A bleeding man. Fleeing customers. This isn’t what our heroines expected in Blue Harbor, Maine.
Screaming customers shoved past us, stepping over the bleeding man and rushing from the shop. Soon, the store was empty except for Jonathan, Eric, and us. Bella sat frozen on a stool, her hazel eyes round as saucers. Scarlett backed away until her back hit a pink booth. I shivered as I watched the blood spread around the body and across the white-tiled floor.
Jonathan jumped over the counter and raced to the young man dying on his floor. He yelled over his shoulder, “Call an ambulance.”
“I will.” Bella fumbled with her handbag. “What should I tell the police?”
“He’s bleeding to death,” Scarlett said, her face white from shock.
“They cut his throat.” Jonathan came to his feet, staring at his bloody hands. “It’s too late.”
“They?” I asked with a squeak.
“I called the police,” Bella said.
Jonathan withdrew a cloth from behind the counter and wiped his hands. With a grim expression, he turned to us. “You can leave; I’ll answer the police’s questions.” He looked at Eric, who stood beside the counter, his skinny body quivering. “You too.”
“The man said ‘they’re back.’” I faced Jonathan. “Who are they?”
Icy blue eyes glared into mine. “I don’t know.” Jonathan averted his face, rubbing at his red-stained hands with the blood-soaked cloth.
“Let’s go.” Bella grabbed my arm. “We’ll get in the way.”
I followed Bella and Scarlett from the shop. The sun had set, leaving behind dark and deserted streets. I didn’t hear any sounds until a stretcher and officers rushed past us. Then the wail of sirens and shouts of police bombarded my eardrums, a veil lifting to show the ugly truth.
“Move, lady,” an officer yelled in my ear.
Scarlett yanked my arm, pulling me across the street. Bella joined us as we watched the paramedics and police swarm into the pink parlor, a white van labeled The Coroner’s Office pulling in front. A man ran into the store with a black bag clutched in his hand. Once the sirens quieted, people emerged on the streets, but no one dared to approach Jonathan’s shop.
“Look.” Scarlett pointed at David, who rounded the corner and strode to the parlor. He opened the door and hurried into the shop. “What is he doing here?”
“He works with the police,” Bella replied.
“But he’s a lawyer.” I gaped at Bella.
She shrugged. “A smart lawyer who knows how to fight crime. As an ex-marine, he’s handy with a firearm.”
“Oh, no.” Scarlett touched my arm.
I followed her gaze to the tall man opening the shop’s hot-pink door. “Don’t tell me Logan also works for the police.” I frowned at Bella.
“Okay, I won’t tell you.”
“Spill it.” Scarlett grabbed Bella’s arm.
Bella shrugged Scarlett’s hand from her arm. “Logan owns an investment firm, but he helps the police on occasion.”
“No way.” Scarlett shook her head. “Is he an ex-marine like David?”
She averted her face. “Logan wasn’t a marine but a Navy Seal.”
Scarlett shot me a look, and we kept silent.
The pink door opened. Two police officers carried a stretcher, the body covered by a sheet, and loaded it into the coroner’s van. A heavy-set man, wearing a blue uniform, stepped from the doorway, scowling at the people crowding the sidewalks.
“The chief of police,” Bella said. “Ryan Lively.”
“He’s focusing his beady eyes on us.” Scarlett stepped back from the curb. “We should head home.”
“I agree.” Bella shivered. “He gives me the creeps.”
The police chief marched across the street.
“Too late,” Scarlett whispered.
The chief halted a few feet from us, his short, stocky body blocking our escape. “Hello, Bella Fox. We meet again.”
I turned to Bella, who stood frozen like a deer caught in headlights.
“And who are you?” Black eyes stared at us from a beefy face.
“I’m Elizabeth Reading.” I nodded at Scarlett. “This is Scarlett Harding.”
“I was told you were present at the scene.”
“We were ordering ice cream,” I replied.
“Is that so?” His thin lips curled.
I didn’t answer. Ryan Lively didn’t appear to be a friendly, small-town cop, and I wasn’t offering information unless asked.
“What do you want from us?” Bella yielded first. “We witnessed a man bleeding to death on the floor.”
His bushy eyebrows met in a straight line. “Don’t be difficult, Bella Fox.” He swiped a hand through his short gray hair. “Not as last time.”
“Last time?” Scarlett asked before clamping her mouth shut at the chief’s scowl.
“There’s always trouble in Blue Harbor,” Bella replied.
“Keep your opinions to yourself.” Lively swung his back to Bella, turning his attention to us. “Join me at the scene.” He glanced over his shoulder at Bella. “You too.” The chief strode across the street, the crowd parting as we followed him into the ice cream parlor.
Are you invited to a party? Can it be at End House? A deserted house at the edge Of the forest in Oasis, Florida. People have disappeared from this house, Never to be seen or heard from again. Are you going to this party? I admire your courage. Your tenacity.
I will tell you what you may expect. No one will answer your knock on the door. The door will open by itself, Inviting you to step inside. Flickering candles and gargoyles line the staircase. Your group will divide into two. The first group will follow the staircase candles. Your group will follow the flickering lights in the right hallwayto the basement.
Which group will find the elusive host? Who will survive to tell the tale? Only I know. For I am one of The Dead. We love our games. Welcome to THE DEAD GAME.
“I’m bone-tired.” Scarlett plopped onto the couch, crossing her ankles on the glass coffee table. “I may never move again.” She leaned forward to massage her jean-clad legs.
I settled beside her, smoothing my hand across the plush gray suede. “When you said furnished, I didn’t know you meant living in luxury.” A massive flat TV screen faced the couch and two chairs; tall brass lamps stood on the glass end tables. Polished light-wood floors wove through the rooms, leading to a sectional beige leather couch curved around a second TV in the den. “And we have king-sized beds.”
Scarlett loosened her curls from the scrunchie. “In case we have company.”
“Do you expect company?” I asked, wiggling my eyebrows.
She snickered. “You’ll be welcoming a guest before I do.”
“I intend to sleep alone.” I felt my brow furrowing. “No more live-in boyfriends.”
“We’ll see after your date tomorrow.” Scarlett grabbed the remote from an end table and flipped through the channels, the changing screen absorbing her attention. “I’m set for the evening. Oh, look, we have cable and Netflix.”
I glanced at the empty pizza box sitting open on the coffee table. “I’m still hungry.”
“You’re always hungry, but you never gain a pound.”
“Neither do you.”
“I work hard at dieting and exercising.” She pointed the remote at the TV; a black screen replaced The Hallmark Channel. “What do you want to eat?”
“Are you two years old? Do you need ice cream as a reward for unpacking?”
“Yes, I do.” I stood. “Let me grab my bag.” I hurried to my bedroom and unearthed my handbag on the floral comforter between the mounds of matching pillows. Laughter and voices drifted through the open window. I moved to the white curtains, parting them to the setting sun and glowing red sidewalks.
Scarlett strolled into the bedroom and stood beside me. “Wow. Maine sunsets are much more impressive than Manhattan ones. I’ll grab my bag and jacket.”
I stared at the enticing view. No one moved in a hurry; no cars honked. Kids rode bicycles. A group stood laughing and gesturing with their hands. I reached for a fast-forward button to quicken the speed, but there was no button: Blue Harbor moved at a slower pace than New York City.
“Here I am.” Scarlett scooted in front of me with a black Michael Kors leather jacket draped across her arm, wearing DKNY jeans and a yellow billowy blouse. She spun in a circle. “Do I look ready to paint the town red?”
I grinned back at her. “You look terrific.” I stepped back from the window, letting the sheer fabric fall from my fingers. “Everyone is moving in slow motion.” I blinked, feeling disoriented. “We’re used to rushing from one place to the next. Here, no one is in a hurry. They’re even smiling at each other.”
“We’ll adjust to the slower pace.” She eyed my skinny jeans and flowered blouse. “No need to change: you look perfect. Just grab a jacket
I headed to the hall closet, reaching for my tan leather jacket. “Do you have the keys?”
Scarlett replied, “Yup,” as she swung the front door open.
I followed her into the hallway.
“Now, I’m getting hungry.” She shut the door, locking it behind us.
Bella sauntered toward us. “Hi, guys. Where are you going?”
Scarlett quirked a brow. “Out.”
“Do you need directions? I can introduce you to people.” The curvy redhead shifted to the right, blocking our path to the front door.
“You’ll get chilly in that skimpy outfit Scarlett narrowed her eyes at her.
We have a warm spell.” Bella smoothed the pleats of the black miniskirt that hit mid-thigh.
Tired of their banter, I said, “We’re going for ice cream.”
“Great.” Bella gave a catlike grin. “Wait for me.” She dashed to her apartment.
I turned away from Scarlett’s accusing glare. “She can lead us to the nearest ice cream parlor while introducing us to people.”
“I don’t trust her.”
“Neither do I.” As the approaching footsteps neared, I whispered, “Be nice.”
Bella appeared in tight jeans and a ruffled pink blouse. “I changed.” She slung a black beaded bag across her shoulder. “I know the perfect place for dessert.”
“Do we need a car?” I asked, eyeing Bella’s plunging neckline. I hoped she didn’t plan an evening chasing men.
“Nope.” Bella sashayed past us, flinging a lock of wavy red hair over her shoulder. “It’s only a block away.” We followed her as she greeted people on the sidewalk without bothering to introduce us. Men flirted with her, while women scowled as she ignored them.
“She’s not popular with women,” I whispered to Scarlett.
“Most women understand her game plan,” Scarlett said as another man stopped to stroke Bella’s impressive ego.
“Tempt as many men as she can until—” She froze.
“Until she catches the one she wants.” Scarlett cleared her throat. “And she found him.”
I followed her frozen stare to the corner where Bella spoke to a tall, muscular man who wore a pinstripe gray suit and red tie to perfection. When his sharp gaze swung to us, I bit back a sigh. Gray eyes observed us from beneath hooded lids.
In my ear, I heard Scarlett’s breathless words. “First, David, and now, this guy. Does Maine only produce gods?”
“And Bella knows them.”
“Introduce me to your friends.” The dark-haired Adonis strolled toward us, extending his hand. “Pleased to meet you. I’m Logan Rayne.”
Scarlett moved closer, taking his hand. “Scarlett Harding.”
“Elizabeth Reading,” I said as silvery-gray eyes met mine.
Bella emerged from behind Logan, linking her arm through his. “Will you join us for a bite to eat?”
“I’m sorry,” Logan replied, his heated stare capturing mine. “I have a late meeting.”
“Then we’ll expect a rain check.” Bella batted her impressive eyelashes. “This weekend will be fine.”
“I’m free Saturday night. Are you?”
I gulped; he was watching me. “We’re free since we just arrived today.”
“Good.” Logan stepped back, relinquishing Bella’s grasp on his arm. “Dinner?”
Bella sighed. “We’ll be ready at, let’s say, 9 o’clock.” She arched a red eyebrow at him.
“Did you move into Bella’s building?” he asked, his attention returning to me.
“I’ll see you then.” A smile flashed across his face before he strode to the navy-blue Mercedes parked at the curb. He folded his long legs into the two-seater, then nodded to us before easing the sporty vehicle into traffic.
“What are you? A man-magnet?” Her hands clenched at her sides, Bella stood at the corner, glowering at me, bright spots of red on her pale cheeks.
“I thought that was your job,” Scarlett said with an evil chuckle.
“Ha, ha.” Bella gave a “humph” before rounding the corner.
“Logan was asking us, wasn’t he?” I asked with a slight squeak.
“He was gawking at you.”
“No way.” I gulped. “No one looks at me while you’re standing beside me.”
“Yeah, right.” Scarlett shook her head, muttering something to herself.
We turned the corner to the busy avenue, where colorful stores faced the harbor, but Bella was nowhere in sight. Beneath the orangey-yellow glow of the setting sun, the docked boats swayed in place on the waves. A soft breeze brushed through my hair. The mellow early evening sounds lulled my senses until a high-pitched shriek broke the spell.
“Why didn’t you follow me?” Bella marched toward us, waving her arms.
“We lost you.” Scarlett spun to her.
“How could you lose me? I didn’t even cross the street.” Bella’s pale face reddened. “Unless you were trying to lose me.”
“We reached—” Scarlett glanced at the street sign. “Harbor Drive, and we didn’t see you.”
“Fine.” Bella pointed to the pink sign, Le Ice Cream Parlor, hanging between two 3D hot-pink ice cream cones on a white shingled building. “We’re here.”
We stepped into the pink. An extended counter spanned the left wall, fronted with hot-pink stools, light-pink booths lined the right and back walls, and white wrought-iron tables and chairs filled the middle. “Cute,” I said. The sweet aroma of ice cream, chocolate fudge, and cotton candy wafted my nose. My mouth watered. I smelled peanut butter and strawberries and didn’t know what else. “An ice cream heaven.”
Bella took a pink stool at the counter. “Hi, Eric. Can I have a banana split?”
“Sure thing, Bella.” The gangly teenager scooped ice cream into a banana-shaped glass dish, a toothy grin on his pimpled face.
“What can I get the young ladies?” I turned, expecting an older man. Instead, a man in his early thirties flashed his pearly whites at us. “Hi. I’m Jonathan Hale, the owner of this ice cream heaven.”
“You heard me.” My face heated as I faced the shaggy blonde, blue-eyed, surfer-looking guy.
“Yes, I did. And thank you for the compliment.” His gaze landed on Scarlett and stayed there. I felt relief; he fit Scarlett’s unique taste.
“What do you recommend?” Scarlett asked, her voice sounding breathy.
“I suggest the tornado.” Jonathan winked. “It has my best flavors topped with chocolate fudge, whipped cream, and a cherry.”
“We’ll share one.” Scarlett glanced at me, and I nodded.
As Jonathan retrieved a tall dish from behind the counter and began layering the decadent ice cream flavors, he asked, “Are you new to Blue Harbor?” His intense gaze met Scarlett’s through the glass dome covering the ice cream display.
“We arrived today.” Scarlett’s voice drifted as she glanced away.
He chuckled. “Then I’m happy to welcome you to Blue Harbor.”
Scarlett gave him a tremulous smile. “Thank you.”
“Take a seat at a booth, and I’ll bring my special concoction to you.”
Scarlett took my hand, dragging me across the room to a corner booth.
“Wow,” I whispered. “You must be in love. I’ve never seen you act timid. And shy. You’re never shy.”
She turned to me with a scowl, her mouth opening, ready to defend herself before her attention shifted to the front door.
The door flung open, hitting the wall beside it with a loud bang. A hush fell across the room.
Startled faces turned to the doorway.
A tall, thin man hurried inside, clutching his throat, his gaze darting around the room. “They’re back,” he whispered before collapsing to the floor, blood spurting from his neck and pooling around his body.