Authors: Carla Neggers
Tags: #Detective and Mystery Stories, #General, #Romance, #Suspense Fiction, #Missing persons, #Suspense, #Fiction
“I spotted Rigby just past this grove of spruce trees. He didn’t see me at first. Nora and I had split up. He was heading straight for where I was supposed to meet her. I pretended to be her—to distract him—and he came after me.” Coughing, sobbing, Devin squeezed his eyes shut again, just for a moment, before he collected himself. “Once he figured out I wasn’t Nora, I tried to warn her and give her time to hide. I was running like hell myself. He whacked me in the side and I went flying, got the wind knocked out of me. I thought he’d come and finish me off. But he didn’t.”
“You’re not his priority,” Jo said with brutal clarity.
Devin stared straight at her. “Nora was right. She said not to trust anyone.”
“Where is she, Devin?” Elijah asked.
“I don’t know. I tried to distract Rigby and lead him away from her. I yelled for her to run.”
“He nailed you with your walking stick?”
“Yeah. I think so. I dropped it when I fell yesterday.”
Elijah studied Devin a moment. The kid was a mess. His pack was gone, and he was injured, wet and cold. Even if Nora was better outfitted and uninjured, she, too, was in danger of hypothermia. Rigby didn’t need to stick around. The treacherous conditions would do his work for him. Hence the mini landslide. Distract, delay, divert. Implicate Devin. Then let time, the cold, the wind and the snow take their toll. Make it look as if two teenagers with a flair for drama, at odds with each other, had come to a bad end on Cameron Mountain.
And make Devin look responsible—desperate for money, desperate to impress wealthy Nora Asher, refusing to take no for an answer.
But would Rigby get out of the storm, or would he make sure his work up here was finished?
Either way, Elijah knew they needed to get Devin warm and find Nora.
He became aware of Jo peering at him, but she said nothing as she turned her attention back to Devin. “How long ago were you attacked?” she asked.
Devin’s teeth started to chatter, and he seemed to shrink into the arm he held to his middle, as if to control waves of pain. “I don’t know.” He moaned, shivered. “Half hour? Maybe more.”
Jo unzipped her pack and dug inside. “You helped Drew haul building materials up here last fall. Did you and Nora figure out what he did with them?”
He didn’t answer and went very still, his jaw visibly tensed as he tried to keep his teeth from chattering. Elijah sensed his fear—his terror that he might say or do something that would worsen Nora’s situation. It was what he and Jo needed to penetrate. “We’re out of time, Devin,” he said. “You need to tell us what you know. What if Rigby was up here in April and killed my father? What do you think he’ll do to Nora?”
Devin pounded his fists into Elijah’s chest, but he didn’t have the strength to do any damage. Then he buried his face in his bloodied, bruised hands and cried. “I shouldn’t have left her.”
“Left her where, Devin?” Elijah asked.
He took his hands from his face and pointed up the hill into the trees. “There’s a flat section up there. You go through spruce trees. On the other side—Nora found a cabin. We were both looking, figuring Drew must have built something up here.”
Jo produced a dry fleece pullover from her pack. “You hadn’t searched before?”
“No. I…” Tears streamed down his cheeks. “I couldn’t.”
“I understand,” Jo said. “Did Nora go into the cabin?”
“Yeah. I think so. We were going to look around for a little while, then meet up and hike back down to the lodge and find you. The storm, though…” He looked at Elijah, then Jo, his fear and regret palpable now. “I have to find her. I have to help her.”
Jo shook her head. “Elijah will go,” she said firmly. “He knows these woods better than either of us. You and I will do what we can.”
They would be taking a risk by splitting up, but Elijah knew—as Jo obviously did, too—that it was the only way they stood a chance of finding Nora before either Rigby or the conditions got to her.
Elijah rose, adjusted his pack. “You know what to do, Jo?” he asked, only half-serious, because, of course, she did. “Stay in the cover of the trees. Don’t expose—”
“Yeah.” There was just a hint of amusement in her eyes. “Go. I’ll get Devin to the cabin and meet you there.”
Elijah blew her a kiss and winked at her. “See you soon, sweet pea.”
Color rose in her cheeks, and Devin managed a weak smile at her. “Sweet pea?”
A gust of wind rattled through the trees, and Elijah pushed off in the direction Devin had indicated. He thought of the countless times he’d been up here as a kid with his father, searching for that damn cellar hole.
Nora huddled against her boulder. She didn’t know how long she’d been there. She was still in a tight ball, but she was shivering uncontrollably, her teeth chattering as she tried to stay quiet and out of sight. She needed to go to Devin, help him. Something terrible had happened to him. She just knew it. He’d sacrificed himself for her, but she felt paralyzed—what could she do to help him? She didn’t want to make his situation worse, and she didn’t want to get killed.
Help me, someone. Please, help me.
She didn’t dare speak the words out loud. She wasn’t sure she could, anyway, but she didn’t want to make a sound.
I’m so cold.
She heard the crack of a branch somewhere behind her, maybe above her, and felt a painful surge of adrenaline. Tears poured down her raw cheeks and into her mouth. Her nose ran. She stiffened, trying to keep her teeth from chattering, in case whoever was out there could hear her.
Mom…Dad…I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry…
“Nora. It’s Elijah.”
She sniffled, thinking she’d imagined his voice.
“I’m here to help you, okay?”
His voice was so gentle, yet strong, confident. She pictured him in front of the class and remembered his so-blue eyes when he’d looked at her and asked her why she’d wanted to go winter camping. She’d given him some dumb answer. The truth was that she’d wanted Alex and her parents not to think of her as a wimp anymore. She’d wanted them to be proud of her.
I am a wimp.
“Call to me, Nora. Throw some snow up into the air. Anything.”
Elijah sounded close. Her tears were flooding down her face now, snot running, her entire body shaking with relief and self-disgust and terror.
“Devin’s okay. He’s with Jo Harper. I’ll keep you safe, Nora. Trust me.”
Devin, Devin—oh, God! Thank you! Thank you, thank you!
Nora tried to speak, but she started to cry, and her body convulsed into shivers. She was so tired and tensed up, she couldn’t even pry her arms apart to grab snow. Instead, she sat back hard against the boulder and managed to kick a foot out, causing snow to drop off the lower branches of the tree in front of her. A clump of it fell onto her nose. She couldn’t even feel the cold.
She kicked again, and more snow fell, and then she couldn’t do anything but shiver and cry and pray.
Elijah eased in close to her. He was covered in snow but so strong and warm, and she suddenly imagined him bleeding in combat and felt horrible for how condescending she’d been about his military service.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I’m so sorry.”
He got down low in front of her. His hat was covered in snow. His shoulders. Nora squinted, trying to focus. How much snow had fallen? She didn’t even know.
“Nora. Look at me.” His voice was quiet and reassuring, but firm. “Let me keep you safe, okay? Will you do that for me?”
She couldn’t stop shivering. She thought she nodded, but she wasn’t sure, and she hated him seeing her like this, crying and scared and shivering.
“I’m not going to let anything happen to you.” He put a snowy, gloved hand toward her. “Can you stand?”
“I—I don’t know. I did everything I could to stay warm and dry.” Her words sounded strangled, unintelligible. Her mind felt fuzzy. Fresh tears flowed down her face. “Rigby found us. He had to have known about your dad’s cabin.”
She thought she saw Elijah falter, but she couldn’t imagine such a thing. He was so strong. She’d never known anyone that strong. But he said, “Let’s get you warm. Then we can go from there.”
“I think I have mild hypothermia. I can’t—stop—shivering….”
“I’m going to pick you up and carry you, okay?” He just scooped her up, as if she weighed no more than her stuffed penguin. She sobbed into his chest and for a second thought she’d throw up all over him, but she didn’t.
“If he’s still out there—” She got a death grip on his jacket and raised herself off his chest. “How did you find me?”
“Footprints, but they weren’t easy to spot. I spotted his, too, but they lead down off the mountain.” Elijah spoke calmly, clinically, as if he were discussing tracking a rabbit. “The weather’s our ally right now. It’s making us harder to find.”
“Devin warned me…”
“He’s hurt, but Jo’s taking good care of him.”
Elijah walked over the rough ground, not even straining under the weight of her and his backpack. He carried her up the steep hill onto the flat area where his father had built his cabin, where the Camerons had first settled in Vermont.
“There,” Nora whispered. Her teeth still chattered, but she wasn’t shivering as much as she absorbed some of his warmth and pointed. “Up by those evergreens.”
“Spruces,” he said, and she heard a smile in his voice.
She sank into his arms, vaguely aware of his movements and the howl of the wind, then the creak of a door and the smell of the cabin’s fresh wood as he set her on the floor. She didn’t want to be out of the protective cocoon of his arms, but she saw Devin curled up in a sleeping bag near the cold woodstove and almost screamed. He looked so awful. She crawled over to him, shivering and crying. “Dev, Dev. You saved my life. You did.” But he was half-asleep and didn’t respond, and she turned back to Elijah. “What can I do to help?”
Jo Harper answered. “Talk to him,” she said as she grabbed Nora’s backpack and got her sleeping bag and handed it to her. “Reassure him that you’re fine. And get yourself warm and stay warm.”
“I can do that.”
Her eyes stayed on Nora. “And tell me what happened.”
Jo was scarily focused, but pretty, Nora thought, fighting back tears. “I wish my dad were marrying you instead of Melanie.”
Jo looked shocked for a split second, then was back under control. Elijah didn’t comment, just went to the back of the cabin and checked the rear door while she got dry clothes out of her own pack and handed them to Nora. “Put these on. Can you manage on your own?”
“I think so.” The thought of Jo or Elijah helping her made her feel self-conscious. “Yes. I can do it.”
The wind picked up, whistling, beating fiercely against the cabin. But Nora decided the walls had to be solid, because any man who’d fathered Elijah would have insisted on building a structure that could withstand a Vermont storm.
She sniffled. “I shouldn’t have come up here.” Her fingers stiff inside her gloves, she unzipped her sleeping bag. Somehow she’d use it to create a little privacy as she changed, although she knew she had to be careful with her wet clothes.
I’m such a dope.
She sniffled again and said half to herself, “I didn’t mean to cause problems for everyone. Just help Devin. Please.”
“I’ll help both of you,” Jo said, “but I need your cooperation.”
Startled by Jo’s tone, Nora realized that in her own way Jo was just as big a hard-ass as Elijah.
He returned from checking the back door and touched Jo’s arm. “Rigby’s either waiting out the storm, or he’s already cut his losses and gotten out of here. Either way, it’s near-zero visibility out there right now. We’re not going anywhere.”
Nora saw something between them. A spark, a look. She wasn’t quite sure, but what it meant was obvious to her. Jo was falling for Elijah—and he for her.
“Elijah,” Jo said, “if Rigby comes back and tries anything, you know you can defend yourself, don’t you?”
He grinned at her. “Yeah, Agent Harper, I know.”
Nora got closer to Devin. “Avert your eyes while I change.”
He smiled weakly at her. “Sure, Nora.”
“Dev…you saved my life.”
“We’ll be okay,” he said. “Promise.”
She suddenly felt warmer, safer. Jo and Elijah would protect her and Devin.
They’d all be okay.
The storm had forced Melanie and Thomas back to the lodge. She washed her hands with Vermont-made goat’s milk soap in the ladies’ room. Thomas was getting on her nerves. He was so preoccupied with his daughter, never mind how irresponsibly she’d behaved. Melanie knew she needed to be understanding, but she hated Nora for all her dramatics.
She hadn’t thrown up. That would come later. Right now, she knew she needed to push her fury down deep and focus on making sure Kyle had a chance to execute his plan for her almost-stepdaughter and her no-account boyfriend. Melanie had her instructions. Kyle had found her before he went up on the mountain. She felt a familiar jolt of excitement mixed with panic at the prospect of doing her part to make everything work out.
“Mislead any search teams, Melanie,” Kyle had told her early that morning. He’d been so grave and humorless with all his misgivings about their situation. “Pick a spot and send them there. Anywhere but the north side of the mountain.”
He’d been so confident that was where Devin and Nora would be. Melanie had argued that they’d have to explain the lie to A.J. Cameron and any search teams once Nora’s and Devin’s bodies were discovered.
But Kyle had an answer for that, too. “We blame Devin for the misinformation. Leave that part to me.” He’d paused, then added, “He and Nora aren’t making it down the mountain.”
Melanie still had misgivings. The more she thought about why she and Kyle had been dispatched to kill both Drew Cameron in April and Alex Bruni yesterday, the more she didn’t like it. Drew had never made any sense—he didn’t fit the profile of anyone else she and Kyle had killed. Who was he? As far as she knew, he was just an old Vermonter with no serious connections.