Investigative apprentice Lyra Brazier, the newest resident of Burning Cove, is unsettled when her boss suddenly disappears. Lyra knows something has happened to Raina Kirk, and tracks down her last known appearance at an exclusive hotel and health spa. The health spa is known for its luxurious offerings and prestigious clientele, and the wealthy, socialite background Lyra desperately wanted to leave behind is perfect for this undercover job. What Lyra lacks in investigative experience she makes up for in gut instinct, and her gut isn’t happy that she’s saddled with a partner by Luther Pell, Raina’s dangerous lover, who wants to bring in someone with more experience to help.
Instead of the suave, pistol-packing private eye she expected, though, Simon Cage is a mild-mannered antiquarian book dealer with a quiet, academic air, and a cool, remote gaze. Lyra suspects that Simon is much more than what he seems, and her instincts are confirmed when they arrive at the spa and pose as a couple: Simon has a unique gift that allows him to detect secrets, a skill that is crucial in finding Raina.
The unlikely duo falls down a rabbit hole of twisted rumors and missing socialites, discovering that the health spa is a façade for something far darker than they imagined. With a murderer in their midst, Raina isn't the only one in grave danger—Lyra is next.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Sold by:||Penguin Group|
|File size:||2 MB|
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Charles Adlington was in the process of trying to drown his wife in the pool when Lyra Brazier walked into the walled garden behind the mansion.
At least that's what it looked like.
Lyra froze, trying to process the surreal scene. Everything appeared so normal-the California sun dancing on the water, the umbrella-shaded lounge chairs, the pitcher of martinis on the table, the bag of golf clubs leaning against a garden bench. Just another postcard-perfect day in the seaside paradise that was Burning Cove.
Except that Adlington was attempting to murder his wife.
Lyra told herself the Adlingtons might be playing some kind of boisterous game. The violent splashing made it difficult to be sure what was going on. She couldn't even be absolutely certain that Marcella and Charles Adlington were the two people in the pool. She had never met the couple. That seemed the most logical conclusion, however, given that the villa belonged to them and there was no one else around, not even a housekeeper or gardener.
But the husband was supposed to be playing golf. That left another horrifying possibility-that Marcella was being attacked by a stranger.
The woman in the pool managed to surface long enough to scream.
"Help me. My husband is trying to kill me."
So much for the assaulted-by-a-stranger theory.
Charles looked up from his task of trying to hold Marcella's head underwater, saw Lyra, and immediately released his victim. He splashed frantically toward the pool steps.
"You're next, you interfering bitch. How dare you try to put me away? Do you know who I am?"
He moved with surprising speed for such a big man. He reached the top step just as Lyra overcame the shock that had bolted her to the ground. She was not imagining things. She really had walked in on a murder in progress. The smart thing to do was run. But Adlington was a strong, athletic man and he was wearing only a pair of belted swim shorts. He could move fast.
She, on the other hand, was dressed for what was supposed to have been an interview with a wealthy client. Her fashionable stacked-heel sandals, stockings, and snug-fitting, calf-length skirted suit were not designed for running.
There was another factor as well. She could not leave the woman in the pool alone to deal with a violent man who was apparently in a killing mood.
Adlington was closing in fast. There was madness and rage in his eyes.
She rushed toward the golf bag and grabbed an iron. Adlington was almost upon her now.
Using the proper two-handed grip, she swung the club with all the strength she could muster. The years of being captain of the golf team at the elite women's college she had attended paid off. She aimed for Adlington's head. The club slammed into the side of his skull with a stomach-churning thud. Blood spurted.
Adlington toppled to the side and went down hard. He landed on the tiled patio and did not move. A crimson lake began to form around his head.
Lyra stared at him, shocked at her own act of violence, unnerved by the possibility that she might have just killed a man, and light-headed with the certainty that she had almost been murdered. Her pulse was skittering and she could not catch her breath.
"Thank God you arrived when you did." The woman in the pool staggered through the water to the steps. "Charles was trying to murder me. The doctors at the asylum told me they had cured him. I was a fool to believe them."
Lyra finally managed to breathe. "Marcella Adlington?"
"Yes." Marcella made it out of the pool and grabbed a towel from a nearby table. "I'm Marcella Adlington."
She was in her late thirties or very early forties, an attractive blonde who had probably been nothing short of ravishing when she was in her twenties. She had the kind of bone structure that would ensure she aged well. Her fashionable frock was soaking wet and clung to her elegantly curved body like a second skin. Her shoulder-length hair hung in wet tendrils. Mascara ran down her cheeks. Her maroon red lipstick was smeared.
She blotted her face and peered at Lyra. "You're not Raina Kirk, are you? I was told she was an older, more experienced woman."
"Miss Kirk couldn't make the appointment," Lyra said. "She sent me instead. I'm Lyra Brazier."
"I see." Marcella collapsed onto a bench, clutching the towel. "Forgive me. I feel a little shaky." She stared at the unmoving body of her husband. "Is he-"
Lyra glanced at the man crumpled on the patio. "I don't know. We must call the police."
"Yes, of course." Marcella wrapped her arms around herself and started to rock gently back and forth. "I hope he's dead. I was absolutely terrified of him."
Lyra pulled herself together, dropped the golf club, and hurried around the edge of the pool. She stopped close to Marcella. The woman was trembling violently.
"Please let him be dead," Marcella whispered. "He was going to kill me. They said he was cured, but he intended to murder me. He said it would look like an accidental drowning. He said the police would assume I got drunk on martinis, fell into the pool, and died. He had it all planned out, you see."
Lyra grabbed two thick towels from the stack on a nearby bench. A heavy object that had been tucked between the towels tumbled out and landed on the tiles with a clatter. Startled, she looked down and saw a pistol.
Marcella stiffened. "I bought it a while ago. I was so afraid of him. But in the end it didn't do me any good. He caught me by surprise. Said he knew I was waiting for a private investigator. He realized I intended to try to find evidence to have him committed again."
Lyra did not respond, for the simple reason that she could not sort out her own feelings. On the one hand, she hoped that Charles Adlington was never again going to be a threat. But the possibility that she might have killed a man, even in self-defense, was too much to deal with in that moment. She reminded herself that she was a professional. She had to remain calm, cool, and collected.
She wrapped a dry towel around Marcella's shoulders. "Wait here."
Skirting the pool, she went back across the patio and approached the body warily. The bleeding appeared to have slowed. She hoped that was a good sign. But when she got closer it occurred to her that it might indicate that Adlington's heart had stopped beating.
She glanced at the golf club. There was blood and hair and possibly other matter on it. She did not want to examine it too closely. Adlington showed no obvious signs of life, but maybe he was faking unconsciousness. If she tried to check for a pulse, he might grab her and overpower her.
She turned to look at Marcella. "I'm going to call the police. Where's the nearest phone?"
"What?" Marcella blinked a couple of times and jerked her attention away from the body. "Oh. The phone. Yes, of course. Inside the conservatory."
"Keep an eye on him," Lyra said. "I'll be right back. Whatever you do, don't get too close to him. He may still be conscious."
"Wait." Marcella sprang to her feet. "Don't leave me out here with him. What if he's not dead?"
"I have to call the police."
"I'll come with you."
Marcella made her way around the pool. Lyra waited for her. Together they went into the glass-walled conservatory. The phone was on a small table. Lyra picked up the receiver and dialed the operator.
"Burning Cove police, please," she said. "Homicide." She tightened her grip on the phone to try to still the trembling in her fingers. She was a private investigator. She had to look good in front of the client. Competent.
"One moment, I'll connect you," the operator said.
A moment later a gruff, male voice came on the line. "Homicide. Brandon."
"This is Lyra Brazier. I'm an investigator for Kirk Investigations."
"Yeah? Didn't know Miss Kirk had hired another investigator. Business is picking up, huh?"
Lyra decided this was not the time to explain that she was technically an apprentice investigator.
"I'm calling from the Adlington residence on Harborview Drive, Detective," she said. "There's been an incident involving Mrs. Adlington's husband. We need the police and an ambulance."
"Mrs. Adlington is hurt?" Brandon's voice sharpened abruptly. "How bad?"
Lyra studied the unmoving figure on the patio. "Mrs. Adlington is fine. It's Mr. Adlington who has been injured. I don't know how badly. He appears to be . . . unconscious." She cleared her throat. "Possibly dead."
"Are you and Mrs. Adlington safe?"
"Stay where you are. I'm on my way."
There was a click on the other end of the line. Brandon had hung up. Lyra dropped the receiver into the cradle and looked at Marcella, who was staring at her husband through the glass panes of the conservatory.
"I knew he was becoming increasingly unbalanced again," she said. "But I also knew no one would believe me. When there were other people around he always managed to appear perfectly normal. He even fooled the doctors at the asylum. I had to have proof."
"You wanted to hire Kirk Investigations to try to find credible evidence that your husband was a danger to you and that he should be locked up in a mental hospital," Lyra said.
There was a short pause before Marcella answered. Lyra got a ghostly frisson of intuitive awareness. Something was off. She was almost certain that Marcella was rapidly rewriting a script.
"Yes," Marcella said, speaking a little too quickly now. "Yes, that was why I made an appointment with a private investigator today. But Charles showed up a short time ago. He was supposed to be playing golf. That's his bag of clubs out there."
Sirens sounded in the distance.
"I'll go around to the front of the house and escort Detective Brandon and the ambulance crew back here," Lyra said. She glanced at Charles, who still had not moved. "Do you want to come with me?"
"No." Marcella took a deep breath. "I'll stay in here. If he moves, I'll lock the door. He's not much of a threat now, is he? Not with that head wound. Assuming he's even alive."
"Assuming that," Lyra said. "No, he's not a threat. Not at the moment, at any rate."
Lyra walked quickly out of the conservatory and followed the flagstone path around the big house. A police car and an ambulance were pulling into the circular driveway.
The passenger-side door of the car opened. A man in a rumpled suit and a battered fedora climbed out. She recognized him. She had met Brandon recently when her sister, Vivian, had become the target of an assassin.
The sight of his hat made her realize that the fashionably feminine version of a fedora she'd had on when she arrived at the villa was no longer perched at a smart angle on her carefully pinned-up hair. It had come off during the short, brutal fight with Adlington.
Detective Brandon had the tough, world-weary look of a good cop who has seen human nature at its worst but who is determined to do his job. He gave Lyra a short, crisp nod.
"Miss Brazier," he said. "Where's Adlington?"
"On the patio behind the house," Lyra said. "I'll show you."
Brandon didn't wait for her. He took off along the flagstone path. Two ambulance attendants hauled a stretcher out of their vehicle and followed. Lyra had to trot to keep up with them.
"Talk to me," Brandon ordered over his shoulder.
"I had an appointment with Mrs. Adlington this afternoon," Lyra said. "Well, Raina had the appointment, but she thought it would be good experience for me to interview the client, so I came here instead. Mrs. Adlington expressed interest in hiring Kirk Investigations, but she didn't say why. When I got here I found Mr. and Mrs. Adlington in the pool. It looked like Mr. Adlington was trying to drown his wife. When he saw me he climbed out of the pool and came after me."
"Yeah? What did you-" Brandon went through the garden gate, saw the body, the blood, and the three iron, and came to a sudden stop. "You hit him with a golf club?"
"It was the closest thing at hand."
Brandon whistled appreciatively. "You must have a hell of a swing."
"It's actually a pretty boring game, but my parents both play and so did my ex-fiancŽ and, well, it was expected, if you know what I mean."
Brandon shot her an unreadable look. "Right. We didn't have any golf courses or country clubs in my neighborhood. We played baseball in the middle of the street."
"Sounds more interesting than golf, but then, almost anything is."
She wasn't paying close attention to the conversation, because she was watching the ambulance attendants. They had positioned the stretcher beside Adlington's unmoving form.
"Hold on," Brandon called to the two men. "I want to take a look before you move him."
He strode across the patio and crouched beside Adlington. Lyra stayed where she was. She had no desire to take a closer look.
"Is he alive?" she whispered.
Brandon looked surprised by the question. "Hell no. Several whacks to the head with a golf club would probably take down a small elephant."
"Several whacks?" Lyra forgot to breathe. "But I only hit him once."
Brandon shrugged. "It's hard to keep track of stuff like that when you're scared and fighting for your life."
"I know exactly how many times I hit him," Lyra said.
But the three iron was not on the patio where she had left it. The club had been moved. It was now a few feet from the original position. She looked at Marcella Adlington.
Marcella moved to stand next to her. She raked her fingers through her wet hair. There was a plea for understanding in her eyes. She lowered her voice.
"I had to be sure," she said.
Marcella Adlington set me up," Lyra said. She walked to the window of the office and contemplated the view of the palm-shaded street through the wooden blinds. "I can't prove it, but I'm certain of it. At the last minute everything went off script. She had to improvise."
"She wanted to be certain her husband really was dead," Raina Kirk said.
Raina leaned back in the big chair and tapped one elegantly polished nail on the gleaming desk. She was not sure how to deal with the situation. She had no intention of telling Lyra that she understood Marcella Adlington's panic and determination all too well.