The Sinister Secrets Chapter One

PRE-ORDER • AVAILABLE MARCH 14th

CHAPTER ONE

After finding Ruth dead in her bed and calling the police and an ambulance, Rachel paced the front parlor, waiting for the sheriff to come down from the old woman’s room where he was speaking with the coroner.

She still didn’t know who was responsible for the murder of the old woman but hoped that she would figure it out in time to have the sheriff do something about it. Being a sitting duck wasn’t fun for her, nor was being stuck in a house with strangers without answers.

The whole situation made her realize that she didn’t know anything about the people staying under the same roof as her, other than the fact that Mr. Murphy didn’t trust most of them.

Ava, who had fainted dead away and had been brought downstairs to recover, sat weeping on the sofa with a cold, wet rag on her head and her daughter at her side. “I just can’t believe this is happening,” she said. “My poor sister. I thought she looked rather off today but figured she only needed her rest.”

“This is Stanley’s fault,” said Liam as he paced the other side of the room. “I knew my mother couldn’t handle this type of strain on her heart. She’s been through too much to get so worked up over a perfect stranger.”

“Oh, they weren’t strangers,” said Ava. “More like long-lost lovers. She used to have the biggest crush on Stanley when she was just a girl. He’s going to be so upset when he finds out that she’s gone.”

“It is a bit romantic for a tragedy. I mean, one day, you find your true love, and the next day, you die in your sleep. It’s terrible, but at least she was happy.” Rebecca put her hand over her heart and sighed.

“Well, I don’t want to hear about it,” said Liam, who put his finger in his mouth to chew his nail. He’d been gnawing at it since they had come downstairs, and Rachel couldn’t help but notice how nervous he was. In fact, he seemed more nervous than emotional over the loss of his mother.

She glanced out the window at Lucas, who stood on the front porch speaking with one of the other police officers who was supposed to be keeping an eye on them.

Rebecca wrapped her arms around her middle. “How much longer before we can go upstairs?” She was growing more fidgety by the minute. “I need to go to my room. I don’t see why they won’t let me go up there.”

“Because they don’t want us in the way,” said her mother. “I don’t think I’d have the strength to even take the first step up those stairs anyway. I hurt my knee when I fainted.” She rubbed the side of her knee and winced. Rachel figured she’d have a nasty bruise.

“You don’t think they’ll search our rooms, do you?” Rebecca asked. “I mean, they won’t go nosing around, right?”

“They don’t care about your pills, if that’s what you’re worried about,” said Liam. “They’re a little more concerned about my mom, who has taken her last breath.”

Rachel thought it was a strange choice of words as if he might be reliving that moment in his mind.

Rebecca narrowed her eyes with little sympathy for him. “I have other things I don’t want strange men rifling through. And I’ve already explained my pills are prescribed. Not that it’s any of your business.” Rebecca got up and walked across the room to the liquor cabinet. She seemed to need a fix, especially with all that was going on.

“My sister is gone. I really don’t want to hear the petty bickering, if you don’t mind. And you.” She turned to Liam. “You’re not the only one who lost someone. Your mother is gone. You could at least shed a tear.”

“I’m in shock,” he said, looking offended. “Forgive me for not falling apart and mourning the way you think I should.” He looked up at Rachel as if asking her to agree with him. “People mourn in many ways. I can’t help it if I don’t know how to express my sadness. I didn’t wake up this morning thinking I was going to lose my mother.” His tone had hardened by the time he was finished, and any sadness was coming through as anger.

“Just let them do what they have to do for her,” said Ava, who seemed genuinely upset about her loss. “I’m sure he’ll be down soon. You can ask him what happens next.”

“I don’t understand why this is taking so long,” said Liam. “I told them my mother had heart problems. What are they doing?”

Rachel knew what they were doing. She relived walking up to the cold body. Ruth’s eyes were not only bulging, but they were bloodied, and her skin had discolorations that proved what happened to her.

But what haunted Rachel the most was the look of terror frozen on the woman’s face as if she had never gotten the chance to scream.

“I remember when my mother died,” said Ava. “They took forever with her. Or at least it felt that way. But when all was said and done, I learned that it wasn’t as long as it felt. You said it yourself. You’re in shock.”

“It feels like an eternity,” he said.

Ava rubbed her forearm as if she was cold. “I just hope she didn’t suffer. The idea of her being up there and needing my help and I didn’t even know it? I feel horrible. If only I had gone to wake her up when I first thought about it.” Rachel noticed her gripping a tissue in her palm that had already done more than its fair share of duty. She put it to her face and wiped the corner of her eye.

“She was probably already gone,” said Rachel. “Don’t beat yourself up about it.” Unless she had, in fact, harmed the woman. Rachel tried to imagine each one of them doing the act and what that would have to look like.

With Ava, it was impossible to imagine her doing such a thing, considering the way Ruth was found toward the middle of her full-sized bed, lying on her back. The woman was much too short, too old, and too weak to pull it off without much of a struggle. If Ruth had fought back with Ava, she would have won.

Rebecca making the effort seemed a bit more plausible, but still seemed impossible, considering Ruth didn’t seem like she had fought back at all.

What made the most sense was Liam, the woman’s own son. He was surely capable and strong enough. And at his height, he could do the task without disturbing his mother much. She would be no match for him or any grown man, especially one she didn’t know might harm her.

Rachel saw the officer get called away to his car and took the opportunity to step outside on the porch with Lucas. “This was murder,” she said, leaning in close to keep her voice at a whisper.

“What?” he asked, looking wide-eyed with disbelief.

Rachel nodded. “I think that’s what is taking them so long. They’re assessing the scene and trying to figure out how it was done.”

“That’s a reach, isn’t it? She was an old woman. Her heart probably just gave out, as Liam said. Besides, these things take time.”

“Not this much. Trust me. I know what I’m talking about. If this was a heart attack, they’d already be bringing her out.”

Lucas shook his head and still didn’t seem convinced. “You heard them. The sheriff wanted the coroner to come before they moved her. He had to officially pronounce her dead. It shouldn’t be long now that he’s here.”

“I think he realized what really happened like I did. She’s been strangled, Lucas. Her eyes showed signs of subconjunctival hemorrhaging, and those purple dots on her face and nose were from petechial hemorrhaging due to strangulation. I’ve seen it before. Someone went into that room and strangled her.”

He glanced back over his shoulder as if to see if anyone else could hear her. “Are you sure?” Lucas’s voice deepened with concern.

“I’m sure. I’m a nurse, remember? Trust me. She had all the signs. Not to mention she looked absolutely terrified.”

“I guess I didn’t think about that possibility, but why would someone do that? To her? Couldn’t she have choked on a lozenge or something?”

“No, but if so, they’d find that in her throat.”

“Maybe that’s what they’re looking for?” He gave a shrug. “What are the odds it’s another murder?”

“I don’t know, but I could think of several reasons someone would do it. Several million, in fact. And there are plenty of greedy people in this house right now.” She was sure Liam had a motive, and the words from his own mouth saying his mother would be better off dead than in love wouldn’t stop replaying in her mind.

Lucas let out a heavy sigh. “Don’t get yourself worked up about that. Let’s just wait and see what they have to say.”

She lowered her voice even more. “Liam said his mother would be better off dead than in love. He despised her happiness with Stanley. Maybe he didn’t want to share the wealth he’s so sure he’s to inherit.”

Lucas’s brows raised with surprise, but before he could speak, something else grabbed his attention.

A car pulled into the driveway, and Rachel craned her neck to see who was inside. “If I’m mistaken, what are they doing here?” She pointed to the young man and woman who had come before to collect evidence from Mr. Murphy’s crime scene.

“Maybe they have to come out when the coroner is called? It could be the protocol?” Lucas gave a shrug. “I just think it’s a big conclusion to jump to. Is it really possible?”

“I’m beginning to believe that anything is possible. What I want to know is if I’m sharing a roof with a murderer, or did someone come in from the outside like they did with Mr. Murphy? What if it’s the same person?”

Lucas’s piqued expression told her his wheels were turning in the same direction.

Lucas welcomed the forensic team inside, and Rachel followed them in. Footsteps on the stairs caught Rachel’s attention. She looked over in time to see Sheriff Hinley on his way down with a concerned look on his face. The coroner was still upstairs, no doubt waiting for the crime-scene unit to arrive.

“Is there anyone else on the property?” Sheriff Hinley asked Lucas, who was nearest to the stairs.

Lucas looked around the room. “Mattie and Henry are in the kitchen.”

“I’ll get them,” said Rachel as she walked down the hallway to the kitchen door.

Mattie and Henry were standing at the sink washing up some dishes together when she stuck her head in. “Hey, Mattie. Henry. Sheriff Hinley wants us all to come to the parlor. He wants to speak with us about what happened.”

Mattie let out a sigh and dried her hands on her apron before heading out behind Henry. “I don’t see what good it will do. I barely knew the woman. She’s said all of three words to me since she got here, and not one I can say had any importance.”

“Let’s just humor the man, okay?” She wanted to get this over with and hopefully have it settled as soon as possible.

“Fine by me,” said Henry. “I’m ready to go back to my house and go to bed. I have work in the morning.”

Rachel knew it was more serious than they expected, and she returned to the room with them in tow, where she found Liam questioning Sheriff Hinley.

“Was it her heart?” he asked. “Mother has been having trouble for years. She was probably so lovestruck she forgot her medication. I knew that man was going to be a dangerous distraction.” He gave Ava an approving glance as if he needed her to agree.

“Actually, no,” said Sheriff Hinley, putting it bluntly. “She was murdered. Homicide by manual strangulation.”

“What?” asked Liam, looking shocked. Rachel tried to gauge his expression, but it wasn’t as easy as she had hoped.

“You heard me. Someone went up there and murdered her in her bed.”

“My sister? She was murdered?” Ava’s mouth popped open, and she looked at the sheriff with a gaping expression. “Does that mean we’re all in danger? First my brother, now my sister?”

Rachel could see the fear in the old woman’s tear-filled eyes.

“How do we know we’re not next?” asked Rebecca. “There’s obviously a maniac on the loose.”

“I’m more curious as to each of your whereabouts this afternoon.” Sheriff Hinley looked around the room as if expecting a response from each of them.

“You can’t think that we’re responsible,” said Rebecca. “My mother and I are not the violent type. We couldn’t harm a fly.”

“Well, I would never kill my mother,” said Liam, looking less than convincing and more irritated than anything.

Sheriff Hinley sighed. “I’m not accusing anyone. But I need you all to know that I’m not leaving any stone unturned. But for now, I need to get back up to my crime scene. I want you all to take your turns giving your statements to the deputy, and I’ll be in touch with each of you in the next few days.”

“Do you mean we have to stay here not knowing if there’s a killer on the loose? We certainly know he’s not among us.”

“Do you know that, Mother?” asked Rebecca. “Lucas, Liam, and even Henry all had the strength needed to get the job done.”

“Actually, it’s possible that, in your aunt’s position, another woman could have been responsible. Whoever did it crawled up in the bed and held her down to do it. She didn’t have a chance to fight back. I suppose it could have been any of you. You all have a motive. You all better hope you have an alibi.”

Rachel wondered if Sheriff Hinley was placing blame and suspicion on everyone just to see who might crack. But she couldn’t be sure.

Rebecca’s mouth dropped open, making the family resemblance to her mother even stronger. “I beg your pardon.”

“I’m only saying that you need to have your stories together if you want me to count any of you out. You are all suspects until further notice.”

Sheriff Hinley turned and walked away, leaving them all speechless.

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