Juno Books

An Excerpt From House of Whispers

By Margaret Lucke

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Chapter 2


Claire slammed the door of her Volkswagen and dashed across the parking lot, juggling a purse, a briefcase, and a travel mug full of hot coffee. Her first Monday Meeting as an agent for Golden Gate Properties and she was late. Not the best way to make a favorable impression on her new colleagues. Not to mention the boss.

She pushed through big glass doors into the redwood-lined lobby of the office building and punched the elevator button. Fifteen seconds passed. Thirty. The door didn’t open. Claire turned and ran up the stairs to the third and top floor.

Should have set two alarms, she thought as she arrived at the entrance to the conference room. Should have allowed more time to negotiate the miserable morning traffic. Should have skipped making coffee. Should have . . .

“. . . had this listing,” said the cool voice of Tess McMillan, owner and head broker of Golden Gate Properties. “It’s Claire’s turn to get the next cold-call client. But since she’s not here, the listing goes to the next in line. That’s you, Avery.”

“I’m here,” Claire said as she rushed in the door. “I’m sorry I’m late.” She wished she weren’t out of breath and panting. The only vacant chair left was at the far end of the long oval table. So much for slipping inconspicuously into a seat.

Half a dozen pairs of eyes stared at her as she set her purse and briefcase on the floor, placed the mug on the table, and sat down at the empty place. Two men, four women. All were strangers except Tess, who had impressed upon Claire her expectation that good real estate agents did not spend their time hanging around the office; they were out showing properties. The Monday Meeting was the only time in the week that the whole staff got together.

Claire smiled at them, hoping to convey the message that she was calm and capable. Which she knew herself to be. Except for this morning, when it counted.

She glanced down and was dismayed to see that milky drops of coffee marred the glossy rosewood surface in front of her. Just to make her entrance perfect, the mug’s lid had come loose, letting hot liquid dribble out. Trying to look as if she were merely getting settled into her seat, Claire rubbed her arm over the table, blotting up the spill with her sleeve. Thank goodness she’d worn a dark jacket.

Tess, standing at the head of the table, made a show of frowning as she looked at her watch. She was attired in a stylish pink suit, but her bearing suggested she envisioned herself wearing a military uniform.

“So what’s your excuse?” said the youngest woman, a sleek blonde whose silky hair cascaded to her cleavage. “Alarm didn’t go off? Car wouldn’t start?”

The man sitting next to Claire gave her a sympathetic look. A good-looking guy, with warm brown eyes and thick black hair. Probably close to her own age, thirty-five. He offered her an out, saying, “I heard a car wreck had traffic dead-stopped on the freeway.”

“I’m sorry,” Claire repeated. “It won’t happen again.”

No way was she going to tell them about waking up hot and sweating in the middle of the night, images from the nightmare still tumbling through her mind. Or about lying awake for hours, staring into the darkness, afraid to close her eyes. Or about finally falling into a leaden slumber, so heavy and deep that when the alarm went off, she was hardly aware of reaching out and turning it off before the void of sleep reclaimed her.

The other man chuckled. “Bet you blew us off for something more fun, right, sweetheart?” He was heavyset and balding, and he gave Claire a wink. “A little M.Q.? Got a hot boyfriend?”

“M.Q.?” Claire said. Was this some real estate term she’d failed to learn?

The black-haired guy whispered an explanation: “Morning quickie. Ignore him.”

Claire returned the lout’s wink with the glare he deserved. Frankly, she would have much preferred to be tardy because of a sexual romp than another nightmare. But there was no boyfriend. Only Zach, and that was over. Any day now she would receive the papers that made their divorce final.

“Behave yourself, George,” Tess snapped, and Claire was pleased to see the balding man slump down like a cowed puppy. “That’s no way to greet our newest associate. Everybody, meet Claire Scanlan. Claire, this is everybody.”

Tess rattled off a string of names so quickly that Claire didn’t catch them, although she knew who most of these people were. She’d seen their pictures on open-house flyers and read their profiles on the company Web site. They greeted her with cheerful hellos and small waves of their hands. All but the blonde smiled, though the balding man’s smile came attached to a leer.

“Now back to business,” Tess said. She was a tall, slender woman with champagne-colored highlights in her artfully tousled hair. Claire guessed her to be in her early fifties, but her hairstylist, shopping consultant, and personal trainer kept her buffed and polished enough to look at least a decade younger. “Claire, as you arrived I was saying that I had a call from a prospective seller this morning. When listings come in from someone who doesn’t ask for a specific agent, I assign them in rotation, and it’s your turn. Here’s the information.”

Tess handed a sheet of paper to the middle-aged redhead next to her, who passed it to the blonde. There it stopped.

“Wow. Ocean view, architect designed, hot tub, private screening room. I so should get this one. Since she wasn’t here on time.”

“Claire is here now,” Tess said, “and it’s her turn. You’ll get the next listing, Avery.”

“No fair. You said you were giving it to me.” Avery arranged her face into a pretty pout. Claire could see the young woman’s gaze shift from one member of her audience to the next as she assessed everyone’s reaction.

Tess drew herself up even taller. “I’m always fair.”

The man with black hair slid the paper out of Avery’s grasp. He let out a low whistle as he read it. “Hey, Claire, you might be better off to let Avery keep this one. It’s the LeGrande house.”

That created a sensation. Everyone was suddenly on high alert. Several hands reached out to grab the paper, and there was a babble of voices:

“You mean Stefan LeGrande, the architect?”

“Talk about a place that’s jinxed.”

“No joke. Good luck selling that one.”

“No way I’d touch that listing.”

“Isn’t that where a whole family got murdered?”

“Give it back,” Avery demanded as she snatched the paper again.

Claire felt her breath catch. She had to force the air out of her lungs. “Did you say murdered?”

Tess tapped a pencil against the table, as if she were wielding a gavel. “Oh, quit acting like school kids, all of you. Avery, Claire, we’ll talk about this listing when the meeting’s over. Now, let’s move on. We had four open houses yesterday, and I want to hear how they went. Who’d like to start?”

Tess McMillan's office was designed to exude wealth, comfort and reassurance. Seeing her in this environment, sellers were eager to list their homes with Golden Gate, confident that Tess would get them top dollar. Buyers invested their dreams in her, believing that the homes they bought would let them prove, to themselves as well as to the rest of the world, they had achieved the pinnacle of success.

Claire understood the psychology behind the décor. The wealth part was obvious. Oriental rug, rosewood desk, works of art on walls and in niches—the room was full of beautiful objects and they all whispered money. The view of San Francisco Bay outside the window was perhaps the office’s most expensive feature: a waterfront address in exclusive Marin County didn’t come cheap.

It was the comfort part that was eluding Claire at the moment, as she and a scowling Avery Collier sat in twin leather chairs in front of the desk, facing their boss in her power seat on the other side.

“Claire was late,” Avery pointed out to Tess for what must have been the twelfth time. “You already told me I could have this listing before she even got here.”

The best tactic, Claire decided, was to be cooperative, keep the peace. Maybe that would make up for the faux pas of her late entrance. “Let Avery have it if she wants it. There will be other houses. I’m new, so maybe it’s better if I wait and—”

“You’re both new,” Tess said. “You started last Tuesday, Avery the Tuesday before that.”

“Oh,” Claire said. “I didn’t know that.” She offered Avery a smile.

Avery swept her long blond hair behind her shoulders. “That still makes me senior to her.”

“I lost two top agents a month ago. One moved back East and one had a baby.” Tess pursed her rouged lips, expressing obvious distaste for both of those lifestyle options. “I figured I had two choices. One, I could replace them with experienced agents. Trouble is, experienced agents sometimes are tired and bored. They don’t always have the kind of energy and enthusiasm we want here at Golden Gate Properties.”

She glanced through the interior window that gave her a view of the large office “bullpen” where the agents had their desks. It occurred to Claire that Tess might be thinking of one person in particular. Maybe more than one.

“Two,” Tess continued, “I could go with rookies. I decided there’d be an advantage to having novices who still find real estate fresh and exciting, who want a challenge, who are hungry and eager to make their mark. Your job is to prove me right.”

“No problem,” Avery said. “That’s exactly what I intend to do.”

Claire nodded. “Me too.” She felt like she was losing ground here, although she wasn’t sure what ground, or why.

“And I can do it with the LeGrande listing,” Avery added.

“Frankly,” Tess said to them, “I have serious doubts about accepting the listing at all.”

“You can’t turn it down. The place has to be worth three or four million.” Avery didn’t bother to filter the avarice out of her voice. “Think what the commission will be.”

Tess tapped her perfect oval nails on her desktop. “It’s a problem property. People may enjoy the thrills and chills of murder in books or on TV. But ask them to spend a few million bucks to make their home in a notorious crime scene, and watch how fast they back off.”

“What happened there?” Claire asked. “Who was murdered?”

“You’ve never heard of the LeGrande case?” Avery looked shocked and delighted at Claire’s ignorance. “A wacko drugged-out kid shot his family to death and then took his own life. About a year and a half ago. All the TV news shows covered it.”

Tess nodded. “That’s right. It got national coverage because the father was a famous architect.”

Claire fingered the amethyst beads of her necklace. “I was living back East then. If the story made the news there, I missed it.” Not that she’d been paying much attention to current events at the time. Zach’s midlife crisis had led him to enroll in law school in Boston, and she’d been working long hours as a legal secretary to put him through. What she didn’t discover until his graduation party was that her husband’s quest to reinvent himself had also led him to a classmate’s bed.

Well, Little Ms. Lawyer was welcome to the bastard. With luck, he’d make her life as miserable as he’d made Claire’s.

Still, there were moments she missed him. A lot. Until law school turned him into a stranger, she had thought they were perfect together. Their interests had matched, and so had their dreams. He’d been kind, funny, supportive—her best friend. And never, until Zach, had she experienced such rapturous, delicious sex. She couldn’t imagine having such intense pleasure with a man ever again.

Tears stung her eyes and she blinked hard to keep any from sliding down her cheeks. She didn’t dare let Tess or, worse, Avery, think she might be crying.

She forced herself to tune back into what Tess was saying:

“Another drawback—the property is stale. It’s been on the market for six months. Landry and Associates had the house on a three-month exclusive, and when it didn’t sell, the listing went to Whitecap Realty. They couldn’t move it either. I don’t relish getting my distinguished rivals’ leftovers.”

“Why not?” Claire sat up straighter. “Let’s grab the opportunity to show them how much better we are than either one of them.”

Tess looked surprised. Then she smiled. “That’s the right attitude.”

“We could talk to the seller at least,” Claire said. “And look at the house ourselves before we decide.”

“We?” said Avery, blinking artfully shadowed eyelids.

“Excellent idea,” Tess said. She scribbled something on a notepad, tore off the sheet and scribbled again on the one underneath. “It will be good experience for both of you. I was going to suggest tossing a coin for the listing. But having you both take a look is a better idea. The client can choose which of you he’d prefer to work with. Here’s the address.”

She handed one slip of paper to Claire and one to Avery. Like we’re kids, Claire thought, so we won’t squabble over who gets to hold the precious information.

“The seller’s name is Ben Grant,” Tess said. “His message said he’d be at the house until noon. I’ll call his cell phone and tell him you two are on your way.”

Chapter 3

The wind tugged stray tendrils of hair from Avery’s hastily tied braid as she aimed her brother Kurt’s Porsche 911 convertible around a switchback on Highway One. Thank God she had insisted that they take the Porsche to the LeGrande house. A sunny June day, vistas of green-and-gold hills with occasional glimpses of ocean, air scented with wild fennel and eucalyptus—the trip definitely called for a car like this. Sleek, black, and sporty. Totally awesome.

Claire had offered to drive, but when she led the way to a lime green lump of a Volkswagen in the parking lot, Avery balked. How could a top real estate agent impress clients in a car so uncool? As soon as she raked in a few fat commissions, Avery intended to buy a Porsche like Kurt’s for her own.

The car whipped around the next curve.

“Whoa, slow down,” Claire warned.

Avery risked taking her eyes from the twisting road long enough to glance at the woman in the passenger seat. Wisps of short dark hair flew around Claire’s face. She looked concerned but not scared. Avery did her new colleague a favor and eased back on the gas pedal.

“Better?” she asked.

Claire smiled. “Much.”

Avery figured Claire to be in her mid-thirties—perhaps not a full decade older than Avery’s own twenty-seven years, but close. She was wearing midnight blue slacks with a matching jacket, and a strand of amethyst crystals that was to die for. Much too chic to be a Volkswagen person. What had Avery heard the old-style VWs called? Pregnant roller skates, that was it. The new ones like Claire’s were slightly bigger, more like pregnant skateboards. No class at all. Nothing like the Porsche.

Avery was lucky, she knew, to have such a generous older brother. A few months ago, when she told Kurt she was sick of wasting her life in Texas, he totally understood. He’d fled from home himself. He encouraged her to come to California, fronted the tuition for her real estate classes, and was letting her stay in his apartment while she saved up to move into a place of her own. And she could borrow his car—well, he didn’t know she was using it, but he wouldn’t mind. The venture capital firm he worked for had sent him to Europe for several weeks, so it wasn’t like he needed the Porsche himself. She was doing him a favor by giving it exercise.

The car cut the next turn too wide and veered over the center line.

“Watch out!” Claire yelped.

Avery jerked the wheel hard and swerved back into her own lane, just missing an oncoming pickup. The truck blared its horn as it blew past.

She glanced at her passenger again. Claire’s hand was braced flat against the dash. Her foot was probably pressing an imaginary brake pedal right into the floorboards.

“Sorry,” Avery said.

They swept down a long slope, angling toward the ocean. Sunlight glinted on the surface of the water. At the bottom of the hill they cruised by the turnoff to a village called Mariners Beach.

“Our road is coming up soon,” Claire said as they started to climb again. “There, on the left. Highview Lane.”

Avery made the turn. A narrow road twisted up, then leveled off along the ridgetop. They passed half a dozen houses. Widely spaced for privacy. Big decks and huge windows to take advantage of the view. Their price tags no doubt were huge, too. This was about as far from a sagging bungalow in a dusty prairie town as anyone could get.

“It must be that one at the end,” Claire said, pointing. Avery couldn’t see a house, just a driveway that began where the road stopped. They curled up a short hill and around some protruding rocks, and then . . .

“Oh my God,” Avery murmured as the house came into sight.

It was all redwood and glass, twice the size of its neighbors, perched on the edge of a rocky cliff. Two wings with soaring rooflines made the house look like a bird in flight.

“This place is fabulous,” she said to Claire. “How could it not sell? There must be plenty of people with money who’d love a house like this.”

“A family was murdered here,” Claire reminded her. “That scares people off.”

“Trust me, if you avoid everyplace where bad things have happened, there’ll be nowhere left to live.” The ramshackle cottage she’d grown up in was a case in point. As far back as Avery could remember, nothing good had happened there.

To one side of the house, a garage with three doors faced a parking court. A silver Lexus was parked in front of the middle door. Avery pulled Kurt’s car in beside it. It looked right at home. Driving the Porsche had definitely been the correct choice.

As she and Claire got out of the car, a man rounded the corner of the house from the rear, walking along a path of redwood decking.

“Hi there,” he called. “I heard your car. You must be the agents from Golden Gate Properties. I’m Ben Grant.”

“Oh my God,” Avery whispered again as he drew nearer. This guy was gorgeous. Lean and tall—a couple of inches over six feet was her guess. Thick brown hair with just the tiniest touch of gray at the temples. Square jaw and chiseled features, all in perfect proportion. He was awesome compared to other men, just like the house was awesome compared to other houses. What did he do for living? This was the wrong part of California for movie stars.

She pulled off the rubber band and shook her golden hair loose from the braid, hoping the movement would make it gleam in the sun. Thank God she’d done up the braid. Otherwise, with the top down the wind would have knotted her hair into one big hopeless snarl. Claire’s hair had gotten tangled but apparently she didn’t care. She didn’t even try to comb out the snarls with her fingers.

Avery extended her hand and a smile to Ben Grant.

Claire, though, got her hand out half a beat quicker. “Glad to meet you,” she said as Ben grasped it. “I’m Claire Scanlan, and this is my associate—”

“Avery Collier.” She increased the wattage on the smile. “What a beautiful house.”

Her turn for a handshake. Ben’s grip was warm, solid, strong. Qualities she liked in a man, whether you were talking about his character or important aspects of his anatomy. She nodded her approval.

“Yes, it’s beautiful, no question about it.” Ben looked toward the house and his face clouded. “Let’s go around to the deck. With the previous real estate people, I tried to softpedal what happened here. But that turned out to be the wrong approach. So before we go inside, I want to tell you the whole story. That way you’ll know what you’re getting into.”

Avery had to resist the urge to take his arm as she said, “Lead the way.”

Claire followed Ben and Avery along the redwood path that skirted the house. She felt uneasy, though she couldn’t explain why. The property was even more impressive than she had expected, and to be honest, so was its owner. Yet the moment she and Avery had pulled into the driveway, she’d been hit with an odd sensation that she couldn’t shake. The day had darkened slightly, as if the sun had dimmed just the tiniest bit.

Residue from her horrid dream, she decided—the stain of last night’s darkness seeping into the beautiful day.

As she reached the back of the house, she gasped in amazement. The deck extended the full length of the house. It was shaped like a big triangle, with a point at the center that jutted out from the cliff like the prow of a ship. There was nothing beyond it but sky and sea. Claire stepped to the railing. Looking straight down, she watched as the ocean waves slammed against the rocks and exploded into white foam.

Lifting her eyes, she noticed a bank of fog, the infamous Pacific marine layer, looming at the horizon. If the weather followed its typical summer pattern, the fog would move inland late this afternoon, obscuring the coastal hills in a swirling mist.

Right now, though, the air was clear and the sky overhead was a cloudless vault of blue.

Yet not quite as bright as it had been before they drove onto the LeGrande property.

“Come on, ladies, have a seat,” Ben invited.

Claire turned and saw he had set up three folding lawn chairs in the shade of the overhanging roof. A thermos and three mugs sat on a molded plastic table.

“I brought coffee,” Ben said.

He settled onto the center chair and began pouring. Avery sat to his left, hitching her chair closer to his. Claire shook her head at the younger woman’s brazenness. Avery’s hair was too long, her skirt too short, and her heels too high. Ben Grant seemed like a reasonable man—you’d think he would recognize the predatory look in Avery’s eyes for what it was. But men were blind to that sort thing. Certainly her about-to-be ex had been blind to everything about Little Ms. Law-shark except her boobs and her ass and her long blond hair—which was just like Avery’s, now that Claire thought about it.

“Claire? Coffee?” Ben’s rich baritone broke into her bitter thoughts.

She sat in the remaining chair. “Thanks. This is very thoughtful of you.”

His fingertips grazed hers as she took the mug he offered her. Claire was surprised to feel the pleasurable shock of electricity that zinged along her nerves.

Ben sipped from his own mug and gazed into the distance. “It helps if I have something to fortify me when I talk about what happened.”

Avery leaned in closer to him. “You mean . . . the tragedy.”

“Yes. My brother and his family—”

“Your brother?” Claire said. “Oh! I’m so sorry . . . I mean, for your loss.” God, could she sound any more awkward? Why wasn’t she one of those people who could express condolences with grace and ease?

“Thanks.” Ben sighed. “This house was my brother’s masterpiece. Stefan LeGrande, you may have heard of him. He would have hoped so—being famous was one of his foremost goals in life.”

“I recognized his name,” Avery said with a knowing nod.

Right, Claire thought. But you don’t know him because of his architecture. To you he’s a high-profile murder victim.

She bit her tongue though. Bad form to put down a colleague in front of a client. Instead she said, “He must have been truly gifted, to design a place like this.”

“Yes, gifted,” Ben agreed. “He built this house for his family, but he also intended it to be his showcase—a place where he could bring clients and put stars in their eyes about the home he could build for them. They lived here for only a couple of years before . . . well, before disaster struck.”

Claire took a drink of the coffee. Rich and robust with a faint hazelnut flavor. She wished Ben had thought to bring cream.

She said, “By they, you mean Stefan and his wife and children?”

“That’s right. This place was a dream come true for Jacqueline. She was Stefan’s second wife. The love of his life—well, if you don’t count himself.” Ben gave a wry smile.

“What do you mean?” Avery cradled her mug in both hands.

“My esteemed brother was not only a world-class architect, he was a world-class egoist.”

Ben paused, looking out beyond the deck. Claire saw a string of brown pelicans skimming through the air, following the line of the cliffs.

“Jacqueline was one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever met,” Ben said. “It wasn’t hard for men to fall in love with her. Unfortunately, one of those men was my nephew, Trevor.”

“Her own son?” Claire was reminded of her lit class in college, reading Oedipus Rex.

“Stefan’s son. His mother was Stefan’s first wife, Rona. She walked out when the kids were small. Trevor was nine, I think. Melissa was about five. They were all pretty broken up about it.”

“She just walked out?” Claire said.

“I don’t know all the details. I lived on the east coast then, and my brother was always tightlipped about it. I think she got involved with another man.”

“How could a woman do that, just leave her children behind?”

“Oh, that’s not hard to imagine,” Avery said softly, almost to herself. She was looking down, her face hidden behind a veil of blond hair, so Claire couldn’t see her expression. But something about her tone made Claire wonder if Avery was speaking from experience. If so, had she done the leaving, or was she the one who’d been left?

Ben continued his story. “When the divorce came through, Stefan was granted custody. A few years later he met and married Jacqueline, and she brought her little daughter, Eden, into the family. Stefan designed and built this house, and everything seemed set for them to live happily ever after.”

“So what went wrong?” Avery asked. She had set down her mug and was twisting a strand of her hair.

“I wish I knew. Trevor was a happy child, but that changed when his parents split. He turned angry and rebellious, started getting in trouble at school.”

She released her hair. “Was his sister a problem child too?”

“No. Melissa was always the sweet and level-headed one. Took responsibility, had top grades, looked out for her new little sister. Eden idolized her.” Ben shook his head. “Such a loss.”

Claire felt her own pang of sadness for this girl, this family, whom she had never met.

“Things got better when Stefan married Jacqueline. Stefan was hopeful that Trevor had turned a corner. But then he hooked up with a druggie crowd. He was dealing and stealing, in trouble all the time. I attempted to reach out to him, but it’s hard to be a good uncle from three thousand miles away. Trevor always brushed me off.”

Claire nodded. “That must have been really difficult for you.”

Ben sighed. “I keep thinking I should have tried harder. Maybe I could have done something to prevent what happened.”

He poured himself more coffee and sipped it slowly. All three of them, even Avery, were silent until Ben was ready to go on.

“Stefan sent Trevor away to boarding school. At first we thought the school had worked a miracle, straightening him out. He graduated with honors, moved back home and enrolled at College of Marin.”

“I guess the miracle didn’t last,” Claire said.

“Sadly, no. Trevor dropped out of his classes and fell back into old patterns. Stefan insisted he get a job, but Trevor never could hold one for long. To make things worse, he developed an infatuation for Jacqueline. More than just a crush; he seemed obsessed with her. Being in the same house with him made her really uncomfortable. So Stefan booted him out. He gave Trevor two weeks to find a new place to live.”

Ben picked up his mug and carried it to the prow of the deck. He turned and stared past them to the house. The look on his face made Claire’s heart break.

He said, “Just a few days after that ultimatum, Trevor went on his rampage.”

“What happened that night?” Avery asked.

“No one’s sure. But here’s how the police reconstructed the scenario. Melissa had a part in the school play—she loved the theater; she had tremendous talent. There was a rehearsal that night, and Stefan went to pick her up when it was over. That left Trevor home alone with Jacqueline. He tried to force himself on her and she fought him off. The rejection humiliated and infuriated him. So he grabbed the gun that Stefan kept in the house for protection and then—” Ben’s voice broke.

Avery finished the sentence for him. “And then he shot her.”

“Stefan and Melissa must have arrived home a few minutes later. They walked in to find Jacqueline dead and Trevor raging around with the gun in his hand. He shot the two of them in a panic. Then, in a fit of remorse, he killed himself.”

“I’m so sorry,” Claire whispered.

“What about Eden?” Avery asked. “She didn’t die, did she? I heard it was four people. Did she witness the whole thing?”

“Thank God, Eden wasn’t home. She was next door, sleeping over with a friend.” Ben sighed. “She lives with me now. I’m the executor of Stefan’s will, which left the house to her. We agreed that I should sell it for her. Neither of us could bear ever to live in it.”

Claire said, “I understand completely.”

“What a shame. It’s such an amazing house,” was Avery’s comment. “I’d live here in a heartbeat.”

“So I’m selling it. That is, I’m trying to. Two real estate firms have let me down. I’m hoping Golden Gate Properties will do better.”

“You can count on us.” Avery raised her mug as if offering a toast.

“I gave the first firm a ninety-day listing,” Ben said. “I offered to renew it when it expired, but they refused to keep trying. They had lots of gawkers who wanted the thrill of peeping at a crime scene, but serious buyers ran away when they learned people were murdered here. So I went with a different company. Same thing.”

“Too bad we have to tell people,” Avery said. “I mean, look at this place. You can’t tell anything awful happened here.”

“We have to disclose it, though,” Claire reminded her. “It’s a legal requirement.”

Avery dismissed the notion with a flick of her slender fingers. “That law is for real defects, like when the plumbing leaks or the extra bathroom isn’t up to code.”

Claire did her best not to sound exasperated. “The law covers anything negative that someone should know in order to make a sound and informed decision about purchasing a property.”

Ben nodded. “Lots of people would consider this house to be bad luck. Whoever buys it could sue me and your company if they find out too late that it has such a bloody history.”

“I know that,” Avery said in a supercilious tone. “But it’s silly to be superstitious about stuff like that.”

“The whole house has been cleaned and re-painted,” Ben said. “But whenever I’m here, I see them in my mind. Stefan, Jacqueline, Melissa, Trevor. I see what they were like when they were alive, and I see their bodies lying on the floor, the way they looked in the police photos. That’s why I could never live here.”

Claire closed her eyes. For just a second she could see the bodies too.

Ben set his mug on the plastic table. “I’m telling you all this up front so you’ll know what you’re getting into. Well, do you want to back out, or are you ready to go inside?”

“Inside, absolutely,” Avery said.

“Right,” Claire agreed. “We’re going to do everything in our power to sell this place for you.”

“Okay then. Come on.” Ben moved toward the French doors that led inside from the center of deck.

“Wait,” Claire said. “Let’s go in the front door. I want my first impression to be the same as the buyers’ will be when I bring them here.”

Ben nodded. “Good thinking. This way.”

Again Avery sidled up next to Ben for the stroll around the house. She might as well just go ahead and hold his hand, Claire thought. She was surprised to feel a pang of jealousy.

Arriving again at the front of the house, Avery noticed a man walking up the pebbled surface of the driveway. As he neared them he lifted his hand in a wave.

Ben waved back, calling, “Hey, Martin.”

“Hi, Ben. Didn’t realize you were here. Saw a couple of strange cars and thought I’d better check things out.”

“I just picked up the Silver Bullet last week,” Ben said. “Nice, don’t you think? The Porsche belongs to these two—well, one of them, anyway.”

Avery jumped in, eager to claim credit. “It’s mine.”

Ben introduced them. “Avery Collier and Claire Scanlan, meet Martin Roncallo. He lives next door, right over there.”

Avery looked where Ben was pointing. All she could see was a gray slate roof peeking above a ledge of rocks. She turned to Roncallo and offered him her hand to shake, pleased that this time she’d beaten Claire to it. “A pleasure.”

“Me too,” Claire said in turn.

“Likewise.” Roncallo’s gaze lingered on Avery. She tossed a look of triumph in Claire’s direction. This man wasn’t so totally handsome as Ben—who was?—but a brushy black mustache and the gas-flame blue eyes under his wiry brows gave him his own brand of rakish charm. He reminded Avery of a pirate; all he needed was an eyepatch or a skull-and-crossbones flag. No wedding ring, she noticed. She’d been pleased to see that Ben wasn’t wearing one either. Bare fingers didn’t mean a man wasn’t married, but a ring was usually intended to convey a message: don’t touch.

“Avery and Claire are from Golden Gate Properties,” Ben explained to his neighbor. “They’re going to get this place sold for me.”

Roncallo regarded them with sympathy. “Good luck. You two have your job cut out for you, considering the cloud hanging over this place.” To Ben he said, “I don’t suppose Eden is with you?”

Ben’s grin was rueful. “You know the answer to that.”

“Yeah, I know she refuses to come up here, but Lily keeps hoping. She misses having Eden right next door. We ought to get them together. It’s been awhile.”

“Eden would like that. Lily can come to our place. I’ll call you soon to set something up.”

“Good. Well, now that I’ve made sure you all aren’t vandals—or, even worse, reporters—I’d better get back to work.”

Avery couldn’t contain her curiosity. “You work at home? What do you do?”

“I design computer games.” Roncallo smiled at her, showing white, even teeth beneath his black mustache. Both the smile and the profession were promising. She’d read somewhere that game designers made big bucks.

“Lily—is that your daughter?” she asked.

“That’s right. Ten going on twenty-two, all sass and mischief.” He chuckled, a sound filled with affection.

Suddenly the pieces fell into place. “The sleepover was at your house, wasn’t it? Eden was with Lily that night her family was killed.”

A dark expression took over Roncallo’s face, confirming her deduction. “Can’t blame Eden for not wanting to come back to the old neighborhood, can you? Ben, I’ll expect that call so we can find a way to get the girls together. Avery, Claire, good to meet you. I hope you get a smooth, speedy sale.”

Avery watched as Martin Roncallo walked back down the driveway. Two intriguing men in the space of half an hour. Highview Lane was proving to be an interesting neighborhood. Ben Grant was more attractive than Martin Roncallo, but it was always good to have a backup plan.

Or a backup man.

That bit of wordplay made Avery giggle.

The front door was an oversized slab of solid dark wood. Carved into the panel was the large figure of a soaring seagull. Claire watched nervously as Ben set the key in the lock. He twisted the key and the door swung open.

She jumped back, reeling from the sudden stench of blood—hot, bitter, coppery.

Then the smell was gone. Had she imagined it?

Ben stood aside to let Avery cross the threshold. Neither of them seemed to have noticed the sharp if fleeting odor.

“Claire? Are you coming?” Ben asked.

“Of course.” She flashed him a smile and stepped inside, forcing herself to take a deep breath. She smelled stale air and dust, the fusty quality you’d expect of any house that had been shut up for too long.

“Welcome to Stefan LeGrande’s masterpiece,” Ben said.

“Wow!” Avery said. “Look at this place.”

They were standing in a marble-floored entryway. A skylight filled the space with soft, warm light.

Coming in farther, Claire saw that the entryway branched off to either side, forming a long gallery that linked the home’s two wings. Straight in front of her, a step down from the gallery and separated from it by a polished wooden railing, was a vast living room.

Zach, Claire knew, would compare the room’s size to a football field. Her best friend Lindsay would estimate how many times the little apartment that the two of them shared would fit inside the space. Claire had brought a metal tape measure in her purse. Before they left the house, she and Avery would get the exact measurements.

She ran her hand along the wooden railing. Smooth as satin. Stefan LeGrande had clearly understood the power of small yet sumptuous details. The high, vaulted ceiling, the gleaming hardwood floor, the stone fireplace—all these would be strong selling points.

The most appealing feature was the far wall. It was entirely glass, with French doors in the center that led to the deck. The room seemed to expand outward, becoming a part of the sky and the sea and the fog.

Something else Stefan LeGrande had known—how best to take advantage of a building’s natural setting.

Ben joined Claire at the railing, as Avery pressed in on the other side of him.

“My brother had theories about how families live in public and private spaces. This wing,” Ben said, pointing to the right, “contains private spaces: bedrooms, family bathrooms, the master suite. In the other wing you’ll find public spaces: kitchen, dining room, the media lounge.”

“What’s this space here?” Avery swept her arm to indicate the huge room in front of them.

“Stefan called it the grand salon. It was a central gathering place, the pivot point around which the family’s life revolved.”

“And the media lounge? What’s that?” Avery asked.

“A home theater,” Ben replied. “I’ll show you. Let’s start the tour there.”

“Go ahead. I’ll catch up,” Claire said. She stepped down into the grand salon and headed toward the glass wall, drawn by the view.

Instantly the air felt colder.

“Where did the murders happen?” Avery was asking as she and Ben walked together along the gallery.

The two of them disappeared through a doorway, so Claire didn’t hear Ben’s reply. But the chill in the air had told her—the victims had died right here. In this room, four lives had come to a sudden, brutal end in a tumult of rage and blood.

She could see no signs of the violence—too many months had passed, too much effort had been made to cleanse the house of the horror that had happened. All the place needed was an airing-out, a new family’s energy and laughter.

Then her eyes closed and Claire saw them, as clearly as if they were still there. Four crumpled bodies, two by the fireplace, one by the glass wall, one in the center of the room.

Quickly she opened her eyes again, shook her head to scatter the images away from her mind.

The cold intensified, covering her arms with gooseflesh and turning her breath to an icy mist.

She tried to retreat to the gallery, but an unseen force blocked her way.

She’d run for the glass wall then. Open the door and flee onto the deck.

As Claire scurried across the room, something yanked on her shoulder. She tried to pull away. The painful grip tightened, binding her in place.

“Let me go!” She twisted her body, tried to lift her legs, tried to wrench herself free.

She couldn’t move.

The room turned red. Again Claire smelled blood. Its metallic odor was stronger and sharper than before.

A voice hovered next to her ear, faint, a soft breath, barely a whisper: “Help me.”

She wasn’t sure she heard it at all.

Then, once more: “Help me!”

The whisper was nearly drowned out by a piercing shriek.

Chapter 4

"Claire! Are you all right? What happened?”

Ben’s voice. Claire felt gentle hands on her arms, steadying her. A very different kind of touch from the cold wintry grasp that had clutched her a moment ago.

“We were in the kitchen and we heard you scream,” Avery said as Ben, apparently satisfied that Claire would not collapse, released her.

“That was m-me?” Claire’s voice was shaking. “I heard it too . . . but I didn’t realize . . . you’re sure it was me?”

She tried to laugh. Best to make light of the bizarre experience. Clearly neither Ben nor Avery had perceived anything out of the ordinary, except the shriek.

Okay, so maybe that was her own silly screeching. But then who had whispered words into her ear? Who had seized her shoulder? If Ben and Avery were off in another room . . .

“What was wrong?” Ben asked. “What made you yell like that?”

“N-nothing. I’m fine.” Claire rubbed her arms. Her shoulder tingled where the unseen force had grabbed her. But the goosebumps were gone. The temperature of the room had returned to normal. Her heart, which had been banging against her ribs, was starting to calm.

Avery parked her fists on her slim hips. “A person doesn’t scream over nothing.”

Claire shook her head. “I–I had a bad dream last night . . . and now, all this talk about bloodshed . . . I guess my imagination ran away with me. I’m sorry if I scared you.”

The word sorry echoed in Claire’s brain. The refrain of the tune she’d sung earlier this morning when she arrived late for the Monday Meeting: Sorry . . . sorry . . . sorry. She was not getting off to a good start. She hoped she wasn’t going to spend her entire real estate career making apologies. If so, that career would be brief.

But she wanted it to last for a good long time. She wanted . . . needed . . . to succeed at this. She offered a smile to Avery, her colleague, and a bigger one to Ben Grant, her potential client. “I hope I haven’t given you a bad impression of Golden Gate Properties.”

To her relief, Ben laughed. “A bad impression? Not at all. At least you’re prepared now for some of the strange reactions you’ll get from buyers.”

“Let’s get on with the tour then.” Claire took out the little notebook she had in her purse.

The three of them spent the next hour going through the house. Avery cooed admiringly as Ben pointed out this special feature and that luxurious detail. Claire made careful notes about the top-of-the-line appliances, the sound system that piped music into every room, the climate-controlled wine locker. She ran her fingers over smooth granite countertops and satiny wood finishes. She jotted down the words Ben said about all the fine points of texture and color and angles and curves that were the signatures of a Stefan LeGrande design.

No more voices. No ice-cold air. No invisible hand clamping her shoulder.

The architect had built his family a truly exquisite home. You’d think such a house would have thrown a magic shield around the family, a protective barrier against the kinds of problems that beset people who lived in more ordinary circumstances. Clearly not, Claire thought.

In fact, maybe the house had made things worse. Except for its builder, the supremely talented Stefan, who could hope to live up to the standards implied by such perfection? Perhaps knowing he couldn’t help but fall short was what had derailed young Trevor and set him on a course of destruction.

Martin Roncallo had mentioned a cloud over the house. Claire wondered if he had been using a figure of speech, meaning that the house had been made less attractive by the awareness that violence had occurred there.

Or did he, like Claire, experience that odd dimming of daylight when he stepped onto the property? Would Martin have heard the whispers if he had been with her in the grand salon?

By now they were back in the entrance gallery. As Ben opened the door so they could leave, he said, “I suppose we should talk about the price and a schedule for open houses and things like that.”

Avery smoothed her hand over her long blond hair. “Have you thought about who you want to be your listing agent?”

Ben looked surprised. “What do you mean? I’ve already decided to give the listing to Golden Gate Properties.”

Avery tilted her head coquettishly. “Well, sure, but Tess McMillan said you should choose one of us. Claire or me, I mean. Of course the whole firm will work hard for you. But it’s customary to have one particular agent in charge of your listing.”

“I don’t see how I could go wrong with either one of you,” Ben said—rather gallantly, Claire thought. “But if I have to choose . . . hmm, maybe I should spend some one-on-one time with each of you first.”

“You mean, alone with you?” the blonde said. “What a good idea.”

“Here’s a plan. Claire, why don’t you join me for lunch? Avery can drive her car back to the office, and I’ll deliver you there later this afternoon. Avery, you and I can get together when I drop Claire off.”

Avery frowned. “Well, I don’t—”

Claire jumped in before she could finish. “That sounds great. Thank you.”

Avery changed tactics. She erased her frown and beamed a big smile at Claire. “Tell you what, Claire. If you want, I’ll let you take the Porsche back. It’s a really fun car to drive.”

Claire matched Avery’s smile with one of her own. “That is such a generous offer. Thank you. But I don’t dare take you up on it. I wouldn’t trust myself with a car that’s so exquisite.” Or so expensive. The way the day was going, it’d be just her luck to get into an accident. No doubt the Porsche was insured, but insurance would pay only for the damage to the car, not for the wreckage of her career. It wasn’t worth the risk.

Besides, time alone with Ben Grant was a highly appealing idea. And going first, getting to know this handsome man before Avery could get her mitts on him—the heavens were offering her an opportunity here. She did not intend to blow it.

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Copyright © 2008, Margaret Lucke. All Rights Reserved.

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