Ramona Richards.

House of Secrets






If youre going to arrest me, get it over with, June said. But I didnt kill him.

She moved to push past the police officers that were blocking the door.

She didnt get far. Instead, Ray Taylor abruptly grabbed her shoulder and spun her into his arms, pressing her tightly against his chest. Let it go, June. Stop fighting what you really feel.

June resisted him only a moment, then her body crumpled and she sank against him, wild sobs bursting from her as she clenched his shirt in both hands.

RAMONA RICHARDS

A writer and editor since 1975, Ramona Richards has worked on staff with a number of publishers. Ramona has also freelanced with more than twenty magazine and book publishers and has won awards for both her fiction and nonfiction. Shes written everything from sales-training video scripts to book reviews, and her latest articles have appeared in Todays Christian Woman, College Bound and Special Ed Today. She sold a story about her daughter to Chicken Soup for the Caregivers Soul, and Secrets of Confidence, a book of devotionals, is available from Barbour Publishing.

In 2004, the God Allows U-Turns Foundation, in conjunction with the Advanced Writers and Speakers Association (AWSA), chose Ramona for their Strength of Choice award, and in 2003, AWSA nominated Ramona for Best Fiction Editor of the Year. The Evangelical Press Association presented her with an award for reporting in 2003, and in 1989 she won the Bronze Award for Best Original Dramatic Screenplay at the Houston International Film Festival. A member of the American Christian Fiction Writers and the Romance Writers of America, she has five other novels complete or in development.

House of Secrets
Ramona Richards

www.millsandboon.co.uk

For you did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption by whom we cry out, Abba, Father. The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.

Romans 8: 15-16

This one is for Diane, Krista, Jessica, Emily and Tina, with thanks, appreciation and gratitude for your intelligence, guidance and support through it all.

Yall are a true blessing in my life.

Contents

CHAPTER ONE

CHAPTER TWO

CHAPTER THREE

CHAPTER FOUR

CHAPTER FIVE

CHAPTER SIX

CHAPTER SEVEN

CHAPTER EIGHT

CHAPTER NINE

CHAPTER TEN

CHAPTER ELEVEN

CHAPTER TWELVE

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

EPILOGUE

Letter to Reader

QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION

ONE

I did not kill Pastor David.

June Presley Eaton tried to swallow her fear as well as the lump of grief in her throat.

Her upraised hands trembled, and she felt the phone clutched in her left hand slip slightly. I have to maintain control. June lifted both hands a bit higher and forced her voice lower. I found him. I wanted to help, she said to the man standing behind her.

Please, Lord, let him believe me. It was a desperate prayer, and June fought a tightening sense of panic. She had a dead pastor lying at her feet and, she was pretty certain, Sheriff Ray Taylor and his deputies at her back, guns drawn. Without turning, June wagged the cordless phone in her hand. From it, the flattened and tinny screeches of the Bell County dispatcher bounced off the kitchen walls of the Victorian parsonage.

June Presley Eaton! Is that you? Dont tell me you decided to upset Pastor David right before his big event! Someone already heard the fight and called us and Ray is on his way right now, and

June hit the off button with her thumb. I just got here, Ray. I wasnt the one fighting with him. There are footprints leading farther into the house. See them? And when I got here, I could still hear someone back there. The lump in her throat had eased, but the fear still bore into her, tensing every muscle in her lower back and sending a shudder up her spine. Please, Lord.

No response came from the sheriff, however, and in the silence that followed, June knew that all of Rays instincts had kicked into gear. His brown eyes scanning the room, hed assess the scene in front of him with that precise, military-trained way he had of observing everything quickly before making a judgment. He would calmly evaluate the crime scene while she stood over a dead body, covered in blood, hands raised, cops clustered at her back with their guns pointing at her. June knew that only the phone in her hand kept her from looking like a suspect. She closed her eyes, praying that Ray would see the same thing she had as shed approached the broad back porch of the White Hills Gospel Immanuel Chapels parsonage: bloody footprints leading away from the door and out into the yard.

That had been her cue to fly into the house, calling David Gallaghers name. June had entered the kitchen, moving fast, and her sneakers had hit the red pool gathering around Davids body before she could stop. Shed skidded and fallen forward, hitting the floor with a painful thud, her hands splashing down on either side of the butcher knife protruding from Davids ribs.

Even during her years as a street kid, shed never come face-to-face with violence like this.

Once June had stopped screaming, shed scrambled to her feet and lunged for the phone, barely having time to dial 911 before the screen door had banged open and Rays command to Freeze! had brought everything to a standstill.

In the silence, a fly buzzed around her blood-coated right hand. Trying to look over her shoulder, June struggled to speak in a quieter tone. Control. Stay in control. Please, Ray. Im a witness, not a suspect. She took another deep breath, working to sound much more dignified than she felt. And please close that door. Youre letting the flies into the house.

No one moved. Then, after a few seconds that felt like at least a decade, Ray spoke, his baritone voice even and thoroughly professional. Rivers. Gage. Clear the house.

Silently, Rays deputies, Daniel Rivers and Jeff Gage, moved through the kitchen and past June and the pastors body into the main areas of the grand old Victorian. Over the next few minutes, their calls of Clear! echoed through the rooms.

Can I at least put my arms down?

Why are you here, June?

I came to confront David about what hed said She broke off, suddenly realizing how suspicious that sounded.

About what? Rays tone grew more agitated as he holstered his gun, stepped over Davids legs and moved in front of her. What did you need to confront him about?

June straightened her back and took the holstered gun for a sign she could lower her arms. What he said yesterday morning from the pulpit.

The tension in Rays voice revealed his impatience. About what?

Hunter Bridges.

Silence reigned in the room again as Ray simply waited, eyes dark and demanding.

Junes hands suddenly shook at her sides, and she looked around for a place to put the phone, her words picking up speed. Hunter Bridges is a canker sore on the face of this town and you know it. I dont care how much David wants to see him in the state senate. Hes a lying, manipulative, womanizing cheat, and I dont want him representing me or to have my name connected to his. She lowered her voice. Ive witnessed his ability to manipulate people to get what he wants. Hes propositioned two married friends of mine. Im done with him. With no flat surface close enough, the phone grew awkward in her hand. A wicked pain snapped through her head, making her grimace. Davids implied before that I support Hunter, and Ive politely asked him not to. He did it again yesterday morning, in front of the whole church, and I knew polite just wasnt going to cut it anymore.

So you were here to yell at him. You were mad.

Well, yes! I wont have my name mixed up with that no-good politician Hunter Bridges. She threw up a hand in front of her face, then stopped, taking a deep breath to calm down. But I was too late. When I got here, I saw the bloody footprints on the porch and I ran in. I slipped She paused, pointing down at the floor. I fell.

Is that why youre covered in his blood?

She nodded.

Rays gaze held an intensity that aggravated her growing sense of panic. But you didnt kill him.

Junes knees began trembling, and she fought the urge to throw the phone at him. Hes just doing his job. Dont lose it! No, I did not kill him. David and I have been disagreeing about Hunter Bridges for weeks. Weve debated over coffee, over lunch. He wouldnt give up trying to convince me. He thought Hunter had great things ahead of him. I think Hunter should be locked in his office and kept away from sharp objects.

She shook her head and pointed at a stack of flyers lying on the kitchen counter. I dont know why David suddenly wanted to be politically active. He never had before. I thought he followed JRs philosophy of keeping politics out of the church. But thats his business. Then he started in on me to support Hunter because, for some unfathomable reason, he thinks people in this county still listen to me. I warned him that if he didnt stop, I was going to take out a full-page ad in the paper explaining exactly what I thought of Hunter Bridges, his career and his mother. David thought I was stubborn, and I thought him politically naive. That may be grounds for an argument, but not murder.

Wasnt David hosting a political dinner tomorrow night?

Yes, and he invited me. But I told him Id rather chew glass. You know I dont like mixing politics with religion any more than JR did.

The pain spiked under her scalp at the mention of her dead husband, and June pressed her palm to her forehead, trying to push the headache away. Her whole body seemed to quiver now. Even her voice held a tremor, and tears abruptly stung her eyes. You know how hard JR worked to keep politics out of the church.

Rays low voice turned gentle. Yes. Everyone knows.

June took a deep, ragged breath and closed her eyes, trying to stave off the tears. Of course everyone knows. David, why didnt you follow his guidance? After three years, what changed? June tried to push away a sudden flood of memories of JR, from their wedding day in a tiny mountain chapel to the instant a heart attack took him from herand the entire congregation.

Come back to me, June, Ray urged. Dont retreat from this. Stay in control. Rays soft bass tones resonated in an almost comforting way. Youve been trembling like a leaf since I walked in, and youre about to have the worst adrenaline headache of your life, if you dont already. But you have to hang on to it, girl. Well get through this. Ill get you through it.

June stared down at her hands. The red had darkened, the blood turning brownish as it dried. Suddenly, a foul scent from Davids body reached her and June realized it must have been there all along. Her entire body shook, and the impact of the situation hit her anew. Davids dead. Murdered. No wonder Im babbling like an idiot. Lord, I need calm. And I need Your strength.

Nodding, she looked back up at Ray and let out the breath shed been holding. You know I didnt do this.

We have to clear you with evidence before I can let you go. His dark eyes shifted as he looked behind her, and she turned toward Rivers and Gage, who both shook their heads.

Nothing, said Rivers. All clear, although the study has been partially ransacked. Looks like the search might have been interrupted, but if anyone was here, hes long gone.

June shook her head. I know he was still here. I could hear him in the study. Did you check the tunnel?

The three men stared at June, and Ray stiffened. What tunnel?

Ray held the flashlight in his left hand, shoulder level and pointed slightly down. The earthen tunnel in front of him soaked up the light, and the air smelled acrid and moldy, reminding Ray of a flooded riverbank after a hard rain. Ray ran the beam of his light back and forth across the floor of the narrow tunnel. Behind him, his chief deputy, Daniel Rivers, searched the walls.

Daniel paused to examine a lump, which turned out to be the end of a tree root. I cant believe theres a tunnel under the parsonage.

By now, I suspect were out under the backyard. A lot of houses this old have secret rooms and passages, but not usually tunnels.

An escape route for slaves, maybe?

Ray paused and ran his light over one of the wooden support arches to check its strength. I doubt it. This house wasnt built until around 1900. June told me once that the original builder had been seriously paranoid about fire. Since the only entrance is from the second floor, Id say he built it from a fear of fire or intruders.

Daniel cleared his throat. You think she did it?

Ray, trying desperately to forget the feelings he had for his number-one suspect, resumed his examination of the floor. Shes your sister-in-law. What do you think?

Daniel, whod married Junes sister April less than a year ago, paused a moment. No.

Why not?

June likes a good argument, and she likes to win, but shes worked hard over the years to leave behind the street kid that she was. She wouldnt resort to violence. Shes so in control most days, I forget shes not from a privileged background. April once said June lived with violence so long that she abhorred it. They both do. June might yell, but shed never lift a hand to hurt anyone. Daniel sniffed, then coughed. Besides, she kept referring to Pastor Gallagher in the present tense, as if he were still alive. Plus, the blood pattern on her clothes is all wrong.

Ray smiled grimly, glad Daniel couldnt see the flash of pride in his face. Daniel got better at his job every day. How so?

The killer would have blood on him in streaks and smudges from the attack. June looked like shed wallowed in it. Plus the footprints on the back porch dont match the ones that skidded through the blood. So there were at least two people in that kitchen. June and whoever made the prints.

Maybe three, if the set leading away from Ray froze, his light focused on something on the ground.

Daniel came to his side, on alert. What did you find?

Ray nodded toward the floor, then they both squatted, examining the small white button that seemed to glitter in the light. A tiny piece of navy-blue fabric still clung to it, and both had a distinctive red smear on them.

Strange place to lose a button.

Ray shined his light farther down the tunnel, where it illuminated a pile of plaid cloth. Red streaks had soaked the navy-blue and dark green squares. Not if you were jerking your shirt off.

Daniel stood. Ill send Gage down with the crime-scene kit.

Good.

Ray pulled his handcuffs from his belt and placed them carefully next to the button, so it would be easier to find. Standing, he shined his light back toward the house, noticing how distinct his and Daniels footprints were in the earth. He noticed other prints that seemed recent as well, and he skirted them as he turned back and made his way deeper into the tunnel, toward the shirt.

Using his pen, Ray prodded at the thick flannel until he found the collar. The shirt was a mans extra large, which made it useless for judging the suspects size. Small shirts are only worn by small people, but large shirts are popular with all sizes of folks. The dirt ring around the collar meant that the shirt could be oldand filled with DNA. Two dark smears on the cloth bore an unmistakable resemblance to tobacco juice.

Ray replaced the pen in his pocket and stood again, his mind turning over a hundred possibilities. He ignored the relief he felt at finding some possible evidence that pointed away from June. Tobacco stains didnt exactly narrow the suspect pool muchBell County remained tobacco country and there were as many fields of the bright, wide-leafed plants around here as there were of corn and soybeansbut it might not be a bad place to start looking. Especially if it could help clear the name of the woman he could not get off his mind. The woman who just wanted to be friends.

The scuff of shoes on dirt made Ray look up, and he shined his light down the tunnel behind him, expecting to see Daniel and his lone crime-scene investigator, Jeff Gage, heading his way. Instead, the beam of his flashlight faded away into the darkness.

Then the scuffing sounded again, now clearly from the opposite direction. Ray drew his pistol and swung around, dropping to a crouch.

June perched on the outside edge of the carefully placed kitchen chair, tense and weary. Her foot bounced nervously, the white crime-scene suit she now wore crinkling and crunching with every movement. Before he and Daniel had headed off to explore the tunnel, Ray had given her the suit and insisted she exchange her bloody clothes for the Tyvek coverall. He also pulled a chair from the far side of the room and told her to sit there once her clothes were in evidence bags. He placed it where every officer on the premises could see her. For her safety, hed said.

She could see them as well. She watched as Jeff Gage went to his patrol cruiser and returned with the crime-scene kit, beginning his work on the body. Photographs, diagrams and evidence bags. Hed placed brown paper bags around Davids hands, and for the first time June saw the defensive wounds on her pastors arms.

You fought back. Good for you. Tears stung Junes eyes again as she realized that there was no forced entry. David must have let them inhe must have known his attackers. Her stomach knotted as a sense of betrayal shot through her. How could anyone? June pressed her fingers to her lips, fighting a wave of grief.

When JR first took over here at Gospel Immanuel Chapel in tiny White Hills, Tennessee, the congregation had barely numbered one hundred. She and JR had worked hard to build the church, and within a year, JR had needed an assistant and an associate pastor. Hed hired Kitty Parker as his assistant and David Gallagher as his associate pastor, for his knowledge of scripture, charisma in the pulpit and genuine love of people. After JRs death, David became the senior pastor. Over the past three years of his tenure in that role, David had grown the church even more, and he knew every member by name and their problems and their hopes.

June shifted in her chair, her heart aching for David. You were a good shepherd. Did you know them? Were they friends?

David had either let his attacker inor the killer had come in through the tunnel.

Not many folks knew about that underground passageway in and out of the house. In fact, when she and JR had started the renovation of the parsonage the year before hed died, the entrance on the second floor had been sealed. The contractor told her it had probably been closed off for at least twenty years, since the house had been empty for more than ten years. And the previous owners had known nothing about a tunnel.

JR had found the tunnel fascinating, even though the dark passageway was little more than a deep ditch that had been covered over with railroad ties and sod. It let out at the spring house. Although deep enough for a man to stand up in, only two feet or so of dirt and wood separated it from the expanse of grass that grew fresh and even across the backyard. JR had insisted on having the tunnel inspected for safety. Theyd never really used it except for the time they had left the house that way in order to sneak away undetected by the neighbors for a romantic three days in Gulf Shores. A pretend adventure that still made June smile.

A rhythmic thudding on the main stairway of the house made June turn, and she stood as Daniel entered the kitchen. Wheres Ray?

Still down there. He motioned for Gage to follow him. Bring your kit.

What did you find? June asked, taking a step toward her brother-in-law.

Later. Stay here. He waited as Gage repacked the kit. As they turned to go, two muffled thumps echoed from somewhere deep in the house. They looked at each other, puzzled, as two more thumps sounded, like a car backfiring in some far distant place.

Gage recognized it first. Thats gunfire!





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