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Her Deadly Inheritance

By Beth Ann Ziarnik

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5:00 a.m. Twelve hours before a judge would declare her legally dead.
Clutching her cell phone to her ear, Jill Shepherd turned away from
the red numbers glowing on her bedside clock and paced in the room’s
pre-dawn shadows.
“Say you’ll come, Jill.”
“Don’t ask me, Uncle Drew. You know I can’t.” She squeezed her eyelids
shut and struggled against the tightness in her throat. “The minute Lenore
finds out I’m alive and you knew, she’ll think we planned this.”
His wife would turn on them both for snatching the house on
Michigan’s Grand Island from her at the last minute. “She’ll leave you.”
“I’ll take my chances. More important things are at stake here.”
His quiet resignation clawed at her conscience. She clenched her teeth.
She would remain strong. He deserved that much.
“I can’t.”
“Yes, you can.”
She swallowed hard at his pleading.
“I have to go,” he said, “but please come. The company plane is waiting
at O’Hare. You have the pilot’s number. Call him.”
Jill pulled in a shaky breath. “She’ll never forgive you.”
“I’ll meet the plane when you get here. On the way to Windtop, we’ll
decide how to break the news. Everything will be fine.”
He disconnected the call.
Everything would not be fine. Even he knew too well that someone
would pay. The same woman who had driven Jill’s fragile mother into
seclusion would see to it.

Her Deadly Inheritance

Jill laid her phone on the bedside table near her Bible and ran her hand
over the book’s leather cover. She often drew comfort from touching it.
Nothing this time.
Jill chewed her lip as she paced. She wouldn’t go back. Let Lenore have
Windtop. She deserved that rotting old place.
After light rapping at her bedroom door, it opened with a slight squeak,
hall light knifing through the shadows. “Are you awake, Jill? I heard talking.”
Retreating to her bed, Jill turned on her lamp and crawled onto the
rumpled sheets where she scooted back until she had trapped the pillows
against the headboard. “Come in, Nona.”
In yellow bunny slippers and pink flannel pajamas, her older housemate
padded across the carpeted floor to sit at the foot of the bed. “For what it’s worth, I think you should go.”
Jill shook her head. Nona had no idea of all the trouble that would
follow if Jill took her well-meaning advice.
Tenderness born of their friendship shone in the older woman’s gaze.
“Isn’t it time you faced the truth about your mother’s death? Isn’t it time
you found peace?”
“Peace at Windtop? Impossible!”
“God specializes in the impossible, Jill.”
“You don’t know Lenore.”
“God does.”
“I can’t just leave the Rogers’ project.” Nona had entrusted it to her.
In these hard times, failing to meet the deadline could cripple her friend’s
genealogy business.
“Take it with you. When it’s ready, send it by attachment, and I’ll take
care of the rest.”
The woman could sure be stubborn. “But—”
“Give God a chance, Jill. He won’t fail you.” Nona stood up and walked
to the open door where she paused. “The decision is yours. Make sure it’s
the right one, okay? I’ll be praying for you.”
The door closed, and Nona’s parting remarks left Jill numb, but she
had to do something. Easing herself to the edge of the bed, she swung
her legs over and let them dangle. What was she supposed to do? Go to
Windtop and expose the lies, take whatever her aunt dished out, and

Beth Ann Ziarnik

maybe shatter a marriage? Or hide out in Chicago, go on as before, and
leave her aunt blissfully unaware? One choice frightened her. The other
sickened her.
Argh! She buried her fingers in her hair and clutched her head.
Flopping backward onto the bed, she stared at the ceiling. “God, I don’t
need Windtop. I don’t even want that rotten house and its ugly memories.”
Tears trickled down the sides of her face, wetting the hairline around her
ears and dropping to her rumpled sheets. “So what if I’m declared dead?
Staying out of Lenore’s reach would be worth it.”
Of what use was an aging pile of wood and bricks that had driven
the family apart? Nothing but a haunting reminder that her mother and
Maggie were gone from this earth.
And she had failed them.
Returning now didn’t make sense. She couldn’t undo the past. If only
her pastor hadn’t spoken last Sunday about the God who loved her but also
hated a lying tongue. The words had reached deep into her heart, and as
much as she tried, she couldn’t forget them. If she really wanted nothing
to stand between God and herself, how could she go on living a lie? How
could she go on hiding the truth from Lenore and trapping Uncle Drew
into doing the same?
Her uncle never wanted to deceive his wife. He only gave in to Jill’s
pleading. She was ashamed, now, to admit she had taken advantage of his
regrets about his sister’s death. How she had manipulated him.
At the time, she hadn’t been a Christian, but what did that matter now?
That sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach refused to go away and made
her choice clear. She had no excuse. A lie, even for the right reasons, was
still a lie. Yet wasn’t destroying a marriage wrong too?
As the pink of dawn spread its pale light through her bedroom’s lace
curtains, a fat tear slipped down her cheek. In her twenty-two years, she
had made enough miserable mistakes. She couldn’t bear to make another
one. Not of this magnitude.
Nona thought she knew the right answer.
“But, Lord, I don’t know,” Jill whispered. “Which way should I go?
Please tell me what to do.”
A tender silence hung in the room, yet no word came to her heart.

Her Deadly Inheritance

Jill picked up her Bible, left the bed, and crossed the room to turn on
a floor lamp near a bank of windows overlooking an empty Chicago street.
She snuggled in an overstuffed armchair and opened the book. As she did,
a photograph slipped from its pages. Snatching it midair, she turned it over.
Uncle Drew had given it to her.
She found it hard to believe that Windtop no longer resembled the
decaying heap she’d left behind three years ago. The brick was now clean.
The Victorian balconies, turrets, and porches were repaired and painted
a rich chocolate brown. Even the stained-glass panes circling the cupola
on the roof gleamed in the sunlight—no doubt thanks to the restoration
contractor Lenore had hired.
Her gaze moved to the young man with dark hair, broad shoulders,
work jeans, and a long-sleeved cotton shirt who stood in the foreground.
He stared into the camera with guarded surprise. Funny, as many times as
she had studied this picture, something in his eyes tugged at her heart.
She snorted “No way,” and slid the photo inside her Bible’s back cover.
She’d never get close enough to meet this Clay Merrick. Restored or not,
what Uncle Drew called her rightful inheritance was more of a deadly
inheritance she had no desire to claim. The old house had brought nothing
but sorrow and strife to her mother. Jill could expect nothing better.
Returning made no sense.
Flipping her Bible’s pages open to where she had left off the day before,
Jill lost herself in the story of Jesus and a demon-possessed man in Mark’s
Gospel. Crazed and living naked among tombs, the man had no one to
rescue him.
Until Jesus came.
She drew back. The sudden sense that she had something in common
with this man startled her.
Okay, she’d never been crazed or lived among tombstones, but a year
ago, she’d felt as trapped. Learning of her mother’s suicide had nearly driven her to do the same. Jill would never have known the good life she had now if Nona hadn’t reached her in time.
Then why did it feel as if God were nudging her back to Windtop, to
all the chaos, all the pain? A loving God wouldn’t do that, would he?
Of course not.

Beth Ann Ziarnik

She released a shuddering breath and returned to her reading, blinking
as the next words jumped off the page.
“Go home to your family …”

Clay Merrick frowned as his gaze swept the summer sky over Hanley Field.
He had no business getting involved with Drew Bradwell’s personal life.
Why hadn’t he just said no?
He knew why. Because he couldn’t come up with a decent excuse fast
enough. So here he stood in the deserted airfield’s one-lane parking area,
waiting for his client’s niece. And she wasn’t his only problem.
Gravel crunched beneath his leather boots as he crouched to peer
beneath his old Ford F150. Not a kitten in sight. Slick little creature. He
stood and popped the truck’s hood once more. At least it hadn’t climbed up
onto the air filter. He slammed the hood.
The niece and the kitten—two unaware and helpless creatures. His
mother would have said, “You can’t save the world, son.” Maybe not, but
he would try. He gritted his teeth and tapped the hood. He’d check again
before he left—hopefully without Jill Shepherd.
Shading his eyes from the noonday sun, he scanned the clear blue sky
again—still no plane. He dropped his gaze to the thick wall of evergreens
surrounding the secluded field. Bradwell sure knew how to spirit the girl
into the community unseen. Not another soul or plane was in sight. Not
that it would matter once the man’s wife found out.
He ground his jaw. What kind of world was this where innocent people
were hurt for no good reason? Bradwell’s niece had no idea what she was
walking into. He should warn her. Bad idea. He’d have to blow his cover
and throw away two years of hard work just when he was so close to success.
And for all he knew, she might not stay long enough to get into trouble. In
the meantime, he’d do whatever he could to ensure her safety.
He blew a frustrated breath. Too bad she chose today to show up. Two
more weeks, and he’d have solved the problem. She could’ve come home in
safety. As it was, he needed one last piece of evidence to convince himself
he had trailed a killer to Windtop.

Her Deadly Inheritance

Sure, telling Jill Shepherd was the right thing to do, and he wanted to
do the right thing. But why should she trust a stranger?
A Cessna buzzed overhead. He jerked around to watch the single-engine
plane circle and float to the grassy runway as if this were any ordinary day. It taxied within a few yards of where he stood and swung broadside.
His gut clenched as a passenger peered from a side window. He hooked
his thumbs in the back pockets of his jeans and emitted a grunt. Bradwell’s
niece had arrived.
With a fading whine, the plane’s engine shut down. Moments later, the
pilot emerged and opened a side door to help a petite beauty with golden
hair step down.
Clay pressed his lips together as he sized her up. She couldn’t weigh
more than a hundred and ten pounds. If it came to defending herself, she
didn’t stand a chance.
Her green blouse rippled in the summer breeze, and several spiraling
wisps of hair swept across her face. She brushed them aside with a slender
hand and looked around as if expecting someone.
He strode forward. “Jill Shepherd? I’m Clay Merrick.”
A whisper of wariness flashed in her violet eyes. She looked away and
then fully engaged his gaze. “The contractor my aunt hired.”
She had a gentle way about her yet remained cautious, her stance poised
for flight. Maybe he had underestimated her.
“My aunt knows I’m here?”
“I don’t think so. Your uncle sent me.” He pulled a paper from his shirt
pocket and handed it to her.
A slight lifting of her shapely eyebrows indicated she recognized the
handwriting. She opened the note.
Earlier at the paper mill, Bradwell had briefed him on its contents.
Visiting executives had him tied up in an unannounced meeting. He urged
her to go with Clay to present herself to the judge as proof she was alive,
then on to Windtop to wait. He would join her around 4:30 p.m.
She lifted her gaze to study him as if weighing her options. “I would
like to talk to my uncle.”
Do the smart thing, he wanted to say. Get back on that plane and go
home. Instead, he stood there as she pulled out her cell phone, turned her

Beth Ann Ziarnik

back to him, and walked away a few paces. However, she hadn’t gone far
enough to prevent him from catching the drift of the conversation.
“Uncle Drew? What’s going on? Yes, he’s here. No, I’m not comfortable
doing that. She won’t? You’re sure?” A long pause. “All right, I’ll do as you say, but I still don’t like this.”
Clay didn’t like it either, but it wasn’t his decision.
Tucking both the note and her cell in her purse, she returned. “Let’s go
then. I hear the judge is waiting.”
“Uh, right.” He checked his watch. “The ferry is too.”
She tensed. Her eyes widened. “The public ferry?”
“Your uncle arranged for private passage.”
She didn’t move.
“Is something wrong?”
She raised her delicate chin and squared her shoulders, stirring his
reluctant admiration. “Nothing. Nothing that matters.”
He swallowed a grunt and tipped his head toward the two large leather
bags beside her. “Yours, right?” When she nodded, he reached for them.
“Mr. Merrick.”
At the quiver in her voice, he wiped his hands against his jeans and gave
her his full attention.
“On the way, could we?”—her words choked off and she tried again—
“stop at the island cemetery?”
The pain etched in her eyes strafed his heart. He knew all too well the
source of that pain. He grabbed her bags. “We’ll make the time.”
He turned away, scowling. Without even trying, she had cracked his

The aging truck shuddered as Jill settled on its stiff bench seat and clicked her seat belt into place. She looked over her shoulder and through the rear window. The man whose eyes had mysteriously drawn her in the photo
adjusted her luggage among trees with balled roots and flats of red, white,
and blue petunias. He slammed the tailgate.

Her Deadly Inheritance

Strange. He wore quality denim yet drove a truck almost as old as he was.
Then again, maybe her aunt had purchased the Ford 150 for Windtop. Grand
Island residents preferred using sturdy, old vehicles on its unpaved roads.
Merrick approached the driver’s side, but instead of joining her, he
reached inside and pulled a lever to pop the hood. He opened and then
slammed it, returning to slide behind the steering wheel.
“Trouble?” she asked.
“Just checking.” He turned the key in the ignition, and the motor
sprang to life.
She shrugged. Everything must be all right then. Or maybe not.
Merrick seemed awfully tense. Almost as if … as if he were worried about
something. Did that something have anything to do with her? Surely not.
Yet she couldn’t help but wonder why her uncle sent this man in his place
and insisted her arrival be such a secret.
I’m glad you came, Uncle Drew had written in his note.
Glad, for what reason? Even her uncle was hiding something from her.
She shivered. Suddenly, it seemed the smart thing might be to turn
back while she still could. Go back to your family. Yes, there was that. The
moment she read those words this morning, she knew she must face Lenore
and the truth about her mother’s death. Unfortunately, she could only do
that at Windtop where all the trouble began.
Clay revved the motor, and her stomach lurched as the truck moved,
carrying her away from Hanley Field into an unknown future with a
stranger at her side.
Uncle Drew should be here. At the very least, he should go with her to
meet the judge. “To cancel proceedings declaring you legally dead, he has
to have proof that you’re alive,” her uncle had said. “Don’t worry. Lenore
won’t be there. I’ll take care of letting her know once you’re on your way
to the island.”
Don’t worry? She shook her head. How was that possible? Right now,
all she was running on was pure trust in God.
And she wasn’t very good at that yet.
If only she’d had more practice, this whole situation might not loom
quite as frightening.

Beth Ann Ziarnik

Yellow dust billowed behind the old truck as it sped over the sandy road
along Grand Island’s southern shore. Jill swiveled back to stare ahead
through the windshield. The island had changed. The forest crowded the
edges of the road and blocked out the sunlight more than she recalled.
Cold prickles danced over her shoulders. This wasn’t the Grand Island
she once knew. She’d leave this dark place as soon as possible.
On the plus side, her meeting with the judge had gone well. She and
Clay found him waiting at Powell’s Point before they were to board the
ferry. She had glanced around and found no one else who might know her,
but being a family friend, the judge had recognized her instantly. Before
they parted, he mentioned, as a favor to Uncle Drew, he would delay
processing the order and keep their secret until her uncle got back to him.
Drew had asked to inform Lenore himself. As the judge drove away, she
and Clay Merrick had boarded the ferry.
Now, with a rumble, his truck pulled off at the side of the road below
the island cemetery. Clay shifted into park and Jill peered through the
windshield at a lone path rising through the forest. At its end, she would
find her mother’s grave, a prospect that left her numb.
The door on the passenger side opened, and Clay stepped back as he held
it. She bit her lip and slid from the bench seat. Putting off this visit to her mother’s grave would only make it harder to face what lay ahead at Windtop.
Jill followed Clay around the hood of the vehicle where he leaned with
his back against the driver’s side fender. He crossed his arms.
“I’ll wait here,” he said, his voice a gravelly growl. He broke their
mutual gaze and stared at the ground to hide … what? Anger?
She turned to the forested pathway, forcing one foot in front of the
other. Her mother had died too young. Was her death Jill’s fault? Jill found
the question hard to shake and needed an answer before she left this island.
The path gave way to a quiet clearing where sunlight filtered through a
high, leafy canopy. In the glow of green and gold, she passed thirty weatherworn stones marking the resting places of the island’s early settlers, some her ancestors, but her proud heritage would not help her now.
Her stomach churning, she found her grandparents’ graves, and beside
them, a newer red granite slab embedded in the forest floor. She crouched
down to touch it and cold seeped into her fingertips as she read the inscription.Susannah Bradwell Shepherd. Beloved mother of Jill Ashley Shepherd.

Her Deadly Inheritance

She closed her tired eyes. Beloved mother. Yes, certainly, but was she
her mother’s beloved daughter? Or had her flight on that long ago stormy
night driven her mother to suicide?
Hot tears spilled over and splashed on the marker. She palmed their
tracks from her face. Too late for tears now.
She never meant to cause her mother’s suicide. How was it even possible?
The Susannah Bradwell Shepherd she knew would never have done such a
thing. Yet the police had come to that conclusion and people did change.
She had. Had her mother changed enough to take her own life?
Frantic cries echoed unbidden through her grieving heart. Come back,
Jill! Please! Come back!
Tipping her face heavenward, Jill whispered into the agonizing silence,
“Too late, God! I’ve come back too late.” With her mother gone, all her
arrival could accomplish was to end the lie. Something her mother would
want her to do, yes, but small comfort at a time like this.
A bird trilled in the quiet of that place as if to encourage her. Nona said God would help her find peace. How?
“Is it my fault, Lord?”
Her shoulders shook as she gave way to tears. Nona said tears would
help cleanse her of this terrible grief. Yet no relief came, only a searing,
choking pain.
How long she wept, she couldn’t say, but when at last her sobs stilled,
she opened tear-blurred eyes to find Clay Merrick standing near. A quiet
sympathy shone in his clear gray eyes. Without a word, he extended his
hand. Placing her own within its warmth, she found the strength to rise.

Clay gripped the steering wheel and pointed his truck north on the forest
road along the island’s east side. Jill’s too-quiet form beside him worked
knots in his gut. Tears glistened on her lashes. Her chin trembled, and the
memory of her weeping at her mother’s grave disturbed him to the core.
He stared grimly ahead. She shouldn’t have come. He wanted to tell
her that before they crossed the channel at Powell’s Point but couldn’t force the words past his lips. Instead, he watched for the slightest hint that she had changed her mind. In a heartbeat, he would have whisked her back

Beth Ann Ziarnik

to the airport. Instead, she’d lifted that small, determined chin of hers and boarded the ferry while he muttered a few choice words under his breath
and out of her hearing.
Now, his jaw twitched. More than ever, he ached to tell her all that
he suspected but couldn’t yet prove. For her sake, as well as that of other
innocent people who might die if he failed, he couldn’t risk it.
He clenched his teeth. He might not be free to stop her, but—he
flicked a glance heavenward—Someone Else ought to! At one time, he
would have asked that Someone to change Jill Shepherd’s mind. However,
a long time had lapsed since his last prayer, and he didn’t plan to resume
the habit anytime soon.
He turned the truck toward Windtop’s entrance gate. As it swung wide,
he drove through, and Jill tensed beside him. When the gate clanged shut
behind them, she jumped like a startled bird. Any moment, he expected
her to cry out, but she clamped her mouth shut.
Did returning to Windtop stress her that much? Then why did she
keep going?
He glanced at her pale face. For pity’s sake, turn back! The words burned
in his gut. Yet he, too, clamped his mouth shut.

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