Nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, Summit Lake seems too pristine for violent crime. But two weeks ago, law student Becca Eckersley was murdered in one of its quaint lakefront houses. The daughter of a powerful attorney, Becca was ambitious, hard-working, and beloved. And, while the town reels with grief, the police are without a suspect.
To investigative reporter Kelsey Castle, the savagery of the crime, and the determined efforts to keep the case quiet, all hint at something far more sinister than a random attack. Digging deeper despite warnings and danger, Kesley begins to feel a connection to the dead girl. And the more she learns about Becca’s friendships, her love life—and the secrets she was keeping—the more convinced she becomes that learning the truth about Becca could be the key to overcoming her own dark past.
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By Charlie Donlea
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2016 Charlie Donlea
All rights reserved.
Becca Eckersley Summit Lake February 17, 2012 The night of her death
The winter night sucked the sky black by the time she left the cafe. She walked the dark streets of Summit Lake and pulled her scarf tight against the cold. It felt good to finally tell someone. It made it real. Spilling her secret relieved the pressure from a long-held burden, and Becca Eckersley relaxed a bit. She finally believed it would all work out.
When she reached the lake, the dock creaked under her feet until she stepped onto the wraparound deck of her parents' stilt house. Carefree and liberated after her time at Millie's Coffee House, Becca never felt his presence. Didn't notice him in the shadows, hidden under the cover of darkness. She keyed the side door to the mudroom and locked it behind her, then undraped her scarf and slipped out of her heavy coat. She set the alarm and headed to the bathroom where she climbed under the hot flow of water and let the stress drain from her body. It was a test run, her coffeehouse confession. Practice. She'd kept too many secrets over the last year, this being the biggest and most foolish of them all. The others could be blamed on youth, chalked up to inexperience. But hiding this last part of her life was pure immaturity, explained only by fear and naïveté. The relief she felt from finally telling someone confirmed her decision. Her parents needed to know. It was time.
Exhausted from law school and the frantic pace of her life, it was easy to imagine crawling under the covers and sleeping until morning. But she came to Summit Lake to get her work done. To get back on track. Sleeping was not an option. She took ten minutes to blow-dry her hair and climb into comfortable sweats and thick wool socks. At the kitchen island she turned on her iPod, pulled out her textbook, notes, and laptop, and got to work.
Earlier, the shower and hair dryer had washed out the noise of the door handle rattling from outside and the two strong shoulder thrusts testing the strength of the deadbolt. But now, after an hour of Constitutional Law, Becca heard it. A rattle or vibration at the door. She turned down the iPod and listened. A half a minute of silence passed, then a loud rap at the door. Three loud knuckle-to-wood claps that startled her. She checked her watch and froze with anticipation, knowing he wasn't supposed to arrive until tomorrow. Unless he was surprising her, which he was known to do.
Becca ran to the mudroom door and pulled the curtains to the side. What she saw confused her, and in that confusion her thoughts ran sideways. Excitement filled her gut and emotion stirred her heart, and with so much clouding her mind, no single thought shouted loud enough to give her pause. Tears welled in her eyes and a smile came to her face. She punched the code on the alarm system, bringing the red light to green, then released the deadbolt and twisted the handle. She was surprised when he forced the door open and, like built-up water against a bulkhead, pushed and slid into the mudroom. More surprising still was his aggression. Unprepared for the onslaught he threw at her, she felt her heels skid and drag across the tile floor until he slammed her against the wall. Clutching her shoulders, then a fistful of hair at the base of her skull, he wrestled her through the mudroom and into the kitchen. Panic wiped her mind blank — all the ideas and images there just seconds before, erased now — allowing her primitive instincts to take over. Becca Eckersley fought for her life.
The violent flurry continued through the kitchen, Becca grasping and kicking at anything that might help her. She saw her textbook and laptop scatter to the floor as her wool-stockinged feet struggled for traction on the cold tile. As he jerked her through the room, Becca's legs frantically scissored back and forth. A wild kick met the kitchen hutch, sending dishes shattering across the floor. With the chaos in the kitchen still settling — bowls rolling, stools bouncing — she felt the carpet of the family room under her feet. It gave her leverage and Becca used every bit of it to pull away from his grip, but her resistance only fueled her attacker's rage. He wrenched her head backward, ripping a clump of hair from her scalp and sending her into a free fall. When she landed, Becca felt her head crack against the wood frame of the couch as he heaved himself on top of her. The pain in her head vibrated down her spine. Her vision blurred and the noise of the world began to fade, until his ice-cold hands thrust into her sweatpants. This snapped her back to consciousness. As the weight of his body pinned her down, she punched and clawed until her knuckles broke and her nails became thick with skin and blood.
When she felt her underwear rip away, she screamed a piercing, shrill cry. But it lasted only a few seconds, until his hands found her throat and crushed her voice into raspy gasps. He was vicious and possessed as he silenced her, his hands clamping with a powerful rage around her neck. She sucked for air, but it would not come, and soon her arms fell like deflated balloons to her sides. And though her body could no longer respond to the panicked calls from her mind, she still resisted by never breaking eye contact with him. Until her vision faded like her voice.
Broken and bleeding, she lay there, her chest barely rising with shallow breaths. She drifted in and out, waking each time he brutalized her in angry, violent waves. It went on for an eternity before he left her. Before he fled through the sliding glass door of the family room, leaving it wide open and allowing the cold night air to fill the room and creep over her naked body. Becca's eyelids fell to slivers. All that was left now was white halogen glowing in the doorframe, bright against the dark night. Becca lay motionless, unable to blink or look away had the desire come to her. It did not. She was strangely content in her paralysis. Tears slid down her cheeks and climbed the curve of her earlobes before dripping silently to the floor. The worst was over. The pain was gone. His fists no longer pummeled her, and her throat was finally free from his crushing grip. His hot breath gone from her face, he was no longer on top of her, and his absence was all the freedom she wanted.
On the floor with her legs splayed and arms like two broken tree limbs attached to her sides, she faced the wide-open patio door. The lighthouse in the distance — with its bright beacon calling out to lost boats in the night — was all she knew and all she needed. It was life and she clung to its swaying image.
Far away a siren bounced through the night, low at first, then gathering strength. Help was coming, although she knew it was too late. Still, she welcomed the siren and the aid it would bring. It was not herself she was hoping to save.CHAPTER 2
Kelsey Castle Events Magazine March 1, 2012 Two weeks after Becca's death
Kelsey Castle's return to work was quiet and without ceremony, just the way she wanted it. She parked in the rear lot so no one would notice her car, and rather than risk the elevator she snuck in the backdoor and climbed the stairs. Early still, most of the staff was battling rush hour or snoozing the alarm clock. She couldn't stay invisible forever. She would have to talk to someone. But Kelsey hoped to keep her office door closed and play catch-up for a few hours, uninterrupted by sad smiles and how-are-you stares.
The cubicles were empty when she poked her head out of the stairway. In a smooth stroll she walked the hallway, keeping her eyes set on her office door — a racehorse with blinders. The door to her editor's office was open with lights blazing. Kelsey knew she wouldn't beat him to the office, never did. After a few more steps she reached her office, slithered through the door, and quickly shut it behind her.
"What are you doing here?" Penn Courtney asked with a look of disapproval. "You're not supposed to be back for two more weeks." He was sitting on her couch, feet on the coffee table, paging through drafts of articles that would run in this week's edition.
Kelsey took a deep breath as she turned from her closed door. "Why are you in my office? Whenever you need something, you wait in my office."
"Good to see you, too."
Kelsey walked to her desk and dropped her purse in the bottom drawer. "Sorry." She took another deep breath and smiled. "Good to see you, too, Penn. And thanks for everything you've done for me. You're a good friend."
"You're welcome." He paused a moment before continuing. "How you doing?"
"Good God, right through the gates and I get it. We talked about this already. I don't want everyone running around here asking me how I am every minute of the day."
"Hence the stealth return before the troops arrive? Let me guess, you took the stairs."
"I need the exercise."
"And parked in the back lot?"
She just stared at him.
"You can't hide from everyone. People are concerned about you."
"I get that. I just don't want all the mushy stuff, you know?"
Penn waved his hand. "Won't ask again." He organized the papers in front of him in neat stacks to keep his hands busy. "But really, what are you doing here?"
"I'm stir-crazy at home, so six weeks isn't going to work. I made it a month, that's all I can take. So back to my original question, why are you in my office?"
Penn stood from the couch, a stack of papers in his hands, and walked to the front of her desk. "I was going to do this in two weeks, but I guess I can ask you now."
Kelsey sat behind her desk. The computer screen already captured her attention as she scrolled through e-mails. "Look at all these e-mails. Hundreds. See? This is why I wanted to do some work from home."
"Forget the e-mails," Penn said. "They're all junk." He let her read for a minute before he continued. "Have you ever heard of Summit Lake?"
"No, what is it?"
"A little town in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Quaint. Cozy. Lots of out-of-towners who spend time at their weekend homes. Water sports when it's warm, ski trails and snowmobiling when it's cold."
Kelsey glanced at him, then back to her computer. "You need any Propecia? There are about fifty e-mails here that hock it."
Penn ran a hand over his smooth scalp. "I think it's too late for that."
"Viagra? Do these idiots know I'm a woman? Yeah, most of these are junk."
"I want you to go there," Penn said, dropping the pages on her desk.
Kelsey stopped scrolling. Her eyes moved from her computer screen to the dropped pages and then up to her editor's eyes. "Go where?"
"Don't start this, Penn. I just told you."
"I'm not starting anything. There's a story there and I want you on it."
"What story could possibly be in a tiny tourist town?"
"An important one."
"Terrible answer," she said. "You're getting rid of me because you don't think I'm ready to come back."
"That's not true." He paused. "I'm getting rid of you because I think you need it."
"Dammit, Penn!" Kelsey stood up also. "Is this how it's going to be from now on? Tiptoeing around me like I'm a porcelain doll, giving me fluff pieces and sending me on vacations because you don't think I can handle my job?"
"To be honest, no, I don't think you can handle your job right now. No, I don't think you should come back so soon. And, no, this is not how it's going to be from now on." Penn lowered his voice, put his palms on her desk, and leaned closer, looking straight into her eyes. Twice her age, with two sons and a successful vasectomy, Kelsey Castle was the closest thing he'd ever have to a daughter. "But this is how it's going to be right now. There's a story in Summit Lake. I want you to track it down. Is it an accident the town has a gorgeous view of the mountains and a beautiful blue lake? No. Would the magazine normally set you up in a five-star hotel with all expenses paid? Hell no. But I own the damn magazine, you helped build the magazine, and I want this story done right. I'm sending you to Summit Lake for as long as it takes to figure it out." Penn sat in a chair in front of Kelsey's desk and exhaled a long, calming breath.
Kelsey closed her eyes and fell into her own chair. "Figure what out? What's the story?"
"A dead girl."
She raised her eyebrows, stared at him with her big, brown eyes. "Go on."
"It's the only recorded homicide in the history of Summit Lake, and currently a big deal up there. Happened a couple of weeks ago, and it's starting to make national headlines. The girl's dad is a prominent attorney. Family is wealthy. Police have no leads yet. No suspects. No persons of interest. Just a girl who was alive one day and dead the next. Something's not adding up. I want you to rattle some cages and poke around. Find what everyone else is missing. Then give me an article that people want to read. I want to plaster this poor girl's face on the cover of Events, not just with a story about her death, but with the truth. And I want to do it before the other vultures pick up the scent and descend on Summit Lake. Once that small town fills with reporters and tabloids, no one's going to talk."
Kelsey pulled the pages Penn dropped on her desk and skimmed through them. "Not as fluffy as I thought."
Penn made an ugly face. "Do you think I'd send my best crime reporter to write about cute shops and galleries?" He stood up. "Take a couple days here to do your research, then off you go. Find out if there's a story up there, and if there is, write the hell out of it. And I don't expect you back anytime soon. I want this for the May edition. That means even if you get this story straight the day you arrive, you've got the hotel for a month."
Kelsey smiled. "Thanks, Penn."CHAPTER 3
Becca Eckersley George Washington University November 30, 2010 Fourteen months before her death
In the recesses of the George Washington University library, Becca Eckersley sat with her three friends. Desk lamps illuminated their table, brightening textbooks and papers, and highlighting their faces in the otherwise darkened space. Three years earlier, she arrived on campus with no high school friends, but Becca found no problems adjusting to college. Freshman year she roomed with Gail Moss, and the two quickly became friends. Becca and Gail, together with their two guy friends — Jack and Brad — were all headed for law school. They studied together regularly and made an unusual foursome.
"People say it all the time," Gail said.
"What people?" Brad asked. "Who talks about us so much?"
"I don't know," Gail said. "Just other kids. I've heard girls talk."
"And what's their problem?"
"They just think we're weird."
"Who cares what they think?" Brad said. "Seriously, this is all in your head."
"It's not in my head," Gail said. "Okay, I'll just put it out there and ask the question. Why are we friends?"
"What do you mean?" Becca asked. "Because we like each other. We all get along, have things in common. That's why anyone becomes friends."
"She means the sex, or lack of it, between us," Brad said. "She's just too shy to phrase it that way." He looked at Gail. "You better figure out a way to express yourself more clearly if you want to be a litigator."
"Fine," Gail said, closing her eyes momentarily to avoid eye contact. "Does anyone think it's odd that we've been friends since freshman year and there's been no hookups, no sleeping around, no drama?"
"You had a boyfriend for the first year we knew you," Jack said. "What was his name?"
Jack laughed and pointed at Gail. "That's right. Euge. I loved that guy. Sort of a tool, but in a geeky, cool kind of way."
Brad laughed also. "I forgot about that guy. He hated when we called him Euge. 'It's just Gene' he kept saying. Remember that weekend?"
Becca laughed now, too. "The 'Just Gene' weekend. Oh my God, that seems like more than three years ago."
Gail tried not to smile. "Yeah, very amusing. He never came back to DC after that weekend, anyone notice that?"
"He broke up with you a few weeks later, didn't he?" Jack asked.
"Yes, because of that weekend."
"Come on," Jack said. "Because we called him Euge?"
"Forget it," Gail said. "My point is that our little foursome here is unique. Two girls, two guys — all best friends, in college, without any of the crazy stuff to mess it up."
Jack closed his Business Law textbook. He patted Brad on the back. "Brad here will be the most powerful senator in Congress, you two will be schmuck lawyers working for him, I'll be a lobbyist getting him all his money, and we'll all still be best friends. Who cares why, and who cares if other people don't understand?" He threw his books into his backpack. "I've had enough for tonight. Let's get a beer at the 19th."
"Amen," Brad said.
They packed their things and stood to leave. Becca stared at Jack. "No one's worried about Professor Morton's final?" she asked.
"I'm worried," Jack said. "But I'm on the slow infusion process, which allows my brain to absorb his terribly boring and abstract lectures in small spoonfuls. If I cram it all in, most of it ends up seeping out."
Excerpted from Summit Lake by Charlie Donlea. Copyright © 2016 Charlie Donlea. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsPraise for Charlie Donlea and Summit Lake,
Books by Charlie Donlea,
PART I - THE MORNING FALLS,
PART II - SELF-HELP,
PART III - HELLO, I DETECTIVE,
PART IV - THREE KNOCKS,
The Girl Who Was Taken Teaser,