Sun-kissed Conspiracy!

I look back on the nightmare that happened last year and wonder if it was all a dream. There are days when I still can’t believe that on that beautiful summer day, my wonderful, happy life with the man I loved—was turned upside down.

That morning, my husband, Carson, and I decided to go up to Evergreen Lake, where we had a little cabin and a boat. The cabin was in my family for three generations, and I’ve spent many long, lazy summer days there. It was a special place for Carson and me. We went there for our honeymoon, and after that, we went there often on weekends and holidays.

I never went near the water. I’d read or work in the little vegetable garden out back, or take a hike through the hardwood forest surrounding the lake.Carson loved being out on the water. I was so crazy about him and I wanted to be with him every minute. I hated the fact that I was absolutely terrified of the water and couldn’t go boating with him.

On the day everything changed, we decided to go up for the weekend early Saturday morning. We were still lying in bed, watching the sun creep into the bedroom, when he said, “I have a great idea, honey. Why don’t we ask Madison to go with us?”

My heart sank. Carson was working late practically every evening for months. It was our first anniversary, and I wanted him all to myself that weekend. Besides, I had a very special anniversary present for him. As much as I loved my cousin, Madison, I didn’t want to share our weekend with her.

Slowly but surely, she became a fixture in our lives. Newly divorced and lonely, she latched onto us, spending evenings, and often weekends, with us.

“Oh, Carson, I wanted to get away by ourselves this weekend,” I told him.

He shrugged. “I just feel sorry for her—that’s all. Since she and Seth split up, she probably goes a little crazy when she’s by herself.” He nuzzled my neck. “Come on, sweetie. We’re so happy—can’t we share a little bit of that with someone who’s miserable?”

I gave in, as always, and said, “Oh, all right. I’ll call her.”

He smiled at me—that slow, lazy smile that made me fall in love with him all over again. I turned toward him, hoping he’d take me in his arms, make love to me. There wasn’t much lovemaking lately, but I put that down to the long days he was putting in at the office.

But instead of pulling me into his arms, he climbed out of bed and said, “You make sure you’ve got everything packed. I’ll call her and tell her we’ll pick her up in an hour.”

I sighed. Instead of insisting on having my way, I always gave in to Carson. But I loved him so much and wanted to make him happy.

I loved Madison, too. She was my favorite cousin, and we practically grew up together. We were more like sisters than cousins.

She was always such a live wire and very beautiful. When we were kids, I never even tried to compete with her. She was always smarter, prettier, better dressed, more popular. When she went off to New York to try her hand at modeling, I went on to the local community college to study business.

She didn’t make it really big in New York, but she did manage to appear in magazines and catalogs often enough to keep the people in our little town excited. She came home unexpectedly a year ago, married the son of a local banker, and settled down.

By then, Carson and I were married. I still remember when she invited us over to dinner. She took one look at Carson, dragged me into her state-of-the-art kitchen, and asked, “Where on earth did you find someone like that in this little jerkwater town? Good thing I didn’t see him first!”

I laughed. She was such a tease. “Don’t even think about it, Madison. He’s nuts about me!”

That night, she and Carson got along as if they’d known each other forever. Carson’s dark eyes met mine across the room, and he winked at me, as if to say, “She might be gorgeous, but you’re the one I love.”

Secure in his love, I made an all-out effort to draw Seth into conversation. He’s very ordinary looking, quiet, and soft-spoken. His eyes followed Madison all evening, and I knew he was desperately in love with her.

He isn’t Madison’s type, and I wondered why she married him. Looking around the beautiful house he bought for her, I suddenly knew the answer: She does love the finer things money could buy.

I put thoughts of Madison aside, finished packing for the weekend, and went downstairs. Carson was on the kitchen phone, laughing.

“I didn’t hear the phone ring, Carson. Who is it?” I whispered.

He made a face and pulled me against his chest. “Salesman,” he mouthed. Into the receiver, he said, “Sorry, but we have a brick home and we don’t need siding.” He slammed the phone down and frowned. “You’d think they’d pass a law to keep salesmen from calling people at home. Especially at nine in the morning.”

“Was he telling you a joke?” I asked absently, loving the feel of his arms around me, the smell of his lime-scented aftershave.


“You were laughing when I came in.”

He shrugged and dropped his arms. “Oh, that. He thought he had the Jacksons next door. We were just laughing over his mistake.” He rubbed his hands together. “Well, we better get this show on the road. I want to get up there in time to take the boat out this afternoon.”

I sighed. My wonderful anniversary weekend was going to be spent alone reading a novel while Carson and Madison spent it on the water. She swims like a fish and could water ski like a pro. Can I work up the nerve to go with them? Do I dare?

We put our suitcases in the car and drove over to Madison’s apartment. It isn’t as luxurious as the home she had when she was married, and she told me how much she missed the lifestyle she and Seth enjoyed.

She came running out to meet us, her beautiful, white smile contrasting with her smooth, tanned skin. “Would you mind awfully if I sat up front, Lizzie? You know how sick I get when I ride in the backseat.”

“No, I don’t mind,” I murmured and got out of the car. But I did mind. I hoped to at least sit beside Carson, hold his hand, and be close to him. But I knew from past experience how carsick Madison could get.

Why do I always do what other people want me to do? I wondered as I watched Madison get in my seat with a flash of long, tanned legs and a dazzling smile in Carson’s direction.

I knew why. I was meek and mild, going along with whatever plans others had for me since I was a child. At twenty-six, I’m probably never going to change, I thought, sighing.

As we drove through the summer morning, I sat behind Carson, looking at the back of his handsome, dark head and smiled, anticipating his reaction to my special present. In the past I gave him things just for fun; this year l gave myself something—something he always wanted, too, and he was going to love it.

I listened to the deep sound of Carson’s voice and Madison’s light laugh. I was so lucky that my husband and my cousin—the two most important people in the world to me—got along so well.

When we got to the lake, Carson turned around to look at me, his white smile flashing, his dark eyes affectionate. “All set for a relaxing weekend, darling?”

I nodded, returning his smile, loving everything about him—and knowing that he loved me in return. That was the marvelous thing about him—he knew all my shortcomings, and still loved me. I was too thin and serious and plain to have men falling at my feet. Yet, Carson did just that.

He was working in a brokerage firm, and I met him when Daddy died. Daddy left me a little bit of money, the house he and Mom lived in for forty years, the cabin at the lake, and a couple of rental apartments. I wasn’t rich, but I could be comfortable for a long time if I invested the money the right way.

Carson was understanding and he helped me with my investments. We were married three months later. I still couldn’t believe my good luck. This was the sort of thing that happened to Madison all the time; it never happened to me.

Carson and Madison knew I couldn’t swim and that I was terrified of the water. They usually left me to my gardening and reading. Carson would always linger for a few minutes, trying to talk me into joining him on the water. “It’s not much fun without you,” he always said.

Madison always made an attractive, little face and purred something like, “Why don’t you at least try to do something interesting and exciting? It’s a wonder you don’t bore poor Carson to tears!”

Carson always gave me a hug and whispered some soothing remark, like, “You could never bore me, darling. Never.”

Madison was getting out of the car, looking graceful and golden. “You really should come out on the boat with us, Lizzie,” she said.

I studied her without envy—the auburn hair, the unusual, green eyes, the beautiful body. She’s the sister I never had. I blurted out, “I’ve been psyching myself up all week. I think I’m ready for my first sailing lesson.” I was smiling, striving to appear comfortable with the decision to go boating. It caused me a lot of soul searching, but hopefully, I was ready to do it.

Surprise washed over Carson’s face. “Hey, that’s my girl,” he said softly. He turned to Madison. “That’s what we’ve been waiting for. Right, Madison?”

Madison was watching me, her green eyes cool. “Right, Carson,” she murmured and, recognizing an odd tone in the familiar voice, I shivered—as if something cold touched me on that sultry August afternoon.

As we walked up the steps to the cabin, Carson put an arm about my waist. “When do I get my anniversary present?”

I loved giving Carson things. He was like a little boy on Christmas Eve. “Let’s wait until we’re out on the boat, and then I’ll give it to you.”

“Don’t I get a hint?”

“It’s primarily for me—but you’re going to love it.”

“My Lizzie,” he said lovingly. “My woman of mystery.”‘

Madison said sharply behind us, “Really,Carson, you can say the dumbest things.”

His arm stiffened about my waist, and he turned to give her a look I couldn’t figure out. Almost like a warning, I thought, and then dismissed the thought as Carson turned his attention back to me.

Carson readied the boat, and I sat on the dock and watched his practiced movements, wishing myself a hundred miles away, hoping I wasn’t going to regret my decision. I watched the blue water as it lapped against the little, red-and-white boat and shivered in the sunshine.

The water was my enemy for a long time. I was eight on the summer day that Madison and I went into the lake against my father’s orders. I nearly drowned that afternoon. I still felt breathless just looking at the water. But I’d do anything to please Carson and, if that meant sailing in his precious boat, I’d do it. Besides, I promised to give him his anniversary present on the boat. I couldn’t back out then.

“Ready, darling?”Carson asked.

“Ready as I’ll ever be,” I told him, trying to joke, trying to hide my fear. I took his hand and stepped onto the heaving deck of the boat.

“I can’t seem to find the life jackets,” he said and then shrugged. “Oh, well—we’re not going far and if we capsize, will you trust your big, strong husband to save you?”

“No life jackets? Oh, Carson, I’m not sure. . . .” I began hesitantly, fear making my heart pound.

“You do trust me, don’t you, Lizzie?” he asked. His dark eyes were studying me, and the dancing sunlight on the water was reflected in them.

“Of course,” I said quickly. “It’s just. . . .”

“Well, then, let’s get this show on the road. I want my anniversary present,” he said, laughing, and the oddly tense moment was gone. He lifted the blue canvas bag I brought with me. “I’ll bet my present’s in here.”

“Maybe.” I laughed. “But don’t get your hopes up. It’s heavy because it contains a little snack I put together to celebrate our year together.”

The humor left his face, replaced by something else. Anger? Impatience?

“Where’s Madison?” I asked quickly, not wanting to make him angry. “Surely she isn’t going to miss my first boat ride.”

“She said something about a headache,”Carson said, sounding preoccupied as he started the motor, moving us out into mid-channel, where there would be enough wind for the sails.

When we reached the middle of the lake, he killed the motor and turned to look at me, his strong hands steady on the tiller.

I looked around, clutching the canvas bag against my chest and waited for Carson to comment on how well I was doing out there on the water. “It’s beautiful out here,” I managed, trying to still the tremor in my voice. When he didn’t answer, I cleared my throat and said, “Do you want your anniversary present now?”

“No,” he said, his eyes sweeping around the lake shoreline. “I don’t.” His face was devoid of emotion, his voice cold. Almost, I thought in surprise, as if the Carson I know and love left this handsome form and someone else—a stranger—took his place.

“Carson?” I questioned, laughing a little at my uneasiness. “What is it? You sound…odd.”

“Get out of the boat, Lizzie,” he said flatly, his dark eyes flat and cold.

“What?” I asked, my heart lurching inside me like a trapped wild thing trying to escape.

“You either get out on your own—or I’ll throw you overboard,” he said, his mouth taut with strain.

Shock washed over me. I didn’t hear right, did I? Surely, he didn’t just tell me he’d throw me overboard! “But I don’t understand. If this is a joke, it isn’t funny.”

“It’s quite simple, you little fool. You can’t swim, and I’m leaving you out here to drown.” His voice was harsh, and I realized I was looking at a stranger.

My body was suddenly drenched with the cold perspiration of shock. God, he means it, I thought in horror. This isn’t a joke. I was so frightened, I could barely make my numb hands and legs cooperate as I climbed over the side of the boat. The water lapped coldly against my trembling body. “Why are you doing this?” I asked, my teeth chattering with cold and shock.

“Because I want your money, you stupid, little fool. I want your apartments and your house, and your property here at the lake—especially the lake property. They’re building a hundred condominiums up here. We’re sitting on a gold mine.” He smiled down at me, his face contorted with hate and greed until I scarcely recognized him. “But most of all—I want Madison.”

“Madison?” I asked, wondering why that should come as more of a shock than the fact that he was trying to kill me.

“Yes, Madison,” he said. “Madison is a real woman—an exciting, beautiful woman. You’re boring me to death, Lizzie.” He laughed—a harsh, terrible sound that rang out over the water. “Oh, yes, we’ve been making plans to get rid of you for six months now. She’s in love with me, too. Why do you think she divorced Seth? And were you really stupid enough to think I was working every evening? I’ve been with Madison—with a real woman.”

Oh, God, I thought. There were signs—plenty of them—but I was too much in love with him to heed them.

“Now, Lizzie—take your hands off the boat.”

Anger washed over me. “What will you do if I refuse? Beat me to death with an oar?”

“No, I don’t want any marks on you,” he told me. “This is to be the tragic drowning of a loving wife. Madison will back me up when I tell the police you couldn’t swim, but wanted to please your husband—a grief-stricken husband, who foolishly left the life jackets in the boathouse and couldn’t save you when you fell overboard.”

“I thought I could please you with an anniversary present. I should have known better,” I managed to say between gasps as the cold water lapped against me.

He laughed. “With all that money we’re going to get for this land, I can buy anything I want. Who needs your stupid presents?” he asked and moved toward me.

I flinched away from him and let go of the boat. I went under, swallowing water, thrashing my arms and legs wildly. When I came to the surface,Carson had already swung the boat about, and the powerful motor was carrying him swiftly out of sight around the curve in the lake.

I was still floundering, swallowing a lot of water, but my panic was being overridden by something stronger—self-preservation.

“Get a grip on yourself, Lizzie,”I murmured between mouthfuls of water. “And remember all the things your swimming instructor has been teaching you these last two months.” I struck out for the shore opposite the cabin. Gradually, my panic subsided and I was swimming easily, rhythmically, as I was taught to do.

Ironically, I learned to swim as an anniversary present for Carson. He really should have accepted the gift when it was offered, I thought as anger overcame hurt and shock. He’ll live to regret that decision—I’ll see to that.

I climbed the rocky hillside along the shore and stumbled to the Carters’ cabin across the lake from ours. I lost my shoes in the lake, so it was a slow, painful walk.

When Jillian Carter came to the door, she gasped. “Lizzie? What in the world happened to you?” she asked as she led me into the cabin. “You’re soaking wet—and look at your poor feet! They’re bleeding!”

Bursting into tears, I cried, “Carsontried to drown me!”

She took a step back, her eyes wide with disbelief. “Carson? Oh, surely not, Lizzie.” She gave a nervous, little laugh. “Why, he’s crazy about you! He wouldn’t. . . .”

“He would. He did.” This woman thought Carson was wonderful. Isn’t every woman he ever spoke to crazy about him? He managed to fool everyone . . . just the way he fooled me.

“He made me get out of the boat and then he said. . . .” I was sobbing by then, making the rest of my words a jumble she couldn’t possibly understand.

Jillian grabbed a knitted throw from the couch and put it around my shaking shoulders. “Now, Lizzie, honey, calm down. Come over here and sit down. I’ll call Carson, get him over here. . . .”

I grabbed her arm when she started toward the phone. “No! Don’t call him. I don’t want to see him—ever!”

“Then who should I call?” she asked, sounding impatient. “You’re hysterical. I have to call someone.”

“The police. I want you to call the police,” I said, my sobs turning into hiccups.

“The police? Oh, Lizzie, that’s a bit drastic, don’t you think? This is just some misunderstanding that can be cleared up in a couple of minutes. You don’t want to tell the police a bunch of stuff that. . . .”

I stood up. “Either you let me call them or I’ll walk down to the Hamiltons’ and call from there.”

Giving in, she dialed the number and handed the phone to me. “This is Lizzie DeSilva,” I told the dispatcher. “My husband and I were out on the boat a little while ago, and he tried to. . . .”

“Well, thank goodness, you’re all right, honey,” she drawled. “The sheriff and Deputy Holmes are on their way out to your place right now. We called in all the emergency crews to go look for you. I’d better radio them and tell them you’re okay. Your husband called and said you fell out of the boat, and he forgot to give you a life jacket. He’ll be glad to hear you’re all right.”

“I didn’t fall out of the boat. He made me get out and then—and then he left me out there in the middle of the lake.”

She clucked her tongue in sympathy. “Now, Mrs. DeSilva, I know how stressed you must be after such an ordeal. Just settle down and try to relax. Call your husband and tell him to pick you up.”

“No!” I yelled. “I don’t want him anywhere near me! Tell the sheriff to come to the Carters’. He’s the only one I’ll talk to.”

“Well, all right,” she said, sighing. “If that’s what you want.”

“That’s exactlywhat I want.”

Five minutes later, the sheriff was there. He stood in the Carters’ living room, shifting his big feet in their dusty, black shoes. He twisted his western-style hat in his beefy hands. “Now, Mrs. DeSilva, you say your husband forced you to get out of the boat and then left you to drown?”

“Yes,” I snapped, resenting his disbelieving tone. “That’s exactly what happened.”

“Mr. DeSilva says you can’t swim. How’d you manage to keep from drowning yourself’?”

“I’ve been taking swimming lessons. Tomorrow’s our first anniversary, and I was going to surprise him by going out on the boat and swimming for him.” I choked back tears. “Instead I was the one who got the surprise.”

He rubbed a hand over his balding head. “Well, Mrs. DeSilva, we got ourselves a problem here. Mr. DeSilva says you fell out of the boat. Your cousin says you can’t swim. She says your husband came back to the cabin practically hysterical because he couldn’t save you. And now, he’s feeling mighty guilty because he didn’t make you put on a life jacket.” He got out a handkerchief and ran it around his thick neck and across his head. “Looks like we have conflicting statements here.”

Unable to believe my ears, I sank down onto the couch. “You’re telling me it’s their word against mine?”‘

“Yes, Ma’am. Looks that way.”

“But he tried to murder me. I can’t believe he’s going to get away with this!”

“I’ll keep investigating, Ma’am. But the way it looks now, with no witnesses or other proof, there’s not much we can do about it. I’ll take a written statement, and then you might want to come out to the cruiser and talk to your husband and cousin. Maybe we can get to the bottom of this. They’re both pretty upset about the whole thing.”

I laughed, a sound so harsh that it shocked me. “I’ll just bet they are. I’m supposed to be at the bottom of the lake right now instead of sitting here telling my story to the police. Well, you go out there and tell that murderer that the next time I talk to him—it will be in a divorce court.”

Three months later, I was granted a divorce. It was a hard three months. I loved Carson with everything in me. Some mornings I’d wake up, turning to face him in bed, the way I did for a whole year. Then I’d realize he wasn’t there, would never be there again. I’d cry for a while, until I’d remember his face when he told me he was going to drown me, when he told me Madison is a real woman and I’m nothing. Then I’d get up, wipe my eyes, and get on with my life.

Carson managed to put some of my investments into his name, but they didn’t really amount to much. I’m selling my land to the condo developer for more money than I ever hoped to see in my lifetime.

Carson and Madison are out of my life now. I don’t know where they are or what they’re doing. They are evil, shallow people, and their love won’t be able to withstand the distrust that will fester between them.

I told the sheriff that I hope they aren’t planning to harm some other poor, unsuspecting woman.

He frowned and said, “Me, too, Mrs. DeSilva. Me, too.” He shrugged. “I don’t have any proof, but I got the feeling you were telling the truth and they were lying. I hate to admit there wasn’t anything the law could do about it.”

As time goes on, I think of Carson less and less, and now, I can’t exactly remember what he looks like. That’s how I know that someday, I’ll be able to put the whole ordeal behind me and truly move on. . . .


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