Stonecroft Manor came into view as Grant Ranko made the turn onto the driveway. The big yellow house sat like a proud lion under a clouded moon. Seeing it again after so many years brought back a flood of memories. Most of them good. His ten-year-old self had always felt a twinge of excitement whenever he visited his rich cousins in their fancy house, a far cry from his cramped inner-city upbringing. Tonight, though, that twinge had to do with being summoned by Winston Stonecroft, the old man himself, a man who did not like to be kept waiting and Grant was already fifteen minutes late.
He parked the car and mounted the bluestone porch steps, stamping from his shoes the light dusting of snow which had just begun to coat the grounds minutes earlier. Feeling he was now presentable, he pressed the doorbell and breathed in a calming breath. Twenty-seven years old with a successful career, he still felt like that young kid from the other side of town come calling.
The door swung open and he found himself in the presence of a red-headed angel.
“Grant!” Alexis Stonecroft waved him in. Twenty-five and pleasantly shaped, the latter enhanced by her clingy sweatshirt and black leggings, she favored him with the most sumptuous green eyes he’d ever known. “Let me hang up your coat.”
He obediently shed his trusty Navy peacoat and watched her hang it up in the hall closet. “Sorry I’m late,” he said. Although he’d called to say he’d be tardy, Grant still felt guilty. “I hope your father isn’t too upset.”
“Not to worry,” she pooh-poohed. “He’s fine. Just talked to him a minute ago.”
With a big smile, Alexis walked back to the foyer and gave Grant a hug. Stepping back, she looked him up and down. “Looking good, sir. It’s been too long. How’ve you been?”
“Working. The job keeps me busy.”
“Hopefully not too busy,” she said in a way that warmed his heart. Standing in front of him now, her expression grew thoughtful. She glanced behind her. “What’s taking Ryan so long with that tray?”
“A few munchies.”
“Great. I had to skip dinner when your dad called.”
As if on cue, Grant caught a blur of movement over Alexis’s shoulder. At the far end of the hall her brother Ryan had emerged from the kitchen with what looked like a platter. Ryan waved at Grant as he walked toward them. He paused in front of a closed door and knocked. “Dad, Grant’s here! Take a break and say hi.”
There came a muffled low rumble.
Ryan replied. “Well, don’t keep him waiting long.” With an eye roll he continued along the hall until he joined the others in the foyer. Ryan Stonecroft, eldest of the three cousins, tall, athletic and fit, looked as if he’d stepped out of an upmarket comfort wear catalogue in his canvas shirt and shale gray chinos. He handed the tray to his sister and pumped Grant’s hand.
“Been too long, cousin!” He flashed a mouth of polished pearly whites.
“Yeah, blame the day job. We’re short-staffed. Been working overtime.”
“Tough being a wage slave,” the other joked.
Not that Ryan Stonecroft would actually know, not having done an honest day’s labor in his nearly thirty years on the planet. Or so Grant suspected. As children his wealthy cousins had never been reluctant to flaunt their privilege in front of him.
Grant ignored Ryan’s comment and reached for a cheese and cracker square from the tray Alexis offered. “Your father sounds busy,” he said between chews.
Ryan motioned toward the closed door. “The old man’s in a mood. Shut himself in the study. Had to do something right away. You know how he is.”
Grant did know. Winston Stonecroft was a self-made, high energy Tasmanian Devil of a man who went ferociously after what he wanted and usually got it. He was also prone to moods.
“Dad didn’t say why you were dropping by. To what do we owe the pleasure? Just being sociable?”
Grant gave an evasive shrug. “Winston asked me not to say. And, honestly, he didn’t tell me much.”
“That’s typical. No big deal. Guess we’ll find out soon enough.”
And then it happened.
A loud explosive pop from down the hall.
Three heads snapped toward the rear of the house.