Deception Bay is still what might be called a sleepy village, but right now it isn’t peaceful. Between the possible sale of the venerable Wayfarer Inn to make way for upscale condominiums, and a major fire, Larry, local bartender, and Brenda, local realtor, have plenty to gossip about. Add the discovery of human remains in a hunter’s cabin, and they also have plenty to be curious about. Since both have a never-ending fascination with why humans do the things they do, they are still discovering odd things about the covert Amazon Club and other village denizens. Brenda and Larry have become lovers, but she is still dating Charlie, too, and this pushes the village gossip meter over the top. They manage to deal with that backlash without losing their senses of humor, but some people find themselves in the deep water of dangerous or vulnerable situations.
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Chapter 1 – Brenda and her Boys
The urgent jangle of the alarm clock shocked me out ofa sound sleep. I sat upfast and swung my feet over the side of the bed. For a minute I couldn’t do anything but sit still, blinking, letting the shock drain away, waiting for my heart to slow down. The only fact registering in my brain was the daylight shining against the closed window blind. That meant it must be morning and I realized that this was Monday and I had to go to work. A glance at the clock told me I’d better get moving.
I reached for my dressing gown, which lay crumpled on the floor, and therest of my life began to push its way through the thinning sleep fog.
Last night. Larry.
The memory brought a little electrical thrill to nerve ends all over my body.
The other side of the bed was rumpled and messy, its pillow teetering on the edge. Larry and I had been close friends; now we were lovers. He’d gone back to his own apartment so he could sleep in, since he didn’t have to be at work until five this afternoon. Or maybe he had the day off. I couldn’t remember.
Neither one of us had planned for it to happen. Last evening we’d been playing crib together in The Maggie, the hotel bar where he worked, and having our usual gossip about people who lived in Deception Bay. We always told each other the dirt we knew, secure in the knowledge that neitherof us would ever blab aword to anyone else. But gossip has its own methods of working. If a friend told me something and swore me to secrecy, which meant I couldn’t tell Larry, a day or two later I’d hear exactly the same gossip from him, heard from an entirely different source. It seemed as though nobody kept any secrets but us.
Anyway, it wasn’t the gossip itself that interested us so much as what had caused the events resulting in gossip. We loved both village life and figuring out what made its peopledo the crazy things they did.
Last night had a different ending. When nobody was left in the bar but the two of us, Larry looked at me, and I looked at him and I guess we read each other’s minds. Or, maybe it had been our bodies sharing a single lustful thought.
And now I wouldhave to tell Charlie the news that I was sleeping with Larry.
Charlie probably wouldn’t mind the ‘sleeping’ part. But how would he feel aboutthe ‘girlfriend’ part?
I went into the bathroom and turned on the shower. The rush of hotwater brought the rest of me awake and worried. Had I created a big problem for myself by giving into a desire that had beenbuilding for a long time?
Charlie was a dear friend. And so was Larry. I didn’t want to give up either one as a companion. But howcould I have two steadyboyfriends in a village where everybody knew what was going on almost before it happened? Or, if they didn’t know, they made up possible scenarios, aired them as fact, and voiced strong opinions about them.
In the kitchen, DeeCee meowed and insinuated her plump and somewhat ragged gray self between my ankles, reminding me to give her some breakfast. I gave myself some as well, sitting at the kitchen table to eat it since the dining room table was, as usual, covered with reference books and half-done crossword puzzles from the Sunday New York Times.
Coffee could wait until I got to the office. I puton my blue jacket with the Paradise Realty crest, grabbed my shoulder bag and went out the front door. I stopped there, on the topstep. The office would also have to wait for a moment, while I admired the bright, glorious, September morning. Winter wouldbe along soon, with gray skies and rain, and make these blue skies merely a memory.
On the slope below, toward the ivy-covered Tudor-style Wayfarer Inn, where Larry worked in The Maggie, yellow maple leaves scattered glowing color among the houses. Deception Bay, and the Strait of Georgia beyond,lay sparkling and calm against the dark blue background of the Coast Mountains on the mainland. Even Sifton and Magdalena Islands, a mile out in the Strait, sported bright autumn colors this morning.
I caught a tantalizing whiff of smoke and tracked it to my right-hand neighbors. Stan and Priscilla must have spent the weekend raking up leaves in their big back yard. I sighed, wistful and wishful, wanting to go sit on the back steps and bask in the whiff of smoke and the warmth of sunshine.
But I couldn’t do that. There were car payments to be made and groceries to buy. Sitting on the back step wouldn’t cut it.
My little sky-blue Honda waited in the carport and I headed for it along the cement sidewalkwhich bordered two flower beds under the living room window. The bare dirt under wilted iris fronds reminded me that I needed to plant tulip bulbs before the first snowfall. I was happy living in this 70s cream stucco house my mother had left me, but I wished I’d inherited more than a tiny smidgen of her enthusiasm for gardening.
A few minutes later, I parked the Honda behind the office. Anne-Marie, the receptionist atParadise Realty, gave me a big smile as I walked in the door. As usual, she looked stunning. I sometimes wondered how long it took her to blow-dry her deceptively casual auburn hair, put on her makeup, and coordinate her jewelry and clothes. I wore my shoulder-length blonde hair and blue eyes plain. I’d tried makeup in my teens but gave it upas too muchtrouble. The only enhancement I bothered with now was a good haircut.
“Well, good morning, Brenda!” she said. “You’re looking all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Have a date with Charlie last night?”
Thatwas a very mild, very gentle sample of the nosy questions I’d be getting once the news leaked out that I was dating two men.
“Nope, no date. I guess it’s just that I had a good night’s sleep.” The sleep had been good, all right, but not nearly long enough.
Anne-Marie raised her eyebrows, a knowing smile quirking her lips.
So, she didn’t believe me. Well, I certainly couldn’t afford to tell her the truth. The first thing she’d ask waswhen I’d broken up withCharlie. And why. Then she’d ask if it didn’t bother me that Larry was younger. The trouble with village life is that everybody knows the basic facts about everybody else. And what they don’t know, they enjoy making up. All you have to do is go to bed with somebody once, and the rest of the community has you married, raising four children andapplying for the old age pension, all before you’ve put clean sheets on the bed in question.
As I headed for the coffee maker that lived beside the photostat machine in the cluttered back room, I reminded myself that age was just a number. Hair, skin, andclothes were merely coverings for the person inside. Besides, who knew what might happen during the next ten, twenty, or thirty years? Life was way too interesting toworry about anything that far down the road.
Dane Soper stood at the coffee urn, pouring himself a mug of brew. I said, “Good morning!” hoping he didn’t sense the extreme dislike I felt for him. I had to work with the bastard, after all.
But, with an egoas big as Mount Arrowsmith, which possibly helped compensate him for being shorter than the average guy, Dane would never dream that anyone could dislike him. “Morning, Brenda. I’m on floor duty today, by the way.”
He was warning me not to poach his territory. Being on floor duty meant he got to grab anybody walking in off the street to ask about real estate.
“Good for you,” I said, and walked purposefully into my own small territory. The less I had to do with Dane, the better, because I could barely manage to be polite to him. I’d known the man for tenyears or so and had never liked him.
But now, afterfinding out he’d participated in the gang-rape of my friend, Gina, I found it difficult even to be in the same room with him.
Nobody but Larry and I knewabout the rape except for the victim, Gina, andthe other four men involved. I knew because Gina hadtold me, in strict confidence, and Larry knew because one of the men had made a drunken confession to him before leaving town, hopefully forever. Gina hadn’t reported it to the cops because she didn’t want her old-fashioned Catholic family to know about it, or to go through the hassle herself.
All the men had since had awful things happen to them and I felt sure that at least some of these things were not just coincidences, that Gina had taken revenge. But, sensibly enough, she wouldn’t tell me anything. Anyway, if she was responsible for the events, all I could do was cheer her on. And I hoped that she wasn’t finished yet. Dane had a strong sense of entitlement and he probably didn’t even think he’d done anything wrong.
I pushed that thought back into thecompartment of my mind where I file village secrets and sat down to study the latest real estate listings. Two prospective buyers new to the village were looking for somewhere wonderful to settle down and, thus far, nothing had met their over-the-top requirements.
“Hi, Brenda! Care to have lunch with me?”
” I’d love to.” It was Charlie on the other end of the phone line. “Where?”
“The usual in ten minutes?”
I said yes, and went to the washroom to comb my hair. The Princess Café was in our only mall, the Georgia View, barely a block away. Of course, in Deception Bay’s business section, almost nothing was further than a block awayfrom where you happenedto be.
I got there first and Patsy had a mug ofcoffee in front of me two seconds after I sat down. I smiled at her and sat back to anticipate Charlie’s arrival. Patsy would be anticipating it, too, for Charlie was the best eye candy for miles around. Tall and slim, with wavy black hair, brown eyes, and a pencil mustache, his lean, dark face and easy smile exuded sex appeal. Added to that, his dress style was far beyond the usual jeans and baseball caps seen in the village and, of course, his car was a sporty black Mazda.
He walked into the café, dropped a kiss on my cheek, and sat down. After Patsy delivered his coffee, I said, “Taking the day off?”
“No. I’m due in court at two. I’ve been reviewing the files at home.” Charlie had a law practice in Breslow,some twenty miles to the south. Even his voice was sexy, like dark chocolate liqueur. “How have things been since I saw you Friday?”
“I did an open house on Saturday, but nobody was interested enough to make an offer, so it turned out to be a quiet day. Ditto for Sunday. I did the crossword puzzle, went to a karate class, and vegged out. How about you?”
Charlie smiled. “Karate sounds more like hard work than vegging out. I spent most of the weekend getting the facts about this case straight in my mind. Scott did invite me to dinner Saturday night, but he said he wanted to talk business, so I didn’t ask you to come along.” Scott was a prosecutor and Charlie’s buddy.
I’d often wished I could tell Charlie about Gina and the gang-rape, and get some idea of thelegal implications. But I’d promised Gina my silence. One of the rapists, Ray Kallinsky, was in the Breslow jail, charged with dealing in drugs. Scott had casually mentioned these facts about Kallinsky to Charlie, perhaps thinking Charlie would be interested in the fate of another Deception Bay resident. I guessed Charlie would also know that Ray had been caught because of his house being searched after the fire in his garage sent him to hospital. I suspected Gina had set the fire, but of course I couldn’tshare that thought with anyone but Larry.
Patsy brought our lunch, salmon sandwiches made with fresh whole wheat bread, and coffee refills. I let a few minutes go by while we ate, thinking about Charlie and the times we’d spent together. I’d met him through my job, showing him the house on the corner of Winthrop and Jarvis, old and grungy but with a fantastic view of Georgia Strait. The house had since been renovated and redecorated, and I’d eaten many a fine meal in Charlie’s butter-yellow kitchen.
I pushed myempty sandwich plate away and told him I’d signed up for an evening bridge class at the localhigh school, with Wilfred Lansdowne as instructor. Wilf taught history and was inclined to grumble that students didn’t give him the kind of respect he deserved,but he was a pretty good guy. Sometimes we played darts together when his wife was doing afternoon shift at the Grenville General in Breslow.
“Great!” Charlie said. “That means we’ll be able to play bridge together when you’re through.”
“I’m looking forward to it.”
But would he still want to play bridge with me when I told him about Larry and me?That fear produced a slightly queasy feeling in my stomach.
Over more coffee, Charlie told me a few anonymous details about the case he was working on andI madeall the right noises, but apparently notright enough.
“You’re on another planet,” he said. “What are you not telling me?”
“You know me way too well.”
“Come on, Brenda, give. What’s the problem?”
Might as well get it over with. “I can’t tell you here. Somebody might overhear and add two and two to make seventeen. Can we sit in your car for a few minutes?”
He gave me a long sober look, sighed, and went to the counter to pay the bill. I followed him outside, and we settled intohis Mazda. He turned his head to look at me, and said, “You’re going toget married.”
“God, no! Charlie, you should know me better than that. I don’t want to get married again. Not ever.”
“Then what’s so dire you can’t tell me in public?”
“I slept with Larry last night.” There, I’d done it. I’d said the words. I sat back and waited for the explosion.
Which didn’t come. Instead,Charlie put his hand on mine. “I knew there was something! You’re wearing a slightly different expression today, one that I haven’t seen before. Was it good?”
I blew out a breath and crossed the fingersof my unengaged hand. “Yes.”
“Is that the end of us?”
“I don’t want it to be.”
“Is Larry moving in?”
“No. Nothing’s changed. I don’t want to get married and I don’t want to live with anybody either. Larry feels the same way. We’re still just close friendsand the only difference will be that once in a whilewe’ll spend the night together.”
Charlie grinned. “I don’t know why all the fuss about telling me. I’m happy for you. And you knowwhere I’m coming from, so you shouldn’t have been worried. Any thoughtsabout how you’re going to handle having two boyfriends?”
“I think the three of us should get together and talk about it. We could meet at my house. Or yours. We might get away with that, especially if it’s after dark.”
Charlie’s sexy grin turned evil. “This could be a lot of fun. So let’s not meet after dark. Instead, let’s meet in The Maggie, where everybody can see us and wonder.” He leaned across, cupped my chin, andtilted my face up for a long, passionate kiss.
A car rolling slowly out of the parking lot hooted. Approvingly.
When I walked back to the office, I expected to see Dane strolling around the reception area wearing his smug little smile and looking asif he had all the answers, no matter what you might ask him. But the only person in view was Anne-Marie. “Where’s Dane?” I liked to know where he was, or planned to be, so I could avoid getting trapped in a conversation with him.
“He got a call on his cell right after you went for lunch,” Anne-Marie said. “He didn’t say where he was going, just that it was important. I’d guess it was probably a client. And he did look kind of excited.”
“Who’s on the floor?”
Anne-Marie said, “Ross is showing a lot down at Gander Bay. And Paul is in Victoria, pulling strings about that subdivision he wants to do. Which leaves you.”
“Lucky, lucky me,” I said. “Okay, I’ll be in my office, studying listings and dreaming up sales pitches.”
Mondays hardly ever turn out to be good days for prospective clients to wander in. I spent a quiet afternoon with the listings, able to concentrate now that I’d been assured that Charlie still loved me.
Five o’clock rolled around and Anne-Marie poked her head in. “Time to lock up, Brenda.”
“Might as well,” I said. “There was so littleaction today that we didn’t need to bother unlocking.” I grabbed my bag, Anne-Marie dealt with the office door, and the blue Honda took me home to DeeCee.
She happily accepted a share of my halibut steak, then wandered back to her usual post, the top of the sideboard in the dining room. Since I’d agreed to adopt her, some six months before, I’d offered her soft chairs, soft pillows, and even half my double bed, but she’d have none of those. DeeCee preferred the unyielding fumed oak of the old sideboard andI’d given up trying to pry the reason out of her furry head.
By seven-thirty, I’d tidied the kitchen and was trying to decide whether to read blogs on thecomputer, or my current murder mystery, or watch something on TV. The mystery might have won, but Iwas too tired to focus and too restless to sit still. I’d go for a walk and give my mind the space to wrestle with my own life.
Accordingly, I slung on a scruffy plaid jacket, which had lovely deep pockets for tissues and keys andsnacks and cold hands, and headed for Deception Bay beach. A paved walkway ran from the Wayfarer Hotel on the southeast curve of the bay, west to where Parsons River emptied onto the sand and interrupted the walkway. I’d cross the river via the highway bridge, find the path again, and continue on north another half mile to Tweedsmuir Point, where Deception Bay became the Georgia Strait. About a mile and a little bit from the hotel.And the same distance back, which would be a little over two miles and should be a long enough walkto clear the cobwebs out of my mind. Then I could drop in at The Maggie and see if Larry was there. If not, George would be taking the late shift, and I could play crib with him for an hour before heading home.
Dawdling along felt like a great idea, and dusk had fallen by the time I reached the Point. It wasn’t dark yet, though the sun was now merely a glow on the western horizon. The village had recently installed a few lights on the path, so I wouldn’t have any trouble walking back.
I leaned on the guardrail at the end of the walkway, lulled by gentlewaves lapping at the foot of some fifteen feet of tumbled rockfall. Seagulls had muted their raucous calls to sleepy-sounding chatter as they sought perches for the night, and the traffic noise from the highway, half a mile away, was only a restless background murmur. It was the perfect time and place for aloner like me. I tried to imagine, as I sometimes did,what it would be like to be a hermit, to camp in a cabin up in the mountains and come out to civilization perhaps once a month or so to buy food.
But I’d never live that way. It wasn’t that I hated people. Actually, I liked them, but in small bites. Justnot in my face all the time. Or in my house except when invited. Most of the time I was quite happywith my own company. I straightened up and tucked my hands in my pockets. There were good friends I enjoyed spending time with, such as Larry and Charlie, but the walk hadn’t inspired any ideas about how to do that with both of them without hitting the local headlines.
As I turned to head back, a flashof white in the dark sea caught my eye. When I focused to get another look, it had disappeared. Then caughta glimpse again as the slow swell of waves tumbled it over. Now it was goneagain. Probably a sheetof paper. Well, I had no desire to swim out there into deep water and retrieve it, even if I did hate the idea of the ocean being full of junk.
I looked across the bay at the twinkling lights of the Wayfarer Hotel. Larry might havesome ideas about how I could handle having two boyfriends. He knew Charlie’s secret and would be sympathetic with the problem. The Maggie was never very full on a Monday night, somaybe we’d have a chance to talk as well as play crib.
It was nearly ten o’clock when I strolled into the bar and, as I’d guessed, the place wasn’tbusy. I counted ten people, most of whom I recognized, and slowly made my way toward my usual stool at the bar.
Larry stood behind the bar, apparently looking at something on a shelfunderneath, but I knew he kept a book hidden there. He was tall and fit, like Charlie, and his hair was wavy, too, but that’s where the resemblance ended. Larry’s hair was a medium brown, cut to slightly above his collar, and in the right light, glinted asuggestion of auburn, whereas Charlie’s was black and shorter. And Larry’s eyes were hazel, not brown. Both men were good-looking, but totally different in style. Charlie deliberately played up his male sexiness. Larry seemed to drift along, casual and relaxed, always watching the world, but not interested in having it watch him.
I couldn’t help grinning. Was I lucky or what? Ihad two boyfriends. Two gorgeous guys who cared about me. Two! But would I be able to keep them both?
Larry looked up and flashed me a smile that could have set fire to an ice cube. I tamped down the response from the several billion nerve ends inhabitingmy body and climbed onto the stool.
Thirty seconds later, he slid my gin and tonic across the bar, and I noted he’d been extra generous with the lemon wheels. “How’d it go at work today?” he asked.
He never asked stock questions like that, so I knew he was either nervous or had something serious on his mind.
“Fairly boring,” I said. “Nothing happened, except me drinking lots of coffee to stay awake.”
“Short on sleep, were you?” He had a twinkle in his eye, but it didn’t go as far as his mouth. That’s whenI knew for sure there was something on his mind.
“As amatter of fact, yes,” I said, and twinkled back. I took a long, slow sip ofthe gin and tonic. I’d limit myself to one drink tonight because I needed to get to sleep early. I had appointments with clients the next morning and a meeting of the Amazon Club in the evening. “The waking hours were terrifically well spent, though.”
“Glad to hear you hit the jackpot.” Larry polished a glass that was alreadygleaming. “Because there may not be many more such hours.” His expression was only a fraction off grim.
That shook me. What could have happened? For a few seconds I wondered if he wasangry with me, but I discarded that idea fast. The smile he’d greeted me with had told me everything I wanted to know. I opened my mouth to ask what he meant, but shut it again when he strode out from behind the bar to take orders from two new customers who had wandered in and settled down at a table near the fireplace.
Whenhe’d served their drinks, he came back and pulled out the crib board. I cut a card, won the deal, and murmured, “What’s wrong?”
Larry discarded two cards into the crib pile and said, “Elizabeth is considering selling the hotel to developers who want to replace it with a condominium.”
My jaw must have dropped because Larry gave me a warning glance. “Nobody is allowed to know yet,” he said.
“But you do!”
“She told George and Sam and me, that’s all.”
Sell the Wayfarer? How could she even think of doing such athing? The hotel had been the centerpiece of Deception Bay forever. Well, nearly a hundred years, anyway. Elizabeth’s grandfather had built and run it. Then her father. And now her. Larry had worked in it off and on since he was in his teens. At least half my social life happened in the bar or the Blueback Grill.
“Why would she do that?”
Larry put down a five to match mine and pegged two points for himself. “She turned sixty-five last week,” he said in a low voice, “and she says she’s getting tired.”
“Doesn’t she have family that would take it over?” I knew she’d been married and widowed years back. I’d never heard of her having any children, which made me fairly sure none existed. The grapevine wastoo efficient to have missed that sort of basic information.
“No kids,” he said. “No nephews or nieces, either.”
“But that’s awful,” I said. “That would mean you’re out of a job, too.”
There wasn’t much else he could say. I glanced around, lookingat the crackling fire, the oak paneling, the blue and green-striped wallpaper above it, remembering the old wallpaper of big red roses that had disappeared a few years ago. I glanced at the wide windows, which had a view of the Strait and theCoast Mountains, but itwas too dark to see anything. That didn’t matter; I knew that view as well as I did the similar one from my own living room. Damn, she couldn’t sell. This place was my second home!
“Who’s the developer? Is it somebody local?” I’d kill Dane Soper if he had anything to do with this scheme.
Larry shook his head, gathered up the cards and shuffled them in preparation for another hand. “She said it’s somebody from the mainland. I’m not even sure why she told us, because she hasn’t made a decision yet.”
“Maybe because you three have worked here the longest, she was bouncing the idea off you, to see what you came up with.”
He shrugged. “Could be, I guess. George is stunned; he’s been working the bar for thirty-odd years and, with his back trouble, there’s not much else he can do. Sam doesn’t like the idea of the hotel disappearing, but he says he’s going to retire in a couple of years, so it wouldn’t matter that much to him.”
I didn’t have any answers, only questions. And it did not seem the right time to ask Larry for ideas on dealing with my soon-to-be-wrecked reputation. We played one more game while I finished my drink.
“I’ll go home and sleep on it,” I said, sliding off the stool.
His brief smile was full of warmth but his face settledimmediately back into an expression far more sober than he usually wore. “Sweet dreams! If you can, dream up some way of saving The Maggie.”
Half an hour later, I slid into my bed, wishing I could actually do as he asked. Larry worked there, and he loved the place. Where could he go if the hotel was destroyed?