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Wade MacAllister had spent most of his life wishing he had more of everythingmore luck, more talent, more money.
He had money now. More money than he'd ever imagined. If he'd been blessed with real talent, maybe his luck wouldn't have run out.
Steering his Harley into a scenic turnout with a view of the Pacific, he killed the engine and set the kickstand. The heavy black and chrome bike listed to one side, poised above the pavement, heat radiating off of the pipes. Though silent now, the growl of the engine still hummed in his ears.
Beyond the lookout, the ocean rose and fell, its rough surface surging in every direction, pulled by the tide, the wind, and the swells. Gathering twilight made it harder to see. Wind gusts off the water matched the rhythm of the waves. The chill in the air cut through his leather jacket, reminding him that he could still feel. That he was still alive.
The night was moonless and melancholy. Restless like him.
"Make up your goddamned mind." The mumbled words were quickly swept away, carried off on the wind, drowned by the roar of the waves. "If you're going to do it, get it over with."
He glanced up and down the highway. There were no cars in sight. He was ever conscious of the gun in his saddlebag, a classic Colt .45, Gold Cup Trophy model he had picked up from a dealer in Phoenix. He'd practiced at a firing range to make sure he knew how to use it, though for his purposes, a good aim wasn't important.
Tonight, like every other night, his fertile mind conjured up memories of things best forgotten. He tried, God knew he'd tried, but there was no way he could ever forget the twelve women murdered in unspeakable ways. Lovely young women who had died violent, heinous deaths. Acts spawned by a sick and twisted mind.
His sick and twisted mind.
Do it right now. Right here. Get it over with.
But there was more than a whisper of daylight left. His mind spun out the what-ifs. What if an unsuspecting driver pulled over? What if a car full of people drove by, saw his body lying there? What if there were kids in the car? What then?
He needed to go somewhere off the beaten track, somewhere lonely and solitary. A secluded place more in keeping with the way he'd always lived his life.
He'd know it when he saw it and when he did, maybe then he'd find the courage to put an end to everything.
The twelve women.
The constant moving. The disguises.
He'd find the right place and then maybe he'd find the courage to bring the story of his life to a close.
After dark, the lobby of the Heartbreak Hotel seemed to expand, like the walls of a carnival fun house. At night, the persistent pounding of the waves against the shoreline filled the rooms like the amplified beat of a solitary heart. Except for an occasional passing car, there was no competition for the echo of the waves.
Loneliness filled the rooms in the evenings, too. Tracy Potter didn't notice it as much during the day when she was running in all directions. But at night, after the workmen left, the sun had set, and her nine-year-old son, Matthew, was tucked in bed, she would struggle with an ache so deep, so raw, that it took everything she had to convince herself that circumstances changethat life was bound to take a turn for the better.
She still found it hard to believe that in a couple more weeks, her husband, Glenn, would have been gone six months.
The word made it sound as if he had just stepped out to meet a client and would be back any minute.
Her footsteps echoed against the scuffed hardwood floors of the wide-open lobby, falling silent whenever she paused to pick up a sticky wad of used masking tape or carefully sidestep a pile of drop cloths the workmen had left on the floor.
Six months ago, if anyone would have told her that she'd be a widow at thirty-three, or that she'd be renovating the Heartbreak Hotel, let alone living in it, she would have laughed and called them crazy.
A few days after Glenn's death, when his accountant, David Sylvester, informed her that Glenn had been deep in debt, she thought he'd been joking. But David had been dead serious and the joke was on her.
It was a morning she'd never forget, sitting there in David's office, listening as the accountant outlined the bleak details.
"There's no easy way to put it, Tracy. You're broke. As far as I can tell, there's enough left in your joint checking account to pay expenses for the next six months, if you're careful and if you're lucky."
She knew things had been tough. She'd confronted Glenn about the mounting bills. She'd wanted to go back to work, gladly offering to renew her real estate license. She would have done anything to help keep them from going under, but he'd been adamant. He wanted Matt to have a full-time mom. There were listings about to close. Things were just tight right now. Things were going to change soon.
Still she'd worried, and with good reason. What the accountant told her after Glenn's death made that quite clear.
"Glenn refinanced the Canyon Club house to the limit," David explained. "There's no equity left. Your credit cards are maxed out, too. In fact, he made your last two house payments with his American Express Card. And unfortunately, he was underinsured. You'll be able to cover the funeral expenses and, if there's anything left, I'd advise you to pay off your car, and Chelsea's."
Luckily, hers was free and clear.
Chelsea's wasn't. Chelsea was Glenn's daughter by his first marriage. Nineteen now. A freshman at the University of Southern California. Tracy had sat in stunned silence, thinking of Chelsea, of the hefty tuition Glenn had been paying. What now?
"Sell the house," David had advised. "Get the bank off your back before they foreclose."
The luxurious house had been Glenn's dream, part of an upscale development he'd spearheaded. Cabrillo Canyon Club was a gated community of sixty high-end homes scattered around a golf course designed by Rex Burrell, one of the West's premier course designers. They were well built but overpriced, even in a good market. The homes all sold eventually, but not overnight.
"There is one bit of good news, I guess," David had quickly added, as if aware that she was quickly slipping into a self-induced coma. Anything to escape.
"And that would be?"
"That the IRS and the banks can't touch your inheritance from your grandparents. It's not much, but it'll help. And there's that old hotel on the coast road. Glenn put the title in Matt's name, with you as trustee."
"Matt? When? Why?" Matt was only nine. What had Glenn been thinking?
At first she couldn't even remember the place, and then it came to her. The Heartbreak Hotel. Perched on the coast off the old Route 1. Glenn had purchased the derelict, nineteenth-century hotel a handful of years ago, planning to tear it down and replace it with elegant condos. The project had quickly bogged down in California Coastal Commission hearings.
After the Twilight Cove Historical Society and the Central Coast Preservation League entered into the fray, he had tabled the project altogether, too busy to spend time and money fighting them all.
She had left David's office that morning determined to sell the white elephant. But prospective buyers couldn't walk away fast enough once they learned that the hotel was to be registered as a historic landmarkthanks to the Twilight Cove Historical Preservation Societyand that the Coastal Commission had deemed the prime oceanfront land beneath it off limits to any new development.
She'd looked into renewing her real estate license, then realized that it might be months before her first escrow closed, if and when she got a quick listing and actually sold something.
Forced to do the only thing she could under the circumstances, she'd taken a leap of faith, relied on her ability to see things the way they could be, not the way they were, and had used her inheritance from Grandma and Grandpa Melton to clean up the Heartbreak.
Now darkness was quickly gathering as she walked over to a bank of wall switches behind the desk, flipped on the lights, and surveyed the progress. Though the place would never be a five-star hotel, it was finally coming along.
Six guest rooms were already completely finished. There were three left to paint and furnish. The painting was nearly finished in the lobby. The adjacent sitting room was no longer as dingy and derelict as it had been the day she took her first hard look around.
Even she, a consummate optimist, had been hard-pressed to envision possibilities for the place. If Matt hadn't been with her the first time she walked through, she'd have been tempted to break down and bawl her eyes out.
Old wallpaper had to be stripped. Thankfully, the hardwood floors were still solid, but needed refinishing. An army of termites had taken up residence in the walls. She'd handled the damage with spot repair and fumigation. Basic cosmetic renovations and a race to open for the coming tourist season would never have been her first choice, but she'd seen no quicker way out of her financial crisis.
Walking away from their home at Cabrillo Canyon Club, selling off almost everything, including the designer furnishings hand-chosen for the house, hadn't hurt anything but her pride. But then, she'd never really felt as attached to the Canyon Club house as Glenn. It had been his dream to live in an impressive showplaceone that left no doubt as to his success.
It wasn't like her to look back, so, counting on the future to bring change, she glanced out the wide bay window that curved around the entire front wall. It was gloomy out tonight. Not a single star brightened a heavy sky.
She was headed for the sunroom and small kitchen area off the lobby when she heard the deep-throated rumble of a motorcycle on the coast road. When the sound abruptly stopped, she froze.
Alone in the empty room, she was suddenly all too aware of how vulnerable she and Matt were, living out on this deserted stretch of road. It was one thing to have considered running the Heartbreak all by herself, but the cold, stark reality of it chilled her blood. She held her breath, hoping to hear the motorcycle start up again.
He couldn't have conjured up a better place to stop.
Poised in isolation on a remote stretch of road bypassed by the main highway, the huge two-story wooden hulk had been visible from a quarter mile away. Reminding him of the Bates Motel in Psycho, it rose stark and ominous against the night sky. The place beckoned him, compelled him to slow down as he neared.
Complete with a widow's walk, the old hotel clung to the bluff above the Pacific. It might have been abandoned, except for the neon sign out front that blazed ear eak hot l in hot pink. Below that, in aqua letters, glowed the word vacancy.
Once he saw the place at close range, there was no way he could ride on. No way he could leave.
He rolled the bike beneath the eave of the building where it would be out of a slow drizzle that was making a halfhearted attempt to turn itself into rain. Quickly he unsnapped the saddlebag, pulled off his helmet, clamped it beneath his arm, and ran splayed fingers through his short hair, forcing it to spike up in front. Taking a deep breath, he headed around the corner of the building along a path nearly covered by weeds.
Hoping like hell that whoever was manning the front desk wouldn't recognize him, Wade cleared the worn treads on the front steps and stared at the oval, etched glass window in the front door. He gave in to an overpowering need to step inside.
She knew all along that she would be obliged to greet late arrivals and that she'd be vulnerable every time she opened the door to a stranger. Thankfully, she'd always been a firm believer in the innate goodness of people and had been all her life, but the minute she heard footsteps thudding on the porch outside and then an insistent knocking, Tracy found herself slipping her cell phone out of her pocket. Clutching it in her hand, she crossed the lobby. Through the window set in the front door, she saw the silhouette of a man.
He stood beneath the golden glow of the porch lighttall, not thin, not heavy. Solid, with wide shoulders beneath a black leather jacket that glistened with moisture. His deep-set dark eyes stared back.
While he waited for her to open the door, he wiped his face with the back of his hand and she realized it must be raining. She stepped closer to the window in the door and noted the shiny black helmet beneath his arm and motorcycle saddlebag dangling from his left hand.
"We're not open for business." She raised her voice so that he could hear her through the oval pane.
He leaned closer. He was smooth-shaven and his clothes appeared to be clean.
"Your sign says vacancy." His voice was low, but she easily heard him through the window and suddenly realized that she must have accidently hit the switch for the neon sign when she turned the lights on.
"We're not open yet," she told him again, damning the sign. Fixing the thing hadn't made it to the top of her to-do list yet, nor did she have the money. So many letters were burned out that the first time Matt saw it lit up, he asked who would want to stay at a place called Ear Ache Hot-L and she'd collapsed into gales of laughter.
"Come on, lady. Give a guy a break. It's raining." He shifted his weight and the helmet before he reached into his pocket.
Before she could react, he moved the helmet and pulled out a wad of bills and flapped them back and forth, then pressed them against the window.
"I've got cash. I just need one room for one night."
Tracy sucked on her upper lip and frowned.
He was a good head and shoulders taller than her. Stronger, obviously.
Wet. Possibly tired.
He had the money, he needed a room, and she had an abundance of thosenot to mention a bank account in need of an injection.
"It's one twenty-five a night." She quoted what she thought was an outrageous fee for a room in a place still being renovated.
He leaned closer to the oval pane. "I'll take it."
She'd always thought you could tell a lot about a person by their eyes. Though this man's appeared to be open and honest, there was something else in them she recognized. Something she'd seen looking back at her from the mirror latelya deep, abiding sadness that no amount of positive pep talks could erase.
That underlying sadness moved her more than the fact that there were day laborers to pay tomorrow, additional paint yet to buy, not to mention extra bedding and linens on order. At the rate she was going, she'd have very little money left to fall back on if the Heartbreak didn't immediately take off.
She wasn't exactly desperate. Not yet anyway. Besides, desperate wasn't a word she ever used. It conjured up hopelessness and despair. She certainly wasn't hopeless or desperate. She was still determined to start over, to make something of the Heartbreak.
And she could certainly use the extra cash.
Besides, she was going to have to act like an innkeeper sooner or later. Why not start tonight?
She pasted on a big smile, opened the door, and indicated the torn-up lobby with a flourish and a little too much exuberance.
"Welcome to the Heartbreak Hotel. You're our first official guest."
She found herself wishing he would at least smile back.