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Excerpt for WHISPERS (reissue)

Zebra
February 2017, ISBN: 1420141686

Genre: Romantic Suspense

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PROLOGUE
Lake Arrowhead, Oregon

All’s fair in love and war.

Or so the old saying went. Kane wasn’t entirely sure he could adopt the adage, not when Claire Holland’s future was at stake, but then what the hell, she’d never cared for him anyway. Never given him the time of day except once, when she’d let her tightly laced guard down. He stepped hard on the emergency brake as he cut the engine and reminded himself that she was married, separated but married, and her name was now Claire St. John.

Rain peppered the windshield, drizzling down the glass in jagged streaks as Kane stared at the shack he’d inherited — a three-room cabin on the shores of Lake Arrowhead. Shingles were missing from the roof; two windows were covered with plywood now decorated with graffiti; rust ran in orange stains from downspouts clogged by years of leaves, needles, and dirt; and the front porch sagged like a broken-down cart horse’s back. Stumps, mutilated by a chain saw and blackened from years in the rain, had toppled over long before they became his father’s works of Northwest art. The attic window — the only source of natural light in the cramped space that had been his bedroom — had been smashed, and pieces of glass still littered the porch roof.

Welcome home, he thought sourly as he climbed out of his rig, threw his duffel bag and bedroll over one shoulder, and ducked against an icy blast of wind. Hot pain shot through his hip, compliments of a stray piece of shrapnel he’d collected on his last assignment overseas. He winced and hitched the bag higher on his shoulder as he cursed the fact that he still limped a bit, enough to throw off his gait when he wanted to move fast.

On the stoop, he inserted his key into the old lock, and the latch gave way completely, the door opening with a groaning creak, sawdust filtering down from the useless dead bolt.

Years of dust, dead air, and the general feeling of lost dreams crowded around him as he walked over the threshold. Second thoughts were his companions for the first time since deciding upon this mission. Maybe moving back here was a bad idea. Maybe the guy who came up with the phrase letting sleeping dogs lie knew something Kane didn’t.

Too bad. He stepped over an upended coffee table. Now wasn’t the time for turning back. He dropped his duffel and sleeping bag onto a couch in the corner — a once-rose-colored contemporary sectional, now a dingy pink-gray, with the stuffing exposed in several spots. The windowsills were dry and peeling, covered with the remnants of spiders’ meals, brittle carcasses of insects. In one corner of the ceiling, where the tiles drooped, a half-decayed yellow jacket’s nest hung loosely. The knotty pine walls were mildew-stained, and the dank smell slipped through the cabin like a fetid shadow.

He’d camped in worse places than this over the years, seen hovels in the Middle East and Bosnia that made this old cabin look like a palace, but none of those wretched abodes had he ever called home. Only in this place was his soul stripped bare and bleeding, this run-down cottage where he’d been reared in his earlier years by a mother whose shoes had wafer-thin soles because she walked so many miles behind the counter of the Westwind Bar and Grill.

“You take care of yourself, honey,” she’d said, touching him lightly on the shoulder and slanting him a sad smile. “I’ll be home late, so lock the door. Your daddy, he’ll be home soon.” A lie. Always a lie, but one he never questioned. She’d brushed a kiss across his cheek. Alice Moran had always smelled of roses and smoke, a mixture of cheap perfume and bargain brand cigarettes. For years the top drawer of her dresser had been filled with coupons from the backs of cigarette packs, collected and used to buy something special other than the barest of necessities. Most of the Christmas and birthday gifts Kane had received had been compliments of his mother’s nicotine habit.

But that had been a long time ago, when life, though lean, had been simple for a boy of eight or nine. Right around the time of Pop’s accident, when their sorry lives had changed for the worse.

There wasn’t much reason to dwell on the past, so he ignored the raw anger in his gut as well as the pain in his hip. He found a yellowed newspaper dated 1980 with pictures of Jimmy Carter and Mount Saint Helens spewing ash into the heavens and felt like he had as a gawky, rebellious teenager — horny as hell and burning with a need for more from life, a taste of better things, a desire to be as good as the Hollands and the Taggerts, the richest families on the lake, the social elite of this tiny coastal burg as well as the city of Portland, some ninety miles to the east.

And he’d wanted Claire. With a brain-numbing lust and a fire between his legs he’d fantasized about her — the rich, unavailable daughter of Dutch Holland.

We wadded the old newspaper in his fist as he remembered how many nights he’d lain awake, trying to devise plans to be with her, none of which had materialized into anything more than a frustration that had caused sweat to bead on his upper lip and his cock to become stiff as a flagpole on a windless day.

He didn’t want to think about Claire. She’d only complicate things, and he’d never been good enough for her anyway. No. She’d had her adolescent sights set on Harley Taggert, son of her father’s biggest competitor. Except for one time. One magic morning.

“Hell,” he growled, trying to chase her image from his mind. Despite the rain, he threw open the windows, letting in a harsh, wet breeze that carried the scent of the Pacific Ocean. Maybe the cold air would blow away the lingering sense of despair and lost hopes that clung, like stubborn cobwebs, to the faded curtains and scattered pieces of cheap furniture in this dump.

He let the door stand open as he made one more trip to the Jeep for his briefcase, laptop computer, and pint of Irish whiskey, the label of which boasted his father’s favorite cheap blend. It was ironic, him drinking the same liquor as Pop, a man he’d detested, but it seemed fitting somehow. Hampton Moran had been a miserable son of a bitch, mean to the bone and, after the accident that had left him wheelchair-bound, he’d become a violent drunk, filled with self-pity and seething rage. Before the fall that had crippled him, he’d drunk too much and beaten his wife and boy. Afterward, with only Kane to take care of him, Pop had been reduced to a bitter shell of a man who sought solace and relief from the bottle. Black Velvet, when he could afford her, became his favorite lady, Jack Daniel’s a sometime but too expensive friend. More often than not he was left with rotgut Irish whiskey to fuel his broken dreams.

No wonder Kane’s mother had left after a while. She’d had no choice. A rich man had wooed her, promised her a better life as long as she left Hampton and her son. The man didn’t need the extra baggage of a wild boy; he had half-grown kids of his own. And a wife. Kane had never known the bastard’s name, but every month, like clockwork, a money order for three hundred dollars in Kane’s name arrived in the mailbox. Hampton, sober for the first time in thirty days, would wait for the mail carrier, have Kane retrieve the letterless envelope, and force him to cash the anonymous check. Pop was generous. He gave Kane five dollars, and the remainder would tide him over for the rest of the month.

“You’ve heard of blood money, haven’t you boy, well this is jizz-money — earned by your mother for spreading her legs for that rich son of a bitch. Remember that, Kane; no woman is worth losing your heart or your wallet. Scourge of the earth they are. Whores. Jezebels.” And then he’d begin to quote scripture, mixed-up verses that made no sense.

Kane remembered the day his mother had left. “I’ll be back,” she’d promised, tears running down her cheeks as she’d hugged her son, clinging to him as if she knew she’d never see him again. “I’ll be back to take you away from him.”

Pop had been sleeping, snoring away last night’s bender.

Kane hadn’t so much as lifted his hands to hold her or wave good-bye. When she stepped into the long black car with its grim-faced driver, Kane had only stared at her with eyes accusing her of being a failure and a traitor.

“I promise, honey. I’ll be back.”

But it hadn’t happened. Her untruth had been just one more link in the tarnished chain of broken promises that had been Kane’s life. He’d never seen her again, never bothered to find out what had happened. Until now.

And the truth stung — it stung like a bitch.

He didn’t bother with a glass, just opened the bottle and took a long pull, then brushed off the chipped Formica with his coat sleeve, plugged in the computer, and sat at the metal-legged table where he’d taken most of the meals of the first twenty years of his life. The electric company must’ve come through and reconnected the old wires because the screen flickered and the laptop hummed in readiness.

Snapping open his briefcase, he pulled out a file, thick with notes, clippings, and pictures of the Holland family. He dealt the photographs out like cards from a well-worn deck. First card faceup was the king of diamonds, old Dutch Holland, patriarch and would-be governor of the state, a man who claimed to be of the people, but, Kane knew, was more twisted than a sailor’s knot.

Second was a picture of Dutch’s ex-wife Dominique, still model-beautiful, but living out of the country these days and, presumably, a source who might, for the right amount of cash, help him with his quest. Then there were the glossy prints of two of Dutch’s daughters, Miranda and Tessa. The final photograph, a snapshot, was of Claire.

Too bad she was involved, and, he guessed, involved to her teeth.

His jaw hardened at the two faces staring sightlessly from poses encouraged by some nameless but expensive photographer. He dropped the pictures of Miranda and Tessa, the oldest and youngest onto the table’s surface to join their parents, but he studied Claire’s picture more closely, a snapshot that he’d committed to memory long before. She was astride a painted pony, only the back and neck of which were visible. But Claire was caught square in the camera’s lens. His camera’s lens.

Clear eyes, straight nose, wide cheekbones, and loose cinnamon brown curls framing an oval face. God, she was beautiful. Her smile was shy and enigmatic, a naive turn-on. Hell, he still felt it, that slightly elevated beat of his pulse whenever he thought of her, the girl who had everything, who had looked at him with disdain and pity.

But not anymore.

Now the tables had turned. He was the one in control. A twinge of conscience spiked his brain because he knew that what he was about to do might expose Claire to the most brutal of scrutiny. Her life would be turned inside out and shaken until all the dirt fell out, all the hidden secrets exposed like the bleached bones of a desert carcass.

Too bad. If she got hurt, well, that was just part of life. The breaks. Sometimes pain couldn’t be helped. A man was dead, sent to a watery grave years before by someone who had lived in the house of Holland. Kane was determined to find out who had crushed Harley Taggert’s skull and hidden the crime for over sixteen years. He had personal reasons for this vendetta, reasons that went far beyond his pressing need to make a living, reasons that included his sincere belief that Harley might not have been the only victim in the lies and deceit that were hidden beneath the still surface of Lake Arrowhead.

He flipped through a few pages of notes, then positioned the computer in front of him. Fingers moving deftly, he typed out the first page:

Power Play:

The Murder of Harley Taggert

by

Kane Moran

He took another swig from his bottle and started writing. Even though his investigation into all the skeletons tucked discreetly away in the Holland family closets was just beginning, he realized that before he was finished, Harley’s murderer would face charges on a sixteen-year-old crime. Dutch Holland, the bastard, would have no chance of becoming governor of Oregon, and every single member of the Holland family, including Claire, would despise Kane Moran.

So be it. Life wasn’t easy, and it sure as hell wasn’t fair. He’d learned that painful lesson years ago, and Claire had been one of his teachers. Besides, this, his exposé of the Holland family, was to be his revenge and catharsis.

A new start.

He tipped the bottle back again. A swallow of whiskey burned a fiery path to his stomach, and Kane wondered why, instead of a sense of elation, he felt a premonition of dread, as if he’d unwittingly taken his first step into hell.

* * *

PART ONE
1996

“I don’t care if you have to kiss Moran’s ugly ass or tie him up in lawsuits for the rest of his life. Find out something that we can use against him. Bribe him or kill the stupid bastard with your bare hands, Murdock! Just find a way to squelch the damned book!” Dutch slammed the car phone into its cradle. “Spineless cretin,” he growled, though in truth, Ralph Murdock, his attorney and campaign manager, was one of the few people in this world whom Benedict Holland trusted.

Clamping down on the cigar jammed between his teeth, he floored the accelerator and his Cadillac shot forward, tires skimming on the narrow road winding through this stretch of old growth timber. The speedometer inched past sixty and mossy-barked fir trees swept by in a blur.

Who would have thought that the ghost of Harley Taggert would rise now at this critical point in his life? And who the hell did Kane Moran, the man penning the story surrounding Harley’s death, think he was? The last time Dutch had seen him, years ago, Moran had been a mean-tempered kid with a chip on his shoulder the size of Nebraska, a hoodlum always in trouble with the law. Somehow he’d scrounged his way through college and he’d become a risk-taking fool of a journalist who, because of some damned wound, had decided to settle down back home in Oregon to write a book about Harley Taggert’s death.

As his car shot over the summit, Dutch experienced the tightening in his chest again, that same old sense of panic that squeezed him whenever he thought of the night the Taggert kid died. Deep in the darkest reaches of his heart he suspected that one of his daughters had bashed in the boy’s skull.

Which one? Which one of his girls had done it? His firstborn, Miranda, a lawyer working for the district attorney’s office, was ambitious to a fault, her pride unbending. She looked so much like her mother it was spooky. Randa had inherited Dominique’s thick dark hair and sultry blue eyes. He’d heard comments that Miranda was haughty, that she had ice water running through her veins, but she certainly wasn’t cold enough or stupid enough to have murdered the Taggert kid. No, Dutch wouldn’t believe it; Randa had been too self-possessed, a woman who knew what she wanted out of life.

Claire, his secondborn, had been the quiet one, a romantic by nature. As a kid she’d been gawky, plain in comparison with her sisters, but she’d grown into her looks, and he suspected that she would be the kind of woman who, as the years passed, would look better and better. At the time of Harley’s death she’d been a soft spoken athletic girl, the middle sister, one to whom he hadn’t paid much attention. She never gave him any trouble except that she’d fallen in love with Harley Taggert, and even now that thought settled like a stone in his gut.

Until now, Dutch hadn’t lost much sleep over the Taggert boy’s demise.

Now, his fingers grew sweaty around the steering wheel. Claire, with her haunted eyes and smattering of freckles, wasn’t a killer. She couldn’t be. Christ, there wasn’t a mean bone in her body. Or was there?

The sun was hanging low over the western hills, blinding him with its bright rays. He flipped down the visor. The road split and he turned toward the small town of Chinook and the old lodge he’d bought for a song.

The Caddy shimmied as Dutch took the corner too fast, but he barely noticed as he slid over the center line. A pickup going the opposite direction blasted its horn and skidded on the gravel shoulder to avoid collision.

“Bastard,” Dutch growled, still lost in thought. His youngest daughter, Tessa, was and always had been the maverick in the family. Blond and blue-eyed with a figure that, at twelve, had been obscenely curvaceous, Tessa had always been the wild card in the deck that was the Holland family. Whereas Miranda had tried to please, and Claire had faded into the woodwork, Tessa had brazenly and willfully defied Dutch whenever she could. Knowing she was his favorite, she’d rebelled at every turn. Trouble — that’s what Tessa had been, but Dutch couldn’t believe, wouldn’t, that she was a killer.

“Damn it all to hell,” he muttered as he chewed on the end of his cigar. If only he’d been fortunate enough to have sired sons. Things would have been different. Far different. God had played a cruel trick on him with these girls.

Daughters always gave a man grief.

Easing off the accelerator at the crooked pine tree, the one he’d planted a lifetime ago, when he’d bought this place for Dominique, he guided the car into the private lane leading to the estate. He’d been a lovesick fool at the time he’d set that little pine into the ground, but the years had changed him, worn that love so thin it had shattered like crystal hurled against stone.

He unlocked the gates and drove along the cracked asphalt of the once-tended drive. The silvery waters of the lake winked seductively through the trees. How he’d loved this place.

Nostalgia tugged at his heart as he rounded a final bend and saw the house, a rambling old hunting lodge that, nestled in a stand of oak and fir, rose three stories to look upon the lake.

Home.

A place of triumph and heartache.

Thinking his wife would love it as much as he did, he’d bought the vast tree-covered acres for Dominique. From the moment she saw the rough timbers and open beams, she’d hated everything there was about their new home. Her appraising eyes had studied the steep angle of the roof, the mahogany and oak walls, plank floors and pitched ceiling. She touched the wooden railing of the stairs, with its hand-carved banister and posts decorated with hand-crafted Northwest creatures, and her nostrils had flared as if she’d suddenly come across a bad smell. “You bought this for me?” she’d asked, incredulous and bitterly disappointed. Her voice had echoed through the cavernous foyer. “This . . . this monstrosity?”

Miranda, barely four, the spitting image of her mother, had eyed the old house solemnly as if she’d expected all manner of ghosts, goblins, and monsters to appear at any given second.

“I suppose this —” Dominique pointed a long finger at the salmon carved into the lowest post “— is considered art?”

“Yes.”

“For the love of God, Benedict, why? What possessed you to buy it?”

Dutch had felt the first premonition of dread steal through his heart. He spread his hands. “It’s for you and the girls.”

“For us? Out here? In the middle of nowhere?” High heels clicked indignantly as she walked through the vestibule and into the living room, with its vaulted ceilings and three chandeliers created by nesting dozens of deer antlers together. “Away from my friends?”

“It’s good for children to grow up —”

“In the city, Benedict, where they can meet other children their age, in a house that does them justice, where they’ll be exposed to culture and the right people.” She sighed, then, spying Claire toddling through open French doors where the back of the house flanked the lake, Dominique started running, heels clipping ever faster. “This is going to be a nightmare.” Snagging Claire from the covered porch before she was anywhere near the shoreline, Dominique turned and glared at her husband. “Living here won’t work.”

“Of course it will. I’ll build tennis courts and a pool with its own house. You can have gardens and your own studio over the garage.”

Tessa, the baby and always a fussy thing, gave out a lusty cry and wriggled in the nursemaid’s arms.

“Shh,” Bonita, barely sixteen and illegally in the States, whispered to the red-faced cherub.

“I can’t live here.” Dominique was firm.

“Sure you can.”

“Where will the girls learn French —”

“From you.”

“I’m not a tutor.”

“We’ll hire one. The house is big.”

“What about piano, violin, fencing, riding . . . oh, dear God.” She looked about to break down, her huge blue eyes suddenly moist, her manicured fingers pressed to her lips.

“It will work, I promise,” Dutch insisted.

“But I can’t possibly . . . I’m not cut out to be a maid . . . I’m going to need more help than just Bonita, here.”

“I know, I know. I’ve already talked to a woman — Indian woman by the name of Songbird. You’ll have more than enough help, Dominique. You’ll be able to live like a queen.”

She’d made a deprecating sound deep in her throat. “The Queen of Nowhere. Has a nice ring to it, don’t you think?”

From that day forward, she’d hated living here, despised the lake, predicted that nothing good would happen anywhere near the sandy banks of Lake Arrowhead.

As it turned out, she’d been right.

Now Dutch cracked the window a bit farther, letting in the moist summer air. The water, spangled by the hot summer sun, appeared placid, incapable of causing so much heartache and agony.

“Son of a bitch,” he muttered, cigar firmly between his teeth as he grabbed the bottle of scotch he’d brought from town, climbed out of his car, and waded stiffly through the thick layers of cones and needles to the front door. It opened easily, as if he’d been expected. The soles of his shoes slapped against the dusty floorboards, and he thought he heard a mouse scurrying to a dark corner.

In the kitchen he rummaged through the cupboards and found a glass, dusty from years of neglect. He’d called ahead and the electricity, phones, gas, and water had been turned on. In the next few days the house would be cleaned from top to bottom, and his grown daughters would arrive, whether they wanted to come back or not.

Wiping the glass with his fingers, he poured himself a generous shot, then climbed the stairs to his bedroom — the one he’d shared for years with Dominique. The bed, a massive four-poster, was stripped bare, the mattress covered in plastic. He walked to the windows, opened the drapes, and, sipping his drink, glanced at the swimming pool, long dry, a nest of leaves and dirt clogging the drain. The pool house, positioned near the diving board, was locked up, had been for years. Then he looked past the pool to the lake he loved. Staring at the tranquil water, he felt dread, like the ticking of a clock, pound ceaselessly in his brain.

What had happened so long ago? What would he discover? A shudder coursed through him. He tossed back his drink, felt the fiery liquor splash the back of his throat and warm his belly as he headed downstairs, away from this morgue, with its dark memories of old, disappointing sex and so little love. Christ, Dominique had turned into a bitch.

In the den, he fished his wallet from his pocket, extracted a single page he’d ripped from the notepad on his desk, and stared at the three telephone numbers of his daughters. None would be glad to hear from him, but they’d do what he asked.

They always did.

He picked up the receiver, heard a click and a dial tone, and set his jaw.

Damn Harley Taggert. Damn Kane Moran. And goddamn the truth, whatever the hell it was....