ONLY YOU – Excerpt

Chapter 1

Debra Lambert stopped at the semicircle of trees in the center of the Lambert-Knoll College campus. She pulled out her phone, frowned at the time and dialed hastily.

“Lexi, sorry! I was delayed at school, but if you’re still interested in seeing the campus, can you meet me here instead of waiting for me to pick you up? I’ll be near the trees in front of Lambert Hall. It’s the oldest building on campus in case you get lost. Just ask any student for directions.”

“You’re sure?” her brother’s girlfriend asked.

“Totally. I’m happy to sit and chill. It’s been a day I’d as soon not to have to repeat.”

“Okay. See you soon.”

Debra sighed, out of breath from walking too fast, from the staff parking area, where her family had a permanent parking place. She took a seat on the bench and allowed her gaze to wander from the nearest co-ed dorm on her left to the new library building on the far right, its huge main floor windows providing light on even the dreariest days, at least according to her father. She smiled to herself. Her father’s status as emeritus professor of History made it hard to discern that he had retired, what with all the time he spent in the upper floor stacks. She doubted he would ever really stop writing books on the history of the Pacific Northwest and Idaho’s Inland Empire.

The sound of a distant bell attracted her attention as students began to stream out of one of the newer lecture halls. The benches scattered around the square dominated by a large fountain soon began to fill as students gathered in small groups to chat or wait for friends.

“There you are,” Lexi gasped, plopping down next to Debra. “That hill is something. I felt like a fish fighting the current. So many students were walking down while I was going up.”

“There’s lots of student housing down the hill,” Debra explained. “Let me give you a little history before we go inside. Sawyer will likely focus on academics, but he’s probably still talking with his students. He always seems to have a few who hang around after class.”

An associate professor of philosophy, Sawyer had agreed to show Lexi around when Fletcher’s girlfriend said she was interested in seeing the campus. Debra suspected Sawyer was probably trying to get on Fletcher’s good side. Her older brother hadn’t hidden his less-than-positive impression of her current beau.

Debra launched into the story of how a relative had endowed the college after making his fortune in the lumber business. “Did Fletcher take you past where our great-grandfather first lived—on that street that overlooks the bay?”

Lexi nodded. “I couldn’t believe they lived in a house not much bigger than what I had in Sandy Reach. To think they raised seven children there.”

Debra chuckled, then sobered. “Yes, but only my grandfather and his youngest sister lived to adulthood. She died before I was born. But Grandpapa insisted on following his parents’ lead, getting a college education when that wasn’t nearly as common as it is today.

“Come on. Hardly anyone’s leaving the building now. I’ll bet the halls are mostly empty.”

They headed for Lambert Hall. “I used to visit my dad’s office when it was in this building. We all went to the Campus School. It’s just a quick walk across campus.”

Debra opened one of the double doors. Lexi pulled open the other one and entered. Just as Debra stepped inside the building, a girl with blond hair almost to her waist, bumped her shoulder as she brushed past. Her eyes were red and sobs interspersed quick gasps for air. She stumbled on the first of the big sandstone steps and pitched forward. Debra grabbed her arm and pulled her upright, aware of a too-sweet scent, almost sickly, as the girl passed.

“Careful! These steps can be slippery. Are you all right?”

The young woman’s glazed eyes slowly focused on Debra’s face, as if doing so brought her back from wherever her thoughts had wandered. “Uh, no. Yes. I’m okay.” She jerked her arm away and raced down the stairs before angling in the direction of the street and disappearing behind a copse of trees.

“I wonder why she was so upset,” Lexi remarked. “She bumped you pretty hard. Are you hurt?”

Debra rubbed her shoulder. “A bruise is better than a face-plant on those steps. Follow me. We’ll check out the displays I mentioned. Then we’ll go to Sawyer’s office.”

They had started down the hall when a door opened and an elderly man emerged, a smile suffusing his ruddy face. “Debra Lambert! What brings you to your namesake’s hall this fine day?”

She gave him a quick hug. “Chancellor Middleton. Hello.”

“Malcolm,” he remonstrated. “You know we’re practically family.”

She nodded. “Yes, sir. This is Alexis McCord, Fletcher’s girlfriend.”

“And she’s a new student for the upcoming summer session?” The man beamed.

“No, Lexi’s attending the Culinary Academy, but she wanted to see the campus and Sawyer offered to give her a tour.” She laughed. “Lexi, this is one of my dad’s best and dearest friends.”

“Welcome, Ms. McCord.” The Chancellor focused again on Debra. “Did Fletcher tell you we’re going to appoint him, officially, to the Chancellor’s Board, for the coming academic year?”

She shook her head. “Dad told us. I’m not sure Fletcher’s all that thrilled, but he’ll do his duty. You know how he is about boring meetings, since he’s taken Dad’s place a few times.”

“The bane of all our existences. But it’s in the bylaws. We must have a family representative. Perhaps you’ll want to take his place one of these days. After all, you’re a graduate.”

“We’ll see. Good to see you, Malcolm.” Debra motioned for Lexi to follow her down the hall. They climbed two flights to the third floor and entered a conference room.

“Here they are. Great-grandmother and Great-grandfather, in their late nineteenth century finery.” She pointed to two oversized paintings of an unsmiling pair.

“Oh, wow! She’s wearing a brooch just like my grandmother’s. Like the one Fletcher found. I should look for a high-necked blouse like hers. To show it off.”

“Fletch told me about that brooch. Are you getting any closer to wearing it?” Debra’s heart took a little skip at the hope that Lexi, now blushing prettily, might soon become her sister-in-law.

“You know I want to receive my certificate first. Maybe even go on to get a full-fledged degree.”

Debra patted Lexi’s hand. “Of course. Come on. Let’s meet Sawyer. His office is downstairs one flight.”

After descending to the second floor, they approached a door that was ajar. “I guess Sawyer must have just arrived. Usually he keeps his office door closed. Always makes everyone knock.” She pushed on the door. “Sawyer? We’re here.” She stepped deeper into the office but no one sat behind the big desk centered between tall windows. Papers were strewn haphazardly across the top of the desk. Three pages, unlike the others, were handwritten and torn in half, as if someone— Sawyer, maybe? —had shown his distaste for their contents.

“He’s a hard grader?” Lexi asked, pointing to the torn sheets.

“I’m not sure, but I’ve never known him to destroy a student’s work. He’s more into using a red pen.” Debra picked up the bottom portion of the sheet closest to the edge of the desk. The name, partially torn off, read “Phi”. Phil, maybe?

She placed the page back onto the desk. “This student isn’t going to be happy if Sawyer thought so badly of his work. Maybe he docked points because it wasn’t typed, like the rest of those papers.” She picked up the top half of one of the pages. “And there’s no grade. Maybe he asked him to redo the paper.”

Lexi nodded. “Will Sawyer mind if we sit down and wait for him?”

“Let’s hit the ladies’ first.” Debra closed Sawyer’s door and walked with Lexi into the women’s room. As they entered, the muffled sound of weeping greeted them from one of the stalls.

Debra knocked on the door of the stall at the far end of the room. “Are you okay? Do you need help?” She backed into Lexi when the door opened further and she saw a student leaning forward over the toilet. Blood covered her arms and rivulets of red ran down the young woman’s jeans, dripping into puddles on the floor.

As they gazed in shock, the girl collapsed in a heap, half in and half out of the toilet stall. “Oh, my gosh!” Deb leaned down and touched the girl’s back.

Lexi gasped. “I’ll get help.” She ran out of the room.

“Let me help you,” Debra offered, but the girl didn’t respond.

When the outer door opened again, Debra glanced up at Lexi and the older woman who followed her into the room, her face a pasty white as she stared first at the girl slumped on the floor and then at Debra. “Oh, my. We called 9-1-1, and campus security. Is there anything else I can do?”

Debra reached down and touched the student’s throat to feel for a pulse, aware that her own was galloping. She pulled off the silk scarf from around her neck, wrapped it around one of the victim’s slashed wrists and pressed hard.

“Lexi, can you get me some towels? For her other wrist?”

Lexi nodded, handed over the towels and looked toward the door. “I hope the ambulance gets here soon. She’s lost a lot of blood. Maybe we should get her out of there.”

Debra forced her gaze away from the pools of blood trickling into a nearby drain and froze when she saw the knife. More than twelve inches long, it lay beside the girl’s leg. Antique ivory. Debra’s heart skipped a beat. Could there be another knife like that one? She’d given Sawyer a knife that looked just like it, which he used as a letter opener. But hadn’t it been on his desk, on its ivory holder, when they were in his office?

She reached for the bloody blade, but Lexi stopped her.

“Don’t touch it! The police will want to examine it. For fingerprints and stuff.”

“You’re right.” Debra turned to the chancellor’s shocked secretary. “Maxine, we shouldn’t let anyone else in here.”

“I’ll stay with you.” Lexi stood up from where she had crouched behind Debra, who jerked at a siren’s whoo-hooing sounds that grew louder before stopping.

She closed her eyes as if that would prevent her from fixating on the blood that coated her skirt where she’d knelt next to the injured girl. She’d never liked blood, and there was so much of it!

When she looked up again, Lexi’s pale complexion sent Debra’s stomach churning. “You don’t look so good, Lexi. Maybe you should sit down.”

“No. I’m okay, just—”

“What’s going on here?”

Debra recognized the chancellor’s voice, recently so jolly. But now he looked aghast as he took in the scene. “Gentlemen, in here.” He stepped aside as a pair of police officers entered, followed by two campus security guards.

“I— Lexi, my purse?” Fletcher. I should call him. He’ll know what to do.

Lexi picked up Debra’s prized Michael Kors bag and handed it to her.

She dialed Fletcher’s number, her fingers shaking. Wrong number. She tried again. Voice mail! Without waiting to see if he’d pick up, she mumbled into the phone, “Fletch. Call me. Right away. Something bad’s happened.”

“He must be in conference or in court. I already tried him,” Lexi said.

“Oh.” Her mind whirling, Debra dialed again, forcing her fingers to hit the right keys. Maybe Fletcher’s law partner was available. “Um, Orralee. May I speak with Bernie?”

“He’s in the middle of a deposition. What’s wrong, Debra? You don’t sound like yourself. Are you all right?”

“I need to talk to somebody, like now! Lexi and I are at Sawyer’s office.”

“I’ll send Todd. You wait for him,” Orralee commanded. “Second floor, Lambert Hall?”

“Right.” Debra dropped her phone in her purse and glanced up at the chancellor, the police officers and campus security people, all crowded into the women’s room that now felt too small for all these people.

Why was campus security asking Lexi questions? Did they think she had something to do with this?

Debra glanced up at the woman officer who touched her arm to get her attention. Debra pointed to the student. “I guess you’ll want to get her out of here.”

“If you could step aside.” The police officer took Debra’s place next to the victim.

The outer door opened again and a tall man entered.

Todd? She’d only seen him once since he’d joined her brother’s law firm. But she remembered those intense blue eyes and curly black hair that teased the neck of his suit coat. She felt an immediate sense of relief.

He stepped closer and reached for her elbow when her knees turned to rubber. “Lean against the counter,” he ordered quietly, then slid his arm around her waist to keep her upright.

“Better?”

She nodded.

“Let’s get out of the way so the police can secure the scene.”

Debra forced herself to ease away from Todd, to show him she didn’t need his help. “I have to go back to Sawyer’s office.”

Lexi, standing near the door, said, “I’ll stay here.”

“Where is that office?” Todd asked.

Debra pointed. “Down the hall.”

“Lead the way.” He walked with her. “Mind if I ask why? Are you woozy? Need to sit down?”

“No.” Debra pushed open her boyfriend’s office door. I have to know. Her gaze scanned the desk, still covered in a rat’s nest of papers. She breathed a relieved sigh when she spotted the holder of the walrus tusk scrimshaw knife, carved by an Aleut fisherman. Sawyer often bragged that it was the perfect accompaniment for the knife, placed near the front edge of the desk, so that students coming in during office hours, had to look past it to engage him.

But the letter opener— Debra’s gift to Sawyer, her acknowledgement of his amateur interest in nineteenth century Alaskan history— was no longer there. And the ivory holder lay empty, on its side. She shuffled through papers, hoping to find the knife.

“Oh, God!” she exclaimed.

“What is it?”

“It’s not here. Sawyer’s letter opener, his knife. It’s missing.”

“And?”

“There was a knife that looked just like it in the women’s room.” She glanced up at Todd. “The girl, she must have come here first. That’s what she used on her wrists!”

“You think he had something to do with this?” Todd frowned and motioned for her to take a seat.

“But he’s not here.” Debra leaned forward, braced her elbows on the arms of the chair and rested her head in her hands. “Doesn’t that mean he couldn’t be involved?”

“You stay here. I’ll get one of the police officers.” Todd turned on his heel and left the office.