Sunday, February 5, 2012

A Stranger's Kiss by Roxy Burroughs Bandit Creek Books

This week's Bandit Creek Spotlight Book is:
A Stranger’s Kiss

By Roxy Boroughs


SAM HUTCHINSON was once motivated by power and money. But after his son's murder, he alternates between losing himself in a bottle of scotch and researching James Ryan Morley, the still-at-large killer of the boy Sam never had time for in life. Broken and desperate, Sam traces Morley’s roots to Bandit Creek, Montana and an addict who once sheltered him.

There, against a serene mountain backdrop, he finds the woman’s resourceful daughter, AMY TESHER, and her eleven-year-old child, Renee. Lies are Amy’s camouflage—her age, her name, even the identity of her child’s father—all fabricated to escape the secrets of her past.

Unaware of Sam’s real mission, she takes him into her boarding house. Just as Morley returns to take possession of Amy...and her daughter.

Chapter One
Renee’s new playmate was strange.
The first time she saw him, her heart skipped. A kid her age in the neighborhood? She couldn’t remember the last time she’d had a friend.
She would have preferred a girl. Like, duh. They could’ve drawn butterflies on their jeans, or messed around with nail polish and painted flowers on their big toes.
But a boy was better than nothing. And this one made her laugh.
She’d met him in the old gardening shed, which looked like a mini version of the house. In the olden days, before people had cars, it stored a horse and buggy. Renee fancied she could still smell hay. She’d climb on the rusted-out riding lawn mower and imagine it was her carriage, picturing herself in a long dress going for a ride, cracking her whip. She always made sure to lock the door of the shed behind her, so she wouldn’t get caught. Because her mother had a thing about the place.
But a locked door didn’t stop Tommy, and that was weird. One day, while she was feeding her imaginary horse, he just appeared. Told her his name when she asked. It was only later she realized his lips never moved, that she’d somehow heard his thoughts without ever having heard his voice.
That was the second strange thing.
The third came right after Renee’s mother called her in to help with the painting. Tommy pointed at his chest, then in the direction of the house. He smiled, showing off the coolest set of braces, and invited himself to join her. Then he headed to the door. But he didn’t bother to unlock it. Just walked right through it.
That’s when Renee realized her new playmate was a ghost.
* * * * *
Amy Tesher applied the first brushstroke and shrieked.
Yes, she’d purchased cheap paint but hadn’t expected it to be quite so ugly — a yellowy-brown that reminded her of splotches left on the bathroom floor after one of her mother’s binges.
Maybe it would look better when it dried.
From the top of her ladder, she scrutinized the large, front room of her late grandmother’s bed and breakfast with the eye of a realist. The idea of sprucing it up on a shoestring budget for a quick sale didn’t seem as easy as she’d thought five days ago, when she’d inherited the home in Bandit Creek.
Nowhere, Montana, as her grandmother used to joke. The closest neighbor was an abandoned trailer.
But the natural beauty of the land more than made up for that eyesore. Cradled in the Bitterroot Mountains, Bandit Creek boasted peaks that kissed the sky. And, after a few days of renos, Amy felt as if she carried the weight of those mountains on her back. Her shoulders ached too, and she’d never shied away from hard labor. Still, she loved the place, her childhood sanctuary. Even though it looked neglected and sad. Just as she’d once been.
But that was in the past, now. And all because of Renee.
She watched her daughter from across the room, heart kicking against her breast, battling for more space. The child, who’d entered the world unwanted, had turned into a savior.
The eleven-year-old sat cross-legged on the floor, giggling to herself, while meticulously applying a strip of green painter’s tape to the trim. Then she sang along with the music wailing from their portable disc player. BeyoncĂ© telling her man to put a ring on it.
Advice like that could have saved Amy years of heartache.
She sighed, releasing the bad thoughts as she exhaled, and climbed down from her perch to inspect the paint on the wall. She lowered the volume on the player.
“What do you think, hon?”
Her daughter turned, auburn pigtails doing a half-pirouette around her head, grey eyes huge. Amy had a couple of photos of herself as a girl. If she shuffled them in with the stack of pictures she had of Renee, a trained observer wouldn’t be able to tell them apart. Only the dated clothes would give Amy away.
Nowadays, there were more clues. Amy was taller, her hair shorter. And, of course, she looked older. Though not by much. When pressed, she credited her youthful appearance to good breeding.
One of her many white lies.
Renee tapped her pointed chin with her index finger as she studied the color, looking more like a pixie than a tweenie. “It’s different,” she announced with a grin.
Amy laughed. “Very diplomatic. You’ll make a fine politician one day.” She checked her watch, clicking her tongue. “If I hurry, I can get to the hardware store before they close. I’ll buy a lighter color to mix in with this. A couple of cans of cream or white. If nothing else, it’ll stretch the paint we already have. Don’t open the–”
“–door while you’re gone,” her daughter finished. “I know, I know.”
Poor kid. Maybe she was overprotective — escorting Renee almost everywhere and schooling her at home — but Amy knew firsthand the dangers that awaited a little girl out in the world.
As she opened the front door, a chill wrapped around her, as if a blast of arctic wind had swooped in over the mountains. There, right outside her house, stood a man, arms folded across his chest as he leaned against a parked car.
Watching her.
Amy took a breath, willing her heart to pound a steady beat. Finding anyone on her doorstep, would have been a shock. She was a stranger here, hadn’t been back to the secluded house in years. She had no friends in these parts, and now, no relatives. But this man was as out of place as any could be. Starting with the vehicle on which he was perched.
If the car was his, it was much too expensive for the neighborhood, and too posh for a mountain trek. Amy wasn’t an expert on makes and models but the jaguar on the hood of the black sedan told her all she needed to know. And the flashy ride didn’t match the man’s attire. A nice enough charcoal suit, but the rumpled fabric shied away from his gaunt frame, as if he’d slept in a larger man’s clothes.
A tangle of brown hair shadowed his eyes, dark stubble inked his jaw. He didn’t look familiar, but over the years she’d learned to be cautious. Her mother had cultivated dangerous friends.
Amy locked the door behind her, keys in her fist, the longest one poking out between her index and middle fingers. Just how her aunt in Detroit had taught her.
Ready for anything.
She marched down the front walk, her runners chomping at the fallen leaves in her path. As she approached, the man straightened and used his fingers to comb the hair from his eyes.
“Something I can do for you, sir?”
Now that she was closer, Amy took a good look at her visitor, opening the mental filing cabinet of her memories and pouring over the images she kept of her mother’s associates.
Jag Man was six feet or so, and on the older side of thirty. Other than his cheekbones, made prominent by the thinness of his face, his most noticeable feature was a pair of hazel eyes — more green than brown — and highlighted by a pencil-thin scar that sliced through his right brow. That and the five-o’clock shadow gave him an outdoorsy ruggedness. In spite of the unkempt packaging, he was a good-looking man. One she knew she hadn’t met before.
But good looks didn’t mean a good soul. Amy kept her keys ready in her fist.
“I need a place to stay.” The voice came out in a low baritone — clear, melodic, and with complete confidence. The tone of a man used to getting his way.
Amy wondered who’d pointed him in her direction. No one local. Her grandmother had retired from the bed and breakfast business a few years before she died. Amy may not have visited, but she’d exchanged emails almost daily with her Nan to keep up with life at the old house — her grandmother’s socializing, gardening, even what she had for lunch. If only Nan had mentioned she was ailing, Amy would have been on the next plane. But her grandmother was feisty and independent to the end. She died obliged to no one, in her own bed, and surrounded by her collection of photographs and antiques, just the way she wanted it.
“Mrs. Turnbull runs a nice Bed and Breakfast further down the road–”
“Isn’t this a B&B?” Now he was smiling, pouring on the charm like a salesman. Maybe he was one. At a car lot. That would explain the Jag.
“It used to be.” Amy turned to view the wooden sign on the lawn, proclaiming as much, though the lettering had seen better days. Something else to fix. “We’re closed for renovations.”
The man drew a wallet from his back pocket. “I can pay cash,” he told her, opening it. “Three hundred a night.”
Amy shook her head, wondering what her grandmother would say about turning down good money. She knew what Nan had charged for a room, even one with a private bath, and it sure as hell wasn’t that much.
The man thumbed through the bills. “Four hundred.”
Did he expect caviar on his morning bagel? Strike the salesman angle. This guy definitely wasn’t one. No haggling.
“Look, I’ll give you three grand, up front, for the week. Whether I stay for the duration or not.”
A giddy squeak welled up in Amy’s throat. That was more money than she’d ever seen at one time. Cash like that could really help fix up the old house, pay off some bills she still owed in Detroit, and buy new books and clothes for Renee. Heck, even a few things for herself. With some left over for a rainy day. But she wasn’t about to shelter a man she didn’t know.
He reached into his breast pocket and pulled out a gold case. “Here’s my business card. Call my office. Check me out.”
She’d already checked him out. Though on the thin side, she sensed a nice build. Maybe he’d been ill. Maybe his tailor had gone on vacation. Maybe she needed to focus on her problems and stop imagining what he looked like without that bulky suit.
“Go ahead. Take it.”
Amy snapped back to attention, warmth creeping into her cheeks. The man was still offering his card.
She reached for it, her hand so close to his she could feel the heat radiating from him, the pent-up energy.
Something wasn’t right with this guy. She’d lived by her wits long enough to trust her instincts and they were chattering to her now like a flock of magpies in the presence of a hungry hawk.
She took the card, anyway. Not that it meant much. She could print up a bunch of her own, declaring herself to be Michelle Obama, if she chose. And his office? The number could belong to his great aunt Sophie, coached to say whatever he wanted. Still, it was easier to agree. The sooner he was on his way, the sooner she could get back to work. She glanced at her watch. The hardware store, and the call, would have to wait until tomorrow.
“I’ll phone in the morning. Have a good evening.” She turned towards the house and made her way up the walk, examining the card.
Sam Hutchinson. Barrister.
She read the address. So Jag Man was a Calgary lawyer. At least now she knew how he got the car. But what was the guy doing here this time of year? It wasn’t exactly the height of tourist season. Many of the family-run businesses were shut down for the winter.
“Excuse me, Miss.”
She stopped and looked over her shoulder. “Yes, Mr. Hutchinson?”
The man’s smile was designed to thaw the coldest jury during a January ice storm. “I didn’t get your name.”
Because she hadn’t given it. But what would it hurt? It wasn’t her real one.
“Tesher. Amy Tesher.”
“Thanks, Ms. Tesher.” The car lights flashed as he made his way around to the driver’s side. “See you tomorrow.”
* * * * *
Sam knew he’d outstayed his welcome.
When the woman turned back to him, she’d stepped forward, looking like she might refuse another visit. So he’d jumped in the car and sped off.
No wasn’t an option for him.
He parked down another dirt road under a dead tree, hoping police didn’t patrol the area. His presence would be difficult to explain, impossible to justify.
He reached over to the passenger seat, snapped opened the locks on his briefcase, and shuffled through the newspaper clippings.
The first dated back fifteen years — articles from the old Cincinnati Post, the Atlanta Constitution, the Toronto Star, and Saskatoon’s StarPhoenix.
All involved children. All of them dead.
Boys, mostly, but a few girls sprinkled in here and there. Fresh faces looking out at him, sadness behind their eyes, as if they’d known their fate before it happened.
He came to the most recent clippings last — Calgary newspapers documenting the latest victim.
Sam caressed the boy’s picture, as if he could tousle the brown locks one more time. Of course, the black and white photo didn’t show the color of Tommy’s hair. It didn’t reveal the freckles on his nose, or the multi-colored braces he wore to straighten a crooked incisor.
It didn’t capture Tommy’s screams, either. Or show how he suffered before his death.
Sam rested his head against the high seatback and closed his eyes, waiting for the queasiness to pass. He tried to remember the last time he’d eaten. And couldn’t. Not that it mattered. He had more important things to do.
He pulled the lapels of his suit jacket around his neck and grabbed the scotch he’d purchased that afternoon. He ripped off the cap, keeping the bottle in its brown paper bag. No sense drawing more attention to himself.
The heady scent of scotch filled his car, oaky and rich. He took a swig, gritting his teeth as the amber liquid burned its way down his gullet. Sam hated the taste. But after a few more gulps, he wouldn’t notice. The scotch would have done its job.
He shivered. The nights were getting cooler. At least the alcohol would keep him warm. Until he could convince Amy Tesher to open her house to him.
The first step in his plan.

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