Embers14K)

Embers

ISBN 0-440-21673-7
Dell Publishing, August 1994

Chapter 1


Meg Hazard, shivering in the pre-dawn chill, pulled the blanket up around her shoulders and said, "Money isn't everything, Allie."

Her sister laughed derisively. "Oh, come on." She threw her head back in a way that profiled her long neck and thick black hair to perfection. "The only ones who say that are those who have it and those who don't. And I say, both sides are lying through their teeth." She pulled her knees up closer to her chest. "God, it's cold up here. Was it this cold when we were kids?"

"Of course. We're on top of a mountain. In Maine. In June. You know the saying: In Maine there are two seasons--"

"--winter and August. Mmm. I do know. Which is another reason I'll take a job anywhere but here. You can't make any real money in Maine, and meanwhile you freeze your buns off trying."

Meg smiled and held one end of her blanket open. "Park your buns under the blanket with me, then. I told you to bring something warm."

She glanced around at the dozens of tourists sharing the rocky summit with them. Some were murmuring; some were silent. All were waiting. "The sun will be up in precisely--four minutes," Meg said, peering at her watch.

The two sisters huddled together under the pale pink sky, their breaths mingling, their minds in tune.

"Tell me why, exactly, I let you talk me into this again?" Allie asked.

Meg laughed softly and said, "I was just thinking about that. You were five and I was seventeen when I brought you up here the first time. You were so excited, you forgot your Thermos of hot chocolate. I had to drive us back for it--"

"--and dad woke up and said we were crazy and if mom were alive she'd give us what-for--"

"--and then, when we finally got up here you were mad because we weren't the only ones on Cadillac Mountain, so how could we possibly be the first ones in the whole U.S. to see the sun that day?"

"You told me we would be, Meg. I distinctly remember."

"So you stood up and told all the other tourists to please close their eyes because you wanted to be first."

Allegra Atwells looked away with the same roguish smile that had melted every single male heart that had ever come within fifty feet of it.

And then she threw off her blanket, stood up, and shouted at the top of her lungs: "Would everyone please close their eyes so that I can finally be the first one to see the sun rise in the United States? I'm from Bar Harbor, folks. I live here."

Virtually every tourist there turned in surprise to gape at her. Meg groaned and buried her face in her hands and when she looked up again, a thin sliver of bright gold had popped up into the now blood-red sky, casting the first of its rays across Frenchman's Bay below.

Allie Atwells had probably got her wish.

"Twenty-five, and still the same," Meg said, leaning back on the palms of her hands and looking up at her sister with a kind of rueful admiration.

Allie stood defiantly on the rocky outcrop with her hands on her hips. The rising wind whipped her long black hair across her face and pressed the white shirt she wore against her shapely breasts. Her face--even in the early morning sun, even without makeup, even after an all-nighter spent deep in gossip--was cover-girl gorgeous, the kind that modeling agencies would kill to represent.

"Of course I'm still the same! How can I be anything else?" Allie said, throwing her arms up melodramatically. "I've been stuck in this godforsaken corner of the country all my life. I haven't been anywhere, done anything, met anyone .... Thanks to your nagging, I've done nothing but work and study, work and study, work and study."

Meg laughed. "And now here you are, six years, four apartments, two majors, and eleven part-time--"

"Twelve," Allie said with a wry look. "You forget I worked for a week at the front desk of the Budgetel before you talked me into coming home for the summer."

"I did that because finding a full-time job is a full-time job. Anyway, twelve part-time jobs later--and you have a degree. Think of it, Allie," Meg said, motioning to her to sit back down beside her. "A degree." She threw one arm around her sister and pressed her forehead to Allie's temple. "The first one in the family; we're all so proud of you."

"Oh, Meg," the younger girl said modestly. "It's not as if it's from Cornell's hotel school. It's no big deal. I still have to start at a pathetic wage in an entry-level job. A degree doesn't make me any better than you or Lloyd. It only means I didn't marry young the way you two did."

"Yeah, and I know why," Meg said with an ironic smile. "Because the minute you say 'yes' to someone, ninety-nine other men are sure to cut their throats, and you can't bear the thought of all that blood on your hands."

Allie's violet eyes turned a deeper shade of perfection. "That isn't why I've never married, Meg, you know that," she said in a soft voice. "I just haven't found the right one."

Meg sighed heavily and said, "Whereas I, on the other hand, married my one and only suitor--and then lost him."

Allie shook her head. "Paul wasn't the right one for you, Meg. You know he wasn't."

Meg's brow twitched in a frown, but then suddenly she smiled and said: "Was too."

"Was not."

"Was too!"

"Dammit, Meg!" Allie grabbed a short brown curl of her sister's hair and yanked it hard, then said in a voice endearingly wistful, "It's good to be back, Margaret Mary Atwells Hazard. I've missed you."

"And I," said Meg softly, "have missed you too, Allie-cat."

They sat there for a long moment without speaking, content to watch the kaleidoscope of reds and pinks that streaked across the morning sky. On a good morning--and this was one of them--the view of the sea from Cadillac Mountain went on forever.

"Maybe you're right, Meg," Allie murmured at last. "Maybe money isn't everything."

Meg nodded thoughtfully, then stood up and stretched. "Let's go home, kiddo. We've got work to do."

*****

Homicide Lieutenant Tom Wyler was stuck in a traffic jam as thick and wide as any he'd ever had to cut through back in Chicago. But at least there he had resources: a siren, a strobe, a hailer to warn people to get the hell out of his way. Here, creeping along the main drag through Ellsworth, Maine, he was just another tourist, without authority and without respect.

And without air-conditioning. In a burst of economic caution he'd decided on Rent-a-Wreck instead of Hertz or Avis at the airport. The three-year old Cutlass they gave him ran perfectly fine; if it were, say, January, he'd have no complaint. But he was dressed for the Arctic, which is roughly where he thought Maine was, and with the midday sun beating down on a dark grey roof on a hot June day, he felt like complaining plenty.

"Go heal somewhere else," his surgeon had advised him. "Away from the bloodshed. Somewhere cool, somewhere quiet, somewhere where every citizen isn't armed up to his goddamned teeth."

Wyler was shell-shocked, and he knew it. He needed time to think, time to heal, time to decide whether he even wanted to go back to the bloody fray. So he'd chosen a small, very small, resort town with a reputation for quiet evenings and grand scenery. He didn't need theme parks, topless beaches, casino gambling or all-night discos. All he needed, all he wanted, was a little peace and quiet.

So why, having fled to this supposedly remote chunk of granite coast, was he feeling his blood pressure soar and his temples ache?

Because this isn't what it was supposed to be, he realized, disappointed. Because he'd pictured the route to Bar Harbor as a quiet country road lined with gabled houses with big front porches, and laundry billowing from clotheslines out back. Instead, he found himself inching past a more familiar kind of Americana: Pizza Hut, Holiday Inn, Dairy Queen, Kentucky Fried Chicken and MacDonalds, all vying with one another for his tourist dollars--that is, if the fella on the curb selling Elvis-on-velvet paintings didn't get them first.

Shit. He'd picked a tourist trap after all.

His disappointment lasted right through Ellsworth and over the causeway onto Mount Desert Island. The island, too, was pretty developed. The road that fed into Bar Harbor was lined with campgrounds and cabin rentals and, eventually, big motels perched high on a ridge to his right, presumably with views of the ocean he knew was somewhere to his left. The motels must be what had replaced the string of Bar Harbor summer mansions that he'd read were lost in the Great Maine Fire of 1947.

All in all, he wasn't impressed. Shifting his wounded, aching leg into a more comfortable position, he reflected on how thoroughly he'd failed to follow his surgeon's advice: He'd plunked down good money to spend at least half a summer in a place that wasn't cool, wasn't quiet, and as far as he could tell (judging from the number of gun shops he'd passed along the way), where every hunter-citizen was armed up to his goddamned teeth.

*****

"Unseasonable, ain't it, de-ah?" The mailman handed Meg a bundle of mail, pulled out a handkerchief from his hip pocket, and mopped his beaded brow.

Meg put down her watering can and took the packet. "I don't mind," she said, stepping back to admire her new flowerboxes. "Did you ever see a more charming geranium? Allie brought them up with her from Portland."

"Awful pretty," agreed the mail carrier. "Pink do sit well with Dusty Miller. The blue lobelia's a nice touch. Flesh out a bit, them boxes be right as rain."

The flowerboxes, painted a dusty rose to match the shutters, were sitting on the veranda (after they began renting rooms, Meg made everyone stop calling it a porch), ready to be mounted under the big bay window of the Inn Between. The job was waiting for Everett Atwells, but as Meg poked through the mail packet she realized that it would have to wait a little longer.

"Dad! Mail's here!"

Everett Atwells ambled out from the side of the house, paint scraper in one hand, a hopeful smile on his craggy face. "You're right around this mornin', Desmond. Hot enough for ya?"

The mailman lifted his chin in an upward nod of greeting. "Corn weather, without a doubt" he said, and went back to his rounds.

Everett eased Fly Fishing Magazine out from among the bills in his daughter's hand. "Two minutes," he said with an apologetic wrinkle to his nose. "Then it's right back to the grindstone."

Meg responded with a resigned sigh.

Her father took that sigh personally. "Jeez-zus, you're a driver, woman."

"Someone around here has to be," she said, running her hands distractedly through the straggles of her overlong hair. She reached in the pocket of her khakis and pulled out a rubberband. "High season is right around the corner and look at this place," she said, yanking her hair back in a short and all-too-functional ponytail. "Between painting and papering, we have twice as much work as we have weeks."

"The guests'll fall asleep just as easy starin' at stripes as they will at florals."

"You know what I'm talking about, dad." She pointed to the inn on the left. "Look at the Elm Tree Inn." She pointed to the inn on the right. "Look at the Calico Cat. They're perfect. Perfect! And then look at us," she said with a despairing sweep of her arm across the front of their big, rambling Victorian. The pale gray clapboards of the Inn Between were holding onto their paint, more or less, but the white trim--and there was white trim everywhere--was a sad and peely mess.

"We ain't perfect," Everett allowed, squinting at the high, pointed turret that dominated the front of the house.

"Yep," he said with a yank on his cap. "Definitely needs paint."

"Oh, take your magazine and beat it," Meg said, shaking her head and resolving not to smile. "I'll pick on Lloyd instead."

"Don't I know it?" Everett said with a wink.

He ambled off without a care in the world toward a chair under the huge oak in the back of the yard. Meg sighed and flipped through the mail, plucking out the "Final Notice" the way she would some evil-looking weed from her garden. When she looked up again, her sister was standing on the front lawn next to the Inn Between's sign and hanging a "No" in front of the "Vacancy".

"No kidding? On a Wednesday?" Meg broke into a big, relieved grin. "Maybe we're finally turning the corner on this bed-and-breakfast thing," she added as she bounded up the porch--the veranda--steps. "Who was it? A couple? A family?"

Allie shrugged and yawned at the same time. "Comfort took the call. All I know is they're due in an hour."

"Damn. Room five isn't made up. But I've got to get over to the Shop & Save or there'll be nothing for afternoon tea today. Allie, would you--"

Allie looked at her older sister incredulously. "Meg, I'm exhausted; we were up all night. I was just going back to bed--why can't Comfort do it?" she demanded in the perfect pitch of a whiny twelve-year old.

Meg lowered her voice: "Because we only have an hour, and Comfort will take an hour and a half."

"What about Lloyd, then?"

"Lloyd's working on the furnace. Possibly you don't know how upscale we've become. We're actually promising hot water in our ads nowadays."

"Well, if I'd known you wanted me back in Bar Harbor just because you were one slave short, I might've thought twice--"

"Yoo-hoo, Meg? And oh my goodness, Allie!"

Both sisters turned to see Julia Talmage, the well-groomed owner of the well-groomed Elm Tree Inn, approaching them with a cheerful wave and a man in tow. It was the man who caught their attention. Tall, trim, good looking, and thoroughly overdressed in corduroys and a heavy flannel shirt, he possessed something else that set him apart from the men of Bar Harbor: a cane.

*****

"So you're back, Allie. How are you, dear? You look fabulous--but then! Listen, dears, I want you to meet someone. This is Tom Wyler, all the way from Chicago. He'll be staying at the Elm Tree for the next month; however, there's been a dreadful mixup in the booking date. I don't have Mr. Wyler down until tomorrow."

Eyeing the newly-hung "No" sign with obvious skepticism, she said, "You can do something for Mr. Wyler, can't you, dears? Just for tonight?"

"Definitely!"

"I'm sorry."

The two sisters exchanged surprised and hostile glances. Julia stared at them both with dismay. Wyler indulged himself in a silent oath and readjusted his his weight on the cane.

"Meg, for Pete's sake! He can have room five."

"Room five is taken, Allie. You know that."

"But the callers wouldn't even give Comfort a VISA number!"

"We promised them."

"What about first come, first served?"

"Now--dears--I didn't mean to make this awkward for you--"

"This isn't awkward, Julia. Meg is just being Meg. Can't you see, Meg, that this man is injured?" Allie asked, turning to him with a look that suggested she'd just made him a knight.

Suddenly she did a double-take. "Wait a minute--I've seen you recently."

"Oh, I doubt it," Wyler said quickly.

"Yes, I have. Wait, I know--the cover of Newsweek! You're on the cover of the Newsweek that's in my room!" she cried. "The one about violence in the streets!"

Hell. Just his luck. "That's an old, old issue," he said irrelevantly.

"Violence in the streets, or Newsweek?" the older sister asked dryly.

Wyler lifted one eyebrow at her and said, "Both. But in any event--"

The younger sister interrupted. "The cover was a collage of a murdered victim, some cops, and a gang. You were one of the good guys, weren't you? I never forget a face," she cried, pleased. "My God. What an amazing coincidence!"

"That story was done four years ago," Wyler insisted, as if she had no right to dredge up ancient history. He'd been a sergeant then, and hungrier for recognition than he was now. "Anyway, maybe I'll just try the inn on the other side of you," he murmured.

Allie was scandalized. "What! The Calico Cat? You can't stay at a place called the Calico Cat! It's just not ... appropriate," she decided instinctively.

"Not to mention, there's a no-vacancy sign hanging there, too, Mr. Wyler," Meg added.

Julia was becoming impatient. "I'll call The Waves. Presumably they'll know whether they have a room or not."

Wyler smiled thinly and said, "That's very kind; I--"

"He will have my room," said Allegra Atwells. She had the look, the tone, the absolute command of a high priestess at the altar. Everyone was impressed.

Almost.

"No. He won't."

"Meg!" Allie said sharply. "I can do what I want. This is all about control, and you know it." She turned to Wyler, who by now was weaving from the pain, and said, "I'll bunk down with my sister. Are you allergic to dogs? Oh, God, and cats, of course: I hope you don't mind sleeping with cats. We keep them out of the guest-side of the house, but they pretty much have the run of everything else. Just give me five minutes--"

"Mr. Wyler, I'm sure you can appreciate the spirit in which my sister has made her offer, but it won't be possible. Her room is nothing more than a dressing closet; it has no private bath--"

"Neither do our guest rooms!"

"--and I'm sure you'll be more comfortable at the Waves or somewhere else."

"There won't be anywhere else. If we're full, everyone's full," said Allie with embarrassing candor.

"Please forgive my sister, Mr. Wyler," Meg said through set teeth. "She hasn't had her nap."

"Meg," murmured Allie in a voice soft and hurt and low. "Is this how it's going to be all summer?"

Meg opened her mouth to say something, and then stopped. She turned to Wyler with a grim look. Apparently she thought it was all his fault. "If you could give us half an hour," she said stiffly.

Wyler looked at Allegra for her reaction. She was beaming. He took that to mean he had a room ... her room ... some room. "Thanks," he said, sweeping both sisters up in the same grateful glance. "I'll keep out of everyone's way."

Flushed with victory, Allie turned suddenly shy and dropped her look from his. "It will be our pleasure," she said in a devastatingly old-fashioned way. She slipped her arm around her older sister and squeezed her affectionately as they walked towards their house, leaving the detective feeling like a loose ball that had been fumbled, recovered, and run into the end zone for a touchdown.

He pivoted awkwardly on his cane and began heading back to the Elm Tree Inn with Julia Talmage.

"There. You see? All's well that ends well, Mr. Wyler."

Wyler murmured something polite in agreement.

In the meantime he was thinking that he'd never seen anyone so beautiful in his life. Allegra Atwells was drop-dead, knock-down, stop-traffic gorgeous.

Her face was so disturbingly beautiful that he'd scarcely paid attention to her body. Her body, he remembered only vaguely--that it was tall and sexy and that she carried herself like a queen.

Too bad she was a spoiled brat.

"How did you hurt your leg, Mr. Wyler?" asked Julia Talmage without a trace of nosiness in her voice. She might have been asking him how he took his morning coffee.

"Gunshot," he said curtly, hoping by his tone to nip further inquiries in the bud.

"Oh, yes; a hunting accident. We see a fair amount of that up here," she said pleasantly. Obviously she made no connection between him and the old Newsweek article. If only Allie Atwells were so dense.

*****

"Do you remember Orel Tremblay, Allie?"

Meg, back from the Shop and Save, was scrubbing a guest bath with Ajax while her sister was changing bedding in room five across the hall. Meg's voice, cheerfully puzzled, rang out above the flush of the toilet. "Remember? The old recluse in the little cottage up the hill behind Pete's Bike Rentals? We used to see him grocery shopping sometimes. He always wore that red-and-black-checked deerstalker's hat, even in summer."

"I guess," her sister answered vaguely. "What about him?"

Meg came out of the bath with an armload of used towels. "He wrote me the strangest letter. Here. Read it." She turned and cocked one hip so that Allie could lift the envelope that jutted from the pocket of her khakis.

Allie looked at the address, written in a shaky hand, and extracted the letter. Aloud she read,

"Dear Mrs. Hazard,

"It's real urgent I see you right away. Wednesday would be good but not before eleven nor after six. You could say it's a matter of life and death. The nurse will let you in. Please make the time. I used to hear you were an upright woman."

Yours,

Orel V. Tremblay

"For goodness' sake," Allie said, frowning. "Are you going?"

Meg dumped the linen into a plastic hamper and shrugged. "He claims it's a matter of life and death," she said ironically. "Do I have a choice?"

At that moment Tom Wyler showed up in the doorway with a hopeful look on his face. Both sisters greeted him in the same breath, one with less enthusiasm than the other.

"I hope I'm not too early," he said, glancing around the still unmade room. Your handiman sent me up here."

"That was our brother Lloyd. Your room--my room, that is--is all set," Allie said warmly. "It's upstairs and to your left. Come on. I'll help you with your bags."

"Hold on, I hear Terry," said Meg, sticking her head out the hall and flagging down an eleven-year old boy in full trot. She steered him into the room. "Take Mr. Wyler's things into Allie's room, will you, honey?"

The boy, dressed in torn jeans and Keds, fastened two piercing blue eyes on Wyler, looked him up and looked him down, and said, "Why? You sleepin' with my Aunt Allie, mister?"

Everyone rushed to say no at the same time. The boy gave an indifferent shrug and ran downstairs for Wyler's bag.

"They grow up so fast nowadays," Meg said wryly to the detective.

"I know; I have one of my own," Wyler remarked in the same wry tone. He began the painful journey up one more flight.

Allie fell back on the half-made bed and threw her arms out wide. "Married!" she wailed. "How could he?"

"For Pete's sake, Allie," her sister said. "What's the big deal? You've just met the man."

Allie rolled her head towards her sister. "So? Can't I be attracted to him?"

"You're attracted to him because he's hurt," Meg said flatly. "He can't chase after you the way the rest of them do--not yet, anyway."

"Not true. I'm attracted to him because of the look in his eyes, so sad and tired and fed up with the world. And because--don't you laugh--because he was on the cover of Newsweek. I mean, don't you think that's fate? What are the odds that a four-year old magazine would be lying around in my room with him on the cover?"

"What are the odds that you've actually read the article inside?" Meg said, grabbing her sister by the ankle and half-pulling her off the bed.

"I scanned it. There's not much about him; just an angry quote of his about children doing violence to children. Don't you think he's good-looking?"

Meg scowled at a new water-ring on the mahogany dresser. "Yeah, I guess," she said, distressed by the ugly stain.

"I'll just go see if he needs anything," Allie said, bounding up from the bed.

Meg held on to her sister's shirt. "Not until you're done here. Why do you always make me play the evil stepsister?"

"Because," said Allie, wriggling out of her grasp with a grin, "you were born to the role."

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