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Autumn looks like death, sometimes, with the bloodred leaves fading to burgundy and finally to rust and brown. Maggie Weston thought about such death as she stared steadfastly out the window at the swirl of leaves, despite the rumble of a male voice that sounded behind her.
Go away. Maggie crossed her arms tightly as she continued to focus on the bright colors of the New Hampshire fall landscape. The back wall of the A-frame lodge house was almost entirely glass, spreading the scene before her in a cheery panorama. The trees were brilliantly dappled in the rich sunlight, but all Maggie could see was death. Death in the trees. In her heart. On her back steps. Help us, Lord, she prayed silently. Help me.
"Maggie." The voice tugged at her.
It's over and done with, she thought, anger and grief curling into a tight knot in her stomach. Just go away and leave us alone.
The staccato clicks of feminine heels tapped into the room. "I'm very grateful you've decided to stay, Fletcher," said a quivering voice. Without turning, Maggie knew that newly widowed Korie Taylor Jackson would be touching the tall man's arm, stroking it and preening in a slight flirt, as if she couldn't stop herself.
Yeah, right. Maggie's thoughts were cold. Just wait until he starts asking you questions.
"Thank you, Korie." The man's voice was deep and as mellow as the darkest mahogany, and Maggie's throat tightened as he spoke. "But I really don't think I should be doing this."
"Nonsense!" Korie interrupted him. "You were Aaron's friend. What better way to start your new business than with solving Aaron Jackson's." She stopped and cleared her throat. Maggie heard the tears being forced back into Korie's voice as it dropped to a whisper. "Solving your best friend's murder. Everyone in the world knows what a good detective you are."
Maggie couldn't quite believe Korie saw her husband's death as a marketing opportunity. An involuntary growl escaped her throat.
Korie snapped. "Maggie! If you have something to add, just say it!"
Maggie turned and looked slowly over the couple before her. Even in her widowhood of one day, Korie couldn't resist the affectations of her flowing, oversize skirts and bohemian blouses, which swooped as her slender arms darted through a conversation, making her look like a colorful, earth-bound parrot. Korie had probably been born an incorrigible coquette. At twenty-four, Korie had had two successful shows of her art in New York City and had snagged Aaron Jackson, reveling in his popularity as a bestselling novelist.
Part of the reason for Aaron's success stood next to Korie. Fletcher MacAllister, who until two months ago had been a detective with New York's finest, was the model for Aaron's series hero, Judson MacLean. The charming and meticulous Judson, who had carried his author to the top of the New York Times fiction list on a regular basis, had paid for most of Aaron's worst habits, including his booze, his cigars and his wife of three years. Of course, the books had also paid for all of them to be here, in this writers' colony that Aaron had so modestly called Jackson's Retreat. His dream. His life.
Maggie took a deep breath to steady her voice. Aaron's character, Judson, with his Nordic looks and his tastes for lovely women, fine cooking and expensive suits, looked nothing like the man in front of her. Fletcher's features and dark hair reflected more of his Thai mother than his Scottish father, and he had obviously slept in his suit, probably more than once. His eyes, a rich brown instead of Judson's piercing blue, were almond shaped and questioning, waiting for her to respond. She took a deep breath and ran her hands through her tangled curls, all too aware that her fingers were trembling.
"He's right, Korie. Don't you think New Hampshire is more than a bit out of his territory, even if he has started his own business? He doesn't know this place, doesn't know us, and the fact that he was staying with you and Aaron doesn't make him any more capable than Tyler and his folks. They may be a small-town department, but they're not idiots."
Trying to appear calm, Maggie walked to the counter separating the main room from the kitchen and reached for one of the cups she had stacked next to the coffeemaker. "And I don't think you'll win any points with Mr. MacAllister by lying. Aaron's books aren't yet translated into." Maggie paused, waving her hand as she searched for the most obscure language she could think of "Burmese. I'm sure there are some people in the world who would not feel the need to swoon in the presence of the "real life' Judson MacLean."
"I'm not Judson." Simple, straightforward and delivered with finality before Korie could fly into a protest. Just as Maggie remembered from her first meeting with Fletcher five years ago. That one hadn't gone very well, either.
Maggie slapped the cup down. "And I'm not going to stand around while Korie tries to convince you that Aaron's death was anything more than an accident. It can't be." Maggie's voice cracked. Blinking hard, she turned and strode out, leaving the community room of the large lodge behind her and stepping out onto the back deck. She paused, shivering slightly in the cool fall air. She rubbed her arms, feeling the chill through her light sweater. She should have stopped for a jacket, but right now she didn't care if she froze half to death. She brushed away a single tear, then took another deep breath. God, please help me, she prayed again, this time fighting back the wave of grief that threatened to swamp her the way it had last night. Help me handle this. Maggie started down the steps, then hesitated. The deep color on the bottom step reminded her of what she had found just after midnight. Her own insistent words echoed in her mind, almost as if she were trying to convince herself of something she didn't quite believe. It had to be an accident! She bit her lip and stepped over the stain.
The mat of leaves crunched and mushed under her feet as she walked out through the woods. The newly fallen leaves on top were dry, while the layers underneath were damp from the frosts they had already seen. The ground beneath all the layers was uneven and a challenge for walking. Maggie loved the effort it took to hike the land, and she almost always wore a stylish but practical pair of boots in case she got the urge to get out of the house. This was her refuge, ever since she'd arrived here at Jackson's Retreat. Her eyes stung as she remembered her first day here, but she kept walking as briars and low plants tugged at her long woolen skirt.
Jackson's Retreat. It had been Aaron's dream to build this colony of cabins scattered across ten acres of his New Hampshire home. The A-frame lodge, with its high glass wall at the back, basement game room and large living area, formed the center of the small community. Aaron had set up an escrow account substantial enough that the interest funded the usual operating expenses, so that the writers who were accepted here could live rent-free in small one-room cabins. Where they lived, that is, as long as they met Aaron's stringent requirements of production. Their only out-of-pocket expenses were for personal items and food.
When Aaron had called Maggie four years ago and asked her to run the retreat, she had been doubtful at first. Although she and Aaron had been friends for years, since Maggie was in college, she had not seen him in almost a year. They had met at the bookstore where she worked as an assistant manager, and their friendship had later deepened into a turbulent"and brief"romance. After their relationship fell apart, they promised to remain friends, but Maggie had intentionally stayed away from him, unable to forget the intense feelings he had stirred in her heart. These emotions were still raw when he asked her to run the retreat, even though she knew he was dating Korie at the time. After much prayer, Maggie had accepted the job, and Aaron married Korie shortly thereafter.
Aaron. Maggie tripped over a root and stopped, realizing that her vision was beginning to blur with tears. She wiped them away, then pressed her lips to stop their quivering. Thoughts of Aaron flooded her mind. His unbridled laughter, the bigger-than-life way he'd enter a room and take over the conversation. The tenderness with which he had once held her.
The insistence with which he refused to take no for an answer. Maggie had turned down the job at first. Firmly. Surely, he should get someone else to run the retreat. Maggie suggested several other people to him, but he persisted. It was Maggie, with her finely honed management skills and understanding of the writer's soul, that he wanted in charge of his dream. Finally, she had relented.
Maggie walked on, relishing the feel of the spongy ground under her boots. How she adored this land! Leaving her job in NewYork, she'd moved here and fallen in love with the land and the dream. Now she lived full-time in the lodge house, overseeing the care of the cabins and their temperamental inhabitants.
Maggie looked up through the dancing leaves as the sun played in patterns on the ground and her face. She sighed, feeling some of the tension ease away. It had been this way almost from the beginning. The comfort she had felt when praying about the job had opened the door; the peacefulness of the location and the constant demands of her job were a great combination. She felt at home and content, and the proximity toAaron had allowed her finally to put her feelings for him in perspective.
Aaron, who lived with Korie in an old Victorian down the road from the lodge house, stopped in twice a day to check on things. He liked being involved with his dream and his writers. His writers.
She frowned as she pushed aside an overgrown bush next to her favorite trail through the woods, a few of the dried branches breaking as the bush snapped back into place. Aaron's arrogance hadn't always sat well with "his" writers, but they couldn't argue with the success that came from being here. All of the residents"past and present"had achieved far more success financially and artistically than they had before their time at the retreat. They may have battled Aaron, but his edge became their driving force. So why would anyone want to kill him? Why did she" Maggie shook her head, unwilling to acknowledge the thought that hung at the back of her mind. Instead, she went over the events of last night's dinner, trying to pull anything forward that might answer her questions.
Was he leaving, or coming back, when he died? It had not been a pleasant night. Aaron had been angry. In fact, he had been angry a lot lately at her, at his wife, at No, she told herself again. Maggie knew what she had done was wrong, but it was for the right reasons. I know what they would think. Besides, what's done is done. Still, her conscience nagged at her. Tell him. Maggie took a ragged breath. Her mother used to say that your conscience was God's finger on your back, poking you in the right direction. And God never gets tired.
Her mother. Aaron. Lil" Tears clouded her eyes again, the grief unstoppable this time.
Maggie had found Aaron when she had taken out the trash for the night. Why didn't I hear anything? I must have been in the kitchen cleaning up. Maggie stopped, unable to see for the tears, unable to walk from the weakness in her legs. All that blood! She sank down next to a tree and drew her knees tight against her chest, then leaned her head on them and sobbed. The grief she had been trying to restrain for the past twenty-four hours poured out of her in lung-wrenching gulps that seemed endless. Oh, dear God, help me! The sobs ceased only when her nose became so clogged that she started to choke and cough. She grabbed the bottom of her skirt and started to wipe her face with it.
"Here, use this."
Maggie gasped and snapped backward, hitting her head against the tree. Her screech echoed through the woods as she jerked and stared up through tears at Fletcher, who was calmly holding out a handkerchief to her. He tipped his head sideways in apology. "I didn't mean to scare you."
Maggie stared at him, still shaky, and rubbed the back of her head. "How did you find me?" she asked, her voice hoarse.
He waved absently behind him. "I've known moose who left less evidence of their passage." He shook the handkerchief at her again. "Go ahead. It's old, but it's clean," he said.
She hesitated a moment, then snagged the soft worn cloth, wiped her face and eyes and blew her nose. She peered briefly at the smears of makeup on it. "Great. Now I looked like a sleep-deprived raccoon." She crushed it into a ball, then peered back up at the man she'd only known as a New York City cop. "What do you know about moose? You're a city boy," she said.
He nodded. "For fifteen years. But I grew up in Verm." He stopped and cleared his throat. "I need to ask you some questions."
"Read the police report. I told them all I know."
He sat down in the leaves next to her and she frowned, scooting away. "I did," he replied.
Maggie twisted the handkerchief viciously. "I really don't want to go over this again, okay?" Her voice was harsher than she intended, but she didn't apologize.
Fletcher was silent. His eyes seemed focused on something in the distance. After a few moments, he said softly, "He was my friend, too."
Over her head, Maggie could hear a squirrel chewing on a nut. A breeze brushed the branches around them lightly, and the remaining leaves whispered to her. Maggie turned her head slightly to look at Fletcher. He seemed totally comfortable sitting here next to a tree, even in his business suit. He sat with his long legs crossed, guaranteeing the most stains per square inch on his pants, but he didn't seem to care. Maggie suddenly remembered a description that Aaron had written about Judson MacLean.
Judson was a man who always surprised people. He caught them off guard. With his size, with his intelligence, with his wit. And with his ability to ferret out information from the least likely of suspects.
Aaron had been right about that part. Fletcher was a large man, tall with a lean figure that belied a personal strength. Sitting here, even without speaking, Fletcher had taken charge of the scene. And what surprised Maggie was both the ease with which he did that as he sat with a woman who was virtually a stranger"and the odd twinge that ran deep in her gut. Don't start liking him, girlfriend, she cautioned herself. He's not here because he wants your company.
"Is that why you're doing this?" she asked. "Because he was your friend?"
Fletcher looked directly at her, locking her in his gaze. "Partially. Are you grieving only because he was your friend?"
Maggie's eyes widened, and she felt her anger building again. "Am I a suspect?"
"So you don't really think it was an accident."
Anger flashed through her, a raw combination of grief and the denial she so desperately wanted to hang on to. She stood up, tossing the handkerchief into the woods. "Aaron fell! And you will not try and convict me in my own home!" Turning on her heels, she started back toward the lodge.
He called lightly after her. "Yes, Maggie, I will." She stopped but did not turn. "If you're guilty."