Authors: Carla Neggers
Tags: #Detective and Mystery Stories, #General, #Romance, #Suspense Fiction, #Missing persons, #Suspense, #Fiction
“Nora,” Devin said, his voice tortured. “Come on—”
“I have to go.”
She shivered as if she were already on Cameron Mountain. She’d left her cell phone in the kitchen because it was a way for someone to track her.
And she didn’t want to be tracked. Every instinct she had told her to get up on the mountain and disappear, even if it violated the basic tenets of safe hiking. Don’t hike alone. Leave her route with someone. Tell someone how long she expected to be gone. Nora didn’t care. She didn’t want anyone to find her unless she wanted to be found—unless she knew exactly who was looking for her and why. She’d been planning this trip for days. She’d meant to ask Devin to go with her—but forget that now. She wanted to get away from everyone.
Devin took another step toward her. “Did your dad find out you were snooping into Melanie’s background?”
“No, I don’t think so. And I’m not that concerned if he does. He should have checked her out himself. He’s too trusting.”
“Are they on their way up here? Is that why you’re doing this?”
“No, they’re not on their way. Devin, please.” Her head was still spinning, and she didn’t want to start crying in front of him. “I just—Devin, the money…” She hadn’t wanted to get into it with him. He’d come to the café knowing something was wrong, and she’d refused to talk to him. She blinked back tears now and hoisted her pack onto one shoulder. Devin was right—it
heavy. “I’m missing a hundred dollars,” she said.
“And you think I stole it?”
She looked away.
“Was it in your wallet?”
“My kitchen.” She nodded back toward the front door of the guesthouse. It was divided into two side-by-side apartments—she’d had her pick and chosen the one with the better view of the pond and surrounding hills, so gorgeous when the leaves were turning. She’d never been afraid there. Not once, until today. “I keep a hundred dollars in cash for emergencies, and it’s gone.”
“Where? A drawer, the freezer?”
“Under a pot of parsley in the window. I check it every morning. I checked it yesterday morning, and it was there. I checked it this morning, and it was gone.”
“There’s no sign anyone broke in?”
“No. I worked late yesterday, then went on a bike ride.”
“You don’t lock your doors,” Devin said. “Anyone could have walked in.”
“I don’t want to discuss it.”
She marched down the steps with her backpack and brushed past him, her throat tight, tears spilling down her cheeks. Her mother had probably called by now. Nora had turned off her cell phone. She didn’t want to talk to her. She couldn’t bear her mother’s grief—couldn’t handle having her mother dump on her to make herself feel better. Nora had talked to a friend whose father was a psychologist, and her friend had said that was what her mother did.
It still seemed selfish and wrong not to talk to her mother when her husband had just been killed. She and Alex had truly loved each other.
Nora continued down the stone path toward the gravel turnaround where she’d parked. The main entrance to the estate was a quarter-mile up the road. The air was chilly, but she had all the right clothes. She was a little afraid of staying up on the mountain at night this time of year. Elijah had lectured the class about the dangers of hypothermia.
That was how his father had died in April, right before
father fell for the bitch Melanie over scones at the Three Sisters Café.
Nora heard Devin behind her. Part of her wanted to run up to the Whittakers and let them take care of her.
Maybe Alex was right and she was just a wimp.
Of course, he hadn’t said “wimp.” He was the big diplomat, after all. He’d just had a talk with her about accepting herself, understanding her limitations, pushing herself in areas where she could excel instead of setting herself up for failure.
In other words, she was a wimp.
She’d never liked him that much. Even when he and her dad were friends—before he’d married her mom—she’d thought he was a jerk. When she’d mentioned her class with Elijah, Alex had laughed and said he’d like to see her down at the local army recruiting office. Normally she’d have laughed, too, and pretended she wasn’t hurt, but instead she’d summoned up the guts to tell him he was making fun of her and she didn’t appreciate it. He’d gotten this shocked look and said he just meant to tease her, not to demean her. He’d seemed so genuine, so serious, that for about two seconds Nora had believed he wanted a real relationship with her, one that meant something.
Now he was dead.
She wondered if her father was as upset by Alex’s death as her mother was. Everyone had thought her dad would hate Alex, but he didn’t.
No one would think about how she felt. The in-the-way stepdaughter.
It was all so surreal.
She picked up her pace, already debating whether she needed
in her pack. It was
heavy. She felt a sudden, blinding anger toward her father for telling her about Alex the way he had, calling her on her cell phone, just blurting out that he was dead. Deep down, though, she knew there was no easy way to give someone such news. She could imagine how awful it must have been for Devin when he’d found Drew Cameron. He’d hiked up the north side of the mountain alone and had been forced to leave Drew’s body up there in the snow while he hiked down again, got back to his truck and drove out to where he could get a cell signal and call for help. At least he hadn’t actually been the one to give the Camerons the terrible news. The state police had done that part. And Drew Cameron’s death had been an accident. As much as she didn’t like Alex, it sickened Nora to think that someone could have run him over on purpose.
My dad, for one.
Devin rushed to her side, and she realized she’d screamed. “I’m okay,” she said quickly, not looking at him. How could she even think such a thing? Her father could never kill anyone. That he could fall for a woman as horrible as Melanie didn’t mean he was capable of running over the friend who’d stolen his first wife from him.
Melanie, and that gave him even less reason to kill Alex.
Her dad couldn’t possibly be a suspect.
“You’re freaking me out,” Devin said.
Nora pushed ahead of him out to the gravel turnaround. “Sorry. I have a lot on my mind.”
“Did something else happen, besides realizing your money’s missing? Did Melanie find out we’re checking her out?”
“No, nothing like that.”
Melanie already knows I hate her. She knows.
Nora set her pack down next to the car Alex had bought for her against her father’s wishes. It was a used Subaru; it wasn’t as if he’d given her a brand-new, expensive car. As irritating and demeaning as he could be, Alex hadn’t wanted her riding her bicycle on the hills and narrow roads of Black Falls, or hitchhiking, or relying on friends. In his own way, he’d tried to help her, even if his primary purpose was to keep her from bugging him. He would tell her that he worked so hard because he was dedicated to making the world a better place. How could she complain about him not coming to her high-school graduation ceremony when he was off saving the world?
She was aware of Devin watching her, but refused to look back at him. If she could have sprouted wings and flown away, she would have.
With a steadier hand, she opened up the front passenger door. She cried openly now, picturing Alex running across a busy Washington street, oblivious to the car coming at him, unaware that he was in the last moments of his life. He’d have been wearing a suit—he always wore suits in Washington. He’d have had his briefcase with him. Had he held on to it, or had it gone flying?
What had gone through his mind? Had he thought about his wife, his ex-wife, his children?
Had he thought about his stepdaughter up in Vermont?
Had he thought about anything?
Nora hefted her backpack onto the seat and shut the door hard. She knew she couldn’t bring herself to tell Devin about Alex. She just couldn’t do it.
She turned to him and said softly, “I know you’re not a thief. I’ll be okay. We both will.”
“Stay, Nora. Don’t do this.”
“Just find out what you can about Melanie. Clients, travels—especially since April when she met my father.”
Melanie had been in Black Falls when Drew Cameron went missing. Now Alex was dead in Washington.
She was bad luck.
“I’ll do what I can,” Devin said. “Where will I find you?”
Nora pretended not to hear him and got into her car. She’d drive out to Black Falls Lodge and park at a trailhead. She had a good map and, even with the short days, she still had several hours of daylight to hike before she had to worry about pitching her tent.
In another minute, she was backing out onto the quiet road. She had time to get a good way out into the woods, away from everyone before dark. She could think, and she wouldn’t screw anything up for anyone. She wouldn’t say something stupid, like her father had good reason to want Alex Bruni dead.
He didn’t. He and Alex were friends.
And she’d be safe on the mountain.
Safe from whoever had killed Alex, because every instinct she had told her she wasn’t safe now.
She had to trust herself.
She had to run.
Thirty minutes after he’d left the Three Sisters Café, Elijah twirled the stem of a bright red leaf he’d scooped off the pile of leaves Vivian Whittaker had heaped up on the front lawn of her Vermont country home. Her husband, Lowell, was in the house, collecting himself, she’d said, after hearing about Alex Bruni’s death. She’d told Elijah the news in a clipped, straightforward manner, never pausing her raking. He’d run into the Whittakers a few times since his return home, but he only knew them to nod to on the street.
He’d stopped at the guesthouse first. No Nora, no Devin. Then he’d spotted Vivian raking leaves and walked up to find out if she’d seen either of the teenagers.
A.J. had called while Jo and her sister were still on their run. Devin hadn’t shown up for work at the lodge. Money was missing. Elijah had headed out to see what he could learn. He hadn’t considered that Nora’s stepfather would be killed in Washington.
Vivian raked a patch of grass with such force she took up dirt along with the last of the fallen leaves. She was a tall, thin, fair woman in her mid-forties. A trust-fund type, according to Sean, who knew such things. Her family’s money came from a New York-based investment bank. Lowell was some kind of money type himself, although not as rich as his wife. Even as well-off as Elijah’s younger brother Sean was, the Whittakers had to be, by far, the wealthiest landowners in Black Falls. For as long as Elijah could remember, the “farm” on the rolling hills above the river had been owned by out-of-staters.
“It’s colder than I expected today,” Vivian said, not looking at him. “I’m glad I wore gloves. They’re just garden gloves, but they keep my hands warm enough.”
Elijah thought it was a fine November day. The cool air felt good to him. Helped him get his head together. He figured Jo couldn’t have known about Bruni back at the café, not because he didn’t think she could control her emotions, but because she wouldn’t have continued to sit there eating a scone and looking at the river. Given the kind of week she’d had—given the type of person she was—she’d latch on to news of a dead ambassador whose stepdaughter was in Black Falls. No question in Elijah’s mind.
She’d probably found out by now. He wasn’t sure how long he had before she turned up. If she didn’t have a reason, she’d think of one. He wasn’t about to break any laws, but he was accustomed to a certain level of autonomy and wanted to do things his own way. Go from there. He wanted to find Devin and confront him about the missing money.
He didn’t need a Secret Service agent throwing up roadblocks.
And he hadn’t anticipated Nora’s stepfather turning up dead.
But he saw tears glisten in Vivian’s eyes and reminded himself the woman had just lost a friend. “I’m sorry about Ambassador Bruni,” he said.
She quickly brought herself back under control. “Yes. Well. It’s unfortunate. I only hope his death turns out to be a horrible accident. The idea of someone targeting him is beyond my comprehension. He was such a good man.”
“Who told you?”
“Lowell spoke to Thomas Asher, Nora’s father.” She dipped her rake under a sugar maple, one of a half dozen that dotted the lawn, and scraped the tines over exposed roots. “He called while we were out here working in the yard and left a message. Lowell listened to it. He said it was obvious from Thomas’s tone that something was wrong. He had already spoken to Nora and given her the dreadful news by the time Lowell reached him.
Then Nora knew about her stepfather’s death.
“The police are investigating, of course,” Vivian said, briskly raking her fresh batch of leaves over to the pile. “Alex dedicated himself to diplomacy and public service. It’s difficult to believe he had enemies.”
“Do you know where Nora is now?” Elijah asked.
“You just missed her.” A gust of wind whipped up leaves and lifted Vivian’s fine, pale blond bangs back from her forehead. She paused, breathing hard from her manic raking. “I waved her down as she was leaving. I was raking at the end of the driveway. I didn’t know about Alex at that point. Lowell had just gone inside. Nora was clearly upset, but I didn’t think much of it. She said she was going on a camping trip.”
“What kind of camping trip?”
Vivian stood her rake up on end and picked bits of leaves and debris from the tines. “She didn’t go into detail—an overnight trip, though. I assume she’ll be gone a couple of nights. She obviously didn’t want to talk, and I didn’t push her for details. She assured me she knows what she’s doing.”
Elijah settled back on his heels. Knowing what to do wasn’t the same as doing it, and Nora had just taken an emotional hit with her stepfather’s death. “Did she leave her route with you?”
Vivian shook her head. “Not with me. I urged her to tell someone exactly where she was going and how long she planned to be out. I also warned her not to hike alone. She’s an adult. Lowell and I enjoy having her here, but we can only do so much.”