A Touch of Death Ch. 02byWine_Maker©
I laughed when I finally saw Ty's car. It was hard to miss. It stood out like a stripper leading a church service.
It was a sleek black muscle car with a supercharger rising like a chrome fist from the center of the hood. I didn't know who manufactured the original chassis, but it was obvious extensive work had gone into it since then. It looked fast, powerful, and utterly impractical for a sub-alpine area like the Tahoe basin. It virtually sat up and begged to scream down some long, straight desert highway.
I put my hands on my hips and looked up at Ty. "I can't believe you bought Mad Max's car." As far as I could tell it was a perfect reproduction of the car Mel Gibson had driven in the movie Mad Max.
He ran his hand across the hood and grinned. "I didn't buy her; I built her. You like?"
"You know this is a pretty impractical car for around here, right? You'll rip the bottom off if you go off-road, or drive into the lake if you floor it. The gas mileage probably sucks, too." Even as I ticked off the reasons it was impractical, I couldn't help but run my hands along its beautiful lines. I laughed guiltily when I caught myself wondering how fast it could go.
He smiled smugly at me, patiently waiting for a positive reaction from me.
"Okay!" I relented. "It's impractical, but it's hot."
Only then did he hold the passenger door open for me. The seat was made of dark leather and felt buttery soft. I wished my couch felt this nice.
He tossed his jacket into the back seat and climbed in beside me. As he buckled in, I stared at his arms and chest with something approaching awe. Shave his head and he'd look like Vin Diesel, only hunkier. The tight tee shirt showed his wide chest and flat abdomen off nicely.
Ty cleared his throat.
I yanked my eyes up to his face guiltily and caught him grinning at me. I looked away and fumbled with the seatbelt to cover the sudden flush I felt creeping up my neck. The pregnant silence grew as I looked at the seatbelt in confusion. There were a lot more than two belts to clip together.
"Let me help you with that," he said in an amused tone. "I put in five-point restraints and a steel roll bar, just in case." He gathered up the straps in his large hands and slid them together just below my bellybutton. His hands were rough and had a couple of old scars. They looked strong. They also felt warmer than they had any right to be.
That sparked a rush of heat in my gut that made me blush an even deeper red. His hands didn't linger, but his satisfied smile told me my poker face needed some work.
The car started with a grumbling roar. Even idling it sounded as powerful as a locomotive. He let it warm up and turned on the heater as soon as the engine was hot enough.
"Ready?" he asked as he dropped it into gear. He stomped the gas and pulled out so fast the tires squealed.
* * * * *
Kane Lodge was a sprawling stone and rough timber building that dominated the tip of Angel's Point Peninsula. Its two stories height might not seem like much until you took into account how much it sprawled. My grandfather and great-grandfather built Kane Lodge eighty years ago, and it was still going strong with the fourth generation now in control.
I left Ty in the lobby and raced back to my suite and showered in record time. I slid into a nice pair of slacks and a loose white blouse before brushing my hair out and tying into a ponytail. I allowed myself a slinky light blue bra. He'd never see it but I'd know it was there.
My orange cat, Screamer, was standing on the stand beside the door waiting for me as I started out. She wanted attention and she wanted it now. My purse, however, was not on the stand. I must've left it at mom's last night.
I picked Screamer up and held her in my arms like a baby, scratching her chin. She tolerated it for a few seconds before starting to squirm and voice her protest. I didn't try to stop her when she did what she'd wanted to do in the first place and climbed onto my shoulder. She stood there for half-a-minute like a furry parrot with green eyes before hopping down and sauntering to the kitchen, her tail curved into a question mark.
"Later, Fur Baby," I consoled her. "I'll feed you this evening." Every cat acted like they were one meal away from starving to death.
I grabbed the master key from the coat hook beside my front door and walked further down the private hallway to Mom's door. All the family had rooms in a little dogleg at the back of the building. My mother's was at the end of the hall here on the second floor. Her room was between mine and my absent brother's. Frank decided he wanted to be a movie special effects man after seeing a TV special on it when he was seven. Determined was hardly adequate to describe how devoted he was to learning everything he could about his obsession. Mom and Dad supported him without restrictions. At least until the incident. Then Mom forbade the use of accelerants inside the Lodge.
I figured Mom was probably still asleep so I opened the door quietly and let myself in without a knock. I'd just grab my purse and scoot back out.
I made it into the middle of her living room before I heard a soft noise that sounded like it was coming from her bedroom. It was so soft I couldn't identify it. I suppose she might've left the TV on after she went to bed. I weighed my odds and decided to keep going.
A small lamp cast a dim glow from beside the dark leather couch. It put out just enough light for me to avoid tripping over the walnut coffee table. I spotted my purse sitting on the couch. Mission accomplished!
I'd just grabbed it when I heard another sound from Mom's room. It was still soft, but this time I was able to make it out. It sounded like a groan.
My heart turned to ice. Had she fallen and hurt herself? Three quick steps brought me to her bedroom door. I grabbed the knob and was in the process of rushing into her room when she groaned again and I realized that wasn't the sound of pain. I froze, my eyes huge.
The murmur of what sounded like a male voice and the gentle creak of her bed echoed softly through the door. She had someone in there with her. Holy crap!
I slapped my hand across my mouth and repressed the loud "Eeeeeeewwwwww" that struggled to escape. I did not want to even think about my mother having sex!
I backed away from the door with legs that felt like jelly. I needed to get out of here quickly before I found out intimate details of her love life I'd rather not know.
Retreating quickly in a dark room that wasn't mine turned out to be mistake. I backed into the recliner and flopped over the arm with a barely repressed squeak. The chair reclined and the footrest popped out with a clank.
I froze. Maybe they were too busy to hear me. Please, God, don't let them come out! At least don't let them come out naked. My heart thundered in my ears.
"Did you hear something?" I faintly heard my mother ask. The reply - definitely male - was too indistinct to identify. They were coming out!
I pulled the seat back into its upright position. The sound of the metal springs in the chair sounded as loud as a brass band marching back and forth in Mom's living room to my panicked ears. I half sprinted and half tiptoed for the front door.
Mom's bed creaked loudly as someone climbed out of it. Heavy steps told me someone was heading toward her door.
I snatched Mom's front door open and whirled through it, stopping the door from slamming at the last second. I eased it closed with a soft click just as I heard her bedroom door open.
I hurled myself down the short access hallway that served the family quarters like a frightened gazelle. I didn't stop until I went through the locked door separating the family wing from the rest of the lodge. Only then did I allow myself to brace my heaving shoulders against the wall and catch my breath.
My mom had a man back in her life. The thought made my head spin. She hadn't dated once since dad died four years ago. I mentally amended that thought: she hadn't that I'd ever known about. And now she was sleeping with someone. At least it sure looked like someone spent the night with her. I wondered how long I had been oblivious.
This was going to take some getting used to, even though I'd been pushing her to start dating. Hell, I'd almost bullied her at times over the last year to find a gentleman friend even if she didn't want a long-term relationship. She'd become a recluse and I'd become worried she wasn't ever going to come out of her shell.
Part of me wondered if she'd been playing a game all this time, but I dismissed that as just not being in my mother's character. I laughed a bit at my foolishness. I'd pushed her to find someone, and now I was suspicious the moment she had. I was being silly. This was great news. Still, I wondered and worried about the new man in her life.
I took a deep breath and settled my shoulders. I needed to deal with one thing at a time. There would be time enough to dig the filtered details out of mom later. For now, I had more pressing problems.
Ty had settled in one of the comfortable leather chairs scattered across the hardwood floor of the lobby by the time I came down the staircase. It was a huge, wide-open space of open-framed timber and deep carpet. An array of stuffed animals lined the walls, giving the place a rustic appeal.
He was right in front of an absolutely monstrous fireplace sunk low in one of the deep leather seats. Dad used to tell me that they roasted boar in it when he was a boy and I could believe it.
Ty rose smoothly to his feet. "You look great."
I shook my head at his smooth comment and smiled. "Thank you. Come on, let's get something to eat."
He smiled and followed me into the restaurant. Grandfather had built it with the same theme as the rest of the Lodge: open timber rafters, polished wood floors, and quarried stone walls. Pictures of the lodge and my ancestors hung everywhere inside it, providing a glimpse of Angel's Point as it had been years ago.
The family booth at the back of the restaurant had a picture of my parents, Frank, and me. We'd been fishing on the lakeshore and were showing off our catches. My Dad was grinning like there was no tomorrow and holding my Mom tightly. Every time I saw this picture, I missed him again.
Ty looked at me and then at me in the picture after we took our seats. I'd been coltish back then. I must've been thirteen or fourteen, though I looked younger. I remember Dad telling me I was growing like a weed and eating like a swarm of locusts. The irony of me barely reaching five feet and balancing the scales at a hundred pounds was still darkly funny.
I flagged down the lead waitress and we ordered breakfast and coffee. I kept my order to an English muffin and jelly. Ty ordered the biggest platter on the menu. When she had it all, I added one more thing.
"Do me a favor, Karen," I said. "Keep the seating to the front for as long as you can. We'd like a little privacy."
Karen's eyes widened for just a moment, and then she smiled knowingly and nodded before sauntering back to get our food started.
I shook my head ruefully. I knew damned well what that look and that smile of Karen's meant. In less than ten minutes, everyone who worked at the Lodge would know I was here with Ty. It was bad enough that everyone who spread Karen's gossip would assume I was dating the good looking guy. Worse, based on Karen's reaction, they would be surprised. It wasn't like I was living in a nunnery or something. I'd just been busy for the last... Year? Had it really been a year? God, I'd been acting almost as badly as mom!
I shook my head and watched Ty watching me. He was intent, with a hint of amusement in his dark eyes.
"You've changed since high school," Ty said. "You were shy back then. I almost asked you out."
My heart seemed to stop for a moment before it started thumping twice as fast as before. I settled my face in a disbelieving frown. "Me? Whatever in the world for? There were plenty of prettier girls, more popular girls."
"Maybe more popular, but not prettier. Don't sell yourself short."
I laughed at his pun, intentional or not. "But I am short. Thank you, though. I wish I'd known that back then. Speaking of high school, where did you disappear to and what've you been up to?"
His dark eyes twinkled. "I'd rather talk about you. That's a much more interesting subject. Tell me about Candy."
I was flattered at his attention and I felt my smile widen. "Flatterer. Well, there's not a lot to tell. I went to UCLA and got a degree in hotel management to help Mom and Dad at the Lodge. Since Dad passed on I've been managing directly."
"I'm sorry to hear about your dad. The few times I saw him around town he seemed like a nice guy. Is your mom holding up okay?"
I shrugged. "She's doing all right, I suppose. It's been four years since his heart attack and I've seen signs she's seeing people again. I've got my fingers crossed."
"I'm glad to hear that. As I recall, she shouldn't have any problem finding interested men."
My eyebrow quirked. "And how do you know that?"
He grinned. "Back when we were in high school, your mom made quite an impression when she came by the school to pick you up. I recall quite a few guys who would've jumped if she snapped her fingers."
I laughed loud enough to get looks from the other diners. "As I recall," I said when I finally stopped laughing, "the bar is kinda low for high school boys. If the woman in question has most of the required body parts and doesn't have a beard bigger than Ulysses S. Grant she's good enough."
"Well, I wouldn't say we were that bad," Ty disagreed, "but it didn't matter in your mom's case. You two definitely share the 'hot chick' gene. Trust me on that one."
My face heated again. "I bow to your wisdom, sir. Back to the subject, the only other thing of note since you left was my marriage to jerk-off."
Ty snorted. "He seems like a real winner. Were you drunk?"
"I wish I could blame it on booze but I was just stupid. My friends tried to warn me about him and I didn't listen. The ink wasn't even dry on the marriage certificate when I caught him and Dora on the couch."
My jaw ached from the pressure I was putting into grinding my teeth so I forced myself to unclench. I took a deep breath before continuing. "I'm much better off without him dragging me down. They deserve one another. Good riddance."
He nodded slowly. "I think you're on the right track but it still stings, doesn't it? I could see the fire in your eyes this morning. It must be an iron-clad bitch to have them as your competition."
I shrugged. "Not really, as long as I don't have to see or speak to them."
"Have you ever considered getting even?"
"Revenge?" I shook my head. "No. That kind of stuff comes back to haunt you. I'm not ready for that kind of bad karma. I'll just let the world take care of it for me."
He slowly smiled, a wicked gleam in his eye. "No doubt the world will pick the right person for the job. You're absolutely right to take the high road. Leave the low road for those best suited for it."
I frowned. What was he getting at?
"But enough about you," he said with an unrepentant grin. "Let's talk about me."
"Okay, big guy," I agreed. "Where did you disappear to? The Navy, right?"
He nodded. "Yup. I joined up as a diver. Later on I was recruited for the SEAL teams. I did that for the last eight years."
I blinked. "A seal. Like in balancing a ball on your nose?" I clapped my hands together and made seal noises.
Ty snorted his coffee and started laughing. "That's not quite what I meant, but you get points for delivery. I'm talking about Navy Special Forces. Sea, Air, and Land."
"I've heard of Special Forces before," I admitted. "They talk about them on the news sometimes. Usually it's about the war in Afghanistan and Iraq."
He used his napkin to clean up the spewed coffee and nodded. "I went to both before I left the service. It wasn't fun."
"What?" I asked lightly. "No war stories? I thought veterans liked to impress the girls with their exploits and scars."
"There's nothing romantic about war," he said a touch grimly. "Particularly these more recent conflicts. You never know when some fanatic is going to pop up and fire an RPG at you. Or when the car next to you is going to blow up." He made an expansive gesture with his hands, like an explosion. "Then you have the more than occasional IED - Improvised Explosive Devices - planted by the road to kill the unwary. When you go in after the jerks they just hide behind other people, bystanders get hurt or killed, and we catch the blame. The better we do militarily, the worse our image with the locals."
I blinked at his vehemence and I gently put a hand on his arm. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to touch a nerve. Forget I mentioned it."
He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "It's okay," he said. "I don't talk about it that often. When I do, my frustration leaks out. I'm sorry about that."
"Why don't we talk about something else," I said, changing the subject. "Like Steven Armstrong."
He nodded. "Damn poor luck on his part. More people die in the bathtub than falling off a dock."
"If he fell all by himself."
Ty's coffee cup paused on the way to his mouth. "You think he had help?"
"I don't know. It just seems too coincidental. Stepping right on one spot of grease, falling just so." I shrugged. "It's possible but I can't help wondering if he made someone mad at him. If so, I'm worried the Sheriff's Department will go with the simplest explanation."
He shook his head. "If he was murdered, then they will figure it out. You're not thinking about playing Miss Marple, are you?"
I shrugged. "All I have are some questions. How dangerous can that be?"
He laughed. "Ask Armstrong. Asking questions might be nothing, if this was an accident. If it wasn't, you might just get the interest of someone that wouldn't be shy about venting his displeasure. Let it go, Candy. Let them do their job."
I wanted to argue, but our food arrived before I could get started. Karen balanced a big tray on one hand with grace that always amazed me. In her other hand was a folding stand that she adroitly popped open and set the tray neatly onto it. "One English muffin for the lady, and one of everything else for the gentleman."
His breakfast was big enough to keep me in food for a week. Karen laid it all out and refilled our coffee before sashaying away to handle the growing morning crowd.
When my muffin was gone, I stole a couple of pieces of bacon from his plate and ate them slowly with guilty delight.
"How long have you known Armstrong?" I asked.
"I met him a few months back when he hired me for hard-suit diving and salvage work. We've gotten together a few times since then for planning. I wouldn't say I really know him, though."
I nodded. "You're here in Angel's Point so the work must be about to start. When did you get here?"
"I checked into Fletcher Inn yesterday afternoon. He met with me before the dinner to finalize the operational plans. We also went over some technical details he wanted to have handy at the Lake Tahoe Mariner's Association dinner last night."
"I was at the one last year," I admitted. "They had it right here. As I recall, it was pretty stuffy."
"Not last night's dinner. It was a lot more exciting than I expected."
"Really?" I leaned forward eagerly. "What happened?"
"Word of his salvage plans leaked. Some of his associates were more than a little torqued about it. There was some resentment about raising an historic relic like the SS Tahoe. There was some grumbling and a few people were downright hostile." He shrugged. "I wouldn't call it a brawl, but harsh words and a couple of threats were exchanged."