Lake Braxton excerpt


*Dorothy Parker (Reviewer's International Organization) 2000
Award of Excellence Nominee - Romantic Suspense*

Lake Braxton
ISBN: 0-7599-0290-9
"Watchin' you investigate is like watchin' a three-year-old climb the ladder to the high dive...and just as dangerous."
P.I. Ethan "Cockeye" Jenks to his wife in LAKE BRAXTON.

Romantic Suspense from
Mundania Press

An excerpt from the manuscript is immediately below the teaser.

Grieving widow Jesse McClain didn't kill herself, no matter what her diary says. Michele Jenks, about to end her seven year marriage to top private investigator Ethan Jenks, goes undercover as an amateur investigator in the Tennessee resort town of Lake Braxton, obsessed with proving her cousin Jesse's suicide was finely orchestrated murder. The amateur goes toe-to-toe with the professional as Michele and Ethan work together to unmask the killer. Only, the killer is waiting for Michele, with different plans. Plans that include a five million dollar land deal, no questions about the death of the woman who had been about to expose him (Jesse), and one final murder...Michele's.

LAKE BRAXTON

Mickey drove the teal sports car along the deserted stretch of Braxton Road with only the dim glow of her headlights, shining on glitter specked asphalt, to keep her company. Her mind wandered back over the two conversations she'd had that evening. Neither one had given her any pleasure.

As she'd expected, Gil Martin was more than a little angry when she called to tell him she was sick and wouldn't be in to work. She already knew Castle wouldn't be showing up at the Roadhouse either, but she listened without comment when Martin bellowed she was leaving him with nobody but Castle and that air-headed Joanie to cover tables on a busy Saturday night.

"And that's *if* Joanie agrees to come in. You don't show, you're fired, Calhoun," he warned. Then, like always, he hung up on her. Fifteen minutes later he called back. "Okay. Joanie'll do it. You got tonight." A second later he added sarcastically, "You expectin' to still be sick tomorrow night?"

"As a matter of fact," she answered without the smugness she felt, "I expect to feel a *whole* lot better by tomorrow morning."

"You're lucky I like you, Calhoun," he said curtly before hanging up on her a second time. He didn't call again.

*Was being such a jerk nothing but a calculated act on Martin's part?* she wondered as she headed for her rendezvous with Castle. Now that she had pointedly asked Martin questions about both knowing Jesse and his own sudden, three week departure from Lake Braxton, had she tipped him off, if he was, in fact, the murderer about to be revealed to her? Was his desire to keep her working at the Roadhouse more from a need to keep an eye on her activities than because he considered her such a great bartender?

Castle had, just a few nights ago, given her information about Martin's face being viciously, and so far inexplicably, scratched the night Jesse died. And she'd been adamant about Martin not learning the info came from her.

It eased Mickey's mind somewhat that Martin would be at the bar all night, and that there was absolutely no chance of him knowing she and Castle were meeting at the beach. Of course, wasn't he supposed to have been at the bar all night, working that whole night, the night he killed Jesse? Mickey swallowed hard. She prayed that when Castle hadn't shown up for her shift tonight Martin hadn't figured out what was going on and was now, even as she headed for the private beach, trying to track the two of them down.

Almost involuntarily her right hand left the black ribbed steering wheel and patted the dark blue purse she'd tossed onto the passenger seat.

It was only because of her uneasiness about the possibility of Martin surprising her and Castle, coupled with the second conversation, that motivated her, to her extreme displeasure, to secrete the three-and-a-half inch, thirty-eight caliber LadySmith in her purse.

The second conversation was the one she disliked most, and to say what she did pricked her conscience was an understatement. She deliberately lied to Ethan and sent him on a wild goose chase. She didn't relish facing him when he found out. But the reasoning behind her lies had been rock solid.

"You have to go to that supermarket ahead of me," she'd insisted in response to his heated argument she was not showing up anywhere all alone. "If I know you're already there I'll be a lot less nervous about such a covert situation. I can be relaxed and keep my mind on the important questions I have to ask if I know you're within earshot. Come on, Ethan," she'd chided. "How would it look if I kept glancing over my shoulder to make sure you're somewhere in the area?"

"A hell of a lot more natural than waltzin' into a dark area like you have nothin' at all to worry about. Don't you think it's goin' to look just a little suspicious to Castle that you're not nervous about this meetin'?"

She had stood her ground, and finally he threw his hands into the air. "All right," he'd agreed. "But when I whistle to you from the shadows you'd better answer me. Got it?"

She'd immediately conceded, a concession met with a groan and disbelieving shake of his head. But he said nothing. Then she'd spent several minutes in serious discussion with him, detailing the layout of the rear of the supermarket and exactly where she would be. She was so animated in her descriptions she knew there was no way he could possibly guess the supermarket lot existed only in her imagination.

Right on the heels of her detailed instructions Ethan pulled a small black cassette tape recorder from his shirt pocket. The recorder was compact enough to fit into her palm, and he refused to hear even the first word of her not using it.

He was no-nonsense when he pressed the recorder into her hand. "You claim you want to investigate this case. Here's one of the most important tools you need. There's a blank tape already loaded, and all you have to do is push that red button to record whatever information she plans on givin' you. Keep the recorder stowed in your purse, but keep your purse open. If Castle gets scared off again and swears she never talked to you we'll at least have this. Just don't forget to turn it on since it's not voice activated."

At that point he'd locked gazes with her, and waited, as though expecting her to say something. Disappointment was fleeting, but she saw it before he was again businesslike.

Ten minutes later, he left the house for town. Ten minutes after that, she'd gone speeding for the private beach.

As Castle requested, Mickey parked at the nearest cross street, PawPatch Road, a good distance from the beach's private entrance. Paying meticulous attention to caution she made sure not to park beneath a street light. In fact, the sports car was half off the shoulder, nearly concealed by bushes.

Before she climbed from the car she took one last look in the rearview mirror, but avoided noting apprehension in her eyes. Her clothes were dark, something she considered a huge improvement from when she'd tried to skulk several nights ago wearing bright white. Unfortunately, there was nothing she could do about her sneakers. Keeping her purse firmly in hand she locked the car, crossed the street and began walking Braxton Road toward the beach. The sound of waves caressing the shoreline was barely audible through the dense trees.

There was a little more traffic than made her comfortable, but each time she heard a motor or saw headlights she stepped from the road and kept to the treeline until the vehicle passed. Finally she came to the beach entrance.

She'd heard the lapping of Lake Braxton as she hurried through the dark, quiet night, but when she walked into the parking lot the sound was much more of a presence. The orange Volkswagen beetle wasn't here, but Mickey assumed Castle followed the same precautions she'd instructed Mickey to use. It was really dark here, something she remembered from her first nocturnal visit to this place, but she knew it wouldn't be wise to turn on the volleyball pit light. *Nothing like announcing you're here,* she mused as common sense confirmed it would be much smarter to wait patiently.

She almost felt blind, mentally groping her way through the darkness as she walked along the beach, and it took a short while for her eyes to adjust to the lack of illumination. She saw what looked to be a park bench, probably placed at the outer edge of the beach so spectators could enjoy volleyball games without getting in the way of players. Going to it, she sat on the uncomfortable narrow wooden slats for what, as minutes ticked away, seemed like forever. Owls called from their overhead perch high in trees in the woods she'd just left. Bats flapped their wings as sonar led them on night foraging. And, always present, beneath the star-studded midnight sky was the sound of small waves running onto shore. As Mickey's gaze wandered across the black lake water she grinned at the multi-colored surface reflections that entertained nobody but the fish. Good old Uncle Buck had left the pavilion lights on again.

She sighed, swung her knees back and forth, and waited. And waited. It seemed an eternity passed, but she knew it couldn't have been more than forty-five minutes or an hour. She got up from the bench and began walking toward the main beach area. Had she misunderstood Castle? Or worse, had she been late and Castle panicked and left before Mickey arrived?

Much, much worse, Ethan had to have figured out a long time ago she had tricked him into going nowhere.

Then she recalled something from her first visit that she should have remembered immediately. "Oh, no!" she exclaimed and slapped her forehead. "The pier! She meant go to the pier."

She took off in a half-run, then came to a dead stop when a twig snapped to her right, very near the edge of the woods. Fear leaped into her heart when Castle, as she hoped to hear, didn't call to say she had made the noise. With both hands shaking uncontrollably, and the hair on the back of her neck reacting to her developing fear, Mickey drew her purse close to her chest and slowly turned to the woods.

"C-Castle?" she called weakly, too frightened to even have the presence of mind to fumble for the LadySmith. Other than an owl asking who?, and the constant breaking of waves against the shoreline, there was silence.

Mickey swallowed hard, no easy feat around a throat almost swollen shut with fright, but try as she might she could see nothing through the trees. She waited, but the sound wasn't repeated. Neither did the sound of her name being called fill the summer night air. Finally, she drew and exhaled a deep breath, mentally scolding herself. The snapping twig was an animal out looking for dinner or a tom cat looking for a party.

She continued her dash for the pier.

Silence and a lonely pier greeted her. Angry that she may have missed the young woman because of something she herself did that delayed her arrival, Mickey walked across the wide planks to the end of the long pier. Except for two empty wine bottles on their sides, hers was the only presence. Her stomach knotted. Had Castle been out here drinking, then changed her mind about talking to Mickey and took off? Since Castle's fear had prevented her from going home last night Mickey knew there would be no point looking for her there now. Disappointment was so sharp, so severe, she wanted to scream at her own incompetence. Why hadn't she let Ethan come here with her? What harm would it have done, really? If nothing else, he would have made sure they were on time.

Depression descended like a heavy cloak.

All she'd wanted to do was prove to Castle she could be trusted, that she wasn't like all the others Castle so bitterly mentioned. She had probably ruined any chance of having the young woman ever believe anything she told her from here on out. She'd destroyed her first concrete, and probably only, opportunity that would be given her to obtain evidence she so badly needed to prove someone had wanted Jesse dead.

"Oh, God," she muttered as she sat on the end of the pier and laid her purse beside her. "I make one stupid mistake after another."

It was bad enough she had bungled this attempt to investigate. She still had to face Ethan's wrath, and she had no doubt his wrath would be much more than slight. Also, she admitted, deserved.

Resigned to what she was going to have to deal with when she got home, she leaned back against the pylon and stared at the velvet, diamond scattered sky, then at the dark water. The the twinkling pavilion lights across the lake created unusual patterns in the waves.

*Maybe if I just admit how stupid even I think this was he'll let it pass*, she thought, not believing that for a minute. She stared again at the dark water, at the odd pattern where the light was interrupted. She grew curious when the odd pattern came closer and leaned out to look.

When she did, she recoiled, realizing the odd pattern was a human being face down in the water. A human whose long braid floated above her red tank top. Horror screamed in Mickey's brain and her heart leaped to her throat even as she lurched to her feet, her gaze riveted on Castle's body, gently swaying with the movement of the waves.

She had no idea she was screaming, or that her nonstop screaming shattered still air. She let out a wrenching cry and tried to leap into the water, in a last ditch effort to save Castle's life.

She heard someone running toward her on the pier, right before a hand came down in an iron grip and prevented her from jumping into the dark lake. From somewhere in the back of her mind she waited for the imprisoning hand to push her in with Castle, but it didn't happen. She battled to get to the edge of the pier, her mental functions almost paralyzed.

"Mickey," Ethan roared, and shook her so hard the rest of the world rocked. But the action brought her back to sanity.

It didn't occur to her to ask what he was doing there. She could think of nothing but getting to Castle. "Let me go," she cried, fighting desperately to get to the water. "I can help her."

"She's beyond help," he stated flatly, and his brutal words knocked the last bit of strength from her.

"No," Mickey protested weakly. Overcome by the loss of the young life, and filled with increasing guilt for not arriving earlier, she tried to throw herself into her husband's arms.

But he wouldn't permit it, and forced her to stand immobile, at arms length. Even in the dark she could see his face looked as though carved from stone.

"Do you have any idea," he began hoarsely. "What could have happened to you if I hadn't seen through what you thought were clever little lies? Or if you had succeeded with those lies and maybe shown up here early?" There was nothing gentle in the way he shook her then, and his voice was as hard as his eyes. "Do you?" he demanded.

With that, he spun her around so fast Mickey nearly lost her balance, but Ethan's hand on the back of her neck forced her to look at Castle's body floating in the peaceful water.

"Take a damn good look," he said harshly. "That could've been you."

*****

Stones Throw excerpt.

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