Paint Me a Picture

Chapter Twenty-Five

"May I help you?" Hester Mills stood behind the counter of the Hardware store as Nick Barkley walked through the front door. The smile that was on her face was so insincere. In fact, Nick had thought from the moment Tom had introduced him to her that there was something fake about the woman. If it wasn't for the matter at hand, he'd not even had come in. "I wanted to talk to Tom." Nick hoped that lie, along with the others he was about to tell, would not be held against him. Only what choice did he, his brothers, and Brigham have? They had to throw out some bait if they wanted to catch any fish.

It was all she could do to continue smiling. Tom had shocked her just that morning by breaking off their engagement. He'd said he was sorry, but he wasn't as ready for marriage as he thought he was. Still, he'd asked her to continue working at the store, unless a better work opportunity came up for her. She was still boiling mad, so she lied through her teeth, "Tom isn't in right town right now. Maybe I can help you." She rested her one arm on the register while putting the palm of her other one on the counter.

"No." Nick started to act as if he meant to leave, and then stopped. Turning around, he purposely took time to look as if he was thinking. Inwardly, he had to laugh. Miss Mills was acting as if she was reading a suspenseful novel and was ready to hit the roof if someone didn't give her some answers. "Well, I guess I could leave a message for him."

Hester's ears perked up. While most of the messages ever left for her intended seldom amounted to much, others had proved quite fruitful. "Sure, what is it?" She asked as she picked up a pencil and paper.

Nick smiled politely as he began talking.

0000

Sean Archer was sitting at a table in the café, one that set behind more than one of the decorative plants that the café owner had only recently put in. He was trying to figure out where the missing picture had gone to. Unlike Hester, he was not only aware of it, but of it's worth. If it was missing, there was a chance he could find it, take it and sell it off himself. When the door opened and Brigham and the sheriff walked in, Sean's attention was diverted. Everyone knew Brigham Taylor and Jarrod Barkley were working together. Maybe, if he stayed where he was at, unseen, he would learn something. At least, that is what Sean hoped anyway.

Unbeknownst to Sean, Brigham knew full well where the man was sitting and had specifically requested a table he knew would be close enough to enable Sean to hear everything he and Fred said. He, Brigham, just hoped the sheriff would forgive him when the man learned of how he was using him at the moment. After all, it's not like Jarrod or he wanted to keep Fred in the dark.

"I can't believe you're serious." Fred stared at Brigham as they sat down. "If it's worth that much, why keep it in his office?"

Brigham shrugged his shoulders. "I guess since Chris is sitting in a jail cell, Jarrod figures it's safe enough."

Fred shook his head. "There were two men, but my deputy only caught one man. What if the other one is still around? What if he learns what you have told me? No, if you ask me, Jarrod would be better off sending that piece of art back where it came from, at least until Chris cracks and tells us who was working with him."

The two men continued to talk with Brigham keeping an eye on the foot that was slightly showing on the other side of the plants. He had to fight a grin as he could at least tell Jarrod that his fish had overheard everything. Now he just hoped the man would take the bait.

000

In spite of a blue and cloudless sky, the December day was arctic cold. Heath and Jarrod stood outside the museum and read the sign: BE BACK AT ONE O'CLOCK. It was almost one now. Heath hoped the curator was on time. He and Jarrod were supposed to meet Brigham and Nick back at the office around one-thirty. "You think they'll fall for it?" Heath turned away from the sign and looked at Jarrod, who looked as if his mind was elsewhere; it was.

"Have you all gone and lost it? IF Mr. Peterson, Miss Mills or Sean Archer actually believes you have the most valuable painting this side of the Mississippi in your office, who knows what they will do! What if someone else hears about it? What if they go there while you're working?" Ester, already stressed over the wedding that was supposed to take place in a mere three days, was doing all she could not to raise her voice so loud as to make it so Audra or Victoria could hear the discussion going on in Jarrod's study.

`Jarrod heard what she did not say. "I don't want to be your widow before I'm your wife." He stood up, walked around his desk and pulled her to him using his left arm. He wasn't surprised when she began another tirade.

"Jarrod Barkley! This conversation is not…" Ester's words were cut off when Jarrod placed the fingers of his free hand on her lips. A part of her wanted to continue yelling at him, the other half told her to calm down and listen. Feeling the arm around her stiffen ever so slightly, Ester stopped trying to talk.

Jarrod removed his fingers from her lips and signed 'Trust me?"

Ester felt herself fighting tears. She did trust him, only she was afraid too. "I don't want to lose you, Jarrod." She answered in a subdued tone of voice as she gazed into his gorgeous blue eyes.

Jarrod smiled as he brushed her lips with his fingers before signing "Not lose me. You see. We belong each other." He then pressed his lips against hers as he held her as close to him as he could.

"Jarrod?" Heath waved his hand in front of Jarrod's eyes. He was relieved when his oldest brother smiled and signed for him to relax. He assured him that he, Jarrod, was sure that once all three suspects had the information, Nick, Mr. Taylor, and the two of them were planting that they would have a bite and haul in their catch.