The Mystery Before Christmas

 

 

 

Book 2 in my new A Cat in the Attic series publishes on November 12th. I am really loving this series and hope you will as well. I’ve included a description and sample chapter below.

 

Description:

After a serious accident leaves Calliope Rose Collins unable to continue with the career that has owned her soul for most of her life, she returns to Foxtail Lake, Hollister House, Great Aunt Gracie, and childhood friend, Officer Cass Wylander, where she begins to rebuild her life from the ashes of what she once had.

In book 2 of The Cat in the Attic series – In addition to the time she spends at the animal shelter, Callie has a new sideline writing human interest stories for the regional newspaper. It is a job she loves and hopes to grow until she is asked to reveal the man behind the mask when Secret Santa comes to town and begins committing random acts of kindness.

Meanwhile, Cass has a new murder to solve, Gracie has gone crazy with the decorations, and Naomi’s friend Hancock comes to town. https://amzn.to/2CplW1l

 

Chapter 1

“He moves softly through the night, unseen and unheard, leaving gifts for those in need, while the residents of snowy Foxtail Lake slumber beneath blankets piled high to ward off the chill of a Rocky Mountain winter.” I turned and looked at the cat I’d been reading aloud to. “What do you think? Too flowery?”

“Meow.”

“Yeah, maybe I should back off the descriptors a bit. It’s just that I want to grab my readers right from the beginning. Maybe I should just say something like: ‘Secret Santa strikes again,’ and then talk about the gifts.” I paused to consider this. “Honestly, most of the gifts have been delivered by means other than late-night drop-offs, but the imagery of Santa lurking around in the middle of the night is a lot more appealing than the imagery created by a wheelchair being delivered by UPS.” I glanced out the window at the falling snow. The little room at the top of the house felt cozy and warm, and it was this feeling I wanted to bring to my readers. I glanced down at my laptop and began to simultaneously type and speak once again. “Not only has the mysterious gift giver, known only as Secret Santa, been busy doling out random acts of kindness to the town’s residents, but he also seems to understand exactly what each gift recipient needs. Billy Prescott received a new wheelchair after his mother backed over his old one; Connie Denton was gifted a down payment on the diner where she’d worked for over twenty years and hoped to buy from her boss when he retired and moved off the mountain; Gilda Frederickson found a gift card for a winter’s worth of snow shoveling services in her purse after word got out that she’d broken her hip; and Donnie Dingman walked out onto his drive to find a used four-wheel-drive vehicle so he could get to his doctor’s appointments even when it snowed. Some are calling this anonymous gift giver an angel come to earth during this holiest of seasons, while others are certain the late-night Samaritan actually is Santa Clause himself.” I looked at the cat. “Better?”

The cat jumped down off the desk where he’d been sitting and watching me work, and headed toward the attic window, which was cheerily draped with white twinkle lights. Apparently, my honorary editor was done listening to my drivel for the day. I supposed I didn’t blame him. It did seem like I was trying too hard to find the perfect words to describe the phenomenon that had gripped my small town for the past several weeks.

I got up from the desk and joined the cat on the window seat. It felt magical to sit in the window overlooking the frozen lake as fresh snow covered the winter landscape. Great-aunt Gracie had strung colorful lights on one of the fir trees in the yard, bringing the feel of the season to the frozen landscape. Combined with the white lights draped over every shrub outdoors, and the white lights I’d strung around the window and along the ceiling of the attic, it felt like I was working in a magical fairyland.

“Maybe instead of a whimsical piece filled with artful words, I should do more of a hard-hitting expose,” I suggested to the cat. “Everyone knows about the mystery person who has been gifting the citizens of Foxtail Lake with the exact gifts they need the most, but no one knows who he is. Maybe I, Calliope Rose Collins, should work to unmask the Good Samaritan. I know the people he has helped with his good deeds would welcome the chance to thank him. He really is changing lives. He deserves recognition for that.”

“Meow.” The cat began to purr loudly as he crawled onto my lap. I gently stroked his head as I considered the past two months and the changes I’d seen in my own life.

Two months ago, I’d come back to Foxtail Lake after a terrible accident had shattered my world. At the time, I was a broken woman simply looking for somewhere to lick my wounds, but in the two months I’d been here, not only had I finally begun to accept my new situation, but I’d made quite a few strides in my effort to reinvent my life as well. While my years as a concert pianist would always hold a special place in my heart, I loved volunteering at the Foxtail Lake Animal Shelter, and I adored my new career as a columnist for the local newspaper, a role I’d earned after I’d helped my childhood friend, Cass Wylander, solve not only a present-day murder but the twenty-year-old murder of my best friend, Stella Steinmetz, as well. After the case was solved, I wrote about my experience, the local newspaper picked it up, and as they say, the rest is history. The article was so well received that I’d been offered a weekly column to fill with whatever subject matter I chose.

Unfolding myself from the window, I crossed the room and sat back down at the old desk that I’d shoved into the center of the attic to use as my temporary office. The article on Secret Santa would be the fourth article I’d written for the newspaper. The first article on Stella’s murder had been published in mid-November, followed by an article about the missing dogs from the animal shelter where I volunteered, and then an investigative piece relating to the controversy surrounding the misappropriation of the funds which should have been earmarked to pay for the annual tree lighting which was due to run this week. The stories I wrote weren’t the hard-hitting exposes a real investigative reporter might pen, but I had helped Cass find Stella’s killer, I had found the missing dogs and the man who took them, and I had found the cleverly disguised missing money after it was announced the annual tree lighting would be canceled due to a lack of funds.

Of course, Cass had helped with Stella’s murder and the missing dogs. He would probably have been happy to help with the missing funds as well, but that story broke right about the same time Buford Norris turned up dead. Buford was an ornery sort who tended to drink too much, so after his body was found buried beneath the snow, most people just assumed he’d passed out and froze to death. But Cass wasn’t quite as sure as some of the other town folk were that Buford had passed out on his own. Investigating the man’s death as possible foul play wasn’t sitting well with the sheriff or the mayor, but Cass was a conscientious sort who wasn’t going to close a case based on a maybe.

“Is Paisley coming for a piano lesson today?” Great-aunt Gracie called up the stairs.

“She is,” I called back down the stairs of the large lakefront home I’d grown up in. “Anna has dance after school, so her mother can’t give Paisley a ride home. I was planning to pick her up.”

“I’m going to run to the market. I can pick her up if you’d like.”

“That’d be great.”

Paisley Holloway was our ten-year-old neighbor who was living with her grandmother after her mother passed just before Thanksgiving. Gracie and I were doing what we could to help out since the grandmother had her own health issues to deal with. Most days, Paisley got a ride to and from school with her friend, Anna, but on the days Anna’s mother was unable to provide a ride, Gracie or I picked her up from school. On the days we picked her up, we usually brought her here to the house, helped her with her homework, and generally did what we could to make things easier for everyone involved. It really was a terrible situation. One that no ten-year-old should have to live through. I’d lost my parents when I was young as well, so I knew better than most how important it was to have a safe harbor in the storm.

“Is Alastair up there with you?” Aunt Gracie called after a few minutes had passed.

I looked at the longhaired black cat who’d jumped back onto the desk next to me. “He is.”

“Okay, make sure he doesn’t get out. There is a big storm blowing in, and I wouldn’t want him to get trapped out in it.”

“I’ll keep an eye on him,” I called. I supposed I should have gotten up and headed downstairs when Gracie first called up since it would have cut down on all the yelling back and forth. “Just send Paisley up when you get back. Alastair and I are working on next week’s column.”

“Okay. If you see Tom, let him know that dinner will be at six tonight.”

Tom Walden was Gracie’s groundskeeper, although, in reality, he was so much more. He’d lived on the property with Gracie for more than forty years. Tom and Gracie were friends, good friends who shared their lives. Sometimes I wondered if they weren’t something more.

Once Gracie left, I returned my attention to the blank page in front of me. I had to admit the idea of Secret Santa intrigued me. Not only because this particular Santa had already spent tens of thousands of dollars gifting deserving citizens with items they needed but would be unable to buy on their own, but also because he’d been doing it for almost four weeks and so far no one had figured out who he was. There were theories, of course. A lot of them. Based on the monetary value of the gifts, it seemed pretty obvious the Secret Santa was someone of means. Though our town was small, and those who’d lived here for a lifetime tended not to be the sort to acquire a large amount of wealth, the town did tend to attract more than its share of retirees, many of whom were quite wealthy when they arrived. Since I was suddenly determined to identify Secret Santa in my column, I started a list of possible “suspects” after considering the monetary outlay.

The first name to come to mind was Carolyn Worthington. Carolyn was an heiress who’d lived in Boston until two years ago when her only child, a son in his forties, had died in an accident. Shattered to her core, she realized she needed a complete change, so she bought an estate on the east shore of the lake and then quickly made friends by volunteering in the community. Carolyn was quick to share her wealth and had given a lot of money away in the past, which made her both a good and a poor candidate for Secret Santa. If Carolyn was doing the good deeds, then why the sudden secrecy? Still, given her wealth and her altruistic nature, she was on the top of most of the suspect lists in town.

Then there was Haviland Hargrove, a lifelong Foxtail Lake resident whose grandfather had struck it rich during the gold rush of the nineteenth century. Haviland wasn’t as naturally altruistic as Carolyn, but he certainly had the means to buy everything that had been purchased and then some. He was a man in his early eighties, so perhaps he’d decided to spread his wealth around a bit before he passed on.

Dean and Martin Simpson were brothers who’d made a fortune in the software industry. The men lived together in a mansion set in the center of a gated estate. Neither had ever married nor had children and while they didn’t go out and socialize a lot, they were pleasant enough and had several good friends in the community, including my friend, Cass, who played poker with them twice a month. Cass didn’t think that Dean and Martin were our Secret Santas, but I wasn’t so sure about that.

There were a handful of other locals with the means to do what was being done. I supposed that once I developed my list, I’d just start interviewing folks. Someone must know something that would point me in the right direction. I supposed there would be those who would think I should leave well enough alone, and perhaps they would be right, but after stumbling across a really juicy mystery like this one, anyone who knew me knew I was prone to follow the clues to the end.

“Anyone home?” Tom called.

I got up and walked to the top of the stairs. “I’m here. Aunt Gracie went to the market. She said to tell you that dinner will be at six.”

“That should work. Did she happen to say what she wanted me to do with the tree ornaments she had me pick up while I was in Lakewood?”

I decided to head down the stairs rather than continuing this conversation as a yelling match. “She didn’t say. I’m surprised she wanted additional ornaments. We have boxes of them in the attic.”

“I guess these are special. Custom made. I’ll just leave them on the dining table for now.”

I glanced out the open door at the darkening sky, mindful of Gracie’s warning about not letting Alastair out. “I’m sure that is fine. Let me lock the cat in the den, and I’ll help you carry everything in.”

“I’d appreciate that. It seems your aunt has gone decorating crazy this year.”

I looked around the house, which was already decked out with garland, candles, wreaths, and bright red bows. She really had outdone herself. When I’d asked her about it, she’d mumbled something about wanting the place to be cheerful for Paisley, but truth be told, I think she was just happy to have others in the house to celebrate with this year.

“As far as you know, are we still getting the tree this week?” I asked Tom after we headed out into the frigid afternoon.

“As far as I know. If this storm dumps as much snow as it is calling for, then I’m afraid her plan to go into the forest to cut a tree might have to be altered. Walter has some nice ones in his lot. I took a look while I was there to pick up the branches Gracie wanted for the mantle.”

“I would think a tree from Walter’s lot would be just fine. If we can cut one, we will, but if not, we’ll work together to sell Gracie on the tree lot idea.” I picked up the first of five boxes in the back of Tom’s truck. “I’m really happy she is enjoying the holiday so much this year, but I’m afraid she is going to overdo. Not only has she gone crazy decorating, but she signed up to be the co-chair for the Christmas in the Mountains event as well.”

“Your aunt has a lot of energy. I’m sure she’ll be fine. We just need to be sure to help out as much as we can.”

“I guess.”

“Gracie wants you to have the perfect Christmas. Like the ones the two of you shared when you were younger. This is important to her.”

I glanced up at the sky filled with snow flurries as I started toward the house. “It’s important to me as well, and I do plan to help out as much as I can. Of course, researching Secret Santa is going to keep me busy. I think I’ve pretty much decided to focus on figuring out who Secret Santa is rather than the gifts he has delivered. You haven’t heard anything have you?”

Tom set his box on the table next to mine, and we both turned around to go for the next load.

“Everyone seems to have an opinion, but I haven’t heard that anyone has come up with any proof as to the identity of Secret Santa if that is what you are asking. The guys down at the lodge think it might be Fisher.”

I raised a brow. “Ford Fisher? Why do the guys think it’s him? As far as I know, the man isn’t rich.” Ford Fisher used to own one of the pubs in town before it sold, so I imagined he’d done okay in terms of saving for retirement, but I doubted he had tens of thousands of dollars to give away.

“I think Ford might have more stashed away than one might think. There is a lot of money in alcohol, and Ford has lived simply for much of his life. In my mind, he doesn’t have the right temperament to be Secret Santa, but he has been acting oddly lately, which is why I think the guys at the lodge suspect him.”

We headed back to the house with the second load of boxes. “Acting oddly, how?” I wondered.

“Secretive. Evasive. He hasn’t shown up at the lodge in weeks, and when some of the guys went by his place to see if he was okay, he told them he was fine but didn’t even invite them in. I’ve called him several times, even left messages, but he hasn’t called me back.”

“Sounds like he might be depressed. Do you know if he suffers from depression?” I set my box next to the others on the table.

“Not that I know of. Ford’s always been a real social sort. Other than those few times when he was too hungover to make it to the lodge, he’s pretty much been there every Wednesday and Friday since I’ve been going. Not that I go every week. Sometimes Gracie and I do something, but Ford is a real regular.”

“It sounds like you and your friends might be right to be worried about him. I’d continue to check on him if he doesn’t start coming around. Having said that, in my mind, his overall mood doesn’t seem to have a Secret Santa feel.”

Tom headed back out for the final box. I tagged along after him in spite of the fact there was just one box left to fetch.

“Yeah,” Tom agreed. “The idea of him being Secret Santa doesn’t sit quite right with me either. I hope he isn’t ill. He didn’t say he was feeling poorly, but that could explain his absences.”

“Wasn’t Ford friends with Buford?” I asked. “Maybe he is just missing the guy.”

“Maybe,” Tom agreed. “Ford and Buford went at it like two old junkyard dogs most of the time, but in the end, I guess you could say they were friends. Best friends even. I don’t suppose Cass has proven one way or another what happened to Buford.”

I shook my head. “On the one hand, Buford had been drinking on the night he died and could very well have wandered out into the blizzard, passed out, and froze to death. On the other hand, Buford had a bump on his head that looked as if it had been inflicted by someone hitting him with a heavy object.”

“Could he have hit his head when he passed out?” Tom asked.

“He could have, but the position his body was found in and the location of the bump doesn’t tend to support that theory. Of course, Buford could have bumped his head earlier in the day, and the fact that he had a knot the size of a jawbreaker doesn’t necessarily mean that injury was enough to cause him to fall to the ground in a state of unconsciousness. At this point, Cass is following the idea that Buford was hit on the head, blacked out, and then froze to death. I guess we’ll just have to wait to see where his investigation ends up. I’m sure if Buford simply passed out on account of all the alcohol he drank, that scenario will float to the surface at some point.” I looked up as the sound of a car approaching permeated the still air. “That must be Gracie. Paisley will be with her. Maybe we can talk about this some more over dinner.”

“That’d be fine. The truth as to what happened to Buford has been weighing on my mind. It’d be nice to know one way or the other.”

“Yes,” I agreed. It would be nice to know for certain what had caused a man who’d lived here for most of his life to simply perish in an early but not all that spectacular storm. I knew the mayor was pushing the idea that Buford’s death was nothing more than a terrible accident. I supposed I didn’t blame him. The town was just beginning to recover from the murder of twelve-year-old Tracy Porter. If it was determined that Buford had been murdered as well, it would most definitely bring back the fear and paranoia that had permeated the town after Tracy’s death. Cass wasn’t the sort to simply grasp onto the easy answer; he was the sort to want nothing short of the truth. Sometimes I wondered if his dogged commitment to following his instincts rather than the dictate of his boss was going to get him fired. I supposed that it was more important to Cass to be true to his convictions than it was to keep the job he seemed to do better than anyone else did. I supposed I really admired him for that. In fact, the more I got to know Deputy Cass Wylander, the more convinced I was that my childhood friend had grown into a man I could not only respect but grow to love if I was interested in that sort of thing, which I wasn’t.

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A Cat in the Attic Mystery

I’m superexcited about my new series that launches on September 3rd. The Cat in the Attic is a series about starting again when everything you’d spent a lifetime working for is suddenly ripped from your grasp. I’ve included the first chapter of book 1 – The Curse of Hollister House. I hope you enjoy reading this series as much as I am enjoying writing it.

 

 

Preorder today: https://amzn.to/2TU72I1 

How is one to start again after losing the one thing that speaks to your heart and fuels your passion?

After a serious accident leaves Calliope Rose Collins unable to continue with the career that has owned her soul for most of her life, she returns to Foxtail Lake, Hollister House, and Great Aunt Gracie, only to find, childhood friend, Officer Cass Wylander, knee deep in a murder mystery involving a twelve year old girl who died in the exact same manner as Callie’s best friend Stacy had died twenty years prior. Callie is certain the two deaths must be linked, but Cass has a suspect in custody and the Chief of Police wants the case closed in order to get the mayor off his back, so in spite of the fact that Callie is certain that they have the wrong man, it looks like the case will be closed. Callie knows that she owes it to both victims to find the truth, so she decides to look into things on her own, giving her not only a way to fill her days, but a means of renewing her passion.

Join Cass and Callie, along with Alastair the cat, as they seek out the hidden truths that will allow them to see what no one else seems to be willing too.

 

 

Chapter 1 

When I was a little girl, I would sit with my cat high up in the attic window overlooking the lake, dreaming the dreams only little girls can imagine. I’d plot adventures and weave enchanted tales as the seasons turned and the years unwound. It was a magical time, filled with possibilities that existed only in my mind. I’d imagined fairies in the forest, mermaids in the lake, and gnomes in the garden. As a child sitting in that window, nothing had seemed impossible, but as a broken adult sitting in the same window a quarter century later, I had to admit, if only to myself, that somewhere along the way, the magic I’d once believed in, had died along with my dreams.

“Callie, are you up there in the attic?” Great-Aunt Gracie called up the stairs.

“Yes, Aunt Gracie,” I called back.

“Is Alastair up there as well?”

I glanced at the black cat sitting in the window next to me. “He is.”

“I’m going to run to the market to pick up something for dinner. Is there something you’d prefer?”

I’d lost my appetite about the same time I’d lost my reason for living, but I supposed I did have to eat. “Anything is fine.”

“Okay, dear. I won’t be long.”

I pulled the cat into my lap as Gracie drove away. I ran my fingers through his long black fur as I turned slightly and looked around the room, filled with boxes and discarded furniture from generations of Hollisters. As the last Hollister daughter, I knew the house, lakefront property, private dock, and groundskeeper’s cabin would one day be mine, but to be perfectly honest, I wasn’t sure I wanted it.

Setting the cat on the floor, I unfolded myself from the window. I wrote my name—Calliope Rose Collins—in the dust covering one of the tables that had been stored by some previous resident. I remembered doing the same thing as a child living in this house after my parents died, and somehow, in that moment, I felt connected to that child and the dreams she’d once held in a way I hadn’t in a very long time. I’d done my best to go after those dreams. To bring my fantasies into reality. But along the way, I’d learned that what we plan for and what we are destined to have don’t always line up.

Alastair darted under a sheet that was draped across an old sofa. I supposed if you were a cat, the attic was filled with all sorts of magical places to explore. I could hear him swatting at something beneath the covering as I wandered around the large space, opening boxes and sifting through the contents inside. When I was a child, the boxes and their contents had seemed like treasures. The old clothes left by ancestors long gone had provided hours of entertainment as I tried on each piece and let my imagination take me where it might. The old top hat had become a magician’s hat, the costume jewelry a queen’s dowry, and the yellowed wedding dress a ball gown. The books stored in the boxes had provided hours of escape, the old art supplies a creative outlet, and the old piano, which some ancestor had schlepped all the way up to the attic before I was even born, a window to my soul.

I’d found a safe haven in this attic. Not only had I found solace during a time when little could comfort me but I’d found meaning and passion for the one thing that had pierced my grief and mattered. Pausing, I turned and looked around the room, searching for the piano. I remembered the first time I’d stumbled across the fascinating device that would deliver wonderful music with the touch of a finger. I’d been enchanted from the first keystroke and had begged Gracie to teach me to play. And she had. She’d taught me the notes and how to read music, but it was the hours spent alone with the melodies that existed only in my imagination that cemented a love affair that I was sure would last a lifetime. I looked down at my hands. Using my right forefinger, I traced the long scar that ran down my left arm from elbow to wrist. I tried to move fingers that, at times, refused to cooperate. Everyone said I’d been lucky. Everyone said that it could have been so much worse. Everyone said that having a life without music was better than having no life at all.

They were wrong.

I swallowed hard and forced myself to move on. While the attic was dusty, crowded, and unorganized, I did appreciate that everyone that had lived in the house had left something of themselves behind. Even I’d left boxes of old toys and outgrown clothing when I’d moved away. I wondered why Aunt Gracie hadn’t just taken all this junk to the secondhand store, but I supposed if she did, some future resident of the house would be robbed of the opportunity to play dress up and spin tales of salty pirates and kidnapped princesses the way I had.

Longing pierced my heart as I opened a box of photos. I picked up an old Polaroid of my parents on their wedding day. They looked so happy, so optimistic about the future. My mother and I looked a lot alike. Dark hair, dark eyes, a petite frame barely reaching five feet in height. My father, in contrast, had been tall and blond. His blue eyes sparkled with happiness as he stared back at the photographer. I knew I’d joined the couple and created a family just ten months after the photo had been taken, and four years after that, the people I most depended on would be forever ripped from my life.

Setting the box of photos aside, I lifted the sheet in search of the cat. “Alastair,” I called.

“Meow,” he responded from across the room.

I turned and tried to home in on his exact location. There were a lot of objects for something as small as a cat to hide behind, so I started across the attic in the general direction of the meow. I supposed if I didn’t find him by the time Gracie returned, I’d just leave the door ajar and he’d find his own way out. I maneuvered carefully through sheet-covered furniture and dust-covered boxes, jumping involuntarily as I bumped into the dressmaker’s mannequin. I remember how terrified I’d been of the lifelike shape when I’d first seen it. As a four-year-old, I’d been sure the form came to life when no one was looking. Gracie had been patient with me, taking her time to convince me that the stuffed dressmaker’s tool wasn’t real. It had taken several months, but eventually, I stopped screaming every time I saw the dang thing.

Aunt Gracie’d always had a lot of patience. After my parents died I felt so alone in the world, but Gracie had taken her time with me. She’d tried very hard to make me feel at home in my new surroundings, but I never really had until she’d introduced me to the attic and the magic that could be found in the little room beneath the rafters. Old houses, with their history, their lifelines, and their curses, fascinated me. Despite the tragedy that seemed to be connected to my own family home, I loved the idea of longevity, and places where multiple generations shared a single space.
Pulling a sheet away from the portrait of my great-great-grandmother, Edwina Birmingham, I thought about my parents’ death and considered the family curse. Apparently, Edwina had seduced Jordan Hollister away from her best friend, Hester Stinson and, in retaliation, Hester, a purported witch, had laid a curse on the happy couple that had stipulated that any Hollister daughter born to Jordan and Edwina, or any daughter born to their descendants, would suffer the tragic and early loss of their beloved. Neither Jordan nor Edwina were concerned about the curse, because the couple had only one child, a son they named Samuel. Samuel married a woman named Anastasia, who he brought to live at Hollister House. Anastasia gave birth to twin daughters, Gwendolyn and Gracie.

Gracie, the younger of the twins, continued to live in the house but never married or had children. Gwendolyn moved to Denver, where she married a man named Richard Hastings. Richard fell to his death on the couple’s one-year anniversary, so Gwendolyn, who was pregnant with twins at the time of her husband’s death, moved home, where she delivered Phoebe and Penelope. On the twins’ second birthday, Gwendolyn died of a broken heart, leaving Gracie to raise her nieces.

Penelope never married or had children. She loved to travel and never seemed to stay put until an unfortunate encounter with a French artist, a hot Ferrari, and an ill-advised joy ride, ended in her death on a narrow country road just outside Paris.

My mother, Phoebe, unlike her twin, was the sort to settle in and plant roots. She married a man named Roderick Collins. Ten months after marrying, they had a daughter, me, and four years after that, Roderick and Phoebe were killed in an automobile accident. I supposed there were those who would argue that the tragic yet unrelated deaths of three Hollister women over five generations didn’t constitute the results of a curse, and perhaps they’d be right. But I also knew that things like curses weren’t to be trifled with. I was now the only Hollister offspring alive and of childbearing age to carry on the curse, if one existed. Whether or not the curse was real didn’t really matter; even if it was, I knew it would end with me.

Picking up the cat, I headed for the door. The dust in the attic was beginning to irritate my sinuses, so perhaps a walk out by the lake would help. I set Alastair on the floor after closing the door behind me and headed down the stairs. Stepping out of the house onto the lawn that grew from the edge of the front porch down to the waterline, I stood and watched the sun as it dipped toward the horizon. I placed a foot onto the garden path that led down to the dock. Gracie loved her garden. She’d always said her prizewinning flowers filled the space in her soul left by the children she’d never had. The winters were harsh here in the Colorado Rockies, but every spring Gracie coaxed her garden back to life, and every winter she tucked it in beneath a scattering of hay to protect the delicate plants.

After walking down the path lined with flowers in warm fall colors, I stood at the water’s edge. I closed my eyes and listened as the frogs, with their long-drawn-out calls, competed with the buzz created by insects hovering over the crystal-clear water. I thought of the lush gardens and magical fairyland I’d played in as a child. I thought of the wraparound deck where I’d rocked in the swing with Gracie’s cat, Archie, as I’d shared with him my hopes and dreams. When I’d left, I hadn’t planned to return to Foxtail Lake. I’d believed the answers to my dreams lay elsewhere. I couldn’t wait to leave the sleepy small town behind, but I had to admit I’d been happy here once. Perhaps with enough time I’d find the peace and solace I longed for within the walls of the Hollister family home, the way I’d found peace and solace within those same walls after my parents’ death.

Taking a deep breath, I lifted my face to the setting sun and allowed the warm evening air to wrap me in a warm hug. I had no idea what I was going to do with my life now that the career I’d poured my entire being into had come abruptly to an end. I’d worked so hard to get where I’d been, only to have it stripped from my hands by a drunk driver who never should have been on the road in the first place. While Gracie’d taught me to understand the keys and play simple songs, it was the years of relentless focus and practice that had helped me to perfect my gift until I’d managed to get it just right. By the time I’d graduated high school, I’d wanted nothing more than to focus on my music. Sharing the music in my soul with auditoriums filled with people who loved my melodies almost as much as I might seem like a lofty goal, but it was a dream I’d worked hard for, and had realized by my twenty-fourth birthday. It hadn’t been an easy life, and the hours of practice were long, but oh how I’d loved traveling to interesting places and meeting new people. I’d had a good life, a meaningful and complete life. Until…

I tried once again to flex the fingers on my left hand. I could move them, but the movements were slow and the range of motion limited. My doctor said that with a lot of hard work, maybe I’d regain the full use of the hand, but I knew in my soul that I’d never again have a chance to play at Carnegie Hall.

I blew out a breath, closed my eyes, and tried to refocus my mind. I knew that obsessing over what had happened would get me nowhere. Life, I’d decided, was cruel and unfair, but what was done was done, and nothing I could do would bring the music back to me. I opened my eyes and looked around at the peaceful setting. Glancing toward the caretaker’s cabin, I thought about Mr. Walden. He’d lived on the property since before I’d come to live here as a child. Gracie hadn’t mentioned him since I’d come slumping home with my tail between my legs two days ago, which made me wonder if he still lived on the property, or even if he was still alive. This was the first time I’d ventured from the house, so I supposed he might be around and I just hadn’t noticed.

I was about to head back inside when I heard sirens in the distance. That sound always transported me back to the accident in which my parents had died but I’d escaped with only minor injuries. I’d been told that being strapped in a car seat in the back seat had made all the difference, but there had been many occasions in those first painful years when I wasn’t certain that surviving had been a good thing.

“Quite the ruckus going on across the lake.”

I turned and smiled. “Mr. Walden.” I hugged the grizzly old man whose skin was a sort of leathery brown after a lifetime in the sun.

“I guess now that you’re all grown up, you can call me Tom.”

“Okay. Tom. How are you? I was wondering if you still lived on the property.”

“I’m fine. Been a while.”

I nodded. “It has. I know I should have come back for a visit sooner, but you know how it is.” I turned back toward the lake. The flash of lights from emergency vehicles could be seen against the darkening sky. “I wonder what’s going on.”

“I heard on the scanner that a body was found near the campground.”

I narrowed my gaze. “I’m sorry to hear that. Do you know what happened?”

“There was talk of a bear. I guess we’ll see. The last time there was a bear attack it didn’t turn out to be a bear at all.”

“Like with Stella.”

“Exactly like with Stella,” Tom agreed.

Stella Steinmetz had been my best friend when I was in junior high. She’d disappeared while walking home from school one day. There were no clues to what had happened to her until her body was found weeks later in an unmarked grave. It appeared that she’d been attacked by a vicious animal, most likely a bear, but we all know that bears don’t bury their prey.

At the time of Stella’s disappearance I’d been devastated. Not only had she been my best friend, but the only reason she’d been walking alone, and probably the only reason she was attacked, was because we’d argued and I’d left school without waiting for her as I usually did. Yes, I was only twelve at the time, and I realize now, after years of counseling, that twelve-year-old friends tend to have spats, and I’d almost let the therapist convince me that her death wasn’t my fault, but there hadn’t been a day since Stella’s body was found that I hadn’t wished I’d done things differently.

They never did figure out who’d attacked her or why her face had been shredded the way it had been. They never figured out who had robbed a young girl on the cusp of womanhood of the life she’d been meant to have.

I turned when I heard a car in the drive. It was Gracie. I waved to her but didn’t make an effort to close the distance between us. I didn’t suppose I’d be able to learn any more than I already knew by standing there watching the lights in the distance, but somehow, I found myself unable to walk away.

“Looks like another girl has died,” Tom said to Gracie when she walked up and joined us.

“I heard. They think it is Tracy Porter.”

I glanced at Gracie. “Tracy Porter?”

“Young girl who went missing a month or so ago,” Tom answered. “She was walking home alone, same as Stella and, like Stella, she never made it to her destination.”

“It’s been twenty years since Stella died. Surely we can’t be looking at the same killer,” Gracie pointed out.

“Is Deputy Quinby still in charge of the local sheriff’s office?” I asked. To be honest, when I’d lived here, I found the man to be very nice but pretty useless when it came to tracking down individuals behind any serious crimes.

“He retired,” Gracie answered. “Cass Wylander is in charge of the local office now.”

I raised a brow. “Really? I hadn’t heard.” Cass and I had been kindred spirits when we were kids. We both had active imaginations and a willingness to seek out adventures. Next to Stella, Cass was probably the best friend I’d had when I’d lived here. He’d played the guitar and I’d played the piano and keyboard. We’d talked about forming a rock band, but that was before I realized it was a different type of music that was surging through my soul.

“I thought the two of you kept in touch,” Gracie said.

“We did,” I answered. “At first. But you know how it is. I left Foxtail Lake fourteen years ago. I guess as time went by, we drifted apart.”

“Cass is a good cop,” Tom said. “If anyone can figure out who killed Tracy, he can.”

“You should look him up when you have a chance,” Gracie suggested.

“I will.”

Gracie looked at Tom. “I’m making spaghetti. Do you want to come by for a bite?”

“I’d like that very much. I’ll need to clean up a bit first.”

“That’s fine. I’ll see you in an hour.”

I watched as Gracie made her way back to the house while Tom headed toward his own cabin. The two had lived on this property together for close to forty years. I knew they were friends, but at times I’d wondered if they might not be more. I knew that Gracie believed strongly in the Hollister curse and had vowed never to marry, but vowing not to marry didn’t mean she hadn’t ever fallen in love.

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Murder at Pope Investigations

 

 

I hadn’t done a new book in the Sand and Sea series in over a year and wasn’t sure that I would but my Sand and Sea fans seemed to have organized an email campaign to get me to reconsider so I carved out some time and wrote one. I actually enjoyed writing this one so much that I’ve planned another one for 2020.

 

Here is a preview of the book which publishes on July 23rd. https://amzn.to/2M34eXq

 

Tuesday, June 25

I should have been surprised to find the tall man with the dark skin and dark hair dead just inside the front door when I arrived at Pope Investigations, the detective agency where I work with my father, Keanu Pope, but he wasn’t the first gunshot victim I’d stumbled upon this month. He was, in fact, the third. The remains of the first gunshot victim had been found on the beach behind the oceanfront condo where I live with my cousin, Kekoa. My brother, Jason, a detective for the Honolulu Police Department, figured the murder was a random act that I’d just happened to have stumbled upon. When the second body was found propped up on the lifeguard tower at the Dolphin Bay Resort, where I’d been working just one day a week since taking a full-time position at the detective agency, my brother considered that I might be connected to both men in some way. Jason learned that the first victim was a retired Air Force Master Sergeant who was vacationing on Oahu, and the second was a nightclub owner living in Honolulu. As hard as he’d tried, he hadn’t been able to find a connection between the two men, or between the two men and me. After several days, he’d moved onto other theories. But now that a third victim had been found at the location where I spent the majority of my time, in my mind there was no denying that someone was leaving me bodies.

After checking for a pulse to confirm that the man was actually dead, I called Jason, who promised to come right over. I was about to walk around to the beach in order to get away from the gruesome sight when a dark four-door sedan pulled into the drive. I realized this was my first client of the day, so I took a deep breath and headed toward the car, intent on heading the woman off before she noticed the murder victim just inside the front door.

“Hokulani Palakiko?” I asked, greeting the dark-haired woman who was wearing a colorful dress in a Hawaiian print.

“Yes.” The woman leaned out through her open driver’s door window. “You can call me Hoku.”

“My name is Lani. Lani Pope. I’m afraid we have a bit of a situation this morning, and I’m going to need to reschedule.”

“Situation?” The woman looked toward the front of the building for the first time.

“We’ve had a breakin,” I decided not to mention the dead body. “I’m so sorry for the inconvenience, but if you leave a number where you can be reached, I’ll call you with a new time to meet.”

The woman furrowed her brow. “You do understand that my husband is missing?”

I nodded. “Yes. My father filled me in.”

“I understand that a breakin is inconvenient, but I would think that a missing person would be a bit more of a priority.”

“Yes, I see your point. It is just that the HPD officer I spoke to told me to wait for him and not to touch anything. Perhaps we can meet later today. I’m not sure if it will work to meet here at the office, but I would be willing to meet you at your home.” I glanced at my watch. It was just ten o’clock now. “I should be done here by noon.”

The woman frowned. She huffed out a breath, drummed her fingers on the steering wheel in front of her, and, it seemed, generally did everything she could to convey her annoyance. “Okay.” She adjusted her sunglasses and turned to look directly at me. “I guess two hours won’t make all that much difference, but I expect you to be prompt.”

“I’ll do my best.”

The woman gave me her address, which luckily wasn’t far from the office. I hoped she’d be long gone before Jason arrived, so I entered her phone number and home address in my phone and promised to text her with a confirmation that I would be free by twelve once I spoke to the police. She hemmed and hawed a bit more, I was sure in an effort to make certain that I understood exactly how unhappy she was with the situation, but eventually, she pulled out of the drive and headed down the highway. Minutes after she pulled away, Jason pulled into the lot in front of Pope Investigations.

I ran over to the car to greet my second oldest of five brothers. “Thank you for coming so quickly.”

Jason looked toward the house. “Is Dad here?”

“He is on the South Shore this morning. I left him a message, but haven’t heard back from him. I’m not exactly sure who he is meeting, but he mentioned something about a new client.”

“And the victim?”

“Tall, male. Young looking, maybe mid-twenties. I’m pretty sure I don’t know the man, but he does look a little familiar. I’ve tried to remember where I might have seen him, but I came up empty.”

Jason turned as another HPD cruiser showed up. “Okay. I think it is best that you wait out here. Colin and I will have a look.”

“I have to leave for another appointment at eleven-thirty. I can come back after I’m done if need be. I’m sure Dad will head over once he gets my message.”

Jason nodded. “Okay. I’ll come back out and talk to you once I have a chance to assess the situation. Maybe you can just wait on the lanai.

“Okay. I’ll be there. If you need me, holler.”

After Jason went inside, I sat down on a patio chair and checked my messages. There was one from my dentist reminding me that it was time for a checkup and cleaning; a text from my boss at the Dolphin Bay Resort where I still worked on Saturdays as a water safety officer, letting me know he had made up the schedule for the Fourth of July and that I was going to be needed for a ten hour shift; and a missed call from Dad. I opened my phone app and called him back. He picked up on the first ring.

“Hi, Dad. Did you get my message?”

“I did. Are you okay?”

“I’m fine. Jason and Colin are here. I’m waiting outside.”

Dad blew out a breath loud enough for me to hear, although, without corresponding facial cues, I was unable to tell if it was a breath of relief, anxiety, or irritation.

“Three murder victims in three weeks all placed so as to make it likely that they’d be found by you is not a coincidence. I’m not liking this one bit. I think we should talk to Jason about protective custody for you.”

“No, thanks,” I responded immediately. “I can take care of myself.”

Dad didn’t argue but I had a feeling this conversation was not over.

“Is Kekoa there with you?” He asked.

Kekoa worked full-time for the Dolphin Bay Resort and part-time for us answering phones and taking care of the filing and bookkeeping.

“No. She planned to be in this afternoon. I’ll call her and let her know not to bother to come in today.”

“I just finished up here and am on my way back. I should be there in an hour.”

“Just so you know,” I added, “the new client with the missing husband you told me about showed up after I arrived but before Jason pulled in. I met her at her car and told her we’d had a breakin. I didn’t mention the murder. She agreed to meet with me at her home later today since the office was unavailable. I am meeting her at noon.”

“I guess that will be okay. Generally speaking, I am not a fan of you meeting clients at their homes unless I am along, but Hokulani Palakiko seems harmless enough, and I know she is concerned about her husband. I should be back by the time you return from the interview so we can discuss a strategy later this afternoon.”

“Okay.”

“And Lani. Be careful. I know that you are a capable young woman, but it seems as if you have somehow garnered the attention of a very dangerous person who has already killed three people and most likely won’t hesitate to kill again.”

“I know. I’ll be careful.” After I hung up with Dad, I got up from the patio chair and walked out onto the beach. I let the warm water roll over my bare feet and then called Kekoa to fill her in. I explained about the breakin and the body inside the entry and suggested she hold off coming in to take care of the bookkeeping until tomorrow. Like everyone else, she was concerned that this serial killer seemed to be focused in on me, but I assured her I would be fine and we would talk later.

Jason walked out the back door and onto the beach just as I was finishing my conversation with Kekoa. “So?” I asked.

“The victim was shot at close range with what looks to have been a small caliber handgun. We’ll know more when we get the ballistics report back. It appears, based on lack of blood spatter, that the man was shot elsewhere and then dumped the same as the other two. With this third victim, I am more convinced than ever that you are somehow at the center of whatever is going on. We might want to consider protective custody. Did you get ahold of Dad?”

I nodded. “He is on his way from the South Shore, and there is no way I am going to sit around in a safe house when there is some wacko running around killing people and then leaving the remains for me like some sort of a sick gift. I need to meet with our new client, but I will come back when I’m done, and we can talk about this some more. I’m not sure what I can tell you that would help you to figure out who is doing this, but I am certain that we need to find the guy before he kills again.”

“I agree. And we’ll talk some more about protective custody when I am done here as well.”

I was never going to agree to protective custody. I knew it, and he knew it, so I didn’t bother to argue. I simply said my goodbyes and headed toward my car. Having a missing person to look for seemed like a distraction at this point, but Hoku was our client, and she was paying us good money to find her husband, who I was fairly sure she was more than just a little worried about.

I followed the directions provided by the Maps app on my phone to a large two-story house located in a nice neighborhood just a few blocks from the sea. Hoku’s car was in the drive, so I pulled up on the street. One of these days, I was going to trade in my old Jeep for something that wasn’t older than I was, but I never seemed to have enough income to deal with car payments, so a new car would need to wait.

I walked up the shrub-lined walkway toward the covered porch. I rang the bell and then waited.

“Oh good, you came,” the woman said, stepping aside. “Is your father with you?”

“He couldn’t make it, but he does plan to consult with me about a strategy once I get the basic information we will need to begin our search.”

The woman frowned. “I see. How old are you?”

“Old enough,” I assured her. Being a small woman, barely five feet in height, often led people to believe I was younger than I actually am. I pulled out a notepad and pen. “Is there somewhere you would like to sit while we chat?”

“How about out on the lanai? It is a beautiful day today. Not at all as hot as it has been.”

I had to agree with that. It was a beautiful day. “So I have your husband’s name, age, and occupation, but I’d like to go over everything again to make sure there are no errors.”

“Okay.”

I read my notes which told me that Kinsley Palakiko was a sixty-eight-year-old retired airline pilot who was last seen on Saturday around lunchtime when he left his home to do errands. He never came home. Hoku called and spoke to my father yesterday when her husband still had not called or shown up. He’d completed a basic questionnaire over the phone. He’d traced the man’s phone, tracked his credit cards, and conducted a GPS search for his car. It was determined that the phone had been turned off, the GPS on the car was disabled, and the credit cards had not been used. We did live on an island, and the man was a retired airline pilot, so Dad checked with the airlines that served the island, but none reported activity from Kinsley in over a month. Hoku verified that the two of them had gone to the mainland for a week just about a month ago and that neither of them had traveled from the island since.

“If your husband felt the need to get away and didn’t want to be found for whatever reason, where would he go?” I asked.

“You think my husband is off having some sort of a fling?”

“Not necessarily,” I answered. “However, statistically speaking, more missing persons turn out not to have been the victim of foul play than turn out to have been. It is smart to look at all options.”

“So you think Kinsley is just fine. You think he has put me through what is by far the worst few days of my life for nothing.”

“Again, I’m not necessarily saying that.” I paused and looked at the woman who seemed to be more angry than scared and I found myself wondering if she wasn’t being overly dramatic for my benefit. “When your husband didn’t come home after two days, why did you call Pope Investigations? Why didn’t you call the police?”

The woman lowered her gaze but didn’t respond right away.

“You don’t think he has met with foul play either. You think he simply took off and you want him found. You may even believe that he is missing because he is engaged in some sort of illegal activity and you didn’t want to get the authorities involved.”

“That’s a lot of speculation,” the woman accused.

“Perhaps. But I’m not wrong, am I?”

“Kinsley likes to gamble. He isn’t very good at it and has lost most of our retirement savings over the past couple of years. He’d been out late on Friday, and we didn’t speak, but when he came to bed, I could smell the smoke and alcohol that accompany a backroom poker game, so I knew. He left around lunchtime on Saturday, simply saying that he had errands he needed to do. He didn’t elaborate or say when he’d be home, but I assumed he’d be home in a few hours. When he didn’t come home at all that day, I assumed his errands had led to a Saturday night poker game. I tried calling him about a million times, but the calls went straight to voicemail. I waited until Monday, hoping he would show up, but when he didn’t, I decided to call your father. Kinsley has gone off on gambling binges in the past, but this time feels different.

“Different how?”

“For one thing, he has been away longer than usual.”

I made a few notes and then looked up at the woman. “So if your husband is just off gambling somewhere, which it sounds like he very well may be, why did you think we would be able to find him when you couldn’t?”

“Finding people is your job. I figured you’d have a few tricks that I didn’t know to try.”

I supposed we did have a few tricks that the missing man’s wife didn’t know to try, but now that I suspected he had taken off on his own free will, I wasn’t sure I wanted to get in the middle of a marital spat. Still, there was a slim possibility that the man really had met with foul play. And I asked the woman several more questions, mostly relating to her husband’s friends, lodging preferences, and financial situation. I promised to do what I could and to call her with an update by the following morning. I also took down the information relating to his car. It wouldn’t hurt to ask my brothers and friends with HPD to keep an eye out for it. As I drove back to Pope Investigations, I made a mental list of people to talk to. If the man was a gambler, I was sure my friend, Emmy Jean Thornton, would know the guy. On the surface, Emmy Jean was a sassy southern sex kitten, but beneath the Dolly Parton exterior, was a shrewd woman who could out drink and out gamble most of the men on the island.

 

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Harlow

 

Book 2 in my new Hathaway Sisters Mystery Series will publish on May 7th. For a description and preview of chapter one see below.

https://amzn.to/2ZyCXAw

The Hathaway Sisters is a new mystery series by USA Today Bestselling Author Kathi Daley. In book 2 of the series, bookstore owner Harlow Hathaway buys forty boxes of books, some rare and some not, at the estate sale of a man who recently died. With the help of her best friend Cooper Callaway, she begins to inventory her purchase finds a complete set of signed novels penned by her favorite author of all time, Alistair Winslow.

Winslow is a reclusive writer who spins his tales from a secret hideaway. Most assume that Alistair Winslow is a pen name and not a given name, but while many have tried, none have been able to unmask the man and reveal his true identity.

At the bottom of one of the boxes is an envelope with what look to be pages from an unpublished manuscript. Harlow is sure the manuscript was penned by Winslow and that the novel, which is much different that his other work, holds a secret to his true identity. Harlow and Coop take to the road in search of answers relating to the reclusive author and his relationship with the reluctant heir who appears to have been his friend. Along the way Harlow and Coop find a mystery that runs a whole lot deeper than they ever imagined.

Chapter One

Harlow Hathaway paused after opening the front door to the farmhouse where she’d grown up. Cinnamon, nutmeg, and—she took in a deep breath—ginger. Dixie must have made her spice pancakes for breakfast. Based on the sound of laughter coming from the kitchen, it seemed she wasn’t the only Hathaway sister whose intuition had sent them home for breakfast this morning. Harlow smiled as she let the perfection of the moment warm her heart. Of all the Hathaway sisters, she was by far the most sentimental, and she figured she was the one who most cherished these impromptu family meals.

Dixie winked at Harlow as she entered the room. Harlow smiled in return. Beneath the throwback-to-the-sixties, hippie vibe Dixie presented to the world, she was as sentimental a soul as her second-youngest granddaughter. She opened her arms in greeting, her long, white braid dipping over the shoulder of her sunny yellow peasant top. “I was wondering if my pancakes would bring you by.”

Harlow stepped in for a hug that was even better than the pancakes. “Of course. You know that I can always sense when you make spice pancakes with warm fruit compote and freshly whipped cream.”

“You have to try the boysenberry,” Harper, the second oldest of the five Hathaway sisters, said from the chair that had always been hers at the huge farmhouse table. “I was only going to have a bite, but so far I’ve eaten four pancakes.”

Harlow paused to take a peek at Bella, the three-month-old Harper was in the process of adopting. She was asleep in her infant seat, but Harlow knew it wouldn’t be long before there were four generations of Hathaways eating pancakes at the family table.

“Personally, the apple is my favorite,” Haven, the youngest of the five and the only sister with blond hair rather than brown, countered. “Although these fresh strawberries from the hothouse are pretty darn good.”

Harlow sat down at the table in the chair that had always been hers, next to her middle sister, Haley. “I guess I’ll need to try one of each flavor, although peach and apricot are my favorites.”

“I hope we get apricots from the trees this year,” Haven commented. “I’ve been thinking about making jam.”

“As long as we don’t get a late frost, we should get some fruit,” Dixie answered. She looked at Harlow. “How is the garden at the bookstore coming along?”

“It’s too early to plant, but I have things cleaned up and ready to go once the threat of frost has passed completely. In the meantime, I’ve been keeping busy.” She turned to Harper. “Are you still coming by this afternoon to help me sort through the new inventory?”

Harper was currently unemployed, after having recently moved home to Moosehead, Minnesota, after more than a decade away. She was currently living at the family farmhouse and helping out at the bookstore in her spare time. Harlow loved hanging out with her older sister and her dog, Maggie, loved playing with Harper’s dog, Bosley.

“I am planning to come by for a few hours. Michael is going to spend some time with Bella, so I’m free the whole afternoon.” Michael Maddox was Harper’s significant other and soon to be, Harlow suspected, Bella’s daddy.

“You have new inventory?” Haley asked.

Harlow took a bite of the delicious pancake and nodded. “Coop and I went to an estate sale this past weekend,” she said, referring to her best friend, Cooper Callaway. “We managed to buy forty large boxes of books from the library of the man who died. Some of the books are trade paperbacks, which I’ll set out on the dollar table, but I came across a first edition of The Great Gatsby in one of the boxes, which made me realize I really needed to take my time to sort through everything rather than dumping the whole lot on the used-books table. Coop helped me get started last night, but I still have half of the boxes to sort through.”

“Wow, a first edition of The Great Gatsby is quite a find,” Dixie commented.

Harlow grinned. “I thought so. But The Great Gatsby isn’t even my best find to date.”

Haley raised a brow. “Okay. I’m hooked. What has been your best find to date?”

“Signed copies of every single book ever written by my favorite author of all time, Alistair Winslow.”

Harper whistled. “That is a find. Alistair Winslow is a total recluse and never does book signings. Most readers don’t even believe he is an actual person. How on earth did the man whose books you purchased manage to end up with a signed copy of every book written by a man most consider to be nothing more than a ghost?”

Harlow shrugged. “I have no idea, but from the personalized messages, I suspect Winslow and the man who owned the estate were friends. I guess I’ve never stopped to consider the idea that Alistair Winslow might have friends. As far as I know, there isn’t a single person on earth who knows who he really is. It’s rumored that even his agent only communicates with him via email.”

“Are you sure the signatures are authentic?” Haley asked.

Harlow frowned. “Actually, no. But I hope they are.”

“What sort of things did he write in the books?” Haven asked. “Did he just sign his name, or were there personal messages?”

“Personal messages,” Harlow answered. “And they are specific.”

“Specific?” Haley asked.

“There are mentions of ‘their time at the lake’ and ‘the gang on Baker Street.’ He mentions someone named Dora, and how one of the characters in the book is loosely based on her. One of the messages referred to Art’s place, and another said something about ‘Tessa’s cookies being used for bait.’ Things like that. I really think that Alistair Winslow and the man must have been lifelong friends.”

“So who was the man whose estate you purchased the books from?” Dixie asked.

“His name was Theo Emerson. He lived in a huge house, which I would probably refer to as a mansion, on a private lake northwest of here. I heard about the estate sale from a friend who owns an antique store in Bemidji. She was interested in furniture and dishware rather than books, so she called to let me know about the sale.”

“Do you know anything about him other than where he lived?” Haley asked. “His age, occupation, personal history?”

“No,” Harlow admitted. “But after finding the books signed by Alistair Winslow last night, I find that I am interested in learning what I can about the guy. I feel like I might have stumbled on to a real mystery. I can’t help but wonder if finding out more about Theo Emerson could lead to discovering the true identity of Alistair Winslow.”

“You’d best not tell Hayden about your find,” Haley cautioned. “She’ll show up and take over your investigation before you know what hit you.”

Hayden was the oldest of the five Hathaway sisters, and the most driven. She currently worked for a local television station operating out of Minneapolis but had plans to make it to the big time before she turned thirty-five. Unfortunately, she was presently thirty-four, and her inability to meet her goal was causing her to be almost manic about finding the one story that would turn out to be her big break. Harlow had no doubt that if Hayden knew she had a lead that might unmask the elusive Alistair Winslow, she’d be on the highway north immediately. Harlow loved Hayden and wanted to see her succeed, but she wasn’t sure she wanted to unmask Winslow, even if she could put together the clues left in the messages from one friend to another.

“While we are on the subject of Alistair Winslow, did any of you happen to notice the dedication page of his latest novel?” Haley asked.

Harlow frowned. “I did see it, and it was odd for a dedication. In fact, it really wasn’t a dedication at all.”

“What did it say?” Harper asked.

“‛An unfolding story becomes complete when, like a circle, beginning and end meet.’”

Harper raised a brow. “Seems mysterious.”

Harlow bit her lip. “Yeah, I thought so as well. I’m not sure if there is a hidden message there, but it sure does feel like it. I’d say it’s really very odd.”

“Alistair’s entire career has been really odd,” Haley pointed out. “Some guy no one has ever heard of publishes a novel that is an instant best seller. He immediately becomes a household name and everyone wants to claim a piece of him, yet his identity has been so well guarded that not even his own publisher knows what he looks like.”

“I heard he even turned down Oprah,” Haven added.

“What could be so bad that he’d be forced to lie about who he really is?” Harper asked.

“He hasn’t actually lied,” Harlow pointed out. “He just hasn’t said who he is. I’ve wondered many times what he might look like. Based on his strong but elegant writing style, I’ve always pictured him as a distinguished and sophisticated man. Someone who is both educated and well-traveled. Someone who is physically attractive in a cultured and refined sort of way.”

“Sounds like someone has a crush on the mystery man,” Haley teased.

“A crush, no,” Harlow defended herself. “But I am fascinated and intrigued by him. I suppose if the real Alistair Winslow is vastly different from the persona he’s created, that might be the reason for hiding his identity. It does seem to me that if he turned out to be a seventy-five-year-old grandmother, it might affect book sales.” Harlow looked at Dixie. “No offense.”

Dixie laughed. “None taken. I’ve always imagined Alistair Winslow to look a bit like Sean Connery. Rugged. Handsome. Distinguished.”

Haley wrinkled her nose. “I’ve always pictured him as being younger. He’s only been publishing for about ten years. He could totally be in his thirties. I agree that he is most likely hot. I’m thinking thick black hair, short and neat. And dark eyes, chiseled features, and maybe just a hint of an English accent. His name does make it seem as if he is British by birth. And I bet he is probably the sort to easily seduce women. His books are so emotionally raw. I bet he knows exactly how to worm his way into the heart of any woman he might desire.”

“I bet he has long hair,” Haven countered. “And blond. Blue eyes and a sexy grin. I agree about the Casanova vibe. His writing does seem to possess the perfect blend of strength and vulnerability.”

“Short hair with just a touch of gray around the temples,” Harper jumped in. “I figure he might be around fifty. Mature, but still adventurous and physically fit. And ditto on the art-of-seduction vibe.”

Harlow found the conversation interesting. The fact that everyone at the table pictured him differently said a lot for Winslow’s decision to maintain his anonymity. She supposed the fact that he could literally be almost anyone had done a lot to add to his overall mystique.

“If Winslow was childhood friends with this Theo Emerson, I suppose that at the very least that would provide his actual age,” Dixie pointed out. “It seems like a worthwhile investigation to pursue.”

Harlow realized that Dixie was right. “I’ll talk to Coop about it this afternoon when he comes by. He is a private investigator. I’m sure he can dig up whatever we might want to know about Theo Emerson.”

Haley took a last bite of her pancake. “As fascinating as I find this conversation, I need to get to work.”

“Are you still working on that bathroom remodel?” Dixie asked.

“I am. And the guy is so happy with my work on the bathroom that he has decided to have me do the kitchen as well.”

“That’s great.” Haven grinned. “That should keep you busy for a couple of months.”

“I’m hoping that it will work out so I can finish the kitchen in time to jump right into the lake house I have lined up for the summer.” She stood up, then pushed her chair in behind her. “Which is why I need to run.”

“Don’t forget that your mom wants us all to have supper on Sunday,” Dixie reminded her. “Two o’clock, so don’t be late.”

“I’ll be there,” Haley promised. “Where is Mom this morning?”

“She had an emergency,” Dixie answered. “A dog was hit by a car early this morning.”

Harlow placed her hand on her chest. “Oh no. I hope the dog is going to be okay.”

Dixie tossed her braid over her shoulder. “I hope so too, although your mom wasn’t sure when she left.”

Haven, who often worked as an assistant in the veterinary clinic, stood up as well. “I hadn’t heard about the dog. I should head to the clinic to help out.” She looked at her grandmother. “Thanks for breakfast. I’ll be sure to plan to be home for dinner on Sunday.”

Harper pushed her chair out after Haven left. “I want to give Bella a bath before I take her over to Michael’s.” She looked at Harlow. “I should be by around lunchtime. I’ll bring sandwiches.”

“That would be great. I’ll take a veggie on wheat.”

Harlow looked at Dixie after her sisters had cleared out. “I’ll help with the dishes.”

“I can get these,” Dixie said. “Seems to me you have a mystery to start digging in to.”

Harlow felt her heart begin to race as it always did when there was a good mystery to solve. “I guess it wouldn’t hurt to take a look in to things to see what I can find. It’s not like I have to do anything with the information I find. But it would be fun to take a peek behind the curtain that Alistair Winslow seems to be hiding behind.”

“Again, I wouldn’t mention this to Hayden,” Dixie cautioned. “She’d have it on the nightly news by the end of the day.”

“Don’t worry. Alistair’s secret will be safe with me.”

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Betrayal By The Sea

The gang from Cutter’s Cove are heading out to sea in this funny and heartwarming paranormal mystery. 

 

Book 4 in my new Haunting By The Sea Mystery series takes place on a cruise ship which was just so fun to write! If you like cruise cozies and a fast moving plot you will enjoy this cozy mystery.

Amanda and the gang are invited on a small private cruise with just twenty guests by Mac’s rich boyfriend Ty Matthews. They are having the time of their lives until Amanda runs into the ghost of one of the passengers who everyone said debarked at the last port. Realizing the woman had not left the ship as she’d been told, but had in fact been murdered, Amanda brings the gang into the investigation in an attempt to find the truth.

https://amzn.to/2Cq1NIJ

 

Preview:

The moon reflected off the calm sea as I stood alone on the deck of the small cruise ship I’d boarded several hours earlier, with my best friends, Mackenzie Reynolds and Trevor Johnson. The trip had been something of a whim after Mac’s new boyfriend, millionaire Tyson Matthews, had been given four tickets on the intimate ship, which held just twenty passengers. Ty had invited Mac, me, and Trevor, to come along for the voyage. It had taken a bit of finagling for the three of us to arrange to be away for an entire week, but it seemed too good an opportunity to pass up, so we did what we needed to do to make it happen.

Mac had just started her own software company and so had flexibility with her schedule, and Trevor had arranged for his manager at Pirates Pizza, the Italian eatery he owned, to cover for the week. What it had really come down to was my ability to find someone to look after my cat, Shadow, and dogs, Sunny and Tucker. Thankfully, my mother, Sarah Parker, who was already planning to visit my oceanfront home in the seaside community of Cutter’s Cove, Oregon, for the holidays, agreed to arrive a week early. We’d lived together in Cutter’s Cove more than a decade before while in witness protection, so she had friends in the area, and as an artist by trade, she could never seem to get enough of the gorgeous sunrises and sunsets that could be found from her studio on the bluff.

“Lovely evening,” said the ship’s captain as he walked up behind me.

I turned and smiled at the tall man, whose gray eyes sparkled with merriment as he took off his hat, revealing short dark hair peppered with gray around the temples. “It really is just about perfect weather this evening.” I held out a hand in greeting. “I’m Amanda Parker.”

“Captain Armand Desmond.” The man returned my offer of a handshake. “You are new to the cruise this year.”

I nodded as a lock of blond hair blew across my face. “I am here with Tyson Matthews, who is a guest of Harris Hamilton.”

“Ah,” the man nodded, replacing his hat on his head. “I should have realized. Mr. Hamilton is a frequent passenger and I should have anticipated that he was going to be with us on this voyage. It is, after all, almost Thanksgiving.”

“Mr. Hamilton always takes this same cruise?”

“Yes, so far he has. This is a good time of year for it. The ports are a lot less crowded than they are during the summer months.”

“I guess not having to deal with the summer crowds is a plus. Is the weather always this nice?”

“Not always. Last year it rained during the entire week of this cruise through the islands, but we are expecting exceptional weather now. I hope that you have a wonderful time.”

“Thank you. I’m sure I will. The ship is amazing, and I am looking forward to getting to know everyone.”

The captain looked up at the sky. From his serene smile, I imagined he was relaxed and content with his life on the sea. He took a deep breath of the salty air, then looked back in my direction. “We are approaching Port Townsend, where we will dock for the next twenty-four hours. My co-captain has the wheel, but I should get back to help with the docking. It was nice to meet you.”

“Thanks. It was nice meeting you as well.” I waved as the man walked away.

After he left, I returned my attention to the sea. I thought Trevor, Mac, and Ty were going to meet me up here and wondered what had kept them. Not that I wasn’t enjoying a moment of solitude. I liked the quiet and often sought it out, but tonight, under the stars, it seemed just a bit too perfect not to share. Sensing a movement behind me, I turned and watched as Trevor stepped onto the top deck from the stairwell and walked toward me. He’d dressed in black slacks and a dark gray jacket this evening, and with his dark eyes, long lashes, and thick dark hair, I thought he looked as if he could easily get a job as a GQ model.

“Wow. It is gorgeous up here.” Trevor stepped up to the railing, took a position next to me, and kissed my cheek.

“It really is.” I smiled in return. It was chilly, but not so cold as to be uncomfortable if you were bundled up.

“Have you been waiting long?”

“Not long.” I let out a long, relaxing breath and leaned into Trevor’s shoulder. “Have you seen Mac and Ty? I thought they might meet us out here.”

“From their total absorption in each other during dinner, I think they had other things on their mind.”

“Oh sure.” I blushed, although I had no idea why. I supposed it was because things with Trevor and I were somewhat undefined, and any topic of conversation having to do with sex made me feel awkward and unsure, especially because we’d decided to share a cabin so Mac could bunk with Ty. “I did notice they seemed more interested in each other than in their lobster.”

“It’s understandable. It is a beautiful night and we are cruising on a luxurious ship where every possible want or need has been seen to. The stars are twinkling in the sky, the breeze is both warm and gentle, and the soft music playing in the background on every deck and in every hallway seems to have been selected to set the scene for romance.”

“It really is just about as perfect an evening as we could hope for,” I agreed. “At first, I wasn’t sure the trip would be worth the effort of making last-minute arrangements, but I’ve always wanted to tour the San Juan Islands.”

“Have you visited them before?”

“Once,” I responded. “While I was in witness protection.”

Trevor’s smiled turned into a frown, and the tone of his voice changed from playful seduction to barely veiled annoyance. “Ah. I remember the two weeks of hell when you simply disappeared without a trace.”

I placed my hand on Trevor’s arm. “I’m sorry. You know I had to go.”

Trevor let out a slow breath and then kissed my forehead. “I know.” I could tell he was struggling to regain his previous mood. “And the past is in the past, so let’s not dwell on things that no longer have the power to hurt us.” Trevor’s gaze narrowed. “Unless they do.” He turned and looked me in the eye. “Any more texts?”

I shook my head. “Not a one.” I forced a smile, although the familiar knotting in my stomach that accompanied any memory of the text I’d received a couple of weeks before could not be denied. The text had been sent from an unknown source and included a photo of Mario and Clay Bonatello, the brothers who had forced me into witness protection when I was a teenager. It also included a message: She who spills the blood must pay the price. Before they’d been murdered by their own family, Mario and Clay had worked for them. After I witnessed them killing a man in cold blood, they had set out to eliminate the only witness to their crime. I had been placed in witness protection and had thought myself safe until they found out where I was living and sent someone to kill me. Their discovery of my hiding place had forced me to run once again, which is when I had spent two weeks on Madrona Island, at the very northern edge of the chain. Eventually, my mother and I got a message from my handler, a man I knew only as Donovan, that the boss of the Bonatello family had decided he was tired of cleaning up the brothers’ messes, so they’d been eliminated, and suddenly, after two years in hiding, Mom and I were free to return to our home in New York. I hadn’t been back to Cutter’s Cove until this past spring, when I returned to help solve the murder of a friend. According to Donovan, he had no idea who had sent the text or why, but he had promised to keep an ear to the ground and let me know if he heard anything. I’d decided to go about my life and not to worry about things I could not control.

When I noticed Trevor’s serious expression, I changed the subject to something a bit less intense. “When Ty said this ship was geared toward those looking for a luxury experience, I had no idea just how amazing it would be. It seems that no expense has been spared to ensure a first-class experience.”

“It is pretty nice.” Trevor’s smile seemed to have returned as he leaned his forearms on the railing, then bent over just a bit to look down into the dark sea. The ship was traveling at a good pace, creating a fairly large wake that glittered in the moonlight. “I wonder how much the tickets for this cruise would cost if we’d had to pay for them. Given the intimate setting and the attention to detail, you know they couldn’t have come cheaply.”

“I’m sure the tickets were a pretty penny,” I agreed. “The food, which has been excellent so far, would demand a hefty price tag if served in a five-star restaurant.”

Trevor wove his fingers through mine as we stood shoulder to shoulder. “Tonight’s meal was exceptional, and the staterooms are not at all what I expected from a cruise ship. I guess I was imagining something small and cramped, so I was pleasantly surprised to find that our room not only has its own Jacuzzi but the balcony overlooking the water is pretty roomy.”

I agreed the stateroom was pretty great. Personally, I was happiest about the fact that the sofa folded out into a bed. I wasn’t sure I would have been ready to deal with the mechanics of sharing a room with Trevor if it hadn’t worked out that we each had our own sleeping space. “It was really nice of Ty to invite us, but I have the feeling the other passengers all know one another. At dinner, it sort of felt like you and I and Mac were the odd ones out. I chatted with the captain briefly while I was waiting for you and he mentioned that Harris took this same cruise every year, but I wonder if the group as a whole has traveled together before.”

Trevor leaned into me slightly. “I spoke with Ty earlier, while you and Mac were unpacking. It seems that the cruise is an annual retreat for Hamilton Investments, so yes, I would assume that the passengers, other than the four of us, all know one another.”

While I knew that Harris Hamilton had given Ty the tickets, I hadn’t been aware the cruise was a business affair. “So all the other passengers work for Hamilton Investments?”

“As far as I know, they either work for the company or have come as guests of a Hamilton Investments’ employee.”

“I wonder why Ty was invited on the cruise if it is to serve as a retreat for the company. Inviting outsiders seems like an odd thing to do.”

Trevor put an arm around my shoulder. “Ty told me that he’d recently completed some computer updates for Hamilton and had stopped by his office to make sure everything was preforming properly. While he was in there, Hamilton’s assistant came in to inform him that she had four extra tickets for the cruise this week because two of his employees were fired earlier that same day. Hamilton offered the tickets to Ty on the spot, and he accepted.”

“Wow. I’m sorry to hear about the fired employees. I’m going to feel bad for using their tickets.”

“They wouldn’t have been able to use the tickets whether Ty accepted them or not,” Trevor pointed out. “If he hadn’t accepted them, they may even have gone to waste.”

“I guess that might be true. But what a drag to think you are going on a cruise and then end up being fired just a week before you are to depart. I’m sure their plus-ones were bummed as well.”

Trevor shrugged. “I’m sure it was a difficult situation, but we don’t know the details, so I think we should put it out of our minds. The two people who were fired might have been stealing from the company or sharing classified information or participating in some other activity that warranted their firing.”

I smiled at Trevor. “You’re right. I heard there is dancing in the lounge. I don’t suppose you want to try out some of your new skills?”

Trevor took his arm from around my shoulders and held out his elbow. “I’d love to take you dancing, but remember, my most consistent move seems to be foot stomping.” He looked down at my feet, which were sheathed in strappy sandals. “I’d hate to mess up your pretty pedicure.”

I laughed. “I think I’ll survive.” I’d been giving Trevor dance lessons since Halloween and he was progressing very nicely.

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The Saint Paddy’s Promise

 

The Saint Paddy’s Promise which publishes March 12th is the 100th book I’ve published. It’s been a busy five and a half years! For a preview of this very fun  Tess and Tilly see below.

 

 

Preview

Five dogs in training, two human trainers, one canine trainer, a beautiful sunny sky, and a rarely seen high temperature of sixty-two degrees made for what I considered to be an almost perfect March day.

“Oliver Hanson, this is Tess Thomas and her dog Tilly,” Dr. Brady Baker, the owner of the only veterinary hospital and animal shelter in my hometown of White Eagle, Montana, introduced the tall, dark-haired man who had approached from the far side of the parking lot. “Oliver is interested in adopting Hank and would like to watch our training session today.”

“I’m happy to meet you.” I held out my hand in greeting. “Hank is a great dog. He has the usual energy one might expect from a sixteen-month-old lab, but Brady and I have been working with him for almost two months now, and the improvement we’ve seen in his responses to verbal commands as well as his overall attention span has been amazing.”

I couldn’t help but notice the way the man’s eyes twinkled when he smiled. “I’m glad to hear it. The main reason I came all the way from Spokane to adopt a rescue from the shelter in White Eagle is because of the work you do training your dogs before you place them. I have to say, I am more than just a little impressed.”

I glanced at Brady and grinned. Brady and I put in a lot of hours training the dogs here, and we were both proud of our accomplishments. “Brady and I realize that a dog who has received at least basic training will be less likely to find his way back to the shelter once he has been adopted.” I looked toward a bench in the sun. “You picked a good day to make the trip. Why don’t you have a seat, and after we put all the dogs through their paces, you can try working with Hank one-on- one.”

The man nodded. “That would be great. Thank you.”

I’m not usually one to brag, but I will say that Brady, Tilly, and I have worked out a training routine that by this point runs like clockwork. In as little as eight to ten weeks, we can take an undisciplined and untrained dog and turn him or her into one who will listen to his or her human and respond correctly to the basic commands of come, sit, down, stay, heel, and wait. Most dogs are cleared for adoption after the basic training course, but there are those with unique potential that we hold back for specialty training that could make them a candidate for advanced work with FEMA or another organization that utilizes highly trained canines.

Brady and I had tried a few different approaches in the beginning, but then we found that the key to our success in many cases was Tilly. Tilly is an old pro when it comes to responding to both verbal commands and hand signals, and we have often used her to demonstrate the behavior we are after, which seems to help the younger dogs who are eager to learn but have no idea what it is we are asking of them.

The dogs we’d brought out with us today seemed to be enjoying the warm weather and sunshine as much as their human trainers. Almost everyone was on their best behavior, which made the training session seem to go faster. In another couple of months, we’d add water training at the lake for many of the more advanced dogs. It was surprising how many of our prospective parents wanted to adopt dogs who liked the water and could swim.

“It seems to me that Rosie is becoming more and more distracted with each session,” I said to Brady as we loaded the dogs other than Hank into his truck after our session. “When we first started working with her, she showed real promise, but now I’m just not sure.”

Brady huffed out a breath. “Yeah. I’ve noticed that as well. Maybe some one-on-one time will help get her back on track. I’ll work with her this week. Why don’t you take Hank and get Oliver started with his individual session while I finish up here?”

“Okay. Do you know if Oliver has experience training a young dog?”

“When I asked him that question, he said that his last dog lived for an impressive seventeen years and he was a child when he was trained, so Hank will be his first.”

“Okay. I’ll go over the basics.”

I instructed Tilly to stay with Brady, then headed across the parking lot with Hank on a lead. Oliver stood up to greet us as we approached.

“Oliver, this is Hank.”

Hank wagged his whole body as Oliver stooped down to pet him.

“Hank is still in what I refer to as the puppy stage despite his size,” I informed the man. “He has a strong play instinct, which can seem to many to be a negative, but if you understand his need for exercise, you can use it to your advantage.”

“Oh, and how is that?” he asked as he ruffled Hank behind the ears.

“A lot of dogs respond best to food as a reward for a job well done, but Hank will do almost anything for a chance to play with you for even a few minutes. The trick is to use playtime as a reward for cooperative behavior. Hank wants to please you. If you make it clear what you are asking of him and reward that behavior with a tug-of-war session or a game of fetch, I think you will both be very happy. I’m going to have you put him through his paces today. When the session is over, if he has done well, let him know you are happy with his behavior and then play with him for a few minutes.”

Oliver nodded. “Okay, let’s give it a try.”

“We’ll start easy with a down stay and then work on recall and finally walking at heel.”

As I knew he would, Hank performed like a pro. When it came time for his play session, it looked as if Oliver was having as much fun as the dog. I think we’d found a match that had the potential to last a lifetime. Oliver agreed to return the following weekend for another session, and if that went well, he would take Hank home with him after the adoption paperwork was completed.

“Do you need a ride?” Brady asked after Oliver left to drive back to Washington and we’d completed our training for the day.

“No. Tony dropped me off and was going to pick me up, but I told him he could just pick me up later from Bree’s. If Tilly and I cut through the park, it is less than a mile to her place, and it is such a beautiful day that I thought we’d walk.”

Brady looked up toward the clear blue sky. “It is a nice day. How is the wedding planning coming along?”

I shrugged. “It’s coming along exactly as I predicted it would.”

“As you predicted?”

I looked Brady in the eye. “Stressful, angst-filled, drama at its best. On the day we found out that Mike and Bree were getting married, I told Tony that Bree would start off by swearing that she wasn’t going to be one of those bridezillas she professes to have no patience for, while I predicted that halfway in, she’d be as monsterlike as any bride who had ever existed.”

Brady laughed. “Is she really that bad?”

“She really is. But it is her wedding. And as her best friend, maid of honor, and future sister-in-law, I want her to have her perfect day. If she is having a hard time figuring out exactly what that day might look like, I am determined to be patient and let her take the time she needs.”

“You’re a good friend.”

“Bree means a lot to me. She has always been like a sister to me, and now that she is going to be my real sister, I couldn’t be happier.” I tossed the stack of traffic cones we used in training into the back of Brady’s truck. “Are we doing another training session on Saturday?”

“I’d planned on it. I thought we could just meet here if the weather is nice again. If we are back to regular March weather, we’ll meet at the shelter. I want to get as many dogs through our basic training as possible before the adoption clinic next month.”

“Are you still thinking of doing speed dating again?”

Brady nodded. “It seemed to work well the last time we tried it, so yeah, I thought we could give it another go.”

“Okay, then, I’ll see you on Saturday if not before.” After waving to Brady, Tilly and I took off across the park. I loved this time of the year, when the snow had melted and everything felt fresh and new. It had been an early spring this year and I supposed we could very well get more snow, but I knew once the heating trend started, any snow that did fall would melt in a matter of hours. Mike and Bree had decided to get married in June. I knew my brother would prefer a church wedding and an indoor reception, but Bree wanted to be married outdoors under the night sky. Her plan seemed to me to be riddled with problems, but I knew she needed to work through those problems herself, so I just stood back and supported her process.

Of course, in my mind, the biggest challenge was the weather. June could be tricky. Sometimes the month was warm and mild, while other Junes could be wet and cool. In terms of snowpack, it had been a mild winter this year. We’d had snow early on, but then it seemed to taper off, with only small storms blowing in during the normally heavy snowfall months. I supposed that a warmish winter and spring could mean that summer would arrive early. June could be gorgeous in White Eagle if the planets aligned and everything fell into place.

I glanced toward the walking path that meandered through the park. The trees were budding, and I knew that the brown and barren landscape would begin to turn green with just a few more warm days. The flowering shrubs were beginning to bud, and if the temperature cooperated, the entire park would be brilliant, with flowers in a multitude of colors before long. I glanced down at Tilly, who began to wag her tail so hard that it was swatting my leg. Pausing to see what she was looking at, I noticed a young woman with long blond hair sitting on a bench next to an elderly woman holding a cane. The young woman smiled at Tilly and me as we approached.

“Can I pet your dog?” the young woman asked.

“Certainly. Tilly loves to meet new people.” I motioned to Tilly that she could carefully approach the woman, who had reached out a hand.

“I just love dogs, and yours is beautiful.” The woman smiled. “My name is Jennifer Anne Claremont, and this is my grandmother, Elizabeth Bradford.”

“I’m Tess Thomas and this is Tilly. We are both happy to meet you.” I glanced toward the lake, which had been frozen until the warm weather we’d been having had arrived. “It’s a beautiful day to get outdoors.”

“It really is. And I am so grateful for the sunshine and warm temperature. I can’t tell you how many Saint Patrick’s days Nana and I have spent sitting on this bench in the middle of a snowstorm.”

“You sit out here every year despite the weather?” I asked.

Jennifer Anne turned her head to the side and glanced at her grandmother with a look of complete adoration on her face. “Have to. Nana has made the pilgrimage to this bench every March 17 for the past sixty years, rain, snow, or sunshine. I started coming with her eight years ago, after she suffered a stroke that limited her mobility and made it impossible for her to drive. It is also difficult for her to speak, which makes any sort of public transportation difficult, so I volunteered to chauffer her for as long as she needs me.”

From the woman’s loving expression, I didn’t think she minded the duty she had volunteered for in the least. It warmed my heart to see such a devoted granddaughter. I no longer had a grandmother, and in the moment, it really hit home how much I’d been missing out on.
“Sixty years?” I responded. “That’s quite a run. I sense there’s a story behind it.”

Jennifer Anne glanced at her grandmother. “Is it okay if I tell Tess and Tilly your story?”

The white-haired woman nodded.

Jennifer Anne turned back to where I was standing. “It’s kind of a long story, so you might want to take a seat.”

I sat down on a nearby bench, and Tilly sat at my feet.

The granddaughter settled back as well. “Sixty years ago today, my grandmother was supposed to meet the one true love of her life at this very bench so they could run away and start a new life together, but he never showed up.”

My smile faded. “Oh no. What happened?”

The light in Jennifer Anne’s eyes faded just a bit. “Nana doesn’t know.” She glanced at the woman sitting next to her. “What she does know is that Patrick O’Malley, the man for whom Nana had professed her love and agreed to marry, originally came to this area the previous summer with friends who’d rented a cabin and planned to spend their time hiking and fishing. By the time the summer came to an end, Patrick was madly in love with my grandmother, and when his friends left, he stayed. They grew even closer as winter set in, and by Valentine’s Day, they knew they wanted to spend the rest of their lives together, even though my grandmother’s family didn’t approve of her relationship with Patrick and he assured her that his wouldn’t be any happier. They decided to defy their families and became engaged.”

I couldn’t help but notice Elizabeth’s hand tighten on her cane. She may not be able to speak, but I could see that she still felt strongly about the events that had taken place all those years ago.

Jennifer Anne continued. “Shortly after he professed his intention to spend his life with her, Patrick told my grandmother that he needed to return home for a short time to take care of some business and to notify his family of his intention to wed and to move permanently out west. Nana still lived at home, and she knew it would only cause problems with her very strict parents if Patrick came to the house looking for her, so the two agreed to meet here on this bench at two o’clock on Saint Patrick’s Day. From here, they planned to simply disappear and live out their lives together.”

“But he never showed up?”

Jennifer Anne’s expression softened. She glanced at her grandmother with compassion. “No. He never showed up.”

“And he never tried to contact your grandmother in any other way?” I asked.

“He didn’t. Initially, Nana came to the park and waited on the bench every day, but eventually, she was forced to accept that he wasn’t coming back for her, so she dealt with the fallout from their brief yet intense love affair and made do with what she had.”

“Fallout?”

“Patrick left my grandmother with child. My mother was born just before Thanksgiving that same year. When Nana’s parents found out she was pregnant, they kicked her out, and she was forced to find a way to provide for herself and her baby on her own. And she did. She moved to Polson, got a job waiting tables, gave birth to my mother, who she named Patricia, and made a life. For the most part, I think she pushed thoughts of Patrick into the back of her mind, but every year on March 17, no matter what else was going on her in life, she made the trip north to sit on this bench.”

I placed my hand over my heart. How incredibly sad. “And your mother—does she ever come with you?”

Jennifer Anne shook her head. “My mother died years ago. She had me later in life and died from complications from an illness when I was only two. Grandma gave up her plans for retirement to raise me and to ensure that I’d have a good life. She had her stroke eight years ago, when I was just sixteen. When it came time for me to leave home and go to college, I decided to stay to take care of the woman who had sacrificed so much to raise me when I needed her.” Jennifer Anne laced her fingers through the fingers of her grandmother’s left hand and gave it a squeeze. “We make a good pair, the two of us. Don’t we, Nana?”

It seemed to me that Elizabeth had a hard time smiling, but the love for her granddaughter that sparkled in her eyes was obvious.
“That is quite a story. It is both sad and beautiful. I have to wonder whether you have ever tried looking for Patrick.”

Jennifer shook her head. “Sixty years ago, it wasn’t so simple to look for someone who lived clear across the country unless you hired a private investigator. That took money that Nana didn’t have. The thought has occurred to me to try now. I realize that after all this time Patrick may be dead, but I still think that it would give Nana comfort to have the answers she’d never been able to find on her own. But I’m not exactly a computer wiz, and I certainly don’t have PI skills. I’d have no idea where to even start.”

I smiled. “It just so happens that my boyfriend, Tony Marconi, is a computer wiz. With your permission, of course, I would be happy to ask him to try to find Patrick.”

Jennifer Anne turned to her grandmother. “What do you think? Should we take a stab at it?”

Elizabeth paused, as if considering the offer. I watched as her gaze narrowed and her lips tightened. Eventually, she nodded her head slowly.

Jennifer Anne looked back to me. “Where would he start?”

“I guess he’d start with whatever you know.”

Jennifer Anne frowned. “We don’t know a lot. I’ve already told you his name, Patrick O’Malley. He told Grandma he was twenty-four when they met in 1959, so if he’s still alive, he’d be around eighty-four now. His grandparents immigrated to the United States from Ireland at around the turn of the twentieth century, but she doesn’t know exactly when. He never mentioned the first names of his parents or anyone else in his family to her. Nana said he referred to Boston as home, and that his parents owned their own business, though she didn’t know what kind. One of the friends he came to White Eagle with that summer was about his age and his name was Toby Willis. She didn’t know much about Toby other than that he’d been friends with Patrick for a long time.”

“Did Patrick know he was going to be a father at the time he left town?” I figured I had to ask. It had occurred to me that he may simply have decided that fatherhood was not for him and had used the excuse to go home to slip away, skipping out on his responsibility.

“No. Nana didn’t realize that she was pregnant until after they were to meet. They didn’t have early pregnancy tests back then.”

I realized that much was true. I took out my phone. “If you don’t mind sharing your cell number, I’ll text you mine. When I speak to Tony, he may have other questions for you. Do the two of you live here in White Eagle?”

“We both live in Polson.”

“Okay. That’s close enough.” I looked directly at Elizabeth Bradford. “I can’t guarantee we’ll be able to find your answers, but I promise you that we will try.”

Again, she didn’t smile, but I could see there was moisture in her eye.

When Tilly and I arrived at Bree’s home, I found her on the phone, and while I wasn’t sure who she was speaking to, I could tell she wasn’t at all happy. Not only was she pacing around the room but her naturally pale complexion was as red and ruddy as if she had spent the day in the sun.

“I sense a problem.” I filled a dish with water for Tilly, then sat down at Bree’s dining table after she’d hung up and turned to greet me.

“That was the caterer I’d hoped to hire. They said they are overbooked for the weekend I requested and are sorry to inform me that they will be unable to provide the food for my wedding. I have a feeling that they weren’t actually overbooked and were just using that as an excuse. When I initially spoke to them, it seemed obvious they weren’t really keen on catering a wedding that is going to take place so late in the evening.”

“I know you have your heart set on a wedding under the stars, and I know you have selected June 21 as your date because it is the summer solstice, but it doesn’t get dark until close to ten o’clock. That is really late for a wedding. And to try to have a meal after that is…” I wanted to say crazy but settled for “challenging.”

Bree let out a long sigh. “I guess you’re right. Exchanging our vows under the stars just sounded so romantic, and I chose the twenty-first because it felt sort of significant, being the solstice and all.” Bree groaned. “I’m making this too complicated, aren’t I?”

I put my hand over Bree’s. “It’s your wedding and I want you to have exactly what you have always dreamed of, and if having a reception at midnight is what needs to happen, you know I’ll be there. Having said that, yeah, I do think you are making it too complicated. You will never find a caterer who is willing to serve that late in the evening, at least not in White Eagle, and I have a feeling that there could be a lot of guests who come up with conflicting plans as well. If getting married under the stars on the twenty-first of June is the most important thing to you, I think you should go for it, but you should probably keep it small. Maybe family only. We could have the wedding at Tony’s place. A ceremony next to the lake would be magical. And after you exchange vows, Tony could prepare dinner for everyone. If,” I continued, “on the other hand, it is more important for you to have a big wedding with all your friends and acquaintances present, I think you should plan an indoor affair during the day, or perhaps earlier in the evening. Or at least an outdoor affair with an indoor alternative like The Lakehouse, which has a beautiful beach if the weather is nice but also has a conference and event room if the weather turns out to be less than ideal.”

Bree plopped down in the chair across from me. “Yeah. I’m hearing what you are saying. I guess The Lakehouse would be nice, if it is available. We could have the ceremony on the beach, weather permitting, and then we could have the reception on the patio. We could string lights, and by the time we got around to the dancing, it would be dark. I suppose that if Mike and I can’t exchange our vows under the stars, we could at least have our first dance there.”

“Or you could flip things around and have dinner first, say at eight o’clock, and then exchange vows after it grows dark, which, as I’ve said, I imagine should be around ten.”

Bree’s expression appeared uncertain. “You think? It would be sort of unconventional to exchange our vows after the meal.”

I shrugged. “It is your wedding. Do what you want to do. Well, at least what you and Mike want to do.”

My comment made Bree groan.

“I’m sensing yet another problem.”

“It’s not really a problem, it’s just that every time I ask Mike about the wedding, he responds with the boilerplate response: he wants what I want. At first, I found his desire to make me happy sort of sweet. Now I just find it annoying. It’s like he doesn’t even care about our wedding.”

I paused and then continued carefully. “He cares. I know Mike loves you and the day you exchange your vows is as important to him as it is to you, but guys don’t always care about things like the type of flowers in the bouquet or the color of the bridesmaids’ dresses, the way women often do. I think the most important thing to him, on the most important day of his life, is to have the certainty in his heart that he was able to gift the woman he cherishes with the wedding she’d always dreamed of.”

Bree wiped a tear from her cheek. “I know you’re right. I have let this wedding get to me in a way I’d vowed not to. I actually do realize that I am making not only myself but everyone around me crazy. Even my mother is losing patience, and she was so excited to be part of the planning when we started this journey. I’ll call The Lakehouse, and if it is available on June 21, I’ll arrange to go by with Mike for a look. Having the reception dinner before the exchange of vows isn’t the craziest idea I’ve entertained. We can have our guests arrive at seven thirty for drinks, have dinner at eight, the ceremony at ten, and then dancing after.”

I smiled. “I think that sounds like a perfectly lovely idea.” Of course, I realized that for Bree to be married under the stars as she dreamed, the weather still needed to cooperate, but in my mind, it was best to tackle one obstacle at a time. “Any idea what time Mike is going to be by?”

“He had to go out on a call or he would have been here by now.”

“I thought he was off today.”

“He was,” Bree confirmed, “but Frank called him in. He didn’t go into details when he called to let me know he was going to be late, but from what he did say, I suspect there’s been a murder.”

“Murder?” I screeched. It seemed to me that Bree might have opened our conversation with this piece of news. “Did he say who the victim was?”

Bree shook her head. “No. All he really told me was that there had been a death in the community that Frank wanted his help dealing with. He never actually said it was a murder, but if it was a natural death, why would Frank call Mike in on his day off?”

That, I decided, was a good question. “I’m going to call Tony to see if he knows what’s going on. If you want to grab your bridal magazines, we can look at place settings when I’m done.”

“I’ll get the magazines after I call The Lakehouse. If it isn’t available, we’ll need to focus our efforts on an alternate venue.”

Bree headed into the kitchen, where she’d left her phone, and I called Tony. I didn’t know for certain if he’d have heard what was going on, but I knew he was in town, so chances were he had heard and could fill me in.

“I take it you heard,” Tony said when he answered his cell.

“Not really,” I answered. “Bree just mentioned that Mike had to go out on a call and that someone had died. She didn’t know who or how. I was hoping that you did.”

“It’s Brick Brannigan.”

“Oh no.” Brick owned the local bar. He was a nice and popular guy, despite his rough side. “What happened?”

“I don’t have all the details, but from what I’ve been able to gather from comments I’ve overheard, it sounds as if he was shot in the chest, most likely as he cleaned up after closing last night.”

I supposed it made sense that he’d been shot after closing and not earlier in the evening. If he’d been killed while he was still open, there would have been witnesses to the event. “Any idea who shot him or why?”

“None. Mike is inside, as is Frank. The new rookie they are training to help out when one of them is off came outside to meet the coroner when he arrived, and everything I’ve managed to pick up has been by listening in on their conversation. I suppose that once Mike is done there he’ll be able to fill us in on the details.”

“The rookie’s name is Gage. He’s just a kid and about as green as they come, but he tries. Have the crime scene guys from the county arrived yet?”

“No, not yet, but I’m sure they’ll be along soon. When I first arrived, the parking area was deserted, but a crowd has begun to gather and it seems that everyone has an opinion as to what happened and why. Of course, it will be up to Mike and Frank to sort it all out. Do you want me to stay here and try to find out what is going on, or should I meet you at Bree’s?”

“Bree is in one of her moods, so you might want to wait a bit before coming by. I’ll text you and let you know when I’ve managed to turn things around and create a drama-free zone.”

Tony laughed. “You are doing an excellent job as best friend and maid of honor. I’m not sure I would have been able to maintain the level of patience you have.”

I smiled. “To be honest, I’m kind of surprised that I haven’t had a meltdown of my own by now, but I actually think we are making progress today. I may even have talked her into starting the wedding earlier in the evening. I need to go before Bree changes her mind yet again. Text me if you hear anything, and I’ll text you when it is safe to come over.”

I spoke to Tony for another minute, then hung up just as Bree danced into the room.

“The Lakehouse has an opening on June 21 and they are willing to hold it for me for forty-eight hours so I can discuss it with Mike. I need to call him.”

“I wouldn’t. The murder he responded to was Brick Brannigan.”

Bree’s smile faded. “Brick? What happened?”

“Tony didn’t have all the details, but from what he overheard, Brick was shot in the chest while he was cleaning up last night.”

“Oh my God. Poor Brick. Who would do such a thing?”

I shrugged. “I suppose he could have gotten in an argument with someone. People do carry guns, and people who have been drinking don’t always make the best decisions. Maybe there was even a witness. We’ll need to wait until Mike gets here to find out what he knows.”

Bree plopped down on the sofa. “Yeah. Mike will figure this out. He’ll make sure that whoever killed Brick is made to pay.”

“You might want to hold off on a discussion of the wedding plans until after Mike has a chance to decompress. Brick and Mike were friends. I think he is probably taking this hard.”

“Of course. I’ll wait and bring up the venue tomorrow.” Bree folded her legs up under her body. “I guess we should have Tony come over now, rather than later. I doubt we’ll get much wedding planning done and he should be here when Mike gets here. Is he in town?”

I nodded. “I’ll call him back in a bit. He’s hanging out at in the parking lot of the bar, trying to find out exactly what is going on. Maybe he can even get a word to Mike that we are all here for him when he is ready to leave.”

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Family Ties

I am really excited about my new series featuring the Hathaway Sisters. It has mystery, romance, multilayered family dynamics, and a story with heart. For a preview of book 1 continue on to the end after the introduction to the series.

Family Ties all began with Denver and Dixie Hathaway, a hippie couple who met in 1962. They married and had a daughter Daisy, who settled down with a man named Jagger and had five daughters: Hayden, Harper, Haley, Harlow, and Haven. Family ties is a series about the Hathaway sisters, each who will stumble into their own mystery on the way to their own family connection.

 

https://amzn.to/2HxyokX

 

Book 1 in the series features Harper Hathaway, a former member of the armed services who is on her way home to Moosehead Minnesota after suffering a personal tragedy. Her plans to enjoy a relaxing road trip are upended when a puppy runs onto the road alerting her to a vehicle which had been in an accident but is not visible from the road. Her attempt to avoid hitting the puppy lands her in the ditch herself. Unharmed she tries to help the occupants of the vehicle which include a man, a woman, and a baby. The driver of the vehicle demands that she hide the baby who, as it turns out, is being sought by powerful men intent on harming her. In order to protect the baby, and find a way out of the mess she has gotten herself into, Harper calls her old friend Ben Holiday, a former cop and current PI, who hooks her up with his friend Michael Maddox, a computer genius with a particular skill set that will aide Harper in her quest to bring the baby to safety.

With the men who are searching for the baby on their heels, Harper and Michael set off across the country with the baby and the puppy, and a desire in their hearts, to find the answers they’ll need to ensure the safety of the child.

 

Preview of Harper:

Harper Hathaway glanced at the San Francisco skyline as it faded into the distance, with the conviction that of all the Hathaway sisters, she was going to go down in family history as having made the biggest mess of her life. Not that making a mess of her life had been what she’d set out to do fourteen years ago when she’d fled her hometown of Moosehead Minnesota feeling lost and alone in a sea of family and friends. She’d recently graduated high school and had been expected to come up with a plan as to what to do with her life, which at the time seemed pretty overwhelming. In spite of a family who loved her, a boyfriend who wanted to marry her, and a grade point average which would have landed her a spot in most any college in the country, she’d had absolutely no idea who or what she wanted to be. So after weeks of sleepless nights and angst filled days, she’d hitched her wagon to the first opportunity she stumbled upon, and joined the Army after a recruiter made a cold call to a young woman who actually was looking for a life of meaningful adventure in addition to a career.

Looking back things had worked out okay. At least for a time. Yes she’d missed her family and those first years overseas were some of the hardest she’d ever known, but she seemed to have a skill set and personality type that fit well with the lifestyle presented to her, and she’d risen through the ranks at a speed that at times had left her downright dizzy. When it time came to re-up after her first tour, she hadn’t even considered other options, and happily signed on the dotted line. By the time her second contract was complete she was on the fast track to a career with the Special Forces, but by the time she’d completed her third contract, she’d seen enough death and destruction to last a lifetime. She knew in her heart she was ready to try something different and had considered going home to Moosehead, but then she met Eric Palmer, a scuba diving instructor with a taste for treasure hunting, a bit of wanderlust, and big dreams for the future. Making a decision to follow the man and his passion, she moved to San Diego, became a certified scuba diver, and then followed Eric from one exotic location to the next. Not only did they travel the world in search of the ultimate dive site but they joined salvage operations along the way. For a brief period in time, she’d really had it all: An exciting life that challenged her both physically and intellectually, a fiancé on the same life path that she had grown to love, and a bright future limited only by what she could imagine. Then six months ago her perfect world came tumbling down when her fiancé was killed while diving on a wreck in Cozumel and she’d lost her will to continue down the path they’d chosen to walk together. So one hundred and sixty nine months, two weeks, and eight days after she’d left her home in pursuit of a new life, she found herself returning to Minnesota the same lost and alone mess she was on the day she’d left.

As she veered from the freeway onto the narrow coastal highway which would take her north, she felt her mood lighten. As a teen she’d felt stifled in such a small town but now that her life was such a mess she realized that after fourteen years out in the world, a large farm perched on a private lake seemed like the optimal place to regroup and heal. As she navigated the narrow winding road that hugged the rocky shoreline, she tried not to think about what she had lost. She knew in her heart if she was going to ever be able to move forward she had to find a way to stop looking back at what might have been.

After she had driven for several hours, the open coastline gave way to the dense forest of the redwoods. Without the crashing waves to set the mood, her mind began to wander and the fatigue she had been holding at bay began to creep into her consciousness. Deciding that what she really needed was a diversion she reached forward to switch on the radio. She was momentarily distracted as she searched for a station which is probably why she didn’t see the dog that darted onto the road until a split second before it ran in front of her. She slammed on her breaks and turned the wheel hard to the left. She somehow managed to guide the vehicle to a stop but not before she lost control of the vehicle and slid into the drainage ditch that bordered the road. Her heart pounded a mile a minute by the time she came to a full stop.

“Oh god.” she put her hand over her chest. She wasn’t hurt, and while the car was going to need to be towed, she didn’t think it was badly damaged. She put her hand on the latch and opened the driver’s side door. Taking a deep breath to steady shaky knees, she slowly climbed out. She was pretty sure she was fine but the dog… Oh god the dog. She looked around the area and didn’t see a dog injured or otherwise. She didn’t think she’d hit him. She slowly made her way up the embankment and looked around. She couldn’t see the dog but after a moment she heard him whimpering from the other side of the road. The sun had set and the sky was beginning to grow dim so she pulled on her jacket, grabbed the flashlight she kept for emergencies, and jogged across the road. “Are you okay?”

The yellow Labrador, which was really no more than a puppy, continued to whine so she walked slowly forward. “I won’t hurt you,” she said in a soft voice. “I just want to help.” The pup didn’t move but he didn’t attack either so she took a few more steps. Not only had she grown up on a farm, but her mother was a veterinarian. She’d lived around animals her entire life and generally knew how to calm them. She could see that this one was scared but he also seemed to want her to help.

“I’m going to come closer,” she said in a soft voice.

The dog watched her warily but didn’t move toward her. When she was within a few feet of him he moved away. She took a few more steps. He moved a few of his own. She supposed at some point he must have decided that she was going to follow since he limped down the embankment and into the dense forest. He hadn’t gone far when she noticed something blue. A car. The dog had led her to a car which must have veered off the road. There was still steam coming from the engine compartment so she had to assume the accident had recently occurred.

She made her way toward the car as fast as the steep terrain would allow slipping only once on the muddy ground. When she reached the car she headed directly to the open driver’s side door and looked inside. There was a man in the driver’s seat with a large gash on his head who was still buckled in. He appeared to be unconscious. She looked into the interior of the vehicle to find a woman in the passenger seat. She likewise appeared to be unconscious. Taking a quick peek into the rear of the vehicle she noticed a baby strapped into a car seat.

“A baby,” she said a little too loudly. She must have startled the dog since he began to bark aggressively. “It’s okay,” she said in a gentler voice. “I’m going to go around to the back and open the door so she can see what needs to be done. Okay?”

The dog stopped barking but didn’t move from the position he had taken up near the open driver’s side door. When she arrived at the back door Harper assured the dog once again that he could trust her. She opened the door and gently ran her hands over the baby who was awake and appeared to be unharmed. She unstrapped the car seat, lifted the baby out, and cradled the whimpering infant it in her arms. “It’s okay. I have you now. It’s okay. I’m going to get help.”

She walked back around to the front of the vehicle to check on the driver. She felt for a pulse and he opened his eyes. “The baby,” he gasped. “You need to hide the baby.”

“Hide the baby?”

“Hurry. You must leave now. Don’t trust anyone.”

She froze in indecision. The man had lost a lot of blood. She had to wonder if he was delirious. She looked toward the woman in the passenger seat. “The baby’s mother?”

The man nodded. “Dead. Now hurry. Take the diaper bag. It is up to you to keep the baby safe.”

She looked down at the infant in her arms. He or she appeared to have drifted off. She didn’t feel right about leaving the man and woman in the car and was trying to make up her mind about the options available to her, when she heard another car on the road. She wasn’t sure why she made the decision to hide. Instinct she supposed. One minute she was contemplating the idea of calling 911, and the next she was heading toward the cover of the trees with the baby cradled snuggly in her arms and the long handle of the diaper bag draped over her shoulder. The puppy who seemed to have settled down now that she had the baby, trailed along behind her.

After a few minutes of searching for an adequate hiding space, she found an outcropping of rocks, which combined with the darkening sky, seemed to provide a sufficient amount of cover. She tightened one arm around the baby, caressed the puppy with the other, crouched down as low as she could manage, and watched as a man in a highway patrol uniform hiked down the embankment, walked over to the car, said something to the driver, took out a gun, and shot him. The pup began to growl. She shushed him and then watched as the patrolman walked around the vehicle and shot the woman in the passenger seat, although, according to the driver of the vehicle, she’d already been dead. The accident didn’t appear to have been serious enough to have been responsible for the woman’s death, so Harper had to assume she had died prior to the accident from an injury or illness. After he shot the woman in the passenger seat, the officer opened the back door and stuck a head inside. She held her breath when she realized that he must have been looking for the baby. After rooting around in the rear of the vehicle for a moment, he took several steps away from the vehicle and looked around the area.

Her heart pounded as she continued to crouch behind the rocks calming the puppy and whispering to the baby. It was a cold day in February and the blanket that someone had wrapped the baby in really wasn’t all that heavy so she unzipped her jacket, slipped the baby inside, then scrunched down even smaller and waited. The puppy climbed into her lap providing an extra layer of warmth for the baby as the man in the uniform continued to search the immediate area. The tall thin man with dark hair and a crooked nose, took several steps in her direction, pausing only a few yards from the rocks where they were hiding. If not for her military training she was certain she would have screamed or fainted or both. The baby let out a tiny cry so she tightened her arms around the bundle she’d nestled to her chest and prayed the puppy would remain quiet and the baby would go back to sleep.

After a few minutes the man headed back toward the vehicle for a second look, he opened both the trunk and the engine compartment, rooted around, circled back toward them, and then pulled out his phone and spoke in a deep voice. “Agent Beaverton is dead as is the witness. The baby is gone and there is no sign of the ledger. There is a car in the ditch just off the road. I assume that the driver of the car found our target and went for help. I’m going to see if there is ID inside the vehicle. The driver can’t have gotten far.”

Harper watched as the man turned and headed back toward the road. After he’d driven away, she scooted out from behind the rocks and let out a long breath of relief before the puppy, baby, and she slowly made their way back toward her car. It was almost completely dark by this point and getting colder by the minute. She knew she needed to get help but her car was disabled, and a quick search of her vehicle confirmed that the man who had shot the occupants of the vehicle carrying the baby had taken her purse and her phone, as well as her vehicle registration.

“Okay this can’t be good,” she mumbled. She supposed it made sense to stay with the vehicle. Someone would come along eventually. Of course the man who had been with the baby said not to trust anyone and it had been a man in a highway patrolman’s uniform who had shot and killed him in cold blood. Maybe waiting with the car wasn’t the best idea. She’d been heading toward a small town she knew was just north of her position when the accident had occurred. The town was still quite a ways off but she’d driven this road before and she seemed to remember a rundown little motel attached to a gas station and a small eatery not all that far up the road. Of course staying in a motel so close to the spot where her car had been disabled might not be the smartest thing to do given the fact that there was at least one man she knew of looking for the baby she’d tucked beneath her jacket. Still, staying with the car was probably the worst thing she could do at this point, so she began to walk along the side of the road with the baby in her arms and the puppy trailing along beside her. The baby hadn’t been very active since she’d plucked it from its car seat. This, she had to admit, worried her. Had it been hurt in the accident in spite of the lack of blood? He or she had been strapped into a high quality infant car carrier which appeared to have shielded the tiny thing from the worst of the impact, but she supposed the infant could have sustained internal injuries. She really didn’t have a lot of options at this point so she hiked the diaper bag more firmly over her shoulder and continued to walk, praying all the while, that a solution to her current dilemma would present itself before it was too late.

“Closed for the season.” she groaned as she read the sign nailed to the front of the motel, gas station, and eatery, she’d remembered. It had taken her forty minutes of steady walking to arrive at this point and she didn’t remember there being another town for a good twenty to thirty miles. She needed to get the baby inside and out of the cold so making a quick decision, she made her way over to the small motel and used the multi-use knife she always kept in her pocket to break into one of the rooms furthest away from the road. Once the puppy, baby and she were inside, she tried the lights, but the electricity had been turned off. She used the flashlight she still had in her pocket to provide at least a modicum of light. She unzipped her jacket, removed the bundled up baby, and laid it on the bed. The puppy jumped up onto the bed and laid down next to it.

“Hey sweetie, how are you doing?” She cooed to the child.

The baby opened its eyes.

“I know that you are probably wet and hungry. Hopefully there will be supplies in the bag to take care of both those problems.”

She slid the diaper bag off her shoulder and then emptied it onto the bed. A package of diapers, baby wipes, a can of powdered formula, several bottles of purified water, a couple of pairs of warm pajamas, and a thumb drive? Everything made sense except the thumb drive. She slipped the drive into her pocket, and then unwrapped the baby from the blanket. She took off the wet diaper to find that her traveling companion was a little girl. She quickly changed the baby’s diaper, then dressed her in the warmest pajama’s she could find. Once she was clean and dry, she wrapped her in the blanket she’d found her in and then pulled the blanket from the bed over her as well. Harper really had no way of knowing when the baby had last been fed, but her tiny little whimper seemed like a feed me sort of whimper, so she read the instructions on the can of formula, mixed up a bottle, then held it to the baby’s lips. She took a single suck then began to cry. The bottle was ice cold and having had three younger sisters she did remember that babies liked to have their bottle heated. She made sure the baby was tucked securely onto the bed then went into the bathroom praying for hot water. Just because the electricity was off that didn’t mean the gas was off as well.

She held her breath as she turned on the faucet. The water was ice cold at first but after a moment it did begin to warm up. She filled the basin with hot water then held the bottle in the water until the formula felt warm. She made her way back to the bed, arranged the pillows against the headboard, and then leaned into them as she cradled the baby in her arms. Thankfully she devoured the bottle as the puppy snuggled in next to them and fell fast asleep.

“So what on earth have you gotten yourself into?” She asked the tiny baby as she suckled the bottle. “You seem a little young to have made enemies, yet there do seem to be some really bad people after you.” She remembered the man in the uniform. “Or at least a really bad man.” She wondered if the man who shot the accident survivor was a dirty cop or if he was simply an assassin who had stolen a uniform. The man who had been traveling with the baby had told her not to trust anyone, which led her to believe that he knew that whomever was after the baby had connections in high places.

Once the baby fell asleep, she tucked her under the covers and then got up and took a look around the room. She needed a plan that included something other than just sitting around waiting for the dirty cop to find them. She wasn’t even sure it was safe to stay in the room until morning, although taking the baby out into the chilly night air wasn’t really an option either, so she supposed her best bet at this point was to hunker in and wait for sunrise. The question was, what then?

She didn’t have her phone, ID, wallet, credit cards, or bank card. The man in the car had said to trust no one, but she did have people in her life she knew she could trust. Her mother, grandmother, and four sisters would all help her in a minute, but she didn’t want to drag any of them into whatever was going on until she figured out exactly what was going on. She knew the man in the CHP uniform had taken her registration but the address on the registration was that of her old apartment in San Diego. Still, the man did have her name and she was afraid that once the man with the gun figured out who she was, he would be able to backtrack and find her family in Minnesota so perhaps she should warn them. The problem was that she didn’t know how to warn them without worrying them.

She paced around the room as she tried to work out her options. Thinking of her family made her think of her hometown of Moosehead Minnesota, and there was one person in Moosehead she knew she could trust and she knew would have the skill set needed to do exactly what needed to be done. Ben Holiday was a private investigator and an ex-cop. He had moved to Moosehead at some point after she had moved away and was currently married to an old high school friend: Holly Thompson. Or at least she had been Holly Thompson before he she married the handsome PI, opened a foster care home, and built a family. Harper had met Ben three years ago while she was living in San Diego. He’d been hired to track down a missing teenager who’d last been seen near Coronado Island. Holly knew that she lived in the area and suggested that Ben contact her for help with the search. In the end she had helped him track down the missing teen and in the process she knew she’d made a lifelong friend.

The more Harper thought about it, the more she realized that contacting Ben was her best bet. Now she just needed to figure out how to contact him without a phone. A quick search of the room confirmed that there wasn’t a phone in the room but maybe the office? The electricity had been off but the gas had been left on so perhaps the phone had been left on as well. It would make sense the phone would remain in service so that those who called the motel unaware that it was closed for the season could leave a message on the answering machine, which she bet, was the sort of messaging system this old motel used.

She walked over to the bed to check on the baby who was still sleeping next to the puppy. Making a quick decision, she grabbed her pocket knife and flashlight, and then headed out into the cold night air. The motel office was just off the highway so she knew she’d need to be careful not to be seen, but while the area was popular with hikers and campers during the summer, the place was all but deserted on a cold night in February.

She had just left the shelter of the room at the back of the lot and had started across the pavement when a set of headlights appeared from the south. She quickly dunked in behind a large redwood, where she waited until the car drove by. Once it had passed she continued toward the office and café. She was just passing the gas pumps when another set of headlights appeared on the horizon. Apparently she’d been wrong about the place being deserted. She dunked behind one of the pumps and watched as a CHP vehicle slowed and then pulled into the lot. She froze as the car pulled up in front of the motel office. A tall man got out and walked over to the door. It wasn’t the same man she had seen shoot the two car accident victims, but not knowing who to trust, she stayed put. The man knocked on the door and then tried the lock. He shone his flashlight around the area, missing her hiding spot by inches. He walked back to the car and then pulled out a handheld radio. “Redwood Junction is clear. The place is locked up tight and there is no sign of the driver of the vehicle or the baby. I’ll continue to keep my eyes open. They can’t have gotten far unless the driver managed to hitch a ride.”

The man took one last look around, got into his car, and then drove away. She let out the breath she’d been holding since he pulled into the lot. She figured she was safe for now but come daylight it would be a different story all together. After making sure there were no other headlights in either direction she ran to the front door of the motel office. She quickly picked the lock and then slipped inside. She knew she couldn’t risk a light, even the light from the flashlight, so she felt around until she found the desk where she suspected she’d find the phone. She let out a long breath of relief when she got a dial tone. She momentarily wondered of using the phone might somehow give away her location, but at this point she needed a way out of this mess so she took a chance and dialed the familiar number.

She listened as the line was answered by a recording. “You have reached Holiday Investigations. We are currently unavailable or on another line, but if you leave your name and number someone will call you back.”

“Ben this is Harper Hathaway. I need help. Don’t call my cell or text or try to reach me using any of my known contact information. I’m going to try your cell. If that doesn’t work I’ll try back in a half hour.”

She hung up, and then dialed Ben’s cell.

“Harper,” I just got your message. I was hoping you’d try the cell. What’s going on?”

She explained about the accident, the baby, the warning issued by the man in the car, and the uniformed officer who had shot him.

“Wow.” Ben paused. “I’m not even sure what to say. I can’t imagine what is going on that would cause a highway patrolman to shoot a man and woman in cold blood.”

“There was a thumb drive in the diaper bag that might explain what is going on but I don’t have a way to read it. I’m not sure what to do. I don’t have transportation, ID, or money, and the man who had been with the baby said not to trust anyone. After seeing a man in uniform shoot the couple who had been with the baby with my own eyes I’m hesitant to call 911. I don’t think that staying here is an option. The highway patrol seem to be checking on the place. It is cold and damp and I am traveling with a puppy and an infant. I need help and I need it fast.”

Ben paused for a moment and then replied. “I have a friend. Michael Maddox. He is a tech whiz and we have worked together on a few cases in the past. He is actually in California this month setting up a security system for financial planning firm. I’m going to give him a call. If he is still in the same location he was when I last spoke to him, he should be able to get to you in five or six hours.”

She let out a sigh of relief. “That would be great.”

“Since I can’t call you, how about you call me back in thirty minutes.”

******

Michael Maddox pulled into the lot of his hotel. He’d been in California for a month now and was beginning to feel the tug in his chest calling him home. Not that he really minded that his job as a cyber security consultant and software developer took him all over the world, but after a month on the road he always felt the urge to head back to Minnesota. Today was his last day on this particular job so it wouldn’t be long before he was be able to leave the temperate climate of Central California for the subzero temperatures found in the north.

With the completion of this job he was basically unemployed for the next six weeks. He was sure he could rustle something up if he really wanted to, but it had been a while since he’d had time to simply relax. Maybe he’d take some time off and enjoy the rest of the winter. It been eons since he’d gone ice fishing. Maybe he’d call his friend Ben Holiday. It had been forever since the two of them had taken a guy’s trip. Of course, Michel acknowledged, Ben was a busy man. Not only was he married to a popular advice columnist who traveled for work almost as often as he did, but the couple had built a blended family consisting of biological children, adopted children, and foster children, that appeared to keep him on his toes.

He turned off his ignition and was beginning to gather his belongings when his phone rang. He answered without bothering to check his caller ID. “Maddox here.”

“Michael its Megan.”

Michael smiled at the sound of his middle sister’s voice. “Meg, how are you?”

“Busy. I only have a minute but I wanted to call to make sure you’ve made your travel reservations.”

“Travel reservations?”

“Mom and dad’s anniversary. You do remember? You promised.”

He did remember although for the life of him he’d been trying to forget. “I know I promised but I’m in California on a job. It’s taking longer than I anticipated. I don’t think I’m going to make it back in time.”

“Not making it back is not an option,” Megan insisted in a stern voice. “Neither Macy nor Marley are going to make it back which means that it is up to you and me.”

Michael winced. He did feel bad about missing his parent’s anniversary party yet again but he really, really, didn’t want to go home.

“Please Michael,” He couldn’t help but hear the desperation in her voice. “I’m counting on you to be there.”

“You know how busy I am?” Michael tried.

“Really?” He could hear the desperation turn to anger. “You are going to use the I’m busy excuse with your younger sister, who is not only doing a demanding surgical rotation as part of her pediatric residency at one of the most demanding hospital’s in the country, but is actively applying for jobs at every major hospital in the world, and is planning the entire anniversary party by herself?”

Michel groaned. She had him there. “Okay. I’m sorry. I’ll be home. I promise. Will it just be you and I and mom and dad?”

“No. Matthew and Julia will be there as well.”

Michael didn’t reply. In spite of Megan’s effort to keep the family together it did seem like there had been one obstacle after another. First there was Maddie and then there was Julia. Totally different situations, but family dividers all the same.”

“I know that Matthew attending the party is the real reason you don’t want to come,” Megan continued. “And I know you have a good reason to want to avoid him, but this isn’t about you. It is about finding a way to be a family in spite of our challenges, and it is the parents who sacrificed a lot when we were growing up so that we could follow the dreams we were destined to develop as adults.”

Michael hung his head. “I know. I’m sorry. I’ll make the reservations tonight. I’ll call you later with the details.”

“Thanks,” Megan sighed in relief. “I know this is difficult for you.”

“It’s not difficult,” Michael lied. “In fact I’m totally over it. So how is the job hunt going?” He wanted desperately to move the subject away from his twin brother and ex-fiancé.

“Slowly. I am more than qualified for every job I have applied for. And I have excellent references. The problem is the other applicants who have applied for these same jobs are equally qualified. Maybe even more qualified. I have to admit that I am beginning to become discouraged. I really hoped to have a job to go to when my residency was done in May.”

“I know it’s tough but I know the perfect job is waiting for you. Maybe you just haven’t stumbled across it.”

“I love your optimism but I don’t think my lack of stumbling is the reason I haven’t even been granted an interview.” Meg groaned. “Perhaps I should lower my standards. I really thought I would be able to snag one of the elite jobs I’ve always dreamed of, but elite jobs tend to attract elite candidates, of which there are a lot more than I initially imagined.”

“Hang in there sis. The perfect job is out there.”

“Easy for you to say. You’ve somehow managed to do a wonderful job of stumbling your way through life without so much as a plan. I, on the other hand, have adhered to a rigid set of goals and objectives since I was a teenager and where has it gotten me?”

“A residency at one of the best hospitals in the country.”

Meg laughed. “I guess you are right. Enough with the whining. I’m really looking forward to seeing you. We all are.”

“And I’m looking forward to seeing you as well.” Michael looked at his screen when his cell beeped. “Listen I have to go. Ben is on the other line.”

“You’ll make the reservations. Tonight.”

“I will. I promise.”

“Don’t let me down big bro. I’m counting on you.”

“I’ll be there with bells on. Love you.”

“Love you too.”

Michael hung up with Megan and answered Ben’s call. “Ben I was just thinking about you.”

“You were?”

Michael glanced at the first drops of rain as they landed on his windshield. “I’ve finished up here and am planning to head home in the next day or two. Are you up for some ice fishing?”

“I am. But first I need a favor. A big favor.”

******

Harper decided to head back and check on the baby while she waited. She let herself out the door, locked it behind her just in case, and then paused and considered the small café. It was closed for the season but they may have left something behind. If nothing else she really wanted to find something for the puppy. She pulled out her knife, picked the lock, and then slipped inside. She headed to the kitchen to find that the cabinets were bare, with the exception of a few canned items. When she came across the can of Spam, she figured that would work for the puppy, so she grabbed it along with a can of peaches, then slipped out of the café, locked the door, and sprinted across the dark lot toward the room where she’d left the sleeping dog and infant.

“I have food,” she said to the pup, who raised his head and wagged his tail when she came in. The baby was still sleeping peacefully, so she used her knife to access both the Spam and peaches. The pup inhaled the food without even stopping to chew, and then jumped back onto the bed, curled up with the baby, and went back to sleep. She plucked one of the peaches out of the heavy syrup and nibbled on it, but her appetite was pretty much nonexistent, so she set the can aside. She wasn’t sure what she was going to do if Ben’s friend was no longer in the area of if he was unable to help her for some reason. Both her experience in the Army and her life as a scuba diver and treasure hunter had taught her to think on her feet whatever the situation. And she was good at doing just that, in most cases. But in most cases she didn’t have a baby and a puppy to think about.

She drew the curtains closed except for a small sliver she could peek through. Shutting out the natural light provided by the moon made the room even darker but she had no way of knowing if the patrolman who had been by earlier would come by again and she wasn’t taking any chances. She knew that it was vital to any good plan to have an escape route. She’d chosen the room on the end which featured a small window in the bathroom the others rooms didn’t appear to have. It would be a tight squeeze to get herself, the baby, and the puppy through the narrow opening, but if push came to shove that was exactly what she would do.

Taking the thumb drive out of her pocket she looked at it. She didn’t have her computer or any other way to read it but she felt it might be the key to everything that was going on. There had been an ancient computer in the office but without electricity to run it, its presence did her little good.

She froze as a car pulled into the lot. She crossed the room and peeked out the window. It was a dark colored minivan. Chances are the van belonged to a passing motorist who remembered the small travel stop and had hoped to find gas or lodging. The van sat in the lot for two or three minutes and then continued on.

Harper didn’t have her phone or a watch so she had no way to keep track of time, but after a period she assumed could be thirty minutes passed, she checked on the baby and the puppy, both of whom were still sleeping, then let herself out of the room and headed toward the office. She picked up the phone and dialed Ben’s number.

“Everything is set,” He said once he answered. “Michael was just getting back to his hotel when I called. He is going to grab a few things and then will be on the road heading in your direction within thirty minutes. The traffic should be light at this time of day so he estimates he should be there in about six hours. He won’t be able to call you but I am going to give you his cell number so you can check in with him if need be.”

“Okay great.” She rooted around for a pen and paper and took down the number.

“It’s nine o’clock now so look for him at around three.”

“What make, model, and color of car will he be driving?”

“Black Range Rover with Minnesota plates.”

“Okay, I’ll look for him. And thanks Ben. I don’t know what I would have done if you couldn’t have helped. I’m usually pretty good at taking care of myself but with an infant and a puppy I’m afraid I’m just a bit out of my depth.”

“How is the baby?”

“She seems okay, which is actually amazing since she can’t be more than a few days old and she was just involved in a serious accident. The car seat she was strapped into was a quality seat and the car didn’t look as if had rolled, which may be why she appears to be unharmed.”

“Is she eating?”

“She is. She is not a fan of a cold bottle but the gas is still on so I used warm tap water to heat it.”

She listened as Ben let out a breath. “That’s good. I’ll feel better once Michael gets there. He is a good guy and you can trust him. The fact that a CHP officer seems to be involved in whatever is going on has me worried but I guess we’ll just take things one challenge at a time until we can work through a solution.”

“It will be fine,” She said even though she didn’t necessarily believe it. “I should get back to the room to check on the baby.”

“Before you go I want you to describe the highway patrolman you saw shoot the occupants of the vehicle. I’m going to see if I can track down his identity.”

“Tall. Over six feet. Short dark hair. Thin. Crooked nose, which looked to have been broken in the past.” Harper paused and thought about it. “I didn’t get a real close look so I can’t tell you his eye color. I guess the crooked nose is going to be the best clue I can provide.”

“Okay. I’ll see what I can find out. Be careful and check in when you can.”

She rung off, and then slipped out of the office and headed back toward the room where she’d left the baby and puppy. The puppy indicated that he wanted to go out, so she took a quick peek at the baby, who was still sleeping, then took the pup out behind the building in the event that a car came down the road. She really, really, hoped that the highway patrol wouldn’t be back by, but at this point she couldn’t be certain.

After the puppy had done his thing she returned to the room and tried to get some rest. She fed and changed the baby again at around eleven o’clock. After the baby settled in and went back to sleep, she took the puppy out one more time, and then laid down next to both of them. She tucked the baby in next to her chest, and the puppy settled on her other side. She was sure the baby at least would be warm in spite of the fact that the room was not equipped with a heat source. She must have fallen asleep at some point in spite of the fact that she’d intended to stay awake. When she noticed the headlights shining in through the window she assumed it was Michael. When she got up and peeked out of the small opening in the curtain and noticed the CHP vehicle, she almost had a heart attack. Hopefully the man or woman who had stopped would take a quick look around and then continue on.

The drapes were drawn so other than the small scene visible through the crack in the middle she really couldn’t see much. She looked at the pup who had started to growl. “Do not bark.” she glanced at the bathroom behind her. The baby was still asleep but she knew if the pup barked he would give them away for sure. She gently picked up the baby, grabbed the diaper bag, called to the puppy, and moved everyone to the bathroom. She closed the door except for a crack she could peek through. She could hear that the person who had arrived knocking on and then jiggling the handle of every door. Had she locked the door after the last time she took the puppy out?

She heard the knock on the door and waited for the jiggle when she heard another car pull up. The man who had been checking doors seemed to have walked away since she heard him greet whomever had pulled up. She couldn’t hear what was being said, but after a few minutes, she heard both vehicles pull away. She waited where she was for several minutes and then slowly opened the bathroom door. She hadn’t heard anything since the vehicles had pulled away and was about to sneak over to the window for a peek, when the door opened to reveal a tall broad shouldered man with a gun.

 

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