Riverton Road Romantic Suspense Series Book 2
Mark & Hailey’s Story
Finley Yates was bigger in bulk than he was in character. He’d have said that about himself with a sneering laugh, but he wasn’t sharp enough mentally to think that way. He wasn’t ashamed of the kind of man he was either. Finley didn’t bother himself with useless feelings like shame or guilt.
“Why waste your head on crap like that,” he’d say.
Finley had enough to do just carrying around a body that could fill up a closet or maybe even half of a small room. He preferred planting himself in a sitting position as much as possible, and once he got into that position he wasn’t going to use up his time or energy worrying about useless crap. He was going to put his feet up and let the punks around him do the worrying.
Finley really didn’t like to bother with dragging himself out of doors after dark on a night like this, or any other night for that matter. It might be summer, but he’d rather be indoors in his oversized chair, taking a load off in front of the TV. The news guy had been bragging about how beautiful the temperature was, but Finley didn’t care a rat’s behind about that.
Those weather jerks got all worked up about summer because this place was so far north in New York State it was almost Canada. Any weather that wasn’t a blizzard was news in this town. Summer went into winter, bang, just like that, so you hardly got to notice any fall. Still, Finley wasn’t going to send up fireworks just because it was warm outside for a change.
Besides, it wasn’t that warm tonight. Whose idea was it to meet outdoors anyway? Not Finley’s, that’s for sure. He had more sense than to come up with crap gangster movie stuff like having everybody get together in a parking lot late at night. He’d been in on enough left side of the law deals to know most of these meet-ups happened in barrooms.
He’d love to be in a barroom right now. The Tick Tock Tavern was his favorite. It was so loud in there nobody’d be able to listen in on what they were saying or anything else. At the Tick Tock, he’d be tossing back a shot with a cold beer to wash it down. Instead, he was out here messing around in a parking lot on the back end of town.
This is what happens when you do business with amateurs. You end up dragging yourself outside on a damp night, thirsty for a beer and a bump, shuffling through gravel, stepping in who knows what. He’d just as soon take off out of here right now, and he might do that. Except then he wouldn’t get the money.
A grin cut a crease across Finley’s lumpy face, and for half a minute he stopped thinking about all the stuff he didn’t like about tonight. What he did like was the money. Lots of it, in his own damned hand pretty damned soon now. He was getting a kick out of the thought of that so much he didn’t notice the low rumble of an engine at first, off to his right.
You’d think a guy like Finley would get a tipoff from somebody when the big one was coming his way. Small time connected was all he’d ever been, but connected all the same, and that meant he had ways of knowing what was going down. From day one, he’d been real careful too and never let his guard down like he was doing right now for a minute or two.
That’s all it takes to do you in sometimes. A minute or two. He’d tell you that himself, if he had time left to tell anybody anything. Maybe it was because of it being amateurs he was dealing with. Maybe that’s why he wasn’t paying tiptop attention tonight.
The bottom line is this. Finley didn’t figure out what was happening soon enough to save himself. By the time he heard the car engine and wondered why he wasn’t seeing any headlights to go with it, his ticket was punched for good.
He didn’t really feel it happen either. The bumper caught him from the side, aimed square and hard enough to knock him down flat so fast he almost didn’t feel a thing.
“What in hell’s going on here?”
That was the last thing he asked himself before the car barreled all the way over him and put him under so far he didn’t mind that in the next minute the engine revved again and the tires screeched into a tight turn then headed back at high speed toward the spot where the bloody, fleshy layers of Finley Yates lay waiting.
Earlier. On the Afternoon of that Same Day.
Hailey Lambert had been ordered to appear. Virginia did things like that. She gave orders. Hailey had a feeling Virginia might be afraid nobody cared enough about her to do what she asked if she didn’t make an order out of it. Hailey couldn’t help being a little sorry for Virginia because of that. But then Hailey tended to be sorry for a lot of people for a lot of reasons a lot of the time.
She’d been told over and over that some people shouldn’t be let off the hook and she was softheaded as well as softhearted for doing so much of that. Hailey had spent several years of her childhood up close and personal with the self-appointed ruler of this place she’d been summoned to today. Those years should have convinced her entirely that Virginia Hargate shouldn’t be let off the hook by anybody.
Hailey hadn’t forgotten how much it hurt to grow up in a world dominated by Virginia and her daughter Julia, especially after that world was snatched away. Hailey spent a great deal of time in this house back in those days. At first they were happy days, and fun too. But that was when she and Julia were still friends. Before the happy days changed into something else.
Hailey and Julia’s favorite game had been to keep Virginia from finding out how close they really were. They’d put their heads together – the smooth haired one and the wild one – and giggle while they came up with ways to make Virginia think Julia couldn’t stand Hailey. Because that was what Virginia wanted and Virginia was in charge. Hailey and Julia called her the empress and giggled about that most of all, but only when there was no chance she’d hear them.
Hailey felt really sorry for Julia back then. She’d talk about being trapped in this house. How she was the little girl in a scary fairy tale, locked in a dungeon where the stone walls were slimy cold and everything smelled of rot and mildew. Julia talked like that a lot, as if her life came out of a storybook. Oddly enough, that was one of the things Hailey missed about Julia. Though Hailey tried not to miss her at all because of the way it still sent a stab to her heart.
In Julia’s version of her life as a kid, she was let out on weekdays to go to school and take part in empress-approved activities. That way, the people of the town wouldn’t suspect the truth about Julia’s life and whisper ugly things about the empress behind her back. Virginia was very concerned about the people of the town whispering behind her back, despite how far beneath her she considered them to be.
At nineteen, Julia had managed to break free from this house and her dungeon life and Virginia. Hailey heard about that the same way everybody hears about everything in Riverton, New York – through the gossip grapevine. She’d been gone from this house herself for ten years by then, since she was ten years old. That was when Virginia finally got her way and separated her daughter from her only friend.
Julia was the one who actually sent Hailey away, and she never fully understood why. A place deep inside her still stung from the hurt, even though it was nearly twenty years in the past by now. The sting had dulled, but she suspected it would always be with her. Meanwhile, in those twenty years, Hailey had built a full, satisfying life here in Riverton, and one of the ways she’d done that was by not letting herself think too much about Julia.
“What’s over is over,” Hailey would tell herself.
She knew it was a lame cliché and not really true. Otherwise, she wouldn’t be sitting here today in the morning room of Hargate House, just because she’d been ordered to appear. Calling this a morning room was one of Virginia Hargate’s many pretensions, just like naming this place Hargate House had been. She was in love with anything that sounded like royalty.
It was ridiculous to give a house a name in a town like Riverton. Most people here were totally down-to-earth, the exact opposite of pretentious. That was one of the many reasons Hailey loved Riverton so much, and the main reason she’d come straight back after college to make her home in her North Country County hometown.
Virginia, on the other hand, always had been and always would be the empress, and having a house with a name and a morning room suited her empress style. Hailey said goodbye and good riddance to Virginia, and her style of living, years ago. Hailey had also promised herself she’d never have anything more to do with any of that again. She’d kept her promise, until today.
She hadn’t understood that she was still attached to Hargate House by a tether as strong as Julia’s had once been. Hailey was tethered here by Julia herself and the loving friendship they’d once shared. That was why Virginia had to say only a single sentence to bring Hailey back to the morning room today.
“Julia is in serious trouble. You must help her.”
That was two sentences really, but Hailey only heard that her once precious friend was in trouble. She’d ignored the command Virginia tacked on, the sentence with “you must” in it. Those words came ringing back now, along with their significance. She’d ordered Hailey to be here and here she was, while Virginia smiled with fake affection from her floral printed settee that exactly matched the one where Hailey had been ordered to sit.
“You are a sweetheart to have come so quickly,” Virginia said.
Hailey had forgotten how almost perky Virginia could be when perkiness suited her purposes. Hailey mostly remembered Virginia as distant and cold, especially when she was rubbing something painful under somebody’s skin.
“According to your message, Julia’s in trouble. I’m here because of that,” Hailey said.
“Of course you are, my dear.”
Virginia was a small woman, delicate boned she used to call it. She’d loved to demonstrate how a thumb and forefinger could circle her wrist with a width of knuckle to spare. Hailey tried that test on herself many times when she was a girl here at Hargate House. The results were always clear. She was definitely not delicate boned.
“You’re looking well, Virginia.”
Hailey’s tone was deliberately cool, to set herself as far away as she could get from Virginia’s perkiness.
“I try to keep myself fit. I live in fear of the day someone says pleasantly plump within my hearing.”
Hailey didn’t believe that Virginia lived in fear of anything. She’d always said things like that to disarm a potential enemy. Hailey was unsettled by how quickly her memories of Virginia’s deceitfulness returned. They slid around Hailey in slippery folds, like one of the heavy satin brocade tapestries in the larger, more formal drawing room of this huge house.
Every sensible bone in her body told her to fight her way free from those folds and get out of here right now. But she couldn’t do that because she still cared about Julia. Whatever had torn them apart all those years ago might have ended their friendship, but it hadn’t closed Hailey’s heart.
There were family reasons for staying too. Her father, Will Lambert, worked for the Hargate’s most of his life and brought Hailey here in the first place. He’d also accepted a favor on her behalf from Julia’s father Barrett Hargate, enough money to put Hailey through college. She tried to tell herself she hadn’t asked for the money, but she knew that didn’t matter.
Her father was dead, and Barrett Hargate too, but Hailey owed a debt to the Hargate’s all the same. She couldn’t run away from that truth, whether she wanted to or not. Virginia was calling the debt in now. Hailey’s father and her conscience gave her no choice. She had to pay up, in his name and her own.
“What’s going on with Julia?” she asked.
“If you are asking what is happening to her at this moment, I really cannot say.” Virginia’s tone turned wistful too instantly for Hailey to believe it was sincere. “She refuses to let me see her or even to know where she is and what she might be doing.”
Virginia lowered her glance, as if to hide her sadness. Two braids circled her head twice. Even all those years ago when Hailey first set foot in this house, Virginia had kept her braids exactly the right length to make two perfect circles. They were blond then and they were silver now, but the effect was still as regal as she’d always meant it to be.
She was dressed for empress effect too, in a pale green suit with a platinum leaf of tastefully small diamonds pinned to one side of the round collar. The green of the suit subtly echoed an accent color in the upholstery design of the settee. Hailey had no doubt Virginia had planned that effect deliberately too.
“Where is Julia?”
“It would be more relevant for you to ask where Julia is not. She is not in jail, and that is only thanks to the vigorous efforts of our attorney.”
Hailey guessed Virginia was referring to one of the lawyers from Barrett Hargate’s former law firm. He’d been about to move from there to the state supreme court when he passed away.
“Who’s representing Julia?”
“I brought in Todd Massey.”
Virginia was pouring coffee for two from the silver carafe on a small marble topped table in front of her. She hadn’t asked if Hailey wanted coffee. Virginia just assumed, the way she’d always assumed everything. She kept on pouring as she said the name Todd Massey with a lightness that gave no hint of the impact she had to know it would have.
A Year of Summer Shadows is Book 2 in The Riverton Road Romantic Suspense Series of romantic suspense stories featuring the Kalli family, the four Kalli brothers and others who find safety and a warm welcome at Kalli Corner on Riverton Road. A Wrong Way Home is the first book in the series and is available now.