The Slow Burn of Silence (A Snowy Creek Novel)

ALSO BY LORETH ANNE WHITE

Sahara Kings

The Sheik’s Command

Sheik’s Revenge

Surgeon Sheik’s Rescue

Guarding the Princess

“Sheik’s Captive,”
in
Desert Knights
with Linda Conrad

Wild Country

Manhunter

Cold Case Affair

Shadow Soldiers

The Heart of a Mercenary

A Sultan’s Ransom

Rules of Engagement

Seducing the Mercenary

The Heart of a Renegade

More by Loreth Anne White

Melting the Ice

Safe Passage

The Sheik Who Loved Me

Breaking Free

Her 24-Hour Protector

The Missing Colton

The Perfect Outsider

“Saving Christmas,”
in the
Covert Christmas
anthology

“Letters to Ellie,”
a novella in
SEAL of My Dreams
anthology

The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.

Text copyright © 2014 Loreth Anne White

All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.

Published by Montlake Romance, Seattle

www.apub.com

ISBN-13: 9781477824450

ISBN-10: 1477824456

Cover design by Marc Cohen

Library of Congress Control Number: 2014903549

For Pavlo, my patron of the arts.

CHAPTER 1

April. Spring.

When does something begin and end? The ripples from a stone cast into a pond, do they start with the smoothness of the pebble that first attracts the eye, the impulse to feel it against your palm, to make it skip over water . . . do they end with the last tiny lap of a wave on the distant shore . . .

I look up from the manila folder in my hands. The lawyer—Guthrie—is watching me, a measured quality in his eyes I imagine he reserves for delivering news like this: earth-tilting, life-shattering news. Through the window behind his head, a froth of pale pink cherry blossoms frames a peek-a-boo view of the snowcapped Lions peaks against a bluebird sky. A fat bumblebee ticks rhythmically against the glass. I can hear the muted hum of traffic down Lonsdale. A car horn. A man calling out. A delivery truck beeping as it reverses. Life going on. Everything normal.

Yet not.

Seventy-two hours ago I was with Trey in Bali, our engagement promise to ourselves. The call came while we were lying naked and entwined under a soft white net draped from a bamboo ceiling. My sister and brother-in-law had died in a house fire. As their only living relative, I’d been appointed guardian of their eight-year-old daughter. Trey and I took the first flight home.

Now, sitting here in this lawyer’s North Vancouver office, I can finally understand why I sometimes feel a quiet and inexplicable frisson of unease when I look directly into my niece’s eyes.

It’s because they’re
his
eyes.

His blood that courses through her veins. His DNA. The same DNA used to convict hi
m . . .

Every instinct in my body screams to reject this news, to toss the file back across the lawyer’s lacquered wood desk. But this is Quinn we’re talking about, my little dark-haired, mysterious niece. I was there the day Sophia and Peter brought her home, all wrinkles and snuffles and those adorable newborn stretches. A memory washes into my mind: I’m eighteen, and a tightly swaddled bundle is being placed into my arms. It’s the first time I’ve ever been entrusted to hold such a tiny human being, and the responsibility feels suddenly overwhelming. Emotion burns into my eyes. I can recall the texture of the blanket, the sweet-sour smell of milk, the child’s raven-black hair, soft as spun silk under my palm as I stroke her tiny head.

The smile on my sister’s face that day is something I can never forget. And from that day forward, Quinn was ours. No thought of her birth parents. Just us. The future, a new, extended family.

Another memory swirls into the first—the texture of blue-black hair under my palm, the same color hai
r . . .
a kiss that drowns m
e . . .
the same deep, indigo-blue eyes fringed with impossibly thick lashe
s . . .
My heart races.

“Why?” My voice is hoarse. The bumblebee
tick, tick, ticks
against the pane. Pressure rises in my chest.

Guthrie leans forward, a look of calculated compassion entering his eyes. His tone goes all soothing and placating, and resentment mushrooms sharp, sudden in me. I resent his patronizing demeanor. My anger is misplaced, I know this, yet it’s there, taking hold of me, filling my chest, pushing up against my throat, hammering inside my head.

“You’re Quinn’s closest relative, Ms. Salonen. Your sister felt—”

“I mean why did they adopt
her
. Why—” I catch myself, panic rising, stark reality lacing through me. “Oh God, I’m so sorry. That came out wrong. I didn’t mean that.
I . . .
” I take a deep, slow breath. “You’re certain? There’
s . . .
no possibility it could be a mistake?”

“No mistake. He is the birth father. The documentation is all there.” Guthrie nods at the manila folder still clutched in my hands. “It was a direct placement. The birth mother agreed to the adoption before the parties contacted the agency that handled the paperwork. The birth father’s paternal rights were waived in the adoption decision, in view of his conviction. It’s not uncommon in a case like this.”

“So he doesn’t know? He has no idea where his baby went?”

“He was not told where the child was placed, no.”

I try to swallow against the tightness closing my throat. My skin is hot. Dark memories thread into my mind like ink tendrils into water, swirling, curling, clouding the present, blurring plans for the future with Trey. We’ve all worked so hard to bury the past, the whole town has. But sometimes all one can do is plaster over the cracks with the concrete of industry, because underneath the fissures remain, waiting for some little tremor to open them up into black maws hungry to swallow you up again. Like now.

My attention is pulled back to the bee bashing its fuzzy head against the glass. Why is it even trying to get in when there are blossoms outside, freedom?

“Why didn’t she tell me?” I whisper, staring at the bee.

But Guthrie remains silent. Because it’s damn obvious why. I was eighteen and utterly, madly, wildly in love with Jebbediah Cullen when it happened. In one way or another, I think I’d loved Jeb since I was a child, first as a friend—the real soul mate kind—then it grew more complex. Sexual. Deeper. Jeb always had my back. He showed me a new way of looking at the world. In spite of our fight that sparked the terrible series of events that night, I had every intention of spending the rest of my life with him. The sexual assault, the murder—Jeb’s shocking outburst of violence, the baby, the betrayal—it ripped my life apart, tore the soul right out of my body. I lost focus, drive; crashed, tanking my ski racing career, obliterating my dreams of a second Olympic gold. And they weren’t just my dreams: they were the collective dreams of the Snowy Creek community. I was their Golden Girl, Rachel Salonen, raised right in their own valley, taught to ski on runs that my grandfather helped carve with his ax and chainsaw into the flanks of Bear Mountain before I was even born.

Then came that cold autumn night two girls went missing. Amy Findlay and Merilee Zukanov, my classmates. Amy was found brutally assaulted, pregnant with Jeb’s child. Nine years later, Merilee is still missing.

And now Quinn is mine to care for, this living, breathing embodiment of Jeb’s betrayal, of that night of violence. I am to take this dark-haired little girl with the haunting indigo eyes back home with me to Snowy Creek, where it all happened. This daughter of the renegade I once loved so much.

He’s from the wrong side of the river, Rachel. A half breed. Raised by an Irish drunk and a native woma
n . . .
you can do better, Rache
l . . .
he’s going to hurt you, Rache
l . . .

“Ms. Salonen?”

My gaze jerks back to the lawyer.

“Is there someone I can call?” Guthrie says quietly. “Someone who can perhaps be with you now? Maybe—”

“I’m fine.” I sit up straight. “This is just s
o . . .
” I fight the sudden bite of pain. “It’s so damn Sophia, you know that.” My heart hammers. “She’s a bleeding heart, always has been, always trying to save the bloody world. She was Amy’s victim’s services counselor, did you know? That’s how she and Amy met, when my sister still lived in Snowy Creek. The police called Sophia in after they found Amy wandering dazed and half-naked on the tracks. Amy’s parents are staunch Catholics. They wouldn’t hear of terminating the pregnancy, and Sophia and Pete
r . . .
” My voice cracks. I pause a moment, struggling to gather myself, then I say more quietly, “They’d been trying for years to have a child. I can see it all now, how it must’ve happened. Sophia and Peter stepping in, offering to adopt, to give the baby—a little victim herself—and Amy a second chance.”

My chest hurts. I miss Sophia already, like an open wound laid bare to salt and wind. Just knowing my sister will never again be at the other end of a phone line, ready with her calm, sage advice. A mentor. A mother figure to me. Always so balanced. Gone. My father also gone. And Quinn? Alone in the world now with just me. Panic clutches softly, sickeningly at my stomach. I’m twenty-seven years old. I’m not ready to be a mother—I don’t know how.

“My sister had a heart too big for her own good,” I whisper as I scrabble in my raffia beach tote for a Kleenex. The lawyer gets up, pours water into a glass, hands it to me.

“Thank you.” I clasp the glass tightly; I don’t want him to see that I’m shaking. I take a deep sip as my phone chimes in my bag. I ignore it. I know it’s a text from Trey saying he’s found parking and will be waiting for me downstairs in the plaza.

I think of him standing in the spring sun under the heavy magnolia trees, water sparkling off the Burrard Inlet behind him. How is he going to take this? He has no idea what I’m going to carry outside with me. I focus on setting the glass securely on the desk, then I blow my nose.

“Do I need to sign anything?” I say.

“Just these.” Guthrie slides some papers toward me. “Your copies of the will, the adoption papers, the birth parents’ medical information—it’s all in the folder.” He pauses. “I understand your niece is staying with a neighbor two houses down from your sister’s place, and that she’s seen a counselor.”

I nod and blow my nose again. “We’ve been to see her already. We went there first.” Images of the gutted, charred ruins slice back into my mind. Black skeletons of beams against blue sky. Yellow police tape fluttering in front of Sophia’s rhododendrons. The blooms are a deep cerise, Sophia’s favorite color, her spring garden coming to life while the gardener herself is gone.

The fire broke out after Quinn left for school. The neighbor across the street was the first to see smoke and call it in. Possible cause, the fire commissioner’s office and police said, was a ruptured gas line. The blaze was furious and fast, fueled by the explosion of a propane storage tank. It was fully engaged by the time firefighters arrived on scene. Too hot to enter, they stood back, watching, controlling the spread of the burn while keeping the crowd of onlookers at bay. Everything inside the house was gone.

Sophia’s body was found in her office adjoining the main house, where she was likely overcome by smoke. Peter was discovered crushed under a beam at Sophia’s office door. Initial speculation was that Peter might have been trying to rescue his wife when the burning rafter came down on him.

They told me it could take weeks, months even, before a joint investigation by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the coroner’s service, and the office of the fire commissioner could determine the exact cause of the blaze and deaths.

I finish signing the papers and get to my feet. And just like that, at age twenty-seven, I’m now legally responsible for an eight-year-old girl. Trey and I are going to drive home with her to Snowy Creek, a few hours north into the Coast Mountains. The weight of this is suddenly crushing. I need to figure out what room to put Quinn in. I’ll have to buy her some clothes and other basic necessities before we head up. Plus a suitcase to put it all in. I’ll need to enroll Quinn into Snowy Creek Elementary and arrange some kind of after-school care because the newspaper business my father left me four months ago is consuming all my time and energy, and it’s going to go under if I can’t secure some kind of financial backing.

My legs suddenly want to give out. I want to sit back down. But if I can’t face this, how will Quinn? The child has lost her mother and father and everything she owns. She’s going to be uprooted from the only life she’s known. I need to be strong for my niece. For my sister. I need to protect this child no matter what life throws at me now.

I smooth down my creased capris. I’m still wearing the T-shirt Trey bought for me in Kuta among a bustling network of stalls, and I imagine I can even smell the lingering scent of coconut oil on my skin. Hooking the strap of my beach tote over my shoulder, I gather up the file, thank the lawyer, and make for the door, but I freeze suddenly as a thought strikes me square between the eyes.

Turning back to Guthrie, I say, “The University of British Columbia’s Innocence Project is still fighting to have his conviction overturned.”

“They’ve been working on it for five years now; who knows if anything will come of it.”

“What if he gets out?”

“He will get out, Rachel, one way or the other. Whether his conviction is overturned or not, he’ll be released once he’s served his time.”

I stare at him. “But he has no rights to Quinn. That’s what you said.”

“Correct.”

“And he doesn’t know about her. I just want to be certain he doesn’t know that Quinn MacLean is his daughter.”

“All Jebbediah Cullen knows is that Amy Findlay gave birth to his child and that the child was given up for adoption. He has no legal recourse to obtain any further information. And your sister has made clear in her will that she doesn’t want her child to find out who her father is, either.”

A chilling sense of foreboding ripples over my skin nevertheless.

Outside in the plaza the spring sunshine is too white, too bright. I shade my eyes as I search for Trey. It’s the same place as when I entered the lawyer’s building, yet it’s as if a space-time continuum has shifted. Everything appears a little starker, off-kilter.

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