A Villain for Vanessa Excerpt

Riverton Road Romantic Suspense Book 4

Bobby & Vanessa’s Story

Carl Westerlo

Carl Westerlo’s pudgy fingers caught the corner of an asphalt shingle and tried to hold on, but there was no chance of that. Instead, the rough surface tore his flesh, and he continued his slide toward the edge of the roof. Suddenly he remembered how adamant he’d been when his father suggested this roof might need better shingles.

“Slate’s too expensive. Asphalt will do.”

Carl had insisted, and Frederick Westerlo gave in as usual. It was pointless to argue with Carl where money was concerned. A futile wish flashed through his present terror. If only he could undo that day there would be slate on the roof of New Beginnings Health Haven now, and this cheap asphalt wouldn’t be ripping his fingers to shreds. Unfortunately, that conversation took place last spring, so this afternoon there was only graveled roughness and not a single corner solid enough to stop his downward slide.

It hadn’t yet occurred to him to scream. He’d been too preoccupied with trying to grab hold somewhere. He was never much good at gripping onto things. Baseball was one of the few kid activities that appealed to him all those years ago when he was young, but he couldn’t hang onto the ball because his fingers were short and wide, like the rest of him. Now, his short, wide, heavy bulk was dragging him, faster with every heartbeat, toward disaster.

His chin skidded along, clenched into his fleshy neck as he concentrated every effort on saving himself though salvation wasn’t likely. He raised his face a few painful inches and darted one last pleading glance at the feet and lower legs, still standing, back where the Mansard roof leveled off. Carl couldn’t strain anywhere near high enough to glimpse the face, but he knew who it was and that there would be no mercy in those cold eyes.

Carl’s descent accelerated as his own feet and lower legs cleared the roof edge and kept moving. He felt the eaves trough and grabbed for the rim. A wild hope wrenched his mind from its paralysis of shock just long enough to make clear to him that, even if the trough hadn’t been filled with slippery autumn leaves, he couldn’t possibly hang on for long, any more than he could hang onto a baseball all those years ago.

In that instant Carl also became aware of the high-pitched, keening sound he must have been making all along. Then his scream began, and he was gone.


A gloved hand yanked the drawer past the place where it wanted to stick, then rooted through the contents. There was nothing in this drawer. Nothing in the whole place. It was hard to believe Carl Westerlo hadn’t been telling the truth about what was stashed here somewhere. He was bargaining for his life at that moment, and there’d been the clammy scent of fear about him, so strong you could smell it over the wind on the roof. Carl wouldn’t have had the courage to lie when he was so afraid.

Besides, he was just the type to hold onto information until he found a nasty use for it. Of course, bringing out the truth would mean bad talk about the Westerlo family, but maybe that was exactly what Carl wanted. He resented almost everybody. Maybe he resented his own high and mighty family too and how they looked down on him, the same way he looked down on everybody else and used them whatever way he could.

The drawer slammed shut again, grating along the dried-out splints of the track, but no one would hear. It was off-season, and there were no rich patients in the place. Only old Frederick Westerlo in the third floor luxury suite for the dying head of the clan. No one would notice anything out of order in this drawer either. Carl was such a slob you could turn his entire office upside down and nobody would guess. Searching was easy. It was the finding that came hard. A lot harder than it had been for Carl, four floors above almost this very spot, to plummet off the roof and die.

Chapter One

For as long as Vanessa Westerlo could remember, she’d yearned to have a real family. Not that she and her mother weren’t a family, just the two of them, but Vanessa couldn’t help wondering what it would be like to know the rest of her relatives. Her mother had a family back east, but she was estranged from them, out of touch since Vanessa was a little girl. This was a mutual choice as far as Vanessa had been told, but she wasn’t entirely sure.

She wasn’t entirely sure of anything about her mother’s family, other than how much she wanted to know them and that the wedge between them and her mother was deep and painful. She also knew she was part of that wedge somehow. Still, she wished the Westerlos were in her life. Vanessa had confronted her mother many times about the estrangement, especially about her sister Angela Reardon Kalli.

“I don’t want anything to do with any of those people ever again.”

That was all Amelia Reardon Westerlo would say, and she said it with such sadness Vanessa didn’t have the heart to carry her questioning further, until the yearning returned and she’d ask again. The last time she’d done that was a couple of weeks ago.

“I need to understand why,” she’d responded to her mother’s usual evasion. “What drove you and your sister so far apart that you moved us to the opposite side of the country and we’ve never gone back.”

Vanessa was referring to their migration from the North Country of New York State to Convergence Island in Washington State. Her mother traded one remote place for another and ended up more isolated than ever. That was how it felt to Vanessa anyway.

“These things happen in families,” was her mother’s equally evasive answer.

“I know these things happen, Mother,” Vanessa said. “I also know you aren’t going to tell me more than that, so I’ve made a decision.”

“What kind of decision?”

The fear in her mother’s voice came close to backing Vanessa down yet again. She loved her mother and didn’t want to hurt her, but this time Vanessa was determined to find out the truth. She’d allowed herself to be put off for too long. She was twenty-nine years old, and she intended to find the rest of her family.

“I’ve decided to go to Northern New York,” she said and closed her ears to the barrage of protests that followed, except for one.

“Don’t be so sure they’ll want you when you get there.”

Amelia Westerlo charged out of the room after that with her head high, the way she always held it, as if there should be no questioning the rightness of her judgement, ever. Vanessa had inherited her mother’s stubbornness and wasn’t about to be deterred from what she knew she must do, no matter how troubled or how angry her mother might be. She’d heard what her mother said all the same. What if her search for her family was met with indifference, or worse yet, with hostility?

She’d stiffened her backbone as straight as her mother’s and told herself she was ready to risk a cold reception, or no reception at all. Then she’d be sure who her family was or who they were not and that would be better than knowing nothing. Vanessa managed to hold onto that determination all the way through packing her bags, climbing on a plane in Seattle and flying across the entire continent from the Pacific Northwest, where she’d grown up, to the Northeast, where she hadn’t been since she was almost too young to remember.

She recalled a few bits and pieces. A large house overlooking water that sparkled in the sun. A wide lawn where she’d run through the dew-wet grass in red boots with dinosaur footprints on the soles. She’d kept those boots long after leaving the North Country.

Vanessa believed she and her mother made the move because of her father’s death and Amelia’s need to distance herself from her loss and sorrow. Eventually, Vanessa realized there had to be more to the story than that, but her mother would admit to nothing other than a rift between her and her sister Angela in particular. More than once, Vanessa had noticed her mother sorting through the mail at the small Convergence Island post office, separating out certain letters and slipping them into her bag without opening them. Amelia was a secretive person. Even as a young girl, Vanessa knew that.

“What are those envelopes you hide away?” she’d asked on one of those occasions.

“What makes you think I’m hiding them?” her mother snapped. “They aren’t important. And, most of all, they have nothing to do with you.”

Vanessa didn’t ask again. She’d kept on inquiring about their family back east, but she didn’t mention the letters. She suspected the two could be linked, the estranged family and the letters, but she kept that to herself too. Along with her mother’s stubbornness, Vanessa had inherited her ability to keep secrets. She’d learned from her mother’s angry reactions that some things shouldn’t be talked about. Some things should be tucked away, out of sight and out of mind, or at least out of hearing.

They had a good life on the island among the friendly people there. Whenever somebody would happen to ask Vanessa’s mother about her family, she’d say she had none and that answer would be accepted. It was a northwest habit not to pry. Vanessa said nothing, maintaining the secret as she’d learned to do. Meanwhile, she grew up and left for college on the mainland, then a teaching job she loved in Seattle. She returned to Convergence Island for holidays and special events. The annual summer festival, a couple of months ago in July, was one of those events, and it had set Vanessa on the path toward the odyssey she was making today.

She and her mother were at the festival barbecue they attended every year at Center Island Park. The wooden picnic tables around them were crowded with families, but Vanessa and her mother were alone as always. Polite families offered polite invitations to join them, but Amelia turned them down, also as always. Other years, Vanessa had argued about that, but this year she didn’t. She made a silent resolve instead. That night, after her mother was asleep, Vanessa did what she’d never done. She searched for the letters her mother had hidden and found them in the storage attic, boxes of them, all from Riverton, New York.

Vanessa took the most recent one, dated last December. It looked like a Christmas card, but Vanessa didn’t open it to find out for sure. That felt like too much of an invasion of her mother’s privacy, even though the envelope was addressed to Amelia and Vanessa Westerlo. Part of her was hesitant to find out what might be written inside, or what might not be written there. After all, if her mother’s family knew her address, why hadn’t somebody made more of an effort to reconnect with her, and with Vanessa? Why hadn’t somebody come here to find them? Maybe they didn’t really care.

“Don’t be so sure they’ll want you when you get there,” her mother had said.

Vanessa didn’t mention the box of letters, or the one still unopened in her pocket, when she announced her decision to travel to Northern New York. Amelia’s response had echoed in Vanessa’s mind ever since, along with a crucial question of her own. What if this trip was a foolish mistake? She wished she felt clear-headed enough to confront those echoes now.

It had been an overnight flight, following a whirlwind of preparations and life adjustments to make the trip possible. She’d passed out from exhaustion soon after boarding the plane on the west coast. The layover at JFK Airport in New York City wasn’t long enough for more than a quick meal at a fast food restaurant. There’d hardly been a chance to get used to the change in time zones, much less the prospect of whatever might await her in the North Country.

She’d barely finished her breakfast sandwich at JFK when she had to dash for a connecting flight that took her west again to Philadelphia and another connection on a much smaller plane headed north, almost to Canada. She was too nervous to be exhausted any longer, but she was definitely disoriented, as if she’d jammed her life in a kaleidoscope tube, then shaken herself into a new pattern she wasn’t sure she recognized. What she found on the ground at her destination didn’t help.

She’d expected North Country County International Airport to be what the name implied, a sizable international airport. Instead, there wasn’t even an enclosed gangway for walking into the small terminal. As Vanessa stepped onto the steep stairs that had been rolled up to the cabin door, the first thing she noticed was a cluster of trees on the other side of a wide field bordering the runway. The early afternoon sun caught the top leaves, which had already turned a shade of crimson that was a shock to Vanessa’s eyes, accustomed as they were to the more subtle autumn colors of the northwest.

This first sight of the North Country was another kind of shock also. In a flash as bright and blinding as the foliage, she knew she’d brought herself to a completely unfamiliar place. She reached inside the bag that hung on a long strap from her shoulder and fumbled through its contents until her fingers found the envelope she’d stashed there. She ran her thumb back and forth over the upper left-hand corner, hoping for comfort and reassurance. All she found was the name and address of the aunt she didn’t remember who might not want to remember her, Angela Kalli of Riverton Road.

Chapter Two

The local airport terminal was too small for pacing, but Bobby Rizzo paced anyway, more frustrated every time he had to change direction after only three strides. Actually, the real source of his frustration was that he’d been dead set against this meeting from the moment Angela Kalli told him about it.

“I’ve wanted this for what feels like as long as your lifetime and mine combined,” she’d said in the dramatic tone she used when she was pressing to make a point. “I’ve wanted to be with my precious niece from the moment my sister took her away and refused to let me see her again. It was one of the biggest mistakes of my life when I let that happen. Now I’ve been given a chance to correct that mistake. Please understand, Bobby. This is a gift from heaven.”

Bobby knew he should have argued with more conviction then, but he saw how much she needed this and his help too. Angela was the closest thing he’d had to a mother since his own mother died, and maybe even before that. His mom wasn’t strong enough to stand up for him against his father. Bobby didn’t blame her for that. His father was a scary man. More often than not, Bobby was the one standing up for his mother, antagonizing his father until he directed his anger and violence away from her, which meant Bobby took the beatings.

Then his mom died, and not long after he was rescued from the darkness of his father’s world by Angela and Gus Kalli. Ever since, Bobby hadn’t been able to deny either of them anything, especially Angela. She was his guardian angel. That’s how he’d always thought of her and he knew he always would. He knew what he’d do to anybody who hurt her, or even tried to hurt her. He’d deflect the pain onto himself, or he’d inflict the pain on the other guy.

Except this wasn’t a guy. This was a woman, and Angela’s niece too, the grown up version of the little girl she’d always yearned for in her life. He’d seen the blue and yellow room on the second floor of the Kalli house where Angela mothered her four sons and him too. That room wasn’t meant for any of them. Usually she was the soul of common sense. Still, she kept a bedroom for a daughter she didn’t have, or a niece she wasn’t allowed to see. At least she’d been sensible enough to let Bobby take charge of this first contact at the airport.

He knew enough about the conflict between Angela and her sister Amelia to be suspicious of her motives and her daughter’s. He didn’t know the details of their feud. Angela claimed she didn’t know them herself. Her sister had simply run away with her little girl and never returned, and Angela insisted she didn’t know why. Bobby was suspicious about that too. Angela had to know more than she was telling him. On the other hand, he was a lawyer. It was his business to be suspicious. Maybe Angela really was in the dark about her sister’s motives for ripping their family apart and breaking Angela’s heart in the bargain. Maybe not.

Either way, Bobby didn’t trust Amelia’s motives now, or her daughter’s either. Suddenly, after two and a half decades of silence, Angela’s niece decides to reappear. Bobby’s legal training, and his life experience, had taught him that when a person acts in an inexplicable way he should ask one question. What does she want? Whatever the answer might be, Vanessa Westerlo’s agenda was way down his list of priorities. He was here to protect Angela, even though experience had taught him something else as well. Family history is almost always a tangled story and, more often than not, the truth is nearly impossible to unwind.

Many of those tangles had a secret at the center, like the secret at the center of today. He was the only person Angela had told about her niece’s arrival, not Gus or their sons or anyone else. She’d needed help with a messy situation. Bobby was an attorney. His profession was all about messy situations, so she’d turned to him. He’d do anything for her at any time. There could be no question about that. This time the difference was the way he felt about it. He was always eager to act as her champion. The day she came to his office, he’d ended up anything but eager to act at all, despite her being more unhinged than he’d ever seen her.

“Why are you so upset about this?” he’d asked.

“You have to swear an oath to me that you’ll never breathe a word to anybody of what you may find out if you agree to help me. Otherwise I’ll walk out right now, and you can forget I was ever here.”

She’d said that as she perched on the edge of the chair across from his desk like a frightened bird. He’d never seen her frightened, and he certainly didn’t think of her as a bird.

“If you are here as my official client, attorney-client privilege obligates me to keep everything you say confidential.”

Talking like a lawyer to someone he cared so deeply about felt awkward, but Bobby knew he could put her at ease that way.

“Then I am your official client,” Angela said, settling back a little in her chair. “I need you to help me bring my niece back into my life, whatever the cost may be.”

Bobby didn’t like the sound of that. He needed to know more.

“You mentioned information I might discover in the course of helping you reunite with your niece. What might that information involve?”

Bobby chose his words carefully, as he did with any client. Again, there was awkwardness. Angela was the one person he could always be completely spontaneous and open with, and he regretted the loss of that more than he could say.

“I don’t know what you might discover. I have made it a point not to know.”

The pitch of her voice had risen with frustration.  Bobby’s first concern was to set her at ease so he’d abandoned further interrogation.

“All I need to know now is what you want me to do,” he said.

Meanwhile, the voice of his own common sense, and his legal judgement, screamed through his gut like a freight train telling him he was on a dangerous track. That train continued to roar as he paced this narrow airport terminal, only now he was listening.  Had this Westerlo woman come to Riverton to continue the feud between her mother and Angela? Maybe even to take revenge in her mother’s name? Another possibility worried him more. What if she was only here to satisfy her idle curiosity? Angela cared so much. What if Vanessa Westerlo didn’t care at all? Indifference would be the worst kind of wound to a heart as open as Angela’s.

“I’m not going to let that happen,” he said out loud to the empty terminal as he heard the plane approach.

By the time the plane landed and taxied down the short runway, Bobby was outside the terminal and ready, his resolve as unshakable as if he were in front of the toughest jury of his career in a case he absolutely had to win. Everything about him reflected that resolve. His stance as solid as his certainty, and especially his expression. His face, even his eyes, revealed only what he wanted revealed. He’d practiced and perfected this stoic version of himself and could clamp it into place at will.

Then he saw her and something unfamiliar and unwelcome happened. Bobby experienced a powerful ripple, like a seismic shift along a crucial fault line far beneath his controlled surface, threatening to rise and turn the rest suddenly less resolute. All because of a resemblance that couldn’t have been more obvious between the aunt he represented and the niece this young woman had to be. Thick, dark hair was the first thing he noticed, with a kind of life that seemed to spring from a vibrancy at the center of her.

She was halfway across the tarmac when she turned her head quickly. Angela made that same move when she was impatient, as she could often be. More often though, she was his encourager, the person who scolded him back on track when he strayed off course. Without her, he would not have won scholarships to college and law school. Without her, he wouldn’t be what he had become. He steeled himself against his first startling reaction to the striking young woman headed toward him now, who was so capable of causing Angela pain.

“Excuse me. Are you Robert Rizzo?”

She’d nearly covered the distance from the plane, striding more than walking, when she asked that. Her voice was as vibrant as the rest of her, but Bobby had reinforced his stoic façade by then, just in time to respond from a place of strength.

“I am Robert Rizzo, but I prefer to be called Bobby. I can see you are Vanessa Westerlo.”

“You can see who I am from looking at me?”

“You resemble your aunt.”

They were less than a few feet from each other now. She stared at him for a moment. Her eyes were darker than Angela’s and flecked with their own special green around the black center.

“I understand you are her attorney,” Vanessa Westerlo said.

Her dark eyes regarded him with what was probably distrust.

“That’s right,” he said.

“I see.”

Her tone suggested she was curious about being met by Angela’s lawyer instead of Angela herself. That had been his idea, but he’d already decided not to explain. He’d formulated a strategy, as he did with every case assignment. Part of the plan was to choose carefully what he would or would not divulge to this young woman. Bobby reminded himself to stick to the plan.

“I’m here as your aunt’s representative,” he said.

“And I’m here as my mother’s representative. Her name is Amelia Westerlo. She lives in Seattle, but she used to be from this part of the world. I’m beginning to understand why she left.”

The chill in Vanessa Westerlo’s voice was sharp as a blade. Bobby’s suspicions sharpened also, about her being here to continue the family feud.

“Can we please get out of this cold wind?” she asked.

She didn’t wait for an answer as she walked past him into the tiny terminal. Bobby followed her and watched the arc of her glance sweep over the snack bar that always seemed to be closed and the vending machines that were supposed to take its place. He guessed she was even less favorably impressed with North Country County International Airport than she appeared to be with him. He had doubts about her too and, however unsettled she might have initially made him feel, his vow to protect Angela as both client and family was stronger than ever.

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