Home > Close to the Bone (Widow's Island #1)(14)

Close to the Bone (Widow's Island #1)(14)
Author: Kendra Elliot

Cate didn’t hate the tagline.

Getting out of her vehicle, she noticed she was the subject of curious examination by two cows as they poked their noses through the railings. She patted their fuzzy heads, avoiding the wet noses. Here were the cheerful cows the sign promised. The cows appeared sincerely interested in her, following every move with large brown eyes.

Reluctantly leaving her fans, she walked up to the small house, and her stomach started to spin. She frowned, wondering if something had been wrong with her burger. The nausea grew stronger as she moved up the stairs to the porch. Do I need to go home?

She took a deep breath, feeling sweat start to prickle under her arms. Underneath her coat she was burning up. I’ll talk to him quickly and go.

Confusion swamped her brain, and her hand seemed to lift in slow motion to knock on the door.

My fist. Rapping on the wood.

Her vision tunneled as fear slammed into her.

Shots. Blood. Stephen.

It’d been a small home and porch just like this one. No worries. A simple interview.

Which had ended in Stephen’s death.

The door opened before she could knock again, and reality stopped her from spiraling into a full-blown panic attack.

A tall, smiling man stood in the door. No gun. Not threatening.

Her panic receded a little further.

That’s him. She’d checked Stan Irish’s driver’s license photo. He wore a cap with the name of his dairy farm, a rough work jacket, and rubber boots, clearly on his way to get some work done. His smile was infectious and felt genuine. Maybe it’s the owner who makes the cows cheerful.

“Good afternoon. What can I do for you?” His voice was surprisingly high pitched for such a large man.

The lilt in his voice slowed her heart rate, and her world came into focus.

“Stan Irish?” she croaked.

“That’s me.” Still smiling.

Trying to hide her measured breathing, she showed her ID. “I’m Special Agent Cate Wilde. I have a few questions for you.”

The smile vanished. “What happened?”

“We’re reinvestigating the disappearance of Becca Conan.”

“The author’s daughter. I heard about it when I moved here.” He took a deep breath. “And you’re here because I’m registered.” His eyes were flat, emotionless.

“Standard procedure,” Cate said, watching him carefully for signs of anger or attack. “When exactly did you move to Widow’s?”

“The August after she vanished. People were still talking about it.”

“You own an ice cream shop?”

“Yeah. In Bishopton. Gets good tourist traffic from the ferries in the summer.”

“Did the ice cream shop open that August too?”

He gave her an odd look. “No, opening a business takes time. I came here in August on a whim from South Carolina, with a goal of getting as far away from that state as possible. I had no idea what I was going to do when I arrived, but I knew right away I wanted to stay. I’m close to the end of my ten years, but I’ve wasted too much time feeling sorry for myself. When I realized there wasn’t a decent ice cream shop on the island, I decided to make it happen. Widow’s Ice Creamery didn’t open until last spring.”

Cate knew the ten years referred to the time period that he was required to register as a sex offender. That meant he’d been around twenty-seven when he was convicted. She’d read his history. He’d claimed he hadn’t known the girl was under eighteen; her mother had said otherwise.

She was mostly satisfied that Stan hadn’t been on the island before his permanent move. She’d dig up his rental and employment records to confirm.

“What’s going on?”

Cate turned around to see a young woman tromping up the steps.

Very young.

She wore rubber overalls with boots and a jacket like Stan’s, looking as if she’d been mucking out the barn. Her wavy blonde hair was divided into low ponytails, and her wide-set brown eyes were curious. She had a dirt smudge on one cheek.

“I’m Cate Wilde. I had some questions for Stan about when he started his ice creamery.” The girl’s young appearance made Cate curb her full explanation.

“I’m Clover. The ice creamery has been open since last spring.” The girl moved next to Stan, and the scent of marijuana floated by Cate. “Have you been there?”

“Not yet. I haven’t been to Bishopton in a while.”

Clover nodded in understanding. “It’s for tourists.”

“Do you live here?” Cate asked the girl. Stan was silent, entranced by Clover. He likes them young.

“Yeah. Stan gave me a job when the shop opened. It was love at first sight.” She took his hand and returned the enamored gaze.

She looks young enough to be his daughter.

“I convinced him we needed our own cows so we’d know exactly what went into the ice cream. That’s when we started the dairy.”

“It was a good idea,” Stan agreed. “We actually make more from selling the organic milk than from the ice cream.”

“But the ice cream shop is more fun,” Clover chimed in. She looked at Cate. “I’m working on a tequila-and-lime ice cream recipe. A little salt makes it incredible.”

“Ummm . . . how old are you?” Cate couldn’t hold back the question.

Clover scowled. “I’m twenty. I don’t drink the tequila. I just make stuff with it.”

That wasn’t my point. At least the relationship is legal. Still . . . he’s thirty-six.

“That ice cream sounds . . . interesting.”

Clover’s head bobbed enthusiastically. “I’m trying a whole line of flavors based on cocktails.” She winked. “I’ve tried adding pot, but I can’t get it to work right.”

“Maybe make an extract?” Did I just say that?

She screwed up her face in thought. “Yeah . . .”

“It was nice meeting you. I wish you continued luck with your business,” Cate said to Stan. He could explain her visit to Clover. Cate didn’t have the heart to tell the flower child the real purpose.

On the drive home, she imagined a life where she only worried about ice cream and cows.

It sounded peaceful.

The craving for ice cream was enough to make Cate take a long detour to Bishopton.

Besides, she was curious about a business where someone like Clover took a primary role.

It was almost dark as her vehicle followed the road’s forested switchbacks nearly down to sea level. The little town of Bishopton spread to the east of the ferry station. Clover was right that the town was for tourists. The lucky business owners who had shops close to the ferry station were guaranteed a booming summer business, which helped carry them financially through the slow winter. The islanders who lived along the east coast of the island shopped in Bishopton year-round; otherwise Cate would expect most of the businesses to close for the season.

The ferry dock looked lonely without a huge ferry in port. During the winter the ferry came every other day, and during the summer it made two trips a day, dumping tourists on the island. Cate slowly drove through Bishopton. Admittedly it was a cute and charming town. Wooden sidewalks, homey storefronts, and well-maintained landscaping. She spotted the ice creamery tucked between two larger buildings and easily veered into a street parking spot. An impossible maneuver during the summer high season.

Pleased the store was still open, Cate stepped inside and started as she recognized the waiter and waitress from The Little Garden. They held hands as they peered into the ice cream case. The tall, gaunt man and the smaller, curvy waitress made an amusing sight. Behind the counter, a bored teenage boy waited patiently for the couple to make up their minds. Cate scanned the board of flavors. All the basics were available, but she assumed Clover’s influence added the odd ones. White chocolate curry, buttered popcorn, sweet corn with basil, and avocado mint chip.

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