Authors: Carla Neggers
Tags: #Detective and Mystery Stories, #General, #Romance, #Suspense Fiction, #Missing persons, #Suspense, #Fiction
A prominent ambassador is killed in a suspicious hit-and-run in Washington, D.C.
Hours later, his stepdaughter vanishes in the mountains of northern New England.
Back in her hometown of Black Falls, Vermont, to do damage control on her career, Secret Service agent Jo Harper is drawn into the search. But her efforts face an unexpected challenge: Elijah Cameron.
With his military training and mountain rescue experience, Elijah knows the unforgiving terrain better than anyone. But he and Jo have been at odds forever—and Elijah believes the missing teenager isn’t just lost…she’s on the run.
Forced to work together, Jo and Elijah battle time and the elements in a race into the unforgiving mountains. The twists and turns awaiting them will take them closer to the explosive truth…and into the sights of a killer.
Special thanks to Lieutenant Jocelyn Stohl of the Vermont State Police and to Susan Bayley and Kenneth Thibodeaux of the White River Junction (Vermont) Veterans Affairs Medical Center for your help, as well as for the remarkable work you do. Once again I want to thank Paul Hudson—judge, scholar, friend and a Vermonter with deep roots in this incredibly beautiful part of our country.
And, as always, many thanks to Joe, Kate, Conor and Zack. We do have fun together!
Drew Cameron slipped and went down on one knee in the heavy, wet spring snow, but he forced himself back up again, propelled by a sense of urgency he had never known before.
Please, God. Not my son….
Drew took another step, then another, pushing against the fierce wind. Sleet cut into his face and pelted onto the snow-covered trees and juts of granite on the steep terrain. The mid-April storm was worse than was forecasted. In the valley, daffodils were starting to pop up out of the ground. It was mud season in Vermont. If anything, he’d worried about causing more erosion on the trails, still wet from the melting winter snows.
He hadn’t bothered strapping a pair of snowshoes onto his pack in case conditions warranted—a mistake, he realized now.
But he refused to turn back.
He had gone off the main trail hours ago, but he knew every inch of Cameron Mountain. By now, the snow would have covered any footprints he’d left. If anything happened to him, he’d be lucky if searchers found his body for his family to bury.
“I don’t care.” He spoke in a ragged whisper. “Take me.”
Take me instead of my son.
How many fathers through the millennia had cried out those same words?
Drew coughed and spat, catching his breath as he came to a lull in the upward sweep of the mountain. The summit was another thousand feet up, but he had no intention of going that far. In all his seventy-seven years, he had never operated on such blind instinct. He couldn’t stop himself—he had to be here, now, at this moment, asking questions, searching for answers.
He wasn’t an emotional man, but he couldn’t shake the fear that had gripped him since dawn.
He couldn’t shake the images.
I’m an old man.
Let me die in my son’s place.
As he eased among a dense grove of tall spruce trees, their branches drooping under the weight of the clinging, wet snow, he saw young men huddled, battling an unseen enemy.
He saw their blood oozing into the ground of the faraway land where they fought.
He heard their moans of pain amid the rapid, nonstop gunfire.
The vision wasn’t born of books and movies, and it wasn’t a nightmare to be chased off with daylight and coffee. It was real. Every second of it. Drew didn’t understand how the vision of his son in battle had come to him, but he trusted it—believed it.
It wasn’t a premonition. The attack on Elijah’s position wasn’t imminent—it was happening now.
Drew stood up straight, out of the worst of the wind. The ice had abruptly changed back to snow. Fat flakes fell silently in the white landscape, but he saw, as clearly as if he were there, the bright stars of the moonless Afghan night. Elijah never talked about his secret missions. He had joined the army at nineteen, without discussing his decision with anyone—not his two brothers, his sister, his friends.
Definitely not his father.
But there were reasons for that.
“Dear God,” Drew whispered, “let me make up for what I did to him. Please. Give me that chance.”
For fifteen years he had convinced himself he had done the right thing when he had kicked Elijah out of the house and sent Jo Harper back to her family. Even now, Drew accepted that he’d had no other choice.
That didn’t mean he didn’t have regrets.
A.J., Sean and Rose would forgive him if he died on the mountain he loved, but they’d never forgive him if their brother was killed. That Elijah had chosen to become a soldier and accepted the risks that came with it wouldn’t soften his siblings from holding their father responsible for driving him away from the only place he’d ever truly wanted to be.
Drew scooped up snow into his waterproof glove and formed it into a smooth ball. Two weeks ago he had held in his palms a dozen fragrant pink blossoms that had fallen from Washington’s famous cherry trees, even as Jo Harper, in her early thirties now, had scrutinized him, obviously wondering if he was half out of his mind.
He hadn’t gone into his other reasons for coming to Washington. It seemed crazy now. Crazier even than his reasons for seeking out Jo. More visions emerged, as clear and real as the one of his son in battle—Elijah, the boy Jo had loved, now a man.
Drew dropped the snowball into a drift.
half out of his mind.
He noticed footprints—fresh ones—slowly disappearing in the falling snow. He went very still. He wasn’t so disoriented and preoccupied that he’d gone in circles.
No, he thought. They weren’t his prints.
Someone was up here with him.
Drew crept past the spruce and, just ahead, saw the little house he had spent most of last fall building. He hadn’t bothered with permits—he figured he’d get slapped with a fine one of these days, but he didn’t care. He hadn’t meant for the project to get away from him the way it had. After years of searching, he had finally found the cellar hole of the original Cameron house on Cameron Mountain. He had started by clearing out some trees and fixing up the rock foundation, and next thing he knew he was drawing up plans for a simple post-and-beam structure—more shed than house, really. When he finished it, he meant to present it as a surprise to his family, perhaps their last surprise from him.
The closest trail was up the remote north side of the mountain from a seldom-used old logging road. His great-great-grandfather would have taken that route two hundred years ago. Few even knew about it anymore, and it was impassable for most of the winter.
Drew stopped, held his breath.
“We have to think through every detail of every assignment.” A man’s voice. Arrogant, deliberate. “We can’t go off half-cocked. We have to plan.”
“You plan.” It was a woman this time, impatient. “I’ll take action.”
“This is business. We’re being paid to do a job. It’s not some adventure to keep you in adrenaline rushes. Just because you don’t need the money—”
the money. That’s enough for me.”
“You’ve never killed anyone,” the man said quietly.
A slight pause. “How do you know?”
The door to Drew’s little house opened, but he didn’t look at who stood on the threshold. Instead he gazed up into the falling snow, letting one flake after another melt on his face. Now he understood his visions. He understood why he was here on Cameron Mountain at this moment.
It was meant to be. He was a father who would get his wish.
His son would live.
Elijah will come home.
A red-tailed hawk swooped down from Cameron Mountain and out over the small lake, gray and quiet in the mid-November gloom, as if to warn Jo Harper she wasn’t alone—but she had already figured that out.
She glanced down the private dirt road she shared with Elijah Cameron.
Yep. He was still coming.
Ignoring the tug of pain in her left side, she reached into the trunk of her car for a cardboard box filled with food and supplies she’d grabbed out of her apartment. She thought of the other places she could have exiled herself. New Zealand, for example. The south of France. Costa Rica. It didn’t have to be Vermont. Black Falls. Her picturesque hometown in the heart of the Green Mountains.
It was summer in New Zealand, she thought as she lifted the box on her uninjured hip and noted that it was barely four o’clock and yet almost dark. The long, dark winter nights were upon northern New England. She’d left Washington early in order to arrive in Vermont while it was still daylight.
Using her elbow, she shut the trunk. Three brown-spotted bananas on top of the overflowing box hadn’t fared well on the long trip north, but she hadn’t wanted to leave them to rot in her microscopic Georgetown apartment. She didn’t know when she’d be back at her job with the Secret Service. Technically, she was just taking some time off. But everyone knew she’d been all but ordered to clear out of town for a bit.
Jo knew it, too.
Elijah seemed to be carrying a vase of flowers, but that didn’t make sense.
Even from fifty yards away, he looked as sexy, rugged and forbidden as ever. She hadn’t realized he was home from the army. Not that her family in Black Falls would have told her, especially this week—because then she really might have chucked it all and bought a one-way ticket to New Zealand.
Elijah had built a house on the wooded hillside adjoining the thirty acres and its dozen, one-room, falling-down cabins he and his brothers and sister had every reason to expect to inherit one day. Instead, Drew Cameron had left the property to Jo. The shock of his death from hypothermia in an April snowstorm had only been compounded by that one detail in his last will and testament.
None of the Cameron siblings was more taken aback than Jo was herself by their father’s inexplicable act of generosity.
She pushed the uncomfortable memory of her last encounter with Drew Cameron out of her mind. She didn’t want to go there. Not now, not especially with Elijah ambling her way.
She watched the hawk glide back toward her and disappear into the woods and hills above the cabins.
There was no wind, but the air was brisk and chilly—she’d gotten used to Washington’s warmer climate. She’d had to pull on her black fleece jacket when she’d crossed the Vermont border. She hadn’t expected to be back in Black Falls until Thanksgiving, and then only for a short visit with her family.
But here she was, and who knew for how long?
The brightly colored leaves of October had fallen, just the rusts and maroons of dying oak leaves clinging to branches among the hemlocks, pines and spruces along the dot of a glacial lake. Jo noticed a battered dark green wooden canoe in the grayish frost-killed grass down by the lake. It was on her property, but it wasn’t her canoe. No doubt it belonged to a Cameron—probably the one walking down the road with the flowers.
She carried her box across the weeds and dead pine needles that passed for a yard. Elijah kept coming. She saw no sign of a limp—her sister, Beth, had e-mailed her in April after news hit town that Elijah, a Special Forces soldier, had been wounded, badly, in Afghanistan.
It was the day after Devin Shay, a Black Falls High School senior, had found Drew Cameron dead on the mountain named for his ancestors.
Jo stopped at the front door—the only door—to the largest of the dilapidated cabins. It was set up on blocks and had moss growing on its roof, which couldn’t be good, and its board-and-batten exterior needed a fresh coat of dark brown paint. But it was the closest to the lake and the best of the lot. Most of the cabins probably should have been condemned years ago. A.J., the eldest Cameron, supposedly had drawn up plans for expanding Black Falls Lodge down to the lake, never expecting the land wouldn’t one day be his.
Elijah left the dirt road and walked toward her as if he didn’t have a care in the world. He wore a canvas jacket, close-fitting jeans and a navy blue Red Sox cap, and Jo noted the dark stubble of beard on his square Cameron jaw. If possible, he was even more appealing than he had been at nineteen, when he had whisked her off for three nights and four days in the very cabins she had just inherited.