Pamela Burford

Excerpt: Icing Allison

Book 4: Jane Delaney Mysteries

Chapter 1: So-Called Fun

YOU’RE PROBABLY WONDERING what I was doing trekking through secluded woods on a bitterly cold winter day, following a dangerous man carrying a scary-looking chainsaw. Okay, when you put it like that, it does seem kind of stupid. And for the record, I’m not the one who says he’s dangerous. That would be my ex-husband, Dom, but Dom tends to be overprotective.

Plus I had my own history with this particular bad boy. Martin McAuliffe and I had been in a tight scrape once, of the life-threatening variety, and he’d shown his true colors then.

Right about now you’re thinking that big, brave Martin came to the rescue of frightened little Jane. The fact is, I saved his life. Just to, you know, set the record straight.

If I was in danger from Martin, then so was Sexy Beast, my seven-pound apricot poodle. Sexy Beast—SB for short—was having a grand old time, trotting along with us, sniffing all these wonderful new smells, and watering the trees. He wasn’t too crazy about the little plaid parka I’d put on him. Well, it was cold.

Oh, did I forget to mention? The dangerous man was also carrying two pairs of ice skates. I happen to know what was in his backpack, because he’d teased me with the contents in order to entice me to, well, willingly spend time outdoors in winter. He’d gone to my favorite deli to pick up our lunch: thick roast beef sandwiches and potato salad. Then he’d swung by Patisserie Susanne for pastries, including my all-time favorite, chocolate croissants, and sealed the deal with a thermos filled with hot chocolate. I mean, really, the man does not fight fair.

Sexy Beast wouldn’t go hungry, either. I’d brought along his favorite treat, Vienna sausages. Plus some water and one of those cute collapsible doggie water bowls.

And before you start thinking this was some kind of date, let me assure you it was nothing of the sort. There was zilch going on between me and Martin. He wasn’t my type. I’m not attracted to sexy-as-hell bad boys with mysterious backgrounds. I’m too mature for that.

You can stop snickering.

“Why couldn’t we go to an ice-skating rink?” I asked. Well, it might’ve been more of a whine.

“A skating rink when the temperatures have been in the single digits for days?” he called over his shoulder. “Nature is our skating rink.”

“I never knew you were such a nature lover,” I said. “And why won’t you tell me what the chainsaw is for?” I knew it wasn’t to cut down a Christmas tree. Christmas had come and gone. The new year was one week old, and as Martin had pointed out, it was toe-numbingly cold and had been so for a depressingly long time.

Though I wasn’t about to admit it, it was actually refreshing to be doing something outdoors, and the view didn’t hurt. The sight of the padre’s nice firm posterior encased in snug jeans was as bracing as the weather.

Oh, you thought I was talking about the view of the pristine woods. Yeah, that was nice too, especially with the frozen lake coming into view. It hadn’t snowed for a couple of weeks, but here and there patches of old snow lay on the trail. I tried to ignore that I’d been to these particular woods before, had viewed that particular lake before. Although now that I was getting a clearer, calmer look at it, I saw it was more modest than I remembered, somewhere between a small lake and a very large pond.

That other visit to this particular nature preserve had been several months earlier when I’d arrived bound and gagged in the trunk of my own car. I’d barely managed to avoid being shot and dumped in that picturesque lake. Of course, it had been July then and the woods had been thick and green.

Martin had been shaken by my close brush with death. Well, heck, so had I. I wondered if his choice of these woods for our jolly winter activity was a way of helping me confront and get past that episode, kind of like getting back on the horse again.

The air had that sharp, clean smell you get only when it’s bitterly cold. I was dressed warmly, and so was Sexy Beast, but my fingers were starting to get numb despite my gloves. I figured I’d generate some heat once I was out there skating—if, that is, the ice was safe. We paused at the edge of the frozen lake. It looked inviting, but…

“How do we know it’s thick enough to hold our weight?” I asked.

This was Martin’s cue to set down the skates and fire up the chainsaw. The obnoxious racket was Sexy Beast’s cue to bark like hell. “It’s been so cold for so long,” he said, “there can’t be much doubt. And just look at that ice. Clear and blue just like we want it. But just to be sure…”

He strolled a few yards onto the ice while Sexy Beast’s mounting hysteria warned he was taking a foolish risk. I had to agree. What on earth would I do if he fell in? He placed the tip of the chainsaw on the solid surface and sliced straight down through it. Water sprayed as he repeated the procedure, creating a small hole. He set down the saw and extracted a metal measuring tape from his jacket pocket, which he extended and inserted into the hole, hooking the metal tab under the bottom of the ice.

Martin’s grin crinkled the corners of his eyes, which were the same pale blue as the ice. “A little over seven inches. We’re good to go. Put those skates on.”

“That doesn’t mean it’s that thick everywhere.”

“When did you become such a worrier?”

When I almost became fish food in this very lake, I wanted to say.

He ambled all the way to the center of the lake and repeated the exercise, then held up seven fingers.

“Is that really deep enough?” I called.

“You tell me,” he shouted, with a devilish grin. “Does it take more than seven inches to satisfy Jane Delaney?”

Automatically I looked around to make sure no one was within earshot, but of course we were the only ones in the whole dang preserve. “Couldn’t you have just used a chisel to test the ice?” I asked. “Maybe a cordless drill?”

“Where’s the fun in that?” He grabbed the chainsaw and walked back toward me. He wore a sheepskin-lined leather bomber jacket and a black watch cap pulled down over his short, sandy hair.

I parked my behind on a large rock and examined the skates Martin had rented for me that morning at Vargas Sporting Goods. They were my size. Well, of course they were. The padre seemed to know everything about me, sneaky SOB that he was. I was used to it by now.

Why do I call him the padre? you ask. This goes back to last spring when we first met. Martin had been impersonating a priest at the time. And before you start thinking what a shameless thing that is to do, in the interest of full disclosure I must admit that I was trying to steal a piece of jewelry from a corpse during the wake. As it happened, Martin beat me to it. I guess he has more experience being shameless than I do.

As bad as it might sound to be swiping something from the recently departed, let me assure you it was just business and completely on the up and up. Okay, maybe not completely. Irene McAuliffe—yeah, she was related to Martin, kind of—had hired me to retrieve the brooch before it ended up six feet under the gently rolling turf of Whispering Willows Cemetery. The brooch actually belonged to her, you see. Or something like that.

I can hear you thinking, Wait, what? Someone actually paid you to steal from the dead? Is that a thing now?

For me, it is. My name is Jane Delaney, but I’m better known as the Death Diva. People hire me to do all sorts of things to, for, or on behalf of their dearly departed.

Oh don’t make that face. We’re talking pretty benign stuff. Well, most of the time. You need someone to scatter cremated ashes? I’m your gal. How about delivering flowers to the cemetery or ordering a tombstone or writing an obituary? You know those memory boards you see at wakes and visitations, with photos of the deceased in more animated times? I can’t tell you how many of those I’ve made. I do all those things, plus some that might not immediately pop to mind.

For example, I’ve arranged for the cryogenic preservation of a loved one’s head so that decades from now scientists can, I don’t know, attach it to a sexy young body, as a great big nyah nyah to all the poor saps who’d allowed themselves to be buried or burned once their bodies gave out. I’ve taken a deceased person’s cremated ashes on a cruise to Alaska because he always wanted to go, but his wife got seasick. So not only did I get a free cruise, but I actually got paid to do it. Is this a great career or what?

Martin tied his skates and got onto the ice while I was still struggling to lace up my first one. Then after I got them on I still had to take care of Sexy Beast’s feet. I produced a set of little dog booties from my own small backpack and managed to get them on his little paws while he jerked and twitched and did everything in his power to thwart me. He’d never worn footwear before, but I mean, he was going onto the ice, and I didn’t want his sensitive little feet to freeze.

I watched my dog stumble around the frozen ground kicking his feet out, trying to dislodge these strange things that I’d forced on him. “I’m not trying to torture you, SB,” I said. “This is for your own good.”

The look he gave me questioned my sanity. I knew you’d go crazy on me eventually, I just didn’t think it would happen so soon.

“You know, he doesn’t need those,” the padre called from the middle of the lake. He was skating beautifully, sailing across the ice with strong, graceful movements. I could’ve sat there and watched him all day if I weren’t worried about frostbite. “Dogs have excellent circulation in their feet. You’re just annoying him.”

I ignored Martin, got to my feet, and made my ungainly way onto the ice. “Come on, SB, let’s go have some so-called fun.”

Sexy Beast was still trying to shake off the boots, but he managed to follow me onto the ice, where he proceeded to stumble and slide. He really did look pathetic and I wondered if Martin was right.

I started to skate, or I should say I tried to remain upright while shuffling my feet in a forward direction. Sexy Beast’s sullen glare took in my skates and his own boots. He admitted a long-suffering sigh but soldiered on, tottering after me, except when his feet splayed in all directions and he belly-flopped onto the ice. He was definitely earning that Vienna sausage.

A poltergeist grabbed one of my skates and yanked on it. I landed hard on my keister. Sexy Beast managed to get his front paws up onto me. His dark little eyes stared straight into mine. I knew he was thinking about his nice cozy bucket bed in the kitchen and his fuzzy toys. I was the alpha female, I was supposed to take care of him, and he was probably wondering if he’d have to haul me off this frozen lake by my collar.

Martin skated toward me. “You weren’t kidding about being a lousy skater.”

“Can we stop now?” I asked. “I’m ready for hot chocolate.”

“You have to earn it. And these have to go.” He bent down and tugged the booties off SB’s feet.

“Put those back on him,” I said. “He needs them.”

Martin shoved them deep into his front jeans pocket. “You’re welcome to fish them out.” Another impish grin.

The look I gave him said, Keep dreaming. Reckless Jane wanted to go ahead and shove her hand into his pocket, grope around for those booties, just to see his reaction. Sensible Jane knew that would probably be a bad idea. But why? Reckless Jane asked. After all, you’ve known the padre for almost a year. Okay, more like nine months. We’d survived a really hairy situation once, as I’ve mentioned. And yeah, maybe I still didn’t know anything about Martin’s background, but I trusted him and liked him. Well, most of the time. So why shouldn’t I go ahead and, you know, take things a little further?

Sensible Jane had an answer for that. Well, of course she did. She’s so boring and predictable that way. Bad boys might be exciting in the short term, Sensible Jane sniffed, but they’re no good for long-term relationships.

So? Reckless Jane countered. What’s wrong with a little short-term whoopee?

While this battle waged inside my cranium, Martin positioned himself behind me, hoisted me by my armpits, and grabbed hold of my waist. Sexy Beast began barking at this fun new game.

“What are you doing?” I squawked.

“Trying to turn you into a skater.” He started to skate slowly, guiding me ahead of him. “Don’t fight me, Jane. Relax.”

I wasn’t fighting him, I was just a little flustered, unaccustomed as I was to this much physical contact with him. I tried to obey him, tried to relax. There was nothing intimate about what he was doing, after all. Right?

Reckless Jane told me to shut up and enjoy it.

Sexy Beast happily trotted after us, unencumbered by the ridiculous boots. Oh, he slid a few times until he got his bearings on the ice, but overall he seemed to be enjoying himself. He avidly sniffed the frigid air, tail wagging.

Martin guided me around the edge of the lake, slowly picking up speed. My skates did try to fly out from under me a couple of times, but he held me steady. Meanwhile he offered bits of advice, which I tried to obey. It’s not that I have no athletic ability, I was a softball champ in high school, and okay, so that was a long time ago, more than two decades if I’m being honest. But skating is just something I never quite got the hang of.

Now, as we made our way around the frozen lake, I was kind of glad I’d never quite gotten the hang of it. I decided I was enjoying the feel of Martin’s hands on my waist, his strength and power as he propelled us both over the ice, his breath warming the back of my neck.

I kept looking down at my skates, trying to keep them going in the right direction, trying to prove to Martin that I wasn’t completely hopeless, which is why I saw her first.

A shrill scream rang out over the lake and reverberated through the woods. Only belatedly did I realize it had come from me. I found myself on my hands and knees, staring down into a pale face under the ice. Her eyes were open. Her mouth was open. Her long black hair streamed in all directions, frozen in place. She wore a red jacket and gray gloves.

I recognized those eyes. I knew that lovely, still face.

Martin knelt next to me. He said something, I have no idea what. I could hear nothing past my own roaring pulse. SB was all over me, trying to comfort me. He didn’t know what was wrong, he only knew his pack mate was in distress.

“We have to get her out of there!” I cried. I looked at Martin, his handsome features grim as he stared at the woman under the ice. I grabbed the collar of his leather jacket. I tried to shake him. “Get your chainsaw, Martin. We can get her out. It might not be too late.”

He pulled me hard against him, held me tight, tucked my face into his chest as if to spare me a sight that would forever haunt me. I fought him for a few seconds before collapsing against him, grateful for his steady presence, grateful I wasn’t alone.

He didn’t say it. He didn’t have to. It was already too late for Allison Zaleski.

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