CRIMSON HOUSE BOOKS
BY SUSANNA SHORE
PARANORMAL AND CONTEPORARY ROMANCES, COSY MYSTERIES
It Happened on a Lie
Zoe stared at the sturdy metal gate that was blocking her way. She had not expected it to be there. The Edwardian shipyard behind the gate had been out of use for almost fifty years and had been the playground for the local kids ever since. Who would have erected a new gate after all these years?
Puzzled, but determined to get in, she studied the old brown-brick wall that bordered the shipyard on three sides right up to the Thames. It was too tall for her to scale, which wasn’t much of a surprise. She was only 5 foot 3. Everything was too tall for her.
A veritable jungle pushed to the wall. No one had trimmed the growth after the place was abandoned. She eyed the trees with a speculative gleam, assessing them as potential aids for getting over the fence. It was imperative that she get on the other side.
The right side of the gate didn’t have anything promising, on top of which the vegetation grew so thick she could barely fit between the trees when she tried to get through. When her backpack got stuck on a branch, she gave up and retreated to the drive.
To the left of the gate, hidden behind a shrub, she found a path that followed the wall. It was barely wide enough for her, but she pushed through and ended up at a spot where the wall had broken at the top—by age or by design, she couldn’t tell—so it was lower. A sturdy willow grew by the wall, providing a natural access over it. Judging by the broken branches and the scratches on its bark, she wouldn’t be the first trespasser to use it.
She lifted her chin in the manner her brother called her stubborn expression, took a good hold of the lowest branch and began to climb. The soles of her summer sandals didn’t offer much purchase on the slippery bark of the willow, but there were enough branches to hold on to, and little by little she managed to climb atop the wall. She lay on her stomach there for a few moments, the broken bricks scraping her skin, before carefully dropping down on the other side.
The vegetation wasn’t as dense inside the wall, but grass grew knee high. A path had been trampled through it, and she followed it to an erstwhile courtyard, a small clearing between the buildings. Its concrete surface was cracked in many places, and grass and tree sprouts grew through the crevices.
The shipyard had once been such a beautiful place, built at a time when even industrial buildings could have aesthetic value. The building with the offices and workers’ canteen, a typical turn of the twentieth century brown-brick, stood by the river, parallel to it. Creepers covered its walls, hiding the windows, but she estimated it had three stories.
Some fifty meters downriver from it was the huge dry dock. It was a tall yellow-brick building at least three times longer than it was wide, with rows and rows of windows and an upwards curving roof. It had once stood right at the river, but land elevation had moved the shoreline, and the bay doors towards the river were now well on dry land.
A low, rectangular building stood cornerwise to the dry dock, a workshop for wood and metalwork once required in building ships. It was in worse repair than the other two buildings, its roof sagging in the middle.
The sight made her heart sink. She had hoped the buildings would be in adequate condition. It was essential to her plan.
The last owner of the shipyard had recently passed away and his heirs had quickly sold the lot to the highest bidder—much against the old man’s wishes and to the dismay of the historical preservation community. The place had been bought by a development company, which instantly declared they would raze the buildings and build a high-end estate on the lot.
As an architect, Zoe understood the appeal of a prime site in Greenwich by the Thames. In different circumstances, she would be competing for the chance to design the housing estate. But her first love was conservation. This was the last Edwardian shipyard left in London, and it had to be preserved.
She was a member—and secretary—of the Greenwich Conservation Society, which had for decades tried to get the shipyard listed. They had failed, and the new owners were free to do whatever they wished with it. But it wasn’t too late yet. She simply had to make the owners see the potential the place had just the way it was.
Well, obviously not in this condition, but after careful renovations that would at least preserve the exterior of the compound. She would ask the new owner to convert the old factory to apartments, a task she was well suited for, as her firm specialised in just that kind of projects. It was a small firm she had started five years ago after becoming fed up with the menial tasks she had been given in the firm she had been working for. She might have held on a little longer had she been sure she would be given more challenging projects. But when men straight out of college were promoted before her, she stopped fooling herself and quit.
Good riddance to those sexist bastards of Anderson & Stone Architecture. She was her own boss now and doing well. Her firm wasn’t well-known yet, but if she could pull off this project, that would change.
It was a fine August Saturday to conduct a preliminary survey. Perfect for taking beautiful photos of the buildings that would show them in the best light. She dug out her camera and tripod from the backpack and started to work.
As always when she was photographing, the task immersed her completely. She spent ages finding perfect angles and waiting for the correct light to land on details she needed to capture. The workshop might be ramshackle, but it looked charming in photographs.
She tried to get inside the dry dock and the workshop, too, but like with the new gate, all the doors and windows had been recently covered with plywood. It had to be the work of the new owner, but she couldn’t fathom why they were so determined to keep people out. If they intended to demolish the place, what did it matter if local kids did some damage to the place.
Only because she relied on perfect light did she notice the sky darkening alarmingly fast. A storm was rising from the sea. It was overdue, the month had been hot, but in her opinion it could have waited one more day.
Frowning annoyed, Zoe considered her options. She couldn’t get home fast enough to avoid the downpour. She didn’t mind getting wet, but her camera equipment wouldn’t survive it. Even if she could catch a bus immediately, the shipyard was some way away from the nearest stop. And she would have to make her way over the fence first.
Since that would take much too long, she dashed towards the main building instead. She might find cover in one of its niches. Preferably on the far side where the wind wouldn’t throw the rain on her.
As she turned a corner to the far end of the building, she saw a window where the plywood had been partially removed to allow illicit access into the building. It was slightly too high up for her, but she would have to try—and fast. Already the first drops were falling.
She put her camera and tripod back into her bag and fastened it to her back. Taking hold of the windowsill, she hoisted herself level with it and dove into the opening just as the skies opened. Only to get stuck.
“Bloody hell!” With her backpack on, she couldn’t fit through. She made to drop to the ground again to take it off, but she couldn’t move. The backpack was stuck on something.
No matter how much she wiggled, the bag wouldn’t come loose. She didn’t dare make large movements, in case she broke her camera, but she couldn’t hang here much longer either, her torso inside the building and her legs protruding out of the window, in the heavy rain.
She couldn’t even reach her pocket to get her mobile phone. Besides, she couldn’t exactly call the fire brigade, could she. She was trespassing here.
Exhausted, she let her body sag. The sill ground painfully into her stomach, making it difficult to breathe. She couldn’t take this much longer.
She was about to try for her phone again, when someone grabbed her legs.
“Gotcha! What do I have to do to keep you kids out? Don’t you know better? It’s dangerous here.”
Aiden pulled the bare legs hanging out of the window, surprisingly shapely for a young kid, but they just wriggled and kicked against his hold. “Stop fighting and come out.”
He’d had a safety and security assessment done when he bought the place, and at its recommendation had put up a security fence and boarded all the windows. The dry dock especially had been deemed dangerous with its deep, unfenced basin. His insides went cold with the thought of what would happen if children hurt themselves on his premises.
The kid wouldn’t obey. Taking a better hold of the legs—and he really shouldn’t notice how great they looked—he pulled, only to be kicked in the chest. “That does it. Come out or I’ll call the police.”
“Don’t you think I’d come out if I could, you twit?”
The voice didn’t belong to a kid. “What do you mean?”
“Gee, I don’t know, maybe that I’m STUCK!”
Aiden paused to assess the situation. Rain was falling heavily, soaking through the jacket of his suit and her shorts. She was hanging over the sill on her stomach. Her backpack seemed to have got stuck on what was left of the window frame.
He was a tall man, but the window was a bit too high up for him to help her. “Hang on, I’ll have to get inside.”
“As if I have a choice.”
Pressing his head low against the downpour, he dashed around the house. The front door opened easily; he’d had the lock changed after he bought the place. It was dark inside and the penlight he had didn’t make a great difference, but he managed to get to the correct window without mishap.
The torso protruding through the opening definitely didn’t belong to a teenager. “Are you sure it’s your backpack that’s stuck?” he asked innocently.
“Witty. Help me out.”
Chuckling, he went to detach the backpack. It took some manoeuvring, but eventually she was free. She made to glide back out the way she had come in, undoubtedly to run away before he could catch her. He would have none of that.
He grabbed her under her arms and pulled her easily in, even though she tried to wiggle free, and steadied her on her feet. She stood in front of him, full of defiance, and he saw why he would mistake her for a teenager. She barely reached his chin. “You’re not very tall.”
“Well, aren’t you astute.”
She might have the attitude and the height of a teenager, but her body belonged to a grown woman, with lush curves that made his mouth dry just looking. Her hair was a shoulder-length mess, but he couldn’t see the colour clearly in the dim light. Her face, likewise, was hidden in shadows. He shone the light at her and she grimaced and closed her eyes.
“Could you please point that thing elsewhere?”
“It occurs to me that I’m the one who should be making demands.” But he lowered the light.
“Are you the owner?”
“Aiden Rowe, at your service.” He bowed, the gesture elegant despite his soaked clothing. “Who might you be, and what are you doing here?”
“Zoe Lawrence.” She hesitated, but then offered her hand to him and he shook it. Her hand was small, like everything about her. “I represent the Greenwich Conservation Society.”
“Those old biddies?”
She arched a brow. “Are you always this offensive?”
He bowed again, more stiffly this time, her words—and lofty tone—like an echo of his school days. “My apologies. I was merely surprised that a representative of such an esteemed society would stoop to trespassing.”
She had a good grace to look embarrassed. “Yes, well, you wouldn’t return our phone calls.”
“There was no need. I didn’t spend all that money to preserve this place. It needs to turn profit.”
“And it can, even if you keep the existing buildings and merely convert the insides.”
“I’ve already discarded that option. It’s too time consuming and expensive.”
“But think of the PR value it would bring to your company,” she pleaded.
He shook his head. “Out of the question. This plot needs to be empty by the end of the year.” He had a clear vision of how the estate would look and it didn’t include buildings that had been allowed to rot for half a century.
He had been looking for a site like this for a long time, ever since he inherited the development company from his father a decade ago. That he finally had it was a testimony to his determination and tenacity, to a decade of building connections and having his ear tuned the small things behind the industry gossip. He wasn’t going to give up his dream now. Not even for a sexy body.
“Why such haste? If you’ll give me a month, I can come up with a competitive alternative.”
“You?” He tilted his head, studying her short and curvy frame. “What would you know about such things?”
She huffed in anger. “What, because I’m a woman I couldn’t possibly know anything about construction?”
He had actually thought that, but he wasn’t stupid enough to say it aloud. “No. Because you’re too young.”
“Young? I’m thirty-two and I’ve years of experience as an architect.”
He stepped closer and lifted the light back to her face. She shut her eyes tightly, which revealed some wrinkles around them, but even that didn’t make her look old enough for the job. The skin on her cheek was soft as peach when he brushed it with the back of his hand…
She pulled back. “What the hell are you doing?”
Surprised himself that he had touched her, he let his hand drop. “My apologies. I just wanted to confirm your claims.”
“Yeah, well, next time you’ll take my word for it.”
He was inclined to agree with her. The feel of her skin still echoed on his and left him oddly breathless. Touching her again would probably rob him of his ability to breathe completely.
“I think we should leave now.” The faster the better.
“Leave? I was hoping I could take a look at this building now that I’m inside.”
“Why would you need to see it? I told you, it will be demolished.”
“And therefore I’ll have to document it for posterity.”
His gaze fell on her shapely posterior, and he shook his head to get a grip on his unruly mind. “But it’s dark in here.”
She dug into her backpack and pulled out a huge Maglite. Brandishing the torch like a bludgeon, she smiled triumphantly. “Unlike some, I came prepared.”
Aiden sighed, giving in. “Of course you did.” He gestured with his hand for her to proceed. “Well, then, lead the way.”
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