Sunday, April 20, 2008
EXCERPT: Dangerous Secrets
In the final book of the Harbor Intrigue Series, Lyn Cote takes all the parts familiar to readers of the series and steps up the romance element. The suspense element grabs you from the first chapter if not the first page. Sylvie Patterson wants to know the truth about the death of her cousin Ginger. Ridge is on loan to Winfield's police department and stuck right in the middle of the developing intrigue. When the string of break-ins continues, following the trail might become dangerous for body and heart. Side by side, Sylvie and Ridge seem to find the other uncovering their secrets too.
She'd managed to climb in a rear window. Had anyone seen her? At this time of night in this little burg? She doubted it. Standing in the apartment lighted only by her flashlight and thin moonlight coming through the windows, she laid her flashlight on the floor. Where should she start looking? It had all seemed so easy. Well, get started, she told herself. She approached a built-in bookcase.
As she reached up to remove the books from the top shelf, it began. The wall in front of her eyes started to undulate as if an earthquake were taking place. Then the floor beneath her feet began ripple. She staggered and caught hold of the bookcase, cursing.
And then she heard footsteps coming up the stairs. Or was that just part of the flashback too?
Sylvie, I am going to WOW you with a big surprise tomorrow! What could Ginger's WOW surprise be? This question kept bobbing to the surface of Sylvie Patterson's mind--interrupting her work. She sat at her PC near the front of her store, My Favorite Books, answering customer e-mails.
Last night Ginger, her favorite cousin, had blown into Winfield, intending to spend the next two months in her apartment above Sylvie's bookstore. Just a few years younger than Sylvie, Ginger would be busy "polishing" her dissertation on Alaskan whales. Last night Ginger with her long curly red hair and golden freckles had been more effervescent than usual.
And in just a few more minutes, Sylvie would close up shop and find out what Ginger's big secret was. She'd make Ginger come clean tonight.
The little bell on the door jingled and cold air swished inside. In the off-season, Sylvie didn't usually look up from her monitor to see who'd come in. But today it might be Ginger.
She glanced up. Not Ginger.
Ridge Matthews looked back at her. Ridge Matthews, standing there against the wall, lined with shelves and shelves of books.
Waves of recognition on so many different levels undulated through her. So much history lay between them. Then the waves emanated from her, toward Ridge and were palpable in the silence. Ridge was still tall but not too tall, still stocky with broad shoulders, still the same dark brown, nearly black eyes. Only a few glints of gray in his short-cropped hair reminded her that eighteen years had passed since he'd been a year-round resident of Winfield.
"Sylvie," he acknowledged her with the grave voice he'd acquired that awful summer night eighteen years ago.
"Ridge," she returned the greeting and forced a smile. She rose, holding out her hand. I'm surprised to see you, Ridge, but not unhappy. Never unhappy.
He hesitated a split second and then came forward and gripped her hand—-briefly.
He was still as buttoned-up as his black wool winter coat. Last December, she'd glimpsed him at Trish Franklin's wedding, another of his rare visits. And now she thought she knew his reason for appearing here today. "Are you looking for Ben?" she asked. "He's running an errand for me."
Ridge digested this in several moments of silence. "My mother said he doesn't come home after school. Every day he walks here from the bus stop."
Yes, going home to your parent's house is way too depressing for any kid. For a long time, the Matthews' home had been nothing but a house, merely four walls, a roof and floor. That was why Ridge had forsaken Winfield.
"Thanks for being kind to Ben." His low tone curled through her.
Resisting his effect on her, she forced another smile. "Ben's a good kid. Are you here to visit him for a few days?" she added, hoping his answer would be yes.
"I'm moving him away this weekend."
She stiffened with shock. "With you to Madison? Now?"
The door opened behind Ridge. More frigid air rushed in.
"No," Ridge said, "an opening has come up unexpectedly in a good military school near Milwaukee. Ben was next on the waiting list. He's scheduled to start bright and early on Monday."
Just inside her door, blond-haired and freckle-faced Ben halted, looking as if he'd just received the death sentence.
She took an involuntary step toward him. Military school? For Ben? No.
"Military school?" Ridge's orphaned ward echoed her aloud. "Monday?"
Sylvie wanted to pull Ben, now white-faced, into a protective hug. But at twelve years, he was too old for that.
Caught between the two of them, Ridge shifted sideways, eyeing both. "Ben, you know I told you that my parents are too old to keep you."
Besides being too self-centered, too self-absorbed, Sylvie amended silently. The constant ache in her damaged hip twinged at this thought. Ridge, don't be so cold. He's just a kid and he's been through so much.
"I thought—" Ben's voice thinned. "--you were going to get a place big enough for me to come live with you."
Ben's plaintive tone stung Sylvie.
Ridge had enough conscience to look uncomfortable. "My job doesn't make me good guardian material, Ben. I travel all over the state on homicide cases. Or I get embroiled in local ones that keep me out all hours of the day and night. This way you won't be shifted around from house to house while I'm tied up on a case. You'll be at school and I'll come and get you at least one weekend a month."
"What about this summer?" Ben asked, an edge of panic in his voice. "Sylvie said she'd teach me how to snorkel."
Ridge looked distinctly uneasy now. "I've signed you up for summer camp—"
"No!" Ben burst out.
"Ridge," Sylvie overrode Ben's heated stream of objections, "my dad and I want Ben to spend the summer with us. I meant to ask you."
"Really?" Ben asked, approaching her.
The spur-of-the-moment invitation had been forced out of her. She reached for Ben and he came to a halt beside her. She rested a hand on his shoulder. "Yes, and Milo planned to hire you to help him at the bait shop." Her father hadn't said so in so many words, but he liked kids in general and Ben in particular.
"Really?" Ben repeated, color coming back to his cheeks.
"Really." She squeezed Ben's shoulder and then glanced at Ridge, reading his chagrin, wanting to shake him, reach him. "You trust us with Ben, don’t you, Ridge?" She knew this last phrase would make it impossible for him to say no. He wouldn't stir the murky waters of the past.
"Of course," he said brusquely. "Time for us to go, Ben." Peremptorily, he turned toward the door.
Again, some imp prompted Sylvie to refuse to let Ridge have his way completely. Perhaps it was Ridge's aloof, almost insensitive handling of Ben that made her want to throw another speed bump in his path.
"Just a moment," she said, "let me shut down my computer and we'll go upstairs. Ginger's back. She'll want to see you. Just got in last night."
"From Alaska?" Ridge asked, showing that he wasn't completely out of touch with Winfield.
"Yes, she plans to 'hole up' and finish her master's thesis. I haven't seen her at all today. She's probably still glued to her laptop upstairs in her apartment. I need to pry her loose. Then we'll go to pick up the pizza Ben just got back from ordering for me at Audra's Place and I'll then take her home with me to eat it." Sylvie bustled around turning off her computer.
Ben, who'd spent every afternoon after school with her since he'd moved into the Matthews' house last fall, went around turning off lights, helping her close up as usual.
Within minutes, Ridge and Ben huddled around her outside, protecting her from the stiff wind. Ridge's presence made her feel everything more intensely. But without revealing this, she locked up the front door of the two-story Victorian that she rented from Ginger's parents. Then the two males followed her limping gait over the narrow shoveled sidewalk around the side of the house. Their footsteps crunched loudly in the clear night.
The only other sound was the cutting wind blowing from Lake Superior at their backs. Sylvie tried to think of some way to hint to Ridge that she wanted to discuss Ben with him. But if the past was any guide, she knew Ridge would do anything to avoid being alone in her company.
The threesome reached the rear door of the enclosed two-story porch that shielded the back staircase. Sylvie unlocked and opened the door, ready to call up the stairs to her cousin. Then her heart stopped for one beat.
At the bottom of the steep staircase lay her cousin, crumpled. The early winter dusk made Sylvie doubt her eyesight. She hurried over the threshold. "Ginger! Ginger!"
Sylvie threw herself onto her knees beside Ginger's body. No one alive would lie in that rigid twisted position. Sylvie knew she must be dead. "Ginger!" she keened. "Ginger! No!"
Ridge heard the hysteria in Sylvie's voice. Taking the scene in a glance, he recognized all the signs of death and death that had taken place hours before. He shoved Ben back out the door. "Go home. Now!"
"But, but," Ben sputtered.
"She's dead," Ridge hissed beside Ben's ear. "You need to go home and stay there."
"I'll take care of her." Ridge pushed Ben farther away. "Go. I'll handle this. I'll take care of Sylvie. Go."
Looking fearfully over his shoulder, Ben fled, letting the outside door slam.
Ridge turned and knelt beside Sylvie. He went through the motions of checking Ginger Johnson's non-existent pulse. He lifted her eyelids. Her irises were dilated. But . . . her eyes were closed. The thought made his insides congeal. Not just for the sorrow, death always brought but because that meant . . . he didn't want to go there. For so many reasons.
He snapped open his cell phone and punched in the emergency number. He gave the details as simply as possible to the responder. He snapped it shut again. "Sylvie," he said gently, "help is on the way."
"She's dead, isn't she?" Rocking on her knees, Sylvie had wrapped her arms around herself as if she might fly apart.
"It looks like it." He didn't mention Ginger's eyes being closed. It hit him then. This was the second time he and Sylvie had together confronted the body of a relative, lying dead. He felt sick in the pit of his stomach. In spite of himself, he laid a hand on her slender shoulder.
She covered his hand with hers. "Ridge, Ginger must have fallen last night," she pleaded. "I think I would have heard her fall if . . . if it happened while I was in the store." She looked up at him, her woebegone face pale and fringed by her short silvery blonde hair.
He read in her huge blue-violet eyes the silent plea for exoneration. Had this event taken her back too, back to the night Dan had died? "Yes, you're right. From what I see I think Ginger must have fallen last night." You didn't fail your cousin. She was dead before you came to work this morning.
But he didn't let any of his suspicions about Ginger's fatal tumble color his tone or expression. If only her eyes had been open. How easy everything would have been.
With relief, he heard a police siren. Gently he grasped Sylvie by the upper arms and drew her to her feet. She felt unsteady to him. So one arm under hers, he guided her to the door. "I'm going to ask you to go back into your bookstore. Why don't you make a new pot of coffee?"
She looked up at him. Her lips were pressed so tightly together they were as white as the swirled frost on the single-pane window behind her. "I want my dad."
Another sting. She'd said those exact same words to him on that long ago night too. "Call Milo. He should be here. Ginger's mom Shirley still lives here year-round in her Victorian, right?"
She nodded. "But she and Tom away in Arizona for a delayed honeymoon, a break before the tourist season starts in May." Tears filled her eyes. "I'll go . . . I'll go make coffee."
After giving her a heartening squeeze, Ridge nudged her through the doorway. That was all she could do, anyone could do now. Make coffee for the very long night ahead. He couldn't help himself, his gaze followed Sylvie until she disappeared around the corner at the front.
The long night of investigating the crime scene had finally come to an end. Ridge glanced at his watch, his eyes watered with fatigue. Nearly three o'clock in the early morning. Sheriff Keir Harding whom Ridge remembered stood, facing him at the bottom of the stairwell. Ginger's body had been taken away hours before.
"I don't think we can deny that Ginger's death is suspicious," Keir said. "But I don't want to start rumors."
"Having an autopsy done--people will hear about it and talk," Ridge said, rubbing his forehead. As they stood here talking, the coroner was probably wrapping up the autopsy at the local funeral home.
Keir grimaced. "Ginger was well liked. This will hit everyone hard."
I couldn't agree with you more.
"Let's send Milo and Sylvie home then." Keir led Ridge to the door he'd entered hours ago with Sylvie and Ben. "We'll lock this place uptight and I'll make sure a deputy checks around here every hour so the crime scene isn't tampered with." The sheriff made a sound of exhaustion.
Outside in the silence, in the stark icy night, they walked single-file on the path between the waist-high mounds of snow around to the front. Sylvie's bookstore was still alight on the quiet street of darkened shops and homes.
"I'm so glad you were already in town. This saves me calling for state help." After delivering these unwelcome words, Keir bid him good night and headed for his sheriff Jeep.
Ridge fumed in silence, but his fatigue even dulled this reaction. This was supposed to be just a quick trip home to take care of the problem of Ben. But Ginger hadn't gotten herself killed just to trouble him. Keep this in perspective. My problems are nothing compared to Ginger's family's.
Now he had to face Sylvie. Ridge stiffened his defenses and moved inside. Visibly despondent, Sylvie was draped over a well worn tweedy sofa along the wall in the foyer. She glanced up at him, her appealing face drawn.
"Where's Milo?" he asked, forestalling her questions.
She sat up. "Dad went home hours ago to call Shirley to break the news to her about Ginger and to make the flight arrangements for her and Tom on his computer while they packed."
He watched her slip her small feet back into her fur-topped boots. "Rough."
"Dad wanted to tell his sister Shirley himself, not the sheriff."
Their eyes connected. And he sensed that everything that he wished to conceal about Ginger's death and about everything else that lay between him and Sylvie, she read with ease. His jaw clenched. He tried to relax it. And failed.
A tear trickled from Sylvie's right eye. She brushed it away and stood. "I take it I can go home now."
Ridge nodded, unable to speak. Images from the scene of Dan's untimely death had slid in and out of his conscious thoughts during the night-long investigation. Bringing Sylvie along with them.
She went to the coat rack and Ridge hurried forward to help her don her long plum-colored down coat the second time tonight. In her evident fatigue, she wavered on her feet. He steadied her, a hand on her upper arm.
"I'm fine," she whispered.
Her frailty belied her words. He admired her nerve. Nothing was fine tonight and nothing would be fine for quite a while. "My car's out front."
He escorted her through turning off the foyer lights, locking up, and then out in the winter cold so dry the air almost crackled with static electricity. After helping her into his SUV, he went around, got in, and turned the key in the ignition. Nothing. He tried again. Not even grinding. Sudden aggravation flamed through him. With his gloved palm, he slapped the steering wheel once. Nothing ever went right for him in Winfield.
"You left your lights on," Sylvie said, pointing to the dash where sure enough his lights had been switched on and left.
He let out a slow breath. "I'm used to the automatic ones but I must have turned them on and forgot."
"And when you arrived, the street was still lit by shop lights along with the street lamps, you wouldn't have noticed you'd left them on. No one did." She opened her door. "It's only a few blocks for me. I always walk to work. And your parent's house is within walking distance. Leave it till morning."
Not willing to let her out of his sight, he got out and joined her on the sidewalk. The icy temperature nearly took his breath away. It was probably quite safe for her to walk home, but after finding Ginger dead, he didn't want to leave Sylvie alone in the dark early morning. He's only leave her when she was in her own home safe with her father. "I'll walk you home first."
"That's not necessary. This is Winfield, remember?" She stopped speaking--abruptly.
Her face was turned away from the street lamp so he couldn't see her expression, but her sudden silence and immobility told him that Ginger's death had hit her afresh. Yes, this was Winfield, but Ginger had died not in faraway Alaska, but here in hometown Winfield.
Without mentioning this, he looped Sylvie's arm around the crook of his and began leading her down the street he knew so well. He didn't need to ask her where her house was. Walking beside Sylvie made him very aware of the stark white of the snow mounds left by the ploughs. Also aware of the way the cold, along with being in Winfield, was nibbling away at him bit by bit.
After a couple of steps, he adjusted to accommodate her halting gait. This nipped his conscience. He'd been able to walk away from Dan's accident, unscathed. But did every limping step remind Sylvie of the past? If it did, how did she stand it?
"What took the sheriff so long?" she asked. "I mean why did they spend so much time up in her apartment?"
Uneasiness twitched through him. He didn't want to face this. No, he did not. They reached the end of the block and started up the next. How to avoid this bullet?
"Ridge?" she prompted.
"Sylvie, it's late. We can talk about this tomorrow."
Sylvie halted. "You're frightening me. What aren't you telling me?"
"Come along." He tugged her.
She resisted. "I'm not moving until you tell me why they took so long up in Ginger's apartment."
He'd had it. Why didn't anything ever go the easy way? Why couldn't she just accept what he said? "Ginger's death has been deemed suspicious."
The low temp was numbing his bare ears. "It's freezing out, don't you feel it?" He tugged her elbow. "Come on. I'll tell you everything. Let's just get out of this cold." He drew her along.
"Tell me," she insisted, even though she began walking again.
He walked faster, urging her along. "Ginger's apartment had been ransacked."
"What? You mean someone broke in?" She slowed, pulling against him.
He tugged her. "Someone tore Ginger's apartment apart," his voice turned savage. I wanted to leave in the morning. What's the chance of that now? "We think the point of entry was a rear window on the back porch."
"What could they have been looking for?" she asked. "Ginger didn't have anything worth stealing."
That only made it more suspicious. Didn't Sylvie see that?
"Maybe you've got it wrong," Sylvie said. "Ginger might have been looking for something and had everything turned upside down and inside out. Ginger wasn't always very neat."
Ridge didn't want to respond to this excuse. Let her come up with ways to avoid the truth. He just plodded on, the cold filtering through all his layers of protection.
"Don't you think it could be that? Ginger might just have been unpacking and—"
The sheriff's words came back to Ridge: It's good you were with Sylvie when she found the body. She might have closed her cousin's eyes without thinking or I might have assumed that she did. But we both know— Suddenly Ridge had had it. He couldn't take any more waffling, any more lame explanations. "Ginger's eyes were closed," he snapped.
"What does that mean?" Sylvie halted again. "You're not making sense."
He urged her along again. His face was stiff not just from the bitter temperature but from irritation. "It means that someone closed her eyes."
"Someone . . . what?"
His patience evaporated. "Sylvie, if a person falls to their death, their eyes will remain open. Someone was there after Ginger fell and shut her eyes."
Sylvie exhaled—deeply and loudly. And then began breathing very fast.
In the scant light from the street lamp, he glimpsed her eyes and mouth wide in shock. Then he realized she wasn't getting her breath. "Sylvie." He shook her arms. "Sylvie."
She was hyperventilating. If he didn't get her breathing, she'd faint on him.
He pulled her face close to his and blew into her open mouth. Once. Twice. He shook her again. Three more times he blew carbon dioxide into her mouth. "Breathe. Breathe."
She shuddered once and then leaned her head against him. She was gasping now, but was getting air. "This," she whispered, "can't be happening."
Not wanting to, but unable to stop himself, he put his arms around her delicate form. "It's freezing. I've got to get you home."
She raised her pale face to him, visible now in the street lamp glow. "What happens now?"
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