In Close Brenda Novak Claire O'Toole's mother, Alana, went missing fifteen years ago.That was big news in Pineview, Montana, the kind of town where nothing much ever happens. Then, last year, Claire's husband, David, died in a freak accident—after launching his own investigation into Alana's disappearance. Is Alana dead? Or did she simply abandon her husband and daughters?Claire is determined to find out—and her former boyfriend, Isaac Morgan, wants to help. Although their relationship didn't end well, he still has feelings for her. And yet it isn't until he starts to suspect David's death wasn't an accident that he's drawn back into her life.Together, Claire and Isaac search for answers to the questions that have haunted Pineview all this time. But as they soon discover, someone's prepared to kill so those answers won't be found… In Close Brenda Novak www.mirabooks.co.uk (http://www.mirabooks.co.uk) Claire O’Toole’s mother, Alana, went missing fifteen years ago. That was big news in Pineview, Montana, the kind of town where nothing much ever happens. Then, last year, Claire’s husband, David, died in a freak accident—after launching his own investigation into Alana’s disappearance. Is Alana dead? Or did she simply abandon her husband and daughters? Claire is determined to find out—and her former boyfriend, Isaac Morgan, wants to help. Although their relationship didn’t end well, he still has feelings for her. And yet it isn’t until he starts to suspect David’s death wasn’t an accident that he’s drawn back into her life. Together, Claire and Isaac search for answers to the questions that have haunted Pineview all this time. But as they soon discover, someone’s prepared to kill so those answers won’t be found… Praise for the novels of Brenda Novak “[Inside brings out] the edgier side of Brenda Novak’s talent.… You’ll definitely find yourself wanting more.” —Suspense Magazine “I instantly knew I was reading a great—not good—great book, when the day came to an end and I’d consumed over half of it… The first book of Brenda Novak’s I’ve read, Inside did not disappoint. If all her books are written to this caliber, I can’t wait to get my hands on more.” —Leafs & Bounds (book review blog) “A compelling, suspenseful story filled with nonstop action…a definite page-turner.” —RT Book Reviews on Body Heat “Novak expertly blends romantic thrills, suspenseful chills, and realistically complicated characters together in a white-knuckle read that is certain to keep readers riveted to the last page.” —Booklist on White Heat “Brenda Novak has written the best high action thriller of 2010.” —Midwest Book Review on White Heat “Gripping, frightening and intense…a compelling romance as well as a riveting and suspenseful mystery…Novak delivers another winner.” —Library Journal on The Perfect Liar “Strong characters bring the escalating suspense to life and the mystery is skillfully played out. Novak’s smooth plotting makes for a great read.” —Publishers Weekly on Dead Right “Any book by Brenda Novak is a must-buy for me.” —Reader to Reader Reviews To Louise (LouBabe) Pledge, a reader I knew only via email for a long time, who has turned into a cherished friend. Thank you for all your enthusiasm for my books and the massive support you have given my efforts to raise money for diabetes research. You’re one in a million! Dear Reader, I love old mysteries. Maybe that’s why I’m such a fan of cold case programs. I can’t stand unanswered questions, so I enjoy vicariously experiencing the resolution of such cases and the satisfaction that resolution brings to all the people involved. If something mysterious happened to my friend or loved one, I’m the type of person who’d dig and dig and dig and never give up, never be able to let go. So I completely identify with the heroine of this novel, Claire O’Toole, whose mother, Alana, went missing while Claire was in high school. I enjoyed exploring how that event shaped Claire’s life. I also found it fascinating to consider what might’ve happened to Alana and to come up with a list of possible suspects, including Claire’s stepfather, who was so good to Claire while she was growing up; her crippled sister, with whom she has a strained relationship; the man with whom Claire’s mother might’ve had an extramarital affair; even a few surprise contenders. This case is particularly hard to solve. It’s quite a challenge for Claire—and so is the man who decides to help. Isaac Morgan has overcome great difficulty himself, which is partly what makes him a perfect match for Claire. She’s exactly what he needs, if only he can figure out how to open his heart again. Part of the fun of creating this novel was imagining the small town of Pineview, Montana. This area is unique—so different from where I live in California. I’d love to own a cabin in the Chain of Lakes area, where I placed my fictional town. Maybe someday I will (if I can ever talk my husband into leaving suburbia). I would like to extend a special thanks to Becky Kranz for purchasing the chance to name a character in this book via one of my annual online auctions for diabetes research. She chose the name Carrie Oldman, which you will see in the story. Like every other person who’s helped me raise money for this important cause, Becky is a hero to me. For more information about me or my work, please visit www.brendanovak.com. There, you can enter my monthly contests, see what’s coming out next or participate in my annual online auction for diabetes research, which runs for the entire month of May. To date, we’ve raised over $1.4 million! All the best, Brenda Contents Chapter One (#u0937e495-61a4-5fb5-a8b9-d848267fa15c) Chapter Two (#uf26de07c-47f0-516f-9709-ec05bd035e4b) Chapter Three (#u5e901e89-2d14-53f4-b4ae-52f07b770348) Chapter Four (#ua28e1792-d12a-5c4a-bc42-3d01560d08cf) Chapter Five (#u3297728b-c716-5fce-9089-2751e1964bfb) Chapter Six (#u9a1c6758-3e02-50cc-89fa-60347d67c0d2) Chapter Seven (#u4da36fa0-fb44-590c-8950-e7b2abb58bee) Chapter Eight (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Nine (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Ten (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Eleven (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twelve (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Thirteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Fourteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Fifteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Sixteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Seventeen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Eighteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Nineteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twenty (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twenty-One (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twenty-Two (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twenty-Three (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twenty-Four (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twenty-Five (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twenty-Six (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twenty-Seven (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twenty-Eight (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twenty-Nine (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Thirty (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Thirty-One (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Thirty-Two (#litres_trial_promo) 1 The tiny cabin Claire O’Toole’s mother had once used for painting had been shut up for years. Claire was the only one who came here, and even she didn’t return all that often, maybe every six months or so. Braced for the torrent of memories that hit her every time she walked inside, she dropped the key into the pocket of her jeans and forced open a door warped from too many Montana winters. Before she crossed the threshold, however, she looked behind her, suddenly feeling she might not be as alone as she’d thought. A gentle wind swayed the pine trees. She could hear the rustle as it traveled through the surrounding forest, but she couldn’t see any movement. She couldn’t see anything at all, except for what fell inside the beam of her flashlight. There were no city lights up here, no glassy lake to reflect the moon’s glow, the way there was closer to town, nothing but thick forest carpeted with pine needles, cloaked in darkness and topped with a canopy of stars. No one was sneaking up behind her. How silly to even check. There were other cabins in these mountains, but only one in the immediate vicinity. Her parents had owned it as well as this studio from when they were first married to the summer before she started school. Then they’d sold the main house and moved to town. She could still remember her mother cooking in that kitchen, the little tree house her stepfather had built in the backyard. The house had changed hands more than once, but Isaac Morgan owned it now, so she stayed clear. Avoiding it minimized the number of times she and Isaac ran into each other. He filmed wildlife all around the world and was often gone, which helped. Although he lived closest to the studio, she couldn’t imagine any reason he’d be lurking in the trees. They were too busy trying to prove to each other that what they’d had ten years ago had been as easy to leave behind as it should’ve been. So who else could it be? Her sister, her stepfather and his wife, her best friend and her best friend’s sheriff husband—in fact, nearly all of Pineview’s 1,500 residents—were watching Fourth of July fireworks in the city park across the street from the cemetery. She could hear the distant boom of each explosion, smell the smoke that drifted up against the mountain. No one had noticed when she slipped away. Drawing a deep breath, she turned back and focused on the dusty interior. Cast-off furniture from her stepfather, her stepfather’s wife and her maternal grandparents crowded the living room. Cobwebs hung from the rafters; rat droppings littered the floor. Pack rats built nests everywhere in this part of the state, even in the engines of cars. This wasn’t the magical place it’d been when she was a child. The good memories had been conquered and overrun, broken by tragedy, but she returned, anyway. She couldn’t ignore the studio’s existence and move on, like everybody else. Invariably, the past dragged her back. As she stepped inside, she paused to listen. She’d expected silence. But she could hear the engine of her old Camaro ticking as it cooled in the overgrown drive. Then a creak, coming from the loft above. When other creaks followed, it almost sounded as if her mother was walking around up there like she used to. Obviously, Claire’s imagination had kicked into overdrive, reacting to the isolation and the spookiness of coming here after dark. Or maybe it was her subconscious, trying to get her out before she could come across something that might disrupt what little peace of mind she had left. Her mother had been missing for fifteen years and in all that time they’d never found a trace of her. Her sister had broken her back sledding two years later and been confined to a wheelchair. And David, her husband, had died only a year ago in a terrible hunting accident. She couldn’t tolerate another loss. And yet she kept digging for the truth. What if she discovered that her stepfather had killed her mother, as so many others believed? Or what if her mother had run off with another man, willingly left them for a new life somewhere else, as the previous sheriff had suggested? She’d be devastated. Again. But she couldn’t accept either of those possibilities. Her stepfather was a good man; he would never have hurt Alana. Alana was a loving mother; she would never have abandoned her children. That meant someone had kidnapped her, maybe killed her, and would get away with it unless Claire made sure that didn’t happen. Who else would fight for justice? Not Leanne. Claire’s sister battled enough challenges. Leanne didn’t even want to think about the day they’d lost their mother, let alone look into it. And her stepfather—Tug, as his friends called him—had moved in with the woman who’d eventually become her stepmother only six months after Alana went missing. At this late date, he wouldn’t have known what to do with Alana even if she reappeared. Only Claire held on. She was all her mother had left, and that made it impossible to give up, no matter how many people told her she should. Her mother deserved more than that. At least obsessing about the mystery that had tormented her for half her life kept her from dwelling on David, a loss that was far too recent and still too raw. Another creak. She almost lost her nerve. Maybe she should’ve waited until tomorrow. But her sister lived in the house right next door to hers and was constantly dropping by. It was difficult for Claire to get away without divulging something about where she was going and what she was doing. And because Claire ran her business, a hair salon, out of her home, if it wasn’t her sister, it was one of her many clients, who paid more attention than Claire wanted. Thanks to her mother’s disappearance, she’d always been watched a little too carefully. Everyone was waiting to see whether she’d recover or fall apart. That was the reason she wanted to move away—so she could be anonymous for a change, start over—a desire that had only grown more intense after David died. Except for two years when their relationship had faltered while he was in college, they’d been together since they were sixteen. Losing him meant becoming the object of everyone’s pity once again. How are you? You hangin’ in there, kiddo? She got questions like that, spoken in low, somber tones, all the time. She wouldn’t have minded so much if the people who asked were as sincere as they sounded and not just inviting her to provide them with a bit of tantalizing gossip for the next community gathering or church event. Poor Claire. She’s suffering so. I talked to her last week and… Claire didn’t need anyone gabbing about her efforts to solve the mystery. Or conjecturing on what she might or might not find at the studio. Or confronting her family with the fact that she’d been here. That was why she kept whatever she could to herself. Why create more curiosity? It would only upset those who’d rather forget.... So, frightening though it was, she liked the cover of darkness. It made her feel as close to anonymous as she could get in the place where she’d grown up. The noises she heard were nothing to worry about. No one would have any reason to hang out in an abandoned studio that didn’t have electricity or running water. If some vagabond had moved in, there’d be proof of occupancy. Knocking the cobwebs out of the way, she followed the beam of her flashlight through the cluster of furniture. Then she climbed up to the loft, where her mother used to paint. She’d loved watching Alana work, had never felt more at peace than here, with the sun pouring through the floor-to-ceiling windows of the second floor, her mother standing in the light, concentrating on her latest masterpiece. Several unfinished paintings perched on easels covered with sheets, looking like ghosts floating a couple of feet off the ground. The sight of them made Claire sick with loss, a loss rivaled only by David’s death. Whoever had taken Alana had robbed the world, and Claire, of so much. Was it someone she knew? Someone she passed on the street, spoke to, cared about? One of those people who always asked how she was? It had to be, didn’t it? Alana went missing from their house in town in the dead of winter. Although this part of Montana saw an influx of hunters, fisherman and recreationists during the spring, summer and fall, it was not a place to visit in the cold months. Libby, thirty miles away, was the closest town. Notorious for the asbestos mine that’d made everyone sick and caused the death of two hundred people, Libby had been in the news a lot in recent years. But on the day Alana had gone missing, it was still just a spot on the map, and an overturned truck carrying vermiculite ore had blocked traffic on the highway for hours. The sheriff himself hadn’t been able to get through until it was cleared. Claire supposed some “bad man” could’ve come from the other direction, from Marion or Kalispell, but no one had spotted any strangers that day. Even more significant, there’d been no sign of forced entry at the house. Whoever had taken Alana was most likely someone she trusted. She’d opened her door, never expecting to be harmed. The betrayal inherent in that scenario made Claire more determined than anything else to solve the mystery. Dragging a chair from the corner, the very chair in which she used to sit and daydream while her mother painted, Claire climbed up to reach the handle that would open the attic door. Just shy of five foot three, she could barely grab hold, but once she caught it, the pull-down ladder lowered easily enough. It was warmer in the small space above Alana’s studio. Dustier, too. Claire coughed as she poked her head through the opening and used her flashlight to reacquaint herself with the contents. Boxes stacked floor to ceiling left little room in which to maneuver. She hadn’t remembered it being quite so crowded. But when it became clear that her mother wasn’t coming back, Claire had insisted that everything Alana owned, down to the razor she’d been using in the shower, be preserved. The sheriff’s department had confiscated the contents of Alana’s desk, her computer, any recent letters she’d written or received, the photos she’d snapped in the months prior to her disappearance, her journal, the things left in her car—anything they thought might help them find her. Claire and Leanne had taken possession of any sentimental items that remained. And the rest had been packed up and stored here years ago, just after Claire graduated from high school and moved out—and her stepfather and his wife bought the luxurious home they currently enjoyed, the home they’d bought with the inheritance Alana had received when her parents died in a plane crash only a year before she disappeared. Riddled with guilt for even thinking that her mother’s misfortune had provided such a spectacular living for the woman who’d replaced her, Claire steered her mind away from that direction. She liked her stepmother. It wasn’t Roni’s fault that Alana was no longer around. But it bothered Claire that Roni acted as if Alana had never existed. Tug and Leanne preferred to handle the situation the same way. They’d both asked Claire to forget the past. Learning what happened wouldn’t bring Alana back, they said. And it was true. It was also true that Leanne seemed to do better if she didn’t have to be reminded of that fateful day. Which was why, after pleading for the new sheriff to reopen the case a couple of years ago, Claire had gone back to call him off. Her family had been too upset about the questions he was asking. They couldn’t tolerate the assumptions and suspicions that were inevitable in such a small community. Claire respected their position. But she couldn’t stop digging entirely. She needed resolution as much as they needed to forget. What she was hoping to accomplish by coming here tonight, however, she didn’t know. She’d been through all this stuff so many times. Her stepfather, his wife and Leanne had seen it, too. The three of them had packed it together. But Claire couldn’t help hoping that she’d see something she’d missed before, that some clue would emerge and solve the mystery. That happened all the time on those forensics shows. Squeezing through the narrow pathway, she moved toward a box that contained her mother’s childhood memorabilia—Alana’s report cards, her early journals, pictures of her family and friends. Claire loved looking through that box because it made her feel closer to the woman she missed so terribly. And it was as good a place to begin as any. She planned on going through every last box, even if that meant frequent trips to the studio over the next few weeks. She bent to lift it, then saw some boxes that had been packed much more recently. They stood out because they were labeled in her own handwriting. David’s Clothes, David’s Things, David’s Yearbooks. Her hand flew to her chest as if she could stop that familiar lump from growing in her throat, but she couldn’t. What were her late husband’s personal belongings doing here? She hadn’t expected to find them, wasn’t ready for such a powerful reminder. One day several months ago, her mother-in-law had come over and packed up everything of David’s, insisting it all be taken from the house. She said that Claire couldn’t get over his death if she was living with his ghost, still sleeping in his T-shirt and crying over the fact that it was beginning to smell more like her than him. Claire had assumed those things of David’s, except the few she’d managed to retain, had gone into his parents’ garage, but Rosemary must’ve asked Claire’s stepfather to put them here. The two often talked, usually about their concern for her and how she was or wasn’t “coping.” No one had mentioned that David’s belongings had been moved to this attic, but Claire supposed it was understandable that they would be. Rosemary had a large family and a crowded house. She probably didn’t want to encounter her dead son’s possessions every time she retrieved the holiday decorations. The studio already held what remained of Alana’s life, and nobody ever used it. This must have seemed like the perfect solution. Closing her eyes, Claire reached out for the warm presence she’d occasionally felt since David’s death. She wasn’t a superstitious person, certainly didn’t believe in ghosts that rattled chains and haunted people, but she did have faith in the power of love to create a bridge between this world and the next. She’d felt some comfort since he died. It was almost as if he visited her now and then to make sure she was all right. She wished she could feel him now, but the pain was too sudden and too acute. Grappling with it required all her focus. “Why’d you leave me?” she whispered. The tears that rolled down her cheeks were nothing new. She cursed them, wished she could get beyond them, but the senselessness of his death, the fact that she’d lost David so soon and couldn’t imagine ever loving someone else in quite the same way, didn’t help. She almost shoved his boxes out of sight, pushed them to the back so she wouldn’t have to see the thick black letters that seared her to the bone: David’s. They were only inanimate objects he’d once owned. As badly as she wanted him, David wasn’t here anymore, and he never would be. But she didn’t push the boxes away; she pulled them closer. She’d spotted something that struck her as odd. On a two-foot-by-two-foot box, third from the bottom, David had scrawled his own name. She recognized his writing—but not this particular box, which she would’ve noticed since it was white and all the ones she’d used were brown. Why had she never seen this before? She was positive it hadn’t come from her house.... Once she opened the flaps, she knew why. He must’ve stored this above his parents’ garage before he went to college. If she had her guess, it’d been brought here in an effort to keep all his possessions together. Fresh longing filled her as she touched the soccer and basketball trophies, the varsity letters he’d never sewn on a jacket, a pen set he’d made in wood shop. Then there were the cards she’d given him when they first started dating. They’d gone to high school together, were an item for two years before he left for college, so she had the same homecoming and prom pictures. Unable to spend any more time with those memories for fear she’d undo the progress she’d made in the past few months, she began to close the box when she decided to see what was inside a fat accordion-style file folder tucked between some old sweaters. It looked far too businesslike for the seventeen-year-old David who’d packed up the rest of these things.... When she opened it, she realized why. This folder wasn’t from that early period. It was from after they were married. And what it contained shocked her so badly, she had to put her head between her knees so she wouldn’t faint. Jeremy Salter hung back in the trees, watching. It was pitch-black, but that didn’t matter. The night- vision goggles his father had given him for Christmas worked beautifully. He’d also received a Swiss Army knife—he loved collecting things that would help him survive in the wilderness. He imagined himself as the next Rambo. But Claire had no survival skills. She didn’t belong out here, especially after dark. If she wasn’t careful, a bear or a pack of wolves could attack her. Or even a man. Men were by far the most dangerous animals on earth. His father used to say that; his father had also proved it. She must like it here, he mused. She came often enough. But not so much lately. Not once David was killed. Since David’s death, she didn’t do much of anything, except cut hair all day. Then she’d curl up on the couch, eyes glued to the TV. But he usually got the impression that she wasn’t watching the program. She’d stare at the screen without blinking and soon the tears would start. She missed David and didn’t know how to go on without him. Jeremy understood how that felt. So what was she doing in her mother’s old studio? Trying to get herself into the same trouble David had? Didn’t she know that some secrets should be buried and forgotten? She’d be fine if only she’d let the past go. Then he’d be fine, too. Sometimes he wished he could tell her that. Promise her that everything would get better if she could just go on her way. She was so beautiful and smart and nice. Everything a woman should be. Any guy would love to be with her. Including him. Especially him. Not that he’d ever have a chance. He was too…different. He’d always been different. Her flashlight had made it possible for him to track her movements to the loft, but then the light disappeared. Had she turned it off? Was she sitting on the floor, crying? Missing her mother the way she missed David? Or did she have some other reason for being here? She’d slipped away from the park so cautiously, it’d certainly felt as if she had a purpose. He needed to get inside the cabin to find out. But he hesitated to go that close. What if she caught him? That could be dangerous. For both of them. But if he was quiet enough, she’d never have to know. He’d been watching her for years, hadn’t he? And she’d never caught him yet. 2 David had a copy of the case files on her mother. Everything was here, from the missing-persons report to the last interview. Claire had seen some of this before, but even she hadn’t been privy to all of it. How had he come by this much information? He must’ve gotten it from Sheriff King. Either that or he’d called in a favor from his old hunting buddy, Rusty Clegg. Rusty had been a deputy for the past six or seven years. It helped to have a friend on the force. But what felt so strange about finding this was that David had made his own notations on many of the reports and interviews. It was almost as if he’d picked up the investigation where the sheriff had left off. Why hadn’t he told her what he was doing? The dates on the log he’d kept correlated with the first year of their marriage and included a number of entries in the months leading up to his death. The last time he’d written anything was two days before the accident. She found detailed information on her stepfather and Leanne, plus her mother’s only sibling—a sister living in Portland, Oregon—and a complete chronology of Alana’s last movements. Some of it Claire didn’t want to read. It brought back That Night, the longest night of her life, during which every adult she knew, including her stepfather, was out searching. She and Leanne hadn’t been allowed to leave the house. They’d waited for their mother, or some word of her, praying all the while for her safe return—to no avail. When the sun came up, their stepfather and one friend after another checked in with the bad news that they hadn’t been able to find any sign of her. Reluctant yet determined, Claire’s eyes skimmed the handwritten log fastened to the left side of the thickest folder. May 10: Spoke to Jason Freeman. Claims he saw Alana at the bakery between 8:00 and 9:00 a.m. Watched her go in and come out carrying a bag of doughnuts while he drank a cup of coffee in the cab of Pete Newton’s truck. Jason says she got in the car with Tug and drove away. Tug confirms this in original interview. Other than Tug, Jason is the last person to see Alana. May 12: Tried to reach Joe Kenyon. Now there was a name, the one most often mentioned by those who theorized that Alana had been unhappy in her marriage and had gone looking for fulfillment in the arms of another man. If she’d had one affair, it was plausible she’d have more and might even have run off with whatever new lover she’d taken, right? That explained the mystery to some. But it explained nothing to Claire, who couldn’t believe her mother had ever cheated. He wouldn’t open his door when I knocked, but Carly Ortega across the street told me Alana stopped at Joe’s house quite often. She even saw her car parked in his drive once, late at night. Late? How could that be possible? Tug was always home at night. Alana would’ve had to slip out of bed without his noticing in order to leave the house. And why would she do that? Joe had come to cut down the diseased cottonwood tree that was about to fall onto their roof, but other than the few hours they’d spent together then, Claire couldn’t remember them ever speaking. May 13: Tried again to get an audience with Joe Kenyon. Refused to speak to me. Prick. David’s log went on for several pages. Figuring she’d read the rest at home, Claire switched to the other side of the folder and skimmed several interviews originally done by Sheriff Meade. Carly wasn’t the only one who believed there was something going on between Joe Kenyon and Alana. Joe’s twin brother, Peter, thought they were involved. He insisted that he’d heard his brother take a call from Alana while they were at work one day. He said he couldn’t hear what was being said, but he could tell by the tone of Joe’s voice that it wasn’t a simple request for tree-trimming services. Cringing, Claire dropped her flashlight in her lap. Did she really want to continue reading? This was making her sick, making her wonder if she’d really known her mother. Had Alana been leading a double life? Claire didn’t want to suspect her, but…how much more about Joe, about Alana and Joe, could she endure? That depended on how strongly she believed in Alana, didn’t it? Maybe Leanne had been a daddy’s girl from the moment Tug had come into their lives, during Leanne’s first year, but Claire had always preferred Alana. She trusted her mother more than to accept, on circumstantial evidence alone, that Alana was an adulteress. Breathing in through her nose and out through her mouth, Claire picked up the flashlight. “We’ll show them, Mom,” she promised. “We’ll show them all.” Beneath the log, she ran across a list of typed “inconsistencies.” These didn’t appear to be written by David, but she was willing to bet he was the one who’d highlighted various passages. According to the date at the top, the list was Sheriff King’s summary after taking over from Sheriff Meade. Tug said he was at work until he received Claire’s call. Concerned that Alana’s car was still in the drive and yet she was nowhere to be found, he left immediately. The next part was highlighted. Why would he be instantly worried? There’s never been a kidnapping or a murder in Pineview. There’d been one murder since—Pat Stueben, the town Realtor—but that hadn’t yet occurred when this was written. Unless she kept it to herself, Alana had never been threatened and wasn’t having problems with anyone. For all Tug knew, she’d walked down the block to talk to a neighbor and would be back any minute. Was his reaction a bit too fast? There was always the threat of bears. They came around if people left out food. But no one in town, other than Isaac Morgan, who tracked and filmed wild animals for a living, had ever been attacked. Claire’s arms and legs tingled with apprehension. Tug was normally the last person to assume the worst. Why had he reacted so quickly? She tried to remember every word of the conversation that had passed between them when she’d called that day. What do you mean she’s gone? she’d asked the minute she told him. I’ve searched the whole house. Did you check the bathrooms? Of course. She didn’t leave a note? Not that I can find. You haven’t heard from her? No. Stay there. I’m on my way. At that point, it hadn’t occurred to Claire that her mother could be in danger. She’d expected him to say something like, “Don’t worry. I’m sure she’ll be home soon.” But he hadn’t. And once he reached the house, he’d acted so tense, the same fear began to percolate through Claire. That was the first inkling she’d had that they were facing a major tragedy, and she’d taken her cue from her stepfather. Had he already known what was wrong? Had he and Alana argued earlier, maybe when he came home for lunch? Possibly about Joe Kenyon? And had that argument gotten out of hand? As much as she didn’t want to believe it, she knew things like that happened.... Chilled by the thought, she ran her free hand over the goose bumps on her arm. But it didn’t help because she found Sheriff King’s next point equally disturbing. On the day Alana disappeared, she picked Leanne up at school at 11:15 a.m. for reason of “illness,” but someone who didn’t come to the office took her back shortly before two. The sign-in/sign-out log in the attendance office reflects this partial absence but Leanne has never mentioned that she was home for a portion of the day. And she has never said whether or not her mother was with her during that time. “Impossible,” Claire muttered. After all the years of searching and questioning, how was it that Leanne had never spoken of missing school? Why would she keep it to herself? There had to be a reason. Hoping it might become apparent, Claire kept reading. If she was sick, how did she recuperate so fast? Exactly! At 2:00 p.m. she brought a note to the office excusing her absence and signed herself in. The attendance lady didn’t keep the note and doesn’t remember who wrote it—mother or father—but she stands by her log. When asked if she could’ve gotten the date wrong, she insists it would be almost impossible. “If that’s wrong, all the dates before it would have to be wrong, as well as the dates after.” Another highlighted part. All the days are accounted for and run Monday through Friday, as they should. Stunned, Claire sat staring at the yellow circle her flashlight created on the page. What did this mean? Why had the sheriff or his deputies even thought to check with the school? At sixteen, she could be considered a suspect. Everyone close to the missing person had to be ruled out. But Leanne? She hadn’t yet had the sledding accident that broke her back, but she’d only been thirteen. What could she have done to Alana? The discomfort of the hard floor and the scrabbling of some rodent in the corner began to bother Claire. It was too difficult to read for an extended period sitting in such an unfriendly spot, holding a heavy flashlight and trying to ignore the pack rats. It was time to take the files home, where she could scour every interview, every note, at her leisure. No doubt David had been trying to find her mother for her. He was that kind of man. He probably hadn’t told her in case he didn’t come any closer than anyone else. He wouldn’t want to raise her hopes, only to see them dashed. Probably a smart move. He certainly seemed to have run into more questions than answers. But she loved him for making the attempt. Relieved to be going, she closed the files. But just as she slid them into the accordion folder, a noise from below brought her head up. What was that? Movement? If so, whoever or whatever made that noise was definitely bigger than a rat. She’d thought she heard footsteps when she first arrived—and there’d been no one here. Irritated that she kept spooking herself, she climbed down the ladder. She’d just set foot on the stairs heading to the ground floor when a draft of cool air, smelling distinctly of smoke from the fireworks, swept up to meet her. Fresh air. From outside… “Hello?” she called. No answer. No corresponding rustle, either. She angled her flashlight in every direction to illuminate the dark recesses below, but the beam would only reach so far. “Anybody there?” Silence. Her mind conjured up the gruesome images that sometimes came to her in nightmares, images of her mother being tortured and strangled by some crazed psychopath. Most people were killed by someone in their circle of family and friends. But not all. Murders committed by strangers were among the most difficult to solve. Was that why no one could figure out what had happened? Was her mother’s killer lurking in the shadows, waiting for her to move closer? Half expecting the truth she’d been chasing for so long to become apparent in the most frightening way, she stood as if her feet were encased in concrete. The possibility of a violent ending didn’t escape her. But there were no footsteps, no madman rushing toward her, no more movement. Had she imagined the change in temperature? The noise? In such an old structure, even a slight wind caused creaks and groans. She wasn’t convinced it was the wind, but she didn’t see how staying on the landing, holding her breath, was going to help. She needed to get out. Tightening her grip on the files, she crept down the stairs, using her flashlight to scout for trouble—until she reached the living room. Then she aimed the beam straight ahead and ran for the door. But just as she reached it, she twisted around to look behind her. And that was when she saw it. A man’s booted foot. Someone was crouching behind her mother’s old piano. The scream curdled Isaac Morgan’s blood. He’d seen headlights pass by his place, knew it was probably Claire. It’d been a while since she’d come to her mother’s studio. He had a feeling his proximity served as a deterrent, especially since David’s death. But even the chance of coming face-to-face with him in such a private setting didn’t scare her away entirely. He usually turned a blind eye to her visits and pretended not to notice. He understood what she’d been through, why she couldn’t let go, and felt she deserved privacy to deal with her demons. Lord knew he preferred privacy to deal with his. It was the second set of headlights, appearing only a few minutes later, that had drawn him out of the house. He doubted she’d bring anyone up here; she tried too hard to act as if she was fine, as if the past didn’t bother her, but it did. The amount of weight she’d lost was alarming. Determined to investigate, he’d walked over. It was the Fourth of July, after all. The last thing he needed was a group of teenagers—teenagers who were even half as reckless as he’d been—coming up here and setting off fireworks. As dry as it’d been this summer, they could start a forest fire that would take every single cabin. But all he’d found was Claire’s Camaro. He’d been skirting the property and using his flashlight to comb through the trees in search of the second car when that scream sliced through him. Claire! Forgetting everything except getting to the cabin, he took off at a full run, moving much faster than he should have amid so many rocks, logs, gopher holes, pinecones and trees. With his flashlight bouncing every time his foot landed on the forest floor, the ground blurred beneath him. But he didn’t dare slow down—and that was why he never saw the tree branch that knocked him on his back. The sudden impact left him breathless. Blinking up at the sky, he struggled to fill his lungs. By the time he recovered and picked up his flashlight, which had gone flying, an engine roared to life on the far side of the property. The other car. It’d gone beyond the cabin and circled behind, to an area he hadn’t yet reached. Isaac almost changed direction. He hated that someone might’ve hurt Claire and would get away with it if he didn’t at least see the car. But if Claire was still alive and needed help, every second could matter. The driver was tearing out of the forest as fast as possible, regardless of the damage such rough terrain might cause his vehicle. Isaac spotted a flash of taillights through the trees and wished he could see more, but he wasn’t in the best condition to follow, even if whoever was behind the wheel had been moving more slowly. Blood soaked his shirt, causing the fabric to stick to him. That branch hadn’t only knocked him down, it’d punched a hole in his chest. But he might be in good shape compared to Claire. Afraid he was already too late, that she’d been killed as her mother had most likely been killed when they were in high school, he ignored the pain and hurried to the stoop, where he slowly pushed in the door. He wouldn’t have been able to hear her scream so clearly if she hadn’t been close.... Sure enough, there was blood at the entrance. And the door would open only partway.... Something, or someone, lay behind it. When Claire came to, it was pitch-black and she was being carried. Where, she couldn’t tell. A man’s muscular chest provided a resting place for her head; one arm supported her back, the other her knees. She had no idea who she was with or where she was at, but she wasn’t frightened because both her surroundings and this person smelled so familiar. David’s was the first name she thought of, but she disregarded that guess instantly. Her husband was dead. She’d had to remind herself of that every morning for the past thirteen months and had finally started to believe it, mostly because she felt so empty inside and she’d never felt empty when David was alive. Besides, David had sold insurance; he’d smelled like cologne, the occasional cigar and his briefcase. This man smelled like…soap and fir trees and wood smoke. Where had she noticed that scent before? With a groan, she lifted her head in an effort to see his face, but it was too dark. They were in the forest. The thick branches overhead blocked even the moon’s glow, but the beam of the flashlight he held in one hand—the hand cradling her legs—showed the ground and confirmed her location. So did the pine needles that threatened to catch in her long, curly hair as they hurried through the trees. Why was she in the forest? Who was she with? What had happened? Then it came to her. She’d been attacked. At her mother’s studio. The man carrying her hadn’t reacted when she first stirred. He was too focused on getting them wherever they were going. But when she screamed and tried to get down, he dropped the flashlight. “Shh,” he murmured. “I’ve got you.” That was the problem, wasn’t it? “Who are you?” “How quickly they forget.” The wry humor in his voice gave away his identity. This was Isaac Morgan. Of course. He lived closest. And it was no wonder she’d recognized his scent. During the two-year period when she and David had split up, when he’d attended Boise State and they’d both dated other people and been undecided about their future, she’d had sex with Isaac at least a hundred times. Maybe more. Often enough for her to have formed an addiction to his touch that hadn’t been easy to break. Even after so long, she avoided him if possible; just the sight of him could send a powerful charge through her. The memories were that good. She raised a hand to her aching head. “Why—why’d you hit me?” With a groan, he squatted and managed to recover the flashlight. “I didn’t hit you.” “Who did?” The way he sucked air through his teeth as he lifted her again suggested he was struggling to bear her weight, but she couldn’t figure out why. She weighed less now than ever, and he used to lift her up, hold her against the wall as long as he wanted while he— Stop! She didn’t want to remember, had trained herself not to remember. “That’s what I’d like to know,” he said when they were moving again. The image of a man’s booted foot appeared in her mind. She’d seen that foot just before someone sprang at her and knocked the flashlight out of her hands. Isaac probably had a similar pair of boots. Most men around here did. But she knew the person who’d shoved her after knocking her flashlight away hadn’t been Isaac. Any confrontation with Isaac happened head-on. The few people in Pineview who’d experienced the brunt of his temper made sure they never tangled with him again. Cynical and remote, he was indifferent to her and, as much as she’d once wanted to believe otherwise, always had been. If she needed proof she only had to remember their last encounter. When she knew David was returning from school, she’d tried to talk with Isaac, to tell him she’d developed feelings for him. She and David hadn’t promised each other anything, but they had a long history and he wasn’t seeing anyone. She’d wanted to determine how she should respond if he called her, whether or not she and Isaac had a commitment—and Isaac had let her know she’d been mistaken in thinking sex equaled love. That night when she left his house hurt and humiliated, she swore she’d never go back. And despite the terrible cravings he’d evoked over the years—dreams that were sometimes so vivid she woke gasping with the kind of pleasure he’d given her—she’d kept that promise so she could have a more meaningful relationship with David. And it’d been worth it. Maybe sex with David hadn’t been as all-consuming, as raw, as it was with Isaac. Maybe she missed that bone-melting intensity. But David had made up for it by giving her so much more. Moody, unpredictable men were excellent bait, but the women who bit down on that hook were fools. She couldn’t believe she’d ever hoped for a commitment from Isaac. He wasn’t the type to settle down. She’d known that from the beginning. Although they’d never been close friends, she and David had gone to school with him—they’d been in the same grade—so she’d seen firsthand how standoffish he could be. Ever since she could remember, he’d walked around with a camera, always on the other side of the lens, filming life but removed from it. And, if she’d forgotten how hard it was to connect with him, practically anyone in Pineview could remind her, including the women who’d tried to capture his heart and failed just as miserably. “Where are…where are you taking me?” She had to make an effort to form coherent sentences. But if she was in Isaac’s arms again, it was definitely time to speak up, to get away if she could. “Hold still.” Great. He was being his typical accommodating self. But when he stopped to adjust his grip on her, she knew he’d spoken curtly from necessity. What was wrong with him? He’d never had any trouble carrying her before. Since their sexual heyday he’d become even more muscular, which should be making this easier.... “Are you trying to…tell me you think I’ve gotten fat?” “I’m trying to tell you that it hurts like hell every time you move.” Suddenly she realized she might not have been the only one who’d had a run-in with her attacker. “The man who hit me…he didn’t…shoot you or…or anything, did he?” Obviously intent on making progress, he didn’t respond. “Hello?” she said. “Just take it easy.” It came out as a command, which didn’t surprise her. He was always in charge. On second thought, she had to admit there’d been plenty of give-and-take in the bedroom. But she couldn’t admire that without undermining her efforts to maintain some self-respect. Fortunately—or unfortunately—there were plenty of other things to think about. Maybe he was struggling because the ground was so uneven. Or he’d been carrying her for too long. Regardless, Claire knew she shouldn’t let herself rely on him. He was dangerous for her, probably even more dangerous now that she had such a vacuum in her life. She missed David, but David was gone and Isaac was very much alive—as alive and capable as he’d ever been. Far too many times in the past six months her thoughts had gravitated to him and how quickly he could put an end to her lonely nights. Maybe he was a cheap substitute for David, but there were times when that seemed better than nothing. “Put me down,” she said. He switched the flashlight to his other hand. “We’re almost…there.” “I can walk.” She wasn’t really sure of that, but she pushed on his chest to convince him to let her go—and immediately regretted it. They both gasped as her hand touched a wet, sticky substance. He was bleeding. She’d been right; he was hurt. With a curse, he tightened his hold but didn’t seem to be getting over what she’d done as quickly as she would’ve liked. “Shit, Claire, will you hold still?” “Claire?” she echoed. “Isn’t that your name?” It just sounded funny, coming from his lips after so long. Except for a few incidents when she’d found him staring at her at the tavern, or she’d glanced up while she was getting gas at the Fill ’n’ Go to realize he was there, too, he’d made it look darn easy to forget her. “Considering all the women you’ve been with, I figured you’d have a harder time keeping us straight, that’s all.” She was trying to hide how shaken she was to have his blood on her hand, not knowing how serious his wound was. He was always getting hurt; he’d often said he had nine lives. But she suspected he’d already used up that many. Because of the pain in her head and her distress, she had to relax against his shoulder or risk throwing up. Closing her eyes, she shut out the shifting light, which only made her dizzier. “How bad is it?” she mumbled when her concern for his well-being overcame her resistance to letting him know she cared. “You’re going to be fine.” “I was talking about you.” “We’ll see.” Then the most terrible thing in the world happened—tears filled her eyes. She wasn’t even sure why, except that she felt so helpless in the face of everything that had gone wrong. When would it end? First her mother’s disappearance, then her sister’s accident, then David’s death, and now she’d been attacked. To top it all, she was being carried through the woods by the one person she’d do anything to hide her pain from—and couldn’t because he was right there to witness it. Damn it, she didn’t want to be this transparent, didn’t want Isaac to see her so near the breaking point. Clenching her jaw, she blinked fast, but the tears came, anyway. So she began to pray he wouldn’t notice—and knew that prayer hadn’t been answered when he spoke to her in the same gentle tone she’d once heard him use with a lame horse. “Shh, it’s okay. Don’t cry.” 3 Although Isaac had called John Hunt, the only doctor in the area, and Sheriff King at the same time, Hunt arrived first. John, who lived nearby, worked in the emergency room in Libby, but kept his medical bag handy and helped out where he could. Emergencies were taken to the hospital by Life Flight, but once Isaac had had a chance to look at Claire and realized she had only one injury that didn’t seem too bad, he’d been hesitant to call for the helicopter. “How’s she doing?” Hunt asked. Isaac angled his head toward his bedroom, where he’d deposited Claire when he reached the cabin. “I’m pretty sure she’s okay, that it’s just your run-of-the-mill knock on the head, but…” He wanted to be positive. Head injuries could be tricky. “You can see for yourself.” Expecting him to walk past, Isaac waited so he could close the door, but the doctor didn’t budge. Instead, he fixed his gaze on the bloody rag Isaac held to his bare chest, and his eyebrows rose. “You didn’t mention you were hurt, too. But I guess you’re due. You’re my best customer. What happened this time?” Once he’d cleaned the blood from Claire’s head and made her as comfortable as he could, Isaac had removed his torn and bloodied shirt and attempted to clean his own injury, but it was too deep. He couldn’t get the bleeding to stop. “Branch caught me as I was running through the woods. It’s nothing serious.” But it was embarrassing. All the other injuries he’d sustained had been connected to his work and had an interesting story to go with them. The time he’d accidentally interrupted several wolves feeding on an elk, for instance. Or the confrontation he’d had with a mother bear. Folks around town asked him to tell and retell those stories, never seemed to grow tired of them. So he wasn’t thrilled to admit he’d been injured by something that shouldn’t have been a threat. Hunt pulled the rag away so he could have a look. “Not serious, huh? It’s serious enough to need quite a few stitches. Lie down on that couch. I’ll get to you in a minute.” “I’m fine,” Isaac insisted, and followed him into the bedroom. Claire had fallen asleep. She lay in his bed—not unusual, at least in the past. That she was still wearing her clothes was a first, however. With her hair mussed and her mascara smeared, she wasn’t at her best. But that made no difference. She was damned pretty. Isaac wished he didn’t think so, but he did. “Hey…” Hunt shook her arm. “Claire, can I have a minute?” Her hand went to her head as if it hurt—and it probably did. Isaac hadn’t offered her any painkillers. He’d wanted to wait until Hunt gave the all-clear. When her fingers encountered the gauze he’d used to cover the wound, she frowned in confusion. “I’m wearing a headband?” She didn’t remember him putting that on? She’d seemed lucid at the time.... “That’s a bandage,” Hunt explained. “Let’s leave it alone for a few seconds, okay?” He guided her hand away. “Do you know who I am?” “Of course. You’re…” She struggled with the name and settled for “Lila’s husband.” “That’s right. Lila goes to your book group, doesn’t she?” This drew a faint smile. “Every Thursday night.” Isaac wondered what that smile meant. He got the impression she was making fun of herself and Lila, as if book group was the most exciting thing they ever did. “Isaac says you have a bump above your ear. Would you mind letting me take a look?” When she hesitated, he added, “Your other option would be to have us call the helicopter so you can be transported to the hospital.” “No, there’s no need for that.” She winced as she attempted to sit up, but he pressed her back. “All you have to do is relax.” Hunt unwound the gauze and gently prodded the area behind her left temple. Fresh blood gushed out of a small cut. “Scalps are notorious bleeders,” he murmured. “This could use a couple stitches, but it isn’t a concern. I’m more worried about the possibility of a concussion.” He rested a hand on her arm to get her to focus on him, probably because her gaze kept straying to Isaac as if she thought he’d done this to her. “Can you tell me what happened?” She seemed distracted by his presence so Isaac retreated a few steps and leaned against the wall, where he could observe from a distance. “I was trying to get some…some paintings of my mother’s.” Paintings? Unless whoever pushed her down had stolen them, she hadn’t been carrying any paintings. Some file folders had spilled on the floor. That was what she’d had with her, but when Isaac opened his mouth to correct her, she shot him a look that shut him up. “I didn’t know I wasn’t alone until I was leaving,” she said. “You went to get these paintings at night?” Dr. Hunt wasn’t questioning her veracity, but he obviously thought there were better times for such an errand. “I didn’t care that it was dark. I had a flashlight.” She sent another warning glance at Isaac, but he’d gotten the point. She didn’t want the doctor to know what she’d been doing at the cabin. Why, Isaac couldn’t even guess. But as far as he was concerned, it was no one’s business but her own. He let it go. Hunt passed her a clean bandage, which she held to her head. “And someone was waiting for you or…what?” Seemingly relieved that Isaac was staying out of it, she finished in a rush. “I can’t say for sure. All I know is that a man came at me, knocked my flashlight to the ground and shoved me so hard I fell.” “Any idea what you might’ve hit on the way down?” “The corner of the table in the entryway, I guess. The entire bottom floor is filled with furniture.” She cleared her throat. “Everyone feels it’s the perfect place to store whatever they don’t want anymore.” It wasn’t the storage that bothered her; it was how easily others could deposit their cast-offs, forget the past and move on, because she couldn’t do the same. Isaac understood. He’d known Claire since they were children and empathized with what she’d been through. He’d lost his mother, too. She might have driven off on purpose, but he’d had to face life without her. He’d been searching just like Claire—the biggest difference being that he hadn’t had a stepfather to rely on. Fortunately in recent years he’d had the money to hire private investigators. Without so much as a birth certificate, it hadn’t been easy to figure out where he came from. Hunt checked for other injuries. “You know where you are now, don’t you?” A nostalgic expression appeared on her face. “This used to be my parents’ bedroom,” she said as if she was seeing it through much younger eyes. “My bedroom was across the hall. So was Leanne’s. When we moved to town, we sold it to a family who later went to Spokane. You remember Rod Reynolds?” “I do.” Almost twenty years older than they were, Dr. Hunt had left for college about the time Isaac had been abandoned at Happy’s Inn, just before first grade. But Hunt hadn’t stayed away for much longer than it took to get his medical degree. He was familiar with most of the people in Pineview and their backgrounds. Especially Isaac’s. But then…everyone was familiar with the story of the little boy who’d been left, with nothing but the dollar he’d been given to buy candy, at a roadside café. Distracted by a bowl of water on the nightstand, Hunt pointed to it. “This from you?” he asked Isaac. The pink tinge to the water had no doubt prompted the question. “’Fraid not. You’re the one who said head wounds bleed a lot. Apparently, that’s true.” Isaac could’ve done a better job cleaning Claire up if he’d shaved her hair at the site of her wound, but he was pretty sure that would only make her hate him more. Hunt frowned at the bloody rag Isaac held to his injury. “Chest wounds can bleed a lot, too.” Now that the doctor wasn’t so worried about Claire, he wanted to get started on Isaac. Isaac could tell. Claire could tell, too. She began to insist he look after Isaac, but Isaac waved away her concern. “Finish here first.” With a muttered curse at Isaac’s stubbornness, Hunt used a penlight to check Claire’s pupils. “What did you do earlier today, Claire?” “What do you mean?” Like the doctor, she’d grown preoccupied with Isaac’s wound. “I’m just asking about your day in general.” “Oh.” Her forehead creased as if she didn’t see the point of further questioning, especially when someone else was bleeding, but Hunt was only being thorough. “I worked.” Isaac wondered if she still regretted being unable to attend university. She’d talked about college just after high school, back when David was gone and they were seeing each other. During that time, she’d been treading water with a dead-end job managing Stuart’s Stop ’n’ Shop. But Leanne had been going through a series of operations, which her doctors hoped would restore some mobility, and Claire wouldn’t leave her. “Can you remember who you saw?” “Let’s see…I did a cut and color for Joyce Sallow, a trim for Larry Morrill and a highlight for Alexis Rodgers.” “You were busy. Where’s your sister tonight?” “At the fireworks show. See? I’m fine. Just…shaken up. And my head’s killing me but that’s to be expected,” she added. “Take care of Isaac.” “I will in a minute. And I’ll give you something for the pain, too.” Hunt recorded her blood pressure and heart rate. Then the doorbell rang and Isaac stepped out to answer. Sheriff King had arrived. Not surprisingly, Myles’s first thought was for Claire. But Isaac’s injury didn’t go unnoticed. “What happened to you?” “Collateral damage,” he replied. “She’s in here.” Going along with the diversion, Myles followed Isaac into the bedroom. Claire was his wife’s best friend; he was obviously more concerned about her. But Isaac had a feeling they’d return to the subject of his injury at some point, if only to see how it related to the attack at the cabin. King was nothing if not thorough. And Isaac wasn’t the most trusted man in town. “She’ll be fine,” Hunt said as they entered. “I’m going to sew up this cut. That’ll take care of the bleeding. She should be watched, just in case she has a slight concussion. But this isn’t serious.” “Good. Can the stitches wait until I have a word with her?” the sheriff wanted to know. “Are you up to talking with Sheriff King for a few minutes?” Hunt asked Claire. Claire continued to hold the bandage to her head. “Of course. Whatever will help. I want the person who did this caught.” When King asked for a few minutes alone with her, the doctor and Isaac left the room. Then Hunt insisted Isaac lie down so he could inspect the gash on his chest. “Damn. This one’s jagged and nasty,” he said with a frown. Isaac cocked an eyebrow at him. “Nice bedside manner. Aren’t you supposed to tell me to relax, everything will be okay?” Hunt grinned. “You can take it. You’re the closest I’ve come to creating my own rag doll. You know the routine by now.” Thanks to several encounters with various wild animals, he did. Although he’d been out alone, filming wildlife since he was in junior high—camera equipment was all he’d ever asked for, and what Tippy, the man who’d raised him, had generously provided—it wasn’t until he’d gotten older that he’d been harmed. He blamed himself for being careless or becoming too cavalier. But, his fault or not, that bear he’d tangled with four years ago had nearly cost him his left arm. And there might be more incidents in the future. That kind of danger went with his job. He had to get close enough to his subjects to capture good footage. That was what made his work better than most. Not only had he come within arm’s distance of bears and wolves, he’d filmed cougars, moose, bison and elk. He’d flown to Florida to do a documentary on alligators, and the Amazon to do a show on spiders, and another on snakes for the Disney channel. In the past decade, he’d been all over the world—not bad for an abandoned kid who was almost entirely self-taught. “How long’s it been since you’ve had a tetanus shot?” The doctor spoke as he numbed the area. “When I was attacked by that bear.” “Are you sure it wasn’t the time before that—with the wolves?” “No, it was the bear.” It’d been almost seven years since the incident with the wolves. He’d had a gun with him on that occasion. Firing a shot into the sky had mitigated the damage. He wasn’t sure how he’d survived mama bear. From what he remembered, she simply got distracted and galloped off. “I’m glad one of us can keep it straight,” Hunt grumbled. He was in the middle of stitching Isaac up when the sheriff came out of the bedroom. “Any idea who attacked Claire?” he asked Isaac. A local anesthetic had put Isaac out of pain. “No.” “You didn’t see anything?” “Headlights.” “How’d you know she was hurt?” “I heard her scream.” The memory of it still raised the hair on his arms. “From way over here?” “From the edge of the clearing.” Isaac explained everything that had happened in as much detail as he could, including his run-in with the unyielding tree. When he’d finished, the sheriff put his notepad in his pocket, checked Isaac’s wound to make sure it was consistent with his story, then scratched his neck. “So…it could be anyone with a car that has headlights and taillights. That narrows it down.” Isaac wished the doctor would hurry up and finish. Pain or no pain, he didn’t like needles. “It’s someone who knows the area.” “Why do you say that?” “He was familiar with the back way. He followed her in, so I expected to find his vehicle close to hers. But he took the alternate route just after my place, the long way, and went up and around. That’s why I didn’t spot his car until he was driving off.” Myles rested his hands on his utility belt. “That doesn’t narrow it down too much, either. What do you think he wanted?” Isaac shook his head. The culprit hadn’t attempted to rape her. He hadn’t really tried to hurt her, either. She might’ve ended up unharmed had she not fallen. Still, it was chilling to think that someone had followed her and crept into the house while she was there alone at night. “No clue.” “Thanks for helping her out.” King shifted his attention to John Hunt. “Is it okay to move her? Can I take her home?” When Hunt hesitated midstitch, Isaac tried to ignore the doctor’s gloved hand, covered with blood, holding that needle. “Not if she’s going to be there alone.” “Her sister lives next door,” Myles said. “Leanne will look after her.” “Fine with me. As long as Leanne’s willing and up to it.” Isaac would’ve offered to let her stay, to watch over her through the night and give her a ride in the morning, but he knew she wouldn’t want that. As the sheriff went to get her, Isaac closed his eyes. Although he experienced no pain, he felt a tugging sensation with each stitch. The sound of movement made him glance up. Claire was walking under her own power but King had a tight grip on her upper arm, as if he didn’t quite trust that she wouldn’t fall. Isaac thought she’d leave with just a perfunctory thank-you. He knew she probably wasn’t pleased they’d met up again after so long. But she turned back at the last moment, eyebrows gathered as she studied his wound. “I’m really sorry you got dragged into this,” she said. Dragged… He managed a bitter smile as the door closed behind them and wondered what she’d think if she knew how panicked he’d been, how hard he’d pushed himself to reach her. He had a hole in his chest to prove it. But she’d be surprised to learn there’d been any kind of personal involvement in what he’d done—so surprised she’d never believe it. Neither would she believe how completely she held his attention whenever she was in the same vicinity. Or how many times he thought of her even when she wasn’t. Jeremy was shaking when he got home. After parking in the garage next to his father’s old Jeep, he hurried into the house and charged down the stairs to his room, where he closed and locked the door. “Hey, the village idiot’s back! Where’ve you been?” His father had heard him come in; the noise had brought him to the top of the stairs. Rarely did he venture any closer these days. Jeremy had gotten too big. But that hadn’t always been true. He used to show up all the time, usually with his belt off and at the ready. “Watching the fireworks.” “I didn’t see you at the show.” Trying to shut out the memory of how easily Claire had fallen when he pushed her, he sat on his unmade bed and dropped his head in his hands. “I was there,” he said through his fingers. “Where else would I go?” “That’s what I’d like to know.” “I was there,” he said again. Then he waited to see if his father would come down and bang on the door, because if that happened, he’d cry, and crying would only make his dad yell and say bad words. You’re a fucking giant! Quit acting like a little girl! Maybe he did act like a girl sometimes, but he couldn’t help it. Had he hurt Claire? And who’d been holding the flashlight in the forest when he came running out of the studio? Someone had been there. Had he been seen? He supposed he’d find out soon enough if someone from the sheriff’s department showed up. The creak of footsteps overhead told him his father had left the opening to the basement and was going about his business. Hopefully, he’d get into bed soon. Don liked to ramble around and watch TV for most of the night. Since he’d gone on disability, it wasn’t as if he had to get up for work. But Jeremy liked it better when the house was quiet.... The clock ticked loudly on his desk. Jeremy counted those ticks until he thought he’d go mad. He kept wondering if he’d hear a knock at the door. But no one came. Slowly his heart rate returned to normal. Everything would be okay. He hadn’t meant to do any harm. It wasn’t his fault that she was so small and he was so strong. When he was fairly confident his father wouldn’t bother him again, he lay back and started rattling off all the numbers in his head. He was good with numbers. They calmed him. He could remember any number anyone ever told him. It made his father proud, and made him feel smart. But that was the only time he ever felt smart. 382-24-6832… 406-385-9472… 406-269-2698… 12/24/89… Why had Claire lied when she’d been asked why she’d gone to the cabin? Now that Isaac was all stitched up and everyone was gone, he couldn’t help being curious. Those files had to be important or she wouldn’t have been so evasive. Neither would she have driven out to the cabin at night, in the middle of the Fourth of July celebration, knowing she’d have only the benefit of a flashlight to retrieve them. Whatever the reason, it wouldn’t remain a secret for long. Surely she had to realize that. As soon as the sheriff left her in her sister’s care, he’d head over to the studio to see what he could find. What did she think—that he’d wait until morning? That she’d have an opportunity to recover those documents herself? Knowing Myles King, Isaac doubted he’d hold off. Given what’d happened to Claire’s mother, the sheriff would dust for prints, check for tire tracks, do all he could to figure out who’d followed her to the studio, and why. And he’d do it as soon as possible, hoping that his efforts might also shed light on Alana’s disappearance—or at least convince everyone there was no connection between the two incidents. Gingerly pulling on a clean T-shirt, Isaac decided to go back and get the files Claire had dropped. If he hurried, he should be able to get in and out without anyone being the wiser. What with the twenty-minute drive each way, helping Claire into the house and explaining to Leanne, it would take Myles at least an hour to get back. Isaac just had to dodge the deputies Myles had promised to send for her car. Maybe she wouldn’t thank him for helping her, but he felt he owed her for letting her down all those years ago. He’d been an ass. Even he had to admit it. But there was something about her that brought out the worst in him. Of course, she’d had her revenge. He’d had a long time to regret what he’d done, a long time to miss her. Although he’d made love with plenty of other women since, including several from around here, it had never been the same. And then there was the torture of one particular memory that didn’t go quite that far back.... He’d been tracking a moose in the Cabinet Mountains southwest of Libby, hoping to get a few good shots for a magazine called Montana Wilds, when he came across Claire and David camping out in the woods. They were newlyweds at the time and probably too poor to do any more than borrow Claire’s stepfather’s Winnebago to get away, so he wasn’t surprised that they hadn’t gone farther from home. He was surprised, however, that of all the campers in the Chain of Lakes area he had to stumble on them. What seeing them together had done to him came as an even greater shock. They hadn’t heard him—they were far too engrossed in each other. He’d stood right where he’d emerged from the woods, only partially concealed by the trees, and watched David kiss and fondle his new bride as they made breakfast. The sight had made him sick. And when he’d finally managed to clear his throat so they’d know they weren’t alone—he refused to slink off as if he’d been spying on them—Claire had angled her head to see around her husband’s shoulder. Embarrassment had registered on her face, but something else, as well. The look in her eyes told him she recognized the envy he was feeling. Even worse, she’d derived a certain amount of satisfaction from it. He hated that memory. Sometimes he hated Claire, too, for having such a strong hold on him despite his efforts to escape it. He was pretty sure she returned the sentiment. She wouldn’t even speak to him. If she saw him coming, she’d whip around and walk the other way. His career had taken off after a documentary he’d made on the impact of endangered status on the wolf population came to the attention of the editor at National Geographic a year or so after they’d quit seeing each other. That was when he’d started to travel. But Pineview was too small not to bump into her whenever he returned. So, if he preferred to stay out of her life, why was he heading back to Alana’s studio to rescue whatever Claire didn’t want the sheriff to see? He had no explanation for that. There was just something about her that made him do stupid things. Like sleeping with her for six months and not expecting to form an attachment. Like not turning away when she was being lovey-dovey with her husband so he wouldn’t have to carry that lasting and painful memory around with him. Like running hell-bent through the forest in an effort to reach her when she screamed—and just about puncturing his lung on a tree. When he entered the studio’s clearing for the second time that evening, he found the place quiet and dark. The door stood open, exactly as he’d left it—a sign that no one had been there since. He’d arrived in time. The files lay scattered on the floor. Aiming his flashlight at the documents that had spilled out, he glanced over them and soon determined that they were case files—part of the investigation into Claire’s mother’s disappearance. He wasn’t sure why this was a secret. The sheriff must have a copy. That had to be where Claire had gotten this stuff in the first place. He was sure of it until he read a report that talked about “inconsistencies” and realized that certain aspects of the case hadn’t been reported to the public. That meant Claire probably wasn’t supposed to know about them, suggesting she’d come by these through unofficial means. Isaac raked a hand through his hair. “So that’s it.” Careful not to pull on his stitches—Lord knew he’d bled enough for one night—he took all the papers and left the door halfway open, just as it had been before. A car approached as he neared his own place. Using the darkness and the trees for cover, he crept close enough to the pitted dirt road to see who it was, and easily recognized the squad car. The deputies had arrived. Would they look around while they had the chance? Maybe… Briefly, Isaac considered stopping whoever it was so he could hand over what he’d taken. Maybe there was something in these documents that would tell the sheriff why Claire had been attacked. But he knew she didn’t want to give them up or she wouldn’t have lied, so Isaac figured he’d return them to her when he had the chance to do it discreetly. He felt good about that decision—until he got home. After two hours spent reading through the various reports and interviews, he began to get a terrible feeling. Something peculiar stood out.... He had to be wrong. Surely someone else would’ve noticed what he was seeing and brought it up if it was even a possibility. Rubbing his eyes, which were bleary with fatigue, he wanted to let it go at that. He could be wrong. What was going through his mind wasn’t directly related to individual facts. It was more of a gut feeling about what all this information meant. But it wouldn’t leave him alone.... “Shit,” he said when he set the files aside. If what he suspected was true, Claire was about to face another nasty shock. And the sheriff was going to face his next big case. 4 Leanne wasn’t happy but that didn’t come as a surprise. To Claire’s dismay, her sister never seemed happy. She watched Leanne maneuver her wheelchair to reach the nightstand, where she set the glass of water and the pain pills she’d brought in case Claire needed them later. The disgruntled frown that tugged at her lips bothered Claire, but not as much as the low-cut pink nightgown her sister was wearing. Held up by two black ribbons tied in bows, one over each shoulder, it went to her ankles—but it was too low-cut to be worn in front of a man other than an intimate boyfriend or husband. And this was how she’d answered the door when Myles brought Claire home. Unable to bite her tongue any longer, Claire broke the tense silence that’d fallen between them as soon as the sheriff left. She knew Leanne had plenty to say about what’d happened at the studio tonight—plenty about how she shouldn’t have been there in the first place—and thought she might as well air her own grievances before Leanne could get started. “You didn’t mind letting Myles see you like that?” Her sister’s chin jutted out. “Like what?” “Wearing sexy lingerie?” With no effort at all, Claire could make out the tattoo of a mermaid on her sister’s right breast. When Leanne bent forward, she could see clear to her navel—but glanced away. Leanne’s lack of modesty embarrassed her now as much as it had a few minutes earlier. What had gotten into her lately? Why was she acting like this? Claire knew she struggled to feel attractive despite her handicap. It was heartbreaking to watch and the primary reason Claire had agreed with Leanne’s decision to get breast implants. She’d even helped pay for the operation. But Leanne had changed so drastically since the surgery, had become so blatantly sexual. Was she trying to prove that she was just as attractive and capable of pleasing a man as anyone who could walk? It felt that way. But passing herself around to every guy who showed interest wouldn’t solve her self-esteem problem. And it wouldn’t do her reputation any favors, either, especially in such a small community. “What are you talking about?” Leanne asked. “It’s not like this is transparent or anything.” It didn’t need to be transparent to be inappropriate. Claire made an effort to hold on to her temper. She knew how easily this could blow up into a major argument and didn’t relish the idea of any more trouble with her sister. They always seemed to be at each other’s throats these days. “But you hate gossip. Why make yourself the focus of it?” Leanne shrugged. “Folks around here are going to stare and talk no matter what. I have this wheelchair to thank for that. And Mom didn’t do us any favors when she ran off.” Claire couldn’t stop herself from bristling. Leanne had just thrown her first jab, no doubt one of many. “You don’t know she ran off, Lee.” “I know that’s the most likely answer—and I’m tough enough to accept it.” Unlike her. The implication was too obvious to ignore. “Don’t start.” Her sister’s blue eyes, a shade lighter than her own, flashed with the anger she’d kept concealed while Myles was in the house. “You need to hear it. You think finding out the truth will somehow make things better? That you’ll be able to prove she loved you? That’s pathetic. Dad and I have asked you and asked you to leave the past alone, but you won’t. You just have to convince yourself that no one would ever willingly abandon you.” She meant Tug when she said Dad. They called Tug and Roni Dad and Mom, even though their real dad was alive and in Wyoming with his other family. He was such an angry individual, so difficult to deal with, that Alana had preferred to let him go on his way unfettered—and he’d had no argument with that plan because he’d signed the adoption papers the moment she sent them. He was probably glad to escape legal responsibility for the children he’d left behind so he could pretend he’d never been married the first time. “I’ve accepted that our real dad didn’t love us enough to hang on, haven’t I?” “That was easier. He took off when you were three and I was a baby. Tug’s the one who’s loved us and looked after us but you don’t care about what’s best for him.” She motioned to the bump on Claire’s head. “And this is what you get.” Claire shoved herself into a sitting position. “Are you saying I deserved this?” “I’m saying it could’ve been avoided if you weren’t so damn selfish.” The barb stung, especially because Claire couldn’t be sure it wasn’t true. “Selfish, Lee? Really? This isn’t about me. There’s more to what happened when Mom disappeared than you think. And I feel a certain…obligation to get to the bottom of it. What I can’t understand is why you don’t feel the same. She was your mother, too!” “I have some loyalty to the parent who did stick around. Why aren’t you more grateful to Dad?” Claire remembered what she’d read in the files at the cabin. She almost asked Leanne why she’d never told anyone she’d been out of school for three hours on the day their mother went missing. Where had she gone? And why? Was she being loyal to their father when it came to that information, too? Claire was dying to know—but she wasn’t willing to reveal what she’d learned. Not yet. She hadn’t even read everything in those files. But she hoped to. As soon as Leanne went to bed, Claire planned to return to the cabin and collect what she’d dropped—if it was still there. Chances were good that Myles would beat her to it. As they were pulling away from Isaac’s place, he’d radioed for a couple of deputies to get her car, told them to leave her keys under the mat by Leanne’s front door. They might pick up those files, too. Or the sheriff himself could return to the cabin tonight instead of waiting until morning. “I am grateful to Dad,” she said. “I just don’t see why I can’t be loyal to both.” “Maybe Dad and I don’t want to accept that she didn’t love us enough to stay. Have you ever thought of that?” “Of course, but…she did love you. She loved all of us. I prefer to have faith.” “Faith?” Leanne scoffed. “Maybe I’m crippled, but you’re blind.” When would the meds the doctor gave her kick in? Claire’s head felt as if it was about to explode. Forcing herself to lie down, she sighed in frustration. “I don’t want to talk about it anymore. I had the sheriff call off the investigation for your sake and Dad’s. That’s something.” “It’d be something if you could finally let it go, too. Let us live in peace, instead of just…placating us.” “Fine, I’ll let it go if you’ll develop a little self-respect and restraint.” The words rushed out before Claire could stop them. Leanne had started to wheel herself to the door, but at this she paused. “What?” Already regretting the statement—it was nothing if not an invitation to fight—Claire pulled the covers up to her neck. She wanted to crawl into a hole until she felt well enough to deal with her sister. “You’re not even wearing a bra, Lee. When you bend over you can see everything.” “The sheriff wasn’t here long enough for me to bend over,” she said with a grimace. “Anyway, I have the right to wear pretty things. Why can’t I enjoy sexy lingerie as much as the next woman?” They were back to her handicap. It was the quickest way to disarm Claire, and Leanne didn’t hesitate to wield the power it gave her. Claire felt so bad about what her sister had suffered, and continued to suffer, that she was willing to put up with almost anything. But Leanne had gone too far with Sheriff King tonight. Claire would never forget the stunned look on his face. She had to make her point, before Leanne’s behavior got any worse. “I don’t have a problem with you enjoying sexy lingerie,” she said. “You’re the one who brought it up.” Claire lifted her head—and paid the price when it felt as if someone had just taken a swing at her with a baseball bat. “Because—” she waited until the pounding began to diminish “—you came to the door in a nightgown that barely covers your nipples. Myles is a married man. Not only that, but he’s with my best friend, and they have three children.” “His and hers,” she said flippantly. “So? What difference does that make?” Leanne gestured in a dismissive fashion. “You’re blowing this all out of proportion. He’s married to a beautiful woman. Why would he want a cripple when he has Laurel?” Claire massaged her temples. Thankfully, the painkiller was starting to take the edge off her pain. “Stop defining yourself exclusively by your condition! That’s not the issue.” Leanne’s voice climbed an octave. “Then what is? You’ve been telling me what to do since we were kids, but I’m an adult now, and I’ll live my own life! You’re freaking out over nothing. He didn’t even notice me.” But she’d been hoping he’d notice, hoping he wouldn’t be able to resist admiring her new double Ds in spite of his pretty wife. “Of course he noticed,” Claire said. “Anyone would. The whole encounter made him uncomfortable—and embarrassed me.” “Oh, and I would never want to embarrass you! God, all you care about is yourself!” Sometimes Claire just wanted to put some space between her and Leanne. But she couldn’t. She felt too much obligation to every member of her family, even her missing mother—especially her missing mother. “All I’m saying is that you should’ve covered up when he came to the door. That’s it. Quit trying to twist this into something it isn’t.” “It was late and I was in bed. You know how much harder it is for me to change clothes than it would be for you or anyone else.” That was an excuse. The sheriff had called dispatch so Nadine Archer could tell Leanne what had happened. Leanne had had some warning, could’ve slipped on a robe. She’d wanted him to see her in that nightie, wanted to find out if she could turn his head. “I’m trying to tell you that you’re acting strange these days, and it’s becoming apparent to others.” Her sister rolled her eyes. “Quit with the scare tactics.” “I can hear the cars that come over here late at night. I live next door, remember?” “Oh, so now you want to know who I see? You think I should get your permission before I have sex? You may have decided never to make love again, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to be celibate, too. Why shouldn’t I take what pleasure I can while I’m young? It’s not as if my life will ever get any better. What man’s going to want to marry me?” Claire’s breath caught in her throat. It would be terrible to think she’d lost her chance at love just because of a sledding accident. “That’s not true! You have so much to offer—” “Oh, stop it.” Leanne pressed the button that powered her wheelchair and headed for the hall. “Don’t try to tell me what I should or shouldn’t do. I’ll make those decisions. How I entertain myself, day or night, is none of your business. It’s nobody’s business. I don’t care what other people think.” “I’m telling you this for your own good,” Claire called after her. “I only want you to be happy.” She swung around in the doorway. “You want me to be happy?” Claire hadn’t expected a response. Taken off guard, she blinked. “Of course.” “Then stop digging around in the past. Can you do that much?” If only she could promise she would, but she couldn’t. And it was time—past time—to admit it. “I’m sorry. I can’t,” she said. “I have to know what happened, have to make sure Mom gets justice.” “Justice.” Leanne laughed bitterly. “What if justice isn’t what you think?” “You’ve lost me.” “Maybe you can understand this—she’s gone, Claire. That’s all that matters.” Leanne’s words seemed to echo off the walls long after she’d left. All that matters… All that matters… Was it? Not to Claire. “Sometimes I hate you,” she whispered. But she loved her sister, too, and she knew her mixed feelings weren’t likely to change. Leanne had always been difficult to deal with, even before the accident. She’d never made life any easier on herself—or anyone else. Unwilling to let the evening end so negatively, Claire got out of bed and went to find her. She wanted to put their argument behind them, wanted to give her sister whatever she’d like. But Leanne’s demand that she forget the past warred with what Claire needed most and, selfish or not, she couldn’t help it. The painkiller was finally doing its job. For the first time since she’d hit her head, Claire could walk without staggering or using the walls to prop herself up. But as she approached the kitchen, she heard Leanne getting a bottle from the liquor cabinet and stopped. On top of everything else, Leanne was drinking too much. Claire had suspected it for a while. That was probably part of the reason Leanne had changed so much in the past year. But Claire couldn’t do any more about her sister’s drinking than her behavior with men. Claire definitely knew better than to call her on it tonight. They’d only get into a bigger fight if she did. Quietly returning to her room, she waited until she heard a car outside. Then she got dressed, slipped out while Leanne was still in the kitchen and retrieved her car keys from under the mat. The files were gone. There wasn’t a single one left. “Damn it.” Claire slumped against the door frame, aiming the flashlight she’d brought from home at the bare floor. A twig or tree branch snapped in the forest. Straightening, she jerked her flashlight in that direction. It could be a rodent, a bear or even the man who’d attacked her before, but she wasn’t seriously concerned. The pain meds had hit her full force. She wasn’t feeling any anxiety. Maybe she was even too high to drive.... What now? she asked herself. There were more boxes in the attic she could tote home. She’d come all this way, felt she should make the trip as productive as possible. But she couldn’t bring herself to visit the attic. Not with the memory of being attacked so fresh in her mind. She stood on the front stoop, wondering about whether Sheriff King would call to ask where she’d gotten those files. Should she go on the offensive and demand to know everything they contained if he did? And…how was she going to get back home, since she probably shouldn’t drive? The memory of Isaac Morgan carrying her through the forest intruded. He lived within walking distance. Maybe it was self-destructive but there wasn’t another living soul she’d rather see. That was usually the case when it got this late, wasn’t it? She couldn’t deny her desire for him. The temptation he posed tugged at her more powerfully the longer she lived without David. But she’d promised herself that she wouldn’t go to his house, wouldn’t get involved with him again. They’d only end up in bed. But…why would that be so bad? If David wasn’t around to care, to be with her, why hold back? Suddenly she couldn’t think of a single thing it would hurt. She’d slept with Isaac before. Lots of times. One last hurrah wouldn’t make any difference. A little voice in her head protested as she trudged off. But the fireworks were over. The whole town was asleep. Unlike her previous trip, she felt completely alone and capable of doing whatever she wanted without anyone’s knowing, and that left her vulnerable to her weaker self, especially now, when she was depressed about the way things had gone with Leanne and the fact that the sheriff had taken the files. Isaac’s house was completely dark. Even the porch light had been turned off. He was obviously in bed. She felt guilty for disturbing him. Like her, he’d been injured tonight—probably more seriously than she had. But she was standing outside at nearly three in the morning with nothing except a flashlight and didn’t know where else to go. Returning to her car and attempting to drive home didn’t seem feasible when she was so light-headed. She couldn’t even remember what she’d done with her car keys.... Would he get angry if she woke him up? Maybe he would if she expected him to drive her home. But she didn’t. She only wanted more of what he used to give her—a night of the most exciting sex imaginable. The Isaac she knew wouldn’t object to putting his talents to work, injured or no. After she’d stopped frequenting his place but before she married David, he’d called her many times, always in the middle of the night—just to get her attention, to remind her that he was waiting, willing and hoping she’d come back. It’d taken her ten years. But here she was. 5 She got him to come to the door. He was groggy and half-asleep, but that was okay. She preferred him to be half-asleep. Had he been any more alert, he might’ve questioned her, made her grovel, maybe even refused her to pay her back for ignoring the attempts he’d made to reach out to her. She’d never forget how upset he’d looked when he chanced upon her and David in the forest shortly after they were married. Isaac didn’t care about her, but he was possessive enough that seeing her with another man bothered him, probably more than he wanted to admit. He’d never reacted with jealousy any other time. As it was, he seemed a little startled when she pushed him back into the house the moment he opened the door. He asked what was going on, but when she switched off the light he’d just turned on and reached for him, he figured it out fast enough. Becoming instantly alert, and hard just as quickly, he welcomed her into his arms. Then his breath shortened and his hands grew very purposeful as they made their way beneath her clothes. “That’s it,” she murmured, but she was thinking, At last, when her T-shirt hit the floor and his mouth, with its perfect lips, found her breast. Allowing her eyes to close, she surrendered completely. She could no longer recall why she’d been denying herself. There were reasons, of course. Just none she was willing to list right now. When her hands clenched in his thick black hair and she began to gasp, he groaned in appreciation of her eagerness and picked her up in his arms. Briefly, she thought of his stitches, wanted to caution him not to do anything that could rip them out, but he didn’t seem to be worried or in any more pain than she was. Maybe they were both high on meds. She would’ve laughed that something as unforeseen as an attack could bring them together after the protracted battle she’d fought to stay away. But she knew in her heart that it wasn’t a laughing matter. She’d be sorry tomorrow. When he placed her on the bed, she expected him to back off long enough to remove the jeans he’d put on to answer the door, expected him to get right down to business. He’d won, hadn’t he? Surely he’d want her to know it, to prove it to her in no uncertain terms. This wasn’t a sweet and gentle lovemaking session likely to progress slowly. She hadn’t meant it to be. Sweet and gentle was David’s territory. When she had sex with Isaac, the need to get closer and closer consumed her. He made her buck and moan. But he didn’t seem willing to leave her yet, not even for the few seconds taking off his pants would require. He pinned her beneath him, hands above her head, and kissed her in a way that left her in no doubt that he craved what she’d denied him for the past decade. Soon Claire was so sensitive to his touch she could hardly contain the building excitement. No wonder she thought of Isaac so often, had to fight the desire to visit him on a nightly basis. It’d only been a year since she’d slept with her husband, but it’d been a decade since she’d slept with Isaac. She wasn’t sure how she could feel so strongly about him when she loved David as much as she did, but it was true. Letting go of her wrists, he covered her breasts with his palms. She could feel his hard length pressing into her stomach as he gently tweaked her nipples. Then she was trying to remove his pants because she couldn’t wait a second longer. “God, I’ve missed you,” he murmured as he helped rid them both of what remained of their clothes. She didn’t believe him. How could he miss her if he’d never cared about her to begin with? He missed the sexual release she could provide. Somehow, whatever magic he held for her, she seemed to hold for him, too. They were both cursed. Or she was projecting. Maybe it wasn’t that way for him at all, just male pride or the refusal to believe he could lose her to someone else. Otherwise, he wouldn’t care that she’d moved on. Too bad the past went much deeper than merely a release for her. She’d been in love with him. Maybe she still was—a little, anyway. That was the part that frightened her, that made her fear it’d been a mistake to come here. She wasn’t sure how she’d ever find the strength to let go of him again. Not without David to make the difference. But that was something she’d have to deal with later. For right now, for this moment, she was going to take everything Isaac could give her, grab it all before she had time to rethink her actions or regret them or even acknowledge that this was how it should’ve been with David. “No one can make love like you,” she whispered. He froze above her, as if she’d slapped him instead of complimenting him. “That’s what brought you back?” Did it matter? He had what he wanted. “Yeah. It…it hasn’t been easy for me after David. But this is better than being alone. And since you seem to be free for the night, you don’t have anything to lose, either.” Silence. Then, “He made you happy.” “Yes.” And yet she was glad it was Isaac touching her now. But she didn’t add that, because it made no sense. Isaac shifted so he could rest part of his weight on the bed. “Then…this means nothing to you.” His voice sounded slightly strangled. She thought it was odd that he’d even ask. He’d certainly never asked before. But they’d been young. And they’d ended badly. She rushed to reassure him that he didn’t have to worry about her acting like a lovesick fool this time around. “No, I’m still totally in love with David. You don’t have to worry.” “Worry?” “That I’ll want anything more from you.” “I see.” She felt his chest rise, heard him take a quick breath. His reaction confused her. “You’re relieved, right?” “Of course. David was a…a great guy, a perfect husband.” “He was everything to me.” Just saying it brought tears to her eyes. David was generous, kind, consistent, transparent. Yet here she was, asking for more of the one thing Isaac could give her, and that was ecstasy. Still supporting himself on his elbow, Isaac wiped away her tears. “Well, we wouldn’t want you to be lonely....” Was he being sarcastic? His touch was so…gentle. Damn him. Why did he have to complicate everything? She tried harder to clarify what she meant. Didn’t he believe her? Was he remembering the last time, how sickeningly she’d clung to him? “We won’t have to acknowledge it ever happened.” “Maybe you can pretend I’m him.” That was impossible, but she wasn’t about to explain that no one could compare to Isaac, not even David. “Sure. Maybe. Or it can be like…like it was for you before,” she reminded him. “Just…physical. We don’t have to tell anybody.” She thought he’d be happy that she’d made it so easy for him. He was the one who didn’t do well with commitments. When she’d told him she loved him the last night they were together, he’d panicked, said he wasn’t the marrying type, that she should find someone who’d make a better husband. He’d even said she was stupid to think he could ever fall for her. So she’d moved on. She’d gotten back together with David, but David had been taken away from her, and now she had nothing. Except this highly erotic, clandestine meeting with her former lover. “It’ll be our little secret,” he said. She breathed a sigh of relief. “Yes.” She didn’t want to start any rumors, didn’t want to answer any questions about him. And she certainly didn’t want to explain to her sister why she’d gotten involved with Isaac Morgan again—not after she’d just warned Leanne to be careful about who she spent time with. “That’d probably be best.” When there was no response on his part, no movement, either, she began to feel uncertain. “What’s wrong?” “Nothing,” he replied. But something told her that wasn’t quite true. The way he touched her, the way he made love from that moment on, was different. It almost seemed as if his stitches were hurting him. She asked if he’d changed his mind, but he didn’t answer. He gave her what she wanted, at least on a physical level, but only with his mouth. He refused to fully make love. She wasn’t sure if he was out of condoms, or he was trying to withhold the one thing she wanted more than any other—to feel him inside her again after so long. Maybe it was neither. Maybe he’d lost his desire for her and she’d only imagined the unbridled excitement she’d sensed at the beginning, because he wouldn’t even let her satisfy him in return. He finished as if he was merely servicing her, then rolled over to go to sleep, and she lay awake, feeling like an idiot. Why was she asking for more of the same mixed signals, the same confusion, she’d endured ten years ago? The smell of her was everywhere. On his pillow. On his sheets. On his skin. But she was gone. Thank God. It was too hard to have her lying next to him, knowing her presence in his bed didn’t mean he had the second chance he’d been hoping for. When she’d walked through his front door and let him know she wanted him, he’d thought they could go back to the way it used to be, that he’d have the opportunity to start over with her. But that was crazy. She was still in love with David; she’d said as much. And he couldn’t possibly compete with a guy like that. David had been Pineview’s golden boy. He’d had no rough edges, no unsavory past. To make matters worse, now that David was gone, he’d practically been canonized. Saint David. Trying to minimize the strength of the scent that lingered, Isaac shoved the blankets off him. Maybe David was now a saint, but Isaac was still human and would never be able to outdistance his past. He’d been kicked out of school so often he couldn’t remember the number of times. He’d dropped out before he could graduate. He’d been thrown out of the Kicking Horse Saloon for fighting on several different occasions and had spent a few nights in jail as a result. He’d once been chased off with a shotgun when he’d dared to date a girl whose father felt she was too good for him. And, as his crowning achievement, he’d stolen a car on a dare just before he turned eighteen and served a few months in juvie. What he’d created with his career had come as a surprise to everyone. He made more money than most people around here. The residents of Pineview didn’t know the half of it. But no one considered him to be safe or reliable. They admired him, were attracted to the celebrity he’d gained, but they were afraid to really embrace him. In short, it was generally understood that he wasn’t a good bet. He squinted against the light streaming into his bedroom, then rolled away from the window. He hadn’t hung any blinds. No one lived close enough to see into his house, and he didn’t mind the sun. He typically woke early, just as he had today. He liked to get moving, had more energy than he knew what to do with. But he wasn’t ready to get out of bed this morning. He felt like he’d been run over by a logging truck, and he was pretty sure he couldn’t blame that sensation entirely on his latest wound. Reminded of his injury, he removed the bandage and bent his head to see the neat row of stitches. “Great. I’m looking more like Frankenstein’s monster every day,” he said through a yawn. He’d probably have another scar—this one right over his heart. That seemed fitting. As far as he was concerned, he deserved whatever he got when it came to Claire. She’d offered him her love, and he’d rejected it. He’d told her he didn’t care about her, even though everything she’d said was exactly what he’d longed to hear. He’d spoken the truth with his body—many times—and would’ve done so again last night if she hadn’t told him he no longer mattered to her. But he couldn’t verbalize his feelings. It had been too hard for him to believe her love wouldn’t wane the minute he began to return it, to count on it. His past was too much of a hurdle. His own mother had left him standing in front of Happy’s Inn when he was five years old, had driven off into the sunset and never come back. He’d waited in that spot every day for two months before he’d gotten the point that she’d meant to leave him behind when she let him out to go to the restroom and buy a candy bar. He still wasn’t sure what he would’ve done if Old Man Tippy hadn’t taken him in. No doubt he would’ve been sent to an orphanage somewhere. But when Tippy volunteered, the law sort of looked the other way so he could have a new home without all the red tape—and it was a good home, for the most part. Tippy had been kind. He’d put a roof over Isaac’s head, provided the basics and taught him everything he knew about photography, which he’d spent a lifetime studying. But he hadn’t lived long. At sixteen, Isaac had inherited all of Tippy’s video and photography equipment, along with the little shack they’d shared on Crystal Lake. He’d upgraded the equipment more than once, but he still owned the shack, and went there on occasion. He’d been alone ever since Tippy’s death and that was how he felt safest. If he was alone he didn’t have to worry about being left. Refastening the bandage over the stitching that held his skin together, he sat up. It was after Tippy died that he’d really begun to act out. He’d been so angry and self-destructive, so unable to control his own emotions, that Pineview hadn’t known how to handle him. The more others tried to control him, the harder he fought. He was twenty-one when he’d had his first sexual encounter with Claire. He’d been with other girls but no one like her and he wasn’t ready for the way she affected him. Maybe if they’d gotten together later, after he’d learned to channel his excess energy into his work, they would’ve had a chance. Instead of acknowledging how much he cared, he’d denied his feelings for her, even to himself, did everything he could to prove that she was just a piece of ass. So she’d given up on him and gone back to David, where she belonged. David knew how to treat her; he was the only person Isaac had ever secretly envied. David had graduated with honors and gone to college. He had more friends and family than he’d known what to do with. Isaac couldn’t name a single person who hadn’t liked the guy. And yet there had to be one, didn’t there? If what Isaac had come to suspect after reading the files on Alana was correct, the hunting accident that had taken David’s life was no accident at all. He glanced at the phone. He hadn’t told Claire what he believed, hadn’t even mentioned that he had her files. Seeing her like that had caused such a torrent of emotion, his thoughts had headed down a completely different path. And by the time he could think straight, he’d begun to question his own conclusions. He had nothing to back up his suspicions, except that David had been pursuing his own investigation into Alana’s disappearance, and just as he seemed to be making headway, he was killed. Coincidence? Or murder? Getting shot by another hunter was so rare.... His stitches pulled when he got to his feet. He needed another couple of aspirin. He felt marginally better once he’d given himself a few minutes to acclimate to a vertical position. Then he made his way into the kitchen, where he skipped the aspirin in favor of finding the phone book. Two other hunters had gone into the forest with David the day he was shot, both of them friends of his from high school. Rusty Clegg, a deputy sheriff, was one of them. Leland Faust, who owned a farm near Big Fork since he’d married Bella Wagoner, was the other. Isaac didn’t particularly care for Rusty. They’d had a couple of run-ins at the Kicking Horse Saloon. He got the impression that Rusty liked the power he wielded just a little too much, and that grated on Isaac. So he looked up Leland’s number instead. Just as he expected, Leland was listed. Grabbing his phone, Isaac slumped into a chair at the kitchen table. Leland’s wife answered. She told him her husband was already out on the farm but supplied his cell phone number. Isaac had a cell phone, too. He used it when he traveled, but there wasn’t any service in Pineview so it was useless here. Only Kalispell, Big Fork and some of the larger cities had reception. Apparently, Leland lived close enough to Big Fork to be able to use his. “’Lo?” A gruff voice came through above the hum of a large motor—a tractor, maybe? “Leland, it’s Isaac Morgan.” The engine died. “Who?” “Isaac Morgan.” Isaac had never called him before. They’d never had any trouble, but they weren’t exactly friends. “That’s what I thought you said. What can I do for you?” “I was wondering if you could answer a few questions.” “About…” “David O’Toole.” This met with a protracted silence. “Why would you want to know anything about David?” “Let’s call it general curiosity, for now.” “I’m not sure that’s enough reason to get me to talk about him.” Isaac understood. Those memories had to be difficult. “Then I’ll be more specific. I’m afraid the accident that took his life wasn’t an accident.” He waited for an exclamation of shock or surprise, but didn’t receive one. The pause felt charged with some strong emotion, but because Leland hadn’t spoken, Isaac couldn’t tell which emotion or why. “You still there?” he prompted. “Yeah, I’m here. What makes you say that?” This was the question Isaac had assumed would come immediately after his earlier statement. Why had it been delayed? What was going on in Leland’s head? Was he remembering? Wondering if what Isaac had just said could be true? Or was he thinking that he’d suspected the same thing? “I’d rather not explain at the moment,” Isaac replied. “But…maybe you can convince me otherwise.” “And if I can’t?” Isaac felt his eyebrows shoot up. “What does that mean?” “It means nothing. Never mind. I don’t want to talk about this,” he said, and the phone went dead. 6 When Claire opened her eyes and saw the sun creeping around the corners of her blinds, she pulled her extra pillow over her head. It couldn’t be morning. Not yet. “Claire? You going to answer or not?” Claire wished she could ignore the voice at her front door. Once she got up, she’d have to come to full awareness, and with full awareness she’d be faced with the memory of what she’d done last night. After ten years, she’d gone back to Isaac’s house, and his bed. But instead of being fulfilled, instead of feeling as satisfied as she once had, she battled regret—just as she’d expected. Served her right. Why had she given in after so long? She’d known he wasn’t what she wanted, that he could never be the kind of companion David had been. Shit… Bang. Bang. Bang. There went the door again. She had to deal with her sister whether she felt like it or not. Leanne knew she was home. “What do you want?” Claire remained where she was and, for a change, didn’t bother to soften her voice. “It’d be nice to know you survived the night, for one thing,” her sister yelled back. “I was supposed to check on you every few hours, remember?” Had she even tried? Or had she gotten drunk and passed out? Claire was willing to bet Leanne hadn’t thought of her until this morning. Her sister’s negligence might’ve hurt, except that Claire was used to it. All the care and attention between the two of them went in the other direction—from her to Leanne. As the baby of the family, Leanne was used to being coddled, and the sledding accident had only exacerbated that, all but cementing Claire as the one who would forever compromise, give, tolerate, cajole. “I’m alive,” Claire responded. “You can go home. You’re off the hook.” “That’s it?” Leanne’s surprise almost made Claire chuckle. “You’re not coming to the door?” “I have a head injury, remember?” “Does that mean you’re not working today?” Scooting closer to the nightstand, she checked the alarm clock. Eight-thirty. Her first appointment was at ten, and then she was booked solid until six, with a half-hour lunch break. Considering the size of her headache, she couldn’t stand on her feet all day. She didn’t want to field the questions she’d be asked, either. No doubt word of the incident had spread. Maybe it’d even been reported in the paper, like every other call to the sheriff’s department, including the minor ones. “I’ll have to cancel.” “Okay, well…” Leanne didn’t seem to know what to do with herself. It wasn’t enough of an excuse that Claire was hurt; Leanne was used to Claire being at her beck and call, whether it was convenient or not. Remembering Isaac’s mouth on her breast—and elsewhere—Claire barely stifled a groan. She was an idiot. But sleeping with her ex-lover wasn’t her only problem. What about the man who’d attacked her at the cabin? She had no idea who he was or what he’d wanted. The lost files and the information she’d picked up from what she’d managed to read complicated things further.... The warning from her subconscious had been correct. This wasn’t a good morning. But she might as well confront it head-on. “Wait a second,” she called out. “I’m still here,” Leanne said. Frowning because of everything that’d passed between them last night, Claire got out of bed and, supporting herself against the walls, made her way to the living room, where she opened the door. “Wow, you look like hell,” Leanne muttered. “I feel like hell. But thanks for making my morning that much more enjoyable. I can always count on you.” Leanne gave her an odd glance. “Just thought you’d want to know.” “Not necessarily.” Had she looked okay when she’d appeared at Isaac’s cabin? She couldn’t imagine she had, but it made her mad that she’d even care. Anyway, Leanne didn’t look much better. She’d put on a robe, but she was still in that nightgown she’d been wearing the night before—not a positive association as far as Claire was concerned. Fortunately, they didn’t have any neighbors. They lived at the end of a rutted dirt road next to the old park, which wasn’t used anymore. This area, called River Dell, was considered the poor side of town, but Claire liked the privacy of having their own cul de sac. They both worked out of their homes, which had been purchased with the trust money their grandparents had left them, although that was gone now. Leanne made stained-glass windows and lamps, which she sold online and by referral. Her shop, like Claire’s salon, was attached to her house. They weren’t getting rich, but they were self-employed and self-sufficient. That freedom meant a lot to Claire. Suddenly, Leanne leaned close. “Is that a hickey on your neck?” Isaac had wanted to leave a mark; he’d done it on purpose to spite her. “Of course not. I…I hit something when I fell. It’s just a red mark.” Leanne didn’t seem completely convinced, but she let it go. “So…do you need me to make you some breakfast?” An offer like that meant she was feeling contrite. But the emotion wouldn’t last. She wasn’t that big on taking responsibility for her actions. “No, I’m fine.” Claire hesitated, fought with herself and eventually came to a decision. “I have a question for you, though.” Her sister’s expression turned stony. “If it’s about my personal life, I don’t want to discuss it.” “It’s about the day Mom went missing.” Leanne started to roll away. “That’s even worse.” The same unease Claire had experienced at the studio snaked through her. After their argument last night, she didn’t want to pursue the question that kept surfacing in her mind, but couldn’t hold back any longer. “Where did you go when she took you out of school?” The whine of the wheelchair motor fell silent as Leanne stopped. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” “You don’t? The school attendance records show you went home sick.” Claire felt the weight of her sister’s stare. “Who says?” Leanne finally responded. “Dad picked me up after school, just like he picked you up. You know that. We waited for him together.” “You were gone for three hours. Someone brought you back at two. Who was it?” “No one. I don’t know where you heard that, but it’s wrong. I never went home, sick or otherwise,” she said, and continued on her way. Tug woke Claire from a deep sleep two hours after she’d canceled her appointments. When she raised her head and saw his name on caller ID, she didn’t want to answer. She wasn’t up to talking to anyone else today, even her stepfather. But she knew he was probably worried. If she didn’t answer, he and Roni might drive over. That was more than she could handle right now. Taking most of the bedding with her, she rolled toward the phone but dropped the handset. “Hello?” she said once she’d picked it up. “You okay?” Making an effort to shake the exhaustion that dragged at her as if she was under ten feet of water, she rubbed her face. He was worried, as she’d thought. She could hear it in his voice. “Fine. Who told you about the attack?” “Leanne.” “It’s not in the paper?” “Might be. Haven’t checked.” Everyone would hear about it, anyway, and they’d be talking. “Are you upset with me?” Claire knew he couldn’t be pleased. He was as adamant as Leanne that she leave the past alone. “Not at all,” he replied. “I’m glad you’re okay.” At last, a ray of sunshine for her soul. “Really?” She was almost afraid to believe it. “Of course. I understand the…loss of your mother has been hard on you. I just… I wish you could let it go so you could be happy. That’s all.” Why was she the only one who couldn’t? That drove her almost as crazy as everything else about her mother’s disappearance. “Don’t you want to know what happened? Where she went? Don’t you ever wonder?” He seemed to be choosing his words carefully. “Of course I do. I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t. You know I hired a private eye right after she went missing, even offered a sizable reward, but it was all for nothing. We can’t let tragedy destroy our lives. Sometimes these things happen and there are no answers. At some point, you have to cut away the bad and focus on the good, forget the past and move toward the future.” He’d done that. So had Leanne. She was the only one clinging to Alana’s memory. Was she being loyal? Or was she ruining her life? “But what if there are answers out there?” she asked. “What if we could find them if we pursued them hard enough?” “We could put all our time, energy and resources into this and still come up empty-handed and brokenhearted.” He had Roni to help him look toward the future. Her stepfather was happy in his marriage, maybe even happier than he’d been with her mother. How much did that figure into his attitude? Would she be so set on pursuing this if David hadn’t died? Probably not. She’d felt less driven when she’d had him as an incentive to live and love again, to forget. But he was gone, and the burning passion was back. It’d been building recently, returning to levels she hadn’t experienced since the years right after it happened. Which was why she had to ask Tug what she’d asked Leanne. “Do you know about Leanne coming home sick from school the day Mom went missing, Dad?” She sensed surprise, but when he answered, he spoke in an even, measured tone. “No. Who told you she came home sick?” “It’s in the school’s attendance log.” A brief pause suggested he was scrambling for what to say next, and that upset her. She wanted to trust him. She did trust him. So why did she get the impression that he was trying to dodge this question? “Wow, you really are chasing this thing again, aren’t you,” he finally said. Draping her arm over her eyes, she sank back onto her pillow. “I have to, Dad. For whatever reason—for a lot of reasons—I can’t let it go.” He didn’t respond right away, but when he did she could tell that something had changed. “Fine. You do what you have to, honey. And I’ll support you in it.” Claire threw the covers aside and swung her feet over the edge of the bed. “You mean that?” “Of course I do.” Those four simple words subdued the sinking feeling that had settled in when she woke up. He wouldn’t relent if he’d killed Alana. He’d keep fighting to stop her. His past reluctance had troubled her all these years, so being able to move forward with his blessing meant a lot. “Why the change of heart?” “What happened last night scares me. I lost your mother. I don’t want to lose you.” When Claire’s chest constricted, she knew his feelings toward the investigation had been a bigger problem for her than she’d ever wanted to admit. “Leanne said it was my fault for going there in the first place.” “You should be able to go to your mother’s studio without feeling you might get hurt. Maybe it was a freak encounter, or an attempted robbery. I got off the phone with the sheriff a second ago. He said there’s nothing to indicate it’s more than that, since whoever it was just shoved you and ran off. But…the fact that it occurred at Alana’s studio has him worried, and me, too.” “You think it might be related to the past?” “Everyone does, although there’s no proof. You didn’t get a look at the guy?” “No.” “Concentrate, honey. Can you remember anything about him? His height? His weight? Maybe some detail about his clothes or his smell?” She wished she could, but it’d happened too fast. “No, nothing.” “What about his car?” “I didn’t realize he had a car, Dad. I didn’t see anyone behind me on the road, didn’t hear a vehicle approach. He must’ve followed at a distance and parked too far away.” “The sheriff said Isaac Morgan came to your rescue.” Again, Isaac’s passionate kiss, his hands on her body and his erection pressing against her legs flashed through her mind. Just when the memories of their nights together had grown tired and dim, she’d gone and created a fresh one. “Yes.” “How do you know he didn’t shove you to begin with?” “Because he’d have no reason to do that. And it’s not who he is.” “He never liked that you ended up with David.” He could’ve stopped it if he’d cared enough. “Believe me, that was no skin off his nose.” “But he watches you. I’ve seen him do it.” Her father had never mentioned this before. “What are you talking about? When does Isaac watch me?” “Whenever. He can’t keep his eyes off you. At the bar. At the café. At the grocery store. Anywhere you both happen to be.” That was because of their history. She watched him, too. She could feel his presence before she even saw him. “Trust me on this. It wasn’t Isaac. What we had didn’t mean anything to him. You know how he is with women. Anyway, the attack on me might’ve turned into more than just a shove if he hadn’t come running.” How else would he have gotten that terrible gash in his chest? “Maybe, maybe not. But it’s awfully convenient that he was right there.” “He lives close by.” “Not close enough to hear anything. And…Claire?” “Yes?” He seemed to be struggling with what he wanted to say next. “Dad?” He sighed. “It’s so hard to know what to reveal and what not to reveal.” Claire gripped the phone tighter. “There’s something you haven’t told me?” “It’s not directly connected to Alana going missing. I’m sure of that. But…I’ve often debated whether it would make things easier on you to know. And now that you’ve asked… I don’t want this eating away at you, sending you down the wrong path.” “Tell me.” “You asked about Leanne being out of school for three hours on the day your mother went missing.” A hard knot formed in Claire’s stomach. His manner worried her. “Yes?” “That did happen.” Leanne had just denied it. Initially, he’d denied it, too. “Then why’d you say—” “The question took me off guard,” he broke in. “I’m so used to protecting her, so used to minimizing the damage caused by that day, it’s become instinctive to lie about it.” Claire swallowed hard. “I don’t understand. There must be a reason you’d say she was out of school and keep saying it.” “Yes. And if you’re going to pursue this, you need to know what it is.” Whatever “it” was sounded pretty ominous. She took a shaky breath. “I’m listening.” “It wasn’t your mother who was…involved in some way with Joe Kenyon.” “Who was it?” Claire could barely make herself heard, but she must’ve spoken loudly enough because he responded with the name she’d suddenly guessed he was going to say. “Leanne.” “That can’t be true,” she said. “Leanne was only thirteen at the time. If…if Joe was molesting her, he should’ve been punished. Why would you lie to keep what he did a secret?” “Because he didn’t molest her. What happened wasn’t his fault.” Claire stared at the carpet, studying the large flowers as if tracing them on paper. “That doesn’t make sense. He was at least seventeen to eighteen years older than she was.” “But she had a thing for him. You remember Katie, don’t you?” How could she forget Katie? Her sister’s best friend had been almost as hard to put up with as Leanne. “Of course. She lived next door to Joe until her family moved during her and Leanne’s junior year.” “That’s right. I guess—” his words fell off but he seemed to marshal the resolve to continue “—I guess Leanne was coming on to him.” Sickened, Claire covered her mouth and spoke through her fingers. “How does a thirteen-year-old girl come on to a thirtysomething man?” “I can’t talk about it. I…won’t talk about it. It’s too upsetting to me, and I’d rather keep the unflattering details private, for your sister’s sake. To be fair to her, that was a long time ago, and…and sometimes girls get themselves mixed up in stuff like that when they’re discovering their sexuality. Or so I’m told,” he added in a mumble. Claire had never even been tempted to come on to a man nearly two decades older, but…she decided to give her sister the benefit of the doubt. “Just know that she was young and confused and tried to…entice him,” he went on. “And you’re sure he—” Her throat closed up. After swallowing, she began again. “Did he act on what she offered him?” “No.” “He might have done more than you think. Maybe that’s what instigated…her interest.” “He had proof when he called us, Claire.” Claire couldn’t help thinking of Leanne in that nightgown. She’d assumed her sister’s promiscuity stemmed from the accident, but this made her wonder if it’d started at a much earlier age. “What kind of proof?” “A video she made for him.” Gross… Claire couldn’t bear to think about it. But she still needed the answers she’d been searching for from the beginning. “So…what does Leanne’s being out of school on the day Mom went missing have to do with any of this?” “It was that morning Joe contacted us with the…news. Your mother was so upset when she heard it, she called me in tears. I’d dropped her off after having a cup of coffee and a doughnut with her, had just arrived at the gun shop, so I asked her to wait until I could get off work, told her we’d deal with it then. I couldn’t leave. I had nobody to watch the store. Walt was out of town and depending on me, and Don Salter, who could’ve replaced me, wouldn’t answer his phone.” He took a moment to gather his thoughts or his emotions or both before continuing. “But apparently she couldn’t wait. She marched down and signed Leanne out of school so she could talk to her before you were home.” “And what did Leanne have to say?” “She denied the whole thing. So Alana took her over to Joe’s, and he showed them the tape.” That was why Leanne had never mentioned being out of school. She didn’t want to admit she’d made a pornographic video at thirteen, which she used to solicit a married man. Claire also understood why Tug had kept quiet all these years. But how had Joe and that tape and Leanne’s behavior affected the investigation into Alana’s disappearance? It must have hampered the sheriff’s ability to do a thorough job with everyone being careful not to say too much about the day in question. “Why hasn’t Joe told anyone?” Claire asked. “Like one of the investigators you hired?” “Because he’s a good man.” If what she was hearing was true, Claire had to agree. He’d tolerated a lot of talk, been convicted of committing adultery with her mother in the court of public opinion, and yet he’d never stepped forward to point a finger at Leanne. That certainly changed how she thought of him. Now she could explain some of those “inconsistencies” listed in that file. But what did that have to do with her mother’s disappearance? Or were the incident with Joe and the kidnapping two separate items? “So…Mom took her back to school?” Claire remembered there being some confusion about that in what she’d read. “No. She was crying too hard. She’d had a terrible fight with Leanne. You can imagine what it must’ve been like after they left Joe’s. So I closed up and took Leanne back to school for her. I thought it might help your mother to have some time alone.” “When was that?” “I can’t remember exactly. About one o’clock, I think.” But the log said Leanne hadn’t signed in until two. “And Mom was…” “At the house. That’s where I left her.” “And she was fine?” “As fine as could be expected, under the circumstances.” That meant Alana had gone missing between one and three-thirty, when she and Leanne got home. “That’s why you were so worried when I called that day.” “Yes. I was worried before you called.” This made sense, but what about the previous sightings of her car at Joe’s house—if those reports were true? “Thanks for telling me.” He lowered his voice. “What are you going to do with the information? Roni, even Joe’s wife—they don’t know, Claire. I don’t want it coming out. It would really hurt Leanne and could cause problems for Joe.” Obviously, he felt that being honest with her had betrayed her sister. They’d always been close. “Nothing. For now,” she told him. “Leanne’s your sister.” The caution in his tone suggested she should protect the secret as well as he had. But if everyone was protecting this secret or that secret, how would the sheriff’s department ever get to the bottom of what had gone wrong? Claire felt she owed Leanne a lot. They were sisters, as her stepfather had just pointed out. She understood how the slightest upset could throw Leanne into a tailspin, especially since the accident. But did those considerations outweigh the hope that full disclosure and absolute honesty might bring Alana back—or catch the man who killed her? 7 Working for himself made it possible for Isaac to accept only jobs that excited him. It also enabled him to do a lot of projects on spec. He often edited his own footage and created pilots and trailers, which his agent submitted to various film and television producers. For the print photography side of his business, he had a different agent who sent his pictures to various magazines internationally, as well as book publishers. He’d recently sold a coffee-table book, which would be a collection of some of his finest photographs. He loved what he did. He could get lost in editing and refining his films and photographs for hours. After Claire had married David, his work gave him something he could devote himself to full-time so he wouldn’t have to dwell on his personal life—what he’d thrown away when he rejected Claire. His career also meant he was gone a lot, so he didn’t have to be constantly reminded.... But somewhere along the line, all the flights and airport transfers and taxis and hotels had begun to wear on him. Traveling so much started feeling more like drudgery, like running away, than career advancement. Which was why he’d decided to take an extended break. It wasn’t as if he had to go anywhere. He was in the middle of several projects he could finish right here, like the Alaskan sled dog series he was working on. He had plenty of footage from last winter when he’d gone to live with a family of Eskimos in northern Alaska. He was pretty sure he’d be able to sell it to his friend at Nat Geo. Michael had bought a lot of pictures from him in the past, had been a fan since his first spread in National Geographic, back when Michael had worked for the magazine, before he joined the TV network. But today Isaac wasn’t making much progress. He couldn’t concentrate. He kept glancing over at the files he’d brought from Alana’s studio, wondering who had attacked Claire and why, whether David had been killed in an accident or on purpose, and if he should air his suspicions or keep his mouth shut. He’d hoped Leland would be able to convince him he was way off base, but Leland’s response to his call had only left Isaac more unsettled. He drummed his fingers on the desk while staring at a frozen image of Kitbohn, the leader of the pack of dogs he’d become so close to last winter, on his computer screen. Something about the accident that had killed David wasn’t as it seemed. Leland obviously believed it, too, and yet he hadn’t sounded the alarm. Why? Surely, he was in a better position than Isaac to do so. He was probably holding off for the same reason Isaac was: no proof. Isaac didn’t want to stir up any drama, or hurt Claire by dragging her through more of the same crap she’d already been through. He’d caused her enough pain when she’d told him she loved him and he couldn’t reciprocate. David’s death, even Alana’s disappearance, wasn’t any of his business. He prided himself on staying out of matters that didn’t concern him. He had enough to deal with in his own life. So why was he tempted to jump into this? Because he couldn’t get Claire out of his mind. He knew how much finding her mother meant to her, how much she loved David and would want to see his killer punished—if he’d been purposely shot. It was a testament to Isaac’s fascination with her that he was so willing to give her what she wanted, even when it came to the man who’d replaced him. Or was it his way of making up for his own shortcomings? Should he call and ask her to pick up the files? He wasn’t sure if she was on her feet. He also wasn’t sure he wanted her in his house again. Touching her last night had convinced him that the past ten years had changed nothing. Not for him. With a sigh, he watched the clock tick away. Ten, twelve, fifteen minutes. Frustrated at the waste of time, he tried to focus on the computer, but it was no use. He wasn’t worth a damn today. Cursing his own stubborn heart, he retrieved the accordion folder he’d stashed under his bed. Then he got his keys. He’d pay Claire a visit, just to drop these off, and keep his suspicions to himself. Maybe then he could return to his normal routine. He’d thought about her before last night, especially when he was in town, because there was always the possibility of bumping into her, but his emotions hadn’t seemed quite so intense. Today, every time he heard her voice in his head, saying, “It hasn’t been easy for me after David. But this is better than being alone,” he felt as if she’d rammed a knife in his gut. He hadn’t gotten over her. But he would. Just as soon as he got her files out of his house, he’d wash his hands of her for good. Claire wasn’t sleeping, but she was in bed where she’d spent the whole day, tightly curled up, thinking about David. How could she miss him so much, love him so much, when Isaac affected her as strongly as he did? What did that say about her? Had she been as faithful to David in her heart as she’d believed? She’d never cheated on him, even though there were moments when the look on Isaac’s face told her he probably wouldn’t turn her away if she decided to pay him a visit. He’d never called her after she’d said “I do,” and she respected him for that, especially since the desire was still there, for both of them. She’d never been able to completely eradicate it, and he had no reason to bother trying. Maybe he didn’t love her, maybe he never had, but he certainly liked getting in her pants. Focusing on what she felt for David and her duty as a wife was the only thing that’d made it possible to stay away from him. But David was gone. The doorbell rang. She waited, expecting it to be Leanne again, but no one called out. Maybe it was a client who wanted a haircut. She took walk-ins on the days she worked, and Tuesday was definitely one of those days. She hoped whoever it was would go away when she didn’t respond, but that wasn’t the case. The doorbell rang three more times. “I should’ve put up a sign,” she grumbled, and got out of bed. The mirror showed her a sleepy face. Red, puffy eyes revealed that she’d been crying. She’d cried so much in the past year she rarely wore makeup anymore. And with her hair falling around her shoulders in a tangled mass of curls, she looked as unkempt as Leanne had said earlier. The image staring back at her hardly made her eager for company. But who did she have to impress? She wasn’t dating anyone, had no hope of finding romance in Pineview. A few guys asked her out. Rusty Clegg, the sheriff’s deputy who’d probably helped David get hold of her mother’s files, was one who wouldn’t give up. He called incessantly. But he and all the others had been good friends with her and David. She liked them, but there wasn’t any…chemistry. Shoving her hair out of her face, she grabbed an old woolen robe as whoever was at her door knocked again. July was too hot for such a heavy garment, but Leanne’s reaction to the mark on her neck told her she needed a high collar. When she noted the size of the blurry image on the other side of the glass, she hesitated. She’d been right. This wasn’t Leanne. And there wasn’t any point in hiding the hickey. It was the man who’d given it to her. “Come on, Claire. Open up!” Damn! This would be her third encounter with him in less than twenty-four hours. Once or twice a month was hard enough. Tightening the belt on her robe, she told herself she didn’t care that he was about to see her at her worst and opened the door. Wearing a simple T-shirt and a pair of faded jeans that rested low on his hips, he loomed over her by almost a foot. Generally speaking, she didn’t mind being short. But she always longed for a little more height when dealing with him.... “What can I do for you?” She blocked the entrance and kept one hand on the knob. But then she spotted the accordion file beneath his arm and understood why he’d come. Quickly checking to make sure Leanne wasn’t out—she didn’t want to be grilled about the reason Isaac Morgan had shown up at her house—she flung the door wide and waved him in. His sardonic smile told her he knew it wasn’t him she was so excited to see. But he was wrong. To her own chagrin, seeing him always excited her. “Nice place.” He’d never been inside her house. She’d been living in a small apartment above Stuart’s Stop ’n’ Shop when they were “together.” Once David returned from college and accepted a job in Kalispell, she’d moved there, too, to attend beauty school. After she graduated, David opened his State Farm office and they both came back to Pineview, where they’d lived on David’s parents’ property until Tug finished building her house. Once it was done, they’d married and moved in. “It’s small but comfortable.” She wasn’t sure if his compliment had been sincere, and she didn’t really care. She’d lost interest in so many things since David had died, not the least of which were cooking and cleaning. “Where did you get that?” She motioned to the file she’d attempted to remove from her mother’s studio. He turned to face her. “Where do you think?” “You went to the studio? Before the sheriff could get there?” “I did. I could tell you wanted this.” “That can’t be the only reason.” Such generosity wasn’t like him. His expression hardened. “Why not?” “It was late, you were injured and this is my problem.” “Right. Why would I care? I’d never do anything just because it’s important to you. Only David would do that.” She didn’t know how to respond. She wasn’t up to an argument today, and he seemed even more defensive than usual. “Regardless of your reasons, I’m grateful.” She tried to take it from him so he’d leave. Now that she’d canceled all her appointments, she’d have the privacy and time to go through all the reports without being interrupted. But he held them beyond her reach. “Why didn’t you want the sheriff to get hold of this?” he asked. “It came from his office in the first place, didn’t it? Which means you could always get another copy.” She didn’t want to focus on his eyes with their golden-brown irises, but neither did she want to focus on the long, tanned fingers that could work such magic on whatever they touched. Clearing her throat, she kept her own eyes on those files. “Not necessarily. That folder contains much more than he’d release to me.” His dark eyebrows gathered. “And he doesn’t know you have it?” “I didn’t even know until yesterday. I found it in the attic of the studio. David must’ve gotten it for me…somehow.” “Ah, David again.” His mouth twisted into a sneer. “Your knight in shining armor.” She raised her chin. “Yes. Always.” She’d sensed long ago that Isaac had never liked David. David had certainly never liked Isaac, and it wasn’t exclusively due to jealousy. He hated Isaac because of the way Isaac had used her. He’d often told her she should hate him, too, and she’d pretended, but it was hard to blame Isaac when she was a willing participant in the whirlwind of desire that had brought them crashing together. He’d never forced her to visit his cabin. She’d been so eager for his touch she could scarcely wait from one encounter till the next. He lowered his voice. “What did he know about us?” She didn’t want to talk about this. It was too…intimate. She nearly told him so, but she feared that would only confirm how sensitive an issue he’d been between her and David. She decided it might be less revealing to simply answer. “He knew we slept together. I don’t—didn’t—keep anything from him.” Other than the depth of her feelings for Isaac, and the fact that those feelings never seemed to change or go away. His voice dropped even further, and this time a pained expression accompanied his words. “Is he the reason you’ve been crying?” “I haven’t been crying.” She wasn’t sure why she was attempting to lie. The truth was all too apparent. But she hated the idea of Isaac knowing she was in such a bad state. It was stupid and weak that she couldn’t seem to get back on her feet. She aimed to be just as tough, just as indifferent, as he was. Maybe someday she’d actually accomplish it. “Right.” He rolled his eyes. Ignoring his reaction, she drew a deep breath. “So are you going to give me the files?” He pursed his lips. “I’m thinking about it.” “I don’t understand why you’d even hesitate.” “Have you eaten today?” She gaped at him. “Have I…eaten? What difference does that make?” Especially to him? “It’s a simple enough question,” he said with a shrug. “It’s nearly dinnertime. Of course I’ve eaten.” Another lie. She’d lost too much weight in the past year. Everyone was nagging her about it, especially her best friend, Laurel, and her stepfather. “What did you have?” Letting go of the collar of her robe, which she’d been holding closed, she fiddled with the belt—as if it was the way she’d tied it that made her look so thin. “Again, I don’t see why that matters.” “Then it should be easy to tell me.” She glanced toward the kitchen. She wasn’t hungry, even now. She’d lost her appetite when David died. “Breakfast. I had breakfast.” “Which consisted of…” “Eggs. Oatmeal. Cereal.” She rubbed her hands over her face. “I don’t know.” It all sounded terrible to her. A frown tugged at the corners of his mouth. “You haven’t eaten a damn thing.” “So?” she challenged. “So where’s your sister?” “I guess she’s at home. Or working in her shop.” “She should be here, taking care of you.” “I can take care of myself.” “You’re not doing a very good job of it.” “All I need is what you’ve got right there.” Again, she motioned to the files. He glared down at her. “Why do you think Saint David had so much information about your mother?” “Saint David?” “Just to let you know I’m clear about his status.” “You— Never mind.” She curled her fingernails into her palms. “I’m guessing he was investigating her disappearance. I’m sure you’ve looked through those reports. Isn’t that what you’d guess?” “You didn’t know he was doing it?” “No. He never said a word about it.” A funny look came over Isaac’s face, a look that made her believe he was tempted to say more. “What is it?” she asked. “Nothing.” He blew out a sigh and held up the files. “How badly do you want this stuff?” Feeling even more leery, she narrowed her eyes. “How badly do you think?” “Badly enough to compensate me for the time and effort I put into saving it for you?” She could feel her heartbeat pulsing in her fingertips, her throat. He was taking a new direction, had made some kind of decision. “What is it you want?” When he reached for her robe, she thought she already knew. Uncertain as to whether she could let him touch her in David’s house, she stiffened. But he didn’t make any sexual advances. He merely examined the mark he’d left on her neck. “I want the opportunity to redo last night.” Конец ознакомительного фрагмента. Текст предоставлен ООО «ЛитРес». 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