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Book Jacket

0849944309
Trade Paperback
304 pages
Apr 2004
W Publishing Group

Beyond A Doubt

by Colleen Coble

Review  |   Author Bio  |  Read an Excerpt

Excerpt:

Chapter 1

The North Woods crowded in around her, cutting off all possibility of escape. The brambles tore at her skin and left trickles of blood where they touched. Davy was calling for her, crying out for her to find him. Perspiration matted her hair to her forehead, and she pressed on through the thorns. She had to find him. He was depending on her.

They said he was dead, but she knew it wasn’t so. He was out here somewhere. Samson barked, an urgent sound that propelled her past the thicket. A cabin lay in the valley before her. He was down there. Her son was waiting for her. Samson barked again and rushed forward.

Bree Nicholls awoke with a start. She forced herself to take deep breaths. In and out, in and out. She and Samson had found Davy in a cabin very much like the one in her dream. He was just fine. But the terror of the nightmare didn’t leave her. Had Samson really barked? Maybe something was wrong.

She slipped out of bed and tiptoed down the hallway to her son’s bedroom. Moonlight filtered through the Superman curtains at his window. Her bare feet whispered across the smooth oak floor until she reached the bed. She touched a small hump in the covers, and her hand sank to the mattress. She gasped, and her hands roamed the tousled blankets and sheets.

She stepped to the wall and flicked on the light. “Davy?”

The doctor had said to make sure she didn’t startle him when he was having one of his night terrors. She went to the closet and looked on the floor. Only a jumble of baseballs, his father’s mitt, and some Playmobil pirates lay on the floor. She looked under the bed. Not there. Panic rose in her chest in a rush of cold dread.

She ran to the door and called for her dog as she rushed down the hallway. “Samson!” The dog could lead her to her boy. At the top of the stairs, she touched the light switch and a welcome brightness lit the way.

She reached the bottom of the steps. “Samson, come!”

She heard the click of his nails on the hardwood floor of the entry. He came through the door into the living room, his tail down, a sure sign of distress. He pressed his cold nose against her leg, bare below her knee-length nightgown.

Bree rubbed his ears. “Where’s Davy, boy? Find Davy.”

The dog whined and padded down the entry hall toward the back of the house. Four years old now, he had the stamina of a German shepherd mixed with the heart of the true mutt he was. She followed him. He pushed through the swinging door to the kitchen. A musty scent wafted up from the open basement door. Surely Davy wasn’t down there. What if he’d fallen? Frantic now, Bree flipped on the basement light, grabbed the flashlight on a shelf at the top of the landing, and rushed past Samson down the stairs.

There was no sign of Davy at the foot of the stairs, and she felt the tension in her shoulders ease a bit. At least he hadn’t fallen. “Davy?” she called, still careful to keep her voice soft and as unconcerned as she was able.

A whimper answered her, but in the cavernous shadows of the basement, she couldn’t tell where it came from. Samson pushed past her and padded toward a shadowy recess. The dog lay on his paws and stared under a bulky table laden with Rob’s tools. He looked back toward Bree as if to ask what was taking her so long.

She went to the table and dropped to her knees. “Davy, I’m here. It’s okay. You’re safe.”

The flashlight’s beam revealed her son’s small form. Wedged under the table in a small hole where the concrete had broken away from the wall, Davy lay curled in a fetal position, his thumb in his mouth. his favorite book, The Tale of Three Trees by Angela Hunt, was clutched against his chest. Right now he looked even younger than his four years. Bree reached out and touched his face. “Hey, pumpkin, found you. You ready to quit playing hide-and-seek and get back to bed?” It was all she could do to keep her voice light.

Davy blinked slowly and pulled his hand away from his mouth. “Mommy,” he said. “I’m thirsty.”

“Well, come on out from there and I’ll get you a drink of juice.” She shoved the table out of the way then scooped him into her arms and held him tightly. She could feel his heart beating as rapidly as hers.

He buried his face against her neck. “I was trying to find you, Mommy. But she wouldn’t let me go.”

Davy never called the woman who found him after the plane crash by her real name, Rachel. It was always “her” or “she.” Bree stroked his damp hair. “You’re safe now, pumpkin.”

The doctor said it was very important not to let him know how his night wanderings upset her. They more than upset her. They took her back to the terrible year she and Samson had spent searching for the plane wreckage and his body.

Instead, a wonderful miracle had awaited her, but the trauma of separation had scarred them both. She clutched her son more tightly until he stirred restlessly. “Let’s get you upstairs,” she said with a cheeriness she didn’t feel.

She snapped her fingers at Samson, but the dog was busy scratching at the hole Davy had burrowed into. “Come on, Samson. It’s late.”

She started toward the steps, but still the dog didn’t follow. Frowning, she watched Samson. As one of the best search-and-rescue dogs in the country, he could find a flea in a haystack. Right now he was acting as if he was on a mission. He whined and scratched at the wall again.

Bree flicked on the flashlight and shone it on the open hole. The beam revealed a bigger space than she had originally perceived. What was back there that had Samson so upset? He growled and dug tenaciously.

The flashlight’s beam flickered, and she turned it off. “Come on, Samson. We’ll see what’s back there tomorrow.” Still holding Davy in one arm, she reached down and tugged at the dog’s collar. He ceased digging reluctantly, then followed her up the stairs. She made a mental note to call Kade tomorrow and have him help her take a look.

~

Julia Child’s gravelly voice was enough to compete with fingernails on a chalkboard, but Bree didn’t notice, so intent was she on the woman’s instructions. His night terror of just hours before forgotten, Davy sat on the bar stool, his thin legs swinging and his gaze on his mother as she watched Julia on a small kitchen tele-vision mounted under the cabinets. Floury hand prints marked Bree’s jeans, but she would change into a clean pair of slacks before dinner.

Samson lay on the floor in a patch of sunshine streaming through the kitchen window. The Snow King had tightened his grip on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Outside the Nichollses’ lighthouse home, thick floes of ice floated in Lake Superior like great white whales stretching in the morning sun. Spring’s gentle touch would wrest the U.P. from winter’s clutches in a few more weeks.

Bree kept stealing glances outside as she worked. She loved Rock Harbor, Michigan. Small but quaint, it perched along Lake Superior with the water to its west and massive stretches of North Woods surrounding the rest of the small town. Good people lived here, many from Finnish stock, hardy and sometimes painfully honest. She couldn’t imagine living anywhere else now.

Her tongue poking the side of her mouth, Bree measured the cinnamon and dumped it in the bowl with the apples. She would turn out a great pie if it killed her. Her mother-in-law, Anu, had told her not to bother, that she could make the pies for Easter. But with the store’s twentieth anniversary bash going on, Bree didn’t want Anu to have to do it all. Besides, now that Davy was home, Bree needed to learn to cook better. It was fine for her to live on peanut-butter sandwiches and canned soup, but it wasn’t good enough for her son. She’d been working on her culinary skills for several months now, but cooking wasn’t something that came naturally.

She took a moment to glance at her son. He’d only been home a little over three months, and she still didn’t get enough of looking at him. His heart-shaped face was a miniature version of Bree’s own, though his nose was his father’s, as were his ears. The best of them both, Rob had always said. The thought of her late husband was both a pain and a pleasure. But slowly she was getting on with her life. At least that’s what she told herself.

“Can I have some ’stachios?” Davy asked.

He coughed, a hacking sound that brought a frown to her face. “You doing okay?” she asked, wiping her hands on her jeans again.

He sneezed. “My tummy feels funny.”

Was he getting sick? Last night’s excursion to the basement might have given him more than bleary morning eyes. She put down the wooden spoon and went to him, putting her hand on his forehead. It was cool and dry. He sneezed again. “Are you getting a cold?” she asked anxiously.

“I want to eat.”

Surely that meant he was fine. But she wouldn’t take any chances. She reached for the phone and dialed Dr. Parker. He promised to come by, and she hung up feeling guilty. She hated to take advantage of an old family friend, but Davy was still weak from his ordeal, and she wanted to make sure he got well as quickly as possible.

She pulled the bag of pistachios to her and dug out a handful for him. “You want me to help you open them?”

“I can do it.” He worked his mouth as he struggled with the nut then smiled in triumph as he succeeded in cracking it.

She turned back to her pie. Maybe she could get it in the oven before the doctor got here. Julia was droning on about aluminum foil on the edges of the crust, but Bree didn’t have any foil. She listened with half an ear and finished the pie, then flipped the channel to the Cartoon Network for Davy.

The doorbell rang just as she slid the pie into the oven. She wiped her hands on her abused jeans and went to the door. Dr. Max Parker stood smiling benignly on her front porch. Tall with regal bearing, he’d always reminded her of an aging lion with his head of white hair and eyes that seemed to see right through her.

“I’m being silly, aren’t I?” she laughed, stepping aside for him to enter. Her spirits always perked up when he was around.

“We can’t be too careful with our star boy.” His deep voice was as calming as rhythmic waves along the lakeshore.

“You are always so gracious, even when I call at inconvenient times.”

“You know I never mind checking in on this little guy. I brought him into the world, but he’d be special even if I didn’t.”

Her anxiety decreased a notch just looking into his imperturbable face. “He’s coughing and says his tummy feels funny.” She led the way to the kitchen where Davy was still watching tele-vision and eating pistachios.

Bree watched as Dr. Parker listened to her son’s chest. His “uh-huhs” and “hmms” took her anxiety back up again. Surely it was just a cold.

Dr. Parker straightened. “I think you’ll live, young man,” he said.

Davy was paying no attention to the doctor. His focus was on Scooby Doo, Where Are You? Bree, however, felt almost giddy at the prognosis.

Dr. Parker put a hand on her shoulder. “You worry too much. He’s fine—maybe just a slight cold or allergy from the furnace heat. It looks like he’s even gained some weight. My colleague says his counseling sessions are going well.”

“I guess.” Bree moved restlessly. The topic was not one she enjoyed.

“You don’t sound too sure.” The doctor put his stethoscope in his bag and closed the clasp. “What’s wrong?”

She glanced at Davy, then led the doctor out of the kitchen into the entry. “I almost think the counseling is making things worse. Davy goes wandering several times a week.”

“Give him time. He’s been through a lot. You both have. I’ll talk to Dr. Walton about it next week.” He turned toward the door, but his attention was caught by the newspaper on the table. “Good picture of Anu.” He picked it up. “She’s quite a lady.”

The admiration in his voice made Bree hide a smile. “I don’t know what Davy and I would do without her. She’s really excited about the store’s twentieth anniversary. Big sale. She’s in Helsinki buying for spring. You’ll have to stop over when she gets back.”

“I will,” he agreed, heading toward the door.

Bree followed him. “Thanks for coming over like this. I really appreciate it.”

“It’s what friends do,” he said, smiling. He squeezed her shoulder as he exited. “Davy is recovering nicely. Spend plenty of time with him, and he’ll soon be himself again.”

As he went down the walk, Kade Matthews’s pickup pulled into the drive. She waited with the door open, flinching at the cold wind that blew down her back. Across the road, puffs of snow nestled in the nooks of tree branches as if they’d been left behind in a snowball fight.

Kade came toward her, and just looking at him gave her pleasure. He was all male, from his wide shoulders to his strong, capable hands; Bree felt safe in his presence. That was something she’d never felt with another man, not even Rob.

He kissed her, a lingering touch that left her breathless. He brought feelings to the surface she’d thought were dead and buried. She broke off the kiss with a smile of apology and stepped back.

He grinned then flexed the muscles in his arm. “Me Tarzan. I bring big sledgehammer. Lead me to concrete wall.”

Bree grinned and poked him in the solar plexus. He grunted and acted as though he was hurt. She laughed. “We might not have to take it down, you know.”

He flashed her a cocky grin. “Maybe we could just take it down for fun,” he said. “I was ready to get out of the house, and I can use the workout. Besides, exercise is good for what ails you.”

“Lauri?”

Kade shrugged and rolled his eyes then strode toward the kitchen. “Hey, Davy,” he said.

Davy looked up from watching his cartoon. “Hi, Kade,” he said, his attention quickly shifting back to the cartoon.

Kade turned back toward Bree. “Spurned for a cartoon,” he said. “I’m crushed. But I should be used to getting the cold shoulder.” His tone was wry but held affection.

“He’s still missing his daddy.” Bree patted Kade’s arm.

“Is he still wandering around in the night?” Kade asked, staring into her face.

Bree nodded. “Several times a week. I’m taking him to see Dr. Walton again on Monday.”

“It will just take time. He was cooped up in that cabin with Rachel for nearly a year. Who knows what makes someone like her tick, or how long what she did will affect him? A normal person would have notified his family right away. Have you heard anything from her?”

“No. Davy mentioned her last night though, when I found him in the basement. And the other day he asked where she was. I just told him she’d gone to start her new job. He asked if she was living where she didn’t have to carry wood for the fire.” Suddenly cold, Bree clasped her arms around her. She didn’t like to think of those dark days. At least Rachel had taken care of her son, even if she’d tried to steal him.

Kade slipped his arm around her. “He’s safe now,” he whispered.

Tears pooling, she nodded against his chest. “Yes, and I thank God for that every day.” The strength of his warm arms was a haven she didn’t want to leave. She stepped away reluctantly. “You ready to get to work?”

“Lead me to it.”

She grabbed a flashlight and went to the basement door, pausing to flip on the light.

“Davy,” she called, “we’ll be downstairs.” Stepping carefully, she led the way down the narrow steps to the basement and across the damp concrete floor. The back corner was lit with a bare bulb attached to a joist.

“Right here.” She shoved the table. “Let’s move this out of the way.”

Once the table was out of the way, Kade inspected the concrete wall, running his hands over the smooth surface. Bree loved his hands. They reminded her of bear paws. He was a good man. She picked at the loose concrete around the hole. “Samson seemed almost driven to get back here.” She aimed her flashlight beam inside but couldn’t see anything.

Kade squatted beside the wall. “Wonder why they even put it up? It’s newer than the other walls. Look at the concrete—it’s a different color.” He flashed a slanted grin at her. “Maybe someone buried a treasure here.”

The wall was about six feet wide and went from the concrete floor to the floor joists of the first floor above them. The other walls were stained and dark, and this concrete was much lighter in color. Bree had never noticed the discrepancy before. Some investigator she was.

She grinned. “I’m never that lucky.”

“It shouldn’t take much to knock it down and find out.”

“You promise my home’s not going to cave in when you do?”

“Nah,” Kade said. “This is no support wall.”

“Let’s get it down then.”

“You got it.” Kade hefted the sledgehammer to his broad shoulder and took a wide-legged stance. “Stand back. I don’t want you to get hit by flying concrete.”

Bree stepped back, stifling a giggle. Was there anything a man enjoyed more than power tools and demolition? Kade brought the heavy tool down in a wide arc. It struck the concrete with a sound that made her wince. The sledgehammer barely chipped the surface of the wall. Kade cleared his throat and stood a bit taller and uttered a hoarse cry, the equivalent of his Tarzan yell. Gripping the sledgehammer more tightly, he swung at the wall again and then continued to pound at it. The ringing in her ears increased, and she clapped her hands over them.

A second hole appeared then widened. Kade paused long enough to shine his flashlight into the space to gauge how deep it was. He picked up the sledgehammer again and began to pound the wall once more. Concrete dust flew into the air; then the wall began to crumble.

He kicked the debris out of the way and stepped forward to peer into the small cavern his work had revealed. “Where’s the flashlight?” he asked.

“Right here.” Bree flicked it on and handed it to him.

The beam probed the darkness. The dim light illuminated something heaped in the back corner.

Bree stepped forward to see what it was. Kade put his arm out to stop her. “Call Mason,” he said. “We’ve got a body here.”

 

2

T

he final bell echoed in the hallway. Lauri Matthews slammed her books into her locker and grabbed her jacket. If she never saw these beige walls again, she would dance through the streets. Two more years of this agony—how could she stand it? She looked at her classmates and felt ancient in comparison. No one else had to deal with an older brother who acted like Hitler.

Several of her friends stood giggling by the water fountain as they watched the track team walk by. Morons, all of them. Lauri headed down another hall so she wouldn’t have to deal with their juvenile laughter. None of them really cared about her anyway. They were just her friends because she was going out with Brian Parker, the school hottie. Until Brian had noticed her, she was just a face in the crowd.

She’d had a few friends, but they’d dropped her when the “in” crowd had picked her up. Sometimes she saw her former best friends, Dinah and Ruth, staring at her as though she held the answer to all their problems, and she had to turn her head. They wouldn’t fit in any better than she did. If she could, she’d turn the clock back to last year when she was just Lauri Matthews, living with her mother and giggling on her bed with Dinah and Ruth talking about how ridiculous Andi Boone looked in that short cheerleader skirt with her meaty thighs, and trading secrets about which boy had spoken to one of them in the lunchroom.

She gnawed on her thumbnail as she walked toward Brian, who waited for her in his shiny car. He gave her that familiar smile, and it occurred to her that she should bolt like a deer from a hunter, run to her mother’s safe arms, smell the scent that was particularly her mom: musk cologne mingled with the fresh scent of Downy fabric softener. But she couldn’t.

Brian kept smiling, and she forced her face to respond though misery dogged her footsteps. Reaching the car, she threw her backpack into the backseat and climbed in. He leaned over and kissed her, and she turned her head so that all he caught was the side of her cheek.

He grimaced. “What’s with the mood? I’ve had it, Lauri.” He turned the key and gunned the engine. Several boys turned to stare and grin. Brian dropped the car into gear and roared out of the school parking lot.

Lauri stayed quiet. What was there to say? Life was impossible and refused to get better. The future stretched ahead of her without a glimmer of light.

Brian glanced at her. “I’ve got soda in the back. Want to check out some of the cabins?”

She knew what he really wanted. What else was there anyway? She was trapped in this pit she’d chosen of her own free will. “I guess. Are the other guys going to be there? Is there another delivery?”

“Nope, just the two of us.” His lecherous smile turned her stomach. “How did your algebra test go?”

At least he was showing some interest in her as a person. Her chilly feelings toward him warmed a few degrees. “Okay. I think I passed anyway. You do okay on your English test?”

He let out an exasperated sigh. “I think I bombed it. That’s okay though. Old man Pynonnen wouldn’t dare flunk me. Dad gives his drama department too much money.”

Lauri felt sorry for Brian’s dad. He worked hard at the clinic and gave a lot of money away to good causes. Brian was always there with his hand out, and he didn’t really give his dad any respect. Brian didn’t know how lucky he was to even have a dad. But who was she to judge? She knew she’d never given her own mom the respect she deserved.

“Do you hate coming home to an empty house? That’s what I miss the most—Mom being there, asking how my day went.”

Brian shrugged and looked away. “Yeah, well, my mom never much cared what I did and where I went. Good riddance, I say. I miss Gramps more than her.”

“I don’t get to see my grandparents much.” Lauri chewed a sliver of nail off her thumb.

“Gramps was great! He was in pain a lot though, ever since World War II. He got shot and the doctors couldn’t get out all the shrapnel. He was doped up on painkillers most of the time. But when the demons weren’t on his back, he was a lot of fun. He taught me how to sail one summer.” Keeping one hand on the steering wheel, he slipped his arm around her with a sly smile. “But who cares about old people? We’ve got the whole evening ahead of us.”

Lauri didn’t answer. Her mother had mattered, and she’d taken her for granted. Was she even now doing the same thing with Kade? Kade had given up a lot to come back to Rock Harbor. He had hoped never to come back here, and she knew it.

When they were growing up, he was butting heads with Dad all the time. Lauri had forgotten that, mostly because she’d never understood it. She remembered her father as a great giant who tossed her in the air and tickled her tummy. But her brother spoke only of a hard, inflexible father who said Kade would never measure up. He had wanted to prove that he could make it on his own in someplace new, and now, thanks to her, he was stuck back here in Rock Harbor.

Lauri frowned and looked out the window at the passing forest. In science they’d studied metamorphosis. Kade had metamorphosed into the father he despised. Maybe she should point that out to him.

Brian drove for what seemed forever then turned on a muddy track that followed Lake Superior’s shoreline. He parked at a cabin she’d never seen before and jumped out of the car. He surprised her still more by opening her door. “Hey, I’m sorry for the way things have been lately,” he said. “Let’s kiss and make up, okay?”

She forced a smile, suspicious of his sudden friendliness. “Whose truck is that?” she asked, pointing to a blue Dodge crew cab parked across the road. The surprise on Brian’s face was obviously fake. She narrowed her eyes. “I thought you said it was just the two of us.”

He grabbed her backpack. “Maybe you can do your homework while I talk to them for a few minutes.”

She jerked her backpack out of his hands. “If I’d known you were going to meet those jerks here, I would have had you take me home!”

He spread his hands. “Hey, it’s just a little business to take care of.”

“I already know what kind of business it is, and I don’t want to be a part of it!” Flipping her backpack over her shoulder, she stalked to the house. The lock was already jimmied, so she went on in.

Looking around, her breathing quickened. She knew it was wrong to break into cabins like this, but the pull of the forbidden had become almost an addiction for her. Poking through other people’s private belongings, she imagined their lives, perfect lives that made her long to have grown up as someone else.

She went to the bedroom. It was the room that usually held the most secrets. Her heart did a little dance when she saw the cedar chest at the foot of the bed. Chests like this always held treasure. Dropping her jacket and backpack on the floor, she knelt and lifted the lid.

The aroma of cedar overwhelmed her with memories. Her grandmother in Grand Rapids had a cedar chest full of old memorabilia that Lauri used to sort through every summer. Jackpot. The chest was filled with boxes, scrapbooks, and photograph albums. Brian could spend the rest of the day with his friends as far as she was concerned.

Reverently, she lifted the first box and opened the lid. It held a jumble of loose color photos. Her smile froze when she recognized the smiling lady on the top photo. With a little girl on one side and a boy on the other, a much younger Anu Nicholls smiled at the camera.

Lauri’s gaze darted around the room. Who would have photos of Anu and her family? Lauri sorted through the box. Every picture in it was of Anu, by herself or with the children. Someone was . . . obsessed.

Fear soured Lauri’s stomach. Was Anu in danger? She couldn’t find out without broadcasting to all of Rock Harbor that she’d broken the law by breaking in to someone’s cabin. In spite of the way things were at home, she wasn’t keen on being sent to an institution for juvenile delinquents.

Lauri had never felt such conflicting emotions. Anu Nicholls was one of her favorite people in the whole world. Lauri often stopped by the store and bought pulla on her way to babysit Donovan’s kids. Lately, Anu had taken to showing her how to make the Finnish delicacies she carried in the shop.

How could Lauri protect her without getting in trouble?

Lauri’s eyes widened, and she began to smile. Maybe she could solve the mystery herself. If she prevented someone from hurting Anu, surely no one would ask how she came by the information. Maybe she could actually redeem herself, prove to Kade that she was not the troublemaker he believed her to be.

In a fever of excitement, she began to go through the cedar chest. One box contained military medals and another, children’s drawings. The childish signatures at the bottom made her blink in astonishment. Hilary and Rob, Anu’s children. Of course.

She searched further and stopped when her hand touched cold metal. Two guns lay on the bottom of the chest. Lauri checked them. They were loaded.

Snatching her hand away, she scooted back on her heels away from the cedar chest. Her heart felt as cold as the metal on the firearms. Biting her lip, she forced herself to continue looking. There had to be some clue to the identity of the cabin’s owner.

She sorted through a jumble of old coins—some from other countries—and several boxes of baseball cards. Her hands went still as she realized she was leaving her fingerprints all over the stuff. But it was too late now. She laid each box aside as she finished with it. One side of the chest was empty now, and she continued to pry.

In one box she found handcuffs, duct tape, and rope. She felt sick as she wondered if someone intended to kidnap Anu. But why? She’d never hurt anyone. Money maybe. Everyone said Nicholls’ Finnish Imports had been a Cinderella kind of success story.

Flipping through a newer photo album, Lauri came across a recent picture of Bree and Davy. A large red circle was drawn around Davy, and Lauri felt her heart flip. Maybe Davy would be used to get at Anu. Was that possible? Nausea rose in her at the thought that this little boy might be put through even more than he’d already endured. She had to find a way to keep that from happening.