The Pinnacles of Power, Book 1
Ebook ISBN: 9781627418669
Print ISBN: 978-1632581686
[ Romantic Suspense, MF ]
Abigail wants to put her father’s death behind her. But when a handsome stranger produces a clue about his shooting, hopes of finding the killer return. Abigail’s determined to get justice, even if it means learning the secret of a man who cuts straight through the wall around her heart.
“To tell you the truth, I’m not really sure that I’m going to take the job. Not after hearing the hotel was closed down because of a murder.”
Abigail Mackenzie watched her own mouth fall open as she stared at her reflection in the ice cream machine beside her. A wave of familiar fear washed over her. It took her several seconds to get her bearings.
She removed her cell phone from her face and gave the glass door that stood at the entrance to the ice cream parlor a double take. Certain she was alone, she placed the phone back against her ear. “I think you’re gonna have to run that one by me again, Julia. Because it sounded to me like you just said that the Washington Valley Hotel was shut down for three months because a murder took place.”
Julia Dyson, Abigail’s extroverted best friend, sighed on the other end of the phone. “You did say you were looking for more excitement in your life, right? Okay, that didn’t come out right. Yes, someone was murdered at the hotel and yes, it is the same murder that everyone’s been talking about. But, it isn’t as if it just happened. The shooting occurred weeks ago. And the victim wasn’t even a local. Meaning, his killer probably followed him here, which actually makes a lot of sense. Why would anyone want to kill a man living in the dullest town on the face of the earth?”
As she considered the question at hand, Abigail’s face became painfully hot. Julia was only trying to be logical, but her friend was striking a raw nerve. Though it was six years after the fact, her father’s murder wasn’t something Abigail would get over if she lived until the end of time. It didn’t matter that the shooting had been random, or that it had happened when she was seventeen. It had left an open wound she would have all of her life.
The police had said that her dad had been closing up his restaurant for the night when a man wearing a hooded sweatshirt approached him. According to a witness, the man asked if he could come in for a drink, and her dad told him that he’d already closed down for the night. The man in the sweatshirt responded by putting three bullets in his chest.
Abigail’s father had taught her to look for the good in others. She’d learned that earth-shattering night that not everyone had it.
John MacKenzie’s murder hadn’t just been the talk of the town—it had shaken the entire community. Six years had passed since the tragedy, and Abigail could still hear the talking and whispers.
But as far as this murder at the hotel was concerned, Julia had a point. New Hampshire was a sparsely populated state, and it had an exceptionally low crime rate. One fluky shooting had been the shock of the century. What were the chances of it happening a second time?
“My God, Julia. Do you realize what this means? Someone was killed right here in North Conway, not twenty minutes from our homes. The murder hasn’t even hit the news yet, which means the cops aren’t fully disclosing the fact that there’s a killer on the loose. Maybe they don’t even have a suspect in custody.”
“Slow down there, Sherlock. Yes, this was a local crime and no, the media hasn’t gone to any great lengths to showcase it. Hicksville isn’t the first place I’d be sniffing around for news if I were a journalist, either. It doesn’t mean that the cops don’t have a suspect.”
Maybe so. But as far as Abigail was concerned, there was an equally good chance they didn’t have a suspect. She tapped her fingernails against the counter. “I see your point, Julia. But if we’re going to be working at the Washington Valley Hotel, I really don’t think it would hurt to just keep our ears open, and see what we can find out.”
“Hold up there, Abs. You’re not about to suggest what I think you are…are you? You don’t think we should”—Julia hesitated—“try and solve a murder mystery, do you?”
“Of course not!” Abigail exclaimed. Hoping to steer the emphasis as far away as she could from the idea, she said, “What’s the one thing I’ve wanted for as long as I can remember?” When Julia didn’t answer her, she replied, “To be around children, make a difference in their lives. Help them enjoy that innocent time when there are no responsibilities and the world has yet to smack itself in their faces. I want to be a teacher, Julia. And this job might be my only chance of getting my education credits paid for any time during the next century.”
Julia didn’t answer right away but her skepticism was conveyed through the deep sound of her breathing. “I know how much you want to be a teacher, Abs. But you’re the one who just said you want to keep your ears open. I think I know you well enough to get that there’s more to this sudden interest of yours than what you’re saying.”
Was Julia kidding? The idea that there might be a killer on the loose in North Conway was terrifying! Her father’s killer had never been caught. If the same thing happened again, Abigail wasn’t sure she’d ever sleep again at night. Though, that wasn’t where her feelings ended. She’d be lying through her teeth if she didn’t admit that a part of her wanted very much to attack this thing head-on. If there was a connection between the murders, maybe they could finally bring her father’s killer to justice.
Grateful that her friend couldn’t see her eyes, Abigail leaned on her elbow as she sat behind the register. “There’s absolutely no reason I want to take this job other than what I’ve told you.”
“Positive. Either way, there’s a miniscule chance of stumbling upon any evidence, considering the cops have been there and gone.”
“Been there and gone?” Julia’s voice cracked. “All right, who are you and what have you done with Abigail MacKenzie? The girl who was so sure her mother’s attic was being broken into last fall that she ran into town to get the police? Granted, I’m sure those chipmunks had a field day getting into all of your old memorabilia while you were gone.”
“Are you done?”
“No, I’m not done,” Julia said with a sigh. “I get that you missed your calling, Nancy Drew, but let’s get real. Truth be told, I was thinking of checking things out over there myself, but I have an exceptionally strong stomach. You? Not so much. Monster-sized student loan aside, three months of bed-making and vacuuming carpets won’t exactly be a picnic. What’s the real reason you want to take this job?”
Abigail was about to attempt an answer when the old-fashioned bells on the door rang .A ray of light streaked against the floor. Through it stepped a man who appeared to be a couple of years older than herself. He was tall and broad shouldered, and he was wearing a flannel shirt and a pair of jeans. At second glance she observed that he had thick black hair and deep blue eyes. Mysterious eyebrows loomed above them. There was a touch of dark stubble on his cheeks.
A jolt of electricity shot up Abigail’s spine as the man approached the counter. His expansive chest came into view as he came toward her. The man looked strong, like he could bench-press their picnic table in the parking lot.
There weren’t a lot of twentysomethings living in their town. She would probably remember if she’d seen him before. Offering a smile she prayed wasn’t too anxious, Abigail straightened her posture.
His grin broadening, the man placed his large hands against the counter. He leaned forward and said, “Shouldn’t you be off the phone in case a customer walks in? I’m pretty sure that’s against the rules.”
Abigail hung up promptly. “What makes you think this isn’t the company phone?”
“It might be.” The man in the farm-shirt shrugged. “But something tells me the company phone isn’t pink.”
There were several things inside of that room that were pink. But Abigail didn’t suppose the fact would strengthen her case any.
“Probably good instincts,” she muttered, picking up a rag from beside her. Frantically, she scrubbed the counter.
“Aren’t you going to ask me what I’d like?” the man said, offering her a second glimpse of his perfect white smile.
Abigail dropped the cloth she was holding. “I’m sorry. Yes, of course. What can I get for you, Sir?” Of course, he didn’t look anything at all like a ‘Sir’ and a lot like the most handsome guy she’d ever seen.
Unable to hold back, she pressed, “You’re not going to tell anyone, are you? About the phone, I mean. Not that you don’t have every right to be angry. But for what it’s worth, I really need to keep this job.”
A look of sympathy and something she couldn’t quite describe settled about his lightly tanned face. “Tell you what. You make me a vanilla milkshake, throw in an extra pinch of syrup, and we’ll call it even.”
Abigail paled She was terrible at making milkshakes. What was worse was that the machine had been acting finicky all morning. Saying a silent prayer that she could change his mind, she asked, “Sure that you wouldn’t rather have a banana split instead? We just made a batch of our fresh strawberry ice cream this morning. It’s rich and creamy, made with strawberries grown right here in North Conway.”
“I really don’t think—”
“Did I mention all of our sundaes are fifty percent off today?” She crossed her fingers behind her back.
He said, “I appreciate you letting me know. But it just so happens that I’ve got my heart set on a vanilla milkshake.” Inclining his head in her direction, he said, “In my experience, the more desirable choice is worth paying the price for.”
Ignoring the goose bumps that had formed along her arms, Abigail took a gigantic step back. She could do this. Just because she’d never successfully made a milkshake correctly on the first shot before didn’t mean she couldn’t do it now.
She took three scoops of vanilla ice cream from the dome beneath the counter. Then, she added extract. Sugar came next and finally, milk, which she was very relieved not to spill on the counter. With all of the ingredients packed safely inside the metal cup, she walked over to the milkshake mixer.
Ignoring the feel of her customer’s sinful blue eyes against her back, she proceeded to begin her task. She slipped the cup into place beneath the metal stirring wand. Breath held, she flicked the switch.
Turning the cup in slow circles, Abigail mixed the ingredients. After about thirty seconds, her confidence began to grow. Ice cream and syrup had become a smooth, drinkable liquid she was almost proud of. Beaming, she reached across the counter for the whipped cream, which she’d add to the top when she was finished.
Turning her attention back to the machine, Abigail gave the metal cup a final spin then pushed the switch downward. But instead of turning off, the wand spun harder, causing the chunky white liquid to spill over the sides of the cup. She placed her finger firmly over the switch, but it wouldn’t move. She forced it down as hard as she could, but the metal nozzle popped upward and the stirring wand spun at lightning speed. The contents of the cup flew up and out, landing on the floor and all over the ceiling.
Abigail gasped, turning to where her handsome customer stood. His shirt was covered in thick chunks of ice cream.
“Oh my God!”She grabbed a towel from the counter. Racing from behind it, she went to where he was standing and began rubbing his shirt vigorously.
Seeing that there was an enormous white streak near the bottom of his shirt, Abigail went to work on it. She quickly realized that she was only setting in the stain. She slowed her strokes, inadvertently lifting the man’s shirt as she did so. A wad of cash was sticking out of his pocket, but she barely noticed it, mesmerized by the look of his hard abdomen and silky dark chest hair. She breathed in and out. Warmth flooded her insides.
Clearing her throat, she took a step back and said, “I’m sorry. You’ll probably want to be doing that yourself.”
A smile spread across the man’s face. “Not really. I actually thought you were doing an excellent job.”
Abigail’s face flushed with heat. Shifting her eyes, she noticed something lying on the floor. She must have knocked it out of his pocket while she was cleaning his shirt. As she bent and picked it up, she saw that it was a business card. Turning it over, her heart came into her mouth.
“This towel’s pretty dirty. I’m gonna go in the back and grab a clean one I’ll be right back.” Abigail placed the business card on the counter. In three hastened steps, she got behind the counter and walked through the kitchen door. Eyes circling the storage room, she took a couple of deep breaths.
Had she seen that right? Why would this guy be carrying around a business card for Christopher Barrows?
Barrows had been the only witness to her father’s murder. According to the cops, he had just come out of one of the bars near her father’s restaurant when her father was shot. Her family hadn’t been allowed to talk to the man, but he’d given the police several details about the shooting, like the time it had taken place, and other bits and pieces they wouldn’t have otherwise known.
After just hearing that there’d been another murder in town, it was hard not to consider the timing of seeing Barrows’s business card. And the cash her customer had in his pocket—what was that about? Vacationers typically carried cash. But this man looked as though he was carrying several thousand dollars.
She had to question him. But, what would she ask? Moreover, was she prepared for what she would find? If it was all a crazy hunch, she’d blow her chances of getting a reference from this place for sure. But on the odd chance that the card belonged to the same Christopher Barrows, she might finally learn why her father was killed.
Taking a towel from the shelf, Abigail reasoned that the man who’d stopped in today didn’t seem like the vengeful type. In fact, he was being sweet. Sweeter than any guy she’d met in a long time. Perhaps she could trust him not to tattle on her, and to tell her the truth about what she’d seen in his pocket. At least, maybe if she broached the subject very carefully she could.
Abigail glanced in the mirror frame beside the door. She ran her shaky fingers through her hair and picked up a couple of clean rags. Lifting her chin, she took a deep breath and stepped through the door.
Looking around the room, she blinked twice. The ice cream parlor was empty, the business card no longer on the counter.
Her handsome customer was gone.