When Fall Fades (The Girl Next Door Series Book 1) (2 page)

BOOK: When Fall Fades (The Girl Next Door Series Book 1)
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Chapter 2

Sadie Carson

A
tap on her shoulder jolted Sadie from her dream—a dream so real it had her neck deep in old memories and jumbled her sense of time and place. When she lifted her head she meant to reevaluate her surroundings, but before she could get her bearings she was stuck—sinking, really—in a liquid honey gaze that threatened to drown her on dry land. Time slowed, and her lungs must have ceased all operations. The only sound registering through the captive trance was her pulse echoing back from her eardrums.

Was she still dreaming?

She considered a firm slap, but decided if it was a dream, it wasn’t half bad. She could use an escape from the gaping disappointments in her life. And if it wasn’t, well, she’d have slapped her own face in front of a perfect stranger. A perfectly tall, dark, and handsome stranger.

After what felt like an hour of oxygen deprivation, a rustle of neon leaves kicked up on a hot gust of air. Fortuitous since it was distraction enough to bring an end to the respiratory strike and the strange hypnotic appeal of the man in front of her.

Spell broken, Sadie hefted her body off the crude, unforgiving asphalt and took a moment to discretely brush away the pebbles imbedded in her backside.

The broad shouldered man in a starchy, government-issued suit, who stood towering over her five feet three inches by at least a foot, sunk those eyes back in for round two and finally introduced himself as Special Agent Archer Hayes with the FBI.

By his tone, she was in for another long haul of questioning. Of course she wanted to help any way she could. But her vigorous morning run coupled with a now achingly empty stomach, not to mention the emotional turbulence of finding Charlie on the side of the road and the heart-wrenching trip down memory lane, well, it all contributed to the likelihood she might pass out at any moment. She refused to acknowledge that any of her dizziness could have been attributed to the intense staring match she’d just had with the brooding FBI guy. And the clean, alluring scent of his woodsy aftershave that made her stomach actually whimper? Nope, no bearing whatsoever.

“Could I run home for a few minutes? I’ve been out here for hours giving statements, and I’m pretty sure I was just sleeping here on the side of the road. I’d very much like to take a shower, and frankly I need a bathroom stat.”

So maybe that wasn’t perfectly demure—call it a filter malfunction, or perhaps residual rebellion from too many years under her mother’s debutante-esque regime. Sure, it might be considered uncouth, but it managed to cut the tether of fascination strung between her and the FBI guy. And that suited Sadie just fine.

Annoyance and what appeared to be skepticism pinched his strong features. A hard glint in his warm eyes turned them to stone, yet he subtly dipped his head and produced his card.

She slipped it from his fingers without touching him and then turning on her heels, she attempted a jog. She wasn’t sure if she was more anxious to get home or just get away from Agent Hayes’s smoldering stare, but her legs began to protest—exhaustion and lactic acid winning out against her determination to flee the scene as quickly as possible. Stubborn as she was, she relented after a few dozen achy strides and settled into a walk toward home.

Awareness prickled between her shoulder blades like a bull’s-eye. As if she could sense Agent Hayes still had her in his sights. Something in her begged the confirmation of his gaze but this time her stubbornness won. Head forward, she turned onto her street.

The cool air that greeted her in her condo sent a shiver over her balmy skin. Slipping out of her Nikes, she caught a glimpse of her reflection in the hall mirror.

Oy
. Bloodshot eyes, drawn, pale face, and flyaway hair, the image reflected her sorrow so plainly her eyes filled again. So she closed herself in the safe confines of the bathroom, let the intense heat of her usual burning hot shower melt away the tension in her body and a fresh flood of tears—lingering in the therapeutic spray as long as the hot water lasted.

After dressing in a nearly threadbare, vintage Led Zeppelin T-shirt and a pair of black cropped leggings, she went to the kitchen for an upper. She filled the tea kettle resting on the stove and cranked the knob to boil water for a French press, then trudged over to the couch to wait for the kettle to beckon her back as if to say, “In only moments you will be enjoying sweet, caffeinated goodness.” Sadie snorted a laugh at her apparent delirium.

Settling in, her mood sobered to images of Charlie playing through her mind in a slideshow of memories from their past six years as neighbors. She’d taken a shine to the old crooner when his impressive renditions of Sinatra sneaked their way through the shared wall between their condos. Whenever she would drop off his mail or pick up something for him at the grocery store, he’d rope her into playing a few tunes on his beautiful old Steinway piano and they’d fiddle around with some Natalie Cole and Ella Fitzgerald tunes and duets.

“Charlie, this is one impressive vinyl collection. You’ve been holding out on me, playin’ me like a cheap piano, makin’ me sing for my supper when all the while you’ve got all these beautiful classics crammed in a box. I think I’m outraged.” Sadie said without heat, tracing her fingers carefully over the sleeves of the dusty old relics.

“Aww ... darlin’, truth be told I’d rather listen to you sing any day of the week. Ain’t never heard a purddier sound than your rendition of ‘Stormy Weather.’ I swear I thought I died and went to heaven!”

“Ahh, flattery will get you everywhere. Whaddya need ... new loafers, fancy bird watching binoculars, a new stash of hard candy, perhaps?”

“Young lady, you’re here on your day off helpin’ me clean out my basement. Least I can do is pay you a compliment. It’s true, too, ya know.” He muttered on about young people never listening and something about “takin’ kindness as it comes ’cause it’s a crazy world out there and everyone’s out to getcha.”

Sadie smiled, shaking her head as his indecipherable ramblings continued. It amazed her that Charlie’s small town charm always seemed to disguise an otherwise brilliant mind.

Best to divert the conversation before it snowballed into a new conspiracy theory. “You know Charlie, I saw Miss Helen at the market yesterday. She asked about you again.”

Charlie chuckled, “Yeah, that’s one fine woman, my dear.” He stood with theatric flair. “But lo my heart belongs to another. My Catherine is gone and buried, but my heart still beats for her alone. Will until I draw my last breath.” Even with his flair for the dramatic, Sadie’s eyes grew misty at the sincerity of his affection for his late wife.

Unfortunately, when he eased down to his metal chair he turned the tables back on her.

“And you’re one to talk, Sadie girl. I ain’t never seen you bring a man ’round here. You’re too young to be alone. Ya gotta date ... see what kinda fish are out there.”

Sadie scoffed. “I date.”

“When? I see how all ’em boys look at ya, like you’re the jar of marbles. Open them purddy peepers, missy. You gotta
git
while them bugs er swarmin’ the swamp.”

“Hmm ... men are fish and bugs, huh? However will I choose?”

He grew serious, the soft sagging skin over his eyes not masking the flicker of sympathy there. His voice cut the silence in a tender warning. “Life’s too short to wait around, my dear. You, of all people, should know that.”

All at once Charlie stood and dusted off his hands. “Next week we move on to the study.”

A whistling and a banging clashed in her muddied brain. “What is that, Charlie?” Yawning, Sadie came back to the present, rubbing the sleepy fog from her eyes. Wasn’t there something she was supposed to do today? She glanced at the clock and the world pressed rewind, spewing a recap of the day’s horrific events.

“Oh, crap!” She’d been passed out for over an hour. She was supposed to have gone back to the crime scene to go over everything with
Captain FBI.

The tea kettle screamed from the kitchen. Good grief, if it’d been anything else on the stove she might’ve burned the whole place to the ground and slept right through it. Sadie rushed to the sweltering kitchen and relieved the poor pot of its incessant wail. The humid air clogged her brain for several moments before she registered the banging again.

Someone was at the front door.

Stumbling over the frieze rug in the hall, she ran to the door and swung it open without checking the peep hole. Breathless from her disoriented last few minutes, she was unprepared for the blazing eyes that singed her from the other side.

Chapter 3

Archer Hayes

E
vading the FBI is a crime. Miss Carson was dangerously close to being hauled in for questioning if she didn’t answer her door right now. He’d tried to call but his phone had no signal—must look into that. So here he stood, banging like a lunatic. His own foot tapped a rhythmic drone against the dusty concrete, grating at his last nerve.

He wanted to stay on good terms to coax as much information from her as possible. She was, after all, a potential suspect. But now, with his agitation about this case, and this little priss leaving him to wait all day, it wouldn’t be easy to play nice.

The door swung open and his foot stopped tapping. Before him stood the source of his agitation, only in an instant, his anger had fled. Her white-blonde hair now lay in loose, wavy layers. Her fair-skinned face, still devoid of makeup, was flushed and showed the slightest crease in her cheek—the kind someone gets from sleeping face down. While she had a short and petite build, she seemed anything but frail. And those eyes … trouble.

“Catch you at a bad time, Miss Carson?” He shifted his jacket, exposing his handcuffs. “Gosh, I hate to inconvenience you, but maybe we should pick this up downtown?” The venom in his voice came out stronger than intended. But while most people would be a stuttering bundle of apologies and kiss-assery at this point, little Miss Carson surprised him.

“Excuse me, Agent Hayes, is it?” Her hands propped on her hips, eyes sparkling like the Fourth of July. “I know this whole thing is just like another day at the office for you, but let me tell you about my day, since you’re
sooo
eager to hear about it. At the end of my early morning jog I happened upon the body—yes, I do believe I said
body
—of my neighbor and close friend. Most people, like say, ones who aren’t heartless bureaucrats,” she pasted on a fake smile, “would classify that as a pretty traumatic day for starters. Then for hours I had to relive the horrifying moment of said discovery without a bathroom break, a snack, or heaven forbid, a chair! Are you keeping up? ’Cause just wait, there’s more. When I’m finally told I can go home and have a big-girl cry in private, the police deliver the unbelievably super news that not only did Charlie die, but he was murdered. No biggie.”

Her strangled laughter waged war against the slightest sheen of tears in her eyes. “‘Just wait a few more minutes, the incompetent morons at the FBI’—who
ignored
Charlie’s pleas for protection for the past year—‘will probably want to ask some questions when they arrive.’ Two hours later, you and I have our lovely interlude at which point I just can’t hold it any longer—if you know what I mean.

“Had enough? Nope, hadn’t quite reached my limit until I passed out on my couch and almost burned my house down. I think that about brings you up to speed. But let me warn you, I’m Irish and I’m hanging by a thread here, so unless you’re prepared to disable this ticking time bomb before I spew any more stupid girly emotions choose your next words very carefully.”

It took a minute for Archer to right the gaping position of his mouth. Had she just threatened him? A growl rumbled from his throat but then he saw the stubborn set of her jaw quiver. Slender arms folded beneath her breasts, and a shaky breath trembled from her naked pink lips.

A war erupted in his chest. He felt … sorry for her, and yet his blood still boiled from her accusation.

Forcing a retort back down his throat, he clenched his teeth together and dug deep into his arsenal for a placating tone. “I’m sorry. You think maybe we could start over?”

Shock washed over her face from his gracious acceptance of her emotional tirade. He offered another olive branch, sensing that compliance from this spit-fire might come with a less intimidating approach. “I guess if you need more time I can wait or come back later if that works better?”

Her eyes narrowed.

At the bureau they called him “Ace” because of his near perfect track record, and his straight-shooting tactics that wear down informants and draw out information without fail. This “soft-side” was not one he preferred, though it had worked the few times he’d needed an edge while interrogating females. But this woman was a mystery. She didn’t intimidate easily, nor did she seem to fully buy the good cop front. At least his partner, Sal, wasn’t here to witness him losing his edge.

Now was the best time to get the most accurate information. On the other hand, a traumatized witness might not produce the most credible information either. Ball was in her court, which, as a general rule, he didn’t allow during investigations.
He
was in charge.
He
delivered the threatening speech.

How on earth had her verbal assault against him produced such a sympathetic response? And how dare she call him incompetent! He needed to regain his footing, fast.

Before he could retask, she bit down on the soft flesh of her bottom lip, unveiled skepticism in her glare while she brazenly sized him up. He felt his ears tint with heat from her perusal and questioned in earnest if he might be coming down with the flu. Something was off.

She huffed out a heavy breath, turned and retreated into her home, leaving the door open for him to follow.

He breathed an inaudible sigh of relief and stepped inside. Pausing to wipe his shoes on the rug by the door, his gaze followed her into the living room where she started straightening pillows on the slipcover-styled couch.

When he entered the room he was surprised by the somewhat masculine feel of it. Didn’t women usually like frilly things?

He took a quick inventory of the rustic oak floors, the exposed brick wall running the length of one side of the room, and a worn, dark brown leather armchair in the corner. Bookshelves filled with books and movies flanked a modest-sized flat screen TV on a low, espresso-stained entertainment cabinet. The plain beige-colored walls held only a large clock and two framed movie posters.

Archer’s attention lingered at the odd choices of movies represented for a woman’s home—old school renderings of the original
Star Wars
and
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
It occurred to him just then, maybe she didn’t live here alone. Maybe she had a husband or a boyfriend.

“I was, um, making coffee before my unexpected nap.” She had the foresight to feign embarrassment. “Thought I might grab a cup while we talk. How do you take it?”

“You really don’t have to—”

“Do you drink coffee, Agent Hayes?”

“Well yes, but—”

“Okay.” And with that she disappeared into the kitchen.

Archer didn’t know why it mattered, but he utilized her absence to look for evidence of a boyfriend or spouse. Or roommate. Maybe for another witness account or a suspect? On a sofa table against the back of the room there was an assortment of framed photos and a vase of white orchids—the only truly feminine touch to the whole place. When he started to cross the room to satisfy his curiosity Sadie returned with two steaming mugs.

She handed him a cup of black coffee, the rich aroma curled over the rim, instantly filling the room with warmth and familiarity.
Well, isn’t this cozy.
His inner voice mocked. Archer shook his head, sure a screw was loose somewhere. When was the last time he’d taken a sick day? Oh, right. Never.

He watched Sadie position herself on the far end of the couch, drawing her knees to her chest. Pursing her lips, she blew lightly over her brew. “Was I right?”

“Pardon me?”

“About your coffee. I figured you to be a straight-black kinda guy, but if not, there’s cream and—”

“Black’s perfect, thank you.” Archer took a scalding swig of the velvety dark roast. “Wow, this is really good … and hot.”
Smooth move, genius
. Clearing his throat of the blazing shrapnel, he blinked his eyes to obliterate the choking moisture and strove for a friendly tone. “Sure beats the coffee at the bureau.”

This time he was rewarded with a slight smile. “It’s the French press, makes great coffee.”

A few uncommonly peaceful moments passed while they sipped their drinks. “Umm, mind if we get started, Miss Carson?”

“Sure. And Sadie’s fine.”

“The police report said that you were out jogging, saw Mr. Westwick’s car on the shoulder ahead, and went to go check it out. What time was this?”

“About ten till nine. Since I didn’t have to work today I slept in a bit and started my run at about eight.”

“When you left did you notice Mr. Westwick’s car in the lot outside?”

“No, I wasn’t paying attention. He doesn’t drive anymore since he lost his license.”

“Do you know anything about that?”

She seemed to reminisce for a brief moment before a small lyrical chuckle slipped from her lips. “Actually, yes. He uh, repeatedly backed his car into another neighbor’s Mustang and drove off. Of course, that might seem harmless enough for a little old man, but it was the confession to the cops about the ‘dag-gum garbage bin’ in the street that he’d hit shouldn’t warrant police involvement that got the authorities questioning his competence on the road—and perhaps his bifocal prescription.”

She flashed a real smile—bright white, even teeth, faint dimples in each cheek, pale gold freckles dusting the bridge of her nose, aquamarine eyes glittering like sunlit water. Despite the Irish tongue-lashing she’d given him, her smile was innocence, light, and all-American beautiful. The full force of it slammed him in the gut. Dang, if it wasn’t infectious. It was almost impossible to smother his answering grin. Saving himself the struggle, he raised his mug and took another blistering sip.

Sadie continued before he could ask the next question. “So I didn’t notice the car, but I did hear him rummaging around this morning before I left, which was a little odd. This wall here separating our condos—like paper—but every morning he quietly dissects his newspapers from seven to nine-ish. He likes to know what’s going on in the world so he can worry more about everything, and he’s not big on television.”

“Can you describe the types of sounds you heard?”

“Uhh, yeah I think so … kinda sounded like a lot of drawers being opened and closed, and not gently. Maybe some papers rustling, but like I said, he was big into the morning paper—other than the entertainment section, the classifieds, and the funnies.”

“You seem to know him pretty well. What was the nature of your relationship?”

Her eyes narrowed and her lips firmed. For such a little thing she had the intimidation act down. “We’ve been neighbors for the past six years and friends for most of those. If you’d ever met Charlie you’d understand there was just something special about him.”

As if lost in a memory of him, her eyes drifted to something unseen. “He was hard not to like. People can get pretty morose as they age and their minds and bodies start to fail them. Sure he had his quirks, but he was lonely after the loss of his wife and needed a friend.” She came back, their gazes colliding. “At the time I wasn’t, but a year after I moved here I became a hospice house nurse, and even though Charlie wasn’t one of my patients, I’d help him out from time to time with errands and chores and reading the tiny print on his prescription bottles—yada yada yada. Does that satisfy your question, Agent Hayes?”

“You misinterpreted my implication.” A smile slipped through despite his best efforts to appear neutral. It had been a long time since anyone had wrestled one out of him. “It’s a standard question, Sadie.”

Oh, brother. What was it about this woman that had him grinning like a schoolboy? He called upon his training and erased the stupid smile. “Have you noticed anything else unusual lately? His behavior, any visitors, deliveries, that kind of thing?” What was wrong with his voice? Had the molten coffee singed his vocal cords?

She shook her head.

“I’m assuming you’ve been inside his home. Anything out of place last time you were there?”

“Oh, you’ve got your work cut out for you.” She sighed. “Charlie was a smart and organized guy, but he was a bit of a pack rat when it came to certain things—files, journals, newspapers, books, records, you name it. There was definitely a method to his madness, but it would be difficult to see if anything was truly out of place.” Her voice grew quiet, and Archer barely heard her murmur under her breath, “Only Charlie could tell you that.”

“I know this is difficult but can you think of anyone who might what to harm Mr. Westwick in any way?”

Setting her mug on the end table, she skimmed her fingers through her hair. “I don’t know. I mean Charlie talked a lot about his days in the service and something about some shady business that went on there, but nothing specific that I can remember. To be honest, I could never tell how much of what he was saying was actually true. All I know is that
he
believed it. I’ll try to wrack my brain, see if I can come up with anything useful but nothing off the top of my head.”

Archer dreaded what he needed to say next. “I’m sorry Miss Carson, but can anyone vouch for your whereabouts this morning from say 4:00 a.m. to when you found the body?”

From everything he’d gathered so far about the independent and stubborn Sadie Carson he was expecting a defensive maneuver. What he saw, however, wasn’t knee-jerk indignation, nor a pale-faced realization that she didn’t have an alibi. It was a private reflection of unbearable sadness. It was in that unguarded glimpse, she was completely unmasked and vulnerable. What he saw told him she was broken, instead of guilty.

BOOK: When Fall Fades (The Girl Next Door Series Book 1)
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