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Christmas Awakening

Christmas Awakening

by Ann Voss Peterson

Product Details

Publication date:
Harlequin LP Intrigue Series
Edition description:
Larger Print
Product dimensions:
4.20(w) x 6.60(h) x 0.90(d)

Read an Excerpt

When a loved one dies, it's normal to want answers, Miss Leonard," the police chief drawled. He stopped near the break in the boxwood hedge that opened to the Jenkins Cove Chapel's redbrick walkway, as if he couldn't wait to get out of the graveyard… or maybe just away from Marie. "But sometimes you got to accept that accidents happen."

Accept? Marie gripped a damp tissue in her fist. Maybe she could accept, if her father's death really was an accident.

She focused on the arrangement of holly and poin-settia draping Edwin Leonard's casket. It was all wrong. The sunny day and cheery Christmas greenery. The sparsity of the black-clad crowd that wandered away from the graveside now that they'd offered their condolences. And most of all, the words coming from the chief's mouth. "I know you've ruled my father's death an accident, Chief Hammer. I'd like to know what led you to that conclusion."

"What led me?" The police chief drew up to his full height, what little there was of it.

A squat, bulldog of a man, Charles Hammer had struck Marie as lazy, ever since he'd poo-pooed her report of boys smoking marijuana back when she was a sophomore at Jenkins Cove High. His quickness to dismiss her father's death as an accident before he knew all the circumstances just underscored that impression. Obviously nothing had changed in the ten years since she'd left Maryland's Eastern Shore. "Why do you think it was an accident?"

His mouth curved into a patronizing smile. "The evidence of accidental death is pretty clear in your father's case. In fact, nothing suggests it was anything but an accident. He was walking on the dock at night. He slipped and hit hishead on the rocks along the shoreline. Accidental drowning. Pure and simple."

"It couldn't have happened that way."

"I know." He shook his head slowly, his bald scalp catching the sun's rays. "It seems so random."

Tension radiated up Marie's neck, fueling the headache that throbbed behind her eyes. "No, that's not it. It couldn't have happened the way you said. It's not possible."

He peered down his pudgy nose. "That's what our evidence indicates."

"The evidence is wrong."

"Evidence is never wrong."

"Then the way you're looking at it is wrong."

He drew in his chin, making himself look like an offended old lady. Or a turtle. "What do you do for a living, Miss Leonard?"

"I'm a philosophy professor."

He grinned as if that explained everything. "Well, I'm a police chief. I deal in hard evidence, not silly theories. I've investigated deaths before. Have you?"

She let out a frustrated breath. Her father had always warned her about her lack of tact. She should have tiptoed around the chief's ego. Flattered him. Buttered him up. Then he would probably be more open to her ideas. Instead, she'd turned him into an enemy.

She stared up at the spire of the gray stone church she'd attended as a kid. "I'm sorry. There's just something you don't understand."

"I understand the evidence. And in your father's case, that evidence clearly says accidental drowning."

She leveled her gaze back on the chief. "That's what I'm trying to tell you. My father never would have accidentally drowned."

"Your father hit his head. Even Olympic champions can't swim when they're unconscious."

"My father couldn't swim. Not a stroke."

"Then how can you find accidental drowning impossible?"

She tried to swallow the thickness in her throat.

"Because he was deathly afraid of the water. He never would have gone near it."

The chief looked unimpressed. He edged closer to the redbrick path between the boxwood. "I'm sorry, Miss Leonard. Facts are facts. Your father did go near the water that night. The case is closed. I'm sorry for your loss."

The finality of his words struck her like a kick to the sternum. She watched him amble down the path and join the last of the funeral-goers milling along Main Street.

The man from the funeral parlor eyed her from beside her father's casket, waiting for her to leave so he could lower Edwin Leonard to his final resting place beside her mother.

Marie pulled the collar of her black wool coat tighter around her shoulders. She didn't know if murder victims truly rested or not, but she sure wouldn't. Not until she knew what had happened to her father.

Not until she made his killer pay.

Marie forced her feet to move up the loose gravel walk to the kitchen entrance of the sprawling white antebellum mansion. Drake House. An uneasy feeling pinched the back of her neck. The feeling she was being watched.

She spun around, searching the grounds. Waves danced on Chesapeake Bay and the mouth of Jenkins Creek, a body of water ironically broader and deeper than many lakes. Evening shadow cloaked the mansion's facade, transforming it to a dark hulk against the gleam of sunset on water. It looked austere, empty. The Christmas decorations that blanketed every house and shop in town were nowhere to be found here. No evergreen swags draping the balconies. No wreaths adorning the doors. Dark windows stared down at her like probing eyes.

She was home.

A bitter laugh died in her throat. She might have grown up in this house, but it wasn't home. Not without her father.

A gust of wind blew off the water, tangling her funeral-black skirt around her legs. Even though it was early December, the wind felt warm to Marie. And the shiver that ran over her skin had nothing to do with temperature.

Was someone watching her from the house? Brandon?

A flutter moved through her stomach. She gritted her teeth against the sensation. The last time she'd seen Brandon Drake, she'd been a teenager with delusions of true love. She'd changed a lot since then. Grown stronger. Wiser. Her heart had shattered and mended. Still, she'd been relieved when Brandon Drake hadn't attended her father's service. She didn't want to see him. Not when she was aching from her father's loss. Not when her emotions were so raw. Not when she was feeling less than strong.

Unfortunately, if she wanted to find the truth about her father's murder, she had to start at the place he'd lived… and died. Drake House.

She tore her gaze from the mansion's upper floors and the balcony that ran the length of the private wing. Setting her chin, she increased her pace. The quicker she could get into her father's quarters, look through his things and get out, the better. It was all over town that Brandon had become a recluse since his wife died. He didn't take visitors. If she entered through the kitchen and dealt with the servants, maybe she could find enough to convince Chief Hammer to reopen her father's case as a homicide without ever having to face Brandon Drake.

At least she could hope.

Unease tickled over her again, raising the hair on her arms. She looked up at the house, beyond to the boat-house, then turned toward the carriage house. A man with the flat and misshapen nose of a prizefighter stared at her from the other side of a long black car. He nodded a greeting, then resumed rubbing the hood with a chamois.

The chauffeur. She recognized him from her father's funeral. At least someone from Drake House had come.

She gave the chauffeur a little wave, circled a gray stone wall surrounding the pool and clomped up the wooden steps. Pressing the doorbell, she peered through wavy glass and into the kitchen where she'd once had milk and cookies after school.

It looked so much the same. Too much the same. A dull ache throbbed in her chest.

A woman with the thin, strong look of steel wire bustled across the kitchen and opened the door. Penciled eyebrows tilted over curious eyes. "Yes?"

"I'm Marie Leonard."

"Of course. Miss Leonard. I'm so sorry about your father." She opened the door with one hand, using the other to usher Marie inside. "I'm Shelley. Shelley Zachary. We talked on the phone."

Marie nodded. The cook, now housekeeper. The woman Brandon Drake had promoted to take over her father's job before he was even in the ground.

"It's nice to finally meet you. I worked side by side with Edwin for the past eight years, and a day didn't go by that he didn't mention you. I'm so sorry I wasn't able to make it to his funeral. Running a house like this in addition to cooking is very demanding."

Marie forced a smile she didn't feel. "I'm here to go through my father's things."

"Of course. Isabella can help you, if you need it."

Marie followed the housekeeper's gaze to the corner of the kitchen where a young woman with huge blue eyes and luxurious, auburn hair polished a silver tea service. She wore a uniform of black slacks and blouse with a white apron, more covered than the stereotypical French maid, yet because of her bombshell body, nearly as sexy.

"Isabella? This is Edwin's daughter."

Isabella continued with her work as if she couldn't care less.

At one time, the servants at Drake House were Marie's family, and a caring and tightly knit one at that. Not just her father, but everyone who'd worked at the house back then, from the maid to the cook to the chauffeur, liked to read her stories and bring her treats. They watched out for her, and she never questioned that each cared about her and about each other.

Clearly that family atmosphere had deserted Drake House in the past ten years.

That was fine. Marie didn't need a surrogate family. She needed answers. She focused on Shelley Zachary. "Do you have my father's keys?"

"Of course. I'm running the house now."

"May I have them? Or at least the keys to his quarters?"

"You don't need keys. Isabella can assist you."

Marie pressed her lips together. She didn't want someone looking over her shoulder. "I can handle it myself."

"You'll need help. Your father lived here a long time. Cleaning out his quarters is going to be a big job."

She was sure it would be. Especially since she intended to do a little snooping while she was here. "Really, I'd rather be alone. You understand."

Shelley Zachary didn't look as though she understood at all, but she nodded all the same. "Fine. But before I give you keys, I'll have to clear it with Mr. Brandon."

The name zapped along Marie's nerves like an electric charge. "No, that's not necessary."

Shelley frowned. "Excuse me? He's the master of the house. He certainly has a say in who can and cannot have keys to his property."

There she went again, speaking without thinking, making enemies where a little tact might have made her an ally. Marie held up her hands, palms out. "That's not what I meant. It's just that I know he's busy. And I hear he's not taking many visitors lately."

The severe line to Shelley's mouth softened slightly. "No, he's not. Not since he lost his Charlotte."

A pang registered in Marie's chest at the sound of Brandon's wife's name… even after all these years.

"He never minds a visit from me." Isabella tossed Marie a smug smile. "I'll ask him."

"Ask me what?"

Marie's heart stuttered. She looked to the dark doorway leading to the dining room for the source of the deep voice.

Brandon Drake emerged from the dining room shadow. His shoulders filled the doorway. The dying rays of the sun streamed sideways from the kitchen windows and fell on his face.

Marie gasped.

A scar ran from his temple to the corner of his mouth, slick, red skin slashing across his cheek. He stepped forward, leaning on a brass and teak cane. "Hello, Marie."

Brandon could see Marie stifle a gasp as she took in his face, his limp. The thought of her seeing his weakness hurt more than the burns themselves. He tore his eyes from her, not wanting to witness more, and focused on Isabella. "What were you going to ask me?"

The little vixen didn't answer. Instead, Shelley piped up. "Miss Leonard is here to clear out her father's things. She asked for keys to the butler's quarters."

"Give her the keys."

"You're hurt." Marie's voice was almost a whisper, as if she was murmuring her thoughts aloud, not intending for the rest of them to hear.

He kept his gaze on Shelley, careful not to look in Marie's direction. Her hair was a little shorter than it had been ten years ago, only jaw length now, and her face had lost its teenage roundness. But she was still Marie. He couldn't take seeing horror on her face as she scrutinized his injuries. Or worse, pity. "Where are those keys, Shelley?"

"I'll get them, sir." Shelley bustled off into the pantry.

Marie stepped toward him. She raised her hand.

Brandon wasn't sure what she intended to do. Touch him? Soothe him? Heal him? He stepped back, removing himself from her reach. "It's nothing, Marie. I'm fine. Charlotte was the one who was hurt."

Pink suffused Marie's cheeks. She dropped her hand to her side and clutched a fistful of her black skirt. "I know. I mean, I'm sorry about your wife's death."

Guilt dug into his gut. He was such an ass. Sure he had to keep his distance from Marie. He owed Edwin that much. Just as he owed Charlotte. And when it came right down to it, he owed Marie. But he could have kept away from her without slapping her down. Just one more bit of proof that he didn't belong anywhere near someone as decent as Marie Leonard.

"My father didn't tell me you were hurt as well."

"Like I said, it's nothing." He glanced at the pantry. Where was Shelley with those keys?

"It's not nothing. If I'd known, I would have come… I would have—" She let her words hang as if she suddenly recognized the inappropriateness of what she was saying. She dipped her chin, looking down at his hand gripping the cane, at the wedding ring still on his finger. "Anyway, I'm sorry."

He nodded, hoping she was finished. "You don't have to put yourself through all this, Marie. Isabella can pack up Edwin's things and send them to you."

"No. I want to do it myself. It will… it will make me feel closer to him."

Brandon gripped the head of his cane until his fingers ached. The thought of Marie spending time in Drake House threatened to unhinge him. Even two floors up and in another wing, he'd be aware of every move she made. But what could he say? That she couldn't pack her father's things? That he refused to let her into the house where she'd grown up? That would make him more of an SOB than he already was. He forced his head to bob in a nod. "Take all the time you need.

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