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By Katy Lee
Harlequin Enterprises LimitedCopyright © 2014 Harlequin Enterprises Limited
All rights reserved.
The dark, hollow eyes of a human skull put Sheriff Wesley Grant on the spot. The sockets, though vacant of life, were filled with questions he didn't have answers for. Unnerved by the skeleton's perpetual stare, he averted his gaze to the finger bones camouflaged against the gray pebbled sand. The digits protruded up as though the person had clawed their way out from their oceanfront grave. A grave that had no business being on this side of the island.
Wesley had questions of his own. "Who are you, and when did you get here?" The Maine island of Stepping Stones was his jurisdiction, and if this corpse was a recent death, then it was put here on his watch. Recent dumped bodies only meant one thing.
But who? One of his islanders?
The thought of these skeletal remains belonging to one of his charges squeezed his chest in a vise. The weight of that scenario bore down on him like the thick, dark clouds overhead. The April rains offered a reprieve, but the cold wind still whipped at his face. He ignored the chafing on his cheeks for the suffering the guy at his feet had to have experienced.
"Please don't let it be one of our own. I can't let these people down. Not when they've done so much for me. No, this can't be one of them." Wes pushed the horrid idea out of his mind as he pushed his windblown strands of hair out of his eyes. He would know if someone had gone missing. He ran a tight ship here, questioning every happening and every outsider who disembarked the Sunday ferry. This skeleton had to be ancient, put here long ago, before his time. Before his father's, the previous Sheriff Grant's, time. Before any of the islanders' time.
Wesley thought of the history of the island and remembered a couple hundred years ago, pirates used to sail these seas and stop off on the island to count their loot. Yes, that had to be it. He latched on to this theory quickly. This skeleton had to have been buried here by one of the eighteenth-century swashbucklers, killed by a warring foe who broached the shores. Wesley felt sure Dr. Simon Webber, the forensic anthropologist who would be arriving on the island any minute now, would confirm it. But a check of his watch only brought up another question: What was keeping the doctor?
Deputy Derek Vaughn had left over five hours ago to pick up the man the medical examiner was sending out here to assess the situation. Vaughn had been instructed to bring the forensic anthropologist over to this side of the island as soon as they arrived. It was a two-hour trip each way. That made Vaughn an hour late. Nothing new there. The deputy couldn't follow simple orders on a good day.
Wes thumbed the radio at his shoulder and called his other deputy, Owen Matthews. Maybe he knew what was keeping Vaughn. "Matthews, what's your location?"
The radio crackled in his ear as Wesley studied the skeleton's pelvis that lay exposed in the sand at his feet. Most of its ribs couldn't be seen, just the front of the rib cage protruded out of the earth. Only one hand stuck out, too. Wesley figured the other one was either still buried, or the wildlife had made off with it. Or, because the guy had once been a pirate Wesley was sticking with this theory for the time being there was the chance he'd lost it premortem.
The idea made him cringe and he pushed the radio again, a little harder than before. "Matthews or Vaughn, what's your twenty?"
His radio chirped followed by Deputy Matthews's voice. "Sorry, Wes. I'm pulling up now. Vaughn brought the doctor to the station instead. A little misunderstanding, I guess."
Wesley bit the unprofessional comment about Vaughn from his tongue and asked, "Where's the doctor?"
"She's sitting right beside me."
"She?" He spoke louder than he meant to, then remembered the boys who had found the skeleton that morning stood on the other side of the tall sand mound behind him. They didn't want to be near the "dead guy" as they'd put it. Their older sister, Pat, joined them as the responsible party, so she waited with them on the other side of the mound, too. None of these people needed to hear him lose his cool about an unexpected outsider showing up instead of the expected Dr. Webber.
"Yup. She's a she," Owen said. "Go a little easier on her than you did my wife when she showed up in Stepping Stones, would you?" Before the radio chirped out, Owen added, "I'm sure you've learned by now that not everyone is like Jenny Carmichael."
Owen was right. He also knew Wes had a hard time with outsiders. He'd put the last outsider who disembarked the ferry through the ringer. And Miriam Hunter, now Miriam Matthews, hadn't been guilty of anything but caring about Stepping Stones as much as he did.
Owen proved his point. Not all people who broached his shores were trouble. They weren't all like his exfiancée, Jenny Carmichael. Wesley recoiled at the memory of the destruction Jenny brought to his life five years ago, but that didn't mean the lady doctor was anything like Jenny.
He hoped she wasn't, anyway.
The motor of a boat beyond the sand mound signaled Matthews's arrival. Wes climbed the steep slope and got his first glimpse of the bone doctor sitting beside his deputy.
A pretty face behind dark-rimmed glasses.
So what? A face meant nothing. He knew this from Jenny. And don't you forget it, Grant, he told himself as he approached the water and watched the brown-haired woman with a tight bun at the nape of her neck stand to her full, tower-like height. A pretty face and the height to go head-to-head with him.
That didn't necessarily mean trouble, he reasoned as this new outsider was about to broach his shores.
But even as Deputy Matthews slid out the metal gangway, the uncertainty in Wesley's mind rang louder than the screeching metal against metal.
All he could wonder was if this outsider would be friend or if she would be foe?
"I'm here to examine the skeleton." Lydia Muir stepped off the police boat and down the temporary metal dock Deputy Matthews slid out for her exit. She carried her tool kit in her left hand, her SLR digital camera hung from her neck, swaying with each step. She would hold off donning her forensic white coverall clean suit and rubber boots until she had the chance to assess the scene, but deep down under her grayish-blue wool coat and matching pants, Lydia squirmed in anticipation of suiting up. She hoped her excitement didn't show too much, pretty sure the five islanders standing in front of her wouldn't appreciate her smiling in their disturbing situation. They wouldn't understand that forensic anthropology, the study of human remains for evidence, was her life. A dug-up bone to the ordinary person was a treasure to behold for her.
"I'm Sheriff Grant." A shaggy-haired officer stepped forward. She didn't know too many officers of the law who kept their hair on the longer side. Most looked like the clean-cut deputy who brought her over to this side of the island, or the balding one who brought her out from Rockland. "I wasn't expecting you," the sheriff said in a disgruntled tone that had her putting aside her thoughts on his reclusive hairstyle and focusing on his obvious disappointment at her arrival.
Her excitement fizzled a bit. Apparently, he'd been expecting her boss.
"I'm Dr. Lydia Muir." She offered her hand to shake, glad to see him remove his black leather glove and take it. All hope wasn't lost yet.
The feeling of his warm grip seeped into her chilled skin, reminding her she should have brought gloves to this frigid, windswept place. She let go and felt the chill in the air more now than before. The first thought that jumped in her head was to take his warm hand in her own again. How silly, she thought, since she much preferred the company of the stiff and dead. But then, Sheriff Grant was pretty stiff. He gripped his jaw so tight, his temporomandibular joint protruded. The man was really mad that Webber wasn't here.
"I work under Dr. Simon Webber. He sent me in his stead." Lydia brought her tool kit in front of her to show the sheriff as well as all their onlookers that she had the credentials for being here. She cleared her throat. "I assure you, I'm well qualified to assess the situation. I have a Ph.D. in forensic anthropology, and I " She bit the inside of her cheek to stop any more insecure blabbering from spilling forth. She had nothing to prove here. I've earned this. I'm a doctor even if Dr. Webber still calls me Miss Muir.
But that would all change after this case. Running a top-notch examination here was exactly what she needed to prove herself in her field, once and for all. God had seen to it. He wanted her to succeed in her own right. Not because of who her father is in the world of science, but because of her own merits.
Lydia breathed deep and silently prayed. God, You have given me the skills and the desire to understand the basic makeup and structure of Your creation. I am ready to handle whatever anyone, even the hard-faced sheriff giving himself TMJ, throws at me.
She straightened all twenty-seven vertebrae of her spine and hoped the onlookers missed her trembling shoulders. She hoped they shook from the whipping wind and not nerves. "It's quite cold out here, and it looks like it could start to pour any second. Perhaps you can show me the crime scene now."
The sheriff's mouth twisted instantly. "Crime scene? Dr. Muir, it is way too soon to call this incident a crime. I'm sure this is nothing more than a historic burial unearthed by erosion."
Lydia blinked, speechless. She watched the wind lift the front of the man's blond, silky hair. Piercing blue eyes became exposed to her and chilled her more than the cold wind. His gaze narrowed on her face. A face she knew made her look younger than her thirty-three years. Her dad always said, despite her height, she had a baby face, and in times like this his nickname, "Trinket," would do nothing for her credibility. Not that it ever did, but that never stopped him from using it.
"Perhaps you are right about the remains being ancient," she said, treading carefully. "I'm sorry if I made the wrong assumption. I was told a skeleton had been found. The M.E. asked my department for a consultation, and Dr. Webber sent me "
Saying the words out loud made her realize how ridiculous they sounded. Out of all her other colleagues, Webber had sent her?
What was left of her excitement fizzled out completely as she realized what this really meant. She could have kicked one of the stones at her feet. Webber sent her for the same reasons this guy spouted. Dr. Webber didn't want to make the trek out to the cold north for old ancient remains. That's why he told her to box them up and bring them back to him. She was nothing more than a courier of goods. And here she thought she might finally have earned Dr. Webber's support for the promotion to Director of Anthropology.
Lydia squelched her rising disappointment. She could dwell on it later when she was alone. For now, regardless of why she was sent here, she would see the case through professionally. She would not make any judgment until she had assessed the scene. With her chin lifted a notch, she met Sheriff Grant at eye level, thankful her tight bun didn't allow the wind to play peekaboo with her strands like his. She had one chance to set the stage and show she meant business.
Lydia pushed her glasses up on her nose and noticed his deprecatory eyes travel down her tall body. Her bravado faltered as she realized he formed judgments of her. Terms from her childhood, and even adulthood, came to mind. Beanpole. Giraffe. Sunshade. At least her six-one-and-then-some height wouldn't be blocking any sun on the island today, because there was none.
"Just show me the way," she said, and caught the other people behind the sheriff staring.
"Not until I have your word that you will keep this discreet," Sheriff Grant said, pulling her attention back to him. "I'm not looking for some fresh-out-of-college intern looking to make headlines or improve herself in her profession. I want your word that you're not here to further your career or to make a name for yourself."
"Further my ?" She sputtered to a stop. How did he know? She attempted to keep her face as still as the granite ledges around her, but her shoulders trembled all on their own. Was it the cold, or was she that transparent?
"It's my job to protect the islanders from harm," Sheriff Grant continued. "I need to know you can be discreet and professional."
"Always," she answered quickly, but her voice held a shiver. It had to be the cold and not fear. Never fear. With God as her guide, never shall she fear.
The sheriff's unnerving, steely eyes relaxed a little, but not his jaw. "Good to hear, but tell me, Doc, did you think to bring a coat? It gets real chilly out here with the wind and all. The climate is a bit rougher than what you're used to on the mainland."
"Of course I brought a coat. It's in my bag on the boat. But I'm perfectly comfortable as I am." She ignored the cold, salty spray misting around her, knowing it would seep into her wool suit real fast. Now, there was a smell to avoid. Death she could handle, but wet sheep, not so much.
"Your shaking shoulders tell me differently, but have it your way." He shrugged as he tossed a glance over his shoulder at two gawking teenaged boys huddled together. "These boys are Robbie and Mack Reed." Neither would pass for fifteen. Their faces were pale and sullen with eyes as turbulent as the waves behind them.
Their timorous behavior told her these young ones were her body finders.
Sheriff Grant confirmed her assessment. "They came out to this side of the island earlier this morning to explore and came across the skeleton."
Lydia scanned the backdrop of rocky ledges. She wondered how much farther the island expanded beyond them. Stone surrounded her, from the rocky ledges to the numerous flat rocks dotting the ocean behind her. They couldn't have been more strategically placed if they had been pawns on a chess board with the island of Stepping Stones as their queen. A lighthouse stood far out in the distance on the farthest rock, warning ships not to come any closer to the dangerous protruding stones. A natural tactic that seemingly kept the outside world at bay, and the town untouchable.
"Do people come here often?" she asked.
The sheriff hesitated before he answered, "We don't get too many visitors in Stepping Stones. Or did you mean this side of the island?"
He shrugged. "Most stay on the side where the higher ground is. These waters get pretty rough. Storms come through and submerge these rocks real fast." He angled a disappointed look at the boys. Their chins dropped lower to their chests; apparently, they had already heard the lecture. "The boys know they made a dangerous choice today, but I think under the circumstances they've been punished enough."
Their punishment, her reward. Just thinking about digging her hands into the dirt had Lydia's adrenaline spiking again. She took a breath and piped up. "Okay, boys, show me what you found."
Mouths gaped. The boys' visible gulps said they weren't too excited about their find or finding it again anytime soon. The one named Robbie retreated behind his brother, shaking his head. He looked to Mack, who had another year or so on him, to take the lead.
Excerpted from Grave Danger by Katy Lee. Copyright © 2014 Harlequin Enterprises Limited. Excerpted by permission of Harlequin Enterprises Limited.
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