Annabelle could feel her pulse racing in her throat as she took the last few turns of the winding road up to the cabin. Her hands sweated in her gloves, and she ignored the hair stuck in her eyelashes. She’d been checking her speedometer every five seconds to ensure her excitement wasn’t causing her to speed. Her odometer read awfully close a few times, but she’d kept the needle under. As soon as she got out of the car, she swung her bag over her shoulder, pulled out her key to the cabin, and smirked at the figure standing on the porch, leaning against the outer wall while she pulled out her phone. He pushed off the wall, reaching out to embrace her, but she held up a hand before pulling off her gloves and dialing her aunt’s number. She held the phone to her ear while she unlocked the door and disarmed the alarm system. The phone rang. She ushered the man inside after her and dropped her bag on the floor as she heard the click of someone answering on the other end.
“Aunt Rose?” she said as the man behind her tugged her coat off her shoulders. “Hi, I’m at the cabin. The drive was perfectly safe, I promise.”
“Good, good,” Rose said happily. “Before you go off to do...whatever you’re up there for, I wonder, could you introduce me to Gwenllian Kerr sometime?”
Annabelle frowned, kicking off her heels and tapping them with a toe to rest by her bag.
“Our old housekeeper? I guess so, why?”
“I’m going through all the people who knew the access codes at your mansion, and I assume you haven’t changed them since she left?”
“No, I guess not.” Annabelle rubbed her chin as she felt a pair of arms wrapping around her waist. “Sure, that’s fine. Tell you what, have Adyson call her and set up a meeting and I’ll drive you there. I’m free tomorrow if that works, pretty much all afternoon. Have Adyson text me what she’s worked out.”
“All right, I won’t keep you. Enjoy yourself.”
“I will, Auntie Rose. You sleep well.”
Annabelle pressed the “end call” button and tossed her phone on top of her bag. She leaned back into the man behind her, sighing.
The slight Scottish lilt in her ear said, “What was that all about, darling?”
Annabelle laughed and turned around, wrapping her arms around Michael Barron’s neck and pulling him into the living room as she kissed him. His hair slid through her fingers, and she giggled into his mouth. He tickled her as they walked. When she landed on the sofa and pulled him down beside her, she said, “My aunt wanted to know I arrived up here safely. I told her my mother’s issues with the safety of the road and all that. Then she wanted me to introduce her to our old housekeeper. My aunt must be reviewing suspects, I guess.”
“Kerr?” Michael said, rubbing his stubbly cheek thoughtfully. “Your mother mentioned her as having left recently, but we searched her things, searched her car, couldn’t find any evidence of her being out at the mansion that night.” He chuckled. “Of course, she didn’t really have an alibi, either. She walked the beach, she told me. Alone. Wouldn’t give me any better than that.”
“Doesn’t mean she’s guilty of murder,” Annabelle said reasonably, glancing at the sheer curtains framing the large front windows of the living room.
Michael didn’t need to follow her gaze to know what she glanced at. He sighed and pulled her onto his lap so she straddled him, kissing her neck and tangling his fingers in her hair.
“There’s nobody out there, Annabelle.”
“I know,” she sighed. “I just.... There’s still animals, and people watching you have sex is uncomfortable.”
“They’re not people; they’re animals.”
Michael sighed again. This time his hot breath tickled her skin, and she worked her fingers up through the short-cropped hair on the back of his head. He nipped playfully at her décolletage in response, and she giggled. She had donned this plunging dress under her trench just for him, knowing how he loved to tease her skin around the neckline.
“We could always go to one of the bedrooms,” he suggested.
“But you said you’re bored of my bed. The couch—”
“If we have sex out here you’ll be looking at the windows every minute or two,” he said, a little irritable as he leaned back and tapped her nose.
“Not if you distract me,” she teased, leaning forward and kissing his lips, first gently, then forcefully. He wasn’t responding, though, and she knew he didn’t want to have sex where she could see the windows. Because he knew no matter how much he tried to distract her, she would keep looking at them.
And it had nothing to do with animals. As he probably suspected, she knew at any time, any member of her family could drive up, suspicious or not, and walk in on them in the living room, or worse, see through the sizable gap in the curtains and know everything, without any sort of warning for the lovers. She’d always been so sure her father would catch her like that, that he would walk in on her with the new police lieutenant and he would be ashamed of her, the way he was ashamed when Sonia dated that boy nobody was allowed to talk about. Luke Hatfield’s son.
Even though her father died, it felt like he could be watching her. In fact, it felt even more like he was watching her, knowing he didn’t have a physical form anymore. She wasn’t generally superstitious, didn’t believe in ghosts or anything like that, but it still gave her an eerie feeling, that he might have some sort of afterlife perception of her behavior. What would he think, looking down on her, sneaking around with a man old enough to be her father?
In her defense, Annabelle often told herself, Michael born about twenty years after her father. And since she’d been born about twenty years ago, her father was Michael’s age when she’d been born, which didn’t improve much, but somehow it comforted her just a little bit, in that irrational way half-facts could give a person comfort. Michael was much younger than her father.
“We could always use a different bedroom,” Michael suggested, his mouth hovering just out of reach of hers. She could taste his breath.
“Like the guest room?” she asked, eyes on his beautiful brown eyes. “Because I’m pretty sure we plan to bring Aunt Rose up here this weekend, and I don’t think I could—”
“There’s a room you definitely won’t be using for a while.”
Annabelle looked at him questioningly. He raised an eyebrow, and it hit her like a smack to the chest, knocking the wind clear out of her. She leaned back, looking at him with wide, stunned eyes. He actually just suggested they have sex in her father’s bedroom. The room where she’d played as a child, where she and her father set up toy car tracks and designed their own racing cars with spare bits of paper and a box of crayons. Even more than her own room at the cabin, which had been redecorated about four times since she’d hit puberty, her father’s room held her sacred childhood memories.
“Michael, I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“Why not?” he asked, running his fingers soothingly through her hair. “Like I said, you’ll not be using it for a while, so you don’t need to worry about laundry right now. And it could become our little guilty secret.” His hands began to trace down her back, but Annabelle shook her head.
“Don’t you think we have enough guilty secrets? I...I don’t want to mess with that room, Michael. That was Daddy’s place, our special room.”
For a moment, a flash of irritation lit in Michael’s eyes, but it vanished as soon as it came. He possessed one thing she loved that her other boyfriends never had: self-control. She thought it followed maturity. Adyson was skeptical when Annabelle started secretly dating Michael, an older man, but thus far Annabelle hadn’t found a single reason to stop.
“I’m sorry,” Michael said softly, stroking her hair again. “Why don’t we just.... Is there still a sofa in the attic?”
Annabelle assumed a bit of a wicked grin and nodded. She climbed off his lap and held out her hand, pulling him along after her up the stairs to the attic, which her mother had converted into an entertainment loft where she could send children when she wanted to play hostess downstairs. The sofa was sizable and comfortable enough for four girls of varying ages and sizes to sit on, and for two to nap on.
She saw no reason why it wouldn’t be suitable for sex.
Annabelle loved Michael, not only because he was mature and considerate and able to handle himself in an adult relationship, but also because of how he made her feel when they were intimate. She always came first; she was always the focus of the night, even on his birthday. He insisted he wanted nothing more as a present than a chance to kiss every inch of her skin and make her squeal his name. And because he obviously held few years of experience on her – or rather, a couple of decades of experience – he managed to do things to her she never imagined physically possible.
She loved the way his light accent became stronger when he lost control, and the way her name sounded rolling off his tongue in the heat of the moment. She loved the way he liked to fall asleep afterwards, lying on his back with her lying on her stomach on top of him. She loved how peaceful he looked when he slept, like he hadn’t a care in the world, and she enjoyed waking him up with kisses in the morning, and showering off the sweat of the night together.
And someday, when all of the craziness surrounding her father’s death cleared up and everyone calmed down again and she settled at bit more in her life, she wouldn’t keep it a secret anymore. They would tell people, and maybe, if things kept going well once their relationship came out in the open, they would marry.
Several hours later, Annabelle smiled down at him in the faint sliver of moonlight glowing through the porthole window behind him. His slightly pointy nose cast a long shadow over his lips, so she kissed his nose instead. She watched it twitch as she pulled away, smiling down at him for a long time before she gave in to her own drowsiness, her own sated tiredness, and rested her head on his chest, falling asleep with his arms wrapped around her, hands clasped on her back.
When she woke in the morning, Michael had cooked her breakfast, left it on the attic coffee table, and set a small bouquet of wildflowers next to her tea. Annabelle grinned to herself, no longer worrying about things like how he’d managed to squeeze out from under her without waking her. He’d told her long ago she slept quite heavily. No one ever noticed before, not even Annabelle, but Michael’s job required him to notice things, and to use them to his advantage. She ate breakfast, showered, dressed, and went outside into the cool morning air to see the tire tracks left by his car in the gravel.
Yes, he’d taken a rare break from their tradition of waking up together, but Annabelle knew when he left the wildflowers he left for a work reason, and when he didn’t have time for that, it meant she’d received a text from family in the night and someone was on the way. She double checked the house was locked and armed before getting into her Volvo and taking the smooth, winding, soothing drive back to the house to pick up Aunt Rose, who waited for her on the front steps.
“Good morning,” Annabelle said in her singsong voice. The clock had turned past noon on the drive, but it still felt like morning to Annabelle. Aunt Rose opened the passenger door and set the satchel on the floorboard. She looked about ten years younger, not needing to leave at five in the morning, with time to wake up properly. Her eyes weren’t as puffy, her skin looked less pallid, and her hands looked steadier as she buckled her seatbelt. “As you can see, safe there, safe back.”
“I can see,” Aunt Rose said, smiling. “Did you enjoy yourself?”
“Wonderfully,” Annabelle sighed, trying not to act too much like a girl in love. She didn’t want to be terribly obvious. “Gosh, is it noon already? Where has the time gone?”
They took off again, into town. Adyson had texted the meeting specifications that morning, at a little sports bar no one they knew ever went to, probably Gwenllian’s idea. The woman obsessed over appearances, almost as much as Annabelle’s mother.
“An Irish pub out here?” Aunt Rose said when they parked the car and got out. “It looks a bit out of place.”
“Why?” Annabelle asked, taking off her gloves. “All sorts in California. It’s the melting pot of America! The family’s been here for generations, the LA area I mean, and purely Irish going all the way back to the immigrants in their line. Very proud of it. They buy certified family trees and hang them up on the walls with all the sports paraphernalia.”
The Angels played the Red Sox over in Boston, and the game played on three televisions. Annabelle assumed this was either a vastly important game or nothing else worth seeing was available. Probably golf, tennis, poker. Did they show poker in sports bars?
Gwenllian sat at a booth in the back corner, her blonde hair falling in waves over her shoulder like a cascade, her massive big blue eyes darting around the room nervously. Annabelle led her aunt over to the booth, and they slid in.
“Annabelle,” Gwenllian said breathlessly. “And you must be Rose McFarland.”
Aunt Rose shook Gwenllian’s hand and glanced around the bar. In addition to more typical sports fare lining the walls, a casual observer needed only one guess on who paid for the liquor license for the building, since an entire corner by the bar was dedicated to tennis clippings about Adyson. Annabelle licked her lips and rubbed them together, looking pointedly down at the menu.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” Aunt Rose said slowly. “I...I know of the details of your termination.”
“You’ve been talking to Chloe,” Gwenllian said, nodded. She glanced at her perfectly French-manicured nails. “Samantha Benton doesn’t know?”
“Not that I’ve been able to tell.”
Annabelle frowned, looking up at them, her eyes moving between her aunt and her former housekeeper.
“Know what?” she asked, her voice low and demanding. “What doesn’t my mother know?”
“Something your father didn’t want her to know,” Aunt Rose said significantly. “And I’ll only consent to tell you if you agree to keep it that way.”
Annabelle sucked in a breath, but she decided her father usually knew best, even if Annabelle didn’t like it, so she nodded, and Gwenllian shifted uncomfortably.
“I...had an affair with your father,” she said, looking up with an apologetic wince. “It started out a genuine love affair, but...Luke Hatfield came into the picture.”
Annabelle’s nails curled into the grain of the wood without her noticing.
“He seduced me, convinced me if he managed to gather the information he needed he could focus on me, marry me. And I was an idiot, so I found the files he wanted, copied them. But Conrad caught me.” She gave a shaky laugh. “He was a gentleman about it, gave me time to sort out my living and work arrangements. And I moved in with Luke Hatfield, all right, but he hired me as a housekeeper. He’s not interested in marrying me. He’s already ogling somebody else; can you believe it? He doesn’t even bother to hide it from me.”
This news put Annabelle in a very awkward position for many reasons. The idea that her father had an affair challenged the thought that he was the most honorable, upstanding man she’d ever known. What she and Michael had was completely different. Michael wasn’t married. Michael didn’t have children. And she felt a bit betrayed by Gwenllian, someone she essentially grew up with. Obviously she cared a bit about the business issues, but she cared more that Gwenllian cut a hole in their family and broke Annabelle’s father’s heart. On the other hand, also because she practically grew up with Gwenllian, she pitied the woman for the situation she found herself in. Luke Hatfield wasn’t a man Annabelle wished anyone to be at the mercy of, and since Annabelle’s father died, Gwenllian couldn’t obtain a job reference worth anything if she upset Luke.
In her line of work, references meant everything. Annabelle mulled over the situation as her aunt called over a waitress. Annabelle quickly ordered white wine and watched her once-friend order ale. A shaking hand brushed blonde locks away from her tired eyes, and Gwenllian blinked with confusion when the waitress asked what size she wanted. For the first time, Annabelle truly understood the weight on this young woman’s shoulders. Gwenllian had absolutely nowhere left to go.
“Do you still carry your key?” Aunt Rose asked when Gwenllian calmed down and they ordered food and drinks.
“Yes, actually,” Gwenllian said, frowning. “In all the chaos I meant to give it back, but I just never....”
She began to dig in her purse for the set of keys. The access codes for the security system would be in her head still, if she had a memory that long, but the physical keys really ought to be retrieved, considering the suspect circumstances of Conrad Benton’s death. Gwenllian shifted through her purse several times before muttering, “They must be in my other bag. I’ll look for them, and I’ll give Adyson or Annabelle a call when I find them so I can return them and clear up this whole mess.” She closed her purse and set it at her feet with a sigh.
“I know there’s a lot of stuff going around that Conrad might have been...offed,” she continued softly. “And I know with the circumstances of my dismissal, Mrs. McFarland, I’m a suspect. But whatever wrong I did, I promise you, that I loved Conrad very much. And we parted on as good of terms as could be expected. He took real good care of me, and I treated him terribly.” She picked up a napkin and dabbed at her eye. “If either of us deserved to die, it was me, not him.”
Gwenllian spent the rest of lunch explaining the social dynamics of the servants to Rose and Annabelle, giving them all of the gossipy dirty details and sordidness that went on behind the scenes, in case any of it might be helpful, but Annabelle found it all to be incredibly boring. When they left and got into the Volvo again to head back up to the house, Annabelle said, “You don’t think she did it, do you?”
“Of course she didn’t,” Aunt Rose said, snorting. “No, whatever youthful foolishness she was seduced into, I believe she’s truly grieved and remorseful. But she couldn’t find her keys, and that is troubling.”
“She said they’re in her other purse.”
Aunt Rose narrowed her eyes, watching trees fly past at forty-five miles an hour.
“Yes, she said that,” she murmured. “No doubt she believes it. But that remains to be seen. I’ll be curious to know where she finally finds them.”
Annabelle raised her eyebrows, tensing slightly as she tried to think about what possibly happened to Gwenllian’s keys.
“You think Luke has them,” she said slowly. “You think Luke might have killed my father.”
“It’s possible,” Aunt Rose said carefully. “We know he had motive, and very possibly means and opportunity. The fall happened when the house was at its emptiest, after all. What, three servants and family, all spread throughout the house? And let’s say whatever Gwenllian managed to steal for him wasn’t enough? The information wasn’t what he needed, or wasn’t all of what he needed, or he found out the only way to deal with the company was to eliminate Conrad. So he steals her keys, maybe he’s already talked to her about the access codes, and he sneaks in, kills your father, sneaks back out again.”
Annabelle shook her head.
“I can’t imagine Gwenllian telling him the access codes.”
“People do unthinkably stupid things when they’re in love.”
Feeling a pit in her stomach, Annabelle could think of nothing to say, so she stayed silent the rest of the way home, which suited Aunt Rose just fine. She appeared lost in thought, perhaps thinking of Luke’s height, logistics of the blow, how he might have coaxed the access codes out of Gwenllian.
That night at dinner, Annabelle’s mind lingered on the affair her father had, barely listening to the conversation around her. That is, until her mother began to raise her voice.
“What’s so wrong with accomplishing something with your life, Adyson?” she squawked. Her hair became a bit frazzled in her irritation, bouncing as she shook slightly. “What’s so wrong with finding a job, being productive?”
“I’d hardly call professional tennis a job,” Sonia said with a sly smile. She looked down at her food, her smooth, dark hair covering her face like a curtain.
“You’re one to talk,” Adyson said with a smirk, and Sonia’s smile slid right off her face, melting to a frown, then a scowl as she turned on her sister. Adyson looked back down at her soup as she continued, “Besides, Mother, we’ve gone over this, I’m not interested in professional tennis. It’s just for laughs. Imagine all the extra training I would need. It would cut into school.”
“You’ve just finished your degree,” Evelyn pointed out.
“Well, then it would cut into my time at the beach,” Adyson teased.
Their mother gave a little irritated shriek that made her neck tighten visibly.
“Just one tournament, darling! There’s one coming up in Vancouver. I think the entry fee is minimal, and it wouldn’t take more than a week or two—”
Annabelle watched her sister’s forced-patient sigh and exchanged a nervous glance with Aunt Rose. Adyson usually dealt with their mother very well, but even she had her limits.
“Mother, if I participate in a professional tournament as a professional, which is what you’re suggesting, I couldn’t compete in amateur tournaments anymore. So as you well know, it couldn’t ever be just the one. I have to commit to being a professional or stick with being an amateur, and I’m perfectly happy being an amateur.”
“Oh, Rose,” their mother whined, grasping at straws to get her way. “Rose, can’t you talk some sense into her?”
Aunt Rose wiped her mouth daintily and blinked up at her cousin with an impassive look.
“Samantha,” she said gently, “I may not be a mother, but you recall what grandmother always said about raising children? It’s more important for them to be happy with their choices than for you to be happy with their choices, as long as nobody ends up hurt. Adyson’s an adult now, Samantha, and self-sufficient. She could support herself independently of this house if she chose, so what good is it to drive her away by pushing her to something she clearly doesn’t want?”
The whole room held their breath, even the servants on the side waiting to take out empty dishes and bring out the dessert. Annabelle picked at her cuticles under the table anxiously, watching her mother’s face turn an alarming shade of purple.
Finally, their mother obviously couldn’t stand it anymore because she shrieked something barely coherent about everyone teaming up on her and burst out of the dining room in a frenzy. Annabelle craned her neck to watch the exit, and then returned to her soup.
“Sorry about that, Aunt Rose,” Evelyn said softly. She dabbed at the corner of her mouth with her napkin and raised a perfectly sculpted eyebrow. “Mother’s very much on edge right now.”
“I daresay that goes for all of us, dear,” Aunt Rose said with a shrug. “Your mother has a very high-strung nature. She’ll feel better in the morning. Sonia, dear, could you pass me the salt?”
Annabelle wondered what sort of state they would be in as a family had Aunt Rose not agreed to come out and look into their father’s death. Whatever would have happened, she suspected it wouldn’t have been very pretty.