Authors: Carla Neggers
Tags: #Detective and Mystery Stories, #General, #Romance, #Suspense Fiction, #Missing persons, #Suspense, #Fiction
Instead, she zipped up her fleece jacket and stepped outside. The village of Black Falls was located in a narrow river valley in the heart of the Green Mountains that ran up the middle of Vermont. Its attractive main street was lined with renovated old houses—clapboard, brick, stone—that were often the subject of Vermont postcards. Most had been converted into shops and businesses.
Across the street, the midday sun peeked through the naked trees on the sliver of a town green and sparkled on brightly colored fallen leaves. Not a bad place to be, Jo thought, even with Elijah in town. She felt some of the tension of being around him ease. She enjoyed the chance to spend time with her family. They’d all had spaghetti up at her parents’ place last night.
But she still had an afternoon to kill and wasn’t used to being at a loose end.
As she reached her car, her cell phone rang. Service was spotty in the nooks and crannies of south-central Vermont, but she had a decent signal.
She recognized Thomas Asher’s strangled voice. “Thomas? What’s—”
“There’s been an accident.” He gulped in a breath and rushed forward, his words coming fast. “I don’t know. Maybe it wasn’t an accident. The police…I can’t think…I…”
“Whoa, Thomas, slow down. Start from the beginning. Who’s hurt?”
“Alex. Alex Bruni. Jo—he’s dead. I can’t believe it. He was hit by a car outside a hotel across from his office. He…The police say he was killed instantly. It was a hit-and-run. The driver took off.”
“Does Nora know?”
“Yes. I called and told her.” He sounded slightly calmer now that he had delivered the news. “I don’t know how much she heard or didn’t hear—we didn’t have a good connection. Jo, could I ask you to check on her? Would you mind? Nora doesn’t know many people up there. I’d feel better if you could—” His voice cracked. “I’m in shock. Alex and I have been…we were friends for more than twenty years.”
“Thomas, do you have any reason to suspect Nora is in any danger?”
“No! No, no, she’s not in danger. I’m just worried about her emotional state. She and Alex didn’t get along that well, but she’s close to her mother. Carolyn will get the first flight she can out of Hong Kong, but it’ll take a while.”
“Have you been in touch with the police?”
“The police. If Ambassador Bruni was killed in a hit-and-run—”
“Right, of course.” He seemed to have trouble focusing. “The police are investigating. I don’t know the details, Jo. I was here at my office working on a presentation when I heard.”
“How did you find out?”
“Alex’s secretary called me. So that I could tell Nora before she heard it on the news.” He was breathless, obviously shaken. “I didn’t have to tell Carolyn. Thank heaven for that. I think the police told her. I spoke to her, of course—I assured her I’d take care of Nora. Jo…”
“I’ll check on her right now, Thomas. I’m sorry about Ambassador Bruni.”
“I knew him longer than Carolyn. People wonder why we stayed friends after they got together, but there was never a question…” He sobbed openly. “I can’t believe he’s gone.”
“How did Nora take the news?” Jo asked, trying to cut through his grief.
“Hard to tell. She stayed calm, but it’s such a shock. I just want to be sure she’s okay. She’s so young, Jo—she should be at college, with professors and counselors and friends.”
“Do you want her to make arrangements to get back to Washington?”
“I don’t know. A funeral is on hold for now, pending the—the autopsy….” He seemed to drift off, then added quietly, “It’s hard to think about the future.”
“Then don’t. Think about what you need to do right now. Are you alone?”
“Melanie’s on her way.”
The fiancée. Jo pulled her car door open. “That’s good.”
“We’ll come up there if we need to. Nora and I—we used to be so close. I wish you’d known us then. She doesn’t communicate with me the way she used to. Remember being eighteen?”
Staying on the lake next to Elijah, she’d been remembering being eighteen a lot. But she wasn’t going there. “Why did Nora quit school? Was there a precipitating incident—a crisis, anything?”
“I think it was pure impulse. She loves Vermont, or at least the idea of it.” Thomas’s tone cooled noticeably. “Her decision to take a break from college has nothing to do with Alex’s death.”
“All right. I’ll get back to you as soon as I’ve laid eyes on her.”
“I haven’t even asked how you are,” he said quietly.
“I just had a warm scone and coffee at the café where I understand you and Melanie met.”
“Ah.” He seemed to try to sound cheerful. “The Three Sisters Café of Black Falls, Vermont, has the best scones anywhere.” But he choked up with emotion. “Jo…”
“I know, Thomas. I’m so sorry. I’ll go look in on Nora now.”
He hung up, and Jo climbed into her car and stuck the key in the ignition. Her head felt pinched, tight. Had Nora talked to her father before she’d fled the café? Was that why she was so upset? Had Devin known her stepfather was dead?
Had Elijah known?
She debated, then dialed several law enforcement friends in Washington. No one picked up. A cell signal wasn’t the problem this time. “From hero to goat,” she muttered. She wasn’t offended. She relented and tried her boss.
Francona picked up on the first ring. “Thought you’d be in a canoe.”
“Ambassador Bruni’s stepdaughter lives in Black Falls. She just took off from the café where she works—”
“Three Sisters on Main Street. I’ve got the Web site up now.” He paused and added, “Quaint.”
“The owners aren’t sisters.”
“Beth Harper’s your sister.”
Jo didn’t respond.
“I’m surprised the lakes up there aren’t all frozen. Do you own a canoe?”
Yesterday, she and Beth had appropriated the canoe left on her property. Elijah’s, no doubt. “Actually, no.”
“Borrow one. Rent one. Whatever.”
Jo sighed. “Did a report on Bruni just cross your desk? Is that why you had the café Web site up?”
“Wear a life vest.”
Mark Francona was difficult and exacting on a good day. Today, Jo thought, wasn’t a good day.
She drove up along the town green and crossed the covered bridge over the river, heading up a hill toward the country estate where Nora Asher lived.
“I’d give my life for Elijah.”
Jo gripped the wheel and pushed back the image of Drew Cameron on their walk among the cherry blossoms. She didn’t know anything that would connect their unsettling conversation and his death two weeks later, much less Alexander Bruni’s death a few hours ago.
But something was wrong in Black Falls, she thought, and had been for some time.
Fighting tears, Nora set her backpack on the gray-painted wood floor of the small porch of the stone guesthouse she’d moved into after she’d quit college. She’d wanted to rent her own apartment—to really be independent—but when Lowell and Vivian Whittaker, the couple who owned the guesthouse, offered to let her live there in exchange for odd jobs, her parents had bullied her into agreeing. The Whittakers were closer friends with Alex and her mom than with her dad, but he’d jumped right in with them. They’d all provided practical reasons why living in the guesthouse made sense, but she knew they just didn’t think she could make it on her own. But the guesthouse was working out okay. It was cute, and the Whittakers weren’t in Black Falls that much and mostly left her alone.
Nora didn’t care about any of that right now. She held a breath to keep herself from crying.
Alex is dead.
“Don’t think about it,” she told herself out loud.
She noticed a tear had dropped onto the checklist Elijah had insisted each student in his wilderness-skills class come up with of what to take on a winter hike. She had everything on her list. Map, compass, food, shelter, knife, matches, clothes, a whistle, water, water-purification tablets. A lot of the stuff was new and it was all good quality.
You’ll be fine.
She squatted to zip up a small outer compartment on her backpack. Her head spun. She couldn’t make it stop. “Alex is dead,” she whispered. “I can’t believe he’s dead.”
She was so scared. She couldn’t see straight. She didn’t know what to do.
Her hands trembled and already felt frozen, but she wasn’t even that cold yet. She had packed gloves—she’d shown them to Elijah to make sure they would work for winter conditions, and he’d given his approval. He wasn’t as cocky as she’d expected a Special Forces soldier to be. He was just super-competent and professional. Everyone in Black Falls that she met said no one knew the mountains better than Elijah.
Nora wished she could be that confident—that good—one day.
She sniffled, refusing to cry outright. She’d been so excited about moving to Black Falls, and now her life there was just a big mess. She loved her apartment, and the Whittakers’ estate—a classic Vermont gentleman’s farm—was so beautiful. The guesthouse, once a separate property, was nestled at the bottom of a sloping, manicured lawn that swept up to a huge charcoal-gray, black-shuttered farmhouse.
Nora hadn’t told the Whittakers, who’d arrived in Black Falls a couple of days ago, about Alex. She didn’t plan to tell them, either. Alex had met them on a trip to Vermont last October. He’d been a regular guest at the Camerons’ lodge for several years and came up one weekend while her mom was on a business trip. He and the Whittakers had hit it off, and they’d invited him to stay with them and to bring his fiancée and her daughter. Nora fell in love with Black Falls. She came up twice after that with Alex and her mother. Then the Whittakers insisted she bring her father one weekend. Just the two of them. He was reluctant at first, but Nora talked him into it. They’d had such a great time together. She’d fantasized about all of them coming to Vermont one day—her, her dad, her mom, Alex. She thought Lowell and Vivian understood.
If only, though, she hadn’t told them she and her father were heading north in April to look at colleges. They’d immediately invited them to stay at their place in Black Falls. If they hadn’t—if they’d just stayed in another town—he never would have met Melanie Kendall.
It’s my fault he met that bitch.
She jumped, but stifled a scream when she saw it was Devin on the stone walk in front of the guesthouse. She straightened, sniffled back her tears. “Devin, what are you doing here? You startled me.”
“Sorry.” He looked almost forlorn. “I just want to talk.”
“There’s nothing to talk about. Really.”
A pair of mallards floated in a small man-made pond behind him. The banks of the pond were planted with weeping willows and rhododendrons. Everything about the estate was beautifully done, carefully planned. As much as she wanted her own apartment, Nora loved being there, having her own space and being surrounded by wilderness. She’d hated living in a dorm.
Devin nodded to her pack. “Are you going somewhere?”
“Maybe. I don’t know. I wanted to see how all the stuff I’ve been collecting since the class I took with Elijah would fit into my backpack.”
“I can manage.”
“Nora, what’s going on?”
There was no irritation or frustration in his tone. Obviously he didn’t know about Alex, and she couldn’t bring herself to repeat out loud what her father had told her.
“I have terrible news, Nora. Alex has been killed….”
It wasn’t a mistake. Her dad wouldn’t have called her unless he was positive.
Alex was dead.
My mom’s a widow.
Devin took an audible breath. “Nora…please. Talk to me.”
She wanted to believe in him. Until that morning, she had. She’d never met anyone steadier or more reliable than Devin. People in Black Falls didn’t understand that about him. They thought he was just a dumb, screwed-up kid from a bad family.
Nora didn’t want to be the one to prove them right.
She let her pack lean against her knee. “You stole money from me, Devin.”
He didn’t respond. He looked hurt, and that made her want to cry even more.
“If you needed money, you could have asked me.” All the starch had gone out of her. “I’d never refuse you. Even if I don’t have much to spare—”
“I didn’t steal from you.”
Even now, reeling, frightened, confused, Nora wanted to find a way it
have been him. Devin was her best friend in Black Falls. He understood how she felt about her father’s odious fiancée and didn’t tell her she was just jealous. Something was off about Melanie. Nora couldn’t pinpoint what it was, but she didn’t like her, didn’t trust her and was convinced the feeling was mutual on Melanie’s part. She’d gotten Devin to help her. They’d essentially been doing their own background check on Melanie—something Nora’s father probably should have done himself.
“Nora, are you running from me?”
She shook her head. “I don’t care about the money.” Her voice was hoarse, barely a whisper. She gave a fake little smile. “I just need some space to clear my head.”
She hoisted up her pack. It was expensive and brand-new—it even smelled new. Her mother had actually loved the idea of her taking a wilderness-skills class and told Nora to put the backpack on her credit card. Elijah had a simple beat-up pack he’d had for years. He’d probably taken it on hundreds of hikes. It wasn’t an army-issue pack—Nora knew that much. They’d all talked behind his back in class about what he must have done as a soldier. Supposedly he could speak the different languages of Afghanistan and knew the culture, the people, as well as how to handle himself in a firefight.
Elijah’s class had consisted of her and six other students just as green and eager and stupid as she was. She was the youngest, though. That had made her feel a little less self-conscious. The women in the class all thought Elijah was sexy. Nora did, too, but thinking that way made her feel disloyal to Devin, even if they were just friends. Elijah was a total stud and very serious about the information he was giving, but it was so obvious to Nora that she and her classmates were nothing like the soldiers he was used to in the military. But he was so thorough, and that was a good thing. Otherwise she’d have tossed a sundress or something equally useless into her pack, because she was so crazed she couldn’t