Coming February 20, 2024
The Murder Club
Book 5 in Pike, Wisconsin
The New York Timesbestselling author returns readers to the small town of Pike, Wisconsin, and its murderous history, in this chilling tale of romantic suspense, as a woman in an online crime-solving group is drawn into a deadly game that’s all too real. A must-read for fans of Lisa Jackson, Karen Rose, and Mary Burton.
An online crime-solving group is just the kind of adventure Bailey Evans needs. She loves her nursing career and small-town life, but her days are predictable. Her confidence bolstered by having her sheriff cousin Zac nearby, Bailey’s up for some innocent fun and intrigue… Until she starts receiving unnerving warnings: Once the game begins, there’s no backing out of The Murder Club. Then the game gets real…
First, Bailey is shut out at work after an elderly patient dies and leaves her a shocking inheritance. Then a priceless necklace from an anonymous source arrives in her mail—along with a bone-chilling threat. Determined not to involve expectant father Zac, Bailey contacts an expert appraiser: the charming Las Vegas businessman who’s never left her mind…
Dom Lucier knows real gems—and Bailey is the most precious thing he’s seen since they met at her best friend’s wedding. Returning to Pike to trace the jewelry’s bloody history, Dom helps Bailey kick open a murderous cold case. But as death and disaster escalate, they’ll need a new strategy to escape a killer who won’t be satisfied until the streets of Pike are soaked in blood…
Praise for Desperate Acts
“Ivy spins a fast-paced tale and gives the mystery some exciting twists. This smart, sexy thriller is sure to pique series fans.” —Publishers Weekly
Read an Excerpt
Monday nights in the small town of Pike Wisconsin weren’t exactly bustling.
Okay, there weren’t any nights that actually bustled, but Mondays were the worst. The stores along Main Street had locked their doors at five o’clock on the dot, and the teenagers who’d gathered to watch football practice at the high school had long ago headed home for dinner. The only things open on Monday night were Bella’s Pizza, a gas station, and the Bait and Tackle, a small bar squished between the dentist office and laundromat.
The lack of entertainment might explain the bewildering question of why the Bait and Tackle was packed.
It certainly wasn’t the ambiance, Bailey Evans wryly acknowledged, pushing aside her empty beer bottle that floated on a ring of condensation. The narrow bar boasted a handful of tables and booths at the front with a scruffy wooden bar at the back. The paneled walls were covered with old-time tin signs and the lights were hidden behind shades that had yellowed with age, creating a murky glow.
The bar wasn’t really Bailey’s choice of night activities, but her friend Kari Wentz had insisted that she needed to get out of the house. They both worked at the local nursing home—Bailey as a nurse and Kari a part-time aide—and the older woman insisted that Bailey hadn’t been her usual bubbly self. After two days of nagging, Bailey had given into the inevitable.
It wasn’t like she had anything else to do, right? Ever since her best friend Lia had met Kaden Vaughn, a stuntman from Vegas, they rarely had time to hangout. Which was a shame. Lia would never have badgered her into going to the bar. She would have invited Bailey over to her apartment to watch sappy romance movies and eat homemade chocolate chip cookies.
The perfect evening.
“Another round?” Kari asked. The tall, solid woman had chopped her dark hair short after getting married and having kids. She’d also put on several pounds that she was constantly trying to lose by one whacky diet after another. This week was something to do with boiled eggs and spinach. Gross.
“Not for me, thanks,” Bailey declined the offer. “I need to get home.”
“Home?” Kari held up her sturdy arm, waving her wristwatch in front of Bailey’s face. “It’s not even eight o’clock.”
“I have to work tomorrow,” she said.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. You’re always working.”
Bailey shrugged. Her friend wasn’t wrong. “Someone has to pay the bills. And since I wasn’t born with a trust fund and my dogs haven’t hit it big on social media, despite being utterly adorable, that someone is me.”
Kari scrutinized her, starting at the brown hair that was pulled into a loose ponytail and the thin face that was dominated by a pair of brown eyes. Bailey hadn’t bothered to put on makeup, although she did change her usual scrubs for a pair of jeans and a light yellow sweater. That was as fancy as she got.
“Are you sure you’re not still upset about old lady Warren?” Kari pressed, her expression genuinely concerned.
Bailey sighed. She’d been devoted to Nellie Warren. The elderly woman had lived in the nursing home for the past five years and quickly become her favorite. Despite being crippled with arthritis, she had a quirky sense of humor combined with a down to earth commonsense that allowed her to age with a unique grace that Bailey could only hope she could emulate.
“I’ll miss Nellie, but I’ve worked at the nursing home long enough to know that the residents have a limited time left in this world,” Bailey told her friend. “Although it was crappy that her son didn’t even bother with a proper funeral. The whole town would have gone to pay their respects, but I heard he had her body burned and tossed her ashes behind his lumberyard.”
“Typical.” Kari clicked her tongue. “That’s what happens when you have a kid when you’re in your forties. And an only child on top of it. The Warrens spoiled Gage rotten. It turned him into a selfish jerk.”
“A shame, but Nellie’s at peace.”
“So if you aren’t upset about Nellie, then what’s going on with you. Oh…wait.” Kari grimaced. “Please don’t tell me you’re rushing home to play that stupid murder game?”
A shiver raced through Bailey and she was suddenly glad she was surrounded by a bar full of neighbors. She’d discovered the Murder Club when she was sitting home last New Year’s Eve. She was bored and feeling sorry for herself and in dire need of a distraction.
At first she’d been enthralled by the thrill of searching through cold unsolved cases and trying to figure out whodunnit. She might not be a detective, but her cousin was the local sheriff and God knew they’d had enough murders in Pike to make every citizen a homicide expert. And honestly, she thought she was good at spotting clues that other people overlooked.
“No, I’m done with that. I closed my last week.”
“I’m glad.” Kari lifted her beer in a small toast. “It’s creepy.”
“It was a way to pass the time,” Bailey argued. “Plus, the people I met in the chatroom were interesting.”
“You mean people like Eric Criswell?”
Bailey pretended she didn’t notice Kari’s derisive tone. Eric was fellow aide at the nursing home, but he didn’t mix easily with the rest of the staff. He was shy and awkward and routinely disappeared to play games on his phone. Most of the locals considered him an oddball, but Bailey felt sorry for the poor guy.
“He invited me to join, but that’s the only reason I knew he was part of the club. Everyone preferred to remain anonymous, and honestly, that’s what made if fun. You didn’t have any expectations or any pressure to try and impress anyone. I could just be myself.” Bailey shook her head. “But you’re right. It went from fun to creepy over the past few weeks.”
“I started getting weird messages from the chatroom telling me that I’d been chosen to play in a private murder club with a mystery admirer.” She wrinkled her nose. “I tried to ignore them, but whoever it was remained persistent. They sent me invitations and links several times a day. In the end, I just wanted to be out of it.”
“That means you have nothing but time on your hands.” Kari paused, her brows lifting. “You know what you need?”
“A million dollars and an endless supply of donuts?”
Bailey rolled her eyes. How many times had she heard that precise phrase over the past five years? She’d just celebrated her twenty eighth birthday, but the entire town was convinced she couldn’t possibly be happy without a husband and gaggle of children.
“It’s not the eighteen hundreds. I’m doing just fine without a man.”
“Aren’t you lonely?”
Ow. Bailey flinched. It was a direct shot where she was most vulnerable.
“Sometimes,” she grudgingly admitted.
Kari scanned the crowded room as if hoping a suitable man might magically be drinking beer at a nearby table. Surprise surprise, she came up empty. Still, she her stubborn expression warned that she wasn’t going to be deterred. Bailey grimaced. She knew what came next. Kari wasn’t the first friend to try and get her hooked up.
“Why don’t try one of those online dating sites?” she demanded.
“Are you kidding? Absolutely not.”
“Why? My aunt just married a man she met online.”
“Your aunt has been married five times.”
“She’s not lonely.”
Bailey laughed. “Thanks but no thanks.”
“Fine.” Kari pursed her lips, mentally searching for another way to torment her friend. “Then let me give you the number to my cousin in Grange. Not that he’s husband material. Honestly, I’m not sure how he makes his money. But he’s been out of jail for over a year and…” The horrifying words thankfully dribbled away as something or someone behind Bailey captured the older woman’s attention. “Oh. Hello.”
“What?” Bailey started to turn her head only to freeze when Kari reached out to grasp her hand.
“No. Don’t look.”
“What is it?”
“A dream,” the woman breathed.
“I think you’ve had too much to drink.” Bailey tugged her hand free and turned to see who was causing her friend to act so weird.
Immediately she located the preparator. He was taller than most men in the bar, well over six feet and broad through the shoulders. His hair was cut short, but it glistened like gold in the dim light and his eyes were dark. Not dark like Bailey’s brown eyes. But the deepest midnight. Or pools of ebony.
He was wearing a flannel shirt to combat the crisp October air and a pair of jeans that clung to his long, muscular legs. He looked at home in the small bar, unless you took into account his deep tan.
Oh, and the fact he was heart-stopping, mouth-watering, drop-dead gorgeous.
“You’re not dreaming,” she murmured, her heart skidding until it crashed against her ribs.
“Right? He must be lost. No man looking like that ever comes to Pike.” Kari paused before correcting herself. “Not unless it’s Kaden Vaughn.”
After nearly a year of living in Pike, Kaden Vaughn was still considered an exotic intruder. With his long hair, tattoos, and love for fast cars, he would always be different from the locals.
“You’re not wrong,” she told Kari. “It’s Dom Lucier. He’s a friend of Kaden.”
“You know him?”
Bailey’s gaze never wavered from Dom’s face. It was stunningly familiar despite the fact it’d been several months since she’d last seen him. As if she’d spent the short time they were together memorizing each features.
The thought was oddly disturbing.
“We met at the wedding,” she explained.
“You mean the super-secret wedding no one was invited to?”
It had been a source of unending annoyance to the citizens of Pike that Lia and Kaden had chosen a small, private ceremony on the land they’d recently purchased outside of town. There had been the expectation of a lavish Hollywood blowout that would bring in celebrities rushing to the area.
Instead there had been less than twenty people invited. Including Bailey as the Maid of Honor and Dom Lucier as the Best Man.
“That’s the one.”
Kari clicked her tongue. “No wonder Lia didn’t want to share.”
“Lia wouldn’t notice another man besides Kaden if he stripped naked in front of her.”
“Darling, if that man stripped in front of me I’d not only notice I’d go up in flames,” Kari admitted.
“What about Martin?” Bailey teased, reminding Kari of her husband who was currently at home with their kids.
“Martin who? Oh, heavens.” Kari released nervous giggle. “He’s coming this way. Be still my heart.”
Bailey wasn’t worried about her skidding, crashing heart as she met the midnight gaze that locked onto her from across the crowded room. She was far more concerned she might faint as the air was ruthlessly squeezed from her lungs as he slowly weaved his way through the tables.
Directly toward her.
Dom Lucier barely noticed the throng of people who were stuffed in the narrow space. Not even when they stopped in unison to watch him walk toward the woman who’d lured him into the bar.
He’d been across leaning against the building across the street, impatiently waiting for his dinner, when his gaze had been captured by the sign painted on the front window. THE BAIT AND TACKLE. He assumed it was some sort of store to buy fishing equipment until he realized the place was filled with customers who were waving around beer bottles. He’d been about to turn away when he caught sight of a familiar face.
Without hesitation, Dom had shoved himself away from the building and hurried across the street. He’d had every intention of looking up Bailey when he arrived in Pike. Not only because she was one of the few people he knew in town, but because he hadn’t been able to get her out of his thoughts since returning to Vegas.
He’d spent the weekend of Kaden’s wedding performing all the traditional Best Man duties. Thankfully that included spending time with the Maid of Honor. First there’d been the combined bachelor and bachelorette party that had been a casual BBQ at Kaden’s home. The fact that the sprawling house was still in the process of being built hadn’t detracted from the fun of playing yard games and toasting hotdogs and marshmallows over the bonfire.
Then there’d been the wedding rehearsal and dinner, and the actual ceremony followed by a reception. And through it all Bailey had been at his side.
Warm and charming and completely at ease with herself.
When she was nearby Dom hadn’t felt like an outsider. She’d been so welcoming that he’d instantly felt like he was home.
And even after he’d returned to Vegas to run Money Maker, the pawnshop and restoration garage he owned with Kaden, she’d stayed on his mind. Which was only one of many reasons he’d agreed to come to Pike.
At last battling his way through the crowd, Dom managed to reach the small round table. He smiled, barely resisting the urge to push back the stray curl that brushed against her cheek.
They were virtually strangers but the sensation that he’d known her all his life crashed through him.
“Bailey, this is a nice surprise.” He pitched his tone so it would carry over the noise of the bar, but not so loud the gawkers could overhear his words.
Bailey tilted back her head, her wide brown eyes glowing with a velvet softness. Was she pleased to see him? Damn. He hoped so. She was just as beautiful as he remembered.
Maybe not beautiful in the traditional sense. Her features were delicate, almost fragile, but her mouth was too wide for her thin face and there were several freckles sprinkled over her cheeks. Still, it all somehow combined to create a vision that had haunted him for months.
“Hello, Dom.” She blinked as the woman across the table loudly cleared her throat. “Oh. This is my friend Kari Wentz. We work together at the nursing home.”
Dom nodded toward the woman who appeared to be in her mid-thirties. “Pleased to meet you, Kari.”
Kari flashed a mysterious smile. “Trust me, the pleasure is all mine.”
“Are you in Pike visiting Kaden?”
“Not this time. We swapped places.”
“Kaden is filming a new special for Do or Die.”
“Really? I thought he’d retired from his reality show,” Bailey said in surprise.
“He doesn’t do stunts anymore. Lia would kill him. But he still works on motorcycles. And he has a top secret client that asked him to restore an antique bike.” Dom shrugged. “The specials always bring in a nice flood of customers to Money Makers.”
“I sometimes forget how famous he is,” Bailey admitted.
“Trust me, Kaden hates to be treated like he’s different,” he assured her. “But since he’s going to be stuck in Vegas for a few weeks and Lia traveled with him to plot an ambitious expansion of Money Makers, they needed someone to housesit the animals.”
She frowned, as if bothered by his words. “They could have asked me. I would have been happy to help.”
He didn’t doubt her words for a second. He’d watched Bailey during the wedding, constantly moving to assist Lia or the other guests. She was the sort of woman who put the needs of other people before her own.
“I volunteered,” he admitted. “I haven’t had a break in five years. I needed to spend some time away from Vegas.”
“Five years?” She blinked. “Definitely overdue for a vacation. But…” She glanced around the shabby bar. “Pike?”
“Another word for boring.”
“I’m okay with that.” Dom pulled out the nearest chair to Bailey and took a seat. “Can I buy you a drink?”
It was Kari who answered. “She’ll have a Moss Brothers.”
Dom had partied enough to recognize the name of most cocktails, but that was a new one.
He glanced toward Bailey. “Moss Brothers?”
“It’s a beer from a local microbrewery,” she clarified.
Ah. That made sense. He lifted his arm and motioned toward a woman with hair that she’d bleached to a brittle white. She was darting from table to table with a frazzled expression. He assumed she was a waitress.
As she scurried in their direction, however, he wasn’t so certain. Despite the heavy layer of makeup and low cut shirt that revealed her lush curves, she didn’t look old enough to be out of high school. Of course, he’d just hit thirty five, he wryly reminded himself. Lots of women looked painfully young to him.
Once the waitress reached the table, Dom glanced toward his companions. “Three Moss Brothers?”
“Naw, just two. I need to get home.” Kari abruptly shoved herself to her feet, blowing a kiss in Bailey’s direction. “Enjoy.”
The older woman disappeared through the ground and Dom turned his attention back to the waitress. “Two Moss Brothers.”
The waitress nodded and hurried away, leaving him alone with Bailey. Or at least as alone as you could be in the middle of a crowded bar.
Angling his chair to the side, he allowed himself to study Bailey with blatant appreciation.
“It’s good to see you again,” he said. “I was hoping I’d run into a friendly face while I was in Pike.”
She smiled, but her fingers tapped a rapid tattoo on the table. Was she nervous? Dom didn’t know if it was good or bad thing. He was going to roll with good.
“You’ll soon discover that you’ll see everyone’s face in Pike. It’s too small to avoid people,” she warned.
“It’s not a bad thing.”
She wrinkled her nose. “Most of the time.”
Dom had spent the past nineteen years living in cities. First Hollywood and now Vegas. Before that, however, he’d come from a small village in France. He understood what it was like living in a place with neighbors who knew everything about everyone. But while it could be claustrophobic, there was also the comfort of knowing he’d been surrounded by friends and family.
He hadn’t felt that in a long time.
There was a loud cheer from the back of the room, no doubt in reaction to the football game that was on the large TV near the bar. At the same time, the waitress arrived at their table carrying a tray with two beer bottles.
“Here you go.”
Setting down a beer in front of Dom, the waitress turned toward Bailey even as her gaze remained locked on him in blatant curiosity. Predictably, her distraction led to disaster as she tipped the tray to the side, toppling the bottle off the tray. Bailey managed to grab the bottle before it could shatter, but beer sprayed over the table and into Bailey’s lap. The waitress gasped, her face turning beet red as she grabbed the towel she had tucked in her apron and tried to mop up the mess.
“No worries, Nicole.” Bailey grabbed the towel before the woman could cause more damage and sent her a reassuring smile. “I got this if you want to get a new beer.”
“Oh. Okay. Thanks, Bailey.” Nicole rushed away, obviously mortified by her clumsiness.
Dom’s attention remained fixed on Bailey as she calmly wiped up the beer before tossing the towel on the empty seat across the table and pulling a packet of wet wipes out of her purse.
“I can tell you’re a nurse,” he murmured in appreciation.
Bailey had mentioned her job when they’d been toasting marshmallows at the pre-wedding party. He’d already suspected that she worked in a career that centered on caring for other people.
She sent him a puzzled glance. “Why do you say that.”
“Dealing with a problem without making a fuss.”
She shrugged. “Nicole just started.”
“Not everyone is so forgiving.”
“Accidents happen.” She dabbed at her wet jeans before tucking the wipes back into her purse. Then settling back in her chair, she sent him a wry smile. “And in her defense I think she was distracted.”
She was clearly referring to the way the waitress had been staring at him. Dom hid a smile. Good. She’d noticed.
“I suppose a stranger is going to attract attention in Pike.”
“The attention wasn’t because you’re a stranger.” She wrinkled her nose as she glanced down at her damp jeans. “But I am going to have to take a shower when I get home.”
Dom’s interest in Bailey Evans had been stirred from the moment they’d been introduced and intensified during the wedding festivities. Still, he’d known there was a chance he would be disappointed when he returned to Pike. People were usually different at parties than their normal day to day self.
But not Bailey. She was the same genuine, kind-hearted woman he remembered.
Determined to spend the next couple of weeks getting to know this woman better, Dom first needed to make sure that she wasn’t in a relationship. Lia claimed that her friend was single, but she also admitted that she hadn’t had much time to spend with her friend. It was possible that Bailey had started dating someone without Lia knowing.
“I think you mentioned that you live at your grandmother’s house?” he asked.
A cloud passed over the delicate features before she nodded. “Yes, she left it to me when she passed a few years ago.”
It wasn’t subtle. But Dom wasn’t subtle. His father was a charming, worthless con artist who wouldn’t know the truth if it bit him on the ass. Dom prized truth above all things.
“All alone.” She paused. “Unless you count Bert and Ernie.”
Dom’s stomach muscles tightened, as if preparing for a blow. “Friends?”
She snorted. “Two oversized black labs who rule my life.”
He chuckled. “Two? You definitely don’t live alone. I envy you.” His words were sincere. When he’d lived in Hollywood he’d had a couple stray dogs he’d taken in. They’d been great company, but they’d both been elderly and in rough condition when they’d found their way to his doorstep. He’d only had them a few years. “I’m staying in an RV behind the store. It’s fine for now, since it’s just me. But once I get settled In a real house I’m getting me a dog. I miss having one around.”
Nicole came scurrying back with the fresh bottle of beer, clunking it on the table before hurrying off with a harassed smile.
Bailey grabbed the bottle and lifted it to her lips. Taking a deep sip, she lowered the beer and eyed him with a curious expression.
“Are you out enjoying the local sights?”
He shook his head. “Lia insisted I had to try Bella’s pizza while I was in town.”
“She’s not wrong.”
“They don’t do delivery so I decided to come in for a quick drink while I wait for my order.” Dom lifted his own bottle and took a deep swig. The cold, malty liquid hit his tongue with a refreshing undertone of citrus. Nice. He sent Bailey an appreciative smile. “Now I’m very glad I did.”
Bailey nodded. “The Moss Brothers brew a good beer.”
Dom leaned forward. “I wasn’t talking about the beer.”
It was no surprise to Bailey that she struggled to sleep. It’d been forever since she’d enjoyed a casual evening out with a guy. And never with a guy who made her feel…giddy. That was the only word that captured the breathless, dizzying excitement that bubbled through her like champagne. The last time she’d felt like that she’d been sixteen years old and Billy Roberts had invited her to the Homecoming Dance.
Dragging herself out of bed at the shrill sound of her alarm, Bailey stepped into the shower despite the fact she’d had to wash off before going to bed. She needed something to wake her up and cold water was faster than coffee.
Once she was dressed in her scrubs, she pulled her damp hair into a messy knot on top of her head and headed into the kitchen to feed Bert and Ernie. The large dogs barked their approval, dancing circles in the small kitchen until they threatened to knock her down.
The house really was too small for such large dogs, but Bailey was willing to endure a few bruises. She adored the ridiculous duo.
Once she’d finished a quick glass of orange juice and the dogs had wolfed down their breakfast, Bailey opened the front door to send the pair to her next door neighbor for the day.
In the beginning she’d tried to keep the exuberant beasts in her yard, but Dorinda Lyle was a retired widow who assured her that she enjoyed having company. And to ensure they made a mad dash to her house every morning, she kept an abundance of stuffed toys, treats, and beds that were specifically designed for aging dogs. Bailey couldn’t keep them in her yard if she installed a twelve foot, barbed wire fence.
Assured the beasts were taken care of, Bailey grabbed her keys and headed out of the house. She got to the sidewalk when a sharp breeze cut through her scrubs. Crap. The October air had gone from crisp to cold. Returning to the house, she grabbed a cardigan sweater her grandmother had knit for her shortly before she died, she pulled it on. It was several sizes too large and starting to fray at the cuffs, but she loved it. She headed back out of the house, only to spin around and rush back to the kitchen. She’d forgotten her ‹.
It was her usual morning routine. Bailey told herself that she wasn’t scatterbrained, she was simply focused on more important things. Scooping the phone off the counter, she glanced at the screen, surprised to see she had a message. It was too early for a casual chat. It had to be something important.
She pulled up the text as hurried out of the house.
‘The club is officially open. Ready or not.’
Bailey frowned, reading the strange message a dozen times as she walked along the edge of the railroad tracks that ran along the street in front her house.
“What the hell?” she muttered, her feet carrying toward the nearby nursing home without her having to pay attention to where she was going.
She’d made the same journey since she’d started working at the home part-time ten years ago. At the time she’d needed the money to help pay for her nursing classes and had every intention of leaving Pike to work at a hospital in a big town. She’d had dreams of her own apartment, tons of friends going who loved going out every night, and a big paycheck to pay for her hectic lifestyle.
But ten years later she was still making the same old journey, day after day.
Still staring at her phone, she tried to make sense of the message. It’d come from an unfamiliar number, so she had no idea who’d sent it. But the fact that it referred to a game had to mean it had something to do with Murder Club. And the only person who might have her phone number was Eric Criswell.
Was he the one who’d been sending the links to play a private game? Probably. She’d sensed that he’d developed a crush on her since he’d started working at the home. Maybe she shouldn’t be so friendly, she acknowledged with a sigh. Some men took it as an invitation she was interested in a relationship.
Reaching the L shaped brick building on the edge of town, Bailey headed toward the wide porch that was covered with a low awning that was faded and fraying at the edges. Bailey grimaced, entering the code into the keypad to unlock the glass dor. A lot of stuff at Pike Nursing Home was faded and fraying. Bailey assumed it had something to do with the fact that Pike had been going downhill for several years. The dairy industry that had once created a boom town had crashed, leaving them struggling to keep businesses open.
Entering the front lobby, she turned toward the short hall that led to the breakroom. She not only wanted to stow away her sweater and purse, but she wanted to track down Eric before she started her shift. If she left it until she happened to cross paths with the young aide she would lose her nerve.
She wasn’t a coward, but if she went out of her way to avoid conflicts.
“Hey, Bailey.” The young woman seated behind the reception desk, waved her hand to catch Bailey’s attention. Melissa Eastman had graduated from Pike High School the same year as Bailey. She was tall and stocky with long red hair and an infectious grin. “You’re wanted in the pit of doom.” Melissa shuddered. “Immediately.”
The pit of doom was the name the staff used for the owner’s private office. Bailey nodded, but she continued toward the breakroom.
“I’ll go in a minute. I have something I need to take care of first.”
Melissa shrugged. “Your funeral.”
She entered the room that was reserved for the employees. It was a long room with a small kitchen in the back and lockers that lined one wall. There were a couple tables and chairs and a couch in the middle of the tiled floor and a ratty couch shoved against the opposite wall. Overhead there was a drop ceiling with a line of fluorescent lights that constantly flickered. Bailey was convinced that one day they were going to induce a seizure.
As expected, Eric Criswell was slumped on the couch, his phone in his hand. He had thin black hair that was roughly chopped, as if he cut it himself, and pale skin that had a jaundiced tint. His eyes were gray and deeply sunk into his thin face. He looked like a man who didn’t venture into the sun, preferring the shadows.
Bailey headed to her locker, pulling off her sweater to hang inside along with her purse, then snapping shut the door, she turned to casually stroll toward the couch.
“Eric,” she murmured.
The boy—and as far as Bailey was concerned he was still a boy despite the fact he was twenty two years old—abruptly lifted his head and blinked in surprise. He’d been so engrossed in his phone he hadn’t even noticed her entering the room.
“Oh.” His face flushed with pleasure. “Hey, Bailey.”
“Do you have a minute?”
“For you?” His lips stretched into a smile. “Always.”
“You didn’t text me this morning did you?”
“What?” He blinked. “No. I don’t even have your number.”
Bailey narrowed her eyes. Her number was listed in the employee handbook in case of emergencies. Why was he lying?
Deciding to confront him directly, she held out her phone and turned it so he could see the screen.
“I got this.”
“The club is officially open. Ready or not,” he read out loud. Glancing up, he shook his head his head in confusion, the thin hair flopping. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I don’t know.” She slid her phone in the front pocket of her scrubs. “That’s why I was asking you.”
“Why would you think I sent you the text?”
“The only game I’ve ever played is the Murder Club.”
Eric pinched his lips, as if she’d said something offensive. “It’s not technically a game, it’s a—”
“Whatever.” She interrupted his chiding explanation. Eric was shy and awkward most of the time, but when he was discussing his favorite hobbies he could go on forever. “I’ve been getting strange invites to a new game. That’s why I deleted my account a couple weeks ago.”
“I noticed you scrubbed your profile. A shame.” He sounded genuinely disappointed. “You’re really good at spotting clues that the rest of us miss.”
“Thanks, It was fun for a while, but I’m done.” She paused. “It wasn’t you, was it? Sending the invites to a private murder club?”
He gave a sharp shake of his head. “I don’t know anything about them. If I wanted you to join a private club I’d just ask you. We see each other every day.”
He had a point. So if the text wasn’t from Eric, then who’d sent it?
“Do you happen to know the other members of the club?” she abruptly demanded.
“Just by their online profiles.”
“Do any of them live in Pike?”
“I doubt it.” His expression made it clear that was a stupid question. “These sorts of clubs have people from all over the world.”
Bailey turned to leave. There was no point worrying about who sent the text. Or how they’d gotten her number. If they continued to be a pest, she would simply block them. Problem solved.
At least one problem.
Now she had to find out why she’d been commanded to make an appearance in the pit of doom.
She’d reached the door when Eric suddenly called out. “Hey, Bailey, Sorry I couldn’t help.”
“I play lots of other games,” he continued. “You know…if you’re interested.”
She paused to glance over her shoulder. “I think I’m done with on-line games.”
He flushed, as if embarrassed he’d asked. “Yeah. Gotcha.”
Feeling a pang of guilt, Bailey left the breakroom and headed to the office at the end of the hall. She hadn’t meant to hurt Eric’s feelings, but she had to know if he’d been the one harassing her.
Dismissing the strange text from her mind, she tapped on the closed door, waiting for a woman’s voice to call out for her to enter before pushing it open and stepping inside the room.
It was nicer than most of the nursing home. The desk and high-back leather chairs were worn, but they were obviously of good quality and there was a new gray carpet on the floor that matched the drapes. The walls were painted a sterile white with framed oil paintings that were created by local artists with more enthusiasm than skill and a couple floor lamps added a much needed warmth.
It wasn’t fancy, but this was Pike and people would be suspicious of anything that too flashy.
“Good morning, Ms. Donaldson,” Bailey said, her gaze landing on the short, rail-thin woman who approached her with the crisp confidence of an army generally.
Her face was long, giving her the unfortunate appearance of a horse and her hair that was dyed to a dark red was teased and sprayed into the shape of a helmet. She was wearing one of her favorite power suits in a bright green that matched her eyes and she wore a cross hanging on a gold chain.
Lorene Donaldson was a formidable woman who treated her employees like trash and refused to pay one penny above minimum wage. She did, however, have the redeeming quality of actually caring about the elderly residents who were in the home.
“It’s about time,” the older woman snapped.
Bailey resisted urge to look at her watch. She knew she wasn’t late.
“Is something wrong?” she asked.
The woman’s lips pursed into a tight circle. “That has yet to be determined.”
Bailey frowned. It wasn’t unusual for Lorene to call her into the office to lodge some complaint. Any problem with the nursing staff or aides was somehow Bailey’s fault, regardless, if she was on duty or not. But she wasn’t usually vague about her chastisement.
“I don’t understand.”
“I’ll let Mr. Bennett explain.” Lorene’s lips remained pursed. Like she was about to whistle for a dog.
It wasn’t a dog, however, who rose from one of the chairs facing the desk. Instead it was Ward Bennett, a large, barrel-chested man with thinning black hair and shrewd brown eyes. He was wearing a suit with a crisp white shirt and a tie that was so tight it looked like it was about to choke him.
On cue, he cleared his throat.
“Forgive me, Bailey,” Ward murmured, moving toward her to shake her hand. “I intended to conduct this meeting in my office later this afternoon.”
Bailey’s state of confusion deepened. Ward Bennett was a local lawyer, but Bailey had never used his services. Mostly because she’d never needed a lawyer. She been hoping that trend continued.
“What meeting?” she demanded.
He cleared his throat again, tugging at his tie. Bailey wondered if his wife had knotted it for him. And if she was pissed.
“You are a beneficiary named in Nellie Warren’s will.”
Bailey was jerked out of her silly imaginings. “Sorry. What did you say?”
“You are named in Nellie Warren’s will.” He spoke slowly, as if realizing she was struggling to process his words.
“I never joke about legal matters.”
“I just…” Bailey shook her head, telling herself that the strange prickles of premonitions were nothing more than a figment of her imagination.
So Nellie had left her a small gift. Big deal. It was nice gesture of gratitude, nothing more.
“I had no idea,” she told the lawyer. “She never said anything about leaving me a memento.”
“This is more than a memento.” The older man lifted his hand as if he intended to tug on his tie again, then perhaps realizing he was making Bailey nervous, he waved a hand toward the nearby chair. “Perhaps you should sit down.”
Bailey shook her head. She didn’t like the sound of ‘more than a memento’. “I’d rather stand if you don’t mind.”
“Very well.” The lawyer cast a quick glance toward Lorene who was watching them with a sour expression before returning his attention to Bailey. “Let me start at the beginning.”
“I’ve been the Warren family lawyer since I first opened my law firm,” he told her. “They entrusted me with their legal needs including their will which had never changed from the first day John and Nellie had it notarized thirty years ago.”
“I’m not sure what this has to do with me.”
He held up a broad hand. “It hadn’t been changed for thirty years.” He deliberately paused. “Until ten days ago.”
“Who changed it?”
“Nellie, of course. She called and asked to come to the office to amend her will. I was shocked, honestly, as I said it’s been thirty years since the first will was written, but I told her to come as soon as possible. At her age any legal matters need to be tended to in an expedited fashion. Not that I ever dreamed she would die less than two weeks later. We’re all quite devastated by her loss.”
Bailey ground her teeth together. She’d always heard the lawyer was in love with his own voice. Now she believed it. Why else would he make such a production out a simple explanation?
“Why would she change her will?” she asked, forced to play his game if she wanted answers.
“Apparently Nellie became very attached to you and wanted to be sure she expressed her gratitude.”
Bailey shrugged. “She didn’t have to do that.”
“That’s what I said. Repeatedly. But she insisted.”
The lawyer looked annoyed he hadn’t been able to sway the older woman. Bailey could have warned him that Nellie Warren was stubborn as a mule.
“So what did she leave me?” Bailey demanded,
Ward squared his shoulders, as if preparing for an unpleasant task. “You are the sole beneficiary of her private savings account. A little over ten thousand dollars.”
Ten thousand dollars? Ten. Thousand. Dollars.
Bailey silently repeated the words over and over, trying to process what was happening. To a woman who’d lived on the edge of poverty most of her life, that was a fortune. Like winning the lottery.
Except, it made no sense.
Sure, she’d been close to Nellie. But, only as a nurse and a favorite patient. It wasn’t like they were best friends. And they weren’t related. It would be understandable if she’d left Bailey her favorite scarf. Or a few trinkets that she’d collected over the years. But ten thousand dollars…
“No.” Bailey instinctively to a step back, as if to remove herself from the preposterous conversation.
“Yes,” Ward insisted. “I personally made the changes and it was notarized by my secretary.”
Bailey flinched, feeling like she’d just taken an unexpected blow. “Eric? He never said anything to me.”
“He was asked to keep the information secret.”
Bailey took another step back. “This is madness.”
“I couldn’t agree more,” Lorene retorted, her voice sharper than usual.
Bailey ignored her, her gaze locked on the lawyer. “You said you were going to invite me to your office today.”
“Yes, I don’t usually conduct my business in this manner.”
“What happened to change your mind?”
Genuine annoyance tightened the man’s broad features. “I was unfortunately out of the country when Nellie passed. I didn’t return until late last night, but I assumed that the funeral would be held today, and I planned to arrange the reading of the will after that. That was my normal process.” He glanced toward the door, as if ensuring it was closed. “Instead, Gabe Warren unexpectedly had his mother cremated just a day after she died and even more unexpectedly arrived at my house before the sun rose this morning. He was in a hurry to get his hands on—” He halted, clearing his throat. “I mean to claim his inheritance.”
The disbelief that had wrapped Bailey in a strange sense of numbness was shattered by Ward’s grim tone. She’d been so shocked by the thought of Nellie leaving her a small fortune it hadn’t crossed her mind that the inheritance might affect anyone else. Now her stomach twisted with an intense dread.
“And you told him that his mother had left me her life savings?”
“Yes. He was unhappy.” Ward grimaced. “To say the least.”
Lorene sniffed. “He was so unhappy he arrived here an hour ago warning that he’s going to the sheriff with a complaint that you coerced his mother into altering her will.”
Bailey blinked. Gage Warren was a large, aggressive man who’d managed to argue with every citizen in Pike. Which no doubt explained why the lumberyard that had been so successful when Nellie was in charge had declined into an empty shell.
“That’s ridiculous,” she breathed.
“I’m not done,” Lorene snapped. “He also warned me that wants an investigation into his mother’s death.”
Bailey shuddered. The last investigation into a death in Pike had been the start of a killing spree.
“He wants to know if there was anything…unnatural in his mother’s death,” Lorene said.
“Unnatural?” Bailey was momentarily baffled. Nellie had died of a heart attack so why would he… The breath was squeezed from lungs. “Oh my God, he’s suggesting she was deliberately killed?”
Lorene glared at her. “That’s exactly what he’s suggesting.”
Bailey pressed a hand over her racing heart, feeling sick to her stomach. She didn’t think for a second that Gage actually cared what happened to his mother. The only time he showed up at the nursing home was when he needed her to write a check to keep the lumberyard out of bankruptcy.
“I don’t believe this,” she breathed.
Lorene sniffed, her pale skin flushing with a rare display of emotion. “Believe it or not, you’ve created a very unpleasant situation.”
“I didn’t do anything.”
“Whether you did or didn’t, I can’t allow the people to fear that their loved ones are no longer safe at Pike Nursing Home.”
Bailey jerked, her horror at the thought of Gage digging up his mother replaced with a stunning realization that her life was being turned upside down.
“Are you firing me?”
“Until the investigation is finished—”
“Wait,” Bailey interrupted the stiff words. “There’s actually going to be an investigation?”
“The sheriff will have to follow up on Mr. Warren’s allegations of exploitation of an elderly person in my care. Not to mention the internal review from our board members and the state officials.” Lorene folded her hands, her chin tilted so she could peer down her long nose at Bailey. “Until that is all completed to my satisfaction you will be on unpaid leave.”
“Please gather your belongings and leave the premises.”
Bailey stared at Lorene, a surge of anger blasting through her. She’d worked for this woman for ten years, putting in overtime hours even when she was exhausted, taking on duties that had nothing to do with nursing, and pleading with the staff not to walk out after enduring one of Lorene or her sniffling son’s rampages.
She wanted to tell the woman that she could shove her job up her ass. That she wouldn’t return to the nursing home if Lorene got down on her knees and begged her. But the words lodged in her throat. She’d been raised by her elderly grandmother who had drilled into the importance of being polite. Even when you wanted to punch someone in the face.
Spinning away, Bailey stormed her way toward the door, blinking away the threatening tears. She told herself they were tears of fury. She’d done nothing wrong, but she was the one being punished.
But deep inside she knew that she wasn’t about to cry because of anger. She was hurt. It horrified her to think Gage was accusing her of manipulating his mother, and even potentially killing her, to get her hands on ten thousand dollars. And instead of having her back, the woman who’d depended on her to keep her business running was for the past ten years was throwing her under the bus.
She was headed out the door when Ward unexpectedly called out. “I’ll be in touch, Bailey. The will is being contested, but Nellie’s personal savings weren’t a part of the trust fund left for Gabe, or the lumber business. She could give it to whoever she wanted. I’m sure it will all be settled very soon.”
“Not soon enough,” Bailey muttered, not bothering to glance back as she slammed shut the door.
It was the closest she could come to telling them all to go to hell.
Fully intending to storm out of the building in a huff, Bailey was distracted as a door across the hallway was pulled open to reveal a man a few years older than her.
Logan Donaldson was the assistant administrator of the nursing home and son of Lorene Donaldson. Having a mother as the owner was the only explanation for his position. As far as Bailey knew, he didn’t do any actual work.
He had thinning brown hair and a round face that didn’t have any similarity to his mother. Neither did his dark eyes and a ready smile. He was average height and average size with a fake tan that made his teeth too white. She’d once heard someone say that he had the personality of a used car salesman. She thought that was an insult to used car salesman everywhere. Still, the elderly residents seemed to find him charming.
At the moment he was wearing a silk shirt that was left open to expose his chest and a pair of black slacks.
“Can I have a moment?”
Too polite to ignore his request, Bailey came to a sharp halt, folding her arms defensively over her chest.
“Your mother has said enough.”
He clicked his tongue. “Bailey, we feel just terrible about this, we truly do. But I hope you understand our position?”
She narrowed her eyes. “Your position of treating me like a criminal?”
“A criminal?” He tried to look shocked, glancing toward the door that Bailey had just slammed shut. “I was afraid mother would be too harsh, but I can’t believe she would say something like that.”
“She accused me of coercing Nellie into giving her money before killing her.”
“She didn’t.” He heaved a sigh as Bailey glared at him. “I’m so sorry. I hope you won’t take her serious. She’s talking nonsense because she’s upset. No one would ever believe that,” he protested. “Certainly I don’t.”
Bailey snorted. She wasn’t going to fall for his faux sympathy. He liked to play the good guy to his mother’s bad guy, acting as if he actually cared about the staff members. Bailey had never been fooled.
“Absolutely not. This all the fault of Gage Warren and his nasty accusations.” He clicked his tongue. “Let me have a word with mother once she calms down. I’m sure I can make her listen to reason and you’ll be back here.” Without warning, he reached out to grab her hand, giving her fingers a squeeze. “Where you belong.”
With a shudder, Bailey snatched hand out of his grasp. His words felt more like a threat than a promise.