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Authors: Nancy Bush

Tags: #Fiction, #Thrillers, #Suspense, #Mystery & Detective, #Women Sleuths, #Crime, #Romance, #General, #Contemporary

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BOOK: Nowhere to Hide
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Jake Westerly.

Chapter 4

Jake Westerly shaded his eyes against a blasting September sun and thought about grapes. Specifically Pinot Noir grapes. Fall was harvest time and this lingering heat was helping the sugar levels as long as the damn sun didn’t blister the hell out of them.

Westerly Vale Vineyards grew and processed their own grapes, but the greater portion of the wine they produced was from grapes from other vineyards. That was the bulk of their business. His current personal favorite was a blend of three: Malbec, Pinot Noir, and Merlot.

But then don’t ask him about wine. He could drink Three-Buck Chuck—Charles Shaw—and be happy as long as the company he was with was good. The true wine connoisseurs were his brother, Colin, and Colin’s wife, Neela, and they were the ones who sweated over the weather (this year’s cold and wet spring had put the growing season back a few weeks), the grape harvesting (handpicking was best so the grapes weren’t smushed but gently split, releasing more of the juice), and the running of their B&B, a rambling early 1900s farmhouse that they’d rehabbed and added to and was Neela’s pride and joy.

Not that he would tell anyone that. He was in partnership with Colin—the financial end of the operation—and people in the business expected him to know something about wine. Saying he was the numbers guy didn’t cut any ice with those who worshiped the grape.

The grape.

Nigel had been a worshipper, too, though it had taken being summarily fired by that rat bastard, Braden Rafferty, for him to finally realize his own dream. His father sure knew the business, though, and he’d passed that knowledge on to Colin who’d sucked it up with the same fervency Jake had sucked up Three-Buck Chuck—which he’d heard was Two-Buck Chuck in California.

Pricing . . . that’s what Jake knew. And loan mongering with skinflint bankers. And the cost of every aspect of wine-producing down to the cute little coasters and napkins and wine corks and glasses in the gift shop—another of Neela’s specialties, along with running the Westerly Vale Bed & Breakfast with Colin.

What Jake didn’t know was how his brother could stand it out here. Sure, the scenery was gorgeous. But Oregon wine country was too bucolic and the pace was extraordinarily sssllloowww and whenever Jake came to the vineyard, a clock started in his head, counting down the minutes until he could race back to Portland and his downtown office and think in terms of stocks, and bonds, and accruing interest and maybe even a commercial real estate deal or two. Colin professed to like living here, but then, Jake thought, maybe it was marriage that had made his brother slightly mental. Jake lived in Laurelton, in a dumpy, 1950s two-bedroom rambler with mahogany-stained board and bat siding, a driveway that really needed to be rid of the tree whose roots were popping it up near the two-car garage—the right side of which had been added on sometime during the rambler’s life and now was about an inch below the edge of the drive—and a neighbor dog that liked to sleep on Jake’s front porch and bark at any bird that flew overhead, apparently designated a “no fly zone” according to his canine brain. The dog was a lab and every other breed mix, and had a habit of pulling its lips back in a smile and panting, even when the temperature wasn’t this high.

I should sell the place and buy a downtown, high-rise condo
, he thought, the same thought that circled his brain every time he pulled into the rambler’s driveway. He’d bought it because he knew the previous owners, and they were having serious financial problems and he liked them and they needed help and . . . well . . . he just . . . bought it. He could afford to fix the place up, but he just couldn’t seem to find the energy or time or inclination. Neela teased him that all he needed was a woman to push him. Maybe it was true.

Sheila’s image superseded the view of the vines that rose across the field and up the terraced hillside, heavy with fruit. Four months after her murder he was still having trouble processing that she was gone. It was weird. He’d known her some during elementary school—she went to Twin Oaks; he was at Sunset—then about six months earlier he’d walked into a unisex Laurelton hair salon, His and Hers, recognized Sheila, and had become one of her clients. She’d learned he was associated with Westerly Vale Vineyard and had made a “date” with him to meet there one Saturday afternoon with some of her friends. From that, he’d shared a couple of get-togethers with her and these same friends at The Barn Door, a shitkicker kind of bar off Highway 26. He’d thought she was divorced, the way she talked about Dempsey, but he’d learned later that they were separated and living apart but still married.

Not that anything had happened between them, but it almost had. He’d been certain that Dempsey had killed her; he’d encountered the man once and learned Greg Dempsey was a crazed, jealous maniac with control issues.

But just when Jake had decided the authorities were a bunch of idiots who couldn’t tell their ass from a hole in the ground for not arresting Dempsey, another body was discovered in a field and it was rumored that maybe a serial killer was at work. As much as Jake thought Dempsey could have killed Sheila, he wasn’t as convinced the guy was some kind of random killer.

And then September Rafferty did a segment on the news with Channel Seven’s Pauline Kirby.
Detective
September Rafferty, who was involved with several high-profile homicides and happened to be the daughter of Braden Rafferty, his father’s ex-employer, and the same girl Jake had spent one reckless night with amongst the grape vines of her father’s vineyard.

Nine Rafferty. Everyone called her Nine.

She was investigating the death of another young woman who’d been left in a field. Something Decatur. Emily . . . no, Emmy. Emmy Decatur. He’d been fascinated at seeing Nine on the news for a couple of reasons. First, she looked great. So young and serious and her body was compact and muscular, like a gymnast’s, or Sheila’s, for that matter. Second, Nine was a Rafferty and from what he knew of the Raffertys, they sure wouldn’t normally choose law enforcement as a profession, so that was an anomaly. He wondered what had happened there.

Nine . . . He and his friends had sure given her a lot of crap about her wealth when they were growing up. Her brother, Auggie, had been around, too; Jake had played sports with him and had known him well enough, though it was Nine with whom he shared the most classes. The Rafferty twins, and their older sister, May, had been sent to public school instead of private for reasons still unclear to Jake. He also still remembered vividly when Nine’s sister May, and her friend, Erin, were killed in a robbery attempt while working at a local burger place, Louie’s. The tragedy had swept the school and community, and Nine had looked shell-shocked for months. Maybe May’s death was a reason for Nine’s choice.

Or, maybe Nine just felt the same anger and injustice that surged through him when he thought of a life taken by someone else’s hand.

Who killed Sheila? Was it that asshole Dempsey?
Was it?

Jake shook his head and turned toward the house. He’d already walked through the tasting room and gift shop, which were both full of enthusiasts, looking for Colin, but apart from the young man with the trimmed beard and discreet diamond stud in his nose who was pouring, no one else was working.

There were two middle-aged couples sitting in the roughly-hewn fir rockers, each pair holding hands and gazing across the vineyards, so he did a quick turn and angled around the back of the house, opening the side door to the kitchen, which was verboten for guests. Jake didn’t count on that score, and wouldn’t give a rat’s ass if he did.

But he did startle Bronwyn, the kitchen and all-around B&B helper, who slapped a hand to her chest and gasped as Jake entered unannounced.

“Sorry,” he said. “Colin or Neela here?”

“Umm . . . no.”

“Do you know where they are?” he asked.

“Uh . . . no.”

A conversationalist she was not.

“All right,” he said, then walked through the kitchen and into the hallway that led past Colin and Neela’s apartment on its way to the door to the general rooms at the front of the house. He took a cursory look around their apartment—nobody around—then opened the door to the greeting room, which was a great room of sorts for the guests. In the winter, a fire would be blazing in the stone fireplace and a tray of cookies would be set on the oak side table. Today, though, fans lazily moved the air overhead, more for decoration than effect as there was air conditioning throughout. No cookies, but Neela would put out wine, cheese, crackers, and grapes for snacking as the afternoon wore on. The dining room was a rectangular offshoot with a swinging door to the kitchen that was locked except during breakfast.

The B&B was entirely Colin and Neela’s operation; Jake wasn’t any part of it. Personally, he thought it was a lot of work and kind of a money-suck, but each to his or her own. He’d spent most of his twenties in the financial arena and had made enough money before everything went to hell to put down a hefty chunk toward buying the vineyard from his father and the house that came with it. Colin had then struck a deal with Jake to turn it into a B&B and everybody was happy.

Sort of.

Lately, Jake had felt restless, and he knew it was an existential thing that had no real answer: Why am I here? Where am I going? What
is
the meaning of life?

The restlessness had started almost immediately following his final breakup with Loni, his on again/off again girlfriend since high school. He wasn’t sorry that the relationship was finally over. Hell, no. It had been on life support for a long time and for a lot of reasons. But he was sorry for letting it go on so long. Way, way too long.

He and Loni had dated for thirteen, almost fourteen years—Jesus, was it really that long?—and at times they’d been exclusive and happy; at other times they’d been apart for months, once for nearly two years when Loni was in one of her low periods. Loni was bipolar but at the time neither he, nor she, realized what was wrong. Or maybe she had an idea, but tried to hide it from him. All he really was sure about was that by the time her condition was named, they’d invested a lot of years together, which made leaving her especially difficult.

And it wasn’t all bad. After college Loni had gone into real estate while Jake was in the hedge fund/real estate game. For a while they’d been a power couple, wheeling and dealing like they knew what the hell they were doing. In the end Jake’s basic conservatism had saved him, but Loni was hit much harder when the economy tanked. That’s when the depth of her problem was impossible to hide. The only time he saw the bright young woman he’d once known was when they were talking marriage, either about some friend’s upcoming nuptials, or better yet, the possibility of their own. Jake tried to steer clear of wedding talk, and finally this past January, Loni got fed up with his wishy-washy ways and laid down the law: either they were getting married this year or it was over.

So . . . it was over.

The ultimatum should have been a gift to Jake; it forced their final breakup. But the fight that followed, and Loni’s subsequent spiral downward, had nearly made him change his mind. Guilt gnawed at him though he knew that it was his one chance to be true to himself. To do the right thing, really, for both of them. He held firm even though Loni called him, incessantly in the beginning, begging to put things back together. Finally, she’d quit calling.

He shook his head. He still felt low about it, though he wouldn’t go back.

And then, just as he was beginning to look around at other women, ready to take a stab at the dating scene again, his hairdresser, Sheila, was murdered.

He couldn’t believe it, even now. Sheila and her friends had come to Westerly Vale on a wine-tasting junket with some women she knew from work. It was then that she revealed she and her friends liked to go to The Barn Door, and she invited him to join them. It was in The Barn Door parking lot that things heated up between them, and he, four months out of his relationship with Loni, had been more than eager to indulge in a heavy make-out session with Sheila in the backseat of his Tahoe . . . until she’d revealed that she was married, a fact she hadn’t mentioned while cutting his hair.

That had cooled Jake’s ardor like a bucket of ice water over his head. And it didn’t matter that she and her husband were estranged. Married was married, as far as he was concerned, and Sheila had married a real piece of work.

He clenched his jaw. If Greg Dempsey wasn’t responsible for Sheila’s death it was only because someone else had gotten to her first, in Jake’s biased opinion. The guy was a bastard of the first order. And when Dempsey himself showed up at The Barn Door, confronted Jake, and ordered him to stop fucking his wife,
or else
, Jake had been a) glad he’d kept his pants zipped up in the Tahoe, and b) damn close to slamming his fist into the son of a bitch’s face.

And then, shortly afterward, Sheila was killed.

“Jake?”

He turned to find Neela pushing into the greeting room through the door he’d just entered. The door automatically locked behind whoever passed through it, so unless you had a key, or used the swinging door from the kitchen to the dining room, the only exit was out the front.

“Hey, there. I was looking for Colin,” he told her.

Neela was a petite woman with chin-length blond hair and rounded curves. She and Colin had met at Oregon State where Colin had studied horticulture, specifically viticulture, and Neela had majored in education. Neither of them had much of a head for business, however, so that was where he came in. Unfortunately, owning and financing a vineyard, winery, and B&B didn’t offer the same kickass jolt of adrenaline he was used to, so Jake kept his Portland office and pretty much steered clear of Westerly Vale.

“Colin’s with your father,” Neela said. “They’re working out some details on the harvest. It’s about to go full tilt. This weather . . .”

“Too hot. I know.” Colin and Nigel loved to talk about the business in a way that made Jake a little crazy.

BOOK: Nowhere to Hide
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