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Dust f lew everywhere as April Trent's circular saw bit into the lath and plaster wall of the sixty-year-old Shenandoah Valley farmhouse she was remodeling. Seeing a f lash of red and white in what should be empty space, she shut off her saw and set it down on the f loor. Then she carefully pulled free a ragged chunk of wall. April shoved her safety glasses into her hair so she could clearly see the item wedged between two-by-four-inch studs.
Since being awarded her contractor's license at twentyfour, this was the sixth Virginia home between Harrisburg and Staunton that she'd purchased and renovated. She always lived in the houses she was renovating; and had managed to accumulate a tidy nest egg. At thirty-one, she was a woman of independent means. Her first project she'd bought with a trust fund left by her paternal grandmother, Dixie. Early on, she'd struggled to be taken seriously in a largely male-dominated field. Now things were going well. No thanks, though, to her prominent family who, outside of her grandmother, saw her interest as merely an aberrant whim that would pass. Rather than being happy for her and wishing her well, they considered her an embarrassment. Especially her Dad and her brothers-.
April plucked out a dusty, rectangular package wrapped in red-and-white checked oilcloth. Bits of fabric, brittle with age, broke off, even though she took care lifting it out. Her pulse beat faster. Generally all she found was crumbling grout, cobwebs or the skeletal remains of long-dead mice.
Coleman Trent, her lawyer daddy, might not be so quick to denigrate her profession if she found a cache of stolen money.
Excited, April carried her treasure around theplastic sheeting that cordoned off the kitchen, one of the rooms she'd completed. A corner nook near the window offered better lighting, and she identified the wrapping as oilcloth of a type used to line kitchen cupboards at the time this home was built. Twine holding the covering in place snapped easily.
Darn! Not money. Letters, bound together with a red satin ribbon. Letters addressed in precise script to a woman named Norma Marsh, at an address in France.
On a self-imposed timetable to complete the house but tempted nevertheless, April couldn't resist tugging open the bow. She eased the top letter out of its envelope. The ink was faded and the handwriting looked like that of a man. Yes, it was signed Erge ben, Heinz. April was disappointed when she realized none of the letters were in English. No, they'd been written in German. She'd taken a smattering of college French and high school German, and from the little she could translate, it appeared Heinz was devoted to Norma.
April couldn't help a poignant sigh as she refolded the letter. She'd love to pour a cup of coffee and take a break, try to decipher what-judging by the salutation-were obviously old love letters. But she needed to get that wall down and cleaned up, since she had carpet-layers scheduled the following week. Although she did most of the work alone, a few tasks she subcontracted out on an asneeded basis.
Leaving the letters, she returned to the dirty job at hand. By one O'clock she was exhausted. But the wall was down. Only the promise of coffee and a closer inspection of the letters gave her the final burst of energy she needed to dispose of debris and sweep up.
She was pleased with her morning's work. Ripping out the wall had resulted in a lovely, large open room with a brick fireplace at one end. Homes built in the thirties and forties tended to have small, dark rooms. April liked open and airy.
Filthy, she should head straight for the spanking new shower she'd already added to the refitted bathroom. But coffee enticed, as did those letters.
April filled a mug with the coffee she'd brewed at breakfast and reheated it in the microwave. She'd learned to take her coffee black and strong. She carried it impatiently to the nook and removed the oilcloth around the letters. When she did, a passport fell out and so did a couple of grainy black-and-white snapshots and a pressed f lower, a rose. Hesitantly April opened the old passport. A beautiful young woman with long blond hair styled in a manner reminiscent of 1940s movies, stared out. The well-traveled document had been stamped numerous times with dates ranging from the earlyto mid-forties. London. Rome. Paris and other cities in France. April sipped the bitter coffee, and let her mind wander. Norma Marsh must have been a debutante. April was familiar with that lavish lifestyle, since her mother, Bonnie, was from a wealthy local family who still believed the best schools were abroad.
Feeling too much like a voyeur, April tucked the photographs into the passport without examining them and put back the fragile rose. These love letters belonged to a stranger. But she had to wonder how they'd come to be stuck between the walls. Was it accidental, or were they hidden on purpose? Who was Norma Marsh? Born in 1925, she'd be eighty-two now. Was she even alive? And if she was, would she want the letters back? So many possibilities ran through April's mind.
Her doorbell chimed unexpectedly, startling her. She wasn't expecting anyone, and the mysterious letters made her feel oddly vulnerable. Wiping nervous palms down her jeans, she tiptoed quietly to the arch. Through her large front window, she saw Eric Lathrop huddled on her front stoop. His topcoat sparkled silver from a light August rain that had begun to fall in the last half hour.
Eric was an eager-beaver reporter who wrote about politics for the local Turner County newspaper. His longterm sights were set on moving out of Virginia into the bigtime D.C. political arena. Her family's law firm, Trent and Trent, dabbled in local politics, which was how Eric had gained the attention of April's parents and brothers.
Apolitical though she tried to be, she sporadically dated Eric to keep her parents from coming up with worse prospects. In truth, she had zero time for a real relationship. And Eric was pleasant enough. He was at least capable of interesting conversation, although at times April found him overbearing.
She gave a passing thought to dashing back to hide her recent discovery, even if it meant leaving Eric standing in the rain. His brashness meant he didn't have much interest in what he called sentimentality-anything to do with emotion, in other words-and April felt oddly protective of these letters. Another part of her, though, longed to share her find with someone-anyone. That impulse won, and she crossed the room and threw open the door.
"What took you so long?" Eric stomped in, shaking raindrops from his buzz-cut sandy red hair. He left muddy footprints behind him.
His surly greeting killed whatever enthusiasm April had mustered for sharing her news. "I'm working," she said, waving a hand toward the enlarged living space.
"So I see." He grimaced at her dusty work boots and smudged safety goggles pushed back in April's short, dark hair.
"To what do I owe this unscheduled visit?" she asked in an affected Southern drawl. She could count on sweet sarcasm annoying the hell out of Eric.
Today, however, he apparently had other things on his mind. "I ran into your brother Miles in town. Had lunch with him. Don't ask me how, but he cadged two invitations to a black-tie fund-raiser. A ball being held by Quinn Santini a week from next Saturday."
"Santini. The name's familiar."
"Good grief, I should hope so! Quinn's running for the U.S. Senate. My paper opposes him, and his picture's been splashed all over the front page for months. You've probably heard your family talking about him, as well. They're against his election, too."
Eric pulled two gilt-edged tickets from his inner pocket and fanned them under April's nose. "I came here straightaway. If you don't own a suitable dress, something long and slinky, you'll need to buy one. This is a big, big deal, and could be important for me."
"Why would I spend a fortune on a dress I'd wear once, Eric? You know I hate getting even semi-dressed up for the parties my folks throw."
"Yes, but think of the connections you could make at an event like this. You said that in your trade you need social contacts to get your name out through word of mouth."
"It helps," she agreed grudgingly, shutting the door as Eric returned the tickets to his pocket.
"Is that coffee I smell? I could do with a warm-up." Skirting April, he shrugged out of his topcoat and headed for her kitchen. "Hey, what's this?" he asked, weaving around the plastic to drop his coat over a chair next to the stack of letters.
"Something I found in the wall I removed today. Letters, but they're written in German." She hastily poured a mug of coffee and heated it in the microwave.
Before she could place the mug in Eric's hands, he was pawing through the letters. A couple of papers tucked between the last two envelopes f loated to the f loor. Setting his mug down with a thump, April bent and retrieved the pages. "Well, these make no sense. They're lists of words that aren't really words in English or German, as far as I can tell. More like scrambled groups of letters."
Eric tasted the coffee, made a face, then leaned over her shoulder. "Huh? Two words are spelled out-they're bird names. See, it says Oriole at the top and Kestrel at the bottom."
"Yes. The second page has Kestrel at the top and Oriole at the bottom." Refolding them, April shoved those sheets into the top envelope. "Maybe they're anagrams."
"Or coded messages." Squinting at the envelopes, Eric grew more animated. "April, who had this farmhouse built?"
"I bought it from the heirs of Dr. David Shuman."
"Yes," he snapped. "But after you researched the deed, I distinctly remember you saying this house originally belonged to Anthony Santini. No wonder the name's familiar! Tony's grandson is Quinn, who's the senatorial candidate. April, what rock have you been under?" Eric demanded when she casually retied the ribbon around the letters and tucked the f lattened rose underneath it. He tried to take the bundle, but she yanked it away and walked out of the kitchen.
"Where are you going? April, let me read them." His voice rose. "Have you asked yourself why a bunch of old letters would be hidden in a wall? What if old man Santini was carrying on some tawdry affair? With some German, yet-during the war?" Eric set down his mug and followed April. "Listen, if I don't find anything juicy, I'll give the damned letters back to you. But if I link Grandpa Santini to something sordid, this could be my lucky break. My ticket to the beltway."
She continued down the hall, but called over her shoulder, "Eric, honestly, you're always seeing the next big story in everything you do. These are private letters. I didn't see the name Santini anywhere. And if they were my love letters, I wouldn't want them made public. I'm putting them in my bedroom. Then I'm going in to shower. Please let yourself out."
Eric's forward momentum was stopped when April shut her bedroom door. He rattled the knob, found the door locked and pounded with a fist. Then he resorted to cajoling. "You could be holding dynamite, sweetheart. Tony Santini built this farm, but he spent a lot of time in Europe before and after World War Two. I've even read stories that hint he could've been a spy. April? Dammit, are you listening?"
She didn't respond, and thankfully, after a few minutes of shouting, Eric gave up. She heard him say, "I'm leaving, but I'll be back when you've had time to think this through."
What did he mean? She had thought it through. But Eric was blind to everything except his career. And he had a temper. She was glad he'd gone with so little fuss.
She didn't dally over cleaning up. She'd observed Eric on the trail of a story. He was like a bulldog. He'd try to get his hands on the letters.
After toweling her hair dry, April grabbed the letters and dashed through the drizzle to her pickup. Someone as astute about the political scene as Eric, but who April trusted more, was her old college roommate, decorator Robyn Parker. Unlike April, Robyn enjoyed the local social scene. She traveled in prominent circles from Virginia to Maryland to D.C. And had the lowdown on everyone of importance. She also could keep a secret.