Salem Crossing #3


by Antonia Church

Driftwood by Antonia Church

Sun, sand, surf, and romance

Nevada Noble settles into her new home on the sandy, sunny Florida coast. Her career hits a stride, and the man in her life couldn’t be more perfect. As her romantic life hits a groove, the dramatic twists and turns of Salem Crossing generate roadblocks to her happily ever after. Animosities percolating beneath the whitecapped wave along the sandy shores wash up like twisted pieces of driftwood. Murder and mayhem infect Neve’s paradise and threaten everything she has built in Salem Crossing. Will Neve be able to navigate the age-old secrets buried by the six families of SX, or will unearthed surprises ruin her brand-new love life?

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Release Date: April 2, 2024
Genre: Contemporary Romance

~ A Red Satin Romance ~


Salem Crossing wasn’t a real place. First, the setting was too perfect by half. Pristine beaches, tropical palm trees, blue seas, colorful porticos—it was all more idyllic than authentic. Second, the people were beautiful, as if the endless sun and copious fresh air made for flawless complexions and beach-ready bodies. Third, the local energy was endothermic, a hyperrealist vibe equal parts exciting, sexy, and dangerous. Last, Nevada Noble witnessed more drama in one small seaside resort than in a hundred episodes of any afternoon soap opera. This town followed a funky script performed by beautiful players.

Neve had been waiting for days as the ramifications from Tuesday’s crazy election settled in among the various candidates. She needed to utilize the resources of the Fallout Shelter’s secret files, but the remaining contenders for the runoff election in December had meandered around City Hall throughout the rest of the week. She couldn’t afford to clue in any of the candidates as to SX’s treasure trove of secrets lest any one of them use the top-secret information against the others.

Martin Montgomery was an intimidating figure in the public halls, practically measuring for the drapes even though he didn’t come in with the most votes on Tuesday. She could imagine the indomitable will it would take to father offspring like dangerous Carter, devious Jax, decadent Riley, and defiant Sammy. He exuded a predatory air—a wolf making rounds to mark his territory. Somehow, he had also produced gentler spirits like Bryce and Sweetie.

Auberon Fox was the opposite of Martin Montgomery—he radiated everyman humility. The outsider candidate wanted to learn how the local government worked. Neve was fascinated with his eagerness to learn. He was a pain in her ass because Auberon followed her everywhere with a list of questions all week while she needed to sneak away to the Fallout Shelter. At least Auberon seemed genuinely interested in making Salem Crossing a better place. If he had an ulterior motive, he was better at hiding it than his two competitors.

Domino Salem was the darling of the City Hall employees. She brought a delicious selection of pastries from Imelda’s Donuts every morning. Domino made the rounds through the offices sucking up to office assistants and kissing ass with every elected official. Her assistant whispered introductions in her ear so that she could address everyone on a first-name basis. She even flirted with the janitorial staff, gaining votes through a generous display of décolletage. She had two perky proponents that Auberon and Martin couldn’t compete with.

After days of delay, Saturday morning finally proved the respite Neve needed. City Hall was empty. After the whirlwind of events—a new co-mayor elect in Bryce Graham, the exciting set-up for the runoff between Domino, Martin, and Auberon next month, and the unexpected return of the long-lost SX prodigal citizens Gilbert Graham and Jacquelyn Salem (aka Dad and Mom)—Neve finally found brief reprieve.

Mom and Dad were the reason Neve needed to get to the Fallout Shelter. Neve required answers. She wanted to know what the hell her parents had been up to for the last twenty-three years. They ran away from SX, changed their names, lied about their age, adopted Nevada, and lived a fictional life in Iowa for more than two decades. Why? It all coincided with the year Neve was born. They had to lie about how old they were so no one would wonder how a couple of teenagers adopted a baby... Was it all random happenstance, or was there more to the story?

Neve hadn’t been in Salem Crossing very long, but she already knew damn well there was always more to the story around here.

Where to look? She’d been rifling through these files since Juliet Zhang revealed the Fallout Shelter’s secrets. She’d found clues to all kinds of local mysteries. Neve had discovered the identity of Bryce’s biological father buried in here. She had been able to share Bryce’s true parentage with him because of the secrets in these files. What else could she find out?

“Do I have a file in here?” she said out loud.

Was Neve Noble tied to Salem Crossing? Did she have a secret hidden among all these documents?

When she first came to SX, her predecessor had clued Neve to the Q files—the most confidential records. That was how she discovered Martin Montgomery was Bryce’s biological father. But Helen Ryan hadn’t known Bryce was coming back to SX at the time she’d left, had she? That probably wasn’t why she’d clued Neve in. If not that, then what else was in the Q files?

Neve checked the records under the section containing files recording births and deaths. One drawer was marked N-Q. That’s where she’d found the secret of Bryce’s father. She’d already doublechecked the section. Now, she checked for any loose file that may have slipped beneath or tucked to the side. There was nothing else.

Neve searched around the room. She’d spent hours in here already. An old-fashioned wooden file cabinet on her right blended in between two metal cabinets marked as containing property certificates and vital records. The furniture featured four drawers in richly stained mahogany, with a brass plate on the front denoting the assortment. The second drawer down was labeled L-Q. The most extensive section contained the files starting with the letter M. The Montgomerys had record after record.

Neve selected one file at random. It contained a document from decades previous—a letter from Anthony Montgomery to one of the mayors at the time, Catherine Zhang. It was a request to present evidence on behalf of Elijah Iblīs pertaining to an offense perpetrated by the Salems. No details. No evidence of the outcome of the appeal. Curious, but not the mystery Neve was worried about right now. She felt like Scooby Doo, with every file containing a different episode with a separate mystery—she could be here all day.

The files ended with some entries containing the letter P. There were no Q files in the drawer, despite the marking on the face. The third drawer started with files containing information on the Ryan family in the front. No Q files there, either. Neve opened the second drawer again to verify. Nothing. But she noticed, with the second and third drawers both open, that the second drawer didn’t pull out as far as the third. She closed the drawer containing R through S—the Ryans and Salems enough to fill the whole drawer—and felt around the bottom of the L-Q file drawer. There was a secret release behind the front face of the drawer.

The drawer extended out another six inches and revealed a surprise! The back of the file contained a metal container that looked like a safe deposit box from a bank. A lock on the top fit an old-fashioned key. Neve tried the skeleton key that gave her access to the room, but it was too large. This lock required a smaller key with a different shape. It looked as secure as any safe—she couldn’t pick the lock or break the latch.

“Sonofabitch,” Neve cursed.

Where would someone keep the key? Who would have access? Helen Ryan had known about this room, but Neve had her old office and had already cataloged every piece of office equipment and oddball relic Helen had left behind. She had found no key that would fit this lock. Who else had access to this room?

The mayors...

Juliet Zhang would have had access. She wouldn’t have trusted Owen to whatever secrets were so special to lock inside a safe within a secret room where no one ever came anyway—well, Riley Montgomery was coming in here every time Owen snuck her inside to conduct his extramarital affair. Riley might be sneaky enough to have searched for secrets that needed extra security.

Neve needed that key.

She peeked out of the Fallout Shelter door before exiting. No one was around in this entire wing of City Hall. Neve marched toward the offices at the center of the building, thinking she was still alone in the whole complex. When she turned the corner and almost ran right into the dark, handsome man in the hallway, she yelped in surprise.

“Well, I thought you went to see your sister,” Bryce said.

Neve recovered quickly. She didn’t mean to be sneaking behind Bryce’s back, especially after they’d gotten engaged only a few days prior, but she didn’t want to explain what she was looking for in the Fallout Shelter. Her worst suspicions were as farfetched as discovering Martians were her biological parents, but she had to search for any answers possibly squirreled away in the Q files.

“She didn’t answer,” Neve said. That was true. She had wanted Willow to join her—her sister had proved a talented investigator. But Will was either hiding from their parents or shacked up with some tourist couple in a weekend threesome to distract her from her surprising origins. Willow and Cyprus just found out their parents were SX originals. They were related to the rich and influential in Salem Crossing. “So, I decided to come to see you instead.”

Now that was a lie. But it was a pleasant surprise that Neve found Bryce here.

“A genius idea,” he said as they walked to his office. “I can’t think of a better excuse for a late breakfast.”

Neve smiled. “You hungry?” she asked with a twinkle in her eye.

“Famished,” he said.

Bryce closed the door of the mayoral office behind him. He locked it. He closed the blinds even though they were alone in the building. They’d gotten busy at City Hall in the Fallout Shelter before, but this was steamier. Sexier. This room was the executive office. The history of influential people who had passed through this room filled a long list of dignitaries, from the very first mayors of SX to the current ones.

“You sure like to get to know your constituency,” Neve cooed as Bryce unzipped her jeans.

“Intimately,” he whispered into her ear as her pants slid down around her ankles. “It’s my civic duty to ensure this office meets all your needs.”

“You’re making some improvements to my real estate right now,” Neve purred as her body revved. Her mistake had turned into a raunchy romp. She forgot all about any key hidden somewhere in this room.

“Wait ’til you see what I have in mind for downtown,” he taunted, slipping her underwear down and off with a smooth sweep of his hand.

Neve backed up until her bare ass cheeks bumped the edge of his desk. Bryce lifted her onto the surface, the warm wood rough against her backside. She leaned back as the mayor knelt before her. He was taking his duty as a civil servant seriously. His face moved between her legs, and his mouth kissed her lips.

“Oh, mayor,” Neve purred as his tongue traced the length of her opening. “You silver-tongued devil.”

His mouth closed over her opening, darting between her labia and driving into her in unexpected penetration. She groaned as he probed her quickly and deeply. His hands reached around and took a handful of her cheeks in each fist, pulling her into his face. He sucked her clit like a tender morsel, making her mind swim in an ocean of pure energy. Past, present, and future all dissolved into one single experience. Fucking bliss.

She moved her hips against his mouth as he kissed and suckled, licked and nibbled, making her pussy into some edible thing that felt so good as he devoured her. Neve would let him entirely consume her if he wanted. He sampled every part of her for what seemed beyond any mere lunch hour she’d ever experienced. When she didn’t think she had another droplet of moisture to offer him, Bryce stood up. Without delay, he entered her in one quick, smooth effort.

“My God,” she managed breathlessly.

His face had laid a thorough foundation to further pleasure. Bryce eased her into an intense orgasm, and she made a puddle on his ancient desk. She came all over the historical artifact. How many important documents had been signed on its surface, and she jizzed a load and a half on its weathered wood? And as much on Bryce’s even more impressive fresh wood.

How many documents?

Her worry over finding her name inside the Q files suddenly resurfaced, and with it, the possibility that her history was as entwined with this town as Bryce’s. She dreaded what she might find out about her origination. What could her ties to Salem Crossing mean to her relationship with Bryce? It depended on what name she found next to hers on any official documents. Neve was afraid to find out the truth.

Bryce was still finishing, but Neve tried to ignore the spasms of his cock deep inside her. Her stomach tightened with worry. She didn’t know what she would find in the Q file, but Neve feared it would bring everything she knew crashing to the ground. Bryce leaned in and shared warm kisses in the afterglow of their lovemaking, but Neve had never felt so cold...


* * *


Neve returned to the Fallout Shelter after leaving Bryce with his bureaucratic paperwork. She had the key in her pocket. Neve felt terrible about how she’d gotten it. Neve hadn’t intended to seduce her fiancé to get the key, but that was how it had turned out. After sex, Bryce had used the attached bathroom to clean up, and Neve had rummaged through the desk drawer while he was gone.

Someone had tucked the key into the back corner—not exactly a tough hiding place. Juliet Zhang had probably placed it there years ago. Perhaps she hadn’t even known it existed—Juliet’s predecessor could have put it there or an ancestor from decades before. Nevertheless, it was right where someone might expect to find a secret key.

If the key had been there too long, Neve wouldn’t find anything about herself inside the lockbox. It would’ve been best if the key had been full of rust and deteriorated from disuse, but it was still shiny and useable. It didn’t appear more than twenty-three years since its last use.

What did Neve think she was going to find? She was worried about the revelations in some secret file because Mark and Maggie Noble must have had a reason to disappear from SX, change their name, adopt a girl even though they could have their own offspring, and remain away for twenty-three years. Had they surreptitiously kidnapped baby Neve? Had they spent more than two decades in hiding? If so, why had Mom sent her back to partner with Rebecca Ryan? She had to know the secret would come out, eventually.

Who was Neve?

Maybe she was merely Nevada Noble.

Neve stood inside the Fallout Shelter, leaning against the door. She stared at the file cabinet and rubbed the key with her thumb. Neve could decide to ignore the obtainability of any information within these walls. She ought to turn around and walk out. Flush the key down the nearest toilet. Turn her back on the secrets here. Sometimes, it was better not to know.

No. That wasn’t how Neve operated.

She thought about the Nobles’ family meeting the afternoon after election day. Mom and Dad had called a gathering of Willow and Cyprus with Neve to discuss what the hell was going on in Salem Crossing. It wasn’t only SX that had secrets. Mark and Maggie Noble had lived a lie for as long as Neve had been alive. They were Gil Graham and Jacquelyn Salem. Dad was Bryce’s goddamn uncle. Mom was Alister and Juliet and Naomi’s sister.

Disinformation was how Mom and Dad operated for all of Neve’s life.

While visiting SX, Mom and Dad resided in one of the Graham family guest homes surrounding the massive mansion where Grandame Graham lived alone. Bryce stayed in one of the smaller single-bedroom structures whenever he wasn’t sleeping at Neve’s seaside cottage. The piece of the SX pie still controlled by the Grahams was smaller than the other original families, but this property was as elegant as anything owned by even the wealthiest of Salems. They had gathered at the main manor for the family meeting.

Dad ushered the Noble family to a place he called the gathering room. He’d initially come from a family so affluent that Graham manor had a gathering room! He was like Batman—Dad had a secret identity and was as wealthy as Bruce Wayne. Neve remembered one summer when she was a teenager when they had to cancel their summer vacation to the Wisconsin Dells because some unexpected bills blew up the family budget. Now, Neve discovered both of her parents’ ancestral families were filthy rich.

Cy had taken up a spot on an antique sofa that might’ve come over with Tomás Graham when he arrived in Florida to establish this town with the other founders more than a century ago. Neve’s brother stretched out like a languid cat and lounged like this tense meeting was no more concerning than an extended wait time for brunch at the nearest beachside restaurant.

Neve and Willow had each taken seats near the fireplace. The daily temperatures still topped eighty degrees even during the first part of November, so no fire crackled in the hearth. Caretakers assigned to the property made sure everything was perfect. Neve had had a list of chores growing up that had left her with a lifelong aversion to the scent of ammonia. If Mom and Dad had embraced their family legacies, the Nobles could’ve had maids, cooks, butlers, and gardeners. Neve pouted, listing off in her head the unnecessary hours spent performing menial tasks throughout her youth.

Mom and Dad paced in front of the kids, acting like they’d caught Neve, Will, and Cy at a drunken rager. Neve, Will, and Cy weren’t teenagers anymore. Mark and Maggie Noble weren’t Nobles anymore, either.

“Willow Noble, what were you doing the last few weeks?” Mom scolded. “Lying to us about your whereabouts!”

Willow was the one most adept at getting in trouble. She had become accustomed to being on the receiving end of their parents’ ire. She had been a part of the most explosive fights in the Noble household over the years. Willow could take a verbal punch and counterstrike well enough on her own. She never needed backup. But today, she had both Neve and Cyprus on her side.

“Lying? You wanna talk about lying?” Willow hollered, hopping to her feet in offense. “It sounds like everything we always thought we knew was fiction. I suppose your birthday isn’t even on leap day like we celebrate every four years.”

“Of course, it is,” Mom snapped. “I was just born ten years later than you thought.”

“You what?” Neve stuttered. “You’re only forty?”

“Your father and I added ten years onto our birthdate when we got our new identification. We tried to make it harder for anyone to find us.” Mom’s voice trailed off as if there was some other reason. “Frankly, I’m offended you thought I was fifty.”

“Why did you work so hard to hide from your families?” Willow challenged. “Are you wanted for murder or something?”

“We had good reason to get out of SX,” Dad interjected.

“You’re both bald-faced liars,” Willow accused. “My last name isn’t even Noble. Everything you’ve ever said is a lie. I’ve been romping up and down this beach, consorting with cousins, aunts, uncles, and maybe a grandparent for weeks. When is a family reunion not a family reunion? When you didn’t even know you were fucking related.”

“Your language, young lady,” Mom snapped.

Dad ignored the vulgarity. He responded to something else Willow had said. “Willow, you didn’t….” Mom opened her eyes wide in horror, suddenly coming to the same conclusion as her husband. “You haven’t started any new relationships since you came to Salem Crossing?”

Neve’s stomach churned—Willow had been too damn close to sleeping with Alistair Salem at one point. Her uncle. Did Neve know whom Willow had all slept with since arriving in SX? Had there been a close encounter of the related kind?

“No,” Willow retorted. “But no thanks to you. Your secrets could’ve gotten me in some serious trouble.”

“You’re already in serious trouble, young lady,” Mom said.

“I’m twenty-two years old, Mom. I’m an adult. You can’t run my life.”

“You live under my roof, so you’ll follow my damn rules, Willow!”

“Not anymore,” Will countered. “I’m not going back to Iowa. I’m staying here. With Neve.”

That was news to Neve. She and Willow had never discussed any permanent arrangements. But she wasn’t going to tell Mom that. Their parents had lied to the three of them for their entire lives. Neve intended to portray a united front with Will and Cy. Mom didn’t know what to say about Willow’s announcement. She’d whirled instead to the next target and aimed her next invective at Cy.

“What the hell are you doing here, Cyprus? No one told your father or me that everyone was descending on Salem Crossing.”

“I didn’t think I needed to inform you when I wanted to visit my sister,” Cy drawled from his reclined position on the sofa. “As it turned out, I didn’t know I was also related to every other person in SX. I’m starting to wonder who else might be a relation, Mom. Should I check in before I date anyone online in case there are other cities across America where we’re related to half the town?”

Mom realized she was losing the war with the twins. She only had one flank left and couldn’t attack Neve for coming to SX. It had been Mom’s damned idea.

“What’s with the soap opera mayoral election?” Mom asked Neve instead. “Did you have a part in it?”

I’m engaged to the mayor, Neve wanted to say. But she held her tongue. Neve couldn’t give away more information until she learned more about her parents’ place in SX and what it meant that Dad was Bryce’s uncle. She shook her head no, but her stomach tangled in knots as Neve considered all the ramifications of what it meant about who Mom and Dad were.

A few days later, she stood in the Fallout Shelter, looking for answers. Neve, Will, and Cy had tried to turn the tables on their parents, but Mom and Dad had adjourned the family meeting and headed back to Horton with a promise to return in a week. They had to get their affairs in order in Iowa, and then they planned to return to SX for an extended stay. All three younger Nobles groaned as the realization set in—Mom and Dad were moving in with the kids.

Neve hadn’t seen Willow since the family meeting. Cy was sleeping on her couch. Mom and Dad were due back in Salem Crossing any day now. She needed to find some answers before they got back and muddied the waters. They wanted to keep their secrets, and Neve worried about what obstacles they could erect to keep her from the truth once they returned to town.

Neve went to the file cabinet and popped the secret latch to open the drawer fully. She brought the lockbox over to the single tabletop in the private room. She slipped the key from the mayoral desk into the keyhole. It turned. The click was like a mechanical hallelujah.

The lockbox contained one file—a manilla folder, so thin Neve wondered if anything was inside it. She pulled it out, and a single piece of paper peeked from the end. The tab to mark the file’s name featured only the letter Q written in block lettering with a red marker.

Neve had already discovered some revelatory shit inside this room. This was the next mystery. Maybe the biggest mystery. This documentation was the first file locked up inside a special lockbox. She exhaled nervously. Was this file about her? Was she going to discover why Mom and Dad had moved away, changed their name, and avoided SX for twenty-three years? Why had they adopted a baby girl when they’d been perfectly capable of having their own children? Had Nevada Noble been born in Salem Crossing, Florida? Was she secretly a Salem or a Ryan? An Álvarez or a Zhang? Neve thought about Jax with renewed queasiness. She pictured Bryce and grew lightheaded. A Montgomery?

Aw, hell.

Neve couldn’t choose ignorance. She had to know. If Neve needed to run far, far away from Bryce and SX and every terrible sin committed here, she would. But she couldn’t pretend it wasn’t possible. She couldn’t ignore the chance that she was a part of this story.

The answer could be right there in the Q file.

The answer wasn’t right there in the Q file—only more questions.

It was a letter. A confession. Unsigned. It was revelatory—I must put on paper what I know. So very few are partial to the truth. Two babies were born last night. Their fates entwine, although neither knows it now. I decided unilaterally to do what I must to keep the endangered infant safe and the future secure. There was only one way. I switched the two babies. Protected the exchange. When the time is right, the truth will out. But someone must seek out the real story if time or circumstance prevents revelation. The evidence is out there for those who are worthy, locked away against the corrupt and the opportunists. The key will be revealed in time.

That was it. Babies switched at birth. And another fucking mystery.

Neve was pissed. She had more than enough of secrets, hidden rooms, treasure maps, spooky islands, fake deaths, and surprise parentage. Her life had become nonstop drama. Now, there was an anonymous letter about babies switched at birth and a hidden key that could set the truth free. Was she one of those infants? Was this letter about her? Whoever it was, why was she important? Why was she in danger?

More questions. And not a single answer.

Neve examined the paper front and back. Nothing. Not a clue. She was exasperated. She slammed the sheet back into the manilla folder. The folder…Someone had taken great pains to ensure the paper used for the confession was as generic as hell, but the folder…

Neve had spent long hours poring over these files looking for answers about Bryce’s dad and Mom’s real identity and the real estate records of Hahkv Island. The files weren’t always the same. The batches varied in texture and shape and even color. Neve pulled out the stack of records containing paperwork about the Ryans. There were enough Ryans to have required regular entries into the file cabinet for one reason or another. Neve shuffled through the files until she found a manilla file that matched the style exactly of the one containing the confession.

Neve ran to another file cabinet and flipped through more files. She found another from the same matching batch of manilla files. Another drawer, a couple of more counterparts. Here and there until she got a sampling from several drawers. She stacked them all on the table in the center of the room. Right beside the single file containing the secret confession. The group of matching manillas all had one thing in common—the dates all came from within a few months of each other. Not one was more than three months from the date Nevada Noble was born.

Someone had filed that confession on or around Neve’s birthday.

Neve believed she had just discovered she was switched at birth!


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