A Murder at Alcott Manor — A Classic Gothic Tale of Romance and Murder.
Free First Chapter
“I know this must be hard for you,” Layla’s attorney said. Billy Langmire sat composed, his tanned skin as smooth and flawless as his expensive navy blue suit. He would never understand just how hard this was for her. She knew this from the polished and perfect gold band on his well-manicured ring finger. And she knew this from the silver framed photos of his beautiful blonde wife and little boy, on the dunes at the white sand beach. And she knew this from the trophy fish that was hung on the wall behind his desk. She often wondered if someone like him ever had real problems, or did he only have difficult choices.
She pinched the soft skin of her thigh beneath the teal green of her scrubs. Numbness was covering her inch by inch like a thick blanket and she hoped the sharp nip from her nails would snap her out of it. Guilt was swallowing her whole, as if a giant whale engulfed her into its dark, watery belly, and she descended into nothingness.
She hadn’t felt this lost since the end of high school, when she had been accused of killing Brooke Williams—an event that caused Layla’s life to jump its rails. It simultaneously destroyed her future with Mason, the man she thought she would marry. And it landed her in a marriage with Asher Cardill—her newly deceased husband who continued to ruin her life, even from the grave.
Back then, an entire summer of official charges and public humiliation had taken place before the police had ultimately proven her innocent. “There just isn’t enough evidence to support the claims,” the detectives had finally said.
But what the police and everyone else had never managed to figure out was that she had done it. She had killed Brooke Williams.
“Isn’t there anything I can—” Emotion caught in her throat now. “There has to be something I can do to stop the bank from taking our house.”
“I’m afraid not.” His lips nearly disappeared into a sad smile he must have conjured for the most pathetic of situations. No lips, no teeth, no compassion. Just…unconcerned.
“There has to be something. We have nowhere to go. I have children—two girls who have lived in that home all their life.” The hatred she had for that house bubbled up in sour grape flavor and swirled around her mouth. The bedrooms were too small, the kitchen too dated, the yard didn’t have enough trees.
The small, two bedroom ranch-style house had been Asher’s house before they married, never hers. Apparently, it was still his house because he never added her to the deed. That’s what they sprung on her today.
She’d wanted to leave Asher’s bachelor-era house so many times over the last ten years. Now she would. Not in the way she had wanted or expected, but she would go. She and her girls were all flying the coop, with no place to land.
“The bank cannot leave us homeless.” Her voice sounded as though it came from someone else, from somewhere else in the room. She was disassociating. A psychologist described that reaction to her years ago and she knew the signs. Numbing out was one of them.
Billy pushed a letter toward her that was littered with numbers and harsh language. She’d seen the letter before, read it several times; she didn’t need to see it again. So she ignored it and kept her eyes on his.
“Your husband’s business owed the bank $552,000 on a line of credit. Since his company didn’t have any revenue, they’re entitled to seize his assets to settle his debt. He signed a personal guarantee with them.” His pencil tapped a sentence at the bottom of the paper. She ignored that, too, and maintained eye contact. She was determined that he see her as a human being, that he help her with this.
“Your house is worth roughly $245,000. I’ve spoken with the bank, and they’re willing to give you a discount of seven thousand dollars. But they’re going to hold you to the remaining $300,000.”
“How kind.” She tried to tamp down her anger that was developing its own momentum, like a gallop that sped toward a cliff.
She was acutely aware of how anger could ruin your life. It could make you do things you later wished you hadn’t. But the emotion she felt today was the special kind of anger that made her sprout fangs and claws and forced grown men to cower in her path. It grew its substantial roots on the day her first child was born, and its protective nature was bigger than she was. She called it her mama bear side, since it only reared itself when someone threatened the well-being of her children. Right now, someone was taking away her children’s home. When she tapped her fingers on the table, she fully expected to hear claws on polished wood.
“I don’t understand why I have to settle the rest of his business debt. Plus—” She dug through her purse for the papers she’d finally found this morning and slapped them on the desk. “We took out these life insurance policies for $500,000 each. His policy will cover most of what he owed the bank.”
“Well.” Billy lifted a stack of stapled papers from his open white file folder and passed it to her. “Does this look familiar?”
The top page read Personal Guarantee and Loan Agreement.
“This isn’t mine.”
He folded the first few pages over and pointed to her signature in blue ink next to the word ‘co-signer’.
“Oh, no.” She exhaled hard. “Asher had me sign this a long time ago. I’d forgotten.”
“The bank remembered. You signed it three years ago.” He underlined the date with his pencil. She wondered how much trouble she would get in if she shoved that pencil up his nose.
“The market was crap, and Asher’s business was down. The bank was going to call his loan if he couldn’t offer more collateral. I had some inheritance money from my grandparents socked away; of course, that ended up in Asher’s business, too. The bank said if I co-signed on the line of credit that they would let him keep the loan.” Layla lowered her forehead into her palm. When she finally peeked up, she asked, “What about the insurance money?”
“I called the insurance company when you told me about them. And yes, his life insurance policy would have covered this debt, but he let it lapse over a year ago.”
Her breath came faster now. As a nurse, she knew fast breathing increased anxiety. She’d counseled countless families of her patients to slowwww their breathing. But she couldn’t manage to slow her own breath right now and it set its own pace.
“And your policy—” The attorney flipped through his folder of papers. “Was for three million. Not $500,000. Were you aware of that?”
Her rising mama bear anger dropped through an unexpected trap door. “Three? Three million? That’s not right.”
He slid the policy papers in front of her and she lowered her eyes to where he drew a light circle around the number.
“I don’t understand. We bought half million dollar policies. Why would he increase the amount of mine?”
Billy leaned forward. “Layla, I don’t know how well you knew your husband, but I’ll just say this. If the situations were reversed and he had collected on your policy, the police would haul him down to the station faster than a barefoot jackrabbit on a greasy griddle.”
“Suspicion of what?”
“Yes, ma’am. Scuttlebutt is that he wanted to develop the Alcott Manor land through his property development company. You own part of the family stock that manages the manor and its property?”
“Yes. Quite a bit, because I’m a direct descendant of Benjamin Alcott. Only family members are entitled to have ownership.”
“But he would have voting rights since y’all were married, right?”
“No. Only if there’s a…death.” A rush of white noise filled her ears while all the ways Asher might kill her passed before her eyes. Strangle…pummel…or smash her head…he was a man who would want to use his hands to finish her off.
Billy continued to talk, but his voice drifted away until she couldn’t hear it at all. She floated in the space of the dark nothingness that surrounded her now. It wouldn’t stop until it took over.
She didn’t remember walking to the car, but once she was there she thought of her girls—how she needed to provide for them and their education and how Asher’s debt would get in the way of doing just that.
Guilt, guilt and more guilt.
Standing outside the driver’s side, she allowed a tiny ladybug to crawl onto her finger from the car’s door handle. If Asher had been with her, he would have killed the bug just to see it die. If the girls hadn’t been around to see him do it, that is. If they had seen him find the ladybug, he would have made up some fantastic story and named the ladybug after them both in a hyphenated name. Half her eldest’s name and half her youngest’s. “Let’s call it Anna-Emma!”
She wondered if she were the only person on the planet to know Asher for who he truly was. Deep belly breaths, she reminded herself as she crawled into her small car. She needed calm. Instead she got tears. Lots of them. She hadn’t cried this hard since she’d discovered that Asher no longer loved her, not since she suspected he never really had, and not since she’d known she would have to pack up the girls and leave him.
The shrill ring of her cell phone startled her out of a deep, gut-wrenching sob. Peyton. Sisters knew somehow. They knew when you were in over your head and needed a helping hand. Though there was only so much she would tell her, Layla knew her sister would help. She wiped the running mascara from beneath her eyes and cleared her throat.
“Hey. I just landed, did you get my texts?”
“No. My meeting ended only a few minutes ago.”
“How did it go?”
White blooms from the crepe myrtle in front of her dipped and swayed in the wind. The sun bore down on the windshield, and she figured that somewhere, someone was talking about what a lovely day it was. Warm sun, nice breeze. Great day for a walk or a picnic. Her life was crumbling into too many pieces to count, and yet the world would simply go on.
“Worse than I expected, actually.” She pressed her hand against the pain that throbbed at her temple.
“Oh, Layla. What happened?”
She went into detail about the lapsed insurance policy, how the bank was taking the house and how she’d have to pay off the rest of Asher’s debt because he’d talked her into signing that personal guarantee. Oh, and it looked like he might have been planning to murder her for insurance money and her Alcott Manor stock.
Layla wiped a tear from her cheek. “How am I going to explain to the girls that we’re losing our home?” She envisioned the house that would soon be just another case number for the bank. The twenty-year-old roof that needed replacing, the brown shutters that needed painting, and the weather-beaten front door that needed to be replaced. Peyton’s sigh was loud over the phone, and Layla could feel her sister’s anger seethe. Peyton hated Asher.
“We’ll figure this out. I’m on my way. Where are you right now?”
“Going to meet Tom Watson at the manor. Need to get myself together first.” Layla thought of Tom, how kind and dedicated he was to their family and to their ancestral home. He worked for the Historic District Commission, but he had championed the completion of the restoration for several years now. Thanks to him, they were closer than they ever had been.
“Layla, I know this problem seems insurmountable right now, but remember you’re stronger than you think.”
Layla nodded and tried to take in her sister’s encouragement. “Paying down that debt will be like a monthly payment for two mortgages. How in the hell am I going to afford that and keep a home for the girls and send them to college? How will I ever be able to retire?”
“Listen, honey. You of all people in the world deserve happiness. So, this is going to work out.”
She wanted to believe her sister. Peyton had been blessed with courage to spare, and intelligence that catapulted her out of their hometown and away from their mother. Her determination was the gift that kept on giving, and Layla had never stopped wishing that she could have just a fraction of her sister’s fearlessness. She started the engine and hoped that the drive to Alcott Manor would give her a fresh perspective.
“You’ve got the stock in the manor. That will pay off for you when the tours begin.”
“The manor’s a wreck. It might take a year or more for them to finish the repairs in that place.”
“Why don’t I meet you at the manor? I’m about forty-five minutes out,” Peyton said. Layla pressed the gas pedal. “I’ll drive over to the public park and walk along the sand to the back of the house. Maybe we’ll get there around the same time.” Layla’s mind filled with sandy barefoot memories of her and her sister racing along the beach hand-in-hand and overflowing with giggles. It almost hurt to think of them, those far away good times.
“I’m on my way, Layla-pop.” Layla’s heart softened for a twinkle of a moment at the sound of her childhood nickname. She could almost taste the sour apple lollipop she usually had in her mouth as a child. In the next second, she toughened up. She had to—she was headed toward Alcott Manor.