Shannon Hammer is about to embark on one of the biggest projects of her career. Her best friend Jane Hennessey has purchased one wing of the Gables, formerly the old state insane asylum, located on a bucolic hillside two miles northeast of Lighthouse Cove. Jane plans to turn her section into a small luxury hotel complete with twenty ocean-view rooms, a spa, and a restaurant.
Shannon is raring to get started on the enormous project and is shocked when a group of unruly protesters shows up at the groundbreaking ceremony and wreaks havoc. She’s even more freaked-out when someone pushes her into a pit of bricks in a closed-off room of the asylum. Despite her close call, Shannon wants nothing more than to get back to work . . . until she finds a body not far from where she was pushed. Now Shannon is determined to get to the bottom of the goings-on at the Gables even if it kills her. . . .
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MacKintyre Sullivan, world-famous crime novelist and former Navy SEAL, had the dark good looks of a movie star, with deep blue eyes, an awesome body, and a sexy smile. The first time I ever saw him, he made a big impression on me. And that was just from staring at his photo on the back cover of his latest Jake Slater thriller. In person, Mac looked even better.
Much like his daredevil fictional protagonist Jake, Mac Sullivan was also kind, courageous, and loyal, with a generous nature and a strong dose of cynical humor. Not to mention, he was brave and strong and-okay, I might be getting carried away.
I met Mac two years ago when my bicycle brakes malfunctioned while I was riding downhill on the highway. Rapidly picking up speed, I frantically struggled to keep the bike straight and avoid crashing into the guardrail. After surviving another hairpin turn, I strategically aimed for a safe-looking meadow. Unfortunately it was riddled with dirt clods, rocks, and slippery slimy mud under the grassy surface.
The bike made it only so far before ejecting me. I flew over the handlebars and skidded across the uneven surface, ending up sprawled facedown in a large puddle of thick mud and brush. Mac happened to be driving along the highway, saw it happen, and rushed to my rescue.
It might've been what you'd call a "meet cute," except for the fact that my face was smeared with mud and weeds and I was pretty sure I had a concussion. I had scrapes and bruises everywhere on my body, along with a twisted ankle. Not such a cute moment for me.
Later, Mac deduced that someone had deliberately tampered with my brakes. As it turned out, that "someone" was a crazed murderer. So, good times.
My name is Shannon Hammer and I'm a building contractor specializing in Victorian home restoration in Lighthouse Cove, a small coastal town in Northern California. Somewhere during those first few months, MacKintyre Sullivan and I became good friends and eventually more than friends, a fact that continued to surprise me and even caused me to pinch myself occasionally.
Like now, for instance. I was in my kitchen making dinner, checking on the baked potatoes, and as I closed the oven door, I glanced across the room-and there he was. The hunky megastar author was standing at the counter slicing cucumbers for our salad. He looked so cheerful and contented. Chopping up veggies, for goodness' sake.
Mac had been out of town for the past few weeks, visiting his agent and his editor and all the people who worked so hard to publish his bestselling thrillers. He and his agent were also working on the next Jake Slater movie deal. He had stopped off in Los Angeles for a few days to visit his adorable niece Callie and had only returned home yesterday. And first thing this morning, he was back at work on his current manuscript.
While he was on the road, Mac and I talked on the phone every night. We exchanged stories and laughed and told each other every little thing that had been going on in our lives. There was just one topic that never came up. We never talked about "us." We were friends, lovers, and always had a great time together. I knew how Mac felt about me and I felt the same way about him, so why would I want to rock the boat? It might get awkward. It might change everything. Why push it? Why take a chance that the conversation could twist the easygoing, warm, and cozy dynamic we had developed?
On the other hand, I was curious. I had no idea where Mac saw himself in five years. I was pretty sure he was planning to stay in Lighthouse Cove, but did he see me as a part of his future?
It was tempting to just let the topic die a quiet death because the simple truth was, Mac made me happy. As far as I was concerned, we belonged together. And he obviously agreed because, well, there he was, standing in my kitchen, now chopping up a carrot. It almost made me laugh because seriously, the guy was kind of a superstar. Three-and soon to be four-of his ten Jake Slater books had been turned into major motion pictures starring the biggest names in show biz. He would occasionally fly off to exotic locales to watch the filming and he always attended the film premieres in New York, London, and Hollywood. And then there were his yearly book tours around the country.
And me? I was a small-town girl, living and working in the place where I was born. I loved it here, had lots of good friends, owned my own construction company, and wouldn't want to live anywhere else.
So whether we belonged together forever or not, we were doing just fine right now.
At that moment, my adorable Westie, Robbie-short for Rob Roy-came scurrying down the hall, ready to play.
"Hello, you," I murmured. He barked joyously in response and I reached down to pick him up. I gave him some scratches behind his ears and he licked my neck, making me laugh.
Mac set down the knife, put the salad bowl in the refrigerator, and checked his watch. "I'd better go turn on the grill. It'll take about ten minutes to heat up." He gave me a quick look, then frowned. "What? What is it?"
"Nothing," I said lightly. "I was just . . . looking."
I smiled and set Robbie down on the floor. "Yes."
"Couldn't be better."
He crossed the room and pulled me into his arms. "Can I tell you how much I wanted to be here with you tonight?"
"Yes, you may."
"It's true. I had to finish one more chapter first, but I kept getting distracted, kept procrastinating. I'd stand up, stretch, walk the floor, try to find things to do around the house. Anything but sit down and write." He shook his head. "I managed to find some mindless tasks, like rearranging the bookshelves and fixing the light switch in the kitchen."
"That's not like you."
"No. I tend to attack a book with single-minded determination."
"I know." I smiled. "You forget to eat."
"True." He smirked. "You would know."
I always made it a point to show up with a basket of ready-to-eat food-potato chips, veggies, string cheese, granola bars-whenever Mac was in the middle of a manuscript. He would answer the door, grab the basket, and basically shut the door in my face.
Now he ran his hands up and down my arms. "But today I just wanted to get out of there and be with you."
"But you still finished the chapter."
"Yeah. I had to promise myself a big reward if I buckled down and finished it."
"So what did you reward yourself with?"
He pressed his forehead to mine. "You."
I closed my eyes and savored the moment, then looked up at him, frowning. "What's wrong with the light switch? Do we need to rewire something?"
He laughed out loud. "Always the contractor."
"Hey, my crew and I remodeled your kitchen. If something goes wrong, I want to fix it."
"It was nothing. A loose screw on the light plate."
My eyes widened. "Oh my goodness. And you fixed it all by yourself?"
He grinned. "Can you believe it?"
"You are so awesome," I whispered, and patted my heart.
He gave a bashful shrug. "I know."
With a laugh, I pushed away from him. "Nut."
"That's me." He reached for the wine bottle. "Okay, I'm going to pour us both another glass of wine and go start the grill."
"Perfect. Potatoes will be ready in ten minutes and once the steaks are ready, I'll toss the salad and we'll sit down."
He poured the wine, then planted a kiss on my lips and strolled to the back door. "Oh, and when I get back inside, remind me to ask you about the Gables."
I raised my eyebrows. "Um, okay."
Frowning, he said, "So you know what that is?"
He nodded slowly, then walked out to the backyard to start up the grill. I took utensils and napkins into the dining room to set the table. If Mac wanted to talk about the Gables, I figured we'd better use the more formal setting. This was going to get serious.
I was back in the kitchen when he came inside. "So what do you want to know about the Gables?"
"Everything." He picked up his wineglass and leaned against the counter. "It's a place around here, right? I only just heard about it for the first time today when I was approached by someone from a development company. Apparently they're turning some old run-down building into a retail space and they're looking for local investors. My business manager is really upbeat about the project and referred the developer to me. Her name is Rachel Powers. Have you heard of her?"
"Vaguely." My friend Jane Hennessey had mentioned her name, I thought, but I had never met her. "So they want to enlist some big names, I guess."
"That's the impression I got. Not that I'm a big name."
"You're pretty big around here." I picked up my wineglass. "It's smart of them to find someone famous who also lives in the area. Theoretically, you'll talk up the project wherever you go and people will listen. And that might bring in more investors." I angled my head and looked at him. "You look a little wary. Don't you think it's a good investment?"
"I have no idea what to think, but wariness is a natural reaction." But then he grinned. "Especially since I've never heard of the place before today."
I pulled the steaks from the refrigerator. "Did this developer tell you much about the Gables?"
"That's the thing that made me suspicious. She wouldn't tell me anything. Said it would be more exciting if I could see it first. Then she'd give me a tour and point out all the positives."
"In this case, she's probably right. It'll make much more of an impression on you if you see it first." I took a minute to freshen the water in Robbie's and Tiger's bowls before returning to the subject. "I'm still surprised you've never heard of the Gables. You've lived here for at least two years."
"Right, and I'm clueless, which never feels good to me." He sat down at the kitchen table and patted his leg. Robbie gave a rapturous bark and jumped onto his lap. "So clue me in."
Was it wrong to be jealous of my dog? I wondered.
"It's funny," I said, "because you drive past it all the time. It's about a mile north of town."
Now he looked baffled. "It is? I've never noticed a sign or anything."
"There aren't any signs. And it's hard to see the buildings from the highway. They're all tucked behind a hill."
Mac lived three miles north of town in the big house next to the old lighthouse, so he would've passed the Gables every time he drove into town. But again, it was well hidden from the road. If you didn't know the old place was there, you wouldn't have a clue.
Robbie hopped down to the floor and was quickly replaced by Tiger, my marmalade cat. Mac grinned and agreeably began to stroke her soft fur. I loved that the man was so attentive to my little creatures. I could hear Tiger purring from halfway across the room. It was hard to blame her.
"So why have I never even heard of this place before today?" he asked.
I took butter and sour cream out of the fridge. "Most people around town don't like to talk about it."
To answer this, I first had to fortify myself with a hearty sip of wine. "Because for over a hundred years, the Gables was an insane asylum."
He blinked, then gaped. "Wait. What?"
"We should put the steaks on."
He shook his head and gave a short laugh. "Way to drop a bombshell, Irish."
I winced. He did look a little shell-shocked. "Sorry."
"That's okay. I'm sure I'll have a few dozen questions for you, but let's get everything on the table before we talk. This sounds like it could get intense."
He grabbed the plate with the steaks. "I'll get these grilled. Then we can talk while we eat."
Mac managed to make it through the next fifteen minutes of intensive dinner prep without asking any questions. He bided his time, grilling the steaks to perfection while I tossed the salad. He cut open the baked potatoes and heaped on butter, sour cream, and chives. And as soon as we were seated at the dining room table, he pounced. ÒNow tell me everything you know.Ó
I swallowed a bite of my baked potato and took a quick sip of wine while I tried to recall my local history. "Okay. The Gables was built in the 1870s and back then it was known as the Northern California Asylum for the Insane. They changed the name in the 1960s."
He nodded slowly. "Of course. By then it would've been considered cruel to use the term insane asylum."
"That's right," I said. "And then in the early eighties, the government started cutting off funding, so mental hospitals across the country were closing. But the Gables managed to stay open until around 2002 because they had private funding."
"Do you know where the money came from?"
"From the family of one of the patients."
"So one family paid for the entire facility to stay open?"
"That's awfully generous. But I guess if the place was caring for their loved one, it was worth it to them." He took a forkful of salad, and we both chewed silently for a moment. "So what can you tell me about the place itself?"
"From one angle, your developer is right. You definitely have to see it to believe it. It's massive. The architecture itself is spectacular. Classic Victorian style with a gothic edge. Very dark stone walls, tall towers, ironwork details. There are seven large buildings altogether, and they stretch across the entire hillside." My enthusiasm grew as I talked about the place. "Oh, and there are gargoyles."
He grinned. "Cool."
"The property is beautiful, too. It's situated on a huge piece of land that straddles the ridge at the top of Mount Clausen. The views are amazing."
Mount Clausen had been named after Herman Clausen, one of the founders of Lighthouse Cove. He was a prosperous dairy farmer who had been known as the Butterfat King for obvious reasons.
Mac gazed at me. "Sounds like you've been up there."