The mud brown scent of the river hung in Chelsea’s nose. It had taken the better part of an hour to fish the nix out of the Hudson and chop it into chum. Then they had had to dump it back in the water.
Arms sore and feet heavy, Chelsea stumbled in the door of her rented cabin, only to be knocked to the floor by Bentley.
She grabbed the huge mutt in a hug. “I’m okay, Bent.” He licked at her face and wiggled around, almost too excited for pets.
Behind her, Andy chuckled. “Always nice to have someone to come home to, huh?”
She accepted his hand getting to her feet. “He’s not used to being left behind, but dogs and boats don’t mix when it comes to hunting.”
Andy sauntered to the couch as she opened the door to let Bentley out. He wouldn’t go beyond her campsite, but she turned on the porch light and watched him, anyway.
“So, this is quaint.” Andy perked up. “Are those pictures of my boy, Jack?” He studied the latest canvas on her easel.
“I haven’t got the painting I want, but not for lack of trying.”
The pointed look at the baker’s dozen of drying paintings was accompanied by a smirk. “I’d say so. How much for the one of him in the hoodie?”
She let Bentley in the cabin and got him some fresh water. “You can have it. I’ll probably just drop these at the local secondhand shop, if I don’t just leave them here.”
“No.” Andy’s face turned indignant. “These are beautiful. You can’t just throw them away.”
She shrugged. “I live out of my car. This has been fun, but once I get word that Amber isn’t dead, I won’t have space for them.”
His frown grew. “I thought you said Bob didn’t kill her.”
“He…” Chelsea sighed. “It’s not his fault that the nix fucked with his head, but he might be wrong, and I can’t leave until I know.” She pulled two beers out of the fridge and handed one to him. “And while I’m waiting for the cops to process the crime scene and drag the river, I’ll have time to paint more. Maybe I’ll do one of you.”
Andy fiddled with the cap on his bottle but didn’t open it. “You’re really worried about her, huh?”
The beer fizzed down her throat, keeping her voice mostly clear. “Aren’t you? She could be dead.”
He finally opened his beer, but didn’t meet her eye.
“Unless you know otherwise?”
He waved a hand gracefully through the air. “I’m working my way through something here.”
Anger boiled up in her, but she fought to keep it in check. She liked Andy, as she hadn’t liked someone since before her parents died. It had been simple and immediate, and fun. But she didn’t know the man, not really.
So she patted her leg. Bentley bounded over. His tail beat against the table, but his heavy head was still in her lap. As usual, she found comfort in his silky fur.
Andy, however, seemed more and more agitated. He paced the cabin, muttering under his breath. Finally he stopped in front of a picture of Jackson sitting her car. It was based on sketch done during their time staking out a nightling’s nit. “You do know that you are up that proverbial creek without the proper means of conveyance, right? And we’re talking miles of brown… with rapids.”
She let some of her temper show in her voice. “I’ve been wading in it for over a year now.”
Andy winced. “When you hit the three-year mark of those two, and their ongoing train wreck…” He stopped, his head cocked to the side. “You okay?”
Chelsea closed her hanging jaw and swallowed. “Three years? I don’t understand.”
“Jackson and Amber…” Andy sighed. “It’s a mess, and the mess started long before you showed up.”
“Care to explain?”
“Wish I could.” He shrugged. “Not my story to tell, or my mess to clean up. Though, the Good Lord knows, I’ve tried grounding both of them until they do.”
Chelsea focused on running her fingers through Bentley’s soft fur. “I know they hooked up before I met them, but Jack… he never seemed all that into her.”
Andy turned back to the painting. “Jackson Hawk shows the same amount of interest in everybody, and everybody falls in love with him despite knowing better. Shit, I knew the man was straight and boom! Like a barrel over Niagara. Took me months to get over him.” Andy flashed her a wry smile. “He never noticed.”
She walked over and hugged him, taking more comfort than she could possibly give. “That was my problem the first time we were together. His reputation proceeded him, and I couldn’t let myself believe he was really in love with me.”
Long, warm arms hugged her back. “I want this to work out for everyone, and I don’t see how it does.”
“Me either.” She stepped away and rubbed at tired eyes. “But it starts with talking to Amber. And at least I can assume she’s alive now, right?”
“Mmmph.” He settled on the couch, only to be joined by Bentley. “Here’s the catch. I made promises.”
Chelsea winced. “I don’t want—”
He held up a hand. “I can get around them, but…”
He leaned forward. “I’m going to need a favor.”
She rolled her eyes, but her laugh was genuine. “What hunter doesn’t?”
“Considering the circumstances, this is gonna be a hell of a favor.” His grin showed too many teeth. “Like I have nothing on my radar that even comes close at the moment.”
Her stomach dropped. “Okay?”
Andy sat back, hand on Bentley’s neck. “I have your number. When the right something comes up, I’ll call you. Just stay in the area.”
“I didn’t have anywhere else to be, I guess.” She found herself on her feet, nervous energy streaming down her back. “I’m gonna shower, maybe paint for a bit. So you take a shift on the bed. Tell Bentley to take a hike if you don’t want to share.”
His chuckle followed her to the bathroom. The warm water cleaned off the muck of the nix and the river, but did nothing to soothe her.
Andy, dressed once more in the silk pajamas he had worn the night they met, curled up with Bentley on her bed and already asleep, got a smile though.
She set up her easel and a clean canvas and painted her new friend. Not asleep, but as she had first seen him, lounging on his divan in his private haunt.
The rising sun didn’t stop her, nor did Bentley. Andy rose and took care of the dog before she noticed. And it was only at his insistence that she stopped and ate the breakfast he had made.
He beamed at his portrait. “This won’t get you answers any faster.”
“Good. I meant it as a gift.” She marveled at his perfectly poached the eggs. He’d also made hollandaise. “So, can I move in with you? At least for a while. I can’t cook for shit. Been living on fresh fruits and fried eggs.”
“Hell, no.” He turned back to her, orange juice in hand. “If you need, I’ll help pay for this place. I plan on coming down every few days to visit you. I might learn to like the woods.”
She raised her glass to his. “Sounds like a great way to spend the rest of the summer.”