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Absolute stillness waited for Alex Duggins in the kitchens of the Black Dog. Stillness and silence but for an almost sound, like sodden earth's faint sucking after the storm. She closed the door softly and reached hesitantly for the light switches. Two clicks and the early-morning shadows disappeared – but not the silence.
Prickling at her nape, its subtle climb into her hair shocked her. 'Off you go, Bogie,' she said, too loudly. 'Go find your blanket.' And I will shut out this ridiculous so-called premonition and get on with my day. Premonition of what anyway? It hasn't happened since ... Shut this out!
A vehicle rattled into the car park behind the pub. That would be the milk delivery.
Murky as the day's beginning was, complete with drizzle, it wasn't cold. Alex hadn't worn a coat to come from Tony's Range Rover to the building. She took an apron from a hook and slipped it on, then started coffee brewing.
A knock at the front door of the Black Dog jolted her. Tying the apron strings more firmly, she hurried to open up, peering at her watch as she went. Half past five in the morning. Tony had only dropped her off a few minutes ago. Scoot Gammage, the teenager who came in to help at the pub before school, was due soon but always used the back door to the kitchens anyway – just as she did.
Alex unlocked and opened the door. Someone might be hoping to book a room in the inn for the coming night.
A tall woman in a long black raincoat, its hood pulled over her head, stood with her back to Alex who cleared her throat. After a few seconds she said, 'Can I help you?' The raincoat was overkill for the weather.
Turning enough to look over her shoulder, the woman took plenty of time summing up Alex. Narrowed, very dark eyes traveled from head to foot and back. 'I doubt if you can. I'm Neve Rhys.' Scottish, but the accent less soft than Hugh's. Skin a milky white. Lines at the corners of her eyes and between her brows but still in her thirties probably. The derisive curl of her lip was impossible to miss, even in the mean light released by grey clouds that hung like Victorian funeral bunting over trees and hills.
The low, clear voice came again. 'My husband's cousin, Hugh Rhys, runs this place. If you'd go along and tell him I've come, I'll wait here.'
The woman looked away and once more Alex was faced with that blank, black, tall back.
She flipped on more lights. 'Hugh isn't up yet. Please come inside, though, and I'll give him your message.' Even the misty village green across the High Street was still and empty. Not a dog walker in sight yet. Only the first curls of smoke from stone cottage chimneys suggested the village was awakening.
'How do you know he isn't up yet?' the woman asked. 'Who are you?'
If Hugh had more relatives like this it was little wonder he never talked about any of them. 'Alex Duggins. I own the Black Dog. Hugh is my manager. He should be down shortly.'
She stood back while Neve Rhys swung around and came into the restaurant. The inn's seven guest rooms were reached by a staircase on the left, behind a reception desk, while the pub and kitchens took up the rest of the rambling lower floor.
'There's coffee in the kitchen,' Alex said, pointing. 'It'll soon be ready. Through the main bar. Kitchens are at the back, behind the counters. Help yourself. You look a bit chilly and it's warmer in there.'
The stare Alex got suggested the woman either didn't understand the offer, or ... who knew? An elegant, sharp-boned face didn't move and very dark eyes slid away to look into the distance. Neve Rhys scraped out a chair at a dining-room table and sat down. She pushed the hood away from a closely cropped cap of straight black hair and looked up abruptly. 'I'm tired,' she announced. 'I've done a lot of driving in the past few days. If you don't mind, I'll take a double whiskey and a jug of water. Since I'm family to Hugh, I'm sure that can be managed, even at this hour.'
She crossed her ankles and arms and closed her eyes. Glinting gold hoops shifted gently in her ears. Her left hand revealed a thin band on her ring finger. Her boots, worn over black tights, were laced all the way from their pointed toes and had high, square heels. Again, decidedly wintry for the time of year but Alex felt dowdy beside her, not that she knew if she'd ever be ready for anything approaching Neve's modishly individual look.
A door slammed in the distance and rubbery footsteps made halting progress over wooden floors. Alex watched the passageway from the pub to the restaurant and shortly Scoot Gammage, taller almost every time she saw him, but still thin and with his blond hair as on-end as usual, came hesitantly into the room.
'Morning, Scoot,' she said, raising her brows meaningfully. Scoot was never slow to pick up on an unusual atmosphere. 'Would you mind going up and letting Hugh know his cousin's wife is asking for him?'
He gave Neve a long look and took off for the stairs.
'Now let me see what I can do about that whiskey. We don't carry your family label. Aberlour do? Or Glenfiddich?'
Alex turned to leave and Scoot's trainers squealed on the stairs, coming down this time. 'He's coming,' he said, catching up then striding ahead of her. 'I need to get on or I'll be late.'
Alex laughed. 'Not the way you ride that bike of yours.'
In the bar she put a glass of Aberlour and some water on a tray, popped several pastries delivered very early from George's Bakery into the microwave for a few moments, and filled Hugh's large mug with coffee. This she added to the tray and, together with the plate of pastries, retraced her steps toward the restaurant.
She was certain that Hugh had never spoken of his family. There was little she knew about his background and apparently a great deal she did not. He was a quiet man; big, handsome and well-liked, even if he was more of a watcher than a mixer, unless a conversation interested him. Hugh could make people feel comfortable with little more than a smile. Women were visibly intrigued by him.
Would seeing him with someone he'd evidently known a long time – someone with none of his charm as far as Alex could tell – clarify the puzzle of Hugh Rhys at all?
'Well, I'm damned,' she heard him say and he didn't sound pleased, or glad. 'I thought Scoot must have it wrong but it is you. What in God's name are you doing here?'
Not pausing to listen would have taken more control than Alex had. That was a tone of voice she had never heard coming from Hugh.
'It's wonderful to see you, too, laddie,' Neve said, heavily sarcastic. 'I made a difficult drive to this silly little hole of a place to try and do you a good turn. Bear that in mind and we'll get along just fine. You're going to be glad I'm here.'
'An email would have saved us both some irritation. What do you want?'
'Bridge over Troubled Water,' was the first song that came to mind and Alex did her best to hum it loudly as she continued to the restaurant.
She only had moments to observe Neve lounging beside the table and Hugh towering – or looming – over her. The woman appeared smug, pleased with herself perhaps. Hugh's face was rigid, furious.
Alex wished her mother, Lily, were observing this. Lily ran the inn and restaurant, had for years, and she was an excellent interpreter of human interactions.
'This should warm you up,' Alex said brightly, and slid the tray on the table. 'And calm your nerves. What else can I do for you, Neve? If you'd like a room so you can rest, say the word and we'll get you fixed up.'
Neve didn't answer. She put the whiskey in front of her, added a tiny amount of water, then took several sips.
'Thanks, Alex,' Hugh said, his voice expressionless. 'I'm sorry you've been put out. I'll be along to help out shortly. Very shortly.'
A faint smile passed over Neve's features. 'We understand you have a house not far from here, Hugh. Why are you sleeping here?'
'You mean Green Friday? I don't live there. I prefer to be here – but that's irrelevant to you.'
Alex walked away. In the bar, Scoot was brushing the floors but stepped close to her when he could. 'Who's she, then? I mean, what's she here for?' He looked concerned.
'Nothing to do with us,' she said. 'And I don't think Hugh's glad to see her either. But she says she's had a long drive so maybe she's just tired.'
'She's a snooty one,' he responded with a grin. 'Hugh doesn't have a lot of patience with uppity people, so she'd better watch herself.'
'Scoot,' Alex hissed. 'She's family to him so we have to be nice.'
'If he doesn't, why should we? He's not being nice to her – I think he hates her guts.'
'Right,' he said with his one-sided smile. 'Just sayin'.'
'And from the way you sound these days, you're watching too much TV. I'm surprised Tony's dad allows it.' She grinned at him and gave him a soft punch on the arm. 'Better get on with it or you really will be late.' Scoot and his brother Kyle were wards of Doc James Harrison who had taken them in when their father had been imprisoned. Alex's mother, Lily, was close to James and helped with the boys.
'If you weren't so bloody hard-headed, Hugh Rhys, I wouldn't have had to drive all the way down here to make you see sense.'
Alex and Scoot stared at one another. Raised, Neve Rhys's voice got higher, sharper, and lost its control.
'I thought we'd decided you shouldn't try to change a thing about all the ways I irritate you. You suggest something I should do and for some reason, I always want to either do nothing at all, or something quite different. I haven't changed, Neve. But then, neither have you and that's a pity, not that it matters anymore. We're nothing to each other. When are you driving back?'
'When I bloody well feel like it and that may not be for some time – up to you. Decide to stop being so fucking selfish and think about what's best for the rest of us, why don't you? The sooner you stop driving in your heels just to annoy me, and do what must be done, the sooner we'll never see one another again. There's business to be settled and since you won't come to Scotland and deal with your responsibilities, the only choice was to come to you.'
'How did you find me, anyway?' Hugh said, and Alex didn't think he intended to be drawn into Neve's reasons for coming.
'You must have forgotten we share some friends. You're not as lost as you thought you were. You've had quite the time of it, haven't you? The lovely Sonia still pines over you, or so she tells me on the phone.'
'That's enough,' Hugh snapped. 'Sonia Quillam is a tiny piece of the past to me. And the only reason you'd pretend to be her friend is to find out what she knows ... about me, that is. She knows nothing. She's out of my life. She's been out of my life for years.'
'That's not what she says. But it doesn't matter. She was never good enough for you and that thing with her was just a rebound anyway. Let's not talk about it. You asked me how I found you and I told you. But watch out for that one, Hugh, she moons over you and that can be dangerous if she decides to hunt you again.'
'I have to start work. Excuse me.'
'Oh, Hugh, don't be like this. It's been a long time. Let's just bury the hatchet and remember the good times. There were lots of those and I think about them if you don't. But we are going to have to do some talking and I think it would be a good idea to get a good start before Perry gets here? It'll take him a day or two.'
'Perry?' Hugh sounded aghast. 'He's coming? What the ... why? Who will be watching things in Scotland while both of you are trying to twist my arms. In case you've forgotten, my arms aren't easy to twist.'
Neve laughed. 'I haven't forgotten a thing about your arms, Hugh. Or any other part of you.'
Alex glanced at Scoot but he was laying logs in the fire, listening but without noticing the soft suggestion in Neve's voice.
'Anyway,' Neve said, 'since when did you give a damn about the distillery.'
'I know my responsibilities and I attend to them. Now, I'm finished with this conversation.'
This conversation showed a man who was so not the Hugh Alex had come to know. He must recoil from being pushed as he was by his cousin's wife. Alex felt like walking outside. She could take Bogie with her. Rather than letting him go with Tony to the morning clinic at his small veterinary hospital like usual, she had wanted her dog's company and insisted on keeping him with her. Bogie and Tony's dog, Katie, had been asleep in the back of the Range Rover when they'd arrived at the Black Dog and Tony had pushed Alex to leave him there.
She and Tony rarely argued. Perhaps they didn't argue enough. Sometimes she felt she didn't really know him which was ridiculous when they'd been friends since she was a little girl and he started standing up for her in the school playground. And now they were lovers, which was exactly how she liked it.
Enough of that. She wasn't sure what to do next. Daylight had begun to fully bloom even though clouds still billowed in murky grey banks. They needed rain, lashings of rain to seep deep into the dry earth. Full summer would be upon them soon.
Outside it would be fresh, the air nippy but promising warmth later on, piquant with the scents of damp grass and flowers bathed with dew. The freshness wouldn't last long if it turned into another dry hot day.
Alex gathered the last of the discarded newspapers from the day before and looked around, ready to go into the kitchens.
'I need a place to stay,' Neve was saying. 'Green Friday sounds like a good idea.'
Hugh refused so harshly, Alex flinched.
'I'm renovating,' he said, but he didn't sound any less angry. 'I don't see any point in you being here, anyway. I mean that. Nothing is going to change.'
'Hugh?' Neve was barely audible. 'I'm so tired. I need to rest and think. Is it all right if I stay here – with you?'
Alex, her ears and eyes open wide, walked toward the kitchens.
'I'll pretend I didn't hear you say that,' Hugh said.
'Why?' Neve said. 'It isn't as if we haven't slept in the same bed before. You sound as if you could use some comforting and I know I could.'
'Go to hell, Neve!'
Alex flinched and held her breath.
'Take a room here,' Hugh said. 'I don't care. You'll do what you want to anyway. Just stay out of my way.'CHAPTER 2
A single rider, a thin, hunched, weather-beaten man astride a broad and glossy Welsh cob, clipped downhill toward her, swaying comfortably in his saddle. He tipped his tweed cap with a crop at Alex but made no effort to move aside for her Range Rover. Neither did his smug and bouncing Jack Russell terrier.
'Afternoon, Alex,' Chuck Short called. He smiled and his nut-brown face creased into deep wrinkles. Chuck managed the Derwinter stables. It'll be evenin' afore long. It's getting late to start on an outing. You're off your beaten track today.' Leonard and Heather Derwinter's estate covered hundreds of lush acres beyond the Dimple – a shallow valley at the top of the hill that looked down on Folly-on-Weir. Tony Harrison and Alex both owned houses in the Dimple but Alex now lived with Tony and her house was about to go up for sale.
Chuck must have cut across country from the Derwinters' but Alex had never ventured that way in years. Local people tended to keep away from the big estate but she was sure the walkers who invaded the area in weather like this didn't have such scruples.
Pulled as far into the hedgerow as possible on a steep lane she rarely used, Alex leaned out of her window. 'I'm going up to visit Radhika. She works for Tony Harrison at the vet clinic in Folly. She's his assistant. Should have gone to look at her new house weeks ago but you know how that is.'
'Aye. I know who she is, too. We're too busy for what's really important sometimes. She's a pretty thing. Nice, too. Cozy with that detective, isn't she?'
There were few secrets in country communities. 'Bill Lamb? Yes, you might say that. How are things at the Derwinters? I haven't seen Heather for weeks. That's unusual.' The lovely Mrs Derwinter liked to make splashes in the village of Folly-on-Weir and was almost a regular at the Black Dog, but not recently.
Chuck gave another of his puckish grins. 'I expect she's been busy, too,' he said and urged his horse on. 'There's only the two houses up here. Your Hugh Rhys owns that Green Friday place, so Radhika must have bought the old manor house. Small as far as those places go, but a bit pricey for a vet tech anyway, I should have thought. It'll take a fair bit to fix it up.' He waved goodbye without turning in the saddle.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Trap Lane"
Copyright © 2019 Stella Cameron.
Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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