When a body is discovered in the neighbouring village of Underhill, Alex Duggins, owner of Folly-on-Weir’s premier pub, The Black Dog, is determined not to get involved – for once. But when she learns that the person who found the body was young Kyle Gammage, who helps out at her friend Tony’s veterinary clinic, she and Tony are reluctantly drawn into the murder investigation.
In her desire to protect Kyle and his elder brother Scoot, Alex finds herself withholding vital information from the police. It’s a misjudgement that will have far-reaching – and possibly fatal – consequences. Her relationship with Tony under strain, has Alex’s silence put her and those she loves in danger?
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Lies That Bind
An Alex Duggins Mystery
By Stella Cameron
Severn House Publishers LimitedCopyright © 2017 Stella Cameron
All rights reserved.
Five Weeks Later
The bus from St John's Primary School rolled to a stop in front of The Black Dog, Folly-on-Weir's only pub, the center of adult village life.
Children in red blazers, striped ties skew-whiff at the unbuttoned necks of their white shirts, straggled into sight and hung around to gawk at two police vehicles that had stopped, sirens still intermittently bipping, waiting for the school bus to move out of their way. The instant the bus did pull out, and the police took off again, sweeping up the High Street in the direction of Underhill, the next village, their flashing lights dimmed by sunlight struggling in and out behind scarves of smoky-looking cloud.
Visions of a garish, speeding funeral cortège sent a shiver through Alex Duggins. She turned her back on the scene. For once it was nothing to do with her.
A flotilla of ducks, webbed feet barely clearing the water, flapped along the pond on the village green, grating out their annoyance at the interruption in their afternoon peace.
'Here, Bogie,' Alex called, still distracted by the activity on Folly-on-Weir's main road. They rarely saw police cars, especially with flashing lights, unless ... Alex whistled to her black and gray terrier. The less she concentrated on what felt like the response to some serious crime, the better.
The ducks flapped and shook their wings furiously. Bogie had taken advantage of her distraction to dash back and forth by the pond, leaping and yipping from time to time.
'You know better than that.' Alex raised her voice and hurried toward him. 'Naughty, naughty boy.'
He planted all four feet and looked back at her as if he couldn't imagine why she would be cross with him.
Frowning darkly, Alex wiggled the leash in the air and Bogie approached her rapidly, belly lowered in his 'uh oh, I'm in trouble' mode.
Sun struggled against shifting drifts of gunmetal cloud scudding along before a strengthening wind. Winter had made its official entry.
'Alex, what's going on?' A commanding voice reached her from behind and she turned to confront Heather Derwinter striding toward her. 'If anyone knows, you do. Why all the fuss?'
Heather, wife of Leonard, of the impressive Derwinter Holdings, reigned as uncrowned queen of Folly and environs, not that she showed her face in the village often unless it was in the Black Dog, Alex's pub, with a noisy group of horsey, well-booted friends.
'Afternoon, Heather,' Alex said, bending to clip on Bogie's leash. 'The only thing going on for me is that this naughty dog still wants to chase birds.'
Heather lifted her blond hair away from the collar of a buttery, tan suede jacket obviously tailored to fit her lovely curves and made from hide as supple as silk. Her cream trousers fitted tightly and without a wrinkle. 'You know what I'm talking about. Honestly, Alex, you do like to play vague. When you do that you only make people more curious and more convinced you know things you're not saying. I saw the police cars, then I saw you while I was waiting for the school bus to drive on. So I pulled over to ask what you know. Did you get any messages from your friend the chief inspector? Or were you the one who called in some horrible cockup on the way to Underhill. That's where they're all going. Or points farther on. Come on, old thing, give a girl a break and tell all. It's usually your job to dredge up some frightfully bloody disaster. And I do mean bloody. Where's the body?'
For an instant Alex came close to laughing; Heather could be a caricature of herself. The effect always amused Alex. 'I've got to run, Heather.' She bundled Bogie into her arms, partly because she loved to feel his warm, compact little body against her, and partly to make him a reason for hurrying away. 'This fellow's getting heavy. We shall have to cut down on the filets. See you later.' She grinned and waved and trotted away toward the road. 'It's starting to rain. Better get that scrumptious jacket in the dry. Looks as if we're in for a storm.'
'You'll let me know when you hear something?' Heather cried.
Not if I can help it.
Heather didn't give up easily. 'Of course,' Alex told her. 'But it isn't anything to do with us. They're just passing through.' That was her own wishful thinking.
'I feel better now,' Heather all but yelled across the green at her. 'If there was anything to worry about, you'd know.'
Alex buried her face in Bogie's back. Her eyes prickled. Must be the gusts that blew straight into her face.
No wind caused her to stiffen, or sent goosebumps climbing the back of her neck. The sight of a dark blue Lexus sedan driving on the rear bumper of the police car in front of it was responsible for the revolutions in her stomach. She couldn't make herself move. Whatever the reason for the police being here, she wasn't ready to see Detective Chief Inspector O'Reilly so soon after their last encounter. That car could be his.
'Hey, love, I've been looking for you.' A familiar arm surrounded her shoulders and squeezed her closer.
'Tony,' she said, leaning against Tony Harrison but not looking away from the High Street. 'That looks like trouble.'
'It does. But for once it's not our trouble.'
'Of course it's not,' she said, smiling up into his blue eyes and seeing a mirror of the disquiet she felt. 'Is it? Look, people are going to the Dog. They want to find out what's happening.'
His dark blond hair whipped across his forehead. 'They always expect to find out everything there, don't they? They won't be lucky this time. Come on, I wanted to ask what you thought about something.'
Walking slowly, ignoring widely spaced raindrops, they reached the road and crossed to the grassy patch in front of the pub. The picnic tables and benches were empty, probably because of the cooling weather. As always, colored lights outlining the roofs were on. At night they gave the place a welcoming touch but most of all, they were there because Alex liked them.
'I walked down from the clinic and went in the back,' Tony said. 'Through the kitchens, but your mum said you were on the green. Katie's waiting on her blanket for Bogie.'
Katie was Tony's big, golden, mixed-breed dog who loved Bogie only slightly less than her place in front of the fire in the bar. Tony was the local vet who cared for a large number of pets and farm animals.
'You seem uptight,' he said, rubbing her arm. 'Don't let a couple of police cars frighten you.'
'I'm not frightened.' She looked up at him. 'Yes, I am. Not frightened exactly. On edge. Part of me doesn't want to know what the police are after and part of me does. Tony, do you feel ... curious? I think I might and that's sick, isn't it? I should just be hoping nobody's hurt.'
'You could allow yourself to be normal, love. I'm curious, too.'
She handed Bogie off to him. 'But not because you feel you ought to be involved somehow? It's not that, is it? Or, you don't ... Oh, I don't know.'
'Finish what you started to say.'
Alex turned her face against his arm. 'You don't actually want to take part in it? Whatever it is? You don't wish you had some sort of official reason to be included?'
That earned her a frown. 'I'm not sure I know what you mean,' Tony queried.
'Of course you don't. Forget it. I can run on sometimes.'
'Can't we all. Are you free tonight? Or should I say, can you be free tonight?'
'I can. What's up?' Her knees felt a little wobbly. She'd been aware of her own preoccupation and worried he might read it as a withdrawal from him. But she didn't want to change their usual casual, comfortable way of rubbing along together. She repeated, 'What's up?'
'I miss you,' he said, the corners of his mouth jerking upward in more of a grimace than a smile. 'You're here but I'm starting to think ... I just want us to have some time together. Talking time. Reconnecting time, I suppose. Are you all right with that?'
This was her fault for not paying enough attention to the signals he'd sent – in his quiet way. 'If you say so. What time?' Smiling at him was always the easiest thing in her world.
Tony grinned and the tension went out of his face. 'Good. OK if I pick you up here when I'm finished? Could be a bit late – not before eight, I shouldn't think. I've got a late surgery.'
They crossed the road. The police vehicles had disappeared over the hill and the red-blazered children were rapidly dispersing in laughing groups.
'Let me pop this fellow inside and we'll talk out here about that other thing I mentioned.'
She'd forgotten there was anything else. 'OK.'
Tony was a big man but he moved with easy, loose grace. His physical strength showed, even in the casual clothes he preferred. A check shirt with well-worn jeans tucked into green Hunter boots looked good on him. Alex never understood why he was so unaware of being attractive. Perhaps widowhood had matured him to a point where he looked for more than the physical in any interaction with women. The thought made her blush. There had never been any reticence in the physical between them.
He went all the way inside the pub with Bogie and returned a couple of minutes later. 'Just letting Lily know he's there,' Tony said of Alex's mum who shouldered responsibility for the Black Dog's inn and restaurant.
'Let's sit,' Tony said, ushering her to a picnic table that still had its umbrella raised. He sat beside her on the bench. 'You won't run out on me tonight, will you?' he said, looking at his clasped hands on the table.
'Why would I do a thing like that?' She might if she could figure out how to do it without feeling like a worm. Grow up, Alex. Work out what's eating at you.
He was watching her closely. 'Because we've both – but particularly you – been avoiding each other. We're like a couple of friends who happen to live on the same street. You say, hello. I say, hello. And all that's left is smiles.'
She pulled one of his hands free. 'That's not exactly true, is it, Tony?'
'Well ...' He had the grace to look slightly sheepish. 'No, not exactly. But we don't talk much at the moment, Alex. We don't get deeply into things, the things we need to get into – sooner or later.'
'How do we know when it's the right time to do that?' She felt a bit squirrely.
'We don't,' he said, looking squarely into her eyes. 'I wanted to ask you about the boy who works in the kitchen here.'
She looked away briefly, regrouping.
'Scoot, you mean?'
He nodded. 'I didn't even notice him until recently.'
'Hugh Rhys took him on. He knows the family, I think.'
Hugh was Alex's manager at the Black Dog.
'That's what I understand,' Tony said. 'Did you know Scoot's got a younger brother, Kyle?'
'No, I didn't. I don't interfere with Hugh's hiring. There's never been a reason to discuss Scoot. He clears tables, loads and unloads the dishwashers, helps with anything that needs doing. He's a good boy and works hard.'
'Still in school?' Tony said.
'Yes, as far as I know. Actually I do know that because he brings books and works with them during his break. He's seventeen, I think.'
'You know the family?'
'I don't,' Alex told him. 'But Scoot is always very clean and tidy and on time, and he's good around customers. Hugh seems to think a lot of him.'
'Kyle came by to see if I'd let him help out around the surgery,' Tony said. 'Seems a nice kid – not that I know anything about kids. But he's obviously mad about animals and I like the idea of a sort of internship for kids with interests they might want to follow. I think Radhika would enjoy some company now and again, too, and she'd be patient with questions.'
Tony's assistant was a lovely woman of great patience. From India and, despite her small stature, she was easily recognized at any distance by the striking saris she wore.
'Does Kyle want to be a vet then?' Alex asked.
'So he says.' Tony rubbed her hand between his. 'Doesn't care when he comes or if it's just a couple of hours a week. He's really keen to do some volunteer work.'
She looked sideways at him. 'You like the idea of encouraging someone who's actually interested in veterinary medicine, don't you?'
He smiled a little. 'You caught me. Yes. When I was a kid I'd have loved to be around a vet but I didn't know anyone and I didn't have Kyle's gumption to find a clinic and ask for the chance. Once he loosened up he started talking about reading books on vet medicine and how much he'd like to help with the animals – hands-on, he called it.'
'So what's your question?' Alex asked.
'Mostly I wanted to know how the older brother was working out for you. And I'd like your opinion on whether Kyle's too young for this. Do —'
'Oh, Tony!' She interrupted him, laughing. 'Around here the kids are working on farms from a very early age. It would be a decent thing to do. You can keep it on a casual basis. If you're worried, give him a trial and see. Radhika will watch out for him.' Radhika seemed to have an affinity for all people. The villagers loved her and they didn't always accept incomers, particularly exotic ones, too easily. Alex also considered Radhika a good friend.
'Right. That's what I'll do. I'll get back to the clinic and let you face the questions inside.'
Alex wrinkled her nose. 'It's not fair. I should send them all down to you.'
'Wouldn't work.' They both stood and Tony dropped a kiss on her mouth. 'I don't serve beer.'
He strode in the direction of Meadow Lane and his clinic.
Alex risked a glance around the windows but didn't catch any signs of watching faces. Joan Gimblet, Folly-on-Weir's mayor, her brooding son, Martin, of the film star looks and few words, and an older man whom she didn't recognize, left a new black Mercedes parked with two wheels on the lawn and walked, single-file, to the pub.
After holding the door open for the others, Martin turned a gently intense smile on Alex and followed them inside.
Recovering from that smile, she waited a few seconds before entering the building behind them. She wiped her boots on the rough mat by the door, and went inside the bar with a smile on her face. 'Afternoon all,' she answered greetings loudly, shrugging out of her navy blue duffle coat as she went behind the counter.
Hugh Rhys, big, dark and attractive, raised expressive eyebrows but said nothing. Silence had fallen and Alex didn't need to turn around to know the customers had reversed their directions and now faced her again.
'I'll take that for you,' Hugh said, deftly removing the coat from her hands. 'I need to check out back.' And she didn't miss his grin as he left her alone to field questions.
'Right.' She took up a towel to swipe at a perfectly dry counter. 'Who needs help?' The smile would crack her face shortly.
'The usual,' Major Stroud said, rocking on his heels, his smile stretching a trim, gray mustache. 'Bit of excitement in the village, what?' At least he could not have come to the pub to nose around after seeing the police activity. He'd been in much the same spot for several hours.
She poured his whiskey and set the glass down while he peered at coins in his palm as if someone had switched his pence for rand. A few slow blinks later, he let his money clatter on the bar. 'Talk to O'Reilly, did you?'
Dan O'Reilly was Detective Chief Inspector O'Reilly whom Alex had come to know much better than was comfortable – much as she liked the man. Most of the time.
She slid the major's coins into her hand and moved to the register.
'Does that mean you have been talking to the detective?' Stroud said. He had the beginnings of belligerence in his tone. Alex knew the signs of trouble too well.
'I haven't talked to anyone – the police weren't from our local force. Have you tried the new bacon butties? They're gammon and very tasty.'
'S'almost tea time,' the major said, slurring his words. 'Not my kind of fare for that.'
Joan Gimblet walked deliberately between the major and Alex. 'Let me see,' she began, and rolled her eyes, indicating the irascible Stroud behind her. 'I'll have a gin and lime – make it a double – Martin will have his usual half of best bitter, and a pint of Guinness for my brother. I forgot, I don't think you've met Paul.' A sturdy, blond woman, Joan Gimblet enjoyed being mayor. Several strands of pearls rested on her considerable bosom, which in turn rested on the counter. Joan was not tall. She looked around and beckoned to a man who was obviously related to her. He stood talking to Joan's vaguely disconcerting son who certainly didn't resemble his mother in any way.
'Paul Sutcliffe,' Joan said. She lowered her voice and put a finger to her lips. 'He doesn't spread it around but he's been the head at Amblefield School up north for years. Doesn't like the attention that brings. Just retired a few months ago and he's moved in with me now. Paul, this is Alex Duggins who owns the Black Dog. She's our local celebrity.'
Excerpted from Lies That Bind by Stella Cameron. Copyright © 2017 Stella Cameron. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
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