Authors: Carla Neggers
Tags: #Detective and Mystery Stories, #General, #Romance, #Suspense Fiction, #Missing persons, #Suspense, #Fiction
Jo smiled. “He’d like it that you thought that.”
“Trust me. Drew would have hated anyone to think he actually belonged in Washington. Did he say anything?”
“Just that he wanted to talk to Alex. Alex wasn’t very nice but let him in.”
“You weren’t very nice, either?”
If possible, Nora sank her chin deeper into her knees, her guilt and regret palpable. “He told me that when I was his age, I’d know that the people I loved and who loved me would matter to me more than a fight over which college to attend. I made fun of him.” She buried her face in her knees and said, her voice muffled, “He was about to die, and I made fun of him.”
Behind them, Elijah said nothing. Jo felt the heat of the fire and her own fatigue, her own regrets. “Drew was also a wise man, and he’d have understood that you were eighteen and trying to figure out your life. He had a lot on his mind, more even than I realized. He didn’t tell me everything. It’s clear now that he’d figured out something that posed a threat to some very dangerous people.”
Nora raised her head off her knees, but still didn’t look at Jo. “He asked for Alex’s help. I don’t know about what—I didn’t hear any specifics. But Alex was mad at me, and he took it out on Drew. Now they’re both dead.”
“I guarantee that the reasons they’re dead have nothing to do with you or your behavior that day.”
Elijah finally came closer, and he got down next to Nora, tucked one finger under her chin and raised her eyes to him. “Listen to me. Okay?” He waited until she nodded, then dropped his hand and continued. “My father didn’t die because of you. He and then Alex died because they got too close to a network of paid killers. Melanie and Kyle were a part of that network. We don’t know all the particulars yet. We might never know.”
“Her own people killed her. She screwed up by getting involved with your father. That complicated things for them.”
“Because Devin and I started checking her out—”
Jo broke in. “No, Nora. Because Melanie was who she was. If she’d just been an interior decorator, she wouldn’t have cared all that much about what you and Devin were up to.”
Nora didn’t respond right away. Then she sat cross-legged, her fatigue and distress evident in the dark circles under her eyes, in the tremble of her lower lip. She addressed Elijah, speaking quietly. “If Alex and I hadn’t had that fight, maybe he’d have listened to your dad. Maybe they could have stopped these guys.”
“If my father had known he was onto a bunch of paid assassins,” Elijah said, “he’d have gone to the police, not to your stepfather. Whatever he knew got them nervous enough to kill him.”
“That awful woman…Melanie…” Nora paled when she spoke the name of her father’s dead fiancée. “What she said about your dad…”
“There’s no question in my mind that my father would have exchanged his life for mine without hesitation. It’s not what happened, but I hope he died believing his death meant I would live. I hope he had that consolation.”
“He was a good man. My mum and dad…”
“They’ve made their mistakes. Right now, your father, especially.”
“I don’t want to go to Alex’s funeral.”
“Go,” Elijah said bluntly. “Give yourself that chance to say goodbye.”
Elijah entered the Harper kitchen for the first time in more than a decade, but it hadn’t changed. He wasn’t surprised. Wes Harper had a dozen canning jars of applesauce lined up on the round oak table. He’d let Elijah come in. Elijah took that as a positive sign. It was five days since his ordeal on Cameron Mountain with Jo, Nora and Devin.
Most of the reporters who’d descended on Black Falls in the first twenty-four hours after Kyle Rigby and Melanie Kendall had died on Cameron land had departed.
There’d been no official mention of paid killers at work.
Jo was still on the lake, running every morning, consulting with her law enforcement colleagues. Her Secret Service boss had flown in and out again in one day. Mark Francona had struck Elijah as a serious hard-ass. Elijah had offered him use of his canoe, in case Francona and Jo wanted to paddle across the lake before it froze solid. Francona didn’t seem to think that was funny.
Grit Taylor and Myrtle Smith had arrived the morning after the storm and showed no sign of leaving anytime soon. Grit had set up in the most isolated and removed of Jo’s rundown cabins. Myrtle had checked in to the best room at Black Falls Lodge. Her presence was just the distraction A.J. and Lauren needed—Myrtle loved the idea of a luxury spa at the lodge.
The younger Cameron siblings had returned home. A.J., Elijah, Sean and Rose had sat up last night in front of the fire at the lodge and talked until dawn.
When he’d left for the lake, Elijah had known what he had to do. He didn’t care that Jo had been back in his life for just days. In a way, she’d always been there, for as long as he could remember.
“I’d like to talk to you, sir,” he said to Jo’s father.
Wes Harper had a black permanent marker in one hand. “Drew was right,” he said as he wrote the date on the cap of one of the applesauce jars. “I never cut you a single break.”
“Because of Jo.”
“Yeah.” He looked up at Elijah with eyes that were darker than his daughter’s but still bore a resemblance. “I didn’t make up reasons to get in your face, but I was harder on you than I ever was on anyone else, before or since. Maybe you’ll be the father of a teenage girl one day and be able to forgive me.”
Elijah shrugged. “I forgave you a long time ago. You probably saved my life. You probably made it possible for me to ask your daughter to marry me.”
Harper’s hand stopped in midair.
Elijah didn’t falter. Not this time, he thought. Not ever again where his love for Jo was concerned. “I’d like your support.”
Harper set the marker on the table and steadied his cop gaze on Elijah. “It would be an honor to have you as a son-in-law—if Jo’s crazy enough to have you.” Still, he didn’t smile. “If she won’t, Elijah, then that’s it. Never again. Let her go for good this time.”
“She’ll have me.”
“Yeah.” Harper almost smiled. “I know.”
“I realize we haven’t been together that long.”
“Fifteen years, Elijah. Longer. She had her first crush on you when she was six. Hopeless.” But Wes Harper wasn’t a man for a lot of talk, especially about matters of the heart, and he grabbed up his marker again and said, “Those two killers—Rigby and Kendall. There are more where they came from.”
It wasn’t a question, but Elijah nodded. “Yes.”
“She won’t tell me, but I think she’s working the investigation.”
Her father sighed. “I don’t mind telling you this whole business scares the hell out of me. To have a daughter in the Secret Service…”
Elijah recognized the fear of a father for a child. “Jo’s a chip off the old block, Chief Harper. She doesn’t cut anyone slack, either.”
Harper gave a satisfied smile. “Good.” Then he added, “And it’s Wes, son. Just Wes.”
It was cleaning night at the Three Sisters Café. Jo had scrubbed the stainless steel sink in the kitchen and was about to start on the counters, but then quiet, lovely Dominique pulled a tray of scones out of the oven and that was it. “Time for a break,” Jo said, and she, Beth and Scott grabbed scones, plates, silverware and small pots of butter and jam and took them out to the dining room.
Hannah and even tireless Dominique promised to join them in a few minutes. For the first time in days, their lives weren’t centered on the close call on Cameron Mountain. Even Devin, recovering rapidly from his injuries, had taken Toby to a movie, an act of normalcy that their older sister obviously welcomed.
But as Jo broke off a piece of scone, her cell phone rang. She winced at the intrusion and expected it was Mark Francona, who had sentenced her—his words—to a few more weeks, at least, in Vermont. Francona didn’t care about her getting Charlie Neal by the ear anymore. He was more interested in finding assassins. He had seized on her presence in Black Falls and figured it was meant to be, a product of his intuition and brilliance. “Buy a snow shovel,” he’d told her. “You’re going to be in the frozen north for a while.”
But it wasn’t Francona’s voice she heard on the other end of the connection. “Special Agent Harper?”
Jo sat up straight, recognizing the deep male voice. “Yes, sir.”
“This is Preston Neal. Charlie and Marissa’s dad. I just want to say…” Clearly emotional, the vice president paused for a moment, then gave a little cough and continued. “Thank you, Jo. Thank you for what you did for both of them.”
“Just doing my job, sir.”
“You saved Marissa’s life. And Charlie. I need to spend more time with him. It’s amazing how fast the years pass by. He’s sixteen…”
“He’s a great kid.”
“Thank you. His mother and I think so, too.”
Jo was aware of Scott Thorne glowering at her from across the table, as if he could guess whatever she was up to was about to complicate his life. Beth sat next to him. She glanced at Jo, then distracted her trooper boyfriend by putting a dot of butter on the end of his nose. Scott laughed, probably for the first time since he had trekked up the north side of Cameron Mountain after the season’s first snowstorm. The investigation into Kyle Rigby and Melanie Kendall and their murderous network had only just begun. It would be long, thorough and painstaking.
So far, it looked as if Charlie Neal had been dead-on.
But not about everything.
The vice president took a breath. “Jo?”
“Sir,” she said finally, “your son needs to understand that what happened to his sister was an accident. It had nothing to do with this other business.”
“This network of assassins,” Preston Neal said. “Charlie helped?”
“Yes. He has a sharp eye, but he’s a kid. He should be playing lacrosse and acing calculus tests.”
“The challenge for Charlie is that he can do those things
stick his nose in other people’s business.” The vice president spoke with a father’s mix of love, pride and pure frustration. “But you’re okay, Jo? You’ve done so much for my family. Don’t forget to live your own life.”
She thought of Elijah. She’d heard his truck out on the road in front of her cabin at dawn as he’d headed back from what she’d known had been a long night with his sister and two brothers. Jo was already up stretching for her run. The night before, Grit Taylor had decided to join her, saying he could keep up with a girl Secret Service agent, no sweat. He’d told her to be ready at sunup. Since he was the type to dump her out of bed, Jo had been ready. He’d teased her some more as they’d set off. He had kept up with her, too. When they returned to the cabins, Elijah was out skipping stones into the lake.
“The difference between Cameron and me is this,” Grit had said quietly, unusually serious. “I lived and wished I hadn’t. Elijah never thought he’d live, but he’s glad he did. Because of you.”
Then he’d gone inside, leaving Jo to her cold cabin.
Preston Neal went on, as if he could read her mind, “I understand there’s a certain Special Forces solider…”
“We grew up together.”
“Sergeant Cameron is a hero in my book. So is his friend Ryan Taylor. And so are you, Jo. Please. You all be careful.”
“We will, and thank you, Mr.—” She stopped herself, aware of the people around her. “I appreciate the call.”
After she hung up, Jo avoided the questioning looks of her tablemates and finished her scone as she experienced a jolt of reality. What had she been thinking? Life could never be normal for her again in her hometown. She’d left at eighteen, and she now had a job to do. Even if everyone suspected that she’d been given a role in the investigation, she had no illusions. She didn’t belong in Black Falls.
Then her sister kicked her under the table. “Smile, Jo. Lighten up. You’ll catch the bad guys. The good guys didn’t do so bad this round.”
“If we’d managed to take either one of them alive…”
Scott shook his head. “You know better than to second-guess yourself that way, Jo. Rigby had 120 rounds on him. You and Elijah had no other choice. As for Kendall—” Scott shrugged. “She was playing with a rough crowd.”
Beth leaned forward over the small table. “Jo, if you and Elijah hadn’t acted, Nora wouldn’t have survived.”
Jo understood. Her sister had been the first of the medical personnel on the scene after the explosion and had witnessed what it had done to Melanie Kendall. Investigators had concluded that a simple pipe bomb constructed of smokeless gunpowder, black powder, two thin strands of copper wire and a cell phone had been placed under Melanie’s front seat. Someone had called the cell phone, and the electricity from the call was just enough to ignite the lethal charge.
Nora had gone back to the Georgetown home that her mother had shared with her second husband. Thomas was cooperating with police. Detectives were going through Nora and Devin’s research into her father’s fiancée and had already discovered that one of her potential interior decorating clients had turned up murdered. They had travel records to investigate. DNA results would be coming back on both her and her partner in killing. They’d test everything they’d collected in Drew’s cabin for a match.
Jo grabbed her scone and rose, realizing she’d just reminded everyone of what they’d been trying to forget, at least for a few hours. “I should go.”
But Scott pointed at her. “Sit down. Finish your scone.” He smiled. “Some tough Secret Service agent you are, eating scones.” He reached over and slung his arm across the back of Beth’s chair; she settled against him. His smile faded, his eyes still on Jo. “Come on. Sit. We all need to talk. Why should you be any different?”
Hannah and Dominique joined them from the kitchen, and Jo returned to her seat. Beth dived into her second scone without any hint of guilt. Hannah took a tiny nibble of her scone and offered up her theory. “These killers went to a lot of trouble to try to make it look like two kids got in over their heads with each other and died on the mountain.”