“That day you stopped by the cottage to warn me to watch out for Marilyn, you overheard my conversation with Gabe when he was on his way back from Portland. You learned that we had concluded I might be the target of a stalker. That made you very nervous, didn’t it? You realized that we were no longer dismissing the break-in as the action of a transient. So you came back to trash my studio to add some credibility to our theory.”
“I got scared. Really scared. This is Eclipse Bay. I knew that if a Harte and a Madison were putting pressure on Sean Valentine, he might actually conduct a serious investigation. I didn’t know where that would lead. I thought that I would be safe if everyone continued to blame the break-in on a stalker who could conveniently just disappear.”
“Oh, Claire.” Lillian shook her head. “What were you thinking?”
The bitterness tinged Claire’s voice. “How did you figure it out?”
“I suppose you could say it was a process of elimination. Gabe and a private investigator cleared the only real potential stalker we had on our list. When we talked to Anderson, he denied the break-ins here in Eclipse Bay. Adamantly.”
Claire widened in scorn. “And you actually believed that bag of sleaze?”
Lillian shrugged. “The forced entry didn’t fit with what I knew about him. Anderson is the sort who tries to talk his way in and out of situations.”
“What about Marilyn? She should have been on your list. She was the one who had the most to gain from those files.”
“The thing about Marilyn is that she is very up-front about what she wants. She doesn’t sneak around.
You, on the other hand, have a history of sneaking around.”
Claire flinched. “What do you mean?”
“She was right when she said that you had an affair with Trevor Thornley, wasn’t she?”
“I told you, I never slept with Trevor.”
“I don’t believe you.”
Claire watched her warily. “Why not?”
“Because I found out that you were sneaking around with Larry Fulton in the back of his father’s van the summer that he and I were dating.”
“Larry Fulton.” Claire’s mouth fell open. “But that was years ago. We were in college .”
“I know. I was pretty sure that he was fooling around with someone else that summer. I just hadn’t realized that the other woman was you. The Willis brothers set me straight a few days ago. They gave me a whole new perspective on you, Claire. Once I started asking the right questions, things fell into place.”
Claire backed out of the laundry room, never taking her eyes off Lillian. “You can’t prove anything.”
“You keep saying that.” Lillian came away from the washer. “I’m not arguing the point. I came here today for some answers, not to get you arrested.”
“I’m on my way.” Lillian crossed the living room, paused at the front door and looked back over her shoulder. “Just one more question.”
“I said, get out of here.”
“You told me that Trevor was into high heels and ladies’ lingerie and that his tastes would be a real turnoff. Can I assume you lied about that, too?”
“I hated the dressing up part,” Claire explained. “But the man was on track to be a U.S. senator. I figured I could overlook a few eccentricities if it meant I would be a senator’s wife.”
“Did he really tell you that he would divorce Marilyn and marry you after he was elected?”
“He promised.” Claire looked down at the blue shirt crumpled in her hands. “Just like Larry Fulton promised we would get engaged after he broke up with you. Nothing ever works out the way it’s supposed to. It not fair, you know? It’s just not fair.”
Gabe prowled back and forth across the cottage kitchen. “You shouldn’t have confronted her on your own.”
“You’ve mentioned that several times already.” Lillian propped her elbows on the kitchen table and rested her chin in her hands. “I’ve explained that I went there on impulse.”
“What if she had turned violent?”
“She’s not the type.”
“You can’t be certain.”
“Gabe, she knows I can’t prove anything.”
“I guess this is one of those situations where you have to let karma happen.”
“Karma never happens to people like her. Karma is bullshit. The Claires of this world always skate.”
Lillian looked out the window. “I wouldn’t say that Claire has done a lot of skating in her life. She said that things have never worked out for her. None of her big plans ever jelled. Larry Fulton and I broke up but he didn’t marry her. He married Sheila. Trevor Thornley crashed and burned, so she didn’t get to marry him and become a senator’s wife. She lost her job with Marilyn’s campaign. All and all, Claire hasn’t been what anyone would call a winner.”
They drove into town for warm croissants and coffee the next morning. Gabe parked in the lot in front of Incandescent Body. He studied the warmly lit interior of the bakery through the windows. A handful of people were clustered inside. The array of vehicles standing in the rain outside included Mitchell’s big SUV, Arizona’s aging truck and Sean Valentine’s cruiser.
“Looks a little cozy in there,” he said. “Want to go somewhere else?” he asked.
“There is nowhere else where we can get croissants like the ones they make here.” Lillian pulled up the hood of her rain cloak and reached for the door handle. “Come on, we can deal with this.”
“I don’t know about that.” Reluctantly he opened the driver’s side door. “It’s a little early for a Harte-Madison scene.”
“Nonsense. Never too early for one of those.”
He hunched deeper into his jacket and walked quickly beside her through the drizzle to the entrance.
He opened the glass door and immediately registered the serious tone of the atmosphere inside. The buzz of conversation was more intense than usual. His first thought was that the sight of Mitchell and Sullivan sharing coffee together had electrified the gossip circuit. But then he realized that no one was paying much attention to the pair, who were seated at a small table with Bryce and Sean.
Predictably, everyone looked toward the door when it opened. Lillian pushed back the hood of her cloak and bestowed a bright smile on the crowd. Gabe nodded brusquely and headed for the counter.