All Heart & Mischief
A Town Named Eden Book 4
(Joyce Breeland & Bradford Mills)
Joyce Breeland knew people were talking about her. She also suspected a host of angels had subscribed to her daily fools-capades. And right about now, they were all sitting on the edge of their seats and looking down at her while shoving popcorn into their angelic mouths…
Well, they could all consider this the season finale because she was done chasing her tail. After this last performance, her focus would be on getting her life back to normal, or as near to it as possible. She wanted to be able to walk down the main street of Eden without feeling people were saying one thing and thinking another.
What a strange little creature Joyce Breeland has turned into.
The girl’s obsessed. If you ask me, she drinks too much coffee. She looks on edge, she sounds on edge.
At school she was such a quiet little mouse, now look at her…
She didn’t take it personally, but all the remarks, real or imagined could not have come at a worse time. She was in the middle of trying out a sparkly new, sophisticated look, one she wouldn’t be able to pull off unless people started taking her seriously…
“Mini Mouse, are you there?”
“Yes, I’m all ears.”
“Tom Cat has just entered the pub. The coast is clear. You’re good to go. I repeat. You’re good to go.”
Playing it safe, she edged out the front door of her café and peered down the street.
The scent of the previous night’s rain still hung in the air and mingled with the aroma of freshly baked doughnuts.
A couple of cars drove by, another one stopped outside the bakery two doors down, the driver hopping out and making a dash inside, probably to pick up a Sunday morning treat. A young couple she recognized as regulars at Joyce’s Cafe rounded the corner and headed toward her. She already had a few customers digging into their breakfasts and more would pile in as the day progressed.
She could do this. She would do it, because if she didn’t she faced another night of tossing and turning, not to mention being stirred wide awake by her grumbling. At least, that’s what she hoped it was. Heaven forbid… It couldn’t possibly be snoring.
She pressed her cell phone to her ear. “Roger that. Has Bradford… I mean Tom Cat placed his order yet?” She needed a good half hour to rummage through Brilliant Baubles, with no interruptions.
“Hang on a sec.”
Joyce sunk back against the door. She missed those days when she could browse through the antique store at leisure or sit there for hours on end sipping tea from an elegant cup, sharing stories with Bradford’s uncle.
Gordon Mills had known how to spin a tale and he’d had a story or two to tell about every single piece in his store. She’d sometimes wondered if he’d made them up on the spot, but over time, she’d come to realize he’d remained consistent if a little forgetful, often repeating himself. Nevertheless, she’d never tired of listening to his tales. His nephew, on the other hand…
Her back teeth scraped together.
In the year since Bradford Mills had moved to Eden they’d said no more than a few dozen words to each other—all curt exchanges.
“Mini Mouse. Abort. Abort. Tom Cat has changed his mind. I repeat. Abort. Abort.”
Crap. She scampered back inside the café.
“Wait… Hang on. Just a minute. Sorry. False alarm.”
Joyce pushed out the breath that had slammed against her throat. “Eddie, please don’t do that. I’ll get a nervous twitch and then everyone will know I’ve been up to no good.”
“Sorry, I thought he was headed out the door again, but he just switched to another table. Theo’s going over now to have a chat with him. I gave him strict instructions to keep Bradford busy.”
Joyce nibbled the tip of her thumb. “He’s bound to know something’s up now.” While Eddie’s fiancé had forged some sort of male bond with Bradford Mills, it wouldn’t take a mathematical genius to figure out the coincidence had been orchestrated to keep him at the pub while Joyce raided his shop to look for her teacups.
None of this would be necessary if he would just hand them over. They’d been one of the last purchases Bradford’s uncle had made on his last trip overseas…
Joyce smiled as she remembered spending hours pouring over auction catalogues with Gordon, discussing the merits and appeal of one piece over the other.
“Theo is waving me over to the table. Do you want to stay on the line?” Eddie asked.
And eavesdrop on their conversation?
Joyce tapped her chin and did a quick mental toss up of all the pros and cons. “Yes. But please try to be discreet.”
“What are you afraid I’ll do?”
With Eddie Faydon, she could never be certain what to expect. She’d been surprising her since the first day they’d met at kindergarten. Joyce had been new to Eden, packed off by social services to live with her aunt and uncle. She hadn’t spoken a single word in months, but that hadn’t stopped Eddie.
Eddie had taken her by the hand, tugging her toward the back of the classroom to sit with her and had then rattled on non-stop about anyone and everyone who called the small town of Eden home and how they should become best friends because girls had to stick together and she needed an ally because she had three brothers and they had to be kept in line…
“Don’t worry. I’ve got your back. By the way, what are you wearing?”
Joyce caught sight of her reflection on the café window. As hectic as her morning had been, she’d actually put some thought into what she’d wear for the occasion. “I’m paying homage to Audrey Hepburn’s Wait Until Dark. Black leggings, black mini skirt, black boots, black turtleneck.” In hindsight, she should have gone with all shades of orange. What if she got caught?
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen you in black… Okay, I’m making my way over to the table.”
“Find out what he’s having for breakfast. If he’s only there for a coffee, it won’t give me enough time to do a thorough search.” She’d been trying to get inside the back room at the antique store for ages now, but every time she got near it, Bradford appeared. Almost as if he had a sixth sense.
“Hang on, Mitch just took his order. Now he’s headed this way. I’ll ask him.”
Joyce rolled her eyes. With Eddie’s brother it could go either way.
“Why do you want to know?” she heard him ask.
“Bradford’s single and… I’m concerned,” Eddie said. “Is he getting enough to eat?”
“He ordered the full breakfast. It normally takes me half an hour to get through it. I can buy Joyce an extra ten minutes if I mix up the order but then she’ll owe me. You want to ask her?”
“Why would I want to ask her?”
“Because she’s listening to this conversation.”
Joyce pushed out a breath. “Just tell him yes.” Mitch’s chuckling confirmed he’d heard her. “Um… also, I’m going to hang up.” It would be too distracting to eavesdrop on a conversation with Bradford.
Distracting. Underhanded. Wrong. Yes. Plain wrong. But, oh, so tempting…
“Okay. Let’s synchronize our watches,” Eddie said. “From here on end, we’re maintaining radio silence. We’ll meet back at the café after you’ve retrieved your stash. Good luck and good hunting. Roger and out.”
Joyce rolled her shoulders and, taking a few deep breaths, propelled herself toward Brilliant Baubles, keeping her steps a walk in the park casual. Being a Sunday, most of the stores were closed so she didn’t encounter any locals who might stop and engage her in conversation.
“Do not, whatever you do, look over your shoulder.” She had long ago learned to live in the moment without ever looking back, however, lately she seemed to be constantly tripping herself up with thoughts of the first time she’d met Bradford Mills.
Her own Mister Darcy moment.
She shook her head as if that could make the imprinted memories budge.
She’d been doing well, keeping her thoughts under control. Until recently…
She supposed it had something to do with the upcoming anniversary of his arrival in Eden.
“On a dark stormy night.” Actually, it had been a bright early winter’s day. “A Friday morning.” She remembered that because she’d been sitting at her usual table by the window, sipping her tea and reading Girl About Town, a popular magazine she subscribed to. And then just as she’d been savoring the anticipation of turning the page to enjoy her weekly instalment of Lulu McGee’s antics, a comic strip she followed religiously… “A gust of wind blew the door open and Bradford Mills stormed into my life.”
He’d placed his order and had then turned away from the counter, his attention skipping around the café. Meeting his light blue gaze had been inevitable since she’d been staring at him. She remembered holding her breath, as if she’d forgotten to breathe. When he’d looked away, she’d sunk back into her chair feeling as if she’d been nothing but an obstruction to his view. From that moment onward, her life had changed in ways that could never be undone.
Looking on the bright side, as she always tried to do, keeping her thoughts engaged on her first encounter with Bradford got her over the first hurdle. She made it to Brilliant Baubles without worrying about him trailing behind her.
Joyce had been brought up to believe everyone had some goodness in them. Whenever she’d grumbled about being teased at school, her aunt had sat her down, and after pouring her a cup of tea, she’d told her to focus on finding some goodness in that person. No matter how insignificant, if she focused on it, that’s all she’d see. Then again, her aunt was a kind-hearted soul who refused to believe anyone could be beyond redemption.
…And if you can’t find anything good in a person, well then… you just imagine something. Make it up. It would be your gift to them.
Joyce pressed her lips together. Her aunt had not met Bradford Mills. If that man had any goodness in him, he should be given a medal for doing a thorough job of camouflaging it.
It made no sense to settle in the one place and not make an effort to engage with the locals, she thought as she pushed the door open and strode inside the antique store. The fact Bradford could walk away and leave the place unattended said a lot about Eden. If there had ever been a crime committed in the small town, it had happened so long ago no one could remember.
When she reached the glass-topped counter with the ancient looking cash register, she hesitated. Going beyond this point could possibly… maybe be considered as trespassing. Yes, it could be open to all sorts of interpretation. However, the ‘Private’ sign on the door made it black and white clear.
“So near, yet so far.”
She hadn’t come all this way to give up now.
Closing her eyes, she sent a silent prayer to the powers that be and lunged forward, her fingers curling around the doorknob and turning it, almost as if her life depended on it.
Unlocked! “Yes,” she whooped.
In all the time she’d known Gordon Mills, she’d never had any reason to venture into this private room.
“But needs must. So Gordon, I’m sorry.” She didn’t bother offering an explanation. Either he understood she needed to do this, or he didn’t, assuming he could even hear her from whatever cloud he was lounging on. She liked to imagine him on a Louis XV armchair, dressed in his satin lined crimson smoking jacket, his unruly silver mane glinting under the light of a halo, his legs stretched out, feet crossed at the ankles to showcase his embroidered black velvet mocassins…
Thinking no more of it, she slipped inside and, glancing over her shoulder, closed the door behind her.
Her cell phone lit up with another incoming message.
“I’m in,” she typed.
Good timing. His breakfast’s just arrived.
“Okay. The clock’s ticking.” There were no windows in the storage room and now that she’d closed the door, she couldn’t see past her nose. Holding her cell out in front of her, she moved toward a desk in the corner and flicked on a table lamp. It was one of those old-fashioned ones that made her think of The War of the Worlds aliens snaking in through the window.
“Right. Well… where to start searching.” There were a couple of filing cabinets and in the opposite corner, a stack of boxes reaching the ceiling.
She inspected those first but going by the shipping labels stuck on the sides, they all predated anything that might have come in during the last few months.
Moments later, a stream of messages came through saying Bradford had just ordered another cup of coffee. He’d also propped his cell phone against a bottle of syrup directly in front of him and kept glancing at it.
He’s a gadgets man.
“And I’m a teacup gal.” She stabbed her fingers through her hair and stared up at the ceiling. Bradford lived above the shop. Had he maybe…
“That’s one line I can’t cross.” Stepping back, she leaned against the desk. At this point, she’d settle for a crumb of information. Gordon had kept meticulous records, tracking all transactions and shipment information on a ledger book. If she could find a reference number, she’d be able to make a few discreet phone calls…
She slanted her gaze toward the door and back to the desk and to what looked like a ledger book.
“In for a penny, in for a lengthy jail sentence.”
Before she could change her mind, she put her phone down and flipped open the book. At first glance, she knew it wasn’t what she’d been looking for.
“A daily planner.” She narrowed her gaze and tried to decipher the handwriting. Nothing like Gordon’s elegant script. The printed words looked as if they’d been stabbed onto the page, some underlined with angry slashes.
“I have found my target?” She skimmed through the pages until something else caught her eye. Three large asterisks and written directly below them in large print, “Precise instructions on how to dispose of bodies without leaving a trace. Page thirty-five to forty.” And if that wasn’t disconcerting enough…
“She must die.”
Joyce snatched her cell phone off the desk and backed away.
Nothing wrong with a cowardly retreat, she thought wrapping her fingers around the doorhandle.
A second later, she knew she’d made a mistake.
Bradford stared at the rashers of bacon and sunny side up egg remaining on his plate and decided he needed another cup of coffee to help it all along its way. He’d already loosened his belt, but it looked like Joyce might need more time. Besides, he didn’t like to see good food go to waste…
Truth be known, he would have preferred a stack of blueberry pancakes, more specifically, Polka Dot pancakes from Joyce’s Café. He’d been thinking of nothing else since getting up that morning. In fact, he’d been on his way to get them, but then he’d caught sight of Joyce keeping vigil by the front door of her place.
A dead giveaway to her intentions.
She’d been planning another reconnaissance mission to his store. Still looking for those blasted teacups, he thought…
He could have made it easy for her and had his breakfast at her café since by now she knew he enjoyed savoring every mouthful of whatever he ordered, usually staying longer than half an hour. However…
The devil in him had wondered how she’d deal with a curve ball. So, instead of being predictable, he’d set her a challenge by heading over to The Gloriana for breakfast.
So far, his gambit was paying high dividends in the entertainment stakes.
Out of the corner of his eye, he watched Eddie tapping away on her cell phone and imagined her giving Joyce a blow-by-blow account of everything being said.
Her fiancé, Theo, leaned forward. “I heard Mitch asked you to find a replacement for Wilbur.”
Bradford nodded. Theo and Eddie had recently opened a restaurant and Eddie had insisted on hanging a stuffed boar’s head over the bar, leaving a gap at The Gloriana where it had previously hung over the fireplace.
“Please don’t,” Theo mouthed.
Another source of amusement. Theo had to be counting on the Faydon brothers, his future brothers-in-law and the other owners of the pub, exerting their majority vote and insisting the stuffed boar be returned to the pub. However, Bradford knew for a fact that wasn’t going to happen because Mitch Faydon had been more than happy to finally get rid of the beast.
“I’m only working in a caretaker capacity at the antique store, so I’m not likely to go scouring around the countryside looking for stuffed animal heads. As it is, I’ve been kept busy with a backlog of stock still coming in from overseas.”
Savoring his coffee, he dropped his gaze to his cell phone and glimpsed the live action coming to him via his top of the line security cameras—the equivalent of installing a nanny cam. Moments before he’d nearly choked on his coffee, the sight of Joyce’s mincing steps too comical to resist.
She’d had a haircut, the rich brown locks shortened to her shoulders to frame the soft edges of her face. He watched her taking everything in, her large doe like eyes appearing to narrow as she focused on her target. Standing in front of the office door, her expression shifted from concerned to sheer bloody minded determination as she plunged right inside the room clearly marked private.
He should put her out of her misery. He really should…
But then what would he do with himself?
Joyce’s capers had made the last twelve months slightly more bearable. If not for his uncle, he would have left soon after the funeral, but then the will had been read and that had sealed his fate; one of the stipulations so far costing him an entire year of his freedom.
If he didn’t hear from his sister soon…
Twelve months, and still no word from her. At this rate, he’d be stuck in Eden for the rest of his natural life.
He looked around the pub and then gazed out the window. He’d never imagined spending his thirtieth birthday in a small country town three hours away from Melbourne. At first, he’d thought the isolation would get the better of him, and then from one day to the next, he hadn’t been able to find a moment to himself.
He gulped down the rest of his coffee and, catching Mitch’s attention, he signaled to request another cup.
His uncle’s will was something straight out of fiction. Among the most difficult caveats to understand had been his request for the antique store to be open every day of the week without exception. That meant, no flipping the door sign to close while he stepped out for a break.
Trust has to begin somewhere. It might as well start with you.
Bradford still didn’t know if that had been directed at him or if it simply reflected Gordon Mills’ universal beliefs.
Either way, he’d respected his uncle’s wishes but, for his own peace of mind, he’d had security cameras installed in the store. And only, he reminded himself, after the town lawyer had blithely informed him of the stock’s total value.
He shifted his attention back to the lively chatter between Theo and Eddie and couldn’t resist stoking the fire. “I hear you’re going to have lamb on the menu.”
Both Theo and Eddie locked their gazes on him, neither one blinking for long seconds.
Eddie broke eye contact first. “That’s hearsay. This is cattle territory. Why would we serve lamb?”
Theo cleared his throat. “Yes. Exactly. What she said.”
One of these days, he’d actually ask why that was. He suspected it had something to do with the original settlers—the sheep farming Wildes and the cattle grazing Sterlings—locking horns over what belonged where.
Bradford shrugged. “Pity. I had a craving for lamb.” And a need to sidetrack his thoughts. Even so, he couldn’t help glancing at his cell again. Swiping the screen, he selected the camera inside the office and caught sight of Joyce. She’d made it inside the back room and stood by the door, her back to the camera, which meant she was done searching.
It took a moment to kick-start his reflexes and look away, but it didn’t happen fast enough. Instead of the usual mishmash of cheerful colors, she’d chosen a black outfit. And while he’d seen her earlier on, he’d avoided lingering over details. Now his mind was trying to compensate for the oversight.
Not good Bradford, not good at all.
Unable to scatter the image that had already settled in his mind, he knew he’d spend the rest of the day thinking about the gentle dip of her waist and her perfectly rounded bottom and wondering—
He glanced out the window toward the side of town no one ever talked about, Wilde Eden, and scrounged around his mind for a change of subject. Anything to lessen the effect of the image of her body etched in his mind. Coming up with nothing, he tuned back into the conversation and caught the tail end of Eddie’s remark.
“…A craving for lamb or a desire to stir up trouble.”
“Pardon? Did you say something?” Bradford knew Joyce’s accomplice wouldn’t sit back and ignore the bait. She’d try, but with any luck she’d distract him from thinking about Joyce’s cat burglar outfit…
Eddie studied him over the rim of her coffee cup. “Only that you seem determined to go under the radar but occasionally we hear a bleep.”
The words could easily have been spoken by Joyce. “Is that your own opinion or are you acting as spokesperson for someone else?”
Theo sat back and gave him a you’re-on-your-own-buddy look.
“It’s common knowledge you don’t like living in Eden and prefer keeping to yourself.”
“Maybe I’m shy.” He glanced down at his cell and frowned. Joyce was still standing by the door. She should have made her escape by now…
“How about reserved?” he asked.
“I could buy that.”
“But you won’t.”
Eddie shook her head. “You’re too obvious about it. There’s something guarded about you…”
“Eddie, don’t be so hard on him,” Theo said. “You can’t expect everyone to be as forthright as you.”
“I’m forthright because I don’t have anything to hide.”
Bradford laughed into his coffee cup. Again, his eyes dropped down to the phone. There had to be something wrong with the security camera. Joyce hadn’t moved in the last five minutes. In fact, she looked frozen in place, almost…
His cup lowered.
He’d been in plenty of situations where he’d had to hold his breath or risk being caught in the wrong place at the wrong time by the wrong people. Not everyone had what it took to wait out surprise ambushes. Once he’d gone against his better judgment, following Will Stanton into a no-go zone. The photographer had been determined to get the sort of picture that made people linger over a news item instead of flicking the page over. As a result, they’d spent two nights holed up in the ruins of an old school house while a breakaway renegade group played hide and seek with coalition forces. Even after the danger had passed, Will had been unable to move—
It had to be a glitch, either with his phone or with the cameras.
He tapped on the screen. Swiped. Returned. Tapped again.
Still, no change. She hadn’t moved an inch.
Was she even breathing?
Tapping on the screen again, he switched to the camera outside the office and saw one of his regular customers, an octogenarian whose name he couldn’t remember, putting on his glasses and bending down to study the scrollwork on a table.
Returning to the camera in the back room, he willed Joyce to move.
And she did.
She took a step back as if jolted out of a daze and the next moment, her legs buckled from right under her. She crumbled to the floor and rolled into a ball.
Bradford’s cup slipped from his hold and rattled onto the saucer, the contents spilling over and trailing across the table. Hands collided as paper napkins were snatched and patted onto the spilled coffee.
“Sorry.” Grabbing his phone, he shot to his feet and rushed out of the pub, his steps hurried. Then he took another glimpse at his phone and broke into a run.
Half way along the main street his phone rang.
“Everything alright, buddy?”
Bradford didn’t know if he was breathing hard or even breathing at all. He managed a grunt. Not bothering with an explanation, he disconnected the call and, veering around a corner like a motorcycle at a grand prix, he burst into the store.
“Oh, Bradford. There you are. I wonder if you might help me. I have a question about this table.”
He barely glanced at… he still couldn’t remember his name, and held up a finger calling for patience.
Slowing down, he reached the door marked private and, engaging his brain, wondered if he should have called an ambulance.
His first instinct was to burst in. Instead he gave a light tap on the door and pressed his ear to it.
Nothing. Nothing but the thump of his own heartbeat.
“Joyce.” He checked his cell. She was too still to be having a fit. He called out her name again and hearing no response, he wrapped his hand around the doorknob and turned it.
The door didn’t budge.
He tried again, this time jiggling the doorknob. It still wouldn’t open.
So much for relying on top of the line technology. The Gatekeeper should have read the digital key off his phone and unlocked the door automatically.
Thinking he’d heard a faint croak, he drew in a breath and another one just for good measure. “Joyce. Can you hear me? The door’s stuck.” He pressed his ear to the door.
“What did you say?” he asked, just in case he’d imagined hearing her.
“You said the door’s stuck and I said okay.”
She was okay. No need to panic.
Then he frowned. She sounded…
Definitely not her usual self.
In the time he’d lived in Eden, they’d established a working relationship. He purchased coffee from her, she sold it to him.
In the beginning, she’d tried to engage him in conversation and he’d been deliberately short with her. Eventually, they’d worked up to a better arrangement. He strode into the café, sat down and within a few minutes, a cup of the most delectable brew he’d ever drunk appeared in front of him.
While he’d never engaged in anything that even came close to civilized dialogue with her, he’d heard her chatting with other people. She was a lively character, her tone a light and chirpy version of deadpan with an edge of sultriness to it. It had taken him quite a while to figure it out. If she ever considered a career change, he wouldn’t hesitate to suggest she try stand-up comedy.
“I think I can override the control panel.”
“Okay. You do that.”
He couldn’t decide if she sounded dreamy or dazed. “I’m not going far.”
“Take your time.”
He’d had the control panel installed by the stairwell leading up to the apartment upstairs. He only needed to take a couple of steps. He told himself she’d be fine and pushed himself to move. Unlocking the panel, he brushed his hand across his chin. Green lights blinked at him. Everything appeared to be in working order. The system functioned much like a house alarm. Key in the code and the alarm was switched off, or in this case, the locks disengaged.
With that done, he went back to Joyce.
He curled his fingers around the doorknob. When it turned, he lowered his head and released the breath he’d been holding. “Joyce. The door’s unlocked now.”
“Oooh, that’s good to hear,” she chirped.
He stepped back, his arms hanging by his sides. “Okay. You can come out now.”
“Mmm. No, I don’t think so. I’m fine right here where I am.” The words wafted in a singsong laziness.
Frowning, he stepped forward. “Then I’m coming in.”
“No. No, don’t do that.”
“Why not?” He opened the door a crack and peered inside. She was still curled up on the floor, one hand tucked under her chin.
“I… I think I need a moment.”
“Okay. Take your time.” Brushing his hand along the back of his neck, he swirled around and sagged against the counter. “Do… do you need something?” it occurred to ask. She liked tea, but he had no idea how she took it. “How about a cup of tea? Or… maybe I could go get Eddie—”
“I’d rather you didn’t and I’m not thirsty. Thank you.”
“But… you’re eventually going to come out.”
“Oh, sure. Eventually.”
Glancing over his shoulder he saw Mister… Prancer…? Princer…? still inspecting the table.
“Um. Are you still there?” she asked.
“Do you think you could not be there when I come out?”
Okay. She didn’t want an audience. He got that. But there was no reason to be embarrassed because… she was afraid of the dark? No, that couldn’t be it. She had her cell phone and there was a table lamp. Fear of confined spaces didn’t make sense either. Otherwise, she would have left the door open. “You want me to pretend none of this happened?”
“That would be good.”
“And what do I do next time we meet?”
“We can avoid making eye contact. That always seems to work with us.”
True. “But what if I’m curious?” In the time it took her to respond, Bradford imagined her tilting her head in thought and frowning.
“Why would you want to change the status quo?”
Right. He shouldn’t want to… because since his arrival in Eden he’d been determined to keep all contact with the locals to a bare minimum. He brushed his hands across his face. Did she have a condition he hadn’t heard about? Did everyone else know about it?
“What if this happens again? If you have an affliction… another episode—”
“Who said I suffer from an affliction?”
He hadn’t imagined seeing her legs buckling like an accordion. Something had happened to her. “Okay. I’m going to pretend to leave the store now. Feel free to come out whenever you’re ready.”
A little about Joyce Breeland…
She loves to dress up and favors retro styles but also makes the occasional seasonal adjustment… Christmas (Nutcracker Soldier)… Easter…
While she’s mostly a coffee drinker, she also adores her teacups…
Copyright ©2015 Sonia Parin/All Rights Reserved