Authors: Darlene Gardner
Tags: #Return To Indigo Springs
It led to a sprawling modern house with an elaborate entranceway, oversize bay windows and a backyard pool that came complete with a miniature waterfall. Everything about the house was too big, too ornate and too far away from his old neighborhood.
On the plus side, and this was a very big plus, living here made Arianne happy.
He was facing the general direction of the house, so he saw the garage door slide open, revealing his three-year-old Lexus and the new model Mercedes that Arianne drove.
She came into view, and for an instant he couldn’t breathe. She was fifteen years younger than his fifty-four, but could have easily passed for thirty. She wore a pale-pink-and-white sleeveless dress that showed off her golden tan and her long legs, made to look longer still by strappy high-heeled sandals. The honey highlights in her shoulder-length brown hair caught the sun as she came toward him.
Damn, his wife was a beautiful woman.
Her makeup, not that she needed any, was perfect. Pink lipstick that made her lips glisten and eye makeup that caused eyes she said were too small to appear larger.
She covered her ears, prompting him to stop staring and switch off the motor. The neighborhood went abruptly silent.
“Well, that’s better.” She tilted her head, her brows coming together as she surveyed him. He felt a bead of sweat slide down his face. “Are you sure about not hiring a lawn service? I hate that you’re spending a vacation day on yard work.”
“I’m tougher than I look,” he joked. The truth of the matter was that even with his six-figure salary they needed to save money somewhere with the rate of Arianne’s spending. Besides, he enjoyed working in the yard. Sometimes it even helped take his mind off Jill and Chris. “Speaking of which, you look fantastic. Where are you headed?”
“Didn’t I tell you?” She patted her already perfect hair into place. “There’s a charity luncheon for the women’s shelter at the Marriott.”
She probably had told him, but Arianne was always heading off to one function or another. It was hard to keep all of them straight.
“I’m going to stick around here,” Mark said, then lowered his voice even though there was no one else within sight. “That private investigator’s supposed to call.”
“He just did,” Arianne said. “That’s one of the things I came out here to tell you. You can call him back any time.”
Mark had to fight not to rush for the house, so eager was he for the man he’d hired to help him put things right again. “Why didn’t you get him to hold?”
“He doesn’t have any news.” Arianne’s voice was equally soft, and he felt his chest deflate into what was now a familiar ache. There’d been no breaks in the case since they’d narrowly missed intercepting Jill and Chris in South Carolina. “Although maybe that’s for the best.”
“The best?” Mark could barely believe he’d heard her correctly. “How could you say that?”
“Oh, that came out all wrong.” She bit her lower lip with her pretty, straight teeth. “All I meant is that Jill’s better with Chris than I’ll ever be. You know what a hard time he had warming up to me and how he tried his best to break us up.”
“He’s my son, Arianne,” Mark said firmly. “He belongs with me.”
“I know he does.” She touched her chest and sighed softly. “Never mind what I said. Of course you feel that way. It was awful of Jill to run off with him like that. I still don’t know what she was thinking.”
Mark remembered his disbelief when Ray Williams, the guy Jill had been dating, phoned to say she was planning to pick up Chris from summer camp and leave town. The nightmare hadn’t become real until a camp counselor confirmed his daughter had already come and gone.
“She was thinking she was protecting her brother.” No matter the trouble Jill had caused him, Mark still had a hard time faulting her.
“Chris doesn’t need protecting,” Arianne said, not for the first time.
“I know that, and you know that.” Mark didn’t have to add that the social worker who’d investigated the case knew it, too. “Chris can be very persuasive when he wants to be.”
“Jill must know he has a history of lying,” Arianne said, covering ground they’d gone over before.
Chris was a good kid, but he’d been crying wolf since his mother’s death. Mark had finally taken his son to a child psychologist, who explained that Chris was trying to get attention.
Mark loved his son and had tried his best to provide the attention he needed, but he was limited by the long hours he worked as a tax attorney.
“Jill and her brother have always been very close,” Mark said. “She has a blind spot where he’s concerned.”
“She has one with me, too,” Arianne said. “I wish she’d gotten to know me better so she could see how ridiculous those accusations are.”
“When all this is over,” Mark said, “we’ll make sure she gets that opportunity.”
Arianne gave him a tight smile. Jill and Chris had already been gone for almost a year. After that much time had passed, Arianne didn’t think they could all become one big happy family. Mark, however, believed in miracles.
“I need to go,” Arianne said, “but I’ll be home in plenty of time to get ready for tonight.”
“We have tickets to the symphony. Remember?”
With everything else that had been going on, he hadn’t. He started to say he wasn’t in the mood, but he could tell how much she was looking forward to it.
“I’ll be ready,” he said.
“I’ll see you later, then.” She leaned forward to kiss him, careful not to sully her expensive clothes against his sweat.
Her lips were warm and soft.
She turned away, hurrying toward the Mercedes on her high heels, her backside swaying temptingly.
The age difference had stopped him from proposing. So had the fact that he was a single father who’d already been divorced once and widowed once. But he hadn’t been able to refuse when she’d asked him to marry her, especially because she knew he and Chris were a package deal. That had been two years ago and he’d felt like the luckiest man alive.
Maybe he shouldn’t have been surprised when his luck had run out, yet he was.
It still seemed incredible that Jill could possibly believe Arianne had regularly locked Chris in a closet and threatened to kill him if he told anyone about it.
Although the trip had ended thirty minutes before and most of the adventurers were already gone, the boy’s parents were at the counter paying for some souvenir T-shirts.
“I most certainly did think you were awesome,” Jill said. “You beat those rapids to a pulp!”
“They didn’t stand a chance,” he agreed, his head bobbing.
“Not a one,” she said.
She wasn’t about to diminish his pride by telling him summer was the tamest time of year for riding the rapids, aside from the special dam-release weekends when the water level was deliberately raised to give a boost to the fishing and rafting industries.
She’d explained as much to Chris, however, and he still insisted white water rafting was too scary. Her latent anger at her father’s new wife briefly bubbled to the surface. What Arianne had done to her brother’s psyche was criminal.
“Next time I want to go on one of those little boats like you had.” The boy was referring to the single-person kayak Jill and the other guides used. “My parents were slowing me down.”
“Liam. We’re leaving!” the boy’s father called from across the shop.
“Bye!” Liam said, then dashed across the store, his arms extended from his sides, as though he were flying.
“Energetic little guy, isn’t he?” Annie Whitmore came around the counter and joined her, her blond hair stuffed into the twin of the Indigo River Rafters hat that Jill wore. “Probably runs his parents ragged. I wouldn’t have the stamina to keep up with him.”
Jill squashed the urge to tell Annie she wished Chris had half the boy’s energy. He had once upon a time, even though he’d never been the boisterous type. She couldn’t say anything of the sort, of course. It would bring up too many questions she couldn’t answer.
“Sure, you would,” Jill said. “You keep up with your daughter.”
“Lindsey is a fifteen-year-old girl who loves to listen to her iPod and text her friends. She only expends unusual amounts of energy at the mall.” Annie’s voice was indulgent, the same way it was whenever she talked about her daughter.
“Speaking of Lindsey,” Annie continued, “she was in here earlier and pointed out something mighty interesting.”
“What’s that?” Jill asked.
Annie marched over to the bulletin board near the exit and pointed to the notice Jill had posted that morning. “This. You can’t leave until you tell me what it’s about.”
“And here I thought that posting was self-explanatory,” Jill said.
“‘Found—Caramel-colored female goat. Approximately one year old and two feet tall.’” Annie read the notice, her hands balanced on her slim hips. “Girl, that only brings up more questions.”
“Only because you left out the important part.” Jill pointed with her index finger to the word her friend had skipped over. “It’s a
“That clears it right up,” Annie said. “I find a freakishly small goat myself every so often.”
Jill laughed. When she’d first met Annie, the other woman had been shy to the point of being withdrawn. No longer. Either marriage, motherhood or a combination of the two had brought her true personality forth. In the past year Annie had married her high school love, been reunited with the daughter they’d put up for adoption when they were teenagers and gotten rid of the port-wine stain on her face that must have fueled some of her previous self-doubt.
“Dan says lots of people keep pygmy goats as pets,” Jill said. “It seems like this one was a pet, too, except she’s blind in one eye. That could be why somebody dumped her on the side of the road.”
“How awful!” Annie exclaimed before her face scrunched up. “Wait a minute. Dan? Do you mean Dan Maguire? The vet?”
Jill cleared her throat. “Yes.”
“Oh, my gosh! He left a message for you when you were out on the river and I didn’t put two and two together.”
“What are you talking about?” Jill asked warily.
“You and the hunky vet! Penelope told me she was fixing you two up. I can’t believe one of her matches took!” Annie’s voice carried throughout the shop. Thank goodness there was no one present but the two of them.
“You’ve got it wrong.” Jill raised both hands palm sides up.
“Penelope didn’t fix you up?”
“Well, yes,” Jill said. “Except it
take. I was only with Dan last night because Tinkerbell has a broken leg.”
Annie’s nose wrinkled. “Tinkerbell?”
“The goat. Our best guess is a car sideswiped her and kept on going,” Jill said. “Tinkerbell managed to walk into the woods, probably on adrenaline, until she collapsed. My brother found her. He came and got me, and I got Dan.”
“Poor Tinkerbell,” Annie said before her brow knitted. “But if that’s all there is between you and Dan, why did he leave you that message?”
Jill had returned his call as soon as she’d gotten off the river, even before they’d stacked the rafts and put away the paddles.
“Dan called with an update on Tinkerbell.” He’d also mentioned Chris had been waiting with Felicia outside the vet’s office that morning before it opened. “Stanley Kownacki knows of a farmer who raises pygmy goats. He offered to take her.”
Annie frowned. “And here I thought you’d gotten yourself a hot boyfriend.”
Jill couldn’t help but smile. “Why is everybody so concerned about my love life?”
“Maybe because you don’t have one?” Annie’s question was rhetorical.
“Ha, ha,” Jill said.
“Before you go, I need to tell you about the call I got today from our new mayor,” Annie said. She was speaking of Charlie Bradford, who’d been elected last November in a special election after the previous mayor was unable to finish his term due to poor health. “You don’t mind if I straighten up as we talk, do you?”
“I’ll help.” Jill walked with Annie to a shelf containing bottles of suntan lotion and insect repellent in no discernible order. “So what’s up with Charlie? Did he tell you any jokes?”
“A quote, not a joke,” Annie said. “Something about a lie traveling halfway around the world while the truth was putting on its shoes.”
“Teresa says politics have given him a whole new source of material,” Jill said, referring to Charlie’s wife. She’d become acquainted with the couple during the spring festival and liked them immensely, especially Charlie, partly because he was so delightfully corny.
“Charlie was actually calling about something serious.” Annie picked up a bottle of Coppertone that had fallen on the floor and placed it back on the shelf. “He knows I rent out mountain bikes and wanted to fill me in on a race called the Poconos Challenge.”
“I’ve heard of it,” Jill said slowly.
“Oh, good. Then you’ll be up to speed when Charlie contacts you.”
“Why would Charlie call me?” Jill asked.
“He’s looking for a cyclist to present the proposal to the nominating committee.” Annie stood back and surveyed the straightened shelf, apparently satisfied. “I told him he should try you.”
“I don’t think—”
The phone rang, interrupting Jill.
“I’ve got to get that.” Annie moved toward the counter, talking as she went. “No one else is around today. My dad’s got the day off, although I had to twist his arm to get him to take it.” She picked up on the third ring, answering, “Indigo River Rafters.”
Annie’s smile grew wide as she listened to the caller. “You sure can talk to her, Dan,” she said, her twinkling eyes on Jill. “She’s right here.”
She covered the mouthpiece and held out the phone to Jill, her eyebrows shifting up and down. “He sure does call a lot for a man who’s not interested in you,” she said in a loud whisper.
Darned if Jill’s heartbeat didn’t speed up.
She took the phone, avoiding looking at Annie. “Hey, Dan.”
“We’ve got a problem,” he said. “Your brother overheard me talking to that farmer about Tinkerbell. Now Chris is missing and so is the goat.”