When Mac Sullivan—famous thriller writer and Shannon’s new beau—first moved to Lighthouse Cove, California, he bought the historic lighthouse mansion that the town is named after. Mac needs help cleaning up the place, and Shannon is more than happy to get her handywoman hands on the run-down Victorian.
But during demolition, a grisly discovery is made among the debris—the bones of a teenage girl who went missing fifteen years ago. Locals had always assumed Lily Brogan ran away from her difficult life, but it seems her troubles followed her to the grave. If Shannon has any chance of getting her renovation back on track, she’ll need to tackle the cold case. But with new suspects coming out of the woodwork every day, she’ll have to be careful to pry the right secrets and clues from the poor girl’s problematic past...
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I gazed up at the neglected beauty and tingled with excitement. I was so ready to turn this old eyesore into the grand masterpiece it had once been.
The venerable lighthouse mansion was situated on a large tract of land surrounded by a once-lovely green lawn that had become overgrown and scruffy with crabgrass and brown weeds. A fine layer of sand covered the entire expanse, having been carried by the wind from the dunes that bordered the beach nearby.
The lighthouse tower stood a few yards away to the north of the house. To the west, the rough, rocky breakwater speared into the sea. Waves crashed and a fine mist of salt water was spewed in every direction.
“I love my job,” I murmured as I grabbed the thick roll of blueprints from the narrow backseat of my truck. I slammed the door shut and marched across the sprawling lawn.
The rough March wind gusting off the ocean lifted my mop of wavy red hair and blew it around until I couldn’t see straight. I finally had to stop at the bottom of the stairs leading up to the front porch or risk tripping on the steps. I set down the tool chest I was carrying and shoved the hair back off my face. And that’s when I beheld the wondrous sight before me at the top of the stairway.
MacKintyre Sullivan, world-famous, bestselling thriller writer and former Navy SEAL, stood with his arms crossed as he leaned against one of the smooth Doric columns that braced the roof covering the wide porch. The man looked for all the world like some handsome, dashingly entitled lord of the manor—if the lord of the manor happened to be an unrepentant pirate with a wicked smile and a gleam in his dark blue eyes.
Mac had moved to Lighthouse Cove, California, a few months ago and almost immediately looked into buying the famous mansion by the lighthouse. The purchase had to be approved by both the town Planning Commission and the Historical Society. Not only was the mansion a local landmark with a lot of history attached to it, but the new owner of the home would have to be responsible for upkeep of the lighthouse—for which our town was named. Mac was willing to do the work.
“Those are the new blueprints?” Mac asked, pointing at the thick roll of papers in my hands. “So this is it? No more delays?”
“No more delays—I promise you.” I picked up my tool chest and made my way up the eight steps and onto the sturdy wooden porch. Flashing him a determined smile, I added, “And no more red tape from the Planning Commission. No more whining from the Historical Society. And, especially, no more tiny white rats to send me screaming from this house again.”
He laughed, and I couldn’t blame him. It was still a source of deep embarrassment to me that a few weeks ago, I had spotted the little-bitty rodent skittering across the kitchen floor. With a shriek, I had dashed out of Mac’s kitchen and hadn’t stopped until I’d made it all the way across the wide lawn to my truck.
What can I say? Rats creep me out.
“Then we’re finally ready to get started.” He pushed away from the column and strolled toward me. “I’ve cleared my schedule for the next two weeks.”
“Perfect.” Because, to be honest, Mac’s busy schedule had also produced a number of holdups lately. Flying off to New York, meeting with editors, dining with agents, going on book tours. Deadlines. The world-famous writer was a busy man.
I recalled one more unhappy distraction that had occurred recently and prayed there would be no more funerals, please. We didn’t need anyone else dying in Lighthouse Cove. Besides being unbearably sad, the recent suspicious death of a dear friend had indeed thrown a shocking wrench into the schedule, causing yet more delays to Mac’s plans to start the renovation of his new home.
Another gust of wind rushed up from the ocean, but before it could whip my hair into a greater tangle of curls, I turned toward the wind and lifted my face to catch the mist.
“Man, I love it out here,” Mac said, sliding his hands into the pockets of his Windbreaker.
“It’s a good day.” Cold, windy, with dark clouds forming out on the horizon; there would be rain within a few hours. Still, it was wonderful to be here, ready to begin the job of rehabbing the most iconic house in Lighthouse Cove for the hunky Mac Sullivan.
I checked my watch, eager to begin. Once my guys and I finished going through the house with Mac, I would work out a schedule and make up a list of supplies and equipment we would need. And within a few days, my crew and I would start restoring this wonderful old Victorian to its former glory.
That was why Mac had hired me, after all. My name is Shannon Hammer, and I’m a building contractor specializing in Victorian-home renovation and rehab. I had taken over my father’s construction business five years ago when Dad suffered a mild heart attack and decided to retire. Since then, I liked to think I’d proven to my clients that the best man for the job is often a woman. Namely, me.
“Wade and the guys should be here any minute,” I said, referring to my foreman, Wade Chambers, and two of my most reliable crew members, Sean Brogan and Johnny Schmidt.
“In that case,” Mac said, “I’ll get this out of the way.” And with that, he pulled me into his arms and kissed me.
I didn’t protest. I should’ve, but instead I sighed and wrapped my arms around his neck, reveling in the warmth of his touch. This really was not a good idea. And I would put a stop to it any minute now.
A truck horn sounded out on the highway and I jolted and took a quick step backward. It took me a moment to catch my breath. “Uh, that must be the guys.”
Mac was smiling broadly as he let go of me. “Must be.”
I coughed softly, knowing the guys’ truck wouldn’t actually show up in front of Mac’s house for another minute or two. I just needed to give myself a few more seconds to recover from the unexpected kiss. “Hmm.”
He laughed and stroked my hair. “I’m crazy about you, Irish.”
I was kind of crazy about him, too. But since I was afraid of setting myself up for a fall, I gave him a weak smile and said nothing.
Mac and I had grown close over the past few months, since he’d moved to Lighthouse Cove. It helped that he’d rented the guest apartment over my garage and lived only a few yards away from me. We’d had a few late-night adventures while chasing down a killer and, yes, there had been a few kisses. I had hoped that maybe we’d grow closer and, well . . . Anyway, things got complicated the morning I saw him escorting a gorgeous blond supermodel out of his apartment. Ever since then I’d been rethinking the idea of getting involved with one of the most sought-after bachelor millionaires in the world.
I probably should’ve demanded to know what he’d been thinking by flirting with me while seeing some supermodel on the side. But it wasn’t like me to be pushy that way, an obvious flaw in my character. Don’t get me wrong—I could be plenty assertive in other areas, but when it came to men and dating and such, I tended to hold back. Considering my checkered dating history, it made sense. In the past nine years, I’d dated exactly three men. One turned out to be gay, another was a car thief, and the third ended up dead—or, to put it more bluntly, murdered. Was it any wonder that I didn’t want to probe too much? Better to just walk away with my sanity and ego intact.
That was one more reason why I should’ve ended the kiss as soon as it began. Another was that kissing a client on the job probably wasn’t the most professional thing I could’ve been doing right then, especially with my crew guys about to drive up at any second. But did that stop me? Obviously not.
In my defense, Mac was a world-class kisser.
I shook off those thoughts and took the opportunity to study the elegant old porch. It was wide and stretched across most of the front and halfway along the north side of the house, following the curve of the corner tower. Double Doric columns gave the graceful, circular porch a worldly style that belied the mansion’s utilitarian roots. With its incomparable ocean view, the porch could be turned into a wonderful outdoor living/dining space.
Currently, though, it was pretty shabby. The floor planks were dull and a few of the boards around the outer edges were spongy and crumbling after sustaining years of damage from the sun and ocean air. Once those boards were replaced, we could re-sand the surface and add several coats of clear varnish, and all of it would be shiny and new again.
Things wouldn’t go so easy for the beams above our heads. The porch roof had actually begun to sag from water damage, and those rotten headers and crossbeams would need replacing immediately. The sooner we started work on this portion of the house, the better. I figured if I could see the wood decomposing with my own eyes, it had to be even worse beneath the surfaces.
I jotted down more notes on my tablet and then used the device to take some photographs of the decaying beams in order to remind myself how bad the damage was.
Wade’s truck finally came into view and Mac jogged down the steps and over to meet the guys. I took the moment to regroup, breathing in more ocean air and staring at the spectacle of waves tumbling and crashing against the rocky coastline.
Once I’d cleared my head and regained my senses—that kiss really was more potent than I’d realized—I was able to relax and watch Wade’s truck jerk and buck to a stop. There was nothing wrong with his truck; the lurching was due to the timeworn cracks and potholes that pitted Old Lighthouse Road, right up to the edge of Mac’s property. I had a feeling he would want to repave the path eventually, unless he liked replacing tires on his SUV more often than usual.
I waved to my guys, who were unloading their tool chests and ladders, with Mac lending a hand. Since they had things under control, I continued making notes on the exterior repairs needed to make to bring the house back to its former splendor.
For some unknown reason, people in Lighthouse Cove had always called this place the lighthouse mansion. Yes, the house stood within a few yards of the lighthouse, but it was the mansion part of the phrase that had always seemed misleading. That was because our town was famous for its abundance of breathtakingly massive Victorian homes, while Mac’s new place wasn’t all that large. But the home had a quiet, stately presence, unencumbered by the ostentatious gingerbread detailing that Victorians were known for. The term mansion just seemed to suit it.
Despite the lack of decorative clutter, the mansion still had many of the classic Queen Anne features, including the convoluted roof lines, the seemingly random placement and sizes of the windows, the multiple chimneys, and the many different surface textures that changed from floor to floor and gable to gable.
On the second floor, a shingled overhang sheltered a set of arched Palladian windows braced by more Doric columns. I made a note to check those charming old fish-scale shingles for termite damage. A small balcony off the master bedroom on the second floor cried out for a new railing. The copper gutters circling the third-floor tower would have to be replaced. I could see the gaping holes from where I was standing.
I hadn’t seen the basement yet, but according to the blueprints, it ran the entire length and width of the house. You didn’t see that feature in many Victorian homes, and if Mac wanted to, he could probably create the biggest man cave in town. But chances were good that some load-bearing posts and a beam or two would have to be replaced before any other work could occur. Wind and water damage was the price a homeowner paid to have a house this close to the shoreline.
I took a quick walk down the steps and around to the south side of the house, where a jewel-box-sized solarium had been built to connect with the first-floor parlor, or living room. It was a true rarity, made of strong white galvanized wrought iron and tempered-glass panels. I stared through one of the windows and saw the worn brick floor in a room just large enough to contain a few dozen plants and some potted trees, along with a small conversation area made up of a settee and a chair or two. It would be the perfect sunny place to read a book or take a nap.
The presence of a solarium might’ve seemed frivolous at first glance, but I’d read that the navy had built it specifically to grow citrus trees in pots, in order to provide juice for the sailors who were once stationed here. No scurvy for those boys.
Past the solarium was the root cellar with its thick wooden door, detached, deteriorating, and leaning against the side of the house. As I’d noted on my last visit, there were shutters hanging off their frames and several bricks missing from the chimney at the back of the house. The paint on most of the exterior walls was peeling badly, but there was plenty of other work to be done before we could start scraping, sanding, and painting.
Call me perverse, but seeing all the damage just made me more excited to explore the entire house. I took a quick moment to stare up at the spectacular sight of the lighthouse tower standing sentinel over the town and this stretch of the coast. It never failed to impress me with its clean white surface shooting one hundred feet into the sky. I’d climbed its spiral wrought-iron staircase many times over the years and knew the view at the top was sensational. Gazing up at the glass-walled lantern room at the very top, I wondered if Mac had ever been up there. I would have to remember to ask.
I circled back to the front where Sean, Johnny, Wade, and Mac were trudging up to the porch with tool chests, a ladder, and other equipment for the walk-through.
“Hey, boss,” Sean said, laying his eight-foot ladder down at the far end of the porch and out of the way.
“Hi, guys,” I said. “Are we ready to get started?”
“You bet,” Wade said.
Johnny nodded. “Let’s do it.”
Even though I had a key to the front door, I gestured to Mac. “You go ahead. It’s your new home.”
He unlocked the door, walked in, and looked around. I knew he was familiar with the first – and second-floor rooms, but he’d never seen the whole place from attic to basement. Mac had bought the house after barely half an hour of walking through a few rooms and strolling around the property. That was all the time it had taken for him to fall in love and make an offer.
“I had the power and water reconnected a few weeks ago,” Mac said, “so the lights should work.”
“If there are still any bulbs in the fixtures,” Wade said.
Mac grinned. “Right.”
Wade flicked the nearest light switch and the foyer lit up nicely, thanks to the old-fashioned chandelier hanging from the twelve-foot-high ceiling. “Oh, man. This place is awesome. Look at all that mahogany paneling.”
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” I ran my hand over the rich wood surface of the stairwell. Unlike some Victorian entryways that were dark and narrow and barely had room to hold an umbrella stand, this one was a large square, well-lit room. On one side of the foyer was a double doorway leading into a paneled living room, and on the other was an arched doorway that led to a formal dining room.
The broad staircase hugged the wall from the second landing down, until it curved and widened to meet the parquet flooring of the foyer. Roomy staircases always made me think of my father, who specialized in them because the old-fashioned, steep, skinny Victorian stairways made him claustrophobic.
The ceilings of all the first-floor rooms were twelve feet tall with ten-inch-wide crown molding, a picture rail below that, and carved plaster medallions in the centers of the ceilings that created a base for hanging chandeliers. In addition, the dining room had twelve-inch-high baseboards and a chair rail. Even though some of the crown molding, the leaf-patterned cornices, and the stone corbels were crumbling with age, the rooms had maintained their elegance. And we could easily replicate and replace the damaged embellishments.
Sean walked over to the living-room fireplace and studied the mantel. “Holy moly,” he muttered, running his hand along the smooth, highly varnished, six-inch-thick piece of wood. “This is fantastic.”
Mac joined him. “From what I was told, it was taken off the ship that went down in Lighthouse Cove Bay.”
Sean’s eyes bugged out. “Seriously? This is from the Glorious Maiden?”
“That’s what the guy from the Historical Society told me. It was part of the ship’s bow. Apparently the Coast Guard members stationed here would occasionally find pieces of the ship washed up on the rocks and were able to put some of them to good use.”
“Cool,” Sean whispered. “The fireplace is great, too.”
I agreed. Beneath the wood mantel, the chimneypiece was made of black marble and the fender was cast iron. Whimsically painted tiles lined the jambs. The inner brick walls were blackened from decades of fire and smoke. I thought the fireplace suited Mac perfectly, giving the room a strong, masculine vibe.
“Let’s see what condition it’s in,” Wade said. He got down on one knee and bent over to get a look at the flue. “Looks clear.” He reached in and fiddled with the damper. “Seems to move well. I’ll make sure everything’s working once we’ve started the job.”
“Thanks,” Mac said. “I appreciate it.”
“Part of the service,” Wade said, standing and slapping his hands together to get rid of the soot he’d gotten on him.
I wandered over to the floor-to-ceiling bay window at the opposite end of the room from the foyer. It was one of my favorite features of the house and it faced north, giving Mac a fantastic view of the coastline. The windows looked to be in good condition, but, given their age, I suspected we’d have to replace the sashes and hardware and, in some cases, the glass itself.
Wade went out to the porch and carried a card table into the house. He set it up in the living room and I spread the blueprints out, rolling them backward a few times to get them to lie flat. Now I’d be able to refer to the new prints anytime I needed to.
I pulled out my tablet again. “If you’re ready, I thought we could start at the top with the third-floor attic and work our way down. The only room I’ve really seen is this one, plus the kitchen, although I didn’t stick around in there long enough to make many notes. We’ll take another look before we leave.”
“Yeah, we’ve all heard about your adventures in the kitchen.” Sean snickered.
I groaned out loud. “Okay, fine. So I was freaked-out by a rat.”
Johnny blinked dramatically. “Rat? I heard it was the tiniest mouse ever seen in these parts.”
“It was a rat,” I said through clenched teeth. It had indeed been tiny, but I wasn’t going to mention that.
Johnny and Sean laughed at my expense and I finally had no choice but to join in. What could I say? I suppose I was glad my guys were comfortable enough around me to give me grief on a daily basis. I would’ve hated to have a crew that treated me like the boss.
As we climbed the stairs, Mac talked about turning the attic space into another bedroom. I thought that was a smart idea, even though the house already had six bedrooms. I assumed the attic was a finished room since it had probably been used as a dormitory bedroom during World War II, when the mansion was famously occupied by a group of coastguardsmen charged with safeguarding the Northern California coastline from Japanese submarines.
The stairs leading from the second floor to the attic were a bit steeper and narrower than the main staircase. Back in the day, the attic might have been where the lowliest servicemen bunked, or it may have been used as servants’ quarters. As a rule, no one was very concerned over the help having to carefully maneuver down a scary staircase.
At the top of the stairs was a short hallway that ended abruptly. There was only one door and it was locked. Mac used his key to unlock the door and jiggled the handle a few times when he couldn’t get it open.
“I got it unlocked, but it’s stuck.”
“Let me try,” Sean said with a grin. “I’m younger and in better shape than you.”
Everyone laughed. Mac was in fabulous shape and only a few years older than Sean, but Sean was the biggest, strongest guy on my crew. That was saying a lot, because the men who worked for me were plenty sturdy. But Sean was my expert when it came to demolishing a room with a single sledgehammer.
Mac stepped aside and Sean grabbed the doorknob with both hands, pulling as hard as he could. He gave it a few more tugs before admitting defeat. “That door is stuck.”
Mac patted him on the back. “You gave it a good try.”
Sean stared at the door, scratching his head, unwilling to give up the fight.
I looked at Mac. “Do you mind if we break it down and replace it later? It’s probably swollen shut from years of water damage so you’ll probably want to get a new one, anyway.”
“Yeah,” he said with a shrug. “Might as well.”
“You’ll need a sledgehammer,” I said.
“I’ll get one from the truck,” Johnny said, and hustled downstairs and outside. He returned in less than two minutes, carrying a sledgehammer and a powerful-looking ax. He held them out and Sean, who had pulled his work gloves on in the meantime, reached for the ax. Mac, Wade, and I moved quickly down the stairs and out of Sean’s swinging range.
“Everyone safe?” Sean asked.
“Yeah,” Johnny said, stepping out of Sean’s way. “Take your best shot.”
Sean lifted the ax and brought it down, splintering through the center of the door. After three more strikes, the door was hanging off its hinges with wood shards everywhere. He used the haft or handle of the tool to break up and push the remaining splinters and shards of wood out of the way. Then he gripped what was left of the door and ripped it away from the jamb, hinges and all.
“Okay, guess you’re a pretty strong guy,” Mac acknowledged.
Sean grinned and stepped into the dank, dark room. Johnny was right behind him.
Mac, Wade, and I scrambled up the stairs to join them, but before we could make it to the attic door, Sean said, “You guys should check this out. Looks like someone was living in here.”
“What the heck?” Mac was there in an instant, and Wade and I were right behind him. “Oh, man. That’s funky.”
“Ick,” I said. We all stared at the dirty old mattress spread out on the floor by the window. The thing sagged in the middle and there were unspeakable stains scattered across the top. I didn’t want to think about all the bugs and bacteria crawling around inside it.
I stepped farther into the room and looked around. Despite the lack of lighting, I could see that the walls were nicely finished with lath and plaster, supporting my theory that this room had been used as a bedroom or dormitory sometime in the past. After I glanced around the dim space, my gaze returned to Mac. “I don’t see any sheets or clothing or anything else besides the mattress. Do you?”
Mac had been walking the perimeter, checking the walls and windows. He stopped when he reached the mattress. “No. I’m pretty sure whoever once crashed here is long gone.”
“There aren’t any closets up here,” Wade observed, and aimed his powerful Maglite around the room. “Just the dumbwaiter.”
We all stared at the small cupboard door on the far wall. “Did you look inside?”
“I tried,” Wade said. “It must be locked. But, look, if you really care about some ratty old sheets, we can check the basement. Maybe they tossed them down the chute.”
Mac nodded. “Yeah, maybe.”
I stared at him for a long moment. “Are you okay? This is kind of weird.”
He shrugged. “As long as whoever was crashing here is gone now, I’m fine. But we’ve got to get that mattress out of here. I don’t even want to think about what it might’ve been used for.”
I grimaced at the possibilities.
“Johnny and I’ll drag it downstairs before we leave today.” Sean looked at the mattress again and frowned. “As soon as I find a hazmat suit.”
“Thanks,” Mac said. “I’ll be glad to help.”
I made a note on my tablet about the mattress. And since we were up there anyway, I got my guys to open the windows and check the condition of the shingles on the third-floor exterior. I couldn’t see the gables clearly enough from the ground, so I would normally wait until the scaffolding was in place. But this was a quick and easy way to get a general idea of what, if any, damage would need repair. Also this window faced the front of the house and featured a decorative cutout wooden panel on a narrow overhang. Wade wanted to get a closer look at it.
Maneuvering to a sitting position on the window’s ledge, he leaned back to take a look. “It’ll have to be taken down,” he shouted over the crashing of waves. “The wood has a bunch of holes that’ll need to be filled, and the paint will have to be stripped off and then reapplied.”
It was a small detail that would make a difference once the entire exterior was finished and looking new.
“Okay,” I said, making notes. “Now come in off that ledge before you give me a heart attack.”
After Sean removed the demolished attic door from its hinges and leaned it against the wall, we moved downstairs to the second floor to explore the bedrooms and bathrooms in depth. Wade ran down to grab the blueprint sheet for this floor, and we checked it and made notes as we walked. The bay windows in the rooms facing west showed off the spectacular ocean and breakwater views and allowed the afternoon sunshine in to light up the rooms. The windows filled the walls and were beautiful—or they would be once we’d fully refurbished them.
Every bedroom contained old, dark, shabby wallpaper that would have to be stripped off, and the walls painted. I noted the places where the oak floor planks would have to be replaced. The upstairs bannister would need a complete overhaul. As in the downstairs rooms, many of the ceiling moldings and cornices upstairs were beginning to disintegrate.
Mac and I had discussed opening up the master bedroom, but a load-bearing wall presented a complication. My thought was to join the master bedroom with a smaller bedroom next door, opening the wall wide enough to allow a sizable passageway while maintaining the integrity of the wall. The smaller room would be a sitting room—or, as he called it, a high-tech playroom. Another small bedroom on the other side would become a walk-in closet.
“It’s not like I have a ton of clothes,” Mac explained, “but I’d like the space to walk around and see what I’ve got.”
Also, since each of the bedrooms had a maximum of two electrical outlets, I planned to add at least a dozen more on this floor alone.
And it went without saying that every bathroom in the house would be redone from top to bottom.
In the hallway, Mac stopped and studied what looked like another cupboard built into the wall around waist level. “What’s this?”
He pulled on the small handle and the cupboard opened. “Is that a laundry chute?”
“Yes. Isn’t it great? I love those kinds of features.”
He stuck his head up close to the opening. “I can’t see farther than a few feet.”
“I assume it goes to the basement,” I said, “but since it’s underground, it’ll be too dark to see anything.” I took a peek through the opening and ran my hand along the interior. “This one’s made of wood, so you’ll want to replace it with a galvanized-steel chute. We’ll add a self-closing door at the bottom to comply with the fire code.”
He grimaced. “The last thing I want to do is ignore any fire codes.”
An hour later, we had finished the second-floor walk-through and returned to the ground floor. The good news was that we didn’t find any clothing or sheets that might’ve been used by the person who had brought the mattress into the attic. But that just led to more unanswered questions that would have to be investigated at some point.
“Let’s take another look at the kitchen and the exterior,” I said. “And then I think we’ll be finished.”
“I’ve decided I’d like to redo the kitchen,” Mac admitted. “It’s too old and funky to deal with.”
“Sounds like a plan,” I said. “And not that it matters to you, but the Historical Society won’t care about the kitchen.”
He chuckled. “You know I live to keep the Historical Society happy.”
Wade grinned. “Even though they’ve fought you every step of the way.”
“Not me,” Mac said, aiming his thumb in my direction. “Shannon. She’s the one who’s been dealing with all of their demands and requirements.”
I waved off the comment. “That’s what I’m here for.”
We walked into the kitchen and looked around at the dark-stained wood cabinets that had been there as long as the house had been standing. It would take an army of housecleaners to scrub off more than a hundred years’ worth of food spills and grime.
Mac might not want them, but those cabinets were real wood and too darn good to throw away. I was already making a mental list of where I might use them once they were stripped down to the bare wood and varnished to a high shine.
I mentioned this to Mac, then said, “So unless there’s something in the old kitchen you want to keep, we’ll do a complete demo of the room. I’ll give you some catalogs and magazines to look at that’ll give you some ideas of what materials and colors you might want to use. Meanwhile, you can think about all the fun stuff, like whether you’d like a bigger window over the sink, or if you want French doors instead of the single door that leads to the back area.”
“French doors might be nice,” Mac muttered, wandering around the room. “Hey, maybe a deck off the French doors.” He peered through the window screen to the outside and made a face. “Would a deck drive the Historical Society folks crazy?”
“If it can’t be seen from the road or the beach, I don’t see why they’d care. They’ve signed off on the project, so I’d say it’s ultimately your decision.” I stared at the cabinet built into the far wall. “Hey, I forgot about the dumbwaiter. Do you want to keep it?”
Dumbwaiters were another fascinating feature of many Victorian homes, and I couldn’t wait to see how this one operated. The last time Mac and I had been here, I’d had every intention of checking out the dumbwaiter, but that darn white rat had distracted me.
“Let’s check it out,” Mac said, and joined me in front of the cabinet. “Do you think I’ll ever use it?”
“They’re very practical in a two – or three-story house,” I said. “You’ll want to keep it if you decide to entertain abovestairs.”
“Abovestairs, huh?” He grinned at me. “I just might. Do they make them more modern-looking than this?”
“The outer frame can be anything you want it to be. You could get a sleek stainless-steel front or a nice blond Douglas fir to match the rest of the cabinetry. Whatever you decide, it’ll look fabulous.”
I unbolted the dumbwaiter’s vertical sliding door and lifted it. The old wood was stiff and heavy, but I managed to get it opened all the way. I stuck my head inside and looked up, but it was too dark to see anything, so I grabbed Wade’s flashlight and took another look. “I’m not sure the old pulley mechanism is still working. It looks like the platform is stuck upstairs somewhere.” I pulled my head out and glanced at Mac. “If you want to keep using it, I can install a new electric motor with an automatic control. The shaft runs from the attic all the way down to the basement, and it’s a good-sized space. At least two and a half feet square.”
He calculated the size with his hands. “That’s not bad.”
“I wonder if I can get it unjammed,” I said, and reached inside to tug at the pulley.
“Boss, wait,” Sean said. “Why don’t you let me take a look at that?”
I frowned at him. Did he think I was afraid of getting dirty? I gave the ropes another yank and felt them go slack just as a loud cracking, splintering sound erupted from above and echoed through the shaft. I yanked my hand out of there just in time; the entire dumbwaiter platform shattered and fell three stories and crashed onto the basement floor.
The strong whoosh of air and dust coming from the shaft knocked me back a foot. Mac pulled me farther away from the opening. “Are you all right? What the hell was that?”
“The platform must’ve rotted out.” I let out an unsteady breath. “The whole thing broke apart and dropped straight down to the basement.”
“You could’ve been killed,” he muttered, and rubbed my shoulders while I tried to calm my rapidly beating heart. I didn’t want to admit how close to the truth his words were.
Once the dust had settled, I ventured over to the shaft and leaned inside to see what damage had been done. Shining the flashlight’s powerful beam downward, I caught a glimpse of the pile of splintered wood—and something else.
“What the—” I jerked my head out of that dark, empty space as fast as I could move. The flashlight fell from my hand, hitting the floor with a bang. I stared at my empty hands and watched them tremble uncontrollably. I shook my head back and forth. “Oh my God.”
Mac grabbed my arms. “Shannon, what is it?”
“What’s wrong, boss?” Johnny demanded. “Did you see another rat?”
I couldn’t believe I was still shaking, unable to tell what I’d just seen. Could I have been mistaken?
Sean grabbed the flashlight off the floor and leaned inside the dumbwaiter to see for himself what I was freaking out about.
“Holy moly,” Sean said, backing away from the space.
“What is it?” Mac said. “What’s wrong with you guys?”
Sean’s cheeks puffed out and he exhaled heavily. “In the basement. There’s, like, bones down there.”
“Jeez, you guys, relax,” Wade said cynically. “It’s probably a dead raccoon.”
“No,” I said, my voice sounding scratchy and far away. “It’s more like a dead human.”
“Why am I not surprised to see you here?” Police Chief Eric Jensen said at the sight of me standing on the porch with the others.
I wasn’t sure how to respond. Just because I’d been on the scene of two previous murders didn’t mean I had something to do with any of them. But didn’t it just figure I’d be the one to spot the bones in the basement first? Which probably made me the number-one person the Chief would want to interrogate.
“Hello, Chief Jensen,” I said, deciding to keep the conversation as cordial as possible—and trying not to feel insulted or hurt that I was automatically seen as a suspect.
And it was too bad, because we’d been getting along so well lately. I liked Chief Jensen—Eric—a lot. He was gorgeous, for one thing. Like, Nordic-superhero gorgeous. Tall, blond, muscular, beautiful clear blue eyes. In my mind, I’d called him Thor since the first time I’d ever seen him. Which was, admittedly, at the scene of a grisly murder awhile back. One that he’d suspected me of committing. Not the best start to a friendship, but I thought we’d come a long way since then.
He’d gotten over his suspicions—or so I thought. On a good day, he was nice and friendly to me. He had a dry sense of humor that I found appealing. He cared about people. I sort of thought he liked me—not that we’d ever been out on a date or anything. And we never would if I kept showing up at crime scenes like this.
But, then, who was to say this was a crime scene? A skeleton didn’t necessarily mean someone had been murdered, right? Maybe whoever those bones belonged to had died of natural causes. Heck, maybe it was a suicide.
And maybe I’d win the lottery tomorrow. On both fronts I was living in a fantasy world. Because, seriously? There was a human skeleton in Mac’s basement! And until it could be determined that someone had lived a good, long life and had passed away peacefully in his sleep—while stuffed inside the dumbwaiter of Mac’s remote, empty mansion—this was very much a crime scene.
That hideous thought brought a whole new round of chills, and my shoulders commenced shaking again.
Eric glanced at Mac. The two men had become friends, so Eric knew that Mac was about to start the rehab on the house. “You know we’ll have to halt any renovations you were planning until we clear this up.”
“No problem,” Mac said, sounding strangely buoyant. Of course Mac would be happy. Could life get any better for a thriller writer than to find an actual skeleton in his new home? It had to be the coolest thing on earth. For him, anyway.
“Where are these bones?” Eric asked.
“In the basement,” Mac said. “You want me to show you how to get down there?”
“Yeah.” Eric glanced at the four of us. “Who found them?”
Mac gave me a contrite smile. “Shannon spotted them first.”
Eric let loose a sigh of sheer aggravation. I knew that sound. I’d heard him make it more than once.
“I found them when I looked through the dumbwaiter,” I explained. “None of us has actually been down to the basement.”
“Well, that’s something,” Eric muttered.
Another dark SUV bounded around the curve and came to a bouncing stop at the edge of the lawn. It was Tommy Gallagher, assistant chief of police and my old high school boyfriend. Tommy had been happily married for many years to my worst enemy, but I didn’t hold that against him most of the time. We were still good friends, although I couldn’t say the same for me and his wife, Whitney.
“Hey, guys,” Tommy shouted from the car before he slammed the door shut and jogged over to the house. With a broad grin, he said, “Hey, Shannon.”
“Hi, Tommy.” No one had ever looked more jovial at a crime scene than Tommy Gallagher. He’d always been that way, cheerful and even-tempered, even after the times he was clobbered on the football field in high school. He was like an adorable golden retriever—always happy and friendly. The guy had a wonderful attitude, especially for a cop.
“Hey, Chief, I heard from the sheriff on my way over.” Tommy jogged up the stairs. “It’ll be at least two hours before one of his guys can get out here.”
In our area, the Mendocino County sheriff served as coroner and could declare somebody officially dead. But if the death was suspicious and necessitated a more elaborate CSI facility, our police chief would call on the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office, about a hundred miles away in Santa Rosa. And if he required even more detailed forensic or pathology services or other autopsy-related services, he would call the forensic medical group located in Fairfield over in Solano County, more than 150 miles southeast of Lighthouse Cove.
Unfortunately, I was pretty sure the chief would be needing all of those services, along with the forensic odontology expert attached to the group, who would, with luck, be able to match the dental records.
And how weird was it that I knew all this stuff? After being involved with a few homicide cases up close, I’d become sort of an expert myself. And by expert I mean I just knew who to call to take care of things.
Eric frowned and rubbed his neck. “I don’t suppose we’re in a huge hurry, since those bones have probably been there for a while. But keep in touch with him, Tom.”
“You got it, Chief.”
“We’d better go take a look.”
Mac led the way back into the house, and Eric and Tommy followed. I looked at my guys and, without saying a word, the three of us walked quietly behind them. When Mac reached the hallway, he stopped. Shaking his head, he admitted, “You know, I’m not quite sure how to get to the basement. I’ve never been down there.” He looked back at me. “Shannon?”
Since I’d spent a lot of time staring at the blueprints, I pointed the way. “Through the kitchen and out to the service porch.”
He jerked his head in that direction. “You lead the way.”
I got to the service porch and found the basement door. It was unlocked, so I opened it and stared down into blackness. I knew Mac had arranged weeks ago to have water and electricity restored to the place, so I searched the closest walls, found a light switch, and flipped it on. I looked back at Eric. “Here we go.”
“Wait.” He glanced at the others. “I’ll go first. Tom, Mac, you’re with me. The rest of you wait up here.”
Relief rushed through me. I didn’t mind staying upstairs at all. I’d had too many weird things happen in basements, the worst of which was stumbling over a dead body in one a few months ago. So I would’ve just as soon avoided getting any closer to that skeleton than I had to.
Sean, Wade, Johnny, and I returned to the front porch. Knowing that the work on Mac’s house would have to be postponed for a few days at least, Wade and I got on the phone with my second foreman, Carla Harrison. The three of us held an impromptu meeting to rearrange schedules, crew members, and equipment. Sean and Johnny offered a few suggestions but mostly kibitzed in the background.
Once the call with Carla ended, the four of us chatted for a few minutes about work in general and then settled down with our own thoughts. I sat on the steps and scanned my notes on the lighthouse mansion, then started prioritizing the jobs that would have to be done once the house was available to my crew and me. Inevitably, as it did so often these days, my mind circled back around to the subject of the new men in my life, Mac and Eric.
Eric was a newcomer to Lighthouse Cove, having moved to town four months ago to take over the job of police chief when Chief Ray retired after thirty years. I had a feeling there was something in Eric’s past that made him reticent to get involved with anyone too quickly. But that didn’t stop my girlfriend Lizzie from asking him on a regular basis if he’d like to go out on a date with one of her friends. So far he’d refused her attempts.
In Lizzie’s defense, she simply wanted all of her friends to be as happily married and settled down as she was. And we continually assured her that we wanted that, too. But not if it involved a blind date. I’d learned that lesson the hard way.
Mac had moved to town only about two months ago and he was already enveloped in the social life. It helped that he was handsome as sin, charming, and very wealthy. But he was also the sweetest guy in the world and so much fun and easy to talk to, and he loved animals.
I hadn’t needed Lizzie to set me up with Mac because we’d met by accident when I wrecked my bike out on Old Cove Highway between the lighthouse and town. He’d been driving by and saw me go flying over the handlebars. He stopped to help and ended up driving me home and carrying me up the stairs to my door. Shortly after that, he decided to rent one of my two garage apartments until his house was ready, and we’d been growing friendlier every day. Well, until that blond supermodel showed up. Mac had tried to explain about her, but I’d cut him off before he could say more than a word or two. I really didn’t want to hear about her.
I mean, come on. A supermodel? What was there to explain? She’s gorgeous. He’s a guy. End of story.
Looking around, I was struck by sudden guilt. Here I was, thinking about handsome men and my own feelings and petty jealousies in connection with them, while all this time someone was lying dead in the basement of the lighthouse mansion. How long had the body been there? Whose was it? Did I know him or her? Maybe it was a stranger, a drifter. An old sailor, perhaps, who’d climbed off his boat and found shelter in the house, hiding in the attic and somehow, some way, eventually dying in the dumbwaiter. The image made me feel queasy. What in the world had happened out here?
I checked my watch. Eric and the others had been downstairs for about a half hour. I couldn’t sit around a minute longer, so I pushed myself up from the steps and said, “I’m going to go find out if the chief needs us all to wait. If not, you guys can go off to another job site and get a good day’s work in.”
“Great idea, boss,” Sean said. I just noticed he’d been using a chisel to peel old paint from the window sills. Sean was someone who liked to keep busy, and I couldn’t ask for a better quality in an employee.
At that moment, I heard heavy footsteps approaching from inside the house. The front door swung open and Chief Jensen stepped outside, followed by Mac and Tommy. They looked somber, as anyone would who’d been staring at death for the past thirty minutes.
“Do you know who it is?” I asked.
“We might’ve found a clue,” Tommy said, earning a narrow look from Eric. Tommy was my best source of information and Eric probably knew it.
The chief seemed to argue with himself for a moment, then shook his head. “Might as well show you three since you all grew up around here, but I’d prefer you not spread the news all over town.”
“We won’t,” I assured him, and all three of my guys nodded in agreement.
Eric held something up in his gloved hand. “Did you ever know anyone who wore something like this?”
The three of us had to get close up to see the faded red letters stamped onto a thin silver band affixed to a cheap silver chain.
Sean gasped beside me.
Eric focused on him. “Do you recognize it?” His voice was steady, not accusatory, although I knew Sean would hate having the chief’s attention directed at him.
“I—I don’t know.”
“It’s one of those MedicAlert bracelets,” I said. “Did it belong to . . .” I hesitated before asking the next question, wondering what I was supposed to call those bones. A skeleton, yes, but was that what the police would call it? Or would they refer to it as a body? A human? A victim? Was it a man? A woman? “Did it belong to the . . . person in the basement?”
“That is yet to be determined,” Eric said, his tone turning official. He continued moving the metallic object this way and that so we could get a better look. “Look familiar?”
Wade squinted at the bracelet. “What’s it say on the back?”
Eric must have memorized the information and didn’t have to look to answer. “Bee allergy. Anaphylaxis.”
Sean gasped again, so abruptly I thought he might pass out.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
He shook his head. “No.”
“Do you recognize it?” Eric repeated.
I scowled at the chief and grabbed Sean’s arm. “Come over here. Sit down.” Dragging him to the front steps, I practically pushed him to a sitting position, his elbows resting on his knees. “If you think you’re going to pass out, put your head between your knees and try to breathe.”
“Does he recognize the bracelet?” Mac asked quietly.
“I don’t know.” I sat down next to Sean and put my arm across his broad shoulders. “Tell me what’s wrong.”
He took in a whopping gulp of air and let it out, but didn’t speak. Looking at the expression of shock and fear in his eyes, I wasn’t sure he could.
“Sean,” I whispered nervously. “You need to talk to Eric. If you recognize that bracelet . . .”
He groaned and fell backward slowly until he was sprawled on the porch. He laid his arm over his eyes.
Concerned, I glanced over and met Mac’s gaze, then Eric’s. “Just give him a minute.”
Looking down at Sean, I could see tears starting to leak and stream down the side of his face. I scrambled over to his side and knelt down. I’d known him most of my life but had no idea how to comfort him. He’d always been so big and strong, so easygoing. I’d never seen him this overwhelmed and upset before.
Oh no. I was starting to feel sick myself.
I reached out and squeezed his arm. “Sean, honey, you can tell me what’s wrong.”
He sniffled, then whispered, “It was Lily’s.”
“What’d he say?” Eric asked.
“I didn’t know she was allergic,” I said, and mentally smacked myself. That had to be the dumbest thing I could’ve said. But having just received one of the biggest shocks of my life, a stupid comment like that was about all I was capable of uttering.
“Who’s Lily?” Eric demanded.
My heart was pounding wildly in my chest. I tried to swallow, but my throat was too dry. Lily Brogan had been a friend of mine back in high school. She was also Sean’s older sister. And fifteen years ago, Lily Brogan disappeared off the face of the earth, never to be seen or heard from again.
* * *
“I just want to talk to him.”
“Please give him a few more minutes,” I begged the chief as I watched Sean prowl the edges of the mansion property. “He’s not going anywhere.”
A few feet away, Mac leaned against the porch rail, silently observing us. Wade and Johnny had gone off to another job site to work for the rest of the day.
“If Sean’s innocent,” Eric argued in low tones, “he shouldn’t mind talking to me.”
“Innocent?” I argued. “Of course he’s innocent. Look, I know you’re the police chief, but people are not all divided up into suspects and victims. There are other slots to put us in. Like maybe hurting family member. How about a little compassion?”
“He should want answers, just like I do,” Eric countered, a stern, unyielding look on his face. “Look, I’m not going to arrest him, Shannon. Why wouldn’t he want to talk to me?”
“I wonder.” I laughed softly. “I mean, because you’re always so open-minded.”
He folded his arms across his chest and leaned back against one of the porch pillars. “That’s right.”
“Oh please.” I couldn’t help but smile at his defensive posture. “You thought I was guilty of murder the first time you ever laid eyes on me.”
His frown was expected. “You have to admit the evidence was compelling. And, besides, I didn’t even know you yet.”
I wanted to argue, but he was right. The murder weapon had been one of my favorite work tools. “Okay, I’ll give you that. But look. You need to cut Sean some slack. He’s just had a terrible shock.”
“I understand that.”
“I’m not sure you do.” I wanted to make him understand. Would it be so hard to bend a little? The people of Lighthouse Cove already liked him, especially after so many years of dealing with the incompetent Chief Ray. So how could I make it clear to Eric that he didn’t have to play the hard-nosed cop all the time?
“Here’s the thing,” I continued. “Sean has devoted the past fifteen years of his life to finding his sister. I mean, he’s never stopped searching. When Lily disappeared, we were all upset, but Sean was flattened. His way of dealing with the loss was to dedicate every spare minute he had to finding her, tracking her down. It consumed him. And now to find out she never left town after all? That she was here all along? Dead, shoved inside a dumbwaiter shaft in the lighthouse mansion?” I rubbed my arms from the sudden chill. “He’s got to be devastated. I mean, what was she doing out here? Who was she with? And how did she get inside that dumbwaiter?”
“That’s for the police to figure out,” Eric said.
My mind flashed on the image of those bones I’d seen through the dumbwaiter shaft. There was something wrong with that picture, but I couldn’t figure out what it was.
What People are Saying About This
Praise for Kate Carlisle and the Fixer-Upper Mysteries
“Kate Carlisle never fails to make me laugh, even as she has me turning the pages to see what’s going to happen next.”—Miranda James, New York Times bestselling author of Cat in the Stacks Mysteries
“Perfect escapist cozy fare.” —Library Journal
“Another winner from one of the leaders in the genre!”—RT Book Reviews
“Quick, clever, and somewhat edgy…Shannon’s not a stereotype—she’s a person, and an interesting, intelligent, likable one at that, which makes it easy to become invested in her tale.”—Smitten by Books
“A fun read with a great sense of humor and a soupcon of suspense.” Nancy Atherton, New York Times bestselling author of the Aunt Dimity Mysteries