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The Secrets She Kept Brenda Novak Exciting, emotional, intense. The thrilling follow-up to New York Times bestselling author Brenda Novak’s highly acclaimed The Secret Sister. The things that happen in families are always surprising and sometimes shocking! The rich and powerful Josephine Lazarow, matriarch of Fairham Island, is dead. The police say it’s suicide, but Keith, her estranged son, doesn’t believe it. Keith bears scars—both physical and emotional—from his childhood, but he’s worked hard to overcome the past. After walking away from his mother and her controlling ways five years ago, he’s built a new life in LA. He’s also accumulated a fortune of his own. But as soon as he learns of his mother’s death, he returns to Fairham. He feels he owes it to his grandfather to put the family empire together again—and he’s determined to find his mother’s killer. Problem is…coming home to Fairham puts him back in contact with Nancy Dellinger, the woman he hurt so badly when he left before. And digging that deep into his mother’s final days and hours entails a very real risk. Because the person who killed her could be someone he loves… Praise for the novels of New York Times bestselling author Brenda Novak “Completely engrossing with a twist at the end you wouldn’t dare dream of!” —RT Book Reviews on The Secret Sister “Great storytelling knows no genre… Exceedingly well written and told by a master of her craft.” —Providence Journal on A Winter Wedding “Another engrossing addition to Novak’s addictive [Whiskey Creek] series.” —Library Journal on This Heart of Mine “One needn’t wonder why Novak is a New York Times and USA TODAY bestselling author. Just read Come Home to Me.” —Examiner.com “The past impacts the present with devastating but ultimately salutary results in this engrossing, character-rich story that takes a hard look at responsibility, loyalty, and the results of telling (or concealing) the truth.” —Library Journal on Home to Whiskey Creek “It’s steamy, it’s poignant, it’s perfectly paced—it’s When Lightning Strikes and you don’t want to miss it!” —USATODAY.com’s Happy Ever After blog “Gripping, frightening, and intense…a compelling romance as well as a riveting and suspenseful mystery… Novak delivers another winner.” —Library Journal on The Perfect Liar “Strong characters bring the escalating suspense to life, and the mystery is skillfully played out. Novak’s smooth plotting makes for a great read.” —Publishers Weekly on Dead Right “Well written, nicely paced, filled with appealing characters, and laced with a few surprises.” —Library Journal on Dead Right “Impressive! This is a sharp-edged, well-plotted story that showcases Novak’s superb storytelling skill.” —RT Book Reviews on Dead Giveaway The Secrets She Kept Brenda Novak www.mirabooks.co.uk To all families who aren’t quite perfect… Contents Back Cover Text (#uaaf14ce8-b36d-591a-b96a-5b05d1ca97c1) Praise (#u40824009-c171-5dc2-aedf-28df1b065afd) Title Page (#ubf06cbc9-73cc-5af5-851c-9e158ab91379) Dedication (#u7ec74988-fb88-5986-94ac-f02f62a2d4c6) Chapter 1 (#ub0ba995d-e909-5193-81aa-9027f2744a1b) Chapter 2 (#ubc84aa1c-596e-561d-a533-92d69020ae51) Chapter 3 (#u299f5be6-7101-52ee-81a9-8df4568a22ee) Chapter 4 (#ue05c0b49-daae-5063-a6ad-8f5996ff1bc4) Chapter 5 (#u37821fee-5849-57f4-9657-6d85eb27a7cc) Chapter 6 (#u0d0e84a8-0146-5c8c-b7cc-025328d98ca2) Chapter 7 (#u964b8f98-a2fb-5b92-8f13-d2b1230be4be) Chapter 8 (#ubaabf035-bf6a-591a-b6d2-64068c68eafb) Chapter 9 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 10 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 11 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 12 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 13 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 14 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 15 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 16 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 17 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 18 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 19 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 20 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 21 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 22 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 23 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 24 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 25 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 26 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 27 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 28 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 29 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 30 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 31 (#litres_trial_promo) Epilogue (#litres_trial_promo) Author’s Note (#litres_trial_promo) The Secrets She Kept Reader’s Guide (#litres_trial_promo) Questions for Discussion (#litres_trial_promo) Extract (#litres_trial_promo) Copyright (#litres_trial_promo) 1 (#u8ed10f00-acea-5fdf-aa03-d128a18c557a) Los Angeles, California THE CALL CAME in the middle of the night. Keith Lazarow was so deeply asleep that he probably wouldn’t have heard his phone if not for the attractive brunette who stirred in bed beside him. “Aren’t you going to answer that?” she mumbled. “No.” He was too exhausted. Five years ago, he’d replaced the drugs he’d once used to anesthetize himself against the demons of his past with daily cross-fit training. High-intensity exercise was the only thing that could command his full focus and calm his mind. It forced the anger and resentment back into the shadows so he could be functional instead of destructive. But once he’d left the gym, Dahlia Dooley—someone he’d met at a charity event downtown last week—had called and asked to come over, and after that, he’d put in a completely different sort of workout. After expending that much energy, he felt he could sleep for a week, which was nice, since he used to have trouble sleeping at all. Dahlia rolled onto her other side and, seconds later, his phone stopped making noise. He’d just begun to sink back into blissful oblivion when the buzzing started again. Dahlia yawned. “There must be something wrong at work.” No, he didn’t have anything to worry about there. He wasn’t a policeman or a medical health professional; he was in real estate. Over the last five years, he’d acquired quite a collection of large commercial properties—office buildings, warehouses, shopping malls and strip centers. But he had property managers as well as project managers to take care of his holdings. If there was a problem, those were the people who’d be getting disturbed after hours, not him. He handled acquisitions, which was the fun part, and he had nothing particularly important on the horizon—nothing that he might get a panic call about, anyway. Whatever this was, it could wait until he’d had his wheatgrass juice in the morning and was ready to turn on his computer. Unless... He shot up in bed and grabbed for his phone. Sure enough, it was his sister Maisey calling from South Carolina. They’d always been close, but these days she had her husband, Rafe, who did such a good job of loving Maisey, his daughter, Laney, and Bryson, the two-year-old boy they’d had together, that Keith never worried about them. He and Maisey spoke on the phone every week, and she’d flown out to visit him three or four times since he left Fairham Island—twice with her family—but she never called in the middle of the night. Something had to be wrong... His stomach cramped at the thought. With a curse, he gazed at the LED screen while trying to collect his faculties. When he continued to let it ring, Dahlia mumbled, “What is it?” Suddenly wishing she’d gone home instead of staying over, he looked at her tousled head. “Nothing. Go back to sleep. I’ll take it in the study.” Lord knew his house was big enough to provide him with plenty of privacy. Nestled in the Santa Monica Mountains overlooking Malibu, where he had a gorgeous view of the ocean, the ten-bedroom rambler had once belonged to Robert De Niro. The place was way too big for a man who lived alone, and coming here every night meant he added a time-consuming commute to his day. A condo downtown would’ve been more efficient and would’ve suited him just as well, since he rarely entertained. But he supposed he was still trying to prove to his megalomaniac mother that he really didn’t need the fortune she’d held over his head for so long. Who would’ve guessed he’d be as adept at making money as his beloved grandfather? No one. Until he’d walked away from the Coldiron empire and everything he stood to gain by staying, and started making it on his own, even he would never have dreamed he had it in him. After winning his first million as a professional poker player, which required no education at all—a good thing, since he hadn’t paid attention while he was getting his degree in communications—he’d invested in real estate, where he earned even more money—so much that he eventually quit poker, other than the odd charity tournament now and then. Before he could pull on a pair of pajama bottoms and move to a room where he felt comfortable speaking to Maisey, the call transferred to voice mail. He waited to see if she’d leave a message, give him some indication of what was going on, so he’d be prepared when he talked to her. But she didn’t. “Come on, Mais,” he muttered and called her back. “There you are,” she said, sounding tense, breathless, as if she’d panicked when she couldn’t reach him. He tried to control his own anxiety. “You’re surprised I didn’t answer right away? Gee, I wonder why I didn’t. Could it be that it’s four o’clock in the morning?” “I’m sorry.” He regretted his sarcasm when she didn’t come back at him with her own smart-ass comment. “Don’t worry about it,” he said. “I was joking. What’s going on?” Holding the phone that much tighter, he lowered his voice. “You okay?” “I’m...fine, I think.” Her voice broke, telling him that she wasn’t fine at all. His heart began to pound so hard his chest hurt. “Is it Rafe? Or the kids?” When Keith left Fairham Island, Maisey had been so in love with the building contractor and his blind little girl that Keith thought he could rely on his sister’s happiness indefinitely. The confidence he’d had in Rafe was the only thing that had made it possible for him to turn his back on South Carolina without the guilt that would otherwise have dragged him back. Well, knowing his sister was with a man she loved wasn’t the only thing that had allowed him to escape. His life had always revolved around his autocratic mother and what he was supposed to do and be in order to honor his Coldiron heritage. Escaping the jaws of her expectations had required more grit and determination than he could ever have imagined. No way could he have done it without Maisey and Roxanne, his other sister. Their support had been constant and unwavering. He owed them both a lot... “They’re fine, too—thank God.” Maisey sniffed. “So are Roxanne and her family,” she said, anticipating his next question. Their oldest sister lived in Louisiana—and had lived there for most of her life, away from them. That in itself was a long story and should never have happened; it was yet another life-altering event he could blame on his mother. He was just glad they’d managed to find Roxanne when they did, because she’d added so much to his life. He crossed to the window and stared out at the white, moonlit caps of the waves rolling toward the beach. Even in full daylight, he couldn’t see the sand for all the trees and hills. But he wasn’t studying his current surroundings. He was recalling another beach—the private beach below Coldiron House, the ostentatious Southern mansion where he’d been raised. “Then it must be Mom,” he said with a fatalistic sigh. “Yes.” Closing his eyes, he pressed his forehead to the cool glass. He’d known he’d have to face what he’d left behind eventually. Was he ready for whatever had happened to Josephine? Had he changed sufficiently to cope with what it might mean? Put enough safety nets in place to make sure he never slipped back into the darkness from which he’d so painstakingly climbed? “What’s wrong with her?” “She’s dead, Keith.” The blood began to roar in his ears. “What’d you say?” “It’s true. She’s gone. I’m so sorry. I know...I know how difficult this is going to be for you, how complicated your feelings about her have always been. Mine aren’t any simpler. I hate that I had to wake you in the middle of the night, but I couldn’t wait. I wanted you to know before...before you could see it on the news or...or someone else called.” LA could get cold in January. Feeling a sudden chill, Keith straightened and stepped away from the window. Most deaths, even of someone as wealthy and powerful as Josephine Lazarow, weren’t reported on the national news—not unless foul play was involved. Was that what his sister was about to tell him? “What happened?” he asked as he made his way to the desk and perched on the edge of the expensive leather chair his interior designer had claimed he’d love. “When Pippa arrived an hour ago—” “Wait,” he broke in. “That’d be six your time.” “Yes...” “Why was she coming so early? Mom’s housekeepers have always arrived at eight.” Even when his mother was running her flower shop instead of letting Nancy Dellinger do it, she didn’t get out of bed until later. The shop didn’t open until ten; she generally prepared the night before. “Mom needed to be at the airport. She was planning a trip to see Hugh Pointer—a new love interest.” Of course. Since their father died, when he was twelve and Maisey was ten, Josephine had been through three marriages (after which she’d always gone back to the Lazarow name), and a long list of other relationships. Considering she could have just about anyone she wanted, there was nothing to stop her. Not only was she rich, she was beautiful. Had been rich. Had been beautiful. God, could he really be thinking of his strong, determined and often acerbic mother in the past tense? “Hugh owns a pharmaceutical company, a ranch and a few other assets in Australia,” Maisey was saying. “They’ve been dating, mostly online, for the past few months. She met him in first class the last time she flew to New York and she’s been planning to go down under to see him ever since.” They’d been dating for months? Keith would know about Hugh if he and his sisters ever discussed his mother, but she was the one subject that was off-limits. They’d grown accustomed to pretending she didn’t exist. Keith had insisted on it. She could trigger a relapse quicker than anyone or anything. “So Pippa was supposed to show up at the house before she’d usually appear to drive Mom to the airport.” “That’s right.” When Maisey paused, overcome by emotion, a lump rose in his own throat. But no tears followed. Something seemed to be jammed up; he couldn’t cry. Where Josephine was concerned, he’d cut out his emotions almost as precisely as a surgeon might use a scalpel to remove a malignant tumor. He’d had to. Anything less was too painful. “But...” he prompted when his sister couldn’t continue. He heard her gulp for breath, heard Rafe in the background speaking soft, soothing words. “Mom wasn’t waiting for her in the entry like she’d said she’d be. And when Pippa went upstairs to see about the hold-up, she...she found her in the tub.” His mother often took long baths. They were part of her beauty regimen. She’d even had a TV installed in the bathroom. But why would she take a bath first thing in the morning, before heading to the airport? Why not use the shower, like she usually did to get ready for work? “She drowned?” Another sniffle. “Apparently. There was a wine bottle and a...a glass that’d been knocked over, as well as s-some candles—” “Then it must’ve happened last night,” he said. “She wouldn’t light candles first thing in the morning. She doesn’t like getting up early. She was always in too much of a hurry.” “The coroner hasn’t determined the time of death. He...he just arrived a little while ago. But I agree. Seems that way to me, too.” “So...they think it was an accident?” She sniffed again. “They’re not saying, Keith. They won’t even let me in the house, won’t let me see her. I don’t understand what’s going on. I only know that she’s dead.” His sister ended with a sob—and still his eyes remained dry. “I’m sorry, Maisey.” That sounded so mechanical, but he was glad to feel numb. Numb beat the hell out of the devastation he could be feeling. He’d worked hard to overcome anything that made him weak or vulnerable. “I don’t want this to set you back,” she said. “You’ve been doing so well. I—” “I’ll be fine. Don’t worry about me.” He hoped that was true. He didn’t have the best track record... Maisey continued to cry. “This is terrible. Mom would not have liked going out this way.” She must’ve been drunk, he thought. But how? She considered it gauche to have more than a single glass of wine in the evening. Unless things had changed more than he realized since he’d been gone, he couldn’t see her imbibing too much, even when she was alone. “Were her bags packed?” he asked. “How am I supposed to know? I told you. The police won’t let me in the house. All I can tell you is what they’ve told me.” Dropping his head into his free hand, he tried to imagine that the strong-willed, demanding person who’d been their mother was gone. For good. That she was completely out of his life, whether or not he wanted her to be. What did that mean? And did it help or hurt his quest to remain whole and healthy and to keep moving forward with his life? “Are you all right?” Maisey asked. “Yeah. I just... I’m trying to come to terms with the news, that’s all.” “It’s a lot to take in. Don’t let it...don’t let it throw you, Keith.” Even after five years, she felt she had to worry about him. He was screwed up, had always been screwed up. He suspected that if he ever visited a psychologist he’d be diagnosed as bipolar. That term had been thrown around a great deal back when he was acting out. But he didn’t want to hear a professional say those words, didn’t want to be pumped full of medication—not as long as he could manage on his own. With cross-fit, his business and his sisters, he’d developed some coping skills. And they were working for him. “Don’t worry. I’m not going to backslide.” He was still taking it one day at a time, though, and this was a hurdle he hadn’t expected—maybe in twenty years, but not this soon. “Okay,” she said. “I—I’d better go. I have to call Roxanne.” How would Roxanne react to the death of their mother? he wondered. She’d been kidnapped and raised by a former nanny. Roxanne had a dim recollection of what a tyrant Josephine could be, but she didn’t have the memories and stories he and Maisey did. Since Roxanne had reconnected with Josephine, the two had built some semblance of a relationship. Roxanne probably got along with Josephine best, because she didn’t feel the same resentment. Neither did she live close by. Staying a considerable distance away definitely helped. Considering all of that, would Rocki be heartbroken by the news? Would at least one of Josephine’s children be able to sincerely mourn her passing? Or would even Roxanne be left to wonder if she was a horrible person for not experiencing more grief? “I’ll call you back as soon as I can give you more details,” Maisey promised. “Wait,” he said. “What about Mom’s Yorkie, Athena? Someone needs to take care of her.” “Pippa took her home, which is the best place for her. She doesn’t get along with Laney’s cat. Max would tear her to shreds. And Pippa pampers that little dog as much as Mom did.” He rubbed the goose bumps from his arms. “Okay.” “Would you like to be on the call with Rocki? I could conference you in...” “No, I’ll let you break the news. I could use a few minutes.” “No problem. I love you,” she responded and hung up. After pushing the end button, Keith set his phone on the desk as if it were a bomb that might explode, rocked back in his chair and stared up at the ceiling. His mother’s death had so many implications. What would happen to the Coldiron fortune, which she’d controlled since her father died? Who had she left it to? Roxanne—or Maisey? Perhaps she’d split it between them. But she couldn’t split Coldiron House and would never want to see it sold. So what would become of their ancestral home? Would Maisey move out of the bungalow she shared with Rafe on the other side of the island—from which they managed the eight neighboring vacation cottages for Josephine—and take up residence at Coldiron House? Keith knew Roxanne wouldn’t move. She and her husband ran two businesses in Louisiana. They couldn’t leave their livelihood behind. Neither would Rocki uproot her three kids. A sudden longing sprang up, to walk through the halls of Coldiron House, to see his childhood home through different eyes, to somehow find the peace that had eluded him there. He’d loved visiting his grandfather on Fairham Island, before they moved there, when Grandpa Henry was alive. He used to say that Keith would own it all someday, that he would be the one to carry on the Coldiron legacy. Although Keith had never been close to his own father, not like Maisey, and he’d struggled just to get along with his mother, he’d been Grandpa Henry’s favorite. Henry had always admired strength and spirit, even when it turned into willfulness—what had gotten Keith in so much trouble. Grandpa Henry had said he was once the same. Maybe Keith would’ve put his grandfather’s traits to better use if Henry had lived longer. Sadly, he’d died when Keith was only eight and that house hadn’t represented the same thing since. They’d moved in after his death and it had been the family home ever since. But going back wouldn’t be easy. For one thing, he’d be stepping out of his current routine, which kept him busy and focused on the right things. His schedule, the distance and his refusal to think about the past were what kept him safe from himself. Still, he had to attend his mother’s funeral. Had to help lay her body to rest in the family cemetery behind the house, beneath the moss-draped trees. Common decency demanded he attend the service, even if he didn’t stay any longer. After waiting a few minutes, he called Rocki. She’d just hung up with Maisey and was crying. “You okay?” he asked. “For the most part. Are you?” “I don’t know.” He scrubbed a hand over his face. “Are you planning to attend the funeral?” “Of course. We’ll fly to South Carolina as soon as we know when it is. We can’t come before that. With our financial situation, we can’t take much time off.” “Things are that bad?” “They’re not good.” She hadn’t mentioned this to him before. She’d always said they were getting by. “Is there something I can do to help? I’ll pay for your flights, give you a loan—” “I appreciate the offer,” she broke in before he could list other options. “But we’d rather not accept that kind of help. I’m afraid it would make Landon feel...inept. Just between you and me, he’s already been dealing with some kind of midlife crisis. And even if we didn’t have the financial pressure, the kids are in school.” She sniffed and he pictured her wiping her face. “What about you? Will you go to the funeral?” “Do I have any choice?” “Sure you do. Don’t go if it’ll threaten your sobriety, Keith. Your first obligation is to remain drug-free and healthy. Do what you need to in order to avoid a relapse. That’s what the past five years have been about, right? If returning to Fairham could create a problem for you, Maisey and I will handle everything.” He wouldn’t rely on his sisters to take care of burying their mother and dealing with the aftermath. What kind of brother would dump it all on them? “No, I’ll be there. You and Maisey have enough to worry about,” he said and opened the laptop on his desk to purchase a plane ticket to Charleston. He had to attend an important meeting tomorrow afternoon, so the earliest he could reach Fairham Island would be Tuesday. He wasn’t convinced he was ready to gamble on the progress he’d made. But he had to go. If he couldn’t do his part when his family needed him, what was the point of changing at all? 2 (#u8ed10f00-acea-5fdf-aa03-d128a18c557a) THE SMELL HIT him the hardest—that familiar scent of the island, with its briny waves lapping up over the beaches, the soggy wood rotting around the dock and the damp wind sweeping over the fecund marshes to the southwest. As Keith drove his midsize rental car off the ferry, which ran every three hours between eight and eight since they’d added one more crossing at night, he couldn’t help taking a deep breath and feeling as nostalgic as he was apprehensive. From what he could see, not much had changed in the past five years, but he lowered his head to get a better look as he entered Keys Crossing, the island’s only town. An elaborate display of exotic flowers adorned the windows of Love’s in Bloom, the flower shop that Josephine had purchased with some of the money she’d inherited, along with the house and everything else, from Grandpa Coldiron. The shop, or “shoppe” as she’d had it spelled on the sign, also sported a new coat of pale green paint. With the sun setting behind the building, only those details could be seen in the dim glow of his headlights, but he assumed that the place looked as appealing as ever. Josephine had always had good taste. Sitting back, Keith studied the Drift Inn on the other side of the street. Its marquee advertised a “winter special” of $99/night. The vacancy sign below glowed orange and would probably remain lit until the tourists came in spring to swell the ranks of the local population, which stood at about 2,500. There wasn’t a lot to do on Fairham during the winter, especially in damp, windy weather such as they were having now. He could see the dark outline of the palm trees up ahead, on the ocean side of the island where he was going, swaying as black clouds blocked what was left of the fading sun. A storm approached. He felt like one of those black clouds rolling in—and he had no doubt many of Fairham’s residents would feel the same. He didn’t have a good reputation here. The locals would consider him bad news, the prodigal son returning. But he deserved it; he certainly hadn’t done anything to make anyone admire him back when he lived here. He checked his watch. He’d taken the second-to-last ferry of the day; it was a little after five. He wondered what Maisey was doing. They’d spoken several times since that ominous call that’d disturbed his sleep. He’d spoken to Roxanne in Louisiana more than once, too. And yet he hadn’t told either one of his sisters that he was coming to the island today. He’d known Maisey would insist on meeting him the moment he got off the ferry, and he felt reluctant to face her so soon. He needed time to acclimate, to ease into the memories that were rising up and washing over him as if he’d been caught out at high tide. Ease... He chuckled without mirth. Aside from the connection he felt to his grandfather, which sometimes made him homesick, and a general feeling that he belonged here, coming back was as difficult as he’d expected, especially when he thought about the reason for his visit. His mother was only sixty-three. She’d always been so healthy. At times, she’d seemed darn near indestructible. What had gone wrong? When Maisey called him yesterday, she’d said the coroner was expecting to rule their mother’s death a suicide. The police had found an empty bottle of sleeping pills on the marble floor of the bathroom, as if she’d tossed them back with a glass of wine. But Keith couldn’t believe she’d do that. Having the police tramp through her house to find her naked in a bathtub would be humiliating to her. If she was going to commit suicide, she’d put on her most flattering dress and arrange herself on the bed. Except that she wouldn’t commit suicide at all. Swallowing a bunch of pills and sinking beneath the water would smack too much of giving up, of admitting that her life wasn’t perfect. Josephine was all about appearances. Some of Keith’s worst beatings had been triggered by incidents he’d shared with other people that were unflattering to her—usually about the severe punishments she’d doled out to him. And there was more than her pride to consider. She had spent almost every living moment protecting her beauty and trying to turn back the hands of time. Why would she fight aging so much if she’d had a desire to end it all? Something else had to have happened. An accident. Or—he hated to acknowledge the possibility—murder wasn’t an entirely unreasonable conclusion. His mother had plenty of enemies. She hadn’t been the kindest person in the world. Most of the time, she hadn’t been kind at all. But Fairham had almost no crime. Keith couldn’t believe that anyone here would harm her. He’d asked Maisey if anything had been stolen or if there was any sign of forced entry, and had been told there wasn’t. Even the five-carat, $90,000 diamond ring on Josephine’s finger hadn’t been removed. Since Pippa, his mother’s housekeeper, typically went home at night—and worked only five days a week—his mother had been alone in the house, taking a bath with her pills and her wine. Barring some injury to her body, which the coroner presumably hadn’t found, Keith could see why the police had reached the conclusion they did. But they didn’t truly know her... He passed The Sugar Shack, the barbershop, the burger stand, The Wild Rose Café and the Fairham Marina. Then the road began to climb. Most of the islands off the coast of South Carolina were flat, but Fairham had a sizable hill on one side, which they called a “cliff.” Although it wasn’t much of a cliff by most people’s standards, it was high enough that someone could be killed by falling onto the rocks below, especially a child. They’d once believed Roxanne had fallen onto those rocks and her body had been dragged out to sea. Coldiron House gripped the top of that hill and peered down on the rest of Fairham Island like an eagle guarding its clutch. A sudden deluge of rain hit his windshield, hard as rocks, as he rounded the final bend in the road and encountered the tall gates of the fence that circled the property. Through the rhythmic slash of his wipers, he stared at the ornate wrought iron with the elaborate C in the center, wondering if he was going to have to call Maisey for the code. He assumed he would. But it took only three tries to get the gates to open. The code turned out to be his birthday—ironic considering that he and his mother had been estranged for so long. She’d loved him, in her own twisted way. That was the part that always messed with his head, and his heart. His phone rang as he parked near one of five garage stalls. Stacia Snider, his assistant, was trying to get hold of him. On the West Coast it was only two thirty. But he silenced his phone instead of answering. He couldn’t deal with her now, couldn’t deal with anything else. He felt as if his mother had her hands around his throat and was squeezing... A memory flashed before his mind’s eye. She’d choked him once, when she’d gotten worked up and gone too far. After she released him, he’d spit in her face, and then she’d really let him have it. That was the only time he ever remembered his father stepping in. Malcolm had been so passive. Whenever Josephine got upset, he’d simply hunker down and wait for her anger to blow itself out. The funny thing was, no one ever wanted him to do anything else. The situation just got more volatile if he tried to insert himself. Josephine had to win at everything, which was partly what had caused Keith’s problems with her. He was the only one who ever stood up to her, who ever fought her complete domination—at least until Maisey got older and walked out on her. Just like he did later... The car pinged as he got out, reminding him that he needed to turn off the headlights. His BMW did it automatically; he’d forgotten that most cheaper vehicles didn’t. Although the rain was still falling heavily, soaking his hair, jacket and jeans, he spent a few minutes searching for the groundskeeper, Tyrone, to no avail. The place looked deserted. Since it was after five, Tyrone must’ve left. Or maybe he hadn’t come today. No doubt Josephine’s death had thrown the hired help into chaos. If Keith had his guess, they were all at home, fearing they were out of a job, grieving for their own loss if not for the loss of their tyrannical employer. Flinging his wet hair out of his face, he hurried up the front steps to the wide veranda. The door was locked but, within minutes, he found the key hidden behind the porch light—the same place it had been since he was a teenager. Although he didn’t want to think about it, that meant anyone else who knew about the spare could’ve gotten in without breaking a window or making a fuss... He swung open the heavy front door and stepped into what he had, for years, sarcastically referred to as his mother’s “palace.” The scent of fresh-cut flowers, which were changed regularly, rose to his nostrils. That was when the fact that she was really gone hit him—conjuring up a startling and profound sense of loss. Regardless of what his mother had done over the years, what he struggled to forgive, she’d been a magnificent woman in many ways. He’d never known anyone stronger or more determined to reach whatever goal she had in sight. Everything she did was done well. She had a sharp tongue but a sharp mind, as well—coupled with the face and figure of a femme fatale, a woman who’d looked two decades younger than her true age. Everyone’s head turned when she walked into a room; he remembered certain moments when he’d taken great pride in being connected to a figure people revered that much. Maisey had often told him he couldn’t get along with her because they were too much alike. He hadn’t been able to see it then, but these days he could easily recognize that they both had to be on top, in charge. They were what his father used to diplomatically refer to as “strong” personalities. His father hadn’t admired “strong” personalities quite like Grandpa Coldiron had. God forbid that Keith made other people’s lives as miserable as his mother had made his—although he certainly used to. Thinking of Grandpa Coldiron, Keith walked into the dining room, where there was a giant portrait of his grandfather looking every bit as somber and austere as the paintings of the old aristocracy hanging in the castles and palaces of Europe. His grandfather had been a “strong” personality, too. And he had accomplished great things. There were benefits to the genes he’d inherited, Keith decided—as long as he could control his temper and his drive. Before the quiet stillness could press too close, he left the dining room and took the stairs up to the second story. He found no crime scene tape, nothing to bar him from entering certain rooms. Coldiron House was eerily normal, far more normal than he’d thought it would be. When someone as powerful as his mother passed away, shouldn’t there be more to mark the event? Once he reached the double doors of her bedroom, he had to pause, to brace himself for what he might see. He didn’t expect to encounter a bloody mess, or anything like that, but he knew he’d imagine finding her the way he’d been told she was found—and that would be disturbing. Another expansive flower arrangement confronted him when he went in, only this one hadn’t been ordered as part of the household routine. He knew because it included a card. Keith wasn’t in any hurry to reach the bathroom. He was too busy preparing for what the sight of it might do to him. So he took a second to see who the flowers were from. I can’t wait. H “Hugh,” he said to himself, recalling the name Maisey had given him. His mother and Hugh were obviously looking forward to having a good time together. Her designer luggage was pushed off to one side but appeared to be packed. A quick check confirmed it. That answered the question he’d asked Maisey early Sunday morning, when she’d called to tell him about their mother’s death. The bed was turned down, too, another indication that his mother had expected to live longer than she did. Her wrap was tossed across the velvet bench nearby. Had the police missed all of this? Why would she bother to pack or turn down the bed if she knew she wouldn’t need luggage or a place to sleep? Feeling his muscles tense, he rounded the corner—and entered the bathroom. 3 (#u8ed10f00-acea-5fdf-aa03-d128a18c557a) THE WATER HAD been let out of the bath, but several wet towels remained on the floor—where her body had obviously been placed after it’d been pulled from the water. Pippa must not have been back since his mother died or she would’ve cleaned this up... Had the police told the housekeeper that she couldn’t or shouldn’t come back? Or was it that she wasn’t sure if she’d get paid? The police must’ve taken the wine, the glass and the pill bottle, because none of that was in the bathroom, or even in the trash. Pulling out the chair of his mother’s boudoir, Keith sank onto the tiny beige seat. At six foot six, he was much bigger than she’d been at five-eight. His knees came up too high, but at least he had a perch from which he could examine the place where his mother had died. Why had she drowned? There had to be a reason, and it wasn’t that she’d decided to end her life right before a trip to meet her new love in Australia. Her phone. He needed to check her phone. There could be answers there, a text or a call that would give him some clue. She always had it with her. But he went through the whole suite and couldn’t come up with it. Her computer wasn’t there, either. He’d just realized the police must’ve taken both when he received a call himself. Maisey. If he answered, he’d have to tell her he was in town, and he wasn’t ready to do that. He needed answers, some understanding before he could focus on her needs and her grief. But he understood what she was going through—and that made it impossible to ignore her call. As he hit the talk button, he happened to turn enough to catch sight of himself in the mirror. So many people had told him he was the spitting image of his mother. Even he could see hints of her in his face. They both had high cheekbones, wide mouths, prominent chins, thick dark hair. They also had the same blue-green eyes, a color so unique he’d had strangers stop him on the street to tell him how arresting his eyes were. Maisey’s and Roxanne’s eyes were the same color. But his sisters had a calm temperament, like their father. He was the only one who’d inherited their mother’s tempestuous nature and extreme stubbornness. “Maisey? What’s going on?” he said into the phone. “They’ve scheduled the autopsy for first thing in the morning,” she replied. “With any luck, we’ll know more after they’re finished.” He walked out of his mother’s room and down the hall, where he felt he could breathe again. “Don’t let ’em do it.” “Excuse me?” she said. “I have no say over that. It’s a state law. They have to perform an autopsy in this situation. So even though the coroner is fairly certain he knows the manner of death, we have to let him do his job.” “I’d rather he didn’t handle this, Maisey. I’ll take over from here.” There was a long silence. Then she said, “Keith, you can’t take over. This isn’t up to you.” “I’ll get my own pathologist, someone I’m convinced is good and that they trust, too. If I pay for it, I’m sure they’ll let me. Why wouldn’t they? It’ll save the state the money they’d have to pay otherwise.” “Why would you get involved?” “So I can be certain that whoever does the autopsy isn’t just going to confirm what the coroner’s already said. I’ll hire someone who hasn’t been previously conditioned to see Mom’s death as a suicide.” “You really think that’s necessary?” “Mom didn’t kill herself, Maisey.” “You believe it was an accident?” He poked his head into his old bedroom. This was where his mother used to tie him to the bed to force him to take a nap, not that the room looked the same as it had then. All his toys and sports trophies had been moved to the attic years and years ago, almost before he was old enough to part with them. Josephine had hardly been able to tolerate the childish things her kids had liked when they were young. She’d considered anything with theme-park characters or superheroes “tacky” and got rid of it as soon as possible. So his bedroom had been updated—more than once. But he was looking at the same black wood shutter-style furniture with the expensive yellow and gray bedding and drapes he’d had when he lived here five years ago; nothing had changed since then. Given the season and the fact that he didn’t think anyone had used his room in years, he found it odd that the ceiling fan was on. He watched the blades swoop overhead, stirring the air. The police must’ve walked through the house and accidentally hit the switch— “Keith?” Maisey said. He crossed to the window and opened the drapes and shutters so he could gaze out over the sloping lawn at the turbulent sea beyond, gleaming like crushed diamonds in the moonlight. The view was the one thing he had missed. Even what he saw outside the windows of his house in Santa Monica couldn’t compare to the island, especially in the midst of a storm. “It wasn’t an accident,” he said above the howl of the wind as it hit the house. “No one takes a bottle of pills by accident.” His sister had to know that; she was just reluctant to accept the alternative. “You’re not saying...” “Mom was murdered.” “That can’t be true.” “It’s absolutely true,” he insisted. “No. No one on Fairham would hurt her. We know—and love—all the people she associated with.” The people she dealt with on a daily basis were a lot easier to get along with than she was... “Plenty of people on the island have been upset or frustrated by her over the years. Maybe she let Tyrone go, and Tyrone...snapped.” “Are you kidding me?” Maisey cried. “It wasn’t Tyrone. For one thing, she didn’t let Tyrone go. I would’ve known if that was the case. Mom had Rafe and me and the kids over for dinner Friday night. To say goodbye before her big trip. Tyrone was leaving for the day when we arrived. It couldn’t have been Pippa, either. She served us that night. And she was the one who was supposed to drive Mom to the airport.” “Pippa hasn’t been here since Mom died,” he said, remembering the water on the master bathroom floor. “Do you have any idea why?” “Here?” Maisey echoed in surprise. He grimaced at the slip. “I’m at Coldiron House.” “And you didn’t tell me you were coming?” “I’m sorry.” He raked his fingers through his hair. “I just got in. Needed some time to myself.” Seconds passed. “I see,” she said at length, and rather stiffly. “Please don’t take it personally,” he said. “Coming here without calling is about me, not you.” She seemed to soften. “Okay. But it seems strange that you didn’t let me know. I’m your sister and I’ve never done anything except try to love you and watch out for you. You’d think—” “Maisey, please!” he broke in. “Fine. I’ll let it go,” she said. “We’re all coping with this the best we can. But...surely we can’t be looking at murder.” “There’s no other alternative that fits,” he argued. “I’m surprised the police aren’t saying the same thing. Her bags were packed. And there’s a flower arrangement from her boyfriend saying he can’t wait to see her. No one commits suicide just before a romantic trip to Australia, especially one that’s already been paid for. Everything I’m seeing suggests Mom was excited, not depressed.” “Maybe, at the last minute, she and Hugh got into a fight and he asked her not to come. Maybe she was disappointed. Or he told her some of the things we’ve been dying to say.” “Like what? That she’s insufferable? Was insufferable?” Maisey sighed heavily. “Basically. That could’ve pushed her over the edge. Criticism is difficult for everyone, for her most of all. She couldn’t tolerate any of it.” “I’d consider that a possibility, except that most of the men in her life have been playthings. People who exist purely for her entertainment. She’s the only one she’s ever really loved. So why would she kill herself over something some guy said?” “She’s the only one she’s ever loved? That’s a bit harsh, isn’t it?” He winced. It was harsh. Especially now that their mother was gone. And it wasn’t strictly true, although Josephine had acted like it sometimes. “You’re right. I take that back. But still. I wouldn’t expect her to kill herself over losing Hugh or anyone else. Not without some kind of warning.” An idea occurred to him. “Is her will current?” “Her will? Don’t tell me you’re thinking about what we might inherit!” “No,” he said, even though she must have given some thought to what would happen to the wealth their grandfather had accumulated. “I’m saying she wouldn’t check out of this world unless she’d prepared all of that. If her will hasn’t been updated, she wasn’t planning on going anywhere.” His sister calmed down. “That’s true. But letting it lapse in the first place wouldn’t be like her, either. She never let anything lapse. Anyway, I can’t tell you where she keeps it. I haven’t even looked for it. And it’s not like she ever took me into her confidence. She was so secretive about her finances, always acted as if what she had, and what she did with it, wasn’t any of our business.” Because she didn’t think they were as capable of managing wealth as she was. “My point exactly. She would’ve cared about her father’s legacy, if nothing else. Left us a note about where to find the will. Something.” “True. I agree that suicide is unlikely, but I wouldn’t say it’s impossible. She could’ve acted impulsively. I mean...who would she call if she was upset and needed someone to talk to? You? Me? No. She wouldn’t even call Roxanne. No matter how badly she hurt, she was never one to show her pain. She’d suck it up and pretend everything was fine. She never had anyone she could lean on—not since Dad.” Intent on getting his bags from the car, Keith headed back through the house. “She never truly needed anyone, even him. Let’s be honest. Dad could barely put up with her, and you’d have to work pretty hard not to get along with Dad.” Of course, Keith had enough of Josephine in him that he’d managed to upset their father on occasion. “If we really looked in to how people felt about Mom, I bet even we’d be surprised by how many didn’t like her.” “But everything’s been so quiet. For years. Why would this happen now when...” The way her words fell away, as if an opposing thought had occurred to her, piqued his curiosity. “What is it?” She hesitated, then said, “Never mind. It—it’s nothing.” He stepped out onto the porch, into the nasty weather, and had to speak louder to make sure she could hear him above the storm. “Tell me what you were thinking.” “I wasn’t thinking anything, really. It just hit me that the only person I’m aware of that Mom was having trouble with was Nancy. They haven’t been getting along lately. Nancy’s changed a lot. She’s been standing up for herself, which is good but...it’s also made them less compatible.” “Are you talking about a specific incident?” “I know of at least one. Last week, Mom threw a tantrum in the shop in front of several customers. Yelled at Nancy for not communicating well enough on some order for a big wedding, which embarrassed her—so much that she tried to quit.” Nancy was the nicest person Keith had ever met. He still felt bad about the way his life had collided with hers. He’d been at his worst when he worked with her at the flower shop, had gotten her hopes up about a relationship and then walked out on her—after borrowing a large sum of money, which he’d spent on drugs. He’d tried to make up for what he’d done. Not only had he made several attempts to apologize and repay the money, he’d bought her a car—once he could afford it—to replace the hunk of junk she’d been driving when he left. He’d thought a gift like that would compensate for the past. But she’d sent the car back to the dealership and wouldn’t accept his calls or his money. He’d had to leave his apology on her voice mail. “Nancy would never hurt anyone,” he said. “She doesn’t have a mean bone in her body.” “See?” Maisey responded. “Tyrone wouldn’t do it. Pippa wouldn’t do it. Nancy wouldn’t do it. Who does that leave? The part-time help? None of them would hurt Mom, either.” “Someone hurt her,” he insisted. “What about Hugh Whoever-He-Is?” “We can check, make sure he has an alibi, but I can’t imagine he was here on the island. Because of the ferry, someone would’ve seen him. And what would he have to gain by murdering Mom? If they were married, and he was the beneficiary of her life insurance, maybe I could see it, but...they were just getting to know each other.” Keith paced on the porch, taking advantage of the veranda’s deep overhang to keep out of the rain. “We have to consider everyone.” “So I should call the coroner and tell him we’re going to get our own pathologist?” “Yes. We’ll have to get permission, but we should at least ask him to hold off until then.” “I hope I can catch him. It’s after business hours.” “Try, in case. And text me if you can’t, okay? If necessary, I’ll go over there first thing in the morning.” He was about to hang up when she spoke again. “Are you planning to stay at the house?” He turned up his collar. “Yeah.” “Why not come here?” “You don’t have room for me.” Maisey lived in one of the vacation bungalows built by their father in the eighties. Her home with Rafe wasn’t big or ostentatious, but she said she was happier than she’d ever been. “We’ll make room. Or you could use one of the other units. They’re empty during the winter. And you’ll like the way I’ve furnished them.” “I don’t doubt that. There’s just no need for me to go to Smuggler’s Cove. I’m comfortable here.” Although he had his fair share of unpleasant memories, he chose to focus on the times he’d visited Grandpa Coldiron and felt accepted and loved without any criticism. “I’m not convinced it’s good for you to be at Coldiron House, especially right now—and alone.” She was worried about him backsliding. But when he thought of his grandfather, and not his mother, he felt he was exactly where he belonged. “It’ll be okay.” “You’re sure?” “Maisey, stop it! Thinking that I’m going to go off on a drug binge at any moment is only making this worse.” “I’m sorry. It’s not as if... Well, I don’t mean—” He cut her off as he pulled his car keys from his pocket in preparation for his dash through the rain. “Has Roxanne decided when she’s coming?” Thankfully, she allowed him to change the subject. “Not quite yet. She probably told you she’s planning to be here for the funeral, though.” “Yes, although she can’t stay long.” “Their tour business falls off during the winter months, but they still have the DVD store.” Which they’d recently turned into more of a new and used video game store that wasn’t performing very well. “Makes sense, especially since they have the kids to worry about, too.” “What about your business?” she asked. “How long can you be away?” “I’ve got plenty of people to fill in for me. I’ll have no problem staying for a week or two.” “You’re confident we’ll learn what happened that soon?” “Someone has to know.” Was that person banking on the fact that the cops would see the pills, label Josephine’s death a suicide and leave it at that? That Maisey would be too involved with her own family to do much more than put on the funeral? That the lazy, good-for-nothing Lazarow son wouldn’t care enough or be capable enough to challenge those findings? If so, whoever killed his mother would have a rude awakening. “So you’re really going to dig into this?” Maisey asked. “Even though the coroner and the police—everyone—are coming to the same conclusion?” “They’re wrong. And I’ll prove it. Mom didn’t kill herself. You have to admit she’d hate being remembered that way.” “She’d be embarrassed.” “Mortified,” he corrected. She made a sound of frustration. “God, Keith. Can’t anything ever be easy?” “You did your part when you found Rocki. I’ll take care of this.” “I’ll do everything I can to help. So will Rafe. But...are you sure it won’t...you know, be too unsettling for you? There’re a lot of memories in that house...” They were back to her concern for him. He wished she’d give it a rest. But she had good reason to be worried, good reason to grill him. “The only thing I’m sure about is that Mom’s death isn’t going down as a suicide,” he said. Maybe he’d never be classified as a model son, but he would do that much for his mother. 4 (#u8ed10f00-acea-5fdf-aa03-d128a18c557a) “ARE YOU OKAY?” Maisey looked up to find her husband standing in the doorway of their bedroom. “I’m fine.” He came into the room. “You seemed so worried there for a second.” “I just hung up with Keith.” “And? How’s he taking the news about your mother?” She chewed on her bottom lip. “He’s insisting we get our own pathologist to perform the autopsy.” He rested his hands on his lean hips. “Why?” “He says that Mom would never kill herself, and he doesn’t want someone who might be influenced by what the coroner and the police have said about her death.” His dark eyebrows drew together as he sat down next to her on the bed. “Do you agree?” “Don’t you?” she asked. He studied her for several seconds. “Your mother was a difficult person. Maybe something happened that was just...too much for her.” “I’ve never known her to come up against a challenge she couldn’t handle,” she said wryly. “Doesn’t mean there wasn’t one. She was a proud and private person. We don’t have any idea what was going on in her life—beyond the few details she was willing to divulge.” Laney’s voice interrupted from the living room, where she was playing with Bryson, their two-year-old son. “Daddy, I think Bry needs to go potty!” “What makes you say that?” Rafe called back to his daughter. “He keeps saying, ‘Poop.’” “That would be a good indication,” Maisey said with a chuckle. Rafe got up. “I’m coming!” “Why can’t I help him?” Laney asked. “He’ll go for me.” Eleven-year-old Laney was blind and had been since birth, but she navigated their house well. And she loved nothing as much as her little brother. “Sure,” Maisey called. “But only give him two M&M’s as a reward.” Maisey suspected Laney was more generous with the treats they kept on hand for potty training purposes than they were. “Can I have some, too?” she asked. “Of course. Just let us know if you need help, okay?” “I’ll let you wipe him,” she told them, and Maisey grinned as Rafe sat down again. “That’s probably best,” he conceded. “Otherwise, that trip to the bathroom might not end the way we’d like it to.” Maisey imagined the sweet face of her stepdaughter, who had the same dark hair and golden eyes as Rafe. “What would we do without her? I couldn’t love her any more if she was my own.” “For all intents and purposes, she is yours,” he said and leaned forward to peck her lips. It wasn’t as if her real mother had ever taken an interest. She’d essentially abandoned her child as soon as she found out the baby was handicapped. “Back to your mom,” Rafe said. “I’m not convinced the police and the coroner are wrong, but if there’s any doubt and getting our own pathologist could relieve that doubt, let’s do it. Putting off the funeral for a few days isn’t the worst thing in the world.” “True, but getting our own pathologist will mean we have to pay for it.” “Won’t be a problem for Keith. He’s Midas these days, right?” he said with a chuckle. “And we’re doing okay. I say we split it.” “Are you sure?” “Of course.” She supposed sharing the cost would be fair. Rafe was doing well with his construction and home repair business—had more work than ever before. They were still managing the vacation bungalows, which took care of their mortgage every month. And Maisey had gone back to writing children’s books, a passion and vocation that was beginning to pay more handsomely now that she was building a bigger readership than she’d had when she’d been married to her first husband and living in New York City. “But there’s more at stake than money.” “Like...” “What they might find. I could deal with it, no matter what. But I’m worried about Keith.” Rafe fell back on the bed and propped himself up on his elbows. “Keith’s come a long way.” “Exactly. I’d hate to see him fall apart. Especially now that Mom’s gone. I want what’s left of my family to finally be unified and healthy.” “It’s been five years since he was in any trouble. I’m sure he’ll be careful not to head back down that road.” “He’s had plenty of relapses in the past,” she pointed out. Far more than she cared to remember. He was the primary reason she’d come back to the island after her divorce. She’d felt he needed her support. “But he’s never been clean this long.” She wanted to believe he’d be able to hang on, but... “Triggers are funny things. He hasn’t been home in those five years, hasn’t even let me or Rocki talk about Mom. And now, because of what’s happened, here he is.” “On Fairham? Really? Already? When did he get in?” “Not sure. He didn’t tell me he was coming. But he was at Coldiron House just now, when I spoke to him. He’s staying there and insists on taking charge of everything.” “What can we do to stop him—or make things easier?” Rafe asked. She curled up against him, resting her head on his broad chest. “Nothing. But it’s not the drugs I’m worried about as much as...” He kissed her forehead. “As?” “All this talk about suicide. What if Mom really did kill herself? What if he decides the battle he fights every day isn’t worth it and he follows her lead? He’s tried before. I can’t lose my mother and my brother.” Rafe sat up, pulling her with him so he could look into her face. “Keith’s changed. He can weather this.” She didn’t have the chance to argue. Laney called out, “Mom! He did it! I heard it plop. Come wipe Bry’s bum!” Bryson squealed and clapped, obviously as excited by his accomplishment as Laney was. “I’ll take this one.” Rafe laughed as he got up, but Maisey hurried to circumvent him. “No, I want to be there to praise him.” “Maybe we should all stand in the doorway and clap,” Rafe teased. She paused long enough to slip her arms around his waist and hold him close. “God, I love you.” * * * That night Keith tried to reach Pippa Strong, his mother’s housekeeper. He figured if anyone could shed some light on his mother’s frame of mind in the days and weeks leading up to her death, Pippa could. The two were fairly close—or as close as an employee could get to Josephine. She didn’t answer, though. When he had to settle for leaving a message on her voice mail, he moved down his list and called Tyrone Coleman, the groundskeeper, instead. Tyrone was just as trusted and loyal to the family, but he couldn’t fill in any of the blanks. He insisted that Josephine hadn’t said anything unusual to him before her death. He claimed she hadn’t been acting odd, either. And he hadn’t noticed any strangers or hostile individuals hanging around the property. “No, sir,” he said to almost every question. “When I lef’ work on Friday, she was jus’ like she always was. You know’d your mother. If she didn’t like somethin’ she woulda said—and then she woulda changed it straightaway. That was a woman who knew her own mind fer sure.” He spoke of Josephine with a mixture of awe and affection, the way one might refer to a willful child who was to be indulged. “Yes, she did,” Keith said. “You’re a lot like her—you know that,” Tyrone told him next. “You aren’t the first to mention it,” he responded. “That’s a good thing, Mr. Lazarow, sir. Your mamma was a strong woman. Once she got somethin’ in her head, she was immovable. Like a rock.” As far as Keith was concerned, she’d been more like a sledgehammer. Her iron will could blast through any obstacle. But Tyrone seemed to be the same tolerant and respectful person he’d always been. He seemed truly bewildered by her death and upset that she was gone. Keith told the groundskeeper he still had a job, that he could report to work whenever he was ready—a proclamation that was greeted with a tremendous amount of gratitude. Afterward, Keith thanked him and hung up. But several hours later, when it was well past the time he could call anyone, he was still going over that conversation and everything else he’d learned since receiving word of his mother’s death. How had Josephine died—and why? Had someone strangled her? Drugged her and then drowned her? The mere possibility enraged him. It made no difference that they’d had so much difficulty getting along. The fact that they’d struggled actually made what had happened worse. Whoever killed her had robbed him of the ability to improve their relationship, to achieve any closure. But anger wasn’t all he felt. There was plenty of guilt, too. Would his grandfather have expected him to stay and protect her and the Coldiron legacy? If he’d been able to cope with his own life, he would’ve stuck around—and who could say how that might’ve changed things? Maybe she’d be alive right now... Unable to sleep, he pulled his computer out of his bag, opened it and leaned against the headboard while he researched strangulation and asphyxiation and what doctors looked for in determining whether someone had died in that way. From what he read, many of the signs didn’t show up within the first twenty-four hours, which was interesting and made him wonder if his mother had been examined the day after she was found. He also learned that “petechial hemorrhaging,” in which the blood vessels burst behind the eyes, was one red flag. A broken hyoid bone was another. At nearly three, he set his computer aside and went to his mother’s suite. After walking through the empty bedroom and bathroom, he wandered into the retreat set off to one side, which had a balcony with a fabulous view of the beach and ocean below. He stared out at the storm-tossed waves for several minutes. The wind and the rain had gotten stronger. Then he sat down and poked through his mother’s writing desk more thoroughly than when he’d been ransacking the place for her phone. He found nothing that clarified what might have happened, but he did come across a stack of letters tucked inside a big travel book in a deep file drawer. They were addressed to him at his company’s address in LA. Frowning at the discovery, he sat on the velvet-covered bench at the foot of Josephine’s bed to see what they were. Written on perfumed stationery—his mother couldn’t do anything ordinary—they were sealed, as if she’d planned on mailing them. But he’d never received any communication from her. She’d had too much pride to contact him, since he was the one who’d cut her off. He counted them. Ten in all. Tapping them against his knee, he studied the flowing script. Even her handwriting exhibited an elegance few people could emulate. So what did she have to tell him? Dare he find out? There had to be some reason she’d chosen not to mail them. And he was already feeling troubled and unsettled. Why give her a voice? Would he be able to tolerate what she said? In case he couldn’t, he got up and shoved them back into the book, which he returned to the drawer. He’d be smarter to protect his sobriety, he thought. But after several minutes of pacing, he retrieved them, opened the top one and skimmed the contents. It was just a regular letter, like something he might expect if he’d been stationed overseas in the army or was away at school. The others followed the same pattern. Some were Christmas cards. Some were birthday cards. She talked about the flower shop and Coldiron House and the vacation rentals. She talked about seeing Roxanne and any news about Roxanne’s “little family.” She talked about Maisey giving birth to Bryson, noted his size and weight and complained that he wasn’t named after anyone in their family. She also talked about Pippa taking vacation or getting sick and who she might get to fill in. She didn’t offer him any apologies, however. She didn’t even acknowledge the fact that they were estranged. She just pretended nothing had happened between them and they were still speaking. After reading the last one, he stacked the envelopes the way he’d found them. Maybe he shouldn’t have read them, after all. They reminded him of how charming his mother could be when she was on her best behavior, made him miss her. They also made him wonder if maybe he was the one to blame for their problems. He’d already spent a lifetime wondering. Is it me or her? These letters dredged up all of that confusion and uncertainty. But, refusing to succumb to those thoughts, he forced himself to look at the letters more objectively. What did they mean? Was the fact that she’d taken the time to write an apology in itself? Was it her way of expressing her love? The closings never varied—Love, Mom. That was the only thing that might suggest she cared about him, two words that could easily be interpreted as a standard closing. Was there so much wrong between them that she wouldn’t risk tackling the issues? Was she hoping to simply go on, to forget the past as if it hadn’t existed? Since she was never one to apologize, that was her favorite approach to making up. He would’ve been content to let bygones be bygones, too, if he could. He’d tried to come to terms with his mother for thirty-seven years before giving up and forging ahead with a life that didn’t include her. His phone buzzed. He’d received a text from Dahlia. Should I come over again tonight? He hadn’t told her about his mother, hadn’t even mentioned that he was going out of town. No. I’m not in LA. Where are you? On the East Coast. For what? Business, he typed because he wasn’t willing to divulge the personal nature of his trip. She sent him a frowny face, to which he didn’t respond. Then she wrote, When will you be home? I’m missing you. He wasn’t missing her at all. He barely knew her and was fairly certain he didn’t want to see her again. The few times they’d actually had a conversation, he’d been bored stiff. For some reason, he thought of Nancy—of how real and honest and caring she’d been... His phone buzzed again. Can’t wait to see you. I’ll let you know when I get back, he wrote. * * * The next morning Nancy Dellinger didn’t have to open the flower shop. It was her day off and yet she was still preoccupied with the death of her boss, who’d also been Fairham Island’s central figure. She’d been dwelling on Josephine a lot, but not the way she should’ve been—with shock and grief. Mostly she was relieved to think her boss would no longer be part of her life. She hated feeling like that, hated being unkind. Besides, Josephine Lazarow’s death had its drawbacks. Depending on who inherited the business and what that person chose to do with it, she could be out of a job. If it was Maisey, she’d keep Love’s in Bloom. Maisey loved the flower shop as much as Nancy did. But Keith? He’d probably sell it and go back to LA. She’d heard he’d become a big shot out there. Regardless, Nancy was happier without Josephine. That was how anxious her employer had made her. The minute Keith’s mother would glide into the shop, enveloped in a cloud of expensive perfume, Nancy’s blood pressure would skyrocket and she’d begin to perspire—even in winter. Because there would be no peace until Josephine left. Josephine would criticize and belittle and nitpick until Nancy was almost in tears. Attention to detail—that’s how a shop stands out, she’d say as if Nancy had never heard that before. Josephine had the power to make Nancy feel inept with a single, imperious glance—never mind that she’d been managing the business efficiently for seven years. Josephine had never even threatened to get rid of her; that, right there, proved she was doing a good job. The “Queen of Fairham” had fired every manager who’d come before her—in a matter of months. And yet Nancy had never received any thanks or gratitude, no kindness or camaraderie. She’d gotten a Christmas bonus each year, but that had more to do with how Josephine wanted to be perceived than recognition for a job well done. Josephine could see only what hadn’t been accomplished or what could’ve been handled better. In short, her boss was—had been—the most difficult individual Nancy had ever met, the worst kind of perfectionist. And yet, Nancy couldn’t help admiring her. Josephine was everything Nancy would never be—regal, commanding, perfectly put together and never an ounce overweight. Josephine was nearly twice Nancy’s age and yet Nancy couldn’t compete with her grace or her beauty. But then...no one could compete with Josephine. Maisey, her own daughter, gorgeous in her own right, felt as inept and unattractive around her mother as Nancy did. Nancy had become close enough to Maisey to understand that. Climbing out of bed to confront her wall-length mirror, Nancy sucked in her stomach and turned to the side. She gave herself this critical once-over every day, even though her reflection didn’t change much. Three years ago, she’d lost thirty pounds and kept them off. So there’d been some improvement since she’d last seen Keith. She’d felt a lot better about herself since then. But she still hadn’t lost the final twenty pounds. She wasn’t built to be a size 4, she concluded—and that was her one great regret. With thick, dark hair, which fell to her shoulders in a healthy sheen, wide, hazel eyes and smooth, clear skin, she had a pretty face. But she wanted to have more than a pretty face. She wanted to have a body to match. To bring Keith Lazarow to his knees, make him sorry he’d so casually walked away from her. Maybe she needed to accept the truth. She wasn’t going to bring Keith to his knees. How many times had she promised herself she’d be so lean and toned when he returned to Fairham that he wouldn’t even recognize her? Too many times to count. Yes, she’d made some strides in that direction, but he’d stayed away for so long she’d begun to think he’d never come back and her love of food had won out. Now there was no chance to compensate for procrastinating her diet. His mother was dead. He’d return to the island for the funeral, which meant Nancy would see him in a few days, at most a week. Unless... What if she didn’t go to the funeral? Then she might be able to avoid him. If she was lucky... She considered pretending to be sick. But the thought faded as quickly as it had burst into her mind. No, she couldn’t do that. Her conscience dictated that she show up, no matter how much she’d disliked her employer. Even if Josephine hadn’t been her boss, Nancy would attend the funeral for Maisey’s sake. She wouldn’t want Keith to think he was the reason she’d stayed away. Besides, it wasn’t as if she really wanted him back. There were other men in the world, men who were far less complicated than Keith Lazarow. She’d long since decided she was lucky he’d moved on, because it gave her the opportunity to find someone who was easier to get along with. A knock sounded at the front door. Simba, her Chow Chow, dashed in from the back through his doggy door and immediately went into a barking frenzy. Startled by the noise, Nancy stepped away from the mirror and hurried to grab her robe. She wasn’t expecting anyone, and had no idea who this could be. But when she pulled Simba back and opened the door, she was pleased to see Maisey Lazarow-Romero. As much as Nancy resented Maisey’s mother and brother, she adored Maisey. They’d been friends since Maisey had returned to the island just before Keith left. That was when Maisey had started working at the shop. Once she married Rafe, she’d cut back on her hours to spend time with his daughter, Laney, and then the new baby, Bryson. She was also writing her children’s books again. But she still came in and helped Nancy arrange flowers once or twice a week, and those days were always fun. The two of them chatted and laughed like high school girls. “What are you doing here?” Nancy asked in surprise. Maisey shook the rain from her umbrella as Nancy stepped back to admit her. “I need to talk to you.” Nancy almost glanced around to find her purse so she could check her phone. If Maisey had tried to call, she hadn’t heard the ring. “You okay?” She nodded. “Just trying to make sense of...of what’s happened.” Nancy peered through her front window at Maisey’s Audi. Was it running? “Are the kids outside?” “No. I dropped them off at Rafe’s mother’s. She’s been dying to have them, and I need the time to take care of a few things.” “I’m glad Rafe’s mom is so supportive.” Especially since Maisey’s own mother hadn’t been the type to babysit, although she’d liked having Laney over now and then. Nancy had heard a great deal about those visits—because Josephine’s interest in Laney had been so unexpected. “Her arthritis is getting bad enough that she can’t take Bryson very often,” Maisey was saying. “But Laney’s there to help, and I felt I really needed to be free today.” “I can watch them for you, too,” Nancy said, “on days like today, when I’m off, or after work. So keep that in mind. I’m sorry about your mother, by the way.” They’d talked once, briefly, over the phone, but Nancy didn’t feel she’d properly expressed her condolences. She’d been too stunned to hear that Josephine had died. A sad smile curved Maisey’s lips. “I appreciate that. Thanks for the flowers you sent home with Rafe.” “I knew he was working over at the church, and I didn’t want to intrude on your grief, in case...in case you needed some time alone.” She’d paid for those flowers herself, and hoped Maisey would realize that but didn’t mention it. “You’re always welcome at my house, no matter what,” Maisey said. Guilt for feeling relief at Josephine’s passing made Nancy cringe. Here she was expressing her sympathy, and yet she was secretly glad Josephine was gone. “So...what’d you stop by to talk to me about?” she asked. “Have you decided on the date of the funeral?” A shadow passed over Maisey’s face. “Not yet. We’re getting our own pathologist to do the autopsy, and that’ll take more time, which makes it difficult to proceed with...what normally happens when you lose a loved one.” “Why go to the trouble? Of hiring a pathologist, I mean? Haven’t they already determined what...you know...caused her death?” Nancy hesitated to use the word suicide. That was such a painful thing for surviving family members to face. But even if Maisey hadn’t called on Tuesday morning, Nancy would’ve heard what the police had found—and what they thought. Everyone in Keys Crossing was talking about the fact that Josephine had taken her own life. Not much happened on the island that didn’t churn through the gossip mill. Josephine had been an important person, after all. “Between you and me, Keith feels the coroner has reached the wrong conclusion. He wants someone who’s unbiased to take a look,” Maisey said. No one would be keen to accept a suicide ruling. Nancy understood that and felt sorry for Keith and Maisey. But she was more affected by the mention of his name than any other aspect of the conversation, which only made her more disgusted with herself. She should hate him for using her the way he had. And even though she didn’t—couldn’t, for whatever lame reason—she would never be stupid enough to get involved with him again. So why was she still hanging on? It was pathetic. “What does Keith think happened?” she asked. “He’s not sure,” Maisey replied. “No one is. We just...need more information.” “Because she must’ve had a heart attack or slipped and hit her head, right? Not because you suspect foul play.” Maisey grimaced. “To be honest, we’re not ruling anything out.” “Wow.” Nancy shoved her hands in the pockets of her robe. “It’s hard to imagine that anyone would hurt her,” Maisey said. “But we should gather all the facts before...before we proceed.” Nancy nodded. She wouldn’t bury her mother, either, not until she’d done everything possible to answer any questions that remained—except this could never happen to her, since her mother had passed away years ago. “It’s always better to be thorough. If that includes getting someone you feel more comfortable with to do the autopsy, then so be it. That way, if questions arise later, you’ll be able to feel you did all you could.” Maisey frowned in apparent uncertainty. “I hope it’s the right move.” “How can it be the wrong one?” “I’m just worried in general. What if the autopsy isn’t conclusive? What if it sends us on a wild-goose chase? What if we start to believe my mom was murdered and begin to suspect our friends? What if those friends are innocent? Or what if she was murdered and we can’t find the culprit—or he gets off for some reason? None of that would be easy to deal with.” Nancy slid the clasp of her necklace around to the back. In that case, maybe ignorance was bliss. “Was she having trouble with anyone in particular?” “My mother had trouble with everyone. Well, I guess you couldn’t call it trouble. It was too one-sided for that. Other people put up with her because they had to, while she did pretty much whatever she pleased. Maybe someone got sick of her throwing her weight around.” Nancy was one of the people who’d had to put up with Josephine and hadn’t always liked it. But she would never have done anything to harm her. She had, however, imagined—more than once—telling her off. “You mean someone here on Fairham?” “If we’re lucky, it was an outsider.” “We don’t get a lot of those this time of year.” “Exactly,” Maisey said on a sigh. “An outsider would stand out.” Nancy hadn’t noticed anyone around town she didn’t recognize. And how would Josephine make someone who didn’t even live in the area angry enough to murder her? What would this person’s motivation be? “Could it have been a man she was dating?” “Possibly. Or an old flame. Like Keith, she left quite a few broken hearts in her wake.” Nancy’s heart was one of those Keith had broken, but she was glad Maisey didn’t acknowledge that. “I’m trying not to jump to conclusions, though,” she went on. “I actually had another reason for stopping by.” “What is it?” Nancy tightened the belt on her robe. “If there’s anything I can do, I will.” “There’s nothing. Not yet. But thank you. I’ll keep that in mind. I just... I wanted to let you know...Keith’s back on the island.” Already? Nancy suddenly found it difficult to breathe, although she’d expected him to show up. “I’m glad he was able to make it,” she lied. “Considering what’s happened, this is where he should be.” Maisey peered at her more closely. “You’re okay that he’s here? You won’t mind if you run into him around town?” She shook her head as carelessly as possible. “Of course not. We may not even bump into each other.” A skeptical expression claimed Maisey’s face. “Keys Crossing isn’t that big. And I’m guessing he’ll stop by the store. Since you’re usually there, you’ll probably see him. I know how you used to feel about him, and—” “Oh, don’t worry about that,” Nancy interrupted with a dismissive gesture. “That’s in the past. I’m dating someone else now—a guy I met online who lives on the Isle of Palms.” “Tom?” Nancy wished she had another name to offer up, but she couldn’t think of one fast enough. She wasn’t used to lying, wasn’t much good at it. “Yeah. Tom.” “I thought you said there weren’t any sparks between you.” She wished she hadn’t volunteered quite so much information. She wasn’t interested in Tom, but he was still emailing and texting her, hoping to get her to go out with him again. That should count for something. And she had plenty of other men on that same dating site who were showing interest. “I’m trying not to make up my mind too soon.” “Smart.” Nancy almost asked where Keith was staying, if he was at Coldiron House or the rental bungalows on the other side of the island, which Maisey and Rafe managed. The vacation properties at Smuggler’s Cove were empty during the winter, so there’d be room. If he stayed there, it’d be a lot easier to avoid him. But if she really wanted Maisey to believe she wasn’t interested in Keith, she couldn’t probe for information, regardless of the reason for her interest. “Tom’s a nice guy.” “I’m glad to hear that. You deserve the best.” Maisey bent to pet Simba. “So how are you doing at the store? You don’t mind keeping the business going until we can get my mom’s affairs sorted out, do you?” “Not at all.” Nancy enjoyed her work—and would enjoy it even more now that she knew Josephine wouldn’t be coming in to lambaste her with one complaint or another. Since learning of her employer’s death, she’d been toying with the idea of buying Love’s in Bloom. She’d thought that might be a possibility one day, but it had seemed much further off... “Can you keep up?” Maisey asked. “Or do you need help?” “Everything’s under control,” she replied. “I’ve got Marlene to spell me when I need it. She’s there now. So don’t worry about Love’s in Bloom. With Christmas over, it won’t be terribly busy, not until February when we gear up for Valentine’s Day. Marlene and I can manage for the next few weeks.” The concern on Maisey’s face cleared, which lifted Nancy’s spirits. Perhaps she could take some of the pressure off Josephine’s daughter during this difficult time. That assuaged her conscience for being so darn relieved that Josephine was out of the picture. “That’s comforting. I appreciate it.” Maisey straightened. “You’ll call me if anything changes, won’t you?” “Don’t worry. I’d never let the business fall apart.” Maisey gave her a quick hug. “Of course you wouldn’t. I’d trust you with my life. Somehow that renegade brother of mine has gotten filthy rich, so I’ll make sure he pays you until we can get my mother’s estate sorted out.” Great. Just what she wanted. Keith paying her salary. But at least he was capable of doing so. He wasn’t on drugs anymore; he’d exhibited quite a dramatic turnaround. Not many people could pull that off. Nancy felt a measure of pride in what he’d done—and tried to quash it. She didn’t need anything else to admire. His good looks and sex appeal already created a formidable challenge. “I’ve got some savings, so I can wait if you need me to,” Nancy said. “No need for that.” Nancy kept a smile pasted on her face—and waved cheerfully—as she stood at the door and watched Maisey go. But as soon as Keith’s sister was gone and she allowed her hand to drop, her smile faded, too. She’d expected Josephine’s death to be difficult, had known there’d be a lot to resolve, with the flower shop, all the Coldiron real estate holdings, which included a good portion of the land outside Keys Crossing, and Josephine’s many other assets. Nancy had also known the whole ordeal would start with a funeral and the very real possibility that Keith would return for that reason. But she’d assumed he’d stay for a few days, maybe a week at most. If Josephine’s death turned into a full-fledged murder investigation, who could say how long Keith might remain on Fairham? “Hopefully, he’ll have too much business in California,” she muttered and decided to get her grocery shopping done before taking Simba for a walk. 5 (#u8ed10f00-acea-5fdf-aa03-d128a18c557a) A KNOCK ON his bedroom door woke Keith. He’d been up so late the sun was about to rise when he’d fallen asleep. His mind had been too busy to let go—and it didn’t help that he was still on California time. With the shades drawn, he’d slept late as a result. “Mr. Lazarow?” He yawned and adjusted his pillow. “Come in.” Pippa poked her head into the room. “I hate to disturb you, sir, but your sister is here and would like to speak to you.” Keith’s first thought was of the letters he’d found in his mother’s desk and the odd, haunting sensation that reading those letters had given him. He’d loved his mother; he even missed her, in a way. They’d had some good times. But loving someone and being able to get along for more than an occasional day or two were sometimes different things, at least when it came to Josephine. I had to leave to survive, he reminded himself. But he’d been reminding himself of that ever since he’d received word of her death. “Sir?” Rising up on one elbow, Keith blinked at the housekeeper. “I called you last night,” he mumbled. “Yes. By the time I got your message, it was too late to call you back. But...thank you for telling me I can return to work.” Except for the extra gray in her hair, she hadn’t changed a bit. She was still wearing her crisp blue and white uniform, as if she’d stepped out of the 1960s South—or as if his mother was around to make a fuss if she didn’t. “Just so you know...you don’t have to wear that anymore.” “Excuse me?” He almost repeated himself, then sighed. “Never mind.” Perhaps she gained as much comfort from custom and tradition as his mother had. In any case, now wasn’t the time to challenge such trivial things. His bleary eyes sought the fancy perpetual-motion clock on the nightstand. It was nearly eleven. He’d had all of five hours’ sleep. “You said Maisey was here?” “Yes, sir.” “Where?” “In the drawing room.” “Why didn’t she come up?” “To your bedroom?” He nearly laughed out loud. Pippa had been trained by his mother, all right. “No, of course not. That would be unseemly,” he said. “Tell her I’ll be down as soon as I get dressed.” “Yes, sir. And...Mr. Lazarow?” He paused before throwing off the covers. If Pippa was scandalized by the idea of his sister coming straight up to his bedroom, she’d probably faint if she saw him buck naked, the way he liked to sleep. “It’s good to have you back, sir. I’m sorry your return is under such dreadful circumstances.” She sounded sincere, so sincere that it took him off guard. “You liked her, didn’t you?” She seemed startled by the question. “Her?” “My mother. You liked her.” “She was a dynamic person,” she said as she left. Keith fell back on his pillows. Even Pippa had admired Josephine but couldn’t quite say she’d liked her. “Pippa?” he called in an effort to catch her before she could move out of hearing distance. Now that she’d done her duty by letting him know he had a visitor, his door inched open only as far as necessary. “Yes, sir?” “I’d like to talk to you after Maisey leaves. Will you be around?” “I’ll be here as long as you need me. With Maisey’s permission, I stayed home for the past few days. I was too upset to do much else. But I was grateful you offered to have me back today. I’ve been coming here for so long. And the place needs looking after.” “I understand. I’d rather you stayed on and continued to do your job. I’ll see to it that you get paid. I’ve told Tyrone the same.” “Yes, I saw Tyrone on my way in, sir. It was a comforting sight. I believe it’s a good decision to keep him. We couldn’t have the yard here at Coldiron House getting overgrown.” Obviously, she took great pride in where she worked. “No. That would be a real tragedy.” She hesitated, as if she could tell he was being facetious, even though his first tongue-in-cheek comment about the impropriety of Maisey’s coming to his room had sailed right past her. She seemed to be waiting for some further cue from him, so he said, “That will be all, thanks,” and she left without additional comment. He waited for the sound of her footsteps to fade before he got up. Then he burrowed through his suitcase for a pair of boxers, jeans and a T-shirt. When he retrieved his phone from the nightstand, he could see that he’d missed several calls from Maisey, as well as a few texts, because he’d turned it on Silent. Coming, he wrote and sent it to her, although he was confident Pippa had already conveyed that information, and went into the bathroom to brush his teeth and hair. By the time he hurried downstairs and entered the drawing room, Pippa had served Maisey tea and biscuits with honey and jam. He wasn’t groggy anymore, but traipsing around Coldiron House without his mother in residence felt odd. She’d always taken complete command of her home, even when his father was alive. She’d been such a dominant presence for so long, it was easy to forget Grandpa Coldiron had lived here first. At the sound of his approach, his sister swallowed the bite she’d just taken and looked up. “Morning.” “Same to you,” he said. “You sleep okay?” Her skeptical expression told him he didn’t look rested. “Not really. You?” “Sort of.” “Where’s my niece and my nephew? Are the kids with Rafe?” “They’re at his mother’s. He’s repairing the vestibule of that old church near the marina today.” “Will you bring the family over later?” “Of course.” She lowered her voice. “I’d rather Laney didn’t hear us talking about her grandmother the way we need to this morning. Laney might be one of the few people who’s never felt conflicted when it comes to Grandma Josephine. And, oddly enough, Mother loved her. Inexplicably. Diligently. Even kindly.” “That’s somewhat redeeming.” He helped himself to a biscuit without bothering to sit down or get a plate—something his mother would never have tolerated. “Have you heard anything new?” “I stopped the autopsy.” He’d received her text last night, which was why he hadn’t set an alarm to get up early this morning. “I saw that.” “And just a few minutes ago I got permission to call in our own pathologist. I also made an appointment with the new chief of police. I guessed you’d want to talk to her.” “Old Man Reuben finally retired?” Keith was fairly certain Maisey had mentioned it. She’d kept him abreast of the more noteworthy changes on the island. But he’d had no particular reason to remember that. He’d rarely had to deal with Chief Reuben himself. His mother had interceded whenever he got into trouble. She’d exacted her own retribution afterward, which was arguably worse than what he would’ve received had he been remanded to the police. But she would not allow scandal to befall the Coldiron name—another reason he couldn’t accept that she’d kill herself. What could be more scandalous than suicide? That had been her primary complaint when, in desperation, he’d felt it was his only escape. “Yeah. We have a woman now. The city council’s showing how progressive they can be.” “A woman, huh? How old is she?” “Can’t be more than forty-one. Attractive, too. Really attractive.” “Any good at her job?” “Seems to be. There was a big write-up in the paper when they hired her. The article made her sound like a solid candidate. She’s from Chicago.” “She have a family?” “No. Her husband was in the military. Died in Afghanistan before they could have kids. They’d grown up two blocks from each other. Gone to high school together. I suspect that was part of the reason she was willing to leave the big city behind. Too many memories.” “I can see wanting to leave, but what brought her here, of all places?” “A kinder, gentler existence. Lots of sun and sand. Less violence. And there was a job for her, I guess.” “What time do we meet with her?” She checked her phone. “Yikes! We’ve only got twenty minutes—barely enough time for you to shower.” “So that’s why you’ve been trying to get hold of me!” “Yes.” He broke off part of his biscuit, popped it in his mouth and slipped the rest onto her plate. “I’ll be down in fifteen.” He was halfway up the stairs when Pippa stopped him. “Mr. Lazarow?” The tone of her voice seemed uncertain, which made him curious. He turned to face her. “Yes?” She opened her mouth, then seemed to reconsider. “Never mind.” “What is it, Pippa?” he pressed. “I...I was wondering what you’d like for dinner, that’s all.” He could tell that wasn’t what she’d had on her mind, but Maisey had come out of the drawing room, and Pippa seemed hesitant to speak in front of her. “What’re my options?” “Salmon? Steak? Chicken? Pasta?” “I’ll have salmon.” “Will you be dining alone?” He looked over at Maisey. “Do you and Rafe and the kids want to join me?” “That’d be fun,” Maisey said. “Is salmon okay?” Keith asked. “Will Laney eat it?” “Sure. We all like salmon.” Pippa acknowledged this with a nod. “Then I’ll plan for five.” She began to scurry off, but Maisey stopped her. “Are you enjoying Mom’s Yorkie, Pippa? Or would you like to bring her to me?” “I’d be happy to keep her—unless you have other plans.” Maisey smiled. “No, Athena doesn’t do well with the cat we rescued. She’ll be much better off with you, but I’m happy to cover her expenses.” “No, that’s fine. If she’s going to be my dog, I’ll take care of her.” Pippa cast Keith one final glance, reminding him of that moment a few seconds earlier when he’d been positive she had something to say. He was tempted to go after her, to ask what she had on her mind. He had the impression it was important. But he was also fairly certain she didn’t want Maisey to hear. Question was...why? 6 (#u8ed10f00-acea-5fdf-aa03-d128a18c557a) THE NEW CHIEF of police at Keys Crossing was every bit as attractive as Maisey had said. About five foot six, 125 pounds, she didn’t look particularly strong, but she had a no-nonsense, direct approach, which Keith liked, and clear, intelligent blue eyes. Once he’d met her, he was glad the old chief had retired. Reuben had had a great deal of experience with minor infractions such as traffic violations, breaking and entering, petty theft and drunk and disorderlies during the summer, when the tourists arrived. But to Keith’s knowledge, he’d never investigated a homicide. Since Chief Underwood—she hadn’t offered her first name—hailed from Chicago, he was hoping she’d have more familiarity with violent crime. But once he met her, he didn’t feel that was going to be the benefit he’d anticipated. She was fully convinced his mother had committed suicide and nothing he said seemed to sway her. “There’s no reason to assume she’d take her own life,” he argued when she refused to change her mind. “I hear what you’re saying,” she responded. “I noticed the suitcases myself. But there was no sign of anyone else having been in the house and no indication that she was sexually assaulted, for instance. That’ll have to be confirmed when the autopsy is performed, of course—we’re not jumping to conclusions there—but so far all signs point away from it.” “There’s heart attack, stroke.” “Which will also have to be considered and addressed during the autopsy. But the coroner said she didn’t have a flushed face. Her carotid artery wasn’t swollen. There was no bluish tinge to her nose, eyes or fingertips—all typical signs of cardiac arrest. I’m afraid the preponderance of evidence, at this point, suggests suicide.” “Even with her impending trip?” “It’s possible she didn’t decide to...to do what she did until the last moment.” Keith gaped at Maisey, who was sitting next to him in Chief Underwood’s small office. “She wouldn’t suddenly decide to kill herself. That kind of decision takes serious thought.” He knew from experience. “She must’ve,” Chief Underwood insisted. “Why?” Keith cried. “She had everything. What was there to make her so intent on ending her life?” Keith hoped the police chief wasn’t about to point to their estrangement. The fear that his mother had committed suicide and he was the cause clawed deeper by the minute. She formed her slender fingers into a steeple. “You two must be going through hell. There’s no need to hash this out. Not right now. Go ahead and grieve, and make whatever plans you’d like to make so you can put her to rest. Then, when that’s all over, you can come back and we’ll talk, okay?” A tingle skittered down Keith’s spine. “No, that’s not okay,” he said. “Why can’t we talk now?” Her expression indicated that she was trying to be patient. “I only knew your mother for three years, after I came here. But even three years was enough time for me to figure out that she had a great deal of pride.” “That’s not news, Chief.” Other than Maisey, who would know Josephine better than him? She straightened her blotter. “What I’m trying to say is...there may have been certain circumstances in her life—distressing circumstances—she didn’t tell you about.” His mother hadn’t told him anything in five years. But neither had there been any sign of unhappiness in those letters he’d found. Nothing out of the ordinary, anyway. Wouldn’t something have shown up—some complaint? “Like...” Two lines formed on the chief’s forehead. “Thanks to an investment she made—a huge resort she and a group of partners were building in Jamaica at a total cost of over a billion dollars—she was losing everything, Mr. Lazarow. All her money. All her holdings. Everything.” “No.” Keith stiffened. “That’s not possible. My mother would not have risked that much.” “Perhaps the resort seemed like a good idea at the time, but a series of...unfortunate events put the project under water—literally.” “I’m telling you she was more conservative than that.” “I understand why you’d be skeptical.” “She controlled a vast fortune.” One his grandfather had built and would’ve hated to see destroyed... “I’m sure she expected everything to go well,” the police chief explained, “but, because of a tropical storm, the resort flooded, and the insurance refused to pay because of an exclusion in the fine print that had something to do with the footprint of the hotel portion. Then the other investors pulled out, cutting their losses and leaving your mother holding the bag.” At the news that their mother had been losing everything, Maisey had gripped his arm. Now she surged to her feet. “The situation can’t be as dire as you’re making it sound,” she said. “I’ve been working at Love’s in Bloom since I returned to the island. Business has never been better.” A sympathetic expression pulled at the corners of Underwood’s lips before she whirled around in her chair to get a file from the cabinet behind her. “That may be true, but the flower shop was only a small portion of her holdings. The income from that couldn’t even cover the expenses of running Coldiron House.” “Then why didn’t she cut back?” Maisey asked. “She didn’t have to be quite as extravagant as she was.” “Pride could be the answer to that, too,” Chief Underwood replied. “She probably feared people would start to guess that she was struggling, thought she could get back on top without giving herself away. And let’s face it. I doubt there was ever another time when she encountered this type of setback. She wasn’t used to failing.” Could the destruction of the Coldiron empire—the financial pressure—have gotten to her? Keith wondered. She’d admired Grandpa Coldiron even more than he had. In her mind, no one could live up to his example. Perhaps she felt as if she’d let him down, as if she’d had nowhere to turn and couldn’t handle the humiliation of losing her status on the island, where she’d always been revered as the richest, most powerful person. He had to admit it was possible, but chances were equally good that she had a plan. Josephine Coldiron-Lazarow would not go down without a fight—even if it meant marrying someone she didn’t love in order to obtain the money she needed. Keith could imagine her grooming her new beau, the Australian she’d met in first class, to help her retain her holdings and save face. “How do you know so much about her finances?” “The second I started digging, I found nothing other than bills and fines and levies and trouble with the IRS,” Underwood replied. “The resort is sucking all the money away. You’ll probably have to file for bankruptcy.” “No,” Keith began, but she talked over him. “You’ll soon find out for yourself, since you’re the executor of her estate.” Another surprise. Keith brought a hand to his chest. “I am? Is that a recent development?” She scanned a document inside the file. “Not according to the date I see, which is almost five years ago. That was when the will was modified to include Roxanne. You were to get the flower store and Coldiron House. Maisey was to get Smuggler’s Cove. Roxanne was to inherit a chunk of land near the lighthouse. The rest of the estate the three of you were to hold jointly. Your mother’s diamond ring was supposed to go to Laney on her eighteenth birthday, by the way.” She threw that aside to Maisey, who gasped a little when she heard it. “She left her ring to Laney? She loved my sweet child. That always came as such a shock to me.” Chief Underwood winced at the pleasure in Maisey’s voice. “Only it’ll probably have to be sold. That’s why I hesitated to go into this today. I didn’t see any reason to upset you even more.” “Why didn’t she disown me, like she swore she would?” Keith asked Maisey. “That part doesn’t surprise me,” Maisey murmured. “Even when you two were fighting, she loved you best.” Josephine had a funny way of showing it. Although Keith couldn’t say his mother had abused him by burning him with cigarettes, shutting him up in a cage or depriving him of food, she’d always been highly impatient, quick to anger and far too harsh. “I would’ve preferred to be Dad’s favorite, like you were,” he grumbled but directed his next remark to Chief Underwood. “Where did you find her will?” “In her desk. I’m sorry if it seems like an invasion of privacy.” She pushed the file closer so Maisey could see for herself. “But if she was murdered, it could’ve been a key piece of evidence. I grabbed it, just in case. Besides, once a testator has died, the will becomes public record. I’m not the only one who’ll be able to read it, or get a copy, for that matter. Anyone who goes to the trouble of visiting the courthouse to request the probate file can do the same—once probate has been started, of course.” “Who starts probate?” Maisey murmured as she read. “That’ll be Keith, as the executor.” Maisey glanced over at him before returning her gaze to Chief Underwood. “But...how will the businesses and the estate run in the meantime? The flower shop needs to remain open. Nancy and Marlene, not to mention Pippa and Tyrone, rely on their paychecks.” “Keith will have the power to act on your mother’s behalf until the court can make the appropriate distributions.” Underwood spoke in a smooth, businesslike tone. “But, as I indicated, there won’t be much to distribute—maybe a little personal property, which will go to the individuals named. Even then, I’m guessing your mother’s debtors will force you to sell her furniture and her jewelry, since it’s worth more than an average person’s would be.” “Those are keepsakes and family heirlooms!” Maisey said. “I’m sorry.” At least she seemed genuinely sympathetic. “It must come as a blow.” “It’s a shock, I’ll admit. But this won’t change my life. I’ll still have what I have now—I just won’t be getting any more. Losing everything would’ve been very difficult for our mother.” Maisey nudged him. “Mom must’ve been distraught. And yet I had no idea.” “None?” Keith asked. Maisey shook her head. “None.” Keith closed his eyes and rubbed his temples. He hadn’t planned on staying on Fairham for long. He’d hoped to get his mother’s affairs organized so he could return within a couple of weeks, put some distance between himself and the man he used to be, get back on his regular schedule. But there was so much to try to save here, and it would be far more difficult to manage from across the country. Almost as if she could read his thoughts, Maisey touched his sleeve. “Keith, this must be beyond upsetting to you. If you’d rather turn everything over to me, I...I’ll do what I can.” His sister was a children’s book author, and she was married and trying to focus on raising her kids, one of whom was blind and required extra care. She had Rafe’s support, of course, but Rafe wouldn’t be able to help with this. He had his hands full running his own business. “No. I’ve got it.” His grandfather would expect more of him than to dump Josephine’s death onto Maisey or Roxanne. “What about your company?” she asked. “It’ll be fine.” He’d have to stop acquiring for the time being—unless he decided to juggle that with everything else. But there was no need to do that. He could rely on his employees and focus on his own pursuits later. Maisey turned back to Chief Underwood. “That’s it? That’s the answer? She was going bankrupt, so she killed herself?” “Going bankrupt would be no small thing to someone like Josephine,” Chief Underwood pointed out. “You said that yourself.” “True,” Keith allowed. “But you don’t know our mother if you think she’d wimp out that easily.” Underwood tucked several strands of her honey-colored hair behind one ear. “From what I’ve seen, she’s been battling financial problems for at least three years, ever since I got here. That was when she first bought into the resort.” “Still,” Keith said. The police chief scooted her chair closer to the desk. “Look, Mr. Lazarow. I can see how hard this is for you.” She shifted those pretty eyes to Maisey. “For both of you. If she were my mother, I’d be just as convinced she’d never take her own life. But...we can’t overlook the facts.” “What facts?” Keith asked. “The autopsy hasn’t even been done yet.” “At this point, the coroner and I believe the autopsy is merely a formality.” “Which is what makes me uncomfortable,” Keith said. “That’s why we’re permitting you to select a qualified pathologist from a list of doctors we recognize as having the proper credentials and experience—to compensate for any prejudice you feel we might have. Didn’t Maisey tell you? We spoke about it this morning.” “Maisey told me, and I appreciate that you’re working with us.” He had enough money, and his name carried enough clout, that he could create a fuss if she didn’t. Whether that had been a factor or not, he hated to guess. She’d agreed; that was what mattered. “I’m happy to make the concession,” she said. “That’s good. Thank you. But we need more,” he responded. “We need an aggressive investigation.” Underwood’s chair creaked when she shifted in it, even though she didn’t weigh all that much. “O-kay.” She stretched out the word as if she was surprised he was still pushing. “Let’s look at other possibilities, shall we? Who would’ve wanted your mother dead?” Now she was playing along just to show them how ridiculous they were being. Keith resented the fact that she was patronizing him, but at least she was listening. “Our mother wouldn’t end it all without providing for Pippa and Tyrone,” Maisey said. “She had other help—people who assisted whenever she had a party or drove her if she preferred not to drive—but they were only on call and weren’t nearly as close to her. She wouldn’t have left Pippa and Tyrone high and dry, especially since they’re getting on in age.” “Even if she’d lived, she wouldn’t have been able to continue paying them,” Underwood said. “You can’t say that for sure,” Maisey argued. “She was dating a wealthy man from Australia. Maybe they would’ve married, and that would’ve solved everything.” “You’re talking about Hugh Pointer.” It wasn’t a question, more of a confirmation. “Yes.” “I thought so.” Underwood clasped her hands in front of her. “He’s already married, Maisey.” This news hit Keith like a solid right hook. “What?” “You heard correctly. I called to get a statement from him before he could hear the news from someone else.” “So...what was he doing with our mother?” Keith asked. She moved some papers onto a pile to her left. “This wouldn’t be the first time someone’s cheated.” “I’d be willing to bet it was the first time someone cheated on our mother,” Maisey said. “Did she know he was married?” Keith answered before Chief Underwood could. “No way. Mom would never tolerate second place.” “I tend to agree,” Underwood said. “She didn’t strike me as someone who’d accept anything less than total devotion. Although I couldn’t say we were friends, I met her on several occasions—at the playhouse one night, at the opening of the new art gallery a block over, at the event we held to raise money to equip our volunteer firefighters. She was...formidable, to say the least. So I’m guessing she didn’t know but found out, and that may have precipitated her death. Could be she suspected something was up, hired a private detective to follow Hugh around and...” Underwood didn’t finish, but she didn’t need to. If Josephine had suspected, she could’ve done exactly that. Their mother wouldn’t hesitate to protect her interests. From time to time, Keith had even suspected she had people watching him. No longer sure what to say, he sank back into his seat. “What a bastard.” “Well, if she was hoping to marry him for his money...” Underwood raised her hands as if she didn’t care to spell out that thought, either, and she had a point. Keith had expected the fact that Josephine had packed her bags and had a fabulous vacation lined up to serve as proof that she’d planned to stick around long enough to enjoy it. But if she’d been battling to save her fortune, her land and her house, and she’d just learned that her only hope of solving these problems wasn’t going to pan out... God, she could’ve called him, Keith thought. He was shocked at how good he was at making money, once he really started to apply himself. But, as Chief Underwood had mentioned, Josephine had too much pride... “Wait,” he said. “If she was planning to go visit him at his home...what about his wife? How would he keep them from meeting up?” “Lana Pointer was touring Europe with their daughter, who’s eighteen. They have two sons, who’re closer to your age, married and on their own, and then this girl, who came as a late surprise when his wife was in her forties.” Les Scott, a uniformed police officer and someone Keith had gone to school with before ninth grade—at which point Josephine had shipped him off to boarding school—stuck his head in the room. “Sorry to interrupt. I’m going to lunch and wondered if you’d like me to bring you a sandwich,” he said to his chief. “That’d be great. I’ll have the meatball sub, extra sauce,” she told him and the door closed. “So...does that answer your questions?” she asked when they were alone again. No. In Keith’s opinion, what she’d told them only created more questions, and he could tell Maisey felt as bewildered as he did. “Our mother would never commit suicide,” he replied. “Despite everything you’ve said.” “It’s a long time since you were home.” Underwood spoke as if he wouldn’t really know. She seemed to think she had it all figured out. But nothing about Josephine was simple. It never had been. “Her phone’s missing,” he said. “So’s her computer. I take it you have them?” “Yes. I’ve got her phone right here.” She delved into a drawer and held up his mother’s Samsung Galaxy. “Her computer’s with an evidence technician in Charleston.” “Because...” “I’m doing my homework.” “When can I get them back?” “When I’m done. I’m still tying up loose ends. If I can prove she had a private detective looking for information on her boyfriend, for instance, we’ll be able to fit in that piece of the puzzle.” The nervous energy passing through Keith made him bounce his knee. Thanks to his exercise regimen, he couldn’t remember being this tense in quite some time. “You’re trying to prove suicide.” “If I prove suicide, I’ll disprove murder.” “You’ll never prove suicide because she didn’t kill herself.” He indicated the folder. “Any chance I can get a copy of what you’ve got in there?” Underwood returned the file to its drawer. “Not right now. Maybe later.” “Why wait?” he asked. “I only want the truth.” She met his gaze. “Keith, I’m doing all you can reasonably expect of me. I don’t need you getting in the way or making my life difficult.” Apparently, his reputation had preceded him. He lifted his hands. “All I asked for is a copy of the file, Chief. That can’t be too hard to provide.” With a long-suffering shake of her head, she got out the file again—but set it beyond his reach. “Fine,” she conceded. “I’ll have Les scan the contents and email them to you. Fair enough?” Keith wrote his email address on a notepad he found on the desk and handed it to her. “This is where it should go.” “He’ll jump right on it.” Keith caught a hint of sarcasm in her response—as if he was being too high-handed—but he ignored it. He wouldn’t let anyone stand in the way of the answers he sought. Including her. “I’d also be grateful if you’d call over to the morgue and make arrangements for us to see her today.” Underwood’s mouth tightened, suggesting this put her off even more. “The morgue isn’t designed for public viewings. You’ll be able to see her after they release her body. Once she’s at a funeral home, you can go ahead and have a viewing or bury her or whatever you’d like.” “That’ll be after the autopsy, which will take another day or two. Maybe more. Chances are she’ll no longer resemble the woman I remember, and you know it.” “That’s not necessarily true. People have open caskets after autopsies all the time—” “I haven’t seen her in five years, Chief Underwood. Could you show me a little compassion and make it possible to spend ten minutes with my dead mother today?” “I’d like to see her, too,” Maisey piped up. “I don’t think any of this will feel real until I do.” Chief Underwood closed her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose, as if she was digging deep for patience. Keith could tell she thought she was already bending over backward by agreeing to give him a copy of the file. Ultimately, however, she gave in. “I can’t believe I’m doing this,” she said with a sigh. “I shouldn’t. Just keep in mind that they’re busy over there and probably won’t welcome you. This will force someone to take time out of his or her schedule, so I’d appreciate it if you’d be as brief as possible.” “You have my word,” Keith said and waited while she made the call. “You can head there now if you like,” Underwood told him when she hung up and wrote down the address. “The supervising technician, a man by the name of Dean Gillespie, will meet you when you arrive and take you back.” “Thank you.” Keith shook her hand before leading Maisey out into the cool, damp weather of another rainy day. “The morgue?” Maisey said as they climbed into his rental car. The keys of his mother’s Mercedes were where she’d always kept them, but he hadn’t been able to bring himself to drive her car quite yet. “We’re going to the morgue?” “Would you rather not?” he asked. She seemed a little shell-shocked. “I’d like to see Mom, as I said. I’m just not sure what else you’re hoping to accomplish.” “I want to see the condition of her body.” “You’re afraid there might be injuries they’re not telling us about?” “I’d rather not take someone else’s word for it. Doesn’t hurt to stay involved, right?” He started the car but didn’t shift into Drive. “So...are you in? Or should I drop you off at home?” Although she frowned, she didn’t take long to decide. “I’m in. But then what?” “Then we choose a pathologist we feel we can trust from the list they gave you. Whoever it is will probably need to have her transferred to the hospital where he or she works.” “And after that?” “I’d like to talk to Hugh.” She buckled her seat belt. “Why? So you can ask him if Mom knew he was married? You’ll have no way of knowing whether he’s telling the truth.” “I can ask him that and other things. Compare what he tells me with what he told the police. Look for inconsistencies. I can also research his background, find out what’s going on in his life and what he might’ve been after by dating Mom in the first place. That might be more useful.” Maisey rolled her eyes. “Why? Isn’t it obvious? Men adored Mom. I’ve never seen a woman attract so much attention—except maybe Marilyn Monroe.” That the starlet had also died naked with an empty bottle of pills nearby made the comparison a bit chilling. Was that where their mother’s killer had gotten the idea? “So why wasn’t he willing to leave his wife for her?” “Maybe he loves his wife. Or he wasn’t willing to break up his family. Chief Underwood mentioned two sons and a youngish daughter.” “His wife has to be easier to live with than Mom would’ve been.” “He wouldn’t have realized that yet. No one can resist Mom when she’s pouring on the charm.” “Still, I can’t buy that she’d ever take her own life.” “Even after what we just heard?” “Did it change your mind?” he asked. She looked dejected as she stared at the wet, shiny pavement ahead of them. “Honestly?” “Of course.” “No,” she said. “There you go.” He’d finally shifted and pulled away from the curb when he saw a woman carrying a fluffy Chow Chow—a dog too big for that sort of thing—down the sidewalk ahead of them. “That’s Nancy, isn’t it? And her dog, Simba?” Maisey took so long to answer he thought she was going to ignore the question. “Isn’t it?” he prompted, throwing her a sharp glance. She squinted through the windshield as if she wasn’t quite sure. “Maybe,” she said. He knew it was Nancy. He’d recognize her anywhere. Pulling alongside her, he lowered the passenger window. “Hey, climb in,” he called out. “We’ll give you a ride.” She started at the sound of his voice. She’d obviously been so intent on not dropping her heavy bundle that she hadn’t been paying attention to what was going on around her. She was probably also a little surprised to see him. The only interaction they’d had in the five years he’d been gone was a handful of calls, all instigated by him and all of which she’d ignored, and the car he’d tried to give her a few years ago, which she’d forced the driver to return. “That’s okay,” she said. “It’s not much farther.” If she was still in the same house, and he guessed she was, she lived just down the street in a small cottage she’d inherited from her late aunt. She was right—it wasn’t far. But she was already struggling to hang on to her dog. “Simba’s got to be getting heavy,” he said. “And he doesn’t look comfortable. Let us give you a ride,” he said again. “We’re wet,” she responded. “Avis will clean the car when I return it,” he told her. “Come on!” Maisey chimed in and, rather than say no to both of them, Nancy slowed to a stop. 7 (#u8ed10f00-acea-5fdf-aa03-d128a18c557a) NANCY COULDN’T BELIEVE IT. Maisey had stopped by just this morning to warn her that she might run into Keith and here he was—at the worst possible moment. Her hair was plastered to her head. She wasn’t wearing any makeup. She had on a jogging outfit that probably showed every extra pound. And she was breathing heavily from exertion. She told herself not to even think like that. She didn’t care if he admired her. She’d been crazy to believe he could ever give her what she needed. Maybe she wasn’t a svelte 120 pounds, like his mother, but she was done hanging on to his every word and feeling grateful for any scrap of attention. She was done starving herself in order to be something she wasn’t. She’d find the right companion eventually—or she’d continue to build a fulfilling life alone. “What happened?” Maisey asked as Nancy situated her dog beside her. “Why were you carrying Simba?” She held Simba back so he couldn’t stick his muzzle between the front seats. “He stepped on a piece of glass while we were on our walk, so I took him to the vet.” And here she’d thought she’d been fortunate that the incident had occurred only two doors down from the animal clinic. If she’d taken him home and looked after him herself, she wouldn’t have been on the side of the road at that particular moment, and then she might’ve been able to put off encountering Keith until the funeral. She told herself she didn’t care what he thought of her looking so bad, but being around him wasn’t exactly comfortable... “Poor baby. Will he be okay?” This came from Maisey again. Keith hadn’t said anything since she’d climbed in, but she could see his stunning blue-green eyes in the rearview mirror as he eased into traffic. She still dreamed about those eyes... Only because she hadn’t found the guy she was going to fall in love with, she quickly told herself. She was working on that; it was just a matter of time. At least ten new prospects from her online dating site had left her a message over the weekend. And more were coming in every day... “Should be. He cut his front paw, but the vet cleaned and dressed the wound.” Maisey held her seat belt away from her body so she could turn around and pet him. “You were trying not to set him down until you got home?” “I didn’t see any reason to let his bandage get dirty.” “He’s too big to carry,” Maisey said with a chuckle. Nancy refused to let her gaze shift back to that rearview mirror and what it revealed of Keith. She could smell his cologne, which was bad enough. “I do it all the time—pick him up and carry him over to the couch so he’ll sit with me, or to the tub out back for his bath. He’d never voluntarily get in the tub. But I’ve never tried to haul him several blocks. The distance makes a difference.” “I’ll bet,” she agreed. “I’m glad we saw you.” “So am I,” Nancy lied and turned her face toward the window so Keith wouldn’t be able to get a good look at her even if he tried. “How’s business at the flower shop?” he asked. She cleared her throat. “Better than ever.” “Who’s working today?” “Marlene Fillmore, a new girl. You wouldn’t know her. She moved to the island about a year ago. From Charleston.” “Did you train her?” “Didn’t need to—not really. She worked out of her house doing flowers for weddings, so she’s had plenty of experience.” “That’s good.” Why would he care? He’d left all of this behind... “I’m sorry about your mother,” she said to finally get that out of the way. “I...” She wasn’t sure what else to add. She knew how he’d felt about Josephine. She also knew that some of his problems revolved around the fact that he couldn’t completely hate her, couldn’t completely turn away from the woman who’d raised him. Or had he come to terms with cutting her off? Maybe that was why he was doing so well. “I was shocked and saddened,” she finished. “Thank you.” His response was polite, nothing that offered any clue as to how deeply he was hurting. But they’d arrived at her house. There was no need to make more conversation. As soon as he came to a full stop, she reached for her dog, but he spoke before she could take Simba in her arms. “Did my mom ever say anything to you that sounded like she might be contemplating suicide?” “No. I got no indication whatsoever.” “Would you say she was acting the same?” Mrs. Lazarow had been as irritable and caustic as ever. But Nancy couldn’t say that. Keith and Maisey had to be mourning, no matter how they’d felt about their mother. “I got the impression she was in good spirits. So I’m as stunned as everyone else.” Simba’s collar jingled as she lifted him into her lap. “Nancy?” Keith again. She waited while he turned to look directly at her. So much for avoiding his gaze... “Have you ever met Hugh Pointer?” She raised her eyebrows. “Who?” “Hugh Pointer. My mother was dating him. Did she ever bring him into the flower shop? Mention him to you?” “She told me she was going to Australia to see someone she was dating. Maybe that was Hugh. She asked me to complete the work schedule at the shop for the next few weeks so she could leave feeling confident that I’d be able to get by without her—having someone to take over on my days off and so on. That’s it.” She got the feeling that he would’ve liked to ask her more, but she didn’t give him the chance. She climbed out as gracefully as she could while cradling a sixty-five-pound dog. “Thanks for the ride,” she called and managed to close the door with her hip. Unfortunately, he got out, too—and hurried around the car. “Here, I’ll take Simba,” he said. “You go unlock the door.” She wished Simba would growl or refuse to be touched, but he was the friendliest Chow on the planet. Even if he hadn’t remembered Keith, he wouldn’t have balked. He lowered his ears and wagged his tail in greeting while Keith took him from her. Traitor. Cursing herself for ever going out of the house this morning, Nancy hurried up the walkway ahead of them—and nearly dropped her keys, she was in such a hurry to open the door. Several seconds later, she managed to get the key in the lock. “Go ahead and set him inside,” she said as she swung the door wide. As soon as Keith put Simba down, Simba limped off to curl up in his bed by the couch. “Thanks again.” She thought that was it, that she’d soon be able to breathe a sigh of relief and congratulate herself on not melting at the sight of her former lover. However, Keith put a hand on the door. “I can tell you’re not interested in hearing this, but...I’m sorry,” he said. “I never meant to hurt you. I was...I was a wrecking ball back then. I destroyed everything and everyone I came into contact with.” He’d been trying to destroy himself more than anything, to escape the pain he was in. She understood. But it didn’t make things any easier that she’d wanted so much more from him than he’d ever wanted from her. She pushed the wet hair out of her face. “You have nothing to worry about,” she said. “That was years ago. I don’t think about it anymore.” “Really? Because I still owe you money.” He withdrew his wallet, but she stopped him before he could open it. Maisey had already reimbursed her for what Keith had borrowed. Keith’s sister had made her take the money and asked her not to tell Keith she’d stepped in. They both knew he wouldn’t appreciate her getting involved in his business, especially since her actions revealed doubt that he’d ever take care of the debt himself. The old Keith wouldn’t have. He wouldn’t have been able to... “Don’t worry about that, either,” she said. “I helped out a friend. No big deal.” He blinked at her. “You won’t let me pay you back?” Shit... Considering the situation, and the fact that he now had way more money than she did, pretending wasn’t believable, wasn’t even reasonable. The amount was too great. “To be honest, your sister paid me a long time ago, Keith. So, please, give the money to her.” There went her promise but, short of accepting the money, which she didn’t want to do, she felt she had no other choice. “Oh.” He frowned as he put away his wallet. Eager for a shower so she could begin her day, Nancy nearly shut the door and let it go at that. She planned to forget she’d ever encountered him. But she did feel some sympathy for the loss he’d suffered. “I’m sincerely sorry about your mother. If there’s anything I can do to help out with the funeral, please let me know. I’m already doing the flowers—for free, of course.” He studied her through the crack she’d left between the door and its frame. “You should get paid for that.” “No. I’m happy to contribute. She was my employer for seven years. I learned a lot from her. I’m a much better designer thanks to...” her intense criticism “...her high standards.” “Okay.” “Enjoy your stay on the island.” No doubt she’d see him at the funeral, but she didn’t plan on speaking to him again. They’d both said all that needed to be said. After she closed the door, she leaned against it and forced herself to stay put instead of hurrying over to the window so she could watch him return to his car. For five years she’d been telling herself she never wanted to see him again—and yet she craved a better look, a chance to study him without his looking back at her. He’d changed as much as Maisey had said, she decided, picturing him in her mind instead. He’d filled out that tall, spare frame, packed a lot more muscle onto it, but he was still lean and wiry. He didn’t have a weight problem like she did. His face, once so exaggerated, so angular, had softened, as well. He no longer appeared gaunt, which suggested he was eating—something he didn’t do enough of when he was on drugs. His eyes were clearer and brighter, too, his whole bearing more confidence. That he was doing so well made her breathe easier. But that in itself concerned her. If she didn’t care about him anymore, why would she feel such relief? “Damn you,” she muttered, but she wasn’t sure if she was talking to herself, for still being so susceptible to the attraction she’d always felt, or him, for not feeling any attraction at all. * * * “Nancy’s lost weight,” Keith said over a Beatles song that was playing on the radio. The way Maisey fidgeted with her seat belt gave Keith the impression she didn’t want to discuss Nancy. “A few pounds,” she finally said. “She looks great.” His sister folded her arms as he came to a stop at the light. “She’ll never be model-thin.” Her comment struck him as odd. Her weight had never bothered him before; why would it bother him now? “Who says she has to be?” “No one. I’m just making an observation.” “And that is...” “She’s never been your type.” “I have a type?” “Yes. Skinny, blond and beautiful. More like the police chief. She’s pretty, don’t you think?” She was pretty, but that was beside the point. “Not everyone I date is blond—or skinny,” he said. “I was with Nancy before, wasn’t I? And she was heavier than she is now.” “You can’t use Nancy as an example.” The light turned green. He made a left, onto the main drag. “Why not?” “She was a divergence. Even she was surprised when you took an interest in her.” “That’s ridiculous.” “No, it’s not. You’re used to getting whoever you want. And when you can have anyone, you typically don’t choose someone who’s a few pounds overweight.” “She’s not that heavy!” She thought she was, and had always been self-conscious about it. The first night they’d made love, he’d had a hell of a time getting her to trust him enough to take off her clothes. But it had been worth the battle. She’d given him intimacy and warmth, someone to cling to when he had needed it most. And once she grew comfortable, there’d been plenty of physical attraction and enjoyment. He’d liked the softness of her curves and the fact that she was exactly as nature had made her. Although he wouldn’t be vulgar enough to say it, especially to his sister, she had the most beautiful breasts he’d ever seen. Her legs weren’t bad, either. She just carried a little extra weight around the waist. “Name one other woman you’ve dated who’s been overweight,” Maisey said. “Maybe I wasn’t initially attracted to Nancy, but the more I got to know her, the prettier she became.” She just couldn’t compete with the cocaine that’d kept him going back then. No one could. “She’s not capable of dealing with someone like you. That’s all.” “You remember what I was like back then, Mais. I wasn’t capable of having a relationship with anyone. Even you. But I’m clean now. Things are different.” “She’s still outgunned, doesn’t have nearly as much experience with men as those women you’ve been dating in LA. You need someone more...sophisticated.” He turned down the radio. “You mean someone who can’t get hurt because she doesn’t know how to care in the first place? Someone more like Mom?” “Of course not! But what you had with Nancy wasn’t a real relationship, either, so don’t try to pretend it was.” Keith told himself to relax so this wouldn’t explode into an argument. He understood why she might be protective of Nancy, but he didn’t need Maisey piling on. He already felt like shit because of what he’d done. “How was it not a real relationship? I liked her. A lot.” He’d never been around anyone less like his mother. She’d been exactly what he needed at the time. He still wasn’t sure what he would’ve done without her friendship and support. But she’d definitely given him the cold shoulder a few minutes ago. She hadn’t been happy to see him; he could tell. “You’ve liked plenty of women,” Maisey said as if that was meaningless. He shot her a scowl. “I’m not going to hurt Nancy. For your information, I just apologized to her.” His sister’s attitude seemed to improve. “That was nice of you.” “You don’t think I have a conscience?” “I think you can be devastating, even when you don’t mean to be.” He’d never live down his reputation. He’d earned it too honestly. But, in his own defense, he hadn’t been ready to settle down—with anyone—and he hadn’t presented himself in any other way. Regardless, there wasn’t much point in continuing the conversation. They were driving to the morgue in Charleston to view the body of their dead mother. He didn’t need to make this day any worse. “That was five years ago,” he said calmly. “I’m not the same person.” “You have the same gorgeous face. The same disarming smile. The same appeal to women,” she said. “I’d rather you didn’t rekindle your relationship with Nancy while you’re here. It’s not like you need her—or would ever take her seriously even if you did start seeing her again. There are too many other women out there who’d suit you better.” He raked his fingers through his hair. The last thing he wanted to do was hurt Nancy again. But it upset him to hear what Maisey had to say. He was used to having his younger sister on his side. They’d always banded together. They’d had to—to survive their childhood. “She’s an adult. I’m sure she can take care of herself and doesn’t need you to run interference for her. Anyway, stop worrying. I won’t be here long enough to start seeing anyone.” She sighed. “It’s not like I want you to leave. I’m just asking you to stay away from Nancy. As a personal favor to me.” Her earnest expression irritated him even more. “You’ve gotten that close to her?” “Yes! She’s someone I trust and confide in, someone I enjoy working with.” He turned toward the ferry, which would take them to the mainland. “Is that why you paid her the money I owed her?” The way Maisey fiddled with her purse told him she was suddenly uncomfortable. “I’m sorry if you’re mad that I got involved. But she’s never had much money. I made sure that what she lent you came back to her sooner rather than later, that’s all.” “I tried to pay her myself,” he said. “Less than a year after I left.” “I’m glad to hear that.” “She didn’t mention it?” “No.” “So you thought I never tried.” “I wasn’t worried. I’d already taken care of it.” “I gave her a car, too—something to make up for how I treated her. But she wouldn’t take it.” “You can’t be surprised she’d say no. That was an expensive present.” “Wow. You are defensive of Nancy.” Maisey reached out to squeeze his forearm. “Not really. I love you, too. It was very generous of you.” He pulled into the line of cars waiting to cross over. “She didn’t mention that, either? The car?” “We don’t talk about you. I mean, I do sometimes. But if I bring you up, she just listens. She never says anything herself.” He adjusted his windshield wipers to handle a fresh deluge. “She hates me that much?” “I wouldn’t call it hate. She’s...moved on.” The ferry captain approached the car in front of them. “Who’s she dating now?” “Some guy from Charleston.” “Is it serious?” When she didn’t answer, he looked over and found her glaring at him. “Does it matter?” “No, it doesn’t,” he muttered and lowered his window to pay the fare. * * * Their mother was on a gurney in the back end, where the corpses were weighed and tagged. A sheet covered her from the neck down, but her arms had been taken out from under it and folded beneath her breasts—probably Dean Gillespie’s attempt to make her appear “at peace,” for their sake. But there was nothing peaceful or consoling about any of this; Josephine’s death felt wrong in so many ways, beginning with the fact that she’d never looked worse. Her hair fell away from her face exactly as it had dried when they’d pulled her from the tub, and dark circles underscored her closed eyes—the eyes that so many people had admired. As if that weren’t disconcerting enough, her skin was so waxy Keith barely recognized her. He was tempted to check the name on the tag attached to her big toe, just to be sure. His mother didn’t have age spots or wrinkles. His mother didn’t have dull, lackluster hair. But this person did. Her body wasn’t the same, either. Although Keith had heard his mother described as a bombshell on more than one occasion, she looked frail and insignificant under that sheet, as if she’d never been a singular beauty. This was what it took to finally get the better of Josephine Lazarow, Keith decided. Age alone wasn’t enough. Age conquered everyone else, but not her. Only death could win. “She would hate that we’re seeing her like this,” Maisey whispered. Keith wished he hadn’t come. She might have been his greatest stumbling block, his greatest challenge, but she’d also been a constant he could rely on—someone who stood firm in her convictions, commanded respect, lived by her own rules and made damn sure everyone around her did, too. He’d known that if he ever really needed her she might give him hell, but she’d come through in the end. “We’ll hire a good makeup artist for the funeral,” he said, but only to comfort his sister. Makeup wouldn’t help now. His mother had lost that vital essence that’d made her so magnificent. Maisey didn’t respond. “Her death feels so...premature,” he added. When Maisey put her hand over his in a show of understanding, he wished he could shrug her off. He didn’t want sympathy. He wanted answers. Who had felled their powerful mother? She must not have seen whoever it was. The person who’d killed her had to be someone she would never, in a million years, have expected to do her wrong. “The various funeral homes usually engage someone who specializes in hair and makeup,” Dean told them. “All you have to do is bring in a picture, and they’ll do their best to make your mother look like you remember.” “I’ll ask her regular hairdresser to do her hair,” Maisey told him. “And I’ll try to manage her makeup myself.” “If that’s what you prefer,” Dean said. “Just keep in mind that those services are available if you need them.” Keith couldn’t imagine being asked to do something like that, but maybe all stylists knew that preparing a client’s hair for his or her funeral was a possibility. The last dead person he’d encountered had been his father, and even though they’d never been particularly close, that loss had hit him hard, since Malcolm was the only calm parent of the two... Trying to shrug off the feelings any memory of his father—or his past, really—evoked, he studied his mother’s throat. He thought he could discern a faint tinge of blue, where a strong pair of hands might’ve cut off her airflow, but he wasn’t sure if he was just imagining things. Her whole body looked blue... “Have you seen enough?” Maisey asked. Keith didn’t answer. “She has no marks on her anywhere?” he asked Dean. “Marks?” “Injuries?” Dean shook his head. “None that I’ve seen, but I haven’t examined her. They’ll do that during the autopsy. Record every bruise or blemish.” But things could change from day to day, couldn’t they? Even if she was dead? Keith had learned that the signs of strangulation typically didn’t show up during the first twenty-four hours, so it was reasonable to assume that they also might disappear after a certain length of time. “Would you mind removing the sheet and taking a look now?” he asked. He didn’t feel he could do that. It would be the ultimate invasion of his mother’s privacy at a time when she couldn’t defend it. But he felt someone should check her corpse before the autopsy was performed. Having more than one person provide an opinion could prove useful later on—although he had no idea how or why. He was just trying to document everything he could before it was too late, trying to use simple logic. “Um, sure,” Dean said. “But...can I ask why?” “I’d like to know what you see.” The coroner’s technician had been quite solicitous. At this, he hesitated, as if it was pretty far outside his expectations. But then he acquiesced. “Of course. If it’ll help.” “You look, too,” Keith told Maisey and turned away while Dean peeled back the covering. “Anything?” Keith asked when they indicated that it was safe to turn back. “She’s had breast augmentation surgery,” Maisey said drily. “After pretending her figure was God-given, ever since I can remember, that should surprise me, but it doesn’t.” That didn’t surprise Keith, either. But he wasn’t investigating her vanity. “Anything else? Anything suspicious?” “Nothing,” Dean said. Steeling himself for whatever he might find, he lifted his mother’s eyelids. “Do her eyes seem bloodshot to you?” he asked Dean. Dean was startled by the question. “Um...I guess. Yeah, they’re bloodshot. But...I wouldn’t say that necessarily means anything.” “According to what I’ve read, bloodshot eyes can indicate strangulation,” Keith said. Dean smoothed the sheet over their mother. “A pathologist would be the one to answer that question. I’d suggest not jumping to any conclusions.” “Because...” “Because those conclusions could have far-reaching implications,” he said. “And they may not be correct.” “Our mother didn’t kill herself.” Turning to Maisey, he said, “We need to make sure they test the level of carbon dioxide in her blood, too.” Maisey stared at him. “What will that tell us?” “It’s another sign of suffocation.” His sister blanched. “And you know this how?” “Everything’s on the internet.” She looked torn. “Keith, I don’t want to be rude, but...a little internet research doesn’t make your opinion any more relevant than the coroner’s.” “It might be relevant to whatever pathologist we choose,” he said. “And that’s who’ll be doing the autopsy.” She reached out to touch their mother’s hand—then quickly withdrew. “It’s funny. This is the first time I’ve ever felt as if I’m in control while being in the same room with her.” Keith understood what his sister meant. But before he could acknowledge her comment, she said, “Are you sure we aren’t in denial, unwilling to see our capable mother succumb to human emotions like depression? Desperation? Maybe she wasn’t impervious to all the things that get to the rest of us. You have to admit that financial stuff we learned from Chief Underwood would have to make an impact on her.” Keith tried to entertain that thought but felt more resolve instead of less. “The mother I knew wouldn’t give up.” “When you say stuff like that, I agree,” Maisey said. “But I keep coming back to one thing. Who could’ve killed her? Who would’ve wanted to?” “That’s what we have to find out.” “Whoa! You think she was murdered?” Dean broke in. “You don’t?” Keith replied. “No. I understand that what you’re going through is painful, but the coroner knows what he’s doing. You can trust whatever he tells you.” The coroner was an elected official. He had a background in law enforcement; he wasn’t even a doctor. “Are you one hundred percent sure of that?” Keith asked. Dean backed away from the challenge. “He’s the coroner,” he mumbled. Keith could barely refrain from rolling his eyes. “Maybe so, but he’s as human as you or I.” They thanked Gillespie. Then they went out and sat in the car while they pored over the list of pathologists Chief Underwood had given them. Keith used the internet on his phone to see what he could find out about each one—but they all seemed reputable. So they started going down the list to see who could do it relatively soon. After three calls and a bit of negotiating—which included the offer of a bonus to get a Dr. Pendergast to rearrange his schedule—they had it booked for early Sunday morning. Maisey contacted the funeral home to arrange for transportation, since the coroner didn’t provide that, while Keith started to drive them back to Fairham. After Maisey was done, they called Rocki on his Bluetooth so they could update her. “It’s all set,” Maisey told her. “The funeral home will pick up Mom’s body from the coroner and take it to the hospital here in Charleston first thing Sunday morning.” “That’s soon,” Rocki said. “You must be happy about that, Keith.” “I am,” he said. “How much are they going to charge us?” she asked. “Don’t worry about the cost,” Keith replied. “I got it.” “Are you sure?” Rocki asked. “Doesn’t seem fair.” “We should all split it,” Maisey suggested, but he shook his head. “No, this will be on me.” Maisey loosened her seat belt as if she was having trouble getting comfortable. “There’s just one thing.” “What?” He was finally feeling encouraged that they were making progress. So why did she sound so concerned and reluctant? “You’re a very passionate person,” she responded. “Once you grab hold of something, you don’t let go.” She was right about that. Even when he’d been trying to destroy himself, he’d done a damn fine job of it. “So?” He stopped at a traffic light before taking the turn that would bring them to the ferry and then the island. “Rocki, do you know where she’s going with this?” “I’m pretty sure I can guess,” she said. “As your sisters, we agree with what you’re doing,” Maisey explained. “But we’re also a little worried that Mom’s death will consume you, take over your life.” Even though Rocki couldn’t see him, he waved their concerns away. “I’m going to catch the bastard who killed her, no matter what.” “We don’t even know she was killed,” Rocki told him. “I do,” he said. 8 (#u8ed10f00-acea-5fdf-aa03-d128a18c557a) NANCY SIGHED AS she clicked through the messages she’d received from potential “matches” via the online dating site where she’d put up her profile a couple of months ago. This was where she’d met Tom. Although their relationship hadn’t completely ended, it wasn’t very promising. There had to be someone else out there for her. But she felt no enthusiasm for flirting, didn’t even care to return the messages. The uncertainty in her life was getting to her, she decided. She refused to believe her disinterest had anything to do with Keith’s presence on the island. She knew better than to let the sight of him change anything. She’d lost her employer and could be losing her job. That was why she’d lost her zest for dating. Too bad she hadn’t also lost her zest for eating. Tempted to drown her anxiety and frustration in a fudge brownie sundae, she glanced at the kitchen. She didn’t have any brownies. She’d have to bake. On the plus side, no one could bake more delicious brownies than she could... She’d just gotten up from her desk when her phone rang. Her sister was calling; she could see Jade’s name and photograph on the screen. Eager for the distraction, she snatched up her cell. “Hey, what’s going on?” “I just saw him!” Jade exclaimed. Nancy was on her way to the pantry so she could take stock of her supplies. Although she’d already gotten groceries, she hadn’t purchased any powdered cocoa, so she’d have to run over to Smitty’s, the island’s only grocery store, again. But at this, she forgot about the brownies. “Saw who?” She thought she had a good idea but hoped she was wrong... “Keith Lazarow! He and his sister were on the same ferry I was. They were parked right next to me!” Конец ознакомительного фрагмента. Текст предоставлен ООО «ЛитРес». Прочитайте эту книгу целиком, купив полную легальную версию (https://www.litres.ru/brenda-novak-2/the-secrets-she-kept/?lfrom=334617187) на ЛитРес. Безопасно оплатить книгу можно банковской картой Visa, MasterCard, Maestro, со счета мобильного телефона, с платежного терминала, в салоне МТС или Связной, через PayPal, WebMoney, Яндекс.Деньги, QIWI Кошелек, бонусными картами или другим удобным Вам способом.
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