Can one incident change everything? Your whole life?
It can, and does for many. It did for Dr. Dana Perkins, a psychologist who taught Kindergarten because that’s where she felt she could do the most good for the kids. Dana is all about the kids. Getting them off on the right foot, giving them what they need to succeed in life. Giving them a love for learning and all she’s got to help them become their best. And then tragedy strikes her school and it is the one incident that rocks her world, and that of the students. Her deepest fear becomes reality.
Innocence is lost. The kids learn the meaning of death, of loss and grief. Dana struggles. But the children…their burden is even heavier. They don’t fully understand the finality of death. When you’re young and lack experience nearly everything is new and different. But when death occurs as a result of violence in the presence of kids… it’s life-changing. And for Dana, life-defining.
Kids are not shielded from the harsh reality of grief any more than adults. They look to adults they trust and how they react to see how they should react. And both need tools to cope. To know it’s okay to be sad, to miss those who died. Tools to protect themselves so they don’t always feel so vulnerable. They need to know they can heal and recover and continue on in life. That it’s okay to laugh and play and be happy again. It’s not an insult to those no longer with them.
Dana wants nothing more than to leave the school and forget what happened. But she can’t abandon her students now. Not when they most need her. So she struggles, determined to give them what they need. She’s a woman on a mission.
But that one incident changed everything. For her and for the kids. At the end of the school year, the kids moved on, and so did Dana—to Shutter Lake, where she accepted the position of principal at a new school.
Shutter Lake. The perfect town in a tranquil and calm community where there was no crime. Exactly what Dana needed to heal. And she was healing, had healed, until Sylvia Cole is murdered and Dana’s star student confesses to a crime Dana knows he did not commit. Again her world is rocked…and then in attempting to prove his innocence it is rocked again…and again. And yet again. Because nothing is as it seems, and who knew behind the illusion of perfection, Shutter Lake was rife with life-altering, life-shattering illusions. Who knew that the truth would rock not only Dana and her student but the entire town. Because it seems everyone is trapped in lives with so many secrets…
An Excerpt from So Many Secrets by Vicki Hinze
Impossible to believe but that’s all it had taken for the idyllic vision of Shutter Lake, California, lauded by Country Living as the most perfect town in all of America, to prove perfection is a façade and all the safety and security sought and found in it had been an illusion.
One murder. Illusion shattered.
One murder, and so many secrets…
A shiver crept up Dr. Dana Perkins’s backbone. She stiffened against it, determined to reclaim her sense of security here. At the deli counter inside Stacked, a block off downtown’s main square, she ordered a grilled chicken sandwich with a side salad and a bottle of Evian berry-flavored water, then glanced over to the cluster of two-dozen tables. About half-full. A lot of people were having a late lunch today.
Dana took a table surrounded by empties then settled in and reached for a sheaf of papers from her tote. She had been through the school records at least a dozen times, but maybe in the sandwich shop, she would be more objective, gain some new insight, and see something she had missed.
Oh, but she needed to be certain she hadn’t missed anything. After Phoenix, to retain her sanity she had to be absolutely certain she hadn’t missed any warning sign.
There had to be a reason this year’s best and brightest student had confessed to murder. Some logical, rational reason that Vinn Bradshaw, gifted future nanotechnologist, studious, popular basketball player, who exhibited nothing short of fantastic leadership skills, confessed. Vinn could not have killed anyone much less a prominent Shutter Lake founder’s daughter like Sylvia Cole.
Nolan Ikard, about thirty, tall and lean with sandy blond hair and a handsome man’s confident swagger, paused at her table. Nolan owned The Grind, a coffee shop sharing a common wall with Stacked that Dana frequented every morning on her walk from home to the school.
“How’s our favorite principal?” Nolan asked. “Things settling down any at S.L.S.?”
Many students, current and former, referred to Shutter Lake School as S.L.S. “Getting better,” she said because it was expected and not because it was true. “The students are still rattled, but then aren’t we all?”
He nodded and avoided her eyes, his own gold-flecked ones clouded and troubled. “Guess the kids won’t settle down until their parents do. Maybe we will all get back to normal soon.”
“Maybe we will.” Dana smiled.
He walked on to his favored table beside hers and next to the front window. How many times in the last year had she seen him staring out that window as if he had lost his last friend? She’d been tempted often to ask if he was okay, or to offer to listen if he needed to talk, but something had held her back. She couldn’t say what, but she always followed her instinctive urges on things like that. In his case, she hoped she didn’t live to regret it.
A waitress Dana didn’t recognize delivered her order. She must be from Grass Valley. She hadn’t been one of Dana’s students.
That was a perk of being principal of a school with three-hundred students. You knew them, and they knew you. The other items on the waitress’s tray were Nolan’s. Cuban sandwich and a side of slaw. A hint of citrus, garlic and a splash of white wine gave the mustard on his sandwich a distinct scent that set her mouth to watering. It smelled spicy and tart, interesting. It smelled great.
When the waitress placed his food on the small square table in front of him, Nolan barely glanced at her. That piqued Dana’s curiosity and fired a red-flag warning too bold to ignore. Nolan Ikard not flirting with an eligible woman? Normally, he’d flirt with a lamppost. Oh, not offensive flirting, just friendly flirting. It was as natural to him as breathing. But not today.
Apparently his perfect façade of Shutter Lake also had shattered—and Dana certainly shouldn’t make too much of it. Everyone in the community seemed disturbed and wary and disillusioned these days.
Shifting her thoughts to her work, she studied the details in Vinn’s files and nibbled at her food, wishing she’d dared to order Nolan’s hot and spicy Cuban. Stacked made the best sandwiches and slaw in the tri-county area, but with Dana’s stomach acting up since Vinn’s confession, she didn’t dare to risk eating anything not mild.
About a third of the way through the teachers’ observation notes, she spotted KristinaSharapova’s name. Her image sprang to mind: long dark hair and eyes, pale skin and a mischievous smile that was nothing short of infectious because it was so rare. Kristinabent toward being serious, which was normal for a teenage Russian exchange student. They competed so fiercely for the chance to come to Shutter Lake to study.
Thanks to the wealthy and childless benefactors, the Windermeres, there were always foreign exchange students at Shutter Lake School. Attending there was an amazing opportunity for all the students really. A group of the most gifted professionals in the world in science, medicine, and industry designed and created the nearly self-sustaining community and they often shared their vast pool of knowledge and expertise with the students.
Dana was proud of the program she and Mayor Thomas Jessup had created. In two short years, its success rate at preparing knowledgeable, socially mature and motivated graduates had surpassed expectations and her wildest dreams.
On Kristina’s first day with them, she had been like a fish out of water. Who wouldn’t be? Strange school, no familiar friends or faces. Living in a strange country and speaking a foreign language. But Vinn Bradshaw had picked up on her uneasiness. Without prompting, he’d taken her under his wing and helped her fit in. They were, according to the file observation note, good friends.
Dana too had been wrong about that. She reached into her tote for a pen, accidentally pulled out a large Ziploc bag, and smiled to herself. Every teacher she’d ever known carried a waterproof bag in her handbag or tote. Old habits die hard. Stuffing the frosted bag back in, she snagged the pen and then scribbled a new note on a page she had labeled “Things to tell Laney.”
Laney Holt was the Deputy Chief of Police and lead investigator on Sylvia Cole’s murder case. A beautiful young blond who favored long hair and ponytails over short red hair like Dana’s and, guessing, a year or two younger than Dana’s thirty-four. Not just friends. She added the note to the list.
Laney Holt breezed by Dana’s table with an order of fries and a bottle of flavored water then dropped into a seat at Nolan’s table.
He didn’t look happy to see her.
Gauging by the level look she laid on him, she wasn’t happy to see him either. “I still need your DNA,” Laney told Nolan.
Dana didn’t deliberately listen but, when people seated three feet from you talk, unless you cotton-stuff your ears, you can’t help overhearing their conversation.
“Why?” Surprise flickered through Nolan’s eyes. “You’ve got your killer. Word’s out all over the lake Vinn Bradshaw confessed.”
Laney finished chewing a fry, swallowed and then sipped from her water bottle. “Paperwork,” she said.
“You want my blood to check off a box to make sure your case sticks?” He shot her a resent-laced look of disgust.
“Exactly.” Her lips curved in a smile that never touched her eyes.
“And?” He pushed.
“And a witness saw a man fitting your description running away from Sylvia Cole’s house the night she was murdered. Chief McCabe wants no loose ends.”
“I don’t care what McCabe wants.” Nolan frowned. “You clowns get a description that fits half the men around here and naturally you come after me.”
Laney’s voice stiffened, but her expression appeared as calm as it had before the tension between them rocketed. “This clownis trying to eliminate you as a possibility, Ikard.” She tilted her head. “Wait a second. Are you saying it was you?”
Laney bit into another fry, let the silence stretch, yawn, settle. Finally, she asked, “Did Sylvia tell you she was planning a vacation to Venezuela?”
Dana’s heart rate sped. She kept her nose down and her gaze focused on her papers. One night after Yoga class at the Community Gathering Center, Sylvia had told Dana about that trip. A few weeks ago, Sylvia had even come to Dana’s cottage to see her mask collection. They’d talked for a few hours. Before Phoenix and coming to Shutter Lake, Dana had loved to travel. She’d spent her summers exploring, including three trips to Venezuela.
Nolan answered Laney. “Sylvia didn’t tell me anything about any vacation anywhere. We didn’t talk much.”
“So was it you—running away from her house that night?”
As if she hadn’t heard him, Laney went on. “There’s one thing I don’t understand.” She polished off her last fry, took a long draw on her water. “Why did you climb out of the window instead of leaving through the door?”
She dusted the salt from her fingertips with a paper napkin. “I get that Shutter Lake is a small community and maybe you two didn’t want to broadcast your intimate relationship, but…the window?”
“I told you.” Nolan’s jaw tightened and he leaned forward in his seat. “Sylvia and I were friends back in school. It was a long time ago. You knew her. That woman had no interest in a relationship with me or anyone else. She was as independent as people come.”
“Just in it for the sex. Got it.” Not one to cower, Laney leaned in, spoke to him nearly nose to nose. “So you went out the window to show her you’re independent, too. Uh-huh. Well, that makes perfect sense.” Her sarcasm couldn’t be missed. She scooted back her seat then stood up. “You’ve got twenty-four hours to come to the station and handle that DNA sample.”
“Or what?” he said, his voice a sharp and cutting tone Dana had never before heard him utter. “No. You know what? Forget it.” He glared up at Laney. “You want my DNA, get with my lawyer.”
“You have a lawyer?” Laney bared her teeth in a would-be smile. “Does he have a name?”
Her smile turned genuine. “Ah, here’s a tip. You might want to start looking for a replacement. Barton is Vinn’s lawyer.” She turned. “Twenty-four hours, Ikard.”
Nolan didn’t draw a breath until Laney exited the door of Stacked and stepped out onto the sidewalk.
Muttering and agitated, he finished his meal.
Dana ordered a cup of coffee, studied her papers with her mind whirling, and waited.
Finally, Nolan left and, when the door closed behind him, she phoned Laney. “You need to come back to Stacked right away.”
“Nothing. Just get back here as fast as you can.” Dana caught the waitress two steps away from Nolan’s table. “Don’t touch anything.”
The startled waitress jerked back and darted a worried look at Dana. “What?”
“Don’t touch anything on that table.” Dana hated this. But Vinn’s whole future could ride on what happened next, and no one was going to rob him of it. Not on her watch.
Scant minutes later, Laney entered Stacked and rushed straight over to Dana. “What’s wrong?”
“I told you on the phone, nothing is wrong.”
Laney stilled, parked a hand on her hip. “Then why am I here, Dana?”
“On TV, I saw an investigator going through a person of interest’s trash. The can wasn’t on his property, it was at the curb, waiting for the collector. He said once trash is abandoned, it’s legal for him to look in it for evidence. Is that true?”
“Well, yes,” Laney said, looking a little bewildered. “If it can be proven that it wasn’t contaminated.”
Dana rubbed an itch at her earlobe, tugging it. “Meaning, no one else touched the abandoned trash?”
Dana nodded toward Nolan’s table. “Well, Nolan Ikard abandoned his trash at that table and left Stacked. His DNA is on that fork and glass.”
Laney’s eyes narrowed. “Has anyone—“
Dana cut in. “The waitress delivered his food, but since he abandoned the trash, the table and departed, no one else has come near that table. It’s untouched,” Dana said. “I’ll swear to it.”
Laney nodded, appreciation lighting her eyes. “Let me grab an evidence bag.”
Dana pulled the Ziploc from her purse. “Here you go.”
A smile curled Laney’s lips. “How long has that puppy been in your purse?”
Good question. One Dana couldn’t answer. “Not a clue.”
“Best use mine, then.” Laney retrieved a bag and gathered the evidence. She turned to the waitress. “You can clear the table now. Thanks for waiting.”
Dana gathered her papers and put them back into the sheath, then dumped the file into her tote.
Laney stepped over to her, the filled evidence bag in hand. “Thanks.”
“Why did you do this?” Laney’s sunglasses rested parked atop her head.
“I couldn’t help but overhear your conversation. An opportunity rose, so…”
“You seized it. I see.” Laney faced Dana squarely. “You’re convinced Vinn is innocent.”
“I know he is innocent, Laney. Just as I know, until the real murderer is behind bars, I have three hundred other kids still in jeopardy.”
“How do you know Vinn’s confession isn’t real? You’re a school principal and a psychologist, for heaven’s sake. You know better than most that given the right circumstances anyone can kill.”
“Yes, of course, I do. But Vinn didn’t. For those same reasons, I know that, too,” Dana said quietly. “I just can’t prove it.”
* * *
A Note from Vicki: I’m crazy about the BREAKDOWN series. There are four suspense novels of women seeking Sylvia Cole’s murderer in Shutter Lake and four short reads about the one incident—that life-defining moment—that drove each of those women to Shutter Lake.
GIVEAWAY:C omment with your life-defining moment, follow me on Amazon or Bookbub and post that you have in comments, or sign up for my mostly monthly newsletter and you’ll have a chance to win a copy of her deepest fear and so many secrets!
Her Deepest Fear is a short clean read about the life-changing incident Dana experienced in Phoenix.
So Many Secrets is the clean read suspense novel that rocks Dana’s world over and again in Shutter Lake.