by Sheryl Wright
A secret consortium, a bent banker, and a desperate lawyer are all that stand between Elliott Snowmaker and the inheritance of her great-uncle’s failing aircraft restoration business. Elliott doesn’t think twice about leaving her home in Toronto and making the long trip to New Mexico and Illusion Lake. Once there, she soon discovers that somebody wants her gone, and gone fast.
Staying was not the plan. But there’s something about Illusion Lake that definitely deserves her consideration. Besides, her new lawyer is hot as hell and worth a second or third look too.
Kiva Park is only at Illusion Lake for the winter. With a thriving criminal practice up north, handling the mundane chores of her dad’s general law office is a little on the dull side. But her plans for a quiet winter fly out the window when Elliott walks in the door. Elliott sets off all sorts of bells, but most disturbing is the way Kiva wants to reach out and brush Elliott’s bangs from those captivating blue eyes.
Kiva’s job is to manage Elliott’s inheritance, not investigate the strange demands of her father’s law partner. But with everyone gunning for her new client, it doesn’t take long for Kiva to figure out that there’s much more than Elliott’s inheritance and her own heart that are at risk.
GCLS Goldie Awards
Illusion Lake — Finalist, Romantic Blend.
FROM THE AUTHOR
"Writers are asked many of the same questions. “Where do you get your ideas?” is a big one. Well, according to the oath of authors everywhere, we’re not allowed to tell. No, just kidding. I actually have a big book called All the Ideas You Ever Wanted and More. Nope. I just made that up too. Here’s where the real well of ideas originates… Experience. Yup. Fall on you face, frack everything up, all of life’s mistakes are the sauce of the author. Sometimes good, often tough or even tragic, experience is a great catalyst of the imagination.
Illusion Lake is one of those stories with just a hint of experience behind it. Yes, I was an airline pilot and Great-uncle Elmo is a character based on, yes, Uncle Elmo. The rest began as I was researching water problems for First Nations. This was back when Michigan was fighting over clean drinking water and they weren’t alone. Here in Canada at that time, over 330 Indigenous Reserves were on boil water advisories, and not much has changed.
Water, I thought is more precious than oil, yet most of us haven’t got a clue what’s involved and what’s at stake. It’s no one’s fault. It’s not a subject that comes up until there’s a problem and back then, I was starting to comprehend just how big the problem was. So, where did I get the idea for Illusion Lake? It’s simple: Take summers as a kid at Uncle Elmo’s, my years of flying, and a mystery all centered on a little known lake. Oh there’s lots more sauce in the pie but I’ll leave that for you to discover.
Enjoy the adventure."
Natalie T. - This is such a great book that has an interesting mystery and then an excellent conclusion. I liked the romance between Kiva and Elliott but I think the strongest part of the novel was definitely the drama of Illusion Lake. I really liked getting to know all of the characters in the novel, and there's quite a lot of them but at no point did I feel overwhelmed by the many players. Wright did a great job of layering the story, setting and characters to build an excellent mystery novel with a very sweet romance.
Mikhila N. - I absolutely loved this story! Five stars! Sheryl Wright has the amazing ability of avoiding predictably. This is such a well thought out book with an amazing execution. With lovable characters, shocking plots and heartwarming moments I will definitely be reading more from this author.
Bonnie A. - Ms. Wright has written a great mystery, thriller, romance. The main characters are amazing. The plot is superb and well executed. I thoroughly enjoyed the story and recommend. 4.5 Stars
Lex Kent’s Reviews - If you are looking for a fun book filed with small town drama and intrigue, this book is for you. I think this is one of those books that will really surprise people. I truly believe this is Wright’s best book and it makes me excited to see what she has instore for us next.
Bonnie S. - Simply put, it is one of the best crime books I’ve read this year. To be honest I’m having a hard time writing this mainly because Illusion Lake offers us a very nice romance, mystery combination that takes a few twists and turns. Excellent read, by an author who obviously put in some time and I imagine a fair amount of research. Well done. Very, very good.
Mile after mile, for the last hundred miles, dried out and frozen cattle pastures and the interstate were her only companions as she drove southwest into New Mexico. With no schedule to follow, she had pushed hard, not to get here, as much as her need just to be going somewhere, doing something, anything. It had taken thirty-two hours of hard winter driving, broken only by a restless night stay at a cheap hotel, to get here from Toronto.
It wasn’t much to look at.
When Elliott Snowmaker pulled herself from her beat up Jeep and took stock of what was left of a once bustling airport operation, her heart hurt almost as much as her back. The only runway that looked usable was littered with small stones and junk that probably fell off cars racing here illegally. The only buildings left standing were a boarded-up wood shack, a dilapidated brick building with peeling gray paint identifying it as the airfield’s fire station, and an enormous rusting Quonset hut, probably a relic of World War II, was the only hangar left standing.
The painted lettering on the Quonset hut doors, like the rest of the place, had been left to fade and peel, but it was still legible: Elliott’s Aircraft Restoration. We Specialize in Warbirds, Antiques, and Vintage Airplanes. All Makes and Models Welcome.
There was no denying this was the place. As soon as she did the paperwork it would be all hers. Question was…what the hell was she going to do with it?
Kiva Park set her cell phone to speaker, placing it on the desk next to a framed photo of her dad grinning and hugging his two daughters. It had been taken only last year, and she marveled to think how important it was to have the latest snapshot of them so close by. Absently, she listened to her sister on the phone while sorting case files. Swinging slightly side to side in the deep leather of her father’s office chair she could admit she was enjoying this break from her normal, far more intense routine.
Her father’s office was decorated much like her own back in Toronto, meticulously kept with custom mahogany furniture and two walls of dark wood shelves stacked with legal volumes. It certainly was a contrast to the storefront it occupied in the center of town. She was listening and absently agreeing with her sister Shay as she rambled on and on, shucking off her heels, examining her bare toes, considering whether it was time for a pedicure,when suddenly the volume of the call hiked.
She blushed, stammering her denial, “I…Yes, I was listening! Please don’t get upset. I heard everything you said. I just, I just don’t know what to tell you, sis.” Nothing was worse for her insecure and newly single big sister than thinking she couldn’t be bothered listening to her problems. Kiva’s problem wasn’t an unwillingness to listen, but frustration at hearing the same complaints over and over.
“Shay, I know you’re having a dry spell, but at least you’re not sitting here in nowheresville with no place to go, and no one to do.”
There was a huff from the phone, followed by a gentle laugh. “Ah, I can see it now, the fastest lesbian in the West dying of frustration as she wilts in that dust bowl we escaped from. You must be fading there.”
Now it was Kiva’s turn to huff, but she had to agree. “Tell me about it. I’ve been here so long, I’m actually starting to entertain thoughts of monogamy and even, wait for it…settling down.” In actuality, she’d only arrived a few weeks ago but compared to her very active social life back in Toronto, Illusion Lake, New Mexico was as mind-numbing as it could get.
“O—M—G! I knew spending the winter handling Dad’s practice would have this effect. What are you hoping for?”
“Are you kidding? I’m hoping to get out of here unscathed and return home a normal red-blooded and single lesbian. You know what they say about our mother, ‘Kerry Ann O’Donnell was destined for bigger things,’ and that goes for her daughters too. Even if I wanted to stay, Illusion Lake can’t handle three lawyers and I can’t see Dad retiring anytime soon.”
It was easy to hear her sister’s lighthearted laugh. A great improvement over whatever she was bitching about a moment ago. Kiva leaned over her chair to put her heels back on but straightened up at the sight of dried grime covering the heels and toes. Groaning, she knew her careful egress through the muddy unpaved parking out back was not as successful she’d hoped. Maybe she should park out front from now on, main street parking tickets be damned. Grabbing a tissue, she dabbed at her expensive Italian slingbacks, brushing away much of the claylike buildup. “Of course I get all sorts of ideas around the perfect woman scenario, but it’s silly.”
“Amuse me, why don’t you,” her sister suggested. “Come on. Why don’t you ever just say out loud what you’re looking for? I mean, you know what Mom says. ‘You have to see it before you can have it.’”
“That’s the thing. I don’t want to see what I can’t have. Besides, it’s more about the type of woman. I’m restless all the time. It’s not fair to settle down with anyone when I just can’t keep still.”
“You can’t keep still because you haven’t found the right woman or as Mom would say, the one.”
“Oh God, you do sound like her,” Kiva warned her sister.
“Yeah, but maybe she’s right this time. I mean, did you ever give it a try? I’m talking about going old school and really letting yourself see things the way she taught us when we were kids.”
Now it was her turn to huff. “How do you think I got through law school and managed to pass the bar in two states and one province?”
“Yah, that was cool…” Her sister seemed to sense she’d gotten off track. “No, wait. Don’t change the subject. Let’s do it now. Close your eyes and describe the perfect woman, the one who could settle your restlessness.”
Kiva felt a rush of heat at the thought. They were close, but no way was she close enough to talk about sex with her straight sister.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa there, knucklehead. I’m not talking about sex, and don’t deny that’s where your head went.”
“Did not!” Kiva laughed at herself. She sounded like a teenager. “You’re killing me here, you know that?”
“Stop making excuses, for God’s sake, and stop thinking about sex for five minutes.”
Lowering her head, she smiled. Her big sis always got her, even when she didn’t understand herself. The truth was, much as she liked to play the field and pretend she wasn’t into long-term relationships, things had gotten stale. It seemed like the more women she met, the more they were the same, cast from one of three molds: the Fixer Uppers, the Rescues, and the Payment Plans.
The Fixer Uppers were the women who were making a good living and settled in their careers but usually at a cost. They needed attention in some area, like the Victorian houses in her neighborhood at home always needing fixing—trim painted, windows replaced, something. She had long given up on the idea that any of those women wanted the updating, or anything changed about themselves. If they had, they would have gone out and done it themselves.
Of course, they were much easier to deal with than the Rescues. Rescues could go on forever about their childhood wounds or how their last lover destroyed their confidence and trust and how the right woman could save them. She had long since decided these were not really women in pain but nutbars whose needs were thinly disguised demands. They wanted everything without any responsibility or work on their part. After all, they would say, “You have to understand, I’m a victim,” or some such crap. They clung to their victimhood like a badge of honor.
At least the Payment Plans admitted up front they expected her to foot the bill, tend to their every whim. It would be one thing to be in a relationship and share the burdens of life, but a whole other thing to take on someone else’s financial responsibilities simply because somewhere along the line they had decided that doing or contributing less made them somehow worth more. She never got it. Maybe it was how they were raised. As much as she and Shay joked that their mother was on the crazy side, she’d always insisted they understood they were responsible for themselves.
“Okay.” Kiva gave in with just the right hint of dismissal. There was no need to let Shay know she’d been putting off this very exercise, scared about where her deep, dark internal thoughts might take her. Their mom was a spiritual woman and a lifelong student of what she referred to as the universal mysteries. Yes, she was a New Ager through and through, introducing her girls to meditation as toddlers and hypnosis as soon as they were old enough to sit still to use their imagination as directed. They were so practiced each could move themselves into and out of the suggestive state without effort. She set her now pristine heels on the floor. “Give me a sec,” she said as she got comfortable in her dad’s office chair, closing her eyes and letting her head roll back in complete relaxation.
Shay asked the standard opening question. “Where are you?”
“In my perfect place.”
“Great. Are you safe and alone?”
“Good. Now I want you to see yourself celebrating your fiftieth wedding anniversary. Can you see the cake, the friends and family gathered around?”
“I want you to feel how happy you are and how much you’ve achieved. Listen to the people gathered with you as they tell you how impressed they are. Allow yourself to feel the achievement they see. You have enjoyed a stellar career. You have personal fulfillment. And you have enjoyed the most spectacular relationship. Can you feel everyone’s praise and know it’s true?”
“Good, that’s good. Now I want you to look around. Can you see your colleagues and how happy they are for you?”
“Nice work. Now look around your home. Can you see that it’s everything you ever wanted?”
“Perfect. Now, look around again. Do you see children or grandchildren?’
“Yes…holy shit! I have grandkids!”
“Easy now, let yourself relax again and smile at your grandchildren. Now take a look at the woman beside you. What do you see?”
“She’s holding your hand and smiling at you. What do you see?”
“Relax and feel yourself there. Is her hand warm or cool in yours?”
“Good. Is her skin soft or rough?”
“Soft, rough, both I guess.”
“Perfect. Now turn to her and tell me what you see. Is she as tall as you? Taller? Shorter?”
“Taller, but just a few inches.”
“That’s perfect. Let yourself see her gray hair but remember back to when you first met. What color was her hair then?”
“Blond, dark blond.”
“That’s good. Now tell me how she keeps it, short, long…”
“Short and straight but not too short. Her bangs are in her eyes, and I want to lean over and brush them away for her…”
The old-fashioned buzzer on her desk rang, and she reluctantly opened her eyes. “Sorry, Shay. Duty calls. We’ll have to leave make-believe for another day. Will you call me on the weekend and tell me all about Dad’s blind date?”
“You got it, kiddo. Just promise me you won’t dismiss any propositions from slightly taller blond women who need their bangs cut.”
Kiva laughed her off the phone. “Gotta go,” she said. She picked up the probate file and the note from Ian Guerrero, her father’s legal partner, and walked to the door. She read the client name again, to be sure she looked professional even if this was a simple discharge. “Elliott Snowmaker. I’m Kee…”
The woman walking across the small waiting room was good looking in a handsome sort of way, the same height as Kiva, thanks to Kiva’s three-inch heels. Her straight hair was dark blond with light yellow highlights just brushing her ears and falling in her eyes. As the woman’s head tilted just slightly, Kiva shook herself from the idea her sister had just planted and cleared her thoughts, adding with more authority and some discomfort, “I’m Ms. Park. I’ll be representing the firm today in the matter of your uncle’s estate.”
“Great-uncle,” the woman corrected, offering her hand.
Kiva tried not to scowl at her forgetfulness. It wasn’t the woman’s fault she and her sister had been playing silly games on the phone thirty seconds ago. She accepted the outstretched hand, then almost dropped it when it felt as real as the experience she had just described. No way could she tell Shay about this! She would say this was destiny or some such bull.
She waved at the seat across from her desk and sat down, feeling entirely off her game. The best way to handle this, she decided, was to get through the inheritance information, hand everything over, and be done with her. She spotted the Post-It note stuck to the file and remembered Ian wanted to talk to the woman too. Something about making an offer so she could get out of town and back to wherever she was from sooner than later. That certainly worked for her.
“As I said in my letter, I’m here to discharge your uncle’s estate and—”
“Great-uncle,” the woman corrected again.
She sucked in a breath to keep her cool. The woman hadn’t done anything wrong in correcting her. “Sorry. Yes, you said that. Great-uncle. Now before we start, I’ll need to check your ID and verify you are who you say you are. Nothing personal.”
The woman obediently dug into a leather portfolio and handed over a Canadian passport and an FAA pilot’s ID book.
Excusing herself and taking the documents from the office to copy them, Kiva headed to the break room. She would typically hand stuff like this off to Sofia, her father’s receptionist/assistant, but needed a few minutes to compose herself. Heading to the back room that also served as a kitchenette, she copied the various IDs for the legal record, then looked longingly at the fresh coffee. No, she’d ask her client if she wanted one before she poured herself another.
Maybe she’d call Shay later and give her hell about this situation. It was probably just her subconscious playing games. Maybe she’d caught a glimpse of the new woman in town, and her mind suggested her features to fill the conjuring her sister had orchestrated. Or…last night she had dinner at the rib place out on the highway across from the only hotel in the area, and she probably spotted her there. Yes, she was sure of it now. That must be how her imagination had come up with such a perfect match. Amazing how much the mind took in.
Slipping back into the office she resumed her seat, saying in passing, “Welcome to Illusion Lake, New Mexico. When did you get in?”
“Actually, I just arrived.”
That didn’t make sense. Kiva must have seen her before. “Are you staying at the Big Pine Inn?”
“I just checked in.” She gave Kiva a sheepish look, then explained. “I left Toronto late and pretty much drove right through. I wanted a shower and to change before we met. Once I have the keys, I’ll move into my great-uncle’s apartment.”
Hmm. That didn’t make sense. Maybe she had seen a picture of the woman. Perhaps there was one in the file. She flipped it open.
“I can certainly give you the keys today, but you may want to stay at the Big Pine anyway. You do know there is no house included in your inheritance?”
“Do you know what you’ve inherited from your uncle?”
“Yes, sorry. It’s what I meant. And I’m sorry for your loss.” She scolded herself for being a little late with that sentiment. She was completely off-kilter and needed to focus. “Let me get you a coffee. What’s your preference?”
“I’m kinda coffee’d out. Any chance I could get something cold? Water, pop?”
Smiling, she nodded, making her way from the office without another word.
Why is this so hard? Just grab her a Coke, get a coffee, relax. The sooner she’s out of your hair the sooner this ridiculous thing comes to an end. Why on earth did I let Shay talk me into that mumbo-jumbo of Mom’s?
When she sat back down across from the woman, she was back to her old self. “Ms. Snowmaker, I just want to say again how sorry I am for your loss.” Her practice at home was focused on juvenile criminal law, but here, with her dad and Ian the only lawyers in town, they did a little of everything and wills and estates took a big chunk. When she agreed to take over his practice so he could take a long overdue break, she had been looking forward to this part of the work. Dealing with young offenders was starting to weigh on her, and this had sounded like a good gig.
“No need. We weren’t close. Not with us each living at opposite ends of the continent. I had no idea he would leave me anything. Frankly, it’s all been a bit overwhelming.”
That information didn’t exactly mesh with her understanding. Flipping to the man’s last will and testament and the photocopies of the ID she had taken, she carefully compared the two. “You are Elliott Annabelle Snowmaker, great-niece to Elliott Moreno?”
“Yes.” She grinned somewhat irreverently. “But please don’t share that ‘Annabelle’ thing with anyone.”
She nodded but wouldn’t ask. She could sympathize. Her mother had saddled her with Kiva, the name of a traditional Dené healing lodge she had visited while pregnant with her. “Can you explain your familial tie?”
She nodded, seemingly unfazed by the questions. “Elliott is my maternal grandmother’s little brother.”
Not a lot to go on. She had to accept the explanation, as the relationship was detailed right there in the opening of his bequest. “It would seem your great-uncle Elliott…”
“Elmo,” she corrected. “I only know him as Elmo.”
“All right, Ms. Snowmaker—”
“Yes.” This was getting tedious. “I’m happy to refer to him as—”
“No. Sorry. I mean, call me Elliott, please. That’s what everyone calls me.”
That information stalled her thoughts. Elliott was a cute name, and it sort of suited her. Knowing it was her turn to reciprocate, she stalled then skipped over it, unwilling to trade on common names. Something about being casual with Elliott scared the hell out of her.
“Are you named for him?”
“I guess. I never asked. I mean I know him best from all my Nanny’s stories, but we only met on special occasions.”
“I take it you’re the only grandchild?”
“Sorry, no. First of nine and before you ask, I have no idea why Elmo left everything to me.”
She sighed, trying to put all the information in order. “I have to ask, should we be expecting any challenges from your siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, or other family members?”
Elliott looked to be giving the question serious thought, finally shaking her head. “I can’t see it, but you never know. Frankly, I’m not sure my cousins even know Elmo is dead much less that he had anything of any value. Most of my aunts are gone and like my father, none of their husbands ever stuck around. I don’t know what happened to Elmo’s wife, but my grandmother was sure their divorce was finalized more than thirty years ago.
Kiva hated to push when it came to the tumultuous topic of family, but she needed to be prepared. “And your mother and surviving aunts?”
Seeming to get where she was going with her line of questioning, Elliott sat straighter, explaining, “My grandmother is Elmo’s only surviving sibling. Anything I gain, she knows I’ll share with her. As for my mom and Aunt Vicky, well…they haven’t had anything to do with me since I came out and I have every confidence my grandmother will return the favor when it comes to sharing this situation with them. Besides, I’ve already stopped at the airport, and I can’t see a lot of value to fight over.”
Kiva nodded. “Elmo’s estate has some valuable aspects but more so on paper. We’ll go over that, and I’m glad to hear you have some idea of what you’re facing.”
It took another hour to pore over the estate papers and go through the details required by the courts, state inheritance laws, and federal tax requirements. Initially, she hadn’t expected to spend as much time on this business, but Elliott Snowmaker was a bright woman and asked detailed and essential questions.
“Now all we need to do is get everything signed, then I’ll take you next door to see Ian Guerrero. He can explain the penalties for breaking the airport lease and go over the offer the county is considering and—”
“Wait. What’s the rush?”
Caught off guard, Kiva almost stumbled before explaining, “I was told you were in a hurry to get things settled and head back up north.”
“Uh, I’m sensing a problem?”
“There may or may not be one. First, though, I need to know who it is you’re representing.”
She was stunned by the question. In the twelve years she had been practicing law, no one had ever asked her that. She’d had a few criminal cases where the client accused her of not getting them the best deal, but she’d never had anyone ask whose side she was on. “I’m representing your great-uncle’s estate.”
“And if I wanted you to represent me, would there be a conflict?”
“I…” She paused, actually thinking it through. “Not that I know of. Why do you ask?”
“No.” Elliott Snowmaker held up her hand like a cop calling a traffic stop. “Business first, Ms. Park. I’m asking if you will represent me in all matters related to the holdings I have inherited and do so unequivocally and with all prejudice.”
“I don’t… You do know an action taken with prejudice is final? Is that what you want?”
“Yes. Now answer my question. Please.”
Damn, she was a forthright woman! Stalling for all the world to see, Kiva finally said, “Normally I would require a retainer.”
Before she could say more, Elliott counted out crisp one hundred dollar bills, ten of them. “Will that suffice for now, Ms. Park?”
Reaching for the cash she suspected had just been issued by an ATM, she counted it out loud, then said quietly. “I have no idea what you’re up to, but it’s clear this is a pay-to-play game. Just so we’re clear, I’m officially representing you, and yes Ms. Elliott Snowmaker, I’m all in.”