Secrets surround Spirit Lake ... their forbidden love is one of them.
Danger collides with the peaceful beauty in Laurel Hastings' woodland hideaway when the man who jilted her fifteen years ago suddenly reappears--on the run from a killer.
Cole Wescott--bullet lodged in his leg--stumbles off the train near her cabin on Spirit Lake in northern Wisconsin. He claims the evidence against the killer is stashed in her backyard--across the lake at the abandoned Victorian mansion his family once used as a summer home. The same ramshackle danger zone she wants the county to raze. Now, Cole's living in it!
A wildlife rescuer, Laurel would rather fix the paw of a snarling wolf than risk helping this man who always lived on the edge of life. As a teenager she fell in love with him while racing cars on the old logging roads, and skinny-dipping in the ponds in the flowering meadows. But then he left. Without a word. His broken promise of love brought heartache and tragedy. She has no intention of scratching old wounds.
Her life is now one of healing ... but Cole needs justice. His brother Mike is dead, killed in an explosion made to look like a boating accident off the Florida Keys. The prime suspect? Their boss in an ocean salvage business. What had Mike uncovered about him that was so heinous? Can Laurel risk helping Cole set a trap for the killer? And risk revealing her own secrets? Can she risk a rekindled love, knowing he might die and this leave her yet again? What is the secret that made him turn from her fifteen years ago and never look back?
A Hard Shell Word Factory Release
Author Christine DeSmet is a novelist, screenwriter, short story writer and writing teacher at UW-Madison. Her romantic suspense, Spirit Lake, is an award-winning, best-selling novel for publisher Hard Shell Word Factory. Three of her novellas appear in recent anthologies published by Whiskey Creek Press, including the award-winning anthology, Tales from the Treasure Trove, Volume I, which earned first-place awards from Romantic Times Magazine and the Electronic Publishing Internet Connection (EPIC) in Spring 2006. A new novella, "Mayhem in Memphis," will appear in Hard Shell Word Factory's new mystery anthology featuring Egyptian antiquities.
Christine is also a past winner of the Slamdance Film Festival and optioned that screenplay to New Line Cinema. With writing partner Peggy Williams, Christine recently adapted to film a Madison author's book of short stories. She's a fellowship graduate of the Warner Bros. Sitcom Writers Workshop. She's a member of Wisconsin Screenwriters Forum; Romance Writers of America and the Wisconsin Chapter of RWA; EPIC; Writers Guild of America, East; and the online writing and publishing group known as Jewels of the Quill. She has a master's degree in journalism from UW-Madison and grew up on a farm near Barneveld, Wis.
"SPIRIT LAKE crackles with sexual sparks and an interesting romantic suspense adventure. ... Readers will enjoy the adventures and rediscovery of young love between Cole and Laurel."Diana Rowe Martinez -- firstname.lastname@example.org
"SPIRIT LAKE abounds with suspense and mystery. Christine DeSmet weaves a taut tale of murder and love."Affaire de Coeur Magazine
Spirit Lake is a compelling take that grabs you from the first page and never lets you down. Christine DeSmet is a strong writer with terrific pacing and a unique stylePamela Dalton -- Author, "Who's Been Sleeping in Her Bed"
Spirit Lake is an impressive, suspenseful mystery combined with a strong romance.Romantic Times Magazine
BOARDING A TRAIN was going to be difficult for Cole Wescott. Especially since he didn't have a ticket. Then there were the guys shooting at him.
Cole hauled fast through the railyard's main gate, his boots sliding on the cinders and gravel. The June fog rolled its gray plumes around the boxcars and Cole like hot breath from a relentless hunting dog. With a backpack slapping up and down against his shoulder blades, Cole raced on, slipping deeper into the murky maze of steel tracks and trains crisscrossing Miami's downtown past Biscayne Boulevard just after midnight.
A dry desperation overwhelmed him. Find an open car. Hop on. Get out of here without detection.
Little over a week ago he was diving off the sunny Keys, pulling up encrusted treasure from a sunken World War II ship, and looking forward to a weekend speedboat race.
Normal, relaxing danger. Now, he looked forward to an illegal trainride cross−country to ditch hitmen in order to dig up the truth behind his brother's death. A simple midnight run.
Cole sweated just thinking about his brother's final missive. Mike's letter from the bank's safety box said he'd hidden crucial information in the one place nobody would think of and Cole never wanted to see again−−a whistlestop called Dresden, Wisconsin. Or was it her he never wanted to see again? Love can be messy sometimes, like a Pandora's box better left behind with the lid slammed shut.
Stumbling on the cinders, Cole quickly scrambled up, shoving the backpack in place. The mementos inside included the papers and a map Mike had left him in the bank. Cole was loathe to return to Dresden, a patch of northwoods filled with bears...and her.
She'd be a woman now, past innocence. Probably married to the richest man in town, with the big house and kids, volunteering in the church and school. Not involved with trouble anymore.
A muffled click echoed through the fog. A gun being cocked? Or was it only tons of metal adjusting its own weight on the tracks?
If the hitmen didn't splice him, the trains might. Perspiration trickled down the back of his neck.
Footsteps crunched nearby, planted step by step in the cinders.
Cole felt his way along the boxcar, fingers feverishly scrabbling along dew−studded steel. He found the front corner of the car, straddled the coupling, then leaped across two sets of rails.
Sweat bathed him now, dripping off an eyebrow. His thoughts mutated strangely, back to glimpses of a sun−drenched meadow−−anything but this railyard−−and him and her, laughing, wearing nothing but the sunshine's sheen, glorying in that limbo between adolescence and adulthood.
How would she look and sound after fifteen years?
He'd changed a lot. People never picked him out of his old yearbooks. He liked it that way, scars and all. Helped him keep that Pandora's box shut.
Groping alongside a boxcar, he discovered the lettering CSXT, sighed with relief, then prayed for an open door. Cole knew from his research that this line headed through Tallahassee, Pensacola, then Mobile to New Orleans. From there he'd pick up the Southern Pacific to Phoenix. He'd head for Sacramento, maybe stay a day or two there to catch a newspaper's sports page and see if anyone missed him, then double back on the northern route, loop through Chicago and up to Oshkosh riding on the Wisconsin Central.
Nobody wanting to kill him could follow that route, could they? Mike−−the level−headed brother and detail man of the two Wescotts−−had warned Cole constantly about hopping trains for fun. Now, instead of an adventure, this would be the ride of Cole's life.
Picking up his pace, he inspected tons of murky brown and red steel beside him on the tracks but failed to find an open cavity big enough to hide a man. The rail companies had learned to foil hobos and vandals by redesigning and enclosing train cars. He'd be lucky to find an open auto carrier where he could break in and snuggle down for a ride in a backseat.
He stopped, holding his labored breath again to listen to the night. The metallic clanks of a rail car rumbled some distance away. Sweating, he fingered Mike's hunting knife sheathed in his pocket.
Voices drifted to him through the fog.
Running again, he slipped on a wet rail but refused to fall. He clutched his chest pocket, crinkling the photo of the mysterious man who might help him avenge Mike's death. The photo had been in the lock box, right on top but with no note, as if Mike had hastily deposited it there. As if he'd been watched.
Quaking from a thousand thoughts, Cole almost slammed into a huge boxcar oozing past from out of the white soup.
"Jesus," he whispered, feet pedaling backward, his stomach churning. He swiped at the sweat collecting on his chin stubble.
Several cars slid by. Cole adjusted the backpack to one shoulder.
Voices came from the other side of the slow−moving train. It would pull away like a curtain, revealing what? A gun in his face?
Cole spun in the opposite direction and sprinted until another line of boxcars halted him.
They moved laboriously. Rumbling. No open doors. No holes. Nothing to grab onto. Nothing to leap into.
Click. Ping! The cinders exploded at his feet.
He catapulted across the track, then tossed his body and backpack under a resting grain car, forcing himself to roll under and out.
Another shot split the railyard rhythms of rocking, creaking steel. He dashed into a narrow cinder alley between two trains.
A whistle blew. Then air whooshed from brakes up ahead, and the cars next to him jerked with a deafening bang and began grinding forward.
Running hard, in time with the cranking train axles, he barely felt the bullet.
It grazed him from the left side and hit his chest pocket and right upper arm. Warmth seeped onto his skin under his shirt. He kept running.
Then a second "pop" ripped his eardrums.
A sting erupted in the calf of his right leg.
He flung himself at the side of the next car, digging his fingers into a slit in the steel to hold on, knowing he could no longer run. The moving train would have to save him.
The stench of cattle manure curled into his nostrils. The boxcar flinched, threatening to shake him off. He grabbed for any bolt, board or strap, calling on every muscle in his shoulders and forearms to drag him upward one slat at a time, despite the smarting pain making his leg feel like a cement block.
He heard a shout, and then, "Get him!"
With adrenaline engorging his arms, Cole surged up to the top edge of the moving car and then an arm dipped into hollow air. An open hatch!
To get his bearings, he clung for a moment on the top slat, squinting over the edge to see beneath him. Seeing....
Bulls. Used−up bulls, huge beasts on their way from Florida ranches to who knows where and what, their graying muzzles adding steam to the fog, their pointed horns decidedly uninviting.
Another gunblast chinked the steel near his butt.
Cole swung up and over, diving through the hatch and into the fray of hide and horns...and yet one more Cole Wescott adventure.
LAUREL HASTINGS gloried in the peacefulness of her surroundings. She'd lived all her life in the woodland of northern Wisconsin and it never ceased to please her sensibilities.
She stood in the screened breezeway behind her cabin proper, drawing in a lungful of crisp night air, and listening, holding tight to a wiggling bundle in her arms.
Years ago, the piney smells of night, the maple leaves rattling on a breeze and the low call of nighthawks had been her healing salve. Now, she simply counted them as part of her home decor. Some people's houses sported designer wallpaper and sound systems. Her ambiance came from merely opening windows or walking outdoors.
Laurel watched a June bug walk down the outside of her breezeway screen. A breeze off Spirit Lake caught tendrils of her waist−length hair, tickling her sweater sleeves and fluttering about the little one she cradled, reminding her that June was hurrying on and wild animals needed time to run, time to mate and time to raise a family before autumn's howl set in.
It was late, maybe midnight, maybe more morning. She never kept track of time in conscious ways anymore. She rarely turned on a light in the dark. To check the sun's position against a watch, or to scar the night with high wattages seemed rude to the natural course she'd allowed her life to take. The darkness meted out protectiveness, and a world that followed a slow, meandering pace she enjoyed immensely. Her animals needed that peace, too.
As a wildlife animal rehabilitator, she was often rousted from bed at odd hours. Time and lamplight didn't matter when her heart quickly hurried her into the outdoors to tend to animals in need. Wounded animals needed darkness and quiet in order to heal.
Tonight, Sheriff John Petski had called and asked her to check out a possible trapped and hurt animal, reported to him by tourists on a late−night nature walk who heard horrible screechings at the old mansion across the bay. Laurel thought of herself as brave and strong, but the idea of going near that abandoned three−story Victorian always brought a shiver over her.
She glanced at the eyesore across the bay. Moonlight glinted in her eyes, but it reflected off the round, porthole window in the third story of the clapboard and shuttered hulk.
She would never have moved out here, right across from it, except that her father had built this cabin years ago and it remained perfect for her needs in sheltering wild animals away from people noises. The breezeway connected her cabin to the animal shed, a busy place full of life in comparison to what stood across the bay.
The boarded up mansion had been abandoned for years. Most of the windows were broken, save the round one at the top. Moonlight played off the round window like the eerie, watchful beam of a lighthouse. Behind the old glass, though, her imagination always saw eyes looking at her from the past, reminding her that under the cloak of contentment, Laurel Hastings was as much an empty shell as the old house.
Tonight she put on a defiant, wicked grin and thrust her chin at the old place. She'd finally convinced the town board and sheriff to have it officially condemned and then razed. Still, a bone−chilling loneliness, a sense of loss, washed across her when she imagined the old place wiped away. She had been inside that sprawling house years ago, when it thrived with cookie smells and rhyming ditties, sounds of dishes clattering in the big kitchen, and laughter. His laughter. She forced her gaze away.
She peered down at the ball of red fur in her arms and hugged it.
"You're coming along just fine, Rusty. Soon I'll let you go live where you belong." The young fox seemed to sense it and burrowed his nose into her heavy sweater.
Laurel laughed. "None of that, Rusty. I admit you may have gotten a little soft living here these past weeks, but you'll do fine. Just don't go getting caught in a trap again. Lucky for you, old Slater Johnsrud found you when he was out looking for that loose cow of his."
For close to eight years Laurel had operated the wildlife rehab center from this base in the northern Wisconsin forest. The profession proved to be a savior. After losing too many loved ones in a short span of years, she needed a bright spot of hope, a respite from relationships with men.
Laurel's heart still recalled the sense of betrayal, but she wasn't one to dwell on the negatives. She even smiled now, her cheekbone sensing the rapid heartbeat of the baby animal in her arms. It needed her. She was continually awed by the definition of love. At times love demanded so little, like simply a cuddle. And now, even scientists confirmed that the sense of touch, of being close physically held magic to prolong lives and cure illnesses.
Weekends were her busiest time for administering her special sense of touch. Those special days bustled in a tourist area like northern Wisconsin. Road traffic increased, and she'd invariably receive from some good Samaritan a dog or raccoon that had been hit. Her Saturdays and Sundays often found her setting broken bones while other people lazed about in fishing boats or went water skiing, hiking or tracking the area's burgeoning but small wolf and elk populations.
After settling Rusty back in his cage, she went back to the cabin to trade her bulky sweater for a more serviceable sweatshirt that wouldn't snag−−no telling what she'd find out there tonight−−and lined windbreaker. She'd need the windbreaker to ward off the chill of the fog they invariably got each night and morning, a fog seeping in already, filling in the edges of the shadows.
She headed down the incline to the dock. Nighthawks crisscrossed overhead as always, their quiet screeching calls singing in a rhythm like a mother's lullaby.
Laurel climbed in the boat, her boots clunking against the aluminum, its sound echoing back across the bay. She lived on the densely−wooded north finger of Spirit Lake, the area's longest and deepest lake. Her cabin sat five miles up from the summer tourist haven of Dresden. The lake spread seven miles farther south of Dresden and abutted the national forestland along most of its southern shoreline.
Laurel untied the second rope, tossed it in the small craft, then settled next to the small trolling motor, her eyes scanning the open lake.
She eagerly awaited springtime with its wakeup call to life. Everyone she loved had died during snow cover. She tolerated the long winter, which lasted here through April, but she was always eager for Mother Nature to flick her apron at the last gasp of cold air. Like an obedient child, winter stepped aside overnight to let the verdant flush of summer dance into the room with fern fronds unfurling and unruly bear cubs tumbling out behind new fawns. She got almost giddy with nature's transformation. Close to happy. Certainly contented.
She was about to crank the motor when she paused to smile at a train whistle echoing through the woodland. The Wisconsin Central skirted about a mile south of here and always signaled its approach to the trestle spanning the Deer Creek gorge. The whistle blasted again, long and mournful, yet soothing. Trains flowed on, as did the current in the lake, as had Laurel in the past fifteen years. Nothing could shake her peaceful existence anymore.
She yanked the motor's rope. After a cough and a sputter, the engine slow−danced Laurel across the moonlit bay, its waters glassy quiet. Even the fish slept. She kept watch over this environment for Jim Swenson, the local agent of the Department of Natural Resources. Jim often brought her the animals that needed tending, but she and Jim also worked together on a variety of projects. She was proud of spearheading the construction of the new drainage ponds next to the farmland upstream in order to improve the quality of the lake water. As a thank you, the state had recently honored her with a plaque from the governor and a grant of money to re−establish native aspen and birch groves along Spirit
Lake by fall, a project Jim would oversee. One of those groves would replace the hateful old mansion, the only scar remaining from what happened fifteen years ago.
She eased the boat into the shoreline just below the mansion. A few old posts from a dock still swayed in the water, defying rot and nature. She planned to remove them after the fire department burned down the clapboard mess.
Climbing out, she grabbed the boat's rope, then struggled up the steep, grassy embankment to loop the rope on a scraggly sumac bush.
As Laurel reached the top of the embankment, two orphan raccoons she'd raised last summer tumbled through the tall, weedy grass of what was once a finely−groomed yard to greet her.
"Roxy. Roger. You heard my old motor, didn't you? It's good to see you."
She didn't touch them, knowing they were mostly wild creatures now and could nip at her. If they were completely wild, she would harbor fear of them coming at her, not only because of rabies. Raccoons were actually fierce animals. They'd been known to turn on even the biggest dog attempting to tree them and kill the dog. Now though, the half−tame, half−wild Roxy and Roger stood on their hind legs, stretching their front paws up expectantly.
"No more treats from me. You have to work for a meal now. Scoot. Go find some yummy snails or minnows to dine on."
Seeing she meant to disappoint them, they plunked themselves on all fours and tumbled off through a deer trail in the waist−high scrub and grass. Since the path led toward the mansion, Laurel followed.
Finally standing at the bottom of the front steps, she crossed her arms, rubbing her hands up and down her arms, shuddering at the round window three stories above. From this angle, it was but a slice, dark and bleak. Abandoned. She understood such a thing. Another chill riddled her, but intent on seeking out the reported injured animal, she stepped up to the front door under the verandah.
The floorboards swayed and squeaked, but she heard no other noises from within. She found the carved wood door still solid, and the sheriff's condemnation sign hung on it from a small nail.
Just as she was about to shoulder open the door, Roxy and Roger scurried back around her feet, fussing in agitation.
"What's the matter−−"
A man's faint cursing drew her gaze to the overgrown gravel lane. She ducked down, her nerves prickling, on alert. She then peeked over the tops of the dried grass and brush pressing against the verandah's railing.
In the meager light, the man limped along, a tall silhouette above the brush, with broad shoulders outlined in the moonlight. The breeze caught shaggy shoulder−length hair. He continued cursing at the brush slowing his progress, flailing at it with a knife that glinted haphazardly with his movements.
Laurel crouched lower. She had to get out of here and call the sheriff.
The man moaned, his guttural curses scratching the quiet before he disappeared from Laurel's view.
She slipped inside the front door, figuring she'd go through the house, skirt around back and escape in her boat. Finding a deadbolt handle, she turned it to lock the door behind her, but its loud screech terrified her. Had he heard her?
Kneeling, she peered through the slit between the windowsill and the plywood boarding up the window.
Still yards away, the man limped into shorter grass and proceeded to pull up a pants leg and poke with the knife at rags wound around shin and calf. He cursed again.
When he stood straight again, moonlight etched deep lines on his face. He inspected the knife, a dagger really, probably with a college degree in sharpness.
Stumbling backward, Laurel stepped on a loose floorboard, flailed out to grab anything, but felt the next board give way and send her lickety−split downward through the floor.
COLE HALTED. Pain raged in his leg, but he swore he'd heard something odd beyond the blood pounding in his head. The damn nighthawks seemed to always cry out just as his head pain crescendoed.
The flesh of his calf wanted to explode. Hopping on and off trains for a week had aggravated the wound miserably. To top it off, getting off the Central a few minutes ago had proven almost fatal. He'd leaped too soon past the trestle over the gorge and rolled all the way down to the creek. The icy water soaked through the rags wrapped around his bad leg, chilling him to the bone and adding more pounds of weight for him to drag. He'd struggled for what seemed hours to get back up that bank. Now his shoulder, which had been healing nicely, also burned with the sensation of hot needles shooting back and forth. Yeah, Mike, I admit it, buddy, hopping trains is dangerous. No wonder it's not covered by HMOs.
Tired, he could barely focus his eyes. Was it the right place? He hadn't expected something quite this rundown. In the dark it appeared gray, devoid of life and personality, as Cole felt right now. Didn't it used to be yellow with white trim and green shutters? A couple of shutters clung to some second−story windows, waiting to fall like leaves in the next big wind. And where was that corner post on the verandah? The one... he and a red−haired soulmate would run at, catch and twirl around before flinging themselves out into the lawn?
His heart pounded a ragged beat.
This was the place. Why Mike? Why make me come back here?
He looked up, raking a hand through his long hair, detecting a burr or two he'd have to contend with later. But they didn't cause the flinch at the corner of his mouth, or the tug in his chest.
The third−story window was intact. He smiled.
When they were tikes, he and Mike called that room their pirate ship. A flash of blue light hit the window, then thunder rolled from off in the distance, and for an instant, he remembered a pair of fiery emerald eyes and a sea of red hair. They hadn't meant to roll her daddy's new Olds in the ditch, but she'd been laughing at the breeze coming in through the windows. Like him, she loved to go fast. With everything.
He broke out in a cold sweat.
Then an icy raindrop knifed the back of his neck, resurrecting the ache in his leg that proceeded to ripple across his weary hide. He groaned. Just what he needed−−the dampness from cold rain and wind to keep him miserable down to his bone marrow. At least he'd have a roof over his head tonight. He'd suffered with less amenities in the past week, starting with perching his butt on the hip of a dancing bull and balancing there for a night that stretched forever.
Retrieving his backpack from the grass, he tossed it at the front door, then tried to step up the front steps. To his frustration, the pain in his leg buggered him so much the right leg went limp, giving way under his weight. Without a railing he was reduced to crawling and dragging himself up the steps and across the splintery boards on his knees.
Once at the door, he grabbed the doorknob and used it to help himself stand again. His throbbing leg wobbled, threatening to topple him. He had to do something about the leg, and soon, but he couldn't afford the time until he retrieved whatever was inside this house.
He leaned his face close to the sign. Then scoffed. So the place was condemned.
Surprising, and perfect.
Cole had assumed the family sold the property long ago. Hadn't his great−aunt Flora
Tilden gone to the quiet retirement home shortly after the trouble involving Cole? Out of embarrassment?
The surprise of it aside, the condemnation was also perfect because nobody would be bothering him while he searched for Mike's evidence that would confirm his killer. Cole'd be in and out of here within hours, undetected and alive. He wanted the betrayer and murderer to become fishbait for what he'd done, for ripping out the hearts of Mike's lovely wife and kid left in the wake. And he'd gotten away with it. Cole Wescott intended to change that.
The breeze switched, colder, gustier. His leg's calf muscle seized up, and to touch it felt like he was hammering spikes into the bone. He slammed a fist against the door, leaning his weary body into it, stretching the leg. Finally, the pain subsided enough to turn the front door's knob.
But the wood wouldn't budge. His shoulders sagged. Not a single thing about this trip had gone right. Why start now, he groaned inwardly. Then he noticed the plywood on the nearby window looked loose. With his good arm, he ripped it off its rusted nails, but the effort of crawling over the sill just about made him want to cut his right leg off.
A rolling thunderclap hurried the moonlight behind a curtain. With it pitch black, he edged toward the front door to get his bearings, but a board creaked underfoot.
And a voice cracked, "Watch out−−" He spun around.
"−−for the hole!"
Too late. His trip across country just got worse.