When Fall Fades (The Girl Next Door Series Book 1) (6 page)

BOOK: When Fall Fades (The Girl Next Door Series Book 1)
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“Oh, I think you’re plenty dangerous.” His eyes darkened to milk chocolate—as if the man needed to look any tastier. “This is generally considered good news, you know, when an alibi proves your innocence. You’re lucky we were able to rule you out so quickly, given your rather … isolated nature. I thought you’d be relieved and oh, I dunno, grateful.” A muscle flexed in the hard edge of his jaw.

“Excuse me? What do you mean my ‘isolated nature’? Two days and suddenly you know me?” Guilt be gone, Sadie was now blazing mad.

Taking an emboldened step toward him, she jabbed him in the chest with her finger—a very strong, very firm chest that about snapped her finger in half. “I was actually about to apologize for my attitude, but now you can forget it.”

“Oh, really?” He stepped forward and met her challenge. “I guess one day I should be so lucky to be on the receiving end of your more gracious side. What is it with you, emotional Russian roulette? You need someone to be your punching bag today, Sadie? Because I can take a lot more than you can dish out, so bring it on.”

Time suspended between them. The heat from their proximity was suddenly stifling—and the only thing she could think about. Merely an inch apart, the air grew thick and heady, but they both stood their ground, searching each other’s eyes in a postwar stare down.

Sadie’s lips parted as she drew in a shaky breath. She saw it happen in slow motion—his gaze flickering, honing in on her mouth. Swallowing down the knot in her throat, every ounce of moisture wicked away. She wasn’t aware that she’d licked her lips until the warmth of his breath swept over them. A clean musky scent of soap, and something else she couldn’t pinpoint— something raw and primitive—had her senses reeling.

Her body swayed.

His chin tipped down. And—

The sound of a dog barking jolted her out of the trance. The movement was so overreacted, so jarring, she lost her balance, tweaking her ankle on a precariously placed pebble, and fell into him.

“Oompf.” She hit his chest with an ungraceful thud. Oh sweet mercy, his scent on contact was better than brownie batter. Lifting her hands to push away, she realized a little too late that she grabbed his pecs. Actually grabbed.

Holy mackerel, she’d just felt him up! Her cheeks burned, her hands unlatching from where she’d unintentionally fondled him.

She was positively mortified. She couldn’t look at him, became riveted with the sight of her hot pink and gray running shoes, and instructed her wobbly legs to take a large step back.

Nothing happened. No reason to be embarrassed. It was a reflex. Accidental boob graze. Happens all the time.
After the brief, silent pep talk, she managed to look up. She met his intense, unreadable gaze but had no words to wield. Internal or otherwise.

“I’ll be at Charlie’s for a while, if you feel like apologizing.” His words were matter-of-fact and she wasn’t quite sure what to make of them. Though she had a feeling the aforementioned apology had little to nothing to do with his impressive pecs. Or the almost kiss. She winced. He turned and walked away, leaving her to watch his retreat and ponder what in the heck had just happened.

The rest of Sadie’s day was commonplace. She got home from her fully charged run—the tail end of which full of impossible questions, a heap of self-loathing, and her fastest time to date. Now, over an hour later, slumped on her couch in her favorite spot, she couldn’t shake the restlessness. Or maybe it was conviction. “You’re gonna make me do it, aren’t you?” She griped to her ceiling as if begging for a free pass, just this once.

The blare of her cell phone from the kitchen was a welcome distraction and a much needed kick in the pants.

“Hello?”

“Yeah, hello is this Sadie Carson?” inquired the nasally voice.

“This is.” She checked the screen again, pressed the phone back to her ear.

“Hi Sadie, this is Charlie’s son, John Westwick, returning your call. I believe we’ve met a couple times over the past few years.” His tone, while friendly held a twinge of something sharp, maybe grief, though it was difficult to tell.

“Oh, hi. Thanks for getting back with me. I know you have a lot on your plate right now.”

“Yeah, it’s been a difficult week.”

“How’s your son taking it? Charlie said they used to be close when he was a kid but not as much anymore. I know Charlie regretted losing touch with him.”

John cleared his throat. “Yeah, well distance does that to people, even family. It’s a shame. Evan is really focused on his career right now. He’s been traveling a lot for work, but his wife, Heather, helped me track him down.”

“That’s right. Charlie mentioned he was some sort of big-shot financial advisor?”

“Yes, he’s really starting to do well for himself. He seemed pretty broken up about Pop though. To be honest, none of us know what to think about all this. It just seems so crazy.”

“I know. I can’t imagine anyone wanting to hurt Charlie.” A flash of Charlie’s pale, lifeless face tripped through her mind. The hard bend of his neck. The slack in his jaw. A swirl of nausea churned in her belly before she blinked the images away. “Well, I didn’t want to bother you, but I called because I wanted to know if you’d mind if I organized some sort of memorial service, or if you needed help with one. I’m not sure how long they will hold him for evidence, and I thought it might be nice to honor him. Give his friends and family an opportunity to grieve and provide some closure.” She swallowed down a bitter pill of regret and willed herself not to cry.

“That would be great. Since there’s not a lot of family, we were talking about doing everything in St. Louis so his friends and colleagues could make it. I believe he had a plot around there where my mother is buried.” He paused for a moment, the thickness in his voice when he spoke again expressed the emotion he was struggling to rein. “Let me check with my wife and with Ev, see if we can start planning something.”

“Great. Just let me know if you want me to spread the word or deal with any local vendors. Whatever you need.”

“Thank you, Sadie. That will be a great help. Pop used to talk about you, you know. You were very dear to him. Thanks for being there when we couldn’t be.”

The words were sweeter than the tone of voice. But grief was tough to wrangle. Sadie was, after all, in the grief business, and had seen it manifest in countless ways.

“It was my pleasure.” She smiled, remembering Charlie, and let a lonely tear escape down her cheek.

“We’ll be in touch.”

Still sniffling from John Westwick’s words, she propped an elbow on the kitchen table and braced her forehead against her phone. It must have been sad for Charlie to not be near his family. She suddenly felt grateful for her overbearing mother. Even if she drove Sadie half crazy, she knew she could count on her for anything. 

She was still clutching her phone when it rang again. She checked the caller ID and cleared her throat to avoid sounding like a weepy mess. “Hey, Finn, what’s up?”

“Hey, Cakes. I just had to find out from Mom that my little sister is a witness in a murder investigation. What the heck, why didn’t you call me?”

“Sorry. It’s been a crazy couple of days. And I only found the body. I didn’t technically witness a murder. But I am devastated about losing Charlie.” Why hadn’t she called Finn? He was the most compassionate listener she knew.

“Sadie, I thought you were done with all this self-sabotage, carrying all your burdens crap. You promised you weren’t gonna hide out anymore.”

Sadie opened her mouth to defend herself, but the words stuck in her throat. Was that was she was doing? Hiding out?

“How about I come over tonight? I’ll order pizza, and we can watch
The Princess Bride
. And if you feel like talking, I’ll be there.”

“Sounds perfect.” The tightness in her chest eased.

“Good, I’ll come around six. And hey, we’re all praying. You’ve had a rough go, but it’s all going to work out. You just wait and see.”

“Thanks, Finny. See you soon.”

After she ended the call, Finn’s words rolled over in her head, calling her out.

Sadie had always been firm in her faith. She believed things happened for a reason and knew she never had to walk through them alone. But then why did she feel so lonely. So broken. Deserted.

Perhaps she needed to follow Finn’s lead and ask for guidance. But before that she needed to clear her conscience and just maybe do a little digging of her own.

Charlie had known something wasn’t right, and yet no one had listened. He and his family deserved answers. It was too late for Charlie, but it was never too late for the truth.

After pouring two to-go cups of coffee, Sadie took a deep breath and headed next door.

“Lord, help me.”

Chapter 7

Archer Hayes

W
hat a gigantic waste of time
. Archer growled his frustration, tossed aside another pile of garbage. He was knee-deep in newspapers from the stacks numbered “one” and was getting nowhere. More hands would make this less tedious. Some sense of direction would help matters, too.

They were spread thin at the FBI due to an increased number of security threats, white-collar crimes, and homicides spilling over from the local PDs and the Major Case Squad. St. Louis always ranked in the top three most dangerous cities in the country, which meant there was no shortage of crime to clean up. It also meant there was no reason for Archer to do anything but work. Just the way he liked it. But since the Westwick homicide wasn’t technically FBI jurisdiction, requesting additional resources could stir up unnecessary trouble.

Sal had a new lead on an old case. Archer was giving the rookie a chance to run his own show for a change, but that left Archer flying solo with the nonsensical hoardings and his guilty conscience.

Having sent in more than fifty journals for a team to work on decoding, he spent numerous hours poring over a dozen more. At this point in the game, they seemed the most likely source of information for motive.

Archer leaned back against the wall, propped his forearms on his knees. Man, he hated this case. The fact that he might have been able to prevent Charlie’s death made it personal. Guilt could change a man. Destroy him if he let it. He had to solve this case and put Charlie’s ghost to rest before all the other ghosts came back to haunt him.

Craning his neck back, he surveyed the unending piles of junk stacked like skyscrapers in a city block. The notebooks, the newspapers, they meant something to Charlie, but they were gibberish to anyone else. “Why would you keep all these, Charlie?” And now he was talking to a dead guy. Maybe Sadie knew more about the way the man ticked.

At the mere thought of her he was back at the park standing a breath away about to—

No. He wouldn’t even finish that thought in his head, it was too ridiculous.

The woman was either a head case or a drama queen, and he couldn’t decide which was worse. It would do him good to stay away from her—she was nothing but a distraction. Case in point, the wayward wanderings of his mind when she was around.

He’d catch himself thinking about the most random things in her presence—like the way her eyes were a deep Caribbean teal but glittered with a burst of sunlight when she spoke of Charlie or when he’d riled her temper. Or how the stubborn jut of her chin did nothing to hide the vulnerable flutter in her neck, nor the rosy shade that pinked her cheeks when he caught her gaze. He was not the kind of guy who thought about these things. Waxing poetic about some chick? He groaned, dropping his head back into his hands.

She did, however, keep him thinking on his toes and had some good old-fashioned gumption, which he resented but also sort of admired about her. She wasn’t a push over. Essentially, she didn’t remind him of his mother or a lot of other weak women he’d known.

But she also poked at his guilty conscience, slinging blame for things beyond his control. Implying he was inadequate at his job. Boy, was she off base.

A knock on the door brought welcome relief to his preoccupation with the girl next door. Maybe Sal was done and had come to help.

Archer crossed the room, opened the door, and froze.

God, I’ll never understand women.

Before he could loose his stuck tongue Sadie thrust out a thermos. “I don’t do groveling. But, for what it’s worth, I am sorry about today.” She released an exaggerated sigh—one that said she was glad that was over with.

Stunned and speechless, his fingers curled around a cup of, what he assumed was, coffee.

“And for the record, I prefer independent or self-sufficient. ‘Isolated’ makes me sound like a reclusive cat lady. Not exactly flattering.” She patted him on the shoulder and pushed past him into Charlie’s home.

His brain and body on the same slow path to realization had him staring out the open door where she’d been standing, wondering for the second time today what had just happened.

“Wow, you weren’t kidding. It did not look like this last week when I was here.” Sadie’s voice beckoned him out of his daze.

Closing the door, he met her in the living room, knowing he needed to keep an eye on her, just in case. She may not be an official suspect, but with her questionable emotional stability and soft alibi she was definitely a person of interest.

For the case, or for you?

He kneaded the back of his neck with his fingers. “Yeah, I know. There’s just so much here, we don’t know what’s useful and what’s not, so we’ve been trying to root through everything looking for leads. Nothing’s panned out so far. I can’t figure out what he was thinking saving all this stuff.”

“Well, if you ask real nice I might be able to help with some of that.” She was smiling, and dang it if his lips weren’t curling to match.

  Archer shook his head. “I’m not so sure I can do that, you see I’ve got a reputation to protect.”

Taking on a playful glare, Sadie crossed her arms and shifted her weight to showcase a curvy little hip. “And what reputation might that be? Pride, perhaps?”

“Oh, you’re one to talk.”

“Um, I do believe
I
am the one who humbly showed up with a peace offering. But if you’d prefer to spend days trying to figure out what those numbers on the piles of newspapers mean, be my guest, be an island.” Stooping to grab her oversized purse/bowling bag monstrosity off the ground she pretended—quite convincingly—to leave.

“O-kay, okay. Sadie?” He waited until she turned around to look at him. “Will you help me?” Maybe something would trigger her memory. Or maybe she would slip up and incriminate herself.

She adopted a thinking pose, “Nah,” then continued toward the door.

He paused for a second, plotting his next move, and then he rushed ahead and blocked her way. Giving her his most earnest and charming look he tried again, amused by their little game. “Come on, you know you want to.”

She held her silence, lifting an eyebrow.

“You knew him best. I need you.” He forced air down his throat. “Pretty please?”

Obviously relishing the moment, she bit back the smile tugging at her lips and stroked her chin with her thumb and forefinger. “Oh, all right. The groveling was a nice touch but have some respect, man, you’re embarrassing yourself.”

It couldn’t be helped. He threw his head back and laughed, something tightly wound began unraveling in his chest. Then, looking at her again he sighed. “What am I gonna do with you?” The question was rhetorical, yet his imagination answered in ways it shouldn’t. In ways that were unprofessional, and most definitely against FBI policy during an investigation.

Her sassy smirk served as a reply. Dropping her bag on the floor again, she rubbed her delicate hands together. “Okay, where to begin?”

“Well, I have a code-cracking team trying to decipher most of the journals. I don’t suppose you have an answer key that would explain all the odd numbers and symbols, do you?”

“Sorry, can’t help you there, he was very secretive about the journals. But he always said to document everything, that way you can prove your innocence.”

“What about the newspapers?”

“Oh, yeah. When we were cleaning out the study I told him he needed to throw some away, so what you’re seeing here are only about half of what he had when we started. We organized them in order of importance and subject matter. Let me think …” Riffling the stacks, her fingers traced the headlines, eyes darting with speed-reading finesse. “Right, the piles numbered four were least important and they all contained what Charlie thought were ‘government cover-ups.’ You might want to jot this down.”

Archer reached for the palm-sized notebook in his breast pocket as she continued. “Three was ‘secret government money trails,’ two was ‘covert military operations,’ and what was one?” She brought both hands to her forehead, pinched her eyes shut. “I’m pretty sure one had something to do with ‘advanced weaponry.’”

Just then a little “tweet” sound drifted from the back room.

Sadie’s eyes shot wide. “Oh my gosh, Frankie!” She bolted to the office, her voice fading down the hall. “Has anyone fed him?”

“Who, the bird?” He followed at a more leisurely pace.

“No, Charlie’s ghost. Yes, the bird.”

“Uh, no. What, doesn’t it have food?”

“No, poor thing might have starved to death. That’s all we need, another fatality.” She grabbed the feed from below the cage and refilled a hearty supply for the bird.

“Maybe you should take that thing home with you until all of this is sorted out?”

“I don’t want a bird in my house chirping all night long. I already have a hard enough time sleeping hearing him through the wall.”

Archer let a small chuckle escape. Her eyes narrowed on him.

“We’ll just make sure he stays fed until we figure out if he should be donated somewhere or if Charlie willed him to someone. Maybe his grandson would want him. Charlie always talked about how much Evan liked birds. Actually, he’s all grown up now, so who knows?”

“We? No chance. Do I look like a pet sitter to you?”

“What? It’s not like he bites, and if you’re already going to be over here …”

He beaned Sadie with a look that said “not gonna happen.”

“Fine, I’ll check on him every couple of days. Charlie gave me a spare key for emergencies.”

She has a key
. An alarm sounded in his head. All this evidence could be compromised.

“What is it now?” she groused, reading him a bit too well.

“You’re gonna have to hand over that key.”

Her eyes, daggers with deadly aim, hit their mark. “Whatever. Never used it anyway.”

We’ll see about that.
At some point during their banter his guard had slipped a little. It took a conscious effort to remember that Sadie’s motives for being here might not be as altruistic as they seemed.

“What about his trash?”

His trash?
“What about it?”

“Well, as you can see from his house, the man didn’t throw much away, but you should see his garbage. If anyone else was here and had thrown anything away, you’d be able to tell.” 

Crossing the room with all the grace and poise of a princess, she met him by the office door. She was too pretty to look vicious, but he had to admit her fight face was fierce.

She smelled like sun-ripened tangerines. A peel of light caught the hair caressing her face, making it glisten. His hand twitched with an inexplicable urge to brush it away. He curled his fingers into a fist. “After you.”

“Don’t mind if I do.” She breezed past him, seemingly unaware of the effect she had on him.

Archer sent a quick thank you heavenward for that. Not that he and God had been on real good terms for the past few years, but he’d take a blessing any way he could get one.

Once they were in the kitchen he pulled out some gloves and handed an extra pair to Sadie. They started to spread the garbage out on the floor and he saw, without question, what she meant about the man’s trash. It was meticulous. Every cereal box neatly folded, every empty can thoroughly washed, even discarded paper towels were creased in compulsive fashion—it was the cleanest trash he’d ever seen.

“Crazy, right?”

“I’ve never seen anything like it. See anything out of the ordinary?”

“Holy smokes! Yeah. The coffee grounds.” She stood there staring. He tried to see the significance but couldn’t tear his eyes off the soft opening of her gaping mouth, wondering how lips that could spew so much snark could look so maddeningly sweet.

“Sadie, you’re gonna have to fill me in here.”

“Okay well, a few years ago Charlie switched over to instant, but occasionally he would get in the mood for the real thing and he’d have me pick up a bag at the grocery store. Of course then he’d freeze it and dwindle it down for like six months, totally defeating the purpose.”

“And the weird part?”

“Patience, young Jedi, I was getting there. The weird part is that whenever he made coffee he never threw the grounds away. He put them in his garden, said it was the secret to why it looked so good. No way he forgot and accidently threw them away. Someone else was here and, for one reason or another, cleaned out the coffee pot.”

The girl had props. “I’ll send them to the lab. And we’ll check the coffee pot for prints. Maybe something will turn up. Nice job, Sherlock.”

“Guess that would make you Watson.” Her smile was playful and much too enticing to be alone with. “Oh yes, I like this. You’ll make an excellent squirrely sidekick.”

“Walked right into that one, didn’t I?”

“Yes, Watson, you did, but at least you’re being a good sport about it. Who knew behind the badge and the steely exterior there was a sense of humor busting the seams of that stuffy suit?”

“Do you always say what’s on your mind or are there thoughts you keep to yourself on occasion?”

Her eyes sparkled with mischief. “I’ll never tell.”

“Touché.” What was he, flirting?

“Hey, there’s something else in here. It’s shoved in the compressed milk carton.” Sadie attempted to shake it out of the empty milk jug and then tried to reach in two of her skinny fingers to grab it, all to no avail. “It looks like the binding from a book or—“

“A notebook?” He grabbed the carton, rattling what he hoped would be useable evidence. “There’s a gap in some of the dates for the notebooks we recovered. Maybe this is the missing one.” Finally the binding slipped out. Both covers and all the pages had been carefully cut out leaving only the rind. “With all missing pages … very helpful.”

“Well, it looks to me that Charlie was the one who cut out the pages and tried to hide the existence of this particular notebook’s contents, otherwise the killer would have just taken the whole thing, don’t you think?” Without waiting for his reply she stood and started pacing, the air around him stirring with the juicy scent of her. “So … unless the murderer found the pages, or unless Charlie destroyed them, they might still be here somewhere.” She stopped, zeroing in on him. “Why aren’t you saying anything?”

“Oh, I think you’re talking enough for the both of us.”
And why are you smiling?
Get a grip
,
this isn’t a date
.

“Fine. You can be Sherlock. What are you thinking?” She stripped off her gloves and propped her hands on the curve of her waist, her feminine wiles running circles around his brain—reducing his sharp, disciplined mind to some pathetic, infatuated blob.

Don’t you dare touch her. Don’t even look at her.

With the way his thoughts kept careening off course, he’d cross the line faster than he could draw his firearm.

He needed a safer visual so he consulted his watch. “I’m thinking we call it a day. We made some good progress, and we can mull over your theories more once we get this stuff back from the lab. You ready to head out?” He was riffing, he had no idea what to say. If he vocalized the things on his mind she’d probably deck him.

BOOK: When Fall Fades (The Girl Next Door Series Book 1)
8.92Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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