Excerpt of "Whispers in the Dark"

Alex wandered closer to the water’s edge, letting the wet sand ooze between her toes with each step. Her sandals dangled from her fingertips. She tipped her face to the rising sun and reveled in the chill as a frothy wave slipped over her feet. Even at this early hour, the day’s heat already warmed her skin.

She inhaled the tangy Lake Michigan air and marveled as always at how much more like an ocean it seemed than a massive lake. She willed the rhythmic pulse of its waves to soothe the corded knot that seemed permanently jammed between her shoulder blades. She’d been in Whispering Pines for a week now in response to her grandmother’s unexpected request. And while she usually found visits to the quaint village relaxing, her insomnia and stress were still frustratingly present.

Turning north, she made her way up the shoreline, zigzagging around two small children who shrieked in delight as they played tag with the waves. Hopeful seagulls caterwauled overhead, diving for scraps left from the previous day’s picnickers. A few boats dotted the horizon. Sharp, white specks against the lake’s deep navy blue. A soft breeze pulled at the shorter wisps of dark hair that escaped her ponytail. They tickled her cheeks and neck, and she brushed them back, tightening the elastic.

Alex knew that in a few hours the beach would be swarming. Families toting coolers and beach toys would stake their claims across the soft, white sand. Groups of teens would fill the volleyball courts, flirting and lying down to bake in the warm June sunshine. But for now, it was blissfully vacant.

She reached for her cell phone to check the time, and suddenly, her legs were swept from beneath her. Alex cried out as her body hit the ground hard, sandals flying from her grip. She was flat on her back, trying to catch her breath, when a cold, wet nose and sloppy tongue assailed her. Twisting her face away, she pushed hard at the offender.

“Rex, nein! Pfui!”

The panting golden retriever instantly backed away at the command. Alex sat up, glaring at the dog, who didn’t appear the least bit repentant, tongue lolling, tail wagging. Instead, he looked expectantly at Alex and barked.

She brushed at the sand which now clung to her arms and clothing. And feeling the sting of it in her eyes, she squeezed them shut, swiping at them with both hands.

“I’m so sorry. He’s normally better behaved,” said a deep voice nearby.

The dog continued his short, staccato barks.

“What’s his problem?” Alex muttered, still brushing sand from her eyes.

“You’re sitting on his Frisbee.”

Squinting through one eye, Alex looked up to meet the voice’s owner. A pair of dark eyes met hers. So dark, in fact, Alex couldn’t make out where the pupils ended and the irises began. They were framed with thick, dark lashes—the kind most women would kill for. At the moment, though, the eyes were looking back at her from a masculine face wearing a bemused expression. This irritated Alex even more than the leg sweep from the dog.

The stranger reached down to offer his assistance, but Alex ignored him as she struggled to her feet.

Rex immediately dove for the Frisbee, gripping it between sharp, white teeth. He trotted to his master and dropped the toy, barking once again.

“Okay, boy!” the man said, picking it up. He curled the disk into his chest, then let it sail. In a flash of red-gold fur, Rex was off at a gallop, chasing it down. The stranger bent to retrieve Alex’s sandals, handing them to her.

The man was tall and lean. Hard biceps flexed below the sleeves of his faded T-shirt. His well-worn jeans were rolled up several inches to reveal tanned, muscular calves above bare feet.

“Sorry about Rex,” he apologized again. “He tends to get kind of energetic when we play. That’s why I like to bring him for his beach run early, just so this sort of thing doesn’t happen.”

“What? Tackling unsuspecting beachcombers?” Alex said, brushing more sand from her shorts.

“Yeah, like that.” The man grinned and extended his hand to her. “Jake Riley.”

She hesitated an instant before grasping his hand in return. “Alex Fontaine.” His grip was warm, encompassing hers.

“I don’t recall seeing you here before,” he said, still smiling. His gaze was direct. And disconcerting. And he was still holding onto her hand. She felt heat stain her cheeks as she pulled her fingers awkwardly from his.

“Well, it’s a public beach. I don’t suppose you can keep track of everyone,” Alex said drily.

“True. But I do try to keep track of the pretty ones.” He winked.

Alex stiffened. “Yes, well…I was just leaving.”

Jake’s charming grin faded. “Hey, I—”

Rex bounded back, distracting them both. He dropped the Frisbee directly in front of Alex and barked excitedly.

“Looks like he’s trying to apologize, too.”

Alex looked down at the dog. He was a beautiful animal, his coat shiny and softly curling. If dogs could smile, she’d have sworn that’s what Rex was doing now. He gazed up at her with liquid amber eyes that crinkled at the corners. She reached down to scratch his head, which inspired some energetic tail wagging. He gave her palm a lick.

“Pushy little guy, isn’t he,” Jake said. “Stealing a kiss like that.”

Alex shot Jake a sharp look, but his expression remained mild. She picked up the faded green Frisbee. Its edges were peppered with teeth marks, and gritty lakeshore sand clung to it.

She addressed the dog. “All right, buddy, but just one throw, okay?”

Rex barked.

Alex laughed and threw the Frisbee with a snap of her wrist.

“Nice!” Jake said as they watched the disk skim a course parallel to the shoreline.

“Thanks,” Alex replied as Rex raced after it. “I thought dogs weren’t allowed on the beach.”

“He gets special dispensation,” Jake said.

Alex looked at him curiously, but Jake didn’t explain. Instead, he turned toward her, his expression sincere. “The least you can do is allow me to buy you breakfast after I let Rex knock you over like that.”

The light wind coming off the lake played with the loose dark curls covering his head, and the angle of his jaw sported a good day’s growth of beard. He noticed her scrutiny and flashed another quick smile, teeth bright against bronzed skin.

Alex dropped her eyes then and mentally gave herself a face slap. Do not go there, Fontaine.

Just then, a young woman jogged past, long silky ponytail swishing from side to side as she moved. “Hey, Jakey!” She managed a sexy smile between puffs of oxygen.

“Lookin’ good, Vicki!” he called after her.

If Alex had needed something to bolster her resolve, that was it. Taking a deep breath, she said, “Look, I appreciate your apology, Jake. But as far as breakfast goes, I have to pass.” She paused, then added, “It was, er, nice meeting you.” And turning, she walked as swiftly as the sand allowed back toward the parking lot.

She could feel his eyes on her as she tossed her sandals into the car and climbed in. Please start. Please start. Please start. She turned the key in the ignition of her ancient Impala and resisted the urge to hug the steering wheel in relief as the engine hummed to life. She rolled her window down, then stretched across the massive front seat to lower the passenger’s side. She sighed with relief as the trapped heat escaped. Rex’s excited barks rose above the waves and gulls, but she didn’t dare look back as she pulled out of the lot and headed into town.




Driving up Main Street, she snagged an empty parking space directly in front of Fort Stearns, the town’s kitschy tourist trap.

She made her way up the sidewalk, silently applauding her confident shutdown of Jake Riley’s blatant attempts to flirt. Not so long ago, she would have been flattered to have such a hot guy expressing interest in her. As a matter of fact, she thought grimly, stopping at an intersection, not so long ago, she had been flattered.

Despite her daily resolve to keep all unpleasant thoughts at bay, memories pricked at her like shards of seashell underfoot. She found it frustrating that even after nearly six months, the wound was still so raw, and the pain close to the surface.

“Fool,” she muttered under her breath. The light changed and she marched through the intersection, sandals slapping hard against the steamy pavement. She cut across a parking lot and flung the Westlake Gas Station’s door open with such force that the jangling entrance bell flipped on its wire.

The yeasty smell of baking hit her in the face and Alex inhaled deeply, calming herself. Westlake provided a unique dual role to the citizens of Whispering Pines, serving as a gas station and the village’s only bakery.

Alex selected half a dozen donuts from the colorful bounty laid out behind the glass. After completing her purchase, she dug into the white bakery bag and pulled out a Boston Crème. Heading toward the door, she took a huge bite just as it swung wide to admit Jake Riley. She looked up at him, cheek puffed out like a squirrel with a nut.

That same slow grin from earlier spread across his lips and his eyes twinkled down at her. This time, she noticed he had deep dimples on either side of that dazzling smile. Suddenly, his hand shot forward, catching a glob of chocolate icing just as it fell from the corner of her mouth.

“Boston Crème, eh?” he said, popping it into his own mouth and smacking his lips together. “Mmmm. One of my favorites.”

Alex felt her face redden in shock.

“Will you look at this, Pat?” Jake said, directing his attention to the woman behind the counter. “I offer to buy the lady breakfast and she chooses one of your Boston Crèmes instead.”

“I don’t blame her one bit.” Pat chuckled, polishing the sparkling glass. “Steering clear of you is probably one of the smartest things a girl could do.”

“Ouch.” Jake placed both hands over his heart, his features arranged into a pained expression. “Haven’t I always been true to you?” He moved past Alex, sidling up to the counter to lean close to the older woman. Alex noticed his pants were no longer cuffed, and he had on work boots.

“Well, I guess you’re as true now as you were when you were a donut-loving five-year-old,” she laughed.

“Got a couple more of those Boston Crèmes left for me?”

“Don’t I always,” she replied with a wink.

“Yes, ma’am.” Jake reached for her across the counter. “You’ve always got what I want.” Pat slapped his hand away and scurried off, giggling like a teenager. “Jake Riley, you are shameless!”

“And one jelly filled too, please,” he called after her.

He’s absolutely disgusting! Alex thought.

It was clear, however, that Pat enjoyed Jake’s banter. Studying the woman, Alex guessed her to be in her mid-sixties. Her hair was dyed an unnatural burgundy color, pulled back from her round face, and crushed under a hairnet. A white apron covered her ample bosom and dumpling-shaped torso.

“You in town for a while this time, Jakey?” Pat asked, filling the bag.

Alex returned her gaze to Jake to find he was no longer looking at Pat. He lounged with his back to the countertop, eyes resting boldly on Alex. Her mouth tightened, and she spun back toward the door.

“Till the end of summer,” he replied, “maybe longer. Hey, Pat, have you met Alex Fontaine?”

Alex had just pushed open the door, but halted in her tracks, shooting Jake a dark look over her shoulder.

Pat returned to the counter to hand Jake his bag. “Nope, sure haven’t.” Removing the plastic glove she used to handle the food, she extended plump fingers with a smile. Alex was forced to cross back to the counter to shake it.

“Fontaine, eh? You any relation to Tilly Fontaine?” Pat asked, tilting her head.

“She’s my grandmother.”

“You look like her, especially ’round the eyes.”

“You know my grandmother?”

“I sub in a card group with her and a couple of other ladies,” Pat explained. “I can’t commit to every month what with taking care of Earl, so I just fill in on occasion.”

The older woman didn’t elaborate, and Alex was too polite to ask who Earl was.

“Well, well…” Jake raised his brows. “Visiting grandma. How nice.”

“Yes, it is nice.” Alex felt irrationally annoyed that this man now knew even this tiny detail of her life.

Pat turned her attention back to Jake. “And how’s your grandpa doing?”

“Ornery as ever.” Jake grinned. “Giving me lots of input at the site.”

Pat snorted. “What does he know about building condominiums?”

“Plenty, from the way he sees it.” Jake laughed.

“You’re the one building those new waterfront condos?” Alex blurted out before she could stop herself.

His eyes slid back to hers. “You’ve seen them?”

She looked away, refusing to meet his gaze. “I noticed the building renovation going on down at the beach,” she mumbled.

In truth, Alex had studied the huge sign located at the construction site with interest. It announced Riley Development Corporation was converting the old R & B Watchcase factory into some charming, new lakefront condominiums. Alex had suggested her grandmother might consider selling her present home and purchasing one.

Grandma Tilly lived several miles outside of Whispering Pines, in the home she and Alex’s grandfather had built for their retirement years ago. When Alex’s grandfather passed away, Tilly had insisted on remaining in the home. Tilly would be celebrating her seventieth birthday soon, and though her grandmother’s health was good, aside from her recent accident, Alex worried that soon the house and yard would be too much for her.

The sound of Pat’s voice brought Alex out of her reverie. “Earl and I will be moving in as soon as they’re finished.” Pat nudged Jake’s elbows off the glass countertop to polish the fresh smudges he’d created. “Did Rita give you the deposit and paperwork we filled out last week?”

“She did,” Jake replied, peering into his bag and pulling out one of the Boston Crèmes. “It’s a good thing you staked your claim. We’ve been generating a lot more interest since we finished up the remediation.”

“Well, it’s a fine idea you had, Jakey. Fixing up that old eyesore and making it into something useful. Of course, Earl and I especially like your idea of including the assisted living section.” Pat paused in her polishing. “Have you had any more incidents at the site?”

Jake swallowed the bite he’d taken. “Nope. Everything’s running smoothly now and we’re kicking it into high gear.”

Pat tossed her rag aside and started asking about specific amenities the complex would offer. So Alex was able to slip unnoticed out the door. She’d taken only a step when she heard a soft whine. She turned and saw a pale blue leash stretching from a chipped cement post at the side of the building to the collar on Rex. Alex walked over and squatted down to pet him. “He left you all alone, huh, boy?” she whispered. Rex’s tail thudded against the ground and he leaned his head heavily against her palm.

The bakery doorbell jingled. “See you later, Pat. Try not to miss me too much.”

“Oh, I’ll do my best.” Pat chuckled from inside.

Jake was beside them in an instant. Alex watched as he reached into his bag and pulled out the jelly-filled donut. “Here you go, boy,” he said, handing it to Rex.

“You’re feeding your dog a donut?”

Rex held the treat in his mouth, blinked once, then devoured it.

“Sure, it’s his breakfast. What’s the problem?”

“Have you ever heard of dog food?”

“Yeah, but Rex has more, er, refined tastes.”

“Oh right, like—”

“I thought that was you, Jake.” A stunning woman with an abundance of wavy, auburn hair approached them, her gaze focused on Jake.

Jake smiled. “Hi there, Christina. How’ve you been?”

“Much better now,” she drawled, curling her fingertips around his upper arm and giving it a squeeze. “I was wondering when you’d be in town again.”

“Well, here I am,” he said.

The woman’s face brightened. She slid a brief glance in Alex’s direction, then looked pointedly at Jake, making the universal “call me” sign with her hand before sashaying off.

Alex was on her feet in an instant. Seriously? Could this guy be any more of a player?

Jake looked back at Alex. “So, does your grandmother live here in town?


“Ah, somewhere on the outskirts then?”

“Not exactly.”

He arched one brow. “Well, how long will you be visiting?”

“A while.”

“Got any special plans for the day?”

“Not really.” With a final pat on Rex’s furry head, she turned away.

“Hey, wait! Where are you going?”


“What a coincidence, me too! Want some company?”

Alex crushed the top of her bakery bag as she turned slowly back. “Look, no offense, but I’m here on—on vacation. Alone on vacation,” she emphasized. “And I plan to keep it that way.” With that, she whirled and walked purposefully back toward her car.

Slamming the door shut, she closed her eyes and whispered her “please start” prayer again, feeling another surge of relief as the engine roared to life. This time, she risked a look back. To her annoyance, Jake and Rex stood right where she’d left them, both wearing bemused expressions on their faces.

Order your copy today!