one hand. “Come on in.”
Mac reached for the bag.
Ellie shook her head and kissed him on the cheek. “I’ve got it. But if you don’t mind, you could round up Carson and hose him off for dinner.”
“We’re on it.” Mac said.
Ellie walked up the steps and disappeared inside.
Mac lowered his head and pressed his lips to Stella’s. The kiss was sweet and as warm as the sun on her hair. His hand settled on the small of her back. Gentle pressure urged her hips closer to his.
“Ew.” Carson’s disgusted voice broke the spell.
Mac lifted his mouth from hers, and the smile that spread across his face was full of promise. “To be continued.” He glanced at his nephew. “Without an audience.”
“Come on, Uncle Mac. Nan made blueberry pie, but we hafta eat dinner first.” Carson grabbed Mac’s hand and pulled, leaning into the gesture with impatience. “We’re going to see the fireworks later.”
As Ellie predicted, the boy required a thorough hosing before they went inside.
“I’ll take care of this.” Mac led the boy to the side of the yard, where the hose lay on the grass.
Stella went up onto the deck.
Brody lay on a chaise, his bandaged leg elevated on a pillow but otherwise looking good. “The case is all tied up?”
Stella sat down facing him. “Pretty much. Forensics found more than enough physical evidence in Josh Randolph’s house. Photos of Missy and Dena. Detailed records of his so-called experiments with them. He designed each girl’s torture specifically to hone in on her personal weaknesses. He had counseled both of them. He used everything they’d told him against them. He turned Missy’s cutting against her, and broke Dena’s fingers like Adam broke her bones.”
“Too bad New York doesn’t have the death penalty.” Wincing, Brody pressed a hand to the bandage under his arm and shifted his weight.
“I read his notes. I expect he’ll spend the rest of his life in a padded room while doctors stare at him through a tiny window.” Stella shivered. “When we originally interviewed him, he said his brother had fought mental illness all his life. That wasn’t reality. Lucas was a star athlete and a top student. He had everything going for him. His death was an accidental overdose. Josh, on the other hand, struggled through his teen years. Clearly he was the one with the mental illness.”
Josh’s interviews had been disturbing.
“We found pictures of his brother and his girlfriend in Josh’s office. The girlfriend was wearing a pale blue scarf in many of the photos.” Stella tilted her head back. The heat of the sun warmed her face.
“Do they know what sparked his killing spree?” Brody asked. “Why did he kill Missy?”
“It was the Simmons case. That newscaster Gary Simmons had been a patient at New Hope. When he got behind the wheel of his Escapade under the influence and rammed it into that minivan full of children, Josh lost it. He felt guilty for not curing him and angry at Simmons for being weak.”
“But he only killed Missy and Dena?” Brody asked. “What happened to Janelle Hall?”
“She came home after a few days. The idea of running away had been more attractive than the reality.” Stella watched Mac spray Carson’s feet with a hose. “We didn’t find any other bodies at Josh’s house.”
“He didn’t hide Missy or Dena.” Brody stretched.
“No, he wanted us to know what he had done. Maybe deep down he wanted us to stop him.” Stella sighed. “He claims he did it all for the overall good. To find a way to really beat addiction. To stop those he deemed unable to be fully recovered and prevent them from harming others.”
Brody snorted. “Or he just lost his shit.”
Brody scratched the edge of his bandage. “So Spivak was helping his buddy manufacture explosives. Did he ever say why he was at the church that night?”
“Spivak is not cooperative, but one of the members came forward and said he’d been stalking her. They’d dated a few times and he’d gotten rough. She called it off, but he wouldn’t leave her alone.”
“What about Adam Miller?” Brody asked.
“He might not have killed his wife, but he wasn’t innocent. In the trunk of Missy’s car, forensics found a gym bag with several changes of clothes, a disposable cell phone, and a wig. There was also a fake Florida driver’s license with Dena’s picture on it. She was planning her escape, and Missy was helping her.”
“What a shame she didn’t leave the week before.” Hannah said, rubbing Brody’s shoulder.
He took her hand and squeezed it. “What a shame we can’t prove anything.”
“We’ll be watching him. If he sneezes in the wrong place . . .” Stella promised. There was no such thing as a happy ending in a murder case, but she hated having a loose end.
“Did you pass your pistol qualification?” Brody asked.
“Yesterday.” Stella was glad to have that behind her. It hadn’t been her best performance, but she’d gotten through it.
The hose shut off with a squeak. Dripping, Carson raced across the deck and into the back door. Mac dried his hands on his thighs and sat next to Stella.
Hannah greeted Mac with a kiss on the cheek and hugged Stella. She waggled her eyebrows at her brother.
Mac shook his head. “Don’t start.”
“Don’t start what?” Hannah handed them each a glass of iced tea.
Stella took the drink, condensation coated the outside of the glass. Mac sat next to her and wrapped an arm around her shoulders.
“Dinner!” Ellie called from the doorway.
Mac helped Brody inside. Twenty minutes later, the platters were picked over, and Stella’s belly was full. She leaned back, almost appalled at how much she’d eaten.
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