As a researcher, Layne McGraw can handle tough situations. So when suspicions arise that her uncle may have been murdered, she won't let anything stop her from finding the truth. Not the risks, and certainly not party-boy philanthropist Matt Hollister.
It turns out Matt is more irresistible than she expected. Not only has he reformed his wild ways, but as the new head of his family's charity, he has a lot to prove. And her quest seems to challenge his plans. She knows finding out what really happened could serve both their needs. All they have to do is control their attraction!
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"Here you go, Layne," said Kit Carson, tossing a copy of the Puget Sound Babbitt on the desk.
"Thanks." Layne McGraw smiled at the lead mail-room clerk.
"Look at the intrepid explorer, pushing his trusty steed. Or is that just a mail cart?" taunted Regina Sor-kin, who thought it was a hoot that Kit was named after a famous explorer.
"And if it isn't The Kitchen Corner's smart-ass columnist. I see you have more bandages on your fingersdid you screw up another recipe?" Kit returned, appearing annoyed as he pushed his cart forward.
Layne looked at her friend. "Why do you do that?" she asked. "You know how much it annoys him."
"Because I know how much it annoys him," Regina replied, unrepentant. "You'd think he'd be more ambitious with a name like Kit Carson."
"He's happy running the mail room. People don't always want to earn a bigger income or get a more impressive job title."
Regina shrugged and headed back to her own desk, most likely annoyed with Kit for not being ambitious enough to notice her as a woman. Layne felt bad for herunrequited love was hell. Still, she didn't think it was right to torment someone over their career choice the way her family tormented her.
She leafed through her copy of the Babbitt and spotted signs of her work throughout the weekly regional news magazine. Whenever someone had trouble finding information, she got it for them. She took pride in knowing her facts were triple-checked and documented.
Pulling out her lunch, she munched on a sandwich as she read. It was always fun to see how the information she'd researched translated into print.
"I need some things checked for my next op-ed," said Carl Abernathy as he walked up and dropped a file onto her desk. His eyebrows rose as he spotted her half-eaten sandwich. "Peanut butter again?"
"Peanut-butter sandwiches are great. They're easy and don't have to be refrigerated. And they're healthier than the greasy-spoon burger and fries you eat every day." Layne grinned, knowing she was one of the few Babbitt employees who could sass Carl and get away with it.
"I'm an editorI have to eat like one. Don't you go to the movies?"
"From what I've seen, those editors just chomp on cigars and yell a lot. You have the yelling part down all right. Of course, that isn't healthy, either. Though I'm sure a cardiologist would disapprove of the burger and fries even more than the yelling."
Carl's eyes narrowed. "I don't yell, I suggest. And don't pay attention to what your famous mother saysit takes the fun out of life to worry about everything you eat. My God, it must have been dreary growing up with a heart doctor for a parent."
"I survived," Layne said wryly.
It wasn't a surprise that Carl knew her mother was a renowned cardiologist; practically everyone at the Babbitt knew about Barbara McGraw the same way they knew her father was a top orthopedic surgeon, and that she had three megasuccessful siblings. At one time or other, the magazine had done articles about each of them.
"What's this?" Layne asked, pulling the file toward her.
"Just an editorial I'm writing on endangered species here in Washington State. Look at it after lunch."
He hurried away and Layne glanced through the folder. She liked Carl; he was a good editor and uncompromising on journalistic integrity. A year after she'd started working at the Babbitt, one of the columnists was caught using her research notes verbatim without giving her credit. It was a firing offense and while Layne had wanted to feel bad about the incident, she couldn't because Doug was a snake. He'd not only been copying her work for several months, he had patted her butt in the elevator. But he'd only done it onceher father had taught his daughters excellent self-defense skills.
She scrunched her nose at the memory. Both Regina and Annette Wade, who wrote the nuptials column, had wanted her to report Doug the first time he'd plagiarized, but Layne had figured he'd get caught sooner or later, and she wouldn't have made points by being a complainer.
"Layne, I have two recipes for your aunt to test." Regina held out a couple of sheets of paper. "They were awful when I tried to cook them myself. I brought them over earlier, but I didn't want to talk about it with Kit around. The usual pay ratetwo hundred and fifty a recipe."
"Great. What are they?" Layne asked. Her aunt was struggling financially and when the freelance chef who'd done some of the Babbitt's recipe testing had retired eight weeks before, she'd suggested Aunt Dee as a replacement.
"A tropical chiffon cake and pecan sticky rolls." Regina glanced down at the first-aid strips on both her forefingers. "Jeez, I can't wait until Carl lets me do hard news and takes me off this fluff stuff. A cooking column. Almost nothing I try comes out. Hell, I can't cook any better than you."
"Sad but true." A shared lack of culinary skills was one of the things that had cemented their friendship. "I'll set it up with my aunt."
"Fabulous. She could make them on Saturday or Sunday, and the staff can taste test both on Monday." She checked her watch and made a face. "I'm going to lunchmaybe I'll meet tall, dark and handsome while eating sushi."
"Check his ring finger before losing your heart. Now that we're thirty, tall, dark, and handsome is often married."
"Also sad but true. See you later."
Picking up the phone, Layne dialed her aunt's number.
"Hey, Aunt Dee, just a heads-up. Regina has two recipes for you to test this weekend." She glanced at the tropical cake and made a face. "One is for sticky rolls that should be easy enough with all the bread you make. But the dessert is complicated. It's a cake with a mousse filling and whipped frosting and a gazillion ingredients."
"That doesn't sound too difficult."
So said the woman who'd once baked all the pies for the church's harvest dinner fund-raiser, at the same time creating a pumpkin costume for Layne to wear in her school play. As a kid, Layne had spent far more time at Aunt Dee and Uncle William's house than she did at her own.
Would she ever stop missing him so terribly? Maybe it was because of the way he'd died. She still found it hard to grasp that he'd committed suicide.
Layne chatted with her aunt another few minutes and then went back to work, trying to push the sad feeling away. It didn't seem possible that Uncle Will had been gone for almost seven months; the wounds were still too raw and she missed him too much.
On Sunday afternoon Layne arrived at her aunt's house and rang the bell.
"Darling!" Her aunt hugged her as if they hadn't seen each other in a week, instead of attending church together that morning. Dee then peeked into the two bags of groceries she'd brought. "You don't have to bring the supplies."
"It comes out of Regina's expense account."
It was true, but Layne would have paid for everything herself, rather than have her aunt lose any of the money she got for testing. Things hadn't been easy for Aunt Dee since Uncle Will's death. She rarely talked about money, but what she earned as a successful graphic artist obviously wasn't enough. In a worried moment, Dee had confided that she'd taken out a second mortgage to pay off other debts, but Layne could tell she was still struggling financially. Her aunt had even mentioned that she might need to sell the house.
Layne sat back and watched her aunt work, making notes for Regina and marveling at how easy cooking looked when someone else was doing it. She didn't think it was the equipment, though her aunt had every gadget imaginable. Uncle William had designed the kitchen for his wife years ago and it still looked great, with lighted quartz countertops, hardwood floors and commercial-grade stainless-steel appliances.
Three hours later the cake was assembled and the sticky rolls were on the counter, rising.
"Regina will be eternally grateful," Layne said. "I'll take them to work tomorrow and save you a trip into the city. And I'm sure they'll cut a check for you right away."
Layne stretched and glanced around the warm, inviting home. Her stomach clenched whenever she thought that Aunt Dee might be forced to sell the house. Some of her happiest childhood memories were here, spent with her aunt and uncle and feeling completely accepted. It wasn't that her parents and older siblings didn't love her, but they were always pushing her to be something she wasn't.
"I got another email from Mom about that medical research assistant position at the university," Layne said idly. "She has it all mapped outI can work with Dr. Clark and he can be my faculty advisor while I get my doctorate."
"You don't want a doctorate."
"According to Mother, I do. She doesn't care what I study as long as it's somehow connected to the medical field and I become Dr. McGraw."
Dee sighed. "I love my sister, but she has tunnel vision when it comes to this stuff. Don't let her push you, Lani. Just keep doing what makes you happy."
Layne smiled at the nickname that only her aunt and uncle had ever used.
Dee absentmindedly wiped the stone counter she'd already cleaned twice and Layne frowned. "Is something wrong? You've been distracted for weeks."
"I oh, nothing."
"Come on, I know you too well. Fess up."
Her aunt smiled weakly. "It's just that lately I keep feeling as if William is in the house. In his office, walking up and down the hall or up the stairs. Or lying next to me in bed. Sometimes I can even smell his aftershave."
The unexpected mention of her uncle made Layne's stomach drop. "That's what Grandmother Adele said after Granddad was gone. I'm sure it's normal."
"Maybe, but I can feel him, Lani, the way I always used to know he was home. It's as if he's looking for something or trying to tell me something. Some people believe a soul can't rest if they have unfinished business."
"Is that what you think it is?"
"I don't know." Dorothy gathered the dish towels she'd used that evening and threw them into a laundry hamper. "But it started when I received that letter from Peter Davidson, so what better time for Will to come back and haunt the place?"
"I'll get it." Dee dried her hands and went out, returning a couple of minutes later.
Layne read the note from her uncle's former partner, a scowl growing on her face. "How dare he? This is emotional blackmail." She stared at the letter in disbelief. "Agree to sell Uncle Will's company under the terms he offers, or he'll drag the embezzlement case up again?"
Aunt Dee's face was pale. "Yes. But wouldn't making accusations against William be libel?"
"I'm not sure. It's possible you can't libel someone who's uh."
"Dead?" Dee finished flatly. "Maybe. But Peter is basically saying I'm not due anything because of what happened, and he'll make a stink about it if I don't go along. That was William's company, too. He'd be so upset if he knew about this."
"Uncle Will was never actually indicted for embezzling."
"I know. But I haven't gotten anywhere with the police or the Carrollton District Attorney's office on clearing his name. After they decided he killed himself, it seems as if they just stopped investigating. I even heard one of them say 'he must have been guilty' the night Will died. I've called and called and nobody will even talk to me any longer."
Layne let out a pent-up breath. "Maybe they think you're just trying to throw doubt on the suicide verdict to get Uncle Will's life insurance."
"God knows I need the insurance moneyit's probably the only way I'll hang on to the housebut that isn't the only reason. I hate people thinking Will would steal from his own clients. And now this letter from Peter . I've been dragging my feet, but I have to make a decision soon. He's working for the Eisley Foundation as their chief financial officer and doesn't want to deal with Hudson & Davidson any longer. His stepson resigned three months ago to take over as director of the foundation from his grandfather."
Layne nodded, recalling Matthew Hollister's connection to her uncle's company. The notorious playboy, Gordon Eisley's grandson, had started working for Hudson & Davidson almost a year and a half before, a case of pure nepotism on Peter Davidson's part. Though Uncle Will had been annoyed about it, he hadn't objected. And not long before his death, he'd admitted that Matt Hollister had worked hard and seemed to have a decent business head on his shoulders.
Layne had only seen Matt Hollister in person once, when he'd come to Uncle Will's funeral. A ripple of whispers had run around the church when he'd arrived, sitting in the back. He had slipped out early without speaking to the family, but at least he'd come; Peter Davidson hadn't even sent flowers.
"Aunt Dee, what did you think of Matt Hollister?" she asked.
"We've only met once at a company Christmas party. It was just a hello and goodbye encounterthe other women were crowding around too much for anything else."
"But what about when Mr. Davidson married Matt's mother?"
"We didn't go to the wedding. It was a small, hush-hush affair on Catalina Island to avoid publicityyou know Katrina Eisley's reputation for being a recluse. Marrying into the Eisley family was a big deal for Peter. Between his new father-in-law and famous stepson, he joined a small, very exclusive social circle."
Layne returned Peter Davidson's letter to her aunt. "I've done research on Matt Hollister for some of the reporters at the Babbitt. I can't imagine he's really reformed. His father, S. S. Hollister, is one of most outrageous hedonists in the world and they seem cut from the same cloth."
"Except the son never married, and the father can't stay out of divorce court. Anyway, I sort of understand why Peter claims I'm not due anything from the sale of the firm ."
"I don't," Layne said stoutly.
"Unfortunately the math appears to add up. The embezzlement crashed the value of the company and Peter repaid every penny of the stolen money from his own pocket. At the end of the letter you can see he's offering to give me twenty-five thousand dollars as a goodwill gesture, but that's all."
"It's hard to believe you wouldn't be due several million at the very least. The property alone is worth a fortune."
While Dee didn't say anything, Layne thought she agreed. Her aunt had never dealt much with money, focusing on art while her husband went into business after getting out of the navy. They'd seemed to have the perfect marriage, but Layne wasn't naive enough to think there hadn't been occasional problems.
Dee sat next to her and traced a pattern in the quartz countertop. "The thing is, I know how good you are at research and putting pieces of information together. And I've been thinking if anyone can prove Will was innocent, it's you. And then I could challenge Peter about the sale and be able to pay off the mortgage before I have to sell the house. Will and I built this house togetherI don't want to lose it."