The Slow Burn of Silence (A Snowy Creek Novel) (8 page)

Something starts me awake.

My eyes flare open. I listen, hands tense on the armrests.

I must have fallen asleep in the armchair. My head feels thick from the scotch. The fire has died to pulsing embers, and cold seeps in from corners of the room. Outside, the wind has increased, shifted direction, and is now wailing like banshees through the rocks on the other side of the lake. Was that the sound that woke me?

I don’t think so.

Tiny fingers of fear touch my skin. Quickly, I gather the fleece blanket from the back of the chair around my shoulders and pad up the stairs. I listen at Quinn’s door. All quiet. Just the howling of wind in the rocks.

Yet the chill deepens through me.

I try the door. It opens. Quinn is sleeping in a puddle of silver moonlight, her dark hair tangled over her white pillow. Tiptoeing in, I draw the duvet up gently around my niece’s shoulders. I stand for a moment, watching the rhythmic rise and fall of her chest, listening to her soft breaths. My chest squeezes. She’s stubborn, like her father, erecting walls of anger around her sensitivity for her own protection. The thought startles me, and I wonder if it will cease one day, or if I will forever be reminded of Jeb, of the past, when I look at Quinn.

Bending down, I place a soft kiss on her hair. Her scent reminds me of kittens. Hay. Sunshine. This child
is
different from her dad. I
will
forget. It’ll all fade, eventually. I just need to give it time.

The fact Quinn is sleeping peacefully, that she’s unlocked the door, brings a measure of peace to me. One day, one baby step at a tim
e . . .

But as I exit the bedroom, gently drawing the door closed behind me, a clatter sounds outside in the yard. Trixie begins to yip downstairs. Adrenaline sparks through my body.

I rush down to the kitchen window, peer out into the night. All I can see are the swishing skirts of conifers, dark shadows interplaying with the silver moonlight over grass. I watch for a while, trying to discern other movements, hoping to see the hulking black shape of a lumbering bruin. Because then I’ll feel safe. I’ll know it was nothing to worry about. I go to the other window, from where I can see the boathouse. Waves are lapping against the dock, which is rocking and swaying against its moorings. An old canoe is tethered to a rack on the wall of the boathouse, and a piece of rope is whipping against the siding in the wind. A flying pine cone suddenly smashes against the windowpane, right near my face. I gasp and jump back, my heart slamming into my throat. Then I give a soft laugh.

That’s all it is. The wind hurling things around—branches, cones. Something must have landed on the metal roofing.

I glance at the clock. Ten p.m. Still time for a decent night’s sleep. But as I head for the stairs, a gentle rapping sounds at the door. I freeze. It’s not cones or branches, or wind.

It’s him.

He’s come.

I know it—instinctively. Fear grips my throat. For a moment I’m unable to move, to breathe.

Again, the rapping sounds, a little louder, more insistent. Trixie whines and starts barking loudly. I shoot a glance up to Quinn’s door on the upstairs landing, and panic slices through me. I can’t let Quinn wake, or find out he’s here. Fighting fear, I rush toward the front door and flick on the outside light. Then I remember the bulb has blown. I peer through the peephole. My heart stalls.

Jeb.

In the silvery moonlight, all shadow and darkness.

I begin to shake deep down inside my belly.

He bangs just a little louder. “Rachel!” he calls. “I need to talk.”

Trixie barks wildly.

I’m frozen with terror, indecision. And something else, darker, trickier, a primal kind of mouth-drying thrill I can’t even begin to articulate. Oh God. I drag my hand over my hair. I should call the cops. Adam will put him away for trespassing or something.

Except he’s not trespassing. He’s a free man knocking on a door.

Images from the news stories race through my mind. Sophia’s face in the pictures. Her smile, her intimacy with the Innocence Project lawyers—what am I missing?

“Rachel! Please. It’s important.”

I swallow, grab my cell phone off the table, slip it into my sweater pocket. Holding Trixie by the collar, I unlock the front door, opening it just a small crack.

But Trixie escapes my grasp and barrels through the crack, slamming the door open wide as she jumps up on Jeb with soft whines and body wiggles. I stare, dumbfounded. The dog remembers him. The old girl is acting like a pup again. Goose bumps chase down my arms.

Jeb’s gaze locks with mine as he reaches down to ruffle the dog’s fur, and my mind crumples in on itself, time warping, overlapping. Stretching.

He stands there like a ghost conjured out of my memory. Dark, tall, devastatingly, dangerously good-looking. Dressed in black jeans, black biker boots, a white T-shirt under his leather jacket. And he’s petting my dog as if it’s a decade ago. After all these years. Out of prison, here at my door. A dull roar starts in my brain. My knees turn to water. I reach for the doorjamb.

“Jeb,” I whisper, my voice coming out hoarse.

He steps forward and I brace myself, yet I’m unable to back away. I’m trapped, a mouse in the serpent’s gaze. His features catch the light from the hallway behind me. His jaw is tight and shadowed and strong, his features a little too gaunt, his raven-black hair a little too long. Wild. Everything about him is untamed. The brackets around his mouth have deepened. He seems taller somehow. The years in prison have done nothing to diminish his quietly crackling presence. In fact, it’s more powerful, a kinetic energy I can feel on my skin. It raises my hairs with its electricity, as if drawing me toward him on a cellular level.

It’s been eight years since I last laid eyes on him in that courtroom. Nine since I’ve been near him. Spoken to him. Touched him.

Kissed him.

“I think she remembers me,” he says, giving Trixie another ruffle. The dog settles at his boots with a happy whimper. Memories swirl. Trixie as a pup, following Jeb and me over the grass. Swimming in the river. Jeb showing me how to teach Trixie to track through a dewy field early one morning. The three of us lying on a rug under soft sunshine, watching summer snow floating against an achingly blue sky. An endless sky. Like our dreams had been. Our future.

The horrifying opening image from Piper’s docudrama suddenly swallows the memories: Amy dazed and beaten and half-naked on the railway tracks.

I shake myself back to reality, slide my hand into my pocket, curl my hand tightly around my phone. “What do you want?” I say. “Why did you follow my niece at school? Is it revenge that you’ve come back for—to punish us all?”

Something flares hard and sharp through his features. He regards me, gaze unwavering, intense, his carotid pulsing fast and steady beneath his tattoo, making it seem alive in the tricks of moonlight and shadow. I’ve made him angry, and it makes me scared. I’ve been shown what he is capable of.

The wind howls again, and it rushes through the pine forest branches around us with the sound of an ocean.

“The last thing I want is to hurt you, Rachel.” His voice is deep, thick. I detect hurt.

I swallow. “Then what are you here for?” What does one say, how does one bridge the years of silence, the accusations, the bitterness, the goddamn hurt? The unspeakable loss, the hollowness, the betrayal, the rage? It all hangs like a sudden gaping black maw of a wound, nerve endings exposed to the wind.

“Is Quinn asleep?” he says quietly.

My mind scrambles in on itself. “What?”

“I want to know if she’s sleeping.” He looks over my shoulder into my house. “Where is she?”

I lunge forward and grab Trixie’s collar. I drag her away from him, into the hall. I shut her inside and I stand in front of the closed door in my socks, the paving ice-cold under my feet. I take my phone out my pocket, hit nine, then one. My thumb is poised over the keypad. “You’ve got exactly one minute to tell me what you want, then get the hell out of here before I call the cops.”

He raises his palms. “Take it easy.” His eyes flick between the phone, me, and the door. “I just want to talk to you, okay? About Quinn, but I don’t want her to know I’m here.”

Confusion rattles through me.

He has the markers of a sociopat
h . . .
he’s a smooth and accomplished lia
r . . .

He comes closer. Too close. I step back but my body butts up against the hardness of the door. I’ve trapped myself. I’m all alone out here. I don’t know what he wants. My thumb goes for the last one of a 9-1-1 emergency call.

But before I can press down, he jerks forward and snatches my wrist in a grip so tight my fingers go numb and I drop the phone. It clatters to the cold paving at my feet. I stare at the phone on the ground, heart beating like a drum. Slowly I raise my eyes.

His fingers are a vise around my wrist. His skin burns mine. His eyes laser me. His face, his lips, are close. So close. His scent so damn familiar. A muscle memory of desire, savage and raw, slices through my fear. I start to shake.

“And you’ll tell the cops what?” he says quietly, eyes still burning into me. “That I came to see my daughter?”

My stomach turns to water. I stare at him, speechless, brain spinning.

“I know, Rachel. I know she’s mine.”

“How?” I manage to croak out. “How can you know?”

“Sophia,” he says quietly, releasing my arm. He picks up my phone, hands it back to me. “Your sister was helping me. She was the one who first approached the Innocence Project. She and Peter helped pay for the lawyers.”

My knees give out and I slump back against the door.

A pinecone bombs onto the metal roof of the carport as another sharp gust rushes through the conifers, shadows moving, dizzying. Swirling me down into some dark and confusing place.

“Sophia
told
you?” I whisper. “When? Why?”

He watches me in silence for several beats. “I’m sorry. I thought you might have known she was working with me. She’s believed in my innocence for at least five years now. I though
t . . .
” He pauses. “I thought she might have told you.”

I feel sick. I can’t think. “So that’s why you’ve come? For Quinn?”

He glances away, as if deciding what to tell me.

“No,” he says, finally. And I feel it’s a lie. I feel like he means to say, “Not yet.” Nausea rides up into my throat.

“But it’s why I had to speak to you tonight. I made a mistake going by the school today. I hadn’t intended to involve Quinn, or you. Not yet.”

Yet.

“But then there was the fight. I saw you go to the cops. I need to know what you’ve told them, because I need this kept secret.” He’s quiet for another beat. “For Quinn,” he says. “For my daughter. And it’s my promise to Sophia and Peter.”

I slide my back down the length of the door and sit on the cold step, seized by a sensation that perhaps he doesn’t exist. Maybe I’ve dreamed this up, it isn’t happening. Maybe I’m still asleep in the armchair by the fire.

Jeb crouches slowly down in front of me. He places his hand on my knee, ever so gently. It’s warm. Solid.

“God,” he whispers. “You look so good.” His eyes sparkle with moisture in the moonlight. “It’s been so long.” His features are hungry, devouring me. His body gaunt. Strong. He’s still as wild as these mountains and forests. And the things in them.

Everything that drew me to Jeb in the first place, that feral magnetism, something unchained. His poetry, his deep passion for these mountains, this land. His courage, tenacity, the way he always moved to the beat of his own drum. It draws me now—my heart, my body, at war with my mind. My vision blurs and I’m overcome with a desire to lean into him, be held by him, have him make all the years and tragedy just go away.

But then I think of Quinn. Sophia.


I . . .
I don’t understand.”

“I’m innocent, Rachel. I’ve come home to prove it. And when I do, I want access to my daughter. I want to tell her the truth.”

CHAPTER 8

Rachel’s complexion looked ashen in the moonlight, pain, fear, brightening her eyes. But Jeb saw something else too, dark and shimmering, as he crouched in front of her. He could also feel it, an electricity crackling between them, something that told him it hadn’t died. An atavistic part of Rachel still gravitated to his pull, and he to hers. It excited something deep and secret and carnal in him. And it worried him. He’d come to tell her why he was back and what he needed for Quinn’s sake, then he planned to step away from them. Something told him this was going to be far more complicated.

“I don’t believe you. How can I believe Sophia was helping you? How can you be innocent when Amy gave birth to your child . . . Amy was brutally raped . . .” Wind blew strands of dark hair across her face. Jeb fought the urge to move the strands away, to tuck them behind her ear. To ask her about the small bandage above her eye.

“Rachel,” he said softly. “It was consensual with Amy. It happened before she was taken and hurt. I never denied that I slept with her.”

His words seemed to crash into her like a physical punch. She blinked sharply, pain tearing afresh over her beautiful face.

“I was set up by those four guys. Luke, Levi, Clint, Zink—for some reason they all lied about me driving north. But I didn’t lie in court. Not once. And the last thing in my life I wanted was to cause you pain. If there’s one thing I’m guilty of, it’s that. And I am so, so sorry.”

She drew her knees in close, hugged them tightly to her chest. She was shivering and her eyes were big, dark holes. Her lip
s . . .
he wanted to feel those lips against his. He ached for her suddenly with every molecule of his being. Being so close again, touching he
r . . .
he thought he’d plumbed the depths of all kinds of new emotions when he had first seen and touched Quinn. His daughter. But this was different. Raw. All-consuming. Overriding. He was almost afraid of the ferocity of his desire and love for this woman. Jeb knew that what he felt for Rachel was something he’d probably built out of all proportion during the long, lonely years in prison. He hadn’t had the occasion to even meet anyone new, someone who might displace his obsession. All he’d had was the memory of what they had once shared, and he’d dwelled on this. It had become a psychological coping tool.

But this was reality now. This was the present. She’d lived a whole life in those nine years. He had to get—and keep—things in perspective. He had to deliver his message, then stay well clear of both Rachel and Quinn until he’d proved his innocence.

“It was a stupid mistake,” he said. “A hotheaded, hormonal, teenage, knee-jerk reaction to our fight, after you said it was all over between us. I didn’t believe you meant it. I thought you’d sober up, get over it. Then I saw you the next night in Trey’s arms at the bonfire, him kissing you, his hand up your sweater.” He watched her.

She swallowed.

“Do you remember,” he said quietly, “what our fight was about?”

She glanced up at the stars, as if the night sky might yield answers, offer escape, as if gravity might somehow stem the emotion he could see glittering in her eyes. Those deep-brown eyes so full of hurt he’d put there.

“You wanted to make love. Have sex for the first time.
I . . .
” Emotion grabbed him. “God, I loved you so much. You were so drunk. I was desperate to have you, but I wanted us to wait. I wanted it to be special, becaus
e . . .
because you were everything to me. I wanted you in my life forever.” He swallowed against the thickness building in his throat. “I had plans to marry you, Rach. I wanted us to have a family, a proper one. I wanted a chance to be a good father. ”

Like my own father never wa
s . . .

“You were leaving for Europe to train for the Olympics, and I was so afraid you’d be gone to me forever if we didn’t sort things out before you left. I came to find you at the gravel pit that night. I knew what drugs would be there. I knew what every guy there wanted. I came to take you home, to keep you saf
e . . .
and there you were, on a blanket with Trey Somerland. Do you remember what he said to me that night?”

She met his gaze, her pulse fluttering at her neck.

“Trey called me a halfbreed and you laughed. You broke me in two that night.”

She cast her eyes down. Wind ruffled her long hair. “I was drunk,” she said softly.

“I know. That’s why I came to take you home.”

A shudder wracked her body. “The prosecutors said you went on a rampage because of me, that you also started getting wasted.” She said the words so quietly he could barely hear. Jeb leaned closer, touched her knee again. She didn’t pull away, didn’t flinch. He could detect her scent. Fresh soap. Shampoo. Alcohol. His gut tightened.

She looked up, right into his eyes. “They said you turned violent because of the drinking, because you weren’t used to it, and that you took Amy and Merilee to hurt them because you really wanted to hurt me. I saw them get into your car, Jeb. I
saw
you leave the pit with them.”

“I’d already had consensual sex with Amy by then,” he said, very quietly. “I was taking her home. She was out of it. We both were at that point. Merilee wanted a ride, too. But they both got out of my car at the Green River rail crossing. They’d seen some people across the clearing, and the girls ran over to them. I didn’t see who they ran over to meet. I only discovered in court that it was Levi, Clint, Luke, and Zink. That’s the first time I heard those four guys claim they all saw me going north on the highway with the girls.

“There isn’t a day that goes by where I don’t run through my memories of that night, Rachel, trying to see faces, trying to see exactly where those guys were sitting under those trees. But my brain was spinning at the time. I was fired up, drun
k . . .
I have gaps. But I
do
know I was being eaten up by what I’d just done with Amy. I was so consumed with self-recrimination I didn’t even look back to see where the girls went after they got out of my car. I just drove straight home. I did
not
turn north with them in my car. Those four guys who said I did—Levi, Clint, Zink, Luke—they perjured themselves in court. I want to know why they lied for each other. Did one of them do it? All of them? Or are they protecting someone else? Whatever it is, I’m going to find out.”

Her eyes narrowed as she searched his face, looking for a way to measure the truth of his words. Deciding how much to trust him. She was warring within herself. She opened her mouth.

But before she could speak, Jeb raised two fingers, almost touching her lips.

“I know,” he whispered. “The evidence all told another story. I’m not going to try and convince you right here, tonight, after all these years, that the prosecution’s story was a lie. That I was set up.” He paused. “I’m going to
show
you. I’m going to show all of them.
That’s
the reason I’m back. To prove my innocence, to find out who did this. To find Merilee’s body. And to see that justice—real justice—is finally done. It’s not revenge I want, but restitution. I have a right to that. To my daughter. To my home.”

He watched her face, the myriad of emotions chasing through her features. Believing him now would mean tipping everything else onto its head, ripping apart beliefs she’d held for almost a decade.

“If you didn’t do i
t . . .
” Her words faded.

“I know; it’s hard to swallow. If you believe in my innocence, you must believe someone else attacked Amy and Merilee and left them to die. Maybe even a person you consider a friend. It means there’s been a conspiracy of silence for almost a decade to protect that guilty party. It means someone in this town knows where Merilee’s body is, someone who could give closure to the Zukanov family, someone who was prepared to let an innocent man rot in max security for something he didn’t do.”

Rachel’s gaze jerked suddenly up toward the second-story windows of her house, and Jeb detected a stiffening in her posture.

“Yes,” he said, reading her thought process. “Once I’ve done this, I do want access to my daughter.”

“Jeb—”

“It was Sophia’s and Peter’s promise to me, and mine to them. That when I proved my innocence without a doubt, they’d welcome me into their lives. They’d grant me access to Quinn. It was why Sophia started working with me after she began to believe I might be innocent, after she’d met Piper Smith. That docudrama, it all started there, five years ago, things coming out. Sophia knew she’d have to tell Quinn one day about her adoption, and that Quinn would ask about her birth parents. Or perhaps even go searching herself. Sophia didn’t want Quinn for one moment to believe she’d been conceived in violence, that the blood of a killer and brutal rapist ran through her veins. Once this was over, Sophia planned to let Quinn know I was her birth father, and we’d all work through it together.”

She just stared.

Jeb reached down and picked up the fleece blanket she’d dropped at her feet. Moving carefully, he draped it around her shoulders, bringing his face close to hers as he did. Again he detected the scent of alcohol. He wondered how often she drank. Alone? He thought of his father, of things gone wrong. And his sense of purpose fused into a hard, burning coal in his gut. He was going to put this right.

“Amy would have been a part of it, too,” he said. “If she’d wanted, and been ready.” He hesitated, not wanting to say too much yet about Amy’s death.

“You’re asking me to believe that Amy and you and Sophia and Peter were going to have one big, happy open adoption? Amy, who believed you raped her and killed her best friend?”

“Amy
knew
there was something locked in her memory. It was starting to come out. She was beginning to fear she might have helped put an innocent man away. It started to happen after Piper interviewed her, after the
True Crime
documentar
y . . .
” He hesitated again, worried about saying too much, too quickly. “Sophia began to believe that Amy did actually form memories that night, that she was lucid despite the drugs, but that she’d blocked them in a form of posttraumatic retrograde amnesia. Sophia was trying a new hypnosis technique to help Amy access those memories. She even tried the technique with me.”

Something tightened in Rachel; he could see it—walls going up. She clutched the blanket tightly across her chest, anger seeping into her features.

“Everyone was part of this? Except me?
I’m
kept out of this? Yet I’m the one left with Quinn?” She glared at him. “Why should I believe you? There’s just your word. Everyone else is gone now. Sophia, Peter, Am
y . . .
they’re all dead.” Bitterness spiked her words. “Not one of them can verify a damn thing you’re saying!”

Urgency bit through Jeb. The last thing he wanted was for her to shut down. Quickly, he took the wallet-sized photo album from his pocket. He opened the cover, held it toward the light spilling out from the kitchen window.

“Here, see,” he said quietly.

Rachel bent over, her hair brushing his hand as she did. One by one Jeb slowly turned the pages of a young life: Quinn as a newborn baby; Sophia holding her; Quinn’s first birthday, face awash with chocolate cake; Quinn without her front teeth; Quinn the day she turned seven.

Rachel’s hand went to her mouth as her shoulders sagged. She gave a single sharp inhalation. “Sophi
a . . .
brought you these, in prison?”

He nodded.

“She never told me,” she repeated. “She never breathed a goddamn word.”

“She didn’t want to cause you pain. She was fighting to free a man you helped put in jail. A man you felt betrayed you in the worst possible way. She didn’t want to butt heads with you over this and have you thinking she was betraying you, too. She wanted to be sure first.”

“Fuck Sophia!” she said suddenly, scrabbling to her feet against the door. “Damn her to hell! She couldn’t tell me all thi
s . . .
all this stuff. Yet she made me guardian in her will, letting me find out the truth in the most shocking way possible—through adoption papers—that you’re the father. I was good enough for
that
? But not to be a part of all the rest?”

He grasped her by the shoulders, and she went stock-still.

“She didn’t expect to die, Rachel, before she could finish what she and Peter started.”

“Get your hands off me,” she hissed. “Just back away. Get the hell off my property.” She was vibrating, fire crackling through her veins. Distance, she needed space to try and absorb this. He was messing with her head.

“Listen to me—”

“You think you can just walk in here, tell me there’s been some conspiracy for the last nine years? That group of guys you say perjured themselves—they’re upstanding members of this community. Clint is the fire chief now. Levi is manager of Bear Mountain operations. Zink owns the Shady Lady Saloon. And while Luke might be gone, Adam is now second-in-command of the SCPD. They’re fathers, husbands, brothers.
Good
people. Those guys
are
Snowy Creek.”

He drew in a long, slow breath. “It’s easier, isn’t it, to place the blame on the

othe
r
,
’ the outsider. To attack the loner.” He paused. “Like those girls attacked Quinn today.”

She glowered at him, but he saw something shifting through her eyes.

“Sometimes,” he said, “in a small town like this, a community knows that a contract to forget can be as powerful as a promise to remember. Sometimes the secrets are lying right there, in plain sight, but everyone chooses to turn away, pretend it never happened, because then they won’t have to question their own lives, their own children, their own husbands and brothers. They won’t have to look across the dining room table and see a monster looking back.” He paused. “History becomes something agreed upon by mutual consent, and the guilt is anesthetized by silence.”

She glanced away.

“Look, I’ve had a very long time to think about this. And I’m not asking you for anything other than to keep Quinn out of it all, to keep the secret of her identity until I can finish this.” He hesitated, then said. “What did you tell Adam, the cops?”

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