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Consequence (by Madeline Sloane ~ Excerpt)

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Syndicated columnist Bridget Cormac has built a comfy lifestyle writing about history’s mysteries. When Police Chief Alec Boone drops a 50-year-old murder case in her lap, she’s eager to assist. Friendship kindles into a passionate affair, but their relationship is tested when the two professionals butt heads over the outcome of their findings.
An ivory tower researcher, Bridget seeks fame. An honorable lawman, Boone seeks justice. When Boone uses her research to arrest the culprit, an abused woman who killed to protect her child, Bridget is filled with remorse.
Can she live with the consequences of her ego-driven quest? Bridget may have to decide which is more important: Her new assignment or her new love.

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Consequence (by Madeline Sloane ~ Excerpt)

  1. 1. Consequence! (Excerpt) ! Book One in Secrets of Eaton ! ! ! By MADELINE SLOANE !
  2. 2. Copyright © 2012 by Madeline Sloane All rights reserved http://www.MadelineSloane.com ! This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you're reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author. ! This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events or locales is entirely coincidental. Prepared for publication by The Omnibus Publishing. !
  3. 3. ALSO BY MADELINE SLOANE The Women of Eaton Series ! Distracted East of Eaton West Wind ! ! ! ! ! To Ivan !
  4. 4. ! PROLOGUE ! APRIL 12, 1961 ! Light from the kerosene lantern threw grotesque shadows on the wall as the woman struggled with the corpse. She rolled the dead man over and over until he fell, facedown in the crawlspace beneath the cabin. She reached into his back pocket and removed his wallet, then picked up the floorboards and placed them over the opening with care. Using a rusty hammer, she pounded the nails back into place. In the corner, a small girl stared vacantly, tears drying on her dark cheeks. She flinched when her mother called. “Cherry, get that quilt off the bed,” she said, her voice hushed. They searched the small cabin for anything they could carry then the woman slung the knotted bundle over her shoulder and opened the cabin door. “Come on, baby,” she said. “We have to leave now.” Cherry took her mother’s hand and they slipped into the night. !
  5. 5. CHAPTER ONE ! Bridget Cormac drove fast despite the snowy weather. After seven hours on the road, most of them in blizzard conditions, she was exhausted and wanted to get home. She’d spent the past week at Boston’s luxurious Park Plaza. Decorated for the holiday, the elegant hotel sparkled with lights and ornaments but, like many of its guests, Bridget missed being home on Christmas day. Her heart lifted as she approached the old farmhouse on Last Chance Road. She could see the kitchen light glowing through faded, linen curtains. A bag of warm cheeseburgers rested on the car seat next to her. They were peace offerings for her dogs, although a neighbor stopped by once a day to feed them whenever she traveled. She coasted into the drive and touched the brakes. A police cruiser blocked the garage. Chief Alec Boone stood in the breezeway, stomping his snowy boots. She pressed a button and the electric window slid down, then stopped, half-frozen. Falling snowflakes peppered her hair when she leaned out. The sight would alarm most people, but Bridget smirked. “Hey, you galoot! Move your car so I can pull into the garage.” Boone tipped his hat and sprinted back to the Crown Victoria Police Interceptor. He cranked the powerful motor, slipped it into reverse and backed down the drive. Bridget depressed the garage remote control and within seconds the heavy door slid up its tracks. She punched the gas pedal and shot into the dark, bumping into an empty trashcan before stopping. She climbed out of the car, leaving her luggage but hugging the bag of burgers to her shoulder, and pushed the wall-mounted button to close the garage door. She passed through the storm door into the cluttered breezeway, as Boone once again stomped his boots clean of snow on the stoop. “Why don’t you be a sweetie and get my suitcase out of the trunk?” He caught the tossed car keys handily. “Do I get a cheeseburger, too?” “No. These are for Squirt and Morty. I’ll make you some coffee, though.”
  6. 6. She approached the kitchen door and heard the scrabbling of claws and excited whining. Squirt, a large shepherd mix, and Morty, a small, furry mongrel of terrier and Chihuahua heritage, shot out the door once it opened. They danced circles around Bridget. “Yes, yes, Mummy’s home,” she gushed. “Yes, I’ve got your cheeseburgers. Come on inside.” She tried to hug the wiggling dogs, then gave up. Swinging the aromatic bag, she enticed them into the kitchen. Morty, however, eyeballed the storm door and waited for Boone to reappear. Then he growled and dove for an ankle, sinking his teeth in Boone’s boot. Ignoring him, Boone walked into the kitchen, dragging the snarling dog. He dropped the suitcase with a clunk and then lifted his leg. Morty, teeth still embedded in the leather, swung in semi-circles, growling furiously. “Can’t you teach him manners?” “He does it because he likes you,” Bridget said. She unwrapped the burgers, then cut them into quarters using a pizza slicer. “Hey, let go Morty. This tastes better.” She waved a morsel of melted cheese and meat by the little dog’s nose and he snatched at it, releasing Boone’s boot and falling with a thump. Undeterred, the small dog rebounded, leapt into the air and snagged the burger from Bridget’s outstretched fingers. Squirt sat like a lady, waiting for a signal. With Bridget’s permission, Squirt stood on her hind legs, rested her paws on the counter and nibbled at the burger quarters. Bridget wadded the fast food wrappers and tossed them, along with the sack, into the garbage can. Then she washed her hands and took off her coat, hanging it on a hook behind the kitchen door. She reached for a Mason jar of coffee beans and the grinder. “Would you like Columbian or French Roast?” Boone put his hat on the kitchen table and slid his jacket off, draping it over a hook. He sank into a nearby chair and sighed deeply. “Whatever you want. I’m bushed.” he said, massaging his forehead. He yawned and slouched in the chair. Squirt placed a paw on his knee and watched him with trusting, brown eyes. “Ahhh, you’re such a good dog,” Boone said, rubbing her furry ears.
  7. 7. “Yeah; she’s the best dog ever,” Bridget agreed, smiling when Squirt settled at his feet, her head on his cold, wet boot. Morty snuffed in disdain, then headed into the corner to his dog bed, keeping mistrustful black eyes pinned on Boone. The whirring and chopping of the bean grinder shattered the quiet of the kitchen and soon, the drip began. Bridget leaned into the counter and inhaled the bouquet. “Oh, I’ve missed this.” Over her shoulder, she said, “Hotels have coffee pots in the rooms, but I think it’s only to taunt people. I’ve never been able to make a decent cup. Those little packages of generic creamer and sugar are the pits,” she complained. “This pot was worth every penny.” Turning, Bridget saw that Boone dozed, his chin on his chest. She noted the black curly hair touching the collar of his brown uniform shirt. It was a bit longer than regulation for the by-the-book police officer. Laugh lines fanned from the corners of eyes framed with long lashes. A stoic man with a killer smile, Boone epitomized the cliché “tall, dark and handsome.” The youngest son in a large family, he resembled his mother, a beautiful and fiery singer from Frascati, Italy, a small town near Rome. While on tour thirty-five years earlier, she met and fell in love with Eli Boone, a country preacher. They married and she traded her operatic career for an enormous clan of rambunctious, dark-haired children. Although Carlina remained a devout Catholic, she also attended her husband’s church and reared their children in their father’s faith. The old song about the “son of a preacher man” was true – eight years before, Boone had been the wildest, most romantic summer fling of Bridget’s life. It was impossible to keep her hands off him, much less his off her, the summer after her senior year of high school. But that was a long time ago and their short romance settled into a comfortable friendship, with occasional escort duty on formal occasions. Boone didn’t date. He’d been engaged once to a young Mennonite girl, until a college-sponsored ski trip to the Poconos ended in tragedy. An eighteen-wheeler lost control on the icy road, colliding with the school van. Six students died. Boone, seriously injured and in a coma for two weeks, couldn’t remember the accident, a blessing since his fiancé, Daphne, died in his arms. After two years of rehabilitation, he still
  8. 8. walked with a slight limp. He stayed in Eaton, along with the rest of the Boone clan, and attended Marshall College to finish his degree. Bridget opted for a large university in North Carolina. She majored in history and creative writing and, luckily, found a job doing what she loved after graduation. She came home and worked at the local paper, the Eaton Daily News, where she developed a popular weekly column, “The History Detective.” She investigated mysteries of the past. She began with local and obscure oddities, but soon larger historical societies and museums invited her to solve their riddles. It became a unique and fascinating job. Before long, other newspapers asked to reprint the column and within a couple of years, she syndicated it to newspapers along the East Coast. As a full-time, freelance columnist, she chose her own topics and, because of its national appeal, found herself traveling frequently. Her latest trip had been at the request, and expense, of a wealthy Massachusetts family who claimed to possess one of the lanterns used to signal “one if by land, and two if by sea” at Boston’s Old North Church. Generations of schoolchildren learned the story of when Paul Revere took his midnight ride, thanks to the famous poem by Longfellow. The event preceded the battles of Lexington and Concord during the American Revolution, and Bridget accepted the assignment eagerly. It would take awhile to establish the lantern’s provenance, but the outcome was immaterial to Bridget. The story behind the journey to historic truth is what interested her readers. ! While Boone napped in the kitchen chair, Bridget opened the refrigerator and searched for a snack. She found a tube of cinnamon buns, turned on the oven and arranged the raw dough on a baking sheet. Boone slept despite the clatter and smell of cooking pastry. He worked such long hours, Bridget often wondered if he used his job to mask his sadness. She knew doctors diagnosed Boone with post-traumatic stress disorder after the accident, but he brushed off treatment saying “everyone gets stressed.” His solace came in the woods, photographing wildlife on long hikes. When he needed company, he went to Bridget’s old farmhouse where he relaxed in the easy chair, a cup of coffee in his hand and Squirt nestled beside his sprawling legs. Sometimes, he fell asleep, lulled by the crackling fire and Bridget would cover
  9. 9. him with an old comforter. Then she would curl up on the sofa and read, or retreat to her home office, researching the Internet for upcoming articles. Once, she stroked his face while he slept. Eyes closed, he murmured and grabbed her hand, pressing it to his lips. At that instant, Bridget ached for Boone, his touch reawakening youthful passion. She suppressed the urge and withdrew her hand. She didn’t want him to avoid her like he did other women. ! But tonight, Bridget snapped her fingers at Boone’s ear. “Wake up. Here’s your coffee.” Boone’s head jerked back, startled when Bridget set a steaming mug on the table. “I found cinnamon buns in the fridge. They’re in the oven.” She heaped sugar and creamer into her cup and stirred. “Be careful; it’s hot.” “I’m sorry. I didn’t realize I was so tired.” He yawned and stretched. “Not a problem. So, what have you been up to this past week?” He lifted the mug and closed his eyes, inhaling the fresh brew. “Just what I needed,” he said, placing the mug on the table. “I’ve been busy. Carlo and Nico found a body in an old shack.” Carlo and Nico, Boone’s older brothers, ran a tackle and bait shop along the river. During the winter, they closed for hunting. Bridget gasped. Murder? That kind of thing didn’t happen around Eaton, much less in the small town of Chance. When she’d left last week, Boone’s big “case” was a missing cow. “A body! What do you mean ‘a body’? How do you know it was murder?” “We’re assuming homicide at this point. The bashed-in skull and hasty burial indicate foul play.” “Where did they find it? Is it a man or a woman?” Boone shook his head. “Don’t know yet. Found it in the old shack on Weeping Woman Mountain. You know the one near the gorge? Abandoned for years. Thursday’s snowstorm was heavy, and rather than walk blind, Carlo and Nico decided to wait it out there.” Bridget bent over the stove, checking on the baking buns. “Who is it? Anyone I know?” “Can’t say yet. No identification.”
  10. 10. As she opened the oven door, the sweet smell of sugar and cinnamon filled the air. Squirt raised her head and sniffed. So did Boone. “Mmmmm. Those about done?” “Be patient.” She checked the digital timer. “Two more minutes. Now, tell me more about this body.” “Well, Carlo said they were sitting in the cabin and decided to make a fire. They couldn’t find any wood, so they ripped up a few of the floor boards. The place is falling apart. It was easy to yank them up. After they had the fire going and had more light, they started looking around the cabin. They found some old newspapers, rolled them and used them for torches … What?” Bridget snarled aloud. “That’s great! Old newspapers could have given us some valuable clues. Morons!” Boone didn’t refute it. “Anyway, it’s not recent murder. That’s where you come in. What I need is for you to do some of your historical research, see if you can help me pinpoint a time and, hopefully, a name.” Bridget’s first thought was to turn down Boone’s request. What they had was safe. Helping with an investigation could upset the balance. She could not accept the idea of losing his ... what? Friendship? Before she could answer, the timer went off, beeping relentlessly. She decided to wait and hear more about the mystery before agreeing. Impatient, she turned off the timer and opened the oven door. Caramelized sugar oozed down the sides of the buns, hissing against the hot baking sheet. With a mitt on each hand, she pulled out the pan and put it on top of the stove. Then, she swung back to Boone and crossed her arms. “They have to cool now before I can ice them. Continue.” He stood and walked to the stove, trying to reach around Bridget. “Just a bite....” Bridget slapped Boone’s wrist and Morty growled. “Ahh, ahh, ahh. Sit. You’ll get your share after you tell me more.” She opened a kitchen drawer, found a pair of scissors and cut the tip off the small tube of white icing. “Do you like a lot? Or a little?” “What? Excuse me?” “Do you like a lot? Of icing on your buns?” “Umm, a little, I guess.”
  11. 11. “Good. More for me.” Bridget finished icing the cinnamon buns and then squirted the last of it in her mouth. “Let’s go to the den. Get my coffee, will you?” She picked up the platter of buns and walked through the archway into the large room. The antique lamp by the window cast a warm glow on walls lined with logs and chinked with aging, cream-colored mortar. The fireplace was original fieldstone, built by master stonemasons in the early 1800s. Her kindhearted neighbor set the fireplace, in anticipation of Bridget’s return. All she had to do was strike a match. While Boone lit the fire, Bridget placed the cinnamon buns on the old oak table and sat on the sofa. She held the coffee mugs and waited for Boone to settle next to her. Before he could lean back, Morty jumped on the cushions and dove behind him, heading for Bridget’s lap. Squirt collapsed on the floor with a deep sigh. “Oh no, you don’t,” Bridget said, putting the coffee mugs back on the table and placing the small dog onto the floor. As a bribe, she pulled a bun apart and gave half to him, the other half to Squirt. Licking her fingers, she selected another bun. “Home, sweet home. Greedy dogs, grumpy men ….” Boone grimaced but let the insult slide, reaching instead for his mug. They ate several buns and slurped coffee in companionable silence. Soon, Boone placed another log on the fire. He moved ashes aside with the poker, uncovering the red-hot embers. Within minutes, the hardwood caught fire and heat blasted the room. “Ehh, now it’s too hot,” Bridget complained. She removed her flannel shirt, revealing the tight, tank top she wore instead of a bra. She kicked off her slippers and tucked her feet under Boone’s thigh. She leaned against the soft, chenille cushions and raised her mug for a sip. Her eyes glowed, her long hair folded in curls about her shoulders. She poked at Boone’s stomach with her toe, then put her foot in his lap. “Now, tell me about the body. What do we know about this person and how did he or she die?” Boone squirmed uncomfortably, not sure if her toes in his ribs discomfited him as much as her foot in his lap. He slipped off her sock and began to massage her foot. Lately, Bridget had been in his thoughts, even in his dreams at night. He wondered how it would be to kiss her, to stroke her curvy body now that she was older. She was unaware of her sex appeal and didn’t have a clue how it affected him.
  12. 12. Her trips from home were more frequent, which meant they didn’t see each other often. Maybe absence does make the heart grow fonder, he thought. “Well, that’s why I’m here. We don’t know who it is or when death occurred. I’m sure I can figure out how, but I thought this may be an interesting case. You might like to help me with the background.” Boone continued to rub her foot, sensuously stroking her toes and ankle. She put her other foot into his hands. “Sure, I’ll help,” she murmured, her eyes half closed. “That feels so nice, Boone.” She snuggled into the pillows with a contented sigh. Boone’s eyes dropped to her breasts. “Bridget,” he whispered. “Boone,” she whispered back, her head lolling on the pillows, her eyes closed as she luxuriated in his touch. “I have to go now.” Bridget didn’t react, locked in her cocoon. Boone abruptly put her feet on the couch and stood. “Thanks for the coffee. I’ve got to go.” Bridget rolled off the couch and bumped into the oak table, bruising her knee in the process. Morty raced into the kitchen after Boone, snarling his farewell. “What? Why?” Boone was already in the kitchen, grabbing his hat and slinging his quilted, police-issue jacket over his shoulder. “I’ll talk to you tomorrow,” he said, then slipped out the kitchen door. Bridget heard the cruiser’s engine rumble down the long, winding driveway. She looked at Squirt, feeling a little guilty but not sure why. “Was it something I said?” !
  13. 13. CHAPTER TWO ! Bridget’s farmhouse sat off Last Chance Road. A testament to the past, it was a drafty, two-story structure with the requisite dank basement and heirloom-filled attic. She took over the property when her father died. Her mother, Fiona, moved to a condo in Tarpon Springs, a quaint, Greek fishing and sponge diving community on Florida’s Gulf Coast. She missed her husband of thirty years, but after Kieran Cormac’s death, the attractive and young-at-heart Fiona remarried. Her new husband, Fred Chapman, owned a famous restaurant and made millions on his conch fritter recipe. Fiona relinquished her share of the family homestead in Pennsylvania, opting for the carefree, sunny lifestyle of Florida. She played golf, lounged by the swimming pool, enjoyed weekend jaunts on their fifty- foot powerboat, and shopped to her heart’s content. Last Chance Road, the western extension of Riverfront in Eaton, was the main road in the township of Chance. It skirted the southern side of Breakthrough Lake, before continuing west. More than 2,000 people lived in the rural community dedicated to agriculture, their farms scattered across the mountainside and in small valleys. The local Amish population increased as traditional farming became less popular with younger generations. Royalties paid on natural gas extraction helped revive some properties, but not many. Most of the people visiting Chance were either shopping at Peachy’s, or vacationing at the spring-fed Breakthrough Lake. Surrounded by flourishing forests of white pine, cypress and hemlock, Breakthrough Lake Lodge became a luxury resort in the early 1900s. Wealthy Pennsylvanian families, eager to escape the summer heat of the city, flocked to the resort. Lakeshore Road, which encircled the attraction, was a scenic highway flanked by extravagant lodges and rustic, one-room cabins. The Chance Police seldom encountered crime. The prevalent 911 calls were for traffic accidents since the wide roadway enticed tourists to speed. Many involved wild animals that wandered across the blacktop. As he patrolled the road, Deputy Neil Boudin’s tire spun on a slippery patch of ice. He slowed to a stop, then parked along the patched guardrail. He recalled the last time he’d been at that spot was after a horrific accident the summer before. Two teens from Eaton hit a deer and rolled their jeep into the ravine. The Jeep
  14. 14. came to a stop, upside down in the creek and a young woman almost drowned before her boyfriend freed her. Neil appraised the serene, whitewashed landscape. Verdant cedar trees bowed under the weight of snow, while ice twisted naked brown branches into fantastical shapes. Sitting in the warm police cruiser, its engine idling, he saw a timid doe step onto the road. Seconds later, a small herd of does followed her, ushered by a strutting ten-point buck. They paused mid-way when the buck lifted his head to listen. Seconds later, a mud- splattered pickup truck barreled down the road and the deer leapt to the woods on the far side. Neil didn’t need a radar gun to know the truck was speeding. The limit on Last Chance Road was forty- five and the truck had to be going twenty miles over that. He flipped on the police lights and siren and made a quick U-turn. ! ! Bridget cranked the washing machine switch to normal and slammed the lid, then heard the telephone ringing. She raced upstairs, but the answering machine clicked on. She snatched the kitchen telephone off its cradle, interrupting the recording. “Hello, hello? Wait a second. I’m here.” She ran into her office and turned off the recorder, then lifted the extension. “Hi. Who’s calling?” “Hello. May I please speak with the person responsible for the telephone account?” The lilting voice belonged to a foreign salesman inviting her to upgrade her long-distance service. After several seconds and at least four “No, thank yous,” Bridget hung up the telephone. She walked into the hallway, kicking a tennis ball in frustration, which set off Morty. He snagged the ball and brought it back to Bridget, dropping it on her shoe and staring at her with beady black eyes. “No. I’m not playing with you. Go away.” The telephone began to buzz. “If you would like to make a call …” She walked back into the kitchen and slammed the phone onto its cradle. Four days and Boone still hadn’t called her about the body. She’d left messages on his home and work phones, and even tried his cell. “He’s not going to get rid of me that easily,” she told Morty. She shoved her fists into the pockets of her sweater, a misshapen mass of beige wool that once belonged to her father. She wore the frumpy sweater
  15. 15. whenever she worked in her office, a drafty old porch converted into a sunny, yet chilly, oasis. Here, tropical plants survived despite bitter blasts that whistled through the cracks of the antique windows. She kept a small, electric heater under her desk and a blanket on which both dogs napped while she worked. She knew Boone was avoiding her, but couldn’t understand why. Annoyed, she decided to confront him. Since it was laundry day, Bridget wore a pair of torn jeans and a shabby T-shirt. She considered changing clothes, but instead jerked on her boots and grabbed her coat off the hook. She dropped her car keys in her pocket along with her wallet. She slammed through the breezeway and into the garage. While the car heated, she groped the remote and the door rumbled up its tracks. It stuck halfway. She pressed the button again and it rumbled down, clunking against the concrete drive. On the second try, the door went all the way. Her car slid as she backed out of the garage. The driveway was slick beneath the accumulated snow. Drifts reached the bottom of the car door. Bright, reflected sunlight stabbed her eyes and she fumbled on the dashboard for a pair of sunglasses. Then she pushed the remote switch one more time to close her garage. Nothing happened. “Dang it!” she snarled, then drove away, leaving the garage open. She knew the dogs would soon slip out the pet door and forage in the garbage cans, knocking them over and spreading coffee grounds. On the plowed main road, snowmelt turned to gray slush. A car driven by a teenager passed her on the left, spraying her windshield with mud and snow. She turned on her wipers and the mess spread. “Thanks jerk!” Bridget wasn’t angry; she was panicking. Boone hadn’t called for several days. Was he avoiding her? For two years while rehabilitating, Boone lived as a recluse, allowing only family and Bridget into his private world. Now, she was being excluded. She pulled into the driveway of the Chance Police Department and skidded halfway into a parking space, too close for comfort to Boone’s cruiser. Good enough, she rationalized, then abandoned the car. Her boots crunched on the icy, snow-packed pavement. A wisp of smoke rose from the chimney of the police station, an old stone church converted into a jail and offices in the 1950s.
  16. 16. Boone peered over his newspaper when the large, wood door swung open and Bridget entered the building. She slammed the door, then strode to Boone and whacked his boots off the desk. “You haven’t called me. What’s the big idea?” Boone tossed the paper aside and stood. He towered over her, a calm and authoritative presence in his starched, khaki shirt and dark brown pants. Her eyes rested on his gold shield, a star emblazoned across the keystone, then flitted up his chest to his neck, where a white T-shirt peeked above his shirt collar. Agitated, she flung her coat onto the deputy’s desk, stripping her baggy sweater in the process. She put her hands on her hips and planted herself in front of Boone, her eyes blazing. Boone’s eyes fastened on her chest, heaving with each angry inhalation. The cropped, tight T-shirt bared her midriff and strained against her breasts. Her nipples were erect and visible through the threadbare, pink cotton. He glanced down, noting her low-slung, ripped jeans. Part of the pocket hung through the frayed edges. Another hole crossed her knee and yet a third hung in a flap by her calf. Through it, he could see a pink fuzzy sock. “Up here,” she snarled, her index finger lifting his chin. Boone gulped. “What’s wrong, Bridget? Why are you here?” “What’s wrong?” she repeated. “You’re asking me ‘what’s wrong’? What’s wrong with you? You asked me for help, remember? You tell me you’re going to call me and then ignore me for nearly a week! And you want to know what’s wrong?” “It hasn’t been a week…,” Boone began. “Close enough. What am I? A skunk?” Unconsciously, Bridget moved closer. “Are you avoiding me, Boone?” “I’m sorry,” he murmured. “I’ve been busy.” Bridget sniffled, then rubbed at her nose with the back of her hand. Boone chuckled at the childish gesture. Sitting back on his desk he reached for a box of tissues and offered her one. When she took two, he set the box down, put his hands on her hips and guided her between his knees. Stoic, he waited while she dabbed her eyes and blew her nose. Sliding his hands to rest on her shoulders, he bent forward and touched his forehead to hers.
  17. 17. “Its okay, Bridget.” “No it’s not,” she whispered. “You’ve never ignored me before. That’s what you do to everyone else, Boone. Not me.” She snuggled closer, intoxicated by his warmth and his aftershave, a popular, new brand. A bit overwhelmed by his masculinity, Bridget considered flinging herself into the police chief’s lap. She struggled for composure. “I thought you wanted me to help with your case,” she said. Boone wrapped his arms around her and rubbed her back. He could feel her relaxing against him, but unfortunately, the same wasn’t happening to him. Her hair smelled like apples and tickled his cheek. He felt a kick in his gut when her heavy breasts pressed against him. His palms, warm on her back, slowed. Then he pushed her away, took a deep breath and stood. “Bridget. You can’t do this,” he said, moving behind his desk. “Do what?” she asked, looking at him in confusion. “You can’t come in here, looking like that and making ….” Boone tapered off when Deputy Neil Boudin opened the front door. “Hello Bridget. How are you?” Without waiting for an answer, he turned to Boone. “Have you seen the waterfall at Weeping Woman Mountain? Frozen solid.” Neil put his hat on top of the rack, hung up his coat then headed for the restroom. Bridget frowned and looked at her shabby clothes. It dawned on her, she hadn’t even brushed her hair. Boone didn’t want a frumpy, emotional female crying in his office. “I’m sorry this doesn’t meet your approval. It’s laundry day and everything’s in the wash,” she said plucking the thin material away from her skin. Boone once again caught his breath, and his eyes flitted toward the empty jail cell. Cheeks flushed with embarrassment, she gathered her coat and sweater, put them on and headed for the door. “Bridget, wait. It’s not what you think,” he said. She paused at the door, reaching in her pocket for the car keys.
  18. 18. Boone cleared his throat. “Look, let’s have lunch tomorrow. I’ll meet you in town and we’ll talk. Okay?” Bridget nodded, then opened the door and walked out into the cold sunshine. Boone sank to his chair and let out a deep breath. Lately, the physical side of their friendship drove him crazy. He couldn’t look at Bridget without wanting her. He ran a hand through his hair. If he didn’t do something about it soon, he’d explode. ! ! Since she was already out, Bridget took advantage of the clear weather and drove to Peachy’s, the region’s closest thing to a shopping mall. The small feed store opened in the 1840s and once it evolved into a general store, the family’s retail instincts kicked into overdrive. Now a complex of specialty shops and service outlets, it housed the area’s largest grocery store and bakery, as well as a pet store, a beauty salon, and even a family gym that housed a DVD rental outlet. The rental shop enjoyed a cult following since it also offered films in Beta and VHS. When other stores went out of business nationwide, it scooped up a large selection of genre films. As she approached the lot, Bridget noted a white trailer parked beside the gas station. She pulled to the pumps and turned off her engine. Cindy Peachy, owner of the station, exited the glass-fronted service area. A fur-lined hood shrouded her face, but there was no mistaking her identity. Cindy stood six-foot, a willowy and athletic woman whose height and unflappable demeanor intimidated most people. Bridget stepped out into the frigid air. She shoved her fists into her jacket pockets and hunched her shoulders. “Are you busy today?” “No. What do you need?” Bridget glanced at her car. Mud and slush enveloped it. She suspected Neil was responsible for the “Wash Me!” message on the side panel. “A car wash and an oil change. Replace the filters?” Bridget squinted at a portable sign next to a rack of transmission fluid. “How about the ‘Express?’ No wait, make that the ‘Signature Service.’“ “Sure. Need gas?”
  19. 19. Bridget handed her the car keys. She appreciated the personal, attentive service and friendly people of a small town. It was nice to be home again. “Yes, can you fill it up?” Cindy twisted her wrist to look at her watch. “It’ll be ready in thirty minutes. That okay with you?” “Sure.” She slung her purse over her shoulder, then pointed at the trailer in the side lot. “What’s going on over there?” Cindy snorted. “Jack’s moving along with his grand plan for ‘Peachy’s Mall.’“ Bridget recalled the gawky youth, a couple years ahead of her in high school. He’d been a bit of a geek then, hanging around the computer lab and avoiding most of the school’s social events. Some people thought it strange the son of Dave and Miranda Peachy Frey, the health and fitness nuts who operated the gym at Peachy’s, would be intellectual, preferring math class to athletics. Now an architect, Jack Frey planned to modernize Peachy’s. Bridget scanned the complex and winced. It did have a lackadaisical, patchwork appearance. Additions were slapped to the whole as generations of Peachys joined the family business. “You don’t care for his plan?” “So long as he doesn’t block my customers, I’m okay with it. He’s a bit persuasive though, you know? And I’m not going to let him gussy up my place. If he had his way, all of the shops would be same.” That would detract from Peachy’s ambiance, Bridget thought, but there’s a lot to be said for moving forward. She thanked Cindy and scurried towards the entrance, grabbing a shopping cart from the kiosk on her way. She kept her parka on, covering her laundry-day duds. She angled the cart towards the fruit and vegetable aisle, choosing bananas and apples before working her way to the dairy department. On auto pilot, she tossed containers into the cart, her hand hovering over a tube of cinnamon buns. She kept a package in the fridge for when Boone stopped by. It was his favorite. Her eyes flicked over the assorted read-to-bake pastry. “Humph,” she muttered. “Too busy, huh? Fine. Whatever.” She passed over cinnamon for an orange swirl variety and wheeled away before she changed her mind. !
  20. 20. CHAPTER THREE ! Bridget opened the large oak and beveled-glass door and entered the town’s bookstore. Once owned by the same family for more than one hundred years, the bookstore recently changed hands. The former owners, the Sullivans, now lived in Florida not too far from Bridget’s mother. Bridget didn’t know the new owners, Erica Moore or Robert Hall, well. Erica was older by several years and from a different part of town. She always kept to herself, although Bridget recalled there had been talk about Erica when the high school girl became pregnant. Bridget had been in middle school when Erica graduated, the baby bump prominent under her commencement gown. Small-town girls didn’t become unmarried teen moms often, and Erica became the object of gossip. As a young girl, Bridget never understood the viciousness the older teens showed Erica. She seemed like a nice person and her little blonde daughter, Daisy, was adorable. She knew it must have been difficult for Erica to graduate from high school, attend college, work and save money to open her own business. And the mean girls who’d shunned Erica in school, now shopped at the bookstore and tried to chat with her as if they’d always been friends. Robert Hall, an attorney in town, was the same age as Erica. Sophisticated, intelligent and superstar handsome, Robert hovered above the other residents of Eaton. Although he worked as an attorney, his quiet indifference and raw sensuality made him unapproachable. He bestowed his attention on Erica, and his sister, Katrina Hall, another person whose beauty and intellect intimidated people. The rumor was, Robert preferred dating models and spent his free time in New York City. Bridget, like many others in the area, wondered why he stayed in Eaton when he could move his law practice and hobnob with the rich and famous. She supposed he stayed to be close to his sister and his father, a quiet widower who lived alone. A Philippine sculptor, Manolo Hall married a young American woman serving at the Subic Bay Naval Station. Happy and in love, they lived with their two beautiful babies until Judith became ill, and Manolo
  21. 21. returned with her to her hometown of Eaton. A tragic story, Manolo’s young children lost their mother to cancer. Then, in June 1991, Mount Pinatubo exploded and day turned to night when the volcanic ash blotted the sun. Earthquakes, coupled with the torrential rain, lightning and thunder of Typhoon Yunya went down in history as Black Saturday. Their home in Subic Bay lay buried under a foot of sandy ash. At the time, Judith’s parents were still living. Manolo decided to stay, giving his children the opportunity to know their grandparents. The Rhodes helped the young immigrant during his struggles as a single parent, and grew to love his quiet, gentle ways. When they, too, passed away, they left their property and modest wealth to the Halls. Manolo used the inheritance to ensure his children received a college education, and whatever remained he put into a trust for Robert and Katrina to buy their own homes. Manolo rejected the offers to live with either child, choosing instead to build a small house near Breakthrough Lake. More a studio than home, the bright, airy location served as a backdrop for his work. Hikers who ranged close to the property often encountered his cast-iron sculptures, melded with the natural setting. Katrina decided to cash in her trust and used it to buy the family’s house from her brother. Then, they both settled into the large, Tudor-styled structure, with Robert paying Katrina rent. She worked for the local newspaper and gained a reputation for being brilliant and ruthless when pursuing a story. She enjoyed her beat, covering local crime stories. Robert purchased a building in Eaton’s downtown area, where he operated his law office. The property overlooked the river, and he leased the open floor space for trendy lofts. He could have lived there, also, but he preferred the quiet neighborhood of the family home. Besides, he didn’t want to leave Katrina alone. A natural businessman, Robert’s investments always turned a profit. He used his extra income to help his friends begin their own businesses, and helped Katrina redecorate the old Colonial home. People were not surprised when Robert Hall and Erica Moore opened East of Eaton and the shop became an instant hit. The remodeled shop dazzled visitors with its spacious, tasteful decor and its extensive inventory. No longer cramped, dark and smelly, the store became a destination. It boasted a trendy cafe, a
  22. 22. stage for open-mic nights and musical acts, and a children’s area where younger visitors could read, play or watch movies in safety while parents shopped. The store’s name, a clever play on the book “East of Eden” by John Steinbeck, revealed its owners’ humorous side. They dubbed the reading area with comfortable couches and large club chairs “The Land of Nod” since many customers napped there, magazines and books stretched across their chests or nestled in their naps. Perhaps the shop’s name and Nod were a bit irreverent, but it didn’t hurt business. Bibles were the top seller, and adorned the end of several aisles. It made it easier for staff to explain the Genesis reference and the books flew off the shelves. As she browsed the cooking section, waiting for Boone to call, Bridget noticed Erica Moore dusting the stacks nearby. Her attention diverted to an attractive man walking towards Erica, his raised finger against his lips. Bridget recognized the local history professor Clay Knight and winked in silent agreement. A second later, caught from behind and swept off her feet, Erica squealed and dropped the duster. Recognizing her assailant, she wrapped her arms around his neck and lifted her face for a kiss. Bridget grinned, a bit envious, but happy for the couple. Behind the cash register, June Moore beamed at the playful pair. The older woman, an employee who came with the bookstore, married Erica’s father recently. Erica gained a new mother, and a top-notch manager for the shop. “Hey, get a room you two.” Bridget turned towards the second floor mezzanine to see Marcel, chef of the coffee shop, taunting the couple. Clay ignored him and pulled Erica onto a sofa. Marcel caught Bridget’s eye and waved. “Bridget, come here. I’ve got a wonderful new latte recipe I need someone to try.” Bridget shelved the cookbook and headed for the stairs. “Don’t need to ask me twice,” she said. A luxurious retreat, the café’s velvet sofas and leather club chairs flanked small round tables and drew customers like flies. A few of Eaton’s citizenry were already tucked away, sipping coffee, reading newspapers, typing on portable tablets and laptop computers.
  23. 23. At the top of the stairs, Bridget greeted Janet Woods, the store clerk who moderated the book discussion groups and informal gatherings. “Hi Bridget,” Janet said. “Hey, I need a theme for this weekend’s open mic night. What do you think? Romantic standards, reggae, Celtic. Any suggestions?” “Romantic standards, definitely,” Bridget said, wagging her eyebrows. “I see Clay Knight’s back. It’s sweet he and Erica are reconciled.” “Oh yes,” Janet drawled, “didn’t you hear? They’re getting married and opening a new bookstore in Virginia. Her dad and June will run this shop.” “If she hadn’t, I would have snatched that man in a heartbeat,” Marcel quipped. “As if,” Janet retorted. “How are things with you and Tim Rogers?” Bridget asked. Janet’s cheeks pinked and she shook her head, looking away. “She’s too shy,” Marcel said, “and he’s too stupid. He has no idea. Speaking of love, Bridget, are you getting some, girl? Tell me everything.” Marcel put a mug of steamy latte on the counter, sat on a stool and crossed his legs. “Not a chance, Marcel,” she said, rolling her eyes. Her cell phone rang. “Excuse me,” she murmured checking the caller ID. Lifting the small phone to her ear, she wandered towards the restrooms, out of earshot. “Hello?” Boone’s voice was warm and intimate. “Hi. Where are you?” “East of Eaton. I stopped by for a few minutes.” “You want to have lunch there?” Bridget peeped over her shoulder and caught Marcel and Janet watching her curiously. Marcel had a wicked gleam in his eye. “No, not here. Umm…,” she trailed off. “Meet me out front in two minutes and we can drive to Frankie’s.” “Okay.”
  24. 24. She punched the small button, ending the call then put the cell phone in her coat pocket. Returning to the counter, she picked up the latte and swallowed it in several gulps. She slammed the mug on the counter and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. “Wonderful! Thanks, Marcel. Got to go,” she said, then flew down the stairs and ran out the front door. Janet and Marcel raced to the balcony in time to see the Chance police chief’s cruiser stop alongside the curb. They exchanged glances with June. “What’s the pool up to now?” Marcel asked, inclining his head towards the storefront. June peered out the window as Boone opened the car door from within for Bridget. She daintily pushed her half-glasses up her nose. “Two hundred and twenty dollars.” Marcel let out a wolf whistle. The sound caught Erica’s attention, and her head popped up from the deep confines of a sofa at the back of the store. “What did you see?” Marcel danced a jig in the café. “Well, Miss Nosey, get ready to lose twenty dollars.” “What twenty dollars?” Clay asked. Tim Rogers walked through the shop carrying a heavy box of books. He set them on the counter for June to sort through. “Did someone win the pool?” Tim asked. Marcel’s laugh pealed. “Mark my words, amateurs. Boone and Bridget are days away.” Clay looked at Erica curiously. “Days away from what?” She blushed. “Falling in love.” Marcel snickered. “That’s one way of putting it.” June removed an assortment of travel books from the box. “I still say it’s March with the spring equinox.” “I’ve got the week of Valentine’s Day. Marcel has the first week of the new year,” Janet added. “Want in on the pool, Clay?” “I’ll be happy to take your money, gorgeous,” Marcel quipped. A quizzical look on his face, Clay tucked an errant curl behind Erica’s ear. “Boone? Is he the guy who came to the house last summer?”
  25. 25. Erica nodded, a sad smile tugging at her lips. “He’s the police chief of Chance, the little town outside Eaton,” she explained. “Where the kids had the accident.” The “kids” – Erica’s daughter, Daisy, and Clay’s nephew, Brian Elder – were dating before the adults knew each other and, in August, were in a horrifying car accident together. While driving to Peachy’s, Brian swerved to avoid hitting a deer on Last Chance Road, crashing through a guard rail and rolling his uncle’s Jeep down a hill and into a flooded creek. A quick response on Brian’s saved the injured Daisy, whose seatbelt prevented her from escaping. For several horrifying minutes, she’d been pinned underwater. He pulled her from the wreckage and administered CPR, then climbed the hillside with an injured leg to flag a passing motorist. Police Chief Alec Boone responded to the scene and once the teens were en route to the hospital, he rushed to the Moore house and informed Erica and Clay of the accident. Although Clay met Boone only twice – at the house and again when he went to the Chance Police impound lot – he admired the man. Erica knew Boone a bit better, and credited him with saving her sanity one night on Weeping Woman Mountain. Filled with fear and rage, she’d blamed Clay for the accident, breaking up with him. She’d gone for a long, meandering drive and wound up on the mountain road near the waterfall. There, no one would hear her heart-breaking cries. Boone, patrolling the township, came across Erica and offered her a bit of comfort and a lot of advice. Although several months passed before Erica overcame her anger, Boone’s sage words helped pave the way to forgiveness. She recalled him saying, “... you can’t anguish over what could have been. I know how it feels to love someone and then lose them in an accident. You can’t assign blame. You can’t hide behind your anger. It will eat away at you until there’s nothing left.” ! “What date did you select?” Clay asked Erica. “I picked April,” she said with a grin. “But I don’t mind losing. I want everyone to be as happy as we are.” “Count me in,” Clay said, opening his wallet. “I’ll take the end of February, when the ice breaks on the lake.”
  26. 26. !
  27. 27. CHAPTER FOUR ! Bridget and Boone slid into the first open booth at Frankie’s Diner, facing each other. While Bridget’s eyes scanned the room for people she knew, Boone read the laminated menu. “I don’t know why you bother,” she said, lifting her chin to nod at Frankie. She raised two fingers. “You always order the same thing.” “I can change,” he said, winking at her over the menu. Frankie plunked two thick white cups of steaming coffee on the table. She removed a small tablet from her grease-stained apron pocket, then reached behind her ear for an ink pen. Her face crinkled into a smile, her blue eyes twinkling behind eyeglasses. Frankie, a thick-waisted matron in her late sixties, kept her curly, salt-and-pepper hair short and while working at the diner, in a hair net. She looked and acted like a public school cafeteria lady, which she had been for thirty-eight years. Instead of retiring, she and her husband, Joe, purchased the old diner on Main Street. The diner had been a hangout for teens during the 1950s and ‘60s, and the wooden tables still bore the etched initials of most of the people of Eaton. The green leather benches had been re-upholstered in the late 1980s, but other than that, and the microwave oven and soda fountain, the diner remained the same, frozen in time. Frankie added a comforting ambiance. Since she had slapped Salisbury steaks, mashed potatoes and gravy on the lunch trays of most residents also, during her tenure at the elementary school. She claimed she knew everyone by their first name, as well as their parent’s and even most grandparents. “Afternoon, Boone. The usual?” Frankie’s pen hovered over the pad. “What about you, Bridget? What’ll you have today?” “I’ll have the soup of the day and an egg salad sandwich,” Bridget said pulling napkins from the dispenser. Boone hesitated so long, a frown creased Frankie’s forehead. She shuffled her sore feet. Bridget clasped her fingers on the tabletop and waited. Seconds passed with still no answer. Bridget pushed the Boone’s menu down and quirked her eyebrow.
  28. 28. He forced a quick grin at her, then tilted his head to Frankie. “The usual. Thanks.” Frankie shook her head, tucked the pad back in her apron pocket and ambled away. Boone leaned back into the booth, one hand on the table and another resting on his thigh. He rubbed his thumb and forefinger together, then shrugged. Bridget poured sugar from the container onto a spoon, then stirred it into her coffee. She added a splash of cream from a small silver pitcher. Wrapping both hands around the cup, she raised it and sipped carefully. “When are we going out to the cabin?” Boone looked over his shoulder when the small bell pealed over the opened diner door. He watched a couple with a toddler enter, then head for the back of the diner where the highchairs were stored. “We’ll go tomorrow,” he said, looking back at Bridget. “Sounds good. I guess I’ll go to the courthouse and look through property records. I wonder if someone around here knows anything about the owner.” “I’ll ask Frankie,” Boone said, watching her efficient moves behind the counter. Ten minutes later, Frankie placed their food on the table, refreshed their coffee and asked if they needed anything else. “Boone has a question,” Bridget blurted. He eyed the steaming pile of breakfast mess on his plate, a conglomeration of scrambled eggs, spicy sausage, grilled onions and cheese. He placed his napkin in his lap and picked up his fork. “It can wait.” Frankie winked. “I’ll be back.” ! Boone and Bridget moved to the counter after their meal, wanting to catch Frankie away from the other diners. Frankie swiped a damp tea cloth along the counter, catching crumbs and spills as she worked her way towards the couple. “What’s on your mind?” Bridget shifted forward on the stool when Boone spoke. “Can you recall who lived in the old cabin near Weeping Woman Falls? The one off the highway; not the one in the meadow.”
  29. 29. Frankie closed her eyes and stood still, searching through her mental file cabinet. “The Gaumer place,” she said. Boone pulled a small notepad from his uniform shirt pocket along with a mechanical pencil. He scribbled quickly. “Hmm,” Frankie continued. “I remember my parents talking about him. Creepy old man who shacked up with a young, black woman. They had a daughter near about my age. Name was Carol. No wait, Cherry.” “He was married to a black woman?” Bridget clarified. “No. That wasn’t done much back then. I remember their little girl was a couple grades or so behind me in school. Other kids used to slap her around, call her names because she was illegitimate and mixed-race. She was a quiet little girl. Always sad. Of course, who wouldn’t be in her place? Kids are cruel. Then one day, she went away.” Boone raised his eyes from his notes. “What year was that?” “I’d guess it was about 1960 or so,” Frankie said. “I remember JFK was president then and we were all crazy about him. My family had gotten a television.” “Do you know what happened to them? The family? The father? Where they went?” Boone asked. Frankie shook her head. “No, can’t recall. Nobody took much notice of them. They didn’t have any friends I knew about. Gaumer was a mean cuss. People say he was a drunk and used to beat the woman. Threatened kids with his shotgun when they tried to swim at the falls.” Boone and Bridget shared a look. “Violent man, huh?” Boone asked. “That’s what I heard. I never saw him. Just saw the little girl at school, and sometimes her mother at Peachy’s grocery store. They didn’t go to our church. Never came downtown to go shopping. It’s like they were ghosts.” Boone tucked his notepad away. “Thanks, Frankie.” “Um hmmm. Now, what’s this all about?” He considered not answering but knew his brothers would soon spread the gossip. “Found an old skeleton under the cabin. Skull’s bashed in.”
  30. 30. Frankie’s eyes widened. “Think it’s her? Or is it Gaumer?” Boone shrugged, unwilling to talk about potential suspects and their motives. There is no statute of limitations for murder. ! ! The next day, Bridget entered the glass doors of the records department at the county courthouse. The clerk glanced up from her novel on the counter. “Hello Bridget! Working on a local story?” It was hard not to smile and be flattered. People were interested in her columns, especially those instrumental in her success. They took pride in their part. “Hi Patty,” she said. “Yes, I’ve got a good one this time and I’ll need some more help.” Patty Bailer scrunched her shoulders in anticipation. “Ooooh, I hope it’s a good mystery. Whataya got?” Bridget swiveled her head to confirm the room was empty, then leaned across the counter, placing her messenger bag on it with a thump. “Murder!” she whispered theatrically. Patty blinked and her mouth gaped. “For real? In Eaton?” she squeaked. “When? Who was it?” “That’s what I’m here to find out. Boone’s looking into a homicide at the old Gaumer place. Do you know it?” Patty shook her head vigorously. “No. Let’s get started.” She placed an “Out to Lunch” sign on the counter, lifted a heavy ring of keys from the desk behind her, swung open the gate and beckoned for Bridget to follow her into the archives. ! Two hours later, a bell broke the women’s concentration. Patty peered around the stacks and saw a customer at the counter. “I’ll be right back,” she said. Bridget pushed her reading glasses to the top of her head and rubbed her eyes. They had been looking at microfilm of country property records, searching land grants, warrants, tax rolls and deeds.
  31. 31. So far, they determined the property once belonged to Samuel Eaton, the founder of the city. A land baron, historians claimed Eaton used illegal means to accumulate thousands of acres after his henchmen applied for land grants then “sold” them to him. In the mid-1800s, Eaton’s heirs sold the property to a lumber company for its timber. Denuded, the mountainside was worthless to many except for a poor Irish farmer named Colin Gaumer, who purchased it after immigrating to America. It remained in the Gaumer family for the next hundred years or so, until the county seized it for back taxes in 1964. It then became part of the Allegheny National Forest. Patty came back with a large bound book. “I’ve found Gaumer in the census. Look here,” she said, dropping the heavy book on a table. “Sorry, it slipped.” Patty’s finger traced the lined paper then stopped. She beamed. “See, the family’s in the 1920 census. Looks like Colin Gaumer was long gone by then, but there’s a Rebecca Gaumer, aged twenty-six, and a Ray Gaumer, age eight. You think he’s your mystery man?” Bridget dropped her glasses back on her nose and squinted at the spidery handwriting. “Are you sure that’s Ray? It looks a bit like an ‘o’, I think.” She scanned the rest of the page. “Yes, see here? See the way the census taker wrote ‘Eaton’? Look at the ‘a’ and then look at the ‘o.’ I think that’s Roy Gaumer.” “You’re right. Good catch,” Patty said. Bridget sat again and picked up her pencil. “Let’s see, he was eight years old in 1920, so if the skeleton is his, he must have been close to sixty when he died. Plus the property must have been abandoned by the time the land was seized, right? I didn’t see anyone listed in the sheriff’s claim. “I haven’t seen anything. We can check the marriage and birth records next. See if he was married or had children.” “Frankie said he lived with an African-American woman, but according to local gossip, they weren’t married. They had a daughter named Cherry. Frankie went to the school with the little girl.” Patty snapped her fingers. “That’s it! Let’s check school enrollment records and see what we find.” “I didn’t know we could do that. Besides, we don’t know her last name.”
  32. 32. “Let’s give it a try,” Patty suggested. “Besides, how many children do you think were enrolled in 1960 in Eaton? Besides, we know her first name.” “School’s out for the holidays though. There’s probably no one around.” “We can call Walter Moore. He taught at the elementary school for decades. I’m sure he knows the current secretary. Doesn’t hurt to ask,” Patty suggested. ! Walt Moore rubbed his forehead. “Let me think,” he said hesitantly, his voice echoing on the speaker telephone. “Phyllis something. Phyllis ... uhh.” “Phyllis Surratt?” Patty supplied hopefully. “That’s it!” Walter said. “Would you like me to give her a call? See if she can meet with Bridget?” Patty pumped a triumphant fist into the air. “That would be awesome. Thanks so much, Mr. Moore. Oh, and by the way, congratulations on your marriage. I hear you’re going to be the new manager at East of Eaton.” He chuckled. “Not the manager. That would be my wife, June. I’ll be her understudy.” Bridget, curious, leaned closer to the telephone. “When does Erica leave Eaton, Mr. Moore?” she interrupted. “She and Clay are getting married the second week of January in Charlottesville, Virginia. He has extensive family there and has to be at work by the middle of the month.” “So, he’s going to teach at the University of Virginia, eh? What are Marshall College girls going to do without their crush?” Bridget asked. Walt chuckled. “They’ll find someone else to stalk. Clay tells us his replacement is a young woman from out West. Her name is Cara Kent and her specialty is British history.” “Hmmm, new blood,” Patty chimed in. “Where’s she staying?” “She’s going to rent Clay’s house for now. It’s for sale, but you know the real estate market isn’t what it used to be.” “He owns the Victorian house over on Bernard Street, right?” Patty asked. “Yes. If you know anyone who’s interested, send them over.” Walt said.
  33. 33. “Will do.” Bridget spoke. “Thank you again, Mr. Moore. If you don’t mind, will you pass my number on to Phyllis and ask her to contact me directly? Then you don’t have to play middle man.” “Sure will,” he said. “Keep me in the loop, you hear? This is a fascinating story.” After saying their farewells, Patty disconnected the call. “You’ll have to let me know what Phyllis says. Hopefully, she won’t give you a hard time. I know public schools are required by law to keep enrollment records, but I don’t know how long. Or if you need some kind of court order to see them,” she added. Bridget wagged her eyebrows. “Well, if I do, I know a certain lawman I can call. ! ! ! !
  34. 34. CHAPTER FIVE ! Bridget gunned the snowmobile’s throttle and the machine climbed the hill. She felt the handle twist through her padded glove. The high whine of the engine mingled with Boone’s machine, shattering the quiet in the evergreen forest. Instead of driving to Weeping Woman Falls and hiking through deep snow, they trailered the snowmobiles to Camp Breakthrough and used the lodge’s ski trails and paths. Although it added several miles to the trip, the marked trail was easier to follow. Bridget and Boone knew the paths well; they both had worked at the camp as teens. When he crested the short hill, Boone stopped, shoved his goggles atop his head, and checked the GPS mounted on the snowmobile’s handlebars. He looked over his shoulder as Bridget maneuvered closer. “Not much farther,” he shouted over the noise of the engines, pointing to a cluster of hemlocks to the northeast. “It’s on the other side of those trees.” Bridget gave a thumbs up and waited for Boone to slip his mobile into gear. They were now in unmarked territory with no trail. They needed to be cautious. No telling if any of the snow-covered humps were boulders or just drifts. Plus, deep powder would be difficult to plow through if it didn’t hold their weight. Several minutes later, they circled the stand of trees and Bridget caught sight of the cabin. A blanket of snow hid the decrepit nature of the structure, but she could see fallen beams dangling from the porch. Menacing icicles dripped from the edge of the roof. They turned off their engines, but the incessant whine echoed in her ears. She yawned to pop her ears then shook her head, hoping to drown the buzzing. “I should have worn ear plugs,” she said. She swung her leg over and hopped off the snowmobile. “Good golly, my butt hurts!” Boone grinned. “I’ll rub it for you later.” “Yeah, right,” she said. She turned towards the cabin so Boone wouldn’t see her blush. Or see the speculation in her eyes. She wondered what he’d do if she took him up on his offer.
  35. 35. He walked behind her, pulling off his gloves and shoving them into the pockets of his quilted jacket. She could feel his breath, warm and moist, as it clouded in the cold air and drifted over her shoulder. “It looks different in the snow, doesn’t it?” he asked. Bridget agreed. They hiked past the cabin the previous summer when she and Boone spent a weekend camping out. He wanted to escape from the world, and she tagged along. They hadn’t used a tent, slinging hammocks with mosquito nettings between trees. Later, they built a fire and sat around roasting hot dogs and then toasting marshmallows for s’mores. It was a childlike moment and they dredged some of their favorite memories. As twilight deepened, though, Boone talked about Daphne, strangling on pent-up rage. Bridget embraced him, then stroked his hair as she rocked back and forth. Boone calmed immediately, embarrassed by his lack of control, but he kept his arms wrapped around her hips, his head pressed against her neck. Later, they lay on their backs and watched stars in the night sky. Bridget pointed out familiar constellations, misidentifying half of them. Soon they were laughing and Boone found he could breathe again. It was a turning point for him; being able to speak about Daphne helped him release much of his anger, his frustration. His misery ebbed. It also was a turning point for Boone, physically. For the first time in a long while, he’d held a woman and wanted more. They never made love as teens, but came close on several occasions, and now alone in the woods with Bridget, he found himself looking at her in a new light. The skinny, flat-chested teen he necked with in the backseat of his father’s car was gone. She’d filled out, her once-boyish hips and breasts now voluptuous. He felt an insane desire to wrap his fists in her long, silky blonde hair. Boone rolled over, raised himself on one elbow and regarded her. Bridget, with hands lying across her stomach, turned her head to Boone and recognized the desire, the heat. He lifted his free hand and caressed her cheek. His fingers were soft, tickling. Bridget was afraid to breathe. “Hey! You up there?”
  36. 36. From the darkness of the woods, Carlo and Nico shone flashlights towards their fire. Stomping through the underbrush, the brothers scrambled towards the camp, their shotguns broken open and tucked over their arms. “Alec! You guys up here?” Nico called. Boone shook his head. “What timing,” he muttered. The brothers stumbled into the camp wearing camouflage hunting pants and jackets, their caps pulled over their ears. A year apart, Nico and Carlo were inseparable. They worked together and even married twin sisters. The each lived in custom-built log cabins on the same acreage. Bridget welcomed the brothers that night on the mountain, welcomed their intrusion. If Boone had kissed her, she knew he would be remembering Daphne. Gruff at first, Boone soon laughed at his brothers’ gossip and antics, and the mood lightened. Carlo and Nico stayed with them until the next morning, then disappeared in the woods. It was the final day of the spring turkey-hunting season, and they still didn’t have any birds. Bridget and Boone hiked down the mountain and never mentioned the night under the stars, slipping instead into their well-established camaraderie. ! Bridget tamped the memory and walked towards the cabin, her boots sinking into the deep snow. In the distance, she could see the dark outline of a small shed and an outhouse. The rusting seat of an old tractor jutted from a snow bank. She recalled how littered the property around the cabin had been when they hiked by months before. “What’s inside,” she asked, pointing at the rotting door, hanging ajar on rusted hinges. “Not much. Trespassers took anything of value a long time ago, and what’s left is trash. They burned most of the furniture as firewood,” Boone said. “So, nobody has lived here since Gaumer?” “No. It’s been empty for a long time,” he said. “The body’s been under the floorboards, rotting away I guess, until Carlo and Nico found it and called me. Somebody crushed the skull then hid the body. Pretty clear it’s a homicide.”
  37. 37. “The body’s not here anymore, right?” Squeamish, Bridget imagined a skeleton with rotted flesh clinging to a broken skull. “No. The coroner packed the body and sent it to a forensic anthropologist in Philadelphia. The coroner said after a preliminary exam, he thinks it’s a man.” Boone said. Bridget paused. “So, it probably is Gaumer, then?” “Could be,” Boone said, placing a bare hand on her shoulder. “Let’s go inside. See what we can find.” They walked to the side of the porch where a large stone served as a stair. Boone held her hand as she placed a boot on the snowy ledge. She scrambled onto the wooden porch, swiveled and tugged her hand out of his. “I’m fine, you can let go now,” she said, then slipped and fell against Boone, knocking him to the ground. He lay inert, stunned, while Bridget raised herself off him. “I’m so sorry,” she mumbled. She stood and straightened her parka. Boone lay on the snow. “Are you alright? Did I hurt you?” Boone grimaced and turned his head. He didn’t say anything. Bridget dropped back to her knees and put her mittened hands on his chest. “Boone, talk to me. Are you okay?” He hissed through gritted teeth and cupped his hands at his groin. “Just give me a minute, Bridget.” She flushed as she realized the problem. When she fell, she’d slammed into Boone’s lap. She mimicked his earlier jibe. “I’ll rub it for you later.” Boone’s eyes darkened. “Yeah, right,” he drawled, mirroring her response. “No really, I’m sorry,” she said, standing. She turned towards the cabin and gave Boone some privacy. He cringed as he sat, resting his arms on bent knees. He struggled to his feet and twisted at the waist, brushing snow off his pants. “It looks solid for such an old cabin,” she noted, studying the building. Although the porch floor and the roof sagged, its walls were thick logs chinked with gray mortar. A fieldstone fireplace flanked the north side. The single window in the structure was a fanlight transom over the front door. Bridget counted three of the seven sunburst panes missing.
  38. 38. Cautious, she climbed back onto the porch and tested the boards. They creaked beneath her boots, but seemed stable. Boone joined her on the porch, stepping around her to the front door. When he reached out for the knob, Bridget put a mitten on his bicep. “Hold on,” she said. “You’re covered in snow.” Boone hesitated as she brushed off his back, flinching when snow slid down his collar, melting into a cold trail on his neck. He caught her mitten. “That’s good. Thanks.” He turned the knob with one hand and used the other to push the front door, bracing his boot at the bottom when it stuck to the frame. The old wood gave with a wrenching sound. Rusty hinges creaked as the door swung open. Bridget leaned around Boone and squinted into the gloom. She couldn’t see much, only a couple feet into the dark. Boone reached into his coat pocket for a flashlight. The strong beam beat back the shadows as the light traced across the large room. It shone through cobwebs dripping from the rafters. Bridget crossed the threshold behind him and examined the shamble. For the past five decades, vandals visited the cabin and left behind graffiti, empty tin cans, old food wrappers and even a folding lawn chair. An old mattress moldered in a corner. Bridget used her boot to flip over a mildewed magazine and flinched when she saw the cover. A porno magazine, it featured a naked woman bent over a chair, her bare bottom being spanked with a paddle by a person out of the camera lens’ range. Bridget kicked the magazine back over. Instead of falling back to the previous page, it opened to the faded centerfold. The photograph featured another woman, this one wearing an open-front, black leather corset. Her huge breasts poked through the strategic openings of the corset and garters dangled on her thighs. She wore spiked, knee-high black leather boots and held a riding crop in one hand. Her bright red lips curved in a wicked grin, her eyes on a man crouched in front of her, his mouth pressed to her boot. Bridget’s eyes darted to Boone’s, then she nudged the magazine until it slid under the mattress.
  39. 39. His lips twitched as he fought back a grin. “Don’t you think that’ll be helpful?” he teased. “I mean, it could hold some kind of clue.” Cheeks pink with embarrassment, she strove for an attitude of nonchalance. She removed her mittens, fisted her hands on her hips and warned, “Don’t make me get my whip. Besides, it’s too recent to belong to Gaumer.” She turned towards the fireplace, knelt at the opening and lifted a small branch someone had left for tinder. She poked through the ashes. “What did you say killed Gaumer?” Boone turned his flashlight to the dark recess. “A blow to the head with something flat and heavy.” Bridget reached into the ashes and pulled out a rusty, cast iron frying pan. She waved it experimentally. “Something like this?” He knelt beside her, wrapping his large warm hand around hers as he grasped the pan. “You think ...?” “Well, a woman killed him, right? Or at least that’s what you’re thinking.” Boone turned the frying pan over and looked at the bottom. It had sat in the fireplace a long time and been used by numerous vagrants cooking beans and other food. Perhaps even Carlo and Nico had used it. His forensic training kicked in and he worried any fingerprints would be long gone by now. So would trace amounts of blood or hair. He studied Bridget with admiration. “Okay, let’s say this is the murder weapon. What’s next, Sherlock?” “Provenance,” she said. “Let’s look under the floor and see if there are any other newspapers.” Boone placed the frying pan on the hearth and moved towards the back of the room. He motioned at a pile of clutter with the flashlight. “This is where Carlo and Nicco found the body.” In the gloom, she hadn’t noticed the boards pried from the floor. She inched closer. “What made them look here?” “They weren’t looking, remember? They were using boards as firewood while they waited out the storm. They figured it would be safer if they used boards from the back of the room where nobody walks.” Bridget pursed her lips. “Makes sense.” She knelt on the floor and peered into the cavity. “Can we remove more of these?”
  40. 40. Bridget knelt on her hands and knees, her head hovering over the opening in the floor next to his boot. The similarity between her pose and the one in the magazine struck him as humorous and he chuckled, but when she looked at him, her face serious and questioning, he bit his lip. “What’s so funny?” she asked, standing on her knees and brushing her dusty hands together. “Nothing,” he said, squatting beside her. He placed the light on the floor, then tugged on a board experimentally, testing to see if it would be difficult or not. Then he stood and walked to the cabin door. “I’ve got a tool bag on my snowmobile. I’ll be right back.” Bridget grabbed the small flashlight and turned on its powerful beam. She aimed it in the hole and swept it back and forth. A few sweeps later, she spotted something bright. With nimble fingers, she flicked away the dirt. A coin. She sat back on her haunches, wiping the coin on her knee. She pointed the light at it and squinted: a 1960 Roosevelt dime. “Terminus ante quem,” she said aloud. Boone heard her when he re-entered the cabin. “What?” Bridget turned shining eyes to him. “It’s Latin. Terminus ante quem is an archaeological phrase referring to the notion all the soil below an undisturbed layer dates before the layer above. It’s been covered since the cabin was built in the late 1800s, so the ground under the floor is probably untouched. This coin may have been dropped when the body was placed under the floor. Maybe it even fell out of his pocket.” Boone shook his head in wonder. “You’re pretty good at this, aren’t you?’ She stood and lifted her arms in a flourish. “Hold your applause, please,” she joked. He approached slowly. “I’m serious. You’re remarkable. You might have found the murder weapon and the date of death. What? In less than five minutes?” He stopped inches from her, his eyes pinned on hers. Bridget flushed at the praise and her heart pitter-pattered at his proximity. She lifted a casual shoulder. “It’s just logic,” she said, turning back to the opening. “Let’s get rid of some more boards.” Boone let it go. He didn’t want to embarrass her. They continued to search the cabin, but nothing leapt out. After an hour, they agreed to head back. As a reward, Boone promised her a fabulous dinner. ! !
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  42. 42. ! ! ABOUT THE AUTHOR Madeline Sloane is a writer with more than 25 years experience in communications. With ten published history books under her belt, she is new to the world of romantic fiction but finding it just as fun to research. In addition to writing, she is a college instructor whose interests include traveling, history and boating. Rounding out her list of Top Five interests are reading and cooking. On the web at http:// www.MadelineSloane.com ! ABOUT THE SERIES WOMEN OF EATON and SECRETS OF EATON The first novel in the “Women of Eaton” romance series, “Distracted” introduces readers to Eaton, a fictional, idyllic town tucked away in the mountains of Pennsylvania. Next up are “East of Eaton” and “West Wind.” The “Secrets of Eaton” romance series contains the novels “Consequence,” “Incandescent” and “Dead Line.” After that, look for "Mysteries of Eaton" and the titles "Charnel House," "Well of the Dead" and "Skinterns." Anticipate Eaton residents and visitors to return in even more books that explore and celebrate romance. CONNECT WITH MADELINE SLOANE ONLINE Madeline's website: http://www.MadelineSloane.com Twitter: http://twitter.com/MadelineSloane Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/BooksbyMadelineSloane Smashwords: http://www.smashwords.com/profile/view/MadelineSloane