Deadly Secrets, Book One
It said a lot about a person’s state of mind when an igloo in the middle of the freezing Arctic looked more appealing than a warm, cozy house. Samantha Parker flipped off the muted TV documentary she’d been watching with a frown, tossed the remote on the bed, then balanced on the rickety ladder as she tried—again—to thread the curtain panels she’d bought onto the old rod. The fabric caught on a rusted part of the rod, so she pushed harder. A ripping sound echoed through the room just before the fabric slipped past the obstruction.
“Dammit.” Sam turned the rod in her hand so she could see where the fabric had torn. A small gash was visible on the front of the rod pocket.
Perfect. This was par for the course for her evening and year. Rising to her toes, she mumbled “Good enough,” and prayed the old ladder held her weight as she placed the rod on the hooks she’d installed earlier and tightened the screws to lock it in place. Climbing down, she scowled up at her work and stepped back.
Not even close to great, but good enough. The red panels matched the red swirls in the bedspread she’d ordered online and hid the crack in the plaster on the right side of the window. No one would be able to see the rip unless they looked closely, but at this point, she didn’t even care. She probably should have broken down and bought a new rod, but she didn’t want to sink any more money into this old house.
Cosmetic updates. That was it. Since her mother’s death, all she cared about was making the place look halfway decent so she could pocket a few bucks when she sold it, then get the hell out of town.
She folded the ladder, leaned it against the wall, and climbed back on her bed. Coming home to Hidden Falls was only supposed to be a temporary thing, but her weeks seemed to be spinning out of control, and the dip in the housing market wasn’t helping. She wanted out of this town. Aside from being too small, it was packed with locals who liked to gossip. But more than that, there were just too many bad memories lurking here for Samantha. Too many memories about her brother, her parents, and everything that had happened to rip her family apart.
Images of that cold, dark night eighteen years before flickered through her mind. Running through the woods in her nightgown. Hearing splashes mingled with the roar of the falls. Shivering as sweat slid down her spine. Then finally reaching the edge of the cliff, gasping for air, and looking down to see Seth floating lifeless in the clear pool while a teenage boy held him under.
The boy had been sent to a juvenile detention center thanks to her testimony. She didn’t care where he was now—probably in jail or better yet, dead—so long as she didn’t have to see him ever again. But her parents had never been able to get past the loss of their son, and they’d split not long after, ripping Sam’s world to shreds yet again. She’d gotten over the anger years ago. Now she lived with a void she just couldn’t seem to fill and nightmares that still plagued her all these years later. Focusing on work helped, though. As did being away from this town, which was the biggest reason she wanted out of Hidden Falls as soon as humanly possible.
The clock on the wall read eleven-fifteen, but she wasn’t tired yet. Sighing as she relaxed into the mountain of pillows, she bypassed the stack of lab papers she should be grading in favor of her laptop.
Her four-year old Golden Retriever, Grimly, whined and tucked his nose under her elbow before she could click the first key, then nudged her arm up.
“Cut that out, you idiot.” She shifted her arm away and scanned the links on her screen. “This will just take me a few minutes.”
She hadn’t taken Grimly for his walk today after school, and she knew he was antsy, but she’d stayed too late at work getting ready for tomorrow’s classes, then came home and tried to do a few of those magical updates her Realtor guaranteed would sell the house. Now, she was too interested in looking up the shrink her principal had announced would be observing classes at the high school tomorrow to worry about Grimly’s antics.
“Doctor McClane,” she said as she typed his name into the search field on her computer. He was probably some white-haired old fart who wore glasses and really bad tweed. That or super slimy in the way only a highly-trained emotional manipulator could be. Sam had clocked more than her fair share of hours on a head doctor’s couch thanks to her brother’s death, and if there was one thing she’d learned over the years, it was that therapists held more power than any other doctor in the medical field. They could lift a person up or completely break them down, but more often than not, they messed with their patients’ minds until there was nothing left but self-doubt and paranoia.
Ignoring the unwanted memories that tried to sneak in again, she paged down and stared at a screen full of pictures. Some were taken in a classroom. Some were shot outside at what looked to be a youth camp. But most were filled with faces of kids from all different backgrounds.
Sam scrolled through the photos, reading captions, searching for the slick shrink, and finally stopped on a photo of two men, one old and scraggly, one young and clean-cut, both standing in front of a picnic table with a teenage boy between them.
“Oh, that has got to be him.” Sam focused in on the white-haired, wire-rimmed glasses-wearing, I’ll-tell-you-how-it’s-gonna-be schmuck on the left and read the caption.
Her brow dropped. She looked back at the picture and read the caption again. “No flippin’ way.”
Dr. Ethan McClane was the man on the right. The young guy, not the wrinkled judge standing next to a kid he’d referred to Hanson House, a home for troubled teens, where—according to this—Dr. McClane often volunteered during his off hours.
Sure she had to be seeing things, Sam pulled up a new browser and ran a more detailed search. This time only pictures of Dr. McClane came up, rather than any links to his practice. And yeah, the first picture had been right, but whoa, it hadn’t done the guy justice. He was totally hot—early thirties, thick dark hair, olive skin, a body he obviously took care of, and a smile that could stop traffic.
He’s still a shrink even if he is GQ material.
Closing her laptop in disgust, Sam tossed it on the bed and picked up her green pen and the stack of lab reports. So what if the guy was hot? He was still an unwanted shrink, and she wasn’t letting him anywhere near Thomas.
She scanned the first lab paper, rolled her eyes at the idiotic answer, and was just about to make a mark when a door downstairs slammed so hard the house shook.
Sam’s pulse jumped. Grimly growled and took off for the stairs. Sitting up slowly, she told herself the sound couldn’t have come from inside because she lived alone and always locked her doors, but…
It sure sounded as if it had come from inside.
Her heart rate picked up speed, and she set her stack of papers on the bed then pushed to her feet.
Barefoot and wearing only thin cotton pajamas, she stepped out into the hallway and peered down the railing to the entry below. Stacks of boxes sat pushed up against the walls, but she zeroed in on Grimly, standing on his hind legs, his front paws braced against the wooden front door, barking like a total loon.
Fear gave way to frustration, then the cold burn of anger. Not an inside door. Probably a car door outside. Those teenagers were messing with her again.
She hurried down the steps, fuming the whole way. First they’d TP’d her trees. Then they’d egged her windows. Last week they’d forked her front lawn, spelling out the word LEAVE in white plastic.
As the new teacher on the block, one who expected the students to actually do the work she assigned instead of simply goofing off in class, she’d clearly become the target of choice. But if they thought they could push her around, they had another think coming.
She reached the front hall, rounded the corner, and headed for the kitchen at the back of the house. Her purse, keys and books were just where she’d left them on the counter when she’d come in from the garage. She crossed to them but didn’t see her cell phone, and when she checked her purse, it was missing. “Dammit.”
Grimly rushed into the room, barking so loud, Sam jumped, and the contents of her purse spilled across the counter. He skidded to a stop at the door that led to the garage, whined and growled, then took off for the front of the house once more, nearly knocking Sam over in the process.
“Dammit, Grimly.” Those miserable kids were still out there.
Marching into the office, she grabbed the cordless phone from her mother’s old desk and swung back for the front of the house. She sidestepped the half-packed boxes in the hallway, pushed Grimly away from the door where he was going ape-shit, flipped the locks, yanked it open, and yelled, “You don’t scare me! You think you’re tough? You’re cowards. Show yourselves, you little monsters!”
Grimly swept past her, knocking Sam off balance, his frantic barking filling the cool night air. Sam hit the doorjamb with her shoulder and grabbed on with her free hand to steady herself. Pain ricocheted down her arm as Grimly’s incessant barking rounded the house.
“Stupid dog.” He was going to get her killed with his reckless antics. She stepped out onto the porch.
Her feet slowed, and a space in Sam’s chest chilled, bringing everything to a stuttering stop. He was a stupid dog. Just a stupid dog. And the last thing she wanted was for some juvenile delinquents to think he was dangerous.
Her heart rate shot up. She scanned the shadowed front yard. The lone street lamp to her left illuminated the empty dead-end road. An old oak, devoid of leaves, stood like a decrepit skeleton. Nothing moved at this hour—close to midnight on a Wednesday night.
Grimly’s barking grew louder and more frenetic from around the side of the house. Hustling down the rickety front porch steps, Sam ran after him, not even caring that the ground was damp and muddy or that she was barefoot. All she cared about was getting to her dog before those kids did. Breathing heavy, she finally reached the attached garage and spotted Grimly jumping up and down in front of the side door, barking wildly at the grimy window.
“Grimly.” Relieved he was all right, she slowed her steps. “Come back here right now.”
Grimly continued to bark. Frustrated, Sam crossed to stand behind the dog and reached for his collar. “I said come on.”
She yanked, but Grimly jerked back and barked even louder. Her hand flew free of his collar. Her foot slipped on the muddy grass. Somehow, she caught herself before she went down. Muttering curses at herself, her dog, at the entire situation, she stood upright, then stilled when she realized what held Grimly’s attention.
Red paint dripped like blood down the square window set in the top half of the door. Paint that spelled out the words: TAKE THE HINT OR ELSE.
Sam whipped around and looked across the open backyard and the dark hills beyond. Nothing moved there either. Only shadowed pine and Douglas fir as far as the eye could see. But the woods were a perfect place to hide, an even better place to wait, and she had no doubt the teenagers making her life hell were out there. Somewhere.
Anger came back, hot and urgent. Childish pranks were one thing, but this was vandalism, and she’d had enough.
She lifted the cordless still in her hand, punched in numbers, and pressed it to her ear. “Yes,” she said when the operator came on. “Chief Branson, please. This is Samantha Parker.”
The operator mumbled something about the chief being too busy to take personal calls, but Sam barely listened. Will was a close family friend. When she’d come home a few months ago to take care of her mother, he’d told her to call if she ever needed anything, and right now she needed him more than anyone else. Fingerprints he could track. Fingerprints would nail the deviants. And this time she was absolutely pressing charges. She was way past playing nice.
She turned back to the door and looked past the dripping letters as she waited for Will to come on. Her car was parked in the center of the garage, undisturbed, exactly as she’d left it. But the used paintbrush and can of red paint sitting on the stool she’d left near her father’s old workbench were new.
Sam’s gaze shot back to the letters painted on the pane. Her heart pounded a staccato rhythm against her ribs. Slowly, she ran her finger over the letters.
Nothing but cool glass touched her skin.
Her throat closed. No longer caring about fingerprints, she reached for the door handle and turned.
It didn’t budge.
Sam’s heart rate spiked, but Will’s familiar voice over the line did little to stop the icy fingers of fear from rushing down her spine.
Because someone had been in her locked garage. Someone could be inside her house right this very second.