Harper Taylor is used to being alone—after all, she grew up in one foster home after another. Oliver Jackson finally took her under his wing when she was a runaway teenager, and now Harper pours her marine biology knowledge into Oliver’s research as his business partner. But she’s never stopped wishing for a family of her own.
When a DNA test reveals a half sister living just two hours away, Harper is shocked. She meets with Annabelle, whose story is strikingly similar to her own. Is it just a coincidence that both of their mothers died tragically, without revealing their father’s name?
When Harper’s business partner is attacked, his son Ridge steps in to help. Ridge still sees Harper as a troubled teen even all these years later, but he soon finds himself working with her to uncover dangerous secrets that threaten to destroy them all. Ridge and Harper must unravel her past before they can have any hope for the future.
Harper’s childhood is resurfacing—but will the truth save her or pull her under?
Praise for Strands of Truth:
“Colleen Coble's latest book, Strands of Truth, grips you on page one with a heart-pounding opening and doesn't let go until the last satisfying word. I love her skill in pulling the reader in with believable, likable characters, interesting locations, and a mystery just waiting to be untangled. Highly recommended.”—Carrie Stuart Parks, bestselling author of Relative Silence
- Stand-alone romantic suspense
- Book length: approximately 95,000 words
- Includes discussion questions for book clubs
- Also by Colleen Coble: One Little Lie, The View from Rainshadow Bay, The Inn at Ocean’s Edge, and Without a Trace
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|Publisher:||Nelson, Thomas, Inc.|
|Product dimensions:||5.30(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.90(d)|
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Present Day Clearwater, Florida
The examination table was cold and hard under her back as Harper Taylor looked around the room. She focused on the picture of a familiar Florida beach, which helped block out the doctor's movements and the smell of antiseptic. She'd been on the beach at Honeymoon Island yesterday, and she could still smell the briny scent of the bay and hear the call of the gulls. The ocean always sang a siren song she found impossible to resist.
Calm. Peace. The smell of a newborn baby's head.
"All done." Dr. Cox's face came to her side, and she was smiling. "Lie here for about fifteen minutes, and then you can get dressed and go home." She tugged the paper sheet down over Harper's legs.
"How soon will I know if the embryo transfer was successful?" Though she'd researched the process to death, she wanted some assurance.
"Two weeks. I know right now it seems like an eternity, but those days will pass before you know it. I've already submitted the lab requisition for a beta-HCG test. If we get a positive, we'll track the counts every few days to make sure they are increasing properly." Dr. Cox patted her hand. "Hang in there." She exited the room, leaving Harper alone to stare at the ceiling.
Her longing for a child brought tears to her eyes. She'd felt empty for so long. Alone. And she'd be a good mom — she knew she would. All the kids in the church nursery loved her, and she babysat for friends every chance she got. She had a wealth of patience, and she'd do everything in her power to make sure her child knew she or he was wanted.
She slipped her hand to her stomach. The gender didn't matter to her at all. She could love either a boy or a girl. It didn't matter that this baby wasn't her own blood. The little one would grow inside her, and the two of them would be inseparable.
Once the fifteen minutes were up, she was finally able to go to the bathroom and get dressed. She already felt different. Was that a good sign, or was it all in her head? She slipped her feet into flip-flops, then headed toward the reception area. The tension she'd held inside melted when she saw her business partner, Oliver Jackson, in the waiting room, engrossed in conversation with an attractive woman in her fifties. She hadn't been sure he'd be here. He'd dropped her off, then gone to practice his bagpipes with the band for the Scottish Highland Games in April. He said he'd be back, but he often got caught up in what he was doing and lost track of time. It wouldn't have been the first time he'd stood her up.
Oliver was a big man, well over six feet tall, with broad shoulders and a firm stomach from the hours spent in his elaborate home gym. She'd always wondered if he colored his still-dark hair or if he was one of those lucky people who didn't gray early.
Even here in a fertility clinic, this man in his sixties turned women's heads. She'd watched them fawn over him for years, and he'd had his share of relationships over the fifteen years since his divorce. But Oliver never stuck with one woman for long. Was there even such a thing as a forever love? She hadn't seen any evidence of it, and it felt much safer to build her life without expecting that kind of faithfulness from any man. Having a child could fill that hole in her heart without the need to be on her guard around a man.
He saw her and ended his conversation, then joined her at the door. His dark-brown eyes held concern. "You changed your mind?"
She shook her head. "Not a chance."
"It seems an extreme way to go about having a family. You're only thirty. There's plenty of time to have children in the traditional way."
"Only thirty? There's not even a boyfriend in the wings. Besides, you don't know what it's like to long for a family all your life and never even have so much as a cousin to turn to." She knew better than to try to explain her reasons. No one could understand the guard she'd placed around her heart unless they'd lived her life.
His brow creased in a frown. "I tried to find your family." "I know you did."
All he'd discovered was her mother, Lisa Taylor, had died moments after Harper's birth. Oliver had never been able to discover her father's name. Harper still had unpleasant memories of her grandmother, who had cared for Harper until she was eight before dying of a drug overdose at fifty. Hard as those years were, her grandmother's neglect had been better than the foster homes where Harper had landed.
This embryo adoption was going to change her life.
"I'll get the car."
She nodded and stepped outside into a beautiful February day that lacked the usual Florida humidity. Oliver drove under the porte cochere, and she climbed into his white Mercedes convertible. He'd put the top down, and the sound of the wind deterred further conversation as he drove her home.
He parked along the road by the inlet where she'd anchored her houseboat. "Want me to stay awhile?"
She shook her head. "I'm going to lie on the top deck in the sunshine and read a book. I'll think happy thoughts and try not to worry."
His white teeth flashed in an approving smile. "Sounds like a great idea."
She held his gaze. "You've always been there for me, Oliver. From the first moment Ridge dragged me out of the garage with his new sleeping bag in my hands. How did you see past the angry kid I was at fifteen?"
He shrugged and stared at the ground. "I'd just given my kids everything they could possibly want for Christmas, and they'd looked at the gifts with a cursory thank-you that didn't feel genuine. Willow was pouting about not getting a car. Then there you were. I looked in your eyes and saw the determination I'd felt myself when I was growing up poor in Alabama. I knew in that moment I had to help you or regret it for the rest of my life."
Tears burned her eyes. "You've done so much — making sure I had counseling, tutoring, a job, college. All of it would have been out of reach if not for you."
He touched her cheek. "You did me proud, Harper. Now go rest. Call me if you need me."
She blinked back the tears and waggled her fingers at him in a cheery good-bye, then got out and walked down the pier to where the Sea Silk bobbed in the waves. A pelican tipped its head to gawk at her, then flapped off on big wings. When she got closer to her houseboat, she slowed to a stop. The door to the cabin had been wrenched off. Someone had broken in.
She opened her purse to grab her phone to call the police, and then her gut clenched. She'd left her phone in the boat cabin. She'd have to go aboard to report the break-in. Could the intruder still be there?
She looked around and listened to the wind through the mangroves. There was no other sound, but she felt an ominous presence, and fear rippled down her back. She reversed course and went to her SUV parked in a small pull- off nearby. She'd drive into Dunedin and report it.
* * *
Ridge Jackson drove through downtown Dunedin at twilight to meet his father. His dad was usually straightforward and direct, but when Dad had called for a meeting, he'd been vague and distracted. Ridge couldn't still a niggle of uneasiness — it was as if Dad knew Ridge would be a hard sell on whatever new idea he'd come up with.
He had no doubt it was a new business scheme. Oliver Jackson had his finger in more pies of business enterprises than Ridge could count, but his dad's main company was Jackson Pharmaceuticals. The juggernaut business had grown immensely in the last ten years. He had the Midas touch. Everyone expected Ridge to be like his dad — charismatic and business oriented — but what Ridge wanted to do was pursue his work of studying mollusks in peace.
He smiled at the thought of telling his dad the great news about his new job. The offer had come through yesterday, and he still couldn't take it all in. Dad's distraction couldn't have come at a worse time. Ridge had to sell his place in Gainesville and find somewhere to live on Sanibel Island.
He parked and exited, ready to be out of the vehicle after the long drive from Gainesville. He went into The Dunedin Smokehouse, his favorite restaurant. The tangy aroma of beef brisket teased his nose and made his mouth water. They had the best brisket and pecan pie in the state.
He wound his way around the wooden tables until he found Dad chatting up a server in the back corner. He had never figured out how his dad could uncover someone's life story in thirty seconds flat. Ridge liked people, but he felt intrusive when he asked someone how their day was going.
Dad's grin split his genial face. "There you are, Ridge. I've already ordered our usual brisket nachos to share. How was your trip?"
"Good. Ran into some traffic in Tampa, but it wasn't too bad."
"Uh-huh." His dad stared off into the distance. "I've got a new project for you, son."
Ridge squared his shoulders and steeled himself for the coming battle. "Before you even get started, Dad, I've got a new job. I'm leaving the Florida Museum, and I'll be working at Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum on Sanibel Island. I'll get to work with one of the best malacologists in the country. I'm pretty stoked about it."
Most people heard the term malacologist and their eyes glazed over. He'd been fascinated with mollusks ever since he found his first shell at age two. It was a dream come true to work for the shell museum. He'd be in charge of shell exhibits from around the world.
His dad's mouth grew pinched. "I, ah, I'm sure it's a good job, son, but I've got something bigger in mind for you. It's a chance to use your knowledge of mollusks for something to benefit mankind. This isn't just growing collections, but some- thing really valuable."
Dad always managed to get in his jabs. Preserving mollusks had its own kind of nobility. Ridge narrowed his eyes at his dad and shut up for a moment as the server brought their drinks. When she left, he leaned forward. "Okay, what is it?"
"I've bought a lab for you. You'll be able to study mollusks and snails to see if they hold any promise for medicinal uses. I'd like you to concentrate on curing dementia first. I don't want you or Willow to end up like my dad."
Ridge's grandfather had died of Alzheimer's last year, and it hit Dad hard.
Ridge held back his flicker of interest. His dad knew exactly which buttons to push, and Ridge didn't want to encourage him. Ridge had long believed the sea held treasures that would help mankind. Researchers thought mollusks might contain major neurological and antibiotic uses. "That sounds — interesting."
"I've already put out the call for lab assistants and researchers. You'll just oversee it and direct the research. I've even created a collection room for you to fully explore the different mollusks." His dad took a sip of his tea. "It will be a few weeks before we're up and running, but in the meantime, you can comb through research and see where you want to start."
"You're just now telling me about it?"
His dad shrugged. "I wanted you to see the lab in all its glory first. We can go take a look when we leave here. There's only one caveat."
Ah, finally the truth. Story of his life. Dad always held back the full truth about anything. He should be called the master manipulator.
Ridge took a swig of his drink. "What is it?"
"I want you to start with pen shells. They're already so versatile, and I believe there's more of their magic yet to be discovered."
White-hot anger shot up Ridge's spine. "This is about Harper instead of me, isn't it? It's been that way since you first saw her camping out in our backyard as a teenager. You're such a sucker for a sob story. I overheard you on the phone the other day, you know. You were telling her you'd be there for her and the baby. She used to get into trouble wherever she went, and I doubt that's changed. And you're still the same patsy." He spat out the last words with a sneer.
Dad's brows drew together in a dark frown. "I've never understood your hostility toward her. And she's long outgrown any kind of reckless behavior."
They'd had this discussion on many occasions, and he wasn't going to change his dad's mind about her. From the moment she'd shown up in Dad's life, Ridge had resented her and the way his father catered to her. Ridge had gone off to his freshman year of college when Dad took Harper under his wing. She'd been a runaway from the foster care system, and he'd done more for her than for his own kids. He'd gotten his secretary to agree to foster the girl. She hadn't had to work during her high school years like he and Willow had. Dad had hired tutors to help her catch up while they'd been expected to figure out their studies by themselves.
The woman had been a thorn in his side for fifteen years. No part of him wanted to have anything to do with her. "What's Harper have to say about it?"
"I haven't told her yet."
Ridge stared at his dad. Typical. Only reveal half of what you know and keep the other half for negotiation. He was sick of his father's half-truths.
But what if in working with Harper, he was able to find definitive proof that she was only hanging around Dad because of his money? Ridge knew it was true. His dad hated being used, and it wasn't often someone managed to get the best of him. Harper was that one exception.
He wanted to get to the bottom of whatever clever plan she'd hatched.
He reached for a nacho laden with smoked brisket and jalapeños. "Tell me more about the lab."
His resolve helped him walk through the lab after dinner. He would enjoy working with the impressive equipment and facilities, and it almost superseded his goal of bringing down Harper. Almost.CHAPTER 2
It should be easy to swim out there, grab her, and haul her back here to his vehicle. While there were several boats out there, he thought she was the only one diving. He swiped his wet hair off his forehead and reached for his mask. Diving was his passion, and he relished any chance he got to exercise his expertise.
He checked his dive computer. Plenty of air. In and out in twenty minutes. He adjusted his mask over his eyes, then slipped his mouthpiece into place before wading out into the water and plunging into the waves.
Visibility was about thirty feet with all the sand in the water, but he knew where he was headed and struck out for the mollusk beds north of Dunedin, about a hundred feet offshore and below twelve feet of water. Seaweed tried to snag his ankles as he swam through, and he spotted a bull shark off to his right. His hand went to the knife at his waist, but he hoped not to have to use it.
A diver off to his left snared his attention, and he paused. Where'd he come from? The older guy with dark hair was big. Not good. He would have to either wait until the guy was done here or take him out.
He didn't have time to waste waiting around. The Taylor woman was likely to finish her work on the mollusk beds soon.
Decision made, he pulled out his knife and swam quickly to the diver examining the cage over the mollusk beds. He didn't seem to notice anyone else was in the water, and by the time his head came up and his eyes widened behind his mask, the knife sliced his air hose.
Bubbles rose in the water as the older man fought hard to break free, but he didn't let him go until the diver's eyes rolled back in his head and his mouth slackened. He hauled him to the unidentified boat and shoved him onto the dive platform, then hauled up the anchor. The tide would carry it out to sea. He didn't want the guy's murder on his hands.
Perfect. Now to grab the woman, deliver her, and collect his money. His son's life was riding on his success. It was the only way to pay for Alex's surgery, so he had to do whatever was necessary, no matter how repugnant.
* * *
The warm Gulf water embraced her like a hug. Harper paused as a playful manatee came close enough to touch. The sea mammal she'd named Cyrus swam past her before perching on the sandy sea floor to scratch his bottom. Manatees were related to elephants, and Harper could spend time with one for hours.
She grinned and swam over to him. Today had been a fine day snorkeling above her pen shells, a bed of bivalve mollusks. The shells were about six inches tall and tapered to a sharp point. The fibers protruding from the pointed end helped anchor them into the beds. Their growth was progressing nicely. The netting designed to protect the beds from predators seemed to be in good shape, and she'd watched her best friend, Sara Kavanagh, dive down to secure one edge of a cage. The first harvest would be in two weeks, and she was eager to see what kind of black pearls she'd find. A special file in her computer holding recipes for pen shell meat was growing as well, and with the new harvest, she'd have byssus. The filament produced by the shells to keep them in place in the sand would be ready for use.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Strands of Truth"
Copyright © 2019 Colleen Coble.
Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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