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Garden of Secrets NE
New Year’s Eve
It was a night for new possibilities, a night for dreaming. But would her dreams last past the stroke of midnight?
They never have before.
Normally an optimist, Charlotte Adams didn’t usually worry about the future or think about the past. She’d deliberately lived in the present for more than a decade. But the past few weeks of hectic holidays, family changes, and now the flipping of the calendar made her feel . . . restless. She glanced around the crowded room, wondering if she could make an escape.
The mayor, Robert Monroe, and his wife, Theresa, had invited half the town to their New Year’s Eve party so they could show off their new home, the stately Sandstone Manor. Sitting on a bluff on the north end of Angel’s Bay, the grand old estate had fallen into disrepair over the past thirty years at the hands of a wealthy, eccentric recluse. The hundred-year-old, seven-bedroom, five-bath house with the castlelike turrets, dramatic bay windows, and alleged ghosts had always fascinated the town, and when it had come up for sale two months ago, the Monroes had snapped it up. Everyone who’d been lucky enough to get an invitation to tonight’s party had accepted, dying to get a look inside.
Charlotte made her way through the living room, past the dining-room buffet tables laden with shrimp and crab, and into the kitchen, where a busy catering staff didn’t give her a second look. She slipped out a side door onto a patio overlooking the sea and reveled in the blessed quiet.
It was a dark night, the moon and stars hidden behind the fog that had rolled in after dusk. The cold, misty breeze felt good against her face. Maybe she could stay out here until the party died down. There would be questions if she tried to ditch before midnight. Most of her friends were inside, and they wanted her to be as happy as they were.
Sighing, she rested her arms on the wood railing, thinking about how many changes they’d all gone through in the last year. Colin had recovered from his shooting, and he and Kara were a family now, their baby getting bigger each day. Jason and Brianna were about to start the new year no longer enemies but lovers. And Lauren and Shane were getting married in two weeks.
Everyone was settling down, and this party was making her wonder what the hell she was doing with her own life. She had a good career and loved being an ob/gyn, but her personal life was another story. She’d always had great friendships with men, but relationships . . . She had trouble letting anyone get too close to her heart. She never wanted to get hurt again.
The door opened behind her, followed by Kara’s cheerful voice. “Charlotte, I’ve been looking all over for you. It’s almost midnight. What are you doing out here?”
“Getting some air,” she said with a smile, hoping her friend wouldn’t see past it.
“It’s freezing,” Kara said with a shiver as she wrapped her arms around herself, her dark red hair blowing in the breeze.
“It feels good,” Charlotte replied, although her short black party dress was no better defense against the winter wind than Kara’s turquoise mini.
“Okay, what’s wrong?” Kara asked, giving her a speculative look.
She shrugged. “I don’t like New Year’s Eve. Everyone makes such a big deal about it, and the night never lives up to its hype. I’d just as soon skip the whole thing.”
“Would your cynical mood have something to do with a man?”
Kara raised an eyebrow. “Really? Because I thought you were coming with Andrew, and he’s nowhere in sight.”
“Something came up. He said he’d try to get here before midnight, but who knows?” Having grown up with a minister for a father, she knew the demands of Andrew’s job. Her father had missed many important occasions in her life. She’d learned early on to lower her expectations.
“I’m sure Andrew won’t miss a chance to kiss you at midnight,” Kara said.
Charlotte smiled, Kara’s words triggering an old memory. “Actually, he missed a New Year’s Eve kiss once before. Senior year in high school, I was so excited to finally have a boyfriend on New Year’s that I spent all my money on an incredibly hot dress. But Andrew got the flu and spent the night hurling his guts, and I wound up sitting home alone. Just another example of New Year’s Eve not living up to its promise.”
Kara’s eyes sparkled with amusement. “That is a sad story, but you were never a loser.” She paused, her expression growing more concerned. “I hope someone isn’t in trouble and that’s why Andrew isn’t here.”
“He didn’t give me any details when he called.” When he’d suggested meeting here tonight, she’d been relieved. Coming to the party together in front of the entire town would have been quite a statement, and she wasn’t ready for that yet. Andrew Schilling was a big part of her past, but their future was still to be decided.
“You’re going to freeze out here,” Kara said. “You should have picked somewhere warmer to hide out.”
“It’s invigorating—the cold wind, the sound of the waves crashing against the rocks below. It gets your blood pumping.”
“The fog is frizzing my hair.”
“So go inside.”
“Not without you. I’m worried about you.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll be fine tomorrow,” Charlotte reassured her.
“Will you be? Or will you just have your guard back up?”
They’d known each other since they were kids, and Kara was very good at reading between the lines and seeing the truth behind a lie.
“If you don’t go back in, your husband will send out a search party,” she teased.
“He’d need one in this huge place. It’s even more spectacular than I imagined,” Kara said. “Theresa certainly got everything she ever wanted.”
Charlotte nodded. “I knew Robert came from money, but I didn’t realize the Monroes were this wealthy. This house must have cost a fortune.”
“One of Robert’s uncles recently passed away and left him a bundle. Did you see the diamond necklace Theresa’s wearing? It originally belonged to Edward Worthington’s wife; it was still around her neck when she washed up dead onshore after the shipwreck.”
Charlotte made a face. “Thanks for the visual.”
Kara grinned. “Sorry. But I just think it’s interesting that Theresa bought herself a link to the shipwreck. She always hated that her family wasn’t connected to the survivors who founded Angel’s Bay.”
“Whatever it takes, I guess.”
“I’d feel happier for her good fortune if she’d been a little nicer to us in high school.”
Charlotte nodded in agreement. Theresa and her beautiful band of cheerleaders had been a year older than Charlotte, and they’d ruled the school with their own brand of meanness. But Theresa’s younger sister, Pamela, had been Charlotte’s personal nemesis.
“So can we go in now?” Kara pleaded.
“Sure,” she said. “But I’m going to leave. If anyone asks, just say I had a patient to check on.”
Kara sighed. “Fine, but I wish you would wait. You could miss out on an awesome kiss.”
“I’ll take my chances.”
When they returned to the party, Kara was swept into conversation with Colin and another couple, so Charlotte slipped through the crowd.
As she turned into the hallway, the front door opened, and Andrew walked in wearing gray slacks and a white button-down shirt under a dark sports coat. Her heart skipped a beat as she took in the tall, lean, golden man with bright blue eyes and an irresistible smile. The first time she’d talked to him, she was sixteen; he’d asked her for a pencil in math class. From that moment on, she’d spent hours doodling their names together and trying to run into him accidentally on purpose.
Andrew had been one of the most popular guys in high school, and dating him had seemed like an impossible dream. She wasn’t one of the cheerleaders or the wild girls who seemed to surround him. But somehow, on one of those “accidental” meetings, they’d started talking, and he’d asked her to hang out after a football game. From there, they’d become inseparable. With Andrew, she’d felt prettier, smarter, more self-confident, and wildly in love. Then the rug had been pulled out from under her. Sixteen and on top of the world turned into eighteen and as sad as could be.
She watched as Andrew made his way down the hall, hampered by the effusive Kelleher sisters, who smothered him with hugs and kisses and high-pitched conversation. The sisters were both divorced, in their late thirties, and they hung out in the local bars on Saturday nights trolling for eligible men. Apparently, they had Andrew in their sights.
Before she could make a move to rescue him, the front door opened again. Joe Silveira entered with a purposeful step, dressed in black slacks, a dark gray shirt, and a black leather jacket. The sexy chief of police was night to Andrew’s day. Joe had thick dark brown hair, olive skin, intense eyes, and a rough edge that had been sharpened by his career as a cop. He was more rugged and less polished than Andrew. And where Andrew was talkative and outgoing, Joe kept most of his thoughts to himself.
Living in Angel’s Bay almost a year now, Joe was well respected but kept most people at a distance. He rarely let down his guard, but on occasion she had seen the simmering passion just beneath the surface and wondered what he’d be like if he ever let go of the tight control he exercised over his life and his emotions.
It had been weeks since she’d seen him. He’d gone to L.A. just after Thanksgiving, when his father suffered a stroke. She’d almost forgotten how attractive he was, how her stomach flipped every time she saw him, how his smoking-hot body made her face flush and her heart race. Definite heartbreaking potential.
She should have left the party sooner—both men’s gazes were in search of someone, and she knew that someone was her.
A man in the crowd suddenly shouted, “One minute to midnight.”
She felt an overwhelming desire to run for her life.
Andrew and Joe were moving down the hall, drawing closer. What was she going to do? Kiss one, then the other? She’d been caught between the two men before, and it was not a happy place to be.
She turned and fled. The grand staircase was the only open path, so she ran up the stairs, ignoring the surprised look of a passing maid. She could find refuge in some bathroom, she hoped.
“Ten, nine, eight . . .” The chant from the crowd grew louder.
She turned one corner, then another. The huge house was perfect for hiding out. She moved farther down the hall, stopping abruptly as the lights went out.
Surprised cries and nervous screams echoed through the house, along with shouts of “Happy New Year.” What the hell happened?
Someone brushed against her shoulder, knocking her slightly off balance, then the shadowy figure was gone. How could they move so quickly through the darkness?
Turning around, she put her hand on the wall to find her way back to the staircase. A chorus of “Auld Lang Syne” rang out from below. The blackout hadn’t dimmed the party’s champagne-fueled spirits. She followed the noise, glad when small flickering lights appeared. Someone had lit some candles. She reached the staircase with relief, her hand hitting the banister as the lights came back on. She blinked, then moved quickly down the stairs.
She had just reached the bottom step when she heard shrill screams from above. It took a moment for them to register over the party chatter, but as the screams continued, the crowd hushed.
Then the housekeeper appeared at the top of the staircase. “Mrs. Monroe!” she cried. “I think she’s dead!”
Joe Silveira pushed through the shocked hush of the crowded hallway. He’d had a bad feeling when the lights went out, and now he knew why. Charlotte gave him a shocked look as he passed her, and she started to follow, but he waved her back. He needed to find out what was going on first. One of his officers, Colin Lynch, jogged up the stairs behind him.
When they reached the landing, the housekeeper burst into an agitated mix of Spanish and English as she led them down the hallway and waved them toward an open door.
The master bedroom was a picture of luxury: thick carpet, a huge king-size bed with an ornately carved frame, and a sitting area with a fireplace and a big-screen television. He registered the details with efficiency. The room was too messy for a party night; the drawers in the dresser were half open, and there was a scent of perfume in the air. As he moved further inside, his pulse jumped at the sight of the beautiful, skinny blonde sprawled on the floor between the bedroom and the bathroom.
Theresa Monroe was on her back, her skin pale against her bright red cocktail dress. Her short blond hair was streaked with blood, a pool appearing under the back of her head, which rested on the marble floor.
He squatted down next to her and put a hand to her neck. Her pulse was faint but present, and he could hear the whisper of her breath.
“She’s alive,” he told Colin, who was already calling for an ambulance.
“I’ll get Charlotte.” Colin jogged out of the room.
Joe grabbed two thick towels off the rack and covered Theresa. The mayor rushed into the room a moment later. He was a tall, balding man with a bit of gut stretching the buttons on his white silk shirt. His eyes widened in shock when he saw his wife. His mouth opened, but no words came. It was the first time Joe had ever seen him speechless.
“Oh, my God,” Monroe finally got out, dropping to his knees.
“She’s breathing,” Joe quickly reassured him. “Paramedics are on the way. Colin went downstairs to find a doctor.”
Robert touched his wife’s bare shoulder. “She’s so cold.” His gaze moved to the pool of blood, and he drew in a shaky breath. “What—what happened?”
“I don’t know yet. Your housekeeper found her like this a few minutes ago.”
“I was just outside checking the lights. Do you think she slipped in the dark?”
“It’s possible,” he replied, his mind racing through a few other scenarios. He glanced down at Theresa, noting the red scratch marks on her neck. “Was your wife wearing a necklace?”
Robert’s jaw dropped. “Yes. Oh, my God! It was a diamond necklace dating back to the shipwreck. It’s quite valuable.” His gaze dropped to his wife’s hand. “Her wedding ring is gone, too.” He stared at Joe in confusion and disbelief. “Someone robbed her, right here in our home, in the middle of a party. Who would do that?”
Just then, Colin returned with Charlotte and Ray Bennington, an ER doctor at the clinic. Joe stood up and moved out of the doorway, allowing the doctors a closer look.
“Jason just arrived,” Colin informed him. “Davidson is on his way to handle forensics.”
“Good. Because it looks like Mrs. Monroe’s diamonds are missing—at least, the ones she was wearing.”
“Damn. The blackout was planned?”
“I’ve never believed in coincidences. Get Sheila over here, too. We’re going to need her to search the female guests while Davidson takes prints.”
“I’m on it.” Colin passed the paramedics on his way out of the room.
Charlotte stepped out of the bathroom as the paramedics joined Dr. Bennington. Her blue eyes were worried as her gaze met Joe’s. “She’s in bad shape.”
“At least she’s still alive.”
Charlotte nodded, but there was doubt written all over her pretty face. He’d come to the party for one reason—to see her, and maybe use midnight as as an opportunity to kiss her. He’d been thinking about her for weeks, missing her warm smile, her light blue eyes, her silky golden-blond hair and sun-kissed skin. In a short black dress that showed off her slender legs and sexy body, she was even more beautiful than he remembered. He just wished their reunion wasn’t in the middle of a crime scene.
“This is crazy,” she muttered. “What do you think happened?”
“Too soon to tell.”
“Who would rob her in the middle of a party? It’s so bold.”
“And personal,” he said, thinking about what kind of thief he was dealing with.
“Like a friend?”
“Obviously not a very good one.” He tilted his head to the side, giving her a thoughtful look. “Did you see anything? I saw you come down the stairs just before the housekeeper screamed.”
“No, I didn’t see a thing,” she said, stumbling a bit. “The lights went off, and it was pitch black.”
“Did you hear a scream? An argument? Anyone call for help?”
“I heard a lot of screams when everything went dark. But nothing that sounded like someone was in trouble.”
“What were you doing up here, Charlotte?”
“Looking for a bathroom,” she said, not quite meeting his gaze.
He didn’t know what to make of her evasiveness. Charlotte wouldn’t hurt anyone. She was a kind, generous person who went out of her way to help people, but there was something she wasn’t telling him.
Before he could probe further, he saw the housekeeper hovering in the doorway.
“Mrs. Monroe is still alive?” she asked, taking a few tentative steps into the room. She wore a black dress with dark stockings and flat shoes. Her black hair was streaked with gray and pulled back in a tight bun, no evidence of makeup on her rather plain face.
“Yes,” he said. “They’re going to take her to the hospital.”
“Thank God.” She made the sign of the cross on her chest. “I was worried. She was so still. And there was so much blood.”
“What’s your name?”
“Constance Garcia,” she said a bit warily.
“You found her, Constance?” the mayor interrupted, stepping into the bedroom as the paramedics put Theresa on a stretcher.
“Yes,” she answered.
“Did you see anyone else near this room?” Joe asked. “In the hallway or on the stairs?”
The maid hesitated for a moment, her gaze darting from him to the mayor and then to Charlotte. She lifted her hand, pointing right at Charlotte. “I saw her.”
“Charlotte?” Robert asked in surprise. “What were you doing up here?”
Charlotte stiffened, obviously hearing the accusation in the mayor’s voice. “I was looking for a bathroom. I was in the hall when the lights went out. I didn’t see Theresa.”
“Are you sure? You never liked her,” Robert said, suspicion edging his voice.
“That’s not true,” Charlotte said, paling under his harsh words.
“Theresa didn’t want to invite you, but she felt she had to because her grandmother and your mother are friends. She said you’d been horrible to her sister. That you’d always been jealous of them.” His voice rose as he took a step forward.
Joe moved quickly between them. “You need to go to the hospital with your wife. Let us take care of the investigation.”
Robert hesitated, then said through tight lips, “You find out who did this, Silveira. I want to know who almost killed Theresa.”
Charlotte let out a breath as the room cleared. Her eyes were worried. “Joe, you don’t think I had anything to do with this, do you? I’m not a thief, and I would never attack someone.”
“Is there bad blood between you and Theresa?” he asked curiously. He had never heard of anyone not liking Charlotte.
“Her sister, Pamela, and I didn’t get along in high school, but that was a dozen years ago. Theresa and I aren’t best friends, but we’re civil to each other. She did invite me to the party. I think she wanted to show off her house and her diamonds, but that’s just who she is. I doubt half the people here are really her friends.”
He knew Theresa well enough to agree with Charlotte’s assessment. While he’d managed to maintain a good working relationship with the mayor, he was very aware that while the Monroes thought they ran the place, there were many people who thought they should be run out of town. Unfortunately, the only person in the vicinity of the attack, according to the maid’s recollection, was Charlotte.
“Why did you lie about your reason for coming upstairs?” he asked.
She bristled at his words. “I didn’t lie.”
“You’re hiding something. What is it?”
She gave him an irritated look. “Fine. I wanted to leave the house before midnight, but there were too many people between me and the front door when the countdown started. So I came up the stairs, thinking I’d find a bathroom and wait for a few minutes and then go.”
“It’s a New Year’s Eve party. Why would you leave before midnight?”
Her cheeks grew warmer. “I had my reasons.”
“I need a better answer.”
“That’s all I have.”
He gave her a long look. “Who were you running away from, Charlotte?”
She stared back at him. “Do you really want to know?”