Excerpt of "Forbidden Whispers"

It felt like he was swimming through mud. Struggling to fight his way to the surface. Eventually, he was able to pry open one eye, then the other. It was as if grains of sand were scraping up against the inside of his eyelids. He tried to move but his arms and legs were leaden. He took several slow, deep breaths and then with a monumental effort, forced himself up into a sitting position. A moan of pain escaped his lips with the effort. He blinked several times as his surroundings came into focus.

It appeared to be a spacious living room. But it was in shambles. There was a white leather sofa across from him, its stuffing poking up from slashes in the cushions. A sleek, black leather chair stood at one side of the sofa, its mate lay opposite, toppled onto its side. The sofa sat at a strange angle before a large window, currently obscured by the vertical blinds that covered it. Slivers of sunlight seeped out from the top and bottom, letting him know that it was daylight outside. In front of the sofa, the shards from a broken glass-top table were scattered across the thick, Arctic shag rug which lay beneath. In shock, he saw that the rug was stained with what was clearly a pool of dried blood. 

He lifted his gaze to slowly sweep over the rest of the room and noted more overturned furnishings and items scattered about. A cracked crystal vase lay on its side, the bouquet of fresh flowers that had clearly once been inside it now lay wilted and crushed in a puddle of water on the hardwood floor. Artwork that was still on the walls hung askew, the rest lay in broken frames on the floor.

The floor plan of the space was open, and he could see the dining area beyond where he sat on the hardwood floor. A marble dining table held a partially empty bottle of wine and two wine glasses. Beside it stood the dried up remains of cheeses and meats that must have once been a charcuterie tray.

He could tell that the decor of the place was luxurious, high end. But he didn’t recognize any of it. And the silence of the place was profound.

“Hello?” His voice came out like a croak. He squeezed his eyes shut against the sudden pain that rocked through his head as he spoke. He struggled to his feet and cleared his throat, trying again. “Hello, is anyone here?”

His words were met with silence.

He surveyed the room once more, and his eyes fell on a large, gilt sunburst mirror that had somehow escaped the destruction. He picked his way across the room toward it, feeling strangely uncoordinated. It was as if his feet were having difficulty translating the message from his brain telling them to move.

He reached the mirror and gasped as he took in his reflection. A pair of extremely bloodshot gray eyes stared back at him. His thick, dark curls, normally combed neatly back from his face, stood on end, framing a face which sported a colorful bruise on his left cheekbone. He could see a bit of dried blood around his nose and there were a few drips on his rumpled white polo shirt. He lifted his fingertips to gently touch the tender bruise, and noticed a white bandage on the inside of his left elbow. He extended his arm and saw that the bandage held a cotton ball in place. Had he donated blood during the night?

His head was really beginning to ache now and he was starting to feel nauseous. He moved to the black chair that was still in place, and sat down hard on it, dropping his head between his knees. He took several deep breaths, trying to think what to do. He had no idea where he was. And he had no memory of how he’d gotten there.

He searched through the fog of his mind, trying to recall any details from the night before. Suddenly, a memory popped into his head making him sit bolt upright, then he winced as the room spun. He remembered now. He’d been on his first date with Valentina last night. They’d met at Lakeside Latté for coffee. But he couldn’t recall anything after that. Was this her home? And if so, why did he have no recollection of coming here? And even more curious, where was she?

He glanced again at the dining room table, the two wine glasses, and the open bottle of wine. He frowned. There was no way that he drank anything last night. Was there?

He stood up again, and walked through the entire place calling Valentina’s name as he entered each room. In one bedroom, he spied a photograph by the bed, He walked over and picked it up. The image confirmed that this must be Valentina’s home. He girl in the picture was a young Valentina, maybe around the age of ten, and she was smiling up at a woman who looked similar to her. He set the photograph back down and moved on, searching every room in the place. But it was soon clear that he was alone.

He felt in his pocket and pulled out his cell phone. His first instinct was to call his police officer brother, Wade. Then he remembered Wade was out of town. He hesitated for a moment longer, debating. Then he checked his cell phone contacts, selected a name, and dialed a different number instead.


Maggie Milena sat in the coffee shop. across the table from her potential client, Sandra. She wore a sympathetic expression on her face. She’d heard similar versions of Sandra’s story many times, and she knew from experience that step one was simply letting the person feel heard.

Sandra had been divorced for over three years and she was in her early forties. She’d tried three different online dating services, but the matches were always horrendous. She hated the whole online process of “virtual dating” before the real dating even began. It just wasn’t working out well for her. And the last man she’d been paired up with had been the final straw.

“He was not interested in learning about me at all,” Sandra said, setting down her oversized mug with a clatter. “In fact, I have no idea how those algorithms put us together because we shared zero interests in common. He talked the entire night about himself and his impressive,” here she rolled her eyes, “portfolio of investments. And then, can you even believe it? He had the gall to ask me to pay for both our dinners, claiming he forgot his wallet!”

Maggie shook her head. “Well, that is something that would definitely never happen with Matches by Maggie date.”

Sandra lifted her mug again and took a sip of her coffee, then broke off a piece of the lemon and blueberry scone on the plate in front of her. “Can you explain to me how your program works?”

“Well, first of all, as a certified matchmaker, I create a dating experience that’s personalized just for you. It will be completely private, with no online dating profile for the world to see.”

Sandra nodded approvingly and took another sip of her coffee.

“Plus, nobody will ever ghost you, or present a false image that’s a far cry from reality.” Maggie warmed to her subject. “The Matches by Maggie process starts with you and I having a confidential in-depth conversation where I get to know you. I learn all about your life experiences, personal interests, hobbies, and relationship goals. I find out what you’re looking for in a potential partner, what’s worked for you in past relationships, and just as importantly, what hasn’t worked.

“Then you sit back and relax while I combine my matchmaker skills with the information I’ve gathered from you during our conversation. I personally handle everything from match selection to booking restaurant reservations to arranging whatever else you may want for your first date. I become your dating concierge. That way you spend your time dating instead of spending hours searching through online profiles and swiping screens.”

Sandra smiled at this as Maggie continued.

“We don’t do anything virtual. You’ll go on real face-to-face dates because that’s the only way to tell if there’s chemistry. It’s personal, it’s private, it’s effective and it’s off-line. After I select your match, I call you and share with you details about who I’ve chosen. I always respect your confidentiality and only share your first name, never your last name, address, phone number, email address, or where you work.

“As for the date itself, I do all in my power to create an environment that makes getting to know your match as easy and fun as possible. I even provide some effective conversation starter prompts to help your conversation flow smoothly.”

Maggie leaned forward, her light brown eyes darkening with intensity as she concluded her sales pitch. “Selecting your match isn’t just my job, Sandra, it’s my passion. I’m here to help you find that special someone. To help you achieve your very own happily ever after.”

Sandra sat back in her chair and looked pleased. “Well, that all sounds wonderful. And I must say, with only a few exceptions, your reviews speak for themselves!”

Maggie kept the easy smile on her face but inwardly seethed at the reminder of the mysterious negative reviews that had recently been popping up online.

“What happens after that first date?” Sandra asked.

“Well, I chat with you both to get feedback. If things went well, and you’ve already made plans to get together again, great! If not, it’s important that I get good feedback on your impressions, likes and dislikes so that I can fine-tune future matches.”

Their conversation continued a bit longer as Maggie answered a few more questions. But in less than half an hour, she had another signed contract in her hand. She bid Sandra farewell and sat back down in the booth, ready to relax and enjoy her own coffee and the rest of her cinnamon roll. But just as she lifted the delicious confection to her lips, her phone buzzed with a call.

She grinned, answering it with a tap. “It’s great to hear from you, Noah! Are you calling to tell me how great it went with Valentina last night? I had such a good feeling about you two.”


Maggie stood beside Noah Riley at the entrance to Valentina’s duplex with her mouth hanging open. Her gaze moved from him, to the trashed living room, back to him again. She’d already been there for two full minutes and hadn’t yet said a word.

Then just as he opened his mouth to speak, she started to sputter, “Wha…wha…what happened?

When he didn’t answer right away, she turned the full force of her wide-eyed, golden-brown gaze on him.

He gave a small shrug. “I don’t know.”

She gaped at him. “You don’t know? What do you mean you don’t know?”

“I’m sorry. But I just don’t know. For some reason I can’t remember anything from last night,” he said. “I wasn’t even certain where I was until I saw a picture of Valentina beside her bed when I searched the place.”

Maggie’s gaze scanned the room again, falling on the wine and glasses on the dining table. She looked at him accusingly. “Did you get so drunk last night that you blacked out?”

Noah shook his head. “I don’t drink.”

“Uh-huh,” Maggie said, looking doubtful, her eyes sweeping once again over his messy hair, bloodshot eyes, bruised face, and rumpled clothing. “And where is Valentina?”

“I don’t know.”

Maggie took a deep breath and ran a hand over her face, clearly thinking. “You say you’ve searched the entire duplex?”

He nodded. “Every room.”

“What about…other places in here.”

He looked confused. “Other places?”

She cleared her throat. “Clearly something happened here. Something…violent.” She swallowed, then continued. “I watch a lot of mysteries and sometimes, people aren’t always where you might expect them to be?”

Noah felt the blood drain from his face. “Are you talking about a dead body shoved in a closet or something?”

Maggie winced at his words, looking as pale as he probably did. “It’s…possible.”

A lump of panic rose in Noah’s throat, bringing with it the nausea he’d felt earlier. He raced into the kitchen and heaved over the sink. He was mortified to see out of the corner of his eye that Maggie had followed him. Her look of concern did nothing to assuage the embarrassment he felt.

He turned on the faucet and swished out his mouth for several long minutes.

“Would you like a piece of gum?” Maggie asked.

“Uh…yeah, that would be great.”

He dried his hands on the decorative towel hanging from Valentina’s pristine oven while Maggie rummaged through her purse, pulled out a stick of gum, and handed it to him. The crisp, clean flavor of peppermint filled his mouth, the scent of it helped to calm his nerves.

“So, I’m thinking we should probably go through the rooms more carefully then?” Maggie asked, looking apologetic.

A feeling of dread rose in him, but he gave a small nod. “Okay,” he said. “Let’s do this.”

Together, they moved from the kitchen down the hallway leading to the duplex’s other rooms. First they checked the laundry room, then the bathroom. A peek behind the shower curtain revealed nothing more incriminating than a sparkling clean marble shower.

Next, they stepped inside the master bedroom. Maggie dropped to the floor and peeked under the bed. She gave a sigh of relief. “It’s clear, except for a few dust bunnies.”

“Great.” Noah said, and turned to look at the closet with a feeling of distaste. He reached for the closet door handle and slowly opened it. Maggie was behind him, peeking around his shoulder.

The two sides of the walk-in closet held rows of clothing that were organized by color from light to dark. There was an empty laundry basket and shelves that held more clothing, neatly folded. Nothing more.

Noah sighed with relief and shut the door.

They moved on to the final room, the second bedroom. After Maggie’s look under the bed in there, Noah started to feel himself relax a little. He opened the closet door more easily than he had the first. But gave a sudden cry of shock and stumbled back against Maggie as a large dog came bounding out from inside.

The dog made a beeline for the front door of the duplex and began to whine.

Noah and Maggie exchanged a look and then raced after him. The dog appeared to be some type of a German Shepherd mix, with a glossy coat of black, cream, and gold fur. One of his ears stood straight upright, and the other was cocked at a forty-five degree angle. His long nose was pointed directly at the door. He wasn’t interested in them at all. He just continued to whine and began pawing at the door. A blue leash trailed from the collar around his neck.

“Maybe he needs to go to the bathroom?” Maggie suggested.

“Ooookay,” Noah said. He picked up the leash and opened the front door. The dog bolted through it pulling Noah along with him. He bounded down the steps of the duplex’s small front porch and stopped at the fire hydrant in front, lifting his leg.

Maggie stood at the front door watching while Noah, waited, and waited, and waited for the dog to finish. His mission finally complete, the dog trotted back to sit down in front of Noah. His soft, milk-chocolate brown eyes were expectant.

“I’m sorry boy, but I don’t have anything for you,” Noah said. He reached out a tentative hand and let the dog sniff him. Then he scratched him behind his flopped-over ear.

Maggie spoke from the open doorway. “He seems to know you.”

Noah looked at her helplessly.

She sighed. “I know, I know. You don’t remember. I wonder what his name is?”

“He’s got a tag.” Noah slipped his hand to the dog’s collar and lifted the small, silver circle at its center. “Boon.” He said, and looked at the dog’s face. “Well, Boon. Feel better now?”

Boon licked Noah’s palm.

Noah looked back at Maggie, bemused, and shrugged a shoulder. She gave him a half smile back and shook her head. Her soft blond curls bobbed around her face and shoulders, looking like a halo of gold in the morning sunlight. He was struck afresh with how beautiful she was.

As he led Boon back up the porch steps, his thoughts drifted back to when they’d attended high school together. He’d had the most massive crush on the curvy, petite Maggie Milena. Actually, it was more than a crush. He’d been completely in love with her. But she never knew. They’d met at the start of their junior year when he’d signed up to get an honor society member to tutor him in chemistry. Maggie was a total brainiac, ending up as their class valedictorian. And she had been an incredible tutor. She’d helped him pass that dreaded class. And during the time they’d spent together, he’d fallen head over heels for her. She was sweet and talented and beautiful. And he dreamed about a relationship with her. But unfortunately, she was already taken. She dated the football team’s quarterback, the most popular guy in school, her entire junior and senior years. So, he’d been forced to settle for the friend zone.

Instead, he’d focused all his energy on making music and getting gigs with his band. He and Maggie had remained close until the end of their senior year. But then they’d gone to different colleges. He’d tried to keep the friendship going, but Maggie hadn’t responded to his emails or texts, and he eventually gave up, believing he’d never see her again. But his love for her had never faded.

When his sister-in-law Alex had suggested using a matchmaking service to help him overcome his ongoing rein of dating disasters, he’d hesitated. But she’d insisted that good friends of hers had experienced great luck with Matches by Maggie, so he’d let her arrange his initial interview. But he’d had no idea it was his Maggie. When he’d walked into the coffee shop for their first meeting and saw her, he’d almost turned around and walked right back out. But she’d spotted him in an instant, waving him over to her table. 

She had been friendly and polite, but barely acknowledged their former friendship from a decade ago. However, from the moment he saw her again, the secret feelings he’d harbored for her came bubbling back to the surface, making it awkward when it came to the part of the interview where he had to share his dating background. He couldn’t tell her the whole truth about the issues he’d been having in the dating arena. Not Maggie Milena! So, he’d played down the real reason that he needed professional help getting dates, simply telling her that since he had recently started up his own business, he preferred the convenience of keeping his personal life offline.

She’d been understanding and professional, confident she could help him find the perfect match. Even though in his heart of hearts, he wanted that match to be with her.

Noah and Boon reached the door, and Maggie stepped aside to let them back in, shutting and locking it behind them. Then she turned to face Noah, her eyes snagging his. “So, what do we do now?”

“Uh….maybe we should go back and look in that closet where we found Boon,” Noah suggested. “There might a clue in there that will help me remember something.”

Maggie agreed, and Noah still holding Boon on his leash, led the three of them back to the second bedroom. The closet for this bedroom was much smaller than the master bedroom’s spacious walk-in closet. There was a simple rod with a couple of men’s shirts and pants hanging on one side. A large black suitcase lay on the shelf overhead. But the closet held nothing else.

“Anything spark a memory?” Maggie asked.

Noah shook his head. “Nope. And those are not my clo–”

He was shocked into silence by the sound of sudden, loud banging  at the front door of the duplex. “We know you’re in there Tina! Let us in! NOW!”

Maggie and Noah looked at each other, eyes wide. Boon began to growl.

“Tina!” More banging.

Noah shushed the dog. They stood frozen, unsure what to do.

The banging stopped and the voice grew softer, yet somehow sounding more dangerous. “You and your boyfriend are gonna pay for what you did, Tina. Going to the cops like that. And you never should have lied to Dom about that bachelorette party. Next time make sure you let all your little girlfriends in on your plan. He knows the truth now and he’s not happy, Tina. And even worse for you, I’m not happy. If you open the door now, it’ll go easier for you. At least, I promise not to leave any visible marks.” A pause. “I’m not making the same promise for your boyfriend. 

Noah saw all the color drain from Maggie’s face and he quickly put his arm around her waist to support her sagging legs.

“What’s happening?” she whispered. “Who is that guy?”

The voice came again, barely above a whisper now but clearly audible in the silent apartment. “Last chance, Tina. Open it, or I’m busting it down.”

A couple of seconds of dead silence ticked past and then there was the sound of violent kicks against the door.

Noah made a split-second decision. “C’mon!” he whispered, pulling Boon and Maggie with him through the open closet door. Boon growled again. “Shhhhh, no!” he commanded the dog in a loud, firm whisper. He pulled the closet door shut just as the sound of the cracking door frame shattered the air.

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