Authors: Carla Neggers
Tags: #Detective and Mystery Stories, #General, #Romance, #Suspense Fiction, #Missing persons, #Suspense, #Fiction
“Elijah, what are you doing? Why—”
“What are you having for dinner?”
“Don’t try to change the subject.”
“I’m not trying. I just did change it. So, dinner?”
“I just ate a brownie.”
“A scone for lunch and a brownie for dinner. What kind of buff Secret Service agent are you? You need nutrition. Getting shot in the line of duty takes something out of you.”
“I was the victim of a prank,” she said, then added quietly, seriously, “
were shot, Elijah.”
He shrugged but kept his eyes on her. “All’s well that ends well.” His tone was unreadable. “I have leftover grilled chicken if you can come up with something to go with it.”
“I can toss a salad together and bring it over to your place. I’ll follow you back to the lake.” She smiled at him. “Don’t speed.”
She decided she didn’t need to remind him that her father used to nail him all the time for speeding when they were teenagers—before the army, the Secret Service. Long before his father’s death on Cameron Mountain.
As she got in her car, Jo saw herself and Elijah as teenagers, walking hand in hand through the fallen leaves on the town green, and she felt a surge of tenderness for the crazy-in-love kids they’d been.
Not an image for a long, dark Vermont night.
Best just to go back to the lake and make salad.
“You’re still a little in love with her, aren’t you?”
Thomas Asher quickly clicked off his Internet connection at the desk in his first-floor study as if Melanie had just caught him watching porn videos instead of the two-minute clip of Jo Harper tackling the vice president’s teenage son. It was even more entertaining than he’d expected—and just the distraction he’d needed from Alex’s death and his own appalling behavior.
Jo had called and told him Nora had taken off into the mountains.
What the hell was his daughter thinking?
been thinking that morning when he’d panicked and run from the hotel?
He swiveled in his leather desk chair. “Not even a little,” he said, smiling at the woman who would become his wife in less than two months. She stood in the doorway, looking more amused than annoyed.
“Uh-huh,” she said.
Thomas knew he couldn’t fool her. He didn’t want to. But Melanie believed he harbored feelings for Jo Harper, and he couldn’t convince her otherwise.
She entered the study and put her slim hands on his shoulders as he swiveled back to his computer. She had yet to suggest he sell his northern Virginia house after they were married. He and Carolyn had bought it together nineteen years ago, raised their daughter there. Thomas didn’t know why, but he couldn’t part with it—it was as if selling the house would somehow mean the Thomas Asher of the past had never existed.
Melanie kissed him on the top of his head. “I know it’s been an awful day for you.”
She slid her hands down his chest, her nails shining, polished a neutral color, and nodded at the blank computer screen. “Do you think Jo gave Charlie Neal what he deserved?”
thinks Jo gave Charlie Neal what he deserved. She’s a professional, but she’s blunt by nature. Generally speaking, I’m sure that’s an asset in her work.”
“I like that,” Melanie said. “I hate when people don’t speak their minds.”
She didn’t know he’d run that morning. He leaned into her and wished for the thousandth time that he hadn’t panicked. Now he had to live with his shame and guilt. He had nothing to hide, but fleeing the scene the way he had would look suspicious to the police. He wouldn’t lie to them, but he hoped they left him alone. He couldn’t bear the thought of Melanie and his daughter—even Carolyn—finding out that his only instinct when he’d realized it was Alex dead on the street was to get out of there.
Thomas’s only hope now was that the police would find the driver of the car that had hit Alex—without his help.
Why hadn’t the messenger reported what she’d seen?
His complicated history with Alex didn’t help matters. Thomas cringed at the thought of the police suspecting him of having a role in his friend’s death, but what could he do? It was no secret that Alex had betrayed their friendship by taking up with Carolyn. Everyone knew it and would assume that, regardless of how mature he’d wanted to be about the situation, he’d had moments when he’d wished Alex a bad end. He was only human, after all.
His love for Nora had forced him to step back from his hurt, his anger, his humiliation and get on with his life. Now he had Melanie—a new beginning.
She slid her hand over his and eased the mouse from his grip. “Enough,” she said, shutting down the computer altogether. “You need to turn everything off.”
“I don’t know if I can explain. Alex and I were friends even before I’d met Carolyn. That he’s gone now…” Thomas fought back tears as he stared at the blank monitor. “What’s done is done. There’s no going back.”
“Have you talked to Nora?”
“Not since I gave her the news this morning. I wish she’d stayed put after hearing about Alex instead of going on this camping trip. Lowell and Vivian say they’re not worried.”
“Easy for them. Still no word of what route she took?”
“I heard from Jo a little while ago. Nora’s car was located near one of the trails up Cameron Mountain. That’s some help, but it’s not the same as leaving her specific plans with someone. We don’t know she went up that trail—she could have met friends and taken their car to some other trail.”
“She’s eighteen, Thomas. It’s not that she’s trying to be irresponsible—she just doesn’t think things through.” Melanie sighed softly. “I can see you’re worried about her. You’re a good father. You’re not overreacting. Nora still needs you, even if she doesn’t think so.”
“Maybe I should go up there.”
Melanie squeezed his hand. “If you decide that’s what’s best, I’ll go with you. Listen, I know Jo Harper is a friend of yours, Thomas, but are you sure you should be talking to her? This thing with the vice president’s son…”
“That’ll blow over. It’s just a silly incident that will entertain people in this town for a few days and then be replaced by someone else’s misstep. Alex’s death has probably wiped it out of people’s minds already. I don’t want Jo to do anything that will further jeopardize her career, of course, but I don’t see how checking on Nora will.”
“Still, Jo’s got to be distracted, and she might need to be more cautious than is in your interest right now. There’s a guy I know—I met him skiing in Colorado last year, and we exchanged business cards. His name’s Kyle Rigby. He does private searches for people. He’s very experienced, and he’s discreet. I’ve already been in touch with him. He said he can get to Black Falls and figure out what’s going on with Nora, make sure she’s okay. He’ll keep a low profile. And if anything’s wrong, he’ll know what to do.”
“What is he, a private contractor?”
“Yes, exactly. Not everyone who goes missing or who has a family member who goes missing wants or needs to involve the authorities. Not that Nora’s missing. You know what I mean. But she has her whole life ahead of her and doesn’t need whatever she’s up to getting blown all out of proportion. With Alex’s death, you know the media would jump on this one.”
“I hadn’t thought of that.”
She patted his shoulder. “You’ve been thinking about your daughter and your friend.”
He could feel himself sinking emotionally, physically. “You’re so good to me, Melanie.”
“Let’s just find Nora and get her back to you and her mother.”
“That’s all I want,” Thomas whispered, latching on to Melanie’s idea. “If Alex hadn’t been killed this morning, I’d still be concerned about her going off winter camping with so little preparation, but not like this…” He trailed off, felt himself choke up with emotion. “She’s still so young. So very young.”
“Then let Kyle go up there. Jo has enough on her mind, but I’m sure she’ll help him if he needs it. He’ll be able to devote himself just to finding Nora. He just needs a green light to get moving. I know how upset you are, and I figured it would help if you had someone take action.”
“Thank you. Yes. Go ahead. Tell him to see what he can do.” Thomas blinked back tears. “I don’t know what I’d do without you.”
“It’s okay,” she said. “It’ll all be okay. We can go up there ourselves tomorrow. Maybe by the time we get there, Nora will be back. It’ll be awkward, I know, with Ambassador Bruni’s death, but we’re going to have to figure out how to move forward.”
Thomas nodded wearily. “Then we might as well get started.”
“Yes. We might as well. Kyle will help.” Melanie hugged him. “Trust me.”
Since she was still sore from her afternoon with Kyle, Melanie hadn’t wanted to make love to Thomas, but that was what a good Asher wife would do. Now, lying next to him in the king-size bed he had once shared with his dull, brainy first wife, she gave a silent moan of pain. Honestly, though, how could she not have seduced her fiancé when he needed a distraction? What she was to him—and she hoped he realized this—was a woman who would put him at the center of her world.
He was a generous, thoughtful, gentle lover—not the unthinking, relentless piston Kyle was. Unlike Thomas, Kyle didn’t care whether she was satisfied or not, but he liked it when she writhed and screamed…and begged.
She could hear herself a few hours ago.
And later, when he’d awakened her from a doze with a hard, erotic slap, her moans of pain as she’d pleaded with him.
“No more…I can’t take it, Kyle. Please. Stop.”
But he’d known she hadn’t meant it. He’d lifted her by the hips and straddled her and took her from behind, every yell she gave for him to stop only fueling him, as if he was deliberately doing the exact opposite of what she wanted.
Except they both knew that wasn’t the case. She’d made that clear months ago. She wanted every vicious thrust into every eager, hot part of her. When she and polite Thomas were married, she would be able to call upon the memories—the sensations—of those months of near-violent sex with Kyle.
There had been times when he’d gone too far. When he’d hurt her—shamed her—and made her do things she didn’t want to do. To him, to herself. But that fear, pain and humiliation ended up only adding to the pleasure and intensity—the risk—of their next encounter.
Not that Kyle had ever been aware he’d gone too far or had ever apologized. That would have required a level of introspection he simply didn’t possess.
That afternoon, he’d been particularly ruthless and selfish, but he’d taken a certain amount of care not to leave any visible redness, bruises or scrapes. He was aware that she was going back to Thomas.
After she and Thomas were married, Kyle would have to find someone else.
The thought of another woman crying out for him didn’t sit well with Melanie at all.
He could be in Black Falls by now. Whether or not Thomas had agreed to hire him, Kyle intended to be in Vermont tonight. He had gone up there several times in the past couple of weeks since Nora had first become a problem—watching her, formulating a strategy.
Kyle was, after all, the planner.
Melanie tried to quiet her mind as Thomas snuggled closer to her and flopped an arm over her middle. She extricated herself from him and rolled closer to the edge of her side of the bed. She couldn’t bear for anyone to touch her right now. After she’d returned to Thomas’s house, she’d tried to relax in the library, flipping through magazines for ideas for their New Year’s Eve wedding. She wanted it to be elegant and romantic.
She stared wide-eyed at the ceiling. She loved everything about her life with Thomas. It was the life she’d been meant to lead: privileged, quiet, elite, sensible. Her family was concerned that Thomas was fifteen years older than she was, but otherwise they were delighted. He was everything they’d ever wanted in a son-in-law.
They’d never met Kyle. They wouldn’t. Her almost year with him had been a detour. It wasn’t the real Melanie Kendall. But it had made her a stronger person; she’d be a better Mrs. Thomas Asher because of it.
She turned onto her side, her back to Thomas as he slept soundly, snoring faintly. Kyle had stayed at a roadside motel outside Black Falls in April. They’d hiked up the north side of Cameron Mountain from an old, remote logging road that was at least a ten-mile drive around the base of the mountain from the Camerons’ lodge. No one had seen him before or after they’d left that old man in the cold. Kyle would have been equally careful on subsequent trips to Black Falls. If he had any concern someone would recognize him when he showed up to look for Thomas’s daughter, he would plan accordingly. But Kyle understood, as Melanie did, that they had to deal with Nora Asher.
Melanie felt a prick of fear, but this time it wasn’t mixed with excitement. She and Kyle couldn’t fail. They
to deal with Nora. She wasn’t just a potential problem anymore. She was a real problem.
We’ll do what we have to do.
Thomas would miss Nora at first, but with her and the dangers she posed out of the way, Melanie could focus on her future husband and help him through his grief.
All would be well.
She closed her eyes, picturing her New Year’s Eve wedding.
She smiled, relaxing again. She’d wear white. Why not? It would be her first—her only—wedding.
When she arrived back at the lake, Jo got out her cell phone and walked up the path behind her waterfront cabin for a better signal. The only light was a single beam through the trees from Elijah’s place—not enough to help her, but it was a clear night. The stars and half-moon were out, creating shadows and silhouettes on the dark, wooded hillside.
She tried Mark Francona, but he didn’t pick up. She didn’t leave a message and dialed Harry Watson, a friend in Washington who worked with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. As she waited for the call to go through, she noticed eight or ten wild turkeys pecking in the low brush at the edge of the woods and tried not to scare them. They warbled and fluttered, slowly making their way toward three cabins tucked in the trees higher up the hill.