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Excerpt - Legacy of Lies By Jill Elizabeth Nelson

Legacy of Lies
Jill Elizabeth Nelson

Evidence from a decades-old murder is the last thing Nicole Keller-Mattson expected to find in her grandmother's backyard. The finger-pointing and accusations aimed at her family were easier to predict. Everyone in Ellendale is eager to blame the Kellers—but after an attack leaves Nicole's grandmother in a coma, only Nicole can clear the family name. With the assistance of police chief Rich Hendricks, she stands a chance of solving the mystery…if she's willing to accept Rich's help. Nicole lost her husband in the line of duty—trusting another cop is too painful. But not trusting Rich could be deadly.

Excerpt of chapter one:

"Over my dead body!" Nicole Mattson's grandmother whirled away from the stove and planted wire-veined hands on plump hips. "Jan's Sewing Room has sold fabric, patterns and sewing notions for sixty years. I'm not about to toss that heritage out the door to convert to this new-fangled machine embroidery." She said the final words with a twist to her lips that suggested she'd tasted something nasty.

Nicole finished shredding lettuce into a bowl and turned from the counter, wiping her hands on a towel. Her gaze met her grandmother's glare. Hopefully, her own eyes contained the winsome mix of firm reason and gentle persuasion she was striving for, rather than the frustration she was trying to hide.

"I'm not saying we should throw all the conventional sewing materials out," she said, "but we need to pare that inventory down and make room for machines that will produce items people will buy in volume. We could market jackets and T-shirts and sweatshirts to schools, businesses, service organizations, churches…" She waved an expansive hand.

Her grandmother sniffed. "But what about the clientele I've built up over a lifetime? They want a quiet place to browse for creative projects—not mindless boilerplate logos and images."

Gritting her teeth, Nicole began chopping fresh vegetables for the salad. Nothing she'd said so far had convinced Grandma Jan that computers and machines could mix with creativity. Maybe the financial approach would work.

"I've studied the shop's books," Nicole said. "J.S.R. hasn't turned a profit in this century." She stopped herself from adding that if the house and shop weren't owned free and clear, and if Grandpa, former president of one of the two banks in town, hadn't left his wife well-fixed, the stubborn woman might be out in the street. "Let the machine embroidery end of the business be my thing. If I'm going to live here, I need to support myself."

A little of the stiffness drained from her grandmother's posture. "Give yourself time to recover from the loss of your husband before you get all caught up in making a living, honey. It's been barely six months since Glen was killed. I remember it took me more than a year to have a clear thought in my head after your grandpa passed. That's why I invited you to come stay with me. We widows need to take care of each other, and the shop will take care of us. It always has." She went back to tending the meat hissing in her frying pan. "Business will pick up. You'll see. In this economy, more people will think about making their own clothes."

Nicole swallowed a sharp answer. Grandma was living in ancient history if she thought many women were going to add sewing clothes for the family to their hectic schedule, especially when most needed to hold down jobs outside the home. Besides, handmade clothing wasn't that much cheaper than store-bought anymore. Not that her grandmother would realize such a thing when she continued to sew her own slacks, blouses and dresses. No jeans or T-shirts for Janet Keller, though they were Nicole's favorite garb.

Grandma commenced humming as she added salt to boiling potatoes. Nicole finished the salad, set it on the table and slipped out the back door onto the small deck. The muggy warmth of a summer evening embraced her. The humidity was preferable to the heavy aroma of side pork frying in grease. No wonder Grandma's cholesterol was sky-high. And in the last couple of weeks since Nicole arrived in the little town of Ellington, the woman claimed her granddaughter was too thin and needed plumping up. One more excuse to defy doctor's orders and refuse to change her diet. Nicole grimaced.

Grandma would give a soul in need the shirt off her back—or hand-make them one—but if there was an award for being set in one's ways, she would win it. Every change was always "over my dead body." Nicole ran splayed fingers through thick, dark hair and released a long sigh.

Her gaze scanned the quiet residential neighborhood in the small town of Ellington. A few of the 1920s bungalows had aged less gracefully than the Keller home, the oldest house in the neighborhood and the only towering colonial. Typical of the Kellers to march to a different drummer, but they paid meticulous care to what they owned. Not that anyone's property was particularly attractive at the moment. The paving, curbs and gutters had recently been torn off the streets to allow replacement of the underground water and sewer pipes, leaving rutted dirt tracks and, in some places, freshly dug pits instead of roads. Navigation was a challenge in any direction from this corner lot. A distant boom echoed. The big equipment worked on into the evening in another area of town.

A pervasive sadness sifted through Nicole. Change happened whether a person planned it or not—and not always for the good. An image of Glen in his uniform, flashing his winsome grin, darted past her mind's eye. She huffed against a stab of pain in her chest where her heart should be. That organ had felt cold and dead since the sun-bright winter day Glen's captain showed up on her doorstep in full -dress blues, hat in hand.

Melancholy pressed Nicole onto a chair on the deck. When she was growing up and her parents brought her to visit Grandma Jan and Grandpa Frank in this west-central Minnesota town, the lawn was a living carpet of thick grass, thriving plants and lush flowerbeds. Since Grandpa's death a decade ago, when Nicole was twenty-two—a young woman barely wed!—the plants had disappeared one by one, and the flowerbeds had shrunk to a few clumps of petunias here and there. Grandma was not the green thumb in the family, though she'd done her best to maintain Grandpa's beloved rose garden that lined the property along Tenth Street.

At least until this year.

Now the garden looked like some razor-toothed monster had chomped a bite out of it and gouged a trench in the earth up to the house. The gaping hole was part of the city infrastructure project to install new water and sewer lines. Out on the road, the early-evening breeze puffed dust clouds into the air. Across the street, a neighbor emerged from his house, lifted a lazy hand in greeting and ambled toward his garage.

Nicole rose and trod down the three steps onto the grass, then wandered along the edge of the trench until she reached the pitiful remains of Grandpa's beloved roses. A magnificent grandiflora and a prolific white floribunda survived on one side of the gouge in the earth. On the other, several bushes of miniature roses held their blossoms up toward the waning sun. But the trellis with its pink Bourbon climbing roses and most of the hybrid teas, including her grandfather's favorite yellow roses, were gone. This plot of ground had meant so much to him. It was a shame to see it ruined. Maybe when the city project was finished, she could try her hand at restoring the garden. Surely her grandmother wouldn't object to that!

Birdsong teased her ears from a spreading maple tree a few yards behind her. Dappled sunlight reached the trench through the leafy fringes of the tree. As the warm breeze rippled the branches, a pale gleam winked at her from the dirt wall near the bottom of the hole. Nicole bent, hands on knees, and looked closer. Crinkles of dirty white plastic poked out one side wall of the trench. The plastic was at least as wide as her grandmother's antiquated microwave oven, but only about as high as a loaf of bread.

Was this the final resting place of Grandpa's boyhood dog, Lad? Grandpa had, after all, grown up in this house. If so, it was funny he'd never mentioned the beloved mutt was buried here. But it did help explain his obsession with keeping up the rose garden. Then again, that theory could be completely off, and the plastic could contain anything from junk to treasure.

Curiosity nibbled at Nicole. She didn't really care to uncover some old dog bones, but what if it were something more interesting, maybe even valuable. Should she wait until the workers came back tomorrow and ask them to unearth the item? She shook her head. Nah! She wouldn't sleep a wink tonight for wondering, so she might as well solve the mystery right now.

Nicole went to the garage and returned with one of her grandfather's gardening trowels. The trench was only a few feet deep, so she hopped in and went to work. A little grunting, sweaty work later she pulled out what turned out to be a package wrapped in a plastic sack—probably a garbage bag. Whatever was inside had some bulk, but was almost as light as air. Probably not a bag of gold then. She smiled at her own absurdity.

The digging machine had caught an edge of the sack and made a rip in the plastic. Standing in the trench, Nicole hooked her finger in the hole and tore the opening wide to expose a bundle of deep blue fabric. A small, faded tag caught her eye. Gingerly, she touched the fragile bit of paper and leaned over the markings. A faint musky smell brushed her nostrils, and her eyes widened. Enough of the letters remained legible to make out the words Jan's Sewing Room. Whatever was in here had been wrapped in yard goods from her grandmother's store.

A chill feathered across Nicole's skin. Suddenly, she wasn't so eager to see what was inside. But she was in this too far; she had to look now. Gently, Nicole rolled the package over and over, releasing layers of fabric. Finally, the contents lay plain to see.

Oxygen fled her lungs. She blinked and stared.

Not a dog. No, not at all.

Someone had buried a baby in her grandparents' backyard!

Nicole's head swam, and she gripped the side of the trench, whimpering. Her fingers clawed into the cool earth. Could Grandma Jan have had a miscarriage or a stillbirth? But wouldn't those remains be placed in a cemetery with an official headstone? No whisper of such a family tragedy had reached her ears as she grew up. How about an abortion? Nicole shook her head. These remains were too large for some furtive termination of a rejected pregnancy. This child had probably been at least several months old. And he or she must have been buried here for a long time. Had Grandpa known what precious treasure lay beneath his roses?

What kind of question was that? She shook herself. Of course, Grandpa couldn't have known. He would never have—

"Nicole, I've been calling you to come in for supper. I—" Her grandmother's voice behind her ended in a sharp gasp.

Time suspended like a clock's pendulum gone still.

Nicole finally sucked in a breath, as Grandma Jan let out a shrill cry.

"Oh, no!" The elderly woman's cracked wail held every second of her seventy-five years of existence. "I can't believe it! I never thought… It can't be."

Nicole turned to find her grandmother scuttling away in a half crouch, as if someone had struck her in the stomach, but she must ignore the pain and flee. Grandma was clearly surprised the remains were in her yard, yet she knew something about them. What?

Nicole heaved herself out of the trench and followed, calling for her grandmother to stop. The woman didn't acknowledge that she'd heard. Nicole trailed her through the kitchen and up the hallway. The older woman could move surprisingly fast. Grandma darted into her bedroom, and slammed the door in Nicole's face, barely missing her nose.

Nicole gaped at the closed portal. "What's going on? Whose remains are those?"

"I'm not sure, dear." The thin response carried faintly.

The sound of drawers slamming and the rustling of papers reached Nicole's ears. What was her grandmother looking for?

"I have to call the police." Nicole leaned her forehead against the door panel.

"Do what you need to do, honey. Let me be, now."

On reluctant feet, Nicole went to the kitchen and lifted the telephone receiver. Why was her grandmother lying to her? And what was she rummaging for in the bedroom? Something to do with the child in the rose garden?

Nicole had come to the quiet community of Ellington— to this home she'd known as a haven since childhood—in order to rebuild her life after a devastating loss. More than that, she'd come to look after her only close living relative in the waning years of the woman's life. What might happen to both of them the minute she placed this phone call to the police station?

Police Chief Rich Hendricks caught the coded call-out from the dispatcher on his police scanner at home. He immediately phoned the station for details not given over the radio, and then abandoned his half-eaten, fast-food cheeseburger. Small loss. No fun scarfing down meals alone all the time anyway. With his wife, Karen, having passed away three years ago and his daughter, Katrina, newly graduated and off to summer Bible camp as a counselor, life had turned pretty blah. A case like this broke up the routine big-time, but it wasn't the kind of excitement he welcomed.

A baby's bones found in a trench? When he took the chief job here in Ellington, he researched the town, particularly the criminal history. This little burg hadn't had a mystery this big since Simon Elling's infant son was kidnapped in 1957 and never recovered. Had the child just been found? And in the Kellers' backyard, no less!

Bouncing over the rough terrain on the dug-up streets, Rich's SUV turned onto Tenth Street. The Keller colonial lay up ahead. Looked as if he was the first unit on the scene, but then, he only lived a few blocks away.

A slender, dark-haired woman stood slump-shouldered beside a bundle on the ground. Nicole Mattson, Jan's granddaughter. She moved to town only a couple of weeks ago, presumably to start a new life a few months after her Minneapolis police-officer husband was killed in a shootout with a team of serial bank robbers. The guy was a bonafide hero, decorated and everything, but that didn't make Nicole any less a widow. He sympathized.

Welcome to Ellington.

Rich snorted. This was not the way he'd hoped to be introduced to this woman. He'd been eyeing her from afar, giving her space to settle in and time for the sharpest pangs of loss to subside. Since Karen's passing, Nicole was the first female to spark his interest in dating again…and now he had to approach her in cop mode.

He cruised the SUV to the nonexistent curb, grabbed his interview notebook and got out. She gazed at him, brow furrowed above deep brown eyes. He glanced down at his jeans and Minnesota Vikings T-shirt.

"Sorry." He sent her a muted smile. "This caught me off duty at home. You must be Nicole, Jan's granddaughter. I'm Police Chief Rich Hendricks." He held out his hand.

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