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Nancy C. Johnson *Romantic Suspense* Mysteries
Her Last Letter ... A gripping mystery ripe with romantic suspense
"A fast-paced, absorbing read with lots of exciting twists and turns. It will keep you turning pages late into the night."
Her Last Letter is available in Paperback and as an Ebook using Amazon's Kindle technology.
In the Colorado mountain town of Glenwood Springs, not far from Aspen, artist/photographer Gwyn Sanders discovers a cryptic letter her sister Kelly left behind. The victim of a deadly hit and run, Kelly reveals she was sexually involved with her sister’s boyfriend and is scared for her life. Both Gwyn and her remaining sister Linda have since married their boyfriends, so either of their husbands could be guilty of murder. The sisters received a large inheritance before meeting these men, and know little of either man’s background. Worse, both Gwyn and Linda love their husbands deeply, but steps must be taken to find the truth. And the truth is complicated. Is it one of the two men, or another previous lover? Or none of them? Danger abounds and everyone is a suspect as Gwyn tries with the help of a gifted private detective to track a killer....
The letter was in my sister’s handwriting. My dead sister’s handwriting. Kelly’s writing, large looping script mixed nonsensically with block capitals. My sister’s handwriting. I’d know it anywhere.
It was a single sheet of yellowed paper, violently creased. Kelly had folded it over, again and again, then taped it inside her dresser. Hidden it. Only time and age had caused it to come loose.
I sank to the edge of the bed, gently smoothed the paper on my lap. Slowly, through tears, her words returned to focus.
I’m so scared. He knows! And God if my sister knew I’ve been screwing her boyfriend she’d kill me anyway. Why in hell did I get into this whole situation? I’ve got to tell someone or I could end up dead … like the last one. The look in his eyes when he told me about her was totally unreal. I don’t think he was making it up, but he could have been, just to scare me. Maybe the best thing is to leave. Hope he calms down and forgets about it. Not likely, if he found the box. I’ve looked for it everywhere, and someone was in the house messing with things. God, what now? I’ll think of something. I have to.
Later…I hear someone downstairs.
I had to read it several times before my mind would let me grasp the full meaning of her words … “screwing her boyfriend … dead like the last one.” When exactly did Kelly write this? Was it true or was this only another plot to one of her fictitious stories? How many times in the years before her death had she stopped me in the middle of something and begged me to listen? “Oh, tell me it’s good. Please, Gwyn. No don’t. Tell me the truth. I’ll never get any better if you don’t tell me the truth.” And I had given her, as always, the encouragement she needed, budding writer that she was, my much-loved youngest sister.
But my gut was telling me this was no story. My gut was knotting, constricting, squeezing my heart already banging against my rib cage.
Was it possible Kelly had been screwing Trevor—now my husband? Or was it Wolfgang—now married to my sister Linda? How could Kelly do anything so unspeakable, so horrible to either of us?
Kelly knew how very much in love we were, that these were the men we hoped to marry. It was unthinkable to believe she could have betrayed us, or that one of our husbands had allowed an affair to happen. Or were they the catalyst? Heartbreaking and sickening as that possibility was rapidly becoming, it didn’t even begin to address the most terrifying question. Could one of them be a coldblooded killer? Did one of them murder Kelly?
I sat there for many minutes fixated on the angled pattern of the morning sun slowly retreating across the floor. Finally, I brought my head up and gazed around the room, a room I’d only recently redecorated with Kelly’s bedroom furniture. Janet, my therapist, would likely worry about the reasoning that led me to this decision—if she knew. She’d question the wisdom of bringing my sister’s things here to the house, wonder if it meant I was regressing.
For the past two years since Kelly’s death, I’d been seeing Janet off and on—the emphasis on off. I’d escaped her sessions using a variety of excuses, some real, some manufactured. The whole therapeutic process could be extremely painful, and I didn’t like the idea of using professional help at all. If the majority of the population could go it alone when tragedy struck, then I should be able to also. Hiring Janet had been Linda’s idea, not mine. She’d said I needed help, whether I wanted it or not.
Eventually, though, I began to rely on Janet’s considerable strength as well as her friendship. And fortunately for me, my financial resources allowed me to continue my therapy indefinitely.
Then, two months ago, just as I’d started looking forward to the sessions, Janet announced it was time to stop. She’d monitor my progress with well-spaced phone calls only. I’d argued against such a drastic change, thinking I couldn’t handle it, but Janet wouldn’t budge. Surprisingly, I’d done much better than I’d thought, weathering her absence almost without a hitch. I’d worried that the sleepless nights with their draining anxiety would return, along with the depressing lows and spates of crying. Instead, I felt okay, my memory even began to improve. I lost only hours, not whole days. And sometimes, for the space of a moment, I’d forget that Kelly was gone.
I put the letter back in the drawer under one of her scarves and made my way down the curving mahogany staircase to the first floor. As I reached the bottom step, the phone rang, startling me. I wasn’t sure if I should answer it, wasn’t sure if the cacophony in my head would communicate itself through my voice, but I desperately needed to talk to someone. And I was fairly certain that the someone on the line would be Caroline, my best friend.
I plucked the phone off the kitchen wall.
“Hey, Gwyn. What took you so long to answer?”
“Oh hi, Care. I don’t know. I was … working. You know.”
“In the studio?”
“Right, I was matting a painting, concentrating too hard I guess.”
For a moment, I couldn’t speak, my lips frozen, refusing to function. Finally, she spoke again. “Are you okay? You don’t sound right.”
“Sure. Why? How do I sound?”
“Like someone tied your vocal cords in a knot.”
I laughed, but it came out like a strangled shriek. “No-o-o, I’m fine. Really.”
“I don’t think so. What’s going on?”
“Nothing. I told you.”
“Well, I was on my way over there anyway. That’s why I called. That okay with you?”
“Did you eat lunch yet?”
“Then I’ll pick up something. Sandwiches okay?”
“No, don’t buy anything. I just went shopping. I’ll make us sandwiches, and my soup.”
“I don’t want you to go to any trouble. It was my idea.”
“Don’t worry about it. I don’t mind at all. Really.”
“Okay. I’ll be there in a few.”
My hand trembled as I hung up the phone. I crossed my arms tightly to my chest, but even so, my shoulders began to shake. I sank down into a kitchen chair, then pushed my face into my hands and howled like a baby for several minutes. Finally, I cleared my throat and stepped to the sink. Splashing my face with cold water, I looked up and caught a glimpse of my splotchy reflection in the glass cabinet front.
Grabbing my purse, I pulled out cosmetics to try and repair the damage. Maybe I’d lie, tell Caroline I was getting the flu. I doubted she’d believe me, but maybe. Now that the fall cold snap had taken hold, a few people I knew had come down with the flu bug.
I put on a pot of coffee, hazelnut, Caroline’s favorite, then idled next to the kitchen’s bay window, watching dry leaves lift and skitter down the brick path toward my dying garden. Beyond the garden, the Rocky Mountains stood snowcapped, the towering peaks reassuringly familiar, reminders of winters spent skiing, of summers spent hiking through sun-dappled pines.
By the time Caroline arrived I’d thawed my homemade chicken soup and arranged a platter of turkey, ham, cheese, and bread. I was removing a vase of daisies from a spot near the window to place on the table when she blew in through the front door. Slim and athletic in worn jeans and hiking boots, her long auburn hair swept back in a ponytail, Care fixed me with that straight-arrow stare of hers. I tried to smile, opened my mouth to say hi, but she grabbed me and hugged me before I could manage a word.
“Okay, what is it? What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” I said, squeezing a sizable lump back down my throat.
“Don’t tell me nothing. You’ve been crying. Your face is deformed it’s so puffy.”
“I know. I think I’m getting sick. Maybe the flu. I started sneezing like crazy a few minutes ago.”
“Oh.” She withdrew, looking me up and down. “The flu, huh. Well, okay, whatever you say. I suppose you’ll tell me the truth when you’re ready.”
I blew my nose. “It’s true. But I’m still glad you’re here, even though you shouldn’t be. Come on. Let’s eat. Everything’s ready.” I waved my hand toward the table.
“Wow, something sure smells good,” she said. “Oh, you made my hazelnut coffee. You’re an angel. Thanks.”
She stepped to the counter and quickly poured herself a mug, then pointed toward mine.
“No, I’m good.”
“Too bad you’re not feeling well. I was going to ask you to go hiking with me today. I’ve got the whole day off.”
I watched as Caroline began to ladle soup into bowls and slap sandwiches together. “I should do that,” I said.
“No, sit, you’re sick.”
“I am,” I said.
Caroline knew how much I loved the outdoors, how much I normally would have wanted to join her on a hike. It was an obvious ploy to try and pump the truth out of me.
“The hiking would have been fun,” I said. “You should go anyway. It’s beautiful out.”
“I suppose.” She shrugged. “Not so much fun—alone. You want cheese on this?”
“Sure. So how are things going with that guy, Phil?” I asked in an attempt to change the subject.
Caroline’s lips pinched into a frown. “They’re not. He’s history. He hasn’t called me in two weeks. And I’m glad. Asshole. He’s dating another woman. Would you believe he brought her to the bar? I had to wait on them. If I didn’t want to keep my job, I would have thrown the stupid drinks in his face.”
“I made sure to water down their gin and tonics, barely put any alcohol in. I thought of doing some other things too, but …” She smiled wickedly.
“Maybe next time.”
“Actually, he did call—right after that happened. His way of saying I may not be his true love anymore, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have sex. What a jerk.”
“He wasn’t your type anyway.”
“No, although he did have his good points. At least I didn’t need to use the electric blanket when he stayed over. Oh, but Gwyn …” She started to laugh, then to really laugh, bent over at the waist, holding her stomach, unable to talk. I began to laugh too.
“What? What?” I pleaded.
“Oh God. When he’d stay over … I don’t know. You know me, I like … Mexican food and … he couldn’t digest the beans, I guess. And he’d … fart, under the covers, these sneaky silent ones … or there’d be this long high squeak, like, you know, he was trying to hold it back, but no way. And then … I swear the blankets would rise. I had to open the windows before we’d go to sleep or I’d die.” She stopped to take a breath, still laughing, then gradually began to wind down. “God, I wish I could tell his new girl that, but maybe she already knows.” Caroline grinned at me, then sighed. “I might have accepted it though, if he’d been decent. You know me. I don’t expect perfection.”
“But you deserve it,” I said, knowing that though she was laughing, the man had hurt her more than she would ever admit.
She placed the soup bowls and plates on the table. “Looks good, Gwyn.”
She ate with gusto while I had trouble forcing down a few bites of sandwich and a little soup. After we’d finished, Care put the remainder of the food back in the frig and we sat and sipped our coffee.
“I have dessert,” I said. “Cookies, I think, and ice cream. You want some?”
“Nah, I’m full, thanks.” She plopped her elbows on the table. “So, what else is going on? We haven’t seen each other in a while. My fault, working way too much. Any new gossip? How’s your sister and that burly, burly man she married? What’s his name? Woof? Wolf man?”
“Oh, right. How are those two doing? The guy cracks me up. Mr. Macho. He’s got more muscle than any man I’ve ever seen up close.”
“I don’t know. I haven’t talked to Linda lately. If I don’t call her, I don’t hear from her.”
“I don’t know. Moody.”
“I suppose, though I am getting better.”
She stared at me, her green eyes trying to bore through to my soul. I valiantly kept guard at the entrance.
“Well, I hope so,” she said, slapping her thighs, then rising from the chair. “Okay, I seriously doubt you’re telling me the truth about this so-called flu, but if so, maybe I’d better cruise out of here and let you get some rest. I wish you were coming along, but I think I’ll take that hike after all. Need to stretch my legs and breathe in some good old mountain air. But call me later—if you want to talk. Whatever it is, we’ll figure it out. Okay?”
I did feel sick after Caroline left, but now it was more mental than physical. I crawled into bed and tried hard to sleep, hoping to hide from myself for a while. I dreaded the moment I would eventually have to face Trevor. There wasn’t a chance I’d ask him about any of this, not until I’d figured out what to do. Though I believed he had nothing to do with Kelly’s death, and felt certain in my heart that he was, in fact, the man I knew him to be, still, I had to at least consider the possibility that my husband, the man I loved more than any man I’d ever known—had slept with my sister, and then murdered her....