The Rules Are Simple:
It’s the ultimate test of strategy and skill. The killer chooses each opponent carefully, learning each one’s weaknesses. Every meticulously planned move is leading to a devastating checkmate. Because in this game, all the pretty pawns must die.
First You Play
Andi Wren is fighting to keep her late husband’s company safe from vindictive competitors. When she receives an ominous note—Little birds must fly—she turns to P.I. Luke Denton. But though Luke has personal reasons for wanting to take down Wren Development’s opponents, his investigation suggests this is deeper and far more dangerous than a business grudge.
Then You Die. . .
In a basement on the outskirts of town, police detectives unearth piles of skeletons. As they learn the shocking truth about each victim’s identity, their case collides with Andi’s, revealing a killer’s ruthless plot—and a chilling, lethal endgame.
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The Killing Game
By NANCY BUSH
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2016 Nancy Bush
All rights reserved.
Andi gazed down at the toes of her black flats, her most comfortable work shoes. The right heel was scuffed from long hours resting on the carpet of her Hyundai Tucson as she'd pressed down on the accelerator. She supposed she really ought to put some polish on it. It wasn't going to get better by itself.
She sat in a chair with polished oak arms and a blue cushion, her vision focused on the commercial gray carpet that ran the length of the reception area. Minutes elapsed, their passing accompanied by a flat hum in her ears. She'd been in this same suspended state for over three months, ever since Greg's death. Friends and family had consoled her over losing her husband, murmuring words of encouragement and hope, and she'd tried to acknowledge their kindness.
But what if you don't feel anything? What if your husband's infidelity creates a different truth? What if your grief is from the shock of change and not the actual loss of your spouse?
The only person she'd told her true feelings to was Dr. Knapp, her therapist, the woman to whom Greg had steered her when she'd been so depressed, and that was before his death.
But you loved Greg once, didn't you?
She reopened her eyes. After four years of marriage, three failed IVF procedures, one ugly affair — his, not hers — where Greg's lover had turned up pregnant — oh, yes, that had happened — her love for him was a whole lot harder to remember.
She looked around the waiting room. A twentysomething woman with dark hair and the drawn, faraway look of the utterly hopeless sat across the room. Andi wondered if some terrible fate had befallen her. She suspected she'd had that same look on her face when she'd learned the last IVF implantation hadn't taken. And she may have looked that way when she'd learned Greg's Lexus had veered off the road that encircled Schultz Lake and plunged into the water. One moment she was lost in her failure to start a family, the next she was a widow.
Greg's two siblings, Carter and Emma, were grieving and sympathetic to Andi's loss until they learned she'd inherited 66 percent of Wren Development, the family business started by Douglas Wren, Carter and Emma's grandfather, whereas they'd only gotten 17.5 percent apiece. Andi had become the major stockholder upon Greg's death. Now they couldn't stand dealing with her, especially since she'd become part of the company. Couldn't stand that she was "in the way." Her business degree didn't matter. They just wanted her gone.
The inner door opened and a nurse in blue scrubs said, "Mrs. Wren? Dr. Ferante will see you now."
Slinging the strap of her purse over her shoulder, Andi followed after her through the door she held open. They walked down polished floors that squeaked beneath the crepe soles of the nurse's shoes. She hadn't wanted to make this appointment, but the gray fog that wouldn't lift from around her wasn't normal. And the weight on her chest was killing her. Her therapist had prescribed pills for her, but they hadn't seemed to help and she'd stopped taking them.
But she'd been so tired that she'd made an appointment and had blood work done. This was her follow-up.
Dr. Ferante was a middle-aged Hispanic woman with short, curly black hair, white teeth, and a brisk, friendly manner. Andi sat down on the crinkly paper on the end of the examining table and waited for some answers.
Now, she studied the woman who'd been Greg's doctor first, after the family's longtime physician had retired. Greg hadn't known what to think of his first woman physician, but Andi had sensed Dr. Ferante was a straight shooter.
"So, am I going to be okay?" Andi asked, smiling faintly, though it was an effort.
When Dr. Ferante didn't immediately answer, Andi's heart clutched a bit. Oh, God. She hadn't believed she was really sick.
Andi's mouth dropped open. "What! No. I'm not."
"I ran the test three times."
"I can't be. I can't be."
"I assure you, you are. You're a little over three months, best guess."
Andi stared at her. She couldn't breathe. Couldn't think.
"I even checked to make sure your results weren't mixed up with someone else's," Dr. Ferante went on," though it would be highly unlikely. The lab's extremely careful and has a wonderful reput —"
"I don't believe you!"
Dr. Ferante cut off what she was about to say and nodded instead. "I understand this is overwhelming. You've been through a lot in a very short time. But I think this is good news, right?" she said gently.
"But the IVFs failed."
"You've said you've been lacking in energy. That you haven't been able to focus. This is why. This and your grief," she said. "Call your gynecologist and make an appointment."
Andi couldn't process. Boggled, she quit arguing with Dr. Ferante and allowed herself to be led toward the door. Her brain was whirling like a top. Three months ... the baby, of course, was Greg's. They'd had that attempt at reconciliation after the horror of learning about Mimi Quade's pregnancy, which Greg had furiously denied being any part of. Greg had died before any testing could prove otherwise, and in the three months since, there had been no contact with Mimi or her brother, Scott.
Andi's hands felt cold and numb and she stared down at them as if they weren't attached to her arms. She climbed into her Hyundai Tucson and sat there for a moment, staring through the windshield. Then she pulled out her cell phone, scrolling to her gynecologist, Dr. Schuster's, number. When the receptionist answered, she said in a bemused voice, "This is Andrea Wren and I've been told I'm pregnant, so I guess I need an appointment."
"Wonderful!" the woman said warmly. Carrie. Her name was Carrie, Andi recalled.
"I'm having trouble processing this. I just want to be sure."
"How far away are you? Dr. Schuster had a last-minute cancellation today, but the appointment's right now."
"Oh God. I can be there in fifteen minutes. Will that work?"
"Just," Carrie said, then added, "Drive carefully."
Andi aimed her car out of the medical complex and toward the familiar offices of Dr. Schuster's IVF offices, which were across the Willamette River to Portland's east side. She made the trip in twenty-three minutes, gnashing her teeth when it took several more minutes to find a parking spot. Slamming out of the SUV, she remote locked it as she hurried toward the covered stairs on the west side of the building, refusing to wait for the elevator. She hadn't felt this much urgency since before Greg's death.
When she entered the reception room, her face was flushed and her heartbeat light and fast. She scanned the room and settled on the woman at the curved reception counter. Carrie, who was somewhere in her forties, with straight, brown hair clipped at her nape, about Andi's same shade and length, though Andi's was currently hanging limply to her shoulders. She'd combed it this morning, but that was about as far as she'd gotten after showering, brushing her teeth, and getting dressed. She'd thrown on some mascara, the extent of her makeup.
"Go on through," Carrie urged her, coming around the desk to hold open the door to the hallway beyond. "Second door on your right."
She seated herself on the end of the examining table. Suddenly her body felt hot all over, and she sensed she was going to throw up. It was as if her mind, having accepted this new truth, had convinced her body. She knew where the nearest bathroom was and ran for the door. Too late. She was already heaving. She grabbed the nearest waste can, with its white plastic kitchen bag, moments before losing the remains of her earlier coffee and a muffin.
When her stomach stopped feeling as if it were turning itself inside out, she grabbed some tissues from the box of Kleenex on the counter and wiped her lips. Then she leaned under the faucet at the small stainless-steel sink and washed the sour taste from her mouth. Pregnant, she thought again, struggling to process. Pregnant!
Her eye fell on a pictorial representation of a woman's body in the last trimester, the position of the fetus, the swelling of the mother's abdomen. Tentatively, she placed her hand over her still quivering midsection.
The doctor bustled in a few minutes later. She was in her fifties, with thick, steel-gray hair that curved beneath her chin and looked surprisingly chic and healthy. Behind frameless glasses, her eyes were a startling light blue and peered at you as if you were a specimen in ajar. Dr. Schuster worked hard to effect pregnancies, but she didn't exhibit a warm and fuzzy manner.
Andi confessed, "I threw up in your trash can."
"We'll take care of it. I understand you think you're pregnant?"
"My doctor, Dr. Ferante, just told me I was."
She gave Andi a routine exam, and once again her blood was drawn. The doctor looked thoughtful but wasn't going to give out any answers before she was ready. It was another ten minutes before she returned to the room and, holding Andi's file to her chest, said with a slight softening of her manner, "Yes, you are pregnant."
Heat flooded Andi's system. She didn't know whether to laugh or cry. "Greg's been gone for three months."
"That's about how far along you are."
"After all this time ... all the effort," Andi said now, swallowing.
"When the stress is off, sometimes it happens like this."
Andi knew that. She just hadn't completely believed it.
She and Dr. Schuster talked about what was in store in the next few months: a healthy diet, light exercise, plenty of rest. At the reception desk Andi consulted the calendar on her cell phone and lined up future appointments. She left the medical offices in a state of wonderment, driving back toward her house, the one she'd just sold, feeling like she was living a dream. She wondered briefly if she should have held on to the house, but it was too late now. She'd purchased one of the older cabins on Schultz Lake, the very lake that was the scene of Wren Development's latest endeavor — a lodge at the north end that had just begun construction — and her real estate agent had delivered the keys the night before. She'd sold the house she'd shared with Greg because that part of her life was over.
She pulled into her drive. Andi still had some packing to do and the new buyers were giving her through the weekend to move. She'd managed to box up most of her belongings, forcing herself to fill one box per day or it would never happen, but now the push was on. Even though she was pregnant, she had a renewed sense of energy. What had seemed like an insurmountable task now felt doable.
Pregnant ... !
Her cell buzzed as she was climbing from the SUV. She looked down to find a text from her best friend, Trini.
Tomorrow at the club?
Andi and Trini had a long-standing Tuesday/Thursday morning workout schedule, which Andi had completely abandoned after Greg's death. Now she texted back You bet and immediately received All right! along with a winking emoticon happy face.
Would she tell Trini about the baby? No ... not yet. Ditto Carter and Emma. She needed some time to process this. It felt too precious to reveal yet. She had no doubt Carter and Emma would be horrified. She was already the interloper, and now Greg's child ... She could already hear them talking about her behind her back, perhaps mounting a lawsuit to claim back the company; that would be just like them.
Her pulse fluttered as she thought about when she would deliver the news. She was three months and not even showing. She had time. Greg's brother and sister were trying to put a good face on the fact that she was both majority stockholder and a capable business associate, but it was taking all they had. Since Greg's death they'd been too involved in other business problems, chiefly the quiet war Wren Development was having with the Carrera brothers, who were trying to take over all the properties surrounding Schultz Lake, to put all their concentration on Andi's position in the company. The Carreras were thugs who used fair means or foul — mostly foul, actually — to achieve their goals; they had tried to put a moratorium on building, not for any reason other than to stop the Wrens. Greg, Carter, and Emma had been handling the project, which involved slogging through and complying with all the county ordinances on the one hand, and dealing with twins Brian and Blake Carrera on the other. Greg's death had put Andi in the thick of it even while she moved through life as an automaton, but the project had moved forward anyway.
Andi's emotional fog had allowed Greg's siblings to run things any way they wanted these past few months, but she'd set up a meeting with them for later today at the site. Even through her numbness, she'd been irked at the way they'd dismissed her, and now that she'd surfaced, she planned to take control of her life and her place in Wren Development.
And what a way to surface ... she was having a baby ... a Wren heir.
The house Greg had insisted on buying for them was over three thousand square feet, a big, square contemporary settled among other big, square contemporaries. Andi parked in the driveway next to the Sirocco Realty sign with its red, diagonal "Sale Pending" banner. She'd already signed papers and the house had closed, so she had through this coming weekend to move, and it was just a matter of schlepping boxes and getting her furniture taken by truck. She couldn't wait to move in.
She hit the remote for the garage and looked at the wall of boxes waiting for her. She'd left a small trail to the back door and traversed it now, letting herself into the sleek kitchen with its stainless appliances and sink, deeply veined, dark slab granite, and glass and chrome cabinets. No more stainless-steel cleaner, she thought with a sense of freedom. Her cabin was rustic. Not "decorator" rustic. More like old-time, maybe-there-are-mice-in-the-walls rustic.
She was going to have her work cut out for her and she didn't care.
Of course everyone had told her to wait. Selling your home wasn't the sort of decisions to make when you were still grieving. She didn't see how she could explain that she'd never liked the house anyway, that she'd been dragged along by a husband who earnestly believed his wishes were her wishes, and who argued with her whenever she disagreed, certain he could make her see that her opinion was faulty, that she just needed to see his side. She'd learned to rarely fight with him, to pick the few battles carefully for which she would go to the mat. Whenever she did, Greg would roll his eyes and smile, like she was a crazy woman, and finally lift his hands as if she'd been blasting him with artillery fire, drawling, "Oh ... kay," in a way that meant he would acquiesce, but she would be sorr ... eee, no doubt about it. His behavior had put her teeth on edge more than once, but she'd never seriously considered divorce until maybe Mimi. She understood Greg had thought their marriage was stronger than she had, but his perception was always different than hers, so she'd let him believe what he wanted. People were individuals, and as the French said, vive la différence.
And there had been those times when she and Greg did see eye to eye, most of those times being when they were discussing Wren Development and Carter and Emma's involvement. Greg thought both of them would be poor stewards of the profitable company founded by his grandfather, and Andi had agreed. Of course she'd believed Greg would be the person in charge, never dreaming she would be the one left holding the reins.
She stalked past the heaps of boxes in the foyer and dining room. She didn't know where she would put everything in her two-bedroom cottage. Half of her belongings were going into storage as it was, and she'd made a pledge to herself that she would empty out the storage unit before a calendar year had passed, using, selling, or giving away everything inside. She had until Sunday evening to move. It was Wednesday, so that gave her five days.
Andi hurried up the stairs. She didn't want to be late for the meeting with Carter and Emma and have to explain what kind of doctor she'd visited. Until it became too obvious to hide, she would keep her condition a secret.
Her steps hesitated in the hallway as she passed the doorway of the spare bedroom she'd planned as a nursery. It was painted a bright yellow, and there was a chest of once-scarred pine drawers, a piece of Greg's from his childhood, that Andi had repainted white. That was as far as their plans for a family had gone. She'd wanted to wait until she knew what sex the child was before decorating further.
Excerpted from The Killing Game by NANCY BUSH. Copyright © 2016 Nancy Bush. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Books by Nancy Bush,
PART I - OPENING,
PART II - MIDDLEGAME,
PART III - ENDGAME,
PART IV - CHECKMATE,