Christmas Redemption (Love & Murder Book 5)

 

Everyone has a secret…

Someone attempted to kill Sylvia last Christmas, but she doesn’t expect it to happen again. She’s heard about the modern-day Bonnie and Clyde from Michigan, but the thrill-seeking murderers have kept to their native state, and Sylvia has other concerns.

The freezing, starving, and frightened cat she found in her garage.

Two couples snowed in the bed-and-breakfast are giving Sylvia and her college professor/screenwriter boyfriend odd vibrations.

And then there are Sylvia’s past misdeeds. She’d like to tell the man she loves the truth about herself … but some people can’t take the truth.

And some secrets can be deadly…

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READ AN EXCERPT:

One

Warning to any Michiganders who might be listening. First, you had to watch out for the water. Now, you have to watch out for a modern-day Bonnie and Clyde. Yep. You heard me right. They change their hair color. They change their cars. They change their names. And you know what else they do, peeps?”

In the Subaru’s front passenger seat, Sylvia looked at Nate, her eyebrows up. His eyes were on the traffic, but he must have felt her gaze because he smiled, his cheeks pouching up. Her slightly chubby teddy bear with his curly gray hair, protuberant nose, and ready smile.

Aren’t you sorry now that you didn’t listen to NPR?” he asked.

She laughed. After living in a small town in Door County, Wisconsin, for the first fifty-three years of her life, she relished her new life in Madison with its concerts, plays, art exhibits, and often listening to National Public Radio. Still, it felt good to be going home for Christmas. This Christmas would be tamer than the last, she was sure, and glad for it.

They murder.” The DJ’s smooth voice regained her attention. “You heard me right. I said murder, and that’s what they do.”

Sylvia supposed the DJ meant to be humorous, but she shuddered, and it wasn’t because of the twelve-degree temperature outside or the meteorologist’s snow warnings. She’d had enough of murder, and none of it had been funny. Especially since some of the murders had involved her.

She had killed three people and hadn’t been caught.

Yet.

She planned on the yet to mean never ever.

At least she hadn’t killed maliciously. Except, perhaps, once.

She’d been younger then. Ice-cold outside; boiling hot inside.

Crying inside.

Screaming inside.

Feeling like the world’s biggest fool.

Worrying about what would happen to her son.

Worrying about what would happen to her.

There had been no prenuptial agreement. Her cheating, drinking deadbeat husband would have claimed half of the bed-and-breakfast she’d grown up in. The bed-and-breakfast that had been in her family for generations.

And from Charley…? He would have given her nothing. And nothing for Chuck, their son.

Even now the memories made her clench her jaw tightly. She forced her jaw to relax and reminded herself that Chuck was thirty-one, had recently started a business that was helping artists in the community, and was engaged to a wonderful and talented woman. Every time he looked at her, his face lit up.

A big difference from his father. At Charley’s wake, she’d overheard one of his drinking buddies say, “Charley was always up for a fun time, but I’m not surprised that he’s gone. If any man was born to die with a bullet in his cheating heart, that man was Charley.”

Perhaps she should have waited for someone else to kill him, but she was never the type to wait for other people to do her dirty work.

And the other two murders … well, there were reasons for those, too.

In one case, she had saved lives.

Her other victim had ruined lives.

But Charley’s murder… As much as she told herself that he had deserved to die, it haunted her.

Her hands shook, and she clenched them. She was not the same person now. She needed to let go of the past. She needed to be happy. She needed to forgive herself, though years later now—decades—the hurt was still there. A raw wound that had never healed.

She took a deep breath. She was just here for the Christmas holidays. She and Nate would be staying until after New Year’s while Chuck and his fiancée visited her sister and her sister’s baby in Santa Barbara.

When this holiday was over and Sylvia and Nate returned to Madison, she could work on forgiving herself and releasing the closed fist that was squeezing her heart so tightly.

For a beginning, she could let her fingers open.

She could let her heart beat steadily.

She could breathe deeper and slower.

She could accept Nate’s marriage proposal.

She could allow herself to be happy.

Sitting with her back straight, she felt better now that she had a plan. A goal. Until the time was right to put her thoughts into actions, she would enjoy the holiday and help give the couple who had booked a suite at the bed-and-breakfast a Christmas they would never forget.

* * *

The DJ promised to play the new Adele song after the commercial. Julian reached forward to lower the volume then turned to the driver. “You know what I like most about Wisconsin?”

Cheese.” Avery steered the car along the Upper Michigan road, the heater on high, snow and pine trees on both sides of the road. “And beer.”

He glanced sideways. One thing Avery did well was drive. His mother had preferred to be driven, and so did he.

And Avery had money. He liked that. Liked that very much.

He took after his mother that way, too.

And Avery liked going down on him. He liked that very much, too.

A memory flashed in his mind.

He was ten years old, hearing guttural sounds coming from his mother’s bedroom. Sounds like someone was dying.

He hurried down the hall. The door was open, and he stopped and stared. His mother and Carl, his second stepfather, were naked on the huge bed, his mother kneeling between Carl’s legs, her head down.

Watching them, Julian drew his breath in, nervous and excited and mesmerized.

Carl’s croaks became louder and louder, until he let loose with a roar, his hips slamming up and down between his mother’s hands, smashing against her face. Julian was still staring when his mother rolled off of his stepfather and flopped down on the bed next to him, the side closest to the hallway.

Then she turned her head and looked at him, her eyes dark.

A small smile appeared on her face. She opened her mouth, and he could see the shininess inside. He was old enough to know what that was.

He ran to his room, closing the door, shoving his hand down his pants.

In the car, he shut down those thoughts.

Even before that night, he’d known he was different from other kids his age. He’d celebrated the difference. The others were lemmings, and he was a shark.

His mother had been a shark, too. He’d give that to her. The kind of a shark who liked to bite her son. Showing him she was the one in charge.

Avery was a shark, too, but a smaller shark. A baby shark. He was the biggest shark. The smartest one. So when Avery said foolish things, which she often did, he let them go. After all, he never did like women with brains.

Women like his mother, who was living in Greece with husband number four. He hadn’t seen her since she moved to Manhattan with husband number three when he was seventeen, but she sent him a Christmas card every year.

What I like about Wisconsin,” he said finally, “is that no one will expect us to strike there.”

Avery giggled again. He sat back with a half smile, dismissing his memories. They were part of yesterday and had no meaning to him. Shakespeare had been wrong. The past wasn’t prologue. The past was dust.

Santa was coming to the town of Trouble Bay, and Julian was going to get a very big Christmas present. He knew that because he was giving the present to himself.

He touched the car’s digital screen, switching to another station. Then he sat back, the corners of his lips curling as he listened to his favorite holiday song, “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.”