– ‘The Magic of Wor(l)ds’ blog is a hobby, reviews and other bookish stuff on this site are done for free. –
Today I’m on the ‘The Wrong Victim’ blogtour, organized by Harlequin Trade Publishing Blog Tour.
To promote this book I have an excerpt, but before I let you read it first some ‘basic’ information.
A killer walked among the peaceful community of Friday Harbor and retired FBI Agent Neil Devereaux couldn’t do one damn thing about it because he had no evidence.
Most cops had at least one case that haunted them long after the day they turned in their badge and retired. For Neil, that obsession was a cold case that his former law enforcement colleagues believed was closed. Not only closed, but not a double homicide at all—simply a tragic accident.
Neil knew they’d got it wrong; he just couldn’t prove it. He hadn’t been able to prove it thirteen years ago, and he couldn’t prove it now.
But he was close.
He knew that the two college boys didn’t drown “by accident;” they were murdered. He had a suspect and he’d even figured out why the boys had been targeted.
Knowing who and why meant nothing. He needed hard evidence. Hell, he’d settle for any evidence. All his theory got him was the FBI file on the deaths sent by an old friend, and the ear of a detective on the mainland who would be willing to investigate if Neil found more.
“I can’t open a closed death investigation without evidence, buddy.”
He would have said the same thing if he was in the same position.
Confronting the suspected killer would be dangerous, even for an experienced investigator like him. This wasn’t an Agatha Christie novel like his mother used to read, where he could bring the suspect and others into a room and run through the facts—only to have the killer jump up and confess.
Neil couldn’t stand to think that anyone might get away with such a brazen murder spree, sparked by revenge and deep bitterness. It’s why he couldn’t let it go, and why he felt for the first time that he was close…close to hard evidence that would compel a new investigation.
He was tired of being placated by the people he used to work with.
He’d spent so long following dead ends that he’d lost valuable time—and with time, the detailed memories of those who might still remember something about that fateful weekend. It was only the last year that Neil had turned his attention to other students at the university and realized the most likely suspect was living here, on San Juan Island, right under his nose.
All this was on his mind when he boarded the Water Lily, his favorite yacht in the West End Charter fleet. He went through his safety checklist, wondering why Cal McKinnon, the deckhand assigned to this sunset cruise, wasn’t already there.
If he wasn’t preoccupied with murder and irritated at Cal, Neil may have noticed the small hole in the bow of the ship, right above the water line, with fishing line coming out of it, taut in the water.
“I’m sorry. It’s last minute, I know,” Cal said to Kyle Richards in the clubhouse of West End Charter. “But I really need to talk to Jamie right away.”
“It’s that serious?” asked his longtime friend Kyle.
“I cannot lose her over this. I just can’t. I love her. We’re getting married.”
At least he hoped they were still getting married. Two months ago Jamie finally set a wedding date for the last Saturday in September—the fifth anniversary of their first date. And now this whole thing was a mess, and if Cal didn’t fix it now, he’d never be able to fix it.
You already blew it. You blew it five years ago. You should have told her the truth then!
“Alright then, go,” Kyle said. “I’ll take the cruise. I need the extra money, anyway. But you owe me—it’s Friday night. I had a date.”
Cal clapped Kyle on the back. “I definitely owe you, I’ll take your next crappy shift.”
“Better, give me your next corporate party boat.” Corporate parties on the largest yacht in their fleet had automatic eighteen percent tips added to the bill, which was split between a typical four-man crew in addition to salary. Plus, high-end parties often paid extra. Drunk rich people could become very generous with their pocket cash.
“You got it—it’s next Saturday night, the Fourth of July—so we good?”
Kyle gave him a high five, then left for the dock.
Cal clocked out and started for home. He passed a group of sign-carrying protesters and rolled his eyes.
West End Charter: Profit Over Protection
Protect Fish Not Profits!
Hey Hey Ho Ho Ted Colfax has to go!
Jeez, when would these people just stop? West End Charter had done nearly everything they wanted over the last two years—and then some—but it was never good enough.
Fortunately, the large crowds of protesters that started after the West End accident had dwindled over the last two years from hundreds to a half dozen. Maybe because they got bored, or maybe because West End fixed the problem with their older fleet, Cal didn’t know. But these few remaining were truly radical, and Cal hoped they didn’t cause any problems for the company over the lucrative Fourth of July holiday weekend.
He drove around them and headed home. He had more important things to deal with than this group of misfits.
Cal lived just outside of Friday Harbor with Jamie and their daughter. It was a small house, but all his, his savings covering the down payment after he left the Coast Guard six years ago. But it was Jamie who made the two-bedroom cottage a real home. She’d made curtains for the windows; put up cheery pictures that brightened even the grayest Washington day; and most recently, she’d framed some of Hazel’s colorful artwork for the kitchen nook he’d added on with Kyle’s help last summer.
He’d wanted to put Jamie on the deed when she moved in with him, but she wanted to go slower than that. He wanted to marry her, but she’d had a bad breakup with her longtime boyfriend before they met and was still struggling with the mind games her ex used to play on her. If that bastard ever set foot back on the island, Cal would beat him senseless.
But the ex was far out of the picture, living down in California, and Cal loved Jamie, so he respected her wishes not to pressure her into marriage. When she found out she was pregnant, he asked her to marry him again—she said yes but wanted to wait.
“There’s no rush. I love you, Cal, but I don’t want to get married just because I’m pregnant.”
He would move heaven and earth for Jamie and Hazel—why didn’t she know that?
That’s why when she finally settled on a date, confirmed it with invitations and an announcement in the San Juan Island newspaper, that he thought it would be smooth sailing.
And then she left.
As soon as he got home, he packed an overnight bag while trying to reach Jamie. She didn’t answer her cell phone. More than likely, there was no reception. Service was sketchy on the west side of the island.
He left another message.
“Jamie, we need to talk. I’m sorry, believe me I’m sorry. I love you. I love Hazel. I just want to talk and work this out. I’m coming to see you tonight, okay? Please call me.”
He was so frustrated. Not at Jamie—well, maybe a little because she’d taken off this morning for her dad’s place without even telling him. Just left him a note on the bathroom mirror.
I need time to think. Give me a couple days, okay? I love you, but right now I just need a little perspective.
Cal didn’t like the “but” part. What was there to think about? He loved her. They had a life together. Jamie and their little girl Hazel meant everything to him. They were getting married in three months!
He’d given her all day to think and now they needed to talk. Jamie had a bad habit of remaining silent when she was upset, thanks to that prick she’d dated before Cal. Cal much preferred her to get angry, to yell at him, to say exactly how she felt, then they could move on.
He jumped in his old pickup truck and headed west, praying he could salvage his family, the only thing he truly cared about. Failure was not an option.
That night Kyle clocked in and told the staff supervisor, Gloria, that Cal was sick, and he was taking the sunset cruise for him.
“Are you lying to me?” Gloria asked, looking over the top of her glasses at him.
“No, well, I mean, he’s not sick sick.” Dammit, Kyle had always been a piss-poor liar. “But he and Jamie had a fight, I guess, and he wants to fix it.”
“Alright, I’ll talk to Cal tomorrow. Don’t you go lying for him.”
“Don’t get him in trouble, Gloria.”
She sighed, took off her large glasses and cleaned them on her cotton shirt. “I like Cal as much as everyone, I’m not going to jam him up, but he should have come to me. I’ll bet he gave you his slot on the Fourth, didn’t he?”
Kyle grinned. Gloria had worked for West End longer than Kyle had been alive. They couldn’t operate without her.
“Eight people total. A party of four and two parties of two.” Gloria handed him the clipboard with the information of those who had registered for tonight’s sunset cruise. “Four bottles of champagne, a case of water, and cheese and fruit trays are onboard. You have one minute.”
“Thanks Gloria!” He ran down the dock to the Water Lily. He texted his boyfriend as he ran.
Hey, taking Cal’s shift, docking at 10—want to meet up then?
He sent the message and almost ran into a group who were already standing at the docks. Two men, two women, drinks in hand from the West End Club bar, in to-go cups.
“Can we board?” the tallest of the four asked.
“Give me one minute. What group are you with?”
Kyle looked at his watch. Technically boarding started in five minutes; they’d be pushing off in twenty.
“I need to get approval from the captain.” He smiled and jumped over the gate. He found Neil Devereaux on the bridge, reading weather reports.
“You’re late,” Neil said without looking up.
“Sorry, Skipper. Cal called in sick.”
Neil looked at him. “Oh, Kyle, I didn’t know it was you. I was expecting Cal.”
“He called out. Everything okay?” Neil didn’t look like his usual chipper self.
“I had a rough day.”
Rough day? Neil was a retired federal agent and got to pick any shift he wanted. Everyone liked him. If he didn’t want to work, he didn’t. He had a pension and didn’t even have to work but said once that he’d be bored if he didn’t have something to do. He spent most of his free time fishing or hanging out at the Fish & Brew. Kyle thought he was pretty cool for a Boomer.
“Your kids okay?” he asked.
Neil looked surprised at the question. “Yes, of course. Why?”
“You said you had a rough day—I just remember you talking about how one of your kids was deployed or something.”
He nodded with a half smile. “Good memory. Jill is doing great. She’s on base in Japan, a mechanic. She loves it. And Eric is good, just works too much at the hospital. Thanks for asking.”
“Four guests are waiting to board—is it okay?”
“There’s always someone early, isn’t there?”
“Better early than late,” Kyle said, parroting something that Neil often said to the crew.
Neil laughed, and Kyle was glad he was able to take the skipper’s mind off whatever was bothering him.
“Go ahead, let them on—rear deck only. Check the lines, supplies, and emergency gear, okay? No food or drink until we pass the marker.”
Kyle slid down the ladder as his phone vibrated. It was Adam.
F&B only place open that late—meet at the club and we’ll walk over, k?
He responded with a thumbs-up emoji and a heart, then smiled at the group of four. “Come aboard!”
Madelyn Jeffries sat on the toilet—not because she had to pee, but because she didn’t want to go on this cruise, not even for only three hours. She didn’t want to smile and play nice with Tina Marshall just because Pierce wanted to discuss business with Tina’s husband Vince.
She hated Tina. That woman would do anything to make her miserable. All because Pierce had fallen in love with her, Madelyn Cordell, a smart girl from the wrong side of the tracks in Tacoma.
Pierce didn’t understand. He tried, God bless him, but he didn’t. He was from another generation. He understood sex and chivalry and generosity and respect. He was the sweetest man she’d ever met. But he didn’t understand female interactions.
“I know you and Tina had somewhat of a rivalry when we met. But sweetheart, I fell in love with you. There’s no reason for you to be insecure.”
She wasn’t insecure. She and Pierce had something special, something that no one else could understand. Even she didn’t completely understand how she fell so head over heels for a man older than her deadbeat father. Oh, there was probably some psychologist out there who had any number of theories, but all Madelyn knew was that she and Pierce were right.
But Tina made her see red.
Tina, on top of this pregnancy—a pregnancy Madelyn had wanted to keep quiet, between her and Pierce, until she was showing. But somehow Pierce’s kids had found out last week, and they went ballistic.
They were the reason she and Pierce decided to get away for a long weekend. Last night had been wonderful and romantic and exactly what she needed. Then at brunch this morning they ran into Tina and Vince who were on a “vacation” after their honeymoon.
Madelyn didn’t doubt that Tina had found out she was here and planned this. There was no doubt in her mind that Tina had come to put a wedge between her and Pierce. After five years, why couldn’t she just leave her alone?
Just seeing Tina brought back the fearful, insecure girl Madelyn used to be, and she didn’t want that. She loved her life, she loved her husband, and above all she loved the baby inside her.
She flushed the toilet and stepped out of the stall.
Tina stood there by the sink, lips freshly coated with bloodred.
Madelyn stepped around her and washed her hands.
“Vince took me to Paris for our honeymoon for two glorious weeks,” said Tina.
Madelyn didn’t respond.
“I heard that you went to Montana.” Tina giggled a fake, frivolous laugh.
It was true. They’d spent a month in the Centennial Valley for their honeymoon, in a beautiful lodge owned by Pierce. They went horseback riding, hiking, had picnics, and she even learned how to fish—Pierce wanted to teach her, and she found that she enjoyed it. Fishing was relaxing and wholesome, something she’d never considered before. It had been the best month of her life.
But she wasn’t sharing that with Madelyn. Her time with Pierce was private. It was sacred.
She dried her hands and said, “Excuse me.”
“You think you’ve changed, but you haven’t. You’re still the little bug-eyed girl who followed me around for years. I taught you how to walk, I taught you how to attract men, I taught you how to dress and talk and act like you were somebody. If it wasn’t for me, you would never have met Pierce Jeffries. And you took him from me.”
“The boat leaves in five minutes.” Madelyn desperately wanted to get away from Tina.
“Vince and Pierce are going into business together. We’ll be spending a lot of time together, you and me. You would do well to drop the holier-than-thou act and accept the fact that I am back in your life and I’m not going anywhere.”
Madelyn stared at Tina. Once she’d been in awe of the girl, a year older than she was, who always seemed to get what she wanted. Tina was bold, she was beautiful, she was driven.
But she would never be satisfied. Did she even love Vince Marshall? Or had she married him because of the money and status he could give her?
Madelyn hated that when she first met Pierce she had thought he was her ticket out of poverty and menial jobs. She hated that she had followed Tina’s advice on how to seduce an older man.
Madelyn had fallen in love with Pierce, not because he was rich or powerful or for what he could give her. She loved him because he was kind and compassionate. She loved him because he saw her as she was and loved her anyway. But when he proposed to her, she’d fallen apart. She’d told him that she loved him, but she could never marry him because everything she was had been built on a lie—how she got her job at the country club, now they first met, how she had targeted him because he was wealthy and single. She would never forgive herself; how could he? His marriage proposal had been romantic and beautiful—he’d taken her to the bench where they first had a conversation, along the water of Puget Sound. But she ran away, ashamed.
He’d found her, she’d told him everything, the entire truth about who she was—a poor girl from a poor neighborhood who pretended to be worldly and sophisticated to attract men.
He said he loved her even more.
“I knew, Madelyn, from the beginning. But more, I see you, inside and out, and that’s the woman I love.”
Madelyn stared at her onetime friend. “Tina, you would do well to mind your p’s and q’s, because if I tell Pierce to back off, he’ll back off.”
She sounded a lot more confident than she felt. When it came to business, Pierce would listen to her, but he deferred to his oldest son, who worked closely with him. And Madelyn had never given him an ultimatum. She’d never told him what to do about business. She’d never have considered it, except for Tina.
Madelyn passed by her, then snipped, “By the way, nice boob job.”
She left, the confrontation draining her. She didn’t want to do this cruise. She didn’t want to go head-to-head with Tina for the next three hours.
She didn’t want to use the baby as an excuse…but desperate times and all that.
Pierce was waiting for her on the dock, talking to Vince Marshall.
“Would you excuse us for one moment, Vince?” she said politely.
“Of course, I’ll catch up with Tina and meet you on the boat.”
She smiled and nodded as he walked back to the harbormaster’s building.
“What is it, love?” Concerned, worried, about her.
“I thought morning sickness was only in the morning. I’m sorry—I fear if I get on that boat, I’ll be ill again. I don’t want to embarrass you.”
“Nonsense,” he said. He took her hand, kissed it. “You will never embarrass me.” He put their joined hands on her stomach. The warmth and affection in his eyes made her fall in love with him again. She felt like she loved Pierce a little more every day. “I can meet with Vince tomorrow. I’ll go back to the house with you.”
“This business meeting is important to you, isn’t it?”
“It might be.”
“Then go. Enjoy it. I can get home myself. Isn’t that what Ubers are for?”
“A sunset is not as pretty without the woman I love holding my hand.”
She wanted him home with her, but this was best. They had separate lives, at least in business; she didn’t want to pressure him in any way, just because she detested Tina. “I will wait up for you.”
He leaned over and kissed her. Gently. As if she would break. “Take good care of the woman I love, Bump,” he said to her stomach.
She melted, kissed him again, then turned and walked back down the dock, fighting an overwhelming urge to go back and ask Pierce to come home with her.
But she wouldn’t do it. It was silly and childish. Instead, she would go home, read a good book, and prepare a light meal for when Pierce came home. Then she would make love to her husband and put her past—and that hideous leech Tina Marshall—firmly out of her mind.
Jamie already regretted leaving Friday Harbor.
She listened to Cal’s message twice, then deleted it and cleaned up after dinner. Hazel was watching her half hour of PAW Patrol before bath, books, and bed.
Her dad’s remote house near Rogue Harbor was on the opposite side of the island from where they lived. Peaceful, quiet, what she thought she needed, especially since her dad wasn’t here. He was an airline pilot and had a condo in Seattle that he lived in more often than not, coming up here only when he had more than two days off in a row.
She left because she was hurt. She had every right to be hurt, dammit! But now that she was here, she wondered if she’d made a mistake.
Cal hadn’t technically cheated on her. But he also hadn’t told her that his ex-girlfriend was living on the island, not until the woman befriended her. She wouldn’t have thought twice about it except for the fact that Cal had hidden it from her.
She had a bad habit of running away from any hint of approaching drama. She hated conflict and would avoid it at all costs. Her mother was drama personified. How many times had young Jamie run to her dad’s house to get away from her mother’s bullshit? Finally when she was fifteen she permanently moved in with her dad, changed schools, and her mother didn’t say squat.
“You should have stayed and talked it out,” she mumbled to herself as she dried the dishes. The only bad thing about her dad’s place was that there was no dishwasher.
But Cal was coming to see her tonight. He didn’t run away from conflict. She wanted to fix this but didn’t know how because she was hurt. But he had to work, so she figured she had a few hours to think everything through. To know the right thing to do.
“Just tell him. Tell him how you feel.”
Her phone buzzed and at first she thought it was an Amber Alert, because it was an odd sound.
Instead, it was an emergency alert from the San Juan Island Sheriff’s Office.
19:07 SJSO ALERT! VESSEL EXPLOSION ONE MILE OUT FROM FRIDAY HARBOR, INJURIES UNKNOWN. ALL VESSELS AVOID FRIDAY HARBOR UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE.
Her stomach flipped and she grabbed the counter when a wave of dizziness washed over her.
She turned on the small television in the kitchen and switched to the local news. She watched in horror as the news anchor reported that a West End Charter yacht had exploded after leaving for a sunset cruise. He confirmed that it was the Water Lily and did not know at this time if there were survivors. Search and rescue crews were already out on the water, and authorities advised all vessels to dock immediately.
Cal had been scheduled to work the Water Lily tonight.
Hazel laughed at something silly on PAW Patrol. Jamie caught her breath, then suddenly tears fell. How could—? No. Not Cal. She loved him and even if they had problems, he loved Hazel more than anything in the world. He was the best father she could have hoped for. Hazel wasn’t planned, but she was loved so much, and Cal had made it clear that he was sticking, from the very beginning. How could she forget that? How could she have forgotten that Cal had never made her feel inadequate, he’d never hurt her, he always told her she could do anything she wanted? He was always there for her…when she was bedridden with Hazel for two months. When she broke her wrist and Hazel was still nursing, he held the baby to her breast every four hours. Changed every diaper. He sang to Hazel, read her books, giggled with her in makeshift blanket forts when thunder scared her.
And now he was gone.
There could be survivors. You have to go.
She couldn’t bring Hazel to the dock. The search, the sirens, the fear that filled the town. It would terrify the three-year-old.
But she couldn’t stay here. Cal needed her—injured or not, he needed her and she loved him. It was as simple as that. Rena would watch Hazel so Jamie could find Cal, make sure he was okay.
“Hazel, we’re going home.”
“I wanna sleep at Grandpa’s!”
“I forgot to feed Tabby.” Tabby was a stray cat who had adopted their carport on cold or rainy nights. He wouldn’t come into the house, and only on rare occasions would let Jamie pet him, but she’d started feeding him. Hazel had of course named him after a cat on her favorite show.
“Oh, Mommy! We gotta go rescue Tabby!”
And just like that, Hazel was ready.
Please, God, please please please please make Cal okay.
Ashley Dunlap didn’t like lying to her sister, but Whitney couldn’t keep a secret to save her life, and if Whitney said one word to their dad about Ashley’s involvement with Island Protectors, she’d be grounded until she graduated—and maybe even longer.
“We’re going to be late,” Whitney said.
“Dad will understand,” Ashley said, looking through the long lens of her camera at the West End Charter boat leaving port. She snapped a couple pictures, though they were too far away to see anything.
She was just one of several monitors who were keeping close tabs on West End boats in the hopes that they would catch them breaking the law. West End may have been able to convince most people in town that they had cleaned up their act, and some even believed their claims that the leakage two years ago was an accident, but as the founder of IP Donna Bell said time and time again, companies always put profit over people. And just because they hadn’t caught them breaking the law didn’t mean that they weren’t breaking the law. It was IP who documented the faulty fuel tanks two years ago that leaked their nasty fuel all over the coast. Who knows how many fish died because of their crimes? How long it would take the ecosystem to recover?
“Ash, Dad said not a minute past eight, and it’s already seven thirty. It’s going to take us thirty minutes just to dock and secure the boat.”
“It’s a beautiful evening,” Ashley said, turning her camera away from the Water Lily and toward the shore. Another boat was preparing to leave, but the largest yacht in the fleet—The Tempest—was already out with a group of fifty whale watching west of the island in the Haro Strait. Bobby and his brother were out that way, monitoring The Tempest.
Ashley was frustrated. They just didn’t have people who cared enough to take the time to monitor West End. There were only about eight or nine of them who were willing to spend all their free time standing up to West End, tracking their boats, making sure they were obeying the rules.
Everyone else just took West End’s word for it.
Whitney sighed. “I could tell Dad the sail snagged.”
“You can’t lie to save your life, sis,” Ashley said. “We’ll just tell him the truth. It’s a beautiful night and we got distracted by the beauty of the islands.”
Whitney laughed, then smiled. “It is pretty, isn’t it? Think those pictures are going to turn out? It’s getting a little choppy.”
“Some of them might,” she said.
Ashley turned her camera back to the Water Lily. The charter was still going only five knots as they left the harbor. She snapped a few pictures, saw that Neil Devereaux was piloting today. She liked Neil—he spent a lot of time at the Fish & Brew talking to her dad and anyone else who came in. He’d only lived here for a couple years, but he seemed like a native of the small community. She’d talked to him about the pollution problem from West End, and he kept saying that West End fixed the problem with the old tanks and he’d seen nothing to suggest that they had other problems or cut corners on the repairs. He told her he would look around, and if anything was wrong, he’d bring it to the Colfax family’s attention.
But could she believe him? Did he really care or was he just trying to get her to go away and leave West End alone?
Neil looked over at their sailboat, and both she and Whitney waved. He blew the horn and waved back.
A breeze rattled the sail, and Whitney grabbed the beam. “Shit!” she said.
Ashley put her camera back in its case and caught the rope dangling from the mast. “You good, Whit?”
“Yeah, it just slipped. Beautiful scenery is distracting. I got it.”
Whitney bent down to secure the line, and Ashley turned back toward the Water Lily as it passed the one-mile marker and picked up speed.
The bow shook so hard she thought they might have hit something, then a fireball erupted, shot into the air along with wood and—oh, God, people!—bright orange, then black smoke billowed from the Water Lily. The stern kept moving forward, the boat in two pieces—the front destroyed, the back collapsing.
Whitney screamed and Ashley stared. She saw a body in the water among the debris. The flames went out almost immediately, but the smoke filled the area.
“We have to help them,” Ashley said. “Whitney—”
Then a second explosion sent a shock wave toward their sailboat and it was all they could do to keep from going under themselves. Sirens on the shore sounded the alarm, and Ashley and Whitney headed back to the harbor as the sheriff’s rescue boats went toward the disaster.
Taking a final look back, Ashley pulled out her camera and took more pictures. If West End was to blame for this, Ashley would make sure they paid. Neil was a friend, a good man, like a grandfather to her. He…he couldn’t have survived. Could he?
She stared at the smoking boat, split in two.
No. She didn’t see how anyone survived that.
Tears streamed down her face and as soon as she and Whitney were docked, she hugged her sister tight.
I’ll get them, Neil. I promise you, I’ll prove that West End cut corners and killed you and everyone else.
Excerpted from The Wrong Victim by Allison Brennan, Copyright © 2022 by Allison Brennan. Published by MIRA Books.