Passing Through Paradise


By Susan Wiggs

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After she decides to sell her beach house, a widow must decide whether to risk trusting a romantic new man in her life with deep, dark secrets — and possibly her heart.

It’s been two years since the mysterious accident took Sandra Winslow’s politician husband, Victor — the favorite son of a town called Paradise — and left Sandra under a cloud of suspicion. She decides to sell her beach house on the edge of town and hires Mike Malloy, who touches her lonely heart. Can she trust a man with unbreakable ties to a community she’s eager to leave behind — and who is determined to unearth her deepest secrets?


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Chapter 1

Journal Entry—January 4—Friday

Ten Tortures for Courtney Procter

1. Tell her she's finally growing into her face.

2. Organize a boycott of her show's sponsors.

3. Send her a silicon recall notice.

4. Get a convict to mail her fan letters from prison.

5. Tell everyone who she used to date––and why he dumped her.

"… officially ruled an accident, but the sleepy coastal town of Paradise still holds one woman responsible for the tragedy that took prominent politician Victor Winslow—his beautiful young widow, Sandra. Despite last night's ruling by the state medical examiner, unsettling questions persist."

The bluish image flickered as the camera tightened its shot on the blond TV reporter. "Witnesses who last saw State Senator Winslow alive on the night of February ninth have testified that he was engaged in a heated argument with his wife. An anonymous caller reported that the Winslows' car was traveling at a high rate of speed when it spun out of control on Sequonset Bridge and plunged into the Sound.

"Investigators later discovered a bullet embedded in the car's dashboard. Traces of the victim's blood were detected on Mrs. Winslow's clothing.

"None of this was sufficient to satisfy the state's burden of proof that a murder occurred, but this reporter promises to investigate further the trail leading to the late Senator Winslow's wife, the sole beneficiary of a large life insurance policy…

"And so Sandra Winslow, known locally as the Black Widow of Blue Moon Beach, is left with only her conscience for company. This is Courtney Procter, WRIQ News."

Sandra Winslow set down her journal and pen. Picking up the remote control, she aimed it at the morning news-caster's taut, surgically enhanced face. "Bang," she said, pressing the OFF button. "You're dead. What part of 'ruled an accident' didn't you get, Courtney Proctologist?"

She stood and walked to the broad, bow-front window, with her arms wrapped around the emptiness inside her. She savored a fragile sense of triumph—finally, the accident ruling had come through—but the local news report left the door open for trouble. No matter what the ME ruled, there were those who would always hold her responsible.

A harsh wind, on the leading edge of the coming storm, flattened the clacking dune grasses and churned the waters of the Sound into a froth. A handcrafted suncatcher in the shape of a bird vibrated against the windowpane, stirring memories she couldn't escape.

Sandra felt so far away from the person she'd once been, and not just because she'd moved into the old beach house after being released from the hospital. Only a year ago, she'd sat at the head table of the Newport Marina ballroom, wearing a pink knitted suit with black trim and matching shoes, her gloved hands folded in her lap. With his trademark panache, her husband held forth from the podium, speaking with compelling eloquence of his commitment to the citizens who had just elected him to a second term. He'd spoken of service and gratitude and family. And love. When Victor spoke of love, he could make even the most jaded heart believe.

He'd singled Sandra out as his steady anchor in the shifting seas of politics. His family and friends surrounded her in a warm cocoon of affection, as if she were truly one of them. After the speech, she sipped coffee, shared small talk and smiles, held other women's babies and stood proudly at the side of her famous husband.

The man who was missing, and now presumed dead. She stared out the window, tucking ink-smudged hands into the back pockets of her jeans.

For Sandra, there was no "presumed" about Victor's death. She knew.

The wounded morning sky, as lackluster as midwinter itself, grew duller rather than brighter with the coming day. Looking out over the gray-shadowed beach, she felt a piercing loneliness, so sharp and cold that she flinched and hugged the oversized sweater tighter around her.

Victor's sweater.

She shut her eyes and inhaled with a shudder of emotion. It still smelled of him. Faintly spicy and clean and tinged with… him. Just him.

Damn Victor. How could he have done this, told her those things and then died on her? One minute you love someone, she thought, you believe you're tied to him forever, the next minute fate cuts you loose. And all the disillusionment and shattered hopes had nowhere to go.

She picked up the notebook again, flipped the page and read over her notes for the story she was working on. Her editor had already granted a sixty-day extension, and she was coming to the end of the second deadline. If she didn't turn in the manuscript soon, she'd have to repay the money they'd advanced her to write the novel in the first place.

The money—modest sum that it was—had been spent long ago on luxuries such as groceries and legal fees. Even though she'd never been charged with a crime, she had incurred an amazing sum of attorneys' fees. Now, at last, she would be entitled to the life insurance settlement.

The idea of profiting from Victor's death made her feel queasy. But she had to do something, had to pick up her life and figure out a way to go on. It was torture for her to live in Paradise, among the people who had adored her husband. Sometimes she even went up the road to Wakefield to run errands simply because she didn't want to encounter anyone who had known Victor.

The trouble was, everyone knew Victor. Thanks to his family name and the swift incandescence of his political career, followed by his spectacular demise, the whole state knew him now. Sandra would have to go somewhere far away to escape his shadow.

And now, finally, she had a chance to do that. Something unexpected was happening inside her. She was free, unattached. She had nothing to hold her now—not Victor's political calendar, certainly not any social obligations. A soaring sense of freedom rose like a raft of birds from a marsh.

Now that the death investigation was finally over, she edged toward a decision that had been hovering in her mind for months. She could fix up the place, sell it, hit the road. Her destination didn't seem to matter as much as the urge to run.

She picked up a flyer she'd found on a community bulletin board outside the post office. "Paradise Construction—Restoration and Remodeling. Bonded and Insured. References." Grabbing the phone before she could change her mind, she dialed the number and got—not surprisingly—a voice-mail message.

Sandra hesitated, not sure what to say. Her house was in a state of extreme disrepair. She needed a specialist. She settled for leaving the address and phone number.

Outside, gale-force winds tore at the wild sea roses under the window. Thorns scratched across the wavy, sleet-smeared glass pane. No wonder ships lost their way in these waters; she could barely detect the slow blink of the Point Judith lighthouse in the distance.

The bone-deep, icy cold of the winter storm reached invisible fingers through the cracks and chinks in the old house. Shivering, she picked up a log for the woodstove. It was the last one in the bin. The stove door opened with a rusty yawn, and she laid the log on the embers. Aiming the bellows, she pumped away until the glowing heart of the coals reddened and then burst into little tongues of flame licking along the underside of the log. Not so long ago, she hadn't known the first thing about heating with a wood-stove. Now it was as routine as brushing her teeth.

As the blaze took hold, she adjusted the vents and picked up her journal again.

Ten Advantages to Being Poor

1. You learn to build fires for warmth.

2. You can tell phone solicitors to—

Who was she kidding? She'd never come up with ten. Setting aside the messy notebook, she glared at the small, furious fire.

She felt like the Little Match Girl, burning up her whole supply of matches. Hans Christian Andersen's heroine had been at her wits' end, her survival in question. Sandra imagined herself with no heat, the last bit of firewood gone, curled into a fetal position in front of the stove. Who would find her there? She imagined weathered bones being discovered years in the future, when her memory was no more than a scandalous blot on the history of the town and some developer hired a wrecking crew to demolish the ancient house and replace it with a high-rise of oceanfront condos.

She wondered if other people had these thoughts when they ran out of firewood.

Some of the local teenagers earned money by splitting and stacking wood for the summer people, who liked to build bonfires on the beach for clam bakes. But despite the new ruling, Sandra was pretty certain she wouldn't find anyone willing to split wood for her, not in this town.

The icy wind crescendoed, howling under the eaves of the old beach house, entering through the cracks, making a mockery of the tepid heat from the last stick of wood in the stove.

The big house had been in her father's family for generations, built more than a century ago as a summer retreat. Ever since, the old place had sat abandoned and neglected, like a bleached skull at the edge of nowhere. Although the house wasn't insulated for winter visitors, Sandra had no choice but to live here now.

At least she had a roof over her head. But her husband was dead and no matter what the truth was, everyone blamed her. She held secrets in her heart that she would take to the grave.

Staring out the rain-lashed window again, she tried not to feel the cold drilling into her bones. The storm had pummeled the dead tangles of brier in the field beside her house. On the beach, the wrack line lay thick with whatever flotsam the waves had driven home. A delicate rime of frost silvered everything—the dunes, the rocks, the windows of the house she couldn't afford to heat.

Heat. This was getting ridiculous.

She put on a heavy plaid coat, stuffed her feet into gumboots and headed outside. The rain had slacked off, but the wind blew sharply across the property. As she crossed the driveway toward the garage and shed, a flutter of paper at the side of the road caught her eye.

When the rumors had started, she used to find the occasional roll of toilet paper hurled from a car, draping the overgrown hedge by her mailbox. She ought to be used to the humiliation by now, but she wasn't.

Hers was a typical rural mailbox, poking out from a hedge of wild roses—nothing special, not even marked with a name. Just the house number.

The small metal box lay torn to bits in the ditch beside the road. The crooked red signal flag lay in the middle of the pavement, pointing south. The galvanized steel housing had been reduced to twisted wreckage—a plane crash in miniature.

"My God," Sandra said through chattering teeth. "Now what?"

Firecrackers; probably some local kid's cherry bomb or M-80. Why hadn't she heard them? Maybe last night's storm had drowned out the noise, or perhaps she'd mistaken the sound for a car backfiring.

Driven by the bitter wind, the mail rolled and tumbled along the ditch and roadside. She recognized the cover of a lingerie catalog she never ordered from, a sheaf of oil-change coupons she would forget to use until they expired, and the daily credit card solicitation. Even when the whole world was against you, the credit card companies still wanted you to shop.

Kicking the debris around with the toe of her boot, she recognized a telltale scrap of pale blue and picked it up. The paper was the color of a check from her literary agency. Sure enough, there had been a check in the box.

When Victor was alive, her modest earnings had been a rather gratifying bonus. Now that he was gone, the money meant survival.

She suspected the vandals didn't give a rat's ass about her survival. People still thought she was the Black Widow.

Sandra crushed the paper in her hand. Enough. She'd had enough. Something cracked inside her and slowly broke apart like an iceberg shoving up against a rock.


At the lean-to by the garage, she glared at the stack of fat, seasoned logs. Flinging the torn check aside, she grabbed the maul from its hook, used her foot to roll a log onto the colorless grass and set it upright. She brought the blade of the maul down squarely into the heart of the log, splitting it apart. The pith of the wood was pale, slightly moist, fragrant with a clean scent. Setting up each broken half, she split them one after another, a little surprised by her deadly accuracy with the maul. Finally she picked up each split quarter and tossed it into the rusty wheelbarrow to take back to the house.

She moved on to the next log, and then the next, whaling away with a sense of purpose as hot and clean as new fire. She had no notion of time passing, though the stack of quartered firewood in the wheelbarrow grew steadily. She was like a machine, pulling out a log, splitting it, splitting it again until sweat mingled with the tears pouring down her face.

Chapter 2

Mike Malloy pulled his pickup truck off the road a few yards short of the address the woman had left on his voice mail. He spotted a rural mailbox post—without the mailbox. The house number had been destroyed along with the box, but then he saw it stenciled on the road by the volunteer fire department.

The old Babcock place? That had to be a mistake. Punching buttons on his cell phone, he listened to the message again. "I need some work done on my house at 18707 Curlew Drive. Please call Sandra at (401) 555-4006."

Holy crap. It was that Sandra. Victor's widow. Resting his forearms on the steering wheel, Mike studied the old, isolated place. He'd been aware of the house for years, but never realized it belonged to the woman all of Paradise loved to hate. He figured he knew what had happened to the mailbox. Local kids went joyriding along the bumpy coastal roads, and many a night's entertainment involved the smashing of mailboxes. Mike himself had committed his share of mayhem back when they were all teenagers. Victor seldom joined them on those outings—even then, he seemed to have an innate preoccupation with keeping his nose clean.

The usual method was to vandalize boxes at random, but Mike sensed that this one had been done in with a special malice.

The citizens of Victor Winslow's home district were mad as hell.

Mike let the old oil-hungry engine idle as he sat thinking about the gossip and rumors storming through Paradise. Though he'd only been back a few weeks, he'd heard a dozen versions of last year's tragedy. All the stories pointed the finger at Victor's enigmatic widow.

He glanced at the area map lying open on the bench seat of the truck. It was a remote spot, a green punctuation mark on the edge of the vast blue Atlantic, but apparently not remote enough to keep Sandra Winslow out of the media's limelight.

No one had lived in the big old Victorian beyond the hedgerow in years. When they were kids, Mike and Victor used to come here and pelt rocks from their slingshots at the Babcock place, which had been occupied only in the summer. The two boys had been inseparable, spending summers on the beach and winters skating on Frog Pond. When they were twelve years old, they'd become blood brothers in a solemn ceremony involving a dull Boy Scout knife, a campfire at Horseneck Cove and some chanted Latin phrases read from the back of a dollar bill.

A lifetime had passed since that star-filled night, but he could still remember the way the waves, with curling phosphorous lips, had lifted, translucent against the moonlight, then slid up along the sand in the hissing rhythm that had been the theme music of their boyhood.

They'd lost touch, as best friends often do, when adulthood had intruded like an incurable disease.

And now this.

Victor was dead and Mike was scrambling to regroup after being nailed in a vicious divorce.

Which, given what had happened to Victor, didn't seem quite so bad.

He figured it was no coincidence that, only a day after the ruling, Sandra Winslow was ready to spend money. Knowing Victor, he'd probably carried a hefty life insurance policy.

"So what do I do now, Vic?" Mike said aloud, his breath fogging the windshield of the truck. But he already knew. He needed the work.

Mike Malloy used to be at the top of his game. In Newport, he'd owned a construction firm that specialized in historical restoration. But the divorce had broken that apart along with everything else. Now he was trying to recover, starting small again with light construction, remodeling, pretty much anything that needed doing. He never expected to find himself starting over at this point in his life.

This time of year, a decent project was hard to come by. A few summer people might contract for repair work on their empty vacation houses; the weather did its part by ripping off shingles, blowing in windows, flooding basements. A long-term job would be perfect right now.

He drummed his fingers on the steering wheel, put the old Dodge in gear and turned into Sandra Winslow's driveway.

The place looked as bereft as a toy left out in the rain. It was a Carpenter Gothic built in typical 1880s style, tall and narrow with a steeply pitched gable roof edged by lacy bargeboards. Pointed arches framed the windows, and a one-storey porch wrapped around three sides of the first floor.

Even in a state of neglect, the structure exuded an airy delicacy. This was clearly a summer place, designed and situated to make the most of sea breezes blowing in from the water. The only provision for winter seemed to be the fieldstone chimney at one end.

The gray siding hadn't seen a coat of paint in decades, he guessed, and the roof had sprouted moss, lichens and poison ivy. The sagging front entrance sullenly greeted visitors, and a rooftop widow's walk was bordered by a row of broken railings.

Even so, Mike detected a subtle, uncontrived charm in the board and batten trim, the bay and oriel windows, the steep cross gables hand-hewn a century ago. But like the house, the original appeal had been warped and weathered. Shutters that had probably been functional half a century ago hung crooked from rusty hinges. At least one had plummeted into an overgrown lilac bush.

The place was a disaster. People who wanted to slap the Winslow woman behind bars ought to see it. Maybe there was a sort of purgatory for people who got away with murder. Maybe it looked something like this.

Except his trained eye kept going to the soaring lines of the house, the unself-conscious grace of the scrollwork trim, and the drama of the setting—a private half acre at the edge of the dunes, facing the broadest view the state had to offer.

The landscaping had run wild, and the lawn consisted of a dead trampled area circling the house like a tattered skirt. Ancient wild roses bordered the verges, some reaching as high as the first storey of the house. Wind and cold had long since stripped the leaves from the snarl of bushes, leaving bald rosehips behind.

Mike killed the engine. When he got out of the truck, he heard a rhythmic thunk from the vicinity of the garage, long ago converted from a carriage house.

Someone was chopping wood. He walked around behind the garage to see who it was.

From the rhythm of the chopping, he expected someone large. Experienced. He'd split his share of wood and knew it wasn't exactly high tea.

At first he didn't recognize Sandra Winslow. He'd seen her only in pictures, and he was fairly certain she didn't dress this way for the press. Faded jeans and an oversized plaid hunting jacket. Some of her brown hair was caught into a messy ponytail; her feet were stuffed into cracked rubber boots. Her face was chapped from wind and cold.

Split logs lay scattered around her, littering the ground like small corpses. Oblivious, she kept chopping away with single-minded purpose, lifting the maul high overhead and burying it in the wood, then giving it an expert twist as she wrenched it out for another blow. She paused once and made a small, surprised sound in her throat. Then she stooped down to watch a tiny brown field mouse dart to safety behind the woodpile.

She took the next log from the opposite end of the pile, away from the mouse. She lifted the maul to swing it again.

"Excuse me," he said.

She stopped in midswing and turned to face him, angling the ax across her chest. She looked dangerous—redcheeked and wild-eyed, full of deadly fury.

"Who are you?" she asked.

"My name's Mike Malloy." He paused to see if that meant anything to her. Had Victor ever mentioned him?

Probably not, judging by her guarded expression and her next question: "Wh-what do you want?"

Loaded question, and she must've known it. He'd come looking for work, and found the woman accused of killing Victor Winslow.

He held out a business card. "I'm a contractor. You left me a message a while ago."

"I didn't realize you'd reply in person." Her gaze flicked at the house. "So. I'm in the market for some repairs."

"Starting with the mailbox," he said.

She looked away, and he figured he'd said the wrong thing.

"The place is a wreck." She leaned the maul against the side of the building. "This is not news to me. I don't need some drive-by handyman to tell me so."

Handyman. Mike wasn't insulted. He wished things could be that simple.

"I haven't told you much of anything yet. Ma'am." He didn't like her. After only a few moments, he could tell she was difficult, combative, holding up anger and distrust like a riot shield.

This was a stupid waste of time, Mike decided. He put the business card in the wheelbarrow with the split wood, anchoring it with a log. "Anyway, that's how to reach me if you decide you need me." Without looking at her again, he turned and walked toward his truck.

He was just about to get in and drive off—relieved, already thinking about the next business call—when she yelled out, "Wait."

He turned back and saw her standing there with the card in her hand. "Just what is it you do?"

"I fix things."

"What kind of things?"

"Tell me what's wrong, and I'll fix it."

For some reason, that seemed to strike her as funny, but not in a pleasant way. A harsh, staccato note of laughter burst from her and then died. "As a matter of fact, I've decided to sell the place."

Mike hid his surprise. Homes like this rarely came on the market. In spite of its barely livable condition, a house on Blue Moon Beach was a potential gold mine.

"In that case, you do need me. There's no way this place would pass inspection. When did you decide to sell?"

She glared at the wreckage of her mailbox. "About twenty minutes ago."

She was not exactly a barrel of laughs.

Mike shut the door of his truck and said, "Tell you what. Why don't we have a look around the place, Miss—?" It was risky, pretending he didn't know who she was, but he figured if he played dumb, she'd quit acting so edgy.

"Sandra Babcock Winslow," she said, stuffing the card in her pocket. She watched his face with a probing stare, but Mike didn't give any indication that he recognized the name. He'd deal with her on a need-to-know basis. Over the years, he'd worked with dozens of clients and hadn't felt obliged to tell them about his past or his personal life. If he let on that he'd known Victor, she might order him off the premises.

She walked toward the edge of the yard, where a tumble of bracken fern and brier formed a natural barrier between the property and the dunes. Crushed by the blight of winter, the gentle terrain of the yard was worn hard and smooth.

A strong wind blew Sandra Winslow's brown hair every which way, partially obscuring a face that was both impatient and haunted. "The house dates back to 1886," she said. "My great-grandfather, Harold Babcock, built it as a summer place. At one time, the family planned to restore it."

This didn't surprise Mike—the house was a diamond in the rough, and he saw what the place could be. In Newport, knowing how to treat historic houses had been the key to his success. He had a knack for peeling back the layers of time, for correcting misguided modernizations, for excavating the intent of the original builder.

The house on Blue Moon Beach had an old home's way of stirring a sense of nostalgia, the kind that pierced through cynicism and disappointment and the heaviness of years. Just for a moment, he imagined the Babcock house restored, handsome as a clipper ship, the garden in bloom, a rope swing suspended from the gnarled hickory tree, kids playing in the yard.

Mike told himself he ought to view the house for what it was—run-down, neglected, blighted by rot, infested with bad karma by its cranky resident.

And yet…

"Well?" she asked.

"Perfect candidate for restoration," he said, his words true and unequivocal. "Even though it's in lousy condition now, the structure and workmanship are outstanding."

She laughed again, that bitter note. "You have a wild imagination, Malloy."

"A good eye," he said, annoyed by her sarcasm. "I won't fool you—the place needs work, but I'm guessing it's got strong bones. The roof itself might be okay, too, under all the plant life."

"Trust me, it's not okay." She led the way to the enclosed sunroom, which faced the endless water.

Without thinking, he picked up an armload of split wood.

"You don't have to do that," she said.

"No charge," he replied, then followed Victor's widow. The Black Widow of Blue Moon Beach—wasn't that what the local press called her?

She stood at the door to her house and held it open. "'Step into my parlor,'" she said, a touch of irony in her voice.

"'Said the Spider to the Fly,'" he finished for her, entering the house.

She flipped her hair out of her face. "Oh, you know that little rhyme?" She seemed surprised. People always were; they expected workmen to be illiterate, ignorant even of nonsense poems.

"I sounded out the words," he said.

She pulled off her rubber boots and left them by the door. "You must have children, then."

He nodded. The fact that he had kids defined him entirely now. "A boy and a girl."

"That's nice." Her expression relaxed a little. It was the first hint of softness he'd seen in her. She really did seem to think it was nice that he had kids.

Mike wondered why there weren't any little Winslows running around. Victor had really liked children, he recalled. He'd been a swim instructor at the YMCA in Newport when they were in high school. Each summer, he'd given sailing lessons at First Beach.


  • "[Wiggs is] one of our best observers of stories of the heart [who] knows how to capture emotion on virtually every page of every book."—Salem Statesman Journal
  • "Real and true and unforgettable."—Booklist
  • "A richly textured story that successfully moves beyond the conventions of the romance genre, this book will polish Wiggs's already glowing reputation."—Publishers Weekly
  • "Once again, Wiggs proves she's a master of both historical and contemporary romance, unfolding the story in slow, delicious layers."—Library Journal
  • "Susan Wiggs writes poignant, unforgettable stories of every woman's hopes and dreams."—Susan Elizabeth Phillip, #1 New York Times bestselling author of First Star I See Tonight
  • "Susan Wiggs creates fresh, unique, and exciting tales."—Jayne Ann Krentz, New York Times bestselling author of Promise Not to Tell

On Sale
Jun 12, 2018
Page Count
464 pages

Susan Wiggs

About the Author

Susan Wiggs, a Harvard graduate and former math teacher, self-published her first novel at the age of eight, using blunt scissors, pages from a Big Chief tablet, a borrowed stapler, and a Number Two pencil. She has since become a #1 bestselling author whose work is noted for scenes of emotional truth that evoke both tears and laughter. Unable to completely abandon her beloved teaching profession, she is a frequent workshop leader and speaker at writers’ conferences. She lives with her family on an island in the Pacific Northwest.

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