Read an Excerpt
By Irene Brand
Steeple HillCopyright © 2005 Irene Brand
All right reserved.
Stanton was a step above her hometown of Willow Creek, but that still didn't say much for the town where Janice Reid intended to make her home. Her primary reason for coming to Stanton was to meet with the lawyer who'd handled her uncle's estate. As she braked at the town limits and drove slowly into Stanton, Janice focused her attention on the street in front of her, because she'd only had her driver's license four weeks.
Brooke, her eleven-year-old sister, perched on the edge of the seat and watched for the office of Loren Santrock. Brooke located all of the fast-food restaurants, but she didn't spot the lawyer's office as they drove through the town.
Glancing at the fuel gauge of the car, Janice said, "Let's stop for gas, then we'll look for Mr. Santrock's office again." She pulled off the street, stopped by the pumps of a convenience store and took a deep breath, thankful that they'd made a safe journey. She didn't have much confidence in her driving ability.
"What do you think of the town?" Janice asked Brooke. With a pensive glance at her sister, she added, "Does it look like a good place to live?"
"Oh, it's okay. I don't care where we live as long as we can finally be together."
Janice's throat tightened and tears stung her eyes. Brooke was only ten years younger than Janice, but she felt almost like her mother. She'd had the primary care of her sister until their parents were sent to prison when Janice was fourteen. Brooke was placed in a foster home and Janice had been sent to the Valley of Hope, a residential facility for children with a variety of problems. Janice had been allowed weekly visits with her sister, but the years before Janice could be Brooke's legal guardian had passed slowly for both of them.
Janice leaned over and kissed Brooke's cheek before she got out of the car. "We'll be together from now on — that's a promise."
She took a credit card from her purse, stepped out of the car and flexed her muscles. Unaccustomed to buying gas, Janice carefully read the instructions on the pump before she inserted the credit card and punched the appropriate tabs.
While the tank filled, Brooke tried to make friends with a scrawny black Labrador that was standing on its hind legs, eating food from a trash can beside the store.
"Hey, Brooke! Don't bother the dog. He might bite you."
"He looks hungry. Is it okay if I give him one of our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches?"
"As long as you put it on the ground and let him pick it up. Don't try to feed him. You don't know if he has any diseases or fleas."
Janice watched her sister while she waited for the receipt to print. Brooke took a sandwich from a plastic bag, unwrapped it and laid it a couple of feet from the dog. He seized the food, ran across the street and disappeared behind a residence. "Look at him run!" Brooke said, laughing. "He must be awful hungry."
"Wait in the car for me," Janice called as she glanced over her shoulder at Brooke and started into the store. "I'll ask for directions to the lawyer's office."
Brooke's brown eyes widened. "Look out!"
Janice swung quickly toward the store just as a tall tawny-haired man opened the door and bumped into her. Janice staggered backward. The man's strong arm suddenly wrapped around her waist and kept her from falling.
"That was a close call," he said sternly. As if reprimanding a child, he added, "You should look where you're going."
Janice's face flamed. Although she knew the man was right, she motioned toward her sister and quipped, "I preferred looking at what was behind me, rather than what was in front of me."
Realizing that she was still in his embrace, Janice squirmed free, as with a pleasing grin, the man said, "Touché. Thanks for reminding me I wasn't being careful, either."
Janice lowered her gaze, deeply humiliated and irritated that she'd given way to one of her failings — a tendency to lash out at people when they criticized her. That wasn't the way to start life in a new town.
"That was rude of me. Thanks for saving me from a fall. I should have been more alert." Taking a deep unsteady breath, she stepped away from him.
The man's short, wavy hair flowed backward from his high forehead, and his warm dark blue eyes clung to her heavily lashed green ones for a moment. His face reddened slightly, and he said, "No problem." He strode purposely toward a black van parked at one of the pumps.
It took a lot to fluster Janice, but she realized that her pulse was racing. Surely it must be from the near fall, rather than the thrill she'd experienced when the man had embraced her. She hurried back to the car, slid behind the wheel and started the engine.
"Did you learn where to find the lawyer?" Brooke asked. With a start, Janice remembered her reason for going into the store. "Oh, after I almost fell, I forgot about it. But Stanton is a small town. We'll find his office."
Traffic wasn't heavy, and Janice drove slowly along Main Street, hoping to spot Santrock's office. When they didn't locate it, she said, "Let's get out and walk. Since Stanton's downtown area covers only a few blocks, it should be easy to find."
She pulled into a diagonal parking space and fed the meter. They went into a drugstore and the clerk gave them directions to the lawyer's office.
Brooke took Janice's hand as they walked to his office, one block west of Main Street. Janice squeezed her sister's hand, wondering how apprehensive Brooke was about their move. But if they didn't like Stanton, she could sell the property she'd inherited from her uncle and return to Willow Creek. Despite their sordid family background, they'd been accepted there. People in Stanton might not be as understanding.
Janice hadn't doubted her decision to move to Stanton until a few weeks ago when she'd read a letter from the uncle who'd willed his estate to her. A few of his words had seared her memory and they were foremost in her mind today.
I've recently become aware of some mysterious happenings at Mountjoy, but I intend to find out what's going on. I pray that I haven't saddled you with more trouble than you needed.
Santrock's office was on the second floor of an old, two-story brick building, but his reception room was impressive. When her feet sunk into the thick gray carpet, Janice had the sensation of walking on a bed of woodland moss. The windows were dressed with long, heavy maroon draperies. A semicircular arrangement of wood veneer furniture, finished in cherry, dominated the room. The desktop held the very latest in computer equipment, including extralarge flat-screen monitors.
The middle-aged receptionist turned from her computer to welcome Janice and Brooke with a smile. The woman's black suit obviously hadn't come off the bargain racks where Janice bought her clothes. She felt ill at ease in such affluence.
"I'm Dot Banner," the receptionist said. "What can I do for you today?"
"I'm Janice Reid. I have an appointment with Mr. Sant-rock."
A somber look replaced the woman's smile. "Mr. Santrock couldn't be in the office today, and we didn't know how to reach you. Did you come far?"
Irritated at this turn of events, Janice said bluntly, "Yes, I did. It's a four-hour drive from Willow Creek, and I have to return in time for work tomorrow morning. This really puts me in a bind."
Gesturing helplessly with her hand, the receptionist said, "I'm sorry."
"I'm sorry, too," Janice replied, her irritation evident in the tone of her voice. "I made this appointment two weeks ago to discuss my inheritance. Now that I'm twenty-one, Mr. Santrock said he'd have the papers ready to transfer the property and bank accounts to me today."
"The papers are ready, but you'll have to see Mr. Santrock to finalize everything."
Discouraged at this delay, Janice sat down uninvited in one of the upholstered guest chairs and motioned Brooke to another one. "I have to return to Willow Creek tonight, so I'll call in a few days to make another appointment. I would like to see the house though. If you'll give me the key, I'll take a look at it."
"I have no authority to give a key to you. You'll have to see Mr. Santrock. He's a stickler on seeing that everything is done legally."
Janice had the feeling that she was being given the run-around and she couldn't imagine why. Her uncle had died three years ago. Santrock had had ample time to know when she'd take control of the property. If he couldn't be in his office today, he should have contacted her.
"I don't suppose I'll break any law if I look at the property," Janice said tersely. "Surely your boss won't mind if you tell me where to find the house."
"Oh, you won't have any trouble finding the Reid property," the receptionist said smoothly, apparently choosing to ignore Janice's sarcasm. "It's the last house on the right side of the highway as you leave the city limits. If you see a sign that says, "Leaving Stanton," you've gone too far."
As they left Santrock's office, Janice reasoned that with the setbacks she'd had in her life she shouldn't be surprised that this venture had fizzled out. When they reached the street, the scent of food from a nearby restaurant reminded Janice that she was hungry.
"How about some lunch?" she asked.
"Yeah!" Brooke gave Janice a thumbs-up, and her brown eyes shone with merriment. They walked across the street to Brooke's favorite chain restaurant.
Brooke ordered her usual hamburger, fries and glass of milk. Janice chose an Oriental fruit and vegetable salad and iced tea.
As they ate, Brooke talked excitedly about having their own home. "Wonder if we can have a big, big Christmas tree? And outside decorations, too?" she added hopefully.
"Since it will be the first time in our own home, I think we can afford to celebrate," Janice agreed, before she added cautiously, "but I can't promise until I know exactly how much money I've inherited. Our uncle was very cautious — he left matters in the hands of his lawyers until he assumed I'd be old enough to handle money."
Since Christmas seemed to be a high priority with Brooke, Janice intended to have a good holiday season to make up for all the ones they'd both missed as children.
After living from hand to mouth most of her childhood, Janice had dreamed of having a home of her own. Since she'd heard that John Reid had remembered her in his will, Janice had been anticipating living under her own roof. She'd nightly thanked God that her bachelor uncle had chosen her to inherit his estate. The legacy included the Reid family home and several thousand dollars, but she didn't know the exact amount. Any amount would seem like a fortune to Janice, who'd always had to save up for everything she'd had. She thought that her life had taken a turn for the better when she inherited her uncle's property.
Following Dot Banner's directions, Janice rounded a curve in the road and had the first look at her house, situated on a hill about a quarter of a mile from the highway. Although stunned into disbelief, she was alert enough to glance in the rearview mirror before she slammed on the brakes and pulled off the highway. Her dream had suddenly turned into a nightmare.
"Is this it?" Brooke asked, blinking with disappointment.
"I'm afraid so," Janice said. "There's the sign Miss Banner mentioned, and this is the last house on the right. Besides, I've seen a picture of the place. This is it."
Excerpted from Yuletide Peril by Irene Brand Copyright © 2005 by Irene Brand. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.