The excerpt takes place close to the halfway point of the book, just after Caitie has had a New Year's eve dinner with Sebastian von der Lahn. She and Gus's neighbor, Samantha Eschweiler, have that...and a few other things...to discuss.
Shaky Ground, Book 2 of the Schattenreich series, on sale for $2.99 through Monday, January 5th, 2015 (oh, and Primary Fault, Book 1 is also on sale for $2.99, just saying)
Samantha opened the door right away. After I gave her a tight hug, she allowed me inside.
“Hey, Sam, good to see you.” I went straight to the kitchen bar.
She went into the kitchen, and peered into the oven. “Hi, Caitie. How was New Year’s at Burg Lahn?” Her cheerful demeanor surprised me. I had expected at least a few Sam pouts.
She eyeballed a question at me.
“Sebastian and I cooked together.”
She laughed. “You can cook?”
“Not really, but I am good at following instructions.”
“That’s a side to your personality I’ve yet to see.”
I tried to bristle, but failed. “I can be compliant.”
Samantha pulled out an oven tray filled with homemade bruschetta. “So, what in the world did you two have to talk about?”
“Family,” I said.
“Did you trade reminiscences about vacations on the French Riviera?”
“Ha ha. I was trying to pry information out of him. I think your prejudices against the aristocracy are not warranted in Sebastian’s case.”
“Information? About Hagen?”
“Yes. And Heinrich.”
Samantha almost dropped the tray. She slid everything onto a plate and set a bottle of red wine and two huge wine goblets in front of us. I grabbed a toasted baguette slice covered with roasted peppers and stuffed it in my mouth.
I snorted at her and grabbed another one.
“So,” she began, wriggling on her stool. “Are you telling me there are two men who look like Hagen von der Lahn walking around? God help us.”
“No, silly; they’re fraternal.”
“Oh. I get it. Heinrich is the homely one with the big heart.”
Despite my reservations about Heinrich, I had to admit that what he looked like when he wasn’t in his Scottish wildcat form was the polar opposite of homely. “Um, sorry to disappoint you, but he’s quite handsome; slightly rugged.”
Her eyebrows perked. “Rugged. Soulful brown eyes?”
“Nope. Same dark blue ones as Hagen’s.”
“Really the same?”
“Exactly the same,” I said, sighing.
“Was he there too?”
“Heinrich, at Burg Lahn,” she said, exasperated.
“Oh. No. He stays at his mother’s estate in France in the winter,” I said.
“Told you. French Riviera after all.”
“No. Somewhere in the Bretagne. In Dinard.”
“Oooh. Sounds very Heathcliff.”
“I’m supposed to visit him next month,” I let slip casually.
She chirped at me. “This is serious. First, dinner with Sebastian von der Lahn and then a visit to the country estate. Have you picked out a dress yet?”
“Samantha, I’m warning you,” I said, growling. “How do you know Sebastian anyway?”
“I’ve seen him at Lerbach. He comes in for lunch occasionally.”
“Does he come in alone?”
“No. Sometimes he meets with that banker, Wilting-Boxberg.”
“I’ve seen him with a dark-haired woman,” she said.
I took a healthy sip of wine. “But you don’t know who she is?”
Sam reflected for a moment. “No, but I’d guess they’re family. There’s a definite resemblance.”
A mystery family member? I nibbled on another bruschetta. “The Wilting-Boxbergs are neighbors.”
“That explains a lot,” she said. “My, you’re hungry.”
“I skipped dinner.”
“I can make more—”
“No, it’s okay. The Wilting-Boxbergs were all sitting down to tea when I got there on New Year’s.”
“Yup, she and I had lunch together at Lerbach yesterday,” I said.
Samantha managed to bristle quite well. “Well, you’re moving in different circles now.”
“Sam, for goodness sakes. She’s quite sweet. I still can’t fathom why Hagen would pick me over her.”
“Why do you say that?”
I rubbed my nose. “Susanna’s really pretty. And poised. She’s just so perfect. In every way.”
“That’s Mary Poppins, Caitie. Besides, who wants perfect?”
“Well. They would have made an ideal couple.”
“The only one who thinks that is her mother,” Samantha said. “If Hagen wanted Barbie, he could have had any number of them by now.”
I remembered Sebastian’s words about my not being Hagen’s most beautiful lover. “So you think he prefers Midge.” I felt glum as I stuffed the last piece of toast in my mouth.
She laughed. “If anyone is Midge, it’s me. My mom has an original from the sixties. She looks exactly like me, including freckles.”
“Well, I’d rather be Midge any day. She’s perky at least. Barbie looks like she’s just gotten home from her lobotomy.”
“Who needs brains when you’ve got shoes to go with every outfit?” She giggled, snorting.
“And if you lack a frontal lobe, you really do need to have color coordinated clothes.” I dribbled red wine on my shirt.
We both cracked up. It felt good to laugh hard and it felt nice being there with Samantha. I hadn’t realized how much I missed her company. She refilled our wine glasses and we moved to the couch.
“Have you heard from Hagen lately?”
I just shook my head, wishing we could get off the subject of Hagen. For a minute, I had imagined I was enjoying myself.
“It’s just so strange. First he gives you this beautiful pendant, and then a car, for God’s sake, and goes poof into the night.”
I sighed. “It was morning when he left.”
“What do you mean morning?”
“We spent the night together and he left in the morning before I woke up,” I said.
“Without even a goodbye kiss?”
“My but we’re nosy today.”
“Well, you would have given him a goodbye kiss if you were going away for a couple of months, wouldn’t you?”
I would never have gone in the first place. “Well, since you asked, we had plenty of those in the hours before he left,” I said. And a farewell message, a message that haunted me each night. Words came into my head.
Night is longing without you.
The dawn breaks cold.
With no promise of your touch,
a barren land.
“Oh,” she said, subdued.
The dawn breaks – the morning after. “Let’s see. That was on the winter solstice, the twenty-first. Gus was here the night before, right?”
She didn’t answer right away as she was busy opening another bottle. “He came by for a while. We were busy plotting how to hide your car.”
“But he didn’t stay long?”
“Why do you ask, Caitie?”
Her closed expression. Gus’s reluctance to talk about it. “It’s all right, Sam. Don’t worry. I won’t tell anyone.”
“It’s not what you think.”
“What do I think?”
“I’m not trying to muscle in on anybody,” she said.
“Who said that? Shit, Sam, you’ve been raising four kids. And working. And organizing the whole circus by yourself. Why shouldn’t you want someone in your life?”
“We’re good friends.”
“And nothing. Sometimes I just need a little affection.”
“And Gus obliges.”
“It wasn’t premeditated.”
“Okay. I believe you. What comes next?”
“Look. Gus is very sweet. But besides friendship, I don’t think anything else would work.”
“He’s not really my type,” she said.
Gus and Samantha had complementary personalities, but there was no Fourth of July and fireworks – they were more a lazy summer day with a good book.
“Except in certain respects.”
“I like things the way they are. He’s one of the best friends I have, and I don’t want to lose that,” she said.
“And Richard is more your type?” I didn’t attempt to keep a note of skepticism out of my voice.
She swirled her wine, conjuring a pout from the depths of the red liquid. “He was a lot different when we met.”
“I could have guessed that,” I said gently.
She waved her hand. “He was always self-centered. It all worked as long as things went the way he wanted them to.”
I listened, taking a drink of wine. Either this one was smoother than the last bottle or I was.
“I wanted to go back to work, and he balked. With two small kids, it would have taken more of his time to compensate.”
“Uh huh. That’s typical,” I said.
“Yeah. So after things came to a head, we separated to reconsider our options. The separation was mainly his idea.”
Richard had neglected to tell me that tiny detail in his side of the story.
“And you moved in with his mother,” I said.
“My mom and dad are divorced. My mom’s half American, half Irish and moved back to Ireland after they separated, so I can’t just run to her whenever I have a problem. Richard’s mom’s always been a big help. And we get along just fine. She thinks he’s a jerk.”
I choked on my wine. “Really?”
“Yeah, well, her husband walked out on her,” she said.
“Well, Richard and I kept circling each other, trying to figure things out. I got pregnant with the twins. That ended the standoff,” she said.
“I think I know most of the rest of the story,” I said, “at least up until New Year’s.
She looked at me, pout in place again. “Do you know everything about what Richard did?”
“You mean his affair with Dagmar Abel?”
“Not just that. I mean with Gus.”
I hesitated, but there was no longer any reason to hold back information from Samantha. “Richard told me that Dagmar had backed him into a corner.”
Sam continued communing with her glass.
“He left to protect you and the kids…and his own reputation, I’d guess. Then he panicked. She threatened him; he felt he had no other option. I am quite sure she made her threats believable.”
“He wanted to save his own ass,” she said.
I took a long sip of wine. “Okay, Sam. I think that is a given. But Richard also helped me secure Gus’s release. Have you considered giving him a chance anyway?”
After not finding the answer in the wine she was sloshing back and forth, she looked at me. “I told him he would have to go to the police and tell them what he knows.”
“You want him to go to the police? Gus and I’ve spent a lot of our own juice making sure Richard stays out of it.” I hoped my exasperation wasn’t too obvious, but I could already picture the murderous look on Hauptkommissar Miriam Richter’s face when she found out I’d known about Richard all along.
Sam leaned back and closed her eyes. “I know, Caitie. But if it hadn’t been for Richard, Gus wouldn’t have been in this mess to begin with.”
“Maybe. Maybe not. What did Richard have to say about it?”
She opened her eyes and put her feet on the coffee table. “He said he’d think about it.”
“Apparently, he’s still thinking.”
“You mean he hasn’t contacted you since then?”
“No mail. No phone calls. No skywriting. Gar Nichts.”
“Shit, Sam. You called him out and he ran away.”
She got up and rummaged in a kitchen cabinet. She came back with chocolates and handed me the open box. “I’ve been hiding these since Christmas.”
I took one while waiting for her to answer.
“I’ve already talked to a lawyer. If he doesn’t come across, we’re through,” she said.
“Is that the real reason?”
She took a chocolate. “He was very attentive on New Year’s. It could have had a chance.”
I felt tired all of a sudden. “Do me a favor. Let me know before Richard goes charging off to Frau Richter. She’ll find a way to blame everything on me.”
“Okay. I’ll warn you.”
I got up to leave, my head fuzzy from too much wine. “Let’s get together after I visit Heinrich.”
“I want all the details,” she said. “He sounds intriguing.”
I snorted. All the details. I had questions and a lot of anger to get through with Heinrich. I lurched to the front door, glad I only had to walk a few feet before I could fall into my own bed.