Some secrets are better left buried…or are they?
Kathryn Bellamy is the Assistant D.A. for Perkins County, Georgia. After detectives fail to retrieve a missing murder weapon, she travels to Cedar Key, Florida to find it herself. She finds more than she ever bargained for when she meets Phil Tagliaferro, a former defense attorney.
Phil is drawn to help Kathryn when he learns she’s receiving threats—until he finds out their pasts are connected and his association with her could mean death for them both. Kathryn won’t leave Cedar Key until she has unearthed the secrets…and the murder weapon, but she can’t do that without Phil.
Secrets Among the Cedars brings two people from opposite sides of a case together with one goal in mind: Justice.
What else will they find in the process?
Secrets Among the Cedars
By Sherri Wilson Johnson
Cedar Key, Florida
Kathryn Bellamy leaned against the steel pier railing and took a generous bite of her salted caramel ice cream which teetered over the edge of the waffle cone enveloping it. The creamy coolness slid down her throat as dolphins slipped through the water out to her right. The Gulf of Mexico's balmy salt-infused breeze whipped her hair away from her face and flapped her bohemian skirt and blouse against her road-weary body. It felt good to wear such freeing attire, so different from her normal suits she wore in the courtroom. After working at the courthouse for two solid years, seldom leaving the office before sunset, her hair and skin needed this kiss from the sun. Too bad she wasn't in Cedar Key for pleasure. This tiny fishing village below the Suwannee River would be the perfect place for her to relax and regain her focus on life.
Pelicans and sea gulls soared across the early evening orange and pink sky, and fishermen pulled their boats in beneath billowing clouds. A pelican balanced on the railing and waited for something to eat in the lapping water. Day's end was almost at hand. The six-hour trip from home northwest of Atlanta made Kathryn ache to stretch out on the king-sized bed at her rental condo. She might be here to research the Ezzo murder case, a make-it-or-break-it case for her career, but something about this sparsely populated island on the scrubby nature coast of Florida pushed her woes off the edge of the pier and out into the bayou.
She took another bite of her ice cream and licked her lips, but when whoops and hollers escaped from the people at the end of the pier, her enchantment ended. She squinted in the glare of the sunlight. A scrawny gray-haired man in a T-shirt and cut-off jeans whacked a well-toned and well-tanned young man on the back. What was all the fuss about?
Ice cream dripped down Kathryn's arm, and she took another bite of melting paradise. She wiped her arm and then tossed her soggy napkin in a nearby trashcan, filled with remnants of sunbaked squid and shrimp. Another roar of victory came from the crowd, and she couldn’t help but direct her attention to the racket. Her curiosity ran away with her like a runaway buggy in the Wal-mart parking lot back home. Well, she'd have to meet the locals anyway if she was going to figure out the connection between the biggest murder case in her county and this dreamy spot, so she might as well start with this commotion at the end of the pier.
Kathryn marched toward the excitement, her new leather sandals clacking against her heels and then on the concrete. She ate the last bite of cone and rubbed her fingers together, the sticky ice cream coating her hand and arm. She should've gotten more napkins at the ice cream shop. She laughed and stepped around someone's cooler. Look where she was. The end of a pier with a bunch of fishermen and tourists in a place that felt like it was 5:00 p.m. twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Her stickiness didn’t matter.
She stood on her tiptoes and looked over the crowd. Mr. Center-of-attention held a fishing rod, bigger around than any she'd ever seen before, with a shark, four-feet long at least, attached to its end. He wiped his sweat-dampened brow with a red bandana as the onlookers huddled around him. Kathryn's mouth fell open and alarm inched its way down her spine. There were sharks in the shallow waters of Daughtry Bayou? No way was she going to dip so much as her pinky toe in there. She'd stick to business while she was here and swim in the pool at her condo.
The buzzing crowd dissipated, but her curiosity carried her right up to the lucky fisherman to get a closer look at the shark before he released it back into its natural habitat.
"Hey! Don't throw it over yet. I want to see it." Kathryn examined the leather-like body and the ominous teeth of this notorious creature. "Oh, that gives me the heebie-jeebies." She shuddered and backed away.
When he laughed, a pair of smooth and creamy eyes, the color of her caramel ice cream and at least six inches above her own, knocked all thoughts of his big catch out of Kathryn's mind. His chestnut-brown closely cut hair, side-parted to the left, gave him the look of a schoolboy, but his well-trimmed beard detracted from the boyish guise. What was a polished man like this doing on a grimy fishing pier in this remote place? He fit into this scene as poorly as Daddy did at the bowling alley.
"Did I scare you?" This man, with an upper East Coast accent thicker than molasses on one of Aunt Anne’s biscuits, gripped his fishing rod and held the shark's head down with his foot.
Kathryn gulped down the bulge in her throat and attempted to pull her attention away from his eyes—oddly familiar eyes. Did she know him? She stammered for the right words. "No…no, you didn't scare me." She swept her gaze across the shark, now flopping chaotically on the pier. "But he sure did." She pointed out to the water and shook her head. "To think I was considering going swimming in there!"
"Nobody swims in there." He laughed again and cut the hook out of the shark's mouth. Then he grabbed its tail with his left hand and squeezed its body against his chest with his right arm. He started to hoist it over the railing and back into the water, muscles bulging beneath his soiled tank top.
"Wait! Can I take a picture of it before you throw it back?" No one would believe the shark story if she didn't have proof of it.
"Sure. But hurry." The shark thrashed against his chest.
Kathryn yanked her phone out of her purse, clicked on the camera icon, and snapped his picture. "Thanks!"
He tossed the monster back into the sea. "No problem." He wiped his hands on the back of his shorts and extended his right one to her. "I'm Phillip. How ya doin'?"
Her cheeks burned. It had to be from the sun. At least that's what she'd blame it on. She reached out and accepted his hand, the waves crashing against the concrete pillars. "I'm Kathryn. Nice to meet you."
"Same here." Phillip pulled his hand away and looked at his palm. He raised his right eyebrow and tugged back the left corner of his mouth.
Kathryn gasped. "I'm so sorry! My hand is sticky from the ice cream I was eating a few minutes ago—before you distracted me with your catch." She captured the back of her skirt as a gust of wind threatened to rip it from her body.
"Oh, so it's my fault your hand's sticky?" He winked and commandeered a hook out of his tackle box.
"Maybe not entirely." She giggled. "Someone on the sidewalk told me Island Trading Post had the best ice cream, so I had to try it. I picked the wrong time of day to eat it outside, I suppose, because it started melting before I made it to the pier." She held her right hand up, palm facing Phillip. "Anyway, your shark blood and fishiness trump my stickiness any day."
He tied a hook the size of her cell phone on the end of his line, placed on it a chunk of something that looked and smelled rotten, and released his line out into the brackish water. He lifted his sunglasses from where they hung on the front of his shirt and eased them onto his face then glanced over his bronzed shoulder. "Yeah, sorry about that. I've got some hand wipes in my tackle box there, if you need one."
"Thanks." Kathryn accepted his offer. Ice cream and bait were a disgusting combination.
"If you'd like, we could get an ice cream together this evening when it cools down. They don’t close till 8:00 p.m."
A melted chocolate sensation flowed throughout her at this stranger's boldness. He was braver than most men she knew. "Oh, well, thank you for asking. I'm actually only here for a few days to work and don't have a lot of time on my hands."
He nodded and cranked his reel a few turns. "No problem. Just thought I'd offer."
She crossed her arms and encircled her elbows with her index fingers, something she'd done since childhood when she had a decision to make. Daddy had always warned her against doing it in the courtroom because he said it made her look indecisive. Right now, she was indecisive. She swayed and tapped her right foot on the pier's concrete deck. What would be the harm in a little old ice cream? This guy seemed nice.
She dropped her hands to her sides and balled her fists. No! What was she thinking? This whimsical place had already caused her to loosen up a bit too much. She'd better get back to the condo where she wouldn't be tempted to fritter away any more of her time. "Thanks, but I really can't."
"The offer comes with a rain check. If you change your mind, I'll be here a while."
Kathryn tucked her left foot underneath her on the sofa and rubbed her right foot across Sadie's back, calming her woofing. The taupe-and-chestnut brindled Silken Windhound slept on the shag rug between the sofa and the coffee table, her silken, white legs twitching as if she were chasing a rabbit. They'd both slept through the entire night without stirring, the bed in the master bedroom like a marshmallow cloud. Kathryn sunk deeper into the over-stuffed sofa, which she'd be tempted to take home with her if the design wasn't seashells and sand dunes.
She'd never before seen an evening like last night. The sunset's pinks and purples majestically swept across her heart and freed her like an ensnared animal set free from a trap. The sea breeze, a welcome intruder, had rocked her and Sadie to sleep. After the drive down, which had tied her back and neck into knots, and the hours of research she'd done after dinner, a night like last night was the perfect ending to her week. Now she must get her mind off relaxation and back on the case. A win would guarantee her promotion to Senior Assistant District Attorney, and she’d be one step closer to her goals.
Kathryn walked Sadie, tossed her leash on the island's granite top, and opened the treat jar, white with black puppy paws on it. "Here you go, girl." Sadie swallowed the biscuit whole. Goodness, she acted as if she were starving. "Sadie! Shame on you. You couldn't have tasted that." Sadie whimpered and ran to her bed beside the sliding glass door.
Kathryn changed into her white Bermuda shorts, coral camisole, and floral-printed mesh shirt. Back in the kitchen, painted turquoise-and-yellow with starfish and crabs everywhere, she reached for her keys and purse. "I'll be back in a bit." Sadie's white ears drooped, and she whimpered again. "I'm sorry. I won't be gone long. I want to get a good meal in me and get a few things from the grocery store before I start digging further into this case."
She needed to nose around town to see if anyone knew about the pistol used in the murders. She groaned, stepped out on the covered porch, and locked the door. She’d walk to town, but since she'd have groceries when she returned, she'd drive.
She turned on to 8th Street at the end of the long crushed-shell path, then right onto G Street. Small bushes and flowering shrubs decorating the yards of cottages and condos led the way to town. She rounded the bend where G Street became 1st Street and inched her way along, studying a ramshackle building on stilts out in the water. It hadn't fared well against the storms and harsh sea winds.
That's how she felt these days. Life as an Assistant D.A. was often like trying to survive a hurricane without a storm shelter. Was the promotion really worth all this?
On Dock Street, where she'd gotten her ice cream and dinner yesterday, she parallel-parked in the only remaining spot in front of a sandwich shop, next to the pier entrance. She climbed the flight of stairs and entered the restaurant. Utensils clinked on dishes and the thirty plus patrons’ voices hummed, while island music serenaded everyone from the overhead speakers.
"Welcome," the waitress wiping down a table in the corner called out and waved. "Feel free to seat yourself. The porch is open out back if you'd like to watch the fishing on the pier."
"Thank you." Kathryn adjusted her purse strap on her shoulder and tucked her hair behind her right ear. Her cheeks had to be as pink as a flamingo. She could stand in front of a courtroom full of people all day, but hated looking like a newcomer in a local spot.
"Thanks for joining us today!" The cook yelled through an open window behind the bar.
Kathryn waved and smiled, then scooted toward the porch door. Maybe out there she could sit alone without bringing too much attention to herself. She found a seat at a table with a side view of the pier. An older couple in bike shorts with helmets sat at the table facing the windows, but no one else occupied the porch.
The menu wasn’t anything fancy, just biscuits and sandwiches. At least coffee shared a spot on the menu. She needed a lot of it today to get motivated to work. It might've been a bad idea coming to Cedar Key alone. Without pressure from her co-workers, she wasn't inspired to do anything but relax.
After she ordered a patty melt and fries from a waitress with a smile brighter than the sun, she slid the menu into its holder and yawned. Regardless of her good night's sleep, she'd stayed up too late reviewing the Ezzo file. They'd had enough suspicion to arrest Ezzo on murder charges, but would the charges stick? Ezzo knew the dead men from Long Island but that didn’t mean he was responsible in any way for those deaths. But he had to be. The problem was: without a murder weapon, everything they had was circumstantial.
However, Louie Ezzo was a high-profile man who didn’t seem to be the type of crime lord to waste his time or his freedom on his lackeys, Bobby Esposito and Manny La Duca, and he certainly wouldn’t waste it on small town men from Perkins County like Stephen Diggs and Tommy Jones. It just didn’t fit. Maybe she’d watched too many mobster movies, but a man like Louie Ezzo was powerful enough to hire someone to do his dirty work for him.
The weapon was missing, so that narrowed Kathryn’s chances of nailing Ezzo with these charges. Witnesses had overheard Ezzo in jail talking to someone about Cedar Key and the gun. That's the only lead she had. Her investigators had come up empty-handed when they'd been here. Maybe she’d find a witness somewhere and figure out how Cedar Key factored into these murders. This community wasn't that large. She'd search out the Chief of Police after lunch and see if he could help her make some headway on this case.
The waitress brought a glass of water and silverware to the table, then hovered over the couple, who must have been regulars judging by their conversation with the waitress about their grandchildren. Kathryn sipped her water through a straw and let her gaze follow the pier walkway out to the end where she'd seen the shark and the terrific-looking guy from New York. Phillip, was it?
She pulled out her phone and opened her gallery of photos. She studied the picture of this handsome man with his shark. She sighed. They didn't make them like that back home. Something about him was familiar, but he was no homegrown country boy. Not with that accent. There was no way she'd seen him before.
The patio door opened with a squeak, and Kathryn turned her attention to the intruder of her peace and quiet. A giggle escaped her throat when Phillip shut the door behind him and nodded. She shoved her phone into her purse, heat rushing to her face.
Dressed in blue-and-white plaid shorts, a deep blue graphic T, and sandals, he surveyed the porch through eyes hidden behind black horn-rimmed frames. He made his way to her table, and her heart threatened to leap out of her chest, jump through the screened window, and flop into the water below as Phillip's shark had done yesterday.
Text copyright © Sherri Wilson Johnson, 2015. All Rights Reserved.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sherri Wilson Johnson is a multi-published Inspirational Romance novelist, speaker, virtual assistant and self-publishing coach. She is a member of American Christian Fiction Writers (ACFW) and is passionate about writing, publishing, and marketing.
Sherri has been published in 101 Simple Ways to Show Your Husband You Love Him by Kathi Lipp (Harvest House), Powerline 365 by Nicole O'Dell (Choose NOW Ministries), Open Hearts Family: Connecting with One Another by Jane Seymour (Running Press, Hachette Book Group), The Writing Academy’s Daily Devotions for Writers, and several homeschool publications.
Sherri lives in Georgia with her husband and her Chihuahua. She loves spending time with her adult children and friends or curling up with a good book or her current work-in-progress. Sherri enjoys doing jigsaw puzzles in the winter, watching Bob Ross painting videos (although she can't paint), and counts the days every year until she can take another trip to the beach.
Check out Secrets Among the Cedars here.
Check out Secrets Among the Cedars here.
Leave a comment for a chance to win an ebook of Secrets Among the Cedars!