No More Broken Limbs
“I can’t figure out the crushed lilies and gum.” Isabelle Perry pressed her lips together and stared out the library window. The sun made the leaves on the birch tree outside the window appear fluorescent. The tree’s beauty was not lost on Isa, though her mind still reeled from the mystery in her backyard.
A few weeks ago she’d discovered that her garden shed window had been broken, her prized tiger lilies crushed, and a wad of bright orange gum had been her only clue to the culprit.
“Seriously. This has got to stop.” Carolyn waved her hand in front of her. “Hello? You there?”
“The broken window is easily explained away. It could have been a rock catapulted from the lawn mower. It wouldn’t be the first time Mr. Jacobs broke a window with his lawnmower.” She tapped her fingers on the oak desk. “But that doesn’t explain the flowers or the gum.”
“You are driving me crazy,” Carolyn muttered.
Okay. Time to pay attention to her best girlfriend. “You got any trips planned this summer?”
“Yes. A trip out of this library. Who spends their summer in a library anyway?” Carolyn smiled, probably to soften her curt words.
“It’s air conditioned and smells like books. Why wouldn’t someone want to come here?”
“You’re joking, right?”
“I don’t believe she is.” Nate pulled out a chair and sat. His leg with the cast stretched out obstructing the aisle. “What’s going on?”
“Isa can’t get over some gum found on a tiger.”
Nate scrunched his brow, then laughed. “You mean the gum found beside the crushed tiger lilies and broken garden shed window?”
Isa scooted closer to Nate. “It doesn’t make sense. It’s like somebody stood there in front of the window, chewing gum.”
“That’s so creepy.” Carolyn pulled out her phone, her thumbs tapped across the phone at a speed Isa never could achieve.
Nate rubbed his jaw. “Do you spend much time in the shed alone? I hope nobody was—”
“Watching me?” She shuddered. “I hope not.”
“I hope not, too.” Nate smacked the table with the palm of his hand. “C’mon we better get going. We got a mystery to solve.”
He pushed himself up and stumbled.
“Why don’t you used your crutches?” Isa came beside him and wrapped an arm around his waist to steady him.
Carolyn giggled. “I think I know why.”
Nate cleared his throat. “The cast is coming off in a few days.”
Isa cringed at the image of Nate’s limp body under the beech tree. He’d broken his leg trying to solve her last mystery. She couldn’t let him get hurt again.
“Let’s not worry about the broken window. I’m sure it’s nothing.”
Nate pressed his wrist to Isa’s forehead. “Are you feeling okay?”
“I’m fine. Let’s just get something to eat.”
“Oh sure. Now you’re ready to drop the gum mystery when only a few minutes ago you couldn’t stop talking about it,” Carolyn said.
Isa glared at her. “It’s no big deal.” Not worth breaking any more limbs.
Isa and Carolyn helped Nate down the wide marble stairs. Heat blasted them when they opened the libraries large, ornate double-doors.
“It’s only June. Why is it so hot?” Carolyn groaned.
“It’s Virginia.” Isa caught a glimpse of a bluebird perched on the branch of a dogwood. “Look.” She pointed to the bird. “The bluebird doesn’t seem to mind the heat.”
“I don’t mind it either.” Nate shrugged. “So let’s grab a bite and then take a look at your garden shed.”
Isa shook her head. “Eating—yes. Garden shed—no.”
“I’ve never heard you use so few words.” He narrowed his eyes at her. “Which tells me that you’re worried about something. No way am I dropping this. Not when…”
“What?” Isa asked.
“Not when you could be in danger.” Carolyn patted Isa’s back. “That window creeper really is… well, creepy.”
Looked like Isa wasn’t getting out of this one. Maybe Carolyn and Nate just needed a diversion while she worked on the mystery alone.
And she knew the perfect thing.
The Perfect Diversion
Isa handed flyers to Nate and Carolyn.
“’Casting call for Carrie and Jim—a play about funny love?’” Nate read the flyer. “What’s this?”
Carolyn continued reading, “’Tryouts start Saturday, June 22nd.’” She stopped and looked at Isa. “What gives?”
Isa shrugged. “We were complaining about how bored we were. Maybe we should try out.” She’d just make sure she did her worst acting performance ever.
It was perfect. Nate and Carolyn were both semi-perfectionists. They couldn’t help but try their best. They were sure to get a part in the local theater’s play. Every year the local theater put on a play using locals as their actors, stage people, make-up artists, everything. Usually, bored teens filled the slots. It was a way to keep kids busy during summer.
And Isa hoped it would keep Carolyn and Nate so busy they’d never notice her other endeavors of the mystery solving nature.
Isa looped her arms through Nate’s then Carolyn’s arm. “C’mon it’s perfect. You’ll have your cast off before the audition. So you’ll make the perfect Jim.” She looked at Carolyn. “And who would make a better Carrie than you?”
“Carrie and Jim? Was the author obsessed with Jim Carey or something?” Carolyn scoffed.
“Maybe so… but it doesn’t matter because it’ll be fun. I’ll probably only get a small part or just work on props. I’m not much of an actor.”
“Really I think you would make a great Carrie. Especially if Nate is Jim.” Carolyn winked.
“I guess it could be fun. I’m in.” Nate said.
“So it’s settled. We’re going to be thespians.” Isa said.
“Excuse me?” Carolyn scrunched her eyebrows.
“Actors, Carolyn. A thespian is an actor.” Nate laughed.
Why was Isa so nervous? It wasn’t like she actually wanted a part in the play. She stood with the other bored teens, retirees, and true thespians looking to make it big with a local production (good luck with that) waiting for their name to be called. Nate and Carolyn had already auditioned and Isa was thrilled at how well they did. Even if they didn’t get to be stars of the play, they at least had a chance at some part.
They sat in the back with the others who’d already auditioned. She wished they’d go home. They might get suspicious if they saw her completely flub her lines. Who was she kidding? They’d never guess that she messed up on purpose. Flubbing things came natural to Isa.
A boy around Isa’s age stood off to the side reading over the audition lines. She couldn’t decide if he was just a bored teen or a true thespian. He had dirty blond hair and brown serious eyes. He had a boy band cuteness about him that didn’t really do anything for Isa, but Carolyn was sure to drool when she saw him.
He glanced up from studying and grinned at Isa. She tipped her chin in return. Please don’t come over.
Boy band started his way toward her.
Oh, no. Chin tipping was not an invitation. Everyone knew that chin tipping was an I-recognize-your-existence-but-I’m-not-interested-in-speaking response.
“Hey, I’m Brice.”
Apparently, Boy Band did not abide by the chin tipping rules.
“I’m Isabelle, but you can call me Isa. I’m fine with either.” Crud. She sounded way too friendly. She wasn’t here to make more friends. She was here to ditch a couple of friends so she could investigate the lily crusher in peace.
“Isa. I like it.” He took a step closer. “I’m new here. I figured this might be a good way to meet people before school started.”
She nodded. “Makes sense.”
“Want to practice our lines together?” Brice gestured to the paper in Isa’s hand.
“Why not?” Better than awkward small talk.
After a few go through of the lines, Isa was actually enjoying herself. The play was funny. Carrie and Jim were great quirky characters. Too bad she had to mess up her audition. If she didn’t have a mystery to solve she might have actually enjoyed putting on this play.
“One more time?” Brice asked.
Isa laughed. “Let’s give it our all.”
She figured she may as well have fun now. She made Carrie ooze with idiosyncrasy which wasn’t hard for Isa.
Clapping interrupted her and Brice’s practice session. They both turned toward a man with a gray goatee and glasses, wearing a red scarf, green shirt, and faded blue jeans. He looked a bit like an overgrown elf. “I have found my Carrie and Jim!”
What?! No! “Excuse me?” Isa’s heart jumped into her throat.
“You two were perfect together.”
No. No. Isa shook her head. “We weren’t even officially auditioning.”
“No need. You two got it.” The man beamed a smile and held out his hand. “I’m Harold, the director.”
Brice shook his hand. “That’s great. Thanks!”
“It’s fantastic.” Isa forced a smile.
Fantastically horrible. Never had a plan backfired so badly for Isa.
“You are so lucky to be in the play with Brice. He’s cute” Carolyn held one of Isa’s shirts up and inspected it. “Why do you get all the cute new guys? Can I borrow this?” She took the shirt off its hanger and put it in her overnight bag.
“Sure.” She’d never see the shirt again. Oh well. She had worst problems. Like finding time to investigate the window creeping lily crusher. She walked to her bedroom window and focused on the now replaced shed window.
“Hey Isa, I’m running to the store. I want to buy another pot for my geraniums.” Aunt Hazel stepped into Isa’s bedroom.
“Okay. I thought we had that pot with the yellow trim in the shed.”
“You broke that one, remember? Either that or the cat did. I figured it was you since it had been cleaned up.” Aunt Hazel chuckled and turned to leave. “See ya later, girls.”
A chill swept through Isa’s veins. She remembered that the pot had been broken, but she didn’t break it. And she certainly didn’t sweep it up. She assumed Aunt Hazel had broken it and then cleaned up the mess. It was a few days after the broken window incident that she noticed the broken pot in the trash. She never asked Aunt Hazel about it, because it wasn’t a big deal. At least, she didn’t think so at the time.
Another chill swept through her body.
On the same morning that she found the broken pot, she’d noticed the unbroken window was opened a few inches. She thought it was odd for Aunt Hazel to have left it cracked opened like that.
The window creeper lily crusher must have come back a few days later and broken into the shed. But why?
And why did the creeper clean up their mess?
Unless they were hoping to hide the fact that they’d been there.
This was all so confusing. And the creepy factor just rose to a whole new level.
“When are you meeting Brice to study your lines?” Carolyn interrupted her thoughts.
“Later this afternoon.”
“Nate and I are going to work on the props tomorrow. I can’t believe Nate and I are on the lame prop team and you got to be the star. It isn’t fair.”
You can say that again. “Maybe you can be Carrie. I could always talk—”
“Are you crazy? You can’t give that part up. Besides Harold would never do it. He loves you as Carrie.”
“I just think you’d make a better Carrie. I really am better at painting—”
“Wait.” Carolyn’s mouth opened in an o. “You just want to be with Nate. Don’t you?”
“What?! No. I just like painting better.”
Carolyn patted her shoulder. “Don’t worry. I won’t steal Nate from you. He’s all yours. I used to think he was cute, but I know him too well now.”
Carolyn put a finger on Isa’s lips. “Your secret is safe with me.”
This was out of control. How had Isa let things get so off-track?
Isa nipped the tip of the honeysuckle and pulled the end of the delicate pistil until a drop of nectar bubbled out. She put it to her mouth and let the sweetness drop on her tongue. Delicious.
Bees were so lucky. Isa’s backyard fence was covered in the vine. She had her very own honeysuckle paradise.
“Isabelle, the queen bee.” Nate laughed and walked toward her.
Isa pulled off another flower. “Honeysuckles are the best.” She nipped off the tip and pulled the pistil until the drop of nectar appeared. “Here. Open up.”
Nate opened his mouth and Isa placed the drop on his tongue. “Good, right?”
“Only you, Isabelle.”
“Isabelle, huh? I prefer Isa.” Brice’s voice caused both Isa and Nate to turn. Brice opened the wooden gate and walked toward them. “You ready to practice?”
Was it already 2 o’clock? Shoot. “Sorry, Nate. I guess we better practice.”
Nate looked from Isa to Brice. “I can stick around. Pretend I’m the audience.”
“Okay. Great.” Why were things awkward all of a sudden?
Brice handed a copy of the play to Nate. “Great. You can help us when we get stuck, uh—”
“Nate.” His voice seemed lower than usual.
After forty-five minutes of practicing Isa was ready for a break. She went inside to get a pitcher of lemonade and glanced out the front window. Was that Jake, the meanest guy this side of the Blue Ridge Mountains, climbing her tree? What was the butterfly torturer doing in her front yard climbing a tree of all things?
She set the pitcher of lemonade on the kitchen table and stepped out on the front porch. Shielding her eyes from the sun, she called out to Jake. “What do you think you’re doing?”
Jake jumped off the branch and landed with a thud on her front lawn. “None of your business.”
“It is my business. You’re in my yard. In my maple tree.”
Brice and Nate walked around the side of the house. “Everything okay?” Nate eyed Jake.
“Relax. I’m not bothering your precious girlfriend.” Jake swiped at his shorts and started up the sidewalk.
“That’s right you’re leaving,” Isa called after him.
Nate came up beside Isa. “What was he doing here?”
“I have no idea.” Did he just call me Nate’s girlfriend?
Brice joined them. “You two are dating?”
Nate took a step closer to Isa.
Isa thought Nate was going to set Brice straight, but he said nothing. She guessed it was up to her.
“Nate and I are just friends.”
Brice grinned. “Oh, that’s good.” He cleared his throat. “I mean that’s good for Jim and Carrie.”
Nate stared at Brice for an agonizingly long few seconds. “I wouldn’t think it would matter either way. You two are just acting.”
And Isa thought it was awkward before. It was ten times worse now. Time to change the subject.
“Maybe Jake was just bored. He thought my maple tree would be fun to climb.”
Brice studied the tree then looked at Isa’s house and pointed to a window. “Is that your bedroom window?”
“Yes. It is.” Isa shuddered.
Brice nodded. “I think you have your reason for your friend’s tree climbing adventures.”
And Isa just got a suspect for the lily crushing creeper.
“So when did you move to Blue Cove?” Isa popped a fry in her mouth.
McDonalds may not have been fancy, but it tasted good. And she was starving after practicing all morning with Harold. Harold was a perfectionist. He must have thought he was directing a real Broadway play.
“I actually moved here back in April. Since it was so late in the year my mom homeschooled me. I’ll start at Blue Cove High in September though.”
“Blue Cove High is sufficient as far as math and science, but I think you’ll find it lacking in the literary part of the equation.” Isa stopped and bit her lower lip at Brice’s glazed over look. “I mean it’s fun. Well, except for dealing with idiots like Jake the Peeping Tom.”
Brice unwrapped a piece of gum. “Want a piece?”
Isa shook her head. “No, thanks. Chewing gum hurts my jaw after a while.”
“It’s a nasty habit, but I always have to have it.” He popped the gum in his mouth.
“So you moved here back in April? Did you say? Why haven’t I seen you before?”
Brice looked down and up again with a sly grin on his face. “I have a confession to make. You may have only met me for the first time a couple of weeks ago, but I’ve seen you before that.”
She cocked her head. “Really?”
“Yeah. I was bored when I first moved here, so I took a lot of walks. I’d see you waiting for the bus. I didn’t have enough nerve to talk to you until the play rehearsal, though.”
“Was I lying on the ground at any of those times you saw me?”
“Uh yes. I’ve been meaning to ask you about that.”
“I like to really observe flowers. You know get down on their level. Nature and flowers are kind of my thing.”
“That explains a lot.” Brice laughed.
“What explains what?” Carolyn nudged Isa with her hip.
“Hey, Care.” Isa scooted over to allow her room. “Brice has witnessed my flower observations.”
Carolyn sighed. “I’m sorry you had to see that.”
Brice laughed. “Don’t be. It was—”
“Weird.” Carolyn offered.
“You can say that again.” Carolyn laughed. “She’s worse in the spring. She likes to get the first glimpse of flowers as she calls it.”
“He knows. That’s when he saw me doing it.”
Wait. Brice was here in the spring. Maybe he knew what happened to my garden shed. Could he have seen something? But she couldn’t exactly question him with Carolyn here. As far as she knew Isa had moved on from that mystery.
She’d have to wait until she got Brice alone.
A milkshake later Carolyn was ready to leave and unfortunately so was Brice. “I’ll walk ya home.” Isa sidled up beside him on the sidewalk outside McDonalds.
Carolyn gave Isa a what-are-you-doing look. Isa shrugged and turned back to Brice who wore a huge dimpled grin. “I’d love that.”
“Perfect.” Isa waved to Carolyn. “I’ll text ya later.”
“You better,” Carolyn said and traipsed off in the opposite direction.
“So you like to take walks?”
“I do, but mostly I like to spy on cute girls.”
Whoa. Not where she meant to go with this. “On these walks of yours did you ever see anything interesting? Besides, strange girls watching flowers grow?”
“Nothing as interesting as that.”
Shoot. “You sure nothing like someone sneaking around houses?”
Brice pulled a leaf off a tree. “You mean like that guy who was climbing your tree.”
“Well, yeah. Him or anybody sneaking around.”
Brice stopped. “Why do you ask?”
Isa forced a laugh. “Just making conversation.”
“Interesting subject choice.”
She bit her lower lip and glanced at the sidewalk. A pansy had pushed through a crack and had bloomed despite its harsh surroundings. Isa sucked in a breath, placing a hand on Brice’s arm. “Look at that brave flower. You go, pansy. Thrive.”
“What just happened?” Brice laughed.
“One minute you’re talking about creeps lurking around houses and the next you’re going crazy over a flower.”
“Yep.” And his point was? A text dinged on Isa’s phone. “Hold on. It might be my aunt.” She pulled her phone out of her back pocket.
Carolyn: Somebody is going to be so jealous.
What was Carolyn talking about?
Isa: Hey Care, did you text the wrong person?
Carolyn: No. That was meant for you.
Isa: What? Who’s jealous?
Carolyn: Nate. Who else?
What? Why would Nate be jealous?
Isa walked with Brice until their paths split. Unfortunately, he didn’t have any further information regarding her creeper. She was exhausted by the time she got home. Plays and boys really took it out of a girl. She trudged up the sidewalk toward her front door. The vines growing up the side of the house welcomed her. She’d never trim them. It was as though they gave the house a hug. Aunt Hazel’s car wasn’t in the driveway, she’d have to let herself in.
She searched her purse. No house key. Doggone. She must’ve left her key in her room. No big deal, a spare was hidden under a rock around the side of the house. She walked around to the side of house, but before she reached the rock she tripped on a broken crepe myrtle branch. How did that happen?
Isa tugged on the branch and pulled it free. The rock border was also disturbed. Three of the rocks had been shifted to expose raw dirt. Isa stood on her tiptoes and peered inside the window. The window provided a clear view of their small living room and into the kitchen.
She shuddered. Was it another peeping tom? Was Jake at it again?
Or a more likely scenario was that the lawn care guy did it. Aunt Hazel had signed up for basic lawn maintenance a couple years ago when mowing became too much for her. And school prevented Isa from doing much more than maintaining the flower beds. Mr. Jacobs probably accidentally caught the low hanging branch with his oversized riding mower.
That was probably it.
“Ah-ha! I knew you hadn’t given it up!”
Isa jumped and hit her head on the garden shed shutter.
Dang it. Nate caught her. “Whatever do you mean?” Why was she talking in a thick southern accent all of sudden? Must be the guilt.
Nate leaned against the shed. “Well, Scarlet. I think it’s obvious that you’re investigating the lily crusher.”
“I was checking on my flowers.” She leaned over and fingered the sticky green leaf of a lily.
“Uh-huh. Sure you were.”
“Hey, guys.” Isa turned to Brice, who walked toward them. A leather satchel was strapped across his chest, pens and paper poking out the top. “Did you lose something?”
“Nope. Just checking on my flowers. Ready to practice?” Isa smiled.
Nate stepped closer to Isa. “I can stick around if you guys want me to run lines with you?”
“Sure,” Isa said.
“No, thanks.” Brice answered simultaneously then looked at Isa. “I guess it doesn’t matter.”
“Great.” Nate walked over to the back deck and settled in a green Adirondack chair. “You got the script in your uh purse there.” He pointed to Brice’s satchel.
“It’s a satchel.” He gave it a pat.
“Right. Sorry.” Nate looked up and grinned at Isa. “Ready?”
Did it just get weird? “Okay. Let’s do this. Brice, stand here,” she pointed to a plank in the deck, “and I’ll walk in from over there,” she gestured to the far side of the deck. “When you see me, open your arms wide and I’ll run into them.”
Nate stood. “Whoa. Run into his arms? What kind of play is this?”
Isa turned to Nate. “Oh, it’s so romantic. We’re long lost loves. It’s kind of like how I imagined Aunt Hazel and her long lost love would’ve been if they’d been reunited. That’s if Aunt Hazel had an actual lost love.”
“I’ve been too busy working on painting the set to read the play.” Nate thumbed through the script, scanning the pages.
“Don’t worry, Romeo. No kissing scenes.” Brice smirked.
A crash behind the shed interrupted the now awkward play practice.
The lily crusher was back! Isa scrambled down the stairs and ran around to the back of the shed. She screeched to a stop in front of the toppled garbage can. Oscar, her orange tabby, pawed at an old milk carton.
“Oscar, that’s disgusting.” She picked up the fat cat.
Nate leaned close and whispered, “Maybe Oscar’s the lily crusher.”
“No. I don’t think so.” She rubbed between Oscar’s ears. “The hole in the window wouldn’t have been caused by him. It was too round. And I know he’s fat, but he’s not that big to crush that many lilies.”
Nate cocked an eyebrow.
Doggone it. She said too much.
“After practice, tell me all that you know. We’ll figure it out together.” He squeezed her arm.
“No.” She maneuvered around him and walked toward the deck.
“Isabelle,” Nate called after her.
“Brice, we’ll practice tomorrow, okay? I’m pretty tired.” She called over her shoulder.
“Okay. I’ll text you later,” Brice said.
“Sounds good.” She set Oscar on the ground and cranked open the back door. “Later, Nate.”
“Why don’t you want my help?” Nate placed a hand on the door, stopping her from shutting it.
“I can’t do it.”
“Do what?” His hand dropped.
“See you get hurt again.” She shut the door and her stomach twisted.
At least Nate knew the truth now.
She was probably being overly weird about this whole thing. It was probably nothing.
Or maybe it was something.
If it had stopped at the crushed lilies, gum, and broken window, she may have let it go.
But it didn’t.
There was still the matter of the broken pot and opened window a few days later.
Pots didn’t break on their own. And windows certainly didn’t open by themselves.
All in the Open
Nate: Open the door.
Isa: I’m tired.
Nate: Open the door.
Nate: Open the door.
Nate would never go away. She could see his silhouette through the curtained window. He paced the deck like a caged panther. A caged panther gripping a phone.
Grunting, Isa pushed herself off the couch and trudged to the door. The second she opened it, Nate bounded inside.
“Isabelle, what’s going on?”
She picked up a vase of wildflowers off the end table and buried her face in them. “Don’t you love the smell of wildflowers? I like it almost more than a rose. Wildflowers smells so… earthy. ” She trust them toward Nate. “Go on. Drink in the aroma.”
He swung his head away from the flowers. “I don’t want to smell flowers. I want to talk.”
She set the vase back on the table. “I was afraid you’d say that.”
“Let’s sit.” He led her by the elbow to the flowered couch. “Where’s Hazel?”
Isa shrugged. “The store. I think.”
They both sunk into the plush couch. “Okay, spill it.”
Isa grabbed a pillow and held it against her chest. “You’re right.” She sighed. “I haven’t given up on the lily crusher mystery. It’s more than just the lilies and broken window now.” She went on to tell him about how a few days after the broken window incident, she’d found the window left opened and a broken pot in the trash.
Nate scooted closer. “That is strange. Why would somebody come back? And why would they clean up their mess?”
“I figured they were trying to cover their tracks when they swept up the broken pot.” She shrugged.
“Well, they should’ve thrown it away somewhere else. Sloppy work. And you’re sure it wasn’t your aunt who cleaned it up and left the window open?”
“I’m sure. She thought I was the one who did it.”
Nate blew out a breath. “Has anything else strange happened?”
“Not really.” She ran her hands through her hair. “Well, there were some disturbed rocks and a broken branch over by that window.” She pointed to the living room window.
He nodded. “I think I’ll have to monitor your yard for a bit. Maybe do a stake out.”
“Nope. I’m fine.” Isa stood and started toward the kitchen. “I better start dinner before Aunt Hazel gets back.”
Nate followed. “Why don’t you want my help?”
Isa yanked open the pantry door. “Because the last time you helped me, you wound up with a broken leg.”
“I’ll be fine. Please, I need to do this.”
She felt his hand on her shoulder as she pulled out the canister of pasta. “Why do you insist on doing this?” She turned and faced him.
He tilted his head and gazed into her eyes. “Because I care for you.”
The canister fell to floor. Shell pasta scattered everywhere.
Isa didn’t make a move to clean the mess. She was frozen.
What did he mean he cared for her?
Nate cleared his throat then walked to the laundry room off the kitchen and came back with a broom.
Of course, he’d clean up her mess. It seemed that’s all he did.
Isa slid the curtain on her kitchen window and peered outside. Nate had been true to his word, he was staked out on his back deck. He had a lawn chair turned toward her yard, a table stocked with books, water, and a bag of chips. He leaned back with his feet propped up reading a book. He looked like someone just enjoying a nice summer’s day.
The wooden fence that separated their yards obscured a person’s view of Nate unless they knew he was there. Isa’s kitchen window was set higher and offered a view of both her back yard and Nate’s. If anyone sneaked into her yard, Nate would see him or her before they realized they were being watched.
But what if they only came at night? Was Nate planning on staying out all night? This plan made no sense. Did he really think he’d just stay on his back deck all summer?
Did he remember sunscreen?
A quick rap sounded at her front door then the door creaked. “Hello?! Anyone home?” Carolyn’s voice filled the house.
“In the kitchen.” Isa couldn’t tear her eyes from Nate
Carolyn came up beside Isa. “What’s Nate doing? Working on his tan?”
“I’m not really sure what he’s trying to accomplish.”
“The boy likes to read.” Carolyn helped herself to a glass of water.
“You can say that again.” Isa laughed and dropped the curtain. “So what’s the plan?”
Carolyn rubbed her hands together. “A makeover.”
Isa shook her head. “Not this again. I told you, I don’t like makeup.”
“Well, I do and I need practice putting it on people. Who knows I may even go into cosmetology.”
Why not? It wasn’t like Isa had anything better to do. “Okay, but don’t make me look garish.”
“I’d never make you look…whatever you just said.”
Three different lipstick, blush, eyeliner, and eyeshadow applications later, a loud thump sounded through Isa’s opened bedroom window from the backyard. Isa and Carolyn raced down the stairs and out the back door to find Brice leaning against the garden shed rubbing his temple and Nate hovering nearby.
“What happened?” Isa jogged toward them.
“Nate, here.” Brice jerked his thumb toward Nate. “Snuck up on me and scared me. I tripped over your garden hose and hit my head on your shed.”
“What were you doing sneaking around Isabelle’s shed?” Nate glared at him.
“Looking for my pen.”
“Your pen?” Isa asked.
“Yeah. I think I lost it yesterday. It’s special.”
“You have a special pen?” Nate scoffed.
“Do you have a problem with me?” Brice took a step toward him.
Carolyn stepped between Nate and Brice. “Okay. This is getting a little intense over a pen. C’mon, Brice why don’t I walk you home?”
Brice nodded but scowled once more at Nate before walking away.
Isa brushed aside the leaves of the lilies with her foot. “I hope he finds his pen.”
“You don’t honestly think he was looking for his pen? Do you?”
“I have no reason to think otherwise.”
“Don’t be so naïve.”
Heat rose in Isa’s chest. “How dare you?!” She marched toward the deck.
“Wait. I’m sorry.” He placed a hand on her arm, stopping her. “It’s just that Brice admitted to stalking you when he first moved here back in the spring.”
Ugh. Why did Isa tell Nate about that? She should’ve known he’d warp it. “He didn’t stalk me. He just saw me from a distance and was too afraid to talk to me.”
“Well, Brice just moved to my number one suspect. No more play practices alone with him.”
Did he just boss her around? She planted a hand on her hip. “Excuse me!?”
“I didn’t mean it to sound so…”
“Yeah. That.” He pressed his lips together and clasped his hands. “Sorry.”
She sighed. “It’s okay. If it makes you feel better you can come to our practices.”
“Yes, it would.” He grinned.
Good grief. All of this over a few crushed lilies and a broken pot.
And a peeping tom.
Okay, that last one was a bit disturbing.
Number One Suspect
“Why is Jake skateboarding on the sidewalk in front of your house?” Nate dropped the living room curtain.
“He’s been out there all morning.” Aunt Hazel grinned. “I think he has a little thing for our Isa.”
Isa’s cheeks grew hot. “I doubt that. Are we going to play or what?” She pushed aside a stack of magazines on the coffee table and started shuffling the Skip-Bo cards.
Nate settled on the floor next to the coffee table. Aunt Hazel’s knitting needles started clicking again.
It was too hot to do anything outside and Isa needed to get her mind off the play. Dress rehearsal was in four hours. Nate and Carolyn had put the finishing touches on the set just that morning. Isa wasn’t sure why she was so nervous. It was just a little community play. It wasn’t like she had aspirations to become a professional actress. Yet, her stomach tied in knots at the thought of the play opening in just two days.
“Is Brice coming over later to practice?” Aunt Hazel asked.
Nate glanced at Isa, his hand frozen over his pile of cards.
“Nope. We decided that we practiced enough on our own.”
“You decided that. Brice would practice with you every hour if he could.” Nate said.
There was a light rap on the front door then it creaked open. “Hey, guys.” Carolyn bounded inside. “What’s the animal torturer doing outside?”
“Stalking Isabelle.” Nate’s eyes never left his cards.
“He is not.” Isa rolled her eyes.
Carolyn stopped at the entry table. “Can I have a piece of this gum?” She held up a pack of gum labeled, Orange Burst.
“That’s not mine. Brice must’ve left it here. He’s always chewing that stuff.”
Carolyn shrugged. “I’m sure he won’t mind.” She unwrapped a piece and popped it in her mouth and came to join them around the table.
“Wanna play?” Nate offered.
“No. I’m not sticking around. I have a date I have to get ready for.”
“A date?!” Isa hit the table. “With who?”
“With Nate here.” She bumped him with her shoulder.
Isa’s heart flipped. “You two have a date?” Carolyn placed her hand on Nate’s arm. “We didn’t get a chance to tell you that we’re dating now.”
Isa felt her mouth pop open. “You two are dating?” Now her stomach really tied in a knot. Was this still play jitters or the recent news?
Nate glanced at Carolyn then at Isa. A grin tugged at the corner of his mouth.
“I..I had no idea that you two—”
“Relax.” Carolyn chuckled. “I was just kidding. I have a date with my Dad. He’s taking me out to dinner.”
Isa looked from Carolyn to Nate. “Well, that’s um too bad.” She bit her lower lip. “Y’all would’ve made a cute couple.”
“Oh puh-leeze.” Carolyn laughed. “It’s good that we’re not dating. That means Nate’s still available.” She winked.
Nate’s cheeks started to bloom. And Isa was pretty sure her cheeks were matching his.
“What are you talking about? Who wants to date Nate?” Isa shuffled the cards.
Nate crinkled his brow. “Gee, thanks.”
Carolyn laughed, opening her mouth to reveal a wad of bright orange gum.
Wait. The gum was orange. Gum was usually white, maybe greenish-yellow. Sometimes pink. Rarely orange.
“That’s an odd colored gum. Don’t ya think?” Isa stared at her best friend’s mouth.
“What?” Nate turned to look at Carolyn also.
Carolyn covered her mouth. “What are you two talking about?”
“The gum. It’s orange. You don’t see that color of gum very often.”
Nate nodded. “The same color of gum that was beside the broken window.”
Carolyn blew out a breath. “Okay, it just got weird. I gotta go.” She pushed herself up and walked toward the door. “Bye, Aunt Hazel.”
“Bye, dear.” Aunt Hazel didn’t look up from her knitting.
Nate leaned close. “I told you Brice was my number one suspect.”
Isa looked at the pack of Orange Burst gum.
Maybe Nate was right.
Maybe Brice was the stalker.
“I’m fine, Nate. You don’t need to walk me to rehearsal.” Isa sighed and sped in front of Nate on the narrow sidewalk. A flash of fuschia caught her eye. She stopped.
Nate ran into her back. “Why’d we stop?”
Isa took a step closer to a tree on the outskirts of the town’s park. A vine with glossy green leaves and bright pink flowers wrapped around it’s trunk. “It’s beautiful.”
Nate laughed. “I should’ve known.”
A banging hammer sounded in the distance, last minute preparations on the stage, no doubt. Isa loved the setting of the play. Blue Cove had a small park in the center of town with a gazebo, small pond, and playground. The play would be held in the far corner of the small park that overlooked the lily laden pond.
“You’ll be late for practice, Isabelle.”
She glanced at her watch. “Oops.” She ran toward the wooden stage, the sound of Nate’s thudding footsteps followed.
Brice was already on the stage, his head dipped studying the script. Isa bounded up the three stairs to the stage. Brice looked up and a smile lit up his face until they shifted behind her then his mouth thinned to a line. She turned and saw Nate standing behind her. Did he really need to stay within three feet at all times? It was ridiculous.
“Ready?” Brice asked.
“Not really. But if I felt ready, I probably wouldn’t be ready. Nerves give us actors an edge. At least, that’s what I read.”
“Very true.” He took a step closer.
“Did you find your pen?” Nate asked.
Brice turned and looked at him. “No, but I hope I do.”
“Seems kind of strange that you’d worry so much about finding a pen.”
Nate stared down Brice who turned back to Isa. “I want to find it because it’s my good luck pen. I’ve written my best stuff with that pen.”
“Wow. You’re a writer.” Isa did a little hop and clapped her hands. “That’s awesome.”
“Maybe you and I can go out sometime and I’ll let you read some of my poems.”
Brice smiled. “Yes, like a date.”
“A date?” Isa’s voice cracked.
Nate stepped between them. “She doesn’t do that kind of stuff.”
“What stuff?” Isa asked.
“She’s interested in flowers and nature. Not dating.” Nate ignored Isa’s question.
“Those aren’t mutually exclusive,” Brice said.
“It’s not happening poetry boy.”
What was going on? Had Nate lost his mind? “I can speak—”
“Why don’t you let Isa decide that?” Brice turned toward her.
Oh no. This was bad. Isa was so busy being mad at Nate for making decisions for her that she had no clue how she was going to answer.
On the one hand, Brice was nice, cute, and big bonus, he wrote poetry. How bad could he be?
Then again, he could be an obsessed creeper who lurked around staring in girl’s windows.
And the truth was, Nate was right in a way. Isa wasn’t really into dating. It was too complicated. But he had no right to answer for her.
Now she felt like she had to say yes just to spite him.
“I’d love to read your poetry sometime.” That worked. It wasn’t exactly a date acceptance. “How about tomorrow after rehearsal?”
Nate flashed her a what-are-you-doing look.
“So it’s a date.” Brice grinned.
“Well, more of a uh…poetry reading.”
“I’ll take what I can get. Tomorrow it is.” Brice held up a finger toward the director. “Harold, I have a question about the second scene.” He jogged after the harried director.
Nate pulled Isa by the elbow to the corner of the stage. “What are you doing? We don’t know if we can trust this guy.”
“We? I thought I was going on a… uh poetry reading with him not us.”
“You know what I mean. He may be your stalker.”
“I doubt it. Stalkers don’t write poetry.”
Or maybe they do? What was she doing?
Poetry and Meddling
It turned out Brice’s poetry was actually pretty good. Isa crossed her legs and plucked a blade of grass. Isa selected her front yard for their poetry reading. It had a beautiful view of the mountains, soft plush grass, and was away from Nate’s meddling at least for the first few minutes. They’d started out in the back yard, but Nate chose that time to sit on his deck to read a book.
Isa used the view of the mountains as an excuse to move to the front yard away from Nate’s prying eyes.
It didn’t matter, though.
A few minutes after they moved, Nate found an urgent need to work on his bike in his driveway. How convenient.
Isa turned her back to Nate and tried to focus on Brice’s words. After he finished his last poem, he reached in his pocket and pulled out a pack of gum.
He popped an orange piece of gum in his mouth. The same color as the gum by the shed. Was that a coincidence? Not exactly enough proof to convict the guy alone. But he’d been creeping around the shed too. Plus he’d admitted to watching her when he first moved here back in the spring.
Okay, maybe it was all adding up to a conviction.
Isa scooted a few inches away from him. A shiver went up her spine.
She glanced over her shoulder to see Nate peering over his bike at them. Thank goodness for meddling best friends and broken bikes after all.
Brice fingers skimmed Isa’s arm. “Are you okay?”
Isa pulled her arm away. “I’m fine. Just nervous about the play.” Not exactly a total lie. She was nervous about the play. Just not right now.
The noise of a bike whizzing up the sidewalk caught Isa’s attention. Jake jumped off his bike and leaned it against the light post in front of Isa’s house. What was he doing here? He pulled out his phone and started tapping on it. Guess he didn’t want to text and drive. That was smart at least for an animal torturer.
“Want a piece?” Brice held a piece of gum out to Isa.
“No thanks.” Isa studied the wrapper with orange stripes. “So where did you get that gum? I’ve never seen it before.”
“I got a case of it on clearance at Dawson’s Corner Store back when I first moved here.”
“Dawson’s?” She nodded. “That’s Jake’s parent’s store.” She gestured toward Jake tapping on his phone.
“Yeah, gum is my addiction. I guess I could be addicted to worse.”
“True.” Isa glanced at Jake. “So you say it was on clearance?”
“Yeah. They had boxes of it marked down. I don’t think it was discontinued or something. Why the sudden interest in my gum?”
Isa forced a smile. “Just making conversation.”
“Was my poetry that bad?”
“What? No! It was great—”
A cat’s howl jerked her attention.
Jake stood at the corner of her yard holding Oscar by the scruff.
Isa jumped up. “Let go of my cat!”
Jake’s head popped up, just as a piece of bright orange gum flew from his mouth.
It’s All About The Gum
“Unhand my cat!” Isa came to a screeching halt in front of the open-mouthed Jake.
Nate and Brice flanked her.
Her eyes narrowed in on Oscar’s paw. A thorn protruded from between the cat’s black pads. She held up her hand. “Wait. What are you doing?”
Jake turned Oscar in his arms, cradling him like a baby. He yanked the thorn out and returned Oscar to the ground. “I noticed he was limping.” Oscar weaved in and out of Jake’s legs before sauntering toward the front porch.
“So you were trying to help him.” Isa crinkled her brow. The animal torturer was actually helping her cat. “How do I know you didn’t put that thorn in his paw?”
“And how would I have done that?”
Nate crossed his arms. “Oscar seemed pretty friendly with you.”
Jake shrugged. “Yeah. So?”
“It’s just that Oscar doesn’t really care for strangers. He must be used to you. And I can’t help but notice your affinity for orange gum.”
Brice threw up his hands. “What’s with the obsession with gum?”
“Not just any gum. Orange gum.” Isa corrected.
Nate looked from Brice to Jake. “It had to be one of these two.”
“Agreed,” Isa said. “But why?”
“That I’m not sure about,” Nate said.
“Do you know what they’re talking about?” Brice asked Jake.
Jake kicked dirt and studied the ground. “Nope.”
Interesting. Jake was avoiding eye contact and Brice truly looked clueless. “I think we have our answer.” Isa took a step closer to Jake. “So why’d you break into my house?”
Jake’s head snapped up. “I never took a step in your house. The shed was as far as I went.”
“Yeah. I know. I just needed you to confess. It’s easier to get someone to confess to a lesser crime if they think they’re being accused of a bigger one.”
Nate cocked an eyebrow. “I’m impressed.”
“So why’d you do it?” Isa asked.
“I think it’s obvious that he’s some sicko stalker.” Nate took a step closer and eyed Jake.
“No. I don’t think so.” Isa pulled on Nate’s arm. “You wanted to help Oscar or something? Am I right? You actually like animals.”
Jake sighed. “Back when I was ten, my cat had kittens. My mom just left them out in the wild to die. I took them and placed them near homes of people who I thought might take them in. Oscar was one of those kittens.”
Isa felt her mouth open. “But you are a known butterfly torturer.”
“I was trying to help that poor butterfly. Somehow it got all distorted and I became an animal bully.”
“This doesn’t explain why you broke a window in Isabelle’s shed,” Nate said.
“I threw the rock to scare Oscar away from an injured bird. I meant to hit the side of the shed. Not the window.” He raked his hands through his hair.
“But why did you come back and break into the shed?”
Jake’s eyebrows rose. “Wow. You are good. How did you know?”
“You left the window cracked and broke a pot. You are not a graceful criminal.”
He shook his head. “I’m not a criminal. I was worried about the bird. I thought it went in your shed. I came back later to check on it. I never found it, so I guess it got away. Sorry about the window and pot.”
“Are you kidding?” Isa laughed. “It was an awesome mystery.”
“It wasn’t awesome. We thought some creep was stalking you!” Nate said.
Isa waved her hand in the air. “Pish Posh. Nothing to worry about.”
“Oh yeah. Well, what about the evidence of someone looking in your living room window?” Nate asked.
“Oh. That would’ve been me.” Brice raised his hand and gave Isa a sheepish grin.
Nate glared at him. “I knew it.”
“It’s not as creepy as it sounds. One day when I was supposed to come over for play practice. I knocked on the door and nobody answered. I walked around to look in the window to see if anyone was home. Right after I did it, I realized it was…”
“Inappropriate,” Isa said.
“More like strange. People shouldn’t go around looking in windows. Not sure what came over me.”
“I think I know what came over you.” Nate said.
“Well, that’s settled.” Isa gave a little clap. “I love solving mysteries.” Then she sighed. “But then it’s sad not having a mystery to solve anymore.”
Nate clapped her shoulder. “I’m sure you’ll find another.”
“I certainly hope so. But for now, we have a play to get ready for.”
The sound of thudding footsteps caught Isa’s attention. She turned to see Carolyn running toward them. She stopped in front of them, heaving breaths.
“Harold is missing!” Carolyn announced between gasps.
“The play’s director?” Nate asked.
Carolyn nodded. “They’ve looked all over. His car has been parked at the movie theater since last night and he’s nowhere to be found.”
A shiver went up Isa’s spine. Looks like they had another mystery already.
But a missing person was a lot scarier than a broken window. This could be serious. Was she ready for something like this?
The end for now.
Thanks for reading! Subscribe to my email list for notifications of new chapters. If you missed Isa & Nate Part One, sign up below and it will be sent to you for free! Optin Cat: Missing Form Data. Is it in the trash?