Heather Stanton awoke to a loud thump. She blinked into the darkness of the hotel room she’d been sharing with her aunt. Was someone trying to break in?
Heart pounding, she sat up in bed, her mouth so dry she could barely swallow.
Another Thump... clunk... Then... a woman’s quiet groan.
She gasped, and with a trembling hand, switched on the nightstand light.
Kneeling by the modest closet, her aunt tossed out shoes as if they were trash. Heather got out of bed, grabbed the water bottle from the night stand, and walked over to her.
“You scared me. What are you doing?”
Julia glanced up. “I have to find my red stilettos.”
“In the dark?” Heather swigged the water as she checked the time on the bedside clock. “At three in the morning?”
Julia waved a hand at her. “Don’t bother me. I have to find those shoes.”
What’s wrong with my aunt’s memory? “You pawned them last week because you said they were killing your feet.”
“Don’t be silly. I wouldn’t get rid of those shoes. I can’t go to the Belmont Stakes race in my bedroom slippers, can I?”
Aunt Julia and horses. Will she ever stop betting on the races? Heather gripped her aunt’s arm to help her stand.
“You can’t leave town for the next few months, until the end of your community service sentence, so the Belmont Stakes is out. The only place you’re going is back to sleep.”
Julia’s thin, graying eyebrows scrunched as she ambled to her bed. “Promise you’ll help me find those shoes?”
Heather climbed into her own bed, slid under the covers, and turned off the light. Her eyelids closed as thoughts of her aunt played in her mind. Julia had done some odd things in the past, but this behavior was crazy, even for her.
Maybe the trauma she suffered from finding a dead man, and being a suspect in his murder, had now manifested in sleepwalking. Her aunt should have talked to a counselor at the time, like the police suggested, but she refused. Too stubborn.
Now that their lives had gone back to relative normalcy, Julia seemed like her old self. Maybe sleepwalking will be a one-time thing.
In the morning, Heather dropped her aunt off at Willows Park for her second day of community service and drove back to the Franklin House Hotel. Breakfast was complementary, so she decided to take advantage.
Grabbing a copy of the local paper from the front counter, she waved hello to Vikki Garrett, the twenty-something desk clerk, and headed to the breakfast room. She loaded her plate with eggs, bacon, and toast, and made her way to a table in the corner near a small television. The weather lady on the local news station predicted today would be warm and sunny. Typical weather for May, and perfect for what she had to do. Opening the newspaper, she searched the ads for furnished apartments for rent.
Heather circled the two offered units and finished her toast. Making a life-changing decision usually killed her appetite, but deciding to stay in Willows Bend with her aunt was what she needed right now, a change from her previous manic job as a Marketing Account Executive in Chicago.
The breakfast room buzzed with other guests coming and going. She wrapped her hands around her coffee mug and drew in its strong scent. Her feet itched to be up and running. She wasn’t being lazy—this was small-town living. Time to get used to it.
A tall, dark-haired man approached her table from the lobby. She leaned forward, admiring his easy, confident walk and the way his muscles moved under his sports shirt. With his sky-blue eyes, Chad Willows looked as scrumptious as her breakfast had tasted. Hard to believe she already had warm feelings for the ex-P.I. turned bookstore owner. It had only been a week since they’d teamed up to clear her aunt of an impending murder charge.
But this wasn’t the time to consider starting a new relationship. She’d recently ended a long one with a womanizing divorce lawyer.
She stood to greet Chad. “Hi, what are you doing here?”
“I dropped off a couple of books the desk clerk ordered. We’re closing the store early for inventory, so she wouldn’t be able to pick them up today. As I was passing, I noticed you sitting here engrossed in our local newspaper. If you don’t mind my asking, what could you possibly find so fascinating in this little town? Nothing much ever happens here.”
Heather picked up the paper. “I’ve been searching the ads for an apartment to rent, but there are only two that are furnished.”
“I might be able to help you. Let me see the paper.” He shook his head as he read the ads. “The one at the top of the page is okay but pricy. The other’s in a rundown part of town, not sure you’d want to live there.”
“That’s the way my luck’s been running these days. Where do you suggest I look now? We can’t stay at this hotel much longer. It’s costing us a fortune.”
He hesitated a moment as the corner of his lips lifted in a half-smile. “I might have the perfect place for you and your aunt.”
This sounded like it could be a sure thing. “As long as it’s not too expensive. We’re on limited budgets.”
Chad slipped a hand into his pants pocket and pulled out a set of keys on a silver ring. “I’m sure we can work something out. But I have to warn you, the place isn’t big.”
“Anything larger than a hotel room is acceptable to me, and I’m sure my aunt will agree.”
Chad checked his cell phone. “I’ve got some time now. Would you like to see it?”
“I’m free.” She hoped he’d take the words literally.
She grabbed her purse as a special report flashed across the television screen. A view of Willows Park came up. Her Aunt Julia stood near the rose garden talking to a short, balding man in a beige suit, whom Heather recognized as Homicide Detective Ben Lindsey, from their encounter last week. In the background, uniformed police officers cordoned off the area.
Chad motioned toward the screen. “Isn’t that your aunt?”
Heather’s jaw dropped as her stomach clenched.
The voice of the local news anchor announced, “The body of an elderly woman was discovered in the garden area at Willows Park this morning by community service worker, Julia Fairchild. The dead woman’s name is being withheld pending next of kin notification. We’ll report more details as they become available.”
“Oh, my God!” Heather pulled out her cell phone and tapped the screen, but the call to her aunt was picked up by voice mail. She left a message. “I saw the awful news on TV. Call me as soon as you can.”
Heather grabbed her car keys. “I have to get down there. My aunt might need me.”
Chad rubbed his clean-shaven jaw. “From what I’ve seen of her, I’m pretty sure she can take care of herself.”
“Usually, I’d agree with you, but she hasn’t been herself, lately.” At least she wasn’t last night.