Graduate student Raina Sun is trying to keep her head above water as the bills roll in when her dashing college adviser cons her out of several months of rent. But her quest to get her money back sets into motion a streak of bad luck.
First, she finds the dead body of an ex-lover and becomes the prime suspect to his murder. The only man she ever loved reappears as the lead detective to the case and wants to reignite their passion (or at least he's sending out smoke signals).
Her life careens out of control as her grandma moves into Raina's postage-stamp-sized apartment, dragging a red suitcase and trouble. As Raina summons her sleuthing skills, she discovers there's no place for an amateur when it comes to murder. For readers who like cozy mysteries, quirky characters, and a dash of humor.
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Read the Excerpt.
CHAPTER ONE – PANTS ON FIRE
Leaning against the coral restroom stall, Raina blotted the sweat off her face and wished for an attack of diarrhea or food poisoning. Anything to delay the upcoming confrontation, but delay was the last thing she could afford. She pulled her shirt away from her body and sniffed. No B.O. Just the industrial strength Pine-Sol and cloying lemon cleanser.
While she’d eventually recover from being a fool in love, no way would Raina let herself lose two thousand dollars to learn this lesson. Not when she had lawyer’s fees gobbling up her savings and bald tires giving her heart palpitations every time she got behind the wheel.
Not for the first time, Raina wished she was more physically commanding. Her petite frame wasn’t a real threat to anything larger than a pygmy goat and even then the claim was questionable. If only she were the type of person who walked around threatening to break people’s kneecaps. The jerk would beg to pay her back then. It was time to up the ante and to pester him like a fly on a fresh pile of crap. She wasn’t walking out of this meeting empty handed.
Raina splashed water on her face and toweled it off, hoping it would reduce her flush. The trek from the bus stop to the history building in this August heat had turned her curly black hair into a fuzz ball. A Chinese girl with an Afro. Not exactly the image of a ballbuster. Grabbing the curly strands and stuffing them into a hair tie, she made one last attempt to look in control.
She glanced at her cell phone. Holden lived by his clock. He would be ruffled by the time she strolled through his office door ten minutes late. Taking a deep breath to calm her fluttering stomach, Raina banged open the restroom door in a show of bravado that echoed through the hall. A paunchy student glanced in her direction but returned to his study of the bulletin boards. She stalked into her graduate advisor’s office, prepared for a disparaging remark about her tardiness.
Holden continued scribbling on his yellow legal pad and gestured for her to have a seat. “Let me finish this thought.” He chewed on his pencil and wrote a couple more sentences.
Raina dropped onto the chair in front of his desk and folded her arms across her chest. So much for ruffling his feathers. The scratching of the pencil and the ticking clock tightened the knot in her stomach. She shifted in the chair, wondering how she should bring up the loan. Her upbringing had made discussing money taboo, and even as an adult she had trouble talking about it.
Just ask for the money back, said a small voice in her head.
Her skin itched at the neatness in his office. Books were alphabetized by subject and authors’ last names on the shelves lining one wall. No crammed volumes on the space above the shelved books like in her apartment. On the opposite wall, framed covers of his published books hung in neat lines, forming a perfect grid. As in previous visits, she resisted the urge to nudge a frame by a small degree just to see how long it would take for him to notice.
A place for everything and everything in its place; just like the blond man with the crisp collared shirt sitting in front of her. The pale light filtering in from the dusty windows behind Holden gave him a tarnished halo. He was a tall man with strong shoulders and a confident aura. She’d once found his heavy-lidded brown eyes mesmerizing. Now he just looked tired, but he was still spit-and-polished within an inch of his life.
Holden placed the pencil on the center of the pad and folded his hands on the desk. He cleared his throat. “Have you decided which countries you want to focus on?”
Raina unclenched the twin fists resting on her lap. So he was going to pretend they were nothing more than professor and grad student. “Not yet. China and Japan look to be a good option.”
“Good choice. You’ll certainly have an advantage with your background. Unfortunately, you’ll need to take beginning language classes with the undergrads. Too bad most of the classes from your undergrad engineering degree are not applicable towards your graduate degree.” He turned to open the low filing cabinet underneath the window and pulled out several sheets of paper. “We need to declare your area of focus before the end of this semester.”
Raina scowled at his back. If he wanted to pretend nothing had happened between them over the summer, she could do the same . . . after she got her money back.
She smoothed her face and tugged at her earlobe. “My car is having problems. When can you pay me back?” Darn it. She sounded like a pansy.
Holden flashed a commercial-worthy smile. “Sorry. You’ll have to wait. I don’t get paid until the end of next week.” He scribbled on the margin on the top page of the pile and pushed the stack toward her. “Here’s the information for this semester.”
Raina took a deep breath to calm her rising irritation. He made it sound like she was asking him for favor. “That’s what you said last time. Why don’t you post-date a check for me? I’ll deposit it next week.”
“Sorry, I don't have my checkbook with me.”
She forced her face into a smile, hoping it would keep the anger from her voice. “Why don't you log into your bank online and post-date a bank check? I can wait.”
He tapped his pencil on the desk. “Look, I don’t have time—”
“I’m pregnant. I really need my money.” Raina widened her eyes for emphasis at “really.” She sagged against the chair. The knot in her chest tightened until it strangled her voice. Where did that lie come from?
Holden licked his lips and his knuckles whitened on the hand gripping the pencil. “I… I don’t know what to say. Are you sure?”
Raina nodded, not trusting her voice. Press him, said a voice in her head. She cleared her throat and opened her mouth. To do what? Threaten to expose their affair or explain the lie? She closed her mouth, waiting for his next move.
They stared at each other, and the clock leisurely swallowed the minutes and filled the silence between them.
“The money?” Raina finally asked.
Heels clicked on the hallway floor and someone knocked on the opened door.
Holden jerked up like a tangled puppet, and his chair scuffed against the floor. He grabbed the pile of papers in front of her and knocked over the mahogany pencil caddy Raina had given him for his birthday.
Raina glanced behind her.
Gail, the history department’s secretary, stood at the door. Her thick brows were a tight line across her forehead. “Sorry to interrupt. Holden, you’re late for your meeting with the Dean. He’s waiting for you in the conference room.”
Holden squeezed Raina’s shoulder as he stepped around his desk. “We’ll finish our discussion later,” he whispered.
Raina stared openmouthed at his back. What was that about? The fluttering returned to her stomach. She resisted the urge to brush the feel of his hand from her shoulder.
“Are you okay, hon?” Gail asked.
“Yes. I . . .” Raina nodded. “Yes, thank you.”
“Just let me know if I can help.” Gail left the room and the sound of her clicking heels faded in the hall.
Raina took a couple of deep breaths, staring at the tiny window in front of her. With shaking hands, she tucked a curl behind her ear. What if he thought she still wanted him? A sudden stab of guilt twisted her gut. Why should she feel guilty about wanting her money back? Asking nicely for the last month hadn’t worked. He had this coming. This was his fault as much as hers.
Her eyes flicked to the knocked-over pencils and the small framed photograph next to them. She turned the frame around and her eyes widened in surprise at the blonde. New girlfriend already? He sure got over her fast enough. She replaced the frame facedown on the desk. Yes, it was petty, but she’d never claimed to be gracious.
Raina left the office and trudged toward the computer labs for her shift. She didn’t expect Holden to pay up with a smile, but now things were even more complicated between them. Tomorrow‘s fundraiser committee meeting would be awkward with a fake pregnancy hanging over them. Awkwardness she could power through, but her lawyer wasn’t going to work for an IOU.
The sky was turning pink when she drove home through the downtown area. Most of the mom-and-pop shops were closed, but there were still people frolicking in Hook Park, enjoying the Delta Breeze after another hot record-breaking day. The strands of lights in the outdoor seating areas and the few bicycles rolling leisurely next to parked cars were part of the charm that made Raina seek refuge in the small town of Gold Springs. Far enough away from her family in San Francisco, where the two-hour drive back was a convenient excuse to skip out on birthday parties and last minute family gatherings.
At the corner of Second and B Street, Raina slowed and squinted at the bank’s parking lot. Was that Holden? The two heavyset men on either side of him wore bored expressions, while Holden seemed to have diminished since this morning. His shoulders drooped and his wide eyes had the trapped expression of an animal in a cage. The three of them got into a shiny black SUV with chrome spinners.
The car behind her honked, and she drove through the intersection. By the time she circled the block, the black car was gone. She shook her head. Whatever was going on was no longer her business. She needed to stop obsessing over why he left her with no more explanation than a good-bye text.
Raina drove the rest of the way home on autopilot. She lived in a small complex on the edge of the downtown area, which consisted of two strips of four units facing each other like the little green houses on a Monopoly game. She threw her purse on the narrow side table and turned on the lamp next to her olive-colored sofa. The soft glow filled the living room and cast shadows into the breakfast nook.
Above her TV, the goldfish clock with gilded kois swimming around the dial said it was past dinnertime. Her failure to get her money back meant ramen until payday, and she wasn’t in the mood for another noodle meal. She shifted on the thick cushions of the sofa until she didn’t feel like she would get lost between the cracks of the padding. Raina had no idea why her petite sister, Cassie, favored furniture built for linebackers, but then an expensive new-to-me sofa was better than a cheap sagging one.
She was immersed in the world of Middle Earth when there was a sharp knock on her front door. Cocking her head, she waited, in case it was dressed up church people trying to convince her to give up her Sunday mornings. The knock came again.
Raina glanced at the gap between the closed drapes of the big window above her sofa. Her friend, Eden, peered in with her hands framed around her dark round face like a peeking Tom. No church people, but Raina wasn’t sure an inquisitive reporter who didn’t know how to leave her work at the office was much of an improvement.
“Did you get it back?” Eden bustled in and dropped a pizza box on the square Goodwill dining room table. “Got any soda? Never mind. Be back in a sec.”
Her graceful friend turned and her silky brown weave fanned out like a shampoo commercial, glittering in the dim light. The scent of lavender lingered in the air even after she hustled across the courtyard toward her apartment. Eden returned with a can of soda.
Raina told her friend everything that had happened on campus and the strange incident at the bank. “I know I haven’t seen Holden in two months before today, but he seemed diminished somehow. A little less larger than life.”
“It’s called taking off the rose colored glasses,” Eden said. “I’m surprised he didn’t shove a check in your hands and tell you to get rid of the pregnancy.”
“That’s what I was hoping for, too. He sounded almost wistful. I’m not quite sure what to make of it.”
“He’s just playing mind games with you.”
Raina grimaced. “You should have snatched those glasses from me and smacked me on my nose.”
Eden rolled her eyes. “As if you would have listened.”
“So when is Phil supposed to pick his CIE trainee?” Raina asked.
“Assistant Chief-in-Editor. Not trainee. Unofficially, the position is supposed to be his replacement when he retires. I need a story that’ll make me stand out.” Eden gave her a sideways glance. “I’m thinking about resurrecting some old gossip … about Holden and Olivia.”
Raina gave her friend a sharp look. “I just want to move on. If this fake pregnancy doesn’t light a fire under his butt, then…” She shrugged.
“This has nothing to do with you. It’s just perfect timing with the annual Christmas fundraiser coming up in a few months.”
Raina nodded. Of course it was. “I’ll bite. What are the rumors?”
“Holden spent fifty percent of this huge grant that was supposed to be divided among the other professors.” Eden wiggled her eyebrows. “He spent far too much time in the boss’s office to be strictly professional.”
“Olivia is old enough to be his mother!”
“I’m just repeating what the wagging tongues said.”
Raina’s face burned as she focused on the salty and cheesy taste in her mouth.
“This was before you came on the scene,” Eden added after glancing at her. “But that’s not the interesting part.” She paused. “Another twenty percent of the grant money grew legs.”
“And that’s the million-dollar question you want to find out. You think Holden has anything to do with the missing money?” Could he use some of that grant money to pay her back?
Eden shrugged. “But it would be juicy if he did.”
After Eden left, Raina sorted her mail. On top of the pile of junk mail was a cream-colored envelope from her lawyer. Apparently another cousin had decided to join the suit contesting the inheritance from her grandfather.
At the rate things were going, the lawyer fees would swallow up the entire three million dollars. Had Raina known in advance that agreeing to pay “a small token” amount to retain the lawyer would add up to several thousand dollars, she would have kept searching for a representative who would be willing to defer the entire payment. And to top it off, she wouldn’t even get to keep the inheritance. She was just a temporary caretaker if she decided to honor her granddad’s wishes.
CHAPTER TWO – FLY CAUGHT IN A WEB
Raina trudged through the reception area in the history building. Bright lights streamed in through the skylights on the vaulted ceilings. The large windows along one wall pulsated with trapped heat. The open space was too large to cool or heat efficiently so everyone either shivered or sweltered. Whoever approved the design for the building obviously preferred style over function.
“Psst. Raina,” Gail called out. The sliding glass partition above the front counter was opened. She was in the middle of stuffing paper into folders, but her bright eyes and slightly parted lips suggested something more enticing might be at work. No one could get that hot and heavy while filing.
Raina’s frenemy antennae vibrated in warning. Either Gail wanted something or she had department gossip waiting to spillover. Neither option held any appeal at the moment.
“It’s about the fundraiser,” Gail fake whispered with one hand next to her mouth.
Raina walked over and leaned her elbows on the wooden front counter, resting her chin on her hands. “I’m all ears. Is Olivia giving the grad students more paid hours this semester?” She did some quick mental calculations. If she got five extra hours a week, she should be able to pay for a new set of tires by the end of the month. Why, she could even charge it now and then pay off the bill when it came.
“No.” Gail paused. “The exact opposite.”
A knot settled in Raina’s stomach. Forget new tires. She might have to eat ramen for the rest of the semester.
“The Dean axed Olivia’s idea of having the grad students work on the fundraiser. He wants to only pay them for their teaching assignments. So the grad students would truly be ‘volunteering’ their time.” Gail’s fingers curled into air quotes.
The secretary gave Raina a closed-lip smile that was meant to be sympathetic, but her eyes twinkled. Raina returned with a half smile of her own and continued to the conference room after thanking her for the heads-up. She didn’t want to give the receptionist more fuel for her gossip.
Raina peeked in the room. Sol, wearing his signature-stained T-shirt and a greasy ponytail, rested his chin on his palms, staring at his coffee cup. The conference room, newly decorated with light maple furniture and sleek mesh office chairs, was out of character with the rest of the much older history building. Her nose twitched at the smell. Even the building’s modern HVAC couldn’t get rid of the old musty paper odor that hinted at rat droppings hidden between yellowed pages. She glanced at the wall clock and ducked back into the hall.
“Raina!” Sol said.
Not fast enough. Ten whole minutes of small talk was exactly what she needed first thing in the morning.
Raina sat across from Sol and mumbled good morning. She pulled out her cell phone, hoping he would take the hint.
Sol tapped the coffee sleeve on his cup. “I stopped by yesterday, but you weren’t home. What are you doing Sunday afternoon?”
The college had assigned Sol to show her around campus when Raina first arrived a year ago. Since that one fateful meeting, the grad student had been badgering her for a date at every encounter. “I’m busy.”
Sol scratched his paunchy stomach. “Is it because I'm fat?”
“I'm just not interested. Sorry.”
Sol took a large gulp of his coffee. “Uh-huh.” A thin dribble slid around his chin and plopped on his chest. His T-shirt now sported a small brown dot in the middle of the existing pale green stain.
Raina glanced at the clock and tapped her pen on the table. If she kept this up for the next three minutes, would he stop talking?
“Why did you go out with Holden?” His hazel eyes darkened as he sneered. “You fell for his charm. Just like everyone else. Everyone thinks he is so smart. Writing his groundbreaking new book. Ha! He can’t even name his sources.” He threw the coffee sleeve at the table; it slid and hit her hand.
“None of your business.” Raina flicked the sleeve back at him. How many others knew about her secret relationship?
Sol reddened and his shoulders slumped. His flash of aggression popped like a bubble. The wall clock ticked uncomfortably until Cora rushed in with a tray of coffee. Raina exchanged pleasantries with the blonde student assistant, ignoring Sol.
Olivia and Andrew followed on her heels. Andrew’s animated ruddy face contrasted oddly with his flat monotone voice when he answered his boss. They grabbed a coffee without glancing at the student assistant.
Holden strolled in, wearing a wrinkled shirt and gray trousers. Raina knew the exact moment he saw her. His step paused discernibly. He sat on Raina’s other side and reached across to grab a coffee. The scent of his spicy aftershave lingered in her nose. At his mumbled thanks, Cora looked at her lap and blushed.
Olivia frowned at the exchange. The thick mascara lashes twitched like spider legs wrapping an insect for lunch. She watched his face and tapped her watch. “About time.”
Cora pushed her thick glasses up her face and hunched her bony shoulders as if she could blend in with the furniture by hunkering down.
Holden shrugged and took a sip of the coffee. Raina wondered if there was any truth to the rumor that Holden and Olivia were ex-lovers. The man had nerves of steel. If her boss spoke to her in that accusatory tone, she wouldn’t be drinking coffee like she had all the time in the world.
Olivia droned on about what an honor it was to be chairperson of the committee again. Raina wanted to poke her eyes out. The others in the room threw out half-hearted suggestions, but it soon became clear that Olivia was looking for automatons to do her bidding.
After a few more minutes of Olivia’s soliloquy, Raina cleared her throat. “I heard the grad students wouldn’t get paid for their time.”
Olivia flipped her fake, youthful, chestnut hair over her thickly padded shoulder. “Yes, the Dean announced his decision this morning. But it’s still a good networking opportunity.”
“I really can’t afford to volunteer my time.”
“Surely you can make time to help with this noble cause.” Olivia’s smile faded and her eyes narrowed. She leaned in and lowered her voice. “Think about how many classes you’ll have with me to finish your degree. This will be a great networking opportunity.”
Raina pressed her lips into a tight line. So, if she stopped showing up, Olivia Spider Lashes was going to make her entire grad school experience miserable. For a moment, nausea assaulted her. She’d given up her engineering career for this? To be in a power play with a woman who thought youth could be found in a bottle of hair dye and a mascara tube?
Raina’s hands grew clammy at the silence in the room. Everyone avoided eye contact— either watching the clock, doodling on their notepads, or picking at their nails. She had no idea why the department head wanted her on the fundraiser committee, but she didn’t believe for a minute it was for her computer skills. She sighed and nodded.
Olivia beamed and returned to her monologue.
Raina massaged the sides of her head. She should have … done something. A twitching fly caught in a web had more fight than what she’d just given. There was always the dead grandma excuse. She didn’t want to sink to that level, but Olivia had left her with no choice.
She froze when Holden squeezed her knee under the table. He slid a note into her lap. She glanced at Olivia and then at the note: We need to talk. She balled up the paper and slipped it in the pocket of her shorts.
After an hour, Raina raised her hand. “Where are the snacks?”
Olivia’s face darkened at the interruption as she glanced at the clock.
Andrew’s face got even redder. “Sorry, Lori will be here with the snacks as soon as she is done with the photo shoot of our backyard for the Garden Club’s newsletter.”
Olivia announced a short break and Raina rushed out along with the others. They scattered like roaches at the end of a flashlight beam.
Raina pulled out her work schedule from her purse. It didn’t look like Olivia would wrap up the meeting any time soon. She would have to skip lunch to make it to her shift at the computer lab. Her annoyance increased with each step she took toward the vending machines by the stairwell.
A few minutes later, Raina leaned against the vending machine and stuffed mixed nuts into her mouth. She closed her eyes at the guilty pleasure. Chocolate and salt for lunch. Yum. Her mother would be horrified.
Her skin prickled as if she was no longer alone. Raina opened her eyes to find Holden standing in front of her, blocking her exit. She jerked and banged her elbow on the trashcan. Stifling a yelp, she clutched the bag of nuts to her chest. The silence stretched until the low rumble from her stomach snapped Raina from her deer-in-headlights position.
“Do you have my money?” Raina popped a nut into her mouth, trying to appear nonchalant after her initial surprise. The nut irritated her dry mouth and stuck in her throat. She coughed, hoping to dislodge it without hacking.
“I never intended for things to end the way they did. You surprised me yesterday.” Holden leaned against the wall. Sweat beaded on his upper lip. “In a good way.”
Raina held up a hand. “Wait.” It would be just her luck for Holden to want a baby.
“Let me finish. I’ve spent the whole night thinking about the baby. I think we could be great together—”
“If you have feelings for me, how come you haven’t paid me back? I’ve been asking for weeks.” Raina leaned against the soda machine and crossed her arms. Darn! When did he want to be a father?
Holden paled and held onto his stomach. “It’s complicated.”
Her heart hammered against her chest. “It’s always complicated.”
“I’m so ashamed. I wished—”
The sounds of clattering footsteps increased in volume as several people walked down the staircase. Holden glanced behind him and froze as Olivia strolled by, pointing at her watch.
Raina’s breath came out in a small whoosh. As she rushed past Holden, his arm snaked out and clamped onto hers.
“We have unfinished business. Stop by my office this evening.” He whispered, “Please.”
Raina rushed off without a backward glance. This evening? No way. She was going home after her shift. Holden had his chance; it was not her fault he got interrupted by Olivia. He could play any games he wanted, but she wasn’t engaging. She was better off with another part-time job after she got out of “volunteering” her time for the fundraiser.
Olivia glanced at the clock when Raina slipped into her seat. Big deal. So Raina was a few minutes late. It was not as if she missed anything important. Holden didn’t even bother coming back to the conference room.
“As I was saying, Raina could organize the donor’s list. You’ll also need to ask them to give us something for the silent auction.” Olivia slid a pile of papers across the table. “Mention that it’s a tax deduction. It usually works.”
Raina blinked. “But I’m an introvert.”
Olivia nodded and wrote something on her planner. “I’m sure you’ll do fine. Lori can help you.”
“Lori isn’t even here.” Raina glanced apologetically at Andrew. “I’m sure your wife wouldn’t want to get stuck talking to all the donors.” She eyed Olivia. “I thought you wanted me on the committee to help with the computer stuff.”
Olivia winked, twitching her black spider lashes. “The donor’s list is on a spreadsheet. You’ll need to update it and print out thank you cards later.”
Raina pressed her lips together to prevent a snarky comment from escaping. Olivia wanted computer skills for a spreadsheet? Her grandmother was so dead. She apologized silently to her ancestors. Yep, she’d send out an email with the excuse tomorrow morning. Besides, she didn’t want to spend any more time with Holden if he wanted them to work things out because of a baby. Why couldn’t he be like a normal man and just hand her money to get rid of his problem?
CHAPTER THREE – CAT IN A TREE
Raina squinted against the glare of the early evening light glinting off the windows as she climbed the main stairs to the Steinburg History Building. She hadn’t planned on meeting Holden after her shift, but his text messages were too enticing to ignore. She knew all about curiosity and the cat, but there was something to be said for satisfaction.
Maybe she’d learn why he broke things off without an explanation. Some women might think closure was overrated in a brief relationship, but she’d bet they didn’t have an ex-boyfriend who treated love like a revolving door. Closure was important.
Leaning against the handrail, Raina pulled out her cell phone to bring up Holden’s last message again.
“I have the cash. Waiting for you.”
This better not be a ploy to lure her to his office. Holden wasn’t reacting as she predicted he would. He should be avoiding her. He should be demanding proof or denying responsibility. Instead, this was the second message Raina had received since he cornered her this morning by the vending machine.
Distant sirens broke the tranquility of the lazy August day. She looked behind her and didn’t see anything unusual. Campus employees hurried to the parking lots, probably eager to get home after a day of work. A handful of students tossed a Frisbee on the lawn. She shrugged, as the sirens got louder. The evening news would undoubtedly report on the sirens. Even a cat stuck in a tree got at least thirty seconds in Gold Springs.
Raina closed her phone and stuffed it back into her purse. With squared shoulders, she marched up the rest of the stairs and into the lobby. This could be the last time she needed to interact with Holden on a personal level. Once the money was firmly locked in her bank account, she would have a photo-burning ceremony with her friends Ben and Jerry to cleanse him from her life.
Her sneakers squeaked in the empty corridor. The front desk stood in silent sentry to her passage. Gail had probably gone home for the day. She turned the corner and the open door of Holden’s office beckoned at the end of the hall. Her steps slowed and a knot settled in her stomach. She wiped the perspiration off her forehead with the back of her hand. She’d forgotten the campus turned off the air conditioner after hours during the summer.
A muffled buzz from her purse distracted Raina from further thoughts of the HVAC system. It better not be a message from Holden telling her he’d left already. She pulled her cell phone from her purse and flipped it out.
A whoosh of air threw Raina’s hair into her eyes. Her stomach lodged in her throat as the scents of lemon cleanser and vomit hit her. She turned toward the opened door and froze. A large person charged out of the men’s restroom and slammed into her. They fell into a tangled heap on the tiled floor. Raina gasped as the air flew out of her lungs and her cell phone clattered onto the floor.
Raina struggled to push the person off her. Her hands encountered the softness of a woman’s body. She brushed the hair off her eyes and saw a unibrow on an ashen face. Gail? Her heart thumped painfully against her chest.
Gail grabbed Raina’s arms, digging her talon-like nails into the skin. Her flared nostrils made tiny squeaks with each labored breath. “My… my phone!”
Raina winced at the pain and batted off the other woman’s clammy hands. She shivered at the bulging eyes and crossed her arms in front of her. “Are you okay? Do you need me to call someone?”
“I need to stay on the line!”
Raina crawled over to her phone, grabbed the shattered screen, and popped the battery back in. “Mine is toasted. Where’s your phone?”
Gail pointed a trembling hand at the men’s restroom. “In there.” A small moan slipped from her pale lips. “Holden’s dead.”
Raina shook her head. Had Gail been drinking? She didn’t smell alcohol on the secretary. “He texted me an hour ago.” Her voice came out squeakier than she intended.
Gail closed her eyes. “He’s dead. He’s dead.”
Raina shook her head again. Dead? She opened her mouth and closed it. There had to be some other explanation. She got up on wobbly legs and tiptoed the short distance to the men’s room door. With shaking hands, she pushed it open. A body lay on the floor, the head cocked at an odd angle. She jerked at the loud bang behind her and dropped her hand. She backed away, glad she didn’t have time to see more.
The clamor of footsteps grew louder. Three uniformed men and a woman filled the hallway. The entire police force was on duty. Gail covered her mouth with her hands, but the moans continued to escape. As if from a great height, Raina watched a couple of the officers enter the restroom. Another officer ducked into the doors along the hall. Cold seeped into her body and Raina shivered. She felt disconnected from the activity before her. The noise should have been deafening, but there was only a roaring in her ears as her heart thumped rapidly.
A gentle touch on her arm snapped Raina back into her body. She blinked, feeling lightheaded. Someone had thrown a blanket around her shoulders. She clutched it tight against her body as if it were a life preserver.
“Please follow me.” A policewoman gripped Gail under her elbow and half supported her toward the lobby.
Raina stumbled after the two women, touching the walls occasionally to keep from floating away. Holden just died. She tripped and fell on the tiled floor. The sharp pain from her knees was an improvement to the numbness in her body.
The policewoman asked if she was okay, and Raina nodded mechanically. At the lobby, the policewoman opened the office door and helped Gail into a chair. She huddled underneath a blanket, moaning as tears continued to run down her face.
Raina leaned against the front counter in the lobby. She closed her eyes and took deep breaths. Her heart rate had returned to normal during the walk, but she still felt chilled to the core. Someone pushed a warm mug into her cold hands. Her nose twitched at the burnt day-old coffee scent. She inhaled it greedily. This was something she understood.
She opened her eyes to thank the person, expecting the policewoman. A jolt went up her spine and Raina stiffened. A tall Asian man in a knit polo with an embroidered badge stood in front of her. Their eyes locked and a low buzzing sounded in her ears. Little spots of light danced before her eyes as her brain registered who she was seeing.
E. Matthew Louie?
He gave her a curt nod. “Rainy.”
The coffee mug slipped from her hands and clattered on the floor. Her eyes followed its downward descent. She stared in horror as the dark liquid spilled across the floor, splattering brown droplets against Matthew’s brown dress shoes and khaki pants. Her mind had to be playing tricks on her, digging up her past at this stressful moment. She glanced at her hands. No hives yet.
Raina stared at the golden flecks in the familiar warm brown eyes. His expression was no longer as carefree as she remembered. A dead body had a way of doing that. His lips were pressed into a thin line and the furrow between his eyebrows reminded her the years apart made him a stranger.
“Matthew?” She crossed her arms to stop her hands from shaking. The police officers milling around the hall were unaware that her world had stopped spinning. A shudder overtook her as gooseflesh popped up on her arms and shoulders.
He grabbed the blanket and tucked it more firmly around her. “Did you find the body?”
Raina shook her head.
Matthew wrapped her hands around the ends of the blanket. His warm hands sent another jolt down her spine. He was real.
“Please don’t leave before an officer gets a statement from you.” He walked away without a backward glance.
A police officer greeted Matthew. They conferred and disappeared around the corner. To everyone else he might look normal, but Raina noted his ramrod straight back and stiff walk. He was just as disconcerted at seeing her again.
Raina picked up the pieces of the mug and placed it on the front counter. The sour scent of vomit made her swallow the bitter tang in the back of her throat. She peered into the interior of the office. Gail hunched over a wastebasket and dry heaved. Raina backed away and fought for control of her stomach.
She shifted her weight from foot to foot. What if Matthew came back to take her statement? What if he left without talking to her? Her heart skipped a beat at the thought.
“Raina!” Eden stood on tiptoes, trying to get around a pug-faced policeman blocking her entrance to the lobby.
“No reporters. This is a crime scene,” said the policeman.
Eden grabbed her swinging press pass and stuffed it in her pocket. “I’m here to take my friend home. She called to say she needed a ride.”
“You can wait here. She’ll come over when she is allowed to leave.”
Eden pushed against the policeman’s extended arm. “Look at her. She needs me.”
“Stop. Or I’m going to have to arrest you for obstruction.”
Eden dropped her arms and stalked over to the benches next to the wall. “Raina, I’ll wait for you here.” She pulled out her cell phone and ignored the chaos in the hall, but aimed her phone at the two medical examiners arriving at the scene.
At any other time, Raina would have laughed at her friend’s antics. The floating sensation left her body. This was normal. This she understood. The more Eden pretended to be absorbed in her phone, the more the police should worry. She was probably using the video camera feature to record the police activities and any conversation within earshot. Raina walked back to the front counter and peered inside the office.
The policewoman tucked her notepad and digital recorder under her arm. “Give us a call if you remember anything else. Do you need to call someone for a ride home?”
Gail brushed a strand of hair back with a shaky hand. “My husband is out of town. I can get home.”
The policewoman shook her head. “I don’t think you’re in any condition to be driving.”
“I’ll drive you home,” Raina called out.
The policewoman squinted at her. “I don’t think you should be driving either. I’ll find an officer to take both of you home after I get your statement.”
Raina gestured behind her. “My friend is in the lobby. She can take both of us home.”
The policewoman stood up and looked over the counter. She frowned as she watched Eden working her cell phone and whispered into her walkie talkie. She gestured for Raina to come inside the office.
Raina gave her contact information and described what happened after she set foot inside the building.
“What were you doing here this late in the day?” the policewoman asked, her expression more guarded than she’d previously shown.
“He sent me a text asking to meet with me. I thought he forgot to give me something when I met with him about my classes the day before.” Raina hadn’t technically lied.
“I see.” The policewoman studied her.
Raina bit her bottom lip to prevent herself from talking to fill the silence. She clamped her hands together to resist the urge to fidget and tried to slow her breathing.
After asking the same few questions again in more creative ways over the next hour, the policewoman said, “We’ll be in touch if we have further questions.”
Raina grabbed Gail’s elbow and guided her into the lobby. The woman was still trembling. Eden glared at the pug-faced policeman still standing sentry in the hall. Her phone was M.I.A.
Eden wrapped her arms around Raina. “Ready to go home?” she asked, her eyes softening with concern.
Raina nodded. “Where’s your phone?”
Eden jerked her thumb at the policeman. “Mr. Pug took it.”
Raina looked behind her. Matthew kept his eyes on the three of them as he talked to the policewoman. They both had on professionally blank expressions. When she met his dark eyes, she shivered. What was her ex-boyfriend doing in Gold Springs? And with the police no less.
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