Love and Suspense – Southern Style
When a skull is found buried in the courtyard of the Art House during renovations, executive director Meredith O’Neill is forced to halt the over-budget and oft-delayed project. Working with architect Kieran Ford has been a nightmare, despite his icy good-looks and brilliant design. Now that the Art House is declared a crime scene, the entire project is threatened. Forced to work together in close proximity, Meredith and Kieran soon find the tensions between them changing into something else entirely. Still, she can’t help but wonder how long the heat between them will last, especially when Kieran was once so cold.
Kieran is donating his time and talents to the Art House renovation, but working with Meredith is driving him crazy, and his pro bono project is quickly going south. When the skull of a child is discovered, Kieran must confront his own loss as well as keep the project, and Meredith, on task. Keeping his emotions in check proves to be impossible, and Kieran soon realizes that he is falling for Meredith. When he is framed for a crime, Kieran must learn to trust again. He and Meredith form an uneasy alliance as they seek answers to the mystery at the Art House. But someone is intent on destroying the historic building . . . and won’t hesitate to harm anyone who gets in the way.
The skull was small, that of a woman or child, the lower jaw separated in the dirt, as if the mouth had been open during the internment process. The foreman scraped away at the mud revealing a few bone fragments. The clenched hand, turned upward, was disarticulated from the arm, as if the skeleton had thrust its fist in anger at the gods. The man jerked back. It was definitely a human skull. And this was no cemetery.
“Call the police,” he said to his worker. “And you better call the architect, too.”
Meredith stood over the hole, her four-inch heels sinking into the red clay, her linen dress sticking to her body, slick with perspiration. She could clearly see bits of bone and the smooth curve of the skull. There were a few longer bones scattered about and what appeared to be a hand, balled up and reaching to the sky. The grave was shallow, only a few feet deep, and it was a wonder that the bones hadn’t appeared sooner. Meredith placed her hands on her hips, resisting the impulse to jump into the hole and free the remaining skeleton from the dirt and cradle it in her arms.
“It’s got to be human.” The foreman wiped his brow with a dirty towel. Red clay smeared his forehead like dried blood.
“It’s a child,” Meredith said. She crouched down, looking closer. Yes, it had to be a child. She cleared the muck from the back of her throat. Digging her fingers in the mounded dirt, she felt the soil clump together before she released it. The resting place for this poor soul. “I called the police. Did you call the architect?”
The foreman nodded. The courtyard was quiet, the digger now stopped, the work crew standing idly by, their heads hung in deference to the grave.
Meredith stood up and brushed the morsels of clay from her fingers. “I suppose we’ll be delayed again.” She didn’t know what else to say. Turning her back on the hole, she saw the crowd of workers part and the architect trudged toward her, his sleeves rolled up in the heat, his expression that of exasperation. “Hello, Kieran,” she said. She offered her hand to him even as her back stiffened. Although he was the project manager on this job, he was still the last person she wanted to see.
“I halted the work. I’m sorry. I know we’re behind schedule already…” He flung a tube of blue prints to the ground. He had a sheen of perspiration in his forehead, which he wiped away impatiently. Dressed in khakis and a button-down shirt, he looked as wilted as Meredith felt.
“The police are on their way.” Meredith stepped back as Kieran gave her a look and then made his way to the edge of the dig site and looked in.
“Shit.” He ran his fingers through his fair hair, the strands sticking together and becoming disarrayed. “I’ve seen this before. In Mosul. That’s definitely human.”
Liah Penn is an author and attorney who resides outside of New Orleans, Louisiana with her husband and two sons. A former prosecutor, she has worked on an Indian reservation, on the Mexican border and as a small town lawyer.