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By Dixie Browning
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2003 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneStanding in the middle of the bedroom, dangling a pair of Chanel slingbacks by the stiletto heels, with a sleeveless black Donna Karan slung over her shoulder, Val Bonnard stared at the partially open closet and listened for the scratching noise to come again. Shivering in the chill air, she glanced quickly at the window. With the wind howling a gale, it might be only a branch scraping the eaves. What else could it be? She was alone in the house, wasn't she?
She was alone, period.
Swallowing the lump that threatened to lodge permanently in her throat, she glared at the closet door. It was ajar because there wasn't a level surface in the entire house. All the doors swung open, and all the windows leaked cold air. The temperature outside hovered in the low forties, which wasn't particularly cold for Carolina in the middle of January, but it felt colder because of the wind. And the dampness.
And the aloneness.
She was still glaring when the mouse emerged, tipped her a glance, twitched its ears, then calmly proceeded to follow the baseboard to a postagestamp-sized hole near the corner of the room.
It was the last straw in a haystack of last straws. Grief, anger and helplessness clotted around her and she dropped onto the edge of the sagging iron-framed bed and let the tears come.
A few minutes later she sniffed and felt in the pocket of her leather jeans for a tissue. As if pockets designed to display starbursts of rhinestones could possibly harbor anything so practical.
Sniffing again, she thought, it's not going to work. What on earth had she expected? That by driving for two days to reach a quaint, half remembered house on a half remembered barrier island she would not only escape from crank calls, but magically exchange grief for perspective? That a lightbulb would suddenly appear above her head and she would instantly know who was responsible for Bonnard Financial Consultants' downfall, her father's disgrace, his arrest and his untimely death?
Time and distance lent perspective. She'd read that somewhere, probably on a greeting card. She'd had more than two and a half months. Time hadn't helped.
As for distance, she had run as far away as she could run, to the only place she had left. Now she was here with as many of her possessions as she could cram into her new, cheap, gas-guzzling secondhand car, in a village so small it lacked so much as a single stoplight. She had even escaped from those irritating calls, as there wasn't a working phone in the house. Her cell phone with its caller ID didn't seem to work here.
There wasn't a dry cleaner on the island either, and half her wardrobe required dry-cleaning, most of it special handling. "Why not whine about it, wimp?" she muttered.
At least focusing on trivia helped stave off other thoughts - thoughts that swept her too close to the edge.
It had taken all her energy since her father had died to settle his affairs and dispose of the contents of the gabled, slate-roofed Tudor house that had been home for most of her life. Although stunned to learn that it was so heavily mortgaged, she'd actually been relieved when the bank had taken over the sale.
The rest had gone quickly - the disposal of the contents. Belinda and Charlie had helped enormously before they'd moved to take on new positions. She and Belinda had shared more than a few tears, and even stoic old Charlie had been red-eyed a few times.
In the end, all she'd brought south with her was her hand luggage, three garment bags and three banana boxes, one filled with personal mementos, one with linens, and another with the files she'd retrieved from her father's study.
In retrospect, everything about the past eleven weeks had been unreal in the truest sense of the word. There'd been a bottle of special vintage Moët Chandon in the industrial-sized, stainless-steel refrigerator, waiting for her birthday celebration. Her father had bought it the day before he'd been arrested. "Belinda has orders to prepare all your favorite dishes," he'd told her the night before, looking almost cheerful for a change. The old lines and shadows had been there, but at least there'd been some color in his face.
She'd asked several times before if anything was worrying him. Each time he'd brushed off her question. "Stock market's down," he'd said the last time, then he'd brightened. "Cholesterol's down, too, though. Can't have everything, can we?"
She'd chided him for spending too much time downtown and been relieved when he'd promised to take her advice and start spending more time at home, even though she knew very well he would spend most of it closed up in his study with Forbes and the Wall Street Journal.
For her birthday she had deliberately arranged to have dinner at home with only her dad instead of the usual bash at the club. She had planned to mellow him with the champagne and find out exactly what had been eating at him. But early on the morning of her thirtieth birthday a pair of strangers who turned out to be police officers had shown up at the door and invited her father to accompany them downtown.
She'd seen the whole thing from the top of the stairs. Barefoot and wearing only a robe and nightgown, she had hurried downstairs, demanding to know what was happening.
The spokesman for the pair had been stiffly polite. "Just a few questions, miss, that's all." But obviously that hadn't been all. Her father had been ashen. Alarmed, she'd called first his physician, then his lawyer.
The next few hours had swept past like a kaleidoscope. She didn't recall having gotten dressed - she certainly hadn't taken time to shower, much less to arrange her hair before racing outside. Belinda had called after her and told her to take her father's medicine to the police station, so she'd dashed back and snatched the pill bottle from the housekeeper's hand.
They'd had only brief minutes to speak privately when the officer in the room with him had gone to get him a cup of water. Speaking quietly, as if he were afraid of being overheard, Frank Bonnard had instructed her to remove all unlabeled paper files from the file cabinet in his study and store them in her bedroom.
Excerpted from Social Graces by Dixie Browning Copyright © 2003 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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