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“She’s not wanton,” Sophie protested. “Just…young. As for Patrick Laflamme, he seems like a levelheaded young man, and Marge Averill assured me he wouldn’t be interested in Marty.”
“He’s a man,” Doc pronounced. “The worst kind—halfway between being a kid and being grown up. He may mean well, but his hormones will make him crazy, and practically unable to resist any kind of temptation. I know his family, and he’s a good, smart boy, but your little sister could tempt a saint.” His genial tone took the sting out of the words.
“I’ll keep an eye on them. As a matter of fact, I’d better look for her right now. Make sure she hasn’t dragged young Patrick into the toolshed,” she said cheerfully.
“Oh, she wouldn’t do that, Sophie,” Grace said with all seriousness. “There are too many spiders in there. Ghosts, as well.”
Doc’s teacup dropped to the porch floor, smashing. “I’m so sorry!” he said, leaping up. “I’ve broken your pretty dish.”
“Don’t worry,” Sophie said, already picking up the bigger pieces. “All the china is mismatched—I just bought anything that took my fancy.” In fact that had been one of her favorites, but she wasn’t about to tell Doc that when he was looking so mortified. She turned back to her mother. “What were you saying, Mama?”
Grace just gave her a vague smile. “I don’t remember.”
“I’m trying to talk your mother into coming to town to have dinner with us. Rima hasn’t seen her for a week now, and she gets a little isolated.”
“You should go, Mama. You know how you enjoy your little outings,” Sophie said, heading for the door, the broken cup in her hand. “If Doc can’t pick you up I can drive you.”
“I’ll come fetch her at five,” Doc said. “If that’s all right with you, Grace?”
Grace waved an airy hand of acceptance, looking rather like a youthful Queen Elizabeth for a moment, and Sophie disappeared into the kitchen before another awkward question surfaced.
His face was as good as his body, Marty thought, breathing a sigh of relief. She’d put her contacts in, showered and was wearing a halter top and the shortest shorts she owned, the ones that showed off her long, tanned legs to perfection. She knew she looked gorgeous, but Sophie’s new gardener was looking at her out of the most beautiful, liquid eyes she had ever seen in her life, and he actually didn’t seem interested.
“Hey,” Marty said. She’d wanted to wear her high-heeled sandals, the ones that made her legs look even better, but she figured that would have been a bit much. Subtlety had its uses.
“Hey,” he said, unpromisingly. He had a gorgeous chest, but to her dismay he quickly pulled a T-shirt on. “Can I help you?”
“I’m Marty Davis. My sister’s your boss.”
“Yeah,” he said, again not very enthusiastic. “I’ve cut up the three poplars that came down in the last storm, and I was going to start in weeding the flower bed on the east side of the house. Did she have something else she’d rather have me do?” He didn’t have a Vermont accent, thank God. Not that she actually minded the Yankee twang of the Northeast Kingdom, but she preferred not hearing it in someone she was trying to seduce.
“I haven’t the faintest idea,” Marty said. “Isn’t it time you took a break? You’ve been working nonstop for hours.”
“I took a break at eleven. I’ll stop for lunch at one.”
“How do you know which side of the house is east?” she asked, suddenly curious.
“Any fool knows what’s east and what’s west,” he said with barely disguised impatience. “Is there anything I can help you with? Otherwise I need to get back to work.”
She’d been told she had a very sexy pout, so she tried it on him. “Don’t you like me?” she asked plaintively.
He looked her up and down, slowly, from her toes with their blue polish and three toe rings, up her admirably long legs, over her bare stomach and all the way up to her fuchsia-tinted hair. And then he shrugged, clearly unimpressed. “I don’t even know you. Should I?”
Marty’s sexy pout turned into a frown. “You tell me.”
“I’ve been trying to tell you I have work to do. So if you haven’t got a message from your sister or something you need me to do, I’d appreciate it if you let me get on with it.”
“Oh, I have something I want you to do,” Marty said in a soft, cooing voice.
“What is it?”
“Go to hell.”
She stalked away, majorly pissed. Trust Sophie to find the best-looking homosexual she could find in the area, just to make Marty’s life miserable. Well, there were other boys around, men as well. Marty just hadn’t made the effort. Maybe she’d hitch a ride with Doc when he went back into town. Of course, Doc gave her the creeps, but then, most old people did. Maybe she could…
She was just about to turn the corner by the inn when she heard his voice. She was half tempted to keep on stalking, but curiosity got the better of her. She turned to glare at him. He was as unmoved by her anger as he’d been by her sexy pout.
“What do you want?” she snapped.
“I’ll be eating my lunch down by the lake,” he said. “At one.”
“And I care because…?”
He grinned then. Big mistake—he had the most delectable smile she’d ever seen in her entire almost eighteen years. “You tell me,” he said. And then he turned his back on her, and she could hear him whistling under his breath.
She stomped around the front of the building, in time to see Doc rise and pat Grace’s hand. “I’ll be back at five,” he was saying.
Perfect opportunity. She could get a ride into Colby with Doc, and even get a ride back out if she ever felt like returning to this epitome of boredom. It should have been an easy decision. Doc and freedom, at least for a few hours. Or meeting that smartass down by the lake where anyone could see them.
It was a no-brainer. Sophie’s new handyman was the best-looking thing she’d seen since she arrived in Colby—she doubted she’d find anyone nearly as interesting at Audley’s. If fate had decided to deliver such a hunk to her own backyard, then he was probably worth the effort.
Besides, she didn’t like Doc. It was one thing for her sister and Grace to worry about her, another to have a stranger doing it. She wasn’t part of Doc’s clientele, and what she did with her time, what she smoked, who she saw, was her business, not his. And if she rode into town with him he’d probably cross-examine her.
No, she was better off staying behind. Seeing if she could make the sourpuss smile again. And seeing if there was any way she could lure him out of sight of the big house.
The book was gone.
One of the odd twists that Grace’s illness had brought was a sudden concern with neatness. Grace had always been someone who left her clothes scattered on the floor, who had papers and scarves and paraphernalia trailing after her, who believed making a bed was a waste of time when you were just going to sleep in it again that night. In fact, Sophie hadn’t even learned to make a bed until she had gone to live with her father and Eloise in their neat home in Michigan while Grace traveled the world. There were times she thought her almost obsessive fascination with all things housewifely was simply a reaction against her globe-trotting mother, but that seemed too obvious an answer. All she knew was she found safety and comfort in making jars of apple butter and raspberry jam, and old china soothed her soul.
Sophie really had no intention of searching Grace’s room. She was merely interested in snitching her resurfaced copy of Murder in the Northeast Kingdom. It should have been lying on top of Grace’s neatly made bed, or in an orderly pile on the floor beside it.
It was nowhere.
There were books arranged neatly, by size, in the bookcase, but amid all the Ted Bundys and Boston Stranglers there wasn’t a Vermont killer to be found. On a whim Sophie looked under the bed, but there wasn’t even a stray dust bunny. When she opened the closet it was more like the old Grace—clothes piled on the floor, hung on hooks inst
ead of hangers, her shoes caked with dried mud.
Sophie closed the door again, thoughtful. When had Grace wandered out on a muddy path? She tried to keep track of her—the only time she thought Grace wasn’t accounted for was when she’d visited their surly neighbor in her bare feet. So when had she gone traipsing through the mud? And why?
She leaned against the closet door, staring at her mother’s room as if looking for answers. Her windows were open, and she could hear Grace’s soft voice from the porch as she said goodbye to Doc. She’d come inside then, only to find her daughter searching her room, Sophie thought, suddenly ashamed of herself. If she wanted to read the book all she had to do was ask her mother.
Except that the book had disappeared, and Grace wouldn’t remember where she’d put it.
There was something deeply shameful about spying on one’s mother, Sophie thought, opening the dresser drawers as quietly as possible. Even if it was for Grace’s own protection, it felt strange, uncomfortable. After all, what did she expect to find? She’d stopped looking for the book—if she really wanted it she could probably get it online. It wasn’t as if she had any interest in the old killings, apart from trying to figure out what John Smith’s particular fascination with them was. So why was she rifling her mother’s drawers?
They were like the closet, jumbled, messy, everything mixed together. The expensive lacy stuff that Grace had always preferred, mixed with the utilitarian cotton that Sophie had bought her on the premise that they were easier to launder. No missing paperback to be found, and Sophie had no earthly reason to keep searching.
Until she found the knife.
He would pray for their souls, he thought, bowing his head. His true path was being pointed out to him, and there was no way he could shun his duty, much as it pained him. The righteous must triumph, the wicked must perish, or there would be no meaning to life, and he had to cling to the belief that it all meant something, otherwise why would God have taken his children from him?
The wicked would die, the righteous would be born again, and he would grieve his part in meting out justice.
Not the fact that he must kill them.
But his pleasure in the act.
Three of them in that old house. Three women, all sinful in their souls, from the old, crazy one to the randy young one. And even the Madonna in the middle was courting temptation. It would be a gift, to have her die in a state of grace. He would tell her he killed the others, so she wouldn’t worry. She worried too much about her small family. She would be much happier knowing they were no longer her responsibility.
He could do it all, though it grieved him. He was young, strong, immovable with the Lord’s wrath to guide him. He would take them all. And then maybe he could sleep at night.
Sophie woke up with a start, her heart pounding, covered in a film of cold sweat. The moon was shining in her window, almost daylight bright despite the late hour, and she sat up, letting her eyes focus on the dark shapes in the room. They seemed to shift and move, but it was only the shadow of the tab curtains moving in the breeze from the open window.
She didn’t move, waiting for her heartbeat to still, waiting for reality to wash over her. It was a cool, silent night in the country, and the only sound was the rustle of leaves as that same soft breeze stirred them. That, and the faint lap of the lake against the sandy shore were all that broke the stillness.
They were noises she was used to, soft, lulling noises that soothed her to sleep. Why had she woken up in such a panic?
She scooted back against the headboard, tucking the plump feather pillows behind her. It must have been a nightmare, though she wasn’t quite sure what had set it off. In fact, she hadn’t had the world’s calmest day. At least Marty had been halfway cheerful, and she’d even taken her dishes out after they finished dinner. Grace had gone off with Doc, and by the time she returned she’d gone straight to bed. Nothing to panic about with either of them, at least for now.
Of course, there was the big hunting knife she’d found hidden beneath Grace’s underclothes. That in itself wasn’t terribly worrisome—Grace had a habit of appropriating strange things and leaving them in her room. Over the past few months Sophie had retrieved three of her most flowery dresses, a frying pan, four half-eaten boxes of cookies, a trowel, an electric razor from God knows where and a red wool hunting cap. She had no possible use for any of those things, except perhaps the cookies. Grace had never had much of a sweet tooth, and she’d seldom eaten store-bought cookies, but then, she was changing so radically that it was no wonder that Sophie couldn’t keep up with her.
Still, it was nothing out of the ordinary in terms of Grace’s recent behavior. Though the knife was intrinsically more dangerous—she could have cut herself on the dull, rusty blade.
But at least it was out of her reach now, tucked in the back of Sophie’s closet. She could clean the rust stains off it, maybe give it to Doc to dispose of. It was a good-looking knife if one liked that sort of thing, and men seemed uncommonly fascinated with weapons. She didn’t think Doc would be, but he probably knew someone in town who’d like it.
As a matter of fact, it had a distinctive handle, a carved white bonelike substance. Not the sort of knife that was kept behind the glass case in Audley’s extensive hunting section. Maybe Doc would know who’d lost a knife like that one, and could get it back to its rightful owner. And even come up with a reason why Grace would have found it and hidden it in her drawer.
It was really nothing to worry about. No more than Marty’s interest in the new gardener. Patrick Laflamme was immune to her, Marge had assured her. He was much too focused on going back to college and accomplishing things to be distracted by a young girl who meant nothing but trouble. Besides, he had a stern French-Canadian mother who’d keep him on the straight and narrow.
So that situation was safe enough. The inn was almost ready, everything was running smoothly. What was her problem?
She knew perfectly well what her problem was—she just didn’t want to think about it. It could be summed up in one word. Well, maybe two. John Smith.
Why in the world had he kissed her like that? And why couldn’t she stop thinking about him? It wasn’t as if she’d never been kissed. She’d kissed any number of men, looking for one, anyone, who would entice her enough to make her throw caution to the wind. She still hadn’t found the right one, but that wasn’t for want of trying. She’d kissed more than her share of toads, searching for a prince in disguise. So far they’d all been toads.
Including John Smith—or whatever his name was. Who did he think he was, to grab her like that? What in heaven’s name made him think she’d want him to kiss her? Had she been sending out erotic messages? Highly unlikely. Maybe he was just egotistical enough to think any woman would want him to kiss her, including someone who’d gone out of her way to show her dislike…
Had she? Had she been cool and unfriendly? She’d meant to be. But the question was, why? Why did John Smith bring out the worst in her?
Maybe because he was a liar. If his name was John Smith then her name was Madonna. She hated liars.
He also had the totally annoying habit of acting as if he could see right through her. Past the flounces and the flowers, past the jams and pies and soothing rituals. He could see something small and frightened inside her, something she tried to wash away. And she didn’t want anyone looking that closely, particularly someone as unnerving as John Smith.
She scooted back down in bed again, closing her eyes. The shadows in the room shifted in the moonlight, and for a moment she cursed her obsessive attention to detail. The room needed light-blocking shades of some sort, or heavy curtains. So far she’d been more than happy to let the sun wake her up at the crack of dawn, and she didn’t even mind when the strong moonlight occasionally roused her from sleep.
Tonight she minded. She lay there in the moonlight, listening to every creak and groan the old house made. She’d grown used to those noises, even loved t
hem. It made her think of a kitten purring. Her huge old house was talking to her, making approving noises, telling her she was welcome.
Tonight it felt restless, nagging at her. Silly, Sophie thought. She was the one who was restless. Anxious about the opening of the inn, anxious about her family, anxious about being kissed by an unwelcome stranger who certainly wasn’t inspired by love at first sight or even a passing attraction. He made it clear he found her just as tiresome as she found him.
So why did he kiss her?
And when was she going to get back to sleep? Tomorrow would be a long day—she had to call the bedding shop in Burlington to deliver the new mattresses, and the building inspector was coming in the next day or two, and sooner or later she had to get her software up and running. All before strangers started invading her inn.
And maybe that was the crux of it. She’d moved to Vermont, bought the huge old house of her dreams in order to turn it into a bed-and-breakfast. She’d worked tirelessly, and everything was coming to fruition. And suddenly she didn’t want to share her haven with a bunch of paying guests tromping through her peaceful rooms.
“Get over it,” she muttered, keeping her eyes closed. You have to make choices in this life—nothing was ever handed to you on a silver platter. The only way she could afford to live in this peaceful place at the back end of beyond, the only way she could support such a huge old house and her sister and mother besides, was to take in paying guests. Whether she wanted them there or not.
She heard the noise, and for a moment she couldn’t place it. Just a quiet clicking sound, coming from below. She had one of the front rooms overlooking the lake, though she knew she would have to give that up when she opened for business. Customers would pay more for a lake view, and Sophie couldn’t afford to indulge herself. The wide porch ran directly beneath her open window, and she suddenly realized what she’d heard. The sound of the front door latching.
She scrambled out of bed and opened the door as quietly as possible. For a moment she stood in the hall, wondering if she was being the world’s greatest idiot. Like a heroine of an old Gothic romance, she was wandering around in the middle of the night in her nightgown with a murderer on the loose.
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