Authors: Anne Stuart
“I'm Sophie Davis,” she said, and her voice matched her dress. Light, musical, annoyingly charming. “My family and I are running the old inn. I brought you some muffins to welcome you to Colby.”
He took them and set them on the railing in front of him. He needed to dredge up some semblance of charm, but something was stopping him. He didn't want her thinking she could just drop in. He valued his privacy, especially when he wasn't planning on being particularly public about who he was or why he was here.
“Thanks,” he said, then realized he sounded less than gracious. He glanced over at the old Niles place. “Seems like a strange time to open an inn.”
“We've been working hard to get it ready. The place was abandoned for years, and it's taken us a while to get it in any kind of shape.”
Empty for years, he thought. He could have had a dozen chances to come back, find the answers he was looking for. He'd been too busy trying to forget.
“When did you say you opened?” he asked.
Two weeks. Two weeks to get inside the old place before it was overrun with tourists. Two weeks to see if there were any secrets left.
SHADOWS AT SUNSET
hen he awoke there was blood on his hands. The sheets were tangled around his sweating, naked body, his mouth tasted like copper, and there was blood on his hands.
He sat up, cursing, pushed his long dark hair away from his face and looked blearily out into the morning sunshine. It was earlyâhe hated waking up before noon.
And he sure as hell hated waking up covered in blood.
He stumbled out of bed, heading toward the back door to take a leak. He looked down and saw he had streaks of blood on his body. He leaned against the door and closed his eyes, groaning.
He slept in one of the tumbledown cabins by the lake, but it didn't have a shower, and there was no way in hell he was going up to the big house like this. No way in hell he was going to stand around with some animal's blood on him. He must have hit
a deer last night, driving home, though for the life of him he couldn't remember a goddamned thing.
He pulled on a pair of paint-spattered cutoffs and headed down to the lake, as fast as his pounding head would let him. He'd smoked too much, drunk too much, the night before, and he needed it to wear off, fast. The cold lake water would clear his head, bring his memory back. When he got back to his room he'd finish packing and get the hell out of there. He'd had enough of small-town Vermont.
Even in August the lake was icy cold, shocking the hell out of him. He let out a shriek as he dived beneath the surface, but he kept going, letting the frigid water flow around him, washing the blood from his hands, from his long hair, from his thick beard.
He surfaced twenty yards from shore, tossing his long wet hair over his shoulder, and squinted into the sunlight. There were more people than usual up at the innâPeggy Niles must be in seventh heaven. She'd be wanting him to fetch and carry, even though he'd told her he was leaving. Maybe he'd just skirt around the back of his place, grab his stuff and get the hell out of there before he could change his mind. Lorelei had told him to get lost, and he wasn't the kind of man who stayed in one place for too long. Winter was coming, jobs would be opening up in Colorado, and he was ready for the life of a ski bum.
He dove back under the water, heading toward shore with long, easy strokes, circling around past
the small sandy beach and the long wooden dock he'd built a few months back.
When he surfaced again, he saw a pile of clothes floating at the edge of the water, among the cattails that he'd spent half the summer trying to get rid of. He recognized the garish striped shirt that was one of his favorites, and he wondered who the hell had taken his suitcase and thrown it in the lake. Probably Loreleiâshe'd been pissed off big time when he told her he was leaving, but then, she hadn't given him one good reason to stay. Not that he could even imagine one.
He moved closer, squinting. He was slightly nearsighted, but he never wore glasses except for his prescription sunglasses, and God knew where they were back in the mess of his room. The clothes were floating, half in, half out of the water, but he didn't recognize the white shirt. He didn't own any long-sleeved shirts.
He stopped moving, waist deep in the chilly water, and his skin froze. And then he moved, fast, running through the water till he reached her side, turning her over to see her pale, dead face, and the sliced throat, like a jester's grin, curving beneath her jaw.
They loomed over him, coming out of nowhere, waiting for him, and he couldn't move, frozen in the chilly water with Lorelei's body in his arms.
“Thomas Ingram Griffin, alias Gram Thomas,
alias Billy Gram, you're under arrest for the willful murder of Alice Calderwood, Valette King and Lorelei Johnson. Anything you sayâ¦”
He didn't listen to the words. He looked down at the girl in his arms, the girl he'd held last night, the girl whose blood had stained his hands.
And he began to cry.
here was only one major problem with trying to save the world, Sophie Davis decided as she stuffed half a blueberry muffin in her mouth. No one wanted her help.
The kitchen at Stonegate Farm was deserted, and Sophie perched on one of the stools, hiking her flowing chintz skirt around her legs as she devoured the rest of the muffin, no mean feat since it was one of those wickedly oversize ones, with enough fat to clog the arteries of a family of four. She was a firm believer in the tenet that calories consumed in private didn't count. There had been three muffins left from breakfast. She reached for the second one.
It wasn't as if anyone else wanted them. Her mother, Grace, barely ate enough to keep alive, and when her half sister, Marty, finally dragged herself out into the daylight she'd refuse everything but coffee and cigarettes.
Sophie could sympathize with the cigarettes. She'd given them up four months ago, and in return she'd added fifteen pounds to her already generous
frame. And she never spent a day without thinking longingly of one last smoke.
She broke the second muffin in half, putting the rest back on the English stoneware plate in the vain hope she wouldn't succumb to temptation. Sugar and butter were an entirely satisfactory substitute for nicotine, but unfortunately she could see what they were doing to her body. The cigarettes had been turning her lungs black, but no one was looking at her lungs. If she kept on at this rate she'd be out of size twelves before long and into fourteens. She took the second half of the muffin and shoved it into her mouth.
She needed to get her life back under control. The first year of a new business was always bound to be a bit shaky, but Stonegate Farm was the perfect location for a country inn, and Sophie had energy and enthusiasm to spare. For years most of her decorating and baking had been only in theory, research for the syndicated column she wrote while she lived in a small apartment in New York. Marty called her the poor woman's Martha Stewart, which Sophie would have taken as a compliment if Marty hadn't been sneering when she said it.
And now she had this early nineteenth-century farmhouse on the edge of the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, a dream location for a dream profession. It was a huge, rambling old house, with half a dozen bedrooms and an extra wing off the back that might
be salvaged and eventually turned into even more guest rooms. Everything had seemed so simple when she'd mortgaged her life and her soul to bring Marty and Grace up here.
Not that Grace was particularly thrilled. She'd never been the bucolic type, but her last bout with breast cancer had left her surprisingly weak, and for the first time she admitted she needed help. She'd accompanied them, reluctantly, insisting that as soon as she regained her strength she'd be off on her endless travels. Four months later Sophie knew she wasn't going anywhere.
This time it wasn't the cancer. As far as she could tell Grace had made it through this second reoccurrence with flying colors. But in the past few months her mother had gotten more and more forgetful. Grace had never been much of a deep thinkerâMarty and Sophie's mutual father had called her Spacey Gracey with equal parts malice and affection. But her current situation was serious enough that Sophie had gotten worried.
Not that there was anything she could do about it. Doc had been her best friend and confidant since she arrived there, and he'd basically shaken his head. “I don't know whether she's having tiny strokes or if it's early-onset Alzheimer's disease,” he'd said. Grace had flatly refused to go into the hospital for testing, and Doc had told her there'd be time enough if things progressed.
Marty, with typical teenage charm, resented everything about the inn, including the fact she was expected to help out. She resented her older sister even more, but then, that was nothing new. And Grace was getting more and more forgetful, so that she drifted through their lives like a ghostly stranger, old before her time. Which suited Marty just fine. It was bad enough that Sophie had dragged her to the back end of beyondâwhy did she have to bring the old lady along, as well? Wasn't this torture enough? she'd demanded.
Sophie eyed the last muffin. If she ate three of them she'd feel sick, not immediately, but soon enough. It didn't matter, she wanted that muffin, and no one was around to watch her.
She was just about to reach for it when she heard someone outside the kitchen, and she pulled her hand back guiltily.
Grace wandered into the room, her gaunt figure dressed in mismatched clothing, the buttons on the raveling sweater awry. Grace, who'd always been so particular about her designer clothing and her hair. She looked twenty years older than her actual age of sixty. Marty came in behind her, not looking particularly pleased.
“I made muffins,” Sophie said cheerfully, ignoring the fact that only one remained.
“How nice, love,” Grace said in her soft voice. She had made a vain attempt at putting her long,
graying hair in a bun, but strands of it stuck out at strange angles, and Sophie knew it would come down in a matter of minutes, leaving Grace looking even more disheveled. “I think I'll just have some coffee.”
“You need to eat, Mama,” Sophie said. “You know what Doc said.”
Grace stopped to look at her, an odd expression in her hazy blue eyes. “Don't believe everything everybody tells you, Sophie. People aren't always what they seem.”
“I'm notâ¦” Sophie began, used to Grace's increasing paranoia, but her mother had already poured herself a mug of black coffee and wandered off, leaving Sophie alone with her sister.
Marty headed straight for the coffeemaker without a word.
“Good morning to you, too,” Sophie said, then could have slapped herself. Sarcasm didn't make anything better.
Marty didn't even bother glancing at her. She poured her coffee and took a deep gulp of it, studiously ignoring her.
“Did you put the new towels in the closet?” Sophie tried to keep her voice light and nonconfrontational. God knows Marty could find something to take offense at in the most innocuous of conversations, but Sophie did her best to avoid conflict whenever she could.
Marty kept her head buried in the crossword puzzle she was perusing. This week her short-cropped, spiky hair was black, tinged with fuchsia at the tips. She'd need to bleach it again when she went to her next phase. Sooner or later she wouldn't have any hair at all, a prospect that Sophie regarded with mixed feelings. At least she could hope that not too many incipient bad boys would want to impregnate a bald-headed seventeen-year old. “You told me to, didn't you?” Marty said in a hostile voice.
Sophie sighed, controlling her frustration. “I need your help, Marty. You need to contribute your share to the running of this place if we're going to make a go of it. It's nearing the end of summer, and you know we need to open by foliage season if we're going to recover some of the renovation costs. I've already got reservations for Septemberâ¦.”
“Why should I care? It was your idea to drag me off into the middle of nowhere, away from my friends. I'm not interested in running a bed-and-breakfast, I'm not interested in being locked up in the country with you and that crazy old bat, and I'm not interested in helping you.”
It was a good thing she hadn't gone for that third muffin, Sophie thoughtâthe second one was already doing a number on her stomach. “That crazy old bat is my mother,” she said. “I know she's not yours, but I have a responsibility to her. Do we have
to go over this every single day, Marty? Why don't you go find someone else to harass?”
“I don't have a problem with anyone but you, and I'll keep after you until you listen.”
“I listen,” she said patiently. “I know you miss your friends, but, Marty, those people are no friends to you.”
“How would you know? I haven't noticed anyone flocking around you. Face it, Sophie, you don't know how to make friends and you're jealous that I have so many.”
“Your so-called friends are nothing but trouble.” Another mistake, Sophie thought the moment the words were out. It just gave Marty more reason to fight back. How did her little sister always manage to get her back up?
Marty gave her a sour smile. “Then I fit right in with them, don't I?”
“The goddamned towels are in the goddamned linen closet. Teal and beige and ivory and lavender and every other damned color you seem to think is necessary,” she snapped. “All set for your goddamned guests. Now, leave me alone.”
She slammed out of the room, taking her coffee and the paper with her. Sophie watched her go, a tight hand clamping around her heart. She reached for the third muffin.
It didn't look as if things were going to get any
better in the near future. Marty had been sullen and depressed for the last few months, ever since they'd arrived in Colby. Sophie had hoped and prayed that getting her away from the city would give her a new start. That sunshine and country air and hard work would start to make the difference.
So far things hadn't improved noticeably. While Sophie did her best to manage a strained smile and ignore Marty's sullen hostility, she wasn't really made for sainthood. Tough love, she reminded herself, like a litany.
They were a mismatched family, the three of them. Grace had divorced her stodgy, Midwestern husband when Sophie was just nine, put her only child in boarding school and taken off for parts unknown. Sophie's father, Morris, had quickly remarried, sired another daughter, Marty, providing a stifled, antiseptic existence for Sophie on her vacations. All that had changed when Marty was nine and her parents died in a car accident. Family was family, and Sophie, fresh out of Columbia, had taken her sister under her wing and provided a home for her in Grace's rambling old apartment on East Sixty-sixth Street. Losing her parents at a young age had been bound to have an effect on Marty, but globe-trotting Grace and stay-at-home Sophie had done their best to fill that void, and succeeded marginally well. Until the last year and a half, when Marty had gone from one disastrous incident to a
worse one, and Grace had been diagnosed with a recurrence of breast cancer. It had been downhill from there.
She finished the muffin, then pushed away from the table before she could go searching for more comfort food. She'd been working nonstop for the last few months. Stonegate Farm hadn't been run as an inn since the early 1980s and the entire place had been abandoned for the last five years. Just clearing out the debris had been a massive undertaking, and the decorating and paintingânot to mention structural repairs that had taken what little money Sophie had leftâwere a Herculean effort. She'd finished the main building, but the wing off the back was outright dangerous, and she'd boarded it up until she could decide whether to try to salvage it or to tear it down completely.
For the time being she had enough on her plate with the main part of the farm. She couldn't afford much helpâand Grace was too scattered and Marty was almost more trouble than she was worth to be of much use. The inn was close to being ready for its grand opening, and Sophie's nerves were stretched to the breaking point. Every room was booked for the foliage season, and if she managed to carry this off then her worries would be over. Wouldn't they?
She moved to the multipaned window over the
sink, glancing down to the lake. The cool stillness of it called to her, and she tried to resist.
She ought to get to work, she knew it, but for some reason she couldn't quite manage to exert herself. It was a beautiful morning in late summerâthe windows were open, letting in a soft breeze, and overhead the sugar maples stirred and whispered. She'd been working so damned hard in the six months they'd been in Vermontâsurely she deserved a day off? A day where she could lie around and do crossword puzzles and smoke cigarettes as Marty spent her days when Sophie wasn't hassling her.
Scratch that, no more cigarettes. And she'd really rather curl up in a hammock with a stack of cookbooks and another muffinâ¦.
She'd eaten the last one, without even realizing it. It was a good thing she favored loose-fitting clothing that covered a multitude of dietary sins. Unlike her skinny sister, who liked to show as much skin as she could.
Lazing in a hammock on a warm summer day wasn't for the likes of her, not this summer. Maybe by next year, when the inn was flourishing and she could afford to hire more help, she could take the occasional day off and enjoy the peaceful country existence she'd been fantasizing about all her life. In the meantime, there was work to be done if she was ever going to get the place ready for the inva
sion of guests in two weeks' time. Not only that, but she had a column due on Friday, and she hadn't even started it.
She probably ought to give up the writing, but she couldn't bring herself to do it.
Letters from Stonegate Farm
, the column she wrote for the small Long Island magazine, kept her grounded, reminded her that she was living her dream. After years of telling bored women how to make their own pasta, how to turn empty milk jugs into elegant plant containers, how to turn a tract home into a rural charmer or a fairy-tale palace, she was finally able to put it all into practice. And before long she'd have an appreciative audience, instead of a moody teenage sister and a mother who didn't seem to notice anything at all.