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She looked down at the Whitten cottage, its roof barely visible through the tall trees. She was tempted to walk down to the water’s edge where she could get a clear look at it, but she stayed where she was, showing a rare bit of sense for a change. A plume of smoke was rising on the cool morning air, and she could smell the cozy scent of wood fire. She really did belong in the country, she thought, taking another sip of her strong coffee. Her two favorite smells in the world were wood smoke and fresh-cut grass. Coffee came in at third place, followed by fresh-baked bread. Both of those could be replicated in the city, but nothing smelled like the cool lake water on a morning in late August.
She thought of going for a swim. The water would be cold and refreshing, and it would wipe out the shadows that haunted her, at least for a short while.
It would also freeze her ass off, which in theory was a good idea but in practice sounded extremely unpleasant. Still Lake was a particularly pristine lake, but there were all sorts of organisms in it, and she was better off keeping her lacerated head out of water.
She probably should have had a couple of stitches. If she’d had the nerve to wake up Doc then she wouldn’t have driven off the road, wouldn’t have had another run-in with John Smith, wouldn’t be feeling restless and anxious. Wouldn’t be tempted to walk down the driveway to check out her car and maybe run into her neighbor, and this time maybe she wouldn’t run away, and then…
She heard the sound of a car coming up her driveway, and she felt a momentary clenching in her stomach. One that dissipated when she realized it wasn’t the throaty, sexy purr of the Jaguar.
It was Doc. He looked a bit more somber than usual when he got out of his car, but he managed a warm smile as he mounted the steps to the porch. “Got any more of that coffee?” he asked, looking at her a little too closely for comfort.
She started to uncurl her legs. “I’ll get it for you…”
“Heavens, no! I can help myself. You haven’t changed the layout of the kitchen that much since the old days. I’ll feel right at home. Can I get you a refill?”
“Why do I have the feeling this isn’t a strict social call?” Sophie asked, handing him her mug.
“It’s a social call,” Doc said. “But let’s just say it’s a concerned one. I’ll be back in a minute.”
Sophie let out a pent-up breath. Whatever Doc wanted to talk about, she didn’t think she was going to enjoy it. Right now she had enough problems without facing any new ones. Though knowing Doc, he was probably there to help her, not make her life more complicated.
“Here you go,” he said, coming back onto the porch with two mugs of coffee. He sat in one of the rocking chairs, then took a sip. “Wonderful,” he said.
“What did you mean, like the old days?” she asked. “Were you friends with Peggy Niles?”
Doc laughed. “Everyone around here is related. Peggy was my older sister. I thought you knew that. This was our family place. My father was the town doctor, my mother the nurse, and they used the whole back end of the building as the hospital. I grew up in this house.”
“I knew the closed-up wing had been a hospital at one time. For some reason I just didn’t connect you with it. Why didn’t you keep the place? How did your sister end up with it?”
“Times changed. Back when I was a kid every small town had its own hospital, but by the time I was growing up the local ones had closed and everybody started going down to Morrisville or St. Johnsbury. Or to Burlington for the big stuff. It made more sense for me to have an office in town, and Rima never liked being too far out in the country. Peggy married Burt Niles, and they stayed on here to farm for a while. Not that it worked,” he said, leaning back in the rocker. “Burt was never good for much, and he took off eventually. Peggy tried to keep the place going, first as a nursing home, then as a bed-and-breakfast, but obviously it didn’t work. She was about ready to give up when the murders happened.”
“She died, didn’t she?”
“Peggy? She got cancer a few years later. There was nothing anyone could do,” Doc said, grief and dignity etched in his seamed face. “All the training I had, and I couldn’t save her.”
“I’m so sorry, Doc,” Sophie said.
He shrugged. “I’m a doctor—I should get used to death. But you know, you never do, no matter how many times you have to deal with it.”
“No, I imagine you don’t,” she said.
Doc gave himself a little shake. “Heavens, I didn’t come out on this beautiful morning to talk about gloomy things like death. I wanted to find out what happened last night and make sure you’re okay.”
“Last night?” she echoed, feeling guilty, immediately thinking of sex. She’d run at the last minute, she hadn’t given in to temptation and gone back to bed with John Smith—no matter how much she’d wanted to. Besides, what did Doc care about such things…?
“I heard you had car trouble,” he said. “Zebulon King was out early this morning, and he dragged your car out of a ditch down the road and hauled it to town. Said it looked as if you’d had a fender bender. He said there was blood all over the seat.”
“I hit my head,” she said, feeling almost embarrassed.
“So I can see. You should have come to see me right away, Sophie. Or given me a call—I would have come out here. Head wounds are nothing to mess around with—you might have a concussion, or worse.”
“I’m fine, Doc. It just bled like crazy.”
“Was it your neighbor? Did he run you off the road?”
“Why would you think such a thing?” she demanded. “No one ran me off the road.” And then she realized that wasn’t strictly true. The drunk driver up near Dutchman’s Falls had been the cause of it all, but whoever it was, he was long gone. “I was driving home late, it was raining, and I wasn’t paying enough attention to the roads. I missed my turn and ended up in a ditch. Embarrassing, but really quite simple.”
There was a long pause. “Zebulon King says there’s blue paint on one of the fenders. He’s a bit of a religious kook but he doesn’t tend to get these things wrong. Did you hit someone, Sophie? You can tell me the truth. Were you drinking last night? If you hit something, or someone, the best thing you can do is admit to it. I can help you…”
“Doc, I wasn’t drinking last night!” Sophie said with a little laugh. “I don’t drink much, anyway, and I certainly don’t drink and drive. I was just distracted. Thinking about things, and the roads were slick in the rain.”
She didn’t tell him about her near miss. It seemed like a waste of time, and he’d worry needlessly, but it felt strange to be lying to him. Maybe it was simply because he was so ready to jump to the wrong conclusion. Why in the world would he distrust Smith? The fact that she did was inconsequential—she had every reason to suspect him of at least lying to her. Doc should have taken him at face value.
“That was very kind of Mr. King,” she added. “I’ve seen him at Audley’s a few times. He’s the one who looks like Abraham Lincoln without his Prozac. I wouldn’t have thought he’d be bothered. He doesn’t seem to have much use for people in general and newcomers in particular. I pity his poor wife.”
“He’s a good man,” Doc said. “He’s just got old-fashioned values.”
“Old-fashioned as in Old Testament? He makes me uncomfortable. He always looks like he’s wanting to paste a scarlet A to my chest.”
“Do you deserve one?” Doc asked gently.
Doc nodded, though he still looked doubtful. “I’m glad to hear it. I worry sometimes. And I’m glad to know that no one was involved last night. That no one tried to hurt you.”
“Why would anyone? I don’t have any enemies.”
“Some people don’t need to have enemies to be hurt. I’m being an old fussbudget, I know. Ever since that awful time I keep worrying, thinking it’s going to happen again. That it’s not over, that the man who killed those girls will come back again.”
“Why would he?” Sophie asked, the coff
ee suddenly turning to lead in the pit of her stomach.
“Don’t they say the murderer always returns to the scene of his crime? Maybe he can’t help it. Maybe the killer wants to atone for his sins. Or maybe he wants to kill some more. Psychiatry was never my specialty—I don’t understand homicidal maniacs, and I really don’t want to. I just want to make sure that no one else gets hurt.”
Sophie leaned forward and put her hand on his rough, gnarled one. “Doc, it was twenty years ago.”
“It’s not over,” Doc said, his eyes haunted. “Something tells me it’s not over yet. I want you to be extra careful, Sophie. Don’t go trusting any strangers, no matter how nice they seem to be. And don’t let Marty go wandering off alone. That girl is ripe for trouble, and it would break my heart to see history repeat itself.”
Sophie squashed down her immediate panic. “Nothing’s going to happen to Marty!” she said firmly. “She’s surprisingly good at taking care of herself. It’s Grace who worries me.”
“She’s the least of your worries. He kills young girls, remember? Not older women. All three victims were slightly wayward young women, not much older than your sister. I don’t want to see it happen again.”
Sophie set her empty coffee mug down on the porch. “Doc, the killer’s probably dead himself. He’s not going to come back twenty years later and kill again.”
Doc just looked at her. “Can you be certain?” he asked in a quiet voice. “Maybe he never left. Be careful, Sophie. Both you and Marty.”
“What are you talking about?” Marty appeared in the doorway, looking suspicious.
“You’re up early,” Sophie said, trying to change the subject.
“I told Patrick I’d help him stack wood,” she said, trying to sound offhand. “I need a little exercise.”
Sophie resisted the temptation to point out that there was plenty of exercise to be had clearing out the rooms in the old hospital annex, but she resisted. Ever since Patrick had appeared on the scene Marty’s mood had improved dramatically, and Sophie wasn’t about to jeopardize it.
“I think he’s around back. You can take him some coffee and muffins if you want,” she said instead.
Marty was staring at her through the screen door. “Okay,” she said absently, squinting at her. “What the hell happened to you last night?”
Sophie touched her forehead nervously. “Just a bump on the head,” she said dismissively.
“I don’t mean that. I mean the monster hickey on your neck. What have you been doing, big sis? You’ve gone from straight-laced to wanton in sixty seconds flat.”
“Marty…” Sophie glanced at Doc, but he was merely shaking his head, a twinkle in his eyes.
“Don’t worry about me, Sophie,” he said. “I understand human nature better than most, and I know what temptation’s like for healthy young people. But that doesn’t mean I’m not still worried. You shouldn’t be so trusting.”
“Keep away from your neighbor. I imagine it’s the last thing you want to do, but I don’t trust him. Give me a chance to check up on him before you spend any more time alone with him. Promise me that, Sophie.”
“Doc, there’s nothing to worry about,” she protested. “I barely know the man, but I’m sure there’s nothing wrong with him.”
“If you barely know the man, why do you have a love bite on your neck?” he said, sounding almost doleful. “Will you at least promise you’ll be careful?”
Doc nodded, though clearly he wasn’t satisfied. “King towed your car to Ferber’s, but they don’t know when they can get to it. One tire’s ruined, and he’s not sure if you bent the frame.”
“Great,” Sophie muttered.
“Don’t worry. If you need a ride anywhere just give me a call.”
“We’ll be fine, Doc,” she said—wishing she felt as certain as she sounded.
“Old Doc Henley gives me the creeps,” Marty announced when Patrick finally decided they could take a break. She was dirty, sweaty, aching, scratched from the bark of the trees, but in an oddly good mood. Maybe there really was something to the benefits of physical exercise. She would have preferred more body contact, but this was a surprisingly enjoyable alternative.
She should have known Patrick really wanted her to help. With anyone else it would have simply been a veiled invitation to a make-out session, but with Patrick Laflamme, what you saw was what you got.
He’d taken off his shirt in the bright, cool sunshine, but he pulled it back on while they took a break. She couldn’t understand why—he had truly the most beautiful chest she’d ever seen. And back, and shoulders. Hard work obviously did wonders for the muscles. He was absolutely gorgeous, with no reason to be modest. If any of the boys she’d known had been even half as well-built as Patrick they would never have worn shirts, even in the dead of winter.
“What have you got against Doc?” he asked mildly enough, reaching for his thermos of coffee.
Marty shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe I just don’t like old men. He’s nice enough, I guess, but I don’t like the way he’s always looking at me. Like he thinks I’m a terrible burden to my poor sainted sister.”
“You are,” Patrick said, his generous mouth curving in a faint smile.
She was getting used to him by now, and his cool teasing only stung a little. “She’s no saint. You should see the hickey on her neck. Speaking of which, do you want to go someplace and park?”
“You know. Go off in your truck and make out? We could even do more than that if you want.” For all his seeming standoffishness she knew he wasn’t as disinterested as he pretended. He liked her, whether he wanted to or not. And she wasn’t about to let the first decent prospect in all of the Northeast Kingdom escape so easily, even if he was a little too serious for her tastes.
“No, I don’t want to go off and park,” he said patiently. “I’ll pick you up at six.”
“We’ll go out to dinner in Stowe, so wear something nice. I’ll bring you flowers, and you won’t smoke, and when I bring you home I’ll walk you to your door and I won’t kiss you. Not until the third date.”
“You think there are going to be three of them?” she asked, caustic.
Again that slow, devastating smile. “I’m betting on it. But you’re going to have to stop smoking. I don’t kiss girls who smoke.”
“You’re a judgmental pain in the butt, Patrick Laflamme,” she said, pouting.
“I know,” he said. “But I’m worth it. Let’s get back to work.”
She would have loved to tell him to fuck off. That would make his beautiful brown eyes open wide, wouldn’t it? He wouldn’t like potty-mouthed girls any more than he liked ones who smoked.
But despite that, he seemed to like her, anyway. And maybe he was right. Maybe he was worth it.
She just might be willing to find out.
Griffin closed the door behind the Kings, stepping out onto the front porch, leaving his dour, judgmental help behind. He’d been here for five days and accomplished squat.
That wasn’t entirely true. He’d come up with enough circumstantial evidence to know he wasn’t a murderer. There were too many victims, too many graves with yellow flowers. Whoever killed Lorelei, Alice and Valette had killed countless others, as well. And he still lived in Colby.
How long had it been since a young girl had died a mysterious death? He’d seen nothing recent, but that didn’t prove anything. Maybe the killer was dead, and whoever brought the flowers knew the truth and tried to atone.
Hell, he didn’t even know for certain that he didn’t kill Lorelei. Logic dictated that the same person killed all three, but he knew from years of practice that logic had little to do with reality. And he wasn’t going to be at ease until he remembered the truth about that night.
Distracting as she was, Sophie wasn’t a complete waste of time, either. She was a pure, sinfully rich indulgence
on his part. An indulgence he’d enjoy a lot more if he knew what the hell was going on. The sound of the chain saw in the distance sent a tense reminder through his gut. Whoever was working at the inn would be down by the lake. Out of sight of the old wing. And it was as good a time as any to go snooping.
He’d always found an excuse not to go up there, and right now he was tired of playing it safe. Hell, he was bigger and stronger than any of the women who lived there. If someone tried to stop him he’d just walk right over them. If he couldn’t have Sophie, at least he wanted answers.
There was no sign of Sophie’s car as he approached the inn from the woods, but that meant nothing. Her slightly battered Subaru had been towed into town. She was probably sitting in the kitchen like a spider, just waiting to catch him.
He moved past the ramshackle toolshed, pausing for a moment as a cold shiver went down his spine. The roof had fallen in, the door was off its hinges, and no one had used the place in what looked like twenty years. Not since he used to duck into the dark, cobwebby interior for a quickie with a willing and eager Lorelei.
He peered in the broken window, but everything was a shambles. He thought he heard a faint rustling sound, and he remembered the mice. Lorelei had been terrified of them. Valette liked to kill them by hand.
Any mice left there deserved amnesty, he thought, moving past to skirt the perimeter of the inn. No sign of any possible way to break in—he’d have to figure out a way past Sophie’s watchful presence.
Maybe he should just walk into the house, pick her up and carry her upstairs to her bed. He could fuck her senseless, then go down and check out the old hospital while she slept.
As a plan it had a great many flaws, and only one thing to recommend it. It was what he wanted to do.
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