Home » , , , , , , » Death Checks Inn (Aspen Valley Inn Series Book 1) by Sara Robbins

Death Checks Inn (Aspen Valley Inn Series Book 1) by Sara Robbins

“What do you mean, there’s a problem?” Lacey Washburn asked. She didn’t even try to hide her exasperation.

She was standing outside in the walled patio area of her soon to be opened Inn. At least she hoped her Inn would be opening soon, but in order for that to happen this problem had to be resolved.
Death Checks Inn (Aspen Valley Inn Series Book 1)
Death Checks Inn (Aspen Valley Inn Series Book 1) by Sara Robbins
She had hired Dan Smith, a local handyman to enclose and lay a stone patio with brick pathways in what she would call the “Sanctuary”. Here in this peaceful area, her guests could watch either the sunrise or sunset since this location had an unobstructed view of Pikes Peak. There was also a hot tub spa and spacious outdoor dining area. This area would accommodate either large gatherings or quiet romantic dinners for two. However, right now, Dan was explaining some issue with the stonework that would delay the completion of the sanctuary for another week. Another week she did not have to spare. She had sunk every dime from her severance package into this endeavor and really needed to get the Inn opened and making money. She ran her hands through her hair and said, “Dan, just tell me what we can do to get this done.” Dan mumbled, “Well, I’ll have to order the grout and that will take a couple of days and then a couple more days to let it set, I’d say probably in ten days it’ll be ready.” “That won’t work; our grand opening is exactly one week from today!” Sara reminded him. “Well, I could do it faster but I’d have to hire help and that will cost you,” he added. Frustrated and stressed Lacey advised him, “Please do whatever is necessary to finish it in time.” Aspen Valley Inn was an adobe style building that sat on top of a knoll surrounded by beautiful scenery. Officially, this area was considered high desert prairie land. But the wide sweeping flatlands gave a dramatically unobstructed view of several mountain ranges. It was located very near the small town of Elkville. Rural but only twenty-five miles from the large city of Colorado Springs and forty-seven miles from the gambling town of Cripple Creek. Its location was practical, and that was important. In addition to the practicality of the location, she hoped that the gorgeous views of America’s mountain, Pike’s Peak, and the pampering she planned to bestow on every guest would ensure its success. It was also advantageous that this was really the only Bed & Breakfast type business in this area. She was also working with her younger sister, Charlotte, to get the Inn opened. As soon as they could get this business established, they would launch an event center. Charlotte would be the event coordinator and continue to help with the Inn. They would start this phase as soon as funds and interested customers allowed. She needed to focus on first things first; she had to get this place ready for her grand opening next week. So far, she had only booked two of the four available suites at the Inn. She reminded herself that she had only gotten those by steeply discounting what she had thought were reasonable rates. Oh well, she told herself, sometimes you have to lose money to make money. She went inside and plopped herself into one of the huge chairs in the reception lounge. She looked around with a critical eye. There were comfortable chairs and sofas positioned cozily by the huge stone fireplace. She planned to use a beautiful, antique table to lay out wine and appetizers. She hoped that these occasional refreshments would encourage her guests to linger and mingle with each other. She had arranged pamphlets of local attractions in a display on the opposite wall. The display looked very inviting. The Broadmoor Hotel, Molly Kathleen Mine and bike tours up to Pike’s Peak and many other attractions made one want to explore. Of course, for the historians, antiquing opportunities were plentiful. For the gambling aficionados there was always Cripple Creek. She hoped she had thought of everything to make this endeavor a success. Only ten short years ago, she had been a newly graduated finance/business major from the University of Colorado. The world had been her oyster and she could hardly wait to pry it open and find the pearl. She was excited to be engaged to the love of her life, Bryan Thompson. Every major company in the Colorado Springs business arena was recruiting her for their team. She had been on top of the world. That world stopped spinning when she found out that Bryan had been unfaithful with more than one attractive woman. He had even been with a few of her so-called friends. Just weeks before their wedding he pleaded, “But you are the only one I love, doesn’t that matter?” She had thought about it, really thought about it, and yes, it did matter, damn it. She canceled the wedding and accepted a job with a family owned bank that she thought would provide the camaraderie and distraction she needed to move past the hurt and betrayal. She soon discovered that there was no security or permanence in that world either. The financial crisis hit the country. She had lost her job eighteen months ago. She was devastated; she had poured all of her energy and passion into her work. Her co-workers and clients had felt like family. Yes, she dated occasionally, but as the song said, she kept a close watch on that heart of hers. She even wore an amulet around her neck that stated those very lyrics from the old Johnny Cash ballad. She felt lost without the structure and purpose she had relied on. She took a good hard look at her choices and her life. The generous severance package she had received made starting her own business feasible. That, and her younger sister, Charlotte’s, promise to build and grow the business with her helped her decide to make the leap. She loved meeting and taking care of people. Getting into the hospitality industry seemed a good fit. First, they would open a charming Inn. Later, they had big plans to include an event center. This expansion would provide enough profit and challenge for both of them. She had paid close attention to even the tiniest detail during the massive renovation of the Inn. Everything was just as she dreamed it. She hoped that all of this would turn out to be a good decision and not a colossal mistake. Chapter 2 With only three days until the grand opening of Aspen Valley Inn, Lacey was nervous. She now had three reservations for the Inn and fifty RSVPs to the grand opening reception. Handyman Dan was almost finished with the sanctuary. Although there had been extra expense that she had not budgeted for, the sanctuary was Lacey’s favorite amenity. It was worth every penny. She had spent more than a few evenings ensconced on one of the comfortable chaise lounges near the fire pit watching Mother Nature’s dramatic end of day curtain call. Pink, gold and deep rose vied with each other to color the sky. The sun completed its leisurely dance before dropping out of sight behind the mountain peak. This, she thought, is what people will pay for. The excited voice of her sister, Charlotte, interrupted her musings. “Only three more days, can you believe it?” she exclaimed. Lacey hurried to give her sister a welcoming hug. She and Charlotte were very close. Charlotte had listened while she cried and talked about the loss of her dreams. First, she lost her vision of a wonderful married life with Bryan, and then later, losing her career. Lacey had allowed herself a period of mourning and then she squared her shoulders and prepared to move forward. Charlotte had encouraged her to dream up a new future. They had another sister; their older sister, Veronika (Vernie) lived in Georgia. Vernie was a true success, a bestselling author who had “made it”. She traveled the world promoting one book after another. She slowed down only long enough to tap out another bodice- ripping passion infused romance novel. Both sisters admired Vernie and really enjoyed the brief amounts of time she could spend with them. Unfortunately, Vernie could not attend the grand opening of the Inn. She would send her best wishes along with a huge, expensive bouquet of flowers to mark the occasion. Vernie had offered to invest and even finance the Inn because she loved and believed in her sister’s dream, but Lacey had declined. She wanted this to be her “baby” and was willing to work as hard as she needed to do it on her own. Later, Charlotte and Lacey hoped to add to their success with the event business, Enchanted Events, but that was down the road. Lacey had to get the Inn opened and making a profit before she could even think about that. Charlotte strolled slowly through the rooms and outdoor areas. She declared confidently, “Wow, I would definitely stay here. I especially love the little gifts you are putting under each of the guests’ pillows on their first night.” These were small tokens, hand lotion or lip balm and a couple of pretty postcards already stamped that they could send to their friends, but Lacey was pleased that Charlotte had approved of her idea. “What can I do?” Charlotte asked. “Can you get me another reservation to completely book the Inn on our first week?” Lacey shot back. “Oh, pooh, that will happen as soon as people stay here. They will go back and tell everyone they know about how wonderful it was,” Charlotte said reassuringly. “Thanks for the vote of confidence. Can you help me figure out what to serve with the grand opening appetizers? I've chosen a couple of great red and white wines from "The Wines of Colorado" on Ute Pass but I need something terrific to serve with them,” Lacey explained. “That’s easy,” said Charlotte, “your world famous guacamole and chips.” “I need something besides that,” lamented Lacey. “How about crab puffs and a beef cheese ball?” she suggested. “That’s perfect,” said Charlotte. A loud knock from the double front doors interrupted their discussion. Lacey hurried to answer. She was startled for a moment as she looked at the very handsome man standing there. “Hi,” he said taking off his hat. “I’m Wyatt Graves. I am the new sheriff for Peak County. I wanted to come by and check the place out. I know you have applied for a liquor license, and I like to visit each site before approval.” He was very good looking and the sharpness of his uniform made him a formidable figure. Lacey took a moment to look him over and then stammered, “Yes, of course, please come in. I’m Lacey Washburn and this is my sister Charlotte. Please take a look around and I’ll be happy to answer any questions you might have.” Charlotte muttered under her breath, “I bet you will,” but smiled and shook his hand pleasantly. She moved aside to let him step into the entryway. He was tall; at least six feet and had brown hair with golden highlights from the sun and bright blue eyes. He glanced around with an interested gaze. Lacey proceeded to take him on a tour through the downstairs common areas. He asked a few questions but overall seemed pleased with what he saw. He was explaining that her application for the liquor license would be approved in time for the grand opening, when the radio on his shoulder came to life. Speaking briefly to the person on the other end he made his excuses and hurried out to the cruiser parked in the circular driveway. After he left, Charlotte looked at Lacey with a twinkle in her eyes, “So….” she drawled. Lacey, looked irritated and said, “So…what? You more than anyone know that it would take a lot more than brilliant blue eyes to distract me from focusing on my plans for this business.” “I know,” said Charlotte, “but he was extremely handsome and not just his eyes.” “Oh, please,” said Lacey, “don’t even start with me.” Chapter 3 The day she had waited for was finally here. Lacey Washburn as proud proprietress was happy to be hosting The Aspen Valley Inn’s official grand opening. She was so excited she couldn’t stand to sit still. She wandered around checking all the last minute details. She was so nervous she began to question every decision. Maybe she should have hired some extra help. No, she and Charlotte needed to handle everything themselves. They would be mostly unpaid and overworked until business and profits allowed for additional employees. They needed to keep the overhead as low as possible. Besides, she knew Charlotte would work as hard as she did to make this venture successful. She also had the assistance of the handyman, Dan. As he entered the reception area, she couldn’t help noticing that Dan had cleaned up nicely for the grand opening. As she looked him over speculatively, she nodded her approval of the effort he had made to spruce himself up. She told him how pleased she was that he had finished the sanctuary in time. Nerves jangling she straightened the carved aspen wooden bowl on the hall table for the tenth time. Two of her guests had already checked in. Lacey had already settled a sweet young honeymoon couple, Miranda and John Braverman, into the Peacock Suite. Lacey had hoped they would be impressed with the brilliant jewel tones she had used throughout the suite. She didn’t think they had even noticed their surroundings. They only had eyes for each other. With blushing faces, they said they might not make it downstairs for the cocktail and mingle portion of the evening. Lacey smiled to herself remembering the warm love and passion for each other that was evident on their faces as she showed them around. She wondered if she had ever been that much in love. A short time later, her next reservation arrived. This guest was a middle-aged woman named Heather Mason. She was a widow. Lacey remembered their conversation when Heather had called to make her reservation. Heather told her that she and her husband had always dreamed of sitting at the top of Pike’s Peak. They had wanted to drink in the beauty that had inspired Katharine Bates to write “America the Beautiful” in 1883. Wistfully, Heather had said, “My husband, Adam died a few years ago and I promised myself that I would do it for both of us. I retired this year from Rasmussen College in Topeka. I was an admissions clerk. Now, I am trying to do all the things Adam and I didn’t have the chance to do. ” As Lacey led her upstairs to her suite, Lacey mentioned the party tonight. Heather said she would definitely come downstairs and join the festivities once she was settled into the “Miner’s Suite”. This suite was rustic in design but with all the modern comforts. After the brief tour, Heather asked if she could get an early morning wake- up call in order to hike up to the peak before noon. Knowing how strenuous that climb was, Lacey looked closer at the woman. She was a hardy Midwesterner who looked in shape for the effort required in this altitude. The third reservation, for two college students had not arrived yet. They had mentioned in their online check in that they may be very late. Lacey sighed and thought, waiting for arrivals is part of an innkeeper’s role. Besides, she had a celebration to host and the time would fly. The first guests were beginning to arrive. She hurried downstairs, her long summer maxi dress swirling around her ankles. Halfway down the stairs, she came to a complete stop. Charlotte was welcoming none other than Wyatt Graves. She had thought he was dashing in his uniform but now seeing him dressed casually, in his button- down shirt and khakis, he looked even more handsome. She felt her face flush as he looked up at her and she realized that she had been staring and probably open-mouthed too. She did her best to descend the stairs gracefully and then held out her hand in greeting. Rather than shake her hand in a businesslike manner he held on a little too long so that it felt more like a caress. They smiled at each other and Wyatt spoke first, “Congratulations on both your liquor license approval and your grand opening,” he said. She stammered a little and then finally came up with something, “Could I get you a glass of wine or some cider?” her voice came out with a very unattractive squeak. Charlotte was enjoying her sisters’ discomfort way more than she should be. She could not remember the last time she had seen her sister awestruck over a mere man. Then again, he was impressively handsome. He also carried himself with an air of power and control. Surreptitiously she glanced at his left hand searching for a wedding ring. Damn, there was a thin gold band on his finger. She sighed and thought to herself that she would have to find someone else that could put that sparkle back into Lacey’s eyes. As she looked over at her sister, it occurred to her that Lacey had noticed the same no trespassing sign that she had seen. There was a bit of disappointment lingering on Lacey’s face, but neither of them had time to dwell on this discovery because the celebration had really moved into full swing. They both hurried into the reception hall to begin their duties as proud owner and host of the Aspen Valley Inn. Chapter 4 Lacey looked around at the crowded reception area, very pleased with the number of people who had accepted her invitation. Some had even brought a guest or two along with them. In the hospitality world, the more people who knew about your establishment, the better. Most new businesses could not survive without referrals, especially those that had no marketing budget. She had invited virtually everyone from the small town of Elkville, which was only five miles from the Inn and many from the larger city of Colorado Springs, about twenty-five miles to the west. She had focused on business owners and others that she thought would be able to refer clients to the Inn. When she was sure refreshments had been served to the crowd gathered in the reception area, she took her place at the top of the first set of stairs to speak to her guests. Thanking them all for coming, she invited them to join her for a tour. Even those that were familiar with the property before she purchased it were curious to see the transformation. The Inn had spent many years as a sprawling ranch, home to llamas and horses and even some cattle. Several outbuildings dotted the twenty-acre property. Some would probably have to be torn down as dilapidated as they were, but the old-fashioned barn would be renovated into their new event facility. The century- old barn had withstood the test of time and, as they say, it had good bones. Lacey envisioned casual or elegant weddings, family gatherings and even business seminars hosted in the cavernous space. Lacey proudly led everyone through the Inn. They oohed and ahhed over the common areas and the special touches she had added to make the Inn both relaxing and luxurious. She could only show them the two yet unoccupied guest suites, but they all got the general idea. Each suite had its own sitting area and private bath. Lacey valued her privacy and knew that her guests would too. The dining area, where guests would linger over a scrumptious breakfast before exploring the local sights was cozy. Country chic was how she would describe the decorating style. Only Charlotte and she knew the hours they had spent scouring flea markets and garage sales to find just the right mix of furniture and décor. Charlotte was very knowledgeable when it came to antiques. She had found some genuine pieces and some good reproductions that had not broken the budget. Lacey’s private living area encompassed the small third floor of the Inn. She did not lead the tour through her tidy one- bedroom apartment. For now, Charlotte rented a house in town. Eventually, as time and money allowed, they would renovate one of the small farmhouses on the property for her to live in. Lacey was very conscious of Wyatt’s quiet presence throughout the tour, his intense blue eyes watching her. They concluded the tour back at the reception area. After more mingling and enjoyment of the wine and appetizers, the guests began to take their leave. Each one enthusiastically promised to spread the word about the Inn and its amenities. Lacey stood at the double entry doors and personally thanked each guest as they left. She felt a tiny bit of regret as she said goodbye to Wyatt. For some reason she was very intrigued by him, she couldn’t remember ever feeling such an instant attraction. She would not explore that interest in a married man so she knew that they would never be anything more than acquaintances. Lacey thought it was ironic that after ten long lonely years, the first male who interested her was not available. As she and Charlotte cleaned up, they chattered about the successful evening. Tired but pleased they congratulated themselves on their hard work. “Well, I really need to get home,” said Charlotte, “but I wanted to wait until the last guests checked in.” “Oh, don’t worry about that,” replied Lacey. “I’m an innkeeper now, and I can greet and settle them when they arrive. Besides, I’m too wound up to go right to sleep,” she said with a smile. Hugging her sister warmly, she sent her on her way. She hummed as she busied herself with a few tasks in the kitchen. She wanted to prepare the green chile and egg casserole that would be tomorrow’s breakfast. She realized that the honeymooners had not emerged from their suite and even Heather Mason had only briefly attended the gathering before heading to her room. Oh well, she thought, it did take a few days to adjust to the six thousand foot altitude. She would be sure to remind all of her guests to drink plenty of water and not exert themselves too much on their first day. Just then, the old-fashioned dinner bell located on the deck near the entryway jingled. “Ah, my final guests are here,” she said. She opened the door and greeted the two young girls who were standing on the wide wrap around deck. “Suzy and Joan, right?” Lacey asked. The girls giggled and smiled. They appeared to be around eighteen to twenty years old and wore the standard uniform of girls that age, worn jeans and a t-shirt. Each held a bulging backpack as their only luggage. She offered to fix them a snack or something to drink. Joan, a petite redhead, said, “Oh no thanks. We’re tired and have a lot planned for tomorrow, so if you’ll just show us to our room, we’ll be fine.” Suzy, who was blonde and slightly taller, added, “Yeah, we are planning to bike through Garden of The Gods tomorrow and we are so psyched!” She was referring to a beautiful national park nearby that was famous for its red rock formations and fabulous bike and hiking trails. Lacey led them upstairs to the Inn’s only double suite and watched as they chose beds and threw their backpacks onto the floor. As they made themselves comfortable, she asked them again if they needed anything. They assured her they were fine, so she told them goodnight and wearily dragged herself up to the third floor. Suddenly she was too tired to even shower. Washing her face and brushing her teeth she fell into her bed and into a deep, satisfying sleep. Chapter 5 After what seemed like only seconds, she jumped up, not sure what had awakened her. Alert and listening she realized someone was screaming. Not even bothering with her robe, she quickly headed down the stairs to the second floor, turning on lights as she went. As she reached the second-floor landing, she noticed the Braverman’s looking confused and disoriented in the hallway. Joan and Suzy huddled together nearby, and Suzy was crying. They all seemed to be unharmed. As she moved down the hallway, she almost ran into Heather Mason. She was standing at the top of the stairs staring down at the ground floor with a stricken look on her face. Lacey followed her gaze, and there at the bottom of the stairs was a man. Not moving, unnaturally still, with what looked like blood pooling under his prone figure. She shook her head as she tried to clear her muddled brain and hurried to the bottom of the stairs. She leaned over the body and struggled to turn him over. As she stared into the sightless eyes, she knew he was dead. She checked for a pulse and finding none, confirmed that he was indeed dead. As she pulled her hand away, she stifled a gasp as she noticed that her hand was stained with blood. Sticking out of the victims’ chest was an antique railroad spike. She looked up at the huddled group on the landing above. “Who…what…happened….who is this?” she shouted. Heather Mason pointed shakily and said, “It’s my husband. It can’t be, but it is. It’s my husband, Adam.” Just then, the front doors burst open. Wyatt Graves and another man who appeared to be a deputy rushed in and quickly took in the scene. Wyatt pulled Lacey back from the body, he leaned down to examine the dead man and said, “What happened here? We got a 911 call from someone in this house.” Joan said, “It was me, I called.” The deputy who had been going from room to room came over to Wyatt and said, “There’s no one else here. I’ve already called for the coroner. Is there anything else you need me to do?” For a moment, no one spoke, and Lacey could hear the steady tick-tock of the antique clock on the wall. As the horror of what had happened sunk in Lacey began to shake. Wyatt reached over and held her arm as if to support her if she fainted. He turned her to face him and said gently, “Do you know this man?” Behind him at the top of the stairs, she met Heather’s teary gaze and said, “Mrs. Mason says it’s her husband. It’s her deceased husband.” Wyatt spoke softly, “I can see that he’s dead.” “No, no. You don’t understand,” said Lacey, “her husband Adam died several years ago.” Heather sobbed loudly and Joan and Suzy seemed to be supporting her, each one holding an arm. Wyatt looked down at the body and asked, “Is that a railroad spike in his chest? Where did that come from?” Pale and shaken Lacey said quietly, “I think I know where it came from. Come with me, and I’ll show you.” She led him to the top of the second-floor landing and continued down the guest hallway. About half way down she stopped and pointed. She was pointing to an art niche carved into the wall, one of several located in this hallway. This particular niche displayed an array of ancient mining tools. Amongst the antique gold pan, small tools and implements were a couple of similar metal spikes. She reached to pick up one of them and Wyatt grabbed her arm. “Don’t,” he said, “evidence.” Still holding Lacey by the arm Wyatt steered her back to the small group on the landing. He looked around at the stricken faces and announced, “This is now a crime scene. No one is to leave the premises. Please do not touch anything until we can process the scene. We will need to interview each of you. Lacey is there somewhere private where we can conduct the interviews?” Lacey thought quickly and then suggested the small library off the reception area. Several more people came in through the front door. Lacey assumed these were the coroner and the crime scene technicians that the deputy had called. Wyatt was huddled deep in conversation with the group downstairs. Lacey gathered the stunned guests and led them to a tiny sitting area at the end of the hall. Surely they could wait there at least until the body was removed. As they sat on the small couch and chairs grouped invitingly near a huge window that looked out over the back of the property, no one spoke. Lacey noticed that night was fading and the pale light of dawn was just beginning to appear. How did this happen? Good God, was someone right here in this group a murderer? As she looked around from face to face, she could tell that the same horrible thought had occurred to the others. How had someone else gotten into the Inn? She knew that she had made the rounds to making sure that everything was secure. The doors were unlocked when the sheriff and his deputy arrived. The victim had gotten in. How? Why? She had so many questions. She heard her sister, Charlotte’s voice downstairs, “I don’t care about your rules. I’m going to see my sister!” She hurtled up the stairs and engulfed Lacey in a comforting hug. She took off her sweater and placed it around Lacey’s shivering form. Lacey now realized she was wearing only a tank top and boxer shorts. Joan and Suzy were dressed in a similar fashion. Heather Mason had on a robe, as did the honeymoon couple. She hoped they would be allowed to dress properly before being interrogated by the officers downstairs. She had to wash the blood off her hands. She turned to Charlotte and asked, “How did you know?” Charlotte spoke drily, “With all the commotion and vehicles heading up here, who doesn’t know something happened? I didn’t think I would see a body. I thought maybe someone had fallen or something.” Oh, how I wish that were all that had happened, thought Lacey. CHAPTER 6 An officer accompanied each one of them to their rooms while they cleaned up and got dressed. A technician took a photograph of Lacey’s hands and then told her she could wash them. Three technicians roamed the premises taking pictures and dusting surfaces with black powder. Lacey was thankful that the body had been removed, presumably to the morgue. One by one, they were lead into the library to talk with Wyatt and a Detective Peterson, a homicide investigator borrowed from the Colorado Springs police department. Lacey was last. After asking for Lacey’s permission, the technician took a photo and then fingerprinted her. She told them everything she knew, which wasn’t very much. Wyatt only asked a few questions, leaving most of the discussion to Detective Peterson. She felt self-conscious with Wyatt’s eyes on her as she carefully considered and answered each question. How well did she know her guests? Had she known the victim? What did she see? What did she hear? On and on the questions went, some questions were the same but the detective worded them differently each time. Finally, both men seemed satisfied and told her she could go back to her guests. Gratefully, she left the library. In the hallway, she smelled the tantalizing aroma of her green chile breakfast casserole. Bless her sister, she had gathered the others in the dining room and was urging coffee and warm plates of casserole on everyone. No one really ate much, but they all seemed relieved to pretend to do something normal. Heather Mason was pale and silent. She stared out the windows with an occasional stifled sob. Lacey went over to her and asked if there was a friend or relative she could call for the poor woman. “No,” Heather said wanly, “Adam and I were both only children, and we never had kids. I have no one.” “Do you mind telling us about Adam?” asked Lacey, “How did he die?” “It was a car accident a long time ago, and I don’t want to talk about it,” said Heather. Lacey could see that everyone was exhausted and suggested they all retreat to their rooms to rest. They all seemed grateful for the suggestion and quickly headed upstairs. Charlotte was busily cleaning up the remains of a barely eaten breakfast. Lacey stood looking out the large windows of the dining room. She had wanted these windows to be placed right here and without the distraction of windowpanes or even curtains. This was because they perfectly framed the magnificent view of Pike’s Peak and the front range of the Rocky Mountains. Even now, she marveled at the beautiful scene before her. The sky was a brilliant and clear blue with just a wisp of a cloud shaped like a finger. The cloud finger seemed to point directly at the peak. The wispy finger seemed to be saying, look, look at this! She wondered how everything had gone so horribly wrong. In a matter of hours, they had gone from beautiful and charming day to an ugly and horrible night. Only yesterday, she was excited and nervous about the grand opening of her beloved Inn and now today her entire world was under a dark, gloomy cloud of horror and suspicion. Charlotte came up behind her and tapped her gently on the shoulder. She turned to see Wyatt standing there in the kitchen. For just a moment, he looked at her with such compassion that she almost burst into tears, but instead she squared her shoulders and held her breath in order to appear calm and unruffled. He asked her if she would mind coming into the library to talk. She had already told them everything she knew but suddenly felt so tired that sitting for a few minutes would be welcome. He led her into the quiet nook and indicated she should sit on the deep leather sofa near the window. Officer Peterson was not in the library. She had chosen every piece of furniture in this room specifically to encourage curling up with one of the many books located on the massive built- in bookshelves. The renovation of the Inn had included adding multiple windows strategically placed to take advantage of the views. There was a cozy river rock fireplace, which remained unlit, as it was unnecessary in the middle of June. His quiet voice interrupted her musings. He asked softly, “How are you? Are you okay?” She sputtered, “How do you think I am? Someone was killed right here. And I’m not stupid, I’m pretty sure one of my guests did it!” “That’s why I wanted to talk to you. I know that you are smart. I’m sure you have some insight into what has happened. Which is why I want to know what you think,” he replied calmly. “I don’t know what to think. Mrs. Mason says the dead man is her husband, but how can that be? She told me he died several years ago,” her face mirrored the confusion and shock that filled her thoughts. He sat down next to her on the sofa and gently took her hands. She looked down at their entwined hands; she couldn’t help noticing the gold band on his left hand. She thought that he had most likely received training in how to make a potential witness feel comfortable. He was very good at it; she was ready to tell him anything he wanted to know. Stop these ridiculous thoughts she admonished herself. Even though his touch felt warm, he was not available, and this was just business to him. Even knowing this, she couldn’t help herself from feeling some spark, something exciting just being close to him. This close she noticed that his bright blue eyes had gold flecks, and he smelled clean and fresh even though she knew he had had a long morning. The house seemed quiet, and she guessed that the swarm of people who had been everywhere earlier had left. Now they were analyzing, testing and doing whatever it is they do to put the pieces of a murder together. She still couldn’t believe that this had happened. He asked her again if she was okay and then held his hand up to block her animated reply. “Of course not,” she repeated. He tried a different tactic, “Tell me something about you. Are you from Elkville? Do you have any other family besides Charlotte?” She took a deep breath and gave him a brief summary of her life. She had grown up in Denver, gone to college in Colorado Springs and Boulder but had fallen in love with Elkville when she found this dilapidated property. She had spent almost a year pouring her money and time into transforming the abandoned property into this beautiful retreat. She had coaxed her sister, Charlotte to come and help her. Their parents were gone and their other sister, Vernie, visited whenever she could. She hadn’t had time to really meet and get to know her neighbors yet but had felt welcomed in the community. At least until she brought a murder into their midst, she added sharply. He smiled slightly at her sarcasm and asked, “What about a boyfriend?” Her face immediately closed up, and she couldn’t believe he was asking her something like that. She shut that line of questioning down with a curt, “There is no one.” He said, “Okay, okay, you are right. I shouldn’t have asked you that. Thank you for filling me in on your background. It’s very helpful. Now it’s my turn. I’ll tell you a little about myself.” Chapter 7 Wyatt said, “I’m from Chicago. I served in the Major Crimes division for ten years right after getting my criminal justice degree. I’ve investigated more than my share of murders.” She did feel somewhat more confident knowing that he had a crime solving background but disappointed that he had added no personal details to his life story. “I think you are in a unique position to collect the insider information we will need to solve this case. Therefore, I’m going to share with you what I know so far. Can I count on your help in getting to the bottom of this? Okay?” he asked. She quickly agreed, saying, “Yes, whatever I can do.” She listened intently as he filled in some of the backgrounds he had gathered on each of her guests. The Braverman’s had just gotten married, and they had no criminal record. Joan Black and Susan Clark were students at the University of Colorado, Boulder and did not appear to have anything unsavory in their past. Heather Mason, however, was another story. Her mouth dropped open as he told her that while it was true Adam Mason had died in an apparent accident there was much more to the story. Police had found his partially submerged car abandoned in a lake near their home. The circumstances were very suspicious. The lake and nearby area were thoroughly searched, but they were unable to find his body. Wyatt expected that the identity of the body found here at the Inn would be that of Adam Mason. The Topeka police department had shared with him their unanswered questions about Adam’s apparent death and Heather’s lack of assistance in their investigation. Their conclusion was that something was not right in this case, but they had no evidence to prove their suspicions. After the mandatory wait of seven years, the court system had declared Adam as deceased, and Heather Mason had collected on a one million dollar insurance policy. The payout doubled because Adam’s death was ruled an accident. She had spent the last six months fulfilling the “bucket list” that she and her deceased husband had created together. Lacey was astounded. Heather Mason had seemed so ordinary. She had also seemed genuinely shocked at the discovery of the body at the bottom of the stairs. “Are you saying she is a murderer?” she questioned. “No, I’m saying some parts of her story just don’t add up and if indeed that body is Adam Mason we need some answers,” he responded. Her brain was reeling. He went on to tell her about some of the forensic reports. There had been no fingerprints found on the railroad spike that had been plunged into the victim’s heart. This implied someone had cleaned up after the crime because Lacey’s fingerprints should have been present on the display piece. The chest wound was almost certainly the cause of death. The estimated time of death was very close to the discovery of the body. There had been no evidence of forced entry. This meant that since she was sure the doors were locked then someone inside had let the victim in. He asked again if she was sure, she had never seen the victim before. Had she seen him hanging around either the Inn or Elkville? Had he attended her grand opening? She didn’t remember seeing him, but the evening had been so busy and there had been many people present. She was trying to remember every face, everyone she talked to, and that was impossible. His cell phone rang. He spoke briefly with the caller, his face looking grim at whatever the caller was saying. He hung up, looked at her and said, “Well, the preliminary identification of the body seems to be Adam Mason.” She groaned and put her head in her hands. He lightly stroked her back in a comforting gesture and said soothingly, “Don’t worry. We’ll get to the bottom of this. I will make sure you are safe. I promise.” She looked into his eyes and nodded. For some reason, she had no doubt that he would keep that promise. Chapter 8 Lacey discovered that there was nothing like a murder to encourage people to drop by. Dan Smith, her general contractor, and handyman had been hanging around since ten this morning wanting to “help” her. Dan was pleasant and good looking in that messy curly blond hair, one gold earring kind of way. However, Lacey had absolutely no interest in being anything more as they worked together to keep the premises in top repair. Over the course of the morning and early afternoon, she had several visitors. Her first visitor, Lucinda Wright, lived around the corner from the Inn. She owned and operated Lucy’s Llama Ranch. She reminded Lacey of the stereotypical description of a hippy. She had long salt and pepper hair in a tight braid down her back and wore a peasant blouse with a long paisley broomstick skirt. In an effort to comfort Lacey during this trying time, she had brought a couple of skeins of Alpaca yarn combed from an animal named “Big Beau”. Drily Lacey thought, oh good, maybe when my Inn fails, I will have time to learn to knit. She thanked Lucy and assured her there was really nothing she needed. The next visitor was a handsome cowboy, named Cody Westerfield. He was tall, rangy and complete with a Stetson held in his hands as he greeted her on the front deck. Brown longish hair and deeply tanned, his brilliant green eyes conveyed his sympathy over the terrible events of last night. She sat down on one of the benches as he explained that his spread was about a mile down the road. He raised free-range bison and a small herd of cattle. He appeared to be in his mid-thirties and the admiring glances he gave her made her think he was unattached. She thanked him for coming and stood watching as his lanky form climbed into a newish bright red pickup truck. Charlotte came out and joined her on the deck. “Mmmm, mmmm, mmm, that was a tall drink of water,” was all she said. Then she went back inside to answer the ringing phone. Her last visitor arrived about one in the afternoon. A sweet young woman, who introduced herself as Mandy Grainger stood breathlessly at her front door. She seemed to be struggling with the weight of a large cloth shopping bag on each arm. Declining to come in she pointed to the SUV in the driveway and said she had her twins in the car and needed to pick up her other child at school. She dropped off the bags and said, “My phone number is in there, call if you need anything. I’m so sorry about what happened.” She was gone almost as quickly as she had come. Lacey carried the heavy bags into the reception area. Charlotte came out of the kitchen and took one bag as they both headed back to the kitchen to see what they contained. They exclaimed over the treasures they unpacked. A huge chicken and pasta casserole, fluffy, soft homemade yeast rolls and what appeared to be a still warm berry cobbler. This reminded Lacey that she had not planned anything to feed everyone tonight. Well, thank goodness for nice people like Mandy, who had made sure that she and her guests would not starve. Speaking of her guests, she had not seen anyone since she had sent them upstairs to rest several hours ago. She started to head upstairs to check on them when a knock at the front doors diverted her. As she opened the door to both Wyatt and his deputy, she noticed they looked grim and business like. Wyatt bluntly stated that they needed to see Heather Mason. As she led them both upstairs, she didn’t bother with making small talk. She knocked at Heather’s door, softly at first and then more boldly as there was no answer. Wyatt stepped forward, turned the unlocked doorknob, and proceeded to enter the room. They checked the room and the adjoining bathroom to no avail. Her belongings were still scattered around the room, but Heather was gone. The three of them looked at each other with puzzled faces. Where could she have gone? Chapter 9 The other guests had noticed the commotion at Heather’s door. Both the sleepy looking newlyweds and the irritated college girls opened their doors. After being told that Heather Mason seemed to be missing, Joan whined, “I thought we couldn’t go anywhere. If we were allowed to leave why didn’t you tell us?” Wyatt informed them that today’s investigation was completed, and they could leave the Inn if they stayed in the area. The guests were relieved that they did not have to remain confined to the Inn. Since they were on their honeymoon, the Braverman’s did not seem to have been nearly as bothered by the restrictions as the college girls. Of course, Joan and Suzy had come to the Inn specifically to enjoy outdoor activities. As she and the officers went downstairs, Wyatt told her that due to their findings, Heather Mason was now a person of interest. They had come to take her to the sheriff’s station for questioning. He wanted to search the grounds for the missing woman. Lacey told Charlotte and Dan what had happened, and they all fanned out and began searching the property in case Heather had merely taken a walk to get some fresh air. Dan, in particular, seemed pleased to be given something to do. He had waited all day to be useful. They checked all of the outbuildings. They shouted Heather’s name as they searched. After several minutes, it was clear she was not on the Inn grounds. They all gathered in the spacious kitchen to discuss their next steps. Suddenly, Lacey realized where she might be. She told them about Heather’s plan to hike up to Pike’s Peak. Wyatt listened carefully and then patted Lacey on the back and said, “Good, that’s really helpful. How do you think she got there?” “Well, everyone’s welcome packet contained several pamphlets for various sightseeing and shuttle services,” she offered. Wyatt and the deputy both got on their phones checking with the companies that she had written down. After two phone calls, they had confirmation that Pike’s Peak Tours had picked up a middle-aged woman that afternoon just down the road from the Inn. The driver had delivered his passenger to Manitou Springs near the base of Barr Trail. This was the most common hiking trail used to reach Pike’s Peak. Lacey wondered how Heather had gotten out of the Inn without anyone seeing her. Each one of them went to the library for questioning. She had also been very busy with all the comings and goings the day had brought. According to the driver, Heather had left over three hours ago. That was a huge head start. She heard Wyatt arranging backup personnel to help search the trail and grabbed her jacket from the hall closet. He disconnected his cell phone and looked at her shaking his head, “Where do you think you’re going?” he asked. She told him that she wanted to help with the search. He squeezed her shoulder and told her that she would be more help by staying here at the Inn. She supposed he was right. Heather could come back or even call to let them know where she was. Charlotte nodded her head in agreement and Lacey resigned herself to stay where she was. Wyatt and his deputy left quickly through the front door. After so much commotion, the Inn seemed suddenly deserted and quiet. She and Charlotte busied themselves with putting together a simple dinner with the food that Mandy Grainger had brought. While the sun had not gone down yet, it had been a long time since serving the mostly uneaten breakfast earlier today. Lacey went upstairs to let the four guests know that they would be serving dinner in the dining room. Miranda and John Braverman were the first to appear downstairs. They looked concerned but not overwrought. Lacey thought to herself that being so much in love must shield you from some of the awfulness life could deliver. Shortly thereafter, Suzy and Joan came into the dining room just as Lacey was adding a basket of freshly warmed rolls to the attractively set table. She encouraged them to sit down. She and Charlotte joined the subdued group. As she passed around filled plates of the steaming casserole and rolls, she thought this would be a good chance to get to know her guests and serve as an actual innkeeper. Chapter 10 Everyone seemed to have more of an appetite than this morning. For a few minutes, no one spoke as everyone tried the food on his or her plate. This is good, Lacey thought to herself. She promised herself that she would call tomorrow to thank Mandy Grainger for this thoughtful gesture. In addition, the chicken tetrazzini type casserole was a recipe she definitely wanted. Suzy was the first to break the silence, “Do you think we can go explore tomorrow? We only have two more days before we have to get back to Boulder.” Lacey answered that she thought that was a good idea. She reminded them that even the sheriff had said they could leave the Inn. This prompted a lively discussion around the table about the best attractions to visit near the Inn. After all, this was Colorado; you had to work hard for it not to be scenic. The Braverman’s decided they would stroll around old Colorado City and then stop in at one of the unique restaurants for a nice dinner. Suzy and Joan wanted to do some hiking, and after much discussion, they decided on Barr Trail and Pikes Peak. Lacey assured them all that she would arrange for the shuttle and tour services they would need. She had arranged a barter agreement with the most popular sights and services. She would do her best to send them business if they would do the same for her and the Inn. As a former vice president of a bank, she had learned the power of networking. She decided to use one of her favors to surprise the Braverman’s with a romantic dinner for two at the Mona Lisa fondue restaurant in Manitou Springs for their last night. She felt badly that they had not had the kind of honeymoon they had planned. The elegant and super popular restaurant would be just the place to start their married lives together. The Mona Lisa had hosted more marriage proposals than any other restaurant in the area. A true testament to the romantic surroundings they created. After verifying start times, since the Braverman’s wanted to sleep in, she went to her office to make arrangements. As she sat at her desk, she wondered what was happening in the search for Heather. Should she call the Sherriff’s office and ask? They would probably not be able to tell her anything. How she wished, she had asked for Wyatt’s cell phone number. She thought he would have gladly given it to her. She sighed as she thought of those clear blue eyes and the gentleness he had shown her during this ordeal. His wife was a lucky woman. She finished the arrangements for tomorrow and started to leave the office. As she was turning off the light, the desk phone rang. It was Wyatt and his voice sounded grim. “What happened?” she asked breathlessly. “I know it’s late,” he said, “but I really want to talk to you about it in person. Is it too much of an imposition to ask you to wait up until I can get there? It will be another hour or so.” “Of course,” she answered without hesitation. After all, she was very curious about what he wanted to tell her. She quickly admonished herself not to feel so much excitement to meet with a married man about a missing person. What was wrong with her? She resisted the urge to run upstairs to fluff her hair and reapply her makeup. Charlotte tried hard to hide her smile as Lacey told her that Wyatt would be here soon. With the dinner dishes now done and the kitchen cleaned up, she thought it would be best if she went home so that Lacey and Wyatt could talk freely. The sisters hugged at the doorway and said goodnight. It had been a long and trying day. Both sisters agreed they did not want to have this kind of excitement ever again. After Charlotte had left, Lacey settled into the library. She chose a book from the collection even though she wasn’t interested in reading. Reading would help her pass the time until Wyatt arrived. Chapter 11 The next thing she knew, Wyatt was shaking her shoulder and calling her name softly in the empty room. She had fallen asleep with the book abandoned on the floor. How long had he been there, she wondered. She sat up straight and asked, “Did you find her?” After chastising her for leaving the front door unlocked, he shook his head and filled her in on the search. They had called in a volunteer mountain search team. Since they believed her destination to be the top of Pike’s Peak, they had started there. They did not find any evidence that she had been there, nor had anyone seen her at the summit or on the Cog Railway. This meant that she must have hiked in from one of the side trails. The shuttle driver had said she did not want to drive up to the peak, so he had dropped her off at a trailhead. There were many routes both well marked and mapped out on the internet. They would have to search each possibility, and that could take another twenty-four hours. Lacey studied his tired face and suddenly felt the urge to take care of him, “Let me get you a warm meal and maybe a glass of wine,” she offered. He smiled wearily and said, “Food sounds great, but I’ll have to turn down the wine. I would like to take a rain check on sharing wine with you though.” Lacey couldn’t help feeling a frisson of pleasure at the huskiness in his voice. As she headed to the kitchen to reheat some of the casserole and rolls from dinner, she shook herself. Again, she reminded herself that he was married. Somehow, she was going to have to bring up his wife. Talking about his wife would end any undercurrent in their conversations. Just thinking about that made her feel disappointment but she was not going to think about anything more than a friendship with him. She carried a tray into the library and set it down on the table in front of him. He looked down at the heaping portion of casserole and thanked her for going to so much trouble. “Nonsense,” she said, “it was no trouble at all. I didn’t even make the food, my neighbor did.” He looked up from his plate and said with a twinkle in his eye, “I really like honesty in a woman.” She felt herself blush. As a married man, he was paying entirely too much attention to another woman. She bustled around refilling his water glass and trying to avoid the amused gaze, he was sending her way. After he finished the meal and repeated how much he appreciated it, she carried everything into the kitchen to clean up. It was late, and Lacey was very aware that they were probably the only people awake in the Inn. She turned suddenly from the sink and found him close, too close. They were practically touching. His face was very near hers, and he looked directly into her eyes. He reached up his hand as if to touch her face but instead tucked a strand of her hair behind her ear. She stepped back as if burned and blurted, “I won’t get involved with a married man!” He looked puzzled for a moment and then followed her glance to his wedding band. “Ah...” he said, “I’m sorry. I thought you knew.” “Knew what?” she barely breathed. “My wife died five years ago. I loved her very much and never thought I would ever be interested in anyone else. I guess I never had a reason to take my ring off, until now. But I am interested in you Lacey, and right now I want to kiss you, may I?” he said so softly she wasn’t sure she had heard him correctly. She stepped closer intending to ask him to repeat what he had said. He took her movement as permission. He closed the distance between them and took her into his arms. He looked steadily into her eyes as he moved his lips closer and closer to hers. As their lips met, he registered the surprise in her eyes and his lips were smiling as they brushed hers. The kiss was whisper soft at first, and then with a sigh he deepened the kiss. She found herself matching the pressure of his lips on hers. It had been so long since she had kissed or even wanted to kiss anyone. He was an excellent kisser; she closed her eyes and leaned into him. They were both surprised that the kiss felt incredibly special. It seemed impossible to have such an attraction for someone you had just met. He pulled just an inch away and took a deep breath, “Wow! That felt so good I think I want to do it again.” It was probably the third ring of his cell phone that finally penetrated the shroud of blissful distraction that surrounded them. She felt cold as he withdrew with obvious regret and answered his phone. His hand played with a strand of her hair as he listened intently to what the caller was saying. He hung up, then with a deep sigh pulled her completely against him, and held her there. “I have to go,” he whispered close to her ear, “but we will talk. And we will continue this…” he gestured to her lips, “Okay?” Pushing him gently away she murmured, “I promise.” He gave her a quick hug and reached for his jacket. She walked him to the door. He kissed her again gently on the lips and then placed a quick peck on her forehead. She watched from the deck as he disappeared into the darkness. As he pulled out of the circular driveway, he turned on the flashing lights and harsh siren of the cruiser and headed towards Elkville. That brought her back to the real world. What had happened? Why hadn’t she asked? She knew why, she hadn't because for the first time in years she was very interested in a man. Her lips still tingled from the thorough kisses they had received. Right now, she couldn’t even think straight. Oh, boy, this was going to make everything even more complicated. She headed upstairs with no doubt it would be hours before her besotted brain could settle down for something as ordinary as sleeping. Chapter 12 Even though she had not fallen asleep until the pale fingers of dawn were appearing outside her window, she rose at eight in the morning. First thought? Wyatt was not married and he kissed her. Next thought, had they found Heather? Then she chided herself for the order her thoughts had come. Some Innkeeper she was, she should have been up over two hours ago to get a decent breakfast together for her guests. She dressed quickly in worn jeans and turquoise shirt. She paused in front of the full-length mirror on the back of her bedroom door. She was surprised that she did not look any different. She felt her entire world has shifted in the last thirty-six hours. She looked closer, same medium height girl, same glossy brown hair with just the hint of red highlights peeking through. Same clear green eyes staring back at her. She was not thin; in fact, she was quite curvy. She accepted this and enjoyed dessert without guilt. Her face was a bit pale, making the dusting of freckles dancing across her nose more noticeable than usual. She looked a little tired, but nothing she saw on the outside gave a hint of the turmoil she was feeling on the inside. How can that be, she wondered. She had found a murder victim and thought she was falling for the officer who was investigating the crime. She saw a secretive smile tilt the corners of her mouth. He was something special. She felt a definite tingle up her spine when she remembered the way he had said he had no reason to remove his wedding ring, until now. She mentally shook herself and firmly said aloud, “Come on, get yourself together and get going. You are not in high school, Lacey!” She hurried downstairs. Luckily, none of the guests had gotten up yet. As she moved around the giant kitchen, she hummed softly to herself. Fortunately, during the long weeks of the renovation of the Inn, she had stored a few emergency meal items in the restaurant quality freezer. She removed a dozen blueberry oatmeal muffins and some steel cut oats she had cooked until they were creamy and delicious. She set these in the microwave to thaw slowly. She got out several small earthenware bowls. She chopped up some dates and strawberries. Then she added raw brown sugar and raisins to the others. The microwave signaled the thaw cycle was complete. She placed the muffins in a pretty basket with a warming stone underneath. She carried these to the dining room. She set one table up with a chafing dish of hot oatmeal surrounded by the add-ins and then placed some fresh butter next to the now warm muffins. Everything looked good, she thought. Charlotte came in the front door and joined her in the dining room. As she surveyed the mouth-watering spread, she nodded her approval and wordlessly began setting up another table so the guests could put their plates together and then sit by the window to eat. Charlotte turned from her task and looked hard at Lacey. “Okay girl, you need to tell me what happened. You look like a cat that got a dish of cream,” she said curiously. Lacey tried to brush off her scrutiny to no avail. Charlotte knew her sister wasn’t about to drop the subject. Lacey recognized the stubborn glint in her sister’s eye. “Okay, okay, Wyatt kissed me last night,” she practically giggled. Charlotte looked stunned, “Oh hell no, my sister is not a home wrecker!” For a moment, Lacey wasn’t sure what her sister meant. As comprehension dawned, she quickly corrected her sister’s belief that Wyatt was a married man. “Are you sure?” she asked suspiciously, “He wouldn’t be the first man to tell a woman that.” Lacey didn’t tell her everything that had transpired between them last night but enough that she understood he had said his wife was deceased. Charlotte narrowed her eyes, and Lacey knew that she would research and verify this before she would relax her protectiveness. Lacey could understand and appreciate this, having felt the same way about protecting Charlotte a few years ago. Charlotte had married her high school sweetheart right after graduation. Everything had been great until they lost a child five years ago. While a tragedy like that can draw some couples closer, that was not the case for her sister. They seemed unable to love each other through the crisis. One of the hardest things Lacey had ever been through was watching her sister face the pain of that loss. Charlotte had even lost herself for a while. Charlotte would never quite be the same, but Lacey had supported and helped her through it. There would always be a hint of sadness hovering in Charlotte’s eyes, but that was just proof of how much she had loved both her husband and the sweet daughter they had lost. Lacey had vowed during that horrible time that she would always be there for Charlotte and because of that bond; she could not be irritated that Charlotte was protective. The love between these sisters was powerful. Real family love is able to overcome many obstacles. They had weathered some very tough times by simply holding on to each other. Lacey knew that they both only wanted the other to be happy. This made Lacey think about her feelings. She felt more excited about life than she had in a long while. Was this because death had intruded and made her value life more or because she kissed a man that made her tingle all over. Probably a bit of both, she thought wryly. Miranda and John Braverman appeared in the doorway holding hands and sniffing the air appreciatively. Lacey smiled in greeting and gestured to the food table. As they filled their plates with enthusiasm, Suzy and Joan also joined the group. After everyone had settled themselves at the table, Lacey asked, “Well, how is everyone holding up?” As she looked at each person at the table, she got the same reaction from each, a noncommittal shrug. She didn’t expect any real answers, after all, what can you say when you have been a witness to a murder. The Braverman’s were scheduled to leave the day after tomorrow and the college students the day after that. Though the tragic events were not her fault, Lacey couldn’t help feeling horrible that her very first guests did not have the experience she had promised. Joan cleared her throat and said, “Suzy and I have been talking, and we would like to join the search for Mrs. Mason. We are experienced hikers, and we want to help.” Just as Lacey was saying that she thought that would be a great idea, Wyatt strode purposefully into the room interrupting their conversation. Lacey smiled shyly at him, but she could see he was all business. “That won’t be necessary,” he said to the group, “we found her.” Chapter 13 Everyone literally stopped mid-bite and looked at him in stunned silence. He seemed to realize how bluntly he had spoken and looked at them with an apologetic glance. Lacey stood and asked, “How is she?” His eyes softened as they rested on her as if he wanted to touch her but instead he informed them all, “Not good, she’s dead.” There was a gasp around the table and Lacey sat back down quickly. John Braverman asked what they were all wondering, “How?” Wyatt answered simply, “We don’t know, but we will definitely find out. Lacey, can I speak to you privately, please?” Wyatt nodded to everyone, laid his hand gently on Lacey’s arm, and led her into the library. After closing the door behind them, he grasped her chin and turned her to him. “How are you?” he asked gently. Under his intense scrutiny, she felt her heart actually flutter a bit. This was silly she thought and focused on getting her thoughts together. She straightened herself and answered firmly, “I’m fine. Now tell me what happened.” “That’s my girl!” he said as he searched her face closely. She had to put some distance between them so she could think. It was ridiculous that she was so distracted by her feelings for him; she should be paying more attention to the very serious things that were happening. For god’s sake, another person had died! “She stammered, “Wh….wh... Was she murdered too?” He shook his head and told her they would not know for several hours. The search team had found Heather Mason’s crumpled body amongst the rocks in the area known as the devil’s playground. The medical examiner was trying to determine how she had died. She could have accidently fallen, someone could have pushed her or she may have even deliberately jumped over the edge. Lacey had seen pictures of the area he described. It was a very desolate basin landscaped with massive jagged rocks near the summit of Pike’s Peak. The spot had earned the name the Devil’s Playground because it was famous for lightning striking more often than any other area of the mountain. She had thought the name whimsical when she first heard it. She had pictured the lightning bouncing around the rocks. Now the picture in her brain took on an ominous shadow. For just a moment, she felt overwhelmed by all that was happening. He seemed to sense her despair and quickly crossed the room to take her into his arms. His embrace was strong and protective and yes, loving. She buried her face in his shoulder as he stroked her hair and murmured soft, soothing words. She melted into him and just let herself draw from his strength for just a moment. He led her over to the couch and sank down onto the cushions cradling her in his arms. As much as she wanted to surrender to this coddling, she would not be Lacey if she didn’t push herself up straight and look directly into his eyes. She was no weak female who had to have a man and she wasn’t going to change now. “Tell me what you know,” she said her voice stronger now. He straightened his body and did his best to hide the slightly amused smile that crossed his face at her sudden bravado. He told her that Heather’s body was understandably bruised and broken. They had found no evidence of a struggle or the presence of another person. If it was a suicide, there had been no note left at the scene. He also filled her in on the results of the autopsy of the body found at the bottom of her stairs. The DNA and fingerprints had proved that the victim was indeed Adam Mason. The same Adam Mason the Kansas court system had decided must be dead after seven years without a body or any indication that he was alive. The accidental death for which, Heather Mason had collected double on the life insurance. The two deaths had to be connected. Lacey remembered the stricken look on Heather’s face when she looked at the body at the bottom of the stairs. She had seemed truly shocked. Lacey voiced her thoughts about this. Wyatt nodded and agreed that he too thought she had looked devastated that morning. They also spoke about how sad it was that there seemed to be no one to notify of their deaths. These two people had lived out their lives and had left no one behind to grieve their loss. They both grew silent as they thought about how unusual this entire scenario had become. Wyatt broke the silence by saying, “I don’t think it’s safe to leave you here alone. I would like to stay here at the Inn until we determine who and what are behind these deaths. I can’t stand the thought of something happening to you now after I have finally found someone that makes me feel like this. Besides, it will be fun to spend the entire night together,” he waggled his eyebrow suggestively as he said this last comment. She answered with her usual spunkiness, “Oh yeah? Well, mister, you’ll be staying in the remaining guest room if that is what you are insisting on doing. I’m not that easy!” They both burst into laughter, but he knew she was serious about exactly where he would be sleeping. He was a bit disappointed, but then again he was interested in building a relationship with her because she was special and different. He found himself thinking even more highly of her; after all, they had only just met. They both felt that they were heading in the direction of something, but they would take their time and enjoy the journey. They had guarded their hearts for too long to jump too soon, and too far. They kissed almost reverently and then reluctantly left the library in an attempt to surround themselves with distractions that would prevent them from acting on the physical attraction that was definitely between the two of them. As they went through the doorway, Wyatt pulled her to his side and squeezed her shoulder briefly before letting her go ahead of him out to the hallway. Chapter 14 Charlotte looked at both of them studiously as they returned to the dining room where everyone lingered talking casually. They all turned toward the front door as they heard a simultaneous knock and someone shouting, “Yoo hoo!” Lacey hurried to greet the tall middle-aged woman with striking red hair who was already standing in the reception hall. “Hi,” she stuck out her hand, “I’m Tricia Moore; I work at the Elkville Café. I meant to get here before your grand opening to bring these for your guests.” Lacey shook her hand and took the envelope she held out. She opened the packet and discovered several free meal coupons. “Why, thank you!” she said, “I know my guests will appreciate these. I’ve heard good things about the menu at the café.” Tricia smiled broadly and said “Well thank you. We are always happy to welcome a business that will send patron’s our way.” Lacey asked her if she would like the fifty-cent tour. Tricia nodded enthusiastically. She seemed very interested and her bright eyes darted back and forth trying to take in everything at once. Lacey showed her through the Inn, of course, skipping the occupied rooms. Tricia seemed pleased with everything and oohed and ahhed in the appropriate places. Then she said she needed to get back to the café before the lunch rush hit. She waved gaily to everyone and took her leave. Wyatt looked after her thoughtfully. Lacey intercepted the look and wondered what was behind it. Was there something between them? Tricia looked quite a bit older than Wyatt was, but hey, cougars were very in right now. Lacey dismissed the tiny bit of jealousy and decided she was not going to be “that” girl. In light of recent events, Wyatt was probably taking a second look at anyone who interacted with her or the Inn. Charlotte watched the interchange between them closely. Her sister radar was up, was it justified? She felt happy about the possibility of Lacey building a lasting relationship. Wyatt impressed her as a quality person who was worthy of her sister. The Braverman’s then Joan and Suzy wandered upstairs to get ready for their planned activities. Wyatt received a phone call that demanded his presence at the station. The Inn seemed bereft to Lacey as he hurried out to the cruiser. Charlotte clucked her tongue, her sister had it bad, and so quickly too. Lacey realized that once again, he was gone, and she had not asked him all the questions she wanted to about his wife and even his life. Damn all this death and murder stuff. It dominated everything and there seemed to be no time for normal conversations. Chapter 15 Charlotte and Lacey were silent as they cleaned up the remains of the morning meal. Finally, Charlotte spoke, “You’re falling for him aren’t you?” Lacey looked at her sister and there was helplessness in her eyes. She had not expected or intended to feel this way. She shrugged and said, “You know, I think I am. I can’t seem to help it.” Charlotte gave her a sympathetic look and changed the subject. She asked for an update on the investigation. Lacey told her about the latest findings. “But how can that be?” Charlotte wondered, “If Adam Mason died so many years ago how is it possible for him to die here?” They discussed the case for several minutes, both of them feeling awful that Heather Mason was also dead. Handy Man Dan came in and interrupted their conversation. “I need something to do,” he said, “I’m worried about both of you. Do you want me to just stay here in case something else happens?” Lacey groaned and said evenly, “That’s so nice of you Dan, but Sheriff Graves will be staying here at the Inn for the time being.” Dan narrowed his eyes, he had thought he was the only “big strong man” available to help Lacey. Lacey asked him if he could check into the cost involved in some sort of security system for the Inn. She hadn’t thought this was a necessary precaution. However, that was before she had been very close to two deaths. Dan seemed grateful to have a mission and headed into Colorado Springs to get some ideas and prices. He felt badly that “his” Lacey was feeling threatened, and he would do everything he could to protect her and her guests. Besides this renovation had been the only steady work he had lined up in over a year. He wanted to stay in her good graces because there was a lot more renovating to be done. As Dan took his leave, the sisters talked about what they could do to make this experience better for their guests. They could not take away the fact that death had been touched them all. They decided that they would put together a barbeque in the walled in sanctuary. Lacey wanted to make sure that Wyatt and his deputies were invited. Not surprisingly, Charlotte wanted to make sure Cody Westerfield was invited. Lacey laughed aloud and said, “Well, let’s invite the entire neighborhood. We don’t want this to look like a romantic rendezvous for ourselves.” “Why not?” laughed Charlotte. The shuttle had picked up the Braverman’s for their day in Manitou and they would not be here for dinner. Instead, they would be enjoying a romantic fondue dinner to mark their honeymoon. Joan and Suzy would be hiking all day and would not only be back for dinner but would also most likely be starving. Charlotte offered to drive into the Springs to get the fresh food items they needed and to stop at the neighbors and a couple of businesses in Elkville to invite them to join the festivities tonight. Chapter 16 For the next few hours, Lacey busied herself with daily chores. She cleaned and straightened the occupied guest rooms, started some laundry and checked the computer for any inquiries from the Inn’s webpage. Mid afternoon, Dan returned with the specifications of several alarm system options for her to look over. She was on a tight budget but this purchase seemed important, for both herself and her guest’s peace of mind. She chose a mid priced system then negotiated with Dan for an installation fee. He left looking pleased with her instructions to get started. She went out into the walled privacy of the sanctuary. This private patio area always made her feel serene and happy. She checked the chemicals in the spa, just in case anyone wanted to take advantage of the therapeutic hot bubbling water. Then she strung some white twinkling lights on the top of the wall and around the two trees enclosed in the area. She set some candles and dinnerware on each of the wrought iron tables on the stone-floored dining area. Next, she uncovered the grill, which sat in a bricked in alcove. She looked around; satisfied that the area would look magical once the sun went down. As she opened the side kitchen door, she was startled to see Tricia Moore standing there. “Sorry, didn’t mean to scare you.” Tricia said, “I just came by to see if I could help. Charlotte stopped by the café and invited us to come over tonight. My shift is over and I thought you could use some help. You know, I’ve been cooking for people for almost thirty years,” she finished. Lacey was happy to take her up on that offer and led her over to the work island in the kitchen. With Tricia busily peeling potatoes for a large batch of potato salad, Lacey got to work putting together a dessert to finish off their dinner of grilled teriyaki salmon and chicken breast. They would also have fresh vegetables brushed with olive oil and grilled with fresh garlic and herbs. She baked a pan of fudgy brownies. Then layered brownie pieces in a trifle dish with alternating layers of chocolate pudding and whipped cream. She added a few shavings of chocolate to the top of the elaborate looking dish and set the concoction in the large refrigerator to chill. She really enjoyed making people happy with food, and had the waistline to prove it. Tricia had finished mixing up the potato salad with a tangy dressing of mustard, fresh thyme and mayonnaise. Lacey took this bowl and carried it over to the refrigerator. Lacey suggested they pull up a couple of stools at the large work island and have a glass of iced tea. Tricia seemed happy to take a break and drank thirstily from her glass. She was a pretty woman even though she appeared a bit life worn. She had many questions about the murder and the undetermined death of one of her guests. Apparently, the local gossip mill had spread the news of the discovery of Heather Mason’s body earlier today up on the mountain slope. Lacey was not about to share whatever inside knowledge Wyatt had given her. Instead, she asked Tricia if she had always lived in Elkville. “Oh no,” answered Tricia, “Very few people are actually from here. I’ve lived a lot of places but I moved here from Denver just a few months ago.” According to her story, she had tired of big city life and big city crime and a friend had told her about Elkville. She liked the small town atmosphere but still being close to a big city if she wanted. Lacey couldn’t help it, she asked her about Wyatt. Maybe she could find out more about the man who had grabbed her interest. Trying not to be too obvious, she asked if the town was happy with their choice of sheriff. Tricia replied, “Well, Sheriff Graves has only been here a year, but people seemed happy that they got someone with “big city” experience right here in Elkville.” Tricia was interesting to visit with and before she knew it, an hour had passed. Charlotte came in lugging several cloth grocery bags. Lacey rushed to take a couple from her as Tricia did the same. Lacey unpacked the wild caught salmon fillets and free range chicken breasts from the bags that Charlotte brought in. She felt very strongly that she should provide the best least processed food to her guests that she could afford. Someday she hoped to have a fruitful garden that also supplied some home grown organics to her table. Of course, that was very iffy considering the altitude of the Inn location. As she whisked together a pungent teriyaki sauce to marinate the fish and chicken she enjoyed listening to Charlotte and Tricia get to know each other. Lacey announced that since everything was done except grilling the meat they should enjoy a happy hour drink before the first guests arrived. Charlotte and Tricia cheered their endorsement of this suggestion and Lacey proceeded to make a pitcher of margaritas. As the sun quickly slipped behind the still snow dusted peak the women laughed and compared lives around the granite topped island in the spacious kitchen. Charlotte was delighted that the first guest to ring the old-fashioned dinner bell located on the front deck of the Inn was Cody Westerfield. Charlotte ran to let him in. Charlotte was very petite, which was even more noticeable as she stood next to the six foot two height of Cody. She was a beautiful woman, definitely the prettiest of the three sisters. She was so tiny and delicate that men automatically wanted to protect her. They would be making a huge mistake to underestimate Charlotte’s strength. She was the strongest soul Lacey knew. Wide blue eyes, heart shaped face, and she had not fought the auburn highlights that all three sisters had in their hair. She had embraced this tendency to go red and had kept her hair a lovely shade of strawberry blonde for the last five years. Cody’s look appraised her at the doorway but true to Charlotte’s independent spirit, she quickly led him out to the sanctuary and put him to work getting the grill ready. His eyes looked after her speculatively as she went back into the kitchen. Charlotte sensed his look but he was wasting his time; Charlotte’s heart was still much too broken to consider the idea of even a casual relationship. That didn’t mean that she couldn’t appreciate his rugged outdoorsy good looks. Chapter 17 Several neighbors arrived including Lucy Wright and Mandy Grainger. Mandy was very excited that she had managed to get away from her children for the evening. She loved being an at home mother but she sometimes longed for an adult conversation. Handyman Dan came in with a few construction friends of his and finally the person Lacey had been holding her breath for came out into the sanctuary. Wyatt. As she looked across the stone patio, she could swear the cacophony of voices grew muffled and his arrival drew her complete attention. Their eyes met and as they did, a radiant smile appeared across both of their faces. Wyatt hurried over to her. While the two of them thought they were the only ones who noticed their fascination with each other, it was obvious to everyone that there was something electric between them. When he reached her side, he fought an almost physical ache to pull her into his arms but made placing his arm lightly around her shoulders suffice for now. Joan and Suzy joined the group on the patio, flushed from both their exertions hiking all day and the young handsome construction workers that were sending appreciative glances their way. Lacey looked around at the faces that were reflected in the twinkling fairy lights and thought, this is what I wanted, creating a special evening for a group of people. She felt blessed by the added bonus of the warm companionship of the man standing so closely beside her. She tried to erase from her mind the violence that had marred her grand opening and instead revel in this normal gathering. Creating and sharing a gathering with good food and pleasant atmosphere was one of the reasons she had wanted to open an Inn to begin with. Pitchers of margaritas and bottles of wine stood readily accessible for the guests. Aromatic smoke rose from the grill, just as convivial conversation rose from the group of guests. Lacey felt content, this is how it would have been if murder had not intruded. Wyatt touched her on the arm as if to say he knew what she was thinking and understood. Everyone prepared their plates and began sitting in cordial groups at the wrought iron tables scattered across the faux ancient stonework. As they were finishing the delicious al fresco dinner, Miranda and John Braverman came thru the old and weathered reclaimed barn wood gate. Lacey was surprised to see them this early and rushed over to them. “Was everything okay at your dinner? Did you enjoy it?” she asked anxiously. They thanked her and assured her the gift of a romantic dinner for two had been wonderful. They looked around at the crowd and then sat down at a table that included Lucinda Wright and some other townspeople. Lacey brought them each a brimming margarita glass and then did her best to circulate around to each table making small talk. She was very aware of Wyatt’s eyes following her movements. She brought out the brownie trifle to enthusiastic applause. Just as she had always told herself, her guests seemed to agree, dessert makes everything better. She scooped up the trifle making sure to include some of each decadent layer in each serving. As Charlotte helped her serve each table, she felt happy. For this evening, she was able to forget the ugliness that had touched all of them in the last couple of days. The impromptu party wound down and one by one, each guest expressed their enjoyment and made their exits. The Inn guests headed to their rooms and the townsfolk headed back to Elkville. Soon, only Charlotte, Wyatt and herself remained clearing tables, and turning off both spa and fairy lights in the outdoor area. It felt so natural that the three of them didn’t really need to talk as they loaded the dishwasher and put away leftovers. Charlotte hugged her sister and quickly left the Inn to drive the short distance to her rental house. As Lacey moved through the kitchen wiping down counters, Wyatt grabbed her hand and pulled her in to nestle against his broad chest. “I’ve wanted to do this for hours,” he whispered against her hair. She raised her head and met his lips with her own. Immediately the kiss turned fiery. His hands tightened around her back trying to pull her even closer. She tried her best to melt her body into his. Her hand rested on his chest and she could feel his heart beating fast and strong under her fingers. She kissed him hard and passionately. His tongue begged for entrance and she opened her mouth wider to allow him to explore. Just when she thought, she would literally burst into flames he tried to pull away. She held on tighter to his body and he sighed against her lips and then pulled his body a few inches away from her. She felt cold and abandoned and tried to move closer to him. He held her at arms length and rested his forehead against hers. Both were breathing hard. Finally, when he was able to speak in an almost normal voice, he said, “Oh Lacey, believe me I want you more than you know. But it’s too soon. You are special, this is special; I want to make sure we don’t rush. We both deserve that.” He was right. As she tried to control her ragged breathing, she tore her body from his and put as much distance between them as the room would allow. She appreciated his ability to get control because she did not think she would have been able to stop herself from going much much further in her exploration of him. “I’m going to make us some coffee and we can sit in the library and talk. How does that sound?” she asked regaining her composure. He looked at her with that penetrating blue gaze. The sparkle in his look told her he had wanted more too. They would eventually arrive where they were destined to go she had no doubts about that. He nodded and pulled his phone out and began checking messages while she prepared a tray with coffee and napkins along with a plate of homemade cookies that Tricia had brought with her from the Elkville Café. As they entered the library, they consciously tried not to touch each other. She set the tray on the table in front of the comfortable couch. They both sat, maybe a little too close, but they had tamped down the sexual tension that had almost overwhelmed them a few minutes ago. Anxious to have this conversation finally, Lacey said, “Tell me about your wife.” He seemed relieved that they were going to talk about his marriage. He knew the subject would not be easy; but it was a topic he needed and wanted to tell her about. He told her with sorrow in his face and pain in his voice about his “sweet” Annie. They had dated all through college. After graduation, they had finally had the beach wedding she had always dreamed of having. Then less than six months afterwards she had been stricken with breast cancer. She was young and her chances were good. The doctors said she had a ninety percent chance for a cure. She did everything they recommended, chemo, radiation, even surgery. They had both wholeheartedly believed she would be fine. She fought a good battle but four months later, she was gone. He held his emotions in check, the effort making his face tight with strain. He told her that even the day before she died she was talking about having children with him. They would never have that chance; he came home from work and found her already gone. Lacey held his hand tightly as sympathetic tears filled her luminous green eyes. He looked at her and said very quietly, “I made up my mind that I would never love again. I couldn’t stand the thought of feeling that kind of pain and loss again. The only way I saw to avoid it was never to let myself care that much about another person. I met you and all of that went out the window. I can’t help it. I think I’m falling for you Lacey.” He started to tug at the gold band still on his left hand. She grabbed his hand and said, “No, don’t. Don’t take it off yet, not right now. I want to honor your Annie too.” He was speechless. Instead of feeling jealous about the deep love he had felt for Annie, she felt that it only proved how much love he was capable of feeling. They held each other tightly in comfort, not passion. She rose quietly and led him upstairs to the remaining guest room. They kissed chastely in the doorway and then she climbed the last flight of stairs to her own third floor domain. Chapter 18 Lacey slept deeply and dreamlessly. She had thought she would have trouble drifting off knowing that Wyatt was sleeping just below but apparently, murder and mayhem wore a person out. Still her thoughts went first to the fact that Wyatt was here as soon as her cell alarm woke her. It was six am and she dressed quickly taking a moment to apply some light make up. Then she hurried downstairs. She got coffee going and then began preparations for breakfast. She had decided on a simple frittata. She would add fresh herbs and chopped spinach to the grated potatoes in the cast iron skillet. She cooked these ingredients until just tender then turned off the burner. Next, she added the milk and egg mixture. She topped the pan generously with cheddar cheese. She would pop the skillet under the broiler for just a few minutes to set everything right before serving. She then raided the refrigerator and fruit bowl to create a lovely fresh fruit salad. She whisked together a light poppy seed dressing. She was placing this bowl back into the refrigerator to chill when she felt strong arms wrap around her waist. She turned into Wyatt’s arms and smiled warmly up at him. He kissed her lightly on the lips and then murmured close to her ear, “Hmmmm what a fantasy, seeing this beautiful woman, my woman in the kitchen cooking breakfast for me.” She swatted at his chest and said, “It’s for everyone buddy, don’t get too excited.” His eyes glinted and he growled, “Oh, but I am.” Flustered she busied herself gathering plates and utensils to carry into the dining room. Just as she finished setting the long table, he came in carrying two steaming mugs of coffee. She gratefully accepted the mug he held out and they settled themselves at the small table near the huge window. For a moment they looked out at the new day fully arrived in the light blue sky. He told her that the medical examiner had called very early this morning. He set his mug down and began telling her about the preliminary results of the autopsy on Heather Mason. Her death was suspicious. It was difficult to determine anything for sure on a body that had tumbled hundreds of feet down a rocky hillside. The medical examiner had made the determination based on what appeared to be defensive wounds and two prominent bruises on the victims back. When someone violently pushes a victim to their death these were the kinds of injuries seen on autopsy. She felt these injuries indicated that Heather had grabbed frantically at someone or something trying to avoid going over the edge. Lacey drew in a sharp breath; she had convinced herself that Heather’s death was a suicide over the guilt of killing her husband. She thought that would put the completely horrible ordeal to rest. This information however, created many more questions. Who else could be involved? Sensing there was more she looked expectantly at Wyatt. He continued in a quiet voice, “There were two DNA samples found under Heather’s fingernails. One was a match to Adam Mason and the other is unknown. There were also a few hairs and fibers that are still being analyzed.” He took her hand in his, “I’m telling you this Lacey because it means you and everyone else in this scenario is not out of danger. I need you to be careful.” His hand tightened on hers as fear was visible on her features. She let herself show her vulnerability for just a moment and then her features tightened and she pulled her hand out of his, straightened her shoulders, and said firmly, “I’m not afraid. I want to help you solve this. Tell me what I can do.” He spoke more firmly, “No. You need to stay out of this and be safe.” She quickly replied, “Well it’s too late for that, I’m right in the middle of this.” He sighed, she was right; the best thing they could do was to solve these crimes and remove whoever was responsible from the scene. They were both quiet as they thought about the newest developments. They looked up as Miranda and John Braverman entered the dining room. Lacey jumped up to go finish breakfast. When she came back in with piping hot wedges of frittata arranged, attractively on three plates with the bright colorful fruit salad side dish she felt significant tension in the room. Apparently, Wyatt had been asking the Braverman’s if they could possibly stay for a day or two more in case there were more questions for the couple. John Braverman was angry and his wife’s beautiful blonde countenance was marred with irritation. Wyatt spoke in a low conciliatory tone but John pushed back his chair and said, “You can’t keep us here! We are leaving tomorrow morning and there is nothing you can do about it.” He took Miranda by the hand and they abruptly left the room. Joan and Suzy breezed in a moment later, unaware of the previous conversation. “I’m starving! What smells so good?” asked Suzy. They saw the two plates on the table and assuming they were for them sat down and began hungrily attacking the food. Lacey hurried back into the kitchen to get coffee and juice for her guests. Wyatt followed her in and said, “Sorry about that.” She studied his serious face and reminded him that it was true they could not make anyone stay here at the Inn. She wanted to ask if he really thought the couple had anything to do with the murders but knew he probably wouldn’t be able to answer that. For that matter, Joan and Suzy were supposed to check out this morning. Would he want to keep them here too? She could tell by his evasive expression when she asked that he did indeed want to keep everyone in place. Unless he was willing to arrest them all, they would most likely be leaving. In addition, until their departure she was supposed to be providing a wonderful experience. Ha- that would only be true if this was one of those haunted Halloween events! Hmmm… she thought that was a good idea, she would file that away as an option for a future theme weekend. She was sure that once the horror of a real life murder scenario passed she would be ready for a pretend murder mystery gathering. Chapter 19 The morning passed uneventfully. Charlotte had arrived and Wyatt had left for work right after breakfast. Lacey tended to the usual daily housekeeping duties. Charlotte caught up the laundry. They both worked on a thank you packet for their first guests. They added a free weekend stay at the Inn along with the usual discount coupons for tourist attractions and a nicely framed photo of the guests smiling gaily with the beautiful sunset behind them in the sanctuary. Lacey felt that they had to provide a future murder free stay in an effort to make up for the drama this week had brought. They split up the list of opening night guests and began calling each to thank them for attending. Lacey tried not to smile when Charlotte made sure Cody Westerfield was on her list. Lacey spoke at length with both Lucinda Wright and Mandy Grainger. She wanted to offer tours of Lucy’s Llama’s to her guests and she profusely thanked Mandy for the delicious meal she had delivered. Someday when the Inn was on its feet, she would like to hire the woman to provide special occasion meals for her guests. If the grand opening week was all people had to judge she had a lot of making up to do to ensure positive reviews would entice future Inn guests. Right now word of mouth advertising would probably not be shouting that the Inn was a wonderful place to stay. Handy Man Dan came in around noon to install the security system. Lacey had never thought she would need such an elaborate system at her quiet, country Inn, but that had sure changed. Dan did his best to flirt equally with both her and Charlotte. He was cute in an endearing puppy kind of way but neither of them could be seriously interested. Joan and Suzy came downstairs with their backpacks ready to check out. Lacey apologized for the disruption and horror of their stay but they brushed her apology aside. “Think of the great stories we have to tell when we get back to school,” Suzy said cheerfully. Joan added that they would definitely be back. Lacey thought to herself how wonderful it was to be that young and able to put a positive spin on the worst of life, even murder. She walked them to the front door. As she closed the door on the two of them, they waved happily. Then they got into the shuttle she had ordered for their departure. Suzy called out, “We left you something, check the sanctuary!” Lacey called Charlotte and they went out to the sanctuary together. They looked around but failed to see anything out of place. They went back inside wondering what the girls had been referring to in the sanctuary. As they entered the reception hall, they were surprised to see Miranda and John standing at the foot of the stairs with their luggage at their feet. John spoke brusquely, “We’re sorry, but we are ready to get back to Omaha. That discussion with the cop was the final touch. We don’t blame you, but frankly, the honeymoon is over.” Lacey did her best to talk them out of leaving, even offering several complimentary tours to tempt them to stay. “No, thank you. We really want to go home. Will you call a shuttle for us please? And John, let’s at least go do that rock thing the girls told us about before we leave,” said the beautiful Miranda. Lacey went to the phone and called another shuttle. Her curiosity got the better of her and gesturing to Charlotte, they followed the couple out to the sanctuary. John looked around and then led Miranda over to the border area just inside the wall. Dan had laid river rock of different shapes and sizes all along the inside wall. He pointed to one that had writing on it. Lacey hurried over and took the rock from the pile. She turned it to enable everyone to read the words written in bold magic marker. “We had a killer time~ the date and Joan and Suzy” with a saucy smiley face was inscribed on the smooth oval rock. She laughed aloud at the unique monument the girls had made to mark their stay. John asked for a marker as Miranda picked out another smooth oval stone. Charlotte ran inside and came back with a black marker. After huddling together for a moment, Miranda scrawled a message on the rock and handed it to Lacey. “True love never dies” and a heart containing their initials on the grey stone was the message the newlyweds chose. She placed it carefully into the pile of stones that rimmed the wall. As they went back inside they heard the beep beep of the horn of the shuttle vehicle waiting in the driveway. They shook hands and then they were off. Charlotte and Lacey stood at the doorway. Dan joined them and said, “Hey, that rock thing was cool, wasn’t it?” Charlotte and Lacey laughed together. Yes, thought Lacey, if they had gained nothing else during this disastrous week then at least they had begun a wonderful tradition for the future guests of the Inn. Charlotte patted her on the back as if to say Amen. Chapter 20 They spent the rest of the day cleaning the guest rooms and tidying up the common areas of the Inn. Lacey went to check the Inn’s website and was surprised to see several inquiries about reservation availability. She called Charlotte over to look at a particularly interesting request. A Wiccan group wanted to book all the guests rooms next month for a four-day Moon Goddess celebration. Charlotte was confused. Lacey explained to her that Wicca was an earthy witchcraft type religion that was gaining popularity after years in obscurity. She thought they were harmless but hoped that their interest wasn’t only because of the two deaths that had probably been reported in the news. There was a family reunion requesting dates for July and another honeymoon couple requesting a week in August. All in all these requests seemed a positive omen to Lacey. As she confirmed each of the requests, she felt more normal than she had for the last three days. The bell rang on the front deck. Tricia Moore stood there peering into the glass oval in the front door. Lacey let her in and Tricia looked around brightly. “So all of your guests have gone?” she asked bluntly. Lacey wondered how this news could have already spread but such was the nature of small town gossip mills. Charlotte offered to bring them tea out in the sanctuary. Lacey led her guest out to a wrought iron table. The stucco walls did a great job of blocking the wind and that together with the mild June temperature made it quite pleasant. Charlotte brought out tall glasses of iced tea and joined them at the table. Tricia did not even try to hide her interest in the goings on at the Inn. She asked more questions about the deaths of both Adam and Heather and seemed almost too interested in Wyatt’s opinion about the investigation. Lacey put her off with vague murmurings that she really didn’t know anything. Lacey supposed she wanted to find out as much as she could to take back to the others. Charlotte turned the conversation to Tricia and her background. Tricia said she was pretty much a nomad and named some places she had lived, Omaha, Fort Morgan and just a few months ago, Denver. She really enjoyed the welcome of a small community after the coldness of a large city. She had worked as a day care provider in Omaha but found that she really enjoyed her work at the Elkville café. Her face clouded when asked about husband or children and Charlotte decided to leave that subject alone. Everyone had a right to keep his or her own story and pain private. Charlotte, more than anyone, could attest to that. Tricia glanced at her watch, exclaimed that she would be late for the dinner shift at the café, and hurried out to her car. As Charlotte and Lacey waved from the front deck, a pickup truck pulled into the driveway. Cody Westerfield jumped down from the cab carrying a large white box. While he only had eyes for Charlotte, Lacey greeted him and asked him to come in and have some tea. “I can’t stay,” he said. “I just wanted to bring this by as a welcome to the neighborhood gift.” He looked at both of them for a moment, handed the box to Charlotte and then with a wave headed back to the still running pickup truck. Charlotte carried the box into the Inn and they opened it to inspect the contents. A card on top explained that the box contained eight of the finest free-range bison sirloin steaks that in the world. The animals were grass fed and raised nearby at the C bar W ranch. Wow, Lacey thought this was interesting. This would make a very special meal, a meal that surely needed two couples. Lacey, Wyatt and perhaps she could talk Charlotte into sharing the meal with Cody. She would do her best to get out of it but Lacey would emphasize that it wasn’t a date, just a thank you to the neighbor. She placed the box into the large freezer with a promise to herself to get that dinner arranged soon. The next visitor was Wyatt. Lacey hurried to greet him at the door. “Do you know anything?” she asked. She had called him when all of her guests had departed. He had not been happy about it. He followed her into the kitchen. Charlotte sat across from the two of them at the big worktable. He told them that his department had been in contact with both the Boulder police department and the Omaha homicide division. Her former guests would be welcomed by their local police and given firm instructions that they were not to leave the area. They were all persons of interest and needed to make themselves available for further questioning. Wyatt voiced his relief that these potential suspects were no longer staying with her at the Inn. He frowned as he told them that the Topeka police department had been more than happy to reopen the Adam Mason case. They even had a list of people that Adam had owed a great deal of money. They were checking out the list and really felt that a couple of them were very capable of finishing him off if they discovered that he had not died years ago. “Are there any answers about Heather?” Lacey asked. Wyatt explained that while there was nothing that undeniably pointed to homicide, Heather’s death did have some very suspicious elements. There may not be enough evidence to prove exactly what happened up on the mountain trail. Maybe she had killed the husband she grieved for all these years and then filled with remorse jumped off the mountainside. Either way he expected to have some final determinations by next week. He stood up intending to get back to work. Lacey walked him to the door. They hugged and she had to ask, “Does this mean you won’t be staying here tonight?” With a devilish glint, he leaned closer, “Well, I was going to catch up on some work and check on my house but I could easily be talked into coming over here.” Embarrassed Lacey quickly assured him that she would be fine and pushed him towards the door. As he stepped out on the deck, he grew serious. “Give me a few days to tie up the investigation and then I will take you on a real date. I promise,” he said. Lacey smiled and nodded and thought to herself as she went back to the kitchen, they really were moving excessively fast. She guessed murder had that effect. She rather liked the idea of a courtship with someone in whom she was already very interested. She also liked the idea that maybe none of her guests had been a killer. Lacey went to her sister and placed her arm around her shoulders, “Hey, Sis, how about a trip into the big city of Colorado Springs for a nice dinner?” Charlotte gladly accepted but only with the stipulation that margaritas would be included with the meal. Dan overhead their plans and asked Lacey if she could take a moment to set a pass code for the new alarm system before she left. She thought quickly and then chose a four-digit number. She could tell that Dan would like to accompany the two of them into town but she didn’t think it was a good idea to start something that blurred the lines around their relationship. She still needed him to focus on the work she had for him at the Inn. After Dan proudly gave Lacey and Charlotte a brief tutorial on the workings of the security system they left in Charlotte’s car laughing together happily. Dan looked after them wistfully and then began packing up his tools to head home for the day. He wondered if he should actually set the alarm. He decided not to since that would make it obvious that he had watched Lacey enter the code. Better, that no one knew that it wasn’t really a secret. He was preoccupied and didn’t notice that he wasn’t the only one watching Charlotte and Lacey drive away. Chapter 21 It was quite late when Charlotte’s car pulled into the circular driveway of the Inn. They had really enjoyed an evening of no drama, good food and lots of laughter. Charlotte offered to come in with her but Lacey thought that idea was ridiculous. “Go on home,” she urged Charlotte. “Remember Wyatt will be calling to check up on me later.” Charlotte watched as her sister entered the front door and then flicked the deck lights to let her know she was okay. Charlotte drove away humming to herself. Lacey checked her watch; Wyatt was most likely still working since he was coordinating all the information that was coming in from the other jurisdictions. She felt light and carefree for the first time in too many days. She decided to go on up to her apartment and take a long leisurely soak in the giant claw foot tub she had in her private bathroom. She quickly checked all the doors and windows on the first floor. After making sure that everything was secure, she went over to her new alarm system keypad. She entered the code she had chosen and when the signal that let her know everything was armed properly sounded she headed upstairs with a satisfied smile. Pink-cheeked and relaxed after her fragrant bath she climbed into her bed and opened her laptop. She wanted to keep a log of each guests stay. Noting which excursions they had taken, food preferences and any special needs she had discovered. She had set up a software program to document this information easily. She was happy that she could try the system out with real guest information. She connected her digital camera into the port and began the download. She planned to match the photos taken this week with the written report of each guests visit. She liked the idea that she could use these photos when she sent thank you cards and invitations to encourage her guests to return. These would be a tangible reminder of the wonderful time they had while staying at the Inn. As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words. As she was waiting for the download to finish, her cell phone rang, she answered quickly, excited to talk with Wyatt. They spent at least half an hour sharing the usual couple small talk. This included a lot of flirting and giggles from Lacey. They were both in a hurry to build on the closeness they had developed over the last few days. After much discussion about where to go on their first official date, they warmly ended the phone call with a promise to meet for coffee tomorrow morning at the Elkville Café. After hanging up she smiled as she realized she had not been this into a man since college. Only this time she was sure the man was worthy of her love. Yes, Wyatt was very deserving, such a good and honest man. Even his job involved protecting people and making the world a safer place. She wondered if he was afraid of being alone with her, she giggled a little and thought he sure would be if he knew how quickly she wanted to skip the dating and move right into the next stage. Probably just as well that one of them was being sensible she thought as she went back to working on her computer. She was sorting through the downloaded photos deciding which ones went with each guests file and which were general snapshots of the Inn that she could use for advertising. She sighed as she noticed a couple of shots taken of Heather on her first night. She and Charlotte had taken quite a few pictures of the grand opening reception. She didn’t remember Heather staying for long but here she was in two of the photos. The first one just showed her standing alone in the center of the reception hall as if she didn’t quite know what to do with herself. The second photo depicted the tour of the upstairs hallway. Heather was standing right in front of the mining equipment display and appeared to be seriously studying the contents of that art niche. That niche had contained the murder weapon, the antique railroad spike. Lacey enlarged these two photos and looked closer. Heather was definitely looking very interested in the spikes on display. Lacey studied the other photo, the angle showed Heather close-up holding her wine glass, but in the background the staircase rising to the second floor was clearly visible. Now she could see John Braverman almost hidden in the shadows at the top of the staircase. He seemed to stare down with a distorted sneer on his face. His gaze was definitely focused on Heather Mason. The Braverman’s had not joined the celebration that night. Was he irritated at the noise the partygoers were making on what was after all, his honeymoon? Of course, that was it. It had been a lively party. She minimized those two photos and moved on to glance through the other photos. She smiled at one that showed Cody Westerfield watching Charlotte closely as she passed through the crowd serving wine. She would save that one for Charlotte and prove to her that that cowboy was definitely interested. Her favorite pictures were the ones taken at the barbeque held out in the sanctuary. Everything looked so magical with the fairy lights and cozy nightglow surrounding everyone. There was stream rising up from the spa and even the moon was visible in the night sky in a few of them. She wanted to save these and use them to entice people to visit the Inn, maybe put these on the website. One of the photos was taken from a unique angle outside the huge wooden gate. She had wanted to experiment by taking one from the perspective of looking in at the celebration inside the stucco walled enclosure. People were mingling and laughing inside the lighted area inside the gate and yet there was still some illumination surrounding the walled area because of the twinkling lights. She really liked this one, she thought as she used the magnify function to see how it would look as the screensaver for her webpage. As she looked closer, she saw something at the corner of the shot near the wall but several feet down from the gate. There were two people deep in conversation. Even though it was shadowy, she could recognize both. Chapter 22 In this picture, Tricia Moore was grasping John Braverman’s arm in what looked like a desperate gesture to make him listen to whatever she was saying with her face very close to his. Lacey moved her curser to the corner of the photo and zoomed in. Yes, it was obvious that they were having a very serious discussion. How could that be, she wondered, they did not know each other. However, this picture showed that they clearly did know each other and it looked very suspicious to Lacey. Her mind was racing, thinking back to the last week’s events. She and Tricia had several conversations and she had never mentioned knowing any of her guests. Hadn’t the Braverman’s been out for the romantic dinner she had planned for them that night? She didn’t remember them even making an appearance at the barbeque. She shrugged, thinking there was no need to be melodramatic; there was probably a simple explanation. She went back to the pictures of Heather Mason. Poor dear, she really wasn’t joining in but that was no crime. She was looking closely at the mining equipment but she had probably looked closely at the other exhibits too. Lacey looked again at John Braverman’s expression at the top of the stairs. It was a menacing look but perhaps his night of passion with Miranda was being disturbed, she was sure that might make a man angry. Nevertheless, she could not think of an explanation for the pictures of Tricia and John. They seemed to be familiar with each other. They were obviously talking about something important. It just didn’t make any sense. She saved the four pictures into a file and then decided to email them to her smart phone. That is what she would do, she thought tiredly, she would bring the pictures to show Wyatt when they had coffee in the morning. He would come up with satisfying answers to the questions she had about the pictures. She put the computer back on the desk in her little sitting area and climbed wearily back into bed. Her cell phone rang again and she jumped startled at the sound in the quiet bedroom. It was Charlotte just checking in. They talked for a moment about the great evening they had enjoyed and then Charlotte asked if Wyatt was there. Lacey told her that he was working but she wished he were at the Inn. “I’m sure you do,” laughed Charlotte. “No really,” Lacey said, “I found some pictures I want to show him.” “What kind of pictures?” asked Charlotte. “Well, it’s weird,” pondered Lacey, “I found some pictures from the grand opening that just don’t make sense.” Charlotte said firmly, “If you found something suspicious about those murders you better call Wyatt right now.” Lacey reassured her that they were probably nothing and she would talk to him about them in the morning. She couldn’t resist teasing her sister just a little about the picture of Cody Westerfield and promised to show her all of the pictures tomorrow. They said their goodnights. Lacey turned off the bedside lamp and snuggled into the covers to get some much needed rest. She fell asleep thinking about seeing Wyatt in the morning. Her Wyatt…she thought sleepily. Chapter 23 Lacey became gradually aware that something, some noise was trying to intrude into her sleep-muddled brain. Just as her subconscious was floating to the surface complete silence descended again and she drifted back to sleep. Then something fell nearby and brought her rigidly upright. She was still not completely awake but getting there. She rubbed her eyes and instantly became alert, there it was, something or someone was moving around in her apartment. She listened intently, there, that rustling noise. Someone was here! She moved stealthily under cover of the muffled sounds coming from her sitting room and crept carefully to the doorway. For a moment, she couldn’t seem to register what she was seeing. She must have inadvertently made some sound because just then, Tricia Moore looked up from the subtle glow of Lacey’s laptop screen. Lacey stepped backward and tried to gather her senses and get back into the bedroom and shut the door. The sitting area was not that large and in an instant, Tricia was holding tightly to her arm and pulling her towards the small love seat in the window alcove. Now, Lacey noticed the small black gun in Tricia’s other hand. Still confused she started to speak. Tricia waved the gun close to her face and spoke first. “Too bad little girl,” she said with a menacing whisper, “But I was going to have to get you up anyway. I can’t find them. Now tell me where they are!” Lacey sputtered, “What, what are you looking for?” “The pictures!” Tricia spat between gritted teeth, “The interesting pictures you were telling your sister about.” Lacey thought quickly, “I don’t know what you are talking about,” she lied. “Don’t lie to me! I’ve been watching and you spent a lot of time on this laptop. They have to be there. Now show me where!” Tricia demanded. “You were watching me tonight?” Lacey asked. “Yes, I thought I would take some time to do a thorough search of the Inn while you were gone. But you came back sooner than I thought and instead I overheard you talking about those damn pictures so now I have to get them!” Tricia explained. Lacey was confused, “What were you searching for? Who are you?” she asked. “I guess I can tell you. I was making sure my Johnnie hadn’t left anything that identified me while he was here. Then you came home and I decided to wait until you fell asleep to get out of here. Good thing, because then I heard you talking about the pictures you found,” Tricia could barely contain her hate. “Your Johnnie?” Lacey questioned. “Enough!” Tricia spat, “Give me the pictures or I’ll just kill you now and destroy the laptop. It’s up to you.” “Okay, okay. “ Lacey said and took the laptop and began loading up the file. “Oh, how sweet. You even named it after your precious boyfriend,” Tricia mocked. “I guess it’s fitting since he will be the one to find you tomorrow.” She said this last sentence almost casually but Lacey knew she was someone very serious and very dangerous. She just couldn’t figure out the connections, why did this woman want to kill her? Tricia deftly deleted the picture file after looking through the four pictures with obvious frustration. “I told him to let me handle it. Not to come here, but he was worried about his Mama. My dear boy. He deserved so much more than I could give him,” Tricia said. “Mama? You are John Braverman’s mother?” Lacey asked weakly. “Come on,” ordered Tricia, “I’ll tell you the whole story while you change.” She turned off the laptop and replaced it carefully just where it had been on the desk. Then she gestured with the gun while pulling Lacey to her feet. She led her back into the bedroom. Chapter 24 As they entered the bedroom, Tricia turned on the overhead light and leaned against the doorframe. She kept the gun steadily pointed at Lacey. “Get changed into your bathing suit. I know a pretty girl like you must have a couple of nice ones. Choose your favorite because it will be the last thing you will ever wear,” she said in a matter of fact tone. Lacey was afraid not to follow these instruction. She opened a dresser drawer and pulled out a blue one piece, trying not to think of that last comment. “Okay, I understand I get it; you are going to kill me. But at least you can tell me what this is all about,” she pleaded. “Fine, I guess I can tell the story. It’s not as if you will be able to tell anyone,” Tricia spoke quietly. As Lacey changed from her usual tank top and boxer nightclothes, Tricia told her an almost unbelievable story. It may sound preposterous but it was obviously true since she was going to die because of it. Tricia admitted to killing Adam Mason. Heather had said that they had never had children but that was only the truth, as Heather knew it. Before marrying Heather, the love of his life, Adam had a brief dalliance with a pretty waitress, Tricia. Tricia had borne him a son, John Braverman. Braverman was a maiden name that Tricia had long abandoned. Adam had no money and no desire to ruin his relationship with Heather. He wanted nothing to do with Tricia or her child. Tricia had monitored the couple, almost stalking them for years. As she told the story, her mouth twisted in bitterness. Tricia had celebrated Adam’s apparent deadly accident. She thought it was fitting that karma chose to punish him. It made her feel better that Adam died so young and left his beloved Heather all alone. However, after Adams death, she hadn’t quit watching Heather. It seemed to have given her some kind of pleasure to watch the woman go through her life alone. She continued to stalk Heather and that was how Tricia had discovered the secret. Heather wasn’t going through her life alone. The supposedly dead Adam met for regular trysts with his wife. Tricia found out that he did not die in the car accident. Heather and Adam had waited patiently for the years to pass until the court would agree to declare Adam legally dead. Heather continued going to her boring job as an admissions clerk, seeing her husband in secret. The two of them were still in love and happily devoted to each other. Then the time limit was over and Heather collected the millions in insurance money. Heather “retired” and she and Adam began living out their bucket list. Heather would travel alone to each wished for adventure and then Adam would secretly join her and they would enjoy everything together. The couple toured Europe, took a cruise and then came here to climb Pikes Peak. Tricia was way ahead of them and could anticipate their every move. This time when they arrived for their adventure, Tricia was waiting for them. She was tired of watching them get away with everything, laughing and loving their way through wonderful times together. In a weak moment, she had told her son, John, about his father and her plan to corner Adam and make him share the wealth. She wasn’t doing it for herself she explained but for her newly married son. John deserved some of that money. John was worried about the confrontation and arranged to spend his honeymoon here at the Inn to make sure his mother was okay. Such a good son, Tricia had added wistfully. John suspected what had happened but didn’t want to think that his mother had actually murdered someone. However, murder she had. Tricia had waited in the shadows of the Inn until everyone went to bed following the grand opening reception. She had watched the couple long enough to know the pattern. Sure enough, Heather had crept downstairs and let Adam into the Inn. Hand in hand, they had quietly giggled up to her room. Making their plans to meet up the next day and complete one more adventure. In the early hours of the morning, Adam was sneakily making his getaway from the Inn. Tricia had met him at the top of the stairs, not far from his lover’s door. He was shocked to see her but laughed at her demand that he share the money or she would expose him as the lying cheater he was. He had laughed at her and for Tricia that was the last straw. Tricia had grabbed up the antique railroad spike in desperation and plunged it into his cold heart. He fell to the bottom of the staircase. Even the fall was amazingly quiet she mused while telling her story. When she ran to the bottom, he was already dying. But even that brought no satisfaction; his last words were for his wife, Heather. “Tell her I love her,” he had gasped. Tricia had cleaned up, wiped her fingerprints from the spike and quickly left. Just in time, she added, because lights came on and the body was discovered. She wished she could have stayed to see Heather‘s stricken face but the description John had given her was almost as good. John suspected she had done something. He wanted to believe his mother when she told him that it was that witch, Heather. That should have been the end of it but her hatred had gotten the better of her. She wasn’t finished with her revenge. She had waylaid Heather on the trail to Pike’s Peak the next day and tried to destroy her love for Adam. Nothing she said changed the fact that Heather would grieve for her Adam for the rest of her life. So Tricia had made sure that was a short amount of time. She had decided to share Adam’s last words. She whispered them into Heather’s ear as she pushed her into the rocky abyss below. No evidence, no connections, even her own son wasn’t sure she had done anything. That was until; Tricia had overheard the conversation about the pictures. It was supposed to be a simple clean up, remove any evidence that could connect John to Adam or to her. Now she was going to have to kill one more person. Lacey would have to die. This would have to be an accident. She couldn’t afford another suspicious death. When it was over, she would disappear and no one would ever know the whole story. They might wonder but they would never know. Chapter 25 “Oh my god!” thought Lacey. She would have never figured out this convoluted tale. That would not help her now. She knew too much to be doomed to die. “What are you going to do with me?” she asked Tricia. “You haven’t figured it out?” countered Tricia. “You know those hot tub spas are very dangerous. People should never get into one alone. I read once that a few people drown in those every year. This year there will be one more!” she actually laughed. “Let’s go! Put those nightclothes into the hamper. I’ve got to tie up all the loose ends.” Lacey looked into the not quite sane eyes of her captor. She had one more card to play. “It won’t work,” she said, “I already emailed the pictures to Wyatt.” “Oh, really?” said Tricia holding up Lacey’s smart phone. “I looked through your latest messages and emails and I already deleted the pictures you sent yourself.” Tricia led her at gunpoint downstairs and over to the alarm system. “Disarm it!” Tricia yelled. “And don’t try to pull anything or I will shoot you right here! I’ve got nothing to lose; I’ve already killed two people.” Lacey did exactly what Tricia told her to do. She didn’t know how she was going to get out of this. They headed to the French doors leading to the sanctuary. Tricia leaned into the guest bathroom and pulled a big fluffy towel off the rack. Damn, thought Lacey, crazy as she was, she thought of every detail. As they entered the dark walled in patio, Tricia pushed her in the back to hurry her up. She made Lacey lift the protective cover off the spa, and then ordered her to get in. Lacey slowly climbed into the warm bubbling water. A small splash hit the water right next to her. “Oh darn, look! Your cell phone fell into the water and was destroyed,” cooed Tricia. “Just in case you had any more tricks up your sleeve.” Hopelessly Lacey looked up at Tricia. “Please,” she said, “you don’t have to do this.” “Oh, but I do,” Tricia said almost regretfully. She suddenly leaned forward and forcefully pushed Lacey’s head under the steaming water. For a second Lacey was so surprised she swallowed and choked on the hot water. Then her survival instincts kicked in and she tried to fight. She tried to fight but Tricia was unbelievably strong and had the advantage of surprise. Lacey tried valiantly to scratch her attacker and at least get some skin under her fingernails, create some sign of a struggle so they would know this was no accident. Try as she might she couldn’t get a hold of anything. She was drowning. She thought of Charlotte. Would Charlotte know that she would not get into the spa by herself? No, unfortunately, Lacey had not always used caution. It was believable that she would think nothing of a moonlit soak in the spa. Just when she couldn’t hold her breath any longer, she thought of Wyatt. She would not get the chance to see what they might have had together. Sadly, she thought he would lose another woman that he cared about. Poor Wyatt was her last conscious thought as she gave in to the inevitable and sank beneath the surface. Chapter 26 Abruptly, Lacey felt herself pulled up into gloriously fresh air. Hungrily she gasped to pull in as much air as she could to her starving lungs. Strong hands held her upright, face above the surface of the water. Wyatt, she thought with relief, Wyatt had come for her. Then the voices above her head penetrated her oxygen-deprived senses. She heard John Braverman say, “Please Mama! Enough! You can’t do this!” Tricia began weeping. Then she heard Wyatt’s voice, “That’s right, drop the gun and turn around!” Wiping water from her eyes, Lacey focused on the scene around her. John Braverman was still holding on to her. He had saved her. Wyatt was holding a gun on Tricia Moore and Charlotte was standing right behind him with a worried expression on her face. Tricia, sobbing dropped the gun and allowed Wyatt to handcuff her. John Braverman and Charlotte helped pull the weak and dazed Lacey from the spa. Charlotte said quietly, “I’ve got her.” She wrapped Lacey in the towel that Tricia had made sure they brought with them. Lacey was aware that other officers were arriving as Charlotte led her shakily into the dining room to sit down at the wide worktable. Charlotte ran to get blankets from the linen closet in the hallway. She made a hot cup of tea and then sat with her arm around Lacey while the chaos around them settled into quiet. Lacey was warm, her teeth were no longer chattering and she had begun to absorb the reality of what had happened. Wyatt came into the kitchen, weary lines of worry creasing his face. “Is she okay?” he asked Charlotte. Charlotte said quickly, “I think so. I’m going to run her a nice hot bath.” Then she looked at the two of them and added, “I’ll probably be awhile.” Wyatt pulled Lacey into his arms. Lacey realized that his entire body was shuddering. “I’m okay,” she said shakily. “Thank God!” was his grim reply. “You wouldn’t be if your sister had not called me and told me that she thought you may have found something. And even then we would have been too late to save you!” he shuddered again and held her even tighter. “John Braverman got here first. He was worried about what his mother might do. I don’t know if I could stand to lose you after I finally found you,” he murmured close to her ear. Between kisses and soothing touches, Lacey filled him in on the entire story. He assured her that Tricia Moore would not ever hurt anyone again. They both felt sorrow for John Braverman. He had dearly loved his mother but still could not let her destroy another life. “What am I going to do to make sure you are safe?” Wyatt asked against her lips. “Well, for starters you are going to spend every moment you can right here with me,” answered Lacey. She looked down at his strong hands holding her tightly. She caught her breath when she realized the thin gold band was no longer on his finger. It was time to move forward. “I think I can handle that,” smiled Wyatt, kissing her deeply. Lacey knew this was only the beginning. They had been lucky enough to get another chance to build a future together. Charlotte backed away from the doorway to allow them some privacy. Let them enjoy each other she thought with a grin. It’s about time something went the way it was supposed to for her sister.

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