Authors: Carla Neggers
Tags: #Detective and Mystery Stories, #General, #Romance, #Suspense Fiction, #Missing persons, #Suspense, #Fiction
He had food, water, a tent, extra clothes, a sleeping bag that would keep him warm on Mount Everest. Snowshoes. Basic rescue equipment. If he had to spend the night in the elements, he’d be fine. If he had to dig a snow cave, he could.
“Only thing missing there is a mule,” she said lightly.
He didn’t answer. His hair was still a little tousled from last night. She remembered coursing her fingers through it as he’d spun her into orgasmic ecstasy.
“Where are you going?” she asked him.
He tucked a couple of protein bars into an outer pocket on his pack and zipped it up. “To find Devin and Nora or meet them coming down off the mountain. Out. Doesn’t matter.”
“I can handle myself.”
He lifted the pack onto one shoulder, grabbed his coat off the back of the bar stool next to hers and finally looked at her, his eyes resigned, as if he’d known he wouldn’t get out of there without having to deal with her. She hadn’t disappeared in a
with the coming of dawn. “I’ll start on the falls trail and take it from there,” he said. “I’ll probably end up taking the saddle around to the back side of the mountain. Ten to one that’s the route Nora and Devin took.”
“To where your father died.”
He headed out of the kitchen and down the short hall to the front room. Jo jumped off her stool, grimaced at the feel of the cold wood floor on her bare feet and went after him.
The view down the hill through the trees and out across the lake was, indeed, breathtaking. Mist rose up from the water, and frost clung to the rust and burgundy oak leaves as the sun burned through in places, sparkling.
But Elijah didn’t seem to notice. He shoved open a slider and stepped onto the deck, looking back at her with a harshness she hadn’t experienced last night and knew had nothing to do with her. “Devin should have told us that Pop had cooked up something with him.”
Jo’s heart broke at the way he said “Pop.” Drew had been a commanding force in the lives of his four children—in the lives of the people of Black Falls—and now he was gone. Elijah, in particular, had never had a chance to say goodbye.
But she nodded to the milky sky. “The weather isn’t going to be good today.”
“More reason to get moving.”
She crossed her arms against the draft. “I can go with you.”
“You’re not dressed, and I’m not waiting.”
“All right. I’ll meet you.”
Some of his intensity eased, and she thought she saw a spark in his very blue eyes. “Bring your own sleeping bag.” But he sighed as he eased the door shut a little ways. “You need to go back to your life. You don’t belong here, Jo. You never did.”
“Nothing like waking up with regrets.”
“I didn’t say I had regrets. Jo—we’re not right for each other. We weren’t right fifteen years ago and we’re not right now. Let’s not break each other’s hearts again.”
“I didn’t break your heart, Elijah.” She moved right up to the slider screen and focused on the man in front of her and the old hurt deep inside her. “I’d have followed you to the army. Leaving me behind made it possible for you to do what you wanted to do.”
“Saved me from your father having me thrown in jail.”
“That, too. Elijah…I’m sorry.” Jo saw it now, what needed to be said. “I should have let you go. I shouldn’t have held on the way I did.”
“Jo, Jo, Jo. Sweet pea. You didn’t do anything that needs forgiving, including falling for me.”
“Did you get my letters?”
She saw the muscles in his jaw tense and knew he hadn’t expected her question.
Then his gaze softened, and he said, “Every one of them.”
He shut the slider and headed down the deck stairs, his mind, she knew, back on his mission of the day. She shivered in the draft, thinking back to herself at eighteen, sitting on a boulder on the lakeshore and pouring out her soul in letter after letter in those first weeks after he’d left Black Falls for the army.
She hadn’t let go easily.
She returned to the kitchen, splashed more coffee in her mug and sat at the breakfast bar as she debated her options, none of which involved leaving Elijah Cameron to his own devices.
Everyone in Black Falls had always known he would end up back there.
Everyone except Elijah—he had never expected to come home alive.
That was what Drew had tried to make her understand on their walk among the cherry blossoms. Elijah didn’t court death. He wasn’t reckless or pessimistic. He was forward looking and had a strong, positive mental attitude.
“But he’s a realist,” Drew had said. “He understands the dangers. He’s looked death in the eye, and he knows if he makes it home, it’s a bonus. It’s not something he counts on.”
Jo let the coffee warm her insides and soothe her soul.
Bad boy Elijah Cameron and good girl Jo Harper…She’d been a little bad last night. And he’d been good.
So good, she thought with a smile.
His phone rang, and she picked up the extension on the counter next to her.
“I’d like to speak to Sergeant Cameron, please,” a male voice said.
She frowned. “Who is this?”
A gasp of shock. “Special Agent Harper?”
Jo almost knocked over her coffee. “Charlie, what are you doing?”
“Uh. Just checking on the flowers I sent. Were they pretty?”
“Very. Thank you.” She spoke crisply, noting the time—just after 7:00 a.m.—and figuring Charlie was at, or almost at, school. “I know you’ve been in touch with Elijah. How did you find out his name, rank and home phone number?”
He ignored her question. “The stove fire. With Marissa. Was it the work of these assassins? Are you trying to protect us by not telling us?”
“Listen to me. Don’t—”
“Marissa said it was just an accident.”
Jo heard the fear in his voice. “You need to stop this, Charlie. Just stop.”
“I have to go. I have play practice. Conor and I are on the production crew. In fact, we
the production crew.”
Conor Neal was Charlie’s first cousin, the second of the four children of the vice president’s older brother, and, Jo suspected, a coconspirator in the airsoft prank and the source of the incriminating video.
Charlie disconnected quickly, and Jo immediately dialed her boss. “You all are watching my young friend in D.C. like hawks, aren’t you?”
Francona didn’t answer right away. “Maybe he has a crush on you. If he were fifteen years older, you two could have a Rose Garden wedding.”
“He didn’t call me. He called a friend of mine up here in the cold.”
“It’s seven o’clock in the morning, Harper. Do I want to know where you are?”
She looked down at her nightshirt and her cold feet and thought of last night. “No.”
“I didn’t think so,” Francona said, then blew out a breath. “By the way, your young friend got a sixty-eight on a calculus test yesterday. That’s the kind of grade I’d get. He always aces his tests. Doesn’t matter what subject. He doesn’t get D’s.”
“Did someone ask him about it?”
“Yeah. He said it was a D-plus.”
Francona disconnected, and Jo poured herself more coffee and headed for Elijah’s bedroom and a pair of his socks. But his phone rang again. She snatched it up and said a tight hello, expecting her boss or Charlie on the other end.
“Elijah isn’t answering his cell phone,” a man with an easy Southern accent said. “Special Agent Harper, I presume?”
“And you would be—”
“Elijah’s friend Grit.”
She eased back onto the bar stool with her coffee. “The SEAL.”
“Yes, ma’am. I saw your Internet video. You’re as cute now as you were at seventeen.”
“How would you know?”
But he’d hung up.
Jo slipped back into her clothes, grabbed her Sig, left her bath salts and got out of Elijah’s house before she gave in to temptation and looked for old pictures of them together. Not only would it be a violation of trust, she didn’t want to know. What would be worse, finding out he’d carried her picture off to war, or finding out he hadn’t thought twice about her after he’d left Black Falls?
She had to remind herself she wasn’t that hurt teenager anymore.
Maybe his SEAL friend had just decided to have a little fun with her and didn’t have a clue what she’d looked like at seventeen.
She returned to her cabin, which was much colder than Elijah’s house, and took a quick shower, got dressed and pondered whether she should have regrets about last night. She decided she shouldn’t. It had been inevitable, she and Elijah in bed together. She’d known it would happen, on some level, the moment she’d spotted him walking down the road with Charlie’s lilies.
On her way up to the ridge road above the lake, she listened to the forecast on her car radio. Snow was expected to start by midday and continue on and off through the night. It wouldn’t be a huge storm by northern New England standards, but higher elevations could get up to a foot of snow.
Black Falls Lodge was quiet, just a few cars in the parking lot. Jo recognized Thomas and Melanie’s rental. She pulled in next to Elijah’s truck and climbed out. The air was close with the drop in pressure and rise in moisture, signaling the approaching storm. Skiers and snowshoers would welcome the snow. Devin—and Elijah—wouldn’t care one way or the other. Jo wasn’t as sure about Nora. Did she even know a storm was on the way?
As she crossed the lot to the lodge, she noticed A.J. out on the stone terrace. He gave her a curt wave and walked down to meet her. He had a mug of coffee with him and wore a canvas jacket, but no hat or gloves. “Thomas Asher and his fiancée just took off for the falls trail,” he said.
“Everyone’s up and at it, I see. Rigby?”
“He left early. Said he’d try up by the falls first. He’s convinced Nora won’t want to get too far out from the lodge.”
“A lot of nervous people, A.J.”
He cupped his mug in his hands and glanced across the road at the mountain, blue-gray under the clouds. “Elijah’s gone up there.”
Just the barest smile from Elijah’s older brother. “I thought you might.”
“A.J…. your father…”
His gaze darkened. “Whatever happened up there in April, it had nothing to do with my brother living or dying in that firefight.”
A.J. obviously wasn’t looking for moral support from her, but Jo nodded anyway. “Agreed.”
He frowned at her. “You’ll need gear if you’re going after Elijah. Go see Lauren. She’s down at the shop. Help yourself.”
He dumped the dregs of his coffee in the dirt. “I called Scott Thorne, just in case. He’s on his way up here.”
Jo nodded and said nothing.
“Stay safe,” A.J. said, and headed back inside.
Nora knew she needed to calm down and keep herself from sweating in order to retain body heat, but she couldn’t help herself. She broke into a run, her heart pounding with excitement. For the first time since she’d started up the mountain, she didn’t care about the weight of her backpack. She’d found it—she’d discovered what Drew Cameron had been up to on the north side of Cameron Mountain.
It made sense now…why he’d asked for Devin’s help, why he’d come up here in April.
She made herself stop running and hold her breath to the count of three, then exhaled slowly as she crept up the last few yards to a small cabin—a tiny little house, really. It was obviously new, not quite finished, built on what appeared to be an old foundation. If she imagined the land cleared and a well and some roads and maybe a neighbor closer than there were any now, the location, on level ground just beyond a quiet, beautiful cluster of tall evergreens, was perfect.
With the dense woods and all the contours on that side of the mountain—the dips and sags and knolls and gullies—Nora could see why no one had come upon the cabin in April. Devin had found Drew’s body at least two hundred yards through the trees near the trail down to the old logging road. It might as well have been a million miles.
Forcing herself to breathe normally, she pushed open the solid wood door and entered the cabin. It was small, smaller, even, than her room at home. The interior smelled of fresh wood. It had brand-new glass windows on one side of the front door and on each of the side walls and the back wall, but the walls themselves were unfinished. Open beams crisscrossed in the ceiling, and there was a second door on the back wall.
Nora looked around for nests—mice, bats, squirrels—but didn’t see any. There was no insulation, no wiring, no generator—no outhouse, even. A simple black woodstove stood against the windowless wall, but it wasn’t hooked up yet. Lengths of round metal stovepipe for a metal chimney were stacked neatly next to the stove, and Nora wondered if Drew had been on his way up here in April to install it.
Why hadn’t he ducked in here for shelter? She couldn’t imagine him getting lost, even in the snow. She hadn’t really known him, but he’d struck her as a man as rugged and competent as his sons, just older.
“I can’t wait to tell Devin,” she whispered.
He was searching in another spot on the other side of the evergreens. They’d agreed to take a look around for what Drew had been building, then go on back down the mountain and talk to Jo and Elijah—one or both of them—about Melanie. Nora had obsessed all night and finally came to her senses. Her concerns about Melanie were real, she’d decided, but she had to keep them in perspective.
her father wasn’t involved in Alex’s death.
Alex had often warned her against speculating ahead of the facts.
He was right. Searching for what Drew had been building up on the mountain and knowing Devin was there and they had a plan had helped her feel less out of control. She’d awakened before dawn and smashed Devin’s cell phone in a panic at the prospect of someone tracking them. It seemed crazy now.
When she’d spotted the cabin, she’d spiraled right up again, not panicked and crazed this time but excited. She’d have something to show for her two nights on Cameron Mountain. She’d be able to give Drew’s children some closure on what had happened to their father. He hadn’t just wandered up here. He’d had a purpose.