When Currie walked to the lodge the next morning, she purposely passed close to the cabins. It couldn’t hurt to check on them more often. As she neared Mandy’s, she heard her crying. She hesitated, but decided to go to her door and knock.
“It’s me, Currie. Are you all right?”
There were snuffling noises and then Mandy’s door cracked slightly. “I’m not coming to the lodge today. People know you and Ward stayed and searched me last night. No help. They still think I’m the nut case on the island.” Her voice broke, caught on a sob. It took her a minute to compose herself. “No one wanted to be around me last night. They came to give me sympathy, but kept their distance. It was awful.” She buried her face in a fist full of tissues.
“Leann and Teri supported you last night.”
“I know.” She gulped. “They’re nice women, but they can’t decide. They’re friendly, but doubts have crept in.” Her eyes teared up. “They look at me differently now. And why wouldn’t they? I wish I’d never gone to Trisha’s cottage. I wish I hadn’t cared.”
“But we didn’t find a knife,” Currie said.
“No matter. I’ve been branded as a maybe.” Mandy motioned for Currie to come inside and sagged onto her bed. “I don’t know what to do.” She ran a hand through her dark, spiky hair. “The more I swear I’m innocent, the more guilty I look. If I don’t say anything, they think I’m just biding my time. Believe me. I know the drill. I’ve been an outcast before.”
“When you were growing up?”
Mandy took a ragged breath. “When I was in high school, I didn’t fit in. I ended up hanging on the fringes of a group of kids I should have stayed away from. When they decided to rob a few houses, I didn’t even know about it, but I met up with them later that night. When the cops picked up the group’s ringleader, everyone thought I’d helped with the break-ins too. Especially my parents. The more I denied it, the more they believed I was lying. How do you prove you’re innocent? I never found a way.”
“But the other kids in the group knew you didn’t do it.”
“They thought I’d turned them in, ratted them out. No one wanted to be around me after that.” Mandy grabbed a hanky and blew her nose. “I’ve been an outcast most of my life. This is the first place, besides teaching, that I’ve felt accepted. I don’t think I could stand walking into the dining room, knowing that no one wants me to sit at their table.”
Currie thought for a minute. “Then come and work with Thora and me in the kitchen this morning. Pitch in with the cooking. We’ll eat on the patio, and I’ll ask Trisha to bring her fawn. Go up and pet him.”
“Why would I do that? What if he acts afraid? Then everyone will be sure that I’m the whacko.”
“He’ll know that you came to help him. He won’t be afraid of you, and everyone will see that.”
Mandy blinked. “What if he was scared so shitless last night, he doesn’t know who was the good guy and who tried to kill him?”
“It’s risky, but it’s better than nothing,” Currie said.
Mandy straightened her shoulders and pushed herself off the bed. “Why the hell not? It’s worth a shot. Better than hiding in my room for the rest of the week.”
They walked to the lodge together and when Brent and Thora saw Mandy, Brent said, “Girl, you look horrible.”
Her eyes were red and swollen, her face puffy. “You need some cucumber slices,” Thora said.
“To hell with it. I don’t care. Let’s just cook.”
Mandy wasn’t a natural at the griddle, so they put her in charge of the fruit salad. She went into a chopping frenzy, and the bowl overflowed with mangos, apricots, pineapple, and berries before Currie finished the soft boiled eggs and asparagus spears. Mandy helped with ham slices while Currie baked biscuits. Brent and Thora busied themselves making smoothies. By the time people drifted to the lodge, the buffet table was ready, and Currie and Mandy went to greet their guests. When Trisha came with her fawn, Currie gave Mandy a nudge. Mandy stepped forward and stretched out a hand. “How are you today, little guy?”
The fawn ran to Mandy and Tricia tried to stop him. He nuzzled against Mandy’s leg.
Currie smiled, relieved. “Look. He knows you protected him last night. He’s saying thank you.”
Trisha stammered. “I’m so sorry. I thought. . .”
“Why wouldn’t you?” Mandy said, dropping on her knees to pet the young deer. “I would have too.”
Teri and Leann came over to join them.
When everyone sat down to eat, Mandy leaned toward Currie and whispered, “Thank you.”
“My pleasure.” Currie felt a heavy weight lift. She’d done her best to sound positive, but she wasn’t totally confident her plan would work. It gave her a warm feeling deep inside that it had.
After breakfast, Brie announced, “For right now, we’d prefer that each of you stay with one of us during the day. That way, we can keep an eye on you and try to keep you safe.” Thora didn’t leave the lodge that often, so Della and Russ chose her, along with Teri and Leann. Brent, as usual, was her back up. Teri and Leann happily stayed in view, finishing their flower beds and quilts. The rest of the guests changed sisters according to the activities of the day. For once, the day didn’t fly by. For Currie, it seemed to stagger along, and when the last guests went to their cabins at the end of the evening, she was glad to see them go.
Ward seemed more agitated than usual, too, each time she saw him. When she asked him about it, he said, “We’ll talk later--with your sisters and Thora.” His face wore a worried, reserved look, and Currie decided whatever his news was, it wasn’t good.
When they finally settled in Brie and Avery’s suite, Ward didn’t mince words or hesitate. “I think we can rule Mandy out now that the fawn went to her. What do you think?”
Saffron nodded. “She’s not the one.”
“My dad e-mailed,” Ward said. “He tracked down the medical examiner for Lyssa’s death. He told Dad that there were so many pills in her system that he doubted that she could stay awake long enough to hang herself.”
“Wait a minute,” Avery interrupted. “What are you saying? That someone else hanged her?”
“The examiner couldn’t rule out the possibility that Lyssa ground up the pills--or else it would have taken too long to swallow them one by one--and then went straight to the chair and put the rope around her neck. When she passed out and went limp, the rope would finish the job. He thought that if she weren’t brave enough to do it any other way, it would be a painless out.”
“What’s the point?” Saffron asked. “If she took that many pills, wouldn’t she die anyway?”
“Not necessarily,” Brie said. “Remember Regina two clinics ago? She passed out after taking sleeping pills, someone found her, and they pumped her stomach.”
“The detective on the case seriously tracked Price’s movements for that day,” Ward said. “Price had a hole in his contacts that could have let him go back to his place, but his sister got on the witness stand and swore that he’d stopped to see her. So did her kids.”
“He hates his sister,” Thora said.
“Exactly, and after everything died down, the sister ended up with enough money to pay off all of her back rent, and she hasn’t missed a payment since.”
“You think he paid his sister to lie for him.” Avery rubbed a hand over his eyes, trying to take it all in.
“That’s what the detective thinks, but he can’t prove it.”
Currie frowned. “I thought that Price told us that he was out of town when Lyssa hanged herself.”
Brie shook her head. “No, that was when she got the abortion.”
“All he said was that he came home and found her, and that it wasn’t a pretty sight.” Thora wrinkled her nose. “I can’t imagine.”
“And now the detective is saying that he thinks Price hanged her.”
“Drugged her first,” Ward interjected.
“Wouldn’t she notice she was swallowing that many pills?” Currie asked.
“Did Russ know he was drinking white pepper in his milk?” Thora countered.
“The other thing is, Lyssa took the meds with red wine. She hardly ever drank.”
“That would mask the taste of the pills,” Avery said.
“Especially if she wasn’t familiar with the taste of the wine in the first place,” Brie agreed.
Currie looked at Ward, stunned. “But he loved Lyssa.”
“No,” Thora said, “he wanted Lyssa. He needed her. I’m not sure that Price knows how to love.”
“This is worse than killing small animals, and that was bad enough,” Currie said.
“He wants to kill,” Brie said. “He killed Lyssa and got away with it and doesn’t want to take any more chances, so he has to take his rage out on something else. The animals.”
“What should we do? He’s dangerous.” Currie looked to Ward for an answer.
Ward paced restlessly. “We can’t prove anything. Neither could the detective, so we can’t accuse him.”
“He’s getting more and more unstable, though.” Brie went for her chocolates. “We have to protect the others.”
“We’ll take turns watching him,” Avery said, “and no one should be alone with him. In a way, it will be easier now. We only have to watch one person instead of all of them.”
“Two of us should stay with him all the time.” Ward turned to face Thora. “And you don’t count. He could hurt you.” He gave her a stern look. “Promise me you’ll never be alone with Price.”
Satisfied, Ward turned to the others. “Price is big enough that if it comes to a struggle, he won’t be easy to take down. We need to stick together.”
No one argued.
“Good, then let’s call it a night,” Brie said. “We have double duty for the rest of this clinic.”
Price was agitated the next day at lunch. He picked at his food and kept glancing across the room at Saffron. When the meal was over and it was time for their cooking class, he fidgeted while Currie got people started at their stations. She explained to Teri and Leann how to make cioppino--a flavorful fish stew--and got Mandy started on a Caesar salad before turning her attention to the onions, zucchini, and meats arranged near the grill.
“Thought we’d do shish kebabs,” she told Price. “Want some help?”
He nodded, half listening, and glanced at Ward, busy cleaning corn on the cob to drop into boiling water. “What’s with the guys today? Do they feel like they have to mingle with the rest of us before this week’s over?”
“Ward?” She glanced at her handsome husband. “He has everything else done, so thought he’d hang out in the kitchen with me.”
“How cozy.” Price nodded out the windows at Avery, laying new mulch in the herb garden. “Avery had to be a third wheel this morning and tag along with Saff and me on our island walk. Not the same. That idiot thinks he knows something about everything and wouldn’t shut up. Saff and I usually don’t talk much, just enjoy each other’s company, but that was impossible with Mr. Chatterbox.”
Currie forced a smile. “He’s finished working on their new apartment, and he’s the type who likes to keep busy.”
“Oh, goodie, so I can expect to see more of him?”
“I’d guess so. Besides, let’s be honest. We’re all more worried about safety lately.” Currie glanced at his leg. “It looks like you’re doing a lot better. You hardly have to lean on your walking stick anymore.”
Price glanced at the cane, leaning against the counter. “The leg’s in great shape, ready for action, but since Em’s gone, there’s no chance for some horizontal exercise. A man needs a release once in a while, but there’s none of that on this island, except for the lucky chosen.”
“My sisters and I don’t believe in casual sex. It’s all or nothing for us.”
“Do you mean that you and Ward are married? And Brie and Avery?”
“Yup, no regular ceremony, but we performed the rite of the island. We’re married according to our laws.”
Price thought about that. “So if I’d have married Em, would she have stayed?”
“Do you love her?” Currie asked.
“I like her a lot.”
“For her personality and individuality, or for sex?”
“You don’t mess around, do you? You just go straight for the jugular.”
“Em never felt like you cared about her. She thought you only wanted to be with her because she reminded you of Lyssa.”
“I don’t want to talk about Lyssa.”
“I’m talking about Em.”
Price stopped threading chunks of chicken and beef on the skewers. “Em was right. I wanted a good romp in the sack, and it helped that she looked like Lyssa. So what?”
“She wanted more, that’s all. And she wanted you too much to be satisfied with less. You, of all people, should be able to understand how that feels.”
“And why is that? Lyssa was crazy about me.”
“You told me that you had to work hard to attract her, and you didn’t sound like you only wanted to settle for friendship.”
“Lyssa was a special case. Usually, I don’t have a problem finding women who fall for me. I just have a problem finding women who are worth the bother.”
Currie sighed. “Lyssa was worth the bother, wasn’t she?”
“Lyssa was weak. Maybe all women are weak. You have to support them and meet their emotional demands and be a shoulder for them to cry on, and then they still might have a headache or not be in the mood. Hell, it would be easier to pay a prostitute.”
Currie turned to face him. “So why don’t you?”
“Because it’s demeaning. Like pumping human sperm collectors.”
“You don’t have a very high opinion of women.”
“Why should I? I get too little return for the work I put into them.”
Currie stared. “And what makes you worth the bother for them?”
He gave a grim smile. “A paycheck, and a big one.”
“No wonder you’re not happy. You’re handing out a bottom line incentive. You get bottom line results.”
A vein throbbed in his forehead. “That’s pretty insulting.”
“You’re pretty insulting. Em didn’t care about your money. Neither did Lyssa. There are lots of women who don’t judge men by how much they make.”
“No, they just need the big L---lots of love. More than any man can supply. Enough to drain a guy dry.”
“And what do you need?” she countered. “What are you looking for?”
“Someone to be there for me, to give me a little support and encouragement. And sex.”
“Em’s the type who gives support and encouragement, and she loves sex. That wasn’t enough for you.”
“Em doesn’t count.”
Currie’s posture stiffened. “Why not?”
“She was too much like Lyssa.”
Currie took a deep breath. “Lyssa sounded like a beautiful human being. Didn’t she support and encourage you?”
“Never enough. She always had ‘needs’ to fill.”
“Her art, her friends. She kept telling me that she needed balance.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“She could do all that when I was away on business. When I got home, I wanted to spend time with her.”
Currie tilted her head to one side, thinking. “You were away a lot, right?”
“And she’d only come with me once in a while.”
“But she did come with you?”
Price’s posture was as stiff as hers. “Not enough. She didn’t have anything to keep her at home.”
“She had her work, her art, her friends.”
He waved a hand. “Piddly stuff.”
Heat chugged through Currie’s veins. Anger. “Lyssa didn’t ask you to change your lifestyle or give up your career.”
“She couldn’t. She didn’t make enough money.”
“Not everyone judges everything by money.”
Price’s blue eyes went icy cold. “You’ve told me that before.”
“Lyssa loved her art and her friends.”
“Look. We had a deal. She didn’t call them when I was home, but then they’d miss her or worry about her and call to check on her. They wouldn’t leave us alone. I finally had to tell her that she wasn’t allowed to talk to them or see them when I was there.”
Currie’s words shot out like bullets. “Wasn’t allowed?”
Price flinched. “Okay, wrong choice of words. I just meant that it made me really unhappy.”
Price slammed his fist on the counter. “REALLY unhappy!”
Did he use these techniques on Lyssa? Currie wondered. “Sounds like someone has a control problem.”
“It’s not a problem! I just knew what was best for Lyssa and me, that’s all.”
“Did Lyssa agree with you?”
“Lyssa didn’t know what was best for her.”
“No, she was needy too.”
“Is that what you look for in women?”
Price grabbed her by the shoulders and gave her a hard shake.
“I wouldn’t do that,” came a low, hard voice from behind her.
Price threw his hands up in defeat. “I give up. The big, bad boyfriend is flexing his muscles, coming to the rescue. Don’t beat me up because I was trying to shake some sense into her silly, little head.”
“Currie isn’t silly, and her head isn’t little.” Ward’s jaw jutted forward and his dark eyes flashed.
“What is it with this island?” Price demanded. “The girls here think they have all the answers, and everyone else thinks so too. Look at you and Avery. Whipped. And Saff is like some virginal goddess who only gets high on nature.”
“Not true,” Currie snapped. “But we sure don’t need a man to decide what we need.”
“Oh really?” Price glanced at Ward. “Back me up on this, big fellow. These girls don’t have anything to compare things to, so what they think doesn’t matter.”
Ward’s gaze flickered while he fought to control his temper. “You just don’t get it, do you? They’re here to help us, not the other way around.”
“Okay, a good reason for me to be here, a bad reason for Saff to stay.”
Currie stepped closer to Ward, both for comfort and to calm him. “And you don’t think Saff can decide what’s best for her. What makes you think you’re always right?” she asked Price.
He shrugged. “It just happens that way.”
“I don’t think so.”
“I don’t care what you think.” Angry again, Price turned on his heel and stalked away. His walking stick still leaned against the counter.
Ward frowned. “He doesn’t need it anymore.”
“His leg must have healed.”
“It means that he’s been purposely using it when he doesn’t have to. That’s why he said he couldn’t make it to Trisha’s cabin as fast as the rest of us--his leg.”
Currie looked around the kitchen. The others had finished making their dishes and gone. She stepped into Ward’s embrace. “He scares me.”
Thora and Brent came to join them.
“That is one seriously disturbed human being,” Thora said. “What if Brent and I go watch him brood on the patio so you guys can go talk to Brie?”
“Not safe,” Ward said. “I don’t want you around him.”
“We can’t leave him alone out here. What if some poor guest comes and says the wrong thing?” Thora demanded.
Ward glanced at the patio to check on Price. “Brent and I will grill the kebabs and keep an eye on him. We can watch him from here. You girls go tell Brie what happened.”
When they settled around Brie’s desk, Currie stared at Price’s caricature on the bulletin board. “Half white. Half black. A battle between light and dark.”
“I think his dark has dominance,” Brie said. “I think he killed Lyssa, and he came here to bury his guilt, but it hasn’t worked.”
“Good! I hope his guilt eats him alive!” Thora fumed.
“He’s turned his attention to Saff.” Currie looked up as her sister joined them. “I think he’s going to blow before the week’s over. You’re not safe.”
“Wrong. I’m the best person for him to focus on. If he’s with me, he can’t hurt someone else.”
“Your company alone won’t be enough for him. He’s past that,” Currie said.
“But Saff’s right. We should do our best to keep him busy and entertain him. One of us can’t do it alone. Saff will need a break once in a while.” Brie turned to Currie. “You and I can take turns keeping Price distracted when she’s off duty.”
“He doesn’t like me right now,” Currie said.
“So be extra charming the next time you meet. He craves attention. He’ll forgive you.”
“I can stay with him for short periods,” Thora said.
“Not you.” Avery shook his head. “You stay as far away from him as possible.”
“No arguing. Ward and I will take turns staying with whichever girl is with him. He doesn’t like us much, so maybe I’ll work with Currie and Ward can work with Brie or Saffron, so that we don’t look like couples and Price won’t get too jealous.”
Once they had a plan, Currie felt better. She’d never disliked a mortal before, but she loathed Price. And she couldn’t let herself think about how miserable he’d made poor Lyssa. How selfish he was.
Saff wrapped an arm around her shoulders. “Come on. It’s almost time for dinner. I’ll help you setup.”
“You’re going to sit with him, aren’t you? You’re going to be the bait that keeps him away from everyone else?”
Saff nodded. “Do you have a better plan?”
Unhappy, Currie shook her head.
“He doesn’t bother me,” Saff said. “He can’t get under my skin. He’s tried. I tune him out.”
“But he’s awful.”
“He’s a defect, and he’s dangerous. Like a wounded animal. I understand nature. When animals are hurt, they lash out.”
Currie nodded. “You ARE the right person for this job.”
“It’s my specialty,” Saff said. “Spiritual healing. I doubt that Price has much of a soul left.”