1. I’ve seriously offended a maniacal killer.
2. I just had a bullet removed from my brain.
3. My new daughter is growing up too fast—and she’s in the line of fire.
Living on an obscure, technology-free island off California means safety from the murderer who hunts Kellen Adams and her new family…or does it? Family time becomes terror-time, and at last, alone, Kellen faces a killer playing a cruel game.
Only one can survive, and Kellen knows who must win…and who must die.
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Cape Charade Washington's Pacific Coast This Spring
The Cape Charade undertaker, Arthur Earthman, never wanted to hear noises in the casket display room, especially after midnight.
But this had been a week of interesting firsts.
On Tuesday, a beautiful young woman, a grieving widow, had come into his office carrying a marriage certificate and a State of Washington Certificate of Exhumation. He hadn't even known Washington state required a Certificate of Exhumation, since he'd never exhumed a body before.
Through its entire existence, Cape Charade had been merely a wide spot on Highway 101, a place where summer tourists stopped for gas and lunch. The tiny cemetery, founded in 1879 by Arthur's ancestor as part of his mortuary business, had never contained more than 5,300 dear dead souls.
The widow, Miranda Nyugen, had been so sorrowful, so grief-stricken, so respectful of her Vietnamese husband's traditions, that Arthur ached for her. It didn't hurt that she was a beautiful woman, medium height, curvaceous, with shoulder-length, dark, shining hair, fair skin and piercing blue eyes. She had whispered her story in a voice shattered with heartbreak. She had met Mitch in California, two weeks before he was due to go overseas with the Army. He convinced her to wed, and they had driven to Las Vegas and married. They spent the next two weeks in bed, and he had left her alone, grieving, waiting for his emails and calls. The longer he was gone, the more and more infrequently she heard from him. At last, when she heard nothing for too many months, she scraped together all of her money and went to visit Mitch's parents.
In their shame, they could hardly look at her. Mitch had left the Army, gone to work at Yearning Sands Resort in Washington, and been killed while committing criminal acts. His immigrant family was deeply ashamed of him and the shadow his perfidy had cast upon them. Rather than bring his body home to them for burial, they had allowed him to be interred in the Cape Charade Cemetery where no one would visit him, no one would grieve for him.
Miranda said she didn't believe Mitch had committed any crimes — Arthur knew better, but he didn't tell the young widow — and she couldn't bear for him to remain in the ground here, unmourned and unloved. She would take him back with her to Wyoming to her family burial plot.
When Arthur asked why she would go through so much trouble for the husband she hardly knew, tears welled in her eyes.
Miranda and Mitch were the parents of twins, a boy and a girl. The children deserved to be able to mourn at their father's grave.
So today they had exhumed the casket with its body from its corner of the cemetery, making sure not to desecrate any of the surrounding graves, and now Arthur sat in his kitchen and told the whole story to his wife, Cynthia, as she cooked his dinner. When he was done talking, she turned away from the stovetop and asked, "You believe all that? About the wedding and the family and the kids? When did you become the world's biggest sucker?"
"I haven't!" Had he?
The scent of garlic and oregano wafted from the pot. "It's because she's pretty, isn't it?"
He prided himself on saying the right thing in delicate circumstances. "Not as pretty as you, honey."
"There's no fool like an old fool," she retorted.
"I'm not old!" Better to protest age than whether or not he'd been unwise.
She laughed, opened a can of stewed tomatoes and dumped it into the pot. "Did this woman pay for the excavator?"
"Yes. I have the check for that and the cost of my services." He pulled it out of his shirt pocket and placed it on the table.
"She wrote a check?" Cynthia left the stove, came to the table and examined it. "Hmm. Did you give her a discount?"
"No!" He had.
"Did you pay for flowers?"
"Yes. But we get a reduced rate from the florist."
"Arthur." Cynthia tapped her foot. "Where is the casket?"
"Mrs. Nyugen is grief-stricken and she wanted to pray for his soul in the proper surroundings —"
"You put him in the chapel? Are you crazy?" Cynthia threw her arms into the air in exaggerated exasperation. "That body's been in the cold, heavy, damp ground for four years, and now it's in the warm chapel? You know what could happen." She stomped back to the stove and very, very vigorously whisked the marinara.
"It's a magnificent casket, top of the line. You know, when the Nyugen family purchased it, we wondered if they felt guilty about leaving him here or if that kind of coffin was Vietnamese tradition."
Cynthia slammed a lid on the sauce.
"Anyway, I cleaned the exterior and did repairs on the seals before I would let him in there."
"Arthur William Earthman, you didn't let him in there. He's dead. You placed him in there. You could have placed him in the casket viewing room where the carpet isn't new!"
When she called him by his full name, it was time to distract her. "It's only for one night," he said in his most soothing voice.
"Don't use that undertaker tone with me!" She stirred pasta into the now boiling water.
He got up from the table, strolled over close behind her and rubbed her bottom. "Nothing excites me as much as watching you cook."
"Yeah, well. Nothing excites me as much as watching you vacuum."
"After dinner, I'll vacuum the living room."
"You must be feeling guilty." Her voice was still sharp. "Anything else you want to confess?"
"No. I swear. That's everything. Isn't that enough?"
"Plenty. Here." She handed him a full bowl of greens and a bottle of dressing. "Toss the salad." She watched him toss, and she sounded more like his Cynthia when she said, "After dinner, when you vacuum — wear a frilly apron and I'll make you the happiest man on earth."
So the distraction worked, as did the frilly apron, and when those disturbing noises from the mortuary woke Arthur out of a sound and well-deserved sleep, he tried to convince himself those sounds were his imagination. Finally he got up, murmured reassurance to Cynthia's sleepy questions, pulled on his boxers, cursed his ancestor for attaching the family's personal home to a funeral home, called 911 and went to investigate.
The noises were definitely coming from the casket display room where Mitch Nyugen had been placed prior to his transportation to Wyoming. Arthur wasn't a superstitious man — his business precluded fearing vampires, zombies or any form of the human body after the soul had departed — so he kept the lights off as he crept through the funeral home, intending to catch the intruders by surprise. He figured it had to be a couple of teenagers on a dare, and he intended to give them a good scare.
As he got closer to the chapel, it didn't do his nerves any good to see a faint light coming from under the closed door — it had been open earlier — and hear a low hum, like an electrical appliance.
Reaching the casket display room, he slammed open the door, flipped on all the lights and yelled, "Hey!" And reeled back in horror.
The coffin was open.
A dark-haired, young and slender woman stood over it, doing something inside — to the body.
"What are you doing?" Arthur shouted.
Right away, he realized something was off. She hadn't jumped, and he hadn't frightened her; it was almost as if she'd been waiting for him. She looked up at him through her veil of hair. Her blue eyes glowed with a mad obsession.
Miranda Nyugen. It was Miranda Nyugen. "Arthur," she crooned.
He started forward.
She lifted one finger, then pointed it at the object on the top step. "Don't step on that."
He stopped. He looked. "Is that part of the body? His hand? My God, woman, that was your husband."
She laughed wildly, her head thrown back, her enjoyment rich and intense. "Arthur, you vain and silly man. Don't you know when you've been played?" She started toward him. She held a small circular saw in one hand. She held her other hand behind her back.
"You've been cutting up the body? Miranda, you need help."
"It's my own interesting little obsession. We all get to have our obsessions, don't we?"
"No." He turned to leave, to get back to Cynthia and make his report to the sheriff who was on her way, but couldn't get there fast enough.
"You don't imagine you can leave?" Miranda grabbed his arm in a surprisingly strong grip and spun him around — onto the point of the arterial tube she'd stolen from his embalming set. A moment of resistance, then the six-inch-long needle pierced the skin and sank between his ribs in a long, upward motion. He had one moment of stupid hope: that she had grabbed a clean and unused arterial tube.
Then he realized it didn't matter. He knew anatomy as well as any physician; either through skill or blind luck, she had penetrated his heart.
He looked into her avid blue eyes.
In his ears, he could hear each beat of his heart, and with each beat, he knew the powerful muscle contracted, pushing blood into his chest cavity.
He writhed. He fell.
Miranda Nyugen picked up the gruesome souvenir on the step.
She placed it lovingly into her backpack.
She leaned into the coffin, extracted something, dropped it into her backpack.
She used one of the brass candlesticks to shatter one of their prized stained glass windows. Dark rushed in, misting his eyes with night.
She dragged a chair over, got ready to climb out. Someone screamed. Cynthia screamed.
Beat. Beat. Beat.
Miranda turned back, and all he could see was the porcelain gleam of her teeth as she smiled that terrible smile.
No, Cynthia. Run away!
He waited for the next beat.
It never came.
He never knew it. Not in this world.CHAPTER 2
If there's one thing that's worse than not waking up after brain surgery, it's waking up after brain surgery. No matter how brilliant the surgeon, having someone poke around in your brain results in bruising and swelling and disconnected nerves.
For the surgeon, success equates a patient who comes to consciousness and is not in a vegetative state.
For the bruised and swollen brain patient, success equates sitting up and not falling over, learning to hold a spoon and use it (FYI, sticking it in your eye hurts), and being able to complete a sentence without forgetting half the words. Let's not even talk about potty training for adults.
Oh! And may I say, the medical staff gets agitated when a person (me) gets confused about her first name.
My husband, Max, told them not to worry.
That's because he knows the truth. I was born Cecilia, got married too young, was the victim of an abusive husband who had murder/suicided my cousin Kellen Rae Adams and them himself when she had come to rescue me. Being dumb, young and scared (I know, excuses! But I'm trying to give you the whole picture), I took her identification and ran with it. I made every bad decision, had been as cowardly as it was possible for a person to be, but then ... then I grew. I made the decision to truly be Kellen, to live for my cousin, to make myself worthy of my new name.
A six-year stint in the US Army had helped with that.
Except apparently after brain surgery, when I had flashbacks.
I know. I should be glad that I opened my eyes and once again saw my daughter and my husband, knew who they were, had their support and their love.
Any woman who caught a bullet with her head and was lucky enough to wake up afterward, and then, years later, successfully survive the surgery to remove said bullet, is glad for all the good things in life.
But while I was spending five hours a day with a physical therapist, my daughter was growing up without me and my husband, Max, wouldn't talk to me about anything that might worry me, and that means anything of substance. Honestly, everything was about me — I heard you took your first step today. Your manual dexterity is improving by leaps and bounds ... on the left hand. Your hair is growing out and you don't look like a cracked Chia Pet troll anymore!
Okay, that last one was me. No one said I looked like a Chia Pet troll, cracked or otherwise. But when they shave your head and slice through the skull, and the swelling extends over half your face, it's not a pretty sight. Not that I'm vain, but ...
Okay, I guess I am.
As I recovered, my hair grew in white, so I dyed the tips a brilliant green. My mother-in-law said I looked like a healthy lawn. Now I change the color seasonally, and not merely to irk Verona, although that is an added benefit. At Christmas, I dye my hair stained-glass-window red, in the autumn, pumpkin spice orange, in February, purple because ... why not? I had to re-dye the springtime daffodil yellow. I love daffodils, but the yellow turned my complexion sallow.
After a mere month in the hospital, two months in a rehab home, another two weeks in the hospital to fix a cracked hip (I got impatient and tried to get up on my own), a return to the rehab home, working, working, working, and finally discovering I had problems that would never be fixed and memory quirks that were downright scary ... I got to go home, to Yearning Sands Resort.
Meanwhile, my Aunt Cora had died in a memory care center, I'd missed so much of my little girl's life she was barely a little girl anymore and my married life had faltered at the altar.
Turns out, that was the least of my worries. Our worries.
I'm Kellen Adams, and the fun had barely begun.CHAPTER 3
Yearning Sands Resort Washington's Pacific Coast This Spring
Rae Di Luca stacked up her Level Three lesson books, opened the piano bench and put them away. She got out the Adult Course Level 1A book, opened it to "Silver Bells," and put it on the music rack. "Mom, you have to practice."
Kellen didn't look up from her book. "I know."
"When are you going to do it?"
"I'm at the good part. Let me finish this chapter."
"No, you have to practice now. You know it helps with your finger dexterity."
When had their roles reversed, Kellen wondered? When had ten-year-old Rae become the sensible adult and Kellen become the balky child?
Oh yeah. When she had the brain surgery, her right hand refused to regain its former abilities, and the physical therapist suggested learning the piano. But there was a reason Kellen hadn't learned to play the piano earlier in her life. She loved music — and she had no musical talent. That, added to the terrible atrophy that afflicted her fingers, made her lessons and practices an unsurpassed agony ... for everyone.
She looked up, saw Rae standing, poised between coaxing and impatience, and the Rolodex in Kellen's punctured, operated-on and much-abused brain clicked in:
RAE DI LUCA:
FEMALE, 10YO, 5'0", 95LBS. KELLEN'S DAUGHTER. HER MIRACLE. IN TRANSITION: GIRL TO WOMAN, BLOND HAIR TO BROWN, BROWN EYES LIGHTENING TO HAZEL. LONG LEGS; GAWKY. SKIN A COMBINATION OF HER ITALIAN HERITAGE FROM HER FATHER AND THE NATIVE AMERICAN BLOOD FROM KELLEN; FIRST PIMPLE ON HER CHIN. NEVER TEMPERAMENTAL. KIND, STRONG, INDEPENDENT.
Kellen loved this kid. The feeling was more than human. It was feral, too, and Kellen would do anything to protect Rae from threat — and had. "I know. I'm coming. It's so much more fun to listen to you play than practice myself. You're good and I'm ... awful."
"I'm not good. I'm just better than you." Rae came over and wrapped her arms around Kellen's neck, hugged and laughed. "But Luna is better than you."
"Don't talk to me about that dog. She howls every time I sit down at the piano. Sometimes she doesn't even wait until I start playing. The traitor." Kellen glared at the dog, and once again her brain — which had developed this ability after that shot to the head — sorted through the files of identity cards to read:
FEMALE, FULL-SIZED POODLE/AUSTRALIAN CATTLE DOG/AT LEAST ONE OTHER BREED, 50LBS, RED COAT, BROWN EYES, STRONGLY MUSCLED. RESCUED BY RAE AND MAX WHILE KELLEN RECOVERED FROM SURGERY. FAMILY MEMBER. RAE'S FRIEND, COMPANION, PROTECTOR. MUSIC LOVER.
Luna watched Kellen in return, head resting on her paws, waiting for her chance to sing a solo protest to Kellen's inept rendition of "Silver Bells."
"Everybody's a critic." Rae set the timer. "Come on. Ten minutes of scales, then you only have to practice for thirty minutes."
"Why do I have to practice 'Silver Bells'? Christmas isn't for seven months."
"So you'll have mastered it by the time the season rolls around."
"I used to like that song."
"We all used to like that song." Rae took Kellen's left hand and tugged. "Mom, come on. You know you feel better after- ward."
Kellen allowed herself to be brought to her feet. "I'm going to do something wild and crazy. I'm going to start learning 'When the Saints Go Marching In.' It's the next song in the book, and I like it."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Strangers She Knows"
Copyright © 2019 Christina Dodd.
Excerpted by permission of Harlequin Enterprises Limited.
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